Youngbloods – The Awakeningwritten by Quartetship - illustrated by amnestart, emeraldtree, Kayotics, and Anonymous
Setting can range anywhere from the late 1990's-today, readers' choice. Main characters are between 17-18 years of age during plot action. This fic is intended to be 'book one' of a series that I'm hoping to continue.
Pained screams permeate the air, even from a distance. Groans grow weaker and are replaced by muffled pleas for help that go unanswered. Rage becomes despair as a life slips away, in front of dozens of uncaring eyes. Nothing is done; no one reacts. Reaching out is impossible, even if it weren't too late. No explanation is offered, despite the feeling of inescapable fear.
Sounds fade. Images dissolve. The world shifts as everything falls away at once.
Only a dream.
The same one he'd been having for days...
His day started before the sunlight did, with the sounds of a wake up call, of making beds and dressing down for showers, with barely a word spoken in the cold, still-dark hallways. It was the same every morning, no matter the day, with hardly a break in the pace or a change in routine. Calendars hung in nearly every room, but he couldn't remember the last time he'd actually bothered to look at one.
Stan - Number Seven - lived a life in gray. The walls of his dorm room, shared with two other boys were gray. So were the tiled surfaces of the shower rooms, the dining hall, and the classrooms of the facility they all called home. Even his clothing - every piece of it - was a slate color, save for the yellow number seven emblazoned on the front and back of every shirt. It was something that was alternatively comforting and unsettling; a life he was accustomed to.
Stan and eleven other teenagers had grown up in this place. This was the only existence any of them could remember, and that in itself had a way of quieting whatever resistance his soul might have had to the structure of his daily life. This was all there was, for him at least. This featureless, fenced-in, nearly faceless way of living.
Things were sterile, to the best of the abilities of the Caretakers. They were the ones in charge, the ones who provided. Stan and his peers learned from them, were supervised by them, obeyed them. There was little reason for them not to — the Caretakers had told them all the stories of their abandonment by their birth parents, and their adoption into the facility. Those stories were vague at best — gray like everything else — but Stan had heard them enough times to believe in them, from sheer force of habit.
He and the others lived in tiny rooms, comfortable but barren sleeping quarters with three small beds in each. Mostly boys, they had settled into divided social groups as they'd gotten older, but with only eleven peers, it was impossible not to know everyone in his life to at least some degree. They dined together, attended lessons and classes together, and in smaller groups even showered and slept in close proximity. Their faces were so familiar to each other that they had almost become part of the hueless background through which they moved every day. Heading back to their dorms to dress for the morning meal and first class of the day, he barely made eye contact with any of them. It was easy to go through those first few hours every day without doing so; even his vision seemed to work only in gray-scale that early in the morning.
The high windows in the dining area shone with a soft, blue light as the sun crept into the sky, and the first hints of alertness trickled into Stan's consciousness along with it. He was aware of the people he was sitting beside - his closest friend, Kyle, dorm mate, Kenny, and close friend Wendy - all stretching and yawning their way into the world of the living as well. He noticed the pleasant smell of food; toasted bread, eggs and fresh fruit. He took note of his shirt, thumbing the corner of the number that he could feel peeling from the cloth. These were the things it was easy to overlook during the steady hum of his every day.
Harder to ignore was the talk at breakfast. Mostly teasing, gossip and off-color jokes, the quiet buzzing of voices were some of the only splashes of color in his day, and the topic had been very colorful at the last few meals. One of the classmates he'd known since infancy had simply disappeared from their ranks several days earlier, with what the Caretakers had told them was a 'sudden illness'. The rumors of what kind of terrible sickness it could have been began almost immediately; she hadn't even seemed sickly when she was last seen. Now, just as inexplicably, there was a new face at the meal table.
This girl — Rebecca, Stan had heard her called — looked nothing like Jenny, Number Ten, the girl who'd gone missing. Instead of long black hair, hers was shorter and a fiery red. Her clothes were obviously new, and the bright yellow number on the shirt was more pristine than any of the others'. Stan thought that even her skin - pale though it was - was brighter and more colorful than anyone else's. Maybe it was her novelty; they'd never had a new student. It was more likely the way she had just simply shown up, with no explanation offered, perhaps not even to her. She seemed apprehensive to speak to any of them, and with the way they were all staring, Stan could hardly blame her. Still, her presence raised so many questions, doomed to go unanswered, that it was difficult not to. Especially the number on her clothes.
"Next week's test will cover all of the capital cities and major exports of Africa's countries."
Caretaker Pearl droned on in front of the class. Morning classes were always slow, but it was nearly impossible for anyone to pay attention with the new girl sitting in class with them. She was tucked in the back of the room, between two boys named Butters and Kevin, speaking as seldom as either of them did. When Kevin whispered to her during the lecture, she gave him an apprehensive smile; it was the first time Stan had seen her look anything less than terrified.
Most of the Caretakers hadn't bothered to actually learn Rebecca's name yet, but it wasn't unlike them. They usually called the students by their assigned numbers, using a given name only when absolutely necessary. Some of their classmates — boys called Butters, Token, Tweek — had just always been known by those nicknames, and any thought of whatever their names had been beforehand was long since forgotten. For her part, Rebecca had made a concerted effort to learn the others names, even if she'd been doing so quietly. She said Kevin's just a bit too loudly while they whispered, and a few heads turned back toward them.
"Pay attention back there, Number Six!" Caretaker Pearl called, addressing Kevin. He blushed and nodded, Rebecca still smiling beside him. Stan wondered if the teacher honestly believed any of them were really paying attention.
Beside him, Kyle sat slumped forward in his seat, occasionally glancing Stan's way to roll his eyes or make faces. Behind him, Kenny looked like he might be asleep. A few seats back, Tweek rattled in his seat, foot tapping as he tried to sit still through the lesson. Stan grinned; that poor kid could never quit moving.
Beside Tweek, their classmates Craig and Clyde were whispering with Token, looking to the front of the room every few minutes to watch for the Caretaker's eyes. They snickered, and Stan wondered what they were laughing about. He didn't think about it for long; Wendy's voice pierced the disinterested silence of the room.
"What about our cities?"
Caretaker Pearl looked back at Wendy in confusion. "What do you mean, Number Two?" She asked. Wendy clarified patiently.
"Our cities; America's. We've learned about dozens of cities in Africa, Asia, Europe - what about cities here? Why haven't we learned about any of ours?"
"You've been learning about our major city since you were very young, Number Two. Our capital city is —"
"Not just the capital city - what about the others? North America is massive - there must be thousands of cities that we've never —"
"And none of them are part of the lesson plan." Pearl countered resolutely. She walked back to the whiteboard, seemingly finished with the discussion. Stan could tell by the way Wendy straightened in her seat that she wasn't.
"There is not time in the educational schedule for additional material." The instructor said flatly. "You have lessons in nearly a dozen subjects, so I don't see why you feel that it's necessary to add specific details about one country in particular to the topics you're tested on."
Wendy's tone sharpened. "Because it's our country. We live in America, don't we? In the Rocky Mountains?"
"Yes, Number Two, but I don't understand why you're so interested in cities and states when —"
"How many states are there?" Wendy ventured. Stan had heard the word a few times as well, but it was a topic they never covered in their lessons. Caretaker Pearl gave an exasperated sigh.
"Fifty, but that will not be covered further. You need to focus on the information that will be —"
"And they're like the provinces of Canada, then? With capital cities inside of each? How many more cities are in each state?" Wendy peppered her with questions.
"It varies by size —" the Caretaker replied, cutting herself off quickly. "Listen to me Wendy; no more games. You will stop attempting to distract me from this lecture, or you will be penalized" she said curtly, obviously attempting to regain her composure. It was clear that she was rattled; she had called Wendy by her given name. She smoothed out her skirt and drew herself up as tall as she could manage. "I don't want to have to discuss this with Head Caretaker Victoria. Do I make myself clear... Number Two?"
"Yes ma'am" Wendy replied with a dejected nod. When Caretaker Pearl turned back toward the whiteboard, Stan saw a small, satisfied smile creep across Wendy's face, and he shook his head. She was so curious; it was alternatively charming and annoying.
Caretaker Pearl returned to her lecture, and the room dissolved back into boredom. Stan glanced down at the folder full of notes and handouts on his desk, flipping through them absently. Wendy wasn't the only one who wanted to know what else was out there, beyond the mountains where the facility sat. She was just the only one that still pushed the issue with the adults. Looking at the large, spiral bound lesson book that their instructor was teaching from, Stan wondered what else might be in it that they weren't supposed to be taught. He wondered what else they didn't know.
The midday meal found him settled in his usual place, beside Wendy and Kyle and across from Kenny. They chatted quietly while the Caretakers passed out meal trays, one by one. Wendy still seemed smug about her confrontation with their teacher that morning, and Stan laughed as Kyle chastised her for it.
"You're going to keep doing things like that until you get yourself penalized."
"Small price to pay for a little extra knowledge, wouldn't you say?" She smiled. "Besides, I got her to give me more than she ever planned to just this morning - if I keep pushing, who knows what else I might trick her into telling us."
"You can't keep playing those mind games, Wendy" Kyle sighed. "We'd all love to know why the Caretakers do some of the things they do, but it's just easier for everyone if—"
"If I just be quiet? You know that's not me, Kyle." She winked at him and then at Stan, and the two boys exchanged a smile before shaking their heads.
"You know what he means, Wendy" said Stan. "He's just trying to look out for you."
Wendy rolled her eyes, but nodded, then thanked the woman placing a tray of food in front of her. Stan and Kyle received their plates as well, and conversation took a back seat to eating for a while. The group ate in relative silence, but whispers - primarily gossip - could still be heard.
A few seats away, pretty blonde Bebe was talking under her breath to Clyde, and Stan could tell they were discussing the new girl. Every few seconds, Bebe would shoot a sideways glance down the table, to the end where the redhead sat across from Kevin. Clyde was nodding along, probably not listening. Bebe didn't seem too intent on being heard, as much as hearing herself speak.
"She hasn't even tried to get to know Wendy and me. It's like she's fine with being completely separate from the rest of us — and it makes things really awkward in the dorm. I miss Jenny. At least she and I had things to talk about. The new girl seems so... different. Like she and I have nothing in common; we're complete opposites. I wanted to get to know her but now I'm not so sure." Bebe whispered without pause. Craig leaned over from his place beside Clyde to join - uninvited - into the conversation.
"I think she's kinda cute! New material to work with, ya know?" He grinned, elbowing Clyde. Clyde glanced back at Bebe and then shook his head sharply at Craig. Bebe scrunched her brows together and frowned.
"No one asked what you thought about anything, Craig."
Craig rolled his eyes and made a nasty looking face in her direction once she'd turned her back toward him. "Geez, what an ice queen!" He sneered.
Stan shook his head and turned back to his food. He prodded at the shredded chicken on his plate, and then looked up at the others. Kenny's plate was already clean. Kyle was picking his food apart, and Wendy had turned away to placate Bebe. He tapped Kyle's foot with his own and caught the other boy's eye.
"You know, I kind of miss Jenny, too" he said quietly. Kyle swallowed a bite of food and turned to face him properly.
"Yeah? I didn't think you guys were that close."
"We weren't, I guess. It's just... I was used to her being around, you know? The twelve if us have been together since - do you even remember when, because I don't - and now she's gone, and no one told us why, and it's just... weird."
Kyle nodded. "That makes sense. I miss her too, you know. I think all of us do, in our own way. Maybe even the Caretakers."
"I think they know where she went, though. They won't tell us what happened to her, and that usually means they know something that we aren't supposed to. So at least they have that."
Kyle shrugged and nodded again, and returned to the business of dissecting his food. Stan didn't eat much more; his mind was too busy to stop for eating. He thought about the voice, screaming to no response in his dream, and realized with a start just how much it sounded like their missing classmate, Jenny's. Did he really miss her badly enough to dream of her, or was there another explanation? Even as the Caretakers gathered their trays and ushered them on to their afternoon classes, Stan's mind was somewhere else - looking for answers to questions he wasn't even sure of.
Back in their dorm after the sun had gone down, Stan and his roommates prepared for bed. He always enjoyed the half hour or so before they slept that they would spend just talking, usually about nothing important, and laughing until they ran out of things to discuss. That evening felt a little different, like something thicker than laughter was hanging in the air around them. Stan tried to break up the feeling with their usual routine, recounting the scuffle with their teacher and Wendy from that morning.
"I mean, did you see her face?! I thought Wendy was in trouble for sure!"
"And for what, you know? Asking questions? Being too good of a student? Wendy could probably teach most of our classes better than the Caretakers!" Kyle sighed. Stan and Kenny agreed.
"It's like the time they took that calculator from Token, remember? The graphing one? They got mad because he figured out how to turn it into a remote. Like, why didn't that impress them, you know?" Kenny laughed. "Or when Kevin rewired the lights in the gymnasium to flash like lightning? He got like three penalties for that, and it was seriously the coolest thing I've ever seen!"
"It's like if we do something too smart, we make them mad" Stan sighed. "It's not fair; they know a lot more than we do, a lot more than they're willing to teach us."
"And we're still smarter than they are!" Kyle smirked. The others laughed in agreement, and then the room went quiet as they readied their beds. It was a longer stretch of soundless time than Stan was accustomed to in their dorm; the three of them usually had to be told to quiet down late into the evening.
"So, what do you guys think about Rebecca?" Kenny asked, breaking the silence. Kyle shrugged, and Stan mimicked him.
"She seems nice enough" Kyle replied.
Stan nodded. "She's quiet, at least so far. Wendy says she barely speaks when they're in their dorm. Probably just still getting used to all of us. I can't imagine what it's like meeting so many new people at once."
"Yeah, she's definitely not very talkative. Probably won't be if Craig keeps pestering her. He's always either staring at her or trying to start stuff with her." Kenny laughed. Kyle groaned.
"That guy lives to start stuff. Poor girl was probably better off wherever she came from. At least Jenny could hold her own!" He smiled.
"She probably didn't have any say in coming here, any more than Jenny did about leaving." Stan said quietly, his thoughts threatening to silence him again as they slid into their beds. "I really wish I knew where she was, so I could just know what happened to her. And why Rebecca suddenly appeared when she left." He smoothed his hair back from his face and lay back into his bed with a thump. He wasn't sure he should tell them about the strange dream he'd had, or that he wondered if it had been about Jenny calling out for help in that shaky scene. Instead, he kept talking. "I guess it just makes me wonder if we're all that replaceable."
He laughed, maybe to keep from sounding as disturbed by the thought as he was, and the other boys laughed with him. It was soft, and shallower than usual, and a few minutes later they were lying in uncomfortable silence. Stan assumed they were thinking about it then too, and wondering if they might one day be shuffled off somewhere and rapidly replaced. It wouldn't have been a thought that any of them would have entertained just a few weeks before, but now it seemed that anything might be within the realm of possibility. It was the first time that he could remember something so interesting happening to the group of them, but it was also quietly terrifying. As he drifted off to sleep, he silently wished he could exchange the frightening developments of the last few days for the monotonous peace of the many days that had come before.
The next morning few mornings were much the same, with early meals sprinkled with whispered gossip and speculation about their new peer and classes set to the same steady beat as they'd always been. The occasional patter of rain against the facility windows punctuated otherwise uneventful days, and the red haired new girl began to feel like part of the scenery along with everyone else. When Stan saw her receive her handout of daily medication one morning, she seemed more like one of them than ever.
That was part of their morning ritual since before he could even remember. Every one of them was given a schedule of medications - vitamins, supplements, and whatever else the Caretakers deemed necessary - that were taken with breakfast each day. As younger children, they would compare their pills, and argue about what each one might be for. The older they'd gotten, the less interested they'd become in why they each took different tablets, and by their teen years it was simply part of the rhythm of daily life in the facility. Still, Rebecca was new, and seeing unfamiliar colors on the pills in her packet sparked the feeling of childlike interest Stan hadn't felt in years. He wondered if things had been the same way - if she'd had the same experiences - wherever it was that she'd come from.
Stan didn't seem to be the only one to take interest in the differences between Rebecca and the rest of the group. Craig had taken to teasing her, far more frequently than he did with any of the others, perhaps because of the obvious rise he got from her. It was worst at meals, when all of them were together. Breakfast was an irritating experience for most of them to begin with, but Craig seemed to see it as a brilliant opportunity to harass their new peer about her medication, her eating habits, or really anything he could think of to frustrate her.
"You gonna eat your toast, Red? Or do people not eat bread where you're from? Watching your weight?"
"My name is Rebecca" she would remind him, calmly the first time or two, but with increasing agitation as the heckling continued. She'd struck up the beginnings of friendship with several of the others — Kevin and Butters, mostly — and usually tried to keep her attention turned toward them when Craig's annoyances began. That only seemed to make it worse, and that morning was definitely no exception.
"C'mon Red, let's see what you've got in your packet!" Craig grabbed the plastic pouch from her hands and settled extremely close to her at the meal table, dumping the assortment of pills inside onto the table. "Look at all of this - you've got twice as many as I do! What's wrong with you, huh?" He smirked and held up a small, pink caplet. "What's this one do?"
Rebecca grumbled under her breath and swatted at him, trying to retrieve her medication and maintain her composure. The Caretakers were never too far out of earshot, and fighting was grounds for penalties. They wouldn't care that she was justified in her anger at Craig's misguided attempt at flirting, and she seemed aware of that fact as she huffed at him.
"Give it back, you pig!"
"Why? What's it for?" He called across the table at Wendy, still holding the pill above his head and out of Rebecca's reach. "Aye, Wendy — you other girls have anything like this?" Wendy rolled her eyes in response.
Rebecca scrambled to collect her pills from the table and managed to scoop most of them back into the pouch before turning her attention back to Craig. "Give me that!" she said fiercely; Craig grinned and winked at her.
"Ooh, getting a little heated, huh? Nice."
She hissed under her breath and Craig rattled off some comment about her being 'cute when she was steaming'. She eventually stood from her seat and stamped her foot, one arm crossed tightly over the other as she held out her hand expectantly. "Give me the pill. Now."
Craig shook his head, still smiling. Rebecca looked over at the Caretakers hesitantly, then back at him like she was deciding whether to scream at him or cry from her embarrassment. Only then did Stan notice she was bright pink, blushing almost down to her neck. He felt a surge of anger at the other boy for making the new girl feel that way, and he was on his feet too before he thought about a real response.
"Leave her alone, Craig" he said quickly. "Just give her stuff back and quit causing a scene. You're gonna get us all penalized just so you can have a few laughs. It's not even funny, dude. Grow up."
"How about you back out of conversations that don't involve you, Stan?"
"Conversation? You're harassing her!"
"It's nothing to you—"
"It is if you're just going to be a complete jerk to someone who's still getting to know all of us. I wouldn't want her to think we're all like you." He ventured a smile back at Rebecca, but she did not return it; she was still furiously blushing and staring pointedly at Craig.
"Who made you the representative for the rest of us?" Craig laughed.
"Craig!" Stan said, turning sharply to see if he was in danger of calling the attention of the Caretakers. He lowered his voice but kept his tone firm. "Give her the pill back, before—"
"You gonna get all steamed up, too? Here, Red. Take your pill. Don't wanna mess around and get whatever it is you take it for!" He flicked the tablet from between his fingers and in Rebecca's direction. She grabbed for it and missed, and made a sound almost like a sob when it hit the floor and rolled. Stan caught it and passed it across the table, and she quickly took it from him, muttering an embarrassed 'thank you' as she turned away.
Stan sat back down and felt Wendy squeeze his arm, maybe reassuringly, maybe out of reproach. He looked back down the table just in time to see Rebecca smack Craig in the back of the head hard enough to nearly knock him into his plate of food. He hissed at her as she walked away, wearing the same satisfied smile that was usually plastered on Craig's own face.
"Hothead!" Craig sneered. Stan glanced at Kyle and they bit back their laughter as the Caretakers approached to remind them to clean up their mess before leaving for classes.
It was a physical education day, as every third day had been since their childhood; despite his relative skills in athletics, Stan felt almost complete apathy toward actually exercising. In the gymnasium, he waited with a few of the other boys while balls were fetched from a supply closet for a game of kickball. He sighed; he much preferred the days that they were allowed to lift weights or just run laps, because it was easier to talk to his friends. Kickball was a busy sport, full of busted lips and winded, distracted people scrambling in every direction. He waited against the wall with Kyle for the teams to be assigned and silently hoped he would be playing opposite of Craig. After their confrontation that morning, Stan was almost sure he could accidentally nail the other boy in the face without much chance of penalty. Even then, it might have been worth it...
He glanced across the room to where the new girl stood, talking to Kevin shyly. Bebe seemed to be watching Rebecca as well, though less enthusiastically as some of the others. When Rebecca caught her staring, she turned away quickly to watch Clyde, who was tossing free weights into the air and catching them in sequence to amuse her. She clapped and whistled, and only then did Clyde lose his grip on one of the dumbbells and drop it with a clang onto his foot. Bebe giggled as she attended to him; Stan couldn't help but smile too as Clyde fought back quick-forming tears. Clyde was stronger than Stan and a few of the others put together, but always the first to break down when something happened to him. It was an amusing contrast, and one not lost on the other students, either.
"Chill out, Clyde!" Craig called from across the room. "For such a tank, you sure are a crybaby!" A few of the others laughed - even Bebe as she pulled Clyde to his feet - but Stan noticed that despite Craig's best efforts Rebecca remained stoic. He wondered how long it would be before she felt comfortable with the rest of them, and if she missed whoever she had grown up with. He considered approaching her just to offer a friendly voice, but his intentions were drowned out by the sound of a whistle as the students were split into groups.
The first game was over quickly, with Stan's team easily beating their competition. He was paired with Kyle, Wendy and Kenny, and the four of them worked like the parts of a machine. Rebecca was placed on his team as well, and as the second game began and she gave her teammates a cautious smile, he was glad. He tried to watch out for her as the game play quickened, but was distracted by the other team's — specifically Tweek's — lightening quick footwork. Soon he was backed almost into a corner with the ball, with Clyde and Token closed in on either side.
"C'mon, Stan, get me the ball!" Kenny's voice called out.
Stan couldn't see him, so he hoped whatever direction he aimed in would be close enough. He kicked sharply to the side, missed the ball entirely, and fell with a crack to the hard floor. His knee stung almost as badly as his pride, as Craig led a few of the others in a chorus of laughter, very obviously trying to catch Rebecca's eye as he did. Stan pulled himself to his knees and glared at Craig; he felt a tug on his arm as Kyle bent to drag him fully to his feet.
"Shut up, Craig!" Stan snarled, swatting Kyle and Wendy away as they moved to dust him off.
"Why don't you come over here and make me?" Craig taunted. Token and Tweek began to walk away from him, rolling their eyes. Stan felt Wendy squeeze his arm and shoulder, trying to calm him. He shook free from her and stepped closer to Craig.
"Because you're not worth getting penalized for" he snarled at the other boy. "Now get back on your side and let's get back to the stupid game. Stan turned to walk away, ignoring Craig scoffing behind him, but stopped when he heard the sharp whistle of the Caretaker supervising them.
"Number Seven!" Caretaker Richard said loudly. He waved Stan over; Stan groaned but complied.
"Yes, Caretaker, Sir?" Stan asked, as calmly as he could. Penalties for breaking rules — especially for fighting — were usually maddeningly boring chores, and he wanted no part of it. "I wasn't going to fight with him, sir. I didn't—"
"I saw what happened. You boys need to quit screwing around, but you're not in trouble for right now." Richard sighed. He glanced down at Stan's leg and shook his head. "You'll need to be seen in the medical building for that knee" he said flatly, catching Stan off guard.
"Oh, well... I don't think it's really that bad, sir. It's just scraped."
"Better safe than sorry, son" Richard said. He held a hand up and waved again, almost imperceptibly. Stan turned to see three other Caretakers approaching him. "Take this one to the lab" Richard drawled as they neared.
"Sir, I'm fine, really." Stan protested, but there were hands clutching his arms a moment later, dragging him from the room and toward the hallway that led to the laboratory. He glanced back at Kyle and Wendy, Kenny and the others, and wondered if he looked as confused as they did. Wendy's eyes were wide and she bit at her nails, and it all looked very familiar. He couldn't place how, but he had a sickened, anxious feeling as he followed the insistent adults out of the room and down the hall.
"Notify the feeder programs in the network" one of the Caretakers said quietly to another. "We'll likely be needing another. Male, seven."
Stan looked quizzically at the elders surrounding him, but none of them took note of his expression — they wouldn't even look at him. They simply led him through the laboratory doors and scurried around him once they reached the brightly lit room. He realized with a jolt that the last time he or anyone had seen Jenny, she had been whisked away to the lab for medical treatment, and now he was standing in the doorway himself. Would he be sent away as well? What if he never saw Kyle or Wendy or any of the others again? He swallowed hard and looked around frantically, trying to grasp what might be happening, hoping against logical thought that he might be wrong.
Before Stan could get his bearings, three of the Caretakers had swept him past the heavy curtain of the medical area, past the laboratory used for lessons in science, and directed him to sit on a low, broad table. He did as she asked, realizing as he cautiously sat that he'd never seen this part of the facility before. Yet another heavy curtain still hung untouched between he and another section of the lab, and he briefly wondered what might be behind it. Then he was surrounded by people and their voices drowned his thoughts.
"Up to date. Perfect condition, health is optimal."
"Standard issue only. Hormone suppression, vitamin and mineral supplements — standard for males."
On that question there was a pause and Head Caretaker Victoria appeared, wearing a strange smile as she withdrew a small tube from a nearby crate. She twisted the top, clicking something into place as she crossed the room to where Stan sat.
"Current, after today" she said, still smiling as she tied a thick rubber band around his arm and pressed the skin beside it. Her mass of frizzy blonde hair seemed more disheveled than usual, sticking to a faint sheen of sweat on her face that made Stan feel unclean just to look at. She gasped happily when she found whatever she was searching for, and then — too quickly for Stan to even think to protest — she sank a needle into his arm. The skin stung and a burning followed, but Stan was accustomed to injections, and sighed impatiently as she emptied the syringe into him.
"I thought we didn't get more vaccines until summer" he said quietly. She grinned wider as she withdrew the needle and removed the band.
"This is a special one" she said ceremoniously. Stan stared at her; his vision began to swirl and she suddenly looked almost sinister.
"What's - what was...?" he stammered. She waved to the others calmly, and then they were all around him again, grabbing his legs and hoisting him fully onto the table. Four of them pulled up on the edges of the table and bars began to appear, clicking into place together as they reached an intimidating height above Stan's head. A last barred panel was quickly laid across the top of the others, and he realized with a start that he was in a cage, trapped. He looked back at Victoria in a panic; his eyes and his head were both swimming, but he could clearly see the devilish grin that had broken across her face.
"Miss Victoria!" He yelped, stretching his arm out through the bars. He shook them, but they were unyielding. He thought he heard laughter from somewhere in the room as he scraped at the edge of the floor and yelled again. "What are you doing? Stop! Let me out!" The room started to spin and he fell fully to the floor of the newly formed cage. "What's happening to—"
"Don't stress yourself, Number Seven, you'll only make it worse" she chided. Stan tried to look at her, or any of the Caretakers, but his vision had gone too hazy.
"Please, I can't see!" He begged, reaching out to grasp the bars. He felt like he might slide off the edge of the floor somehow if he didn't; everything seemed to be moving so fast. Then it stopped, as suddenly as it had started. He tried to stand again, but when he moved a searing, splitting pain tore through his spine and surged through his veins. In the distance he could hear screaming. Only when his throat gave out and his mouth began to bleed did he realize it was his own.
"Don't worry, Number Seven - this will be over very soon, one way or another!" Victoria said loudly. Her tone was as sugary as it ever was, even as Stan fell forward and began to vomit. "It shouldn't take more than a few more minutes!"
He wasn't sure how long it lasted, in reality. Everything seemed to stop for moments at a time, and then the pain would crash over him in waves that beat him into the floor, bleeding and throwing up between screaming cries. Every muscle in his body burned as it tore and reformed, his blood boiled as it coursed through him. After one too many stabbing sensations, he let himself be crushed to the ground, overwhelmed and barely breathing.
"This one seems to be faring better than the last!" He heard one of them say, just before the pain took him, and he blacked out completely.
"Breathing is stable."
Stan heard a faint voice as he cracked one eye open, and then the other. The bright lights of the laboratory were nearly blinding as he shook his head, trying to understand where he was. His body ached, his stomach twisted and his chest felt tight. The faces crowded around him looked down at him quizzically, through bars of some kind. Cage bars, he remembered at once, and the recognition of where he was came thundering back to him.
"We may have a successful mutation!" Victoria said, eyeing him excitedly. Stan scrambled to his feet and threw himself toward the bars to grab at her. She jumped back when he thrust an arm through the bars, but squealed with excitement when that arm became something other than human.
"Look at this!" She shrieked, and Stan looked too; protruding from the bars was an animal leg, with a massive, furry, claw-tipped paw where his hand should have been.
He pulled the arm back toward himself and backed away from the bars, but it remained the same. He glanced down at his other arm, his legs - he was entirely changed, into a black, fearsome-looking jungle cat. He tried to scream, but the growl that came out instead frightened him into silence.
"Perfect! A panther! I wonder what else he might be capable of?!" Victoria said gleefully. Stan growled again, intentionally this time. Rage swirled with the pain in his muscles and bones and he felt a ripple from his spine; he lunged at the cage bars again and was met with more impressed gasps.
"How does he make the change?" One of them whispered, and Stan saw his arms - covered in brown fur and stronger-looking, now. He stood to his feet and towered above his usual height. "A bear!" Another Caretaker exclaimed, and he roared angrily in response.
What was happening? Why was it happening, and how had they done this to him? His mind raced despite the fog of his pain clouding it. When they approached him with a long pole, holding another syringe at the end, he backed away, growling defiantly, and felt the chill from his spine ripple outward again, sinking him onto all fours.
"And a dog now, how incredible!" Victoria chirped. Stan screamed at her, producing a loud bark in place of words. "We need to get him sedated before he overdoes it, though!"
Backed into a corner, Stan cowered, angry and scared. Without warning he felt a sharp sting in his back leg, and he realized he'd been drugged. Exhausted and nauseous from his ordeal, he stumbled toward the bars on the opposite side and collapsed there. He whimpered and howled, until the sounds became human crying, and his sobs grew further apart as sleep overtook him. He heard the Caretakers murmuring about 'a success' as he lost consciousness, and realized only then what had likely become of their missing classmate Jenny, and what would likely become of him.
It took about three days to learn to control it, at least by Stan's count. He couldn't be exactly sure; the Caretakers told him nothing and gave him almost as little. He had barely eaten in that time, was more thirsty than he remembered ever having been before, and was allowed only sporadic burst of rest between series after series of tests and examinations. Yet somehow, between the poking and prodding, the electric shocks and the subjection to the worst pain and fatigue he'd ever felt, he harnessed whatever the strange abilities were that he found himself with. He wanted to think he was doing it in spite of them, but by that third day, he realized he was playing along with their machinations. He did whatever they told him to, wondering in the back of his mind what would happen to him if he didn't, if he would die in that laboratory, and if he would see any of his friends' faces before he did.
The worst part wasn't the hunger; it wasn't the pain, the cruelty or the stretches of maddening boredom between all of it. The lowest moment was watching the Caretakers thoughtlessly throw back the sheet they'd draped over another cage holding a lifeless Jenny's body, chatting amongst themselves as they removed her and tossed her into a truck waiting just outside of the laboratory doors. They threw her away like refuse, and reacted with more interest when Stan threw up from disgust. He sat staring at the empty cage for the rest of that evening, until the lab lights were off and the whole of the facility was quiet.
Stan slept in spells, slumped against the edge of his container. No one had bothered to clean up the vomit in the middle of his cage - another testament to how little the Caretakers were concerned with him, he thought. He knew he wouldn't survive many more days, and that thought brought him strange comfort. He drifted off with memories of freedom that spiraled into wishes for a peaceful death in his sleep.
In the middle of the night, Stan awoke to a rattling sound somewhere in the lab. He opened his eyes hesitantly, afraid that the Caretakers had come to perform some kind of experiment on him in his drowsy state. Glancing to the door, he noticed it was still locked in place; no lights were even coming from beneath it as they often seemed to in the early mornings. The rattling became louder and more forceful. Stan surveyed the room anxiously, and finally noticed the grate of a heating vent, wiggling and then swinging to one side with a loud creak. There was cautious silence for a moment as he tried to focus his weary eyes on the open duct, and then a flash of falling movement and a dull thud as something hit the floor. Something that moved - someone.
The familiar voice called out quietly, but it thundered in Stan's ears against the sterile silence. His heart slammed in his chest and his senses came back from their slow death. Kyle.
