A/N: Here it is, the fic I've been slaving over for the past month. It's definitely a new genre for me, but I had so much fun writing it- mostly because of how amazing it was to work with sweet-rabbit, whose lovely art you can find on her tumblr, .com.
I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. :)
Kurt Hummel was no stranger to loneliness. He was intimately acquainted with the pang of isolation and the heartache of rejection. He was a veritable genius when it came to wearing a mask and pretending like everything was okay, like he wasn't hurting inside. But for once—just for a minute, or a second, even—he didn't want to have to pretend. He wanted to be able to let go, show his true face, and allow himself to be vulnerable. He wanted to forget how dangerous that was.
"Watch it, fag!" He heard a voice hiss, too close for comfort, before he was shoved hard and sent reeling into a locker to his right. The tote bag slung over his shoulder provided a small cushion for his hip, but his shoulder bone collided directly with the metal, the lock pressing into his skin with a force that would definitely leave a bruise later.
He allowed himself to lean against the locker for a second, his eyes closed as he took deep breaths. He could not retaliate. He could not shout, or cry, or ask for help. All he could do was withstand, because no one could help him. Not really. All they could do was use words. Maybe if he told the principal, the jocks would be reprimanded or given detention, but it would all add up to nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Even if his main offenders were suspended or expelled, there would be others to take their place. There were always others. Sometimes people whose names he didn't know, whose faces he didn't recognize from any of his classes, and he had to wonder what exactly he had done to offend them.
His dad would tell him that the kids were just jealous that he was so confident, but that was a joke. There was no jealousy involved—only hatred and blind ignorance. As much as his father tried, he couldn't understand what Kurt was going through, either. Because Kurt wouldn't let him. His father would get worked up, and maybe have another heart attack. Kurt had to protect him. Sometimes it felt like their roles had been reversed, ever since Kurt's mom had died. His dad had done his best to be both a mother and a father, but it was never quite the same after she left.
He wondered what his mom would say to him, if he told her about the bullying. Probably to keep his head up high and keep smiling. That's what she told him in kindergarten, when it had all started. He remembered coming home from show-and-tell day in tears, an armful of broken tea cups in his hand. His mom had taken one look at him before wrapping him up in her arms and letting him cry it out for a good hour. Then, she had sat him down at the kitchen table with a bottle of super glue and helped him repair his tea set.
"See, sweetie? All you need sometimes is some help to keep it all together. You can be sad for a little bit, but then you have to try to fix things and keep smiling, okay?"
He missed her so much. He missed the days when the solution to his problems was always as easy as superglue and smiles.
"Kurt!" He opened his eyes to see Mercedes looking down at him, Tina at her side, both wearing identical expressions of concern and pity. "Are you okay?" He stood up straight and looked down at them, silently thanking puberty for the latest growth spurt that had him towering over them now. It helped with his act. "Perfectly fine," he answered, brushing his clothes off and leaning down to pick his bag up off the ground from where it had fallen during his tumble.
Tina bit her lip, and Mercedes opened her mouth as if to protest, but he shook his head at her. "Come on, we'll be late for Glee."
He fell into step beside them, listening to them chatter about the latest weekly assignment and whether Finn and Rachel had broken up for good this month. He used to care about the same things they did—who got what solo, the slowly progressing relationship of Mr. Schue and Ms. Pillsbury, the chances of them winning Nationals that year—but as time went by, he had felt himself withdrawing from their little bubble of contentment. He still cared about Glee, of course… but he didn't really feel like he was a part of their finely tuned machine any more.
Glee used to be a safe haven for him. When joining the Cheerios and the football team hadn't helped with the bullying, Kurt had decided to throw caution to the wind and allow his lots to fall in with New Directions. The bullying had increased, and he had become Public Slushie Target Number 1, but he enjoyed singing and dancing. He liked having a place to go where he could show more of himself than he could anywhere else. He had friends in Glee—Mercedes, Tina, and even Rachel had grown on him. But eventually they all got boyfriends, and Kurt was once again left alone. When it came down to it, he was always the person who needed, and never the one who was needed. And it hurt. It hurt to always care the most and never have it reciprocated. So eventually, he trained himself to stop caring so much, to close himself off to useless emotions that would only leave him worse for wear. And it worked. Most days, he didn't find himself staring at couples holding hands, aching to feel the same connection. Most nights, he didn't fall asleep crying like he used to. Mostly, he was okay.
