At dinner that night, Kyle waits in tense silence for Ike to make a joke about the bed wetting incident, but Ike chatters on about the forthcoming ice fishing season as if he has no idea what happened. It's a small relief, but Kyle is glad not to have to endure his brother's teasing in addition to his dread of facing Stan again. His only consolation is the certainty that Stan will never tell anyone what happened, not even Kenny. Though Kyle has known Stan for less than five days, he's sure that Stan would not betray him or humiliate him by laughing over the story of his disastrous bundling, even years from now. It settles on Kyle's shoulders heavily, how much he trusts Stan to protect him.
Sheila is quiet as she bundles him, and when Kyle considers how much more disappointed in him she'll be when Stan leaves town with Kenny he begins to feel nauseous.
"You're sure you don't need to go one more time before I do this?" she asks, and Kyle glowers at her.
"I barely even drank anything at dinner," he says. "There's nothing to expel."
"Well, alright. Stop giving me that look. It's just that you can really blow things in the last few days if you seem too -- needy."
"Mother, you have no idea what you're talking about."
"Oh, of course not. It's not as if I'm twenty years older than you and a veteran bundler. What could I possibly tell you about this, or anything, eh?"
Kyle has no response, too defeated to bother. His mother continues bundling him, muttering to herself and making his wrappings extra tight. Kyle's mouth is dry when his father carries him to the hut. Sheila stays behind at the house.
“She's so desperate to get me matched and out of her house,” Kyle says, avoiding his father's eyes, which are hard enough to look into when Kyle is wrapped up and being carried across town like an infant. “I suppose it's because she'll be embarrassed by me if I'm stuck in her house for another year, unwanted.”
“That's not it,” Gerald says. “She just wants you to be happy.”
“Well. She acts as if I don't want that, too!”
“It's more like she's afraid you don't know how to get, uh. Whatever's going to make you happy.”
“Yeah, sure. She wanted me to get bundled with some awkward girl who would have been glad to have a man to sit next to her by the fireplace. She thinks I can't get a man.” Kyle flushes after saying this, and he can feel his father growing uncomfortable, too. They have academic discussions and have always gotten along fine, but Kyle usually doesn't share these kinds of concerns with Gerald, and the fact that he's being carried around in a swaddle increases his humiliation at having done so now.
“I think things will work out with this Stan boy,” Gerald says. “He was very concerned about, ah. Protecting your honor, this morning.”
Kyle says nothing, unwilling to explain that Stan is the type of person who would protect any poor wretch's honor. He's not even sure how he knows this, but it's true: Stan is good.
Though he has no peripheral vision in tonight's tightly wrapped blankets, Kyle can sense that Stan is already in the bed when Gerald deposits him on the other side. It's something about the scent inside the hut, or the warmth, and Kyle is cheered for the first time all day. It was thoughtful of Stan to arrive before him, so that Kyle wouldn't have to worry about him not showing at all. Getting peed on would have been a perfect opportunity to run into Kenny's arms a few days early.
“Are you okay?” Stan asks as soon as Gerald has walked out the door, not even waiting for his footsteps to recede.
“I don't know,” Kyle says, unwilling to admit that he's thirsty. “I guess.”
“I was worried about you all day,” Stan says, and the curtain begins to move then, as if he's lifting the barrier between them himself, unable to wait any longer. Kyle is both sad and relieved to see that this is not the case: Stan is bundled up in his wrappings, which also look tighter tonight, the hood portion closely framing his face.
“You were worried?” Kyle says, cautiously.
“Yeah, you were so upset. Kyle, I.” Stan stops himself there and swallows; at least, he seems too – Kyle can't see his throat, the blankets tucked under his chin tonight.
“Your mom bundled you vengefully, too, I see,” Kyle says. Stan blinks a few times, then seems to try to look down at himself, as if he hadn't noticed the blankets.
“Oh, she – she felt guilty, you know, for doing them kind of looser when I asked her to. I guess she thinks now that I just wanted to get on top of you. Or, you know, she figured that out.”
