a walk in the wilderness to clear your mindwritten by shylohs - illustrated by Caetnir and kennymcshamrock
My first South Park fic and my first actual fic in ten years. I took the safe route and I regret it, so I can only hope this turns out to be an enjoyable addition to the event!
Kenny and Butters' wedding is a surprisingly small and humble event. The ceremony takes place beside Stark's Pond, hidden in the trees. The benches are all handmade, courtesy of Kenny himself, out of fallen trees, their trunks stripped of their bark and sliced in two. Even as the sun sets beyond the mountains, their main source of light comes from the strings of mason jars hanging from the trees. There are candles inside, of all sizes and colors, donated from attics and closets. During the reception, Butters reveals that they struck a deal with Ike to find them all, and to replace them as they go out.
Stan thinks it's genius. The alcohol has to be the most expensive part of the wedding and he's grateful for it, sticking close to the tables. They aren't as rustic as the benches, having also come from generous basements throughout the town, but they're covered by white cloths, which makes them look just as nice. In his opinion, at least. Kyle isn't saying anything, but Stan can see it in his face, the expressions he makes as he bites into tiny triangle sandwiches with messy edges. Kyle hasn't even gone near the homemade wedding cake.
Stan turns away, but he can feel Kyle's eyes on him now, burning into the back of his head as he finishes his beer. He's holding back, really. If he wasn't set on proving Kyle wrong he would have gone for the hard liquor. Of course, he can feel Kyle's judgment from here anyway, so maybe he's suffering for nothing.
"Hey man," Kenny greets him, appearing so suddenly at his side that Stan jumps. Kenny laughs, patting Stan on the back and snatching a beer for himself. It's the happiest Stan has seen him since the day he got his job at the garage, though he doesn't look like he's been there recently. His face is clear and his hair is combed back; there's no sign of grease anywhere, even under his fingernails. "I'm really glad you came."
"Dude, as if I'd miss this," Stan says. Kyle wouldn't have, either, which is probably the only reason he agreed on the two hour drive back to South Park together, never mind the fact that they only have one car. "This is great."
"Isn't it? It was all Butters, man. Did you know he wants to be a wedding planner? He could be one. He'd be great," Kenny says, knocking back his beer. He's wearing a nice pair of black jeans and a white button down, a periwinkle tie hanging loosely around his neck. It matches Butters' suit. "He likes planning on low budgets. We put everything into the honeymoon."
"Hawaii?" Stan asks, but he doesn't need to.
Kenny grins at him. "You know it. Two weeks."
Stan whistles, impressed, but the envy that cuts through him makes his stomach churn. He wonders if Kyle has heard about their plans yet.
"We're leaving tomorrow morning," Kenny continues. "Are you gonna stick around? I see your mom around a lot. She misses you."
"Yeah, I know," Stan sighs with an uncomfortable roll of his shoulders. Sharon limits her calls to twice a week, for his sake, which is more than he can say for Sheila, who calls Kyle at least once a day, and usually for an entirely different reason. "We're staying tonight, but that's it. Kyle doesn't want to miss work."
"He's still at that clinic, right? What about you?"
"Still a one-hit wonder."
Kenny shoots him a pitying look. It's slightly better than the looks he's been getting from Kyle, and a massive improvement compared to the looks he gets from Sheila, but it still makes him feel like shit.
"I'm sorry, Stan. I can try to get you some part time work in the garage? You'd be working on your music out of South Park, though."
"Thanks, but I'm not that desperate yet," Stan says, glancing back at Kyle. He's talking to David now. Stan hasn't seen him in a long time, but he looks good, successful, and Kyle has a hand on his arm, laughing at something he must have said. "Getting close, though."
Kenny follows his gaze, leaning back to look around Stan. Kyle catches sight of him and waves, but he doesn't look at Stan, returning to his conversation with David as if Stan wasn't even there. It's Kenny's turn to whistle.
"Oh, man, what did you do?" he asks, leaning forward this time to get a good look at Stan's face. Stan doesn't think there's anything good to see other than the dejected look he's giving his beer.
"That's just it. I'm not really doing anything," he says. "I mean, I am, but it's not enough. I'm not getting a lot of work with the band.... I'm beginning to think he hates me."
"He doesn't hate you, Stan. He's probably just worried. He just, you know—he doesn't want to see you doing nothing when he knows how much you can do," Kenny says, setting down his drink. He places his hand on Stan's shoulder, squeezing as Stan gives him a disbelieving look. "I read that in one of the magazines at the garage."
"Hey, I don't think it's too far off the mark here. And, no offense, but he's probably worried about money, which I actually know a thing or two about, so stop giving me that look." He takes Stan's beer from him and sets it down on the table, ignoring his protests. "You guys had your own financial problems while you were here. It's just a thing South Park does to a person, you know? You just don't feel like you can shake it, like bad luck is going to follow you wherever you go. Haven't you talked about this?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Then that's your problem! You can't just not talk about it. You're married, Stan, these things are important. Communication is key!"
"Okay, first of all, we've been married for five years. I think I know a little more about it than you do—"
"Sure, but Butters isn't ignoring me."
Stan glares at him, crossing his arms over his chest. "We communicate just fine, Kenny."
"That's exactly what a person who isn't communicating ‘just fine' would say," Kenny says, raising an eyebrow. "Dude, c'mon, we're practically brothers. I'm just trying to help you out. I don't want you guys to fight. You're like, the golden couple, y'know?"
Stan snorts, reaching for his beer again, but he pauses, the tips of his fingers just brushing the neck of the bottle.
"We're not the golden couple. If anything, that title belongs to you and Butters," he says quietly, letting his arm drop back down at his side.
"Well, I appreciate that," Kenny says, but he isn't smiling. "Stan, seriously. Is everything okay?"
Stan turns, looking for Kyle. He spots him, still talking to David, but Butters has joined them. Wendy's there, too, but seeing her makes him feel worse, so he grabs Kenny's arm and tugs him toward Stark's Pond.
"Come here. Just—"
He doesn't stop until they reach the pond, pausing by one of the benches. There had been an effort some years ago to clean up the area and turn it into a tourist hotspot, or at least something to generate recreation revenue. The plan had been to use donated funds and volunteer work, some of which had come from the high school, but it had only resulted in poorly planted trees and two new benches. Stan had helped to install this one himself, but the paint is mostly chipped now, revealing rusted patches of metal. He starts to sit down, then reconsiders, running a hand through his hair.
Kenny watches him, his eyes narrowed in concern. "Stan?"
"We're not some golden couple," Stan says again. He regrets leaving his beer behind. "Everyone thinks so, we thought so, but what if we were wrong?"
"What do you mean?"
Stan finally settles for leaning against the back of the bench, staring up at the darkening sky and following the gradual change in color, from blue to black. It's a warm, beautiful night, bringing an end to an equally beautiful, if not hot, summer day, good for such a laid back wedding. His own hadn't been as nice. It had been raining then, and windy, with no friends to celebrate with at the courthouse other than the judge herself, but there had been something romantic about it, about starting a new adventure together, fresh out of high school. It had been simple, as if they had barely thought about it when, in reality, it had been all they could think about.
"We were so sure. That's why we did it. But what if we weren't supposed to? What if we weren't supposed to change things?" he asks. He's finally giving a voice to thoughts that have been plaguing him for months, maybe longer. It doesn't feel as freeing as he thought it would.
"Things were going to change no matter what you did, Stan," Kenny points out, still confused, but Stan shakes his head.
"No, I mean, what if we weren't supposed to be anything but best friends?"
"Ah, Stan, that's a little dramatic, isn't it?" Kenny asks. "It was bound to happen. Hell, most of us saw it before you two did. Did you know I had a bet with Craig—"
"I don't want to hear about that," Stan says, pinching the bridge of his nose with a groan. "Okay, maybe I am being dramatic. Maybe kissing him didn't ruin everything. But what if getting married did? We were eighteen, dude. We were stupid and—I don't know. We were just certain that was what we wanted."
"At the time, yeah. It wasn't a great start, considering we spent our first month as a married couple grounded, but we were happy."
"And now you're not."
Kenny doesn't phrase it as a question. He shoves his hands deep into his pockets, suddenly looking much older than Stan's ever realized, as if standing by him as his best man hadn't driven it home just how much they've grown.
"I don't know. I don't think so," he says. There's no avoiding it now, the words tumbling from his mouth before he can stop them. "Maybe you're right. We don't talk about it, about money, or about how much he regrets supporting me and my stupid fantasies. We don't talk about how I keep thinking that I should just set him free or something."
"Set him free? Dude, he's not a wild animal."
"You know what I mean! I keep thinking that it's going to be better, but it isn't. I keep thinking that we made a mistake, that we weren't supposed to get married so young, or even at all. It's like what we had was, was sacred, and we weren't supposed to change it. We took something special and we corrupted it and now we're cursed."
"Now that's really overdramatic," Kenny says, but he's frowning, clearly upset by this. Stan feels terrible. He hadn't come to the wedding with the intent to unload all of his troubles on him, not like this. "What's going on, Stan? I really don't think there's anything that could tear you guys apart for good. You've argued in the past, over a lot of really stupid stuff, but you always moved past it. Remember that whole Xbox-PlayStation thing?"
"He was being stubborn, though," Stan says, humorlessly. He kicks at a loose stone in the dirt. "I know we moved past that, but it wasn't as serious. It wasn't about marriage."
"Sure did seem like it," Kenny says, rolling his eyes. "C'mon, Stan. You aren't giving yourself enough credit. Kyle would probably be willing to talk about this, too, if you would just, y'know. Actually start talking about it. You could at least tell me."
Stan runs his hands over his face, then leaves them there. "You, maybe, but not him. I'd have to be honest and I don't think I'm ready for that."
"What?" Kenny looks more suspicious than sad now. Then realization dawns on him, his eyes widening. "Oh my God. Did you…? Fuck, Stan, please tell me you didn't cheat—"
"No! Of course not!"
"Stan, if you're lying to me," Kenny begins, but he stops when Stan shakes his head.
"I didn't! I didn't cheat!" he says, bringing his hands away from his face and pushing off the bench. He steps around it to stare at the pond instead, watching the reflection of the moon on the surface. It seems smaller, a little wilder, and he wonders if Kyle would swim with him now like they did when they were younger, their clothes hidden in the trees. He kicks at another loose stone, letting it tumble into the water, and takes a deep breath. "I didn't cheat on him with anyone. I could never do that. I just feel like we're getting tired of each other. Or, at least, he's getting tired of me."
"I don't understand."
"He's been distant. You saw him back there. It's like he doesn't want to be anywhere near me. It's been like this for a while."
"Didn't you ask him what was wrong?" Kenny asks, coming to stand beside Stan. Stan shrugs, anxiously rolling his wedding band around his finger. "Did you have a big fight or something?"
"No, it wasn't like that. It was just a gradual thing. And I did ask him, lots of times. You know how he can be sometimes… He just got angry with me, like he was offended that I even had to ask. Like I should already know. Now it's like he's trying to avoid me. I don't even remember the last time we kissed – like, really kissed," Stan says, biting his lip. He winces as he finally sits down, feeling the rust on the bench catch on his suit. He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees, ducking his head in shame. Kenny sits beside him, patting his back.
"You said he was tired of supporting you. Did he tell you that?"
"Well, no… I heard him talking on the phone with Sheila. She was pretty upset; I could hear her voice through the phone. She was yelling, and Kyle just kept saying that ‘it was just a little bit of money.' He kept mentioning the rent," Stan says, almost too quietly for Kenny to hear. "I keep up with the bills. It's not just him. I know that we're struggling… He told me, back when we left CSU, that he could handle it, but he has to regret it. It's been too long. No one's going to sign me, and he knows it."
"Hey, you don't know that. Neither of you do," Kenny says, but Stan shakes his head.
"It doesn't matter. It's a risk, it's always been a risk. I can't just keep moving from club to club forever. I have to be signed… Kyle doesn't even stay in the room anymore when I practice. He's tired of hearing it."
"And of course that makes me think about everything else he regrets. We married so young. He never had a chance to really explore any other options, and now I think he feels like he's stuck with me, with this life. Maybe I am being dramatic, but what if I talk to him and he ends up telling me that I'm right? What if he wants to move on or, or have kids or something?"
"I'm serious! We talked about it a couple of years ago, but he hasn't said anything since. What if I'm holding him back from that? We can't afford to even think about starting that process."
"Stan, dude, you guys are really young! That's way too much pressure to put on yourself. You don't have to be ready right now, it's okay."
"But what if this doesn't change? Things haven't been getting better, they've been getting worse, Kenny."
Kenny doesn't say anything, quiet beside him. Stan feels sick, waiting for his judgment. He expects him to get up and leave him to wallow in his misery, to tell him he's being irrational or that he's a coward, and he wouldn't blame him if he does.
Kenny surprises him, however, patting his back as he says, "I think you guys are afraid of fighting."
"Afraid of fighting? That feels like all we've been doing lately."
"Not that kind of fighting. I guess I mean that you, y'know. Skirt around the issues. You're afraid of getting into the nitty gritty. "
"The nitty gritty."
"Yes. This is kind of like your first major fight, which you should've had a long time ago, but you've been avoiding it. It's like you said, you had this sacred thing, but you've been afraid to question it, at least out loud, to him. Now it's staring you in the face and you don't know how to deal with it because you're, well, you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Stan asks, finally raising his head up again. But even as he does so, he can see Kenny's point, and it does nothing for his confidence.
"Just. Listen, I think I can help. Are you sure you don't want to try talking to Kyle about this? I'll go with you, if you want."
"I can't talk to him about it. I don't want him to tell me I'm right and I don't want him to hate me if I'm wrong," Stan says. He leans back, but Kenny keeps his hand on him, lifting it to grip his shoulder.
"He wouldn't hate you. I mean, who knows? He might be thinking the same thing. He's might be afraid that you're tired of him," Kenny says. He's trying to help, but thinking about Kyle having similar thoughts only makes Stan feel worse, then guilty for feeling that way. "If you really don't want to try and talk it out now, I have something that might make it easier. What time are you leaving tomorrow?"
"I don't know. Probably after breakfast. Why?"
