Hey, guys! It's me, and once again I'm terribly sorry for the delay. Darned writer's block! But I feel like this chapter came out pretty good-like. I guess it's up to you to decide for yourself . . . But it's a little less action packed than the others. I had a hard three weeks. :P

Okay, and here's the part where I say words I hope you've been dreading: the end is very, very near. It's been a great story, I think--I hope-- and I've had a brilliant time writing it, but I'm about ready to close the door. The story's wound itself out, I think, and you know what they always say-- too much of a good thing can be the worst.

But don't worry. The ending will not disappoint you. There's about two or three chapters left . . . . And after that, it's only a matter of seeing what I write next. *smile*

Okay! There's nothing much left to say, so with that, I introduce you to lucky number eleven: Beneath the Jungle Gym!


Chapter 11: Beneath the Jungle Gym

It started the way many other things throughout the passage of time-- and oblivion-- had began; with darkness. It started in a way that was hollow but strangely relieving; in a way that frightened but also comforted him. It started in the state he'd been wishing he was in, the moment Stan had started talking about such serious matters. Matters such as dependency; dependency upon things he could understand no better than he could control.

Looking through the fancy words, it all began with something very simple. Something as simple as a boy named Kenny McCormick; a boy that Kyle had known most of his aware life, and had grown to greatly miss through this last eventful weekend. They hadn't seen much of him, since Friday afternoon-- not since he'd started off to Butters' aid, anyways, and been kidnapped in the process-- but worrying about him had seemed surprisingly second nature. It wasn't out of a lack of caring; simply as a well-learned habit. Worrying about someone as resourceful as Kenny McCormick was about as senseless as worrying whether or not the Earth would be eventually sucked into the sun. You knew that no amount of worrying in the world would do any good, because all hope seemed to rely on out-of-the-blue, influenced-by-nothing chance. Of course the worry of Kenny being hurt weighed a little heavy. But the fact of the matter was, if anyone was strong enough to deal the worst shit on Earth, stuff from the planet's arm pit, Kenny was the guy.

Well, maybe not the only one that could make it through. Stan would probably be strong enough to make it through such as well, counting the untold horrors he'd lived through yesterday afternoon . . . and Kyle was sure that he himself might be able to pull through if he had enough inspiration.

But Kenny was the only one who could make it through with his mind. The only one that could pull through and still be the same in the end; because the thing was fucked up already. How could you corrupt that which was already corrupted?

But wait. Wait a minute, Kyle thought, the first time he saw Kenny's face through the darkness. He didn't see it as a phantom floating in the abyss, but more of as he would see him any day on the playground, with his shoes buried in rivets of snow and that God-forsaken hood swallowing his head like a wide mouth. At first he wasn't sure if what he was seeing was a hallucination or a dream, because the possibility of it being real was slim, maybe even impossible . . .but when Kenny spoke, his voice turgid and edgy but still somehow calm, Kyle knew for sure that this was something different. Not exactly understandable . . . but something different. As if maybe he'd been knocked out as a simple avenue to receive this odd message.

"Kenny?"He tried to ask, not feeling his mouth move but hearing the words just the same. Everything about him seemed numb, all the sudden, as if his body were submerged in snow. But hadn't it been melting before? And hadn't he been beneath a freaking jungle gym, for Christ's sake?

"What are you doing here, Kenny? Stan said he heard about you, and he was going to tell us what happened. But something's wrong, I think, because everything went black . . ."

From wherever he was in space, wherever he was in time, Kenny held up one of his hands. Whether this was in impatience or concern, Kyle would never know; only that it was suddenly very easy to remain quiet. To listen.

Don't worry about me, Kyle. Don't worry about me right now, He said impatiently, as if speaking to a small, attention-compromised child. A gust of wind sounded in Kyle's ears, drowning everything in a whistling, buffering rush, but Kenny's voice still seemed normal as ever. His hood was resting lightly on his head, and by all intents and purposes should have blown off in the breeze . . . But it hadn't, cluing Kyle into what he had pretty much known from the very beginning. That what he was seeing wasn't exactly . . . real.

I'm fine, and worrying about me isn't going to get you anywhere. It's not me that he's after. Not directly, anyway.

For a static second, Kyle was not able to speak. He thought it was more the shock of seeing Kenny than anything else, but some part deep inside said it was because he knew what was coming up next. Even in the most turbulent of times life panned out like a badly-scripted movie, and all it took was the slightest intelligence to be able to see the twists around the bend. But no matter how much he knew it was coming, saying it out loud was a different story. Playing dumb seemed a better option. Playing dumb, and acting the part of the pathetic, naïve little weakling that passed out at the tiniest shred of horrifying news. It wasn't the role he was normally used to by any means, but it now seemed drastically appropriate; An important component to life's badly written play.

"What do you mean, Kenny?" He asked, once again not feeling the words exit his mouth. But that didn't seem to matter, did it? Wherever he was speaking to Kenny from, words apparently didn't need lips to travel through. "Stan said he heard news about you. He didn't get a chance to say yet, but by the way he looked I don't think it was anything good . . . So what do you mean, it's not you that he's after?"

He's not going to hurt me, Kyle. Trust me. If he was going to, he'd have already done it, The Kenny-thing said, stepping just a little bit closer to wherever Kyle was looking at him from the snow. Even though whatever he was seeing couldn't have possibly been natural, just the small number of steps Kenny used to close some of the distance between them made Kyle feel worlds calmer. As if his friend were standing right there, instead of locked up in some smelly, leaky room being subjected to God-knew-what.

So maybe I'm dead, He thought, feeling his heart begin to thud just a little bit harder in his chest. There was the faint sound of a lost voice behind him in the wind, whipped away and chopped up by hard, rapid-fire breezes . . . And though it was hard to make out, he thought it might have been Stan. Stan, from a place far and insignificant to the strange wonderland he'd ended up in.

