The outfit Stan was meant to wear to dinner was left on the bed for him. That was the extent of Kyle's planning genius, down to the pair of loafers. Stan slipped them on around 6:30 p.m., dreading the rest of the evening ahead of him. Would he know what to say to these people? Was it possible to back out now? Of course it wasn't. Stan sat on the bed in his jeans and blazer and green loafers, trying to talk himself into it. He could do this, couldn't he? How hard could it be?

"We can do this," Kyle said. Stan looked up to see him standing in the doorway. Kyle was wearing a green cable-knit sweater that matched the color of Stan's shoes; he was not sure that this was unintentional. Other than that, Kyle wore black slacks and white gym shoes. "How do I look?" Kyle turned, showing off his ass. He peered over his shoulder, a small smile on his face. Stan chose to interpret this as a look of hope.

"You look good," said Stan, and he meant it. Inexplicably, unexpectedly, he found himself opening his arms. "Come here," he said, the tightness in his own voice frightening in itself.

"Oh." Kyle stepped forward, and came to perch himself on Stan's lap, wrapping his arms around Stan's whole body. It was the first time he'd sat on Stan's lap by invitation. Kyle's hair bristled under Stan's nose, and Stan breathed it in. "It's okay, Stan. It's going to be okay."

"What if I fuck up, though? I don't know what I'm doing."

"Everyone feels that way."

They sat there for a time, until the doorbell rang.

While it was hardly a shock, it was still a disappointment for Stan to discover that he found Graham Tiller reprehensible. He wore a checked blazer with forest green pants, and while the individual components of this outfit were cut strikingly well, Graham Tiller also had a comb-over, and a high, nasal voice. He stood with one hip jutting out, hand on his waist, blazer pushed back against his forearm. Something about it screamed to Stan, "villain in a movie about an art heist." Unfortunately Graham Tiller seemed to have no motivations other than dragging Stan into a corner and talking about sex while he sipped the lychee-infused martini the hired waiter had made for him. Stan had declined a drink himself.

"These boys just get so moody," Graham was complaining, like Stan knew what was going on. "You know Asher is furious he wasn't invited."

"Um, sorry? Should we have invited him?"

Graham laughed. "Don't worry about it. He'll get over it." Graham was starting down into his drink. "He's been bitching to me about going skiing over Christmas. Swiss Alps. So." Graham looked up and gave Stan a curious look. "He'll get over it." Graham took a swill of his drink, and Stan looked away. "I'm sure you're disappointed he's not here."

"I guess," said Stan, who did not know thing one about Asher, and wasn't sure why he should care if Asher was or wasn't at the dinner party.

"I guess it's not that kind of party," Graham said.

Stan felt stifled by this man's ability to talk. It was like Kyle, but so impassive. Stan wondered if it wouldn't be rude to go upstairs and ditch his own party.

"Victor doesn't swing that way, you know, and he's very businesslike about things, anyway. At Penn, you know, he ran the house with an iron fist."

Stan still had no idea what or who Graham was talking about. "Okay, whatever," he said, arms crossed, back to the wall.

"Are you going to play for us tonight?"

"Play what?"

"Anything," said Graham, "whatever you've written?"

"I didn't write anything," Stan replied.

"That's a bold move. Studios don't want to take a chance on an unknown," said Graham, "but then, perhaps this evening can serve as bait, and you can hook him later—"

It was about here that the doorbell rang, and Stan couldn't help exclaim, "Thank god!"

"Oh good," said Graham, staring into the empty martini glass, "that'll be Victor."

But it wasn't Victor. It was Butters Stotch, bearing a bottle of wine.

"Oh my god," Stan said, clinging to Butters at first sight. "You're here, you have to help me."

"Um, hey Stan," said Butters. He was wearing a soft merino sweater, checked lapels hanging over the neck. He wore his hair short and his gray slacks baggy. To Stan, he look distinctly different from everyone else, everyone else in LA or everyone else at all. The weird thing was, as they stood embracing in the doorway, Stan couldn't call to mind anything about Butters back in South Park, the Butters who was Stan's age. "Okay, it's okay," Butters said, patting Stan on the back, trying to get them out of the threshold and into the house. The voice kept saying, "Front door open, front door open."

"Stan," said Butters, finally. "The door."

Blushing, Stan let go. "Sorry," he said, getting out of the way so Butters could step inside.

"It's not a problem! I, ah, brought this for you guys—" Butters said, handing over the wine.

Stan ran his fingers over the date. It was 12 years old. "Ah, thanks, Butters."

"No problem! Thanks for inviting me! You know I just love this kind of stuff!"

"Yeah," Stan agreed, right as he was hit with the realization that he didn't know what Butters did for a living, why he lived in LA, if he was married, or even if Butters liked women at all. This thought became transfused, quickly, into the idea that perhaps Stan and Kyle had no straight friends whatsoever. Maybe this was how it was when you grew up; maybe people just separated into tribes, the way kids used to assess their own social standing by where they sat on the bus.

"I want to say hi to Kyle," said Butters. "Is he—?"

"Yeah," Stan insisted. "Let's say hi to Kyle."

Kyle was in the kitchen pureeing soup with a bulky immersion blender and barking orders at that waiter he'd hired. "If guests are just standing around you can't just let them stand there! If you see someone just standing there you have to offer them a drink!"

"Yessir," said that waiter, Rosa's brother, whoever he was.

"So, go! I'm not paying you to do everything myself!"

"Kyle!" The blender was running, so Butters had to yell over it.