"Our flight leaves at one, so we'll be leaving around ten. Stop by my house before you go, okay? I'll give it to you then."
"What is it?"
"I'm not tellin'." Kenny stands and grins at him. "It's a surprise, and I mean that. You will be surprised."
Kenny refuses to tell him more than that, and Stan doesn't feel any better returning to the reception than he had when they left, but Kenny seems sure that, whatever his plan is, it will help. Stan knows he should be grateful, but he's mostly apprehensive about it all, slowly making his way back to the drink table and staying there while Kenny returns to Butters' side. Kyle is with Ike, talking to him while he replaces a candle in one of the mason jars. He looks smug, Kyle looks angry, and Stan instantly decides he doesn't want any part of that conversation, especially if it's about him.
Slowly, people begin to leave. Wendy takes his beer from him when she comes to say goodbye, giving him a disapproving look, but she hugs him tightly to her for a long moment. He can't imagine what she and Kyle talked about, and he doesn't ask, instead telling her to be careful on her way back to Denver, where she'll board her flight back to California. Stan likes Denver, he really does, but while most of their old friends will be heading back along the same route he and Kyle had taken, they won't be staying there. They'll be flying back to California, or Arizona, or any number of places that just seem better, as if the entirety of Colorado is the new South Park and they're the ones getting left behind, not just Kenny and Butters.
If his expression is any indication, he thinks Kyle probably feels the same way as they finally meet back up. They walk back to the car in silence, pausing by the side of the road while Stan digs the keys out of his pocket. He holds them out for Kyle, who's already sighing heavily, arms crossed over his chest. Stan knows he's waiting for him to ask what's wrong, but he delays the inevitable until they're both inside the car, Kyle behind the wheel.
"Well, how did you like the wedding?"
"Oh, the wedding was fine," Kyle says, but he bypasses that discussion entirely and goes right for Craig's throat. "I talked to Craig a minute ago. Do you know what he said to me? I'm just standing there, trying to make polite conversation and say goodbye, and he says to me, ‘Enjoy Colorado.' Incredible!"
"You sure he wasn't just trying to be nice?"
"Oh, please, you know what he's like, Stan. He's been rubbing San Francisco in my face ever since he and Tweek ran off. You could hear it in his fucking voice," Kyle says, huffing and adjusting the collar of his shirt before reaching for his seatbelt. He jerks it a little too quickly, cursing as it catches. Stan pulls his around more slowly, clicking it into place.
"You don't even like San Francisco," he says, but he can see Kyle's point.
"That's not the point!" Kyle finally gets his seatbelt on, using a little more force, and begins to fumble with the keys. "What did I ever do to him? I've been perfectly civil to him since we were kids."
"Dude, he's an asshole. He has a problem with all of us, and he never misses a chance to remind me about what happened in Peru," Stan says. He still doesn't understand why Craig is so angry about Peru, but he gave up telling him to get over it years ago. "Don't pay any attention to him. That's what he wants. He's like Cartman in that sense."
"Don't even get me started on Cartman."
Cartman hadn't come to the wedding. Instead, he had sent an email (or, as he so eloquently put it, a newsletter) to all of them explaining that he just didn't have time to visit his ‘dear old friends.' He had graduated alongside Kyle from Colorado State, but with a business degree that had eventually landed him in Texas working for a charity organization, of all things. Kyle claims he didn't read the entire thing, but Stan knows he did, if only to fuel his theory that Cartman is stealing money from children in need.
Stan isn't sure where he stands on the issue. Part of him, the bitter part, shares Kyle's theory. The other part knows that's only because he's envious of Cartman's success. The same ruthless ambition that had caused them trouble as kids had helped Cartman steamroll his way through college and into a career that actually made a difference while paying well at the same time. Stan had studied music at a community college, mostly just to get his feet wet and find the right people, but also to save money. Kyle hadn't been happy about his decision to not transfer, but by then Stan had been sure he was going to be successful. He had been working with people, putting his music online, booking live performances in clubs and other indie establishments. He'd made enough to actually let them get their own place in Denver, most of Kyle's salary at the clinic as a psychiatric technician going toward their rent. That had been four years ago, before student loans and insurance costs became too much, when he'd spent more time chasing his passions than a paycheck, hoping for something that was never going to happen.
He really isn't in the mood to discuss Cartman (or listen to Kyle complain about him), but Kyle doesn't say anything else, which doesn't surprise him. It hurts, though, knowing that Kyle should be talking to him, about Cartman, the wedding, even Craig, but he isn't. He's silent as they drive away from Stark's and back through town. It hasn't changed much over the years. Shops have come and gone, expansions and remodels have happened, but it's still South Park, right down to its old, faded traffic lights. The biggest changes have happened here, inside this car, its breaks screeching as Kyle comes to a stop at a stop sign.
"I meant to ask Kenny for another discount or something," Stan says, just to fill the silence. Kyle's eyes don't leave the road. "To get the breaks fixed? They're getting worse."
"Yeah, I know. I do most of the driving," Kyle says. He doesn't sound annoyed, his voice flat, tired, his earlier fire already dying down again, but Stan hears it anyway, the unsaid accusation. He usually opts to walk everywhere, or to catch a ride with his group when they perform. Kyle uses the car every single day, going to and from work, grocery shopping, doing whatever errands the day calls for. Stan does hardly anything in comparison. "We can't afford it, Stan, not even with Kenny's discounts. We didn't even have room in our budget to come down here."
"Oh, c'mon. It was Kenny's wedding. We couldn't have missed it."
"Of course not, which is why I had to push back the car insurance again."
Stan definitely hears it then. Kyle's hands are tight on the steering wheel, his knuckles white, but he relaxes when a car comes up behind them, finally turning onto the road that will take them to their old neighborhood. It belongs to their parents alone now, but Stan hard heard enough stories from Sharon to know that the chaos hasn't stopped. Tonight, however, the worst of it will be confined to the Broflovski household.
He doesn't mention the brakes again, both of them lapsing into silence once more. His stomach churns uneasily as they reach their street, Kyle slowing the car to just under the already low speed limit. Stan can tell he isn't any more eager to reach their destination than he is, but they do, coming to a stop by the curb directly between their houses.
The first thing Stan notices is Sheila. He can see her standing in front of her living room window, not even bothering to hide herself behind the curtain. He immediately looks away, hoping she doesn't think he's noticed, but he has a feeling she has. He unbuckles himself and reaches into the backseat for his overnight bag, grabbing Kyle's as well and handing it to him, but neither of them make a move to get out.
"Is your mom going to be disappointed?" Stan asks, watching as Kyle holds his bag to his chest and folds his arms over it.
"Probably. She wanted all of us to sit down and talk," Kyle says, shrugging his shoulders. He's avoiding looking out the window at his mother, who is still waiting, probably trying to determine what's taking them so long. Stan knows ‘disappointed' is an understatement.
"Not about you, Stan," Kyle sighs, running a hand up through his hair. "We can have a conversation with my mother without it being about you."
"Is that why you don't want me to come inside?"
Kyle sighs. "I didn't say I didn't want you to come inside."
"No, but you were really determined to get me to agree it was a bad idea, remember?"
"Only because I know how uncomfortable you are around her! Every time we have a family dinner, every time she comes to see us in Denver, you complain that she hates you," Kyle says, getting angry again, but it still doesn't feel like him, as if he's forcing himself to be mad. There's something else there, like worry, but it only serves to frustrate Stan, his eyes narrowing.
"She does hate me. You know I'm right. I can't remember the last time I talked to her without having my music trashed, even if she tries to be subtle about it. Hell, she's accused me more than once, to my face, of not providing for you," he says, his hand already going to the door. He grips the handle, but he doesn't pull it, not yet.
"I can provide for myself," Kyle growls, turning to face him. "I've talked to her about it, Stan, but you know her almost as well as I do. She just wants me to be happy."
"She must think you're unhappy, then."
Kyle stares at him, and Stan has to fight to not look away. It's the closest he's ever gotten to finally saying it, Kenny's words echoing in his mind, but it makes him so anxious he can hardly breathe, his heart flipping over in his chest. Kyle's expression doesn't help, his eyes guarded, completely unreadable, and that scares him.
"I'll see you in the morning, Stan," Kyle finally responds, his voice tight. He turns away from him and gets out of the car, slamming the door shut in the process, which must alert Sharon, as Stan sees the porchlight flicker to life after a few seconds of waiting, completely inert. Then he lets out a shuddering breath, his eyes shifting to where Kyle is already going inside, storming past Sheila. She hesitates, as if waiting for him, and maybe she is, but not for long. She shuts the door, no doubt to follow her son, leaving Stan completely alone.
It takes a moment for the world to start spinning again, but it makes him dizzy and he closes his eyes, trying to talk himself out of being sick. It's hard, however, because all he can see is Kyle's face, and he isn't sure if he's about to start vomiting or worse. Kyle's reaction really hadn't been anything unreasonable, he tells himself, but it still feels like some kind of earth-shattering revelation, as if every single fear he's harbored for the past few months has finally become a reality he can't ignore. He knows Kenny would say otherwise, which gives him some comfort, but he really can't see it any other way, not when it's easier to plummet headfirst into his grief than to chase Kyle into the house and settle it.
He waits for the sickly swirl of his stomach to ease before leaving the car, a good ten minutes after Kyle. He shuts the door as quietly as he can, not wanting anyone to know he's only just now getting out, but he still feels watched as he makes his way across the yard to his door. It's been a long time since he last felt he could freely walk inside, so he knocks, waiting for his mother. It's a short wait, but it's enough to make him feel worse, so when Sharon opens the door he feels so ridiculously relieved that he immediately hugs her.
"Stanley!" she says, surprised. He's much bigger than her now and she struggles to give him a proper hug, rubbing his back. "Stan?"
"Mom," he says, but his voice falters, choked. He tightens his grip, wishing he could be eight years old again, just for a moment, so that she could hold him and tuck him into bed with the promise that tomorrow will be better. It's a promise he would believe because Kyle would be waiting for him, and they wouldn't have any obligations, only an entire day to waste doing nothing, or maybe everything.
Sharon's hands keep moving on his back, but her voice is softer, knowing, as she guides him inside the house.
Stan sleeps badly, even after talking to his mother. He tells her almost everything, including what had happened in the car, but her advice is similar to Kenny's.
"You need to talk to him, Stanley. I can't stress this enough," she had said. Stan knows he should listen; his mother has more experience with this than anyone else he knows. She and Randy had finally split for good some years ago, and though Sharon seems much happier now, it had been a long and difficult road. He can't picture his own marriage taking the same path as his parents', doesn't want to imagine it, but he dreams about it anyway.
It's just before nine when he wakes. His stomach still in knots, enough to make him never want to eat again, he showers and dresses, turning down his mother's offer to cook him a big breakfast when he goes downstairs.
"Are you sure, Stanley? You need to eat," Sharon says. She's worried, and Stan feels guilty. That's three people he's upset in less than twenty-four hours.
"I'll be okay. I'm just not hungry," he says, leaning against the wall and watching his mother prepare to cook. It isn't a total lie, at least, though he's grateful for the distraction when the doorbell rings. He pushes off the wall to answer, and he really shouldn't be, but he's surprised to find Kyle there, his overnight bag slung over his shoulder. He looks just as tired as Stan feels.
"Hey." Stan shifts awkwardly from one foot to the other. He briefly remembers everything Sharon had told him the night before, the things she had suggested he say to get the conversation going without Kyle getting angry again, but now that Kyle is here, he can't find the words. All he can think about is everything Kyle didn't say, that silent declaration of unhappiness.
"Did you, uh, sleep well?" Kyle asks. They're already falling into their usual pattern of ignoring it and acting as if nothing happened. But something has happened and returning to ‘normal' now means another series of vague interactions and half-hearted arguments until the next flare in tempers.
"No, not really," he says, finally stepping aside to let Kyle in. "I had a nightmare."
"I turned into my dad. Literally."
"Yikes," Kyle says, making a face. He pauses, and Stan is both hopeful and afraid that he wants to talk about last night, or about anything at all, but Sharon appears out of the kitchen. She smiles a little uneasily, like she's afraid she's interrupted something, but Stan shakes his head. Kyle drops his bag by the door before moving to hug her. "Hey, Sharon."
"Kyle. It's so good to see you," Sharon says warmly, hugging him close. Stan is barely on a first name basis with Sheila simply because he's afraid to call her anything but Mrs. Broflovski. "How are you, honey?"
"I'm fine. Were you cooking? It smells good," Kyle asks. Whether he's just being friendly or attempting to avoid any other questions, Stan isn't sure, but Sharon doesn't press, leading Kyle into the kitchen. Stan slowly follows behind.
"Oh, just a bit. Stan said he didn't want any breakfast, but I'm making something for him anyway. Have you eaten?" Sharon asks, returning to the stove, where she's already started on bacon and eggs. His stomach hurts just to smell it.
"Mmhmm. You know my mom. She wouldn't let me leave without a four course meal. I probably won't need to eat anything else today," Kyle says, sitting down at the kitchen table. Sharon only uses the dining table for family dinners now, which typically includes himself and Kyle, Shelly, her husband, and, on very rare occasions, Randy, though he hasn't seen him since Kyle's graduation. Randy had come back to South Park under the impression that Stan had also graduated from university, despite having told him many times that that just wasn't the path he wanted to take. It hadn't been much of an argument in the end, though his conversations with Randy are still few and far between. Kyle thinks it's an agreeable arrangement.
"Ah, I'm glad! We worry about you two being on your own. Of course, you're adults now, but we're your mothers. We'll always be worry about you eating well," Sharon says before turning her attention back to breakfast. Stan doesn't want to make her feel bad by refusing to eat, so he sighs and sits down across from Kyle.
They don't look at each other. Kyle immediately turns his attention to his phone, which he probably retrieves from his pocket with the intent to ignore Stan. Stan doesn't know for sure, of course, but it's so easy for his thoughts to wander into that territory, especially since he doesn't have his own phone to distract him. It's still upstairs, in his old bedroom, fixed almost exactly as it was when he first left home. He hasn't slept there in a while, long enough that its strangeness had only made it more difficult to fall asleep. He laid there for hours, feeling more alone than he ever has, the ticking of his old wall clock replacing the sound of Kyle's breathing.
