Thanks so much to julads for beta reading this for me! Paramecie, I was so happy to get you as my match, because you did an amazing job on my big bang illustrations and your participation in the mini bang was part of the reason I signed up. I'm afraid I didn"t do your picture justice, but I really hope you will enjoy this.
When he could no longer stand the silence that had settled over the camp, Stan lit his lantern and checked his watch. He grunted when he saw that it was after midnight. So Kyle had absolutely no regard for his reputation anymore. Stan might have guessed as much when Kyle told him about the sailor last summer, but he'd foolishly thought that Kyle would at least learn a lesson from that misadventure. He blew out the lantern and put his watch away, suppressing the impulse to leave the light burning so that he could continue checking the time. The inside of the tent was pitch black without it, and though they were in the desert the air was cold enough to make Stan think of the snow back home.
Kyle returned just as Stan was beginning to doze off. He came in quietly, and Stan lay there seething, listening to him unlace his boots. He'd been hoping that Kenny would wake and interrogate Kyle upon his return, sparing Stan from having to do so, but that was idiotic, because Kenny had barely spoken to either of them in their three days on the dig. He lived nearby and was mostly in charge of organizing the day laborers. The stump in place of his right leg made it difficult for him to do much else on site, though he'd also been cooking some of the meals. Kenny went on sleeping, presumably, and soon Kyle was quiet, too.
In the morning, Stan was able to get through breakfast without asking about Kyle's evening. They sat near to each other, Kyle fidgeting and giving Stan nervous glances that he pretended not to notice. Stan drank too much strong coffee and was shaking by the time they returned to the tent to get their tools. Dr. Schuyler had been chipper at breakfast, chatting with Stan's father about the potential size of the barosaurus skeleton, which had been only halfway uncovered. Stan had taken the old man's good mood as a very bad sign.
"How were drinks last night?" he asked when Kenny had left the tent. Kyle was taking his time doing up his boots. He glanced up at Stan and smiled smugly.
"Illuminating," Kyle said. "He's been all over the world, you know."
"Yes, I know." Stan ran out of steam for a moment, saddened by his jealousy. He reminded himself that it was more productive to be outraged on behalf of Kyle's dignity, as he had been after he heard about the sailor. "I hope you were quiet."
"Oh, shut up," Kyle snapped, his face coloring. "It was nothing like that."
"You were there all night."
"So what? I never should have told you what happened in New York. Now your mind goes there every time I speak to man."
"It does not," Stan said, lying.
"There's dust everywhere," Kyle said, as if he'd just noticed this, when in fact he'd been complaining about it since they arrived. Stan glumly accepted this change of subject, not really wanting to get into the whole thing again, anyway.
"It's dirt," Stan said, again. "There's a lot of dirt involved in this business, shockingly."
"Don't make fun of me."
"I'm not making fun, I'm just wondering why you came, if you're going to get so bothered by the dirt. Though I guess your little tea party in the esteemed doctor's tent last night explains it well enough."
"I came because you did!" Kyle said, glowering at him. "And I'm beginning to think I'll regret it for the same reason."
Stan felt badly, though he was still irritated. If he had to continue enduring Kyle's 'drinks' with Dr. Schuyler into the wee hours of the morning he would go home early. He watched Kyle squat in front of the wash basin, cleaning his hands for the second time since breakfast.
"Quit washing so often," Stan said, unable to stop picking on him. He knew he shouldn't take Kyle's exploits personally, but he did. "Your skin's getting raw."
"Leave me to worry about what's raw," Kyle muttered. "It just seems asinine, doesn't it, that such important science is so — physical."
"They won't even trust us to get near those bones. You think they should send ditch diggers instead, and hope for the best?"
"Well, if they were overseen — but it really is fascinating to see that creature emerging from the earth day by day!"
Stan had only come along on his father's dig to get away from campus, which was so packed with veterans that they'd had to set up a special shanty town of temporary housing for them in the fall. Stan and Kyle had just missed the war, the Japanese surrender coming the month before Stan's eighteenth birthday. Kyle didn't seem to feel nearly as guilty about his relief over this as Stan did. He'd been wondering since they arrived if Kenny lost his leg in the war, though he didn't seem much older than them.
"I've cut myself somehow," Kyle said, examining his thumb.
"It must be all the washing. Unless, well. Unless you've done something else to injure yourself recently."
