A/N: The last five chapters of this story contain pretty much everything I've been looking forward to writing, so even the big bang probably won't slow me down too much, though there likely won't be weekly updates. Thanks to all of you who have let me know that you're reading, and thanks so much to julads for reading drafts and giving me feedback!


It seemed as if the entire town turned up for Butters' funeral, with the very obvious exception of Cartman. Tweek, Ruby and Craig were all in attendance, and Kyle supposed Cartman's excuse was that he had to stay and run his booth, which had both reopened and expanded. Normally Kyle would have taken Cartman's increasing financial success as very bad news, but he seemed to have reached a stage in his black market career where he could charge fair prices for a wider variety of products, including some fruits and vegetables that hadn't been seen in South Park in years. No one was sure who his supplier was. Wendy was investigating him, quietly.

Stan was silent during the ride to the funeral, and he did not want to mingle before or after the service. Kyle had expected this, and nodded in agreement when Stan expressed a lack of interest in attending the reception. Stan had been right about Clyde: he was wearing his full dress uniform, including medals. Craig was wearing his as well, and Kyle thought he looked uncomfortable. As they were leaving the cemetery, Kyle thought he saw Kenny lurking in the distance, crossing between mausoleums and smoking a cigarette. He suspected it was some sort of trick of the light or stress-induced hallucination, and he didn't mention it to Stan.

"What did you think of the service?" Kyle asked when they were on their way back to the house in the truck. Jimbo and Ned had stayed for the reception.

"Pretty much what I expected," Stan said. "That religious bullshit."

Kyle was afraid to ask Stan if he still believed in God. He felt as if he heard the answer anyway, in the heavy silence that followed.

"There's supposed to be a bad storm tonight," Kyle said, though Stan had been there during these conversations at the church and the graveside, too. "People were, you know. Saying so, anyway."

"Well, we've got food," Stan said. He sounded only mildly irritated, and this was such a cheerful development that Kyle wanted to touch Stan's shoulder with gratitude. Anytime they had a banal exchange that wasn't filled with stomach-clenching emotional weight, Kyle's heart soared.

"Tweek looked awful, did you notice?" Kyle asked. "I haven't seen him around the market much lately, not even at Cartman's booth. I think that was the first time I'd seen him since you guys got home." He regretted saying 'you guys,' because Butters was dead, and 'home,' because he feared that what they'd offered Stan at his house hardly felt like that.

"He never looked that great to me to begin with," Stan said. "In school he was always hunched and tense. Especially after his parents, you know."

"Yeah," Kyle said. Tweek's father had been killed in combat, and his mother had been killed when the movie theater was bombed; Tweek Brothers Coffee had been right next door. "Do we know anyone with a surviving set of parents?" Kyle asked.

"Wendy," Stan said. "And Clyde." He scoffed.

"You must worry about Bebe," Kyle said.

"She was doing okay when they packed me off," Stan said. "Crying, and. I didn't really get the memo that Butters wasn't going to make it until we got home. Bebe knew, I think. She said her goodbyes. Effing Cartman. He couldn't tear himself away from his empire for an hour, just out of respect for Butters' mom?"

"Nothing he does surprises me," Kyle said, though that wasn't true, and perhaps Stan knew where Kyle's thoughts had wandered to, because he reached over to touch Kyle's thigh.

"I still have dreams where you let me kill him," Stan said.

"Stan," Kyle said, disturbed. He was sorry for his tone when Stan took his hand away. "It took me a long time to figure out that he's not even worth hating," Kyle said.

"It's not like I'm sitting here making the decision to hate him," Stan said. "I just do."

The house was quiet and chilly when they returned, and Kyle made a fire in the den, which he was beginning to think of as a bedroom that belonged partially to him. Stan was in the kitchen, putting together a snack of some kind. They'd done their best to move everything into his reach, but he still couldn't use the kitchen sink.

"Want to talk about our memories of Butters or something?" Kyle asked, feeling awkward as he stood watching Stan eat some black market peanut butter off of stale government issue bread.

"Well," Stan said, his mouth full. "I remember the first time he killed somebody, if you want to hear about that."

"I don't know," Kyle said. He sat beside Stan, dragging his chair closer. "Do I?"

"It wasn't anything too dramatic," Stan said. "We exchanged fire with some Canadians in Montana, near the border, when we were on a restocking mission. It was me, Butters, a guy from California and two senior officers. There were just three guys who ran up on us, and we mowed them down, and then there was this fourth guy who came out of nowhere, and Butters was the one who got him. I guess we were all sort of stunned, and congratulating him, because he'd never had good aim in BCT." Stan was holding what was left of his bread with both hands, staring at it. "He got real quiet and white. Everybody knew he didn't really want to be there. He was just trying to impress his old man, and, Jesus, maybe Cartman, too. He didn't find out about his dad until we got back."

"What did you do with the bodies?" Kyle asked. "Of the Canadians, I mean?" He wasn't sure if he should add that Stan didn't have to tell him if he didn't want to.

"Well, Kyle, what do you think?" Stan asked, and he laughed meanly. "We took their guns and left the rest for the wolves. The wolf population is out of control, did you know that? Do they tell you that kind of stuff, here? I'd never heard it. They're not normally scavengers, but I guess the lower tier wolves who might have starved otherwise, they'd been feasting easy for ten years. When we'd have to camp on the trek between the forts, Jesus, it was horrible. The howling, I mean. There were stories about smaller units being eaten alive by some of the big packs."

"God," Kyle said. He'd wanted some peanut butter himself, but now he felt sick. Stan set the rest of his bread down and wiped his hands on his pants.

"You asked," Stan said.

"I'm not mad," Kyle said. "I want to hear this. You didn't tell me this kind of stuff. In your letters, I mean."

"I didn't have much time for writing once we were in the shit." Stan winced and pounded the table with his fist. "I need to see about having this chip out," he said.

"Please," Kyle said. "I know it's frustrating, but-"

"You don't know what frustration is, okay?" Stan said. He left the table, wheeling himself into the bedroom. Fairly sure that he shouldn't follow, Kyle made himself busy with chores until Jimbo and Ned returned. He was glad to have the noise of them in the house again, something to listen to other than the silence from the den and imaginary wolves howling in his head.

"Where's the big guy?" Jimbo asked. He had about a thousand different nicknames for Stan, all of them well-intentioned but demeaning.

"Having a nap," Kyle said. He lowered his voice. "I think it look a lot out of him, today."

"Well, I'm sure that's true," Jimbo said. He took off his furry hunting hat, and without its shadow on his face Kyle could see that he'd shed tears. "What a sad day."

"Would you like some whiskey?" Ned asked, already getting it down.

"I would," Jimbo said. "Kyle?"

"No, thanks." He left them to their drinking and slipped into the den. The fire was still going strong, and Stan was slumped on the bed, the curtains open to the fading late afternoon light. "Here comes the snow," Kyle said, not sure that Stan was awake. He went to the window to watch it fall, and found himself wishing for a blizzard, though lasting out a bad one would be a nightmare.

"Sounds like they're having a drink out there," Stan said. Jimbo and Ned were chipping ice from the back patio into their glasses, a normal custom for them that Kyle found ridiculous.

"I could get you one?" Kyle said. Stan hadn't had an accident since that first night. He had a fairly routine bathroom schedule, and Kyle got the feeling that half the time he just went in as a precaution.

"Yeah, please," Stan said. "And get one for yourself," he said when Kyle was halfway to the door. "Jesus, Kyle. I know everything's terrible for you, too. I do know that."

"Not as terrible as when you were gone," Kyle said, and he wanted to take that back, because at least while Stan was away he still had the use of his legs. "I mean, when I didn't know if you were okay. When I'd stopped getting letters."

"You haven't heard from your dad or Ike, still?" Stan asked. He lifted his head a little. His hair was all messed up, pressed flat on one side and standing up on the other.

"No," Kyle said. He thought of them in a thick wood somewhere, surrounded by wolves. "I'll, um. I'll get a drink, too, yeah. Be right back."

He returned with the drinks, glad to find Stan sitting up in bed and looking toward the window, at the falling snow. Kyle climbed in with him, sat with his shoulder pressed to Stan's and brought his knees up to his chest. Stan didn't look at him, but he reached over to hug Kyle's knees to his side.

"Here's to Butters, right?" Kyle said.

"Yeah," Stan said. They toasted and drank. Kyle glanced over to watch Stan's throat bob. "I think this will be harder in the summer," Stan said.

"What will?"

"Just. Living like this." He turned to Kyle, hugging his legs more tightly. "Right now it's like, well. This is where I'd be anyway. Inside, by the fire. It'll be hard when the weather's nice."

"I'll still be here," Kyle said. He knew that was a small comfort, or maybe no comfort at all, but he didn't know what else to say. He drank more and rested his cheek on Stan's shoulder, melting against him. He was always a little afraid to initiate touches if they weren't settling in for sleep, but the drink was making him bold.

