A/N: Spoilers for 2.06 and beyond. This story deals with various thematic issues, and characters' viewpoints do not necessarily reflect mine.

Thank you to Aishuu for talking me through some Blaine headcanon; it helped a lot.

Enjoy~


How do you measure a year?

In daylights?

In sunsets?

In midnights?

In cups of coffee?

-RENT


I.

What Kurt will remember is September rain and a slow ache, blue-washed windows, streetlights a firefly nimbus around the curve of the block and god, he says, it's a downpour, you want me to take you home? Across the street Dalton's towers rise above his sightline in steppes, arpeggiated. They drive slowly because there's rain under their tires, but the streets are empty of traffic; there's no one on the sidewalks, nothing on the radio, just the blue of the darkening year and the deepest scent in the world from their two cardboard cups in front of the dash. The transition from Montgomery to Lima is always the neatest line in the state, but through Blaine's windows and the surreal haze of water that shrouds them it's all unreal.

When he gets out of the car, jacket stilted over his head against the rain, Blaine hands him his coffee like a handshake, just as warm and tangible between his fingers, and smiles. It's a soldier's smile. The kind of smile that's nothing so much as a slap on the back, and for the first time in his life Kurt opens his mouth and finds himself with absolutely nothing to say. Sheets of water crash outside them and crackle on his hands like oil on a hot griddle, and he stands there anyway, because he needs to say something and because he doesn't trust himself to articulate what Blaine has done for him, or what he represents. An anchor, he wants to say. Reassuramce.

Ultimately, all he does is steel himself against the water soaking him to the skin and shout, "Thank you for the coffee," and Blaine gives a salute, mouths something he can't hear in response, and turns his car back towards Dalton, throwing up droplets from the tires like handfuls of rice. Kurt watches until the car rounds the block. When he presses the ruined jacket to his face, its load of secondhand rain brings with it the scent of coffee. Warmth in a time capsule, and the sense, unmistakable, of sanctuary.


II.

"I really do appreciate this," says Kurt.

"Trust me," says Blaine, "I can tell. That woman over there actually covered her kid's ears when you started making noises over the dragon rolls."

The staff of Blaine's favorite sushi place don't seem even remotely perturbed about Kurt's near-indecent reaction to the dragon rolls, probably because they know that their dragon rolls are capable of causing international incidents (Blaine's pretty sure the maitre'd once told him they were out of inari because they'd shipped the last of it to the Shah of Iran, though he's still fact-checking on that one). The lunch joint is a bit further away from McKinley than he originally planned, but Kurt's face when he'd arrived had told him quite clearly that there was no way in hell he was going to any of his afternoon classes—so he figures that Japanese cuisine and chairs without gum on the armrests constitute a decent start to an old-fashioned day of delinquency.

"So," he says, when Kurt's finished all of his sushi and is eyeing his with the awkward half-glance that signifies they don't know each other well enough yet for him to reach over and take it. He nudges the tray forward and is rewarded with a particular smile that he's beginning to get used to, a manic and momentary spill of sunlight across Kurt's features that somehow manages to be both unexpected and wildly appropriate. "Do you want to have that conversation now?"

Immediately the smile disappears. "To be honest, I'd rather plunge these chopsticks into my wrist."

"I'm paying for your lunch, you know."

"Well played, sir, and I'm going to enjoy every last morsel of it, including your share of these dragon rolls. Mm. Tastes like deceit."

"Stop it," says Blaine, laughing, because Kurt can occasionally do this irritating thing where he derails conversations by riddling them with so many tangential witticisms nobody can be expected to follow what he's talking about. "I didn't invite you to lunch to psychoanalyze you, no matter what you're trying to imply."

"I'm not trying to imply anything, except possibly that I think I've eaten too much for dessert."

"Have some coffee, at least. And while you're doing that, will you tell me how you're feeling now, and tell me honestly?"

They both tense up for a moment, realizing that the fact of their similarities has tricked them into talking like much closer friends than they actually are. On some level, Blaine's not surprised he's sitting here in his favorite restaurant across from a guy he met at the impromptu concert last week, and on another level, his brain keeps pinging him something like dude, this is none of your business with such alarming frequency that he's seriously considering breaking his own plate over his head to shut it up.

Kurt notes the misstep and deftly ignores it, instead fluttering his fingers at a waiter and procuring his coffee. Once it gets there it just sits; once in a while he stirs it absentmindedly, the spoon making a minute bell-like sound against the edge of the cup.

"Blaine," he says, "you don't make it through McKinley without developing the hide of a rhinoceros and the short-term memory of a bipolar squirrel. I'm not thinking about it anymore."

"You called me."

"So? You told me to call if I wanted to hang out."

"Right, hang out, not throw a coming-out party for some jock on your football team. Can you blame me for being a little worried? You sounded like Amy Winehouse on the phone."

"You don't know Karofsky. If he'd done that to you, you'd be needing to get your rehab on too."

"Which is exactly why I'm asking if you're sure you're all right," Blaine states again, because Kurt obviously gets this, he's just being deliberately difficult at this point. Probably to offset the fact that he went classic knee-jerk and called a guy he'd just met from a rival school rather than telling one of his friends—and yeah, initially on the drive over Blaine had found it a bit weird, but by the time he pulled into McKinley's turnaround he wasn't thinking about weirdness anymore, just the way Kurt's fingers had curled around his coffee when he'd driven him back to Lima after the performance. Tense and almost too careful, as though at any moment he could spill the liquid quiet in which they'd driven back.

"I'm fine," dismisses Kurt, and there's a set to his mouth that Blaine hasn't seen before. He thinks he prefers the smirk. "You think this is hard? Try being dumpster tossed in Sevens, now that's hard."

He's smiling to himself like there's something wry and ironic about this, but Blaine doesn't get the reference. All he hears is the first part.

"Dumpster tossed? You mean they—"

"It's all right, Blaine. Coach Sylvester's health initiatives have greatly lessened the amount of processed meat products. If you've ever had to scrub Sloppy Joe sauce out of a capelet—"

"How do you do it?"

The words are out before he can stop them and he could kick himself for crossing that invisible line, the line that glows with Dalton and McKinley and one week ago and other reasons they could give about why they shouldn't be talking about this; not yet. It isn't as if he's helping Kurt in any great capacity, after all. Then he realizes that their similarities aren't fooling anyone, because Kurt is able to sit there across from him and talk about being thrown into garbage with a cool half-smile on his face and he can't listen to it without his heart beating faster, without remembering shredded books and scratched words in concrete. It isn't as though he hasn't imagined what could be happening to Kurt; it's that he hasn't imagined Kurt's response.

Kurt dabs his mouth with his napkin, twists his lips up the few more degrees to genuine happiness, and says, "Can I get back to you on that when I actually have an answer? In the meantime—courage, right?"

"You got it."

What he doesn't tell Kurt is that he tried courage once, too. It's been a year since he surrounded himself with his own magazine collage of smiling, brilliant people and streamers in his locker and a ribbon sticker on his notebook, and all he remembers of it now is the way the marker slashes looked after a few days. Drawings so vulgar that he'd had to slam the locker shut afterwards, bile rising in his throat as though he were about to be sick, and the red marker darkening to a brown smear like old blood. The visibility of the cruelty had startled him as much then as it does now. Courage, he'd told himself then, too, courage—

Kurt finally picks up his coffee and lowers his lashes as he blows nonexistent steam across the table. The motion is cautious and deliberate. With it a fierce determination suddenly surges in Blaine's chest; courage isn't going to stop the world from turning, but so long as Kurt believes it does, it serves its purpose. He wants badly to believe that it does. The problem is and has always been that courage is less armor and more of a banner to fly, and he was never a standard-bearer but Kurt can be, if he wants. Kurt, more than Blaine ever was, is capable of flying that flag.

Watching him, though, he can't shake the sense that this was advice Kurt never really needed to begin with.


III.

It would be woefully easy to form the misguided belief that Kurt actively seeks out the company of people who are mentally unstable, and most of the time, even Kurt can fully admit that sanity is not one of the high points or even feasible aspirations of the McKinley student body in general. This, of course, not being a character flaw so much as an indicator of the administration's priorities, but he's adaptable, so regrettably, he's pretty much lost the ability to identify a sane human being when he sees one.

Because of this, his first two weeks of knowing Blaine are fraught with the absolute conviction that he's a hallucination.

"I think he's a literal fairy godmother," he theorizes, and for about the fifth time in as many minutes Finn's hand slips sideways and his head bounces on the desk, waking him up.

"Whu—" he says, and then spots Kurt eyeing him with an expression of expectant engagement.

"Purple one's good," he says drowsily, and Kurt wrinkles his nose.

"We're talking about Blaine, Finn," he says.

"Is this the fairy godmother thing?"

"Ye—have I mentioned this to you before?"

"The fairy godmother theory, the Stepford theory, and the aliens-who-abducted-Brittany-left-their-leader-behind theory," recites Finn like a kid who expects his teacher to be proud of him, and Kurt abruptly realizes that if he's been rhapsodizing about this so much that Finn is aware of the nuances of his pathology, he's obviously veering into stalker-with-a-crush territory.

"Oh," he says. "Well. All right, then. Do you need help with trig tonight?"

"No," says Finn, and an expression of utmost beatification spreads over his face. "Today Rachel told me that trig is about triangles. Because they have the same three letters in them, did you ever notice that? So I figure I'm pretty much set for the rest of the year, because it's not like you can actually write an entire final about triangles."