Maybe I'm dead, and Kenny is too. Maybe Stan scared me so bad that I died.

You probably don't have any idea what's going on, and that's fine. Because I really don't either, the sort-of-Kenny said, breaking Kyle out of his unfortunate path of thinking. He stepped closer-- dramatically closer, so close that Kyle could pick out fibers in a coat that most surely couldn't be real-- and kneeled down in front of him, to a low position that told Kyle he was at least propping himself with his hands and knees. One of the familiar brown-mittened hands made its way to his shoulder, and settled there with a unnaturally light weight.

All I know is that there's something I need to tell you, dude, and though I don't know how or why, I'm getting the chance.

Kyle craned his neck back just a little farther. While it relieved him greatly that he even had a neck to crane, he was just a tad shocked to look up and see Kenny's face so close. There was nothing missing from the face to tell him it wasn't real. No strange gleam in the concerned and familiar eyes. No swish of wrongness, like a black mark through the center of a Van Gogh.

Just Kenny. Kenny so real and solid that he could have reached out and hugged him. And after this time, after this worrying . . . hugging him was the thing he wanted more than anything else to do. Just to crush him in his arms and pretend like everything was normal; the way it had been before all this crazy shit had started to happen.

"I . . . I'm so glad to see you, dude,"He heard himself say, his voice sounding foggy and unnaturally slow. Somewhere behind him, somewhere outside this place of swishing snow and phantoms, Stan's voice faintly called his name. "We had no idea what could be happening to you. Where are you, and what's--"

Before Kyle could finish his concerned, sure to become hysterical ramblings, the strangely light hand on his shoulder clamped down just a bit more. It felt desperate, that grasp. Desperate, and time-compromised, as if an unforgiving wind might crop up any moment and sweep him heedlessly away.

There's no time for that now, Kyle. You have to listen to me. You have to be careful, okay? This son of a bitch keeps drilling me for information about you, and the stuff I see him doing when he finds out what he wants isn't good, Kenny interrupted, his voice so urgent and pushy that Kyle could barely hope to get in another squeak of speech. I'm not going to tell him anything, but it's only a matter of time before someone else does. He won't let up.

Kyle continued to stare up at Kenny, not even blinking as flurries of snow frosted the tips of his eyelashes. He could still hear voices in the air behind him-- now not just Stan's, but at least one more, most likely an inpatient, roaring Cartman-- but they were nothing but mere nuisances, now. Mere nuisances growing louder, but still nothing compared to seeing Kenny.

It's this 'he' again. Just like Stan, Kyle thought, feeling an out-of-place cloud of frustration begin to consume him. It gave him a small regain of strength, and that was a little pleasing . . . But he could still feel everything slipping away. As if he might faint, all over again. 'He' is looking for you. 'He' said Stan's powers wouldn't work on him, and that mine were the only ones that would. 'He' this, 'he' that. This is becoming more than a little tiring.

"Who are you talking about, Kenny?" He asked, managing to mask most of the exasperation dripping from his voice. He shifted in the snow, and was nearly buckled to the ground when a surge of blackness invaded his vision. It passed easily enough, but something inside him knew there wasn't much time left. "I keep hearing this stuff about this 'he', and I don't know what the hell anyone's talking about--"

Stan will tell you everything. He knows it all . . . He was there. The man told me he was, Kenny responded urgently, his voice beginning to sound like a slurred, broken nonsense. Kyle cocked his head to the side, hoping this would clarify things a bit, but he knew it wouldn't last him much longer. He was going, just as he had from beneath the jungle gym.

All I need to tell you is to be careful, Kyle. Do not be alone. Do not go anywhere without Stan, Cartman, Butters or Wendy, preferably all four of them. And definitely don't let your guard down. He's coming after you. And he's going to kill you, the first chance that he gets.

There were many questions Kyle suddenly wanted to ask, but only one of them prompted words. They came out shaky, thin. Humiliating.

"Who are you talking about? And what the hell does he want from me?"

Everything began to swim and darken in his vision, curling and swirling together like an ink blot in the center of a puddle. That unbelievable brown-mittened hand on his shoulder was whisked away and joined as nothing but a product of the darkness, but he could still feel Kenny's presence on his body like heat. He heard his voice one last time before the sheet of blackness fell over him again, but the words were desperately hollow. Hollow, and far away, as if being shouted from a mountaintop two miles behind.

Remember what I said. It's the only way to keep what I'm seeing from coming true, Kenny's voice said, seeming to lose some of the urgency as the world closed in around him. Kyle blinked and there was suddenly nothing but black; black, and a strange wetness freezing the back of his neck. A cold, numbing wetness.

If he gets what he wants, it destroys everything. Don't give him that chance.

"But wait a minute! Don't go yet!" Kyle heard himself cry, his voice lost in a combination of the wind and that strange, growing darkness. "I don't understand what you're talking about! How am I supposed to do anything if I don't understand?!"

His fingers tightened in the snow, trying to fight back the wave of darkness. Trying to fight it back just long enough for Kenny to come through one last time, and explain everything that was so unclear. But by the time he had even asked the question, the darkness crowding him had already said it was too late. It came and billowed relentlessly into his vision, pushing and shoving like a rude stranger in the center of a crowd.

The next voice he heard belonged to Stan. It was unbelievably loud this time, and seemed to come from directly above him.

"Kyle? Kyle, dude, wake up!"

The blackness pushed its way into the center and finally consumed him. He felt himself pitching forward in the strange, foreign snow, but before he hit the ground he was gone.


"Kyle! Come on, dude! Snap out of it!"