"Butters!" Kyle shouted, turning the blender off. "You're not supposed to be in the kitchen!"

"Oh, sorry." Butters blushed. "I just wanted to say hello. I brought wine!"

"I'm serving cocktails. Go find that waiter and he'll offer you a cocktail. Did you see Graham?"

"He's out there," Stan said.

"Oh, I'm fine with water until we have some dinner," said Butters, "because I'm driving."

"But doesn't your car drive itself?" Kyle asked.

"It's still illegal."

Kyle turned the blender back on, and the great whirring noise returned. "It's pumpkin soup," Kyle shouted over it, "with curry. And vegetable stock! Don't worry. It's vegetarian."

"I'm not vegetarian!" Butters said, but Kyle's concentration was back on the soup.

The doorbell rang again.

"You'd better go get that, Stanley," Kyle said, turning off the blender and pulling it from the great pot in which he was, apparently, preparing soup.

Then, to Stan's surprise, a voice said, "Front door open."

"I guess they let themselves in!" Butters cheered.

"Oh, Jesus!" Kyle smacked his forehead. "Go, go!"

"I should go?" said Butters.

"No, Stan! Stan, you have to get out there! Butters, you — you, stay with me. Let's chat."

"Sure," said Butters.

"What are you doing?" Kyle hissed, over the sound of guests chatting in the foyer.

"Front door closed," said the voice. After all this time, Stan imagined it to be the voice of the house itself.

"I'm going," said Stan, fleeing from the room. He did not want to know who was at the door.

It was a couple, though, and they seemed to know Graham, who had let them in. "Marsh!" he cried, waving Stan over. "Get over here."

Stan crossed the great room, passing the dining table, all set for the meal that Stan was positively dreading. He enjoyed pumpkin pie, once a year, on Thanksgiving, but the thought of eating pumpkins, or a soup make with pumpkins, unsettled him.

The couple at the door was indistinct in their appearance: a short man without any hair, and his wife, whose hair was dark and black as Stan's, but chin-length and angular. It looked expensive that shimmering hair, and while Stan knew nothing of how women groomed, and less about the economy of grooming, he figured she must have cut it for this occasion, for it looked new, in addition to looking expensive. She said, "Hello," and Stan said, "Hi," mentally berating himself as she stepped away from the other two, Graham and that man, for assuming she was his wife.

"Hi." Stan instinctively crossed his arms over his chest. She made him nervous.

"Azure," she said, extending a hand.

Reluctantly, Stan took it, saying, "Stan." He realized that the other man, that one over there speaking to Graham, must be Victor.

"I've been asking around," she said, the sweep of her angular hair casting a long shadow across her cheek. "I hear your dinner parties are legendary."

"Not mine," Stan croaked. For all that she seemed friendly, he found her impossibly intimidating. "Kyle's. My, uh—" Stan found that his mouth had gone completely dry.

"Marsh!" Graham barked, dragging this Victor toward them. "Pull yourself away from the ladies for a moment."

"So," said the man who must be Victor. Stan was fascinating by the way the overhead light shone off Victor's head. "This is the composer."

"I wouldn't go that far," said Stan.

"I was going to tell you about my project, though your friend Tiller here tells me this is purely a social call. And I said, this is Hollywood, Tiller, there is no such thing as a purely social call."

"Well," Stan began.

"Please," Graham scoffed. "This is fucking Malibu."

"What's the difference?" Victor asked. "Nice place."

"Thanks," said Stan. "I promise I'm not responsible for any of it."

"So, you've met Azure," Graham said, unsteadily, giving Stan a look that suggested Stan could be doing more than he was.

Stan had no idea what that might be. "Yeah."

"Barely," said Azure.

"Barely," Stan repeated.

"And you know Tiller from—"

"The Philharmonic!" Stan didn't know where he remembered that from. Had Kyle mentioned it? "I'm, um, interested in music, obviously—"

"Obviously," said Victor, with a roll of his eyes. "Tell me about your body of work."

"Well." Stan felt trapped in this circle of people, wondering if there wasn't a chance somewhere for an escape. Could he excuse himself for the bathroom? He felt himself beginning to sweat. "I, uh, went undergrad at, um, Berklee. Then I'm from Colorado, so I, um—went to Colorado—"

"Where in Colorado?" Victor asked.

"Boulder, Vic," Graham said, with a sigh. "I'm sure I mentioned all this?"

"You mentioned a brilliant composer you said I needed to meet."

"You do!" said Graham. "And here he is. I believe you were a child prodigy of some sort, Marsh, is that right?"

"Most definitely not." Stan wasn't sure he could make it through this dinner without bursting into tears.

To Stan's great relief, the waiter appeared, trailed by Butters. "Speaking of Colorado!" Stan grabbed Butters' arm and pulled him into the group. "This is our childhood friend. From Colorado."

"Hi," said Butters. "It's true, that's me."

"What's your name?" Victor asked.

"Butters," Stan said.

Butters gave a short laugh. "Well, that's my childhood nickname. Leopold Stotch." He extended a hand, first to Azure, then Victor. Then he and Graham exchanged a short nod. "I coach women's golf at USC."

"Golf, huh? You any good?"

"Better at coaching than playing, obviously, or I probably wouldn't be coaching!"

"Didn't know women's golf was big at USC."

"It's not," Butters said.

"That's a sweet name," Azure said. "Unusual, at least."

"What is?" Stan asked.

"The name 'Butters.' "

"Oh, I dunno," said Butters. "It kinda reminds me of being 9, you know, and sitting in the back of the school bus."

