A/N: I guess the most important thing to note is that this is a pretty sad story. Characters die, and most of them don't get happy endings. But it's also a romance, so, you know. Some characters do okay.
Also, it would be pretty offensive and ridiculous to try to imagine about how the world would react to a war on Canada based on American children using bad language, in terms of which allies those countries would or wouldn't have, so I'm leaving a lot of the political details of the war intentionally vague. I want to focus on the home front and how the war has changed South Park and the characters who live there.
I've been thinking about (talking about, too...) this project for a while now, and I'm really excited! I hope you guys will enjoy it. I'm also pretty unsure about some of this, so feedback would really be welcome.
Many thanks to azul_bleu and effingbirds for reading drafts of this for me and giving me feedback!
It was October and just starting to snow outside when the counselor came to the twelfth grade classroom door for Kyle. Like it had been when they were kids, high school was just one room per grade, something that would not have been true without the war. Most of the boys were getting too big for the desks, their knees pressed to the undersides. Most of them were getting too big for South Park, or any place other than a battlefield.
Kyle couldn't really hear the counselor speak, because when he knew something bad was coming he tended to hear things as if from behind mottled glass, all the information that tried to enter through his ears fuzzy and blurred. He'd been near deaf for that whole horrible week after Montreal, when the few survivors from the battalion from South Park returned, Kyle's father among them, Stan's father not. Kyle looked at Stan as he crossed the front of the classroom, everyone staring. Stan flinched as if he was thinking about getting up, and Kyle looked away so that he wouldn't. Kyle was the only one who had been called. He hadn't heard it so much as felt it burrowing into his chest, an inevitable thing, the long shadow of something that was already happening, already over.
Jimbo was out in the hall like always, but he wasn't in his chair reading the paper. He was standing, looking fretful, holding his gun across his chest. Kyle's father was there, red-eyed, Ned silent at his side. Jimbo and Ned had volunteered as personal guards for the Broflovski family after the death threats against Kyle's mother started. His mother had a whole fleet of security people who traveled with her, specially trained, and Kyle knew with sick certainty he was about to be told that they'd failed.
"What?" he said, harshly, wanting to hate his father for crying. Kyle's mother had been in the middle of a month-long speaking engagement tour, rallying troops around the country. It was dangerous, but she was committed.
"Let's go to my office," the counselor said. She'd shut the classroom door behind her, but Kyle could feel everyone listening.
"Kyle," Gerald said, his voice breaking.
"Don't tell me," Kyle said. "Don't say it. I know. You don't have to say it."
He didn't cry until they were in the car on the way home, because he didn't want to go home, not if his mother was never going to be there again. Gerald was sniffling beside him, holding his hand, and Kyle still felt furious with him for irrational reasons that he couldn't even pinpoint. Jimbo was driving, and Ned was in the passenger seat.
"Goddamn rebels," Jimbo said. "We'll get 'em Kyle." He said so as if he and Ned would go after them himself. "Don't you worry about that."
"I'm glad the power's out," Kyle said, wiping his eyes with his sleeves. They'd had rolling blackouts since the second year of the war, and this one had gone for three days already.
"Glad?" Jimbo said. "How come?"
"Because they'll be reporting on it," Gerald said before Kyle could. "On TV, on the radio." He squeezed Kyle's hand. "I'm glad, too," he said. "So glad about that, for you boys."
Ike was downstairs when they walked through the door, which was dangerous even when the house was empty, but Kyle didn't say anything. He was sitting on the bottom step in the foyer, hands wrapped around his knees. He didn't rise when Kyle and his father came in, and didn't look at them. It seemed pointed, as if they were being blamed for something. Kyle sat beside Ike and put his arms around him, absorbing his quick, angry breaths. Jimbo and Ned had remained outside, guarding the front door. More guards would come now, people they didn't know. Ike would have to be more careful.
"Do you think she was tortured?" Ike asked when their father left the room, mumbling about tea.
"No," Kyle said, though he did.
"Are they bringing her body back?"
"I don't know," Kyle said. Probably not, he thought. He squeezed Ike's shoulders, and Ike shrugged him off angrily.
"Whatever," he said, standing. "It doesn't matter. She never came to see me."
"Ike." Kyle closed his eyes. He could hear his father weeping in the kitchen, gasping for breath. "It was too dangerous for her to be here, most of the time. Dangerous for you."
"I wish they had just let them intern me," Ike said. It was a familiar refrain lately, and it made Kyle's chest ache, because sometimes he wondered if they hadn't just interned Ike themselves.
"Don't make this any harder for Dad," Kyle said.
"Will there be a funeral?" Ike asked, deflating a little.
"Of course," Kyle said. "The whole town will come." The thought exhausted him. He wasn't sure what to do about his father – go in there and comfort him? Would he be embarrassed? Stan had been attached to his grieving mother's hip for a couple of years after Randy died, but it was different with mothers.
Stan showed up just fifteen minutes later, and Kyle herded Ike upstairs, because he could hear other voices on the doorstep. He thought it might be Sharon and Shelly, but as he pulled the door open he realized he should have expected Wendy. Kenny and Cartman were there, too. Kyle was surprised not to see Butters, though he supposed Butters wouldn't have been up for cutting class.
"Dude," Stan said, stepping forward to grab him. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I tried to come alone."