Finn looks so proud of this that Kurt, who is occasionally assailed by unwanted feelings of goodwill, doesn't have the heart to say anything in return. "So why are we pulling an all-nighter, then?"

"Because we're going to eat that entire pie in the fridge so that Mom and Burt have to get another one tomorrow, and we'll have the excuse that it was studying fuel."

"I see."

"You don't sound excited..."

"I'm excited, Finn. I'm just contemplating the fact that you will be brewing me three and a half pots of very black, very vicious coffee to my precise specifications over the course of this night. Did you hear me? Three and a half."

As Finn is eagerly pouring the first cup of what promises to become about seventeen, Kurt's phone vibes and a message says Hope you feel better after lunch. Will get dessert next time and he smiles so stupidly that he nearly slops coffee down himself and Finn, looking up, furrows his brow at him and says, "Dude, have you been inhaling that CK One stuff again? Because that gets pretty trippy—"

Because Finn's all-nighter takes place on a night when neither of them actually have that much homework, Kurt spends most of it working on the masterpiece Vogue collage with which he intends to cover his entire half of the bedroom. They put on nineties radio and occasionally sing harmonies, as they sometimes do when they're working, and when Finn brings him the first piece of cherry pie Kurt is actually legitimately excited. It's a good evening, a buoyant evening, hours of tape and scissors and sequins and sweet food stretching ahead of him like a walkway of soft carpet. Suspended, for the moment. Nowhere else to be. He takes a sip of the coffee and feels warmth piston down the center of his torso. On the opposite bed Finn is headbanging absently to Stupid Cupid, which, well.

Blaine's text glows on the screen and Kurt finds himself experiencing the alien sensation of feeling everything pulled into place, somehow, threads unraveling, fingers tugging his heart gently into position for whatever comes next.

He texts back Sounds lovely—do you like pie?

Blaine sends Is there anyone who doesnt? and why up so late? and Kurt laughs, because fairy godmothers don't miss their apostrophes.

All-nighter with stepbrother.

Me too :( History exam. Keep checking in.

Finn says, "I haven't seen you this happy all year," and Kurt raises his mug, offers a toast, and says, "Virtually unlimited carbohydrates and coffee. Thanks."

Finn continues headbanging with a sort of knowing expression, and Kurt knows that even if he's not quite ready to say so out loud, a) it's not the coffee, b) Finn knows it's not the coffee, and c) that, all things considered, is actually kind of okay.


IV.

That night, Blaine drinks so many canned fraps he's sure his teeth are going to rot off, the coffee taste jolting him awake from the verge of sleep every time he feels like it; the imprint of a highlighter on his cheek, head pillowed in textbooks and words upon words submerging brain as he looks at the page, but he's awake every time his phone vibes gently from next to his elbow, every time he sees Finn is singing Backstreet and admittedly I may be singing Backstreet too and Two more hours to go! and in the morning he tucks another few fraps into his bag and sets off across campus jolted awake and sky-blue alive; he hasn't had a wink of sleep, but his eyes are wide open.

When Wes reminds him that their history exam is actually in three weeks, he pretends he didn't know.


V.

Since the Cheerios are in the habit of regularly skipping meals and navigating their days in feverish bouts of lunacy, Kurt usually assumes that whatever comes out of their mouths between the hours of eight and three will not be something he's interested in hearing. So when Santana corners him at his locker the next week and hisses "I know what you're doing at that boys' school, and I want in" it's par for the course to the degree that he actually doesn't realize anything's amiss until about thirty seconds after she's said it, upon which he doubles back and makes fish noises at her.

"Oh, shut up," she snaps, ignoring his verbal flailing, "Can you get me into Dalton, or not?"

"No," says Kurt, because seriously?

"I just want to look," she wheedles, and it would be convincing if not for the fact that she keeps shooting sultry looks at him; this is her modus operandi when conversing with anyone in possession of a Y-chromosome and he never takes it personally despite the fact that it's probably going to result in intensive therapy some fifty years down the line. "Don't you have a thing for men in uniforms?"

"When you look at people, they mysteriously develop unheard-of venereal diseases," says Kurt flatly. "I cannot in good conscience release you on an unsuspecting cache of teenagers."

She scowls. "I'm responsible, gay boy. I know what goes on in my pants. Maybe you should take a hint."

This is so unfair that Kurt accidentally miscalculates the distance between his head and his locker door and slams his forehead into it as he's attempting to put his books away. "Santana," he hisses, "what is wrong with you?"

"Could this get any more obvious?" she rants. "You. Another gay boy. You're going to do the whole cutesy young love thing and then maybe have a few nauseating dates where you feed each other finger quiches, and then you're going to lose control in a fit of passion and hook up in a music room at his prepfuck school, probably without protection because you're just so in love and you've been saving it for your first time and you trust each other."

If Kurt were at all invested in what she's saying, he'd have to concede that the way she makes trust each other sound like the ultimate act of filthery is really quite remarkable. As it is, he removes a huge thermos of coffee he was saving for later in the day, unscrews the top, and practically douses himself with it as a manner of fortification against having this conversation.

"Excuse, me I would just like to clarify the offensiveness inherent in whatever just came out of your—"

"Let me give you some advice, babe," she says, leaning forward on the balls of her feet so that her skirt swings forward, ponytail a pendulum in its back-and-forth motion. "If it seems too good to be true, that's because it probably is."

He stares at her, because despite the fact that she's still sulking over the thwarting of whatever misguided boarding school fantasies she happens to be housing, that tone still manages to be creepy as all hell.

"Anyway, just keep that in mind," she says, noting his reaction and sinking back to her heels with visible smugness. "And give me that."

She snatches the thermos of coffee, marathon chugs a disconcerting amount of it, and pivots abruptly in order to hare back down the hallway in search of one of her many unsuspecting victims, the scent trailing after her like a banner of death.

Quinn assures him that Santana is going through a difficult time and they should actually feel sorry for her in her sad attempts to reconcile her identity as a man-eating harpy from hell with her newfound tendency to care about other human beings.

"It's a problem," she says, demurely lowering her lashes (so long he could fly fish with them, and okay, he's always been a little jealous). "I should know."

Nevertheless, during the nightly spiritual exercise that constitutes his moisturizing routine, Kurt tries to pretend for a second that they live in some parallel dimension which is completely mad and Santana might have something that seems like, but is not, a point. He glances at his desk. Blaine's picture has graduated by this point from the bulletin board to an actual frame next to other frames that contain pictures of people like his father and mother, Carole and Finn, and the glee club. He tells himself that this isn't actually that alarming, because after all, Rachel is in one of those pictures too.

He'd always expected that in a situation like this he'd go from gung-ho to commitment-phobic in under five seconds, but if he's being honest with himself, the concept of doing something by halves has never appealed to him. When he thinks about Blaine's fingers handling chopsticks—competent, erudite—the entire idea of a safeguard seems extraneous, although he knows that this is too new to him for a proper understanding. At this point the idea of caution does nothing but anger him—they've all made their mistakes, some more dramatically than others, and on some level he wants the chance to make a mistake too, if a mistake is indeed what it is.

This resolution fixed firmly in his mind, he vindictively spritzes cucumber-melon mist into the air around his shoulders and resolves to make Santana buy him a new thermos.


VI.

Blaine sets his mug down on the dresser by the door and Kurt nearly shrieks"Not there!"

Bewildered, he lifts it off and swabs his elbow across the surface in case Kurt's afraid of rings, but Kurt shakes his head. "I don't bring food in this room, especially not coffee—here, take it out, take it out, and when you get out there pour me a cup, if it's Turkish roast."

He does so, and calls, "It is, your future stepmother has great taste."

"Obviously, since she's expressed an interest in applying for Hummelship," Kurt calls back, and then pads out into the kitchen, holding a sweatshirt. "Here, this is Finn's. He won't care."

"You're finally getting sick of seeing me in this blazer, or what?"

To his surprise, Kurt actually blushes. "You can't do any heavy lifting in that."

"I thought we were just housecleaning? Your basement this Sunday and my dorm room the next one?"

"We are. I just need that dresser moved out to the porch, and it's fairly heavy, so we're going to need to do all the drawers individually. Don't worry. I've got a mani-pedi set, and we'll rectify the damage after."

"The porch?"

"Yes. We're moving some furniture around for when Finn and Carole move the rest of their stuff in, and if I put it in the garage, it'll start to smell like everything in there. Just for a week or so, until everything's settled, and I'm going to cover it with a tarp. Careful—it's old, and more fragile than modern furniture—"

When they lift the first drawers, Blaine ducks his head and inhales deeply, trying to understand.

"Who at your house wears Estee Lauder?"

Ahead of him, Kurt's head bobs. The backs of his ears are tipped orange in the dim light from the steps outside. "My mom did."

Blaine doesn't say anything further, but takes two more steps down, shifting the wooden drawer in his hands, and then Kurt's voice back floats up like a buoy. "She preferred alternative scents, as far as I remember, but on their first anniversary this was all my dad could think of. So this was what she wore most of the time. Ubiquitous as it is. I think every other woman who dated in the eighties has worn it at some point."

When the dresser is out on the porch they slot all the drawers back into it and collapse against the picnic benches and the wooden slats, and Kurt leans on the dresser with his hands pressed into the smooth wood at the top. The porch floats boatlike above a veritable ocean of leaves, static fire, the loveliest thing about the Ohio autumn. Blaine's hand slides up, rests next to Kurt's.