"You're not a human crutch," Stan said.

"I know," Kyle said. "I'm your best friend."

"Craig today," Stan said, and Kyle was glad for the change of subject, though he worried Stan had thought of Craig in relation to Clyde, and Craig's obvious infatuation with him. "In that uniform. Jesus."

"He looked like somebody from a comic book," Kyle said, and he realized that was inappropriate and cruel, because he'd mostly been referring to the combination of Craig's military uniform and the eye patch.

"I could never believe it about Craig leaving school to join up," Stan said. "I know he just followed Clyde, but still."

"I would have only been following you," Kyle said. He'd been afraid to tell Stan so, but he wanted to show Stan his every vulnerability now, or at least all the ones that wouldn't make Stan feel as if he owed Kyle something. "You knew that, didn't you?" Kyle said when Stan was quiet.

"I guess," Stan said. "I knew I was selfish for wanting you to."

"That's bull, I was selfish for wanting to go along. I would have been some kind of liability, I'm sure."

"Don't underestimate yourself," Stan said. "But I'm glad, you know. I'm glad you weren't there, hearing things go snap in the woods at night and not knowing if it was a tree branch breaking or a wolf tearing the arm off some corpse. God, sorry."

"It's weird," Kyle said. "It's upsetting, hearing that, but I feel, like. Glad to hear it. I want you to talk to me, um. If you want to."

"Kyle," Stan said, and he sighed. Kyle wasn't sure if it was an admonishment or an endearment, but he decided it was probably the latter when Stan's arms wrapped around him. "I'm still sorry I lost your letters," Stan said, mumbling this into Kyle's hair. His glass was empty and he sounded a little tipsy. "They were so great. Like hearing your voice."

"I remember you saying that. You should have seen me here, at the mailbox. My heart used to pound when I even saw the envelopes, your handwriting." Kyle was possibly tipsy, too; he finished his drink and pressed his face to Stan's neck. There was nothing that calmed him as quickly as the feeling of Stan's pulse against his cheek.

"Did you worry I was dead?" Stan asked. "When the letters stopped coming?"

"Well, of course," Kyle said, but then he thought about it a bit more. "Or maybe not? I think I decided I would feel it if you were gone. Remember, I promised not to die until you do? I felt like you would have shown up and asked me to come along."

"I probably would have," Stan said. "Selfish prick that I am. I know I've been a pain in the ass." He moaned a little when the v-chip fired, his embrace tightening. Kyle wanted to extract himself to stop his arousal from solidifying, but he also didn't want to draw attention to it. In the mornings, he kept his boners as discreet as he could. "Is this weird for you?" Stan asked. Kyle shifted, wondering if Stan had noticed his dick.

"No," Kyle said. "For you?"

"I don't know," Stan said. "Maybe. Sometimes? But it's also, like. Other than whiskey, it's the only thing that feels good anymore."

"Mhmm," Kyle said. He was too sleepy and warm to attach much significance to this exchange. It felt natural, and mostly non-sexual, though Kyle's cock was hard at the moment, mostly from that sound Stan had made when he was shocked. The heat of Stan's body was nice, too, admittedly. And his whiskey breath. The way his chest rose and fell as Kyle began to drift off.

"Boys?"

Kyle startled awake when Jimbo knocked on the door. He hadn't really managed to fall asleep, but he'd been close enough that he felt as if he'd just had water thrown over his head. Stan's arms slid away from him as he sat up, too.

"Dinner ready?" Stan asked. Kyle could smell garlic frying in oil. It actually smelled fresh, not like the jarred kind that came with their rations and reeked like it was rotting.

"Still working on dinner, but there's someone here to see you two," Jimbo said. "A couple of your friends."

"Which friends?" Stan asked, and he frowned at Kyle as if to accuse him of arranging this. Kyle shook his head.

"Gregory, and - aw, hell, I forget the other one's name. Something foreign."

"Christophe?" Kyle said, quietly, to Stan. He was actually glad at the thought of seeing him, since they hadn't gotten a chance to speak at Butters' service. He looked to Stan, not willing to leave him if he wasn't up for company.

"What do they want?" Stan asked.

"I don't know," Jimbo said. "But they've got a bottle of wine for you, they say."

"God, Gregory is the worst," Stan said, but he reached for his chair.

Gregory was still dressed for the funeral in an expensive-looking suit, his hair slicked back with too much gel as usual. Christophe was wearing a baggy military jacket with sleeves long enough to cover his missing hand and most of his prosthetic one. Underneath, he had a shirt with a collar, a loosened tie hanging around it. When Stan wheeled himself over to Gregory to accept the wine, Gregory started to kneel down to his level, then thought better of it.

"It's a good vintage," Gregory said. "I was saving it for, I don't know. I suddenly feel I've been saving it too long. I thought perhaps the four of us could share it."

"Wendy wasn't interested?" Stan said, and Kyle flinched. Christophe smirked. "Sorry," Stan said while Gregory turned pink. "That's - nice of you, thanks. I'll get an opener."

"I'll get it," Kyle said.

"I can manage," Stan said, and he pushed the bottle into Kyle's hands. It was red wine, and the bottle was cold to the touch. Kyle stared at it, wondering if he'd dreamed the conversation they'd had in bed, where everything had felt okay for a few cozy seconds.

"This place is not bad, red," Christophe said, strolling around the room. He had the sharply curious attitude of a robber who was casing the joint.

"It's not my house, it's Stan's," Kyle said.

"But you live here?" Christophe raised his eyebrows when he turned from the pictures on the mantle to look at Kyle.

"I'm helping out," Kyle said. "Like I helped you."

"He's doing really well with the prosthetic," Gregory said.

"Yes, please, talk of me like I am not here," Christophe said, glaring at him. Kyle was increasingly surprised that they'd come together. "He treats me like I am a monkey and he is my trainer," Christophe said to Kyle.

"But it's working out?" Kyle said, nodding to the hand. Christophe shrugged angrily.

"I suppose it is slightly better than a rusting hook," he said.

Stan returned with the opener and a stack of four tumblers, three of which matched. Kyle was afraid this visit would be awkward, like the one with Clyde and Craig had been, and that it would turn Stan off to company even more. There was something about Christophe, however, that dispelled awkwardness.

"I heard that pig Cartman was professing his love for your dead friend," Christophe said after a few gulps of wine. Gregory was swirling his in the glass, sniffing it. "For insurance money or something?"

"I think he was just overwhelmed," Kyle said. "And now he's embarrassed that we all saw him like that."

"What is with you and defending him?" Stan asked. "Cartman doesn't get embarrassed. He has no shame."

"I went to his whore house recently," Christophe said. "Or to his mother's whore house, I suppose. I got a bad feeling and left before fucking anyone."

"Honestly," Gregory said, giving Christophe a look. "We should do something about shutting that place down. I'm not certain all of the employees are of age."

"Take it up with the mayor," Stan said. "I've heard she's a regular customer."

"I heard she sleeps with Liane," Kyle said.

"Who the fuck is Liane, some famous whore?" Christophe asked, and Stan actually laughed.

"That's Cartman's mother's name," Gregory said. "And yes, I'd heard they have some sort of romantic arrangement that's resulted in the mayor turning a blind eye to this illegal activity. Wendy and I were talking about-" He broke off there and looked at Stan, who laughed again, though he sounded less amused this time.

"You can say her name in my presence," he said. "I won't burst into tears or anything."

"We were talking about what could be done," Gregory said. "Wendy is of the opinion that we could encourage the mayor to legalize prostitution, since there's clearly an economic demand for it, and that way there could be some regulation involved, instead of this shady criminal approach. What do you think?" he asked Stan, who was throwing back the last of his wine.

"Uh," Stan said, laughing darkly, and Kyle's throat clenched up when he realized what was coming. "I'm not really the person to ask. Whores are pretty much irrelevant to me. Now."

Christophe said something in French and shook his head. Kyle cast around desperately for a change of subject and came up with nothing. Gregory stood to pour Stan another glass of wine.

"I meant in the political sense," Gregory said. He was blushing again, pretending not to be embarrassed by Stan's unblinking stare.

"To be honest, dude, I couldn't give an eff." Stan drank, and gestured to Christophe with his glass. "How long did it take them to approve your v-chip removal?" he asked.

"Bastards postponed it for months," Christophe said. "You have to be tenacious."

"Because it's so dangerous," Kyle said. He looked to Gregory. "Right?"

"Ah, yes," Gregory said. "How I would love to have this government censorship removed from my skull. It sickens me every day to think of it in there, but the success rate for the surgery is much too low. I hope you're not serious, Stan?"

"His worked," Stan said, flicking his chin toward Christophe.

"I was not afraid to die," Christophe said.

"And I am?" Stan said.

"It's not just death!" Kyle said. "You could end up drooling like an idiot for the rest of your life, dead inside your body-"

"And I'm not?" Stan said.

