I'm a completely different person than when I started this, as I'm a completely different person than a mere three months ago, but that's life.

Naturally, that bleeds out into writing.

This story is nothing like it was before. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but that's how it is. Sorry to the people who liked it as it was. I just kept adding in more and more characters and it just kept becoming about everyone not really knowing who they are and what they want and who they want. I think the only stable character in this is freakin' Kenny. And he doesn't really…do much. He'll be in the chapter after the next one, though. And Craig will start rising a bit more out of the woodwork like he has been. He'll be a welcome neutrality, I suppose.

In short, I really just want to finish this off so I can move on to bigger and (way) better things. It's obvious this isn't a literary masterpiece or anything, especially to me knowing I half ass all of my fanfics, but I'd at least like to think that, quality aside, people still have a mildly enjoyable and boredom-curing read with as little cringing and "What the hell is THIS!?" comments as possible.

I've probably already failed at that, but, ha ha, I've never finished chapter fics, and I'd at least like to finish this one, as I have a clear plot line to follow in it. (Or, at least, I have a pretty good idea of how the events will unfold.)

In other news, I was a fan of Michael Jackson. I'd been a fan since watching his performance in The Wiz. (Sure, I'd heard all of the songs like Thriller and Bad and Black or White, but it wasn't until watching that movie that I found utmost respect for him as a human being, as debatable as that is, I know, and his direct influence on the music we have today.)

His song "Childhood" is a fitting title for this chapter, but I view the song as very personal to him, so this chapter remains titled as "Kids," by MGMT. I strongly recommend listening to "Childhood"…but I don't suggest listening to "Kids." MGMT is an acquired taste, and even I can't stand them that well.


"Kids"
Chapter Twenty

––––Shelley–––

Life with headgear sucked major ass. She'd done it for medical reasons, mainly, but now she just couldn't find it in her to give a damn anymore. They hurt like hell.

Life without Skyler sucked major ass, too. He'd broken up with her because she wouldn't give herself up, and she'd gotten Cartman to help her extract revenge in the best way possible – thrashing his guitar, the only thing he ever really loved. Still, it hurt like a bitch now that he was gone. She wanted to just flip a switch and shut everything down, just stop caring about everything.

Living in South Park never failed to make her life shitty, in one way or another, but through it all, next to all of the people she absolutely hated, next to everyone she wanted to leave her alone after everything had come to pass, there was Kevin. He was her constant.

And so, they grew closer and shared secrets, shared the things she never would have told the friends she used to have before she just started being angry all the time. Not about her grandfather's death wish, as funny as it was disturbing; not about her parents almost getting a divorce and then getting back together again, which broke something that didn't ever seem to really fix. No, there was something in her that had been more deeply affected by it than she thought possible. The vase had been shattered and put back together, but the cracks were still visible. Even her interest in a fucking band, which she had enjoyed by herself, now spread like wildfire and helped her find herself away from the pack.

She bottled everything up, and he helped her let it out. He fostered her rage willingly, gave her a way to vent. In a sense, he was way better than any of her gal pals.

Her friends began to see her change, but it wasn't really a change, was it? She was just being herself after what felt like forever bottling everything she felt inside.

She was finally free.

–––

"Who am I, really, Kev?" Shelley muttered, slumped against the tree she always went to to think. He'd begun to join her over the course of their friendship, and she couldn't be more thrilled. It helped to talk to someone about things like this. She ran a hand through her hair, frizzed from the cold, and stared up at the treetops.

Kevin was staring down the hill at a squirrel making a rare appearance this time of the year. "I can't really say, Shell. You are who you are. There's no sense in changing that, is it?"

"Yeah, but who am I?"

"I already answered that, didn't I? You're you, Shelley. Who am I? I'm me. I can only ever be me. And you can only ever be you. Everyone figures it out one day. I think you have to grow up to figure it out."

"Yeah, but do any of the grown-ups know who they are? Does my dad know who he is? Does my mom? I don't even think Skyler knew who he was, and he was pretty old."

"Ah, come on. Don't get caught up on that jackass again. I know what'll make you feel better…" he sang, a cheerful inflection at the very end. Kevin turned and gave her a goofy little grin. "'The Number of the Beast' is by far the best song Iron Maiden ever wrote."

Shelley scoffed, leaning towards him and giving him a light thwack over the head. "Oh that's bullshit, Kevin!! 'The Number of the Beast' can't compare to 'The Trooper!' 'The Trooper's' their most popular for a reason!"

"No, it's only good because it's their most popular song. 'The Number of the Beast' is the best by far. Assuming 'The Trooper's' popular because it's good is just stupid. Look at quality, Shell, not quantity."

"Oh?" Shelley sneered at him. "You dirty liar! You said your favorite song was 'Run to the Hills!' I know you're just doing this to change the subject, you ass!"

Kevin snorted, scratching his greasy brown hair. "Well, you're not sad anymore, are you?"

"Well…er…yeah," she admitted, "but I'm not happy either."

Despite the irritation in her voice, she managed to laugh.

"Yeah you are! You're laughing, Shelley!" Kevin laughed, looking proud of himself.

"Only at how stupid you are! There's no reason to be pleased with yourself!"