"It's okay." Kyle put his arms around Stan and held on, closing his eyes to block out the others. He had temporary clearance to be awkward and greedy, so he rested his forehead against Stan's neck and didn't let go of him, not even when Cartman started clearing his throat. Increasingly, Kyle had been feeling like this, and it was stronger than ever when he pulled back to look into Stan's eyes: I wish it could be just me and you.
"I'm so sorry, Kyle," Wendy said, though he still wasn't looking at her. Stan's hands were on his hips, resting there lightly. Kyle dragged his eyes away from Stan's to glance at the others.
"It sucks," Kenny said. His father and brother had been killed years ago, and it had made him harder, quieter, and more determined to take care of his mother and sister. He had two jobs and hadn't been to school since he was fifteen. He talked constantly about wanting to join the army.
"Sorry for your loss," Cartman said, stiffly. Kyle wasn't sure what he was doing there, except that he always tagged along. He'd stopped caring about Cartman's schemes and motivations years ago. He mostly felt sorry for Cartman, whose mother had been entertaining male company for cash since the third year of the war.
"Come in," Kyle said, stepping away to let them through. He walked into the living room and they followed. "I think my dad was making tea," he said.
"Don't worry about serving us anything, dude," Stan said. He sat beside Kyle on the couch and tucked an arm around him. "Are you – has it hit you yet?" Stan asked. He knew plenty about the stages of grief. Kyle shrugged.
"Not really," he said. "I hadn't seen her in a month. You know?"
"These anti-war groups are disgusting hypocrites," Wendy said. She was truly anti-war, a pacifist, and Kyle knew she'd hated his mother. Her sanctimonious attitude about the cost of war sometimes made Kyle want to tell her that her boyfriend planned to join the army as soon as he graduated in May. All he could do was hope that Wendy would browbeat the desire to serve out of Stan. If she couldn't, Kyle would go with him. He couldn't imagine any hell worse than South Park without Stan.
His friends stayed for tea, which Kyle insisted on serving. He liked to have something to do, and even made a plate of crackers and some bad cheddar cheese that had come with their rations that week. Cartman ate most of it himself, getting crumbs on the easy chair that he was massively occupying.
"Just a one more month," Kenny said. "And I can finally start firing on these sons of b's."
"Not to be disrespectful," Wendy said – both of her parents were still alive, volunteering for the Red Cross, which she planned to do after graduating – "But wouldn't you serve your family better by staying in South Park and taking care of your mother and sister? Instead of getting yourself killed while you're seeking revenge?"
"It doesn't matter if I die," Kenny said, and he smiled in a worrying way. "That's the best part."
"Dude, shut up," Stan said, and Kyle wasn't sure if he was being defensive on behalf of Kyle's dead mother or telling Kenny that his life had more value than that.
"What will your mom and Karen do when you join the army?" Kyle asked.
"I'll figure something out," Kenny said. "You need a housekeeper or two?"
"I don't think we could afford that," Kyle said, though he actually had no idea how much money his mother had made doing public appearances and television interviews. His parents were still frugal; they doled out rations carefully, but Kyle had always assumed that part of that was the desire to set a principled example.
"Your sister could come clean my house," Cartman said.
"No," Kenny said. "I got nothing against your mom, dude, but I don't want Karen anywhere near there."
"Why not?" Cartman asked, glowering. "You think you're so above us? Go ahead and storm the gee-dee border, Kenny. We'll see how long it takes for your mom to come crawling to mine for a job."
"Please, you guys," Wendy said, holding out her hand when Kenny started to rise from the sofa. "We're here for Kyle."
"It's okay," Kyle said. "Just ignore me. I don't feel like talking."
Stan's arm tightened around his waist as he said so, and Kyle looked over at him. His eyes were wet.
"At least I'm not too much of a coward to join up," Kenny said to Cartman, who scoffed.
"We're all gonna get drafted, anyway," Cartman said. "Only a redneck moron would volunteer to die before they force him to."
"Hey, fuck you!" Stan said, his hand clenching on Kyle's side when his v-chip fired. "Only a fatherless waste of life would say that."
"Guys!" Wendy said. She sighed. "Sorry, Kyle."
"It's okay, really," Kyle said, annoyed by her more than any of the others. He wanted to curl up against Stan and close his eyes, maybe sleep. "Can you stay over?" he asked, muttering this while the other three continued to snap at each other.
"Yeah, dude, of course," Stan said. "Hey," he said, reaching over to touch Wendy's leg. "Can you tell my mom that I'm staying over here tonight?"
"Sure, sweetie," she said. She kissed Stan's cheek and stood. "I'll get these guys out of here," she said to Kyle, gesturing to Kenny and Cartman, who were possibly on the verge of coming to blows, leaning toward each other and spitting insults. "And I'm gonna make a casserole," she added as she herded them toward the door. "I'll bring it over tonight."
"You can bring it tomorrow," Kyle said. Wendy's face fell slightly, but she nodded.
"Okay," she said. "Just – I'm right down the street if you guys need anything."
"I know," Kyle said, and he almost regretted the bitchiness of his tone.
"Sorry," Stan said when they were gone. "I told them you wouldn't want the whole gang over, but Wendy said—"
"It's okay," Kyle said. He flopped onto Stan, putting his head on Stan's shoulder. "I know how they are. Just – don't go."
