A/N: I've finally finished the last chapter, way behind schedule, but it's quite long! I hope you guys will enjoy it - thanks to those who have supported, reviewed and followed this story. I have a huge love for AUs, and the fact that others are willing to get invested in seeing the characters in these alternate reality scenarios makes me happy and is one of the reasons I love fandom. Thanks guys 3


Kyle woke to an icy Sunday morning, his brother still curled at his side, loosely clutching at him for warmth. Though he'd done no drinking the night before, Kyle had a bad head, and his stomach felt painfully empty. He eased himself from Ike's grip and went to the window expecting snow. There was none, but Kyle thought it must be coming down at some higher elevation. He could smell it, and it made him shudder, as if he could hear the distant march of an approaching army's boots.

"Come down for breakfast," he said, shaking Ike's shoulder. He didn't want to leave Ike alone in the room, and wasn't sure either of them could be alone in the house from then on. Clearly his parents had seen nothing because they had each other at night, or perhaps it was their age that made them immune. Either way, Kyle still felt on edge, his eyes darting around the room while Ike yawned and scratched at himself.

Kyle dressed before going down and ate as quickly as he could, feeling his mother's watchful attention. He refused to acknowledge her, avoiding her eyes when he passed the butter. When he was through he stood and put on his jacket.

"And just where are you going?" she asked.

"To church," Kyle said, and Ike laughed. "Well. One of us has to do the work of keeping up appearances, don't we?"

"Oh, is that what you're doing?" Sheila said. The way she stared at Kyle told him she knew that he hoped Stan would be there; of course she knew.

"I find the population isn't all that interested in religion," Gerald said. "This place suits me in that fashion. But go if you like, just don't start to buy into any of that."

"I doubt we have that to worry about," Sheila said. Kyle turned his back on them and rolled his eyes, praying to his own God that Stan would know to meet him at the church after having been turned away the night before.

Outside, he felt assaulted by the cold, and he walked to the church with his hands in his coat pockets. The town was quiet; Kyle felt like this place was always waiting for something. It was unsettling, and he was in no mood for sermons when he reached the church, but he went inside anyway, desperate even to sit near Stan in silence for an hour.

The service was not well-attended, probably due to the cold, and Kyle found Stan quickly, sitting near the back. He was miffed to see Clyde sitting with him, but he knew that wasn't Stan's fault, or perhaps Stan had drawn Clyde's attention by asking if he could help Kyle with his evil spirit problem. Embarrassed by the thought in the light of day, Kyle made his way to them as quietly as possible, feeling Reverend Donovan's eyes on him. He always suspected that the Reverend could tell he didn't really believe.

"Hi," Stan whispered when Kyle sat beside him, and Clyde leaned over to give Kyle a wave. Kyle smiled quickly at Clyde and then let Stan see his true expression, one of desperate longing. He took his coat off, his elbow brushing Stan's arm in the process, and allowed his shoulder to rest just lightly against Stan's. He wanted so badly to crawl into Stan's lap and be held until the cold had left his bones, and the smell of the maple-cured bacon they'd eaten together the morning before made it difficult not to at least touch Stan's leg. Kyle spent the entire service imagining how Stan's mouth would taste: salty and warm with a hint of sweetness. His stomach was growling by the time the sermon ended.

"Stan told me the seance didn't work," Clyde said when they were all standing outside together, Stan and Clyde both smoking cigarettes, Kyle mourning for how the tobacco would corrupt Stan's bacon-flavored tongue.

"Well, no," Kyle said. "If anything, it made things worse. Now even my brother is admitting that he's seen things."

"Really?" Stan said. "This happened last night?"

"Yes, he came into my room terrified. Neither of you knows him well, but for this to occur he must have been on the verge of going mad from the fear - he's very prideful. But after we were together nothing harassed us, and this morning I think we both felt an odd sort of calm."

"Like the thing has left?" Clyde said.

"No," Kyle said. "Not like that at all - it's just that it doesn't know what to make of us teaming up, I think. Oh, Christ, listen to me." He sighed, hearing footsteps, and turned to see Kenny approaching. He was wearing threadbare clothes that were much too light for the weather, and he was covered in dirt, a shovel slung over his shoulder.

"Evening, boys," he said.

"It's morning," Clyde said.

"Are you alright?" Stan asked. Kenny nodded, eying Stan's cigarette. Stan passed it to him.

"So it is," Kenny said after he'd taken a drag. "Morning, I mean. How was the sermon?" he asked, and he looked at Kyle as if he knew that he hadn't heard a word of it.

"Fine," Kyle said, not wanting to offend Clyde.

"What have you been digging?" Clyde asked.

"Graves, Clyde," Kenny said. "Haven't I told you more than once? It's what I do at night. For money," he added, glancing at Kyle. "Craig is right that you don't listen very well," Kenny said to Clyde.

"I'm off to see him now," Clyde said. "And I do so listen. To him, anyway. Not that he's talking much lately."

"He's doing worse?" Stan said. Clyde shrugged.

"Hard to say. Hasn't been out of bed much, though. Ya'll better be praying for him."

Clyde left for Craig's house, and Stan offered Kenny a hot bath at the ranch, but Kenny declined and left for his shack, whistling.

"There's something off about him," Kyle said as they watched him go.

"You're just now noticing it?" Stan said.

"No, I'm just now - believing it, I think. God, this place would make me believe anything. Except, you know. About Jesus rising. No offense. Donovan isn't very convincing."

"I ain't offended," Stan said. He was smiling a little, but it faded. "Last night," he said. "Your mother-"

"She knows everything," Kyle said, keeping his voice low. "Or she's guessed, anyway. I all but admitted it in my rage. Stan, I think we've got to run away."

"You know we can't."

"I know."

They walked through the town together in miserable silence. Kyle wasn't sure what their destination would be, only that he couldn't risk going to Stan's house; his mother was expecting him back already. They wouldn't even get as far as the meadow without her sending Ike out to look for them, Kyle feared.

"You're hungry?" Stan said when he heard Kyle's stomach growl.

"I shouldn't be," Kyle said. "I've had breakfast."

"Well, it's nearly lunchtime now. Let me buy you something."

"I'm not hungry for anything you can buy at the store," Kyle said, and he glanced at Stan to make sure he'd understood. Stan sighed and nodded.

"I want you so bad," he said, mumbling this quietly, though there was no one else out on the street. "Even in church."

"Is that a sin?" Kyle asked, pleased.

"No," Stan said. "Not if I love you. And I do."

"Oh - that reminds me, my pajamas! I left them at your house, and the note, too. You'll have to get it back to me somehow - it's my talisman."

"I could just write you another one," Stan said, smiling.

"No, it wouldn't be the same! That was the first one, I - I treasure it, I always will. I want to be buried with it, if I die before you."

"Jesus," Stan said, and he took Kyle's elbow, pulling him into the alleyway between the blacksmith's shop and the barber, both closed on Sunday. "Don't say that." He pressed Kyle to the side of the barber shop, sheltering him from the cold wind.

"Someone will see," Kyle said, whispering.

"So let's go to the woods," Stan said. "I know it's cold, but-"

"I can't, Stan, didn't you hear me? My mother is against us now. Or worried, anyway, that I'll ruin the family again. I have to go back or risk her telling my father what she knows."

"And what would he do?" Stan asked. Kyle scoffed.

"Do you want your father knowing about this?"

"You know I don't, but I thought yours already knew about you."

"That doesn't mean he condones future romances!"

They were silent for a while, Kyle hot with anger that was directed more at his mother than Stan, though he was mad at Stan, too, for being so oblivious in the face of certain doom. He was mad at Stan for wanting to kiss him, even here, for looking sad about it, and for not daring it.

"We'll find a way," Stan said, but he didn't sound sure.

"Not here," Kyle said. "Not while I'm dependent on my parents. If my father finds out I've done this again he'll lock me in my room for good and make a law against anyone even shouting up at my window. And my mother will tell him, you can be sure of that. If I don't pretend to obey her and stay away from you."

"I thought she liked me?" Stan said.

"She likes you fine, she just doesn't want your hands down my pants. Can't you see that we have to run away somehow?"

"I'm all my dad has," Stan said, as if Kyle was being serious, and not just desperately upset. "And your brother - what if some evil thing gobbled up his soul as soon as you left?"

"How can you believe things like that?" Kyle said. He could feel himself getting mean, worn down from stress; Stan's face fell. Kyle leaned up to kiss him, quickly, just a peck on the lips. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I know how you can, of course - I've felt those things myself, but. Listen, maybe I can sneak out sometime. Not tonight, she'll be watching me like a hawk, but later this week. And she can hardly keep me from going to the Dark Horse. My father is too happy that I have friends there."

"I'll die if I can only sit next to you there and at church," Stan said. "Won't they at least let us hunt together? And how about the piano lessons?"

"She might come around," Kyle said, only to soothe Stan; she wouldn't. "But for now I think we'd better hold off. Oh, God, I'm dying already. I can still feel you inside me when I sit."

"I hurt you?" Stan said, and he took Kyle's hands between his, pressing them to make them warm. Kyle shook his head.

"You healed me," Kyle said, softly, and Stan bent in to kiss him. Before he could they heard a horse whiny, not far off, and they sprung apart.

Kyle went home soon after, heartbroken to watch Stan walk away after they'd shared only a few nervous kisses. He hadn't even tasted Stan's tongue. The Dark Horse was closed on Sunday nights, but perhaps Kyle would be allowed to go tomorrow. He was so dizzy with grief that for a moment he was cheered by the thought that they could get a room together for an hour or so, as Clyde and Bebe did, but of course they couldn't; they were two men.

The weeks that followed were cold and lonely, though Kyle had a bedmate every night. It was Ike, who had ordered books on metaphysics in order to explain the phenomenons he'd experienced, and in the meantime was talking Kyle's ear off about his theories. He slept for maybe two hours a night, and tossed and turned even then; Kyle was sleeping poorly in his company but unwilling to turn him out, especially since he'd had no vivid dreams about the armless man since Ike had joined him in the room at night. While Ike muttered to himself and fidgeted endlessly, Kyle held his pillow and longed for Stan, or at least for the opportunity to stroke himself off to thoughts of Stan's bed and their night together. He'd had to restrict any attempts at grim self-pleasure to his bath, and he was only bathing three times a week, the cold too severe to allow for much relaxation as he dreaded emerging from the cooling water.

When they could be alone together, Kyle was animalistic in his hunger for Stan, which was appropriate, as they were always in the woods when they had each other. The snow had come, still just a thin dusting, and Kyle was no longer allowed to wander on hunting trips every weekday - his mother claimed, for his father's sake, that she was worried about his health - but once in a while, when she was distracted by some community function, he could slip away and be with Stan for a few stolen hours. Stan would leave the mine as soon as he could, find Kyle in the meadow and pull him into the safety of the woods, both of them too excited about the presence of the other to manage to say much. Stan's bag served as his cushion when he found the base of a tree that would suit what they were about, and Sparky would patrol the perimeters of whatever clearing they'd end up in as Kyle squatted awkwardly over Stan's lap, hot inside his clothes while Stan kissed him, his fingers sneaking down into Kyle's pants and drawers to do their efficient work inside Kyle's ass. Kyle never let Stan prepare for very long, and hissed gladly at the burn of Stan's cock when he sank down onto it, all the cold he'd suffered since his last parting from Stan momentarily erased. They always tried to make it last, but with Kyle controlling the pace they rarely achieved this, because he would start bouncing frantically as soon as he found a good angle.

"Stay," Stan would say after, every time, as if Kyle had ever been eager to pull off of him. Stan would wrap his coat around Kyle's back, tucking him against his chest and holding him there while he went soft inside Kyle, sighing and humming and stroking Kyle's hair. The cold would close in on them little by little, until it felt like a stinging whip across any sliver of skin that was exposed, but still they lingered, shuddering, clinging to each other.

Darkness fell early now, and the oncoming night was the only thing that could separate them once they'd locked themselves together again. Kyle had the vague inclination that the woods would not protect them at night as they did during the day; something descended over the treetops as darkness fell, and it wasn't just shadows. He could see that even Stan had a sense of foreboding as they made their way back toward the meadow, Kyle's ass still aching and dripping, Stan's fingers closed tightly around his hand.

"It's never enough," Stan said one night as they were walking through the meadow, their footsteps slow now that they'd left the woods. A light snow was falling, catching on Stan's hair and melting into it as Kyle gazed at him sadly. Stan seemed truly angry, his jaw tight.

"I know," Kyle said, afraid that this anger was directed at him. "I just don't want to risk my father finding out and doing something drastic. He uprooted his whole life to take me away from there, and I think he still believes the corruption wasn't my fault-"

"Maybe we can get away," Stan said, seeming as if he'd barely heard Kyle. "I could save a little money. My dad hasn't done right by me for years - why should I stay here just to take care of his drunk ass?"

Kyle said nothing, only sighed heavily. The sex they'd had an hour before had been especially intimate; Stan had held Kyle's face the whole time, barely breaking eye contact. Stan had been shaking throughout, and Kyle had feared it was from the cold, but now he could see that Stan was unraveling, that the short, infrequent and painfully secret meetings were taking a toll.

"I know you, Stan," Kyle said after they had walked some more in silence. "You wouldn't be happy leaving your father here, however little he owes you. It's the same reason I would be heartbroken to run off. My family - but my parents have done so much for me, really. They've protected me, despite everything. My mother is killing me with her scrutiny, but I know I would destroy her completely if I ran away, abandoning them to this sanctuary they made for me. We can't - we simply can't."

It seemed that one of them was always taking up this sad argument when the other came to the end of his rope, eviscerated by yet another separation and no way of knowing when they could be together again. At the edge of the meadow Stan turned and grabbed Kyle suddenly, risking an embrace with no cover of trees to shield them. Though he knew it was dangerous, Kyle held on to him, burying his face against Stan's neck.

"It's not just the sex," Stan said, his voice muffled on Kyle's shoulder. "I know it must seem that way, 'cause I get at you as soon as there's a tree to go behind. But that's just how it comes out. I want - everything, all your free minutes, and I'll never have more than a few."

"You don't know that," Kyle said, though it was pathetic to pretend they both didn't know very well that there would only be more eyes on their friendship as they aged, and more reasons to stay apart. He breathed in the heat of Stan's need for him, wanting to store it up for later and warm himself by it in bed.

"I want," Stan said, and his eyes were wet when he pulled back to hold Kyle by the shoulders, "To - to sit with you by a fire at night while I mend my boot laces. And to make you meals twice a day and read with you in bed. I want to be with you so much - so often, I mean - that we don't even think to tear each other's clothes off sometimes. So much that we just sit and don't think about the other one being there, but we're calm, 'cause he is."

"I know, I know," Kyle said, and he stood up on his toes to kiss Stan, his heart wild with fear that someone would spot them, though they were still far from town. "Darling," Kyle said, softly, feeling like a fool. Stan rested his forehead against Kyle's and sighed, his breath warming Kyle's cheeks.

"I shouldn't complain," Stan said. "What if you'd gone to some other town after New York? What if I'd never known life could be like it is when you're with me? It's enough." He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, then out. "It's enough."

"To hell with that," Kyle said, and Stan smiled, his eyes still closed. "It's not enough. I fantasize about that morning so often, you've no idea. Waking up with you like that, and the eggs, the bacon, the dog at the foot of the bed. The sex, too, of course," he said, and Stan opened his eyes.

"We've got to try for that again somehow," Stan said. "Isn't there any excuse you could give for disappearing for one night?"

"Maybe," Kyle said, and he thought of Ike sleeping alone, Stan's insane observation that his soul might be gobbled without Kyle's protection. "We'll try, Stan. All we can do is try, and be glad to sit next to each other at the goddamn Dark Horse. You'll be there tonight, won't you?"

"I'm always there, Kyle."

"I know." Kyle kissed his cheek, softly. "I just like to hear you say so."

They parted before they reached the road, Stan taking the back way toward the ranch so that Kyle's mother wouldn't spot them together. She knew Kyle still saw Stan at church and at the bar, and that he sneaked visits with him sometimes, too, but Kyle didn't want to test her tolerance of even these paltry meetings. When he arrived at the house he was glad to find her distracted in the kitchen, making bread. She'd gotten slightly better at it in recent weeks. Kyle lingered there with his coat still on, warming his hands by the oven.

