Thanks very much to julads for beta reading, and for encouraging me along the way!


It was hot that summer, and Stan let Karen talk him into sleeping with the bedroom windows open. She actually found it comforting: the smell of night air and the singing of the bugs, the curtains wafting in the air. Falling asleep with the windows open made Stan nervous, and he spent the first few weeks of the summer sleeping poorly, feeling as if something was outside, nearby, waiting to strike.

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-June, he was transferring the tomato plant seedlings to the raised bed where they grew all their vegetables. He paused and took his hands from the soil when he felt a chill, despite the sweat that had soaked down the back of his neck. He stood and turned, scanning their expansive property for the source of this feeling that he was being watched. They lived ten minutes from the nearest neighbor, half an hour outside of South Park. Karen had gone to town that morning to meet Kenny. The two of them escorted Carol to church every Sunday, and Karen wouldn't be back until late afternoon, carrying whatever McCormick family junk Carol had insisted she take home this time. Stan used to go with them, but he'd lost his patience for church.

He turned back to his vegetable bed and shouted when he saw that he wasn't alone. There was a man standing on the other side of the bed, behind the staked cucumber shoots.

- color-droplet -

"Kyle?" Stan said when he recognized Kyle's smirk, that fake confidence. "What the hell?" Kyle's hair was black and shaggy. He was wearing a leather jacket, despite the heat, and his chubby cheeks were bright red.

"I thought you would get a kick out of this," Kyle said, and he reached up to pull the wig off, revealing damp red curls. "My disguise." He tossed the wig to Stan, who caught it clumsily, feeling as if he was touching some recently deceased little animal. It was heavy with Kyle's sweat.

"Did you walk here?" Stan asked, not sure why this was the first question that came out.

"You might say I came the back way," Kyle said. "Through the pasture. Is that what it's called? Yeah, the pasture. Impressive cows. I can't believe you're really doing this."

"Doing what?" Stan couldn't believe anything about the current situation, but he'd never been sorry to see Kyle, and he wasn't now.

"Farming," Kyle said. "Raising cows."

"Oh, right." Stan had purchased the farm three years ago, after Jimbo died and left him a surprising inheritance. "Well, yeah, um. Here I am. I am really doing this." He waited, holding Kyle's gaze. The smirk had faded. "So, what are you doing?" Stan asked. "Here, I mean?"

"I'm sort of in a pickle," Kyle said. "Can I come in?"

"Yeah, sure." Stan wasn't sure what to do with the wig. "What's wrong?"

"I'll tell you inside. Maybe after some water. Is she around?"

"Karen's in town with her mom."

"I knew that, actually," Kyle said, walking toward the house. Stan followed him, feeling like a high school kid again, never sure what Kyle was going to do next.

"Don't you want to take that jacket off?" Stan asked as they came into the foyer. "You look like you're burning up in that thing."

"I guess I should," Kyle said. He turned to Stan and sighed, looking down at his hands. "Ugh, just. Don't be shocked."

"About what?"

Kyle shrugged the jacket off, peeling each sleeve away from his skin carefully. It seemed too small for him, as if it had swelled in the heat, or as if he had. He was wearing a t-shirt underneath, and Stan cursed when he saw that Kyle had scrapes and cuts all over his arms, as if he'd been in fight with ten alley cats. Some of the cuts were raw, puffy and irritated.

"It's not as bad as it looks," Kyle said when Stan stepped closer.

"Let me — get you something, here." Stan dropped the wig to the floor and took Kyle's arm, gripping him over his sleeve and holding him only gently, in case there were more cuts under there. Once they were in the hall bathroom, cold water running over a hand towel, Stan saw that Kyle had a cut on his lip, too. It was a small one, only noticeable up close. "What the hell happened to you?" Stan asked.

"Well," Kyle said. He looked in the mirror and moaned at his reflection. "Someone tried to kill me, is what happened."

"What? Who? Why?" Stan brought the cloth to Kyle's arm and moved it carefully over his cuts. They had Neosporin in the upstairs bathroom. The thought reassured him a little, but his stomach was all pinched up. He'd never been able to stand the sight of Kyle in pain, damaged, suffering.

"It's a long story, okay?" Kyle said. "Can I at least sit down and have a drink before I get into the whole thing? Jesus, Stan, and what are you doing, exactly?"

"You looked—" Stan brought his eyes up to Kyle's. "Looked like you needed to have them cleaned out," he said, mumbling. He handed the towel to Kyle.

"I need a lot of things, frankly," Kyle said. "But these are shallow, just scratches. The least of my problems."

"I hope you got him arrested," Stan said.


"The guy who did this! Who was he? Oh, fuck, c'mon, come into the kitchen. I'm gonna get you something for those cuts. They might be infected."

"I can't believe you don't have children," Kyle said, and Stan left the bathroom.

The second floor of the house was stuffy and warm; their air conditioning unit couldn't keep up, at least at the financially feasible temperature Stan had set it to. He realized his heart was pounding as he rummaged through the medicine cabinet in the master bathroom, and his fingers were shaking when he pulled out the Neosporin. He grabbed band-aids, too, though there were only five left in the box, surely not enough to cover all of Kyle's wounds.

Downstairs, Kyle was drinking orange juice from the carton. He set it on the counter when Stan walked in.

"Sorry," he said. "I don't know where you keep your glasses. I didn't want to go rummaging through your cabinets."

"It doesn't matter," Stan said. Kyle always got like this in a crisis: obsessing over irrelevant details, talking too much, trying to appear unshaken. "Here," Stan said, and he passed Kyle the Neosporin, the band-aids. Kyle puzzled at them like they were some lost civilization's ancient artifacts.

"Here's the thing," he said when he looked up. "I had to kill the guy. Don't look at me like that, Stan. I had to."

Stan had a sense of déjà vu, not because Kyle had told him he'd killed a guy before, but because he remembered this well: thinking he could never anticipate Kyle's next move, and later feeling as if he should have somehow expected what he never could have guessed.

"Well," Stan said, his pinched stomach beginning to twist, a kind of tense helix forming at the center of him. "You told the police that. Right?"

"You don't know what the police in Utah are like!" Kyle flung the Neosporin and band-aids onto the counter and grabbed Stan's arms. "This man who tried to kill me, he was a politician. I was his secret gay lover. Whose side of the story do you think they're going to believe? The dead man's, not mine!"

"Shh, okay," Stan said, because Kyle was beginning to cry, his lips trembling. "Sit down." He had to guide Kyle into the chair, and he offered him a paper napkin to dry his tears when he began to sniffle. "Okay," Stan said. Everything about the moment felt surreal, just another complication of knowing Kyle. "How long ago did this happen?" Stan asked. He wondered if Karen was on the road yet, headed home. He hoped not. She'd never liked Kyle, and the feeling was mutual.

"It was two days ago — no, three?" Kyle blew his nose into the napkin. "Oh, Stan, oh God. I still can't believe it happened. It was so fast, the struggle, like a blur, and then he was just. Dead. I didn't know where else to go."

"We'll go to the police," Stan said, reaching for Kyle's wrist. Kyle yanked his hand away, his expression turning furious.

"I can't," Kyle said. "Did you not just hear me? They'll nail me to a cross."

"What's the alternative?" Stan asked. He was sweating again, beads of it rolling down his neck and making him shiver. "Kyle, listen. You're upset. You're not thinking. There's evidence that he hurt you — have you got any other scrapes or bruises? We can tell them you were just scared—"

"I'm not telling anyone anything," Kyle said, and he stood from the table. "If you won't help me, I'll just go. My only other alternative is Cartman, and you know what he'll ask for in return, but he knows the sort of people who can forge passports—"

"You're talking crazy." Stan stood and took Kyle's elbows, glad when Kyle allowed this. "You're not going to Cartman. Stop, sit down. Let's — do you want a drink? I can make you a mint julep."

Kyle's eyes softened, and he looked at Stan with surprise, rearing back slightly. He sniffled.

"You have mint?" he said. Stan nodded. He always kept the stuff for Kyle's favorite drink on hand, though he was never expecting a visit. The mint plant had lasted out the winter as usual, and it was starting to get bushy and healthy again. Mint was always the heartiest herb in his garden.

Kyle wandered around the living room with his drink, peering at framed pictures. Stan had poured straight bourbon for himself, and he was sitting on the couch with the glass pressed between his hands, his heel bouncing on the carpet.

"This will sound crass," Kyle said when he finally turned from the mantle, "But I think I might have gotten away with it."

"Oh?" Stan's stomach twisted up more tightly.

"No one knew about us," Kyle said. "And I'm a very efficient cleaner. I spent hours getting rid of any physical evidence that I had been in the house, and I know he triple deleted any communications from me, of which there were few, so that he couldn't be caught with his dick up my ass, figuratively. He was going through a bad divorce — they'll suspect the wife."

"Kyle. Do you hear what you're saying? You want an innocent woman to be blamed for this?"

"She's not innocent!" Kyle said, and for a moment Stan was afraid he'd smash his julep glass against the fireplace. "She's a wretched, heartless woman, and anyway, they'd never be able to prove a case against her. It will just throw them off my trail."

"You've got to stop talking like this," Stan said. "I'm dizzy — I feel like I'm going to throw up."

"Talking like what?" Kyle narrowed his eyes. "This is reality, things happen, mistakes get made. We don't all just inherit a cow farm and marry the little match girl from down the road."

"You know I don't like it when you call her that."

"Well, excuse the fuck out of me, I'm a bit too stressed out right now to keep your rules about Karen in mind."

Just as Kyle said her name, they both heard her tires coming up the long, unpaved driveway, crunching over the gravel. Stan stood from the couch, and Kyle finished his drink in one dramatic gulp, throwing his head back. Stan still hadn't sipped from his. He went into the kitchen with it and dumped the bourbon down the drain. She didn't like him drinking during the day; it reminded her too much of her father, and some less savory times from Stan's past.

"Obviously you won't tell her," Kyle said, speaking directly in Stan's ear. Stan gasped and grabbed for the rim of the sink. He turned halfway; Kyle was right behind him, breathing in heavy gusts against Stan's cheek. Outside, the door of Karen's car opened and shut. "You never did tell her, did you?" Kyle asked, searching Stan's eyes. He rested his hand on Stan's hip. "About any of it?"

"This is not—" Stan said, and he pushed Kyle away, hurrying toward the foyer as Karen came into the house. She was grinning, looking tired, and holding a big garbage bag full of what looked like old clothes.

"I had to take half her wardrobe," Karen said. "Vintage Wall-Mart, from her slutting around days. She said if I'm not going to be getting pregnant anytime soon I might as well—" Her eyes fell on Kyle, who had moved into the kitchen doorway. "Oh," she said, and she looked to Stan again. "Oh, hey."

"Kyle's here," Stan said, idiotically. The wig was still on the floor. Karen was staring at it.

"Forgive me," Kyle said. "I've just had a bad breakup. I basically walked here from Utah. Never mind that." He came forward to toe the wig. "It was a joke for Stan, I tried to scare him."

"Oh my God," Karen said. "Your arms! Are you okay?"

"I'll be fine after a few more juleps," Kyle said. He leaned forward to kiss the air near Karen's left cheek, then the right. "I'll take those old slut clothes," he said when he stepped back. "If you don't want them."

Karen made baked chicken with onions and red peppers for dinner, and Stan boiled a side of broccoli. Kyle got drunk and pushed the food around on his plate with his fork.

"It still amazes me that I ended up in Utah at all," Kyle said, sitting back to twirl his wine in the glass. Karen had suggested they open it; the bottle was expensive, something they'd been saving for an undecided occasion. "It's almost as bizarre as Stan ending up here," Kyle said, loudly. "On a cow farm, I mean," he said, giving Karen a consoling look. "I'm hardly surprised that he settled down near South Park."

"How long are you planning on staying in town?" Karen asked. She'd given Stan several significant looks during the meal preparation.

"Oh, I don't know," Kyle said. "Everything's just so — up in the air, I'm totally rootless, and Karen, Stan, I have to ask you — please don't tell anyone from town that I'm here, and I mean anyone. Even Kenny. It will get around to my mother, and I absolutely cannot see her, I won't."

"You guys are still in a fight?" Karen said. She reached for the wine bottle, and tilted it to double check when she found that it was empty.

"It's not a fight, it's a feud," Kyle said. "It's to do with my father's funeral and how that whole thing went down — ancient stuff. Anyway, you have to promise." He put his hand over Karen's on the table. "I'm serious, kid. Promise me you won't tell anyone I'm in town. Not even your brother. Least of all him."

"Don't call me kid," Karen said. She was smiling a little, trying to make a joke of it. "But yeah, okay, fine. If you're just going to be here for a few days. It won't be too hard not to mention it. I only talk to Kenny on Sundays, most weeks."

"We keep to ourselves out here," Stan said. Kyle cut him a look that was kind of judgmental.

"Perfect," he said. "I'd hoped so."

Stan and Karen had been sleeping in the downstairs guest room, because it was so much cooler, and Stan wondered if Karen would send Kyle up to sleep in their bed. He wasn't sure why he was disappointed when she didn't; possibly just because he knew he'd have an even harder time sleeping than usual with the heat on the second floor and the knowledge that Kyle was prowling around downstairs. He helped Karen change the sheets on the bed while Kyle had an overdue shower. He'd smelled rather ripe at dinner.

"What the hell is going on with him?" Karen asked as she helped Stan smooth the fitted sheet over the mattress. These were sheets that they never used, a weird salmon color.

"He's just heartbroken or something," Stan said. There was no way he was telling her what Kyle had told him. Stan had half-convinced himself, back in the calming presence of his wife, that Kyle had made the whole thing up for attention. "You know how he gets."

"He should stay with his mother," Karen said. "Sounds to me like he barely remembers why he's mad at her."

"I don't think he could handle staying in town."

"Why not? God, you always babied him. Even Kenny thought so."

"Your dad stayed here for a week at Christmas," Stan said. "And you know I hate him, so. Just bear with me."

"I don't hate Kyle," Karen said, whispering. "I just don't get him. And sometimes I don't get you when he's around."

"That's crazy," Stan said, though of course he knew what she meant. He was different around Kyle: jumpy, servile, quietly exhilarated. "Anyway, it's just for a few days."

Karen went upstairs to get ready for bed, and Stan lingered in the kitchen, manually drying the dishes that she'd set in the rack. Kyle's shower lasted for almost an hour, and Stan was wondering if he should go in and check on him when he finally heard the water shut off. He waited, rubbing a dish towel over a bowl that was bone dry. He could hear Karen padding around the bedroom upstairs, and could picture her routine clearly: she would wash her face, brush her teeth, put on one of Stan's t-shirts and her reading glasses. He would find her reading some novel when he went up. She got them from the library, hardbacks with bar codes on the spines and plastic over their covers.

"I might have a night cap," Kyle said, startling him. Stan turned to see Kyle with a towel wrapped around his waist, his soft chest exposed to the moonlight through the window, then to the fridge bulb. "Where do you keep your whiskey?" Kyle asked when he couldn't find it there.

"Not in the fridge," Stan said. "You don't drink much, do you?"

"No," Kyle said. "That was always more your thing."

"Huh. Well, I think you should go to bed. You'll be hungover as shit already."

"Fine." Kyle shut the fridge hard, rattling Stan's beer bottles on the door. "How about some clothes, then? All I have are those sweaty ones."

"I'll bring some stuff down," Stan said.

They studied each other for a moment, Stan leaning against the sink and Kyle near the fridge, holding the towel around himself. Stan was glad not to see any cuts or bruises on his chest.

"You won't tell her, will you?" Kyle asked. "About why I'm here?"

"Hell no," Stan said. "I don't want her involved in this. Kyle, goddammit. Is it really true?"

"I wouldn't lie to you, Stan."

That wasn't true; Kyle had been a prolific liar as a kid. He once told Stan he had his period, and Stan had believed him. Sometimes his chest still ached when he thought about the day Kyle had passed by the diner in town with Cartman and Kenny, laughing, having lied to Stan that morning about being sick. It had never occurred to Stan before that moment that Kyle could possibly have more fun with other people.

Stan crossed the room, touching Kyle's arm lightly as he passed out of the kitchen. He'd had such soft skin when they were teenagers. Like a girl's. Stan had shivered every time he slid his hand up under Kyle's t-shirts, over his belly, toward that spot on his chest that made Kyle shiver in answer. Stan paused on the staircase, in the shadows where the lights from both the first and second floors failed to reach. He knew this would not end well. Kyle didn't have to open with a murder confession for Stan to know that.

"He doesn't even have any bags?" Karen asked as Stan gathered a makeshift wardrobe for Kyle, selecting some of his nicer t-shirts and looser jeans.

"You saw his arms," Stan said. "I think the guy who dumped him kicked his ass. He doesn't want to talk about it, though. I think he just needs safe haven for a while."

"A while," Karen said. She sighed. "Poor Kyle. He's always seemed so unhappy. Even when we were kids."

"I know," Stan said, though it had been Stan who had been treated for depression and medicated throughout middle school. There was something about their various childhood tragedies that had stuck with Kyle more than any of the others. He held grudges. He didn't recover from disappointment easily.

Downstairs, Kyle had gotten into bed. The towel was hanging on the door knob, so he was naked under the sheets. Stan tried not to think about this as he handed Kyle a t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts.

"Could you buy me a pack of briefs in town?" Kyle asked. He sat up to take the clothes, but didn't put them on. "Boxers really irritate my balls."

Stan laughed, unable to help himself, and Kyle grinned.

"Sure," Stan said. He touched Kyle's curls, which were still damp. No one on earth had this same hair texture, Stan was sure of it. Not even quite the same color. "Whatever you need."

"I don't have money," Kyle said.

"That's okay."

"You missed me." Kyle took Stan's hand from his hair and kissed his knuckles.

"Of course I missed you. But." Stan couldn't bring himself to continue, or to ease his hand from Kyle's grip.

"You don't even care that I killed someone," Kyle said, whispering. His eyes were guarded; he was trying to seem seductive, not desperate.

"Of course I care, Kyle. I can barely get my mind around it."

"But you're just. Tucking me into bed. Not even yelling at me. You're so odd, Stan. Never in love with me, but never able to say no."

"Go to sleep," Stan said. He stepped away from the bed, his fingers sliding out of Kyle's. At the door, he turned back. "You know, I do love you, though. Maybe not in love, but it's still love, that's what it is, that's why I'll buy you some fucking briefs."

"Goodnight," Kyle said, and he rolled onto his side, away from the door. Stan could hear him weeping by the time he touched his boot to the bottom stair, but he didn't go back. He knew he was cruel to say he'd never been in love with Kyle; was that what he'd said? Maybe part of him was still bitter over high school. Stan had been in love with Kyle then, and for years afterward. Periodically, in the middle of the night, he still was, but that was love for a memory, not the man Kyle had become. Kyle had killed someone and run away from the scene of the crime, to Stan, bringing the whole thing down on Stan's head. That was the kind of person Kyle was, and the kind who asked for briefs afterward, too. Kyle demanded that his balls rest comfortably while he ruined Stan's life.

"Is he crying?" Karen asked when Stan walked into the bedroom.

"He's fine," Stan said. "I mean, he's not, but there's nothing I can do."

This was the truest thing he'd said all day, and he sloped into the bathroom, feeling like he might cry himself. He brushed his teeth, splashed some cold water on his face, and undressed down to his boxers before climbing in beside Karen. She was still reading, but she reached over to stroke Stan's hair when he slumped down beside her. He fell asleep much more quickly than he'd expected to, but it didn't last long. When he woke, the lamp was out, Karen's novel was on the bedside table, and she was fast asleep. Stan's heart was pounding. Kyle was downstairs. This information lodged itself firmly in his mind, and it seeped downward, its razor-sharp edges scraping over his heart as it made its way down to his dick. Once there, his awareness of Kyle was sharp in a different way. He felt warm all over, but didn't want to throw the blankets off. He thought about high school, Kyle's skin, the heat of his mouth on a cold night.

They had never dated, but they were inseparable from the ages of fifteen to eighteen, and while Stan never thought of himself as gay or even bisexual, he spent three years in a slavering fog of sex where all roads to happiness led back to Kyle's ass. What he did with Kyle seemed to take place in a universe with different rules, every new way they touched each other developing with an unspoken innocence. It was as if they were making things up as they went along, not only the sex acts but this type of relationship that seemed reserved just for them and their particular closeness. Stan assumed that girls might come and go, but he'd always have Kyle in his bed between romances. No romances occurred during high school, except for the one that Kyle was having in secret during their senior year, with Stan's football coach.

Now he could see that he'd been cruel, too, believing that Kyle saw the whole thing as simply as he did, and never reassuring Kyle verbally that he wanted to be with him forever. Stan had thought they could communicate almost telepathically. He now knew that was never true.

His alarm went off at four AM, and he pissed away his morning boner before dressing in his work clothes. Karen would sleep for another two hours, then shower and drive to North Park, where she worked as a bank teller. Stan's work with the cows didn't bring much profit, but he made a little from selling artisan cheese and organic milk to local restaurants and gourmet food stores. The farm and land were paid for in full with Jimbo's money, and so was the equipment, their cars, and their student loans. Jimbo had apparently been the favorite nephew of an aunt who had inherited a fortune from her late husband. Stan had certainly been Jimbo's favorite. Shelly, living in Canada and largely estranged from everyone but Sharon, got nothing.

Stan made his usual breakfast of buttered toast and a couple of chicken sausage patties, and he was disappointed when the smell of frying meat didn't send Kyle running into the kitchen. Kyle's story about killing some politician he'd been sleeping already seemed like a dream. Stan went to the old desktop computer they kept in the corner of the living room and searched for 'Utah news.' The Salt Lake Tribune featured a front page story about the ongoing investigation into Utah Attorney General Hank Johnson's murder. The words on the page blurred into nonsense when Stan saw Johnson's picture on the side bar. He looked a bit like Coach Daniels had. A lot like he had, actually.

Johnson's throat had been cut, and there were signs of a struggle. The police had made no statements about suspects, but there were several 'persons of interest.' Stan closed the article and checked behind him, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. There was no on there, but he felt as if Kyle was lying awake in the guess room, his puffy eyes focused on the ceiling, and that he was somehow aware of exactly what Stan was doing right now.

Work was a welcome distraction, but Stan's mind kept returning to Kyle. Was he a person of interest? Could he really have cleaned up all the physical evidence, and could he trust that this Johnson guy wouldn't have hidden some memento of him somewhere for the police to find? Stan really knew nothing about the situation. He went back to the house at daybreak with the intention of grilling Kyle on every detail. He had never grilled Kyle about Coach Daniels. He only asked one question after walking in on them: did he force you? Stan was prepared to commit murder if Kyle said yes. Kyle did not say yes, just wept and tried to clutch at Stan as he left. Stan changed his college plans, and they didn't speak at all until three years later, when they had an awkward reunion at Kenny's bachelor party and mostly talked about the new Star Wars movies.

Kyle was still in bed, but he allowed Stan to rouse him. Stan was glad to see that he'd put on the t-shirt, and annoyed when he drew back the blankets to find that Kyle hadn't put on the boxers. Stan went to the pile of clothing that he'd brought down and pulled out some sweatpants, trying not to look at Kyle's hard dick when he returned to the bed. Kyle was listless, yawning, and he simply held the pants over his crotch.

"Put them on," Stan said. "I'll make you some breakfast."

"I had the worst dreams," Kyle said, and he stood. Stan turned for the door, trusting him to get into the pants on his own.

"Sorry," Stan said. "Were you nice and cool?" It was a resentful question, since Stan and Karen had tossed and turned upstairs in the heat, but it came out sounding rather tender and concerned. Kyle nodded sleepily. His cock looked hilariously obvious, tenting the sweatpants. Stan had forgotten how girthy it was, and he stood by the doorway in a haze, remembering Kyle's insane come production. He could soil an entire bath towel with one orgasm.

"Is she out there?" Kyle asked when Stan walked into the hall.

"Karen left for work," Stan said. "Are you incapable of using her name?"

"I said it yesterday. Twice."

In the kitchen, Kyle stood at Stan's side and watched him cook bacon and eggs. They did not speak, but it was a comfortable silence, and Stan decided to give Kyle time to wake up before he started asking questions about Hank Johnson. He handed Kyle his plate and squeezed Kyle's shoulder on the way to the coffee machine. By the time Stan had hit 'start' on the machine, Kyle had finished most of his breakfast.

"Sorry," Kyle said when Stan took a seat beside him at the table. "It's just. That dinner last night. Yuck. I guess she cooked most of her meals in a toaster, growing up, poor thing."

"Can't you just leave her out of this?" Stan asked.

"This? Oh, yes, this." Kyle wiped his hands on his napkin and stood. Before Stan could react, Kyle had straddled him and dropped into his lap.

"Hey, c'mon," Stan said, but his arms wound around Kyle's back when Kyle clung to him, Kyle's cheek resting on Stan's shoulder. It was a reflex for Stan to tuck Kyle to his chest and rub his back, and it was like dragging on a joint, breathing in the post-sleep smell of him.

"Just let me do this for a second," Kyle said, mumbling. "It's been a long week."

"Jesus, you can't have killed that guy," Stan said, squeezing him. It was happening like it always had, his spine softening into the nearness of Kyle, that old hazy comfort enfolding him. "You just can't have. I won't let you."

"You won't let me? That's nice, but I've already done it." Kyle sighed and sat back to look at Stan. "It was like a cleansing," he said. "Have you ever fought for your life? And won? I have to admit, I felt triumphant. Then I remembered that I wasn't in a video game. That some people would view this as a crime."

"Tell me about how it happened," Stan said. Kyle groaned and rolled his eyes.

"That's the worst idea, Stanley," he said. "If you're questioned, you need to know virtually nothing about the crime, lest they assume you're my other gay lover who helped me plan it. Which isn't to say that you'll be questioned, or that it was actually a crime, or that I planned it. Of course I didn't. But, you know what I mean."

"Not really. Just tell me why he was trying to kill you."

"What?" Kyle stiffened and frowned. "You think this was my fault somehow? That I provoked him?"

"Fuck no, Kyle, but I don't understand how this could happen! Why were you with someone like that in the first place?"

They stared at each other. Stan knew Kyle would understand that this question was about Coach Daniels more than Hank Johnson.

"I don't fucking know," Kyle said. "I had a domineering mother, and my father spent most of my adolescence dying of cancer. You figure it out."

"I don't accept that," Stan said. "You're not that transparent."

"Well, then, Stanley, what's your brilliant explanation for why I'm like this? You've known me since I was two years old, have at it."

"Me," Stan said. "I fucked you up. I didn't mean to." He couldn't believe they were already having this conversation, but in a way there was nothing else to talk about, even with murder on the table.

"You are so up your own ass," Kyle said, and he got out of Stan's lap, walking awkwardly toward the sink, hard again. "You always were, even as a kid."

"Well, I'm fucking sorry, okay? I'm sorry I'm up my own ass, I'm sorry I didn't treat you better when we were together, and I'm mostly sorry that it's all ended up with you letting people fuck you when you really want to slit their throats."

"You don't know what you're talking about!" Kyle shrieked. He threw open the back door and ran out into the yard, where the rooster was crowing like the sun had come up again. The truth about roosters was that they crowed all day, sunrise or not.

Stan followed Kyle's path across the property at a leisurely tread, wanting to give him some space, but not enough to leave him alone with his anguish for long. It was bullshit, his attempts to convince Stan that killing someone for whatever reason had felt like a 'triumph,' and that he was confident he could get away with it. Kyle was highly moral and extremely anxious. Stan knew he was suffering, but like a wounded animal who feared it might be considered easy prey, he was trying to hide it. Even after he'd showed Stan those cut-up arms.

"Hey," Stan said when he found Kyle at the cow fence, sitting in a patch of clover and clutching at a wooden post, crying softly. "Hey, it's alright."

"It's not alright," Kyle said. Stan knelt down beside him and rubbed Kyle's neck, trying to ease some tension from it. "It's never been less alright," Kyle said.

- paramécie -

"But you're here," Stan said. "And goddammit, Kyle, I'm glad. I never want you to go to anyone else when you're in trouble." He was thinking of Cartman.

"That's crap," Kyle said. "I'm sure you and Karen are plotting to shove me off onto my mother."

"We're not plotting anything. Look at me, dude. You know me — you said so yourself, last night. I just want to cook you bacon and tuck you into clean sheets. That's me, farm boy Stan."

"Oh, God," Kyle said, but he smiled a little, glancing over his shoulder at Stan.

"But we can't pretend that we don't need to make plans," Stan said. "In case they find something, in case they suspect you."

"I need to leave the country," Kyle said. He took Stan's hand and brought it to his cheek, which was warm and damp from his tears. "Come with me."

"Let's make realistic plans, Kyle."

"Why shouldn't that be realistic?" Kyle asked, his eyes narrowing. "I've got nothing here, and what have you got? A farm? Your debts are paid. Karen is young, she'll find someone else."

"You're so presumptuous," Stan said. He tried to picture himself in some European country with Kyle, and couldn't help imagining walking in on Kyle with a hairy older man who was wearing a gold chain. "I'm not like that. I can't just walk away."

"Oh, really?" Kyle was glaring now, and he stood, stepping out of Stan's grip. "You don't just walk away from things, really. That's not something you do."

"If you're talking about high school," Stan said, and he stood, too, glad as always to be a few inches taller. "I don't know what you expected me to do when I saw you with him." Eventually Stan had suspected that Kyle had wanted to be caught. He'd been bent over the coach's desk, jerking his cock and grunting in a way that Stan didn't recognize as he slammed himself back onto the dick in his ass.

"How many times do we have to go over this?" Kyle asked, though they'd only ever had one blowout fight on the subject, on the morning after Kenny's bachelor party. "We were not exclusive. You treated me like a fuck buddy. I assumed you were with girls—"

"I would have told you if I was with some girl, and when did I have time to fuck girls, you had your hand in my pocket all day, every day—"

"Yeah, okay." Kyle waved his hand in Stan's direction and walked away, back toward the house. "Sorry I fucked up your chance at a normal high school dating experience by always rolling onto my stomach when you felt like sticking your finger up my asshole."

"It wasn't just sex!" Stan said. They were walking across the property, Stan trying to catch up with Kyle, who was surprisingly fast for someone with such a dumpy ass. "You know that. Don't try to tell me you didn't feel it."

"Feel it, feel it, I was supposed to feel it, okay, well, you might have actually articulated what you were feeling at some point, but no, this is all my fault for indulging my need to get fucked in a degrading manner. Thanks for making me addicted to that."

"See!" Stan said, and he finally reached Kyle then, grabbing his arm. He felt badly when he remembered the cuts, and he loosened his grip. "See, there you go, you do blame me, and I didn't fucking degrade you, I held you and kissed you and—"

"I always thought that was leading up to something!" Kyle said, shoving Stan's hand off. "I was so hopeful, waiting for anything, for you to even pay for my fucking movie theater ticket—"

"Jesus Christ, why should I have, you weren't some girl—"

"Exactly!" Kyle slapped Stan, hard. He would have found this almost comical if it didn't sting so badly. "I wasn't a girl, and you wanted a girl, you were cute enough to get a girl, why didn't you just get a girl and leave me the fuck alone!"

"I was a kid," Stan said, sneering at him. "And that hurt. Don't hit me."

"I was a kid, too, asshole, when I decided to let that guy put me over his desk. He'd seen us in the showers that one time, when we thought the school was empty. He got my phone number from the school directory and would text me pictures of his dick, saying he knew I liked to take cock from his players, so why not him, and I—" Kyle's voice broke and Stan reached for him, but Kyle moved away. "I thought, yeah, why not, since I'm a fucking joke anyway."

Kyle turned away, his gait so unsteady that he tripped when the land sloped downward. He landed on his hands and knees and Stan hurried to him, dropping down to hold him from behind while he tucked his chin to his chest. Stan had not known. He had not been told. He had not allowed Kyle to tell him.

"Sorry, I'm so sorry," Stan said, murmuring this in Kyle's ear while Kyle wept quietly. He was clutching at Stan's forearms, which were wrapped around him tightly. The weather was so pleasant that it seemed to mock Kyle's tears, clear skies and a cool breeze from the mountains that cut the heat. Stan kissed the back of Kyle's neck, then licked it, wanting to clean him, to comfort him, to go back in time.

"I wanted to kill him," Kyle said, his voice cracked apart. "And I did, Stan, I did, but it didn't change anything."

Stan wasn't sure what Kyle was confessing, or if he was just blubbering nonsensically. Stan would have killed Coach Daniels himself back then, had he known. He wanted to even now, to go on a crime spree with Kyle and disappear forever. He felt like he could do anything, anything, if only Kyle would stop crying like this, like he was giving up.

"I shouldn't have left you alone last night," Stan said.

"What were you supposed to do, get in bed with me instead of your wife?" Kyle scoffed wetly. "I don't know what I'm doing here. You're all I have left, but that's absurd. I don't have you, she does."

"It's not that simple," Stan said.

"But you love her. I can tell. You touched her back last night when she was chopping onions. And your voice is different when you talk to her."

"She says I'm different around you." Stan licked Kyle's neck again, and again. He was salty and warm and Stan was getting hard just from being crouched around him like this, their bodies pressed together.

"I'm sure you are," Kyle said. "Different, around me. I make you stupid. You used to get so stupid when I kissed you. You would drool."

"Well, yeah." Stan squeezed him, licked him, wanted to carry him into the house. "You drooled, too." He was referring to Kyle's mouth when it was on his cock, when Kyle would hum and let his eyes drift shut as if he had been hungry for it all day.

"Why?" Kyle shook his head. "Why, why did you ever let me? Or was it me who let you? It just felt so good, nothing's ever felt like that. I thought I made you happy."

"You did, Kyle."

"Bullshit. Then why didn't you—"

"What, propose? I don't know, I was eighteen. God, please tell me you didn't really kill that guy. I can't lose you right now, not now."

"Well, I did kill him." Kyle squirmed until Stan released him, and he crawled away, wiping his face with the back of his hand before he stood. "I did," he said when he met Stan's eyes, and there was a coldness in his expression that made Stan afraid, not for himself but for Kyle. "And now I have to get away from here. Forever, I guess. I just didn't want to leave without you. But I knew you wouldn't come with me. I'm not stupid."

Stan was kneeling at Kyle's feet, marveling at how quickly he had collected himself. He wanted to grab Kyle's legs and wail, to ask why didn't you tell me, someone was sending you pictures of his genitals, a teacher, and you didn't even tell me, but he knew why. Kyle's self-esteem had been so demolished that he was ashamed to be a victim of harassment, and he thought he deserved to be put over a desk by whoever asked him. Stan was the one who had demolished Kyle, but that seemed impossible, because hadn't he kissed Kyle's cheeks, stroked his hair, swallowed his come, spooned him on cold nights? He'd made Kyle waffles once. He'd put his tongue in Kyle's ass, because Kyle liked the way that felt. He'd been willing to do anything, so why hadn't he said so, why hadn't he said anything?

"Are you okay?" Kyle asked. He walked forward and put his hand in Stan's hair. "You look a little green."

"I think I'm going to throw up," Stan said, but he didn't. He let Kyle help him up and lead him back to the house. The air seemed to grow slightly heavier as they walked together, slowly, and though it was probably still hours off, Stan could smell a hint of rain in the breeze.

Inside the house, Kyle helped Stan into a chair. Stan's knees, hands, everything shook. It seemed as if dark clouds were already shadowing the house, though the skies were as blue as they had been when he followed Kyle out to the pasture.

"Here," Kyle said, and he handed Stan a glass of bourbon.

"It's like, noon," Stan said, but he drank it, wondering when exactly Kyle had figured out where they kept the bourbon.

