Disclaimer: I do not own Glee or any of its characters; Ryan Murphy and Co. hold that honor. I'm simply writing this for fun, not profit.

Panic. Panic panic panic horror because what the hell was Carmen Tibideaux thinking? He knew that deep down, on some transient, philosophical level, it was meant as an honor, a privilege, to be selected as a guest performer at the Winter Showcase. Virtually unprecedented (only twice before in the Winter Showcase's twenty eight year history had such an anomaly occurred; he had been perusing the blogs), he knew that he should be overwhelmingly pleased at the unexpected opportunity.

All he felt in those first moments was gut-wrenching terror. He'd spent the last seven months alternately planning and trashing said plans for this moment. Seven months.

Hurrying down the staircase and leaning against the railing midway to the bottom, willing himself not to throw up or cry or flee at the sheer notion of now now now being the time to put all of his effort to work, he breathed out slowly, deeply, and willed himself to be calm. It must not have worked, however, because he heard a soft voice calling him and he turned, almost startling when he realized who it was.

"Kurt?"

Kurt's vision tunneled and he saw himself standing in the choir room, seven months younger and twice as disillusioned. The empty choir room, he quickly realized, except - no, he wasn't alone, there was Blaine, standing in the doorway looking in, one hand hesitantly placed on the doorjamb. His expression was caught between shock and uncertainty, worry and disappointment vying for dominance. Almost as quickly as the emotions appeared, however, they vanished, replaced instead by an almost painful optimism as he ventured closer into the room. Present Kurt closed his eyes, attempting to banish the fantasy from coming to life, but it made Blaine's presence even more clear. He could feel every soft, steady breath behind him, almost hear each gentle, nervous heartbeat.

"Baby?"

The lump in his throat that he had been valiantly fighting down for the past six minutes finally welled up in full force at the word. Blaine and he didn't do pet names. Their names alone had always been enough to convey the emotions that they wanted, and yet in that one simple slip, Blaine had revealed his own bewilderment, his own sorrow and grief and Kurt, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry that this happened.

"I didn't get in."

It felt strange, saying the words. They didn't feel right. Somehow, it was as if a second Kurt had emerged and taken over, had resumed the role of active-passive leader. Comforter and friend, but still resilient, uncringing to a fault. For one brief moment, even confident Kurt's demeanor wavered as he turned to face Blaine fully. The half-lit choir room cast strange shadows on their faces, emphasizing the furrows above Blaine's brows and the rigid, stark lines of Kurt's own jawline. "I didn't get into NYADA," he added, calmly, as he took the paper and quietly tore it to pieces.

Blaine didn't say anything after that, merely closed the distance between them and let Kurt sob his heart out, silent, bitter tears that wouldn't stop until it felt like he would rattle to pieces. He rubbed his back with firm, steady strokes and shushed him, pressing kisses to his hair whenever Kurt let him - which was only, only in those last moments when weakness prevailed over his dire, clinging need to be strong and he let his forehead rest against Blaine's shoulder, listening to his heartbeat - and assuring him that they would move on without words.

He didn't promise that it would be okay. He couldn't, and Kurt was grateful that he didn't try. There was something soft and delicate about it, something intimate that could have been so easily broken had a stray class bell or student chosen to interrupt their reverie. The universe was kind and they did not.

Kurt opened his eyes and felt the warmth of those arms fade as bitter reality reasserted itself. Blaine and he were still on the rocks, without any certainty about their future. He might cry over his failures and savor his victories in the future, but there was no guarantee that it would be Blaine's arms that he would come to for comfort. There were no promises anymore. It made his heart ache like nothing else had as he fished out his phone with trembling fingers and dialed the familiar number.

Three rings passed, and for one fleeting moment Kurt entertained the idea of hanging up and sinking to the floor beside the bottom step and resigning himself to failure. Pride - stubbornness - sheer force of will kept him standing, and he didn't look back at the crowd congregated near the very top of the balcony as the phone rang and rang and rang.

"Kurt?"

Blaine's voice was soft and warm and real and suddenly Kurt felt like he could breathe again even as he heard the slightly breathless tinge to Blaine's voice. "Blaine," was all he said, unable to form proper words.

"Hi," Blaine said quietly. "How's the - the Winter Showcase going?"

"Carmen asked me to perform," he blurted, and suddenly all his trepidation and fear and panic swept back full force. "Blaine, I can't, how am I supposed to, I haven't even sang in weeks and - "

He only realized that he was on the verge of hyperventilation when the ringing in his ears died down enough for him to recognize the soft, shushing quality to Blaine's voice. "Kurt, Kurt, listen. Okay? You're going to be fine. You're ready. You've been ready for this for months. Years. You're going to be amazing."

"I don't even know what to sing," Kurt flustered, and he hated how close to tears he sounded but he was close to tears and he had never been able to properly hide things from Blaine. Never. "I don't know what to sing and I don't have any of my back-up swans with me or - "

"You don't need your swans," Blaine cut in gently. "You're going to be fine. Just take a deep breath, relax, and remember that no matter what happens, you're going to be great. Rachel's going to love you even if you sing the Hokey Pokey."

A hiccup of laughter escaped Kurt. "Don't say that, I'll end up adding, And you shake it all around to some Broadway classic."

"You're gonna be fine," Blaine assured, and even with panic rushing through his veins, Kurt felt a measure of relief sweep over him. He could - he had to do this. This had been what he'd intended, all those months ago - this is what he had inadvertently built up to. This moment. "Trust - yourself, okay?"

Kurt swallowed, suddenly, painfully reminded that as idyllic as their text messages and even brief calls seemed, there was still that gaping rift between them, a chasm that had never been there before. He narrowly refrained from adding a guarded comment about how before Blaine would have said trust me.

