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The Way I Used To

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When it started to rain just after Kyle’s last class of the week, he couldn’t say he was surprised.

It was maybe a little embarrassing how he’d gotten into the habit of checking the forecast every morning and dressing in accordance, feeling more like he was forty-five than twenty-one. But as lame as it made him – at least, that was what Kenny liked to tell him – he couldn’t help but feel a little smug as he watched other passer-bys hurry past with jackets thrown over their heads and arms across their faces. Kyle walked along cooly with his umbrella high in the air. Lame, but he’d rather be that than cold and wet.

The shops were normally a lot quieter on rainy days, and Kyle glanced up at the sign with a moment’s consideration, wondering if there was anything he needed to stock up on before the weekend. Based on the fact he couldn’t think of anything immediately, probably not. Kyle kept walking, passing the traffic lights and whatever homeless person had decided to set up by the cash machine today, heavy coat sheltering their face from the rain. Right, because he’d bought milk the day before, so they didn’t need any more of that-

Kyle stopped. The umbrella still covered him, but he suddenly felt a cold chill wash over his bones, body frozen in place. Very slowly, he turned around.

People were still hurrying around him, but Kyle was sure in that moment that the entire world had stopped. For a second it was like he couldn’t breathe, a heavy embrace wrapped around his chest, but then he swallowed, inhaling deeply.

“…Stan?”

The bundle of coats and blankets on the floor shifted slightly, and Kyle felt any grasp he had on his emotions leave him. For a second, it felt literally impossible to form any kind of coherent thought, staring into the round eyes of someone he’d known very long ago. But then, all at once, it returned to him, and he found himself thinking ‘I don’t recognise that expression’. When had he ever not recognised any expression of his best friend? Former- best friend.

The rain seemed to grow heavier against his umbrella as Kyle stood there, waiting for any kind of answer or sign, but the homeless person – Stan, it had to be Stan – just kept a wide eyed stare, unreadable. Kyle’s thoughts caught up a little more, and he found himself wondering, belatedly, if Stan was drunk. Too drunk to answer, maybe.

But then, Stan blinked, and the unreadable expression melted into his trademark sadness. As soon as he opened his mouth and choked out a shaky ‘I- uh-‘, any doubts that Kyle had evaporated instantly. That was Stan. That really was Stan, hunched up on the floor in front of him, sat next to a sad pile of small change, and surrounded by trash.

Kyle couldn’t say that he hadn’t given a lot of thought into where Stan had gone after they- went their separate ways. He thought about it almost too much, a distant thought that always seemed to rear up when he had nothing else to think about. And he didn’t doubt that at some point in those drifting thoughts, he’d considered the possibility that Stan might be homeless and broke and alone somewhere out there, but he’d never really thought of it as real. Just a thought. A bitter, rejected thought with no basis in reality. But now here it was, right there in front of him. Kyle wasn’t sure what to feel. Angry, sad, or maybe just disappointed that it didn’t surprise him as much as it should have.

But as he watched Stan start to fall apart below him, Kyle felt himself almost automatically take on the approach of staying composed. Staying on higher ground. Kind of literally, in this sense. Stan brought his hands up over his face as if refusing to look would make everything go away, and Kyle just focused on keeping his breathing slow, trying not to let anything show on his face.

“Oh my fucking god,” he heard Stan murmur through his hands, just audible over the pattering of rain above him. Kyle watched as Stan shook his head, again probably trying to deny reality, sucking in a heavy breath. “Oh my god.”

Kyle looked away then, staring down at the shining pavement and not really knowing what to do, or what to say. Strangely enough, he’d never prepared for this kind of situation before. Lots of detailed ‘what if I meet Stan again’ scenario plans, but this wasn’t one of them.

“Shit, dude,” Stan muttered again, and after a few more seconds managed to pull his hands away from his face, looking up at Kyle through his hood and giving him that face he always used whenever he wanted Kyle to say something. It was eerie how easy it was to recognise, despite how many years it had been.

“So, this is where you ended up,” Kyle said after a moment, trying hard to keep his voice level. He wasn’t sure if he’d wanted it sound judgmental, but it definitely hadn’t done. More of just...disappointment. Well, that worked too, he guessed.

“I seriously can’t believe this,” Stan said, pressing a hand over his nose and mouth, and Kyle wondered if he was crying. He didn’t sound drunk at least, but, well. The rain was pretty heavy. It was hard to tell for sure. “Fuck.”

“Yeah.” Kyle opened his mouth, then shut it again. “Mm, yeah.”

Stan looked up, almost like he expected Kyle just to keep walking and leave this entire thing behind him. Kyle was definitely considering it, but Stan probably knew just as much as he did that it was impossible. “You’re- at college now, right?”

“I- yeah. I am.” Kyle bit down on his cheek. God, it hurt more than he’d imagined, to hear Stan’s voice taking to him again. A sober voice.

“That’s- yeah. That’s great.” Stan glanced down, staring at his lap. Even that hurt. The look in his eyes combined with everything else- Kyle felt like his heart was going to tear open.

“I really wasn’t expecting to find you, on the street,” Kyle said at last, not even knowing if he was lying. Maybe it was a half-lie.

“Oh.” Stan’s words seemed to dry up, like he thought Kyle wasn’t going to mention it. Which was kind of insane. Sure it was a delicate situation, but if anything needed to be mentioned, surely it was that. “Yeah, uh. A lot. Happened.” He stopped, and Kyle felt himself get just a spike of annoyance that Stan was still hiding things, like he’d learnt nothing in all this time, but then- “It’s kind of, a long story, but I’m sure you’re busy, and it’s raining, so. You can go, if you want.”

And Kyle really wished he could. Go back to his warm apartment, do some studying, listen to whatever crazy story Kenny had for him when he got back from work, and forget any of this ever happened. Forget about his former best friend being a homeless bum outside the shop by campus. Forget about Stan.

...Yeah, right. Like he could ever forget about Stan. Kyle let out a hard sigh, pressing his eyes up and looking at the grey sky above.

“Do you wanna- get a coffee, or something?” he heard himself ask, and Stan stared up at him with those same wide eyes. It was hard to keep his gaze.

“I ca-“

“I’ll pay,” Kyle said, rolling his eyes. Like I’m going to ask you out to get coffee and expect you to pay when you’re clearly fucking homeless, dumbass.

Stan kept staring, mouth slightly agape, before he frowned down at his lap, something conflicted in his eyes. It had just a glimmer of that strange expression that had been there before, and it made Kyle a little uneasy. “Are you- serious?”

“Just- since it’s raining. And cold.” And because as much resentment and anger he held for Stan, there was no way he could just walk away leaving his friend in that kind of state. No, again- former friend. “If you’re busy, you don’t have to. I’m just asking.”

“Busy?” Stan smiled a little then, even if it was dipped in self-pity. “Busy with what, dude?”

“I don’t know.” Kyle really didn’t know. He had no idea what Stan would do out here, all day. Apparently not be completely trashed out of his mind, which was the first thing Kyle had been expecting.

“If you bring a creepy homeless guy into a coffee shop, they’re gonna get pissed at you,” Stan said then, voice a little more sombre. Kyle frowned, annoyed by Stan’s attempts to discourage him when he was the one offering.

“Then we’ll go to a shitty coffee shop, where nobody will give a shit. Is that okay?”

“…I guess.” Stan shifted, then frowned again. “…You’re really sure?”

“Yes, Stan, I’m sure. Now get up.” The name burned on his lips, and he almost winced after he said it. It got worse as Stan just stared up at him with an opaquely wistful expression, before he started to stand, wrapping all his wet blankets up into his bag. He did it a lot quicker than Kyle was anticipating, and that made him feel a little sad, for some reason. All of this was making him feeling sad, honestly. Sad in a way he hardly recognised, but knew all too well. In a way, just like Stan, he guessed.

They walked in silence through the rain, and Kyle was glad everyone was too eager to get home than to pay attention to a well-groomed college student sharing his umbrella with a worn-out looking, clearly homeless person. Even if they were the same age, and the same height. It was unnerving how much older Stan looked, and Kyle wondered if that was a permanent change. Stan had always had a baby face. It didn’t suit him to look so- sunken.

It wasn’t hard to find a tiny neglected coffee shop tucked down the side of some unknown street, and Kyle was pleased to see it was nearly empty. Just enough people to not make them stand out to staff, but not enough to be uncomfortable. He shook off his umbrella at the door, stepping through the door into the warmth, a half-stunted chime from above. Stan followed after him obediently, coat dripping onto the floor. Definitely a good thing that nobody here would care.

There was nobody at the counter, so Kyle took his time staring up at the board, wrinkling his nose slightly at the limited choices. Coffee wasn’t even that good to start with. If it was going to be made poorly and with no finesse, then…well, at least it was cheap.

Kyle glanced back over at Stan to ask him what he wanted, then noticed him staring at the selection of packaged sandwiches, and raised an eyebrow.

“Which one do you want?”

“Huh?” Stan blinked, staring at him, before he quickly looked to the board. “Oh, uh, gimme a sec.”

“You know I know you don’t like coffee, dude,” Kyle muttered, pausing for a second to wonder if it was too casual to use their old nickname like old times, but forced himself to keep speaking to avoid that train of thought. “I meant, what kind of sandwich?”

“Oh.” Stan laughed a little. “That’s fine. I’m not really hungry or anything.”

Kyle inhaled deeply.

“No, really! Like, earlier. I ate- something. So you don’t gotta worry about that.”

He let out the breath, and glanced over the sandwiches. It took maybe five seconds of examining each of the labels before he spotted Stan’s favourite, and grabbed it easily.  

There was a moment of silence as Kyle placed down the sandwich on the counter, already opening his bag in a search for his wallet, before Stan muttered a quiet ‘thanks’. He had a kind of upset, maybe annoyed look in his eyes, but Kyle couldn’t care less. Being too proud to not starve was a stupid thing, and he thought the same about Kenny too. This was a situation he was used to dealing with.

After Stan had grabbed a bottle of juice and handed it over to him, Kyle directed him away to go find a table whilst he paid, more just to escape the silence that was quickly growing uncomfortable as they waited for a barista to appear. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Stan chose a seat in the corner, finally shrugging off the maybe three coats he had around himself. The hat stayed though, and Kyle didn’t know how to feel about Stan looking much more normal all of a sudden. Not homeless anymore. If Kyle saw him like that, through the window, sat alone in a bad coffee shop in an unknown street…he wouldn’t suspect a thing. He wouldn’t stop to chat.

A young girl showed up behind the counter looking like she was half asleep, and Kyle eyed the drink cautiously whilst he paid, wondering if it was going to be more milk than anything else. Over at the table, Stan looked up from his lap as Kyle put the tray down, smiling a little. Apparently not so pissed off anymore, then.

“Oh, man, I haven’t had juice in forever,” he said as Kyle sat down across from him, undoing the lid with the air of a little kid.

