This was written for the inaugural South Park Big Bang! Writers were paired up with artists to create new, long stories with accompanying art. It was really successful and lots of fun, and I hope to participate again next year!

I had the privilege of being paired up with the artists Nhaingen and Momo, who created absolutely stunning artwork to go with this fic (it can be seen on the SPBB website: spbigbang dot org).

Anyway, about this fic. I need to warn for major angst and possible character death, also trigger warnings for depression and suicide. This is pretty much 20,000 words of sad, so brace yourselves, I guess.

So, hopefully that explains why I dropped off the face of the earth for awhile. And if anyone's actually wondering, I do intend to go back to working on Someone Like You. Just between the Big Bang and school and work, I pretty much didn't have time for anything. And have I mentioned I'm really slow? Because I am. Really slow.

That's enough babbling now.


Static


It's hard to move, it's always hard to move. It's been hard since Stan was ten years old; when the radio alarm clock blares, the world sounds like shit, and he doesn't think he can move, not again, not today. He falls back asleep two or three or ten more times, sleeps until the sun is high and burning his face, making his eyelids glow red, sweat plastering his bangs to his forehead.

He sleeps until Kyle comes in and whispers against his skin, making him shiver. But he doesn't move, can't move, as Kyle coaxes him with promises of breakfast, even though it has to be past noon. Eggs, toast, bacon, anything he wants — the world is his, and it's a beautiful day.

"I don't want anything," Stan manages, and the words are hard to form, catching in his throat. It feels like he's crying, his breath raspy and stuttering, though he can't remember what tears feel like.

"Come on, dude." Kyle sounds like heaven, and it's enough to make Stan open his eyes. He flinches back from the sudden burst of light, hitting his eyes like a thousand needles, and it hurts to be alive.

Kyle's perched on the edge of the bed, glowing in the light, and he's beautiful. He smiles, just a little. When Stan meets his eyes, he repeats, "Anything you want."

Stan reaches for him. He seems so far away, but he's right there, and Stan can't hold him. "I want you to stay," he whispers. It's so shaky that Kyle shouldn't have been able to understand it, but he lies down, his face inches away from Stan's, eyes soft and green.

"Please stay, please." He doesn't know why he's begging but the words are spilling out like tears, collecting in a puddle of senseless pleas. But Kyle's gaze is so understanding, so gentle and strong and perfect, that Stan feels so fucking safe falling apart in front of him. He's a puzzle that Kyle's put together a million times, and he's the only one who can, because all the edge pieces are missing and Kyle keeps them hidden in his pocket.

"I love you so much," Stan tells him. It's the only thing in his life he's ever been sure of, and even that hurts.

Kyle's strength falters, just enough for Stan to notice, and he breathes, "I love you too, dude, fuck. I won't leave, I can't leave." And that's enough.

Kyle's eyes are shining when he squeezes them closed, and the fat tear that collects on the bridge of nose shimmers like a diamond until it slips down and shatters. He's the only thing beautiful about today, and Stan loves him.

xxx

It's hard to move, but he used to be able to force himself. Because getting up meant going to school which meant Kyle. So he'd fall back asleep two or three or four times, but he could usually drag himself out of bed in time to get to homeroom only five to ten minutes late. No one even stared at him anymore, because he'd been late every single fucking day since fourth grade.

Kyle would lean in, bump his shoe against Stan's, whisper a cheerful, "Hey dude," as if he'd been waiting for Stan just as eagerly as Stan had been waiting for him. And Stan always wanted to apologize, as if he owed Kyle something, but he never did, because he didn't owe Kyle anything. He'd just smile, and it would be genuine, and he'd shrug and take his seat. Nothing needed to be said. Kyle understood. He always did.

Stan knew the height and width and volume of something like love can't be measured, can't be taken apart and examined, but Stan must have loved him to some degree even back then. Loved him as his best friend, his super best friend, loved him for being Kyle — studious, volatile, compassionate Kyle, and all the imperfections in between — but it was a love that ran too deep for Stan to see the bottom, and he wasted so many years being afraid to jump in and see if he could swim.

He'd go home with Kyle in the afternoon. The Broflovski house felt more like a home than his ever had; his house, his family, his room, his things — they were all so impermanent. In one second, they could be packed up and transported elsewhere, leaving a skeleton of a house with nothing but faded memories ghosting the bare rooms. There were dents in the appliances, as well faded pencil marks on the wall where Stan had been measuring himself. That was before he gave up, after he'd realized no one but him really cared how much he'd grown. That was all that remained, and that wasn't home. Even when they'd gone back — when they'd put things exactly how they were, and resumed their lives — it was never the same. Stan was never truly home.

Because maybe home wasn't a house, because a house is no more than wood and nails and impermanence and decay. Maybe a home was a person, and that person had always been Kyle. Those weren't thoughts that passed through Stan's head in middle school; all he knew was that flopping over on Kyle's bed at the end of the day, dragging Kyle down with him as laughter echoed down the halls with a ring — that was happiness. That was home.

"I want to live here." Stan used to say that all the time, as they lay side by side, catching their breath, clothes and hair and sheets mussed from their tussle.

Kyle would always agree, serenely, maybe a little wistfully. "My mom would try to make you convert, though."

"I don't care. I'd do it. If she'd really let me stay." Stan only admitted that once, because Kyle fell quiet afterward, lips pursed, eyes seeing something far away, and Stan couldn't tell what he was thinking. It was a terrifying feeling, like his whole world had been thrown off balance, and Stan had felt a rare stab of panic — like he'd fucked them up, like they'd never be the same again. He was drawing in a breath to take it all back, to pass it off as a joke, when Kyle's arms clamped around him again and they rolled off the bed, landing in a heap on the floor.

And they stayed that way, wrapped around each other in a tangle of blankets, carpet burning into Stan's elbows, until Mrs. Broflovski called them down for dinner. And Stan held on, just for a few seconds more, until Kyle finally pushed out of his arms. Because even though love might not have made sense — might have been something abstract, distant, and terrifying — there was some purely instinctual thing inside Stan that never, ever wanted to let go.

xxx

It's 3:00 by the time Stan manages to push himself up from the bed. His arms are shaking, as if they'd never held his weight before, and so he lets himself fall back down, just one more time, and his pillow is so soft and warm and still smells vaguely like Kyle. His chest seizes and his breath comes out in a shuddering rush — he has to get up, has to move, has to see Kyle.

Kyle's in the kitchen, and it's 3:45 when Stan slumps into one of the rickety old chairs his mom gave them. He lets his head fall against the table, listening to his heartbeat thrum in his ear. His breath seems extra loud, echoic against the cold wood. He doesn't think he can sleep anymore but he doesn't want to lift his head.

There's a sudden metallic clatter against the table, and it rings extra loud though Stan's tired head. He jerks back, alert; his heart is slamming but he calms down in an instant, and he hates himself for being afraid.

"Breakfast," Kyle says gently, and his eyes are sad, guilty. Stan's fingers tingle with longing.

It's always strange when Kyle cooks — if it can even be called cooking. Stan doesn't think it's something he'll ever get used to. Breakfast consists of untoasted bread, an antidepressant, and a whole grapefruit, unsliced, a knife balanced precariously on the edge of the table where Kyle lost hold of it, and Stan thinks it's perfect, more than he deserves.

"I'd get you something to drink, but—" Kyle starts, and his hands are shaking. He looks so tired, barely here, and Stan interrupts him.

"I've got it." But neither of them move, neither of them will, and Stan swallows the pill dry.

Somehow this is the life they made for themselves, picked up and built from the shattered pieces of their plans and hopes and dreams. They were supposed to be better than this, happier than this, living a life that isn't falling down around them. And it seems so pointless to go on, to keep living like this, and sometimes Stan dreams about killing himself — just flashes of red and pills and silence and dark — but he'll wake up to Kyle's breath against his lips, and the dream will slip away into the recesses of his mind, forgotten until he falls asleep again.

It's a life that's going nowhere, each day indistinguishable from the last, and maybe that's not really a life at all. Stan remembers when they used to really live, and it seems like a dream — just vintage photographs of flushed cheeks and smiling faces. They were only a couple of trashy kids who knew nothing about the real world — nothing, except that they were two halves of the same soul. They used to think that was the only thing that mattered, that the rest of the world would just fall into place as long as they were together.

Stan picks the crust off his bread and meets Kyle's eyes, and he still thinks nothing else matters.

xxx

It was the same every time he and Wendy broke up; it would hurt and Stan would cry, and he would withdraw and hide in the darkness, letting the pain and the loneliness fill another notebook for his collection. He had stacks of them by eighth grade, hidden in the back corner of his closet like a shrine built for just her. When the break up was still fresh and the loneliness weighed down him, he'd huddle behind the row of hanging clothes and the pile of shoes and shut himself in. And in the dim light, he'd fill page after endless page of the poetry he promised himself he'd stop writing. But he'd always been shit at keeping promises, especially to himself.

It was stupid; Stan knew it was. Kyle told him so every time he and Wendy broke up. Kyle was the only one who knew, knew that Stan sat in his closet and drank and cried and poured his heart out to a girl who would never hear him or love him.

It was almost impossible to think about, but it made sense when Kyle said it. That maybe he and Wendy just weren't meant to be, because something kept them from fitting together; because love, real love, didn't come and go when it was convenient.

And when Stan had a little alcohol in him, he would think that maybe he didn't want to be with Wendy at all anymore. Maybe he went back to her again and again out of habit, because there weren't that many girls to choose from, and the fact that someone like Wendy wanted him even some of the time wasn't something that should be questioned or refused.

But this time was different; this time Stan broke up with her and he didn't even know why. It was fine and they were happy, and they went on dates and Wendy would sit with him and Kyle at lunch, because she had finally accepted that Stan wasn't going to give him up for her. But for some reason it had made so much sense — lying half awake in his bed, staring up at the moon through his window — to pull out his phone and send her a text message, telling her it was over.

He didn't even regret it, not even when he woke up the next morning. But then he saw her at school and she was crying, and Stan felt so stupid, like such a dick, and he couldn't imagine why he would ever dream of throwing away a girl like her; not when things had been going so perfectly. But he hadn't been happy with her, in this impossible way that he couldn't wrap his mind around. She terrified him, she smothered him, her very existence as his girlfriend stood between him and Kyle, and that caused so much unfathomable discomfort that Stan didn't know what to do.

So he hid, he drank himself sick, he read line after line that he'd written about the girl he'd thrown away. But he almost expected it when the closet door slid open, letting in a shaft of bright yellow light. It happened every time. It felt like his disappointment — his loneliness — would never end until it did. And maybe Stan sat in the darkness to wait for it, because if he hid long enough, Kyle would always come.

"You're so dramatic." It was sympathetic and harsh all at once, simultaneously coddling and scolding. It was with a sigh that Kyle dropped to his knees and slid in to sit beside him.

Stan had pressed against his side without a word, hungry for the warmth; for something solid and real beside him.

"You'll find someone else. Someone better." They'd had this talk a million times before, but Kyle still sounded sincere when he said his part.

But that time, Stan didn't have the will to argue with him, to try to convince him that Wendy was the only person in the world for him. He'd let his eyelids flutter closed, his head resting on Kyle's shoulder, and allowed himself to whisper, "Yeah. Maybe."

xxx

Stan's still sitting at the table, picking at the last of his breakfast, when Wendy shows up — lets herself in without invitation. Stan doesn't even have to look up to know it's her; she's the only one who ever visits anymore. She used to come by every couple of weeks when he and Kyle first moved in together, but lately she's been showing up more and more, and Stan doesn't have the heart to send her away. There's still a part of him that loves her, even if that love will only ever be platonic.

"It's colder in here than it is outside." She's laughing as she enters the kitchen, depositing an armload of brown paper grocery sacks on the table. She sits down across from Stan as if she has every right to do so. She pulls her pale lavender pea coat tighter around herself, her smile soft and genuine and affectionate. Stan loses what was left of his appetite and pushes his plate away.

She's quiet for a long time, waiting for Stan to speak first. That's the game she plays, though Stan has never understood the rules. She'll wait for him to talk just so she can interrupt and bombard him questions, and if she has something to say she just hurry the fuck up and say it, then leave him and Kyle alone.

But Stan's tired of this; he doesn't want to talk to her, doesn't want to look at her, and he shoots Kyle a desperate glance over her shoulder, but there's probably not much Kyle can do. He and Wendy had always been a little distant, never quite friends — but they didn't hate each other either. It was hard for Kyle to like her, even after she and Stan were back to friendly speaking terms after their final breakup; he'd seen Stan hurt by her too many times, that was always his reasoning. Stan always figured that made sense enough.

