When the first snowflakes of the winter drift down over the rooftops of the village, Kyle watches them fall with nervous anticipation. Snow means that bundling season is upon them. He's sixteen this winter, and if he doesn't speak up soon he's going to be bundled with a girl. It's an awful thought, but also not as scary as the thought of being placed with a boy. He fantasizes about boys almost constantly, but the boys in his day dreams are sweet and gentle, with pretty eyes and good teeth. The actual boys in the village are nothing like that. They've always been cruel to Kyle, and they're predominantly awkward, with bad skin and worse breath. The thought of being placed in a bed with one of them and forced to listen to his vile fantasies about what he will do to Kyle when they are unwrapped is the stuff of his nightmares.
Still, it could be his only chance to be matched with someone he might actually grow to desire, rather than a girl who will want him to pump her full of babies. He shudders at the thought and pulls his knees up to his chest, watching the snow come down harder. Some of the rowdier boys are out in the square, celebrating the change in the weather and what it signifies. They've been anticipating their bundling without fear, unlike Kyle.
At dinner that night, he struggles to work up his courage as his mother dominates the conversation as usual, discussing her efforts to finish making Kyle's wrappings. He'll be meeting with the matchmaker in the coming week, like the rest of eligible children in the village, and Sheila has plans to trim his curls, scrub him with milk, and buy him a new tailored coat.
"Mother?" Kyle says, interrupting her. "May I make a request?"
"Of course, bubbeh. Are you thinking about the color of your coat? I was imagining you in plum, but if you have another preference--"
"It's just that I want you to put me in with the boys," Kyle says, rushing this out before he can lose his nerve. "That is. To be matched with one. Ike can give you grandchildren!" he blurts when his father looks up from his plate in surprise.
"Oh, Kyle." Sheila glances at Gerald. "We're not worried about that. It's just -- do you really think you'll be happy with a boy? You've never quite gotten along with them--"
"Sure I have," Kyle says, a pointless lie. "And anyway, won't other villages be submitting candidates?"
"I suppose so," Sheila says. "But, well. These villages share our -- culture, Kyle, and the boys won't be so different."
"They might be," Kyle says glumly, losing hope.
"Are you sure you want to risk it?" Gerald asks. "What if they pair you with a bossy boy?"
"How's that different from a bossy girl?"
"He's afraid your match will beat you," Ike says. "As in, physically. Although, to be honest, a girl might manage that as well."
"Shut up! I want a boy." He says so firmly now, to his mother. "Won't you let me try for something I actually want?"
"I can't stop you." Sheila looks worried, and she keeps glancing at Gerald. "But -- oh, Kyle! It would break my heart if they matched you with some brute."
"The matchmaker wouldn't do that," Kyle says, uncertainly. "She's -- good, right?"
"Mom's worried that there's no one quite as delicate as you in the dating pool," Ike says, still snickering. "No one who wants to stick it to another boy, anyway."
"I'll show you delicate!" Kyle roars, and he throttles Ike right out of his chair. Sheila shrieks and Gerald tells them to stop it at once as they roll across the floor. Kyle knows he should stop, but it feels good to attack something, Ike especially. Kyle is afraid he's right: most boys who pair with other boys do so because they want someone tough who can handle their manliness, body odors, and tendency to throw freshly killed game on the kitchen table, blood and all. Kyle knows a pair of matched men who are both lumberjacks, hairy and huge, and though he occasionally imagines being taken to bed by someone like that, in reality he knows he couldn't handle it. He's inherited his mother's intolerance of dirty boots, and would prefer that his future mate leave his at the door before entering their home.
Kyle is banished to his bedroom for fighting with his brother, denied dessert. He curls into the blankets on his bed and mopes, wondering if there could possibly be a boy in any village on this earth who he would like to be bundled alongside. It's not as if he holds himself in such high regard that no one could measure up. He just doesn't want to be left alone in the dark with someone who might be cruel to him, or frightfully dull, or ugly.
On the morning of his meeting with the matchmaker, he wakes up early with a stomachache, Sheila already fluttering around his room in preparation. She pulls open the curtains and yanks Kyle out of bed, hustling him into the bathroom, where she's filled the tub with milk.
"It's fresh!" she says, as if Kyle is concerned about that, shivering while he strips off his pajamas.
"Must you be in here for this?" Kyle asks.
"Yes! Oh, Kyle, I'm not looking at you, just get in. I'll scrub your back, and I've got a special treatment for your hair, too. It's got to shine when we're done, and no frizz!"
Kyle sits in the milk, which is distressingly lukewarm and only comes up to his belly button. His mother has lit the fireplace near the bath, but it's just getting going and the room is still cold. Kyle shakes and cleans his front while she does his back, scrubbing so hard that he can feel flakes of skin coming off.
"Gently on your face!" she says when he rubs a wash rag across it. Kyle moans and looks toward the supplies that she's set out for his hair: honey, artichoke paste, and a raw egg.
"I'll stink," Kyle says when she mixes it all together.
"Nonsense! There's a lavender rinse for after we wash this out. Boys love the smell of lavender."
"Did you undertake this ritual when the matcher met with you?"
"Oh, yes, something like it, but less advanced! This is the latest formula, very highly recommended."
"And were you frightened?" Kyle asks, looking down at his trembling, milky fingers.
"Of course, of course, but in a matter of days I was being placed into the bundle bed with your father, and it was the happiest moment of my life! I thought him so handsome, so kind -- Kyle, are you sure you don't want a girl? You could make a little wife so happy."
"But what about me? Would you have accepted a girl rather than a boy, because you might have made her happy?"
"I see your point," Sheila says, her nails digging into Kyle's scalp as she applies the foul smelling egg mixture. "And if you've made up your mind, that's that! We'll ask for a nice boy, like your father."
"Not like him," Kyle says, moaning, because his father, while nice, is strange and embarrassing. Sheila smacks his shoulder and gets back to scrubbing his hair.
When Kyle has been thoroughly cleaned and rinsed in lavender, Sheila powders him all over and brings the clothes she's selected for this important day: new underthings, his best white shirt with silver buttons, and close fitting wool pants in a dark olive shade. The new plum colored coat completes the ensemble, and Kyle feels incredibly ridiculous as Sheila adds a fat striped tie around the collar of his shirt.
"I look like some kind of frog at a tea party," Kyle says when she brings him over to the mirror. Sheila snorts.
"What on earth do you mean? You look beautiful. Look at your hair!" She fluffs it, then spritzes it with more lavender. "Put these on," she says, thrusting a pair of his father's black silk stockings into his hand, recently laundered. "Ike is polishing your boots. We're nearly ready -- it's so exciting!" Sheila seems to want to kiss and embrace him but holds back, not wanting to wrinkle anything.