Shelley sighed and looked away, over at the imperfections the squirrel had left in the snow. Her face fell, and she shrugged. "You know, you're probably one of the only people I can put up with longer than ten minutes, Kevin. The girls at school are starting to be pissed at me because of how I've been acting, and it's really… I don't know. It makes me feel weird. Like I'm…"

"Like you're betraying them?"

She snorted. "Oh, hell no. I can't betray people I don't give a shit about, can I? No, I feel like I'm better off, even though I've only got you now. Maybe that's better, you know? Maybe it's okay to have just one friend. Maybe it's okay to not want to talk to anybody else…"

Kevin stared at her for a long moment before his ears turned red and he looked at the snow. "You know, Shelley, I'm starting to feel the same way."

"Yeah, but you've got your guy friends, Kevin," she dismissed, waving at him with her hand. "You probably don't know what I'm talking about."

"Oh yeah. I know what you're talking about. I feel like I can tell you everything, Shelley. With the guys I only just talk about the superficial stuff, like tits and…well, tits, mainly. Sports, too, but I don't really play sports much. Well, tits and sports and music, but I never really put anything else out there. It's almost like I get to talk about the state of the world and philosophical stuff when I hang out with you." He shrugged. "I like it."

"Well, shit, Kevin. You're a pussy, aren't you?" Shelley smirked, and Kevin just rolled his eyes at her.

"Shelley, I'm being serious. Guys aren't really superficial or anything. And it's not like all we want is sex… We're just at that age, you know? And I mean…it's not like we don't talk about deep stuff. I just…never really put forth anything into the conversation."

Shelley sighed. "My mom says boys always grow but they never mature."

"Well… Huh, I've really got nothing to say to that. Just know not all guys are Skyler, Shell. Some of us are pretty sweet deep down." To prove his point, he gave a winning grin he hoped would put her mind at ease. Instead, she moved off of Skyler and onto how often Kevin brushed his teeth.

Shelley tried to force herself to smile, but instead she reached into her pocket and pulled out a roll of breath mints. She'd learned to carry them around when Kevin was around. It wasn't even rude anymore. "Here," she said, handing him three. "Now you're a sweet guy, Kev. And your breath smells nice now, too."

Kevin took them, popped them in his mouth and scowled at her. "Thanks, Shelley. Right when I was trying to impress you. You sure know how to kill the mood." He stood up, wiping the snow from his rear, and reached out for her hand.

She, in turn, grabbed it and used him to help herself up. She then, too, wiped off her rear and shrugged. "What mood, Kev? You're like the brother I wish I had. Better than the turd I have at home."

He winced visibly, slapping his forehead. "Ouch, Shell! Way to take a low blow to my ego! I'd say I'm a pretty charming, attractive guy, wouldn't you?"

Shelley grinned as they started down the hill. "Maybe. If there's ever a Trailer Trash Yearly pin-up calendar, I'll be sure to sign you up."

Kevin perked up. "Oooh! I think my mom gets that every year to hang in the bathroom!"

They both burst out laughing, and Shelley slapped her thigh. "Totally! Now you can get a pin-up of you and hold up a sign that says, 'Hey Mom!'!! Ha ha ahahaha ha!!"

They wandered to the train tracks and started walking along them. Wedged in the stones after the fiftieth plank they passed, a flash of red and yellow caught Kevin's eye. He bent down, brushing the snow away to find a little figurine of the Flash. Standing straight again, he held it out to her. "Huh. Look at this, Shell. It's the Flash!"

"Oh God, don't tell me you like superheroes, too?"

"Spandex is for fags, Shell. But, if you like super heroes, I can be the Flash for you!" He gave her a wicked smirk and Shelley fought back a giggle. He took that to mean 'Okay' and puffed out his chest. "Well, Shelley Marsh, it looks like another crisis is diverted."

He gasped and cupped a hand to his ear, listening in the distance. "What's that!? South Park's being attacked by Mecha-Streisand again!? I'm on it!!" He broke out into a run…only to slow to a stop nearly ten feet away, panting heavily. Going without well-nourishing food did that to a person.

"Kevin??" Shelley laughed and jogged over, placing a hand on his shoulder. "You okay?"

He looked up at her and smiled, saying between breaths, "Yeah…but I think…my family's crystal meth lab is…starting to take its toll…on my lungs…"

She rolled her eyes and gave him a gentle shove again. "Oh, you liar. Your family doesn't make crystal meth!!"

Kevin wheezed and stood up straighter to give her a serious look. "Well…is…isn't using us to smuggle it just as bad?"

Shelley's mouth opened, and she stuttered. "Wh…What? Holy fuck, Kevin… Do they seriously–"

He grinned. "Fooled you, Shelley! Ha ha!!"

She huffed and shoved him, more firmly, and smacked him in the back. "Kevin! What the hell!! Seriously, don't scare me like that!! That was not funny, you jerk!!"

"Awww, come on, Shell! It was just a joke!!" He laughed heartily, holding his arms out to show her he was fine. "Seriously, Shell. It was a joke, alright?"

"Yeah, but I thought you were serious!" She glared and started walking away in a huff. "It wasn't funny at all!"

Walking after her, Kevin began nudging her whenever the moment was open. "Come on, Shelley, it was a joke. Why can't girls take jokes like this?? I mean, it was… I was kidding!!"

She shot him a dirty look and stomped her foot on the ground, putting a hand on her now-developing hip. "Well I didn't think it was funny, Kevin! You had me worried! I like you, okay?? And I don't want you to get hurt! You're my best friend!"