"Here's what I'm thinking," Kyle said. He drank from the bottle and winced. "We leave tonight for Mexico. It's only a ten hour drive to Ciudad Juárez, twelve if we take the back roads, and I know this coke dealer in Guadalajara who could help us get immigration papers to basically anywhere in South America, though we'd probably have to do something disgusting in exchange, like have sex in front of him, or with him, but in the great scheme of things is that really so—"

"Kyle," Stan said. He held his glass out, and Kyle poured more bourbon into it. "Stop. Don't — I can't tell when you're serious or not anymore. How do you know a Mexican coke dealer?"

"He's not Mexican, he's American, he just lives there because he's got charges pending against him here."

"That doesn't really answer my question."

"What does it matter how I know him?" Kyle asked, and he slammed the bourbon bottle down on the counter. "I'm sure you're assuming we fucked."

"No," Stan said. But yes, he had been assuming that. "Were you high?" Stan asked. "The night you killed Hank Johnson?"

"It was fading by the time we fought," Kyle said, and he turned to the window. "Look, I don't have time to mince words or hang around waiting for you to profess your love anymore. Turns out I never did, but I can't change what happened back then, no matter how many throats I cut. I'm thirty-three years old, Stan, and I'm tired."

"How many throats?" Stan said. The words were sort of shimmering in the air like back-lit dust. Kyle turned back to him and rolled his eyes.

"That was a joke," he said. "I guess I have to tell you now, every time I'm joking. I'm not joking about Mexico, however, and having some kind of life with you. Why the hell do you think I'm here? You knew why as soon as I took that wig off, and you couldn't wait to get me into your house, your clothes, your bedsheets — I had a near death experience, Stan. And then I killed someone, which was like being near death in another sort of way altogether. I know what I want, and I'm asking you, do you want to run away with me?"

"No," Stan said. Kyle looked surprised by this answer, as if someone had just kicked him off stage in the middle of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. "Kyle, no. Do you think I was just pretending to have a life while I waited for you to come back into it? I love you, I do, I always will, but I can't rearrange my life around your mistakes."

Stan feared he'd been too harsh, which was ridiculous. The way they'd both mishandled their closeness during high school was the great tragedy of his life, but in no way did that add up to running away to Mexico with Kyle after he'd killed the Utah Attorney General. Even Kyle had to hear how ridiculous that sounded. He turned away from Stan again, his shoulders lowering.

"Will you at least fuck me?" Kyle asked. "I want to remember what that's like. Having someone I love inside me."

"Someone who loved you, too," Stan said. He stood from the table, already knowing his answer but not wanting to say it out loud yet. "I was in love with you," he said, and he rested his chin on Kyle's shoulder, fitting himself to Kyle's back. "All those years. Before then, too, and after."

"At this point it hurts less to imagine you weren't," Kyle said, softly. He was playing with the frayed edge of a dishtowel, further unraveling the threads.

"Really?" Stan said. He kissed Kyle's neck and wrapped his arms around him. "I can't imagine anything that would hurt worse than thinking you don't love me."

Except for a knife through the throat, he thought, but that was insane. Kyle would never hurt him. Or Karen. Stan lifted his chin from Kyle's shoulder and stepped back as Kyle turned around in his arms.

"That makes no sense," Kyle said. "You love me, but you never want to see me again?"

"Of course that's not what I want, but if it's between never seeing you again or seeing you daily while we live out our lives as fugitive accomplices in murder, I guess I just can't see that actually happening, sorry."

"You're not sorry," Kyle said, shoving him away. "And you don't even have the decency to look me in the face and tell me you're not attracted to me anymore."

"But I am," Stan said, though it was odd and he couldn't explain it. Kyle had gained weight, and he had never quite grown into his nose. His hair was crazy, having dried against his pillow the night before. Stan wanted to fuck him so badly that, if he decided to do it, they wouldn't even make it out of the kitchen. "It's just that I'm also married," Stan said. "Goddammit, why am I — why does every conversation with you turn into this cinematic parody of real life? It's like, like — how am I even talking this calmly about any of this?"

"Oh, God, that's true," Kyle said, and he seemed sincere. "My life always has this cinematic quality when you're around. Without you it's more like bad television. Behind the Blow."

Stan had to turn away from him, hiding his smile, too close to being sucked into Kyle's orbit again. He put his hands over his face and groaned.

"This life you've made for yourself is the most cowardly thing I've ever seen," Kyle said, softly, like he was only trying to offer helpful advice.

"I'm cowardly?" Stan said. "Me? Okay. You're not even willing to deal with the consequences of killing someone. And you want to criticize my life, that's cool, that's fine, but you've never even had one. Have you ever had a real job? Paid bills, washed your car? What do you even do all day?"

"I have a master's degree in social work, you fucker," Kyle said. "You know that. I met Hank through a charity drive that I fucking planned, okay, I'm an event planner, you know what I fucking do—"

"No, I didn't know you were an event planner. I didn't even know you were living in Utah. Last time I heard from you there was some new start as a caterer going on in California—"

"Oh, Jesus, fine, judge me for being over thirty and still trying to find myself or what-fucking-ever, but at least I didn't cop out with Kenny's sister on a cow farm."

"Cop out? I copped out, did I? That's why you're the one who needs to take shelter here, in my cop out life, from your groundbreaking work as a flighty cokehead?"

Kyle tried to slap him again, but this time Stan anticipated it, and he caught Kyle's hand.

"No," Stan said, growling the word out. He was still holding Kyle's wrist, and he watched Kyle's glare melt into frightened lust. Kyle had always liked submitting to someone stronger than him, but then came the knife.

"Let me go, if that's what you think," Kyle said. "You'll never see me again. I'll leave you alone."

"No," Stan said. He walked to the kitchen counter, pulling along Kyle with him, and he heard Kyle exhale when he picked up the bottle of sunflower oil that they'd used on the chicken the night before.

"Not over the table," Kyle said when Stan turned to him, holding the oil in one hand and Kyle's wrist in the other.

"I know," Stan said. "I wouldn't."

The tiled kitchen floor was cold even in the summer, and Stan was thinking of the bed in the guest room, but they only made it to the foyer, kissing and fumbling at each other's shirts, trying to get them off. Kyle was making soft, sad noises at the back of his throat, trying to climb Stan while they walked. Stan's knees hit the wooden floorboards in the foyer first, and he brought Kyle down with him, cradling him until he was on his back and panting, staring up at Stan, his pupils blown.

"Right here," Stan said, crawling on top of him. "I'm gonna fuck you right here. Take those pants off."

"Mhm," Kyle said, and he scrambled out of them while Stan licked his cheek and nipped at this jaw. They had never talked while they did this, not even that night after Kenny's bachelor party. They had both cried hard then, but only while they fucked, and it had felt like a long needed resolution until the hungover morning came and the fight started.

"Fuck," Stan said, his voice coming out in a hot whisper when he touched Kyle, rubbing the oil in circles with two fingertips, watching Kyle's eyelids flutter. Stan had expected something different, changed, but Kyle still felt so tight when Stan worked even a fingertip in, like he could only be hurt by this.

"Stan," Kyle said when Stan had pushed into him with just his finger, not wanting to hurt him but knowing that this was what Kyle wanted, even if it involved being hurt. How had they ever done this without a dialogue? After a year of touching each other's cocks, rubbing together, kissing, Stan's hand just moved lower, and Kyle moaned louder than he ever had. That was all.

When Stan took his cock out, Kyle rolled onto his stomach and spread his legs. Stan was disappointed that there would be no blow job; he'd never had a good one from anyone but Kyle. He crawled onto Kyle again, straddled him and rubbed his slick cock through Kyle's crack for as long as he could stand it, his mouth open on Kyle's neck, teeth resting against his skin but not piercing it. Kyle was going crazy for it, wriggling and arching and trying to get Stan into him.

"Oh, God," Kyle was saying, over and over, his cheek pressed to the floor while he pushed his ass back desperately. "Oh God, God, oh God—"

"I'm not even in you yet," Stan said, murmuring this in his ear. "Can you handle it? You're shaking."

"Please," Kyle said, so brokenly that Stan felt bad for delaying.

When he was inside Kyle, Stan remembered how this had once seemed simple. They fit together perfectly like this, from fingertips to ankles. Kyle's ass was more plump that it had been back then, and just as welcoming, warm resistance to his friction. Stan was suddenly sure that this wasn't just the beginning of some new ending, that he would find a way to keep this, and this time they would have it forever. Kyle was sort of crying but mostly moaning, squeezing around him and humping the floor. Stan thought about how some of Kyle's come would seep down into the cracks between the floorboards, into invisible crevices that Stan wouldn't be able to clean. He came, burying his groan against Kyle's throat.

They stayed like that for some time, pressed together on the floor, Stan going soft inside Kyle. He almost slept, didn't want to move, because running away with Kyle seemed impossible again, post-orgasm. He was thirsty; his mouth was dry. Kyle was sighing and shifting beneath him, still clenching his muscles around Stan's spent cock.

"I'm glued here," Kyle said when Stan nosed his cheek, concerned about how quiet he was being. "Forever, I'm stuck to your floor, you'll never get me up. Visitors will have to step over me. You'll have to bring my meals in here and feed me. And clean my ass after you fuck me."

"I could do that now," Stan said. He sat up on his elbows, feeling dizzy. The oncoming storm had moved closer, the light through the windows dimmed by clouds that were still rolling in. Kyle sighed when Stan pulled out of him at last. There was come everywhere, like a bad porno comic, Kyle's on the floor, Stan's on Kyle. "Come on," Stan said, and he helped Kyle up.

He carried Kyle into the bedroom, which wasn't easy. Kyle was heavy, slippery with come and sweat. Stan set him on the bed and got the towel from the doorknob. He cleaned Kyle up, kissing his face between each body part, and put him under the bedsheet.

"Where are you going?" Kyle asked when Stan turned for the door, still naked, noticing now that he'd tracked come into the room.

"I have to clean up," Stan said. "It's gonna rain," he added, stupidly. Kyle smiled.

"When does she get back?" he asked.

"Not until six, seven if the traffic is bad."

"I knew that, actually," Kyle said. He closed his eyes and hugged the pillow. "I watched your house for a day before I showed up in your garden."

"Wearing that black wig?" Stan said, unsettled. Kyle nodded.

"What happened to that thing?" he asked.

"I don't know," Stan said, earnestly, and he frowned. "Uh, be right back. You want some water? I'm gonna get some water."

"Oh, Stan," Kyle mumbled, and then he seemed to be asleep, still smiling a little.

Stan spent ten minutes cleaning up their mess, working in the nude while the skies continued to darken outside, taking his light. He heard thunder in the distance, and there was a new clearness in the air, as if the sky was making room for something big. He went upstairs for fresh boxer shorts and realized as he stepped into them that he'd forgotten to go to town to get briefs for Kyle. It wasn't the kind of thing he could ask Karen to do. He stood at their bedroom dresser, observing the framed pictures there. One from their wedding, two from vacations, a couple of family pictures. They'd bonded over their job scooping ice cream during Stan's summers home from college. Kyle never came home for the summer, and Stan had to assume that he was the reason why. Karen was three years younger than Stan, still in high school, sweet and hard working. She looked at him like he was a celebrity, and when he came home for the summer before his senior year, he gave in to his long-repressed urge to try to kiss her in the back room, where she always counted her drawer out very carefully, because McCormicks had a reputation. She tasted like the ice cream shop smelled, like waffle cones and candy, and after they'd been dating for a week he told her he loved her. It was true, but it wasn't the same way he'd loved Kyle. He protected himself from that kind of love now, even where Kyle himself was concerned.

Downstairs, Kyle was dozing, but he blinked awake when Stan shut the bedroom door. The thunder was moving closer, and Stan could hear the wind picking up, blowing the tools he'd left in the yard around. He had more chores to do, but he had to do this first. He got under the blankets with Kyle and pulled him close for a kiss, pushing his other hand up into Kyle's hair. The way they persisted in kissing each other, as if they were afraid to stop and find out what would happen next, made Stan think of that first time they made out in his bed. They'd been helping each other jack off for months before they tried kissing. In retrospect, it was that first long kiss that changed everything, very late on a cold night in January, but at the time Stan had just smiled and held Kyle closer, confident that this was simply the next great thing they'd discovered.

"What will you do without me?" Kyle asked when Stan pulled back to gaze at him. He looked even better now, sex-rumpled and tired, overheated in Stan's arms.

"Same thing I've always done," Stan said. "Live like I'm not in a movie. For better or worse."

"Ugh, please." Kyle rolled over angrily, but didn't protest when Stan spooned him. "Don't repeat any part of your wedding vows to me."

"That's not what I meant," Stan said, and his heartbeat stuttered when he thought of Karen at the bank, eating her spinach salad with pomegranate seeds and lemon vinaigrette, watching The Daily Show on her computer during her lunch break. When Stan had told her about his boyhood experience on a cow farm and how he wanted to be the kind of rancher who truly cared about his animals, she'd had tears in her eyes, and she'd always supported his dream. Karen had plans for veterinary school back when they were first dating, but she'd had to pay for her undergraduate education herself, mostly with loans, and now that they could potentially afford it she said she probably wouldn't like it as much as she'd thought, on account of having to see animals who were dying or suffering on a regular basis. She was like Stan, easily upset by animals in peril. They didn't do the slaughtering on the property, just sold a certain number of cows for meat after they'd had 'a full life,' which was a term that Kenny scoffed at.

"What are you thinking about?" Kyle asked. Thunder sounded more closely outside, shaking the frame of the house.

"My life," Stan said.


"What were you thinking about?"

"How I didn't even get my mouth on your dick. Our farewell fuck, and I forgot the second most important part."

"We can do it again," Stan said. He flushed and wanted to rescind the offer, even when Kyle pressed back against him, making Stan's cock respond with renewed interest.

"I thought you'd be drowning in guilt," Kyle said. "The second your cock left my ass, I thought you'd cry."

"Yeah, well. I am guilty, but it's not just her. I know I hurt you, too."

"Oh, Jesus, Stanley, you blame yourself for everything. 'I broke the dam.' I blame you sometimes, too, but not all the time. It was me, I was – there were so many things I could have done differently, if I'd just had the balls to ask you what you were doing, what all that meant to you. I was too afraid you'd say that it felt good, and that it was easy, and that was all."

"I can't believe you thought that." Stan turned Kyle onto his back. "That was the part that was my fault, that you felt that way. But Kyle, fuck. What are we going to do?"

"I can't stay here," Kyle said. "It's too close to South Park, and they'll look for me there. If they look."

"I know."

They stared at each other, and Stan wanted badly to kiss Kyle. It happened often enough when Kyle wasn't within kissing distance, and he decided there was no sense repressing it now. He'd already done worse. They kissed until they were both hard again, and Stan climbed on top of Kyle the way he used to, when they would leave their clothes on, when they were just getting started. Thunder shook the house again, and Kyle pulled Stan down to him.

"You're so heavy now," Kyle said. "Strong, I mean, and. If I'm here tomorrow, can I help with the cows or whatever? Shit, should you be doing that now? Am I already ruining everything?"

"Well, yes," Stan said. "But no." He didn't clarify as to which answer was for which question, not even sure that he knew how to differentiate between those responses himself. They ground together at a leisurely pace, the skies going dark outside, wind gusting against the house. When Stan came he thought about how they'd have to wash the sheets, but also that it wasn't necessary, because he could tell Karen that Kyle had beat off, and that Kyle had always pumped out twice as much come as the average guy, but of course he couldn't say that, really.

Stan spent the rest of the afternoon loafing in bed with Kyle, mapping his new dimensions under the blankets. He gave every scrape on Kyle's arms a gentle lick, and after he had tended to each of them they had sex again, with Kyle on his back this time, Stan taking long breaks to kiss him. Rain was pounding the roof by the time they finished, and they were both shaky, sweating, too old to recover quickly from a second mid-afternoon fuck. Though he was exhausted and comfortably warm, Stan didn't let himself linger in bed for long. He got up and dressed while Kyle slept thinly, his arms around the pillow.

"This doesn't change anything," Stan said when he caught Kyle watching him fasten his belt. "I can't go away with you. I wish we'd made a life together, but we didn't, and I can't abandon this one I made without you." He'd rehearsed some of this in his head while Kyle lay in his arms.

"You're not eighty," Kyle said. "Your life isn't over. It's not set in stone."

"Mine is, Kyle. I mean, shit, it would have been one thing if you'd come to me freely, because you wanted to, but you're here because you want me to help you get away with murder."

"It was self defense!"

"I know that! I don't doubt you!" He did, at moments, but that was insane. Kyle was no cold-blooded killer. "That doesn't change the fact that you're running away from explaining what happened. You haven't even explained it to me!"

"Just get out," Kyle said. He rolled toward the wall with the pillow, curling up around it. "Leave me alone with your come drying in my ass, just. Get back to your life."

"There's nobody I'd do that for," Stan said. "Not even Karen." He realized as he said so that this wasn't true. He would run away with Karen if she'd had to kill some powerful man in a struggle for her life. He'd do it without a thought, but it wasn't a fair comparison. Karen was his wife.

"I can hear you breathing," Kyle said. "Get out."

"It's my house," Stan said, but he left, closing the door softly behind him. Lightning illuminated the foyer as he crossed through it, and he crouched down to examine the floorboards for any remaining stains. Earlier, the idea of Kyle's come seeping irretrievably into Stan's homestead had been hot, even romantic, but now it had him in a panic. He thought of that time when they were kids and Butters had ended up with a ninja star in his eye, potentially implicating all of them in the purchase of contraband weapons. Cartman, always pragmatic, had suggested they push Butters down a well to dispose of the evidence. Kyle had agreed to this plan in the heat of the moment.

Karen wasn't home until almost seven thirty, having been held up by storm-related wrecks on the highway. Kyle was still asleep, or at least hadn't made a sound while Stan spent the rest of his day doing what chores he could in the downpour and then making homemade ravioli, Karen's favorite. He didn't have time to make a marinara, so he'd have to do a simple butter sauce, making the dish doubly indulgent. Part of him knew that Kyle would love this meal, too.

"Where's Kyle?" Karen asked as Stan helped her out of her rain coat.

"Sleeping, I think," Stan said. "Pouting," he said, more quietly, and for a moment he was sure that Kyle would emerge from the bedroom like a wrecking ball, naked and prepared to tell Karen everything. Was that the kind of thing Kyle would do? Was he that cruel? Stan had no idea anymore.

"Oh, wow," Karen said when she walked into the kitchen and saw the ravioli. "How did you have time to do all this?"

"Well, 'cause of the rain. I had to slack, you know, with the outside stuff." Looking at her was weird now, in that it made both the sex he'd had with Kyle on the floor and the whole history of his marriage to Karen feel simultaneously surreal. "And I wanted to do something nice," Stan said. "Since you're being so nice. About Kyle and all."

"He just stayed in bed all day?" Karen went to the fridge and got one of the protein smoothie drinks she always had after work. She passed a beer to Stan.

"Uh, he came out to eat," Stan said. "And we went for a walk before it rained. A brief walk."

"A brief walk," Karen said, mimicking him. She grinned. "You're so weird when he's around."

"I'm weird – what? 'Cause I said 'brief?'"

"Well, yeah. And you're making pasta by hand?"

"That's for you, dude."

"And calling me dude?" She raised her eyebrows. "Not that I mind, but—"

"It's an endearment."

"I know, but it's not my endearment."

The door to the guest bedroom opened, and Stan drank from his beer, bracing himself. Kyle came out fully dressed, in those sweatpants and one of Stan's long-sleeved t-shirts, which was too big for him despite the paunch at his stomach. He looked sleepy, and the sight of his sex-wrecked hair brought Stan back to those nights in high school when Kyle would return to the bed after a trip to the bathroom. Stan would gather him close, petulantly hoarding his warmth. Kyle would always smell like hand soap.

"Honey?" Karen said. Stan dragged his eyes away from Kyle and went hot all over, not sure how long he'd been standing there staring at Kyle like that.

"Sorry?" Stan said.

"I was just asking if we have any jarred sauce for those," Karen said, pointing at the ravioli.

"Oh, um. No, I was just going to do that sauce with the pine nuts and basil leaves. It's mostly butter." Stan looked at Kyle, who was lingering in the doorway, looking stoned.

"I'm okay with butter," Kyle said. Karen turned to Stan and grinned.

"Did you guys smoke?" she asked. "Pot?"

"No," Stan said. "No, no, it's just – the rain—"

"Does Kenny still smoke?" Kyle asked, saving Stan from explaining that idiotic reasoning.

"Yeah, of course," Karen said. "Maggie does, too. They do it after their kids go to bed. Maybe not every night, um. I tend not to ask."

"Are you guys going to have kids?" Kyle asked. He went to the fridge and opened it, examining the contents as if that was a harmless, casual question to leave hanging in the air. Stan was boiling with rage, shame, and a persisting lust. It was something about the way the sleeves on his shirt were just a little too long for Kyle's arms, covering his knuckles.

"My mom badgers me about it," Karen said. "But I just turned thirty, so. I don't see what the rush is."

"It's kind of a rude question," Stan said, though saying so felt incriminating. He and Karen did not have sex often. They were both usually tired after a day's work, and on the weekends Stan drank too much and couldn't get it up. He'd always felt more protective of her than aroused by her.

"It's okay," Karen said.

"Stan," Kyle said, turning from the fridge. "It's me."

"It's him," Karen said to Stan, and she gave him a little smile. Stan saw Kyle notice, and he wanted to beg Karen not to provoke him.

"I suppose I'll never have children," Kyle said. Stan wanted to ask him to close the goddamn fridge; he was letting the cold out. "Seeing as how I can't even keep a man."

"You never know," Karen said. "You're still pretty young, and you look great. The right guy could be closer than you think."

Stan had to turn to the raviolis, and he stared at them blindly, heat rushing down the back of his neck. Kyle was laughing.

"Oh, sure," Kyle said. "Easy for you to say."

They ate by candlelight, the rain still falling. Kyle drank three of Stan's remaining beers. Stan only got one. The ravioli turned out well; just a few of them exploded during the cooking process. Kyle pushed all of his toasted pine nuts and two basil leaves to the side of his plate, which Stan found annoying.

"Where will you go from here?" Karen asked Kyle when they were lingering at the table after eating, awkwardness beginning to descend.

"To hell," Kyle said. "Probably."

"He can't hold his liquor," Stan said. "Or beer, in this case."

"Oh, fuck you, what do you know," Kyle said, and Stan's chest tightened, but Kyle's tone was mild. "I suppose I should just tell you," Kyle said, turning to Karen. "Me and Stan fought today."

Stan heard 'fucked,' and the sound of it rang in his ears for two heavy heartbeats before he realized what Kyle had really said. Karen shrugged.

"I know what it's like," she said. "Me and Ruby have been friends since we were kids. We can get into a tiff pretty easily. It's that closeness, it's almost sisterly. Brotherly, in ya'll's case."

"Huh." Kyle looked at Stan, and Stan made his eyes hard, warning Kyle not to light any grenades on his dinner table. "I don't know. I was always closer to Stan than Ike. So maybe 'brotherly' doesn't work for me."

"What did you fight about?" Karen asked. "If you don't mind me asking."

"Well, Stan called me a coke head," Kyle said, and he tried to drink from his empty beer bottle.

"Stan!" Karen said.

"He—" Stan had to stop himself from telling her that Kyle had hit him. "We exchanged insults. But it's fine. It was a misunderstanding. We made up."

"We sure did," Kyle said.

Stan did the dishes, refusing Karen's offer to help, then Kyle's. Karen went upstairs for a bath, and Kyle puttered around on the first floor for a while before coming to hover in Stan's space.

"You left the sunflower oil in my room," Kyle said.

"Shit," Stan said. "Okay, um. I'll get it. Thanks for telling me."


Kyle followed Stan into the guest bedroom and stood in the doorway while Stan retrieved the oil. Upstairs, Karen was quiet, probably reading in the bath. Stan walked to the door, fully expecting Kyle to refuse to move out of his way.

"Did you make that ricotta yourself?" Kyle asked. "In the ravioli?"


"No, I'm serious, did you?"

"Yes." Stan closed his eyes. He wanted to carry Kyle to bed and flop down with him, and he also wanted to escape to the saner world upstairs, to Karen.

"Well, I wanted to say I'm impressed," Kyle said, his tone sharpening. "I've been making fun of you for, you know, the cows, but you do good work. Congratulations."


"I don't think I've ever had it made from cow's milk before. It's normally goats, isn't it? Or sheep?"


"What! I'm — isn't this what you want? A normal, non-cinematic conversation?"

Stan checked the stairs, cupped Kyle's face with his free hand and kissed him. He didn't use tongue or even open his lips, but it was a more arousing kiss than he'd intended. He'd only meant it to be reassuring, a gesture of goodnight. Kyle looked slightly stunned when Stan pulled back.

"You really are the problem," Kyle said. "I would have pined for you in silence all those years if you hadn't always been doing things like that."

"I know I'm the problem."

"She's not right behind me, is she?" Kyle asked, eyes twinkling. Stan shook his head.

"Don't disappear during the night," Stan said. He hated the thought of Kyle leaving while it was raining, slogging through the mud on foot. He hated the thought of Kyle leaving, period. "You're like this stray cat," Stan said. "That's a compliment," he said when Kyle recoiled. "Coming from me. You know that. I feed these seven strays, out in the barn. I want them all in the house, or at least the sweet ones, but Karen's allergic."

"Fine, I'm a flea-ridden stray cat," Kyle said. He checked over his shoulder, then leaned up to whisper into Stan's ear, "Come give me some milk to drink later tonight. After she's asleep."

"No," Stan said.

"Yes," Kyle whispered, and he licked Stan's ear. "Or I'll leave."

"You're a liar."

"Am I? Hmm, well, we'll just see who calls whose bluff, won't we?"

Stan left him then, fuming, and he accidentally carried the bottle of sunflower oil upstairs. He hid it in a linen closet when Karen called to him from behind the half-open bedroom door. She was in her robe when he went in, her hair up in a bun on top of her head.

"Everything okay?" she asked when Stan hugged her.

"Yes," he said. The whole bedroom smelled like her bath; he could hear the water draining. "Just tired."

They got into bed together, and Karen didn't reach for her book. She put the light out and moved over toward Stan, sliding her hand across his bare chest. She always wanted to fool around when it rained at night. Stan rolled toward her, and only then did it occur to him that he hadn't used a condom with Kyle.

"I'm just—" he said when she started kissing his neck. "Really worn out." His heart was beginning to pound. Kyle was a coke addict who slept with married men. What were the chances that he didn't have something? Karen moved away from Stan and rolled onto her back. "Sorry," Stan said. "It's just — he stresses me out. Sorry."

"When is he leaving?" she asked, still looking at the ceiling.

"I don't know," Stan said. "I'll ask. I'll figure it out."

"We're asking him when he wants to leave? That's how it's going to work?"

"That's not what I meant — I'll talk to him about it. Is what I meant."

She rolled away and sighed. Stan thought of spooning her, but it was hot, despite the rain, and he didn't want to infect her even superficially by what he might have picked up that afternoon from unprotected anal sex with a lunatic. He curled his hands into fists, tightening them until his nails bit into his skin. How could he have been so fucking stupid? It was just that they had never used condoms back in high school, and he hadn't used one with Karen since their first year of dating. Condoms weren't even on his radar, but he couldn't imagine that Kyle hadn't considered it. Kyle had let Stan fuck him bareback knowingly, maliciously.

There was no semblance of sleep for Stan, even with the soft patter of the rain on the roof. He lay there sweating under a thin bedsheet, then on top of it, his rage at the situation shifting from Kyle to himself. Kyle was out of control, and Stan was the responsible one, supposedly. This proved that he was just as unhinged as Kyle, and he was the one who was cheating on his wife. He got out of bed when he was sure that she was asleep, and quietly made his way down to the second floor. He wasn't sure what he was planning to do; he wouldn't confront Kyle, not yet. Kyle would take it too hard if Stan's fears about catching something from him were unfounded. Upstairs, Stan had concocted a plan: he would go to town to get briefs for Kyle tomorrow, and while there he'd have a test done. He'd also buy condoms. Just in case they slipped up again. Of course, all of this was fairly moot, because Karen wanted Kyle gone, and anyplace near South Park wasn't safe for Kyle. Stan was on the verge of throwing up by the time he found Kyle downstairs, not in the guest bedroom but on the living room couch, flipping through a photo album.

"Oh, you came," Kyle said.

"Shhh," Stan said. "What are you doing?"

"Looking at old pictures. What are you doing? C'mere, look at this."

Stan walked to him, unable to answer the question about what he was doing. The album Kyle was looking at was one that Stan's mother had made for him and Karen as a wedding present. It was odd to see it in Kyle's hands, though there were pictures of him in the first ten pages. Kyle had not attended Stan's wedding. He'd been out of the country at the time, doing an internship in Minsk. Or so he'd said.

"We never smiled in pictures," Kyle said. Stan sat beside him on the couch and resisted the urge to put an arm around him. "Did you notice that?"

"We wanted to be cool, I guess. And we'd get annoyed when our moms took pictures. Remember? We hated it."

"Yeah," Kyle said. He touched his fingertip to Stan's cheek in a picture of them at nine years old, peering down from the railing of their treehouse. "I wish we had smiled, though. I was so happy."

"You were?" Stan remembered Kyle as an easily irritated child, prone to grumbling.

"Of course," Kyle said. "Whenever I was with you, I was happy. That's still true. I'm happy right now. Isn't it sick?"

"Why should it be sick?"

"Well." Kyle scoffed and looked up at him. Their faces were close. "I murdered someone, and I don't even care. I don't care, Stan, as long as I'm with you."

"But. It was self defense." Stan needed to believe this. Kyle rolled his eyes.

"You know what I mean," he said. "And I don't even care how much you've hurt me, and that you'll do it again."

"Can you at least admit that it was out of ignorance?" Stan said, sliding his arm around Kyle at last. It was an instant relief to hold him, like an itch he'd scratched. "That I never meant to hurt you?"

"Sure, fine, whatever." Kyle reached down to cup Stan's cock through his boxer shorts. He was wearing only those and an undershirt, sweating already. "I'm going to suck your cock now," Kyle said, keeping his eyes fixed on Stan's while he massaged him.

"Mmph," Stan said. He glanced at the doorway. Nothing. Kyle was already pushing the photo album off his lap, moving down to kneel between Stan's legs. "I haven't washed since we," Stan said. Kyle used to have a rule about that.

"I don't care," Kyle said. "You don't know what I've been through, Stan. It's an honor, at this point, to think that your cock tastes like my ass."

Stan wanted to ask what Kyle had been through, exactly, that had led him to feel this way, but now wasn't the time. Now Kyle's tongue was stroking Stan's cock as he pulled it greedily from the slit in Stan's boxers. Now Stan didn't care about anything, either; now he understood how he'd been able to forget a condom earlier. Nothing mattered much when Kyle wanted him like this. Stan only cared about letting Kyle have him. His head fell back onto the couch cushions and he spread his legs a little more widely, watching Kyle work.

"Yeah," Stan said, softly. His hand slid into Kyle's hair. "So good."

Kyle sighed as if in agreement. There was nothing Stan would change about this moment: the rain, the dark room, and Kyle just like this, shameless and needy, his mouth so wet around Stan's dick. Distantly, Stan wondered if he wanted to get caught, and to go away and live a terrible, STD-ridden life with Kyle on the streets of Mexico, letting coke dealers fuck him for money. Right now, sure. As long as he could be with Kyle like this, inside his hot mouth, pulling at Kyle's hair with both hands as he twitched his hips up into that heat, everything so warm—

Stan came with a groan that was too high volume for real life, which he returned to slowly, blinking down at Kyle, who was lapping up what he hadn't swallowed, getting every last dribble from the tip of Stan's cock. He had an air of triumph about him when he met Stan's eyes, and he was fat-lipped, short of breath, so perfect like this that Stan didn't want to look away to check the doorway.

"Let me do you," Stan said, tucking his cock into his boxers.

"Yeah, please," Kyle said. He turned away from Stan, onto all fours, and pulled the sweatpants down to reveal his ass. "Not your dick," he said, looking back over his shoulder. "Your mouth."

"I know," Stan said. He looked at the hallway, the stairs. Empty, quiet. "Let's go to the guestroom."

"No, please," Kyle said. He was whispering, but loudly. "I'm shaking, I can't walk. I need it Stan, please. Can't wait. Sucking you off makes my ass so itchy."

"Itchy?" Stan thought of pubic lice, herpes. Was herpes itchy?

"For your mouth, fucker!" Kyle said. "Like, tingling. Just please, please, I need it so bad."

Stan sighed and assumed the position. He teased Kyle with fingertips and quick swipes of his tongue, as punishment for making him do this here, in view of the family photos on their mantle. When Kyle got too loud, Stan pinched his ass cheeks, wishing he could slap them hard enough to wake the cows. Kyle had loved that, and they hadn't discovered it until the end of their time together. Stan had missed out on so many years of coming home from a long day of work to Kyle's upturned ass. He stopped teasing and ate him out properly, squeezing Kyle's cock in warning when his noises started to get too high-pitched. He expected Kyle's output to be kind of light, considering that he'd come three times that afternoon, but he blew an impressive load as usual.

"Fuck," Stan said, because their living room was carpeted. Kyle moaned and flopped down into the puddle of come, still twitching.

"We're so good together," Kyle said, mumbling. He was splayed out with his arms tucked under his chest, the sweatpants bunched around his knees. "It's killing me. I'm dying from this. From you."

"Okay," Stan said, prodding him. "C'mere. You're getting — shit, look. It's everywhere." By 'everywhere' he meant all over the front of Kyle's shirt, which was actually Stan's, and mushed into the carpet by Kyle's weight.

"You hate me," Kyle said, still lying on the floor, on his side now, only halfway in the come.

"Bullshit that you ever thought that," Stan said. "Look at what I'm doing for you. Look at what I've done, Kyle. My wife wanted to make love to me tonight and I couldn't, because—" He held off on the STD accusation. Kyle looked especially fragile right now. "Because you're. You're here."

"Oh, fuck Karen," Kyle said, and then he snorted, rubbing his face with one hand. "Or don't, I guess. I don't have time for people like her who don't know what pain is."

"Are you kidding me? Get up, put your pants on."

"They're not even my pants." Kyle was motionless. The worst part, for Stan, was that he had gotten hard again while eating Kyle's ass, and Kyle's stupid petulance was further arousing him. Why? He wanted an explanation for all of this, and he knew Kyle wouldn't be able to give him one.

He got Kyle up and brought him to the guest bedroom, his heart racing and his cock still hard. Kyle allowed Stan to strip his come-wrecked shirt off, then the sweatpants. He scowled at the pair of boxers that Stan brought.

"Come on," Stan said, shaking them in Kyle's face. "I'll bring you more sweatpants down tomorrow. And some briefs. Goddammit, Kyle, just put them on. I don't want you sleeping down here naked."

"Why not?" Kyle asked, his lip rising.

"Because, I don't know — your nudity is very loud for me."

"Oh, Jesus," Kyle said. He sighed and flung the boxers onto the floor. "That's actually the most poetic, romantic thing anyone has ever said to me. I'm definitely sleeping naked now."


"I want to scream my nudity from the rooftops! What else can I do, since you've muzzled me?"

"Kyle. You killed a guy. I'm helping you. What the fuck am I muzzling?"

"I thought you'd throw up on the table when I told Karen we fought."

"Yeah, I'm sure you enjoyed that. Goodnight."

"Stan!" Kyle said before he could reach the door. Stan knew he should bluster out, but he turned.


"I — I really liked sucking your dick," Kyle said. He was either pretending to be sheepish or actually feeling that way; Stan couldn't tell anymore. "I hope you liked it, too."

"Oh, Christ, Kyle, you know I did. Let me go, I have to clean up your come."

"I think you have emotional problems," Kyle said. "I mean. Problems with expressing your emotions."

