A/N: I'm still holding out hope for finishing LTP before the end of the year, because there's not much left to go there, and in the meantime, here's a holiday fic about a very particular aspect of Stan and Kyle's relationship. Um, Happy Holidays!


On the last Wednesday before Christmas, which is also the second day of Hanukkah, Stan gets home late and realizes that he forgot to pick up a present for Kyle. He's already parked the car in their driveway, which Kyle will have heard from the living room or the bedroom or wherever he's sitting, so he can't go back out and grab something. The present he brought home last night was just a pink poinsettia from the nursery where he works. Kyle pretended to like it, but Stan knows he needs to step up his game, even though Kyle tells him every year that he doesn't actually require eight nights of presents. Stan rifles through the glove compartment, as if some charming trinket will have magically appeared inside, but all he finds is a map of Utah that they bought on vacation ten years ago, some miscellaneous paperwork for the car, and a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer. He curses and rifles through the pockets of his coat, knowing that he'll only find a chapstick tube and some crumpled receipts there.

"You're so late!" Kyle says when Stan walks in. Kyle is at the stove in the kitchen, stirring a pot full of boiling egg noddles. The house smells like onions and gravy.

"We were slammed," Stan says. "Last minute shoppers and stuff." He wraps around Kyle from behind, and Kyle cringes, laughing at the temperature of Stan's skin when he presses his cold nose to Kyle's neck.

"You must be exhausted," Kyle says, reaching back cup Stan's cheek. "Look, I'm making you dinner."

"I can see that, thanks. Smells good."

"I guess. It's this sort of stir fry thing I made up. I didn't feel like ordering out or going to the store, so I just used whatever I could find."

"Well, that can be the theme of our night, then," Stan says, squeezing him. "I was trying to find a Hanukkah present for you outside. I found this," Stan says, reaching into his pocket and producing a sprig of pine that is less impressive than the fluffy, store-bought branches that Kyle had Stan bring home for their mantle a few weeks back. "It, uh, smells good," Stan says when Kyle takes it from him. Kyle grins and sniffs it.

"Yes, very," he says. "But dude, seriously, you don't have to do the present thing this year. You didn't even do this when we were courting."

Stan snorts at the idea that they courted and holds Kyle closer, rocking him in his arms. If they had a courtship, it took place in Stan's bed, on awkward but cozy nights when they would dare nervous touches under the blankets, neither of them brave enough to speak. Their relationship went undiscussed for the first five years, until Kyle burst into tears during their junior year of college and asked Stan if he thought they were just fuck buddies. Stan was so heartsick at the thought that Kyle had been worrying about this all along that he responded by asking Kyle to marry him. Kyle rejected his proposal, but they are essentially married; Stan has considered Kyle a kind of spouse since they were fifteen years old.

"I like bringing you little presents, though," Stan says. "It's a good tradition. I'll get you something awesome tomorrow."

"If you must," Kyle says, but Stan can tell that he's pleased, the pine sprig tucked into the pocket of the baggy cardigan he's wearing. "Hey, I actually have a surprise for you, too."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, c'mere." Kyle turns off the burner and takes Stan's hands, pulling him toward the living room. He's grinning, possibly a little drunk; there's a bottle of wine open on the counter, half-gone. "Notice anything different?" Kyle asks when they're standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room.

"Um," Stan says, already feeling panicked as he glances around the living room, trying to spot whatever Kyle has rearranged or touched up or added to their collection of furniture. Kyle gets sensitive when he feels like Stan doesn't appreciate the care he puts into their home. It's not that Stan doesn't care, it's just that new throw pillows or a repainted trim aren't the kinds of things he notices. His decorative choices are restricted to the shed out back where he keeps all his gardening things and power tools. His old John Elway poster hangs over his workbench.

"C'mon, seriously?" Kyle says. "How are you not seeing this?"

"Is that, uh, a new candle?" Stan asks, because he's never noticed the red one on the table near the TV before.

"Are you kidding? That thing has been there for two years. You're amazing. Look, I'm not talking about the living room!"

"Oh - oh!" Stan squints, looking at Kyle. "Did you cut your hair? It looks good."

"Dude, really?" Kyle laughs. "Look up."

"Huh? Oh."

Hanging above them is another green sprig, but it's not pine, it's mistletoe. Stan smiles and leans in for a kiss. Kyle parts his lips for Stan's tongue and arches up onto the balls of his socked feet, his arms winding around Stan's neck.

"Pete Windham brought it in to work," Kyle says. "We had a meeting about whether or not it was appropriate, and Hilda said it wasn't, so Pete had a hissy fit and threw it in the trash in the break room. I rescued it."

"That was good of you," Stan says, kissing him again. "If I'd known you were into this stuff I would have brought some home from work."

"I don't know if I'm into it," Kyle says, blushing. "I just thought it seemed mean to throw something like that in the garbage. When me and you could give it a good home."

"Put it to good use," Stan says, pulling Kyle against him so he can feel that his cock is starting to stiffen. Kyle snorts.

"Seriously, you're getting hard over mistletoe?"

"No. Yes? I don't know, we were so busy today, I barely had time to breathe. Days like that make me want to come home and put you over the back of the couch."

"Why?" Kyle asks, quirking an eyebrow, though Stan can feel him getting hard, too.

"Something about all the heavy lifting," Stan says. "Makes me think of, like. Manhandling you."

"Oh, God," Kyle says. "I'm glad to know I come to mind when you're hoisting bags of fertilizer. Why are you still doing that, anyway? You own the place now."

"Co-own," Stan says. He and Butters bought Plant World for cheap when the previous owner went bankrupt after the crash. "And I don't know, I like helping out. Makes me feel like one of the kids."

"Well, fine, but you should at least eat something first!" Kyle says, laughing when Stan bites at his neck.

"I kinda want to eat you," Stan says.

"Right now?" Kyle asks, blushing again.

"Yeah." Stan wedges his knee between Kyle's legs, rubbing his thigh against Kyle's cock. Kyle grows heavier in his arms, sighing into Stan's shoulder and humping himself against the friction.

"Mhmm, yeah, but - let me drain my noodles."

"Kay," Stan says, resisting the urge to make a joke about noodles getting drained. He goes into the living room and takes off his pants, stepping out of them and stretching out on the couch. Kyle laughs when he walks back in.

"Not down here!" Kyle says.

"Why not?" Stan asks. They fuck on the couch all the time. Just last Sunday, during the Broncos game, they had a rule that they could only move during the commercials. It was insanely hot, lying still inside Kyle like that, both of their hearts pounding while they prayed for another break in the action so they could rut against each other desperately again.

"I don't know," Kyle says, shyly. "Just - I know we have sex here and everything, but, um. Getting eaten out, that's - different. Like, I need to feel secure. In our bedroom. With the door closed." Kyle is embarrassed, so Stan resists the urge to laugh. He nods and gets up.

"After you, then," Stan says. "Unless you want to be carried."

"No!" Kyle says, dancing away when Stan approaches him. "You'll hurt your back. C'mon." He puts his hand out and Stan takes it, feeling a little defeated. It's true that he's had back problems in the past few years, and his back is actually killing him at the moment. He misses being able to pick Kyle up without thinking about it, back in his football playing days. It was one of those things that could reliably make Kyle blush, which isn't actually hard to do, but it was Stan's favorite way to make it happen, once.

Upstairs, they undress in the dark, kissing in front of the windows. Kyle makes sure to shut the curtains before sliding off his underwear. Stan goes to the bedroom door and closes it.

"I know I'm weird," Kyle blurts.

"Huh?" Stan says, bounding onto the bed. "How so?"

"About the door being closed or whatever." Kyle climbs onto the bed and shimmies over toward Stan. He seems self-conscious, and Stan pulls him close so he can hide himself against Stan's body, pressing into him. Kyle tips his head back and smiles, lets Stan kiss him.

"You're not weird," Stan says.

"But I'm a jerk," Kyle says. "For not returning the favor."

"I don't particularly want the favor returned," Stan says, withholding a complaint about how he feels like they have to go over this every time he eats Kyle out. "Honestly, dude, it's fine. You do other stuff for me."

