A/N - Agh, I apologize for the delay. Like I said, I'm busy with college and work right now, so I'm more than a little overwhelmed, but hopefully there won't be this long of a wait in the future. Also, this fic is going to span several years, so things will be moving along kind of quickly in the first few chapters, but they'll slow down soon.

Oh and thank you so much to everyone who reviewed the first chapter. You guys made me so happy lsdkjfsdl

As the weeks roll past, Kenny seems determined to keep from asking Kyle why he never called, and that seems to turn into a determination to keep from talking to Kyle entirely. Kyle, for his part, doesn't really notice or care. School is the same as ever, whether or not he's on good terms with Kenny. He still rides the bus alone, studies alone, eats lunch alone. Deals with Cartman and Craig and anyone else who has a problem with him alone. The only difference is that he's not alone when he gets home; at least, it doesn't feel like he is. It's become just another part of his routine to come home and hang out with Toolshed in the RPG, and it's the part of the day Kyle looks forward to the most.

The only problem is that now he has absolutely no reason or desire to get off the internet at all, even to study, even to sleep, because his only friend in the world is in there. However, that means he's sore all the time from being hunched over in that stupid chair, and he's pretty sure the indentations on the fronts of his legs are permanent (because he always sits with his legs tucked under himself, to keep his ass from falling asleep), and getting a new, comfortable computer chair has suddenly become a priority.

But not a very urgent priority, because Kyle still rushes straight home every single day, eager to talk to Toolshed, even if their conversations never really go beyond things outside of RPG: The RPG. Just Toolshed's presence is enough somehow; Kyle can come home after the shittiest day in the world, and even when he feels like nothing can ever make him feel better, seeing Toolshed standing under their tree waiting for him instantly brings a smile to his face.

He just enjoys the fact that they don't have to be having deep discussions to enjoy each other's company; he loves that they can go hours in silence, just running around together, and it's not awkward at all; he loves that he doesn't feel the need to pretend to be someone he's not, that their conversations aren't all stiff and formal. At school, he always feels like he has to monitor what he say, that he has to alter his opinions and sense of humor, because no one gets it. And while Kyle's a little more okay with standing alone for what he believes in, he's not willing to take that same stance over something as simple a sick joke or profane comment. But with Toolshed, it's different. He can say almost anything that passes through his head and Toolshed seems to understand perfectly. One time he points out a rock formation that looks like a giant dick, and Toolshed immediately responds saying he was thinking the same thing, and then he leads Kyle off to what he calls the "vagina cave." Which, indeed, looks just like a vagina, Kyle is surprised to discover. There's a river rushing out of it, tinted red in the simulated evening sunlight, and it makes Kyle feel vaguely ill.

'Dude, what the fuck. It has a clit and everything.'

'I know seriously dude they're doing this on purpose I just know it'

And over the course of their explorations, they find Boob Mountains, Testicle Lake, Ass Canyon, and countless variations of dick and vagina patterns, even hidden on tree bark. They're still not entirely sure if it's on purpose or not, but it's still so awesome to have to someone to talk to like this, someone with the same sense of humor, someone who just gets it.

They don't spend all their time looking for hidden sexual things; they actually play the game properly the majority of the time, leveling and going on quests and exploring, and they spend a lot of time trying to make it to the far side of the map, just to see what's out there. They can never make it, there's always this huge ass monster that appears out of nowhere and slaughters them in one blow, no matter how much they level up, and somehow it's still hilarious every single time. Because it always happens right when they think they've made it, think they'll go unnoticed and make it farther than they ever have before.

When they're really bored, they'll troll other players, saying stupid shit that borders dangerously on harassment, just to see what kind of reaction they get. It's never anything too serious, because Kyle really is a nice guy and he thinks Toolshed must be too, because they always stop before it gets out of hand. But as far as Kyle can tell, neither of them feel guilty over the laughs they get out of it.

It's for all these reasons, all these and so many more, that Kyle doesn't say a word the day he comes home to find that he really, really doesn't want to play anymore. It's only a month into his friendship with Toolshed, and while the game had become more fun than ever for awhile, Kyle suddenly just doesn't care. Leveling, questing, all of it – it just seems like a chore. He wants to play video games, he wants to read the book he picked up at the library, he wants to go watch TV with Ike. But, more than anything, he wants to talk to Toolshed.

It's stupid, and maybe it's only because he doesn't have any real life friends, but it feels like he and Toolshed are closer than they probably really are. Kyle doesn't know anything about him, not even his real name, but somehow he's so important, and Kyle's not ready to give this up, not yet. He knows internet friendships probably aren't supposed to last forever, but he's going to hold onto this one for as long as he can.

So he logs on, pretends to be enthusiastic, and things go on like normal. It's not like he doesn't have a good time at all – once they get into it he enjoys himself, but there are a billion other things he'd rather be doing. But time seems to crawl by slower than usual, and Toolshed must think Kyle doesn't feel well or something, because he finally stops killing things to ask if he's okay.

'Yeah, I'm fine,' Kyle responds. 'Why?'

'I don't know you seem distracted or something like I cleared out this whole area and you just kind of stood there'

Kyle isn't sure if that was intended to be as accusatory as it sounds, but since Toolshed hasn't said a single negative thing to him in the month they've known each other, Kyle gives him benefit of the doubt.

'Oh, sorry. I guess I'm just having an off day.'