"And where have you been?" his mother asked.

"Walking," Kyle said.

"It's late, Kyle – it's been dark for almost an hour. I'd scold you for walking alone in the woods at night if I thought you'd actually been alone."

"What am I to live for if not this?" Kyle asked, meeting her furious gaze. "What do I have here but him?"

"Quiet!" his mother hissed. "Don't talk like that while your father's in the house. Go upstairs and clean up for dinner. I can't spare another word of good advice that you won't take."

The mood at dinner was tense, as had become usual. Kyle's father did most of the talking, telling them that they should expect more immigrants from Denver in the coming months, before the big snow. There had lately been several battles in Kentucky, and it was being reported that the confederates had taken it. There was a fear in the city that they might continue westward, and those who didn't want any part of the war were making for smaller settlements where they might slip through the cracks.

"This means more work for me, of course," Gerald said. "I've enlisted the Sheriff and that piss poor mayor in some attempts at planning for the influx."

"Gerald!" Sheila said, putting her fork down. "Listen to you! You sound like a mountain man."

"What did I say?" Gerald asked.

"Piss poor," Ike said.

"Oh." Gerald frowned at his potatoes. "Well, I suppose I've acclimated a bit, but I'm still shaving every morning."

"I was only teasing," Sheila said, and she sighed. "Though I do feel like I'm losing control of all of you. Ike, I hear you wandering about the house late at night. You know I don't like that."

"I have not been wandering!" Ike said. "Nor has Kyle," he added, offering Kyle a conspiring glance.

"This house is haunted," Kyle said, glad to talk about some scandal that was not caused by him. "Frankly, Ike and I both believe we should find another dwelling place as soon as possible."

"What what?" his mother said. "What are you talking about?"

"Boys, really," Gerald said. "You've never been fanciful."

"Well," Ike said. "Kyle has certainly been fanciful once or twice, but, Father, I think he's correct in this. I don't yet know the nature of the metaphysical presence that has somehow manifested here, but I can assure you that it is observable, at least to Kyle and I, in a fashion."

It was evident right away that Kyle's parents were not willing to take any talk about evil spirits seriously, but Ike went on trying to argue that the metaphysical world held properties not yet recognized by science, and Kyle poked at his food, counting the minutes until he could leave for the Dark Horse. Nothing now seemed more important than his time spent with Stan, even if that time was passed at a crowded table in a noisy bar. As soon as his father put down his napkin, Kyle leapt out of his chair and brought his plate into the kitchen.

"You're always in such a rush!" Sheila said, as if she didn't know why. Kyle was aware that these types of statements were meant to warn or remind him how to behave under his father's watchful gaze, but he found that, more often than not, Gerald's gaze was actually quite less watchful than hers, and he hardly seemed to notice as Kyle shrugged on his coat and headed for the door.

"Don't stay too late," Ike said, looking cross but also nervous, and Kyle felt for him; he still had no friends here.

"Are you really afraid to be alone in your room?" Gerald asked. Ike grunted and tore a slice of bread in half, unwilling to answer for his fears, despite all his ranting about the properties of metaphysical energies.

"Maybe he just wants his brother to represent our family well by returning home at a reasonable hour," Sheila said. She cut Kyle a look. "I don't think that's too much to ask."

"I won't be long," Kyle said, and it was true. He needed to see Stan nightly, to have a drink with Stan's thigh pressed to his on the bench, but it was also agony, knowing that a leisurely day in the woods wouldn't necessarily follow, and the boasting talk of the others grated on him more than it had before, as did Clyde's freedom to take Bebe upstairs and pay her for joining him. Kyle left the house in a foul mood, tucking his arms across his chest to keep out the cold. Stan no longer came to the door to retrieve him; they met at the bar like the others.

The mood at the Dark Horse matched Kyle's, and he learned why almost as soon as he sat down, taking his usual place between Stan and Clyde. Wendy Testaburger was missing. Her parents were with the Stotches, asking for an organized search party. Butters was absent, presumably at home amid the panic.

"I'd better not find out you had anything to do with this," Stan said after they'd all sat for some time in grim silence, staring at their drinks. He was talking to Cartman, whose eyes bulged.

"Me?" Cartman said.

"No, no," Kenny said. "It wasn't him."

"And how would you know?" Kyle asked, in support of Stan, though he felt nervous at making such an accusation.

"Wendy can take Cartman in a fight, for one thing," Clyde said. "When we were kids she beat his ass in the schoolyard. I bet she just ran off to the city to aid the soldiers coming in from Kentucky."

"Without telling her parents?" Stan said. "And who would have driven her there without anyone knowing? No, something here ain't right." He drained his drink and slumped back in the booth, his shoulder resting against Kyle's.

"We'll take part in the search party," Kyle said, and he touched Stan's leg under the table, lightly. "But - I'm sure she's okay, somewhere. She's too smart to have - gotten lost?" Kyle wasn't sure what to say; Stan was tense, his angry gaze still fixed on Cartman.

"I know she's too smart for that," Stan said. "That's what makes me think she ran up against some bastard who did something with her."

"Yeah?" Cartman said, snarling at him. "Maybe she ran up against you, since you're so sure."

"Don't be dramatic," Kenny said. "Wait and see."

"Now why are you acting like you know something?" Stan asked. He picked up his empty tumbler and slammed it down again. "And don't feed me any shit about being a mountain spirit, I ain't in the mood."

"You don't want to go accusing more than one of your friends of murder in the same evening, Stanley," Kenny said, and his eyes seemed to change, the light there sharpening into something dangerous. "That wouldn't be too wise."

"I can't sit here drinking while she's-" Stan said, and he stood from the table. He was unsteady on his feet, and Kyle was quick to help him, throwing some coins down for their drinks. He found that he missed Craig even more than usual, and Bebe, who was busy with another table. Even Butters might have had a calming presence. Kyle was glad to push outside into the chill of the night, following behind Stan.

"I don't know Cartman as well as you," Kyle said when they were standing outside, around the corner of the Dark Horse, Stan lighting a cigarette. "But I do remember him threatening Wendy, once. Tell me - do you really think he might be responsible for her disappearance? Because I'll go to my father right away if so."

"Fuck," Stan said, and he winced. "I don't know. Shit, fuck. I can't think. She was the first one who was nice to me when I moved here. What if she's alone somewhere, scared? I can't stand it. I shouldn't 'a drank, we should go out now with lanterns-"

"There's no chance she could have left town without saying why?" Kyle asked. "Perhaps she had some argument with her parents? You and I talk of doing something similar daily," he said, more quietly.

"I don't know," Stan said, shaking his head. "I hadn't talked much with her lately. But she's real level-headed. I can't see her just running off when even - when even me and you ain't got the nerve."

"We should go to Butters' house," Kyle said, and he grasped Stan's arm, squeezing it. "If if would make you feel a bit better?"

"I don't know what would," Stan said. "Seems like the whole goddamn world is falling apart. Craig-" He broke off there, and Kyle nodded. He'd heard that Craig had taken a turn for the worse as the temperatures dropped, which was the opposite of what the doctor had expected.

"Say," Kyle said as they walked down toward the Stotches' house. "You don't think Wendy's disappearance has anything to do with Craig's illness, do you? As if - his parents might suspect Dr. Testaburger's care hasn't been good enough? And they took some sort of revenge on his child?"

"That's - dramatic," Stan said, and he gave Kyle a sad little smile. "And I'm not making any more sense, shouting at Cartman, I know. But - no, I don't think so. I'd say the most likely thing is that she got lost walking, but she's never been one for walking in the woods."

Kyle didn't dare suggest that the voices they had both heard in the mist had anything to do with the very real disappearance of a girl they knew. He could tell that Stan was thinking of this, too, but said nothing.

By the time they reached the Stotches' house, the Testaburgers had already gone home. They spoke with Sheriff Stotch, who told them that if Wendy hadn't returned by morning a search party would go out at first light. Stan and Kyle both volunteered to join; Kyle was glad for the chance to do something productive, after so many weeks of not even giving Stan a piano lesson. They had a cup of coffee with Butters and Millie, who was silent as usual, only sighing in agreement when someone expressed concern for Wendy's safety.

"She'll be alright," Kyle said when they came to the fork in the road where Stan would walk to the ranch and Kyle back into the center of town. It was late, and most households had gone dark.

"Something's wrong, though," Stan said. "I can feel it. Let me walk you home."

"Don't, please, it's less than half a mile - look, you can see our porch light from here, the only one still lit. My mother will be waiting up, and I can't bear her spying on us through the windows. I'll be alright," he said, leaning up to press his face to Stan's.

"What if you disappeared," Stan said, his voice a mumbled whisper. Kyle could feel Stan's eyelashes on his cheek, could smell the coffee on his breath and longed to taste it. He sighed and pulled away, afraid they would be seen.

"I won't disappear," Kyle said. "And don't dare it yourself. Tomorrow we'll look for Wendy - or maybe she'll have returned home by then. Maybe she's got a secret beau. Kenny does seem to know something, but I doubt it's anything vile. He's a good person, I think."

"I made him mad," Stan said. "I shouldn't have said that. Guess I was drunk."

"He'll forgive you," Kyle said. "Now go on, goodnight. I'll see you in the morning." The reason for this was grim, but Kyle couldn't help being glad to know he would see Stan in the light of day. He'd had a bad feeling himself for some weeks, as if some terrible accident was forthcoming; a collapse at the mine was the dread he imagined most. To have Stan above ground all day would be a comfort.

Back at the house, Kyle was surprised to find that both of his parents had already gone up to bed. So had Ike, it seemed, but he wasn't in Kyle's room as usual, with his lamp and a book, ready to scowl at Kyle and ask what had taken him so long. Kyle went to Ike's room to retrieve him, and a chill went through him when he saw that Ike wasn't there either. He poked around Ike's room a bit, and his feelings of uneasiness increased as he moved from corner to corner, wishing he'd thought to light a lamp before entering. The whole house was dark and quiet.

Kyle retrieved his lamp from his room, lit it, and eyed his bedroom closet. There was no reason to suspect that Ike was in there, and yet he felt compelled to check, as if he might rescue Ike from some danger just by opening the door. He gathered his courage, bolstered somewhat by the whiskey he'd consumed, and went for the door. He winced when he opened it, backing away, as if a foul wind had burst forth. In fact there was nothing, only the dark, and he brought the lamp forward, his hand shaking. The things that he stored there all seemed to be in order, and his brother wasn't hiding among them. It wasn't like Ike to play pranks, and especially now, when he was scared enough to talk about metaphysical energies at the dinner table. Kyle shut the closet door, and when he turned back to the room he immediately regretted ever opening it. The air felt different, charged. For the first time in weeks he knew he was being watched.

"Ike!" he said, angrily, his heart beginning to pound. He went down the hall and back into Ike's room, but he hadn't appeared there, either. Ike's room had no closet; there was one across the hall, and when Kyle examined its contents he found only towels and spare sheets, and the faded smell of their apartment in New York. Distantly, Kyle realized that it had been some time since he'd thought of Rodney at all. He shut the closet door and felt a kind of pitiful anger close over him, as if something he'd vanquished had only been playing dead. He thought of pounding on his parents' bedroom door and telling them that Ike was missing, but he had hardly searched the whole house, and Ike was known - or so they thought - for wandering about at night. Kyle would have noticed if he had, even before they were sharing a room. Something else had been wandering about the house.

He went down into the kitchen, the gaping space of the front room seeming to hum like a generator from which the deeper darknesses of the house drew power. The kitchen was empty; Kyle could feel it before he entered. He swept his lamp through the doorway only as a cursory gesture, then quickly retreated.

Part of him knew, as he searched the front room, that Ike was not down here, and where he actually was dawned on Kyle like the sound of cold laughter from another room, the hair on the back of his neck prickling in warning. He looked up at the second floor landing, his arm shaking as he raised his lamp. There were seven small rooms upstairs, three occupied as bedrooms and a fourth as his father's office. The other three were empty, closed up, full of sheet-covered furniture and dust. Kyle knew Ike was in one of them, and could think of no reason why that wasn't the work of some evil force.

In his hurry to rescue his brother, he didn't even think to enlist his parents. He dashed up the stairs and threw open the first door, hardly remembering to be afraid for himself. It had been foolish of him not to always have considered Ike to be the one of them who was in the most danger: he was youngest, and the most alone, and probably had been suffering with some spiritual harassment for months before his pride allowed him to seek Kyle's help. He was not in the first room; Kyle knew almost right away but searched anyway, the lamp swinging in his hand and casting mean shadows on every wall. He hurried out and went to the next room: no, he wasn't there, either. He was in the room Kyle was most afraid of, the one at the end of the hall, with the indent on the inside of the door that was about the size of a fist. Kyle had accused Ike of leaving the door open in the past, as if Ike knew the room unsettled him and wanted to taunt him with it. Ike denied this fervently, but Kyle had had no doubt that he was responsible, because he had seen Ike going in and out of the room before. Now Kyle's footsteps slowed. He could hear a faint creaking sound - it was coming from inside the room.

The walk to the end of the hallway took a long time, but he couldn't make himself move any faster, as if he was walking through thick mud. When he reached the doorknob it felt colder than the rest of the house, and for a moment he was sure that he'd been wrong, that Ike wasn't in there, because the coldness felt like a symptom of long disuse. But when Kyle opened the door and lifted his lamp, he did see a figure sitting in the room, facing away from him in an old rocking chair that had been left by the previous owner. It was broken, two of the wooden bars missing from its backing, a third one only half there.

"Ike!" Kyle said, and he hesitated to enter the room fully, afraid the door would slam and trap them both inside. Ike continued rocking, staring at the moonlit window. There was something - inaccurate, because Kyle could think of no better word - about Ike's movements. As if he wasn't a young boy but a very old man. "Ike!" Kyle said again, but he got no response. Determined to believe his brother was only sleepwalking, Kyle pushed the door open further, stepping into the room.

He was almost afraid to see Ike's face, but there was nothing wrong with it; he didn't even look frightened. He looked calm, except that his eyes were dancing around as if he was watching an invisible circus act. Kyle put the lamp down and grasped his shoulders.

"Ike!" he said, and he shook he shook him until Ike met his eyes. Ike was slow to do so. He blinked, and that was slow, too.

"Kyle?" Ike said, and he narrowed his eyes with confusion, as if Kyle was the last person he'd expected to find here.

"What the hell are you doing?" Kyle asked. "Get up, get out of here, you're acting like a lunatic-"

"My mother," Ike said, and he was like lead when Kyle tried to pull him out of the chair. "I was talking with her, she was here."

"Mother is asleep, Ike. You're dreaming, you're sleepwalking or something-"

"Not your mother," Ike said, and he gave Kyle a look that frightened him, but it faded quickly. "Mine. She's left, though. You've scared her away."

There was something wrong about Ike's voice; it was slightly higher pitched than normal. For a moment Kyle was certain that this wasn't Ike at all, that the real Ike was in some other room, but that was ridiculous. He got Ike out of the chair and led him from the room, closing the door behind them.

"You've had some kind of dream," Kyle said, speaking quietly as he led Ike toward his bedroom. "Perhaps - there's something behind it, I don't know. The ones I was having certainly felt that way, as if they existed outside of me somehow. Just come in here and come back to yourself."

Ike's floaty demeanor changed, and he began to seem irritable and tired, more like himself. He sat on Kyle's bed, frowning and rubbing at his eyes.

"Where was I just now?" he asked as Kyle added more oil to his lamp; clearly they would leave it on. Kyle's whole body felt cold, and his heart was still pumping hard. He kept thinking he heard faint music, but when he paused to listen it would be gone.

"Where were you?" Kyle asked, and he felt Ike's forehead. He didn't feel feverish; in fact he was rather cool, and Kyle thought of the way the doorknob had felt when he grasped it, like something long untouched. "What do you mean, where were you? We've just walked out of that room - the one at the end of the hall. You're not to go in there again - I'll have dad board it up if I have to."

