A/N: Oh, God. I know this chapter has probably a billion errors because it hasn't been edited yet, but I just had to finish and upload it tonight. So many Kenny feelings! I felt the need to contribute more to the fandom than just my random, incoherent flailings.

As always, thank you to everyone for your continued readership!

Warnings: Violence towards the end.

Disclaimer: Not mine, unfortunately. South Park is far too genius for the likes of me.

Chapter 5

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings
of freedom.

Just for the record, Butters had never been so sore in his entire life.

And that included the anal-probing incident in fourth grade.

His arms felt like wet, limp spaghetti noodles; his legs quivered with the mere effort of holding him upright. A few passing students fixed him with odd looks of mingled pity and curiosity on their way to class, though Butters couldn't really blame them. Before this morning, when he'd caught his reflection in the living room mirror, he'd never seen someone who had ran five miles and done fifty push-ups the night before, either. But he guessed it hadn't been all that bad. It could even be argued, in fact, that he had kind of liked it at the time. The pounding of blood in his skull, the adrenaline rushing like rapids from his hands down to his feet… oh, and seeing Kenny run alongside him. He had definitely been more than a little bit okay with that.

It was the aftermath that killed him – that was continuing to kill him. Now, Butters was not the most athletic boy in South Park High's senior class. The last time he'd played an extracurricular sport was back in middle school, when he'd agreed to one ill-advised match of extreme tennis with Cartman, and due to a personal schedule modification, he'd crammed his high school electives with nearly everything besides gym. But in spite of all this, he still hadn't been even remotely prepared for the stiffness and pain in his joints which awaited him the next morning; like someone had cut open his arms and legs and poured gallons of sand into them. Kenny had warned him it'd be tough. I don't want to push you too hard, though, he'd said, furrowing his brow, so just… let me know if or when you can't go on, okay? And Butters, being his typical Butters-y self, had not. How could he? It had been obvious that this was important to Kenny, and if it was important to Kenny, well, then Butters would run all over the world if he had to.

"When I tell him that I'm falling in love, why does he say, ay ay…" Butters adjusted the straps on his old Terrance and Phillip backpack, disentangling them from his Zune headphones, and leaned against the row of puke-green lockers behind him. "Huuush hush, keep it down now, voices carry!"

As he sang along, his eyes scanned for any glimpse of a familiar orange parka among the student passersby. No dice. He sighed and pressed the 'pause' button dejectedly. They had agreed to meet up by Kenny's locker and walk together to Advanced Psych; well, Butters had come up with the idea – Kenny had sort of looked at him and just blinked. But why wouldn't he want someone to walk with? The prospect of being alone all day, even when surrounded by hundreds of people, sounded awfully sad to Butters.

Maybe Kenny did want someone to walk with. Maybe that 'someone' just wasn't him.

(Shoo – shit. He really needed to stop caring about these sorts of things.)

Resigned to his fate, Butters was about to turn on the music again and walk to class, alone, when a thick shadow glided across him. Half-turning, he looked just in time to see Cartman stroll past. His chin jutted up and out; his fists swung like pendulums at his side. He was the very picture of someone with Places to Be and Important Things to Do, but a few lockers down, he abruptly stopped, scowled, and walked past Butters once more, this time stomping his feet along the way. When Butters offered him nothing but a bemused stare, he huffed loudly. "Goddamn fucking little pussy asshole bitch," he muttered – or at least, that's what Butters heard – before disappearing into the crowd of students.

Well. That was certainly weird. Butters scratched his head and veered down the opposite direction of the hallway. At this rate, it would take a miracle for him to get to class on time, but he didn't mind anymore. It just wasn't like Kenny to avoid him. He was a loner, sure, and they hadn't exactly been 'two peas in a pod' before this whole vigilantism thing started again, but Kenny was a good friend – had always been a good friend – and to Butters, that one personality trait trumped all else. If Kenny wasn't doing what he said he'd do, then by golly, there must be a good reason for it!

After scouring the school's entire second floor and glancing out a window in the direction of the football field, Butters slunk off to the field house. His footsteps echoed throughout the spacious brick halls. There didn't seem to be a gym class this period, and for that, Butters was grateful; just because he was fine with sneaking around didn't mean he was fine with being caught.

The pool lay out before him, vast and still and blue-green, except for the hunched orange form crouching at its edge. Butters smiled. Before he could speak up, though, Kenny's gravelly, muffled voice rang out: "I know why the caged bird sings."

Butters blinked and sat down beside Kenny, curling his knees up to his chest. "Gesundheit?" he offered.

"Gracias," Kenny replied, his eyes crinkling into smile lines around a sidelong glance.

Butters wiggled one pointer finger in his ear. "Uh… w-what's with all the non sequiturs? If you don't mind me askin', of course. I get that you like mystery an' all that, but a guy's gotta be able to keep up with the conversation, you know."