'okay that's okay…. what do you want to do? if you want to quit just say so I mean like I don't want to keep you here if you don't want to play right now'

It's kind of amazing that some anonymous person on the internet can suddenly read Kyle better than anyone else can, and that's exactly why Kyle doesn't want to quit. Because this off day will never end, because he can't change the fact that he'd rather bang his head into the wall than go on another quest, but if Toolshed is still into it, he shouldn't have to play alone.

'No, dude, it's fine. I've been looking forward to this all day.'

That much is true at least – will always be true. Even if he grows to completely loathe RPG: The RPG, Kyle can't imagine ever getting tired of Toolshed. He wants to know him better, as a real person and not just a character; he wants to really, truly be his friend. At least, as much of a friend as it's possible to be on the internet. Internet friendships always seem so cold and impersonal, since they're limited to strictly text; there's no talking or seeing or hearing or touching. Kyle can't imagine getting too close to someone without those necessary aspects of all human relationships, but he wants to do the best he can, because there's no chance of him meeting anyone like this in South Park. It's going to be the same people in high school, and even in the unlikely event that someone does move to town, the chances of them being the perfect friend are slim to none. Toolshed is all he has right now, as pathetic as that sounds.

'okay…' There's a long pause, like Toolshed's kind of at a loss. 'let's just go somewhere by ourselves for bit…. vagina cave?'

'It'll be on its period soon, but haha sure.'

'you won't even see the water change colors if we're far enough inside'

'You want to penetrate Vagina Cave? Without protection?'

'you're my protection. my glowing protection'

It doesn't even make sense but Kyle laughs anyway and follows Toolshed there, cracking up each and every time Toolshed demands that they go 'deeper, DEEPER!' They finally get far enough inside that no light reaches them, other than the strange impossible glow that always appears around characters when they get in dark places, and Kyle's armor. The little orbs of color that float around Kyle's armor look extra pretty against the darkness, the soft pinks and blues reflecting off the rock walls and glittering in the water.

Neither of them have time to comment on it, though, because a flurry of giant bats descends from the ceiling, smacking into them like kamikazes, and suddenly it's just another battle, the very thing Kyle was hoping to avoid for now. It's not too much of a struggle, thanks to Kyle's long range weapon, and he's knocking bats out of air one right after another, while Toolshed stands huddled beside him, waiting for one to dive down and get within range.

'sorry', Toolshed types, when they've cleared the area. 'she doesn't get a lot of action'

And Kyle is dying again, laughing so hard his sides hurt, and he hates that all he can do is type 'L O FUCKING L' and hope Toolshed gets the idea.

'good job protecting me btw'

'That's my job. I'm your glowing condom, after all,' Kyle says, and then he wonders if that's a little too weird, even if they've been implying it all along.

Luckily, Toolshed doesn't seem to be bothered by it at all. 'I'm calling you that from now on okay'

It may be weird, but it's the first nickname Kyle's ever had that wasn't give to him by his mom, and he appreciates it way more than he should, even though he doubts Toolshed will ever actually call him that.

They stay in the cave by themselves for awhile, just talking about stupid things, killing off the bats every time they spawned. And Kyle likes this so much more than actually playing the game, and he wishes they could hide away like this from now on, because this is the first time they've ever had something this close to a real conversation that lasted more than a minute or two at most.

It doesn't exactly happen again, but things between them become even easier after that somehow. There's more of a balance between playing and talking, though their conversations still mostly revolve around the game; maybe it's the point of an RPG, but it's like neither of them exist as real people at all. Ordinarily, Kyle would have been okay with that, since he's been getting the internet safety lecture more often than ever lately, and if he's to follow all of those rules the way he should, their friendship can never pass beyond the fantasy realm. That doesn't mean he's not more than a little disappointed about it, because he needs to know Toolshed's real name, if nothing else.

But Kyle never asks, and he keeps logging on as soon as he can every day, playing until he's so tired he can't focus on the screen, spending the following day dozing off in class. If his grades are slipping at all, it's barely noticeable, because his parents haven't said anything, and they still give him a giant hug and take him out to eat when he brings home his report card at the end of the semester.

It's only two weeks into December and it's fucking freezing South Park, has been for a couple months now, and Kyle doesn't bother to take off his hat or his heavy orange coat when he and his family get to Casa Bonita. He wants to be excited about this, because he absolutely loves Casa Bonita, and it's all the way in Denver so they hardly ever get to go, but all he's been able to think about is that he didn't get a chance to tell Toolshed he wouldn't be online today. How long will Toolshed stand under the tree and wait for him? How upset will he be when he finally gives up? What if he thinks Kyle's mad at him, or that Kyle is never going to log on again? What if Toolshed never logs in again?

It's making him panic, a ball of nervous energy in his chest that's reducing his breaths to short little gasps. He can't lose his only friend over something like this, he has to get home, he has to get online before Toolshed gives up and goes to bed.

A hand lands on his shoulder, lightly, affectionately, but it still startles him so much that he jerks backward, nearly knocking his chair to the floor.

"Kyle," his dad says gently. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah." It comes out tense and muffled over the lump in his throat, and Kyle forces a smile, because as much as he wants to go home, he doesn't want to hurt his parents' feelings either. They did this to surprise him, to make him happy; the last thing he wants to do is make them think he isn't grateful for it.