"It's just so hypocritical," Kyle says, moaning. "That I'm grossed out by the idea of licking an ass, but I expect you to do it to me. Or, I just. I mean, I love it when you do it to me."

"So let me do it," Stan says, softly. He skims his hand down over Kyle's chest and takes hold of Kyle's hip, turning him so that they're both on their sides, face to face on the pillow. They kiss, which is something they don't do often enough anymore, when it was once such a revelation. They'd been fooling around in high school for a few years before they finally worked up the nerve to touch their lips together, and once they had they didn't stop for hours, because it was like being able to tell each other everything at last and still avoid choosing actual words to fit their feelings to.

Stan gets down to business a little more quickly than he usually does, because he is hungry for actual food, too. Kyle is trembling with need by the time Stan settles in between his legs, pushing them apart and tilting Kyle's knees back until he takes hold of them himself. Kyle is humming, chewing his lip, waiting to feel good.

"You know," Stan says when his thumbs are digging into Kyle's cheeks, holding them apart. It seems like the right time to make an observation, to show Kyle that he does notice the things that matter: "You have a perfectly hairless ass."

Kyle laughs nervously, flinching. "Well, yeah," he says, rubbing a finger around one of his nipples, his other arm tucked behind his head. "That's hardly an accident."

"What do you mean?" Stan frowns. "You - shave?" He shudders at the thought of anything sharp coming close to the tiny, sensitive entry point to Kyle's body.

"No," Kyle says. He's blushing again. "I wax."

"You - wah? When?" Now Stan is just digging himself a hole, when he thought he'd score a few points for being observational. Kyle has been painstakingly waxing his ass in the bathroom they share for years, and Stan has just taken Kyle's meticulously groomed ass for granted. Kyle groans and tips his chin back.

"Once a month," he says. "Or, you know. As needed."

Stan sits back a little, curious. "Do you look for hairs with a mirror or something?" he asks.

"Oh, my God," Kyle says, the hand that was toying with his nipple coming up to cover his eyes. "No! I just, you know. In the shower. I make sure I can't feel any, like. Growing in."

This is incredibly, almost painfully arousing to Stan, for some reason. He sits there with his mouth hanging open for a moment, imagining Kyle bracing his elbow on the shower wall while he reaches back with his other hand, to make sure his ass is still smooth for Stan's tongue.

"You must use a mirror when you wax, though," Stan says, because he really wants to be able to picture Kyle craning into an awkward arch in order to see himself. "'Cause, like. I mean, how-"

Kyle groans, his face aflame. "Do we have to talk about this now?" he asks. "I'm kind of - wound up."

"Okay, sorry," Stan says. He ducks back down and opens his mouth, hearing Kyle sigh appreciatively at the temperature of Stan's moist breath as he closes in on his target, but Stan stops there, something occurring to him. He pokes his head up between Kyle's legs, frowning again. "Dude," he says. "You don't, like. Have it done, do you? By some lady?"

"No, not by some lady!" Kyle says. He scoots back and sits up, hiding his ass against the blankets. "But, well, God! Of course I have someone else do it! I was wondering if I'd manage to get to my grave without you noticing."

Stan stares at him for a moment. Kyle is breathing hard, his bare chest heaving. Stan runs over the information he's been given so far before speaking again.

"Wait," Stan says. "You said - wait."

"Why are you taking a sudden interest in this?" Kyle asks, his arms crossed over his chest. He looks nervous.

"Because!" Stan says. "You just told me that you let someone else - some stranger - wax your - hole, and, and that it's not a lady?"

"Right!" Kyle says, glowering.

"So it's. It's a man?"

"What difference does it make?" Kyle asks. He grabs the blankets and pulls them up over himself. "It's a very clinical procedure. And I do it for you! It's not like I get pleasure out of it, God! It's humiliating and bothersome!"

"Then I don't want you to do it anymore!" Stan says. "Not if you're, I mean - I can deal with some ass hair!"

"Well, maybe I can't!" Kyle says. "I hate the thought of you seeing me, ah. If I wasn't properly groomed."

"So then you let some guy, freaking - Jesus, Kyle! Why didn't you just ask me! I would have done it for you!"

"Oh, right!" Kyle rolls his eyes. "Look, Stan, I associate waxing with pain, okay? I don't want you giving me pain - down there. Get it?"

Stan thinks about this for a moment and nods. His heart is slamming and he feels dizzy with betrayal that he can't really count as such. The strangest part of all is that Kyle has been doing this for so long without telling him. Stan thought he knew everything. He frowns.

"Where do you go?" he asks, still sitting at the end of the bed. Kyle is propped against the headboard, his knees tucked to his chest, the blanket pulled up to his chin.

"What?" Kyle asks, pretending to misunderstand the question.

"Where do you go to get this done?" Stan asks. "Denver?"

"Right, like I'm going to drive all the way into the city for this." Kyle's shoulders are raising slightly, the way they always do when he knows something that he's about to confess will make Stan mad.

"So where?" Stan asks. "Someplace in South-" He stops there and sucks in his breath. Kyle draws the blankets up over his mouth, still glowering at Stan as if he has some nerve to ask questions about this. There is only one men's salon in South Park, a holdover from the metrosexual days. Stan's father still goes there for hair cuts. It's owned by the member of Stan's generation who was most enthusiastic about the metrosexual craze, and probably saddest to see it end. He's also the only other openly gay man from Stan's graduating class.

Craig Tucker.

"Don't freak out!" Kyle says when Stan slides off the bed, stumbling around somewhat blindly until he locates the boxer shorts he'd shed. "This is just - it's nothing, it's like a hair cut!"

"A hair cut?" Stan throws his boxers down in disbelief. "Kyle, this is your ass. And not even just your ass, it's the - Jesus Christ, the most, like-"

"God, listen to yourself!" Kyle says. "You sound like a maniac! This is a normal thing that plenty of people have done! I knew you'd react like this, that's why I never told you!"

"How long has this been going on?" Stan asks, feeling like he'll cry. Images are starting to creep into his mind: Kyle spreading his legs and Craig's impassive expression as he puts hot wax on Kyle, who would maybe whimper at the temperature of the stuff.

"I had it done in college, too," Kyle says, still blushing furiously. "But I could never find a good place. I was always too embarrassed by the whole thing to go to the same place twice. You know, most of these people - and it's usually women - they try to chit chat with you during the process, and it's pretty excruciating, but Craig-"

"So he does it himself?" Stan asks, his worst fears confirmed. He backs up against the bedroom door, more horrific images flooding in. "Does he, fucking - how much does he touch you? Does he hold your balls out of the way?"

"Fuck no!" Kyle shouts, livid at the suggestion. "I hold them myself!"

"Oh, my God." Stan puts his hands over his face. "Craig has seen your balls. He's seen everything, Jesus-"

"So?" Kyle says. "He's not getting off on it, fuck!"

"How do you know?" Stan asks. He takes his hands away so Kyle can see his furious expression. "You know he fucking hates me! He's probably laughing to himself, like he's, he's beat me somehow, because he's seeing everything-"

"You sound psychotic!" Kyle says. "This is Craig's business. He treats me like he'd treat anyone, with stoic indifference, and that's why I like going there! I know it's weird, because we know him-"

"Know him?" Stan scoffs. "We played kick ball with him when we were five! You were on the basketball team together! Oh, Christ, do you talk about me? Does he know that I don't know about this?"

"Stan," Kyle says, very dryly. "We are talking about Craig Tucker. He doesn't care about personal details. He doesn't do chit chat. That's what makes him the perfect ass waxer. You should be happy for me, that I've finally found one I like!"

"Oh, yeah, that's thrilling," Stan says, disgusted. He picks up his boxers again, then his work shirt and pants. "Great, Kyle, you like him, that's great. Why don't you just ask him to take a taste the next time he's down there? He can use his tongue to make sure he got every hair."

"Fuck you," Kyle says, and he's starting to cry. Stan puts his hand on the bedroom doorknob and sighs, letting some of his rage drain off.