Thinking about the clock reminds him of Kenny's plan, which is more of a distraction than he really asked for, or needs. It's already half past nine now, giving him just thirty more minutes to make a decision, but it's a difficult thing to do when he doesn't even know what he has to choose between. He could turn down Kenny's offer and work this out on his own, somehow, but what exactly would he be saying no to? He trusts Kenny's judgment. This could be a good thing for him, for Kyle. This could be the jumpstart he needs to fix things. Saying no could be the worst possible thing he could do.
He doesn't realize he's staring into space until Kyle snaps his fingers in front of his face.
"You okay?" he asks. He glances at Sharon, as if he doesn't want him to answer while she's there, but she's too busy with the eggs, and Stan shakes his head, trying to ignore the sizzling of the pan.
"Yeah, uh. Kenny wants us to stop by before he and Butters leave for Denver. He has something for me—us."
Kyle raises an eyebrow, unsure of what to think of this, but he nods and settles back in his chair just as Sharon turns and pats Stan's shoulder.
"Stan, get the plates for me? Are you sure you don't want anything, Kyle?"
"No, thanks. I'm beyond full, believe me," Kyle replies, placing his hand on his stomach. Stan does as his mother asks, retrieving two plates and some silverware. He's suddenly much more eager to get to Kenny's, which only adds to his discomfort. He swallows hard, his mouth dry and his tongue thick and sticky. He grabs a couple of glasses from the cabinet, too, filling his with water from the sink and tossing it back. It's only a small relief, but much better than the strong, impossible tang of orange juice, which he knows he wouldn't be able to handle right now.
"We should leave in a few minutes," he says, to both of them. "They're heading out at ten."
Sharon is disappointed, but she's quick to hide it, piling two eggs and some strips of bacon onto Stan's plate. It looks good, really, but bile rises in his throat with an uncomfortable hiccup. "I understand. It's a long way to Denver. Just be careful, won't you? Call me when you get back."
"Yes, mom, I will. Promise."
Stan promises again, later, when he and Kyle are ready to go. His breakfast has settled at the base of his throat, hot and heavy, and he tries to ignore it as he hugs Sharon goodbye, pressing a kiss to her cheek before heading to the car. He takes the wheel this time, Kyle sliding in on the passenger side. Stan can tell that he's avoiding looking at his house, which makes him think that Kyle must have had a fight with Sheila, and he's absolutely sure he knows what – or, rather, who – it was about.
"It's too early," Kyle complains, rubbing at his eyes. He really mustn't have gotten any sleep, as he's usually much more of a morning person than Stan is, but there is something very tired about the day and it's barely even begun. The heatwave isn't too severe by itself, but it's humid, the muggy morning clinging to their skins. It had felt better yesterday, and Stan's glad for that, glad that the wedding hadn't suffered, but he thinks they're paying for it now.
The air inside the car is only slightly better. Kyle is mostly quiet aside from the occasional comment about the heat, how awful it is for his hair. He doesn't mention anything about last night except to complain about his mother and Ike, who had apparently refused to let whatever he been harassing Kyle with at the reception go. Stan's still not exactly sure what that was about, but his first guess is that it involves him, and it makes him worry just how many other people know that their relationship is falling apart. Kenny wouldn't tell, nor would Sharon, but he isn't entirely sure about Sheila. Ike is an absolute wildcard.
He's glad he doesn't have long to dwell on it. Kenny and Butters' place sits just outside of town, on a single, winding road that's easy to miss, but the residents probably prefer it that way. It's a very small community, made up of ten relatively new cabin-like duplexes, built some two or three years ago, that are just close enough to each other to loosely resemble a neighborhood. Most of the people there are older, having retreated into the mountains to enjoy their retirement in solitude. Kenny and Butters are by far the youngest couple, but they're apparently very well liked, according to Kenny. He chalks it up to Butters' charm.
"Can I stay in the car?" Kyle asks, so much like his ten-year-old self that Stan can't help but laugh. Kyle scowls at him, not seeing the humor. "What?"
"Nothing," Stan says. He cuts the engine as soon as they pull into the driveway, directly behind Kenny's old pickup, which he's had nearly as long as they've had their little Kia, though the pickup looks substantially worse for wear, despite its owner's profession. He cuts the engine and unbuckles himself, handing the keys to Kyle. "It'll only take a second. They don't have long to talk, anyway."
Butters appears in the doorway just as Stan's getting out of the car. He smiles, looking flushed, his clothes a little disheveled, and he's bouncing with endless energy. Kyle groans.
"Hey, Butters," Stan greets him as Butters wheels his luggage down the driveway and to the pickup.
"Good morning, Stan!" Butters' excessive warmth is just a little too much at the moment, but Stan is happy for him, and for Kenny. He motions toward the house.
"Is Kenny inside?"
"Oh, yeah, he's just finishin' up with his bag. He said he was expectin' you. He's in the bedroom!"
Butters makes his way to the car then, waving excitedly at Kyle. He's trapped with nowhere to run, and Stan leaves him to his fate, slipping into the refreshingly cool house. He tugs at his shirt where it's been sticking to his skin, silently applauding Kenny's air conditioning.
He finds Kenny where Butters said he would be, in their surprisingly spacious bedroom. It's much bigger than his and Kyle's, and brighter, with white lace curtains and soft blue walls. It's simple, just like this life Kenny and Butters have made for themselves, and he's envious of it, resentful of the cards he's been dealt while his friends honeymoon in Hawaii, but he knows that's wrong, so he pushes those thoughts down.
"Getting a head start on the honeymoon?" he asks, stepping inside. Kenny is kneeling on the floor, stuffing one last shirt into his bag, but he pauses to grin up at Stan.
"That's an accurate term for it," he says with a wink. Stan rolls his eyes. "Hey, it's a long trip. How else am I supposed to control myself at the airport?"
"What, no Mile High Club?"
"I said the airport, not the plane," Kenny says, closing and zipping up his luggage. Stan holds out his hand and Kenny takes it, letting Stan help him up. "You look tired. Didn't sleep well last night?"
He sounds hopeful, but Stan shakes his head sadly.
"Kind of hard to be intimate when you're sleeping in separate houses," he says. Kenny winces.
"Man, I'm sorry. Did you talk at all?"
"Well, yes, but it wasn't—it didn't go well."
Kenny sighs and nods, as if reluctantly accepting Stan's incompetency. He moves over to his bedside table, where an envelope is resting beside the alarm clock, a messy ‘McCormick' scrawled on the front. He snatches it up and turns back to Stan, handing it to him.
"Here it is. Plan B," he says. Stan warily examines the envelope, flipping it over a few times until Kenny waves a hand at him. "Don't stare at it, open it!"
Stan glares at him, but he does it anyway. The envelope isn't sealed, so he simply lifts the flap, revealing two slips of paper. They look like tickets, but on closer inspection Stan can see that they're vouchers.
"… An all-expenses paid weekend stay for two at Mountain View Resort?" He glances at Kenny, confused, before continuing to read. "A weekend getaway for you and your significant other."
"Sounds pretty good, huh?"
"Kenny, wait. I don't understand. How did you get these?"
"I won them playing one of those ‘name the song' games on the radio at work a few weeks ago. I got bored on break and just decided to call in. I really didn't expect to get through," Kenny explains, laughing. "I listen all the time; I know every single top forty song by heart. It was easy."
"Dude, that's awesome," Stan says, "but I can't accept these. Even if it was easy, you earned them. You and Butters should go."
He tries to put the vouches back into the envelope, but Kenny reaches out to stop him.
"Stan, it's okay. Me and Butters can't use ‘em," he says. "These two weeks are a really, really generous gift from my boss, but it's also eating up my vacation time. I can't take any more days, and especially not a Saturday. That's our busiest day. I was keeping these as a kind of backup plan, ‘cause, you know. Things go wrong all the time here."
He barks out an uneasy laugh, scratching the back of his head.
"They're not, like, tied to my name or anything. Anyone can use them. It's a new place, so they were just using the contest as an advertisement, I think, but the vouchers are going to expire. They're only good for a couple of months after the contest, so they need to be used soon. I was going to see if any of the neighbors wanted them, but…"
"… But you think this will help me and Kyle," Stan says flatly. He can see where Kenny was going with this idea, but he can't help but be skeptical about it. "Ken, if we can't talk at home, we're not going to talk way up in the mountains. We'll just be fighting in a nicer place."
"You can be really pessimistic sometimes, you know that?" Kenny rolls his eyes, walking around Stan to his bag. He pulls the handle up, leaning on it. "Look, I gotta go. We're already a little late – my fault, of course, but we really need to hit the road."
He leaves the room, Stan following close behind, his eyes still glued to the vouchers.
"I want you to at least think about it, okay?" Kenny continues. "Maybe a change of scenery will help. You guys work too hard; I honestly think getting away from it for a while will help. No work, no music – just you two and the great outdoors."
"Kyle's not really a fan of the great outdoors," Stan says, muttering. He slips the vouchers back into envelope again and walks with Kenny to the front door, where Kenny pauses to dig his keys out of his pocket.
"You'll just have to convince him, then. Really, Stan, he might actually like the idea, so at least try it, alright? Do it for me?"
"For you? I thought this was all supposed to be for us," Stan says, but he's smiling. The longer he holds onto the envelope, the more excited he feels. "Thank you, Kenny. I'll give it a try."
"No thanks necessary," Kenny says, pleased. He wheels his bag out onto the sidewalk that connects to the driveway, where Butters is talking with Kyle. The rising heat inside the car must have chased Kyle outside, as he's leaning against the side of the car, struggling to keep up with Butters' incessant chattering. Butters only stops when he notices Kenny, and Kyle sags with relief.
"About time. Christ," he rasps, pushing damp curls out of his eyes. Kenny grins at him.
"Thanks for keeping Buttercup entertained, Kyle!" he calls out, to which Kyle replies by flipping him off before slinking back into the car. Butters is completely oblivious, taking Kenny's bag for him and pulling it toward the pickup, but not without stealing a kiss. It's sweet, almost unbearably so, but only because Stan misses sharing that affection with Kyle.
"Thanks again, man. Have fun in Hawaii," he says, heading for the car while Kenny locks up the house. Kyle is watching them closely, eyeing the envelope in Stan's hands with suspicion. Kenny just grins at him and waves.
"I'll call you when we get back," he says to Stan. "I expect a full report and an invitation to the ceremony when you renew your vows, since I wasn't invited to the first one."
Kenny winks at Stan to show he's only joking, but Stan can tell he does expect good news. He glances at Kyle, afraid he might have heard, but then he realizes that he can't just drag Kyle into the mountains with no explanation. Kyle's going to figure it out, of course, much faster than Stan would, but he will only dig his heels in harder if Stan isn't upfront about it. So that's what he tries to be.
"So, is that what Kenny gave you?" Kyle asks as Stan joins him inside the car. Kenny and Butters wave one last time as they start to back out of their driveway. Stan doesn't look at him as he hands Kyle the envelope, instead watching the pickup disappear down the road. "What is this?"
Kyle's holding up one of the vouchers, reading over it before flipping it over and studying the back. It's just a bunch of small print, but Kyle isn't one to overlook these things.
"He gave these to you?" he asks, surprised. "Where did he get them?"
"He won them in a radio contest. He said he didn't think he would win, but he did, and he didn't know what to do with them," Stan says, starting the car after Kyle absently hands him the keys. The weak blast of cold air is nowhere near as revitalizing as the house had been, but it's better than nothing. "They can't use them because of the honeymoon, so he wanted us to have them."
"Is that the only reason?" Kyle asks, not taking his eyes off the voucher.
Stan hesitates, using his concentration as a distraction. He backs out of the driveway and onto the street, heading back toward the main road.
"Yes," he says after a moment, deciding not to mention his talk with Kenny. He didn't want to run the risk of making Kyle mad, not when this was already dangerous territory. If Kyle thinks, or worse, knows he's lying, he doesn't say anything. "I thought it would be nice to get away for a bit. You know, out of the city. We used to go camping all the time, remember? When we were kids?"
"I'm not senile, Stan. I remember," Kyle says, though his words lack any real bite. He rests his hands in his lap, running his thumb over the paper, looking thoughtful. Stan sits up a little straighter, hope making his heart beat a little faster.
"I think we would benefit from it. Just you and me, a weekend in the mountains – and it's at a resort, too, so you don't even have to worry about setting up camp and sleeping outside!" he says, using the same pitch Kenny had used. "We can research it, see what it has to offer. I bet it has some outdoor stuff and some indoor stuff, like one of those lazy rivers."
"Yeah, no, I'm not going anywhere near that swirling cesspool," Kyle says, grimacing. He sighs and returns the vouchers to the envelope. "Stan, I can't."
"I knew you would say that," Stan says, disappoint hitting him hard and fast. Frustration takes hope's place, his stomach lurching. "Why? Why can't you do it?"
"I have work!"
"Not on weekends!"
Kyle shakes his head, tossing the envelope into the backseat with their bags. Stan brings the car to a stop at the end of the road, ready to turn back onto 285, which will take them straight back to Denver. It's a long drive – a little over two hours on good days – and he doesn't want to spend the entire time arguing, and he definitely doesn't want to spend it in silence.
"Kyle, please… I want to do this with you," he says quietly. He takes a deep breath to steady himself, dropping his hands from the wheel and looking at Kyle. Kyle shifts uncomfortably in his seat, biting his lip and glancing anywhere but at Stan. "It doesn't have to be this weekend. We still have a few more weeks—"
"Three. They expire in three," Kyle says, mostly to himself.
"Three, then. And I was just joking about the lazy river. We'll do anything you want to do, even if it's just to lay in bed all weekend."
"You won't want to stay inside all weekend."
Stan wants to refute that, to say that he would absolutely love to stay in bed with Kyle all weekend, but he stays quiet, watching Kyle struggle to come up with reasons not to go. It hurts him, but only a little, because he can tell Kyle isn't entirely invested in backing these reasons up, which makes that spark of hope flare up again.
"It's too hot."
