Chapter 16: It Means "Until We Meet Again"
"Look," Butters pulls a letter out of the bright purple folder he keeps in his English notebook. It's a stiff piece of paper, very official-looking, and Kenny's heart leaps into his throat as his eyes skim over the words.
It's from Boulder.
"Uh," Kenny supplies with a smile as he hands the letter back. "You got in."
"I know," Butters nods, positively giddy, and pulls Kenny into a hug so tight that he thinks he might pop. It's the happiest Kenny has seen Butters in a very, very long time, and for a moment it's easy to forget everything that's happened over the last few months.
It's easy to forget everything, actually, and give Butters a big kiss.
Cartman knocks into them as he passes, which prompts Kenny to pull away and toss out a hearty "fuck you" as he flourishes his middle finger. Butters rolls his eyes and shoves Kenny's hand down to his side, offering a toothy grin as one of the teachers walks by.
"You free after rehearsal today?" he then asks as he watches to make sure the teacher is out of sight.
"I'm free every day after rehearsal," Kenny shrugs. Butters pulls another folder out of his locker, a black one, and hands it to Kenny. He offers no explanation, so Kenny has to open it up and see for himself just what's inside.
A stack of gritty-looking photos of Stephen Stotch that he definitely did not need to see.
"Aw, dude," Kenny grimaces and shoves them back at Butters. "Not cool. If you're going to intentionally scar me for life, at least warn me."
Butters shoves the folder back into the locker, looking at Kenny in a way that makes him feel like he shouldn't be reacting that way if Butters isn't.
"You're very zen about this, dude," Kenny frowns and adjusts his bag on his shoulder. "If I saw my dad getting railed like that…" he finishes with a whistle.
"Well, I would probably have a different reaction if I saw your dad doin' that too," Butters shrugs and shuts his locker. "I don't know," he continues as they walk toward the auditorium. "It's weird to think, but I almost feel like I don't care about anything anymore, so I don't care about this?"
"You don't care about anything?" Kenny asks, and Butters pauses.
They walk in silence for a few moments as Butters thinks, and then he replies, "All right, I care about some stuff. Like, you and goin' to school and stuff."
The sentiment makes Kenny's chest all fuzzy and warm.
"And hey," Butters snaps his fingers pointedly, "So long as I'm at it, I may as well ask for good therapy. After all, seein' pictures of your dad getting nailed buy another fella can be really scarring for such an impressionable young mind."
Kenny barks out a laugh and pulls Butters into a one-armed hug. It's good to see him like this. Kenny doesn't think he's back to his old self or anything; actually, he thinks Butters is on his way to being better than before.
Old Butters would have stayed in correctional therapy without a question of his parents' judgment.
Kenny and Butters turn to see Ms. Epstein running toward them from the front office. She has a long, hand-knit scarf around her neck and a matching hat on her head.
"I'm glad I caught you," she smiles, and looks at Butters. "Hello, Leopold. Are you boys off to drama rehearsal?"
"Yeah, actually," Kenny nods.
"I'm actually gonna keep headin' over," Butters smiles. "I'll see you there." He gives Ms. Epstein a wave and walks off.
Kenny watches him walk for a few moments before turning back to Ms. Epstein and asking, "Is everything okay? Shit, I didn't forget to put my name on my essay again did I?"
"No, nothing like that," she shakes her head with a laugh and reaches into her bag. She pulls out a handful of envelopes and hands them to him. "I wanted to give you these."
"These," Kenny nods and fans them out in front of himself. "What are these?"
"Well, I didn't think you were applying to schools this year," she crosses her arms over her chest. "But in case you did decide to do it next year, I didn't want you to be stuck without at least one letter of recommendation."
"So you gave me five?" he asks, a little dumbstruck.
"Well, it's five copies of one letter," she explains. "You're a talented kid, Kenny, and you're a good kid to boot. There aren't that many of you out there. If I can help you do anything, I want you to let me know. I know school isn't over for a few months, but… you deserve good things to happen to you. So, we've got some time to make it happen."
The letters feel hot against Kenny's skin.
No one has ever thought he was smart enough to go to college before, even if it's just art school.
"Thank you," he nods. And then she pulls him into a hug and she smells like incense and lentil soup, and it's oddly comforting. He hugs her back, and then gives her a wave when she turns back to the office.