Kevin's eyes widened. "Really? You mean that?"

"Yes! Of course I mean that! I wouldn't be putting up with you if I didn't mean every word I said."

Kevin's cheeks warmed and he scratched his greasy hair again. "Oh…well…if…if that's the case… I'm sorry, Shelley. Forgive me?" She sighed and gave him a strained look, blue eyes into turquoise, and he gave her another one of his goofy grins. "I'll throw in the Flash for free…"

She sighed and held out her hand, looking away. "Deal. But don't ever do it again."

The Flash came to sit in her hand, as he soon came to live in her home, on her bedroom's bedside table. Kevin put his hands behind his head and started walking down the tracks all over again. When the Flash made himself comfy in Shelley's pocket, she started after her best friend.

"You know, a bunch of the girls at school think we're going out," Kevin remarked casually.

"Let them think that," Shelley replied in aggravation. "I don't care, Kevin. Shit."

–––––––––––––––––––

Nicholas took another sip of his soup, staring at her. "Are you going to keep twirling that little action figure around, or are you going to say something?" His eyebrows furrowed, and he sniffed a little. That had been in her room before, too. Why did she bring it to school all of a sudden?

"You know, I used to sit by a big tree near the train tracks and just think. When me and Kevin were friends, he used to sit and help me think…" Shelley mumbled, flipping the hair from her eyes with her free hand – she'd teased it a bit and her bangs kept falling in front of her face.

Nicholas put his spoon down and gave her an aggravated look. "What? Is that supposed to make me jealous or something?"

"No," Shelley sighed, glancing at him briefly before looking back at the Flash. "I just…stopped doing a lot of thinking after me and Kevin stopped being friends. I wish I'd done more thinking now that so much time has passed…"

The Goth sighed in aggravation and pushed his soup forward, letting his arms rest on the table. "So…what are you thinking about? Are you thinking about Kevin?"

"No." Her eyebrows knitted together and her throat went dry. It felt scratchy as she spoke. "I just… Well, ever since I've met Kevin, all I've done is be myself. He helped me be myself…but…now I just feel fake. Hasn't that ever happened to you?" She looked up at him, blinking. "Have you ever felt that you tried to be yourself so much that you lost sight of who you really were and what you really cared about? Even about what was most important of all?"

For a long time they sat there in complete silence before Nicholas took in a deep breath and swallowed. "…No," he said quietly, looking back at his hands. "But…I……think I know someone who has…"

"Given the opportunity, you'd choose her over me, wouldn't you?"

Nicholas soaked in the question and chuckled uncomfortably. "…Ah. You… Heh. You mean Henrietta, right?"

"…You know I do."

After a while of staring at the action figure twirl around slowly, Nicholas chuckled again and shrugged. "Well, Henrietta's not my girlfriend, is she?"

"What is it about me that you like?" The second the words were out of her throat, the Flash came to a stop and tumbled onto his back on the table top.

"Shit, who the fuck is calling me?" she muttered. She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled her cell phone out. Pushing a button on the side, she sent the call to the voice mail recording. With a huff, she put it back in her back pocket.

"Who was it?" Nicholas stared at her curiously, as if expecting her to say Henrietta had called.

"Does it matter? They called me during school, damn it." She huffed and glanced across the cafeteria to the "less than outcast" table, where Kevin sat goofing off with his friends. Again, they were acting like miniature gladiators were making war on top of their food. It looked like a hell of a lot more fun than sitting here with the brick wall. "Now, about that ques–"

"I need a smoke. You mind?" Nicholas said tonelessly, his eyes smoldering.

Shelley rolled her eyes and forced a smile onto her lips. "Just a second." She reached into her pocket, got her phone and jabbed whoever had the nerve to call her to the voice mail message again. "Now that that's taken care of, why don't we go have a smoke? We need to talk."

"People are going to think we're going off to go make out," he said.

"You know what?" she replied curtly. "I could care less right now. They're not my friends; they're not even people I want to talk to. I don't give a damn what they'll think. They're all just a bunch of fuckers trying to find something interesting to gossip about, anyway."

Nicholas smiled, picking up his spoon and pointing it at her casually. "You know, I really like it when you talk like that. It's my favorite thing about you."

"Yeah, but I'm sure it's not really me you see when I talk like that." She stood up with her plate and went to the trash to throw her half-eaten food away.

Nicholas blinked, going over and dumping the rest of his soup in the trash can and closing his thermos back up. Dropping his Styrofoam bowl and plastic spoon in the trash, he looked over at her and narrowed his eyes. "Of course it is."

Shelley sighed and glanced over at Kevin's table again. He was staring at them. Her phone began to vibrate again, and she whipped her phone out and punched the button viciously. "Damn it. They won't stop calling. Let's just go."

They started down the hallway, and Kevin eyed one of his friends conspicuously, nodding his head just as obviously. His friend – a six-foot-tall freshman named Aaron – nodded back and jogged off to go keep an eye on them…er…Nicholas, of course. To see if he was hiding anything…like Shelley wanted Kevin to make sure of. Yeah.

Halfway to the door to the back of the school, Nicholas reached over and pinned her against the wall. "Shelley, you mind if I kiss you?"