But even with that in mind, the nervous bouncing of his legs under the table doesn't stop, and his eyes keep darting up to the clock without him even wanting them to. He can feel his parents glancing at him with concern, and he offers them smiles every time he catches their eyes, but they don't seem to be buying it.

"This is – uh," Kyle starts, trying to break the heavy silence. "This is great, thank you so much."

His mom reaches across the table and gives his hand a squeeze. "You earned it, bubbie. We're so proud."

It makes Kyle feel a little sick, because he hasn't earned anything; all he's done this year is sneak in naps during class and rush through his homework during lunch. He hardly studies at all anymore, other than flipping through the textbook five minutes before the test is handed out. He's slacked off in every way possible, and yet here they are, his parents going out of their way to reward him, overflowing with pride. He suddenly can't stand the way they're looking at him, like he's really something special, and he wants to crawl under the table and hide, because it suddenly feels more accusatory than loving, like they know he's not trying. They have to know – every time they come up to his room, he's never doing anything but playing his game.

Kyle slumps down in his seat, hiding as much as he can, as he absently pushes the leftover food around with his fork, smashing it all together. He's suddenly not hungry at all, and he actually wishes Ike had tagged along, just for someone to break up the awkward silence, to take the attention off of Kyle. But Ike hadn't wanted to go to Casa Bonita, because apparently he suddenly hates it, thinks it's overrated, even though he's still a fucking kid and should love the waterfall and the cave and the whole fucking atmosphere. But their parents gave in and scheduled his good grades dinner for some other time, deciding that it's more rewarding to do something special for each of them individually. It's really not, but the only good thing about that is that Kyle will be home alone when it's Ike's turn, with hours of uninterrupted internet time.

The mashed up concoction of beans and rice and pico de gallo on his plate is suddenly making him nauseated, and he's hyperaware of the squishy wet sound his fork makes every time he presses it into the mess, and he lets it fall to the table with a clatter. He tilts his head back, staring at the ceiling, sucking in deep, slow breaths, trying to focus on anything but the churning in his stomach. But the Mariachi music that's been playing on repeat is suddenly too loud, each little tinny blast of trumpets through the speaker feels like it's wrapping around his throat, and shit he really is going to be sick.

He's not sure if he's actually reached the point of pathetic that he's having legitimate internet withdrawals, or if it's the guilt, or maybe just the impeccable timing of his abysmal immune system, but right as his mom tenderly calls his name he bolts out of his chair, which topples over backward, and he claps a hand over his mouth and makes his way to the bathroom as fast as he can, weaving around tables and nearly crashing into waiters. He barely makes it into a stall, and he's puking before he can even fully drop to his knees in front of the toilet, and all he can think about is how embarrassed he is, how stupid this is, how fucking unsanitary the bathroom floor is. That thought makes him feel even sicker, and he tries to shove it aside. He wants to go home, to curl up in his pajamas and never leave his room again, because this is the stupid shit that happens when he's out in public.

He stays on the floor for a bit after he's finished, holding his stomach and trembling, suddenly way too hot in his winter clothes. Sweat is trickling down his spine, and he can feel beads of it collecting on his forehead, but he's dazedly concerned about taking his coat and his hat off, because it suddenly seems extremely important to keep them from touching the floor.

The bathroom door creaks open and Kyle hears someone cautiously step inside.

"Kyle?" It's his dad's voice. "Are you in here?"

"Yeah," he croaks out, and his voice sounds weak and pitiful even to his own ears. He flushes the toilet before he reaches up to unlock the stall, because being seen in front of a toilet full of his undigested dinner seems like the ultimate humiliation for some reason. He manages to pull himself to his feet without touching the floor with his hands, grabbing onto the toilet paper dispenser and the edge of the door, and his dad's right there to catch him when he stumbles out of the stall.

"Are you okay?" his dad asks, a little uselessly, and Kyle barely keeps himself from rolling his eyes. Of course he's not okay, that's why he's in a public bathroom of all places. "Let's get you outside, maybe some fresh air will help."

His dad leads him outside, an arm wrapped tightly around his shoulders, and Kyle wishes he'd let go, because this is humiliating enough as it is, and he really does not feel well enough to be this close to anyone. But the burst of icy air that hits them as soon as they make it out the door is an instant relief, and Kyle unzips his coat, and he's absolutely freezing within seconds, but it's worth it, because it feels so good.

His dad leaves him on a bench and goes back inside to pay, and Kyle sits quietly, staring out into the night and watching the big, slow falling snowflakes glisten under the yellow lights in the parking lot. His breath is puffing out in front of him in thick white clouds, and the world looks kind of pretty through the haze, like he's some fantasy winter wonderland instead of a dirty parking lot. Snow is hardly uncommon in Colorado, and it's not something Kyle ever really pays attention to, but he suddenly wants to get up, out from under the awning, spread his arms and stand in the snowfall, tilt his head back and catch some in his mouth. But he doesn't move, because he's still a little dizzy, but mostly because, by this point, the snow is probably officially Christmas snow. Kyle's nose wrinkles in disdain. Maybe it was a joke, back when he was a kid, just another way he was bullied, but Kyle doesn't think he'll ever be able to let go of the belief that it's illegal for him to catch Christmas snow on his tongue.