“Mine wants to disown me.”
“Nah, she's just—”
“I can't imagine how she'll react when she finds out I've run you out of the village altogether,” Kyle says, getting the words out as quickly and steadily as he can. “I mean, there's failing to be unwrapped, then there's being abandoned on the bonding night.”
“Yes, I've been thinking about that.” Stan's face gets serious in a very deliberate, young-seeming way that would be funny under any other circumstances. “I'm not going to do that to you, Kyle. It was disgusting of me to even try to get you involved – I guess I thought, before, that it would be this big group of all of us leaving together, rebelling, with Kenny leading us to places he's been, away from here, and I thought – I mean, for at least three nights I thought I'd be able to convince you to come with us.”
“Are you joking?” Kyle gapes at him, considering the fact that, somewhere around the third night, he'd thought he might convince Stan to stay.
“No, I'm not joking. I thought it would be – I know it sounds idiotic, but I thought we would all live together and help each other and, ugh, I don't know.”
“A traveling commune,” Kyle says. “Kenny has really turned your head around backward.”
“It wasn't even him, it was Wendy! But now she's 'considering her options' with Token, because he doesn't want to leave the village. His parents have a big farm, one of the biggest in the whole county, and she's such a hypocrite for being swayed by that! Though I guess she might also love him. She says she does, and she seems different. Dreamy and dumb. Like I was with Kenny, I guess.”
“Was?” Kyle says, muttering this skeptically.
“I still love him,” Stan says, firmly enough to make Kyle want to spit. “But it's different. I don't feel as young as I was five days ago.”
“Well, you're not, technically.”
“You know what I mean, Kyle. Don't you?”
Kyle rolls his eyes, though he does know. He feels as if he's aged a year for every night that he's spent in this hut with Stan, not in the sense that he's gained wisdom but because he feels like he's being drained of life, being pushed closer to the non-negotiable edge of his last chance at happiness.
“So Wendy is out,” Kyle says, because, though he doesn't know her, he can see in Stan's anxious eyes that her mind is made up about staying with this Token boy. “Who else has been brain washed by the bundling experience?”
“Everyone,” Stan says after a moment's hesitation that allowed Kyle to guess the answer. “Kenny will be so heartbroken. He's been wanting to get away from here forever.”
“So why doesn't the bastard just go? If he's a magical creature or whatever.”
“He's not a creature – he's tried to explain his magic. It's something to do with immortality, but maybe he was only being, um. Metaphorical. And either way, he has to steal just to eat. He's never had a family. We were going to be his family. They were, I mean. Plus me.”
“But you're still going,” Kyle says, though he's certain Stan hasn't made up his mind and afraid that, in the end, manipulative Kenny will make the choice for him.
“I meant what I said when we first met,” Stan says. “I don't think this is right. Especially after what happened to you last night! Why should you be humiliated like that, just because they bound you up in their chains? And made to lie there in it all night like some naughty child? The more I thought about it, all day, it made me sick. I should have torn my way out of my blankets and helped you.”
“Helped me how? You can be indignant on my behalf all you like, and judgmental about the bundling, but the fact is, for less ideological types like, say, me, this is supposed to be the start of my life, and you'd help me more – did help me more – by lying there in the piss with me until sun up. Playing by the rules,” he adds when Stan's nostrils flare at that metaphor.
“I feel like you must understand why I object to this process,” Stan says, his voice tightening. “And you're refusing to admit it, for some reason.”
“You make too many assumptions about people,” Kyle says snappily, and then they're both quiet for a long time, lying on their backs. Kyle closes his eyes and tries to fantasize about drinking sweet, cold fruit juice instead of tasting Stan's lips.
“That's the problem about this process,” Stan finally says, as if he's been formulating his argument this whole time. Kyle turns to him, but Stan is looking at the ceiling, frowning. “You have a whole life, sixteen years of people you meet, and then they throw you into this – intense experience, and of course you're going to question all of it. Like Wendy.”