Stan left without responding. He went into the kitchen, got paper towels, a dish rag, and some non-toxic cleaning spray made from organic materials. He was wishing they had some really poisonous, bleach-filled substance to clean with while he knelt on the carpet, scrubbing, and he whirled around to tell Kyle to go the fuck to bed when he heard footsteps, but it wasn't Kyle, it was Karen.

"Stan?" Her eyes were puffy from sleep. Stan was frozen with a come-crusted dishrag in his hand, praying she wouldn't put on the light. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing, honey, it's okay." He stood, trying to block the wet spot on the carpet with his ankles. He'd mostly gotten everything up, but the smell of sex was lingering in the room, and in his mouth. "Kyle had an accident," he said.

"He wet himself?"

Stan barked with anxious laughter, caught off guard. "No," he said. "Um, no, he spilled a drink. I told him to go back to bed, he was. Drunk."

"Christ." Karen put her hand over her face. "He's got to leave, Stan, I'm sorry. This can't go on. I don't have the energy for this."

"I know," Stan said. "I mean. Me either."

Mercifully, Karen went back upstairs without further investigation. Stan took the dish rag into the hall bathroom and washed it clean of come, then did the shirt Kyle had soiled, then the sweatpants. He balled everything up and brought it upstairs, where he pitched it into the hamper before returning to bed. Karen elbowed him away when he tried to spoon her.

"Stop," she said. "I'm boiling hot. We've got to get a new unit. What's the point of having air conditioning if it can't even cool the second floor?"

"I know. You're right, we'll get one."

"I mean, I grew up like this," Karen said. "In the summers, when it was hot, we had nothing. That's what this feels like now. Nothing."

Stan went rigid with dread, though he knew she wasn't talking about their life together in general. Or was she? She wasn't stupid. Both of her parents had cheated on each other before they finally divorced. Stan rolled onto his back and focused on listening to Kyle's nudity. Tomorrow he would fix all of this somehow. He would figure things out.

His alarm took him off guard just a few hours later. He got up and went into the bathroom, glad for the excuse to brush his teeth, though there had been little threat of Karen trying to kiss him during the night. He dressed for work and gave her a kiss on the forehead before leaving the bedroom. He would have to leave her. It wasn't fair to treat her like this, and his whole body felt grimy and rusted, as if taking pleasure in Kyle had resulted in decomposition. Perhaps it had, since it was entirely possible that Kyle's diseases were already crawling through his blood. Karen would be better off without him. She'd find someone more deserving of her devotion, her sweetness, her persistently girlish beauty. But Stan couldn't go with Kyle, either, and he didn't want to be alone.

Downstairs, he made himself breakfast and planned out his day. He'd do his chores, and after Karen left for work he would go to the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and make sure he hadn't contracted anything from Kyle. Then he would buy the briefs, condoms, and more beers. Back to the house, he'd finish his chores and talk with Kyle about a good exit strategy. Stan was dreading that more than learning his STD status. No matter what they did, Kyle would have to leave. Stan couldn't go with him. Could he? Maybe. But should he? Probably not.


Stan turned to see Kyle in the kitchen doorway. He looked ragged, like maybe he hadn't slept. He was wearing a pair of Stan's jeans and a grey t-shirt that Stan didn't recognize. He noticed Kyle's shoes for the first time: a worn down pair of canvas loafers with a black and white checker pattern.

"You walked from Utah in those shoes?" Stan said.

"What?" Kyle frowned. "No, what are you — I didn't actually walk."

"That was a joke, Kyle. Apparently I have to tell you when I'm joking, now."

"What are you cooking?" Kyle said. "Can I have some?"

"Of course. Sit down. And keep in mind that Karen is still sleeping upstairs."

"Yes, yes."

"Where'd you get that shirt?" Stan asked as Kyle took a seat at the table.

"It was from that bag."

"Huh? What bag?"

"The garbage bag, the one Kenny's mom gave to Karen."

"Oh, God, Kyle. Don't go through that shit."

"Why not? She doesn't want it. I like the fabrics they use in women's clothes. They're different."

"I don't need to hear this right now," Stan said. He was blushing when he served Kyle half of his turkey sausage and a piece of toast. In high school, Kyle had sometimes hinted at things like this. Would Stan like him to wear a dress, maybe? He'd always made it seem like a joke. Stan had wanted it to be a joke. The thought of Kyle in a dress upset him, though he wasn't sure why.

"Can I help you with your cow chores?" Kyle asked while they ate together. It was nice, doing something normal with Kyle, and without an audience. "I want to see how you make cheese," Kyle said.

"I'm not doing any cheese craft today," Stan said, and Kyle laughed.

"That can't be the proper term for it," he said.

"And it's muddy outside," Stan said. "Still raining a little, like. A mist. Miserable weather to work in, especially when it warms up."

"I told you, I don't care. I'll go live in a public toilet at a bus station with you if that's what's in the cards. I'm not going to be put off by a little mud."

"Yeah, we'll see."

"Especially since these are our last days together," Kyle said, and Stan looked up from his plate. "I mean, God. I'll take what I can get, Stan. Like always, I guess."

"Dammit, Kyle," Stan said, and he shook his head. "Fuck. Shit. I've been thinking."

"You have?" Kyle seemed to levitate with hope; Stan knew he shouldn't have mentioned anything, not before his trip to Planned Parenthood. But what if sharing a disease was some further sign that they should be together? Stan would have to leave Karen, anyway, if he'd picked something up.

"Finish your breakfast," Stan said, watching Kyle wilt a little as he waited to hear more. "I got a lot of work to do. We'll talk. Just let me wake up first."

The weather was indeed miserable and the mud was thick, but Stan had to concede Kyle's point: he was enjoying himself, going about his routine with Kyle for company. It felt special. Kyle had borrowed one of Stan's rain jackets, a pair of boots, and some heavy work gloves, though he was mostly just watching Stan work.

"Can I touch one of them?" Kyle asked when they were in the cow pasture, putting out dry feed.

"I guess," Stan said.

"But they're wet," Kyle said, wrinkling his nose.

"Well, then don't touch them, Jesus, it was your idea."

"You just leave them out here in the rain?"

"Sometimes. If it's really bad they can go in the barn." He gestured, and Kyle turned.

"Ooh," Kyle said. "The barn."

"Yeah, there it is."

"Couldn't I just live there?" Kyle asked. "On a loft or something?"

"Kyle," Stan said, and he sighed.

"What? Why is that so unrealistic? I think it's actually sort of perfect – you could keep me out there with the rest of the strays, and come fuck me at night to keep me warm. I could sneak cheese from your cheese workshop if I get hungry between feedings. Maybe I'd learn how to hunt mice."

"Right," Stan said. "Great plan."

"You think I did it on a whim, don't you?" Kyle said. "Unprovoked?"

"Huh?" Stan looked up from a literal pile of shit he'd been shoveling. Kyle waved a hand at him.

"Nothing, never mind. Oh, look, Karen's driving away."

"Yeah, she has work."

"She leaves without saying goodbye?"

"Sure," Stan said. "She's dressed for work. She can't come out here in her heels and wade through the muck just to blow me a kiss or whatever."

"She wears heels?" Kyle snorted, and Stan wasn't sure if he was expressing surprise or disapproval; probably both. "You literally married the first person you dated," Kyle said. "You know that, right?"

"No," Stan said. "You don't know what you're talking about. You weren't there. I dated other people."

"Kenny told me you didn't, really."

"Well, that asshole wasn't there, either, so don't—"

"How many girls did you fuck in college?" Kyle asked.

"I don't know," Stan said, and Kyle laughed. "It wasn't that many." He'd mostly let guys fuck him, to punish himself for Kyle. He'd never particularly enjoyed it, and it was always a one-time thing. "How about you?" Stan asked. "How many guys have you been with, other than me?" Stan had never wanted to know, but Planned Parenthood might need this information.

"Oh, who knows?" Kyle said. "It was always like with that coach. I never really wanted them, but they were there and asking and I was like, why not? Who am I to refuse if someone wants to help me get off? So, everyone who asked. Which I guess wasn't that many."

"That's not true," Stan said. He was gripping the shovel handle like he wanted to cut off its air supply. "Cartman asked, and you didn't say yes."

"That's true," Kyle said. "But that was before, you know."


"Before you saw me with your coach. Oh, shit, how are we talking about this again? Are you almost done?"

"No. This work takes hours."

"Hasn't it been hours yet?"

"Go back to the house and take a shower," Stan said.

"Can't we shower together? Since she's gone?"

"Do you think this is easy for me?" Stan asked. He had raised his voice, and was thinking of the long drive to Colorado Springs, the indignity of a waiting room in a free clinic. "Do you think I just owe you so much that I should thank you for needing me?"

Kyle didn't have a response. He stood there looking pathetically sad, staring at the barn. Maybe Stan could build him an actual sleeping place up there, in secret, Karen almost never went out to the barn— He threw the shovel into the mud and groaned.

"You make me crazy," Stan said. "You fuck up my brain."

"Sorry," Kyle said.

"You're not sorry," Stan said, and for a moment he was certain that he was going to fuck Kyle right there, in the mud, no condom, then he tipped his head back and felt the misting rain on his face. He took deep breaths. This rain was real, and the stink of the farm, and Karen merging into the traffic on the highway, headed toward work. Kyle was a hallucination, something Stan could reach for and think that he'd grasped only to find that he'd been tricked.

"Are you having a stroke?" Kyle asked.

"Get in the house," Stan said, pointing. He was surprised when Kyle obeyed, turning to walk toward the fence. Stan followed him, staying two steps behind.

On the covered back patio, he grabbed Kyle's arm before he could enter the house with muddy boots. He felt badly for how rough he was being when he saw Kyle's face, his shaking lips, and he knelt down to take Kyle's boots off himself, then the gloves. He wanted to kiss Kyle's hands, their pale smallness, to curl Kyle's fingers safely inside his, but Kyle was going into the house, hiding his tears. Maybe what he'd said about the men he'd allowed to fuck him had actually been a painful confession. Kyle always couched those in pretend flippancy. That had been a big part of the problem, back in high school.

Kyle wasn't in the guest room; he wasn't anywhere on the first floor. Stan found him upstairs in the master bedroom, standing at the window that looked over the backyard and pasture, naked except for Carol McCormick's old shirt. He'd strewn the rest of his borrowed clothes across the floor on the way to the window.

"We can take a shower together," Stan said.

"I just got tired of giving in," Kyle said. "It was like with you, 'this is better than nothing,' but that wasn't true when I wasn't giving in to you, and then he had his hands around my throat—"

"Kyle, I believe you," Stan said, though he found it odd that Kyle had no bruises on his neck. "I know it was self defense." He went to Kyle and held his shoulders, kissed the back of his head. He smelled like the farm, and realizing this made Stan shiver, a peel of happiness skirting through him. "Let's get in the shower, okay?"

"It was a letter opener," Kyle said, and he turned to Stan. "Have they said that in the news? Have you looked?"

"I only skimmed over one article," Stan said. "I saw – his picture, so."

"I buried it on your property," Kyle said. "I'll take it with me when I go, though. Do you need me to leave? Do you want me to go right now?"

"You know I don't."

"I don't know that!" Kyle hit Stan's chest with both fists, hard enough to shock him. "Stop assuming I know what you're thinking, especially when it comes to me! You're this emotional quagmire – I don't even think you know what the fuck you want!"

"Stop yelling at me," Stan said, keeping his voice even. "And don't hit me, Kyle. Get that shirt off. I'm going to put the shower on. You need to calm down. We both need to think."

"You said you'd been thinking," Kyle said. He whipped the shirt off and threw it onto the bed. "About what, might I ask?"

"About you," Stan said. "About what the fuck we're going to do."

"We?" Kyle had never seemed so naked, all pink and white with tufts of red. In this light his sagging chest was less attractive, and somehow more appealing at the same time.

"I have some things to do in town," Stan said. "Some arrangements to make, things to look into."

"Like what?"

"Like buying underwear for you," Stan said, and Kyle grinned. "C'mon, let's wash up."

It had been a long time since Stan had showered with another person. In fact, the last person might have been Kyle, senior year. It hadn't been a frequent thing for them back then, but on a couple of occasions during the summer it had proved convenient and relaxing, if the Marsh household was empty. That had been a hard year for the Broflovskis, with Gerald doing poorly, and Kyle had come to Stan for comfort as often as sex. Remembering how inadequate he'd felt in the presence of Kyle's angry grief, Stan squeezed him close under the warm water, rocking him in his arms. There was a murder weapon buried on Stan's property, thanks to Kyle, and Stan could only feel guilty for not being able to go back in time and hold him again, more tightly this time.

"You're making me hard," Kyle said when Stan washed him, as if Stan might not have noticed.

"That's fine," Stan said. "You can just stay hard until I get back from my errands." He took Kyle's chin in his hand. "Don't come while I'm gone. You make such a mess. Just wait for me, and when I get home I'll fuck you, okay?"

"Mhmm," Kyle said, and he closed his eyes, nuzzling at Stan's hand when it slid to his cheek. "What if she's back, though?"

"I'll get back before her."

"But what if you don't!"

Stan sighed. He supposed it was a possibility, and his own erection felt painfully heavy already.

"Then I'll come down during the night again," he said, worried about this promise.

"How long will she let me stay?" Kyle asked. "I can tell she's annoyed. Last night — I heard her talking to you in the living room. Do you think she suspects something?"

"No," Stan said. "I told her you spilled a drink. Just let me handle it, Kyle. Just be patient."

They got out of the shower and dressed, both of them with tented pants. Kyle was wearing some of Stan's pajama bottoms, his cockhead peeking through the slit on the crotch. Stan assumed this was intentional, and went over to adjust it for him.

"I feel like I'm sixteen again," Stan said. "With you. Totally brainless for sex."

"Not sure if I should be insulted by that or what," Kyle said.

"You're like this light source," Stan said, and then he regretted trying to articulate it. Kyle raised his eyebrows, waiting. "And I'm this bug."

"I'm starting to understand why you never tried to tell me you loved me," Kyle said, and he smiled uncertainly.

"You should rest," Stan said, to keep himself from telling Kyle that he loved him now, and that it was the 'in love' sort, the kind of unstoppable, destructive force that had tornadoed its way through his life only once before. Kyle couldn't know that yet, before Stan knew if Kyle had made him sick or not. "Go take a nap," Stan said, and he gave Kyle a lingering kiss, not wanting to leave him. Stan was tired, too, and he wanted to curl around Kyle in the bed downstairs, under the soft gust of the house's most effective air conditioning vent. He thought of Mexico, or somewhere further south, palm trees. The taste of Kyle was like an advertisement for an impossible life, and Stan wanted to buy it.

It was strange to leave Kyle at the house alone, and unsettling. Stan considered postponing his test, but that would leave him twisting and turning over the possibilities for another night. The drive to Colorado Springs was just under an hour, the traffic light, most people already at work and lunch breaks still a few hours off. He went to the clinic first, hoping not to see anyone he knew, though it was unlikely. The waiting room was full of young women who were playing with their phones.

"Any reasons for concern?" the nurse who took his blood asked.

"No," Stan said. Could his STD be used as incriminating evidence in Kyle's murder trial? Possibly. "Just. I have a new partner, so. Want to make sure it's safe." He didn't bother defining what 'it' was.

"Is your partner getting tested, too?" the nurse asked.

"Yeah," Stan said. "He's clean, he's fine. It's me I'm worried about."

He resented Kyle for being the clean one in this fib. Being in the clinic made the idea of living with a disease that was serious or even just irritating feel real, and the fantasy of a life with Kyle in some palm tree-laden land felt ridiculous again. Stan was doing this for his wife, to protect her. He should have protected her from Kyle from the start, instead of taking his dick out for Kyle at the earliest opportunity.

He went to the nearest Target while waiting for his results. Just the act of buying underwear and condoms was more humiliating than getting an STD test, though he'd tried to pad the purchase with a 12 pack of beer and some new towels. The towels would be a secret until Kyle left. It was too much work to wash the come from the ones Karen knew about before putting them in the hamper.

Back at the clinic, waiting for his results, he watched CNN on the waiting room television. There was nothing about Hank Johnson, and Stan was relieved. He was further relived to learn that he had contracted no STDs from Kyle. On the way to his truck, he felt like he'd dreamed the whole thing, and the thought disturbed him. If he had, Kyle wouldn't be there when he returned.

In fact, he seemed not to be. Stan searched the first floor, then the second, and found no sign of Kyle until he heard a closet door opening as he left the master bedroom. He walked back in, on guard against intruders, and saw Kyle sitting on the floor in the closet, his knees hugged to his chest and his face very white.

"I peed on your shoes," Kyle said when Stan approached him. "I'm sorry. I was afraid to come out. I'm really sorry."

"Wait — what, why?" Stan knelt down to help Kyle up. He was shaking badly, and had indeed pissed himself, and the pairs of shoes that he'd been sitting on. "What happened?" Stan asked.

"Police," Kyle said. He met Stan's eyes timidly. "Police came."


"They were knocking on the door. Stan, I'm so — so scared, oh, God, I did it, I really did it, it didn't feel real before—"

"Shh, it's okay," Stan said. He was shaking now, too, and he put his arms around Kyle, hugging him close enough to feel his dampness.

"It's not okay!" Kyle said. "They know I'm here! They knocked for like, ten minutes! Karen must have told someone."

"She wouldn't," Stan said, though he wasn't sure. "We'll just, we'll. No one knows you're here, even if they're looking. They don't know — they didn't see you, did they?"

"No," Kyle said. "I went to the window when I heard a car coming up the driveway, I thought it was you, and when I saw that it was Park County police I bolted up the stairs and hid in here. That was, ah - hours ago, I've just been in there waiting, thinking about solitary confinement—"

"Let's get you out of these," Stan said, reaching for the waistband of the pajama pants. "You can take a bath, we can think—"

"We don't have time to think!" Kyle said, shouting. "They know I'm here, or anyway they suspect, enough to send someone out to look! Oh, God, God, I'm going to die, I'll get the death penalty, Utah is very conservative—"

"Stop," Stan said. "Take a deep breath."

"We've got to get away from here while we still can," Kyle said, crying now. "Stan, please."

"You're not going anywhere in pee-stained clothes, c'mon."

He managed to get Kyle into a warm bath, which was not really appropriate for the muggy weather, but Kyle was shivering. Stan was shaken, too, and trying not to show it. He wasn't sure he could lie to the police convincingly, and what about Karen, was she involved now? He thought of the condoms he'd bought, the towels, and felt criminally stupid.

"They must have gone to my mother's house first," Kyle said while Stan washed his back and wondered if he should just throw the pee-stained shoes away. "She must have told them that I'm in touch with you more often than her. Do you think she's even surprised by what I've become? Do you think they told her what I'm suspected of?"

"I doubt it," Stan said. "And maybe they just asked around, maybe it wasn't her. Everyone in South Park knows that you and I are close."

"Are?" Kyle peeked at him. "I hadn't seen you in years before this."

"Well. That's no fault of mine, I wanted to see you."

"You never called! You didn't even text!"

"I didn't think you'd want me to, after that morning. After Kenny's bachelor party."

"Ugh, that. I actually thought we were making progress with that fight. At least we were finally talking about it. Oh, never mind, fuck. What do I do, Stan? Tell me what to do, please."

"You can start by getting out of the tub and drying off," Stan said, and he rinsed the suds from Kyle's back. "Then we'll sit together and think about what to do."

"Think, think, it's like you actually believe we're going to come up with some sort of plan!"

"Kyle, shh. C'mon, I'll get you something to wear."

He had a sense of déjà vu, saying that, and he headed into the bedroom feeling defeated. Kyle was right; there was no planning that could be done in response to this situation. Stan had the farm and the cars paid off, but he didn't have much in the way of liquid assets, and if the police were already looking for Kyle he might not make it through an airport security check if he used his own passport.

"You don't happen to have your passport on you, do you?" Stan asked when Kyle came into the bedroom with the towel wrapped around his shoulders. Kyle rolled his eyes.

"Oh, sure," he said. "I made certain to pack that when I left town in a calm and orderly fashion after cleaning that guy's blood out from under my fingernails."

"You call him 'that guy' like you barely knew him," Stan said. "I thought you were having an affair. You didn't have any feelings for him at all?"

"It was, you know," Kyle said, and he sat on the bed, his balls resting against Stan's martial bedsheets. "It was sex, and he was rich. He took me to Amangiri."

"What the hell is Amangiri?" Stan asked, picturing Africa, Kyle in safari khakis with some bloated white guy who shot at rhinos.

"It's a gay friendly resort in the desert, in Utah," Kyle said. "Very discreet."

"Let's fucking hope so," Stan said, and he tossed Kyle the pack of briefs. Kyle held it in both hands and stroked the plastic wrapping tenderly with his thumbs, as if he was holding Stan's beating heart.

"This one night before dinner, in the pool, at sunset," Kyle said, "I pretended I was there with you. That you were waiting for me back in our room. I did that a lot," he said when he looked up from the briefs. "When I was with other guys."

"Kyle, I'm sorry," Stan said, though he'd lost track of what he was apologizing for.

"Did you ever think of me?" Kyle asked. "When you were with — others?"

"Of course," Stan said. "But I didn't pretend they were you. I just thought of what was different. What I missed."

"And what did you miss?" Kyle asked. Stan wished he would cover his cock, though it was soft and mostly unobtrusive at the moment.

"I missed the way you felt," Stan said. "Like, like you were just barely mine. Like I had to hold on or you'd get away."

Kyle looked to the window, his jaw shifting. Stan took this opportunity to get him some clothes. The closet smelled like pee; he'd have to act fast. It was almost five o'clock.

"It sure took you a long time to get these," Kyle said, and he tore open the package of briefs. "What were your other errands?"

Stan tried to come up with a lie, but he was too tired. "I got tested," he said. "Since I'd had unprotected, you know. Anal."

"Jesus, I would never!" Kyle said, gaping at him.

"I know, I just thought. We get so caught up, I mean. I ate your ass while my wife was asleep upstairs, Kyle. I wouldn't have blamed you. It would have been me, too, just." Stan heard himself rambling, possibly digging a deeper hole. Kyle's eyes had narrowed.

"I'm not some totally debauched waste of life," Kyle said. "I only got high on weekends, I used condoms, and this is my first murder, okay, so stop looking at me like I'm here to lay eggs in your stomach."

"Ew," Stan said. "I'm not looking at you like that."

"You are, at moments. It's either that or like I'm a pork chop glistening on your plate."

That made Stan want to fuck him, but he restrained himself, starting in on the closet instead. Kyle tried to help but mostly got in the way. He kept crying softly, and then pushing Stan away and insisting he was fine when Stan tried to comfort him. When they heard Karen's car coming up the driveway, Kyle retreated into the guest bedroom and closed the door. Stan tried to look casual when she entered, and he popped open one of the beers he'd bought that afternoon. It was warm; he'd forgotten to put the 12-pack in the fridge when he got home.

"Hey," he said to Karen, immediately aware that something was wrong. She stayed in the kitchen doorway instead of coming forward to hug him. "What's wrong?" Stan asked, his pulse already racing.

"Where's Kyle?" Karen asked. Her voice was lowered. She didn't look mad, just frightened and confused.

"In the guest room," Stan said. "What's up?"

"Let's go outside for a minute," Karen said, and she went to the fridge to get a beer for herself.

"They're warm," Stan said.

"I don't care," she said, and she opened it. Stan followed her into the backyard, which was illuminated by a hazy sunset. He'd neglected his afternoon chores again, and catching up would be hell in the morning. Karen walked to the edge of the patio, took a drink from her beer and sighed. "Kenny called me at work today," she said.

"Is everything alright?" Stan asked. He thought of a blood-crusted letter opener lurking under their previously pure soil. But surely Kyle had cleaned the blood off. Why, though, hadn't he left it at the scene of the crime? It wasn't as if the thing was registered to him.

"Kenny said Ike told him that police are looking for Kyle," Karen said. "Stan, what the fuck? What's going on?"

"Beats me," Stan said. He hated lying to her. To anyone, but especially to her. Every word was like a half-swallowed nail at the back of his throat. "Why were they looking for him?"

"They didn't say," Karen said. "Or anyway, Ike didn't know. He's worried. I wanted to tell Kenny — God, Stan, I feel ill, lying to him about this! And I don't even know why I am. I thought it was that crap about Kyle's feud with his mother, but obviously something else is going on."

"You didn't tell Kenny he's here?" Stan's heart dropped when she shook her head. She was telling the truth, he could see it. She'd kept her word to Kyle.

"I wasn't sure what I would be implicating him in if I did!" Karen said. "Do you think it's drugs?" she asked, whispering.

"Maybe," Stan said. "Look, just. I'll talk to him later. We talked today about when he's going to leave."


"And, uh. Well, I'm sure if police are asking around South Park for him, that'll be incentive enough to get him on the road."

"I don't like this," Karen said. "I really don't, Stan. I've got a bad feeling."

"Hey, hey," Stan said, pulling her into a hug. "Don't worry. I mean, it's Kyle. How bad could it be?"

Somehow Stan believed himself: how bad could murder really be, if Kyle had committed it? How could the police, should they actually find him, not see what Stan did, that Kyle was just confused, down on his luck, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stan felt queasy as they reentered the house, and when Kyle appeared in the foyer wearing a tight, button-up flannel that seemed to have come from the Carol McCormick collection, his stomach pitched.

"Welcome home," Kyle said to Karen. Stan was afraid he detected a threatening tone.

"Are you okay?" Karen asked him.

"Why wouldn't I be okay?" Kyle looked at Stan with silent accusation.

"You look like you've been crying," Karen said. "Here, sit down. Let me fix you a drink."

"I can do that," Stan said, and he took the bourbon from Karen, hating the sight of her doing Kyle any favors. Kyle sighed dramatically and dropped into a chair at the kitchen table.

"I'm having a hard time right now," Kyle said. "Well, that's putting it mildly. My life is in shambles."

"What's the matter?" Karen asked. She sat down across from Kyle and dragged her chair closer to his.

"I'm being framed for tax fraud," Kyle said, so convincingly that for a moment Stan was relieved. "My former boss is blaming what he did on me."

"You were doing his books?" Karen asked. Kyle nodded.

"I can't get into the details," he said. "But these are powerful people, Karen. They'll squash me if they find me."

"Oh, shit," Karen said. "Are they anti-Semites?"

"Karen," Stan said.

"What?" She turned to him, then back to Kyle. "It's just — they're all Mormons there, aren't they? And they're trying to pin it on the Jewish guy?"

"Sadly, that might be the case," Kyle said. Stan chugged the rest of his beer down.

"Since when are you an accountant?" Karen asked.

"Oh, for years," Kyle said, vaguely. For all Stan knew, it was the truth, one of Kyle's mini-lives. "What did you think I did for a living?"

"Actually, I guess I never knew. So what are you going to do? Isn't there anyone you could go to who would listen to you?"

"Only you and Stan, I'm afraid," Kyle said.

"You don't know that," Stan said, desperately. "And what's the alternative?"

"Escape," Kyle said. "Mexico, and then I figure things out from there."

"I don't want you at the mercy of some drug dealer," Stan said, and he groaned when Karen turned to frown at him. "Kyle knows a guy down there," Stan said. "A bad guy."

"Who else can help me get away?" Kyle asked.

"Do they have proof that you did something wrong?" Karen asked. "Maybe you can just explain—"

"They've falsified evidence!" Kyle said. "Look, trust me, I've thought about all the angles, and the only answer is to bolt. Now can I please have a refill?"

"Don't get drunk," Stan said when Karen passed the bourbon bottle to Kyle. "We need to keep our heads here. A policeman came to the house today," he said, and Karen gaped at him.

"Looking for Kyle? How could they know he was here?" She whirled around to face Kyle again. "I didn't tell anyone, I swear."

"People in town must have told whoever's looking for me to ask Stan Marsh," Kyle said, and he shrugged. "They assume we're still in touch."

"Obviously we are," Stan said, and he blushed, annoyed at himself for that needless remark. He went to the fridge for another beer, though he knew he shouldn't get drunk, either.

"Should we take Kyle somewhere tonight?" Karen asked. "In case they come back tomorrow?"

"Oh, I'm sure they'll come back tomorrow," Kyle said. "The thing is, I don't have anywhere to go. Unless it's across the border, but they might be watching the house even now, expecting that."

"Jesus," Stan said. His head was starting to spin. "Should we eat something?"

Karen reheated the leftover ravioli, and Stan divided it between three plates. There wasn't really enough left to feed three people. Stan took the smallest portion for himself, and by the time he'd eaten his portion of five ravioli he felt even hungrier than he'd been before. The meal was tense and quiet, everyone lost in their own private thoughts.

After dinner, Karen insisted on doing the dishes and wouldn't take no for an answer, saying that Stan looked tired. Hearing that, he realized he was, profoundly so. He walked Kyle to the guest bedroom, not in the mood for any covert sex talk but wanting a goodnight kiss.

"What's with those towels?" Kyle asked, gesturing to them.

"Shit," Stan said, because he'd meant to hide them under the bed and had left them sitting on Kyle's pillows. "I, uh. Got those for you." He checked over his shoulder; the water was still running in the kitchen, plates clinking together. "For your output," Stan said, mumbling.

"My output?" Kyle made a face. "What is wrong with you? What do you even think is going to happen next?"

"I don't know, Kyle, I don't fucking know! I was trying to be thoughtful."

"Thoughtful, okay. By buying special Kyle's come towels? You know I'm sensitive about my — production levels."

Stan loved him then, for this stupid argument and for his oversensitivity about all of the things Stan had always fetishized about his body. He kissed Kyle's cheek, tenderly, wanting Kyle to understand how he was feeling through touch rather than words. Stan would never outgrow this: wanting Kyle to take his hand and know everything.

"What if they come back in the morning?" Kyle asked. He looked terrified, and Stan wanted to hold him while he slept, to keep watch for him.

"You'll hide," Stan said. "We won't tell them anything."

"I can't hide forever! I can't really live in the barn!"

"I know that, Kyle. Look, okay. I was thinking, during dinner. We could call Kenny, have him come out to the house with his truck to pick up some furniture." Kenny was a master carpenter, and it wasn't unusual for Karen and Stan to bring things to his workshop for varnishing. "Something big enough for you to fit inside. And he could smuggle you off site that way."

"Off site to where?" Kyle placed his hands on Stan's chest, gently. "I'm afraid to go to Mexico alone. That dealer, you're right, he's a bad guy. I mean, if I showed up with you, we could handle him, you know, together, but just me — I'm so tired of it being just me, Stan. Look what happened when it was just me."

"Shh," Stan said. The water had shut off in the kitchen. "I don't mean going to Mexico right away. I meant a motel or something. Or a hotel."

"I don't have—"

"I know you don't have money, I'd pay. Go to bed," he said, because he could hear Karen shutting off the lights in the kitchen. "We'll talk in the morning."

Kyle receded into the room, maintaining eye contact with Stan until he'd shut the door completely. Stan turned to see Karen at the foot of the stairs, and he was afraid she'd witnessed something intimate, as if anyone could tell that just holding Kyle's gaze stripped Stan down to his bones. Not anyone, though; his wife. He felt so far away from her already, and was glad when she fell into the hug he offered and clung to him.

"This is crazy," she said when they were up in their bedroom alone, the door closed.

"I know," Stan said. He opened the window, which offered some relief from the room's stuffy heat, but not much. "I was thinking — we can't do this without Kenny's help. We have to get Kyle to let us tell him."

"Let us?" Karen said. She scoffed. "I know he was your friend when you guys were still in diapers, but this is all a little much, don't you think? And get Kenny's help with what, exactly? Are we personally going to smuggle Kyle into Mexico?"

"No, just — away from here, out of our house. Then I'll take care of it. I don't want this stressing you out any more than it already has."

"And I don't want you to be considered the accomplice in a crime!" Karen was undressing in stages as she spoke, standing near the bedroom closet. She had always been thin, with narrow hips and small breasts, and Stan had never before considered that her body could almost be called boyish. "Something about this doesn't add up," she said when she was standing in her bra and underwear, mismatched cotton that seemed thoughtlessly selected in an appealing way: bikini briefs with little polka dots, a pale blue bra with a tiny white bow between the cups. "I feel like there's something he's not telling us."

"There probably is, but the less we know the better, right?" Stan was sitting on the bed, feeling too exhausted to keep up with Kyle's deception and Karen's suspicions.

"I'm not sure that's true," she said, and she reached back to unhook her bra. "And why was he wearing my mother's shirt?"

"I — was he?"

"Stan." Karen shook her head and opened the closet to toss the bra into the hamper. "God," she said. "Did you spray air freshener in here or something?"

"Oh — yeah." For a moment, Stan wanted to just confess everything, to cry and put his head in her lap and tell her all about high school, the whole thing, from the start. He'd never told anyone about how Kyle made him feel, how Kyle changed him. "I felt like my clothes really stunk, um, from that muddy work day, so."

"You're too sweet," Karen said. She looked sad about this, standing there in her polka-dot underwear. "You let Kyle walk all over you."

"I've always felt like I owe him something," Stan said, though it was more like he'd always wanted to give Kyle everything he had. "I guess because he had a harder time, growing up. With his dad and all."

"You have a soft spot for wounded birds," Karen said, walking toward him, and he wondered if she was referring to herself in part. She'd never had it easy, but she'd always kept her chin up. "Kyle is like a wounded bird who is also carrying a snake in his talons."

"Huh," Stan said, because that seemed oddly accurate. He put his hands on Karen's hips when she came to sit in his lap, straddling him.

"I kissed his brother once, you know," Karen said. "In high school."

"Ike?" Stan said, and his grip on her tightened. She smiled.

"Yeah," she said. "He wasn't even that cute, but he had that thing Kyle has, that dickhead confidence that's kind of appealing in small doses."

"He did?" Stan was frowning, trying to picture Karen with Ike, who had none of Kyle's appeal, as far as Stan could see. Ike was gangly and always smirking, and he'd always seemed particularly oily, even for a teenage boy. He now lived in Boston and was part of some kind of 'think tank.' Ike and Kyle had stopped speaking around the time Kyle's feud with Sheila began. "Well," Stan said. "I guess you missed out on your chance at being rich."

"Yeah, I sure did," Karen said. "And at being married to a self-loving shithead."

She kissed him, and Stan was responsive, thinking of Ike's greasy lips on hers back in the day. So they had both kissed Broflovski brothers in high school. Thinking of Kyle's lips — especially back then, the miracle of their softness, his warm tongue pressing out shyly from between them — Stan started to get hard.

"Are you frightened for him?" Karen asked when Stan pressed her to the bed. He was determined to do this, to celebrate his clean bill of health, and to show her — what? That she deserved him more than Kyle did, even if she would never have as much as him.

"He'll be okay," Stan said. "He's got nine lives, always lands on his feet. You know. He's Kyle." Stan couldn't picture Kyle incarcerated, or even questioned by police. No, he wouldn't survive that. Stan wouldn't let it happen.

He was normally gentle in bed with Karen, always reminded of their first few times together, that summer after she had just turned eighteen. Stan had felt dirty for wanting her, for slobbering hungrily over her small shoulders, but she had been bold enough for both of them, never blushing or hesitant. Now they were more awkward together, and Stan had the feeling that Karen had grown to feel protective of him, too.

Tonight something felt different, and Stan was empowered by it, sliding his hand into her panties to feel if she was wet for him. She was, and she sighed into his mouth gladly when he touched her, bucking her hips up for it. He had never allowed himself to imagine that he was with someone else when they fucked, but he'd always mapped the differences between her responses and Kyle's. Karen tended to gasp where Kyle moaned, in the early stages. Later, when she was closer, she switched to moans, whereas Kyle would start whimpering and trembling—

He made himself stop thinking about Kyle. Karen had a pleasantly fragrant neck, and Stan lapped at it, biting softly a few times. He didn't miss the Adam's Apple; he'd never liked it. There was a particular combination of feminine and masculine traits that muddled together in his fantasies: smallish tits, softness, and the smell of a girl's hair, but he wouldn't say no to a cock for grabbing and missed the bluntness of a male body, the way he felt he had permission to be rough, to wrestle his partner feel his push-back. Of course, it had only ever been that way with Kyle. With the random guys in college Stan had been submissive, almost limp.