"Butters," said Stan, "you were not cool enough to sit at the back of the school bus."

"Then where'd I sit?" Butters asked.

"Up front," said Stan, "with me and Kyle."

"Well, it was 20 years ago," said Butters. "I mean — oh gosh, 30! Forever ago. Who can remember where they sat on the school bus?"

"It feels like yesterday to me," said Stan, taking a step back. "As if — as if I can picture myself on the damn bus. I can feel ... the rickety seats, and the smell—"

At this, Victor put his hand to his chin, seemingly deep in thought.

"What did it smell like?" Azure asked.

"Well, like — the weather outside. Wet snow. Perspiration. And — and whoever you were sitting next to! If you were sitting next to someone who had a particular scent..." Here Stan was thinking of Kyle, of Kyle's wiry hair peeking out from underneath the hood of his parka or the hat he would have been wearing.

"Faintly of motor oil?" Graham asked.

"Yes," said Stan. "Definitely, um, some of that. If — well, for a long time in elementary school we had the same bus driver, and she had the most particular smell. Like she had birds living in her hair?"

"Ew," said Azure.

"I don't remember that," said Butters. "I just remember sitting in the back, and being jiggled around a lot, feeling kind of nauseous."

"Nauseated," Graham corrected.

"Nausea was some of it," Stan said, "if you were sitting next to someone you liked, or you liked someone and knew where they were sitting, you might be fixated on that person, feeling their presence, I mean — oh god, I'm babbling, I'm making an idiot out of myself."

"Don't be sorry," said Butters. "That's a sweet thought."

Victor looked up. "Well," he said, and his demeanor seemed to have changed. "This is interesting."

"How so?" Graham asked.

"Well, if Marsh here can translate these feelings he's narrating into a score—"

"He could!" Butters exclaimed. "That's what Stan does! He wrote a song when we were kids—"

"Oh?" Victor seemed interested.

"No, I didn't," said Stan, "what song?"

"You remember!" said Stan. "The hybrid cars song!"

"Oh." Stan was disappointed, having hoped Butters meant some song he'd wrote maybe in high school, that maybe he was presently unaware of. "Oh, that stupid song."

"How does it go?" Azure asked.

"Oh, you know," said Butters, "it was kinda like a protest song — Stan wrote it when he was 10!"

"I was 9," Stan corrected.

"Play it for us," Graham suggested.

"I could if I had a guitar."

"Aw, just bang it out on the keyboard," Butters said.

"I can't bang it out on a keyboard," said Stan. "Only a guitar."

"You artists are very particular," said Victor.

"Please," said Graham, "you can't rush art."

"You can when there's an option on the rights to a story that's expiring at the end of the fiscal year," said Victor, "and you have to get this bitch into production or you lose those rights. You know that, Tiller."

"I have the least understanding how options work."

"Well, Butters—"


"Well, Leo," said Victor, "I don't have time to explain the details of the business now."

"The regulations have been vicious," Graham said, to Butters. "That's all."

"I thought Hollywood was supposed to be liberal!" said Butters.

Victor just laughed at this. "How come you've got a sense of humor, and this one doesn't?" He nodded toward Stan.

"Oh, Vic," said Azure. "Don't."

"Are we eating something?" Graham asked. "Is anyone else coming?"

"I guess not?" Stan asked. "Let me — I'll talk to Kyle."

"Where the hell is Kyle?" Graham asked. "Poor guy, is he really in there cooking?"

"He takes this shit seriously," said Stan. "One moment, please."

When Stan returned to the kitchen, Kyle was hunched over the dining table, head in hands.

"Oh, um." Stan paused by the ovens, unsure what to say. "It smells good in here?"

Kyle turned to look at Stan. "Is that a question?"

"No, I mean." Stan took another step closer. "It smells ... good in here?"

Sighing deeply Kyle sat back. "I don't know if I can do this," he said.

"Do what?" Stan asked. "Make dinner?"

"Pretend everything is fine."

"Oh." Stan approached the kitchen table, taking a seat next to Kyle. "Everyone wants to know where you are."

"Well, you could have said I was in the fucking kitchen!"

"I did."

"You should be out there with those people," said Kyle. "You'd better get back out there or you're going to blow it."

"I don't know what to say to people! Business people! I have no fucking idea. I need your help."

"I have to finish plating dinner," said Kyle. "I can't be in two places at once. And I can't keep going like everything's okay. What's going to happen when these people go home? What then?"

"I don't know," said Stan. "We'll go to sleep I guess?"

"I don't want to keep putting meaningless tasks between me and my problems," said Kyle. "And it's become clear that you're one of my problems."

"Uh." Stan was curious what the others were, but he didn't feel it was his place to ask. "Well, look, I'll — I'll be out there soon."

Kyle did not appear until the meal was served. He directed the conversation mostly toward Stan's accomplishments, the commercials he'd worked on, the quality of his master's thesis. "It was moving, genuinely moving," Kyle insisted, though he provided no further context. "I can't hear it without crying. It's just — so incredibly reflective of that period in our lives. I'd call it almost manipulative."

"This all sounds very impressive," said Victor.

"I'm telling you," said Graham. "This is the guy you want."

"We don't have to talk about that," Kyle insisted. "I just hope the steaks are to everyone's liking."

"Great!" said Butters. "Always great. I'm always so grateful to be asked over to dinner."

"Next time you have to have us over," Kyle insisted.

"Aw, gosh," said Butters. "You know I can't cook."