Fingers, sinking painfully into his shoulder blades. Blades of sunlight winking at the thin membranes of his closed, twitching eyelids. Worst of all, that numbness. Up and down the backs of his legs and all over his back, ending in that sensitive spot of bare skin just beneath the place his hat stopped covering.

I'm on my back. Somehow I've ended up on my back, but I don't remember how I--

"Kyle! Come on, dude, I know you're in there!"

His thoughts were interrupted by a rough, powerful shake. The origins of the jostling came from the voice directly above him, and from the fingers currently sinking like dull spikes into the meat of his shoulders. The back of his head drummed lightly against the hard ground with the force of the shake.

"Wake up!"

As if for emphasis, this last phrase was punctuated by an extra-hard jolt. It was enough to send Kyle's head onto the ground with a just-passing-uncomfortable force, but the pain was a lot less than unwelcome. If anything, it was invited; because at feeling it, the world around Kyle suddenly seemed to rush back into focus. Kids laughing all around them, scattering shadows and darts of light as they crawled like monkeys over the jungle gym. Screams distorted by the Doppler effect as merry-go-rounds were spun into blurs.

Recess. The sounds of recess, and the precious foundations of reality.

The place without Kenny. Without his strange, ominous warnings.

"Kyle? Are you awake?"

The fingers currently butchering his shoulder blades tightened once again as they prepared for yet another shake. Kyle might have kept pretending he was asleep, just to humor his spastic best friend-- the anger seemed to have washed away, for now, somewhat thankfully- but decided that might be just a tad too cruel. Judging by the sound of Stan's voice, he was terrified. Why scare him more than necessary, especially counting the unnamed things he'd lived through yesterday afternoon?

So thinking this, he brought up both his hands and placed them on those currently torturing his shoulder blades. Smiling slightly at the surprised gasp from above him he lifted on the hands and stripped them off, aware that moving made his arms feel like Jell-O. Like half-congealed Jell-O.

"Jesus Christ, dude. I know you're worried, but try not to kill me," He said, managing to make his tone light and halfway-playful. He opened his eyes and was forced to squint at the strip of sunlight winking down at him, blocked only by the swell of his best friend's head crouching above. "What the hell are you doing? My wrists are already useless-- why not break my shoulders, too, while we're at it?"

There was one shocked, concerned moment, and then an exhausted smile spread across Stan's face. It came gradually and dreadfully slow, like the smallest drop of water weathering its way through layers of compressed rock . . . But it was eventually there, and that perhaps thrilled Kyle most of all. Especially counting the way he'd looked yesterday night, and not five minutes ago before everything had went black. Grave. Severe. And deadly serious, as serious as an assassination.

"Kyle! Dude, are you okay?" Stan repeated hurriedly, bringing his hands back to his best friend's shoulders. For a moment Kyle was forced to wince, sure that those fingers would dig painfully back into his flesh like sharpened spades . . . But was able to let out a sigh of relief when Stan's grasp did nothing but urge him to a sit. He wasn't sure how his body would respond to it but he did as his best friend wanted anyhow, still too dazed to offer any vigorous sort of protest. Dazed, and just a tiny bit scared. Had he really just seen what he thought he did? Had he really just seen . . . Kenny?

"I'm . . . okay, dude," he responded meekly, grabbing hold of Stan's coat to better ease the action of raising his head. When he was fully upright he was shocked to find himself staring straight into the brown bedroom eyes of miss best-friend's-girlfriend herself, and just a little touched to see the concerned water lining the rims of her eyes. Even after so traumatic an experience, seeing her face brought a dark twist of resentment to his heart. But it seemed subtler, somehow. Less concentrated. And that was good, considering how close she was sitting to him; because beforehand, he had a feeling he might have snapped at her. He'd just been so angry.

"Are you sure? You're very pale," Wendy said simply. Her hands were folded in her lap, but he saw them jump ever so slightly-- as if she were debating whether or not it would be smart to touch him. "Do you want me to go get the nurse? You don't look well at all."

Kyle considered her offer a moment, but not with any real seriousness. Sure, it would be great if she would leave for a couple of minutes, so he could relay to Stan and Cartman the things that he'd just witnessed . . . But she was a part of this now, wasn't she? Whether he liked it or not, and if he didn't want to argue it, Stan certainly would. She had reconstructed the tragic mess of Cartman's shattered nose, and brought Butters back from a place best described as the threshold of heaven's door. In so many ways, how was it any different from freezing objects in place or causing deadly explosions with her hands?

Not to mention the fact that talking about the things he'd just seen seemed absurd, if not stupid. Sure, he had no doubt in his mind that his companions--if not all, at least Stan-- would believe everything he said. Cartman might act just a bit sour about it, but in the end he'd be just as taken. And keeping it from them would be lying. Betrayal. No better than the very thing he'd been angry at Stan for all last night, and what was sure to be many more after.

"No. I'm fine. It was just a little fainting spell," Kyle replied grudgingly, even as he said it knowing that it wasn't exactly true. Fainting spell? If that had been a simple fainting spell, he was the Queen of England. But, suddenly, it no longer seemed right to tell about Kenny. Not, at least, until Stan told everything he knew . . . And judging by the pace they were going in, recess would be long over before he got the chance to. Unless he could get him to get a move on.

"It was exhaustion, I think. Nothing to worry about. I feel perfectly fine."

Three pairs of eyes-- two brown, one blue-- studied him with gathering incredulity. The moment didn't last long, but it was enough to make him feel vastly uncomfortable; that, and to make him question his decision regarding the phantom Kenny. These are my best friends, aren't they? These are the people I should be able to trust with anything, no matter how weird it sounds.

Stan spoke up before these thoughts could reach their full extent. Generally, Kyle was glad of this; but in the end he'd come to greatly regret it.