"Thank you for letting me help," he says, choosing his words carefully.

Kurt's hand bridges the distance between them and then his own palm is warm with soft skin, a bead of sweat outlining the inside of his wrist. They stay like that, hands touching under a blue sky, and the dresser with its cavernous memories releases a scent that smells the way cotton feels, old-world elegance, softness. In that moment, courage isn't an impossibility so much as an inevitability, the centrifugal sensation that pulls them together.

Kurt's hand tightens around his. "Come on," he says. "Coffee's getting cold. Let's throw the tarp on and go inside."


VII.

After Mercedes politely declines their second outing to Breadsticks, Kurt makes the twenty-minute detour to Starbucks and buys her caramel frappucinos for a week straight.

"Damn," she says, "If I'd known you were that eager to get rid of me..."

"Blaine wanted to get to know you."

"Wrong answer, honey."

He laughs and puts his arms around her, one tough curl of hairsprayed hair digging into his neck, and listens to her exclamation as she moves them both out of the range of whipped cream from the frappucino. The problem with Mercedes is that there is no way to apologize to her. Their communication is strictly in terms of things that can be spritzed or drunk or eaten or worn or sung—smell this, eat this, wear this—and what he said to her after their last outing was unprecedented. Something outside their lexicon for one another, and so he has no way to address it without pointing out how alien it was. When she closes her eyes in childlike glee at the first sip of the treat, he tells himself that the discrepancy is addressed, although he knows it isn't.

So that Thursday, he and Blaine meet at Breadsticks by themselves. Blaine is too polite to initiate debates, but once they're brought up, participates with flair, making up for what he lacks in rhetorical talent with sheer volume of knowledge. Factoids, anecdotes, and Kurt is invariably so fascinated by the other world Blaine seems to dip in and out of at will that he nearly doesn't notice the hockey team come in and seat itself at the table at the other end of the dining room. But when Karofsky turns to look at him, he notices.

Blaine stops talking. "Kurt," he says, low-voiced, "don't stare. Seriously. It won't help. Look at me. Kurt—"

Karofsky is looking at Blaine.

"Kurt," presses Blaine. "Stop looking."

But Karofsky keeps looking, expressionless, at Kurt and Blaine at their table, and Kurt wishes there were anything on that face that would help him understand what's going on—a smirk, a glare, anything, but the other boy's face is completely blank. He flushes.

"Kurt," says Blaine, all in a rush, so quickly, and Kurt has never seen him say anything without smiling, but he's doing it now. "Kurt, don't you dare look. Don't you—"

Courage.

"Kurt!"

Blaine reaches out and grabs his wrist. Kurt sits motionless and, with the greatest effort it has ever taken, turns his eyes to his food. Blaine's eyes are concerned. There's a ringing in his ears that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, and yet, through this, he can hear Karofsky's laugh from the far table.

"I'd like to leave," he says. "I would really—I mean, I would like to go home. I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. Come on, get your coat. You wanna call your dad?"

"No—no. He's working late today. I'll—I'm sorry, Blaine. Remember to, um, call when you get back to Dalton."

His father isn't home when he gets back. Kurt stands in the kitchen for several moments. Then he turns on the light. He goes into the dining room and turns on that light as well. From upstairs the radiator keeps hissing; it takes him moments to move his feet, but he moves one, he moves another, and then he turns on all the upstairs lights. In his own room he sits next to the lamp and listens to the fizz and pop. He is on his feet at the sound of a mechanical process, some neighbor's car or something, and when the clock strikes nine his heart actually seems to stop for a moment, pummeling backwards and out of his chest.

At half past ten, there's a knock. By the time it happens, he feels so clean and emptied that it registers as nothing more than a breaking wave. Karofsky's blank expression has told him everything he needs to know.

He has the cool sea-green feeling that this was always going to happen. This was the story he grew up waiting to come true while others dreamt of fairytales, and like everyone he knows he will sit inside his house and wait for the next page, no matter what it is. He puts his feet up on his computer chair and waits until it grows to a steady knocking, and then to a hammering and then to a pounding that shakes the door on its hinges.

"Open up!" shout the voices. He closes his eyes. "Open up, you little ratbastard! Karofsky told us what you did!'

Kurt slides the chair back as quietly as he can. He goes up the basement stairs in his sockfeet and then up to the upper level, where he pulls the blinds apart slightly and looks down at the cadre of red-and-yellow varsity jackets spangling his nighttime lawn. They're pounding, they're shouting. From the sound of their voices Kurt can tell that they're not entirely sober.

He dials Finn.

"Finn," he says, taking care to remain very quiet. "Some hockey players saw Blaine and me at Breadsticks. They're outside. I think they're drunk and—and I don't want to call my dad, because if he comes home—"

"Holy shit," says Finn. "I'm calling the police. You don't—"

"Don't do that!" he hisses. "Do you know what they'll do to us if we call the police?"

"Then you stay there. Don't leave the house. Do you hear me, Kurt? Do not leave the house. I'm getting Puck and Sam, and some of the guys on the basketball team, and we're coming over. Shit, they saw you and Blaine? Were you—"

"No, Finn."

"Wasn't Mercedes with you?"

He thinks of Mercedes sucking down her frap, raising and lowering her eyebrows at him, and he feels sick. "No."

"Stay there. We're coming over. Text me if something happens."

"All right. Finn, please—"

"What, Kurt?"

Finn is angry and doesn't say anything further, but Kurt hears this is your fault, should have known better, and then he's angry too, because this is something Finn has never had to think about, while Kurt has to plan every day around it, stepping around the fact of it, living on the periphery of his high school years when he should be able to just live them.

"Never mind," he says.

"We'll be there soon. Don't move."

The line goes dead.

There's a pounding and shouting on what sounds like the side of the house, so Kurt runs to the bathroom window and slivers open the blinds to see hockey players pounding their shoulders against the side door. Then there's a crash at the back, near the porch. Under the outside light Kurt can see them trying the screen door, looking up at the window with their mouths frozen in the shape of ugly words—and then he sees them punching at the walls and knocking over the picnic benches in frustration; approaching a form covered in a blue tarp, and his blood goes cold.

No—

They're beating, they're shouting, spit is flying in arcs from their mouths, globules suspended in the sickly yellow light, clink of beer bottles and he never knew a moment could move so slowly but it does—it does—and when the dresser smashes like kindling he hears himself screaming as if from a thousand miles away. Those are his feet pattering on the stairs, that's his wrist tensing as he snaps the lock open, but none of it is real—

"No!"

—the only real thing is his mother leaning over that dresser, pulling out a sweater what do you say, Kurt? Alexander McQueen, and the softest thing in the world but she'd lied; he'd lain propped against her for hours after that and it hadn't been softer than the brown hair that lay feathered over it, and afterwards that sweater had gone back into the dresser and the day had become the kind of memory that spun like neon lights on the highway and if he loses that—

The porch door bangs open and there is a crunch of leaves underfoot, snap, the start of fire.

courage—


VIII.

Close to two in the morning, Blaine's roommate shakes him awake ("Dude, phone, get up, Blaine, get up") and shoves his phone into his hand, and Blaine says a groggy hello to an unfamiliar voice on the other end.

"My name is Rachel Berry," says the girl, and then he's awake, because this is a name he's heard in Kurt's voice. "I don't want you to be alarmed, but I found your number in Kurt's phone, and I need you to take down an address."

"What is it?"

"It's the hospital."

When he clears the double doors of Lima Community Hospital it's the first time he's seen the rest of the famous glee club Kurt keeps talking about all together at once. The tall stepbrother is nursing his wrist, and the blond football player is staring vacantly out the window. Mercedes has her hand clamped over the bleeding nose of a kid in a mohawk. A thin, ponytailed girl is holding the hand of the blonde next to her and a metal baseball bat. Blaine eyes them in helpless tension and then a small girl rises and comes toward him, hand outstretched professionally.

"Rachel?"

"That's correct," she says, in the voice Kurt can't stop talking about, albeit grudgingly. "At this point I realize that I owe you an apology for calling. It was a scalp wound, and bled disproportionately to the seriousness of the injury. He's fine. He's not even going to stay the night."

Blaine doesn't realize he's unable to stand until he feels the Asian girl slip under his arm, holding onto his waist and wrist in standard carry procedure. "Steady," she says. "Mr. Hummel, could you move over a little? Here, Blaine. You can sit on the bench."

With a slow frisson of horror Blaine sees that Kurt's father is there as well. He cannot imagine less favorable circumstances under which to have a conversation.

Smile he snarls at himself, smile, you're part of a damn acapella group; put on your show face.

He smiles. Shakily. "No, thanks, I—I appreciate the call, even if everything's okay now."

"Aren't you a boarder at Dalton?" says the hard-eyed girl with the baseball bat. "They let you leave at two in the morning?"

"I didn't really ask them."

She doesn't say anything, but he can feel her approval, a feral undercurrent. "Who, er—" He swallows. "Who helped him?"

"Puck, Sam, Santana and I," says the stepbrother, and winces as he grips his wrist harder. "We got there just as...in time."

"She came, we couldn't do anything about it," says the boy with the nosebleed, and muffles a curse as Mercedes tips his head back further.

"Yeah, and that was lucky for you," snarls the ponytailed girl. "I told you to take the bat, and I knew you wouldn't. What else was I supposed to do?"

