A/N - I wanted to do something really different (by my own standards anyway, I'm sure something similar has been done before), because I have this problem writing Stan and Kyle and making them not touch each other constantly. So in a way this kind of started out as a way to keep them from doing that, and it went from being a long one-shot into another attempt at a multi-chapter. But this time I actually intend to finish what I start, because I know exactly where this one is going. I'll try to update as often as I can, but classes are starting up again next week, so I'll be really busy. But I'll try my best.


Kyle shifts uncomfortably in his seat, glancing at the clock. The second hand seems to be moving extra slowly, as if it has some kind of personal vendetta against him, like it wants him to be stuck in this stuffy classroom for as long as possible. It's only a few weeks into September, but Kyle has already had enough of his classes, enough of all the people, enough of everything. He thinks it's because it's his last year before high school, and he's restless, because there's a part of him that actually believes high school will be better somehow. It's a stupid thing to think, because he'll still be surrounded by the same people, just in a different building, but he's going to believe it until he's proven otherwise. That's the only way he can see himself surviving this year.

There's only ten minutes until he's free to go, and he has no idea what the teacher is talking about anymore, but it's not like it really matters. South Park isn't exactly big enough to provide advanced classes – a waste of minimal funding, probably, because the classes would only consist of him and maybe, terrifyingly, Cartman. But that also meant that Kyle's middle school experience was pretty much a breeze, passing all of his classes without any major stress.

That didn't mean he didn't spend hours studying every day, but it was more leisurely, a hobby almost, something to fill his abundant free time. Between that and his computer, Kyle can almost pretend that he has a life, something to look forward to each day. Right now, all he's looking forward to is getting home, throwing on his pajamas, and plopping his ass in front of his computer to go back to his RPG.

He'd just discovered it a little over a month ago, the not-so-cleverly titled RPG: The RPG, and it had rapidly taken over his life. There was really nothing overly special about it, nothing that sets it apart from other online fads he'd been a part of – just the same concept with different graphics and different monsters. But just like the others, it was inexplicably addictive, and lately all Kyle could think about was getting on and leveling his character, a mage he'd named Shee'vah for lack of anything better, and trying to save up enough gold to buy her the newly released glowing armor. It wasn't that much stronger than regular armor, didn't really do anything all that special, but it glowed, and Kyle had spent an embarrassing amount of time fantasizing about how cool his character would look running around in that, how everyone would be in absolute awe, tripping over themselves for the chance to talk to him.

It probably won't be that way at all; by the time he can finally afford it, it'll be old news. Kyle's smart enough to know that, but it's still fun to think about, and it gives him something to strive for. Something to take his mind off the fact that he has nothing better to do than waste his life on the internet.

When the bell finally rings it actually catches him off guard, and he jumps a little at the sudden noise. The classroom is suddenly a blur of motion, everyone throwing things into their backpacks and rushing out the door, eager to get started on whatever excitement the weekend had in store for them, maybe one last camping trip before the cold really settles in. Whatever. Kyle doesn't exactly care. After years of never being invited, the jealousy all but vanishes.

He packs up with a little less enthusiasm, making sure his books are sitting neatly in his backpack, no pages bent, before he zips it up and slides it over his shoulders, where it rests snugly against back. He supposes he's not cool enough to loosen the straps enough to let it dangle over his ass – he tried it once, but the constant smacking of hard, weighty textbooks against his thighs wasn't the most pleasant thing in the world. Maybe the only people popular enough to pull off the look without bruising their legs had too much of a social life to do their homework, and they carry home empty backpacks every day. It's the only explanation Kyle has been able to come up with.

He makes his way down the hall, sidestepping the lingering clusters of people – girls, mostly – chatting away, as if they hadn't had all day to do so, as if they'd never be able to again. It's just the weekend, and it'll end all too soon, then they'll all be back here, trapped together whether they like it or not.

But for now, it's such a relief pushing his way out the double doors, being outside with the knowledge that he doesn't have to return for two full days. Of course, the weekend will go by way too fast, no matter how Kyle tries to manage his time, because the internet has the ability to make hours go by like seconds. And he'll be back here before he fully has a chance to appreciate his freedom, and he'll fight through the next week by looking forward to the weekend, and the cycle will start all over again.

He's just about to get on the bus when someone grabs his backpack and tugs, hard, nearly making him fall right on his ass. He staggers and flails his arms, barely managing to catch himself on the folded door of the bus, and he's still in the process of turning around when he yells, "Fuck off, fatass!" It's Cartman, it's always Cartman, and he's standing there with arms folded over his massive chest, smiling darkly. Rage flares up inside of Kyle, white hot and deadly, and the flicker of nervousness in Cartman's eyes only makes the anger that much sweeter.

"Step aside, Jew," Cartman says coolly, as if he's not afraid Kyle will punch his teeth out again. It happened once before – they always got in fights, and those fights often turned physical, but last year Kyle had managed to clock him right in the mouth. He'd only gotten suspended for it, luckily, sent home with a stern warning that he wouldn't get off so easy next time, but being such a good student and a first time offender (which was bullshit; he was just good at not getting caught), he was allowed a little leniency. Even so, he thought his mom would never stop lecturing him, never unground him, but it had all been worth it for the knowledge that Cartman was missing his two front teeth. That had been fixed by now, unfortunately, and Kyle doesn't want to know how many dentists Cartman's mom had to fuck to erase all traces of the damage.

But still, whatever reputation Kyle'd had was permanently ruined, because somehow losing his temper every now and then was some kind of fucking crime. Or maybe, while he'd been suspended, Cartman had managed to win everyone over with some melodramatic sob story about what a danger to society Kyle was. Probably the latter. Regardless, the few acquaintances he did have never quite treated him the same way again; it's always forced smiles and awkward pauses now, before they run off because they conveniently remember that they have somewhere they have to be.