“I’ll bet,” Kyle said then, unable to stop himself, and Stan’s excited aura instantly dissipated, leaving him staring with something a little hurt in his gaze. Not that there was any reason for him to be hurt. If homelessness was the number one thing that needed mentioning, then alcoholism was definitely number two.

“…I actually haven’t had any in a while,” Stan said then, frowning down at the bottle. “I mean, like, alcohol. Though I guess you’re probably not gonna believe me.”

Kyle didn’t say anything to that, taking a sip of his drink. Surprisingly, not that bad. Huh.

“Look, I know what you’re thinking,” Stan started, and Kyle honestly didn’t doubt that he did. “But like, there was a whole- thing, you know.”

“A whole thing,” Kyle repeated, wondering for not the first time if this had been a mistake.

“Why I haven’t-“ Stan stopped, then sighed, something genuine in his expression that made Kyle want to listen, as much as he was afraid of what he’d hear. “I’ll tell you, okay. I mean, I want you to believe me, even though I totally get why you wouldn’t. It’s just- I stopped, I dunno how long ago, because- I got this dog.”

Kyle stared. “…A dog?”

Stan nodded, then seemed to hesitate, taking a breath. “I got this dog, okay? I mean, I kind of bought him, kind of got him for free. Some other guys were selling him for like, four dollars, and he was so small, Kyle. Like, so small, you can’t even…” He shook his head. “I was gonna spend it on something to drink, but I got him instead.”

Despite everything he’d seen during Stan’s spiral, Kyle almost felt like he could believe that. If anything could get Stan to pass up an opportunity to drink, it would be a cute animal in need. Nobody could combat the wild amount of empathy Stan seemed to have for any animal.

“We were like, really good pals, for a while,” Stan carried on, holding his juice between his hands. “I just really wanted to buy food for him, so like, I didn’t buy as much. Like, sometimes…just once or twice, I didn’t, but-“ He stopped, like the memory physically hurt him, and then looked up at Kyle with shining eyes. “His face when I let him go hungry just to get all fucked up- I couldn’t, Kyle. I couldn’t do that to him, not when he was so small and vulnerable and soft.”

There was an obvious worry point in this story, and Kyle finally decided to confront it. Because there was no dog when Kyle had met Stan in the street, and he was still begging for money. “What happened to him, Stan?”

As expected, Stan drew back a little, staring down and taking a few seconds to reply. “The other day, someone took him.”

“They took him?”

Stan nodded sadly. “They just- grabbed him, started running. There was like three, four of them. I couldn’t do anything. And now I don’t have him anymore, it’s like, what’s the point of even trying to stay sober? That was the only thing I had left, the one thing that cared about me and I lost him too. Just- what’s the point.”

Kyle watched Stan closely for a moment, considering the heavy hopelessness that clustered around him, before he pulled his bag up to his knee, pulling out his notebook.

“What breed was the dog?” Kyle asked, not taking his eyes off the page but feeling Stan’s stare on him anyway.

“What?”

“What breed was the dog,” he repeated again, looking up this time.

“I-…he didn’t really have a breed, I don’t think.”

“Then what colour? What was his name? Gimme some details, dude.”

“I called him Dusty ‘cause like, he was kind of brown, or blonde maybe? He had some white bits too…and pretty long fur, it kept me warm a lot…” Stan trailed off as Kyle started writing, and when he spoke up again, he sounded slightly wounded. “I’m not making this up, dude.”

“No, I didn’t say you were.” Kyle finished the line, then frowned, looking up. “How much is cocaine around here?”

“Uh, what?”

“Just on average, it doesn’t have to be exact.”

“What are you even- dude, I never did drugs! Why the hell would I know that?”

Kyle pulled a face, tapping his pen against the page. “I’ll just say fifty dollars for now, that sounds about right for a few- cuts, or whatever it is.”

“Dude, seriously, I have no idea what you’re-“ Stan stopped, leaning over and watching as Kyle wrote ‘reward - ~$50??’. “…Are you…”

“What about the people who took him? Can you remember anything about them?” Kyle glanced at the information he already had written. “If we’re gonna find your dog, we’re gonna need a lot more info.”

“You-“ And then Stan’s breath hitched, and the moment that Kyle had been anticipating the entire time finally arrived. At least Stan had the thought to cover his face as he burst into tears, keeping quiet apart from the occasional sniff.

Kyle just continued to take slow notes based on the other things Stan had told him, and then at last rested his pen against the page as Stan’s sniffs started to slow.

“Sorry, I just…” Stan shook his head, grabbing a napkin from the table. “Thanks, Kyle.”

“No problem,” he said, feeling just for a moment that hard block of distrust in his chest shift slightly. “You might wanna start your sandwich. We have a lot to discuss.”

-

After a solid twenty minutes of talking about almost nothing but Stan’s dog and methods of getting him back, Kyle realised he had another problem to deal with. This café wasn’t going to be open forever, and it was already starting to get a little dark outside. What time had he finished class- around four? So they still had some time, but eventually…

“Uh, I actually need to like, run back home for like ten minutes,” Kyle said when they reached a dip in the conversation, and Stan blinked.

“Oh, right, yeah. That’s fine.”

“I only live like, ten minutes away from here,” Kyle said, annoyed that he was actually starting to feel guilty at leaving Stan alone. “I’ll come back after. It’s just. I won’t be long.”

“No, dude, it’s fine. Take your time.” Stan just shrugged, looking like he’d almost been expecting it.

“You can wait here,” Kyle said, putting his things back into his bag, vaguely aware of the light shower still pushing on outside. “I’ll buy you another juice so they won’t kick you out or anything.”

“You don’t have to-“

“I’ll get apple this time,” Kyle said, then tried a weak smile, even though he was sure Stan could tell it was fake. To his credit, he didn’t call Kyle out on it.

“Thanks, dude.” And even smiled back. Kyle swallowed, then nodded.

Luckily, the wait for the sleepy barista wasn’t as long this time, and he finished paying for the drink quickly, pulling his umbrella out and stepping back into the rain. When he was outside in the cold, for a moment it felt like everything that had just happened might have been a dream, except the memory was too strong to be fake. With a sigh, Kyle started to walk.

It wasn’t until he was a safe five minutes away from the café did Kyle finally pull out his phone, sending a hurried text of ‘are you home?’ to Kenny and hoping for a quick reply. Because really, meeting Stan was one thing, but now it was leading to a whole other conflict. Because Stan was homeless. He had nowhere to go after they parted ways, and Kyle wasn’t sure what to do. It felt cruel sending him back into the cold night all alone, without even his precious dog, but- inviting him back to their place was something else. Something very different to just chatting distantly in a coffee shop.

Kyle felt his phone buzz just as he was going up the stairway to his apartment, relieved to see an affirmative ‘yup all done 4 today’ from Kenny. Well, that would at least make one thing a little easier.

Sure enough, as soon as he opened the door, he caught a glimpse of blonde hair sticking up from the sofa, and Kyle took a deep breath, mind blanking like he hadn’t just spent the last ten minutes trying to figure out how the hell to explain any of this.

“Kenny, I-“ He stopped as he rounded the sofa, frowning. “I told you it was going to rain today.”

A very sodden Kenny grinned back at him and made a peace sign, sprawled out over the cushions and probably soaking them through too. “I’m too hardcore for umbrellas.”

Kyle crossed his arms. “Until you get sick.”

Kenny just smirked. “Okay, Mom.”

“I’m-“ Kyle stopped himself, shaking his head to snap himself out of this ridiculous conversation. “We- have a big problem.”

“What is it?” Kenny seemed to pick up on Kyle’s struggle to get the words out, and propped himself up on an elbow, quirking his eyebrow slightly. Kyle took a deep breath, and tried to ignore how shaky it obviously sounded.

“I- I met Stan,” he said eventually, and Kenny stared.

“No way, seriously?” He sat up a little more, brushing the wet hair out his eyes. “For real? Like, Stan-Stan?”

“Yeah. Stan-Stan.”

“Shit,” Kenny said, looking more surprised than anything else. “That’s crazy. Is he doing alright?”

Kyle took a few seconds before he replied, things slowly seeming to catch up with him. God, this was real. This was all happening right now, in reality.

“He’s homeless.”

Kenny’s eye widened. “Holy shit.”

“Yeah.”

“You mean like…actually homeless? Or just, legally or whatever-“

“As in, I found him sat on the side of the road in the rain huddled up in like five coats,” Kyle said, looking down. “He had a goddamn empty coffee cup next to him.”

“That’s crazy,” Kenny said, rubbing his cheek absently. “I wasn’t expecting Stan of all people to end up like that.”

“You weren’t?” Kyle frowned, looking down at his flatmate and best friend.

“I guess I always figured if any of us were gonna end up homeless, it was gonna be me,” Kenny said, grinning, but then shrugged. “So like, what happened? What’d you do? Say anything?”

“I- yeah, I said something.” Kyle sat down across from Kenny, suddenly feeling a wave of mental exhaustion hit him. “We went out for coffee, and talked a bit, I guess.”

“What did he say?”

“He had a dog, and someone took it from him.” Kyle paused. “He said he hasn’t drank anything in a few days.”

“Stan had a dog? Whilst homeless.”

“Apparently. And someone took it, and he doesn’t think he can stay sober without it.”

“Damn, that’s shitty.”

“I was going to help him to find it,” Kyle said, then shook his head. “I dunno how. I don’t even know if I should be doing this, after- everything that happened before.”

There was a moment of silence as Kyle just kept staring at the floor, thinking about Stan still sat in that chair in the corner of the coffee shop, drinking a bottle of apple juice that Kyle bought for him. With dark bags under his eyes, wearing a sweater Kyle remembers him having back when they were fifteen.

“…Dude, are you okay?” Kenny asked then, and Kyle glanced up.

“…I don’t know.” He pursed his lips. “I don’t know if I can do this again.”

In all the years that had passed since Kyle stopped talking to Stan, he still couldn’t say that he went more than a week without thinking about him. Sometimes bad, sometimes good. Sometimes neither. After spending so long with him, it was like he’d managed to imprint a memory onto every stupid trivial day-to-day thing. Opening the fridge and remembering daring each other into drinking possibly expired milk, or a new movie for a superhero franchise they’d always used to watch together.

Lots of things reminded him of the fights they’d had too. Including that very last fight. The last time he’d ever spoken to Stan, it was a dark afternoon filled with anger and betrayal. It had all ended there. Kyle had sometimes believed it would be the last time they’d ever speak, all the way up until they died. It was an old memory, but right now it felt fresh. Reminding him not to get involved again. Reminding him of how bad it had felt.

“He’s still waiting now,” Kyle carried on, forcing his voice out to get his head out of the past. “At the coffee shop. I didn’t know what to do about tonight, so I left to come ask you.”

“Tonight?”

“He- doesn’t have anywhere to stay.”