She sighed and looked away, clutching the Flash extra tight. "Actually, yeah. I do. I really just want a smoke right now. Now get off of me so we can have our fix."

Nicholas narrowed his eyes. "Well…this was my fix. I just wanted to make out with you."

"You know what, Nicholas?" She gave him a simmering look. "You can take your fix and– Mother fucker!!" Shelley shouted, loud enough to surely be heard in the cafeteria, and even on the other side of the school.

His eyes widened, and he snarled out an angry, "What did you just call me?"

She shoved him off of her, reaching into her pocket and finally looking at whoever the hell was still calling. Upon seeing Stan's name, she grumbled and flipped it open a bit more destructively than she would have liked. This was the second phone in a year, and she hoped it would remain to be the first of next year.

"Why the hell are you calling me, turd?" she hissed. "I'm in school, and you're bothering me. Maybe I was in a class. Did you ever think of that?"

"Shelley," he groaned hoarsely over the phone. He sounded almost like he was about to cry. "I…I need you to pick me up…"

Oh, like hell he'd use alligator tears on her.

"What?" she snapped. "No! I'm not helping you skip school. I've already missed enough."

"Shelley, please…" he continued, his voice growing more and more desperate. "I…the list…everyone knows, Shelley. I accidentally blurted it out at lunch and… Everyone knows I really wrote that list. Please, I don't… I just…I want to go home…"

The realization hit her like a ton of bricks. No wonder he was so upset…he'd just revealed everything.

"Wait. They know you're…that you're–"

"Yes! Please come pick me up!! There's no way I can face my next class! Please!!"

Shelley placed her hand over the phone and eyed her boyfriend. "I'm sure Henrietta would just love to know you're behind something like this, wouldn't she?" she said, eager for a guilty response. She was so sick and tired of this bullshit. Sure she didn't care, but now that she was starting to care a little, she was just fucking tired of this. She wanted the truth; she wanted an escape from all of these questions filling her head to the brim!

His eyes widened, sincerely. "Wait, what? What are you talking about? Who's calling you?" Again, he almost looked as if he expected her to have started putting Henrietta on speed dial.

She glowered at him. "As if it isn't obvious, prick."

"What?" he snapped, angry again.

Shelley uncovered her hand from the phone and huffed.

"…I'll be over there as soon as I can. I'll be at the coffee shop at the end of the street by the middle school, got it? Oh, God damn, Stan…you're just having an awful semester." Her heart squeezed painfully, and she hung up the phone before getting emotional in front of her brother.

She was quiet for a moment, and Nicholas tapped his foot on the floor impatiently. "Well, aren't you going to leave?"

Shelley cleared her throat and looked at him, suddenly overwhelmed with a sort of hatred toward him she couldn't describe coupled with a strange sense of hopelessness. Her voice cracked when she took a deep breath and muttered, "Does it really matter to you?" Her throat was dry all over again. "…If I were to leave right now, would you really give a shit? Would you even wonder where I was going or if I was okay?"

For a while he just stood there in stunned silence before he grimaced. "…I…think you know the answer to that question," he said thickly.

"Good, then I'm glad we're clear on something." She coughed and steadied herself before looking over at the corner and nodding her head. "Tell Kevin he has my permission to beat the fuck out of my ex, will you?"

Hurried footsteps alerted Nicholas to the presence of someone watching them, and he looked back at her, flabbergasted. "You…you bitch. You've been having people watching me? Why!?"

She laughed through a shaky voice and patted him on the shoulder in a mock-loving gesture.

"I think you know the answer to that question, turd," she said.

He laughed, high and manically; he couldn't believe what he was hearing! "You can't break up with me!" he snapped, voice heavy with laughter. "I'm breaking up with you for having people watch me! How does that feel, bitch??"

Kevin turned the corner then, looking pleased with himself, and Shelley gave the Goth the finger. "You know what, Nicholas? It feels pretty damn great. Now do yourself a favor and fuck off."

She hurried down the steps and out to her car, not even pausing to see his reaction. She had a pretty good idea she knew what'd it be, too – a brief moment of self-pitied anger followed by a knock to his jaw that would send him clattering to the floor, courtesy of Mr. Trailer Trash Yearly himself. Suddenly finding it a bit hard to see, she slumped into her car, threw her bags in the back, and gave herself a moment to get a grip.

Seconds later, the passenger door opened and Kevin slid in, shutting it. She looked over at him. Her jaw dropped. "W-W-What are you doing here? I…I said you could beat the fuck out of that faggy Goth sleaze bag!"

Kevin blinked. "Oh? Shorty just said you'd broken up with the Goth and I came running after you… Huh. I'll have to keep that in mind for when I have some time to kill." He smiled and put his seat belt on, rolling down the window. "Now, where are we going?"

"To pick up Stan from school. Apparently he let his orientation slip during lunch. And you're not coming along, Kevin."

"Oh, I am. You may not realize it, Shelley, but you've had tears streaming down your face since I turned the corner in the school." He smiled to himself and set the Flash on the dashboard. "And you dropped this when you hurried out. You have a nasty habit of forgetting your things."

She wiped at her eyes and smiled a bit easier. "…I'll try to work on that."

"Want me to drive? You're crying too hard to see."

"If you crash my baby, I will murder you."

"I don't know how I can crash something that's not much to look at anyway, but I'll still haunt you if you kill me," he said cheerfully as he opened the door and stepped out to change places. "You'll never be able to get rid of me, Shell. I'm always going to be here, bothering you."