"If you wanted me to rearrange your teeth again, all you had to do was ask," Kyle spits venomously, his fists rising on their own accord. The look on Cartman's face is priceless, and now matter how angry Kyle gets, invoking that kind of terror in someone who deserves it as much as Cartman will never fail to fill him with smug satisfaction.

Cartman's gaze darts from side to side, undoubtedly taking in the crowd that's started to form – kids waiting to get on the bus, but not willing to get involved, sadistically nosy. Cartman raises up, puffing out his chest, as if he actually needs to look even bigger. "Whatever, kike. You should be thanking me for not suing your ass – next time I won't be so merciful."

Kyle can't stop the bark of a laugh that escapes him, even as Cartman shoves past him, the bus dipping perilously under his weight. Next time. So much for looking like the better man when he practically admitted that Kyle was more than capable of kicking his ass again.

Adrenaline is still thrumming through Kyle's veins as he climbs onto the bus, and he feels kind of shaky with the unfulfilled aggression, and it must show on his face, because no one is quite meeting his eyes. He makes his way toward the very back, toward his usual spot by the window, and it's completely vacant. No one has sat by him in years, but he's mostly okay with that. At least he gets a whole seat to himself, with plenty of room to stretch out comfortably without having to worry about anyone touching him.

He pulls his legs up onto the seat and rests his back against the window, pulling out his iPod and trying to ignore the not-so-subtle looks everyone keeps giving him. It's bothersome, and the rage prickles beneath his skin; either he's a dangerous asshole who deserves to be locked away, or he's a quiet, nerdy minority who deserves to be picked on. One or the other, never both. He really wishes they'd make up their minds, because this back and forth bullshit is really getting old.

Kyle tries his best to push the anger aside as the bus slowly begins to move, and he drowns out the unreasonably loud chatter by turning up his music as loud as he can stand it. It's harder on days like this, when he gets himself worked up, lets Cartman get to him, only for it to go nowhere. He feels like a spring, wound up way too tight, ready to explode at the slightest provocation, and without an outlet it can take hours for him to calm down. When he'd been suspended, it had been suggested that he had a problem, and while Kyle still isn't exactly sure how he feels about that, his mom wouldn't listen to a word of it. To her, it's all a matter of self control, and unmanageable anger is caused by immaturity and selfishness, because there could never be anything wrongwith her precious bubeleh – he just needs a little fine-tuning.

He's still tense by the time he gets home, but there's no one around to question him, which he's grateful for. He runs up to his room and lets his backpack fall off his shoulders, kicking it aside, and gets his computer started on booting up before he begins changing his clothes. He would prefer to curl up in bed with his laptop, but it doesn't have quite enough memory and so the game lags like a bitch, and in the middle of a fast-paced battle, that can be the difference between life and death. So he's been stuck playing on his old desktop, hunched over it for hours until he can't take sitting in his lame metal folding chair anymore. That's the only thing that keeps him from playing nonstop, and he's decided that that's a good thing, so hasn't looked into getting a new chair. Yet.

He's a little more violent than necessary as he tugs off his clothes, throwing them across the room in an attempt to blow off steam, his coat and jeans hitting against the wall with a satisfying smack of zippers and heavy fabric. It's not enough, and each little touch of relief makes the anger rear up even more, pushing toward the surface, and for a second he can't breathe, and he whirls around, letting out a yell as he slams his fist against the wall. He notices the sound first, the eerily loud crack, and he stands there, shaking and huffing for breath, staring between his hand and the wall, looking for damage. The side of his hand is rapidly turning red and he slowly becomes aware of the dull throbbing, but it's nothing serious, nothing is broken. At least he can see straight again.

The computer is ready to go by the time he's pulled on his pajama pants and a faded Terrance and Phillip t-shirt, and he settles into his chair, equally comforted and disturbed by the fact that he probably won't move from it for the next four hours or so. And even then, he'd only be taking a break to eat dinner, and then he'd inevitably be back to play for as long as he could until that stupid chair forced him to quit.

He shakes out his hand to try to get some feeling back into it, and then he logs in, ready to get started. He only has one goal in mind for this weekend, and that's to earn as much gold as he possibly can, as fast as he possibly can. He wants – needs – that glowing armor, and he's only a half a million shy of getting it. This is the closest he's ever been to spending real money on a game; for only twenty dollars, he'd be able to add more than enough gold to his account, and Shee'vah would be glowing from head to toe within the hour, but he's not quite that desperate. He probably will be soon, if he doesn't make significant progress during the next couple of days.

As soon as the game loads, he sets to work, making his way out of the main town and off into the forest. By this point he has a pretty good grasp on which monsters have the best drops, and he's hoping that by playing the odds, by spending the day doing nothing but killing, he'll end up with quite a bit of gold and maybe a few valuable items he can sell.

It's mostly the latter – he only ends up getting gold drops between four and five hundred, sticking mostly in the one hundred range, but he's having unusual luck with item drops. Uncommon stones and weapons fall around him with what feels like nearly every kill, and there's a part of him that's concerned that there's some kind of glitch, because this shouldn't be happening. He's not about to question it, though, and he silently thanks the universe for allowing something to finally go his way. After all the shit he has to put up with every day, he deserves this.

He loses himself in the feeling of the game, the music, the sound effects, Shee'vah's delicate, graceful mannerisms that are so unlike his own. But when he plays, it's like he's a part of her, that there's no separation between them, that he really is beautiful and elegant, but also a wielder of deadly magic; the beauty as misleading as brightly colored poison. He wants to be like this, perfect and self-sufficient, loved by all but needing none. But at the end of the day he's still short and ugly, a nasty chip on his shoulder in place of strong independence.

