A/N: Whooo, I'm back! Kind of. Don't know if I ever left, really.

Anyways. It's good to be writing a multi-chaptered story again. I'm not sure how long it's going to be yet, but if I had to guess, I'd say it'll be fairly shorter than "I'm Bored, You're Amorous", if that helps. It'll also be fairly darker than IBYA, and more mature - you guys know what that means - but, hey, it's South Park. There will still be plenty of crude humor, pop culture references, Cartman being a douchebag, and, of course, Butters and Kenny (or Professor Chaos and Mysterion).

That said, I hope you enjoy!

Warning: Eventual sex, mild violence, gayness and general South Park-esque shenanigans.

Gifts and Curses

"We accept the love we think we deserve."

-Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Chapter One

Maybe it was all the books he'd read, the kinds he'd slide between thick textbooks and position just under the lip of the dining table because they were too addictive to put down. Maybe it was the movies, the ones he'd watch while curled up beneath a sanctum of pillows and old fleece blankets. Maybe it was simply because he had grown up in South Park, where everything was grandiose and the minutest details blown out of proportion, where one could only expect the unexpected. Maybe it was a combination of all these things, or something else, or maybe even nothing at all, but the point is…

Butters Stotch had pictured the penultimate, destiny-changing, oracular moment of his 17 year old lifetime to be a little more exciting than this.

In Butters' mind, the moment when he finally grew tired of the abuse and put his foot down unfolded in a number of ways, each one more grandiose, more disproportionate, and more befitting of South Park than the last. The first one he'd concocted while in preschool, immediately after a pudgy boy named Eric Cartman shoved him into a gravel pit and called him That Word for the first time, declaring with a sneer, "my Meeeeehm says that means you like riding the baloney pony!". Back then, it was all he could do to switch Eric's peanut butter and jelly sandwich (triangle-shaped, crusts meticulously removed) with turkey prior to snack time, wiggle and giggle fiendishly behind a tiny hand, and watch, dismayed, as his tormentor merely shrugged before devouring the entire sandwich in a single bite. The sixteenth one had begun with Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, and exposed skin on Good Morning America, and ended invariably with a plum-colored bruise in the shape of an adult male hand over Butters' left eye and a two month grounding hanging above his head. That night, he'd held an ice pack over the swell with one hand and mimed out hideous creatures into the glow of a flashlight with the other, creating triceratopses and mutant fluffy bunnies that would climb down from the mountains to destroy Stan and Kyle's bedrooms while their parents were away, and when their parents came back, the hideous creatures would be gone and maybe Stan and Kyle's Dads would hit them, too, so they'd know what it felt like to get punished for something they couldn't control.

There were more of them, of course. Butters could lay spread-eagle in the dewy grass of his backyard and look up at the western night sky, at all the stars flecking that western night sky, and equate each one with a time that his supposed 'friends' had taken advantage of him and a time he'd conceptualized, using every painstaking ounce of his imagination, the eventual retribution for all their misdeeds and requital for all his sufferings. Conceptualizations. That's all they were: fistfuls of fleeting, starry thoughts he kept in his mind and looked at every so often, basking in the brightness of What Could Never Happen overlapped with What I'd Like to Happen, but never amounted to What I'm Going to Make Happen.

See, Butters had a problem. He liked to call it a guilt problem, but really, that was just a misnomer. Even more than the guilt that would result from his theoretical rebellion, there was one primary personality trait that made sure each and every one of these seventy-four plans never came to fruition: caring. When it got down to it, Butters could put up a front and pout and I-I've had it about up ta HERE with you fellers! as much as he wanted. He could lay in bed and twist and curl his hand in front of a flashlight and gingerly finger the outline of his father's palm against his face and tell himself that one day, somehow, it'd all stop, all of it, that Cartman and Stan and Kyle and his parents and everyone else would stop treating him like a stupid little kid and instead treat him like how friends and family treated each other in the books and movies. But none of it would matter, because Butters had a caring problem. He cared about people, and he liked caring about people most of the time, but he cared too much for people who didn't give a darn about him. And no matter how much Butters disliked that, he cared too much to even stop. If Butters decided to just drop all his friends cold turkey, he might hurt their feelings, and he didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings – not really. He guessed that's why he couldn't – or rather, wouldn't – break out of the vicious cycle he was so entrenched in. (That, and he thought the occasional bad treatment was still better than no treatment at all.)

(He's always tried to look on the bright side.)