Kenny doesn't go to the auditorium right away. Instead he goes out behind the school, lights up a cigarette, and tears open one of the letters. He unfolds the crisp white paper and reads,
"To Whom it May Concern,
I have had the undeniable pleasure of working with Kenneth McCormick for only a few months, and already I have discerned that he is not only a talented artist, but a fiercely determined worker. He entered my class as a student who had never been enrolled in such a rigorous course, and where many would have paled and given up in the face of such a challenge, Kenneth pushed himself and is now one of my best students.
As an artist, he has a unique grasp of composition and style that would flourish under more detailed instruction. More than just a hobby, it is clear to me that Kenneth's art is an essential medium of expression that never ceases to amaze. I know that he would benefit from and be a wonderful addition to your institution.
Kenny doesn't realize he's crying until a tear rolls off his cheek and splats onto the letter. He's overwhelmed by the deep, thick swell in his chest, and for once in his life he extinguishes a cigarette before it's completely smoked down.
He thinks this is what it must be like to be sat on by an elephant.
"What's that," comes the familiar voice of Eric Cartman. "Butters leave you a break up note in your locker or something?"
"Fuck off," Kenny replies thickly and swipes the tears off his cheeks.
"Dude, fucking gross," Cartman scowls as he lights a cigarette. "Cover your vagina when you're in public, Kenny, Jesus."
"Will you fuck the fucking fuck off!" Kenny snaps. He feels too good to want this to end just yet.
"What are you gonna do when he leaves?" Cartman asks, and for a split second Kenny thinks that he might be trying to have an actual conversation with him. Then, of course, he spoils it by saying, "I guess you could always kill yourself. Though, there's no guarantee he wouldn't beat you to it."
Kenny is on his feet in a split second, letter on the floor and Cartman backed up against the wall.
"Tell me again," he says, voice deadly low, "And see if you can enunciate a little more this time, because I think I misheard you: what's that you said?"
It doesn't enter into Kenny's mind that Cartman might actually be scared by him. He's a sociopathic piece of shit, and not that Kenny ever thought that that would change, it's still shitty to be reminded of it so often.
"Now, Kenny," Cartman feigns sympathy and puts a meaty hand on his shoulder. "It's hard when a significant other leaves us. But the important thing to remember in times of sadness is that you go down the road, not across the way."
Kenny doesn't remember much after that—he gets that all too familiar feeling of homicidal Irish rage in his gut and before he knows it, he and Cartman are scrapping on the floor.
And, as expected, Kenny gets pinned pretty easily, face pressed against the ice cold concrete and nose leaking blood all over the place. He can't hear much over the rush in his ears, only knows that someone's come over to break it up.
It takes three fully grown teachers to pull Cartman up off of Kenny, while Kenny is left to roll to his feet on his own.
"That's cool," he grunts and brushes himself off. He looks up then to see the dean standing there, arms folded, beside Cartman.
"Oh, shit," he mutters, and the dean nods.
"You've got that right," he nods and beckons Kenny forth with a finger.
"What the fuck, how come he doesn't have to come?" Kenny jabs an accusatory thumb at Cartman.
"Because I'll deal with him later, Kenny, now come on" the dean snaps. Kenny draws back not only at the severity of tone, but also at how easily he finds himself following the dean back to his office. The moment they're behind closed doors, the dean braces his hands on his desk and hangs his head.
"And after I just had Ms. Epstein in here singing your praises?" the dean finally asks and looks up. "Kenny, you were five months away from getting out of here. Five fucking months! I swear, I thought you summoned the goddamned devil to keep your bullshit in check, I was that impressed. Not one peep out of you since September, and now this?"
Kenny sits perfectly still in his chair, aware of the blood trickling from his nose that now stains the collar of his shirt. The dean softens a bit and offers him the box of tissues.
"The nurse is already gone for the day," he says and sits on his desk. "I don't know why you insist on picking fights with people who are twice your size."
Kenny takes a wad of tissues and stuffs one up his nose to staunch the flow.
"Uh, not that I don't appreciate it, but… why aren't you, like," Kenny sniffs, "screaming."
The dean runs a hand over his face and tosses his box of tissues back on his desk. "Because I have to expel you now and I'm really, really bummed about it, dude."