"Coffee shop. The one down the street from the middle school," she mumbled, wiping at her eyes some more.

"…You don't want to talk about it, I take it…"

"No, now hurry the hell up, Kevin. My little brother needs me."

––––––––Stan–––––––

"Hurry up, Stan! Craig and Clyde are catching up!"

Stan continued to run, up to the top of the hill, darting past a few trees, down the hill, past a few trees, up another hill, past, down, up, past, down, down, down, down aaaaaand stomp! He practically fell into the grass, entertaining the notion to just stay there and sleep for the rest of his life.

Kyle, in the grass beside him, sat up and looked around. There were people around them now, cheering, and he looked past to see Clyde and Craig, legs tied together, groaning and slowing to a stop just inches behind the finish line.

"Hey, hey Stan!" he shouted. "We won, Stan!"

Stan looked up from the grass, half-expecting Wendy to come down from the heavens and land in his lap, giving him a big victory kiss. "We won!? Holy shit, dude! I thought Clyde and Craig would beat us for sure!!"

Clyde and Craig collapsed into a collective heap behind them, and Craig merely looked over at them wearily. Breathlessly, he muttered a congratulatory swear and flipped Stan and Kyle off. Clyde, not to be outdone, sat there in the grass and did what he did best – a sarcastic whine and mock bawling of his eyes to fill the not-so awkward and not-so silent silence.

Kyle stumbled to his feet, causing Stan's leg to twist awkwardly. Stan stood to remedy that and nearly fell over all over again, right into Kyle. He saw Wendy in the crowd, looking at him like he was the fastest, most sexiest guy alive, and he felt his chest swell with pride.

"Awwww, shit, you gahs!! We got in last place! Thanks a lot, Kinny!!" Cartman swore as he ran up past the last pair to cross the finish line, dragging a now-dead Kenny behind with him.

"Oh my God, Cartman!! You killed Kenny!!" Stan shouted, his eyes resting in mock-horror at their now very dead, very best immortal friend. "Again," he added lamely.

"You bastard!" Kyle finished, taking a moment to stare at a few rats scurrying out of the woodwork.

Cartman just walked over, drag-drag-dragging Kenny's corpse, now complete with a few rat passengers, along with him. "Now yew listen nyah. If Kinny didn't want to die, he should have kept up with me, gadammit!!!" he shouted, looking over at their ex-friend like he were ready to pummel Kenny's body into an indiscernible pile of flesh and blood and bones.

Kyle glared at him angrily. "Yeah, but there wasn't much of a pace to catch up with, was there, fatass!?"

Stan burst out laughing, and Cartman just grumbled to himself when the other runners all began to laugh at him as well.

Through the crowd, Mr. and Mrs. Broflovski were pushing their way to the clearing where their son was, eager to congratulate him on a job well done. Kyle's face immediately softened, and he looked over at them with absolute innocence etched in his face.

"Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad! We won! Did you see that?? Stan and I won!!"

"Oh, Kyle, I'm so proud of you, bubbe!!" his mother cried, her arms up in the air excitedly. Ike stood next to her, looking just as excited and just as eager to wander off into trouble somewhere.

"Good job, Kyle! And Stan, you were good, too!! You boys did great out there!" his father said, absolute euphoria written across his face, as if he'd been watching something so much greater than a simple three-legged race at the annual summer picnic.

Kyle and Stan looked at each other, grinning and giving each other high fives.

"Now, boys. You'll get the prize money, but I want to take a picture, first. Make it look natural, okay? Over by that tree." He pointed to the tree he wanted, and they both stumbled somewhat wearily to the designated tree, itching to untie the tie around their ankles removed and itching to itch their irritated ankles immediately afterward.

"How are we gonna make it look natural, dude? Should we smile or what?"

Stan shrugged, arm around his best friend's shoulder to make it a bit easier to walk. "I guess we should laugh, dude. …Dude! We could quickly mutter something funny to each other before they snap the picture or something!"

"Oh, okay! Should I make it random or what?"

"Make it random, so I won't expect it. That way it'll be so ridiculous I'll burst out laughing."

"Right, dude," Kyle said.

They both went and stood against a tree, leaning against each other because it was getting so tiring to stand. Kyle put his arm over Stan's as well, groaning wearily.

His father held his hand up, ready with the camera.

"Say cheese, boys!"

The boys both forced a few smiles on their faces and it was at that moment that they both caught a whiff of the other's body odor.

"Ohhhh, dude!! Your pits reek!" they both gagged in unison, before promptly laughing out loud.

Click.

–––––––––––––––

Stan sat there on the curb in front of the coffee shop, feeling completely hopeless. He'd just about run all out of misty-eyed tears, and he was about ready to get started on groaning in anguish.

Never again would he be able to hang out with Kyle. Hell, he wouldn't even be able to hang out with anyone, now! Who would actually hang out with him now that he was gay? Rumors would circulate, people would talk, and pretty soon he'd be reduced to some pervert who jacked off to all of the guys in the locker room.

For the rest of his life, he'd be Stan Marsh, the Fag.

Shelley's off-white piece of shit car went rocketing into the curb, stopping sharply as something ground into the concrete with a metallic crunch. Someone inside shouted something offensive, and another voice – a boy's voice – wailed out an apology.