Ike remains at the house while Kyle journeys to the matchmaker's residence with his parents, as is tradition. The matchmaker lives in the woods, like all dependable witches, and as their horse-drawn carriage bumps along over the unpaved, root-strewn woodland roads Kyle wonders if he'll lose his breakfast, which was a modest bowl of cream and winter berries, spoon fed to him very carefully by his mother, lest he spill anything on his clothes.
"Look, we're one of the first ones here!" Sheila says when they arrive at the clearing where the matchmaker's cottage sits, exuding the warmth and light that signifies a good witch within. It's small but inviting, with purplish roof shingles and a set of ornately carved wooden doors, the snow cleared from the narrow front porch.
"Only two carriages parked out front, so we'll be the third to see her,” Sheila says, and Kyle silently laments that the other carriages look finer than theirs -- the horses, too. “That's perfect -- she'll have warmed up but not yet tired. Oh, wonderful timing, Gerald, dear, well done!"
"It was you who orchestrated our schedule," Gerald reminds her, sounding both fond and irritated.
"Well, I meant your driving, darling. Alright, let's go! Kyle, take your time stepping down, there's mud here. Gerald, throw down your coat! Or should you carry him over this puddle?"
By the time they're knocking on the matchmaker's front door Kyle feels as if he's regressed to infancy, not as if he's on the cusp of manhood, which is what bundling is supposed to prepare him for. He's resigned to it, simply trying not to vomit as they wait for the matchmaker to answer. When she does, she's nothing like what Kyle pictured. He'd been envisioning a sort of fairy-like sexual goddess, but this woman is old, plain, and grouchy-looking, with spectacles and a ratty shawl.
"You're here for the matching, I presume?" she says. Her voice is rather masculine.
"Yes," Sheila says, and she bows a little, something Kyle has never seen her do before. "Oh -- Mrs. Garrison, how good it is to see you again after all these years! I don't suppose you remember me?"
"Sure I do," Garrison says. "The beefy redhead and the stringy boy with the dolphin fixation. I see you've produced a son." Her eyes fall on Kyle, who cringes, afraid of which descriptors she'll attach to him. "Reeks of perfume, but he's got good facial symmetry. A little on the small side -- most girls want a big hunk of meat, even at this age."
"Ah -- well." Sheila glances at Gerald. "Kyle actually wants to be matched with a boy, if you please."
"Oh, good," Garrison says, and Kyle is surprised by this reaction, though he's not sure why. "That makes my job easier. Plenty of boys want to be placed with one who's smaller than they are. And I've had some who find this hair color so fetching that they'd take either sex. Lucky that you're not all covered with freckles," Garrison says, and she grabs Kyle's shoulder, pulling him into the house. His heart is pounding, and he looks back to his parents, who both make hand motions ushering him forward, as if he has a choice. Garrison shuts the door on them; it's tradition that they wait outside.
Garrison walks Kyle down a dimly lit hallway and into a room filled with colorful pillows, stained glass windows looking out on the forest. There's a large fireplace that's currently in use, heating the whole room. Kyle feels himself start to sweat when his eyes fall on two boys from his village who are sitting on pillows near the fire, sipping tea. One is Craig, who is mean and fiercely competitive, and the other is Eric, who is mean and dangerously stupid. Kyle prays that neither of them wants a male bedmate, fearing that might be the case when Eric gives him a sneering smile.
"Craig, you may go out to your parents," Garrison says. "I've got all the information I need to match you. Eric, have you finished your tea?"
"Yes, Mrs. Garrison," Eric says in a fake, syrupy voice. Craig scampers away without casting a second look at Kyle.
"Go in to the parlor, Eric," Garrison says. "And bring your tea cup." She goes to a side table and pours some tea for Kyle. "It's very important that you drink all of this," she says when she brings it to him. "Sit there by the fire and wait your turn. Eric probably won't take long. He's not very subtle when it comes to his preferences."
Kyle swallows heavily and nods, unable to find his voice. He sits by the fire and stares into the flames for a while, trying to make out the muffled words from behind the closed door of Garrison's parlor. He lifts the tea cup to his lips with a shaking hand and silently begs the gods not to let Eric ask for a feisty redhead with milky skin. Eric and Kyle fought quite a lot as boys, back when Kyle could still take him on, but now Eric is much bigger, and Kyle hides if he comes upon Eric in town. He would rather fight, but he knows his limitations and loathes the feeling of being held down by someone stronger, especially if they're laughing at his struggles as Eric always does. He's in a flop sweat by the time the door opens, terrified that his fate is already sealed. Eric winks at him before leaving, and snickers at Kyle's horrified expression.
"Come in, Kyle," Garrison calls. "And bring your tea cup. Have you finished?"
Kyle takes the last sip as he passes into the parlor, nodding. He takes a seat in the large armchair that Garrison gestures to, surrendering his tea cup. This room is warm and fire-lit, and the armchair is overstuffed, plush and comfortable, but this only goes so far toward calming Kyle's nerves. Garrison shuts the parlor door and goes to a sofa that faces the armchair, sighing.
"Well, that was a disturbing session," she says. "Fortunately I have just the hapless masochist for that little bastard."
"For -- Eric?" Kyle says, stuttering. He's pretty sure he's not a masochist, so hopefully this means he's in the clear. Garrison nods and peers into Kyle's tea cup, humming.
"Very interesting," she says, and she looks up at Kyle, squinting a little. "But I'd like to hear it in your words as well. Tell me about yourself."
"Well." Kyle swallows and presses his hands together, peering at the window on the far side of the room. It's snowing again; his parents must be cold. "I'm a good student," he says, feeling idiotic already. "I plan to be my father's apprentice and serve as a mediator in the village someday. I think my father is too lenient on the offending parties, sometimes. I think I would be stricter, but not too strict." He'd prepared all of this in his head last night, as his mother instructed, but it sounds so inadequate out loud. "Furthermore, I like books and stories. I -- I would like someone who had stories to tell, and who would listen to mine."
"Mhmm-hmm," Garrison says, adjusting her shawl. She's not writing any of this down. "Well, that's very nice, Kyle. Now when it comes to sex, do you prefer giving or receiving?"
"Give -- giving?" He says so mostly to appear selfless, hoping that Garrison isn't being literal, because in most of his fantasies he's pressed tenderly to a bed and worked upon, though he also likes the idea of having a big cock in his mouth, something the boys in the village seem to have somehow discerned. Kyle denies it, of course, but they still tease him about it, wagging their hips at him in offering.
"I see. And what sort of physical attributes would you like in a partner?"