Kyle gave Stan an angry stare, and Kenny came to the tent flap before Stan could say anything further about recent injuries Kyle may or may not have done to himself. There was a moment of awkwardness as Kenny looked from Stan to Kyle, as if he'd caught them doing something, or perhaps that was only Stan's biased impression. Though he'd never worried about it before Kyle's confession to him, he was now constantly afraid that people would mistake them for lovers.
"Have you two eaten?" Kenny asked.
"No," Kyle said, though they'd shared some bread and jam a few hours earlier.
"The doc is worried about your condition," Kenny said. He dug something out of his back pocket and tossed it to Kyle. "He wants you to eat."
"I'm perfectly able to manage without his concern," Kyle said, though Stan thought he seemed flattered. "What is this? Sardines? I'm not eating these."
Kenny shrugged and left. When he was gone, Kyle looked to Stan and rolled his eyes.
"That man," Kyle said, standing.
"Kenny or Dr. Schuyler?"
"The former. If he lost his leg in the war, can't his pension get him something better than that metal thing? Don't they make ones that look somewhat more human? He looks like an automaton, it's unnerving."
"Kyle, please. Don't be so cavalier."
"I'm not, Stan, and we don't even know he's a veteran, so there's no need to nobly defend him, necessarily."
"You really should eat something," Stan said, tired of thinking about who might be a veteran. All these men who had served were validated in a way he would never be, and he already considered himself to have a deficit of actual masculinity, having spent too many sleepless nights thinking about Kyle and his misdeeds.
"Well, I'm not eating this," Kyle said, and he set the sardines on Stan's bed. "We should go into town tonight. I need a real meal."
"I doubt my father will give us the car."
"I could probably persuade Dr. S to loan us his motorbike."
"Oh, I'm sure you could. But no, he'd want to go with you. He'd offer you a seat behind him, where you could wrap your arms around him while he drove. If your arms are even long enough."
"He's not that fat! We'll see how trim you are at his age."
"How old is he, anyway? No, don't tell me, it's too disgusting."
"I'd prefer it if you didn't mention how much I disgust you," Kyle said, and he left the tent. Stan sighed and followed him out, wanting to apologize. He couldn't immediately do so; the day laborers who were dawdling after breakfast were nearby, including Kenny, who studied them with his usual exacting silence. Stan said nothing until they were halfway to the dig site, no one else around.
"I didn't mean it that way," Stan said, muttering this quietly as he tried to keep pace with Kyle, who could be surprisingly spry when he was furious.
"I know what you meant," Kyle said, too loudly. "You pretend to, because we're friends, but you don't really accept me."
"Well, why should I, Kyle? Do you really accept this about yourself? Don't you want to get rid of it? The alternative is too beastly to really consider, isn't it?"
Kyle gave him a horrified look, and Stan felt awful, though he knew he was right. It wasn't as if Kyle could go on doing things in public parks with sailors for the rest of his life. He'd have to get past it sooner or later, and courting the attentions of that old fairy Schuyler wasn't productive on any level.
"You don't understand," Kyle said. His anguished look had solidified into an unfamiliar coldness.
"Of course I don't," Stan said, trying to sound proud about this. Kyle huffed and hurried away, and this time Stan didn't follow.
The work was dull and the sun was hot. Stan had no real interest in paleontology. He'd mostly been enjoying his literature classes, though he still felt he was a poor writer and knew he couldn't exactly make a career of being a reader. He liked Whitman, Coleridge, and the British poets who wrote about the First World War. He had spent a lot of his high school years obsessing over the poetic treatments of what it was like to fight, trying to believe that he could actually imagine it.
As he passed tools to his father his mind wandered to his other obsession: Kyle, and the sailor, and now Dr. Schuyler's tent. Could a man that old even get an erection? Stan couldn't imagine what Kyle saw in him other than the rumor of shared perversion. He was alright-looking for a man of his age, but undeniably fat, regardless of Kyle's opinion. Schuyler was friends with Stan's father and been over for dinner once, years ago. Stan had completely ignored him as some blundering old fart that dug things up with his dad. He never would have imagined that someday Kyle would be after him.