"I'm just shocked," Stan says, though sickened is a better word. He's always loved the idea that no one else has ever touched Kyle, that the constancy of their relationship has kept Kyle safe from the uncaring hands of people who wouldn't have appreciated him the way that Stan does.

"I thought you'd never notice," Kyle says, holding back tears. "And in a way I guess I knew that would be better. But I sort of hoped you would, eventually. It's something I do for you. For us, for our sex life. Because this is my favorite thing, Stan, this thing you do to me - but I couldn't stand it if I wasn't completely, um. Clean!" He sniffles. "I can't bear the thought of you choking on an ass pube. You do so much for me, like. I enjoy being able to do this for you."

"So you admit that you enjoy it when Craig Tucker waxes your asshole?" Stan says, his rage returning. Kyle gives him a look of open disbelief.

"No!" he says, shouting again. "God, do you ever listen to anything I say? You know, you're just like your father! You're irrational!"

"I'm like my father, yeah?" Furious, Stan tries to think of a way he can turn this around on Kyle and accuse him of acting like Sheila, but he's still too thrown to think straight. "Alright, well, I guess I'll go sleep on the couch the way my father does when my mother has her fucking period."

"You're the one who's acting menopausal!" Kyle says.

"You were keeping secrets from me! Sexual secrets, Kyle!"

"It's not sexual!"

"Like hell it's not!"

Stan leaves the bedroom then, slamming the door behind him. He's still hungry, for food and for Kyle, but his stomach is upset and his cock is soft, and he goes to sleep on the couch without eating.

In the morning, Kyle comes downstairs with puffy eyes and throws out the egg noodles that are caked into the colander in the sink. Stan sits up groggily and watches Kyle work, his stomach whining for food. He didn't sleep well, and now he feels terrible. They've fought before, but rarely has he been the one who lost his shit over something and took it out on Kyle. He's still mad about the Craig thing, but he feels like he bears some responsibility for the argument last night, like he could have handled that better.

"Hey," he says when he walks into the kitchen. Kyle hums under his breath in response. Stan tries to hug him, but Kyle moves away when Stan touches his shoulders.

"You'd better get in the shower," Kyle says. "You're going to be late."

"So?" Stan says. "I own the place. Butters can hold down the fort for a few hours. Kyle, look at me."

"No, thank you."

"Please?"

Kyle gives Stan a grudging stare, and Stan feels terrible about the state of Kyle's eyes. He wants to cup Kyle's cheeks and kiss those puffy eyelids, and when he does, Kyle allows it, standing there limply.

"I'm sorry," Stan says, whispering this against Kyle's cheek. "It's just. The thought of someone else, ah. It's like I thought your ass and its perfection was our secret."

Kyle snorts and shakes his head. "I'm not perfect," he says, ducking his eyes away from Stan's. "I guess I didn't want you to know that. I wanted you to think I had this magically hairless ass, at least in the beginning. Oh, Christ, I can't believe we're talking about this so fucking sincerely."

"Well, it matters!" Stan insists, stroking Kyle's cheeks with his thumbs. "Your body is, like, my home."

Kyle smiles despite himself, then makes his face hard again. "I guess I should have told you," he says. "I just didn't want you to try to forbid me from going there to get this done. You don't know how miserable it is, trying to get waxed at some place where I don't feel comfortable. It's like being probed after getting abducted by aliens or something."

"Kyle! Jesus!"

"Well, it's not like that with Craig!" Kyle says. "The salon itself is like, well, it's like a spa, the treatment rooms are candlelit, but then Craig is so dry and clinical. It's a good combination for me, and I'm not going to find it elsewhere in Colorado, so don't you dare think about telling me I can't continue to go there."

"I wouldn't!" Stan says, though that had been his plan since he first hit the couch last night: Kyle would of course be forbidden from continuing to expose his ass to Craig's wax. "But, like, really. This isn't something you have to put yourself through for me. I don't mind hair."

"You were just drooling over how hairless it was last night!" Kyle says, stepping away from him. "And, frankly, Stan, you've never seen my ass in its natural state. Look at the hair on my head, dude. It's hardly attractive. My ass hair is like that times a thousand. It's not like there are a few wispy little tendrils. It's intense, okay? I made sure to get it waxed as soon as you started trying to work your hand down the back of my pants in bed."

"Wait, though," Stan says, frowning. "We were like, fifteen when I started doing that."

"Sixteen," Kyle says, rolling his eyes. "It was exclusively dicks until junior year."

"So where the hell were you getting waxed at sixteen?" Stan asks, boggling. "Don't you need, like. Parental permission for that kind of shit? If you're underage?"

"No!" Kyle says. "All you need is someone who will wax with discretion."

"Oh, my God!" Stan shouts, backing away until he crashes into the kitchen table. "Craig! Back then, he was doing it back then, too?"

Kyle's eyes shoot open. "Are you fucking crazy?" he shouts. "No, Craig wasn't doing it back then! I was barely comfortable enough to let you put your mouth on my dick, you think I was letting some random classmate put hot wax on my asshole?"

"Frankly, I don't know what the hell to expect anymore!" Stan says. "It's pretty goddamn shocking to me that you're letting him do it now!"

"He's a professional, Stan!"

"He's Craig Tucker, Kyle!"

"I can't listen to this!" Kyle says, throwing his arms up and walking from the kitchen. "This is vintage Randy Marsh. It's like you're possessed!"

"Oh, please!" Stan follows him, wanting to pin him down somewhere until he understands how much more insane it is for him to let Craig slither between his legs for any purpose than for Stan to react emotionally to the news that he has. "You knew I would react like this because you know it's fucking nuts!"

"Was it my plan to have Craig Tucker doing maintenance on my ass indefinitely?" Kyle says, turning to Stan when he's halfway up the stairs, Stan still down at the bottom. "No, Stan, it was not. Kind of like it wasn't our plan to move back to South Park after school, and how it wasn't your plan to go into business with Butters Stotch when you grew up. But this is our life, and I'm actually pretty fucking pleased with it, when you're not acting like Randy, Jr., and as long as my ass is presentable enough to allow me to enjoy sex without feeling overly insecure, so just excuse the fuck out of me if what makes me comfortable in the bedroom gives you jealous fits because of who's making that possible for me!"

About halfway through that rant, Stan was ready to see Kyle's point and calm down, but then he reached the part about Craig Tucker making him comfortable in their bedroom. Stan turns from the stairs and walks to the door.

"Where are you going?" Kyle asks.

"To work," Stan says. "Though it seems like I've chosen the wrong career. I should have specialized in intimate male waxing. Then I could give you what you need."

"Stan, listen to yourself! Or should I say, Randy, listen to yourself?"

"Bye," Stan says from the door. He's unshaven and starving, but he slept in his work clothes from the day before: khaki pants and a long-sleeved polo shirt with the words PLANT WORLD stitched over his left pectoral. He grabs his coat, his boots, and slams the door on the way out.

The nursery is overrun with twice as many last minute shoppers as they had the day before. By the time Stan walks in, Butters and the two teenaged employees who they hired for the holiday rush are drowning in increasingly irritable customer noise. Stan opens a new register without saying anything to Butters about why he was late.

"I sure am glad you're here!" Butters says when they're lifting a giant ceramic pot together, and it's not even passive aggressive; he's sincere, as always. Stan admires Butters in a way that he never would have thought possible when they were kids. He wonders if he should have an affair with him, since Kyle is apparently flashing his junk at Craig Tucker on a regular basis.

"Sorry I was so late," Stan says when they've got the ceramic pot loaded into the customer's trunk and they're heading back toward the store. "Domestic dispute."

"Oh, no!" Butters says, gasping. "You and Kyle? What happened?"

"Come to the stock room and I'll tell you," Stan says. "We need to bring out another two dozen poinsettias, anyway."

"I hope it wasn't anything too serious," Butters says. "If you and Kyle ever split up, gosh. It's like there'd be a big crack right down the center of main street!"

"Butters," Stan says with exasperation, remembering why he's not actually attracted to Butters, despite the fact that he grew up to be pretty cute and is probably naturally hairless in most areas. "It's not that bad. At least, I fucking hope it's not. C'mere."

"Yes, sir!"