"What are you talking about?" Ike asked. He was mumbling, batting Kyle's hands away like a sleepy child. "You were late coming back," he said, and he flopped down to the pillow.

"I'm sorry," Kyle said. "If I can expect to return to this sort of scene, it will never happen again. But a girl has disappeared - I went to see the Stotches after we left the bar."

"What girl?" Ike asked.

"The doctor's daughter. We're going to search the foothills for her tomorrow. You're welcome to join us."

"No thanks," Ike said, and he rolled toward the wall, gathering Kyle's pillow against his chest.

"Well, why not?" Kyle asked. "It's better than sitting around here in some kind of - trance. Ike, I'm worried. Don't you remember going into that room?"

"What room?" Ike mumbled, and then he was asleep. His exhaustion was perhaps most worrying; Ike was never tired. Kyle lay on his back and stared at the ceiling, still jumpy and wracked with anxiety. He slept only a few hours, and was yawning when he dressed to join the search party at dawn, stumbling into his trousers.

They did not find Wendy that day, nor any sign of her in the woods or along the road. Even Cartman joined the search, perhaps to prove Stan wrong, and by the end of it he seemed just as disheartened and bewildered as the rest of the party. The miners were only allowed three days away from work to search, and on the fourth day of Wendy's disappearance a pall was cast over the town, thicker than the fog that had come in autumn. Kyle felt as if he had stumbled into a frightening dream with the rest of the town, and he kept an eye on Ike for any further signs of lunacy, but Ike just snapped at him and told him that he didn't know what Kyle was talking about. He continued, however, to share Kyle's bed and hog his blankets.

Stan was gravely quiet in the days after the search was called off, and scarcely seemed to know where he was most of the time. He came to the Dark Horse but didn't drink much, mostly just cupping his hands around his glass of whiskey and turning it occasionally. Out of respect for Wendy, perhaps, they did not play cards or talk as loud as they once had, and Bebe did not go upstairs with Clyde. News of Craig was not good, either; he was no longer allowed to have visitors. Kyle thought he was probably too proud to let himself be seen when he was so weak. Even Sparky was turned away at the door to the Tucker house.

"You've got to come meet me tomorrow," Stan said when Wendy had been gone for a full week. He was walking Kyle home, dragging in his steps.

"Meet you where?" Kyle asked. He had been willing to disobey his mother for some days, only waiting for Stan to ask him to. "In the meadow?"

"Yeah," Stan said. His eyes were on the road, which was wet and muddy from salted down snow. "In the meadow. I need you," he said when he looked up at Kyle. "Not just there. I been thinking. If we get a deer, I could bring you back to my house with it. To help carry it, I mean. Then I could keep you there saying that I was helping you learn how to clean the kill. I always said I'd help you do that." His voice was partly vacant, but there was rawness in it, too. He had bags under his eyes. Kyle was already nodding, struggling not to cling to Stan's arm as they walked.

"Yes," Kyle said. "I need you, too." He hadn't been alone with Stan enough to even tell him about the strange development with Ike.

"As soon as I can, I'll get away from the mine," Stan said. "Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Kyle agreed, and he dared to brush his icy fingertips against Stan's. Neither of them ever wore gloves when they knew they might see each other, no matter how frigid the temperature. It was the only way they could touch, most days.

Kyle woke early the next day, and the morning hours passed slowly. He played piano to kill time in the afternoon, imagining that Stan was beside him. Kyle missed the piano lessons almost as much as the walks through the woods, because of the way Stan frowned in concentration when he played, and breathed steadily through his nose as he tried to keep rhythm. He'd been a good student.

"That was nice," Sheila said when Kyle stopped playing. She was sitting near the front windows, mending one of Ike's shirts. Gerald was at work, and Ike was with him. He'd been tagging along to the courthouse almost daily, with the excuse that he wanted to study law whenever they finally sent him off to a new school.

"I'm out of practice," Kyle said, and he closed the lid on the piano. He decided not to delay any longer, though he doubted Stan would be down from the mountain already. "I've got to go out for a while," he said, standing. "A few of his are doing another sweep of the woods, looking for Wendy. And I might hunt, too," he added, defiantly. She kept her eyes on her mending.

"That poor girl," she said. "If she was out there somewhere - no, it's too horrible to think about. Freezing to death. And that Tucker boy, wasting away in his bed, not even eighteen - come here, bubbeh."

"Why?"

"Just come!" she said, and he did. She stood to hug him, and Kyle rested his head on her shoulder for a moment. It was more of a comfort than he'd expected when he deigned to approach her. "Poor bubbeh," she said, rubbing one hand over his back. "I know there's not much for you here. When the war is over, we'll try to find another place."

"But I have everything here," Kyle said, and he pulled back. "Everything, mother. I love him." He realized then that he'd never said so to Stan. But of course he knew.

"He's not something that can be had," she said. She spoke softly, and there was no anger in her eyes this time. "Not by you, Kyle. Not without grave, grave consequences. You know - we only want to protect you, even from yourself."

"I've got to go," Kyle said, pulling away from her before his voice could pinch up. He heard her sigh and he banged out onto the front porch.

It was bitterly cold outside, an overcast day. More snow had fallen the night before, and men were shoveling the road. Kenny was one of them, but Kyle didn't stop to greet him, not wanting to interrupt his work, and embarrassed, too, that he had no occupation himself. He tried to imagine what would become of him if he stayed here, sneaking meetings with Stan until - when? Old age? Would either of them even reach that, Stan working in the mine until his back gave out, Kyle wasting away from loneliness after his family had moved on and his friends settled with women? He walked more quickly, unable to truly care about anything but the meadow, and if Stan would be there waiting or if he would have to hunker down at the base of some tree and try not to freeze.

Stan was not there, but Sparky was, snow dusted in his fur. He seemed happy to see Kyle, trotting around his feet in circles as if he shared Kyle's excitement about the forthcoming approach of Stan, and of course he did. When Kyle found a tree to sit against near the frozen creek, Sparky crowded up against him, and Kyle held onto him for warmth while they waited.

"I'm so jealous of you," Kyle said to Sparky, who turned to him, panting happily. "You sleep with him every night."

Stan arrived sooner than Kyle had expected, based on the amount of light behind the cloud cover. Sparky bound away from Kyle and across the frozen creek, giving Stan a bark of acknowledgment. Kyle wasn't far behind, and he threw his arms around Stan when he reached him, sort of falling into the embrace, the snow making his steps clumsy.

"Mhmm," Stan said, his face buried against Kyle's neck; his nose was very cold, but Kyle didn't mind. "Sorry you had to wait."

"I don't care, I don't care," Kyle said, clinging to him. "You're here. You smell like a mineshaft - Stan, oh. I hate the thought of you down there. It must be so cold in the dark."

"It doesn't matter," Stan said. He pulled back and kissed Kyle, moaning at the heat of his mouth. Stan tasted like his usual workday lunch: salted pork and yeasty bread. It was heavenly on Kyle's tongue, so good that he was sort of inadvertently trying to climb Stan, who laughed at his efforts.

"Take me here," Kyle said. "Just quickly, to hold us over until we get to your house."

"It's too cold," Stan said. He kissed Kyle's nose, his cheeks. "You're already shivering. And if we take the kill back to my house we can sleep after, in my bed. Just for an hour or so, but. I want it so bad, Kyle."

"You'll have it," Kyle said. "But what will we find to kill? I haven't even seen a squirrel since I've been here, everything's buried."

"Hunting's easier in the snow," Stan said. "For me, anyway, 'cause I'm no good at finding tracks without it. And I feel lucky today," he said. They kissed again, and when Kyle swooned against him Stan picked him up wholly, both of them laughing into each other's mouths as Kyle's legs wound around Stan's waist. It was the first time Kyle had even seen Stan smile since Wendy had disappeared.

They tracked what they thought was a deer, but when they'd found their prey it turned out to be a wayward mountain goat. Stan seemed relieved; he hated killing deer. He did touch the goat's horns sort of tenderly after he'd shot it, and stroked its little beard.

"Poor fella," Stan said. "He must have got lost, all alone out here."

"Let's hurry," Kyle said, unable to feel what Stan did for these random dead creatures. "I'll carry him through town - we can say you hurt your back during work." Kyle stood, frowning. "Do you ever hurt it?" he asked. "Your back or - anything? I worry, you know."

"Mostly my shoulders just get real sore," Stan said, and he hoisted the dead goat up onto them, wincing a little.

"Let me do it," Kyle said, though the thought of goat blood dripping onto his coat was making him ill already.

"You can carry him through town, like you said."

"Right, well. I want to rub your back when we get there. Can I?"

"Shit yeah, you can," Stan said, and he pecked Kyle's cheek before they headed away from the blood-stained snow, back toward the meadow.

Nobody questioned them about their conveyance of the goat as they moved through town, and Kyle gave it back to Stan as soon as they were on the road to the ranch, his back aching from having carried it two miles. He knew Stan's back must be hurting worse, but he claimed he was fine, holding two of the goats legs in each hand as he carried it on his shoulders. Kyle was exhausted by the time they reached the ranch, and Stan cursed when he saw smoke coming from the chimney.

"My dad's awake," he said. "Shit."

"Well - of course he's awake, it's nearly five o'clock." Kyle didn't know much about Randy's daily habits, but he'd generally gotten the impression that he woke in time for the typical drinking hours. "He won't bother us, will he?"

Stan made a noncommittal noise, and they took the goat to the barn. Kyle thought they would leave it there, wash up, and climb into Stan's bed, but Stan laid the thing out on a butcher's block as if he meant to actually show Kyle how to section it into steaks.

"Can't we go in?" Kyle asked.

"With him in there?" Stan shook his head. "He won't be drunk yet. Shit!" Stan turned away from the goat and groaned, his hands over his face. "He ruins everything."

"We could take some blankets up to the loft?" Kyle said, eying the one overhead. His heart was sinking, too, but all was not lost.

"It's filthy up there," Stan said. "It ain't fitting, rutting you like you're some animal. I want you - I want you in my bed." Stan had goat blood on his face now, along with the lingering dirt from the mine. Kyle moaned and went to him, using the sleeves of his coat to clean Stan's cheeks. Stan stood there limply like a scolded child, his eyes downcast.

"Maybe your dad will walk to town," Kyle said.

"He never does in the winter. I'm stuck here, Kyle, I'm so stuck."

"Oh - Stan." Kyle surged up to kiss him, but he fell back when he heard a door open out in the yard.

"Stan?" Randy called. Stan cursed under his breath and put his hands on Kyle's shoulders.

"Might as well have a butchering lesson," he said, mumbling. Kyle had never seen him look so miserable; usually he was the optimistic one. It seemed that every day more light went out of his eyes.

"Oh, there you are," Randy said when he came to the door of the barn. Stan had moved away from Kyle then, and toward the knives that hung on the wall. "Evening, lad," Randy said, and he lifted the bottle of ale he was holding. Kyle had to wonder if Randy remembered his name.

"Sir," Kyle said.

"What's that, a goat?" Randy came forward to boggle at the creature on the table.

"Seems that way," Stan said irritably. "Move off, I'm showing Kyle how to skin something."

"Goat meat's pretty tough," Randy said. "A fine kill, though, m'boy," he said, and he slapped Stan on the shoulder.

"Don't pummel me when I got a knife in my hand," Stan said.

"Any news about the doctor's daughter?" Randy asked as Stan got to work, Kyle trying not to look too closely at what he was doing.

"She's still missing," Kyle said. "It's horrible. Wendy was - I'm fond of her."

"Stan is, too," Randy said. "He's been a real grump since she left town."

"She didn't leave town necessarily," Stan said. The noise that the blade made as he sawed through bone was horrible; already Kyle was regretting his heavy lunch. "We don't know what happened to her."

"Pretty girl like that?" Randy said. "I bet she met some dude her father didn't take to and decided, 'to hell with the old man, off I go.'"

"Wendy wouldn't do that," Stan said. "Not without a note. She has a sense of responsibility."

"A lot of good folk lose their sense when they fall in love," Randy said.

Stan had no response, and Kyle had nowhere to look but at the goat. He felt himself go green as he nodded, pretending to listen to Stan's instructions. Kyle couldn't pay attention to the words, too horrified by the visual demonstration. Randy's occasional belches didn't help; he smelled of boiled onions and old socks.

"I'll take the heart," Randy said when Stan got to it. "Them kidneys, too, and the liver - want me to do us a fry up? Kyle, you staying on for dinner?"

"I don't think so," Kyle said. He was holding down vomit and feeling unsteady on his feet, as if he'd swallowed too much whiskey too fast.

"Kyle's got to get back," Stan said. "Here." He handed his father a pan of organs that he'd put aside. "Cook 'em with some onions, and don't use too much salt. I'll do some potatoes when I get back from town."

"What are you going back to town for?" Randy asked.

"To pray," Stan said, keeping his eyes on his work. "I got one friend dying and one disappeared. Donovan's doing a night service."

Kyle knew Stan's real reason for returning was that he didn't want Kyle walking back alone in the dark. Though it was embarrassing, Kyle was glad for it, and for his quick lie. Randy left for the house with the organs, and as soon as Kyle caught of a whiff of that greasy fried meat on the air, he rushed into the corner of the barn to be sick, hunching over a bucket. He'd noticed it there earlier and had planned to use it if necessary.

"Okay, okay," Stan said, speaking gently and squatting down behind Kyle as he leaned over the bucket, trying to spit the bad taste out. Stan wiped his bloody hands on a rag and took Kyle's shoulders, easing Kyle back against him as he helped him stand. "I know," Stan said, and he rested his chin on Kyle's shoulder. "I know, I know."

Kyle turned and flung his arms around Stan, burying his face against Stan's neck. He was shaking all over, disturbed by something deeper than the gore. It was everything, everything. Stan held him tight and whispered, shhh, though Kyle wasn't speaking, just breathing hard.

"I'm an infant," Kyle said, his face still hidden. "I can't even walk back to town alone."

"It's not that you can't," Stan said. "It's that I won't let you."

"I do feel like I'll disappear without you. When you're not there, everything blurs and goes surreal. I'm a ghost without you."

"Kyle," Stan said and he sighed. He turned and looked at the door of the barn, but there was no one to see them, Randy busy with cooking. "I just want to keep you here," Stan said, his voice soft with resignation. "It's such a small thing to want, ain't it? Really? Since you want to stay?"

"I do, I do," Kyle said, still clinging. "Though maybe not to eat goat organs." He lifted his face and tried for a genuine smile. Stan kissed his attempt away, and Kyle pulled back when he realized that he must taste like vomit.

"I don't care," Stan said, but he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "Look," Stan said. "Maybe this was stupid, thinking I could have you here. Tomorrow, meet me again. If you can?"

"I can," Kyle said. "I think my mother is afraid for me, but I don't think she's willing to put a stop to my happiness, not altogether. She looks at me and sees how much I need you, and she hurts for me. I saw it this morning."

"Then come to the meadow," Stan said. "I want you here, but I'll have you any way I can. Even if we don't pull our pants down, I don't care. I just want to walk with you a while."

"Yes," Kyle said, and he pressed his face to Stan's chest, hiding there. "Yes, me too. We'll be together tomorrow. That's all I need to know to stay sane for one more night in that wretched house."

Kyle told Stan about the development with Ike on the way home. It hadn't happened again, but it still haunted Kyle, particularly because Ike claimed not to remember it at all. Stan was such a patient and attentive listener that Kyle had to stop his story three times to pull him into some shadows along the road and kiss him.

"I think I will go to the church and pray," Stan said when they neared town. "If you want to come with me?"

"I'd better get back," Kyle said, worried about Ike. "I've been gone all day - but pray for me, too, if you like. And for my brother."

"I will," Stan said. "And for us. For me and you."

"God help us, indeed," Kyle said, and they walked with their hands clasped for a few paces, as if to seal that.

At dinner that night, Kyle's appetite returned, and he told his father about the hunting trip and the butchering lesson. Ike was envious; he was fond of dissecting things. Sheila was mostly quiet, and Kyle knew she was wondering if any of this was true, or if he'd actually spent the whole afternoon in bed with Stan.