"If Azimio's arm is broken, he could sue you," snaps another blonde, further off to the right, hugging herself and rocking on her heels. "You're lucky the police took your side."

"Lucky?" the girl hisses. "After what they did to Kurt, those shits are lucky to be alive."

"You didn't seem to have a problem when they were throwing him into dumpsters. I feel the need to remind you that it's not a great leap from there to violence like this."

"Shut up, Rachel," and Blaine sees that both girls' eyes are far brighter than they should be. "Oh god, shut up—"

A hand falls heavy on Blaine's shoulder and he turns to look at Burt's clear eyes, so reminiscent of Kurt's that he wants to run from them, throw open the door of the hospital and breathe in that arid October air until the night has run its relentless course.

"When this is through," says Kurt's father, "I want to talk to you about what I need to do to transfer my son to Dalton Academy."

Blaine says, "Yes, sir."

They visit in shifts. Kurt is under anaesthetic after the stitches and is lying with his head lolled to the side, frowning slightly, and looking enough like he's about to wake up and say ugh, if you don't get me out of these scrubs I will eviscerate you that Blaine is relieved. Nonetheless, when Tina wheels Artie in to say their hellos, he leans against the glass that separates Kurt's bed from the hallway and sinks all the way to the floor. Gum, dropped coins. A paperclip next to his hand.

He thinks of the word courage and wants to vomit. Sickness is curling in his throat. A slow ache building behind his ribs, and his heart keeps crashing against the flesh cage of his body as if it can smash through his back and the bricks and the feet of empty space and add its energy to Kurt's, still bravely pounding away under the green sheets and florescent lights. If this is bravery, he wishes he had forced Kurt to avoid it at all costs.

What have I done? he thinks. Oh god, what have I done?

In front of him two sneakers stop. He follows the pale legs up to the quiet blonde girl, the one who had held Santana's hand, and is now holding a styrofoam cup of hospital coffee.

"Do you want some coffee?" she asks, and then continues before he can say anything. "I don't know what to do. I don't know. So I'm giving people coffee. I saw it on ER. Does it work?"

He gets to his feet. Takes the coffee. Her face is a haze of confusion. In her eyes he can see the reflection of the window, Artie and Tina behind the glass moving Kurt's hair off his forehead. He sips the terrible coffee and the blonde girl begins to cry, very quiet and uncertain and so bewildered that he feels he will die of shame. He sets the coffee down on the floor next to them and puts his arms around her. They hold one another. She shakes, and he places his back against the cold glass and thinks I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry until he barely remembers the meaning of the word.

Back on campus, he's grounded for leaving, although the dorm mother assures him that she'll try to lessen his confinement a little, as she understands about his friend. Nevertheless, he isn't there when Kurt goes back home from the hospital the next day. He only gets the email.

I promised them I'd stay until after sectionals. Then I guess I'm a Dalton boy.

Blaine's fingers are frozen over the keys. He tries to type the apology. It doesn't come. He just sits there, staring at the words Dalton boy and then at nothing at all as his eyes cloud over, water in the space behind them as if he's looked for too long into the heart of the rain.


IX.

For the first time in the entire history of McKinley's glee club, New Directions comes in last at Sectionals. In the green room afterwards they sit in a pose Kurt remembers from the football team's numerous losses: feet apart, head down, eyes fixed on something boring through reality and fantasy so hard that they appear glazed, approximating disaffection. From behind the door of the girls' dressing room they can hear Rachel pacing. Her clacking heels up and down the tile and Finn, head pressed against the doorjamb, keeps saying you were good, you were, you always are—and Rachel's heels click on, relentless; she is silent for once, the only sound the gunfire bursts of her shoes in the wide white space.

No one looks at each other at all, so Kurt doesn't understand how it's still so clear that they don't want to look at him specifically. When their eyes meet as if by accident it's like laying a hand on a live wire.

He doesn't realize Mercedes is talking until he feels her hand on his shoulder, shaking it. "Come on, Kurt," she's saying, "come on for a second, let's go."

Outside is the most merciless cold he's ever experienced. Needles of wind puncturing his skin, leaving stitches of brutal numbness; he brackets himself with his arms and waits for her. In the indistinct backlight from the auditorium they can hear the Warblers whooping.

"Look," he says, feeling sick, "I'm not going to apologize."

"I know," she says. "I'm trying to apologize to you."

He wants to lean against the building, but it's like a block of ice, so instead they just stand suspended like that, two pillars as the world grows colder and colder around them. This late in the fall the days end early and it's too cold to breathe properly, but there's no snow or wonder or thoughts of Christmastime, just the lingering sense of a year coming to its close. Despite its beauty, fall is a season for dying things, he thinks, and he is suddenly very tired.

"They're all really upset, Kurt," she's saying. "They don't know what to say."

"Really? I think it's fairly obvious that they're not interested in talking to me. They haven't even tried, Mercedes."

"They're afraid if they open their mouths they'll ask you to stay. They feel like they've failed you, and they don't know how to apologize."

"And how do you know that?"

"Because I feel the same way," she says, and she's crying; it's not right that she's crying and he makes no move to help her. "We don't have the right, and we know that—we know it's selfish, but it's just how we feel."

"Please don't do this."

"We're happy for you—"

"Please don't do this. I just want to leave, Mercedes. Without any—issues. Can you just make that happen?"

They go inside without looking at each other. He's not sorry.

What happened to him was not a function of one person or one group of people. They're complicit. They are all guilty.

His departure the next morning is so early it's still completely dark, but they all show up anyway, in pairs or alone, hands in pockets and breaths curling visible in the air. Every one of them is silent. He expected some tears, but they're statues instead, carved grace and imminent disintegration held at bay until he leaves. Puck and Finn heft boxes and hoist duffels into the trunk of his car, with the muscles in their backs flexing as if tossing garbage into a dumpster. Artie, the only one with hands unoccupied, has his made into fists on his lap. They move as if onstage, opening doors, turning sideways to allow one another to pass, shifting things in underwater movements and always keeping those composed expressions on their faces. When they're finished with this gaussian blur of motion he almost wants to applaud, but there's no room for sound, they're gravitational vortexes that compress the lightness out of the world and he doesn't want to go near them for fear of being smashed into their reality. The trunk lid comes down with a professional click. Directors' cut. Scene change.

And then his father is crying as he turns the key in the ignition and Kurt's seatbelt is whirring like inevitable machinery, and Carole with her arm around Rachel's shoulder is saying come inside, please, there's coffee, please have some and she looks very weak and very sad. He realizes she must have made it for him, and by the time he's realized that refusing to have any before going was a dick move the car is already moving, and the road ahead of him is so clear that it looks like nothing so much as a runway. When he turns around, he sees them filing back into the house like young children, fortified against the sub-zero morning in huge jackets and hats and the thickly knit scarves he's never seen anyone wear outside of Lima, which he knows are warmer than anything in the known world, and which he knows they'll wear comfortably all through the bone-numbing winter, but it looks like they'll need the hot drink anyway. Despite their winter clothing, every one of them is shaking.


X.

Blaine is keeping watch for a certain look, and one day in Brit Lit he's rewarded with it. Kurt raises his hand and says, "Ms. Murray, I believe this discussion is largely semantic, and the question of nostalgia in Nabokov's Ada is one asked from an anachronistic and—if I may be so bold—limited postmodern paradigm."

Their teacher nocks a sheaf of blonde hair behind her ear, and says, "Really nice try, Kurt, but save the bullshit for college, okay?"

And finally, after two weeks of waiting, there's the look: absolute rapt amazement, which is the single thing Kurt has never been good at hiding; it's all there, the bellows that his chest makes as he breathes quickly, parted lips and crinkled pockets of tension all along his shoulders and wide, electric eyes.

Blaine laughs along with the rest of the class, slaps Kurt on the shoulder, and joins in with the friendly Welcome to Dalton! and Doesn't work here, new kid and when they're filing out, listens with absolute relief as Kurt breaks into his first real rhapsody since the incident.

"That would've worked at McKinley! I can't believe I'm actually going to have to think in English, for once, and no one's going to give me points for not eating my books! Oh my god, I have to get started on that paper ahead of time, this is insane; do you want to help me with—"

"Yes," says Blaine. "Yes. Yes!"

He's fairly sure he acts like an idiot all the way across campus, listening to Kurt prattle through all the things he's wanted to know about since the other boy moved in: what he thinks of trash duty, how much communal bathrooms truly suck, the way that if you wake up in the highest room in the junior boys' tower wing you feel like the sunrise reaches you before it touches anyone else. When Kurt first arrived he'd helped set up his dorm in near-silence, waiting for those unsolicited opinions and feeling terrified when none came.

Objectively, he has a decent understanding of the principle that two weeks can't erase two years. This, though, is a birds-eye view of the situation and Blaine has to accept that he's always looked at Kurt through a much closer lens, one that forces him to remember his own days of scratched lockers and vicious words. He remembers what it was like, coming to Dalton and stepping into the sunlight. There had been some awkward goodbyes then, too.

He also has a decent understanding of the fact that Kurt's friends are not the same as the people he knew. That was visible that night at the hospital, seeing the strange invisible unity that had undercut all of their movements. Seeing them he had experienced the total alienation of a person outside the necessary context.

Of course Kurt is upset, on some level. Of course.

