A/N: The final installment! Thank you again to all who have read and to those who have left feedback. Please let me know what you think at the end here: good, bad, and inbetween. It's the kind of story I'd love to discuss in the aftermath, and I'm always grateful to hear about what worked and what didn't. I have a lot of post-notes on this story, if anyone is interested!
Stan spends most of his twenty-sixth birthday at work, but he doesn't mind. He likes his job, especially during the season when he gets to be outside instead of toiling in the greenhouses, and the weather is beautiful. He eats his lunch in the field that adjoins their property, propping his aching back against a tree. None of the other field hands try to join him, which makes him feel guilty but glad. He's developed a reputation as a loner, the quiet guy, and he makes them nervous, anyway, because Token treats him like he co-owns the farm. Stan didn't invest anything in it but sweat, and he appreciates the respect but is also glad that he doesn't have to deal with the financial side of the business. Despite the aching back, he prefers to do physical labor.
The days have shortened along with the cooling temperature, and he typically stays at work until sundown, but he leaves around four o'clock on account of his birthday. He's not sure what to expect at the house in terms of a celebration, but it's a feeling he's grown accustomed to. He's never really sure what to expect at the house.
The walk home is peaceful, reliably one of the best parts of his day, at least until the virgin winter snows turn into muddy frozen embankments. He drives the old Volvo sometimes when the weather is bad, but in general he prefers the walk. It's an opportunity to clear his head and shift out of work mode. At home, he's not the quiet guy, and he's never alone.
At the house, he's surprised to see Kenny's truck parked on the street, and he wonders if there is some sort of party developing, though he supposes his mom would have arrived before Kenny. He walks in to the smell of fried donuts, his favorite, which means Kyle must have at least remembered that today is some sort of special occasion. He braces himself before walking into the kitchen, hoping that he's not going to have to endure a 'homecoming' tonight. He's sportingly returned from the war about three hundred times in the past six years, and he'd rather not go through the whole thing again on his birthday, especially since it's been a couple of months since the last time Kyle latched on to that particular delusion.
"Daddy's home!" Patrick says, vaulting out of his chair at the kitchen table. He runs to Stan, who kneels down to scoop him up and gives Kenny a wary glance to gauge Kyle's mood. Kenny gives him a thumbs up. Kyle is at the stove, pulling a greasy donut from the pan with tongs. He turns to smile at Stan.
"Happy birthday," Kyle says, and Stan hurries over to give him a kiss, carrying Patrick along with him. Stan searches Kyle's face, wondering if this is a rare lucid day, but the leaden awareness that hardens in Kyle's eyes when he remembers everything isn't there.
"Poppy's making donuts for you," Patrick explains when Stan sets him down. "Instead of a cake."
"I like donuts better," Stan says, and he kisses Kyle's cheek again. He smells good, like flour and cinnamon. "Thanks, dude," Stan says softly, wishing he could communicate, in a way that Kyle would fully understand, how much it means to be congratulated for his birthday and not on returning home from a war that ended seven years ago.
"Well, I feel terrible," Kyle says, and he drops the next donut into the oil. "I should have done a real party for you, but it's just been the longest week, you know, that man has been under my feet every five minutes."
"That man?" Stan says, glancing at Kenny. He's drinking a beer, making himself comfortable in their house. He likes being around Patrick.
"Ike," Kenny explains.
"I just don't know what they think I'm going to do," Kyle says. "I mean, I don't even know where my mother is, she doesn't exactly include me in whatever she's planning, and if they think installing some Canadian in my house is a matter of national security, well, it's just - it's exhausting, having him here, and he's drunk half the time. I don't even want to know what they pay him to spy on me. I could build a nuclear weapon in the backyard and I doubt he'd notice."
"Right," Stan says, crestfallen. He touches Kyle's back on the way to the fridge for a beer.
"And if they think it's funny or something that they sent someone with the same name as my dead brother - that's just unbelievable, I mean, what's the point? Sorry." He sighs and turns from the stove. "It's your birthday, let's not talk about anything annoying."
"Where is he, though?" Stan asks, concerned about Kyle's mention of Ike's drinking. Ike has been going through a sober stretch recently, and even picked up a few shifts at the farm over the summer, until he decided that harvesting weed 'wasn't for him.' Stan estimated that Ike had stolen about two hundred bucks worth of product before he quit, but he didn't mention it to Token.
"He's upstairs, I guess," Kyle says, waving his hand in that direction. "If he thinks I'm feeding him again tonight he's got another thing coming. I never agreed to provide my overseer with home cooked meals."
"Let's go check on him," Stan says, picking Patrick up again.
"If you must," Kyle says. "Remind him not to come down here until our company leaves. I've invited a few people over, and it's so embarrassing, having him lurking around."
Stan chooses not to respond to that, mostly because he doesn't know how. Ike is generally the least willing to play along with Kyle's confusion, which the doctors have encouraged them all to do. Stan knows it's hard for Ike to not only watch Kyle take on the responsibility of raising Patrick but to insist that Patrick is the baby that Kyle somehow co-fathered with Stan, and that Ike is just some stranger the Canadian government has assigned to watch over the potentially dangerous son of Sheila Broflovski. Kyle has several different subsets of reality that he shifts between - in some Sheila is dead, and in others she only faked her death or is in hiding, but in all of them he firmly believes that Ike drowned under his watch at three years old. Kyle feels profound guilt about it, and Stan wishes he could explain that he doesn't need to, that Ike is alive if not well, but refuting Kyle's interpretations of the world around him has only ever led to long periods of confused silence that terrify Stan and upset Patrick.
"Can we come in?" Stan asks, already opening the door to what had once been his father's office. There is still a faint scent that Stan associates with Randy in the room, but it's mostly been overtaken by the stench of pot. Ike is in bed, as usual, but he's awake, reading something off the screen of the laptop that he acquired under mysterious circumstances. He's been arrested twice for theft, and the second time had been for stealing a car. If the mayor wasn't a personal friend, Ike would probably still be in jail. "Look who's here," Stan says, since Ike hasn't even looked up. He sets Patrick down and flips on the overhead light switch, annoyed when nothing happens and he sees that Ike has removed the bulb. "Go say hi to your dad," Stan says to Patrick, who is lingering near Stan's legs.
"Hey, buddy," Ike says, still clacking away on the laptop's keys. He sounds sober, at least. "I'm almost done. C'mere."
"What are you working on?" Stan asks as Patrick shyly approaches the bed.
"Nothing." Ike snaps the lid of the laptop shut and pushes it away. He sits up and leans down to give Patrick a hug. Patrick hugs him back with all the enthusiasm as he can muster, which isn't much. Though he pretends to understand, Stan is pretty sure Patrick thinks they're lying to him when they tell him, gently and never in earshot of Kyle, that Ike is his biological father. Patrick is so attached to Kyle that he cried through his first week of kindergarten, wanting to go home to his Poppy. Stan still thinks of the flower when he hears Patrick apply that name to Kyle, whose hair is almost the same shade of the poppies that grow in the foothills.
"Sounds like Kyle was giving you a hard time this morning," Stan says, meaning this as a kind of apology. Ike shrugs and allows Patrick to squirm free.
"Same old shit," Ike says, and Stan winces a little, though he agrees with Ike, fundamentally, that there's no point in sheltering Patrick from curse words. "Tells me to get out of his kitchen, asks me how much longer I'm going to be here spying on him."
"Alright, well. I'll make sure somebody brings you something to eat. I guess he's invited some people over for my birthday."
"It's your birthday?"
"Oh. Well, happy birthday. Have fun celebrating while I'm up here in my Kyle-approved cage."
"Dude, c'mon. You know he's not enjoying this."
"Sure seems like he is, sometimes."
"He's not," Stan says. "Trust me."
Kyle was diagnosed with v-chip poisoning around the time that the first reports about the condition were being published in medical journals. By the end of the year, it was estimated that twenty percent of the kids who'd been given first generation v-chip implants would develop the condition, and doctors scrambled to figure out a safe way to remove the chips from those who weren't yet affected. By the time Stan had his removed, Kyle was having only a few lucid days a month, Craig had developed similar problems with memory loss and confusion, his chip having done its damage before he had it removed, and Clyde Donovan was dead from a v-chip related stroke. Clyde hadn't even shown any symptoms of the poisoning beforehand. Kyle's doctors have assured Stan that it's very unlikely at this point that Kyle will have a stroke or get worse, and charitable foundations have been established to try to find a cure for people like Kyle who are still living with the condition. In the meantime, all they know is that with the currently practiced methods of removal, Kyle would probably die if they took the chip out, and would almost definitely be catatonic without it. It's become too central to his brain function, in ways that Sheila Broflovski and the people who invented the chip never anticipated.