Stan couldn't speak fast enough; after what he had been through, he wasn't sure he could speak at all. So he moved. He waved in the darkness, shuffled in his cage, and hoped that was enough. The speed that Kyle moved across the room with would have been alarming if he wasn't so overwhelmingly happy to see him.
"Stan, what in the — why!?" Kyle didn't make much sense as he pressed his hands to the bars, then to Stan's sweaty skin. He kept demanding answers that Stan couldn't speak to give, finally falling silent when he realized just how weak Stan had become. He crouched at the corner of the cage and clutched Stan's shoulders.
"If I had known - I should've done this sooner - you look like you're an hour from dying, Stan!" He hissed, looking him up and down. Stan nodded in agreement.
"What can I do? Can I open this thing?" He looked around for a lever or switch, but Stan tapped the bars and shook his head.
"Key" he croaked. "Caretakers." Kyle's eyes blew wide, and then narrowed angrily.
"Caretakers? They did this to you?"
Stan nodded. Kyle breathed deeply, struggling for something else to say, but nothing came to him. He squeezed Stan's sore shoulders, rubbing them for a few minutes before finally sighing; "I don't know what to do, Stan. How can I help you?"
"Water?" Stan asked. He didn't remember when he'd had his last drink, but it was all he could think of as he tried to talk to his friend. Kyle was on his feet quickly, looking for a sink. He found one, and a large, sterile glass beaker; he filled the tube with water until it spilled over into his hands and ran it the short distance to where Stan sat.
"Drink this" he said as he held it out to him, "and then tell me everything."
Kyle filled the beaker three more times in quick succession while Stan talked. It wasn't easy, remembering everything he'd been through in the days previous, much less having to talk about it. Kyle made it a little easier when he could, rubbing Stan's arm to reassure him and bringing him as much cold water as his stomach would hold.
He spoke as quickly as he could, terrified that he wouldn't have time to tell what might be his last story before the sun rose and the Caretakers returned. Kyle in turn sat quietly and listened intently, saving his questions for another time. Stan wondered if there would ever be another.
Once he'd told Kyle everything he could, Kyle was thoughtful for a few moments before moving to retrieve a roll of paper towels from a nearby counter. He handed them to Stan, indicating the mess in his cage, then simply asked; "do you need help cleaning up in there?"
Stan stared at him. "So...?"
"I don't know, I expected something other than this, I guess. I expected you to freak out or something." He knew as soon as he mentioned it that he was probably wrong to expect a dramatic reaction; Kyle was always at his most collected when Stan was melting down.
"Honestly, Stan? There's apparently not much I can do. That's killing me; I wanna fix this, but I'm still not sure what to do. So I'm just trying to take care of you. Ok?"
"Yeah. Ok" Stan conceded, unrolling the paper towels to mop at the stained floor of his cage. "Thanks."
Kyle nodded, and then grinned a little in spite of the situation. "So? You gonna show me?"
It took a moment for Stan to understand what he was asking. When he did, he couldn't fight back a small smile to match his best friend's. He concentrated, felt a shiver run down his spine, and changed himself into the shape of a magnificent tiger. Despite the exhaustion he felt as soon as he made the switch, he relished the wonder that flashed in Kyle's eyes as a result.
"Stan, that's... incredible."
Stan pressed a paw to the bars, keeping his claws pulled back as Kyle placed his own palm against it and gasped at the reality of it. He stroked the fur there, ran his hand along Stan's side and sat down again, overwhelmed. Stan focused what was left of his energy and changed again, this time back to his normal body.
"If you can do that—" Kyle began, "then why haven't you just busted out of here by now?"
"And go where?" Stan asked through a defeated sigh. "I can't get out of the facility grounds, and if I tried to run, fly, whatever - they'd just shoot me."
"Better than being tortured to death here" Kyle said darkly. Stan shrugged, even though he knew the redhead was right.
"Probably. But my mutation was exhausting, and I'm literally starving to death. I don't have the energy to escape at this point, even if I could."
Kyle shook his head stubbornly. "I'm not gonna let you lay here in your own puke and die, dude. I'm getting you out of here, tonight."
"No?! Are you crazy? Or do you seriously just want to let these people torture you to death?" Kyle hissed, trying to keep his voice down despite his anger.
"It's not that, Kyle. Victoria has the key to this cell. Even if you got it, and got me out of here, I'm too weak to get any farther than down the hall, and not only would they probably kill me without hesitation, they might hurt or kill you or some of the others if you helped me or got in the way. I get the feeling we're all just potential test subjects to them at this point."
Kyle gritted his teeth and grunted, but he didn't disagree, and Stan was glad. They sat together in silence for a short time, Stan just listening to the sound of another person in the room with him. Kyle reached through the bars every now and then, and every time their hands brushed, Stan's entire body reacted in a way he'd never felt before. It was all at once an unfamiliar thrill and stinging bitterness at the metal divider between them. He didn't mention it, or even try to understand it; he simply let himself feel, for what somehow felt like the first time.
When Kyle cleared his throat to speak, Stan realized he'd probably been staring while lost in thought, but Kyle didn't seem bothered. He waited for Stan's full attention, but spoke hesitantly once he had it.
"There's a new guy. In the dorms — with me and Kenny. They gave him clothes with your number on it."
"The same way they gave Rebecca the number Jenny used to have" Stan breathed, and Kyle nodded.
"The kid's alright, I guess. Kinda obnoxious, but I think it's just because I don't know him that well."
"What's he look like?" Stan asked, and Kyle snickered a little.
"He's kind of... fat. Other than that, brown hair, pretty average dude. Seems to not really get along with anyone yet. I think Butters likes him, but that's about it."
"Butters likes everybody" Stan sighed, too exhausted to laugh. Kyle nodded, and they faded back into comfortable silence for a while, until behind him, the high windows of the lab began to brighten.
"You need to get yourself out of here, Kyle. Get out and tell the others what's going on. Maybe you guys can avoid ending up in here too, at least for now." He tried to sound insistent, but his voice cracked and he thought he might cry. Kyle grabbed his arm again through the bars.
"I'm not going anywhere without you, Stan."
"Please, Kyle. They'll hurt you, or they'll just kill you. Please don't make me watch that before I die." He let himself cry then, hoping Kyle would listen if he did. He felt more helpless than ever.
"Ok. Ok fine, Stan. I'll leave. But I'm coming back. I'll be back tonight, with food. And we're gonna make some kind of plan. Because I can't just leave you here to die, and you know that. I'm gonna talk to Wendy, and we're gonna get you out of here. And I don't really care if you don't like it. Ok?"
"Ok" Stan agreed. He honestly didn't know if he would make it another day, but just knowing Kyle would be safe for a little while longer was enough to give him some hope. If he died, at least Kyle could tell the others what had really happened. If he didn't, maybe he would see his friend again soon, and have something to eat as well. It was a good enough deal for him.
Kyle insisted he drink another beaker full of water before he would leave, and even then he did so begrudgingly. It warmed Stan from the inside to see him so reluctant to leave, but he stubbornly urged him on.
"I'll be back after dark tonight" Kyle promised. "Be alive when I get back."
"Deal." Stan replied with a tired nod. Kyle gave him one last long look, and then jumped back into the heat vent, pulling the metal grate into place behind him.
Stan saw the earliest hints of sunlight peeking through the room's windows and wondered how many hours there were until the sun would set.
Counting hours was difficult without a clock, but Stan watched the rays of light that lit the room as the day dragged past. His stomach twisted with his hunger and the desperate hope that Kyle would indeed return that evening. It wasn't until early afternoon that he even remembered Kyle's promise of food; he just wanted to see the other boy.
After hours of observation and a scattered few tests, the Caretakers left him in peace for the evening, locking the heavy metal doors of the lab behind them. When the key clicked the lock into place, Stan released a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Despite the fact that they'd left him with no food or water yet again, he felt oddly energetic. He laughed aloud - almost outside of his own control - when the heat vent grate began to wiggle a little while after the facility went quiet for the night.
The metal panel swung out and hands snaked out onto the wall, pulling against it for leverage. But they weren't Kyle's, and for a moment Stan panicked - did someone else know he had visited Stan? Just as he was preparing to change into something fearsome to fight whoever had come through the vent, the person fell almost silently to the floor. Gracefully standing from there, Stan could see her face. She ran the short distance to his enclosure just as someone else — Kyle this time — landed where she had.
"Wendy!" Stan breathed, throwing his arms through his cage bars. He wrapped them around her shoulders as best he could as she tucked her face through the slats and into the crook of his neck. He felt the heat of her breath and what might have been tears as she whispered and patted him soothingly.
"Oh, Stan..." she repeated a few times. "I'm so sorry." She looked up at him, wiping her face, and then reached up to wipe his. He hadn't realized he was crying until then.
"What are you doing here?" He asked her. She smiled back toward Kyle, then at Stan again.
"Kyle told me everything, under the condition that I keep it to myself. I told him that was fine, but he wasn't coming back here without me." Kyle nodded from behind her, and the grin he was wearing made Stan's chest ache to be outside of the bars between he and his friends.
"It's so good to see you" Stan and Wendy said at the same time.
"I was so worried that you might be..." Wendy trailed off, tearing up again. Stan clasped his hand over hers and shook his head.
"Not yet" he smiled.
"That reminds me—" Kyle pulled a bag from the vent where they'd entered, untying it; "we brought you a few things." Inside the bag were some of Stan's favorite foods — biscuits, sliced potatoes, bacon and fruit — wrapped in napkins and a little worse for wear from hiding in the sack, but he was entirely sure he'd never seen anything more appetizing. He sighed happily as Kyle dumped it in front of him through an opening in the bars. "Eat. I'll get you some water." Stan didn't need a second invitation.
"So they haven't fed you all this time?" Wendy asked, appalled. Stan shrugged, wiping at his mouth between bites.
"A little, but not much. Enough to keep me alive the first few days, but after that it's trailed off a lot." He finished the strawberries he'd saved for last and hummed contentedly as he slumped against the side of the cage. "I can't thank you guys enough for sneaking all of that in here."
"Well now that you're fed, let's get to work figuring out how to get you out of here" said Kyle. "We probably can't sneak food in here every night."
Stan's face fell and he shook his head. "Kyle, I told you yesterday - I can't. You can't. I won't let you guys endanger yourselves for me. I'm staying here, and you're staying safe."
"The way it looks to me, we're not safe no matter what we do. If the Caretakers did this to you and Jenny — and then just replaced you both — who's to say they won't do it to us, too?"
"I'm almost sure that they will, actually" Stan admitted. Wendy nodded.
"Precisely. So you want us to let you lay here and die like this just so that we can live a few extra days or weeks?"
Stan frowned and looked down at his hands; they were pale and thinner than they'd ever been. They were a reminder of how helpless he felt, and he hated the sight of them. Gritting his teeth against the exhaustion radiating from his bones, he focused on them and changed them, back to what he was used to looking at. Wendy watched and gasped. Kyle laughed quietly.
"You think that's cool, wait 'til you see the tiger trick."
"Yeah, well - cool doesn't fix anything at this point. I wish I could do something other than put you in danger. I wish I could save you guys from this" Stan said as he held up his hands. Wendy took one of them and squeezed softly.
"You didn't endanger us. It's them."
"We're all just toys for whatever game it is they're playing" Kyle grimly agreed. "Experiments."
Stan groaned, thinking about his friends going through what he'd endured. "What we need is to get everyone out of here — away from the facility entirely — not just me."
"Everyone? How? This place is beyond secure, you know that. Even if we got out of the building, there's the wall, and then the fence" Wendy whispered.
Kyle knelt beside her and nodded. "The whole place is electronically secured, on top of that. Just getting out of our dorms would be a feat in itself."
"So basically, we're doomed" Wendy said bitterly. "We're all going to be picked off, one by one and injected with that poison, until—"
"Or you could do it yourselves" Stan said suddenly. Wendy and Kyle stared at him.
"Why... would we do that?" Kyle asked. "We would—"
"End up like me." Stan finished. "Yeah. Not an ideal situation, obviously. But wouldn't it be easier for a bunch of mutants to bust out of here than a bunch of teenagers?"
"Where are we even going to get enough serum for everyone?" Kyle countered. Stan pointed at the massive crate in the room's corner.
"That thing. It's full of vials of exactly what they used on me. They're supposed to send it somewhere tomorrow morning, I think. You could take a tray of the vials, and then turn the box around so they won't see it missing. By the time they figure it out—"
"We would all be mutants." Kyle said. His voice sounded hollow and fearful, but he walked toward the crate and nodded.
"They're gonna pump us all full of it sooner or later, anyway" said Wendy bitterly. Kyle agreed without speaking, like they were trying to reassure themselves that Stan's idea was a viable option. It bothered him how frightened they both looked.
"It hurts, doesn't it?" Wendy asked him. "When you... change. It hurts."
"Changing back and forth doesn't hurt" Stan replied honestly. "But the reaction to the injection... yeah, it's pretty bad. I never said it was an easy option, but—"
"It's probably the best shot we would have at getting away." Kyle finished. "Here's the thing, though — say we get this goop and take it with us tonight — how do we pass it out to the others? I can get it to Kenny and the new kid, and Wendy can give it to the girls. How do we get it to—"
"Same way you got here" Stan supplied. "Through the events. They're all connected; just follow them to the other dorm rooms. Do it after dark, just like you did tonight."
Kyle nodded, sliding a tray from the crate. "We'll have to tell them everything, you know. About you, about all of this - and they might still decide they don't wanna do it. Or they might blow the whistle on us."
"I doubt it, if you tell them honestly what's going to happen if they don't do it" said Stan, darkly. "We are going to need everyone to be on the same page if we're going to make this work. So you guys are going to have to be very convincing."
Wendy perked up. "I can definitely handle that." Her smile reminded him of the multitude of times she'd persuaded him — or nearly anyone else — to go along with whatever idea she had. He felt a tiny spark of assurance; Wendy was nothing if not influential.
"Still, even with everyone in on it, this whole thing could easily fall apart" Kyle reminded them. "I mean, we're talking about something bigger, more complicated and way more dangerous than any of us really know how to handle."
"Yeah" Stan sighed, "and that's also a great description of what things will be like if we don't get out of here." He looked down at the stained floor beneath him. He knew how potentially deadly his ideas were; he didn't need Kyle's reminder. He also knew what his closest friends would surely face if they stayed in that place, and that thought was much scarier to him.
"I think this has a chance" said Wendy. "That's more than I can say for us if we stay here. So what do we do once we're... like you?"
"Getting everyone out won't be easy, even with these abilities. We'll need a solid plan in place first" Stan conceded.
Kyle nodded. "We'd better throw something together quick — the sun will be up in less than four hours."
"You'll probably need a few days to get used to it. The shape shifting thing, I mean. It took me about three."
"So pass out the stuff one night, inject it the next, and then three days until we can do anything? How will we keep that from the Caretakers? They're gonna notice. How on earth are you gonna survive another four or five days here?" Kyle asked, visibly shaken.
"I'll get through it. And I'll create distractions in here, keep them focused on me. Even if they kill me for it, you guys will still be able to make it out if you work together."
Kyle glared at him. "The plan was to get you out, Stan."
"No, the plan is to get as many people out of here and away from the Caretakers as possible. If I live through it, great. But this isn't about me. So don't screw it up if I die, alright dude?" He tried to make his voice sound bold. Kyle twisted his mouth like he might protest, but finally nodded in response.
"Alright. But I'm bringing you more food."
"Fine. Just don't get caught" Stan grinned. They both knew he wasn't just talking about sneaking in meals.
"Ok, so we know the first part. Sneak this stuff out, convince every other person to inject themselves with it, and then avoid getting found out as mutants for three days. Piece of cake" Wendy said dryly. "Now what's the plan for if we actually get through all of that?"
"You'll need two groups" Stan whispered. "One to distract the Caretakers somehow and one to actually do the breaking out. The second group can follow them once they've made a way."
"Three groups" Kyle corrected. "We'll need a group to come get you out."
"Fine. Three groups. Once everyone has the hang of shifting, you guys can determine who goes with which group, and what you think it would be best to change into to do what you need to do."
"Can you give us any pointers?" Wendy asked. She threaded her fingers through her hair nervously. "I mean, you've been able to do it for a few days now already; can you tell us how you got the hang of it?"
Stan thought about her question. He hadn't really expected to be asked to teach them anything. He gave her the only advice that came to mind. "It's just focusing. Thinking about what you want to do, and then following through with it. It's a mind thing, at least at first. Your body catches up eventually." He looked back at her with what he hoped was reassurance. He'd never noticed before how pale her face was, how her eyes were nearly as dark as her long, shiny hair. He looked back down at the floor of his enclosure when his mind began to wander to how nice she looked in the low light of the laboratory. He didn't have time for his friend to be so pretty.
"Alright," Kyle said sharply, breaking Stan's deliberate silence. "Three days, three teams, bust out — and then what?"
Stan looked back at him blankly; what would they do if they made it out? The idea of their success seemed so unlikely, he hadn't thought past the attempt at gaining their freedom.
"Then... we run." He said quietly. He had no further offer of strategy to make. He waited for one of them to argue, or supply a plan of their own. Instead, his friends traded grim looks of acceptance and nodded.
"Then we run" Wendy echoed. It sounded stronger in her voice than it had in Stan's, and it bolstered him.
They sat in tense silence for a little while after that, Wendy and Kyle each holding one of his hands, as well as each other's. It was a necessary step in this chaotic, hastily assembled plan of theirs. If it fell apart - if Stan died or they were all killed - at least they would have this final moment of solidarity. He knew they had to talk about details before they left him, but he put it off as long as he could.
"So that's everything, as close to worked out as we're gonna get it" Kyle said; he brought Stan a final beaker full of water as he and Wendy prepared to leave. "I'll be back tonight and the next night to bring you some more food, and then... we'll see you three days later." Stan could tell he was forcing himself to sound confident, and despite knowing that, he appreciated the effort on his friend's part.
"Three days" Stan replied, feigning the same sureness. "When you come back with food, be sure to keep me posted on what's going on. But don't stay long; you'll need some sleep."
"You got it, boss" Wendy said with a wink. Stan smiled, and wondered how she was able to make him feel so relaxed when he really should've been panicking. "See you soon" she whispered, with one last squeeze of his hand. She and Kyle left together, quietly pulling the vent grate closed behind them and whispering as they made their way back to life outside the walls of the laboratory.
Stan folded his arms and laid his head across them, begging — who, he did not know — for their safety. He knew they were capable of doing this, but he knew just how many things could very easily go wrong along the way. He continued his silent pleading as he tried to forget how far the odds were from their favor.
Kyle returned twice with food, just as he had promised. They made idle chatter as he filled the glass tube with water for Stan to drink, and it felt oddly routine. The second night was scarier, even as Kyle assured him that everyone was in agreement. When he told Stan that some of the others were actually excited, it did nothing to calm his nerves.
"They only feel that way because they don't know what it's like yet" he whispered. Kyle ran a hand through Stan's hair — suddenly reminding him of how disgusting and unwashed it was, though Kyle didn't seem to notice — and patted at the back of his head.
"No, but you do, dude. We're trusting you."
He wanted to argue that he wasn't worthy of their trust, that they had no good reason to believe in him. Instead, he leaned into Kyle's touch and let himself exhale the tension tugging at his shoulders.
"Thank you." For so many things, he thought. He didn't name them all, and he knew he didn't have to. As he watched Kyle leave again that second night, it was the only thing that he was entirely sure of. He knew that not even an hour later, Kyle, Wendy and the others would be subjecting themselves to the same pain he had undergone. Creating a scene to distract the Caretakers would be no problem for him as he thought about them, going through the excruciating reaction he had faced days earlier. His staged screams echoed the ones he imagined coming from them. By the morning of that first day, he was sure he could hold the Caretakers' attention - he just wasn't sure how long he could keep it up.
He didn't have to find out. Just after sunrise, as the facility staff scrambled to sedate and subdue him, the lights of the laboratory flickered off. The sounds of confusion a few minutes later confirmed that all of the lights — the power itself — in the facility had stopped working. After hearing a call for an electrician end in frustration for the Caretakers, Stan finally let the sedative they'd given him take effect. The repair team wouldn't arrive for at least two days, and without power, the teenagers were to be sequestered to their dorm rooms. He stopped fighting the drug induced sleep creeping over him and smiled; maybe they really did have a chance.
The sleep wasn't restful, but it passed some of the time he would have likely spent agonizing over his friends' fates after their injections. In the moments he was awake, he took comfort in the fact that he'd heard nothing from the Caretakers about any disturbances from the others, and that no one had apparently been killed by the serum. He was asleep for nearly the entire first day of the power outage, and the second seemed to drag by horribly slowly by comparison. The quiet atmosphere on the facility grounds made for a tedious passage of time, but it offered him a sense of hope as well. Nothing had fallen apart, at least not yet. He reluctantly rested again that night.
The third day dawned darker than the others had been, from what little light Stan could see through the windows. It looked like it might be raining as well. He wondered when Kyle, Wendy and the others were planning to make their move, and if they'd managed to gain control over the abilities he could only assume that they'd acquired. He felt so detached and distant from them, even though their dorms were only yards away from where he sat.
When the lights came back on near midday, Stan panicked. He thought of the Caretakers looking in on his friends, finding them all in terrifying shapes and forms that they couldn't control, and of how violently they would surely react to such a find. Instead, the day seemed to progress as normal, with the return of regular class and meal meetings. One of the men monitoring him even remarked that the students had been remarkably well behaved for having been cooped up for so long. Stan silently thanked whatever source of strength his friends must have found, and went back to anxiously waiting for their plan to go into its final phase.
The sun was long since gone from the sky, and everything once again silent for the evening when an electrical surge crackled through the building, followed by a heavy mechanical clicking that jolted Stan from a shallow slumber. He moved to his feet, focusing his energy and preparing to change as soon as the need became apparent. A familiar chill ran down his spine and to his hands and feet as he waited, listening and barely breathing. From beyond the walls he heard another crackle, then a whooshing sound as adult voices began to chorus into a frenzy. Then another sound — water, the sprinklers maybe — from another part of the building. Whatever was going on was out of the Caretakers control. It was time to move.
The heat vent flew across the room without warning. Stan looked up at it, fists clenched instinctively. Wendy jumped onto the floor first, followed this time by Kenny, and finally Kyle. Once Kyle straightened himself, he looked back at Stan with a wild, almost manic smile and held up a key, swinging from a chain.
"Now, we run" he said, eyes locked with Stan's the entire time as he crossed the floor to unlock the cage. Stan bolted through the open hatch and out onto the laboratory floor. He looked up at the heat vent, wordlessly questioning the others. It was Kenny who shook his head and replied.
"No point now, man. Hopefully by now Clyde and Token have busted through outside. We're going right out those doors, grabbing the distraction group and flying this coupe." He thumped Stan roughly on the shoulders and smiled. "Be ready to show us the magic, alright mutant boy?"
"Me? What about — did you guys use the—"
"Yeah, change of plans, I guess" said Kyle, and Stan was horrified and confused for a moment as he imagined them trying to break him out as regular human teenagers.
"We can't do this!" He yelped. "Not if you're not—"
Wendy clenched a hand down onto his shoulder, and he suddenly felt calmer. A peaceful, warm feeling seemed to be radiating from the spot she was touching, and he stared at her, unable to process what was happening.
"That's mine" she said quickly. "That and hearing other people's thoughts. Not sure how useful it is, yet. But we'll see."
"Yours?" Stan stammered. "So you're not — you can't...?"
Kyle grabbed his arm then, and Stan saw and felt sharp, claw-like tips on his fingers.
"That's what I'm trying to tell you, Stan. We're not shape shifters. We all got something... different."
Kyle looped the lanyard that held the key over his neck and made for the door. He placed a hand flat against it and waited, then nodded back to the others. They pulled Stan with them toward the exit.
"Still cool" Kyle said, removing the heavy lock bar from the door's handles. "Should be safe this way."
"Still cool?" Stan echoed, confused. As they pulled the doors open he heard a louder, more violent roar and felt a wave of heat rush past them. A faint orange light flashed somewhere further down the hallway.
"That'll be Rebecca" Kyle clarified. "She's got fire — that's what she ended up with. Bebe got ice, Token has some weird thing with computers and machines — like I said, it's all different. She and some of the others are distracting the Caretakers so we can get past them. Now that we've got you, the plan is to grab them and follow Clyde and Token's team out of here."
"Fire." Stan repeated, still trying to understand how they'd all ended up with different abilities. Wendy squeezed his arm again and he felt a wave of assurance — clarity — surge through him. He smiled a silent thanks back at her and followed Kyle down the hallway toward the crackling heat.
"More over there, Red!" Stan heard Craig's voice from the direction they were walking and swallowed a comment about trusting him to help with the distractions. When a massive table came flying through the open doors of the gymnasium, he stopped dead, feeling the chill at his spine as he prepared to change. The table hit the wall with a resounding crack, and then flew back in the other direction as if of its own accord. Craig's laughter nearly drowned out the sound of it scraping against the floor as it moved.
"They're having way too much fun" Kenny said dryly. Kyle nodded, but Stan could hear Wendy laughing under her breath, and it made him want to smile as well.
"Might as well" she said. "This might be it."
"Don't talk like that" Stan warned her, walking to match Kyle's pace as they neared the gym doorway. He peeked around the corner to check for more flying furniture and was stopped again by what he saw instead.
Craig stood, propped against a wall as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. Above him, various pieces of furniture and exercise equipment swirled as he watched, grinning. When one of the Caretakers ran toward him, he nodded in their direction, and the mass of chairs, weights and cabinets hurled toward them, crashing to the floor and pinning them in place. Craig cackled again, thoroughly amused.
"Over there!" Another adult screamed, wielding a strange looking electronic device. He pointed it toward Butters, launching electrified cables in his direction. Butters disappeared, and then reappeared a few feet away. Stan wondered if he was seeing things properly.
"That one!" The Caretaker screamed, pointing the gun the opposite direction. Stan saw Tweek standing in the line of fire and tried to shout a warning, but Tweek was gone before he — or the shooter — had time to react. He sped around the room, feet moving so fast he was hardly more than a blur in Stan's sight as he passed.
"Team B is here!" Tweek called out as he rounded the room again, and the others turned to see Stan. Butters and Tweek made for the exit of the gym, a set of doors guarded by a stocky boy Stan had never seen before. His replacement, he reasoned to himself.
"Eric" Wendy said, as if reading his mind. Stan nodded in response, wondering what else she could do, and hoping there would be another time that he could ask her. Inside the room, Rebecca was quelling large fires that she had apparently set as part of the distraction.
"Get to the door!" Craig barked at them. "We've got this. Go! Red, over there!"
"It's Rebecca, you idiot!" She seethed, launching a blast of sparks from an outstretched palm. The fire landed in a circle around the struggling adults at the corner of the room. Craig glanced toward the blaze and more furniture went sailing toward it, kindling the fire further.
Kyle turned sharply, looking behind them. "Footsteps" he breathed. Stan listened, and thought he might hear them too. "We've got to move!" Kyle shouted, and pointed toward the door. Without hesitation he broke into a run, and Stan followed on instinct.
More of the Caretakers flooded into the room from where they had been standing, some of them brandishing the same guns the other man had. Stan shouted at Rebecca, who turned to launch another fiery blast in their direction. Craig began to back toward the others at the exit doors.
"C'mon, Red. Gotta move!" He called. She ran after him, tossing sparks over her shoulder as she yelled back.
"My name is Rebecca!"
"Whatever, hothead!" Craig snapped, waving her on. Stan and the others had nearly made it to them when three of the Caretakers slid across the floor, breaking into the middle of their group with the electronic guns.
"Wendy!" Kyle screamed, grabbing her around the waist and throwing her over his shoulder. He ran toward the nearest wall, and to Stan's amazement climbed straight up the smooth surface, Wendy still clinging to his back. "Run, guys!" He yelled over his shoulder as he jumped from that wall to the adjacent one, then up to the ceiling and crossing the rest of the distance to the door before finally leaping back to the floor.
Stan, still stunned, turned to see more of the adults rushing after Rebecca, pointing different weapons. But they weren't aiming for her; these were real guns, and they were pointing toward the others at the door. He barely felt the ripple at his spine before he transformed into a massive, angry wolf. He ran straight for them, knocking most of them to their feet, and viciously biting the few that Rebecca didn't launch sparks toward. He then doubled back and ran for the door, barking at Kenny to do the same. The others were already outside, standing in the open doors and urging them on. From behind, Stan heard a series of clicks and turned just in time to see more guns pointed and fired.
The sound of a hail of bullets deafened him for a moment as he turned to see where they had landed. Rebecca was still running — she'd made it to the doors — and Stan felt no injuries. Only when he heard Wendy shriek Kenny's name did he turn to see his friend stumbling backward, hit more than a dozen times by the shooters.
"Kenny, Kenny no!" Stan pleaded, regaining his human form. He grabbed Kenny's shirt and ran both of them out the doors, after the others. Behind them, Rebecca soldered the doors closed, then set fire to the ground outside of them. Stan collapsed with Kenny in the sparse grass a few yards away.
"Kenny what were you thinking? You don't even have any—" Stan stopped short, feeling tremendously guilty. Below him Kenny scoffed a laugh. Stan stared down at him and was rattled to see him smiling from ear to ear.
Kenny peeled off his blood soaked shirt in one swift motion to reveal a torso quickly healing from the bullet wounds covering it. Within a few seconds the holes were gone completely. Kenny grinned up at Stan and thumped himself on the chest.
"Well that's convenient! Guess I'm a freak after all" he said with excitement. Stan jerked him to his feet and into a tight, brief hug before Kyle's insistent voice urged them on.
"Come on, we've got to get to the wall. There are other ways out of the facility - they'll be on top of us again soon, and apparently they're not afraid to kill us."
"Right" Stan nodded. "Do we have everyone?" He glanced around to count faces, and Butters materialized in front of him.
"We all made it out" the blonde said anxiously. "Team A was me, Craig, Tweek, Eric and Red."
"It's not—" Rebecca began, but thought better than to argue. Stan turned to the unfamiliar boy and held out a hand.
"Stan" he said quickly, shaking the boy's hand as he introduced himself as Eric.
"Eric still hasn't figured out what he can do" said Kenny. "So we need to keep him close to keep him safe."
"Noted" Stan replied. "So let's get to the others."
At the south wall of the compound, a large, jagged hole was present in the stone, and the many lights usually searching the grounds at night were absent. Stan and the others ran toward the opening, spotting Clyde, Token, Bebe and Kevin standing around it just on the other side.
A scraping, metallic screech slowed their steps, surrounding them from either side. A moment later, heavy metal nets fell over the group of them. Stan hissed at the burning cuts they left in his skin; he thought for a moment before shifting into a large snake, slender enough to slip through the holes in the net.
"Craig, do something!" Tweek rasped, crushed under the cables. When Stan reached the ground he saw that several of the others were cut and bleeding. He focused his energy to his spine and shifted again — this time into a massive, muscular version of his own natural form — and pulled at the immense nets. He made little progress until he felt them shift suddenly, and realized Craig was moving them telepathically.
Clyde ran through the opening in the wall to join Stan in pulling the nets away, doing so easily with his bare hands. When they'd moved the last of them, Tweek pulled Butters and Eric to their feet before scooping up an injured Rebecca and speeding off through the hole in the wall. Craig was quick behind him, looking injured but joining Clyde as they leapt over broken pieces of deactivated electric fencing and the rubble of the wall.
More armed Caretakers were approaching, moving to seal off the path they'd made out of the grounds. Stan turned to call out for Kyle as he shivered back into his human state, and saw the other boy standing with hesitation from the place where he'd been trapped under the net. His skin was a dark, shiny gray and he moved as if covered in armor as he pulled Wendy from beneath him.
"You ok?" Stan asked both of them, watching Kyle's skin return to normal. Kyle nodded, grabbing both Stan and Wendy's hands and pulling them toward the exit. A group of the armed adults cut them off, guns pointing at them without pause.
"Get behind me" Kyle said firmly, pushing Stan and Wendy together behind his back. Out of the corner of his eye, Stan saw Kenny make a similar move to protect Butters and Eric. They barely had time to shuffle around before the Caretakers opened fire.
"Kyle" Stan whispered, terrified. In front of them Kyle barely moved as bullets pelted against his skin, flying off in every direction as they ricocheted. Stan chanced a quick look up at his friend to see that Kyle's skin was dark and metallic again; the bullets found no vulnerable softness there to sink into. Beside them Kenny was fairing far worse, but Stan hoped his apparent healing powers would kick in before he became too damaged by gunfire.
When the sounds of bullets finally stopped, Kyle stepped forward, pulling them after him. "Your turn" he called to Stan. "Get us past these guys." He hoisted Wendy onto his shoulders again and prepared to run. Instead, Stan grabbed them both and secured their arms around his neck as he focused on shifting into the largest elephant he could imagine.
