AN: I'm really sorry for the huge wait! Here's a (proportionally?) huge update; I hope that this makes up for at least part of it. Thanks a million to all the people who have commented or left me supportive messages about my computer drama—you really don't know how much it helped me. I like to think that this rewrite is better than the original. See, and I'm totally safe saying that, because who can argue? It's how I rationalize it to myself, haha. Warnings for rape references, language, too much introspection, lots of different characters. Spoilers up to Wheels, now—sort of. Moving right along through the altered series. (I'm so tired that it took me four tries to spell "altered.") Still got a lot of ground to cover; do forgive me if this chapter seems somehow over-simplified.
Thanks so, so much to seeker-2000, my incredible consultant and comforter, who repeatedly dropped everything she was doing to have agonizing four-hour discussions with me about this chapter. There's no way it would be here without her invaluable advice and constant inspiration. Please show her some love.
Everything That Counts
Kurt had murdered his complexion trying out dozens of different concealers over the course of the weekend, but even under a pound of pancake, he looked like he was auditioning to be the new face of Battered Woman Syndrome. In the end, he decided to handle the situation with his customary tact and subtlety: he wore violet gloves to match the bruises, and gave a different elaborate story to everyone who asked about them.
"I got into a fist fight with a drunken tattoo artist at a roller derby," he told Tina, who laughed so hard that she had to spend the entire lunch period redoing her mascara. Mike Chang got an anecdote about a juggling accident. Matt Rutherford heard it was an Ultimate Frisbee tournament gone awry. Artie was the only person in McKinley who could appreciate a good sci-fi flick, so Kurt went whole-hog and regaled him with an epic saga about a shrimp-like alien that had tried to take control of his body via his left eye socket.
"Why do all the exciting things happen to you?" said Artie, smiling.
"Wear more clothes from the purple family," Kurt advised. "It turns out that cerise infuriates extraterrestrials."
"Cerise infuriates me, too," said Artie.
Mercedes was the only person Kurt couldn't shake with a tall tale. She gave him false hope by being a great audience to his most colorful of narratives—"This stays between you and me: 'Kurt Hummel' is only my secret identity"—but as soon as she was done laughing, her eyes grew serious and she squeezed his hand. "Baby, I've always known you were a superhero," she said. "Now tell me what really went down. Please."
And for the first time that day, he froze. He was caught somewhere between a reckless hunger for her sympathy and the impulse to run like hell. How could he explain what had happened to him on Friday? He hadn't been able to put it into words himself yet, didn't even know where to begin. His talk with Rachel in the auditorium, maybe. The way his dad had cooked him dinner the next night and offered to watch "Cheyenne or Chicago or whatever that singing thing is called." Everything between the stage and Saturday was a blur. The only things he still remembered with any certainty were the blood under his fingernails, fluorescent lights, the number of tiles he'd counted on the bathroom floor.
The look in Noah Puckerman's eyes when he said the word "justice."
Kurt's hands were shaking.
"Hey," said Mercedes, reaching for him. "You still with me?"
He pulled away and scooped his books off of the shelf, slamming his locker door hard enough to make the metal number plate ring. "It's nothing exciting, Mercedes, really," he said. He was walking too fast, trying to lose her in the foot traffic. "Just let it go. It'll be anticlimactic now."
Mercedes stayed right at his side. "So? After last week, I'm ready for a little boredom."
"Not this boring."
"Kurt—wait, Kurt! What is with you today?"
She caught the end of his scarf as he tried to round a corner. He nearly decked her with his satchel in his hurry to swing back around, dropping an entire armload of notes so he could hold the cashmere in place. The pages scattered in every direction. Kurt watched them flutter away to a sarcastic ripple of his classmates' applause, his throat closed up with fright. Mercedes had been inches away from exposing the handprint-shaped bruise on his neck. No amount of Ultimate Frisbee was going to explain that little gem.
"Okay, boy," said Mercedes, in a voice like steel. "Spill it."
He still couldn't speak, so he gestured her closer to the wall instead, stalling. She went with him without delay, linking her elbow with his to keep him from bolting. Her skin was warm and familiar through the thick fabric of his sweater. He'd put on long sleeves that morning to hide his wrists.
The edge was already gone from her tone by the time they stopped by the drinking fountains. "Why are you shaking?"
"Sorry," said Kurt. "I'm just…I don't know. I'm freaking out."
He dampened his lips and swallowed. All the excuses he'd had a minute earlier had fled him, and Mercedes was leaning toward him, her eyes worried and expectant. He could hear his own pulse.
"I got jumped on Friday," he said at last, his whole body numb with adrenaline.
"What?" She swelled up with fury; Kurt shushed her frantically. "I don't believe this!" she raged, barely lowering her voice. Her hands were emphatic and everywhere—on her hips, in her hair, stroking Kurt's forearms with fierce concern. "It was someone on the football team, wasn't it? They just had to get the last word in! Come on, we're going to march our asses right into Figgins' office and tell him to get a tighter leash on—"
"No!" He grabbed her arm as she began to turn. "Don't, Mercedes. Please!"
Mercedes glanced at him, startled. Beyond offering her an elbow or the occasional escort up the stage stairs, he rarely initiated contact with her. It was something he did on purpose. To minimize the potential for misunderstanding.
"Look," she said, after a long, tense moment. "I know you don't want to shake things up, but this isn't just a drive-by slushie. You could've been seriously hurt. Maybe it was just a black eye this time, but next time it could be a broken arm, or a punctured lung, or—" she had to pause again to collect herself; Kurt was both moved and terrified by her vehemence. "You need to report this, Kurt. This can't happen to you again."
"I'm fine," Kurt protested. "I can handle it."
She gave her head a sassy little twist. "Well, my heart can't. Take care of this, or I will."
Kurt's breath caught in his throat. His best friend's heart; that precious, inscrutable jewel. He had stepped on it once in a moment of insecurity, and he saw it in his mind's eye every time she forced a smile for him, ground to dust in the back parking lot like pieces of glass from his windshield. The only good thing about Mercedes playing the infamous car wash card was that at least she knew how deeply he regretted hurting her. How badly he wished that he could love her like she loved him.
"You're the best," Kurt said, almost speaking to himself. He straightened the tiny charms on the gold chain around her neck, a key and a whistle. "Thanks for caring."
She scoffed, but her eyes were soft. "Like I have a choice."
But Kurt did have a choice. He finally had the ability to spare Mercedes a little heartache. If she was this upset over a bruise under his eye, god knew how she would react to the full story—a story that Kurt was more than ready to forget in lieu of aliens or roller derbies or even some nameless assailant of his own making. Kurt's resolve hardened. This was an opportunity to reconstruct the circumstances of his attack. He let go of her necklace and threw himself headlong toward that tapering prospect, before he had a chance to second-guess it.
"It looks a lot worse than it is, I promise. It was just the coup de grâce of the slushie war. The guy was waiting for me outside to escort me to the dumpsters, so we had a pathetic little smackdown that neither of us really won…but it's over now. For good. These are strictly defensive wounds, Mercedes. You should be proud of me."
He was startled by the fluidity of his own deceit, and so was Mercedes—she opened her mouth, paused, then closed it and frowned. "You," she said, eyes narrowed. "Football player. Physical altercation?"
"Right," said Kurt.
"And you're not, like—dead? No offense, but—"
"I can take care of myself." It came out sharper than he'd intended; Mercedes raised her hands quickly in defense.
"I know. I know you can."
"I'm not completely pathetic."
"That's not what I'm saying, and you know it. Stop being obtuse," said Mercedes. She never took his bullshit. "I'm saying that you're the underdog because you would fight fair. I doubt any of those jockstraps would return that courtesy."