But as they walk across campus, pulling their scarves higher to cover their mouths, it's hard to remember that Kurt is supposed to be upset, because he's—he's happy, in the way they were when they moved the dresser to the porch with fall color casting a blush on Kurt's cheekbones. Poised at the brink between autumn and winter that blush is the same. This, at least, is something he can contextualize for himself. As they take their usual shortcut through the music room they're warmed with that particular vindication that can only occur in winter—the sensation of coming into a warm room with the cold still in their veins, imminent comfort hanging like a scent in the space before them.

"I wish I'd brought a drink," says Kurt. "It's cold, and what's worse, it's two weeks to Christmas without snow. I think Mother Nature is fully exercising her right to be a fickle temptress."

Blaine hands over his thermos so quickly he barely has time to be disgusted with himself. "Turkish roast," he says. He'll never tell Kurt that he's really more of a tea drinker (white, with ginger notes) and that he's taken to carrying that thermos around in the remote possibility of this occurrence coming to pass. As Kurt smiles his closed-mouthed grin and takes his first sip, the steam makes him lower his lashes, obscuring the cutting clarity of those eyes from view, and Blaine feels like a spotlight's been turned off and they're alone in the dark. In retrospect, this is probably what makes him close the remaining distance between himself and utter idiocy and blurt out, "There's more where that came from, you know," and Kurt kind of sputters on the coffee and nearly drops the thermos on his feet.

"What is that even supposed to mean?"

"I don't know," says Blaine, in an act of wretched self-reassurance that every charming young man has his moments of acting like sleaze runs through his veins."I think it was supposed to be a pickup line. You could maybe, um, pretend it was hot."

He almost wants Kurt to make some kind of crippling witticism so that he can proceed to lose his sanity in peace, but Kurt, predictably, never complies with what anyone feels like doing. Instead, he sets the thermos down quite pointedly and trains the full power of those searchlight eyes directly on Blaine's face.

Blaine suddenly feels like he's all tongue and hands and stomach and nothing appealing, really, just a swelling heartbeat and the feeling that at any given moment he could tip and spill himself over the floor of the music room. He backs against the piano and hits it in a clatter of keys, and no one would guess that he's actually kind of a musical guy because it sounds terrible and then Kurt's fingers hit his collar, his throat, his jawline and then nothing sounds terrible because everything is perfect. The tip of his nose is still cold from outside, and kind of an unflattering red color if he wants to look at this whole situation objectively, but when he closes his eyes it's just Kurt's mouth, cold fingertips and should've shaved this morning, really should've, I can't believe this and wondering if Kurt would care if he cupped the back of his head, tipped him back just a little for better access and then back all the way so that when with a small sigh he pulls away, they're frozen like dancers or ice skaters or maybe lovers, maybe and the window behind them with its mural of grey December is the most beautiful thing Blaine has ever seen.

"I—" says Kurt, at a truly miraculous loss for words. "I. That just..."

Neither of them say anything about first kisses, because Kurt's had Karofsky and, as he found out far after the fact, the blonde girl named Brittany, and in his own miserable closeted days Blaine had a sorta-kinda girlfriend, whom he still remembers fondly as the girl who taught him how to shape his brows, hold hands without getting his palm all sweaty, and act like The Perfect Eighth-Grade Boyfriend (save a seat at lunch, offer the jacket whether it's cold or not, and ask someone to dance, even if you pretty much already know they have to say yes). What he's never had is anything like this: his heart feels like it's just burst in his chest and run like a living flood throughout his entire body, blood pulsing wherever his hands touch Kurt's head or his peacoat. He wonders if the question of firsts is irrelevant after all, because at the moment, he feels like this is his first time breathing. First time seeing. First time being alive.

Still, it's Kurt's decision to make. Blaine pulls him slowly to his feet, but keeps his hand cupped at the back of Kurt's head, where he can feel a small bump from the stitches. He glides his thumb briefly over them, eyes fixed on Kurt's.

What he wants to say is you've been brave, and now all you need to be is safe.

What he does say is "Would you like to dance?"

He'll probably have to look Alicia up on Facebook and tell her that she was a fucking genius and every boy should have a first girlfriend exactly like her, because at this Kurt's clear eyes go wide, and his mouth spreads in that ridiculous, off-kilter smile that first made Blaine fumble a grace note on Teenage Dream so one of the baritenors had to kick him in the ankle. Then he remembers that this totally worked in Great Expectations too, so clearly it's one for the ages, and then Kurt's body slots itself kind of awkwardly against his and their hands are entwined with a deliberation that sends his heart thudding again. He can see from the brightness of Kurt's eyes that it's something he never expected to have. It barely matters that there's no music, or that they're in the deserted music room and seriously late for their next class; this is the truly elegant synchronicity he's heard of all his life, effortless, gravitational.

The silent piano bears witness. When they draw apart, to their surprise, the blank December window is white, the grey world washed clean with the start of a triumphant first snowfall.


XI.

And that's how it goes: a day, a week, and even their teachers smile when they see them in the hallways. They forego study hall in the library for the quiet of Blaine's room, the radiator hissing disapprovingly and the freedom to warm themselves however they please, and when the guys in the hall tape his picture to Blaine's door Blaine elicits cheers when he states, vapid smile firmly in place, that they've saved him the trouble of having to do it himself.

Instead of defacing it, someone draws a heart. Kurt makes it a point to pass that door and his picture and the heart every day on the way to classes.

The thing about Dalton is that it's easy—and this, Kurt knows, probably isn't the right word to use for one of the best private schools in the state, but there are no lockers, no instinctive tightening of his gut whenever a blue-and-yellow varsity jacket comes into view, no jeers and no averted looks, and so school days don't seem to slip so much as float, water under the bridge as for the first time, he concentrates on the same things everyone else does (grades, trash duty, boyfriend) and worries about the same things everyone else does (grades, trash duty, boyfriend), and laughs at the same things everyone else does (grades, trash duty, boyfriend).

One day they organize a pride rally on the quad, and Wes, an aspiring Yalie whose four siblings before him have ensured that their baby brother will always be the triumph of any school auditorium, brings down the chapel assembly with a sterling oratorical statement on tolerance that actually brings Kurt to tears. Afterwards, when he goes to compliment him, Wes slaps him on the back and crows that he's lived his entire life among redneck Cro-Magnons who boast prejudice as the prime trait of their incestuous gene pools, and welcome to the real world, Kurt, we're not going to let you go! And Kurt laughs, because every statement like this that someone makes to him is a tally mark, striking through the memory of one thousand Lima slurs that hurt all the more for never being couched in language like this.

After a quarter at Dalton he finds himself with his fingertips poised on the keys of the new world he used to hear Blaine play with such virtuosity. He, too, discusses suppression, regression, and the polemic of opposition at the student bookstore, spends more money than he should commuting to the Montgomery Whole Foods when the junior boys pool for a ride, and turns in his first paper on the formation of adolescent identity to a resounding excellent, Kurt!

Christmas is Blaine dropping his duffel bag in the foyer of his Lima house, waving to his dark-haired sister and mother across a transcontinental Skype connection and begging Kurt to sing Only Hope so that they can see for themselves that he totally does sound better than Mandy Moore. Carole fusses over his hair and his impeccable taste in skin cream, Burt over his disconcerting ability to never say anything mean, ever.

Near the end of the break Finn catches Kurt in the hallway as he's going to the kitchen to make strudel with Blaine, and asks if he'd like to see Oklahoma at the Community Playhouse with the others, even Santana and Puck—Christmas treat, Mr. Schuester's buying. It's the first real interaction they've had since the transfer, aside from perfunctory so you liking its and yeps via Facebook, which is the safest medium he knows. Impersonal, inconsequential.

Kurt says, "They're doing Oklahoma? Maybe Blaine and I'll go sometime next week," and that's it. Finn bites his lip. They stand there in the hallway staring at each other with walls of words put up behind their eyes, nothing said, everything seen, and then Finn takes the necessary steps past Kurt and pads into the kitchen in his mismatched socks with the hole in one toe. Kurt hears his apology and Blaine's cheerful negation, and then the clink as Finn pours coffee into a mug and asks Blaine if he'd like any.

"No, thanks," says Blaine, and Kurt knows it's because Finn never buys fair trade when it's his turn to buy, since one package is always more than he makes in an entire day at Sheets-n'-Things, and Blaine is too nice to explicitly say this. Suddenly hatred bubbles up sharp and raw in his throat; it's been weeks since he felt this way, and it's so strange after all this time that he's barely able to identify its nature or direction.

"Blaine," he calls, "come on. We'll start baking after we go to the store."

"You sure?"

"Yes. Please hurry."

As they're driving, they pass Santana's house. Quinn's. Mercedes'. Kurt doesn't point them out. They take the turn past McKinley and ease themselves out onto the winter road.

"Look at that," whistles Blaine as they pass through the district bordering the highway. "That's Ohio for you." His tone is kind, as usual, but bears the unmistakable ring of a person who knows he's looking at something that simply begs mockery. What he's referring to is a nativity scene of the sort that crowds neighborhoods at this time of year, huge, Day-Glo pieces of plastic lit from the inside and bearing saccharine smiles painted only slightly off the bulges of their features. Kurt's seen them his entire life and has privately resolved never to so much as think about them the moment he leaves Lima. But he remembers being very young, caroling and making cutout stars in elementary school and still only believing that the holidays began when those nativity scenes came out up and down the block, saturating the neighborhood with a sort of suspended glow. That glow, for an eight-year-old boy without a mother, had been the first indication that life could go on after something broke the world in two—that happiness, by definition, was something that could return to you, like a holiday.