"So," asked Azure, gesturing toward Kyle with her glass. "What do you do?"

"He's a historian," said Graham Tiller, fiddling with his silverware.

Kyle blushed, deeply. "I'm not."

"Don't be modest!" said Butters.

"I am being modest," said Kyle. "I have a degree, but I never did anything with it. So I doubt I could call myself a historian."

"What kind of degree?" asked Victor. "From where?"

"Well, you know," said Kyle. He was sitting up straighter, clearly both embarrassed and flattered by this interest in his professional life. "Boulder. I started working on it when Stan was doing his master's, and then I kind of finished up coursework and we moved out here, so it took me some time to finish the actual dissertation. They nearly kicked me out of the program for taking so long. So I guess you can say I barely finished."

"Dunno," said Victor. "Never went to grad school."

"But you did finish!" said Butters.

"You didn't miss anything," said Kyle. "Those people are all pretty full of themselves. Everyone just wants to prove they know the most about everything. Which is impossible, of course, no one knows something about everything, let alone the most. But at the same time, you sort of start to feel like maybe, yes, you do."

"So what do you do with it?" Victor asked. "I mean, the degree. We're always looking for, you know, consultant historians, for costume dramas, that kind of thing."

"I don't do anything with it! That's flattering, thanks. I was trying to turn my dissertation into a book, you know, but I guess — life got in the way."

"Life, like—"

"Oh, just — you know, worrying, having a social life." Kyle reached for his glass of wine. "There's no, you know, period in which I concentrated. I was interested in world history, sort of like how one aspect of something that's happening somewhere on the globe alters the course of events everywhere. I developed a kind of overarching theory about resources, about global dispersal of natural resources — no one wants to hear this."

Kyle glanced around the table, looking for someone to egg him on. When no one replied, he took a long sip of his drink.

"You'll finish it sometime," Butters said.

"I don't know if I care anymore."

"Do you seriously not care?" Stan asked.

"I don't know," said Kyle. "Man, was the last time you asked me if I cared about my own book?"

"I don't know," Stan echoed. "Never?"

"Eh." After another drink Kyle set his glass down. "You're busy. Writing me little songs."

"You write him little songs?" Azure asked. "That's romantic."

"Don't even think about it," said Victor.

"It can be a little nauseating," said Graham Tiller, "but it's sweet." To Victor, he said, "I told you this guy was sentimental."

"You haven't played us anything yet." Victor leaned toward Stan. "Can we hear one of these songs? What am I supposed to make of you if I can't hear a sample of your work?"

"Um." Stan was trembling fiercely. "I can — later."

As of sensing Stan's fear, Kyle gave a short, charming laugh, waving his hands as if the very thought were ridiculous. "This isn't about business!" he said, his tone light and forgiving. "Let's leave the business for next week. This is just a social thing, you know?"

"I'm sure I sent you a portfolio or something," said Graham Tiller.

"Yeah, I could ask my girl, I could double-check on that."

"I know," said Kyle, standing. "This is probably a good time for dessert."

"What's for dessert?" Butters asked.

"Soufflés and mango ice cream," said Kyle, picking up his own plate. "No one get up! I'll get these cleared. Just — sit tight!" he disappeared back into the kitchen.


Stan had literally never dumped anyone. He only realized this as he was waiting for Wendy at her locker, after lunch. She had one on the bottom, and Stan had sat down in front of it, so that she couldn't miss him. Now he wasn't sure she was coming; the lunch rush had already passed, and now it was recess. So he had been thinking about Wendy for 10 minutes. He was trying to figure out, had he ever actually dumped her? They stopped dating, at some point. Somewhere between seventh grade and high school. He couldn't recall her dumping him. (Stan had never been dumped, either.) By the time she materialized, he had come to the conclusion that their relationship had never really ended; rather, it had petered out.

"What's up?" Wendy asked, when she did show. Her hair was looking very clean and very staticky, Stan noted, and she had on a blue sweater that slouched off one exposed shoulder. This sweater fell to her thighs and underneath she wore yellow jeggings. She pushed her weight back on her left foot, as if drawing away from Stan.

"Your friend Bebe's pretty observant." He got up, dusting his pants off. He never sat on the floor anymore, he realized, unless it was on those tatami mats in the pagoda in his backyard. (He and Kyle had once had sex in there, and the mats had given Kyle horrible burns on his forearms.)

"I know," said Wendy. "That's it, that's what you're doing here?"

"I'd like to talk to you," Stan said.

"Very well." She shrugged. "You know, Kyle was crying at lunch. It was kind of tragic. Where were you?"

"Waiting for you. Can we not talk about Kyle? This is actually not about Kyle."

"Stan, when isn't it about Kyle with you? He's your little shadow."

"I know."

They were ambling down the hallway now, passing empty classrooms. Stan tried to ignore the white paint peeling off the painted cinderblock walls. It depressed him to think about how badly underfunded this school was. "Look," Stan said, "I don't think anyone appreciates being fucked around with. And I've been fucking you around a lot, I guess. So, I'm sorry."

"Oh!" she said. "Thanks!"

"Yeah. I mean, I'm sorry for being such a shitty boyfriend to you. You're a really cool girl." Stan wasn't actually sure that she was, though he liked the color of her sweater and admired the bold way she'd paired it with those jeggings. "I think, all things considered, a cool girl like you shouldn't be going out with a shitty boyfriend like me."

He expected her to be upset. She pushed out a deep sigh. "Yeah. I know."

"Yeah. So, I mean — we really shouldn't be dating."