The underdog. Fighting fair. Just thinking about it got him trembling again. Kurt was a heartbeat away from slipping back into that dark, unspeakable memory—the click of a lock, a hand on his throat—when someone grabbed his shoulder and tugged him upright again, the grasp firm, comforting.
"For fuck's sake, Mercedes, we're not all cavemen like Azimio. Cut us a little slack once in a while."
Kurt didn't turn. Behind him, he felt two fingers slip into his belt loop, silently securing him in place out of Mercedes' line of vision.
"Kurt, you and I need to have a chat," said Puck. "Now."
Mercedes looked at Puck like he was crazy. "Don't you see us talking here? Back off, Mr. T, I haven't had this boy to myself in three days. Since when do you two even associate with each other in public, anyway?"
It was the perfect chance to drop the "we're just lab partners" line that had been the bane of the Glee Club's social existence for years now, but Kurt couldn't quite bring himself to use such a rude excuse—not after everything Puck had done for him. And how poorly Kurt had repaid him. "It's okay, Puck helped me out on Friday," he said, forcing himself to smile. "I owe him one."
"He did? Seriously?" said Mercedes. She sounded disgusted.
"Don't get me wrong, I did all my own fighting," said Kurt, throwing Puck a desperate glance over his shoulder. "But Puck was there for moral support. And he gave me a ride home afterwards."
Mercedes raised her eyebrows at Puck. "That the way of it?"
Puck looked at Kurt with thinly-veiled annoyance, clearly not even sure what story he was supposed to be collaborating this time. He made an indistinct gesture with his hands. "Uh, actually, yeah. That's pretty much what happened. Did you ask him about the Kirschwasser?"
"What about Kirschwasser?" said Mercedes, rounding on him again.
He nearly died on the spot. "Nothing. I'll tell you later. Please, Mercedes, can Puck and I just…?"
She had the car wash ordeal as ammunition, but he had a wobbly note in his voice that emerged every time he began to get upset. Mercedes backtracked right away whenever she heard it. She didn't want to hurt him, either. "Okay, whatever. I'm willing to let this go if you swear you're not going to go getting into any more fights with football players. But I'm holding you to that. Capische?"
"Capisco, Donna Beyoncé," said Kurt.
Mercedes smiled at that, but not without some reluctance. She gave his arm one final squeeze and readjusted her backpack against her hip, pausing on her way by to fix Puck with an evaluative look. "You're still about negative fourteen slushies away from earning your way off my shit-list, but maybe you ain't all bad," she said.
Puck rolled his eyes. "Thanks a heap. I'll write that in my diary tonight."
Kurt watched Mercedes walk away. The confidence of her stride, the saucy way she held her shoulders—she was no higher than he was in the social hierarchy, yet she still knew how to command a corridor with every self-assured step. Kurt felt himself growing faint as Mercedes disappeared into the dissolving sixth-period traffic. Classroom doors were snapping shut; bells were ringing on the walls. He and Puck were the only two students left in the hall by the time he finally summoned up the nerve to speak, trying to slide toward the science wing.
"Well…we're going to be late. We better go—"
Puck pushed him back against the lockers. There was no real aggression in it, but his voice had finally lost all of its too-cool-to-care inflections. "I texted you," he said.
Kurt studied the seams of Puck's t-shirt. The lines of his collarbones were sharp and distinct under the thin white cotton, as if chiseled from stone. "I know. I texted you back."
"Once. I sent you twenty-six messages, and you only responded to the one where I threatened to call the cops." He pulled his phone out of his back pocket and read aloud from the screen: "'I feel better. Don't tell police, will talk Monday.'" Puck glanced at him, his eyes furious and indignant. "That's all I got out of you for three days, Kurt—nine fucking words. Then you play cat-and-mouse with me all day? What the hell?"
"I'm sorry," said Kurt.
"Not sorry enough. I actually lost sleep over this, so you're going to sit your ass down and tell me what's going on, right now."
"Nothing's going on," said Kurt. "The bleeding stopped on Saturday, so I just hung out with my dad all night and slept in on Sunday. Now I'm here. What else do you need to know?"
Puck stooped down to level their gazes. Kurt flinched backward involuntarily, rattling the lockers, but Puck maintained his eye contact with steady determination. For just a moment, Kurt knew exactly what Puck must be seeing: a skittish sixteen-year-old with shaky hands, wearing bruises on his lips and a full yard of violet. It was too pathetic for words. Then Puck braced his elbow against the wall to lean toward him, and the motion was so cautious—so unlike—someone else—that Kurt managed to lift his chin again. This wasn't the bathroom, for god's sake. Puck wasn't going to hurt him.
"I'm asking you how you're doing," said Puck. "No bullshit."
Kurt smiled at him. He was still faking it, but he didn't have to work as hard as he had with Mercedes. "Thank you, Puck. I'm okay. I promise."
"Which means you're definitely not okay. Awesome." Puck pulled away from him and raked both hands through his hair, ruffling it into further disarray, if that was even possible. He gave Kurt a sidelong glance, mouth pressed to a thin line. "I should have told your father. I still can."
Not this again. Kurt felt his smile evaporate right off his face. "Why not? He already knows."
"You told him?" said Puck, turning fast.
"No, but he knows all the same." Of course he did. His arm's-length dad had been too touchy-feely lately, too susceptible to poignant commercials. Kurt was trying not to get choked up, but that little tremor had slipped back into his voice. "You saw the way he kissed me, didn't you? He hasn't done that since I was six. My dad's not an emotional man, Puck, and he's not a stupid man, either. The only reason he hasn't confronted me about it is because he doesn't want it to be true. Don't make me tell him otherwise, please—it's better this way."
Puck shook his head in disbelief. "Even for you?"
"Even for me," Kurt affirmed, and he meant it: a few bumps and bruises, a little bit of blood. He was already healing. But his dad would wear the scars for the rest of his life, like the ones he still wore for Kurt's mother. The pictures on the walls. Her toothbrush by the sink. "I love him more than I love myself. Do you understand how that feels?"
"No," said Puck, after a long pause. His voice was gruff. He cleared his throat. "No, I don't. I'm just not that fucking noble."
Kurt lowered his eyes. "I don't believe you."
Whether or not he'd said it in Puck's defense, it was still a flat-out accusation, and Puck stepped close so that his height dwarfed Kurt's. Kurt didn't shrink away this time, which seemed to anger him even more.
"Let's get this straight, Kurt. I'm not trying to do you any favors. I'm only keeping my mouth shut because I've apparently gone a metric fuckton of unresolved daddy issues, and I'm still hoping that you'll grow a pair and take care of this yourself. We made a deal on Friday: talk to someone. If you haven't spoken to a professional by this time next week, then I will find you one, tact be damned. I'll take out a Want Ad in the school paper if I have to."
It was fair. That was the insane part. It was actually fair. Kurt would just call up an anonymous helpline, listen long enough to get the ten-step solution, and report back to Puck with a recovery plan. His dad would never even have to know.
No one would ever have to know.
"Why are you helping me?" asked Kurt. His voice sounded very small in the empty hallway.
"I said I would, didn't I?" said Puck, looking away. "I told you I would help."
"I thought you meant you'd carry me to your car and drive me home. I didn't think you were adopting a whole new lifetime ambition."
"Yeah, neither did I, so don't get used to it. I'm already tired of looking out for you." Puck pushed himself away from the wall and took four steps toward the nurse's office, hesitated, then turned back around to thrust a stack of paper into Kurt's arms. "Oh, yeah, and this is your shit. Try to keep it together this time, will you?"
Kurt stared down at the first page, startled. His notes—Puck must have gathered them from the corridor after he'd dropped them during his fight with Mercedes. They were a little trampled and out of order, but they were all there.
He raised his head to say thank you, but Puck had already walked away, the only evidence of their conversation a strange flickering feeling in Kurt's chest.