Blaine is still looking out the window, smiling tersely at the nativity scene as it pulls out of sight. He turns back to Kurt and says, "Tacky, right?"

Kurt puts on his indicator for the freeway and says "Hideous."


XII.

Kurt's friends send him polite New Years' wishes and emails hoping that the new term goes well. When Kurt reads them, he slams his laptop closed so hard the industrial-size mug of coffee next to him spills all over the floor and the papers and the carpet, drip-drip-dripping onto Kurt's pajama pants with metronomic regularity, and Kurt clenches his fingers and looks at some unknown point in space with his mouth contorted viciously into a box to keep words locked in, a door to keep Blaine locked out; he doesn't know, he's never known what to do when this happens. The eleven gashes in Kurt's memories have been the only things Dalton hasn't been able to heal, even the Warblers with their adequate budget and choir teacher who sets carefully delineated office hours for her students to come see her, the other guys who note their solo and ensemble wins on resumes—and Blaine knows objectively that none of this is a substitute for the raw emotion that Kurt had at McKinley, for those forty-five minutes after school every day at least. Blaine has stood close enough to the bonfire that that group of twelve people made that he knows very few people feel that way at sixteen, if ever. It is the single thing he hasn't been able to be for Kurt: the first, and thus always the most important, of the places where Kurt had learned to be happy.

Ultimately, all he can think of to say is "How's it going back there?" and Kurt tosses back a vitriolic "all is well in the land of quasi-sentient organisms" and Blaine just smiles and tries to pretend this is funny, even though he doesn't know whether Kurt's talking about bio or the people he would still name as his best friends.


XIII.

One night in February Kurt wakes up to an honest-to-god stone against his window.

He's reaching for his phone to dial dorm security when suddenly he stops, because he recognizes that particular twang when he hears it and no trespasser worth the effort it would take to call the police would be so stupid as to bring a guitar with him. There's another patter of stones against the window and he bolts out of bed entirely, cupping his hands against the frost-covered pane to peer out into the courtyard below his dorm room.

"Kurt," mumbles his roommate, still half asleep. "Stop doing that. Stop—"

He apologizes. Then he grabs his coat, wraps the lanyard from his key card around his wrist, and makes his way down the hallway to the first floor terrace, which overlooks the courtyard.

All eleven of them are standing in the junior boys' courtyard in coats and those thick scarves.

"Before you leave," says Rachel's voice, wavering in thin air, and he wonders how she knew that he has no plans to do anything but exactly this, "please listen."

Other voices join her. "Yeah, dude, my parents are going to kill me when they find out about this—"

"I'm wearing fingerless gloves, okay? Fucking fingerless gloves so I can play the guitar—"

"Are you listening?"

"If you go back in, I'm wheeling my chair into this back door until your dorm mother comes out—"

"—couldn't do this any other way—"

He nods, because he doesn't trust himself to say anything. In the middle of a weeknight everything is different: the otherworld moonlight on their upturned faces, the way they bounce on the balls of their feet, keeping warm, the way they stand, cognizant of one another's places in the circle as only the twelve of them ever were. He wonders if they're going to apologize. It'll be the end if they do, because apologies are exacting—the pound of flesh, the drop of blood—and they can't find the right words to apologize for their entire school, so if they try, they'll sweep their hands through even the last cobwebs of what they used to be. The rawness in his throat is back again. Holding fire under his tongue; they're the only people who have ever been able to elicit this response in him, absolute urgency, the beautiful terror of being alive.

They don't apologize. They sing a quiet guitar cover of Vienna. By the time Puck's voice scrapes along and take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while—the tears are glistening on his cheeks. He has no memory of letting them fall. They're just there, the way that he has no memory of doing something like coming to love these eleven people but that love is there, a hideous and desperate thing in his bloodstream that will burn him from the inside if he attempts to purge himself of it, leave his edges ragged no matter how carefully he attempts to fit himself into Dalton and its smooth finishes.

When they finish, Tina says, "We don't want you to come back. Or anything. But we needed to sing this. You know."

He knows.

"But if you wanted to come back—" and Rachel says Finn, no but Finn is barreling on anyway, "—we would make it safe for you this time, we'd—I figured it all out, Kurt. We could do whatever you do here, rallies and stuff, and we got half the hockey team suspended—"

"What?"

"Yeah!" says Finn. "That was Rachel, actually, but—"

"What are you talking about?"

"The Cheerios are signed as a vocals performance at Nationals in two weeks," Rachel explains. "They can't compete without their star soprano. Being the only even vaguely suitable candidate for the position, I—"

"—joined, and fucked their performance over at their last showcase," Puck cuts in. "It was the shit. Sue Sylvester was a laughingstock, nearly lost that Sue's Corner gig—"

"I threw the song," Rachel says. Proudly. "I used inappropriate lyrics and changed keys arbitrarily. Quinn's mother tried to exorcise me afterwards."

"Coach Sylvester's eating out of the palm of her hand so she doesn't pull that at Nationals, they need her that badly. And you know Rachel's dads have these ACLU connections, so between them and Coach Sylvester...Azimio might be expelled permanently, we don't know. But the rest of them are out of school. They're pushing a policy through right now."

"McKinley's made the local news," says Finn. "You would know that if you still read our paper."

He doesn't. He reads The New York Times and Time and The New Yorker now, since the guys on his floor get a common subscription, but he hasn't touched a Lima paper since leaving.

"We're trying," says Artie. "We swear we're trying."

Kurt opens his mouth and says, "What do you want?"

They're so pathetic, standing there on the lawn in a place they don't belong, shivering in the cold and passing each other plastic cups of coffee to keep warm. Next to Artie's chair Kurt can see one of the huge cardboard transport cases of coffee sold at all-night diners and pictures them stocking up on sugar and cream packets, rubbing the sleep from their eyes and changing drivers in Carole Hudson's minivan. Snow tires and checking the weather on the radio, You Are Now Leaving Lima—a Friendly Town! he knows what to do to leave that city behind.

"We want you to say it's okay," says Tina in a horrible soft voice that he hates, so unlike her usual vibrant contralto. It's so much the right phrase for what they're doing with their reparations that he could thank her, but instead he sets his hands on the terrace railing and snaps, "So this is about you, then?" and doesn't register the way her mouth curls downwards; she expected this, they all did, he can see it in their eyes.

"It's not my job to forgive you," he says. "Take your guitar, and your coffee, and just—leave, please. I don't know what made you think getting a few hockey players disciplined would change anything—"

"You know what happened to Dave Karofsky?"

The question draws him up short. He stares at Puck, who was the one who asked. They're all giving him warning looks, but Puck has never listened to any of them when he needs to talk; he's looking at Kurt, a look that sears.

"Dave Karofsky's living on my bedroom floor," says Puck, not breaking eye contact, "Broken rib. Dislocated shoulder. He came clean after you ended up with stitches. School found out what he did to you. Parents found out why."

"Puck, stop—" says Rachel, but Puck keeps going.

"I told him he was a piece of shit and I would break his skull if he came by after what he did to you. Then he just—just fell down. He didn't me he was hurt, see. He didn't tell anyone he was hurt. He never thought it'd go far enough for anyone to get hurt. And I thought—well, I thought for a couple of days—they want to send him to juvey. You don't understand what that's like, Kurt. And at McKinley, you know, we're not bad kids. We've done shit things that got out of hand. But we're not bad kids."

The desperation in Puck's voice is apparent. Kurt is angry in a way he hasn't been since he saw the satin lining on the inside of a coffin so many years ago—mauve, she would've hated mauve, she would've hated—an anger so cold he barely registers it, a thing that burns without sound.

"That's wonderful to know," he says. "Let me know when you earn your salvation, or whatever it is you're trying to do. Deliberate acts of cruelty do not make anyone a good kid."

"Kurt, that's not—we're not trying to say that—"

"I am at a school where people actually care about others," Kurt says, vicious, "I am at a school where people are going to change the world. I don't miss McKinley, and nor do I miss—"

"Kurt!"

"He's not going to listen to you, Mercedes." Finn's voice is steely. "He's made it really clear what he thinks of us. Rachel put that girl into danger at the beginning of the year. Puck slept with my girlfriend. Quinn tried to ruin my life, and we got past all of that. Because they're good kids. If what they'd tried to do had actually worked, they'd be exactly where Karofsky is now, but apparently Saint Hummel here is never going to get over their—what—deliberate acts of cruelty. He's never committed any himself, either. Because trying to split up our parents when Burt was happy for the first time since Mrs. Hummel—"

"Shut up, Finn!" Kurt is screaming. "Shut up—"

"Why?" Finn shouts back. "You're only going to listen to me tonight! After this you're going to go back to your fancy school life and talk about tolerance, and then you're going to go to some university I can't pronounce in some city I'm never going to see and get rid of every memory you have of us, and then you're going to spend the rest of your life hating us when we've spent the last two years trying to make ourselves into people who were actually brave enough to love you!"

Too much. It's too much.

"Get out of my school. I don't know who let you in, but I assure you that when I find out, I will find the security guard who did it and—"

"You want to know who let us in?" and it hurts somewhere behind the cauterized place in his chest, because he's never seen Finn like this, never. "Ask your boyfriend."


XIV.

