Before I could call my mission complete, I had to be absolutely certain that I had fit every single piece into place. I had fully accepted that anything my parents could possibly tell me might haunt me for the rest of my life, but I'd rather be haunted by fact and not by regret for not taking the initiative to ever ask.

When I woke up, the morning after the last group of previously insane had been released from the asylum, I stared up at the light blue ceiling of Red's bedroom and played my day out in front of me. My eyes scanned spots on the ceiling with each detail as I played my own projectionist. No matter what order I put the priorities in, speaking to my parents came first.

I waited for my girlfriend to wake up, almost pushing everything else right out of my head as she did, her hair all tangled and skin glowing, her eyes and smile a fond reflection of the night before. (Man, she had been on.) Red started to glide her soft right hand over my chest, and she cuddled up closer to me to kiss me just above the ear and say a melodic, "Good morning."

"'Mornin'," I grinned, turning to kiss her. Her lips lacked gloss but tasted like peppermint all the same. God, who needs drugs if girls like this exist, am I right?

Red let out a satisfied hum, then twined her fingers between mine. Resting her head in the pocket of my shoulder, her hair splayed out over my skin, she asked, "Plan today?"

"Kinda," I confessed. "Gotta go see my parents and stuff. Me 'n' the guys've got some cleanup to do, after that."

"Aww," Red mock-groaned. After a beat, she asked me, "Want me to come with you to see your parents?"

I felt a sting in my chest at the mere thought of that. Not only did I not really want Red to meet my parents (since they'd be horribly inappropriate in many different ways), I really didn't want her to have to hear whatever it was they were going to say, since it'd be about my curse, and therefore nothing she'd yet be able to understand. I wanted to tell her every truth about my life, but it had to be piece by piece. I had to tell her in just the right way, and that was something else I'd been methodically working out in my head over the past couple of days. But at that point, that morning, I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted it to go.

Red wasn't upset, though, when I told her, "Thanks, baby, but I'd rather do this alone. All I'm doing is telling them what's up and moving out for good."

"That's fine," my girlfriend said. "I think you're making the right choice, Kenny. You're really smart to know what you can and can't handle, and stuff."

"Mm. Thanks, Red."

"Mmhmm! So, I'm totally fine sticking around here, stuff to do for Mom and Dad anyway. Karen's gonna try to follow you, I bet," she warned.

"You think?"

"She idolizes you, Kenny," Red laughed. "I think it's sweet."

"You jealous?" I ventured, joking.

"Of your sister?" Red laughed. "No. I get you one way, she's got you for another." Kissing me again, she added, "Fair trade."

I confined a laugh myself, rolled Red onto her back, and leaned in—citrus, peppermint, glowing, perfect—to taste her lips again and tell her, "I love you so fucking much."

"God, Kenny," my girlfriend said, draping her arms around my neck, "I missed you like crazy when I had no idea where you were. Or, maybe I shouldn't say 'like crazy…'"

"It's fine." In light of recent events, though, she was right. I hadn't thought of that, but a lot of people would probably be watching how they tossed around that word now.

"You still haven't told me," Red went on as I traced her left cheekbone with little kisses, which she'd admitted a fondness for, "what you—mmm—what you did to—mmhh—help Mysterion and the League."

"You wanna know?" I said, nipping her neck.

"Unless it's to… or, well… no. No, I do. I'm curious!"

"Well, I'm kinda under this silence contract right now," I made up on the spot, which got Red pouting, "but," I added, kissing her till she smiled, "tonight, the League's gonna make a statement about the crisis. I'll be around, so I'll find you after, okay?"

"Okay," Red conceded with a witty smirk. "So… so, I know you were rallying, but like, you actually worked with the League?" I'd told her I had, the night before, but it was right before we got on with the foreplay so I'd kind of forgotten that I had, and assumed that she'd forgotten, too.


"So… Jesus, what's with Mysterion and all his secrets…?" Red wondered.

"If a guy calls himself 'Mysterion,' babe," I laughed, "I'm sure there's a reason."

"Oh, shut up," Red teased, smacking my shoulder playfully.

We fell into the last deep, deep kiss of the morning, then went on preparing for the day. I allowed her the shower first (we hadn't showered together yet… probably best to try that out at the base first and just not tell anyone) (sorry, guys), and met her once I'd finished mine down in the kitchen, where Red, Karen, and Red's mom made me eat a bagel. I hadn't even realized I was nervous about talking to my parents until I figured out I wasn't hungry.

I consented to half of the bagel, smothered in cream cheese, then slung back some orange juice before kissing my girlfriend see you later for the day, thanking her parents again, and heading out the door. Where my sister promptly intercepted me. "What're you doing?" she asked.

"I, uh…" I dug out my cell phone, hoping she wouldn't follow me to our old house. "I was about to call Token," I decided. "I've gotta talk to him real quick to get his parents' okay on you living at the base with me, sis, okay? Go back inside."

"Eat the rest of your bagel," Karen insisted. In her hands was the other half of my breakfast, lying on a paper towel. She wouldn't let it go, and pouted at me until I took the thing, which I gratefully bit into while she smiled, glad she'd done something good.

While Karen was right there, I went ahead and made the call to Token; I spoke briefly to his mother, as well, who was the one to grant me the final okay. I thanked her and promised we'd both do our part with cleaning, or making grocery runs, or whatever they needed done. It was already assumed and agreed that I didn't need them to feed me, I made enough money to keep getting food for myself (though now with Karen it might be a little harder, but my sister understood our needs, and with this crisis behind us, it was actually a kind of fortunate time for her to be looking for a part-time job… to view the aftermath one way), so that much was taken care of. I'd only be there another year, and besides, I was always welcomed at Red's. Karen probably would be, too, and I knew she wouldn't mind a night or two on a pull-out couch now and then.

Once I'd hung up, I told Karen that I was leaving, and asked her to head back inside to see if Red's family needed more of her help. I should not have used the word 'family' right there, because Karen caught on to where exactly I was going the moment I'd made it to the driveway.

"Hold on!" she called after me. "Kenny, I'm coming with you!"

"No, kid, stay here," I said.

"Kenny, you're going to see Mom and Dad, aren't you?" she wondered.

"I…" I couldn't lie to Karen; "yeah. Yeah, I am, but you shouldn't come, okay? They've gotten worse since you left, it's really bad at that house, Karen, I don't want you to have to see—"

Karen refused by grabbing onto my arm, the way she'd done when we were kids. "I'm going," she protested. "You and me are family, Kenny. If I'm gonna do right as your Guardian Angel, I need to know what you really want to be guarded from."

"Right, Karen, and that's what I'm saying about you," I argued. "I'm older, I know what's up, I'm fine. I want you to be protected from this crap that—"

"We do this together, Kenny!" Karen insisted. "We are family and we protect each other."

"You're not gonna want to move back once you see Mom?" I asked her.

Karen glanced up at me. "Is that what you're afraid of?"

"Kinda, yeah."

"I won't, I promise."

Karen's intensity for wanting to help was admirable, but she was still quite a kid. There were plenty of things I still wanted to protect her from. She was both young and sensitive; I hoped that whatever our parents would have to say wouldn't hurt her too much. The more I thought about it, as we walked, though, I was kind of grateful she was tagging along. I'd probably be able to have a little more resolve, knowing that I wouldn't want her to hurt too badly from the truth we were both about to hear.

Of course, that got me wondering exactly how Karen knew the truth in the first place. She had been the one to speak the second couplet when I was trapped in the Gate, about to die. My sister had been the one to bargain me alive. "Karen," I started to ask, "how did you know about the couplet?"

We were taking the back way to our old house, and therefore far from wandering ears. Our two sets of boots trod the only visible path through the light dusting of snow we'd gotten the night before, making the walk feel even more final. We were the only ones taking the path there, and we were the only ones who'd walk that line back. But for now, with only the trees as company in the path behind the clean suburban lawns, Karen and I could talk about more than just normal family issues.

"The one in the Necronomicon?" Karen wondered. I nodded, and simultaneously wondered how much longer that word would ever even be spoken, or if we'd still have to worry about cults and Yuggoth. "Your Goth friend read it to me."

"Henrietta?" I guessed.

"Yeah, her. Well, so we had those two other Goths staying at the safehouse, right? Somewhere around the last hour of you guys being in R'lyeh," Karen explained, watching the puffs of her breath evaporate up into the air, "her wire went out. So I got my gear on real fast, because the Goths don't really talk to me but they talk to the Guardian Angel—" —I kind of laughed, picturing those two nonconformists figuring out what was up with another hero akin to Mysterion— "and the flippy red-hair guy let me use his cell phone to call her." Karen paused, then shook her head and said, "He had, like, the weirdest phone wallpaper. Anyway, I called your friend at the base and she asked if I could still get through to you since I was the only one left wearing a wire."


My sister nodded again. "Henrietta, that's her name right? Henrietta," she continued once I'd confirmed her question, "said there was more you could explain to me later, but she said you were the only one who could beat Cthulhu and that maybe the only way you could live was through that second couplet."

"Holy shit," I breathed out. "Sorry." If there's one person I try not to swear around, it's my little sister. Example setting, you know. But that one instance: no, really. Holy shit. The fact that Karen had handled it all so sweetly and calmly, too, was far more than admirable. She'd really grown into a strong young woman, naïve as she could still sometimes be. Karen didn't fear much anymore, huh? I'd keep her under my wing all the same. "Karen, that's amazing," I complimented her. "What you did is amazing."

"What you did is better," she tried to pass it off.

I shook my head. "Sis, you heard some weird stuff about me," I said. "You just jumped into all this and helped save everything. I am so damn lucky you're my sister."

Karen's face lit up, and we paused for a couple minutes when she turned to hug me. While her face was buried in my parka, Karen muffled out the question I knew she would ask: "So… what are you, Kenny?"

She had to know the whole truth, especially before I confronted my parents about it. So while the two of us stood there—brother and sister, Kenny and Karen, Mysterion and the Guardian Angel—I told her everything. I spoke slowly and confidently so as not to disturb her too much with the details. I told her that the Cult of Cthulhu had cursed me in the womb, and that the curse had bound me to the Dark God, Cthulhu, as his Shadow, an entity written of in the Necronomicon. That I had been destined to be the Old Ones' Messenger, but that my refusal of the position had been the first step to letting me destroy Cthulhu, the Gate, and R'lyeh itself. Very calmly, I told Karen about my deaths. I told her about the one that still didn't seem real, the first one, when I was four, and about my troubles with death from the time when I was eight years old, up until only a few weeks ago. And how I wouldn't see death again until the very, very end, because I was no longer Immortal.

"You just kept coming back?" Karen asked, astounded.

"Yeah… and that's the thing," I admitted. "I don't know how."

"But you beat Cthulhu!"

"Right. I just have a feeling that maybe what's left of the Cult might know and they just never told me. And," I added, resolute, "I have an even bigger feeling that Mom and Dad know, maybe even more than the Cult would."

Karen's eyes widened. "Why Mom and Dad?"

"Because they've always seemed like they've been hiding something from me," I said. "Mom sure as hell can't hide it well anymore. I'm going to get that information out of them today, Karen. That's why things might get really ugly once we get there."

Karen grabbed hold of my arm, and we continued walking. "I'm not afraid," she said, almost under her breath, as our boots began to crunch into messy underbrush below the snow and frost. "You shouldn't be, either. You're smarter than them."

I thanked my sister, gave her a little more added reassurance, then clammed up for the rest of the walk. My heart started drumming arrhythmically against my chest the closer that shack came into view, the closer I came to having the confrontation of my familial life. My last interaction with my parents. I'd better learn what I'd been needing to know; that was the only thing I could focus on.

When Karen and I stood on the front step, I considered calling rather than knocking, just so I wouldn't even have to touch a single door or wall of that building again, but remembered that my parents probably hadn't paid the phone bill and that the effort would be pointless. Glancing Karen over to make sure she looked clean and presentable (which she did much more now than she ever had when Mom was dressing her, when we were kids), I took in a deep breath, formulated every question I could think of in my mind, and knocked.