But if there was a bright side to the situation he's currently in, he couldn't see it around the thick fog of department store perfume or the blindingly pink walls of… Wendy Testaburger's bedroom, maybe? Truthfully, Butters couldn't remember whose bedroom he was in nor, more importantly, what had brought him there in the first place. There was a rope chafing against his ankles, allowing him to dangle upside down between the shag carpet a few inches below and the ceiling fan a few feet above. When he pressed two fingers to a throbbing twinge in the back of his skull, they came across a small, angry bump protruding amongst clumps of fleecy blond hair; to the right, propped up against a door plastered with posters of shirtless male celebrities, was a wiffle bat. Obviously, Butters had done something wrong. If the wiffle bat, impromptu ceiling fan torture and gumball-sized lump on his head were any indication, he'd possibly committed some unforgivable transgression against womankind. He ripped his gaze away from the door and looked leftwards, finding himself suddenly presented with a row of very angry, very hands-on-hips teenage girls, headed by an even angrier, more hands-on-hips Wendy Testaburger.

Yep. He'd definitely committed some unforgivable transgression against womankind.

"Uh. H-hey there, ladies!" he greeted, aiming for a good mixture of friendly, apologetic, and harmless. The bottom of his shirt was riding up a bit, and he quickly tugged it back down. "D'ya think you could, ah, let me go now, please? I'm gettin' kinda woozy…"

"What are you doing?" Wendy demanded, eyes narrowing to slits.

Butters blinked, glanced up at his ankles and the rope and the ceiling fan, and grinned. "Just… hangin' around, I s'pose," he joked, forcing a helpless little shrug. Somewhere, distantly, a perfectly-timed rimshot rang out in the dead of night. The girls looked less than amused, however. From the sharp descent of their perfectly-penciled brows, furrowing over eyes lined with mascara, to the frown poised on their glossy lips, it looked as if Butters had not only done something terribly wrong; he'd gotten them all sore, too. After an exhaustive scan through the anemic contents of his memory turned up nothing, he settled with innocently rolling his knuckles together and ignoring the way his entire head seemed to be buzzing with blood flow.

"We meant," clarified Red, her jaw tightening in a way that was really kind of unsettling, "what are you doing here, at an all girls' slumber party, and why the hell were you looking through Wendy's underwear drawer?"

Oh.

Oh.

And suddenly, just like that, it all came back to him: the musty scent of Cartman's basement, the scribbled chalk archetype of Plan So Seriously Cannot Possibly Fail This Time on a blackboard, the dramatic gestures and foreboding glint in those tawny eyes when he explained the plan to Butters, capping it all off with an avowal to kick his ass in the unlikely event of failure and "if they start, y'know, lezzin' out… just take some pictures." He remembered reluctantly agreeing to the plan, if only because it didn't involve any crossdressing. He remembered the cold, damp air pinpricking the skin on his arms and the leaden hope for approval settling in his chest as he was hoisted into the temporarily abandoned bedroom. He remembered rifling through a white armoire, wondering if Eric wanted conventional, conservative panties or something a bit more risqué. He remembered bam, the door opening, bam, the light turning on, bam, something hard and plastic colliding with the back of his head, and bam, nothing. Bam bam bam bam bam bam. He remembered it all. He wished he didn't.

The rope twisted slowly, languidly, and shook with the force of Butters' realization. One of Eric's elaborate schemes being the reason for his present unfortunate circumstance – that didn't surprise him, not one bit. Butters wasn't exactly the type to sift through a girl's underwear drawer, especially not Wendy Testaburger's. Every facet, every inch of this situation reeked of Cartman's doing, and to Butters, who had developed a special awareness for his schemes out of necessity and experience, the notion that he had once again been duped into doing the other boy's bidding was not a shock. The real shock came from something far more cataclysmic. The real shock was a result of two warring parts of Butters coming together, the first true collision of What I'd Like to Happen with What I'm Going to Make Happen. The real shock was that Butters had finally and inexplicably grown fed up with the abuse, had finally reached the moment when he put his foot down, and now he planned on making that happen in the most grandiose, disproportionate, befitting-of-South Park way possible.

"Cartman!" he blurted without thinking. The name came out of his mouth and then it was everywhere, moving wraithlike through the perfume, slinking in the shadows cast about the room by bedside lamps, suspended from the ceiling fan. Assigning an epithet to the orchestrator of this whole grand scheme was almost akin to saying Voldemort's name, at least in Butters' mind. He glanced around fearfully at first, half-expecting Eric to materialize out of thin air, but the blood pounding in his skull melted away every last trace of trepidation. It emboldened him, made him headstrong. He wasn't scared of Cartman.