He had often imagined having this conversation with Karen: How would you feel if I told you I'm bisexual? She would be hurt, he was sure. She would feel excluded from his potential bond with some theoretical man, inadequate at the thought that Stan might enjoy sharing his maleness with a partner. Then, in less than a minute, her thoughts would turn to Kyle, and there would be questions.

They almost never fucked with Karen on his hands and knees, her back to him, but tonight it seemed appropriate, if alarmingly so. Stan supposed she understood, too, that they were both doing this for different reasons. Still, he felt connected to her, his arms wrapped around her middle as he drove into her. He felt like they were talking without needing to spell things out, finding some middle ground by returning to their physical bond. His pace tapered off when he realized that this was always how he'd felt with Kyle. And he'd been so wrong.

"You okay?" Karen asked when he had stopped completely.

"Yeah," he said, and he pulled out, turning her onto her back. He was still thinking of Kyle when he came, of how Kyle would have grunted and bucked back against him if he'd stopped like that, demanding that Stan keep hitting him just there, just right.

Guiltily, he held Karen for a long time afterward. She took some time to fall asleep in his arms, probably worried about Kyle. Stan didn't go downstairs. Nothing good would come of it. He felt like every lie he'd told for the past three days was crawling over his skin, eating at him slowly. Around three o'clock in the morning he woke feeling newly guilty, this time for having left Kyle alone all night. He was too tired to move, so exhausted by the events of the past few days that he was asleep again before he could decide which bed he should be in.

His alarm scared him a few hours later. He'd been dreaming of police sirens, and flashing lights. Karen slept through it as usual, and Stan went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. He normally didn't bother until after breakfast, but he didn't want Kyle to detect the taste of Karen on his mouth. Truer than anything he felt for either of them was the fact that he didn't want to hurt one while protecting the other.

Downstairs, Kyle didn't emerge from the guest bedroom. Stan thought of knocking, but decided against it. Kyle needed rest, too. Certainly he was more exhausted than any of them. Furthermore, Stan had a lot of work to catch up on. He ate a quick breakfast and got to it, glad that it hadn't rained again. By the time the sun came up, he realized that Karen's car was gone; she'd left without his notice. He turned back to his repairs on the chicken coop before realizing why he'd looked toward the driveway in the first place: there was another car on the driveway, coming toward the house. It wasn't a police cruiser, but Stan didn't recognize it, and he had a growing feeling of doom and finality as he hurried back to the house, struggling not to break into a conspicuous run. Kyle was alone in there, unguarded.

There was only one man in the car, and for a moment Stan considered that this was good, because he and Kyle could take one guy if they had to. He was dizzy with sickened amazement over that thought as he walked toward the man, who was blond and wearing a well-fitted suit. He pushed his mirrored sunglasses up onto his head as he came closer.

"Mr. Marsh?" He put out his hand. "I'm Jeff Hull, UBI." He flashed a badge. Utah Bureau of Investigation. Stan wanted to signal to Kyle somehow, but he was afraid to even turn toward the house, frozen where he stood. What if Kyle was still asleep? What if he emerged cluelessly while this man was still here?

"How can I help you?" Stan asked after a pause that was, perhaps, awkward.

"I was told by Issac Brofloski that you might know the whereabouts of his brother, Kyle Broflovski," Hull said. "We think he might be able to help us with one of our investigations."

"Oh?" Stan was sweating profusely, but that had been true before this man arrived. He was still wearing his work gloves; he'd shaken the man's hand while wearing them. "Ike is in town?"

"I spoke to him by phone. Could I come in?"

"I'm kind of a mess right now," Stan said, and it was true, physically as well as emotionally. He was covered in work-related grime, reeking like a wet cow.

"I see I caught you at a bad time," Hull said with a nod. "Maybe you could just tell me if you've seen Mr. Broflovski recently, or heard from him?"

"No," Stan said, and just like that it was done. He'd lied to an officer. "We were friends as kids, but. Ike knows we're not close anymore."

"He claims he's not close to his brother himself," Hull said. He got out a pad and pencil. "The mother was crying about this when I talked to her, said her son won't speak to her. Would you mind taking a moment to tell me a few things about Mr. Broflovski and his habits? I'd really appreciate it."

Stan realized then who this guy reminded him of: Gary Harrison, the Mormon kid from school. It wasn't just the blond hair and the harmlessly clean cut demeanor, it was something else, too, a kind of sincere helpfulness. Stan supposed that in this case the detective wanted to help the dead man, not him, and certainly not Kyle.

"I don't understand," Stan said, not sure where the hell to start with Kyle's 'habits.' "What do you think Kyle can help you with?"

"A murder case," Hull said. "You want to sit up there on the porch while we talk? You look beat."

"I just." Stan turned to look at the front porch, a shock of fear chilling through his perspiration when he thought he saw Kyle in the front windows. But he was imagining things; it was just a reflection from outside, the sun. "I've just been trying to catch up on some chores this morning, so—"

"Hey, I get you," Hull said, and he smiled. "My parents have a ranch. Work never ends, right? I promise I won't take more than five minutes of your time, since you say you haven't see him."

Since you say. Different from 'since you haven't.' Stan nodded and walked toward the porch, expecting to be arrested at any moment.

They sat, and Stan's mouth went dry, but he was afraid to go into the house to get water, as if Kyle was a panicked animal who might be released through any open door. Hull sat on the steps, tugging his pant legs up to reveal dark gray socks. Stan took the porch swing, and regretted it, because he was shaking.

"When is the last time you saw Mr. Broflovski?" Hull asked. He had his pencil at the ready, poised over his little note pad.

"I guess it was when our friend Kenny got married," Stan said. "That was, Jesus. A year before my wedding, so. Ten years ago." That seemed wrong, even for the lie that omitted his most recent Kyle sighting, the one that was still ongoing, but he couldn't seem to think of when he had seen Kyle after that.

"And how old are you?" Hull asked.

"Thirty-three. Same as Kyle." He hadn't meant to say that last part. He didn't want to tell this guy anything about Kyle, even the details he already knew. "I'll be thirty-four in October," he added, wanting to be completely truthful at least about this.

"And when was the last time you heard from Mr. Broflovski? Telephone calls, emails, Christmas cards, anything."

"Kyle's Jewish," Stan said - defensively? Hull looked up and stared, waiting. Kyle had said that Stan never texted or called, and Stan had cited their fight after Kenny's bachelor party — was that right? "Honestly, I can't remember," Stan said. "It's been years. I'm not even sure where he's living. God, he's not — it's not possible that he was murdered, too, is it?"

"Highly doubtful," Hull said. "We only found the victim's blood at the scene."

"Really?" The cuts on Kyle's arms - he must have cleaned up that evidence more carefully that he had the dead man's. Of course, that would be more important.

"Mr. Marsh?"

"Sorry, I just, this is hard to hear. I worry about Kyle, I. I wish things hadn't ended between us."

"Was there a reason for the rift in your friendship?" Hull asked.

"Nothing concrete," Stan said. His heart was pounding, but he could do this, he had to, for Kyle. "I guess it was just that I got married, and he was out of the country when that happened, so. We lost touch, you know? Lives moved in different directions—"

"Out of the country?" Hull frowned. "Whereabouts?"

"Um. Minsk?"

"Huh. That's interesting." He wrote something down.

"Why?" Stan asked.

"'Cause we didn't find any record that Mr. Broflovski ever had a US passport issued."

"Oh, well, maybe he was just trying to avoid my wedding," Stan said, and he laughed nervously. He'd always suspected that.

"Were you aware that Mr. Broflovski is a homosexual?" Hull asked. Stan just stared at him, suddenly no longer able to process the fact that this was actually happening. "It's relevant to the case," Hull said.

"How so?"

"We think he was seeing the victim at the time of his death. Romantically. The victim was a man. A married man, actually." He stared at Stan for a few beats. Stan stared back, afraid that looking away would be incriminating. "Any of that surprise you, Mr. Marsh?"

"I guess I knew Kyle was gay," Stan said, speaking softly. He was afraid Kyle would hear all of this from whatever closet he was hiding in, if he'd made it to a closet in time. "We didn't talk much about it."

"He never confided in you about his affairs?"

"What — no. I think he must have been embarrassed, or. Afraid I'd judge him."

"I see." Hull wrote something, then seemed to either underline it or strike through it. "Well, listen. I don't want to take up anymore of your time. Just a few more questions. We pulled Kyle's records from high school and college, incident reports. Do you remember him as being violent, prone to fits of rage?"

"You don't think Kyle did it, do you?" Stan asked, and the horrified face he made was real.

"Can you answer my question, Mr. Marsh?"

"No! Kyle wasn't violent, never."

"He wasn't?" Hull tapped his pad with the tip of his pencil. "'Cause we found three suspensions from high school alone, for fighting."

"That was Cartman — Eric Cartman had a vendetta against him, because Kyle wouldn't have sex with him!"

"Interesting." Hull was writing again. Stan wanted to kick the pencil out of his hand. "We spoke to Mr. Cartman yesterday, and he claims that Kyle Broflovski was having a homosexual affair with him, that their fights were romantic in nature—"

"Cartman would say that, but he's a fucking liar!"

Stan had stood from the swing so abrupt that it banged into the side of the house. Hull rose slowly, keeping his eyes on Stan, lowering the pencil and paper to his sides.

"I'm sorry," Stan said. His eyes were stinging, chest constricting. No, nope, never, that was not true. "Just. It was a real source of pain for Kyle, back then. It really messed him up. Cartman was always starting rumors about him, to get back at him for not returning his feelings. Trust me, ask anyone. Ask Kenny McCormick, or Wendy Testaburger, she lives in California, she works for a congresswoman—"

"They're on my list of potential character witnesses," Hull said. "But I don't think I'll need to interview them until we actually locate Mr. Broflovski." Hull seemed nervous now, on guard. Stan nodded.

"Sorry," he said again. "I just. Kyle — if he's doing stuff like messing around with married men, I blame Cartman. He systematically made Kyle feel like trash."

Stan believed it, then. Cartman was just as culpable as Stan was, and not because he'd ever laid a hand on Kyle with his consent. Never.

"I take it you don't speak to Mr. Cartman anymore?" Hull said. Stan could see him working things out, or thinking that he was. His eyes had brightened with real interest. "Even though he lives in town?"

"I might nod to him at the grocery store if I see him," Stan said. "That's all. We were never friends." That wasn't true, of course. "I mean, after he started bothering Kyle about - that. We weren't friends anymore after that."

"But you say you didn't talk to Kyle about his sexuality? Though he confided in you about Mr. Cartman's advances?"

"No — no! I just knew he didn't want Cartman. Maybe he wanted other guys, but not him. Not him." Stan made himself shut up.

"Well, I thank you for your time," Hull said, suddenly eager to get going, as if he had a follow-up report he wanted to write while the details were still fresh. "You've been helpful, I think, and I do appreciate that."

"Kyle would never kill someone," Stan said. "I'd testify to that. I know him — knew him. He wouldn't."

"I'm sure you're right," Hull said, dismissively, and he saluted Stan with his pencil. "I'll be in touch — oh, shoot, let me give you my card."

Stan went into the house and watched Hull drive off, listening to his own ragged breath. There was no sound from the rest of the house. When Hull reached the end of the long driveway and took a left onto the two-lane highway, headed back toward South Park, Stan bolted for the hall bathroom. He mostly made it to toilet, a bit of vomit spraying onto the lid before he could get his head into the bowl properly. He stayed there for some time, until his breakfast was gone and he was heaving. When he felt a hand on his shoulder he startled and threw his arm back, ready for a fight.

It was Kyle, wearing nothing but briefs, looking very hurt for having been lashed at. Stan could barely get a single thought together; for a moment it seemed insane that Kyle should be there at all, in his house, contradicting what he'd just told the detective.

"Did you hear any of that?" Stan asked, wiping his chin.

"Just the tires on the driveway, and then again," Kyle said. "I hid in the guest room closet. With the towels under me, those new towels. I didn't pee this time, though." He was so fragile-looking that Stan wanted to praise him for this. He stood, shakily, bracing himself on the counter.

"They told me horrible fucking things," Stan said. He turned the water on and splashed his face. "They've talked to Cartman." He left that there, waiting to see what Kyle would do with it.

"Why him?" Kyle asked. He sounded disgusted. "What's he got to do with anything?"

"He's telling people he had an affair with you, Kyle. In high school. They went to interview him because they had school records about your fights, and he told them you were fucking him, that you were having lover's quarrels."

"Goddamn him!" Kyle punched the wall. "He's determined to ruin me! I should have just sucked his dick back then and been done with it!"

"No," Stan said, turning. Of course those had been lies, of course. Cartman was vile; he'd stoop to anything. Stan went to Kyle and squeezed his arm. "No, you shouldn't have. We'll fix this. I'll get you out of here before — shit, I've got to call Kenny."

"Kenny? What for? What did they say, were they from Utah?"

"Yeah, from Utah. Kenny can help us — we're going to needs his help getting you out of here. Probably shouldn't mention the murder investigation, though. Give him the story you told Karen."

"Have they spoken to my mother?" Kyle asked, trailing behind Stan. His cell phone was on the charger in the kitchen. Was it possible the police had tapped it? Even if they had, he wouldn't say anything explicit. Furniture — they'd talk about furniture. And it wasn't illegal for Stan to tell Kenny the police would be paying him a visit. Kyle was tugging on his arm, frantic.

"What?" Stan snapped. Kyle released him and shrunk backward.

"I was asking you — you're not listening to me."

"Just let me do this, Kyle, goddammit! I'm trying to help you." He reached for Kyle's face, but Kyle evaded his hand and turned away. "Go put some clothes on," Stan said, and he dialed Kenny's number. "And for fuck's sake," he called, because Kyle had retreated, passing through the foyer. "Don't make a sound while I'm on the phone!"

Kenny answered with the name of his business: Lambda Hardwoods. His accountant, Craig Tucker, had advised against using 'McCormick' in the name.

"Hey," Stan said. He walked out onto the back patio, just in case Kyle decided to make noise for some self-destructive reason. "Just had the police at my house."

"The police?" Kenny said. "About Kyle?"

"Yeah, they're looking for him. You've heard?"

"There was a rumor in town," Kenny said. "What'd he do now?"

"Now? What the hell do you mean? Kyle never did anything."

"Uh, except a lot of coke. You remember my bachelor party, Jesus."

"Kyle wasn't high that night." Was he? "Anyway, listen. Cartman is telling lies to try to defame him. Even now, that son of a bitch. He's bragging to the fucking cops that he was with Kyle in high school. He wasn't, Kenny, I know he wasn't, and you have to tell them that."

"Whoa," Kenny said. "What the fuck is going on?"

"I don't know, but you fucking — have to help me clear his name! About the Cartman thing, I mean! He wouldn't, and — don't let Cartman spread lies about him!"

"Stan," Kenny said. "You don't sound okay."

"And listen," Stan said, his voice beginning to shake. "I need you go to come over later. To pick up our TV cabinet. It needs refinishing."

"Stan, what is going on?"

"It'd be good to have you for dinner, anyway," Stan said. Now he was crying, or on the verge of it. He pinched his eyes shut and held his fist over the bridge of his nose. "Please, just. Come for dinner. Please."

"Oh, God," Kenny said, and Stan could hear in his voice that he'd guessed what was happening. "Jesus, fine. Is Karen okay?"

"Of course she's okay, she's fine. She'll be glad to see you. And this cabinet, like I said. Needs work, so. Two birds, one stone. Plus, we can talk about all this crazy shit. It's really stressing me out."

"Mhm," Kenny said. "I bet."

Stan hung up the phone and sniffled for a while. He could smell himself, the stink of a hard day's work. It was already past noon, and his stomach was empty in the worst way, but he couldn't imagine eating. He went back into the house and dropped the phone back onto his charger.

"Where are you?" he asked when Kyle wasn't in the guest bedroom. He heard water running upstairs; it sounded like the tub was filling. Stan bolted for the stairs, cursing under his breath and thinking of the cuts on Kyle's arm, bathwater already cloudy with blood.

When he reached the bathroom doorway Kyle was kneeling by the tub, not in it, not bloody. He was wearing one of Stan's big Broncos tees, one that Karen often slept in.

"I thought you might like a bath," Kyle said. He had the attitude of a scolded animal, a dog who had recently taken a rolled-up newspaper to the nose. He was hunched, pale, peering up at Stan like he was ready for another blow.

"Thanks," Stan said. He was still in his boots, had probably tracked mud everywhere. He bent down to untie one, and Kyle hurried to help with the other. "I'm sorry I freaked out," Stan said, though he wasn't sure that he had, really, and it was almost certainly justified. "It was just what that guy said about Cartman. As if that asshole's lies were truth."

"I'm finished here, anyway," Kyle said. "I've got to leave tonight. Today."

"Kenny's coming over," Stan said. "We'll smuggle you out of here in the TV cabinet after dinner. I think it will work."

"Can we really trust Kenny?" Kyle asked. He pulled Stan's boot off and looked up into his eyes. Stan considered the question, weighing his trust in Kyle at the same time.

"Did that guy really give you those cuts?" Stan asked, nodding to Kyle's arms. The slashes seemed systematic, each of them roughly the same length, some deeper than others. Kyle's eyes darkened.

"Fine," Kyle said. "I did them myself, after. I was panicked, I was — but he did try to kill me. He was killing me, and I slashed at him with that thing. I didn't mean to murder him, for fuck's sake, how could you think—"

"I don't think anything, I. You just reached out, and the letter opener was there?"

"We were over the desk," Kyle said, his voice shrinking with each subsequent word. "That is, I was. Over his desk. Getting fucked, like that."

Stan made a kind of defeated sound that was half Kyle's name. The water in the tub was getting high, near the rim.

"He wouldn't stop," Kyle said. "I just — I didn't mean to be over the desk, he put me there, and I tried to get up and he wouldn't stop, he just wouldn't stop so I grabbed that thing—"

Stan dropped to his knees and pulled Kyle to him, tight against his chest. He felt instantly as if he'd been there, as if he'd just watched it happen. Kyle took two handfuls of Stan's sweat-soaked shirt, pulling at it and rubbing his face against Stan's neck. He was shaking his head, crying in little murmurs.

"Oh," he said when Stan pulled back to hold his face. "It's all wrong, everything's just gone so wrong."

"I'll fix it," Stan said. "I promise."

"Just get in the tub," Kyle said, and he shook his head harder. "I want to be the one taking care of you, just for a few minutes. Let me pretend that I could ever do anything for you."

"You do things for me," Stan said. "You make me know who I am. I was always a coward without you, you're right about that."

"Get in the tub, Stan, please."

Water sloshed over the rim when Stan got in, and Kyle knelt in it, his bare knees in a puddle. Stan wasn't comfortable being cleaned by Kyle, and he wanted to pull Kyle into the water with him, but apparently Kyle needed this charade of care-taking. Stan told him more about the detective's visit, repeating every question, every answer.

"I told you they're after me because I'm gay," Kyle said. "Of course they're asking questions about that, of course. And Cartman is happily leading them to all the wrong conclusions. He's so pathetic and obsessed that he's got to lie about me even now? What if it gets back to my mother and she thinks it's true?"

"Why would Sheila hear about it?" Stan asked.

"I don't know, maybe she'll hear the lurid details on TV, when they release my pictures to the news! Fugitive slut, murdering gay on the loose, please help us locate him!"

"Stop," Stan said. "They can't convict you in the press. Not without evidence."

"Well, perhaps they have some."

"Like what? I thought you cleaned everything up?"

"So did I, goddammit, but here they are! Hank must have had some secret stash of Kyle mementos. He was very weird about me. Very obsessed."

"Oh?" Stan was jealous, absurdly.

"Yes, he had this serial killer-esque thing for young redheads. Not that I'm young anymore. I guess I was young-ish when he started courting me. He really aged me. Oh, all of them did. And then around you I feel like a teenager again, in all the worst ways."

"Sorry," Stan said. Kyle moaned and threw his arms around Stan's shoulders, getting the sleeves of the Broncos shirt wet. "Is it true that this is the first time I've seen you since that morning after Kenny's bachelor party?" Stan asked. "I feel like I'm forgetting something."

"No, there was a time after that," Kyle said, and he frowned. "Wasn't there?"

"I think so, but when? Where?"

They both thought for a moment, Kyle with his arms dangling around Stan, halfway in the water. Stan remembered the morning after Kenny's bachelor party vividly, though the night before was hazy. He felt sure that there was some other Kyle interlude, some further transgression, but he was drawing a blank when he tried to recall the specifics.

"Maybe we both blocked it," Kyle said. "For trauma-related reasons. Maybe it was the last murder we helped each other conceal."

"Ha," Stan said, not amused.

After he'd dried off, they went downstairs together, to the guest room. All of the curtains in the house were closed. Stan needed to get back to his chores, but instead he shut and locked the guest room door, climbed under the bedsheets with Kyle and held him. Neither of them had the energy for an erection, but they stroked and kissed each other tiredly, for comfort.

"Tell me it feels right for you, too," Kyle said.

Stan had to stop himself from saying 'you know it does.' Kyle hated it when he made those kinds of assumptions.

"It feels right," Stan said. "It always did, with you. I took it for granted."

"Oh, God," Kyle said. "I made mistakes, too. Obviously."

Stan was poised to tell Kyle that he had decided to go with him to Mexico, or wherever, to hell if he had to, but he knew he should wait until they were back in the real world to make that decision. Here, under the blankets with Kyle warm in his arms, Stan's boundaries dissolved and there was no prospect of being separated from Kyle, ever. It ceased to exist, because letting go of him felt too impossible.

At three o'clock, Stan couldn't put off his remaining chores any longer. Kyle was sleeping, but Stan kissed him all over his face before leaving the bed, waking him partially. Outside, the afternoon was oppressively bright. Stan mostly stuck close to the house, tending to the vegetable bed and gassing up equipment, wanting Kyle to be able to hear him working from inside the house, to know that he was near. After a few hours he ran out of nearby things to do and went inside to shower. He was drying off when he heard Karen coming in downstairs, or so he thought. He found Kenny in the foyer when he poked his head out of the bedroom.

"Oh," Stan said. "I left the door unlocked?"

"I'm supposed to knock?" Kenny said.

"No, never mind. Wait for me in the kitchen, I'll be right down. Help yourself to a beer."

While he dressed and made his way downstairs, Stan pondered the best way to tell Kenny that Kyle was in the house, but this ended up being a non-issue.

"Well," Kenny said as soon as Stan appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Where is he?"

"He?" Stan went to the fridge for a beer. Kenny was sitting on the counter, drinking deeply from the one he'd opened for himself.

"Don't bullshit me," Kenny said. "I'm talking about Kyle. He's here, isn't he?"

"Karen told you?" Stan was staring into the fridge, suddenly having a hard time figuring out where the beers were.

"No," Kenny said. "But I'm fucking glad to hear that she's aware of the situation. I was afraid you'd been hiding him in the barn or something."

"You know what?" Stan said, and he closed the fridge. "I'm gonna have a real drink."

"Do what you got to," Kenny said. "I don't know what the hell is going on, but you'd better have kept my sister well clear of any accomplice-like behaviors."

"It's nothing to do with Karen — with us," Stan said. He was making himself a julep when Kyle wandered into the kitchen unceremoniously, looking half-asleep and wearing saggy sweatpants under the Broncos shirt.

"Hey, Kenny," Kyle said. He came to Stan's side. "Make me one, too?"

"I am," Stan said. He'd already gotten another glass.

"Sup Kyle," Kenny said. "Other than, like. Hiding out in my fucking sister's house while the cops look for you."

"Ugh," Kyle said. "Just shove me into the TV cabinet. You don't know what you're talking about."

"I think I deserve an explanation if I'm going to help you two with whatever the hell you're doing," Kenny said.

"A corrupt politician is trying to frame me," Kyle said. "I fled the state in self defense, but nobody's going to buy that shit. Just like back in the day. Just like Cartman. I always got suspended, too."

Stan was surprised with the strength of Kyle's argument, though he knew he shouldn't be. Kyle had always been an excellent speaker under pressure. Kenny's expression softened.

"If we're talking you versus Cartman," Kenny said, "Or you versus some Cartman-like figure, you know I'm on your side. I just don't appreciate you getting Karen involved. Or Stan."

"Hey, c'mon," Stan said. "Kyle needs help. Me and Karen don't mind."

"Does she know what they think he did?" Kenny asked, gesturing to Kyle with his beer.

"Yes," Kyle said. "I've spoken to her about it, and she sympathizes. But I'm leaving tonight, aren't I? After my last meal?" He glanced at Stan.

"You can't stay here," Stan said. "That detective was giving me a weird look. We'll eat an early supper when Karen gets home, then Kenny will take you to his workshop."

"Then what?" Kenny asked.

"Later, at night, you'll take Kyle to a hotel outside of town. Lakewood should be far enough for now, there's a Marriott there. If the cops are watching you, you can tell them you had a fight with your wife - just hide Kyle in a big duffel bag or a suitcase, check him in like luggage. Then go to work in the morning as usual, bringing the empty suitcase, and leave Kyle in the room. I'll take it from there."

"Jesus," Kyle said. "When did you come up with all this?"

"While you were sleeping," Stan said, and he could sense Kenny's sharpened attention, though knowing that Kyle was asleep didn't necessarily equate to being in bed with him. He ignored the feeling of being scrutinized by Kenny and downed a third of his julep in one swallow.

Karen got home an hour later, and Stan was slightly offended by how glad she was to see Kenny and how long she lingered in his hug. He knew he deserved worse from her and forced himself to get over it, accepting a briefer embrace from her when she came to the stove, where he was making a cheese sauce for the macaroni casserole.

"Comfort food," he said to her. Also one of Kyle's favorites since childhood.

They filled Karen in on the plan, and Stan could see that Kenny wasn't comfortable involving her even to this degree, but he said nothing. Eventually, the truth about the murder investigation would come out. And where would Stan be then — Mexico? Even here, in the presence of the McCormicks, he was transfixed by Kyle, letting him taste the cheese sauce and watching his tongue dart out to clean it from the corner of his lips.

"What happens after the Marriott?" Karen asked as they were sitting down to dinner. Stan wished she hadn't; as if he had the right to undertake criminal operations without telling her the details. Furthermore, he didn't know what happened after the Marriott and didn't want to admit so in front of Kenny. Or Kyle, for that matter.

"Mexico, I guess," Stan said.

"You still need a passport to get across the border," Kenny said. "Preferably one that looks legit but doesn't say 'Kyle Broflovski' on it, I'd think."

"I bet I know who could help with that," Karen said. Stan cringed, staring down at his plate, knowing what she would say. "Cartman! Everyone says his candy shops are just a front for drug running. I bet he knows criminals. I mean, the kind who could help you."

"Right, that's just what Kyle needs," Kenny said. "To be in debt to Cartman. That could only improve the situation."

"He's out of the question," Stan said, shaking his head.

"I don't know who else you're going to get a fake passport from," Karen said. "Or some way out of the country without the government knowing."

"She's right," Kyle said. He'd barely made a dent in his macaroni, but he reached out to get himself a second helping. "I've been thinking about it, and. I don't see any other option."

"No!" Stan said, and Kenny and Karen jumped. Kyle continued to eat macaroni as if he was grimly devouring a last meal. "Kyle, Jesus! I'd rather have you appeal to that coke dealer. That - other one, I mean."

"I don't even know how to get in touch with him," Kyle said. "And, you know, let's face facts. Cartman is probably still in love with me. I could use that to my advantage."

"What the fuck, no! He's the one who'd use you, you'd be his fucking slave!"

"God, don't be so melodramatic," Kyle said, mumbling. "You always overestimated that kid."

"He's not a kid anymore, Kyle, he's a ruthless smuggler who's probably involved in human trafficking!"

"Isn't that what we're trying to do?" Karen asked. "I mean, for Kyle?"

"An excellent point," Kyle said.

"No," Stan said. "Cartman is off limits. He's already tried to sell Kyle out to the police."

"Huh?" Karen said. "How?"

"Saying — bad things about him, about how he's violent or something, bullshit about what happened in high school, how they used to fight. I've lost my fucking appetite," Stan said, shoving his plate away.

"Hey," Kenny said. "Calm down."

"Don't tell me what to do in my own fucking house," Stan said, tired of Kenny's sanctimonious attitude.

"Guys!" Karen said. "Stop. Let's just finish our meal in peace and see about getting Kyle into the TV cabinet." She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "I'm sorry, Kyle, but I don't know how much more of this I can take. We had some really shitty experiences with the cops, growing up, and being asked to keep quiet about things when they started poking around."

- paramécie -

"Oh." Kyle stared at her, his fork hovering over his plate. "I didn't even think of that."

"Imagine," Kenny said, glowering at him. Kyle raised his lip.

"I guess I was kind of distracted, you know, back then, with my father dying a slow and humiliating death."

"Let's not get into a competition about whose childhood was worse," Karen said, holding her hand up when Kenny opened his mouth. "Let's just — eat, please."

Stan was proud of her then, and grateful to her. Kyle and Kenny both shut up and got back to eating. Karen gave Stan a tired little smile from across the table, and he slid his socked feet over to touch hers.

After dinner, Stan disconnected the TV and Kenny lifted it out of the cabinet. It was a big enough space for Kyle, with some room to spare, two large drawers below the TV enclosure and a decorative carving up above. They all stood staring at it for a moment, in shared disbelief about what their lives had come to. For Kenny and Karen, this would be over soon. Kyle was only at the beginning of this disaster, and Stan had no idea how he would fit into it in the long run.

"I'll, um, get you some blankets and stuff," Karen said, and she touched Kyle's shoulder. "For padding."

"Might I be permitted to bring a small bag?" Kyle asked. His voice was pinched in a way that Stan was surprised to hear in front of Karen and Kenny.

"Of course," Stan said. "I'll pack it for you, um, I mean. I'll get you a toothbrush."

Stan got Kyle a tote bag from the downstairs coat closet and went upstairs in search of toiletries. He ended up going overboard: shampoo, an unopened box of soap, the travel-sized nail clippers, his own toothbrush when he could find a spare. Who knew when or if Kyle would have time to acquire these things? Downstairs, in the guest room, Kyle was stuffing clothes into the tote bag. He was also crying, and trying not to show it.

"It'll be okay," Stan said. "I'll come tomorrow."

"And what if they're watching you?" Kyle cried. "Oh, never mind, I don't care, come anyway. Come now, get into that thing with me. Please, I'm scared."

Stan moved toward him, but Karen was in the doorway before he could reach Kyle. She was carrying an armload of old blankets, and the sunflower oil.

"This was in the linen closet," she said, lifting the oil. "Why?"

- paramécie -

"Uh." Stan looked to Kyle for some kind of cue, having emptied himself of his quota of lies for the day. Kyle was wiping at his tears, seemingly uninterested. "I have no idea," Stan said. "I must have carried it upstairs when I was drunk or something."

"What?" Karen narrowed her eyes, and Kenny appeared behind her. "Why would you do that?"

"Do what?" Kenny asked.

"Never mind," Karen said, and she passed the oil to Kenny. "Take that to the kitchen for me. Kyle, c'mon, honey. Let's get this over with."

"Why are you handing me oil?" Kenny asked. He was looking at Stan.

"I said never mind!" Karen said, and the sharpness in her tone seemed to inspire Kyle to move out of the room and toward the TV cabinet, the tote clutched pathetically to his chest. Karen arranged the blankets inside the cabinet, and Kyle climbed up into it shakily, still hugging the tote. His knees were bent to his chest, and he curled in around the tote, making eye contact with no one.

"It'll be okay," Stan said, again, and this time he was speaking more to himself. The sight of Kyle curling up inside a piece of furniture, preparing to be loaded into Kenny's truck bed, was enormously unsettling.

"I just want to go to sleep," Kyle said, and he put his hands over his face. Stan squeezed his shoulder.

"Tomorrow we'll take the next step," he said.

"And what is that?" Karen asked. She still seemed angry, and Stan wondered if she really wanted to forget the oil, and if she could imagine why oil might suddenly be located in odd places inside their house, coinciding with the arrival of Kyle. "You're going to approach Cartman?" she asked when Stan had no answer for her question about the next step.

"No," Stan said. "Nobody is to approach Cartman. I'll think of something else."

"Yeah, alright," Karen said, sarcastically. She leaned into the cabinet to give Kyle an awkward hug that he made no attempt to return. "Good luck to you," she said, and she left the room, heading for the stairs.

"I guess she's not going to help us carry it out," Kenny said.

"She's tired," Stan said. "Let's — we can manage it." He turned to Kyle. "I'm going to close the doors now," he said.

"Fine," Kyle said, very softly. He looked like it wasn't fine at all, and Stan was dying for not being able to kiss him before shutting him into the dark, alone. He touched Kyle's shoulder again before closing one door, then the other.

"I got bungee cords from the car," Kenny said, bringing one over and looping it around the knobs on the cabinet doors.

"Is that necessary?" Stan asked, his heart beginning to race. Kenny was essentially locking Kyle into the cabinet. No: he was literally locking Kyle in.

"The doors will swing open if we don't tie them shut," Kenny said. "There. Alright, Kyle?"


"Yes or no?" Stan said, an irrational panic building inside him. He wanted to fling the bungee cord off, punch Kenny, carry Kyle into the neighboring cornfield and make off into the wilderness with him—

"Yes," Kyle said. "Hurry up, okay?"

The cabinet was heavy, and Stan and Kenny had some trouble maneuvering it out the front door and down the porch steps. Stan confirmed that Kyle was okay after every bump, and again after the cabinet had been laid on its back in the truck bed.

"I'm alive," Kyle answered. "Kind of freaking out, though."

"Maybe we should let him out for a minute," Stan said to Kenny, who looked at him like he was crazy.

"Kyle's a big boy," Kenny said. "Ain't ya?"

"Fuck you," Kyle said, meekly. Kenny rolled his eyes.

"Help me tie him down," he said, and he tossed a handful of bungee cords to Stan, who was not satisfied that the cabinet was securely in place until fourteen bungee cords and some industrial rope held it motionless in the truck bed.

"Drive slow," he said to Kenny, who shook his head.

"This is a mess of Biblical proportions," Kenny said. "What am I supposed to tell Maggie?"

"That you got drunk and had to stay over with me and Karen."

"Stan's got an answer for everything," Kenny said, and he knocked on the cabinet. Stan heard Kyle shifting inside. "Ready to rumble?" Kenny asked.

"Just go," Kyle said. He was clearly choking back tears. Stan felt like his heart was being torn out and trampled, and he touched the cabinet longingly.

"See you tomorrow morning," he said, whispering. "Okay?"

"Whatever," Kyle said, and then he started sobbing. "Hurry up, Kenny, goddamn it."

"The gratitude you're capable of is staggering as always," Kenny said. "I'll call you tomorrow, you hopeless fuck," he said, speaking to Stan now.

"I'm not hopeless," Stan said, but he felt that way as he stood on the porch, watching Kenny drive off with Kyle. He hated trusting Kenny with this part, but it would be too risky to do it himself.

Inside the house, he poured himself some bourbon, hands shaking. The sunflower oil was sitting conspicuously in the middle of the kitchen table; Stan put it away. He walked into the guest room with his bourbon and surveyed what remained of Kyle's stay: mussed sheets that smelled faintly of him, one of Stan's socks turned inside out on the floor, and the new towels inside the closet, dented with a Kyle-shaped butt print. Stan got them up and put them on a shelf, finished his drink and left the glass on the bedside table before heading upstairs. Karen was in bed with the lights out.