"Poppy's making donuts," Patrick says to Ike, and he wanders back over to Stan. "We'll bring you some, Daddy."
"Yep," Stan says. Though he knows it's absurd, he's always a little hurt when Patrick calls Ike his 'Daddy.' Patrick uses the same word for Stan, and generally has a very flexible conception of what a family is and where he came from. Kyle occasionally puzzles over it himself, but it doesn't seem to trouble him much that he can't remember the particular mechanics of how his genetic material and Stan's combined to create Patrick. He just knows that it did. Even when he thinks that Stan has just come home from the war, he believes in some vague fashion that they made Patrick together when they were teenagers.
Downstairs, Stan recaptures his beer and takes Patrick into the backyard to play catch. Patrick is on the small side, wiry like Ike and petite like Karen, but he's got good hand eye coordination for his age, and Stan is already envisioning him as a football player someday. He hasn't brought this up to Kyle, who would almost certainly hate the thought of his baby playing such a dangerous sport.
Kenny follows them out and watches in silence, sitting on a lawn chair beside Stan. It smells nice outside, like the peak of autumn tinged with the candy-like scent of Kyle's donuts. Stan thinks of trick or treating with Patrick, wondering if Kyle has started on his costume yet. Last year Patrick had wanted to be 'a pretzel,' and Kyle called his bluff, somehow making this happen out of lots of brown felt and cotton stuffing. Kyle had been lucid for almost the entire time he worked on the costume, a rare four day stretch, and Stan has tried to encourage him to take on similar tasks, hoping that it could be a trend, but he never seems to get excited about anything that isn't directly related to Patrick, aside from sex. Kyle wants it nightly, which Stan has come to view as a great blessing. It's kept them close, through all the shifting planes of Kyle's universe. Whatever Kyle is confused about, he's always sure that he wants Stan. It means something, Stan thinks. It means everything, sometimes.
"Is Bebe coming tonight?" Stan asks Kenny when Patrick has tired of the football and plopped into his sandbox to drive some toy trucks around.
"Yep," Kenny says, and he drinks from his beer. Stan waits to hear more, but Kenny never has much to say about Bebe, and she's the same way about him, as if it would be disrespectful to Clyde's memory if they openly acknowledged that they've been sleeping together for the past two years. "I think he invited Christophe and Greg, too," Kenny says.
"Good," Stan says, and he presses his shoulders back, trying to work out a kink in his back. Kyle will rub it for him later, and it's Stan's birthday, so he can request an extra long session. "How's, uh. Work?" Stan asks. He never knows what to say to Kenny, who has always been perfectly comfortable with silence.
"It's okay," Kenny says. He manages the small grocery store that Craig founded years ago.
"Does Craig come by, or - does he pretty much stay out of it?"
"He's around sometimes. He's not as bad as Kyle-" Kenny gives Stan a nervous glance, as if Stan doesn't know what he means. "He gets mixed up over smaller stuff, like. Like what day it is, and what a carrot is called."
"I guess he and Tweek aren't coming tonight?"
"I don't know, you'd have to ask Kyle."
Stan heads inside to do so, asking Kenny to watch Patrick. He's Patrick's most frequent babysitter, but it's rare that they need one, since Kyle isn't fond of leaving Patrick's side. It took three years for Stan to convince Kyle to transition Patrick into sleeping in his own bed upstairs, in Stan's childhood bedroom. Kyle's behavioral therapist had a theory that Patrick is a kind of anchor to reality for Kyle, since he appeared on the scene around the time Kyle's thought processes became jumbled. Patrick hadn't been able to talk at the time, and hadn't needed to understand what Kyle was saying. Even now, Patrick seems content to let Kyle's ramblings gloss over him. Stan doesn't want to think about what it will be like when Patrick is a teenager, how angry he might become, though it's in his nature to be sweet and accepting.
"Can I help?" Stan asks when he finds Kyle at the sink, washing the dishes. There's a pile of fresh donuts on a plate near the stove, but Stan resists the temptation to grab one, sliding his arms around Kyle's waist instead.
"I'm almost done," Kyle says. "And it's your birthday!" He tilts his neck to give Stan better access, and Stan takes the hint, kissing him there and sucking gently at his skin. Kyle sighs and lets his head fall back onto Stan's shoulder. "You should shower before the party," he says.
"Okay," Stan says. "You, too. Kenny can watch Patrick."
"Do I smell like frying grease?"
"A little," Stan says, aroused by this, and he gives Kyle's neck a wide lick. He tastes good, like sugar-laced sweat. Kyle laughs and turns off the water.
"Did you tell that man not to come down during the party?" he asks, shattering Stan's attempt to pretend for a moment that things are normal.
"I did," Stan says. "Yeah."
"I think Patrick is afraid of him."
"Maybe, but. He won't hurt Patrick. C'mon, dude, let's take a shower."
The shower used to be their go-to place for sex when Patrick was sleeping in their bed at night, and Stan still gets an erection from the creaky sound of the bathtub faucet turning on. He turns on the shower head and strips his shirt off, watching Kyle do the same. Kyle is softer than he was as a teenager, his running days behind him. Stan likes it, and walks forward to pinch Kyle's love handles while he unfastens his pants.
"Don't," Kyle says, looking down at his stomach. "Yuck. And you're so - firm."
"It's just from work," Stan says. He also does one hundred crunches every morning, a habit he developed when he was disabled, when he used to do them in bed. He's a little vain about his body, but it's still a miracle to him, just being able to move. He wakes up some mornings to a piercing fear that his luck will have run out, until he moves his legs and shifts his hips against Kyle, feeling everything still in place.
"What if we had another baby?" Kyle says when they're under the water together. This again annihilates Stan's sense of relaxed comfort, and he feels a twinge in his back when he goes tense. Kyle has said this before, and it bothers Stan a lot more than most of his other delusions. Patrick is getting older, and Stan worries that some part of Kyle knows that Patrick will have his own life soon, and more questions about what the hell Kyle is talking about.
"Um," Stan says. "Patrick likes being an only child, so."
"Does he? I think he's too sheltered. That's my fault, I know. I guess maybe you're right, though, it's too late now. If we had done it when he was younger, maybe- I just feel like, and I guess this is stupid, but sometimes I feel like my mother would come home if she found out she had a granddaughter."
"You want her here?" Stan asks, glancing up into Kyle's eyes. Kyle's soapy hands are moving on him, and Stan is hard, but he won't be for long if this conversation continues. It's too jarring.
"I don't know," Kyle says, and he moans. "I know she's bossy and that she'd drive me crazy. But I do miss her," he says more quietly.
Half the time, Stan slips into feeling as if it's true that Sheila is just elsewhere, or that she faked her own death the way she once faked Ike's. He prefers it when Kyle remembers that she's dead, not just because it's the truth but because that way Kyle doesn't have to feel so abandoned, as if she's off doing important political things and ignoring him to this day.
"I called your mom about coming over tonight," Kyle says, and Stan is glad for the change in subject. "She's got a shift. I'm sorry, I should have planned all of this sooner. You know how bad my memory is."
"Yes," Stan says, uncomfortable with the irony of that statement. He's never sure what Kyle means by that. He takes Kyle's face in his hands and kisses him deeply, wanting to disappear into sex for a while. They still know each other completely when it comes to how to make the other one feel good, well-tended to and loved. "Can I?" Stan asks, sliding his hand between Kyle's ass cheeks. Kyle tips his head back and grins.
"Of course," he says. "I was hoping you would."
Kyle has learned to be quiet during sex, for Patrick's sake. Stan appreciates this, though he also misses Kyle's bone shaking moans, and the way he used to shout encouragement when Stan was driving into him hard and fast. Now it's Stan who is more vocal during sex, usually because he gets emotional, murmuring reassurances into Kyle's ear.
"Do you know how much I love you?" he asks when he's inside Kyle. It's Stan's usual refrain; he can't seem to not say it. Kyle is pressed against the wall of the shower, legs spread, and Stan is behind him, fucking him slow, making it last.
"Mhmmm," Kyle says in answer, pushing his hips back.
"Tell me, Kyle, do you?" Stan really needs to hear it. This has to always be the one thing Kyle will never forget.
"I know," Kyle says. "I can feel it. Oh, Stan. You love me so much that you fuck me standing up. Even with your poor back."
"You can rub it for me later," Stan says, his heart rate spiking a bit from Kyle's use of the f-word. Kyle's doctors say that the v-chip's functionality as a censor has died off, but Stan still freezes whenever Kyle curses, thinking about the fact that Clyde was trying to open a jar of pickles when he died. He'd said 'goddammit' when the lid wouldn't budge, and the chip gave him a stroke instead of a shock. Though Stan had his chip removed almost five years ago, he never curses anymore. He's disgusted when he considers that this means the chip worked the way his parents wanted it to, but the bad words just don't feel liberating or grown-up like they did back then.
