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.

"Who's Blaine?"

For a moment, Artie is thunderstruck.

He gapes at Kurt, careful to keep his jaw shut so as not to attract unwanted attention. Scanning the hallway quickly to see if this really is all a dream and Coach Sylvester is standing in some corner, cackling maniacally to herself as she watches each of the Glee club members fall apart, Artie's heart sinks when he finds no cheerleading coach savoring her victory.

He's already seen what his absence (the absence of Glee club, really) has done to Finn and Quinn and Rachel and Tina. He doesn't want to think about them, doesn't want to see their deadened expressions anymore. Despite finding Kurt in a seemingly normal setting - picking books out of his locker with the same brusque manner that he always uses (although, now that Artie thinks of it, Kurt usually takes such immaculate care not to damage his things that the violence of the gesture seems out of place, almost spooked) - he knows that something is wrong. Deeply wrong.

"Dude, why the hell are you staring at me?" Kurt demands, going for casual but his voice creeping into that higher register that means he's worried. Artie blinks, opening his mouth to say something before someone - a faceless jock, there and gone too quickly to see - shoves Kurt into the lockers. The jock hoots as he disappears down the hallway, cruel laughter ringing in Artie's ears as Kurt darts past him, shouldering him out of the way.

It doesn't make sense. None of this makes sense, actually, but that makes even less sense than the previous observation. Blaine didn't cease to exist over night ... did he? Of course, Artie had indulged in a few more wine coolers than he should have at the party, but those weren't even alcoholic. He wasn't drunk, and he didn't have the all-too-familiar pounding of a hangover ringing in his skull.

Running his fingers across the glossy, painfully intricate gratings along the lockers, Artie realizes that this was real.

He swallows hard, trying to picture a world without Blaine. Immediately, their duet comes to mind, the hours of practice that Blaine had cajoled him through, urged him to participate in. Even the unintentional toe-mauling and consequent apologies while Blaine assured him that it was fine as he iced it before wrapping it and going for another round don't seem like bad memories. They had a common cause and it didn't matter if the duet was silly or if their dance moves could use some work: someone had called Artie out to do a duet with, and that alone spoke more for Blaine Anderson's character than anything since.

Naturally, thinking about their attempt to cheer Brittany up brought back a dozen flashes of memory: Blaine heaving the curtain back across the stage when Brittany collapsed (his hands were red afterward, Artie remembers, before he stuffed them in his pockets until they faded to normal color again), Blaine encouraging Marley to join and welcoming her in the squad, Blaine smiling uncertainly at him when the jocks harangued them to participate in their lunch lady baiting. Blaine diving in front of a slushy meant to hurt Kurt. Blaine celebrating and mourning their victories at competitions, even being the first to attempt to explain to Mr. Schue what went wrong at the Brittany assembly.

Artie shakes his head, a sour taste in his mouth as one of the passing jocks punches his shoulder in apparently playful greeting. "See you on the field," he says. Artie offers a flat smile, the corners of his lips barely twitching upward as he clenches his jaw against the urge to tell them that that hurts and no, he doesn't want to play around the field for hours when -

He pauses, considering that. He hasn't been able to participate fully in any sports since The Accident. It's a tempting prospect and, despite the low class nature of his companions, he completely forgets about Kurt and Blaine and time for a while as he just tosses the football and lets jocks try to bulldozer him over before giving as good as he gets. It feels great, to hurt someone again without actually damaging their self esteem for all the hours that he's suffered in silence. Boxing has never been his forte, and tackling out of the question from a wheelchair, but he spends hours, days, just beating the shit out of the other players on the field now, making dangerous dives and headlong tackles just because he can. Whatever losses he automatically takes on for not being the largest member on the team, he quickly makes up for with sheer bravado and skill.

The others respect him. They include him. He roams the hall with the jock pack and notices - surreptitiously; he doesn't dare glance fully at the spectators for fear of earning a warning punch between his shoulder blades reminding him who his real buddies are - how powerful they are. How feared they are. Obvious nerds shrink from their presence quickly, vanishing around corners and in classrooms as fast as their feet can take them. Even the general mill of students seems to disintegrate whenever they move as one, hugging the walls in hushed conversation or simply parting to let the group pass. The Cheerios alone eye them indifferently, scattered throughout the halls in their red-and-white uniforms.