They stormed through the crowd of confused adults, Stan slamming them to either side with his massive body, and Kyle slicing at any who tried to scale Stan's side with his clawed fingers. 'Kenny!' Wendy's voice — inside his head, somehow — reminded him. He turned to see Kenny slumped forward on the ground behind them, skin still repairing itself from the myriad bullet wounds he had sustained. Beside him, Caretakers were closing in around Butters and Eric.
"Run!" Kenny yelled to them, waving them on. "They can't hurt me - get yourselves out!" Butters nodded reluctantly and pulled an apparently injured Eric along as he headed toward the wall. Kenny finally made it to his feet and tore across the ground after them, slipping past the frantic adults trying to seize them.
Butters yelped as he was grabbed by a large man, pulling him and Eric both to the ground. He disappeared under the man's hands, confusing him long enough to roll away. Kenny looked back in their direction just as he reached Stan's side.
"Butters!" He called, looking around frantically. Stan shrugged Wendy and Kyle from his shoulders, shifting back into himself.
"Take them and get out" he said to Kenny, pushing the three of them forward. With that he turned back toward Butters and Eric and ran headlong into the chaos.
"Butters, grab Eric and grab on!" He yelled as he stopped only long enough to shift into a powerful horse. Butters tugged Eric free from the adults and ran frantically toward Stan, throwing himself up and onto his back as quickly as he could manage. With some effort he pulled Eric up after him and yelled for Stan to run; Stan sprinted for the opening in the wall without hesitation.
Freedom. Salvation. Almost there. He drove himself onward and past the ruins of the fences and wall, feeling suddenly lighter as he jumped the remains of the wall in one smooth motion. He thundered forward toward where he saw the others gathered, already starting to move again. They did it; they were out.
"Stan, Eric is still back there!" Butters screamed desperately, tugging at his neck. Stan tried to turn sharply but nearly fell. When he finally moved to go back for the other boy, he saw a quick flash, and was knocked backward by a tremendous boom. Smoke filled the air, and billowed out from the remnants of the destroyed wall, blocking their view. As it approached them Stan realized that within moments he wouldn't be able to see to escape at all - none of them would.
Biting back a tremendous feeling of guilt, he made a difficult decision; he turned back toward the other escaped teenagers, ignoring the disaster behind him and ran. He felt Butters tugging at him insistently to go back, but he knew their only chance to make it out alive lay in front of them, and he chased it full force. Spurred on by his speed, his friends gathered themselves and ran as well, forward into the unfamiliar wilderness. He had no idea where they were going, or what they would do once they got there. But he ran for as long as he could, and didn't even pause to let himself wonder why the others were following.
Miles away — how many, and in what direction, Stan couldn't be sure — they found an opening in the mountains along which they'd traveled. The narrow mouth was well lit, but led down a tunnel that looked dark and infinitely deep. Stopping at the entrance, Stan knelt to catch his breath, and examine the cavern.
"We'll have to stop soon" he said absently, to no one in particular. There was murmured agreement; they'd been on the move for hours, with many of them wounded and unprepared for the harsh weather. They hadn't even spoken of losing Eric yet, their only thought of moving forward until they couldn't — until this point. He looked down past the split in the rock and then back at the others. "How far down do you think this goes?"
A few of them stepped to surround the opening, and Kenny tossed a rock down into it to listen. Within just a few seconds the clacking of stone against stone stopped, and Stan's curiosity heightened. He stuck his head down through the crevice to try for a better look.
"It doesn't seem that deep. It looks like it slopes off a little ways down; maybe it leads somewhere."
"So what?" Craig asked over his shoulder. "Are you suggesting we camp out in a hole in the ground?"
Stan pushed himself upright to look at him. "I don't see that we have many other options. We don't know where any other people or civilization is; we don't even know where we are. We need to rest—" - he looked at Craig's lacerated arm - "and to try to patch up our wounds. We've got to stop moving long enough to keep from dying."
"So how do we know it's safe in there?" Tweek chirped, nervously. He inched toward the opening and peeked over the edge.
"Someone will need to check it out" Stan replied. When anxious faces didn't volunteer, he sighed. "I don't care to do it. I'll go down there, but I'll need help. I can't see anything past a few feet or so."
"I think I can help with that" Kevin offered. "I can probably light it up in there at least for a little while."
"Great, then let's go" Stan said quickly. He didn't want to allow himself any time to rethink the investigation.
Inside, Stan found the slope he'd expected. He and Kevin hesitantly walked down it, jumping only slightly at the occasional cream of rocks shifting beneath their feet or the buzzing of Kevin's illuminated skin. The gentle incline led down into a clearing; a massive, empty cave, save for the scores of stones scattered across its floor. Kevin shown his light brighter, searching the walls for anything remarkable. Aside from a few dozen bats hanging from the ceiling of the cave, nothing caught their attention. It was dark, nearly featureless and quiet; cool and drafty from its natural seclusion, but dry enough to not be unpleasant, and spacious enough for all of them. He gave Stan a conservative smile.
"This alright, you think?"
Stan nodded. "Perfect. It just screams 'we have no idea what we're doing'. It's just what we need." He and Kevin shared a laugh, and made their way back toward the mouth of the cave and the rest of their group.
Clyde began gathering the rocks from around the cave and piling them into mounds and furniture-like shapes near the smooth stone walls. Craig helped him, even as he sat tending to his injured arm, using his mind to slide stones in whatever direction Clyde pointed. They cleared the cave floor quickly, without speaking. Nearby, Tweek darted around, collecting brush and sticks from the forest outside the cave and arranging it into small stacks. Behind him, Rebecca lit each pile and tended the flames until they burnt slowly, calmly. Bebe collected the small amounts of water pooled on the uneven floor of the primitive room and froze it into cubes, scattering them around the edges of each fire to dampen the twigs there. The group worked at a good pace, and soon had the makeshift room entirely swept, dried and warmly lit. The light and wisps of smoke from the fires roused the bats hanging about them, which left begrudgingly, a few at a time.
Stan took in the sight of the cave and his friends gathered in it. Some of them huddled in groups, looking over each others' wounds and damage to their clothing. They stood or sat near the small fires, warming their hands and faces as they spoke quietly to each other. He swallowed hard as he wondered how they could hope to recover from their injuries, in this damp, dirty place. He felt a squeeze on his shoulder, and a flood of warmth radiating from it. He turned to see Wendy looking up at him, reassuringly.
"You did the right thing, stopping here. We made the right decision; they're going to be okay." She looked toward the others Stan had been watching, and he realized she had read his mind.
"How, Wendy? How are any of us going to survive, much less get better? We've got no supplies to—"
A shout cut him off. "Shut your stupid mouth, Kenny!"
Stan and Wendy turned to see Craig, glaring down at Kenny as he sat against the cave wall. Kenny scooted backward, but didn't flinch.
"I was kidding, you jerk. Take a joke" Kenny said sourly. Craig snarled.
"Do I look like I'm in the mood for jokes?" He pointed to his still-bleeding arm. Kenny began to stand, and Craig seized him by his shirt to pull him the rest of the way onto his feet. "I'm feeling a lot more like hitting you right in the mouth, right now."
Kenny scoffed. "Do it, then. You know it won't get you anywhere." He tipped his head back slightly and stuck out his jaw, taunting Craig. Craig quickly attacked him, digging his nails across his face after slapping him, then cracked his knuckles and pulled his hand back to hit him again. He stopped just short of his face as Wendy lunged between them.
"Stop it, you two!" She hissed, shielding Kenny's quickly healing face with one hand, and grabbing Craig's arm with the other. Stan could see a faint light around her pulse as it moved toward Craig, probably trying to calm him. Craig stopped moving, but gasped and winced before looking down at the arm Wendy had clutched. It was his injured arm, but he didn't pull it away. Beneath Wendy's clenched hand, his wound began to disappear, his skin smoothing out as it quickly repaired itself. Wendy stared as well, only pulling her hand away after the cut vanished completely.
"How'd you...?" Craig stammered, running his fingers over the undamaged skin. He held up his arm and flexed the muscles there, eliciting scattered gasps from the group as they joined in staring.
Wendy looked down at her own hand, confused. "I can't - I didn't! That... looked like Kenny's —" She glanced up at Kenny's face, repaired from the scratches Craig had left there. "Come here" she said softly, and reached for Kenny's hand. Kenny offered it to her cautiously, watching as she bent to examine a smaller cut on Craig's thigh. "Let me try something" she said, just as soft, as she laid her hand over the wound. Again, light gently outdated from her hand and toward Craig's cut, but this time nothing happened. She peeked under her fingers and frowned, then looked back at Kenny.
"I need your help. I think... I think I can transfer your healing powers to other people, but you have to help me do it" she said. Kenny stared at her.
"But I don't know - I'm not sure what to do" he said, anxiously.
"What did you do a few minutes ago, just now when I grabbed your face?"
"Nothing. I was just healing my face and—"
"Heal your hand, then" Wendy said quickly.
"It's... not damaged, though. How can I..."
"Please, Kenny, try. If we can heal the others..."
Kenny nodded and looked down at his hand with determination, but still nothing happened. After two more useless attempts, he let go of Wendy's hand and stomped away toward the wall.
"Kenny, come on! We need to—" She was cut off by her own gasp as Kenny snapped a thin stalagmite from the corner where the cave floor met the ceiling, and slashed his palm open with it without pause.
"Now" — he said, offering her the bleeding hand — "try again."
She did as he asked, and the sound of Kenny's skin rippling back into place was quickly joined by the echo of Craig's doing the same. She left her hand in place until the healing was finished, and Craig stepped back to look over his repaired skin. Kenny clenched her hand tighter in his and smiled when she threw an arm around him excitedly. Then he looked down at the sharp rock in his hand and grinned devilishly back up at the others who'd gathered to watch them.
The healing went quickly, once Wendy and Kenny found their rhythm. After nearly half a dozen patch-ups, he even learned how to do it without slicing his hand open every time, though Stan wondered if he didn't enjoy that part just a little bit, too. Watching people squirm in disgust had always kind of been a favorite pastime for Kenny.
The atmosphere in the cave brightened along with the lifting spirits of the group. There was even laughter as Kenny and Wendy moved from person to person, checking everyone for injuries. Soon everyone was back in shape, moving or resting without pain. Back in fighting shape, Stan thought bitterly. He heaved a sigh as he leaned against the rough cave wall, thinking about exactly what they'd gotten themselves into by leaving. What he'd gotten them into.
"Hey, you alright dude?"
Stan blinked himself back to consciousness and saw Kyle crouched in front of him.
"Apparently Ken and Wendy can stitch you up if something's bothering you." He winked and Stan couldn't stop himself smiling, just a little.
"It's nothing like that" he said. "I'm honestly fine. It's not me I'm concerned about." He looked around the room. For all the positivity the healing had brought, he still saw a group of lost, confused children. His stomach turned as he remembered there was still a member of their group trapped behind. They'd have to help him, somehow. But Stan knew they'd have to help themselves, first. How they would do it was the part he hadn't yet thought about.
"So where to from here, boss?"
He realized he'd been in his own head again only when Kyle laid a hand on his arm and squeezed it as he spoke.
"You got us out of there. Now where do we go from here?"
Stan shook his head. "We all got ourselves out of there, as a team. I didn't get us anywhere except holed up in a cave." He looked down at his torn shoes, but Kyle pushed at his shoulder, forcing him to look back up.
"Ok, so we're a team. Awesome. Getting out was your idea though, Stan. So now we need another good idea. What do you want us to do from here?"
Stan wriggled from under Kyle's grip and stood against the wall behind him. "I don't want anyone to do anything, other than live. I don't have any say in what any of you from here; I'm not in charge."
"So who is?" Clyde asked. Stan realized he'd been talking loudly enough for some of the others to hear him. Clyde, Bebe and Token eyed him inquisitively.
"No one" he insisted. "No one's in charge. No one has to be. Don't you guys get it? We're free now; we got out. No one has to tell us what to do from here."
"So that's it?" Craig asked. He stood behind Clyde, Tweek by his side. One by one, everyone was starting to stare at Stan.
"What do you mean?" Stan ventured.
"You bring us all here and then you're done? How is it that easy for you to just bail on us?"
"I'm not bailing on anyone, Craig. You guys are free to do whatever you want. No one has to follow me or do anything I say."
"Well freedom may sound nice to you, but I'm a little more realistic. All I've known my entire life is structure. As much as I may hate it, I need it. Every piece of that structure is gone now. We left everything we knew and everything we were behind when we injected that stuff and busted out. So great, now we're free. But everything we run into from this point on is gonna be brand new, and the only way I think we can get through it is the way we've always done everything - as a group. I don't exactly love everyone in this... room, but you guys are all I've ever had. So for now, I'm staying right here, and someone has to be in charge if we're gonna do this. And as I see it, you got us all into this. So you gonna step up or what?"
Stan looked around; from all over the cave's wide room, everyone was staring at him, waiting. He swallowed, and tried to think of how to say 'no' gracefully. He'd wanted to free them, not lead them. He looked to Kyle for an escape, or a suggestion of what to say or do. But Kyle just stepped closer to him and nodded, placing a hand on his shoulder again. On his other side, he felt Wendy take his hand. Kenny and a few of the others offered smiles and looks of approval and encouragement. Stan sighed as it dawned on him that he didn't really have much say in the matter.
"I guess I'll do what I have to until you guys don't feel like you need me anymore." He conceded. "But don't ever forget, we're a team. We're equals." More nods, weak cheers and quiet applause followed, and Stan tried not to show how entirely awkward he felt, standing at the center of everyone's attention. He leaned into Kyle's touch and tugged on Wendy for support.
"So..." Kyle said, a humorous edge to his voice. "What's the plan then, boss?"
"Tonight's plan is sleep" Stan said flatly. He emphasized his point with a yawn. "We'll figure out the rest tomorrow."
The night was uncomfortable and cold in the drafty cave. Rebecca and Kevin sat, propped back to back near the cave's furthest wall with the rest of the group huddled around them for warmth. When the morning light broke over them through the mouth of the cave, most of them greeted it with bleary eyes and stiff necks. Stan dragged himself to his feet before the sun had fully lit the mountainside. The morning tranquility was an almost alarming contrast to the events of the previous day, and was broken only by complaints beginning to bubble from the mouths of the others.
"It's so cold."
"I really wish we had pillows or something."
Stan sympathized with them all, but he couldn't offer a solution. They couldn't go back now, not after all they'd been through. But they had nothing - no food, barely any shelter, and not even the same comforts afforded most animals. The weight of the group's decision to appoint him as their leader bore down on his mind; he had no answers to give them. It was Craig that offered the first real suggestion in response to the growing chorus of grumbling.
"We've got to find other people. A city or town or whatever."
"And do what?" Kenny laughed dryly. "Looking like this, with nothing else to change into? If the Caretakers are looking for us, that's like walking out of here with a bull's-eye on our backs. No thanks."
"We'd just have to keep from getting caught. Sneak around, you know?" Craig replied. Kyle chimed in, shaking his head.
"How are we supposed to get anything if we don't even understand their trade system? We barely know anything about money, or where to buy things, and it wouldn't matter even if we did - we've got nothing, no way to pay for anything." Stan knew he was nervous about more than just bartering — Kyle was noticeably self conscious about his changed appearance. He hid his claw tipped fingers as often as possible, even as he tried to hide his embarrassment of them behind words about their lack of money.
Craig cracked a smile. "Who said anything about paying for anything?"
Stan eyed him impatiently. "Are you suggesting that we steal things?"
"Just what we need" Craig shrugged. "Make use of our freak powers."
"We can't take things that don't belong to us." Kyle said anxiously. "Stealing is—"
"Is what?" Craig snapped. "Wrong? According to who? The Caretakers?"
"I'm gonna have to agree with Craig on this one" said Kenny. "Who's going to punish us?"
"It's not about that!" Kyle hissed.
"What about the people we're taking things from?" Token added, mostly addressing Craig. "How is it fair to them? We don't deserve their stuff any more than they do."
"They're not homeless and starving!" Craig countered. Stan sighed and nodded in agreement.
"He's got a point, guys. We've got to eat. We've got nothing here" he said, looking around the barren cave.
"We can find things - in the forest" Kevin suggested. "Berries, clover, honey - remember? We learned about that stuff in classes last year and—"
"And it won't be enough" Bebe chimed in. "Besides, we learned about it from them; who knows if what we were told was even true. You could get us all poisoned if you pick the wrong thing."
Kevin shared a frustrated glance with Rebecca; Stan felt a wash of soothing energy sweep over them all and smiled his approval to Wendy.
"She's right that it won't be enough" he said quickly. "There are twelve of us. We're all hungry, and some of us need new clothes. We need to find somewhere to get clean, too. We can't stay here forever, and if we're going to go back for Eric, we need time to make sure we're ready. We can't do that if we can't even meet our basic needs."
"Where are we supposed to go?" asked Kyle. "We have no clue where we are, or if we're close to any other people. We could be wandering for days."
"Not if we're smart about it" Wendy smiled. "I can hear thoughts. If I really listen, maybe I can find a city by the sounds of the people in it. I should be able to sense a mass of thoughts and feelings that large from pretty far away, I'd think."
Stan nodded. "Just take Kyle with you; you can't really defend yourself with your ability, and I don't like the thought of you going alone. I'll shift into something that can get us an aerial view of this mountain. We need to know if there's a water supply nearby. Tweek, can you do a few runs around the forest and get a better feel for where we are? You could be done in less than an hour with what would take the rest of us all afternoon."
"By myself?" Tweek squeaked. Wendy rubbed his arm while Token laughed.
"Nobody else can keep up with you, man!"
"Okay, I guess so" Tweek replied, visibly less nervous. He smiled appreciatively at Wendy.
"What about the rest of us?" Token asked, looking back at Stan. Stan looked around at the dimly lit faces of the others and tried to sound confident, authoritative.
"Rest, if you need to. Gather some more wood for fires or soft plants for bedding. If you see anything that you're sure is edible, bring it back here. We'll all meet back here before evening starts to set in, alright? If any of us aren't back by then..." He trailed off, anxious at the thought of any of them disappearing after they'd come so far. Token and some of others just nodded in response.
"Kyle, keep her safe" Stan said after a tense silence. Kyle squeezed Stan's arm reassuringly and set out with Wendy, with Tweek leaving a few minutes later. The rest of them stepped out into the shaded sunlight of the forest and Stan looked the group over once more before shifting.
"Stay together. Small groups at least" he said, asking more than telling. Clyde gave him a thumbs up, and a few others nodded or smiled. Stan took a deep breath and focused on making himself into a large hawk, feeling his spine tingle and his bones rearrange themselves as his arms became wings. A few of the others gasped, having not seen him shift before, and he tried not to enjoy Craig's impressed expression too much as he lifted his wings uncertainly to fly.
"Be careful, Stan!" Rebecca called brightly, and he wished he could respond in kind. Instead, he took to the sky, fumbling just a bit as the wind caught his feathers and he glided upward into the sunlight.
Circling the mountain on the breeze was peaceful. He had the chance to think — without almost a dozen other voices murmuring around him — for the first time in several days. Though his thoughts were laced with the fear of where they would go, what they would do and how exactly they would live long enough to return to rescue their captured comrade, they were still a welcomed change.
He saw occasional glimpses of Tweek below him, weaving through the trees and over the uneven terrain of the mountainside as he surveyed their surroundings. Stan saw several streams, at least one large enough to bathe in if they took turns, and most of them looked quite clean. He noticed more than a few clearings as well, and thought about bringing the others there to practice their skills a bit more. Beside one was a small man made shelter, definitely a sign he thought they should try to avoid until they knew if other people could be trusted. It made him think of Wendy and Kyle, looking for civilization, and he wondered how they were fairing and if they were safe. After a few passes around the mountain he grew tired and overwhelmed by his thoughts and settled on an expanse of rock near the cave where they were staying.
Shifting was harder on him than he liked admitting to the others, and the scraps of food he'd managed to eat before they left the facility did little to hold him over through the famine they were experiencing there in the wilderness. His thoughts were of food and warmth and the familiarity he missed despite himself as he tucked his wings around him and dozed off in the breezy shade of the mountain's shadow.
When he awoke later, the sun was still shining, but its light was softer. He wasn't sure how long he'd slept, but he noticed the first hints of evening beginning near the horizon and stretched his wings, lifting himself into a low flight back toward the mouth of the cave. The others were gathered there, talking quietly with Kyle and Wendy when he landed. He changed himself back into a human and stumbled a bit as he stood back on his own legs.
"Stan!" Kyle and Wendy breathed at once, closing in on him from either side and helping him walk. They moved him to a large mound of earth near the cave's opening, and sat him there, Wendy settling beside him while Kyle moved back to the center of the group.
"Kyle was just giving us the run down on what he and Wendy found" Kenny offered, when Stan looked around inquisitively. Kyle nodded and turned to Stan with a half smile on his face.
"There's a city at the bottom of the mountain, on the eastern side" he said. "It's got signs everywhere that say 'South Park'. It's not very big, but it has plenty of buildings and plenty of people, and we found lots of dumpsters and things near the edge of the city. Even a little area where they dump machines and parts, so we could grab some of those and use them to build things or light the cave with." He nodded toward Kevin who smiled enthusiastically in response to the suggestion.
"So you expect us to eat out of the garbage?" Bebe wretched dramatically.
"Not much of a choice for the time being, ice princess!" Craig teased. She glared at him and Clyde punched his arm playfully, knocking him a few feet away. "Sheesh!" He grumbled, pulling himself to his feet, settling further from the two of them when he sat again. "Say, where's Tweek?" He asked, glancing up at Stan.
Stan shook his head, suddenly feeling a rush of fear. "I saw him a few times while I was out, but I haven't seen him in a while. He's not been back?"
Craig shook his head, and Stan stood, Craig mirroring him a moment later.
"We... we've gotta look for him" Craig insisted. "We can't lose anyone else."
"I'm not even sure where to start, though" Stan admitted. "He's so fast - he could've covered miles of ground in the time he's been gone. There's no telling where—"
"He's not far" Wendy interjected. They turned and stared at her but her eyes were closed, concentrating. "I can hear him. He's on his way back here now." She turned to look behind them, and sure enough a moment later, Tweek emerged, grimacing as he tried to slow himself down. He threw his arms out and braced to hit the cave wall, closing his eyes and running straight into Craig instead. They both toppled backward, Tweek groaning apologetically as Craig snickered at his embarrassment.
"Sorry!" Tweek sighed, standing and pulling Craig after him. "I ran the bottoms of my shoes out and now I'm having a hard time stopping once I start moving!" He held up a foot to show them; what was left of his shoes were barely clinging to his ankles, and the soles were completely gone. The skin on his feet was red and irritated and Stan winced when he saw it.
"Looks like we need to add a pair of shoes to the to-steal list!" Craig joked, throwing an arm over Tweek's shoulders. "Maybe more than one."
The next few days brought Stan conflicting feelings of pride and shame in his actions and those of his friends. They were taking things that didn't belong to them, and he never felt worse about it than when he would see the faces of people who lived in the small town of South Park that they were robbing of refuse and recyclables. He didn't know any of them, and he knew it was safer for him not to. But part of him wanted to thank them for their generosity, even though they had no idea he and the others were even among them.
Still, it was hard not to feel a surge of excitement when they pulled off another 'grab', as some of them had started calling their little supply gathering missions. Watching Tweek zip past people in a crowded street side market to snag fruit and vegetables was nearly as entertaining as seeing Butters plucking items from the bins of charity trucks and the tables of yard sales. If anyone saw either of the quick moving blondes at work, they would shake their heads in disbelief and dismiss it. Stan felt incredibly lucky to have them both.
Not every learning experience was a positive one, as Stan quickly learned when he overheard some of the others discussing strange physical reactions they'd been experiencing since leaving the facility. He found that he wasn't the only one having strange dreams of his friends and becoming oddly uncomfortable with the close contact they'd grown up so accustomed to. He was thinking about it one evening — debating talking to Kyle about it — when Wendy negated the need to.
"It's our hormones" she said simply. Stan turned to stare at her but didn't speak, horrified to realize she'd probably known about the daydreams he'd regularly been experiencing. She didn't push him to explain, but rather offered an explanation herself.
"Remember when we learned about them a few years ago in science? When we lived at the facility, I'm fairly certain we were given hormone suppression medication. The Caretakers probably did it to keep us under control. Now that we're not on our medicines anymore, our bodies are producing the hormones we're supposed to have. You're not the only one — everyone's having the same problem. It'll regulate soon, though."
Only when he looked up and saw most of the faces in the cave turned toward her as well did he realize she'd mentally broadcasted her reassurance to everyone. He tried to hide his embarrassment, but he was glad to know that he wasn't alone in wading through the new feelings he was having. Wendy smiled at him, and the situation somehow seemed less awkward; once again, her insight proved invaluable.
The others pulled their weight as well, in whatever ways they could. Aside from using their abilities to nab any number of items they needed from the unsuspecting people of the town, each person in their group made an effort to make the cave more comfortable. Their life as cautious fugitives gave them ample opportunities to practice using their powers, and any time they weren't on a mission to gather supplies, they were doing just that.
They practiced alone, sparred with each other and pushed themselves as much as they could on the little energy most of them had at any one time. Stan began to master his shifting and using his different forms. Bebe, Kevin and Red gained more control of their elemental powers. Craig and Clyde competed to see who could lift the heaviest objects, usually resulting in Craig nursing a headache and Clyde nursing his wounded pride. If their situation weren't so dire, Stan could almost call those days in the forest fun. Almost.
"We need to get what we came for and get out of here" Stan warned. "This is way further than we usually go. We're gonna be seen if we stay much longer."
"I doubt anyone else in town is even out in this weather" Kyle sighed, glancing up at the sky. "It's definitely gonna rain soon."
"All the more reason that we need to be quick" Stan nodded. Kenny laughed quietly.
"That's why we've got Tweek with us!" He smiled. Tweek grinned weakly as Kenny threw an arm around his neck and ruffled his already messy hair. Stan couldn't help but laugh too.
It was just the four of them that day; they usually went on gathering trips in smaller groups while the others stayed back at the cave, practicing or preparing things they needed. It was by no means an efficient way of living, but they had found a way to steal their survival together, and that was more than Stan had hoped for just a few days before.
Deeper down the roads and alleys of the town than they had ever been before, he and the other three boys kept their senses sharply focused. It was indeed true that there were few townspeople on the streets that day, a fact that Stan was infinitely grateful for. The silence of their surroundings made every sound louder by comparison, and when they heard distant screams, they didn't so much as stop to consult each other before ducking behind a row of dumpsters.
"Stay the hell away from us, you creeps!" A young woman's voice called out. Angry shouts came in response, and Stan shifted into the form of a dog and chased the sound. Behind him he could hear the heavy sighs of the others as they cautiously followed him. When he rounded the corner of an old, crumbling building he found himself in an alley, with a broken, gravel road. A few yards away stood a group of children - teenagers, much like he and the others in their group - surrounded by three large men dressed in dark, shabby clothing. The female voice rang out again, from the single girl in the group of teens. She was short, with dark skin that reminded Stan of Token's. She looked strong, scared and angry.
"I said back off or I'm gonna kick all your asses!" She snapped at the men gathered around them. They stepped closer and she balled her hands into fists.
"Nicole!" A boy behind her whispered. She didn't turn to face him, keeping her eyes on the men around them and snarling fiercely.
"Shut up, Scott! I can take 'em. There's only three."
"Just give us your bag little girl, and we'll pretend you weren't running your mouth!" One of the men growled.
"Yeah, I'm sure your daddy wouldn't want to see his precious daughter end up dead over a handbag!" Another added. The girl called Nicole ripped a bag from her shoulder and threw it toward them.
"Take it, asshole! It's got nothing in it. I got nothing on me today!" Stan didn't recognize some of the words the people were using, but the rage behind them was clear.
"Bullshit!" The man in the middle yelled. "You expect us to believe that from the richest little bitch in this town? Shake her down!" He barked his order to the other two men who stepped toward Nicole again.
"I told you not to touch me!" She screamed, drawing her fists up to strike. "I'm not afraid of you!"
"Be afraid of this, then!" One of the men said, pulling a gun from the pocket of his coat. "You kids have seen too damn much now. So how about you give me everything you've got on you, or I blow your brains all over this alley and knock your buddies off along with you?"
Nicole dropped her hands, splaying them out instead on either side of her to protect the three boys behind her. "I... I don't have anything right now, I told you" she said, much more softly. "Please, just leave us alone."
Kyle and the others found Stan, huddling behind him to see the scene just as it escalated. Hearing the guns cocked and seeing them pointed at Nicole and her friends, he realized he wouldn't have time to shift shape again. He pointed a paw in the direction of the confrontation, barked frantically at his friends, and hoped they understood him. They nodded and Tweek stood, Kenny and Kyle right behind him.
"Sorry, little girl!" taunted one of the robbers. "Looks like your family's gonna be in the news for a different reason tonight!" He held the gun to her head, only faltering to pull the trigger when he heard a loud bark.
Stan charged toward them, growling and snapping. The man with the gun dropped it as Stan bounded onto him, knocking him to the ground. Before he could get back to his feet, a flash of color breezed by, snatching the gun and carrying it away. Stan stepped back, standing between the other two men and the teenagers. He was joined a moment later by Kenny and Kyle, Kyle's skin rippling into a solid, dark gray shield. Tweek returned, and he and Kenny pushed the teens toward another back road.
"C'mon!" Kenny hissed. They followed, but not without hesitation.
"What about your friends?" Nicole said frantically. The men behind them pulled two more guns, and she shouted in panic.
"They'll be fine! Now run!" Kenny insisted. One of the teenagers was braced on metal poles, with more metal wrapped around his legs. He hobbled after them, unable to keep up. One of the gunmen pointed his weapon at the slower boy, and Stan barked loudly to warn him. He ran toward the shooter to knock him down, but shots rang out before he reached the man. He looked back to where the boy had stood, and saw Kenny, standing in front of him, blood disappearing from his face as bullet wounds quickly closed themselves. Most of the rest of the gunfire was hitting Kyle, clanking against his skin as each bullet ricocheted toward the buildings around them. Stan ran after the others, trusting Kyle to follow them when he could.
"Let's go!" Kenny said sharply, pulling the boy behind him to his feet as Stan joined them. Stan shifted shape as they joined the others, and the gasps from the other teenagers as he stood back on his human feet reminded him just what they were risking by helping these kids. To his relief, Kyle did indeed join them moments later, his skin fading back to its usual, pale color.
"Some of the bullets hit them, but I don't think they're too bad off" he said, panting for breath. "We've got to get away from here. I don't know who else might have seen all of that!" The group started running again but stopped abruptly when the slower boy cried out, having fallen yards behind.
"I c-can't really r-run!" He stuttered, trying to catch up. Before Stan could offer a solution, Tweek was beside the boy, kneeling to pick him up. After a moment's struggle, he pulled the boy and his metal poles onto his back.
"Now where do we go?" He strained, holding the boy's legs under his arms. One of the other boys — the smallest of the group — spoke for the first time, pointing toward a narrow street that led away from town and ran along a nearby stream.
"This way!" He said, and led them toward the bank of the water. Stan and the others followed, and walked along silently until they were well out of reach of the men from the alley. As they walked, he wondered how he could explain himself and the others to these young townspeople, and — more importantly — how to convince them not to share what he told them.
"So they tried to kill you for leaving?"
"Your friend is still back there?"
"How are you getting by, living in the forest?"
The questions came rapidly once Stan and the others started talking. The group weaved through large sewer tunnels and back roads, following two of the teenage boys. The taller boy — Scott, they'd called him — had mentioned a shop, and the smaller boy had agreed to lead them there. Stan followed, explaining himself and the others as best he could.
"We're trying to only take what we need - we mostly just grab things people have thrown out. We really don't want anyone to know we're out here, so—"
"Too late for that!" Nicole laughed. Kyle groaned and Stan nodded.
"Well we couldn't just let those guys shoot all of you."
"No, I mean, everyone knows you guys are out there somewhere. You guys are basically famous." Nicole laughed. Stan glanced back at the others, noticing their faces had gone as pale as his felt.
"How... what do you mean?" He stammered. Nicole pointed at a piece of paper, tacked to a large pole that held wires above the streets and buildings. Stan looked at it and his stomach dropped.
It was a poster, with grainy pictures of Stan and the others, and it listed as 'wanted', twelve teenagers who'd escaped from a local psychiatric hospital. The paper alleged that they were violent, unstable and extremely dangerous, and should be apprehended if possible, and that deadly force might be necessary. Stan's mouth felt dry as he read the outrageous allegations aloud, Kenny scoffing angrily as they all listened.