Stan looked up to see his sister…in the passenger seat. In the driver's seat was Kenny's older brother. He winced and put his head in his hands. "Shiiiiiiit. Shit, shit, SHIT!"

Kevin stumbled out of the car to assess the damages, but Stan was far past the point of concern. When Shelley stumbled out of the car and stormed over to see her license plate bent at an odd angle and a screw still rattling to a stop on the sidewalk, he stood up and stomped over to her.

"Shelley, why is Kevin here?? I mean, are you planning on telling everyone in high school, too?? I was hoping I'd have at least a month there before everyone stopped talking to me, and you ruined it!!"

Shelley gave Kevin a hard shove for good measure before she turned to her brother. "Stan, I needed someone to talk to about that list and how to deal, and Kevin was the only asshole I could trust." She glared over at Kevin's somewhat proud expression. "Though if he goes through life like he drives my car, that trust might break."

She turned back to her brother. "Stan, Kevin's the only other one who knows, I swear."

"Well, yeah, but–"

"Just get in the car. We'll talk about this when we get home."

"But, Shelley–"

"Listen to your mother, Stan," Kevin said jokingly.

Shelley shot him a piercing glare and made a motion like she very much wanted to slam his face into the hood of her car. "Kevin, you aren't helping. I know you joke around to break tension, but shut the fuck up." For the first time since that spat with Kyle, she grabbed her brother's arm, only this time it was more gentle. "Stan, get in the car before you come out in front of everyone in the coffee shop." She sucked in a breath and muttered what she'd sworn she'd never say to her brother, ever.

"Please. Do this for me."

Stan wiped at his eyes and wandered over to the back of the car. Kevin slid into the passenger seat, and Shelley kicked the license plate back to normal and deposited the screw in her jeans pocket before getting in and starting the car.

She sighed and looked at her passengers, the look on her face clearly showing her patience was wearing thin and any inconveniences would be dealt with harshly. "You both better be buckled in by the time I count to three. One. Two–"

"Done," both boys said in unison with two ceremonious clicks and a nervous laugh on Kevin's end.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled out and started down the street.

"Stan," she started, her voice shaky. "You know I'm not one to get all sappy in front of anyone…and you know I'm not one to be nice, but if there is anything you ever need from me…just ask, okay? I mean…are you…" She sighed and sucked in a breath. "A-Are you hungry? We can… go to Burger World and I can order your favorite…"

"No, Shelley," he replied tiredly. "I'm fine."

Her vision became cloudy again, and she clenched the steering wheel tighter as she pulled over to the side of the road. "But Stan," she murmured, "you're not fine. You called me up and sounded almost like you were going to cry, and everyone at school knows you wrote that list…and…and, well…"

"…I know," he whispered, looking down at his knees. He hadn't even bothered to bring his back pack with him, but that was hardly any concern of his.

Shelley was silent for a while, trembling just slightly, and Kevin frowned. "Shell, do you mind if I drive the rest of the way?"

She nodded her head and put on the parking break, and she took off her seat belt to crawl into the back next to her brother. Kevin shifted into the driver's seat and, with a jerky start, picked up where she'd left off. She smoothed down her hair, trying to smooth it down over her face as she sat there beside him, hands going to her knees to grip at the denim.

Kevin drove in utter silence, and soon the sounds of the road and the wind drowned out everything in a blanket of white noise. A sniff broke the silence, and Stan looked over to see his sister's hand rise to her face.

He merely blinked, stunned. Kyle had told him his sister had cried, but he'd never witnessed it, not in the entirety of having been her sibling. "Sh…Shelley," he started. "Why are… Are you crying?"

His sister nodded her head and a small whine came from her lips. "Y…Yes," she murmured. "B-Because all of this is my fault… If I hadn't…If I hadn't invited him over… If I hadn't told him about that picture…" She sucked in a shaky breath and sniffed the snot back up, wiping at the sticky tears blotting her cheeks.

"I let him into our house," she whispered, her voice tinted with just as much anger as sorrow.

His jaw clenched. He knew exactly who she was talking about. The same prick who'd been trying to get as much dirt on him as possible for the past five years. The same prick Henrietta had been bitching about for the past year.

"Shelley," he hissed, tight-lipped. "You may have been the one stupid enough to have told him about that picture, but he's the prick that searched that list out. Don't blame yourself for that, Shelley. Blame that God damn…" He trailed off into a flurry of angry curses, and put his head in his hands.

After a while, he took a deep breath. His voice had lost its spark. "But none of that matters anymore… What's done is done… I mean…look at what I have to look forward to! I have shit. No friends, no peace of mind, no privacy. Not a damn thing. I can't let Mom or Dad find out, but I also can't count on the other kids' parents not finding out and telling ours. So what if I like Kyle? That's over. He hangs out with Stan the Fag, he instantly becomes marked as gay, too. Just because he associated me after knowing how I fucking feel about him. There's no way he's going to hang out with me now. All of my old friends now hate me, and my chances of making new ones are gone, too. For the rest of my life, I will be seen as Stan the Fag."

Kevin finally glanced back at him. "I just see Stan."

Stan's throat dried and he swallowed the lump in his throat. That was something he'd needed to hear. He shook his head and thickly said, "…I know you do, b-but the other kids–"

"Being gay doesn't define you as a person," Shelley said. She looked over at him, clearing her throat. "In an entire school filled with kids…there's got to be at least one who'll look past all of that and just see you for who you are. You can only ever be you."