"I'm not going anywhere, dude," Stan said. He cupped his hand around Kyle's head, his fingers digging in between his curls. Kyle kept his eyes closed, wishing he had the balls to tell Stan what he'd really meant: Don't join the army, don't go. "Where's Ike?" Stan asked.
"Upstairs," Kyle said. "He's angry. My dad was crying, before. I guess he's in his room now. Should I go talk to him? I don't know what to do, man. I don't even know where to start."
"You don't have to start anywhere," Stan said. "You just found out. Give yourself some time to let it sink in."
"I can't," Kyle said. "I'm always going to feel like we're waiting for her to get back from that trip, or some other trip. God, I hope the power stays out for a week. I don't want to see anything about this on the news. But they'll be talking about it for months – years."
"Here," Stan said, picking up one of the few crackers Cartman hadn't consumed. He brought it to Kyle's lips. "Eat something."
"Why?" Kyle asked, laughing.
"I don't know," Stan said. "This is what I did for my mom when my dad died. I made sure she ate."
Kyle ate the cracker out of Stan's hand. He felt better as he chewed it, and feeling better made him cry.
News vans arrived before the security forces did. They parked in the driveway of an empty house across the street, but no reporters came to the door that first night. Stan was enraged by the presence of the vans, pacing around Kyle's room and peeking through the blinds every half hour or so, cursing them when he saw that they were still out there.
"Dude, ignore them," Kyle said. "They're just doing their jobs."
"Your dad's in no shape to talk to them," Stan said. They'd had something resembling dinner with Gerald and Ike a few hours earlier, up in the attic, which was where the Broflovskis normally took their meals. Kyle's mother had had the idea that it was good for Ike's social development to act as a host.
"And I don't want them harassing you," Stan said, dropping the blinds and heading toward the bed, where Kyle was stretched out in his too-small pajamas. "You're not a public figure. They can't make you talk."
"Calm down," Kyle said. Stan sat next to him, their backs to the headboard. Stan had been overprotective of Kyle ever since a grieving kid in elementary school kicked Kyle's ass for having a mother who'd started the war. Both of Kyle's front teeth were knocked out during the fight. He had to get a bridge, and still had regular nightmares that it fell out and all of the American dentists had been killed in the war, leaving him forever toothless. For a few years after it happened, Stan wouldn't even let Kyle walk to class alone.
"And what about Ike?" Stan said. "You can't have reporters crawling all over your house. Someone might sneak up to the attic."
"Stan," Kyle said. He stretched his arm across Stan's chest, palm up. "Dad's not going to let them in. He's not that out of it. We've had reporters out there a million times, and none of them has ever sneaked into our attic."
"What about these new guards—"
"They're all stationed outside," Kyle said. "Only Jimbo and Ned are allowed in the house. My dad made sure."
"How are you feeling?" Stan asked. Kyle shrugged.
"Numb," he said. Stan put his hand on Kyle's arm, rubbing his thumb over the little bones in Kyle's wrist. Kyle could feel Stan staring at him, waiting for him to share more feelings. When Stan's father died he'd jumped right into the angry stage of grieving, and for months he did nothing but scowl and snap at people. Kyle had been terrified that Stan would eventually turn that anger on him, because of his mother, or because his own father had survived, but Stan never did.
"Wendy had a point, don't you think?" Kyle said later, when the lights were off and they were lying together under the blankets, Stan's arm tight across Kyle's back. They hadn't been cuddly together since Stan's father died, and Kyle had missed being close to him more than he'd realized. Stan had a particular smell that felt like a warm, dark place, somewhere safe to hide.
"A point about what?" Stan asked.
"Kenny. Leaving his mother and sister when he enlists. Maybe he should stay."
"No, Kenny's like me," Stan said. "We need – we just need to go. We need to be there, where our dads were, and—"
"And what, die like them?"
Stan made a disapproving sound and tugged on one of Kyle's curls. "No," he said.
"Well, I'm coming with you," Kyle said, winding his arm around Stan's waist and moving a little closer. "So don't try to stop me."
"I wouldn't want to go without you," Stan said. Kyle looked up at him, surprised. "I know," Stan said. "It's terrible."
"Why's it terrible?"
"Because, I should want you to stay here, where it's safe! But, I don't know. The idea of going up north without you scares the shit out of me." He winced when his v-chip tazed him for the curse, and Kyle moaned sympathetically.
"You think I'm going to save your butt or something?" Kyle asked, grinning. He was flattered. Ever since the ass kicking incident he'd feared that Stan saw him as a kind of pathetic weakling who needed protecting.
"Maybe," Stan said. "But it's more like I don't want to let the war turn me into something I'm not. And if I have you there, I'll always be me. I won't get lost."
Kyle had believed that Stan no longer had the ability to surprise him, or to strike him speechless. He felt himself flushing, embarrassed by Stan's sincerity. Stan didn't look away, didn't even blink.
"What about Wendy?" Kyle asked.
"She – it's not the same," Stan said, and then he did look away. "I'd be too obsessed with protecting her if she came with me. Anyway, she's a pacifist."
"Yeah, I know," Kyle said. He'd always resented the idea that Stan felt a need to protect him, but it hurt to hear that it was Wendy who would wreck Stan's chances of being a good soldier, not him. "That's not what I meant. I meant, won't she hate you for doing it? Since she's so opposed to the war?"
