Like Fine Art

A/N: Ring the bells, everyone: This is my 50th fanfiction on the site! It took a while to finish because I procrastinated, as usual, but it's finally done and I'm actually quite fond of it.

-xOx-

South Park was considered several things when Stan Marsh was growing up, but he recalled that the most prominent of these things was uncultured. That term—among many others of a less child-friendly nature—was one he supposed shaped the way he matured, because whenever an unfavorable word becomes associated with a town, the first thing people tend to do is push the responsibility of changing it onto the kids in that particular generation. Stan was raised to be "uncultured," only to have an entirely different set of beliefs inculcated in him at age six.

Reshaping the culture of the town meant having an annual project placed on the shoulders of nearly every public school child in hopes that they could somehow learn to represent individualism in their artistic affairs. These projects were forced upon the different groups of schools with about as much success as one could expect from an attempt at putting a square peg into a round hole, but the requirement was set and thus every spring was met with a hoard of what only a parent could consider art.

In elementary school, the assignment was to "draw a picture of someone you love." Stan couldn't recall precisely what he'd drawn in grades kindergarten through third, but the memory of fourth grade was something he was all too aware he would never be able to forget.

School had already been in session for almost three weeks when Andrea moved into the house contiguous to the Marshes'.

Stan first met her on his way home from school one Wednesday, and he recalled a striking sense of elation being the first emotion he'd experienced in her presence. She met his gaze from across her lawn the moment he set foot in his yard and, in that instant, he felt butterflies flutter in his stomach. He must have been quite a sight, because Andrea had laughed, and once she'd started, he couldn't seem to do anything but follow suit.

Thus marked their first interaction: With her sitting cross-legged on the off-white sofa still in her front yard, and him trying not to gawk at the pretty girl with the curly red hair and bright green eyes.

They didn't actually converse until the following day when he caught sight of her in the recess yard at school, and once more he felt oddly euphoric just by being around her. The sensation felt familiar to him, somehow, but the way she smiled at him dragged his attention from that thought then and there.

Perhaps he was in love, he mused. He hadn't gotten sick on her, thankfully, but he ascribed this fact to the optimistic prospect that he was maturing.

And so, because of those few encounters he had with her over the next few months, Stan drew a picture of Andrea Wilkins for his picture that year.

He kissed her that summer.

He figured he really had matured, because he hadn't felt the least bit sick when he did it, but, then, he remembered that he hadn't really felt anything at all: No spark, no excitement…nothing. They dated through much of fifth grade, anyway, because Stan felt like that was what ought to be done.

Right as spring was nearing, he'd caught her kissing another boy on the playground, as if she couldn't care less whether or not Stan saw it. He didn't feel like speculation was necessary to determine that that was exactly the case.

Kyle had come over to the Marsh household to comfort him, which Stan welcomed, though, strangely enough, he didn't feel at all as though he needed it. He felt fine, as a matter of fact, but his super best friend's gesture made him feel much better, all the same.

So, inspired by forces he couldn't put a name to, Stan's fifth grade drawing for someone he loved came to be of Kyle. He assured himself he'd meant it as a friendly sort of love, but the more he thought about it, the more his stomach turned in an all-too-familiar manner, as if he had butterflies in it.

The assignment in middle school was to "write a poem about someone who inspired you," which was a particularly hackneyed prompt that garnered floods of papers written about various celebrities. Stan distinctly remembered Kenny having written about a porn star when he was in sixth grade, which he got away with by referring to her as an "up-and-coming actress."

Already jaded with the celebrity theme, Stan decided on being honest: All three years, he wrote about Kyle, though he was careful not to mention a name. He had only meant to pour his innocent affections into a healthy outlet—he hadn't counted on his eighth grade submission being the school's winning piece, but, before he knew it, his father had agreed to have it published in the local newspaper, and Stan had a two-hundred dollar cash reward in his possession.

He spent the remaining three months of his middle school career dodging questions on whom his winning poem had been about.

In high school, the project had finally become an optional task, which had many of the students breathing sighs of relief. The criteria they would be filling, should they choose to, seemed easy enough: Photograph something beautiful.

It seemed simple, but Stan's sense of artistic liberty had shriveled upon seeing some of the entries. The collection in progress, which was being displayed on a wide wall at the heart of the building, was almost entirely comprised of grainy or blurry shots depicting boyfriends and girlfriends, pets and flowers, and apparently the Marsh boy was not the only one to notice this.