One target alone stands out like a beacon, and Artie winces as soon as he sees him. Kurt is standing beside his locker, alone, staring blankly at something on the surface before one of the jocks breaks from the pack and saunters up to him. Artie swallows a warning cry as Ryder shoves Kurt roughly against the metal, the force of it propelling him two feet across the floor until he lands hard against the grating. The jocks behind Artie fan out to form a semi-circle around Kurt, egging each other on to do it, do it again. Like boys on a playground trying to see who can hit the bird sitting on the tree with a stone first.

"Stop it." The words force their way out through gritted teeth as Kurt sinks to the floor, his expression revealing more pain than Artie has seen in them in days, months, years. "Stop it!" he barks, the force of his voice silencing some of the laughter even as Jake moves in to take his turn. He grabs Jake's arm and narrowly avoids getting punched in the face as he backpedals. The united pack dynamic crumbles as fists fly and arms wrestle, Artie struggling to keep his own ground against someone as well built as Jake. In the end, they go down, and it isn't until Sylvester blasts her Cheerios' whistle and Coach Tanaka yanks Artie off Jake that the fight is over. Artie's face feels swollen and bruised, but he can see immediately that Jake has taken the harder hits, one of his eyes blackening while his nose seeps blood prolifically. He can't tell if it's broken - there's too much blood, staining his shirt, his shoulders, to know - and as Artie staggers to his feet he can feel the weight of the entire hallway boring down on him, hundreds, thousands of disbelieving stares.

Tanaka is shouting something at Jake, who is snarling something back as he presses the back of his letterman jacket against his nose, while Sylvester glares and says nothing, her eyes narrowed to slits. Artie staggers back, scanning the crowd for one face, his heart sinking until he realizes that Kurt hasn't moved from the floor. He's just sitting there, back to the lockers, tears coursing silently down his cheeks as his arms wrap around his knees.

Artie walks towards him, wanting to comfort him, to say something, anything, because Kurt doesn't look hurt, Kurt looks Broken, and that's something that he can't let happen.

Coach Sylvester plants a hand on his chest and propels him backwards harshly, and he stumbles.

"My office, now," she says, her voice oddly flat.

Artie walks after her even as every instinct screams to go back to the disconsolate boy in the corner as Tanaka and Jake shout it out. Artie knows even before Tanaka says it that Jake is off the team. He knows it, even as Jake knows that his scholarships and value as a team member are too high to be tossed away so easily. Jake doesn't say this, though, just roaring back insults as good as he gets until finally he gets it and lets Tanaka have his say. Later, in quiet, they'll meet again and Jake will win, Jake will don his football uniform and play on the field as though none of this ever happened.

Artie doesn't know if Kurt will be able to do the same. Get up and pretend none of this ever happened.

Eyes weigh down on him as he walks the long march to Coach Sylvester's office. It seems to take an eternity before he finally pushes open the door and leads the way inside. Sylvester locks the door behind him and circles around to stand in front of him, saying nothing for a long time.

Artie doesn't see her, doesn't hear any of it even when she does finally speak. All he can see is Kurt, crumpled on the ground, and the first words that blurt out of his mouth are, "Where's Blaine?"

Sylvester continues without hearing him and Artie interjects loudly, more forcefully, "Where is Blaine?"

"There is no Blaine," Sylvester snaps, annoyed at being interrupted in her rant. "As I was saying...."

"Bullshit."

Artie doesn't waver at his own bravado and Sylvester doesn't say anything.

"Where the hell is Blaine Anderson?"

"Anderson?"

For a moment, Artie is stupidly, ecstatically hopeful at the sudden recognition on Sylvester's face.

"He was killed or something. Three years ago," she says dismissively.

Artie's heart sinks to the floor, his jaw dropping as white noise fills his ears and he backs out of the office, slowly at first as his feet refuse to move before running. He sprints down the halls, shoving open the doors to the outside world, a light rain misting down. He hugs his varsity jacket closer to himself and skitters down the steps, slipping and half-falling down most of them.