"We've talked about it," Stan said. "She'd be disappointed, but she wouldn't hate me. She doesn't believe in, like. Forcing her ideals on others."
Bullshit, Kyle wanted to say, but he didn't, and not because he didn't want to be buzzed for the swear.
"I guess she'll be here in the morning," Kyle said when he saw Stan starting to drift, his eyelids heavy. "Wendy. With her casserole."
"She just wants to fix everyone," Stan said, and he yawned. "Everything, I mean. And all she can do is make these gestures. But she really wants to do something. She wants it all to matter, these little things she does."
"That's why you love her," Kyle said, feeling like someone was digging for clams between his ribs. Stan nodded and closed his eyes. "What if the war ended before you got a chance to enlist?" Kyle asked, not wanting to lose him to sleep yet. He knew he'd only be able to string a few restless minutes of sleep together himself. He could hear Ike pacing overhead. "Would you feel cheated?" Kyle asked, pinching Stan's side to get him to open his eyes. They kept hearing that the war was nearly over, that America and her allies were on the verge of victory, but they'd been hearing that since they were eight years old.
"I'd only feel cheated if Canada won," Stan said.
"Remember Terrence and Philip?"
"Of course I remember them, dude," Stan said. "But that's not –"
"We both cried when they executed them. I think – even Cartman did, didn't he?"
"Kyle," Stan said. "A lot's changed since then. It's not the same war."
Kyle knew what Stan meant, but he didn't think he was right. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep until Stan had drifted off. When he had, Kyle rolled onto his back and looked at the window, no stars visible, snow still falling. In the morning there would be a fresh blanket of white. It was much colder up north, where the fighting was. Some soldiers froze to death. Kyle rolled against Stan and wrapped his arms around him again. He didn't believe in the war, certainly not like his mother had and not even the way that Stan did, as if it was an evil that had finally become necessary. Still, he would go. Stan needed him, he'd said so, and Kyle, lacking a nobler cause, would keep him warm.
Protesters attended the memorial service for Sheila Broflovski. Kyle had seen plenty of art depicting his mother being killed in obscene fashions, and he'd never gotten used to it, but it didn't bother him as much as it once had. What got to him about these funeral protesters wasn't their anger at his mother but their unwillingness to back off even after they'd won. She's gone, Kyle wanted to shout as he filed past them after the service, flanked by his father and Stan. There's nothing left to hate. He'd heard, despite his father's efforts to shield him from the reports, that they'd even burned her bones.
He stayed out of school for a week and returning wasn't easy, even with Stan there to glower at anyone who stared. Wendy brought more casseroles to the house, and Gerald spent a lot of time crying into his hands and talking about relocating, though he knew as well as Kyle did that they wouldn't be able to get Ike across any of the state borders. Even if they had forged papers, the Broflovskis were too famous to escape, and a twelve-year-old boy traveling with them wouldn't be mistaken for anyone other than Ike, who'd been declared legally dead at three years old. One of Kyle's mother's detractors' favorite smears was the accusation that she'd killed her adopted Canadian son herself.
Kenny enlisted on his eighteenth birthday, and Kyle hired Karen McCormick as a housekeeper. He'd been given access to the household accounts, and there was no secret pile of gold, but the Broflovskis were doing far better than most families in South Park. Speaking tours like the one his mother had been doing when she was captured and killed were a big part of why.
"The only room you won't clean is the attic," Kyle said as he showed Karen around the house. She was quiet and mousy, and too young to be put to work, but Kenny wouldn't accept Kyle's money as charity, and Kyle didn't want Karen and Carol McCormick to end up at Liane Cartman's brothel any more than Kenny did. "My mother has secret government papers up there," Kyle said. They were standing at the foot of the stairs that led up to the attic, and Kyle's heart was pounding, though he'd warned Ike to be silent, and being silent was something that Ike was very good at. "So don't ever enter the attic under any circumstances. It's a matter of national security."
"Yes, sir," Karen said.
"Dude, please," Kyle said. "Don't call me that."
Kenny left for boot camp in Fort Collins just a few weeks later. He'd brought paperwork from the recruiter for Kyle and Stan, and Kyle poured over it at night, alone in bed, wanting nothing to do with the army. In his fantasies he wandered a majestic Canadian wood with Stan at his side, guns in their hands, and he stopped to peer at animals when Stan reached over to still him with a hand on his wrist. Kyle wasn't stupid enough to think it would be anything like that, but he kept returning to that mental image anyway.
April sped by, and the news reports were still full of speculation about the death of Sheila Broflovski by the first of May. Kyle tried to tune it out, but certain things leaked through, and he despaired mostly at the thought of how they must have laughed at her when she was scared, when she finally knew that she wouldn't be rescued. He imagined that she would have held on to a prideful hope that she would be saved for as long as she could, which made the idea of her finally letting that go so much worse. At night, Kyle left the house when he couldn't stand the sound of his father's weeping and his brother talking to himself, just a low murmur that seemed to ride with the dust motes in every room of the house, floating through the vents. Sneaking past Jimbo and Ned had always been easy enough, but with the new guards surrounding the house it was trickier, and sometimes he had to leap back through his window when one of them rounded a corner, but most of the time he was patient enough to wait for the right moment to escape. Sometimes he just walked for a long time, sticking to backyards because he was breaking curfew, but most nights he climbed through Stan's bedroom window. The first few times Kyle did this, Stan woke up and talked with him for a while, yawning as he tried to stay awake.
