Happy Thursday, friends, and welcome to my first ever AU piece. I know, I'm worried too.

As usual, I don't own anything. I did, however, get a Warblers shirt for my birthday-one step closer to livin' the dream.

Kurt Hummel loved the fall.

He loved the grey, bleak skies contrasting sharply with the half-skeletal trees, still bearing the vestiges of vibrant autumn leaves. He loved the smell of spiced cider and roasted pumpkin seeds and vegetable soup, however rarely he actually indulged in them personally.

Most of all, he loved standing outside in a stylish peacoat and scarf, the way he remembered his mother doing when he was little, letting the harsh wind tear at him. Or try to—however chilly the air became, it couldn't touch him beneath his layers.

It was clearly superior to all other seasons.

Of course, none of those things were particularly relevant at 5:57pm on the second Thursday of October.

"Mediocre," Shelby declared flatly, staring hard at the line of sweaty, fiercely attentive teenagers, most of whom were still out of breath from their latest run-through. "Tenors, where were you on the bridge? Louder—don't let the sound die out just because you're doing backflips. Compensate."

The tenor section, though evidently not up to standard performance-wise, was well trained in the art of accepting constructive criticism—only the freshman showed any traces of despair.

Kurt tugged discreetly at the back of his tight black shirt as Shelby continued making corrections. The stage lights that created such flattering silhouettes during performances were still on, making his sweaty clothes stick uncomfortably to his body. Over a year's worth of rehearsals with Vocal Adrenaline had taught him this: there was no time of day more glorious than the post-practice shower.

Cleanliness, relaxation, and a choice of 42 body washes. The building could catch fire while he was in there, and the fire marshal would still be prying a loofah out of his cold, dead hands.

"Andrew and Kurt," Shelby called, interrupting his reverie and naming the choir's two countertenors, "no complaints. Jesse—excellent on lead. Talk to me in five about your audition pieces."

Jesse St. James nodded smoothly from his place in the center, smiling victoriously.

"All right everyone," Shelby announced, clapping her hands to regain any wandering attention. "It's a choreography day tomorrow, so Dakota will be running the show." Everyone knew better than to complain out loud. Shelby frowned anyway. "I want a good report back on Monday. Expect to be here until 8:30—dinner is from 6 to 6:05, so pack something."

Kurt expertly stifled a groan, mentally making a note to pack an extra pair of shoes as well. No matter how many times the veterans tried to tell the freshmen that a granola bar and half of a protein shake were about all their bodies could hold onto during a Dakota Stanley rehearsal, some idiot always tried to push it with a sandwich or a bag of chips. Inevitably, someone's feet would get puked on, and Kurt had already had one close call back in September.

Checking her watch, Shelby sighed. "Ok, we're done for tonight. Be on time tomorrow, and don't do anything stupid over the weekend. See you Monday."

Kurt sighed with relief, pulling a handkerchief out of his back pocket to wipe the layer of sweat from his face.

The fabric was immediately snatched out of his hands. "I'm surprised you can fit anything back there," a familiar voice pointed out with amusement. "I was sure when you missed a step two hours ago, it was because your pants were restricting the circulation to your feet."

Kurt rolled his eyes, stealing back his property. "You wish you looked this good in my clothes," he retorted, looking Jesse up and down and feigning disdain.

Jesse preened under the attention. "I look better than you in your clothes," he bragged, "and you don't have the musculature to fill mine out. I know you turn down my invitations to the gym because you're afraid of paling in comparison to me—in more ways than one," he added, eying Kurt's flawlessly clear skin with exaggerated deliberateness, "but really, Kurt. One should strive for excellence in all areas. It makes you well rounded."

"And you, of course, are excellent as always, in all ways," Kurt mocked, only the barest hint of bitterness seeping into his tone. He didn't particularly care; Jesse could handle whatever Kurt threw his way.

And predictably, Jesse didn't take the bait. "In order to shine like a star, you must first avoid sucking," he quoted, smiling enigmatically. "This is, what, your sixth rehearsal in a row without being personally criticized?"

Kurt huffed slightly. "Seventh, thank you, and you know it," he replied haughtily.

Jesse's smile grew. "You're not a threat to me," he reminded Kurt nonchalantly. "But if I were a sophomore or junior with my eye on the lead soloist position for next year? I might be keeping track.

"Did you see which way Nia went?" he asked, casually looking around as Kurt stretched his tired muscles. "I need a partner to practice dueting with for vocal evaluations next month."

Kurt, knee halfway to his chest, raised an eyebrow. "You told her yesterday that the sound of her voice makes your eardrums threaten suicide," he pointed out. "Why would you want to sing with her? And more importantly, why would she agree to sing with you after you made her cry in front of the entire soprano section?"

The stage lights glinted off of Jesse's perfectly white teeth. "She'll sing with me because I'm Jesse St James," he said simply. "And tell me why I'll sing with her."