Kenny's blood runs cold. The dean does actually look remorseful, but that's—
"You've gotta be fucking shitting me," he says. "No way, I've been doing great! I'm supposed to be in Grease, dude!"
"I know that, Kenny," the dean nods. "But I gave you a limit and part of my job is making sure that your actions have consequences."
"Dude, that's bullshit!" Kenny snaps and stands, fuming. "I was doing just fucking fine; that piece of shit provoked me!"
"Believe me, I know," the dean folds his arms. "And he'll face his own punishment separately, but Kenny I did warn you that this would happen. My hands are tied."
Kenny balks, unable to actually wrap his lips around any words as the dean sits behind his desk and picks up the phone. "Are your parents home?"
"Fuck that," Kenny shakes his head as the dean looks up his phone number in the computer. "I'll tell them, just—don't call them in here, please."
"Kenny, my hands are tied," the dean shakes his head and presses the number into the phone. "And if you run I'm gonna have to get Officer Hardy in here and keep you here."
Kenny's mouth opens and closes a few times before he eventually concedes and flops back down into his chair. His phone buzzes in his pocket, and while the dean explains to an undoubtedly inebriated Stuart McCormick why he's calling, he pulls it out and answers.
"Kenny, where are you?" comes Butters' slightly panicked voice. "We're out lookin' for you, but no one can find you. Are you all right?"
"I've been better," Kenny mutters and sinks low into his seat. "I'm in the dean's office. Um… I'm not coming to rehearsal."
He hears nothing but silence on the end before he gets an accusatory, "Kenny, what did you do?"
"Look, I'll tell you later," Kenny explains quickly as the dean gives him a hardened stare. "I'm kind of fucked up my ass here."
"Oh, for the love of God—" he hears Butters start in, but Kenny quickly snaps his phone shut and attempts to look innocent.
"Your dad is on his way," the dean takes off his glasses and rubs at his eyes. "Look, I'm not going to rail on you in front of him, all right? You're seventeen, your parents have to be involved."
To Kenny's great surprise, he no longer feels angry. Instead, there's this noxious amount of guilt seeping into his core. He's not going to get to be in the play, he's not going to graduate, but what's even worse is that there were people actually pulling for him to turn it around and he fucked up.
Worst of all, he let down Butters. He's supposed to be the strong one… right? At one point, he thought that Butters was the strong one who was there to catch Kenny when he fell, but then Butters ended up falling to pieces.
"Look," the dean begins behind steepled fingers, head bowed deep in thought. "You can still get your GED, you can still pursue other things. But the truth of the matter is that if I went back on my word and kept you in school, I'd still have to pull you out of all of your extra curriculars and keep you under close watch… I'm not your babysitter Kenny—no one is, and I know you know that. But with your disciplinary record, that would be protocol, and quite frankly I think that would be insulting to you. To the both of us."
Kenny can't help himself. He doubles over to rest his forehead on his knees and lets a few tears soak into the denim on his legs.
Because there's nothing left for him to do. If he's not at least going to graduate high school, and he doesn't have a job anymore, what the fuck hope is there for him? He doesn't have any skills or anything he likes to do that would make him any money. Even to make money with art you need to have at least some formal training.
All he has left is Butters, and he'll be gone by September.
He looks back up at the dean, who tries to pretend that he doesn't feel bad or sympathetic, and prepares himself for what he's about to do.
"I'm sorry," he supplies simply and without another thought he gets up and takes off down the hall as fast as he can. With nothing left to lose, he may as well go out in a blaze of glory, right?
He carefully evades the patches of snow and ice and gets to the truck. He starts her up and tears off of the property.
He doesn't have any of his money, and Kevin would actually kill him if he took off with the truck, but in spite of all of that, Kenny suddenly realizes that the rest of the world is open to him.
Because unlike most people who have nothing left to lose, he can't lose his life. For whatever reason, that comforts him immensely. No longer does he have people to disappoint, or himself to disappoint for that matter. Finally rid of the last yoke of expectations, he feels like, for the first time, he can actually start living his life.
When he gets home, both Kevin and Karen are on the couch—Kevin watching Swamp People and Karen attempting to fishtail braid her own hair. Both look at him with high arched eyebrows and big eyes, like they've just seen a ghost. Karen gets over it quickly, though, and immediately springs up to give him a hug.