"Please," Kyle said, his voice breaking. His hand was so tight around his tumbler that he was surprised he hadn't cracked the glass.

"Sorry," Stan said, turning back to Gregory and Christophe. "But I do want the chip out. Every time I slip and get buzzed by this son of a bee I think about how they did this to me, all of this, and now they won't even let me angry about it."

"I suppose you mean the government?" Gregory said.

"Of course he means the fucking government, you cow!" Christophe said, glaring at him. Gregory gave him a look of mild irritation. "And he's right, but I do caution you, my friend, to think if you have anything at all to lose. I did not, when I got the surgery. Or, I felt that I did not," he said, mumbling.

"Now you've seen that it wasn't so?" Gregory said. "Now that you've gotten your prosthetic at last?"

"Don't tell people who've lost things about what they still have," Christophe said. "I only mean for him to think. Not for you to tell him." He looked at Kyle when he said this. Stan waved his hand through the air.

"Forget it," he said, and for a moment Kyle was hopeful, thinking Stan meant that he wasn't serious about wanting the surgery. "Let's talk about something else."

"There is something, specifically, that I came here to talk to you about," Gregory said. Kyle prayed it wasn't Wendy. "It's a sport I've invented."

"Jesus, here he goes," Christophe said.

Gregory and Christophe stayed for dinner, during which Gregory told them the details of this sport that he was so excited about: it was played by a variety of handicapped persons, who were assigned to teams based on their abilities as a group, with players in wheelchairs given certain basketball-like goals while those like Christophe who had the use of their feet would aim for goals on the ground. Kyle found the whole proposal insanely offensive, but Jimbo was quite enamored with the idea and Stan didn't object, just sipped wine until the bottle was empty. For dessert there was a pear, one fat slice for each of them, and then Christophe and Gregory headed back to the Red Cross.

"Can you believe that effing guy?" Kyle asked when Stan emerged from the bathroom after dinner, having drained the wine. "What the heck was that nonsense about making up a sport? He's effing nervy, acting like you'd want to do something like that."

"I could barely follow him," Stan said. "Wine was pretty good, though. I like Christophe, too."

"I don't want you to have your v-chip out," Kyle said. He was standing near the bed, like always, waiting to be invited into it as Stan arranged the blankets over himself. "I'm sorry, but I just. I can't stand by and let you do something like that."

"Well, I guess I am at your mercy," Stan said. He seemed to be in a better mood, or at least too drowsy to fight. "You could tie me up and make me do whatever you want. I can't fight you."

"You know what I mean, Stan. Don't joke."

"I'm actually just stating facts here. Kyle, dude, what are you doing? Come to bed."

"I have to pee," Kyle said, and Stan smiled a little. "What?"

"Nothing," Stan said. "You look like you're about to cry."

"So you're laughing at me? For being afraid you're going to kill yourself over some words you're not allowed to say?"

"You don't how much those words mean when you're really angry," Stan said. "When you're this angry."

"Please, just wait until summer," Kyle said. "At least promise me that. See how you feel then. Like you said, it will be different. Maybe you'll be angrier, maybe not."

"Go pee," Stan said, and he flopped down to the pillow, turning onto his side.

When Kyle returned to the bedroom, hands washed and teeth brushed, Stan appeared to be asleep. Kyle shed his boots, socks, and jeans. The room was icy; he shivered while he built up the fire. Outside, the snow was still coming down. He thought of closing the curtains as usual, but why bother? What would anyone who looked inside see: a mound of blankets, Kyle's hair and Stan's, and they wouldn't be able to assume the things that Kyle had once feared they would. Not if they knew what had happened to Stan.

He left the curtains open and got into bed, hurrying toward the heat of Stan's back. Being the big spoon was dangerous: if they fell asleep this way and didn't wake until morning, Kyle's morning erection would be pressed to the place on Stan's back where paralysis met feeling. At the moment he was soft, and he squeezed up against Stan as close as possible, threading his arm around Stan's side. At least partially awake, Stan put his hand over Kyle's under the blankets.

"My mom would never let me," Stan said.

"Huh? Oh, the operation?"

"Yeah, never. Kyle. What if she dies?"

"She won't," Kyle said, though he had no idea what was going on in New York and the rumors weren't good.

"Do you think about your mom?" Stan asked. Kyle went tense and buried his face between Stan's neck and shoulder.

"It's all her fault," Kyle said. "You, everything. But I don't think about that. I guess I should, like I inherited the guilt or something."

"Shut up," Stan said, but it was a kindness, and he pushed his fingers down through Kyle's, spreading them apart. "No, tell me what you think about. Good memories?"

"I worry about how she died. How they hurt her."

"It wasn't all her fault," Stan said. "Everyone went along with it. Me included. I thought I was going to be a hero, like. I thought I was going to go up there and protect people without having to kill anyone. I really effing thought that, Kyle. Then I'd come home like Clyde, with my medals."

"You had to kill people?"

"Nn, yeah, didn't I tell you? Earlier? Or before? Yeah, three guys. Three guys who'll never walk again, or fuck." They both jerked when Stan's v-chip went off, Kyle squeezing him to try to absorb some of it. "Or swim, or come. I feel as dead as they are sometimes, and I think about how there were three, and I'm just one. Like it's a math problem. You know, the ones where you balance out the equation?"

"They would have killed you," Kyle said. "If you hadn't, you know. If they could have, I mean."

"You sure about that? I don't know. But you don't need to tell me that. I'm too angry to feel guilty yet."

Stan didn't feel angry when he slept in Kyle's arms, but Kyle wasn't sure what angry should feel like, from the outside. Red hot, or trembling with rage, grinding teeth. He realized as he drifted off that Stan must have taken one of his sleeping pills while Kyle was in the bathroom. Soon they would run out, and Kyle knew from his experience of working there that the Red Cross center considered sleeping pills a luxury they couldn't afford. The only place where he'd been able to find them, on special request, was Cartman's booth at the market.

They rode out the storm in a gray, blanketed blur, the snow half-covering the front window by the time Kyle woke up on the first morning. Jimbo and Ned did the work of keeping doorways clear, and Kyle did the cooking, rationing things carefully, just in case. Stan's moods fluctuated between quiet helpfulness in the kitchen and days when he refused to get out of bed except to use the bathroom. Kyle had brought Stan's letters from his house, and he kept them on the second floor, in Stan's old bedroom. Sometimes, when things were bad downstairs, he would sneak up to read them and press his lips to Stan's words, as if the old Stan was in them, lonely and cold while Kyle kept the new Stan warm downstairs.

When the roads were clear enough, Kyle went to the Red Cross center to see what kind of medication he could rustle up to replace the sleeping pills Stan had been given as part of his exit package at the hospital. He felt badly for leaving Stan at the house with Jimbo and Ned, as if Stan was an exotic pet that they wouldn't know how to care for. It was absurd, because Stan could care for himself in most ways, as long as he had his chair within reach. The only thing he hadn't mastered was getting out of the bathtub. He hadn't attempted it since that first day, and had been taking only sponge baths. His hair had started to smell kind of awful. Kyle was working up the nerve to offer to wash it for him.

"Fancy seeing you here," Wendy said when Kyle found her at the center. It was quieter than it had been when Stan was in residence, and colder. Wendy was bundled into a coat as she sorted charts, wearing fingerless gloves. "Is Stan okay?" she asked.

"Yeah," Kyle said. "But he's only got two sleeping pills left. I'm sort of afraid of what will happen when he comes off of them. They knock him right out, and. He needs rest, you know?"

"Everybody needs rest," Wendy said, her eyes still on the charts. "But sleeping pill addiction is no joke. Especially if he's drinking, too. And don't even try to tell me that he's not. Gregory told me that he brought him wine."

"Why do you say it like that?" Kyle said, though he knew why she was being this way, and he felt for her. "Anyway, um. Anxiety medication, maybe? Something to calm him down."

"Is he having rages?" Wendy asked, and she finally looked up.

"No," Kyle said. "I mean, I don't think so? He gets mad sometimes. Or, a lot. But he doesn't, like. Throw things." He actually did throw a shoe, once, but only at the wall.

"I'll look through our inventory," Wendy said. "But don't expect much. Things are kinda bleak. There's so much effort being poured into the battle up north, supplies are trickling in at a pathetic pace. I heard they declared a cease fire, though. Or agreed to one, or something."

"No word from Stan's mom, I guess?"

"Not to me," Wendy said. "C'mon, we'll check the supplies. But I think you already know where you'll have to go for anything stronger than aspirin."

"Cartman," Kyle said.

"He's been surprisingly reasonable lately," Wendy said. "Price wise. Maybe Butters' spirit visited him in a dream and convinced him not to be such a disease on humanity."

"Where's Christophe?" Kyle asked as they passed his bed.