"Probably not," she agreed. They were paused in the middle of the hallway. There were seven minutes left of recess, and it was eerily quiet. "I mean, we started when we were what, 8?"

"I guess," said Stan. "Yeah, 8 seems about right."

"I mean, that's not real dating."

"No, it's not. Real dating is about someone you desperately want to spend time with. And that kind of shit. And someone who can take care of you. And I can't take care of you, Wendy. I'm sorry."

"It's okay!" she said. "Really. I don't really need to be taken care of."

"And wanting to kiss that person," Stan continued. "And feeling, you know, sexual things."

"Wow. That's, um, kind of a lot of info."

"Well, I can't feel sexual things for you," said Stan.

"Because of Kyle?"

"I mean — I guess, but. More because I'm just not into girls, you know. At all."

"Oh." She blinked. "Then how could you possibly be attracted to Kyle?"

"I didn't say I was attracted to Kyle!" Stan said, though he was grinning at her joke. It was a bit mean, but it reminded him of his Kyle, of the graceful curve of that Kyle's back when he arched into a climax, of the way that Kyle licked ice cream off his fingers, and fed Stan forkfuls of cake. "Just — it's not you, you know?"

"It's okay," she said. "I won't tell anyone."

"I don't care if you do."

"But I won't," she said. "I'd appreciate discretion, too. I kind of like someone." Her eyes lit up, but her face was flush.

"Who?" Stan asked.

"Oh, god — well. Eric Cartman," she said, quickly. "He, um — meh. I can't explain it!"

"He's pretty gross," said Stan. "He lives with his mother!"

"Well, who doesn't?" Wendy asked. It made Stan sad, just slightly. "He is gross, though, so — please don't tell anyone. Don't tell him. Don't tell Kyle!"

"I won't tell Kyle," Stan promised. "We've got other things to worry about, me and him."

"I suppose. Can you, um, tell your sister thanks for the volume trick?"

"I will." Stan gave her a sad look.

"It's okay!" she said, and she pulled him into a hug. In a whisper, she said, "Thanks for telling me."

"You're welcome," he replied. They remained in the embrace until the first warning bell rang.

"Well," said Victor, heading toward the door. "It's really getting pretty late."

"It's only 9," said Graham Tiller, looking at his wrist lazily, as if he had a watch. "Let's have a cigar."

"I don't smoke cigars," said Vincent. "And I've got some costumer designer from the costume designer's union who wants to chew my ear off at 8:45 tomorrow."

"Sounds horrible," said Kyle.

"I've never smoked a cigar," said Butters. "What are they like?"

Graham sat forward. "Tell you what," he said, "I got some contraband as a favor recently. I could do a favor and get you a sample, if you could find some time to take me out and show me some of these coaching pointers of yours."

"Gosh," said Butters. "I dunno, I'm not ... I don't think I need any samples?"

"Then how about just out of the kindness of your heart?"

"Well, I dunno." Butters seemed to be at least considering this proposition.

"We're really going," said Vincent. "Tiller, I'll — you know what I'll do."

"Great," said Graham, in an uneasy way.

Kyle leaned over to whisper in Stan's ear, "You'd better go follow that man to the door and seal the deal, unless you want to sleep in the fucking pagoda tonight!"

Stan understood. He stood up, rushing to follow Vincent and Azure to the door. "Here," he called, voice echoing in the foyer. "Let me show you out."

"This wasn't the worst evening of my life." Vincent paused at the door way.

"It wasn't? Uh — good! I'm glad."

"You seem like a bit of a drip, Marsh, but that thing you said, about sitting on the school bus..." There was a pause, and Victor took a deep breath. "Tell you what. Here's what I'll do. I'll make sure my secretary gets you a copy of the script. You can read it over and, maybe at the end of next week, we can get lunch and discuss what kind of mood you're thinking. You know — you can pitch me an idea, for like, the vibe of the kind of score you'd write, or whatever. Um, what's a good time, oh — Thursday or Friday."

"Sure, ah — I can do that!"

"Great, then, that's that—"

"Yeah, hey — Azure!"

She had been standing behind him the whole time. "Yes?"

"You have a tablet? Can we write this down?"

"No, nothing like that fits in my purse! Use your phone, darling."

"Oh!" Victor pulled his phone out, and began to tap something in. "Friday ... mm, how's 1? Or 2?"

"Either's good," said Stan, not knowing his own schedule.

"Let's do 1:30."

"Sure, I can do 1:30."

"Great," he said. "I'll see you then."

"Yeah, totally," Stan agreed.

"It was a lovely party," said Azure. "I'll need that mango ice cream recipe."

"Oh! Okay, I'll tell Kyle."

"Yes, please do. I ought to make that for my mother-in-law."

"She wouldn't give a shit," said Victor, and then he turned away, pulling his car key from his pocket.

"Well, darling," Azure was saying, "are you certain you're all right to drive?"

"Does it matter?" he asked. "Damn car can drive itself."

This was where Stan closed the door on them.

Kyle had been scarce all day, and Stan missed him greatly. He felt a sense of ease regarding the situation with Wendy, and curiously, the money he still owed to Craig was not bothering him at all. It was only Kyle that was of any concern to Stan. Their conversation that morning had been disturbing, though not in a profound way, merely enough to leave Stan feeling unsettled as he made the conscious decision to blow off basketball practice and go straight home to talk to his mother or play with his old dog or just stew. He hadn't done any homework that week, either, what with all the raking. But that was the great thing about having perspective on his entire childhood at once: Stan would know all the answers on the tests, the same way he knew he'd never become a basketball player and wouldn't regret quitting. Or, in this case, not bothering to show up. He packed his bag after last period, wishing Kyle would show up to walk home with him, but knowing Kyle wouldn't.