"Shh, it's okay," Kyle said on the third night, tossing his boots over the side of Stan's bed. "Just sleep. I don't need to talk. Just pretend I'm not here."
Stan moaned disagreeably and slid his arm around Kyle's shoulders. He was asleep again in just a few minutes, breathing into Kyle's hair. Kyle closed his eyes, bathed in the smell of Stan, and pretended that he was Stan, that this was his bed, his house, his own familiar scent. He wanted to be Stan mostly so he'd feel more enthusiastic about the army, but also to escape the grief of his mother and her legacy. He wanted to know for sure that he wasn't a coward, but he only knew that about Stan.
"Did you sleep?" Stan would ask in the morning when they lingered in bed. There were strict punishments for missing or being late for school, but by then everyone knew of their intention to follow Kenny into the army, and they'd been treated like death row prisoners by the teachers ever since, tip-toed around.
"I slept," Kyle said, yawning. "A little."
"There's whiskey under my bed if you want some," Stan said. Kyle laughed.
"Before school? Dude, that's pushing it a little, don't you think?"
"No, I mean at night," Stan said, sitting up. "You know." He scratched at the back of his neck. "Next time you come. To help you sleep."
"I should stop doing this to you," Kyle said.
"Coming through your window. Waking you up."
"No, it's not like waking up," Stan said. "It's like a dream, but then, in the morning, you're still here." He smiled, and Kyle thought of that Coleridge quote, though he knew that Stan wasn't thinking of it, or envisioning Kyle as a rare and beautiful flower that he'd plucked in his dreams.
"Just give me fair warning if you ever sneak Wendy in," Kyle said. "I don't want to walk in on that shit." He hadn't meant to curse and the shock took him off guard, which always made it hurt worse.
"We don't do that here," Stan said. He rubbed Kyle's shoulder to soothe the lingering pain from the v-chip before getting out of bed. Kyle watched him cross the room, stretching his arms over his head as he walked, and imagined Stan in the backseat of his car with Wendy, the windows fogged. Trying to picture it made him feel nervous for Stan, protective, and he wondered if Wendy gave orders or criticized his technique. Stan would be so wounded by that, secretly, pretending to laugh it off, and it made Kyle angry to think about it, though it probably wasn't anything like that when Stan and Wendy were alone together. Maybe Wendy was quiet and impressed when she was in Stan's arms, and maybe Stan handled her confidently, bolstered by how wet she'd get for him.
"Does Wendy know you're enlisting in three weeks?" Kyle asked. They were going to do it together, on Kyle's birthday, just two weeks after graduation.
"Yeah," Stan said, his back to the bed as he dressed.
"I don't know." He was mumbling; Kyle had suspected he wouldn't want to talk about it. "She's not happy, but. She's not surprised, either. She was surprised that you're coming with me, though."
"Why?" Kyle sat up, awake and on guard now. "Because I'm a weakling, or—"
"No," Stan said, turning. "Because, well. She said she thought you were smarter than that."
Kyle huffed, secretly a little flattered. Stan tossed a shirt at him.
"You can wear that," he said. "If you don't want to go home to change."
"Thanks." Kyle took off the shirt he'd worn to bed and pulled Stan's on. It was an ugly red and black flannel that hung off of Kyle's shoulders and clashed with his hair. It smelled a little bit like Stan's sheets. "Is your mom back yet?" Kyle asked.
"No, she's in Denver until Friday." Sharon had joined the army as a nurse the year before, around the time Stan informed her of his plan to serve. The only way she could bear the idea was to go out and immediately start patching up other people's wounded sons.
"Does she know you're enlisting in two weeks?"
"Yeah," Stan said. He sat beside Kyle on the bed. "We haven't been talking that much."
"Sorry, dude," Kyle said, touching Stan's back. Stan shrugged.
"Do you think I'm being selfish?" he asked. "For wanting to go?"
"No," Kyle said. "You wouldn't feel right staying. I get it." In his case, he wouldn't feel right because Stan would be gone, but for Stan it was about doing his part.
"What about your dad and Ike?" Stan asked.
"What about them?" Kyle asked, dreading this. He knew Stan had been wanting to ask. Stan rolled his eyes.
"What do they think about you joining up? Kyle – you've told them, right?"
"Um." Kyle scratched at the back of his head. Stan moaned and dropped down onto his back on the bed, looking up at Kyle.
"Two weeks, dude," Stan said. "Don't wait until the night before."
"I'm not even sure they'll be alright without me," Kyle said, and he wanted to take that back, because Stan needed him more, or maybe Kyle just wanted to be needed by Stan more. "But, no," Kyle said. "Dad will rise to the occasion. Or Ike will."
"Yeah," Stan said, but he didn't look very certain either. "C'mon, we're already late."
They walked in during a history lesson and took their usual seats near the front. Their teacher went on with the lesson without commenting on their presence. Kyle tried to pay attention, but he couldn't. History was his least favorite subject. His mother was mentioned in their text books, and in the books she was still alive.
"You g-wads must be enjoying being treated like celebrities," Cartman said at lunch. They were eating outside, under the big oak tree in the courtyard. Kyle was missing Kenny, though he was only a few hours away, up in Fort Collins doing drills and cleaning his bunk.