"Dangerous? Psychiatric patients?" He hissed. Nicole nodded.
"These are up all over town. They just kind of appeared overnight last week. Everyone has seen them at this point."
Stan pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Fantastic."
The smallest boy among the group hummed happily as he led them through more of the town's barrel used routes. When they rounded a corner and spotted a large, two story building a few blocks away, he sped his walking and waved them after him. Tweek continued walking slowly, with deliberate steps to avoid dropping his passenger. The boy named Scott bounded after him, and Stan and the others followed cautiously, still talking to Nicole.
"So if you could just do us the favor of not letting people know we've talked to you..." Stan began. Nicole laughed and nodded.
"Don't sweat it, super boy. I'm not gonna blow the whistle on you guys. Can't promise the same for them, though." She pointed ahead to the large building, where the two boys had opened the front door and were speaking to someone just inside. A man walked out onto the steps of the place and eyed their group as they approached.
"And they saved us, dad! It was the coolest thing I've ever seen! The one guy can turn into a dog, and his friend has like... bulletproof skin! That guy's super fast, but he's goin' slow right now so he doesn't drop Jimmy. And their friend kept Jimmy from getting shot at!" Scott was excitedly recounting the story to the man, who's expression of curiosity turned to a look of horror as he listened.
"The men shot at you kids? Where was this? Did you see their faces? Are you all ok?"
Only then did Stan notice that Scott spoke with a lisp, slurring his words a bit as he frantically responded. "Yeah, I told you - these guys saved us! They're like... super heroes!"
The man stepped down onto the road to meet the others as they approached the building. Tweek placed Jimmy back on the ground, and stood back with Stan and the others as he and Nicole walked forward to speak with the man. He hugged both of them in turn and listened anxiously as they told more of the story. When they'd finished, he turned back toward the building.
"We have to call the police" he said quickly, heading inside. Scott grabbed his arm and protested.
"No, dad! If you call the cops, they might take our new friends, too!" He looked back at Stan and the others. The man stared at them too for a moment, then looked back to his son.
"Why would they do that, Scott?" He asked quietly. Stan sighed and stepped forward to explain, silently wishing Wendy was with them to steady his nerves. Nicole cut him off before he had the chance.
"You may wanna sit down, Mr. Malkinson."
"And none of it's true." Nicole concluded, motioning toward the group. "They're not convicts or mental patients - they're just homeless teenagers."
"With mutant powers!" The smallest boy added. Nicole glared at him.
"Hush, Dougie!" She snapped. She turned back to the older man. "Look, Mr. Malkinson; these guys saved our lives. They're not criminals, and they don't deserve to be locked up or worse for helping us. If we tell anyone else, that's probably what will happen."
"I'd b-be surprised if those crooks didn't r-rat 'em out themselves, to save their own a-asses!" The boy with the metal poles stuttered. Stan swallowed hard; he hadn't even thought about that. Now they'd have to walk on even more fragile ground just to snag food and supplies. He must've sighed audibly, because Kyle and Kenny both cupped hands over his shoulders.
"Which will make it even harder for them to stay safe" Scott added, as if reading Stan's anxieties. "Which is why I was thinking, dad - why don't we let them stay here for a bit? In the attic."
"Stay? Scott, that's ridiculous!" The man said.
"They saved our lives!" Scott countered through a strong lisp. "I would literally be dead right now if they hadn't been there!"
"And I'm very thankful for that" the man said, nodding toward Stan and the others. "But it's too much trouble. You know you're mother is in no shape to deal with all of this, and you can't stay out of trouble as it is - look at you kids! You're covered in cuts; you've been sneaking around the waterways behind town again, haven't you?"
Before Stan really thought about his words, they were out of his mouth. "We have a friend who can help. She and Kenny" — Stan pointed at the blonde beside him — "they can heal wounds."
Scott's father stared for a moment, but Scott spoke first. "Can they... heal sick people? Like, really sick?"
Stan didn't know the answer. He exchanged a glance with Kenny and replied honestly. "I don't know, but they can try."
Half an hour later, he was at the edge of town again, waiting on Tweek to return from the cave with the others.
"So you honestly think we can trust these people?" Craig asked once they'd made it. Stan shrugged and motioned toward Wendy.
"I'll leave that up to her to decide. For now, I want to help them if we can. They haven't told anyone else that we're here, and hopefully if we help them out, they won't change their minds about that."
"And the boys mentioned something about a place for us to stay" Kenny added enthusiastically. "We do right by them and we may not have to sleep on the ground much longer."
"Let's not get our hopes up" Stan reminded them, smirking a bit at how much his own tone reminded him of Kyle's usual chastising. "These are still basically strangers, after all. We have no idea what people are really like. I think the last few days have proven that."
They started with the teenagers. Wendy spoke to them politely, smiling with them as they marveled at their cuts and abrasions closing before their eyes. Scott's father watched anxiously, breaking his concentration on them to smile only when Scott showed him his newly scar-free skin.
"See dad? Not a scratch on me! These guys are great! And I bet they can help mom, too!"
The man frowned and looked like he might say something in protest, but Wendy stepped forward and caught his attention, speaking to Scott.
"What's wrong with your mother?" She asked sweetly. Scott's father sighed and propped against a post that ran along the stairs of his shop.
"She's recovering from an illness" he said simply. "I don't know that you kids can be of any help."
"She had meningitis" Scott said quickly. "It left her in the hospital for months, and in bed almost every day since then. She's been sick for months now."
Stan and Wendy looked at each other. 'All I can do is try', a voice whispered in Stan's mind, and he nodded at her wordlessly.
"May we visit with her?" Wendy asked, and a rush of calm feelings swept through Stan as Wendy projected them toward the older man. Reluctantly, he nodded, and motioned them after him and into the shop.
Inside, a woman sat in a wooden rocking chair, with a blanket piled in her lap. She smiled politely, though a look of confusion was evident on her face. Stan was relieved when Wendy offered an explanation before any of the others had the chance to.
"Hello, ma'am. I'm sure you're wondering why we're all in your family's shop right now... as Scott can tell you, it's actually a really long story." She reached for Kenny's hand and pulled him to her side, still smiling down at the woman seated in front of her. "My friend and I are... healers. And while they tell you our story, I was wondering if you'd let us try to help you with your symptoms."
Wendy sounded nervous, but Stan could feel waves of reassurance radiating from her, and hoped they were persuasive. The woman looked up at her husband for a long moment, then nodded cautiously back at Wendy.
"Thank you" she and Wendy said to each other simultaneously, and a little of the tension in the air melted away as they got to work, and Scott helped Stan tell their story for the third time that day.
"I feel... amazing!"
Scott's mother stood from her chair with a tall stretch and laughed as she reached toward the ceiling. The expression on Scott's father's face was even more exuberant; they hugged each other, laughing and crying all at once.
"Apparently we can" Kenny said quietly to Wendy, and they squeezed each other's hands in celebration.
"I can't believe - this is the most incredible thing!" Mrs. Malkinson continued, wiping at her eyes. "You kids really are miracles!"
"I think the term is 'mutants'" said Kenny, to scattered laughter. She pulled him and Wendy into a tight hug, then turned back to Stan, who still stood next to Scott.
"It doesn't matter what you're called - you're wonderful people! You saved my son and his friends and you've given me a better life; I hate to think of what you've all been through getting here, but I'm so thankful to have met you all!"
"You know mom, I was telling dad - we could help them out. We've got the whole attic upstairs. They could stay there and be out of the cold" Scott said. Unlike her husband before her, his mother nodded excitedly.
"Oh that's the least we could do! May we offer you all a place to stay? It's not much, but you'd have the floor to yourselves. It's heated here, and you'll be able to stay out of the public eye." She motioned toward a door at the back of the shop. "And we live just across the street, so if you needed anything at all..."
Stan glanced around at his teammates and shrugged, waiting for their approval. Most of them nodded; none of them seemed outright opposed. Token was nodding unconsciously as he stole glances at Nicole; taken back at seeing Token interested in anything other than a machine for once, Stan bit back a smile. He turned back to Scott's mother and tried to sound like he wasn't as thrilled with the offer as he truly was.
"Are you sure that you want to do this?" He asked. "It's honestly a pretty big risk to all of you."
"And saving our children was not without risk to all of you" Scott's mother replied. "But you acted selflessly anyway, and for that we owe you this."
To Stan's surprise, Scott's father spoke his agreement. "It really is the least we can do." Stan nodded in response, his appreciation knotting in his throat. Rather than speak, he let Scott's mother hug him, and lead them through the shop's back door and up the stairs to their new home.
It was a large, open space, with a small bathroom and no other privacy, but it was the most perfect thing Stan had ever seen. The wood paneled walls and floors were warmly lit by high windows, and the pleasant smell of pine permeated the air. The others walked around the room, smiling at the warmth and comfort that stood as a stark contrast to their cave dwelling. Scott's mother busily dusted at the window sills and floorboards, muttering to herself about needing a broom. Stan felt a rush of affection toward the woman and her family that he hoped his thanks would be enough to express.
"We have plenty of old blankets and bed clothes that we can bring up here to make it more comfortable for you" she offered, looking like she was making a list in her mind. "I'll bring some towels for the bathroom, and a basket for your laundry. Is there anything else you'll need right away?"
Stan shook his head resolutely. "No, but thank you. All of you," he said, turning to look at Scott and the other teenagers from the town as well. "Right now we need to focus on making a plan to save our friend. You've all done a lot for us already. We truly appreciate it."
"Well make yourselves at home, and I'll be back shortly with linens and some food." She said happily, and disappeared along with Scott's father down the stairs. Scott and his friends remained.
"I seriously can't even believe how cool this is" Scott laughed after a few minutes. He looked around at the room full of people.
"What?" The boy named Dougie asked. Scott pointed around the room at Stan and the others, grinning with excitement.
"The famous runaway mutants are living in my parents' shop!"
Kyle drew down his eyebrows and groaned. "Ah, dude - don't call us that." He shoved his claw tipped fingers into the pockets of the jacket he'd found the week before. Stan wrapped an arm over his shoulders reassuringly.
"Well, what should we call you?" Nicole teased. Stan smiled back at her and replied.
"Just call us your friends."
Finding a path back to the facility was an unpleasant task, but not a difficult one. From the sky, Stan had found its location in comparison to theirs in the small town, and once Token knew that, he was able to use the relative coordinates to direct them straight to it.
"I located an isolated IP address in that area, and used it to find exactly where the buildings are" he told them. "From there I just uploaded directions directly from a GPS server and I should be able to take us straight there. You guys all have tracking devices implanted beneath your skin, on your backs — I can sense 'em. But I can also deactivate them. I can even jam their communication lines so they won't be able to tell we're coming until we're right on top of them."
Stan wanted to be impressed — Token's ability to communicate with machinery fascinated him more than almost any of the others' powers — but there was no time for excitement. He thanked him and they headed out, careful to keep their thoughts as far from their anxieties as they could manage.
They trekked together at a hurried pace, completely unsure of what they would find when they reached the facility. Stan recognized a few landmarks as they passed them, but otherwise the path felt as unfamiliar as the new clothes he walked in. He saw the same apprehension on the faces of his friends, and made a point to speak encouragement when the thought struck him.
"We got out before, and we've had time to practice since then," he reminded them. "We have nothing to worry about as long as we keep our wits about us."
"What if they're ready for us this time?" Kevin asked. A murmur of agreement from some of the others followed.
"We're ready for them, too." Clyde laughed, smacking his knuckles against his palm. Stan smiled back at him, but he knew Clyde's optimism wasn't unanimously felt. He was relieved when he felt a rush of reassuring calmness radiate from Wendy's place behind him. He hoped everyone was as susceptible to her persuasion as he seemed to be. Judging by the relative silence for most of the rest of their journey, he assumed that they might be.
The edges of the facility property came into sight a few hours into their walk, and they stopped to strategize. Stan knew they couldn't simply walk onto the grounds without inciting major conflict, but he wasn't sure how else to approach their rescue mission. Clyde and Craig were anxious to bust through walls and fences and recover their lost comrade by force; Token and Kevin shared Stan's ideas of restraint and planning. Settling on a plan was as complicated an endeavor as making the trip had been. When they finally created a loose plan, it was with the understanding that if things went wrong — and they very likely would — Clyde and the others could use whatever force they deemed necessary. Stan was very adamant about one thing, however.
"No one dies."
"Are you serious? You realize they're going to be shooting to kill when they aim at us, right?" Kenny argued. Stan shook his head sharply.
"Doesn't matter. I don't care what happens to any of them, but it won't be death at our hands."
"Stan... think about what they did to you" Kyle reminded him. "Think about what they were going to do to all of us."
"You want to kill them?" Stan asked, shocked. Kyle shrugged harshly.
"If it comes to that, yeah! After what I saw them do to you, I wanna—" He stopped when Wendy cupped a hand over his shoulder and squeezed, but his stare didn't leave Stan's face.
Stan looked back at him, but wouldn't be swayed. "I understand that, Kyle. If anyone here wants them dead, it's me. And yeah, they'll try to kill us. But we knew that when we decided to come back here. We knew that when we left! But we aren't like them, and we won't take someone's life. We're going to avoid killing anyone; we don't need to murder them to beat them."
"Who says we're gonna spare them just because you are?" Craig asked. His voice sounded like a challenge; this time, Stan took it.
"You guys told me to step up and lead you. I still don't like it, but if you want a leader, that's what I'm gonna be. I'm giving you a direct order not to kill anyone unless it's absolutely unavoidable. We're here to save a life, and we're going to do that, and then get out. Now; anyone who doesn't want to follow me into this can turn back now and return to town. Otherwise - my team, my command." He stood as firm as he could, his spine already tingling in anticipation of having to change form for a fight if one came.
It didn't. Craig stared for another long moment, then nodded. He looked almost impressed. "Fair enough, boss. Lead the way."
They approached the borders of the facility property in groups. The fastest among them scoped things out, and found things much the same as they had been on the night they had broken free. The outer wall was still in ruins on one side, and the fences had not been repaired. The nets were still lying loose on the ground, and there were scattered rounds of spent ammunition littered around them. Stan wondered if anyone was still inside the facility; the thought struck him with panic, that they could have taken Eric and relocated.
"What if they killed him?" Butters stammered. Stan shook his head, trying to convince the blonde — and himself — otherwise.
"I doubt that. They probably still have him, if not here then somewhere else. They're probably keeping him alive, hoping to bait us into coming back for him. Wendy, can you tell?"
Wendy closed her eyes and the group watched her for a few minutes as she silently searched the area with her mind. When her eyes snapped open she looked relieved, but terribly confused.
"What is it, Wendy?" Stan whispered. She blinked as if she were reading something foreign aloud.
"He's here. They're all still here. He's here, and he's... fine."
Stan smiled and patted her back in appreciation. "That's great!"
Wendy shook her head. "No, I mean... he's happy. He's content here. He doesn't seem to want to be rescued."
Stan stared at her. "He just doesn't understand his situation. We need to get him out; you know he's not safe in there."
"I know that." Wendy nodded. "But he doesn't seem to see it that way."
"Well then step one will be convincing him otherwise" Stan said resolutely. Kenny laughed from somewhere behind him.
"I'm pretty sure step one was to get back into this soul trap somehow, remember? Then we can have a heart to heart with the new guy."
Stan nodded and gave him a tight smile. "Right. So it looks like the walls are still down. We're going back through the way we got out. Everyone ready?" Heads nodded and voices whispered in agreement, and they moved in a group toward the destroyed walls they'd escaped from just days before.
He'd expected confrontation; he could tell by the way the others tentatively walked that they were anticipating violence as well. What they found instead was silence. They passed the crumbled wall and mangled fence without a moment's resistance. When the entrance to the facility's main building came into view, the situation became even more puzzling.
Eric was sitting on the building's short staircase. He looked heavier than Stan remembered him being, sitting so comfortably folded on the steps. He looked placidly back at them, even waving happily when Butters audibly gasped. Stan motioned at the others to stop, and did so himself as well. If he'd learned anything in the previous days, it was that nothing and no one could be trusted fully - even his own eyes.
"Eric?" He said tentatively. The other boy nodded and waved Stan toward him; Stan did not move.
"Hey everyone - I'm glad you guys came back!" Eric said cheerfully. Stan stared at him in disbelief.
"We came to get you out of here" he said quickly, glancing back toward the gap in the wall. "Come with us before they get out here." Eric kicked his legs and laughed quietly. The even tone in his voice made Stan feel unsettled.
"Actually, I was hoping I could convince you guys to stay here."
Stan heard stunned laughter from somewhere behind him. He looked back at Eric, and it slowly occurred to him — and the rest of the group — that he wasn't joking. Stan couldn't decide on what to say in argument, but he didn't have to. Kyle spoke for him.
"Eric, we told you what they're planning to do. To you - to all of us. You saw the way they acted when we broke out!"
"You were wrong about them" Eric countered. "They were only trying to protect you."
"Protect us from what? Eric, you know what they did to Stan!" Kyle hissed. He took a step toward the other boy; Stan and Wendy each caught an arm before he could get closer.
"He's right, Eric" said Stan. "You weren't there. You didn't see how bad they can be. But please believe me - you're in real danger if you stay here. Come with us."
"I'm not going anywhere, and you'd all be better off if you stayed here too."
"It isn't really him" Kenny said suddenly. He stepped forward and pointed at Eric. "The real Eric saw what those monsters are capable of, firsthand. He stood behind me while they pumped me full of bullets. After that, there's no way a sane human being would willingly stay here. There's no way that's him."
"A shape shifter?" Clyde whispered behind them.
"Or brainwashed" Craig replied. Stan looked to Wendy, who was already studying Eric intently. After a moment's pause, she answered Stan's unasked question.
"It's him. Really him. He's of sound mind, and he's serious."
"Glad to have that out of the way" Eric said, still unnervingly chipper. "Now hear me out, guys. I've got the Caretakers' assurance that if you'll all just return now, no harm will come to you."
"No harm? They tried to kill us, you idiot!" Kenny yelled. Eric's smile didn't falter.
"They were only trying to control a situation that you made dangerous" he countered. "You've all already received the mutation formula, so you have nothing left to be afraid of here. Just come back, and you won't have to worry about food or shelter ever again."
"That's a small consolation for having to live as human lab rats" said Stan, and he hoped the rest of the group agreed. Eric clicked his tongue, and for the first time looked less than satisfied with the conversation.
"Alright, then. I've tried being courteous, but since you don't seem interested in an easier life than whatever you're eking out elsewhere, let me say it a little differently. If you don't return today, you'll be apprehended by force. Sound more persuasive?"
"No" Stan said flatly. "We aren't returning, and we're not worried about the Caretakers. We've had time to work on using our mutations - I doubt they've used that time to become any less inept."
"Can die, for all I care!" Stan snapped, and his spine tingled with the desire to shift at the mention of the woman's name. "But I won't be the one to do it. We didn't come for a fight, Eric. We came to help you, but we can't do that if you're not interested in being helped. Come with us or don't, but either way, we're leaving now. And if they couldn't stop us last time, I'm not worried about them now either." In his periphery he noticed Kevin and Rebecca begin to crackle, Bebe's hands sparkling as they prepared for a fight Stan hoped wouldn't come. No one else was outside - if they could get back through the wall, the forest would protect them again. He turned to face the others, to give the order to leave.
"They have me this time, you know" Eric called after him, tauntingly. Stan turned on his heel and stifled a mocking laugh.
"I can't say that really fazes me, Eric. If you honestly believe whatever lies they've been feeding you, then you're as pathetic as they are."
Eric smiled again, but this time it was very different. He looked devious, self-satisfied as he responded to Stan's dismissal.
"They haven't fed me anything, you moron. Except for every delicious thing I could ask for. I know what happened before, but I've been guaranteed an easy life if I stay here, and so far it's been working out beautifully. But if you're not willing to play along, then I'll have to keep up my end of the bargain with them and help hunt you down myself."
"Do whatever you feel you have to, but we're not staying here." Stan turned back to the group again and nodded toward the hole in the wall. "Stay sharp," he told them; "let's go."
He'd made it less than half a dozen steps — some of the others still faced the facility building behind him — when a hand caught his shoulder. He turned sharply and came face to face with Butters, who shimmered in and out of visibility nervously as Stan eyed him. The blonde cleared his throat and drew his eyes down as convincingly as he could manage.
"Stan, I don't think that's right. We shouldn't - we can't just leave him here."
"He wants to stay, Butters. We've done what we can."
Butters shook his head stubbornly. "I don't think we have. You were right earlier - he probably just doesn't know what will happen if he stays here. We need to convince him to —"
"He knows perfectly well what he's doing, Butters" Wendy interjected. She reached a hand toward his shoulder, but Butters pulled his arm back quickly to avoid her touch.
"Maybe he does. But we still came all this way to rescue him, and I don't think we should just give up and leave him here to get killed. I... I'm going back to talk to him!" He stomped back toward where Eric was still sitting, and Stan turned to watch impatiently.
Eric smiled fondly at Butters and stood to approach him. Stan and Kyle exchanged a surprised glance as the two of them chatted politely, Eric nodding along while Butters spoke. After a few minutes Eric stretched his arms out to hug the other boy and Butters laughed quietly, pulling him in for an embrace. In an instant the mood changed, however; Eric spun Butters around to face the others and hooked an arm tightly around his neck. Butters voice cracked under the force as he tried to scream. He faded away from view, but Eric clenched his pudgy arm tighter and held him in place.
"Butters!" Stan yelled, but his own voice wasn't the only one he heard. Several of the others were already moving past him to seize Eric.
Tweek was there first, grabbing at Eric's arms and hissing at Butters to run. Before he could loosen Eric's grip, Eric disappeared as well, and Tweek looked back and forth manically, disoriented. A punch came from nowhere and knocked him to the ground. Token and Craig pulled him to his feet, Craig narrowing his eyes in the direction Eric had been standing, but unable to tell where he was then.
A burst of flame and several large bolts of electricity sizzled in the direction Eric had been, but when they received no reaction, Stan called to Rebecca and Kevin to cease fire.
"You could hit Butters!" He yelled. Rebecca nodded, containing her flames to her palms.
Wendy grabbed Kyle from where he stood and pulled him after her, pointing at a bush near the building's entrance. They leapt toward it, threw their arms out and grabbed something, shaking violently when they'd caught it. Eric reappeared in their grasp, snarling at them both, still clutching an invisible Butters in his arms.
"Clyde!" Kyle called, and a moment later Clyde was speeding toward them, hands splayed. Butters rematerialized, only to be thrown to the ground along with Wendy and Kyle when Clyde reached Eric. He crawled back toward the bush, shielding himself from the violence.
Clyde seized Eric roughly, pulling at him to pick him up. Eric was not moved; instead, he grabbed Clyde in a display of similar strength, throwing him several yards with little hesitation. Craig slowed Clyde's fall, suspending him in the air for a moment, and keeping him from hitting the ground with the tremendous force with which he'd been thrown. When his feet touched the ground again he looked back at Eric in shock.
"That fat kid's as strong as I am!"
Daggers of ice shot toward Eric, all but a few missing him in Bebe's angry lack of focus. He turned quickly toward her, blasting her and the others with an identical icy onslaught. She froze his icicles in midair, but dropped to her knees from the exertion. Stan stared at Eric in shock - how was he doing this?
Not seeing Butters, Eric turned his attention to seizing Wendy and Kyle. Kyle threw himself over Wendy and his skin crackled into a shiny black shield. Grabbing his arm, Eric's hand changed to appear as if were made out of crystals or diamonds. He pulled it back, jabbed it into Kyle's side and grinned when Kyle screamed in pain.
"Still don't think I'm a threat?" He asked Stan tauntingly, blood dripping from his rock-like knuckles. Stan lost his focus and felt a burning tingle rush down his spine as he charged toward Eric. By the time his hands met Eric's skin, they were tipped in fearsome claws.
He launched his attack even before his body had fully shifted into the lion he envisioned, and before he could finish his transition, Eric was changing shape as well. He slashed at Stan's face, leaving him unable to see for a moment. When his sight returned, he saw that he'd landed a blow across Eric's face as well, a face that had become that of a massive bear. Stan shuddered as his body returned to it's natural form; Eric could apparently do everything they could, and maybe more. He coughed, trying to regain his voice. They had to leave - he had to get them out of there.
Some of the group seemed to perceive his orders. Craig, Token and Tweek were staggering back toward the forest, Clyde and Bebe just a few steps behind them. Stan pulled himself to his feet and ran at Eric again, hoping to distract him long enough for Kyle and Wendy to slip past.
They ran past Eric but stopped just behind Stan, catching him when Eric launched him backward with a forceful swipe. Kenny leapt in front of Stan, throwing his arms out protectively.
"You get out! Get the others out - I'll hold him off!" He screamed. Eric bent down to swipe at Kenny as well, but just as he did, he returned to human form. Kenny shook his head sharply, the cuts Eric had managed to inflict quickly healing. Eric looked alarmed for a moment, then backed away. He pulled something from his pocket as he retreated to the building's entrance again.
"Any of you is better than nothing, the way you fall all over yourselves to save each other!" He cackled. Stan and the others stared in confusion as he tossed the object from his pocket at the bush where Butters crouched and a large net exploded from inside. Butters disappeared for a moment, but reappeared seconds later after realizing he couldn't move from beneath the webbed cables. He screamed hoarsely at the others, but Eric stood in front of him, smiling a challenge to the rest of them.
"Come near him and you'll be with him. But sooner or later, I'm sure you will be anyway!"
Butters called out helplessly from inside the net one last time, then he was gone, Eric disappearing along with him. His taunting voice lingered behind him, leaving Stan and the others with an ominous warning.
"It's just a matter of time, mutants! One by one or all at once - that's the only choice you have. Once they're done with him, they'll be after the rest of you. And I'll be there to make it happen!"
Realization broke over Stan like a wave. Eric had been right; they couldn't fight him. Butters was captured and probably doomed, and the rest of them likely would be too if they stayed any longer. He mustered what was left of his voice and barked a command to his team, ignoring any looks of protest. Wendy filled the air around the team with the desire to obey as he called out to any of them who could hear him.
"Retreat! Run - now!"
He hesitated only a moment to be sure some of the others could make it into the forest ahead of him. They ran, following Token and trying to retrace their steps from the journey there, fighting against the tears that threatened to rob some of them of breath. They slowed once they'd reached the heart of the forest, but they did not turn back. Running when they could, walking when they had to, they pushed their way back toward the only safe place Stan could think of.
"I had to make a decision, Craig. I didn't like turning back any more than you did, but we were all in serious danger! We had to—"
"Give up Butters' ass to save ours?" Craig sneered as a fight broke out between them after several days of tense silence between the group.
"Get out if there, as quickly as we could. I knew we were all going to get captured if we stayed!"
"You didn't even think enough of him to try to get him out of there!"
"I thought enough of my team to think that everyone could ultimately make it out alive if we ran and went back for Butters later."
"You thought enough - no, you didn't Stan. You're a coward; we could've taken that asshole with—"
"With the right plan!" Stan interjected. "And the only way to come up with one was to get out of there before something happened!"
"Well something did happen. Butters is gone. Probably dead by now, and you left him there to die with those people. You killed him, and if we keep trying to do this stupid mutant super pals thing, you're going to get the rest of us killed too!"
Stan stood, with Kyle mirroring his actions automatically. He balled his fists and counted his heaving breaths; he tried to avoid meeting Wendy's eyes, though he could feel her aura trying desperately to blanket his rage. The faint sound of voices and foot steps at the attic stairs did little to quell the tension, either. He and Craig took a few steps toward each other, with others quickly standing as well.
"You gonna go freak show on me, Stan?" Craig growled, just a step away. Stan hissed a breath and shook his head fiercely.
"If you wanna do this, we'll do it like men, not mutants."
Craig cracked his knuckles and seized Stan by the shirt collar. Before anyone could pull them apart, there was a loud thump at the attic entrance and the door swung open. Everyone turned briefly; in the small, dimly lit space, Butters nodded meekly.
"Hey fellas" he squeaked.
Craig dropped his hand from Stan's shirt and stared. Several gasps were heard, and a shriek as Wendy darted across the room to throw her arms around Butters. Stan stood motionless, shocked. Butters looked right at him, surprisingly warmly.
"Can I come back in?"
No one actually answered. They just crowded around and pulled him into the room, picking him up off of the floor completely as they moved him toward a pile of blankets. Stan followed the group a few paces behind, still numb with shock.
With half the group fussing around them, Tweek was the first to say what Stan was struggling not to.
"What if that's not really him?"
Stan stiffened and looked around at the others as the possibility dawned on the rest of them.
"Guys, it's me, Butters. Look!" He tugged at his clothes, then his matted blonde hair. "You know it's me - you can see me!"
"And we've learned that we can't always trust what we see, especially when it comes to people." Craig said quietly. His angry tone seemed to have been replaced by one of fear; he was clutching Tweek's sleeve as if they might run at a moment's notice. Wendy's angered voice shook them all silent.
"It's him!" She shouted, her aura flaring visibly as she laid a hand across his forehead. "Trust me." She looked to Kenny and nodded back toward Butters. "Now help me get him patched up."
The two of them went to work, checking for breaks, tears, cuts and bruises. With every repair Butters would bite back a whimper, but he sat patient and still for them regardless of the discomfort. Stan wondered if talking about something else might help distract him, or if it would make things worse. Rebecca spoke up before Stan had the opportunity.
"You look terrible, Butters." She frowned and pushed his sweaty hair out of his face. "What did those monsters do to you?"
"Locked me up, mostly" he stammered. "When they realized that I wasn't gonna tell 'em anything, they stopped poking and prodding me and just threw me in a cage. I haven't eaten in days." He finished, weakly. Without a word, Scott and Dougie disappeared out of the room and down the stairs, presumably to grab some food for him.
"Tell them anything?" Kyle urged. "About what?"
"You guys. Us." Butters replied, looking around. "Where we were staying and who was helping us."
"And you didn't tell them any of it?" This time, Kyle seemed almost reverent.
Butters shook his head resolutely. "Not a thing. That's why they threw me in that cage. I guess they figured I'd change my mind or die." As he finished speaking Stan noticed how thin he looked; his skin was pale and filmed with sweat.
"So how'd you get back?" Token asked, kneeling close to him. "How'd you get out by yourself?" The others murmured in questioning agreement.
Butters smiled tiredly, and held a hand out toward Token. Token reached out to take his hand, but when they touched, Butters still-visible hand slipped through Token's like a wisp of smoke. Token pulled his hand back in surprise.
"What was that, dude?" Token yelped, startled and more than a little impressed. "How'd you do that?"
Butters rubbed at his wrist — solid again — and shrugged. "I just... think about it, I guess. It's like my invisibility, just takes a little more effort. I didn't know I could do it until I was in the lab, though; I used it to slip out of the cage, then straight through the walls of the building and the big fences. I guess they've probably figured out that I'm gone by now!" He laughed quietly, and it coaxed a smile to Stan's lips.
"So why'd you come back?" Kevin asked him. Most of the group turned to stare at him incredulously, but he didn't waver in his line of questioning. "You knew coming back just meant more of the same. You could've gotten away, gone anywhere. Why'd you come back to this train wreck?" Bebe swatted at him angrily and some of the others kept staring, but Stan couldn't stop himself agreeing with Kevin.
"Kev's right" he said flatly, stepping closer to where Butters sat, still being treated by Kenny and Wendy. "You didn't have to come back. No one could've blamed you for running."
"I could've blamed myself" Butters replied. "I came back because it was the right thing to do. We're a team, and even if I'm not that important, I'm still part of it."
"You are important, Butters. Everyone here is. We're equals." Stan contested. "And I left you back there. If anyone here is the least among us, it's me for turning my back on one of my teammates." He slumped against the wall a few feet from Butters' blanket pile. "So if you'd have turned your back on us — on me, really — I would've understood."
Butters shook his head. "Ah, Stan, you didn't turn your back on anybody. You didn't do anything to me - those horrible people did. We're all on the same side against those guys, and I don't see you as any worse than any of the rest of us. We all have to make decisions, even when it hurts. For what it's worth, I think you're a great leader, Stan. I knew I'd be following you if I came back, and here I am."
"You're honestly the best person in this whole room, Butters" Kenny smiled, finishing the last of his healing. "We're all pretty glad you came back."
"Thanks, guys. I'm really glad to be back - this little room is so much better than that cage they threw me in. Besides; you guys are my family. You're all I've had for as long as I can remember. I'll always wanna be wherever my family is."
He smiled up at Stan. Stan nodded and wiped at his eyes, exhausted and lined with the first hint of tears. He wasn't sure what he was feeling, exactly. He was overjoyed to see Butters, ashamed of himself, angry at their situation and horribly pained to know what his friend had endured during his captivity there in the same lab where Stan had once suffered. More than anything, he was overwhelmed with the scope of what their lives had come to entail. He felt a tear slip down his face despite his best efforts, and exchanged a glance — one of tense truce — with Craig.