Suddenly his name was on everybody's lips. Kids who owned a submitted photo bitterly conversed about how Stan was bound to win, because the teachers adored him; the staff members encouraged him whenever they passed him in the hall, as if they expected him to bring culture back to the project just because of the poem he'd written the year before.

Thanks to the mounting pressure, he let his nerves get the best of him, and, in the end, a hasty photo of his dog was what he submitted.

The disappointment seemed to be school-wide. This fact became more apparent to Stan as the day went on, as teachers regarded him with less enthusiasm than they had in days prior, and even his friends appeared to be a little less interested in him for the remainder of the week. The general assumption was that his artistic skill had died down. Soon enough, Stan himself had begun to believe that.

Kyle and Kenny were the only exceptions. The former tried to encourage his friend by telling him that his picture had been the best, last minute though it was. Despite that attempt and many others—one where Kyle promised to join the contest, himself—the noirette was adamant on not entering again in sophomore year.

He was true to his word. Not a single picture from Stan Marsh was to be found on the wall of submissions. There wasn't a picture from him, but after he took a moment to scan through the top five winners—the first three placing, the last two honorable mentions—he was startled by the revelation that there was a picture of him. The first honorable mention, in fact, was a neatly-framed picture of him leaning across a science desk during lab cleanup, extending his arm to hand someone—it was Clyde, if he remembered correctly—an empty Erlenmeyer flask.

A picture of him on the photography wall? The thought both confused and delighted him.

His first instinct was to ask Kyle about it. Such an inquiry resulted in a tight-lipped smile and a mumbled, "Maybe it was Wendy's," from the redhead.

Stan sought his ex-girlfriend out, finding her standing by a vending machine with Bebe and Lola for company. Instead of asking her his question right away, he began with amicable banter, including all three girls in the discussion with the sole purpose of looking like he had no motive for approaching other than to make polite conversation. Wendy immediately saw through the ruse, however, despite her accepting his chatter for a good few minutes. She only laughed at his annoyed expression, as well as his accompanying mutterings of, "You could've just asked me what I wanted instead of letting me babble like that."

"Well, what do you want, Stan?"

"You took that picture of me that won fourth place this year, didn't you?"

Her smile faded into a confused expression. "Huh? No, that was Kyle's picture." Lola and Bebe nodded their affirmations.

That was all the information that Stan had come for, so he didn't bother to stay around for the sake of politeness, nor did he dare breathe a word to Kyle.

In eleventh grade, Stan finally gave in to Kyle's pleas for him to "try and boost his morale," and the duo signed up for a joint art class together; Stan enrolled in photography while Kyle took painting, and because the two classes shared a room, they were able to spend time with each other while they worked. All-in-all it was a grand situation, the Broflovski thought, and Stan seemed to be enjoying himself as much as Kyle did. He could only hope that the other boy was fighting through his feelings of peer-pressured inadequacy in the process.

Stan was, in fact, feeling a lot more confident in his skills. He was carrying his camera around comfortably again, snapping pictures of random things that caught his eye both in school and out. His personal favorite was the one he caught of Kyle toward the end of their junior year, when they'd been fooling around near the art easels with Annie, Kenny, and Kevin Stoley. They were having mock-swordfights with rolled-up canvases, flinging paint at each other, and breaking nearly every rule of the class, not that the teacher was present to notice. Even if he had been present it wouldn't have made a difference; everyone typically roamed around and did whatever they pleased, anyway. The controlled chaos of the class was what gave the noirette time to casually phase himself out of the others' antics and sit atop the table behind them for a break to rest and fumble around with his camera.

He'd already taken four or five shots when Kenny caught on and began modeling for him, striking dorky poses between bouts of laughter that spread through the group. Stan didn't join in with the rest of them, but he did smile when his eyes flickered to his best friend, who was laughing so hard tears were gathering at the corners of his eyes. His face was spattered with flecks of blue and green paint that were dispersed among the orange freckles already present, and the way he looked then—eyes sparkling and crinkled at the corners from laughter, his smile bearing teeth as he so rarely did due to his braces—prompted Stan to snap a picture before he'd really even thought about it.

The moment he set the camera back down on the table, Kyle's eyes were on him, and one paint-smeared hand was waving him over for a group photo, this time courtesy of Annie. He hopped off the table to oblige, feeling the redhead's hand slink around his back and pull him closer to his side. Kenny was on Kyle's other flank making an obscene gesture with his mouth and hand, at which Annie was laughing so hard that Stan wondered how she'd actually taken the picture.