Stan is tired after showering and sex, but he knows that if he took a nap he'd be out for hours, and he'd rather just turn in early after the party. Patrick is a sandy mess, and Stan sits on the floor by the tub while he has his bath, Kyle finishing up the party prep and keeping Kenny company downstairs, though Kenny would probably be fine just lying on the couch and waiting for them to reappear.
"How old are you, Daddy?" Patrick asks, looking up from his toy boats.
"Twenty-six," Stan says. He's not sure why it's painful to admit this. Maybe because he assumed Kyle would be cured by now. It came so quickly for Stan, though at the time it had felt like an eternity. Just seven months and he was free of his wheelchair.
"I'm six," Patrick says.
"Not yet. In December."
"Well. That's soon. Right?"
"Right. Two months away."
Patrick drives the boats again for a while, his brow creasing in a way that makes Stan wait to hear what more he has to say. He looks most like Ike when he frowns. Kyle is convinced that Patrick looks like Stan, which isn't true, but they don't look particularly dissimilar either.
"Do we have to go to the graveyard this year?" Patrick asks.
"Your dad will probably want to." Stan shifts when his back tenses. He never knows what to say about Karen, except the obvious: she was Patrick's 'real' mother, and she's gone. "You don't like going there? I know it's sad. My dad is buried there, and I don't visit too often myself."
"Your dad - the guy with the mustache?" He's seen pictures. Stan nods. "Was he nice?"
"Um, yeah, he was pretty nice."
"He died in the war?"
Patrick is quiet again for a moment, Stan's heart feels heavy, his back aching. It always takes him off guard, how badly it hurts to remember Randy. He died just as Stan's adolescence was beginning, and they'd been clashing more often than not over little things. When Randy left for his third tour, Stan somehow hadn't considered the possibility that he might not come back that time.
"Daddy?" Patrick says.
"Are you my dad?"
"Yeah, of course," Stan says, moving closer to the tub. "In an important way, because I love you so much, and I - we'll always be here to take care of you, me and Poppy. We've talked about this, remember? Ike and your mom, Karen - they made you, you came from them."
"I know what Poppy says, but we've talked about Poppy, too. He's sick, just a little bit, but enough that he gets confused. And we can't tell him he's wrong, because he's sick and he can't help what he thinks. Right?"
"It would be mean to tell Poppy that he's wrong," Patrick says, parroting something that Stan told him once he was old enough to sort of understand. Stan's eyes burn a little, and he nods.
"I know it's hard to understand," Stan says, and he smooths Patrick's wet hair down. "Poppy doesn't mean to make it hard, but - I know."
"Is Poppy my dad?"
"Well, yeah. Just like me. We - your - Ike was really young when he had you, just ten years older than you."
"Ten years is a lot."
"It's not, really. He needed help, too, because he was sad about your mom. He's still sad, you know, and that's why - that's how come he's, uh. Anyway, me and Kyle - Poppy - we took care of you, and now you're our baby. Right?"
"Right," Patrick says. He's looking down at the boat in his hand, a big red one. Stan's heart is beating fast, and he's nervous, like always, that he's saying the wrong thing. No one ever gave him a class in parenting, and what they're dealing with is some pretty advanced shit.
Stan helps Patrick dress for party after his bath and carries him downstairs. He doesn't need to carry Patrick as often as he does, or Kyle for that matter, but it's a thing he loves as purely as the way he loved his dog as a little boy: being able to hold someone he loves in his arms and convey them safely to a new location. It's a ridiculous fixation, but Patrick and Kyle both seem to enjoy it.
"Are you all clean?" Kyle asks when Stan sets Patrick down in the kitchen. Patrick jogs over to Kyle and gives him a hug that Kyle bends down to receive. "My sweetheart," Kyle says. He squeezes Patrick close and kisses his damp hair. "What's this for?"
"I don't know," Patrick says, still hugging Kyle. Stan distracts himself from a surge of unwanted emotion by going to the fridge. Patrick doesn't like hearing that Kyle is sick. He worries about Kyle, and tends to cling especially hard to him after being reminded. Stan can relate.
"Well, thank you," Kyle says. He hoists Patrick up onto his hip and rears away when Stan comes over to try to kiss him. "I have to confess," Kyle says. "I ate a donut."
"That's okay," Stan says, and he tries again, managing to peck Kyle on the lips this time. "Where's Kenny?"
"Oh, out in the front yard, I think. Bebe has arrived. They're having a moment."
"Ah. I'll leave them to it, then."
"No, don't! Go intrude and spy for me. I find them fascinating."
"Kyle," Stan says, though he knows what Kyle means. Maybe it's the tragedy that haunts their relationship, or the fact that Bebe is the mayor and Kenny is from South Park's least reputable family, but they have been South Park's favorite subject of gossip for years. Kenny became Bebe's 'bodyguard' shortly after Clyde died, and he seemed to be the only one who could effectively comfort her in the years afterward. Long before they were actually sleeping together, everyone prophesied that they would, some with disdain, as if Bebe should be loyal to Clyde's ghost forever. Stan is glad they have each other. After Karen died, Kenny was a husk of himself until he had Bebe's grief to distract him from his own pain.
Stan takes his beer into the foyer and peeks out the window at Kenny and Bebe. She's leaning against her car, and Kenny is standing in front of her, towering over her. She's wearing flats and a short, shapeless dress with a black cardigan. She's always got something black included in her outfits. Kenny leans down to kiss her, looking uncertain about it, and Bebe turns her lips away but holds his face against hers, stroking his blond stubble with her thumb. Feeling guilty for watching them, Stan opens the front door loudly enough to alert them to his approach. By the time he's outside they're standing two feet apart.
"Hey," he says, hugging Bebe hello. She's finally gained some weight, which is a relief. She was a waif after Clyde died, and it was especially distressing because Stan still remembers her as a warrior, how she refused to wear her jacket into battle no matter how cold it was, because it restricted her movements. When she smiles up at him, he remembers her mouth full of blood when her tooth got chipped. It's not a bad memory. Bebe had been their leader and rallying symbol on the battlefield, even before she was promoted.
"Birthday wishes," Bebe says, passing a bottle of good scotch into Stan's hands.
"Awesome," Stan says. "We'll crack this open tonight for sure."
"I can't join you," Bebe says, and she glances at Kenny, who gives her a sheepish smile. "I'm, uh. I was going to wait to tell you and Kyle together."
"You're pregnant?" Stan looks down at her belly, which is still flat. She sighs and places her hand there.
"Almost three months along," she says.
"Congratulations!" Stan is absurdly happy about this, not even sure why. He hugs Bebe again, and then Kenny, who seems to be struggling not to smile any harder than he already is.
"It's crazy," Bebe says, and she looks tearful for a moment, but she's smiling. "We wanted this, that's the big secret. We planned it."
"Good," Stan says, and he hugs her again, unable to stop himself. They've become closer since Kyle's illness and Ike's problems, and he thinks of her as his sister. He hasn't heard from Shelly since the war ended; she writes to Sharon from Europe, but not often.
"You're the godfather, okay?" Kenny says to Stan.
"Oh, God, okay. I haven't been to church since last Christmas, though." He goes with his mom once a year.
"That doesn't matter," Bebe says. "I'm an atheist, and Kenny says he's a Hindu." She gives him a skeptical glance and he grins. "It's a symbolic thing. Not a god thing."
They end up celebrating Bebe's good news just as much as Stan's birthday, which is fine by him. He's never been big on being the center of attention, and he's truly happy for Kenny and Bebe. They'll make good parents, and Patrick will have a little cousin. Gregory and Christophe arrive for dinner, and their gift for Stan is a box of expensive pears, which makes Kyle bark with laughter. He quickly apologizes and says it's very nice. Jimbo and Ned show up late, having come off shift at one of their construction jobs, still smelling like plaster. They live out on the farm now, keeping watch over it at night. Their reputation as being highly armed has cut down on plant theft.
"I think it's your bedtime, huh?" Kyle says to Patrick when the presents have been opened and the donuts consumed. It's Stan's birthday tradition to sit around the fire pit after cake and sing American songs, but he hopes they can skip it this year. He's tired, and Jimbo is the one who loves that tradition, not Stan.
"Come on," Stan says, taking Patrick from Kyle's lap, where he's been sitting since finished his second donut, looking sleepy despite all the sugar. "Say goodnight to everyone."
Stan is tucking Patrick into bed when Kyle appears in the doorway. They smile at each other, because Patrick is already mostly asleep, worn out. Stan kisses his cheek, and Kyle comes to the bed to do the same.