"Gregory is fostering him," Wendy said. "His mother is destitute, apparently - Christophe's, I mean. She lives in Denver somewhere. He was only brought here because it was on record as his hometown, but apparently he and his mother have issues, so he doesn't want to find her - it's this whole drama. Gregory is weirdly invested. Here, look. I told you."

They were standing in front of the medicine cabinet. It was alarmingly bare.

"I'll go to the market," Kyle said, glumly. Some part of him had known that he would have to. "I need to get some shampoo, anyway." His theory was that a special bottle, something that smelled and felt nicer than the astringent puck that came with their rations, would inspire Stan to let Kyle help him into a real bath. He could wear swim trunks if he liked, for privacy.

"Hello?" Wendy said, waving her hand in front of Kyle's face. "Are you still there?"

"Sorry," Kyle said. He hadn't been sleeping well himself. He had nightmares, usually that Stan needed him and he couldn't get there in time. Waking up and being able to huddle around Stan protectively was a huge consolation, but getting back to sleep was never easy. "I'm gonna go," Kyle said. It was a long walk to the market. He hadn't wanted to take the truck, in case Jimbo needed it for some Stan-related emergency.

"If you wait for a minute, Clyde can drive you," Wendy said. "His shift ends soon, and I'm sending him there for sugar. I want to make a cake," she said, so seriously that Kyle thought for a moment that she was being sarcastic. "For Stan."

"His birthday's not til October," Kyle said.

"I know that," Wendy said, looking like she wanted to kill him. "It's not a birthday cake, it's a yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Ideally, I mean, if I can get the cocoa. Clyde thinks his mom has some."

"That is Stan's favorite cake," Kyle said, and he was embarrassed by how threatened he felt. What if the cake was all it took to win Stan over? What if he left Kyle in favor of being 'fostered' by Wendy as soon as the chocolate frosting touched his tongue?

"You look ill," Wendy said, and she touched Kyle's forehead. "Do you want some of that flu tea?"

"That stuff doesn't really work," Kyle said.

"I know, but it's comforting, isn't it? Some of the patients think so, anyway. Here's Clyde," she said, and she waved him over.

The sun was already fading behind the clouds as Kyle and Clyde made their way out to his truck, and Kyle was glad that he didn't have to walk, though being alone with Clyde made him feel uneasy. They had nothing in common.

"I heard there's a cease fire in New York?" Kyle said as Clyde pulled out onto the road, which was still a bit treacherous after all the recent snow.

"I'd heard that, too," Clyde said. "Damn if I can get a radio signal, though. Remember TV? Remember video games? Jesus."

Kyle had to stop himself from bragging that Ike had somehow rigged that video game up at their house not long ago, in the attic. He'd hidden it after Ike left, and now he wondered if he could get it to work for Stan.

"Where's Craig?" Kyle asked, because the two of them seemed inseparable since Clyde's return.

"Working," Clyde said. "If you're going to Cartman's booth, you'll see him. I'm going to drive him home after his shift. I'll drop you off, too."

"Thanks," Kyle said. "Craig's, uh. Doing okay?"

"Oh, sure," Clyde said. "He showed me his eye socket. Have you seen it?"

"No," Kyle said, recoiling.

"It's intense," Clyde said. Kyle wanted to pummel him. He was still a big, dumb kid, even after what he'd been through, all that time alone in the occupied wilderness. Oafish optimists like Clyde were built for war; he seemed as untouched mentally as he was physically. "How's Stan holding up?" he asked.

"Amazingly," Kyle said, feeling defensive. "Considering."

"Stan's such a great guy," Clyde said. Kyle turned toward the window and rolled his eyes.

The market was busy, crowded with people who worked during the day and could afford a few luxury items, most of them just coming off shift. Kyle hadn't been to the market since Stan had moved home, and it was nice to be among a crowd, jostling to see the contents of each booth. He spent more than he'd intended to as he made his way toward Cartman's booth at the back, possibly out of a desire to avoid asking Cartman for anything for as long as possible. Maybe he could deal with Craig, or Ruby, whose stoicism made her brother seem effusive. Kyle appreciated that in a cashier.

Cartman's booth was bustling, always the busiest in the market. He had a whole produce section now, and he seemed to have bought the butcher out. Ruby was manning the meat station, hacking up a tenderloin for Wendy's mother. The more mundane items were in the middle of the shop: candles, toothpaste, shoelaces. Kyle noticed two additional security guards, guys who he still thought of as 'sixth graders' because of his run-ins with them during elementary school. He selected a bottle of moisturizing shampoo that smelled good when he flicked the lid open to take a sniff. Like most of the cosmetics available on the black market, it was half empty, but it was a big bottle and the price was fair. Kyle brought it to the back, where Cartman doled out the most lucrative items from behind a high counter: cigarettes, alcohol, pornography and prescription pills.

"Well, well, look who's showing his face," Cartman said when Kyle approached, pretending to browse the items that were under glass at the main counter. It was mostly tacky jewelry and knives. Kyle could feel Cartman's eyes on him. "Where have you been?" Cartman asked when Kyle looked up. "I was afraid you and Marsh had suicide-pacted each other or something."

"That's not - what does that even mean?" Kyle glared at him. Cartman was smirking, in his element. It was cold in the market, but Cartman wore no jacket, just a maroon shirt with a collar, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. "I'm interested in your prescription selection," Kyle said, before Cartman could come up with his next smart ass remark. "Sleeping pills, ideally."

"Ah, I see," Cartman said, and he tapped his chin with his finger. "Drugging Marsh so you can fondle his limp dick? Interesting choice, Kyle, I like it."

Kyle turned away, and he'd taken two steps before he had the presence of mind to remember that Cartman was the only person in town who might have what he needed. It was so unfair; it seemed as if it has always been this way, ever since they were kids. Cartman was always able to hold something over him.

"That's right, come crawling back," Cartman said when Kyle returned to the counter. "Oh, Kyle. You don't look well. Are you eating? Here, have one of these." He took a packet of beef jerky sticks from his pocket. They smelled delicious. Kyle imagined they were disgustingly warm, from being pressed to Cartman's overlarge thigh.

"No," Kyle said. "Do you have sleeping pills or not? I don't want your food, and I don't want any conversation. I know you want to torture me as much as possible - fine. Do it, and then take my money."

"I can hardly torture you as much as possible in public," Cartman said. "So, we'll save that for another time. Sleeping pills, hmm. I think I might have something."

He opened a big drawer behind the counter, and when he did Kyle recognized where the counter itself had come from: the old pharmacy, which had shut down during the third year of the war. He wondered if Cartman had bought the thing from the previous owner or just smashed the windows and stolen it.

"Let's see," Cartman said, rifling through pill bottles. "Painkillers, allergy medicine, erectile dysfunction drugs-" He looked up. "Don't need those for Marsh, do you? Or maybe it's worth a shot?" He held them up and gave them a shake. Kyle was boiling inside his coat, his fingers flexing into fists, nails cutting into his palm. He tried to keep his gaze impassive, and knew he was failing. "No?" Cartman said, his expression mockingly mild. "Alright, then. Ah, here we are." He held up another bottle. "Sleeping pills, the finest in the land. Let's see, what can I let these babies go for? I'd say around, hmm. Nine hundred seems fair."

"Nine hundred dollars?" Kyle said. "Very funny. What are you really charging for them?"

"These are the only sleeping pills I've been able to get my hands on for six months," Cartman said. "They're nine hundred, Kyle. So do you want them or not?"

"You know I can't afford that," Kyle said. He was beginning to wonder why he'd even bothered. It was mostly his fear that Stan wouldn't want to be held if he wasn't out like a light after swallowing a pill. Selfish, sick, and maybe Cartman's taunting was what Kyle deserved.

"Sadly, I can't lower my price on these," Cartman said, putting them away with a fake sigh of regret. "However." He lifted his eyes to Kyle's again. "I might be willing to make - a trade."

"For what?" Kyle asked, trying to sound bored by this. His heart was pounding. Cartman's gaze was like red ants crawling across his skin, under his clothes, little bites stinging him everywhere.

"For my cock down your throat," Cartman said, predictably. Kyle turned away, so blind with anger that he crashed right into Craig.

"Jesus," Craig said, his remaining eye going wide. "What's wrong?"

"Your business partner is a sick sack of shit," Kyle said. He heard Cartman laugh when his v-chip fired. "And I'm just, I'm. Leaving, or. Clyde's driving us both home. C'mon, let's go."

"Not so fast, Kyle," Cartman said, and when Kyle turned to snarl at him he remembered the shampoo bottle.

"I'll pay Craig," Kyle said. He pushed the bottle into Craig's hands and dug a ten dollar bill out of his pocket.

"Going to massage that into Stan's pubes or something?" Cartman asked, and Kyle heard a hint of desperation in his voice. He decided this was, therefore, a perfect time to land a direct hit.

