Blaine knew how the McKinley gossip mill worked. He'd heard about Tina and Mike hooking up from Jacob's blog rather than from the parties concerned. He shouldn't have been surprised that Lauren would have heard that he was gay by the second day of term.

"So, are you?" she asked him.

He hesitated for a moment too long.

"Cool," she said, shoving a handful of potato crisps into her mouth. "You dating Hummel yet?"

Blaine coughed up his lunch. Lauren smacked his back, which didn't help him breathe but did make him feel like every bone in his body had been shattered.

"No," Blaine finally managed. "We're just friends."

"Well, you should be dating," she told him. "He's hot, for a gay guy."

Blaine was getting very used to that reaction from his friends. Well, Mercedes' response had been to pull Blaine into the girls' bathroom and threaten his manhood if he ever hurt Kurt, but the gist was the same.

He'd enrolled in French again this year, since his reason for dropping the subject was now moot. He walked into the room and sat next to Kurt without hesitating.

"Hey," he said.

Kurt raised an eyebrow. "You're out at school, now?"

Blaine shrugged. "Gossip travels fast, apparently."

Kurt made more room for Blaine on the surface of the desk. "I hope you're planning to partner with me. I don't think I can take another year of Azimio's blank incomprehension."

"Can't think of anything better," said Blaine with a wink.

Maybe the wink was a bit much. On his way out of the room, Blaine found himself falling. He windmilled his arms, letting his textbooks and folder go flying, before landing on the floor, hard.

"Oops," said Azimio with a smirk. As Kurt rushed forward to help Blaine, Azimio added, "Make sure you ask your boyfriend what we do to fags. Think about it. If you don't go back into the closet where you belong, we'll put you out with the trash." He walked off laughing.

Kurt helped Blaine gather his books and papers. "Are you okay?"

"I'm sorry about that," Blaine said to Kurt.

Kurt raised an eyebrow. "You're sorry? Did you hit your head? Do I need to take you to the nurse?"

Blaine straightened his books into a neat pile before picking them up. "Everyone thinks that we're dating."

Kurt shrugged. "It's a hazard of being one of only two out gay kids at this school. Let them. We know that we're just friends."

Blaine met Kurt's eyes and smiled. Kurt had nice eyes. At the moment they had a defiant glint to them, like Kurt was ready to say fuck you to the world. Any doubts Blaine had vanished. Kurt stood and offered his hand, helping Blaine to his feet. Blaine stretched his limbs out and resettled his books in his arms.

Kurt walked Blaine to his next class, leading Blaine into a discussion about Rachel's latest exploits. By the time Blaine arrived, he'd forgotten why his knees were aching and was ready to deal with another period of learning.

After school, he discovered that someone had scratched the word fag into the hood of his car.

"Shit," he muttered, stepping closer to examine the damage. Dad was going to kill him. This was why Blaine had promised to himself that he'd keep his head down. It wasn't a large step from attacking his car to attacking him.

Blaine unlocked his car and climbed in, throwing his bag into the passenger seat. He reversed out of the parking space and stayed in first gear as he made his way through the parking lot. He saw Azimio and Karofsky watching from the front steps of the school. They winked at Blaine as he drove past.

Blaine had to force himself to keep driving and not jump out of the car and lay into them. They were ten times bigger than him. That should have been enough to make Blaine scared. He wasn't. He was pissed.

He was pissed that this had happened at his old school. He was pissed that the teachers there hadn't done anything when he reported the problem. He was pissed at himself for running away rather than doing something. He was pissed that this was starting again now and he was pissed at himself for letting them scare him.

No more, he promised himself.

Blaine made sure to park his car in the garage before Dad got home. At dinner he didn't say anything, hoping his father hadn't noticed. He spent that night tossing and turning, but still work up feeling fresh and determined.

When he got to school, he found the word fag written on his locker. Blaine imitated a character in a book he'd read once and appended and proud of it to the end. At lunch, he abandoned his A/V friends to sit with Kurt and made sure to smile and laugh twice as hard as usual. Kurt understood well enough to do the same.

The next time Blaine was at his locker, a hand pushed him from behind and he found himself falling into the metal, face first.

"Ow," he muttered, rubbing his jaw as he picked up.