"And stop calling me sir. I'm not your boss anymore."

"Aw, heck, Stan, I know. It's just an old habit!"

For five years, Stan was the manager of Plant World and Butters was the assistant manager. Even then, their duties were mostly shared, and Stan has always thought of Butters as his peer rather than his subordinate, at least professionally. In school, Butters was a bit like a subordinate to Stan, Kyle, and the others, which is maybe why Stan still gives most of the orders and makes the big decisions, and why Butters always goes along with it.

"You've met my dad, right?" Stan says as he helps Butters load poinsettias into one of the big wagons they use to move merchandise.

"Well, sure!" Butters says. "I mostly remember, um, how he'd come to our little league games."

"Yeah," Stan says, queasily. Butters' dad was their coach, despite the fact that his son was the least talented player on the team until they recruited Kyle Schwartz. Stan was one of the better athletes, but his dad was mostly there to get drunk and start fights. "Anyway, um. Do you think I'm like him?"

Butters gapes at the suggestion. "I don't think so," he says. "I mean, you like beer and all, sure, but you're much more, um. Well, I think you're pretty calm."

"I am pretty calm," Stan says, frowning. "That's right. It's, like. A well-known thing, about me. So it would take a lot to rile me up, don't you think?"

"Sure! I can't remember the last time I saw you riled. Even when people mess up a delivery, you're pretty calm and all."

"Yeah, I am! Even when we're losing money because some idiot made a mistake. See, I'm not like my dad. But every man has his limits, Butters."

"I suppose that's true," Butters says, straightening up and rubbing his fists together. "What's all this about, Stan?"

"Butters." Stan sighs. "Can I ask you a personal question?"

"Well, sure!"

"Um. Do you ever get, like. Personal services? At a salon?"

"I get my hair cut at the Great Clips on Atkins Boulevard," Butters says, scratching his head. "You need me to recommend a stylist or something? I usually ask for Glennis, but if she's not there-"

"No, Butters, I mean, like. Other services. Like a shave, or. Something."

Stan isn't sure how explicit he should be, as usual. Butters is gay, but he's also deeply closeted, because his parents would cut off all contact if he came out, and he loves his parents, for some reason. They're already disapproving of the fact that Butters went in to business with Stan, and occasionally seem to suspect that Stan and Butters are having some sort of illicit gay affair, although Stan has very openly been with Kyle since they moved back here at twenty-five. Butters does actually have illicit gay affairs, about which he sometimes weeps to Stan and Kyle when he's had more than a few glasses of white zinfandel, and Butters usually sleeps with married men, which is disturbing for a number of reasons.

"Heck, I really don't think so," Butters says, his nose wrinkling. "I had to have a corn removed, once, but that was at the doctor's office."

"So you've never been to Craig's salon?" Stan asks glumly.

"You mean the spa?" Butters asks, smiling. "No, but I've always wanted to go! It seems real fancy. I just, um." He fidgets, pressing his knuckles together. "I'm sorta afraid of Craig."

"Why?" Stan asks, taking Butters by the shoulders. "What's he done to you?"

"Oh - nothing! He's just real, you know. Cut and dry. And proud about who he is. Which is good! But I ain't like that, so much," Butters says, muttering that last part. "I feel like he must think I'm stupid or weak or something."

"Me and Kyle are out and we don't think you're stupid or weak." Actually, Kyle tends to think both, but he can be charitable toward Butters, too, depending on his mood. He resents Butters for getting to spend so much time with Stan, and does occasionally acknowledge this, usually coyly and in the process of seducing Stan after Stan has taken offense to some cutting comment Kyle made about poor old Butters.

"Well, anyway," Butters says, rubbing his fists together vigorously now. "What's this all about? Did you get Kyle a gift certificate for the spa as one of his Hanukkah presents? Oh - gosh! Did he take it as an insult to his grooming habits or something?"

"No," Stan says. "It was actually a remark I made about how excellent his grooming habits are that set this whole thing off."

"Set what thing off?"

"Kyle has been going to the spa for years!" Stan says, grabbing Butters' shoulders again. "In secret! And he sees Craig, Butters! He sees Craig in a very intimate way!"

"Stan, what you suggesting?" Butters asks, adopting the same melodramatic tone that Stan has slipped into, his eyes going wide. "That spa isn't one of those - spas in name only, is it?"

"Huh? Oh - no," Stan says, wincing. "It's not a whore house, Butters." He feels badly for leading Butters to this conclusion, considering his father's well-known habits. "You've never been waxed, I guess?"

"I don't know what that means," Butters says, wilting.

"I mean literally," Stan says. "Somebody puts hot wax on you and rips off your hair with it."

"Whoa!" Butters says, flinching.

"It's not a sex thing!" Stan says, and he flushes, because now he sounds like Kyle. "I mean, it's not a euphemism or a kink or anything. It's like what ladies do with their legs."

"Ohh!" Butters says, looking relieved. He smiles. "Yeah, I dated a guy who went to Craig for that. He said Craig was real good at it."

"Real good how?" Stan asks, nearly shouting, and Butters wilts again.

"He just said that Craig didn't make it hurt too bad!" Butters says. "And that he did it in a sort of manly way. Like, there was no talking, and Craig was all serious and stuff."

"See," Stan says, pointing a finger in Butters' face. "This is some kind of thing. For people like Kyle. I'm telling you. He's getting some kind of satisfaction out of this beyond becoming hairless. Why else would he keep it from me?"

"Maybe just because he knows you hate Craig?" Butters says with a shrug.

"I bet he gets off on that, too," Stan says. He growls and releases Butters, because he looks scared. "Goddammit," Stan says. "Look at me, Butters. Look at my life. I'm selling plants. Craig is - exotic. For South Park. That's what Kyle wants, obviously. Fuck!"

"Stan, you're talking crazy!" Butters says. "And I wish I had all day to stand here and try to get you to see reason, but we got a store full of customers out there who want to get on with their holiday shopping, see, and I need your help with these poinsettias!"

When Stan turns back to Butters he seems like he's almost on the verge of tears, his fists trembling at his side.

"Sure, pal," Stan says, alarmed. He walks over to pat Butters on the back, and Butters sighs.

"The holidays are a real stressful time for me, Stan," he says.

"I know they are, buddy. C'mon, let's take these out and get back on the registers."

The remainder of the work day seems to pass slowly, though they're consistently busy. Around two o'clock, Stan realizes that he still hasn't eaten anything, and he goes to the vending machine near the break room, feeling faint. The barbecue potato chips and peanut M&Ms that he consumes inside the stall in the men's restroom do little to satisfy his appetite, but he does formulate a plan while standing in there, and before he returns to his register he sneaks out back and takes his cell phone from his pocket. Cringing at himself, he types the name of Craig's salon into his browser. It's simultaneously the most pretentious, inane, and faggy name possibly for a men's spa in a small mountain town, and the best part of all is that it's allegedly named after a hamster Craig owned when they were kids.

Stripes. Stan scowls at the listing when it comes up in his search. Stripes, as in the thin pieces of paper that Craig Tucker glues to Kyle's ass with hot wax before ripping them off and - what? Smiling down at his work while Kyle trembles beneath him? Stan is grinding his teeth while the phone rings.

"Ah!" It's Tweek, clearly. "T-thanks for calling Stripes, how can we - gah! - help you today?"

"Why would he make you, of all people, answer the phone?" Stan asks, thinking aloud.

"What?" Tweek says, so loudly that Stan has to hold the phone away from his ear. "Who is this? How do you know who I am?"

"How do you know that I do?" Stan asks. He sighs. "Tweek, it's Stan Marsh. I need." He steadies himself and swallows, closing his eyes. "I need to make an appointment."

Stripes is in a relatively secluded part of town, and as Stan approaches in his car he can't help thinking that he's nearing Craig's lair, a sort of dungeon where some artifact that represents Kyle's innocence is being held captive. It's nearly six o'clock and the parking lot is not crowded, but Stan parks near the back of the lot anyway, gathering his strength. He has an appointment in fifteen minutes for an 'upper leg wax.' Apparently this is gentleman's code for an ass waxing. Asking for an ass wax straight up had made Tweek shout into the phone, and he corrected Stan's terminology when he'd calmed down, still stuttering. Apparently they don't sell the 'upper leg wax' without a Brazilian or bikini wax, which made Stan consider how neat and orderly Kyle's pubes have always been. He thought it was just a natural extension of Kyle's neat and orderly personality. Stan isn't even sure what the difference between Brazilian and bikini is, but he picked Brazilian, because it sounded less gay, though barely.