"Nobody's treating us like celebrities," Stan said. "We graduate in a week, anyway. Everybody will end up getting drafted eventually. Me and Kyle don't think we're special for signing up."
"Like heck you don't," Cartman said.
"You don't know shit about us," Kyle said, so forcefully that his v-chip zapped him for a full two seconds. Stan was staring at him when he wrenched his eyes open again.
"Hey, fellas!" That was Butters, trotting over toward them, Bebe at his side. "Can we sit with you for a minute?"
"Sure," Kyle said, moving closer to Stan to make room. Stan was staring at something across the courtyard, and Kyle could guess what it was before looking. Wendy was manning the Red Cross volunteer table with Gregory, as she did every Wednesday during lunch. Gregory was an official representative, and Wendy was waiting until she was eighteen to join. They handed out pamphlets to interested students, but most people knew by now if they were interested or not, so Wendy spent much of her Wednesday lunch time chatting and laughing with Gregory, who still seemed to be holding a candle for her. Wendy insisted that he was gay when Stan got jealous, but Kyle didn't think so, and he would know.
"We heard you guys are going to sign up in a few weeks," Bebe said as she settled down beside Butters.
"Yep," Stan said. "A week after graduation. We have to wait until Kyle's birthday."
"Can we come with you?" Butters asked, blushing. "We think it would be real neat if we all got put into the same battalion."
"Sure," Kyle said, though he didn't like the idea of fighting alongside Butters, who was enthusiastic but clumsy. "I didn't know you guys were planning on enlisting."
"Oh, sure!" Butters said. "My dad says it will make a man out of me, and that's something I really want to be, you know?"
"Yeah, good luck with that," Cartman said. He laughed and brushed crumbs from his chest. "I bet it makes a man out of Bebe before you."
"Shut up, Eric," Bebe said. She looked at Kyle and quirked her mouth. "I don't care about the war," she said. "I just want to find Clyde."
"You, personally, are going to find Clyde?" Cartman said, snorting. "Or the whole lost 56th? Hey, you should go see Craig and ask him where he last saw them. Though I guess he was too busy getting his eye blown out to pay real close attention to his surroundings."
"Why are you being like this?" Stan asked, reaching over to punch Cartman's shoulder.
"Because he's always been like this?" Kyle said. "Hello?"
"I just think it's pretty sick," Cartman said. "All of you morons lining up to get your eyes blown out, too, or worse. They don't even think the rest of the 56th is alive."
"I know that," Bebe said, looking into her lap. "But I think they are."
"How come?" Kyle asked.
"Because I would know if Clyde was dead," Bebe said. She gave Kyle a sharp stare that made him want to duck.
"I don't think he's dead, either," Butters said, patting Bebe's shoulder. "Craig told the army that the rest of the battalion was alive when he got separated from 'em during that battle."
"That crazy effer probably offed them all himself before shooting himself in the eye," Cartman muttered.
"Shut your fucking mouth," Bebe said, and she barely blinked when her v-chip went off, her eyes narrowed at Cartman. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"He never does," Kyle said. "Just ignore him. But, yeah. You guys are welcome to come with us when we sign up. That'd be good."
"We could have a party later that night," Stan said, and Kyle laughed. "What?" Stan said, elbowing him.
"Nothing," Kyle said, knowing that how cheerful and naive Stan had been about enlisting wouldn't be funny for much longer.
Graduation was somber and attended by the press, reporters taking long-range pictures of Kyle with zoom lenses. The school made special arrangements so that he wouldn't be hounded by them as he left, and he went back to Stan's house with his father to avoid the news vans that had shown up at his house. It was an abnormally hot day for late May, and Kyle fell asleep on the Marsh family living room couch while his father made chitchat with Sharon and Shelly, who had come home from Denver for the occasion. She had some sort of administrative position with the army and apparently made good money, all of which Stan viewed bitterly as a kind of consolation prize for the death of his father.
"I don't want them to go," Kyle heard Sharon saying as he woke. Stan was shaking his arm, giving him a wide-eyed look. Apparently he'd forgotten to instruct his mother not to mention anything about their plans to enlist.
"Them?" Gerald said.
"The boys," Sharon said.
"Where are they going?" Gerald asked, looking at Kyle like he already knew.
The rest of the afternoon was tearful and exhausting, but Kyle wouldn't budge. He was going with Stan, even if it broke his father's heart and made his brother hate him.
"There's nothing for me here!" Kyle shouted when they were back at the house, Ike watching them fight from the top of the stairs, his fingers in his mouth. "I love you guys, and I don't want to leave you alone, but I can't stay here while all my friends go off to fight."
"This isn't about leaving me and Ike alone!" Gerald said. "This is about your life, Kyle. Now that your mother's gone, we can say it. It's a losing battle. A death wish. God rest her soul – what your mother fought for has been compromised."
"I'm sorry you believe that," Kyle said, wishing he didn't have to lie. It would be easier this way, if his father thought he had ideals and not just a slobbering, self-destroying need to go where Stan went. "I still think there's plenty worth fighting for," Kyle said, and his eyes watered when he said so, because he was thinking of Stan and the hope he clung to. "Mom would understand," Kyle said, and he wanted to take that back when his father turned away.
"You're so like her," Gerald said, his voice croaky and small.