"Look," Kyle said, lifting his hands. "Blood under my fingernails."

"How grisly," Gerald said, but Kyle thought he seemed proud.

"Kyle gets everything," Ike said, and he jabbed at his boiled carrots angrily.

"Go wash until that's gone!" Sheila said. "Honestly, Kyle. At the dinner table. We shouldn't even discuss it while we're eating."

That night, Kyle was wearied by Ike's endless questions about bone saws and the approximate size of a goat kidney. He made Kyle promise to bring him along next time, and Kyle did, not meaning it.

Kyle fell asleep before Ike did, and woke in the middle of the night to a prickling feeling along the length of his spine. He sat up, alarmed, and searched the room for unwanted visitors. Though he saw nothing, he thought he felt some new presence, not the armless man or a young mother who had mistaken Ike for her own orphan. The air in the room seemed to crackle with menace, and Kyle thought he heard a distant wailing. He turned his back on the room, huddling up next to Ike for warmth.

In the morning, there were no teeth littering the floor, but Kyle still felt as though something had changed, and he couldn't put his finger on what. It was snowing rather heavily, and Kyle wondered if this meant that the mountain passes the miners used would be closed for the day. He had no way of knowing, but he was confident that Stan would meet him in the meadow regardless of any change in his work schedule. Kyle spent the day helping his mother make a stew that they would have for dinner, and he felt, generally, that things between them had mended in a quiet way. He knew this didn't mean that her concerns for him were any less legitimate, but he felt a kind of peace as he dressed to meet Stan.

"You can bring him for dinner," Sheila said, just as Kyle was almost out the door. Kyle turned back in surprise, and she looked away, sighing. "The poor boy could probably use a nice meal."

"Yeah," Kyle said, and he struggled not to prostrate himself in gratitude, not wanting to test his luck. "He could, I'm sure. I'll ask him. Um, thank you."

"Be careful," Sheila said sternly, and Kyle nodded. He knew she wasn't warning him about taking care while walking in the mountains, but about not being seen while they did other things. He left feeling elated, and barely noticed the cold until he'd reached the end of the road.

He arrived at the meadow a bit later than usual, the snow and driving wind slowing him down. Stan wasn't yet there in their usual space, and neither was Sparky. Kyle buttoned his coat up to his chin and leaned against a tree, wishing he'd brought a book, though the cold was too intense to allow for much concentration. He decided they probably wouldn't have sex in this weather, although the thought of Stan's hot mouth around his cock was delightful as he stood shivering.

After an hour or so, he sat, his previous elation crystallizing into something sharp at the pit of his stomach. Already it was beginning to get dark. The miners must have had to stay late; maybe they were in the process of clearing one of the passes.

Darkness fell, and Kyle heard voices in the distance. His sense of reality was so skewed that at first he suspected a whole procession of ghosts, then realized it was the mine workers coming down together. He hurried toward the sound of their voices, hoping that Stan hadn't split off on some other path to meet him. He noticed Cartman first, because he was fattest, and Clyde walking behind him, chewing something. There was Butters, chattering away to Kenny, who spotted Kyle first. He waved, but Kyle ignored him, scanning the group for Stan. He wasn't among them.

"What are you doing out here, princess?" Cartman asked when he saw Kyle running toward them.

"You look frozen," Butters said. "Did you get lost?"

"Where's Stan?" Kyle asked.

"Isn't he with you?" Kenny said. "He packed off at least an hour ago. I thought you two were meeting up to hunt."

"We were, but he didn't come," Kyle said. Already his heart was beating hard, his blood beginning to roar in his ears. "I - we have to go back, he must have gotten cut off somewhere."

"He'll find his way out," Clyde said. "Stan's better than anybody at knowing his way 'round the woods. I bet if we go to the Dark Horse he'll show up-"

"No!" Kyle said. "No, something must have happened, he might have hurt himself. We have to go back and look for him, all of us!"

"What's this?" the foreman said, turning back to shout.

"Stan's got lost," Kenny called back. "We should look for him, in case he's hurt. Before the storm gets worse."

"Goddammit," the foreman said, and the others grumbled, too, but they turned back, Kyle trying to control his breathing. Stan would be fine; they were acting quickly. The foreman split them into two groups, and Kyle was glad to be with Kenny, less so to have Cartman along.

"It's not fair," Cartman said as they tromped back up into the foothills, three from the other group shouting Stan's name. "We gotta work overtime just because Marsh is stupid enough to get his ankle twisted or some shit? We'd better get paid for this."

"Shut up," Kenny said. "Stan would do it for you."

Kyle ignored both of them and shouted Stan's name, tripping in the snow, barely able to walk straight. Kenny had given Kyle his lamp, and Kyle was swinging it around wildly, unable to stop turning in circles or calling Stan's name. Finally he lost his voice, and the oil in the men's lamps began to get dangerously low. Kyle was ready to protest when the foreman called them back to the meadow, but he wasn't sure what he could say: that he would stay out here in the dark, alone, and wait? He was babbling at Kenny as they walked back toward town, making plans to get more oil and go back out.

"It's dangerous in the mountains at night," Kenny said.

"All the more reason to keep searching for him!" Kyle said, his voice just a strained croak now. "We can't leave him out there in weather like this! We've got to get more men for the search party and continue as soon as we've got enough oil-"

"Marsh is probably back in town having a drink," the foreman said. "And even if he's not, I'm not authorizing my team to keep searching in this weather, not in the dark."

"Authorize them or not, it's their choice!" Kyle said, and he turned his wild look on Kenny. "I know I'm coming back out, even if I have to do it alone!"

"Stop ranting," Kenny said. "I'll come with you."

"Not me!" Cartman said. "I won't be the third person swallowed up in two weeks. Or the fifth, I should say, since you two won't make it back alive if you go back up in this blizzard."

"He's right, you can't!" Butters said, tugging on Kenny's arm. "Stan wouldn't want you to put yourselves in danger, too!"

"I'm sure the only thing Stan wants right now is to be found and taken home!" Kyle said. Not only was his throat raw, his chest was, too, as if he had been clawed from the inside. So far his rage at everyone else's response was protecting him from his utter horror at the thought of Stan out there in the dark, alone and hurt. "We only went halfway back to the mining camp. When we return we'll go all the way up-"

"You're crazy if you think you'll be able to dig out those passes with just two men," the foreman said. "Calm yourself, boy - Marsh takes the same pass down the mountain that we all take every day, and we would have seen him if he was still on it. Even if he'd gotten pushed around a bit in the snow, he would have heard us coming and called out if he needed help."

"If he was conscious!" Kyle said, and he chewed his tongue to keep himself from chanting oh God, oh God, oh God.

"He probably just had some business that didn't involve you," the foreman said coldly, and he turned away. "Now let's get the hell to town before we lose our light."

"Come on," Kenny said, taking Kyle by the elbow when he stood his ground like a petulant child, only Butters hanging back while the others moved on. "Let's get back, warm up for a minute and think about a plan."

"Stan can't warm up, though," Kyle said, looking back and forth between Kenny and Butters, wanting them to understand how profoundly wrong this was, and how small a window they had to stop the world from ending. "I know he's in trouble - he wouldn't have left me there like that for anything. And I can't find Sparky!"

Kyle went to his house to get his own lamp, Kenny and Butters following. He ignored his parents' protests as he dashed upstairs for the lamp and other supplies: warmer clothes and gloves for digging through snow. There was so little time, the snow coming down hard, and Kyle was on his way back out the door while Kenny and Butters were still in the process of explaining what had happened.

"Bubbeh, stop!" Sheila said, and she grabbed Kyle's arm. "How do you know Stan didn't go to the ranch, or somewhere else in town? You can't go back up to the mountain in this weather, it's insane!"

"I know he's not in town," Kyle said, yanking free. "He was supposed to meet me there, and he wouldn't have left to go somewhere else without telling me." He thought of what Stan had said about Wendy, his certainty that she wouldn't have left town without telling anyone. "The rest of you can check around town and come get us if you find him safe. In the meantime, I'm going back, in case he's hurt. Mother, he could die if we don't hurry." He looked to Kenny desperately, and Kenny sighed.

"I'll fill my lamp," he said.

"Now what are youdoing?" Sheila said when Gerald went for his coat.

"I suppose I'm going with them," Gerald said. "But boys, don't be hasty. Let's gather some other volunteers so we have a proper search party, not just a few who'll need rescue, too, before long. And Kenny and Butters should really stay back to rest, since they're coming from work."

"I'm okay to go," Kenny said. "Butters, though - why don't go get your dad, and Stan's dad, and anyone else who's willing to go out looking?"

"Can I come?" Ike asked, shouting from the stairs, where he sat on the bottom step.

"Absolutely not!" Sheila said. "Kyle - Gerald - please, at least wait until morning."

"He could be dead by morning," Kyle said, and he went out the door.

The snowfall seemed to have intensified, or maybe Kyle simply hadn't noticed it before, blinded by panic. His scrambling terror at the thought of Stan lost on the mountain in the midst of this storm had hardened into angry determination: Stan would not be taken from him. Kyle would fight whatever mountain gods were waiting with his bare hands if he needed to, Kenny included.

"It's madness to go up like this at night," Gerald said. "Kyle, wait. Wait for the others to assemble."

"That might take hours," Kyle said. "Every second counts. Doesn't it?" he asked, looking to Kenny, who sighed.

"I can't see straight when it snows like this," he said, and Kyle was alarmed by the sense that Kenny wasn't talking about his physical field of vision, but of some other property, his ability to see the fates of those who were lost on the mountain.

"Do you know anything about what happened to Wendy?" Kyle asked. Kenny shrugged.

"Only that she didn't die out here," he said.

"Wendy?" Gerald said. "The girl who disappeared? But how can you know that? Do you have information about her disappearance?"

"No," Kenny said. "Just a gut feeling."

Kyle could sense that his father didn't buy that answer, but he hardly had time to care right now. He couldn't even pay much attention to where he was stepping; already he had tripped twice, and he kept having to relight his lamp, not taking enough care with keeping it out of the wind.

He was determined to find Stan himself, and right away. He wanted to scream in the face of the storm to show it that he wasn't afraid, but an hour later, only a quarter of the way up the trail, he felt less bold. The passes were already partially snowed-over after the miners' efforts to make their way back down, and the wind seemed to be changing direction constantly, pushing them around like lightweight bits of rubbish. Kyle's voice already ruined, Gerald and Kenny took turns calling Stan's name out, but every time they did the only answer was the forbidding howl of the wind through the trees.

"We have to go back!" Gerald said before they were even halfway up the trail. "This is too much work for three people - we'll go back for the others, or start again at first light."

"You go back if you must," Kyle said, though he knew his father was right. He was exhausted from the climb, though they were making very slow progress, and his face was growing numb. He felt, too, as though Stan was still very far away, as if he'd been blown clear to the other side of the mountain.

"Kyle, listen to him," Kenny shouted. "Stan would want you to go back and rest. We can't continue on like this much longer."

They returned to town, the numbness Kyle felt seeping into him more deeply, until he could hardly remember the walk home as his mother helped strip off his coat. Kyle asked her if another group had gone up yet to search, and she said she didn't know. He was sure that this meant no one else was searching, or would until morning. Though part of him had accepted the grim reality that there was nothing they could do to help Stan in the dark blur of a bad storm, he felt like a traitor and a coward when he sunk into the hot bath his mother had made for him.

"I won't survive this," he said when he realized, belatedly, that his mother was washing his back, tutting over him while he hunched in the water. "Unless," he said, and left it at that. Unless, somehow, miraculously, Stan was found unharmed.

"You said that in New York," Sheila said. "That you'd never survive if people knew. Well, they did, and you have. Ach, that poor boy. But – someone will find him, bubbeh."

"It'd be better for you if they didn't, wouldn't it?" Kyle said, though he was really too tired to be cruel.

"No, Kyle," she said, and she sounded so broken up that Kyle turned to look at her apologetically. "Anything that breaks your heart breaks mine, too," she said. "Don't you know that?"

"Mom," Kyle said. "What if he's. What—"

"Shh," she said, and she wrapped a towel around his shoulders when she hugged him. "Let's not assume the worst."

Kyle didn't sleep, just sat in fresh clothes in the front room, staring at the window, waiting for first light. As the hour of dawn approached, others began to arrive; Mr. Stotch had made the Broflovski residence the official meeting place of the search team, and Sheila served coffee to everyone while Ike flitted among the growing crowd, getting in the way. Kyle thought gathering here was a bad omen, because nothing good could start out from this place, but he was too drained and defeated to try to explain why. When the first light broke the horizon, the snow was still falling.

There were only twenty-five men; the foreman from the mine promised more would be up later, after this group had tired out. Kyle felt as though, after those three days of looking for Wendy and finding nothing, these men were already expecting to repeat the experience, as if this was just some hollow exercise done out of respect for Randy, who was blubbering at intervals, possibly still drunk from the night before. Kyle tried to set out alone, angry enough to be deeply foolish, but Kenny and Butters kept close to him, herding him back toward the group when necessary.

Something in Kyle knew that they weren't going the right way, but he was hopeless at navigating even without the snow, and with everything blanketed in white he felt like he was just walking in circles. He was increasingly tired and snarling at Butters' every comment, trying not to think about where Stan was right now: trapped under a fallen tree? Motionless at the bottom of a ravine? The thought of the body that Kyle had sheltered against being broken made him sick with dread, and worse was the thought of Stan being alone and afraid, unable to get warm. At one point Kyle had to stop to dry heave along the path. When he first heard Sparky's bark, he assumed he was hallucinating.

"Ain't that Stan's dog?" Butters said, and Kyle whirled in the direction of the barking, half-expecting Stan to bound out of the woods along with Sparky.

Only Sparky was there, and he stopped to bark at them for just a few seconds before tearing back into the woods, clearly agitated.

"He wants us to follow!" Kyle shouted, his torn up voice making him sound insane. He supposed he looked insane, too, when he went running after the dog at full speed, moving over the snow with new energy, leaving the others in the powdery dust he kicked up.

He'd gone maybe fifty feet when the ground gave way beneath him, snow shattering down into the dark with him and providing an ineffective cushion against the rock he landed on. Even Sparky was peering down into the hole of sky above him by the time Kyle's thought process and vision had cleared enough to show him that he'd fallen into a deep, narrow cavern that had been hidden by the snow. The voices of the others seemed even farther away than they looked, maybe fifteen feet up, and Kyle could barely make out their words, his brain still fuzzy from the fall. He turned onto his side, coughing, and shouted at a sudden, knifing pain his ribs. His shout echoed through the cave that seemed to be both ahead of and behind him.

"Kyle!" Gerald said, possibly for the ninth or tenth time. "Are you alright?"

He didn't know how to answer, and shouted again when he tried to sit up.

"He's got a broken bone," Kenny said. "At least one – try to stay still!" he said, shouting this down into the hole. More snow was falling from above in wet chunks, landing like globs of spit against Kyle's cheek and neck. Outside of the ring of light from above, everything around him was dark, and the rock he'd landed on smelled the way Stan did when he came out of the mine, like some clean but sinister alternate world.

"Don't move," someone else said when Kyle fidgeted. He grunted angrily, too tired for this amount of pain and confusion. Almost as soon as he rolled onto his belly, he saw the light coming toward him.

It was a miner's light, bobbing as if carried by a man who was walking with confidence rather than urgency.

"Stan!" Kyle shouted, and Sparky barked overhead.

It wasn't Stan, and though Kyle recognized the person holding the light, it took him a moment to place the face. It was Craig, bundled up in a well-fitted coat, a scarf bunched under his chin, his lantern blazing as if he'd just refilled the oil.

"Hey," Craig said when Kyle stared at him, aghast. People were still shouting to him overhead, but it seemed unimportant. "I found Stan," Craig said. "C'mere, I'll take you to him."

"You," Kyle said, crawling toward him, willing to believe any promise that he could see Stan again. He felt as if he'd fallen into some dream world, and he was still waiting to be frightened, not just strangely relieved. "You – I thought. You were sick?"

"You didn't hear?" Craig said. He frowned. "I got better. Hurry, follow me."

