A/N: Okay, this chapter is finally done. This story is really hard for me to write, and I can't decide what that ... means, but now I'm to the point in the story that I really wanted to write about when I first had the idea. I'm going to use this October to post a spooky Stan/Kyle story (new chapter every Monday yayy) and then my goal is to finish this story (and Testaburger Manor, for anyone who cares, check out my formerdinosaur livejournal if this is intriguing/confusing) by the end of the year.

Anyway, well. I could really use some feedback on this, good or bad, maybe just because I haven't posted anything in a while. SP fandom is really lonely for writers, you know? Or you don't, but it is. Regardless, every single bit of feedback/acknowledgment is a big deal for writers, and thank you so much to those who have supported this story.


Though he was the only survivor from his missing platoon, Clyde's return seemed to lift the spirits of everyone at the Red Cross center, and Kyle tried not to resent Clyde for not being Stan. He could see that Wendy was struggling with this, too. Clyde was weak but mostly unharmed. He still had all of his limbs, and his mental facilities seemed intact. Angrily, Kyle thought that Clyde was the perfect soldier: he was too dense to actually internalize any of the brutality he'd seen. Stan was the opposite. Kyle had to remind himself daily that it was inaccurate to think of Stan as "lost" just because he hadn't written. There had been no news reports about an entire platoon disappearing.

"I just heard about Kenny," Clyde said when Kyle came to serve him his lunch. "Jesus." Clyde stared down at his pimento cheese sandwich as if he wasn't sure what to do with it. "He was in Bebe's platoon, Wendy said. I can't effing believe she joined up."

"Why?" Kyle asked. "She's no delicate flower."

"That's not what I meant," Clyde said. "I just thought she'd still be here when I got home. That whole time, I was imagining-" He trailed off and picked at the crusts on his sandwich.

"Sorry," Kyle said. "I wrote to Stan this morning, telling him you were here, so if he's with Bebe he'll tell her."

"If he is?" Clyde said. "You haven't heard from him-"

"In months," Kyle said, shortly. He didn't want to discuss it. "His mother thinks he was sent to the Wyoming border, but we don't know for sure. Things there—" Kyle stopped himself, not wanting to pretend he could know what things there were like. "I think you have a visitor," he said when he looked up and saw Craig hurtling toward them, thumping the floor with his cane as he came.

"Craig!" Clyde called out, as if there was a dense crowd between them.

"I heard the rumors in the market and I-" Craig seemed to be holding back tears, something Kyle never expected to witness. He got out of the way before Craig could fall onto Clyde's bed, letting his cane clatter to the floor. Craig grabbed for Clyde with a sharp inhale of breath, and Clyde embraced Craig with the same desperation, smiling onto Craig's shoulder. Kyle turned to busy himself with stripping the linens off the neighboring bed. Craig was weeping softly, Clyde was shushing him, and Kyle found the whole thing embarrassing. It made his eyes sting to imagine that he might receive Stan this way.

"Your eye?" Clyde said.

"It's nothing," Craig said, his voice muffled, buried against Clyde's sleeve. "You're here."

Kyle left them to their reunion, bringing the stripped linens to the laundry area. Wendy was there folding towels, unfurling them with an angry snap as she pulled them from the dryer.

"Well," she said. "If Clyde's okay." She stopped there, and Kyle didn't need her to continue. He knew she'd meant to say that if Clyde was okay after disappearing for months, Stan certainly would be. He knew, too, that she was aware how unlikely it was for one small town to get even one happy ending for its returning soldiers.

"Craig is out there with him now," Kyle said. "It must be so weird for them to see each other, after. All that."

Wendy gave no response except to continue snapping towels into order, and Kyle was actually glad for the approach of Gregory, who stood watching Wendy's progress with the towels for a moment before speaking.

"Kyle, I wonder if you'd help me with the lunches," he said. "I'm afraid Annie is late for her shift."

"Fine," Kyle said, and he touched Wendy's shoulder before leaving. It was unfair for her to be anything but relieved by Clyde's safe return, but Kyle appreciated it when Wendy's irrational rage aligned with his own. It only ever happened where Stan was concerned.

"Since we're celebrating today, I thought I'd give them something special," Gregory said as they walked toward the kitchen area. "I bought some cookies at the market. With my own money, of course."

"Of course," Kyle said. "That was nice of you."

"Well, part of my duty here is to see to their emotional needs, and, odd as it sounds, something as simple as the addition of a cookie to a lunch tray can go a long way toward satisfying some people."

"Some people," Kyle said, because Gregory seemed to be excluding himself from this group that could be so easily cheered. Gregory shrugged.

"The downtrodden," he said.

"Do you ever feel downtrodden?" Kyle asked. "About the war?"

"My God, what a question," Gregory said. "Yes, every day. It's the great tragedy of our generation."

"I mean on a personal level."

"What could be more personal than seeing most of my former classmates crippled or struck down by battle?" Gregory asked, and he stopped walking, peering down at Kyle with a frown. Gregory was taller than him by several inches. Kyle wanted to push him over.

"Never mind," Kyle said. "Let's just - onward to the cookies."

"I know you're a bit preoccupied these days, like Wendy," Gregory said as they entered the kitchen. "About Stan Marsh."

"Why do you always say his full name?" Kyle asked, muttering. He went to the lunch trays, not really wanting an answer to that.

"Definitive news from the north has been sparse, I know," Gregory said. "It's disconcerting, but it doesn't mean certain doom."

"Don't talk to me about certain doom," Kyle said. He turned to see Gregory opening the bag of gingersnaps he'd gotten from the market, sniffing them.

"I hope they're not too stale," he said.

"Try one and find out."

"Here, we'll split one," Gregory said, and he lifted one from the bag. He halved it very carefully, and the cookie split almost precisely down the middle. They watched each other while they chewed, and Kyle suspected Gregory felt guilty, too. Rations had diminished around Christmastime, and Kyle hadn't had anything frivolous in months. "Still snappy," Gregory said, and he hurried to add the cookies to the lunch trays.