"Dad just went to the school because your bitch-ass was in trouble," Kevin scowls from his place on the couch. "'the fuck did you do?"
"I got in a fight," Kenny replies, and pulls the bloody wad of tissue out of his nose. "And they kicked me out. I figure I've got a good half an hour before he's back, so I'm leaving."
"What?" Karen nearly shouts, pushing him away almost violently. "Like hell you are, fucker!"
"Where the fuck would you even go?" Kevin asks. "And you're not taking the truck, so take that into motherfucking account, dick."
"I don't know," Kenny shrugs, a smile on his face. "I could go anywhere I want. Like, anywhere. So I think I'm going to."
Karen and Kevin both stare at him blankly, and so Kenny takes the opportunity to run upstairs and start stuffing his backpack with essentials. Or, as essential as he can guess, considering that he doesn't know where the hell he's going.
"What'll you do?" Karen asks as she appears in the doorway.
"I don't know," Kenny shrugs. "But anything is better than rotting here."
He looks up at her and feels his gut twist in a sickening realization. He can't fucking believe that he forgot about Karen. She's his best friend, for god's sake, and he just forgot about her.
"Listen," he stands and pulls her into a hug. "If I don't do this now, I never will. I'll end up getting lashed to some shitty job here and I'll be stuck."
Karen pulls back from him and folds her arms over her skinny chest. She gives him a hard look up and down and bites her lip, thinking.
"Then you should go," she finally concludes, and smiles at him. "You should, and you should send me a postcard from everywhere you go. Because if you can get out of here, then… I don't know, then I can too. And so can Kevin."
Kenny scoffs at that. Kevin wouldn't leave this place if there was a gold paved road leading out of it.
"Hey, would you give me a ride to Stark's Pond?" he asks.
Karen cocks her brow and counters, "Not to the airport?"
"No, I have to—I've gotta do something first."
Karen shrugs and goes to put on her shoes. Meanwhile, Kenny whips out his phone and texts Butters to meet him at Stark's Pond ASAP.
'In the interest of saving me a lot of anxiety can you tell me what's wrong?'
'2much 4 a message. Everything is ok tho, jus meet me please?'
'Alright, be there soon.'
Kenny finishes packing his bag, grabs the extra wad of cash out from under his mattress, and meets Karen downstairs where she waits with Kevin.
"So, you know she's not old enough to drive you, right?" Kevin asks, fingering the key ring in his hands. Kenny falters momentarily and then folds his arms over his chest.
"I didn't figure you'd want to drive me to meet Butters," he raises an eyebrow. Kevin nods and looks down at his keys.
"You're right, I don't."
He makes no move to abandon the keys, though, and that's enough for Kenny. That may as well have been a flat-out "I love you", for god's sake. So, the three of them pile into the truck—Karen in the middle and Kenny anxiously jiggling in the passenger's seat—and drive to Stark's Pond.
They sit there in silence for a few minutes, parked on the abandoned street and waiting for any sign of Butters.
"He's not coming," Kevin shakes his head. "May as well just drive you to the airport now."
"Shut the fuck up, Kevin," Karen scowls and gives him a shove. "Our brother is in love and it's beautiful."
"The fuck it is," Kevin scoffs. "Fuckin' dirty is what it is."
"Blow it out your ass," Kenny snaps. "Both of you."
Uncomfortable silence falls among them again and Kenny silently wills Butters there quicker. It proves useless though, and Kenny realizes he's just going to have to wait.
Butters drives like a fucking little old lady.
And then Kevin says something that hits him like a train to the chest. "What are you going to do about mom?"
Kenny falls back against his seat so hard that his head thunks against the glass. "Fuck," is all he can think to say as both Karen and Kevin look at him expectantly. He mulls it over for a moment before he concludes, "If I see her, I'll just talk myself out of it and I won't go."
He screws his eyes shut and scrunches up his face, brain working hard. He doesn't get anything out before he sees Butters pull up.
His heart skips a beat.
"Okay, um" he swallows and, rather than try to find the right words, throws his arms around Karen's skinny frame. She resituates and hugs him back so tight that he thinks she might actually break him in half.
"I love you," she pulls back and sniffles. "Remember, post cards."