Wendy pressed a kiss to Butters' forehead, and sat back on her heels to look him over. "Feeling better?" She asked. Stan could sense the peaceful feeling she was projecting throughout the room as she spoke. He let it wash over him as he listened to Butters yawn and reply.
"Much, thank you Wendy." He looked from her to Kyle, and then up to Stan. "I have a lot to tell you guys. The Caretakers talked a lot about what their plans were for me, and for all of us. I heard a bunch of what they said; they probably assumed I wouldn't live long enough to tell anyone."
Stan nodded. He remembered how loosely the Caretakers had spoken while conducting their experiments on him, as if he were an animal or an object without a sense of hearing. It stung him again to think of how similar Butters' ordeal had been to his own.
"I'll try to remember everything - I might need some paper to write things down or something. But first, I really need a nap and some food."
Scott piped in as if on cue, and Stan wondered how long he'd been standing at the back of the room.
"We brought you a bunch of stuff! Just have as much as you want and we can get more if you need it." He hurried the food over to where Butters was sitting, and passed him a glass of something bubbly, presumably that sugary soda Scott was always trying to get the rest of them to drink. Stan smiled at the sight of Butters — politely as ever, despite everything — wolfing down the food they'd brought. He was glad to have his team whole again, even if they had more of a mountain to climb together than he had previously thought. All thoughts of argument were pushed from his mind for later. It was time to regroup, to recharge, and to rest.
"They're planning to give this stuff to more kids?"
Butters nodded sadly in response to Stan's question and took another sip from the glass of water Scott had given him. He was weak and tired despite Kenny and Wendy's healing treatment, but he spoke without a moment's hesitation as he poured out everything he knew about the Caretakers, Eric and their plans.
"Ultimately I think they're going to put it into vaccines - the kind kids get when they're a lot younger than us. That way it will build up gradually in their systems, and not the way it did in ours."
"So they're basically gonna be pumping this stuff into little kids? Babies? Why? How is that ok with anyone?" Kyle pushed. Stan laid a hand across Kyle's knee to remind him of his tone. Kyle nodded and sat back, still waiting on a response from Butters.
"It's some nationwide thing. They're trying to create super soldiers and engineers, to compete with other countries. Once they figure out how, they're gonna basically sell them off to the government, and make it look like a recruiting thing for special kids." He coughed, but kept speaking through a scratchy voice. "The kids that are naturally gifted somehow will respond kind of like we did, and get stronger, smarter, whatever."
"What about other kids?" Jimmy asked. "Kids who are average or... kids like m-me?" When they'd asked Jimmy days earlier about the poles he carried he'd told them about his birth defect. The thought of people like him being thought of as less than others had disgusted Stan at first mention, but so had many other things he'd learned about the world over the previous days.
Butters swallowed a bite of his food and sighed. "Most average kids won't be affected, at least they don't think so. Kids with disabilities or birth defects will probably be... weeded out." His voice got quiet, and Stan had to lean in to hear him as he continued. "They're pretty sure they can get away with it, too; they say that the kids' parents will just assume it was because of their condition - not because of the vaccinations. By the time anyone notices a correlation, it could be years or decades."
"So they know all this from testing on Jenny and I?" Stan asked. Jenny's name made his stomach turn, thinking of what she had likely gone through for this heinous plot.
Butters shook his head. "Not just you - not just us. There were some others before. Caretaker Victoria, said something about her 'baby'. I think... she might have tested the serum on her own child at some point, a long time ago."
"And it didn't work? The baby ended up like Jenny?" Kyle reasoned. "No wonder that woman is insane..."
Butters nodded weakly. "It doesn't stop there - they have those facilities hidden all over the United States. They told me so. They asked if I thought our little rebellion made any difference. Said we should've figured out that we're all replaceable. They have facilities and subjects all over the U.S."
"There are more? How many?" Stan demanded. This time it was Kyle's turn to remind him of his tone, clearing his throat loudly. "Sorry" Stan mumbled, patting Butters on the knee. "What else did they say? Did they say where any of the other facilities are, or what they're doing at any of them?"
"No, just that there were more, and that they were full of more 'subjects'. I'm sure they were testing out the serum on them also, or at least planning to" Butters said, staring down at his empty plate. Stan thought he might be starting to cry, and it made Stan feel like crying too. Wendy wedged herself into the corner where they sat and petted Butters' hair soothingly. When she laid her hand over Stan's he felt a familiar rush of warmth and realized she was bolstering them, at least until they could finish their conversation. He pressed on with his questions.
"So what about us? Are they coming to find us?"
Butters shrugged. "I doubt it, at least not for a while. They thought you guys would come back for me, and—"
"We were going to!" Stan assured. Butters gave him a small smile.
"I know. It's ok, Stan. Just let me finish talking before I pass out. Like I was saying, they're also counting on the posters everywhere to help them out. We're fugitive freaks, remember? They're banking on us getting shot by local law enforcement or citizens, or just starving to death because we have nowhere to go."
"Not if I have anything to say about it!" Scott lisped. Stan smiled at him, then looked back to Butters.
"Ok, so say they figure out that they're wrong about us. What then? I mean, we need to find these other facilities and get those kids out of there. They're going to notice that. What then?" The question was directed at the entire group, but Butters was quick to answer.
"They'll come after us, sure. But they'll put a lot of stock into using Eric to round us up. They're training him right now."
Stan pulled a hand down across his face and cupped his chin. "And that's a major problem. He's like our entire team in one person. How can we fight—"
"That's just it!" Butters laughed, then dissolved into coughing. "He's not!" He cleared his throat — still smiling almost madly — and continued. "He's a leech. He just siphons our powers by getting close enough to us. Get him on his own, and he's useless!"
"So we've got a battle strategy!" Kyle said brightly, rubbing Butters' shoulder roughly. "You're amazing, Butters!"
"How do we do that, though?" Stan countered. "If any one of us gets close enough, he'll be knee deep in power again. So which one of us can—"
"None of you" Nicole interjected. "It'll have to be normal people."
"Yeah, well there's our obstacle" said Stan. "We don't exactly have a whole bunch of those on our side. We're criminals, remember?"
"Maybe legally, but the court of public opinion can always change." Nicole smiled.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, if you guys are gonna be out there doing good work, fighting the good fight, you need people on your side. More than just the four of us. You'll need public support. So while you're busting people out of mutant jail or whatever, maybe the boys and I can do some ground work for you. Start a grassroots movement to clean up your image and turn the tide in your favor. We need to talk you up into the super heroes you really are. If we can convince a handful of people that you're actually the good guys, it'll get the ball rolling, and then we can run with it." She finished her sentence by glancing up at Token, flashing a a bright grin before turning back to the rest of the group.
Stan looked around at the others. Kyle shrugged, Wendy nodded enthusiastically, and most of the rest of the team offered similar responses. Butters gave Nicole a wide smile and raised his drinking glass. Stan turned back to face her and nodded. "I guess we've got nothing to lose. We're already outlaws."
"That's the spirit." Nicole laughed. She trailed a hand over Token's shoulder as she stood to leave, and Token looked a bit flustered, even as she walked away still talking. "I'll get to work on it first thing in the morning, ok? It's been a long day, especially for those of us without super powers. I'm gonna head home; see you guys tomorrow, ok?" With that she was gone, and Stan felt a rush of familial affection for her as he watched her leave.
"Good woman you got there, Token" he heard Craig say, only to get reprimanded by their friend. Stan smiled even more.
"Ok, so is there anything else you can tell us, Butters? Anything that might help us figure out where the other facilities are?" Kyle prodded. Butters thought, then shook his head regretfully.
"I wish there were, Kyle. They mostly just gloated about their brilliance and our insignificance while I was there. Pretty annoying, really. Although, I got a real kick out of listening to them complain about that power outage we caused right before we busted out - apparently it messed with the computers at all of the other facilities, too!"
"It did?" Token asked, crossing the room to join their impromptu pow-wow. "That means that the servers are all connected - and that I can probably get into their system and figure out where the other bases are!"
"Great!" Butters said happily. "I'm glad I could be of some use to you guys for once."
Stan frowned and scooted back from where Butters sat, hoping to be seen more properly. "Butters, you are one of the most important people in this team. We'd be going nowhere right now if not for you. You're valuable; don't ever believe otherwise."
"Gee, thanks Stan." He replied, looking down at the floor. "If there's anything else I can do..."
"I think the best thing you can do for the few days is rest" Wendy chimed in. "Your body may be healed, but you're exhausted and drained, and your brain could probably use a few days off."
"Yeah, we need to find you a little peace and quiet" Stan agreed. Scott almost jumped into their laps to volunteer his help.
"He can stay at my house! My parents have a guest room, and I don't have school right now, so I can help look after him. Dougie can stay over too, and we can watch a bunch of cool superhero movies - we'll have a great time!"
"Movies?" a few of the others mumbled questioningly. Scott laughed but promised to show all of them his favorite films if they wanted to come join the fun.
"Just be sure it's a restful time" Wendy said in her most maternal voice. Stan agreed.
"That's fine, Scott. We'll go ahead and move him there tonight, if your parents are alright with it. Just let us know."
"Will do! C'mon Doug - let's go ask 'em!" They bounded out of the room, leaving Jimmy shaking his head after them.
"Too much excitement for those t-two, I g-guess" he laughed. He looked at his watch and sighed. "I guess I'm gonna head out too, fellas. Gotta get some sh-shut eye!" He left more slowly — careful of his crutches, as Stan had learned that they were called — and things suddenly seemed quieter, more peaceful as the group began to settle in for sleep.
"So it sounds like we've got work to do" Kyle whispered to Stan later as they dressed down for bed. Stan nodded.
"We've got people to save. People just like us. Well, hopefully not just like us" he added, glancing down at Kyle's claw-tipped fingers. Kyle tucked them into his palms and looked away quickly.
"Hopefully" he breathed. Stan felt a hitch in his own breathing at the thought of making Kyle feel any more isolated than all of them already did. He wrapped a hand over Kyle's, changing the look of his own fingers to match his friend's.
"We're stuck like this" he conceded, knowing what Kyle was thinking without having to ask. "But that doesn't mean we can't still do something good." He squeezed Kyle's hand.
Kyle nodded and a smirk began to pull at his lips. "Then maybe they'll make movies about us one day."
Stan laughed. Maybe they would.
"You know what I was thinking about earlier today?" Scott asked Nicole and the others one day as Stan and his group were practicing their skills. An amused grin spread across his face as he glanced between the group of them and Stan. "These guys don't have anything. Nothing - no Batmobile, no magic lasso, no arrows or capes or anything!"
"Yeah, you guys are a pretty rag-tag mess of superheroes, don't you think?" Nicole laughed.
"Superheroes?" Stan asked.
"Rag-tag?" Kyle added curiously. They stared at each other a moment, then back at Nicole.
"What do you mean?" Stan asked finally. Nicole stifled another laugh.
"I mean you don't have decent clothes, you've got no weapons and you apparently don't even know what a superhero is. Where have you guys been all your lives, under a rock?"
"In a lab" Clyde corrected.
"After that we lived in a cave for a little while" Craig chimed in, amused with himself. Stan heard Token groan with embarrassment and couldn't help but feel the same.
Nicole just nodded. "I bet you guys don't even know how to fight."
Stan thought about it; they'd gotten pretty decent at using their powers while they were staying in the cave. They'd managed to break out of the facility with what little knowledge they had then, and gotten out of a few scrapes since with only what they around them and their own abilities. His natural reaction was to disagree with Nicole's accusation, but he wondered if she knew something he didn't.
"I don't mean throwing your fancy powers around" she said teasingly. She tugged the jacket from her shoulders and let it fall to the ground behind her. Her arms were more muscular than Stan had counted on them being, and her waist a little thicker. She stretched and smiled as she spoke. She looked unshakably poised. "I mean hand to hand combat. One on one, man to man. Or woman, whatever. All the super powers in the world won't make you a good fighter unless you know your basics." She looked around. "So who wants to show me what they know?"
Stan almost laughed. "We're not going to fight with you, Nicole. We've got no reason to."
"Practice, captain; your team won't be much without it" she grinned.
"We'd hurt you - any of us. There's no sense in—"
"Like I said, super boy; no powers. Just hand to hand fighting, no tricks. So now what's your excuse?"
Stan chewed on his lower lip and glanced over at Kyle, who looked just as apprehensive. He couldn't think of a sensible reason to take Nicole up on her challenge, but — distressingly — he also couldn't come up with a reason not to. He just shook his head, trying to appear firm in his conviction.
"It's just really not a good idea, Nicole" he said quickly. She scoffed.
"Not a single one of you is gonna spar with me? Just for fun? What kind of weak-ass little—"
"No one here is weak, girl" Craig snapped. "We don't wanna waste our time—"
"Getting your butts handed to you by a girl?" she cut in. Craig scowled.
"You'd better pipe down before I take you up on your offer to fight" he growled. She grinned, and Stan could see things going south quickly.
"Listen, you two..." he tried, but was silenced by their escalating voices.
"Bring it, then!" She called, stepping into Craig's personal space. "I said show me what you've got, but I'm guessin' you can't show what you don't have!"
"One more comment, woman!" Craig seethed. He cracked his knuckles and Stan felt a shiver run down his spine as he prepared to pull him off of Nicole if necessary.
She stood on her toes, her nose not an inch from Craig's and made a clicking noise. For a moment it looked like Craig might turn away; he pulled his head back to look down his nose at her in annoyance. Just as he seemed to have dismissed her, she hissed quietly at him.
Craig's expression cracked into one of rage and he turned on his heel, first flying as he pivoted. Stan and a few others screamed at him, but their concern was unwarranted. Nicole moved so fast that no one else had time to.
In one swift motion, she deflected Craig's amateur punch with one hand, caught it with the other and used his own momentum to flip him over her body and onto the ground where she brought a knee to his back to pin him in place. He groaned and spat dirt from his mouth. She grinned devilishly and looked up at Stan and the others.
"Damn" said Kenny, less than quietly. He'd picked up a habit of stealing some of the more interesting words the boys from town sometimes said. Stan couldn't help a small nod of agreement. Beside him, Clyde punched Token in the arm teasingly, knocking him off balance. Rebecca clapped loudly and Wendy laughed under her breath. Nicole just beamed up at all of them, expectantly.
"Pretty much what I expected" she said confidently. She stood and let Craig do the same. He retreated back to where Clyde and Token were standing, swatting at them when they poked and taunted him. Other than his pride, he seemed unharmed - it was definitely something Stan was interested in knowing how to do.
"Look, I'm a black belt. I've been in martial arts classes since I was knee high. I know a few things. So how 'bout you guys let me teach you to fight?" Nicole said, approaching Stan, dusting herself off. "At least some basics. It would probably help some of you use those powers if you knew a few moves to pair 'em with. Hmm?"
Stan looked at Kyle, then Wendy, both of whom shrugged. No one spoke up in protest, and for the first time in a while, he thought he heard some excitement in the whispers coming from behind him. He turned back to Nicole and nodded.
"Great! I'll have you guys halfway to fighting condition in no time."
"It's not gonna mean much if they've got no weaponry" Dougie chimed in. Stan had forgotten he and the other boys had been watching the exchange as well. He stepped forward, looking to team over. "I mean, there's a lot we could do to help you guys out with some metal and machinery. Powers or not, it wouldn't hurt to carry a few... accessories."
"He's right." Nicole agreed.
"You'll need b-better clothes than what you're w-wearing, then" Jimmy stuttered. "You can't carry weapons in those c-clothes. And some of you need element resistant f-fabrics and things you're not going to f-find in the stores around here. My father's a t-tailor — I can get you what you need."
Stan stared at them. "Weapons? Clothes?"
"Gotta have the right gear if you're gonna do the Super Friends thing right" Scott added. "Sounds like we've got a lot of work to do."
"Super Friends?" Kyle asked. "What are Super Friends?"
"A LOT of work" Nicole sighed.
"Plant your feet! Your power has to come from your core, and your core needs a grounded base!"
Over the course of the next few days, Stan became oddly fond of hearing Nicole bark orders at their team, while teaching them the techniques she'd promised. They were taking to it well, for the most part. Clyde sat out of most of the sparring, and Stan had to peel Craig and Rebecca away from each other more than a few times after a match went too far, but the rest of the team learned quickly and kept their cool during lessons.
Token seemed to struggle with the sparring matches whenever Nicole used him as a partner, which was often. Stan noticed that despite Token's best efforts to deny it to the others, she seemed to be growing fond of him, even if she showed it by regularly taking him to the ground 'for demonstration purposes'. The way he faltered when fighting with her made Stan smile, though he kept it to himself; he didn't think Token would misstep quite as much fighting with him.
Nicole did a great job teaching each of them attacks and defenses that worked to their strengths. Stan felt like she might know them better than they knew themselves, but with all that they were learning about the world and their place in it, that still wasn't all that well. She trained them hard and only offered them breaks to eat, rest and be fitted for the makeshift gear the boys were hard at work making for them. They were starting to bear a faint resemblance to the superhero figures Nicole had told them about.
They learned about those, too. The boys showed them movies, graphic pages in exciting books called 'comics', and they stacked pictures and novels high in the attic room that showed countless fictional heroes. It was entertaining — all of them had their favorites — but it was also enlightening. In a world where these figures were fictional heroes, Stan and his team were the real thing.
They learned other things as well. One night, after Nicole used one of the unfamiliar words she and the boys were so prone to say when the adults weren't around, Craig finally asked what she meant. When she told him it was an expletive — a cuss word, as she called it — his face lit up in a way that made Stan's eyes roll of their accord. Craig and some of the others demanded a complete list of these new words, and amused the boys from town one evening in the attic as they made a contest out of who could use the most in a single sentence. After that, their vocabulary was noticeably more interesting, and even Stan caught himself repeating some of the curses from time to time.
Despite occasionally being annoying, it made Stan feel like he and the others belonged somewhere. They actually fit in, albeit into a strange space. It was exciting, nerve wracking and a little confusing; once they freed the others and finished their mission, where would they go and how would they be treated? Would they find more good people like the friends they'd already made? It was a thought for another time, though. They still had a huge task in front of them.
Jimmy and his family created clothing for them, and the day they received their outfits was a memorable one. Most of them were too busy staring at themselves — and each other — to notice the special features of the garments. They were far too caught up in how entirely cool they looked.
"And the material is flame ret-t-tardent, which will help you not to lose as many c-clothes" Jimmy offered, handing a svelte bodysuit to Rebecca. He'd thought of every detail, from reinforced boots for Tweek to the water-resistant fabrics in Bebe's new clothing. Most of their new outfits looked like street clothes, but that was simply another stroke of Jimmy's genius.
"No one will be able to tell you guys from the next kid" Nicole said proudly, patting Jimmy on the back. "Great job, man!"
Dougie and Scott passed out simple weaponry they'd made with the help of Kevin, Token and Rebecca. Token equipped himself with stun guns; Butters carried small bottles of stinging liquid that Dougie assured would incapacitate anyone who was sprayed in the eyes with it. After some convincing, Wendy took up a crossbow, learning to shoot it surprisingly quickly. Kenny took a different approach and strapped knives to his boots, practicing throwing them as soon as he was a few steps away from the others.
"Careful with those - don't hurt yourself!" Rebecca teased him. He stuck one straight through his hand just to watch her run away squealing. It wasn't even completely healed when he used it to high-five Craig.
Further practice brought new discoveries as well. In one evening, Craig learned to isolate his energy into a blast of blue light, that he could use as a weapon or a tool, while Kevin found — by happy accident — that he could also move and manipulate metal. The bruises he sustained by learning to control it as metal objects hurled haphazardly toward him were an easy fix for Kenny and Wendy, but did not come without their share of teasing. For his part, Stan poured over books and pictures of mythical, spectacular creatures, and practiced shifting into each one.
By the end of a week with their new tools and skills, Stan felt ready to move forward with their plan. They had people — other young people like themselves — to save from the Caretakers, and though they had practiced with their powers endlessly, he knew they would never truly be ready. They just had to move, so that the kid's trapped in the other facilities could do the same.
Kyle's words from weeks before echoed in his head as they slept that night.
'And now, we run.'
Over the course of the following few days, Stan and the others began following Nicole and the boys out into the town a few at a time. Still hyper-aware of the posters that plastered their faces all over town, they hid behind basic disguises, walking through markets, parks and libraries to get a feel for the town that sheltered them and prevent the insanity that threatened to result from being stuck in the crowded attic from daylight until dark every day. Stan taught himself to isolate every part of his body when shifting, to make better masks for himself. He told himself that it was a valuable skill, even if it was just to humor him. Every happy thought was a welcome one as they hoped for a change in the minds of South Park's citizens. An overheard conversation in the town's grocery store was their first clue that Nicole's positive propaganda campaign might be working.
"I thought I saw one of those kids from the posters last week!" One woman said to another as they walked through a nearby aisle. Stan, Tweek and Craig froze when they heard her; Nicole waved them back, arranging them around her so that they could listen to the women chat.
"In our town?"
"Right here in South Park!" The woman whispered excitedly. "You know, I heard they saved some kids from a couple of muggers a while back."
"I heard about that too!" Her friend gasped. "And saved a woman who was near to dying. How do you reckon teenagers could do that stuff?"
"I hear they're not... you know - normal. I've heard they're not mental patients or convicts either. That all of that is just a cover story, for their secret identities. Almost like superheroes! Doesn't that just sound incredible?!"
"Sounds like you've been listening to some ridiculous talk" the second woman laughed. "But if there was such a thing, it'd be nice to have a few of them here in South Park."
"Well that's good news" Craig said, a little too loudly as the chattering women passed right in front of them. Nicole glared at him, Tweek shushed him nervously, but Stan couldn't keep himself from smiling.
Their trips became more frequent as they became increasingly comfortable with their surroundings in the tiny mountain town. They went to check on Butters and spend time watching movies with Dougie and Jimmy. They bought groceries for the Malkinsons, ran errands to the hardware store and the post office, and didn't steal a single thing along the way, save for Craig who snagged a strange looking hat from a street side salesman while out with Clyde one day.
"That thing's ugly as hell and you almost got us busted for it" Clyde complained as he showed off the blue, stringed hat to the others later that evening. Craig tugged it down over his hair and sneered at Clyde dramatically.
"You're just jealous, dick." It was truly amazing how quickly Craig had become accustomed to the plethora of new words they'd learned from their friends in the town.
"Incredibly" Clyde said sarcastically. Stan laughed. He never told the others, but he really enjoyed hearing the stories they always told when they returned from trips into town. They reminded him of their humanity, and of the fact that they were beginning to feel the same sense of community in South Park that he was. But more importantly, they reminded him that Nicole's plan was working.
It was strange, hearing people talk about them in any way other than out of disdain. Gossip wasn't an unfamiliar concept to Stan, but he'd never known it to be manipulated into something positive. Yet that was exactly what Nicole had done. Within a week of setting out to turn the tide of public opinion, she'd made enough progress that a large portion of South Park had begun to refer to them as heroes or vigilantes. Stan himself was intent on giving them no name at all, but as with most things, that changed rather suddenly one evening when they were all together.
"They're starting to talk about us more" Bebe said, to anyone who was listening. "In a good way, I mean. It's... nice."
"I can think of a few things to say about you that are - nice" Clyde said with a wink. Stan groaned and rolled his eyes.
"Knock it off, Clyde" he said crossly. He tried to sound mature and authoritative; in reality, he was plagued by his own warring, confusing feelings for both of his best friends, and was jealous of his friends who had already figured romance out. He kept his inner conflict to himself. "We don't have time for girls right now, or vice versa."
"No girls?" Craig smirked. He turned and looked at Tweek suggestively, clicked his tongue and tipped his head back in a quick, backwards nod. Tweek shuddered and scooted away; Craig scooted after him, snickering.
"Alright, alright" Kenny sighed, rolling his eyes. "Can we please get back to the topic of the people in this town finally talking something other than shit about us, man?"
"They still can't figure out what to call us" Kevin laughed. Clyde scoffed.
"Dude - we can't figure out what to call us."
"I still don't think we need a name. We've got plenty of those" Stan said flatly. Mr. Malkinson — standing nearby as he fixed a drafty windowsill — hummed in agreement.
"I think you youngbloods are doing just fine without superhero names" he chuckled. The look of excitement that crossed Kenny's face should have been alarming to Stan, but he simply raised an eyebrow, prompting the blond to speak.
"Youngbloods. That's it, dude. That's bad ass. We can call ourselves the Youngbloods."
"You know, that is pretty cool" Rebecca agreed. Kevin nodded, and behind him Clyde and Bebe were grinning.
"Youngbloods" Kyle said quietly, like he was testing it out. Around the room, Craig, Tweek and Token did the same.
"Sounds like a plan to me" Craig grinned. Stan sighed, realizing he was outnumbered, and smiled back at his beaming friends.
"Fine. We're the Youngbloods" he conceded. "I guess it's not bad, as far as superhero names go."
"How do you sp-spell that?" Jimmy asked with a grin. "I'll see about getting some custom embroidery done."
"Each of the facilities has a unique signal, but they're all connected through an intranet. I've accessed that, and now all I have to do is use the IP addresses and the corresponding coordinates to lead us to the exact locations of every one. I can also use any radio frequency they might be communicating across once we're in range."
Token explained the strategy to the others as he scribbled numbers onto a page as a reminder to himself. The attic room was full beyond capacity as the entire team and all of their friends listened in. "I've got more information on Victoria and the other Caretakers now, too - but most of it isn't of any use. I found records about the dead baby thing; apparently she shot her own kid up with serum and it killed her. And also — you're not gonna like this — we're the third group of kids to go through the facility where we grew up. Twenty four kids before us, all dead. Other facilities have had even more."
Stan stared in disbelief, and murmured expressions of outrage and disgust filled the room around him. Token kept speaking, calmly mapping out a rough sketch of their general location.
"These are the three closest ones" he mumbled, circling three lines of writing on his list.
"We'll need to do recognizance on those areas" Kyle pointed out. "The facilities there may be different from the one we lived in. We'll have to check them out if we want to take them down. Make plans first."
"We'll take them in groups then" Stan suggested. "Scope out those three first, and then come back here to discuss what we see. Then we can make a move to get the kids out of there."
"And destroy the formula shit before someone else gets a chance to use it" Kenny added.
"Definitely" Stan nodded.
"What do we do with the kids once they're out?" Bebe asked skeptically. "I mean, it's already too crowded in here..."
"My aunt" Dougie chimed in. The team turned to look at him and he smiled like he'd just said something brilliant. "She's a social worker. I go stay with her a lot when my parents are fighting or whatever. She specializes in helping runaway kids get placed with foster families. If you can get the kids back here to South Park, she can help find them homes."
Everyone else in the room stared at him in grateful disbelief. "Dougie, you're fantastic" Wendy said, ruffling his red curls. He blushed and shrugged.
"Anything to help out."
"Well that's beyond helpful" Stan grinned, throwing an arm around his neck. "Thanks." He returned to his plan making, more at ease than before.
As the others settled in to sleep that evening, he stared toward the window uneasily. The task of investigating the facilities was one he couldn't pretend that he wasn't dreading. Knowing what the buildings were being used for — that there would be kids just like them trapped inside each one — was enough to make him sick to his stomach. He tried to think of anything else as he struggled to join his friends in sleep.
"That one is surrounded by trees. The other two just have hills and stuff, kinda hard to see 'em until you're right up close."
Stan and Craig helped Token sketch maps of the facilities on their list, giving him their best physical descriptions from what they'd been able to observe from the air.
"That one is kind of weird. The walls look more like a regular building than any of the other places did." Tweek offered details he'd seen from the ground, after making a few laps around the perimeter of each location. "Might burn down a little easier, if we decide to go that route."
"Great" Rebecca sighed, crouching over Kevin's shoulder as he helped hold the maps down on the uneven wooden floor. "So we know where they are, and even what they look like - very helpful. But how are we supposed to get there? There are a lot of us, and we're not the best at being subtle." She gave Clyde a sideways glance; he grinned sheepishly and shrugged.
"Not my fault everything is so be easy to break."
"Nah, it's your fault that you're a damn ox" Craig smirked. "But Clyde's stupidity aside, I've got us covered on transportation." His eyes glowed blue and he smiled wider.
"Oh, no," Kyle interjected, waving his hands, "no, no, no!"
"What's your problem?" Craig scowled. Stan put a hand up between them.
"I think he's worried that you can't move all of us. I think we're all probably a little worried about that."
"Tch! Thanks for the vote of confidence" Craig huffed. "But I guarantee I can get all of us wherever we need to go."
"You yourself said that the energy that you make those bubbles with is limited" argued Kyle. "What if it runs out while we're airborne?"
"It won't, dude. Just relax. You guys work on the big, important master plan, and I'll handle the trip there. Alright? No worries."
"Yeah" Stan said uneasily. "No worries..."
Knowing the first facility wasn't a long journey was only a small reassurance as the group stood in a tight circle around Craig, waiting to be encased in the bubble of blue light he'd been practicing creating. It had been more than effective in transporting him alone, or with a partner or two, but Stan worried that he wasn't strong enough to make a sphere that would hold them all. Looking around at the anxious faces gathered around him, he reasoned that he wasn't the only one who was unsure.
"It's alright" Wendy said once aloud, and then a feeling of serenity swept over Stan's entire body. A moment later, blue light surrounded him, and they took to the sky, leaving from the edge of town and heading toward their first target. Wendy's peace radiated throughout the energy bubble, and Stan was thankful for it, especially when the outline of the buildings came into focus in the distance.
Craig landed them in a small forest clearing not far from the border of the property. They spent a few minutes just breathing, regaining their footing on solid ground. The sun had begun to set behind the large buildings. A few of them looked on nervously, no doubt thinking about the frightening task ahead of them. There was a soft gasp after a few minutes, and most of the group turned to see where it had come from.
"This..." Rebecca spoke up, looking through the clearing in the trees in shock. "This is my facility. This is where I grew up. Before I was transferred with you guys."
Seeing the nostalgia in her expression, Stan worried that she would change her mind about the mission. She didn't stay silent for long though; she pushed her way through the group and toward the front to where Stan stood.
"I know this place" she whispered. "Follow me."
Just as planned, Token and Kevin disarmed alarms and locks, following Rebecca's direction as she led them through gates and doors. Once they were inside, she pointed to where the captive teens would most likely be, and insisted on leading a group there herself.
"They know me, so maybe they'll listen when I tell them why we're here. If not, Wendy can take care of them."
"Right" Stan agreed. "Craig, go with them. Transport the kids back to the safe zone we set up with Scott's aunt back in South Park, and then get back here as quickly as you can."
"I'll do what I can, boss" Craig sighed, moving to follow the group headed toward the larger part of the building.
"The laboratory should be at the end of the second hallway on your right" Rebecca called over her shoulder. "There's usually only staff there in the evening, so just be quiet and move quickly."
"Noted" Stan said quickly, dividing the team further. "Kenny, go with Tweek and Token, and watch the halls behind us. Clyde, Bebe - you come with Kevin and me to get rid of the serum. Kyle will back up Rebecca and the others. The quicker we do this, the easier it will be."
"And the higher the chance that we actually live through it" Kenny laughed. Stan nodded.
"That's always a plus. Now let's move."
As they made their way down the unfamiliar hallway toward the lab Rebecca had told them about, Stan felt a disgusting sense of dÃ©jÃ vu. He remembered being dragged down a similar hall, to the room where he was tortured and ultimately transformed. When the door came into view he wrestled the uncomfortable feeling back down into his stomach and pressed on. They were there to prevent that from happening to anyone else, and they would do that no matter the challenge.
One less challenge was the door, which clicked open easily. With no alarm system or automatic locks functioning, he hoped the others were having as easy a time of it as they were.
"Nice" Clyde whispered as they breezed through the door. "Good job, sparky!" He patted Kevin on the shoulder, only causing him to stumble slightly. "Now let's get rid of the poison."
Stan knew exactly what to look for. They spotted cases of the serum in stacked storage crates, and he and Kevin went to work opening them. Quickly and quietly, they passed the open boxes to Bebe, who froze the vials inside. Clyde pulled them out a few at a time, crushing them in his hands and delighting in the sounds they made as they hit the floor in pieces.
"This is too much fun!" He laughed, crunching another half a dozen tubes beneath his foot. Emptying the last box, Bebe scolded him.
"We're not here to have fun!" She tossed the last few syringes toward him, aiming a bit too high. Instead of letting them fall, Clyde dove for them, hitting a large metal table and destroying it completely as he fell.
"You've got that right!" Stan hissed. "They're definitely gonna know we're here now!" Sure enough, Bebe had barely pulled Clyde to his feet when Tweek peaked in the door, shaking anxiously.