"It's just, damn, I've never seen you wear sweatpants before today," said Mercedes, for the fourth time. "I didn't even think you owned any."
"There's a first time for everything," said Kurt.
And that was true. It had been a whole week of firsts: the first time Kurt had played hooky (Tuesday), the first time Kurt had played hooky with a classmate (Wednesday, with Puck), and the first time since his fifth birthday that he'd wet the bed (Wednesday night). That last one was definitely not making it into his AMC biography any time soon; he'd already expended far too much time and laundry detergent trying to scrub out the stains on his mattress. When his dad caught him in the kitchen with the baking soda, Kurt lied and said he was making dessert. Naturally, the lemon chiffon had collapsed in the center like a bad punch line. Kurt covered the whole thing with a sugar glaze and tried to pass it off as a Bundt cake. Mercifully, his dad didn't push it.
They were at their Thursday rehearsal now, and Mercedes looked magnificent as usual, her teal jacket setting fire to her dark eyes. Kurt knew exactly how he looked in comparison. The most he'd managed to do that morning was comb his hair and throw on a scarf to match his shoes, but the lighting in the choir room was making the power blue look distinctly periwinkle. Mercedes patted his knee anyway, more friend than fashionista.
"You rock everything you wear, baby," she said, smiling. Bless her; she almost sounded like she meant it. "That color is great on you."
Well, sweatpants only came in so many shades of gray. Kurt tried to smile back at her. "Flattery will get you everywhere."
To his left, Puck—who had been eavesdropping on some heated financial debate between Finn and Quinn on the other side of the room—spared him a quick sideways glance. Kurt stared down at the floor. Puck may not have known calico from cashmere, but even he could spot a fashion faux pas in the form of the word "JUICY" emblazoned in block letters on the ass of a pair of sweats. Tacky. And so not designer.
Mercedes was still looking at him, her eyes dark with disquiet.
"All right, guys, we're doing a new number for sectionals," said Mr. Schuester, strolling into the room with a stack of sheet music. "I know that pop songs have sort of been our signature pieces, but I did a little research on past winners, and it turns out that the judges like songs that are more 'accessible.' Stuff they know. Standards. Broadway."
He distributed music as he spoke. Mercedes glanced at the title, rolled her eyes, and passed Kurt his part. He stared at the pages. Great. The notes melted together off the staff into a soft gray blur, not that it even mattered—he already knew the whole piece by heart.
"Great choice, Mr. Schuester," said Rachel, already annotating her solo with stars. "'Defying Gravity' has been my ringtone for years."
"Glad you approve," said Mr. Schuester. "Everyone okay with this, then? Kurt?"
Was he really that transparent? Kurt blinked hard to clear his vision, struggling to maintain his smile with an earnestness that made his jaw ache. "Yes, it's great," he said. "This is my favorite song of all time."
It must've come out sounding too demonstrative or something, because there was an awkward beat of silence in which Puck's eyebrows furrowed, and the indomitable Rachel Berry cast him a nervous glance. Kurt withered in his seat. Thankfully, Mr. Schuester was already moving along, arms crossed over his chest in teacher-mode: "Good, then, second order of business. The school won't pay for the special bus we need to take Artie and his wheelchair with us to sectionals."
"Wh-wh-what?" said Tina.
"That's completely unfair," said Rachel.
"So," Mr. Schuester continued, "we're going to have to raise the money to pay for it ourselves. See, when I was in Glee Club and we needed new silk cummerbunds for regionals, we held a bake sale."
Kurt guessed that the low swell of dissent that followed wasn't a comment about the silk cummerbunds (gross). Artie glanced around to gauge the room's reaction, deflated a little, and lowered his head to his music to play off the disappointed twist in his expression. Santana Lopez was just drawing in a scornful breath to speak when Rachel leapt from her chair and marched to the front of the room, hands on her hips.
"An excellent idea, Mr. Schuester!" she said, beaming. "We'll all make different types of baked goods to fully accommodate our customer base. I can make chocolate rugelach. How about everyone else?"
Another lull in conversation. Brittany looked blank. Santana rolled her eyes. Then Quinn sighed and flicked a stray lock of hair off her shoulder, raising one hand. "If someone covers the cost of ingredients for me, I'll make some cupcakes."
"Yeah, and I can probably bake cookies," said Finn, looking uncertain. "I mean, like…in theory."
"My dad says I make a mean Bundt cake," said Kurt.
"Then it's settled," said Rachel, making a hearty go-get-'em gesture with her right fist. "We can rent a booth in the cafeteria and work in two shifts to cover both lunch periods. A dollar for small things like cupcakes and cookies, two for bigger things, like pieces of pie and cake. Everyone sign up with me to minimize repeats. We'll earn this money in no time!"
Her enthusiasm was catching. No one was exactly jumping with joy, but they weren't still making faces like they'd been sentenced to death, either. Artie smiled, tentative and hopeful. "Not that I don't really appreciate this, Rachel," he said, "but what's the catch?"
Rachel shrugged. Her expression grew soft. "No catch. I'm just…trying to be there for a friend when it counts."
Wow. Who knew that the BFF chat in the auditorium was actually going to stick, especially for Rachel There Is Nothing Ironic About Show Choir Berry? She and Mercedes were sharing a rare look of understanding, and Tina turned to Artie, her grin shy and meaningful. Kurt would've at least attempted to look properly touched if the bell hadn't gone off at that moment, giving him permission to escape. He was out of his seat in a second and halfway to the door, Puck at his heels, holding his satchel.
"Hey, don't forget your shit! You got a hot date or something?"
"Yes, in fact," said Kurt. "With my favorite pair of pajamas and two pints of Chubby Hubby."
Puck rolled his eyes. "It's not even five o' clock yet. You can do better than that. That shitty vampire movie's playing at the dollar theatre now, want to go?"
"Quinn, Kurt," called Mr. Schuester, cutting off Kurt's reply. "Can you two stay for a minute?"
Kurt's heart began to pound in his chest. He slowed down and came to a halt by the door, the rest of the club flowing past him into the freedom of the hallway.
"What'd you do?" Finn joked as he passed by, clapping Kurt on the back. A week ago, the touch would've set off a million wings in Kurt's heart. Now he only felt them in his stomach. Finn was everything he had left on that bathroom floor—warmth, security and gentility, the possibility of compassion. Just thinking about him now felt like an insult to Finn's decency.
"Maybe another time," said Puck, purposely shaking him free of his trance by slinging his satchel back around his shoulders. He averted his head when Quinn pushed by them, her shoes clicking impatiently on the floor. "Catch you later, Kurt."
"Sure," said Kurt. "Bye."
He was starting to feel helpless whenever Puck walked away. Had to work on that. When he turned around, Mr. Schuester was already motioning Quinn into his office, his gestures big and friendly. "Kurt, do you mind waiting for me for a minute?" he asked. "You're not in trouble or anything; I'd just like to talk to you."
"All right," said Kurt, sitting down on the piano bench.
"Don't get cozy there, Kurt, I won't be long," Quinn assured him as she passed, her voice full of exhaustion and annoyance. Kurt stared after her, surprised. It was the first time she had ever spoken to him directly. His name sounded so foreign when she said it.
Who knew how these things worked? Maybe Quinn had finally resigned herself to the Glee rung of the social ladder, or maybe Kurt finally had an in with her now that he and Puck were—friends, right? They were friends. Ditching school with Puck yesterday had been strange, spontaneous, and unexpectedly comfortable. Kurt had been hiding from the hall monitors behind the gym when Puck screeched up to the curb à la James Bond, wearing cheap shades and beckoning him dramatically into the passenger seat. They got lunch at a fast food joint together. Puck had even paid for Kurt's salad. And even that might not have been enough to convince Kurt of their new companionship after their hostile history, but Puck had sat down next to him so willingly during rehearsal, displacing Rachel into the wobbly chair at the end of the row. It was like the Glee Club version of pinning on a Prom corsage.