“I guess you're just stronger than Wendy,” Kyle says. “Or I'm just inferior to Token. Either way, you won. You get to keep your higher standards.”
“You can be such a little dick hole,” Stan says, speaking to himself, as if he needs reminding about Kyle's bad traits right now. Kyle has never heard someone use the word 'dick hole.' It must be colloquial, native to Stan's village. He struggles to feel offended, because there was something fond and intimate about the insult.
“We're not a good match,” Kyle says, tired of getting his hopes back up only to have them crushed again. Stan turns to look at him with surprise. Kyle shrugs, not sure if this is evident with the blankets in the way. “It's fine. I'm sorry if I made you feel bad about it.”
Stan opens his mouth, lets it hang like that for a few seconds, then closes it. He looks at the ceiling.
“I'm so tired,” he says.
“So sleep. I'm going to. I'm too thirsty to keep talking.”
“You – oh.” Stan looks at him again, his eyes soft now. “Poor Kyle. I'd rather get peed on again than have you go without water. You didn't have to do that.”
“I think this would drive me crazy,” Kyle says, letting his chest fill with heat that feels like venom. Stan frowns.
“The way you bend over backward to forgive everyone. It's nice when it's me, sure, but with people like this Kenny you so admire? Especially now that I've met him and seen that he's just some cocky street urchin. No, I wouldn't be able to stand that. I'd lose respect for you. Quickly.”
Stan stares at him for a moment, and Kyle keeps his expression as impassive as possible.
“Thank you for that assessment,” Stan says, and he rolls away from Kyle.
Kyle lies there staring at Stan's back, trying to decide why he did that. To protect himself, probably. Whatever Kyle says, Stan is soon going to be dragged off to god knows where because some vagrant who he met on a forest path at the age of eleven has never had a family. Kyle's eyes fill with thin tears that don't spill, and he wishes he would have put it that way instead, because Stan might have laughed and said again that the likes the way Kyle talks.
At some point, Kyle falls asleep. He wakes up cold, his lips so dry and chapped that it hurts to open them. Stan is turned away from him, and Kyle doesn't dare try to cuddle up to him after what he said.
“Stan?” he whispers when he can't fall back to sleep. Stan doesn't twitch, and Kyle can't bring himself to apologize at a louder volume.
When their fathers come to retrieve them, Kyle finds that he's fallen asleep again, and he's surprised to see Stan lying on his back, awake, and closer than he'd been last time Kyle looked at him, though still not touching him. Kyle opens his mouth, but before he can speak their fathers are coming through the door.
“Everything alright?” Randy asks, scanning their bundles, probably looking for wet spots.
“Fine,” Stan says. “Only Kyle is thirsty, so you should hurry him home.”
“Alright,” Gerald says, and he exchanges a glance with Randy. Gerald scoops Kyle off the bed, and Kyle feels panicked, afraid that he might not see Stan again. He tries to speak, but his throat is too dry, and he doesn't know what to say, anyway.
Back at the house, Sheila flies into an apologetic tizzy when she learns that Kyle is thirsty. She brings him orange juice and water and hurries to free his arms so he can drink without assistance.
“Poor bubbeh,” she says, smoothing down his matted hair while he gulps from the orange juice, then from the water. “It's just as well that tonight's your last night. Then the unwrapping – if you think you'd like that?”
“I'll have to talk it over with Stan,” Kyle says, his stomach dropping. He actually has no idea what their plan is now, or what he wants: a pretend bonding ceremony or a forthright rejection? He wants Stan, but he's ruined whatever chance he had at that in increments.
He sleeps again after breakfast and has bad dreams. In one he's in bed with Stan, bundled, when he realizes that Kenny is there, too, free of restraints and stroking Stan's cheek. Garrison enters, somehow carrying the full weight of Eric, who is bundled and smirking at Kyle hungrily.