"Sweet dreams," Kyle says, handing Patrick his stuffed elephant. Patrick curls around it and is asleep before they leave the room. "I miss sleeping with him," Kyle whispers as they close the door.
"What about me?" Stan asks, putting his hands on Kyle's waist. "Don't you like sleeping with me?"
"Of course, dude." Kyle leans up to kiss him, and Stan kisses him back hungrily, a nervous thrill moving through him. Kyle rarely calls him dude unless he's lucid. When Stan pulls back he searches Kyle's eyes, but they aren't quite the ones that belong to the Kyle he fell in love with. Kyle looks dreamy and calm. When he's lucid, his eyes are sharp and sad, apologetic.
Kenny and Bebe leave together soon after Kenny has sampled a small amount of the scotch, and Jimbo and Ned don't last much longer downstairs, worn out from their job and anxious to start on the drive to the mountains. Kyle mentions the fire pit, which is another good sign; remembering things like that usually means a lucid period is coming. Stan waves off the fire pit idea and pulls Kyle into his lap at the kitchen table, kind of drunk and not shy about being affectionate in front of Gregory and Christophe, who are the only ones left at the party.
"I'm a little concerned about this pregnancy," Gregory says, sounding a bit drunk himself. He's become more prone to joining Christophe in overindulging. Sometimes Stan gets the feeling that Gregory wishes he could have left South Park the way Wendy did, to start a career elsewhere and see some of the world, but he can't imagine Gregory without Christophe, and Christophe talks about the world outside South Park as if he's seen enough of it for one lifetime. Christophe must be at least a little drunk himself, because he has his arm draped around Gregory's shoulders. They almost always leave Stan and Kyle's dinner table with a tipsy swivel in their steps, since they live close enough to walk home.
"I mean, in terms of Bebe's career," Gregory says. "It's awfully soon to be having children."
"Twenty-six isn't that soon," Kyle says. "God, we had Patrick when we were-" He looks to Stan, who flushes uncomfortably. "How old were we?" Kyle asks, frowning in that way that makes Stan want to stuff all the mismatched pieces back into whatever puzzle Kyle is trying to construct.
"Twenty," Stan says, because that's how old he was when Patrick was born. He can sense that Christophe and Gregory are uncomfortable with this sudden turn in the conversation, too. Kyle has been acting 'normal' all night.
"Yes, well," Gregory says, shifting under Christophe's arm. "You, ah. Aren't a political figure."
"God, no," Kyle says. "That's the last thing I ever wanted to be. My mother - well, we all know what it's done to her. I don't even know her anymore. But Bebe won't be that way. She's always been good at balancing her nurturing side with her more ambitious side."
"That kid will be so blond," Christophe says, and he scoffs as if this annoys him.
"What's wrong with blonds?" Gregory asks, turning to him. "You quite like them, last time I checked."
They give each other small, private smiles, and Stan wants to tell them to head on home if they're going to be so obvious about the fuck they'll have when they get there, but he supposes he can't complain, considering that the press of Kyle's cushy ass over his crotch is arousing him. He's almost glad when Ike wanders in to break up the awkward pause in the conversation, until he sees Ike's bloodshot, angry eyes. He seems drunk, unsteady in his steps as he heads toward the fridge.
"Don't mind me," Ike says, muttering. Stan feels terrible; he was so preoccupied with Bebe's news and opening his gifts that he forgot to bring food up for Ike.
"Excuse me," Kyle says, and Stan squeezes his thigh, willing him not to make a scene. "What are you doing? You don't have permission to dig through my fridge."
"Yeah, okay, Kyle," Ike says, his face still in the fridge. "Why don't you call the cops, then?"
"If only I could! I'm sure they're in league with whoever stationed you here."
"Ike," Stan says when he hears him scoff. "Just - Kyle, hey, it's fine. We have so much leftover food-"
"Which I had plans for! Excuse me, no, put that down."
Ike slams the fridge shut, taking a defiant bite from the chicken leg he plucked from the plate of leftovers. Kyle makes an outraged sound and stands, but Stan pulls him back into his lap.
"Please, dude," Stan says, holding Kyle against him and sensing how much Christophe and Gregory wish they could bolt and not witness this. "For my birthday, just let it go."
"Listen to your husband," Ike says, and Stan glares at him. Kyle and Stan never did get married, not for real. Kyle thinks they did, and Stan can't contradict him by insisting that they actually make it legal. He's not sure what the point would be, anyway, while Kyle is like this.
"Maybe we should-" Gregory says, standing.
"Just wait until my mother comes back," Kyle says. He's begun to tremble, and that's never a good sign. "I don't care how much power you people think you have, she'll have you out of this house one way or another. You've got no idea what she's capable of."
"No, actually, I've got a pretty good idea." Ike's eyes are watering again, and he looks insane, tearing at the chicken leg with this teeth.
"Man, don't make things worse," Christophe says, approaching Ike, who scoffs and steps away.
"Worse?" Ike says. "For who? They can't get any worse for me. Where's Patrick?" He turns to Kyle, and Stan braces himself when he sees the look on Ike's face. "Where's my kid, you crazy fucker?"
"Hey!" Stan shouts, and he sees Gregory flinch.
"Your kid?" Kyle says, shaking harder in Stan's arms, struggling to get free. He's tried to hit Ike once before, and it didn't end well. "What the hell are you talking about? Stan, let go of me! He's going to do something to Patrick! That's his – that's their real mission, that's how they think they'll get to me—"
"Look me in the face and tell me he's not mine," Ike says, and he throws the half-eaten chicken leg on the table. "Explain to me how he came out of your fucking – womb, or whatever, Kyle, tell me how Karen died for nothing because the stork brought you a baby."
"Shut up!" Stan shouts, very glad that Kenny has already gone home. "What's the point of this?"
"The point is that if you assholes weren't always walking on eggshells for him, I think he'd fucking drop this shit and act like my real brother again!"
"You're excused from the table," Christophe says, dragging Ike out of the room. Stan tenses and waits for a fist fight, but Ike dissolves into angry sniffling as he lets Christophe take him back upstairs. Gregory's face is red when Stan glances at him. Kyle has gone quiet, and his trembling is less violent.
"Dude?" Stan says, whispering this in Kyle's ear, wishing Gregory would stop staring. "Kyle? He's just – trying to mess with you, okay, he's upset—"
"I have to—" Kyle says, and he stands. When he goes for the stairs to the second floor, Stan wonders if he should stop him, but when Kyle gets quiet and vacant like this he's never looking for a fight. Kyle walks past Ike's room, where Stan can hear Ike sobbing and Christophe trying to calm him down. Stan follows Kyle into Patrick's room, relieved to see that Patrick has slept through the shouting downstairs. Stan is more worried about Ike's anguished crying waking him; it's happened before. They've tried to get Ike to visit Gerald in New York, to start a new life or at least see if he would like it there better, but he refuses to leave Patrick, though Ike's presence does little more than frighten and confuse him.
"Are you okay?" Stan asks after Kyle has climbed into bed with Patrick, lying between him and the wall with his arm draped around Patrick, who goes on sleeping. Kyle says nothing, just shuts his eyes and presses his face to Patrick's little shoulder.
Stan walks out into the hallway when he hears Ike's bedroom door open and shut. Ike has gone quiet inside, or at least quiet enough not to be heard through the wall between his bedroom and Patrick's. Christophe slaps Stan's shoulder sympathetically. Gregory is standing at the foot of the stairs, peering up at them and holding their jackets.
"Shit," Christophe says.
"Yeah," Stan says. "Thanks. And sorry."
"Nothing to apologize for, my friend. In my house, growing up, we had one of these dramas every night, and no one had a piece of metal rusting in their brain as an excuse. Is he – okay?"
"Yes. I don't know. He'll be fine."
Stan doesn't know that, and it's more tiring than he could possibly explain to anyone. He thinks about what it would have been like if Kyle had gone away to war and Stan had been the one forced to remain at home. Stan would have been consumed with worry then, too, and he did worry for Kyle while he was away, afraid Cartman would corner him and destroy anything he could get his hands on. But it was the kind of worry with specific potential outcomes: death, disability, depression. Now, he's not even sure what he should fear most.
"Everyone went home," Stan says, speaking softly as he sits on the edge of the bed and touches Kyle's hair, then Patrick's. "Thank god he's a deep sleeper," Stan says, meaning Patrick: Kyle is clearly awake. His eyes are open but heavily lidded, and he doesn't seem fully cognizant. "Right?"
"I'm going to sleep here," Kyle says.
"Alright," Stan says. "I – me too."