"Well." Kyle wonders if he should mention the big dick he desires. Probably not, but he longs to make that clear, though it could backfire if he ends up with some unwieldy monster. "I suppose -- I'd like him to be comparable in size to me, but not too large, though also not so small that I would feel clunky in comparison. And, well. My skin is quite clear, you see, so I feel it would be only fair for me to have someone with no blemishes. Or few -- just a few wouldn't be so bad, because of course they do go away. And the teeth -- well, they should not be yellow, because mine are not, and not too small and crooked on the bottom, and certainly not missing, though if there is one gold tooth somewhere on the side, I could abide that. And not anyone fat, I should think, because while I am not entirely slender I have smallish proportions, and I should not like to be crushed. On that note, someone who sweats excessively--" He feels guilty for a moment, because he is soaked in sweat himself, under his coat-- "--I would not like that, I don't think." He makes himself shut up then, staring at Garrison, who seems amused.
"You're quite particular," she says.
"I hope I'm not as bad as Eric," Kyle says, blurting this in a panic. "Please don't put me with him. I hate him entirely."
"Oh, don't worry about that. You think I'm such a bad matchmaker that I can't see you're incompatible with that beastly child?"
"No, sorry -- I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to offend--"
"Hush, it's fine. Some people come in here with a whole list of names they don't want to be paired with. It's understandable." Garrison consults Kyle's tea cup again, pursing her lips. "Alright, let's continue. You've described yourself as the academic sort. But how do you feel about nature?"
"Nature?" Kyle looks out the window again, at the snow. "I suppose it's fine," he says, fearing that his whole life might hinge upon his answer to this question. If Garrison has someone in mind, do they love nature, or hate it? More importantly, would Kyle love or hate this boy Garrison is thinking of?
"How about music?"
"It's -- it's nice. I can sing a bit." This isn't true at all, though Sheila does make him and Ike sing for her after dinner sometimes.
"Would you tolerate an artistic sort?"
Kyle considers this, sweating more profusely. He doesn't like artistic types, no. But what if the alternative is a sportsman who chews tobacco and scoffs at books?
"I think I could," Kyle says. "If. If the art is not too performative. Or public, I should say."
"Yes, I can see in your tea leaves that you're prideful."
"Well, I -- I have dignity, I suppose, but--"
"Do you like blue eyes?"
Kyle's heart melts, because he likes those very much. But Craig has cold little blue eyes.
"Yes," he says, meekly, hopeful. "But kind eyes, mostly. You see, I want someone who will be--" He has to gather himself for a moment, hearing the tremble in his voice. "Nice to me," he says. "I mean, who -- who will really love me, and kiss my face even while we're bundled, because he won't be able to help himself." Kyle stops there, nearly in tears with embarrassment. Garrison is smiling.
"Oh, then you're in luck," she says. "Alright, I've heard enough. You'll be bundled in two days. Until then, you'd better practice being charming. You're much too prim, and you stutter. And I caught the faint whiff of sulfur -- do you fart when you're nervous? That's disastrous when you're bundled."
"It's my hair," Kyle says, a miserable weight settling onto him. He hadn't even considered that Garrison might match him with some beautiful prince who will be the one who is let down when he lays eyes on Kyle. "It's -- eggs, in my hair. To make it shine."
"Good grief. Alright, out with you. I can hear the next carriage arriving."
When Kyle rejoins his parents at their carriage, he is met with a flurry of questions from Sheila. Sullen after being reminded of his flaws, he answers her curtly.
"Well, was she encouraging?" Sheila asks, exasperated with Kyle's attitude. "Does she think she's got someone, or will she be looking for him on the last two days?"
"I don't know," Kyle says, not wanting to admit that Garrison certainly seemed to have someone in mind. If he tells his parents that Garrison is hopeful about the match, they will then be hopeful themselves, and disappointed if Kyle is the one who blows it during bundling. He'll have six nights of being wrapped up tightly with this blue-eyed person, and on the seventh night they can either choose to lie together unwrapped, thus committing to a lifelong bond, or to wait until next year's bundling season to find a better match. They both have to consent to the unwrapping, and Kyle feels certain already that his partner will smell eggs on him, metaphorically or literally, and decline to mount him on the last night.
The next two days are an agony of dread and anticipation, and Sheila seems almost as nervous as Kyle. With each corresponding bundling, the chance to be happily matched declines, and everybody's best chance is during the first year, at sixteen, when the glow of newness is upon them. Kyle doesn't feel as if he's glowing, however. He's sulking, more like, because Garrison called him prim.
By the time the evening of his bundling arrives, he's a nervous wreck, unable to eat anything but unsalted crackers. His mother makes him drink a big cup of strong tea, since he's supposed to stay up and talk with his partner on the first night, ideally.
"Make sure you urinate!" she says when he's finished it. "You don't want to end up holding it for eight hours."
Just the words 'eight hours' make Kyle feel as if he's already failed. How could he ever entertain someone for that long? They're allowed to sleep, of course, but Kyle can't imagine his pounding heart calming enough for that, not on the first night.
As the sun sets, Sheila wraps Kyle in his first layer, and she's sniffling back tears as Gerald looks on. Kyle is wearing only a thin nightshirt and cotton shorts, his feet bare. His mother secures the first layer around him, and already he can't move his arms or legs. By the time he's got the next three layers on he's a helpless lump, lying on his bed with his feet covered and the outer blanket tucked around his head, hood-like.
"Let's make sure these are showing," Sheila says, pulling out some tendrils of hair to frame Kyle's face. "Your beautiful curls!" She bursts into tears, and Gerald rushes over to comfort her. Kyle can only lie there on the bed like a slug, blushing hotly from the humiliation of it all.
The bundling huts are in the middle of town, and there are lights in the trees all around them tonight, people mingling about and drinking ale, cheering as this week's bundled couples are brought out for their first night together. Kyle is in tears behind his blindfold, imagining how he must look as he's carried into his hut, which smells like candle wax and the cinnamon clove bread that's being passed out among the revelers outside. His parents are silent as they deposit him in the bed and remove his blindfold. There is no speaking allowed until the curtain in the middle of the bed is retracted. It's attached to a pulley that is outside the hut, so that when it is removed only the two bundled partners will be inside. Kyle peers up into his parents' teary faces, listening to soft footsteps from the other side of the curtain. He can feel the weight of the bed change as his partner is placed on the mattress, and a flare of pure excitement thrills through him for a moment. There is a boy over there, and he's probably got blue eyes.