“Then invite him over!” Kenny said, sitting up with wide eyes, and it was exactly the answer Kyle had been expecting, though whether he wanted to hear it or not was less easy to decide. “Shit dude, he can stay in my room, I don’t care. I don’t mind seeing Stan again. It’s been ages, I kinda wanna see him.”

“That’s because you didn’t see him at his worst,” Kyle muttered, frowning.

“You weren’t gonna leave him out on the street, were you?”

“Maybe I was,” Kyle muttered. “Maybe I’m tired of being caught up in all his self-pity and manipulation. Just so he can go back on his word the second he gets a chance to.”

“I don’t think it’s manipulation, Kyle. He’s just dumb. Like, really dumb.”

Kyle had told himself the same thing over and over, but sometimes it just seemed to make too much sense to be true. With a sigh, he rested his head against his hand. “I don’t know, dude. It’s weird. I’m- still really angry, and pissed off at him and all his stupid bullshit, but seeing him on the street like that…it kind of…hurt, to look at.”

“It’s just one night,” Kenny said, shrugging. “But it’s up to you. Your flat as much as mine, dude.”

Kyle stayed silent for a moment, before looking up. “Can you hide anything with any kind of alcohol percentage? Like, mouthwash, hand soap, vanilla- whatever else. Put it all somewhere he can’t find it.”

Kenny grinned slightly. “That mean you’re gonna let him come over?”

“Just make sure it’s all hidden, okay?” Kyle said again, voice hard. “Seriously, Kenny. Anything.”

“Sure, sure, got it,” Kenny said, pulling himself up and shaking his head in a manner similar to a dog, water droplets flying around him. Kyle just pulled a disapproving face. “Whatever you say, Mom.”

“Can you stop calling me that?”

Kenny just winked, giving a lopsided grin. “Go get our best boy back home.”

Kyle rolled his eyes, but stood up nevertheless, sucking in a deep breath. Somehow it was a lot more daunting to go back and see Stan now that he knew he was already there, and waiting for him to come back. Before it had just been total chance, nothing to prepare for, but now, all that anxiety was there full force. Inviting Stan back to his flat after not seeing him at all for a good three years. That was- scary. And so weird to think about.

The light rain from before was still falling, just enough to cause a dim pattering noise above as he opened the umbrella back up. Part of him wanted to slow down and take his time getting back to the café, heart pounding hard in his chest, but then he also wanted to hurry up, get back to where he’d just abandoned his friend and not keep him waiting any longer. But- no. He hadn’t abandoned anyone. That wasn’t what happened, not at all…If anyone, he was more convinced that Stan would be the one missing when he got back to the coffee shop. Because Kyle wasn’t the one to run away. Not now, and not then either.

When he reached the shop once more, however, Stan was still sat there in the corner, gazing down at his lap with a far-off expression. The kind of stare he got whenever he was pensively considering something, ready to look up with a frown and start speaking with just a hint of hesitation. Kyle knew all of Stan’s faces like the back of his hand. So easy and recognisable. And it was the same way when Stan looked up and saw him enter, cloudy face brightening and acting like he’d never been brooding in the first place.

“Hey, dude,” he greeted as Kyle made his way back over, sitting down across from him. It was such a casual greeting that it was almost jarring. Too similar to how they would have spoken before.

“Hey,” Kyle said heavily, then took a deep breath, pressing his palms down against his jeans. “So- we need to talk.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Stan’s smile dropped, face moving into something more serious. Maybe that was a good sign. He wasn’t completely evading the suggestion, at least.

“I know you probably don’t want to, but-“

“No, it’s fine. I don’t mind.” Stan shrugged slightly. “I was actually trying to think over it all whilst I was waiting for you to get back. Piece how out I’m gonna say it and stuff, but I still don’t really know.”

Kyle nodded slowly. “Okay. That’s good.” He paused for a second, then looked up to meet Stan’s gaze directly. The untold story behind his eyes made Kyle’s chest hurt, for a moment. “I just went back, to meet Kenny.”

Stan’s eyes widened, the side of his mouth twitching with a smile. “Kenny?”

“Yeah. We’re roommates.”

“Oh.” The smile was smaller now, something pained flickering as Stan glanced to the side. “That’s- nice. Really nice.”

“I- just wanted to ask him if it was okay. For you to stay there tonight.”

“…Stay?”

Kyle frowned, unable to meet his eyes. “Just for the night. Since- you don’t really have anywhere else. Right?”

“…Yeah, I don’t.”

“Okay, then.” Kyle sucked in a breath. “If you want, you can stay over. Kenny said it’s okay, so.”

“Kyle, are you serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious.” Hearing Stan say his actual name was almost as weird as hearing the nicknames. “But-! I want to talk about things first. Because we need to talk about them.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I get that.” Stan shifted in his seat a little, frowning. “But you’ve gotta like, ask questions or something, ‘cause no way am I gonna know where to start with all this.”

 “Okay.” Kyle took a breath, readying himself one last time before he dove straight into what was definitely going to be a horrible conversation to have. One he would probably rather not have, but had been thinking about for the past three years. “Then- how?”

“That’s kind of a loaded question, dude.”

“Okay, fine, I’ll take a step back.” Kyle pressed his lips together. “When did you…end up like this. On the street.”

“Shit, uh…” Stan frowned, glancing at his hands like he was trying to count on his fingers. “It’s May now, right?”

“Early-middle, yeah.”

“Then…probably just a little under three months? It’s kinda hard to know, dude, I dunno.”

Three months. Kyle mused that over for a moment, letting it settle in his thoughts. It wasn’t- super long, but then it was probably a lot longer than it sounded. Spending even one or two nights without a roof sounded terrifying to Kyle. So much longer than that was- hard to imagine.

“Okay,” Kyle said, then decided to move to a slightly different vein of thought. “Your parents? Are they-…can’t you like, go with them?”

“I mean…” Stan looked away, and Kyle could see it clearly in his eyes before he even said it: guilt. “You’re gonna think I’m a piece of shit, and I really am, but I kind of stole money from my mom. Like, enough times that she noticed. And I mean, it’s not like I can’t ever go back, but- it’s shitty if I’m there. I make things worse, you know? They always argue about whose fault it is, that I am how I am. It’s just- shitty. I dunno.”

Kyle was quiet for a moment, thinking it over. It seemed stupid for Stan’s parents to argue about blame when any parent related problem he’d ever had was completely at the fault of Randy, but- that was probably beside the point.

“What about Wendy?” he asked instead, and Stan gave a low and sarcastic smile.

“She was gone even before you, dude.”

Kyle couldn’t say he was entirely surprised to hear that. Maybe Wendy was stronger willed than him, but she was also a lot smarter. Definitely smart enough to know when to bail on a bad situation, no matter how hard it may be.

“I dunno, I don’t blame her.” There was more guilt now than when Stan had spoken about his family. A rawer, more unforgiving kind. “She wanted to do the same as you, at the start. Try and fix me? But then, I guess she realised. So...she left.”

Kyle stayed silent, eyes down, thinking. It was weird how many times he’d imagined these exact words, and now they right here in front of him, real, but not his own invention.

“It really- sucks, you know?” Stan said then, and Kyle glanced up. “It’s like, I’m always wondering how it even got to this point. At first I just had a shot like- every week or whatever, just when I felt like shit. And then suddenly it’s like I need more of it to get me through the same stuff, and then now it’s just- not even a choice anymore. And even though everyone always said it was a problem, I didn’t…believe it. And now it’s all fucked. I fucked everything.”

Kyle thought there wasn’t really any need to tell him how everything had spiralled out of control, considering he’d been around to witness most of it happen, but Stan was speaking more freely now, probably just reeling off the thoughts he’d been collecting all this time.

“The other guys left, Wendy left, my parents gave up, and then you did too,” Stan said heavily, frowning down at himself. “But like, by that point I didn’t even expect anyone to stick around. I was just kind of…testing people, to see how much it would take to push them away, I guess. I don’t even know what I wanted.”

“I know that,” Kyle muttered, pushing back the hurt and indignation threatening to spill out of his memories. “I used to think I was doing something wrong, and that eventually I’d find something that would work. But then I realised you weren’t going to get better if you didn’t want to.”

“Yeah.” Stan was quiet for a long moment. “Sorry.”

Kyle just shook his head. “We’re letting you stay over tonight regardless of all that stuff, but- Stan, I’m serious. If you mess this up, even if you’re homeless, you’re gone, dude.”

Even whilst saying them, Kyle wasn’t sure of the honesty of his words, but Stan nodded gravely, like he believed them all the same. “Yeah. I get that. For real, I do.”

“Just for this one night,” Kyle said, more to remind himself than anything. “And tomorrow, we’ll try to find your dog, okay?”

There was still a glaring lack of a plan for the days after that, or the very real possibility of them having zero luck in tracking down some random dog that might not even still be alive, but- it was far as Kyle was willing to think about for now.

“Thanks, Kyle,” Stan said, tone similar to before, grateful and overly humble. Like he didn’t deserve it. But this time, Kyle wasn’t going to leave him alone in the shop.

“Get your stuff and we can get going,” he said, swallowing as he stood up. Stan started to pile on his layers of coats again, and Kyle watched, waiting. Three months. That was cutting into the end of winter, and Kyle wondered, for a moment, just how much warmth those second-hand coats even provided.

“God, I can’t believe I’m gonna see Kenny again,” Stan said as he finished gathering his things, bag thrown over his shoulder.

“He’s excited to see you, dude,” Kyle said, deciding to tell the truth just to break away from the heavy atmosphere for a moment. As much as he thought Kenny should be just as mistrusting and cautious as him, Kenny had never really been like that. He always lived for the moment. Grudges weren’t his thing, though Kyle couldn’t really understand why.

“Is he studying too?” Stan collected the trash from the table, and Kyle watched in half-interest as he took care to separate the recyclables into the correct trash cans.

“Oh, no. He’s just juggling jobs at the moment whilst he looks for something more long-term.”

“Yeah, that makes sense, I guess.” Stan turned to him. “You lead the way, dude. I dunno where we’re going.”

“Oh, right. Yeah.” Kyle focused on his breathing as he walked across the café again, hyperaware of Stan’s footsteps following him, the rustling sound of all his things as he walked. It was like they were just two friends, going home after a quick coffee. Just talking. Catching up.

Yeah. If only.

-

It was a short walk back to Kyle’s apartment, but the tense situation seemed to make it feel a lot longer, and Kyle was glad when they finally reached the door, Stan still lingering hesitantly behind him. Kyle was almost half convinced that he was going to sprint away, back into the street and never to be seen again. But when he walked through the door, Stan followed. There really was no going back now.

“I- we’re back,” Kyle said a little flatly as the door shut softly behind them, and it took all of a few seconds before Kenny burst out of the kitchen, thankfully looking a little dryer than earlier.