In a completely platonic sense, of course.
Mr. Schuester's door clicked open. True to her word, Quinn was already strolling out of the office, her face conflicted despite the customary poise of her gait. She couldn't have said more than a sentence to Mr. Schuester. The awareness of her pregnancy loomed over all of their heads like the promise of a storm these days, heavy and unspoken, and Kurt turned to watch her leave. One of her hands was resting unconsciously over her abdomen.
"Kurt," called Mr. Schuester from behind his desk.
Kurt crossed the room and lingered awkwardly in the doorway.
"I'm not that scary, am I?" said Mr. Schuester. "Come on in, please. Take a seat."
He had only spoken privately with Mr. Schuester maybe three times before—a couple times for dancing help (prompted by Mike Chang's repeated claims that Kurt had trouble "grooving") and once for a lecture on underage drinking. If that last discussion had been at all touchy-feely, Kurt had been too tipsy to remember it. He crossed the office and sat in the seat in front of Mr. Schuester's desk, where the "Defying Gravity" sheet music was already spread out for annotations. Kurt's name was written next to a tenor part.
"I think I'm just going to ask you what I asked Quinn. Hopefully you'll be more receptive," said Mr. Schuester, folding his hands in front of him. He smiled. "How are you doing?"
It wasn't what Kurt had been expecting. "What?"
"Anything going on with you, I mean? You seem distracted."
"Oh," said Kurt. He fiddled with the strap on his satchel. "Yeah, actually, I've been kind of stressed out lately."
Kurt hesitated, mulling over possible replies. I start hyperventilating whenever I walk down a certain hall these days, he imagined himself saying, doing his best Dietrich impression, deep and deliberate. Or, if he were feeling a little more imaginative: I learned last week that my voice is more important to me than my body. Some extra credit would be nice.
But even if could muster up the energy to deliver a glamorous opener like that, what followed would completely kill the theatricality: Mr. Schuester would get that raw, destroyed-nice-guy look, and Kurt would get weepy. Kurt had never been able to cry prettily, had never quite mastered the art of single shimmering tears and calculated sobbing. He felt with every fiber of his being.
Or tried not to feel, as it happened these days.
"Nothing, really," said Kurt, rising to his feet. Suddenly he had to be somewhere else, anywhere but sitting in front of Mr. Schuester with his kind, you-can-tell-me-anything smile. "I just have a lot of homework to do. That's all."
Mr. Schuester leaned back in his chair. "Well, you didn't shut me down as fast as Quinn did. I guess that's something."
Kurt licked his lips and said nothing.
"I want you guys to feel like you can talk to me," said Mr. Schuester. "Clearly, you've already got each other—I was really impressed by how you all pulled together to support Artie—but sometimes I get these vibes that you'd like to talk to someone a little more detached. And you should know I'm always an option."
"I know you are, thanks," said Kurt. "But I'm fine. Really."
I'm fine, he thought, as he gathered his bag and waved goodbye to Mr. Schuester. I'm fine as he left the choir room in Quinn Fabray's footsteps, chin up at a proud angle, his stride calm and saucy like Mercedes on Monday. He would have to take the long way around the school because he didn't like using the main corridor anymore, but it didn't matter; the exercise was good for him. Kurt drew in breath after breath as he walked, holding onto his wavering smile with an authenticity that would've made Dietrich proud. Shanghai Express. He was done with the wilting flower roles. The Devil is a Woman.
I'm fine, he told himself, pushing the doors open to the parking lot. I'm fine. I'm fine.
Friday. A bright, pale afternoon. Seven days had passed since Puck and Kurt had bonded over some blood on a bench, and Puck was celebrating by ditching the pre-game football practice. It's not like it ever did the team any good, anyway.
It had been a bizarre week. Glee forced him out of his comfort zone more often than he liked to admit, but he never would've guessed that one of his detours would involve Kurt Hummel, transient insomnia, and a late-night conversation with some trained volunteer in an online help center. Now that had been a strange chat—more clinical than Puck had expected, not sentimental at all, but driven by a solid undercurrent of honest empathy. I am so sorry this happened to your friend, the woman had typed, and followed it up with several brisk calls to action: Try to make sure he receives legal help and therapy. Don't pity him. Encourage him to keep a journal. Thank him for telling you.
So many practical suggestions. Ten tips in, Puck had already decided he was the world's least qualified victim supporter. His guide would've gone like this: yell at him, tell him he has no self-respect, watch him get drunk, help him lie to his dad. I already fucked up, he wrote back to the woman, ashamed to admit it even in the anonymity of a private chat room. How do I undo it?
She responded without hesitation: It's never too late to start helping. Don't give up on yourself yet, and don't give up on your partner, either.
Puck had appreciated the encouragement so much that he hadn't even been bothered by the "your partner" comment.
It was strange, though, spending so much of his time stressing out about someone who wasn't Quinn. Her fight yesterday with Finn had reminded Puck of his unborn child for the first time in days, which was crazy, because Quinn (and Finn, and maybe Rachel) had been commanding his whole world only a week earlier. For the first time in his single-minded memory, life was pulling him down several different roads at once. Puck felt alive, but episodic. He wasn't used to dealing with so many things at once.
Or dealing in general.
It was three-thirty now, and the school was empty except for a few dawdling hockey players and some kids in detention. Quinn, who was on some long-suffering I'll-do-everything-myself kick, had opted to make cupcakes by herself in the home ec room after class. Puck hesitated outside the door for a long time, trying to work up the nerve to give her a hand. He was just reaching for the doorknob when Finn rounded the corner with Artie and Tina in tow, Rachel Berry walking shyly at his elbow with a cookbook tucked under one arm.
"Hey, man!" said Finn, sounding pleasantly surprised to see him. "What are you doing?"
Puck jumped and rearranged his outstretched arm into a sort of meandering, what's-up-dudes gesture. "Oh, you know," he said, shuffling away from the door. "Just watching the game, havin' a Bud. Where are you all going?"
"We're getting together at Kurt's house to make our bake sale stuff. Wanna join us?"
Kurt's house? "And whose idea was that?"
"Well, I said we should get together, but he was the one who suggested we go to his place instead of mine," said Artie. "He says he's probably got the biggest kitchen. I think he's just trying to avoid my mom's plaid window treatments, but what would I know? Especially about home décor?"
"Exactly n-nothing," said Tina, smiling.
"Yes, thanks, that was rhetorical," said Artie.
Puck frowned. If yesterday's sweatpants were any indication, Kurt wasn't even prepared to dress himself properly anymore, let alone play host to half a dozen guests. He wondered what Kurt was trying to prove here. "Okay, yeah, I guess I'm in," he said, stepping reluctantly away from the home ec room to meet them. He had something to give to Kurt, anyway.
"Awesome, this works out great," said Finn. "Kurt and Mercedes already took off to pick up groceries, so the rest of us are carpooling. There are only two other seats in Artie's van. Would you mind taking Rachel?"
Wink wink nudge nudge. He wouldn't have minded taking Rachel a week ago, that was for sure. Puck stared at Rachel, and Rachel stared back, her lips pressed together into a perfect line. They hadn't talked at all since their breakup on the bleachers. He wasn't sure where they stood anymore.
"Sure," he said, trying to sound enthused.
Rachel gave her eyes an almost-imperceptible little roll. That answered that.
They drove in perfect silence for ninety percent of the ride. Puck saw Quinn's face in every car window they passed, her betrayed eyes, the tense arrangement of her shoulders as she labored alone over a batch of cupcakes. She was stressed out, too. Even Mr. Schue had noticed it. Puck knew he should reach out to help her, but it seemed like someone else was there every time he tried to get close—Finn had just sort of cockblocked him in front of the home ec room, and instead of calling her on Wednesday like he'd planned, Puck had caught lunch with Kurt instead. It was starting to feel fated, that he and Quinn weren't supposed to be together. But if that was true, where did that leave her? And where did that leave their kid?