"You know," Kyle said, turning to Cartman again. "Butters would be heartbroken if he knew what you'd turned into. If he'd even had the ability to imagine you could sink low enough to make fun of Stan's injuries. Butters was willing to die for his friends in battle," Kyle said, his voice gaining strength as he watched Cartman's face fall and then harden. "He was a real man. You're just a coward hiding behind a counter. Making money off of misfortune. There's no hell deep enough for you."

"Security!" Cartman shouted. His face was turning red. "Security!"

"Hey, back off," Craig said, and he waved the guards away when they came. "He paid for the shampoo, let him go. And I'd better not hear you talk garbage about Stan while I'm around, you a-hole. Or any veterans."

"You watch your effing mouth, Craig!" Cartman said, jabbing a finger in Craig's direction. "You'd be nothing without me and you know it."

"Yeah, yeah," Craig said, pulling Kyle away. "Go home to your whorehouse, fat boy, the market's closing."

"Aren't you worried he'll cut you out?" Kyle asked as they walked away. Craig shrugged.

"I don't worry about much these days," he said. "Where's Clyde?"

"Around here somewhere," Kyle said. "He went straight for the fortune teller's tent when we got here."

"Of course he did," Craig said with a snort, but he was smiling a little.

They found Clyde at the bakery, buying sugar for Wendy. He'd also bought a few thin madeleine cookies, and he pressed one into Craig's palm. Craig shook his head, his smile widening.

"I asked the psychic about Bebe," Clyde said. "She says that Bebe's doing great things, and that it won't be long til she's back."

"That old crone is full of it," Craig said. "Don't waste your money on her. Or on this junk," he said, and he gave the cookie back.

"What's with him?" Clyde asked as Craig hoofed it toward the exit, walking more stiffly than usual.

"Are you really so dense?" Kyle asked. Saying so made him wonder if Stan knew everything. He must, even if he'd buried it for the sake of their friendship.

"Huh?" Clyde said, following Kyle toward the door.

"Nothing," Kyle said. "Craig had a disagreement with Cartman."

"Oh, dang, really?" Clyde said. "I hope those two can get along. Craig was the one who convinced Cartman to lower his prices, to give people a little help. It was my idea, though, and you know what I told him? I said, tell Cartman that Butters would have wanted that. I figured it was a long shot, but hey. Prices went down."

"Not on everything," Kyle said, feeling like he might retch, Cartman's proposed 'trade' sitting heavy on his shoulders. He couldn't shake the feeling that someday Cartman would have something he couldn't do without, and that his price would be the same, or worse.

After the company that he'd suffered for the last few hours, Kyle was bouncing in the backseat of Clyde's truck, eager to get home to Stan. He thanked Clyde for the ride and Craig for the rescue at the market.

"Don't provoke him by showing up," Craig said. "If you want things, just give me the money. I'll get them for you, wholesale price."

"Jesus, that would be great," Kyle said. He was standing in Stan's driveway, Clyde's truck emitting exhaust into the frosty air while Craig spoke, his window rolled down. "You'd really do that for me?" Kyle said, stunned.

"It's more for Stan," Craig said. "I bet I can guess what Cartman was saying about him. Knowing Cartman. And, I just. I can't imagine," he said, looking toward the den window. The curtains were closed today.

"Thanks," Kyle said, a little irritated by Craig's overly specific sympathy.

Inside, the house smelled like boiling potatoes and celery, which was the base for Jimbo's chicken and dumplings. It was one of five recipes he made on a regular rotation, if they could get the meat for each of them. This was Kyle's least favorite, because Jimbo's soggy dumplings were nowhere as good as Sheila's had been.

Kyle was glad to find Stan in the kitchen and in good spirits, laughing with Jimbo and holding a beer, his chair pushed up to the table. There were two empty beer bottles sitting on the table, and a bowl of peanuts that Jimbo was cracking and eating, scattering bits of shell everywhere.

"Hey, finally!" Stan said, beaming at Kyle in a way that lifted him ceiling-ward before he realized that Stan was probably a little drunk, or a lot drunk. "We were worried about you."

"I'm fine," Kyle said, wanting to hug Stan's shoulders. He never touched Stan in view of Jimbo or Ned, though - or maybe because - he was beginning to suspect that those two humped each other nightly on the second floor. "I got something for you," Kyle said, jostling his shoulder bag. The shampoo was inside, along with the madeleine that Craig hadn't wanted.

"Yeah?" Stan said. "Well, Jesus, today's my lucky day. Look." He lifted his bottle. "Beer! Jimbo got it for me."

"Traded a couple of old hats," Jimbo said, grinning. He was rosy-cheeked, clearly thrilled that Stan liked his gift. "My nephew deserves something special once in a while," he said.

"So what'd you get?" Stan asked Kyle, who shook his head.

"It's a surprise," he said. "I'll show you in the bed- in the den, I mean."

"Uh oh!" Jimbo said. "Kyle's gone wild."

Stan laughed hard, and Kyle went into the den, blushing. He shut the door behind him, and was working on the fire when Stan opened the door and rolled inside.

"Hey," he said. "Kyle, always working. Come have a beer."

"I'm not always working," Kyle said. He felt like he spent half his time sleeping, keeping Stan company in the bed. "And, no, you should have the beers. Jimbo got them for you. I don't like beer, anyway."

"I closed the door," Stan said.

"I can see that."

"So? What's this secret thing you bought?"

"Well," Kyle said, and he stood, sighing. "First off, and I wasn't sure I would tell you this, but. I tried to get you some more sleeping pills, and I couldn't."

"What - oh." Stan nodded. "I'm almost out. Yeah, I'll try sleeping without them. Save those last two for a really bad night, or whatever. Hey, and don't. You don't have to buy me things."

"This is for both of us," Kyle said, going for the bag. He took out the madeleine first, carefully wrapped in a tissue that had absorbed some grease from the buttery cookie. Stan smiled when Kyle showed him what was inside the tissue.

"You didn't want Jimbo to know you only got one for me?" Stan said. "Kyle, he wouldn't care."

"I didn't get this for anyone," Kyle said, and he broke it in two pieces, offering half to Stan. "Clyde bought it for Craig, and Craig rejected it." He popped the other half into his mouth.

"Craig's weird," Stan said, chewing. "This is good, thanks. What, there's more?" he said when Kyle went to his bag.

"Yep," Kyle said. He got out the shampoo and showed it to Stan.

"Hmm," Stan said. "Moisture locking."

"It smells good, see?"

He popped the top off, and something about Stan sniffing the bottle was so alarmingly erotic that he had to turn away, taking the bottle with him.

"I know I'm gross," Stan said.

"You're not. Well, your hair is getting a little greasy. I thought, if it's okay, if you want. I could make you a bath, help you in, help you out." He kept his back to Stan, pretending to arrange things in his bag, afraid to witness a change in Stan's good mood. "If you want."

"Fine," Stan said. "Actually, yeah. Let's do it now. Before dinner."

Kyle tried not to show his surprise. He nodded and went for the bathroom, turned on the faucet full blast and plugged the tub when the water was hot. Stan was in the doorway, pulling off his shirt. Kyle had gotten accustomed to helping him with his pants, and he was kneeling in front of Stan before he really thought about it, untying the drawstring on his sweatpants. He noticed that Stan breath had quickened, and looked up with cautious wonder when Stan touched his hair.

"You could get in with me," Stan said.

"Ha." Kyle assumed he was joking and stood to lift Stan up a little with one arm, clumsily shoving his pants down with the other. He gulped when his palm slid over the bare flesh of Stan's ass. "You're not wearing anything," he said, meaning underwear.

"I figured, why bother?" Stan said when Kyle set him down in the chair again, stripping the pants off and trying not to look up. "It's not like I can feel the difference, and it's just another piece of laundry to wash."

"Okay," Kyle said. "Makes sense. Want me to get you some swim trunks?" He was peeling off Stan's socks, his face burning. He was close enough to feel the heat between Stan's legs, or maybe it was more like a secret smell.

"Swim trunks?" Stan laughed. "No, dude, just. You can look at it, like. It won't bite, it's not a snake. It's not much of anything anymore, I guess, so. Just look, if you want to."

Kyle's eyes watered with humiliation, but only a little, not enough for Stan to notice. He stood and moved back before looking between Stan's legs. Having grown up with red ones, he'd always found dark pubes a little alarming at first. He must have glimpsed Stan's at some point when they were younger, but he felt as if he'd never seen this before: a soft, uncircumcized cock. Even the color of the foreskin was soft, pink against the pale insides of Stan's thighs.

"Okay, you don't have to stare," Stan said, laughing, and he was blushing hard when Kyle looked up.

"Sorry," Kyle said. His eyes burned again, but again there was no threat of real tears.