Kenny smiles and nods. Kevin remains silent through this, though he does look a little like he's trying to smile when Kenny looks at him. Kenny gulps, gives a final nod, and hops out of the car. Butters stands beside his car, eyebrows knit up high on his forehead as Kenny approaches him and pulls him into a kiss.
They jump apart when Kevin lays on the horn as he tears away from the park, middle finger stuck out of the driver's side window until they turn the corner.
"Okay, will you just tell me what the hell is going on before I go crazy?" Butters breathes and starts touching Kenny's face, like he's making sure he's all there. "You're scarin' the crap outta me."
"I'm fine," Kenny gives him a reassuring smile, only to falter a second later. "Well, okay, not fine. I just got kicked out of school."
"What!" Butters yelps, and looks about to start in on what promises to be a most tedious reading of the riot act before Kenny cuts him off.
"I'm fine, though," he insists. "Dude, it's weird but I—I feel like I'm on top of the fucking world right now."
Butters returns with a set of wild eyes and eyebrows screwed up high on his forehead, paired with a simple "Did you have a stroke?"
Kenny lets out a nervous laugh and rests their foreheads together. He isn't sure how to say what he wants to say, so he kisses Butters again, soft and reassuring. Butters hangs on to him tight, and Kenny's heart skips another beat.
"I'm leaving," he finds himself saying when they pull apart, just like that. Butters looks at him funny again.
"Leaving?" he cocks his head, panting softly. Kenny swallows and strokes his fingers through Butters' hair.
God, he really is gorgeous.
"I can't stay here anymore," Kenny explains. "Baby, I gotta leave."
Butters doesn't respond, just stares at Kenny with those big watery eyes and that soft face, and lets Kenny continue.
"If I don't leave, I'm gonna be stuck here forever," he admits, and Butters starts shaking his head.
"No," he gulps, "Kenny, no. Don't—don't leave me here by myself."
Kenny nestles his face in Butters' neck and hugs him close. He smells like soap and clean laundry, the same way he always smells. Kenny could live right here in Butters' arms forever, but when he pulls back, he knows that he can't. Not right now anyway.
So, he offers a soft smile and asks, "Take me to the airport?"
Butters takes a step away from him, searching Kenny's face for something. Kenny thinks he may have found it, because a second later his face gets all screwed up and he starts to cry. He doesn't let Kenny hug him, though, just mops up his tears with his sleeves and says, "Get in the car, asshole."
And he does. Butters gets behind the wheel, starts the car, and takes off for the road out of town without saying another word. For a while, they sit in absolute silence, neither of them daring to turn on the radio or even breathe too hard.
Butters looks more grown-up here than Kenny thinks he's ever seen him.
"Where're you gonna go?" Butters finally asks, and Kenny admits, "I don't know. Wherever I can afford, I guess."
And then a thought strikes him, "You can come with me, if you want."
Butters lets out a loud laugh and gives Kenny that look again.
"You're insane," he shakes his head. "Kenny, I can't go with you. I'm… I'm goin' to college in the fall. Granted, I can't really say where yet, but I gotta finish school."
Kenny lets out a breath and sinks in his seat.
Silence falls between them again. Who can say why for Butters, but for Kenny there's a tumultuous storm of feelings tearing through him and about a million things he could say, none of which feel right for the time being.
So, he reaches over and fluffs up Butters' hair.
"I love you," he says through a smile and shifts so he's facing Butters. "And, in a weird way? I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for you."
"I drove you out of the state," Butters snarks. "Great."
"Dude, not even," Kenny jabs him in the ribs ("Not while I'm driving, Kenny!") and insists, "I've wanted to get out of here forever, but I spent so much time being afraid of myself that I couldn't ever imagine feeling good again. You make me want to be better, to go out and live my life and just… fucking do something. I can't do that here, you know that."
Butters shifts in his seat, but finally nods and concedes, "I know."
And Kenny almost starts talking again, but Butters cuts him off. "But you help me too, Kenny," he admits in this broken watery voice that makes Kenny's throat close up. "And I still need you. I can't—I can't do all this on my own. Heck, I still gotta get help with everything, and start seein' a real doctor, and get all my shit together, and even if you being here doesn't make everything better, it still makes it easier, and I can't—" his voice cracks and he has to pull over. He rests his forehead on the steering wheel and starts to cry. Like, actually cry, complete with whimpering and sobbing and shaking. Kenny undoes his seat belt and pulls him into a hug. He feels hot, like he has a fever even though he's not sick.