"Thought you should get closer to your pride!" Karofsky shouted from further down the hall.

In Glee, Blaine offered the group a performance of Adam Lambert's 'Sure Fire Winners', making sure to give extra emphasis to "Cos all the girls in the club want to know, where did all their pretty boys go?" He would have sung 'Fever', too, with gender pronouns intact, but everyone else was busy being outraged that Rachel had sent a potential new recruit to a crack house. Blaine decided to shelve the song for later. Singing a sexy song like that would probably give Kurt the wrong idea, anyway.

"You're good," Kurt said later, "but Adam Lambert doesn't suit your voice."

Blaine shrugged. "I wanted to prove a point."

"Join the club," Kurt said. "No one listens, though."

"Then we'll make them listen," Blaine said.

Kurt looked at Blaine as though Blaine was hopelessly naive. "I guess so."

As the days passed, Blaine got used to carrying two extra sets of clothes with him at all times and learned the best ways to fall in order to minimise bruises. He held onto his anger because if was so much easier than being scared. Blaine didn't want to go back to that.

One afternoon, Blaine's father pulled him aside.

"What's this?" he asked, pointing to the hood of Blaine's car.

Blaine sighed. "I've been meaning to get it fixed, but I'm worried they'll just do it again. For now it seems easier to just keep it. Make a statement, you know?"

"It's started again, hasn't it?" Dad asked. "Why didn't you come to me?"

Blaine shrugged. "I'm a big boy now, Dad. I don't need your help – I can handle it by myself. I'd come to you if I did, but I'm strong enough to do this and I can't stand the thought of hiding who I am anymore."

Blaine was surprised when his father smiled. "You sound like a man."

"I guess I am one." It was funny, all these months and Blaine hadn't realised that all he had to do to make Dad happy was fit into some stereotype of what made a man. Blaine didn't think that his Dad was necessarily right – there were a great many situations where one was better off either letting things slide or admitting that one needed help. But Blaine felt stronger now. He felt surer of himself and more confident.

He decided that that was something he could take credit for.

At the beginning of the third week of term, Kurt pulled Blaine aside. "I've got tickets to a Sound of Music sing along. Are you interested in coming?"

Blaine grinned. "Sure."

They walked to French singing 'I Have Confidence' and laughing at the strange looks they were getting. Blaine wondered how things would have been difference if he'd just had the courage and the confidence to do this a year ago: if he could have just stayed with Kurt in that first French class or joined New Directions at its conception or at least joined when Kurt invited him to. Maybe if he'd had the courage to stand up and not be invisible he could have been someone who Kurt could love back.

Oh, well. What was done was done and at least Blaine had the most amazing friend in the world.

He grabbed Kurt's hand. "I have confidence they'll put me to the test
But I'll make them see I have confidence in me

They arrived in French giggling. The teacher rolled her eyes at them. They were her best students, though, so she let it pass without comment. It was a conversation lesson, so Blaine and Kurt were able to switch to French and keep right on talking about the fun they were going to have on Friday.

Blaine didn't noticed when Mr Schuester and Miss Pillsbury arrived, looking unusually serious. Kurt did and he stiffened. Blaine turned around and saw them and wondered why their strange appearance would provoke such a reaction in Kurt.

Kurt stood and followed them out of the room without being asked. Blaine hesitated then grabbed his things and walked after them, catching up just in time to hear Mr Schuester tell Kurt that his father was in hospital from a heart attack (oh, God) and then Kurt was breaking down and crying and saying something about Friday night which didn't make any sense and Blaine rushed forward and put his arms around Kurt because he knew that right now Kurt needed a friend more than anything and Blaine was so glad to be able to be that person for him.

After a moment Kurt pulled away. He asked if he could go see his father, standing so still and strong. His expression was blank.

Blaine knew that he was supposed to go back to class but he couldn't, not after this, so he got into his own car and drove after them. When he rejoined them on their way into the hospital, neither Mr Schuester nor Miss Pillsbury said anything.

They found Burt's room. Kurt asked for privacy. Blaine moved to follow the adults out but Kurt grabbed his hand. "No, you can stay," Kurt said. They sat there for hours, not saying anything, just holding hands.

It was Kurt who eventually broke the silence.