His parents give him the ceremonial 'kiss goodbye' on each cheek and shuffle out. The other pair has already left. Kyle holds his breath as the door of the hut closes, and he can hear his mother let out a sob as she hurries away. He can hear his own heartbeat, too, loud between his ears. He's lying on his back; he's practiced rolling over onto his side while bundled, but he's not ready to do so yet, and he checks his peripheral vision. His mother has bundled him well, giving him the ability to look to the side and see more than just the outermost blanket. For now he only sees the thick curtain, purple-red and rather menacing looking in the low light from the four fat candles in the corners of the room. Outside, the last of the revelers are herded away by officials and the shouted countdown to the curtains' removal begins in the distance.
"Hello?" the boy on the other side whispers.
Kyle freezes, his ass clenching in fear, and suddenly the constraints of the bundling seem uncomfortably tight.
"You can't talk yet!" Kyle whispers back. His heart rate skyrockets as he wonders what kind of hopeless yokel doesn't know this. "It's against the rules!"
"Oh -- sorry."
"You didn't know?" Kyle asks in disbelief, and he presses his lips together, willing himself not to speak again until the curtain is gone.
"I didn't think it mattered," the other boy says, full volume now.
"Shhh!" Kyle hisses. He pinches his eyes shut, fighting back a verbal condemnation. This is a disaster already.
Outside, the countdown reaches its conclusion. Kyle goes tense all over as the pulley activates and the curtain begins to move, starting at the foot of the bed. It's pulled in slow, purposeful yanks, and Kyle feels teased. The first thing he sees is a royal blue outer blanket that looks like a hand me down from some older sibling's bundling. More of it becomes visible, thickening at the middle of the bundle, and finally there is a sturdy chin, nice lips, straight nose, then the boy's eyes at last. He's closer than Kyle realized, and he startles, trying to calm down enough to study him by the light of the candles. The other boy is lying on his back as well, with his head turned toward Kyle on the long pillow that runs the width of the bed. He smiles. His eyes are blue, and he's so beautiful that Kyle forgets to keep breathing.
"Hi," the boys says. "I'm Stan. Sorry I talked. I was nervous."
Kyle is immediately, deeply in love with him.
"It's okay," Kyle says, and it comes out quite shakily, his breath returning in a gush. "I'm Kyle, I -- I'm glad to meet you."
Stan rolls toward him and Kyle does the same, more awkwardly than he'd planned to. When Stan laughs, Kyle does, too, though this is not funny to him at all. This is goddamn serious: this is the love of his life, clearly, and it's starting now, for real; he's got to do this right. Go, he tells himself, his voice firmly stuck in his throat. Go, go!
"I should tell you," Stan says. "I'm not planning to go through with all this."
"You -- what?"
"It's just not right." Stan sighs, and Kyle notices his hair is not just dark but black, shiny and not egg-scented at all. Stan smells like boy sweat and plain soap, no frilly lavender added. "I mean, look at us," Stan says, and Kyle comes back to himself, partly, still confused.
"What do you mean?"
"Listen," Stan says, and when he squirms a little closer, Kyle does, too, ready for the kissing. "I'm going through with this so that there won't be any alarm bells, but I've been attending secret meetings, alright, and my friend Wendy leads them." He pauses, and Kyle tries to make himself understand what is being said here, distracted by how soft and pink Stan's perfect lips are. "Do you know Wendy?" he asks.
"Wendy -- what, no." Kyle doesn't know any girls; why would he?
"Well, she's gotten a group of us sixteen-year-olds together and we've been talking about the bundling. It's not right -- it's our parents trying to tell us how to live, to box us all in just like they got boxed in. I want to see other towns, far away places, and I want to swim in distant oceans, and make people all over the world happy with my music."
"Oh." Kyle's opinion of Stan plummets, but he's still so beautiful. This rambling nonsense can't be accurate. "Wait, what. What are you talking about?"
"We're going to escape on the seventh night of the bundling, a whole group of us. You're welcome to come along if you want, but you'd have to bring your own supplies."
"Are you playing a joke on me?" Kyle searches Stan's earnest face for clues, and Stan frowns, shaking his head.
"I wanted to be honest with you right away," Stan says. "And I should tell you - and please don't take offense - but I have feelings for someone else already. Romantic feelings."
"Wendy?" Kyle's heart is breaking so completely, so quickly; this can't be real.
"No, no, I do truly prefer boys. His name is Kenny. He's a thief."
"A thief?" Kyle is going to start screaming for the guards. He won't stand for this.
"Yes, have you ever met one? They're really pretty smart. He's survived on his own since he was a boy, living in the woods, stealing from witches. He's got powers of his own, and he's going to help us all escape. You should come with us! It's going to be a great adventure, I think."
Kyle cannot speak, for if he opens his mouth he will unleash eight hours worth of curses and insults upon this fool. He takes a deep breath instead, summoning his inner strength.
"You don't have to decide right away," Stan says. "I just wanted you to know that you can come along if you want. I didn't want to lead you on for six nights. So, um, but. What are you like?"
"What am I like?" The awkwardness of the question is almost as horrible as what came before, except that it's also adorably sincere. "I don't know. I'm not like your friends, I don't think. I don't want to run away from here."
"Really? You love your village? That must be nice. I hate mine."
"I don't -- no, I don't love my village. But I love my family! Don't you?"
"Oh, sure." Stan sighs. His breath is minty, and Kyle wonders why he bothered, if they won't be kissing. He can feel his heart sinking, as if it's physically burrowing back into the bundle of blankets, its attempt to journey outward rejected. "I do love my parents," Stan says. "Though my father is an idiot. But they mean well -- it's nothing against them. It's the society."
"Society." Kyle pictures this Wendy person preaching to a room of gullible teenagers. His mental image of her is not flattering.
"Yes, it's just -- why should we be paired up when we're so young? Why should some matchmaker have a say? I thought she was mean."
"Why? What did she say to you?"
"She told me I'd better not talk about my music, or I'd come off as having delusions of grandeur. As if she'd even heard me play!"
"What do you play?" Kyle asks, hoping his tone won't reveal his lack of enthusiasm for the subject.
"The guitar. I wish I could have brought it here, to show you. See, if we were really courting, they would let us do that, wouldn't they? Instead of this whole charade."
"Maybe we should just sleep," Kyle says, and he rolls onto his back. "And skip the charade entirely."
"Oh -- no, see, I didn't want to hurt your feelings. You are lovely, and you seem smart."
"I'm not lovely." Kyle scowls at the ceiling. "Not as lovely as Kenny, anyway, I'm sure."
"Mhmm, no, you are. Kenny is an acquired taste."
"What on earth does that mean?"
"I fell for him based on other qualities. I mean, he's pretty dirty, most of the time."
"And he's got, well, his teeth aren't the best. You have great teeth, I noticed."