Raising his chin with a touch of defiance, he studied the girls' reactions. They exchanged a look, first of surprise, then of something that might've resembled grim understanding. Cartman. Of course, it seemed to say. "Cartman made you do this?" Wendy asked, her expression softening from premature sympathy.

Butters nodded vigorously. The motion sent another jolt of pain up his spine, and he clasped a hand to the bump, wincing. "H-he sure did," he mumbled, not certain if the feeling burning up his veins was shame or sorrow. "Gee, I'm sorry if I interrupted any of you lezzin' out, but… ah, you know Eric. He's mighty persuasive."

Another look rippled its way through the crowd, a little confused, a little offended, and a little beguiled. Butters frowned and wondered if he should elaborate further, but the line of girls folded in on itself in a dissertational huddle before he could regain their attention. They talked like that for an almost interminable moment, leaving Butters to mull over his fate in silence; when they turned around, looking considerably less vicious, he breathed a sigh of relief.

"Sorry about that, Butters," Wendy apologized. "To be honest, we thought it was weird that… well, that someone like you would do something like this in the first place. Now we know, I guess."

Butters forced another megawatt smile, ignoring the odd tightening sensation in his chest. Someone like you. "Oh, that's okay, Wendy. I understand. But, um. Now can I come down?"

And everyone laughed, and everyone untied Butters and got him back on his feet, and everything was good. Mostly. With another obligatory farewell, Butters slipped into the sleeves of his familiar turquoise jacket – one thing that hadn't changed about him after all these years was his color coordination – and tried to ignore the curious gazes following him down the stairs and out of the house. Once he shut the door behind him and felt the autumnal evening breeze whip at his face, he inhaled slowly, deeply, letting the oxygen rush in, filling him whole. Out here, he felt almost feather-light. Weightless and yet so much more grounded than before.

But the buoyancy was whisked away as quick as it had come when he looked across the dark expanse of road that lay before him and saw, to his dismay, a familiar outcrop of bright green, neon blue, and red-navy awaiting him. There was a split second wherein he considered making a run for it, but he was too late. Bulky as ever, Eric Cartman stomped forward, vintage periwinkle Wellington Bear binoculars swinging from his neck and a snarl already curled on his lips. "The fuck, Butters?" he exclaimed, gesturing furiously with both hands. "You were supposed to text me with the code word, like, hours ago. You know, the code word? Afternoon de-liiight?"

Butters sighed. As if he could forget! "Yeah, w-well, sorry," he said, out of habit more than genuine remorse. "I was kinda busy bein', um, knocked out with a wiffle bat."

"A typical excuse." Cartman sidled closer to Butters, cocking his head, narrowing his eyes until they were little more than rusty slits. He smelled of 95 cent burgers and artificial cheese. Of anger and failure and wanting too much. Butters could relate; in spite of their many differences, he had always been able to relate to Eric, had always been able to plunge into the deepest and darkest parts of himself and empathize. Even now, as his body ached with the evidence of what Cartman had made him do, he felt a small strain of pity for the boy. Cartman was human, after all. Maybe a bad human who made bad choices, but still a human nonetheless. Butters just didn't know how much longer he could withstand bearing the brunt of those bad choices. "You got the goods? Is the deed done?" Cartman asked, ignoring the obvious.

"…No."

It was at this point that Stan and Kyle – who had agreed to tag along only because, in their own words, "it's kind of our job" – stepped forward, exchanging twin looks of concern. Meanwhile, Cartman's face was turning a near apoplectic shade of red. "Could you repeat that for me?" he ground out between gritted teeth. "Because it sounded like you said you didn't bag Wendy Testaburger's fucking Granny Panties!"

"Okay, I still don't understand why you're so fixated on this in the first place," Kyle piped up.

"I'm running a smear campaign, goddammit, which doesn't work if you don't have anything to smear with! It's politics. And defamation. Funny, Kahl, I thought you would know all about that, considering your people's history of media control and totally raping society up the ass!"

"Here we go again," Stan muttered. At his side, Kyle was already lunging forward, grabbing fistfuls of Cartman's burgundy windbreaker, yanking on it harshly. They crashed into each other in a seething, impetuous tangle of curses and unskilled blows. It was a familiar routine; a South Park classic, memorialized by years of repetition, compounded with roiling teenage hormones and the tensions of suburban life. Once only a quiet, rumbling storm, by senior year it had reached a violent crescendo. Thunderclaps. Low- and high-pressure fronts. The human Coriolis force of love and hate. Looking at them now, to see the ways in which they clawed and kicked and tore, it was obvious how much they meant to one another. Two strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.