He thought instead about Kyle with the sailor, a scenario which had preoccupied him for almost a year. He hadn't gotten many details out of Kyle before he broke down into tears, and he hadn't wanted details at the time. His fascination with the specifics crept up on him later. Now he wondered: how did they know the truth about each other? Kyle apparently met the sailor in Battery Park when he was walking there alone before dinner. How must the conversation have progressed, to get from a shared glance to the undoing of trousers? Did they even undress, or was it cruder than that? Did Kyle ejaculate in this man's hand? Mouth? And what about the sailor: where did his foul seed end up, on Kyle?
Stan's thoughts were interrupted by a distant cry that he recognized immediately as Kyle's. He stood and scanned the site, unable to locate him before he heard another panicked shout.
"Go see what he needs," Randy said, clearly irritated, his eyes still on the fragment of neck bone that he was cleaning. He had always warned Stan that his association with Kyle might make people wonder about him. Stan hurried in the direction of Kyle's shouts, wishing he could run faster. There were delicate bone deposits all over the dug-out section of the quarry.
He found Kyle in the otherwise deserted northwest quadrant, his pants open and his cock halfway exposed. Stunned by this boldness, Stan looked about wildly to see where that villain Schuyler had scrambled off to, unable to fathom why he would be trying anything with Kyle in the light of day. Then he saw what had actually occurred: Kyle had come over here to piss and had been cornered by a fat, sand-colored snake that was presently rearing back, its rattle vibrating.
"Stan!" Kyle cried, his eyes wide with fear that quickly overtook Stan as well. He had always been absolutely terrified of snakes, and this one was the Platonic Ideal of what scared him about them, hissing with menace and moving like liquid death. "Help!" Kyle said, and Stan lurched out of his frozen terror, looking for a loose rock to hurl at the snake. As he turned away, Kyle let out a scream, and when Stan looked back Kyle was kicking at the snake, which was hissing madly.
"It bit me!" Kyle shouted. "Stan, it bit me!"
Kyle was hysterical and Stan was unwilling to look away or move again, as if that would give the snake another opportunity to strike. He heard approaching footsteps and was surprised to see Kenny hurrying toward them in a lopsided dash. He had brought some workman's shovel, and before he could properly skid to a halt he had assessed the situation and leveled a blow at the snake, severing its head as he brought the point of the shovel down. The rattle continued shaking for a few seconds, then both halves of the thing went still.
"It bit me!" Kyle said again, speaking now to Kenny. Stan's failure to save him began to slowly overtake his relief that Kenny had come to the rescue.
"Where?" Kenny asked.
"On the leg, oh, god! It's poisonous, isn't it? Rattlesnakes are like instant death, aren't they? I feel dizzy!"
"It's just a sidewinder," Kenny said, kicking the snake's head away. "They've got venom, yeah, but you'll be alright."
"How do you know? You're not a doctor. Bring me to Alan!"
"Alan?" Stan said, and that's when Dr. Schuyler came hurtling over the ridge of the dig hill, moving as quickly as he could, which wasn't very.
"We heard shouts!" Schuyler said. The others were coming to the top of the hill, a crowd beginning to gather just as Kyle came to his senses and tucked in his dick. "Is everyone alright?"
"That thing bit me," Kyle said, tip-toeing away from the snake. "And I feel faint. It's poisonous — it's got a rattle, oh, god—"
"It's a sidewinder," Kenny said again, and Stan could take no more. Kyle was wobbling on his feet, moving toward Schuyler's outstretched arms. Stan intercepted him, hoisting Kyle fully off the ground. He was heavier than he looked, but Stan was determined to carry him all the way back to the tents.
"Randy!" Schuyler said, huffing his way back up the hill. "We've got to go to town to get a doctor! The boy's been bitten by a rattler!"
Stan was able to carry Kyle to their tent, bolstered by the feeling of Kyle's arms around his neck. Kenny accompanied them while Schuyler drove to town to get a medical doctor. Randy instructed the rest of the men to resume work, which infuriated Stan, though he supposed it was true that there was nothing anyone could really do for Kyle until the doctor arrived. Kyle was shaking badly by the time Stan placed him on his cot.
"It's swelling, see?" Kyle said, lifting his leg. The wound was bleeding, and the skin around it was puffy. "The poison is spreading! The nearest town is half an hour away, at least — Alan will never make it back with a doctor in time!"
"One of them day workers is Navajo," Kenny said, gesturing to the tent flap with his thumb. "I bet he knows a herb or something that will help with the pain."