As Stan was pulling on his scarf, someone in black jeans came to stand next to his locker. Stan looked up and saw that this was Craig.

"Hey," Stan said, straightening up.

"Hey, Marsh," said Craig. "I want my money."

Stan knew what he had to do. He sighed, bending over again to scrounge in the front pocket of his backpack for the wad of cash that Craig was now demanding. "Here you go," he said, standing up. If this was going to go down, Stan at least wanted to look Craig in the eye.

Sure enough, Craig counted, then counted again. Craig scowled, and while he counted, Stan noted that Craig's hair was very greasy, nearly matted to his forehead.

"Where's the rest?" Craig asked, looking up.

"That's it."

"This is it?"

"Yep," said Stan.

"Are you shitting me?"

"No, why?"

"You can't be serious!" Craig exclaimed.

Stan was growing tired of this, of the meaningless social obligations that peppered the middle school experience. "Look," he said, slamming his locker shut. "That's what I have. I think it's an impressive effort."

"Impressive my ass," Craig said. "Where's the rest?"

"There is no more, that's it."

"This is unacceptable!"

"Oh, well," said Stan. "Not my problem."

"It is so your problem! I'll tell my dad! He's gonna be super pissed!"

"I'm really not afraid of your dad, Craig."

"You should be! He'll tell your parents."

"Well, let him do that! Who cares? I mean, really, I have more important shit going on. Who fucking cares."

"You should care, Marsh. Because I am going to destroy you."

"How could you possibly destroy me? You're, like, 12."

It took a moment for Craig to collect himself against the insinuation that he was powerless against Stan. Finally he said, "Well, I guess your parents will just ... find out about this. I tried to help you out, but—"

"You weren't trying to help me out, you little shit, you were trying to make 20 dollars."

"Is it so wrong to want to make 20 bucks?" Craig asked. "Especially if it helps a guy out at the same time? That's your problem, Marsh, you take everything so fucking seriously, until you don't. I am an entrepreneur."

"Like fuck you are," said Stan. "You're going to grow up and be the manager of a Denny's."

"Like hell I am. You'd like that!"

"No, I wouldn't. Because, guess what, I really couldn't care less. Fuck you and fuck your 200 bucks. Whatever happens, happens. I'm not afraid of you. You're a fucking child."

"And you're what, the king of the Netherlands?"

"No, I'm too mature to have this conversation."

"That's bullshit," said Craig.

"Whatever," said Stan, "I am leaving." He lifted his hand and, with a flourish, extended his middle finger.

"Fuck you!" Craig exclaimed, returning the gesture.

Stan did not say anything in response. He simply hoisted his backpack and left Craig standing in front of the lockers. He was desperate to get home.

Upstairs, Kyle ran his fingers through Stan's hair, led him to the bed, pressing short kisses to Stan's jaw. "You did it, you did it," Kyle whispered, his hands finding Stan's shoulders, sitting him at the edge of the big mattress. "My hero."

Stan pulled Kyle into his lap. "We did it together!" He realized the tone of this moment was subdued, and covered his mouth. "Kyle, I owe you everything—"

Kyle put a finger to Stan's lips. "Sh." He pecked at the corner of Stan's mouth, then licked, then opened up, wide, sucking and stroking with his tongue. This time, Stan shuddered, and let Kyle in, their faces touching, Kyle's hands in Stan's hair. Stan groaned when Kyle said, "Shhhh," against his mouth, and got up.

"Don't leave me?"

"I'll be right back." Kyle blew a little kiss, which was corny, but it made Stan's heart throb. Truly, he could feel it, growing bigger inside his chest. This feeling, this enveloping feeling — Kyle disappeared into his closet, and Stan missed him. Stan sat on the bed, shaking, the edge of his worries dulled, just wanting Kyle to come back, wondering if he should dare follow.

When Kyle did return he was naked, no slacks, no bathrobe. He just stood there, his hand still on the closet doorknob, all of his pink flesh flushed. It was really the first time Stan had gotten a good look at Kyle, without clothes or sheets or angles to obscure him. He was shaped unfairly, bolted together, soft and ill-defined except for his behind, which even from the front Stan could tell was tightly drawn into a slope of premier shape and attitude. Kyle's erection, Stan finally saw, wasn't half-realized at all, it just bent low and too long to support itself. Stan realized his was hard, too, and he was leaking, boyishly, into his pants. Kyle was nothing like any person he could conceive of wanting so badly, and yet he did, his heart pounding, wanting to know the right thing or say or do to tell Kyle how beautiful Stan thought he was, how much he wanted Kyle to come over.

"Oh," said Kyle, after he'd been standing there for a moment. "You're still dressed."

"I didn't know if it was okay—"

"It's all right." Kyle shut the closet door and tipped forward. "I'll help." He sat on the bed next to Stan, nipping at Stan's jaw again, and began unbuttoning everything. Kyle's breath was everywhere; he was warm and dry, his cock dripping fluid now onto Stan's jeans. "Sorry," he said, inching away as he noticed.

"No," said Stan. "Please don't go."

"You're so nervous." Kyle folded the shirt he'd just pulled from Stan's shoulders. He put it on the floor. "What's wrong? Everything's great, Stan."