“Stan?” he asked, then instantly brightened up and grinned as he spotted Stan stood behind Kyle, who patiently moved out of their way as Kenny went in for the hug.

“Dude, Kenny!” he heard Stan say, and tried not to feel resentment at their light tones. They were acting like it was just by pure coincidence that they hadn’t seen each other in all this time. Maybe for them, it kind of was. Kyle had to remind himself the reason they were so friendly with each other now was because they hadn’t been as close as Kyle and Stan had, back then. Kenny knew most of the details, but he hadn’t been there. It was different. “Jeez, it’s been so long.”

“Seriously,” Kenny said, and Kyle just kept his gaze on the wall.

“So you guys like, live here together?” Stan asked, something between awe and longing in his voice.

Kenny shrugged lightly to the side of him. “For now.”

“That’s really- nice,” Stan said, voice straining like it did back at the café. “It’s cool you guys- stayed in touch.”

Kyle could hear the emotion heavy in Stan’s voice, and turned around to try and avoid any more tears from starting. It was a little crowded to have a three-way conversation in the doorway, but it probably wouldn’t last too much longer. “It was just kind of by chance. The rent’s cheaper this way, too.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” Stan said, voice quieter before he spoke up again. “So do you guys still keep in touch with Cartman too? Or like…”

“I wouldn’t say we actively try to keep in touch,” Kyle muttered, and Kenny just shrugged again, making Stan laugh a little.

“But, Kenny, dude, how are you? For real, it’s been forever.”

“Yeah, I’m alright,” Kenny said, then gave a half-smile. “Probably better than you, at least.”

Kyle’s hand twitched with the urge to slap Kenny and his stupid habit of always being way too upfront about delicate situations. Illness, death, or whatever else, he never seemed to have much grace or tact when it came to talking about it. To Stan’s credit, he kept a small smile.

“Oh, yeah.” He shrugged. “I guess Kyle already kind of. Filled you in.”

“Some stuff,” Kenny said, then threw a look towards Kyle. “I’m sure you can tell me all about it whilst Kyle does his usual ritual of sorting and writing up all his class notes.”

Stan snorted a little. “You still do that?”

“Not- every day,” Kyle said, feeling flustered all of a sudden at the sudden group tease. “It’s useful to do it anyway. I can find things easier when it’s all organised, so.”

Kenny just grinned. “Whatever, Kyle. You do you.”

Kyle rolled his eyes, but could appreciate an out when he saw one. It was probably obvious to Kenny how aggravated and unsure the whole situation was making him feel, and any excuse to get away from it for even half an hour was a blessing. Just a moment to process that Stan was actually standing in their apartment, talking to them, sober. Invited over because his only other option was the street.

It wasn’t likely he’d be getting a lot of those notes done, but- whatever. “I’ll let you two- catch up, then.”

“Okay,” was all Stan said, and Kenny nodded next to him. Kyle watched them disappear into the front room, listening to their muffled voices, and for a second wondered what it would have been like if this was how things were from the start. The way they’d planned together as kids, to all buy a big house and live there with each other – ‘but not Cartman because nobody likes him and he’s gross’. It was a dumb kid fantasy, but like this, it had almost come true.

Kyle shook his head and took a deep breath. It was Friday. Even if he didn’t have to get his notes done by tomorrow, it would still be helpful to make a start. With that thought firmly in his mind, Kyle tore himself away from listening and went to his room for some long needed silence.

In the end, he only managed to get half of his notes done before Kenny came bounding into his room, the world dark outside. Kyle braced himself for the bad news, the ‘Stan ran away’ or ‘I forgot to hide the Listerine and he chugged the whole thing’, but-

“I’m hungry.”

Kyle stared. “…There’s leftovers in the fridge.”

“Not that hungry,” Kenny said, pulling a face. “Are there any snacks?”

“Probably.” Kyle sighed, standing up. It was hard to concentrate right now anyway. “How’s it going?”

“Yeah, fine, I guess.” Kenny shrugged, leaning back off Kyle’s doorway to let him past. “I know there’s some stuff he’s not telling me, but I get that. That’s your job, after all.”

“It’s not my job to look after him,” Kyle muttered, stepping into the kitchen.

“Not what I meant, but you are pretty good at it, dude. He responds well to you.”

“Not always,” Kyle said quietly, then opened the cupboard. “There’s a pack of chips left. Why don’t you eat those?”

“What flavour?”

“Does it make a difference?”

“…Probably not,” Kenny said, shrugging, and easily caught the chips as Kyle tossed them over. “Do you think Stan needs to eat?”

“He definitely does, considering how dead he looks,” Kyle said. “But he did already eat earlier, so I dunno.”

“He told me about the dog too,” Kenny carried on. “Sucks, man.”

“It really does,” Kyle said, shaking his head. “I mean, who steals from a homeless person?”

“A lot of people, Kyle. Shit’s rough out there.”

“I know that,” Kyle said, then frowned. Sure he knew some things, but probably not the full extent of it. And knowing Stan that had been living like that, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “I guess I’ll come join you guys.”

Kenny didn’t reply, mouth full of chips, and they walked together through to the front room. When Kyle looked at the sofa, it took all of two seconds to realise that Stan was fast asleep, head cradled in his arms against the armrest.

“…Well,” Kenny said. “I guess you don’t have to worry about him drinking your mouthwash now.”

“Unless he wakes up.”

“He looks pretty knocked out,” Kenny said, stepping forward and leaning down to look at Stan’s sleeping face. “Must’ve been pretty tired.”

“…Yeah.” Kyle paused for a second, frowning. “Do you think I’m...being too harsh?”

Kenny’s reply wasn’t immediate. “I think I don’t know enough of what happened between you to answer that.”

“But like, he’s homeless.”

“Doesn’t change the past.”

“…Yeah. Yeah, I dunno.” Kyle shook his head. “So are we just gonna leave him there?”

“Might as well. I’m still fine having him in my room though, if he needs it.”

“I mean, we should probably still get a blanket or something…” Kyle said, watching the gentle rise of Stan’s chest. Only now did he notice the tear in the elbow of his sweater, the loose seams stretched across his skin. “…Does this whole thing not kind of- I dunno. Weird you out? Or something.”

“It was bound to happen sooner or later, right?”

Kyle didn’t know how to reply to that, staring for a few seconds more before going to find whatever stray blanket they had tucked away at the back of a cupboard somewhere. The only one he could find was old and a little musty, and Kyle would’ve apologised, if not for the fact that Stan was still asleep, and probably didn’t care anyway.

Kenny had already disappeared from the room, silently evaporating like he always seemed to do, and Kyle hesitated, before throwing the blanket over Stan. Not even a stir. It was almost like he was unconscious. Kyle had seem him unconscious way too many times in the past, slumped over with vomit on his chin. But right now, he just looked at peace, and Kyle found himself absently considering the fact that this was probably the first time Stan had slept in a safe place in a very long time.

Somehow, more than anything else, it was that thought that followed him to sleep.

-

Apparently Kenny had been right about how passed out Stan had been, because he didn’t emerge from their living room until Kyle was halfway through making breakfast. He appeared at the doorway, still looking half-asleep, and Kyle momentarily paused in flipping over the omelette in the pan. There was a short pause of silence as Stan blinked at Kyle, the sizzling in the pan seeming to grow louder.

“…Hey,” he greeted, and Kyle moved his attention back to the pan.

“Hey.”

Stan lingered at the door for a moment, like he was unsure of whether he could actually step into the kitchen or not. Something about it annoyed Kyle. They used to climb through each other’s windows as kids, for God’s sake.

“You can sit down, if you want,” Kyle said eventually, and Stan just nodded, finally stepping across the sacred threshold of the kitchen door and pulling out one of the seats at the table. It still felt too quiet, so Kyle tried again. “After Kenny gets out, you’re free to use the shower.”

“Oh, right. Yeah, thanks.”

Today’s atmosphere felt like a weird copy of yesterday’s, like they’d forgotten how to communicate all over again. Most of Kyle’s memories of talking to Stan had been when they were a lot younger, but comparing that to how things were now seemed like another lifetime. Maybe it really had been too long. Maybe they’d never regain that easy connection they used to have.

“Do you want anything to eat?” Kyle asked, not taking his eyes off the pan. “I’ve still got a ton of eggs left, but there’s probably something else if you want.”

“Oh. No, dude. It’s fine.”

 Kyle lowered the spatula, turning towards Stan and staring. “Don’t do this again.”

Stan stared back at him, frowning a little. “What?”

“What’s the point of you saying no to food you obviously need? So you can have a reason to keep acting like the victim?”

“What? No, I-“

Whatever weak excuse Stan was going to work out fell flat when the door burst open again, Kenny stepping into the room with a towel around his neck.

“Hey, morning guys,” he greeted, giving a loose wave as he towelled off his hair, before throwing it into the washing pile. Kyle couldn’t help but be impressed that he hadn’t just left it on the back of a chair somewhere, like usual. “So you guys are gonna go get this dog back today?”

“Uh, probably,” Stan said, throwing an uncertain glance to Kyle.

“I guess,” he added, but Kenny didn’t seem to mind their hesitant responses.

“I finish at four, so make sure you text me your plans or something before you get into it,” he said, moving back across the kitchen.

“Oh, you’ve got work?” Stan asked.

“Yup.” Kenny grinned. “Ready for six hours of moving boxes and cleaning spills.”

“Sounds fun.”

Kenny just replied with an okay sign, before giving a final wave to Kyle. “Remember, they’ll eat you alive out there, so text me first.”

“Did you forget what we were like as kids? I have some street-smarts-“

“Sure you do,” Kenny said, then turned to Stan. “Make sure he doesn’t get mugged or anything.”

Stan laughed. “Sure, whatever.”

“You guys are assholes,” Kyle muttered, anger from before already dissipating. He jabbed at the omelette, letting it sit in the pan even though it was already fully cooked.

“See you!” Kenny left just as suddenly as he’d arrived, and Kyle was left alone with Stan again, staring at a lukewarm omelette.

“…I guess I’ll go shower, then,” Stan said, standing up awkwardly, and Kyle bit back a sigh.

“Okay.” If there was one thing he’d learned from everything that had happened a few years ago, it was that he had to stop enabling whatever dumb behaviour Stan threw his way. If he didn’t want to eat, then- fine. That was fine. There was always later.

-

By the time Stan was ready to go, Kyle had mostly finished everything that needed doing before they set off. There was the usual stuff, like washing up and making sure everything was where it should be, but then also the bits that weren’t so typical. As in, Kyle didn’t usually go and print off fifteen ‘missing dog’ posters at the student hub first thing in the morning, but here he was.

Other than that, though, there wasn’t really much else he could do for now. They’d written down the number of an old phone on all of the posters, and Kyle had that with him, but for the most part, it was going to be Stan who figured this all out. Which is honestly how it should have been, Kyle thought. So many times other people had done things for Stan, things he definitely could’ve done for himself…it was frustrating when Kyle looked back on it, but at least it seemed to be different now.