The yelling began.

"You get it!" my mother started shouting. "I'm sick 'n' tired of you not doin' a Goddamn thing 'round here!"

"Don't tell me what to do, bitch!" my father hollered back. Karen looked disturbed, but did not flinch. She let go of my arm and took a step to the side, allowing me room to be the first to have to say anything. "Get your ass over there!"

"God, you're such an asshole!"

A few seconds later, the door opened, revealing my dissheveled mother. Her hair looked like it hadn't been brushed in days. She wore a thin green sweatshirt open over a white tank top, and her skin reflected the fact that her choice in clothing was not the best in this frigid weather. Her flannel pajama pants followed her feet into a pair of Dad's old boots, laceless and worn. On her face was the most dreary expression I had ever seen. As if something had just sucked the life right out of her. Her eyes were red, as if she'd been crying for a solid week, and the bags under her eyes seemed to hollow out all of her other features.

I hadn't known what to expect. Honestly, I was betting on her yelling at me. But Mom was exhausted. Not high, not hungover, just exhausted. The first word out of her mouth was, "Oh." Followed by, "What're you doin' here, Kenny?"

"Came to ask you a couple questions," I said.

"Like what?" Mom asked. Her voice wasn't so much cold as it was blank.

"Mind if I step inside?"

"What're you askin'?" she wanted to know.

"Is that Kenny?" Dad hollered over.


"Tell him to get his ass in here!"

"Oh, don't get me wrong," I said, raising my tone so my dad could hear as well. "I'm not staying. I'm still outta here, now that I really can move out for good."

My mother rolled her eyes. "You're gonna come back, Kenny, I keep tellin' ya. You keep on runnin', but—"

"But what?" I spat. "That's what I want to talk to you about, Mom. Dad, too. Can I come in or not?"

My mother cast up an awfully forlorn stare, then chewed the inside of her cheek and stepped aside. "By the way," I added as I entered, "you're not just gonna be answering questions for me."

"Oh, no?"

"No. I brought Karen, too."

"Karen?" For a fleeting instant, Mom lit up. A flush of pink came over her weather-blued pallor, and when my sister stepped inside, Mom repeated her name, ecstatic this time: "Karen! Oh, my little daughter, you came home!"

Karen shirked away. She hadn't seen hide nor hair of Mom or Dad in years. And while she'd greeted me fondly after our long absence, she now saw even more of the wrong that would have befallen her had she remained here in South Park those three years she'd been gone and living comfortably in Utah. "Hi," Karen said, strongly but evasively. "I'm not here to stay. I'm just here to support Kenny."

"That Karen?" Our dad, who had been lazily sprawled on the spring-trapped dump treasure of a sofa, stood and, as Mom shut the door, approached us after pounding back the rest of the beer he'd been working on. "Karen, what you been doin' in Utah? How come you never called, huh?"

"I didn't want to," said Karen. Her voice was getting more defensive by the second. "Plus, I forgot if we even had a phone here. Moving there was the best idea of my life, so I want Kenny to be able to move, too."

"You movin' to Utah, Kenny?" Mom wondered.

"No, just to a better place." Take the bait, take the bait, take the bait, you bitch…

She did. Hugging her arms around her, Mom hunched over a little and repeated, "Better place?" She looked me over, cast her eyes heavenward, then chewed the inside of her cheek again as she gave me another scrutinizing look over.

"Yeah," I said, holding my ground. "Now, what do you think I mean by that?"

"Oh, shit," said my father, keeping his distance. "See, Carol?" he then spat over at my mom. "I told you this'd be the last one. What with you gettin' sick and all."

"You're sick?" I wondered. Mom sure looked it.

"I was." She waved it off. "I'm better now. Couple days ago, I just got better."


Mom shook her head. "So was it the last one?" she asked me.

"Last what?"

"Oh I bet you know by now. Better place an' all…"

"Yeah, better place," I snapped, folding my arms in defiance against them. This was it. No pussyfooting. I was getting answers and I was getting them now. My parents were the last two people on Earth I'd ever want to have small talk with. Talking to them was fucking painful, and not because I felt any attachment. Just because they were so embarrassing, infuriating, and just… difficult. "I found a new house to live in," I translated. Mom and Dad began taking steps toward each other, until we were locked in a good old staredown. Them against us. "What'd you think I meant?"

They didn't respond. Only stared.

"You think I mean Heaven?" I guessed, pointing up.


"Well, what?" I hollered. "You wanna know where I went the last few times I've died? Purgatory. Hell. I've even been to R'lyeh. I really, really rarely get all the way to Heaven."

Mom's tired eyes went wide and bloodshot. That wasn't a woman; that was a husk. That shell couldn't house a heavy secret anymore. "Kenny," she began, slowly, "how do you know about…"

"I know a whole hell of a lot!" I said firmly. I was trying not to shout, since that would just be stooping to their level, but I had to affirm myself. "I know I was cursed, all right? I know that you two went to a Cthulhu Cult meeting right before I was born. And I know exactly how many times I have died! And exactly how many times I've woken up right back here. Care to explain?"

"Oh, Jesus, oh, God, it's happened…" Mom whispered. "You know about it…"

"Who told you?" Dad wondered. He was starting to look worried. "It was that mystery… that Mysterion guy, wasn't it? That guy's been stalkin' around here for years!"

"Yeah, Mysterion told me almost everything I need to know," I decided on saying. "There's just one detail I never got.

"So go. Tell me everything," I demanded, staring my parents down, taking a real stand against them for the first time in my life. "Tell me the truth this time. Why you went to that meeting. Why you never went back. And tell me, right now, Mom, if you remember every single time I died."

My parents froze, and then exchanged an awful glance. Tears pooled in my mother's eyes, and my dad, in a rare show of affection, clamped a hand on her shoulder. "We… we went because they were offering free beer," Dad answered.

"That was your answer before," I snapped.

Dad sighed. He'd been throwing his weight around earlier, but this wasn't a subject he seemed to be able to dismiss very easily. "And it still is, Kenny. We wanted to get drunk. Really, really drunk."

"Why?" I shouted. "Mom was pregnant with me at the time, why—"

Wait. Oh, fuck, I'd wanted to hear the truth, but I hadn't wanted to hear this.

My sister drew in a horrified gasp behind me as it dawned on her, too.

"Because," Mom screamed, finally snapping, "we couldn't afford the abortion!"

That was it…?

That was the truth I'd been waiting seventeen years to hear?


My parents really were horrible people, if that was their idea of a plausible solution to something. I hadn't been wanted. I hadn't been meant to live. I, a child my parents tried in every stupid way possible to kill in the womb, had ended up doomed to a life filled with death. A life none of us could escape from. Not me, not my parents. Not even my deadbeat brother. No wonder he never had anything to say to me. The brother he was never meant to have.

Kenny McCormick. The accident.

Fuck. FUCK.

Nobody should ever hear that kind of shit from their parents. Nobody. But to me it just really hit hard.

Karen took hold of my sleeve and took a step closer, to give me her support; to guard me against them. I glanced back to see that she'd started crying, but she wasn't carrying on. She was just letting it out quietly. I was sure she'd break down later for having heard the awful truth, but for now, she was showing incredible steadfastness. The touch helped.

At least one member of the family cared. At least I had meant something to someone. At least the accident had grown up to do something right.

But still. I was enraged. Horrified, mortified, terrified. How the fuck could anyone do that, let alone admit to it? Then again… I'd wanted to know…

"We couldn't even think about havin' another baby after Kevin," Mom went on. "So I fig'red if I did enough stupid shit we wouldn't have to worry… maybe even get away with just a stillborn."

"You… you tried to kill me?" I found the strength to say. It felt like the entire town had gone silent. My life had been plagued with death, all because my parents were too stupid and too poor to care for a second child. The thought just would not leave. From that night on, it never would. "You fucking bastards, you didn't want me?"

"That stupid Cult said they'd take care of everythin'. You were never s'posed to be alive at all!" Mom drawled through her heaving sobs. "We had you, though, and when I saw you I just couldn't put you up for adoption! We even kept you away from the Cult. They kept invitin' us to meetings to check up on you. We couldn't really survive, but we raised you and loved you. But then when you were little, you were taken away.

"I watched you die, and we couldn't even pay for a good funeral."

"I tried to tell her it was for the best," Dad admitted, "but then, a little while later…"

"There you were again," Mom finished. "Only I never needed nine months after that. Usually just about nine minutes."

"What?" I prompted.

"You know exactly how many times you woke up back here?" Mom drawled out.


"Well, so do I." Her bloodshot eyes hardened as she made herself stop crying. "Because I brought you back. Every single time."

"Wait—" I said, for clarification, "you mean I—"

"You've been born just one time more'n every time you've died!" My mother grabbed her stomach with both hands, and hollered, "That damn Cult cursed you t' make you one-a them Immortals, and they cursed my Goddamn womb like a fuckin' portal or somethin'!"

Mom drew in a shaking breath, and was succeeding in looking remorseful. She wasn't getting a shred of pity, though, not from me. "That's how you kept comin' back, Kenny. I kept bringin' you back over 'n' over 'n' over again!"

"That's how it went," said Dad. "You just kept dyin', and you kept on comin' back."

"That's why we tried to save you whenever we could!" Mom shouted, barely able to contain herself. "Just so we wouldn't actually have to see you die again. It was such a curse…"

"A curse…?" I repeated, my voice coming out much more feebly than I wanted. The Mythos I could take. My parents' confession, though, was something else. "A… a curse? You put up with the rebirth of the child you never wanted for seventeen years, and you call that a curse? What about me? What about the kid actually feeling all that pain? You didn't even want me… was it the curse that I kept coming back?"

"But we learned to love you, Kenny!"

"You don't love me!" I shouted. "You obviously don't, if you never told me this before."


"Just shut up."

I held my tongue for a few seconds, and just tried to process. And found that I couldn't. Maybe I'll never be able to fully wrap my head around it. But I knew the truth. I knew the gritty, horrible truth. Looking at it one way, though, I had never had better reason to abhor my parents.

I'd never been happier to have blonde hair and blue eyes. Two traits neither of my parents had. Even if it was a mark from the curse, I didn't care. My parents were the fucking curse more than anything. I was the accident to end all accidents. The kid my parents never wanted… the kid they ended up never being able to get rid of.

But that still begged the question:

"If you didn't want me," I growled, "then what about Karen?"


"What about Karen?" I hollered.

"Kenny, no…" my mother tried.

"The whole truth, Mom," I snapped. I was so done. I wanted out of there. I wanted to get the hell out of there for good and comfort my sister and smother my girlfriend with the reasons why I loved her and vent out everything to the guys in the League. No more of that twice-cursed shack. Nope. Done. So I just sped right through my questions, and I would not take no for an answer. "Were you in a better place to have her? Did you figure I was just this pox on your life that you couldn't get rid of so you figured you'd try again? What?"

"I want to know, too," Karen sniffed. "All you've ever done is hurt Kenny."

"No, sweetheart, we tried," Mom drawled out. "You're my little girl, Karen, we—"

"How come you loved me and never Kenny?" my sister screamed.

"Oh, for shit's sake," Dad muttered, rolling his eyes. "Carol, tell 'em."

"She's too young!" Mom fought him.

"Fine, I'll say it! Karen was a mistake, too."

"Oh, my GOD!" Karen screamed, covering her ears. "I hate you! I hate you!"

"Karen…" I tried, stroking her back to comfort her.

"She was not!" Mom shouted, slapping my father across the face, hard. Karen winced at the noise the slap produced, and I hugged her closer. "I wanted a daughter, you bastard, but—"

"You only did after the doctor said it was a girl," Dad grumbled. "And that was in the fuckin' delivery room. Right after…" He trailed off.

"What?" I demanded. "After what?"