Within a mere two hours, his inventory is packed with valuable items, armor and weapons that won't fit his character, and he leans back in his chair, contemplating his next move. Usually, when he stumbles across things he wants to sell, he'll just move his character into some central location in the main town and set up shop, letting people come to him and buy what they wanted. But that could take awhile, and it often meant leaving the game up for hours while we wandered away and tried to find something else to occupy his time with. He doesn't want to do that, not today, because when he adds it all up in his head, the items he already had in his inventory combined with the ones he found today are worth more than enough. It's impossible, unbelievable, but if he could somehow turn all of it into gold right now, he could have what he'd been wanting for so long without even having to touch the gold he'd been saving, and that would leave him money for other things, like a matching glowing weapon.

His only option besides setting up his shop is to log out of the game and get on the official forum, and find out if there's anyone who'd be willing to take everything he had for the exact price of the armor. It would actually be a good deal, and for once he'd be totally okay with getting less gold than what his finds are actually worth. He just wants the armor – it doesn't matter if it leaves him with a completely empty inventory. There's no need to be greedy.

The only problem is that Kyle tends to avoid the forums as much as he can, because they're always filled with incoherent chatspeak and an abundance of bright yellow smiley faces, and he can never look at it for too long without his brain feeling like it's about to explode. But this is different, this is important, and even though his posts either seem to go ignored or draw in the game's stupidest players, he figures it's worth a shot. He has nothing to lose, except for a few brain cells.

He fishes a notepad out of his desk and quickly scribbles down every single item he has, and he double-checks the online store, making sure he didn't just convince himself that the armor is cheaper than it really is. Everything checked out; the armor is still there, a frozen picture of its enticing glow, and its price is exactly what he thought it would be. He lets his fingers skim over the image longingly, the glass of the screen cool against his fingertips. He's going to own this. Tonight. He can't believe it, and he can't keep himself from smiling.

Breaking out of his trance, Kyle shoves away from the computer and runs to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, digging out a bottle of Aspirin. He's going to need it if he wants to survive the coming onslaught of idiocy. That in hand, he hurries back into his room and slams the door behind him, and he lands in his chair so gracelessly that he nearly slides off the other side and falls on the floor.

His legs are bouncing with excitement as he opens up the forum, and this feels like such a huge deal, way more important than it actually is. He knows it's not real, that he's wasting all of this time and energy on something that amounts to nothing in the real world, but it right now it seems like so much more than that, like everything in his life is about to turn around and start making sense. It's stupid, so stupid, but there's no one here to make fun of him or judge him, so Kyle doesn't even try to quell his excitement. This is the best thing that's happened to him in months, and he's not going to let some misplaced shame ruin it.

Making forum posts always makes him inexplicably nervous, which is another reason he avoids them when he can, and he checks the forum category and his spelling and grammar so many times that his words almost stop making sense. He finally works up his nerve enough to post it, and he halfway ducks away from the screen, as if some part of him expected to get physically attacked. Nothing happens, of course, but that doesn't stop his heart from pounding every time he refreshes the page, waiting anxiously for a response.

His post is as clear as it could possibly be; he listed everything he had to offer (in alphabetical order, even), and said he was only looking for glowing mage armor (or the gold value of it) in exchange, nothing else. So he has to ask himself why he immediately gets two replies, one offering only one thousand gold and some spring water, and one begging for Kyle to just give some of it to them for free. Or at least, that's what Kyle thinks they're saying – their words are almost indecipherable.

He doesn't bother to reply to either of them, and he goes ahead and pops an Aspirin, wondering why he bothered trying. It's always like this. Something about him always seems to attract the biggest dumbasses on the internet. Either that, or the game is totally filled with little kids, and he's the only thirteen year old loser who has nothing better to do.

He waits awhile before he refreshes again, and there's only one new response. He hesitates just a little before reading it, scrolling down to it unnecessarily slowly, putting off the inevitable disappointment. The response is from someone with the username Toolshed the Fucking Warrior, and that alone is enough to make Kyle smile and consider the offer more seriously, but it really doesn't require any consideration at all. Toolshed's post is simple: hey I have glowing mage armor I can trade you and I'll throw in some other mage stuff I found if you want. pm me if you're interested.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Kyle asks the empty room, laughter bubbling in his chest, and he feels a little overwhelmed with excitement. He keeps trying to tell himself not to get his hopes up, not yet, because this was too easy and there's a very good chance it's a scam somehow, but he can't help it. For whatever reason, this feels legit, and he's so eager to click the 'PM' button under Toolshed's name that he misses it the first few times.

'Hey', Kyle types, not quite sure how formal he should be with this. 'Thanks for your offer. I'm totally interested! So how do you want to do this? Just meet up somewhere and trade?' He feels like he should say more, like he should thank this other user for actually reading his original post and offering what he asked for, but he doesn't want to come across as annoyingly chatty. Despite spending the majority of his time online, he's not quite familiar with the social aspect of it, so he doesn't know if he should keep this strictly business, or if he should try to be friendly, too. He finally decides that Toolshed's offer was short and to-the-point, and therefore his message should be, too.

He sends it before he has a chance to change his mind, and he starts refreshing the page obsessively, waiting for that little (1) to appear next to his inbox. It's a full five minutes before he gets a response, and at first Kyle is almost afraid to click on it. But he does, biting his lower lip in anticipation.

'sure sounds good. forest to the west of town? that big fucking tree?'

Kyle knows exactly which tree Toolshed is talking about; it's one Kyle had often wondered about, because it just looks important, and he keeps waiting for there to be some kind of quest or something based around it. But there haven't been any signs of that happening yet, which is slightly disappointing, but Kyle isn't giving up hope.

'Okay, great. My character's name is Shee'vah. I'll be waiting for you.'

He doesn't bother to wait for a response, just exits his browser and loads up the game again. As soon as the town starts to take shape around him, he makes his character start to run, the game lagging and jerking choppily as it attempts to load, but Kyle doesn't have time to wait around for the hundreds of other characters to appear. He's waited too long for this already.