"You're okay," Kenny hums and kisses him on the cheek, in his hair, on the very top of his head. He whispers little reassuring things over and over, telling Butters he loves him and that he's okay and amazing and that everything is going to be all right until Butters has calmed down enough to start breathing evenly again.
It does make him insurmountably sad that this is the last time he'll hold Butters for a while, but he keeps his tears at bay.
"I can't stay," he just says, and Butters nods again. "I know."
He sniffles and pulls back, wiping at his eyes. "Kenny, I don't—I don't want you to stay here 'cause of me," Butters says. "If you need to do this, then I want you to. I'm just—" he hiccups. "I'm just real sad about it, I guess."
"I know," Kenny nods, "I am too. But you've got this, dude. You really do."
Butters gives a little laugh and hiccups again, and Kenny smiles back. "What if I stay here and get a job, and then you don't wanna leave because I'm here?"
"Kenny, you don't have to convince me," Butters laughs and wipes at his eyes. "I really want you to go and… spread your wings, or whatever you're gonna do."
"You've gotta do it too, though," Kenny insists. "You gotta go and make sure you get to go to the school you wanna go to, and when you do, you have to let me know where you're going. And I can meet you there."
Butters gets this happy smile on his face as he sinks into the thought. "You could, couldn't you?"
Kenny grins and nods, bringing him into a kiss. "You and me, we're gonna get out of here," he murmurs against Butters' lips. "And we're gonna have sex on your homophobic roommate's desk the second we see each other again."
Butters laughs, on the edge of hysterics again. "What if my roommate isn't homophobic?" he asks.
"Still gonna have sex on his desk," Kenny shrugs. "That should be the first thing you tell him, just so he knows what's coming."
They descend into uncontrollable fits of laughter, leaning on each other for support. By the time they finally calm down, Kenny feels a lot better, and so does Butters from the looks of it. They strap themselves back in and take off down the road again. It's a lot easier now, both of them going on and joking back and forth all the way to Denver.
Being with Butters is easy, and Kenny gets kind of sad knowing that it won't be like this for a while.
When they get to the airport, Butters gets out of the car like he's going to go inside with him. Kenny stops him with a kiss that catches Butters off guard and gets Kenny to stop breathing. This is the last time he's going to kiss this boy for a while. Suddenly there's a little more urgency under his skin.
"You'd better get going," Kenny sighs as he pulls back. "Your parents'll be livid by the time you get back."
"Kenny, I don't care," Butters shakes his head, and then kisses Kenny again. They're all but making out on the hood of the car before Kenny finally pulls away.
"I love you, baby," he grins, and Butters gives him a bittersweet smile back.
"I love you too," he returns and looks down at his fingers. "Just—let me know when you get where you're goin' huh?"
"Of course," Kenny nods. "And, uh… do me a favor and check in on my mom and Karen once in a while?"
Butters smiles and nods back, "Yeah, I will."
And then Kenny turns away and takes the first steps into his future, alone but somehow lighter than ever.
It's dark when Butters gets back to South Park. There's this mix of remorse and hope in his chest that he didn't think would be possible to feel, but there it is.
The only light on when he gets home comes from the living room, which means that his parents are undoubtedly waiting up for him. He knew this would happen, sure, but he can't find it in himself to care. He spent half the drive home crying his eyes out, and the other half singing along to every Carpenters CD his mom keeps in this godforsaken car just to cheer himself up.
That did not work as well as he wanted.
He sits in the driveway for a few minutes, mopping up any stray tears that come out of his eyes and trying to get a hold of himself. When he finally feels like he can operate at a normal human level, he takes a deep breath and gets out of the car.
Upon entering the house, he sees about what he expected: his father sitting there in his cardigan, smoking his pipe and looking furious.
"Just where the hell have you been?" he bellows and stands. "Your mother had to take my car to her book club."
"Oh no," Butters deadpans before he can stop himself and goes to the fridge to find something to eat.
"Don't you use that tone with me, young man, I want answers!"
"For your information," Butters snaps back and slams the fridge door. "I just found out that the guy I love got kicked out of school about two minutes before he told me he's leaving South Park. I had to drive him to the airport, sorry I wasn't home sooner."