"Oh, God, oh, Jesus," Mom started to cry. "Kenny, no… no, you don't wanna know…"

"YES, I DO!" I shouted, covering Karen's ears when she winced again. "Karen's the only family I swear to God I've ever really had, so you tell me why the fuck you thought it'd be okay for you to go on and have another kid after all the shit you went through with ignoring and not wanting me!"


"Look, I don't know if I could possibly hate you two any more than I already do," I snapped, "but I love my little sister and—"

"Well, for good reason," Dad said tensely.

"Why's that?"

"She's not just your little sister, Kenny," Mom finally gave in, looking an absolute mess. "She's kind of your twin."

"WHAT?" I roared. Karen winced behind me, wide-eyed.

My parents both hung their heads, shamed into the truth. Into dealing with their many follies all at once. One last time for me and my sister… but I could only hope that the two of them would really wallow with those crosses they'd made themselves bear forever. "First time you died, you were four years old," Mom repeated, as if I didn't know.

"Right. How the fuck does that work out?" I spat.

"Karen's four years younger'n you." Swear to God my heart stopped. "First time you came back, Kenny, it was just a couple hours before her due…"

My sister and I backed away together, and I held her tightly. Shit. Fuck. God, this was much, much more than I thought I was going to get. Too much to process. Too much to handle. "Shut up," I said to my mother. "We're done. Just one more question."

"Is Karen cursed, too?"

I glared at my mother, who immediately shook her head no. Thank God. "That was about the only time we ever checked in with the Cult. I didn't want my daughter bearin' any kinda curse, too, after—"

"Right," Karen sobbed, "because one cursed kid was enough, and you'd already had it with two mistakes."

"Karen, sweetheart—"

"Don't 'sweetheart' me!" Karen yelled at our mother. "You two are very, very selfish people. I hope you know that."

"Come on," I said to Karen. "Come on, we're leaving."

"Kenny, we're sorry!" Mom tried.

I just glared at her. For all of the lies. For all her years of knowing about my curse and covering it up. For keeping secrets from Karen. For just failing to understand that family meant trust.

I had nothing more to say to Stuart or Carol McCormick. So I didn't utter a word.

Not even goodbye.

– – –

Once we were out of there, I did the only thing I could think to do: I called a meeting. I texted everyone as Karen and I made our quick, silent way to the base, taking the main roads and leaving every other path behind us.

No more going back there. Ever. No having to deal with that shit.

At least I knew. At least I finally knew. I was a product of hate as well as the product of a disgusting Cult curse. But I had become more than that, and would strive to become more still.

Everyone responded within seconds of my sending out the simple text of: Meeting. Now. I know more about the curse. By the time I got to the base, everyone had already gathered, and I pushed them back into the meeting room. Karen didn't mind not getting a formal welcome or tour; she probably figured she'd get one eventually, but she shared almost my every feeling about the situation with our parents.

So my first rebirth had been on the same day Karen was born. I couldn't remember much of my life as a toddler (who does, really?), but after becoming a big brother, things got vivid in my head. I knew I'd always been looking out for her.


Maybe she really was an angel. Or something. Or we were just meant to be that close as siblings. She'd been there when I'd been brought back the first time… and she, not my mother, not anyone in the League or the Cult… she had been the one to read out the couplet that allowed me to live now.

The meeting table was full up within seconds. Clyde took the head only momentarily to ask, "Dude, what's going on?"

"Yeah, Kenny, what's up, what happened?" Stan wondered.

"You all right?" asked Kyle.

"I'm—I don't know, dude, I just—"

"We just talked to our parents," Karen cut in for me.

There was a little silence after that. Nobody else spoke, not even loud-mouthed Cartman, not even cynical Craig. Nobody. I glanced around the table at my friends who made up the League. Who had sacrificed a lot, in their own ways, to help me.

This was where I belonged. No questions asked. Here, with this team, here, as Mysterion… this was the life I'd made, and the life I was meant to have. I trusted each and every person there. So I began to talk.

I just let it all out. Karen added in a word here and there, but I was the one to mostly spill to the guys every single thing my parents had told me. I didn't look at anyone's reactions. I didn't want to see any pity or anything, so I waited until I'd finished, then surveyed the room again to find—general understanding. Which was exactly what I'd been hoping to find.

"Dude," said Kyle, echoing his first question in a much different tone, "are you okay?"

"Anything we can do?" Stan added.

"That's really rough, dude," said Token, "sorry to hear that…"

"You beat it all anyway, though," Clyde put in.

"Yeah," I said. "It's just kind of… lots to think through."

"Yeah, I'd imagine."

And then I just couldn't talk anymore. Retelling everything that had just happened between me, Karen and our parents took too much out of me. So when Clyde asked if there was anything else I wanted to say, or if I maybe wanted to move on with the discussion, I kind of blurted out, "Sorry, guys. I've just… woah. I gotta take a breather. I'll be back. Can we keep this going? Like, this whole conversation can be done, but just… go on what else we've gotta cover?"

"Sure, man, your call," said Clyde. "We can get started if you want, but…"

"Thanks," I said quickly. Then, with a little nod to my sister, I left the room.

I was just overflowing. Too much all at once. I didn't know if I was angry, or relieved, or both, or sad, or just—what. It was like everything was just over. And yet opening up for the very first time.

My entire life had been laid out in front of me. Check that. Behind me. I knew about everything. My deaths, my curse, my resurrections. Every fucking thing. Full up, I stormed out into the common room, paced for a minute, then collapsed back onto the sofa and buried my head in my hands.

What was done was done.

I'd been born an accident. I'd been born Immortal, the Shadow of Cthulhu.

And then I'd grown up. Lived. Died. Lived again. Become Mysterion. And beaten everything.

My parents had nothing over me now. I was free. I was fucking free. But for once, I could actually be scared. It was true: everything was new. I could approach life in a whole new way if I wanted to. But fuck, I was scared. This was like nothing that had ever been an option for me before. I was my own person.

Even though what my parents said, just as I had feared, probably would haunt at least one portion of my mind forever. To think that none of this would have happened. That I would never have met anyone. Never taken a single breath. Never existed. That the life I'd almost lost had at one point not meant to ever begin at all.

I didn't want to thank Cthulhu for anything. Not him, not the Cult. So it sucked to have to kind of admit that they were kind of responsible for my ending up the way I did after all.

Talk about a fucking curse.

I decided then and there that, no matter what happened to me in the future, I wanted kids. I wanted kids so that I could give someone a chance at life, and give them everything my parents never cared to give me. I was going to beat them, Goddammit. I was going to be successful.

As I sat there on the common room sofa, postulating my future, despising my parents, coming to terms with my past, I felt the cushions on either side of me sink down, and then two hands were on my shoulders. Each had their own characteristically reassuring grip, and when I picked my head up, I saw Kyle on my right, Stan on my left. Neither moved; neither spoke. They just sat there, silently giving me all the support they could.

I'm not a guy who cries. I'm not. I never have been. When I was a kid, I never even pulled fake tears very often to get what I wanted, the way some of my friends could. Only a few things recently had yanked tears out of me. The thought of leaving my friends, and Karen, and Red, in those painful moments before leaving for R'lyeh… the thought of never returning from the Gate… and now, I just gave in and let go. For everything else.

For the life I was leaving behind. From the joy of breaking the curse, the prospect of living a normal life. For the pain of the countless deaths I'd undergone, each one more shattering than the one before it. For the anguish of learning the truth from my parents. For my decision to move on, to make my own life, to search for a more fulfilling life.

…For how fucking grateful I was that I'd found a family all the same. Stan and Kyle really were the best friends I could ever have had. The League was the best thing that had ever happened to me to keep me motivated and keep me positive. Red… that perfect girl I'd found, the girl I'd find the second I left the base later on, who I'd hold onto and love just as long as I possibly could.

And who deserved to know the truth.

I knew everything about what I was.

Now, more than anything, I wanted to share at least one secret with the only person outside of the League who truly deserved to know.

I couldn't let my parents' big reveal slow me down or stop me that day… or ever, for that matter. Crying it out felt good, I had to admit; knowing that neither Stan nor Kyle would judge me for it, and that I really did have a pretty kickass web of support in the two of them (and my sister, and my girlfriend, and the rest of the League, each in their own ways), would be more than enough to keep me going.

"Thanks, guys," I said as the three of us made our way back to the meeting room. The two still had their hands on my shoulders, and to be honest, I couldn't imagine, at that moment, being able to hold myself up without them.

"No prob, dude," Stan said with a light grin. "That's what we're here for, y'know?"

"Yeah," Kyle agreed, smiling as well. "Don't let anything like that get you down, Kenny."

"Thanks," I said again. "It just kinda… made me feel like I hit a wall or something, you know?"

Once back in the meeting hall, I apologized to the others and expressed my gratitude for their patience with me, plus thanks beyond that for everyone's hands in the last R'lyeh fight. "Honestly," I insisted. "I wouldn't fuckin' know what to do if I didn't have all you guys' help."

"You feeling better, Kenny?" Karen asked.

"Yeah, it's all good, sis," I told her, painting on a smile I didn't really need to force. "How're you?"

"Kind of processing," my sister admitted with a slight shrug. "But I feel like things are going to start to get better."

That they were.

Which was pretty much what the rest of the meeting needed to consist of: the hows. How we were going to make sure everything could really be all right again. For us, for our families and friends, for South Park, and, hell, everything that lay beyond our little mountain town.

"So fair's fair, guys," I said when I finally took my seat. "How's everyone else holding up? Check-in starts… now."

Token was the one to start, giving us updates on his dad in regards to his dad's position as interim mayor. Mr. Black was the one who was directly dealing with the Red Cross volunteers, the higher-ups at the hospital and asylum, and the other services that had been helping since the final days of the crisis. That's what the town was calling it, and pretty much what it would be called from that day on: just simply, the crisis. Not many people understood it; some people even thought of it as just another wild thing that happened to South Park, others were still convinced it was the end of the world and we still had to watch our backs. There was apparently still a group to keep our eyes out for, made up of some Cultists and some who had not been previously involved, all convinced that the Apocalypse was still nigh and on the watch as a group to possibly try to pull something. Which was kind of fun to hear, we all had to admit. They'd be easy to deal with; there was the general feeling of oh, man, yeah, we've totally got this.

Wendy's check-in involved Butters, who we all agreed should probably be in on the rest of the meeting, and therefore made Cartman text him in order to, as he probably worded it, get his ass over to the base. I wasn't the only one who'd left home—Butters had left his own parents behind and moved in with Wendy, and had still, Wendy said, been feeling guilty and horrible over the numerous dark Chaos incidents. Something really had just gone wrong in the guy's brain. The basic agreement from that was to just keep an eye on him, but acknowledge his wish that Chaos be left behind.

Clyde reported that his mother and Bebe were doing fine; he'd hardly left his girlfriend's side since (apparently) Marjorine had snuck in to give her an early release, and besides still sometimes having an erratic sleeping pattern and recovering eating habits, Bebe was more or less back to her old self. "Right down to asking me if her top and sweater combination looks cute enough," Clyde laughed. Just the fact that the guy was smiling again was awesome. I'd seen the life pretty much just get sucked right out of him the night he had to turn Bebe in. He'd been needing to breathe.

Timmy gave us the okay for his parents, who hadn't fallen to the insanity, and for his friend Jimmy Valmer and his parents, all of whom had been admitted; Jimmy, a stand-up comedian, was apparently already working on an experience-based new routine. Ike passed off his comments to Kyle, who gave us a good report on their parents. The Marsh and Broflovski families had been staying together for the past few days, but, as Stan co-reported, Mrs. Marsh had (being kind of the matriarch for all) expressed a want to get back into her own house, now that the Broflovskis were more than re-adjusted on their own, and Stan's dad was showing rapid improvements after the crisis as well.

Craig reported that his sister was doing fine, and also, being a close friend, that one thing the few days after the crisis had done for Tweek was allow the poor guy some well-deserved sleep. He was already back to work at his parents' shop, and was still tense and jittery, but had seemed to have left the Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep nightmares behind.