When he gets to the tree, there's no one there, and he isn't exactly surprised. He'd wanted to get there first, because he didn't want to make Toolshed have to wait on him, but now he wishes he'd stayed on the forum for just a little while longer, because he has no idea what Toolshed's character is, or if the character's name is actually the same as his forum username.

He decides to wait for awhile, because even if he doesn't know Toolshed's character, Toolshed should recognize Shee'vah. But still, Kyle hovers his mouse over any character that passes by, checking their name, because he wants to catch Toolshed before the two of them get stuck in some awkward pre-trade conversation.

It feels like hours go by, even though it's really no more than about three minutes, but Kyle is still about to log out and check his forum messages again, just to make sure that Toolshed didn't want to meet tomorrow or something. Right as he's seriously considering it, a large, barbarian of a character appears in the distance, lurching in Kyle's direction in a slow, menacing trot, and somehow Kyle just knows that's him. He hovers his mouse over them just to make sure, and the name simply reads Toolshed. The 'fucking warrior' part was probably a bit too long for a character name, otherwise it would have been there, too; Kyle feels oddly certain of that.

He sends a trade request as soon as Toolshed gets within range, and starts adding every single thing in his inventory, which is more than a little nerve-wracking. There's still a part of him that doesn't believe this is real, that's just waiting for Toolshed to offer some frayed clothing and this all to have been some kind of cruel joke. He still can't believe it, even as he watches Toolshed's half of the trade menu fill up, a little picture of the glowing armor actually appearing, and this is really happening, it's not a scam or a joke or anything.

Toolshed throws in a few extra mage accessories and weapons, as promised, taking his time as if he's thinking carefully about each one before adding it, plus a couple thousand gold, but Kyle is barely aware of any of it. His mouse is poised over the 'accept' button, and all he wants is for Toolshed to finish up so he can finally, finally get his armor.

When Toolshed finishes up and confirms his end of the trade, Kyle only spares a quick glance at his offer, making sure he didn't remove the armor at last second, using all the other items as a distraction. But it's still there, only a click away, and Kyle wastes no more time. He accepts and immediately opens up his inventory, because he needs that armor on now.

He equips it and pauses for a second, grinning at the way it surrounded Shee'vah in a soft, golden light, little orbs of color fluttering around her like fairies. It's perfect, everything Kyle has ever hoped for – better than he hoped for – and he can't wait to run through the middle of town and let everyone get a look. He's not usually this much of a showoff, but this is a special circumstance; everyone wants glowing armor, because it's not the kind of thing that can easily go overlooked. If you have it, everyone around you will know, no overlooking it, no exceptions, and maybe that's part of lure.

Satisfied, Kyle goes back to his inventory to see what else Toolshed had given him. Through the slight transparency of the inventory menu, he can see Toolshed still standing there, probably checking out the things Kyle had given him. Something about that makes Kyle kind of happy, like they have some kind of silent respect for each other now, because he knows he'll probably get excited every time he sees Toolshed from now on. But it's most likely one-sided; Toolshed probably does this sort of thing all the time. Kyle is probably the only one who would ever get this excited over a simple trade.

Some of the accessories Toolshed had given him were actually pretty valuable – along with some worthless starter ones that he probably just wanted out of his inventory – and Kyle equips as many of them as he can. He's just about to close his inventory and wander away, because he has no idea what to say and he's becoming increasingly aware of how awkward is just to be standing here not talking, and that's when he sees it. It's the very last thing in his inventory, on a new row all by itself that he had almost overlooked completely: the matching glowing weapon. He's almost afraid to equip it at first, because this is too much, he can't accept it; surely it's just a mistake and Toolshed will ask for it back.

Kyle talks himself into equipping it for that reason, just so Toolshed will know for sure that he has it, and Kyle exits his inventory and types, 'Dude.' That's all he can say, all he can think, because no one on the internet is this fucking generous; everybody is just looking out for themselves.

'looks good', Toolshed responds, followed by a little happy face, which is something Kyle usually hates but for some reason makes him so happy now.

Kyle wants to come up with some serious, mature response about how he can't accept this, how Toolshed should take it back and sell it and buy something for himself, but he can't quite bring himself to do that. He wants it, and Toolshed apparently wants him to have it – why ask questions?

He eventually settles with, 'Thank you so, so much. This is awesome.' But he's smiling so hard his face hurts, and he wishes he could convey that somehow without sounding like a total dipshit, but this has made his day, his week, his month, possibly his whole fucking year, and there's no way Toolshed could ever understand that.

'no problem. well see ya.' That's probably the normal response, the one Kyle should have been expecting, but he can't help but feel a surge of disappointment as Toolshed takes off. He only takes a few lumbering steps, seeming to hesitate a little, before vanishing completely, evidently logging off. Kyle sighs to himself before doing the same. Dinner will probably be ready soon, and he figures he might as well stop now instead of getting distracted by something new, only to have to quit in the middle of it.

He turns off his monitor and stretches, leaning back in the chair as far as he can, balancing it on its back two legs as he braces his feet on the edge of the desk. He lets his head fall back and stares at the ceiling, his upside down room. He has so much stuff, everything put away in its neat little place, but he hasn't touched any of it in what feels like forever. There's a tall bookshelf completely lined with books, fiction and nonfiction, and he's read all of them more times than he can remember; his TV and Gamesphere sit high on top of his dresser and face the foot of his bed, which would be the perfect arrangement if he could actually access any channels. But the TV is strictly for gaming, and the cord on the controller is too short to reach the bed, which means he has to sit on the floor and look up too high to play. It's more trouble than it's worth, because his neck always hurts like a bitch afterward. But he used to do it all the time, no matter what, but everything kind of lost its sheen after his addiction to the internet really took hold.

He can't remember what caused it, what made him go from being a casual user to being completely reliant on it. It feels like he just woke up one morning and didn't care about anything else, like the time he spent doing other things was a waste. Because the internet never slept, there's always something new and exciting happening, and every second he's away means he's missing out. It doesn't matter that when he's online all he does is refresh pages endlessly, or roam around by himself in the game, because he's not entirely sure where to find this excitement, but he feels better knowing he has access to it, should it ever appear.