Kurt is distracted all through the next day, and when Blaine texts Finn Hudson to ask if everything's all right all he gets is a terse fine thx again fr lettn us in lst night. Kurt leaves classes before he can catch up, forgets all his books in his desk so that Blaine has to grab them for him, and goes home the long way over the soccer fields instead of the music rooms, and Blaine sees the red piping of his blazer stick out: the only flash of color in the snow-covered fields, grey sky, one bright spot.

That night, he blackmails Wes into giving him the last of his special hand-ground house roast and makes a mug of coffee the way Kurt likes it on the rare occasions when they go to a bistro: strained well, with real cream in a froth at the top and a dusting of cocoa powder around the brim. He knocks. Kurt doesn't answer.

"Please open the door," he says. "Want to talk? I made you coffee. Really good coffee, too, it's—"

The door cracks open. At the sight of the red eyes and quivering mouth behind it, Blaine's resolve to be firm breaks; his heart thuds and a queasy tenderness saturates his skin. "Kurt," he says, and then doesn't know what else he wants to do but say his name. "Kurt—"

"Thank you," says Kurt. "For the coffee. I appreciate it. Come in."

"Are you upset with me?"

"No," says Kurt immediately, and Blaine lets his breath out all in a relieved sigh. Kurt's roommate isn't there, fortunately, so he perches on the edge of the other boy's bed and glances at Kurt's desk. There are papers, but he's obviously not studying. He's watching a YouTube video—something Journey—and there are swathes of antibacterial tissue all around the workstation just the way there always are when Kurt gets too worked up aboutRachel McAdams leaving Ryan Gosling behind or, in his absolute worst moods, Leonardo DiCaprio letting go of the door.

"I understand why you did what you did," says Kurt. "Your concern is touching, on some level, but you know it's not just a few bullies, Blaine. It's a culture. They helped create that culture while they were at McKinley."

"They didn't ask you to go back, did they?"

"No. Well, Finn did. He can go to hell."

The profanity sounds wrong in Kurt's mouth; he rarely uses it. "I see."

"Do you believe I should go back?"

"No. No, absolutely not, I—" He stops. Starts again, pushing against his mouth that wants to close on the words. "I should've asked you to come to Dalton from the beginning. I shouldn't have made you into the standard-bearer."

"You think so?"

"You belong with people who understand you."

Kurt looks around at the room. Neat painted walls. Outside on the walkway a few boys in sweaters toss a lacrosse ball back and forth, heading to the gym with their sticks. They spot Kurt and Blaine through the window and raise their hands in a wave. Efficient. Impersonal.

"People who understand me," says Kurt, and that's all.


XV.

One of the seniors is talking about the March pride event, a conference. Some students from the Montgomery Vo-Tech will be attending, as well as a few guest speakers from Ohio State's affiliated prep school and a girls' school in another suburb. All of the schools have endowments that rival a university's. All of the schools have zero-tolerance harassment policies. Someone asks Kurt if he's willing to talk about his experience and for whatever reason a drumbeat starts up in his head broken rib, dislocated shoulder. Didn't tell anyone he was hurt. The frightened, feral look on Karofsky's face desperate energy that had seemed to glint off the lockers, blood pounding in his ears. The first time Finn had squared his shoulders against a hissed word at the gas station, put his arm around Kurt's shoulders and led him firmly forward even as his ears burned red. His father applauding Riverdance, some women in the next row of seats casting looks at his beloved checkered hunting cap.

And then it's on him like a scream, a spotlight: the distances they've come, all of them, in surmounting what they know with the ways they've come to love each other, the distance between Finn Hudson who looked on as a kid was thrown into a dumpster and Finn Hudson who came to his backyard with the rest of them with no concern for his own safety, standing outside his window with a guitar and a case of coffee and eyes like torn-away stars in their brightness.

making ourselves into people brave enough to love you.

"Can't you do something for the schools in Lima?" he says.

"We invited them," Wes tells him. "Didn't work out. We told you, right? They're Neanderthals. Not ready for the real world, actual dialogue—"

Before he fully understands what he's doing Kurt's seized the open frappucino bottle next to Wes' hand and thrown the liquid in his face. The little pockets of conversation in other parts of the room go silent; they're all staring, some of them look frightened. There's numbness all along his arm. His brain is alive with a seething buzzing sensation that he barely understands.

"Do you know how to deal with that?" Kurt says. "Do you know what to say?"

"Dude, what..."

"Until you do," and he's fighting back tears now, but the numbness is still there, spreading, "don't talk to me about the real world."

Blaine's hand is on his, he's holding it so tightly it hurts, and his eyes are hurting too, but there is nothing to say but the last thing in the room, drawing them towards it with its terrible gravity.

"I wondered why you never mentioned courage after I came to Dalton," says Kurt. "It was because here I didn't need it."


XVI.

Kurt says: "You don't understand what an accomplishment it is, for them to love me like that without understanding me."

Says: "It's not about running away or not running away. It's about changing what needs to be changed."

Says: "I'm not doing this based on what any kid in my situation should do. I'm not trying to set an example—you're making me into the standard-bearer again, stop doing that—"

Says: "I'm not going to be able to change that world unless I can survive it."

Blaine holds his hands and thumbs the stitches at the back of his head and pleads as he's never pleaded with Kurt before, to stop being an idiot martyr, to stop making himself into some kind of sacrifice, to stop caring too much about things that aren't his business anymore. And he knows he's said the wrong thing because Kurt just shuts down; he's no longer listening. His clear eyes are alight with his clear vision and fuck Blaine, really, because Kurt is selfless in his selfishness and maybe the bracket of time in the bubble Dalton creates around the real world is all they were really meant to have. And maybe he's doing this to keep Kurt safe, or maybe he's doing it because he can't watch him walk out there again, or maybe he's doing it because he's known since the moment he first saw Kurt's brilliant, absurd smile that he will never be brave enough to make the same decision.

It's not a question, after all, of the things they've both had, but the things they'll do from here on. They shout themselves hoarse at one another until the day goes down around them, their dinner and their nightly cups of study-fuel decaf growing cold, and when study hall is over that evening they're over too.

Kurt says: "My father told me to wait for someone brave enough."

Blaine says: "Please, don't—please don't say you want to keep on waiting."

He waits for Kurt to say something, but Kurt never does what is expected of him, even when he should.

When Blaine opens his door in the wake of Kurt's leaving, he sees that the picture has been snatched off it. There is still a lopsided bubble of tape there; he takes it off and crumples it.

The lamp is humming. Kurt's books are gone, and the plate and mug he'd brought with him for study hall. It's nine-sixteen. As Blaine watches his clock, the numbers change. He pulls out his chair and takes a seat. He pulls the sandwich apart and eats it neatly. He drinks the cold coffee.

When the night ends, he understands for the first time that courage has nothing to do with survival.


XVII.

As it is, the one who drives him back from Dalton at year's end is actually Santana Lopez, claiming she's cashing in on her right to see a boys' school behind the scenes despite the fact that he can clearly see the metal baseball bat at the ready in her back seat. More than one jaw drops as she struts down the junior dorm hallway in her summer Cheerios' uniform, and more than one boy on the floor stops by his room to demand something of his that Kurt supposedly borrowed and never returned. Santana cultivates an aura of near-perpetual indecency that is not in any way lessened when she scrawls her name and number on Kurt's now-vacant desk in lipstick, much to the delight of most of his floor even as they slap him on the back and bid him easy salutations of miss you already, buddy that come all the easier for their insincerity.

When they've pulled out of the Dalton turnaround and taken the freeway out of suburban Montgomery, she takes an exit he isn't familiar with and parks at a place so disreputable-looking he can actively feel his insides curling in disgust. "Santana," he tries, "what are we—"

"Drive-in," she says. "The only one in the state that does Pretty in Pink. You want popcorn? Might have to get your booster shots up to date, but it's—"

"I wouldn't think drive-in eighties flicks were really your style."

She doesn't look at him as she says, "Sometimes a breakup doesn't go right, and then I come to this shithole. It helps. Don't know why. Do you want the fucking popcorn?"

They put their feet up on her dash and grab some of Kurt's bedding from the back. They throw popcorn at Molly Ringwald's crush, because that's the right thing to do in this situation. Around them younger high schoolers and middle-schoolers who can't afford any better are silent staring in rapture at the screen. There's a street sign blinking at the end of the block. The depressingly cheery florescent tubing of a diner. Scratching speakers, a love story that was once beautiful relegated to the most miserable corner of Ohio. The sky in its summer colors lowers itself gingerly over them, a few clouds brushing its swollen underbelly, the haze of mosquitos and old cigarette smoke, popcorn grease, a scratch of red mud in the road behind them that looks like a smear of blood. Sometime just before the streetlights come on he says, "Thank you," and she says, "Shut up and watch the movie." They sit like some grotesque parody of summer lovers until the credits are finished, the shriek of a screaming microphone like something dying and this is what it is, in the end: out of something like this the people he knows have fashioned beauty and fashioned love, and that is the remarkable thing about Lima.

When they pull into his driveway, finally, they're all there, just as silent as they were on the day he left. Then someone starts clapping—he'll never remember who, later, just as he'll never remember the exact moment when he puts his head in his hands and tells them he's home, and would someone please get him a pillow and the complete first season of The O.C., because if he doesn't wallow in misery for at least a week there's no way he's going to be able to get his act together before the summer community theaters begin their shows.