"Then I really won't mind staying inside."
"It probably isn't a very good place."
"Like I said, we'll research it and look at reviews," Stan says, finally pulling out onto the highway while Kyle continues to list off his misgivings. The drive is still tense, but it's better than what they'd had to endure on the way there. Kyle actually talks to him, though infrequently. It's mostly just to complain, but he runs out of steam by the time they make it back home, retreating to the bedroom for a nap while Stan investigates the resort.
It really is a new place, settled in the mountains near Frisco and fashioned like a massive hunting lodge. The interior matches that theme, with massive fireplaces and custom wood furniture. It truly is the outdoorsman's dream, but there's something romantic about it, and he had been correct about the indoor and outdoor options, even if he knows Kyle will avoid the pools at all costs. But that's okay. All he needs is a couple of days alone with Kyle, no work, no stress, just them. This is all they need to get better, he's sure of it.
By the time Kyle stumbles into the room, looking as though he had just come from battle rather than a nap, Stan is dead set on going.
"Look, Kyle. It's got a spa and everything," he says, holding up his laptop. Kyle squints at the pictures, unimpressed.
"They always try to make it look better than it actually is. It probably isn't anywhere near as nice."
Two weeks later, the resort proves Kyle wrong.
It had been a long two weeks. Stan is glad for the interaction, even if it was mostly Kyle fighting his every suggestion. He had made lists of things they could do according to the resort's website, things he hoped would bring them together, ease the strain and strengthen their bond. He thought about it day and night, even letting it bleed into his music as he imagined scenarios in which they returned home as tightly wound together as they had been six years ago. It was excellent fuel for his muse, and even better fuel for his increasingly positive outlook on their marriage.
The drive to Frisco isn't as long as the drive to South Park. It's actually shorter by nearly an hour – a blessing, in Stan's opinion, because it gives Kyle less time to reconsider his decision to come. His reluctance hadn't been surprising. Oddly enough, it had actually seemed like an indication that things were already getting better, because Stan could see Kyle's mind working, trying to figure this out, trying to determine if this really would be a good thing, as if he were afraid that it wouldn't be. But it was still a difficult thing to do, getting Kyle to agree, especially since he had refused to miss a day of work. In the end they had made a plan to leave Friday afternoon, when Kyle returned home, and the fact that the rush hour traffic had been mercifully lighter than usual was a sign to Stan that the trip really was going to be a good thing, that it was exactly what they were meant to be doing. It was going to work.
Stan follows a newly paved road outside of Frisco, up into the surrounding hills. He's only been to Frisco a few times, long before construction began on the resort, and he's never really taken in the scenery. It had always seemed the same: a small town, only slightly bigger than South Park, settled in a valley surrounded by massive snow-capped mountains. Now, in the middle of summer, he can see how beautiful it is. Even the scattered brown trees, wilting in the endless heat, fail to subtract from the serene image.
"This is really nice," he says, urging their tiny car to keep going as it struggles up the hill. He's very glad there are no cars behind them, at least not yet; Kyle's never appreciated being honked at by drivers with more capable vehicles.
"It is," Kyle agrees, and Stan smiles, realizing Kyle is being sincere. He glances at him every once in a while, watching him examine the forest on either side of the road as they continue to climb. Then the road begins to even out, and a car passes them, heading back toward Frisco.
"Gettin' close," Stan says. Seconds later, they find themselves driving down the middle of a parking lot, split in two by the road. The resort sits at the end, and to Stan's relief, it looks exactly as it does on the website. Slowing down, he brings the car around to the front entrance and parks.
Up close, the resort has an even more authentic hunting lodge air about it than could be conveyed through its pictures. It's a timber framed building, settled comfortably within the trees but with a good view of the larger mountains in the distance, staying true to its name. Standing in front of it, Stan feels as if he actually is part of the brochure, as if his awe is being framed on a highway billboard for the commuting masses to see and say, Hey, that's where I want to be. I want to be that guy. Kyle looks equally impressed as he gets out of the car, stretching his arms above his head. He takes a deep breath, then releases it. He seems relieved, as if he can cross this part of the trip off his list of things that could go wrong. Stan grins.
"See? It looks great," he says, moving to the back of the car after popping the trunk. He grabs their luggage and sets them on the curb, slinging his hiking pack over his shoulder. "Let's go ahead and check in, then I'll park the car."
The interior of the lodge is almost exactly the same as the photos, richly decorated with rustic furniture and towering, unlit fireplaces made of colorful stone. There's also a number of old tools and hunting gear, as well as a collection of antlers mounted on the walls, including a huge set of moose antlers sitting above the front desk. It makes Stan a little uncomfortable, but he tells himself that it's a small con in a sea of positives at this point, and he's at least thankful there are no heads to stare down at him.
"Welcome to Mountain View!" The receptionist behind the desk beams at them as they approach. "My name is Cassandra. How may I help you?"
"Um, hi, Cassandra. I'm Stan, this is Kyle. We called earlier about these vouchers?" Stan says while Kyle unzips the front of his bag to retrieve the vouchers. He straightens again and hands them to Stan, who in turn hands them to Cassandra, who curiously looks them over. Stan is a little worried that she will refuse them, despite having called ahead after Kyle insistence. Being turned around now would be disastrous, but Cassandra quickly calms his fears.
"Oh, you're one of the contest winners! Congratulations!" she says. "You're one of the first to redeem your free stay, and you picked a good weekend, too."
She turns her attention to her computer, beginning the check in process. It goes smoothly, though the pricey subtotal is a little too much for either of them to look at without feeling anxious. The vouchers, however, take care of it, leaving them with two free room keys and a guide to the resort's attractions.
"You'll have total access to our indoor recreation area," Cassandra explains, "as well as the spa, but you'll need your key cards to get in. You're also welcome to take part in any of our scheduled outdoor activities, or you can do them at your own pace. It's completely up to you!"
She hands Stan the key cards and guide, as well as a copy of what would have been their bill. Stan silently thanks Kenny again, reminding himself to treat him to dinner soon. He and Butters will be back in South Park by Monday night, and Stan's more than determined now to give him good news.
Kyle waits for him in the lobby while Stan parks the car, returning to find Kyle tapping at his phone. He worries that Kyle's already bored, or trying to work, but Kyle puts his phone away when he see Stan, standing up from his chair and handing Stan his bag.
"They've got free Wi-Fi," he says as they head down the corridor that will take them to the elevator. "Our signal's kind of bad, though. I hope no one tries to call us."
He looks extremely nervous about this, as if he's waiting for someone to call him. Stan's first thought is that it has to do with work, but his mind doesn't hold back in providing him with other possibilities, all of them masked behind unknown numbers and long call histories. He shakes his head.
"If anyone needs us, they can call the hotel. This is our weekend off, remember? No work, no cellphones."
"What about you? If I can't check my email, then you can't play any of your stupid games," Kyle says, annoyed. They pause outside of the elevator and he punches the button with a little more force than necessary.
"I didn't say I was!" Stan says, but then he stops, swallowing his irritation, thick and bitter on his tongue. He lets go of his luggage to take Kyle's hand and Kyle freezes, staring at the elevator doors as they open but making no move to step inside. Fortunately, there's no one inside, giving Stan time to squeeze Kyle's hand. "I'm sorry. I'm not going to play any games. I won't even look at it."
Kyle hesitates before agreeing with a sharp nod of his head. He pulls his hand free of Stan's, rolling his luggage into the elevator just as the doors start to close again.
"Coming?" he asks, glancing at Stan over his shoulder. He seems somewhat subdued, which hadn't been Stan's intention at all, but he follows Kyle into the elevator, pressing the button for the third floor.
It's a tense ride up, far worse than the drive there. Panic begins to builds up inside Stan. It had been going so well, the resort exceeding his expectations and giving him a boost in confidence. It couldn't just suddenly crash and burn like this, not over something as trivial as not using their cellphones.
The elevator stops and they step out together into what feels like a hallway fit for Lord of the Rings. The wood floors are well-worn, or more likely made to look that way, while the walls are as intensely decorated with antique tools and antlers as the lobby.
"Kind of went overboard with it, didn't they?" Stan asks, hoping to lighten the mood. Kyle hums in reply, following the room numbers until they come to 312 and stop. Kyle takes his key card from his pocket and swipes it through the reader, pushing open the door as soon as he heard the lock retract.
The room is significantly less decorated, but it's nice, and Stan is grateful that there aren't any antlers on the walls. Instead, there are a few woven rugs that add color to an otherwise dark room, the furniture all of the same type of custom wood pieces as they had seen downstairs. Even the bedframe is made of thick branches sanded down to a smooth finish. It feels old, but in a charming way – all except for the soft, dark brown carpet and, of course, the television.
"Well, at least it isn't as tacky as the hallway," Kyle comments, abandoning his bag and flopping down onto the bed. It's covered with a vividly colored quilt that Kyle presses his face against before turning over on his back. He stretches his arms above his head, sighing in relief. "The bed's comfy, too."
"Do you want to take a nap?" Stan asks. He hadn't had any performances scheduled and had already called of practice by the time Kyle left for work that morning, which had allowed him to sleep in. Stressing about the trip was exhausting, of course, but Kyle hadn't had a chance to rest before they left.
"Yes," Kyle moans, struggling to push himself up to the pillows. He falls back down onto one, curling up on his side, facing away from Stan. "Wake me up for dinner?"
"Sure you wanna sleep that long? It'll make you feel bad," Stan says, though he tries not to sound disappointed. He isn't exactly sure what he'll do for the two hours between now and when dinner starts being served at seven. He had hoped they might explore a little, maybe pick out a few things they would want to do. Kyle likes having a plan, and it would fit in with Stan's own plan to slowly work up the courage to actually talk to him about everything.
Determined not to feel too discouraged (they can make plans over dinner, after all), Stan goes to the other side of the room, to the sliding glass doors that lead out onto the balcony. He props his luggage and his hiking pack up against the wall, then pushes aside the curtains just enough to get outside, careful not to let too much light into the room. He closes the door quietly, as if Kyle is already asleep, though that won't be for a while, not until Kyle tosses and turns enough to find the perfect position. He can hear him, just slightly, moving on the bed as he leans out over the railing.
They're facing away from the parking lot and Frisco, giving them an untouched view of the mountains in the distance and the forest surrounding them. It seems to stretch for miles, lifting high into the sky on his left and declining toward Frisco on his right. He can see the start of some of the trails from here, and he watches people come and go for a while. He counts dozens of independent hikers and small groups, some couples and even a few families, returning back to the resort to get ready for supper. It's relaxing, the constant hum of the city replaced by birds and wind, but mostly just by silence.
The ongoing heatwave is still a little uncomfortable, even up here, but it's nowhere near as humid as it is in Denver, and the breeze is much cooler. Stan can't think of anything else to do, so he stays where he is. He reckons it's better that way, because he doesn't want to do anything without Kyle and taking a moment to enjoy the scenery and gather his thoughts is probably what he should be doing, anyway. He has a lot he wants to say and if he doesn't say it right he'll hate himself more than Kyle could.
Stan doesn't notice Kyle open the door and step onto the balcony with him until Kyle gently touches his back. He jumps and Kyle laughs, moving to lean on the rail beside him. He looks tired, his hair wild, probably from his turning. Stan is afraid to ask him what he's doing here because Kyle is so close, their arms brushing. It's almost like being under a spell, and he's worried speaking will break it.
"Couldn't sleep. I guess I'm not tired enough," Kyle says after a moment. Stan expects him to keep talking, but he doesn't. He's quiet, watching the sky. The sun is beginning to set, hovering just over the mountains and casting a golden glow over the resort. It's beautiful, but he can't focus on anything other than Kyle's touch, how close he is now. He considers his options, trying to figure out if he should lean over and kiss him, or if he should just start talking. Maybe Kyle wants to say something to him.
Neither of them say anything in the end, but Kyle stays by his side, watching the sunset with him until the sky is almost completely dark, the mountains silhouetted against the icy blue remnants of the day. They go to dinner not long afterward, taking advantage of their free access to the resort's buffet. Stan half expects it to be as quiet as it had been on the balcony, but it isn't. They don't say much, but it's such a massive improvement that Stan falls asleep quickly that night, his sleep blissfully dreamless and undisturbed. Part of it could be a full stomach and the quality of the sheets, cool and soft against his legs, but he knows it's really because of Kyle, asleep beside him, facing toward him instead of away.
They hadn't set any alarms, but Stan still wakes before nine, energized after the best sleep he's had in weeks. He lets Kyle sleep while he showers, though Kyle is awake by the time he finishes, sitting up in bed and stretching his arms toward the ceiling. He squeaks, then sighs, offering Stan a small smile before looking away.
"Sleep well?" he asks, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and standing. He's still avoiding Stan's gaze. It makes Stan uneasy, but it isn't as if this hadn't been expected. Last night had been a huge step in the right direction, but it's going to take time, he tells himself.
"Yeah, it was great. Think we could fit this bed in the trunk of the car?" Stan grins as Kyle snorts, shaking his head.
"Sure. You go down and stand under the balcony and I'll drop it down to you," he says, heading for the bathroom. Stan wants to follow him, but he stays where he is, watching the door close with a light click.
He hadn't been lying to Kenny. He couldn't remember the last time he had really kissed Kyle, and the last time they'd had sex had been an awkward, less than enthusiastic attempt at home. It hadn't been satisfying for either of them, and afterward Stan had felt dirty, remaining in bed while Kyle immediately went to clean himself up in the bathroom. They'd fallen asleep much later, facing away from each other, and the bed was cold the next morning when Stan awoke, Kyle having already left for work.
They hadn't tried since then. Stan still worries that he had pressured Kyle into it, but they had both consented, had both tried. They just couldn't break through that barrier between them. Even inside Kyle, Stan had felt it, and it had seemed that no amount of lackluster lovemaking was going to change that.
He's still afraid to even suggest it, though he has come prepared. It isn't even really the sex he misses (though the sex has always been very, very good). He just wants that closeness again, that connection, undivided once more.