“He got dumped by his bedmate, and you're the only one left,” Garrison says. She drops Eric onto the mattress, causing an earthquake-like upset, and Kyle turns to Stan for help, but Kenny is slipping out the window with Stan thrown over his shoulder.
Kyle forces himself to eat at dinner, allowing the tense atmosphere at the table to envelope him. Even Ike is quiet. In the morning, Kyle and Stan will announce their intentions to their families. It does seem cruel, Kyle can admit: the whole course of two lives decided on the basis of six nights. But he can't fault the process, because it worked for him: he wants Stan so much that his bones are aching and heavy, aged by the longing that the blankets have left him to marinate in miserably.
Sheila joins them on the walk to the hut this time. Sharon and Randy are outside when they arrive, lingering. Sharon looks nervous; Randy seems fairly drunk.
“Their last night!” Randy bellows. Sharon puts her hand on her shoulder as if to remind him not to speak.
“It's so overwhelming,” Sheila says, her voice trembling. “Tomorrow – oh, but who knows. Kyle won't tell me anything.”
“We'll talk to the boys in the morning,” Sharon says, and she gives Kyle a warm smile that makes him feel like dirt all over again, remembering what he said to Stan, how he threw that warmth in Stan's face for the sake of his own pride.
“I'll set him down and we'll all go have a drink,” Gerald says.
“Sh'yeah!” Randy says.
Kyle is so anxious that he's almost expecting Kenny to spring out from under the bed and knife him as soon as the parents have left. He listens to them walking away, their voices receding until all he can hear is his own heart pounding. On the other side of the curtain, Stan is silent.
“Oh, god,” Kyle says, his voice creaky and small. “I feel like I'm awaiting execution.”
Stan sighs. It's faint, but Kyle hears it and is heartened. He swallows and fidgets inside his bundle.
“No one's going to kill you, Kyle,” Stan says. Kyle had expected to be hurt or healed by whatever Stan had to say to him, so he's taken off guard by how aroused he is by that statement, which was spoken with an equal measure of annoyance and mercy.
“But my life,” Kyle says. He pauses, trying to steady himself. “I know it's got nothing to do with you, whatever happens to me, but—”
“It's got a lot to do with me,” Stan says, firmly but not unkindly. He seems angry and yet still forgiving, maybe in defiance of Kyle's criticism.
“How so?” Kyle asks.
“I'm your match. We're in this together. Don't cry.”
“I'm not crying!” Kyle says, though he almost was. He sniffles it all back up his nose. “You can't just stay here and do the thing you were dreading because the matchmaker put us together.”
“I know, and I'm not planning on it. But I've been stupid, and now I'm stuck.”
“No – yes, but also with Kenny. And with – wanting more than one thing, and being afraid of having either of them.”
“What are the two things you want?” Kyle asks; there's no sense in being coy now. The curtain begins to move. Stan doesn't answer.
Kyle turns toward the curtain, hoping that Stan will at least look at him, though he knows he doesn't really deserve it. As the curtain pulls away, he's surprised to see that Stan is facing him, looking very tired.
"You didn't really sleep last night," Kyle says. "Did you?"
"Stan - ah. Don't worry about letting me down. You were honest with me from the start, and I tried to manipulate you with the very system you hate. I'm so sorry."
"Don't give the system that much credit," Stan says. Kyle flushes and shakes his head.
"Anyway, it's over. I'll help you get away if you like. It's the least I can do for you having been so open with me all this time, and kind. You could have fooled me easily - I was such a chump. I wanted, ah. I wanted to be bonded with you from the first day. I'm just the sort of fool this business was designed to trap."
"You're not a fool." Stan closes his eyes for a moment. Kyle doesn't dare blink. "God, I hate this," Stan says, fidgeting when his eyes reopen. "Being bound up like this. It's degrading."
"Yes, you've said," Kyle says, gently. "Well, at any rate, tomorrow we'll be free. For another year, at least, in my case. Have you spoken to Kenny?"