He helped Kyle up, and Kyle ignored the sound of the others, all of them asking him to stay put until they could get him out. He was holding Craig's hand as they walked into the dark, and he still wasn't scared. His ribs didn't hurt anymore.

"Is Stan okay?" Kyle asked when they were completely enclosed in darkness, Kyle running his hand along the wall of the cave as they walked. The walls of the cave were narrow, just wide enough for them to walk side by side, Kyle's shoulder bumping against Craig's.

"Stan will be fine," Craig said. "It's not that much further. C'mon, hurry."

"I'm glad you're doing better," Kyle said, because he felt it would be rude not to mention Craig's health. His palm was warm against Kyle's, and surprisingly soft for someone who had been working in a mine for years. Stan's hands were much rougher. Kyle tried to remember when, or why, he'd removed his gloves. He could see a faint light ahead in the distance, bright white. "How'd you find Stan down here?" Kyle asked.

"I wanted to do something useful," Craig said. "I felt like I hadn't – done enough. And Stan used to send his dog to keep me company when I was sick. He was nice to me."

"Was?" Kyle said, and a shock of worry broke through his dazed acceptance of what was happening, but it didn't persist. The light up ahead was the mouth of the cave, and Stan was sitting near to it, his back to the wall and his legs stretched out in front of him.

Kyle let go of Craig and vaulted toward Stan, crying out with relief. Stan's eyes got huge when he saw Kyle, and he shouted when Kyle dropped down onto him and hugged him close. It took Kyle a moment to realize that Stan's shout had only partly been out of joy at seeing him; his right arm was dangling limply from his shoulder, and Kyle rearranged himself when he saw that it was broken. Kyle's ribs were aching again as he brought his hands to Stan's face and cupped his cool cheeks, laughing and crying with relief.

"I'll go get the others," Craig said, and he walked out of the cave, back into the snow.

"You – you're here?" Stan said. "You came from there?" He looked into the dark of the cave, then back to Kyle. "Or am I dead?"

"You're not dead," Kyle said, unable to stop laughing crazily or kissing Stan's face. "Oh, God, thank God, you're going to be okay. Did you fall down here, too?"

"Yeah, last night," Stan said, and he pulled Kyle closer with his good arm, tucking him to his chest and kissing his hair. "I'd gotten turned around somehow, like the woods turned against me, everything was all mixed up. Then I fell down here, and, I. Kyle, I was sure I was dead. My mother was here."

"Your mother?" Kyle said. "In a dream?"

"It must have been," Stan said. He looked so tired and cold, and Kyle unwound the scarf he had tucked into his coat, wrapped it around Stan's head and tied it under his chin. "It must have been a dream," Stan said, looking dazed. "But, but. I couldn't see, and it was so cold. It had got dark by the time I fell down here, and I was screaming for help, but I knew no one would hear me, I'd gotten so far off the trail somehow. And then – she was just with me, I felt it. I couldn't see her, but I could hear her voice. She was singing like she had when I was a kid, when I was scared, and she led me here, told me to wait, that she was going to get help. She stayed with me here, though, in the dark, until morning." He was crying, and Kyle was still kissing his face, tasting his hot tears.

"Stan, Stan," Kyle said, and he realized he'd been murmuring Stan's name under his breath all throughout that story. Kyle didn't care if it was true or not, but he thought it must be, that the good spirits of this place would send help for Stan if some evil ones tried to lead him astray. "The others will be here soon," Kyle said, though he wasn't sure that was true. "Craig seems to think he can find them, anyway. I just hope he can find his way back before the snow covers his footsteps."

"Craig?" Stan said.

"Yes, he said he would get the others when he left."

"When he left – where?"

"Here," Kyle said, pointing to the mouth of the cave. "He – did you not see him? He brought me here. He must have heard me fall. How did he find you?"

"How did—?" Stan was frowning, shaking his head. "Kyle, what? What are you talking about?"

"You didn't see Craig just now?" Kyle's spine prickled the way it had it in his bedroom, and he looked down at his hand, the one that had held Craig's. "Let me see something," Kyle said, and he pulled Stan's left glove off, moaning with relief when he felt that Stan hand was still rough, his nails black with dirt from the mine. "I think Craig is dead," Kyle said when he looked up at Stan again.

"But you just said—"

They heard voices then, a large assembly of them, and a dog barking. Kyle got up and dashed for the mouth of the cave, arriving there just as Sparky did. He waved his arms over his head until the others saw him, and wasn't surprised to see that Craig wasn't with them.

"The dog tore off suddenly," the foreman said, breathless from the chase. "I don't know how we all got it in our heads to chase him, but we did. Goddamn, son, are you okay?" He knelt down beside Stan, and Kyle went to throw himself onto Stan again, barely remembering in time that he couldn't do so in mixed company. Sparky was on him in the meantime, licking Stan's face the way Kyle wanted to, like a mad act of repossession.

"My arm's broke," Stan said. "And – I don't think I can walk."

"We brought a stretcher," Kenny said. He was panting from the run, and beaming at the sight of Stan. At his side, Butters was praising God. When Randy finally caught up with the rest of the group, he threw himself down at Stan's side and wept, his face pressed to Stan's thigh. Gerald arrived next, and he grabbed Kyle to examine him for injuries.

"Why did you walk off like that?" Gerald asked, shaking him once to scold him for it. "Did you hear Stan calling?"

"Something like that," Kyle said.

"My boy," Randy said when he straightened up, and he took hold of Stan's shoulders, his hands shaking visibly. "Thought I'd – if your mother knew I'd almost lost you."

"Careful, dad," Stan said, wincing when he tried to roll his hurt shoulder.

Kyle helped Randy and the foreman hoist Stan onto the stretcher after they'd unrolled it, and when they tucked blankets around him Kyle wanted to add his coat, his shirt, everything he had to make Stan warm again. Kenny was examining the cave as the others prepared to leave, touching the rock like he was combing a pan of silt for gold.

"What are you doing?" Kyle asked. "C'mon."

"I'm coming," Kenny said, though he was still touching the rock. Kyle scoffed and left Butters to deal with him, hurrying after Stan's stretcher. He'd been insulted at not being asked to help carry it, though his broken ribs were a legitimate reason to disqualify him.

The trek down the mountain with Stan as precious cargo seemed to take half a day, and when they arrived in town there was a group of women gathered on the porch at the Broflovski household, drinking coffee while they waited for news. Ike was among them, talking to a man Kyle didn't recognize, someone unwashed and unshaven, smallish; he and Ike were both smoking cigarettes, a sign that Kyle's mother had been too distracted with worry to notice much of what was going on around her. As they drew closer, Kyle saw that Wendy was there, too, her hands pressed over her mouth as she regarded Stan on his stretcher.

"Bring him to my father," Wendy said when she ran down from the porch. "He's ready to receive him – Stan, oh!"

"Wendy?" Stan said, blinking up at her. He'd been quiet for most of the journey, speaking only to reassure Kyle and Randy, when they asked, that he was okay.

"They said he was lost for less than twenty-four hours?" Wendy said, grabbing Kyle's arm when he tried to follow the men toward Dr. Testaburger's house. This trapped Kyle into the embrace of his mother, who was so frantic with relief that she was cooing over him in some combination of Yiddish and Polish that he could barely interpret.

"Twenty-four hours – yeah, I think," Kyle said, unable to count at the moment. "Where were you?"

"I'm so embarrassed," Wendy said, and she tugged on the ends of her hair like a girl. "My father was furious, he told me there were search parties – and now Stan, really in need of one, oh, God, I've been so horridly selfish."

"How so?" Kyle asked, though he barely cared, turning to watch Kenny and Butters follow Stan's stretcher into the doctor's house. Stan would want to know exactly why and how Wendy was safe, but Kyle wished she would hurry up and tell him, so he could return Stan's side.

"I went to Denver to get married," Wendy said, flushing red. Kyle glanced at the man who was smoking with Ike. He was sort of ruggedly handsome, though dressed worse than Kenny. "That's my husband, Christophe," Wendy said, lowering her voice, and Kyle noticed that many of the women on the porch were looking in her direction, shaking their heads. "He left for a better job in the city months ago – he hated mining. Oh, it's a long story, and who cares, right? Stan is safe, thank God."

"What a happy ending for everyone!" Sheila said, still clinging to Kyle's arm. "Now come inside and get warm, bubbeh."

"I've got to go to the doctor, too," Kyle said. "I had a fall, I broke some ribs." His mother gasped, her hands hovering over his chest as if she could heal him herself.

"There's likely nothing my father can do about that," Wendy said, and she quirked her mouth apologetically when Kyle gave her a look. "Oh, but, do come. He'll examine you, anyway, and I want to help with Stan's care if I can."

The Testaburgers' front parlor was crowded with the men who'd returned from the search, everyone in good spirits, some already drinking whiskey. Kenny was near the back, looking dazed, an odd little smile on his face.

"Where's Stan?" Kyle asked when he found his father among the men.

"Upstairs with the doctor," Gerald said.

"I'll see if they need help," Wendy said, and she dashed up the stairs. Gerald caught Kyle's wrist when he tried to follow.

"Don't forget yourself," he said, quietly. Kyle frowned, and it took him a moment to catch on, the kindness in his father's warning finally reaching him. Kyle and Sheila had both underestimated Gerald; he knew well why Kyle wanted to rush up the stairs now and fall at Stan's bedside. Kyle pulled his wrist from his father's grip.

"Has there been any news of Craig Tucker?" Kyle asked, still prideful enough to pretend that he hadn't understood, especially in the face of his father's sympathetic gaze.

"I'm afraid so," Gerald said. "The reverend told me they lost him early last night. Poor boy, he was so young." He hugged Kyle to him with one arm.

"What was wrong with him?" Kyle asked. Gerald sighed and looked around the room, drawing Kyle closer.

"The doctor wouldn't want to say so," Gerald said, keeping his voice low, "For the damage it would do to the community, but Craig had been mining since he was fourteen, and the dust destroyed his lungs. It will happen to most of these men if they keep at it long enough, I fear."

"No," Kyle said, and he pushed Gerald's arm away. He would never let Stan enter another cave. Somehow, he would get Stan away from here. There was no point in the miracle of his survival if he would only succumb to what had taken Craig in a few years. Kyle walked blindly toward a side table where Butters seemed to have taken up the position of hostess, and he accepted a cup of coffee.

"Kenny's actin' weird," Butters said, whispering.

"When isn't he?" Kyle said. He grabbed Butters' by the arm. "Did you hear about Craig?"

"Yeah," Butters said. "Funeral's tomorrow, but they probably won't be able to bury him until the thaw. Poor Craig! Clyde's real torn up, he didn't even come on the search. Bebe's with him, I think."

"Don't you know what killed him?" Kyle asked, not bothering to keep his voice down. Butters shrugged.

"Tuberculosis?" Butters said.

"Then why hasn't there been an outbreak?" Kyle was prepared to get up on the buffet table and shout at everyone in the room about the dangers of working in the mine, but before he could there was an anguished cry from upstairs that made his own lungs freeze up.

"Was that Stan?" Butters asked.

A woman came down the stairs – Mrs. Testaburger, who was Dr. Testaburger's nurse. She was almost as lovely as Wendy when she was dressed for town, but now she looked as if she'd been woken too early and was hardly put together, the sleeves of her dress rolled up like a man's shirt.

"He's asking for the boy who found him," she said, looking around the room with irritation. "Kyle?"

Kyle nearly tripped on the poor woman's skirts in his hurry to get around her and up the stairs. He thought of what his father said before and knew he couldn't afford to forget himself, even after the surreal events of the morning so far. This was still a place where eyes would be on them, but when he rounded the banister at the top of the stairs and saw Stan sobbing desperately in the nearest bed, held down by Randy on one side and Dr. Testaburger on the other, he ran to him with abandon.

"Kyle," Stan said, thrashing against the hands that gripped his chest and left arm, his right arm already in a sling. "Tell them, tell them they can't."

"What's happened?" Kyle asked, and he looked to Wendy, whose face was white. She was standing at the end of the bed, tying a heavy nurse's apron over her dress. "Why are you holding him like that?"

"Because he tried to run," Dr. Testaburger said. Randy was crying, too, his red face gleaming with tears and snot.

"It's wrong, though," Stan said, still crying and struggling against them as if he wanted to get to Kyle. "Tell them – Kyle's had real schooling, he'll know!"

"We have to take part of his right leg, below the knee," Dr. Testaburger said. "Frostbite, or some bad infection that looks like it. It's bizarrely advanced, and if I don't act fast he'll lose the whole leg, or die. Get over here, son, and try to get him calm. Randy, hold the left leg steady. Wendy, you know what to do with the other."

"No, please, please," Stan said, his whole body bouncing with sobs. Kyle was frozen only for a moment, then he was moving as if in a trance. He dropped onto the bed and grabbed Stan's left hand, squeezing it hard. "Please," Stan said, turning his wild gaze on Kyle. "Tell them they can't!"

"How can you be sure?" Kyle asked, speaking to the doctor, and he squeezed Stan's hand harder, trying to still his trembling.

"I don't know if you've seen gangrene before, but look for yourself," Dr. Testaburger said. He was already fussing with a brass screw tourniquet, trying to get it around Stan's leg, just under his knee. Kyle braced himself for a look at the lower half of Stan's leg as Wendy used scissors to cut away his trousers, and he quickly looked away, his stomach pitching at the sight of rotted skin. "It's like he was gone for months," Dr. Testaburger said. "He's got a gash on his ankle – it's some kind of infection that's quickened the process. Kat," he said, barking to his wife, who had reappeared and was shooing Wendy away, taking over with the infected leg. "Or, better – Wendy, get someone to help you hold up a sheet so he won't have to watch."

"Get Kenny," Kyle said. He wouldn't want anyone else seeing this. "Shh," he said, turning back to Stan, who was still blubbering, begging Kyle to help him. "They – I know, but. They have to."

"No, please," Stan said, shaking his head. "Please, they can't, Kyle, you can't let them!"

"Shh," Kyle said again, and he pushed Stan's sweat-soaked hair from his forehead. "I know," he said, when Stan sobbed, and Kyle's voice pinched up when he tried to speak again. "I know, I know."

"Kat, a dose of morphine," Dr. Testaburger said, and he finished with the tourniquet. "And something for him to bite on."

"Hey, hey," Kenny said when he appeared, and he sat beside Kyle, putting his hand over both of theirs. "Stan, no, listen. This will save your life."

Stan shook his head and pinched his eyes shut, but when Mrs. Testaburger brought the morphine, he drank it. He was shaking all over when she offered a rag for him to bite on. It reeked of whiskey.

"Don't let go," Stan said, flicking his eyes to Kyle's, and Kyle shook his head to promise he wouldn't. Stan took the rag between his teeth and closed his eyes, though by then Wendy and Kenny were holding up a sheet to hide the carnage. Worse than the sight of it, worse than Stan's panicked cries of pain and the way his eyes flew open in unseeing shock when they cut deeper, was the sound of the bone saw. It wasn't just gruesome, it was final, never to be undone. Perhaps forgetting himself, Kyle put his forehead against Stan's and cupped Stan's face, turning it toward his and whispering sweet nonsense to reassure him, though Stan was beyond comprehension at that point, his eyes never quite managing to focus on Kyle's. Before the severing was done he passed out from the pain, which Wendy, in tears herself, declared to be a good thing.

Kyle remained huddled around Stan after they'd dropped the sheet, listening dazedly as Dr. Testaburger gave his assistants instructions about which instruments he needed to close the wound. He seemed unaffected by the grisly task, remarking that the injury should 'stump well.' Kyle would have retched at that very statement if he wasn't too exhausted and heartbroken to be sick. He still had Stan's head cradled in the crook of his arm, his cheek resting on Stan's forehead. Someone had removed the rag from Stan's mouth after he lost consciousness; had Kyle done so himself? He couldn't remember. Stan's breath was steady and warm, whiskey-scented. When he woke he would be terrified by the prospect of the rest of his life. Stuck here, Kyle, I'm so stuck. Kyle didn't stir until Kenny touched his shoulder.