"Green," said Rachel, very quietly.
Puck leapt in his seat. Sure enough, the light in front of him had changed when he wasn't paying attention. He stamped the accelerator with a little too much gusto and the car jerked into the intersection, making Rachel jolt against her seatbelt. She had both hands braced against the dashboard. Despite himself, Puck felt a small twinge of guilt.
"My driving blows right now, I know. I just can't stop thinking about shit."
Rachel shrugged. "It's fine."
If they were still dating, Rachel would've gone a step further and asked what was bothering him. Puck never thought he would miss her cross-examinations. Or her Broadway trivia. Or the familiar tug of her arm in the crook of his elbow.
Maybe he was just starved for attention.
"So, how are you and Finn doing these days?" he asked.
She glanced up fast at that. "What? What do you mean by that, are you making fun of me?"
He took his eyes off the road for a second to fix her with a bewildered glance. "What the hell, Rachel? I was trying to make conversation. Just…forget I said anything. Excuse the hell out of me."
Rachel stared at him for a long time, searching his expression for something. He turned pointedly away from her. She sighed. "I'm sorry, Noah, but the last time we talked about this, you just kept reminding me that he and Quinn are never going to break up. You know the answer to your question even better than I do. Finn and I are like we always are: nonexistent."
The amazing thing about it was that there was no melodrama in her voice at all, just practicality and naturalness and easy composure. You could say what you wanted about Rachel Berry and her nauseating propensity toward Mary Janes, but the girl had it together. It made Puck want to throw her a bone. "Well, what do I know? He invited you along today, didn't he?"
"He invited you along, too," she pointed out.
"But not with the intentions of getting into my pants, I can promise you that."
She laughed sadly, stopped to think, then smiled again with a little more conviction. "Well, I'm not going to get my hopes up. You know a lot more than you think you do, Noah." She removed one hand from the dashboard and gave Puck's right shoulder an awkward but well-meaning pat. "How are things going with you two?"
"I don't know," said Puck, after a moment of consideration. "Could be worse, I guess. Kurt's fine."
Rachel's hand paused on his shoulder. "I was asking about Quinn."
He felt the wheel slip in his palms. Rachel made a mad grab for the dashboard again. The minivan in the other lane had to swerve to avoid him; the blaring of its horn followed them all the way down to the end of the block. "Did I really say 'Kurt?'" said Puck loudly, trying to talk over the sound of his own pulse in his ears. "I meant Quinn. That's really weird. I meant to say 'Quinn.'"
"Weird," Rachel repeated. Her knuckles had gone white on the dash.
Puck swallowed. Kurt's house was just creeping into sight now, thank god. "Well, we're here. Looks like we beat Finn and the others."
"Yes, they're right behind us," said Rachel, twisting around to glance backwards. "I think I see Mercedes' car, too. Noah—?"
"How did you know where Kurt lives?"
For the life of him, he could not come up with a good answer for that. Maybe it was because they had almost been totaled by a minivan. Puck just cleared his throat and pretended like he was concentrating very, very hard on his driving.
By the time had finally finished parallel parking against the (vacant) curb, Mercedes and Tina were easing Artie's chair out of the van, and Finn was waiting by the mailbox to offer Rachel a hand. Rachel was out of the car in an instant, looking ready to kiss the ground. That left Puck alone on the sidewalk with Kurt, who was standing by the hood of Mercedes' car, holding a paper bag of groceries and staring up into the bright daylight. Puck leaned over to touch his elbow, careful to keep the gesture out of Rachel's view. Kurt had dark circles under his eyes.
"'Sup?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
"Oh, hi, Puck. I didn't know you were coming." Kurt pasted on a thin smile. "I'm having a bad day."
"Anything I can help with?"
"No, you're helping already. I just…I was afraid to walk around the school alone. Thus, impromptu baking session at my house. Can't go wrong with flour power, right?" He hoisted his grocery bag in demonstration.
Puck was still no expert with this stuff, but he'd spent that morning reading an online article about "triggers," and it was starting to make a vague sort of sense now. Something unspeakable had happened at the school. It was a miracle Kurt even had the cojones to step back into the building. Puck relieved Kurt of his armload of groceries and pointed toward his car. "In the glove compartment," he said, holding out his keys. "Check it out."
Kurt gave him an odd look. "Is something going to jump out and bite me?"
"No, not if you're fast enough—of course not, dumbass."
"I have five friends within earshot," Kurt warned, but he took the keys and walked over to Puck's car anyway, unlocking the passenger side. There was a click as he opened the glove compartment. Then he removed the waiting gift, examined it, and looked back up at Puck with an unreadable expression.
"It's a journal," Puck explained, feeling like an idiot. He had skipped his normal math-period nap to pick it up from the bookstore that afternoon, a spiral-bound set of pale green pages with a copy of that famous Japanese print on the cover. The Wave of Kanagawa or Kawasaki or whatever. "I was reading some shit last night, and there was a site somewhere that said that writing is a good way to get out the things you don't want to say out loud. I mean, I know that's seems obvious, but…especially now. I get that, like, you might not want to talk to anyone, but maybe this'll help, because…god, you know what, this was a retarded idea. I don't know why I thought—"
Kurt silenced him by putting his arms around Puck's neck and pulling him close. Puck staggered into him for balance, then held on, startled. Kurt felt even smaller and colder than he had last week, his limbs drowning in the black hoodie he had thrown on over his t-shirt—a simple blue polo, shocking in its conventionality. Puck clasped him tentatively around the waist, trying not to break him. Trying to warm him up a little, at the very least.
"I love it," said Kurt, his cheek pressed to Puck's shoulder. Puck thought he felt two hot pinpricks of tears soak through his shirt, but Kurt was already pulling away. "Thank you, Puck. For everything."
Puck just stood there, lax and useless. He had never been thanked before. Not like that.
"Is your dad home?" Mercedes called from the porch.
Kurt wiped his face. He kept his eyes on Puck's. "Maybe! He's been home a lot lately. Ring the doorbell again?"
But Burt Hummel took that moment to open the door, a beer in hand, and lifted an eyebrow at the number of guests on his doorstep. He peered past Tina's shoulder. "Kurt," he said. "Half of Ohio is here to see you, I guess."
"I invited them over so we could make stuff for our bake sale," said Kurt, taking the grocery bag back and rushing over to join them. He kept the journal cradled inside his hoodie, Puck noted with pride. "Hey, dad, do you mind if we use the kitchen for a couple of hours? It's for a good cause, I promise."
"Lowering the fees for non-resident fishing licenses?"
"Close. Handicapped bus."
"Yeah, that's real close," Mr. Hummel grumbled.
He held the door open for Rachel and Mercedes, and, after giving Artie an appraising look, stepped back to allow Kurt and Tina to lift his chair through the doorway. But when Puck and Finn stepped onto the porch, Mr. Hummel reset one foot on the welcome mat, his posture suddenly defensive. He waited until Artie and the ladies had disappeared into the kitchen before speaking.
"Noah Puckerman, I remember you from Friday," he said. "You're on the football team, right? You and your friend here?"
"Dad, that's Finn," said Kurt, trying to push past him. Mr. Hummel raised one arm to bar the entryway, forcing Kurt to draw back again.
"I don't mean to be a hardass," said Mr. Hummel. "Understand that I'm just a little wary of you boys being around my son after what happened to him last week."
"Something happened last week?" asked Finn, knitting his brows.
"Dad," Kurt repeated. The frail color in his cheeks had already drained away.