"Hey," Stan said. "You okay?"

"Just tired," she said. "Just. What even was that? What just happened?"

"Kyle," Stan said, and he realized he was drunk. He'd barely had two bites of his macaroni before the conversation about Cartman ruined his appetite.

"Maybe you should sleep downstairs," Karen said.

"Huh? Why?"

"I don't know. I just want you to. It's cooler, anyway."

"Then. You should come with me."

"I'm already in bed," she said. "Please, Stan, I'm too tired to argue about it. We'll talk in the morning."

Stan went downstairs and poured himself another drink. It was still early, barely nine o'clock. He went into the living room and got out the photo album that Kyle had been looking at the day before. There were a few pictures missing.

He texted Kenny drunkenly, unwilling to say anything incriminating, just sending question marks until Kenny finally sent something back.

eagle has landed go to bed

After another drink, Stan passed out in the guest room bed, hugging the pillow that smelled like Kyle's hair to his face. He slept deeply, dreaming that he was trying to scale a massive tree in a jungle. Kyle was stuck up at the top, crying for him, asking what was taking so long. In the distance, a volcano erupted, and Stan awoke to glaring sunlight. When had he opened the curtains? The guest room door was open, too, and Karen's car was gone. It was almost eleven o'clock in the morning.

Blearily, Stan wandered into the kitchen and drank water from the tap. His head was pounding, and the sunlight hurt his eyes. He had a new message from Kenny: just a number, 236. The hotel room where Kyle had been stashed. Stan cursed and grabbed his keys when he realized that it would be check out time soon. Kenny's story, should anyone ask him to tell it, was that he spent only one night at the hotel to give his wife some space after an argument, and Stan would have to check Kyle into a new room. After that, there was a massive hole in his plan, but at the moment he only cared about getting to Kyle.

The highway was clear and Stan put the windows on his truck down, checking the rearview momentarily to see if he was being tailed. He wasn't, and his relief was cloudy with guilt. The cows were fed; he'd given them enough yesterday to sustain them for two days, knowing that today would be a wash. But he'd neglected the farm in general since Kyle had appeared, and Karen. She didn't even want him in her bed anymore. It was only fair, but it still hurt badly, even as he was on his way to betray her again with Kyle. Could he really disappear into the wilderness with an unstable fugitive? He'd always fantasized about adventure, but only if there was a settled, happy existence at the end. Kyle had seemed destined for one of those, once, and Stan had envisioned himself as the provider of Kyle's safe haven. Then that afternoon, the desk, Coach Daniels — it was all ripped away much too easily, and Stan wouldn't survive that twice.

The Marriott was a clean but unimpressive building off the highway, three stories tall, a pool and gazebo visible from the parking lot. Inside, Stan couldn't find the stairs and had to wait for the elevator up to the second floor. There were kids frolicking in bathing suits in the lobby, gathered around a stand of candy machines. Stan felt like everyone was looking at him, a man who had clearly slept in his clothes, reeking of last night's whiskey. He hadn't even brushed his teeth before bolting for his truck.

It seemed to take the bulky elevator an eternity to ascend to the second floor, and Stan had to make himself calm down in order to read the sign that pointed the way to room 236. It was toward the end of the hall, near the ice machine. Randy had always asked for a room near the ice machine on their vacations, so he could refill his drinks easily. Karen usually requested that they be placed away from it, because of the noise. They had bonded, early on, over the mostly harmless but regularly embarrassing drunkenness of their fathers.

Stan knocked on the door. He could hear a television inside, and was relieved not to hear sobbing, or the sound of a maid's vacuum, the room already cleaned out. Down the hall, a portly maid was making her way through her morning duties, pushing a cart with towels and toilet paper rolls stacked on top. The door to room 236 opened, and for a moment Stan thought he had the wrong room, but it was Kyle, wearing a red tank top with bows on the shoulders and a pair of terry-cloth booty shorts with an elastic waist band. His hair was pushed off his forehead with an old-looking yellow headband. He stared at Stan, a Red Vine hanging from his lips.

"Took you long enough," Kyle said, stepping out of the way to let him in.

"What — why have you got the curtains open?" Stan asked, hurrying inside to shut them. He wouldn't mention the clothes; he didn't want to talk about it.

"It's the second floor," Kyle said. "And it's depressing to be in the dark all the time. Kenny shoved me into a fucking suitcase last night. My back is killing me." He stretched dramatically, arching up onto the balls of his feet and moaning a little, arms over his head. He looked stupidly good in that getup, and Stan was staring. On the bed there was a plastic tub of Red Vines, an empty pizza box and a lot of crumpled tissues. "It's been a long night," Kyle said, and he flicked one of the tank top's straps down, letting the bow fall over his bicep.

"You ordered a fucking pizza?" Stan said. "Do you want to get caught?"

"Kenny ordered it! And he ate half, okay, I didn't devour the whole thing myself. We watched the Rockies game. He snored."

"He slept here?" Stan looked at the bed, the tousled sheets. Kyle snorted.

"Well, yeah. That was part of what made the whole thing look legit, right, Kenny actually sleeping here?"

"Did you wear that when he was here?" Stan asked.

"Only the headband," Kyle said, and he adjusted it. "Don't look at me like that. She said she didn't want these clothes, and I didn't take that many of them."

"When's check out time?" Stan asked, already sorry that he'd mentioned the outfit.

"I don't know, noon tomorrow? Kenny renewed the room when he left for work."

"He did? Fuck, that wasn't the plan."

"But it makes sense!" Kyle said. He dropped onto the bed and groped for the Red Vines. "'Cause he hasn't made up with his wife, right? But he'll see her today, and it'll be too late to cancel the room, so. It works. One more night in glamorous Colorado for Kyle Broflovski, the murdering vagrant. Do you want one?" he asked, holding up a Red Vine.

"No," Stan said. "I'm not hungry."

"That's a shame." Kyle leaned back onto the bed and spread his legs around the corner of the mattress. "You look kind of awful," he said. "Are you okay?"

"Not really," Stan said.

"Aw. Did you fight with her? She seemed kind of unhinged."

"Can you fucking blame her? Kyle, goddammit, stop acting so glib. What are we going to do?"

"Run away from home," Kyle said, and he held his arms out. "Come fuck me, Stan, what are you waiting for? Poor Stan, you look so lost. C'mere, c'mon, you'll feel better."

"I forgot the condoms," Stan said, mumbling.

"Thank God for that," Kyle said. "It'd be sacrilegious, us fucking with a condom. Wouldn't it? I mean, this lumpy old body is yours, Stan. It's yours, too."

"You're not old," Stan said. He shucked off his shirt. "Or lumpy." He knelt onto the bed, crawling forward until he was perched over Kyle.

"I do still feel like that scrawny little fuck up when I'm with you," Kyle said, pulling Stan down onto him. He didn't need to pull; Stan was falling, sinking onto him, shifting his hips so that his trapped erection pressed against Kyle's.

"Why were you a fuck up?" Stan asked. "You weren't, you were. An honor student."

"Ha! I don't know, you guys treated me differently." Kyle stared up at him, and the sudden earnestness in his eyes left a divot in Stan's chest. "You know? It was different for me."

"What was?"

"Growing up here. And I don't mean because I'm a Jew, or because of my dad. Something was just — remember when we all played that video game? World of Warcraft? I was the girl."

"So? We didn't make you be the girl."

"It kind of felt like you did," Kyle said. His face was getting red. Stan had no idea what he was trying to say, but he wanted to kiss Kyle's hot cheeks, to reassure him, so he did. "The truth is," Kyle said, his lips moving against Stan's when Stan tried to kiss him there, "I liked feeling fucked up. I discovered that, after you left me."

"You can be fucked up with me," Stan said, and he slid his hand under the tank top to squeeze Kyle's left tit. "I don't care. I don't care anymore, I just want you."

"No," Kyle said, softly. "It scares you."

"It doesn't. Look at me. Do I look scared?"

Kyle didn't answer, just surged up to kiss Stan hard. They made out like they had as kids: partially clothed, in lieu of talking. Stan pushed the headband out of Kyle's hair and threw it across the room. He massaged Kyle through his little shorts, licked his neck, pinched his nipples. Kyle was breathless in a way that seemed slightly put on, but Stan supposed he had a lot on his mind.

"I'm serious about leaving with you," Stan said.

"I know," Kyle said. He touched Stan's face, dragging his fingers through the stubble on his cheek. "Go get something for lube. I want you in me all day."

Something about that seemed like a refutation of Stan's solemn vow, but he got up and went to the bathroom for makeshift lube anyway. He chose shower gel, and when he returned Kyle was on his hands and knees, the tank top pushed up to expose his shoulder blades, shorts pulled down and stretched around his spread thighs. He was fingering himself shallowly, watching Stan from over his shoulder.

"You don't think the novelty would wear off?" Kyle asked as Stan tugged his jeans off. "Like a marriage?"

"It didn't for three years, last time we were together. It just got better, God, I was obsessed with you."

"We were teenagers, Stan."

"So? You said I make you feel like one again." He went to the bed and moved Kyle's hand away so that he wasn't touching himself anymore, pressing it to the mattress. Back then, Stan had been certain that Kyle gave off powerful pheromones when he needed to be fucked, and he thought he could smell them again now, thick along the back of Kyle's neck.

"Leave it on," Kyle said when Stan tried to free him from the tank top.

"Why?" Stan asked, annoyed.

"Because I said so."

Stan fingered him roughly in response, his hand dripping with shower gel, and Kyle moaned for it, grinding his hips back. Neither of them lasted long during the first go; Kyle went off in Stan's hand almost as soon as it was wrapped around him, a loving touch to contrast how hard Stan was fucking him. Stan came quickly after Kyle had, leaning back to hold Kyle's ass against his hips, keeping him there to take it all.

"Why did he get a room with only one bed?" Stan asked when they were lying together afterward, under the pizza-scented blankets. Stan had kicked the box off the bed, offended by its grease stains.

"I don't know," Kyle said. He was clinging to Stan, fully naked now, the tank and shorts on the floor alongside the pizza box. "For plausibility? Kenny didn't fuck me, if that's what you're worried about."

"Jesus!" The thought had crossed his mind, but not realistically. "I know that. And Cartman didn't. Ever, right?"

"You're so mean to me," Kyle said, and he sat up, smiling strangely. "You don't hear it, but you are."

"I love you, though," Stan said. He touched Kyle's back, tickling his spine, wanting him to shiver like he had when they were kids, when Stan had touched him like this. Kyle just sat there, staring at the television. They'd left it on while they had sex, the volume muted. It was a daytime talk show that Stan didn't recognize. "Look, I'm not serious," Stan said. "I would never believe his lies."

"I know," Kyle said, still looking at the TV. "I love you, too. I used to wear that black wig to clubs, when I went out alone, and try to be, like, you. To have a Stan-like energy. It never worked, and then guys would get confused when they saw my pubes. One of them asked me, really sincerely, if I'd dyed them red." He laughed to himself, but he seemed sad. Stan sat up to hug him. Behind the closed curtains, the afternoon had darkened. Stan had heard a weather report on the drive out: rain was coming. He'd envisioned the sex he would have with Kyle during the rainstorm.

They had sex again before the rain began, and Stan woke up to the sound of thunder. Kyle was asleep in his arms, his fist resting loosely against Stan's chest. Stan kissed him, stroked him, and tried to think of what to do. Nothing came to mind. He sat up on his elbow when someone knocked forcefully on the door to the room. He'd already told the maid once that they didn't need a room cleaning.


But it wasn't the maid. It was a man affecting a bad Latin accent in a high-pitched voice.

"Meester Kyle! You need to be serviced now, señor?"

"What the fuck?" Stan said, because that sounded like Cartman. Kyle was waking slowly, trying to pull Stan back down to him.

"Ey, Jew, open up!" Cartman pounded the door with his fist twice more. "I got rained on."

"Oh, Jesus," Kyle said, mumbling. He pulled a pillow over his head. "Can you get that?"

"That's Cartman," Stan said. He felt as if he'd just walked in on Kyle committing a second murder, freshly bloody. "What the fuck? You want me to let Cartman in here? What the fuck is going on?"

"He's got a plane," Kyle said. "Please, Stan, just let him in before he blows my cover."

"I can hear you in there!" Cartman shouted.

Stan got out of the bed and stumbled into his boxers on the way to the door. He was so enthused about the opportunity to punch Cartman's bloated face that he barely let himself realize that Kyle had called him here until they were staring at each other, Cartman's eyes going wide with surprise.

"Whoa, damn," Cartman said. He was soaking wet, his thinning hair plastered to his forehead. "Look who's off the farm!"

"What the fuck are you doing here?" Stan asked.

"Well," Cartman said. "Judging by the sex reek I'm not here to fuck his ass. Is he in there, or?"

A door opened at the other end of the hallway, and Stan grabbed the front of Cartman's stupid suit jacket, yanking him into the room. He slammed Cartman against the wall, and the sound of it reverberated through the room like another thunderclap. Kyle bolted upright in bed, tugging the sheets over his chest.

"Shhh!" he hissed. Cartman was coughing for breath, and he shoved Stan away.

"What the fuck!" Cartman said, straightening his lapels. "Get your sex monkey off of me, Jew, or no deal!"

"Be quiet!" Kyle said. "God, you're like a human stampede!"

"What the fuck is this?" Stan asked Kyle, pointing at Cartman. "You're trusting him? You think he won't turn you in?"

"He won't," Kyle said. "And I need his help, okay? I don't know anyone else with a private plane, do you?"

"That's right," Cartman said when Stan stood speechless, gaping at Kyle. "I'm needed here, Marsh, so get over yourself. Ooh, Twizzlers," he said, and he went for the tub of Red Vines on the bedside table. "Aw," he said when he'd picked it up. "It's that shitty fake kind." He ate one anyway. Stan was still motionless, and Kyle was watching him with a bizarre combination of concern and reproach.

"Stan," Kyle said. "Hand me some clothes, would you? Normal ones, from the bag over there, near the window."

"Normal as opposed to this?" Cartman said, and he picked up the tank top with the toe of his boot, kicking it onto the bed. "Kyle, you slut."

"Don't fucking call him that," Stan said, charging Cartman, who stumbled away and crashed into the bedside table, knocking over a lamp.

"Stop!" Kyle said. "Stan, please! Just get me some clothes. Cartman, Jesus Christ, why are you wet?"

"It's raining, dumb ass!" Cartman said, and he threw the curtains open. Stan grunted angrily and closed them again.

"Oh," Kyle said. "So it is."

"Here," Stan said. He grabbed the whole tote bag that he'd helped Kyle pack the night before and threw it into his lap. "Enjoy your flight," he said, bending down to retrieve his own clothes from the floor.

"Stan, shit, hang on," Kyle said. He sighed. "I knew you'd be mad. I meant to tell you, but."

"But you had a cock in your mouth," Cartman said. "Story of Kyle's life."

This time, Stan didn't fly at Cartman in Kyle's defense. He dressed as quickly as possible and grabbed his boots, heading for the door.

"Where the hell is he going?" Cartman asked. He'd made his way into the bathroom and was rubbing a towel through his hair.

"Stan, wait!" Kyle cried. "Please!"

"I need a fucking drink," Stan said, still unwilling to abandon him completely. "I'll be downstairs in the bar if anyone wants me. Obviously I'm not needed here, so."

Cartman laughed, and Stan left the room, slamming the door shut behind him. The pain of discovering Kyle with Coach Daniels had enveloped him anew, cracking him apart from the inside, as if previously warm water had frozen and expanded inside his bones. He sat down on the floor of the elevator and struggled to tie the laces on his boots. When the doors opened to the lobby there was a elderly couple waiting with their suitcases, the woman shaking water from an umbrella all over the floor. Stan could feel them both still staring at him as he made his way toward the dinky restaurant bar.

It took the bartender a moment to appear, but he was friendly when he came, making no indication that he'd noticed Stan's haggard appearance or sex smell. He was maybe five years older than Stan, and something about his doughy friendliness reminded Stan of Clyde Donovan, who was now a fat car salesman in Aurora, father of three.

"It's really coming down out there," the bartender said while Stan worked on his first vodka tonic. It was just shy of five o'clock, later than Stan had thought. Karen would be putting on her raincoat and logging off of her computer at work, getting ready for the drive back to the farm. Stan finished his drink, and while the bartender was making a second one, the elevator dinged and Cartman emerged. He came to sit beside Stan, his ample ass supported precariously by the narrow stool.

"A Miller High Life, please," Cartman said, and he changed his order to a martini when the bartender apologized for not carrying that beer. Stan refused to look at Cartman. He was staring straight ahead, at the clock behind the bar.

- paramécie -

"How about this storm?" the bartender said to Cartman when he returned with his drink.

"It's a real bitch," Cartman said. "I was going to do some flying today. Not in this fucking weather."

"You're a pilot?" the bartender asked.

"No, not really," Cartman said. "I mean, could I fly a small prop plane if I had to?" He scoffed. "Fuck yes. But I have a guy who does it for me. I'm flying in something a little bigger these days, if you know what I mean."

"Oh?" The bartender grinned at Stan, who was struggling not to sneer hatefully at Cartman. "We don't get too many private plane owners at this hotel."

"Yeah, I'll bet," Cartman said. "I didn't pick this place, no offense. My girlfriend is upstairs. Sleeping it off, if you know what I mean."

"Sure." The bartender's smile looked a little strained, and he made his way down to the other end of the bar, where a young couple with arm tattoos had appeared.

"So, Stan." Cartman elbowed him. "I take it you're bankrolling this little escape?"

"Huh?" Stan turned to Cartman, but only partway, snarling at him.

"Well, Kyle's broke as shit, or anyway his assets have been frozen. He's also gorging himself on candy and dressing like a woman, so I take it he's in no position to secure funding himself. Jet fuel ain't cheap, and then there's my fee for setting his pathetic ass up in some kind of halfway house once we get there. How will you be paying for me to escort him south of the border? Cash or credit?"

"I'm not paying for you to make Kyle disappear," Stan said. "He's out of his mind if he thinks you're going to help him into anything but an early grave."

"Ha!" Cartman said. "And I suppose you have a better plan for smuggling him out? Yeah? Let's hear it."

"I'm still working on it," Stan said.

"Yeah, I'll bet. Alright, fucker, here's the deal. I've got a soft spot for that daywalker bitch, and I don't want to see him end up in some ass reaming prison. I take it you can relate, since you've recently been reaming that ass yourself. So, in my cursory evaluation of your possessions, I see only one that's worth anything to me: the farm. Give me the deed, and I'll let you pay me rent to keep on living there. I won't even tell that McCormick-bred woman you inexplicably married."

"You're out of your mind if you think I'm going along with any of this."

"Well, alright then," Cartman said, and he took a dainty sip from his martini. "I'll take my fee out of Kyle's ass. Hopefully it's still nice and tight. I'm down south about once a month on business, anyway—"

"I'll fucking kill you if you touch him," Stan said, hissing this into Cartman's ear. He wore a diamond stud, and Stan wanted to grip it between his teeth and rip it out. "I'll hunt you down, and I'll kill you painfully—"

"Oh, calm down!" Cartman said, pushing Stan back into his seat. "I'm not talking assault, you fucking drama queen. Kyle loves taking my dick. Kyle and my dick go way back. If anything, he'd be the one screwing me on this deal. Pun intended."

"You're a fucking liar." Stan signaled for another drink, though he already felt like the room was spinning. "Nobody believes that shit, least of all me."

"Least of all you?" Cartman grinned. "Yeah, because you're the most delusional. How much longer can you put Kyle's admittedly sumptuous butt on a pedestal? He's a good lay, kind of clever, and he used to be able to pay for his own drugs. All admirable qualities, but he's not some fucking angel who fell from heaven. He's a selfish, backstabbing little shit who will do anything he wants as long as he thinks he can get away with it. How's your marriage, buddy?" Cartman asked, clapping Stan on the shoulder. "Good? No? Kyle have anything to do with that? Jesus, look at you. Have a drink before the top of your head blows off."

Stan wanted to drain half of his drink, but he refrained for the sake of defying Cartman. He'd begun to sweat. He wiped at his forehead with a damp bar napkin.

"You can't manipulate me," Stan said. "He only called you because he's desperate. He would never let you lay a hand on him. Not now, not then."

"Why not?" Cartman asked. "We're both fags, we both like it rough, and I treat the bitch okay. You'd be surprised! I gave him a back rub just now. Apparently you and that asshole Kenny made him get into a suitcase?"

Stan felt like he would throw up. He needed to see Kyle, to hear Kyle laugh in the face of Cartman's lies. He threw some cash down on the bar and stood.

"Don't follow me," he said to Cartman, who made a mock offended face.

"Like I would," Cartman said. "I've got better things to do with my time. I'll be back when the skies clear up, though. I wouldn't wait long to get him out of town if I were you. There's five-oh crawling everywhere in South Park — apparently that guy the Jew did was some former cop. They take that shit personally. What a dumb ass to kill someone with a fucking knife! Classic Kyle."

"Keep your fucking voice down," Stan said, though the bartender was sweeping under the tables in the attached restaurant and the tattooed couple were making out passionately over their glasses of white zinfandel. "And it wasn't a knife," Stan added, speaking into Cartman's ear. "You don't know everything."

"Touché, farm boy," Cartman said. "I'll be back soon!" he called as Stan walked off. "Think it over! Deed or ass, it's your choice! I know which one he'd choose!"

On the ride up to the second floor, Stan shared the elevator with a boy in a t-shirt and wet swim trunks. He could be thirteen or ten; Stan had a hard time telling the difference in kids that age. He envied the kid, feeling wobbly, wanting to start over, to take Kyle's hand and pull him backward, to the beginning.

He was too angry to knock, so he rattled the doorknob. Kyle came quickly, dressed in one of the button-up shirts he'd taken from Stan's wardrobe. He still wasn't wearing any pants.

"Did Cartman rub your back?" Stan asked. Kyle boggled at him.

"You are so drunk," he said, helping Stan into the room. "How'd you do that so fast? Oh, shit, you haven't eaten anything today, have you?"

"I'll hate you forever," Stan said, crawling onto the bed. He dumped himself there face first, and he could feel the room spin even after he'd closed his eyes. "If it's true, Kyle, I'll hate you."

"No, you won't," Kyle said, softly. He tickled his fingers down the back of Stan's neck. "No more than I hated you for marrying that girl, anyway. Let me order you some food. Do you want a cheeseburger?"

"I want to fucking kill him," Stan said. He was starting to cry, but it was more like drunken blubbering than actual tears. "And you."

"Don't say that. You're hurting my feelings. Okay, I'm going to order food. Stay there. You're in no shape to drive. I'm going to put the trash can by the bed, right here, if you need to be sick."

Stan fell into something like sleep. It was dreamless and pitch black, the thunder outside seeming to echo from another planet. He heard Kyle talking and opened his eyes.

"Will you get the door?" Kyle asked, and he kissed the rim of Stan's ear. Someone was knocking. "It's the room service. I'm going to hide in the bathroom."

In a sleepwalking trance, Stan went to the door. A squat woman in a collared shirt with a little black bow tie wheeled a table into the room. The table cloth under the covered plates was a faded salmon color. Like those bedsheets, Stan thought, deliriously. He gave the woman a ten dollar tip. Kenny was paying, anyway, he supposed.

When she was gone, Stan realized he was starving, the smell of the food reaching him. He uncovered one of the plates to reveal a mound of chicken nachos. Kyle emerged from the bathroom and came forward to hug Stan from behind.

"It was only a few times," Kyle said. His voice was soothing, even when the words were knife-like. "I was acting out, my father was dying, you don't know what that's like. I've never even told you how afraid I am of death. I lie awake at night obsessing over it, trying to get my mind around what it would be like not to feel anything ever again. But it wouldn't be like anything, it would just be over. I wanted to live and be stupid, but I've done that, I've hit rock bottom, and now I can run away with you like I always wanted. Here, you sit on the bed. I'll pull that desk chair over."

Stan remained on his feet until Kyle sat, bringing the desk chair up to the table. He uncovered the other plate, a cheeseburger, and switched it with the nachos. Stan sank to the bed and ate a french fry. He watched Kyle put a napkin over his lap before digging in to the nachos, crunching loudly.

"What time is it?" Stan asked. He felt like he'd awakened in a tub of ice, minus a few major organs. Kyle swiveled around to look at the digital clock on the desk.

"Almost seven," he said.

"I've got to call Karen," Stan said.

"What, you didn't leave her a note?" Kyle asked. Stan narrowed his eyes.

"No," he said. "I didn't leave her at all."

"Oh." Kyle ate nachos, scooping up extra sour cream with each bite. "God, but yes, you did!" He slammed his fist against the table, making the whole meal jump. There was sour cream on his bottom lip. "I'm sorry about Cartman, but he'll be out of our hair before long."

"That's not how Cartman works," Stan said. "He blackmails. He obsesses. He gets you between his teeth and chews slowly. How could you? How could you be so stupid, never mind the lack of taste?"

"I was sixteen and miserable!" Kyle said. "You were supposed to make me feel better, but you just carved your own hole in my chest, with your dopey post coital smiles and your — your obvious interest in women! I got high with him, and things happened! You never asked me to be faithful to you. You never asked me for anything except a casually available hole to put your cock in."

Kyle was livid now, red-faced, shouting. Stan knew he felt guiltier and more embarrassed than he would ever admit.

"I have to call Karen," Stan said, and he stood.

"You're so pathetic!" Kyle said, but his heart wasn't in it; his voice was trembling. "You're so afraid of everything - you're afraid of a fucking tank top! You were afraid of me when I weighed ninety pounds, you were afraid to be in love with me, so you weren't!"

Stan went out into the hallway, shutting the door on that. He didn't go far, just walked toward the ice machine, bracing himself for a moment before he dug out his cell phone.

"Where are you?" Karen asked when she answered.

"I don't know," Stan said, pacing. "In hell."

"Stan." She was quiet for a while, and he felt like he could hear her weighing the two possible responses to this, outrage versus pity. "Don't let him push you around. Come home."

"I can't," Stan said. "My blood alcohol — I'm still drunk."

"Ah." He knew she was thinking of her father, her mother, phone calls like this that she'd overheard as a kid. "Is it raining there?" she asked, and she sounded so sad, he wanted to cup her in his hands and hold her against his cheek.

"Yeah," Stan said. "It's pouring."

"Here, too."

They both said nothing for a while, listening to each other breathe. The ice machine spat out a spray of fresh cubes, and Stan jumped.

"What was that?" Karen asked.

"Ice machine."

"When are you coming home?"

"Tomorrow morning," Stan said, and he ached for this to be true. He knew that anything could happen after a night with Kyle.

"Stay safe," Karen said, and Stan thought of the condoms he'd left behind. What if she found them? But she'd found the oil, and she'd chosen to ignore it. Or forgive it.

"You, too," Stan said, and he hung up.

He hadn't thought to prop the door open by bending the bolt back, and now he was sure Kyle wouldn't let him in. He knocked politely.

"Hey," he said. "I've spoken to her, I'm done. Let me in."


"Please, Kyle, I'm hungry."

"Why don't you just leave me?" Kyle said. He sounded far away from the door, still at the table with his nachos. "Since you're not leaving her."

"I don't know what I'm doing," Stan said. "But I want to be with you tonight. I don't want to leave it like this. Please, let me in. My burger's getting cold."

He was wise to appeal to Kyle's dislike of wasted food: the door opened. They ate without speaking, Kyle taking some of Stan's fries, Stan helping himself to a few nachos. He felt ill after his belly was full, and he flopped back onto the bed. Kyle pushed the table away, against the wall.

"I'm going to take a shower," he said. "And then I need to borrow your car."

Stan pressed both of his hands over his eyes. "What for?"

"I want to visit my father's grave," Kyle said, and Stan removed his hands, craning his neck to look at him. Kyle was unbuttoning the shirt he was wearing, watching his fingers as he worked. "I've actually never been," he said. "And now, after tomorrow. It's my last chance."

"It's raining, though," Stan said.

"I'm not afraid to get wet," Kyle said. He stripped the shirt off and walked toward the bathroom.

"I'll go with you," Stan said.

"I know," Kyle said, and he closed the bathroom door.

Stan watched TV while Kyle showered. He felt insane and exhausted, but still eager to protect any fragile shoot of humanity that Kyle was harboring. Kyle, who had moved between Stan's and Cartman's beds with seeming ease, and this before he was even a legal adult. It couldn't be true, and Stan began to wonder if they were both conning him, trying to get the deed to the farm, hiring actors to pretend to be detectives. He would prefer that to accepting that Kyle had gone to bed with Cartman back during those days when Stan had idolized him, when he would curl around Kyle and watch him sleep, marveling at how innocent he could look even after what Stan had seen then as very dirty sex.

Maybe that had been his problem, that he'd viewed sex with Kyle as dirty. Cartman seemed to see it like Kyle did, as a pastime that could mean something or nothing, depending on the investment of the active parties. But hadn't Stan treated it that way, too, during college? And with Karen; he had never trusted her with himself, hadn't given himself to her the way he had with Kyle. And had he even done that, really?

Kyle emerged and dressed, smelling like the shower gel they'd used as lube. He dug the black wig out from his tote bag and fitted it over his conspicuous hair. When he moved toward the door, Stan followed.

"I could drive," Stan said when they were walking through the parking lot in the rain.

"No, I'll drive," Kyle said. "You're still a little. Shaky."

That was true, but riding in the passenger seat of the truck helped somehow. The roads were mostly empty, flooded in places. They hydroplaned twice on the way back to South Park, but Kyle glided over the dangerous patches without pause.

"What if they're looking for you there?" Stan asked.

"I thought of that," Kyle said. "And my thought was, if I end up getting arrested for murder at my father's grave, that's probably what was meant to happen. I'm surrendered to the possibility."

"And what about me?" Stan asked, scoffing.

"Well. You didn't have to come."

There was no dedicated Jewish cemetery in South Park, but there was a section of Rolling Hills reserved for Jewish burials. This had been part of the argument about Gerald's funeral, because Kyle had been adamant that his father should be buried in New Jersey, near his family. Kyle had barely been back to South Park at all since the disaster at the end of high school, except to visit his father when he took turns for the worse. He'd decided that he hated South Park, that the whole place was evil, and that he would never speak to his mother again if she allowed Gerald to be buried there, in the small section for Jews that was set apart from the other graves. Sheila had been sympathetic, Stan heard, but ultimately unwilling to lay Gerald to rest someplace where she wouldn't be able to visit regularly and tend the grave. Things only escalated from there; Kyle was 'not in a good place,' as people who were aware of the situation began to say. In the end, he didn't even attend the funeral.

Stan had, but the grave site didn't look at all familiar to him in the dark, in the rain. The grass was muddy, and they'd both soaked their pants up to their knees on the way there. Kyle knelt in the mud, in a puddle, and pulled off the soaked black wig. Stan stood beside him and touched his head. The rain was coming down so hard that it Stan could only see ten feet in any direction, but he kept an eye out for police flashlights.

"It's so weird that he's down there," Kyle said, shouting over the rain. Stan knelt beside him so that he wouldn't have to shout again.

"He's not, though," Stan said. "Not his spirit, I mean. Or, your memories of him." He wasn't sure what Kyle believed in anymore, and he was embarrassed by how glad he was to see Kyle's real hair. The ride to the cemetery beside Kyle in a black wig had been unnerving, even after all that had come before.

"This is the only reason I was brave enough to touch your dick that day," Kyle said. "Because my dad was dying. I was so in love with you, I just. Didn't want to die without having tried."

"We still have time," Stan said. He had somehow become the most egregious liar he'd ever known, never having meant to.

"No, I've ruined everything," Kyle said, and his face pinched up.

"You haven't," Stan said. He put his arm around Kyle's waist and kissed his wet forehead.

"Stan, are you kidding me? Is there any way that I haven't ruined things? I've literally done everything I could do fuck this up. You and me. I was the one who was scared. You still scare the shit out of me, when you look at me like — like you're only seeing what you want to."

"We don't have to have this conversation here," Stan said, feeling disrespectful.

"But I don't even know him anymore," Kyle said, and he crumpled into Stan's arms. "I don't know what to say to him."

"You don't have to say anything," Stan said, not sure if that was a comfort or not. He held Kyle, who was mostly shaking his head against Stan's shoulder, and perhaps crying, too; it was hard to tell in the rain. When Kyle sat back and wiped at this face, Stan knew that he would follow him anywhere. Kyle could not be in the world without his protection, not anymore.

"I'll never see my mother again," Kyle said. He winced like saying so had reopened every cut on his arm.

"Maybe," Stan said. "Maybe not." He was almost crazed enough to offer to bring Kyle to Sheila right then, but the police were certainly watching her house, if nothing else.

"Everything that mattered to me," Kyle said, "I put it in a box and set it on fire. Separate fires, separate boxes, but it all went up in flames. I had to get rid of it on my own terms. I couldn't stand to let something else be taken from me."

"Maybe you set me on fire, but I still love you," Stan said. "And I know your mom loves you, too."

Stan was sobered by the laborious walk back to the car, and he helped Kyle into the passenger seat. The highway was almost empty on the way back to the hotel, aside from the occasional lonely semi truck. Stan drove with one hand on the wheel, the other resting on Kyle's thigh. Kyle was curled up against the window, staring miserably out at the road, the black wig a soggy mess in his lap. He put it on when they reached the hotel parking lot. Stan had never needed to hold someone so badly, and the elevator seemed to take half an hour to arrive in the lobby, Kyle shivering at his side.

"It feels so much later than nine o'clock," Stan said as they walked down the hallway to their hotel room. Kyle had no response, but his fingers curled around Stan's when Stan took his hand.

Inside the room, Stan pulled Kyle's sopping wet clothes off before removing his own. The wig was hung on the back of the desk chair to dry. Kyle climbed under the blankets first, and Stan joined him after putting out the Do Not Disturb sign and bolting the door. Outside, the thunder and lightning had stopped, but the rain persisted, more of a steady fall than a downpour now. Stan held Kyle as tightly as he could, tucking him to his chest, his lips pressed to the highest point of Kyle's forehead. The room smelled of pickles and salsa.

"Do you want a towel for your hair?" Stan asked.

"No." Kyle tightened his arm around Stan's back. "Don't let me go."

"I won't. Okay, I won't."

Stan wondered if he should try to talk to Kyle, and what the subject matter should be if so. He rubbed his fingertips over Kyle's back in the meantime, glad that Kyle had stopped shivering. Kyle was mouthing at Stan's collarbone absently, like one might chew a fingernail.

"What would you do differently?" Kyle asked. "If you could go back?"

"I would tell you that you were mine from the start," Stan said. He gave Kyle a possessive squeeze and kissed his forehead. "That day, when you just grabbed me like that — it was like you had some script I hadn't read. It felt right, but I didn't know my lines."

"I knew I was yours," Kyle said. "I knew. I wish I hadn't needed so badly to hear it. I wish I hadn't killed Hank. I hope you don't think I'm not devastated by it. I just can't even open that box yet. Not here, not with you watching."

"It was an accident," Stan said after some thought. He believed this.

"That's true," Kyle said, and he licked the hollow of Stan's throat. "Cartman and your coach — they were accidents, too. I regretted it."

"I know," Stan said. "It's okay."

"At least I didn't kill them."


"I was so messed up, Stan."

"I know, fuck. I'm sorry I didn't see it. Or know what to do about it."

They were quiet then, both exhausted. It still took Stan a long time to fall asleep, and by the time he did he'd decided to give Cartman the deed to the farm. He couldn't leave with Kyle right away, it wouldn't be fair to Karen, or to his mother for that matter. He needed to put things right first, and then he would join Kyle in his safe haven. It annoyed him deeply that Cartman would be providing that haven, but at least Stan was bankrolling it. He felt good about that, and slept well, his face buried in Kyle's rain-scented hair.