"We have a tradition," he said without preamble. "Friday night dinners. It used to be me, Dad and Mum, then it was just me and Dad. These days it's me, Dad, Carole and Finn. Maybe it's silly, but it's sacred to Dad and then I tried to blow him off for that stupid Sound of Music sing along and we had a fight. The last thing I said to him, we were fighting. I told him that we'd have plenty more Friday night dinners and now maybe we won't."

Blaine squeezed Kurt's hand tighter. "Shh, it's not your fault, Kurt, it's not your fault, you didn't do anything, it's not your fault, you're a brilliant son, the best son and your dad knows that. It's not your fault." Blaine whispered a litany of reassurances to Kurt until Kurt fell asleep on his shoulder.

Blaine had never felt to helpless in his life.

More than anything, Kurt fell for kindness. He'd fallen for Finn's kindness when he seemed to be against the idea of pushing Kurt around like he was nothing. Before that, he'd fallen for the guy who caught his bus, who'd leant Kurt a dollar when he'd forgotten his bus money. Even as far back as kindergarten, he'd taken a special liking to the boy who'd shared a cookie with him at lunch time. It didn't take much to find a way into Kurt's heart – all it took was kindness.

Blaine sat with Kurt in the hospital until Carole arrived. There was a short discussion, then Carole pulled Kurt into a hug and told him he was going home with her. Blaine waited to make sure that Kurt was alright before leaving with a promise he'd be there for Kurt the next day.

In Glee, Kurt was so tired and everyone was attacking him for not believing in God. He didn't know how to deal, so he walked out of the room.

Blaine followed him and said, "I'd have stayed and given them a talking to, but I figured that you needed me more."

For that terrible week, Blaine was Kurt's constant companion, nudging Kurt to eat and making sure he went to Carole's to get some sleep. Blaine must have quietly talked to the other Glee members when Kurt wasn't around, because they dropped the religious argument and rallied around him, even after he'd gone to Sue Sylvester to force them to stop trying to convert him.

Until that week, Kurt had been sure that he'd forgiven Blaine for all the things he'd said and done, before they'd tried dating. Now, lying on Blaine's shoulder in the hospital, Kurt realised that he hadn't, not really, anyway – until now.

Blaine was sweet. He was kind. He was the sort of guy who'd skip class to make sure that Kurt was taken care of. He was the sort of guy who'd sit with Kurt for hours just so that Kurt had someone, even though Kurt was sure it was boring for him. He was the sort of guy who let Kurt clutch his hand, even though it must have been getting pins and needles from the tightness of Kurt's grasp. He was smart and funny and had so, so much in common with Kurt, more than anyone Kurt knew.

Kurt felt sick inside because here was his dad, lying in a coma, and Kurt was falling in love even as his heart was breaking.

More than anything, Kurt fell for kindness. Blaine was kind. Kurt knew that, despite everything, Dad would be glad that Kurt was lucky enough to have someone like Blaine in his life at the moment, just to make things that tiny bit less awful.

It was probably a sign that something was deeply, deeply wrong with him, but seeing Kurt sing 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' made Blaine fall in love with Kurt all over again, deeper than ever – not as the knight in shining armour who had saved Blaine and helped him out of the closet, but as the amazing and sassy and scared and beautiful and vulnerable boy who was sometimes just as lost as Blaine.

The hand squeezed his. "Dad?" said Kurt. "Dad, I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere!" And suddenly, everything fitted again.

"Too happy to care," Kurt whispered to Blaine when Mr Schuester announced that they had another new member.

The boy who walked in was blond with a large mouth and a rueful smile. When he smiled absentmindedly in Kurt's direction, Blaine had to fight the urge to grab Kurt's hand and squeeze it in a primitive display of possession, which was crazy because he had no ownership over Kurt.

He was surprised when Kurt suddenly reached over and grabbed his hand instead.

"Do you want to be partners?" Kurt asked as they walked out of the room.

Blaine grinned at Kurt. "Sounds awesome."

"My place, after school," Kurt instructed. "That voucher is going to be ours."

Blaine spent lunch speculating with Kurt over Sam's sexuality and browsing on his iPod for songs. He arrived at Kurt's house with a stack of sheet music for platonic duets.