For the first few seconds of Cartman's check-in, he was abnormally silent, then quietly reported that his mother was herself again, but that he was kind of pulling his weight a little more around the house to help her. None of us teased him for it (he was such a fucking mama's boy, we all knew he'd eventually shut up the day he finally had to do some real work for her), primarily after he said, "She's all I've got, so I gotta kinda take care of that, y'know?"

"Good for you," I complimented him. "Really, dude, that's good she's doing better."

"Thanks," Cartman muttered.

"And, hey," I added, when it seemed we were all kind of concerned we'd be having a whole new, mopier Cartman on our hands from then on, "I should thank you more specifically for your help in R'lyeh."

He picked his head up, ready for praise. "Yeah?"

"Dude, you kept Cthulhu under control just long enough, helped subdue Chaos, and hell, we couldn't've finished the whole mission without the Coon, you know?" I grinned. "So thanks for sticking with us."

"Oh," he said, smirking and sitting back a little. "Well. You know. It's what I do." Yep, okay, he wasn't going and changing on us too much.

Henrietta had the final check-in. She didn't want to say much, but said that it would probably be in our best interests to hold onto the Necronomicon she had just a little while longer, until we were good and certain that things had settled back into what we'd always considered to be normal. The report was, though, that, yes, the Gate had shut, and that R'lyeh had been shaken from the Earth for good. As we'd said. Mission accomplished.

Just as Henrietta was letting us in on her family's involvement in the police search for her brother, Ike perked his head up and said, "Oh, hey, just got a bulletin." His computer was rigged to Yates' and Murphy's feeds at Park County, which allowed us to receive information at the same rate police scanners did, plus the special reports that were rarer, but supplied us with plenty of facts in any given case. At the same time Ike's bulletin came in, Henrietta reached in her pocket for her cell phone, then stepped aside to take a quick call.

Ike's expression wasn't hopeful, and after he'd read through the bulletin, he glanced over at Henrietta, waiting for her before telling us anything. The Goth had a clipped conversation with the person on the other line—I was assuming her mother—and returned silently. We used to have a rule about no cell phone use, but lately, we'd been making exceptions, based on circumstances. That was probably a topic for future discussion, but for now, it was hardly an issue. "What's the story?" I wondered.

"Bradley's dead," said Henrietta. Her voice caught slightly between words, but she showed no emotion. Somewhere deep down, Henrietta probably had some kind of familial attachment to her adopted brother, but not enough to warrant much caring in the event of his passing, especially given her stances on life and death. Plus her stance on the whole Mint-Berry Crunch thing from the beginning; she'd originally started helping me due to a disliking of her brother and his strange alien powers. But a loss was a loss; she couldn't pass it off entirely.

"The write-up on the cause of death says wild dogs," Ike told us from his computer.

"Ugh, that's kind of harsh," Wendy commented.

"Given what Cthulhu did, I'm not surprised," Clyde said, his expression and tone both hard to read.

"Yeah," said Henrietta. "I still had the visual at that point. He got it bad. I figured he was dead."

"Well," I said, "moment of silence, guys? He did help out."

Even I couldn't deny that. As much as I hadn't wanted his help, or anything to do with him, he had come through in the end, and died for the cause. He even got the damn hero death—guy just had to go out beating me at one other thing, huh? Not that I'd wanted the big hero death, mind you; it was just kind of ironic. We held a moment of silence, which was only broken by Cartman getting up upon getting the text that signaled that Butters had just arrived for the rest of the meeting.

He was indeed Butters that day, too, dressed in a fleece pullover jacket and jeans, his hair all stuffed up but for the bangs under a knit teal winter hat. He greeted us with a nervous smile, and we allowed him his own check-in, during which he didn't say much beyond the fact that he was recovering, which, we all pretty much figured, was part of the reason why he hadn't left his coat in the cloakroom. He still had scars, which he was bound to be sensitive about for a while. "Thanks for invitin' me, though," he said. "I'm glad you fellas're still lettin' me in on things."

"I mean," I shrugged, "the option's here, dude, if you want to stay in the loop. I mean, Craig is, right?"

"I am?" said Craig, dully.

"Well, aren't you?"

Craig shrugged. "I guess." Which was his way of saying he really did want to, he just didn't want to let on that he was excited about anything he used to be so opposed to.

Conversation returned to what to do about Bradley, during which I crossed off the Bradley search party? part of our to-do list. Only dealings with the mayor remained after this. Still, I added another line: Funerals and services. Bradley was the only one we knew of whose funeral we really wanted and needed to attend, but there was still the issue of Dougie and the little Goth kid.

No bodies to bury, in those cases, but Henrietta had mentioned something about the Goth kid's family doing some kind of small service to his memory, and Butters had contacted Dougie's family anonymously to say he'd witnessed a Nyarlathotep-related death; a service was probably in the works, but his parents had been among those in the asylum, so they were still kind of processing what had happened.

Before we could move on to talking about dealings with the mayor and how we'd start to wrap everything up, Cartman, right back to his usual self, complained: "Dude, I'm fuckin' hungry."

"Actually," said Craig, before anyone could just plain tell the fatass to shut up and not complain, "I kinda am, too."

We all glanced around the table, and arrived at the general consensus that, yeah, we probably should eat something while we kept going. After all, I think we'd all skipped lunch, and I hadn't had all that much of a breakfast, either, which just reminded me that I was almost on the verge of starving. I asked around for volunteers to grab food and make coffee, since we still had a lot to talk about, and would be going pretty much up until we had to head into town for the assembly or what the hell ever it was Mayor McDaniels was calling it.

"We'll go," Stan offered. Oh, really? "I wanna stretch my legs a little anyway." Do tell. (I kid.) (Not really.)

By 'we' I figured he meant him and Kyle, and I was right, so I waved the two out of the room, while Cartman, Craig and Clyde all shouted out things they should look for to bring back. Which I doubted either of them heard due to the nature of the guys' yelling, but they could try.

So that they wouldn't have to miss anything, I called for a slight break, which we could all use to just give our minds a rest. Karen admitted to wanting to stretch her legs as well and even take a look around; since now was probably the best time until the following day, I spent my break gladly giving Karen an abbreviated grand tour. Token and Wendy accompanied us out into the living area of the base, since there was now an extra room (we each had one, and there had been a small area for Bradley, just in case he ever did come back) which Karen would be able to occupy now. Wendy hugged Karen a couple of times, saying she was elated to have another girl on the team, and that she'd get to work with Token right away on designing some of that fantastic under-armor for her as well.

Karen took everything in ecstatically, and was especially excited to see everything in the meeting room—Clyde's file cabinets, Ike's and Timmy's computer system, and especially the cork board, with its layers upon layers of photos, documents, and other important tidbits from the crisis still posted up there as if the mission were still a work in progress. At some point in the very near future, we'd be clearing that board off and starting anew.

Cartman announced quite loudly that he was leaving to use the bathroom and not to start until he came back, but Stan and Kyle were still apparently out in the kitchen, which, at the tail end of a ten-minute break, got us all kind of wondering what the hell the holdup was. I handed off the task of still showing Karen around to Clyde and Ike, primarily since Token and Wendy were not being shy about wanting a little couple time off in one corner, and volunteered to head out and steer the other two back in.

While Token and Wendy may have been a couple that didn't mind others being around while they fully enjoyed the pleasures of one another's company, that didn't mean every couple functioned that way.

There is a subtle art to walking in on people making out. Whatever it is, I highly doubt I will ever perfect it. I tend to have a knack for accidentally walking in on people, but I have not yet learned to just leave it alone. Because people interest me. I get this weird pleasure from knowing other people are enjoying themselves (mainly because I know how much I enjoy simple perks… and not-so-simple perks, and I always wish that kind of thing for others, too).

And from what I happened upon in the kitchen, I could already tell that Stan and Kyle were going to be one of those couples that would be just too much fun to provide commentary for, whether they wanted me to or not.

The best part was, they totally hadn't even forgotten about the whole 'go get snacks' issue. The coffee was on and brewed, they had a couple large plates of things all set on the kitchenette table. But. Kyle had Stan backed up against the counter beside the fridge, where Stan's fingers hurriedly grasped for the edge of the polished wooden countertop; he was leaned back, probably so that he wasn't so obviously a couple inches taller. Didn't seem to bother Kyle, whatever way: he had one fist clenched into Stan's shirt, the other hand up under it and—wow, damn, shit, dude, he was fuckin' relentless. Never really knew what to expect once it finally happened with them, so I was kind of in awe of the intensity and yet at the same time totally not surprised at all.

Nevertheless, we did kinda have some important stuff to talk about back in the meeting room. I waited for the perfect second to interject, then said, "When I said 'snacks,' guys, I meant for everyone."

"Oh, fuck," I kind of heard Stan half-exclaim, half-muffle, just before he let out a quick, "—ow!"

"'Ow' what?" Kyle wondered; he seemed like he hadn't seen or heard me, which was just plain funny to me. "Stan, what? Why 'ow?'"

Stan, flushed to beat hell, then said, trying to control the level of his voice, "Bit my lip a little, it's fine."

"Are you bleeding?"

"No, it's fine."

"You sure?"

"Kyle, it's fine. But—"


"Kenny," Stan said, pointing over at me.

"What's he have to do w—KENNY?" Kyle yelped, whipping his head over to glare at me. "Dude, what the fuck?"

"Yo," I greeted, waving both hands at once. "What's good?"

"What the fuck?" Kyle asked again. His face flushed red, and he glanced away, muttering, "Oh, shit, oh, God… dude, what the hell?"

"Dude, you guys're fine, do whatever you want, but like…" I laughed. "Do you have any idea how long you guys've been here?"

"Oh, Jesus… shit…" Stan said hurriedly, pushing off from the counter and brushing his shirt down. "Shit, dude, sorry, we—"

"Got distracted," Kyle finished.

"I can see that." I just kept on grinning. This was fucking great.

"Sorry," Kyle started, still flushed as he went about reaching up into the cabinet over where Stan had been to grab mugs for the coffee. "I'm so sorry, oh, fuck—that was really unprofessional of us and—"

I laughed. "You're fine," I said. "I gave the guys a ten-minute break anyway. Just that it's been nine already, so I wanted to make sure you got that memo and that you didn't just plain leave to elope."

"Glad you have so much faith in us," said Stan, trying to joke around but still looking paranoid as hell over the fact that I'd walked in on them.

"Well, I try." I glanced between the two of them, trying to figure out the exact dynamic. I doubted they'd ever show too many hints of it, but if I could try to guess, I would.

"Can I help you?" Kyle asked, kind of sarcastically, as he and Stan finished getting things in order to bring back into the meeting room. "You gonna help us, or are you gonna be totally creepy and just stand in the doorway?"

"Nah, I'll give you a hand," I said, laughing again as I walked in to let Stan load me up with a tray. "I'm just trying to figure this out."

"Figure what out?" Stan wondered.

"Who's the dude?" I smirked.

"Ohhhhh, my God, we are not having this conversation," Stan said nervously, passing it off. "See you back in the meeting room, Kenny."

"Holy shit, it's Kyle, isn't it?"

"Bye, Kenny!"

"You guys know I'm messin' with you, right?" I said, now loaded up with the full array of everything edible to bring back to the rest of the guys, while Stan and Kyle were left with just the cups, plates and coffee. Oh, they did, and they let me know that. If anything, they were both formulating ways to get back at me now. I really had struck gold on friends in my life, seeing as how we could all rip on each other for stupid things one minute and be saving each other's lives the next.

God, yeah, life was pretty fucking great.

They were only a couple steps behind me on the way back to the others, and the break was extended another five minutes so we could eat and caffeinate. Which made it all the better that Cartman strolled in last from his trip to the bathroom and therefore got last pick. Butters couldn't quite stifle a laugh because of it, so Cartman punched him on the back, saying, "Told you I owed you that anyway." Karen was grinning and beaming the entire time, completely excited to be getting to know everyone again—she knew my group of friends from before she'd left, but re-acquainting after three years was fun for her—and about being officially welcomed onto the League.