He woke at dawn feeling cold and disheveled, his arms empty. Kyle was across the room at the desk, writing something. He was wearing the comforter like a bloated toga, and he looked so adorably young in the dim desk lamp light that for a moment Stan was sure they had traveled back in time.

"You okay?" Stan asked.

"Yeah," Kyle said. He turned to smile, and he did seem okay, miraculously. "I'm writing a letter to my mother. Will you give it to her? Not right away, but after all of this sort of blows over?"

"Sure, of course."

"You'll know the right time to do it," Kyle said, and he turned back to his writing.

Stan slept thinly after that, and woke startled from dreams about snakes biting him. Kyle was still at the desk, sealing envelopes, when Cartman rapped loudly on the door.

"Boarding time," he called. "You still in there?"

"I'll deal with him," Stan said when Kyle turned to look at him.

"Thanks," Kyle said, and he watched Stan dress. When Stan looked up at him, Kyle turned back to his papers.

Out in the hallway, Cartman was looking smug as usual, wearing a sportier jacket over an Oxford with four buttons undone. Stan shut the door behind him and stepped out into the hall, giving Kyle privacy to dress and pack. He was also giving himself privacy: Cartman was brandishing papers, a fancy pen tucked into the front pocket of his shirt.

"Well?" Cartman said, pressing a contract into Stan's hand. "Have you decided? Everything's in order there, you'll find. I'll be one hundred percent owner of your little house and all that land, and you'll pay me two thousand a month to live there and milk your cows or whatever."

"Two thousand?" Stan sneered at him. "No way. That's too high."

"Too high a price to pay to keep my dick out of Kyle's ass on a monthly basis? Okay!" Cartman reached for the papers, but Stan yanked them away before he could get them.

"He wouldn't let you anyway," Stan said. "He regrets you."

"Sure, sure," Cartman said, and he sighed impatiently. "Tell yourself whatever you need to about Kyle's ability to resist a juicy dick when it's wagged in his face. All's I'm promising is that I won't wag it at him if you give me that farm."

Stan turned away from him, pretending to study the contract. He had no reason to trust Cartman, but if he was being honest, Kyle wouldn't feel obligated to repay him sexually for the use of his plane and whatever contacts he had down in South America. He could go on thinking that Cartman was simply helping him because he was still holding a candle, not because he saw the opportunity for leverage. Stan could hear Kyle moving about inside the room, running the water in the bathroom. He knew there was a right thing to do here, and that he didn't have enough time to properly work out what it was.

"Well?" Cartman barked. "What'll it be?"

"I'll sign this if you agree not to tell Kyle," Stan said. "He wouldn't want me giving you the farm. He'd want to take on the debt himself."

"Oh, right!" Cartman snorted. "But fine, whatever, I won't tell him. He can just assume I'm holding out on him because I no longer find him attractive."

"You'd better be nice to him, too," Stan said. "I mean, fuck. As nice as you're capable of being to anyone. I'm going to come down after him once I get my shit sorted out here, and if I hear about any abuse I'll annihilate you."

"Ah, the plot thickens!" Cartman said. "But what will you pay me to reunite you with your little lost Jew? Since you're giving up the farm for him already?"

"I'll figure something out," Stan said. "Here." He signed the contract and pushed it into Cartman's fat hands, trying not to notice his triumphant grin. "Congratulations. You own my farm."

"You're something else," Cartman said. He folded the contract in half and tucked it inside his jacket. "You'd do anything for him, wouldn't you? You'd wear a dog costume and eat dog food out of my hand if that got Kyle out of trouble."

"Try not to get a boner," Stan said. "You can control people who actually have emotions by threatening what they love. Well done. You're still pathetic for being incapable of feeling anything real yourself."

"Oh, I feel things," Cartman said, sticking the pen back into his pocket. "I feel pretty fucking great right now, about my farm land purchase."

The hotel room door opened, and Kyle peeked out. Wanting to show Cartman up, Stan reached over to tug gently on one of Kyle's curls.

"That wig dry out?" Stan asked.

"No, it's still soaked," Kyle said.

"I'll use the hair dryer on it," Stan said, and he kissed Kyle's cheek, feeling ten times taller than Cartman when Kyle smiled at him sweetly.

"Ugh, you guys are such fags," Cartman said.

"Says the guy who wanted me to fuck him while he wore a stolen cheerleading uniform," Kyle said, and Cartman sputtered.

"That never happened!" he said, turning red. Kyle rolled his eyes.

"Only because I refused to do it," he said, to Stan. "I had limits, even then."

"Okay, uh." Stan pulled the door open wider and slipped inside. "Cartman, you wait here."

"What, why?" Cartman looked at his watch. "I'm on a pretty fucking tight schedule here! I have to meet my guy in Bucaramanga at noon, local time."

"It won't take long," Stan said. "Just let me say goodbye." He shut the door in Cartman's face, knowing he would wait.

"Goodbye?" Kyle said, softly, when they were inside together. Stan led him away from the door, knowing Cartman would eavesdrop. He brought Kyle to the windows, and pulled him between the heavy curtains, wrapping Kyle into them so that he was hidden from the view of the parking lot, too.

"It's not goodbye for long," Stan said. "But I have to put things in order here before I come with you. Like giving your mom that letter."

"I know," Kyle said. "I mean. I knew you wouldn't really come."

"Kyle, I will. Just not right away."

There wasn't much light inside the curtain fort that Stan had made, but he could see Kyle's eyes. There was doubt in them, and trust. Stan took a deep breath and put his hands around Kyle's face, resting his forehead against Kyle's.

"Do not let him make you feel like you owe him anything," Stan said.

"Cartman?" Kyle made a face. "No, of course not. I'm going to work for him."

"Kyle. Running drugs?"

"No! Apparently he's got a Columbian ex-girlfriend who has two kids by him. He wants me to be their nanny. To teach them English and all that."

"God," Stan said, kind of pleased by that mental image, though he wasn't sure he could buy it. "I hate leaving you in his hands, even temporarily."

"Don't worry about it," Kyle said. "If he tries anything, I'll slit his throat." He smiled and leaned up to kiss Stan, who wasn't entirely sure that Kyle was joking. They got further tangled in the curtains during their goodbye kiss, and Stan didn't want to unravel. He liked being twisted up alongside Kyle. He'd always enjoyed the complications, secretly.

"I can't let you go," Stan said when Kyle tried to move away.

"You have to," Kyle said. "If I don't get on this plane — oh, Christ, do you need me to give you the Casablanca speech?"

"I've never seen that movie," Stan said.

"Well, I think you'd be the one giving me that speech, if I'm remembering it correctly. Telling me to get on the plane."

"I won't be long," Stan said. "I'll work for Cartman, too. I don't care. I'd sell my soul to be with you."

"Well, that's what we're doing, I suppose. Oh, but Stan, Stan, don't sell your soul. One of us should have one. Yours is big enough for us both." Kyle leaned up to rub his face against Stan's, moaning softly, and then he was turning, once, twice, freeing himself from the curtains with surprising ease.

Cartman was allowed into the room while Stan blew the wig dry and Kyle finished packing. The wig was pathetically styled, Three Stooges-like, and Stan didn't want to cover Kyle's hair with it. There was still so much at risk, so many ways Cartman could betray them. In the small foyer near the bathroom, Stan watched Kyle put the awful wig on. He felt helpless, trying to imagine what he could give Cartman next, how he would ever follow Kyle into the wilderness.

"Let's go, bitch, Jesus," Cartman said, and he opened the door to the hallway. "That wig is giving me the fucking creeps."

"You'll be okay?" Kyle said, ignoring Cartman. He put his hands on Stan's shoulders.

"I don't know," Stan said. "Yes, I mean. I'm fine. Jesus, Kyle, just. Be careful, and wait for me."

Kyle surged up to kiss Stan, and turned to glare at Cartman when he cleared his throat loudly and pointed to his watch. Stan grabbed Kyle's face and kissed him deeply, not caring that Cartman was watching and sighing in complaint. When Kyle pulled away, Stan kept his eyes closed for a moment, until Kyle's hands left his shoulders.

"There's a letter for you, too," Kyle said, nodding to the desk. "Write to me, okay? Cartman will bring me your letters."

"Yeah, we'll see," Cartman said, halfway out the door. "Get a fucking move on!"

Kyle backed away from Stan, maintaining eye contact with him until he reached the door. Then he turned, let the door close, and was gone. Stan was frozen for a few excruciating moments, remembering what it had been like to bring Sparky to the vet to be put down. He'd felt like he'd failed to discover some loophole that certainly existed, and that because he hadn't, the loss was partially his fault. He went to the window and watched Kyle cross the parking lot with Cartman, who strode ahead of him and opened the back door of a monstrous black SUV, inviting Kyle to climb in. Cartman got in after him, and as the driver pulled out of the parking lot Stan was terrified that an army of police cruisers would come racing out of nowhere to stop them, that Cartman would laugh heartily at the sight of Kyle in handcuffs, waving the deed to the farm around like a victory flag. The SUV made it onto the highway unharnessed, and then away, out of sight.

"Wait," Stan said, weakly, because how had he ever been convinced to entrust Kyle to Cartman? He touched the window, wondering if he could make it down to his car in time to follow them and put a stop to this grave mistake. He knew he couldn't, or wouldn't, and he didn't move from the window for a long time.

At noon, a maid came to clean the room, and Stan collected the letters Kyle had left, one with 'Mom' on the envelope, the other addressed to him. He didn't open it until he was sitting in his truck in the parking lot. Inside there was a piece of folded paper with the Marriott's logo on it, otherwise blank. Inside that was a lock of Kyle's hair, one of his little curls. Stan crushed it into his palm and held his fist over his face until the need to weep endlessly abated.

It was a mercilessly hot day, muggy after the rain. Stan watched the sky for planes, but didn't spot any. His stomach was a wreck, and twice he thought he'd have to pull over to be sick, but he made it home without emptying his stomach. He was surprised to see Karen's car still there at the house. Was it Saturday already? No, only Thursday. He secured both of Kyle's envelopes in his glove compartment, hidden between the pages of a book of maps, and headed for the house. He felt hollow, but also glad to be home. Without Kyle, that hotel room had felt incredibly eerie, but it had seemed as if he didn't have permission to leave it until the maid came knocking.

He searched the house for Karen, calling her name, and eventually realized that she was out in the barn, doing his chores. She must have taken the day off of work. Stan was so ragged and worn down that just walking across the property in the humid stink of the afternoon made him want to drop to his knees and sleep where he fell. He tried to put on a brave face for Karen when he found her cleaning out milk pails at the sink in the barn, but he could see he wasn't fooling her.

"Oh, Stan," she said, coming toward him as she pulled her rubber gloves off. "What happened?" she asked. She dropped the gloves to the floor of the barn and pulled him against her, cradling the back of his head when he put his cheek on her shoulder.

"He's gone," Stan said. He'd fought off tears during the whole drive home, and had somehow known that they would come when he was with her, embarrassed in the presence of her kindness.

"I know," she said, petting him while he cried. "I know you wanted to help him."

"I never could," Stan said, hating the sound of his wrecked, weakened voice. "I only ever made things worse."

"Shh, you didn't. You did everything you could. Your heart was in the right place."

She brought him back to the house and turned the shower on for him while he pulled off his filthy clothes. He wanted to bring her into the shower, didn't want to be alone even for a few seconds while he felt like this, but he knew he didn't deserve the comfort. After an hour under the hot water, he picked up the soap and washed himself, and he shaved his face when he got out. He could hear Karen downstairs in the kitchen, and he increasingly couldn't believe what he'd done. This was her home, too, even if it had been purchased with Stan's inheritance. Stan had put them both in Cartman's hands, for Kyle.

By the time he made his way downstairs in clean clothes, the whole thing felt surreal, something he'd dreamed during a bender. Karen had made chicken salad sandwiches, and she set one down for Stan, kissing his clean hair before going back to the fridge for the pickle jar. Something about the way she tapped the pickle against the side of the jar to knock the juice off before putting it on his plate made him want her in his lap. She yelped with surprise when he pulled her down to sit there, then looped an arm around his shoulders.

"I missed you," she said when he looked up into her face. "You had me worried."

"Sorry," Stan said. "I know I'm different around him. He's just. I took him to see Gerald's grave last night." Immediately he felt badly for telling her, as if he was betraying Kyle.

"That's hard," she said. "He should reconcile with his mother."

"He wrote her a letter." This, too, seemed like very confidential information, but Stan wanted to offer her something.

"That's good." Karen straightened his bangs and stood, moving over to take her own seat. They ate their sandwiches and talked about other things: the upcoming artisanal cheese festival in Denver, a wedding Karen would have to travel to in July, damage that the heavy rain had done to the fledgling vegetable garden. Stan wondered if Karen's trip to California for that wedding would be a good time to leave, but no, he didn't want to do this dishonestly. He knew he should tell her everything as soon as possible, while it was all still fresh, but he finished his sandwich and said nothing about Kyle, as if that was truly done now, an obstacle they had vaulted together.

He didn't tell her that day, or that night, or in the weeks that followed. Instead, he got a night job at Fresh Market with the excuse that he wanted to save money for some costly repairs they needed for the roof of the barn, which leaked. Their schedules were so different that they barely saw each other, so Stan started riding to South Park with her on Sundays, though he never made it to church. He'd visit his own mother instead, hanging about her kitchen and hugging her randomly.

"What is going on with you?" Sharon asked on the third weekend that Stan did this.

"Nothing," he said. "I'm just glad, you know. I have you."

He'd planned to deliver the letter to Sheila personally, but he chickened out and left it in her mail box.

Every morning after work, Stan would stop by Cartman's flagship candy shop to ask his minions if they'd heard from their boss lately. He got the same answer for a month: that Cartman was south of the border, meeting with sugar dealers. Finally, on a Thursday after a long shift spent unloading a truck full of frozen meat, Stan turned up at the shop and saw Cartman through the front window, wearing a cranberry-colored track suit and fooling with a calculator at the front counter. The shop was closed, but Stan rattled the front door knob until Cartman let him in.

"Why are you awake?" Cartman asked. "It's like five in the morning here. Isn't it?"

"You weren't even going to tell me you were back?" Stan asked, pushing his way inside. "Where's Kyle? Is he okay? Tell me."

"Ah, God," Cartman said, walking back toward the counter. Stan followed him, keeping close, ready for a fight. "How silly of me to think I could be back in the country for an hour before I had to answer to the Jew's favorite dildo."

"Cartman, fucking tell me!" Stan said, slamming both of his hands onto the counter.

"He's fine, Jesus!" Cartman said. "I set him up in my ex's house, he's my personal spy. He's living in better digs than you could ever give him."

"I don't care about his digs, I — how is he? Did he give you anything to bring to me?"

"Like what, a pair of dirty panties? No, sorry. He didn't know I was coming back here, though, so don't take it personally."

"Why wouldn't you have told him?" Stan asked, livid. It was just like Cartman not to, for the excuse not to relay any messages to Stan.

"That bitch doesn't get to know my business!" Cartman said. "He's my employee, not my fuck toy. I only see him once a week. Get the hell out of here, alright? I got a guy coming to see me about a shipment."

"Are you kidding me?" Stan said, and he punched the counter again. "You know how I feel about Kyle, don't fucking brush me off! Give me proof of life — can I talk to him on the phone?"

"Proof of life!" Cartman said, and he snorted. "I'm not the murdering psychopath, that's Kyle. But here, Jesus, I think I got some snaps of him with the kids." He dug out his phone, sighing heavily, as if this was a huge favor that he was doing for Stan. "Let's see," he said, scrolling through pictures. "Here's one of my dick, another one of my dick, my dick again, pool boy's dick, pool boy's ass—"

"Cartman, what the fuck!"

"Okay, Jesus, hold on! Dick, dick, somebody's mouth on my dick, who was that? Oh, alright, here we go."

Stan took the phone when Cartman offered it, wanting to press his lips to the image of Kyle on the screen. Kyle was kneeling on a pool deck, looking stern and underfed but otherwise fine, watching two pudgy little girls play with a fluffy white dog.

"Are there more?" Stan asked, afraid to scroll backward and find only dicks.

"A few, I think," Cartman said. "I was going to buy them a cat, but they wanted a fucking dog, so I got them that thing. It's kind of like a cat."

"I can't even believe you have kids," Stan said, scrolling through the pictures of Cartman's daughters playing with the dog. Kyle was only in a few more of them. In one he was actually smiling at the younger girl, who had looked up at him to say something, but Stan thought he still looked sad. "What are their names?" Stan asked. He wanted to know everything, and hated that the details of Kyle's new life would have to be filtered through Cartman for now.

"Whose names?" Cartman asked. He was busy with the calculator again.

"Your daughters!"

"Oh. Diana and Ingrid. I thought I'd hate them, 'cause I hate their mom, but they're pretty cool."

"You're so fucked up," Stan said, mumbling. He was still staring at the picture of Kyle smiling.

"Right, I'm fucked up," Cartman said. "You're the one living a lie with Kenny's sister. My baby mama knew all about me the whole time. We had a threesome with a dude from a club on our third date."

"That's beautiful," Stan said. "Your policy of honesty. Congratulations."

"Yeah, thank you. You should be congratulating me, you pathetic excuse for a hippie. I saved your one true come bucket from a life as someone's prison bitch. Now he's just my bitch, and I'm not even allowed to seduce him. Speaking of that, where's my rent money? Two thousand, pay up."

"I don't have it on me in cash," Stan said. "And I don't have my checkbook, but. I'll bring it by tomorrow, a check."

"Fine, fine," Cartman said, and he looked back to his calculator. "Now get out of here, I'm serious. Some of us have real jobs and responsibilities. Nice Fresh Market polo, by the way."

"I'm not leaving," Stan said. "You have to - please, tell me more, tell me how he's doing-"

"I just told you, Kyle's fine!" Cartman glared at him. "Goddammit, what do you want from me, a play by play of his daily routine?"

"Well, yes, actually."

"You're unbelievable," Cartman said. "Okay, um, here: he wakes up and makes eggs for my kids, takes that dog out for a shit, then spends the afternoon lounging around a house I paid for while allegedly helping my kids with their English. My ex is a bitch to him because she thinks I'm fucking him, but otherwise his sad little existence is pretty damn cozy. Are you happy? Now get out!"

"What about me?" Stan said, desperate now to see Kyle in person. "When can you bring me down there?"

"Gee, I don't know, Stan, maybe when you front me a hundred grand. I'm sure you'll be able to scrape that together in forty years or so."

"I could work for you," Stan said. "Please, I'll do anything. You know that about me, just. I'm begging you, Cartman." He'd never hated any words that had left his mouth so much, but he felt strung up by this glimpse of Kyle's life in some cruel woman's mansion, and the idea of him brooding and lonely in bougainvillea-scented breeze.

"Begging me, are you?" Cartman asked. He looked up from the calculator and grinned. "Well, I don't need a janitor, so that's out. And you may be a natural farm hand, but I wouldn't trust you not to pinch my product. Hmm. Flex your bicep."


"Just do it, hippie, if you're actually begging!"

Stan lifted his arm, giving Cartman a look of disgust but actually enjoying the opportunity to show him that he had muscles there from years of hard work, as opposed to flabby ham hocks from years of kicking up his feet and manipulating people for a living.

"Interesting," Cartman said. "You're kinda big, I never noticed. Not very mean-looking, but you're much more ruthless than I'd realized before you asked me to help Kyle get away with murder, and cold-hearted enough to want to ditch your essentially homeless wife so you can get back to fucking the little fugitive. Very interesting. You know how to use a gun?"

"Why?" Stan asked. He'd known he was being cold-hearted, but to hear Cartman diagnose it was painful.

"Because I could use an in-house contract killer," Cartman said.

"Oh, Jesus," Stan said. "I'm serious about this, Cartman. I need to get to him, you don't understand-"

"I'm serious, too!" Cartman said. "It's hard to find a hit man you can trust, and if I had the Jew to hold over your head, I know you'd do right by me. Think about it," he said, and his eyes drifted up over Stan's left shoulder, to someone who was coming through the door. "Gentlemen!" he called as three mean-looking men in suits walked in. "Come in, I've got everything in the back room. My associate here was just leaving," he said, giving Stan a threatening stare.

Stan left the candy shop in a daze and headed back toward Fresh Market, where his car was parked. The sun was coming up, and the day was already warm. Stan felt cold anyway, inside himself, having heard Cartman call him that before offering him a job as a hired killer. And why shouldn't Cartman assume that Stan would stoop to that, after what he'd done already? What the fuck had he allowed Kyle to turn him into?

Back at the farm, he did his morning chores, and by the time he was finished Karen had left for work as usual. Stan showered and dropped into bed, thinking about those pictures of Kyle. Would he kill for Kyle? No, never, not like that. But what if that was the only way he could ever see Kyle again?

He slept for only a few hours, dreaming of Kyle in the little window of his new reality that Stan had seen: squatting near an infinity pool and looking after Cartman's spoiled children, lush mountains in the distance. Stan woke feeling restless and small, as if he'd failed to master the world the way that Cartman had and would never be able to scale the walls around Kyle that they'd both built with their mistakes. He lay there for a long time trying to come to terms with what he wanted and what he was willing to do to get it. Finally he went downstairs, and though he was hungry he walked past the fridge, to the computer desk, and dug out a legal pad and a pen.

The letter he wrote to Kyle ended up being nine pages long, front and back. It was everything he'd never said, tracking over old memories and spelling out how he'd felt, what he missed most, what he thought about when he couldn't sleep. He felt feverish with accomplishment by the time he was finished, and realized that it was somehow after four o'clock in the afternoon. He went to the fridge and ate all of the leftover fried chicken, though he suspected that Karen had been planning to serve it for dinner. Stan would take her out instead, buy her filet mignon, and tell her the truth. At the end of the letter to Kyle there was a promise that Stan meant to keep.

Karen came home early, and Stan was glad. He didn't want to put this off any longer. She seemed to be a wistful mood herself, and accepted his affectionate gestures with a smile, until he offered to open a bottle of nice wine for her.

"I'd love to, but I shouldn't," she said. The little smile on her face became something brighter, and suddenly she seemed to be trembling all over, like a rocket about to blast off. "I'm pregnant," she said, softly. "I had a doctor's appointment today."

"Oh." Stan couldn't force a further reaction. He was trapped between at least fifteen distinct and incompatible feelings, minced to pieces as they began to solidify, blades that would slice his life one way or another.

"No, that's a lie," Karen said, her eyes welling up. "I went to the doctor last week. I've known for a week, but – but. I know you want to leave, and I—"

"Shh, no," Stan said, hurrying to her. She let him hold her, which was an immense relief, and the smell of her hair overwhelmed him. There was something in her that was both of them, and that had been true before, too. "It's been," Stan said, stuttering. "It's just been—"

"I really want this baby," she said, her hand clawed around his shoulder. "And I don't want to do it alone, please."

Stan didn't have the heart to try to refute her suspicions that he wanted to leave her, but he didn't leave. Instead of mailing the nine page letter to Kyle that made frequent allusions to the life they would soon have together, he mailed a much shorter version, full of apologies, explaining that he couldn't abandon Karen and his unborn child. Cartman brought it to Kyle, and when he returned the following month he had a letter for Stan, which he exchanged for the monthly rent payment, a sum that Stan was barely able to scrape together, even with the weekend shift he'd picked up as a server at one of the restaurants that bought his cheese.

The handwriting in the letter was certainly Kyle's, and Stan could hear Kyle's voice in the few words he'd written.

Congratulations on the baby. Don't write to me again.

"He's a harsh little bitch when he wants to be," Cartman said while Stan stood staring at the letter. They were in the candy shop, the sun just beginning to rise outside.

"You read this?" Stan said, glaring at him.

"Of course I fucking read it!" Cartman said. "I'm not the post office, it's not a federal offense. And you know, I learned something today. Kyle is scissors, I'm paper, you're rock."

"Excuse me?" Stan was only halfway paying attention to Cartman's shit, already composing his next letter to Kyle in his head.

"Check it out," Cartman said, and he started ticking his assignations off on his fingers. "Kyle is scissors, he's all sharp and angry and he cuts people's throats when they annoy him. I'm paper, as in money, and even though I let the little fuck ass cut me up back in the day, here I am providing him with a cushy lifestyle and not even busting a nut in his ass as compensation. Also, I can defeat your pathetic rock existence without even lifting a finger, I just kind of float down on top of you and you're fucked."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Stan asked. "You're so—"

"No, Stanley, listen! You are rock. You're the only thing that can smash the scissors into useless scrap metal, and you just sit there like a fucking rock while paper smothers your pathetic dreams."

"I haven't smashed Kyle," Stan said, though he knew he had. Cartman snorted.

"Okay, you haven't," Cartman said. "Enjoy being a stubborn fucking rock and believing whatever you want about reality. I'm the one who had to listen to the busted-ass scissors cry itself to sleep every night for a week."

"You're lying," Stan said. He didn't believe Kyle would cry in front of Cartman, not even through a bedroom wall.

"You know what would be exactly as interesting as having a conversation with you about anything?" Cartman asked. "Just recording the words 'You're lying' and playing them on my phone every time you opened your mouth. You're such a rock, Stan. Just a blunt fucking object."

Stan turned to go, unwilling to listen to him any longer. In an uncharacteristic move, Cartman didn't shout any additional insults as he left. On the walk back to his car, Stan tried to think of how he should respond to Kyle's request to stop writing. Certainly he shouldn't just do as Kyle asked and never write again; surely that wasn't what Kyle actually wanted.

He sat in his truck for a long time, watching the sun come up from behind Wall-Mart, which was big enough to account for the entire horizon, from where Stan was sitting. He wondered what Kyle was doing right then. He'd looked up the time difference between Colorado and Columbia, and it seemed unreal to him that Bogota, Columbia was only two hours ahead of Denver, Colorado. The clock on the truck's dash said it was just a little after seven in the morning here in South Park. For Kyle the sun would be brighter, but his day was just beginning, too. Would he leave his bedroom with raw eyes from last night's crying? Would those girls, Cartman's daughters, ask him if he was okay while he made them scrambled eggs? Did they hear Kyle crying at night, too?

Trying to envision the details of Kyle's day made Stan remember at last when they were together between Kenny's bachelor party and the day Kyle showed up in Stan's vegetable garden wearing a black wig. They hadn't actually seen each other, but it had felt like they had. Kyle had heard about Jimbo's death, and he called Stan to offer his condolences. Stan closed his eyes and rested his forehead on the steering wheel, that phone conversation flooding back to him vividly. He'd gone to his mother's house instead of joining Karen at church. It had been the first Sunday that Stan bucked the McCormicks in favor of doing his own thing. When his cell phone rang, it had seemed so appropriate to see Kyle's name on the screen, as if Kyle had sensed, from far away, Stan's first act of defiance in his marriage.

"I know how hard it is," Kyle had said. Stan had walked out to the backyard with his phone. It was spring, still cold, some snow on the ground. "I hope you'll allow yourself to mourn," Kyle said.

"Where are you?" Stan asked, tired of talking about Jimbo, death, and his feelings on the meeting of the two.

"California," Kyle said, and he sighed like this was bothersome.

"That's pretty vague."

"Oh, you know, I don't like you to know exactly where I am," Kyle said.

"Why the hell not?"

"Because then you have no excuse not to come to me at once. And I have no excuse to console myself with when you don't."

Stan couldn't remember what he'd said to that, but he remembered smiling and walking further into the yard, wanting to keep Kyle on the phone. More than that, intensely and not altogether suddenly, he'd wanted to know where Kyle was so that he could go to him. For that reason, he hadn't asked, but they talked about what their lives had been like recently for almost two hours, until Stan's phone started beeping a warning about battery death.

"I feel like I just spent the whole day with you," Stan said after he'd warned Kyle that his phone might die at any moment.

"I know," Kyle said, and then he was quiet in a way that made Stan hesitate to speak. "It hurts," he said.

Stan was going to refute that, then he realized it was true. It was the first time that it occurred to him that he might apologize to Kyle for having hurt him. Previously, he'd always seen it the other way around.

"When will you be back?" Stan had asked desperately when the phone beeped another warning.

"To South Park?" Kyle scoffed. "Hopefully never."

"But I'm here. You know where I am."

"As if it's the same for me," Kyle said. "God, I can only imagine your reaction if I showed up on your front porch. I bet you have a front porch."

"Yeah," Stan said, irritably. "Kyle—"

"And a porch swing?"

"Why do you have to act like everything's so simple?"

"I have to go," Kyle said, as coldly as he'd bid Stan goodbye on the morning after their bachelor party fuck. Stan had already been engaged to Karen, and Kenny had mentioned it multiple times throughout the night, drunkenly teasing Stan for it.

"Fuck," Stan said when his phone beeped again and he still didn't know how to make this right, how to fix things so that Kyle wouldn't just be gone again. "I miss you," he said.

"Knowing that is the hardest part," Kyle said, and he hung up.

Stan might have tried calling him again, later that night or the following morning, after his phone had charged. He didn't. The whole conversation had felt dream-like within an hour, and ultimately Stan had forgotten it until now, though he hadn't lost the feeling that he'd seen Kyle again after the bachelor party. They didn't even need to be in the same state to tear each other back down to the beginning.

The beginning was on Stan's mind as he drove home. They'd been watching TV on some Sunday afternoon. Shelly was at college, and Stan's parents were at church. Kyle had kept his eyes on the TV when he reached over to touch Stan, his mouth set in a determined line. Stan had scooted closer, closer, and finally slid his arm around Kyle's shoulders, burying his nose in Kyle's hair when he came. They'd looked at each other for a long time afterward, Stan not sure what to say. When Kyle gave him a little smile he thought he knew for certain that he didn't really need to say anything. He reciprocated, and stopped himself from licking Kyle's neck while he rubbed him off. Why had he stopped himself? What had he been afraid of?

At the house, Karen's car was already gone. She'd been leaving for work early and staying late. Stan didn't want to stress her out, so he wasn't talking to her about it. He was always waiting for someone else to broach the difficult subjects, and he would wait forever, until someone like Cartman slapped him in the face with the simplest explanation.

Going about his chores that day, he felt overly heavy, rock-like. Once he would have taken that as a compliment, a comfort: he was Kyle's rock. Now he saw how clumsy he'd been, how unforgiving and dense. He'd become a rock for Karen when Kyle's situation grew too complicated, and now Kyle seemed like the easy answer, a long international flight and then a life of intrigue in a foreign city, but Stan knew he would find Kyle as he'd left him, unraveling. Stan was sturdy but not nimble; he couldn't reconstruct people. Not even Kyle.

He went inside to write Kyle a letter, but after an hour with nothing on the page but Kyle's name, he crumpled the paper and threw it away.

For dinner that night, he made pork chops with blueberry sauce, which was moderately successful. Karen talked about when they should tell their mothers she was pregnant.

"Let's wait three months," she said, mostly having the conversation with herself. She reached over to touch Stan's hand on the table. "Okay?"

"Yep." He took her hand and kissed it. They smiled at each other, and the shared but separate ache between them was almost audible to Stan, like a whimpering sigh.

"Is he okay?" Karen asked.


"Kyle." She let go of Stan's hand and resumed forking at her potatoes. "You seem distracted. It's okay, I mean. I know you think about him."

"He's fine," Stan said. "I'll never see him again." Saying it out loud seemed to make it true. There was some relief in it, but most just devastation, loss, envy, and a futile, still surviving hope that he was wrong.

"You never know," Karen said.

Stan didn't dispute that, and he slept in the guest room that night. By October, he'd converted that room to a nursery, and by Thanksgiving he'd started on the loft in the barn, attempting to make it into a livable apartment. This way, he could allow the stray cats to come in out of the cold.


Nineteen years later, Stan was in a dimly lit gallery on Capitoline Hill, not certain that he'd found the right exhibit. It was a visiting impressionist show, but it spanned several rooms, and the layout was somewhat labyrinthine. Stan had espresso in his stomach and not much else. He'd been queasy since the plane ride, unable to keep food down, and now he felt certain that he'd throw up, standing in front of a painting of two women in a row boat. There had been no particular painting designated in the letter, just the exhibit, just in case. The rooms were dark enough that people and circumstances could be observed from the shadows, and there were plenty of doorways for discreet escapes.

Stan thought the subterfuge was probably unnecessary, after all these years. It was unlikely that American police would be interested in Stan Marsh's first trip out of the country, or that any of the letters they'd exchanged through international mail had ever been noticed by someone involved with the investigation into Hank Johnson's murder. Still, Stan was fidgety with dread, wondering if he should move on to another room or wait in this one, sweating.

"Oh, thank God," someone said, suddenly just behind him, speaking softly. Kyle's hands came to rest on Stan's hips, and Stan was so relieved that he could only tremble with gratitude, afraid to turn around. "I was so early," Kyle said. His breath was warm against Stan's ear. "I started to panic, convinced myself you weren't coming—"

Stan turned, still afraid. They had never exchanged pictures; it would have been too dangerous. His immediate impression was that Kyle looked the same as he had at thirty-three, but that was just the hair. He was thinner, though not by much, and his face had aged in ways that Stan couldn't define precisely, but he was still Kyle: the nervous grin, the ridiculous handkerchief in the pocket of his jacket, and the way his eyes jumped and dodged Stan's gaze until he gave in and let Stan look all the way into him.

"I know I look like an old queen," Kyle said. "I dress this way on purpose, to counteract—"

"Kyle," Stan said. He grabbed Kyle, crushing him to his chest. Kyle smelled different, which was frightening, but there was something beneath it that was still him, or maybe it was just the way he held onto the back of Stan's shirt when he returned Stan's hug, as if he wanted to close of all Stan into his shaking fists. "God," Stan said, petting Kyle's hair. "Jesus, you're here."

"Shh, okay, calm down," Kyle said, whispering, and he pulled back. He was smiling, and his eyes were sort of shimmering but not wet. "Italy hasn't gotten quite as progressive as our homeland. Careful."

"Kyle," Stan said, groping at his face anyway. "Where — can we go somewhere? Is it safe?"

"I think so," Kyle said, and his voice was suddenly very small, young-sounding. "I think, yeah. It's safe. Let's go."

They walked toward the exit, back the way Stan had come. Kyle asked Stan banal questions: how was his flight, where was he staying, what was with his outfit? Stan had forgotten what he was wearing and had to look down at himself: a black t-shirt and jeans, hiking boots for all the walking. He'd thought he'd achieved a European aesthetic, but now he could see that Kyle's was much closer. Kyle was dressed like a lot of the men Stan had seen in the non-touristy areas, in a tailored suit, a soft gray with darker pin stripes, pale purple shirt, black handkerchief in his pocket, and black leather shoes that looked expensive. As they walked out into the sunlight, Kyle slid on a pair of big sunglasses, and Stan was sorry not to be able to see his eyes, or the faint wrinkles around them. He wanted to memorize every new detail.

"So, my pen pal," Kyle said. "I'm sorry we couldn't meet up in Munich, I'd much rather show you around home. But I still have this irksome paranoia about being extradited."

"This is fine," Stan said, and he felt like an idiot, because there was nothing about this situation that was simply 'fine.' The streets near Capitoline Hill were bustling at noon with a mixture of tourists and locals who moved with a greater sense of purpose. It was August, blisteringly hot, and Stan wanted to ask Kyle for that handkerchief so he could wipe his brow, but he didn't dare.

"It's a little awkward," Kyle said. "Even after all the letters."

"It's okay," Stan said. They had exchanged letters for five years, after Kyle finally answered the one that Stan always sent with Cartman around the New Year.

"I'm taking you to this cafe, it's about ten blocks from here," Kyle said. "We can talk there. Unless, well. I also have a hotel room, of course."