He sinks lower into the bench, wrapping his arms around himself and tucking his hands inside his coat, pressed tight against the warmth of his sides. He feels kind of guilty again, for reasons he can't even explain; he's going to go home and get online immediately, that much he knows for sure, and even though it's not exactly possible, it feels like he planned this, like he got sick on purpose just so he could go home sooner. That's not true, Kyle doesn't even know how it could be true, unless he jabbed a finger down his throat to gag himself, but he still can't help but feel like he completely ruined this, and his parents are going to be disappointed. Again.

He feels better by the time his parents get outside, but he doesn't say anything, just plays it up the whole way home, resting his head against the cool glass of the window and trying to sleep, trying to cover up something that wasn't even his fault to begin with. He knows he's being completely ridiculous, that his parents would probably understand, but this is all he can do right now, the only guaranteed way to keep them from thinking he was just trying to escape. He loves them and he wants to spend time with them, but he wishes there was a way to do that without missing out on anything online. Or even if this hadn't been a surprise – if he'd just had a few minutes to get on and tell Toolshed what was happening, that he wouldn't be able to get online until later, maybe he would have felt better about this whole thing.

When they get home, he lets his mom fuss over him, take his temperature multiple times and give him a diet Sprite, and he doesn't even have to try to escape, because she sends him off to his room with the instructions to rest and to stay hydrated, to call her the second he runs out of Sprite. She's overreacting, she always does, but for now it works in his favor, because she'll make everyone in the house leave him alone.

There is a part of him that actually wants to sleep, but the need to talk to Toolshed, to make sure everything is okay, is way stronger. He doesn't even waste time changing clothes – just slides into his chair and starts up the game, cursing to himself as it seems to load even slower than normal. But as soon as the main town comes up, Kyle is immediately hitting the escape key, holding control+alt+delete, anything to make the game stop, because his sidebar is already telling him that Toolshed isn't online. The computer makes a loud, irritated beep and then the whole thing crashes, turning itself off, and Kyle is hitting at it maniacally, as hard as he can without breaking it, the insides rattling metallically, as if that would somehow make a difference, make it start up faster.

"God fucking DAMN IT, fuck, fuck, FUCK!"

When the computer finally grinds back to life, Kyle gets onto the forum, and there's a message waiting for him:

So um hey. I guess you're busy or something and that's okay but like I'll be around so just send me a message and I'll check on occasion and we can just meet up later or something alright? I miss you. Which is kind of dumb I guess since like we don't know each other but dude this game isn't even worth playing without you I didn't know what to do.

The timestamp shows it was sent four hours ago, and Kyle feels an extra surge of guilt. He types up his response as fast as he can:

Hey, I'm so, so sorry. I brought home my report card today and my parents decided to take me out to eat. But it was to this restaurant I used to love when I was like eight, and it's over an hour away, which is so stupid. But yeah, I'm sorry. It was totally a surprise, so I didn't have time to get on and let you know. But it's winter break now, so I'll have more time than ever to get on and play. So anyway, I'm here now, let me know if you get this.

Oh, and I miss you, too. It's not dumb at all. Or if it is, then I guess I'm dumb with you.

It actually doesn't take Toolshed long to respond, which makes Kyle feel even worse, knowing that he's been refreshing the forum so frequently for four hours. His reply is short, which makes Kyle a little nervous, just a simple, 'got it. glad everything's okay. I'll be waiting by the tree.' For some reason it hadn't occurred to Kyle that Toolshed might think something serious had happened, might actually be worried. But now that he thinks about it, he knows he'd be scared out of his mind if Toolshed didn't log on when he usually does.

He logs on as quickly as he can, determined to spend the rest of the night online to make up for leaving Toolshed alone all day, for potentially scaring him. He apologizes over and over when they meet up, and he can't tell if Toolshed is mad or not, but he seems kind of distant, never responding with more than a word or two. And Kyle doesn't understand, doesn't know what else to do, because Toolshed keeps telling him it's okay, to stop apologizing, but everything feels wrong now, tense and awkward, and Kyle has a horrible feeling that they'll never be the same way again, that somehow he managed to fuck things up permanently.

His stomach churns again and he takes a couple of sips of Sprite, willing himself not to get sick again. Things aren't fucked up, because Toolshed has no reason to be mad at him; Kyle already explained what happened, and there's nothing he could have done about it. So he decides to let it go, to carry on like normal, and hopefully Toolshed will do the same.

They decide (or rather, Kyle decides, and Toolshed follows along) to level for a bit, because Kyle really, really can't stand this game anymore, doesn't have the mentality for a quest or even exploring, and he hopes mindless killing will hopefully make the time go by faster, at least until Toolshed gets out of whatever slump he's in.

Any guilt or sympathy Kyle had has turned into frustration, because he's tired of trying to be chatty, only to get an 'lol' or silence in response; he doesn't want to be in charge of fixing anything, because nothing is wrong, and Toolshed needs to get the fuck over himself, because this really isn't fun at all anymore.

The simulated violence isn't helping one bit, because it all seems so delicate and silly, no matter how ferociously Kyle bangs on his mouse. Shee'vah continues with her dainty little hand gestures, swirling her arms around before attacking, and it's not even in time with his clicks, and it's all so stupid that he can't stand it any longer.

Once the last of the monsters is dead, exploding without a trace of blood, Kyle looks up, only to see Toolshed standing there, doing nothing, not making a single effort to pick up the gold and the items that had been dropped. Kyle doesn't move either, because it's not worth it, he doesn't want any of this stuff, and he's not going to be the one to break the silence. He's tired of trying. Tired of everything. He's had a bad enough day without some asshole on the internet making it worse.