“So,” Kyle started, turning the key in the lock before securing its place in his pocket. “Where are we gonna go first, dude?”

“Uh…I mean, I was thinking we could start with the places closest to here, and then stop by each one?” Stan shrugged his left shoulder. “There’s really not that many, but…I dunno. Maybe we’ll get lucky?”

“We’re not going back on this plan now,” Kyle said, making his way to the stairwell. “I already printed off all the flyers.”

“Shit, dude, was it expensive-?”

“Like, a dollar, max.”

 “Oh.”

Their walk after that was mostly silent, and Kyle was quickly getting used to the tense air that seemed to have settled between them. If things couldn’t ever return to how they used to be- that was fine. He’d just help find Stan his dog, or maybe not find him, and then be done with it all. He’d been fine without Stan in his life for the past three years, and he’d fine carrying on without him.

Today was a little busier than it had been yesterday, with the lack of rain and arrival of the weekend, but the streets that Stan led him down were a lot quieter than the main streets Kyle was used to. Half of them, he hadn’t even realised existed. After maybe the sixth sullen alleyway they’d snuck down, Kyle was starting to wonder if Kenny’s warning about getting mugged was really just a joke.

Eventually, after maybe twenty minutes of travelling up strange paths and streets, Stan stopped at the tip of a street, by a small alcove. Kyle adjusted his bag slightly, and looked around. He definitely hadn’t been here before.

“I think this is like, where a bunch of people used to sell drugs and stuff,” Stan said, glancing down the alcove, which was, luckily, empty. Kyle was suddenly glad they’d had to walk for a distance before getting here. “There’s no streetlights around here, so at night, you can’t see anything.”

When Kyle looked around, he realised it was true. With the boarded up shops and lack of street lighting, he could easily imagine how dark it would get in the dead of the night. Actually, thinking about being out here in the darkness, all alone…it was kind of- scary. Though that was exactly what Stan had been doing for the past few months.

“Should I stick up a poster here then?” Kyle asked, looking around for a good place to put it.

“Yeah, sure.” Stan watched him as Kyle took out one of the posters and taped it up on the wall. “…You know I never did any of that stuff, right?”

“You already told me,” Kyle said, not taking his eyes away from the poster as he smoothened out the paper.

“But just so you know. Like, I saw a bunch of the deals and stuff, and even a few people shooting up, but I never did. I got offered it too, but- I didn’t.”

It felt like a weird thing to use as a shining accomplishment, bragging about never having done drugs, even though Kyle was pretty sure most normal people hadn’t either.  But maybe it was something Stan was proud of. Considering how easy it was for Stan to get addicted to things, maybe it really was an achievement to be proud of.

Still, Kyle didn’t really know how to respond, so he brushed the poster down one last time, and stepped away. “Where to next?”

“Oh, right-“ Stan turned to stare down the street. “There was this place where a bunch of people tended to go to sleep, not too far from here-“

They walked a little further through the city, with Stan showing him a few other places of interest, including where he’d bought the dog in the first place. Most of the areas were rundown and empty, and any of the few people Kyle did see, he kept his gaze far away from. It was hard to think of Stan being one of those people, just yesterday. In a way, he still was, wasn’t he?

When Stan stopped again, Kyle didn’t need to be told to get out another poster, looking for a good spot to stick it. This time they were on a bridge connecting two parts of the city, a thin strip of pavement alongside the road. Kyle knew of it, though he hadn’t ever had reason to go this far from campus. Stan rested his head on his arms as he leaned down against the railing, staring off at the water below.

“This is, uh…” Stan stared, and while he tried to find his words, Kyle leant down and grabbed the tape from his bag. The railings of the bridge were already covered in old and torn posters, but hopefully something a little newer would stand out against the dulled sheets. “It’s like…like it was a popular place. To go.”

“Well, the view is nice, I guess,” Kyle said, putting the poster over an old advert for microwaves that looked like it had been there for a good ten years. It was only when leaned back did he realise there was a sign drilled into the wall, printed with the words ‘You’re Not Alone’. A hard feeling hit his chest.

Kyle stood back up and looked at Stan, his mouth feeling glued shut as he waited for his friend to say something. Instead, Stan just kept staring out over the side of the bridge with a distant gaze, the kind he got whenever he was remembering something. Then, he blinked and looked back at Kyle.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, then smiled a little. “We ready to go? This is the last place, so.”

Kyle desperately wanted to ask what Stan had just been thinking about, but couldn’t force the words to come out, so he just nodded. It was the same way he’d felt before. Useless, unable to say what he wanted. Unable to find what needed to be said.

“I guess now we just have to wait?” Stan said as they started walking again, back in the opposite direction of the passing cars.

“Yeah. Just- wait.”

“…I really appreciate this, Kyle,” Stan said after a moment, and Kyle glanced at him. “You’re kind of wasting your whole day just for some dumb mess I got myself into. Don’t you have to study?”

“I’m pretty ahead already, so-“ Kyle shrugged, then took a breath. He wanted to ask Stan if they could talk, properly, about everything that had happened, just so everything would stop seeming so up in the air, but the timing felt off. He didn’t want to speak to Stan about hurt feelings and deep memories whilst old people blocked the sidewalk and cars cut off every other syllable.

It would probably be a while before they got any kind of a phone call – if they got one at all – so Kyle decided to pick up some food from a cheap roadside shop. To his relief, this time Stan accepted whatever he was buying, even it was just a snack.

They ended up in a semi-public area, with not too many people around that they’d draw any attention, but not too little that they’d be in danger if anyone did end up contacting them. Added to that, it was an area Kyle was familiar with – a small clearing headed by a hall where students sat on the steps in nice weather – which made him feel a little more at ease. Half of him almost didn’t want anybody to ring them, but then that would mean never finding Stan’s dog again. And if they never found his dog, then…

“…I really hope you find him, dude,” Kyle said, staring across the clearing. Considering Kenny was normally at work for most of the week, Kyle had only ever sat here alone. It was strange having someone else sat with him. Not unwelcome, but just…unexpected.

“Yeah, he was- he was really great.” Stan sighed. “I wish you could meet him. He was really friendly, I bet he’d like you.”

“You’ve always been more of an animal whisperer than me,” Kyle said, smiling slightly. “Not even just dogs, like. Anything. They can probably sense how like, genuine you are or something.”

“Dogs just love everybody no matter what,” Stan replied. “That’s what makes them special.”

“Mmm.” Kyle glanced to the side. “I still prefer cats though.”

“Dude, c’mon.” Stan stared back at him. “You know you’re wrong.”

“Me and Kenny always said we should get a cat.”

Stan raised an eyebrow. “Your flat allows pets?”

“I mean- I don’t know, I never really checked,” Kyle muttered, looking down.

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” Stan said, the friendly atmosphere falling just as quickly as it had risen. It felt like there was more to say, ways to continue the topic, but Kyle could almost hear what Stan was thinking and he didn’t want to talk about that yet. First, there were other things they needed to talk about. Now was a good time and it was quiet and they had nothing else to do, but Kyle still felt a certain level of apprehension. After all, this was the deciding point, wasn’t it? The make or break.

It wasn’t the first time.

“Hey, can we…talk?” Kyle started, then swallowed. “About…stuff?”

“…Didn’t we already talk?” Stan replied, voice quiet.

“I mean…we talked a bit about you. Which I guess was the starting point, but…I mean, like, us, dude. Both of us. The stuff that…happened.”

“…Does it matter?”

Kyle wasn’t looking at Stan, but he could tell he had his head down too, probably to avoid any accidental eye contact. He sighed. “Yeah, dude. It does.”

-

Going out to pick up Stan from a random street in the middle of the night wasn’t exactly a rare occurrence, but Kyle still couldn’t help but feel irritated as he supported his friend whilst unlocking the door, using the spare key Stan’s family had always kept under the doormat. Lately he’d been using it so much, he wondered why they didn’t just give him the key for good. Not that he wanted to be responsible for picking up a semi-conscious Stan every other night, but- someone had to do it, didn’t they?

Nobody in Stan’s house came out to see as Kyle helped Stan stumble down the hallway, and he figured either Stan’s parents weren’t home, or they just didn’t care. His sister had already moved out, and Kyle wanted Stan to be able to do that too in a few years, but he was starting to doubt that it was ever going to happen, at this rate.

The routine was standard by this point, and Kyle went through the notions almost automatically – wipe the remaining post-vomit drool from Stan’s mouth, push him over onto his side on his bed to prevent choking, get a glass of water to help him sober up when he regained enough consciousness.

Kyle breathed in deeply, taking a seat next to the bed. Every time this happened, a part of him wondered even more if this was okay. Wondered how long this could carry on for. The first few times had felt like a favour, a helping hand in a rare accident, but now it was starting to feel almost like a job. For a long time, Kyle had denied it was a problem at all, until the realisation had slowly dawned on him. Apparently he’d realised it a long time before Stan had, considering his friend wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down. But they had school, and soon they’d have their final exams. How long could this continue?

There was a slight rustle from the bed, and Kyle moved himself out of his thoughts to focus on the present, ready for whatever was going to happen next.

“Kyle?” Stan’s voice slurred out as his head shifted slightly, eyes flickering open.

“Yeah dude, it’s me,” Kyle said. “You’re back in your room, don’t worry.”

“Kyle,” Stan said again, but the tone was different. His voice sounded hoarse and frail, like he was on the edge of tears.

“What’s up? Do you feel sick or-“

“’M sorry, Kyle,” Stan murmured, pressing his eyes shut. Kyle frowned.

“Sorry for what?”

“I don’t- I don’t wanna keep, doing this,” he muttered, curling up a little and putting his arms around his head as if to protect himself. “I can’t keep doing this. Whhat th’fuck is wrong withhme, fuck. Fuck.”

Kyle just kept quiet, almost scared to talk. It was drunk-talk, obviously, but this wasn’t the same as it had been other nights. There was something genuinely remorseful about this time. Stan didn’t usually sound so- broken.

“I’m so unhappy, Kyle, I’m-“ Stan’s fingers gripped at his hair. “I keep- doing this, I don’t want to. I don’t want t’do this.” The trembling in his voice got stronger, suddenly thick with tears. “I can’t. I can’t do it, I can’t, I just- I wanna die, I can’t- I’m- I wanna die, I wanna die-“

“Stan,” Kyle said suddenly, moving forwards to put a firm hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Stan, it’s okay.”

“I can’t do it,” Stan repeated again, sucking in a sob. “I can’t stop-“

“You can,” Kyle said firmly, feeling a wave of determination. “You can. We’ll do it together, okay? I’m going to help you.” He took a breath. “I’ll help you.”