"It's a quote," Kenny said, helpful as always.

"I figured out that much, yeah. From what?"

Here, Kenny reclined back against the tile floor, splashing his legs around in the water until an array of dark speckles embossed his rolled-up cargo pants. "A Maya Angelou poem, I think. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." He glanced up at Butters. "Ring any bells?"

"'Fraid not," Butters said, frowning. "How…"

"How would I know?" Kenny finished for him. "Yeah, yeah. I know. And it's okay; I don't blame you. Fuck, I was surprised when I realized I liked that sort of thing." His left hand twitched at his side, and for the first time, Butters realized there was a book in it: small and yellow and with silver duct tape holding its frayed spine together. The words A Collection of Poetry stretched and sighed across the front in black curlicues. Had Kenny skipped class to… read? "Sometimes, I don't even know what the hell they're talking about. But I like how the words sound. I guess that's kind of gay."

"It ain't. And even if it was… well, nothin' wrong with that!" Butters nudged the side of his palm against Kenny's elbow, smiling. "I like crappy 80s music and, uh, TLC reality shows, and I'm prob'ly too emotionally invested in books an' movies an' whatnot, if you wanna know the truth. But it makes me happy, so why should I be ashamed of it? If it helps you deal with the cards you've been given in life an' it don't hurt anyone, then the way I see it, it just can't be bad."

Kenny gave him a long, hard look, that same darn look people always gave Butters when he spoke his mind, but it was also different. When Kenny looked at him, everything got softer somehow. More careful. After a few seconds, he stared back up at the ceiling. "That's really fucking gay," he said.

"I – hey, you're not supposed to think that! You were supposed to be all, oh wow, Butters, you're such a smart guy, I'm so lucky to have a pal like you!"

"Right, because I sound like that."

Butters gave Kenny the sternest face he could muster. "N-Not exactly the point I was gettin' at, Ken."

Kenny laughed against his hood, and Butters laughed because it felt like the right thing to do, and then they both fell into silence. Under the jaundiced lights of the field house, Kenny was still attractive as ever: shocks of gold-spun hair wove like thin wire mesh over lidded eyes; a blanched, bloodless strip of scar tissue wound down from his temple and disappeared from sight; his nose was upturned and a bit crooked from the infamous Tenorman v. Cartman, Part II incident in ninth grade. It was an unconventional sort of attractiveness that graced his features, one that might even look ugly on a lesser, meaner person. But on Kenny, it fit just perfect. There were those who had been put through the metaphorical ringer their entire life and emerged physically unscathed. Not so for Kenny, who had more than earned his fair share of battle scars, bruises, and bumps, and didn't bother concealing them from the rest of their sometimes judgmental world.

Butters could still remember a day several years earlier when he had seen Kenny in the boy's bathroom. Yellowing splotches covered his gaunt cheeks, and blood oozed from a weeping gash in his knuckles. He had stood there for a moment, alone, poking and prodding his reflection's wounds before he noticed Butters standing in the doorway. They looked at each other then and understood. They had always been good at that. Without saying anything, Butters had grabbed a roll of paper towel and cleaned up Kenny's cuts. He had seen the fight. He had seen that other boy getting hurt, and he had seen the look in Kenny's eyes when he saw it, too. And he had known that some things just had to be done for other people, no matter how much it might hurt you. In this respect, his aching muscles were not a problem at all, but maybe even a blessing.

Butters peeled off his tennis shoes and socks and dipped his feet into the pool. He thought of those people in distant, unpronounceable lands who were baptized in ancient seas, and wondered if they felt kind of like this. Peaceful. Content. "Hey, Kenny?"

"Yeah?"

He looked down at his folded hands, biting back a smile. "Y'know, for what it's worth… you're easily the best friend I've ever had."

Kenny stiffened next to him. Then, as if waiting for a disaster that never came, the tension seemed to ease out of his body, and he looked at Butters with his face all crinkly again. Butters loved when Kenny did that. He really did. "I try," was Kenny's nonchalant response, but the subtle way in which he knocked his ankle against Butters' let him know that he appreciated the sentiment.

For the rest of the period, they took turns picking out music on Butters' Zune – Journey and Janet Jackson for Butters, Jethro Tull and Jimi Hendrix for Kenny – and up until the moment the bell rang, Butters was too occupied to notice the sounds of faded footsteps reverberating through his headphones.

xx.

The dark was nothing to be afraid of. There were no bogeymen gnashing their jagged teeth beneath his bed, cackling and cooing and waiting for the best moment to pluck him smack-dab into their Crème de la Butters stew. There were no Visitors perched in the tree outside, ready to whisk him off on terrifying intergalactic adventures, no matter how many times he'd guiltily half-wished they would. And, no, there were no hallucinatory pink Christina Aguilera monsters, either – he'd checked and then double-checked to be certain.