The men and women in the ward did seem grateful for the cookies as Kyle made the rounds delivering lunches. Stephanie, the only soldier he'd really befriended, had left to stay with family in Denver weeks before, and he missed her as he moved amongst the beds, still wondering what the others thought of him. The only one who'd made a point of telling Kyle what he thought of him was the soldier who'd lost his hands. It had taken Kyle some time to recognize his old playmate, the boy from a neighboring county who had thought he could save Terrance and Philip from execution when they were all too young to know better.

"What the hell is this?" Christophe asked when Kyle set a lunch tray in his lap.

"Food," Kyle said. He'd become accustomed to Christophe's surliness, and he could hardly blame him for it. The prosthetic hand that was supposed to be provided for him had been on backorder since October.

"What are you serving me, cookies? Am I six years old? The government is spending money to treat us like toddlers?"

"Those are special gift from Gregory," Kyle said, smiling at the expression that followed. Christophe loathed Gregory more than any of the volunteers, and made no attempt to conceal this.

"If that prick wants to do me a favor he can light a cigarette and stick it in my mouth," Christophe said. "Cookies." He mumbled some curses in French.

"I'll eat yours if you don't want them," Kyle said, and he sat down on the bed. Though Christophe had told Kyle exactly what he thought of him and his dead bitch mother more than once, Kyle was the only volunteer other than Wendy who Christophe would actually take food from.

"God," Christophe said, speaking with his mouth full and watching something across the room. Kyle turned to see that he was staring at Craig, who was still sitting on Clyde's bed and still crying, his hands on Clyde's cheeks. "Are those two going to fuck right here in the ward?"

"Don't be a jerk," Kyle said. He envied Christophe's ability to say 'fuck' without flinching in pain. Veterans could elect to have their v-chips removed, but it was a dangerous surgery that could result in serious brain damage. Christophe was either fearless or felt that he had nothing to lose, or both. "They're best friends," Kyle said, turning to look at Clyde and Craig again. "They thought they'd lost each other."

"I think it's more than that for the one with the eye patch," Christophe said.

"Oh, please," Kyle said, though he suspected that was true. Even before the war, Craig had trailed after Clyde in a way that made Kyle wonder. "Leave them alone. They're happy. People are still allowed to be happy."

"Psh," Christophe said. "Anyone who can be happy living in this hell God has thrust us into is blind, a fool, and will be sorry he let his guard down. Give me one of those cookies."

"You changed your mind?" Kyle said, snapping one in half.

"I'm still hungry," Christophe said sourly, and he sucked the cookie from Kyle's fingers, crunching it angrily. "Here he comes," he said when Gregory approached the bed. "Looking for a pat on the back."

"Doing alright today?" Gregory asked, standing at the foot of Christophe's bed with his hands clasped behind his back. He was pretty unflappable, but Kyle sometimes got the impression that he was afraid of Christophe.

"Oh, yes, I'm doing quite well," Christophe said. "As you can see, I regrew my hands, and I'm not sitting here getting spoon fed like an infant by monsieur clown hair."

"Don't call me that," Kyle said. Gregory just fidgeted for a moment and walked away, sighing.

"What the hell is wrong with him?" Christophe asked. "He wants everyone to be smiles and rainbows so he can feel better about spending thirty dollars on a bag of cookies?"

"I guess he just thinks he knows everything," Kyle said. "He means well, though, in terms of the cookies. You want the other one?"

"Yes," Christophe said, frowning, and Kyle fed it to him. "Tell him to bring me cigarettes next time," Christophe said, still chewing. "I'm serious, red."

"My name's Kyle, and this is a non-smoking ward."

"Fuck you, Kyle, and do I look like I care about your do-gooder policies?"

"No, I guess you don't." Kyle dabbed the crumbs from the corners of Christophe's lips and got a snarl in exchange. Every time Kyle wanted to walk away and demand that Wendy deal with him from now on he tried to picture Stan made helpless like this, dependent on a volunteer in a Red Cross camp. Then he would try desperately not to picture that at all.

Wendy stayed late at the center and Kyle walked home alone, his hands stuffed in his pockets. Someone had stolen his last pair of good gloves. He was pretty sure it was Annie, actually. The winter had been harsh so far, and gas and electricity were increasingly unstable. Kyle worried about Ike every day, and felt guilty for having stripped the blankets from Ike's attic bed and piled them onto his own. The note Ike left had promised that he and Karen had 'a plan,' but he hadn't lived in the real world since he was three years old, and even a genius wouldn't find many resources or places to hide.

When Kyle got home Jimbo, Ned, and his father were all in the foyer, his father dressed as if he was preparing to go out, buttoning up his coat.

"What's going on?" Kyle asked. He hadn't seen his father fully dressed in months, and now the sight was unsettling.

"Kyle, talk some sense into him," Jimbo said.

"Nobody's going to change my mind," Gerald said. "I know what I have to do."

"What?" Kyle pulled his hat off and hung it on the coat rack, trying not to panic. "What do you have to do, Dad?"

"I have to find your brother," Gerald said. "Jimbo and Ned have been searching around town, and I appreciate that, but it's time we cast the net wider."

"So let me and Ned go," Jimbo said. "We know how to track people, we could—"

"No," Gerald said. "I'm not having Kyle here unguarded. What are you doing walking home alone?" he asked, whirling on Kyle. "It's not safe. From now on, if you can't get a ride with your friends, Jimbo will take you to and from the Red Cross camp."

"You're not—" Kyle said. "Dad, you can't just – I mean, what are you going to do? Where are you going to look?"

"Everywhere," Gerald said. "Ned, Jimbo, I'd appreciate it if you'd help me pack the car with provisions. I might be gone for a week or more."