The more Stan thinks about it, the more aroused he becomes, and he briefly considers jerking off while Kyle showers, but he quickly pushes those thoughts aside. Kyle's showers are usually long, his skin red and wrinkled by the time he comes out, so it isn't the timing. It's just that it still feels wrong. Kyle probably isn't ready for that yet, and he might not ever be, which is such a depressing idea that his boner is subsequently drowned in a wave of dread.
He's completely dressed by the time Kyle finishes, his hair mostly dried by the wind after airing his fears out on the balcony. Kyle has always been envious of his effortlessness of his hair, the way he's never had to manually dry it for it to look good. Kyle, on the other hands, looks like a wet dog, or so he claims, already working on styling it for the day. He pulls his hair back into a small bun, which is one of Stan's favorites, mostly because it bares the back of his neck in a way that just begs for it to be kissed.
"We overslept a bit. We're going to be late for the hike," Kyle says as he tugs on a t-shirt. It's one of his old track shirts from college, an almost too-bright green with faded lettering, worn from its years of use.
"That's okay. I think it's better if we go at our own pace. We don't need a guide," Stan says. He starts tugging on his hiking boots, tying them before grabbing his pack. He's already filled it with some basic necessities, including some granola bars and some water bottles. The pack had come with a few other essentials, such as a tent and flashlight, which he leaves inside, just in case. Stan doesn't expect the hike to take long, and he certainly doesn't expect to have to make a camp somewhere, but he knows better than to go unprepared. "Ready? We can go get some breakfast and pick a map."
"If you're sure," Kyle says, rolling his eyes. He probably thinks Stan is only trying to show off his hiking experience – which isn't really that much, or very recent – but Stan's main concern is being alone with Kyle, not trailing behind a group of people.
Stan glances at his phone, but ultimately decides against taking it, tucking only his keycard into his pocket. Kyle, however, slips his phone into his pocket so quickly and quietly that Stan thinks he's trying to be discreet. Afraid of repeating their almost-argument from the day before, he doesn't mention it, instead following Kyle out of the room.
They eat a good breakfast downstairs before going to the front desk for a map. Cassandra isn't there, but the man behind the counter is just as friendly, giving them a map of the surrounding forest as well as a few tips.
"There are multiple trails to choose from, depending on the level of difficulty you want. They're all clearly marked on the map, as are the scenic spots," he says, glancing at his watch. "You just missed one of the guides, but there'll be others throughout the day, for different trails. Have fun!"
Map in hand, they exit the lobby, walking along the path to the edge of the forest. There are four different entry points, so Kyle opens the map, studying the trails.
"You wanted this one, right?" he asks, tapping one of the moderate trails. Stan shrugs.
"Is that the one you want to do?"
"I don't mind."
"But do you want to do it?"
"It's fine! What else do you want?" Kyle folds the map, fanning himself, mostly out of annoyance than any real discomfort, as the morning is still blissfully cool.
"I just want you to be happy—with the trail," Stan says quickly, looking away and trying to shake off his irritation. This isn't anything new, this is normal, even if it doesn't feel like it.
He can feel Kyle's eyes on him, and he's surprised when he takes his arm and tugs him in the direction of one of the more difficult, and longer, trails.
"I want to take this one," he says. Stan isn't sure if he's just doing it to appease him, but he accepts it, simply glad that Kyle is apparently just as determined not to fight.
The trail is flat at first, straight, before it dips and begins to turn. Stan feels better already, as if stepping into the forest had stripped them of their bad moods and replaced them with something more open and willing, his mind clearing. Morning light drips from the canopy, pooling on the forest floor in bright patches that he steps in like puddles. The temperature will start to rise soon, but for now it's comfortable, the trunks of the taller trees swaying just slightly.
He had expected to see some other people here, a group or another couple, but there's no one around, leaving them with only the sounds of their footsteps and the forest around them.
"Do you still like watching birds?" Kyle asks, seemingly out of the blue, but Stan notices the calls coming from above them, and his eyes catch the flashes of their wings. "You haven't said anything about it recently."
He sounds uncertain, as if he's afraid that Stan has said something and he just hadn't been listening. Stan hasn't said anything, hasn't even thought about birdwatching in a long time, but Kyle's trying, grasping at random topics. Stan stops following the sunlight and falls in step beside Kyle, brushing his hand against Kyle's before entwining their fingers together. Kyle glances between them, at their hands, then back up again, a little less unsure.
"Yeah, I still like to watch them," Stan says. "I don't much now, but I'd like to. You should come with me."
"Okay," Kyle says. It's awkward, nearly on the same level as a first date, and not even their own. Their first date had been at the arcade, followed by a quick stop for ice cream and then home to Stan's house to play video games. The only thing that had made it different from any other day had been the fact that they had kissed, and that had been another experience entirely.
He isn't exactly sure what else he should say in that moment, but something catches his attention before he can think too much on it. He pauses, Kyle stopping beside him, and he points to a chain hanging between two trees, blocking of a path he hadn't noticed on the map.
"I wonder where that leads," he says, motioning for the map. Kyle hands it to him, leaning against him to look at the map as Stan unfolds it. Stan takes a moment to appreciate the feeling before scanning the map. "I don't see it on here."
"I don't think it's meant to be on here," Kyle says. "It must be an old trail. Maybe it was here before the resort was built."
The trail doesn't look as well-kept at the one they're on, but it's still walkable, splitting off from the main. Stan has no idea where it goes, doesn't see any indication on the map, but he still feels compelled to follow it. He folds the map again and moves to step over the chain, but Kyle grabs his arm.
"What are you doing?" he asks. Stan stops, but Kyle doesn't let go of him. "Stan, it's chained off, and it isn't on the map. I think it's pretty obvious we're not supposed to be here. It could be washed out and dangerous, for all we know."
"Nah, it couldn't be. They'd have a more obvious warning," Stan says, confident in his analysis. "It's probably an old trail, like you said, and they just don't know what to do with it. I mean, they're not trying very hard to deter people." He kicks at the chain, which is a little rusted and generally unimpressive. "If it was something they didn't want us to go near, they wouldn't have this little thing here."
"That doesn't mean we should just go skipping down it, either. What about bears? They have a warning on the map." Kyle looks doubtful, eyeing the trail with suspicion until Stan takes hold of his hand again.
"They have those warnings everywhere. C'mon, Kyle, think of it as a little adventure, like old times."
"The old times weren't always that great," Kyle replies, but he steps over the chain anyway. Stan grins at him, lifting his other leg over so that both feet are firmly on the trail. Kyle doesn't pull his hand out of Stan's, but he does wave the map at him, smacking the side of his head. "If we get lost, I'm going to kill you, and they won't find your bones. I'll give them to the bear."
"Won't they suspect you? The spouse is always first on the list, right?" Stan asks as they start walking. The resort's trail disappears behind them, quickly hidden by the constant change of their new trail. It seems to follow the natural lay of the land instead of cutting through it, which is an instant plus in Stan's book.
"I'm really good at fake crying, remember? They won't suspect a thing. I'll say you went on this stupid trail and got yourself lost," Kyle says, stepping over a broken branch. He glances up, as if expecting other branches to fall, but the trees above look healthy and strong, shading the trail as they head deeper into the forest.
"I'm not going to get lost, and you won't, either," Stan says. "If I died, though, would you really only fake cry?"
Kyle doesn't answer him, letting go of his hand and moving ahead. Stan isn't sure what to make of it at first, but then Kyle glances over his shoulder. He's smiling, an amused expression on his face, and Stan relaxes, hanging back to watch Kyle for a moment. They've been away from their lives in Denver for less than a day and he already looks better. There's a little more energy in his step, his eyes are brighter, clearer. He hasn't even touched his phone, though Stan knows it still in his pocket. It's enough to make Stan think that Kyle really is happier out here, with him, and that Kenny really deserves a longer honeymoon for convincing him.
The farther along the trail they go, the more relaxed they become, falling back into some old habits. They pass a couple of hours that way, graduating from light brushes of their shoulders as they hold hands to an arm around Kyle's shoulders as Stan points out a few birds he spots up in the trees. He tries to mimic some of their calls, which makes Kyle laugh, but he seems genuinely impressed. Kyle isn't as good a whistler, so he doesn't try, but he does insist on humming some of Stan's earliest work as a musician.
"The bullying song? Really?" Stan asks, clamping his hands over his ears. "Do you know how traumatizing this is?"
"Oh, yes, absolutely I do," Kyle replies. "I have to admit, it's pretty catchy. I think I'm actually starting to grow fond of it, after all these years. You should put it on your next album."
"Um, no. That's an episode of my life I never want to experience again."
"Mm. Well, I can live with that. Just as long as you keep the hybrid song up."
"That one's just as bad!"
"It isn't! It's my favorite."
"Because you wrote it just for me." Kyle glances up at him, his cheeks a little red. Stan can't tell if he's blushing or if it's just because of the heat. It's still cooler out here than it is in Denver, or probably even Frisco, but it's still warmer than it should be as the sun climbs higher into the sky. At least, it is to Stan, because he actually is blushing, his hands falling back to his sides so he can entwine their fingers again. "Well, maybe not for me, exactly."
"No, it was just for you. Getting you back was all I cared about," Stan says. "I guess it's not a good song to serenade you with, though."
"No, no, it's good. Perfect, actually," Kyle says. Stan looks down at the ground, realizing for the first time that their trail really isn't a trail anymore. It's very grassy, with no distinct markings to set it apart from the rest of the forest.
"When we get back to the resort I'll borrow a guitar and stand beneath the balcony. I might have to yell, though," he says, deciding not to mention the path. If Kyle's noticed anything, he doesn't say, only laughing at Stan's idea.
"I expect it – after the spa, of course," he says.
If anyone deserves a little pampering at the spa, it's Kyle, but Stan is still working on convincing Kyle to stay in the room with him. Kyle's always said he likes his hands, especially when he's using them on Kyle's body.
They stop to take a break. Stan pours some water into his palm to wet the back of his neck while Kyle nibbles on a granola bar, glancing around.
"I think we should head back now, Stan. We're not exactly on the trail anymore."
"Yeah, I guess we should." Stan doesn't really want to go back, not yet. He's enjoying this too much, and he's a little worried that leaving the forest will break the spell, like some kind of fairytale. But he also knows that they shouldn't stay out too long, even under the cover of the trees, and he really doesn't want to get them lost.
He slips his water bottle back into the pack, along with Kyle's bottle and his trash. He's just about to sling it back onto his back when he hears a splash in the distance. Kyle hears it too, turning to glance down the slope they'd stopped at.
"Is there supposed to be water around here?" he asks, taking the map out of his pocket. He glances at it, then in the direction of the splash. "There's a lake."
"A lake? That's cool. We should go see it."
"C'mon, it's just a little farther. We can find our way back here."
He gives Kyle a look, pouting, and Kyle pushes him. "Fine. But remember what I said. I will kill you if we get lost. Or if I sprain an ankle trying to get down there."
"Want me to carry you?"
"Then you'll sprain your ankle, and I can't carry you back. I'll be forced to leave you for dead."
"That's better than you killing me yourself. I'll take that option."
Kyle ignores him, slowly making his way down the slope. Stan follows him, careful to watch his footing, the shimmering surface of the lake beginning to shine through the trees. They come to a sort of natural path that's easier to navigate, and it takes them directly to the lake, the land leveling out as they reach the rocky shore.
The lake itself isn't very big, but it's calm, and clear along the bank, revealing a colorful array of stones and old sticks. Stan kneels down, cupping some water in his hands and splashing it onto his face. It's the perfect temperature, cool and refreshing.
"Man, that's good," he says, using the water to slick his hair back. Beside him, Kyle kicks a stone into the water, watching as it stirs up some of the mud in the shallows. "I wonder why they don't have this marked on the map. You'd think they'd want people to see this."
"Maybe they don't own it. It could be private," Kyle says, looking around, but there are no signs warning people away, nor had they seen any on the trail. "It's nice, though."
"We should go swimming."
"Swimming?" Kyle raises an eyebrow. "Stan, if this is someone else's lake—"
"There's no one around! Look, there's not even a dock anywhere. It probably belongs to the government or something. If they really didn't want anyone here, there'd be a fence."
"You keep saying these things, but there's got to be a limit, Stan."
Kyle doesn't reply. He doesn't look like he has an answer, his expression guarded. Stan hates it, wanting so desperately to keep their momentum going and for Kyle to let go of all these rules. He hesitates, stepping back into the trees for a moment, until Kyle can't see him.
Stepping up onto a large rock, Stan hangs the pack on the branch of a tree, then jumps. He removes his shirt first, then his boots and socks, balling them up so Kyle won't complain. That's when Kyle finds him, stopping in his tracks a few feet away.
"Oh my God. Are you-? Stan, you can't."
"Oh, come on! This is supposed to be an adventure, remember?" Stan steps out of his boxers and his shorts, piling them on top of the rock and turning to grin at Kyle. Kyle has one hand over his face, more exasperated than embarrassed.
"This is such a bad idea. You don't even know what's in that lake."
"What, like radioactive otters?" Stan asks, but his voice softens as he grips Kyle's shoulders. It doesn't feel very weird, standing naked in front of Kyle, and he's glad. He would have hated to go through that embarrassing phase again. "Hey. Please? Remember when we used to do this in South Park? And we actually knew about some of the shit that was in Stark's. It was also a lot easier to get caught."
"I think that was why I liked it so much," Kyle admits, staring at Stan's chest. "Does that make me an exhibitionist?"
"Close, I think," Stan says, hoping this is an indication that Kyle is warming up to the idea. To his relief, Kyle sighs and reaches behind him, tugging his shirt over his head.
"If anyone sees us, I'll—"
"Drown me?" Stan guesses while Kyle folds his clothes neatly beside Stan's untidy pile on the rock. He's very pale, freckles scattered across his back and shoulders, and Stan has to take a deep breath to keep from feeling lightheaded.
"Kiss you, actually, but if you'd rather me drown you, I won't object," Kyle says with a smirk, pushing Stan as he passes him and heads back to the lake. Stan feels a little winded, as if he'd been knocked on his back, but he recovers quickly, sneaking up on Kyle and grabbing him from behind. "Stan!"