Right on cue on the evening of the seventh day, Rachel calls him to ask if he wants to meet to practice a duet for an audition for Singing in the Rain, because although they have the same voice type there's no chance they'll get the same part and therefore she's in no danger of forfeiting a role to him. Mercedes shows up waving her serious business handbag and yelling something about summer sales. Finn takes him bowling and doesn't even laugh when he takes out the hideous neon shoelaces of the alley shoes and replaces them with his own.

Artie checks his email when he's not ready to, and shakes his head no whenever Kurt asks.

Every few weeks, they talk about when school starts the way Lima kids have always talked about it, except they have plans, apparently. Newspapers have already expressed an interest in whatever they've been doing, and according to Rachel's fathers, as long as they have the media's attention, they have immunity. They talk about it a lot. They talk about making statements. They talk about getting Dave Karofsky a job, finding someone to talk to his parents. They don't use words like repression or polemic or solidarity, but Kurt feels, strangely, that if his Dalton English teacher were listening, she wouldn't call bullshit.

They talk a lot, but mostly they end up on someone's porch, watching moths flutter against the lightbulbs and stirring the sugary dregs of homemade iced coffee. They leave their glasses all around the porch until their chocolate-tinted insides catch the streetlights and turn molten; sugar lanterns. Grass still wet with sprinkler dew at their feet. Sometimes Puck plays a little. Sometimes they sing.

Sometimes Kurt holds his phone like a grenade and keeps his finger there, poised on a name. Sometimes he doesn't.

Sometimes, working on a car with his dad, he gets the taste of December snow and a kiss caught in his teeth like a pocket of sweetness, flavor bursting under his tongue, and then he wants Dalton and the taste of Blaine's decaf studying coffee, Blaine's teeth on his bottom lip and the hand on his waist, tipping him back. Sometimes he wants it so badly that he doesn't understand how the summer with its endless days is ever going to get by—until it does, and almost too quickly he's at the base of his bed with Mercedes, frowning at his closet as they choose back-to-school outfits the way they did two years ago, starting their sophomore year.

He flinches the first time he hears a locker slam. He doesn't do it again.

They accompany him from class to class, but there's no need. No one touches him. When someone shoves a freshman into a locker Puck catches the upperclassman's wrist, just like that, an easy reflexive move he could have made without thinking any time in the past two years. Rachel joins them sometime during the walk to the principal's office, and there's detention and a file opened, word spreading. Sometime in the next few weeks, a kid who gets shoved shoves back. There's an expulsion. Then there are no incidents for one month and counting. It's messy, but it happens.

Once in a while there's a reporter in the hallway, and Kurt always refuses the camera, stating again and again that he doesn't wish to be a standard-bearer.

Sometimes he wants to tell Blaine that courage was the right advice, and he wishes he could have taken it himself.


XVIII.

When the Warblers sing Sectionals that fall, Blaine sings to one person, just as he did nearly one year ago, and that one person averts his eyes and sits with his teammates in the second row from the front, childlike in his blue shirt and white sequined bow tie.

Are you happy? he wants to ask. Look up. Let me see it, at least, because you can't lie with your eyes, and you never could.

Most of him still feels twilight-blue after the San Francisco summer and the oppressive flatness of Ohio after, its miles and miles of low ground that seemed to lead the eye always to certain things. The absence of skyscrapers, some storage silos. Street signs; You Are Now Entering Lima—a Friendly Town! and his hands tensing on the steering wheel, just waiting. A good deal of him wants to apologize. A greater deal doesn't know what to apologize for; he doesn't know if he understood Kurt too well or not enough at all, but in any event that window has closed. He's back to where he was: wondering if Kurt might like to get sushi. Stumbling through whether or not to pay for his coffee.

New Directions takes Sectionals and the greatest standing ovation of the night, and through the tannoy system he can hear shouts and high fives from their team on the other side of the green room. He stands there with his hand against the curtain that divides them, five fingers beating against the canvas, as on the other side a sarcastic soprano voice says, "Well, I wasn't the one who wanted to do 'I Like Big Butts' as an encore, so all those in favor of never letting Artie make another song choice again—"

The thing about courage is that survival doesn't take much, but anything beyond it is a different thing entirely.

Blaine pulls aside the curtain. Twelve pairs of eyes stare at him, one in particular so clear that his heart aches again with that perfect gravitational ache. Resonance, the sensation of a bell being rung somewhere behind his chest.

"Hi," he says, and Kurt nods, eyes unblinking. "I was wondering if you would like to maybe get coffee. I could give you a ride home?"

To his surprise, Kurt nods again.


XIX.

What Kurt will remember is September darkness and a sharp pain, so many early fall leaves and the window of cold just before rain begins. Their two cups on the dash release rushes of fragrant steam so that he feels as if he's falling forward into a dream. Fog on the road. Highway cold, the flash of streetlights lighting up like small lanterns all along the main road of town.

The greed with which his eyes fixate on Blaine is something that surprises him, even after summer, he still fixes on those hands with their prominent wristbones and slipstream of veins where a bead of sweat used to slide, sometimes, after a hazy winter afternoon and the slow movement of their hips together dissolved the rest of the world around them. Blaine drives looking straight ahead, but Kurt can feel his awareness like a serenely pulsating sun where his body stops and the outside begins.

"It's really good to see you singing again," says Blaine.

"I sang at Dalton."

"You know what I mean."

He does. It was the reason Blaine had wanted him to forgive the rest of them when he was at school, and now it seems too far away to understand the way he'd reacted. The summer stands between them like a bracket of golden, clean distance.

He realizes belatedly that Blaine is pulling over to the side of the road. They're a few blocks away from his house, and it's actually raining now, a few drops in earnest that splatter the windshield and begin to dot the sidewalks with a moist darkness. Kurt hears them on the roof, percussive harmonies.

"I bought this last January," Blaine is saying. "This probably isn't, um—I guess this isn't kosher, but I was hoping to give it you after it'd been a year. You know. Since we first met."

Kurt hefts the wrapped package in his hand and slides the silver ribbon loose, unfolds the paper and tenses when the small curved object falls into his palm. It's—

"—a vintage bottle of one of Estee Lauder's old fragrances, and it took me a while to figure out the scent, which turned out to be number seven. The salesgirls at the warehouse in Cincinnati were really helpful. Um, if you think it's weird, I can—I mean. You don't have to keep it."

"It's not weird."

Blaine stops. Kurt has the sensation that the world does, too, before it goes on tilting, faster than before, quicker and steeper and the force that turns it is the same one that leads his eyes to Blaine's, wide and dark in the face he has held as his sanctuary since that first day and an acappella pop song that reoriented his axis.

Love and understanding, he should have known already, were never preconditions of one another.

"I think I just assumed you would agree with whatever I wanted," he says, and it's a continuation of a conversation they haven't had yet but Blaine understands this, and doesn't react. "Because you were Prince Charming. It never occurred to me that you had your own reasons for disapproving of me going back to McKinley."

"I didn't disapprove..."

"You told me I was being an idiot martyr!"

"Maybe I kind of disapproved. But look at you. You have whatever you need."

"I don't have whatever I need."

It's out, like that, three months of heatsick yearning and summer. The rain is coming down faster now and the scent of coffee warms them even through the heating's off; the steam rising from the cups makes the inside of the car fogged and fragrant. As Kurt shifts the old perfume bottle releases a little of a scent he hasn't been able to truly breathe in years. He inhales, chest heaving under Blaine's eyes, and then he knows what the right thing is to say.

"What we had was really good, wasn't it?"

Blaine flicks at the steering wheel with his forefinger and thumb. Rain makes shadow patterns on his face; he looks much older than his seventeen years but Kurt can still see his eyes flare, dark coals.

"Is there any reason it shouldn't be again?"

"We have different ways of living. We're going to get in fights over the same things, and we—"

"Since when did Kurt Hummel ever care about what was going to happen?"

"Since he left the guy he wanted behind with the place he didn't, and spent the whole summer having epiphanic reactions to the fact that love isn't about someone else agreeing with your decisions all the time," Kurt snaps, and then Blaine's hand stops flicking the wheel, comes down and snaps the catch on his seatbelt, and then seizes him by the blue shirt just below the bow tie and drags him forward for a kiss. There are no fireworks. There's pattering on the roof, coffee-scented steam making dewy perspiration under the collar of his shirt, and, soft behind everything like laughter, the faint scent of his mother's perfume. Blaine's hand comes up and brushes his jaw and fits into the familiar place cupping the back of his head, and Kurt doesn't realize how hard he's gripping the Dalton blazer until he opens his eyes and sees Blaine blinking in bemusement at his loosened tie.

"Kurt," he says, in his kind voice, "you're actually an idiot."

"At least we're on the same page about this," says Kurt, and then his eyes close again, his head tips in, and the world tilts them together.

Outside, it keeps raining, on Dalton's terraces and McKinley's rooftops, across muddy streets and over cars jumping in its hot-oil rhythm, and Kurt learns again the rhythm of one year as Blaine's fingers work loose the buttons of his shirt. He kisses Blaine's jawline and the smiling corner of his mouth, touches his dark eyes that are half-lidded and lazy as smoky water, and when the rain intensifies to a sheet of glass and shrouds them away from the rest of the world Kurt feels with a perfect certainty that this was where he was coming, for the past year and all its tribulations; this was the point to come to when everything else was falling away from him like so many glass beads, and this is the moment he will now inhabit, triumphant, with nowhere else in the world to be but here.

Their coffee gets so cold they decide to get another, but for whatever reason, they don't manage to make it out of the car.


end