Kurt wasn't there yet. He was trying, and - he wanted to be there, but he wasn't.

But Blaine didn't ask for more, and his soft, "Okay," seemed satisfying enough, because Blaine wished him good luck and - haltingly, but still earnestly - told him that he loved him.

"Love you, too," Kurt said softly, ending the call. He barely noticed Rachel's approach as he paced the floor, his panic slowly rising as the minutes passed. While talking with Blaine had calmed him down somewhat, he still had the daunting task of coming up with a song before intermission - mercifully lengthy in accordance with the occasion but still only thirty minutes - ended.

"I could do Being Alive," he offered halfheartedly as his spirits waned and his desire to pull Carmen aside before intermission closed and the Showcase went on that he couldn't do this increased.

Rachel's eyes lit up, however, a strange, almost ecstatic grin crossing her face as she said, "I just got chills."

And Kurt did, too.

And suddenly, he knew.


"Hi."

He felt ridiculous saying it, small and unimportant and unworthy to perform before such a host. Carmen herself stood out among the panel of judges in the back, her velvet cape emphasizing her almost royal presence amidst her peers. It was clear whose judgment mattered most in the final tally, and Kurt knew that she would pander to no favorites in order to select the worthiest candidate. He felt a slow, heavy breath of relief work its way through him at the realization that none of that mattered to him. He wasn't competing for some title as the winner of the pageantry that was the Winter Showcase. He wasn't catering to the other judges in an attempt to flaunt his musical virtuousity and perhaps snag a role in an upcoming musical (albeit, small and likely brief, but nevertheless a role).

No, he was merely there to perform, an esteemed member of the hall welcomed to the stage, and in that moment, he felt at home again.

"I'm Kurt Hummel, and I'll be auditioning for the role ... of NYADA student."

He could almost see himself stepping before Coach Tanaka and his group of red-outfitted lackeys, their expressions indifferent at best and outright jeering at worst as they eyed his blue headband and boombox doubtfully. He could feel the summer heat radiating off the McKinley high football field, already crisp but faintly autumn-tinted, promising cooler weather and hot chocolate and scarves soon. Positioning himself next to that little boombox, he took his stance and waited, waited, waited.

And suddenly he was on stage, an empty auditorium facing back at him as he listened for the first notes, the soft, almost haunting melody rising to the rafters as his voice soared with it. He was wearing a scarf then, one of his flashier blue-and-white selections, and with every beat he felt the tension escalating, the staccato notes emphasizing the bite to each word. He'd tried, he'd tried so hard to gain his father's attention, and yet there he had stood, still clad in his hideous Mellancamp get-up, baseball hat and all, and listened to the last threads of hope being snipped away. He'd wanted to scream and vent and break down until his dad finally saw that he couldn't live like that anymore, but he was Kurt Hummel, and Hummels were better than that. So he commandeered the band and spun a fine story for them about a song known as Rose's Turn.

They believed, and he was transported. Transported to a time when he was the greatest star, kicking up his feet and swinging off the wonderfully absurd prop that his dad had had created for him for his West Side Story audition. He killed the song - killed it, down to each exaggerated, dainty cough - but the aftermath of such a vocal victory was clouded in the wake of the judges' review and Blaine's audition. He had listened and wondered and known, then, as surely as Artie's offer to say a few lines had confirmed it, that Blaine had landed the role. Blaine's brief look of deer-in-headlights was lost to him as he vanished through the doors, unable to watch his dreams melt before him.

Another disappointment eclipsed the first, standing in front of the choir room as the first chilling notes of Defying Gravity wafted into the air. He remembered looking around at them, people he barely knew, barely liked, and wondering how they couldn't vote for him. How they couldn't recognize his superior talent and choose him as their lead soloist for the competition (and what a marvelous thing, to have a solo at an actual competition). As soon as his gaze fell on Rachel, sullen, quiet, discontented, he felt an even greater surge of achievement knowing that he had earned this. All his hours of practicing had led to this moment when he was to triumph, he, Kurt Hummel, would rightfully take what was his.

All he had had to do was sing. All he had needed was one perfect run and the solo would have been his.

And in one cracked note, he threw the competition at Rachel Berry's feet.

Not because he admired her or wanted her to win or feared the reality of performing in front of a crowd. He saw, in one instant, his dad seated in a red velvet seat, staring up at him as he stood on stage singing his heart out, a hundred, a thousand whispers drifting to him. Each one brought his dad's smile down a notch, until he was openly frowning over the phone calls and warring with parents about their kids' misbehavior whenever they were so bold and then the parents themselves when they refused to back down. He saw it all and hated it, and so he did the only thing that he could.

He missed the note, and only Mercedes' devastated look echoed his own disappointment. Everyone else merely looked blank, astonished, and when they gave him a smattering of perfunctory applause at the end, he knew that he had succeeded.

I Want to Hold Your Hand was different. Rachel said it had given her chills - and yes, Kurt could see her in the crowd as well, beyond the sluggish beating of own his heart, the magnified whispers among the expectant listeners as time seemed to pass in its own glacial pace, the band slowly settling into position - and it had given Kurt chills, too. For different reasons, but ultimately to the same effect.

I Have Nothing had also given Kurt chills, but he didn't need to tell her that. It had been as much a confession as it was a memoir, a reflection of what Blaine and he had.

Closing his eyes in the briefest moment before complete silence fell over the room and expectation settled fully upon his shoulders, Kurt gathered his strength and sang for what Blaine and he were.

His voice soared.

And in the end, the applause was thunderous.