"Don't flatter me!" Kyle says, making his hands into fists inside his blankets. "Do you realize what you've done? You've blown my chances of getting matched. Next year I'll be an old maid, and no one decent will want me." He imagined Eric still being around at that time, still leering.
"Can't you see how ridiculous that is? An old maid at seventeen? Our lives have barely started!"
"The only thing I can't see is why that damned old witch matched me with such a foolish boy!" Kyle rolls away, and in his haste he moves too fast, shouting in distress as he rolls off the bed entirely.
"Kyle!" Stan cries.
"Oof," Kyle says, from the floor.
"Are you alright?"
Kyle can hear Stan scooting madly, trying to reach the edge of the bed and look over at him. He fights away tears in the meantime, waiting to wake from this nightmare of a first bundling. When Stan's face finally appears at the edge of the bed he's winded from struggling to get there, his cheeks pink and his eyes full of sympathy.
"Oh, poor Kyle!" Stan says. "Should I yell for help?"
"No, god! It would be the embarrassment of the century! Just let me lie here and wallow in my misery until morning."
"But it's cold down there." Stan grunts in frustration and struggles against his bundling, his cheeks getting brighter. "I want to help you."
"Well, you can't. No one can, and least of all you, with your thief and your 'adventure.' I'd ask the gods to help me, but clearly I've been entirely forsaken. Why are you smiling?" Kyle asks, enraged.
"It's nothing, just. I like the way you talk. Look, move over. I'm coming down there."
"Because if you have to sleep on the floor to protect your pride, I should, too. It's my fault you fell, anyway."
"That's true," Kyle mutters, furious. "But I don't see how -- wait!"
He rolls away just in time to not be crushed by Stan, who falls onto him partly anyway. There isn't much room between the bed and the wall of the hut; the whole point of these huts is to house the beds, with just enough room for parents to stand on either side as they deposit their bundled offspring. Kyle and Stan are both thickly bundled, struggling together between the low frame of the wooden bed and the wall, Kyle huffing and Stan laughing under his breath.
"Stop that!" Kyle says. "It's not funny!"
"I know, I'm sorry." Stan's face is very close now, and so is the rest of him. "It's just so absurd. Can't you see the humor in it?"
"Quit asking me if I can see things! Clearly I don't have your lunatic vision. Christ, it's cold down here!"
"I know, but here." Stan squirms closer, though they're already firmly pressed together, unable to move apart. "I'll keep you warm," Stan says, his breath doing its part to heat Kyle's cheek. Kyle sneaks a look up into Stan's eyes. They're dark blue, calm and sweet, the kind of eyes Kyle has dreamed of looking into and seeing love and adoration reflected back at him. "I'm sorry I'm such a disappointment," Stan says. "I knew I would be, but I hope -- maybe I can convince you to see things my way."
"No. I won't be convinced, so don't waste your breath. Let's just go to sleep." Kyle closes his eyes and tucks his chin down, wanting to nuzzle his face against the heat of Stan's neck.
"Will you tell on me?" Stan asks, whispering. "In the morning? Spoil my plan?"
"A smarter person would have considered that before he unveiled the whole thing to a stranger whose own plans he's ruined. But no," Kyle says. "I've nothing to gain from telling everyone that my partner plotted to run clear out of the country the moment he met me."
"Kyle, that's not true. I've plotted this for months. I hoped I wouldn't like the person who got matched with me, so that I wouldn't feel moved to trust him with my plans, but I liked you right away."
"That's ridiculous. I snapped at you for talking before they moved the curtain."
"But then you smiled at me and accepted my apology."
Kyle considers this for some minutes in silence. He can hear Stan swallowing, and he's fidgeting inside his bundle. With his eyes closed, Kyle presses his face to Stan's outermost blanket, feeling only a little of the warmth of him through all those layers.
"This thing smells like applesauce," Kyle says, wanting this to come out like an insult.
"Oh -- yeah, I got hungry again after they bundled me. My mom gave me a few spoonfuls, and some dripped. Sorry."
It's almost hilarious to hear him apologize for that, after all the rest, but mostly it's just sad. Kyle allows himself to drift into a feeling of temporary security, wedged between this boy and the bed frame. He won't be able to sleep, not right away, but there is something nice about being so near to another person as the thickest dark of night settles over the village. Outside there are still a few distant cries of celebration from people at the village pubs who are remembering their own bundlings fondly. Kyle fears he'll never know the feeling.
"Are you sleeping?" Stan whispers. It's just the kind of tender entreaty Kyle once wished for. He keeps his face hidden and pretends that he didn't hear it.
Kyle wakes when he hears the curtain being wheeled back into place up on the bed. For a moment he has no idea where he is, only that he's very warm and can't move. He shifts and catches a whiff of Stan, remembering everything. It's like being tossed over the edge of a cliff, again. His perfect boy is here, waking with a groan and squirming sleepily against Kyle, but he's not perfect at all, just teasingly close.
"Oh!" That's Sheila, at the door. "My god -- what's happened?"
"Stan?" A man's voice, certainly Stan's father. Stan groans again, and when Kyle peeks up at him, his eyes are closed.
"We fell," Stan says. "We're fine."
"Oh -- well, wow." That must be Stan's mother. Gerald says nothing, predictably.
"So, uh, what do we do?" Stan's father says.
"I'll get Kyle first." Sheila sounds annoyed, and Kyle wonders how the customary meet and greet between the parents went last night. "Goodness, my poor dear -- Gerald, give me a hand!"
"See you later," Stan says as Kyle is lifted off of him. Kyle glowers down at Stan, and his heart turns over when Stan's face falls, but he won't be moved by one sad expression. He won't forgive Stan for ruining this for both of them, ever.
Outside, Kyle closes his eyes against the cold, unable to believe now that he didn't anticipate the sheer misery of being carried back to the house by his father, still in his bundle, onlookers mumbling commentary. His mother at least waits until they're in the privacy of their home to start questioning him.
"Well?" she says, unwrapping him. Kyle is back in his own bed, stone faced and silent. "Aren't you going to tell us how it went? When I saw you two on the floor my heart nearly stopped! I've never even heard of such a thing."
"Really," Kyle says. "In the history of bundling, over hundreds of years, no one has ever fallen out of the fucking bed?"
"Kyle!" Gerald says, from the doorway. "Language!"
"Oh, honey! What went wrong? I can see it on your face. You're white as a sheet."
"Nothing went wrong. But I can tell you right now that we're not a match, so don't get your hopes up."
"Bubbeh, are you sure? It's only one night, and the - well, are you going to tell us how you both ended up on the floor, exactly?"
"I don't think so, no. I'm not required to disclose what goes on in that hut, as far as I know."