He's not sure that he'll even get as far as taking his pants off. Once he's alone with Craig, depending on how Craig responds to Stan's questions, he might just kick Craig's ass. Stan takes out his phone and checks for new messages. There's one from Kyle:

Please try to come home early so we can talk.

Stan experiences a moment of deep regret as he stares down at Kyle's message, as if he's already assaulted Craig and ended up in jail. He vows not to let that happen as he types a response to Kyle; he's not his father. He just came here for some answers. It's research, basically. He'll be able to be calm about this whole thing after he has a frame of reference.

I'll be home soon, Stan sends, Just have to get your present for tonight. I love you.

He waits for a response, but Kyle sent the last message two hours ago, and he might not be anywhere near his phone at the moment. Stan turns the volume on his phone off and tucks it into his pocket again, steeling himself as he gets out of the car. He's nervous as he walks toward the front door of Stripes, not even sure what to expect from the lobby. The exterior of the building is unimpressive, a big stucco block that's been fitted with a wood and steel awning that's supposed to give the place a ski-lodge type feel, maybe. Stan snorts at the fine print on the salon's sign, which is glowing faint pink against the dark: Stripes, by Craig Tucker. This disgusts Stan deeply, putting him back in mind of a fist fight.

Inside, the lobby is almost whore house-level dark, not that Stan has ever been to a whore house. He's been to strip clubs, forced to tag along with his father and Jimbo on his eighteenth birthday and voluntarily joining friends in college who went in big groups while drunk. This place is not like the strip clubs he's seen, though the lighting calls those memories to mind. It's quiet and seems clean, with a dim overhead light illuminating the welcome desk where Tweek sits trembling behind a short pyramid of rolled up towels.

"Guh - welcome!" Tweek says. He's pretty much the antithesis of the lobby's atmosphere, where the mellow and understated decor seems to float sleepily beneath tinkling new age music. "Would you like - ah! - a towel?" Tweek asks, hoisting the pyramid, which rests on a wooden tray. "They're scented with, um, eucalyptus and lavender!"

"Thanks," Stan says, warily, accepting one when Tweek holds it out to him with what looks like a little pair of ice tongs. The thing does smell pretty good, and while Stan cleans his hands with it he notices a waterfall built into the wall behind Tweek's desk, cascading down over the stone work in a thin sheet. In general, the lobby is nicer than Stan expected, though he supposes he shouldn't be surprised, since Kyle is a snob about hotels, restaurants, and pretty much anything that they could potentially be paying more for. "How did Craig get the money for this place?" Stan asks when he hands the used towel back to Tweek.

"Um, I don't know!" Tweek says, fidgeting. "I don't usually, ah, work here, he just needed help for the holidays. His usual guy is on vacation."

"You guys are still friends?" Stan asks. He's always wondered if they're a couple, though Kyle is certain that Tweek is asexual.

"Yeah!" Tweek says. "When I'm in town for, ah, Christmas, anyway. I live in Seattle."

"Oh." Stan feels badly for not noticing that Tweek moved away. "Well, it's nice of you to help him out around here."

"He gives me ten dollars an hour!" Tweek says, looking like he might vomit from excitement or guilt or some combination of the two. "I could - gah! I could use the money, man!"

"That's um." Stan isn't sure how to respond, and he's almost relieved when a door that appears to lead to the back of the building opens and Craig Tucker steps out, wearing an olive green shirt with a collar that Stan can only describe as "Asian" and gray pants that look like hospital scrubs. Stan hasn't seen Craig in a while, though occasionally he runs into him in the grocery store and they give each other an awkward appraising nod. Craig wears Crocs and a diamond stud in his right ear, and he keeps his hair buzzed short, which emphasizes the fact that it's begun to fade to gray. Faced with Craig's absurdity, here under the tinkling music, Stan no longer knows how to proceed.

"Marsh," Craig says in his usual nasal monotone. If he's surprised to see Stan here, he gives no indication. "I'm ready for you," Craig says, turning back for the door. "Follow me."

Stan casts a look back at Tweek, pleading for some sort of protocol, but Tweek's wide-eyed expression offers nothing. Stan's heart is beating fast as he follows Craig back into the hallway, walking past closed doors that seem foreboding, and he startles when the heavy wooden door to the lobby falls shut behind them.

"So," Stan says, surprised by how huge the place feels as he follows Craig through dark, winding hallways. "You guys, um. Busy?"

"Always busy around the holidays," Craig says without turning.

"Same here," Stan says. He wants to stop talking, to let this play out the way it would if he were Kyle, but he can't seem to shut up. "You ever go to Plant World?" he asks.

"I thought they went out of business," Craig says. He comes to a stop in front of one of the closed doors and opens it, indicating that Stan should walk inside.

"No, see, me and Butters bought it," Stan says, lingering in the doorway. He keeps expecting Craig to call his bluff and tell him to get out, and isn't sure what he'll do if that doesn't happen. "It was going out of business, like, but that's why we were able to buy it, because, um, well, they went bankrupt, the previous owners-"

"Please step inside," Craig says, a hint of irritation creeping into his voice. He's taller than Stan, just a little. Stan hasn't thought about that since high school. Back then, Kyle and Butters were the only guys in his grade with the ability to make him feel tall and big in comparison, and he tries not to draw any conclusions about that and the fact that they're the two who are still in his life.

"This is a pretty nice set up you've got here," Stan says, and he feels like his voice is booming inside the small, dimly lit room. There's a raised bed in the middle of the room, and it looks to Stan like a massage table. Craig ignores Stan's observation about the niceness of his set up and goes to a cupboard against the wall, where he lights two candles.

"I'll leave while you undress," Craig says. "There's a robe hanging on the back of the door. Do you want some water?"

"Water?" Stan says, his voice breaking, because he feels he should know what one would do with water in this situation, and he isn't sure. "Um, no. Thanks."

"Alright." Craig blows out the match he used on the candles and shakes his hand, disordering the smoke that trails off of the match head. "I'll knock before I reenter," he says, unblinking, and Stan feels exposed already, as if Craig is seeing him naked through his clothes. As Craig leaves, Stan imagines him warning Kyle that he's going to reenter, and a flush of the rage he felt last night and this morning reenters his blood.

When Craig is gone, Stan unbuttons his coat, walking around the room to examine its contents as his eyes adjust to the relative darkness. There's music playing overhead, slightly different from what was in the lobby; this music incorporates nature sounds, and it's actually the kind of thing that Kyle makes fun of Stan for listening to when he's stoned, whale songs and bird calls mixed in with harp and clarinet. On the cupboard beside the candles there's what looks like a miniature crock pot, and it's plugged into the wall, something hot bubbling within it: the wax. Stan's heart rate elevates, and he slides his coat off. He's going to have to make a decision here, soon. The wax is already heated.

He sighs and unfastens his pants, deciding he'd better get as far into this as he can stomach. It's the only way he'll know for sure what this is like for Kyle, if he's telling the truth about it being bothersome rather than arousing. Not that the same things that arouse Kyle will necessarily arouse Stan, but he knows Kyle well enough by now to understand when most things will or won't. Kyle doesn't like pain, and he's not an exhibitionist in any sense. Stan is the one who enjoys fucking in the car on occasion, even if they're just in their driveway, and sneaking his hand into Kyle's lap at the movies. Kyle prefers privacy, shelter and blankets, the safety of their house. It's one of the reasons Stan can't believe Kyle has been doing this all along, making what goes on between his legs so public. It makes Stan feel like he doesn't know Kyle as well as he thought he did, and he can't imagine anything worse, because Kyle has been, throughout Stan's life, the one and only thing he's an expert in.