He stretches out on the floor by the bed, staring up at the ceiling, listening to Kyle's short, panicked breaths steady and sink into a rhythm that means he's asleep. The bed that Kyle and Patrick are sleeping in is the same one Stan slept in as a kid, until he was eighteen, until he left for war. The place on the floor where he's sleeping now was where Kyle slept when he stayed over, sometimes. If it was cold, or if they were having a particularly serious, whispered conversation, he would get in bed with Stan, who had always liked that better. Kyle had seemed too vulnerable on the floor, especially before the war, when Stan was young enough to vaguely fear that something nefarious might live in the darkness under his bed.
He turns his head to look there, seeing the outline of a few of Patrick's toys in the glow from the night light on the opposite wall. His back is killing him, the pain shooting all the way up to the back of his neck, but he doesn't want to go sleep downstairs, alone. It's not that he doesn't trust Kyle to take care of Patrick – he always has, and had a falling out with his mother over this shortly after Kyle was diagnosed, a hurt that hasn't quite been repaired. When he hears the phone ringing down the hall in his mother's old room, he thinks about ignoring it, but it might be her wanting to wish him a happy birthday.
"Hi." It's not his mother: it's Craig, his nasal voice singularly distinct now that Clyde is gone. "Sorry I – we missed the party. I had kind of a bad day."
"It's alright," Stan says. "I mean, I'm sorry to hear it. I understand."
"How was it?"
"Fine." Stan is surprised by the call; they see Tweek relatively frequently, but Craig has become reclusive again. While Kyle dove headfirst into the comfort of his delusions as soon as they began, Craig has resisted and is often angry about his confusion, never accepting. He's embarrassed, too, as if any part of this was his fault. There's a theory that some people who had the chip removed using the older, more dangerous method might have exacerbated the condition or even caused an otherwise harmless chip to leave behind damage, but Christophe has been fine so far. "It was kind of bad, actually," Stan says, needing to talk to someone. He sits on his mother's bed. "Kyle and Ike fought."
"Ah. That Ike is a real piece of work. We've all lost people. He acts like he's the only one who has the right to mourn."
Craig's confusion began around the time Clyde died. He still flies into a rage when he remembers, sometimes after accusing Bebe of cheating on Clyde with Kenny, which always sends her down into her own dark spiral of guilt. Tweek has developed the ability to calm him down when this happens, or so he says.
"Did Kenny bring you my gift?" Craig asks.
"No? What gift?"
"The scotch – that bastard, he kept it?"
"Oh – no, I didn't realize that was from you. Bebe gave it to me."
"Well, yes, she paid for it, but I had it special ordered for you."
"Ah, well, thanks. It was really good."
"Was it? You don't sound drunk. You should be drunk on your birthday."
"Not necessarily." Stan kind of wishes he was, but it wouldn't be a good idea. "Listen, uh. You guys should come over for dinner sometime."
"Sure," Craig says. "If we can get the monkey."
"The – what?"
Craig is silent for a moment. "What did I say?"
"Uh, something about a monkey?"
"No – shit, sorry, that's—"
"It's okay, Craig, I know—"
"I should get off the train," Craig says, and he hangs up. Stan is pretty sure he meant 'phone.' He sets the receiver back in its cradle and lies down on his mother's old bed. She's living in North Park, closer to work, and she has a boyfriend called Mike who Stan had only met a few times. He thinks about calling her, but decides he's too tired and goes back into Patrick's room to sleep on the floor.
If Kyle had been making progress toward a lucid stretch, it's been erased by Ike's outburst, and Stan hates Ike for it for a few days. Kyle is mostly quiet in the days that follow, though he cheers up and resumes his default parenting responsibilities in the presence of Patrick. Stan is on edge, but Kyle is responsive to his attempts to cuddle him at night, and Stan is glad for the cooling weather that allows them to hide together under a mound of blankets.
"We'll start having fires in here soon," Stan says on the third night after his birthday party. Kyle has always liked the comfort of their fireplace in the winter, how their den-turned-bedroom becomes newly cozy.
"Will you - will you have to go away?" Kyle asks, speaking softly and touching Stan's throat with his fingertips.
"No, dude." Stan holds him tighter, kisses his forehead. "I'll be here. Don't worry."
"Once – in winter – you went away, I think. Didn't you?"
"I was in the war, Kyle, but it's over, and I don't have to go away again. Not now, not ever. That's all over."
Kyle has no response to that but to move closer to Stan, huddling against his chest. Stan strokes his hair and his back, hoping that Kyle will want to have sex, because that's usually a sign that he's returning to himself after a period of drifting between realities, even if the self he's returning to is one of the Kyles who isn't exactly him. Kyle reaches down to place a warm hand over Stan's ass, which is clothed in boxer shorts. They haven't slept naked since the night of the party. Stan waits, still petting Kyle, and sighs when he feels Kyle drift to sleep in his arms.
In the morning, Stan wakes up feeling so fundamentally changed that he's certain for a moment that his paralysis has returned. He moves his legs, squeezes his aching morning wood, and looks over at Kyle, but that's what's missing: it's still early, barely light outside, and Kyle is not in bed.
"Kyle?" Stan says, turning toward the bathroom, but the door is open and the lights are off. He gets out of bed, knowing he shouldn't panic right away, but it's a cold morning, and their alarm won't go off for another hour. Kyle never gets up early on cold mornings.
He's not in the kitchen or the living room, and doesn't appear to be in the backyard, which has grown frosty, the windows fogged from their restored central heating. Stan checks the downstairs guest bathroom, then feels stupid for getting so worked up: of course Kyle is just upstairs, in bed with Patrick after some dream that upset him. Stan runs up the stairs anyway, not bothering to be quiet. Patrick's bedroom door is halfway open, and Stan flings it open fully, then flips on the lights when he still doesn't see Kyle.
"Daddy?" Patrick says, sitting up in bed.
"Is Poppy in here?" Stan asks, going to the closet, as if Kyle might have wedged himself in there. Stan can't really rule anything out.
"Poppy?" Patrick says, his little voice still creaky with sleep. "What's wrong with Poppy?" he asks when he sees the look on Stan's face.
"Nothing – I just – hold tight for a minute, bud."
Stan hurries into Sharon's old bedroom, then Shelly's, and checks the upstairs hall bathroom. He bursts into Ike's room when he still can't find Kyle, and Ike sits up like a shot has been fired.
"Where's Kyle?" Stan asks, trying to refrain from shouting, since Patrick is already scared.
"Huh?" Ike says. "You lost him?"
"I – he's – you watch Patrick, okay? I'm gonna go look, look for him in the neighborhood—"
Stan hears the front door open and whirls toward the stairs. Kyle is coming through the door, pink-cheeked and breathing audibly.
"Kyle!" Stan shouts, and he almost falls on his way down the stairs, grabbing the railing to steady himself. "You – are you okay, are you—"
"I'm fine," Kyle says flatly when Stan arrives in the foyer and grabs his shoulders, breathing almost as hard as Kyle is. "I went for a run."
"You – what?"
As soon as Stan is able to calm himself enough to focus on Kyle's eyes, he sees it. Kyle is lucid, he's back, and is annoyed by Stan's hysteria in an authentically Kyle way. Kyle's eyes soften a bit when he sees that Stan has recognized him.
"Hi," Stan says, his heart still thudding wildly.
"Hi. I'm going to take a shower."
"Oh - okay."
Stan lingers in the lobby feeling dumbstruck, wondering for a moment if this is a dream. He looks up to see Ike and Patrick at the top of the stairs, Ike looking deeply annoyed and Patrick clutching his stuffed elephant.
"It's okay," Stan says. "Poppy just went out to get some exercise."
"Terrific," Ike says. "Is this going to be a thing now? He thinks he's a marathon runner and disappears to train?"
"He's fine, actually," Stan says, not caring if Ike understands how he means this, exactly. "Will you please take Patrick to school this morning? I'm going to stay home from work, uh. I've got some things to do around the house." He always takes a day off when Kyle is restored to himself, not wanting to miss a moment of it, though it's often more heart wrenching than witnessing his confusion.
"What do you say?" Ike asks, looking down at Patrick. "You want to get ready for school?"
"Okay," Patrick says. He still looks a little uncertain, and Stan will talk with him later. Possibly Kyle will, too, though seeing Patrick often sends him back into his delusions. Stan has given this some dark consideration - if they were to move away from Patrick, maybe Kyle could hang on to more lucidity. It's something Sharon once said, and Stan got angry and defensive, though she didn't deserve that. Kyle's doctors have suggested that it's more likely that Patrick is a beacon that at least keeps Kyle in one version of reality most of the time, and even when he's lucid and working on a pretzel costume, Kyle loves Patrick like a son. Stan does, too, and leaving him to be raised by Sharon or Ike, if that were ever a real possibility, isn't an option.