"You're here for work?" Stan said, flushing. He didn't want to treat this like a sex romp and go right to the hotel. But what was it, anyway? He had no idea; it was so alien to see Kyle again that he felt like he was fluctuating between selves, present and past, unable to settle on any feelings between the range of frantic elation and bumbling irrelevance.

"It's sort of for work," Kyle said. "The mom of the family I work for is here on business, and she wants me here as her translator or arm candy or something. It's all been very weird. I think she and Karl are having problems."

"Karl?" Stan still bristled any time Kyle mentioned another man in his letters, though none had been mentioned in a romantic context. "The dad?"

"Yes, the dad. He's home with the kids, all bent out of shape that she took me with her instead of leaving me there to look after them while she's away. She says he needs to bond with them and made him take time off of work. They get two months of vacation! But he's very into his career, and of course so is she — sorry, this is boring."

"No, it's not," Stan said. "I want to know everything about your life."

"You probably already do," Kyle said. "It's all there in the letters."

"Not everything," Stan said, and he risked a light touch to Kyle's back. Kyle smiled, but didn't turn to him or stop walking.

"I love how American you are," Kyle said. "I get erections just thinking about it."

"Jesus," Stan said, and he forced a nervous laugh. They had not discussed erections in their letters, for some reason, though there were occasional romantic outpourings from both of them. "You're not American anymore?"

"No, I don't think so," Kyle said. "I'm Kyle Marsh. Canadian citizen with a German visa."

"Marsh," Stan said. He'd addressed all his letters that way, but he'd had no idea that Kyle's legal papers had that name attached to them, too. "That's. I'm really. I like that."

"I know you do," Kyle said, and he smiled again.

At the cafe, Kyle ordered a latte and a selection of little cookies. Stan's stomach was still wrecked, so he had only a bottle of flat water and nibbled at a puffy thing that looked but did not taste like a macaroon. They were sitting inside, but the cafe had big windows that were open to the street. It was a side street without much traffic, shaded by a prolific flowering vine that grew over the restaurant's front patio.

"This is only my second time in Rome," Kyle said. "But I'll do my best to show you the city. Hopefully we can avoid having a meal with Simone."

"Your — boss?"

"Oh, yes, don't hesitate to call her my boss, she's the boss of my life. Much better than Isabella, though."

"Cartman's ex?" Stan chugged from his water bottle, wanting to swallow that question back down. He didn't want to talk about Cartman, or the access that he'd had to Kyle all this time. Not yet, anyway.

"Yes," Kyle said. "Fucking succubus from hell. She's lucky I was around to mold those girls into decent human beings. I shudder to think of how they would have turned out without me, especially considering the added influence of their horrible father."

Stan was cheered to hear Kyle refer to Cartman as horrible, though it didn't necessarily mean anything. He held off on follow up questions about Cartman, though he had plenty in mind.

"Do you ever hear from the girls?" Stan asked. "Diana and Ingrid, right?"

"Right," Kyle said, and he grinned like he was pleased that Stan had remembered their names, as if they were his own daughters. "Of course, yes, Diana's at Wellesley, she writes to me. Ingrid lives in Rio. She's the pretty one. She'll never work a day in her life."

"Kind of like her dad," Stan said, unable to help himself.

"Oh, I suppose he works," Kyle said, muttering. He toyed with his sunglasses, which he'd placed on the table beside his cup. "How's Kate?"

"She's good," Stan said. "We dropped her off at CSU last week. She's excited." Stan was worried about her. She had all of Stan and Karen's most vulnerable qualities, particularly their desire to see the good in everyone.

"It's hard," Kyle said. "Not that I know, exactly, but when Diana left for college, I cried. She was my little ally. The only one of them who was always on my side."

"How are the kids you're taking care of now?" Stan asked. He wasn't sure that he wanted to discuss Kate with Kyle straight away, though he'd written volumes about her in his letters.

"They're fine," Kyle said, and he groaned. "But I'm really getting too old for this, whatever this is. They're so independent, these ones — it's two boys this time. They make their own breakfast, they do their homework without being asked, it's sort of eerie. Di and Ingrid would lie on the floor and wail if they had to brush their own hair. At the start, anyway. Before I whipped them into shape."

"How long did it take you to bond with them?" Stan asked.

"Mhmm, I don't know, a couple of months. I was so miserable at first, of course." Kyle sipped from his latte, though only cold foam was left in the cup. "We haven't talked much about the past. In our letters."

"I was miserable, too," Stan said. "Did Cartman tell you? How I'd come to the candy shop and hound him for any information about you?"

"He may have mentioned it." Kyle sat back and rubbed his hands over his face. "It's all so dense, Stan. There's nowhere to even begin."

"I know," Stan said. He reached over to touch Kyle's knee under the table. "But we have time, okay? I'm here for ten days."

Kyle peeked at Stan from between his fingers. There was still something frumpy and boyish about him, though his cheeks weren't as chubby as they'd been. He looked like he'd had his hair done recently: it was more wavy than curly, soft-looking.

"Your hair looks good," Stan said, feeling lost. Kyle grinned and took his hands away from his face.

"You're shockingly handsome," Kyle said. He brought his hand down to his knee and rested it on top of Stan's. "But what am I saying, I knew you would be. Stan, oh, God. I'm dying inside, you know? It's killing me just to look at you."

"Sorry," Stan said, crushed. Kyle shook his head.

"It doesn't hurt," he said. "I mean, it does, but. It's good, it's like — these parts of me that haven't been penetrated since I last saw you, they're full again."

"Ah, God," Stan said, blushing at the anal sex metaphor. Kyle shrugged.

"They serve wine here, too," he said. "Do you want a real drink? Some cheese? I'm so excited for you to try real Italian cheese."

"I've had Italian cheese," Stan said, insulted. "The imported kind, anyway. But yeah, okay. Let's get some wine." His stomach had settled a little.

They ordered a bottle of something red; Kyle asked for it by name. He seemed to speak Italian, but when Stan mentioned this Kyle laughed and said he was faking it, using bastardized Spanish. The waitress didn't appear to be offended by this, and Stan's appetite returned instantly when she set down a platter of cheese and cured meat, fat olives piled in the middle.

"Ooh, yum," Kyle said. "I just got in yesterday and I feel like I've already gained five pounds. But who cares! You always liked me when I was fat."

"You were never fat," Stan said. He tore a hunk from the half loaf of bread that had been brought with the platter. "You were voluptuous."

"Ha! Maybe. Here, okay." Kyle stacked some salami and stinky hard cheese onto a piece of bread, then drank from his wine. "I want to get this out of the way so I can enjoy the rest of our time together. How's Karen?"

"She's fine." Stan didn't often mention her in his letters, but he hadn't concealed the basic details. "You know we've been divorced for fifteen years."

"Yes, but you still co-habitate."

"Not really. I live—"

"In the barn, yes, yes." Kyle sighed. "You're so odd."

"Well, it's for Kate, you know, or it was. I'm going to move out now that she's in college. That was always the plan."

"And where will you move to?" Kyle asked, keeping his eyes on his second arrangement of bread, meat and cheese.

"I don't know," Stan said. He'd kind of been thinking: Munich. But he had no magical visa or money to get one. "I'm playing it by ear. You know, I feel like my life is just now starting, in a way."

"That's easy for someone who still looks thirty to say."

"I don't look that young, give me a break. I have gray hairs." He pointed to the ones over his ears. Kyle rolled his eyes.

"There are like five," Kyle said, speaking with his mouth full.

"Well, you haven't gone gray," Stan said. He'd been immensely relieved to see this.

"I'll have this clown hair until the day I die," Kyle said. "But, whatever. Enough about my hair. What were we talking about? Your ex-wife."

"She's fine," Stan said, again. "She's married to Craig Tucker."

"Yes, you told me!" Kyle said, his eyes bugging out. "How vile! Does he live in your house?"

"In Cartman's house," Stan said. He'd never told Kyle this, and wasn't sure that he should bring it up now. Kyle frowned.

"Huh?" he said.

"I sold the farm to Cartman," Stan said. "Years ago, uh. He never told you?"

"Why would you—" Kyle stopped there and narrowed his eyes. "Oh, fuck, I might have known. Was that his condition? For helping me?"

"Yes," Stan said. "But it ended up being okay. He planted a bunch of marijuana on the property after it was legalized, and he made enough money off of that not to charge me rent."

"He's so rich it's disgusting," Kyle said, mumbling.

"Well," Stan said, and he drank some more wine. "I guess I should get this out of the way, so we can enjoy our time together. Do you still see him?"

"Ugh, no," Kyle said. He was looking at the cheese, slicing off some mozzarella. "He's hardly ever in Munich. When he is, Simone has him for dinner, you know, they belong to the same sex club."

"Sex club?" Stan's stomach had pinched up again.

"It's this German thing, though I guess they probably do it at home, too, but it's all very well organized with the Germans, or so I'm told by Simone. They're these weekends, you see, where everyone indulges their kink in this kind of orgy-esque environment. Cartman wears a saddle or something, ugh, I hate to think of it. Simone is a dom, of course. Karl used to go with her to these things, but I guess he's impotent now or whatever. God, I hate how much I talk about them! Like I've got no life of my own."

"Have you?" Stan asked. The letters gave the impression that he didn't, but Stan had always suspected that Kyle was protecting him a bit. "Have you got, like. Boyfriends, or anything?"

"Boyfriends!" Kyle grinned. "Look at me, I'm old, no! No boyfriends. I did the anonymous sex thing a few times in Bogota and hated it. Worse than the old man thing that I used to do when I wanted to torture myself." He glanced at Stan nervously, and Stan could see that he was thinking of Hank. Stan was, too, and that letter opener. "How do you like the cheese?" Kyle asked.

"Excellent cheese," Stan said. "I had sex with a few guys. I hated it."

"Mhm," Kyle said. "Do I know them?"

"No. Did Cartman ever—? Did he try? That was part of our arrangement, that he wouldn't, since I gave him the farm—"

Kyle was making a horrified face, so Stan stopped. He poured more wine for Kyle, then himself, and Kyle was still making the face when Stan set the bottle down.

"I was part of the property transfer?" Kyle said.

"No, no," Stan said. "Forget it. I just felt like I was losing you to him. I was an asshole, forget it."

"Well, of course we fucked on occasion," Kyle said, his eyes growing cold. "I mean, I lived in his house for sixteen years. But I always regretted it. He would want to, like, cuddle, after, and I—" Kyle brought his hand to his face. "I promised myself I wouldn't talk about this," he said.

"I promised myself I wouldn't ask," Stan said. He was quiet for a moment, absorbing what Kyle had just told him. It was what Stan had already assumed, but he thought he'd want to flip the table over when he heard it out loud, and he didn't. "It was a bad situation," Stan said.

"I just can't believe how much I still love you," Kyle said, his hand still covering his eyes. "It's so painful. I love you so much that I can't even enjoy that you're here."

"You'll get used to it," Stan said, and he took Kyle's hand under the table, squeezing. Kyle squeezed back weakly and sniffled. His eyes were clear when he took his hand away from his face. "I love you, too," Stan said, though Kyle should already know this. Stan signed every letter that way.

"How can you?" Kyle asked. "When I think about what I've done — Jesus. I killed a man, Stanley."

"He was awful, though," Stan said, pleased to be able to tell Kyle this, though it was probably something else that he already knew. "He'd killed someone when he was driving drunk, back in 1997. It was covered up, but it came out when they were investigating the murder, a month or so after you left."

"Yes, I know. Cartman sent me a telegram."

"Of course he did," Stan said, annoyed. He squeezed Kyle's hand again. "Look, we both fucked a lot of shit up. I'm pretty horrified when I think back on all of it, too."

"Are you comparing you cheating on your wife to me slitting a man's throat?" Kyle asked, lowering his voice.

"No," Stan said, though he kind of had been. "All's I'm saying is that we're together now, and I love you, and let's try to enjoy it. I mean, I'm enjoying it. I want you to, Kyle, you deserve to be happy."

"Oh, God," Kyle said. He stuffed some cheese in his mouth and chewed, staring at Stan. "You're the only person who could ever make me believe that. But you'll just leave again, and I'll go back to Munich, back to indentured slavery to Cartman's dom."

"I don't know," Stan said. "I feel like. Like maybe I can't let you go again."

"You've felt that way before," Kyle said.

"Yeah, but I had a baby to take care of then. Now I'm free, dude. Kate is so — don't take this the wrong way, but she was so worth it, she's the best thing I ever did. I want you to know her, someday. You'd love her."

"Show me pictures," Kyle said, and he sighed. Stan dug out his phone.

They stayed at the cafe for another hour, until they'd finished the wine. Stan felt kind of drunk as they made their way back to the main road, and the persisting heat of the day took him off guard; he'd been so cool and comfortable in the cafe. Stan wanted to put his arm around Kyle as they walked, and he was surprised when Kyle allowed it.

"It's an accepted sign of male friendship, here," Kyle said, grinning and swooning against Stan a little.

"You're kinda drunk," Stan said. He felt giddy, outside of time, as if he'd found himself in a lucid dream.

"Kinda," Kyle said. "Let me show you where I'm staying. No, wait, I should take you to this park first. This one with a good view of the city. There are dozens of stray cats there, but please don't pet them, they're filthy."

"I'm not making any promises," Stan said, and he regretted that choice of words when he realized that he hadn't made any about Munich yet, either. How could he? Even lucid dreams ended without the dreamer's permission.

The park was adjacent to a little church, and it was full of orange trees, some of their overripe fruit split open on the ground below. There were indeed a lot of mangy-looking cats, some sitting on a ledge that overlooked an expansive view of Rome. They'd passed a wedding party on the way in, but there was no one else in the park, so Stan held Kyle from behind while they took in the view, resting his lips against Kyle's cheek, wondering if he should pucker them into a kiss.

"I've been to so many beautiful places without you," Kyle said. "It's surreal to finally look at something beautiful and know that you're seeing it, too."

"I don't think I ever looked at anything without wondering what you'd think of it," Stan said.

"Oh, that's not true," Kyle said. "What about your daughter?"

"Of course I tried to imagine you interacting with her! I'd think of you with Cartman's daughters and get so goddamn jealous. It's not right, Kyle. That he had you."

"He didn't have me," Kyle said. "Occasionally I wanted some dick, and his was always on offer. That's crass and horrible, but there you have it. He's actually very sad about all this. I shouldn't even tell you, but I know he hurt you, so maybe it's fair. He knew I loved you, and it took me a long time to realize how deeply that bothered him. He's actually the saddest person I've ever known."

"Yeah, right," Stan said. "That's his pity party story that he fed you to get you in bed."

"He never confessed anything to me," Kyle said, and he laughed, turning to face Stan. "He was calling me names all the time, trying to act like I was only slightly better than jerking himself off. But I started to see the cracks, eventually. Oh, never mind. He's history, now. Me and Simone laugh about him, it's sort of terrible. He did save my life, though."

"Well. I gave him the farm so that he would."

"True," Kyle said, and he touched Stan's face. "But he would have saved me anyway. I could have gone to him straight away and made my demands, and he'd have blown a lot of hot air, but ultimately he does whatever I ask. I wanted it to be you, though. You're the only one I want saving me."

"I wish I could have," Stan said. He was still worried that he didn't know how, but Kyle seemed okay. He'd landed on his feet.

"I don't think I was ready to be saved," Kyle said. "Not by you, not then. Look, let's go back to my room. I want to kiss you."

"Yes," Stan said, and he nodded. "Me too, yeah, let's go."

They took a cab to Kyle's hotel, and Stan was worried about the driver's reckless abandonment of all traffic laws, but Kyle assured him this was normal. Young men and women zipped through the tangled mess of cars on mopeds, and Stan's stomach lurched with every sharp stop the cab made. He tried to pay for the trip once they reached Kyle's hotel, but Kyle wouldn't let him.

"Please, it's nothing," Kyle said. "I'm extremely overpaid."

"What do they call you?" Stan asked as the cab sped away. "An au pair?"

"Cartman called me a house frau," Kyle said. "Ironically, the Germans call me niñera, I guess because I'm teaching them Spanish. Emil actually thought I was Columbian for like, a year."

"I guess that's a testament to your fluency."

"Not really, he doesn't know the difference. Also, he was four years old at the time."

The lobby of Kyle's hotel was small but ornate, with antique fixtures and a polished wood check-in desk. They strode past that and took a narrow, old-fashioned elevator up to the fourth floor, which was the uppermost floor of the small hotel. Stan was nervous, jittery from the rollicking cab ride. He wanted to lean down and sniff the back of Kyle's neck as Kyle unlocked his hotel room door with a brass key, but he wasn't drunk enough to actually try it.

"Wow," Stan said as he followed Kyle into the room. It was much more spacious than he'd expected, with an overstuffed king bed covered in pillows and doors that opened to a stone balcony.

"It's a bit stuffy," Kyle said. "Simone's taste, not mine. She's staying on the third floor, in a suite."

Kyle went to the doors and opened both, allowing the warm breeze into the room. His suitcase was at the foot of the bed, a mess of clothing piled atop in the neatest fashion possible, probably the work of a maid.

"This is awesome," Stan said, walking out onto the balcony. "Way nicer than mine." He was staying at a Marriott near the Vatican. "This view is great," Stan said. The street seemed mostly residential, flowers spilling out of planters on the balconies across the road.

"It's okay," Kyle said. "There's a better view from the rooftop garden, or to what they refer to as a rooftop garden, because there are a few potted plants and some furniture up there. But it's nice, the roof access. We could go up there?"

Stan realized then that Kyle was terribly nervous, and that the pink on his cheeks wasn't just from the heat. He took the lapels on Kyle's jacket and drew him closer, stepping toward him at the same time. Their faces were close, and Stan could feel the heat from Kyle's body, could smell his sweat.

"I want you to be mine again," Stan said, and he combed his fingers through Kyle's hair, which had been partly wrecked by the heat, now more curly than wavy.

"Please," Kyle said. "I was yours that whole time. Every pillow I held was you, and every song I heard, every messy ejaculation."

"Those were me?" Stan said, still stroking Kyle's hair. "The ejaculations themselves?"

"Well, they were yours. Inspired by you. Don't be a smart ass, Stan, and don't delay." Kyle surged up to kiss him, but despite his gusto it was a gentle, closed-lipped thing. Stan coaxed him into a deeper kiss, licking Kyle's lips apart slowly. Judging by the way Kyle's lips shook, it was the first real kiss he'd accepted in a long time. This was true of Stan, too. He'd been afraid that he'd forgotten how to do it, but the taste of Kyle returned him to his best instincts, and they both sighed when their tongues slid together with familiar ease, Stan's hands cupped around Kyle's face, Kyle's squeezing Stan's ass.

"Oh, shit," Kyle said when he pulled back. "Let's go in, some grandma will see us from an apartment window and faint."

"Okay," Stan said. "I have to give you something, anyway." Kyle raised his eyebrows, and Stan reached into his back pocket, pulling out a folded envelope. "I wrote this for you nineteen years ago," Stan said. "Before I found out Karen was pregnant with Kate. This was my — confession, and all the promises I wanted to keep, everything. It's nine pages, front and back. You don't have to read it now."

"Yes, I do," Kyle said, and he took the envelope.

They went into the room, took off their shoes and stretched out on the bed. After frantically reading his way down the first page, Kyle took off his jacket and passed it to Stan, who folded it over the mound of pillows they were leaning against. He was afraid to speak, to interrupt the flow of the letter, as if it had a flow. Stan had read it about fifteen times on the plane ride over, anxiously trying to imagine how Kyle would receive it. Exhausted by the heat of the day and the heaviness of the wine, he drifted off with his face pressed to Kyle's bicep, waking slightly whenever Kyle turned a page.

Stan had memorized parts of the letter, and those parts sifted through his dreams as he dozed at Kyle's side. It was as if he was hearing them in Kyle's voice, though Kyle wasn't reading aloud. I thought of you as a part of my soul, when we were kids, and if that made me not treat you like a separate person who needed to be told he was special I'm so sorry, I'll be sorry about that for the rest of my life, but I was so fucking blown away by how good and right it felt to connect with you physically after all that soul sharing that I was just constantly awestruck and in this kind of surrendered state of disbelief that I could ever want anyone so much, and frankly dude that is how I still feel around you, and I want to feel that way for the rest of my life, and I know that I will when I can finally be with you again and forever.

Stan woke up when Kyle was putting the letter back into the envelope. He reached over Stan for his jacket, and tucked the envelope into an inside pocket. He was trying not to cry.

"You were my destiny," Kyle said, staring down at his lap, at the place where the letter had been when he'd read it. The sun was just beginning to set outside, casting a glow onto the polished wooden furniture in the room. Stan wasn't sure how long he'd slept.

"I'm still your destiny," Stan said. He pulled Kyle against his chest and let him curl up there, until Kyle felt smaller and Stan felt bigger. It had always been that way when Stan held him, though they'd always been roughly the same size.

"I know you are," Kyle said. "But. I'm old enough to know the value of fifty-one years that I won't get back. Just let me mourn them."

"Okay," Stan said. He kissed Kyle's forehead and stroked his curls, yawning and watching swallows dart past their balcony. Stan didn't feel like he'd lost fifty years. Though he'd obsessed over what he was missing for most of those years, he couldn't manage to muster a sense of loss now, not while Kyle was in his arms.

"I knew you had all that in you," Kyle said, his lips moving against Stan's throat. "All of those words. I'll read that letter every day. Thank you."

"You won't have to read it, dude. I'll say them to you. I'm free now, okay? And so are you, free from Cartman. We can be together, we'll find a way."

"Seems impossible," Kyle said, softly. He pinched Stan's nipple through his t-shirt, teasing it until it was hard. Stan's cock was getting hard, too, and he rubbed his face through Kyle's sweat-scented hair, wanting to express his gratitude but still unable to come up with the right words. He hadn't had sex in three years, and that last time had been in a bathroom stall at a Denver gay bar, an unsatisfying blur of desperate thrusting.

"It's not impossible," Stan said. "I mean, look at where we were, and where we are now. We both worked hard for this."

"Stan," Kyle said, and he moved up to kiss Stan's chin, jaw, and finally his lips. The pace of their kissing was slower now, Stan noticed, more comfortable and less frantic. He wanted to believe that this was because they were both confident that they could be together at last, that these moments would not prove fleeting.

"Can I?" Stan asked, touching a button on Kyle's shirt. Kyle grinned.

"You seriously want to see me?" he said. "I'm not cute anymore."

"Kyle, yes you are."

"You always liked my fat ass, though. It's gotten a little bony."

"You've still got these, though," Stan said, squeezing Kyle's doughy pecs through his shirt.

"Mhmm, well, they're saggy. Ugh, sorry, I'm ruining the moment. But, look." He rubbed his erection on Stan's leg. "Look how hard I still get while I lie here trying to think of a smooth way to ask if I can suck your dick."

"You don't have to be smooth," Stan said, and he reached for the button on his jeans. "I want to be inside you after, if. If you still like that."

"If I still like that?" Kyle laughed loudly, almost barking. "Yes, I do," he said, rolling Stan onto his back. Kyle straddled him, grinning and reaching down to help him open his pants. "And we don't even need a condom. I was tested, you know, for the occasion."

"Me too," Stan said. "C'mere."

They kissed again, more desperately now, and Stan couldn't stop grinding against Kyle long enough to allow Kyle to free him from his jeans. They were both laughing a little, and Stan thought he could easily spend his whole vacation like this, in bed with Kyle, missing out on the sights, but he was looking forward to that, too, more beautiful things they could stare at together. Kyle was crawling down to settle between Stan's spreading legs when someone knocked insistently on the door.

"Kyle?" It was a woman with a German accent, and Kyle sat back onto his knees at the sound of her voice. Stan pulled a pillow over to hide his erection. "You're in there?" the woman asked.

"Fuck," Kyle said, whispering. "It's Simone."

"We can do this later if you have to work," Stan said. Kyle whined and crawled back onto him.

"I'm so tired of waiting to have you," he said, whispering this against Stan's lips before kissing him again. Still, he got up, put his jacket on to conceal his hardness, and answered the door.

"Oh," Simone said when Kyle let her in. She was tall and slightly bug-eyed, with a long face and a stylishly tousled bun. Stan wouldn't have been able to guess her age if Kyle hadn't told him in the letters: forty-nine, just four years younger than them. "I didn't know he was here today," Simone said.

"Well, he is," Kyle said. "Simone, this is Stan. My, you know. Lover. Stan, this is Simone, my employer."

"Also his friend," Simone said, and she looked at Kyle while shaking Stan's hand. "I thought?"

"Of course," Kyle said, tiredly.

"We tell each other many things," Simone said, and she smiled at Stan. "I do know about you. Eric's rival."

"Ha," Stan said.

"Eric's no rival to him!" Kyle said, and he looked truly livid, not just defensive. "She's misspeaking," he said. "She only means that Cartman sees himself as a rival, not that—"

"I've never seen Kyle so frantic to correct my English!" Simone said. She seemed delighted. "Don't let my poor English spoil your holiday – he's never taken my friend Eric seriously. It's one way how I knew I could trust Kyle with my children. You'll come with me to an early dinner, we'll talk all about it."

"I think we've said enough about it for one day," Kyle said, and the fact that he was barely making an attempt to conceal his irritation convinced Stan that this woman really had become more of a friend to him than an employer. "And I think we have dinner plans." He looked to Stan, who was too jet-lagged and sleepy to come up with a quick lie.

"So have a later dinner after you're done with me," Simone said. "Just a snack with me, then, to keep me company. I can't bear dining alone here, the men are so flirtatious."

It was still light out as they headed toward dinner, and Stan found Simone pleasant enough, but it was strange to be with someone who constituted an actual part of Kyle's life. She was more of an authority on Kyle now, in some respects, and it was an unsettling feeling. Stan still had only a sparse appetite when they sat down to dinner with her at a tiny restaurant with tables on the sidewalk.

"So you're a clothing designer?" Stan said after they'd ordered drinks.

"Textiles," Simone said. "I designed that fabric that Kyle is wearing. The shirt, not the blazer."

"She's very good," Kyle said. He'd been quiet during the walk and seemed annoyed. When the wine arrived, he gulped from his glass. "How are your meetings going?" he asked Simone, pointedly, as if she should refocus on them. She waved her hand over the table and shrugged.

"It's not the part of design that I enjoy," she said, and she looked at Stan. "Sales, niceties, Italians. But let's not talk about my work, it's too dull. How is it to see Kyle again?"

"Simone," Kyle said. He looked at Stan and laughed nervously. "Don't put him on the spot."

"It's awesome," Stan said. "I feel like I'm dreaming, though."

"Your childhood love," Simone said. She put her hand to her cheek and tipped her head a bit, as if she were looking at a helpless lamb.

"Yes, well," Kyle said, clearly uncomfortable. "We've been exchanging letters for five years. It's not as if we've become strangers."

"I don't think we'd be strangers even if we hadn't heard from each other in fifty years," Stan said, and he went for the wine, thinking this. Once, it had been a possibility: that kind of separation, permanent for all intents and purposes.

"I knew it would be something special," Simone said, nodding slowly. "From the way Eric spoke about you. As if he loathed you but had to grant you some respect, for being the one his Kyle loved most."

"Do not refer to me as 'his Kyle,' please. And let's change the subject, alright?"

"I'm sorry for being awkward," she said. "But I just find it fascinating. Kyle is a fascinating guy, yeah?"

"Yeah," Stan agreed, and he reached over to palm Kyle's shoulder. Kyle leaned into his touch, then removed his blazer, draping it over the back of his chair.

"I always seem to be traveling in August," he said, dabbing at his face with the handkerchief from his pocket. "It's difficult to appreciate a foreign setting when you're perspiring."

"Kyle, his life is so hard," Simone said, and she winked at Stan. He wondered how much she knew. Surely Kyle and Cartman hadn't confided in her about Hank Johnson.

They ordered, and Stan asked for a salad, his stomach still unsettled. The waiter looked like at him he was mad and talked him into a bowl of pesto. Stan was glad for it by the time it arrived, the wine having calmed his stomach somewhat. He was feeling sleepy, however, and a bit uncomfortably drunk, not trusting himself to keep his mouth shut about certain things. There was something about Simone that made him feel comfortable in a possibly dangerous way.

"Don't forget your pill," Simone said to Kyle when the plates were finally cleared, darkness having fallen hours ago. "He must take it with food," she said to Stan.

"What pill?" Stan asked while Kyle dug into the pocket of his blazer.

"It's nothing," Kyle said. He avoided Stan's eyes as he popped the top off a prescription bottle, removed two small orange pills and washed them down with wine. Simone was staring at him, and when she saw Stan looking at her she darted her gaze away. Something was off, suddenly. Stan could feel a new tension between the two of them. "Kyle?" he said. "Is everything okay?"

"He doesn't know?" Simone asked, quietly, as if Stan wouldn't hear.

"Would you stop!" Kyle said, almost shouting at her. "I would like to tell him some things on my own time, if I may? We'd only been together five hours when you showed up at the door."

"Oh, forgive me," Simone said, and she seemed sincerely regretful, glancing back and forth from Kyle and Stan. "I had too much to drink. You two should go, I will pay."

"Kyle?" Stan said. He'd been overly warm throughout the meal, but now a cold dread was seeping in past his clothes, creeping up the back of his neck. "What's — is something wrong?"

"No, I'm perfectly healthy!" Kyle smiled shakily. "I'll explain. Let's have a walk, we can go to the Trevi Fountain or something. Simone, I'm sorry I shouted."

"Never mind," she said, waving her hand again. "Go on, be together. Thank you for indulging my — what's the word in English?"

"Prying," Kyle said, and he patted her hand. He said something in German and stood. "Stan? Oh, God, don't look at me like that. You've gone all white. Everything's fine, I promise."

They got lost on the way to the fountain, Kyle dodging Stan's increasingly panicked questioning, insisting that he would explain once they had settled somewhere. Suddenly he seemed not just thinner but quite alarmingly thin, and his sweating seemed overly profuse, not just related to the muggy air. Stan was on the verge of tears when they settled on the Spanish Steps for the site of their talk, and he helped Kyle to a seat on the third step from the top, near the right side, in the shadows.

"I'm not sure we're allowed to sit here," Kyle said, though others were, most of them down toward the bottom, closer to a fountain that was glowing in the piazza that the steps overlooked. Stan had read about these steps in his obsessive study of guidebooks on Rome, and had looked forward to them, but now they seemed as plain and irrelevant as any cement stairs leading up to an office building in South Park. He was staring at Kyle, chewing his shaking lip.

"What's going on?" Stan asked. "Why are you taking pills? Something's wrong, I can tell."

"No, it's not," Kyle said. He put his hand on Stan's leg and leaned onto him. The fact that he was slightly breathless from the post-meal walk was making him seem more and more sickly and doomed in Stan's imagination. "It's in remission," Kyle said, and he smiled at Stan with unconvincing ease. "I didn't want to tell you until I knew I was either going to die or get better. I had a death letter written up, actually, when things were really bad. I should have saved it, maybe, but that seemed too grim, like I'd be saving if for the next time I got sick, when the shit came back. But I got better, Stan. I'm better."

"Remission?" Stan felt like he was being choked, forced to swallow this information while fighting the unwieldy shape of it. "Cancer?"

"Yes." Kyle took out his handkerchief and wiped his face again. He was trembling a little, staring off in the direction of the piazza, the fountain, tourists milling about and eating gelato. "Colon cancer, like my dad. It hasn't spread to my lungs, though, like his did. I know — I know he had this kind of thing, too, a couple of years in remission, but I don't think it's the same with me." He grabbed for Stan's hand and squeezed, hard. Stan pulled Kyle more fully against him, not caring if this was an accepted sign of male friendship or not. He buried his face in Kyle's sweat-damp hair. "It's okay," Kyle said, whispering. His breath had grown shaky, and he was petting Stan's hand with his thumb. "I'm okay."

"You were sick all that time? And you didn't tell me?" Stan was experiencing a number of emotions, chiefly terror, but he was most comfortable with rage. "Goddammit, Kyle, I—"

"It was the reason I started answering your letters! After I was diagnosed."

"Five years ago?"

"Well, it's not as if we were close anymore, as if I owed you every detail!"

"Detail? Kyle, you could have died! How bad did it — did you really think—?"

"I weighed ninety pounds at one point," Kyle said. "And yes, we thought. Plans were being made."

"We?" Stan knows the answer to his next question before he can articulate it, and it makes his stomach lurch. "Who took care of you? When you were that sick?"

Kyle looked at him shyly, and Stan's suspicion was confirmed: Cartman. Who else?

"I had the best doctors," Kyle said, pulling Stan's hand back when he tried to bring it to his face in despair. "And I begged him to bring you to me, Stan, I was crying for you every day when I thought it was the end. He wouldn't do it, because he knew that if I could see you one last time I would be — I'd feel finished. He told me that if I wanted to see you again, I'd have to live and find you myself."

"He's fucking sick," Stan said, pulling away. He stood, pacing, feeling dizzy enough to fear a tumble down the steps. "God, don't tell me this, don't tell me anything else."

"But it's what saved me!" Kyle said, springing up. "I really believe that, Stan. You know how I get when I'm in pain, how I give up and curl in on myself unless — unless I have you. I had the dream of you, the fight for you, and that's what kept me going. If he'd brought you to me I would have died in your arms, asking for your forgiveness, but I wasn't allowed that option."

"Well, hooray for fucking Cartman, then." Stan wanted to continue raging, but the thought of Kyle weak and helpless on his deathbed crumpled his resolve. He let Kyle cling to him, deep in the shadows of the building that adjoined the stairs. They were both breathing hard. Stan rested his forehead against Kyle's, closed his eyes and tried to calm down. "You're okay now," Stan said. "You're really okay?"

"I am," Kyle said. "I wanted to look like myself again before I saw you, and I had to gain the weight back, and my hair." He stopped there, maybe because of Stan's expression.

"Your hair fell out?"

"Yeah," Kyle said. "I looked — I don't even know how I looked. Cartman got rid of the mirrors. His ex was furious. She's financially dependent on him, you know, so she just had to put up with the 'nanny' being bedridden. The girls were teenagers by then, though, and they were so sweet. Diana used to sleep in my bed when I was just — wheezing and pathetic, this creature. I really think of her as a daughter, you know — oh, Stan, I can't wait to tell you everything. Let's go back to the hotel, if you don't hate me."

"Why would I hate you?" Stan was running his fingers through Kyle's hair, obsessing over it. It felt softer than he remembered, more delicate; he hadn't noticed that before.

"Maybe hate isn't the right word," Kyle said. "Resent? I just — I botched so many things. But I did stay alive for you, Stanley. I lived, anyway, to be with you again. Tell me I at least did that right, for you?"

"Yes, God," Stan said. He kissed Kyle all over his face, increasingly upset that they were in public. "I just. I hate that he kept me from you when you were sick. That he didn't even tell me."

"It would have been torture for you to know, if he wouldn't bring you to me. I hated him so much, Stan, I vowed to kill him for it. But I do think — now. I think it saved me, how much I needed you. You saved me."

It was an odd thing to say, since he was basing this on Cartman's restrictive action. Stan did nothing but exist elsewhere, awaiting Kyle's letters. He hugged Kyle to him and wondered where Cartman was now, if he was wondering about Kyle's whereabouts the way Stan had for so many years. If he'd wanted to, he could have taken Kyle away from Stan forever, kept him captive, financially dependent and ripe for blackmail.

"I can't believe he let you go," Stan said, still stroking Kyle's hair. "I'm not sure I could have. I might have made you my prisoner if you'd loved him more."

"Oh, God, I love the thought of being your prisoner!" Kyle said, suddenly ecstatic, his eyes widening. "That's so — that's all I want. For you to just grab me and put me someplace and tell me to stay."