"Just help me into the tub," Stan said, some of the new bitterness in his voice returning. There was only an edge of it, and Kyle was glad to bring him to the tub, though this would be another moment of intense awkwardness. He wheeled Stan over and took his legs while Stan braced himself on the handle bar and the edge of the tub. Touching Stan's legs always felt slightly wrong, like piercing the veil of death. Once he was in, Kyle tested the water and adjusted it, turning the temperature down a little.

"Too hot?" he said, and Stan shook his head. His face was still pink, but not blazing now.

"I wouldn't want it to be my mom, really," he said. "And not Wendy, never her, never Jimbo. Only you, you're the only one I'd want - like this. And it's so effing much to ask, I know it's a lot-"

"I like it," Kyle said, or admitted. He was sweating, the steam from the water making him feel overheated. "I mean, I hate that you're. But if you are, or since you are. I'm glad it's me."

"Will you do the soap?" Stan asked, and he leaned back to rest his head on the rim of the tub. It wasn't an especially big one; Kyle had bent Stan's knees so he would fit.

"Do the soap?" Kyle said. He'd left the shampoo in the bedroom. His hands were shaking.

"Yeah," Stan said. "I don't like how, uh. After I get down to a certain point, I can't feel it. I hate that, so. Could you just do it?"

"Yeah, of course," Kyle said, still not entirely sure what he was agreeing to. He got the soap, thinking of the shampoo, weirdly worried that he would have to leave Stan in here alone when he went to fetch it, as if Stan would slip under and drown. He washed Stan's left knee first, feeling absurd. Stan closed his eyes and took deep, steam-filled breaths, sighing. He seemed okay.

"You can do between the legs," Stan said, eyes still closed. "I won't look. Or feel it, so. Don't worry."

"I wasn't worried," Kyle said. He pulled Stan's knees apart, so that his thighs were resting against opposite sides of the tub. Kyle was hard, but only a little, too overwhelmed and confused to really become aroused. He washed between Stan's legs as quickly as possible, scrubbing soap into the coarse hair and thinking of what Cartman had said about the shampoo.

"Did you see Cartman at the market?" Stan asked, as if Kyle had said his name. Kyle glanced up at him; Stan's eyes were still closed, his head tipped back. His Adam's apple looked very obvious, shining with moisture from the water, or from the steam. Ready to be licked.

"Um, yeah," Kyle said, shaking himself. He moved up to Stan's stomach with the soap, and he could feel it when he touched the first spots where Stan still had sensation, Stan's stomach muscles twitching under his fingers. "Yeah, he was there. Offering me beef jerky."

"Gross."

"Yeah, I didn't eat it. I mean, of course I didn't. I wouldn't eat from that idiot's hand if I was starving." He thought of how he'd felt earlier, that Cartman would someday have something that he couldn't refuse, and wouldn't give it freely. "Clyde went to that fortune teller," Kyle said, tired of thinking about Cartman.

"Fortune teller?" Stan peeked at him and smiled. "What?"

"Oh - that's right, she set up after you'd already left! Yeah, she's this old lady, nobody knows where she came from. People actually go, you know, she does a pretty good business, and at no expense to her, except for her time. I think it's kind of cruel. She told Clyde that Bebe will be home soon."

"I had a dream about Bebe last night," Stan said, and Kyle was jealous. "I can't remember - she was in this movie, or something? But she was real into that stuff, actually. Omens, and everything. We'd see a fox and she'd get all excited. Owls were bad news."

"Did the omens prove to be, uh, accurate?" Kyle was washing Stan's chest now, wanting to linger on his nipples.

"I don't know," Stan said. "I don't think so. If she comes back like Butters did, or in a body bag, I don't know what I'll do. Shit, that's a lie. I'll do nothing. Exactly what I did for Butters."

"You were there when he died," Kyle said. "And you were a good friend to him in life, you didn't do nothing."

"I wasn't that good of a friend," Stan said.

"You were so. You told me in your letters, you protected him in the showers."

"Oh, yeah. I remember trying to be funny, saying I had to see his dick, how much I hated it."

Kyle was washing Stan's arms, and he could feel Stan looking at him expectantly as Kyle's soapy fingers slid into the hollow of Stan's throat. He felt Stan swallow.

"Want me to do your hair?" Kyle asked. Stan nodded, slowly, and Kyle's cock responded with a jolting throb. Stan might see his erection when he stood. No, he definitely would. Kyle turned away before rising, his legs shaking.

When he reentered, he held a towel and the shampoo over his crotch, certainly for obvious reasons. Stan's cock was sort of bobbing in the water, and Kyle's eyes kept sneaking to it, now that he'd been given permission. It didn't seem lifeless at all, and Kyle hated himself for wanting it in his mouth, even soft like that, but not if Stan couldn't feel it.

"Oh, yeah," Kyle said when Stan leaned forward, showing Kyle his back. "I forgot."

"It's really nice," Stan said while Kyle rubbed soap in circles on his back, moving up to squeeze his shoulders. "Um, that you're doing this. Thank you."

"It's nice that you're letting me," Kyle said. He would have to jerk off before dinner, somehow, though he hated the idea of ever coming again, if Stan couldn't.

He washed Stan's hair, trying to be gentle yet efficient. Though it was something he had actually fantasized about in the past - his fingers massaging Stan's scalp, Stan's eyes sliding shut in seeming pleasure - he couldn't enjoy it, already worried about getting Stan out of the tub. Stan was heavy; Kyle cursed himself for not having begun a weight-lifting routine as soon as he'd learned of Stan's condition. For weeks he'd been too shocked to envision lifting Stan out of anything, and at no point had he thought that one of those things might be a bath tub.

Kyle passed Stan a towel so he could dry his hair and upper body before Kyle helped him out. He could see that Stan was feeling awkward, too, and there was no hiding his erection now. Stan was kind enough not to mention it or stare. He could have berated Kyle for it; Kyle knew he deserved no less.

"Put that on the seat," Stan said, passing the towel to Kyle, who folded it and did as he asked. He had a robe at the ready, hanging on the back of the chair. Getting Stan out of the tub was a clumsy process that got water everywhere, and as soon as he was in the chair Kyle knelt down in a puddle and dried his legs. Stan pulled the robe over himself and touched Kyle's hair again.

"I'm sorry," Kyle said, trying to apologize for the erection, and also for everything, just everything. Stan stroked his hair and said nothing.

Kyle felt calm at dinner, glad to have Jimbo's incessant talking to keep everyone involved in the conversation. Stan was talkative, too, complaining that he'd lost the little camera someone had traded him during his campaign.

"I had all these great pictures," he said. "Of wild turkeys, and these weird red mushroom things that everybody called zombie brains, and Butters. Damn, I wish I had all those pictures of Butters."

"We'll get you a new camera," Jimbo said, and Kyle went tense, afraid that Stan would complain that he had nothing to take pictures of, now. Stan just shrugged and forked a dumpling into his mouth.

"I might have an old one," Ned said. "No film, though."

"I could tell Craig to look for film at the market," Kyle said. "He claims he'll start selling to me wholesale. And that he'll deliver."

"That's good," Stan said. "Just don't let Cartman find out about it. He'll put a stop to it."

"Now why would he do that?" Jimbo asked. "To try to get more money out of you?"

"That, and to force Kyle to show up at his booth." Stan looked up from his plate. "Cartman's obsessed with Kyle."

"No," Kyle said. "C'mon."

"He always has been," Stan said. He looked across the table, at Jimbo and Ned. "If you ever see him hanging around, and I mean anywhere near the house, tell me about it. I'll sick every vet I know on him."

"Sometimes a guy needs a beat down," Jimbo said, nodding.

"Don't start trouble," Kyle muttered, though he did like the idea of Cartman taking a humbling beating.

After dinner, Kyle helped with the dishes, feeling more exhausted than he normally did after the long walk to the Red Cross center and the stress of the market. His hands were burning from the cold water once he'd finished. They normally reserved their limited hot water supply for quick showers.

He went into the bedroom, wondering if he should have brought a brandy to help Stan sleep. He was awake, in bed, staring at the fire.

"You worry too much about Cartman," Kyle said as he undressed. "He's just a petty bully."

"Hm. What he did to you wasn't petty, to me."

"Let's not get into it all over again," Kyle said, stopping himself from reminding Stan that he'd been drunk, and that he would never let his guard down like that again, not outside of the house. He pulled on the fleece sweatshirt that he slept in and stepped out of his pants, hurrying into the blankets.

"I just get a bad feeling, sometimes," Stan said, pulling Kyle to him. He smelled a little doughy from all the dumplings he'd consumed, and his hair was still damp. "When you're away from me," Stan said. He was speaking so softly that Kyle expected to be kissed, dazed by this development. Stan didn't kiss him, but he tucked Kyle to his chest under the blankets.

"It's because of when we were kids," Kyle said. He moved his leg against Stan's, and swallowed down his sadness when he thought about how Stan couldn't feel it. "When that other kid beat me up, because of my mom. That's why you're all, like. Paranoid that I'm going to get clobbered."