Stan putters around the bedroom while Kyle showers, not sure if he should give him space or burst in to lather his back. He finally goes into the bathroom when Kyle has been in the shower for much longer than necessary, shedding his clothes on the way there.
"Hi," he says again as he steps into the tub behind Kyle, who has obviously been crying. Kyle tries to hide his face, busying himself with a shampoo bottle. "Can I do that?" Stan asks, hugging him from behind.
"What?" Kyle's voice is thick; it hurts to hear it, but it's also like a tonic, something real. "Wash my hair?"
"Yeah, dude. If you want, I could."
"Don't you need to get Patrick ready for school?"
"Ike's taking him." Stan flicks open the shampoo, waiting to see how Kyle will react to that news.
"Ike is capable of that? He's not too hungover or something?"
"He seems fine. Using complete sentences and everything."
Kyle is quiet while Stan washes his hair. It's ridiculous, but to Stan he always seems a bit smaller when he's lucid, as if he's shed some superhuman skin that usually protects him and this is the paler, skinnier core.
"I was terrible to him the other night," Kyle says while he's rinsing his hair out, his puffy eyes shut against the water.
"Ike was pretty awful, too. I did a sweep of his room while he was in the shower the other day, got rid of the vodka. I didn't realize he still had a stash."
"God, can you blame him for wanting to drink? With what I put him through?"
"I wish I could choke that stupid housewife for not remembering this one thing. Why can't he remember this one effing thing that would make our lives so much easier?"
Stan doesn't like it when Kyle refers to his delusional states as separate people. It just doesn't seem like a good sign.
"You're never a stupid housewife," Stan says, turning Kyle so that they're facing each other. "You're a good parent, even when you can't remember Ike. I think - the doctors say you probably just feel threatened by him-"
"Eff the doctors. A lot of good they've done. Oh, god, but I don't want to talk about it, Stan, really. Whenever I'm okay we spend the whole time talking about the times when I'm not okay, and I'm just tired of it. Let's talk about something else, please, anything."
"Alright," Stan says, and he reaches down to squeeze Kyle's ass with both hands. "How was your run?"
"Cold. Bracing. And let's not kid ourselves - I had to stop and walk every five minutes or so. But it felt good. I wish I could make myself do it when I'm insane, too."
"You're not insane. You know that's not the right term for it."
"Mhmm." Kyle shrugs. "I don't think terminology is going to save me, Stan. And you're changing the subject."
When Kyle was first getting sick, he spent two full weeks switching between his belief that Stan had just returned from war every time he walked into a room and his then-fledgling fixation on seeing Patrick as his and Stan's baby. The doctors who treated him initially weren't sure he would ever recover his real memories, and Stan had almost given up hope when he woke one morning to find Kyle sitting up in bed beside him, staring into space. Somehow Stan had known, even before seeing his eyes, that he was back.
"You would tell me if I'd gone crazy, wouldn't you?" Kyle said that morning, and Stan broke down, rocking Kyle in his arms, wanting to believe that he was back for good. But he'd sensed even then that it was an interlude and not a recovery.
They both get a little bit hard in the shower, but Stan isn't ready to have sex yet, and Kyle doesn't seem to be, either. Kyle climbs into bed after drying off, and Stan lights the fire, their first one of the season. He makes coffee the way Kyle likes it, with plenty of whole milk and sugar, and brings it to him in bed along with some eggs and bacon.
"Freaking bacon," Kyle says while he eats, Stan sitting next to him with his own plate. "I feel like we eat it with every meal."
"Sorry," Stan says. "I wish we had some chicken sausage or something."
"Oh, don't apologize! This is really good. God, I feel like I haven't seen you in weeks. Which is ridiculous."
"It's not ridiculous." Stan puts his plate on the side table and rests his head on Kyle's shoulder, watching the fire. When Kyle returns to himself, he remembers everything that happened while he was confused, and neither of them can decide if this is a blessing or not.
"I have a weird request," Kyle says after breakfast, when the dishes are out in the kitchen sink and they're cuddled up under the blankets together, touching each other idly. Stan used to think about it when they were teenagers: what if he just reached over and touched Kyle, what would happen? He'd always been afraid that he would get an erection and that Kyle would expect him to know what to do with it.
"I'm open to weird requests," Stan says, assuming he means something sexual.
"I want to make some kind of gravestone for my mother," Kyle says. "I know it can't be public, that it would be defaced, but maybe something that only you and I know about, out in the woods somewhere. Just with her initials carved into a stone, something like that."
"Okay," Stan says, wondering if he should be alarmed by this. It's true that Sheila has no grave. "We could do that."
"And we should do it today, I think, in case I lose my mind again later. I just think - I just hate that the housewife and the other idiot don't know that she's dead. It's so embarrassing and awful, almost worse than all the nonsense about Ike. I don't think making a grave would fix this, necessarily, but I want to try it."
"I want to do it anyway, just for me. The real me."
They dress in warm clothes and light jackets, and Stan brings a shoulder bag with some supplies and a picnic lunch. He calls in sick to work before they leave the house, grateful as always that Token understands his home situation and allows him flexibility. The sky is clear, and some of the chill of the morning has burned off. Stan doesn't need to ask if Kyle wants to take the car. He's like Stan: he prefers to walk.
"I love this time of year," Kyle says as they head down the street, in the direction of Stark's Pond and the surrounding woods. Stan reaches over to take his hand.
"I know you do," he says, and he kisses the side of Kyle's head, unable to help himself. He's always giddy with affection when he has Kyle back and they're not just crying together over how soon he'll be gone again. "Halloween's in a week. I still can't get Patrick to tell me a costume he wants to wear."
"I hope he'll want something cute again," Kyle says. "Six has got to be one of the last years when boys are willing to be cute rather than gross and scary."
"Speak for yourself. I was Raggedy Andy at age eight."
"That's true," Kyle says, grinning. "But that was Wendy's idea, not yours. What was I, a vampire?"
"I think so, yeah. Or a clown?"
"Oh, lord. I can't believe I ever wanted to be a clown. I can certainly say now that it's not all it's cracked up to be."
"You're not a clown," Stan says, squeezing his hand. "Stop."
Kyle's dismissal of his alternate selves hurts, because they're Stan's companions, too, and there's still enough of Kyle in them for him to be happy with them, sometimes. The welcoming home from war got old fast, but Kyle isn't just a 'housewife' when he's taking care of Patrick and going about his domestic business. He's still doing things that he would have done anyway: providing a happy home life for his nephew, dealing with Ike's depression and other issues, and going to bed with Stan. He's not the same, but he's not different in any ways that really betray his sense of self, aside from his beliefs about Ike and the opportunities he missed because of the poisoning. Stan still has Kyle's notes about potential medical schools, and the notes about their wedding that are interspersed between his research. He can't let go of the idea that Kyle will need his old notebooks someday, when there's a cure for chip poisoning.
Kyle's footsteps slow before they've reached the end of the residential district, and when Stan looks to his left he sees why. The old Broflovski house is visible in the distance, just one street over. It's in disrepair, paint peeling and all the downstairs windows boarded up. No one has seen Cartman in four years, and Liane left town around the time he did, or so the rumors say. There are also rumors that Cartman is still living in Kyle's old house, holed up there with his diminishing riches. Some people say they've witnessed grocery delivery boys coming and going. Stan isn't sure what to believe. He puts his arms around Kyle while he stands staring at the house where he grew up.
"I hope he's not really in there," Kyle says. "And not for my sake, for his."
"I don't forgive him," Stan says, though Kyle knows this. "If he's in there rotting away, it's no less than he deserves."
"He was a stupid, drunk kid who thought no one loved him. He was disgusting, yes, but-"
"Kyle, stop. He knew what he was doing, and he'd probably been waiting years to try it. I can only thank God that I showed up when I did. I wish I'd come upstairs sooner. I still think about it."
"You think about it more than me, then," Kyle said, turning to smile at him. "I never told you, but I ran into him after Bebe and Clyde's wedding, in the coat room. We were both pretty drunk. He tried to intimidate me, and I just pushed him over - like it was nothing, he fell to the floor and started crying like we were kids again and I'd punched his shoulder. It was depressing, but I was never afraid of him after that."
"Jesus. Why didn't you tell me?"
"Oh, you know." Kyle sighs and walks on, and Stan follows, glad to leave the sight of the house. "I didn't want you to try to confront him. He wasn't worth it at that point. I do appreciate the memory of you kicking the crap out of him up in Butters' bedroom that night. And how you held me afterward," he says, taking Stan's hand again.
"That was when I first started thinking that I wanted - I don't know, more from you," Stan says, though he's told Kyle this before. "I just wanted to pull you all the way into me. No matter how tight I held you, I couldn't get you close enough to feel like I would be able to keep you safe."