"Go!" Stan said, because Kyle was visibly hurting, sweaty and pale with his teeth clenched. Kenny hurried out of the tent in his clumsy fashion.
"It's spreading," Kyle said when Kenny is gone. He was rocking slightly, as if to shake the pain, his eyes pinched shut and his hands around his foot. "I can feel it, Stan. I'll be dead in minutes."
"Kenny said a sidewinder's not too bad."
"What the hell does he know? Did you see how panicked Alan was? He's the one who understands the severity of the situation!"
"Why do you keep calling him Alan?"
"That's his goddamn name! We're friends! Stan, I'm dying and you're just sitting there giving me a hard time for wanting a like-minded friend. You assume I'm fucking him, of course."
"What are you talking about?" Stan looked to the tent flap, his heart slamming. "I don't —" He couldn't manage to finish the lie with the way Kyle was looking at him, heartbroken and in pain.
"I knew it," Kyle said, beginning to cry. "You lost all respect for me when I told you about New York."
"I did not! I just don't want you to get in trouble, Kyle, or hurt."
"Well, you can't stop that." Kyle's face was soaked now, his chest heaving. "You've never been able to stop me getting hurt. You least of all."
"What?" Stan supposed that was true, especially considering what had just happened with the snake and how useless he'd been, but it still stung badly, and his own eyes began to fill.
"I might as well tell you," Kyle said. "Since I'm in the icy grip of death."
"You are not. Tell me what?"
"Oh, god, my leg!" Kyle shouted. "It's swelling, Stan, this is the end—"
"It's not, Kyle, they've gone to get help, and Kenny said—"
"To hell with what Kenny said! Stop reminding me! I can feel this shit seeping into my bloodstream, alright? Trust me." He said those last two words weakly, giving Stan a look of entreaty. Stan nodded, prepared to go along with this charade if that was what Kyle wanted.
"I'll do a tourniquet," Stan said, going for the first aid kit that they'd pulled out on their first night here, to treat Kyle's sunburn. "To, uh. To stop the spread of the poison." He opened the kit and grabbed a roll of gauze, though he wasn't sure if he would be able to wrap it tightly enough. Perhaps the performance of trying to do so would at least calm Kyle somewhat. "What were you saying before?" he asked, his throat going dry. "Something you were going to tell me?"
"You idiot," Kyle said, and then he cried softly, as if he'd been bitten again. "You think I want that old man?"
"I don't — well, what should I think, Kyle? You came on this trip, you were in his tent last night—"
"I was talking with him about you!" Kyle shouted, and Stan looked up. "I've had no one else to confide in ever since I was old enough to know I wanted you, which was not very old at all. I was eleven, I believe." Kyle sniffled and wiped at his eye. "Yes, that's right. That's when I knew I must be strange and broken, because I wanted you to kiss me and hold me and so on. And now I'm dying, Stan, and you never did any of that. Not that I really thought you would."
Stan could hear Kenny's distinct gait. He couldn't speak, and he had to look down at Kyle's leg, which he was still holding, the gauze clumsily applied. It had occurred to him once or twice over the years that Kyle might love him. He'd held the idea at arm's length, terrified that it could be true.
"You've got to suck the poison out," Kenny said as he came into the tent, stumbling a little. "That's what he said. Suck the poison out, quick as you can."
"What?" Stan said. He looked at Kyle's wound, which was oozing blood. "How?"
"I'll do it," Kenny grumbled, and before Stan could protest Kenny was falling hard onto his knees, crawling over to Kyle's leg and putting his mouth there. Kyle seemed resigned, or maybe just drained already, after his confession. He sat in silence, his face wet, eyes dull, and watched Kenny slurp the snake's venom from him like some kind of hungry demon. He spit it onto the floor when he was through, and Stan experienced a kind of uneasy jealousy when he saw Kyle's blood on Kenny's lips.
"Do you feel any better?" Stan asked. Kyle flinched when Stan touched his shoulder.
"I don't know," Kyle said. "I feel it may be too late."
"Can I get something to rinse my mouth with?" Kenny asked, and Stan fetched him some water, beginning to feel faint himself. On the bed, Kyle arranged himself onto the pillows with his hands folded over his chest in a funerary style.