And Stan and Butters – these voyeuristic barometers – just looked on, because that's how it had always been and how they thought it always would be. It was normal. In their childhood, when squabbles like this were just as frequent (though less destructive), it might have even been entertaining. But now, Butters wasn't so sure. Was this how people were destined to treat each other? Was this what all close relationships devolved into? Were these the kinds of relationships he wanted to keep in his life, anyway?

It was the books he'd read, the movies he'd watched, and the childhood he'd spent in South Park. It was the culmination of 17 years' worth of repeated usury and the insecurity it created in him. It was the ghost of a splayed purple mark on his face and the bump on his head. It was the conceptualizations he'd created in his mind, the gnawing hope that someone would eventually have a caring problem for him, too, and if not that, then maybe there would at least be someone out there who could relate. It was the recognition of something he'd known for a long time, but hadn't let himself completely believe until this very moment: no one had a caring problem for him, and no one wanted to relate, and he felt kind of like Atlas, like his shoulders were bending and breaking under the weight of so much caring. It was a combination of all these things, and something else, and a little bit of nothing at all, that led Butters to what he did next.

"Fellers," he said, raising his voice above the din. Cartman and Kyle, to everyone's surprise, stopped long enough to listen. "I-I quit."

"What?" Cartman breathed, dislodging a stunned Kyle and staggering to his feet in one spasmodic motion. "That's not funny, jackass!"

"Good, 'cause I wasn't tryna be funny," Butters retorted. Evidently, Cartman had no comeback for this; he half-stood, half-hunched, fists clenching and unclenching, jaw slackened somewhat. It was enough to send a small tremor of guilt through Butters, which he forced himself to ignore. "Ya know," he continued, arms akimbo, "I'm startin' to think that Kenny had the right idea, after all."

The response to this statement was immediate. Stan muttered a very grave, very emphatic "dude". Kyle looked down and away, remorse etched clearly into his features. And Cartman – Cartman's face took on about five different expressions at once, a mis-spliced, jerky film reel of emotional confusion. Here, Butters had broken the unspoken rule: never – never ever ever – talk about Kenny. On any other day, this would have been a source of great anxiety for Butters; now, he couldn't quite bring himself to care, though he was sure he'd come to regret it sooner or later. He couldn't care right now. He just couldn't. With that parting statement, he turned on his heel and walked away from Wendy's house, away from Cartman and Stan and Kyle and everything that had happened between them, away from all the bad and all the good, too. He walked away and forced himself not to look back. If he did, he'd never leave.

By the time he stumbled through the front door to his parents' simple suburban home, the catatonia, that lack of caring which pervaded his every thought and action, had not yet faded. He consumed his plate of warmed-up lasagna (normally Butters' favorite) with a zombie-like sense of duty, stood under the showerhead for ten minutes longer than usual, and collapsed onto his unmade bed as soon as he'd gotten changed. What did other people do when they felt like this – like their whole world had been smashed to bits and pieces and then put back together with Crazy Glue? Were there even any other people who felt like this? On his nightstand, next to a glass of pink lemonade, was his cell phone; Butters grabbed it and scrolled through the contacts list detachedly. Bradley Biggle – no, he was probably back on his home planet again. Craig – no, he had never been too sympathetic. Eric – big no, since he was, in essence, the root of Butters' problem in the first place. Kenny… Butters stared at the highlighted name with a mixture of longing and guilt. If anyone could understand his predicament, it was Kenny. But Kenny was gone now, had left them all a long time ago, and the distance he had put between them wasn't the type that could – or should – be crossed via cell phone.

With a sigh, Butters set the phone back down on the nightstand again, watching dark clouds scud across the moon. Hesitantly he lifted one hand and curled it into a vague shape. Shadows flitted across the opposite wall, given life by Butters' imagination: Cartman and Stan and Kyle and mutant fluffy bunnies and angels and demons and Professor Chaos and Mysterion. When he realized what he was doing, he stopped and squeezed his eyes shut. He wasn't a superhero; he was Butters Stotch, reader of thick books and watcher of cartoons and dreamer of dreams and alone, alone. All alone. "Oh, Butters," he murmured. "What have you gotten yourself into this time?"