"Sorry about that, dude. I guess I did come on a little strong," Stan said damply, his voice low and broody as if he were possibly the most miserable person on earth. He looked up and smiled, but it did not reach his eyes. They remained misty and subdued. "But I didn't know what to say. It was eating at me all night long."

Something very unpleasant struck Kyle's mind-- You know what was eating me all night long? Your fucking betrayal. That's what-- But his natural reactions as a lifetime best friend trumped out any unnecessary hostilities. Despite feeling dangerously woozy he managed to bring up a shaking hand and lay it firmly on Stan's shoulder, for the moment not caring about the potentially moody glint in his best friend's eyes.

"Don't worry about it, dude. You had a hard day, yesterday. I don't think any of us could even beg to compare," He said, through the scattering darts of sunlight and cheery, all-around laughter of their fellow classmates. How ironic it seemed, to hear them laugh. How ironic, counting the amount of times lately Kyle had found himself hard-pressed not to burst into tears.

"If you don't think you're ready to tell us yet, then don't. It'll be better, I think. Better for all of us. What good will you be if you're jumping at shadows?"

Stan gave a narrow smile, at this. After seeing it, Kyle thought it might have been better if he hadn't have smiled at all; because it prompted a large and rather feisty goose to go walking across his grave.

"Nah, I think it's better if I get it all out now. Besides that, there's not really much more to say," He said, his voice having regained half of its original tone and cheerfulness. Kyle could think of no other reason for this, other than the fact that he had spoken to Stan without a shred of last night's anger. This realization made him feel positively wretched. "He never came out and said it, but I think he was threatening your life, Kyle. Yours, and Kenny's."

"Who?" Kyle demanded, his frustration getting the better of him. But who could blame him? This alleged 'he' was really starting to grate on his nerves, and their time here alone was really starting to wear down. He had no idea how long he'd been passed out, but certainly long enough to cut their time short at least ten minutes. "Who was threatening my life?"

Stan paused a moment, and looked at the ground uneasily. At his silence Wendy shifted a little closer into him, leaving Cartman brazen and alone in the corner. For perhaps the first time since Kyle had known him, the fatass didn't seem to mind the isolation. He was staring at the ground intently, as if it might have grown patterns.

"You see? That's the thing," Stan remarked quietly, his brows furrowing softly as he looked to the side of Kyle. His eyes found his again eventually, but the vacant look in them made Kyle believe he was looking through him rather than at him. And not even Wendy's closeness seemed to offer any help. "I'm not exactly sure what I saw. I think to make it make any sense at all, I'd have to start from the beginning. And I'm not sure if we have time anymore."

Cartman scoffed. He began rattling off something to the nature of Kyle's being a little pussy and fainting like a fag, but Kyle was too busy looking around their secret hiding place to do much for noticing. It was a little dumb to call the place 'secret' considering how every child in the entire school had been previously inclined to reap its benefits-- mostly as a romantic grotto to drag overeager, underage girlfriends, much to Kyle's constant confusion-- but when it came to the people who really mattered, the teachers, the nook was fairly hidden. He wasn't sure if this had something to do with their simple carelessness or not, but on previous occasions under here they had seemed strictly invisible come round-up time. Not even Mackey seemed to notice them, and he had eyes like a freaking heat-seeking missiles. It was a miracle bordering on magical. And, considering the current condition of things, Kyle wasn't so sure if it could be called anything but.

He opened his mouth to speak, praying like hell he wouldn't regret it. There was a moment's hesitation as a nosy Clyde briefly poked in his head to investigate things, and then he said, "I think we have time if we just stay here. We can just tell Garrison we were in the bathroom. He'd never know the difference."

Wendy's eyes widened, a little. Kyle understood the expression completely, knowing full well what it felt like to fear the wrath of overbearing adults . . . But Kenny's voice in his head was still replaying itself over and over. And it said Get the story. Force it out of him. Get Stan to talk, because he knows everything.

It also said stay together. But that was an issue for later on in the day.

"If we're all gone? Of course he'll know the difference!" Wendy cried, her voice teetering on the edge of something fit to be called building hysteria. Stan's tortured eyes flickered up to her, briefly, but the spark died as soon as it lit. Goody. "And you're sick! You need to go home and rest, not sit around worrying yourself out over--"

"We'll tell him we were in the bathroom, or something. It's not a big deal," Kyle said stiffly, trying to pull off some semblance of sentiment in his voice. By the way Wendy reacted, the slight paling of her face and straightening of her back as if someone had ran a nail up a chalkboard, he knew he had drastically failed. "I think we need to hear this, now. I think it would be better for Stan if he gets it out . . . And better for Kenny. So we can know what to do, here."

Wendy took in a breath, as if preparing to speak. Kyle fixed her with his eyes, which felt gritty and irritated from his spell of unconscious slumber . . . And, surprisingly, the need to speak her mind seemed to vanish. Her mouth closed on itself with a nearly comical snap, and she turned to her emotional boyfriend with a defeated frown on her face. Damn, Kyle had time to think. I must be more intimidating than I thought.

He scooted a bit more toward Stan, fighting past a wave of wooziness that threatened to bring him to his knees. Damn Kenny. If he ever saw him again-- when I see him again, He corrected, though he knew it might be false hope-- he owed him a nice, swift kick to the balls.

"Are you ready, Stan? Wendy's a little right, you know. We don't have all day, but if you aren't ready . . ."

Stan looked back up at Kyle with a vaguely stupefied look on his face. Kyle got the feeling it was related to his sudden 180 in moods, but it also could have been from the way he'd brushed off Wendy. Smooth, and skillful. A method he'd never mastered before, and especially as of late. Because lately, he'd been fragile. Perturbed.