There's a blanket tucked around the raised bed, and as soon as Stan is naked he clambers under it, wearing the robe. The bed is actually pretty cozy, firm and warm, and once he's on his back he realizes how tremendously exhausted he is. Something about the contour of the bed feels amazing under his sore back, as if Craig saw the way he was walking and prescribed this particular bed for his ills. Stan is tense for the first few minutes, waiting for Craig to burst in through the door, but as the music continues overhead and the scented candles fill the room with something that smells like cedar and jasmine, he actually feels like he might fall asleep.

The knock on the door is almost soft enough to miss, and Stan rouses himself with the thought that Craig might be hypnotizing him somehow, using all these trappings of comfort to trick him into letting his guard down. He presses his knees together under the blanket.

"Come in," he calls, and the door opens.

Craig walks in without looking at him and without a word, closing the door softly behind him. He goes to the cupboard and begins doing something with the miniature crock pot; Stan can't see from around Craig's back, and he isn't sure if he's allowed to ask, or to speak at all. When Craig turns toward the bed, Stan looks up at the ceiling.

"I forgot to ask you," Craig says, still in monotone as he untucks the blanket at the end of the bed, exposing Stan's feet. "Do you want a mask?"

"A mask?" Stan asks, terrified by the concept. "What?"

"For your eyes," Craig says. He's rolling the blanket back further, and Stan wants to protest, though he has no grounds to. "Some people like it. To help you relax."

"No," Stan says, because the last thing he's going to give Craig permission to do, in this position, is blindfold him. "I'm fine. Thanks."

Craig says nothing. He takes hold of Stan's left leg and pushes it up so that his knee is bent, then does the same to his right, tenting the blanket up over Stan's knees and exposing pretty much everything below his waist to the room. Stan lies there feeling awkward and emasculated, like he's about to give birth. He keeps waiting for Craig to start laughing and pointing, as if Kyle was complicit in some joke Craig has played on him, but Craig seems bored by the whole thing, stirring the contents of the crock pot with what looks like a popsicle stick.

"Got any big plans for the holidays?" Stan croaks out, feeling stupid, but there's no way he can let this happen - if he's actually letting this happen? - without a dialogue. Craig eyes him dully.

"Not really," Craig says. "I'm going to do your navel first. Judging by what's going on down there, you haven't done this in a while."

"Try never," Stan says. "Craig, uh, listen. Can we talk for a second?"

Craig looks up at the ceiling, not quite rolling his eyes. "Talk about what?" he asks. "Do you need me to adjust the temperature?"

"The temperature?" Stan eyes the crock pot. "Um, well, I wouldn't know, yet, would I?"

"I meant in the room," Craig says. He sighs. "Marsh," he says. "What the hell are you doing here? Is Kyle making you do this?"

"How come you call me by my last name and Kyle by his first?" Stan asks, perhaps a little loudly.

"Is this happening or not?" Craig asks. "Because I'm charging you for it either way."

"It's happening," Stan says, spreading his knees wider. "Go."

Craig stares at him for a moment, and Stan holds his gaze, pretending to be unafraid. Eventually he just is unafraid, or at least more curious than nervous, and he curls his toes around the edges of the bed as Craig walks down toward the end of it again. Stan had actually been nervous, earlier, about the possibility of his cock responding to this situation in some unforeseen way, but it's never been softer.

Just as Craig is smoothing hot wax over the trail of hair below Stan's belly button - hair that he actually kind of likes, but it will grow back - there's a sound from out in the hallway that sounds commotion-like. Craig ignores it, pressing something down over the wax, and just as he's ripping it off, the door of the treatment room flies open. Stan smacks his knees together and curses, sitting up on his elbows and gaping at Kyle, who is standing in the doorway, panting as if he ran here from the house.

"Kyle?" Stan says, aghast. He feels like he's just been caught cheating, heartbeat slamming in his throat. Kyle is wide-eyed and frozen, as if he expected to find something very different behind this door.

"Broflovski!" Craig says. "What the hell are you doing?"

"What are you doing here?" Kyle asks, speaking to Stan. "What the hell is this? What are you trying to pull?"

"Nothing - ah - I wanted to see what it was like!" Stan sits up in the middle of the bed, gathering the blanket over himself.

"Bullshit!" Kyle says, looking back and forth from Stan to Craig. "This is some kind of - like - what are you plotting?"

"That's it," Craig says. "I want both of you out!" He gestures to the door with the popsicle stick, where the remaining wax has dried into a burnt orange color. Belatedly, Stan realizes that his lower abdomen feels like it's on fire. "Broflovski, you are hereby banned from coming here! You can leave your Frequent Customer Rewards card with Tweek on the way out."

"What?" Kyle says, turning to Craig. "What the hell did I do? I only came here because I thought Stan was going to kick your ass!"

"I think I made it clear many years ago that I do not want to be part of the drama that surrounds you two!" Craig says, glowering now. "Here." He grabs Stan's clothing from the chair he draped it over and throws it into his lap. "Get dressed and get out. This is supposed to be a place of serenity. I should have known you two were trying to stage your fucking street performance of a relationship here as soon as Marsh called up."

"No!" Stan says, hugging his clothes to his chest. "It's not like that, really, I was just curious, Kyle just misunderstood." He turns to Kyle and frowns. "How did you know I was here?"

"I called Plant World when you wouldn't answer your phone," Kyle says. "I wanted to know how long I should expect your little present gathering excursion to take. Butters told me everything! And frankly, Stan, I really don't appreciate you discussing the details of our relationship, and particularly my fucking waxing habits with fucking Butters!"

"Hello!" Craig shouts, waving his arms around, still holding the popsicle stick. "I think I told you dickholes to get the hell out of here? Am I going to have to call the police or what?"

"Craig, please," Kyle says. "Don't take my Rewards card. I'm like two punches away from a free treatment."

"Sorry, Broflovski," Craig says. "I will not tolerate this chaos. I'm sure you've scared poor Tweek half to death. People come here to unwind, not to be at the center of the Stan and Kyle tornado. Out!"

During this exchange, Stan has slid off the bed and begun to dress, his skin still burning where Craig applied the wax. He can't even imagine how badly this would hurt in a more - sensitive area. He's almost tearful as he pulls on his socks, regretting the way he's behaved and the fact that he seems to have ruined this for Kyle. He's afraid that Kyle won't want Stan's tongue on his 'upper leg area' anymore, and that he might even not want his cock there if he can't have Craig prepare the altar for it, and he's also kind of worried, considering the way Kyle is stomping out of Stripes ahead of him, ignoring his pleas, that he might get thrown out of the house over this.

"Jesus, man!" Tweek is saying as Kyle slams out into the cold night, Stan following. "What the hell happened back there?"

Stan leaves Craig to answer that one, following Kyle toward his car. It's started to snow pretty heavily, pitch dark and icy cold, but Stan still feels hot with embarrassment and with anger that he no longer knows where to direct.

"Kyle!" he shouts, jogging to catch up with him. "Wait!"

"You're amazing," Kyle says. "You're just fucking amazing, Stan."

"I wanted to experience it firsthand!" Stan says. "What's wrong with that?"

"It's just - it's creepy, it's obsessive!" Kyle stops at the driver's side door of his car and whirls on Stan. "And now you've gotten me kicked out, so I'm sure you're pretty fucking happy with yourself!"

"I'm not!" Stan says. He grabs Kyle's shoulders but Kyle squirms away, thumping against the car. "Kyle, please. This whole thing, I don't know, maybe I'm dumb or insecure or whatever, but it's really fucked with my head. I mean, what if you found out that Butters had been waxing me all this time or something?"

"That's different!" Kyle says, shoving Stan away from him. "Butters already gets all your goddamn attention every day at work, and whenever he's been dumped and we have to have him over so he can cry on your shoulder. Of course I'd be upset if - if your relationship had some other dimension - and God, how often do you tell him things about us? I had to suffer his concern for our relationship when I called. I nearly lost my lunch at the thought of you pouring your heart out about my goddamn ass waxing to him."