Kyle frowns a little and drifts backward, leans against the wall. He's not getting involved, and Stan understands.

"Wendy," he starts, but he doesn't know what else to say. What else can he say? But that was all she needed; now that she's pretended to give him a chance, she can get down to business.

"How are you doing, Stan?" She asks it with a grim seriousness, hands folded daintily on the table in front of her. She's leaning forward with an open interest, perched on the edge of her seat, like his and Kyle's life is the highlight of her weekly entertainment. She has it made; she can sit behind her picket fence and relax on her wraparound porch and sip lemonade with her husband. And when she gets bored, she can step down from her pedestal and into this miserable little pit on the other side of the tracks near where Kenny used to live, where nothing goes right and nothing is easy. When she's had enough she can turn her back and forget about it, like she always does.

"Fine." He keeps his answer short, because maybe she'll leave if he just stops talking.

She's silent for a long moment, and Stan can almost see his answer rolling around in her head, because somehow she can always draw the wildest conclusions from the shortest answers.

The conclusion she comes up with must not be a good one, because her lips twitch downward; a quivering frown that looks almost comical under the smile she's trying to hide it behind. She asks, "Have you been taking your pills?"

There's a spark of anger — just a little one — that flares up inside him. It's more than he's felt in days, something other than the perpetual numbness, and he snaps, "Yes, mom."

Her eyes are glassy now, tears welling up on the lower lids, threatening to fall. Stan will hate her if she cries, because he doesn't know what to do, he never knows what to do. He can hardly handle his own emotions, much less someone else's. But she doesn't cry; her gaze is focused on an invisible spot on the floor, where the lowering sun is shining on the cheap linoleum, as if she can't bear to look at him. Stan wants to ask her to leave.

Kyle shifts, turning away from them to stare out the window. He holds so tight to the edge of the curtain, like it's the only thing keeping him here. And the shadow of it stretches across the floor and Wendy turns to look at him. For a second Stan is terrified that she's going to try to talk to him, to drag Kyle into this, and that's the last fucking thing they need, and she really, really needs to leave.

"Wendy—" Stan tries again. This time he knows what he's going to say, but she still cuts him off.

"I think you need to go back to your counselor."

"I think you should go."

He can tell she wants to argue, that she has more to say, but he can't fucking take it; every word she says is pushing him toward some invisible ledge. He knows it's there and he can feel himself getting closer and closer, but he never knows which step will be his last, will send him plummeting toward something he's not ready for.

"Stan, I—"

"Please." And his voice is cracking pathetically; he can't see her reaction because his vision has blurred over, but he doesn't want to see her, doesn't want to feel her. At some point she must have gotten up and moved closer, because her arms wrap cautiously around his shoulders anyway. And she reminds him for the billionth time that her number is on the fridge, and if he needs anything at all, no matter what time, she'll be there.

Stan pushes out of her hold because he can't handle being touched — not like this — and he needs to be alone with Kyle, needs to just lie with him and look at him because that's all there is.

Wendy finally leaves and the house falls silent. When Stan wipes the tears from his eyes, Kyle is gone, too.

xxx

They used to sneak out on Friday nights, just him and Kyle. Sometimes they'd just walk around the neighborhood, relishing in the silence, the calm. It felt like they were the only two people left on earth, and Stan always wished it could be that way. Living was hard, but Kyle made it seem so easy. Stan would lean into him as they walked, letting their shoulders rest against each other — in those moments with Kyle, it felt like he could do anything.

Kyle always took the lead — maybe because he knew Stan would follow him all night, that Stan didn't care where they were as long as they were together — but Kyle was methodical, logical; couldn't just roam the night aimlessly. Kyle led them out to Stark's a lot, which was Stan's favorite, because they could sit for hours and the pond looked fucking gorgeous when it was iced over, the moon shimmering off its surface like glass. And that's where Kyle led them the night Stan knew, if nothing else, that the sudden, crazy urge to kiss a boy — his best friend —may not have been normal, but wasn't something he wanted to let go of.

They sat down on the bench, a little too close, and the snow was drifting down lazily around them. It didn't seem to be falling so much as swirling, shaken up like the sparkles in a snow globe, and they were the center of the universe, the cosmos and the snow and the breeze revolving around them alone, tying them together, and there was nowhere else in the world Stan wanted to be, or anyone else he wanted to be with.

Kyle was fidgeting, almost nervous. Stan couldn't imagine why, couldn't even remember the last time they'd had a reason to be embarrassed in front of each other — if they'd ever had a reason at all.

"We're not quite normal, are we?" Kyle asked, and no, they weren't, and they both knew that so well that Stan didn't bother to answer. They weren't normal, but there was no other word to define them; best friends, super best friends, it all fell short in the end, and Stan didn't think he wanted to label them at all, because a label meant limits.

Kyle curled in and laughed softly to himself, his breath fogging out in front of him. His cheeks and nose had gone pink in the cold night air, and Stan couldn't look away.

"Look what I have," Kyle said. He had a crumpled pack of cigarettes clutched in his gloved hand, and he was smiling like they were getting away with something huge.

"Dude."

"You want one?" Kyle was already pulling one out with his lips, as easily as breathing, as if he'd done this a million times before and Stan never knew. Stan's last encounter with a cigarette was enough for him. He still remembered the way his breath burned in his lungs and the way his throat closed, that moment of certainty when he knew he was going to die, because he was wheezing and he couldn't stop, and it had all come out in a mouthful of smoky phlegm on his jacket.

Stan shook his head and Kyle put the things away, but he still lit his with a flick of a matte green Zippo. And it was nice — the sounds of it, the clink of the lighter, Kyle's little sigh when he inhaled his first lungful of poison, the almost noiseless sound of his lips parting around the filter. Even the smoke smelled good, smelled like Kyle, and Stan's breath whistled quietly in his throat but he couldn't move away.

"How long have you been doing this?"

"A while," Kyle said. The words were carried on a breath of smoke. "A few months."

Stan wanted to be annoyed that Kyle had never mentioned it before, had kept something like this a secret, but how much of a secret was it if he was sharing it so freely now? Stan couldn't be mad, not when Kyle was drawing him in like a magnet. Stan didn't even realize he was moving closer until he was huddled against Kyle's side. Kyle's arm snaked around his shoulders, his fingers kneading Stan's upper arm.

They weren't normal, and Stan liked them like that just fine.

They stayed there all night, dozing against each other, until the sky started to glow purple then pink then orange. Sometimes Kyle smoked and sometimes he didn't; their fragmented conversations were never more than a whisper. The first rays of sunlight made Kyle's hair almost glow, and the light that reflected in his eyes was so pure and clean and real. They were already pressed so close against each other, but in that moment, all Stan wanted was to get closer, to crawl inside Kyle's chest and spend the rest of his life there.

And then Kyle turned to look at him, said something about going home before his parents woke up, and Stan's breath caught in his throat but he wasn't wheezing, wasn't dying; it was a feeling he'd never felt before, never this intense, but it had to have been something that had been thrumming in his heart for Kyle since the day they met. The only thing that even glimmered in comparison was the way Stan had felt when he'd been so smitten with Wendy, when she'd look at him and his heart would stop and he would have killed to be close to her, to kiss her, but his nerves got the better of him almost every single time.

He still felt it sometimes, when she caught his eye from across a classroom and smiled that secret little smile she used to give him when they tried to date, and when it happened it felt like he'd been kicked in the chest — dizzy and breathless and so painfully good. But this, this was different, in a way that Stan couldn't begin to make sense of, but he knew it didn't kick him in the chest so much as gently cut him open and start stitching together the fragments of his heart. It was soft, steady, practiced hands aided by an anesthesia built up of a life of trust and friendship.

"Dude, come on, don't fall asleep here." Kyle was laughing, tugging on Stan's hand. Stan staggered to his feet, ready to follow Kyle to the end of the world. And there were no nerves, not this time, because this was Kyle and Stan knew he could kiss him without throwing up on him, and the only thing that stopped him was the fear that Kyle might not kiss him back.

But he didn't even know why that mattered, because they were close, closer than close, but they didn't kiss. Of course Kyle would shove him away, think it was weird. So Stan pushed the desire away and followed Kyle home, where they fell into bed and curled around each other, shaky and sleep deprived, and that's where they would spend most of their Saturday.

It wasn't until later that Stan realized he couldn't quite look at Kyle the same, that he was seeing all the fine details, the imperfections — the angular lines of his skull, the gap in his teeth, the subtle dip of old acne scars on his face; the way his eyes reflected the systematic workings of his mind. And he was actually kind of beautiful. When they were all alone and the light was just right, Stan still wanted to kiss him.

xxx

When he finally finds the motivation to move from the table, Stan wearily crosses the empty kitchen and takes the translucent orange pill container out of the cabinet. The lid comes off like butter, slips right off the bottle and onto the floor as soon as Stan's fingers brush against it, because they never screw it on all the way since the childproof lock would be too hard for Kyle. Stan shakes a handful of the little white pills into his palm, just stares at them, because when Kyle disappears Stan doesn't know if he'll be gone for a few minutes or forever. Kyle always leaves without a word and returns without apology, and Stan's always afraid to ask where he goes.

And the antidepressants rest in his hand, innocent and weightless, but he thinks he might die if he took them all. He can't be sure and he doesn't want to fuck up, so he lets the tablets tumble back into the container and some stick to his skin, enticing and so very easy to take. Stan scrapes them off on the rim before he can give in.

It's become something of a ritual, just to hold a possible solution in his hand, to remind himself that a chemical that exists to help can be lethal, too. And maybe anything, no matter how good it is, becomes bad in large amounts.

Maybe.

xxx

It came to Stan's attention in his freshman year of high school that Kyle wasn't the only boy he wanted to kiss, because girls were becoming less and less interesting while boys were becoming more and more beautiful. Stan thought that might have been a little backward. But there were so many others who were unsure, who didn't know what they wanted or what they were feeling, and others who didn't care at all. Before the year was over, Stan kissed Kenny and Clyde and Gary and Token and Dylan, and so many others that he didn't even know that well.

But he still went home with Kyle in the afternoons, still sat with him at lunch and stayed glued to his side, because at the end of the day, Kyle was still the only one who made Stan's heart stop, who made the hopelessness and the pain and the shit that much more bearable. Kyle never looked like shit to him anymore; he might have started to look something like a cure, one that probably tasted better than alcohol; whose presence alone was all it took to get Stan drunk enough to love the world.

Stan didn't tell Kyle about his fascination with boys but he didn't make an effort to hide it either. If Kyle knew, he never said a word. He just smiled at Stan like everything was okay when Stan took his usual spot at lunch, and everything was okay, because this was the only time during their new, frantic schedules that Stan had a chance to press against Kyle's side and feel whole again.

Kyle always smelled faintly of cigarettes, and maybe by that time they were both addicted, because just the scent of them on Kyle's clothes drew the same peaceful sigh out of Stan as it did when Kyle took his first drag after a long day at school.

And for a moment they were silent, and Stan watched in a comfortable daze as Kyle mindlessly went through the motions of his daily insulin ritual, injecting it under his skin without fluttering an eyelash. He always looked so tired of it, so worn out and bitter and just fucking done with it all. Stan reached over, his fingers encircling Kyle's wrist. Anything he said now would just be a distraction, but sometimes that was what Kyle needed.

"I missed you," Stan told him, told him every single day, even though they'd just seen each other the night before and that morning and occasionally at their lockers, if they got lucky. But being away from Kyle for any length of time had always felt like too long, and every time Stan was reunited with him it just became that much harder to let go again.

Kyle would just smile and shake his head, saying they just saw each other three hours ago, and Stan would smile too, because Kyle had counted the hours.

And it was okay, everything was okay. One day Stan opened his eyes and realized that it didn't make him sick or angry or debilitatingly depressed to see Wendy with another guy, even when Kenny asked her out, just because she was hot and he wanted to bang her — even when she actually said yes ; because maybe girls didn't matter a single fucking bit anymore. Or at least, not in the relationship kind of way that Stan had always thought he wanted. Maybe it was better this way. Maybe he and Wendy could actually be friends for once, without being poisoned by jealousy and unrequited feelings; the emotional turmoil of an on-again-off-again relationship.