"Dad!" Kyle said. "This is crazy, just – we can ask to have the bodyguards who were here after mom died back, then Jimbo and Ned can look for Ike—"

"There's no time for that, Kyle! Ike has been gone for months, and I can't just sit around here waiting to see what will happen. Not anymore," he said, and he took Kyle by the shoulders. "Not for a moment longer. I know I've been – distant since Mom died, and I'm sorry, but I'm not going to lose Ike, too. Or you. Jimbo and Ned have to stay, and I don't want you going anywhere without one of them with you and one of them guarding the house. Understand?"

"No!" Kyle said, though he did. His father was currently his most expendable protector. "Dad, you're—" He couldn't bring himself to say, You're all I have left, because that would be like admitting Ike was really gone. Stan, too.

"Try to understand, Kyle," Gerald said. "I've done nothing since your mother died, and I haven't really been myself since the war. It's not fair to you, I know, but none of what's happened is. Now I need to do this, for us, for our family – I can't stare at the walls of this house for another minute, not while your brother is out there somewhere."

His father meant that literally; he left that night, with a rifle and the backseat of the car packed with provisions. Jimbo tried to gather Kyle into a hug after Gerald had gone, but Kyle evaded his grip and hurried up the stairs. He shut his bedroom door softly, not wanting Jimbo to follow him, and sunk down to the floor, marveling at the fact that Jimbo was related to Stan, that they shared some of the same blood. They looked nothing alike. Kyle would have been so comforted by even a dimple of similarity. Like Stan, Jimbo had a big heart, but it wasn't enough of a resemblance to make Kyle feel like he wasn't suddenly and completely alone. He folded his arms over his knees and rested his head down, trying to breathe normally.

When he was undressing for bed that night he felt the weight of the knife Stan had given him in his pocket as he slid his jeans down. He took it out and climbed under his blankets in only his underwear, wiggling down to try to get warm. He pressed the jade handle to his lips as if to warm it up, too, thinking of what he'd told Stan in his letters, that Cartman hadn't bothered him. Every time Kyle went to market Cartman called him over, leering, and asked how Captain America was doing. Kyle lied to Cartman, too, or began to after he stopped hearing from Stan. He always answered shortly that Stan was doing fine, fighting bravely, writing often.

He couldn't sleep, so he lit a candle, pulled the blankets around him and took Stan's last letter from his bedside drawer. It shredded him every time he read it, mostly for what was left unsaid. There was no way of knowing if Stan had received Kyle's spontaneous confession about his sexuality, which he'd sealed up and run to the mail box in town before he could change his mind or even read over what he'd written. His angst about Stan's lack of reply had seemed frivolous as soon as he received Stan's letter of November 1, almost two months after that date. I want to see you again someday so I can try to describe what's happened. Kyle could never read that sentence without a shiver of dread that lingered and became heavier after he'd put the letter away. He didn't need to be holding Stan's letter to hear those words in Stan's voice, flat and exhausted. He heard it all the time.

"I just want," he said, speaking to the letter, and he pressed it to his face. He wanted Stan, wanted to be held; even after everything that he knew Stan had been through, and the things that he knew he couldn't possibly imagine, he still wanted Stan to appear and comfort him. He hated himself for it, but he could never get to sleep without pretending he was in Stan's arms. He knew that if Stan did come home he would marry Wendy, that the sleepovers were done for good either way. Kyle would give up his hands to endure that in lieu of losing Stan entirely, but both potential outcomes haunted him. For as long as he could remember, some part of Stan had belonged to him. Stan's marriage would undo that, even if they both pretended otherwise. Kyle fell asleep praying that he'd have to opportunity to suffer that particular heartbreak.

The next few days were dark and snowy, and Jimbo made sure that Kyle was rarely alone. He was like Stan in this way, hanging back and fretting in silence, gently encouraging Kyle to eat. Kyle tried to appreciate this, but he mostly felt harassed by the company, and the only time he was glad to have Jimbo with him was when he visited the market and Cartman didn't have the balls to make any comments about Stan in front of his uncle.

"What can I get for you today, gentlemen?" Cartman asked when Kyle approached his booth. He sold "surplus" food rations, and Wendy had been working on proving that they were stolen, but Cartman had always been careful about covering his tracks. Every time Kyle saw him he thought about how what had happened in Butters' bedroom that night had gone unpunished. Cartman had done it knowing Kyle would be too ashamed to try to get him in trouble without proof. He still curled in on himself in horror when he thought about how no one had ever touched him like that before Cartman, and how likely it was that no one else ever would.

"Do you have cigarettes?" Kyle asked.

"Why, Kyle," Cartman said, eying Jimbo. "I didn't think you had it in you."

"They're not for me," Kyle said, and he clamped his mouth shut, hating how Cartman always seemed to be able to pry information from him without much effort.

"Cigarettes are expensive," Cartman said, and something in his eyes changed, a subtle meanness that Kyle would recognize from twenty feet away. "Who are you willing to spend that much money on, when you've got mouths to feed?" He glanced at Jimbo again. The Broflovski family paid for Jimbo and Ned's expenses personally since the government-supplied bodyguards had packed up around Thanksgiving, needed elsewhere.

"Do you have them or not?" Kyle asked. "I don't have all day to stand here and tell you things that aren't your business."

"Oh, Kyle," Cartman said. "Always so feisty. Let's see, hmm. I don't think I have any in stock right now, but I'm meeting with my supplier at close of business today. If you came by my house, say, eight o'clock this evening—"

"No, thanks," Kyle said, his heart pounding with rage at Cartman's nerve. "Put them aside for me and I'll come get them tomorrow."

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Kyle. I can sell them to the girls at the house, after all. And they've got the money – business is booming." He leered at Kyle, leaning over his table until Kyle took a step back. "My mom's even got a boy working there now, if you're looking for some company."