"Well, I'm asking nicely!" Sheila removes his third layer and his second, frowning. "Oof," she says when she reaches the first. "Honey, you're so sweaty. And -- ah, god." She finishes unraveling the innermost blanket and throws it onto his lap, presumably to spare herself the sight of his aching morning wood. "Go have your bath. We'll talk more at breakfast."
Kyle makes his bath very hot and sits in it for a long time. He masturbates furiously, and then at a more leisurely pace, thinking of Stan both times, though not entirely of Stan. He also mixes in the lumberjacks and some faceless dicks, though he's partly thinking that these dicks might be Stan's.
"I heard you humped your partner right onto the floor," Ike says as soon as Kyle sits down at the breakfast table. "Or was he trying to beat you up while still bundled?"
"You told him?" Kyle says, turning to his mother, livid.
"I did not!" Sheila says. "Ike, where did you hear that?"
"When I went out to the well this morning, Ruby Tucker told me. Everyone is talking about it -- they're saying you two are the couple most likely to succeed, or just the horniest."
"I want to die," Kyle says, leaning over his oatmeal.
"You do not!" Sheila whacks him on the shoulder with the spatula she's using to make Gerald's eggs. "It's not the worst thing to be talked about as a viable couple! As long as that Stan boy wasn't actually trying to hurt you, bubbeh?"
"Of course he wasn't! He's perfectly mild and nice and all that. But he's also -- ugh, never mind. We're not right for each other."
"Well, I guess I'm not that surprised, having met his parents. His mother is lovely, but that father! He was drunk as a boiled owl last night."
"Who would ever boil an owl," Ike says. "And why would it therefore be intoxicated?"
"Ike, it's an expression! Anyway, Kyle, I suggest you make the best of it. Practice your skills for next year." She sighs, and Kyle feels so unfairly judged that he wants to blurt Stan's plan to her, but he knows that he can't.
"Skills?" Kyle says, his teeth grit.
"Flirtation! You know, and conversation. You've got five more nights together, whatever you think the outcome will be. Might as well get some use out of it!"
Kyle sleeps for most of the day, grieving. The year ahead will be one of shame and loneliness, while other boys and girls his age are gifted with their first cottages and cooking supplies. All they have to do to earn their basic life-making materials is to want to fuck each other, and Stan thinks this is unfair somehow. To Kyle it seems like a miraculous blessing, and anyone who would want to throw away their chance at a real start in life in order to play his guitar in foreign lands with some magical thief for company is a tremendous idiot. He just wishes this particular tremendous idiot wasn't so nice looking and sweet, willing to roll off of beds for him if nothing else. It's more than most people have done for Kyle recently.
Night approaches, and Kyle listlessly submits to his bundling. The three undersheets are fresh, but the outermost blanket is the same one from last night, the one Sheila made especially for the occasion. The thought depresses Kyle as she completes his bundling. He might as well have worn an old, applesauce-splattered thing like Stan, who could clearly care less what his bedmate thinks of his wrappings.
"Now Kyle," Sheila says as she walks alongside Gerald, who is carrying him back to the hut at dusk. Kyle is not blindfolded this time, though he wishes he was. "Try to keep an open mind. I was thrown when I saw you two on the floor, but Stan is rather handsome!"
"What difference does it make to you?" Kyle asks, sorry for how bitter he sounds but unable to help it. "His handsomeness has no bearing on your future grandchildren. He won't be impregnating me."
"This whole thing is really bringing out the worst in you, son," Gerald says.
Kyle arrives before Stan, which hurts his feelings, as if Stan is stalling this for as long as possible -- as if Kyle wouldn't have if his parents had let him. The curtain is again drawn, which seems silly now that they've seen each other. Kyle mumbles goodnight to his parents and listens as Randy carries Stan in.
"Try to stay off the floor tonight, son," Randy says, though he sounds kind of proud.
"Thanks, Dad," Stan says. "Great advice."
Randy leaves, and Kyle hears Stan sigh. Kyle stays perfectly quiet, to spite him.
"How was your day?" Stan asks, and Kyle's resolve crumbles instantly. He lets out a whimpering sigh of his own.
"Tiring," he says.
"Yeah, mine too."
Outside, the bell that signals the start of the night's bundling sounds, and their curtain begins to move. Kyle again thinks that it moves much too slow. He rolls toward Stan, surprised by how much he wants to see him. He's further surprised when the curtain finally pulls back enough to allow their eyes to meet, and Kyle's burn as if he might cry. Stan smiles, not as convincingly as the day before.
"Apparently word got around about us," Stan says.
"Yes." Kyle conceals his half-formed tears with a kind of snort-blink, then has to wipe his nose on his blankets. "My brother made some comments."
"Kenny did, too."
"Really?" Kyle hates this Kenny so much. He's given some thought to doing physical harm to him, which is hard to enjoy when he doesn't know what that would look like, exactly. "Describe him," Kyle says.
"I mean, you said he's dirty and has gross teeth. What else does he look like? There have to be some upsides."
"Well, sure." Stan seems taken off guard, as if he can't think of any. "He's tall, and blond."
"Blond," Kyle says, with disgust.
"He's got blue eyes, lighter than mine. He's got a dimple on his left cheek."
"I hate that word," Kyle says. "Dimple. It sounds like something that you'd find in a diaper. How old is he?"
"He's not sure," Stan says, and Kyle snorts, rolling his eyes as emphatically as he can. "He's somewhere around twenty."
"The absurdity of not knowing one's own age notwithstanding, what kind of twenty-year-old is seducing a naive first year bundler? A perverted one, that's what," Kyle says before Stan can answer.
"Did you just call me naive?" Stan asks.
"Well, I can't think of any other word for wanting to fly away on a guitar and a prayer with some elderly criminal."
Kyle expects Stan to berate him for that, his heart beating hard in anticipation, but Stan bursts into laughter, which hurts worse.
"You're hilarious," Stan says. Kyle waits for something mean to follow, but Stan is just smiling at him.
"It's not natural for a twenty-year-old to court someone your age," Kyle says, putting his hilariousness aside for now. "Has he failed at bundling three times? Don't they kick you out after that?"
"He's never been allowed to bundle! That's another reason the system is broken."
"Oh, so it's him who's really convinced you so. That makes more sense."
"I'm not some dumb kid. It's dumber not to see the problems with this arrangement."
"And just why hasn't he been allowed to bundle?" Kyle asks, his face getting hot with rage. There's nothing he likes less than being called dumb.
"Because he's not registered, Kyle. He doesn't have parents. He's an orphan who lives in a tree."
Now it's Kyle's turn to laugh hysterically and unexpectedly. He can see Stan struggling not to, chewing his lip.
"Shut up," Stan says, grinning. "It's not funny. He's had a hard life."