"You do keep me safe," Kyle says, his eyes on the road. "We're close enough. I'm in you, you're in me. You're my light in the dark."
"Patrick is, too," Stan says, not wanting to take all the credit.
"That's true. But you were there first."
By the time they reach the edge of the woods around the pond, they're both warm enough from the walk to remove their jackets. They spend some time looking for the right rock, which Kyle says he will know when he sees it. He wants lunch before they've found one, and they sit down together in a pine straw-filled clearing while Stan unpacks what he brought. The bread it a little stale, but the cheese is decent and the sliced ham is very good, some salty, aged stuff that Kyle got a week ago. Stan leans against a tree and pulls Kyle into his lap when they're done.
"How's your back?" Kyle asks, reaching behind Stan to touch it.
"Eh, it's okay."
"I'll rub it later. Or now?"
"I can wait, dude."
It feels so nice to have a normal afternoon together at last that Stan has halfway forgotten why they're searching for a rock by the time Kyle finds a suitable one. It's short and fat, and it looks heavy, but Kyle won't let Stan carry it while they look for a spot to erect the memorial. They find a secluded clearing in the darker part of the woods, some very old but sturdy-looking pines towering overhead. Stan takes out the hunting knife that he's never used before, an old birthday gift from Jimbo. He hands it to Kyle and watches him carve Sheila's initials in the rock: S.S.B.
"What's the second 'S' for?" Stan asks.
"Schwartz. That was her maiden name." Kyle stands and stares down at the rock. Stan waits to hear a eulogy of some sort. "We should find some flowers," Kyle says.
There aren't many flowers growing in the woods at this time of year, but they manage a few weedy white ones and some mountain thistle. Kyle arranges the flowers, and when he stays on the ground afterward, kneeling in front of the little stone, Stan sits beside him and touches his back.
"There's a prayer," Kyle says. "Um, a Kaddish. They said one at Ike's fake funeral, but. I don't know all the words."
"That's okay," Stan says, and he wonders if he should have said so, as if he knows anything about Jewish funeral customs. "I mean, I don't think she'd mind."
"She knew she was wrong, toward the end," Kyle says. "I didn't realize it then, but looking back - it's why she stayed away from the house so much. I know there were security concerns, but I think she was also ashamed, like. Of not being able to turn back the clock or let go, because she was so committed. That was her biggest flaw, you know, that she was smart enough to know when she was wrong but too proud to admit it." Kyle looks over at Stan, and Stan moves closer to him when he sees the look on his face. "I'm like that," Kyle says, softly. "With this - my delusions, like. I feel like they're my fault, a little."
"They're not," Stan says firmly. "Kyle. It's a common condition. One in five-"
"Yes, yes, I know the statistics. And I know Craig forgets that Clyde is dead. But maybe it's because he wants to."
"I don't think it's that simple. You guys fixate on things that are important to you, that's all. And when someone dies suddenly - there's no memory, you didn't see it happen. Sheila was out of the state when she died, so it never felt that real to you. You're not being willful when you get confused, dude. Don't put that on yourself."
Kyle turns to sort of fling himself into Stan's arms, and Stan receives him gladly, holding him close. They sit there long enough for Stan to begin to feel the chill air again, the warmth he'd built up while rock hunting evaporating.
"Let's go skinny dipping," Kyle says when he sits back. "In the pond. There's no one around."
"But it'll be cold," Stan says, studying Kyle's eyes for signs that this is a slip back into his delusions.
"No, it won't! The pond doesn't get really cold until the first freeze. I mean, it won't be warm, but we can take it. We're mountain folk."
Stan hopes that someone will have appeared at the pond to thwart this plan, but there's no one there, and Kyle is pulling his shirt off before they even reach the edge of the water. He's not sure why he can't bring himself to try to talk Kyle out of this. Possibly it's because they just buried Kyle's mother, in a sense. Stan was weird after Randy died - quiet, angry, and hard, the way he was while he was disabled. Kyle put up with it gamely, while Wendy got her feelings hurt and accused him of not dealing with his grief. She was right for the most part, but Kyle was the one who knew how to handle Stan's style of mourning. Stan had been gentle with him after Randy's death, not wanting to scare him away. He'd needed Kyle so much, and if Kyle needs to go skinny dipping after making a grave for Sheila, Stan can only comply.
Kyle goes in first, shrieking at the temperature but plunging in anyway. Stan braces himself and hisses when he steps into the cold water, checking behind him to make sure no one is looking at his ass. While he's distracted, Kyle splashes over and grabs him, pulling him in fully.
"Jesus Christ, dude!" Stan says when he surfaces, and Kyle laughs, throwing his arms around Stan's neck. Despite the chill, arousal shoots down Stan's spine when Kyle's soft cock comes to rest against his belly, Kyle's legs wrapping around his back.
"We should swim," Kyle says, though he's the one clinging to Stan, his teeth already chattering. "To get our blood flowing."
"Fine," Stan says. "I'll race you to the dock."
This was their tradition as kids, and only then does Stan realize that they entered Stark's Pond at the same point where they always had back then, just far enough from the dock to make the race interesting. He lets Kyle launch off of him for a head start, because he knows he'll win. His arms are bigger from his farm work, but he realizes after he starts swimming that his back is going to be a liability. He pushes himself hard anyway, ignoring the pain, and makes it there just a hand's reach before Kyle, who curses him, laughing.
"Shhh," Stan says, though he doesn't want to spoil the moment by reminding Kyle of his chip. "Careful."
"Oh, fuck it," Kyle says, and Stan winces, but Kyle doesn't. He's still beaming. "I feel good. It's my body, my brain, and I'll do what I please with it before this fucking chip takes it back from me."
"Shh, dude, please," Stan says, drawing him under the dock, where Stan's feet find the muddy bottom of the pond, the tops of his shoulders above water. "Don't, just. Don't scare me."
"Stan," Kyle says softly, apologetically, and they kiss. Kyle tastes like murky pond water, but the press of his warm tongue makes Stan hard, and the smell of the water reminds him of summers when they were kids, young and free to shout curse words gleefully, everything ahead of them. Stan had already thought of Kyle as his back then, in a way that he never would have presumed that Wendy could belong to him, even when they were dating, or when he was asking her to marry him in a fog of terror at the end of basic training. He'd wanted Wendy once, badly, but it was Kyle he'd counted on having, always.
"We'd better get out before we catch a cold," Stan says, and he's glad when Kyle agrees. They swim back to where they left their clothes, and Stan groans when Kyle bypasses them, pulling Stan into the grove of trees where they used to dry off after a swim as kids. Back then, they'd have at least been wearing their bathing suits.
"No one will see," Kyle says, murmuring this against Stan's lips in a way that gets his cock fully on board with this plan. "It's a work day," Kyle says, pulling Stan down into the sodden grass. "A school day, too. The town is ours."
Stan wants to believe that so badly that he drops down onto Kyle, spreading his legs around him shamelessly. They kiss and grind together, Stan's wet hair dripping down onto Kyle's face. If someone sees them, Stan can at least shield Kyle's body with his own, and the thought is both comforting and arousing. He comes all over Kyle's belly with a groan, burying his face against Kyle's neck. Kyle is still rubbing himself desperately against Stan's thigh, and Stan holds his hips still, crawling down to put his mouth on Kyle's flushed cock. Kyle groans as powerfully as he did when they were first experimenting on each other, and Stan takes him in as deeply as he can. Kyle shouts again when he comes, beautifully unhinged in the midst of the suburban wilderness.
It's only two in the afternoon when they get back to the house, and Stan drags out the old photo albums so they can look at them in bed, the fire rekindled, though it's not really cold enough to need one. At three o'clock there's noise from the kitchen, and Stan knows it's Ike.
"Should I talk to him?" Kyle asks, peering up from the album they were paging through. It's pictures from Kyle's bar mitzvah, Stan looking grim and much older than thirteen in all of them.
"I guess," Stan says, not wanting Kyle to leave his side. "If – you want to?"
Kyle does, apparently, and he goes out to the kitchen. Stan waits a while before joining them, still paging through the photo album. Sheila made it and sent it by mail; he remembers that. He wishes she was alive, which is something that's never happened before, though he was never glad she was dead. She would be able to do something for Kyle, he thinks, though it might be an ironic assumption. Since the rumors of Kyle's v-chip poisoning reached the general Sheila-hating public, there's been plenty of commentary on the 'poetic justice' of the Broflovski woman's own son falling prey to the decay of the chip. Stan once got into a fist fight after overhearing something like this at the grocery store, and he spent a night in jail. Bebe helped him get out of the assault charge with a thousand dollar fine and no further time served.