"I'm sorry, I just didn't know who else to talk to!" Stan feels this thing spiraling further out of control, and his stomach twists up into a painful knot as he realizes that it's all his doing. "And Butters, he's discreet, you'd be surprised-"

"Oh, right! What closeted gay man don't we know all about through his - his exploits?"

"Kyle, I'm going to make this right," Stan says, holding up his hands. "I swear."

"How could you?" Kyle asks, starting to cry. "With the perfect Hanukkah present? You don't get it, Stan! You just don't fucking get it!"

Kyle gets into the car, curses when he finds that his hands are shaking too hard to properly work the seat belt, and slams the door on Stan. He manages the seat belt after another try and starts the car. Stan steps back so that Kyle won't run over his foot as he peels away. He would have fought harder to keep him here, or to be allowed to get into the car with him, but he's got unfinished business at Stripes. He's still holding his jacket and one of his boots as he watches Kyle drive away, and he lifts his socked foot out of the soggy slush in the parking lot when his adrenaline levels sink low enough to allow him to feel the cold.

Back inside Stripes, the front lobby is empty. The decor suddenly seems corny and cheap, and Stan wonders if they keep the lights this low so that they don't have to clean the cobwebs out of the shadowy corners. Tweek appears from behind the heavy door that leads back to the treatment rooms, and he shrieks when he sees Stan.

"What do you want?" he asks. "Craig is mad!"

"Let me talk to him," Stan says. "I want to apologize."

"Apologize! Yeah, right! He says you want to kick his ass for touching your boyfriend! He says he knew this would happen!"

"Tweek," Craig says tightly, slipping out from behind the door and glowering at Tweek, who cringes. "Stop talking to the customers. The towels have come out of the laundry. Go roll them."

"Ah - okay - Jesus!" Tweek slips around Craig and darts back behind the door, which Craig closes before turning his scowl on Stan.

"You never paid," Craig says.

"Oh - okay," Stan says, groping for his wallet. "Here, let me give you, like, a really good tip, too. What's a good tip for this - stuff?"

"Don't patronize me," Craig says. "I know you think I'm a joke."

"What!" Stan actually jumps backward, which is perhaps too dramatic. "I do not think that!

"Like I care what you think of me," Craig says, but he still looks angry and fierce. "Just pay the twenty-five dollars for the wax and get out."

"Okay," Stan says, holding up one hand while he pulls out his wallet with the other. "But Craig, seriously. You have to let Kyle come back."

"I don't have to do anything," Craig says. "This is a private business. I can ban whoever I want to."

"But it was me!" Stan says. "It was all me, and I had no idea he'd come here like that, I'm so sorry, but you can't blame him, I made him think – ah. I made him think I was mad at you."

"Do you realize how immature and idiotic that is?" Craig asks, his frown deepening.

"Yes!" Stan says, nodding. "I do, now. I think I just had to see this place for myself. I went sort of crazy last night, when I found out-"

"What tipped you off?" Craig asks. "Were you snooping through his credit card charges or something?"

"No," Stan says. He can feel himself blushing and is glad for the mood lighting. "I'd just never thought about how much I like the way he is. Grooming wise. And he said it was hardly by accident, and everything just sort of. Came out."

Craig rolls his eyes. "You two are such a sorry excuse for the town's only gay couple."

"Hey, c'mon," Stan says. "There's no reason to resort to insults."

"Your existence is an insult to mine," Craig says, snatching Stan's credit card out of his hand. He walks to the register, and Stan remains in the middle of the lobby, watching him sourly.

"Craig," Stan says. "What the hell did I ever do to you?"

"I'm not even going to dignify that with a response," Craig says, punching numbers into the credit card machine beside the register.

"I don't mean when we were kids!" Stan walks to him and puts his hands on the counter, smelling the lavender and eucalyptus wafting up from the pyramid of towels. "I mean, look, I'm sorry if I got you in trouble once or twice when were younger, but-"

"You're unbelievable," Craig says.

"But don't take it out on Kyle!" Stan says, punching the counter with both fists. "Please, dude? He needs this whole ritual, for some reason. It makes him feel, uh. More comfortable. And I need to do everything I can to make Kyle's life better, I just. Do you know what I'm saying?" Stan feels like he's losing Craig, who is tearing receipts from the credit card machine. "Haven't you ever been in love?" he asks, desperate.

Craig looks up with the dagger-like snap of his eyes that has always reminded Stan of a guillotine blade crashing down on someone's neck.

"I mean, you and Tweek-" Stan says when Craig just stares at him, the receipts clutched in his fist.

"Me and Tweek?" Craig laughs bitterly. "No. Tweek doesn't do sex. I rather enjoy sex. The end."

"Oh." So Kyle was right. Stan sighs and drags his hand through his hair. "Look, this is gonna sound weird, but can I borrow a towel to dry my foot off? I walked out there in only one shoe, and I'm afraid I'm going to loose my foot if I let it stay wet and cold like this."

Craig rolls his eyes and thrusts out a receipt. "Sign," he says. "And don't you dare try to give me a tip. I'll be right back."

He disappears into the back, and Stan signs his receipt. On the tip line he writes, I do respect you. You are a successful business owner. You make Kyle feel comfortable. Thank you. He feels idiotic and thinks about scratching it out, but Craig returns before he can, so he flips the receipt over and accepts the towel and pair of slippers that Craig offers.

"Thanks, man," Stan says. He sits in one of the fussy chairs against the wall and pulls off his wet sock. "I really appreciate it."

Craig says nothing, just stands there watching as Stan dries his foot and replaces his sock with a slipper. They're pretty posh slippers, so Stan takes off his boot and his other sock as well, sliding his foot into the second slipper. When he's got them on he flexes his feet inside them and smiles up at Craig, but Craig seems unmoved.

"Now that I've saved you from losing a foot, you can go," Craig says.

"Only if you promise Kyle can come back."

"What is it with you people?" Craig asks, making his hands into fists. Stan doesn't feel particularly threatened; Craig might be taller than him, but most of Stan's daily work consists of lifting things, and Craig is rather slight compared to him. "You have to have everything in this fucking town," Craig says. "It's like your little hobby or something, ruling South Park."

"Huh?" Stan says. "We don't rule anything. I co-own Plant World, okay? Kyle commutes to Lakewood to work for H&R Block. Who the fuck thinks we have it made?"

Craig scoffs. "I will answer your question with a question," he says. "Why do you think it took you five years to notice that Kyle was coming here for waxing? Or that he was getting this done at all, considering that you'd been together for, what, fifteen years before that? Hmm? Why do you think?"

Stan should feel insulted, and wants to, wants to do what his dad would do, pick a fight and shout his unthinking rage in the face of an uncaring world, but he's not his father, so he looks down at the slippers Craig has lent him.

"Maybe I take some things for granted," he says. "But not Kyle, I swear. I wake up every morning and get all nervous about how, how much I-" He trails off there, because it's none of Craig's business, but he has regular nightmares, waking and otherwise, that Kyle decides their life is boring and unrealized and based only on some juvenile morning in Stan's bed when Stan pushed his hand across the space between them and traced a wrinkle on the leg of Kyle's pajama pants. "So, but. I get it," Stan says, muttering. "We're lucky. I'm lucky, I know."

"Just get out of my sight," Craig says, sighing. "And here. Give this to Kyle."

He holds out what looks like a parking deck ticket with little holes punched in it. It's Kyle's Frequent Customer Rewards card, and Stan's eyes burn with embarrassed tears, either because the card says, Stripes ~ by Craig Tucker across the top, or because Kyle's last name isn't Marsh.

"God, don't get all emotional!" Craig says, sneering when Stan looks up at him with gratitude. "Kyle is one of my most loyal customers. I'd hate to lose the business. But if you two ever pull anything like this again-"

"We won't!" Stan says, jumping up and resisting the urge to grab Craig's shoulders and give him a hug. "I promise, we won't. Jesus, thank you so much. I really appreciate this, dude."

"I'm not your dude," Craig says. "And you'd better go home to the one person who still is before he throws your clothes out into the front yard."

"Alright," Stan says. "There's just one more thing I need before I go."

"God, are you serious? What?"

"A gift certificate," Stan says.