These were all things that Butters knew, things that Butters had practically carved into every inch of his militantly obedient brain by the time he was ten years old. But damn it all if South Park at night didn't give him the heebie-jeebies.

For the third time that hour, a rustling sound sent Butters leaping behind the cover of pine trees like a little pussy. He was sure that it would've looked ridiculous enough in his normal clothes, but in his garish Professor Chaos get-up, with all its tinfoil embellishments and half-baked sewing mishaps… well, that made Butters feel just plain stupid. But could anyone blame him? Even during the day, South Park was the kind of town most people went out of their way to avoid, even if that meant hiking up the bill on their gas guzzler another dollar or two. That strange and unidentifiable weirdness only became more pervasive after sunset, when the mountain winds picked up and took their overactive imaginations with it.

Butters rapped his green-gloved fingers along the tree bark and inhaled deeply. "S'okay, Chaos," he mumbled. "You're on your way ta meet up with one of the smartest, toughest, most devilishly h-handsome heroes around, an' you're both gonna kick a ton of ass. Right? Right. There's nothin' at all to be scared about, b-but even if there was, you would just… just…" He curled his fist into a ball and pantomimed smashing. "You would just crush it with the fist of justice! Yeah!"

By this point, Butters was bouncing from foot to foot, his arms flapping at his sides in some sort of retarded warm-up ritual. He was far beyond caring about whether someone might see him. After all, he had given a speech to Kenny not five hours earlier about the importance of 'being yourself'; and if Butters wasn'thimself, strange, slightly unsettling quirks and all, then he'd just be a stinkin' hypocrite, and Butters did not want to be one of those.

A thin, hazy sheet of snow languidly mottled the autumn air as Butters tramped up Kenny's driveway. Tonight, there was a pickup parked in front of the garage. Its pathetic exterior and cracked headlights seemed to frown at Butters as he jogged up to the porch, mentally congratulating himself when he leapt over the loose floorboard, and rapped three times on the door. Kenny appeared in record time.

"Hey," he said, a little breathlessly. His attire was as per the usual for a Friday night: boots, gloves, cowl, indigo hood, utility belt, and skin-tight midnight blue and lavender covering the rest. The only marked difference in his appearance was a furry, blubbery cape laid round his shoulders. It looked so much like Kenny's old metrosexual parka that Butters just couldn't help but giggle.

"You – you look like Nite Owl, y'know, at the end of Watchmen," Butters squeezed out between fits of laughter, "when they're… when they're in Antarctica, hehe… if Nite Owl was a metro guy…"

Kenny closed the door behind him and smirked. That was one of Kenny's best traits – he had a good sense of humor about things. Especially the things that would normally make other people upset. "What, I thought he was a fag. Didn't you catch all the subtext between him and Walter? Total Kinsey 6 shit right there."

They both walked over to the pickup, Kenny sliding easily into the front seat while Butters struggled to pop open the rusty silver latch on the passenger's side. Inside it was freezing, freezing, freezing cold, and even when Kenny fired up the car, the white clouds of breath issuing from both their mouths didn't disappear. He frowned. "Sorry, no heat," he said, chewing on the inside of his cheek. "You, uh… you want this?"

Before Butters could give a proper response, Kenny had already hoisted off the cape and rested it along Butters' shoulders, his hands smoothing down the creases and his nose close enough to brush Butters' earlobe. He was much warmer now; Butters had a sneaking suspicion that the shawl wasn't the only reason why. "T-thanks, Ken," he murmured, and quietly bunched more fabric around his face in hopes that he might mask some of its redness.

Kenny just nodded and put his hands back on the steering wheel as if nothing had happened. Maybe it hadn't. Butters sighed and sank lower in his seat, watching Kenny out of the corner of one eye. His gaze was fixed on the road ahead, glazed with thought, his tongue absently wetting the crackled surface of his lips. Butters was enamored with Kenny's lips. He wished he could say it was just a result of never seeing them, but he knew it was more than that. They just looked so… so kissable. Stifling yet another sigh, Butters mashed his knuckles together and tried to focus on the music tumbling disjointedly from the radio.

"Eric used to love this song," he said without thinking. Surprised, Kenny ceased tapping the steering wheel and shot him a quick, confused glance. Butters watched the snow tessellate on his window. "If it came on when we were in the car, he'd turn it up full blast an' start beltin' it out, no matter what else was goin' on. I don't think he did it to annoy me, even though it kinda did. I think he just really liked the way it made him feel."

Kenny half-chuckled. "Eric…" he muttered, shaking his head. "Fuck."