"Let him rest," Kenny said, though Stan was already 'resting' in a sense, far away. "But don't go far."

Kyle was soaked in sweat and dizzy when he stood; Wendy made him drink some cold water. She got him a chair and put it near Stan's bed while the others cleaned up, Mrs. Testaburger disappearing with an armload of blood-soaked sheets and rags.

"Where's the leg?" Kyle asked.

"Don't worry about that," Kenny said. "I'll see it gets its rites."

"What is wrong with you?" Kyle said, glaring at him. "This isn't a goddamn game."

"You'll know what it is someday," Kenny said, and left, which was fortunate, because Kyle was close to decking him for spouting mystic bullshit at a time like this. Wendy stayed, draping fresh blankets over Stan's legs after the right one had been bandaged up in thick gauze.

"That went very well," Dr. Testaburger said. "I've never seen such an accelerated infection, but there's no sign that it's spread to his other extremities. We'll keep a close watch. He'll be in shock – I suspect he already was, from the way he asked for his friend who saved him." Dr. Testaburger looked at Kyle, who realized slowly that he was the friend who'd saved Stan. He couldn't stop thinking that it had been Craig. "He might turn on you when he wakes, because you let us remove his leg," Dr. Testaburger said, and he shrugged. "But he seemed to be bonded to you from the rescue experience, beforehand – if that persists, you should tolerate it. This will be hard for him, until we find a suitable prosthesis, and even afterward."

"Of course," Kyle said, and he moved his chair closer to the bed. "Anything he needs." Wendy met his eyes when her father walked away, and she smiled a little. There was blood on her dress, and smeared under her jaw.

"I might have known you were the one who found him," she said. Her mother was still off with the laundry, and Dr. Testaburger was headed downstairs, presumably wanting coffee, or whiskey. "My father doesn't know you two were close before the rescue," she said, more quietly. "He likes to speculate about his patients' emotional responses to trauma. In this case – let him, I think."

"This is too unfair for me to stand," Kyle said. "How will he – he loved walking in the woods. It was his one freedom."

"He'll walk again," Wendy said, and she sat on the bed, on Stan's other side. "There have been all sorts of developments in prosthetics since the start of the war. Some companies have really amazing products. I say we take up a collection at church, you and I. I'm sure everyone would put in a little. Everyone loves him." She choked up then, and gave Kyle a teary smile.

"What about his work, though?" Kyle said. "Surely he'll never go into a mine again." He was almost heartened by this, but not quite, knowing that Stan would prefer to take his chances with mine dust if it meant he could keep both his legs.

"I doubt he'll even be able to get that far up the mountain on a regular basis," Wendy said. "Perhaps that idiot father of his will rise to the occasion. He's got no malady that prevents him from working, except for extreme selfishness."

When Randy came up to see Stan again, he did seem sobered in more ways than one. He wept onto Stan's chest, and called for the doctor when Stan woke, groggy and moaning in pain. He was given another dose of morphine, and quickly slipped back into a fitful sleep, his brow pinched.

"I'll want to be careful with this while he's here," Dr. Testaburger said as he put the morphine away. "And I'm loath to give him a supply for himself, after the reports I've heard about addition among injured soldiers. A dependency of that sort is no trifling thing." He gave Randy a disapproving look as he said so, and Randy's shoulders dropped.

"He won't be able to work now," Kyle said, pointedly. He was in no mood to be subtle. Randy closed his eyes and nodded.

"He shouldn'a had to this long," Randy said. "Not without me pitching in."

"I could take care of him while you're working," Kyle said. "Until he's on his feet again. If he'll want me to," he said, thinking of what Dr. Testaburger had said, that Stan might wake up and hate Kyle for not saving his leg.

Stan finally woke late that night, after Kyle had been forced by his mother to eat some bread and chicken soup she'd brought for him. Kyle was the only one in the room. Dr. Testaburger and Wendy had fought savagely downstairs just an hour before, and Kyle hadn't been able to sleep at all on the hospital bed that neighbored Stan's, afraid Stan would wake to sudden bleeding and that the doctor would need to be called for. Kyle hurried to Stan's bed when he twitched awake, hissing in pain.

"I'll get the doctor," Kyle said, his hands hovering over Stan uncertainly.

"Wait," Stan said. His voice was thick and his eyes still puffy, pink from crying, or from the burn of the medication. "Kyle," he said, and Kyle checked the stairwell. When he saw no one coming, he fell onto the bed and wrapped himself around Stan, nuzzling at his clammy cheek.

"Oh, God," Kyle said, whispering. "I'm so sorry. But your foot, it was black. I couldn't – they said the infection was fast acting, I'm so sorry."

"Mhm," Stan mumbled, and his left hand pushed into Kyle's hair, trembling fingers digging in between his curls. "Where am I?"

"Still at Dr. Testaburger's. Shall I get him?"

"In a minute," Stan said. "I feel so. Dead, like a moldy log."

"Shh, don't say that." Kyle kissed Stan's lips softly after checking the stairwell again. "I thought you might hate me," he said when Stan's eyes finally found his, and they looked at each other fully for the first time since they'd been alone together in the mountain cave.

"Hate you?" Stan said. "Huh? Why?"

"Because – you begged. You wanted my help." Kyle wept then, his ribs aching terribly from it, and he pressed his face to Stan's neck. "Your skin is sweltering," Kyle said, and he sniffled when Stan pet him weakly. "I'm going to get the doctor, to tell him you're awake."

"Fine," Stan said, but they stayed like that for a few moments longer.

"Darling," Kyle said, lifting his face to put his lips against Stan's ear. "I love you." He felt as if he was giving up his talisman, returning it to Stan, who needed it more. Stan closed his eyes when Kyle sat back to look at him.

"I was afraid you were a dream, in that cave," Stan said. "Like my mother."

"Yes, I think I was afraid we were both dead when Craig – when I found you. Let's never doubt the other is real again. And, you know. About Craig."

"He's dead," Stan said. "You told me."

"Before I really knew."

"No, you told me. You knew."

Kyle was one of the only people in town who didn't attend Craig's memorial service the following day. He stayed with Stan, so that he'd be able to alert the doctor if Stan needed help. Randy was back at the ranch, presumably, or maybe he went to Craig's memorial; Kyle didn't know or care, and was glad to play into Dr. Testaburger's theory that Stan had grown attached to him out of some post-traumatic shock, now associating Kyle with rescue and safety. Stan was too clumsy to eat with his left hand, and though they were both embarrassed by it, Kyle was happy to spoon soup into his mouth and dab at the corners of his lips with a napkin. Stan was quiet and listless, but he accepted Kyle's affections while the others were away, pushing his face against Kyle's when Kyle kissed him.

"You are glad to be alive, aren't you?" Kyle asked, thinking of Craig, and if he would have accepted this compromise to avoid the dust that ruined his lungs. Stan nodded glumly and groped for Kyle's arm.

"Just don't go," he said, mumbling, and Kyle kissed his temple.

"Never," he said. "There is no hole you can fall into that I won't follow you through."

This actually made Stan smile, though it was small and brief, his eyes unfocused. He looked lost afterward, as if even a moment of levity was exhausting.

"Eat more," Kyle said, and Stan opened his mouth for the spoon when Kyle brought it to his lips.

When Dr. Testaburger was confident that the leg was healing over and the infection hadn't spread elsewhere, he set Stan's arm in a cast and began to talk to him about prosthetics. Wendy was often around, and she was vocal on this subject, having an interest in field medicine and recent developments in care for wounded soldiers. Stan was mostly silent and angry in the presence of anyone but Kyle, and he tended to avoid eye contact even with Randy. He kept his eyes on his lap when Randy came to tell him he'd joined up with the mining company, turning his hat in his hands.

Kyle saw his family at odd intervals throughout the following week, and Ike seemed unharrassed, even cheerful. Apparently, following this disaster, Kyle's parents had made hurried arrangements to send Ike to school back in New York, where he would stay with Sheila's sister and her family. Kyle was glad for him, and sadder than he would have expected at the prospect of losing his brother. He was sure, especially with the country torn apart by war, that they wouldn't see each other for years, if ever again.

"You won't go with him?" Kyle said to his mother after he had the news. They were downstairs, in the Testaburgers' front parlor, having tea. Gerald was at work, and Ike was upstairs with Stan, probably asking insensitive questions.

"We'll stay here," Sheila said. "Your father likes his position here, and I can't live without him. I might not be young, but I do know what that feels like."

Kyle wouldn't meet her eyes, though she was mostly being kind. He was at the window, staring out at the road as a group of men cleared it for the second time in two days. He felt tired and exhilarated all the time, demolished but also unbreakable.

"Thank you," Kyle said when he turned to his mother. "For staying, I mean. Well, for everything. For bringing me here."

They embraced, and Kyle wanted to say more, to ask if she was aware that Gerald knew exactly what was going on between Kyle and Stan, and if she would support him in his effort to never leave Stan's side now that he had a somewhat legitimate excuse not to. But he was in a hurry to get back to Stan and rescue him from Ike, so he said nothing more that day.

Stan moved back to the ranch after two weeks' in Dr. Testaburger's care. He got a ride in a carriage with Wendy and Christophe, who were heading back to Denver, where they would stay briefly while Christophe collected some gambling debts he was owed. They wanted to go to Mexico eventually, or perhaps France, and Wendy was also considering joining the Red Cross. It was all very exciting, according to her. Christophe drove the carriage and didn't say much.

"When did you two – begin this?" Stan asked at one point. They were riding in back, under the covered wagon they'd hitched to the carriage, Stan leaning against Kyle and cushioned by a large pile of Wendy's clothes.

"Me and Christophe?" Wendy said. "Oh, just shortly after he moved to town. We've got so much in common." She said something to Christophe like, Isn't that right, dear? Kyle's French was rather rusty. Christophe answered in French, and this Kyle could translate easily: he said the sex was good, also. Wendy laughed, and she wasn't blushing when she turned back to them, though she smirked at Kyle as if she'd expected him to understand that. "I smoke, too," Wendy said, to Stan. "Are you shocked?"

"Nope," he said, and she reached over to touch his hand, fondly and in a way that annoyed Kyle, though he appreciated that she seemed to love Stan almost as much as he did, and differently. Together they had raised enough from collections at church to order a top of the line prosthetic for Stan. It would arrive in a week, unless the war or the weather interfered.

"I'll miss you," Wendy said. "Wherever we settle, we'll send you a postcard. And I'll be back from time to time to see my wretched parents, I suppose."

"Are they still upset with you?" Kyle asked. "Because of your – choice in partners?" He glanced at Christophe, who didn't seem to be listening. Kyle realized that he'd never asked or even considered whether or not Christophe spoke any English.

"They're upset, yes," Wendy said. "But they always knew I was headstrong, and they'd rather snarl at me than never hear from me again. Anyway, they'll grow to love him as I do," she said, and she looked at Christophe adoringly, though he was hunched and miserable-looking at the moment, a stubby cigarette dangling from his bottom lip.

Randy received them at the house, and Stan was determined to stand on his crutches when he hugged Wendy goodbye, though the cast on his arm made it nearly impossible. Kyle and Randy hovered nearby, braced to catch him, but he didn't fall. He had much more trouble trying to get to the house after Wendy and Christophe had driven away; the property was on an uphill slope, to protect the house from flooding. After cursing and struggling with the snow, not even managing a single step, Stan let Randy carry him.

Humiliated by that, or perhaps just jarred by being back at his house with nothing back to normal, Stan banished everyone but Sparky from his room and slept until dinner. Kyle made himself busy cleaning the kitchen, which was filthy. He wasn't sure how to break it to Randy that he was never going to leave, but the snow and the hardness of the road during this season was a good enough excuse for the meantime. The Marshes owned only one horse, an old mare named Raisin, and Randy would want her to get to work in the morning. Stan had always preferred to walk, but he was a much younger man, or had been, before the injury.

"I'm off the drink, but there's some for you if you want it," Randy said. He was hanging about the kitchen, sort of helping Kyle clean but mostly getting in the way.

"Yes, please," Kyle said, because he'd never needed a whiskey so badly. "I hope you've got plenty, in case of a snow-in. Stan will need it for the pain. The doctor wouldn't send any morphine home with him."

"Oh, yeah," Randy said. "I got a real stockpile."

When Kyle went to wake Stan an hour later, whiskey was indeed the first thing he asked for. Kyle could hardly bear the way Stan's face contorted when the pain got bad, but he knew this was his life now: bearing whatever Stan needed him to. He wasn't sorry about this, and actually felt very lucky, except that he couldn't trade his fate for Stan's and be the one who was confined to a bed. It was a nightmare, but Kyle was a natural shut-in and might have borne it better, with enough good books and Stan to look after him. Stan was already rebelling against his prescribed bed rest, insisting that he could get up and go to the table for dinner rather than letting Kyle bring him a plate in bed. He couldn't, especially after two glasses of whiskey on an empty stomach. Kyle promised him that he'd master the crutches when his arm healed, and reminded him that the prosthetic was on its way. Stan had no response, but he ate most of what Kyle brought him, staring at the fire while he chewed.

"It's too bad that Frenchman got away with his girl," Randy said when he was watching Kyle clean the dinner dishes. "Though I guess it was bound to happen anyway. Still, breaks me up, 'cause no girl will want him now."

Kyle opened his mouth to protest this, furious at the suggestion that all Stan had to offer was outweighed by a disfigurement that had left his beautiful face and perfect hands intact, but he heard it as the blessing it was and nodded solemnly.

"It's true," he said. "But I'll do my best to keep him from feeling alone in the world, as his friend."

"You remind me of my daughter," Randy said, patting Kyle's shoulder. "Not to compare you to a woman," he said when Kyle gave him a questioning look. "But she's real hardy when faced with adversity, like what they call pilgrim stock. Stan's, he's. I ain't saying he's weak, but he lets things get to him, all the way in."

"I'm no pilgrim," Kyle said, muttering, and Randy left him alone after that, retiring to his bedroom at the end of the hall.

There was a small, drafty room for Kyle, but he set up a cot in Stan's room, at the request of Dr. Testaburger, who had trained him in what to do if Stan had any sudden bleeding. He'd also cautioned Kyle to keep the room warm, reviving the fire at least once during the night, and to closely monitor Stan's whiskey intake. Nobody involved had trusted Randy to take on these responsibilities, and Randy had seemed relieved if anything.

"Hey," Kyle said when he slipped into Stan's room, all the lamps but the one he carried blown out for the night. Stan was lying on his back and staring at the ceiling, Sparky huddled up at his side. The dog got up and came to Kyle while he worked on the fire, nosing at him as if to make sure that he knew Stan was not well. Kyle pet him and pointed to the rug by the fire, where Sparky took up his usual spot with a heavy sigh.

"He needs a bath," Stan said. "Smells like death."

"I hadn't noticed," Kyle said, though he had. He went to the water basin on Stan's bureau and washed his hands. "I'll clean him up tomorrow. The doctor gave me a couple of good soaps. Though I guess I shouldn't use them on the dog. What do you usually use?"

"Laundry soap," Stan said. "But only a little. Too much irritates his skin."

"Alright," Kyle said. "Well, you'll have to show me."

"Will I. Yeah, that'll be a trick. I guess you could bathe him in sight of my tomb here."

He sounded drunk, and Kyle knew he couldn't possibly chide Stan for being so grim. He found a clean wash rag and wet it before going to the bed, his sleeves still rolled up. Stan kept his eyes on the ceiling until Kyle touched the rag to his forehead, cleaning away the sweat. He was always sweaty now, though they'd entered the coldest part of the winter. Dr. Testaburger said it was normal, a sign that he was healing. There was a thermometer in the care package that he'd sent home with Stan, and Kyle was supposed to check his temperature in the mornings and if it seemed he was burning up. At the moment Stan didn't seem much warmer than he usually did after drinking. Kyle thought of the way Stan would sweat during and after sex, just a fine sheen showing on his lip if they were outside in the cold, and how it smelled slightly different than his usual laboring sweat, sweeter.

"You need a shave," Kyle said after he'd cleaned Stan's face, leaving the wash rag on his forehead. He ran his thumb over the stubble on Stan's cheek. At the doctor's office, Wendy had shaved him.