"Fascinating," Kyle said, assuming that boy was Cartman. He could feel his cheeks heating. He knew Cartman could see it, and was relishing it. "Well, if you can't help me I'll ask somewhere else."

"Oh, I could help you," Cartman said, lowering his voice. "We both know that, and how. Don't forget it, Kyle!" he called as Kyle stormed away, Jimbo following him.

"You alright, kiddo?" Jimbo asked.

"I'm fine, I – I should have known better than to – I just don't know who else would have them. He's cornered the market on so many things. I don't know he does it." Kyle gritted his teeth, wishing he didn't have to care. It wasn't just Cartman's ability to conquer the black market that made his blood boil, it was everything he'd always taken so easily, laughing, careless.

"Well, let's see," Jimbo said. "Ned had to quit a few years back when smokes started getting too expensive, but back in the day he got them from – damn, who was it? Some guy who worked down at the theater. Shit, I wonder if he's dead?"

"Probably," Kyle said, because the movie theater was now an ash-filled crater. He heard how cold he sounded and stopped, turning to Jimbo. "I just wanted to do something nice for someone who's lost – everything, basically. He's a veteran, at the Red Cross camp. Cigarettes are, like. The only thing he still loves."

"We'll find him some," Jimbo said, and he gave Kyle's shoulder a squeeze. Something about the gesture was so Stan-like that Kyle had to turn away before he could get upset. He was always most vulnerable to that sort of thing after an encounter with Cartman.

They didn't find cigarettes, but Kyle sprung for a good-looking pork loin and brought it home for Ned to butcher. He'd been a cook in the army and was pretty good at it, even when the power was out. Like most families in South Park, the Broflovskis had invested in a wood-burning stove and had it installed alongside the gas stove for desperate times. Even when the gas was working they burned wood in the stove to heat the kitchen less expensively. Jimbo usually did the wood chopping, but Kyle insisted that evening, needing to feel useful. He was still rattled by what Cartman had said. We have a boy now. Kyle had no doubt that Cartman would sell himself until he'd stockpiled enough cash to buy up more stalls at the market. He already had almost the entire back wall since he'd merged with Craig, and they employed Tweek and Craig's sister Ruby to run the counter for them. Still, Cartman was always there, overseeing, and he would appear whenever Kyle stopped by to browse his wares, which were impressive in variety and often impossible to find elsewhere.

It was late afternoon, the sun already sinking, and though Kyle hadn't eaten all day and was quickly out of breath, he was glad to do some physical labor. He was glad, too, to hit something, to cut the wood in two with one blow when he struck it right. Angry tears froze at the corners of his eyes when he thought of Randy Marsh teaching him and Stan to do this when they were ten years old. It was the second year of the war, a good one for America, and Randy was home on a month-long leave. He'd said that Stan would have to be the man of the house if anything should happen to him, so he'd better know how to chop wood properly, and Stan had rolled his eyes as if it was just some joke Randy was telling, the idea that he could be gone. Most of the casualties had been Canadian in those early years. They didn't yet know anyone who had died, unless they counted Terrance and Phillip, who did feel like dear friends once. Stan and Kyle had remembered them together in secret; when they called each other by those names it made Kyle itchy with excitement, the way all of his secrets with Stan had.

He heard a car in the front driveway when it was almost too dark to continue with the ax, and was immediately startled. As he came around to the front, still holding the ax, he feared he'd see Cartman's truck with its giant snow tires, that he'd come with some cigarettes to sell for the purpose of harassing Kyle further. He wasn't expecting a military Jeep and three men in full uniform.

"No," he said, the word whimpering from him weakly as he stood watching Jimbo receive the officers at the front door, and he had to screw his eyes shut and remind himself that if something had happened to Stan the military would have no reason to send notice to the Broflovski house. Kyle was not Stan's fiancee. Ike, he thought, and he dropped the ax into the snow, running for the front door.

"Here he is," Jimbo said. "Kyle, these officers say they need to ask you about something." He looked worried, and Kyle saw his rifle leaning against the wall in the foyer.

"Me?" Kyle said. "What's happened? Is it – my father?"

"We were hoping to speak to him," said the officer who seemed oldest, gray hair at his temples. "But we've just been told that he's away. On what business?"

"He's just – he's gone to Denver to see some friends and shop for things we need," Kyle said. "We're running low here on – everything, actually, I work at the Red Cross center and we really need—"

"Might we come in, Mr. Broflovski?" the gray-haired man said.

Kyle had no choice; if the military asked to enter a private home, it wasn't really a request. He brought them in, and was glad that he had Ned to serve tea, his own hands shaking conspicuously. The gray-haired man introduced himself as Colonel Rogers and said he was stationed in Fort Collins.

"At the training camp?" Kyle asked, stuffing his hands under his knees to hide how hard they were shaking. They were seated in the living room, both of the officers Rogers had come with still stationed by the door, Jimbo leaning near the fireplace.

"That's right," Rogers said. "I oversee things at the camp there. One of my duties is to monitor communications that are marked as suspicious."

"Oh," Kyle said. He was afraid that he was about to be arrested, his mind racing as he tried to imagine what he might have done.

"That's how this particular letter came to my attention," Rogers said, pulling an envelope from his inside coat pocket. "It's addressed to Stan Marsh from Kyle Broflovski, dated October 13."

Kyle didn't have to wonder which letter that was. He remembered clearly, because he'd counted the days with no response from Stan. It was the letter that contained the first and only admission Kyle had ever made about his sexuality.

"It's not illegal," he blurted, his face heating. "I mean, not for a civilian—"

"In the letter," Rogers said, opening it, "If I may read from it. You say, at one point, to Lieutenant Marsh, 'I got some condoms for Ike and he laughed, then turned pink in a way that makes me fear it's too late. They're only children, it's insane, but the war has made us all grow up fast.'" Rogers looked up from the paper and gave Kyle an unflinching stare, letting that sink in for a moment. "This struck me as odd, because Issac Broflovski died many years ago. Or so we were led to believe."