So Wendy dated Kenny and Stan held onto Kyle with everything that he had. Maybe high school would be the turning point in their lives, where things finally got better. For the first time Stan felt something almost like hope. Things were finally turning around, living was just a little easier, and sometimes, only sometimes, Stan's eyes would pop open before Big Harry and Mike in the Morning would force him from sleep. And on those days, he couldn't quite remember if the radio sounded like shit or not, because he was just too damn happy to care.

xxx

Time isn't something that Stan makes an effort to keep track of. The clock dangling from the kitchen wall died a long time ago, a layer of dust clinging to the hands. Stan's been lying on the couch for a few days, or maybe just a few hours, but all he knows is that the house has grown dark around him, the only light a flickering, sickeningly pale blue from the television screen that he's been staring at but not watching. It hurts his eyes, his head, the hours of advertisements and infomercials and disgustingly fictional sitcoms melting together into a picture of a sappy, perfect world that could never exist.

He wants to go back to bed, but he can't — not without Kyle. They've never gone to bed alone, not since they got together. It was an unspoken agreement from the very beginning, and Stan can't let go of it; even if Kyle goes away and never comes back Stan isn't going to try to fall asleep in that big fucking bed by himself. So his legs dangle off the edge of the couch, too short for his height, and they're buzzing unpleasantly from the lack of circulation but Stan can't bring himself to move. He turns his head and presses his face into the back of the couch, his breath a stifling heat against his face. He wonders if he could die this way.

The TV drones in the background, muted laughter and music that seems to come from a million worlds away. Stan tilts his face just enough to suck in a breath of cold air, because he hasn't accomplished anything but intensifying his headache.

He wants to get up, stand in the middle of the room and fucking scream for Kyle to come back, scream that he needs him, can't live without him, scream until he's out of breath and out of tears, scream until his head explodes from the sheer pain of it all, because it won't matter once Kyle's beside him again. But it won't make a difference, Stan knows that from experience, because screaming can never make someone come home once they've left. But waiting is the hardest thing Stan's ever had to do, because he never knows when it'll end, he doesn't know when the time will come that he'll just wait and wait and wait and Kyle won't return.

Kyle denies it every time Stan brings it up, but that day's coming; Stan can feel it burning threateningly in his chest, a premonition as hot as hellfire. And Kyle will lay so close, gaze into his eyes so seriously, remind him again and again that he can't leave — but Stan can't shake the feeling, and his body seizes around a sob. It's a chain reaction after that — Stan can't breathe, he can feel something shattering inside of him and it hurts like nothing he's ever felt before, and he needs Kyle home, needs him right now — but the house remains dark and empty, and the TV screeches with laughter.

It's an unexplainable tension, like there's so much pain building up inside that Stan has to cut himself open and bleed it out, rip off his skin or tear out his hair, anything to bring just a second of relief, but it all seems so hard. Stan can't imagine why he would deserve relief at all. But the room is so stiflingly hot, sweat making his clothes cling to his body. He hates being alone, hates feeling this way, because there's nothing that can help; help isn't even something Stan can imagine accepting. He doesn't want help; he wants Kyle.

"Kyle." He moans it into the darkness, a weak tremor of a sound. He wraps his shaking arms around himself and curls up tight, burrowing against the back of the couch as far as he can, blocking out the world. He can't help but dig his fingers into his sides, yank weakly at the threadbare sweatshirt he's been wearing for days, a defeated mix of anger and desperation. He's never been more certain that this is the end, that Kyle's gone forever.

He doesn't intend to fall asleep, but he does, and tears seal his eyes closed. He dreams of winter. The cold is intense but bearable, snow biting into their skin, and Kyle's right there in front of him. Their kiss is cool slide of steamed breath and frost. And Stan lets his fingers slip up the back of Kyle's jacket, inching just under the hem of his shirt, and he's so real, so alive and warm and belonging to Stan alone, and Stan wants to cry.

And he holds Kyle close, squeezing him as hard as he can. Maybe there's a part of him that's aware that this is just a dream, that he'll wake up to an empty house, and Stan's never letting go of him, ever again. Dream Kyle holds onto Stan just as tightly, the swell of his muscles a comforting pressure around Stan's waist. Stan would give anything to wake up and still have this, to wake up to Kyle's lips against his own, and a knowledge that Kyle will never leave his side again.

xxx

Kyle stood with him the day Stan tossed all his notebooks filled with Wendy into Stark's Pond. It was overdramatic and really fucking stupid — Kyle had made sure Stan was well aware of that — but Stan still saw the relief, the smile, that washed over Kyle's face as the murky water saturated the pages. Even though he came to watch that part of his soul float away forever, he found himself watching only Kyle.

"Goddamn." It seemed like hours later when Kyle finally spoke, his half smoked cigarette bobbing from his lips. "I was hoping they'd sink."

They'd drifted toward the middle of the pond, bobbing like misshapen lily pads. Stan had rather been hoping they'd just instantly disintegrate, because the thought of just leaving them there was more upsetting that it should have been. And in a flash he envisioned frogs hopping on them, fish swimming up to nibble at the pages — his sense of freedom, the feeling of finally breaking away from Wendy, was in an instant replaced with a sinking dread.

"Kyle. Dude. We have to get them back."

And Kyle looked like he wanted to hit him, and maybe he did, because just when it looked like Stan was letting go he was trying to take it all back. And so Stan rushed to clarify, to explain that he didn't want to hurt the fish, or ducks or frogs or whatever else might rely on the pond's delicate ecosystem — and then Kyle really did hit him, but he was laughing and Stan didn't mind.

They had tried to find branches that would reach far enough to pull the notebooks back in, because even though winter had come and gone the water was still cold, but their efforts only pushed the notebooks farther and farther away, dipping under the surface of the water and hesitating before coming back up. Stan was afraid that they really would sink, and no one actually knew how deep Stark's was. And he realized they were going to have to swim — they were wasting valuable time, and the ink printed on the fronts and backs of every single page must have already started to poison the water.

"I'm going in." He said it with absolute seriousness, and Kyle still laughed at him.

"Dude, calm down. It's no big deal."

But Stan had already stripped out of his jacket and in was in the process of toeing off his boots, and he was wading into the water before Kyle could stop him. He was only alone in the bitingly cold water for a few seconds, Kyle's complaints from the shoreline thrumming in his ears, before he heard Kyle splashing in after him. And they swam out to the very center, gathering up the soggy blobs of cardboard and paper, dipping down to catches the pieces that tried to sink away. Maybe the symbolism of tossing years' worth of writing into the water was ruined, but at least his words, his feelings, were gone forever.

And they swam back together, side by side. They didn't say a word as they deposited their armloads of mushy notebooks onto the grass. They huddled up and shivered together, doffing their shirts and sharing their jackets because it didn't matter which one belonged to them anymore. And it felt kind of nice, even though Kyle's skin was freezing and he was shaking so fucking hard, because it was the first time in years that Stan had pressed against him like this, nothing separating them but their skin. They slid together like they were made for each other.

And Kyle smiled and his teeth were chattering, and he fished his cigarettes out of his jacket pocket. "You're so fucking stupid." And his voice was shaking comically, and Stan couldn't keep himself from nudging his forehead against Kyle's jaw, breathing him in, affection and gratitude filling him from head to toe. Because maybe it was stupid, but Kyle still went with him. Kyle would always go with him, no matter what.

And Stan trailed his lips down Kyle's neck, just letting them rest against his skin, and maybe the shiver that ran through Kyle wasn't caused by the cold.

They stayed there until they were no longer dripping and they hurried back to Stan's house, depositing what was left of the notebooks in the first recycling bin they came across. And they locked themselves in the bathroom, stripped down to their boxers and wrapped up in towels, sitting under the direct flow of the heater.

And when Kyle inevitably got sick a few days later, Stan stayed with him, sat by his side and stroked his hair, and when Kyle would drift to sleep, lines of poetry would weave together in Stan's mind, verse after verse of fiery red hair and evergreen eyes. And it was the first time he ever wanted to write something without suffering from a broken heart. It was the first time he wanted to write because his heart was so full, so overwhelmed with emotion, that he wanted to write it all down, wanted to share it with the world. Because maybe he was kind of in love with his best friend.

xxx

It's a sound that wakes him, a door opening somewhere down the hall and then closing quietly, soft footsteps dragging along the carpet. The TV clicks off and then there's silence, and Stan falls back asleep, smiling this time. He's not alone — not yet.

xxx

Stan never got to kiss Kyle, not in the way he imagined. He always dreamed of waiting until the perfect moment, when the light was shining through Kyle's hair in that way that made him so beautiful, and they'd look at each other and they'd both know, and Stan would lean in and kiss him and Kyle wouldn't protest, wouldn't push away, and they'd be together forever. And Stan waited for that moment, waited for it for the rest of his freshmen year and through his sophomore year, and by his junior year he was terrified that it was too late. And terror turned into procrastination, and he woke up one morning and he was seventeen years old and a fucking senior, and Kyle was still his super best friend — no more, no less.

And he spent those years watching everyone around him change: watched as Cartman drifted off because their little gang of four only had only stayed together all this time out of habit; watched as Wendy and Kenny's relationship became less of a silly fling and something that looked scarily serious, something that neither of them rolled their eyes and brushed off anymore; watched as the kids he had grown up with became almost unrecognizable, behaving in ways he never would have imagined. And he realized they weren't kids anymore the first time a girl came to school pregnant, that they were making decisions right now that would affect the rest of their lives. All he wanted to do was keep going home with Kyle, to hide away with him and play video games, to have sleepovers and whisper to each other all night; to go on like that forever.

But they couldn't go on forever, because every single day of Stan's senior year was an ending; the last Halloween he and Kyle could go trick or treating together, the last Thanksgiving that their families shared, the last time he and Kyle would send off college applications together. And as Christmas break drew closer and closer, the terrifying reality that he and Kyle might end up on opposite sides of the country was taking hold with full force. He would lie in bed awake at night and tremble, and he felt so trapped, pushed far into a corner. He didn't know how much more he could take before he broke down completely.

But he let time slip by, because he was too scared of change, because what he had with Kyle was perfect and he couldn't risk losing it. And they never looked at each other and knew they were soul mates, there wasn't a feeling so strong that they could only communicate it without words.

But on the last day of the semester, right before Christmas break, Kyle still grabbed Stan's shoulders and stared into his eyes. They stood there, alone in the parking lot as the snow whipped around them, and the kiss Kyle laid on his mouth was thick and bitter and laced with smoke. And Stan clung to him, grabbed at his waist and dug his fingers in tight, and he wanted to feel him everywhere, needed him as close as possible. Kyle pinned Stan against the hand-me-down Kia that had once belonged to Shelly, and Stan was in heaven. Kyle held him tight, his hands moving desperately, like he couldn't decide if he wanted to hold Stan's face or his neck, and in the end he settled with raking his fingers up through Stan's hair and dragging his head even closer, pushing their kiss even deeper. Maybe Kyle needed Stan just as badly as Stan needed him.

It ended as abruptly as it started, and all they could do at first was stare at each other and breathe, the air fogging between them as their exhalations mingled and faded. Kyle looked kind of desperate, kind of confused, kind of upset. And when Stan leaned in to kiss him again, it was softer, more reverent, because Stan had never loved him more than he did at this moment. He let his tongue flick over Kyle's upper lip, pulling it softly upward, and Kyle's tongue darted out to meet his, the tips brushing together, and then it was over.

Stan was shaking when Kyle pulled away, nudged past Stan to let himself into the car, and it felt like an eternity before Stan could make himself circle around to the driver's side, and even longer before he felt like he could move the car without wrecking it. Kyle didn't rush him, didn't say a word. By the time they got to Kyle's house everything was back to normal, and they went inside and played video games, joked and farted and showed each other the chewed mess of food on their tongues, stayed up until the sun began to rise because they were finally on break and could do whatever the fuck they wanted.

And when they finally did go to bed, dressed only in underwear and t-shirts, they still curled up under the same blankets, pressed their legs together. Kyle's fingers traced patterns on Stan's exposed hipbone.

"Things don't have to change," Kyle whispered, because he always knew what Stan was thinking; what he was afraid of. "I'm always going to be right here."

And even though kissing him that afternoon already seemed like a dream, Kyle didn't resist when Stan leaned in to do it again, kissing a line down his cheek and ending in a gentle flurry against the corner of his lips.

"All my life—" Stan started, and his voice was shaking like it never had before, and he wanted to give Kyle everything, tell him everything — but the look in Kyle's eyes told him that he already knew, had always known, and that it was okay.