He mostly just plays games, RPG: The RPG being the latest one, but he's gone through Tetris phases and Farmville phases – practically anything with a high score board, just to prove that he always comes out on top. It gets a little frustrating, especially with Facebook games, because no one actively plays with him; he just competes with a couple of high scores from months ago. That's what eventually led him to games off Facebook, where he could play with other people who are just as into the games as he is. He's probably played every single free RPG out there, and he always jumps on new ones as soon as he discovers them, always hoping to be one of the very first players, because it seems like there should be some kind of popularity associated with that.

He gently lowers the chair back down onto all four legs, gripping onto the desk to steady himself, and stares at his hazy reflection in the blackened screen. It seems kind of pathetic when there's nothing there to look at; he spends so many hours sitting in this spot, never moving, hardly looking away, but it's not real. None of it will ever amount to anything in the real world, because it all goes away with the push of a button.

The sound of muffled bubblegum music breaks him out of his trance, and he's so unused to the sound that he doesn't immediately recognize it as his cell phone. He looks around dazedly, blinking rapidly, and it's not until his eyes land on his jeans, still in a wadded heap against the wall, that he realizes that someone is actually calling him.

He clambers out of the chair and stumbles across the room on numb legs, snatching up his jeans and searching the pockets for his phone. The outside screen is a mix of colors and inky blackness, a crack running up the middle like a bolt of lightning, because today hadn't been the first time Kyle had thrown his phone – unintentionally or otherwise. The downside is that he can never see who is calling, but somehow he still knows who it is before he answers. It's the only person who ever calls him besides his mom, who would never resort to using a phone when they're in the same house.

"Uh, hey Kenny," he says awkwardly, trying to sound pleasant, like he's actually happy to hear from him.

"Hey." Kenny draws the word out, probably trying to sound cool, but Kyle thinks the raspy hick voice kind of ruins the effect. "What's going on, man?"

"Nothing. Just about to eat dinner."

"With your family?" Kenny says it like it's completely unheard of. "Ouch. Wanna bail and hang with me for a bit?" He does this sometimes. They'll go weeks, months, without talking, then Kenny will call out of the blue and ask to hang out. It used to happen more frequently, but Kyle turned him down more often than not, always with some clever excuse, and Kenny must have gotten somewhat tired of it, must have realized that Kyle was avoiding him on purpose.

Kyle forces back the urge to just say no and hang up – he has better manners than that. "Oh, dude, you know I'd love to—" Kenny snorts humorlessly on the other end, and Kyle pretends not to notice "—but my mom wanted tonight to be this gay family night thing." He feigns a laugh, like he can't believe he has to admit to something as lame as this, when he's really going to spend the night holed up in his room, completely alone. As usual.

"So? You see your family every fuckin' day. C'mon, Kyle."

It's not that Kyle doesn't want friends; it's not that he isn't lonely; it's not that he doesn't spend every second wishing that he could live a life other than the one he currently has. He hates this, staying inside all the time, seeing no one, doing nothing. It feels wrong, like he was meant for so much more than this, like maybe deep down inside he's not just an outcast with an anger problem; maybe he can be someone bold, someone who stands up for what he believes in, someone who'd go against his parents and society and do something completely crazy if it meant doing the right thing.

The problem, he thinks, is that he's not overly passionate about anything. The internet is easy, safe, and he'd be lying to himself if he said he didn't get truly obsessed with whatever his game of the moment was. It's there when he wants it, and he can turn it off as soon as he gets tired of it. It's not like a friend. Not like Kenny, who demands his attention when Kyle doesn't want to give it, and the times they have hung out always ended up running longer than Kyle would have liked.

Or maybe the problem is that he just doesn't like Kenny. There's nothing overtly wrong with him, other than the fact that he's not the kind of person Kyle exactly wants to hang out with. Kyle tries to be a good person, tries not to judge people over things they can't change, but the fact is that Kenny's a little too dirty, a little too perverted; he's unmotivated and he smells bad and his clothes don't fit, and he is in every way the complete opposite of Kyle. He's not a bad person, and Kyle could like him in moderation, maybe, with someone between them to act as a buffer. Frankly, he's not perfect, doesn't quite fill the inexplicable void in Kyle's chest, and Kyle doesn't want to devote every second of his time and attention to a friendship he's not fully invested in. He doesn't want to settle on Kenny just because he seems to be the only person in South Park interested in spending time with him.

"Sorry," Kyle says with a dramatic sigh. "I wish I could get out of this. Maybe some other time?"

Kenny's reply comes a little hesitantly. "Okay. Sure. Just give me a call when you're free."

"Okay," Kyle agrees, already knowing that he's not going to, that he's going to slap his forehead and claim to have forgotten when Kenny inevitably asks him about it.

When he finally escapes, finally hangs up and tosses his phone back onto the floor, there's a part of him that feels oddly guilty. Guilty maybe isn't the right word – but there's a heaviness inside him, even though he got what he wanted, and it's almost enough to make him call Kenny back and tell him he convinced his mom to let him go. But there's no sense in doing that, because he doesn't want to go, and so he trudges downstairs, only to bump into his mom halfway down.

"Oh Kyle!" she exclaims, as if it's been forever since she's seen him. In a way, he supposes it has been. "I was just coming to get you, bubbie, dinner's ready."

It's as uncomfortable as it always is, sitting at the table with his family while Ike babbles about what he did at school, how much his teacher loves him, how she thinks he has so much potential, how he helped his friends with their classwork and earned a gold star. And their parents listen, smiling and nodding so proudly, and Kyle spends that time imagining how the conversation would go if he actually spoke up.

Guess what I did today, ma.

Oh, did you find out what you made on your test? You got another A didn't you? My boys are so smart.