"Excuse me?" Kyle said, hoping fake outrage would buy him some time. It seemed impossible that he'd slipped now, after all the years when no one who knew the secret had, but he'd been in such a hurry to get the letter out, to keep up his courage— "My brother – are you actually suggesting—"

"Mr. Broflovski," Rogers said. His voice had hardened, but only slightly. "It's a very serious crime to assist a Canadian citizen in avoiding internment."

"But I haven't!" Kyle said, trying to make himself believe his own anger, his hands slipping out and curling into fists. "My brother is dead, and this is very – I wish that he was alive, I wish, but—"

"Then how do you explain this letter?"

"Has Stan seen it?" Kyle asked. He felt himself crumbling from the inside out, wanted Jimbo to chase the officers away with his gun.

"I'm sorry?" Rogers said.

"Stan – Lieutenant Marsh, has he seen that letter?" Kyle's face was burning, but at least he had this as an excuse. "I'm sure you can. Since you've read the whole thing. You can imagine why I'd want to know."

"He has not seen it," Rogers said. "It's been classified as sensitive. But there is a graver matter here than your communications with your – friend." Rogers stopped there for a moment, studying Kyle. "I need you tell me the truth about your brother before we search this house and find him. It will make things easier for both of you."

"You won't find him!" Kyle said. His terror lent some authenticity to the appearance of outrage, he supposed, since his eyes were watering. "Have you even got—"

"A warrant? Yes." Rogers produced another paper from his coat pocket. "Men," he said, turning to the officers at the door. They nodded, one heading up the stairs while another went into the dining room. "You can examine this if you like," Rogers said, holding the warrant out for Kyle. "Please, son," he said when Kyle took it, his hands still shaking. "Just tell us where your brother is."

"In the graveyard," Kyle said, scowling. "Buried. How dare you. That message to Stan – it's a sort of code we use. Nothing, ah, sinister, just a friendship thing, something we've done since we were boys. If I didn't want to implicate one of our friends in something – embarrassing, I'd use my brother's name. It was – was, ah. To honor him."

"That doesn't make much sense, Mr. Broflovski."

"Well, we were kids when I invented it, and, and—" Kyle pretended to study the warrant, unable to go any further with such a stupid lie. Even in the midst of his panic, he was immensely relieved, because they wouldn't find Ike, and because Stan had never seen that letter.

After the officers had searched for almost an hour, not quite tearing the house apart but not being especially careful, either, they could only question Kyle about the bed in the attic. By then he had his story ready.

"Our maid slept there, Karen McCormick," Kyle said. "She was employed by us for six months, but she's left town now. The bed is stripped, as you can see."

Rogers stared at Kyle for a few long moments after he'd said so. Kyle knew he'd won, in a sense, despite not being able to come up with a better lie under pressure. There was nothing to find, but he knew he'd be watched now, at least for some weeks.

"Thank you for your patience," Rogers said as the men prepared to leave. "I'm sure you can understand how a letter like this would arouse our suspicions."

"I'm sorry you were confused," Kyle said sharply, wanting him gone.

"I met your mother once," Rogers said. "You're like her."

"Thank you," Kyle said, though he didn't get the impression it had been meant as a compliment. "I wonder," he called out when Rogers turned to go, fitting his hat back over his closely cropped hair. "Um, I wonder if I could ask you about Lieutenant Marsh? If you've had news of him?"

"Marsh left camp with the 92nd back in October," Rogers said. "He hasn't written to me, either, I'm afraid." He gave Kyle a tight, mocking smile before turning to go.

"He did write to me," Kyle said, holding back tears as he stood at front windows, watching them go. Jimbo was behind him, still biting his tongue about what had just happened. He remained very patriotic, to the point that Kyle had often wondered if he'd turn Ike in himself. "He did write," Kyle said. "He wrote me as often as he could."

"Well, of course he did," Jimbo said, and he patted Kyle's back. "That pork smells like it's about ready, huh? Come get something to eat."

"I feel like I'll throw up," Kyle said. "I'm such an idiot. To slip like that, I – I can't believe I did that, I could have cost Ike everything, and for what? For what," he said, again, to himself.

"Shh, alright. We got lucky, but it's not your fault. Ike might have some – tainted ancestry, but he's American, dammit. How else would he have the balls to run off with the first girl he kissed, huh?"

"He's an idiot, too," Kyle said. "God, and now my father. He's delusional, I think, and I'm not using that word lightly. They're all just – gone." He looked up into Jimbo's eyes, embarrassed to be having this conversation with him. Jimbo always looked like a loyal dog who'd just been kicked when he had to face something emotional.

"They'll be back, though," Jimbo said. "Stan, too. Don't you worry."

Kyle managed to eat only a few bites, and as soon as he was up in his room he was sorry that he'd left the company of Jimbo and Ned. They weren't very good conversationalists and Kyle often ignored whatever they were talking about in favor of losing himself to his own grim thoughts, but it was nice to be around other people. He thought of going to Wendy's house, because Stan would like that, but he wouldn't be able to explain why he was so shaken. She didn't know about Ike, and he would never tell her the contents of the rest of that letter, his confession and what it meant. Stan was humble enough that he might have read what Kyle wrote without connecting the dots, but Wendy would. If she ever heard it from Kyle himself that he was gay, she would know that he longed for Stan and always had. She was too smart to miss it.

In the coming week Kyle received two very unexpected items in his mail box. The first made his skin prickle with goosebumps: an unopened pack of cigarettes, no note. Kyle hurried into the house after finding it there, feeling as if Cartman was hiding somewhere nearby, watching for his reaction to this seeming gift. He hid them inside his sleeve and threw them away in the kitchen garbage as soon as Ned's back was turned. He felt terrible doing it, because their monetary value had to be at least forty dollars, and if they hadn't been tampered with Christophe would have been so glad for them. Kyle couldn't take the risk – Cartman knew, thanks to Kyle's stupid admission, that he wasn't looking to buy cigarettes for himself, and anyone who Kyle was willing to spend that much money on would be considered a rival. Cartman had probably poisoned the things somehow; he didn't give gifts, or anything, without ulterior motives. Kyle was unsettled for the rest of the day, and he felt watched wherever he went.