And as Kyle slept, Stan studied his face. He was still so beautiful, so rare and perfect. Stan kissed him one last time, and Kyle sighed in his sleep before shifting closer, because he had always, always been Stan's.

xxx

There are a few cans of beer that have been hiding in the back of the fridge for months now, and so far Stan's been able to resist them; to open the door, stand in the coolness wafting out, and just reassure himself that they're still there, will always be there, ready for whenever he needs them. It's not enough to make a huge difference, but their presence is enough to be reassuring, and he's determined not to waste them.

"Stan." Kyle's behind him. His presence, the proximity of him, makes Stan shiver. He turns, letting the fridge door fall closed; its contents rattle and it seems so loud in the silence, but neither of them react.

He wants to be angry and a part of him is — because he can't take this, he can't deal with the uncertainty and the pain, waking up every day and feeling like nothing is worth it. This isn't what he wanted, this isn't the silent dream they'd always shared, and he's so fucking tired — tired of dreaming this could be something it's not. But he can't let go, he can't get mad, not while Kyle's standing right in front him and he looks so fucking perfect, glowing and beautiful and everything negative melts away. There's only them, and that's all there ever will be.

"I needed you." Stan whispers it, because it feels like if he raises his voice at all the whole world will shatter. He staggers forward, toward Kyle, and he wants to fall into his arms and stay there, wants Kyle to carry him back to their bedroom so they can fall asleep together, because Stan's whole body is sore from sleeping on the couch all night and he doesn't want to move on his own.

But Kyle doesn't pick him up, doesn't carry him anywhere, because he can't anymore and that knowledge hurts more than anything. And so Stan moves as close as he can and Kyle's fingers brush lightly across his cheek, so very very softly. Stan's eyes prickle with tears and he lifts his hand to Kyle's. And they stand there, touching so gently that it hardly feels real, and Stan can't look away, because Kyle is staring into his eyes and there's so much there, so much that he's not going to say, and Stan says it for him.

xxx

Things didn't change, didn't become awkward. It didn't even feel right calling what they had a relationship; they were best friends who kissed each other on occasion, who sat a little too close when they stayed up all night watching movies, who snuggled close and shared a pillow when they finally went to bed. And it was more than Stan had ever dared to dream of, but it seemed so fragile, so fleeting, like a bubble caught in the breeze: its time could end without any apparent cause.

Maybe it was because it was so sudden, so unexplained and unexpected. There were so many things that Stan wanted to ask Kyle, but they weren't girls and they couldn't just sit around and talk about their feelings, so Stan stayed quiet. And when they were back in school and it was time for Winter Formal, he and Kyle just showed up together as they always did for any school function. It wasn't a clearly defined date but Stan interpreted it as one anyway, because they would kiss at the end of the night just like every other couple.

Except Kyle didn't wait until the end of the night, didn't wait until they were away from prying eyes. He kissed Stan in the middle of the dance floor, where they had flocked together to make fun of the sappy couples swaying slowly. There had been a part of Stan that wanted to be one of those couples, to just sway and look into Kyle's eyes and forget the world, but Kyle had no rhythm and maybe that kind of romance wasn't for them anyway. Maybe they would always dance to the music in their heads, which was loud and discordant; just two best friends holding hands and spinning too fast, bumping against each other and staggering into girls in sparkly dresses, who shrieked and got so offended. It was fucking hilarious and this would have been one of the best nights of Stan's life even Kyle hadn't kissed him.

But he did, and Stan didn't know what happened, except that one second they were leaning on each other and laughing breathlessly as Bebe and her date stomped away from them, and the next second Kyle was kissing him, holding Stan's chin between his thumb and index finger like he owned him, and the world sounded like static and Stan had never felt so protected, so invulnerable, and maybe people were laughing or maybe he and Kyle were being ignored, but it didn't matter because this was real.

And suddenly they were rushing for the exit and Kyle was holding his hand, holding it tight, like he'd never let anything separate them, like he'd never let Stan out of his sight again.

And they got to Stan's car and Kyle was already loosening his tie, and his face was flushed and he was still laughing, and Stan wanted to kiss him again so he did, stroking Kyle's cheekbones reverently as Kyle's fingers dug into his waist. They could still faintly hear the music from inside the gym. The bass was making the car buzz, and Kyle was climbing into the driver seat to kiss Stan more fully. And when Kyle rolled their hips together Stan's body quaked with need, and he sucked his lower lip between his teeth and clung to Kyle's shoulders.

Sex wasn't something Stan often thought about; it always seemed distant, unreachable, something he'd maybe do one day, that he'd just wake up one morning and suddenly be ready for it, suddenly want it. And this was almost moving too fast, almost too much for him to handle, but he was hard and he could feel through the layers of their dress pants that Kyle was too, and Stan couldn't stop him now, would never dream of it, because Kyle would take care of him, would know exactly what Stan needed, as always.

Stan's back arched against the seat as Kyle ground into him, and his head fell to the side and Kyle's lips were on his neck, and he couldn't believe this was happening, that Kyle actually wanted him like this. And it didn't matter that anyone could come out into the parking lot at any time and see them, nothing mattered, not as long as Kyle never stopped touching him.

And Stan couldn't hold back the shuddering sob that rushed out of him when Kyle reached inside his pants and grabbed onto his dick for the first time. It wasn't hesitant, wasn't soft and careful and nervous; Kyle stroked him like he had every right to, like every inch of Stan had always belonged to him, and he couldn't remember a time he had felt this much, felt so full and complete and overwhelmingly good. And their faces were inches from each other, their noses bumping, and Kyle's eyes were so bright even in the darkness, catching the flickering orange glow from the street lights that illuminated the parking lot.

Stan gasped when he came, digging his fingers into Kyle's shoulders as pearly drops of come splattered over his suit. And he couldn't even worry what his mom might think, how he'd hide the evidence, because Kyle had pulled his hand away from Stan's softening dick to tentatively swipe his tongue over his index finger, tasting him.

"Jesus, Kyle…"

Kyle shushed him, nuzzled against Stan's cheek, dragging his lips along Stan's jaw line. He pressed back against Stan's hips and he wasn't hard anymore either, and he must have come somewhere in the process of getting Stan off, with a noise so small that Stan didn't even notice it.

It was foreign, but not at all unwelcome, to look at his best friend this way, their cheeks flushed and breathing heavy, Kyle's eyelids drooping in the pleasure of his afterglow. And in that moment there was a connection between them, stronger than ever before, tying them together by something more physical. And Stan felt like he could almost read Kyle's mind, and he was beautiful, selfless, because he did this entirely for Stan, expecting nothing in return.

And Stan gathered him close, held him tight against his chest and kissed his hair, burying his face in fiery curls. And they fell asleep like that, right in the middle of the parking lot, wrapped up in each other as the wind pushed gently against the car.

xxx

Loud crashes of thunder are causing the house to shake, and an occasional drip of water falls from the brown stained crack in the ceiling, splashing into the bowl that has been placed beneath. Stan's sprawled on the couch. He feels numb, vaguely peaceful, because Kyle's more active than usual, drifting through the house and tidying things up, moving the groceries off the table and putting them away.

Stan feels himself smiling, just a little, as he watches him. Kyle moves with the single-minded determination that he's always had, slow, methodical; lips moving in private conversation as he works. Everything feels kind of okay for once.

It feels like it's been storming for months, but Stan doesn't think more than a few days have passed since Wendy visited, even though he almost can't remember what her voice sounds like.

But he doesn't exactly want to remember. He would forget her all together if he could. Her warm smile and tinkling laugh, her soft gray eyes. He wants to blame her for everything, and over the years maybe he kind of did, because if it weren't for her maybe he would have gotten with Kyle sooner, maybe he wouldn't have spent so much time wallowing in self pity, maybe his parents wouldn't have decided he was depressed and threw him into counseling without a second thought. Maybe she made him depressed, by being right there but just out of reach for so long; by staying close enough to make him feel like he had a chance but without ever taking their relationship all the way.

And even now. The way she comes over and visits, the way she dotes on him, pities him, mothers him. He doesn't need it, he doesn't want it. But she won't stop, she'll never stop, and every single time he sees her it tears him apart just a little more, because she's the source of everything bad in his life, and she'll be the death of him, he knows it.

The rain intensifies, slamming against the windows as if it's trying to break in. And the lights dim, buzzing lowly before flickering out entirely. Kyle's at his side before he can even sit up, before he can think about calling for him. Kyle settles down next to Stan's side, and they watch each other in the flashing white light from outside.

"I love you." Stan whispers it, though the sound might have gotten lost under the crash of thunder. But Kyle smiles and dips down, aligning himself against the contours of Stan's body. And it feels so right having him there, his presence strong and vivid in the darkness.

"You're not alone." And Stan knows he's not. Even if he can't see him, Kyle's right by his side, always has been, and Stan drifts asleep to the sound of the rain, and Kyle's cool breath against his cheek.

xxx

"Hey."

Stan hadn't wanted to break the silence, to break this moment, because he'd been dozing against Kyle, face buried in soft curls, while Kyle stroked his chest so softly with his fingertips. But something was pressing on Stan's mind, a thought that kept pulling him from sleep despite how warm and comfortable he was, how perfectly he and Kyle fit together.

And Kyle lifted his head and met Stan's eyes, their warm breaths mingling between them. The music from the gym had gone silent, and the parking lot was mostly empty except for a few other cars with fogged up windows. Stan smiled dazedly, because he was one of the lucky ones. It still didn't feel real.

"Hmm?" Kyle prompted. He bumped the tip of his nose against Stan's.

And Stan didn't know how to ask — or even why he was asking — because maybe guys shouldn't talk about shit like this. But they were different; they didn't quite fit in, they attracted trouble wherever they went, and each other was all they'd ever had. And maybe that was why it didn't feel stupid to talk about how he felt, because this was Kyle, and Kyle already knew every inch of Stan's heart, except for the part that had always been reserved for him. And maybe that wasn't quite fair.

"I was just — why?" That was all Stan could manage but it seemed to be enough. Kyle's eyes softened and he smiled, just a little. He brushed the back of his fingers along Stan's cheekbone.

"Really, dude?" Stan glanced away, because the eye contact was suddenly too much; because Kyle could see every inch of him, all of his insecurities and doubts and fears, all stemming from the one relationship he'd been trying his whole life to maintain, along with his heart, which had been shattered time and time again with each one of his failures.

But this was so sudden — maybe that's why Stan feared it, questioned it, because they'd made it through almost all of high school without any progress, and Stan had spent every day pining for him without any reciprocation. None of this made any sense, no matter how badly Stan had wanted it.

Kyle sighed and the small space that had formed between them sealed closed again. Kyle rested his chin on Stan's shoulder, because maybe he couldn't look at Stan anymore either.

"Because it pissed me off," he said finally, and his voice was soft, barely there. "When you would just — I don't know, make out with all those guys? And God, just — Clyde? Jesus."

Stan couldn't respond, because Kyle wasn't supposed to know, was never supposed to know, and Stan didn't know how he slipped up but the shame was burning red on his face. It was one of the rare times that he was relieved Kyle wasn't looking at him. And maybe Kyle was nervous, because suddenly he was talking again, almost babbling, filling the silence.

"I didn't even know why it made me mad I just — fuck, I wanted to hit them. Every fucking time I saw them at school. Because you were my best friend and that's all I thought you'd ever be, but I just didn't — I couldn't fucking take it. And it was different than Wendy, worse than Wendy, because if you want to kiss a fucking guy you should want to kiss me."

"I did, fuck, Kyle, of course I did." Stan pushed him away, held his shoulders, because suddenly he had to see him, to make him understand that every single thing had always been for him. "I've been wanting to kiss you since like, fucking middle school, dude."

And Kyle's response came in the form of crushing their lips together again, fiercely, desperately, and Stan clung to him, kissed him back just as hard, meeting him breath for breath and sound for sound, because that was the only response he had ever needed.

xxx

Even after the storm passes, the sky stays gray for days; the atmosphere still seems to hold the power of it, the electricity. It's a good feeling — strangely peaceful. Stan has always kind of preferred a thick blanket of clouds instead of blinding sunlight, because it makes the world look so surreal, soft and perfect as a dream. And he sits at the window, his forehead resting against the glass. Each breath fogs his view, and it almost seems funny — if he holds his breath, if he stops breathing entirely, then he can see. And maybe that's how the world works. Maybe no one can see the beauty in anything until they're dead.