“Kyle…” Stan murmured, and as Kyle wrapped him into a hug, he honestly felt like he wanted to join in with the tears. Because God, it hurt so much to see Stan like this, just a husk of the person he used to be. The only time he ever laughed or even smiled anymore was when he was already bottles deep, and even then it didn’t feel real. But if he could just try- if he could help Stan somehow – more than he’d been doing already – then maybe, maybe he could get his best friend back again-

-

“I really did want to help you, back then,” Kyle muttered, head still low. “Like I mean, I know it was way worse for you, but like- seeing like you that…”

“Yeah,” Stan said quietly. “I know. At first I didn’t really think about anyone else, ‘cause I was too caught up being sad, but then I realised like. Fuck. Like everyone else around me was being hurt by it too. And then I just wanted to- just, go away. Disappear.”

“Everyone saw you as the victim,” Kyle said, feeling the still lingering bitterness of his words even years after he’d first thought them. “Everyone thought it was my fault for not trying hard enough. Like I was the only influence stopping you from completely giving in.”

“I thought you were, at first,” Stan said. “Until I realised you were still by my side but everything else was getting worse.”

“Yeah. And I realised that- even if I tried, I couldn’t help you. Like I just couldn’t. And that felt like shit.”

“…Yeah.”

“Like, I wanted to keep trying, but-“ Kyle squeezed his eyes shut, breathing in slowly. “I was so- angry.”

-

Today, Kyle was feeling a lot more optimistic than he had done in a long time. Despite him waking up late after staying up with Stan last night, all his homework was done by three, and he had no other plans for the day. His parents were out, and would be until late. So Kyle had decided – three times in the past twelve hours – that he was going to make a difference today. The first when he’d been holding Stan in the earliest hours of the morning, the second when he’d woken up, and the third right now. He was going to be a good friend, and help Stan. He was going to be the best friend.

For a few hours, Kyle tried to figure out a plan. Sat over his desk with a pad of paper, he plotted out ideas that could possibly help Stan. Convincing him to go back to a doctor again, speaking to his parents, replacing alcohol with soda or something…it all sounded good, but Kyle wanted to do something that mattered now. An immediate action.

It took some searching, but Kyle finally managed to dig out an old DVD that had been sitting at the back of his closet for what might have been at least five years. Some cult classic that they’d always wanted to watch together, but had never gotten around to actually sitting down and watching it. But, right now- this was a good opportunity, wasn’t it? If he invited Stan over, and they watched it together, made popcorn and chilled out, then at least that would be one night of him being sober. The first step.

With confidence rising in his chest, Kyle grabbed his phone and clicked Stan’s number. After so long of looking forward to watching the film, he was actually kind of excited. Especially after years of somehow avoiding major spoilers.

“Kyle?” Stan’s voice buzzed through his phone, and Kyle snapped back to attention.

“Hey, dude,” he said. “You wanna like, come over or something? If you’re not busy, I thought we could watch a movie-“

“Oh, like- righht now?” Stan’s voice answered, and Kyle stilled slightly. Why did his voice sound slurred? Why did it sound like there was music playing somewhere in the background-

“…Stan?” Kyle listened, heart pounding, and could definitely hear voices too. Stan’s phone clicked with movement on the other end. “…You’re fucking kidding me.”

“What?” Stan replied, voice still muffled.

“Where are you right now?” Kyle asked, then shook his head, biting his lip. “You know what, don’t even bother answering that. I’m sure I’ll find out in five hours when you drag me out to come pick you up again.”

“What?” Another rustle of movement against the music. “I’m not drunk, if that’s whhat you’re thinking, dude-“8

“Don’t fucking give me that shit, just-“ The anger was quickly building up, making his hand tighten around his phone. “Jesus, dude. What the fuck. It’s not even-…” He let himself trial off as he moved his phone back to check the time. Not even eight o’clock yet. God. Fuck.

“Youu’re overreacting, Kyle, god. It’ssnot a big deal.”

“Okay, fine.” Kyle sucked in a deep breath. “I’m overreacting. You’re not drunk. Sure, whatever. Well, I’m not fucking picking you up from wherever you are, so find someone else to cry to tonight. Bye.”

He hung up.

-

“…I really felt like you’d just…betrayed me,” Kyle muttered. More than anger, he mostly just had frustration towards the memory. How easy it would have been for them both to do the right thing, but just- not doing.

“Would you believe me if I said I felt the same way, back then?” Stan said, then let out a sad laugh. “It was a whole mess, huh. One day, and I went back on everything I’d said.”

“It was one day for me too,” Kyle said, then shook his head. “Can I just ask- why’d you fucking do it, dude? Why, after that night, even after you spoke to me about everything…”

It wasn’t like he’d never thought about it before; in fact, for the first month or so, it had been one of the only things he’d thought about. Theories ranging from the rational to the totally insane. Maybe the addiction was really just that powerful? Maybe he’d been lying to him all along. Maybe Stan was sick of him? Already through with their friendship, just waiting for a chance to get rid of him. Or maybe it was Kyle being there that had triggered it. Maybe he’d made everything worse, and Stan had to drink to deal with the life that Kyle had forced him into.

They were crazy thoughts, but back then, lying awake at three in the morning, in the darkness of his room, any reason seemed to hold at least a grain of truth. Times like that, he’d convinced himself that it really was for the best that they weren’t friends anymore. Telling himself that Stan was free now, and without Kyle’s influence, he’d get better.

Except, Stan never did get better. When he’d given in to that nauseating curiosity and asked someone who still kept in brief contact with Stan, they’d always tell him how everything was the same. And it burned Kyle, to know that them parting had done nothing. But in a way, it also helped to justify it all. Because leaving Stan wasn’t just about what was best for Stan. It was about Kyle, too. Maybe Stan had kept drowning and vehemently refusing to grip onto the life rings, all whilst the water continued to rise and fill his lungs. But at least then, he wasn’t dragging Kyle down into the depths with him.

Stan took a short breath after a moment of silence. “…I wish I knew, honestly. Like, maybe I do, I dunno. It’s hard. Like-…back then- it didn’t feel like I…had a choice. It didn’t seem like it was that bad, like- genuinely. ‘Just drink a little, you’ll feel better. After that, you can get all your shit together and start fixing stuff’. It’s stupid. I was stupid.”

“…Did I make it worse?” Kyle heard himself ask, and hated how vulnerable it sounded. He always told himself he didn’t care, but now that the means for an answer was right there in front of him- he couldn’t help it.

“…I dunno. I don’t think you made it worse or better, overall. When I was angry at you, I’d think back and ask myself like, what did I even want you to do? And I never knew, so. I guess whatever was going to happen was going to happen, no matter what you did. Like I said, I was expecting it to happen eventually. Waiting for it.”

“…Okay.” Kyle took a deep breath. “Okay.”

“…That probably sucks to hear, huh.”

“…Yeah. Kind of does,” he said, then paused. “But I guess it’s good to finally hear it, if that makes sense.”

“I think so, yeah. Like closure?”

“Something like that.”

-

When there was a knock at the door the next day, Kyle really didn’t want to answer it. The knock was that old familiar one that Stan had always used – Stan, and nobody else. For a long time, Kyle just stared at the door and hoped that if he waited long enough, Stan would go away, but- he knew even if he did, he’d just be back again that evening. And then ringing him up at two in the morning.

No, he had to deal with this now if he wanted any peace. Even if he was still really, really angry- this had to be done now.

It was exactly what Kyle expected when he opened the door, finding himself staring at a guilty faced Stan, staring off to the side as if lost in thought. For a split second, his gaze flickered to Kyle as the door fully opened, but then he looked away again. Kyle swallowed down anything he wanted to say and stepped to the side, letting Stan inside. If he really did end up yelling, he at least didn’t want his neighbours to hear.

“...Hey, dude,” Stan started, and Kyle leaned against the wall, breathing in slowly. He wasn’t in the mood for pretending things were okay.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, and Stan blinked at him. Always with those round eyes, like he was being unfairly targeted. Maybe he really believed he was.

“Uh, to- apologise, I guess?”

“’Apologise’,” Kyle repeated, rolling his eyes.

“Look, I know it was kinda shitty for me to have gone out like that, but like- I’m going through a really bad time right now-“

“Just- stop. Don’t.” Kyle clenched his fists, feeling himself lose his resolve already. “Stop making excuses. A hard time? When are you NOT going through a hard time recently?”

Stan looked hurt. “Well, it’s not like really like I can control that.”

“You don’t even try!!” Kyle’s eyes flew up then, suddenly feeling angrier than he had done in a long time. It wasn’t even like this was anything new, but it was just- getting to him so much more this time. Maybe that was why. It was just the same excuses, over and over. Nothing changing. Nothing was ever going to change.

For a second, Kyle tried to bite back the bitterness, but then decided there was no point anymore. It felt like things were coming to a close, and he wanted to say everything whilst he still had the chance. “It didn’t even take a DAY before you went back on your word. Like, a single fucking day. Is that how little self-control you have? That you couldn’t even hold it off for that long? Like, Jesus, that’s fucking pathetic.”

Stan lowered his gaze, mirroring his bitterness. “God, I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

I’M the one who doesn’t understand?” It was like all his breath left him instantly, too stunned to even know how to react.

“Well, yeah. You’re always acting like I can just snap my fingers and be totally happy, but it doesn’t work like that, Kyle-“

“All I’m asking is that you at least try to help yourself! I’m putting in all this effort and everything else to try and help you and you’re just-“

“You’re not putting in effort at all!” Stan cut him off, and Kyle stared back for a moment, unsure whether to laugh.

“You’re- serious?”

“You don’t understand how shitty this feels,” Stan said, running his hands through his hair under his hat. “I don’t get a choice over how I feel! Things are just- really really bad right now. Why can’t you understand that?”

“You’re not letting me understand!” Kyle exclaimed, suddenly aware of how much he was shaking.

“You’re not even trying!”

“I’m not trying?” Kyle took a breath to try and control his breathing, but it was like his entire body was just focused on being angry. No energy to spare on anything else. “How can you seriously say that I’m not trying? Are you serious?? What about- like, fuck- everything?? I always pick you up when I can, I help you when you’re all fucked up, I stop you from choking on your own vomit- what, that’s not trying? That’s not good enough? Am I not good enough??”

“It’s not always about you,” Stan muttered, voice quiet but sharp. “That’s your problem. You think it’s always something you’ve done, something for you to fix. Why are you taking it so personally?”

“It is personal! With me around, you just always seem to get worse!”

“It has nothing to do with you.”

“It has everything to do with me! I’m your best fucking friend!!”

“Are you really?” Stan said suddenly, looking straight at him with cold, sad eyes. It was almost like a stranger’s stare. “Because it’s like you don’t care about me at all anymore.”

“...What??” All of Kyle’s breath left his lungs at once, hit with a sucker punch to the gut. The pain seemed to radiate past his muscles and into his bones, like he could collapse to the floor at any moment.

“Sometimes-“ Stan started, looking down again. “Sometimes it’s like I’m just a problem for you. Like I care about you more than you care about me. Isn’t that the truth? You don’t have to keep lying to me anymore.”