This preoccupied him for the next two days, but it was all wiped away by the next unexpected thing he received. Kyle was pretty sure he'd never seen Ned smile, but he was making a valiant attempt at one when Kyle came into the kitchen with Jimbo after his Red Cross shift.

"Kyle," Ned said, holding an envelope out. "Something for you."

It was a letter from Stan. Kyle tore it open with a half-swallowed shout, turning his back on Ned and Jimbo, who watched him fondly, like he was a child unwrapping a birthday present. It was hard for Kyle to make himself focus on the actual words, so swept up just by the sight of Stan's handwriting, and he tried not to be very disheartened by the date on the letter.

January 3

Dear Kyle,

I can't tell you where we are, but I want you to know that I'm safe and we've found this place to stay, a kind of inn where they have beer! And we're allowed to drink it. I feel like myself again for the first time since I left training camp. It makes such a big difference, having an actual bed (well, cot) to sleep in. Butters got drunk and sang pop songs while this guy in our platoon (Davis) played the piano, and everyone was cheering and singing along, and he (Butters) danced with Bebe, who is a superstar by the way, I can't tell you why exactly but I will when I get home. It was like real life again, last night. We pretended it was New Year's Eve.

I miss you so much that I'm afraid to see you again. Do you know what I mean? I feel like you'd be in some sort of danger if I laid eyes on you now, like I'm covered in this film that would get on you.

I meant for this letter to be happy, so ignore that. But I'm leaving it in, because I want you to know everything, I want to tell you everything sometime. Things I wouldn't even tell W because I wouldn't want to scare her, not that she's easily scared, but there are some things that I want to protect her from anyway.

So thank you for being the only person I could ever say it all to. I think about that whenever something indescribable happens, like: I'll try to tell Kyle someday.

I love you, just writing this made me cry, I don't wish you were here anymore (I'm so glad you're not, so so glad, and don't take that the wrong way), I'm still kind of drunk.

Don't want to stop writing cause it's like I'm hanging up a phone and you'll be gone again but as you can see I'm running out of paper. I haven't gotten any letters from you in a long time, but I have more hope about this getting to you than yours ending up in the right spot here. I'm sure you still write to me all the time, so don't feel bad that I haven't gotten them. We move around a lot – we're going to have to leave this place soon.

The pictures of us are a little crumpled, but mostly from me handling them too much. Not singed. No part of me is singed, because I promised you it wouldn't be.

Love,

Stan

Kyle read the letter three times before turning back to the kitchen, hugging it to his chest.

"He's okay," he said, though he had no way of knowing. The Stan in the letter was the Stan of over a month ago. So much could have happened, and Kyle was teetering between joy and horror, because Stan was still so fragile and hopeful and perfectly intact. There was still so much to lose, and he'd been somewhat immune to knowing that before reading the new letter. Kyle clung to Jimbo when he came forward for a hug, sobbing just once against his shoulder. Kyle was trembling and tired, like he'd just spent three days climbing out of a hole in the earth.

Wendy was at his door five minutes later, clutching her own letter from Stan. They grabbed for each other, both talking at once, babbling about what they'd learned. It seemed to be mostly the same information, but neither of them offered to show the other their letter. Wendy stayed for dinner, and she was there when Stan's mother called on the phone. She'd gotten a letter, too.

"I have this feeling that he'll be home soon," Sharon said. "In my gut, and I hate that I have to go to New York."

"New York?" Kyle said, looking at Wendy. She was lingering close, listening in.

"Yes, there's – I'll be needed," she said. "There's – the fighting up there. I'm sure you've seen the news."

"I have," Kyle said. It was being billed in glaring headlines as the decisive battle. "Be careful."

Jimbo drove Wendy home, and Kyle rode along with them. He walked her to her door and let her hug him hard. They were both thinking of Stan, trying to pull the other close enough to make whatever pieces of Stan they held in them feel it, too.

"I know I'll see him again," Wendy said, and Kyle nodded, because he felt the same way.

The following day was Valentine's Day, and Wendy and Gregory persuaded Kyle to help them decorate the ward a bit. There was also candy to hand out, again courtesy of Gregory. Clyde had checked out of the center and reemerged as a volunteer, along with Craig.

"We can't have you working here if we know you're selling pills," Wendy said as Craig stood overseeing the hanging of pink and white streamers in the dining area.

"You always were subtle," Craig said.

"I can't respect dishonesty on any level," Wendy said. "Subtlety included." She turned to Craig. "There are shortages, you know, and—"

"Keep my pills," Craig said. He looked across the room, at the poker game Clyde was participating in. Clyde seemed to be in good spirits, laughing and popping candy hearts in his mouth. Kyle wondered if he'd gotten a letter from Bebe. "Just don't tell Clyde," Craig said, moving closer. "Don't tell him I did that."

"It's not my business to tell him anything about you," Wendy said, muttering, and she turned back to the streamers.

For Valentine's Day Kyle received no flowers, no cards, no new letter from Stan or any anonymous cigarettes in his mailbox. At home, Ned had made a special dinner, with candles lit on the table, and it took Kyle only a few minutes to realize that it wasn't for him.

"I'm fine," he insisted as he made a plate to take up to his room: a modest slice of an optimistically creative casserole with white sauce, lasagna noodles, bell peppers and corn. Kyle wished he'd thought to buy something nicer for Ned and Jimbo to eat on Valentine's Day, but he'd somehow never realized what they were to each other before then. He had noticed that they both slept in the guest bedroom, but he'd thought they were only trying to be polite by leaving his parents' bedroom untouched.