He goes out to the kitchen and finds Ike sniffling over a bowl of microwaved clam chowder, Kyle's hand on his shoulder. Kyle smiles at Stan and pulls out the chair beside his.
"I told him about the memorial we made," Kyle says when Stan sits beside him. He drags his chair close to Kyle's and puts an arm around his shoulders. "We'll go there soon – maybe tomorrow, if I'm still okay."
"You're always okay," Ike says tearfully, and he wipes at his face with a napkin. "Better than me, most days."
"That's not true," Kyle says, laughing unhappily. "I'd much rather be a drunk."
"Kyle!" Stan says, but Ike is grinning down at his soup.
At three thirty they drive the Cadillac to the elementary school to pick up Patrick. He was obviously expecting Ike, and Stan can't help being happy that Patrick is glad to see them instead.
"How was your day?" Kyle asks when Patrick is buckled into the backseat. Stan was worried that Kyle would transition once he saw Patrick, but he still seems like himself, so far.
"Um, good," Patrick says. "We learned the states."
"Okay," Kyle says. "What state does Grandpa live in?"
"Umm. New York!"
"Yep, well done. We'll go there someday, okay? With Ike."
"Ike," Patrick says, and Stan glances at him in the rear view mirror.
"Poppy loves Ike," Stan says. "He just forgets sometimes."
"I'm sorry I forget things," Kyle says, reaching into the backseat to take Patrick's hand. Patrick pets Kyle's wrist and nods.
"That's okay," he says. "Just don't forget me."
"Oh – baby, I couldn't!" Kyle says, and Stan is pretty sure that's true.
At home, Stan takes over the dinner arrangements, as he usually does when Kyle is okay. Kyle plays outside with Patrick until it's dark, mostly in the sandbox, then takes him upstairs for his bath. Ike lingers in the kitchen, watching Stan cook, and Stan can sense that he wants a drink, or a toke, or something. Stan can relate, and he feels badly. He wants to get the nice scotch down, but he won't do it in front of Ike.
"He feels the worst about you," Stan says while he's sautéing vegetables, Ike hovering nearby. "He wishes he could take care of you, too."
"Well," Ike says. "Wishing they could take care of me is a Broflovski tradition."
"But they – they love you, your dad—"
"I know. I'll probably – I need to go live with him, up there. I get that. I can't stay here much longer."
"You can, though," Stan says, and when Ike gives him a wry smile he feels as if he's the younger, more naïve one.
Dinner is pleasantly uneventful, with Kyle still in charge of himself and Patrick smiling like he can sense this. Stan supposes he can. Patrick's parents were both smart; Stan didn't really know Karen, but apparently she was on track to be in gifted programs before the war came and everything was whittled down to basic education. Ike, apparently, is a genius. He's more animated than usual, included in the family for once. Stan gives everyone seconds, wanting this to last, though he also wants to get to bed with Kyle before he reverts to his delusions. Sex is so heavy that it almost hurts when Kyle knows everything, but it's still better, the best.
After Patrick is tucked in and the house goes quiet, Stan says his usual private, desperate prayer for things to stay this way. Kyle is in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. The fire is renewed, and Stan is waiting in bed, hard under the blankets like a kid, guiltily hopeful. Those seven months without the ability to have sex this way have made him super conscious of how good it is, and he's pretty sure that anyone but Kyle would be exhausted by now, but Kyle waited even longer, and he always reaches between Stan's legs with a greedy smile, whispering to him about how hard he is, as if Stan can't feel it: and he can't, not completely, until Kyle recognizes his need and tells him that it's lovely, wanted, a perfect response to their closeness.
"Was I okay?" Kyle asks when he slides into bed, smelling of toothpaste. "At dinner, I mean. I didn't say anything weird or awful?"
"Nothing bad at all," Stan says, pulling Kyle onto him. "You were completely great."
"You want me to stay this way," Kyle says, hiding his face, mouthing at Stan's neck.
"Only if you want to."
"Of course I want to!"
Kyle lifts his head, and they peer at each other for a moment, Stan's thumbs moving over Kyle's hips, over the soft part, above his hipbones.
"I love you," Stan says, wishing he had something better. Kyle grins.
"I know that," he says. "My most demented, lost, irretrievable self would know that. If I thought I was an armchair, my armchair self would still think, 'well, at least Stan loves me.' And I'd feel quite accomplished and content."
"Kyle." Stan doesn't want to cry. It's not that kind of night. Kyle sees this and shushes him, kissing his face.
They have sex, and it's what they once would have referred to as 'real sex,' the kind Stan angrily obsessed over when he thought he would never be able to try it, not with Kyle, not in the way that would mean everything, as far as he could imagine. It means everything now: the way Kyle quiets his cries to protect their baby who is sleeping upstairs, and the way they look all the way into each other by the light of the fire, having known several versions of themselves, both aware that these are the real ones.
"Such a good day," Kyle says when he's curled in Stan's arms. Stan wonders if Kyle is still awake enough to realize that Stan can feel the tears that are leaking onto his bicep: not copious, but enough to make Stan's eyes wet, too.
"Really, yes," Stan says. He kisses Kyle's forehead, and moves down to kiss all over his face. "Let's, just. Let's just be glad."
"Dude, you don't have to tell me to be glad! I'm glad. I'm really glad for every day like this, and for the shitty ones, too. Shhh," he whispers when Stan flinches at the curse. "Don't worry so much. I know this thing quite well now. I know what it'll do to me, and what it won't."
Stan hopes that's true, and falls asleep worrying about it anyway. There is nothing other than his own imperfect interfaces that he would ever trust to be inside Kyle.
When he wakes, Kyle is still in his arms. Stan prods him gently, because the alarm is going off. He reaches over to silence it, and turns back to study Kyle's eyes. He's still half asleep, hard to read.
"We need to buy some apples," Kyle says, whispering this against Stan's lips as if it's very sensitive information. Stan nods, his heart sinking. The lucid period is over, for now.
"Yeah," Stan says, stroking Kyle's wild hair down, glad when it springs up defiantly. "That's a good idea."
At the breakfast table, Kyle is perfectly functional, darting around the kitchen and getting everyone what they need. Ike slinks away before the plates are cleared, obviously disheartened by Kyle's return to treating him as a Canadian oppressor. Stan can't blame Ike, but also can't forgive him for taking this so personally.
"Poppy?" Patrick says as Kyle is packing his lunch.
"Can I be – like Daddy was in the war? A soldier, for Halloween?"
Stan meets Kyle's eyes, and for a moment he's sure that it's the real Kyle, who knows everything. Kyle looks back to Patrick and smiles.
"Yeah, we could do that," he says. "Your grandma would be proud."
"Kyle's mommy," Stan says, and Patrick's eyes widen as if he can't imagine such a thing.
"She died a long time ago," Kyle says, twirling the bread bag shut and clamping it closed with a twist tie. "But she would have been so proud of you. I think she is, in spirit."
"Spirit?" Patrick says.
"Like your Mommy," Kyle says, and Stan's heart pounds as Kyle kisses Patrick's cheek and hands him his lunch bag. "Karen – she was sweet, like you. She'd be happy to know she had such a good boy."
Stan takes Patrick to school and then goes to work, wishing he had taken another day off. When he left the house he wasn't sure exactly what state Kyle was in. Kyle has rarely ever acknowledged Karen while also packing Patrick off to school. All day, in the fields, gathering product and trying to ignore the ache in his back, Stan wonders what he'll come home to.
By the time he's walking home, wishing he'd remembered to bring his jacket, he's open to whatever he'll find. A homecoming from war, his devoted co-parent, or the boy he fell in love with so slowly that it ripped the footing out from under him when he held a handwritten letter close to his face in grim firelight, in the dark of a quieted battlefield. Kyle has held onto him too tightly to let even the gravest of circumstances part them, and Stan once did the same, pretending to wish that he was strong enough to let Kyle go. It was a transparent, childish lie: there could be very little of Stan left and he still wouldn't want to admit that Kyle could go on without him. He knows that's true for Kyle, too, or hopes that it is, and he feels impatient to tell Kyle so. He starts running, lazily at first and then at a sprint, wanting to be home more than he wants to find out which version of Kyle will greet him there.
He's got a good feeling, the one he gets every time he jogs home instead of walking, and he won't discount it, because Kyle probably had the same feeling once, when everyone told him Stan's condition was hopeless.
This, too, will be okay, fixed somehow, eventually. It will be what they dreamed of before they even knew how to dream together. Stan runs harder, faster, knowing in his breathless dash that it's true: they will have what no one has promised them. They'll have what they've only ever promised each other, because no one else could be bolder or more certain, and whatever happens tonight, in this temporary and bearable hell, Kyle will be so happy to have him home.