"Oh, fuck him, who hasn't? Anyway, you said he'd heard we were on the floor this morning? What did he have to say about that, in his wisdom?"
"Well." Stan's smile is quickly gone. "That's the thing. He was upset. I tried to explain about, you know. It being an accident, but there was so much talk in town. You know how people love to gossip when the bundled couples try to fuck each other through the blankets."
"That's what they thought we were doing?" Kyle's face grows hotter, though he's not sure he's actually angry or even very embarrassed about this. It's a kind of compliment to his allure, really, if people believe his partner knocked him right off the bed in a desperate attempt to have some kind of blanket-muffled sex.
"Of course that's what they thought." Stan rolls his eyes. "My father was getting clapped on the back all day for having a virile son who couldn't be stopped by the bundling."
"My village is not like that," Kyle says, now mildly horrified for his reputation. "Do they think I encouraged you?"
"No, the story is that you rolled away in fright, and I, in my virility, chased you right onto the floor. It's such a disgusting narrative, as Wendy put it."
"And Kenny was jealous?" Kyle says, pleased. Stan shrugs.
"I've never seen him sulk like that. He wanted us to run away before I got bundled, but that's too risky. Everyone is on the lookout for kids who bolt out of nerves. Afterward is the safest time, especially--" He breaks off there.
"If I go on the seventh night, while everyone thinks the successful bundles are fucking. That's when all the villagers gets blasted in celebration. It's the perfect cover."
"Yes," Kyle says, feeling as if Stan has just ripped another hole in his chest, next to the place where his heart was. "Convincing everyone to believe that you're partaking in a loving bonding ceremony with your eternal partner -- what an excellent time to betray your family by abandoning them."
"Kyle -- it's nothing personal, really. If the bundling system works for you, that's great. But--"
"Well, clearly it's not working for me, Stan, in that you've thrown a wrench in the whole thing. Whether you think it's acceptable or not, the fact is that second year bundlers have a greatly diminished chance of being accepted by their partners. They're viewed as flawed and suspect. And that's the fate you've assigned me to."
Kyle rolls onto this back, glaring up at the ceiling. Though he's furious with Stan for ruining his life, he's still very glad when Stan scoots toward him, huffing with the effort of moving his whole bundled self over to Kyle.
"Hey," Stan says, softly, and something about this reaches Kyle's dick. Deep inside the layers of blankets, it awakens. "I know, it's an unfair standard, and I really hate the idea that I've hurt you. Is there anything I could do to make it up to you?"
Kyle thinks of a dozen or so pathetic things he could ask for from this boy who will never love him. Most of them involve kissing, and several involve their dicks, which aren't even accessible at the moment. A thief -- that's exactly what this Kenny person is. He's stolen Kyle's life right out from under him.
"I want to meet Kenny," Kyle says.
Stan blinks at him for a moment, then frowns.
"Well. You can't."
"Because I don't think he would be nice to you. And for that matter, I don't think you'd be nice to him."
"I'll find him," Kyle says, nodding to himself. "I mean, how many thieving Kennys who live in trees can there be?"
"What are you going to do to him if you find him?" Stan doesn't actually seem that worried, which is insulting but probably appropriate.
"I don't know. What kind of magic powers does he have?"
"I'm not sure."
"You're not sure? I thought you were lovers!"
"He doesn't like to talk about his powers."
"A-ha. He just wants you know that he has them. Theoretically. To hold that over your head. You poor creature."
"Don't call me a poor creature! You're the one who deserves pity, being stuck in all this mess."
"If the alternative is running away with some delusional band of homeless teenagers, I'll gladly stay here in this mess, thanks."
Now Stan rolls onto his back, and they both look up at the ceiling for a while, breathing hard.
"I wonder why Garrison matched us," Stan says.
"I don't know. Probably because you're a lost cause and I'm a misfit. She asked me if I liked nature. Was that about you?"
"I did tell her I like nature."
"Yes, and that." Stan sighs. "I think she could sense my hostility toward the whole situation."
"She told me I stuttered," Kyle says, still upset about this. "I don't think I really did. Maybe once, but I haven't stammered yet with you, have I?"
"Not at all. You're very, uh, decisive in your speech."
They're both quiet for a while, and Kyle resents how much he's enjoying just the sound of Stan's breath and the irrelevant nearness of him. Outside, the village seems too quiet after the previous night's partying.
"It was a side of him I'd never seen," Stan says.
"Kenny. How he got all sullen about me ending up on the floor with you, as if I'd wanted to. He's been distant since I agreed to do the bundling before we leave, according to Wendy's plan. It's the smart thing for us, I said. He said he understood, but I can tell he actually doesn't approve, and that he wants me to know he doesn't, though he also won't admit it. I'm just. Surprised that he could be so petty."
"You're very forthcoming," Kyle says, perturbed. "I suppose it's because you value honesty, as you say, but I don't know that I could ever trust someone who is so easily honest with everyone he meets."
"I'm not, though! Wendy calls me secretive. I didn't tell her about my crush on Kenny for several years. I think it's the bundling. I'm left with nothing to do but lie here in my bondage and talk."
Kyle squirms at the mention of bondage. He's heard that some couples resume bundling for recreational purposes later in their relationships, one bundling up the other out of nostalgia, and for advanced sexual reasons that Kyle isn't sure he understands yet.
"How did you even meet this Kenny?" he asks.
"I was wandering in the forest five years ago, talking to birds."
"Talking to--" Kyle shakes his head, leaving that aside for now. "You were eleven when this miscreant latched onto you?"
"He didn't latch on! We became friends. He gave me little presents, and taught me how to whistle so that the birds would sing back."
"I cannot listen to this," Kyle says, squirming in his blankets. "No, especially not as your matched partner. I feel robbed, I tell you -- this Kenny has corrupted you from a young age. You have been brainwashed, my friend."
"How so?" Stan asks, laughing.
"He gave you presents! This older boy, and you just some youth wandering alone in the woods, talking to birds? There are too many red flags here for me to count!"
"Look," Stan says, so firmly that Kyle is hurt. "There's something you should know. I may have given you the wrong impression about Kenny and I. You see, I love him, and we're going to travel the world together, but we haven't spelled out our romantic feelings yet. He hasn't even kissed me, so your theory that he only wants to fondle a young person is completely wrong!"
"This news is even worse!" Kyle says, though he knows he should back down, at least a little. "So he has no idea of your feelings for him? When he learns of them you may be halfway around the world, and there he will abandon you for some other interested party!"
"You don't understand about Kenny. He wouldn't do that, we're too close. And anyway, I wouldn't be alone. Wendy and the others will be with me, as I've explained multiple times. God, you might be the most intentionally obtuse person I've ever met!"