"I'm just..." This was the first moment when Stan understood that they were going to have sex, that it was inevitable, and how badly he wanted it.

Kyle touched Stan's bare chest, fingertips brushing the thick mat of fine hairs, inhaling Stan's scent by nuzzling the place where Stan's hairline met his neck. "Don't be nervous," said Kyle, his tongue darting out just briefly enough to make Stan's cock jump. His pants were still on, the fly unbuttoned. Stan wanted to tear them off the rest of the way, but he was so nervous, terrified to move. The moment was so perfect, but it felt all too fragile, as if the wrong move might leave it fraying, falling apart in his hands. And just when he wanted so badly to embrace it in full.

"I want you inside of me," Kyle whispered at the shell of Stan's ear. That did it, surely, that made Stan unable to resist pulling his jeans off and letting them fall to the floor. Now his erection was restrained only by thin boxers, and when Kyle sucked gently as Stan's neck and Stan shifted, slightly, his dick forced down the elastic waistband of his underwear, revealing itself.

Before Stan could flee, Kyle clutched it, exclaiming, "I need this!"

"You do?" Stan asked. Kyle's fingers were tensing on the head, drawing up around it, smearing the fluids across it with his thumb.

"It's been so long, Stan, like a week. You know I can't go a week! I've been playing with myself in the shower, trying to keep my ass all stretched out for you."

"Oh my god," said Stan, shutting his eyes. He lay back on the bed, unsure of what he should say or do to keep from ruining this moment. He felt Kyle's hands leave his dick, and then Kyle's fingers under his boxers, slipping them down his thighs. When Stan opened his eyes again Kyle was on the floor, kneeling at Stan's feet, which dangled from the bed. "You don't have to," Stan said, afraid Kyle would take this as a cue to leave.

"Fuck, I want to," Kyle replied, his voice dark and heavy, laden with want. "Just—" He grabbed Stan's erection again, as if using it to hoist himself up. "Okay, yeah." Stan felt Kyle's torso against his legs, reveling in the way his short leg hairs felt against Kyle's nipples as they moved against Stan. They were hard, those nipples; Stan tried to imagine them as he lay back, groaning, unable to process how much he wanted this.

When Kyle was more steady on his knees, he yanked on Stan's thighs until he was spread open awkwardly at the foot of the bed, the angle pressing into his behind. "Okay," Kyle breathed, "okay, I'm a little rusty but I think you need this—" and he plunged, lips sliding against the head of Stan's cock.

It wasn't like nothing Stan had ever felt before; it was more like jerking off with a handful of conditioner in the shower than Stan could have imagined. But there was something about knowing it was Kyle's mouth on his dick that made Stan cry out, "Oh my god!" and lurch upward.

"Shhh." Kyle pushed Stan backward. "Don't come," he said, words slightly garbled, though clear. "I need this dick in me, okay? I'm just going to get it nice and ready to slip inside of me."

"Okay." Stan felt as though he might cry at the thought. "But I don't know, I've never—"

There was no reply. Kyle had taken Stan's dick in his mouth, deeper this time. He was rubbing Stan's balls, too, tugging at them slightly.

Stan felt consumed by his senses, both lust and need, the need to tell Kyle everything he'd ever felt: You're my first, you're my only, I'd never want this with anyone but you. But Stan was unable to make sentences that followed any coherent line of thought. All he could do was let Kyle suck him — though Stan was shocked at how unlike sucking it was. It was Kyle's hands and tongue that did most of the work, pushing back Stan's foreskin as far as it could go, or tugging at Stan's pubic hair.

When Stan felt he could go no further without exploding, he began to whimper, pushing his hips back against Kyle. "I'm gonna," he started to say, "Kyle, I — I'm, I—"

Letting Stan's dick fall from his mouth, Kyle sat up and said, "Good boy. Good boy, thanks for telling me." He grabbed Stan's cock and gave it a soft squeeze. "We can't waste this. You know I need it inside of me."

Trembling, Stan shook his head. This was the scary part, the part where Stan expected Kyle to be most disappointed. "I want to," he said, and it was genuine. "I want to, so much."

"Do you need it?" Kyle asked.

"I do."

"What are you going to do with this fat cock?"

"P-put it in you?"

"Yeah, that's what you're going to do," said Kyle. "You're going to give me what I want."

"I will," said Stan. He how small he sounded when he said it. "Just, I don't know how. Please show me?" This came out fragile, barely a whisper.

"Show you what, Stan?" Kyle was sitting next to Stan now, pressing brief kisses to Stan's jaw, and to Stan's temple.

"I've never — I don't know how."

Stan was expecting Kyle to lose his patience now, afraid of how lost and clueless he sounded. But Kyle didn't seem angry. Instead he touched his lips to Stan's more fully, enveloping Stan in a kiss that opened and then almost instantly closed with Kyle's teeth around Stan's lip. To Stan, who had never so much as frenched anyone, it was shocking. He had exchanged a number of brief, dispassionate swipes with Wendy, and those had been exciting, for a time. Then they had become prefunctory, and then Stan and Wendy had stopped kissing at all. It had always been Kyle Stan wanted to kiss, and here it was, and it was both difficult (Stan was having trouble breathing) and painful (Kyle's teeth were a factor) and arousing, too. It was all Stan could do to slide his hands against Kyle's back, feeling the warmth of Kyle's skin against his fingers. Stan's hands were aching again, but they felt better against Kyle's back. Even the weight of Kyle on Stan's lap felt right, as if it belonged there. If Stan was to die someday, this was how he wanted to go: completely smothered in passion, barely able to breathe. His rational mind fought back at how stupid and how loud every thought inside his head felt. Also, he was gripping Kyle's back as if holding on for dear life.