"Football practice," said Mr. Hummel. His eyes were hard. "You don't think my kid got that shiner while he was hand-washing his silk delicates, did you? No offense, Kurt. I'm not saying that you two had anything to do with it; I know how it goes when guys get together…but I can't be too careful nowadays. I worry about Kurt a lot. Especially knowing what McKinley jocks think about this Glee stuff."
"But Kurt quit football," said Finn.
"Well, good for him," said Mr. Hummel. "I don't care if he's off the team. I just don't want him getting hurt. I wouldn't be able to handle that, you understand? Not with—I just wouldn't be able to handle it."
Puck hadn't believed Kurt on Monday when he said that Mr. Hummel knew what had happened to him. It had been too convenient, too emblematic of some scripted '70s sitcom—no father and son had that kind of unspoken understanding. But there was too much here that neither Kurt nor Mr. Hummel was saying. This was not a logical response for either of them. Why would Mr. Hummel's first reaction to a minor football injury be a complete ban of non-paraplegic males in his house? And why was Kurt clinging to the doorframe for stability, silent and white-faced, too afraid to argue for fear of finding out what this was really about?
"It's okay, Mr. Hummel, Finn and I don't mind taking off early," said Puck. He grabbed the back of Finn's jacket and began hauling him off the porch, making him stumble. "We'll make our stuff later. Don't want too many cooks in the kitchen, you know. Literally, in this case! That's—funny. Or maybe ironic; I never really knew the difference between th…"
Wow. What the hell was it about Mr. Hummel that gave Puck verbal diarrhea? Even Finn was staring at him now. Puck forced himself to shut his mouth.
"We'll get going," he finished lamely.
"Sorry," Kurt whispered.
"Thanks for understanding," said Mr. Hummel, stepping back inside and drawing one protective arm around Kurt's shoulders. Kurt swayed against him, looking faint. "I mean that."
"Yeah, not a problem, Mr. H. See you on Monday, Kurt?"
"Sorry," Kurt repeated.
"Tell Rachel I said goodbye," said Finn, just as Puck thought to hell with subtlety and shoved the front door shut himself. Horribly awkward idea, in retrospect. Finn jumped, Mr. Hummel had to pull his hand away from the screen door to save his fingers, and Kurt had been in the middle of a sentence. It sounded like, You don't have to keep…something. You don't have to keep doing this, maybe.
Or, You don't have to keep me safe.
The whole neighborhood felt dark and unwelcome in the following silence.
"What the hell just happened?" Finn demanded finally. "Why were you here on Friday?"
Puck sighed. He was exhausted. "Could we talk about this someplace else? It's been a crazy week. I'm going to completely lose the ability to function unless I get some fucking caffeine in me. Like, now."
Finn's expression was startled, then sympathetic. He'd been shipwrecked without pseudoephedrine for almost a month now; if one person could understand being tired, it was Finn. "Yeah, let's go do something," he said, clapping Puck on the back. "It's not like I was really looking forward to baking, anyway. We haven't had a chance to just chill in ages."
Now that Puck thought about it, Finn was right. Glee and football had been keeping them both too busy to do much talking, and that wasn't even counting the girls or the babies or the myriad of unlikely friendships. He and Finn hadn't just sat around to shoot the shit since pool-cleaning season. Puck could still taste the sun and the chlorine if he reached back far enough, the hot summer air and the greasy cheese from the pizza parlor. All of it was turning stale, now. The memories of June were past their expiration dates, grounded by Kurt and asphalt and the denial in Mr. Hummel's eyes.
"Yeah," said Puck, after a pause. "Yeah, let's go."
"Where?" asked Finn.
Puck grabbed Finn's jacket and urged him into his car, punctuated the daylight with the sounds of their slamming doors. "Away."
"You're not stupid," said Rachel. "And I thought you respected me enough to know that I'm not, either."
She realized how disproportionally aggressive it sounded the moment it left her lips, but Kurt was already turning around, patting the clumps out of a bag of brown sugar. "I have no idea what that means, Rachel, but you've really got to work on your opening lines," he said. "Are we about to have an Iron Chef-style smackdown here? Do I need to whip out the piping bags and paring knives?"
"Um—no. That's not quite what I meant."
It had taken her a long time to catch him alone in one corner of the kitchen. Tina and Artie were frosting cupcakes on the dinner table, and Mercedes was baking a second batch of cookies, singing "Unfaithful" over the whir of the mixer. The Hummels kept a neat house. Buffed tile, polished cabinets, counters lined with sleek appliances and ceramic cookie jars…this was a place for home-cooked meals and family dinners, chess matches on rainy days. Rachel would've been jealous if it hadn't been so expressly characteristic of Kurt, in all of his competence and deficiencies: it was a precise kitchen. A fashionable kitchen.
But also a really damn cold kitchen.
"Let me start again," said Rachel, pulling her hands out of her apron pockets, where she'd placed them to keep them warm. "Do you remember that conversation we had in the auditorium on Friday? The one about being there for each other, and being friends?"
"I remember," said Kurt, still facing the counter, measuring out delicate teaspoons of salt. He was so unflappable; he never gave her a nonverbal clue. Even in pajama pants and red argyle ankle socks, he made her feel awkward.
"Well…you also said that Noah was a pig," Rachel continued.
"I said that?"
"Yes. And that I should forget him."
Kurt finally glanced up at her. He looked both amused and annoyed. "So…have you? What's your point, here?"
Rachel hesitated. Where to start from, in her mental list? The way they had sat together in Glee Club. The way they gravitated toward each other in the hallways, as if bound by some unspoken promise. Even an hour ago, waiting on the curb, Rachel had glanced back to see the two of them conferring too close in the street next to the car. Kurt's arms were around Noah's neck, and Noah was hugging him back, keeping both of his hands respectfully above Kurt's waist. She wouldn't have believed either of them was capable of such a tender gesture if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes.
She wanted to trust Kurt; she really did. But, at great personal risk, she had allowed herself a sliver of defenselessness in his presence, and he had repaid her by starting a relationship with the very man he had told her to avoid. Mercedes, Artie, Tina—they were talking to her more now, waving to her in the hallways. Kurt was the only one who wasn't meeting her halfway with this "let's be friends" business.
It wasn't like the approval of a classmate was really going to have any long-term effects on her health or career, but—it hurt. And Rachel didn't appreciate feeling that way.
"I heard that you went out with him on Wednesday," said Rachel, dropping her pretenses.
Kurt only paused for half a second before digging a metal bowl out of the cupboard. He transferred his ingredients with one haphazard turn of the wrist, plucked a spoon out of the drawer, and began to stir hard enough to whip up mists of flour. "Noted," he said, his voice flat.
That was it? Seriously? Rachel followed him across the kitchen, the heels of her shoes clicking determinedly against the tile. "Look, Kurt, I don't need to know if something's going on between you and Noah. I mean, you don't owe me the details or anything. But I'm truly insulted that you would speak to me so candidly in the auditorium, then go and—"
"Listen, Rachel," interrupted Kurt, setting the metal bowl on the stovetop and rounding on her. "It's not like that. I'm not making a play for your man. I didn't expect to ever be friends with Puck, either, but he's been a great comfort to me lately—and I just can't afford to pick and choose at this point in my life. I need someone to talk to. Surely you can appreciate that?"
Rachel stared up at him, startled. He had never been this open with her before, and certainly he was permitting himself a vulnerability that he usually kept sealed behind a neat veneer of hairspray. Then again, his use of product had taken a steep decline in the past week, too. He looked tired. His bangs, soft and unstyled, swept across his forehead in an indifferent arc. Coupled with his sudden affinity for ill-fitting polos, Kurt Hummel was well on his way to becoming someone none of them knew.
Not that Rachel had ever really known him in the first place.
"Okay, I understand, but you can always talk to us," she said. "We're here for you too, remember?"