"Are . . . Are you sure, dude?" Stan asked tentatively, his tone regaining some of its normal influence. He was looking at Kyle as if he were a stranger, but he was pleased to see that his eyes still held a great deal of trust. "You still look really pale, and I don't want to be responsible if you fall over and pass out again--"

"Yes, Stan. I'm totally sure," Kyle half-snapped, trying to hide the irritation in his voice. Or, if not exactly irritation, suspense. Because despite how vehemently he tried to console her, Wendy was right. Garrison would notice they were gone, and he wouldn't be happy about it, either. As a matter of fact, if he discovered they were gone, keeping him from a total spittingtirade would be a feat bordering on impossible.

But I can't worry about that, now. Kenny wants me to hear this out, and though I don't know why I have to listen to him. I have to . . . trust him.

He couldn't explain why, anymore, but that seemed like the easiest thing about this whole situation. To just trust him. To put everything over into his hands, and . . . trust.

"I'm not going anywhere this time, Stan. And it wasn't your fault anyway," He continued, looking his best friend earnestly in the eyes. Tiny little smidgens of last night's boiling anger spiked and tried to come back, but Kyle was thankfully able to wrap himself in a dense, impermeable shellac. None of last night's poison was getting in until he was good and ready for it to. Hopefully, that wouldn't be for a long time.

"I feel like hearing you out is the best thing to do. I think that . . . Kenny would want it." A stroke of quick, identifiable misery wormed its way through Stan's features. Cartman's head made its way from the floor, to regard Kyle with an expression that was not entirely uninterested . . . But the fatass's odd changes of heart were the least of his worries, now. It was all about Stan. Stan, and whatever awful things had happened to him during those two uncharted hours.

He saw his best friend's face light up like a traveling spark. It was a sudden reaction, and greatly unexpected after the previous events of the day. It was that determined look, again, the one he'd been wearing before he'd projected into the badlands . . And, perhaps because of what effects Kyle had before envisioned the retelling might have on him, it came as a bit of a relief. Not entirely, however. History often repeated itself, and in the past that look had come to mean he was thinking of doing something stupid.

Brave, But stupid.

Ho, boy, Kyle thought, not able to hide the tiny smile that began at the corners of his mouth. Here we go again.

"You want to hear everything? Okay. I'll tell you. I think I'm ready, now," Stan said, apparently changed by the mention of Kenny's name. "If you think it can save him, there's no use stalling, is there?"

Kyle had opened his mouth to say good, good, great, now get a freaking moveon, but naturally, Wendy intercepted. She leaned up, placed a hand on Stan's hard, determined cheek and turned his face toward her own, her body language cocked and svelte as if lusting for a deep, lip-crushing kiss. By the look that suddenly flicked across Stan's face-- shocked, a little dreamy-- Kyle could tell he was thinking the very same thing.

"Stan," Wendy whispered, her voice so low that Kyle couldn't make it out save for reading her lips. It was the rushing of the wind that did it, perhaps also a little of the tired, half-hearted chuckles as classmates prepared for the impending end of recess. It sounded to his ears like the gong of the clock must have sounded to Cinderella as she fled the castle ballroom, sprouting inside of him a turgid sort of suspense that made his skin shrink on his bones.

"Stan, please don't do this. It will only upset you even more, and what if Kyle gets upset and passes out again? None of you are in any condition to be discussing this right now, you need a night of good rest and--"

Much to Kyle's relief, Stan did not let her finish. In the middle of her long-winded, naggy sentence he suddenly smiled at her, his handsome face lighting in such a way that Wendy's words caught in the back of her throat. Kyle found himself smiling a little wider behind the irritation. This was not a reaction to the sentiment-- though touching as it was, almost as much so as last night when Stan had sunk to his knees on the concrete beside her and enveloped her in his arms-- but more as a desperate way to try and hide the sudden spike of resentment that pricked into his brain.

I kept trying to tell you, but I just couldn't. I was so afraid that the more people I told, the more of a chance there'd be of them finding out . . . And then coming after her . . .

It was hard, but Kyle managed to shut a steel door over Stan's words of last night. It was the final time he'd have to do it that day . . . And, little did he know, the final chance he'd have to really worry about it.

"It'll be okay, Wendy. I know what I'm doing," Stan said, the slight wavering in his voice completely defeating his feigned confidence. He turned away from her briskly as if the sight of her face might change his mind, and fixed Kyle with those piercing, deliberate eyes. It was clear just by looking at them that they meant no stalling. Something that Kyle had said had spurred him on-- mention of Kenny, most likely-- and now there was no turning back. He'd get it out even if it killed him.

And, as Stan opened his mouth and began his horrifying tale, Kyle began to wonder if maybe something else hadn't already beat it to the job. Because something about Stan's voice fell neutral, as he began to speak. Dead.

But stopping him now was impossible.

"Like I said before, I'm not sure exactly what it was I saw. I know some of them were the guys who keep coming after us . . . but the man with the cigar was different."


The words in Stan's story started out slow and tentative, destined to drabble on until at least thirty minutes past recess. However, as the story wore on and the suspense grew to a consistency so thick you could cut it with a knife, his words moved on to a fast, steady drone that was just as hard to keep up with as it was to believe. Soon Kyle found that he was on the edge of his seat, whether he liked it or not . . . As were Wendy and a stunned, frozen Cartman, their eyes firmly petrified on Stan's face.

If this bothered him, he never showed it. He simply continued talking, like a guilty murder suspect reiterating the outrageous terms of his falsified, well-practiced alibi. His eyes never left the floor. His hands never expanded from tight, trembling fists, pressed firmly into his crotch in a way Kyle suspected was largely uncomfortable. At first, these strange behaviors were enough to be alarming. However, as Stan's story wore on to the tragic, climactic point he'd been trying (and failing) to make all afternoon, Kyle realized the actions were nothing but a sad attempt by his best friend to keep some of his wits.