Kenny puttered around for a bit and eventually left. Kyle had his eyes closed, and Stan had begun to shake uncontrollably. He was confident that Kyle would survive, and that he may have even if Kenny hadn't done that gruesome poison sucking, but Kyle had done something irreversible with his talk about being eleven, and broken, and strange. He had killed some part of himself and of Stan, the part that kept them comfortably in the dark together.
"Are you going to leave?" Kyle asked, his voice wobbling.
"Of course not." Stan walked to Kyle's cot and sat down tentatively, as if it was made of very thin ice. "How are you feeling, is it any better?"
"I'm in pain, Stan. I'm in a great deal of pain." He didn't seem to be referring to anything physical. The color had returned to his cheeks, and he was no longer trembling.
Silently, Stan rehearsed some noble speeches. He knew he had to choose his words carefully or risk alienating Kyle forever. Kyle needed his protection above all. It was up to Stan to keep him safe in this if not elsewhere. He'd often fantasized about being sent to war with Kyle and taking fire for him, sheltering him in a freezing tent, giving him extra food and defending him from the teasing of the others. That was never to be, but Stan could at least deny him the chance to ruin himself.
"Forget all that nonsense I told you," Kyle said. He blinked his eyes open for a moment, then draped his forearm over them, sighing. "Just forget it."
Stan knew that he should. It was his job to keep this in check, but he was beginning to want things, or, worse: to think that he might get to have some things he'd been wanting.
"Alright," Stan said, firmly. He would never fight a more important battle. "It's forgotten."
"Good," Kyle said, and when his voice broke, Stan grasped Kyle's forearm, pulling it away from his face as gently as he could with his hand shaking so badly. Their eyes met, and Stan leaned closer, feeling suddenly as if this was the more courageous route to take after all. It seemed necessary, because Kyle was in pain, and in fact so was Stan. He could suck this venom out of Kyle, at least: he could suck out the stale old lie that he hadn't always wanted this, too.
He pressed his lips to Kyle's, expecting to not know what to do, but it was no different than kissing girls had been, except that Kyle's grateful noises were so precious. Stan's mouth grew wet at the sound of them, and he parted his lips to lick softly at Kyle's, feeling sweat gathering across the back of his neck. Fearing that Kenny would return, he broke the kiss much sooner than he wanted to. Kyle was panting, his eyes glazed. Stan checked the tent flap, saw no onlookers, and moved in to kiss Kyle again.
"You don't have to do that," Kyle said when Stan's lips were a breath away from his. "I'm not actually dying, I don't think."
Stan shook his head. He would not be able to say why now. Kyle would have to infer certain things until Stan found the words. It was unfair, Stan knew, but he also couldn't stop himself from kissing Kyle's sunburned nose, his blushing cheeks, and then his lips again, their tongues pressing together as Stan settled more comfortably onto Kyle. He felt Kyle's hand soothe through his hair and he sighed into their kiss, feeling as if he'd been forgiven for not having a full explanation ready at the moment.
Dr. Schuyler arrived with the local doctor over an hour later, and it was confirmed that Kyle would fully recover, though he would be achy from the bite and should monitor the wound to make sure it didn't swell again. Stan paced in the background, his lips burning with what felt like evidence. When the others finally cleared out for dinner, Stan stopped pacing and stared at Kyle, waiting for something that felt like death, or at least a doomed conscription. Kyle was drinking water from a canteen, gasping a bit dramatically after every gulp.
"What now?" he asked when he looked at Stan, shyly meeting his eyes.
"Hmm," Stan said. He walked to the cot, glad for the use of both his legs, and for everything else that the war hadn't had the chance to take from them. "Now we protect each other."
He sat on Kyle's cot, heavily this time. They held each other's gaze, not daring to touch. There were sounds outside the tent: the other men walking about and laughing after the evening's beers. There was nothing between them and everyone else but some canvas.
"Yes, alright," Kyle said, very seriously, though he broke into a nervous grin afterward. It faded quickly. "But how - how will we ever do that, Stan? How will I protect you?"
Stan had no idea, and wasn't even sure that it was possible. He put his hand on Kyle's waist and imagined tip-toeing through a minefield together, not just for the length of a soldier's commission but for the rest of their lives, always. He was scared, shaking, his heart thudding wildly in warning, but he wasn't scared enough to stop himself from kissing Kyle, now or ever.
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!