"Uh, guys? You've got about a dozen guys headed this way. We've gotta move, now!"
"The kids?!" Stan asked. Tweek nodded and waved them on.
"They're clear. Craig should have them halfway to South Park by now at the speed he was moving. Now c'mon!"
"Then that's everything" Stan said. "We did it!"
"It's not over until we're out of here!" Bebe reminded him. "Let's go!" She ran out the door and after Tweek, Clyde close behind her. As Stan and Kevin followed them they heard a loud noise echoing down the hall in front of them. The others turned, but Stan kept running toward the sound.
"Get everyone out!" He yelled back at them. "And don't worry about being quiet!"
"Can do!" Clyde yelled, kicking through a heavy wooden door with a loud crack. They disappeared through it and Stan kept running.
He rounded a corner and was caught off guard by a wave of blistering heat. It was radiating from a small, featureless room, filled with people dressed like the Caretakers. They were talking to someone; as Stan looked past them he saw who it was. Rebecca was at the back of the room, arms pinned by two large men. She looked almost hysterical, but a tall thin man was speaking calmly to her, despite the weapon in his hands.
"Rebecca, please. You don't need to behave this way. You were raised here - we gave you everything you ever needed. And now you're destroying property and endangering lives to fit in with some troubled group of fugitive children? That's not who you are, Rebecca."
"You don't know me!" She screamed, struggling against the men holding her. "I don't even know me. I don't know anything - none of us did! You weren't raising us; you were keeping us as lab rats. And you traded me off like a collectible. You don't own me, or any of the others. And I don't owe you anything." She looked right at Stan, and when their eyes met she jerked her head to the side, motioning him away from the doorway.
"You treated us like livestock!" She seethed. "And now it's our turn."
Stan heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked to fire and the voice of the tall man again. He peeked back around the door frame as the man spoke. "Rebecca, stop this—"
"They call me Red" she snapped, and then she was covered in flames. The men restraining her yelped in pain and pulled their hands back as she stepped away from them. The others scattered as she flared again, throwing fire from her palms as she herded them toward the door.
"Get scary, Stan!" she yelled. He shifted into a massive tiger and stood in the hall that led to the building's only exit.
The group of the facility's Caretakers rounded the corner and he roared with every ounce of his strength. They panicked at the sound, running the other direction. He and Rebecca chased after them.
"Get them to that wall!" She shouted, and Stan did as she asked without hesitation. As they backed the frightened men against the wall he heard the click of a gun again, followed by a deafening shattering sound.
"Not today, assholes!" Craig shouted as he burst through a broken window a few feet above them. He encased the men in an orb of blue light, laughing when the bullets they fired toward it ricocheted back at them. He dragged himself back up the wall, pulling the ball of light up after him. "Clyde - do it!" He shouted, and disappeared out the window.
By the time they made it out the window as well, Clyde was wrapping cables around the last of three large groups of people dressed in the Caretakers sterile looking clothing. He grinned at Stan and gave him a thumbs up. Stan shifted back into his human form and nodded approvingly. Rebecca - Red - ran past him and threw her arms around Kevin's neck.
"I'm sorry" he said to her when they parted. "About this being where you grew up and everything. I'm sure this was kind of hard for you."
"Not really" she shrugged, glancing back at the building, then to the people trapped in rows of cable. "This place stopped feeling like home when I learned the truth." She took Kevin's hand and then smiled back at Stan and the others. "And when I got to know all of you."
"Even me?" Craig said with a wink. She pointed at his boot and aimed a small flame at it, laughing under her breath as he danced around to avoid it.
"All of you" she repeated.
"Well we did it" Kenny said, helping Wendy check the others for injuries. "One down, who knows how many left to go!"
"Very optimistic, Ken" Stan laughed. "But yeah, we did it. Still feels like we should get rid of the place or something. Make sure they don't do any more harm here, y'know?"
There was a loaded silence as they all waited on someone to volunteer. Craig finally cleared his throat and threw an arm around Kevin and Red.
"I think that's her job" he grinned. "Light it up, Red."
She nodded and snapped her fingers, igniting the flames in her palms.
As the facility burnt, they watched for a few minutes, satisfied with themselves for the day. There was still a lot to do, but seeing a prison like the one they'd unknowingly grown up in destroyed made Stan feel one step closer to righting the Caretakers' wrongs. They left the men and women they'd fought with tied together, content that they'd pose no further threat once they managed to free themselves. He still didn't feel like a hero, but he was happy to settle for feeling a little bit like a better person.
Once they'd taken out the first facility, the others seemed increasingly easy to infiltrate. They understood that each location had its own staff of Caretakers, not much different from the ones they had known, and they were willing to use whatever weaponry they had on site to incapacitate the mutants. The team developed a system, following a plan every time they reached one of the sites. Token and Kevin led the charge of breaking them in, some of them distracted or fought with Caretakers while others destroyed the supply of mutation serum, and Wendy calmly persuaded the captive kids to allow Craig to move them to safer ground. By the time they'd made their way through three facilities on the list, their routine had become somewhat predictable, and the team themselves somewhat more relaxed.
"You'd think there would have been all kinds of fuss about what we've been up to on the news" Kenny mused as they approached the buildings of the fourth facility. "I mean, with us being extremely dangerous escaped convicts and all."
Stan laughed and shook his head. "That would require admitting that these places exist. They don't wanna do that, remember? I'd imagine once the Caretakers get out of those knots Clyde leaves them in, they have a really hard time explaining what happened to them without admitting where they really were."
"You know, Kyle and I did see something on the news late last night" Token cut in. "Something about break ins at undisclosed government locations throughout the tri-state area the last few weeks."
"Yeah, but the way they said it made it sound like the reporter couldn't care less" said Kyle. "Somehow I don't think we're in much danger of making the news if the places we're taking out aren't even supposed to be there."
"Speaking of which," Craig interrupted; "looks like we've arrived at our latest imaginary location. Brace for landing, kids."
The bubble of light touched down roughly at the edge of a sloping hillside, overlooking a fenced and walled cluster of buildings. Stan's spine tingled with confident anticipation. Craig pulled back the shield of energy and the group stepped down onto the grassy ground.
"You guys know the drill" Stan told them. "Let's get this one taken care of and get out of here as cleanly as we did the last time, alright?"
Nods and muttered agreement spread through the group, and they split into their usual groups. Once they'd cleared the gates, Stan motioned at Kyle to follow Wendy, and he and the others went in the opposite direction to search for the lab.
With Tweek combing the halls as a lookout, he felt fairly safe cracking boxes of serum open with Kevin and passing them to Clyde and Bebe. They finished in record time, stoking their confidence even further. They met Tweek at the door, exchanging high fives.
"At this rate, we'll be back in time for Mrs. M to make us dinner!" Clyde said, trying to slap everyone's hands gently.
Heading toward the exit they saw a glimpse of the group of kids being led outside. Stan always marveled privately at how different each group of kids at the facilities were, and yet how like him and his friends they somehow seemed. There were more girls at this one, with skin colors and facial features he'd scarcely seen the like of before. He offered them a reassuring smile as they passed. He hung back to wait for the end of the line to clear the exit, and to meet up with Wendy and Kyle.
Just as the last teenager passed through the propped door to the grounds, a shriek rang out from the room where they'd come from, and the confidence Stan was standing on fell away from beneath his feet.
"Wendy!" He yelped, turning to look for her, just as more screams tore through the air. He ducked into the room, some of the others right behind him.
Inside, Wendy was curled on the floor — her crossbow crushed beneath her — shielded by Kenny and Kyle. A long, thin shaft of metal pierced both of their chests. Seeing them writhe in pain, Stan could feel the blade as if it were stabbing through his own chest. The staff of the facility stood gathered around them, one of them still clutching the makeshift sword that pinned his friends in place.
"There are more of them!" A voice shouted, and before they could see their attackers, a barrage of objects was hurled toward them. Some of the Caretakers ran at them as well, holding pipes and metal bars of all sorts that looked like they might have ripped them right out of the walls. Behind him, Stan could hear the newly escaped teenagers beginning to panic. He ignored them, focused only on his injured friends.
Hearing the screams, several more of the others ran into the room. Stan thought he heard Clyde and Craig, but couldn't be sure who else was there. He was too afraid to take his eyes off of Wendy and the others to look behind him. Instead, he shouted a warning to whoever could hear him.
"Stay clear!" He hoped one of his teammates would attack the Caretakers circled around their trapped friends — burn them or freeze them or shock them senseless — but when he heard more angry adult voices in the halls behind him, he realized help wasn't likely to come. The others were trying to protect the teenagers they'd rescued and dodge who knew how many other Caretakers. He would have to help Kyle, Kenny and Wendy himself.
"I have to get those kids out of here now, Stan!" Craig shouted, his energy shield blocking the guards from hitting them with the objects they were hurling. "That's what we came for! My energy is low and it won't hold out forever, I have to move them now, and we've got to go with them!"
"I won't leave without them!" He yelled, indicating Kyle and the others. "Leave if you have to, but I'm not abandoning them!"
"I'm not abandoning anyone; I'm just following the plan! Making hard decisions, remember? We have to go now or we won't get out at all!"
"Then go!" Stan shouted, and Craig withdrew his energy field, letting him slip beneath it. He scrambled toward the others. Without warning there was a sudden pressure around his neck, and then a searing pain in his shoulder. Reasoning that one of the adults must have grabbed him, he struggled to breathe. Blood slicked his right arm; he'd been stabbed.
"Stan!" Wendy screamed. He hit the ground, trying to shape shift but too distracted by his pain. He kicked his feet hard, knocking his attacker to the ground and then kicking them squarely in the face. Stan crawled away, dragging himself toward the others as quickly as he could as the Caretakers ran toward the room's exit, after the escaped children and the other mutants.
When Stan reached them he pushed himself to his feet, determined to help. He pulled the metal rod from their bodies in one forceful motion, and then collapsed beside them again. Kenny healed himself almost instantly. He pulled Wendy to her feet, shakily gripping one of her hands as she laid the other over Kyle's wound.
"Stan!" Kyle sputtered. "Help Stan!"
"One at a time, dude!" Kenny laughed weakly. As soon as Kyle's bleeding had ceased they turned their attention to Stan.
"Hold still" Wendy breathed, and laid her hand over the deep wound in his shoulder. He hissed at the pain, but then it was fading, his body beginning to function again as the shock dissipated. He stood on all fours as soon as she finished, still too dizzy for two feet.
"These kids are all over the place!" A voice called, and Stan remembered that Craig was still outside, try to round up their freed captives. "I gotta have Wendy's help!"
"I'll be right there!" She yelled back. She tried to pull Stan to standing. When she couldn't, Kyle helped by wrapping one of Stan's arms over his shoulders, letting Wendy take the other. They hobbled toward Craig, only vaguely aware of the sudden presence of more adults coming down the hallway.
"Don't move!" one of them shouted, and fired a gun in their direction before they had a chance to comply. Kenny stepped forward to take the fire for them, but then there were voices approaching from the other side.
"Stan, turn into something big!" Craig shouted, and disappeared. Stan stared after him, confused, until the ceiling of the building began to shake above them.
"Get under me!" Stan shouted, and focused all of his energy into shifting. He became an elephant, and crouched just high enough from the ground for the others to duck beneath him. The armed men froze with confusion just as the tiled ceiling collapsed in pieces around them.
Shaking the debris from his back, Stan pushed the others to climb onto his back and barreled through what was left of the doorway to the outside.
Wendy jumped down quickly and went straight to work, easing the anxiety of the escapees. She helped the others round them up to leave, Craig waiting anxiously at the edge of the furthest hill. Stan shifted back into his human form and ran toward him.
"What the hell was that about?!" he demanded, sharply shoving Craig's shoulder.
"They were going to kill you guys!" came his indignant reply.
"So you brought the whole roof down on us?"
"You're all fine, aren't you? And it took care of them. Now let's get—"
"You could have killed people, Craig!" Stan screamed. "We could have been lost in the rubble of that place. What then?"
"I don't know, asshole. I was just thinking on my feet, ok?"
"Thinking is an interesting choice of word, there!" Stan spat. Wendy stepped between them, shouting over them both and ending their argument.
"Later, guys! Let's just get out of here before those guys come to."
"Exactly" Craig mumbled. Stan glared at him, but didn't say anything further. They rounded up their teammates and the children from the facility and Craig formed the bright blue sphere for them to travel in. They brought the kids to the rendezvous point without further incident, still staring silently at each other as they made their way back to the base.
They'd barely made it back to the attic room when the tension between Stan and Craig exploded into a screaming match. When Craig muttered curses at him under his breath, he reached some kind of internal breaking point, snatching the collar of Craig's sweatshirt and slamming him backward into the wall nearest to the door.
"Your carelessness almost got half the team killed!" Stan seethed. "Or at the very least caught, and dragged back to the hell we had to fight so hard to get away from!"
Craig pushed him backward, actually using his hands rather than his mind. "I didn't do anything wrong, asshole. My part of the mission went just fine. Maybe if you weren't so busy worrying about Wendy and Kyle—"
"I won't apologize for being concerned about my teammates!" Stan growled.
"You're only concerned about a handful of us. And let me tell you, it's pretty obvious who's in that little group!" Craig countered. His eyes were bright blue and Stan knew he was restraining himself. He couldn't force himself to care enough to calm down, though.
"That isn't true! My main concern has always been making sure the rest of you were safe - from the very beginning!"
Wendy tried to interrupt. "Guys..."
"Stay out of this!" Stan and Craig shouted in unison, glaring at each other without pause.
"If you think I only care about half the team, then maybe you should get out" Stan snapped. "You shouldn't waste your time or mine if you don't wanna be here. I'm sure you could find an easier life somewhere else. Isn't that what you want, lazy ass?"
"What I want is to not have to put up with your shit anymore!"
"Then get out! Go!"
"I'm gone!" Craig shouted, tugging his hat down onto his hair angrily as he stood. "And I'm taking the half of the team that you don't give a shit about with me!" He looked back over his shoulder at Tweek, who stood and followed him without a word. After a long moment of tense silence, Token went after them.
Stan watched them leave, his heart sinking along with their footsteps down the stairs leading from the attic. He turned back to the others, his lips unconsciously curling downward into a hard frown.
"Anyone else?" He asked. With a loud sigh, Clyde stood as well, waiting for a moment for Bebe before walking out too. Kevin walked to the doorway and looked after them, glancing back and forth between the empty staircase and the less crowded room. He looked at Red, but she shook her head resolutely and remained seated.
"You're free to go, if you want to" Stan reminded them both. Still, Red didn't move.
"I'm with you, Stan" she said quietly. "You stood up for me before you even knew me. I know you're a good person, and I know you care. I'm not leaving."
Kevin paused for a moment as if to think, and then joined her where she sat. "Me neither" he said.
"Or me" Kenny chimed in. "But you knew that."
"And you know you'll always have us" Wendy said softly, and Kyle nodded as he laid an arm over Stan's shoulders. He pulled Stan into a hug, along with Wendy, and a moment later they were joined by the other three. When they finally pulled apart, the others were smiling, but Stan could barely breathe from the tightness in his throat.
"Thank you" he choked out, and they all murmured dismissive responses.
"What do we do now?" Kevin asked, breaking the affectionate mood just slightly. "We lost a lot of weapons in the fiasco at that last facility. And now with Butters still sitting out, we've lost half the team!"
"We keep going" Stan said, as confidently as he could manage. He knew it would be harder, that their chances of being caught or killed were going to be higher than ever. He knew the others knew it too, so he didn't bother to gloss over it, or even remind them of the fact. His words were as much a reminder to himself as they were to the remaining members of the team.
"There are still people who need us. We keep going, until we help all of them. No matter what."
It was definitely harder.
Without Token to guide them or Craig to transport them, they were forced to go by fuzzy, unclear directions and do most of their traveling by foot or hidden in train compartments. By far the worst part was explaining the split up to Nicole. She met them at the edge of town the morning that they decided to head for the next facility on their list.
"You kicked them out?!" She demanded when he answered her question as to where Token was. Stan tried to explain, but Kyle and Kenny came to his defense too quickly.
"No, they left, of their own accord. Because Stan called Craig out on putting us in unnecessary danger" Kyle insisted. "They chose Craig over us."
"Including your boyfriend" Kenny added. Nicole didn't hesitate to punch him squarely in the jaw. As he snapped it back into place he hissed at her. "What was that for?"
She didn't answer, but Stan understood exactly how she felt. Wendy must have, too; she wrapped her arms around the other girl's neck and let her cry into her shoulder. After a few minutes, Nicole wiped at her eyes and steadied her voice.
"So you're gonna go find 'em, right?"
"Well, after we finish with our plans to destroy the facilities, probably. But we're not going to stop moving forward just because they left."
"You know, maybe that's why they left."
Stan turned to look her full in the face, waiting on an explanation. She raised an eyebrow and laid her hands on her hips.
"You're so busy with trying to save everybody that you forget to take care of yourselves. So you're gonna bust all these kids outta these places and then what? Have you thought that far ahead?" He didn't answer. She clicked her tongue. "Didn't think so."
"What are you saying, Nicole?" He asked, tired of conflict. Her face softened, looking more disappointed than upset.
"I'm saying you're all human, super boy. Craig, Token, you - all of you. You're just people. People make mistakes, people get their pride and their feelings hurt. Maybe — as much as I hate to say this — Craig had a point. Try letting yourself care a little less about flaws, and a little more about your friends."
"I don't understand why anyone would think that I don't care about them! I care about every single person in this group, more than I care about myself or anything else!"
"Then maybe you should let yourself show it."
"We don't have time for that right now - we have so many more facilities to take out, people to save!" he argued.
"I understand that. What you're doing is important. But you can't do it if your team is falling apart."
"We'll have to try" he said bitterly, and left to prepare his things for their next mission. She watched him for a moment, and then turned and whispered something to Wendy before heading back toward town.
Armed only with the few weapons they carried and without Craig to transport them, they took the nerve-wracking risk of following the train tracks down and away from the mountains, sneaking onto an old cargo train when the chance presented itself. Wendy determined that the driver was heading toward the border of a state called Wyoming, which was close enough to where they were heading to persuade them to stay on the train. They quietly stowed away for a few hours, waiting to reach their destination and make a run for it.
The rest of their journey was on foot. Stan made most of it in the form of a horse, carrying the others in turns when they tired. They didn't have time to stop, even if Stan's own muscles ached to rest. He told himself that they would sleep as long as they needed to after their mission was finished. It was a promise he could only hope he would survive to keep.
When they finally reached the facility, they realized it was by far the largest one they'd encountered. The outlying buildings alone were nearly the size of the entire facility Red had come from, and at least half that of the one where Stan and the others had grown up. The ground around it was flat, but curling rows of barbed wire and high fences led into tall, solid walls with no visible gates. Taking the chance to sit down and revert to his human form, Stan joined the others in sizing up the challenge ahead of them.
"Sure does make you wish Clyde was here" Kenny sighed. Stan could only nod in agreement. "Still," Kenny continued, "I can at least get us through the wires."
"Not without my help" Kyle warned, and Kenny laughed.
"Wouldn't dream of it, man."
Together they ripped spiral rows of barbed wire from the ground, Kyle's skin like stone and Kenny's riddled with deep but quickly healing cuts as they tugged. Once a path was cleared, Kevin went to work pacifying the electric fence and then the alarm and defense systems of the outer wall. Red torched every surveillance camera she saw, while Wendy scanned for the thoughts of approaching Caretakers or guards. Watching his friends work, Stan felt a surge of confidence; maybe they could do this without Craig and the others.
"I'll take a team to retrieve the kids. Are you ok to take care of the serum?" Wendy spoke quietly as they made their way into the building.
"Yes, but take Kyle and Kenny with you" Stan replied, trying to decide which hall would lead them to the parts of the facility they needed to find. "You could use the protection, especially now that you're down a weapon." Kenny patted his boot straps, showing that he still had his blades on hand.
Wendy nodded. "The dormitories are just beyond this big corridor" she said, peeking through a round window in one of the doors. "I can hear the kids. There are a lot of them this time."
"You know, I was thinking." Kenny leaned in between them. "How the hell are we going to get all those kids outta here? Without Craig—"
"We'll walk if we have to" Stan said gruffly. In truth, he hadn't considered their exit. It was simply something he hoped he would know how to deal with when the time came. Kenny didn't seem satisfied with that logic.
"If we can get a hold of Nicole, maybe her dad can—"
"Let's just get them out of the building first" Stan countered. "Once we're off the grounds, we'll figure it out." He tried to sound convincing, but in his mind he felt insecure in using such certain terms in regards to their escape.
"Alright" Kyle said, sensing that Stan was finished talking about the topic. "Let's get moving or we'll never have to worry about it." He looped an arm around Kenny's neck and pulled him along, following Wendy through the doors to the corridor.
Wendy took a long last look at Stan over her shoulder, and then she was gone, leading the other two after her.
Stan walked silently down unfamiliar hallways with Red and Kevin flanking him on either side. He didn't speak; practicality and his nerves urged him not to. Instead he offered them occasional looks of encouragement as they followed the faint smell of chemicals that indicated they were moving in the right direction. They had almost reached the room he assumed to be the lab — and his anxiety had almost been silenced — when they heard a blood chilling scream.
"That was Wendy!" Stan hissed, turning on his heels.
"That girl is really good at getting herself into trouble, huh?" said Kevin, already heading back toward the sound. "What about the serum?"
"Forget the serum!" Stan snapped. He muttered to himself as they picked up speed. "We shouldn't have tried this. Can't do this, can't do this..."
In the middle of a nearby hallway, they found Wendy, held at knife-point by an angry looking woman. When Stan saw her, he struggled to contain the urge to shape shift.
"Stan, don't!" Wendy was barely able to speak, as the woman pressed the blade of the knife more firmly against the skin of her neck. Stan stopped where he stood, Kevin and Red running into his back as they did the same.
"Girl's right" the woman sneered. "We've heard about you. We're ready for anything you freaks can throw at us. So unless you like the idea of me slicing up your little girlfriend here, I'd suggest you give yourselves up now."
"Stan, don't" Wendy repeated, with more force in her voice than Stan had ever heard before. She closed her eyes for a moment, barely flinching when the blade in the woman's hand bore down and drew blood. A glowing aura like Stan had never seen burst into existence around her, and without a word the woman dropped her knife and stepped back.
"Kyle, Kenny!" Wendy said, wiping at her neck and stepping away from the stunned woman behind her. She pointed down the length of the massive room, indicating an open doorway. "They're back by the dormitories. We have to—"
She was cut off by a loud crack as a dome of metal quickly snapped closed over her, forcing her to the ground. Stan threw himself toward it, but it was sealed before he could get to her.
"We've got the little mind fuck" a voice called, and Stan scrambled to his feet. "Her freak brain powers can't penetrate solid lead. The other two are still down. Looks like three more in here."
More than a dozen men and women entered the room from the open doorway, and from somewhere behind them he could hear screaming. They aimed weapons at the mutants; Stan heard the screams again and recognized them. The first was Kyle's — muffled or strained, he couldn't tell — yelling some kind of warning. The second screaming voice was Kenny's, shouting in absolute agony.
"That's Kenny!" Kevin yelped, and started toward the doorway, in spite of the people standing in his way. Two of the Caretakers fired their weapons at him. Stan held Red back. When the blasts from the guns hit him, Kevin seemed entirely unaffected, if not angrier.
"The hell was that?" He asked of no one in particular. Only then did Stan notice the crackling sound of electricity pulsing through Kevin's body, sizzling from his fingertips and feet.
"They're some kind of stun guns!" Kevin shouted. "Get yourselves clear of their line of fire—" he glanced upward, indicating the rafters of the room's high ceiling; "I'm going for Kenny and Kyle!"
"How are we supposed to get up there?" Red hissed, looking up at the looming ceiling. Stan didn't pause to offer her an answer. He grabbed both of her hands and looped them around his neck, pulling her onto his back.
"Hang on" he said simply, and shifted into the largest bird he could imagine. The shocked Caretakers stepped backward when he took flight, but quickly recovered, firing their weapons haphazardly at him as he flew.
"We can't just leave Kevin!" Red screeched as they landed on one of the large wooden beams. Stan regained his human form, shaking his head to refocus.
"I don't intend to" he said quickly. "Now, stay here." He made sure her footing on the rafter was steady, and then jumped from the beam and toward Kevin, shifting back into a bird as soon as his feet left its surface. He landed and dodged warring electrical blasts as Kevin returned the Caretakers' fire. Charging toward the door where the screams were echoing from, he was enraged when one of the adults beat him there and slammed it closed. He shifted into a rhinoceros, barreling into the closed door and knocking the man guarding it out of the way as he ripped it from its hinges.
The voice was Kyle's, and Stan turned toward it to see his friend trapped under a huge metal vault. Kyle's skin was shiny and metallic, dented by the weight of the safe but otherwise undamaged. He groaned as he tried to speak.
"Get back - get out! Take Wendy and the others and go!"
Stan let himself revert to his human form, and responded before he could even stand.
"They have Wendy! I can't leave you, either - I won't! Where's Kenny?"
Kyle didn't have to answer. A loud buzzing sound was followed by a hoarse scream and — able to use his human vision again — Stan found Kenny, slumped against the wall behind Kyle. What little skin was visible was pinched between metal clamps, the skin beneath them fiery red and blistered. One of the Caretakers lay on the floor across from him, bleeding from their side where half a dozen of Kenny's throwing knives were lodged. Kenny whimpered but couldn't speak.
"What've they done to you?" Stan whispered, bending to pull at the wires attached to the clamps. They led to a single stun gun, crudely rigged with a wrapped wire to continually discharge. When his fingers grazed the wires he was knocked backward by a painful shock. Kenny seemed to receive even worse.
"The same thing we're going to do to you" said a short man stepping through the remains of the wall where the door had been. He raised his weapon and trained it on Stan. Realizing he was pinned against the wall, Stan closed his eyes and braced himself.
"Not if I have anything to say about it!"
A loud crack like a lightning strike rang through the room and the short man screamed and dropped his weapon. Another blast sent him flying away from them and Kevin clapped his hands together proudly as he watched him tumble across the floor.
"You see that, man? I—" he swallowed his enthusiasm when he noticed Kenny and Kyle. "What happened?!"
"Never mind!" Stan insisted. "Get those things off of Kenny. I'll try to get Kyle out." He shifted into an elephant, knocking down what was left of the wall in the process. Somewhere over his shoulder he heard Red scream with shock.
"That's enough!" The voice was loud and female, but certainly not Red's. Stan and Kevin looked up, and saw the tall woman who had threatened Wendy before walking toward them. She carried a different gun than the others. She pointed it toward Stan and fired; he grunted loudly as a bullet tore into one of his front legs.
"Stan!" Kevin said, echoed weakly by Kyle. He ran toward him and the gun fired again, this time missing them both.
"Enough of this game, mutants! Step back and give yourselves up. Run and we will torture your little friends to death. Fight us, and we will kill you where you stand." She cocked the gun again. Stan stepped in front of the others, taking as wide a stance as he could.
"Stan, no" Kyle wheezed. He turned his head as best he could to look up at him. "Run. We'll survive for now. Figure out a way to get to Wendy. Get yourselves out. Just go!"
"Be quiet!" The woman hissed, and fired the gun right at Kyle's face. The bullet clanged against his steely skin and ricocheted back toward her feet.
"Go!" He insisted again. Stan agonized for a moment before bending down and nudging Kevin onto his back. With the other boy firing bolts of lightning toward the people standing in their way, Stan shifted fluidly into a massive bird again, and jumped into the air with Kevin still clinging to his neck. The angry people below them opened fire, riddling the inside of the roof with bullets and blasting holes that let in the evening light from outside. Stan and Kevin avoided most of the gunfire, moving too quickly to be targeted properly.
They joined Red in the rafters of the room's high ceiling, dodging falling pieces of wood as he became human again. She was watching the torture of the others below, near hysterical as she begged for an answer - what should they do?
"Torch 'em!" Kevin insisted. He and Red were already summoning the heat in their hands. Stan threw an arm between them and coughed through a shaky "no".
"They have Wendy!" He panted, catching his breath from shifting so rapidly. He could hear her beneath them as she desperately pounded on the metal walls around her. "Kyle and Kenny could survive an attack if we made one now, but she can't. I won't risk killing her."
"We're matched, then" Red cried. "They know we can't hurt the others. Should we wait them out?"
"They'll shock you two to death if we so much as move or they'll shoot us, with real guns. Or shoot them" Kevin said solemnly. "We're out of options. We don't have time to make a plan, and our strategists are the ones in danger. We can't even wreck the place - the kids couldn't get out. I think this might be it."
Stan hated to agree, but he saw no solution. He looked down at the others, lost for how to help them. It was in looking at their faces that he noticed a change in their expressions, as they were bathed in faint, blue light. The remaining chunks of the ceiling exploded to the floor and suddenly the light was almost blinding.
Craig and the others descended through the destroyed ceiling, stopping a few yards up from the floor. He gave Stan a long look, which Stan returned; they thought better than to discuss anything then. Instead he landed the orb of energy and waited for the people on the floor around them to take aim.
"You've got one shot, ice queen!" he shouted. The guns clicked. Bebe raised her arms. Craig dropped the wall of light, and then there was a frigid rush of air and muffled screaming.
Stan wasn't sure who said it, but by the time they finished their sentence, Tweek had circled the room and secured the weapons from the frozen hands of their assailants. He dumped them at Clyde's feet, who snapped them apart two at a time. Craig looked up at Stan and nodded.
"Kevin, help me" Stan said simply, and grabbed the other boy by the sleeve as he jumped from the rafter. Without a word, Craig slowed their fall and broke their landing with a cushion of blue. They'd barely hit the ground before Kevin was deactivating the device hooked to Kenny's skin.
"Thanks" Kenny sputtered, standing on wobbly legs. Red was beside him immediately — having also been helped to the ground — and was bracing him by the arm as he coughed and spat blood onto the floor. "Hey next time someone needs to go with Kyle and Wendy, I'm not it" he joked, even as he labored to breathe. "Not sure how much more of that I coulda taken."
"Pretty sure the bastards intended to find out" Kyle said, shaking Clyde's hand as the vault was pried off of him and tossed away. He threw his arms over Kenny for a moment, and then exchanged an anxious glance with Stan. They broke into a run toward the metal shell encasing Wendy.
Kyle tore at the metal hull with claws that looked like diamonds, shredding it without much effort. When he'd made a large enough hole, he reached into the case and pulled Wendy out in one swift motion. She threw her arms around his neck, and reached to pull Stan against them as well.
"We don't have much time for hugging right now" Bebe said quickly. "They won't stay frozen for long. We need to move."
"The serum" said Kyle.
"The kids" Wendy added. Stan nodded, looking around the room at the others. He wanted to talk to them about the fact that they'd all come back, perhaps to thank them or maybe just to ask why. The men and women lying frozen on the floor around them began to groan quietly, and he decided it was a topic that could wait to be discussed.
"Right. Well, I think you guys know how this works by now. Distract, destroy and then get those kids the hell out of here."
"We won't need to watch the halls" Wendy informed them. "All of the Caretakers here are in this room."
"Then Tweek, Token - you guys come with me and Kevin, and we'll go tear up the lab in this place" Clyde said with a grin. "Place is kinda big, so I could probably use the extra manpower."
"Bebe, you and Red keep an eye on these guys" said Stan. "Kenny can hang out to keep you company."
"I'd love to" Kenny grinned. Both girls rolled their eyes.
"Now's not the time, Ken" Stan groaned. "Wendy, Kyle - you guys come with me. We're gonna free some prisoners."
"Bring 'em on out when you're ready" said Craig.
"You sure you'll be alright out there on your own?" Stan asked, and the smile that spread across Craig's face was all at once annoying and endearing.
"I think I got it. But if not, I got a couple friends who can back me up." He raised his hand, fingers bent and Stan did the same, bumping their knuckles together. "See you guys outside."
It was the first time Stan had really seen any of the kids they were rescuing for more than a few fleeting moments. When he opened the heavy door that led to their sleeping quarters, he could hear terrified shouting. When they opened the first dormitory door, he saw the fear on their faces. If he wasn't so entirely sure that what they were doing was going to help them, he might've turned and left them be. Knowing that he and the others were the source of the children's fear was a sickening feeling.
Before more than a moment of tense silence could pass, there was a feeling of calm understanding that rushed past him. The boys inside the room stopped shaking, and then stood to follow them out of the room. Without a word spoken, Wendy moved on to the next dorm.
By the time they'd collected all of the teenagers from their rooms, the group was extremely large - several times the size of the cohort Stan had grown up with. They walked anxiously after he and Kyle, Wendy walking in their midst to help them remain calm. Stan wondered if their faces were anything like his and the other mutants had been on their last night under the control of the Caretakers.