He lifts Kyle up, carrying him while he flails. The water is progressively colder the deeper Stan wades in, but it feels good. Kyle, however, disagrees when Stan is finally deep enough to drop him.
"You bastard!" Kyle struggling to gain his footing, the lake bed slick beneath him. His hair is mostly out of its bun, having come loose in his struggle. He glares at Stan.
"You were asking for it!" Stan says, but he barely has the words out before Kyle tackles him, sending him backward into the water. They both end up underwater, sliding against each other, skin against skin. Each brush goes straight to Stan's cock, and when they surface again, Stan is certain they're going to kiss. He's so ready for it, his eyes closed, but Kyle splashes water into his face instead, laughing and swimming away while Stan sputters.
"Sorry!" Kyle calls, clearly not sorry at all. Stan gives chase, the lakebed disappearing beneath them the farther they go.
Stan isn't sure how long they spend in the water, only that it feels so good to feel Kyle move against him, slick beneath the murky surface of the water. Kyle complains about it, but he doesn't leave, and Stan does get his kiss. It's quick, a simple peck on the lips, but it happens in slow motion, like something out of a movie, water dripping from their faces and the sun beating down on their shoulders.
"I didn't put sunscreen on my shoulders. They're going to burn," Kyle says, as if to purposely stop the kiss from going any further. Stan pulls back, expecting Kyle to look uncomfortable, and he does, but it isn't as bad as he had feared. He just looks nervous, as if he just isn't sure what to do with a kiss after so long. It's better than Kyle not wanting to kiss him, at least, and he thinks he has an idea of how Kyle feels, his tongue limp in his mouth.
He's shameless about watching Kyle swim ahead of him, back to shore. He feels lighter than the water around him, as if he'll simply start floating away. The lake had been a sort of hidden blessing, he decides, the perfect way for them to start becoming intimate again. Of course, there's still a lot between them that needs to be aired out, but it'll be easier now, it has to be. It's already beginning to feel like a memory, so far in the past that he and Kyle will be able to laugh about it.
Kyle reaches the trees before he does. He starts wading back up, pushing his hair back to squeeze the water from it. It's past noon now, and much hotter. He doesn't want to leave the water, but at least it'll be cooler in the trees—
"Oh my God!"
Stan barely has time to gain his footing on the lakebed when he hears Kyle scream. His heart drops down to his stomach, unhelpful images of blood and gore flashing through his mind. Kyle doesn't necessarily sound hurt or frightened, but he does sound upset, and that doesn't do anything to rule out the worst of his fears.
"Kyle?" he calls, moving more quickly as he pictures a grizzly bear, even though there are no grizzly bears in this area. His feet keep slipping on the rocks, his ankles throbbing in pain as they knock against the sharp edges, but his only thought is to get to Kyle. "Kyle!"
He trips as he reaches the shore, his hands sinking into the muddy bank, but he scrambles up again, pushing his way through the brush and skidding around the trees they hid their clothes behind. Kyle's standing there, still naked, his fingers curled into shaking fists at his sides.
"Kyle! What's wrong?" Stan asks, gripping Kyle's shoulders and turning him. He checks him over, looking for blood, a scratch, anything, but Kyle shakes his head and pulls out of his grip.
Confused, Stan does so, turning around in a circle examine their surroundings.
Kyle grabs his hand, stopping him and pointing at the rock they left their clothes on. His pack is still hanging far above it, untouched, but their clothes are gone. Kyle lets out a frustrated growl, letting go of Stan's hand to pull at his hair, tangling his wet curls around his fingers.
"Our clothes are gone!"
Stan stares at the spot, his mind struggling to catch up. When it does, relief washes over him, and he can't help but laugh, a breathless, euphoric sound.
"Oh, Jesus, Kyle. I thought you were being attacked or something." He falls back, leaning against the trunk of a tree, and places a hand over his chest. "You nearly gave me a heart attack."
"Don't laugh!" Kyle snaps, glaring at him in a way that makes him worry again, this time for his own safety. "This is serious! I can't even find my phone! Or our room keys!"
"I'm sorry!" Stan says, pushing away from the tree. He tries to wrap an arm around Kyle, who reluctantly permits it, his shoulders hunched. Stan sighs and rubs his arm. "Is it so bad that I'm glad it was just my pants and not you?"
Kyle doesn't reply, but he doesn't relax, either, so Stan lets go of him to search around the rock.
"It was probably a raccoon or something," he says, kneeling and pushing aside the branches of a bush. "Some animal got into them and knocked them down. We'll find them, and your phone."
"What if we don't?"
Kyle huffs, watching Stan for a moment before groaning and climbing up on the rock. Stan straightens and reaches up to steady him, but Kyle swats his hands away, taking the pack from the branch and handing it to him instead. It doesn't look like it has any obvious bite or claw marks on it, and it hasn't been opened.
"At least a bear didn't get it," Stan says. Kyle gives him a look, refusing his help in getting down from the rock. He takes the pack back from Stan, who goes back to looking around the rock while Kyle rummages through their supplies. Everything is still there, including the food and water bottles, but Kyle shakes his head.
"Why didn't you pack an extra shirt or something?" he asks. "What if someone sees us? Two completely naked guys, walking around in the woods—"
"Because I didn't think we would need it!" Stan says, this time from the other side of the rock. The brush is denser there, branches scratching at his legs. He tries to cover himself with one hand for protection, but emerges with his other hand clamped around their socks. "I found these."
"Oh, well, that's great, Stan. What are we supposed to do with those, put our dicks in them? I'm not walking around the woods in just my socks, they'll be ruined!"
"Like you haven't ruined any socks by putting your dick in them," Stan says, rolling his eyes. Kyle looks disgusted by the idea. "Dude, c'mon. They're just socks! And if our socks are here, then the rest of our clothes should be, too."
Stan hands Kyle the socks, still balled up from when they had taken them off. Kyle sighs loudly, tapping his bare foot in the dirt, but Stan's dealt with this before. "Stop throwing a hissy fit and let's go. I'll carry the pack."
Kyle is all too glad to shove the backpack at him, throwing his hands up in exasperation, the serene atmosphere left over from their swim all but evaporated. He still follows Stan, however, as he treks back up the rocky path that had led them to the lake. They quickly learn to watch where they step, trying hard to avoid rocks and sticks they didn't think about while wearing shoes, but it's an impossible feat.
"Goddamn it!" Kyle stops and lifts up one foot, holding onto a tree for support. He brushes it off, the bottom of his foot red beneath a layer of dirt. His legs are still wet, and wiping at them only smears mud down his calf. "I knew it. I knew we shouldn't have gone swimming. I knew we shouldn't have gone down that trail. Why did I let you talk me into this?"
"Hey, you didn't put up a very big fight. You wanted to do this, too," Stan says. He doesn't want to be the only one to bear the blame, but he already feels guilty about it, and his feet are also beginning to hurt. He pauses, glancing down the hill from their new vantage point. He can see the rock through the trees, and part of the lake. He wonders if their khaki shorts are just blending in with undergrowth, but then he spots a splash of neon green that is certainly not natural. "I think I found your shirt."
"Oh, thank God," Kyle says, coming to stand beside Stan. He follows Stan's gaze, frowning at the bright strip of fabric. "How are we going to get to it?"
"We'll just—slide down," Stan decides, gingerly stepping down onto the slope. He grabs onto a tree and slowly makes his way down, slipping twice and nearly falling on his ass. His feet are burning where they've been scratched, but he makes it to more level ground without hurting himself, turning to grin at Kyle. "Are you coming?"
"You really want me to risk my life?"
Stan rolls his eyes, carefully stepping through the undergrowth until he reaches Kyle's shirt. Or, what's left of it. It almost seems to come apart in his hands, having been ripped to shreds by the animal that took it. He sighs and holds it up.
"Well, it was your shirt," he says. Kyle drops his face into his hands.
"I told you we were going to end up walking around the forest naked! Oh, God, I don't even want anyone to find us. We can stay lost."
"We're not even lost! The trail's right over there!" Stan calls up to him, but he isn't really sure, considering the trail had disappeared without them noticing. He turns, his foot brushing up against something soft. It's a pair of shorts, but they've been ripped, too. "I think everything's down here. Help me look."
Kyle doesn't say anything, standing awkwardly on the old trail, thighs pressed together. He glances around, expecting someone to appear at any moment, but no one does. There's only the birds above and Stan below, and he's stuck in the middle, naked and shaking.
Sighing, he starts to head down, but his footing is less confident, and he slips, sliding on his ass and cursing.
"Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!" he screams, mostly out of embarrassment and frustration. It hadn't really hurt, but there are little scratches on his bare skin, rocks digging into his cheeks. He stays where he is, letting his head fall back against the ground and refusing to move. "I'm going to die. I'm going to get an infection in my ass and die."
He raises his head, just slightly, to glare at Stan, who starts laughing. Stan can't help it, and he doesn't feel quite as bad when it gives Kyle the strength to lean up and throw a pinecone at him. He dodges with another laugh, but he tries to stop, for Kyle's sake as well as his own.
"I'm sorry," he says. He leans down, hooking his hands beneath Kyle's arms and helping him up. He brushes the dirt from Kyle's back, giving his ass a little pat as he does so. "You're not going to die, I promise. You're not allowed to, remember? Not until I do."
Kyle pushes him away, flushing, but he looks less angry. He accepts the shredded shirt when Stan holds it out.
"Do you think it was a bear?" he asks, holding it up. It's ripped at the arms and there's a massive chunk missing from the back. It isn't really wearable now, but he folds it anyway, motioning for Stan to hand him the backpack.
"A little black bear, probably. They don't usually go near people, but I guess we were far out enough to not bother it," Stan says, shrugging off the backpack and handing it to Kyle. He watches him unzip it and stuff the ruined shirt inside before bending down to retrieve the shorts. They're also Kyle's, but they're not as bad off as he initially thought, ripped down the leg but wearable. There's also a light weight in one of the pockets. Kyle grabs them and shakes them out, checking the pockets and grinning when he finds his phone. "Better?"
"Better," Kyle says, testing the device. It works perfectly, free of any scratches, but he frowns when he realizes there is no signal, glancing around nervously. "Do you think it's nearby? The bear, I mean."
"I don't think so." Stan pushes his way through the brush, spotting a piece of dark gray fabric. He makes a dive for it, plucking it out of the branches of a bush. "Found my boxers."
It feels good to put them on. He hadn't been looking forward to walking through the resort in nothing but his socks. The rest of their clothes, however, are still missing, and he doesn't see any other bright colors to help with the hunt.
"I warned you," Kyle says as he keeps watch, still concerned about the possibility of a bear. "But don't you think we would have noticed a bear ripping our clothes to shreds?"
"I don't know. I wasn't really paying much attention to what was happening on shore," Stan says, raising an eyebrow. "Were you?"
Kyle rolls his eyes, but he still looks a little nervous. Stan pulls him against his chest, pressing a kiss to his hair, still damp from the lake and already becoming very frizzy after falling free from the hairband. Kyle allows it, slumping tiredly against him.
"I'm not scared," he says, just to set the record straight. "It's just that bear attacks are becoming more common, and I don't exactly want to be caught with my pants down, literally and figuratively speaking."
"They're still pretty rare, though," Stan says, letting Kyle go so they can continue their search. "It probably couldn't reach our food so it had a little fun with our clothes instead. Don't worry about it, okay?"
He holds out his hand, and to his relief, Kyle takes it, walking alongside him as they look for their clothes.
They're only slightly better dressed an hour later. Stan had managed to find his shoes as well as Kyle's, and though the soles had been punctured by what they had agreed to be a bear's teeth, they were otherwise fit to wear, and preferable to going barefoot. They aren't as lucky with the rest of their clothes, however. Stan's shirt is still missing, though it's hot enough that he's more than comfortable going without it. Kyle is less comfortable, arms folded around his middle, his hair mostly dry but extremely fluffy and wild. Stan hasn't seen it that way in a while, but he doesn't mention how much he likes it, how hard it is to resist tangling his fingers in it. Kyle wouldn't like that, especially not now.
"I told you, we're lost," Kyle says, moving his hands to his hips. Between looking for their clothes and losing track of where they were, they had somehow gotten turned around, the original trail leading toward the lake nowhere to be seen. Stan had tried his best to navigate using the map, but it had quickly become obvious that they had taken a wrong turn. Even now, standing in front of a faded sign between two separate paths, each as overgrown as the first, Stan is beginning to accept that he may not know exactly where he is.
"We're not lost," he says, leaning in close to the sign. He can't tell what it says, or if it's even something that would help them find their way back. It's too old, covered in rust and runoff from the tree, and obviously not something owned by the resort. "I can't read it. What do you think?"
Kyle shakes his head, frowning. He has his phone in his hands, still trying to find a signal, but it's running out of battery, Kyle constantly cursing Apple. "I can't, either. It's probably not even telling us which way to go." He turns to Stan, his expression an uncomfortable mix of worried and smug for being right. "Well, any ideas? It's getting late and I am not sleeping out here."
"We're not going to sleep out here," Stan says, but even as he says it, he's glad there's a tent in the backpack. "Don't panic, okay?"
"I'm not panicking, I just want a hot bath and an actual bed," Kyle replies. "Some clothes that haven't been half eaten by a bear would be great, too."
"How about we take a break? We both need to eat something." Stan shrugs the pack from his shoulders and sets it down, unzipping it and pulling out two of the granola bars. He hands one to Kyle, along with one of the water bottles. "Don't drink too much of it."
"So you admit we may be out here long enough to run out of water?" Kyle asks, but he sits, resting on the exposed root of a tree and leaning back against it. "Imagine what we would be doing if we hadn't gone hiking. We could have gone to the spa."
"I promised you the spa later."
"Yeah, but now we're lost," Kyle says mournfully before biting into his granola bar. Stan does the same, but it's too bland and hard for his taste, almost unappetizing enough to choose hunger over. Kyle likes his, as he should, since he had picked them.
"We're only a little lost," Stan finally agrees, washing down the dry mouthful with some water. "We can either stay here or keep going."
"We can't just stay here. Who's going to come looking for us?"
"The resort will realize we're missing," Stan says. "And they generally recommend not moving once you realize you're lost."