It hurts to say his name, and Kyle feels like Stan can see this on him, his own eyes softening. Kyle wishes he knew how to hide his pain; he feels like he did, before Stan.
"I saw him last night, yeah," Stan says. "He came to my window."
"And it's all set? For tomorrow?"
"Kyle, nothing's set." Stan grunts and struggles within his bundle, as if he thinks he can rip free of it by sheer determination, then goes limp again. He's close enough for Kyle to note that his breath smells a little stale tonight. "Kenny is very excited to be going," Stan says, mumbling.
"Me? Oh, I'm petrified. And too much of a coward to even tell him that."
"What are you afraid of?" Kyle asks. Perhaps it's a condescending or obvious question: Stan gives him an irritated look.
"The unknown," Stan says. "And then I'm equally afraid of the familiar - at least, of committing to it for the rest of my life. The familiar being my village."
"And me," Kyle says. "By extension."
"Don't lump yourself in with my boredom. The past six days have been nothing if not exciting."
"You've been excited?" Kyle is truly surprised. Stan scoffs.
"Kyle, I -- we had sex."
"That wasn't sex!"
"It was, too! A kind of sex, anyway - we came. And you were my first kiss."
"But it's -- all the sort of thing you hate! We're just trapped here together, bored--"
"I haven't been bored."
"Stan, what are you saying?"
"I don't know!" Stan says, the words exploding from him with such force that Kyle's cock takes notice, lurching with interest inside his bundle. "And it's really maddening to have to admit that to you!"
"Because you're just - infuriating, and I shouldn't feel closer to you than I do to someone I've known for five years, or closer to you than to Wendy, who I've known since we were both in diapers, but this process has changed everything and I hate it!"
"Because you hate feeling connected to me," Kyle says, nodding and holding back a dangerous tremble in his throat. "It's fake."
"It's not! I thought it would be, but it's not. You -- yesterday -- what you said. That you don't respect me--"
"Oh, I didn't mean it, you know I'm just--"
"Shhh! Listen! It mattered, to me. I was angry with you for it, I wanted to hurt you, too, but the fact is, ah. If I leave, I want to bring you with me."
"With you and Kenny? Stan--"
"I know, it's impossible! And you don't even want to go. And neither do I. But I also don't want to stay. And I don't want to hurt him."
"Hurt him? Stan, as if that's what you should be considering!"
"Tell me, Kyle, what should I be considering?" Stan's tone is sharp, but Kyle gets the sense that he's sincerely curious.
"Whether or not you hurt him, could you stand to lose him?" Kyle asks. "If not, then you must go with him. If you can live without him, if you stay -- well, you don't have to stay with me, you could just stay, and wait, and think more -- oh, how funny would it be if we were matched again next year? That's just the sort of awful comedy my life resembles."
"You're getting off topic," Stan says. He sighs and moves closer, and Kyle doesn't mind his stale breath at all when their noses brush together. "All I know is that I need one more night," Stan says. "To make up my mind. But that's too cruel to ask of you."
"You want to do the bonding ceremony with me?" Kyle says. He swallows, struggling not to surge forward and kiss Stan's face all over. "No, it's. I'll do it. Whatever you decide. I want it."
"You want it, even if I go?"
"Yes." Kyle pinches his eyes shut tight. He's thought about this almost nonstop since he left the hut last night. "I need to know what it's like. I won't have it again, not with someone like you. If I'm bundled again next year, it won't be like this."
"How do you know?"
"Because there's only one you." Kyle opens his eyes, peeking into Stan's before dropping his gaze to Stan's chin. "So. There you have it."