It's an interesting thought and Stan mulls it over, and suddenly he wants his pills, wants to hold them in his hands and know that they're there, his Get Out of Jail Free card he hid in his sleeve before the game started. But he's been in bed all day, huddled against the headboard, and he doesn't have the will to move. And he still hears Kyle's footsteps creaking through the house, cabinets and doors opening and closing, indistinguishable thumps and sounds of life, and Stan thinks that's the only thing that keeps him sane when Kyle's not right beside him, where Stan can see him.

Somewhere, distantly, he hears the phone ringing, over and over and over. He knows Kyle's not going to pick it up and Stan doesn't plan on moving either. When the muffled static of the voicemail message begins to play, Kyle's cheerful tone ringing through the hallways, telling the caller that they've reached "Stan and Kyle's," and to "leave a message, you — beep," Stan's eyes prickle with tears and he hides a smile in his palm. He and Kyle had thought that was the most fucking clever thing in the world.

"Hey, Stan, it's Wendy." Her voice is cracking and Stan is almost motivated to get up just so he can pick up the phone and stop her from talking, maybe unplug the whole damn thing and throw it out the window. But he doesn't move; he can't move. He stares into the sullen reflection of his own eyes, dark and droopy and red.

"Kenny and I were thinking it might do you some good to get out of that house for a while, get some fresh air, see the sun." There's a long, shuddering pause, and she laughs thinly. "Not that there's been much sun lately. But let's do lunch this week, okay? Just the three of us. I guess I'll call you back later. Please take care of yourself, Stan, okay?"

The line goes dead and the house falls silent. Stan doesn't even feel his expression change, or the wetness on his face, but his reflection looks so broken, so empty. Tears are dripping from the curve of his cheekbone and splattering in the windowsill. And he doesn't even realize Kyle's behind him until the breath hits his neck, soft and reassuring, and Kyle's right there, eyes closed, leaning in close and breathing him in.

"Are you going to call her back?" It's a stupid thing to ask, and Kyle probably knows it. Stan doesn't want to see her, much less talk to her.

"I'm not going anywhere without you."

Kyle sighs and they lapse into silence. This is the way it's always been — Kyle should know by now that Stan would never abandon him, not even for a second.

And Kyle leans away, burying his face in his hands. His shoulders hitch and Stan thinks he might be crying, too. And it's the most unsettling feeling, like his whole world has been thrown off kilter, because Stan doesn't know what to do when the strongest thing in his life breaks.

And all they can do is wait it out together, side by side, waiting for the world to make sense again.

xxx

Of course people found out; there had never been a time that two boys could make out in a crowded room without people talking about it. And it was all they heard about when they came back to school; it was in everyone's eyes as they stared, in the hushed whispers and loud criticisms.

Naturally, Cartman was the loudest of them all, and while Stan and Kyle had spent their entire lives learning how to deal with him, how to ignore him, he still knew how to rally a crowd. And by the end of the day, the whispers had turned into taunts and ridicule, the criticisms into physical harassment. Stan only had to have his books knocked off his desk four times, three legs subtly stick out to trip him on the way to his desk, and constant shoves in the hallway before he really started to think he couldn't take it anymore; that maybe the chance to kiss Kyle, to feel like a normal kid on a date, wasn't worth this.

But all it took was seeing Kyle storming down the hall, red-faced and angry, shoving back the people who dared bump into him, to remind Stan that this was all he'd ever wanted — everyone else could go fuck themselves. Because there was no world without Kyle, and he'd always, always be worth it.

And so they left school together, slid into Stan's old Kia and drove back toward the Broflovski house in silence. Acknowledging what had happened would mean acknowledging that they had somehow outed themselves, which would mean they were completely, undeniably gay, and this wasn't just some dumb fling, or an awkward moment of intimacy between friends. Stan wasn't sure that was something either of them were ready to accept.

But Stan also wasn't ready to drop Kyle off, to go home and sit alone and think, so he whipped the car into a driveway and turned around, because they had to go somewhere, anywhere — just as long as they weren't surrounded by houses and people, and the two of them could be alone, the way they were always meant to be.

And Kyle was finally talking, finally smiling, because maybe he had felt it, too.

And they pulled up on the crest of a mountain, overlooking the town. They might have been a few hours away, but the time had slid past in fractured seconds, a hazy movie montage. It felt good, being up here with Kyle, the setting sun casting long shadows over the landscape, the orange light reflecting off of South Park in a way that almost made it look beautiful.

Stan reached for the door. He had no reason to get out, no plans, but Kyle touched his wrist, just lightly, and Stan leaned back in his seat, gazing at him.

"We're fucked, aren't we?" Kyle was smiling as he said it, but there was fear in his voice, a deep-seated hopelessness. Stan wanted to fix him, hide him, protect him the way he always had. But he didn't know how — he was scared, too.

"I don't know. Fuck, maybe."

He didn't bring up what was really on his mind, because Kyle was already thinking it — he had to be. By the time they got home, their parents would have already found out; probably thanks to some lewd phone call from Cartman himself, spilling out all the nasty details that came from somewhere in his twisted imagination.

Stan wrapped his arms around himself. He suddenly felt so insecure, so small. This thing with Kyle — whatever it was — maybe it wasn't even real, but now it stood the chance of ruining his life, making his parents hate him, and… fuck. Maybe their whole friendship would fall apart.

"Hey." Kyle's voice was soft, but determined; strong, like they were kids again, and he was rallying up against the whole damn town's stupidity. "We're in this together, okay?"

Kyle had always been able to read his mind like that. Stan felt himself smiling.

"And — dude. I don't regret anything. I'd do it all over again, in front of all those assholes." And Kyle leaned in to demonstrate his point, brushing his lips over Stan's cheekbone. Stan turned to meet him, opening up to him and wrapping his arms around Kyle's shoulders. They kissed as they sky grew dark around them. And Stan wanted to spend the night up here, just the two of him in his car, only each other's body heat to keep them warm — but they couldn't hide forever.

And so when they finally separated, slid their hands out from under each other's shirts, and the coldness settled in around them, Stan started up the car and they headed back toward town. They were quiet on the way, but it was comfortable — every few minutes Kyle would reach over and squeeze Stan's thigh or kiss his shoulder, and maybe everything really would be fine. Maybe even Cartman wasn't cruel enough to tell their parents something like this.

Maybe.

xxx

As soon as the weather clears up, the house falls silent once again, and Stan feels more alone than ever. There's a weight like a bowling ball in his chest, and it's so hard to breathe, so hard to do anything.

But he pushes himself up and staggers out of bed, and it feels so strange to be standing. He's lightheaded and disoriented, as if he hasn't walked in years. It's not true; he'd gotten up just a couple of hours ago to take a piss and wander around the house morosely, looking for Kyle with the quiet pitifulness of a kicked puppy. He hadn't found him, and he'd flopped back into bed and clung to the pillows, wishing for something warm and solid to hold onto, something that looked and smelled and breathed like Kyle.

His head is swimming as he makes his way out of the room and he keeps his hand braced on the wall. He realizes he can't remember the last time he ate something, the last time Kyle sat him down and forced him to.

They don't have anything ready to eat that isn't junk food except for a couple of apples. Cooking seems impossible, too much effort, and so he grabs an apple and a package of Chips Ahoy chunky chocolate chip cookies. It's probably not the healthiest meal in the world, but it'll do.

The apple gets discarded on the coffee table when Stan collapses on the couch. He tears open the cookies and takes a tentative nibble, because nothing really tastes good these days. And maybe it's just because he's starving, but somehow these are the best thing he's ever tasted, and he swallows down three more within seconds, with the intention of eating the whole package. For a second he's almost close to happy — or at least content.

And it strikes him, then, how stupid that is. That his life is a waste, that he does nothing but lie around and mope day after day after day, and why the hell should he deserve to get a few seconds of pleasure out of a couple of goddamn cookies. Why should he be allowed to get any happiness out of anything?

And he shoves the package away, his mostly empty stomach churning unpleasantly. He feels them burning inside of him, trying to come back up, and he hates himself; hates living like this. Hates living entirely, if he's honest with himself. Which means he shouldn't be eating at all, because he's a waste of space, and nothing's going to get better, and why the fuck should Wendy waste her money ever week to buy him groceries — why should he be worth the effort?

He's not. And he draws his legs up and buries his face in his knees, ashamed. The feeling of loneliness is gone — suddenly it feels like the whole world can see him, and they're all laughing, because he had the nerve to try to find a second of comfort.

He wants to retreat to his and Kyle's room, to find Kyle there waiting for him, arms out to hold him, but he doesn't deserve that either. Regardless, he gets up, leaving the cookies to go stale — already forgotten. He makes his way back to the bedroom, albeit slowly, his trembling hand still holding the wall for balance. The bed is empty, and the stab of pain that ripples in his chest is a strange relief, the feeling of getting what he knows he deserves.

And he falls back in bed, exhausted, alone. He can barely remember a world where he felt anything different.

xxx

Their parents didn't know, not yet, and Stan didn't know if he should be relieved, or even more worried. Usually when Cartman put off shit like this, it was because he was saving it for something even worse. But the days rolled by and their home lives didn't change, and the harassment at school was quickly easing off. Maybe everything would just go back to normal.

It was kind of nice, now that everyone knew, because that meant that he and Kyle could sit too close, could put their arms around each other, could sneak in a kiss every now and then, without having to worry about what anyone thought.

And it was during one of their Friday night sleepovers, just a month before graduation, that Kyle rolled on top of him. There was something different in his eyes, something possessive and fiercely domineering. Stan melted under Kyle's gaze, fell open for him as if they'd done this a million times, and Kyle kissed him so deeply, his hands trailing up Stan's shirt and stroking his skin.

And they moved slowly against each other, savoring each brush of skin, and it was so hot under the blankets but Stan couldn't bear to move them, not yet, because their clothes were gradually falling away and this was the first time they were naked together like this, pressed together with nothing between them. Stan thought he might come just from the feeling of Kyle on top of him, the hard heat of his dick pressing into Stan's hip, knowing that Kyle could feel his, too.

Kyle sat back, pulling the blankets back with him, and there was a rush of cold air as Stan was exposed beneath him — but he couldn't be embarrassed, not with the way Kyle was looking at him. His eyes were glistening, dark and needy, and fuck they were really going to do this. Stan couldn't imagine anyone else he'd rather share this with. He wanted Kyle to be his first — his only.

It was surreal — he'd seen Kyle naked a million times before. They'd showered together, changed together, gone fucking skinny dipping together, but somehow this was different. Stan wanted to hold him, to feel him all over, to kiss him and touch him and find every little secret place.

Kyle pressed back down against him, kissing Stan's collarbone. His whole body felt like it was on fire, out of control, arching under Kyle's every touch.

It was almost too much when Kyle finally penetrated him. It hurt way more than Stan expected, even though Kyle had prepared him so slowly and thoroughly. He was breathing erratically, digging his blunt nails into Kyle's back and trying not cry, because how fucking stupid would that look?

It seemed like an eternity — just small movements, slowly pushing him open, and then Kyle was kissing his temple and nuzzling him so sweetly, whispering, "Shh, dude, shh. I'm in. Relax." And Stan sucked in a breath and then they were moving; slowly, carefully, but it was like they were made to do this, a dance they'd known their whole lives without even realizing it, because it only made sense when they were together.

The feelings coursing through Stan's veins were overwhelming, and he was shaking with the force of them — this was so much more than he ever thought it could be, because gazing up at Kyle as Kyle curled around him, protected him and held him, pushed into him over and over with the smallest sounds, little needy growls — that was all Stan had ever wanted, all he needed.

When it was over, Kyle came inside of him, filling him with warmth. Stan wanted to hold it inside of himself forever, because he'd never felt this complete before in his life. Kyle collapsed on top of him, sleepy and trembling, and Stan trailed his fingers over the dip of Kyle's sweat-slicked spine, kissed his hair as Kyle licked at his neck. In that moment, it felt like Stan could see their whole future laid out in front of them, and one day they'd be able to spend every night like this, falling asleep against each other, naked and complete.

Kyle pushed himself up, pressed his chin against Stan's and angled him into a kiss. This felt different, stronger, and everything Stan felt in his heart welled up in his eyes. He kissed Kyle back with everything that he had, because he had no reason to hold anything back anymore — there was never going to be anyone else. Everything he had, from this moment on, belonged to Kyle.