No – no, I mean, I haven't found out yet. But I finally got my glowing armor on that RPG I'm playing!

And his parents would just stare at him, he can envision it so clearly, and so he would try to backtrack, to talk about school.

Oh and uh, I almost got in another fight with Cartman. It was so fucking worth it for the look on his face – you should have seen it!

And then he'd probably get a lecture, about fighting and language, and dinner would either go on in an angry silence, or Ike would babble even more, kissing up, silently saying I'm the good son, look how good I am, I can do no wrong.

So Kyle remains silent, answering with a simple, "Good," when his dad asks him how his day was. He pretends to be tired, yawning and stretching dramatically, pretends to regret not being awake enough to stay to hear the end of Ike's tale about his thrilling recess adventure, and he goes back to his room to "relax for a bit, maybe read."

The look his mom gives him as he hurries up the stairs tells him that she doesn't believe for one second that he'll actually be reading, or even relaxing, that she knows he'll go to his room and go right back to what he'd been doing before coming downstairs. As long as she doesn't try to stop him, Kyle doesn't care if she knows. He has nothing to hide. His parents might be disappointed that this is all he's doing with his life at the moment, but there's nothing they can do about it. It's not like lecturing him will make the perfect friend appear.

So he goes back to his computer, sits back down in his uncomfortable metal folding chair, and it feels like coming home after being away for too long. He turns the monitor back on, and the screen is still slowly trying to fade in as he double-clicks the little tree icon (again, that fucking tree) on his desktop, setting the RPG to loading.

It doesn't matter how much he tells himself he expected this; when the town materializes around his character, the other players loading one right after another, he's still disappointed when no one says anything about his armor. He stands there for a minute – maybe the splendor of it takes a little longer to load for everyone – but no one says a word. People log in and out, appearing and disappearing like fireflies, carrying on their own conversations around him, and if anyone is even remotely interested in him then they must be keeping to themselves.

That's what Kyle finally decides on when he gives up and runs out toward the forest. Everyone was jealous, because he was the only one there with glowing armor and a glowing weapon, but they hadn't wanted to make their jealousy too obvious. But they all saw it. There was no way they could have missed it. That still provides a small bit of comfort, even if Kyle didn't get the fanfare he'd always imagined.

He spends the rest of the night – until nearly six in the morning – going on quests, leveling up, pretending he's not looking for Toolshed. But he finds himself venturing out farther and farther, covering more ground than he usually does in a single night, taking notice of everyone he passes by. If Toolshed is online, Kyle can't find him anywhere, and he supposes the odds are against him; there are countless people on, logging in and logging out by the second, and Toolshed could be anywhere, even at some far edge of the map that Kyle hasn't even explored yet.

But it doesn't matter, because Kyle isn't looking for him. Maybe if he happens to stumble across him, he might say hey – that's only being polite after all – but there's no point in actively pursuing him. Whatever odd connection Kyle had felt must have been one-sided, otherwise Toolshed would have said something before he left.

But Kyle doesn't see him, and when he finally gives up and stumbles to bed he's shaking with fatigue. He's pretty sure he falls asleep before his head even hits the pillow, and he has dream after strangely vivid dream about having a best friend. In some of the dreams, they're just doing normal mundane things, sitting around playing video games or just sitting side by side, doing nothing, looking at nothing, absorbed in each other's presence. In others, they're doing things that are completely insane, things that should have made Kyle realize he was dreaming, because they fall below ice and discover a prehistoric iceman; they catch a flight to Canada on a whim to do something important, something he thinks has to do with Ike, but the details are hazy; they go down into the sewers and talk to a family of shit. It's all so impossible but it feels so perfect, like this is the way his life should really be.

When he wakes up, the sun is beating on his face, making the vision behind his closed eyes glow a blinding red, and he knows without looking that it's well past noon. He turns his back to the window and gropes for his blankets, because he was so tired he fell asleep right on top of them, and tries to wiggle beneath them without waking himself up too much. The effort is in vain, though, because the sheets are still twisted from the night before, and he can't stand the feeling of it, like his legs are caught in some kind of spider web, and he's wide awake by the time he sits up and opens his eyes and gets everything all smoothed out and comfortable.

He wants to flop back over and try to go back to sleep, because even though his mind is awake, his body still feels heavy and shaky, stiff and aching from spending more time than usual at the computer, and his eyelids feel like they must be swollen because he can't quite open them all the way. But a glance at the clock proves that it's already a little past two, and his mom will kill him if he sleeps until four again. He needs to get up, he needs to eat, but all he does is pull his comforter over his shoulders and slink over to the computer, slumping down into his chair, the comforter wrapped tight around him like a warm cocoon.

He's not sure what he's doing exactly – there's nothing that he can check quickly, not without getting involved for hours, but he boots the computer up anyway, shivering as the air swirling around his feet tries to steal away the last of his sleepy warmth. He pulls his legs up into the chair, tucking his feet under himself, and there's barely enough room and the edge of the chair is pressing into his shins, but it's okay for now. He can tolerate it, because he doesn't plan on staying here for hours just yet.

His dreams are mostly forgotten by the time his desktop has loaded; all that's left are few misplaced feelings and a piercing sort of longing in his chest, and the heavy, gloomy feeling that everything he's doing is completely worthless. It almost feels like there's someone watching him from a distance, some higher power maybe, laughing at how seriously he's taking something as simple as the internet, and for a moment he feels extra small and pathetic. He casts a glance at his door, making sure it's still locked, because he suddenly doesn't want to be caught like this – barely even awake and already latched onto the computer, because he has nothing else.

He goes straight to the forums, telling himself it's because he has nothing better to do, but in the back of his mind he's already planning the PM he's going to send to Toolshed, because for once – just this once– he wants someone to talk to and hang out with and go on quests with. It's not fair that he has to be alone both in reality and online; even the most annoying people he's encountered in this game have had at least one person with them, someone they stand around and talk to for hours right in the middle of town, and it always puts Kyle on edge because it clutters up the group chat box, but he's also man enough to admit (at least to himself) that he's jealous. If he actually makes a friend, someone he's really proud of, he'd want to show them off, too.