The flash went off; Kenny was the first to dart away from the boys in order to see it, giving the other two a thumbs-up to affirm its good quality. By the time their collective snickers subsided, Stan had become aware that Kyle's arm was still securely around his waist, and this comforted him until the bell surprised them all with its shrill ring.

The art students poured out of the room in a clangor. Stan brought up the rear, for his attention was focused less on heading to their final class of the day and more toward the handsome photograph he'd managed to catch of his best friend. The aforementioned friend slowed his steps so he could walk beside Stan, elbowing him lightly. "Dude, are you gonna submit one of those pictures you took of us goofing around?"

"The prompt is 'something beautiful', Kyle."

"Oh, come on. We're dazzling, aren't we?"

Stan chuckled at the other's grin. "Fine, sure, whatever. But it won't win. It's shitty."

"Lemme see."

With a soft sigh in regards to the photo currently illuminated before him (that Kyle hadn't seen, thankfully), he clicked the "previous" button and tilted the screen so his friend could look at one of the group pictures.

"You're right, that is shitty."

"Thanks." Stan watched Kyle's eyebrows furrow at that—a sure sign he was about to apologize—so the noirette piped up with a hasty, "I'm not offended or anything. Chill, man, it's cool. I was only taking them for fun."

"So you didn't get any really good ones? Like, not one you'd wanna enter?"

Stan stopped just before his present class' doorway, leaning on one shoulder against the wall before shrugging the other. "Guess not."

"Are you going to enter this year?"

"Yeah, I will. I just don't have a photo yet, 's'all."

"You'd better hurry. You've only got, uhh…what, like, a week before the deadline?"

"Mmhm. Seriously, Kyle, don't worry. I'm an ass-kicker of an artist, aren't I?" He smiled brightly, garnering a scoff in response. "Wow, that hurt, man."

The redhead rolled his eyes, his lips tilting up into a pretty smile. (Stan rewound that thought and mentally scribbled the word 'pretty' out. He did not think the smile was pretty. Of course not.) "Okay, so you are. But don't let that inflate your ego or anything, Stan."

Stemming from a sudden realization of the time on Kyle's part, there were hurried goodbyes in the form of waves that drew them apart, thus marking the end of their conversation.

The following week rushed by, bringing about the posting of the top five photographs in an unusually timely manner. The front of the building was teeming with schoolchildren, all of whom were trying to push their way into a suitable position to see the year's top five.

Stan, Kyle, and Cartman came through the doors much too late to make it to the front of the crowd, but their apparent lucky charm—in the form of one Kenny McCormick—had already viewed the winners and had managed to slink around the dean's office and down the next hall over to return to the front and deliver the news.

"Stan came in second." He said it to Kyle, as if it were too dangerous of an announcement to tell the Marsh boy directly.

"Sucks for you, Stan," Cartman put in unhelpfully.

Kyle forwent glaring at the brunette in favor of patting Stan on the back. "Don't worry. I bet you'll make first place next year."

Oddly enough, the Broflovski was right.

In the boys' senior year, Stan spent most of his spring trying for a picture worthy of a blue ribbon, and though many of his shots were well-composed, they weren't exactly things he found beautiful. That wouldn't have bothered him in years prior—hadn't, in fact—but he wanted, more than anything, to go out with something real. Something he truly meant. Something beautiful.

It wasn't until the day before the submission deadline, when everyone including himself was fearful of his failure, that he remembered a photo—a particular picture he'd had in his wallet for months now, one that he would be proud of turning in, even if it didn't win. A picture of someone he found to be strikingly, undeniably beautiful.

He remembered the quirked eyebrow he received from the office's student assistant when he slid the photograph of a laughing, paint-splattered Kyle across the counter, and he did his best not to meet her gaze while she labeled it as an entry and put it in the box with the others. "All right," she confirmed, "your picture's been entered."

The moment the words were out of the girl's mouth, Stan regretted his decision. Later on he felt better about it, but it turned out to be a vicious, vicious cycle of regret and pride that denied him sleep that night, plaguing him with needless worry which he fought with bursts of confidence about his decision. The lack of rest was bothersome; he looked like death the next morning, Kenny dutifully notified him, concluding the statement with, "AndI ought to know," which Stan supposed was some sort of joke.

"What kept you up so late?" Kyle asked in a jocose manner laced with actual concern. "Does my Super Best Friend have a secret crush he's not telling me about?"