"You sure?" Jimbo called as Kyle darted from the kitchen with his plate. "I mean – aw, geez, alright."

Kyle celebrated Valentine's Day by sucking on the handle of the knife Stan had given him and jerking off for the first time in months. He came and was immediately disappointed, as usual, by the perfunctory anticlimax of beating off a batch alone in his bed. He continued to suck on the knife handle until he fell asleep.

The weeks that followed were cold but less bleak. Every time Kyle crossed Wendy's path at the center they would give each other a secret smile, and it was like a holographic image of Stan that was generated between them, a hope that felt like a promise because they were together in wanting it. Clyde was popular in the ward and Craig seemed warmer every day, less dependent on the cane, more determined to walk alongside his friend without it. Christophe's prosthetic arrived on the first of March, and Kyle sent Gregory to the market for the ingredients for a little cake for him.

"I'd send my bodyguard, but you'll have to buy at least the sugar from Cartman, and—" Kyle left off there, not sure how much he wanted or would be able to explain to Gregory about Cartman's pathetic obsession with him and how it might manifest in poisoned sugar.

"No, I'm glad to go," Gregory said. He was distracted, watching Wendy help Christophe with the functions on the prosthetic. "He's – it's so good for all of us. Just. I think it's something we've all been waiting for, in a way." His eyes were a bit red-rimmed when he smiled at Kyle, and he left in a hurry.

Predictably, Christophe scoffed at the cake, but Kyle knew him well enough not to be hurt, and Gregory didn't seem deterred as he cut a slice.

"Try it out," Wendy said, meaning the hand, and she placed a fork on the plate Gregory had offered.

"Wendy, please," Gregory said. "Don't pressure him."

"Don't coddle me," Christophe said. "You think I'm afraid to look like a fool in front of you idiots? I'm not." He clumsily scraped up a piece of cake, and got it into his mouth with only minimal frosting smearing, which Kyle cleaned away. "Thank you for not applauding," Christophe said, scanning the crowd that was gathered around his bed, and everyone laughed nervously.

Days began to blend together again, and Kyle felt a jolt of brand new pain in his chest when he checked the mailbox on the way into the house in the evenings. He knew there would be nothing there – Ned would have picked up any mail that came by then – and he knew better than to expect another letter from Stan so soon. But he was wanting for something, a beastly hunger he'd always had newly fed, never satisfied. The rational parts of him were horrified that he expected anything from Stan, and especially now, but sometimes he went to bed feeling angry, because Stan had not reappeared.

And then he did. It was Jimbo who shook Kyle awake after midnight, and Kyle scrambled for his knife, wanting to be battle ready. He kept it under his pillow, and he was half ready to stab an imaginary Cartman by the time he realized what was going on.

"You have to come, she says!" Jimbo said, fat tears coursing down his cheeks. Kyle had never seen him cry, and part of him knew what had happened before he heard it said. "Stan's – back, he's in the Red Cross camp, he's home!"

Kyle felt like he was in a dream, sleep-walking, half awake in the passenger seat of Jimbo's truck as it trundled through dark streets, a light snow dancing off the windshield, insultingly whimsical. Wendy had called, apparently, after being called by Gregory, who seemed to never leave the ward. Something had changed in Kyle where he once was hopeful, and he found himself angry at the prospect of relief, prepared himself to wage war against the disappointment that was forthcoming. Surely Wendy had been misunderstood, or had hallucinated. Surely it wasn't as simple as Stan being home.

It wasn't simple, but it was true: forty new soldiers had been brought in from five different platoons, and the ward was crowded, chaotic, noisy with suffering. Kyle found Wendy and she grabbed his hand, her eyes dark. She said nothing, just pulled him toward the back of the ward, and he was glad she'd made no attempt to explain. Stan was there, in one of their beds, but it took Kyle a moment to place him. He was pale and quiet, his eyes closed.

Wendy jerked Kyle back hard when he tried to bolt for Stan, and for a moment Kyle was so irrational, unhinged, and childishly wanting that he thought he would strike her. Her eyes were soft, and she dug her nails into his wrist as if trying to prove by pinching him that was actually awake.

"Kyle," she said, but she didn't seem able to continue, her voice just cracked sandpaper, eyes dancing away from something unsaid. Kyle ripped free of her grip and went to Stan's bed.

It was like only seeing a picture of him, and someone else had drawn it. Kyle's picture of Stan was not this one, and he fell to his knees beside Stan's cot, his hands hovering over Stan's arm, his chest. Stan didn't seem asleep, but he wasn't opening his eyes.

"Dude?" Kyle said.

Stan's lips were dry, and his skin looked – off, like it had been scrubbed in sea water. He even smelled wrong, antiseptic but dirty, too. Wendy was hanging back, and even with her back turned on them Kyle could tell that she had both hands pressed over her mouth. Stan opened his eyes and looked at Kyle when Kyle grabbed his hand. Kyle was reduced to a heart beat, just an overwhelmed, erratic noise between his own ears, and he was afraid Stan wouldn't be able to see him. Stan looked at him as if he couldn't, but Kyle saw recognition in his eyes, too, as if Stan had seen his own ghost and failed to be frightened by it. Stan's eyes were like a Christmas tree with one strand of lights burned out. Maybe two.

"Weird," Stan said, and he squeezed Kyle's hand.

"What?" Kyle said. He wasn't crying, but his voice was some alien thing, thrown and broken like it was on a roller coaster or passing through a windmill.

"Just," Stan said, and he closed his eyes again.

"I can't believe you're here," Kyle said. "Shit, fuck, goddamn." He squeezed Stan's hand harder with each curse, wanting him to know that he was willing to endure the legendary fifty-string curse word death wish. It was an urban legend, based somewhat in fact, that fifty in a row would kill anyone with a v-chip. Kyle wanted to die, sort of, because that seemed like what Stan was doing, sort of. But he wasn't bleeding, and all his limbs were in place.