There was a loud bump from the front of the car, and the right side of the car seemed to go up on a boot-sized bump of a hill. Kevin snorted and looked out his rear view mirror. "You know, Stan. This day could be a lot worse."

Stan looked up at him, desperate for some comforting words. "Yeah, like how?"

"Well…you could've been that cat I just ran over."

The Marsh siblings both looked out the back window to see a crumpled heap of a Balinese lying in the road. Shelley pinched the bridge of her nose in time with her brother.

She seethed and turned back to the front. "Pull over, Kevin. That was the second cat you've hit since you got behind the wheel."

Stan cursed. "Ah, shit, dude. That was the Creevers' cat…"

"What!?" Shelley looked back to double-check before looking back at Kevin. "Kevin," she hissed. "You are so washing the remains off my tires!! They'll be throwing a bitchfit for months!!"

A loud, metallic grind and a sudden uphill incline alerted them to an addition of a mailbox in Kevin's list of victims.

"Oh, like hell I'm getting blamed for that!!" Shelley cried as Kevin muttered a swear under his breath.

"So-rry! I didn't see it, I swear, Shell! It's the mailbox's fault for being in the middle of the road, anyway!"

"You're halfway on the sidewalk, you dumbass!"

Amidst their argument,

––––––––Henrietta––––––––

"Don't break the stage when you fall," an obnoxiously melodic voice quipped as she passed by them.

"Don't break their eyes either, when you go out in that leotard, fatass," one of the girl's friends giggled.

The group of four erupted into laughter as she walked by, eager to get out of her leotard and out of ballet.

Third grade. Her mother suggested ballet as a great way to let her creativity out in something beautiful, something everyone could watch and praise her for. Just to humor her mother, she looked into it. She joined.

She told herself it didn't sting every time someone made fun of her weight. She told herself it didn't hurt, like a mantra singing in her head.

But it did.

It hurt a lot.

She hadn't known Thorne and Peter then. It had only been Nicholas, her only friend she'd been able to talk to. With his absolute, no-one-gets-in stand-offishness, she took it upon herself to see if she could try. And, to her surprise, she did. The first time she spoke to him, it sparked an awkward kinship between them.

"How do you manage to not care what anyone says about you?"

"What's it to you?"

"I'm interested. I've seen you around."

"Nice shirt, conformist. Get it at the GAP?"

"Nice nose, dick. Get it from that troll of a mother of yours?"

Weeks later, he stopped ignoring her when she'd casually say hello to him. He started chatting to her normally. Shortly after that, they started talking rather than chatting. They got beneath the surface:

"How do you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Stop caring what people say."

"You never stop caring. They make a quip about my nose, I still care. It's just a matter of how I look at it now. Yeah, I care what they say. But does it matter what they think? Does anything matter?"

"Maybe it does. You don't know that."

"I don't care about maybe. When it comes right down to it, maybe is just another word for hope. Hope is useless. There's no sense in hoping."

She took up smoking. It calmed her down, helped her relax. She started having an interest in drinking coffee. Strong black coffee; she gradually weaned herself off of milk and sugar. She stopped caring what she wore, she stopped caring how her hair looked. She'd go to school with bed-hair and the clothes at the back of her closet, the things that were too hideous to wear. Nothing was too hideous to wear, not anymore.

And then, a ballet recital.

"My dad's not coming," she muttered to him the day before "her big night". She took a drag from her cigarette. "He said he would, but he won't. He never does what he says he will. He just drinks himself to sleep on the couch. He's not coming."

"Lame," Nicholas remarked. "He sounds just like my mom."

She frowned and looked back at the ground. "I just wish he cared, you know? But he doesn't. If he did, he'd make time for me."

Nicholas remained silent, simply nodding his head, as she took another drag.

"I just want someone who didn't put me up to this there for me. Is that so much to ask for? The Britney wannabes in my ballet class make freaking stomping sounds and pretend there's an earthquake every time I take a single step. Every time I mess up step, they make this big deal about it after they go so far as to fall flat on their face. It fucking hurts. All I want is for my Dad to be there for me for once, and he can't even do that. Instead he'd rather go drink with his buddies down at the bar.

"…I keep waiting to stop caring," she murmured, "but it never happens. I still care."

Nicholas finally spoke up, staring right at her. "Didn't I tell you already? You never stop caring. You just start to realize it doesn't matter." He sighed, rolling his eyes at the sky. "…Look… …You need to meet my friends."

She looked at him, just slightly hurt that she didn't seem to count. "You have more friends?"

"Thorne and Peter. I've known Thorne since first grade, Peter for about five months."

"Well, that's only one month longer than you've known me. Do I not count yet or something?"

"Mhn." Nicholas took another drag from his cigarette but didn't answer her question.

After a brief moment, he looked over at her, his face expressionless. "Recital's going to be at the school, right?"

"Yeah, obviously. Wish it wasn't, though. I hate that place."

"Psh. Tell me about it. Wish I could burn the building down."

And then, like that, it was opening night – the night she would never forget as long as she lived. The night her dad wouldn't show up, the night her mom would embarrass her by clapping loudly for her and remarking to every person who sat next to her that she was her daughter, the night she'd fall flat on her face, the night everyone would laugh at her for being the fat girl with no coordination.