He blinked, shaking his head a bit to come back to the present. Finn was looking down at him, an expectant look on his face. "Yes?"
"We were just, um, separating into groups," Finn mumbled, jerking a thumb behind him at the rest of New Directions, who were indeed milling about in a semi-organized fashion. "Boys against girls? You looked like you were zoning out a bit…" he trailed off uncertainly.
"Right," Kurt said, holding in a sigh. "Yeah, thanks." He stood up, trying not to look too unenthused. Glee used to be challenging, exciting. Now it was just the same old routine—Mr. Schue's halfhearted and repetitive assignments every week, and sitting through Rachel and Finn's duets in-between. There was nothing to keep him distracted, and these days, distraction was his best form of self-defense.
Kurt didn't contribute anything to the boys' enthusiastic discussion of how best to beat the girls, but if they noticed his silence, they didn't say anything. The allotted hour for Glee passed by quickly, and before he knew it, the final bell had rung, cuing his classmates' departure. Kurt stood up slowly, taking a much longer time to gather up his bag and sheet music than was strictly necessary. When he turned around, only Mr. Schue remained.
"Are you doing okay, Kurt?" he asked, his brow furrowed. "You haven't been yourself recently."
Do you even know who I am? Do I?
"I'm fine," Kurt said, the lie coming easily to his lips after constant repetition. "Just a little tired."
"Is it—is it all right if I stay here for a little while longer?" Kurt asked, looking down at the ground with what he hoped was the proper amount of awkwardness to signal to Mr. Schue that he wanted to be alone. "I was hoping to practice some stuff…"
Mr. Schue hesitated, then nodded. "Sure, Kurt. Just make sure the door is locked when you leave, okay?"
Kurt murmured his assent and waited until his teacher had left before he dropped his bag and sheet music haphazardly to the floor and darted to the chairs lined up against the back wall, scrambling atop one with an eagerness he didn't usually permit himself to indulge in.
Kurt Hummel had kept many secrets over the years, but only one was still his.
The first time he had seen the ghost had been a couple of months ago, during a Glee rehearsal. Mr. Schue hadn't arrived yet, and all the kids had been goofing off with each other. Kurt had been sitting in the back, flipping through a Vogue magazine, when something had made him look up. Standing in the doorway, looking curious and maybe a little lost, had been a boy, maybe a bit older than Kurt. He was cute, with wavy black hair and curiously shiny azure eyes. Kurt had nudged Mercedes and nodded toward the boy, smirking a bit, but she hadn't seemed to understand what he was pointing out. After she had insisted that she didn't know what he was talking about and told him that he needed to "tone down the cray-cray," Kurt had realized that Mercedes couldn't see what he saw. He had turned to Tina on his other side, pulling her away from Mike to point toward the door, but she looked just as confused as Mercedes had. Then, when Mr. Schue had walked through the door and straight through the boy—Kurt was positive, he had seen it with his own eyes—he knew that, no matter how crazy it sounded, the truth was staring him in the face. Kurt was seeing a ghost that, for some reason, nobody else could see.
He had been scared at first, then a bit in denial, and then curious. He had watched the boy—the ghost, he reminded himself—for weeks. He would conspicuously follow him, learning that the ghost seemed to trace the same routine paths from the door of the choir room to the same straight path through the halls to the window right outside the choir room. Kurt had also watched others, had watched as the ghost moved through people. Nobody ever had a reaction. Kurt sometimes thought he caught a flicker or shock or confusion, sometimes thought he saw a face stare right at the ghost, but no one ever said a thing. And Kurt wasn't ever going to bring it up, either. If he was seeing a true, bona fide ghost, then he wanted it to be his special thing. Anyway, if he ever told anyone, they would think he had finally jumped off the deep end. So, he kept the ghost a secret.
Eventually, though, he had mustered up the courage to try speaking to him. At first, the ghost had ignored him. The second time, it had looked at him, alarmed, then disappeared through a wall without a word. But Kurt didn't give up, because Hummels never gave up. The third time, when Kurt had blurted out, "I can see you," he had gotten a response.
"We can see each other."
The fourth time, the ghost had given a name. "William."