Words and broken sentences stumbled around Kyle’s head, but there was nothing else that he could say. Or maybe- there was too much. There was too much to unpack in that single sentence, so much that it would be impossible. Maybe that’s what this entire situation was. Just- impossible. Stan was set thinking in one way, and Kyle in another. Nothing Kyle could say would reach, and everything Stan said fell empty on him. It was like- they’d already made up their minds.

Maybe Kyle had already made up his mind a long time ago. Maybe all this time, he’d just been in denial, and trying to draw things out before the inevitable hit.

“...Okay, Stan. Okay.” Kyle took a deep breath, and released it slowly. Like it was the last one he’d ever take. “I think- this is over with.”

“What?” Stan was looking at him cautiously, like he was expecting someone to hit him. Well, Stan didn’t need to worry about that. Kyle wasn’t sure he had any fight left in him, at this point.

“There’s no point anymore,” he said, shaking his head. “Is that what you want? You want me to stop?”

“You’re not-“

“I totally get it now, okay? I can’t help you. I can’t help you. That’s- just that. And it’s fine if you wanna live the rest of your life getting drunk and not giving a shit, like, whatever. But I’m not sticking around to see it.”

“...Kyle-“

“I’m done, Stan.”

-

“It probably sounds crazy now, but I was- really mad at you,” Stan started, and Kyle watched him carefully, trying to focus on just Stan’s words and none of his own thoughts. “And upset, too. Upset at myself, too?? Like, I was mad you gave up when you said you’d help. And I was hurting so bad. Even after I told you, you still left.”

 It would easy to refute back what Stan was saying, but Kyle knew that would be against the point. This wasn’t about arguing, it was about explaining. He wanted to know how Stan felt, and now he was finally telling him.

“I felt like I was useless,” Stan carried on, looking out across the clearing and all its shadows. ”And that nobody really cared about me. I kept thinking, ‘if you really cared, you’d understand’. Or- ‘you’d try more to understand’. And I was like, kind of caught between feeling guilty and feeling like it was everyone else’s fault.” Stan’s voice dropped a little. “It sounds stupid now, and it felt even stupider back then, but I really felt like if I stayed sober for too long, I would just- do it, you know? Like I’d just- totally give up, the second I was coherent enough to realise where I was.”

Kyle waited for a second before speaking up again. “And by ‘give up’, you mean...”

Stan didn’t reply, and Kyle swallowed. Right, they’d talked about being angry and the things they’d felt during that argument, but that was all just a side effect from the real problem. Even Stan’s drinking was more of a symptom than the disease. Because the real problem was something else. In a way, the worst part of it all. But they had to talk about it. This stuff- it was important.

“Did you ever-“ Kyle stopped himself, breathing in deeply. He couldn’t rush through this. “Did you ever, like- go? To that bridge?”

A heavy pause. “...Yeah.”

“...Oh.” It definitely wasn’t a surprise, but it still hurt to hear. Obviously if Stan was so sad before, he wouldn’t have gotten any better after losing his home. But just- knowing that at some point, whilst Kyle was busy studying and grocery shopping and doing washing, Stan had been stood up there, looking down- it was hard to imagine.

“I just-” Stan started, before stopping “...Is it okay to talk about this?”

But it was important. “Go...for it.”

“I sat down there for ages. Just like, staring down. Normally either when I was way too drunk or way too sober. I kept trying to reason with myself why I shouldn’t, but all I knew was why I should. Like, c’mon. If you’re homeless- what do you even have left? No friends, no family, no home. Hardly my health, and totally no dignity. I once slept in a public toilet, you know. It was gross.”

Stan snorted slightly, and Kyle kept silent.

“But, yeah. It’s- really hard not to think about it. Especially when it’s right there, and you know nobody would tell you to stop. People probably wouldn’t even notice.” Stan was quiet for a few seconds. "Like, I thought about it. My body washing up on the bank, and people all saying ‘just another homeless guy, whatever’. Nobody would notice. Nobody would care.”

“...Why didn’t you?” Kyle asked tentatively, surprised by how small his voice was. “If that’s how you felt- what stopped you?”

“I mean, after I got Dusty I thought, there was no way I could leave him alone,” Stan said, smiling sadly. “And he was always at my side like, I couldn’t just jump in front of him, dude. That’s fucked.”

That- made sense. Just like the not drinking, it felt fitting that only a dog could convince Stan not to hurt himself.

“...But, before I got him,” Stan continued, seemingly not done with his answer. “I mean...I kind of thought of people that I used to know. You’d all find out eventually, right?? And I thought- I thought if anyone, was gonna be really really upset- it was gonna be you.”

Kyle stopped, turning his head to look at Stan. He wasn’t looking back at him, still staring out across the clearing with a wistful look in his eyes, but Kyle didn’t look away.

With a laugh, Stan shook his head. “I know you probably wouldn’t have been that upset, but I just- I dunno. Needed a reason. Even if it was total bullshit. The same for the drugs, too. I dunno.”

It was a moment before Kyle remembered how to breathe. “...I’d have- been upset. I-“

Whatever jumble of words Kyle was going to stumble his way through were lost, a sudden buzzing cutting him off as the screen of his old phone flashed beside him. At first, he didn’t immediately register what that meant, until he realised why it was ringing. The posters. The whole reason they’d come out today. Right, obviously.

“Hello?” Kyle said as he picked up the phone, aware of Stan watching him intently. It was almost hard to hear the other side with all the thoughts still spinning in his mind, but Kyle forced himself to concentrate as the voice echoed across.

“You lost a dog?”

“I- yes, we have.” Kyle felt his heart start to pick up. If they’d actually found him-

“Yeah, uh. Think we found it.”

“You’re- sure it’s the right one?” Kyle asked, and Stan moved over closer to him, eyes wide.

“Pretty sure. You got cash?”

“I mean, we’re out right now, if you can come right now,” Kyle said, seeing Stan mouth ‘is it him??’ out of the corner of his eye. “In the clearing by the hall? It’s kind of- near the bridge.”

“Yeah, I know it. Be there in ten.”

“R-right,” Kyle said, before the phone went dead. With a frown, he pulled it away from his head and glanced at the screen. An unknown number.

“Did they find him? Is he okay?” Stan leaned over to look at the phone, and then back at Kyle. “It wasn’t like a prank call or anything, right? Was it actually him??”

“I- don’t know,” Kyle said, staring at the phone. “It might be someone just saying they found him to get the money. Don’t get your hopes up too soon, dude.”

“Right. Yeah, I- know.” Stan sighed, drawing back a little. The childlike excitement in his eyes flickered out. “I guess I know what people around here can be like. Good thing we’re in a public spot, I guess.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking,” Kyle said, glancing out around the area. The sun hadn’t quite start to set, and there were still a good number of people lingering on benches or walking past the shops. Even if it ended up being a creepy person, they’d be safe here. Like he’d told Kenny, he wasn’t an idiot.

“I just really hope it’s him,” Stan muttered then, and Kyle found himself thinking the same thing. Not just because he’d rather not have any intimidating meetings with some city-dwelling drug addict, but also because he just really wanted Stan to have his dog back. If there was anything he deserved, it was to at least get his friend back. And considering what Stan had told him, the dog deserved it too. No matter what was happening in their lives, Stan would always put an animal life above his own.

Still, actually managing to locate a random stray dog in the midst of the city, and calling from an unknown number...Kyle really wanted to believe it wouldn’t be some kind of scam, but- thinking realistically...

But Stan was optimistic, so Kyle wanted to be optimistic too. Even if they didn’t find the dog, maybe they’d get a clue. Move a step closer, or something.

It didn’t feel right to continue the conversation they’d been having before with the drastically different mood in the air, so Kyle waited in silence, watching people pass and feeling his heart pick up whenever he saw a dog walking beside them. None of them matched the description that Stan had given him, though. Too small or too big, the wrong colour or breed...

“What did you say he looked like again?” Kyle asked, just to fill the silence, but there was no reply from Stan, who stood up suddenly.

“Oh my god,” he said, then hurried down to the bottom of the steps. “That’s him. That’s- Dusty!”

“What- no way, you’re kidding me?” Kyle was sure it had to be a joke or something, but there was no way for Stan to fake that level of joy, running over to two men looking to be approaching them. They had a dog tied up on a thin stretch of rope, and Kyle wondered for a split second if it was definitely the right dog, before he realised it was straining against the lead, wagging its tail furiously as it tried to jump up at Stan. Then- this was it. That really was Stan’s dog.

“You the guy from the phone?” one of the men asked, and Kyle blinked, before nodding stiffly. Beside him, Stan was kneeling down and holding the dog in a close embrace whilst rubbing his head, and Kyle smiled just a little. “Got the money?”

“Oh, of course-“ Kyle fumbled for the bag, trying to keep a close eye on the two in front of him. There was no way they could get jumped in such a public place, but- still. It was good to be wary of strangers, right? “Where did you find him? We really weren’t expecting to find him so quickly.”

“Just did,” the man said shortly, and Kyle frowned, but didn’t say anything else. Okay then, they weren’t much for conversation. “Eighty dollars, right?”

“I-“ Kyle stopped, frowning. “Uh, no. It was...fifty.”

“Pretty sure you said eighty,” the man said roughly, staring down at him, and Kyle looked to Stan for help. It definitely wasn’t that much, but would it cause trouble if he tried to argue? If they took the dog away again, then all this would be for nothing.

“I-“

“Nah, I’m pretty sure it was fifty,” someone said suddenly, hoisting an elbow up to rest on Kyle’s shoulder. For a fraction of a second, Kyle panicked, unsure of what to do, before realising he knew that voice. Knew that easy grin looking from his side. Kenny. “All the posters said fifty, and that’s all we’ve got. Take it or leave it?”

“...Whatever,” the man said, holding out the leash, and Kyle slowly took out the promised money. As soon as it touched the man’s hand, he let go of the rope, letting it fall to the pavement. The two men took a step back. “Enjoy your dog.”

“...Thanks,” Kyle said, glancing at Kenny, who just kept up his saviour smile. It didn’t drop until the men turned and started to walk away.

“I told you to wait for me!” he exclaimed, holding up a hand in exasperation. “Were you just gonna give him all your cash?”

“I- no, I wasn’t-“ Kyle started, then stopped. “It was kinda hard to wait, anyway! We just got a call, and...”

“Such idiots,” Kenny said, shaking his head slowly. Then he looked down at Stan and the dog on the floor, grinning. “But shit, you found him?”

“I can’t believe it,” Kyle said, watching the dog lick Stan’s cheek in a way that looked kind of gross, but was probably just a dog-person thing he didn’t get. “Seriously, what are the chances they found him that quick?”

“Those were the guys that took him from me,” Stan said suddenly, not looking up. Kyle blinked. “Pretty sure, anyway.”

“Those guys...?”