"I looked at him, tried to hurt him . .. . But it didn't work like it normally does. It just pushed him, you guys," He said tiredly, a storm cloud passing thickly over his brow. It was at that moment in the story that Kyle realized Stan wasn't just telling it, but reliving it, as well; reliving it in a violent, vivid way that none of the others could hope to witness. It brought a crushing pity to his heart, almost the very same emotion that had dominated as Stan had told the story of his brutal, abusive capture. Of how the man he deemed 'Bitchy'-- no doubt a clever description of a voice much like those of the creeps Kyle had witnessed on Friday night-- had seized him by the collar like a cat reprimanding her kitten, and beaten him senseless until they reached their destination.

"I'm not sure where they took me. The son of a bitch had me helpless-- I couldn't see a thing. I only know that he took me to the man. The man with the cigar."

After saying this, Stan had looked up. His eyes, so piercing and dangerous before, now appeared just a touch louder with intensity. They seemed to be blazing within his face, flickering from beneath a deep stripe of shadow that parted his body.

"That's when I murdered him." It was deathly silent for a moment, not Kyle nor Wendy nor (surprisingly) Cartman daring to say a thing. Because talking, of course, might break the mood . . . And having Stan close up after having come so far seemed brutal. Tragic. The only thing which dared to change at all was Wendy's hand, which crept from Stan's knee to gently cover her round, surprised mouth.

After looking blankly into the distance for a few seconds, into the declining rushes of classmates pouring into the school from their thirty minutes of blissful recess, he dipped his head and continued. His voice gained a little more speed this time around, a little more Stan . . . but still not the full-figured, well-rounded leader of twenty-four hours ago.

"I thought the man with the cigar was going to kill me, but he didn't. He acted like he was, at first, when I tried to throw him and it . . . Didn't work," He said sheepishly, his words trailing at the end as if he were ashamed. Kyle figured that, for some strange reason that only existed in his best friend's head, maybe he was a bit ashamed. And that was okay. After he got the words all out, then would be the time for emotional counseling. The first step was admitting it, right?

"But he insisted I sit down, instead. I was a little suspicious, but I did it anyway . . . And that's when I noticed the pictures."

Pictures. Five pictures. Five pictures that took Stan no less than five seconds to describe, but that became the most understandable detail about the whole messed-up story. The instant he spoke the word, the word 'pictures', Kyle somehow knew automatically what he was talking about. He knew he was talking about five different pictures of five very different boys, that carried with them a more ominous meaning than just a casual school photograph.

Our pictures, He thought levelly, a little surprised at how calmly the thought flowed through his mind. But Kenny had already warned him, hadn't he? Somehow it seemed like old news. Our pictures. The son of a bitch has pictures of every one of us, and that's why we can't catch a fucking break. That's why we can't spend one night alone without some lunatic bursting in and trying to butcher us alive.

"Kenny's picture had holes in it," Stan said, half-way confirming what Kyle already knew. He said it in a quiet, slightly wavering manner, his brows knitting lightly over his eyes as if processing something fairly confusing. It was not a good look for the boy who had previously been brave enough to dash head-on into danger. He looked like the little boy it was sometimes hard to believe he actually was, with misty eyes and trembling hands and skin so white you could almost see through it.

"He wouldn't tell me where he was at, but I know that he has Kenny. I just know it. He told me that he had talked to him, and he was teasing me with that picture he had of him, provoking me with it . . ."

"Well why didn't you blast the hell out of him, Stan?" Cartman asked sharply, speaking for the first time in at least the last ten minutes. "I've felt it before. Remember? I'm sure if you were mad enough, you could have knocked his ass all the way back to--"

"But I couldn't! I-I tried before . . . And I couldn't!" Stan exclaimed, his voice growing louder with his insistence. Kyle actually felt himself jerk a little at this, along with Wendy, who looked so horribly distraught that the world could have been ending and he wouldn't have known the difference. He took the moment to let himself feel a brief stick of pity for her. Sure, she'd went along with Stan and let him keep such a drastic secret . . . But she never could have expected this. Nobody ever could have.

Not even me, Kyle thought sadly, thinking back on that unfortunate day two months before.

"And it's not even the picture of Kenny that mattered," Stan continued, his voice once again strong and self-assured. "He told me he was still alive, and I have every reason to believe that he was telling the truth. He never came out and said it, but I think he's been using him. Using him for information."

Kyle felt his heart give a heady leap in his chest. Kenny's words replayed themselves powerfully in the center of his head, blasting into his ears as if by way of megaphone.

You have to listen to me, Kyle. You have to be careful, okay? This son of a bitch keeps drilling me for information about you, and the stuff I see him doing when he finds out what he wants isn't good . . .

Words surged into the back of his throat, trying like hell to break free and make him speak. He held them back . . . But they left a harsh burning inside of his chest.

"My God. You must have been so scared," Wendy said softly, looking intently up into Stan's face. Her eyes were wide and glassy, her hands two loose fists at the base of her throat. An eerie paleness had crept into her face, save for two bright red circles high on the apples of her cheeks. "I can't . . . I can't even imagine how afraid you must have been. All alone."

Stan's eyes averted from the sludge for a moment, and fixed briefly upon her. Something passed through them for a solitary moment, something kind and cheery and very much Stan . . . but it didn't last as long as Kyle would have liked to see it. Mere seconds later and he was serious-Stan again, the one that would avoid hurting you if he absolutely could but would, if the situation called for it, drive you into a wall without batting an eye.

"Not really. Not then, at least," He said to her, smiling a little in a way that chilled Kyle to the core. Was that the way he'd smiled when he'd murdered Bitchy? When he'd fired him into the wall, and turned him into nothing more than a gore-streaked pancake? "I know that Kenny needs our help, but it's hard to be really worried about him. You guys know how he is. I worry about my dad more than I worry about him." "Well, that goes without saying," Cartman said bitterly, his gaze still glued to the ground.