Once settled back in, though, business picked up as usual. It was nice having a regular old meeting again, even if things were still tied to cleaning up in the Old Ones' wake. The main topic was, of course, settling things with the mayor, making sure South Park was in capable hands, and, finally, making our statement as a League to the town.

You may think that it's pretty impossible for a bunch of teenage guys to be in one room and focus on nothing but writing the most important speech (alternate reading: report) of their lives. You would be absolutely right.

Fortunately, we also had an overachieving eleven-year-old and a girl who wanted to be a journalist on our team (plus my stunningly focused sister), so we didn't do too badly. Plus, this wasn't just any speech. We had pretty much just saved the world, and freed the people of our town from the Old Ones' insanity.

Karen, well, the Guardian Angel, having been the hero on the homefront during the final battle, was the one who spoke to both Mayor McDaniels and Mr. Black about the main details surrounding the upcoming evening. This was to be a press conference of sorts, during which McDaniels would be officially sworn back into office (having been given a clean bill of mental health from both the asylum and the top tier doctors at Hell's Pass Hospital), but she and Token's dad were already working out between them what needed the most attention in town. The mayor would take questions, and then an assistant of hers would field things to us, to see if it was anything we could answer. We agreed to take only ten questions; if we would rather not answer one for any particular reason, that still counted as one of the ten.

It was rather quickly agreed that I should be the one to give the speech, but Clyde was voted the one to join me in answering questions. That got Cartman all uppity, but Kyle had already pointed out that Clyde and I were the best at disguising our voices.

Craig agreed to come along, but didn't want credit for being in the League (primarily because he had no alter ego and didn't want one; he was fine with just being 'that guy with the swords' and not having an official name… yet). Henrietta said the same. So I agreed to acknowledge them as notable community members who had helped in immeasurable ways.

"You gonna mention Red, too?" Stan goaded me on.

"Oh, uh, probably," I realized. "Especially due to Karen's connection. The Guardian Angel had her eye on that place the whole time."

"Sure did," Karen smiled, sitting up straight to take the compliment. "Speaking of Red, you gonna tell her? Kenny?"

I kind of froze. I'd forgotten to mention that to the team… "Oh," I said. "Well, I want to." Turning my attention to the entire team, I explained, "Hey, guys, listen… I have a feeling she's kinda close to figuring it out on her own, but before she does, I want to tell Red about me."

"About you being Mysterion, or an Immortal?" Kyle wondered.

"Well," I said, getting nervous about the notion for the first time, "eventually everything, but just the Mysterion part for now. I won't reveal you other guys if—"

"Dude," said Clyde, "she'll probably piece that part together once she knows about you." He was giving me an odd kind of way to break your own rule look. I know, I know, but… some rules should be broken. If broken in the right way.

"Too risky," Cartman warned.

"And," Clyde went right on, "you get to tell Red, I get to tell Bebe."

"Well—" I started.

"Fair's fair, man. I wanna tell her, too."

"I kinda think it's okay," said Token, which shut up Cartman before he could protest again. "I mean, some of us are dating within the League. If you guys trust your girlfriends outside enough, I think that's fine."

"Plus," Wendy added on her friends' behalf, "Red and Bebe aren't the kind of people who'd go passing out the information to everyone."

"They're chicks!" Cartman argued. "No fuckin' way!"

"Ugh, would you stop being such a sexist asshole?" Wendy bit back at him.

"Girls talk, that's all I'm sayin'!"

"Cartman, shut the hell up," Stan groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. Glancing over at Token and Wendy, he said, "I agree with you guys."

"If anyone outside us at school knows, I'd say Red and Bebe are a couple of the best to tell," Kyle shrugged in agreement.

"They're smart enough to know not to spread anything they shouldn't," Wendy finished her thought, still shooting that scathing glare at Cartman, who just rolled his eyes and conceded.

Butters picked his head up at that point, and pulled his hat down a little as he requested, "If you fellas could kinda, well… not tell about Chaos…"

"We wouldn't," I assured him. After all, Chaos was one of the topics we were planning on bringing up in the speech that night. He was gone, and therefore nothing to worry about in retrospect. He'd been the cause of the chaos, but he'd also helped see to the end of it. "Right Clyde?" I glanced over; Clyde was looking hesitant. "Right, Clyde?" I repeated.

"Right," he agreed, giving Butters a slight nod of recognition.

In the end, it was agreed that Clyde and I could let our girlfriends in on the very surface of League secrets, so long as we used discretion. The option was opened to Ike as well, but he admitted that he didn't trust Flora with the information; as much fun as she was to have as a girlfriend, he said, she was kind of a misinformed gossip.

Plus, I had no idea how long the young pair would last: I was so close to calling the kid out on being kind of obviously infatuated with Karen, based on how he kept eyeing her during the meeting, but I didn't. I'm all for encouraging relationships, but the main thing was, Karen was super oblivious. With Ike finishing seventh grade and Karen about to transfer to complete eighth in South Park, though, I was sure to start hearing all kinds of new middle school goings on for the rest of the year.

Dude, I fucking love gossip, I'm not even gonna try to deny it. Getting back into the usual swing of things was going to be awesome. And, hey, Mysterion was still a part of my everyday, too, but it'd be nice to have something of a reprieve in that sense, too. Man, not to jinx it or anything, but I started to doubt I'd really consider anything too awful challenging after this. But the city still needed me. Needed us.

It always would.

– – –

I texted Red that I would meet up with her right after the conference, and that Karen would be back with us at the end of the evening as well. She texted me back, giddy about being able to see not only Mysterion but the entire League out in the open that night, and asked if I'd be around in case she got the okay from her parents to attend the conference, since it would be an open address on the outside podium, the way McDaniels usually preferred addressing the town. I came up with the quick lie that I'd be around but in the mayor's office, and for her to not necessarily feel the need to wait up for me.

It was a damn good thing all of us had backup gear, since R'lyeh had pretty much ruined everything we'd been dressed in when we were there. When it came time to don my uniform, though, for the very first time as a non-Immortal, I chose to wear the same cloak. It had obviously seen better days, but it wasn't completely ruined. The ends were blackened and frayed, and even after a washing slightly tinted that sickly R'lyeh green along the ends, but I wanted to keep it that way, and wear that particular cloak as long as it would hold up. I affixed a new question mark to the hood, but I had the broken remains of the one Kyle and Stan had found when they'd unearthed me from the Gate portal. I was thinking about framing it or something.

We all prepared fully, as if we were heading right back out for any given mission. It struck me as beautiful that it just so happened to be a Wednesday. Schools were going to be postponed for another week while the town readjusted (and as a result, we were going to have to make up some time in June, which sucked, but what can you do?), so the whole team of us decided that the following week would be the perfect time to get back into our own routine, with our weekly meetings and private patrols.

Earlier on, we had agreed to take part in the conference under the condition that it be at night, since we preferred not to do business by day if we could get away with it. The mayor was fine with that, and met us gladly half an hour before the whole thing was to begin. She seemed to have her wits well about her, and she had a couple new assistants helping her with her busy affairs. Both of Token's parents were in attendance, but neither let on that they knew any of us personally. They were both pretty great that way; knowing, but never dropping even the most subtle of hints.

A fair amount of people from town had turned up for the conference, and once again, the lawn outside of the town hall. Craig and Henrietta were out among them, keeping their eyes on Butters, who looked mildly grossed out by the cloud of smoke around Craig, Henrietta, and the other two Goths that stood nearby, probably outside just because Henrietta's house, even preparing for a funeral, wasn't quite the place to be.

The team of us waited inside but had simulcasted video feed of everything going on, and when Mosquito asked me how I was feeling in regards to the speech, I admitted to having memorized it. Mysterion does not need cue cards. Everything we had to say was already there, the townsfolk just had to be reassured that things would be fine, and they needed to hear that from us specifically.

The mayor went on for a few minutes, thanking everyone for their services, and Mr. Black especially. She mentioned the known fatalities and held a moment of silence for anyone who had passed in the crisis, and promised to ensure a better quality of life once all repairs to the town were underway. At her ten-minute mark, as we'd been informed of upon our arrival, she then announced, "It is now my pleasure to bring before you the heroes who have kept an eye on our fine town for many years, and who have assured me will do so for many years to come. Without this team, our town and many after it would have fallen into peril, so please help me welcome, to give their own statement on this recent crisis…"

"Ready?" Toolshed asked.

"You know it," I grinned.

"The Shadow League."

"Well," Kite grinned. "Let's go."

The second we took the stage, the applause was deafening. There couldn't have been more than two hundred people gathered on the lawn, but it felt like we'd entered a stadium of thousands. Shouts of thank yous and other expressions of gratitude were sent our way, and I tried not to grin from the sheer joy of hearing it. As the League lined up to either side of me, I thanked Mayor McDaniels and took the podium, and the moment I held one hand up, the town fell silent.

"People of South Park," I began, as I knew the town loved it when I began an address that way, "we have all just survived a frightening but very real threat, to this town and to the world. Under our new collective title as the Shadow League, this group and I took it upon ourselves to research, track down, and eliminate the source of the insanity that plagued this town, and the darkness that was meant to follow.

"Two beings—Cthulhu, as you all recall from nearly eight years ago, and another of his ilk called Nyarlathotep—were the source of the madness, which we are proud to tell you has passed." Slight applause, until I held a hand up again. "They were awakened from a dimension known as R'lyeh, to which we, the League, traveled in order to stop any further damage before it could reach us here.

"The threat is over. In addition, it is my duty to inform you that, in these dark times, two others met their end. You'll recall General Disarray—" and cue the town's disapproval, "and Professor Chaos." Butters, from his position in the audience, tried not to wince. Not far from where he, Craig, Henrietta and the Goths stood, I saw Red, looking up at where we stood, fully captivated. "Both of these villains met their end in R'lyeh."

"Professor Chaos and General Disarray are gone?" I heard someone, clearly a reporter, call out from the lawn.

"They are," I confirmed. "Their final acts took place in R'lyeh, and you will see neither of them again. However," I added before the applause could grow too high after that, "I need to mention that the Cult of Cthulhu may still pose somewhat of a threat. Those imprisoned during the crisis are to remain behind bars, and further Cult activities will be investigated and immediately stopped. Though the Dark Gods they worshipped are now dead, it's sometimes humanity that can do more damage than any supernatural being.

"But it's also humanity that can do the most good. I hope you all listened when your mayor acknowledged the certain groups that provided aid during the crisis. The Shadow League will always be here, to do what we can for the good of this town, but don't underestimate the value of the community here.

"In a way," I finished—and this was a line the team of us had debated, but one that we knew would remain whispered around the town for some time to come—"everyone has the potential to be a hero."

Once again, we were met with deafening applause. I took a step back to stand in line with the rest of the League, where we stood firm, resolved, and accomplished. The crisis was officially over. We had made our closing statement to the town. Things could now slowly work their way back to normal, and we would keep our eyes on everything. That was our duty.

Out of the ten questions the reporters in attendance were allowed to ask, four of them were, "Who are you?" Which we were pretty glad for, since it meant we got to skip four questions and only answer six. One of them ended up being, "How did Professor Chaos and General Disarray die?"

To answer that, I phrased it, "General Disarray was killed by Nyarlathotep, and Professor Chaos met his end thanks to some of the heroes in the League." We could not call Chaos 'dead,' so finding other ways to talk about his actual ending were a little difficult, but we managed.

One of the questions was hard to answer, which was, "Could the insanity come back?" We had no answer, so Mosquito told everyone to rest assured that we would continue to look into it, but also affirmed that there would be no more immediate threats from R'lyeh, now or ever again. Another reporter asked if we knew of anyone in particular to thank, so I was glad that was eaten up as a question as well, since I was going to thank the people like Craig, Henrietta and Red at the end of it all anyway. Another asked who had led the Cthulhu Cult and if he posed a threat (McElroy; dead; no; thank God, though I didn't add that last part), and another if we knew of other members. For that one, the answer we decided on was to have them contact either the mayor or Sargeant Yates in order to get in touch with us if anyone was actually serious about keeping an eye out for Cultist activity.