His dad looks for a moment like he might be sympathetic, but the moment passes and his gaze hardens.
"Well, good," he concludes. "Maybe now you'll make a little progress with your recovery."
"What recovery?" Butters ponders, folding his arms in curiosity. "If you're referring to my mental state, I-I hate to disappoint you but I don't think this is gonna help too much; if you're referring to my body healin' my fucked up arms, that didn't have much to do with Kenny anyway; if you're talking about my bein' a big ol' queer, you're shit outta luck there too."
Butters feels this invigorating rush as his dad balks at him, and even though his heart slams hard against his ribs, he feels power bubbling deep inside him.
"How—Butters, you are in a world of trouble, is that all you have to say for yourself?"
Butters shrugs, "Why not?"
That sets Stephen off like a wildfire on a hot windy day. "Young man, you have no idea just what you're doing to yourself when you refuse to take the help your mother and I arranged for you to have. You're dooming yourself to a life of ostracism, just for something that eventually won't mean anything to you."
Butters raises his eyebrows. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"
His dad pauses and steeples his fingers, trying to figure out how best to phrase what's rattling around in his head. "Son, everyone goes through phases like this, and I will not allow you to throw your life away just because of some unchecked adolescent idiocy! Now, we've tried to be reasonable with you, but if you're going to keep resisting, I'm afraid we'll have no choice but to send you to a place that can help you."
That hits Butters hard, and all of a sudden he's off. "I don't think so, there dad," he lays in, coming back into the living room. "'cause if you send me to some place that's gonna help me 'get rid of my gay', what are they gonna do when I say that all I know is what I've seen my dad do at The White Swallow spa?"
Stephen's eyes get wide and Butters breaks out into a complacent grin.
"Aw, come on dad, you didn't think I forgot about that, did you?" he taunts.
"Now, that's not the same," Stephen falters. "That's just your dad blowing off steam."
"You sure you wanna use that phrasing?" Butters asks, smile unwavering.
"It's just something I do sometimes," Stephen explains, choosing to ignore Butters' comment. "That's all things like this should be. It's all right to have these urges, but to build a life on them is just… foolish. It'll never make you happy. Your mom, you, our life together—that's what makes me happy."
"No," Butters snaps back. "If you're happy, you shouldn't wanna sneak around and have some double life. And you know what? If that's what makes you happy, fine, but that's not what's gonna make me happy, and as my parents you and mom should only care about what makes me happy."
"Butters, you're seventeen, you don't know what's going to make you happy," Stephen argues.
"Actually," Butters interjects, "I'll tell you what makes me happy: two dozen pictures of you bein' strong-armed and hog-tied by one of your friends at the spa. And if you think I'm bluffing or that it's not you, I can always ask mom to give us a positive identification."
Stephen's face turns bright red, but before he can shout, Butters continues, "Now, I don't wanna have to do that. I think my time would be much better spent in therapy, getting help for depression. And if I'm gonna do that, I may as well go to whatever college I want and put that therapy to use. Get a degree, become a functioning member of society, allow myself all the opportunities you want me to have… right? And I'd hate to jeopardize that by having to show your wife who makes you so happy photographic evidence of just how happy you are to have another man workin' you over like you owe him money."
Stephen stands shell-shocked for a good long while before Butters decides to take pity on him and just go ahead and confirm it. He whips his backpack off and hands his dad the black folder. His dad goes still, and Butters can't help but grin.
"And if you think I don't have hard and digital copies all over the place, you're delusional," he says, snatching the pictures back. Butters doesn't have time to continue before his mom pulls up outside and he stuffs the folder into his bag again. By the time he's all zipped up, his dad is as white as a sheet and his mom has only just stepped inside.
"Butters, when did you get back?" His mom demands the moment she sees him. Butters just shrugs and returns, "A little while ago."
His mom's eyebrows knit together as she looks from Butters to her husband. "Stephen, what's going on?"
His dad, to his credit, seems to recognize the severity of Butters' threat, and quickly snaps out of his shock. "Butters is out of control," he folds his arms, looking stern. "Now, I've already told him that we're going to send him to a doctor, one that's going to make him get his act together once and for all."
His mom folds her arms and scowls at Butters. "Just what did you do now, young man?"