'hey', Toolshed says finally. Just that. And it stays there by itself long enough that Kyle wonders if it wasn't meant to be an attention-grabber, and that Toolshed really was just greeting him for some reason.

'Hm?' Kyle prompts, because he doesn't have the patience for this.

okay well like…. I hate to say this but this game is really boring now.'

Kyle's pretty sure his heart literally stops for a second, and all of his frustration is forgotten and replaced with a cold dread.

"No," he whispers to himself, his voice wavering, frantic. "No, no, no…" There's nothing else he can say, nothing else can do but stare at the screen in horror, trying to make Toolshed's words mean something else. But they don't change, and their meaning remains completely clear: Toolshed is tired of this. It's over.

Kyle knew it was coming, he's known for a long time, but he's not ready. He wants to beg and plead and try to prove that the game is still cool, still worth playing, but he doesn't even know how to start when he's been feeling the same way for a long time now. All he can do is be honest, but his hands are shaking as he types out his response.

'Yeah. I've been thinking that for awhile, too.'

And he's scared, so scared, that Toolshed's next reply will be some kind of goodbye, some kind parting words like "it was nice playing with you," and then it'd be over, and Toolshed would be gone, and Kyle would have no way of ever finding him again. And he's already wasted their last few hours together by being angry, by trying to prove for some stupid reason that he could outlast Toolshed when it came to the silent treatment, but why did any of that even matter? Toolshed is his only friend in the world, and Kyle never wants to say goodbye, never wants to see it end.

But instead, all Toolshed says is, 'hahahaha', and Kyle's so angry, so upset, so confused that he wants to cry, and his eyes burning and he feels sick again, but to Toolshed this is all some fucking joke.

Kyle starts to type out a response, but all he manages to type is 'Listen, you asshole,' before another line from Toolshed appears, and Kyle slams down the backspace key, deleting his words, and reads.

'so let me get this straight. I've been tired of this for like weeks but I didn't say anything because I wanted to keep talking to you. but all this time you've been tired of it too?'

'Yeah,' Kyle responds, hesitantly, because he's not sure where Toolshed is going with this. 'Because I wanted to keep talking to you.'

'we're so fucking stupid'

Kyle isn't sure how to feel, how he's supposed to interpret that, but he's scared to get his hopes up, scared to make any assumptions. So he just sits there, biting anxiously at his nails, his head starting to ache from the tension in his brow, and waits for Toolshed to elaborate.

'there's no point in playing if we're both sick of it but I really don't want to lose contact with you so what kind of instant messengers do you have?'

Kyle is equal parts thrilled and terrified, because it's one thing to talk to someone in a game, but instant messaging is something else entirely, and he knows his mom would never, ever approve, but right now he's too desperate to care. Toolshed is the only person that Kyle has ever felt this connected to, the only person in the world who actually seems to like him, and now they finally have a way to talk without wasting all their time on this stupid game.

'Um, I don't have any,' Kyle confesses, because he's never had anyone who wanted to talk to him online before. Kids in South Park don't really do that, as far as Kyle knows. 'But I mean, I'll happily download whichever one you have.' He started not to say that, but he doesn't want Toolshed to think he was just making an excuse, trying to get out of this.

Toolshed tells him the name of one, and that his username is 'darshington', and Kyle swears to download it and add him as soon as he logs out.

'okay', Toolshed says, and it's another one of those terrifying moments, like having to quit after the first night they played together; the feeling that they'll never get to talk again. 'I'll talk to you soon :)'

'Wait,' Kyle types more quickly than he ever thought possible, entering it before Toolshed can log off. 'If you don't hear from me in about ten minutes, then get back on the forum. Okay?'

'dude of course'

They stand there for a second, silent, and Kyle realizes that Toolshed's going to let him log out first, and that seems easier somehow, less terrifying.

'Okay. I'm really going now.'

'haha okay'

Kyle logs out before he can say anything else stupid, and it hits him that this was the last time they'd ever play together. It comes with a mixture of melancholy and good-fucking-riddance, but he decides not to uninstall the game, just in case they change their minds. He doesn't think that's going to happen, but it at least makes him feel a little less sad about it.

He finds the messenger without a problem and attempts to sign up, but it seems like every single username he's ever used is taken, even the most obscure ones, and he's about to just bang on the keyboard and let whatever random combination of letters that show up be his username, but he knows he won't ever remember that. He's getting desperate when he enters in 'glowing condom', and he doesn't really expect it to work, but then a Congratulations! page appears, welcoming him to his new messenger and giving him download instructions, and Kyle is still staring at the page in bewilderment, not quite sure if he's happy or disappointed he actually ended up with that name. It really doesn't matter, he decides, because it's not like he's going to be talking to anyone but Toolshed.

The download and installation is blessedly quick and easy, and Kyle is logged in before he knows it, and he adds darshington to his friends list. The messenger tells him he's online, and Kyle is inexplicably nervous; this is the same person he's been talking to for months, he has nothing to be afraid of, but this feels different, like he'll be talking to someone else entirely.

But he doesn't want to make Toolshed wait any longer than he has to, and so Kyle shoves his nervousness aside and double clicks Toolshed's name, types in, 'Uh, hey.'

'OH MY GOD THAT NAME IS PERFECT!' is Toolshed's immediate response, and all of Kyle's nervousness melts away.