"Maybe," Stan said. He was quiet for a while, breathing into Kyle's hair. "I got attached to you," he said. "Somehow."

"You think?" Kyle said, and he wiggled his arm under Stan's, clutching at his back.

"It's the great mystery of my life," Stan said. He'd had two more beers with dinner. Kyle felt his whole body lift with the deep breath that Stan took, and lower when Stan exhaled.

"The great mystery of your life?" Kyle said, very quietly, but it had taken him too long to work up the nerve to question that statement. Stan was asleep.

Kyle didn't sleep well, and neither did Stan. He woke with nightmares four times, and it took Kyle longer to calm him each time. He offered to get Stan a pill, but Stan shook his head. Kyle kept adding logs to the fire, until the room was fairly well lit from the blaze and they were both overly warm under the blankets, but Stan kept shaking.

"Wendy wants to bring you a cake," Kyle said at dawn, when they'd given up on going back to sleep and were just lying with their foreheads pressed together, sighing. "Yellow cake," Kyle said. "Chocolate icing."

"I'm doing this for her," Stan said. "Even if we just ate cake together, it would be like starting all over again."

"I don't know," Kyle said. He had no idea why he was encouraging Stan to see Wendy, when that was the last thing he wanted. He cared about Wendy a great deal, but he'd always jealously doubted her ability to make Stan happy.

"It's a little bit for me, too," Stan said. "I don't want to face her like this. Even seeing those guys, Clyde and Gregory, it's not easy." He pressed his nose to Kyle's cheek. "I don't know what it is about you, why it doesn't seem to count. Or counts more, or. It's like you're part of me, like-" He pushed his hand up under Kyle's shirt, pressing his palm to Kyle's heartbeat. "Like this is mine, too. All this. You."

"It is," Kyle said. He was probably saying too much, but what the hell was Stan saying? "I mean, I am."

"Do you feel that way about me, too?" Stan said, his thumb moving on Kyle's skin, over his heart. "Like this happened to you, too, because we almost, like. Share a body, or something?"

"I guess," Kyle said, not sure what Stan wanted to hear. Kyle had never felt like he had any shared ownership of Stan's body. Its separateness was what made Kyle want him so much.

"Take this off?" Stan said, reaching down for the hem of Kyle's sweatshirt. Kyle did without hesitation, a kind of fog rolling in to clog his thought process. He had no expectation of what would happen next, but it felt good to submit to Stan's mysterious agenda, and he offered no resistance when Stan rolled him onto his back. Stan sat up on his elbow and touched Kyle's chest, pausing to toy with his nipples. Under the blankets, Kyle spread his legs to accommodate his erection. "You cold?" Stan asked.

"Mhmm?" Kyle could barely speak, or maybe he was afraid to add a dialogue to this. "No, not cold."

"They're stiff, though," Stan said, pinching Kyle's left nipple. Kyle sighed and closed his eyes, turning his head to press his face to Stan's arm.

"I'm not cold," he said.

"I wish I could just ride on your shoulders," Stan said. He abandoned the nipples and stroked his fingers over Kyle's ribs. "No, I don't. I wish you could ride on mine."

"I just want to stay here forever," Kyle said, mumbling. He twitched his hips a bit and withheld a moan. Maybe this was still non-sexual for Stan.

"What, in the bed?" Stan asked.

"Mn, yeah. Like this, I mean. With you. Connected."

Stan had no response, and Kyle was glad. He wanted to be quiet, and to keep his eyes closed, to melt into nothing but the feeling of Stan touching him like this, possessively, assessing his property. Kyle twitched when Stan tickled his fingers around his belly button. He'd pushed the blankets down to Kyle's hips, but Kyle still didn't feel cold.

"You're hard?" Stan said, like he really needed to ask. Kyle's cock was tenting the blankets along with his boxer shorts. He nodded, heart pounding. Stan's hand was resting softly on his stomach, just above the elastic waistband of his boxers.

"Sorry," Kyle said.

"Yeah," Stan said. He moved his hand down and poked one finger into the slit of Kyle's boxers. Kyle's whole body jerked when Stan stroked his dick with his fingertip. "Can I?" Stan asked. He sounded oddly untroubled.

"God," Kyle said, nodding. "Yeah." Eyes still closed, he reached down to shove his boxers off. They got kicked under the blankets somewhere, and Kyle spread his legs, afraid to look, shivering with anticipation.

"Dude, you're so-" Stan said, and then his hand was wrapped around Kyle's cock, loosely, maybe nervously, but so warm. Kyle moaned and let his thighs inch apart more widely. He was afraid to open his eyes. "I never knew you could be like this," Stan said, whispering. He was touching Kyle in experimental swipes of his fingers, never venturing as low as his balls.

"Like - what?" Kyle said. If Stan kissed him he would blow apart, they both would, the world would end beautifully.

"All twitchy and trembling and shit," Stan said. He grunted and squeezed Kyle's cock when his v-chip fired. Kyle whimpered. "Are you okay?" Stan asked.

"Yes," Kyle said, because Stan was still holding his cock. He twitched his hips a little, trying to fuck Stan's palm, feeling guilty about it but unable to stop.

"You want to come?" Stan said. He sounded surprised. Kyle whined, nodding. "Okay," Stan said, and he rubbed his thumb through the wet tip, spreading pre-come. "Yeah, alright. I want to see it, anyway."

"Stan," Kyle said. He felt like pure energy, barely contained, everything throbbing. He had the stupid, burning urge to reach down and rub his balls while Stan pumped him too slowly, and he didn't dare.

"Man, it's crazy how normal this feels," Stan said. "Like I'm giving you a back rub or something. You know?"

"Nh." Kyle didn't feel normal at all, but he was too close to argue, his hips working more desperately now.

"Well," Stan said. "I guess it's different for you."

He pumped Kyle hard, once, twice, and Kyle came with a shout that would surely be heard on the second floor. He felt like he'd been waiting to explode since the first night he'd spent with Stan under the blankets, and it was overwhelming, receding waves of relief still washing over him as his come went cold on his stomach. He cracked his eyes open, breathing hard, afraid to see Stan's face. Stan was studying him mildly, unsmiling.

"Here," Stan said, and he pressed his thumb to Kyle's bottom lip. Kyle licked his come off of it, hating the taste, wanting to be kissed. The cold in the room seemed to swoop over him like a flock of birds.

"Stan," Kyle said, uncertainly. Stan sat up, sighing, then reached over the side of the bed to pick up a damp towel from the floor. He wiped his hand, then Kyle's belly.

"I can't believe you just let me do that," Stan said. His voice was different, hard, hiding all the parts of him that Kyle knew. Kyle didn't say anything, his mind still cloudy and his whole conception of the world as he'd known it blanked over by this, its possibilities and limitations. He didn't even move to get warm, just concentrated on how proud he was of himself for not crying, and how disgusted he was about everything else.

Stan slid into his chair and went into the bathroom. Behind the closed door, he turned the water at the sink on full blast, so that Kyle wouldn't know if he was pissing or just sitting in there seeing if he needed to. This was his habit. After the water turned off, he flushed. The water bill, which arrived irregularly, would be astronomical. Kyle stared at the ceiling and thought about this, the cold seeping into him until he was shuddering from it.

"You never wash your hands," Kyle said when Stan returned to the room.

"What are you doing?" Stan said. "You're shivering. Kyle, fuck." He growled and punched the arm of his chair, but that would be about the v-chip, not Kyle's behavior, or at least not entirely. "Don't freak out. I'm sorry. I don't know why I did that. It was like sleepwalking. I won't touch you like that again."

"Fine," Kyle said. He sat up, and when he met Stan's eyes he saw that they both knew it was not a promise Stan would keep. Kyle was glad, and terrified. He pulled the blankets up and draped them over his shoulders.

"You look like a different guy when you're naked," Stan said. Kyle was going to ask him what he meant by that, but then he realized that he knew, exactly.

"So do you," Kyle said. "With your leg hair, and everything."

Stan smiled. Kyle couldn't quite manage one.

They spent the afternoon in separate parts of the house. Stan had asked Ned to teach him how to make bread, so that was going on in the kitchen. Kyle was skeptical about Ned's bread-baking abilities, but Stan had somehow gotten the idea that he knew what he was doing. Kyle was upstairs, sorting things into piles: what he knew they couldn't bring to market, what he knew they could, and things he would have to ask Stan about later. It was cold on the second floor, and the quiet just seemed quieter when he heard noises from downstairs, Stan's voice and the bang of the oven. He startled when Jimbo was suddenly walking up behind him.

"You okay, buddy?" Jimbo asked.

"Yeah," Kyle said. He was in Stan's childhood bedroom, holding a plastic lizard that he had been contemplating for half an hour: did Stan care about this toy when they were kids, enough to want to keep it now? Kyle felt he should remember, or just know. "We're low on money," Kyle said. "We've got to sell some of this stuff, or trade it for staples."