Kurt rolled his eyes yet again. "Singing with others at your level makes you lazy," he parroted, dropping his pitch in a well-practiced mimicry of Jesse's condescending tone. "Dueting with your vocal inferiors forces you to stay sharp and vocally flexible, in order to cover their flaws and spontaneous errors without appearing to the listener to be doing so."

"Nia is the most vocally inferior singer Vocal Adrenaline has," Jesse stated, without emotion or apology. "Ergo, my perfect partner."

He clapped Kurt on the shoulder. "It's your turn to take care of the spy, by the way," he added, heading for the stairs at the edge of the stage. "He's been watching from your eight-o-clock for over half an hour. His hair needs even more help than yours."

Kurt shot him an evil glare. Jesse merely smiled in return, waggling his fingers dramatically as he walked backwards, turning away from Kurt precisely six inches from the top of the steps. Just like he always did—Jesse's command of the stage was flawless and innate, and he made sure that everyone knew it.

It was an ugly thought and Kurt wasn't proud of it, but every once in a while, he couldn't help but wish that Jesse would miscalculate and stumble, just like everyone else.

Exhaling sharply, Kurt quickly shook out his muscles and wove his way through the remaining singers, slipping backstage.

Vocal Adrenaline was the top show choir in the country, and easily the only serious competition for the National Title for about 400 miles. Consequently, they hosted spies on a regular basis—at least one per week. This one, Kurt figured, couldn't be too intelligent if he was still on Carmel's campus after rehearsal had ended. Most of them were bright enough to try and sneak out early. They almost never made it to the parking lot, of course, but the instinct for self-preservation was usually there.

Which meant that this boy—he, Jesse had said—was either a complete moron, or absurdly confident in his ability to take care of himself in a fight. Kurt, badly as he suffered fools, was sincerely hoping for the former.

Stepping carefully and quietly around the duffle bags and jackets that littered the ground backstage, Kurt peeked around the closest leg to take a look at the spy.

His first impression was that the boy was small. Not that he was short, necessarily—he was maybe only an inch or so shorter than Kurt's own 5'7"—but that he was built compactly, taking up the minimum amount of space that his mass would allow. And also, there was something about the way he was standing, one arm wrapped protectively around his waist while his other hand tugged at a cord around his neck, that made him seem…diminished, somehow. Fragile.

Besides the necklace, the spy's style was a little too hipster-esque for Kurt's sensitive palate—faded red t-shirt, grey cardigan, and black jeans—and his hair was unforgivably wild, with glossy dark curls spilling every which way. He remembered the comment Jesse had made about his hair, and made a mental note to throttle him later.

None of those elements on their own were particularly to Kurt's taste. Put together, however, he couldn't help but admit that the boy was…well, pretty. Almost startlingly so.

Or at least he would have been, if the left side of his face wasn't fantastically bruised, with bright red scratches visible against the unnatural blues and purples of his skin.

Something in Kurt's chest tightened.

He squinted, taking a closer look as the spy shifted his weight. Not much of his body was visible, but Kurt could see what looked like scratches on the boy's hands, and a bruise (or was that a hickey?) on his neck. And though it was hard to tell, since he was looking from the side, Kurt was fairly certain that the boy's eyes were too bright, and his blinking too rapid, to be natural.

He'd spent enough time on the verge of tears to recognize it in someone else, after all.

The boy, watching the dozen or so remaining students with an almost unnerving intensity, hadn't noticed him yet. Kurt retreated back into the shadows.

There were no formal rules for dealing with spies; the methodology of their eviction was left solely up to the discretion of whomever was in charge of it that day. Though some of the more brutish vocalists preferred to exercise a somewhat 'hands on' line of attack, Kurt tended to favor the more innocuous approach of informing campus security and letting them deal with the miscreant—who may or may not get a warning, depending on the type of day Kurt was having. He'd been in Vocal Adrenaline long enough that such an occurrence had become more of a commonplace annoyance than anything else; five minutes out of his day that could have been spent elsewhere.

He'd never hesitated before.

But somehow, the idea of calling security to chase the beautiful, broken boy out of the school made Kurt's stomach twist uncomfortably. At the same time, however, he couldn't just leave the spy backstage, even if there wasn't really much to spy on now that rehearsal had officially ended. Someone else could spot him and deal with him, or—if he was actually better at his job that he appeared to be—he could walk out unchallenged with valuable information.

Neither possibility was particularly palatable. Luckily, Kurt Hummel was nothing if not inventive.

In the far corner of the backstage area, just past the props closet, were Vocal Adrenaline's three Sub-Zeros. Ignoring the refrigerated shelving filled with gross orders of Red Bull and electrolyte replacement drinks, Kurt pulled open one of the freezer drawers, selecting a moldable ice pack. Grabbing a hand towel from the nearby sink, he approached the boy quietly, trying not to startle him.