But he's not going to make any friends unless he puts out effort.

Which is exactly what he intends to do when he gets to the forum, but he freezes as soon as the page loads, and he feels like he actually understands what people mean when they say their heart leapt into their throat. He can barely swallow, barely breathe, and all he's aware of is his pulse thrumming way too fast, his heart hammering in a rush of excitement, because there's already a little (1) next to his inbox, and somehow he knows, just knows it's from Toolshed.

He's proven right the second he clicks his inbox, finding one message with the title "um hey" from Toolshed the Fucking Warrior. Kyle clicks on it and reads over it so quickly that it barely makes sense at first, and he has to look away from the screen and take a breath, calm himself down, because he's getting way too worked up over this.

He places a hand over his chest, fascinated by the way his heart is absolutely racing, and he smiles a little, focusing on a faded stain on the carpet. Someone wants to talk to him, to be his friend – that never happens, not unless it's some weirdo stalker only interested in getting handouts.

When he collects himself, he looks back up at the message, and it's still a little hard to read, because apparently Toolshed has something against commas. But Kyle can't bring himself to care, because something about this feels right, because Toolshed managed to squeeze everything Kyle had been thinking into two simple paragraphs:

So hey I don't know if you remember me but we traded yesterday and I guess this is kind of weird but like you're the only person I've talked to on here that isn't completely insane or stupid or something.

So I was wondering if you like wanted to be in my party or something because yeah that'd be sweet. Let me know. Or if you want me to leave you alone I'd understand that because I guess this is kind of random but I just had to ask.

The only thing that puts a slight damper on Kyle's elation is the party invite. He's been in them before, because it's pretty common for people to just wander up and send him an invite at random, but it's always some overly large group, one where he's never acknowledged, and he always spends all his time wondering how the 'cool' people in the group got that way. Every time he tries to interact, to make himself known and gain some friends, he's always ignored, no matter what party he's in. He hasn't joined one in forever, and he's been telling himself that he's given up on them for good, but he doesn't want to miss out on a chance to talk to Toolshed some more.

But what if this is no different? What if he joins the party and finds out that Toolshed already has dozens of friends, and he just wants to add Kyle to the collection, to his increase his numbers? What if they don't get to interact at all, and Toolshed pretends not to know him?

It's nerve-wracking, but somehow Kyle has a feeling it's not going to be that way. Toolshed seems to care too much – that can't be an act. Even if he is about to get stuck with some large group, Toolshed wouldn't just shove him aside and ignore him.

The timestamp on the PM shows that it had been sent about twenty minutes ago, right when Kyle had woken up, and Kyle quickly types out a response, hoping Toolshed is somehow still on the forum and not logged into the game.

Sure, dude, that'd be awesome. I'm really glad you asked, because you're the most sane person I've met on here, too.

I'm logging in now – meet me in the same spot we met yesterday?

He waits, refreshing the page every few seconds, wondering if he really should just log in now, like he said, or if he should see if he gets a response. The question becomes irrelevant when a pitifully loud grumble from his stomach snaps him out of his thoughts, and he's suddenly aware that it's 2:30 and he hasn't even been out of his room.

He takes one last look at the screen, refreshing the page, but there's still no response, and so he gets up, throws his comforter onto the bed, and bolts out of his room.

The look his mom gives him when he rushes into the kitchen and starts digging through the cabinets is nothing short of disappointed, but she says nothing, not at first, and he can feel her eyes on him as he shoves four pieces of bread into the toaster.

"Kyle," she says sternly, and her tone freezes him. She's leaning against the counter in front of the sink, which is overflowing with sparkly white bubbles, and she's absently toweling off a plate that had probably been used for lunch. A big family lunch, everyone sitting at the table, without him. Oops.

"Did you just wake up?" It's hardly a question, because her tone makes it very clear that she already knows the answer, and she's just toying with her prey before she eats it.

"Um. No." It's not really a lie, because he's been up for exactly thirty minutes now, which means, no, he did not just wake up. He's proud of that little loophole right until the moment her cheeks flush, two bright spots of red on her angry face, and then he suddenly wishes he had just admitted his mistake and gotten it over with.

Her voice, however, is eerily calm when she finally speaks again, "Then would you like to explain why you didn't respond when I knocked on your door – three separate times– and told you to come downstairs?"

"Sorry, ma." He can't even look at her anymore, staring sheepishly at the tiled floor, feeling exposed and vulnerable with his pajamas and sleep-mussed hair. He has a billion fallback excuses – ranging from not being able to sleep, to getting caught up in a book, to feeling sick and spending most of the night in the bathroom – but none of those would work right now, not when she's this scarily calm, because she must be really, really pissed at him, must have spent all day dwelling on it, harnessing her temper and carefully calculating what she was going to do to him when he finally got out of bed.

His mom turns back to the sink, angrily scrubbing at dishes. "Your father has gone to pick up a new knob for your door – your lock privileges have been revoked."

"Okay." Kyle chokes the word out, humiliated even though he got off really easily. He'd just gotten the lock last year, with the instruction that he was only allowed to use it at night, that it was never, ever to be used to keep people out of his room during the day. Kyle had followed that rule obsessively, because it was always so nice to be able to lock his door around 11:00 each night, and he'd always smile to himself every time the handle jiggled and there was a heavy thump on the other side of the door – Ike trying to barge in and crashing into the unyielding wood.

But apparently it doesn't matter how well he followed the rules, if his mom can't come in and physically yank him out of bed in the morning.