"Kyle," Stan says, and he groans, rocking inside his bundle as if he's trying to get free of it. Kyle looks up to see that Stan is only struggling to move closer, though they're nose to toe already. Stan kisses him, deeply, and Kyle wants to feel reassured by it, but he's mostly confused. He knows he has the right to demand that Stan make a choice now, before they speak to their parents about the bonding, but he can't bring himself to do it, too afraid that Stan would choose Kenny. Kyle gasps for breath against Stan's lips when they finally stop kissing, and wonders if anyone, ever, in the history of bundling, has had to perform well enough in bed to get the bonding to stick. He doesn't want to think of it that way, but he can't help it as their kissing continues and he hopes that his technique is convincing Stan that he should stay. It's not as if Stan has anything to compare it to, unless--
"Did he kiss you yet?" Kyle asks, breathless. Stan is breathing heavily, too, his face still pressed to Kyle's. He shakes his head.
"I think he wanted to," Stan says. "But."
"But what? You don't want it?"
"I'm scared. It's not like with you. He's a man."
"Ugh," Kyle says, and he rolls onto his back. "Fine, well. I'll be a man tomorrow, according to custom. We both will, as soon as they close the door on and leave us to bond. To fuck," he says, more quietly, because that's the crass word for it that the boys in the village have tossed around for years. Stan wrinkles his nose.
"You don't actually want that part of it, do you?" he asks. Kyle is crushed: he wants that part of it most of all, aside from keeping Stan forever, which is not officially on the table.
"You think I'm disgusting?" Kyle says. "Over-sexed?"
"No! It's just that -- I haven't even made you any promises. And you'd give me that?"
"Better you than whomever I end up settling for."
Kyle looks up at the ceiling, embarrassed. Stan pushes his nose against Kyle's cheek, either to comfort him or nudge him back into kissing.
"I wish I could trust this feeling," Stan says. "The way it is when I'm with you. But then when I'm out there, in my house, in the same old village doing the same old things -- then I think about staying and how it might turn me into my father."
"You could never be like him."
"Kyle, how do you know that? You don't even know him, really."
"I've seen enough. You're different."
They spend the rest of the evening muttering to each other about their families and avoiding the subject of the future. Kyle allows Stan to kiss him at intervals, sighing each time, as if it's a burden. He's secretly thrilled at every attempt.
"You like kissing me," Kyle says as he's falling asleep, too tired to be careful with his words, if he ever was.
"I love it," Stan says. Kyle smiles and closes his eyes, wishing there was enough light in the room to show him if Stan is blushing or not. Their bundling candles are dim now, burned almost down to the bottom. When they announce their intention to bond, their mothers will collect some of the wax from each candle for their bonding scrapbook. Kyle falls asleep, thinking about this.
In the morning, Kyle can smell a change in the air. Maybe it's the mothers in the nearby villages baking gifts for their children to offer their newly bonded partners, or perhaps it's something less distinct. The morning of the bonding announcements has always been treated as a holiday, even by the families with no stake in the process that year. And in the evening, of course, comes the celebratory drinking by all the adults in town, and live music, traditionally supplied to give the bonded couples enough noise to cover the sounds of their passionate lovemaking. Kyle has always imagined that most of them are probably rather quiet the first time, nervous and timid. He blinks sleepily at Stan, finding it hard to believe that he'll know what it's like to be bonded at last, only to lose it moments afterward if Stan decides to go. At the moment, exchanging tired kisses with him as they listen to their parents approach, Kyle can't believe that Stan would leave him.
"Will you do the unwrapping?" Kyle asks hurriedly, realizing suddenly that this is one of many details they have not worked out. Stan nods and smiles queasily. At the door, each of their parents knocks once, as is tradition.
"Come in," Stan calls, which means that he will be the unwrapper. Kyle flushes, wanting to hide his face against Stan's chest.
"Boys?" Sheila is first through the door, of course, though she comes in cautiously. Kyle peeks at her, and she smiles when she sees his reddened face. "Oh, good morning."
"Good morning!" Sharon says as she followed Sheila inside. She seems pleased but anxious. Stan is smiling, and Kyle hopes that no one else here thinks it looks strained.
"Well, congratulations, boys," Randy says. "I can't exactly say we're surprised. I knew you two had hit it off when we saw you on the floor that first morning."