'Haha, thanks. It's the only thing I could think of. All the ones I normally use were taken.'

'dude no seriously I love it. I'm so glad your other ones were taken.'

'Me too,' Kyle responds, and he's surprised to realize he actually means it. He thinks all he was worried about was logging in and Toolshed thinking it's stupid, that the joke got old a long time ago.

They fall into silence, and it's suddenly painfully awkward, because they never really talked about anything outside of RPG: The RPG. Despite spending months together, they don't really know each other at all, and Kyle isn't exactly sure how to proceed. But he doesn't have to think of anything, because suddenly the messenger informs him that Toolshed is typing, and that's definitely an improvement from the RPG chat.

'so uh I'm Stan. you?'

A smile breaks onto Kyle's face, and he's so happy to have a real name think of instead of just Toolshed, and somehow it's just the kind of name he's always imagined. Stan. It just feels right, perfect, and it's not hard at all to make the transition.

'I'm Kyle.'

There's another long stretch of silence, and then, 'wait wait wait. girl Kyle or boy Kyle?'

Maybe it's a sign Kyle is taking this too seriously, but he's suddenly terrified all over again. It had never even crossed his mind before, but he's been playing as a girl character – what if all this time Stan thought he had been hanging out with a girl? No wonder he'd been so nice, so considerate of Kyle's feelings. No wonder he'd invested so much time in their friendship, taking the initiative and sending PMs, always so determined to keep in contact; he probably thought he'd found some perfect girl, a girl that's interested in guy things, a girl who is just as gross and perverted as he is.

Kyle drops his head into his hands, tangling his fingers in his hair, and he suddenly feels shittier than he has in a long time. He thought he'd finally made a friend who liked him for who he is, but for this to be the first question Stan asked – that must mean it's the most important thing, the thing that their whole relationship has hinged on. Kyle is almost tempted to lie, because he doesn't know what he'll do if he and Stan stop talking, because it's been such a constant part of his life for three months now. But just for once, he wants someone to like him just the way he is, no lies, no hiding aspects of his personality.

He looks back up at Stan's words, weighing his options, and before he has a chance to change his mind, he types, 'Boy Kyle. Sorry, I should have said something sooner.'

Stan starts typing again, and it feels like it takes forever, but when the words finally appear Kyle lets out a heavy sigh of relief. 'no dude it's fine. that's what I thought. just checking.'

They're silent again, and Kyle slumps back in his chair, exhausted from his mood swinging from one extreme to the other all day. He picks up his cup to take another drink, but he ends up just holding it and chewing on the rim, the feeling of the plastic weakening and slowly breaking away oddly comforting. He only has the chat open, doesn't care enough to open his browser and distract himself with the internet, and he stares at it, zoning out, waiting for something else to happen.

He doesn't know how long he sits there, hardly moving, but the rim of the cup is pulled away and broken, an end of it sticking up at an awkward angle, and Kyle has moved to gnawing on that by the time Stan types, 'uh so. I don't know what to say haha I'm bad at conversation I guess.'

'Me too. I mean, I want to get to know you, but I don't know where to start.'

'um well I'm 13 and I'm going into high school next year which is kind of scary I guess. what about you?'

'Dude, same here.' It's a lot more fascinating than it should be, and maybe that's just because Kyle doesn't usually have this kind of luck at all. Judging by the way things usually go, Stan should be some fifty year old creep living in his parents' basement. Or some five year old. Not someone who's exactly Kyle's age.

'seriously? cool'

Kyle doesn't have anything else to say, because this is so awkward, so forced, but he doesn't want to sit in silence again. 'So.' He enters that, hoping it'll prompt Stan to say something else. When it doesn't, he adds, 'I don't know, uh. What do you do for fun?' It's a lame attempt, and he half-expects Stan to make fun of him for it, make up some bullshit about poetry and long walks on the beach, but Stan spends awhile typing, apparently taking the question seriously.

'well internet obviously haha. I watch a lot of tv and play video games pretty typical stuff. I've played football throughout middle school so I guess you could say that's my only physical hobby. um that's about it I guess. I'm hoping to play football in high school too but it's not like my passion or anything so I don't know.'

An athlete. Of course. Nothing like Kyle at all, besides the whole internet and video game thing, but they're probably in two very different social groups. Meaning, Stan might actually have a social group.

'Oh, that's cool,' Kyle responds, feigning interest. 'I play a lot of video games, too. I'm not really that into sports. I played basketball for awhile in elementary school, but I didn't really feel like I was built for it, so I quit. I guess I'm kind of a nerd. I actually like studying.'

'I mean like I didn't think it was possible for anyone to actually enjoy that but dude that's kind of awesome,' Stan responds. 'I bet your grades are amazing.'

Kyle really isn't sure how to truthfully respond to that without sounding like an arrogant asshole, but he has to say something, so he settles with, 'Yeah, they're okay, I guess.'

They don't talk again for another half hour, and this time the silence is only broken when Stan says he's really tired and that he's going to go to bed. He logs off pretty quickly, which is probably a good thing, because it keeps Kyle from saying anything stupid, like asking if he'll be on again tomorrow. Honestly, Kyle won't be surprised if he never hears from him again, because this didn't exactly go well. And considering the fact that they usually stay up much later than this together – and Kyle is usually the first one to go to bed – it seems like Stan logged off just to get away from him.