Stan shot him an odd, half-way smiling look-- the kind that said he wasn't quite sure how to take that remark-- and then he turned back toward Wendy and his best friend, just enough of the smile still present to make Kyle feel like things might turn out okay. Sure, the smile had seemed sinister before . . . But as recess wore down and their time together grew short, a little of the stress seemed to be leaving. And that was good, he supposed. If Stan walked into Garrison's classroom looking even a fraction like he had two minutes ago, the event of being sent straight to the nurse was near-certainty.

"I didn't get scared until he threatened you, Kyle," He said softly, the smile still gently curving his lips. Something about it made Kyle uncomfortable, and he might have looked away . . . But this was the first time all day Stan's eyes had held his own. Looking down seemed, somehow, like a rude slap in the face. "That's when I really realized things were serious. That they had to end." "But why?" Kyle felt himself asking before he could control the words. "I don't understand. What led from Kenny to me? And why . . . Why am I in the middle of this at all?! What did I--"

What the hell did I ever do?! He started to shout, but stopped himself in the middle. Sometimes it was a little hard to remember that, even though everything seemed terrible, Stan and Cartman were going through the very same shit. He wasn't the only one being tracked down. He wasn't the only one being stripped of his childhood, and thrown into a place he had never once asked for.

And I'm not the only one who can take a human life, He thought sadly, pulling his knees up to his chest.

He let the silence settle over them for just a second longer, let it drape hellishly over their bodies like a cold, damp sheet. It seemed somehow appropriate in this setting; in a place where fear and love and pure taintless hatred could mingle together and act as one. If someone had told him he'd be here three months ago, he'd have told them they were crazy. If someone had told him he'd be here, sitting next to Eric Cartman and ready to trust in everything that he said, he'd have called them a liar.

But as he sat here now, processing these thoughts, he knew for a fact there was no denying. Every eye in the room was on him now, including the dull, malicious ones of Eric Cartman. If anything proved the impossible, it was the fatass's willingness to listen to him.

Not to mention Stan, He thought half-heartedly, finally finding the courage to look back up at his friends again. His moods have been flip-flopping around worse than my mom's. It's not like him at all.

After a few more seconds of looking at the ground and thinking until his brain felt roughly like two pounds of sludge, the eyes burning on his skin seemed a little too much. He opened his mouth and said the first thing that came to him, aware even as he asked it that Kenny had already given him the answer.

"It's because I'm the only one that can kill him, isn't it?" He asked bitterly, suddenly finding it easier to look at Stan's nose rather than eyes. He remembered hearing somewhere that this was a fine trick when you wanted it to appear like you were listening, but it didn't seem to be fooling Stan. He still looked concerned and wary.

"I have to blow him up, don't I? I have to use the thing that's scared the hell out of me for the past two months, and everyone has to depend on me to do it?"

Stan said nothing in the affirmative. Only chewed vivaciously on his already swollen bottom lip, in a way that gave a sickeningly strong resemblance to his father. In a way that, rather Stan said so or not, told Kyle everything that he needed to know.

The answer was yes.

As if he'd ever expected otherwise.

He gave a husky, exasperated sigh, and clutched his knees even tighter into his bony chest. It had gotten a little bit more so since the beginning of this ordeal. He took the time to thank his lucky stars that his mother hadn't noticed thislittle tidbit, because if she had, he had a very good feeling he would be in a mental asylum by now.

After making sure that his voice wouldn't come out shaking-- which didn't take long at all, considering the circumstances-- he darted his eyes into the snow and half-smiled. It brought sharp pains to the hinges of his jaw, as if he'd been sucking on something sour.

"Okay. Swell. I guess it matches what they say about life, right? It's ironic up until it bites you in the ass?"

Wendy gave a high-pitched, screamy laugh. It was over exaggerated and obviously fake, but it was enough just to hear her do something other than gasp or talk about how in trouble they were going to be. Stan grinned, showing some indication that he was at least half-way amused . . . And Cartman, of course, continued staring at the ground as if it had sprouted twirling daisies, refusing to acknowledge anything save for mention of Kenny. Looking at the asshole before had made Kyle's blood begin to boil. Now, he just felt bad.

"Yeah. I guess that's true," Stan replied, his voice broken up by soft, tentative titters. It made Kyle feel good to hear them, even if they were just a little bit weak-- because hearing his best friend laugh at all after the horrible things he'd witnessed yesterday evening was a Godsend. Thinking back on the things he had just told them, Kyle was sure he wouldn't have been able to bounce back so quickly. Being picked up by three sadistic assholes, tortured beyond reason, and thrust into the grip of a man who wanted you dead more than anything else in the world? Shit, the fact that he had been astral didn't matter one bit. The murderous glint in the man with the cigar's eyes would have shined just as brightly regardless.

Speaking of this 'man with cigar', who the hell is he? He pondered languidly, touching a mitten to his chin. In the numb of the cold, the feeling of the cotton against his skin seemed nothing but the brush of the ghost. I know he wants me DEAD, but that doesn't help much. I sort of knew that before.

"So, do you have any idea what we're going to do from here?" He asked through his thoughts, still studying an interesting looking pile of sludge beside him. "I know jumping into action is probably the last thing you feel like doing, but I--"

"Stanley! Kyle! Eric! Wendy! Why the hell aren't you in my classroom?"

In a way that was nearly comical, all four heads turned in easy unison. There was a deflated 'shit' from beneath Stan's breath, a defeated gasp from Wendy . . . And then Kyle was staring straight at the short, balding spitfire that was his fourth-grade teacher, and trying to still a heart that was suddenly beating much too fast.