And when Kyle pulled away, Stan could see everything he felt reflecting in Kyle's eyes; in his soft, bewildered smile. They didn't have to say a word to know that they were on the same page, as always. Maybe that was just one of the benefits of falling in love with your best friend.

xxx

Wendy keeps calling, every single day, sometimes multiple times. And the constant ringing makes Stan's head ache — he can hear her voice in every shrill tone, demanding that he get up, pick up the phone, to stop being such a goddamn pussy. Her messages, of course, never sound like that — she's sweet to the point of condescending. He doesn't know who told her she was allowed to control his life from afar, but he's not going to let it happen. He broke up with her back in high school because he didn't need her, not so she could continue nagging him without the emotional investment.

When he finally manages to force himself back out into the living room, he yanks the phone out of the wall and throws it into the yard. It's not something Kyle would approve of, but he's not there to protest, so fuck him.

The thought hurts and Stan regrets it as soon as it crosses his mind. He slams the backdoor closed and slides down the wall and onto the floor, picking at a rough spot in the linoleum.

"Dude." His voice is barely a whisper, wavery and pathetic. He'd give anything just to have Kyle there, even if it was just to tell him that he was being stupid. "Please come home. Please."

The empty house offers no response, not that Stan was really expecting one, but the silence that falls is still heavy and oppressive, and Stan just wants to hear another voice, even if it belongs to fucking Wendy. But the phone is a tangle of plastic and wires and grass, beyond Stan's repair — when did he become so fucking stupid?

He imagines her and Kenny up in their perfect little house, making fun of him, hating him. And maybe he brought it on himself, because there was a time when he didn't give a fuck about anyone's opinion but Kyle's, and so he shut everyone out; convinced himself that Kyle was all he needed to survive. It was true, to some extent — it had always been true.

And Stan gets up and takes a beer out of the fridge — just one, because he needs it. He drains it in one quick swallow, and it still doesn't taste good, metallic piss dribbling over the corners of his lips. It doesn't solve a goddamn thing. He crushes the can in his fist, the pointed pieces of aluminum digging into his palm, and he lets the can fall to the floor. The sound that it makes is sharp and loud and seems to almost echo.

xxx

No one found out, not until graduation. Not until the very last moments of the ceremony, right when Stan was thinking they had made it, that everything turned out okay; not until the principal allowed Cartman on the stage to make a "special announcement." He had looked at Stan right in the face, smiling that twisted little smile, and Stan knew before he even opened his mouth that he was going to ruin everything, right now, on what should be a day of fucking celebration.

Stan had wanted to get up and walk right the fuck out; to follow Kyle, who was already rapidly making his way toward the double doors of the gymnasium with his hand over his mouth, pale as a sheet, but Stan couldn't make himself move, couldn't tear his eyes away from the stage.

"Good evening, classmates, teachers. Family, friends." He was as formal as always, his tone slick and practiced. Stan could feel the bile rising in the back of his throat, his entire body flashing between hot and cold, sweat pouring down his spine.

"Before we embark on the journey of life, before we move our tassels and throw our hats in the air, before we our truly deemed adults — there is something, I feel, you all should know."

He looked back at Stan, his eyes glinting with malice, and Stan suddenly knew why he waited until right now to share this. Because this wasn't something that he and Kyle would eventually laugh off and move away from; this was something that would destroy them, that would keep them from ever speaking to Cartman ever again, something that would force them to retaliate, if given the chance.

But now they wouldn't have that chance, because Cartman was packing his bags and going off to some school in New York as soon as the ceremony was over. Because all he'd ever wanted was to get out of this shithole town, and he wasn't going to spend any longer there than necessary. And he was going to have one last hurrah, cause one last uproar. Stan was suddenly filled with hatred, because Cartman didn't have a single bone in his body that was worth befriending, and they'd wasted years on him — all leading up to this.

But rather than giving a long, elaborate speech about Stan and Kyle's lewd, blasphemous sexual activities, his face broke into a smile and he began hopping from foot to foot, his bulging stomach jiggling behind the strained buttons of his shirt, and sang, "Stan and Kyle are homos, hahahaha-ha-ha!"

If he had anything else to add, Stan didn't hear it — there was a part of him that had still been in denial, convinced that Cartman wouldn't really stoop that low. Now that he had, Stan couldn't stop himself from lurching forward and puking on the floor.

The gym was terrifyingly silent. He wished he'd left when Kyle had, because now he could feel everyone staring at him as he bolted out the doors, and he couldn't make himself search out his parents in the crowd to gauge their reaction, because his dad would be infuriated, he just knew it, and fuck, Kyle's whole extended family was there — maybe it was just his imagination, but he felt like he could hear Kyle's cousin having an asthma attack.

He found Kyle in the hallway and Kyle met his eyes expectantly, worriedly, hopefully, and Stan could only grab his arm and drag him toward the exit. They needed a moment to recuperate, to figure out what the hell they should do.

All they could do, they found, was hide behind the school and lean against each other, offering comforts that neither of them really believed. A cigarette was dangling between Kyle's lips, his third one already, and one of his hands stroked down the back of Stan's neck, the other sliding up his shirt to caress his lower back, and it would have been the most soothing feeling in the world if Kyle hadn't been shaking so badly.

"We're going to be okay." Stan didn't know how many times he had said it. Maybe each time it became more and more unbelievable, but Kyle seemed like he needed to hear it, and Stan was ready to do anything for him. Because something felt different, now that it was just the two of them, alone, facing what could be one of the biggest disasters they had encountered in years.

He leaned back enough to look at Kyle's face, and his eyes were still wide with worry, glassy. Stan leaned in and kissed his cheek. Kyle plucked the cigarette out of his mouth and captured Stan's lips, and it was intense and smoky and completely overwhelming. Stan felt his throat trying to close up but he didn't want to pull away from this, away from Kyle.

And so they held on to each other, kissing as if it had the power to make everything okay, and maybe it did — when they pulled back, Stan wasn't so afraid. Maybe this wasn't turn out as horrible as they thought it would. Maybe they'd meet up with their parents, who would just shake their heads at the two of them for being so silly, for thinking that their sexuality would change anything.

Kyle didn't look so convinced, and Stan kissed him one last time. "We'll be fine, dude. I promise."

It wasn't a fair thing to promise, not something either of them could control, but Kyle smiled a little anyway.

"Yeah. Maybe."

He took Stan's hand and started to lead him back around the building, where they could hear a crowd already gathering. And Stan's heart was starting to race again and he tugged Kyle back, just for a second.

"Hey," he whispered, and it felt so urgent, because maybe in the worst case scenario, this would be his only shot. "I love you, okay?"

And then Kyle was smiling for real, and he trailed his fingers down Stan's cheek, letting them rest against his jaw. "Love you too, dude."

And at least, whatever happened, they'd be facing it together.

xxx

He spends the next day lying in bed, and his body aches from the lack of movement, his hair stringy and plastered to his head. It feels like his whole body is coated in a layer of sweat and greasy filth. He can't really remember the last time he took a shower, but he can't find the will to do it today, either. He's not going to leave the house, not going to see anyone, so why bother?

Kyle is lying across from him, head pillowed on his folded arms, the smallest of sad smiles on his face. The soft sunlight filtering through window is highlighting the angles of Kyle's face, the smooth slope of his back, his shoulders. He's almost glowing, sculpted and ethereal and perfect. That's all Stan needs.

There's a million things Stan wants to say to him, wants to ask him, but he can't make himself ruin this moment, which is so rare and peaceful and perfect. He doesn't want to know where Kyle goes, why he leaves, because there's a burning sickness in his stomach, a tightness in his chest. And maybe if he asks, they'll never have another moment like this.

Stan slides closer, moves as close as he can, just a breath separating them. It's not enough. It'll never be enough.

"Are you hungry?" Kyle's voice is soft, barely above a whisper. It's a lie when Stan shakes his head. But he doesn't want to move from this spot, doesn't want Kyle to go away.

Kyle sighs. He looks so sad, so guilty, as if he's the reason Stan is one big fucked up disaster. But he's not, he could never be; he's the only thing that kept Stan sane, kept him from offing himself years ago.

"Please smile." He feels so stupid saying it but that's all he needs to see, because a sad Kyle, a broken Kyle, is so wrong on so many levels. Stan just needs to see him happy, the way he was always meant to be. But maybe Stan doesn't deserve to see his smile, because happiness was just another thing on the long list that Stan failed to provide.

But Kyle smiles for him anyway, and it's forced; weak. His eyes glisten sadly and Stan wants to hold him.

"I'm sorry." Kyle chokes it out, squeezes his eyes closed. A tear streaks down his face and Stan doesn't know what to do.

"Dude, no, no, no. Please no." Stan's crying, too; Kyle has nothing to apologize for, nothing to feel so terrible about, but it hurts so much and Stan feels sick. And this feels like it's about so much more, something so much bigger, and Stan's too afraid to ask, too afraid to do anything. They've overcome so much and it feels so stupid to let this stop them, but there's nothing Stan can do, nothing he can say. And he closes his eyes and tries to remember a time when they had nothing to worry about, when everything was okay and all they had were their silly hopes and dreams that would never come true.

xxx

Their parents weren't mad, exactly; didn't kick them out of their houses and never look at them again. That was the weird thing.

Stan's dad thought it was disgusting, thought it made Stan less of a man, but he claimed to have known all along, and that was why Stan had "always been such a pussy." His mom, for her part, seemed relatively cool with it; she gave Stan a hug and told him how sorry she was that Cartman ruined his day. She also told him to invite Kyle over for dinner, and Stan tried to call him over and over for hours without any luck. That was his first sign that maybe things weren't so okay after all.

He didn't see Kyle until three days later, and he was assured that everything was fine, that Kyle's parents had just needed some time to get used to the idea. But Kyle was smoking more than usual, huddled in on himself. He looked kind of hopeless, kind of stressed.

They were sitting out by Stark's Pond, which had slowly become their spot: the very spot where they stood when Stan tossed away all of his notebooks dedicated to Wendy. It seemed so long ago, but it must have held a special significance, because ever since then, they avoided the bench and gravitated toward this spot by the water, to sit in the thick green grass.

Kyle always tossed his cigarette butts in the pond, a habit that made Stan cringe. They usually squabbled about it, but today was different. Kyle didn't seem to be in the mood for their lighthearted bickering, didn't seem to be in the mood for anything; like one wrong word would make him storm away. It had already been days since Stan had seen him, talked to him; he didn't want to lose him again. Because those had been the longest days of Stan's life, and he hadn't realized how completely dependent he was on Kyle until he was gone.

And all he could do was scoot closer, rest his cheek against Kyle's shoulder, and hope that his presence brought as much comfort to Kyle as Kyle's brought to him. And Kyle sighed, letting out a lungful of smoke. He wrapped his arm around Stan's waist and pulled him closer, hugged him tight against his side.

"It's really okay," Kyle said finally, and he tossed away his cigarette. He didn't move to pull out another one and Stan was relieved, because Kyle smelled better when he wasn't surrounded by a haze of poison. "They're just — you know my parents."

Stan nodded, turned his head to kiss Kyle's shoulder. Now that Kyle was finally talking, Stan was content to listen.

"It's been kind of tense lately but — I think they're okay. They'll warm up to it. I mean, they like you, it's not like I'm going out and banging tattooed motorcycle fags every weekend."

"God." Stan shuddered, because the images that brought to mind were unbearable.

"It'll be fine." Kyle sounded like he was mostly trying to convince himself, but Stan agreed anyway. Maybe if they both believed it, things would actually turn out okay.

xxx

Wendy shows up the next day, to-go bags from KFC balanced in the curve of her arm. Stan expects her to bitch about the phone, about him hiding from the world — but she merely offers him a smile as she makes herself at home, getting plates out of the cabinet and unloading the bags, pretending this is some kind of homemade meal.

Stan doesn't want to get up from his spot on the couch, doesn't want to sit with her and eat with her and hear about her perfect little life. She's annoyingly perky today, humming to herself and walking with an extra bounce in her step. Stan knows she's pretending that the world is this beautiful fucking place, and as soon as he sits down at the table, all he'll get to hear about is what a nice day it is, how he shouldn't be wasting his life inside.

But Kyle's in front of him, waving him toward the kitchen, and Stan can't help but follow him.

And Stan sits down at the table and Kyle stands behind him, hands on his shoulders. Stan feels kind of safe, protected; he thinks he can sit and pretend to listen to Wendy for a little while as long as he knows Kyle will be right there with him, making life worth living.

"So." Wendy sits down across from him. She's smiling a little. "You look happy, Stan, you really do." Her voice has that condescending tone that he hates, like the assholes in movies who have the balls to tell someone they'll be just fine after all their limbs have been torn off. Maybe they'll live, but they won't be fine.