"I wanted to ride away with them," Stan said. His voice was strained, as if someone had their hands around his throat. "Me and you, and just go anywhere, go along with any of their stupid plans. I'll never leave this town."

"Their plans were stupid indeed," Kyle said. "And – if you were well you might not envy them. But we'll get away from here somehow, if that's what you want. Just wait for your prosthetic to arrive. Or for the war to end. How's that? We'll leave when the war is over."

"Kyle," Stan said.

"Hmm?"

"Take your clothes off. Get in with me, naked."

"Ah—" Kyle looked at the door.

"He won't come in," Stan said. "Alright, not naked, it's too cold. Take your shoes off, though, at least." Stan's eyes filled with tears, and Kyle leaned down to kiss him, but Stan shook his head and pressed his lips together, his eyes pinching shut. "No, no," he said. "Nothing's the same, not even you."

"Damn you, shut your mouth," Kyle said, and Stan opened his eyes. "Don't tell me I changed, 'cause I haven't."

"You sound like a hick," Stan said, and he smiled a little, shakily.

"Well. Maybe I have changed, then, but not where you're concerned. Here, c'mon—" He tried to kiss Stan again, and this time it worked, Stan's trembling lips opening for his tongue. They sighed into each other, and Kyle felt as if he'd been holding that breath since the night in the meadow when he'd waited in vain for Stan to come.

There was nothing resembling sex that night, though Kyle did get completely naked, and Stan's uncertain left hand roamed over him under the blankets until he dropped to sleep, his face turned against Kyle's chest. In the morning Kyle was freezing, and hard from the smell of Stan. He had to bring his hand to his mouth to keep himself from exclaiming in stupid joy when he saw that the blankets were tented over Stan's lap. What followed was tender and nervous; they kissed a lot and only made the softest noises. Kyle had to finish himself off, because Stan's left hand was both unpracticed and working him from an awkward angle. Stan grabbed Kyle's wrist and brought his hand up to his mouth, licking some seed from his palm, and when Kyle moaned against his ear, Stan came under the blankets, spilling over Kyle's clenching fingers.

It was dangerous business; once the fog of sex had lifted they heard Randy moving about in the kitchen, and Kyle leapt out of the bed, cursing the cold as he yanked on yesterday's dirty clothes. He still hadn't brought his things from his house, and planned to gently ask his parents to do so after a week or so of nursing Stan without any explicit discussion of such.

That first day was odd, after Randy had left for the mine, but for the most part Kyle felt cozy and settled. He cooked breakfast for Stan – French toast, something he'd been craving since meeting Christophe – and it wasn't as good with sourdough bread instead of the challah his mother had used when she made this in New York, but Stan seemed to approve and ate two plates with lots of syrup. After breakfast, Kyle gave Stan a sponge bath, and he sucked Stan off with loving attention when he got hard from the caress of the sponge. Around noon they settled in to read together – Stan's book on the occult had finally arrived – but they were both quickly asleep, and when the wind blasted the windows Kyle tucked his arm more tightly around Stan, thinking that this wasn't bad at all, though he knew he shouldn't expect any sort of peace to last.

"You're here," Stan said after Kyle returned from stoking the fire, resuming his place under the blankets. "You're in my bed."

"Feeling alright?" Kyle asked, not wanting to think about what it had cost them, this ability to be together in Stan's bed at last.

"It hurts," Stan said. "Every time I move, it hurts."

Kyle pulled Stan down against his chest and stroked his hair. He knew he was talking about the leg and not the arm, which couldn't really move within the cast, and that what wasn't there hurt most.

"Makes me think," Stan said, mumbling this against Kyle's shirt, "That every time I took a step in that prosthetic it'd hurt like hell."

"Wait and see," Kyle said, and they lay there in restless quiet until Kyle went to the kitchen to fetch Stan an early whiskey.

Randy returned from work later than they'd expected and after a hard journey on the frozen road, filthy and humbled. He helped himself to a whiskey, but didn't overdo it under Kyle's watchful eye. He was exhausted from his first day of real work in years and turned in early. Before the week was done he'd rented a room in town so that he wouldn't have to make the trek to the ranch every day. Kyle was overjoyed by this, but a sense of unease quickly followed. Now he was truly alone with Stan in this little house, as he'd dreamed about once, but he was also Stan's sole caretaker, and the hard winter was just beginning. Already the prosthetic was late to arrive by mail.

The worst part of every day was cleaning and redressing the wound; Kyle refused to think of it as a stump, though that was what Dr. Testaburger had called it when he gave Kyle instructions. As far as Kyle was concerned, a stump was something lesser, without a knee that still functioned fine when Kyle helped Stan through his daily exercises. Stan wanted to clean the wound and reapply the gauze himself, but he couldn't with only his left hand, and he was always in a foul mood after Kyle was done. Kyle tried not to show that he was holding back his revulsion at the sight of the tied-off skin, and he attempted to seem casual about the task. He gave Stan time alone to recover his pride whenever he was through, and usually helped himself to a strong drink. Every time he did this he had to remind himself how lucky they were, because everything seemed to be healing on schedule.

Dr. Testaburger came for a house call at the start of December, and he removed the cast, revealing a stinking but fully healed arm. This was an enormous relief to all parties, and Stan was able to wash the arm himself while Dr. Testaburger examined his leg, which also received a passing grade. The doctor had brought the prosthetic with him from town; it had finally arrived at the post office three days before. Stan eyed it warily. It came with a pair of stiff leather boots that were specifically designed to be worn over it, lacing up to the knee. The prosthetic itself was wooden, with leather fastenings that were screwed in place with brass.

"I feel like an automaton," Stan said while the doctor helped him put the thing on, kneeling at his feet while Stan sat on the bed.

"That's a cheerful way to think of it," Dr. Testaburger said, with seeming sincerity, and Kyle had to hold in a laugh when Stan gave him a look of disbelief.

"This is one of the most lightweight models available," Dr. Testaburger, sounding proud, as if he'd invented the thing himself. "And the foot hinge is for added comfort." He slid the boot on over it and began to lace it up. "How does it feel?" he asked.

"I don't know," Stan said. "Like a piece of wood."

He tried standing on it, still using the crutches for balance. His face was red, and Kyle knew that his was, too; he felt hot all over, and wanted to rush to Stan to help him, but the doctor was doing that already. Stan winced with every step, as if the top of the prosthetic was pressing into raw flesh, which, Kyle supposed, it was.

"It will take some getting used to," Dr. Testaburger said. "Try to leave it on during the day, even if it itches at little at first. Take it off at night, of course."

Kyle made coffee and put it in a thermos for the doctor's journey back to town. He walked him down to the fence post where he'd tied his horse, and realized as he did so that he hadn't been outside in days, except to empty bed pans, feed the few animals on the property and collect snow to melt for cooking and drinking. He hadn't done any walking, or stopped to notice the way the pines scented the air more sharply now that they were heavy with snow.

"How is his mood, generally?" Dr. Testaburger asked.

"Considering what he's been through, I think it's good," Kyle said. "I try to keep him entertained with books – none of the ones we ordered have arrived yet?"

"The only package they had for you was the leg," Dr. Testaburger said. "I should have thought to bring books – I'll send some of Wendy's with your mother when she visits next."

By the time Kyle returned to the bedroom, Stan had removed the prosthetic leg and was sitting with the blankets on the bed pulled up to his waist, his arms crossed over his chest. Something about the way he'd let the leg topple over on the floor, still inside the boot, made Kyle sad. He uprighted it, lining it up with the other boot, in arm's reach of the bed.

"That thing hurts like a bitch," Stan said.

"I'm sorry," Kyle said. "We – could ask your father for money, for another one—"

"Shit, why bother? That's the best there is, supposedly." Stan stared at the fire while Kyle made himself busy with straightening things in the room needlessly. "I'm not giving up," Stan said, mumbling.

"Of course not," Kyle said. He wanted to go to Stan, but he'd learned not to hold him and pet him when they had conversations like this, because it made him feel condescended to. "It's – you've got all winter to practice. How's that? We can make it a kind of goal, if you want. That you could be more comfortable with it by the thaw. And if you're not, well. Then we could try something else."

"Come here," Stan said. "And shut the door," he said when Kyle took a step toward the bed. "To keep the dog out."

Kyle knew enough about the look in Stan's eyes to undress himself on the way to the bed. He snatched up the petroleum jelly, too. Stan took it from him, popped the top off and flicked it away, the sound of it rolling across the floorboards making Kyle's cock stiffen. Kyle hurried out of his underwear before straddling Stan's lap. They were both breathing a little harder already, eyes locked.

"You're cold," Stan said, and he put his hand on the small of Kyle's back to draw him closer, then took one hard nipple in his mouth and warmed it, sucking. Kyle moaned and put his hands in Stan's hair. He'd been unsure of what to expect as he approached the bed, afraid that all that had happened might have made Stan rougher with him. Kyle wouldn't mind rougher things, but he still wanted this, too, the way Stan ran his fingers softly across his back before slipping them down between Kyle's ass cheeks.

Kyle hoped Stan felt whole when they fucked; Kyle did, always, in a way that he never had before they met. Stan rolled him over and had him on his back, something they'd hadn't been able to do in months, and he held Kyle off the mattress by his shoulders, reminding him how strong he was, still. Kyle didn't bother to keep quiet as he had in the woods. He shouted in answer to Stan's every thrust, pressing his hips up to try to get more of Stan into him. Stan's teeth closed into his neck, deep enough to mark him; and why shouldn't he be marked? They were together, at last. Kyle sobbed when he came, then couldn't stop.

"Shh, oh, hey," Stan said after he'd come, sliding out already. "Shit, did I hurt you? Oh, Kyle, hey." Stan was kissing him all over his face, trying to dry Kyle's cheeks with his thumbs.

"I'm sorry," Kyle said, still shaking with sobs. "I don't know why I'm crying, I – think I'm happy, and I'm evil for being happy now, aren't I? I'm just wretched, wicked—"

"No, baby, shh," Stan said, and Kyle hiccuped, laughing, because Stan had never called him 'baby' before, and it sounded ridiculous. "I'm always happy when I'm with you," Stan said. "Like this, I mean, when we're together like this. It's okay to be happy, Jesus. I'm happy, too." He kissed Kyle as if he wanted him to taste it on his tongue, and Kyle opened wide for him, going limp.

Though it took almost an hour to boil enough water for a hot bath, Kyle did so that they could take one together, and he dumped a sachet of lavender that Wendy had given him into the water. She'd said it was calming, and Kyle did feel calm as he straddled Stan's lap in the tub, giving him an overdue shave. He had red marks all over his neck from Stan's stubble.

"Let me do you," Stan said, though Kyle only had some fuzz on his lip and near his ears. Kyle submitted to being shaved, nervous about the accuracy of Stan's recently broken right arm, but he was careful and did fine. They stayed in the bath until the water cooled, kissing and rubbing against each other, and Stan refused clothes when Kyle helped him out. He used the crutches to get back to the room, naked and still hard.

"It's easy with two hands!" he said, turning back to say so to Kyle, who wasn't sure if he was charmed or unnerved by this display.

They were surprised by a visit from Kyle's family a few days later, and when Kyle heard his mother's voice out in the yard he dashed around the room getting dressed, tossing clothes to Stan so he could do the same. By the time Kyle was presentable the Broflovskis were knocking on the door, and Stan was doing the fastenings on his prosthetic.

"You're going to wear that?" Kyle said, surprised. Stan hadn't touched it since the visit from Dr. Testaburger.

"Well, yeah," Stan said, looking up from it. "For company. To make them more comfortable, you know? Um, can you help me with it after you let them in?"

"They can wait," Kyle said, dropping down to Stan's feet. He was lacing the boot up over the prosthetic when his mother walked in the door out in the kitchen, shouting his name. "Coming!" Kyle said.

"I can do the rest," Stan said, and he kissed the top of Kyle's head. "Go on, don't be rude."

Kyle was so happy to see his family that he was almost tearful, though he hadn't missed living with them, and certainly hadn't missed living in that house. They'd brought armloads of presents, basic sundries, and boxes of clothes for him, having borrowed the Stotches' carriage. Kyle helped his father and Ike unload everything and bring it to the house, and when they returned from the last trip Stan had emerged, wearing the prosthetic but still using the crutches, answering Sheila's endless questions.

"Mother!" Kyle said, and he pulled a chair from the table. "Let him sit before you begin the interview."

As soon as Kyle took her coat, Sheila began making dumplings; she'd brought chicken broth in a pot from home. Kyle was assigned the task of chopping vegetables and potatoes. There were even two bottles of wine, presumably from the small collection they'd brought from New York. Stan sat at the table with Gerald and Ike, drinking wine out of a tumbler. Kyle couldn't stop admiring him from the corner of his eye, only half paying attention to his mother's chatter. He thought Stan had never looked more handsome, pink-cheeked from the wine and sitting with one elbow on the table, grinning at Ike's comments about some public humiliation Butters had recently suffered. Sparky came in to lay down with his chin on Stan's boot, favoring the one that housed a real foot as opposed to a wooden one.

"All this land and they don't keep anything but a cow and four chickens?" Sheila said when Kyle gave her the report on how they were eating – there was always milk and eggs, at least. He'd cried pathetic tears of frustration the first few times he tried to get milk from the cow, but he was getting better. He'd tried hunting a few times, but he was hopeless at it even with Sparky there to sniff out prey.

"I want to get some pigs in the spring, if we can," Kyle said, and he could feel his mother's attention sharpen. He looked up at her and shrugged. "As far as everyone in town knows, I'm just a saint-like friend," Kyle said, lowering his voice. "Who else would care for him? They're all just glad they don't have to do it." Among the items of gossip they'd already discussed was the fact that Randy was spending time with a pretty war widow who had recently moved down from Denver.

"Careful," Sheila said, shaking her head, and she looked back to her dumplings.

The dinner was good, one of Kyle's favorites from childhood, and he knew that was why his mother had picked it. She touched Kyle's hair at random intervals throughout the meal, and when she told them Ike would begin his journey back to New York in the spring, her voice wavered.

"There's not much for a boy of Ike's age here," Gerald said. "Not even a small school for social interaction, but I hope that will change – Kyle, I was offering your services as a reading teacher to a woman with a young son the other day. In the spring, would you be interested in that kind of work?"

"If I have time," Kyle said. He didn't like children, generally.

"We were thinking about helping my dad set up a real farm here," Stan said. "So we could sell in town."

"Well, that's noble, I suppose," Gerald said, and Kyle could hear in his tone that he was disturbed by the thought of his son as a farmer. Kyle wasn't thrilled about it himself, especially if it meant butchering animals. "But you should use your unique gifts to serve the community, Kyle. You could tutor the youngsters in Latin, give them a chance at leaving for school after the war ends."

"How would they pay him?" Ike asked. "In sticky buns and cookies?"

"That'd be alright," Kyle said, and Sheila laughed.

"I made you a rugelach," she said, pointing to a box on the counter.

They stayed late, and Kyle offered his parents Randy's bed, not expecting them to accept. When they did, he put fresh sheets on, then went in to do the same for Ike, in the unused room that was supposed to be Kyle's.

"I could move the bed into the kitchen so you could sleep near the stove," Kyle said.

"I'm alright," Ike said. He was leaning near the door, studying Kyle while he worked. "You're like a wife," he said, and Kyle turned to glare at him, but Ike didn't seem to be taunting him, just observing this mildly. He shrugged. "It's impressive, actually," Ike said. "You always get what you want."

"You'll have enough of what you want, back in New York," Kyle said, and he fluffed the pillow angrily when he thought of Ike eating fried donuts at the Polish deli. "Have you been able to sleep, at the house?" Kyle asked.

"Yeah," Ike said. "Ever since you left, nothing."

"Not even dreams? Sleepwalking?"

"I don't think so," Ike said. "Did anything follow you here?"

"No," Kyle said. "Stan – it's never been a problem, with Stan around."

"Of course not," Ike said, and Kyle slung the pillow at him.