Kyle considers this, but Stan can tell he doesn't like the idea, and he doesn't, either, despite the warnings. They've never been very good at waiting for something to happen, just like they hadn't waited at the chain, or at the lake, or even for marriage, and he doesn't think this will be an exception.
"Regardless of what that sign used to say, the fact that it's here at all has to mean they expected people to be here," Kyle reasons, motioning to the sign with his half-eaten granola bar. "So we have to be close. Maybe it's like, a mile marker or something."
"Maybe, but it could also be telling us that we're going the wrong way."
"Stan! You could at least try to be helpful! You're the one who got us into this," Kyle snaps, angrily biting into his bar.
"Okay! Okay." Stan glances up at the sign as he finishes his snack, crumbling the paper into a ball and stuffing it into the backpack. "Put it in here when you're done. I already feel bad about leaving our clothes out here."
"That's the bear's fault," Kyle says, but he tosses his trash in alongside Stan's. He keeps the bottle, swirling the water left inside. "Well, what do you think? Should we keep going? Be serious."
"I am serious," Stan says, zipping up the pack again and slinging it over his shoulder. "I think we should keep moving. I don't think we're that far away, honestly."
He holds out his hand, helping Kyle up, but he doesn't move. He looks at the sign, down one path, then the other. Neither of them give him a strong feeling of familiarity, and he doesn't think they're anywhere near the first path they took.
"This way?" he asks, pointing to the left. If he had had a coin in his pocket, he would have flipped it.
"Might as well," Kyle sighs. He doesn't let go of Stan's hand as he starts to walk, which gives him hope that everything isn't entirely ruined. It's a feeling he tries to hold onto, but it starts to falter as the sun begins to dip in the west, the forest growing darker around them. The trees cast long shadows across the path, the temperature already beginning to drop again. A new wave of sounds washes over the forest, and though he has never been very afraid of bears, particularly black bears, he finds himself worrying about running across one.
When the fading light turns gold and the shadows overtake the details of the path ahead, they begin to realize that, if there is something in this direction that will guide them back, they're not going to find it tonight.
"Is this a good spot?" Stan asks, motioning to a small clearing. It had been a sort of silent agreement that they would have to stop, and this little area is conveniently close to the path, so that if anyone passes by on it, they would at least be seen. It's cramped, but it looks just about right for his tent, which is just as small, a simple two-person model made for exactly this kind of situation. Kyle examines the spot, then shrugs.
"I guess," he says. Stan can tell he's disappointed, and more than a little angry, so he's cautious as he wraps an arm around his shoulders.
"I really am sorry about this, Kyle," he murmurs. "I—"
"It's okay, Stan," Kyle says, a little sharply, but he returns the embrace, hugging his arm around Stan's waist and leaning against him. "I'm not – mad. I'm just tired. This kind of thing is going to keep happening to us, isn't it?"
It hurts Stan to hear the defeat in Kyle's voice, and it hurts worse to know he's still the cause. He had only wanted some adventure, something that would distract them from the stress of everyday life and to bring them closer together. Now it's just another thing for Kyle to worry about, and Stan isn't entirely sure how to fix it, either, considering this is the result of his previous plan.
"Hey, listen. This is just a… minor setback. And fun! We'll look back on this and laugh," he says, deciding he should try anyway. He lifts his hand to Kyle's hair and tugs on one of his curls. "And this is nowhere near as bad as some of the other shit we've survived. We've got this. Think of it as a romantic comedy."
Kyle swats his hand away and ducks out of Stan's hold, but he seems a little more at ease, enough to push him and tell him to fuck off.
"Just put up the tent."
Saluting him, Stan shrugs off the pack and reaches in for the granola bars, tossing a couple to Kyle before grabbing the tent. It's two years old now, and Stan's never used it, but its small size makes him think that it will be a simple operation. His confidence is only strengthened when he dumps it out, revealing a handful of string and little metal stakes as well as a sheet of instructions, which he ignores. Kyle clears his throat, peeling the wrapper down one of the bars.
"Don't lose those," he says, pointing to the instructions.
"I've put up a tent before – bigger tents than this, actually. You've been there," Stan replies, kicking the manual away and focusing on the pile. He has put up much more complex tents before, bigger ones made to fit whole groups of people. This is only the bare essentials in comparison.
He unrolls the tent and spreads it out as he unfolds it. It fits nicely within the little clearing, though it's nearly too small for him. He thinks it's cozy, perhaps too cozy for Kyle, small enough that he might complain, but he doesn't. Instead, after scarfing down the granola bar, Kyle helps him assemble the rods and divide them along with the connecting pieces. They work in silence, but it's nice, almost domestic, something they haven't had recently even at home. When their fingers brush Kyle doesn't pull away, despite the fact that he still has every right to be angry with him. It gives Stan hope that this setback isn't only something they can handle, but something that will help in the end. It's funny, really, but he doesn't want to jinx it, so he doesn't saying anything, focusing on sliding the rods into place and popping up the tent. Kyle also helps him drive the stakes into the ground using rocks, securing the tent, and when it's done, Stan stands back and tosses his rock back into the trees, brushing his hands together and proudly examining their work.
"See? No instructions needed," he says, grinning. Kyle rolls his eyes, picking up the instruction sheet.
"I'll agree with you if the tent doesn't start dismantling itself while we're asleep," he says, slipping the instructions back into the bag. "What about that?"
He points to the rainfly, which has laid untouched since Stan first unrolled the tent. Stan picks it up and folds it.
"I was hoping you wouldn't mind sleeping without it," he says. "So we could see the sky. You really only need it if it's going to rain."
"And what if it starts raining?" Kyle asks, but he's smiling. Stan can tell he isn't really concerned about it, a first for this trip. It makes his heart beat a little faster. "That's all we really need now, isn't it? To make this a romantic comedy? Maybe our tent will be washed away in a freak rain storm."
"Would you hate me if it did, or would you kiss me just as we go under?"
"Mm, kiss you. Not as we go under, though. Maybe afterward."
"You'd be covered in mud and who knows what else. Probably bear shit," Kyle says, laughing. It fills Stan with the same feeling it did before, at the lake. He can't remember when Kyle last laughed so much, so freely, and knowing Kyle would kiss him in what could hypothetically be their last moments will always be a good thing.
"Yeah, okay, that isn't romantic at all," he says, bending to pick up the pack and toss it inside the tent. When he straightens again, Kyle is standing in front of him, which not only makes his heart beat even harder, but threatens to stop it altogether, and he's absolutely certain Kyle can hear it, that it's louder than his own voice. "What about right now?"
"I'd say this is only slightly more romantic," Kyle says, placing his hands on Stan's chest. He runs them up to his shoulders, palms flat against his skin, warm and steady. Stan doesn't feel quite as solid in that moment. He's suddenly fourteen years old again, about to kiss Kyle for the first time, his fingers trembling against Kyle's sides. He's only glad that he doesn't feel like he's about to be sick, which truly would ruin everything, most importantly this moment. Kyle's watching him, studying his face, his lips parted, not as if he's waiting, but as if he wants to say something else, something more serious. Stan can see it in the twitch of his mouth, the knitting of his brow. The words seem to be on the very tip of his tongue, or maybe Stan's imagining his own words there, free at last.
Kyle kisses him before either of them can speak, which Stan thinks might have been on purpose, but that's the last thought he has that isn't entirely dedicated to how good it feels just to touch him again. He wants to compare it at first, to the last time they were as intimate, but that quickly gives way to a simple desire to feel and explore. He traces his fingertips over the ridges of Kyle's spine, up, then down again, and finally around to his hips. He's slightly surprised by how familiar Kyle feels beneath his hands, as if he had had a subconscious idea that he would change, but he hasn't. The relief that washes over him isn't anything new, but it leaves him just as weak as it did by the lake, when he realized Kyle wasn't in any danger, only naked and upset.
Picturing that scene again, even with, or perhaps because of, the destruction of their clothes, goes particularly well with the way Kyle is kissing him. It isn't frantic, or uncertain, but slow and deliberate, and much more intimate than the little kiss in the lake. There's only the slightest of pauses, as if Kyle is also surprised by how natural this is, that it's still a constant in his life, safe, but it fuels his intentions, their lips molding together. Kyle is quick to grant him access and he shivers despite the heat between them, their tongues moving together, wet and warm.
"It's getting a little cold." Kyle is the first to break the silence when they part, breathing in deeply. It's actually very comfortable, even while half-dressed, the temperature not dipping quite as low as it would outside of the heatwave. Stan nearly says so before he notices the way Kyle's hands are rubbing over his shoulders, one hand going to the back of his neck, his fingers curling into his hair. Kyle has to stand on his toes to do any of this comfortably, so Stan wraps his arms around him and lifts him, spinning him in a small circle. It earns him another laugh, which is as infectious as it's always been – another constant that feels as essential as breathing.
He sets Kyle down and kneels to enter the tent. It still smells new despite being tucked away for so long, and it's a little more spacious than he first thought. It's a good fit, perfect for just the two of them. Kyle follows him, turning to zip the tent back up.
"Afraid the bear will see?" Stan asks as he sits cross-legged on the ground, shaking off the last of his shyness and grabbing Kyle's hips to pull him back against his chest. He feels like they left all of the awkwardness and unspoken anxiety outside the tent. Kyle just snorts.
"I don't want anyone to see, especially the bear. I don't want it to come back for these," he says, tracing the rip in his shorts with his finger. Stan watches, the pale skin of Kyle's thigh instantly catching his attention. "I really am getting a little cold, though. You run hotter than I do, you furnace."
"Oh, I see. You only like me because I'm hot."
Kyle slaps his arm, but Stan can feel him trying not to laugh. He accepts it as a challenge, his hand moving to Kyle's leg. He slips his fingers into the rip, dragging them up Kyle's thigh to where the tear ends at the crease of his thigh. Kyle struggles, trying to guide Stan's hand toward his cock instead, but he can't stop his soft noises, his leg already beginning to tremble.
"Are you really going to tease me now?" he asks. Stan hears the impatience in his voice and he smiles, pinching Kyle's thigh, which makes him jerk and slap his arm again. "Stan!"
"Sorry!" Stan says, but he isn't really. He thinks that he's missed this the most, pushing the limits of Kyle's patience just to see how it will manifest itself in his movements. He likes the way he twists and rolls his hips, too proud to beg but shameless in pushing against him, always seeking heat and friction. This time is no different, Kyle's legs sliding over the floor of the tent as he pushes back against him, legs parted. He still doesn't beg, but the frustrated whines are close enough, and they go straight to Stan's dick.
"I didn't bring any lube," he says, taking himself by surprise. He doesn't even know if Kyle wanted to go that far, but Kyle shakes his head, tilting his face up to press kisses along Stan's jaw.
"I think I would just be mad that you remembered lubricant for sex but not a change of clothes at this point, babe," he murmurs, smiling against Stan's throat. He makes a small sound of approval when Stan finally removes his hand from his thigh, unbuttoning his shorts and reaching inside. Kyle's eyes flutter shut and he groans, angling his hips up to press against his palm. His head falls back against Stan's shoulder when his hand closes around him, his cock easily freed from his shorts. "God, Stan…"
"Fuck yes," Kyle says, his voice wavering as Stan strokes him, his thumb sliding over the slit before his hand moves back to firmly grasp him. Kyle gasps and Stan grins, pumping him slowly, steadily, applying pressure and then releasing it. Kyle shakes, eyes shut tightly as he chants Stan's name, but his boots give him enough traction to push back, his ass grinding down against Stan's cock. Stan is hard inside his boxers and he's squirming just as much as Kyle is, grunting as he struggles to hold him in place. He's trying not to roll his hips up, but it's a difficult to resist chasing that pleasure.
Kyle comes with a shout that probably gives the entire forest a nervous pause. It surprises Stan, too, but he holds on, his grip tight around Kyle as he arches and then falls, a tired wave finally reaching shore. Kyle's whole body is shaking; Stan can feel the hammering of his heart, the trembling of his breaths. He squeezes him again and Kyle sucks in a breath, whining, his come thick on Stan's fingers. It drips onto the shorts, something Kyle will probably complain about later, but Stan's only concern now is holding him as he slowly comes back down.
Once again, Kyle is the first to speak, still somewhat breathless. "Holy fuck. Jesus."
Stan laughs softly, carefully releasing him so Kyle can slide off of his lap. He lies on the ground instead, and though it isn't exactly soft, Kyle looks more comfortable than he has a while, so Stan leaves him be, pulling the pack to him and reaching inside for the remains of Kyle's shirt as well as the flashlight. He uses the shirt as a rag, wiping his hand clean before switching the flashlight on to its lantern setting, filling the tent in light. Kyle reaches up and lazily rubs his back, and Stan watches the shadow his hand casts on the wall of the tent while he unties his boots and kicks them off. When he turns around again, Kyle's hand drops to his hip and they smile at each other, almost shyly, though Kyle isn't at all shy about touching him. He traces the outline of Stan's cock through his boxers, but Stan nearly comes just from the look Kyle gives him, knowing and eager to return the favor. What he says, however, catches Stan off guard.
"That was really—I can't believe I waited this long," he murmurs, everything he can't put into words still ringing clear in his voice. He looks regretful at first, but his expression quickly turns to worry when Stan reaches down to take his hand.
"What do you mean?" Stan wonders if this is what Kyle had wanted to say before, outside the tent. It strikes him that it's actually really simple, that the answer to every single question he's asked himself since all of this began is right in front of him, but he can't grasp it because Kyle's already pulling it away again. Or because Kyle is tugging his boxers down and curling his fingers around his cock with a new kind of determination that isn't entirely rooted in pleasure.
"Nothing. I'm gonna blow you, ‘kay?"
There isn't much Stan can do to protest when Kyle drags his tongue over the tip, licking away the precome that had already stained the inside of his boxers. He groans, letting Kyle push him back, until he's propped up on one elbow. He watches Kyle kneel between his legs and remove his boxers, creating a pile with his shorts. All of Stan's thoughts disappear then, leaving a white fog that explodes with color when Kyle fastens his lips around the head of his cock, lapping at the slit, or when he bobs his head, his hand tight around the base, taking as much of him in as he can.