"Who am I like?" Ike asked loudly, from the top of the stairs. Gerald and Kyle turned, but not fast enough to see him dart off. He was gone, and Kyle shivered when he heard the attic door slam, thinking of ghosts. Ike called himself a ghost sometimes, and made references to his death, which was recorded as a drowning in Crystal Lake, the body never recovered.
Kyle gave Ike an hour to pout before knocking on the attic door. There was no answer, but Kyle opened it anyway. He found Ike playing the old Gamesphere that he was obsessed with, a war game that Kyle had once loved.
"Power's back on?" Kyle said. Ike shook his head, his eyes on the screen.
"I rigged it to a generator," he said.
"Where'd you get a generator?"
Ike shrugged, and Kyle sat down beside him, watching explosions on the screen. It was a first person shooter set during World War II, and the graphics still looked pretty good to Kyle. He watched Ike play for a while, wondering if this was what war looked like, every blink interrupted by the flash of gunfire.
"You can't go wandering around at night," Kyle said. "If you need things – generators, parts, whatever – ask Dad. He'll get them for you."
"You go wandering around at night," Ike said. Kyle was surprised that he'd noticed, though he supposed he shouldn't be. Ike was mostly nocturnal.
"That's different," Kyle said. "I'm not legally dead."
"Sure you are. You're signing up for the army, aren't you?"
"Where do you go?" Ike asked, putting the controller down. "At night? Have you got a girlfriend?"
"No," Kyle said. His face got red when Ike sat there in silence, studying him.
"To Stan's," Ike deduced, and he turned back to the game. "Are you going to throw yourself on a land mine for him? Is he going to make Wendy name their baby after you?"
"Do you really think I'm going to die?" Kyle asked. Ike sighed and paused the game. He let the controller tumble out of his hands like it had stopped working.
"I wish I could go with you," he said, and if that was an answer to Kyle's question, Kyle didn't know if it was a yes or a no.
"Wouldn't you hate to kill Canadians?" Kyle asked.
"Won't you?" Ike asked, looking up from the discarded controller, at Kyle.
"Yes," Kyle said. "You – don't look at me like that. You just said it yourself. You know why I'm going."
"So why'd you tell Dad that horse shit about believing in the war?"
Ike had never had a v-chip installed, and he wielded his curses more skillfully than anyone Kyle knew. He really meant to make them hurt, but he didn't have to weigh his own pain against how badly he wanted to wound someone else. It gave his curses an exactness that felt damning, at least to Kyle.
"It's not entirely horse shit," Kyle said, and when he got shocked he was glad, because it felt like punishment for believing that he really was going for a reason, and for lulling himself to sleep at night with fantasies about saving Stan. In the fantasies, they both survived.
"How could something only partially be horse shit?" Ike asked. He seemed distressed and intrigued by the idea, as if he was envisioning a teapot made only partially out of shit.
"Dad doesn't need to know why I'm going," Kyle said. "And I did tell him, sort of. I'm not going to sit here doing nothing while my friends leave town."
"What's it like to have friends?" Ike asked, just trying to make him feel bad now.
"Stan is your friend," Kyle said. Other than Jimbo and Ned, Stan was the only one the family trusted with the knowledge of Ike's continued existence. Even Sharon didn't know.
"Stan looks at me like I'm your imaginary friend," Ike said. "Sometimes I think he's right."
"You're real," Kyle said, reaching over to pinch him. Ike allowed it, unflinching.
"You'll never know if I felt that or not," Ike said.
"Your skin is turning pink, though."
"That could still be in your head."
They did this sometimes, as a kind of intellectual exercise, Kyle attempting to convince Ike that he wasn't just a figment of the Broflovski family imagination.
"Stan is proof," Kyle said. "Because he can see you. He talks to you."
"Stan would play along if you talked to the wall," Ike said, and Kyle blushed, thinking that was probably true.
Stan spent the night at the Broflovski house for Kyle's eighteenth birthday. Kyle had insisted that he didn't want a party or gifts, and Wendy still gave him both. He was glad when the awkward get together at her house was over and he could go to his room with Stan, carting his gifts. Stan's was a pocket knife with a jade handle, dark green, roughly the color of Kyle's eyes.
"What'd you have to trade for this?" Kyle asked when they were in his bed together, Stan watching Kyle play with the knife. It was definitely from the black market.
"Nothing big," Stan said.
"Some books," Stan said, and Kyle felt badly, because books were worth a lot. He put the blade of the knife against his palm to see if it was sharp. "Don't," Stan said, twitching when Kyle pressed it in enough to produce a drop of blood.
"I'm not," Kyle said. "Just testing." He'd considered asking Stan to do some kind of childish blood brothers thing, but reconsidered, because he didn't want to see even a drop of Stan's blood spilled. He cleaned the knife on his jeans and put it in his pocket. "Thanks," he said, turning toward Stan, who still looked worried.
"Tomorrow," Stan said. It was a Sunday, and they would go to the recruiter's office first thing in the morning with Bebe and Butters.
"I'm not scared," Kyle said, and it was true, but it didn't make him feel certain that he wasn't a coward.
"I wasn't until now," Stan said.
"Why are you scared now?"
"Because," Stan said, and he looked at the blood on Kyle's hand. It was just a little; Kyle licked it up so Stan wouldn't have to see it. Stan's face was red when their eyes met again.
"I'm not going to die gloriously," Kyle said. "Look at me. I'm not that kind of guy."