“Guess they were hoping to make a profit,” Kenny said, shrugging. “And I guess they did. You sure as hell won’t find a better offer than that on the streets for some random dog.”

“He’s not a random dog,” Stan said, hugging the dog closer to him. “He’s Dusty.”

“Right, right,” Kenny said, laughing. “So, you wanna head back? Before this dog gets stolen again or whatever.”

Kyle looked over to his friend. “You good to go, dude?”

“I’m good,” Stan said, nodding hard, before pulling himself up, hand gripped around the dropped lead. “Thanks.” He glanced across the two of them. “Thanks, Kyle. Thanks, Kenny.”

“Hey, all I did was save you thirty bucks,” Kenny said with a grin, patting Stan on the back, but Kyle could tell that Stan was thinking the same as him. It wasn’t just the money, it was the risk of causing trouble, of losing the dog when they’d just managed to find him. Maybe Kenny wasn’t always a big presence amongst them, but he was always there when they needed him. Kyle was always so grateful for that.

“Okay,” he said, nodding once. “Let’s go home.”

-

Surprisingly enough, a nice atmosphere settled in when they got back to the flat, the three of them sat together and making easy conversation whilst Stan’s dog gorged himself on an old tin of meat Kyle had found at the back of the cupboard. In a way, it felt like this was the kind of thing he’d been missing. No sad memories or emotions. Just talking and making bad jokes, ragging on each other with that easy comfort that friends had. Kyle had had Kenny all this time, and that was good, but- having Stan here too just made the whole thing so much better.

If it could have been like this from the very start, it would’ve been so much better. But then- would it? Would they have still talked about all those things that needed to be talked about? Maybe that period of separation was just what they needed. A chance to figure things out alone, mature by themselves, then trying again as better people. Or- something like that, anyway.

Eventually, Stan decided to draw back, taking the offer of staying in Kyle’s room for the night, thank God. Added to that, and accepting the food they’d made for dinner, Kyle was feeling a lot easier about everything.

After Stan (and of course, his dog too) left the room, there was a moment of silence between the two of them, and Kyle let himself think about everything. When he looked back up, Kenny was watching him, as if he was waiting for Kyle to speak.

“...So...what’re we gonna do?” Kyle asked.

“About Stan?”

“Yeah.”

“...Let him stay?” Kenny suggested easily, like it was just that simple, and for a second Kyle almost believed it was.

“But is that...is that really okay? Like, he’s not-...and what about the dog?”

“I mean, I’m sure there’s some way to convince the landlord to let him stay.” Kenny shrugged. “We’ll just say he was like, given over to us by a dead relative, or something.”

“...And Stan?”

“Oh, I thought we were already talking about Stan.”

“Shut up,” Kyle said, rolling his eyes. Kenny just grinned, then gave another small shrug.

“He does what he does, dude. Can’t control that.”

“I know that,” Kyle said, looking down. “...I know that.”

He waited for Kenny to say something else, but in that same way he always did, his friend just kept quiet, watching carefully. Sometimes it was like he’d already seen it all, and was just waiting for things to play out the same way they always did. It was a weird aura that Kenny had always had, though Kyle was pretty much used to it by now.

“...I’m gonna go talk to him,” Kyle said finally, standing up, before pausing. “If you go to bed, make sure you move the dog bowl.”

“Couldn’t resist from being a mom once more?”

“Shut up,” Kyle muttered again, eyeing the room as he left. Something told him he was going to come back and find that bowl still in the exact same position. Or kicked halfway across the floor. Another one of Kenny’s weird things. Sometimes Kyle swore he heard him tidying up, only to come and see everything in the exact same position. Well, whatever. Everyone had their weird quirks, he guessed.

Just as he’d suspected, Stan hadn’t even touched the sleeping bag they’d set out for him, sat against the wall in complete darkness. In the crack of light that cut through the room when Kyle opened the door, he could see Stan look up at him, his dog cradled in his lap. They really did look happy together.

“Hey, dude,” Kyle said, taking a step into the room. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Stan said, smiling softly. “Yeah, I’m really- really good. I’m really good.”

“I know we’ve...talked a lot today, but- just...”

“Yeah. It’s cool.”

Kyle set the door ajar, walking over to join Stan in the darkness. After a moment’s hesitation, he sat down next to Stan, not saying anything. But- even in the silence, it felt calm. Comfortable. It was the kind of silence he’d missed. Like they could sit here next to each for hours and not say anything but still understand everything the other was thinking. Just like it had been before.

Well, almost. They wasn’t quite there yet, but...compared to just this morning, it felt like a huge improvement. Kyle closed his eyes, letting it all sink again for maybe the third time this day. Yesterday morning, he only had Stan in the shadowed corners of his mind. Now, he had the real thing, sitting right there next to him. Next to him, with a dog on his lap. Kyle could hear its gentle breathing next to him, and smiled just a little.

“It’s so good we found him.”

“Yeah,” Stan said, affection in his voice. “He’s a good boy.” The silence settled in a little more before Stan spoke again. “So, what...happens now?”

“...I don’t know.”

“I get it if this is the end again. You know like, parting on good terms??” Stan paused, and laughed through his nose. “Well, it’s better than last time, at least.”

“I do wanna try again, but just...”

“...I get what you mean,” Stan said, and Kyle could hear his hand softly stroking Dusty. “I wouldn’t trust me either.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” Kyle started, then stopped. “I mean- not...really.”

“No, like. I get it. Totally. That’s what I’m scared of, you know?? Like- what if I can’t change.” Stan’s voice got a little quieter. “Even after all this- what if I still can’t do it??”

“I- think you can. I really do.”

“I told myself that last time. I was so ready to stop last time. And I’ve tried so many times before that. Had all these dumb long talks with myself and made plans and just- ...not.”

Memories of how things were before rushed back to Kyle, but instead of trying to push them away like he normally did, he tried to think about it all properly. How Stan would skip school, ring him at three in the morning, bail on their meetups, look like he’d been crying whenever Kyle visited. But also- how everything else was back then.

“I’m so scared,” Stan continued. “I’m just- really really scared.”

Kyle listened to the sounds of Stan scratching behind the dog’s ears, gentle and rhythmic. “It was really different back then, dude. You were a different person. We all were. We were just- kids. Back then, we didn’t have any control over our own lives. No independence or anything. It’s no wonder you couldn’t do it back then, ‘cause you just- couldn’t.”

Stan was silent, save for the gentle brushes against Dusty’s fur, and Kyle took that as a sign to continue.

“We’re adults now though, dude. We can- we can help you. And you can get proper help, too. Like, you can go to a doctor, get meds, counselling, whatever. Speak to them without worrying about your parents. And you can attend meetings to stop drinking. Kenny and I will support you. Like, not- enable you, just- give you the boost, when you ask for it.”

“...I just...” Stan sighed. “Don’t even know if I deserve that.”

“You do,” Kyle said firmly. “Think about- think about how Dusty thinks about you. He thinks you’re the greatest, dude. Look at him.”

Stan laughed slightly. “Yeah. I’m glad there’s a lot of stuff he doesn’t know.”

“But, Stan- I think...you do deserve it, really. Think about it. You haven’t given up. You didn’t give up back then. Maybe this isn’t gonna convince you but like, really. Even after losing your dog, you went through with trying to find him. You told me where to put all those posters- those guys probably would’ve never seen it otherwise. Dusty is here because of you.”

“Well, mostly you and Kenny.”

“Us too, but you as well. Don’t forget that. You haven’t given up. You can do it.” Kyle took a breath, looking down at the outlines of his hands in the darkness. “You can do it.”

“...God, I’m so glad I got to hear another one of your speeches,” Stan said, laughing.

“I’m gonna take that as a compliment.”

“It is a compliment, dude.” He laughed again. “It is.” Stan inhaled, then exhaled again, slowly. “I really missed you.”

Something about those words suddenly struck Kyle deep, as if everything from the past three years had come up all at once. All those nights of wondering, remembering, questioning. After everything- after all the betrayal and anger and heartbreak-

“Me too,” Kyle said, voice smaller than he expected. He let his head lean to the side, against Stan’s shoulder, and pressed his eyes shut. “Me too.”

There was just- something about Stan. A kind of friendship that he knew he could never have with anyone else. They’d known each for so long, been a part of each memories for so long. Everything they’d done, they’d done together. Grown together. Not having Stan there had been like- trying to learn who he was all over again. And he’d figured it out, and been happy with himself, but- he just...really wanted Stan there again. No matter what problems they had- it would always been fine, in the end. Eventually. Even after three years.

“...You really think I can do it?” Stan asked after a long stretch of silence, head still leaning against Kyle’s.

“Yeah. If you try- yeah, I do.”

“Kyle,” Stan said suddenly, head shifting slightly. “If- everything goes wrong, and I mess up again, I just wanna say now, like, fully genuine. Fully sober. I’m really sorry, and- for all of this. Just- thanks. A lot. Thanks.”

“...Me and Kenny will be here for you when we can, dude. If our friendship can survive three years of zero contact and bitter memories, then really- it can make it through anything.”

“You keep saying that, like you’re...”

“I am. We are.” Kyle swallowed. “Just- just for- I mean. I’m setting rules. Like, Stan, I’m not kidding. You can stay here but there are rules. Like- boundaries. Stuff we won’t accept. Don’t mess this up, please.”

“I won’t,” Stan said, voice firm. “I won’t. I promise. Like- I mean, maybe it means nothing if I promise ‘cause I’ve broken so many before but just- I’ll prove it to you. Show you that I won’t mess it up.”

“Yeah.” Kyle nodded to himself. “Maybe you can do some volunteering or something. You like that kind of stuff, right?”

“Yeah. I do.”

“You can look tomorrow, okay? Use our Wi-Fi.”

“Yeah.”

“But, Stan- like, this is for you to do. We’ll help you if there’s anything you can’t understand, but like- all of this. It’s your choice, dude. I can’t do it for you. You know that.”

“Yeah, I know that. This time, I won’t rely on you. I won’t wait for someone else to do it for me. That’s what I need to do, right? That’s the right thing to do.”

“I- think so, yeah. It’ll be really hard, and worst at the start, but- you can. Like, you’ve already done the hardest days.” Kyle paused, thinking. “And you did them all alone. Without even Dusty. Seriously, dude, how can you even think you don’t deserve another chance? You kept hanging on even when you had nothing. That’s crazy.”

“...It only sounds good when it’s you saying it like that.”

“Then- I’ll just keep telling you that,” Kyle said, leaning further against Stan, and feeling the fur of Dusty brush his arm. It should’ve been uncomfortable just sitting on the floor, but somehow, it was still nice.

Maybe Kyle was definitely one to hold grudges, but- this time, he think he’d be okay to forgive. Forgive Stan, and forgive himself. Whatever mistakes they’d made- they could overcome it now. Just- try, to be friends again.

For Kyle, that was enough.