And Kyle's fingertips press into his shoulders, just lightly, barely there — but it's cool and reassuring and Stan lets out a shuddering breath. "Yeah. I'm okay."

He knows he doesn't look it — he still hasn't showered, and he can feel a cool spot on his head where his hair has been smashed around, a few wayward strands sticking up wildly. His whole body feels slick and disgusting, a pungent cloud of body odor clinging to the clothes that he barely remembers putting on, much less the last time they'd been washed. He can't imagine what his face looks like and he doesn't want to know, but Wendy's looking at him unwaveringly. Maybe she's just used to overlooking the appalling after spending so much time fucking in Kenny's room when they were in high school.

"Have you thought about getting out and spending some time with me and Kenny?" She's pulling the skin off the chicken thigh in front of her, placing it aside with a delicate wrinkle of her nose. There's a part of Stan that still wants to be appalled, to pluck it off her plate and shove it in his mouth and tell her she's wasting the best part. But he doesn't move, just stares down at the overloaded plate that's been set in front of him. It even smells bad. He can't make himself eat it and he's starving.

He shakes his head, a belated response, and Wendy sighs.

"I really think it would be good for you. Just to get cleaned up, a change of place — even if it's just for a little while. That could make all the difference."

Stan doesn't want to listen to her, wishes there were a way to just turn off his mind, force himself to zone out. It never happens when he wants it to — he's even more alert, grasping onto her every word as he tries to distract himself by flattening the pile of mashed potatoes on his plate with his plastic spork.

"I mean, look at this place," Wendy says, when she must have realized that Stan wasn't going to respond. "This is like — a depression incubator, Stan. It's like you're reveling in it, and you just — you need help. And if you're not going to help yourself, then I'm going to do it for you."

Stan lets the fork slip out of his fingers. He glares up at her, defensive. "What? So you're going to drag me out of my own goddamn house because you don't like the way we're living?"

"Stan—"

"I'm glad you and Kenny are so fucking successful, hell, Kenny even deserves it, but we can't all be that fucking fortunate."

"That's not what I meant."

"Did you know that Kyle had to find out that Ike got married through the fucking newspaper? His family fucking gave up on him. He didn't get any financial support, he couldn't even go to fucking college—"

"Stan, please—"

Wendy's tearing up and Stan is trembling; something inside of him is wound too tight, ready to explode. He feels tense and sick and he wants her to leave. Now.

"I don't care if you think this is fucking depression land," Stan says finally, quietly and his voice is wavering. "This is the best we can do, and we're fucking proud of it."

Wendy's actually crying now, her face buried in her hands, her fingernails digging into her scalp. "Please stop talking like that, please."

It's more than Stan's said in weeks. He falls silent — he feels empty now, hollow, as if he'd just exposed some secret part of himself that the world was never meant to see.

Wendy takes longer to collect herself. She pulls her napkin out of her lap and presses it to her eyes, and Stan's so tired of her, everything she does.

She sniffs and rights herself, tucking her napkin away, and it hardly looks like she's been crying at all. "Just — please come over. Tomorrow? Okay?" She sounds kind of pathetic now, whiny and defeated. Maybe there's a part of him that still wants to make her happy, even after all of this.

"Okay." It comes out quietly, barely a whisper. He regrets it the second he says it because he doesn't want to go anywhere. But it's too late and she's smiling in a way that he hasn't seen in years — it's too late to take it back.

"I'll be over around eleven to pick you up," she says, and suddenly she seems to be in a hurry to leave, clearing off the table and putting the leftover chicken in the fridge. She swoops in and kisses his cheek, lingering longer than she should. He thinks she's going to say something, but she doesn't; not until she pulls away and starts heading toward the door.

"See you tomorrow, Stan."

And then she's gone, and Stan doesn't know what to do. He stays still, untouched plate in front of him, alone again.

xxx

That summer was an uncomfortable one. Kyle wouldn't say a word, wouldn't open up to Stan at all; the only indication Stan had that something was going horribly wrong was the fact that Kyle's smoking increased dramatically within a week, and suddenly he was smoking a pack a day, sometimes nearly two. Kyle was smarter than that, never did anything in excess, and Stan couldn't get him to fucking talk. He'd even noticed that Kyle wasn't taking his insulin as often as he should, putting it off and forgetting about it, lying about it. But he still took it sometimes; even if it wasn't nearly enough, Stan figured it was better than nothing.

Kyle stayed over at Stan's most nights, phone on silent. One time Stan had snuck a peek at his missed calls to find at least ten of them from his mom, who Kyle was evidently avoiding on purpose. And every time Stan worked up the nerve to ask, Kyle would continue to tell him that things were fine, totally back to normal. As much as Stan wanted to believe him, it was difficult when Kyle spent most of his time sitting with his head in his hands and a cigarette in his mouth.

They'd planned a long time ago — before any kind of romantic relationship had even been a consideration — to go to the same college, room together and party and make the most of it. They'd decided on Colorado State, because it was close and convenient, and Kyle could probably do better and maybe Stan could, too, but there was still something tying them to this stupid town. Maybe neither of them would ever admit it but they weren't quite ready to leave — not yet. But lately, Kyle hadn't even wanted to talk about it; had kept his responses short and angry whenever Stan brought it up. Stan didn't know what to do — they were supposed to start in just over two months, but it didn't feel like they were going anywhere at all.

And so Stan waited for Kyle to come around, get over whatever was bothering him and get back on track, to start making plans and putting them in motion. But it didn't happen, and it was late June when Stan finally confronted him again, because if they didn't do something now it'd be too late, if it wasn't already.

Kyle was spending the night, curled up against Stan's chest — he was breathing with his mouth wide open, snoring in a way he never really had before, waking himself up every hour or so. He seemed to get frustrated around five in the morning, and he pulled out of Stan's arms, the sudden cold forcing Stan from the last vestiges of sleep.

Kyle looked tired, irritable; it was probably a bad time, but Stan sat up beside him and bumped their naked shoulders together. Kyle leaned into him, combed his fingers through Stan's hair, and he seemed to be drifting off again when Stan said, "Dude. Talk to me."

"Now? God, Stan, I'm barely awake." He sounded like he was talking in his sleep, quiet and mumbly. Stan almost wanted to drag him back down so they could curl up and fall back asleep in their warm spot, but thoughts of school had been making him panic, his eyes kept flying open in terror every time he started to drift off. Because this was about so much more than just school; Stan hadn't seen Kyle this worked up over something in a long time. It was worrisome and scary and Stan needed to put an end to it.

"I'm worried about you."

"Oh fuck, not this again." Kyle pressed his forehead against Stan's shoulder and pushed out a longsuffering sigh, because he knew exactly how to make Stan leave him alone — but this time Stan wasn't going to let it work.

It didn't really make sense, but one of the things Stan loved about Kyle, one of the things Stan had craved from him since they were kids, was Kyle's dramatics; his neediness. When Stan had problems of his own, he had a tendency to shut down, close out the world; get caught in a cycle of self-loathing and misery that left him incapable of doing anything. But it was different with Kyle. Kyle's problems motivated him, made Stan want to fix him, protect him. If Kyle was being secretive, Stan was usually content to wait until he was ready, but he also knew when Kyle needed a push.

And so he pushed. And they stayed up for another hour, going around in circles, Kyle brushing him off while Stan pried. Kyle opened up a little more each time, until he was finally leaning against Stan's pillows with his arm thrown dramatically over his eyes, sobbing tearlessly, everything he'd bottled up this whole time coming out in a hiccupping rush.

His parents wouldn't talk to him. Would barely look at him. The last conversation he'd had with his mom was a screaming fight, which ended with her informing him that the money they'd been setting aside to pay for his college no longer belonged to him. And he hadn't bothered to apply for scholarships or loans because he thought he'd had it made, and he only had a little money to his name, topped off with what was probably the world's worst credit score, and he was so fucked, so fucked, and that was all he could say, over and over, as Stan cuddled up beside him and hooked an arm over his chest.

"It's okay." For a long time that was all Stan could offer, stroking Kyle's neck and calming him down, whispering it into his hair. And when Kyle's sobs had softened into quite little hitches of breath, suddenly words started flowing from Stan, words that he hadn't even thought through, but were finally enough to make Kyle lift his arm from his eyes and sneak a curious, hopeful glance.

"We could get a house," Stan was saying, in their hushed, conspiring whisper that was always reserved for sleepovers. "Just a cheap rental or something, you know? Just so we can save up some money and get the fuck away from our families, and just — God, dude — my parents would help us, my dad's ready for me to move out anyway, so he can turn my room into a fucking man cave or something."

And suddenly they were dreaming like they were kids again; they'd get a house, and it'd be so fucking cool because they could stay up late and play video games all night, and fuck in the middle of the living room or hell even on the dining room table; they could get a dog or two and let them stay inside. It would be all fun, no rules, just the two of them doing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. Stan couldn't remember a time when there had been anything more he'd wanted out of life. They'd just get jobs, something simple, enough to pay the rent, and then they could just live.

And either it was just the fatigue talking or Kyle actually thought it was a good idea, because he was smiling and contributing, eager to put some space between him and his parents so they could cool down, and he kept telling Stan how perfect it would be, how fucking perfect, and they could just wait and go to college when they were ready; there'd be no need to rush if they already had everything they'd ever wanted.

And so Stan swore to run the idea by his parents in the morning, see if they could get even just a little help, and then fuck college — fuck school and books and studying and getting up early. He was going to spend every fucking day of the rest of his life going to sleep next to his best friend, kissing each other awake. And in that moment Stan felt almost weightless, a happiness in chest that he hadn't felt in years, and would never feel again.

xxx

It's an hour before Stan can force himself to move from the table, an hour spent halfheartedly picking at cold chicken, forcing himself to eat a few bites. Kyle had taken Wendy's abandoned spot, rested his chin in his hands. He's spent that hour gazing at Stan in that soft, beautiful way that used to be so rare. Kyle shares it with him so openly these days, loving and unashamed.

Kyle doesn't move when Stan finally forces himself to his feet, and Stan doesn't blame him; he doesn't have the energy to follow Stan around all day, and Stan's fucking grateful he's here at all.

Stan makes his way to the bathroom. It's so hard to move; he's tired and dizzy and he feels so heavy, like he's hardly attached to his body anymore. He strips out of his clothes on the way, leaving his sweat-stained sweatshirt and boxers abandoned in the hallway. He used to do that all the time and it would make Kyle so mad, because Stan never went back to pick them up, and Kyle bitched daily about feeling like Stan's maid. Stan always thought Kyle secretly enjoyed it; if not the actual chore of picking up Stan's laundry, just the routine of going through the house and keeping things neat.

The place isn't neat anymore. Maybe Wendy's right about Stan needing to get away from it, because every fucking day is a reminder that Kyle can't take of things the way he used to, and Stan's clothes will probably stay in the middle of the hallway until they rot away.

Stan showers with the door wide open, the way he always has; a silent invitation. Kyle doesn't join him. Even though Stan stays in for at least an hour, waiting, knowing somewhere deep down that Kyle wasn't coming.

He towels off halfheartedly. When he leaves the bathroom, he finds Kyle perched on the edge of the bed, trembling, staring at his hands sightlessly. Stan collapses face first onto the bed beside him, naked and damp, and Kyle sighs, just softly — the first noise he's made all day.

There's a part of Stan that's expecting Kyle to complain that he's getting the bed wet, but it doesn't happen, and Stan hates himself for not knowing better, for getting his hopes up.

He dozes off like that, sideways on the bed, on top of the blankets. The last thing he's aware of is Kyle pressing up beside him, cool breath gusting against his neck.

xxx

Their plans had made perfect sense at five o'clock in the morning, when they had held each other and exchanged sleep deprived dreams of two desperate little boys. What didn't make sense was the following morning, when Stan's parents had thought it was a good idea, agreed to help out as long as he and Kyle promised to get jobs, and suddenly it was all happening. While everyone else they knew packed up and headed off for college, he and Kyle were looking for somewhere affordable to live and applying for jobs, and it was too real and terrifying and wonderful all at once.

What they found was a shithole in Kenny's neighborhood; a house no one had rented in years. The landlord offered them a free first month and no security deposit just to get people living in it. And it was the last place in the world they wanted to live in, so far away from what they had imagined, and Stan had felt the first real pulls of despair starting to sink in. He hadn't felt that kind of heaviness since he was ten; thought he had completely escaped from it, numbing the feeling behind a daily antidepressant.