"You know what's sick?" Stan asked, his voice very low. Kyle shook his head.
"The fact that I'm glad you're coming with me – that I want it? It means – I think it means that I wouldn't want to die without you. I'd want you to come with me."
"I will," Kyle said.
"But I don't really want that!" Stan said, grabbing Kyle's shoulder as if to stop him from doing something that would seal his promise. "Kyle, seriously. Don't ever let me be that selfish."
Kyle didn't say anything, too afraid that every explanation he tried to offer would boil down to the truth: Stan was what he was living for, anyway.
"I'd want to go with you, but not for you," Kyle finally said. Stan was staring at him, breathing a little harder, getting himself worked up. "It'd be, like, so lame if you had some awesome adventure without me. That's why I'd want to go."
"You don't know that death is an awesome adventure," Stan said.
"Well, yeah," Kyle said. "But it seems like something that could be, if we did it together. Like the war."
"They're not the same thing," Stan said. "Death and the war."
"Oh, I know. I'm holding out more hope for death, in terms of things that might be awesome adventures. Dude." He looked over at Stan's chest, watching it rise and fall with his quickened breath. "Are you sure you want to do this? It's okay if you changed your—"
"No, I'm sure." Stan rolled onto his side, away from Kyle. "Let's just go to sleep. So the morning will come faster."
Kyle stayed awake, listening to Stan's breathing calm and slow as he drifted off. When Kyle slept, he dreamed of battlefields, and in his dreams he opened his lips and felt blood pour from his mouth, hot and sticky, tasting of all the secret things that he'd managed until then to keep inside. He woke up afraid and jerked toward the window before he remembered that he didn't have to walk to Stan's house. Stan was still asleep beside him, lying on his stomach, his face turned toward Kyle on the pillow. Kyle scooted up and curved his body around Stan's until he could feel the heat of him, just an eyelash away from touching him.
"Don't go," Kyle whispered, but it didn't work. In the morning, they went to the recruiting office as planned and filled out the forms, sitting in a drab little back room with Bebe and Butters. The swish of their individual pencils made Kyle think of school.
They were made to wait for a long time after the major had collected their forms, to the point that Kyle began to worry that something was wrong. Butters was yawning but cheerful, chattering about a letter he'd gotten from Kenny, who said Fort Collins wasn't so bad but that most people in his training squad were idiots. Bebe was silent, her arms crossed high over her chest. She seemed ready for a fight, but when the major returned, it was Kyle he called on.
"Come in to my office for a minute, Mr. Broflovski," he said, holding the door open. Kyle looked at Stan, who shook his head a little. He didn't seem worried, just quietly annoyed. Kyle stood and walked into the office, feeling as if he was about to be accused of stealing from the market or cheating on a test. "Have a seat," the major said, and he shut the door.
"Is something wrong, sir?" Kyle asked when the major sat across from him, behind an ugly metal desk. Having to say 'sir' tweaked at Kyle; it would be hard to get used to calling people that. The major knitted his hands together and rested his elbows on his desk.
"Mr. Broflovski," he said, openly incredulous, "We can't have you in the Army."
"I'm – why not?"
"The official reason I'll give is that you've got Type 1 diabetes, and believe me, that's enough. Your medication needs refrigeration. There's no refrigeration where your friends are going, son. But even if I was able to station you someplace with a reliable power supply, did you really think you would be anonymous as a soldier?"
"What – what do you mean?" Kyle asked. His heart was beating fast, and he was waiting to be told that this was only a prank, something orchestrated by Cartman to momentarily crush him. "Because of my mother?" Kyle said, the angry heat on his face sinking down into his chest and tightening around his lungs.
The major nodded. "There are people in the Army who don't want to be there," he said. "It's ugly to say it, but that's the draft for you. There are some real angry men and women fighting for us, and they didn't like your mother. She always said she was fighting this war for her kids. You understand me, son? Some of those soldiers see you as the reason they're in hell."
"But I was against the war," Kyle said. "When, when I was little, I never wanted any of this—"
"Sure," the major said, a little sharply. "But you might not get a chance to explain that before someone turns friendly fire on you in the heat of battle. I just can't do it, Kyle. You're too famous, and there's too much animosity toward your family on both sides. You'd be a huge liability." He let that sink in, watching Kyle's lips move soundlessly. "I'm sorry, son."
"Please," Kyle said when he could speak again. "There's got to be some way—"
"Why are you so desperate to fight, anyway?" the major asked, frowning and sitting back a little. "Honestly, I never thought I'd need to have this conversation."
"I can't stay here," Kyle said. All the practiced reasoning he'd given his father escaped him, and he could only think of Stan's name. "Please, there's – everyone else is leaving, I can't just stay here and do nothing."
"Try the Red Cross," the major said. "I think that'd be more appropriate." He stood, finished with the discussion. Kyle couldn't make his legs work. The major cleared his throat and Kyle got to his feet shakily, moving on auto pilot as he walked toward the door.
Reentering the waiting room, Kyle felt like a ghost, someone who was already in another world. Stan sprang out of his chair when he saw Kyle's face.
"Congratulations," the major said, walking around Kyle. He put his hand out and Stan shook it, looking confused. "And to you," the major said when he shook Bebe's hand. "And you," he said, moving on to Butters. "Welcome to the U.S. Army."