Kyle can definitely understand that, because he was tempted to flee himself, but he still fully intends to log on again tomorrow, just in case. But he thinks there's a part of him that might be relieved if they don't get to talk again; this was awkward to the point of painful, and Kyle can't imagine it getting any better. Apparently they just have nothing to say to each other without the RPG as a catalyst.

It's only 1:00, which is way too early for bed by Kyle's usual standards, but he suddenly can't think of anything else to do. He can't even remember what he did online before he got sucked into the RPG, how he managed to spend all day on the computer before he met Stan. Opening his browser and letting a page load still seems like too much effort, and despite the feeling that this is fundamentally wrong, he turns his computer off and decides to go to bed. He probably needs the rest anyway, after the day he's had.

He's kind of surprised that he doesn't have any trouble at all falling asleep, and he actually wakes up at a decent time the next day, early enough to eat a small breakfast without ruining lunch, which is something he hasn't been able to do in a long time. It's kind of nice, and his mom is proud of him, and he thinks maybe he should try to make a habit out of it. Maybe if he doesn't hear from Stan again, he'll actually make a stab at it.

Thinking about Stan kind of scares him, because he's been avoiding the computer since he woke up, telling himself that it's too early for Stan to be online. He thought he'd managed to let go of his strange attachment to Stan after their failed attempt at a conversation, and he wants to keep feeling that way, just in case Stan has given up on him. But the fact is that no matter how content Kyle is right now, flipping distractedly through the channels as his mom works on a crossword puzzle beside him, he needs more than just his family. He needs a friend, and Stan is the only one he has right now. Maybe. Unless Stan is done with him. As long as Kyle stays away from the computer, he can keep pretending that everything's okay, but he's going to have to deal with it sooner or later.

Probably sooner, because it's already after noon, which means there's a chance Stan might be online now.

He tosses the remote aside, because there's seriously nothing on, and he stands up, stretching dramatically.

"Computer time?" his mom asks, not looking up from her crossword.

"I guess," Kyle responds. "There's nothing on, so…"

She looks up at him and smiles, tucking her pencil behind her ear. "Thank you for staying out of your room today. We miss seeing you, bubbie."

"Yeah." It's uncomfortable suddenly, and Kyle's more than ready to hide away upstairs. "I'm trying to work on that."

"You're such a good boy." She turns her attention back to her crossword and Kyle runs up the stairs before she has a chance to change her mind and say something else.

Once he's safe on the landing, he takes his time getting to his room, walking with forced casualness, even stopping to straighten a picture frame, lets himself into his room and closes the door gently behind him. He eases delicately into his chair, shifting around and making himself comfortable before he even turns the computer on. He checks his Facebook first thing, planning to sort through the notifications that had no doubt stacked up, but he doesn't have any at all. Not even from Ike, who usually pities him enough to send a game request every now and then.

He skims through his newsfeed, even though he couldn't care less about what all these people are up to, but something still keeps him from removing them from his friends. It might have something to do with the fact that, if he actually removed everyone he didn't care about, everyone he isn't actually friends with, he'd be stuck with his parents and Ike. And maybe Kenny, depending on his mood. But probably not. They still haven't really talked since the whole incident (if not returning a phone call can be referred to as an incident, but Kyle doesn't know what else to call it), and if Kyle is ever going to drop all pretenses and delete everyone, he might as well get rid of Kenny, too.

There's nothing left to do, nothing else to distract himself with without being too obvious – although he doesn't know who he's trying to convince. But he reluctantly opens up the messenger and signs in, only to find out Stan isn't online at all. He's not sure if he should be disappointed or not; it still might be a little early for Stan, or maybe he's not out of school for winter yet. Maybe Kyle should have asked about that.

Even though he's had all night to think about it, Kyle hasn't come up with anything that could make a conversation with Stan today be any easier. He usually doesn't talk to people, unless he's telling them to fuck off, so saying he's out of practice is a bit of an understatement. At least now he has the winter break thing to use as a conversation starter, even though it's pretty much a yes or no question, but maybe Stan will decide to elaborate on his plans or something. Or if he's not out of school yet, Kyle will gladly listen to him complain about how unfair it is that Kyle's already on break while he's not. It doesn't matter; Kyle's up for anything as long as it gets them talking.

It's hours before Stan actually gets online, the sun already setting and casting Kyle's room in an orange glow. It never takes Stan this long, and now Kyle is certain Stan's been avoiding him, but that's not exactly something he can ask about. But they talk, and it's worse than it was last night, because they exchange 'hey's, and that's all there is to say.

Kyle distracts himself as much as he can, watching stupid videos and reading random articles, things that barely stick in his mind, and it's not until an hour later that he remembers that he was going to ask Stan if he's still in school. But when he switches back over to the chat window, Stan is offline – gone without saying a word.

Kyle stares at the chat box blankly, stuck somewhere between hurt and anger. He gets it, in a way: this is weird and tense and uncomfortable and maybe not even worth the effort, but as far as he's concerned that doesn't give Stan an excuse to just leave without saying anything, without even trying. That's all it takes for anger to take over, dousing out the flickers of hurt, and Kyle exits the chat with more force than necessary, banging on his mouse, and he shoves away from the computer and stands uselessly in the middle of the room, his insides buzzing with a suffocating energy.