But now, looking at this ramshackle house with litter in the front yard, holes in the wall, mismatched paint, and stained carpeting, knowing it was the only place he and Kyle would be able to afford — he just wanted to go home, to his real home, with his parents, curl up in his bed and live there forever. Suddenly the real world seemed like too much too soon.

And they slept on it, talked about it; Kyle was so determined to get away from his family that suddenly Stan found himself signing a lease, and holy shit this was really happening. Stan's dad spent a lot of time helping them fix things up before they even moved in — they spackled and repainted the walls, steamed the carpets, fixed everything that needed fixing. By fall, it was deemed ready to move in.

It still looked like shit, but Kyle seemed kind of excited. A smile glimmered just barely over the top of the stress that had been weighing him down. Stan wanted to be happy with him, wanted to hold him in the middle of their new house, wanted to be able to stare at him and feel completely confident in starting their life together.

But when Kyle pulled Stan into his arms in the middle of the empty living room, held him close and kissed him, Stan felt his eyes prickle with tears that he was determined to keep from falling. He couldn't imagine being happy here, couldn't imagine living here, but it was too late.

Kyle assured him over and over that he'd like it better once they moved their stuff in, made it their own. Stan tried his best to believe him, tried to be optimistic, but it was so hard suddenly.

Stan kept to himself, hid out at home while Kyle made trip after trip to their new house, organizing and cleaning and getting things ready. Stan wouldn't go back if he could avoid it. He spent more time with his mom during the next few weeks than he had in what felt like his entire life, leaning on her and watching her cook and staying up late and hugging his legs to his chest and talking to her about nothing. And she seemed happy, but it was tinged with melancholy, and every now and then she'd lean over and kiss his temple, whisper that she couldn't believe her baby was moving out. Shelly had gone off to college and hadn't looked back; now that Stan was leaving too, there would be no one left.

"Your dad and I will probably move." She said it one night, when Stan was dozing against her shoulder, and he was jolted awake. He remembered the first time they'd let this house go — even though it had never really felt the same again, he didn't want it gone forever, unable to return.

"What?"

She'd probably intended for him to stay half-asleep through this conversation, because she looked kind of sheepish now; remorseful. "This house is… just too big for just the two of us, Stanley."

And he didn't ask where they were going to go, because knowing would make it too real. And as the days went by and he slowly packed up his things, his parents packed up around him. At first they were discussing Denver which slowly shifted to Florida — Stan didn't want to hear it, didn't want to hear any of it.

He hadn't seen Kyle in days and he was so worn out, so overwhelmed with change. He tried to focus on Kyle, just Kyle, because he made everything okay. Even if Stan could never come back to the house he grew up in, even if he'd rarely get to see his parents anymore, he'd always, always have Kyle.

And if there was nowhere to go but forward, Stan was so thankful that he at least got to go forward with Kyle.

xxx

Wendy picks him right at eleven, as promised, and the short walk to her car is tiring and overwhelming. Stan can't believe it's really been this long since he's been outside. But the smell of it, the sounds, the feel of the air swirling around him — it's a mix of unfamiliar and nostalgia. He's relieved when he's able to get in the car and shut it all away.

He and Kyle had stopped going outside a long time ago, didn't run around town and waste their days away like they used to. It all changed so fast. When they moved in together, when they had jobs and responsibilities, when Kyle's health declined and his temper increased, and they spent so many days stressed and yelling and blaming their fucked up lives on each other.

Stan rests his head on the window and watches the town rush by. He can almost envision he and Kyle as kids, roaming these streets without a single fucking care in the world — how perfect it used to be, how it seemed like it'd last forever.

Wendy doesn't live that far away — nothing is too far in South Park — and they pull into her driveway and Stan hates how clean and perfect everything is, how Kenny's out on the porch waiting for them, beaming. He rushes down the steps and pulls Stan into a crushing hug, a muffled speech into Stan's shoulder about how it's been too long. Stan pushes out of the embrace, because if Kenny really wanted to fucking see him, he'd drop by and visit every once in a while.

And they go inside and it's so bright and clean and sterile, and Stan feels so uncomfortable, so out of place. He's ready to just turn around and go home, to forget that he ever agreed to this.

And Wendy whisks him into the dining room, holding onto his arm in that silly delicate way she always did when they were dating, and Stan feels overwhelmed and kind of sick, too hot and too cold; he's shaking so hard, like something terrible is about to happen.

The table is already set, an elaborately ridiculous picnic-type lunch spread out, with little sandwiches cut in impractical shapes and sizes, bowls of chips and fruit and cheese cubes. Classic Wendy. The only Kenny influence that Stan sees is the row of beers on the far end of the table, far enough away in what was probably an attempt to dissuade Stan from taking one. But fuck it, if he had to stay, he was getting drunk.

Wendy pulls out a chair for him and guides him to it like he's her fucking grandpa or something, and she's going on about what a nice time they're going to have and she's so happy he came, and Stan doesn't know how Kenny lives with this, how he became exactly what he didn't want to become: a suburban little couple who probably sits around and watches Grey's Anatomy. When the fuck did the world get turned upside down?

And Stan forces himself to eat — just a little, picking his sandwich apart and trying to pretend that he's grateful, because that's what Kyle would do. Fuck, he needed Kyle, there was no point in being here without him. Kenny's giving him this look — not quite sympathetic. Stan wants to move closer, wants to talk to only him. But Wendy's going on and on, talking about everything without taking a breath, and Kenny slides a beer across the table which Stan barely catches before it falls to the floor, and he has it open and to his mouth before Wendy can even start bitching.

"He looked like he could use a drink," Kenny says in defense. He's holding up his hands in mock surrender, but the smirk on his face says he doesn't regret a thing, and for a second Stan is grateful.
"It's just beer, Wends, Jesus fuck."

"Just beer? Someone like Stan doesn't need just beer."

And it stings as if she'd slapped him. Stan finishes off the bottle and sets it aside, glaring down at his hands. They're talking over his head, arguing, about how fragile he is, and how they're supposed to be helping him, and he really can't fucking take it anymore.

"I don't need your help." His voice is quiet, barely audible over their bickering, but they stop and Wendy sighs, touching his shoulder.

"Maybe not our help," she says gently, maternal again. "But you need to go back to counseling. You're getting so bad I just—" she breathes in a shaking breath and she looks like she's holding back tears, and she's so fucking dramatic. "It hurts to see you like this."

"I'm fine." He says it slowly, clearly, so there can be no more misunderstandings. "As long as I have Kyle, I'll be just fine."

The breath Wendy sucks in almost sounds painful, sharp and high-pitched and shuddering. Her voice is thick with tears when she responds. "Kyle's gone. You have to let him go."

And everything starts to blur together, the room and their faces and the thoughts in his head. He hears himself insisting that Kyle's not fucking gone — he may not be present at the moment, but he's at home, waiting for him, like always.

"No, Stan, no—" Wendy keeps repeating that, crying openly now, her curled fingers pressed to her cheeks. "He's dead, please stop, he's dead."

"He's not fucking dead! I was just with him, I just saw him, he's with me every goddamn day, he's not dead." And his voice sounds weak to his own ears; there's a part of him that suddenly feels so fucking empty. Maybe it's felt that way for a long time and he's numbed himself to it, forgotten that he's missing a part of himself, and now that it's been brought to his attention he doesn't think he can fucking walk.

"Maybe Kyle is with him." Stan barely hears it over the whirlwind in his head, but Kenny's voice sounds strong and sure and real. Stan still wants to block him out, wants to go home and see Kyle for himself because he doesn't need anything else.

"Don't you fucking dare encourage this!" Wendy's shrieking and it's hurting Stan's head. He curls in on himself and buries his ears in his palms, but he can still hear her, like nails clawing against glass. "You know he's dead, you saw him! "

"Okay, look, you don't understand the afterlife. Maybe somehow Kyle is just—"

"I don't understand the afterlife? You don't understand it! How the hell would you know anything!"

And Stan can't take it anymore, the arguing and the yelling, and it feels like a dream when he slides out of his chair and starts moving toward the door. The yelling doesn't let up, not a single bit, because nothing's ever been about him; they can't even stop and notice that the person they're supposedly trying to help isn't there anymore.

He's almost running by the time he makes it outside, and his memories are going wild, second after second of each moment he ever had with Kyle, leading up to where things changed, where it started to feel wrong.

He sees it all in a flash: the way Kyle's words slurred, the way he fell to the floor. He had convulsed for just a second before going still, and Stan was right at his side, held him as he was so still, too still, because he wasn't breathing, his Heineken eyes dull and sightless. And Stan had never given anyone CPR before but he thought knew how, and he tried, shoving at Kyle's chest over and over and over and his heart wasn't beating, it wasn't fucking beating. But he must have been pushing at the wrong spot because the contents of Kyle's stomach came up in a rush, dribbling down the sides of his parted lips and Stan knew he was gone.

And the rest was a blur of flashing lights and voices, and doctors telling him that it was a massive stroke, just a fluke, as if that would make it any fucking better, as if that would bring the light of his fucking life back. And they kept telling Stan all the things he'd done wrong, all the ways he'd failed, because Kyle should have been keeping up with his insulin, shouldn't have been smoking — but it was just a fluke.

He barely remembers the funeral, even now; just remembers feeling so small in his chair, a dainty pink trashcan between his feet that he'd already vomited in more times than he could count. He remembers a sappy song coming on and a slideshow starting. It's all him and Kyle, every moment of their lives captured in grainy photographs, immortalized smiles that will never exist again. And the next thing he knew his mom and dad were on either side of him, escorting him out — he must have been causing a scene, must have been trying to get to Kyle. All Stan knew was that they weren't going to put Kyle in the ground alone.

And each memory hits him like a physical blow as he staggers along the sidewalk, almost running, holding himself. The tears are streaking down his face and he can't stop them. He doesn't even know why he's going home because there will be no one there waiting for him.

But Kyle's still there, he knows he's still there, no matter what Wendy says Kyle's been with him this whole time. They're tied together, they always have been. Kyle's not fucking leaving because he promised he wouldn't. Kyle will be right there when Stan opens the door. He knows it. He knows.

He gets home and the lights are flickering wildly, the TV hissing with static. Stan doesn't even have to pick up the remote to know the batteries are dead, that every electronic in the house is fucking dead, but Kyle's not there, can't manifest, and it's too much. Stan can't live like this for another second.

He falls to his knees when he enters the kitchen, drags himself to the fridge and pulls out his supply of beer, draining one after the other. He can hardly taste it, hardly feel it, and it's doing nothing to numb the impossible pain coursing through him, nothing to erase the memories he tried so hard to suppress.

And he drags himself back to his feet, clinging to the countertop for support. He grabs his antidepressants off the shelf and the lid falls off in his hands and he lets out another sob. He's shaking so hard and his eyes are so blurred with tears he can hardly see what he's doing.

The lights go out completely as Stan shakes the pills into his hand; it's cold, so fucking cold, and it brings him more peace than anything ever could. He blinks the tears out of his eyes and he's still alone, and the pills gaze up at him invitingly. He still doesn't want to fuck up, still doesn't know if it'll be enough, but there's only one way to find out.

xxx

The sun was sparkling against the snow when Stan pulled up to the house. Despite being the shittiest piece of property Stan had seen since Kenny's old house, it seemed different now; special. The roof was laden with a thick layer of white, icicles clinging to the eaves. It seemed to let off a glow of its own, warm and inviting despite the temperature outside.

This was it.

This was home.

Stan got out of the car and hurried to the door, which had been left unlocked, just for him. He let himself in and Kyle was right there, waiting for him.

"Dude." He was smiling like he hadn't seen Stan in years; his face light and perfect and free from all the pain and worry that Stan had grown so used to seeing there. "It took you long enough."

"Sorry." His voice cracked and he didn't even know why, because everything was so fucking perfect for once. And Kyle was babbling but Stan could barely hear him, going on about needing to show Stan the bedroom, get his opinion on the drapes, and oh God they were going to have to do something about the wallpaper in the bathroom, because it was completely dreadful.

But Stan cut him off, halfway into his speech about pulling up the carpet, which was stained beyond repair. He pulled Kyle against him, held him as tight as he could. And it was quiet except for their breathing, and Kyle let out a little peaceful sigh, his arms hooking around Stan's waist.

"I'm just glad you're here." Kyle said it into Stan's neck, his lips brushing against Stan's skin. "With me."

And Stan was, too. Because even if they didn't get the place fixed up, even if they had to live with torn wallpaper and stained carpet and a toilet that they couldn't fucking flush when it rained, that would be okay. Because he knew he'd be with Kyle forever, right here, in their shared piece of heaven.