Kurt nodded. "Right. I know."
"This whole 'being there for each other' thing isn't a one-way street."
"I got that, Rachel. Thanks."
Rachel stared at his metal bowl, the stovetop glowing red below it. This is where she was supposed to drop it. Her few past interactions with Kurt had taught her when to stop pushing, when he was already balancing backwards on one heel to step away. But she had meant it when she told him she was going to be there for him. It was her only condition: that he learn to let her in, too. Even if it hurt at first.
"This really isn't like you," she said softly.
That stopped him dead in his tracks. He turned around to face her again, his eyes glittering coldly in the white light of the kitchen fluorescents.
"What is it with you people and presuming to tell me what I'm like?" he demanded. "What the hell do you really know about me, Rachel? You don't even know when my birthday is. You don't know my favorite color. You don't know my favorite season, or what makes me tick, or my favorite song—"
"'Defying Gravity,'" said Rachel.
He paused. "What?"
"That's your favorite song, isn't it? That's what you said on Thursday."
Something about it seemed to break him. Kurt's mouth tightened, then quivered, and suddenly he was flinging ingredients onto shelves and trying to get the counters back into perfect, compulsive order. "It used to be," he said. He scrubbed the clean spoons dry with the hand towel, smacked them one by one back into the silverware drawer. "I loved that song, but it's not about me anymore, is it? It's got nothing to do with me. It's like I just can't stop falling these days, Rachel. I'm defining gravity."
"If you really want the solo—" Rachel began, feeling desperate in the face of his distress, but then Kurt reached out and pulled the bowl off the burner before she could stop him. She shrieked. The metal hissed against his palm. "Kurt! Oh my god!"
"You're always yelling," said Kurt.
Rachel swiped the bowl out of his hands and tossed it toward the countertop, ignoring the searing heat in her own fingertips. She hadn't stopped to put on oven mitts either. Brilliant. The bowl clattered back across the stovetop, rolled, and landed in the sink. The cold dishwater spat and sizzled. Steam rose to the ceiling in enormous plumes, obscuring their entire half of the kitchen.
When the vapors had finally cleared, Kurt and Rachel simply stared at each other, dumbfounded. The wallpaper above the sink had peeled a little from the heat. Rachel was cradling her injured hands.
Kurt was not.
"What the hell?" Mercedes demanded.
She had turned off the mixer and stopped singing; the silence in the house was abrupt, complete. She hurried toward them, Artie and Tina hot on her heels. Tina was still carrying a tube of vanilla frosting.
"Sorry," said Kurt. He looked at the burn on his palm in numb surprise, then flinched in realization and grabbed Rachel's wrist with his unharmed hand. "Oh, god! Rachel!"
Her fingers had gone a deep, painful red, but at least they weren't blistering, like Kurt's were. "I'm okay," Rachel assured him, still in shock. "It's nothing I haven't done to myself with my curling iron." But Kurt had already turned on the cold water tap and was running Rachel's hands frantically under the stream, blowing ineffectually on her burnt fingertips, leaning forward to examine the damage. Rachel was too dazed to stop him, mesmerized by the honest grief in his eyes. His hand was peeling, and he was still trying to apologize to her.
"I'm sorry, it was my fault. I didn't mean to—"
"Wait, you did this?" asked Mercedes.
"Yes," said Kurt.
"No, he didn't," Rachel insisted, confused. "It was completely accidental. Would someone attend to him, please?"
It was only then that they seemed to realize the severity of Kurt's injuries. "Shit," said Artie, seizing his arm. Kurt's hand was sporting at least a second degree burn. "Mercedes, could you—?"
"Yeah. Hall bathroom, now." She eased Kurt away from the sink, shaking him gently to get his attention. "Boy," she scolded, keeping her voice low, "the hell did you do to yourself this time?"
They walked away. There was a quick murmur of conversation in the hall as they ran into Mr. Hummel, then the bathroom door snapped shut and the faucet squeaked on. Silence in the kitchen. Rachel stared at Tina and Artie. Tina and Artie stared back, looking bewildered. Above them, a tiny bird-themed wall clock chirped five-thirty.
"So what happened?" asked Tina.
Rachel stretched her fingers under the cool water. They were still stinging. "I don't know," she said. She didn't know how badly she was shaken until her sentences began to fall apart, crumbling like the cake Kurt had tried to bake fifteen minutes before: "I mean, we were fine, just fine, but then were arguing, and then—he grabbed the bowl, but he didn't feel it! I tried to warn him, but he just stood there, so I pulled it away from him and put it…it should be somewhere…"
"Shh." Tina had tugged a Coke free from the six-pack on the counter, and now she was popping the top and holding it carefully to Rachel's lips. Rachel gave it an obedient gulp, feeling the sugar course straight to her stomach. Like drinking cavities. Artie wheeled himself past her and lifted the metal bowl out of the sink. Its mouth was warped into a strange, amoebic shape.
"Wow," said Artie, letting out a low whistle. "Next time you and Kurt want to make a crazy BFF gesture, how about you just take blood oaths, like normal people? It's way easier on the cookware."
"Artie," Tina warned. She stroked the hair out of Rachel's face. "What do you mean, 'he didn't feel it?'"
"He didn't react to it at all," said Rachel. "It was burning him, and he just held onto it. I don't think he even knew what had happened until I pointed it out to him."
Tina's lips parted in alarm, then pursed. Even Artie had paused to listen. They must've noticed Kurt's lack of physical response, too; Kurt hadn't exactly been subtle about it. Rachel could tell from their expressions that they believed her. She lowered the water to a trickle so they could hear her clearly over the sound of the plumbing.
"Something is wrong with Kurt," she said.
A moment of silence followed the declaration. Rachel braced herself for dissent, as she usually did in these types of situations. But then Tina nodded, and Artie reset his glasses on the bridge of his nose, speaking carefully: "He does seem more preoccupied than usual, and we've all noticed a distinct deterioration in his fashion choices. Well, Mercedes has, at least."
"It started on Monday," said Tina. "After that f-football guy attacked him."
Rachel turned to her in surprise. "Kurt was attacked?"
"Didn't you see the bruises?" asked Artie.
Of course she had seen the bruises. They were kind of hard to miss when Kurt was using them to accessorize, and she had been watching them heal since Monday, fading from purple to green to the sickly yellow-brown where they were now. "He told me he got them during a barn-raising in Wapakoneta," said Rachel. She felt ridiculous, gullible. "Why would he lie to me about that?"
Artie patted her arm. "He lied to all of us, Rachel. Try not to take it personally."
Rachel appreciated his reassurance. Before last Friday, he might not have made such a gesture, instead defaulting to one of his good-natured brush-offs that still managed to cut Rachel to the core when she wasn't ready for them. He was making an effort, now. They were all making an effort, and not doing a half-bad job of this whole "learning to be friends" thing, either. The only person who wasn't convinced by it was Kurt, which Rachel never would've predicted after their private conversation in the auditorium. It had meant the world to her. Had he not felt the same way?
She turned off the tap. The pain in her hands seemed a small thing now, faraway and unimportant.
"We have to get to the bottom of this," she said. "This is serious. We have to figure out what's going on with Kurt and be there for him, because that's what friends do for each other."
"It's true," said Artie, after a few seconds of deliberation. He glanced around the kitchen at all of their bake sale efforts, ragtag but well-meaning—so much like them. "Can't believe I'm saying this, but…yeah. You're right."
Tina chewed one on of her painted nails, Urban Decay's Fbomb red. "How?"