"Ha, yes," Stan says. "Anyway, um." He pauses, and Kyle feels the color drain from his face when he remembers what comes next, traditionally. But will Stan remember? "We've fallen in love," Stan says. His voice is shaking, but that's not unusual: it's a hard thing to say out loud even when someone is certain he means it, Kyle assumes. "We intend to be bonded this evening."
The parents give them a celebratory cheer and come to the bed to kiss their cheeks. Kyle is crying a little, unable to stop himself, or to keep his forced smile from shaking. No one seems to think this is a bad sign.
"C'mon," Sheila says when Gerald scoops Kyle up from the bed. "There's so much to do!"
"Yes, goodness," Sharon says, and she and Sheila hug each other, laughing.
Kyle's eyes are dry and stinging on the way back to the house. He feels hollow, unable to pay attention to his mother as she chatters about all the bonding preparations they'll soon undertake. Kyle won't have a moment to himself until he's packed off for the ceremony, and he supposes this is a good thing. He doesn't want to be alone right now, his certainty about Stan's unwillingness to leave him evaporating fast.
"Are you in shock, bubbeh?" Sheila asks as she unwraps him in his bedroom. "You're so quiet!"
"I'm nervous," Kyle says, which is true.
"Oh, I'm sure." Sheila ruffles his hair and checks over her shoulder. Gerald is in the kitchen with Ike, both of them working on Kyle's dressings for later, cutting flowers and mixing herbal solutions according to Sheila's instructions. "We can have our talk now, if you like," Sheila says, quietly. "Or we can wait until you're in your bath."
"Mother, I know how it's done," Kyle says. "You don't have to--"
"There's more than just 'how it's done,' Kyle! This is general advice that you need to hear, sweetie. Especially since you have the more difficult role."
"Oh, god." Kyle covers his face with his hands, not wanting to talk about his role. What will she have to say about his choice to be the one who is unwrapped if she learns that Stan has left him in the aftermath? "Please, don't be too specific. I'll melt."
"Well, we wouldn't want that. Kyle, I'm not trying to make you uncomfortable! I'm only telling you, and of course my own bonding was a bit different, but I think this applies to both boys and girls who are unwrapped - don't be afraid to tell him to slow down, to be gentle, or even to stop if you need a break. You have until dawn to get it in there, after all."
"Mother! In there? Don't say that!"
"Kyle, don't be such a baby! If you're going to do the deed you'd better get comfortable with the terminology!"
The rest of his day is so exhausting that he's very glad he'll be the one just lying on his back, even if that entails asking Stan to be gentle as he works his way in there. After he's scrubbed with milk, Kyle is left to soak and let the solution that Sheila has applied to his curls become fully caked in. Fortunately, this one smells nice, like berries and sugar. Kyle checks the bathroom door and reaches cautiously between his legs. He shivers when he feels his way down over his balls, wondering how he should wash himself here. His mother is so indiscreet, he's surprised she didn't leave instructions, and very glad that she hasn't, though he does want to be clean for Stan, remembering what he said about using his mouth. He tries pushing a fingertip in, but it hurts too much. Realizing this makes him sweat into his milk bath; he's been too preoccupied with larger issues to worry about being in pain later tonight. What if Stan is huge? Kyle can't even tell how tall Stan is when he's packed into his blankets. Next time Kyle sees him, Stan will be upright, walking into the hut to unwrap him. Kyle grabs his cock and squeezes it, tipping his head back onto the rim of the tub. He's in a fitful state of ecstasy and dread, anticipating how tonight might go, and how it might end.
When his curls are washed clean and the milk is rinsed off, Sheila leaves a vial of very delicate rosemary oil for Kyle to apply 'all over.' He smells like an herb-dusted bread stick when he's done, but it's a nice feeling, not greasy at all, tingling slightly. When the oil has dried he puts on his innermost layer: a short, sheer robe made of very fine silk. It feels so nice against his skin that he has to wait a moment before telling his mother to reenter, willing a semi-erection away. It's not just the robe but the thought of the hands that will remove it: Stan's, warm and tender, maybe trembling. What will he touch first: Kyle's nipples? His shaking stomach, the hollow of his throat? Kyle has to think of something else or risk another erection.