Kyle went in to Stan's bedroom, wondering if he should sleep on the cot just in case and knowing he wouldn't be able to stay there for long. Stan was sitting in his undershirt and trousers on a stool near the fire, unlacing his left boot.

"Didn't expect they'd stay," Stan said when Kyle had shut the door behind him.

"It's alright, isn't it?" Kyle asked. Stan looked up from his boot and laughed.

"Yeah, of course," he said. "You know. I think of it as your place, too. Now."

"I asked my brother about the disturbances," Kyle said, not sure how to respond to that, because he felt the same way and he knew it was foolish. "He said there hasn't been anything."

"Kenny said there wouldn't be," Stan said.

"What now?" Kyle went to Stan and knelt down in front of him, starting on his other boot.

"He was babbling something at me while I was still in the bed at Dr. Testaburger's," Stan said. "Something about how he'd sealed up a magical cave? Portal to the spirit world, something like that? I was high on that medicine, thought I was having a fever dream. You know Kenny, though, he's kind of a lunatic."

"That cave," Kyle said, his fingers pausing on Stan's laces. "Every time I remember what happened I catch myself thinking Craig was there with me. But you didn't see him."

"Doesn't mean he wasn't there," Stan said, and he cupped Kyle's cheek. Kyle looked up at him and shivered a little, pressing into his touch. "My mother was there," Stan said. "I know she was, and you said Craig left to find the others after you saw him? I think he went and got Sparky. They were friends, after all."

"Then I hate the thought of something like that being closed up," Kyle said. He took Stan's hand and kissed his palm. "If it saved you."

"I think Kenny'd let us back in if we wanted," Stan said, and he winked.

"Wait," Kyle said when Stan reached for his laces again. "Leave them on for a moment. And take your shirt off."

"Right under your parents' noses?" Stan said, but he was grinning, and he pulled his shirt off.

"Well, they're in my house, aren't they?" Kyle said, and Stan nodded, his fingers sliding into Kyle's hair as Kyle worked the buttons on his trousers open. Kyle wanted Stan to have good associations with the prosthetic and these boots, though he supposed the whole evening would be a good memory already; they'd both enjoyed themselves, and it had been nice to have other voices in the house. Kyle was thinking of inviting their friends for a regular evening of card playing, perhaps twice monthly. His thoughts about this evaporated when he worked Stan's hard cock out through his fly and licked it up and down, Stan's fingers tightening in his hair. Sucking him off while he wore the tall boots wasn't entirely selfless. Kyle liked the look of them a great deal, especially when Stan wore them with open trousers and nothing else.

They both slept well that night, curled up together under the blankets, and Kyle didn't worry that his parents knew the cot in Stan's bedroom was only for show. Had he actually gotten what he wanted, for a grisly price that Stan paid for him? The thought terrified him when he woke in the morning, dawn peeking in around the heavy curtain that hung over the window. He pulled Stan's arm around him more firmly, scooting down until the blankets covered his nose.

His mother allowed him to make the breakfast, and when Kyle's family left she hugged Kyle goodbye, then Stan, patting his back.

"You're a brave boy," she said, sounding like she would cry. "Take care of each other," she said, and Kyle knew she'd woken up with the same fear he had, early in the morning, that the appearance of a happy ending could be cruelly deceptive.

After he did his chores with the animals, Kyle took a bath and found Stan in bed, reading the occult book. Kyle put on a clean sweater and climbed into bed with Stan. He hadn't bothered with underwear, and he hummed with contentment when Stan's hand slid down to squeeze his bottom.

"If you'd lost a hand I would have mourned it forever," Kyle said, not sure that he should speak about what might have been. "Your hands are so perfect."

"Look here," Stan said, and he showed Kyle the page he'd been reading. The book was called Encyclopedia Arcana, and so far they'd both found it rather disappointing and tame. Stan was looking at the entry labeled Woodland Spirits. "'Many tribes of the western mountains believe that every tree has a soul.' I believe that," Stan said, and he looked up at Kyle with such grave sincerity that Kyle had to hold in a laugh.

"I don't know," Kyle said. "It would be so sad, wouldn't? To stay in one place for hundreds of years."

"I doubt it bothers them," Stan said. "That's how I want to be." He looked back to the book. "More like an old tree."

"I think the best woodland spirit my soul could hope to resemble would be some nuisance like a squirrel," Kyle said, and Stan smiled at him, pressing his face to Kyle's cheek.

"That's perfect," Stan said. "You could climb me."

"Oh, yes, and eat your nuts?"

"I'm serious, though," Stan said. He sat up and put the book on the table by the bed. "I know it's greedy, but I want to have so many lives with you."

"I know," Kyle said, and he drew Stan down to him. "Let's just hope we can have this one, for now."

Things between them were easy that winter, despite everything. They had the books that Dr. Testaburger had loaned them from Wendy's collection, and Kyle was trying to learn how to cook. Stan still found the prosthetic uncomfortable, but he grew attached to it anyway, and Kyle suspected it made him feel more normal, even if normal hurt. Some nights he slept with it still on, boot and all, and Kyle didn't mind. He liked the way the leather felt against his bare skin when their legs tangled together.

Their friends came to visit when the road was clear enough, Kyle making trips into town to arrange these social gatherings. They gossiped over cards and drank too much, and Kyle almost always had to make beds on the floor in the kitchen for those who were too drunk to get home safely. By the following summer most of them had left town. Bebe was given a heavy chunk of gold from some anonymous donor who slipped it under her pillow at the Dark Horse, and she left for California after she'd sold it. Everyone suspected Clyde, but Kyle was sure that Kenny had found the gold in that cave and given it to her. Clyde was depressed without her, and he joined the Union army. Cartman went to live with his mother in Denver for the season, but he was back before the next winter, complaining of his mother's gentleman admirers. Wendy and Christophe returned to settle in the valley just before the end of the war, to everyone's surprise. They brought two daughters with them, and when Wendy begged Kyle to help her open a school for them and the other children in town, he did.

The mine had closed after a bad cave in during non-working hours, but new industry kept people in town, mostly forestry and meat-packing. A brewery opened in 1867, and Randy remarried after he got a decent job there. His wife was ten years younger, named Penny, and Kyle found her agreeable enough. They had a house in town, and Randy signed the deed to the ranch over to Stan, making it official, though by then Stan and Kyle had lived and worked there for almost five years.

It helped that Cartman made jokes about them, because no one took him seriously. People generally believed, probably thanks to Randy, that Stan had loved Wendy and lost her to the Frenchman, never to recover from this early heartbreak. There were rumors that Wendy had moved back to town to try to start an affair with Stan, having come to regret her choice in husband, but that Stan was too good a man to give in to the temptation. He was something of a local hero, due to the combination of his handicap and his persisting friendliness, and people praised Kyle for having saved him, first in the cave and then after the partial loss of his leg. The rumors about Stan included some about how he'd become either a heavy drinker or a morphine addict after his accident, and Kyle allowed people to consider this another reason that women didn't find him suitable for marrying. Generally it was believed that the foremost reason women weren't willing to get involved with him was his undying love for Wendy, a community fable that Wendy and Stan both encouraged in subtle ways when they could. Kyle actually felt jealous sometimes, though he was very glad for the folklore surrounding those two, because it kept Stan and Kyle safe. About Kyle's romantic life there was little speculation, but he continued to make easy friendships with the prostitutes who worked in town, so most thought he satisfied his needs with them.

Formally, Stan and Kyle were business partners who had revived the neglected ranch, and they were known in town for their bacon and goat's milk cheese. Their business on the ranch remained small, though they'd hired Kenny as soon as they could afford to, and they outsourced their sheep's wool to Millie Stotch, who made it into yarn and other goods. Their jobs at the school brought them virtually no income until Colorado joined the union in the mid-seventies. They had some federal funding then, due to Wendy's efforts. Stan, having surpassed Kyle on the piano after the Broflovskis made a gift of it to him, taught music and history. Kyle taught literature and Latin, and Wendy handled arithmetic and most of the administration. There was a brief period during which Christophe taught French, but he had no sense of how to manage a group of children who were not his own. With Wendy he had five, all daughters except for the youngest, and he was a devoted father who Kyle grew to admire a great deal. They were both fond of talking about politics while drinking. Christophe was actually a very adept English speaker, though he had few words for most people.

Somehow, Kyle found himself nearing forty, still waiting for his luck to run out, but a little less afraid, with every passing year, that it would happen soon. His parents had moved back to New York after his father retired, and Kyle missed them, but he was glad for the excuse to bring Stan to the city to visit them as a fortieth birthday present. Ike was touring while they were there; he had a magic show and was fairly famous on the east coast, according to Kyle's mother. It was 1885, and New York had changed significantly since Kyle had last seen it, so he was a tourist alongside Stan, and in many ways their two weeks there were the happiest of his life, because he'd finally shown Stan that he could escape the shadow of the mountain when he wanted to. Stan had been through four prosthetics by then, and was currently using one made of firm rubber that he liked a great deal more than the wooden ones he'd tried. Every man in New York was wearing a bowler that year, and Kyle bought Stan a nice one at Macy's. He looked so handsome in it that Kyle took him back the next day and bought him a whole suit, though it was expensive and he'd have no need of one in Colorado. He did eventually wear it there, to a number of weddings. Anyone else would have been taunted for his fanciness, but Stan's limp afforded him many kindnesses.

"I feel like I've seen the whole country now," Stan said at one point on the long train journey home, slumped against Kyle in their compartment.

"From a train window, yes," Kyle said, and he checked the window on the door before daring to kiss Stan's forehead. They hadn't had any real privacy during their two weeks in New York, and Kyle was looking forward to returning their wood-frame bed on the ranch, tired of the rest of the world. "We should see California, though, sometime," he said. They still got postcards and letters from Bebe, who had never married. Kyle hoped she'd found some woman.

"Yes, California," Stan said, mumbling, and then he was asleep.

They never made it to California, though they could have afforded the train tickets at several flush periods in the ranch's history. Kyle liked to go to Denver to shop, and it was an easy trip once South Park got its own train station. The town grew, and the new owners of the building that had once been The Golden Nugget transformed the place into a hotel for tourists who came to hike and ski on Pike's Peak. Kyle's time was divided between the school and the ranch until he turned fifty and decided to retire as a teacher, leaving the Latin to Wendy and the literature to Stan, who had always enjoyed the company of his students more than Kyle did. Distantly, Kyle wondered what had become of the teacher who had corrupted him. Surely he had died in prison, but there was no way to find out that Kyle actually wanted to undertake. He felt almost nostalgic for those horrible years, because they were the precursor to his life with Stan, a wound that Stan would bandage so tenderly that Kyle was almost glad to have suffered it. After all, without that nightmare, he would have remained in New York, forever ignorant of his true happiness.

The thought frightened him, more so than his fear that the townsfolk would cease to tolerate his cohabitation with Stan once had. There were so many little twists in the past that might not have led him to where he'd come. Kyle might not have been naïve enough to accept Rodney's private tutoring sessions; Stan might not have fallen and lost his foot. Sometimes he was afraid that the latter was some terrible bargain that Stan made with a demon when he was alone in that cave, but a cruel spirit would have taken more than his foot in exchange for his life with Kyle. As if these things could be reversed, Kyle would wake up terrified by the flimsiness of what had amounted to his relatively long and happy life, and he would find Stan under the blankets and cling, his heart pounding while Stan slept on peacefully.

They never walked as far as the meadow anymore, but they strolled about together on outskirts of the ranch sometimes, near enough to the house that Stan wouldn't have trouble getting back if his leg began to bother him. The prosthetics were never exactly comfortable, and as he'd gotten older he'd gone back to simply using his crutches inside the house, as long as he was only in the company of Kyle, who hardly blinked at what he now thought of, without angst, as the stump. There had even been a period in his late twenties when he'd rather fetishized that part of Stan's body, having conquered his fear of it. Stan had been fond of spanking Kyle and tying his wrists up around the same time; Kyle had rather liked that, too.

Most of their more leisurely walks took place in late spring or early fall, when the trees were nicest. There was a dense forest near their property, and though the town had grown more crowded and the mountain had been overrun with tourists and even a lodge, this particular forest was usually empty, far enough from town to remain quiet and untraveled. Stan favored several fallen trees for sitting against and picnicking, and Kyle would rest his head on Stan's shoulder while Stan told him the names of the birds they could hear calling.

"Any news of your brother?" Stan asked Kyle one afternoon in fall, just a few months after Kyle's retirement from teaching. Kyle had lately been keeping to the ranch for weeks at a time, and it suited him, this existence with only Stan for company.

"Ike's gone to Egypt," Kyle said. "I didn't tell you?"

"No! Egypt? My god! What for?"

"Oh, it's for publicity, for his act. To research the mysticism of the pharaohs or something like that. He's brought that new wife of his, I suppose. My mother hates her."

"Do you think Ike believes in magic anymore?" Stan asked.

"No, well. Doubtful. It's just a gimmick to him, I suspect, a way to make money. But how would I know, we never speak. I've never even seen his act!"

"Mhm," Stan said. His sister had recently died, leaving behind four children. Her husband being dead also, Stan had wanted to adopt all of them, but they were adults, and they had not answered any of his letters.

They were sitting in Stan's favorite spot, against what had once been a giant tree, now a fallen trunk that grew impressive mushrooms. They could see the house from where they were, but distantly, and the way that the light streamed down through the treetops at this time of day was beautiful, especially now, in autumn, with all the colors enriched. Kyle reached over and took Stan's hand, because he seemed to be deep in thought, and Kyle increasingly didn't like being apart from him, not even when Stan's thoughts took him elsewhere. Stan looked over at him and smiled.

"I was just thinking of how scared your brother was in that old house," Stan said. "Before he left. Before – well, everything, really."

"Everything," Kyle said, thoughtfully. "No, things had happened before that. You'd taken my – virginity, I guess. Not physically, but in another way. In a way that meant something."

Stan leaned over to kiss him. They still had sex, though not often. The smell of snow and frozen pines reliably made Kyle's cock hard, which was a nuisance considering where they lived. Stan had more trouble with arousal lately, and he promised it was nothing to do with Kyle. He had no shortage of affection, anyway, and most nights Kyle was so tired that this was a relief.

"Anyway," Kyle said, laughing when Stan nuzzled at him in a particularly childish way. "I was the one who was really scared. Oh – speaking of that night, that historic occasion when you deflowered me? Remember, I'd run to you because I thought a demon would eat me or something?"

"We're so far away from that now," Stan said. "From – the spirits, I mean. I think? I walk here in the woods and don't feel them the way I used to, like this thing that was alive, watching me."

"The woods at the foot of the mountain are different, maybe," Kyle said. "These are calmer. They don't want us feeling watched."

"It all seems like a dream now," Stan said, and Kyle knew what he meant: those first months of their friendship and love, the miracle of Kyle falling into that same cave that Stan had, the loss of Stan's foot. To Kyle, Stan's foot seemed almost regrown, for all intents and purposes. Stan did what he liked now, though what he liked had changed.

"Your dog," Kyle said, meaning the one they'd buried twenty years ago. "Sparky."

"He was a good dog," Stan said, and he slid his arm around Kyle. They sat there for some minutes, maybe even half an hour, thinking about the good things they'd had and lost: Sparky, Butters, Kyle's father, Stan's ability to hold Kyle up against a tree trunk with one hand and administer the petroleum jelly with the other.

"Do you still think trees have souls?" Kyle asked, knowing the answer.

"Sure," Stan said. "Can't you feel it?"

They looked up at the swaying leaves, many of them brightly colored at this time of year, beautiful in a way that meant they were near death. Kyle leaned onto Stan more fully, clutching at his shirt, and Stan's hand tightened on his shoulder.

"I can feel it, yes," Kyle said. He pinched his eyes shut and breathed in the smell of Stan, still afraid, or just sad, about how quickly this moment would pass, as all their perfect moments had.

"Darling," Stan said, because it was all they needed to say anymore, the talisman they exchanged that erased every fear. Kyle opened his eyes and looked up at the leaves again. He smiled, leaned into the kiss Stan pressed to his cheek, and wondered what he should cook for dinner. Such things still mattered, in this lifetime.