Kurt had picked out a pile of love songs.

"You were right," Kurt said when Blaine raised an eyebrow. "Screw what they think. We're out, we're proud, etcetera. Let's make a statement."

Blaine grinned and helped Kurt sort through the stack for a song that suited the both of them. They settled on 'Candles' (which was a breakup song, but hey, they were broken up and were going to be all right, so it worked for them). Blaine was thirsty, so he headed upstairs for a drink while Kurt started fiddling around with the arrangement.

Kurt's dad had been sleeping when Blaine had first come in. Now he was awake. He looked at Blaine with a slight frown as though he was trying to place him.

"Hello, Mr Hummel," said Blaine, remembering his manners and offering his hand. "I'm Blaine—uh, Blaine Anderson. I'm a friend of Kurt's."

"Kurt's mentioned you," Mr Hummel said. "Thank you for being there for him while I was—while I wasn't able to be. He's been talking about you a lot since I woke up."

"I'm glad I was able to help," said Blaine, even though he didn't think he'd really done anything. He was just heading to the kitchen when Mr Hummel spoke again.

"He says that you're gay, too?"

"Yes," Blaine said. It was surprising how easy it was to say that, when less than a month ago he'd found the thought of it terrifying.

"Just—just don't break his heart, okay?" Mr Hummel said. "I know how Kurt gets. He says that you're just friends and I respect that, but...don't lead him on."

"I couldn't do anything to hurt him," Blaine said and that was the honest truth. He wouldn't hurt Kurt again, even if it would save him a thousand slushies.

"Good," said Mr Hummel, sounding satisfied.

Blaine took longer than he needed to pour the glass of water to give himself time to think. It was odd how Mr Hummel seemed concerned about the idea of Blaine breaking Kurt's heart when, so far as Blaine knew, Kurt didn't love Blaine, at least not in that way. He tried not to think it (he didn't deserve it, he was lucky to just have Kurt as a friend, he didn't deserve Kurt) but he couldn't stop his heart beating harder as he headed back down to the basement.

"I think your Dad thinks we're dating," Blaine said to Kurt, trying to sound casual after he'd sat back down on the floor. "Or at least, he thinks that you're interested."

Kurt seemed suddenly intent on the sheet music. "Strange, that," he said.

"You know that—" Blaine stopped to clear his throat, "If you ever want—If you ever change your mind and decide that you want to be more than friends, I still..." Blaine let his voice trail off, because actually saying I still love you could be enough to ruin the friendship that Kurt had been kind enough to reinstate. "I mean, I like being just friends. I love it, even. Just, you could tell me, you know?"

Kurt looked down at the pile of sheet music. He was blushing slightly. "Perhaps...Perhaps there was a reason I chose love songs. Other than making a statement, that is. I thought that maybe with music it would be easier. Then you chose a breakup song, which I guess is fair enough, since I dumped you and I've never understood why you didn't hate me for that."

"It wasn't working," Blaine admitted. "I mean, I loved it and I loved being your boyfriend, but it wasn't right. We weren't ready yet. And you were right – we needed to be friends first or it wasn't worth anything. Now we're friends and we are ready. And I could never hate you."

Blaine shuffled closer to Kurt. Kurt was looking at him now, like he had back in that closet all those months ago. This time, rather than running away, Blaine leaned in and kissed him and Kurt kissed him back and this wasn't like the pecks on the lips that had been the limits of their explorations the last time. Blaine deepened the kiss and Kurt reached up to brush Blaine's jaw with his hand and Blaine's fingers were making a mess of Kurt's ordinarily tidy hair.

Eventually, they needed to breath. Blaine looked at Kurt and blushed. Kurt was blushing too.

"We should practice," said Blaine in an attempt to break the awkwardness (and what the fuck, like that had anything to do with anything).

"I thought we were," Kurt said, before reaching forward and pulling Blaine into another kiss.

They never did get around to practicing. When Blaine snuck back upstairs, he was glad that Mr Hummel was asleep again, because Blaine didn't want to have to explain his swollen lips.

They stuck with 'Candles' because choosing something else would have cut into their 'practice' time. They didn't win the duet, but they went to BreadstiX anyway and it was the first date that Blaine had always dreamed of.