He's decidedly less enthusiastic by the time he finally gets back up to his room with a stack of burnt toast on a paper plate, and he's overly upset about this, about everything, and he tries to blame it on lack of sleep to save face. But it always hurts, probably more than it should, every single time his mom is upset with him, and he never understands the kids that just blow off their parents and do what they want to do. If the guilt didn't kill him, his mom would.

He wipes at his dry eyes with the back of his hand and refreshes the forum one more time, but Toolshed still hasn't messaged him back, which means he's probably not going to. Kyle had wasted too much time downstairs with his mom; if Toolshed had actually gotten his message, he'd probably given up on waiting for him.

Kyle's still so tired, and now doubled with having to deal with his mom, knowing how completely disappointed in him she is, he really wants to do nothing more than fall back in bed and sleep forever, until all of this goes away. But he knows things will just get even worse if she comes up here to find him sleeping, and so, for once, he forces himself to start up the RPG when he really doesn't want to. He rests his forehead on the computer desk as the game starts up, and it feels like every time he blinks he's about to get dragged under, but he doesn't want to move, even as the gentle music begins to play.

He stays like that for a moment, and maybe he dozes off a few times, but he finally forces himself to sit up and pick at his toast, which is now completely cold. Still, eating wakes him up a little, enough to make him want to go out to that tree and see if Toolshed is actually there. He doubts it, but at least it'll give him something to do, and so he takes off, leaving the town behind.

He's barely close enough to the tree to be able to tell if the character standing there is Toolshed or not, and he's just about to mouse over them and find out when a party invite takes up the screen, obscuring his view. Kyle accepts without a second thought, and he can't believe Toolshed is actually here, waiting for him, when he should had given up a long time ago.

Kyle switches from the group chat to the private party one, and just as he does, Toolshed says, 'hey there you are I was starting to think I freaked you out haha'.

'Sorry, I got in a fight with my mom.' After a second of hesitation, he adds, 'I can't believe you waited.'

'well I mean you said you'd be here'

It shouldn't be that simple, but somehow it is. Toolshed doesn't seem to be mad about the wait at all, so Kyle lets it go.

'So,' Kyle types after a short silence. 'How many other people are there?'

'what do you mean?'

'In your party.'

'oh haha um well now there's two. it kind of didn't exist until just now.'

It's so completely perfect that Kyle can hardly believe it. This is the ideal situation, just him and Toolshed, no one else around to make Kyle feel like a third wheel. This is going to be so awesome – he's finally going to get to enjoy the game in ways he'd never been able to before, and he can't wait to get started.

They decide to spend some time leveling first, because after playing so long last night Kyle is a little ahead, but it's so much easier to level Toolshed up, because together they can take down monsters that Toolshed wouldn't have been able to handle alone. The XP feels like it's just rolling in, faster than it ever had before, and it only takes a couple of hours to get Toolshed caught up. This is how the game is supposed to be played; even level grinding is so much more enjoyable with someone else there, occasionally leaving little bits of battle commentary in the party chat.

Kyle's dad comes in at some point during this to replace his doorknob, but Kyle hardly notices him, even as he responds with lifeless 'uh-huh's to each of his dad's expected questions: "Do you know why you're being punished?" "You understand that your mother and I are only doing what's best for you, right?"

It's only after he and Toolshed finish their second quest together that Kyle looks up and notices his dad is gone, along with his lock, but he shrugs it off and goes back to the game. He and Toolshed don't talk much, but it doesn't really matter, because just knowing that someone is there with him because they want to be is more than enough for Kyle.

The atmosphere between them is so laidback and comfortable that it's almost hard to believe they haven't even known each other for a full twenty-four hours. They fall into a routine so easily that it seems practiced; Toolshed generally leads, deciding what place they should explore next or suggesting a quest to do, and Kyle is content to follow, because the things Toolshed suggests are things he would have wanted to do anyway. At first Toolshed was a little hesitant about taking the lead all the time, always asking for Kyle's opinion, making it clear over and over that he didn't want to be some domineering asshole. But it doesn't take long for him to understand that Kyle really is okay with this, because Toolshed is less of a leader and more of just a decision-maker; they're equals, no one bosses the other around, and that seems to be silently understood between them.

They break for dinner at the same time, promising to be back in an hour and meet up at their tree, and they continue playing on into the night. Kyle is the one to give up first, as much as he'd love to keep playing forever, because he doesn't want a repeat of today – he can never take having his mom mad at him, even though she seemed mostly fine at dinner, aside from the comment about how she can't believe he can spend that much time on the computer.

'okay', Toolshed types, after Kyle regretfully informs him that he should go to bed. 'you'll be on tomorrow right?'

'Yeah, absolutely. I'm pretty much on all day, every day.'

'haha me too'

They're silent for a moment, their characters huddled close together at the base of the mountain they'd just finished exploring, while other players ran past them. This is what Kyle had always wanted, just being able to stand with someone, having a conversation all their own, oblivious to everyone else.

'hey I'm really happy we got to know each other' Toolshed says suddenly. 'I've never really had anyone to talk to or anything so this is really cool.'

Kyle smiles to himself, because he's been thinking the same thing all day, and he still can't believe that he found someone like this, someone who found it as impossible to make internet friends as he did.

'Yeah, same here. I've had more fun today than I ever have before.'

'me too :)'

They're silent again, and Kyle puts an end to it when he catches himself smiling back at Toolshed's smiley face.

'So. Goodnight, I guess.'

'nite, dude!'

Kyle logs out before he can make a fool of himself, but he really wasn't ready to say goodbye yet. It'll be easier than ever to keep in contact, since now he'll know in-game whether or not Toolshed is online, and they'll have the party chat, but it still feels like they'll never get to talk again.

He pushes his concerns aside and goes to bed, because the sooner he falls asleep, the sooner he'll wake up, and the sooner he'll get to talk to Toolshed again. He doesn't know what it is, but this feels like the start of something huge, something life-changing.

But maybe that's just the encroaching sleep talking – it's just a game, after all.