He's not sure why he's so worked up about this, why he even cares this much, but it shouldn't be this fucking difficult to sit down and talk to someone for a little while, especially someone he's been dealing with every single day for the past three months.

Kyle doesn't get online at all the next day as some irrational form of revenge. He spends the majority of the day sitting on the floor at the end of his bed, his head resting back on the mattress, squinting up at the TV screen and trying to lose himself in video games. None of them are really holding his attention, and he switches games about every thirty minutes, but it doesn't matter, because he has something to prove. He's not exactly sure what that something is, but it means avoiding Stan longer than Stan can avoid him.

The following day he and Stan are both on in the late afternoon, and Kyle is still feeling a little edgy, and he doesn't want to be the one to go crawling back to Stan to try to set things right. So he says nothing, waiting for Stan to message him first, because somehow or another this is all Stan's fault and he should be the one trying to fix it.

It takes Stan two fucking hours to speak up, and Kyle is considering just logging out and giving up for good when the message pops up.


He almost logs out anyway, just out of spite, but he's still hoping for an apology; he wants to watch Stan struggle through it, fishing for the right words, making a fool of himself. Kyle wouldn't help him out – he'd just sit there and smile to himself, reveling in Stan's discomfort until he finally decided to end it. So he responds, just for that reason.

'Oh, hey.'

There's a long pause, and Kyle rolls his eyes, letting out a frustrated groan. Here they go again – two lines of text only to be followed by hours of silence. But then Stan is typing again, and Kyle lifts an eyebrow, surprised. Maybe spending a day avoiding Stan completely did the trick after all.

'dude what are we doing?'

'What do you mean?'

'I don't know…. just it was so much easier to talk in the rpg but now it's like I don't know'

That just about sums it up, Kyle thinks. Now things are I don't know, and neither of them know what it is or how to fix it. Something about that makes Kyle feel a little better, because Stan suddenly seems less malicious, more confused and frustrated. And Kyle no longer wants to watch him squirm; he wants them to talk their way through this, because dammit they have so much fun together when they're not trapped behind a wall of awkwardness.

'I don't know,' Kyle echoes, for lack of anything better. 'I mean, I like you, but I have nothing to say to you.'

He realizes belatedly that that was probably a bit harsh, and it takes Stan a full minute to respond with a simple, 'ha. yeah'

'I didn't mean that the way it sounded.'

'I know it's okay don't worry'

'So,' Kyle says, after a pause. 'Are you on winter break yet?'

'yesterday was my last day'

'Oh, sweet.'

At least now Kyle can honestly say he tried. And he's all out of ideas, so if Stan has nothing else to say, it's not Kyle's problem.

'so hey do you have any plans?'

Kyle blinks at the screen in surprise. 'Um, plans for what?'

'Christmas dude'

'Oh haha. Not for Christmas, no.' Kyle doesn't really feel like elaborating, because the last thing he wants is to give Stan a reason to make fun of him, to realize there's something wrong with him.

'what? nothing at all?'

'Um, I'm planning on sleeping, if that counts.'

'dude :('

This is suddenly turning uncomfortable, and Kyle scrambles for something to take the attention off of himself. 'I'm guessing you have plans?'

'haha not amazing ones. we're probably just staying home and opening presents or something idk'

Kyle feels an odd pang of longing, because even though he gets presents during Hanukkah, it doesn't seem nearly as special and magical as waking up one morning, a thick blanket of Christmas snow on the ground, and gathering around a gently glowing tree, opening boxes upon boxes. A fire crackling in the fireplace, everyone smiling and happy and cozy. Or maybe that's just the glamorized version that's advertised to the world, but he can't help but want to experience it anyway.

'That sounds nice,' he says sincerely.

'I guess yeah. at least we won't have to like leave or anything. but ugh my mom is probably going to make me go shopping or something'

That, at least, is one aspect Kyle will never be jealous of. 'That sucks,' he types, just as there's a gentle knock at his door. He flails around in a panic, minimizing the chat as quickly as he can, only to realize he had closed his browser when he and Stan started talking, and if that doesn't look suspicious, he doesn't know what does – just sitting up here for hours, apparently staring at his desktop.

His heart is pounding as the door creaks open and his mom pokes her head in, telling him to come down for dinner. Either she doesn't notice or she doesn't care that he seems to be doing absolutely nothing, but she doesn't comment on it, just ducks right back out of the room, which is more than Kyle could have hoped for. Still, he makes a mental note to at least have his browser open, maybe on Facebook or something, just to keep up appearances.

He waits until he hears his mom's footsteps fading down the stairs before he brings the chat back up. Stan hasn't said anything else, but Kyle really didn't give him anything to respond to, so he's not horribly concerned about it. Things seem different now – like they made it some checkpoint in a video game. Their progress is saved, they never have to go back to hours of not saying a single word to each other.

'Ugh, I have to go,' Kyle types. 'Dinner.'

'okay. will you be on tomorrow?'

He actually intended to get back on as soon as he was finished, but he's pretty sure this was Stan's way of saying he's through talking for the night. 'Yeah, of course.'

They say their goodbyes, which is somehow the most awkward part of the night, something about the obligatory 'I'll talk to you later's and the abundance of 'okay's make Kyle a little uncomfortable. But it doesn't matter. They'll get better at this; they are getting better at this. Within a week or so, they probably won't be able to stop talking to each other, and then they'll have nearly two full weeks to spend as much time together as they want.

Things can only go up from here.