Another mark against the spy—he was not particularly aware of his surroundings. By the time the boy noticed him (and jumped at least six inches in the air) Kurt was already standing beside him, offering the wrapped ice pack. "For your face," he explained gently, when the boy merely looked at him with questioning, slightly frightened eyes. "It looks like it's still hurting."

The boy didn't smile, exactly, but his posture relaxed a little. "It's not as bad as it looks," he said hoarsely, before clearing his throat. "It's been a few days."

Kurt nodded. "I don't suppose you want to talk about it," he asked, already fairly certain of the boy's answer. The spy didn't disappoint, shaking his head vehemently.

And wincing in pain at the sudden pressure the gesture inflicted on his bruised skin. "If it still hurts to move, you still need ice," Kurt insisted sagely, holding out the ice pack again. "Don't be such a boy about it."

The boy hesitated for a moment, eyeing Kurt as if he were afraid Kurt might change his mind and withdraw the offering. When Kurt didn't move, however, he slowly reached out and took the ice. "Thank you," he said quietly, continuing to watch Kurt carefully as he placed the towel against his cheekbone.

The boy had beautiful eyes.

Kurt forced himself to look away, focusing instead on the stage. "You have a decent view from here," he observed politely, looking absently at the last remaining stragglers.

He felt the boy shift next to him. "Yeah," he agreed. "You guys were really good; I was really impressed."

Kurt paused, unsure whether or not to react to the compliment, or to the fact that the spy had just openly admitted to watching their rehearsal. He sighed deeply—this was why he always let security handle intruders. They didn't have to concern themselves with social etiquette or exacerbating noticeable emotional damage by being overly accusatory or pretty, fragile looking boys with beautiful eyes and insanely long lashes and tragically under-styled hair.

This was turning out to be more of an inconvenience than Kurt had anticipated after all.

He turned back toward the boy, who was still observing him. "I'm glad you enjoyed it," he said diplomatically, cursing himself inwardly for what he was about to do when the boy finally gave him the tiniest of smiles. He took a deep breath. "And believe me when I tell you that this is as awkward for me as it is for you," he said, almost apologetically, "but if you have any notes, tapes, recordings, etc, I'm going to need to take them before you leave. It's a security thing."

Kurt wasn't sure what he expected the boy to do after being called out—run for it, maybe. Deny everything, perhaps, or outright refuse to comply with Kurt's demand.

What he didn't expect was the boy's smile to grow, just the smallest amount. "You think I was…documenting you?" he asked Kurt, a hint of amusement playing at the features that weren't obscured by bruises or the ice pack.

Kurt, somewhat nonplussed at the boy's unusual reaction, wasn't entirely sure how to respond. "Our school motto is 'Murder or Be Murdered'", he answered finally. "We tend to treat all unfamiliar faces as potentially hostile until proven otherwise."

The boy nodded slowly. "Do you think I'm hostile?" he wanted to know.

He was still smiling.

Kurt shook his head. "No," he answered honestly. "But maybe you're just a really good actor."

The boy considered that. "I am, actually," he confessed. Reaching into the pocket of his sweater, he held up a slip of paper in between two fingers. Kurt took it and unfolded it.

It was a hall pass from the main office, marked with that day's date. Reason for Visit: Transfer Student was stamped across the bottom in slightly smudged ink.

Kurt raised an eyebrow. The boy took back his pass. "Good actor, just not a spy," he clarified.

Kurt smiled back approvingly. "In that case, welcome to Carmel," he offered sweetly.

The new kid's mouth twisted slightly. "Maybe not," he countered. "This was my third school visit today, and I have another one scheduled out in Westerville for tomorrow."

Westerville. Which, of course, meant Dalton Academy. Interesting. "Private school shopping?" he asked knowingly, hoping for a little more information.

The not-spy blushed slightly. "Mostly," he admitted, looking at his feet. "Not everywhere has space for a sophomore transfer, though, so I might go Charter."

Kurt blinked. If the way the boy was twining his hand into his necklace again was any indication, the new topic of conversation was steering into murky waters. Which, of course, made him feel like a jerk for pushing.

Also, it was starting to get late. "I'm a sophomore as well," he confided lightly, dipping his head a bit in an attempt to make the boy look back up. It worked, sort of—the boy didn't stare at him the way he had done before, but he was at least peeking back at Kurt through his eyelashes.

All in all, he'd count it as a success.

It really was getting late. "Well, potential new kid," he teased gently, "enjoy your sojourn to Westerville tomorrow. But if I may be so bold?" The boy looked at him inquiringly. Kurt smiled. "Pick Carmel. They force you to wear matching blazers in Westerville, and that is not something I would wish on anyone.

"I'm Kurt Hummel, by the way," he added, offering his hand.

For the first time since Kurt had found him backstage, the boy didn't hesitate to reach back.

"Blaine. Blaine Anderson."