"I miss him sometimes," Butters admitted. He remembered Cartman's strange behavior from earlier that day and felt an inexplicable sense of nostalgia. He'd never wanted to hurt anybody; not even Cartman. Especially not Cartman. "D-don't get me wrong, I think what I did was for the best, an' I'm glad I got out when I did. But… I dunno. I guess a lot of the bright spots seem even brighter when you're lookin' at them in hindsight."

"You're preaching to the choir, man." Kenny's right hand slid into the glove compartment, fishing around, presumably, for a pack of cigarettes, as he often did in the middle of a conversation. After a few seconds of this, he abruptly stopped and shut the compartment. Kenny McCormick was a pack-a-day smoker; Mysterion, however, was not. Little things like that made Butters smile.

"So does that mean you miss 'em too? Stan an' Kyle an' Eric, I mean?"

Kenny's expression was unreadable in the blue glow of the dashboard lights. "Well… I do, and I don't," he said slowly. "But it doesn't matter which way you slice it. Still won't change anything. Not for us, not for them. And hell, maybe it's better that way. I don't know."

Something dark flashed across Butters' vision. "Kenny! Stop the car!" he yelped. The pickup screeched and groaned with discordant protest as Kenny slammed his foot on the brake, sending it slip-sliding into an awkward halt. From where he had been hurled against his seatbelt, nearly brained with the force of it, Butters peeked over the dash. A bulky man dressed in all black stood before them. His eyes, outlined by the pleated fabric of a ski mask, bugged out in their sockets; when he finally made to scramble out of the road, it was in an oddly disoriented manner. Before Butters could voice his extreme confusion, Kenny had already turned the ignition off and jumped out of the car.

"Ken – M-Mysterion, wait up!" Butters gasped, clambering out of his seat with as much speed as he could muster. True to his word, Kenny – Mysterion – stood on the other side, nearly blending into the shadows and cobbled brick walls of the alleyway behind him.

"Follow my lead," Kenny growled. Butters gave a tiny, somber nod of understanding. Somewhere deep in his bones, he understood that this could be his figurative 'moment of truth': the first and maybe only chance he'd ever get to show his worth in this new life he'd begun to carve out, to prove to himself, to Kenny, to everyone he had left behind, that he could still be of some use. This realization, combined with how suddenly it had all happened, made him feel kind of queasy. Not that he would admit it. He was Professor Chaos now, dammit; he wasn't going down without a fight!

Straightening up, Butters hovered near Kenny's side as they moved deeper and deeper into the crepuscular alleyway. Even as the orange light of the streetlamps sputtered and faded behind them, he was hyper-aware of Kenny's every careful, calculated movement, and tried hard to mimic it. He slowed down his breathing. He measured each step. He put on his best poker face and stuffed his hands in his pants pockets so as to stop them from banging together. And when Kenny, without warning, sharply spun back around in the direction from whence they had just came, Butters dredged up those years of tap-dancing to execute the best, most heroic flourish in his repertoire.

It was what he saw on the other side that stopped him altogether.

For the third time in his life, Butters found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. Stout and silver, it shook in its owner's hand, but soon righted itself with a lethal, poignant click.

"Chaos," Kenny rumbled in warning.

Butters could see him slowly edging closer at the fringes of his vision, but was unable to move or speak in response. His muscles were all locked up, locked up like the bullet in the barrel, and then the bullet was flying forth, and it was spinning and spinning and spinning, and this was not a dream, and it was not a figment of his imagination either, and the real monsters weren't hiding under his bed or hanging from printed words on a library page or lurking in his father's heart, they were here, right now, right now, right now –

Kenny stepped in front of him, and the bullet whupped into his chest. Silently he crumpled to the ground, his head lolling forward, his arms folding beneath him like the wings of a wounded bird. Butters forgot everything else. He dropped to his knees and gingerly touched Kenny, watching in abject horror as blood welled up to stretch its spindly red fingers across the snow-dusted asphalt.

"Ken," he croaked, biting back a terrified sob. "Ken… h-hold on there, okay?"

A full-body shiver rattled through Kenny's prostrate form. "Fine," he wheezed, "I'm fine."

"No, you ain't, Kenny, but… but you can be. An' you will be; you just gotta… gotta hold on for a sec." Oh, God. Butters wiped his grimy, clammy hands down his face and exhaled shakily. Maybe he wasn't cut out for this after all… No. He shook his head and covered Kenny's bullet wound with one hand, patting along his nonexistent pockets for a cell phone with the other. There was nothing. There would be no help for them. Butters could sense the unmistakable vice of anxiety clenching around his inner organs, and the fact that Kenny was right here, damn near bleeding to death and not even struggling about it, only made Butters feel worse.

"Butters." Kenny was staring right at him, his expression serene, his fingers wrapped around Butters' shaking wrist. "I'll be okay. Go home."

Everything went white.