'The boy outside will take you away from here - to safety.' Wendy's assurance resounded in Stan's mind as well as those of the escapees. He smiled back at her; she returned it placidly. For a moment he took note of how peaceful, almost other worldly she looked while she was using her powers. It made her appearance even more striking. Her voice in his head shook him from his thoughts.
'We can handle it from here. Go round up the others.'
He nodded and turned away from the group, wondering as he watched them pass if Wendy had heard his thoughts.
Coming down the hallway toward him from the opposite end, Clyde and the others looked satisfied with their work. They met Stan in front of the partially destroyed doorway to the tall, empty room where Kenny and the girls were keeping the Caretakers. A sudden burst of steam billowed through the entrance, followed by shrieks of laughter.
"More over here, Bebe!" Red giggled. Stan's stomach dropped for a moment when he watched Bebe hurl massive ice daggers toward the redhead. But before he could shout his protest, Red matched the blast with a fiery burst of her own, creating another wave of steam. When the subdued adults at their feet writhed uncomfortably in the humidity, Bebe hit them with another gust of freezing air.
"No, sir!" She laughed. "You stay right there." The people on the floor glared at her, scarcely able to move, but she was unmoved, tossing another collection of ice shards toward Red to further disorient them.
Stan heard Clyde sigh — almost swoon — watching the girls work, and assumed Kevin was probably beaming as well. He pushed the persistent thoughts of Wendy's smile, Kyle's strength and his own loneliness from his mind and looked proudly at his teammates.
"Let's get these guys wrapped up, ladies - the boss is back, so it must be time to leave" Kenny shouted. Clyde stepped through the doorway, dodging a rogue blast of ice as Bebe fired one more batch Red's way.
"I think I can handle that" he grinned. "I've got just the place for 'em, too. Tweek, grab me something to wrap with."
Tweek sped off in the other direction, returning a moment later with a length of heavy metal cable. Clyde began collecting the angry men and women into it and spoke loudly over their weak grumbles of protest.
"Gonna leave these assholes right in the middle of what's left of their lab!" he bragged. Right between the broken boxes and the bent up tables. Had a real good time with those!" He chuckled as he tightened the wire around them and used it to drag them after himself out the door and down the hall. The others followed him at a distance, laughing together like nothing had happened between them in the days before. Stan silently thanked them all for returning, and hoped he wouldget the chance to say it aloud.
As Clyde tied the last of the groups of enraged Caretakers into a neat bundle of cables and wire, Stan found Craig, already back and sifting through the rubble of the former laboratory. Finding a few stray loaded syringes in an unbroken case, he lifted the box from his own hands and into the air with a gesture of his eyebrows. Stan cleared his throat as he approached, prompting Craig to let the case drop and shatter, destroying its contents with a resounding crack.
"Takes care of that" he told Stan. "Those were the last ones here."
"Good. Thank you." He placed a hand on Craig's shoulder. "For coming back I mean."
Craig smirked and tugged at one of the strings of his hat. "Yeah well, you guys looked like you needed a hand." He cracked his knuckles dramatically and Stan breathed a laugh.
"I'm sorry I was an ass before" he said earnestly. "I can't really excuse myself for it, but I'm really glad you guys came back regardless."
"The other guys never really wanted to leave in the first place" Craig shrugged. "And I realized I wouldn't know what to do without you yelling at me."
"I'll keep that in mind" Stan said with a grin. "Now let's go make sure the kids from this place are all ok."
"And Red burnt that shit to the ground, dude - you should have seen it!"
Craig regaled Butters, Scott and Dougie with stories from their adventures over the previous weeks as they rested in the cramped but comfortable attic. Jimmy made the rounds checking clothes and shoes for necessary repairs and cracked jokes whenever he got the chance. Stan smiled as he watched the room swirl lazily with laid back activity. Wendy sat beside him, massaging Kyle's shoulders and laughing at Kenny trying to balance knives on his nose.
"It was part of the mission!" Red snapped in response to Craig's comment, but she was smiling at him all the same. "I was just following orders. Maybe you should try it sometime!"
"I'm excellent at following orders - ask boss man over there!" He motioned toward Stan, who threw a hand up dismissively. There was more scattered laughter as they passed a tray of snacks Mrs. Malkinson had brought for Scott to share with them. Token busily jotted down coordinates for their next mission, but Stan wondered to himself if it might be better if they took a few days off. Just as he was about to suggest it, Wendy gasped, frozen where she sat.
"What is it, Wen?" Kyle asked immediately. She shook her head, her eyes blown wide like she was watching something.
"The Caretakers. Our Caretakers. They're nearby, coming this way — Eric is with them — and they're looking for us. Victoria told them—" she stopped and swallowed, shaking her head harder; "Victoria told them to kill anyone who gets in their way." Her eyes returned to normal and she turned to look at Stan. "She's bringing them to find us. They mean to kill us before we can destroy any more facilities."
"Yeah, like we're gonna let that happen!" Clyde laughed. Stan noticed that the rest of the room had been listening to at least part of Wendy's warning. "We've avoided them this long—"
"We can't keep running, though" Kenny countered. "If we don't stand up and fight them they're going to keep chasing us."
"And people are going to get hurt" Token agreed. He glanced at Nicole, then back at Stan and the others. "We can't let that happen on our account. Their fight is with us, not the people in this town."
"Agreed," Stan nodded. So much for taking time off. He looked to Wendy. "How long do we have before they're here?"
"They're on the move now. They'll be here by early morning at the latest. They'll have to take main roads until they get close to the mountains around the town, so that will slow them down, but not much."
"Can you tell which way they're coming from?"
"To an extent, yes. I'll get a better picture the closer they get" she said. Stan pulled his legs in toward himself and crossed them, motioning the others to gather around him.
"Then we'll have to meet them halfway - keep them as far away from the city as we can." He looked at Kyle resolutely. "Let's make a plan."
"So we walk right into their hands?" Tweek shuddered, scooting closer to them. "Knowing they're planning to kill us?"
Stan didn't bother to sweeten the truth. He nodded, and so did some of the others, as if mirroring him automatically. Craig grinned and threw an arm over Tweek's shoulders, looking back at the faces of their teammates gathering in a lopsided circle.
"That's the idea, speedy. Now—" he looked at Stan specifically, tugging at the strings of his hat with his free hand; "what's the plan, boss?"
The next morning they prepared to leave the shop before the first light of day had even threatened to break through the clouds. As they quietly left the building they were met by a small band of their friends and a handful of townspeople. Nicole and the boys, as well as the Malkinsons and a few of their neighbors eyed them solemnly as they filed out onto the street behind the shop.
"Morning" Nicole said quietly. "Where we headed?"
Stan answered quickly. "We're headed out. You guys need to head back home, and keep yourselves safe." Nicole shook her head, just slightly.
"No can do, super boy. We're coming with, and there's not much you can do to stop us."
"We can force you to stay behind, if you want" Stan sighed. "You know that. So just go home. Please."
Nicole huffed. "Why, so you guys can march off to battle and get banged up without anyone there to help patch you back up?"
"We're going to be more than banged up, Nicole. We could very easily die today, and we're not about to ask any of you to put yourselves in that kind of danger for us." Somewhere to Stan's left, Tweek squeaked at the word 'die'. Stan stared at Nicole and the others, firm in his resolve. "We're meeting them head on to try to keep the people in this town safe."
"And we're all very impressed by your bravery" she said flatly, crossing her arms. "But the fact remains that when you let us in on your secrets, you dragged us into danger and we didn't flinch. We weren't afraid then, and we're not afraid now. We're in this little club with you, even if that means today is it. Besides, we talked about it before, and you know you're going to need our help if you're actually gonna take Eric out. No powers for him to steal, remember? Now quit wasting your time and ours, and let's move."
Stan didn't respond for a few minutes. He waited for someone to pose a stronger argument than the ones he'd offered, but no one did. There was tense silence for a moment more, and then he finally sighed, looking at the lightening sky as he replied.
"Fine. I won't stop any of you from doing what you want to do. But please - stay back if things seem too dangerous."
They nodded, and Stan turned to move toward the alley that would lead them out of town. As he walked, Token caught up to him, grabbing his arm to get his attention.
"What are you doing, letting them follow us?" he demanded. "They're gonna be a liability! It's bad enough that Butters insisted on coming this time, even though he's had no experience with us lately. They're going to get themselves and us killed."
Stan looked back at the townspeople, saw Mrs. Malkinson smiling as she fussed over a shaking Tweek, and shook his head.
"We're probably all getting ourselves killed by doing this, Token. You know that as well as I do." He glanced back to where Nicole was walking, and then back to the ground ahead of him as Token stared at his profile. "Are you too much of a machine to say that you'd like her to be there to hold your hand when you go?"
Token stopped, still staring at him as Stan kept walking, satisfied that he'd made his point. His own confusing feelings for some of the other team members once again scratching at the corners of his mind, he wondered how many of them really might breathe their last that day. When Wendy and Kyle flanked him on either side a few minutes later, he let the thoughts go, content to walk in peaceful silence with the people he loved the most, even if it was for the last time.
The rolling hills that bordered the town gradually became small, jagged mountains as Stan led the others away from the city limits. Wendy walked beside him, directing them toward the thoughts she could hear from Eric, Victoria and the other Caretakers. Her energy focused on that task, there was none left to help keep Stan and the others calm. He reasoned that maybe that was best; they needed the nervous energy — the legitimate fear of failure — to drive them. They walked on, hoping the people following them would disperse further as the terrain grew increasingly rugged.
It wasn't that he wasn't thankful for the support. For the first time in his life, the people in the small town of South Park had made him feel like he belonged somewhere, even if it was cooped up in a shop attic with a dozen or more other teenagers like him. The town felt like home, and the people like neighbors. As they followed in small groups — led by Nicole, Jimmy, Dougie and the Malkinsons — he felt affection and concern for them. He kept moving his team further from the town; the fewer injuries to innocent people he could manage, the better.
"You shouldn't have come with us" he mentioned only once, directed at all of them and no one in particular. Nicole answered for everyone.
"Too late for a lecture now, super boy. We're in this with you no matter what." She walked beside Token, both of them a few strides slower than usual to allow Jimmy to keep pace with them. Stan didn't argue further. Something in his chest ached with fullness at the thought that their friends were willing to risk their lives with them - for them.
As they came to the last of the ground that was smooth enough to walk on, the sound of people approaching came from just beyond the peaks in front of them. They stopped and spread out. Stan could hear the hissing and popping of flames and the crackling of electricity mingling with the sounds of knuckles cracking and feet testing the ground beneath them for traction. A shiver ran down his spine in anticipation as they waited for a fight.
"They're almost here" Wendy said loudly. "There's so much anger..."
"Not just from them" Craig called from behind them. Stan nodded in agreement. He looked at Token and spoke with as much authority as he could manage.
"If things get out of hand at all, get them back. Keep them safe, regardless of what happens to the rest of us. Understood?"
"Understood" he said, and for once Nicole didn't argue. She was standing in a stance that spoke of her willingness to fight, and he hoped she would be just as willing to run if the need arose. Hearing the whirring of machinery approaching from beyond the mountains, he was more certain than ever before that it would.
All at once and without a moment's warning, a massive explosion of sound brought Stan and the others to their knees. Somewhere on the ground near him, Wendy was screaming, her hands tearing at her ears. He crawled toward her and met Kyle on the way, the two of them dragging each other in her direction. They struggled to their feet just in time to be knocked down again, wincing at the deafening sound that scrambled their thoughts. Barely able to think, Stan squinted toward the horizon.
On one of the ledges of a steep embankment stood Eric, grinning wickedly down at them. Enraged, Stan pushed himself to his feet, resisting another wave of crippling sound with everything he had in him.
"Wendy!" He screamed over the noise. "Let it go. Stop tracking them - he's using you!"
Wendy nodded slightly, still tugging at her ears as she curled against Kyle. Suddenly there was silence, save for the sounds of the others scrambling to stand around them.
"Don't hit him with anything yet!" Stan barked, his head still reeling. "Make him get closer!"
To his surprise, Eric made no move to approach them, even as the noises from behind him grew louder. He stood by, almost unmoving until large vehicles came into view around him, their massive tires clinging like glue to the slopes of the mountain bases.
"The Caretakers!" Tweek rasped. "It's them! The ones from our place — and a lot more — oh shit, dude!"
"What are those machines?" Kyle asked. "They're not trucks - how are they driving them in this terrain?"
"They're some kind of ATV" Token responded. "I can't make contact with them, though. They're not responsive."
"Victoria!" Butters stammered, and Stan snapped his eyes back to the hills. One of the vehicles had parked, and the blonde woman was crawling from one of the front seats. She looked over at Eric proudly.
"Exactly as we discussed!" She called to him, and Stan felt his stomach twist at the distant sound of her voice. Eric nodded and turned back toward their team.
"Hold back!" Stan reminded them, and ground his feet into the dirt for leverage.
Eric approached slowly, moving carefully over the jagged ground. Once he reached their plateau he moved faster, purposefully charging toward Jimmy. Horrified, Stan ran after him, still in human form.
"Hey, leave them the hell alone! You're not here for them!"
Eric ignored him, knocking Jimmy to the ground with a swift kick and dodging Nicole to rush at Mrs. Malkinson. Stan chased him, Craig and Kyle right behind him.
"I said stay away from them!"
He ignored them, pummeling Mrs. Malkinson to the ground and landing a punch on Scott when he came to his mother's aid. With Mrs. Malkinson on the ground, he pulled what looked like a small knife from his pocket and jabbed it into her chest without hesitation.
"Mom!" Scott screamed, running back toward him. Stan lost himself to his anger and allowed the tingle at his spine to course through the rest of his body and change him into the angry wolf he felt like.
He jumped onto Eric, knocking him to the ground as he swiped his claws at the knife and knocked it yards away. In the distance he heard a clink and registered that Kevin had seized it. He did not take his eyes off of Eric. Teeth bared, he pressed his claws against the other boy's neck.
"You're still as stupid as you were last time we met" Eric sneered. Stan clenched his claws, cutting shallow grooves into the skin beneath his paws. The moment he realized his mistake was the same moment that Eric shifted form into a much larger wolf, throwing Stan off of him and backward toward the others. Kenny peeled him from the ground as he shifted back to his human form.
"Scott's mom" Stan wheezed, preparing to shift again. "Now!"
Kenny nodded and he and Wendy ran to where she was lying.
"Token! Go!" Stan called, and Token did as he was asked, pushing Nicole and the others from South Park back and out of harm's way. Eric had already forced them back to the edges of town, close to buildings and fences that they would surely destroy. Stan couldn't stand the thought of further injury to their friends.
"Eric, you bastard" he hissed, his hands becoming claws. "They're not your targets. Stay away from them, and stop fighting like a coward."
Eric cackled, changing his hands into a mirror image of the claw tipped ones on Stan's arms. "They were my targets - at least until I could get you morons to fight me." He glanced back at Scott's injured mother and smiled smugly. "Mission accomplished."
"Sorry to argue, boss" Craig yelled, running up beside Stan. "But I think the time to hold back is over!" A surge of blue light exploded from his eyes, blasting Eric backward. When Eric retaliated in kind, Craig cast a bubble of energy around him and Stan, dropping it only to blast him again.
"He means to wear us down!" Wendy yelled to all of them. "Once he's weakened us, they're going to shoot!" She pointed toward the hills, where dozens of men and women now stood with weapons trained on Stan and the others.
"You can always just give yourselves up before it gets that far!" Eric called. "You can spare everyone the violence, maybe save a few lives. Just turn yourselves in."
"In to who - Victoria and the rest of those maniacs?" Stan growled. "You may be their puppet, but we're not anymore. We almost died for our freedom and we'll die to keep it if we have to. We're not afraid of you, or them."
"Your resolve won't last forever, and neither will your strength" Eric smirked.
"Neither will yours" Stan replied. Before he could open his mouth to give the order, Wendy was doing it for him, her voice echoing in all of their heads.
'Everyone! GO - NOW!'
The flurry of movement was disorienting, and Stan relished the look of utter confusion on Eric's face as he was attacked from every side. Daggers of ice, bolts of lightning and flames danced with flashes of blue light. Fists and feet flew as Clyde and Tweek rushed toward him, holding him in place as Stan and Kyle slashed at his skin, claws scraping against hardened hide.
'Don't let up!' Wendy's voice said in their heads. They continued their assault, attacking in turns until a blinding light stopped them, knocking them backward with a forceful blast.
Spitting blood from his mouth, Stan sat up from the ground. Beside him, Craig groaned, mumbling about Eric playing dirty.
"Asshole used my psychic stuff on us. I'll thrash that guy, I swear!"
A few yards away, Wendy screamed.
"Red! She's not breathing! She's... not thinking." She crouched beside Red's body, running her hands over the other girl's face. "The blast! I think it - I think she's—"
"No!" Kevin yelled, sliding across the dirt toward them. "No, no, no - Rebecca!" He collapsed onto her, his head pressed to her chest. When she didn't stir, he slammed his fists onto the ground beside her and screamed again.
"Do you see what fighting me will bring you?" Eric said mockingly. "She's just the first. You can save the rest of your friends if you stop now."
Kevin seethed, electricity crackling from every finger as he aimed them at Eric, then dropped his hand and cried instead. "Rebecca" he whispered. "Red, please come back."
Stan felt his own throat close, watching Kevin dissolve over her motionless body. He knew Eric was right; they had no real battle strategy against someone like him, and they were walking straight into his trap by fighting him. The Caretakers were still waiting, weapons aimed and ready. Stan wondered how much longer they would be able to avoid them.
Kevin was a sobbing mess, still desperately searching for a pulse where there wasn't one to be found. After a few moments, choking as he struggled to breathe, he pounded a crackling fist against Red's chest and shocked her, full force. At first Stan was shocked, but when Kevin repeated the motion, he realized his friend was moving with purpose. After three shocks, Red's chest heaved and she gasped for air. Gasps around them were lost in the shuffle as Craig ran toward them, casting a bubble of blue light over she and Kevin.
"He'll protect them until they can stand" Wendy clarified, communicating Craig's thoughts.
"And that takes most of our blast fighters out of the game" Kyle added. "So Eric can't use any of that against us, as long as we keep him away from them."
Stan couldn't fight the smirk that tugged at one side of his mouth. "Good. Then let's wear him down. I've got a plan."
'Everyone with offensive capabilities, stay back!' The command went out to all of them in Wendy's telepathic voice. She anticipated Stan's intentions, and the others obeyed his unspoken orders.
Reaching down to the straps of his boots, Kenny threw half a dozen blades toward Eric, most of them hitting their mark. He screeched in pain but paused only for a moment, on his feet and heading toward Kenny in hopes of siphoning his healing powers.
"Move it, Ken!" Kyle called, jumping between them. When Eric collided with him, they both became stone-like beings, slamming against each other and chipping away at each other's hardened skin.
"Thanks for the help, freak!" Eric grinned, punching Kyle in the chest. Kyle stumbled backward, turning his skin into a pliable substance and wrapping himself around Eric's face and hands.
"Don't speak to me like that you piece of trash!" He seethed, forcing Eric to topple backward. "You don't deserve to speak to a single person here!"
"I don't see a single person here," Eric sneered, jumping to his feet and throwing Kyle off his shoulders. "I only see a freak show!" Kyle glared at him and they charged at each other again, shining like two metal bullets in the hazy sunlight.
The two of them wobbled against each other as they fought, both growing tired but neither able to gain any footing against the other. Frustrated, Eric seized Kyle by the waste and shoved him firmly to the side, darting past him as quickly as he could manage.
"Wendy!" A few of the others shouted a warning, afraid to get too close to Eric themselves. Kyle and Stan turned at once toward him, charging after him as he gained on Wendy.
Kyle reached her first, and took her to the ground, splaying his body across hers with skin that glistened like gems. Eric's claws skidded against the glassy surface as he roared past them, turning angrily to face Stan instead.
"The fearless leader, eh?" Eric growled, running headlong after Stan. Knowing Eric would shift when he did, Stan ran as far as he could manage before the other boy caught him by the shirt. "Stop running and face me!"
Stan turned and changed his arms into clawed cat feet, dragging the claws across Eric's face. Eric screamed and shifted into an angry dog, bolting after Stan as he ran further away from the rest of the team. Stan became a monkey, and pulled himself up the side of the furthest building. Eric was right behind him, in the shape of a bigger, more fearsome ape. Stan led him to the roof, changing fluidly into a bird as soon as his feet were beneath him.
Eric regained his human form long enough to pant through a few breaths, screaming hoarsely before changing into a bird himself. "Quit running, coward!"
Stan soared straight up, leading Eric after him as he dove and rose again, time after time. Eric finally headed him off mid-dive, knocking him roughly to the roof below them. When he landed, he shifted into a towering bear, even as he rolled painfully across the hard surface. Eric landed just feet away from him, human again as he taunted Stan, who was struggling to his feet.
"Give up, idiot. I can shift into anything you can, anything on earth. How do you honestly expect to get anywhere with this?"
Anything on earth, Stan repeated in his head, remembering the fantastic mythical creatures they'd read about in the books Jimmy had lent them. He stood and roared at Eric, unflinching as Eric shifted into a bear and returned the growl. He hurled himself toward Stan and pushed him backward, closer and closer to the building's edge until Stan slipped off and fell backward. Flipping over himself backward, he heard a then human Eric cackling wildly from the roof. He focused his energy, imagining his transformation before it happened, and caught himself before he hit the ground with massive wings. Stretching them to their full span, he pulled himself upward through the air, coming face to face with a very frightened Eric.
"What is that?!" Eric stammered, unable to shift into the dragon he saw before him. He cowered backward before slinking to the building's edge, contemplating a jump to safety. Stan didn't give him the opportunity; he headed off his attempt with a blast of fiery breath, and then used his huge, spiked tail to send him hurtling to the ground yards away. He rolled over himself a few times before coming to a stop, Stan reverting to his human form as he touched down as well.
Eric peeled himself up, stumbling to his feet, but then yelped as he was hit in the face with something painful, and dragged to the ground again by something unseen. Butters' voice rang out from beneath him as he struggled.
Eric adjusted after a moment and disappeared from view along with Butters, but the blond boy reappeared under him and continued clutching his limbs. He looked over at Nicole with a pleading expression, and before Eric could make another move to free himself, she ran to where Butters laid and slammed her foot down over him in a forceful kick.
"Nicole!" Token shouted, shocked.
Clyde pulled him back, to keep him from interfering. "She knows what she's doing!" He yelled, and they stopped to watch. Nicole kicked again, and a third time, finally coaxing Eric to drop his invisibility. Butters did not release him, even though he sputtered and struggled above him.
"Let go of me!" He shouted, kicking Butters as best as he could manage. "I'll kill you next! Should have killed you before when I had the chance - I'll destroy you while your friends watch!"
"How are you gonna do that?" Butters asked angrily, tightening his grip. "Without any powers to siphon, you're useless!"
Stan was impressed with Butters bravery. He held Eric securely while Nicole landed another kick to his chest. When her foot struck him, his arms were freed, and he grabbed her leg.
"I'll just see what this girl has to offer!" He squeezed her leg, waiting for a surge of some kind of power. When none came, he looked up at her, confused and enraged. "How are you able to resist me?!"
"Not all heroes have super powers" she grinned, and pulled her leg free. Eric struggled to pull his own legs away from Butters grip, but was knocked backward when Nicole threw a solid punch to his jaw. Butters finally released him and stepped away. Scott and Dougie ran past him with a few yards of chain link from a nearby destroyed fence.
"Jimmy!" They yelled at once, prompting Jimmy to toss the crutches he stood on in their direction. He leaned on Scott's father for support as he threw the second one their way.
"Pin him down, boys!" Nicole laughed, taking another swing at an already groaning Eric. She gave a swift kick to one of his ankles, pulling a scream from him as he winced at the pain. "And that ought to keep him down for a bit."
Scott and Dougie threw the metal fence over Eric, jamming the crutches into the ground through some of the outer openings in the links. He pushed up against the trap only once, barely able to move, and then collapsed again, sobbing beneath it.
"Don't worry," Nicole scoffed, laying her hands on her hips as she placed a foot on his back to keep him down. "Minor injuries - you'll survive. Not that you deserve to."
She glanced back at the mutants, grinning for a moment at Token before giving Stan a salute. Stan smiled in return, and then turned to where Victoria and the other Caretakers were watching from a much shorter distance than before. They stood on the many ledges and plateaus of the short, jagged mountains that bordered the town.
"That's it, Victoria!" He shouted. "We took down your best weapon. You know we're more than a match for you, and we're never coming back to the facility. Now let's stop this before more people get hurt or killed."
Weapons by the dozen turned to aim at Stan, and almost instantly Kyle and Kenny were at his side. When he did not move, Victoria waved to the other adults to fire, and hundreds of bullets flew toward them, bouncing back forcefully when they encountered an immense shield of blue light. Stan turned for a single second to see Craig, standing yards behind them, projecting the force field with a cocky grin. He turned back to see Victoria, shocked and livid as she ordered a second round of fire from an even shorter distance. Again, the ammunition ricocheted, hitting several of the Caretakers and taking them to the ground.
"Stop this, now!" Stan repeated, seeing the men and women fall. "You're wasting your time and lives! No one has to die!"
Victoria signaled a ceasefire, and jumped from her place atop one of the vehicles. She stood over one of the fallen men, ignoring his pained wheezing entirely. His gun was still in his hands; she tugged it away from him and stepped across his bleeding form as she climbed down the rocky surface of the mountain's face toward Stan and the others.
"Craig, keep it up" Stan said quickly, never taking his eyes off of her.
"Long as I can, boss" Craig replied, but Stan noticed that the light was already beginning to waver.
Victoria stopped when she found herself perched on a narrow ledge of the mountain, at a distance where she was easily visible, easily audible. She raised her gun, waiting for the shield of light to give out.
"You don't have to do this, Victoria!" Stan called again. Behind him Craig was straining to maintain the wall of blue. As it flickered Victoria took aim directly at Stan. He repeated his pleas, hoping to stall her so that the others could get their footing to charge her if needed. "You don't have to be a killer! Don't you hear the people dying behind you? You can help them if you'll just stop this - no one else has to die!"
"You don't understand, child!" She said finally, and her voice pricked at his spine again. "These people, the children before you, all of you - you're all just part of the plan. You're just pieces in a game you're trying to ruin - all of you have to die! I did not come this far and lose this much to have a handful of brats destroy it for me!"
The force field shimmered and gave out at last, Craig falling to the ground as it dissipated. Victoria took aim at Stan and fired, hitting Kyle instead as he jumped in front of him. The bullet did no damage; she did not seem deterred.
"I'm aware of your abilities" she said angrily. "And I am aware that you are still human beneath it all. I will pick you off, kill you one by one if I have to, until this little problem is uprooted." She fired again, this time over Stan's shoulder. Kevin deflected the bullet headed toward he and Red, sending it to the ground instead. "Ignorant children!" Victoria screamed, reloading the gun. "Do you really think that your lives are worth more than all of those who have died before you during this research?"
"All lives are of equal value" Stan said. She eyed him with a manic expression, pointing the gun behind him again.
"Not yours! You are experiments! You are rats! And you will never be worth the life of my daughter! I will kill everyone who gets in the way of this project, because—"
"Because you believe that will make it ok that you killed her first?" The words struck Victoria as if something had actually hit her, and she stumbled backward, looking at Stan in horror.
"You know nothing!"
"Permission to open fire, ma'am?" One of the men still standing behind her raised his weapon and the others followed suit. She waved them off frantically, still gaping at Stan.
"She isn't firing" Stan whispered. "Be ready." He heard the quiet command passed back through the group until it radiated over all of them, in Wendy's telepathic voice.
"We know that you killed your own child trying to create the serum you used on me. The same way you killed Jenny. And other children before her."
"I didn't kill her!" Victoria screamed. "My husband — my partner — he injected her! I tried to save her, but I couldn't. So I used the serum on him. And as I watched him die like my sweet daughter had, I realized nothing was more important than this research. Nothing - especially not the pointless lives of a few dozen nameless kids." She stood upright again, raising her hand to signal the remaining gunmen behind her.
"More death won't bring your daughter back!" Stan shouted, and he felt a rush of calming energy speed past him as Wendy tried to placate Victoria. "It won't punish your husband, and it won't validate you. It's over, Victoria; stop this now."
"She can't be reasoned with!" Wendy shouted, drawing back the aura she had cast toward the woman. "Her mind is completely unreachable. I can't—"
"Fire!" Victoria called to her troops. "Use everything you have!" The gunmen still standing obeyed her command.
"Stan?!" Kyle was asking for a plan. He gave him the only answer he could think to.
"Shield yourselves, and each other, however you can. Take down as many of the Caretakers as possible. I need to get to Victoria."
A flickering ray of blue formed a wall in front of them, and Craig walked weakly forward.
"You heard the boss. We're gonna need everybody on deck. Blaster types, let's get 'em nice and scrambled." With that he kept waking, Bebe a few steps behind and Kevin pulling Red to her feet to follow as well. After the first round of bullets hit the shield harmlessly, Craig dropped it and shouted. "Now!"
A barrage of fire, ice and varying beams of light struck the Caretakers from every angle, taking many of them to the ground and disarming many more. Dodging another hail of bullets, Tweek and Clyde raced toward them, snatching guns and smashing vehicles and machines in their path. Kyle and Kenny flanked Stan as he approached the mountain where Victoria looked down from the ledge. Kenny laughed when one of the horrified Caretakers landed a shot to his face, and he spat the bullet to the ground and wiped his mouth.
"You'd think he'd never seen that trick before" he grinned, lips still healing as his shot out teeth returned. Stan didn't have time to laugh, but he did anyway.
They reached the base of the short but steep mountainside, and Kyle gave Stan a hesitant look.
"You need me to get you up there? I don't think you should fly with all these bullets everywhere."
Stan shook his head. "I'm climbing" he said simply. "Go help the others. The quicker we can take out the others, the faster I can bring down Victoria."
"You can't go by yourself!" Kyle argued. Stan raised a hand to protest.
"If you guys see anything, feel free to swoop in. But I've got to do this one on one, or she's gonna hurt someone."
"She's not even armed at this point" he said, spotting her desperately searching for a weapon. "Now go, please. The others need you, and I need you to keep them off my back."
"Will do" Kyle said resolutely, and the look in his eye was the same as the one he'd had on the night they'd broken out together. Stan wanted desperately to hug him, tell him it was going to be alright, but there was no time. He grabbed his hand and squeezed it instead, and then turned to face the wall of rock in front of him and began to climb.
The bullets began to come in sloppy waves as more and more of the Caretakers were taken to the ground. When the team got close enough, stun guns were aimed at them as well. Kevin wasted no time in disarming as many of them as he could. When he tore one of the stunners from a man's hands and laughed, the enraged man plucked a discarded shotgun from the ground near him and took aim, firing at Kevin and yelling for his nearby associates to do the same. Kevin raised a hand to deflect the bullets, but they were incinerated before he had the chance. As the gunmen nursed residual burns, the team turned to see Red covered in dissipating flames, grinning up at Kevin affectionately.
Stan continued climbing, shifting his fingers into hard claws like Kyle's. He dug them into the rock as he pulled himself closer to where Victoria stood, pressing himself low to dodge the dwindling gunfire.
"You're trapped, Victoria!" he yelled up at her as he scaled the face of the mountain. "Your men are surrounded and you're cornered. I won't hurt you if you'll just call this off now. Give us the information we need about the other facilities. Help us, and we won't harm you!" Above him he could hear panicked laughter.
Scrambling for the only thing still in reach, Victoria pulled one of the massive stun guns from the bloody hands of a woman who had fallen on a ledge above her. Stan focused his energy to his spine and gritted his teeth as two large wings stretched from the skin there. He released his grip on the rocks and tipped backward into the air, catching himself on the wings. Victoria searched frantically for the weapon's trigger.
Stan hovered in front of her. "Please, Victoria" he asked, even as she aimed the stun gun at him. "I don't want to kill you."
"You won't" she snarled, and fired the gun. It didn't fire, so she pulled the trigger again, and several more times, screaming louder with each. She stood again and tossed it down as she threw herself manically toward Stan. He caught her, sinking slightly with her weight. The weapon finally discharged; the electric blast hit Victoria with such force that Stan felt the residual shock. She shuddered and clutched at his arms, and then went slack, slipping from his grip and falling to the jagged ground below them.
"No!" Stan screamed, trying without success to grab her before she fell. Some of the men and women around him gasped or shouted as well, and then all at once there was the deafening sound and burning pain of gunfire hitting his wings. Unable to stay in the air any longer, he aimed himself toward where the other mutants stood and glided back to them the best he could.
"Stan!" Wendy and Kyle yelled in unison, but even as he hit the ground and tumbled toward them, he shouted to the others.