"You're okay?" Stan said, looking at Kyle, his eyes barely slit open. Kyle nodded hard.

"I'm okay," he said, and he kissed Stan's knuckles, then again, again, unable to stop. "I'm okay, I'm okay."

"Good," Stan said. He turned to look at the ceiling. "That's good, I'm glad."

"Are you really here?" Kyle asked, his teeth nicking Stan's knuckles.

"Um," Stan said, and he closed his eyes. Kyle felt a hand on his shoulder and startled, realizing as he looked up at Wendy that he'd thought it was Death touching him, wanting Stan. He'd been so ready for a fight.

"Sweetheart," Wendy said, speaking to Stan. She'd been transformed, too, into a liar – Kyle had never heard that tone on her, beseeching and fake, desperate. "Me and Kyle – we're going to get you something to eat. Do you want something to eat?"

Stan didn't answer. Kyle noticed that his hands were curled into fists as Wendy dragged him away.

"What," Kyle said, still speaking to Stan. "What—"

"Shh!" Wendy said, so harshly that Kyle expected to be slapped. She dragged toward the linen supply, around the corner.

"But he's there," Kyle said, crying, wanting to go back to him.

"He's hurt," Wendy said. "The doctors. The ones who brought this ship- shipment – that's not the right word!" she said, almost shouting, pinching her eyes shut and pulling at her hair. When she looked at Kyle again he knew he was about to get a knife through the heart. "The doctor who treated him in Michigan," she said.

"Michigan?" Kyle said.

"He –" Wendy shook her head hard. "He said he was sure."

"Sure about what? Wendy, fuh – tell me! I feel like I'm dreaming, why did he look like that, why are you—"

"He's paralyzed," Wendy said, meeting Kyle's eyes like the slap he'd been waiting for. She'd made herself mean in order to be able to say so, and maybe she'd been mean before, but Kyle didn't recognize her. "From the waist down. He won't walk again. He won't. He's. From the waist down. The waist."

Kyle stared at her shoulder. She was wearing an ivory blouse with a high neckline, a surprisingly delicate material. It took him several seconds to realize it was a nightgown, that Wendy had rushed here without even putting on a coat.

"What," Kyle said, and then he lost his voice again.

"Butters came back, too," Wendy said. "He's at Hell's Pass, though."

Only the serious cases went there. Kyle turned around, wanting to look at Stan again, or to look and see the Stan he knew, who was not in that bed. Wendy caught his arm and pulled him back before he could.

"Butters isn't going to make it," she said. "He's going to die, Kyle. You'd better be fucking – grateful. We should be glad. Stan will live, so don't. Don't look at me like that."

"I'm not," Kyle said. He had no idea what his face looked like at the moment. "Bebe?"

"Oh – no," Wendy said. "I didn't see her in the register. She's, I don't know, still out there. Go sit with him, okay? Okay? I'm going, I. I'm going to call his m-mother, I should do that, I should—"

"I could," Kyle said. "I could call her, if you—"

"No," Wendy said. "Let me. I need—" And she was gone, her ponytail bobbing as if she was about to break into a run.

Kyle took careful steps, afraid the ground would crumble beneath him. Stan was lying motionless, his eyes still closed, fists uncurled now. Kyle stood five feet from Stan's bed for a while, watching, waiting for someone to come and tell him what to do. But surely Wendy was wrong, just being a pessimist. If she'd said so before Kyle laid his eyes on Stan, he could have believed she was only being paranoid, fearing the worst, afraid to hope. Looking at Stan, he knew she was right. Something had gone out of him, and it was bigger than a sadness, bigger than a foot or a hand.

"Your hair is longer," Kyle said when he sat on Stan's bed again. Stan blinked his eyes open and turned his head slowly. He seemed to be in another dimension where the gravity was heavier. Kyle felt like he was in one where the air was too light. He felt he'd be smashed against the wall like a gnat with the slightest wind or the next harsh word.

"My hair?" Stan said. "Oh. Yeah, I guess." He stared at Kyle, the corner of his eye quirking, then his lips. Someone had done a bad job of shaving his cheeks. There were a few sore-looking spots. "She told you," Stan said. "You're all white. She told you."

"I can't—" Kyle said, and he looked away, then hated himself for it. He looked back to Stan, made his gaze as steady as he could. "She said. She said—"

"She told you," Stan said. He was holding Kyle's hand like he wanted to snap a few of his fingers off, but Kyle understood it as a kind of limitless love, and he wanted to lose a few fingers to it.

"Jimbo is outside," Kyle said.

"He took care of you," Stan said. He nodded once. "I told him to."

"Stan," Kyle said, and he fell down onto him, his forehead resting high on Stan's chest. He didn't cry, just shook like an earthquake. "Please," he said. He wasn't sure what he was asking, and hated himself for wanting anything.

"I know," Stan said. "Just don't. Don't drag Jimbo in here, don't. Don't go."

"I won't," Kyle said, and he grabbed Stan's uniform shirt, pulled it against his face. "I won't."

He did, though, when Stan was given fresh drugs, when he'd fallen asleep. Kyle didn't go far, just to the nearest corner to throw up. Wendy was there when he turned around, stone-faced, offering a rag. Kyle used it to wipe his mouth.

"You're not sure," Kyle said when he could speak again.

"They're sure," Wendy said. "I'm sure."

Kyle felt that she had something he never could, and it wasn't an unfamiliar feeling, but it was still new. Wendy was marching ahead into what Kyle was still unwilling to see, his hand over his face as if this were just some scary movie. He dropped to Stan's bed again, against his side, and he could feel Christophe watching him from across the ward. Only when he recognized that Christophe was doing so with pity did he accept what Wendy knew, what the doctors knew, what Stan knew: everyone knew what had been said was real, final, actually happening. And then Kyle knew, too.