"Ah, Kyle, wait—Kyle," Stan moans, tilting his head back. He's trying hard not to thrust up, but Kyle's all but doing that for him, sucking his cock into the wet heat of his mouth. His hand goes to Kyle's hair, fingers sinking into frizzy red curls, and he tugs, trying to give him some warning, but Kyle doesn't move.
Stan is a little quieter when he comes, a strangled mix Kyle's name and a low groan. Kyle swallows most of it, pulling off to catch the rest in his palm. It's still a lot though, after so long, and he coughs, but he looks pleased, swiping his tongue over his lips. Stan lets himself fall flat on his back, panting and mindlessly petting Kyle's hair until Kyle crawls up and drops onto his chest.
It's a peaceful moment, like a lazy Sunday morning, but it's dark now and the sounds of nighttime wildlife blend in with the sound of their breathing, slow and deep. Stan smooths a hand over Kyle's back and Kyle sighs, his cheek pressed to Stan's shoulder. Stan doesn't want to move, at least not until morning, but his mind is clearing, the fog evaporating until it uncovers a long list of questions that instantly take over every thought, anxiety blooming in his chest.
"Kyle," he says, still rubbing his back. The gentle rise and fall of his chest against Stan's is comforting, as is the heated hum of their bodies left over from their orgasms, but he still needs to know.
"What did you mean? A minute ago."
Kyle stills, holding his breath, which makes Stan sad as well as afraid. He's never wanted Kyle to have a reason to keep secrets from him, to hide and lie and avoid telling him anything. It's been all he could think about for the past couple of months, and he supposes it validates his feelings, but knowing he's been right all along doesn't help. It only makes him feel worse.
Kyle breathes again, blowing out the breath he had been holding, as if waiting might have stopped Stan from pressing the issue. He must realize that it won't, because he pushes himself off of Stan, sitting back with his legs tucked underneath him. He's still a little flushed, and his hair really is kind of ridiculous, but it just reminds Stan of how much he loves him.
"I'm really sorry, Stan," Kyle starts. Stan's heart drops, the worst of his fears bubbling to the surface and threatening to overwhelm him before Kyle can even explain. "I haven't—I know it hasn't been easy. I haven't been fair to you, or to myself. I just…"
"… Just what?" Stan asks. This doesn't necessarily sound like a confession to cheating, which Stan knows is a stupid thought, or a decision that they should divorce. It doesn't sound like anything he had really been expecting, and he isn't sure how to feel about that, but there is some hope, coming hand in hand with apprehension.
"I was afraid, I guess. And angry—not at you," Kyle quickly adds. He hesitates, but reaches out to take Stan's hand. It's a hugely relieving gesture, one that Stan returns, squeezing Kyle's hand to encourage him. "At myself, work, my mom. Everything else, but not you."
"Never. Well, sometimes," Kyle says, smiling, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. "I wasn't thinking. I just thought that it was out of my hands. I've been trying, honestly, but it isn't… I don't think there's anything I can do."
"Kyle?" Stan starts to think of other horrible possibilities, ones that were too much to think about before, like illness and crime. He can't imagine Kyle breaking any serious laws, but an illness isn't any easier to think about. His mouth is suddenly too dry, dread causing him to break out in a cold sweat. He braces himself as Kyle takes another deep breath.
"I'm about to lose my job."
Stan stares at him. Kyle looks ashamed, as if revealing this secret is the absolute worst thing he could have said. He also looks increasingly nervous the longer Stan remains silent, until he leans forward, lifting his free hand to Stan's shoulder.
"I said I'm going to lose my job. Like, in the next few weeks."
Stan swallows, though it's difficult, his mouth still sticky, his tongue too big. He's in desperate need of a drink, preferably of an alcoholic variety, but he laughs regardless. It starts out low, quiet, before it builds. Kyle lets go of his hand, angry now, the guilt wiped from his face.
"Are you fucking kidding me? It's not funny, Stan!" he snaps. He shoves him, and Stan falls back, lacking the strength to hold himself up. This can't be good for his health, having so many highs and lows in one day, but God, it feels good.
"It is!" he says, not to defend himself. He just wants Kyle to understand that it is funny, it's hysterical, because everything is suddenly okay – terrible, but okay. "Kyle, Kyle, you have no idea. I was so scared. I thought it was much worse."
"Worse? What could be worse?" Kyle's upset now, looking as though he's about to start crying. Stan pushes himself up and pulls him close, ignoring his struggles. "Let me go, you asshole!"
"I thought you hated me!" Stan says. Kyle freezes, tense in his hold, but he doesn't say anything, so Stan continues, "I thought you were, were tired of me, or that you had started resenting me for not having a real job. I thought you regretted supporting my music – I mean, you probably do, especially now, but I thought it was bad enough that you regretted marrying me!"
"What?" Kyle starts moving again, violently enough that Stan can't hold him, and he breaks free. His eyes are glassy with angry tears and his hands are shaking, his breath catching in his throat. "What—how could you think that, Stan?"
He sounds more hurt than angry, which surprises Stan. He had expected Kyle to be furious with him, but to ultimately see how ridiculous it all was. This is a little more extreme, especially when Kyle pushes past him and unzips the tent, stumbling outside in nothing but his socks.
"Kyle, wait!" Stan calls, scrambling to follow him. Kyle isn't so desperate that he leaves their makeshift campsite, but he doesn't stay still, pacing back and forth, his arms folded around his middle. "Kyle!"
Stan has to put himself in Kyle's path to stop him. He grabs his shoulders, shaking beneath his hands.
"Kyle, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to laugh—"
"You really doubted me?" Kyle asks. He isn't quite as angry now, as if his paces had spent the very last of his energy, leaving him exhausted. "You thought I didn't love you? Jesus, Stan, I thought you were kind of mad but that…"
"I didn't want to," Stan says quickly. The only light they have is still in the tent, its unnatural glow illuminating Kyle's wet cheeks. Stan blinks rapidly, wrapping his arms around Kyle, and Kyle allows it this time, but he doesn't return the embrace. "I didn't mean—I'm sorry, Kyle. Don't cry."
"Then don't make me cry," Stan says, stroking Kyle's skin with his thumbs. They're both still damp with sweat and the night air is a little colder without the tent to protect them. There's a rustling sound nearby, a raccoon pausing to stare at them before disappearing, reminding Stan of how truly wild this is. "I really am sorry."
Kyle's silent for a moment, but slowly he leans in, letting himself melt into Stan's hold. Stan relaxes, but waits, Kyle's fingers tapping against his back.
"I know you are," he finally mumbles. Stan almost doesn't hear him, so Kyle raises his voice. "I know it was hard on you. Was I really that bad?"
"Yeah, dude. It just wasn't like you," Stan says. "You know, I had this same talk with Kenny. That was what gave him the idea to give us the vouchers."
"So you had this talk with Kenny before me? What, did you email Cartman, too? Send out a newsletter?"
"I know, I know, it's dumb, but I was scared, okay? Like I said, it just wasn't like you, and you know I jump to conclusions about these things. I did that with Wendy, too."
"Trust me, I remember," Kyle says. Stan can practically hear his eyes rolling.
"I caught myself doing it, I just couldn't stop. Then I heard you talking to Sheila about the rent, and I'm not exactly helping."
"Stan, the money you earn playing around Denver covers a lot of our utilities." Kyle pulls back, reaching up to hastily wipe at his cheeks, sniffling. "My mom doesn't understand, but I do, and I wasn't mad at you."
"But it's not enough," Stan says, arms falling to his sides. "I'm still a one-hit wonder, and you've put up with it for so long… It just fueled the idea that you regretted doing it."
"And that I regretted marrying you, too?" Kyle asks, raising an eyebrow. Stan looks away with a shrug.
"I was being overdramatic. Kenny said so, too. But I thought that, if you didn't regret marrying me, you at least regretted marrying me so young. You could have had anyone you wanted. You could have been married to someone really successful by now."
He winces when Kyle reaches up, half expecting him to slap some sense into him, half wanting him to, but all Kyle does is turn his head back toward him, cupping his cheek and slipping his fingers up into his hair.
"You're an idiot," he says. "I didn't marry you because I thought you were going to be successful. I mean, I do, but that's not why I did it. I married you because I've known you my entire life and I knew I loved you enough to say, fuck it, let's do this one last wild thing before we resign ourselves to adulthood, and even then I knew I would have you, so it would be okay."
"Then why didn't you tell me about your job? Why do you think you're going to lose it?"
"Bankruptcy. They can't afford to keep it open and no one is willing to put any investment into a little clinic like that. They've been laying people off," Kyle says. "They've sent out emails to keep us updated but there's nothing they can do. It's going to close, and I've been looking everywhere for a new job. That's why I've had my phone with me – not that it really matter out here, I guess."
"Kyle, you should have said something. You know I would have started looking, too."
"But I didn't want you to!" Kyle says, frowning. "I didn't want you to give up music, or to even feel like you had to. I guess I failed on that front, but I mean it. I've always supported you in this and I didn't want to stop, I was just afraid that I was going to have to. That's why I didn't want to tell you. You have no idea how badly I want you to have this…"
"I mean it, Stan. I was trying to wait it out, to see if things would get better."
"You said you heard me talking to my mom. Do you know how hard that was? Telling her I might not be able to make rent next month? God, the things she said. She means well, but she—"
Stan doesn't bother to say anything this time, bending down and kissing him instead. He holds Kyle's face in his hands, and Kyle tries to pull away at first before he grunts in acceptance and stills. He opens for Stan's tongue, sighing into the kiss, reaching up to cover Stan's hands with his own. He looks disappointed when they part. Stan laughs.
"Shut up," he says. "I love you, so much. Okay?"
Kyle looks relieved, as relieved as Stan feels now, the looming threat of eviction not even an issue at this point, though he still asks, "Even though I've been lying to you?"
"You didn't really lie, you just didn't tell me what was wrong. Honestly, I should be the one kissing your ass now. I was absolutely sure our marriage was over, remember?"
"Yeah, but you a good reason, I guess. I didn't even realize how bad it looked. I didn't even think about our fights," Kyle says, turning his head to press a kiss to the inside of Stan's wrist. "I'm sorry. It was really, really stupid."
"A little, yeah, but it was also kind of nice? Now that I know why, I mean. It helps to know you love me so much. You… do love me, right? After what I said?" Stan asks anxiously, but Kyle laughs and presses against him, his forehead resting against Stan's collarbone.
"I would not be standing in the middle of the wilderness, naked, if I didn't love you," he says, grinning. He lifts his foot, revealing the bottom of his sock, marred with dirt from his pacing. "Look at my socks. Would I sacrifice a perfectly good pair of socks for just anyone?"
"Considering how many I've sacrificed to you?"
"Okay, you can wash your own goddamn socks from now on. I'm never touching them again," Kyle says, but he sounds so much like himself again that Stan can't resist kissing him again.
The rest of the night passes that way. They switch off the flashlight and hold each other in the dark, breathing each other in, their lips hardly disconnecting from each other's skin. It's neither very cold nor warm, but curled around each other they stay comfortable throughout the night, or as comfortable as they can be with nothing between them and the ground but the tent floor. The morning isn't as pleasant in that regard, their backs and shoulders sore, but waking up to Kyle's kisses is worth it.
Stan half expects to find a bear waiting for them outside the tent, or for it to actually start raining, but neither of those things happen as they redress and pack up the tent. They also eat the last two granola bars and share a bottle of water, putting new emphasis on their need to find the right trail back to the resort, but that also proves easier than Stan thought it would.
Just a few minutes away from their overnight camping spot, the path curves and opens up into a larger trail. The familiarity of it is both a relief and an impossibility, Kyle reaching up to push his hair back as he stares up the path. He blows out a breath.
"There's no way we were this close," he says, but sure enough, there's the chain, continuing to do its job of warding off wayward adventure seekers. As if to confirm it, a hiker walks right past it, not even bothering to look their way – not that they would have seen them. Kyle's well hidden behind the thick trunk of a tree. "I can't believe this."
"Really? You can't believe this?" Stan asks, raising an eyebrow. Kyle rolls his eyes.
"Okay, maybe I can, but I don't want to," he says, glancing down at himself. He's dirty, his shorts stained with dirt and come, and still ripped right up his thigh. He looks as desperate for a shower as Stan feels.
"Ready? It's really early, so we should be able to shower and get some breakfast. I'm gonna have the entire buffet," he says, rubbing his hands together and licking his lips. His stomach growls, agreeing with him, but he only gets so far onto the path before he realizes Kyle isn't beside him. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, no, I'm not walking up there like this. Do you see my hair? I look like a wild man. It's got leaves in it."
"Nope, this was your idea, so you have to bring me back some clothes. And a hair tie."
Stan pouts, glancing uncertainly at the chain. He hasn't seen any more people go by, but he has to run into someone on his way back to the room.
"I'm going to be arrested for, like, indecent exposure."
"Don't worry, I'll bail you out. I'll sell your guitar."
Kyle laughs at Stan's genuinely panicked expression, leaving his hiding place so that he can stand on the tips of his toes and wrap his arms around Stan's neck. He hangs there with a dramatic sigh, but he winks and says, "No, I wouldn't. But I assure you, your sacrifice will be rewarded. Preferably after we shower."
"Or during," Kyle agrees, kissing Stan briefly before pulling away and returning to his hiding place. "Don't get lost this time, okay?"
"I'll try. I'm kinda prone to it."
Stan feels very vulnerable walking back to the resort, passing confused hikers and annoyed parents that have come to enjoy the trails with their kids. He smiles at them, however, and it's genuine, even if he does have to share the elevator with a woman who is clearly less than thrilled. Even when he leaves the elevator and starts walking toward their room, alone with his thoughts for the first time, he's happy. Sure, they're going to lose a massive chunk of their income and he's going to have to pause his music career for a bit, no matter how much Kyle objects to it, but he feels lighter than he has in months. Everything feels right again, as if the planets have realigned and the seas have settled. It's a euphoric feeling, one that he had feared he'd never experience again, and now that it's all over and everything is okay, he knows they'll look back on it and laugh.
And he does laugh, until he reaches their room and realizes that the bear still has his keycard.