They began by cleaning the kitchen. They washed the rest of the dishes and swept up the spilled flour, took out the trash, scrubbed the counters. While Artie finished frosting the cupcakes, Tina popped the rest of Mercedes' cookies into the oven. Rachel kept track of the time and stared at her rugelach, the neat brushstrokes of egg and sugar making the tops of the pastries glisten. By the time Mercedes reappeared, everything was packed away into plastic containers, ready for sale. Brittany and Santana had already agreed to take them to that night's football game. Mercedes eyed the stacks of Tupperware, smiling tiredly.
"Great haul," she said. "Thanks for finishing up, guys."
"How's Kurt?" asked Artie.
"Oh, he's—I don't know. I think he's getting ready to go to bed."
Rachel glanced at the clock. It wasn't even seven yet.
They were almost finished loading up the cars when Rachel went back for the last bag of brownies, walking lightly, so as not to disturb the room's stillness. The house was different in the evening, private and bittersweet, seeming somehow too big for its own parameters. Rachel sneaked into the kitchen and put the brownies in her backpack. The wallpaper above the sink had peeled back again. They hadn't been able to figure out a way to get it to stick.
"I'll fix it tomorrow," Kurt said from the doorway, making her leap a little. "I'll break out the paste and everything. It's actually kind of therapeutic."
"Yeah, it sounds like fun," said Rachel. She hoped it didn't come out sounding as sarcastic as she feared.
Kurt smiled and nodded. He was wearing one of his dad's old tees as a nightshirt; the hang of it was wrong, making his arms look thin and insubstantial under the weight of the cotton. Kurt Hummel in poly-blend, thought Rachel. What would happen next? But then Kurt answered that by crossing the room to examine her fingers, spreading them like a palm-reader in his carefully lotioned right hand.
His left hand was sheathed in gauze.
"Does it hurt?" he asked, his voice tenuous.
She hummed a negative. "Not much. It's a pretty superficial burn. How about you? Are you...feeling any pain?"
He looked down at the bandages and wriggled his fingers minutely. "It was hurting a little while ago, but I took a painkiller. I think it'll starting feeling better in a bit." He looked up at her. He face seemed so pale and unprocessed; she never saw him before his grooming regimens. "Rachel—I'm really, really sorry."
"It wasn't your fault," Rachel said.
"No, not about that. About the rest. For snubbing your sympathies, and for ignoring your feelings about me and Puck. I don't know if I can stop talking to him, but—"
"Don't change a thing on my behalf," said Rachel. "You're allowed to have friends, and you should keep talking to him, if it's doing you any good. Maybe you'll also think about talking to us sometime, though? Me and Mercedes and Tina and Artie. We're here for you too, you know."
"I know," said Kurt. "And…I mean it this time. Thank you, Rachel."
"You're welcome, Kurt."
Rachel thought they were going to part with a clumsy little handshake—he was being way too careful with her, painfully aware of her burns—but then Kurt pulled her into a hasty hug, all elbows and awkwardness and which-way-do-I-tilt-my-damn-face. Rachel squeezed him back, feeling completely helpless for no reason at all. This was their first hug. Something inside her was already afraid to let go.
"Please talk to us," she whispered.
If he heard her, he gave her no sign, just gave her shoulder one last gawky stroke before releasing her to go out to the street.
Tina was already halfway down the block in Artie's van, inching along in short, jerky bursts. Mercedes waited for Rachel by the driver's side of her car, watching Tina's progress with amusement. "Girl drives like she talks," she said, and Rachel couldn't help a horrified little giggle at that. Mercedes just grinned. Her hair shimmered in the streetlights as she gestured Rachel into the passenger seat, keys jingling around one finger. "Okay, Natalie Wood, let's hit the road. We might be able to get these cookies to the game while they're still warm."
Rachel turned around as they drove away, craning back to watch Kurt's house disappear in the growing darkness.
They ended up getting shitty drive-through coffee from the Doughnut Hole. Puck balanced the paper tray on his knees as he pulled out of the parking lot, Finn already setting to work on their double order of Tator Tots. No Napoleon Dynamite references, either, which was a sure sign of his pensiveness. He had already lost interest in the situation at the Hummel residence. Puck had only gotten one sentence into the excuse he and Kurt had given Mercedes—"I gave him a ride home last Friday, after he got into a fight"—before Finn had been satisfied.
"I'm glad you were there for him, man," said Finn. His eyes were sad and distant, a million miles away. "Hey, take a left. I want to relax a little bit before the game."
So they went to the stupid park behind Finn's house to drink their coffee. Finn looked ridiculous on the tire swing, but Puck himself had literally no room to talk, having taken a seat on a plastic turtle-shaped shade structure built for three-year-olds. They were too isolated to be self-conscious. The sun crawled across the sky an hour at a time, pulling their shadows into clean lines that focused all of their soft edges.
Puck had been noticing things like that lately. Stars and silhouettes, the smooth relief of nature after too many hours of jagged people. He kicked off his sneakers to let the sand warm the socked soles of his feet, its pliability comforting, honest. Solid ground was a lie.
"I should be trying to find a job now; I should be out helping Quinn," said Finn. "She needs money. But she tears me down so much, you know? I know I'll never be able to understand what she's going through, but at least I'm doing everything I can to support her. She told me that I'm not even acting like a man. Rachel would never say something like that to me."
Puck finished his coffee and tossed the cup in the general direction of the trash can. It rolled across the pavement, fetched up against the side of a tree. Oh well. Paper was biodegradable.
"Sometimes I don't know why I even bother, dude. I already love our kid, but it's not like I'm going to be a good father. I wouldn't even know where to begin."
Apparently, you began by listening to a kind, stupid lie, and you ended by closing the door with your son on the inside. Hoping you could keep him there. Hoping you'd locked the right people out. Puck dug a rock out of the sand and tossed it up in the air, caught it backhand. What did it matter? He was just a stupid football player. He hoped Kurt was having a good time doing his bake sale stuff with all of his real friends—at least, the ones who had made his father's cut.
"I think she wants to disown me; she's that ashamed of me," said Finn. "Maybe she has a right."
Puck hadn't thought Kurt would even want to be seen with him during rehearsal. He'd lingered by the seat beside him as a last resort, offering Kurt his heart on a skewer, and Kurt had responded by smiling and moving his jacket to make room. It had been more than Puck had expected. He was used to being the one-night stand guy, the "you were a mistake" guy.
He wasn't used to being forgiven.
Finn's voice rose with sudden understanding. "Except for making the mess in a hot tub, she could've done all of this stuff on her own! I'm not even doing any of the work now, am I? None of it!"
Puck passed the rock from one hand to the other. Really, the journal had only been a stand-in, something that would listen when Puck couldn't pluck up the courage to do it himself. He had felt so impotent and unhelpful these past few days—sure, he and Kurt talked all the time now, but it was filler-shit, empty as static. The consciousness of Kurt's trauma hung between them like something dying. Half of Puck couldn't wait for it to die, because he just wanted it to be over. But the other half was desperate to resuscitate it. That was the half that wouldn't stop the CPR, the half that refused to quit counting breaths, even for a second.
"When you think about it like that, this baby isn't even really mine," said Finn, choking up.
Puck was upright and heaving the rock at Finn before he even realized he was moving.
"Hey, asshole," Puck said, standing over him. "That baby is yours. It'll always be yours; it's not even about who's carrying it or the blood or the even genetics. It belongs to you and Quinn, because she says so. I hope you understand that."
It was game time. The sun was setting red behind them. Puck offered Finn a hand, and Finn took it after he had gotten himself together, climbing to his feet in that docile sea of sand. They headed back to the car in silence, leaving the tire swing swaying there in the playground in tiny little circles. And Puck thought, There's a power in abandoning; no wonder I do so fucking much of it. This was clean and on his terms, the constant ability to turn back around.
This could be exactly how his dad had felt the day he walked away.
End of chapter three.
If this part was too tame for you, don't worry, it's the calm before the storm. Thank you so much for reading! Please leave me your thoughts and suggestions, if you have the time.