"Sure, sure," Jimbo said. He went to sit on Stan's old twin bed. "You really okay, though?" He must have heard the shout that morning, but would he be able to piece together the cause for it?

"I don't know," Kyle said. "I thought I was. Maybe I'm not."

"When Ned lost his arm." Jimbo shook his head as if recalling widespread famine. "That was real hard."

"Well," Kyle said. "I'm sure. But he had the other one."

"Fair enough," Jimbo said. "He felt different, though. I heard this quote once. Shit, let's see if I can remember it right - it's easy to accept other people's baggage if you don't have to bring it home with you."

"Uh-huh." Kyle began to wonder if Stan had sent Jimbo up to check on him.

"We brought it home, though, me and you," Jimbo said. "Maybe not like they did, but we're carrying it, sometimes."

"The whole war is my baggage," Kyle said, and he wanted to vomit when he heard his self-pity out loud. "My mother's, I mean. And she's gone. Dad and Ike, too. It's just me now, with this boulder of gore and grief and disappointment on my shoulders. The last accursed Broflovski."

"Nobody thinks that way, Kyle," Jimbo said.

"It's like I'm not even allowed to be angry about it," Kyle said. He dropped the lizard and groaned when he realized he was quoting Stan. "God, no, forget it. I'm overtired. He ran out of pills, so. We barely slept."

"That's a long battle after war," Jimbo said. "Learning how to sleep again. You're good not to leave him alone with it. You're a good man, Kyle."

That word seemed ridiculous, applied to him, but he was over eighteen. In just a few more months he would be nineteen. Spring was coming; it was hard to believe.

Wendy showed up with the cake just before dinner. Stan refused to leave the den to greet her, so Kyle went in his place. She looked shaken as she held the cake with both hands. It was on a normal china plate, a delicate film of saran wrap pressed down over the chocolate icing.

"Wow," Kyle said. "Smells really good."

"He won't come out?" Wendy said.

"He's kind of in a weird place right now."

Wendy looked away from him as if she had to gather herself or risk throwing the whole cake in his face. She thrust it toward him in a way that made him flinch.

"Take it," she said. "Just take it."

"He'll love it," Kyle said, easing it from her hands.

"I wasn't in love with his cock," Wendy said, whispering this sharply. "Only a man would think this way. He doesn't understand. If he would just talk to me."

"It's just too soon," Kyle said.

"I know," she said. "Patience is not a strength of mine. Baking, either. My mom helped a lot. I hope it will taste alright." Her voice pinched up and she hurried for the door. Kyle started to shout that Jimbo could give her a ride home, but he could see Gregory's car parked down the street, idling. She'd known that Stan wouldn't see her, and she'd brought the cake anyway.

"I can't eat that," Stan said when Kyle brought the cake into the den to try to show it to him. Stan was curled up in the bed, his arm folded over his face. "I saw her, through the window. Driving off with Gregory. That's good."

"She still loves you," Kyle said. He felt numb, and very far away from Stan now, or at least from this Stan. After spending hours upstairs with his old things, he felt closer to the Stan he'd lost, his boyhood friend, the one who had cried when Randy released the squirrel Stan had been keeping in his closet. Kyle had called that thing Nutcase, because he was afraid of its manic energy, and Stan had insisted that its proper name was Fry, since they'd found it eating some french fries near a garbage can. They'd been six years old, then, and only two years away from the war.

"Leave me alone," Stan said when Kyle lingered with the cake, feeling like an idiot. It was as if he'd made the thing himself, in hopes of winning his own Stan back, the old one.

Kyle took the cake into the kitchen and set it on the table. The house was quiet; Jimbo had gone to the market with some of the things Kyle had set aside to sell. Ned was somewhere upstairs, doing whatever it was he did all day. Kyle removed the saran wrap carefully, and laid it flat on the table so he could reuse it when he put the cake away. Unless he ate the whole thing, which was a possibility. He got himself a fork.

The cake was good, made with love. Kyle choked that particular ingredient down bitterly. He'd joylessly demolished a quarter of the cake by the time Ned appeared in the kitchen doorway.

"What's that?" Ned asked.

"I don't know," Kyle said. He wiped frosting from his lips. "I'm wasting food. I'll put it up, I just. Jesus, this is the longest day."

"Do you want one?" Ned asked, getting the bourbon down from the top of the fridge. Where Stan couldn't reach it; Kyle had considered this before. He accepted a glass, but he didn't really want to drink it. He brought it into the den and set it on Stan's bedside table, built up the fire, and got himself a book from Randy's old office upstairs: Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions.

Stan woke up when Jimbo came home, his truck crunching up the driveway. Kyle was in bed, on the opposite side, reading by candlelight. They had power, but there was no use wasting light bulbs when a candle would suffice. He pretended not to notice that Stan was awake. Stan heaved a couple of heavy sighs.

"Did you eat some?" he asked.

"Huh?" Kyle looked up from the book; he'd barely read three pages, had mostly been zoning out and thinking about Stan's hand on his cock and what it would mean, or not mean, in terms of the rest of his life. "Oh, the cake. Yeah, I had a few bites."

"Was it good?" Stan asked. He was lying on his back now, his arm draped over his eyes.

"Yeah," Kyle said. "How'd your baking go? I didn't see any bread out there."

"First experiment was a failure, but we have some ideas about how to improve. I threw the least offensive pieces out for the birds."

"I'm sure they'll appreciate it." Kyle looked back to his book. His heart was hammering. He wanted to ask Stan what they were to each other now, though he knew Stan wasn't sure, either. Stan crawled over to him and rested his head on Kyle's thigh. Kyle stroked his hair, pretending to read.

"Volcanoes?" Stan said.

"I'm working my way through your dad's geology books," Kyle said. "This was more exciting than tectonic plates."

"I see." Stan pulled himself up with a grunt, until his head was resting on Kyle's shoulder. "I smell that chocolate," he said.

"You want some?" Kyle asked.

He hadn't intended for Stan to interpret that as an invitation to kiss him, but he let Stan turn his face and lick his lips apart. Kyle opened for him and offered answering swipes of his tongue, pushing the taste of frosting into Stan's mouth. He felt hot all over, not sure he was allowed to enjoy this. He was a surrogate, a middleman, lamely relaying what Stan really wanted from Wendy, her sweeter taste. Still, when Stan pulled back to kiss Kyle's cheeks, Kyle collapsed into the feeling of having any part of something Stan wanted.

"Open your legs," Stan whispered. "I want to feel it get hard."

Kyle did as was asked, holding back tears. They both watched Stan's hand on his cock with a kind of solemnity, and Kyle was comforted by the fact that Stan's breath had quickened, as if there was something actually at stake for him here. Kyle wanted to be able to give orders, too, wanted to say, kiss me, I want to feel like you love me. He knew Stan did, actually. But it wasn't as simple as that.

"Guys?" Jimbo said, from the other side of the door, and Stan's hand went still. Kyle pulled the blankets up to cover himself.

"Yeah?" Stan said.

"Got two more beers out here if you're interested."

"In a minute," Stan said. He leaned over to bite at Kyle's neck, gently, then his ear lobe, less gently. Kyle whined at the back of his throat, thrashed up into Stan's grip, and came. "Oh, God," Stan whispered, watching. "I love the way it sorta jumps when it goes off."

Kyle was aware that Stan was speaking about dicks generally. He rolled against Stan's chest and clung, unwilling to let him get away this time. Stan rested his cheek on Kyle's head.

"I wouldn't be doing this if I thought you'd be happier someplace else," Stan said.

"I wouldn't be," Kyle said, and he grabbed a handful of the front of Stan's sweater, holding it over his face and breathing in his smell. He couldn't get Stan close enough, even now.

"That's not your fault," Stan said. "That you couldn't be happy somewhere else, that there's no other place for you - that's the world's fault. And maybe mine, too. But I know, dude. I know."

Kyle fell asleep like that, and dreamed that Stan carried him into the kitchen and placed him lovingly into a chair at the table. He realized, once there, that Stan had taken his ability to walk. There were cakes all over the table, and Wendy was at the oven with Butters, making more of them.

"Kyle and I worked it out," Stan told Butters while Wendy decorated a tall wedding cake with yellow roses. "He doesn't even want his legs that much, so we figured I might as well use them."

This was a lie, and Kyle knew it in the dream, but he said nothing. He was stuffing his face with cake, grabbing it by the handful, ruining carefully applied frosting.

He woke up when Stan moved away from him, toward his chair. Kyle was still groggy, half in the dream. He'd been angry at the table with those cakes, hurt, left behind, but now that he was awake, watching Stan reach down to place his feet on the wheelchair's leg rest, he was sorry that it hadn't been real.

"C'mon," Stan said when he saw Kyle blinking at him from the pillow. "Let's have a beer."

This time, Kyle took him up on the offer.