And every time after that, the ghost had become his.
Kurt had just been looking out the window a second ago, his legs numbing from standing on the choir room chair for so long, and there had been no one there. Then he'd blinked, and when he'd looked up, William was standing just outside the window. It was as if he had appeared out of thin air.
He probably did, Kurt reminded himself, because he's a ghost.
"William!" Kurt felt a smile spreading over his features, the first time he had genuinely smiled all day. "How have you been?"
"Well, you know." William glided through the window, his body flickering a bit as he moved before solidifying when he stood still in the middle of the choir room. "Dead." Kurt winced sympathetically, and William laughed. "Not bad, though. All things considering."
Kurt climbed down from his chair and moved to the center of the room, right across from his ghost. "William? Can I ask you something?"
"Only if you agree to call me Will," he said, grinning. Kurt noticed that he always seemed brighter when he smiled, as if all the light in the room converged in his eyes and made him shine.
"Is that what your friends called you?"
William's smile faltered, and the room seemed to get a shade darker. "I didn't have any friends."
Kurt looked down at the ground uncomfortably. He seemed to make a lot of mistakes when it came to his ghost. It was hard to know what would send him into one of his dark moods, and harder to know how to bring him out of them. He took a step closer, until only an inch separated them, and placed his hand on his ghost's shoulder.
Or at least, he tried to. Despite Will's sturdy appearance, Kurt's hand slipped right through his body, disappearing somewhere between Will's vintage leather jacket and the space behind it. Kurt jerked his hand back. It felt like he had doused it in freezing cold water. How had people not noticed when Will walked through them?
Will hadn't seemed to notice his latest faux pas. His gaze was focused on seemingly nothing, but Kurt had seen him get like this enough times to know that he was in a darker place—his past.
"Will?" he asked hesitantly.
Will looked up, staring at Kurt from underneath his long lashes.
"You have me."
Will gazed at him intently, as if he were searching within Kurt for something. "Forever?" he asked, his voice almost a whisper.
Kurt shivered involuntarily. Was the room colder because Will was there, or was it something else?
He nodded. "Forever."
Kurt had his ghost and his ghost had him, and that was enough. They talked every day—when there was no one around, of course—and Kurt became adept at speaking without moving his mouth much when Will chatted with him as he moved between classes. Kurt told Will about his life, his loneliness, and his family. Will was the perfect listener. He bemoaned Finn's social etiquette inabilities when Kurt recounted stories of their family dinners, laughed sympathetically at Kurt's retelling of his latest attempt to give Rachel a makeover, and listened eagerly to any details about Glee, which he had apparently always wanted to join when he was alive.
In return, Will talked to Kurt about things he never witnessed. He spoke of McKinley in the 50s, and of all the trends he had seen come and go through the halls of the school since he died. He told Kurt about the various scandals he had witnessed, being invisible to most people. He explained why he couldn't enter certain areas, like the Spanish classroom and the football field—apparently he could only tread where had walked when he was living. Kurt noticed he avoided some subjects—how he had died, what being dead was like—basically anything that referred to his current state of not living. He seemed sensitive to the subject, and Kurt could respect that. But he did enjoy showing off for Kurt, showing him the way he could permeate the air around them with whatever Kurt wanted to smell—cotton candy, axe body spray, a Christmas dinner. His special talent, he had told Kurt, his eyes shining with pride.
Despite his new friend, Kurt sometimes still felt as if he were missing something. It was a feeling he didn't detect as much when he was with Will, sharing his day with the other boy, but the feeling of constantly looking for something and never finding it was always present. Especially when he went to bed, dreaming of being held by a faceless someone-special, and he woke up alone, curled around himself with a death grip on his pillow. As great as Will was, he wasn't—and couldn't—always be around to comfort Kurt.
At school, however, Will was an invaluable consolation. For the next two months, Kurt's life continued much the same as it had before. School continued much the same for the next two months. He was still uninspired in Glee and drifting apart from his friends, but with Will to talk to, he didn't seem to mind as much. The jocks still found an excuse to shove him into any hard surface that they could, but it somehow wasn't as bad when he had Will standing next to him, providing (invisible) moral support and hissed condemnations. Will told Kurt that he had been bullied in school, too.
For once, he had someone who understood.