The final question was, "Why do you call yourselves the Shadow League?"

To which I answered, after conferring with the group, "Keep your eyes on the shadows, and you can decide for yourselves."

– – –

We met again briefly with the mayor afterward, before she had to rush off to another meeting, and I broke off from the group once we'd decided we had done all we needed to do for the evening. The others admitted to wanting to head out and check on the various parts of town, especially after the mentions of keeping our eyes out for further Cult activity, so they broke off into the usual pairs—Toolshed and the Human Kite, TupperWear and Marpesia, Mosquito and the Coon, Iron Maiden and Red Serge, with the Guardian Angel on solo watch—and took to the town.

This was our city, and we were going to continue to do whatever we could to keep it safe. Just as we'd promised, just as we knew we always would, in whatever way we chose.

I fully planned on heading out on my own patrol later as well, but first, there was just one more loose end for me to tie up that evening. I watched from the roof of the town hall as the crowd dispersed, content to see everyone heading home and going about their lives, all of them content now that they had been fully reassured that South Park was, presently, safe from harm, and that the League was still out on watch.

And then, I locked onto her. Red glanced around, probably looking for me or Karen, but, seeing neither of us, she took out her cell phone, sent a fast message, and went on her way back home.

I slipped along behind and beside her, keeping to the darker paths and shortcuts I knew so well. My heart was pounding, and every time I caught sight of her, my breath stalled. I couldn't go back. I'd made her a promise—I'd made myself a promise—that, dammit, I was going to keep. No matter what happened.

Once within sight of her house, I went along ahead of her, and obscured myself as best I now could in the shadow the roof cast over the front door. Red glanced around as if she'd heard or seen something, then extracted her little pink phone from her thin-strapped purse to check her messages. I saw her type in a quick text as she made her way inside, and heard her call out a hello to her parents. Quietly, I ducked around to the other side of the building, and scaled the drainpipe to her roof, then swung down to land on Red's bedroom windowsill. I nudged the window open, and slipped inside just as she was entering the room and turning on a small lamp that sat on a bookshelf beside her door, next to which she set her phone after studying it another second.

"Hello, Red," I said, keeping up Mysterion's tone.

Red drew in a gasp and promptly dropped her purse, then, without taking her eyes off of me, closed her door and pressed her back up against it. I stepped off of the windowsill, so that I was half-visible in the light from the small lamp, and Red took a moment to study me before finally saying, her gorgeous blue eyes going wide, "Oh, my God. Hello. Um, again. M-Mysterion…?"

In response I said nothing. I had to wait for the right moment. It had to happen. Now. Tonight. To prepare myself, I stood straight back, squaring my shoulders to keep up my courage, and let Red get a good, long look at me. She'd told me before that she'd always found Mysterion fascinating, that she admired the things he did, and that she wished more people would follow his example.

So, hopefully, she could forgive me for all the half-truths I'd been telling her.

"That, um—that was an incredible thing you did," Red ventured to say. "What the mayor just congratulated you for. You're amazing. I-I mean, the League is amazing. You saved us. So… thank you." It was with effort that I suppressed a smile. "But, what are you doing here?" she then wondered. Red glanced around nervously, looking around for signs of danger. "Why are you at my house?"

She tucked her hair behind her ear and stepped away from her door. After a second of hesitation, she turned on the main light of the room, so that I no longer had a shadow to hide within. Which was exactly the way I wanted it. "You totally didn't have to thank me, though," she said, flushed with embarrassment and modesty to the point that she stared down at her feet. "I mean, that was really nice and stuff. But, like, really, why're you here? Sorry I keep talking, I'm just kind of nervous."

"That's all right," I told her. "I'm not here on any official business. I'm just bringing a message. One that should have found its way to you a while ago, but better late than never."

"What kind of message?" Red wondered. "Why me?"

That was it. That was my moment.

"I have something to tell you," I said, which got Red to look right at me again. I let her take another good look, wondering if she'd snap to the conclusion on her own. But I didn't want to stand there and wait for her to figure it out. It was my duty to let her know. It was her right to hear it from me. "Or rather," I decided on adding, "your boyfriend does."

Red's eyebrows knit in confusion, and she dropped her hands to her sides, only to clasp them together and start fidgeting. "Kenny?" she wondered. The confusion told me that she hadn't made the connection herself; she was wondering what the connection could possibly be.

So I took in a deep breath, and then, with no more room for hesitation, I pulled off my mask and slid back my hood. And, as Red's expression went from confused to stunned, I answered, back in my normal tone, "Yeah."

Red's bewilderment prompted her to blurt right out, "Oh, my God! Kenny!"

And then I was instantly nervous. I could keep calm and cool as Mysterion, I could be suave as I wanted as myself… but so deliberately blurring the line between myself and my alter ego, in front of my girlfriend, made me feel more exposed than I'd anticipated I would. Then again, I couldn't call her reactions, and I was trying to figure out how she felt about the whole thing.

I did feel bad. I felt awful about lying to her all the time, about dying on her with no explanation—or her recollection—and about keeping my secret identity, uh… secret. So I got nervous; scared, even. I held Red's gaze, hoping to see something other than shock, and felt only the need to apologize.

Slipping the black mask into my utility belt, I began, "Hey… baby… um…"

The corners of Red's mouth twitched upward like she wanted to smile, and she took a wary step closer to me. I attempted a little smile myself, basically just praying that this wasn't the prelude to a breakup. Which I did worry about. I mean, the long and short of it was: I'd lied to her. Or, stretched the truth pretty far. But I'd worked so damn hard to keep Red as my girlfriend, I wasn't about to lose her now that I wasn't going to die all the time. So my heart sank when she shirked back, then lifted again right up into my throat when she stepped even closer. Her eyes surveyed me, head to toe and back again. "You're…?" she started in.

"Yeah," I answered. Scared of all the possible negative outcomes, I began rambling. "Um… I wanted to tell you, but I just… couldn't, at least not during the whole crisis. But you do deserve to know, so… that's… why I'm telling you, right now. Um… please don't hate me. I just really—"

Before I could go on with whatever inane rant was about to spill from my mouth, Red, her eyes wide and starting to get misty, jumped me. Without a word, she latched her arms around my neck and didn't let go. Stunned, my hands found her waist and I pulled her in. With a second thought, I yanked my gloves off, chucked them to the floor, and gripped my girlfriend tightly, feeling her heart beat through her whole body, stroking her back to try to help her regulate her staggered, shocked breaths.

And for a while, we just stood there, holding each other, breathing together, wondering what would come next.

"I'm sorry," I finally heard myself saying to her. I'd been thinking it the whole time, and finally the words manifested. I tightened my grip with my right hand around her waist, and brought my left up to wind into her hair. I combed my fingers through a few times, loving that texture, loving how comforting the action felt. "I did want you to know," I repeated, pulling back so I could look her again in the eyes. "So, if this… you know, if you have any… um… wow… sorry, this is all sounding a lot lamer than it did in my head earlier. But…"

Red laughed, then unhooked her grip so that she could run her nimble fingers across the durable, sleek fabrics of my uniform. Her expression still one of shock, but now mixed with wonder and even admiration, she played with the folds of my cape, and the way it rested on my shoulders, then ran her right hand down my chest, pausing when she touched upon the symbolic green M. "I've been… dating Mysterion…?" she said, looking up at me yet again.

I sucked in a more confident breath, and got myself to grin. So far, this was working out. "Yeah…"

"Oh, my God." Red was smiling brightly, but she blinked out a couple of nervous tears. She wasn't really crying, nor did she look at all sad. Just amazed, and beautiful. "You're Mysterion. Kenny, you're Mysterion."

"Are… are you okay with it…?" I wondered. It was seeming likely that she was, but my nerves wouldn't leave until the last second.

"Okay with it?" Red repeated, as if I'd said something absurd. A cooling breeze rushed in through the window, then, as my girlfriend clung to the front of my uniform with both hands, close to my heart. When the breeze died down, I swept her hair out of her face, then lost myself almost completely when she caught my gaze and said, with no room for doubt or debate, "Kenny, I am so proud of you."

"You're what?"

I could not remember anyone having ever told me that before. My parents sure as hell hadn't. In the moment, I couldn't remember if Karen had ever said such a thing, or any of my friends, or what, but this really resonated. "I'm really, really proud of you," Red repeated, which made me fall in love with her all over again. "Kenny, you just… God, everything Mysterion ever did, that was you. That was you, sweetie, you have given people so much hope, and a name and symbol to rally behind and just… I can't believe it. Kenny, putting so many people ahead of yourself, doing so much good, I don't care if it comes from an alter ego or what; it's you. I am so lucky I have you."

"You, too," I told her. I grinned, and bent to kiss the corner of her right eye as I continued, "Look at what you can do. Without the mask, baby. You're incredible."

"Oh, don't make this about me!" she laughed. "You're Mysterion. Own it."

"Thanks, sweetheart," I said, smiling as I brushed back her hair again, smoothing it back and taking a good, indulgent look at the girl who'd helped restore my faith in life.

Red looked me over again as well, her shock having been subdued over the last couple minutes, but the admiration there… seemingly permanently. "I'm not saying the things you do aren't dangerous—" she said, "I mean, that is some seriously crazy risky business, but what you do, I just, like… I can't even wrap my head around it. I am so, so proud of you." Red's tone softened when she finished, "I'm really glad I didn't lose you, too.

"Can I just ask you one question?" she asked, downcasting her eyes as she traced her fingers along my uniform again.


"I, um… I kept having weird dreams during the crisis, and—okay, so, now I can ask and it won't be as weird, I think." She drew in a deep breath, and asked, "Kenny, you're a superhero, right?"

"I guess."

"You guess," Red laughed. "Do you have any, you know, powers?"

I couldn't lie. "Not anymore," I told her.

"What do you mean?"

"I used to be like Cthulhu and them," I admitted. "I couldn't die."

"Oh," said Red. "But you did, didn't you?"


"It still kinda just feels like I dreamed it, but a few times lately I just kept getting the feeling like I've lost you before," my girlfriend said, resting her head on my shoulder. "That's really sad, Kenny. Sweetie, that must've been really lonely. I'm so sorry."

I hugged her tightly, and said, "I used to die all the time. I can't believe you remember—"

"I dunno if I remember as much as I just kinda know. Please tell me you're not gonna die again, though."

"I'm not," I told her proudly. "Not for a long, long time."

Red lifted her head, took hold of my uniform, and pulled me down to match her height. "Good," she smiled. "This town needs you, Mysterion."


"Mmhmm." Her smile spread to a broad grin, though, as my girlfriend nuzzled up to me and said, "But now they've gotta take you out on loan from me."

"Oh, is that how it's going to work?" I said.


"Fine by me."

I set my left hand on her waist, cradled her against me, and then, for the first time as Mysterion, kissed my girlfriend, deeply, boldly, full of pride, and gratitude, and sheer relief for knowing that things were falling into better place than I had ever, ever anticipated.

I pulled back after a crackle from my earpiece, and I held up my index finger to ease Red's confusion while I listened in. "Mysterion?" Toolshed's voice came over the wire. "You still active? We've got a break-in."

"What?" I wondered, snapping immediately back into Mysterion's tone. I felt my eyes narrow, as business took precedent. "Where?"

"Town hall," said Toolshed. "While the mayor was out, some of those Apocalypse wackjobs broke in to loot, and they've got a hostage."

"You're our best negotiator," TupperWear added. "We and the police are only doing so much."

"Toolshed's gonna break in around the back," Human Kite cut in, "but—"

"Just get your ass down here," the Coon finished.

"All right," I said, "I'm on my way."

That agreed, I straightened, then looked down at my girlfriend, who had her hands cupped over her mouth in absolute awe, her eyes wide and brilliant and blue as summer. I grinned, grabbed my mask out of my utility belt, and said, "Sorry," in my normal tone as I tied the black fabric into place.