"And you might be the most ridiculous ass I've met! Talking to birds, what on earth? Even at the age of eleven, that's really something -- did you expect them to answer you?"
"Well, they did, actually, after Kenny taught me how to properly sing to them!"
Kyle has to bite his tongue, some truly cruel sentiments poised at the tip. Stan goes silent, too, and the candles flicker as they burn down a bit lower, the frigid night outside offering no interruption of their silence.
"Kyle?" Stan says after Kyle has begun to drift into semi-consciousness, his ideas about how he might find Kenny blurring together into nonsense.
"Hmm?" He hadn't meant to answer, but he's too close to actually dozing off to effectively pretend he's already sleeping.
"I'm sorry I called you thick. I think I've done a lot of talking about myself, but I've made very little effort to understand where you're coming from. Could you tell me, um -- what do you want out of life? What is your dearest dream?"
Kyle sighs and blinks at the ceiling, his eyelids feeling heavy. He's close enough to sleep to answer this question honestly, unguarded.
"I want a match," he says. "A real match, an unshakable one that fate and ritual have brought together. It means something to me, all of this. Or, I want it to. I want to belong to someone. Even more than the other way around. It's so lonely being cared for only by my parents and my brother. I want a real partner, a boy like me, only not exactly like me, more like a compliment. Someone to hold me in bed and wash my back, and bring in the firewood when it's cold and I don't want to go out. I don't want adventure - and not because I'm not brave! I want to be so well matched that my great love is an adventure itself. Isn't there something brave in wanting that? Now that I know I've been a fool, I feel like I at least must have also been brave, to hope it could be real."
"You're not a fool," Stan says after Kyle has been quiet for some time. Kyle closes his eyes, uninterested in pity. He is glad, however, when he hears Stan rolling toward him. Stan lands against his side and exhales. Kyle keeps his eyes closed, fighting off the urge to smile. Stan feels so shapelessly big, swaddled in all those layers of blankets. "Do you want to know the real truth?" Stan asks, whispering.
"Yes. Wait, about what?"
"About me. The truth is, I'm scared."
"Of running away?"
"Yeah. I'm scared of staying, though, too. So you are brave. You're not a fool, you just know what you want. I only pretend to, and then I claim to be honest." Stan scoffs, and Kyle can feel it on his cheek. He opens his eyes and turns to Stan, somehow surprised to find his face so close.
"I'm sorry for what I said about the birds," Kyle says. "I suppose it's no more whimsical than how I believed I could be matched with someone who loved me."
"Believed, past tense? You don't anymore?"
"No," Kyle says, proud of himself for keeping his voice strong, because it hurts badly to say it out loud. "I think this, being matched with someone who loves another person already, is the worst kind of omen. It's just about the only possible outcome I didn't think to fear, and here we are."
"But next year, ah-- or even if you're walking through the woods, you never know where you might find your love. I think you're quite lovable."
"Oh, what crap! You don't even like me."
"I do, though! You're different. You're someone who talks about real things, but without -- without being like Wendy, who is so sure she has all the answers."
"Well, I'd rather be delusional than feel this hopeless."
"I don't think that's true," Stan says, studying Kyle's face. Today his breath smells like blueberries, but only faintly.
"I suppose it's not," Kyle says, and he closes his eyes. Stan rests his forehead on Kyle's cheek, and Kyle holds his breath, wanting him to stay there, though it's a pitying gesture.
"Do you think you could shake your hood off?" Stan asks. "Or did she cinch it too tightly?"
"I -- I don't know, why?"
"I was wondering what the rest of your hair looks like."
"Why do you want to know?" Kyle asks, peeking at him. Stan moves back a little, pink-cheeked.
"No reason. I've just never seen hair like that. I mean, red, yes, but not quite like this."
"Quite like what?" Kyle asks, feeling a bit freakish.
"Just -- that soft red color. I mean, it looks soft, in this light. The red haired kids in my village have this screaming loud hair, like candied apples."
"Even my mother's is not quite this color," Kyle says, feeling proud of himself for this, though he did nothing to earn it. "It's called russet, I'm told."
"Russet? That's not a pretty enough word for it."
"Why are you trying to flatter me?" Kyle peeks at Stan again, a dismally hopeless arousal traveling down toward his crotch when he glances at Stan's lips, which are so close.
"I'm not," Stan says. "I just want to talk. I'm all wound up. Are you really ready to sleep?"
"Why don't you tell me a story?" Kyle says, rolling toward him. "If it's good, I'll stay awake. If it's dull, you'll lull me into a peaceful slumber. It's a win-win."
Stan laughs and settles in beside Kyle, facing him. After thinking for a moment about his selection, he tells a story about a magician's apprentice who secretly borrows his master's staff and gets himself into trouble with an evil spirit. In the end, the elder magician saves him.
"So what was the point of all that?" Kyle asks, tipping his face up toward Stan's. "He didn't learn anything or get punished at all, really."
"Well, in the original version that my dad told me, the boy gets eaten by the evil spirit, who takes on the boy's appearance and later tries to kill the magician, and the magician can't bring himself to kill what he thinks is the boy, so the evil spirit kills him and takes the wand back to the spirit world, and so on -- it's meant to be a warning about stealing and lies, but I didn't like that ending too much."
"Of course not, since your lover is a thief!"
"He's not my lover, as I explained."
"Alright, quiet. I'm going to tell you a real story with a moral and everything."
Kyle tells the one about the boy who wishes to be good and is split into two people by a witch: one good, and one evil. His evil self has a will of its own and runs amuck, hurting his loved ones. The moral of the story is that people should appreciate how their good qualities temper their bad ones on a regular basis, rather than wishing to be perfect. Kyle believes he's told it well, and is glad when Stan is not only awake at the end but smiling.
"That's a real classic," Stan says. "But I don't like the ending."
"What? Why not?" At the end of the story, the boy has to kill his evil self, and in doing so he becomes weaker for the rest of his life, as frail as an old man. "I think it's a perfectly appropriate ending, considering the message."
"Well, it's appropriate, yeah, but it's sad."
They each tell another story before drifting to sleep, and this time around they both freely interrupt to ask questions. As they get more tired they dissolve into subplots and have to back track a bit, laughing together when the details don't make sense. Kyle falls asleep first, to the sound of Stan's voice.
"It's so cold," Stan says, and he moves onto Kyle for warmth, pressing his face to Kyle's forehead. None of the huts have fireplaces, and the beds don't have additional blankets. This austerity is meant to encourage physical intimacy, creating the need to cuddle up together. Kyle sleeps well with Stan's breath tickling over the bridge of his nose, warm enough.