He had seen Garrison looking this angry before, but perhaps not ever this old. He supposed two different sex-change operations would give a man a haggard look, but it had never been like this. Never this evident. His paunch pushed heavily against the silk of his shirt, forcing gaps between the material and threatening to burst the buttons. His face looked not just wrinkled, but gray, if such a thing were possible.

Me, Stan, Cartman, Wendy . . . Hell, why not Mr. Garrison? Kyle thought, even the thought of getting in trouble not destroying his sudden need to be witty. And why not? When everything else was busy nose-diving into the ground, it was sometimes best to use the resources one already had as an umbrella.

"You're trying to skip out on class, aren't you? You little bastards! Get the hell back in there!"

Garrison began trudging forward in the snow, his shoes spraying up flurries of the light, brilliant powder. Kyle took the few precious minutes it would require for Garrison to reach them to turn to Stan, his mind suddenly brimming with something he hadn't thought before to ask. Kenny had taken the time to warn him about it, so he supposed it was important enough . . . It was just that, through worrying about all the other things he'd found out today, the issue had gone temporarily forgotten. So, it was on him to kill the oh-so-ominous 'Man with the cigar'. It sucked shit, and would no doubt be enough to set off the dreaded nightmares all over again, but he refused to let it touch his mind just yet. Not while he was here.

Because if things went as bad as he thought they might, the nurse wouldn't have a bed big enough to contain him.

"Hey. Dude," He said quietly to Stan, gaining his feet along with the others. No use fighting Garrison on this; if they didn't get up, he'd do it for them. Likely not in a pleasant way, at that. "Is it okay if I come home with you after school today? I was thinking I could spend the night, too. So we have time to talk about . . . Things."

A sharp look of dread crossed through Stan's eyes. Kyle wasn't sure if his best friend was thinking these 'things' consisted of their fiery confrontation of last night or not, but either way it didn't matter. It was being together that mattered. Not being alone. Honoring Kenny's premonition, whether it scared the hell out of him or not . . . Because if there was any friend that deserved to be listened to, it was Kenny McCormick. Especially after the many warnings that they, quite frankly, owed their lives to him for.

Warnings like the one before Friday night, for a start.

"Dude, aren't you grounded?" Stan asked skeptically, his face illuminating with light as he ducked from beneath the monkey bars. Kyle ducked with him, and was suddenly awash in a blinding blanket of warm, glowing sunlight. "I'm sure my parents won't mind if you come, but your mom will butcher you ah--"

"Don't worry about her," Kyle intercepted, trying to cut off a drop of guilt that worked its way toward his heart like a potent venom. "I'll call her when we get there."

Stan blinked once, obviously confused. "Oh. Okay." "You should invite Wendy, too. Oh, and Butters, if he's out of the hospital by then. And, what the hell, why not invite Cartman too? I'm sure he wouldn't mind being there to crash another party." Stan nodded lightly, that stricken look of panic washing delicately from his features. It must have left after he realized that Kyle wasn't coming over simply to bitch him out some more, and that made him feel just slightly wretched . . . But, perhaps more than that, it made him feel satisfied. Stan knew that he was unhappy with him, and understood that it wasn't just going to go away. The fact that his best friend knew these emotions were still present, even buried beneath ten-foot-thick layer of worries and useless hang-ups, touched his heart in a way that made him feel like crying.

"Okay, dude. I'm on it," Stan said briskly, after passing through another short, confused silence. He let another one pass, this one shorter and somehow more static than the other. "But I really wish you'd tell me what you're planning. It's not like you to ignore your parents. Dude, I don't think you've done it once since I've known you."

No, Kyle thought, looking back briefly on his relationship with them. Looking back at his mother, who used to tuck him into bed every night with a happily-ever-after bedtime story and a wet, popping kiss. Looking back on his father, who not two weeks ago used to chase him around the house with that painfully scratchy beard, and tickle him until he was fairly certain he had wet his pants.

No. I haven't, have I? He thought miserably, thickly blinking his eyes as he passed from the brightness of the outdoors to the flickering, dimming lights of South Park Elementary. They're going to be so mad. So . . . Disappointed.

He needed only think about Kenny to put these thoughts at a temporary bay. As much as he needed their love, and as much as they wanted to see him home, he figured his protection formed the higher standard. And though they could never know why he was doing this, though they could never understand the true nature of his defiance . . .

In the end, it would turn out to be worth it.

They reached the classroom door in a group, pausing briefly outside it to allow Garrison a moment to shout out his rage. After he was finished with his fast and colorful rant he turned around and angrily marched inside the door, giving Kyle one last moment to confer with Stan. Giving him one last moment to, whether he liked it or not, listen to Kenny's premonition and accept that he was in danger.

He turned to his best friend. Stan was dazed and slightly smiling in the aftermath of Garrison's tounge-lashing, his cheeks flushed a faint but powerful red.

"Damn," He said simply, speaking more to Wendy than to anyone else. Kyle had a feeling she was the reason for his sudden onset blush, but taking the time to care seemed a disgusting, inexcusable outrage. "I guess the whole world's out to get us, huh?"

To this, Kyle was only able to think one thing.

Dude, you have no idea.


Okay, here it is again-- SORRY THIS TOOK SO LONG. And I understand it wasn't the most INTERESTING chapter out of the bunch, but I sat around for days and days trying to make this work, and this is what I come up with. Don't fret though, my readers. The next will be pure win. *smile*

Okay, so what's going to happen next? To tell you the truth, it will probably be a while . . . Because I HAVE NO IDEA. I am running through about three different possibilities in my head, right now, and I can't tell you for sure which one will end up typed out for your reading pleasure. Whichever it may be, though . .. I hope you like it.

Okay, so I've got nothing more to say! Until next time, have a good time, and remember that we're only alive once! Take advantage! Do something crazy! (If it's legal, of course.)

See ya!