Butters shrugs again, "Nothin'." He moves past his mom and toward the front door, "I'm just gonna let you two have a chat, I gotta be somewhere else anyway."
His mom tries to stop him, but he feels invincible—enough so to keep walking even though his mom and dad both shout after him and down the street as he takes off. He doesn't know where he's going, but that's okay. Not knowing isn't as scary as he thought it would be, mostly because he's getting closer and closer being on the right track, to actually feeling good.
He walks all the way to Stark's Pond, even though it's much too cold to be out for long. Kenny spent so much time with him there; Butters just wants to sit there with his thoughts for a while.
That's not going to happen, apparently, since the bench by the lake is already occupied by Kyle and Stan, the latter of whom stands on the bench and emphatically recounts something that makes the former double over with laughter. The closer Butters gets, the more obvious it is that Stan is mimicking Eric (which he is, admittedly, very good at), and Butters has to smile too.
"Hey, fellas," he greets them. Kyle's face is bright red, and Stan reeks of booze, but they both look at Butters with equally concerned faces.
"Shit," Stan says and sits back on the bench. "We heard about Kenny; we thought he was with you."
"He was," Butters nods and stuffs his hands in his pockets. "Then I drove him to the airport."
Kyle and Stan gape at that, and Kyle is the first to shout, "What?!"
"He's gone," Butters shrugged. "On an airplane now to god knows where. He didn't know."
Another moment passes before Kyle rolls his eyes and starts in, "Well, that's just fucking great. He's gonna get himself fucking killed because he didn't want to—" Butters kind of tunes him out after that. Stan recognizes this, and while Kyle rants Stan gets up and crunches through the few feet of snow, over to Butters.
"You okay?" he asks. Butters nods back, but his throat closes up so he can't say 'I'm fine'. Then his eyes start burning and before he knows it he starts crying again. He knew he'd be going off to school and that they'd eventually have to separate, but he was prepared to do that later. Just six hours ago, Kenny and Butters had months to spend together. Kenny was going to be around while Butters started seeing his doctors; he was going to help him with his shitty parents and his shitty last few months of high school in this shitty town, and then they were going to get out of here together.
Instead, Kenny decided that he needed to leave now.
The worst part is that Butters knows he would have stayed if he had made a big enough fuss, because Kenny, for whatever reason, loves him that much. Butters couldn't do something like that, though—instead, he'll just live with the dull ache in his chest and the free-fall feeling in his gut.
He can hack being all alone for a little while, right? It's only a few months, and maybe going through all this stuff alone will make him stronger. It's an absurd thought, considering that the only person who's ever made Butters feel remotely strong is probably on an airplane now, off to who-knows-where.
Butters feels another wave of tears coming on, only before he can get to them, Stan pulls him into a nice, tight hug.
And Butters doesn't want to throw him off or run away or anything. He just lets himself hug Stan back.
Even Kyle seems to realize that it's neither the time nor the place to be outraged, and quickly shuts his mouth. Butters grabs two giant fistfuls of Stan's jacket and tries his damndest to just hide.
"Come on," Stan pulls back and offers Butters a smile. "We're gonna order pizza and watch some old Terrence and Phillip reruns."
Butters sniffles and looks up, where he can see Kyle still on the bench, nodding. Stan clumsily wipes the tears off of Butters' face and gives him a genial smile.
So Butters nods and agrees, "Yeah, okay."
Even if he's not with Kenny for right now, it's good that he at least has a couple of friends here to look after him.
And he can't help but smile hours later, when he wakes up where he passed out on Stan's bed to a text that reads, "landed in seattle" accompanied by a dark, blurry picture of the airport. Butters glances over at where Stan and Kyle lie draped over each other on an open sleeping bag, snoozing, and snaps a picture.
He sends it with the caption, "All good here. Why Seattle?"
"morbid fasination with kobain-era grunge rock. sorry not sorry"
Butters laughs so loudly that he wakes Stan and Kyle, and is quickly silenced by a pillow to the face.
Here it is, the last chapter! I can't apologize enough for how long this took, but this is not the ending that would have come out of me two months ago.
Thank you all so much for reading and sticking around with this story. It means a lot to me to know that so many of you enjoyed it.
The chapter title is from Chim Chim Cher-ee [Rooftop Duet], from the stage musical version of Mary Poppins.