"For Kyle?" Craig says, walking back to the register. "Kind of a clumsy gesture, I think, but I'll sell you one if you think it's a good idea."

"Not for Kyle," Stan says. "For Butters. And you have to promise to be nice to him when he comes in."

"Why wouldn't I be nice to him? I'm nice to all my customers. That's the idea of running a fucking business. You make customers want to come back."

"Yeah," Stan says. "I know. It's just, um. Butters this has idea that you'll. Judge him."

"Why, because he's so pathetically in denial?" Craig says, bringing out the gift certificate paperwork from beneath the register.

"See, there you go," Stan says. "You can't let him catch that vibe, okay? You don't know – you don't have his parents."

"My parents don't speak to me," Craig says, staring down at the forms. Stan's mouth hangs open, and he's going to say something to make up for that last thing, to make himself less insensitive and oblivious, but Craig lays out the forms before he can. "Would you like to purchase a gift certificate for a particular value, or a particular service?" he asks, and when he meets Stan's eyes again it's clear that the subject of his parents is closed.

"Um, a service," Stan says. "Whatever the best, most expensive massage you have is."

"Very well," Craig says, and he actually looks a little pleased with himself as he fills out the forms. Stan hopes this bodes well for Butters' experience. He'd been meaning to get him a Christmas present anyway, and hadn't been able to think of anything good enough.

Stan leaves after paying for the gift certificate, replacing the slippers with his boots. Without socks, the frosty air outside seeps down to coat his feet and makes him shiver as he starts his car. He blasts the heat and heads toward home, Kyle's Frequent Customer Rewards card tucked into his front pocket. It will have to serve as Kyle's Hanukkah present for tonight, because Stan doesn't have time to stop and pick something up. He needs to get to Kyle now, as soon as possible.

When he enters the house, the kitchen is dark and there's only one light on in the living room, a lamp that illuminates the side of the couch where Kyle sits and reads when Stan is late coming home. Stan hurries up the stairs, his boots still wet from the snow and his feet freezing inside them. He throws open the bedroom door and is afraid Kyle isn't there before he recognizes the bundle of him beneath the blankets.

"Kyle," Stan says, stepping out of his boots and shrugging off his coat on the way to the bed. He lifts up the comforter and climbs underneath it, trying not to let out too much heat. The darkness beneath it seems damp from Kyle's crying, and Stan can smell the dirty salt of his tears. He moans and pulls Kyle against him, kissing his forehead and his cheeks, his hair.

"You think I'm a slut," Kyle says, and then he starts sobbing hard into Stan's chest.

"No, shh," Stan says, his eyes watering as he pets Kyle's hair, trying to calm him. "You know I don't think that."

"Why else would you, why-"

"Because I'm a jealous, irrational idiot," Stan says. He scoots down to press his nose to Kyle's, sniffling along with him. "I just. I'm so afraid there's got to be someone out there who you'd prefer to me."

"You're never insecure," Kyle says, sobbing again. "Where does this come from? It's me, you think I'm flighty and easily impressed."

"Dude – what? No! I just." Stan tugs Kyle closer, tucking his chin over the crown of Kyle's head. "I just thought some things were sacred. And they still are, I get that now. I just couldn't understand how Craig Tucker could be part of this sacred thing. But that salon, it's not so bad. Craig, he's not so bad. He said you could come back, okay? I got your card back for you."

"What?" Kyle sniffs and pushes the blankets down until he can see Stan's face, frowning. He looks so broken that Stan moans and kisses his cheeks, but Kyle pulls back. "You went in and got my card?" Kyle says, frowning.

"It's right here," Stan says, reaching down to retrieve it from his pocket. "And Craig's not mad at you, he was just mad at me, but we talked."

"You talked?"

"Uh-huh. He seems kind of lonely. I don't know. Kyle, I love you."

Kyle groans and closes his eyes, rubbing his face against Stan's. "I can't believe you were going to – do it," he says. Stan snorts and licks Kyle's cheek.

"He did a little before you burst in," Stan says. "On my stomach. Goddamn! How can you stand that?"

"It's worth it," Kyle says. "During, it's pretty miserable, but after, it feels great. Like a whole new me. And then, um. It's like an excuse to have sex. To show off."

"I need you," Stan says, rubbing himself against Kyle's leg. "Please, Kyle, so much."

"Stan," Kyle says, absently, and he lets himself be kissed for a moment before pulling back. He frowns. "Is that your stomach?" he asks when he hears it growling.

"Um," Stan says. "Possibly."

"You're so hopeless," Kyle says, smiling. "You just, ugh. When you're suffering, when you're feeling unloved. You don't eat, you don't sleep."

"It's true," Stan says, still humping him. "But I need you more. Please?"

"Oh, God," Kyle says, laughing when Stan rolls on top of him and kisses his neck. "I can't believe you went in and, like. Negotiated. On behalf of my Rewards card. And you – when I came through that door, Jesus! You were, um. That was the last thing I expected to see."

"I'll do anything for you," Stan says. "That's what you should take away from this."

This has always been one of the reasons Stan enjoys eating Kyle out: it's the most visceral way he can think of to prove that he will do anything for him, that it's not just a euphemism. He still remembers learning what 'rim job' meant as a kid, and the sincere horror he shared with Kyle that such a thing existed. He didn't work up the nerve to offer it to Kyle until they were about ten years into their sexual relationship, and when he did he was afraid that Kyle would laugh or wrinkle his nose. Kyle had blushed before he nodded, and it was the kind of blush that Stan loves best, the kind that means yes, please.

After sex, they order pizza and Stan eats like a pig in front of some college bowl game he doesn't care about. Kyle is at his side in a robe, also eating piggishly, and they gossip about Craig and Tweek and Butters. Stan feels guilty for how easy it is to laugh at these people, who are really no more ridiculous than him and Kyle.

"I got Butters a gift certificate to Craig's salon," Stan tells Kyle when the game is over and they're both half asleep, Kyle draped onto Stan's chest and beginning to doze. "He said he'd always wanted to go there but that he was afraid."

"Craig is scary," Kyle agrees, mumbling. "But only at first. Only until you notice his shoes."

"And his earring."

"Hey," Kyle says, tilting back to grin at Stan. "What if, um. What if lonely old Butters falls in love with Craig during his massage? What if he gets hard and stammers excuses and ends up in tears?"

"I don't know," Stan says, worried now. "Maybe Craig would be good about it. I underestimated him, I think."

"Oh, Christ," Kyle says, and he snorts. "Craig and Butters. That's just asinine enough to work."

Kyle is often right about these things, even when he's being flippant. A year later, Craig and Butters are at the house for New Year's Eve dinner. Craig is still wearing Crocs and his earring, and Butters is in a tight turtleneck that Craig very obviously chose for him. Craig and Kyle get drunk and argue about some science project they worked on together in seventh grade, and Butters helps Stan in the kitchen.

"Tell me it wasn't the massage," Stan says, because he's come to think of Craig's salon as a place of sexless sacrament, a kind of shrine. Stan gets his hair cut there, and Kyle is still waxed on a monthly basis. Butters grins and fiddles with the meat thermometer, avoiding Stan's eyes.

"Well," he says. "It wasn't just the massage. But, um. It was supposed to be a ninety minute thing, and it ran over. That's all I'll say!"

Stan figures the fact that Butters no longer kisses and tells must mean he's serious about Craig, which is good for them, and good for Stan, who never wanted Butters to kiss and tell about anyone in the first place. He goes back into the living room to call Kyle and Craig for dinner, and pauses for a moment as they point fingers at each other, both accusing the other of doing something to screw up the viscosity of the lava in their simulated volcano. It's strange to think that, once a month, they assume a kind of outside-of-society function for each other, and Stan supposes it's just about money and sex, like most hard to believe things, but maybe it's something more, too, because they all played kickball together, once, and here they are, owning businesses and braving ass hair elimination, holding down the fort in South Park. Stan often feels a bit lame for having returned to his home town and settling for being the big fish in a very small pond, but when he pinches Kyle's ass as he passes by on his way for a refill, Stan feels pretty big, in general, and the world feels small in a gratifying way, because these people who started off tiny have become pretty huge.

(the end)