Everything would roll smoothly into disaster like that.

What sounded like a commercial jingle, coming from a little antique piano towards the side of the stage, began to sound – the asinine tune that had haunted her dreams for the past two months, and would surely haunt her for years to come, playing louder and louder – and the dancers began their awkward and jerky chassé's onto the stage.

She was last. Of course, to make her stick out even more.

She stumbled onto the stage awkwardly, turning to try and see her father's face in the crowd, but the lights were too bright. The audience was drowned out, and she could only see the deep blue of the very edge of the back wall. She could make out the figures of people standing by the wall.

Three shapes – a long, thin one, a medium-sized blob, and a tiny little dot. What appeared to be little tiny streams of smoke curled up over them, and she immediately knew who they were.

He'd fucking come.

Nicholas, the kid who tried to avoid the school whenever possible, had come. And he'd brought his friends, too.

Her face flushed red and she came to a complete stop, mouth open, unable to believe it. That prick who shut everyone else out: he'd let her in. She was in, she was included, she was a friend he wanted to support.

The other girls started back toward her. The closest girl bumped into her and went tumbling backward, knocking the others over like dominoes. The very last girl fell flat on her back and shouted out something in pain, and that infernal tune came to a screeching halt as the audience erupted in whispers and the pianist looked over to see what had gone wrong.

"Ow, what the hell, fatty??" the girl who'd bumped into her hissed, low enough to not be heard by anyone but her.

"Serves you right," Henrietta murmured listlessly, as if in a trance.

And then she walked off the stage.

She didn't need this shit.

She didn't even care when she found out later her father didn't show up, or that they'd wound up grounding her for disrupting the performance and angering all the other girls' parents.

None of it mattered.

Not when she had Nicholas.

––––––––––––––––

Lunch ended, and Henrietta wouldn't stop nagging Cartman.

After school, as he stood beside Craig's locker, oblivious to how annoyed Craig was getting with how he wouldn't shut the hell up about the money he now owed him and how crowded it was starting to get around his locker, she stormed over toward him, her friends right behind her.

"Cartman, you said something about a note. I want to see it."

The fatass looked over and sneered. "I already told you, Goth bitch, I'm not showing you that fucking note! So nyah!!"

Henrietta glanced back at her friends before looking back at Cartman.

"You'll give me that note or we'll tear you to shreds."

"Why do you gahs want it, anyway!?" Cartman snapped, crossing his arms over his chest.

"To see if I recognize the handwriting."

The two in the back looked at her, and Cartman looked back to Henrietta with a smile on his face. He found that very funny. He tried his hardest not to laugh, covering his mouth with his hands. He regained his composure, laughter still tainting his voice. "You three will tear me to shreds if I don't give you that note…so you can read it," he repeated in disbelief.

"That's right," Henrietta snapped. "You saw me kick Wendy's ass. I'll fuck you up worse than she ever could."

Ah, and that stung even worse. He'd had his ass handed to him by Wendy, and Wendy was now sporting a bob haircut courtesy of Henrietta's friends and her forgetfulness to tie her hair back during the fight. Bebe's face was swollen like a prune – the thought of his looking like that again made him sick to his stomach.

"If you give me something in return, maybe I'll give it to you."

He refused to back down, though. He was Eric Cartman, not a pussy.

Henrietta glanced back at her friends, and they stared back at her, waiting for her to do something. Finally, she looked back at him.

"My bra."

Cartman gagged. "Ew!! Gross! That's just sick!! I don't have a warehouse to store it in!!"

"Wendy's bra," she wagered, raising an eyebrow at him. "I will give you Wendy's bra if you give me that note."

"You don't have Wendy's bra," Cartman sneered.

An aggravated sigh behind them caused them all to turn around. Craig was holding up a thong casually, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. "God, if I give you Wendy's thong will you all go away? My locker is not a café to hang out in front of."

Cartman's jaw dropped. "How did you–"

"Clyde suggested a panty raid and I had nothing better to do."

Henrietta's curiosity overshadowed her disgust. "Yeah, but why do you have it at–"

"I carry it around with me."

Thorne leaned over to Peter, eyebrows raising in awe. "If Nick screws us over, we can always start hanging out with this guy…" Peter just shuddered.

Craig tossed the thong over Cartman's head, successfully passing them off to Henrietta. She caught them and shook the thong gingerly in the air, quirking a brow at Cartman. "Do we have a deal, Eric?"

After a long two seconds of thinking it over, Cartman muttered something about black assholes and nodded his head. He shuffled over to his locker, pulled out a piece of paper he had stuck to the inside of the door, and gave it to her.

He yanked the thong from her, gathered his things, and headed off to go home and spend some very private time thinking over what a great deal he'd just made.

Over by Craig's locker, Clyde glared at his best friend. "What were you doing with a pair of Bebe's panties?"

"Studying the enemy," was all Craig said.

Henrietta looked at the paper as her friends shuffled over toward her, looking around her arms at the scribbled, angry cursive penned ruthlessly on the sheet.

"Oh, fuck," Thorne winced.

"It's his handwriting," Peter whispered.

Henrietta's grip on the paper tightened, and then her face flushed red. Her lips parted, and a single word issued dangerously from her lips–

"Nicholas."