"What for?" said Red, setting her hands on my chest again. "If you've gotta go, then… y'know…"

"I'll be back, though," I promised her.

Red just smiled, then bent down, picked up a couple things I'd almost completely forgotten about, then stood again and said, "Don't forget your gloves."

Satisfied beyond belief, I grinned and took the gloves from her. I slid them on quickly, then grabbed my girlfriend around the waist, and kissed her one more time, quickly, before stepping back. I took a last look at her, loving the fact that now I had nothing to worry about. No sneaking around with my double life needed. No more lies. No more constant death. Just Red; just me and her.

Slipping back into my affected tone for Mysterion, I said, "See you."

Red held one hand up in a small wave, still beautiful in her state of awe.

And so, I took a few steps back, threw up my hood to shroud the rest of my face, then turned, tossing my dark cape out around me, and slipped away, out the window and into the shadows.

– – –

One Month Later

– – –

The morning of my seventeenth birthday was bright but freezing.

I forced the warm sheets off of me, though, rose, showered, and dressed to find that my sister had already prepared for her day, and was starting up a fresh pot of coffee. Our move to the base had been swift and easy. Red, Wendy, Shelly Marsh and Jenny Harrison had all given Karen sets of their hand-me-downs, which Karen had taken happily as gifts (for which she paid with baked goods). She'd been doing pretty well in school, though every time she came home with test or quiz anxiety I'd remember my own anxieties from calling her school in Salt Lake for transfer grades.

Breakfast was my sister's favorite time of day, since on the weekends she'd been working brunch shifts (under the table, since she was only thirteen, for a friend of Red's mom) at a café that was thriving pretty well after the crisis, and here and there she'd pick up tips from the cooks that she'd want to try out at home. I walked in that morning to the mixed aromas of eggs, bacon, toast and coffee, which served much better than alarms ever did in waking me up.

"Hey, sis," I greeted her. "Smells awesome in here."

"Kenny!" Karen exclaimed, flying up to me with arms outstretched. "Happy birthday!" She wound her skinny arms around me in a tight, proud hug; I laughed and grabbed her in. This was the first time in years that I'd been with my sister on either of our birthdays.

"Thanks, Karen," I grinned.

"Got anything fun planned?" she wondered when she pulled back to start serving up the morning spread.

"Not that I know of," I laughed. "Last year the guys kidnapped me and took me to Hooters."

"Ugh, that's gross. Kenny, you and your friends are gross."

"We're guys," I said, pouring a mug of coffee. "When you get a boyfriend, you'll get us a little more."

Karen rolled her eyes. "I can't wait."

She admitted to having a tiny crush on Gary Harrison's younger brother, David, once, and I hadn't let her live it down. Now that the Harrisons were back in town, too, I teased her even more. Having her around was, well, for lack of a better word, vital. It was nice to wake up and have family around.

We'd heard nothing from our parents or brother, and didn't expect to again. It didn't bother us; we had our lives. As long as Karen was happy, I was happy, and the same went for her.

Token called over to offer us a ride in the morning, which was always appreciated, even if that brought us to the high school early, since Karen had an earlier schedule in middle school than we did. But I never minded being slightly more than on time, and the ride sure as hell beat walking. I kept telling Karen that one of these days I'd get a car, so that she could have one of her own once I went off to college, but it wasn't the biggest concern.

Though early, Token and I weren't alone at school for very long; the crowds started filtering in, and Token was the first of my friends to wish me happy birthday, followed by his girlfriend, Wendy, early in her own right for her school newspaper meeting. The two of them then shared a kiss good morning (the Black-Testaburger couple was one of the most talked about among the girls recently, second only to Bridon Gueermo and his girlfriend Nelly; my own girlfriend and I had long since lost our title of 'new annoying couple'), congratulated me again, and were on their way after walking with me down to my locker.

The damn thing was getting kind of cluttered again, but I didn't care. I shoved textbooks I didn't need out of the way in order to hang my coat, and retrieve my highlighted copy of The Great Gatsby for English that day; we were due for a review. By the time I closed my door, the hallways were really filling up, so I began my look around for the usual suspects…

"Hey, yo, Kenny!" I turned just in time to receive a punch on the shoulder from Clyde Donovan, who, dressed to kill in his vote-winning (running for Senior class president already, that guy) green letterman and grinning too broadly for his own good, announced, "One to grow on, dude!"

"Ow," I feigned. "What happened to the other seventeen?"

"Wanted to make sure I got that one in first," Clyde said. I managed to laugh, and I appreciated the sentiment behind his seemingly normal statement.

Clyde and I crushed knuckles together. "Thanks, man," I got out, before he perked his head up and turned upon being summoned by his lovely girlfriend, Bebe Stevens, from down the hall. Bebe cast me a smile as well, and called over a happy birthday, which I nodded a thanks to her for.

"Keep on keepin' on, Kenny," Clyde said as he departed. Pointing back at me as he linked arms with Bebe, he added, "See ya tonight."

"Yeah, see—" I began, before I realized, "tonight? Dude, again? What gives?"

But Clyde was gone, his girlfriend securely latched to his right arm. Clyde had a habit of melting around her now—the two were no longer autonomous in school or in crowds, but clung to each other like newlyweds; at any given time of day, Bebe could be seen grooming her boyfriend's hair, or lounging against him in the library as the two pretended to study. Since learning about Clyde's involvement in the League, Bebe had sparked her own interest in helping out. Also part of the school newspaper, as well as the yearbook (though she had promised nothing League-related would show up there in terms of identity giveaways), she'd taken to passing information along with Wendy or Clyde if she happened to overhear anything. And Bebe Stevens sure had an ear for overhearing just the right thing.

I hadn't gone two steps down the hall before someone yanked me aside and delivered a harsh noogie to the top of my head, fucking up my already sister-tousled hair even further. "Kenny!" Stan's exuberant high baritone was unmistakable, and the added bright near-laugh in his tone was becoming more characteristic of him by the day. He drilled his knuckles in further, and commented, "Seventeen, dude! How's it feel?"

"Painful, now," I joked at him.

"Oh, my God," came the only voice I'd expect to follow his. "Stan, you're turning into a serial hair fetishist, I swear to God. Sorry, Kenny. How's it going?"

With a firm pull, Kyle dislodged Stan from around me and held his arms forcefully down. Jeez… those two. Stan Marsh: still my locker neighbor, an all-around great guy, and a protective, doting partner to his boyfriend, Kyle Broflovski: still valedictorian even after the insanity, now matched with me in height, and now, I can easily say, one of the most confident guys I know, as well as one of the most selfless. No doubt about it, those two are family to me, and I wouldn't trade either of them for anything.

"It's all good," I laughed, once Stan had been successfully subdued. The two each flashed a grin, and flanked me on either side as I continued down the hall. "So, uh, what the fuck gives on this new secret birthday thing?"

"What secret what thing?" Kyle asked, making it obvious with his tone that something was definitely up.

"Who let you in on the clever plan this time?" Stan asked, as if I'd been led into the interrogation room at Park County. He prodded my arm with the jab of one index finger. "Was it Clyde? It was Clyde."

"Yeah, but he didn't say anything."

"Okay, good," Kyle laughed.

"What are you planning? I may have had plans with Red, you know."

"Cancel 'em, this is better," Stan grinned.

"Can't be double-booked, dudes, sorry," I said, shrugging overdramatically.

"Double-booked with what?" Okay, now my morning had started. Standing just outside the room I had to enter for first period was the cutest, brightest, and bravest young woman I have ever had the pleasure to call my girlfriend. Red: sweet, fearless; the girl who knows my secrets, the one who'll keep them, the one—hey, who knows? Maybe just plain the one.

I grinned and scooped her up into my arms, thus lifting her about five inches off the ground. Red laughed and jokingly kicked at the air, but she couldn't escape. I planted a kiss on her as I set her back down, leaning in to compensate for our height difference, and said, "Mornin', baby, how're you?"

"Awake, now," she teased. She worked her fingers up into my scarf and held me in, saying, "Happy birthday, Kenny."

"Thanks, babe."

"Why are you wearing a scarf inside?" she wondered.

"Cold neck," I shrugged. The truth was, I'd forgotten about it. But I got the result I'd wanted—Red kept holding me down, then nudged down the scarf and nuzzled up against my neck. Her citrus-scented hair brushed right up against my skin to give me an invigorating whiff, and I pulled her up closer. Morning routine had never felt so fucking great.

"Okay, we lost him," I heard Kyle say, jokingly, from behind me.

"Rendered incapable of intelligent speech by the ways and wiles of the finer sex!" Stan added, overdramatizing.

"You have got to stop reading bad Renaissance poetry," Kyle scolded him.

"I can't, it's homework, and you told me to study more."

"Oh, God."

Red started laughing as well, and shot the two of them a look, and said, "Do you mind?" I shifted to grab Red in from the side, and gave the guys my own lighthearted, nothing-doing glare.

"We're out," Stan grinned. "Later, dude."

"We will see you tonight, Kenny," Kyle added.

"That a threat?" I asked, resting my head on Red's.

"You decide!" And with that, they were off, leaving me to enjoy the rest of the morning—before the bell, of course—talking about nothing of consequence with my girlfriend.

We selected a spot at the end of a row of lockers to stand locked together, where she mentioned that she had something nice in mind for us that evening, but she wouldn't tell me what it was. As the day went on, I began to wonder if maybe my girlfriend wasn't even in on something with the others, but I tried not to think of it.

– – –

At the end of the day, Karen called me to ask if I could walk her home before I started in on any plans for the evening. Since I was leaving with Red, my girlfriend offered to, instead, give my sister a ride, as long as she was fine with stopping for gas and a couple of things Red remembered she needed to pick up along the way. Once at the base, Karen pleaded for Red to come inside so she could show her the new things she'd done to her bedroom, and Red agreed, saying that she and I had time to kill before dinner anyway.

So I should have figured: we'd wasted enough time on the drive back for someone else to have driven straight there. And, oh, not just someone. Everyone. Clyde even opened the damn door for us.

"You planned this!" I scolded Red and Karen.

"Oh, just get inside!" Red laughed, pushing me from behind.

The common room was full of life. A couple of side tables had been brought in and stocked up with food, and a large brown envelope lay on the sofa with my name printed on it in my sister's clever calligraphy. The moment Red had pushed me in, the room erupted into a multi-tonal chorus, all chanting: "Happy birthday, Kenny!"

"You guys suck," I laughed, glancing around at everyone. "Thanks. This is seriously awesome."

The entire League was in attendance, which included Craig Tucker, still alter ego-less, but an asset all the same; Marjorine, too, was there, and even Henrietta had been convinced to tag along, somehow, though the Goth girl still wasn't exuberant enough to show a black-lipped smile. "Did we outdo ourselves from last year?" Stan just had to ask, as Clyde administered the first of the rest of the seventeen punches he owed me.

"Sine I have a girlfriend, yes," I said. Even then, though. It didn't matter where the hell we were, I just loved having any excuse to hang around with these guys. With the team I was proud to lead; the family I was glad I'd discovered.

"Don't be mad," said Red, hugging me around the waist and nuzzling up against my shoulder, "but this was my plan for tonight."

"I had a feeling," I grinned. I leaned down to kiss her, thank her, and kiss her again, and so the evening had finally started.

We let Henrietta choose the music, since we figured there should be something, even though none of us ever really listened when there was music in the background, so the solution was to keep the Goth happy… or whatever the Goth version of happy is. For a while, it was all just us hanging out, breaking off into groups, as is known to happen at parties, and passing around one flask of vodka that Clyde had managed to procure (though Craig argued he could find better), which was the source of the little joking conversation that got us inevitably talking about League-related things.

I had a tiny buzz when Cartman asked, "Dude, so, like, can you still control shadows, or is that all gone?"

"No, see, the Shadow is gone," I said, "but I can totally still control shadows. Watch." I held one hand up with my index and middle fingers extended upward to make a shadow puppet of a rabbit on the wall. "Check it out." I made another. "You watching?" I ticked just one hand in a thrusting move to make them fuck.