His team needed no further instruction. Tweek ran toward the mountain, nimbly avoiding scattered gunfire and making quick work of climbing the uneven ledges. Shielded until the last moment by a weak rendition of Craig's energy field, Bebe aimed a powerful frigid blast toward the remaining gunmen, disabling them as Tweek snatched their weapons and returned them to neat piles where Kevin and Clyde destroyed them. Kyle carried Stan over to where Mrs. Malkinson still sat, and laid him on the ground beside her to be healed. He sat by as Kenny and Wendy repaired his wings, and then retracted them and returned to his normal form as he watched the rest of the team at work.
Once they got their footing, the group found a familiar rhythm, actually laughing and chatting as they made something of a game out of rounding up the Caretakers. Kenny and Wendy healed those that they could, preventing any further death. Most were barely injured, angry but exhausted as they gave in and allowed themselves to be bound into the bundles Clyde had become so fond of creating. Helping to sort through the destroyed equipment and spent bullets littering the ground, Stan thought to go look for Victoria, and see if she could be saved.
"She's gone, Stan" Wendy said softly, and he knew she had heard his thoughts.
"You're sure?" He asked, without turning to face her.
"Yes. I... I would say she died as soon as she fell. I haven't heard anything from her since then." She walked up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. A comforting feeling swept over him, easing the grief he hadn't realized he was feeling. "She'll be at peace now" Wendy assured him, and he chose to believe her, at least for that moment. They joined the others after a few more minutes of silence.
"I've disabled all of the vehicles, and the communication between this team's equipment and the other facilities has been disabled." Token gave Stan a firm high five as they finished piling up the last of the weapons for Clyde and Kevin to break. Red sat beside another pile, stoking the flames she'd created there to ensure their total destruction. Token gave her a thumbs up, and then glanced back toward the mountain where Tweek and Craig were still combing the ground for anything the others might have missed. "Red, you might wanna move on to some of the bigger machinery once you finish with that."
"Can do" she grinned, and gave the fire in front of her one last prodding before heading toward the disabled vehicles at the base of the mountain.
As the team finished dealing with the machinery and the subdued Caretakers, Stan's mind returned to their friends, and Eric still captured under the metal netting. Stopping by briefly to check on Mrs. Malkinson once more, he headed toward where Scott and Dougie stood watch over a whiny, helpless Eric. They both shook his hand enthusiastically, but passed on conversation in favor of running off to chat with some of the others. Noting that Eric was nearly passed out beneath the weighty fence pinning him down, Stan left him to speak to Nicole.
He found her, leaning against the half busted railing of one of the buildings there at the town's edge. "I'm sorry" he said, offering his hand for her to shake. She eyed it for a moment and then grinned up at him, one of her eyebrows raised as if she were amused.
"For what, super boy? Saving South Park?"
"Looks more like we destroyed South Park" he sighed, looking around at the damage their fighting had caused. "But that's not what I mean. I'm sorry I doubted you and the others. You guys are honestly as much heroes as any of us - probably more so. We owe you a lot."
Nicole shrugged. "All in a day's work when you hang with the Youngbloods" she laughed. "Gotta try to keep up with you superheroes somehow."
"You more than keep up" he replied. "I hope that whatever happens from here, you and the others will still be around. You're part of this team, too."
She smiled at him, and then glanced over his shoulder at Token, talking excitedly to Dougie and Kevin about something. She laughed under her breath and nodded.
"Yeah, I don't think we're going anywhere. Except maybe home. You guys coming?"
Stan thought about the fact that she, if no one else, considered them residents of the little town of South Park. He thought about the attic room, the Malkinsons and the handful of other families who'd welcomed them into their lives and sighed happily.
"Yeah. I think we're just about finished here. Home sounds good."
The reception when they arrived back in the main streets of town was like nothing Stan had ever seen, or would have ever expected. Townspeople cheered from their homes and the fronts of businesses, and children of every age rushed to greet them in the streets. No one seemed concerned by the considerable damage they'd done to the buildings and structures at the city's edge. Stan made a mental note to himself to be sure to help repair the destruction, since he certainly couldn't pay for it. But the joyful mood kept him from considering it too much further, as people he had seen in town before rushed to shake his hand or offer the team hugs. Only a few steps behind the friendly South Park residents were people he did not recognize though, and they seemed unnaturally excited to see the mutants.
A short, broad shouldered man moved forward through the jubilant crowd and approached them. His clothing looked like military dress of some kind, and his aggressive presence was unnerving. Stan stopped where he stood, shifting his hands into claws and bearing the corner of sharp teeth, just in case. The man slowed his steps but didn't stop. Instead he held up a hand, showing it to be empty, and then offered it to Stan to shake.
"Admiral Bradley, United States Military" he said proudly. "At your service!"
Stan eyed him cautiously, and did not take his hand. After a moment the man retracted it, but remained poised with pride.
"We're not going anywhere with you" Stan said bluntly. "And if you're looking for a fight—"
"Nothing of the sort. We're here for your assistance and protection."
"Protection" Stan repeated bitterly. "Well thanks, but we don't need your protection. We've got plenty of our own." His exhaustion added a sharper edge to his to words than they might have otherwise had, but he didn't bother to excuse himself for it.
"With your unique situation—"
"Yeah, that sounds like Caretaker talk to me" Stan protested. "And if you think we're going back to that for even a second, you're sorely mistaken."
"I can assure you, our government is in no way affiliated with those people or their terroristic organization. We're going on record, denouncing the absolutely deplorable abuse of innocent children that took place in their facilities. We've come today to congratulate your group here on your perseverance and heroic efforts in shutting down the laboratories."
"I see" Stan said, hesitantly.
"You've done incredibly well bringing this injustice to light and saving countless children. We'll take over from here."
"Take over?" Kyle hissed. "That's the last thing—"
Stan held up an arm, holding him back and silencing him all at once. Some of the others were moving forward too, but they paused when Stan waved.
"Exactly what are you planning to do from here, sir?" he asked tersely. The man seemed unfazed by his tone.
"The children that you've been able to rescue will be placed with foster or adoptive families right away, along with any remaining in the rest of the facilities."
"And the labs themselves?" Wendy asked over Stan's shoulder. Stan raised an eyebrow and nodded, urging him to answer.
"All shut down and dismantled, immediately. The staff will be taken into custody and questioned, so we can further understand the scope of their criminal operations."
"What about the serum? It needs to be destroyed - all of it" Stan insisted. "There's no reason for anyone to—"
"I can assure you, it will be" the man promised. "We've got crews on site at half a dozen former laboratories as we speak, working to get rid of all traces of the chemical."
The team had nearly surrounded him by that point, listening skeptically to his guarantees. His confidence didn't waver, though he did seem less comfortable with more than a dozen pairs of squinted eyes staring at him.
"Furthermore, if there's anything that your group needs, we'd like to—"
"What about Eric?" Craig chimed in. Stan noticed a light blue aura pulsing around him; still obviously distrustful, he was ready to cast an energy field over all of them if the need arose. "What are you gonna do with him?"
"Maximum security federal detention center. He'll be incarcerated and thoroughly interrogated as well. He won't pose any threat to anyone, civilian or otherwise."
"And by otherwise, you mean us, eh?" Kenny snapped. The man straightened himself and shook his head, still smiling.
"No young man, I mean military personnel. However, if your group would be interested in enlisting for military service—"
"We'll pass" said Stan. "Forgive us for not exactly being trusting of authority figures."
"Understandable" he nodded. "The offer will remain on the table in the event that you ever change your minds."
Stan stared at him. "Right. Well, if you don't need anything else from us then..."
"Just to thank you and your team again for your heroic actions, and assure you that the horrible treatment you received under the authority of these people will be corrected by your government." As he finished his statement, he turned and smiled broadly, and lights flashed behind him. Only then did Stan realize cameras of all sorts were focused on them — or more accurately on the admiral — observing their exchange with great interest. He felt disgust bubbling in his stomach at the sight of the apparent politicking going on around them, and wondered how quickly he could get his team out of the lights.
"Well, thanks for that" he said, finally shaking the man's hand when he insistently offered it again. "Now if you'll excuse us—"
"Oh but you'll be needing medical treatment!" He insisted, motioning at some of the obviously injured among them. From somewhere behind him, Stan could hear Kenny chuckling.
"We're capable of seeing to it ourselves" he said flatly, already backing away from the crowd of cameras and the man in front of them. "And quite frankly sir, my friends and I could use some rest."
There was a tense moment of silence between them, and then the admiral nodded and reached out to pat Stan's shoulder. "Certainly. We'd like to conference with you all here in town tomorrow, if possible. We have a great deal to discuss, as I'm sure you're all aware. In the meantime though, get some rest. You've definitely earned it!" He said the last few words loudly enough that the cameramen behind him applauded softly, and Stan couldn't help rolling his eyes.
They waved for a few more minutes at the crowd as they walked, politely excusing themselves when groups followed them. When he realized the military staff was still following at a close distance, Stan stopped, letting his team walk ahead as he waved the admiral over.
"Yes, young man?" he said, smiling as if he might have won something. Stan kept his voice low, still watching his friends fondly as he spoke.
"The woman - their leader, Victoria; you asked me if there was anything else that my team needed, and that's the only thing that comes to mind. See to it that she is buried properly, the way any human should be - with dignity."
The man's smile faltered as if he was surprised, but after a few minutes he nodded.
"We'll see to it" he promised, and Stan nodded. Then he turned, without another look back at the soldiers or their leader, and followed his own soldiers — his friends — back to their base in the attic of the Malkinsons' store. He was too proud of them to think about anything else. It was time for peace, even if just for an evening.
"And did you see his face? That alone was worth the whole damned thing!"
The mood was decidedly different back in the attic room than it had been in the previous weeks. There was a sense of relief and an air of celebration; Craig and Kenny cracked jokes while the others laughed and thanked Scott's family for the snacks and drinks they passed around. It felt like nothing Stan had ever experienced, and when Nicole referred to it as a party, he didn't argue.
Part of him was grieving - however little - for Victoria, and he knew it was obvious to the others when he didn't laugh quite as loudly or cheer quite as much at the retelling of their battle story. If to no one else, he knew it was apparent to Wendy and Kyle, as they sat beside him, a hand on each of his shoulders as they accepted the Malkinsons' generosity and rested along with their teammates. Knowing that they understood was enough for him. He didn't mention it to them, but he felt comforted all the same.
"So who needs a patch up?" Kenny said after a while, cracking his knuckles. He nodded sideways at Wendy and she stood to join him, rubbing her palms together. They moved around to each person, chatting while they closed cuts and smoothed bumps and bruises. Stan watched them fondly; seeing his friends' affectionate interactions did him more good than anything else. He exchanged proud smiles with Kyle as they sat in a serene silence together, just watching everyone.
The group sat in pairs and groups like they always did, but everything seemed so different. Clyde sat with Bebe on his lap, giggling as she chatted with Red, who sat in the floor in front of them. Kevin's fingers were laced with hers, while he himself was turned to talk with Butters, Scott and Dougie. A few feet away, Jimmy was telling stories to Tweek, Craig and Token. Token grinned as Nicole settled beside him. She teased Craig as he fussed with Tweek's boots; Craig practiced one of his newly learned hand gestures and the whole group of them laughed. For his part, Stan sat quietly, with his back to Kyle's and dropped his head backward onto the other boy's shoulder.
Kenny and Wendy finished their task and returned to their seats, Kenny grinning down at the two of them as he settled back onto the floor. Wendy poked Stan and Kyle each with one of her feet, and Stan felt a wave of adoration surge through him, starting right from the spot where their skin met. He grinned at her, at Kyle, at all of them; he'd never known a moment of such contentment. He let the room remain quiet as long as it would, enjoying the sounds of real happiness from the people that meant the most to him. When the relative silence was broken, it was by Craig, calling to him from across the room.
"So what's next, boss?" he asked, a smirk plastered on his face. The others began turning to look at Stan as well. He blinked back at them, unsure of what kind of answer they were looking for.
"I... well; we're done, aren't we? We did what we set out to do."
"Cheers to that!" Scott shouted, and some of the others raised nearly empty glasses in agreement. Craig nodded, but continued his query when the voices had died down again.
"I mean where do we go from here?"
Stan shrugged. "That's not my call. I did what you guys asked; I led you the best I could, through all that stuff with the labs and Eric and Victoria, and—" he stopped for a moment, thinking about the massive scope of everything they'd been through in the last few weeks. "If you guys want to do your own thing, now is the time. Because I don't really have a plan now. Some of you guys — most of you — probably have other things you'd like to do rather than stick around and do the superhero thing anymore, and I can't blame you for that." He glanced at Token and Nicole, Clyde and Bebe, Kevin and Red. It was Kenny that answered him though, laughing as he spoke.
"So a few of them get girlfriends and now you're kicking us out?"
"That's not what I meant, and you know it, Kenny. I'm just saying if you guys don't want to do this anymore, you don't have to."
"Don't wanna do what - be mutant freak pseudo vigilantes?" Token asked, arms crossed but still smiling. "Too late for that!"
"Dude, superheroes sounds a lot better" Clyde chimed in. The group laughed; one by one their eyes eventually returned to Stan.
"It isn't about what we're called" he said quietly. "It's about the commitment to that kind of life. This thing we've been doing, trying to fix the things other people have messed up, and help people that might not even want us around. It's about that commitment, to —"
"Each other" Kenny interjected. Stan stared at him, but he only smiled.
"Kenny's right, and Butters was right before" Token said from across the room. "We're the only family any of us have. We're a team."
"We're in this together, no matter what it is" Kyle said confidently, squeezing Stan's shoulder.
"I just don't want to hold any of you back from a chance at happiness, or a normal life" Stan sighed.
"The hell is normal, anyway?" Clyde chuckled. A few of the others laughed in agreement. He pulled Bebe tighter against him. "Besides, we all managed to be pretty happy here so far. Seems like the hard part's over to me."
"And remember what my mom said to you guys when we took you in?" Scott piped up. "Families always have room to get bigger." He tipped his glass in Nicole's direction; she raised hers and nodded.
"Basically we're saying we're sticking around" Kenny concluded, turning back to Stan. "So back to the question at hand - what's next for the Youngbloods?"
Stan couldn't help the grin that burst across his face at the mention of their nickname. He shrugged again, this time still smiling.
"I guess... we'll keep doing the superhero thing" he laughed. Craig sighed dramatically with relief from his seat across the room.
"Good thing. Don't think most of us have a whole lot of prospects in the job market."
Laughter erupted around the room, and Stan let himself join them. Craig was right — none of them were likely to find real job, and in reality it worried Stan to think about how they would continue to survive — but just seeing how positive the rest of his team felt at that moment erased any fears from his mind without a bit of help from Wendy. He did clasp her hand though — and Kyle's — as the laughter trailed off, contented sighs replacing it.
"Well, I do have a proposition for you guys, if this family is going to keep getting bigger" Nicole smiled, rising to stand in the center of the room. She spoke loudly, but primarily to Stan. "Because this place is getting a little crowded, and you guys probably could use a little bit of pocket money."
"What do you suggest, though?" Stan countered. "We can't get a place of our own; Craig's right, we probably couldn't even land jobs."
"Despite the fact that we saved an ass load of people and are actual superheroes!" Craig agreed, bitterly. Nicole waved him silent and laid her hands on her hips.
"Well, my dad has a new factory opening up this summer, and he's looking to fill quite a few positions there. He told me to mention it to a few of my friends." She winked, and Stan could feel the smile returning to his face. "And I think the storage facilities beneath it may be just the accommodations you're looking for."
The factory was massive, and though still a work in progress, looked as though it was primed to provide half the town with employment. Walking through the gigantic main building reminded Stan of the facility where they'd grown up, though it was decidedly less sterile, even brand new. Nicole smiled as she led them through the rooms, showing them the factory floor as if it were an exquisite work of art.
"And here's the best part" she grinned, sliding a card down through a small scanner on the wall. "You might wanna step this way a bit."
A large square of the tiled floor began to hiss as it split, dropping a few inches and sliding apart into the floor around it. In place of the missing floor a platform rose, and she waved toward it, motioning for them to follow her in stepping on. They did — hesitantly for the most part — and the platform began to descend.
When it came to a stop, lights flickered on around them, and they were in a spacious, mostly empty room. Doors lined all four walls, labelled with numbers, and the remaining space was occupied by panels of buttons and a long key rack, on which hung more than a dozen lanyards. Nicole pointed to them, holding up her own as an example.
"You'll wanna grab those" she smiled. "Should be one for everybody."
Stan and the others collected the corded badges from the wall; each one had a name, a corresponding series of numbers, and a different color. He mentally compared his against a few of the others before following Nicole as she led them through one of the many doors.
"Those badges will get you anywhere you need to be in this building, upstairs or down here. If you lose 'em, you can punch in your code, so remember that at least." She said as she waited on the entire group to join her. She moved down a brightly lit hallway and they walked after her, looking around and moving slowly.
"This hall takes you to some of the bigger rooms. Nothing's completely finished yet, but you'll get the idea. This is the meeting room, and the lounge is connected to it. There's a library on the other side of this wall, too."
With that she stood back, and let them flood into the room to examine it. Stan looked at the table, the chairs around it, the open doorway to what looked like someone's living room, and the thin door that he assumed led to the library she'd mentioned. A few of the others moved further, flipping the lights on in the other room, looking with wonder through the door to the library. Stan couldn't speak — only stare — as they looked back at him, then at Nicole in disbelief.
"More to see this way!" She said cheerfully, beckoning them to follow. "The rec center is over here."
The 'rec center' was a huge area in its own right, a gymnasium that looked like it would boast every amenity once completed. A few side rooms even looked like they'd been specialized with certain team members in mind. Clyde and Craig were high-fiving and cheering, but Stan remained silent, still in awe.
She showed them to large bathrooms with spacious shower stalls and more privacy than they'd ever known, and a fully stocked kitchen with an expansive dining area attached. A workshop for the improvement of their weapons and clothing almost seemed an afterthought to all of the other impressively furnished area, but she promised that soon it too would be nicely outfitted.
The last hallway she led them down had fewer doors, spaced further apart. "Sleeping quarters" she said nonchalantly as they followed her down the wide hall, but when she flipped on the lights in the first room, her words seemed ill fitting.
These weren't simply quarters of any kind. The sprawling, warmly lit suites offered comfortable looking beds — real ones — and soft carpets topped with chairs, lamps and drawers for possessions that none of them even had yet. The pillows on each bed matched the colors of the lanyards they wore around their necks, and the sheets looked crisp, clean and new. She beamed at them and waved around at the room and the others down the hall.
"Go ahead and find yours if you want."
Most of the group wasted no time. Bebe and Wendy bounded toward their room, giggling as they flopped onto soft beds and ran their fingers over silky sheets. Red followed them, collapsing onto her own new bed happily. Token and Kevin slapped hands as they found the room they would share with Butters, complete with computers and televisions that looked even more exciting than the ones in Craig, Clyde and Tweek's room. Stan assumed the last door led to a room for him, Kyle and Kenny, and when they stepped through it he felt like the air left his lungs.
It was as big as any of the others, but had more muted colors and a cozier feeling that he was sure he couldn't be imagining. It felt like a home. Watching Kenny bounce on his new bed and — hearing Kyle laugh out loud at the bookcase and other furnishings — he tried to breathe but couldn't. It didn't help when Nicole clapped him on the shoulder after a long moment of silence.
"So whatcha think, super boy?"
Stan couldn't answer. He shook his head, still in shock, and attempted to speak. Instead, he choked out an overwhelmed sob, and pulled her into a tight hug, burying his face into her shoulder to keep himself from crying.
"That bad, huh?" She teased, patting at the back of his neck. He laughed, and it broke the hold his gratitude held around his throat. He straightened himself up to look her in the eye.
"Nicole, this is... I honestly can't even describe how amazing all of this is. We can't thank you properly, ever. I wish—"
"Yes you can" she assured. "If the Youngbloods keep helping people who everyone else ignores and abandons, and keep fighting the good fight, then you'll earn every inch of this place and more like it."
Stan nodded, unable to think of anything else to say.
"How did you do all of this?" Kyle asked, and suddenly Stan realized most of the team had joined them in the back bedroom.
Nicole shrugged. "It was mostly my dad. He needed a new factory, and the town needed new jobs. You guys needed a place to stay, so he decided we could kill two birds with one stone."
"This is more than just a place to stay" Kevin pointed out. The others nodded and laughed.
"My family believes in doing what's right, and that means helping you guys out. Plus you did save my life once." Nicole grinned.
"Wouldn't have anything to do with you having a thing with our resident robot, would it?" Craig joked, pointing toward Token with his thumb. Nicole raised an eyebrow but didn't stop smiling.
"Maybe just a little" she said. Clyde pulled his arm back to punch Token again, but caught himself before doing so when Token glared at him. He patted him on the back instead, and for once Token genuinely smiled.
"This must have been really expensive!" Butters muttered, still looking around in awe. Stan nodded, turning back to look at Nicole. She waved her hand dismissively.
"As far as my dad is concerned it's all just an investment. Money spent on the factory leads to tax write offs and all that. And since we're the only ones who know this place is down here, the money that went into it just looks business expenses on paper. All in a day's work for the old man. Besides, anything for you guys."
"You mean anything for Token, right?" Craig laughed. This time, Clyde punched his arm, and Token did nothing to stop him.
Stan laughed. The teasing and taunting they gave each other was different now, like everything else about their lives. They weren't just peers anymore. They were more than roommates, comrades or close friends. Some of them had found romance with each other; others had created bonds like the ones between real sisters and brothers. Thinking about it, Stan reasoned that that was what they were now - family. Despite their circumstances, or the situations that had brought them together, they were a giant family, and he was lucky enough to be right in the middle of it.
They showered Nicole with thanks and praises, but she dismissed them all and insisted they spend some time getting used to their new surroundings. She walked off toward the kitchen with Token's hand in hers and a smile on her face, and Stan smiled too as he watched them leave. He ducked back into his new bedroom to explore it a bit more, with Kyle and Kenny already doing the same.
Sitting on his bed later — his own bed, comfortable and personalized with one of the handmade blankets Jimmy's mother had made for each member of the team — Stan thought about just how fortunate he was. He and the others had been through so much in the previous months, and life had changed so entirely. He ran his hands over the soft fabric of the blanket and smiled. Some part of him felt like he'd reached the end of a journey, and that no matter what else the team did, they'd won, just by making it to this new home of theirs together.
A group of the others walked past his doorway, and Kyle split from them, coming inside. Instead of his own bed just a few feet away, he plopped himself down beside Stan, poking him backward with his elbows as he tugged his boots from his feet. When his shoes were on the ground he crossed his legs underneath him and folded his arms behind his head, mirroring Stan.
"You do have your own place to lounge now, you know" Stan chided jokingly. Kyle grinned and shrugged.
"Yeah. Luxurious, isn't it? Still prefer sitting with you. Force of habit, maybe."
Stan squeezed his knee and nodded. "Likewise."
They sat together that way for a while, talking about the food in the kitchen or the soft carpet in the bedrooms or anything else that came up. It was the first time Stan could remember having nothing pressing to speak of. They fell into comfortable silence after a while, and that's where they were when Wendy wandered into the room and found them.
"Room for one more?" She asked, already kicking off her shoes. Stan nodded and held out a hand to help her onto the bed.
She climbed onto the bed beside him, laying her legs across both of their laps. She sighed happily, and Stan smiled.
"Yeah, me too" he said quietly. "You know, I was just thinking - our luck has changed so much in the last few weeks. I mean look at this place. It's amazing. And the Malkinsons, the Valmers, Nicole's dad, everyone's been so great. I still don't think I believe this place is ours."
"Same" Kyle laughed. "Like someone is definitely going to show up and take it back, any day now."
"Oh, relax, both of you" Wendy cooed. A rush of warmth washed over Stan's consciousness, and he knew Kyle felt it too by the way he grinned at Wendy. She kicked her feet happily and smiled back at them.
"Easy for you to say" Stan chuckled. "But you know what I mean. I'm obviously really thankful, and beyond happy to be here. I just... it's strange to finally have a place where we belong, you know? Awesome - but strange."
"Definitely strange" Kyle nodded.
"It is nice though, feeling like something other than a complete robot or an outlaw mutant monster." Stan was smiling to hide the weight of his words, but the sharp exhales from the others showed that they understood exactly how he felt.
Despite the tension, Kyle laughed, and Stan couldn't help his own chuckle in response.
"Yeah, I'd say we're somewhere in between at this point" Kyle teased, rolling his claw tipped fingers in a wave. Stan morphed his fingers to match and tapped them against Kyle's with a grin.
Wendy laid back and kicked her feet again, poking at both boys with her toes, pouting when they tickled her with clawed hands.
"You know, you're wrong about one thing" she said, pulling her legs back toward herself. "We've always had a place where we belong." She looked up at the doorway as a group of the others passed, Craig, Tweek and Clyde arguing about something while Bebe and Red giggled with Nicole. She smiled and turned back to Stan and Kyle, nodding over her shoulder to where the others had just been. "With each other" she continued. "It's just that now, we finally have a home to do it in."
"Home" Kyle echoed, saying it like he was trying the word out for the first time. Wendy slipped her feet back into his lap, and Stan laid a hand across both of them.
"Home," he repeated. He thought about all the things they'd learned about family, friends, community — and all the things they still had left to learn — and the room suddenly felt even more comfortable, more perfect than before. He said it again with finality, realizing how much it meant to all of them, a feeling more than a word.
The next morning found Stan and the others collected at the edge of town again, this time to help repair some of the damage caused by their confrontation with Eric the day before. They reattached siding and replaced windows, took up broken pavement and repaired busted walls and building fronts. Looking over the damage made Stan feel incredibly guilty, but the people who gathered to speak to them as they worked seemed genuinely grateful for their presence. They offered refreshments and polite chatter as they assisted with repairs - a welcome contrast to the way many of them had feared Stan and his team just weeks earlier.
Seeing Scott approach the site of their reconstruction was a nice distraction from the business of the morning's chores. Stan waved him over and stopped his work making room for new pavement where the old had been destroyed. Scott stepped carefully over the scattered tools and equipment and crossed his arms like he had unwelcome news.
"My dad just got done talking to a man on the phone" he said hesitantly. "Admiral Something-or-Other. He was asking for you guys, about where you were. Needs to speak with you, and wanted to meet with you today, he said. Dad said he even came by the house and the shop early this morning looking, but of course he told him you guys weren't there."
"Wants to talk to us?" Stan repeated, less than enthused. Something about the admiral — even the thought of him — reminded Stan of the Caretakers, and turned his stomach. Scott nodded slowly, like he was apologizing.
"At least you, I guess. Since you're like... the leader or whatever."
"I think 'or whatever' is a good way to put it" Stan laughed, crossing his hands over the end of the handle of his shovel. He looked at the displaced earth they'd prepared for new pavement and considered Scott's words for a few moments before speaking.
"Yeah, I'll meet with him. But only in public somewhere." He jabbed his shovel hard into the ground, sticking it firmly in place. "I can almost guarantee that guy is trying to keep a pin on exactly where we are, and the last thing I want anyone like him to know is where we plan to stay. I wanna keep him as deep in the dark as we can on that."
"Last I heard he was at the mayor's office, in the middle of town" Scott said. Stan looked around at the others, hoping they would volunteer to join him.
"Alright. City hall it is, then."
His teammates stretched and tossed tools and materials aside. He thanked Scott and asked him to watch over the repair site while they were gone. Scott agreed happily, settling on one of the halfway rebuilt walls to lounge. Stan smiled at him and then left, ignoring the dread he felt at the thought of speaking to the military personnel again. With his friends following behind, telling stories and laughing as they made their way downtown, it was easier than he expected.
The admiral was standing on the long stone walkway that wrapped around the city building. Behind him were a dozen or so men, armed in ways that weren't immediately evident. That served only to keep Stan on edge. Coupled with the fact that he and his teammates were standing in the most public place in the entire town — after months of living by avoiding the general public at all costs — the guards made him feel incredibly uneasy. The admiral turned toward them with much ceremony when he saw them approaching.
"Ah, there are our young heroes!" He spoke with all the bravado Stan expected, but something was more serious about his tone. "Glad to see you looking a bit more rested. We just wanted to have a quick word with you before we leave town."
Stan didn't waste time with pleasantries. "The things we discussed before - any progress on all of that?" he asked, cutting straight to the quick of the other man's showy persona.
"I can assure you everything is being expedited to ensure the best interests of everyone involved."
Stan frowned. The admiral's words sounded like political jargon to him, even with the convincing smile the man spoke through.
"The kids?" Stan asked.
"Taken care of. All of the children released from the facilities have received medical evaluation and will be placed with families as soon as possible."
"What about Eric?"
"He's secure" he promised. "He's been relocated to a high security federal detention center, and is in solitary confinement for the foreseeable future, with further examination and inquisition planned."
"Better make it more than just the 'foreseeable future', sir" Kyle quipped. "That's one prisoner you're never going to reform."
"That remains to be seen. However, we can assure your team that he will be no further trouble to you now that he is under our supervision."
"I'd like to think you're right" Stan said. He offered nothing further, and after a moment of silence, the admiral cleared his throat and used his press conference voice again to bring the conversation back to life.
"We would of course like to thank you again for the major contribution your team made in bringing down a major criminal organization. Your country is incredibly indebted to—"
Stan waved his hand sharply. "No one is in our debt, just like we aren't in anyone else's. We did what we believed was right. I want to believe that's what anyone would do in our situation. Besides," he said, looking back over his shoulder toward the horizon of where their last battle had been fought; "things like that are never really over. There's no guarantee that those maniacs aren't still out there - some of them. I'm not sure we're really done."
There was a silence more tense than any before as the man struggled for something else to say. Stan exchanged a glance with Wendy, who was making no move to change the mood of the situation. Some things needed to be felt for what they were, he thought as he looked back at the frowning admiral.
"Be that as it may..." the older man began, thinking carefully between each word."We will be needing information regarding the whereabouts of your team's current base of operation. The information we gathered previously proved to be incorrect or outdated upon recent inspection."
"Meaning you went looking for us at the Malkinson's and didn't find us?" Kyle asked. The man nodded.
"Why do you want to know where we sleep?" Stan asked sternly. He chose his words carefully; they didn't just plan to 'operate' from the new site - it was their home. He had no intention of sharing that with anyone outside of their comfortable little circle.
"We simply need contact information so that we can continue to offer you our assistance. We'd like to ensure your safety and maintain—"
"You want to keep an eye on us" Wendy said sharply. Stan could tell she was pulling the thoughts straight from his mind by the way he flustered when she began to speak. "You believe we're dangerous and need to be watched."
"Our surveillance of you will be nothing more than standard procedure to ensure the ongoing safety of everyone involved with you" he insisted. "We will never interfere with your personal lives unless you give us a reason to." His polished, practiced facade had worn away, and his voice was courser, rougher as he spoke. "Besides, since none of you appear to have any parental guidance or guardianship—"
"With due respect, sir, we are not military personnel or property. We're private citizens - barely even that, really. We don't owe it to anyone to be on a map, just because of our abilities. If anything, we're victims of homegrown terrorism; trying to imply that we're the dangerous ones could be a PR nightmare for you at this point. But you're right about one thing - we don't have guardians, because we don't need them. To the best of my knowledge this country considers people to be adults when they're eighteen, correct? If our birth records are accurate, I think you'll find my entire team to be that age or very close to it. We're old enough to be in charge of ourselves, and I think by now we've proved that we're responsible enough to do just that. I'm not giving you any more information, sir."
The admiral looked angry, and like he was deciding exactly how to argue Stan's point. Before he had a chance to speak, Wendy blanketed him with a feeling of acquiescence, and his scowl softened to a look of defeat.
"How will we reach you if you're needed for something?" he asked finally, hands up in a half shrug. Stan smiled.
"Our teammate Token will provide you with a way to contact us if you need to. Past that, I won't be giving anyone anything else about my team or our whereabouts. We need a little break to get our lives in order." He smiled at Kyle and Wendy who bolstered him on either side. "But I promise you one thing, admiral. Even if you can't find us, the Youngbloods will never disappear. We're always gonna be around to help people, especially those that can't help themselves. Consider that before you think of us dangerous. We may not be superheroes, but we're damn well gonna be the good guys."
With that, he nodded once toward the admiral and the men gathered behind him, let Wendy scatter their thoughts enough to dismiss the meeting, and led Kyle and Wendy away from the slightly confused group. He felt their hands on either of his shoulders and a smile pulling at his lips. They weren't superheroes; they were still just a bunch of youngbloods. Knowing that — feeling like nothing more than a man with friends who were nothing more than people — made everything he knew they would undoubtedly be fighting against in the future seem worth it. Together, the three of them headed home.