"Hey," Kyle said, his words sodden, grabbing at Stan's wrists. "Stop that. I need you. Right now."

Intellectually, Stan tried to work out what he would do: push his dick inside of Kyle, and then do it again, and again, until he came. It wasn't as if Stan hadn't thought about it before, what exactly it would entail. His fantasies has never encompassed this Kyle, with his vulnerable insistence on being fucked, or at least gratified. Stan called to mind Kyle on the living room sofa, fucking himself on his fingers, looking at pornography. If the evening's events had shown Stan anything, it was that this Kyle was a mystery to him. All Stan had to do was push his dick in, simple as that. Yet he remained frozen, willing himself not to burst into tears of relief.

"Stan?" Kyle asked. He'd tucked his lips against Stan's neck again, and was playing with Stan's hair. "I need—"

"I'm sorry," Stan mouthed, unsure if he was saying these words or not. "I can't, I don't know what to do."

Kyle's lips tensed, and he seemed annoyed for a moment. And then something remarkable happened: a look of intense kindness came over his face. "Poor Stanley," he said, in a tone that sounded sincere. "I know, shhh. Let's—" He didn't finish his thought. Instead, he let go of the back of Stan's neck and rather ungracefully spit into his own hand.

"Wha—?" Stan was insure of the significance of this gesture, thought in short order Stan was sighing as Kyle grasped Stan's dick.

"I'll take care of it," Kyle said, sort of rubbing the spit into Stan's erection.

Stan's head fell back, thinking this was it, he was going to come. Another guy had never brought him off before, and there was something immense and frightening in the idea of it, even as Stan wanted it more than anything. For a moment, nothing happened at all.

Then Kyle climbed back atop Stan's lap, straddling Stan's thighs. Kyle steadied himself against one of Stan's shoulders, and with his other hand he grasped Stan's dick again. It was all happening very fast, somewhat too fast for Stan to know what exactly was happening. A transitional moment was occurring, and Stan felt lucky to be a part of it. He felt the need to thrust, suddenly, but Kyle said, "Not yet!" and instinctively, Stan stilled. Kyle's cock was pressed to Stan's stomach, and Kyle was making the most sublime face, the tip of his tongue caught between his teeth, his pupils big and dark. He buried his face in Stan's hair, and Stan felt him sink down, quickly.

It had happened so fast that Stan needed a moment to gather what had happened: he was inside of Kyle.

Tears sprang to Stan's eyes. "Oh my god," he sobbed, not sure if he was managing this situation properly. Kyle was seated on Stan fully, shuddering, as if he had climbed a mountain. His breaths began to steady, and Kyle began to pull back up.

For just a moment Stan worried that Kyle was leaving. Then, quicker than he'd slid down the first time, he slapped his ass back onto Stan's lap.

"You're the only one," Kyle whimpered, sounding somewhat breathless. "The only one, I can't, I can't — the only one."

"You too," Stan agreed. He was overcome by feelings, by his instinct to actively respond physically to what Kyle was doing. With his free hand Kyle grabbed one of Stan's and wrapped it around his dick.

Stan pumped it unsteadily, delighting at the slickness. He had touched his own cock so often in the past several days that he was unable to stop comparing Kyle's to his own. His was larger overall, in both girth and in general feeling. Kyle's was long, though, and it felt comfortable in Stan's grip. It seemed to fit, as though Stan had held it in his hand a thousand times. It twitched as Stan's stroked it, leaking precome. As Kyle fucked himself on Stan's dick he thrust into Stan's fist. For the first time Stan opened his eyes fully and looked, really looked, at Kyle mid-coitus. Kyle was fucking beautiful, Stan thought, and he had to look away as he was gradually overcome by his own mounting climax. When he was able to turn back to Kyle, proud of himself for keeping it together, Stan noticed Kyle was crying, tears streaming down his face, hanging precarious from the tip of his nose.

"It's okay," Stan choked out, too caught up in the moment to manage much else.

Like a dam burst, Kyle wept, "Please don't leave me!"

"I — ah — I wouldn't, I would never, I—"

"This is all I have," Kyle cried, his pace becoming more erratic. "I need it, you're the only one, don't—"

"I won't," Stan promised, though he would have promised anything. "I love you," he managed, hissing it through clenched teeth.

"I know, me too. I know—" And Kyle came.

After Stan had come, too, they showered together. Finally Stan saw the use of this large shower; it was really best to do this with someone, he figured. In a sense, as Kyle rubbed organic soap into Stan's chest hair, Stan didn't feel much different than he ever had. In another way, now Stan felt like he had a little secret to keep, like the sex he'd had with Kyle was an illicit truth they shared, that no one else could ever know. In one sense Stan was sure this was correct, at least in the way that Stan still knew, somewhere, that he was 13, and that years of his life had vanished. If Kyle knew he'd had sex with a 13-year-old, Stan figured, Kyle might have been upset. In another sense, he felt more content now, arms looped around Kyle's shoulders as the jet of the shower rained down on them.

"Isn't this better?" Kyle asked, wiping suds from Stan's eyes.

Stan didn't need to ask what. "Yeah," he said. "It is better."

"We can work on this stuff later," said Kyle, "you know, all that like — boring grown-up shit. Just promise me you're not going anywhere."

"Where would I go?"

Kyle didn't reply. There was nothing else to say.