Stan laughed it off, but that question turned out to be the first falling domino—the catalyst for his long-delayed epiphany, which made him realize all at once that he was a fool on the receiving end of Cupid's bow. He suddenly felt nauseous, leading him to avoid his friends for the rest of the day. This process carried into the following weekend, but he finally stepped up to face his demons on Monday, the start of the next-to-last week of school, as well as the day the winning entries from the photography contest would be placed on the wall.

It was now or never, he decided. He would see if he won, and even if he didn't, he was confident that he'd at least placed.

He had planned out all the things he would say to his best friend—there was a phrase saved in his brain for any response Kyle could possibly give, of that he was sure. And, yet, the moment Kyle saw the winning piece, that photograph from their art class he'd never known had been taken, every saved expression Stan had fabricated in the dead of night suddenly disappeared, leaving him in a cold-sweat panic as those lovely green eyes met his.

"Stan?"

"Yeah?" God, he sounded as though he'd gargled nails.

"So you think I'm beautiful, huh?" It took the dark-haired boy a moment to realize that his friend sounded just as nervous, even though he was putting forth an immense effort to sound like he was joking.

"Yeah."

"Shit, really?"

"Yeah."

There was a long, uncomfortable pause, during which Cartman had extricated himself from the group and Kenny regarded the other two with a soft smile before he followed suit.

"You're for real?" Kyle was still asking him this? Stan thought he'd been perfectly clear. Then again, he could always take it back now—say it was a joke, or attribute it to a friendly observation. The thoughts were short lived. He couldn't do either of those things, not now; he refused to back out, even if it meant getting himself hurt.

"Yeah."

Here, Kyle allowed a nervous chuckle to escape. "Is that all you can say, dude? 'Yeah'?"

Without meaning to, he mirrored the redhead's feeble laugh. "No, no. Sorry. I just, uh… Wanna go pick up my ribbon with me?"

"Sure thing." Kyle sounded as relieved as Stan felt. "Let's go."

The two of them walked down the hall in silence, listening to the din of student chatter grow weaker as they went. Upon reaching the front office, they exchanged glances, and Kyle couldn't help but let his wonderment show through his expression: That of wide, earnest eyes and a disbelieving smile crooking one corner of his mouth up. "Hey, Stan?"

"Hm?"

"You know, the funny thing is, um, for most of those stupid culture assignments we got, I made you my subject." Again, that weak laugh resurfaced, and Stan felt his ears warm pleasantly.

"Seriously?"

"Seriously. Like, in elementary school. What was it? Uh…draw a picture of someone you love."

"Oh, yeah! I remember that." The taller of the two at least had the decency to sound as if he'd forgotten for a split second what that prompt had been—he wouldn't tell Kyle, but he still thought about that, on occasion.

"And those poems in middle school." Kyle laughed once more, Stan following suit.

"Uh-huh. I won an award for that one in eighth grade."

"I remember!"

"It was about you."

Again, those green eyes widened, this time at the same instance as his smile. Another epiphany hit the noirette, and he nearly groaned at the thought. "Oh, God. I dated Andrea that year, too."

"I was so jealous, man. You have no idea."

Stan grinned. "You, jealous? You're fucking with me."

"No, dude. For real."

"I only dated her 'cause she reminded me of you. I don't think I knew that at the time, though."

"Even…" Kyle seemed to be struggling with his words, and all traces of a smile had left, prompting Stan to sober up immediately.

"What's wrong?"

"Even back then," he managed at last. "When we were little…"

"What about it?"

"I guess I sort of…felt differently about you than everyone else. Different from the best friend thing, I mean."

"Well, you know what?"

Kyle lifted his gaze to meet Stan's, looking expectant. "What?"

The latter was reluctant to recognize his smile as being bashful, but since it was obvious to the redhead, as seen through his smirk, he chose to acknowledge and dutifully ignore it. "I did too."

"I know. You just told me."

Stan groaned. "Shit. Well, uh…"

"Stan?" The boy in question was surprised to hear his name being whispered to him, and he realized in the space of one blink that Kyle's face was suddenly a lot closer to his than before. He almost laughed when that realization was concluded with another—that Kyle was standing on his tiptoes so they were at level height.

"I love you." Neither of them could tell who'd said it first. It had been said in near perfect unison, with similar tones of coy puzzlement.

Then, suddenly, they dissolved into laughter, leaning with their backs against the wall just before the office door and one shoulder against the other's. It was a while before the chuckles faded, but the moment they did, Stan leaned over and caught Kyle's lips with his own. "I love you," he murmured once more.

"I love you, too."