The wrapping takes longer than usual, with flower petals being sprinkled between each successive layer. Sheila has made a special bonding blanket featuring the family crest and intricate floral patterns. Kyle feels self conscious as she ties the large, ceremonial ribbon around him once he's fully bundled. His hair is exposed this time, according to tradition, and to preserve Sheila's efforts to make it look beautiful. Kyle's stomach is growling as they prepare to leave the house. Those who are going in to a bonding ceremony are not allowed to eat during the day. The one who unwraps them will feed them special treats after the consummation. Kyle hopes Stan's mother is a good cook.
Sheila tucks a few small snacks in with Kyle's pack of clothes and shoes, along with some of his books and a new set of wash rags. He'll retrieve the rest of things later, but it's part of the ceremony to bring a bag of belongings. He's leaving his parents' house forever, in theory. Kyle's heart pounds as Gerald hoists him off his bed. He can't understand how Stan doesn't see this as a grand adventure in itself.
"Are you ready?" Sheila asks, though Gerald is already carrying Kyle into the kitchen, toward the front door.
"I think so," Kyle says. He feels slightly nauseous from all the competing smells of the things on his skin, in his hair, and between the layers of blankets, as if he's an overly fussy main course.
"Oh, bubbeh!" Sheila says, and she finally breaks into tears as they walk out of the house, Ike slouching along with them.
It's dusk, and Kyle can smell the fires from the warming cauldrons that have been lit inside the huts. He cranes his neck to see who else is approaching the huts, and wonders how on earth Eric's poor mother ever got him to his during the bundling nights. She must have used a wheelbarrow. He spots a girl with her black hair in braids and wonders if she's Wendy; Stan described her as a pretty girl with long, dark hair. Kyle supposes he owes her a great debt: if she hadn't gone back on her offer to leave town with Stan and his merry band of rebels, Kyle might not have had even a chance of keeping Stan.
Inside the hut, the cauldrons cast a warm glow along with rows of variously sized candles that line the narrow inner shelf which circles the room. There's a special quilt laid out over the bed, and Kyle recognizes his mother's work, wondering when she had the time to make all of these things for him. The room has been scented with something nice: cedar and citrus? It might be in the candles, or the garland of fresh greenery that has been draped along the headboard.
"We're so proud of you, Kyle," Sheila says when he's been laid out on the bed, in the exact center, his bundled feet pointed over the edge of the mattress. He tries not to lose his composure when Sheila leans down to kiss his forehead. Part of him wants to tell her everything, to spare her the disappointment of believing that this is all real, settled and normal.
"You'll do fine, son," Gerald says, a little teary himself. "Stan is a good boy."
"Goodnight," Kyle says, which is their signal that he's ready for them to leave. He can't take much more of this. "I'll see you in the morning."
"Yes, we'll be there, to walk you to your new house!" Sheila says, though she's not supposed to speak further once Kyle has said goodnight. He doesn't mind. He nods and blinks rapidly as Gerald ushers her out the door and closes it behind him.
Alone in the hut, Kyle takes a deep breath and lets it out, staring up at the ceiling. The hut had seemed so basic for the past six nights, but now it feels enchanted, with the light from all the candles dancing on the ceiling and the cozy decorations that have appeared. Kyle tenses every time he hears a footfall outside, wondering if it's Stan or some other unwrapper who is approaching his own hut. His heart begins to pound as the minutes tick by and nervousness seeps more deeply into his skin, making him sweat inside his wrappings. Meeting Stan when he's unwrapped will be like encountering a whole new person, in a sense, and Kyle is so vulnerable, frozen in place until Stan comes to free him.