They returned to the hotel, arms linked, Stan blinking back tears as Kyle told him about his illness. Kyle had battled ups and downs for three years, had two surgeries and a hellish recovery that left him emaciated, unable to eat what he liked without getting sick.

"I'm lucky I didn't end up with a colostomy bag," Kyle said. "I was sure that I would, for a while there, when they were threatening the possibility of a third surgery. I thought of An Affair to Remember, you know? How I'd never be able to see you again if I had to show you that, what I'd become."

"Don't be stupid," Stan said. "You're more than your — functions. Than your body, you know, to me."

"I know, but it's always been such a big part of us, how we are together, how it gets when we — I mean, I am old now, of course, but I still have desires, and all my parts are in at least acceptable functioning order. That's a big deal, for me, after everything."

"I just wish I'd been there," Stan said, and he stopped walking. They were about a block from the hotel, and the mugginess had died down a bit, a warm breeze coasting through the frizzy bits that had sprung up in Kyle's hair. "To take care of you. I thought about it every day, not even knowing you were sick. I just wanted it to be me taking care of you."

"We'll have that now," Kyle said. He laughed mirthlessly and looked away. "Or, I don't know. I can't go back to the States. I keep trying to think of what to do, and it's the same thing I said nineteen years ago. Let's just run away together. Something like that."

"I don't know what to do," Stan said, honestly. "I don't think I'll be able to leave you again."

"Oh, maybe you will," Kyle said. "We haven't even had sex yet."



They stared at each other for a moment, Stan taking deep breaths. He was beginning to get a headache from all the held back emotions, the pressure of them resting heavily between his eyes, over the bridge of his nose. Kyle looked shaken, though he was pretending not to be. There was a faint, fake little smile on his lips.

"You don't know how excited I am just to wake up with you," Stan said, speaking softly. "We never had that, not really. We were always going to be discovered by our parents, or Karen. We always had to be on guard. I just want to rest with you, finally, for real, and stay in bed together until we decide to get up." The last time they slept together they'd been anticipating Kyle's departure in Cartman's plane.

"Yes," Kyle said. "I've been — dreaming about that, God, for so long. I'm just afraid it will annihilate me, when these ten days are up, when you have to leave my bed forever."

"Kyle, I won't."

"How, though? How could you stay?"

Stan didn't have an answer. He put his arm around Kyle and lead him toward the hotel, feeling intensely protective, suspicious that every passerby would try to grab Kyle from him. They moved through the warmly lit hotel lobby without touching, and Stan didn't reach for Kyle as they rode a rickety old elevator up to the third floor. He wasn't sure what the laws about homosexuality in this country were; how had he not thought to research that, along with tourist sites to visit? He didn't want to ask Kyle about it now, their mood having already grown somber.

Inside the room, Kyle opened the doors to the patio and pulled the gauzy curtains mostly shut, leaving a strip of sky visible from the bed. Stan stretched out there, and he smiled down at Kyle when he knelt on the mattress and untied Stan's boots.

"What are these shoes?" Kyle asked, fondly, as if he enjoyed Stan's bad taste.

"Work boots."

"From the farm? You're still farming, aren't you?"

"Not much. Cartman's got staff. He calls me his overseer, though I told him not to. It's fucking offensive." Stan watches Kyle remove his boots, quietly seething for a moment. "I can't believe he never said anything to me about you being sick. I stopped asking him about you when the letters started coming, but still. He's fucking horrible."

"He's a sad old man," Kyle said, and he sighed. "I haven't seen him in a year. Simone says he's richer than ever. Anyway, whatever. He's what I deserved. The cancer, too."

"Kyle, no—"

"I shouldn't have killed that man. Hank. I don't care who he was, what he'd done. I spoiled myself for you — it ruined our chance to be together. I had to go through hell to get back to you, and. Here I am, I guess."

He stood then, and began unbuttoning his shirt. Stan got an erection, watching him undress, and Kyle's smile began to seem real. When he was standing naked in front of Stan he seemed quite fidgety and nervous, as if Stan would be disappointed. Stan was rubbing himself through his trousers, wanting him — it was something about Kyle's coloring, his vulnerable eyes, and the way he pressed his thighs together when he was hard and on display.

"So, here's my scar," Kyle said, pointing to one on his side, over his hip, as if that was what Stan was seeing, noticing, staring at. "From both surgeries. They just reopened the original one when they went in again. It's really — it's not too bad."

"C'mere," Stan said, and he pulled his t-shirt off.

Kyle knelt on the bed, his cock bobbing as he crawled toward Stan, who gathered him up greedily and kissed his neck until he was laughing, clinging, his leg hitching up to wrap around Stan's side. Stan had known it would feel like this when he found Kyle again: backward in time, back to their beginning, every time they touched. He still felt terrified and privileged as his hands ran down over Kyle's chest and stomach, fingers brushing his erection. Kyle gasped and nodded, bucking into Stan's hand when it closed around him.

"I'm drooling," Kyle said, though he didn't need to: Stan could feel it on his shoulder. They were rolling about in distracted bliss, pausing to breathe heavily and work Stan's pants open, sporadically sidetracked by kissing.

"Want to get under the blankets?" Stan asked as he stripped off his pants, boxers coming down with them.

"No," Kyle said, and he bent his knees, spread his legs. Stan sort of growled, and Kyle laughed when Stan fell onto him, kissing his sloppy wet mouth. Stan felt unhinged already: he hadn't been so ready for a fuck since the last time he had Kyle. "It's too hot for blankets," Kyle said, and it was true: they were both a little sweaty already, pressed together, Stan on top. "Get the lube, okay? I put it in there." He pointed to an antique bedside table with a brass pull on its skinny drawer.

"Are you out of practice?" Stan asked, his nervousness renewed when he had the lube in his hand. It was a new bottle; the cap cracked with virginal resistance when Stan unscrewed it. "I am," he said when Kyle didn't answer right away. "I might be clumsy, just tell me if—"

"I haven't been with anyone since before I got sick," Kyle said. "Not since I started writing to you."

"Oh — dude."

It wasn't awkward like Stan feared it would be, but they did kiss more than they used to, in a way that was almost self-conscious. They kept each other close, pressed together even when Stan was wiggling a second finger into Kyle, and were both sweating profusely by the time Stan moved down to position his cock.

"Are there complications?" Stan asked, feeling horrible but unwilling to go into this with incomplete information and risk hurting Kyle. "I mean, from your surgeries?"

"Not in that area," Kyle said, and he laughed. "Oh, Stan. You look so worried — no, yeah, you can fuck me hard. Like always, please, like you used to."

It was different: they both lasted longer than they used to, and Stan moved slower, not willing to let this end, or to drag his eyes away from Kyle's. It was different because they knew now what it felt like to spend a lifetime apart. Every time they were together before, even after the separations, they had held onto the belief that truly losing each other was impossible. Now they knew it wasn't, and when Kyle trembled beneath him Stan knew they were both shaken by the same fear: that this wasn't a beginning, just a ghostly visitation, because they were too old for beginnings.

"Hard now," Kyle whispered, and Stan was glad for the direction, glad to forget about the lingering possibilities and questions and lose himself in the feeling of Kyle clenching greedily around his hammering dick. Stan pressed his face to Kyle's throat and moaned, came hard, went limp all over while Kyle whimpered happily against his ear.

"Are you still hard?" Stan asked, mumbling, sleepy. He was shivering, despite the heat, because Kyle was skimming his fingers across Stan's back.

"Yeah," Kyle said. "You can suck me in a minute, just stay put for now."

"Kay. Dick, too?"

"Mhmm, no, you can pull out, it kinda stings."

"Shit, sorry." Stan extracted himself carefully, lifting his head to meet Kyle's eyes again. Kyle was smiling, still flushed and very hard on Stan's stomach, his hands wrapped around Stan's forearms.

"It's okay," Kyle said. "I miss this feeling. It's like — new."

"Don't ever want to hurt you," Stan murmured, nuzzling his face. "Ever again."

"You didn't — it was never — I did it all to myself."

"Kyle, no."

"Let's not assign blame, anyway, it's much too late for that. Let's suck Kyle's dick, maybe. I'm so hard, Stan, I was really close—"

"Okay, yeah— yeah."

Kyle's come tasted like it always had — musky, sour, come-like — but it was like a benediction to swallow it, and Stan lapped at Kyle's oversensitive cockhead after he'd gulped most if it down. Kyle whined and pulled him up for kissing, sighing into Stan's mouth as he tasted himself there. They rolled onto their sides, Stan's back to the patio. Distantly, he heard the sound of an ambulance or police siren. This European version sounded old fashioned, weirdly charming. He tucked Kyle to him and began to fall asleep as soon as his face was buried in Kyle's hair. He was exhausted and extremely hungry, something he would have to deal with after he slept. Kyle was still breathing hard as Stan drifted off, soaked with sweat, clinging to him.

"I fought Death himself for this," Kyle said, or maybe Stan was already dreaming, because it didn't seem like the kind of thing Kyle would say. "With my bare hands."

Stan had a bad dream, later that night, about trying to dig Kyle out of the earth on the farm. He'd learned, suddenly and probably too late, that Kyle had buried himself there years ago to hide from the police. Sirens wailed in the distance, speeding up the highway, heading toward the farm. Stan had no shovel, and every time he dug into the dirt with his hands, more would slide down into the hole, erasing his progress. He was sure that Kyle was alive beneath the soil, but barely, and that if Stan could unearth him in time he would have to carry Kyle to the barn like a child, weak and dirt-caked, gasping for breath.

When he woke he was unsettled by the dream, and by the fact that bright sunlight filled the room. Kyle had scooted up and was curved around him, cradling Stan's head against his chest, his knees pressed to Stan's stomach.

"You slept so long," Kyle said, touching Stan's face. He looked like he'd been crying.

"What's wrong?" Stan asked, though he supposed he knew.

"Nothing," Kyle said. "I'm just — overflowing. Too much to think about, or feel, or something. Your stomach is growling. I'm going to ask them to bring up some food."


"The hotel."

"Oh. Yeah, thanks." Stan thought of the last time he'd had a room service meal with Kyle, and his stomach twisted up until he wasn't hungry anymore. He sat up, feeling achy, his head throbbing from the lack of food. He accepted a bottle of water when Kyle offered it and gulped from it. Kyle was wearing a pair of terrycloth shorts that brought back bad memories, Stan's black t-shirt hanging over them. "You look good in that," Stan said, because, despite the memories and Kyle's age, shorts like that suited him. They didn't look like women's wear, exactly, but something close.

"Thanks," Kyle said, pulling on the hem of the shirt. "It smells so good, like you." He climbed back into bed and hurried into Stan's arms, curling up against Stan's chest like a kid. "Let's stay in bed all day," he said.

"Yes," Stan said, though the room was sweltering already.

They ate breakfast on the patio, at a little table with uncomfortably small iron chairs. Stan was ravenous, and Kyle seemed to be, too: there was more bread and cheese, cured meat, and some cookies, all of it gone in less than twenty minutes with little conversation. When they were through, Kyle made coffee with a machine and some beans that he'd brought himself, and Stan lounged in the bed, watching Kyle's ass in those shorts. It wasn't as cushy as it had once been, and Stan wasn't sure if this was due to the cancer or his age. Still, Kyle looked good, even young, as if he'd stolen back a few extra years from Death.

"I can't make myself believe it," Stan said when Kyle rejoined him in bed, the coffee machine gurgling loudly. "That you were sick like that. I keep thinking about it."

"Don't," Kyle said, and he stroked the stubble on Stan's cheek. "I didn't want you to see me like that, or even picture me like that. I was a hairless wraith."

"No," Stan said, as if he could undo it, and he hugged Kyle to him. He would fight Death himself if Kyle got sick again. He would tear the world apart with his bare hands.

They spent the afternoon lounging in bed, fucking, and talking about the years they'd spent apart, sometimes covering things that had already been mentioned din the letters. Stan didn't mind hearing Kyle's stories about Columbia and Germany again, live and in person. He'd been other places, too, with Cartman's family and then Simone's: the Swiss Alps, Thailand, Jamaica, Easter Island. He'd been all over South America and was fluent in Spanish. Stan requested Spanish dirty talk, and got hard when Kyle whispered in his ear, not even knowing yet what he'd said.

"Translate?" Stan said, rolling onto his back to show Kyle his tented boxers.

"I told you that, um, you leave my little hole tingling with pleasure." Kyle blushed, and Stan tried not to laugh but couldn't help it. He tackled Kyle and mounted him, though they were both fucked out and would be for a while. Kissing was still good, comforting, a language that Stan had almost forgotten. With Kyle, he was quickly fluent again.

At four o'clock they grew restless, overheated and tired of the hotel's very limited room service menu. They took a shower together, squeezed into an impossibly tiny stall and laughing as they struggled to maneuver bath products and help each other wash. Kyle dressed Stan in his clothes, which made him feel self conscious and also giddy, Kyle's gray collar shirt stretched a little too tightly across Stan's chest. Kyle's pants were tight on him, too, black and too heavy for the weather, but Stan went along with it.

"Oh, but that looks ridiculous with those boots!" Kyle protested. "Can't you fit into a nine?"

"Dude, you know I wear size twelve."

"Yes, I know," Kyle said, and he looked dreamy about it for a moment, smiling. "Fine, we'll go shoe shopping. I want to buy you a present, anyway."

"How come?"

"Because, ah! You gave me so much. When I needed you." Kyle turned away from Stan and examined his own outfit in the room's full length mirror: some expensive looking jeans and a pale pink sweater vest over a white t-shirt. "I feel so embarrassed when I remember it. How I was, what I did. How I showed up and disrupted your life."

"Don't," Stan said. "It was hard, yeah, but I needed it. You changed everything. For the better, I think."

He wasn't sure if he had more to say on the subject, and before he could come up with anything his phone rang in the pocket of his discarded jeans.

"I should get that," Stan said. "It's probably Kate — I told her to call me after she'd settled in."

He took the phone out to the patio and answered, sweat already gathering under the shirt Kyle had dressed him in, mostly at the small of his back. He'd felt like telling Kate so many things over the years, but he'd kept it almost everything about Kyle to himself. Talking about Kyle had seemed akin to telling ghost stories that might scare her, even after Stan started getting letters from him. He'd still seemed ghostly for the most part, a disembodied voice out of Stan's past.

"How's your hotel?" she asked, and already Stan wasn't sure what to say. His own hotel was average, corporate and plain, and he'd only been in that room for an hour or so.

"It's nice," he said, choosing to describe Kyle's instead. "I've got a little patio, a good view. You want to hear Rome?"

"Sure," she said, and he held the phone out to capture the noise of the city.

"Hear it?" he asked.

"I heard birds. What time is it there?"

"Four o'clock. How's it going there, you getting along with your roommate?"

"Yeah, she's fine." There was a pause, and Stan noticed how quiet it was, wherever she was calling from. She could be a solitary girl, more comfortable with animals than people most of the time. She used to sneak up to Stan's loft in the barn to sleep with the cats. "It's really hot here," she said.

"Here, too. Has Mom been calling you every hour?"

"No, not really. She and Craig are building that gazebo thing. How's your friend?"

"My friend?"

"The one you met up with!"

"Oh, yeah." Stan glanced at Kyle, who was sitting on the end of the bed, studying his own phone, probably eavesdropping. "He's great. We're about to go get some lunch."

"At four o'clock?"

"Well, sure. They do things different in Europe, you know, meal-wise."

"Does he look how you remembered?" Kate asked, and something the question made Stan feel certain that Karen had more or less told her what was at stake with this reunion. Kate knew he was bisexual; they'd had an amicable discussion about it it when she was fourteen and wondering if Stan believed that bisexuality was 'a real thing.' He got the feeling she liked that he didn't date anyone, gender notwithstanding. In a lot of ways she had become his best friend, and sometimes he feared that he was hers, too.

"He looks the same, yeah," Stan said, and Kyle turned to him. "Dresses a little different now, more like a European. He's threatening to buy me shoes."

"Oh," Kate said. "Weird!"

"Yeah, totally weird."

Stan felt bereft when they said goodbye, too far from her. He never would have gotten through those years without Kyle if he hadn't had Kate, the other light of his life. She was his ally in all things, especially after Craig moved into the big house. Kate was the only person in the world who needed Stan more than Kyle, and this weighed on him as he walked back into the room, shutting the patio doors behind him.

"You okay?" Kyle asked.

"Yeah," Stan said, and he straightened his shirt. "She's okay, she's — I'm hoping she'll find her niche at college, you know? In high school she always seemed a little lost, like. She didn't go to prom."

"I didn't go to prom," Kyle said. Stan had, senior year. He'd brought Bebe. It was just a couple of weeks after he'd walked in on Kyle with Coach Daniels. He knew Kyle was thinking about this, too, and he reached down to take both of his hands. Kyle came willingly when Stan pulled him up. His eyes fluttered shut when Stan kissed the tip of his nose.

"We should go dancing sometime," Stan said, though it made him self-conscious and Kyle had an embarrassing lack of rhythm.

"Oh, when?" Kyle asked, and he pulled away from Stan. "You'll go home, to your daughter. No one will ever dance with me again. I don't know why I do this to myself. I get accustomed to living without you, and then I wreck everything, all my progress."

"You don't have to live without me," Stan said. "I mean, ah. I'll come to Munich with you. I want to."

"Stan!" Kyle turned, wild-eyed. "You don't have a German visa!"

"I know, but. Can't Simone get Cartman to generate a fake one, the way he got you a Canadian passport?"

"As if Cartman will do you any favors! He knows I love you. The very thought of you eats at his soul."

"Well, someone else then? Does Simone know anyone else like him, someone who isn't in love with you?"

"I don't know," Kyle said, and he put his hands over face. "I can't think. I need to eat, and we've got to do something about your shoes, they're driving me nuts."

Outside, there was no breeze, and they were both sweating as they walked toward a nearby shopping district, Stan sweltering inside Kyle's clothes. Stan looked for street food but found none, and they ended up in a bistro that was otherwise completely empty. Stan devoured a brie and speck sandwich, then ordered another one, plus another glass bottle of Coke. Kyle was eating some sort of cold bean salad with salami.

"Aren't you hungry?" Stan asked, because Kyle was really just picking at it. "Do you want something else? Want a bite of my sandwich? It's really good."

"I'm sure it is," Kyle said, staring at the beans he was pushing around with his fork. "I'm just – I suppose I'm hungry, but I also don't have an appetite."

"Oh." Stan lost his, somewhat, hearing this. "Is it to do with your – remission? Did you forget those pills?"

"It's not that, Stan, it's – God, never mind. We don't have to discuss it to death, that will only make it worse."

"Make what worse?"

"Your inevitable return to America," Kyle said. "And my inability to join you."

"Hasn't the statute of limitations run?" Stan knew the answer to this, but he was desperate, trying to avoid making promises that he wouldn't be able to keep.

"There is no statute of limitations for murder! Never mind, just—" Kyle took the sandwich from Stan's hands and bit into it. "It's good," he said, chewing.

They strolled about glumly, headed back in the direction of the Spanish Steps and the designer stores at the bottom. Stan bought a two hundred dollar t-shirt, willing to pay almost anything to take Kyle's tight, long-sleeved shirt off. It was drenched in sweat, and Kyle held it in his lap like a beloved pet while Stan tried on shoes. The t-shirt was an enormous relief, made of a fine material that made it feel as if it could actually be worth what he'd paid. It was pale blue; Kyle had commented that it would bring out his eyes.

"What do you think?" Stan asked when he'd put on a pair of black leather shoes that looked a lot like the ones Kyle had worn the day before.

"I don't know," Kyle said. "They're not you."

Stan couldn't argue with that. He surrendered to Kyle's judgment and tried on four more pairs of shoes while a dour clerk stood watching them, his arms crossed over his chest. Something was wrong with each pair they tried, according to Kyle: too pointy, too shiny, too much detail, too boring. Stan was feeling internally panicked, wanting to get away from this place. He found the manufactured austerity of the shop charmless, and was still thinking about what Kyle had said at lunch: his inevitable return to America. When Kyle finally settled on a pair of dark brown leather shoes with a buckle, Stan was ready for a drink.

"How much are they?" Stan asked as they approached the register, accompanied by the clerk.

"You don't want to know," Kyle said.

"They're not, like. A thousand dollars, are they?"

"Stanley, just let me buy you a nice gift, please. No, they're not a thousand dollars. Go wait outside for me while I pay, alright?"

Stan obeyed this request gladly, eager to get out of the store, despite the frigid air conditioning. He and went to the fountain in the middle of the piazza, which was crowded with tourists taking pictures. He dipped his hand into the water and splashed his face with it, beginning to feel dizzy from the heat and from increasing despair. How had his life turned out this way? How was he still reaching for Kyle, never quite able to close his hands tightly enough around him? Cartman had managed it, for some time at least, which was so unfair that Stan was afraid he would lose his lunch from the thought. He checked the storefront, but Kyle still hadn't emerged. Trembling with increasingly irrational rage, he dug his phone out of his pocket and called his landlord.

"What?" Cartman said when he picked up. It was his usual greeting for Stan.

"Do you know where I am?" Stan asked. Kyle said that he hadn't seen Cartman in a year, but perhaps they still spoke.

"Uh, no?" Cartman said. "Why would I?"

"I'm with Kyle. In — outside of the country. Well, obviously." He supposed Cartman could trace the call if he liked. "Hello?"

"I heard you." Cartman's tone had sharpened considerably. "So what?"

"I just." Stan stared at the shop, afraid Kyle would emerge with the shoes, but the purchase seemed to be taking some time. Stan had noticed that clerks and waiters were generally not in a hurry here. "This is fucked up, but I guess I'm calling to ask for your advice."

"On what? Kyle?" Cartman scoffed. "My advice is to do whatever the fuck you want with him. You're his fetish."

"Hmm. Well, I think. I want to stay with him, in Germany or someplace else, wherever, but I don't know — I just want you to be straight me for one second, Cartman, okay? When we talked at that hotel, back then, you acted like he's only worth it if it's convenient. But he told me you took care of him when he was sick, so. I guess what I'm asking is, would you do anything for him, really? If he wanted you? I mean, really wanted you?"

Another long pause, and Stan was afraid Cartman had hung up. There was an angry push of breath before he spoke again.

"Why the hell does it matter to you?" he asked.

"I'm not sure. I think because you're the only person who loves him anywhere near as much as I do—"

"Bullshit! Did he tell you that? God, he's so full of himself. My kids were attached to him, okay? He was like their pet, I couldn't just let him croak—"

"—And I need a push," Stan said, though the wounded tremble beneath Cartman's blathering had already convinced him. Still, he felt he was owed some kind of confession from the person who had hoarded Kyle away from him for so long. "I need someone to tell me worth it he is. The risk, or. What I couldn't give up back then. Cartman, if you love him, tell me something that will make me know that I should stay."

Kyle emerged from the store at that moment, carrying Stan's new shoes in a fussy little bag with ribbons for handles. He looked flustered, as if the clerk had offended him somehow, and then concerned when he scanned the courtyard and didn't see Stan. On the phone, Cartman seemed to be at a loss for words, but he hadn't hung up. Stan could hear him breathing in measured huffs.

"The days go by slower," Cartman said. "Really fucking slow."


Kyle spotted Stan then, waved and hurried toward him. The look on his face was the same one he'd always had when they were together, when they were fifteen and even before that: hopeful and afraid to hope, guarded but so in danger of disappointment that Stan wanted to rush to him and hold him, to never let him go.

"Look, asshole," Cartman said. "I don't know why you need me to fluff your cock, or maybe you're just gloating — leave him if you want, but time will slow the fuck down. Every day is ten days long. You should fucking know, since all you've got to go back to is a barn full of mangy cats."

"They're not mangy," Stan said. Kyle reached him then, frowning a little, and Stan put his hand out. "Thanks," he said, and he hung up with Cartman.

"Who was that?" Kyle asked. He took Stan's hand and sat beside him, holding it.

"My bank," Stan said. Maybe he'd tell Kyle what Cartman had said, someday, but not now. "They wanted to make sure I was actually here, using my credit card in another country."

"Oh. Well, here, let's change your shoes."

Stan sat watching as Kyle knelt down to untie his work boots, and he allowed the joyous oddity of the moment to reach him: he was in Italy, on the Spanish Steps, watching Kyle slide expensive shoes onto his feet. The heat seemed less oppressive now that he was in a t-shirt, and Kyle's hair was vibrant in the sun, glowing. His curls seemed like the liveliest thing in the world, everything else slightly lesser.

"How do they feel?" Kyle asked, and he looked up at Stan, still kneeling. He was flushed, maybe from the heat, though he'd come directly from the cool air in the shop. There was a sheen of sweat on his upper lip, and his eyes were still a bit puffy from the crying he'd done while Stan slept.

"They feel good," Stan said. "Hey." He took Kyle's hands and pulled him up, standing. "Let's not be apart anymore."

"Stan," Kyle said, and he tried to pull away, groaning, as if he'd been reminded of a chore that needed doing. Stan tugged him back so that his stomach was touching Kyle's. Though he was only a few inches shorter, Kyle seemed so little when he looked up at Stan this way, eyes widening. "Don't," Kyle said.

"Don't what?"

"Don't let me start thinking—"

"The fact is, she needs some space," Stan said. "Kate, I mean. She needs to find herself or what have you, and I think I've kind of stunted her in that respect. She sensed that I needed a buddy, you know? I was all by myself out in the barn. She worried about that. I don't want her coming home every weekend to keep me company, and in the meantime she's got her mom and Craig if she needs anything. And we've got the phone, Skype, all that. It's the right time. For us, I mean. Finally."

"Us?" Kyle said.

"Me and you. Look, I've been afraid of this since I was fifteen, and I can't even remember why. But I'm not afraid anymore, so, Kyle. Will you be my boyfriend? For real, for serious? And everyone will know. And no one else can have you, only me."

Kyle studied Stan's eyes, looking for doubt there. Stan knew he wouldn't find any. Cartman was right: all of those days without Kyle had been so long, and the nights were even worse.

"I don't know how you can still love me," Kyle said. "After everything I've done."

"Look at me," Stan said, pierced by that. "You know. You do know, Kyle. Just let yourself fucking know it, finally."

He was afraid this was too harsh, but it must have been what Kyle needed, because he leaned up to press his face to Stan's cheek, his eyes pinched shut tightly. Stan stroked Kyle's hips with his thumbs, not sure how physical they could be here, but it didn't really matter. The physical stuff had always come easily, and this was something else, new and bigger.

"Oh, God," Kyle said, whispering. He sunk back down to his heels, peering up at Stan timidly. "It's so hard to believe I could really have you."

"I know. I know it's been hard for you, and that's my fault in a lot of ways. But I'll go anywhere, Kyle, I'll do anything it takes. I was willing to consider being Cartman's personal hit man before I found out about Kate."

"He told me," Kyle said, and he rolled his eyes. "I never would have let him turn you into something like that. You don't know what it's like to kill someone. It's horrible. You never forget it, or trust that you've gotten away with it, or that it was the right thing to do in some way or another. I still have nightmares."

"I just want to be there when you do," Stan said. "Every time."

The afternoon sunlight was beginning to wane as they climbed the steps, Kyle carrying Stan's boots and discarded shirt in the bag from the shop. The shoes he'd bought hadn't looked comfortable on the shelf in the store, but they were surprisingly nice to walk in, well-fitted and adequately supported. Stan felt strangely at ease in the knowledge that he would not be using his return ticket to America.

"I do know my share of white collar criminals," Kyle said. He was plotting, talking nonstop, the bag swinging in his hand as they walked. "Some of them preferred dealing with me as opposed to Cartman, as you can imagine. I have phone numbers, certain connections. I can start making calls, if you're sure you want to do this."

"I'm sure," Stan said. "You know I am."

"Yes," Kyle said. He was grinning, his shoulder bumping Stan's arm as they walked. "I feel like — yes. I do know."

Kyle's appetite had returned, so they stopped at a small restaurant that was just opening for dinner, already becoming crowded with people who looked and sounded like locals. Stan wasn't particularly hungry himself, but he enjoyed watching Kyle eat: antipasta, oysters, a roasted whole artichoke, and pasta carbonara. Stan sipped wine and accepted the heart of the artichoke when Kyle offered it.

"It's the best part," Kyle said, watching Stan pop it into his mouth. "I just want to give you the best part of everything I have left," he said. He was blushing, three glasses of wine into the meal.

"What's your bed like?" Stan asked. "At home, in Munich?"

"I live in the attic," Kyle said. "But it's a nice attic, finished, very tasteful. Simone has great taste in everything but men. My bed is by this octagonal window that looks out on the city — it's this sort of shelf-like thing, very cozy, and I love it, but it might be too small for the two of us."

"Nah," Stan said. "We'll just have to squeeze in close. Will I like the food?"

"Yes! Oh, God, we can take the train to Berlin on weekends, go to the best restaurants, the museums, Stan! It's too good to be true. What am I forgetting?"

"Well, I'm kind of broke. Or I will be, after this trip. But I can work — if they'll let me?"

"We're figure something out. Something illegal, certainly, but what else is new? What about Kate — her education, is it provided for?"

"Craig's paying for it," Stan said, and he winced. "It's embarrassing, but. I was working three jobs just keeping a roof over her head. Cartman would raise our rent whenever he felt like it, just to punish me."

"Poor Stan," Kyle said. He reached for Stan's hand with such urgency that he nearly upset his empty wine glass. "He wanted to break your back under his whip. I had nightmares about that, too."

"He could have done a lot worse," Stan said, thinking of what Cartman had said to him on the phone.

"I suppose you're right," Kyle said. He looked over the diners beside them, a lively group of six people who seem to be about their age. "I know I'm lucky," he said.

"Maybe," Stan said. "But you still didn't get the life you deserved."

"What did I deserve?"

"Security," Stan said. "Warmth and comfort and happiness, and knowing that I loved you all that time."

"I did know that," Kyle said, avoiding his gaze. "Why do you think I came to you after what happened? I could have gone straight to him. I suppose I knew I would have to, eventually. But I needed to see you one last time. Before I disappeared. I needed to feel that ache. The way we just. Burned for each other. The way you looked at me like I was killing you, like you were dying from not having me. Sorry, I'm rambling."

"It's okay," Stan said. His throat was tightening; he drank some wine. "I'm so glad you came. If you hadn't—"

"We'd both be dead," Kyle said, vocalizing what Stan was thinking. It seemed so factual that Stan shuddered, and he touched Kyle's hand on the table. "But I'm glad you never came to Columbia. Because you got to be a father, and Cartman would have ruined you if he'd had you there."

"You think? He could have ruined me at home, too, and he didn't."

"No, that's true," Kyle said, speaking softly. "If I hadn't gotten sick, I don't know. But that changed him. I think he made some promise to God or whatever the hell he believes in that if I lived, he would do anything, and he came to realize that doing anything ultimately amounted to letting me go once he got his wish and I recovered. Sorry, I don't know why I'm talking about him!"

"It's alright," Stan said, and for a moment he considered confessing about the phone call. "I feel sorry for him, actually."

"Really." Kyle sipped from his wine. "Well, don't. He got everything he wanted."

"Kyle, you know that's not true."

"No, it is. He got as much of me as he would ever have. He knew that, in the end. I'm sure he feels he's won, gotten the best of me, whatever."

"I think you'd be surprised," Stan said. "The best of you is right here. The memories were never enough for me."

"Well, of course not. Some days I thought the memories alone would kill me. Especially the good ones."

Kyle finished the meal with pistachio gelato. Stan ate half of it, at Kyle's request, and insisted on paying for the meal. It was dark by the time they left the restaurant, but the streets were still lively and crowded. Kyle wanted Stan to see the Trevi Fountain before they returned to his room, and this time they were actually able to find it, glowing against the night and busy with tourists, camera flashes twinkling among the onlookers.

"Last time I was here I threw a coin in the fountain," Kyle said. "Backward, over my shoulder — that's what you're supposed to do to guarantee that you'll return to Rome someday. It's silly, but. Here I am."

"It's not silly," Stan said, and he dug a few coins from his pocket. "We should do it. We need all the luck we can get."

"That's true," Kyle said, smiling, as if the thought of their scrambling future as illegally papered fugitives was suddenly appealing — or maybe Stan was only projecting. He'd spent so much of his life in South Park, on the farm, working night jobs in retail to make ends meet. The thought of scrambling through Europe and beyond with Kyle at his side seemed virtually ideal in comparison to returning to the farm, with Kate off at school and Craig constructing that tacky gazebo on what was once Stan's property. "Ready?" Kyle said, putting his back to the fountain.

"Yep," Stan said, and he did the same. "Count of three, okay?"

"Yes," Kyle said. His shoulder was touching Stan's, and Stan could feel him trembling.

- paramécie -

"One, two—"

"Three!" Kyle said, and they tossed the coins back over their shoulders. The sound of them hitting the water was lost in the noise of the crowd, and when Stan turned he couldn't differentiate between the coins they'd thrown and the smattering of others on the floor of the fountain.

- paramécie -

Still, he felt as if some important spell was cast. He hadn't wished to return to Rome. He'd wished to remain safely in eternal transit with Kyle, except for trips home to visit Kate.

"We should kiss," Stan said. "To seal it."

"We can't." Kyle looked over his shoulder. "People would see."

"So? What's going to happen, Kyle? I'll protect you."

Kyle stared at him, blinked, then arched up to kiss him. It was chaste but lingering, and Stan felt Kyle's eyelashes on his cheek as he moved away.

"Last time I was here I thought I'd lost you for good," Kyle said, staring at the fountain, his hand brushing Stan's.

"There's nothing you can do to scare me away," Stan said.

"I certainly tried a thing or two."

"Yeah, you did. It's weird, though. All that shit only made me love you more."

Kyle grinned. "Why?"

"Couldn't say. It just did."

Stan thought about this on the walk back to the hotel room: did he really love Kyle more for what he'd put them both through? The secret affairs in high school, the drug addled lifestyle that kept them from reconciling in their twenties, the police he brought to Stan's door. In some perverse way, Stan knew it was all done out of the purest sort of love. Kyle had adored Stan too much, leaving no love for himself. As they approached the hotel, Stan thought about the first time they had sex — real sex, as they'd called it then — how quiet Kyle had been, his little gasps and his whispered insistence that he was okay, that Stan could keep going, that it didn't hurt. It must have, though, because he was admittedly sore afterward, clingy and sniffling, his face hidden against Stan's neck.

"What are you thinking about?" Kyle asked as they crossed the hotel lobby, headed for the elevators. Stan had canceled his room at the Marriott. It had been a ridiculous gesture, making his own reservation; he'd known that he would be spending at least ten days in Kyle's bed.

"Um," Stan said. "I was thinking about the day I took your virginity."

"Took, ha!" Kyle said, and Stan's heart clenched with the fear that Kyle would tell him he'd had someone else first. "I gave it, Stanley."

"Oh, that's true, you did."

Upstairs in the room, they left the doors to the patio open while Kyle gave himself to Stan again, for good this time. Kyle had tried to give himself entirely from the start, but Stan had been too young, too scared, and too naive to know how to take what was on offer: the best and most secret part of Kyle, his soft heart, all the spiky outer layers pulled away so that Stan could have what was deepest inside.

"In the morning we'll go to this German bakery I found," Kyle said when they were through. He was whispering, petting the stubble on Stan's cheek.

"In a week we'll be in Germany," Stan said. "I mean, I'll be home, with you."

"Yes, well," Kyle said. He was smiling so hard; Stan could see that he believed this. "You'll be so – I'll have to teach you the language."

"Well, yeah. Just lead me around by the hand until I know it. I want to be your prisoner for a while. I mean, your captive?"

"We're so strange, aren't we?" Kyle said, and he pulled Stan closer with his leg, which was hitched around Stan's waist. "How will it be when we're really together?"

"Like this," Stan said, and he pressed his face to Kyle's. Like this, it would be like this: overly warm, inextricably tangled, finally complete.