"That is so not funny at all," Karen scolded me, while Red, in agreement, patted one hand sternly against my back.

"Oh, come on, yes it is. If you can't look back and laugh…"

"I know, I know."

But from there, discussion did move into us as a League, for which we formed a large circle on the floor, and which Red, from her position directly next to me, listened to intently. She always got the cutest look on her face whenever I'd have to go off on duty, or whenever she heard me or any of the guys talking about something pertaining to our nightly activities. She respected the separation of my night and day life, though, and never prodded me to see Mysterion or anything, though I could tell she was sometimes thinking it.

There was nothing huge on our plates as of now, but our efforts were focused on seeing all remaining Cult activities stopped, since the crazies that were a part of that group refused to believe that Cthulhu and R'lyeh were gone. There will always be the diehards, but if we could stop them before they could do any damage, then we'd be doing our job right. It had been decided that we'd try to start tracking down artifacts having to do with R'lyeh and the Old Ones; Wendy brought up, at one point, that we should probably check out Arkham and Miskatonic, off in Massachusetts, since that was where the largest collection of artifacts were held, which I remembered well from that eighth grade field trip. We'd start locally, though, and then see what kinds of measures would need to be taken elsewhere.

Karen and Red slipped away to make dinner while the rest of us continued to talk missions and patrols, and once served, the feast they served up was the only thing that could have possibly taken our minds off of our League work. Marjorine and Wendy had prepared cupcakes ahead of time, too; bourbon and vanilla-frosted, too, they were amazing.

From the small window above the TV in the living room, I could see that the sun had completely disappeared from the sky, and I was just itching to take a walk outside, since being at the base always made me want to skulk out at night, if even just for a quick walk as myself rather than Mysterion. I asked Red if she wanted to head out with me, but I was overheard, and there were a few whispers about whatever was in the envelope.

"Actually," said my girlfriend, "I think you should open that first."

"Yeah?" Activity in the room ceased; Kyle picked up the envelope and passed it to Stan, who passed it on to me. "What is it?" I asked him.

"Well…" said Stan, "do whatever you want with it. Henrietta mentioned it, and we all figured you should have it. Anything you want to do with it, dude, but it's all your choice."

Inside the large brown envelope was a book. A very dusty old book, bound in leather, written in Latin. The Necronomicon. The one I had stolen from the museum in Denver in eighth grade, the one I had given to Henrietta. The book that had allowed me to discover a path from Purgatory to R'lyeh, which in turn had allowed me to save Stan's soul and allow him to live as well. The book that had told us about Yog-Sothoth, about the Gate. About Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and the End Time. About the Shadow, and about the two couplets.

The book that had started everything.

I was glad the guys had given that to me. I hadn't even really been thinking about it, but now that I had it in my hands, I wanted to give it a proper end. The threats were gone. If we were going to start destroying all of the artifacts having to do with the Old Ones around us… I wanted to start with this one. It had gotten me only as far as I had needed it to. But my Immortality had ended. Cthulhu and his Shadow were long gone.

"I want to burn it," I decided.

"You sure about that, dude?" Clyde asked. I nodded.

"It could be a collector's item," Henrietta warned.

"Which means it could turn into something coveted," I said. "No. Items placed in the rare category are too tempting for collectors… especially Cultists who are collectors. People will kill for things they want bad enough. I don't want this thing to exist. My curse doesn't exist anymore, so neither does this." Looking around at my friends, all of whom were backing me one hundred per cent, I said, "Let's do it right now, guys. Let's get rid of it. You in?"

The others consented that they were, so I suggested we grab our coats and head out to the field to build a proper funeral pyre for the damned thing.

We built the bonfire in the sunken pit that had been left from the pressure of the Gate portal the month before. The stones that could easily have entombed me were set up in a circle around the pit, and when we'd gathered enough wood, Henrietta struck her tinderbox to light the first spark. I fanned the flames with my hands, while the others added kindling in the form of smaller twigs. Craig poked around at the firewood in order to incite a larger blaze, and just as Karen was tossing dead leaves into the mix, the fire flared up.

Everyone stood back, and for several minutes, we all just watched the fire rise. It licked at the air around us, hissing heat into our faces and melting away the late March mountain snow at our feet. Quietly, Red stepped up beside me, and took a gentle hold of my right arm, then rested her head against my shoulder. Karen stood in front of me as if to protect all three of us from what used to lie beyond that circle of sledgehammer-massacred stones. I took another minute to reflect… on what lay behind, in the flames, and what lay ahead, right there beside me.

I took a glance around. Red and Marjorine were outliers, but the rest of us: we were the Shadow League. No more name changes; that one's here to stay. The Shadow League. We still had plenty of jobs to do, crises that we would inevitably have to overcome. Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and R'lyeh may no longer have been threats, but there was no telling what could lie on the paths ahead.

Whatever came, though, we'd be ready. No matter what.

Henrietta handed me the dusty old Necronomicon. When I held it in my hands, I recalled the night I'd stolen it from the museum. This had been one hell of a long journey, but I'd overcome everything, and made it out alive. Now, I've got one death left. But it is going to wait. It's going to wait until I've done everything I know I can do.

"You sure this is what you want to do with that?" Henrietta asked me, her signature Goth sass coming out even in such a loaded question.

"Yeah," I said, "I'm sure. We come across any others, guys, we do the same exact thing. No more of this book. You guys ready?"

I looked back at the guys for full approval. Finally, after a moment, Stan said, "Go for it, Kenny."

"Burn it good," Marjorine added.

I took in a deep breath, and stepped up to the bonfire. The book felt heavier than it should have in my hands; I closed my eyes and felt the heat of the fire on me. As a final sort of internal séance to really let it all go, I let the words roll out in my mind:

That is not dead which can eternal lie

And with strange aeons, even death may die.

But call to death with rite to give

Death to the Immortal;

"The right to live," I whispered. "So this is the start."

I threw the Necronomicon onto the bonfire.

The flames danced over it, as its centuries of existence popped and hissed into ashes. Slowly, its old yellowed pages crumbled and almost seemed to scream in the body of the fire, black blazing into brilliant red and orange and yellow and then black again, reborn as ash, soot, dust. And then nothing.

I stepped away from the bonfire.

The flames did not reach for me, or pose any threat. No near-accidents had found me over the past month. I could breathe easily. The final reminder of my curse was destroyed, and I stood by, lungs clean and full of fresh air. Fully alive, fully ready to take a step back and discover everything my life could be.

One by one, my friends, my League, tossed or kicked snow onto the bonfire to help put it out, then began to head back inside. Token and Wendy—TupperWear and Marpesia, followed by Ike and Timmy—Red Serge and Iron Maiden. Next to head back in were Craig and Henrietta, and then, after whispering a little thank you, Marjorine, who had been dropping several hints lately that she wanted to join the League, if we'd take her. My girlfriend kissed my cheek and walked with my sister, Karen, the Guardian Angel, back in to keep away from the cold.

Leaving me out there, watching the embers, with the three who'd been there from the beginning. Cartman, the Coon, who had been proving more loyal, not to mention more in favor of the 'Shadow League' title now than ever. Stan, Toolshed, the first to have remembered my deaths, the one with whom I'd shared an unplanned but eye-opening trip to R'lyeh. And Kyle, the Human Kite, whose focus and determination continued to provide our best modes of attack and defense. More than just League partners, though, those three, I knew, were the ones I could always count on to have my back, no matter what, no matter where I was in life. And I had theirs in return.

"Glad it's over, Kenny?" Cartman asked, kicking some snow onto the dead fire.

"Yeah," I said. I stared at the remains of the bonfire, and watched the final disintegration of the Necronomicon in my mind's eye. "That was one hell of a mission, guys. How're you all feeling, now it's over?"

"Eh," Cartman shrugged. "It was pretty kickass, what we got to do in R'lyeh, but," he said, stretching a little, "I'm fuckin' glad we get to take a damn break."

"How about you guys?" I asked Stan and Kyle. "Dude," I asked Kyle specifically, "any, uh…" I wiggled my fingers around beside my temple, "you know?"

"Quirk setoffs? Nah, not really," Kyle answered.

"The lights flickered in Chemistry yesterday," Stan said encouragingly.

"It was windy," said Kyle. He could pretend all he wanted, but he did sound hopeful. "Anyway, I'm glad the whole thing's over, too. And, dude, Kenny, seriously. Happy birthday. I'm glad you get to have one."

"Yeah, dude," Stan agreed. "Feel like I've been saying it for months, but honest to God, you deserve it."

"Thanks, guys." Facing the three of them, I felt myself grin, and I said, "Really. Thanks for not giving up on me. You guys did some crazy shit for this League. I can't thank you enough."

"Kay, dude, don't have to kiss ass," said Cartman. "I'mma head back in, I'm still hungry."

"Go ahead," I laughed. "I'll be in, I just want another minute."

"We'll head in, too," Kyle said. "I'm getting kinda cold."

"Wear thicker jackets," Stan smirked, rapidly rubbing his hands against Kyle's upper arms to create friction. Turning to me, he said, "See you inside, dude. Don't catch hypothermia or anything."

"Not planning on it, especially on my birthday," I told him. "Thanks again, guys. You're seriously the best. I'm not gonna stop saying that."

"Whatever, dude." All the same, we exchanged a three-way hug. It was just as much our own form of celebration as anything. We had all made it, and none of us were leaving anyone else behind. None of us were leaving that experience or the Shadow League behind.

When the two stepped back, they both said, "Happy birthday, Kenny." Then we agreed to bring the energy up again once we were all together in the base, and Stan and Kyle made their way, as a unit, back inside.

I, too, was getting cold, but I looked over the bonfire dregs one more time. I glanced up at the stars, to warn whatever other Old Ones, or whatever were left, not to show themselves around us ever again, and then down at the pit that had once been our portal to the Gate of R'lyeh. Shadows surrounded me, but none moved.

It was a fight that had begun when I was nine years old. When I had first decided to don an alter ego, when I had first learned about Cthulhu, the Cult, and my Immortality. Over the years, I had collected information, delved into the world that held every last secret to what I was, and accepted my fate as a cursed Immortal. I had become Cthulhu's Shadow.

I had come out whole.

The End Time was a threat of the past. So I turned my back on the bonfire, and walked away from the reminder of a life plagued with death, and made my way back into the base. Our base. Where the Shadow League would continue to begin operations whenever we were needed. Into the warmth, the light, my life and livelihood.

Life continues on. Birthdays will come and go. But there is one fact that stands which keeps me out of the mediocre, out of anything fully predictable and routine.

I was Mysterion. I am Mysterion. I will always be Mysterion.

Keep your eyes on the shadows.

– – –

– – –

Authors' Notes:

South Park is -c- Matt Stone and Trey Parker!

Oh my gosh… it's finished. ^^; Aaah! I can't believe we're at the last chapter. This one was a lot of fun, and really satisfying to write and complete; I wanted to hearken back a little to the narrative style of the first chapter, too. We had a lot of goals with this story (update weekly on a 'six days to air' schedule, etc.), and I feel like I've learned a lot about my writing style through this process, so I'm actually really glad to call this work complete~ :3 (The bit with Kenny's parents was something I've had written for a while; it was tough to save it for the last chapter, haha…)

(There was also one minor continuity error I noticed; I went back to fix it, so hopefully it flows better into this chapter. We are going to be going back through to make minor edits here and there, let us know if you caught anything! ^^)

Thank you so much for reading! Thank you to everyone who's left a comment/review/message, too; it's been great hearing your thoughts as the story kept going. This really has been way too much fun to write; we hope you liked it~ ^^ We're not quite ready to be done with these guys yet, though, and we do have other stories in mind, so sometime in the near-ish future, we'll hopefully have a continuation if not a sequel started, too. (And we do have a fun little extra epilogue planned, but we'll post it as a separate story sometime in the next couple months…)

Again, thank you so much for reading. :D I'm excited to write new stories with these guys soon, too~~


~Jizena and Rosie Denn~

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