He doesn't know where he's going, but he keeps running, running through the student parking lots and past school crowds, his feet pounding against the pavement. Everything seems quiet, eerily so, too quiet to be real and yet too real to be not.

Hours pass. Maybe days. Finally, he comes to a halt, panting and drenched, outside the local coffee shop. A quick glance up at the sign reveals that it's still the Lima Bean and Artie relaxes a little even though his heart feels like it's going to explode. He shoulders his way inside and walks up to the counter, dropping his soaked jacket on the nearest chair as he passes. He doesn't even know what drink he orders, mechanically passing over the cash when the barista informs him the total and numbly accepting the cup. He turns around and promptly drops the cup on the floor.

"Blaine?"

There he is, unmistakably him, but ... different. Gaunter, perhaps, with the lines in his face more pronounced. Attractive, maybe, in a lean, muscular way, but unnervingly lean compared to the Blaine Anderson he's used to seeing walk in and out of the choir room every day. More striking is the lack of hair gel, applied only sparingly at certain strategic points around his scalp to keep the worst of the curls from showing. It isn't the gel helmet that Santana complained about, and it further off-puts Artie as he gapes at him. The most striking thing isn't his blazer - his Warbler's blazer, Artie notices, or the fact that he's lost at least ten pounds - but the man sitting next to him, uncomfortably close, one hand resting possessively on Blaine's thigh as Blaine turns and offers a tight, albeit confused smile.

"Do I know you?" he asks, his gaze darting back towards Sebastian anxiously.

"We haven't met," Sebastian confirms coolly, looking at Artie with such a scrutinizing gaze that the urge to run away and hide becomes almost overwhelming. "Can I help you?"

"No," Artie blurts, unable to look away from him even though it's Blaine, Blaine shrinking almost awkwardly away from both of them, trying to concave within himself as Sebastian keeps a vice-like grip on his leg. "Let him go."

Sebastian smiles. It isn't pleasant. "I don't think so."

"Blaine, I need to talk to you," Artie implores, trying a different tactic. Blaine keeps his mouth shut and says nothing, his hands curling around his coffee cup tightly enough that Artie can hear the material crunch slightly. "Let him go!" Artie insists savagely, reaching forward to yank Blaine out of Sebastian's grasp because he needs answers.

Sebastian coolly, calmly removes his hand from Blaine's leg, ostentatiously folding it on top of his other on the table. Blaine doesn't move. "Blaine," Artie says, stepping closer. Blaine still doesn't speak. "Blaine. Where the hell have you been? And why are you with this bastard?"

"Don't." Blaine's voice is quiet and sharp, a needle there and gone in the conversation. "Sebastian is my." He pauses, then, a wave of uncertainty crossing his face. Sebastian's expression darkens a little as he watches before Blaine says softly, "I'm his boyfriend."

"Sylvester said you were dead," Artie snaps, unable to contain his frustration as a whole with the situation.

"I." Blaine swallows, throat working convulsively as he does so, but Sebastian steps in before he can gather his thoughts and Artie only narrowly resists the urge not to start strangling him then and there. He doesn't know what he's done to make Blaine so spooked and quiet, but he hates it, and he hates Sebastian, but he's afraid that if he moves, Sebastian will just hurt Blaine instead.

"Blaine had a brush with death a few years ago," Sebastian said dismissively, settling what could be a comforting arm around Blaine's shoulder. Artie can see how tightly his fingers wrap around Blaine's shoulder, keeping it clear who's in charge. "Some of the blogs haven't been entirely accurate about the details of it all."

"What is he talking about?" Artie demands, looking at Blaine, who shrugs ambivalently.

"Not that I don't love talking to you, but you're interrupting our date," Sebastian quips.

"Shut up," Artie says without looking at him. "What the hell is he talking about?" he repeats, eyes only for Blaine, who won't speak.

None of it, none of it makes sense, it's insane, and Artie closes his eyes even as Blaine turns to huddle against Sebastian. Not for comfort, not for solace - out of fear. Of what will happen if he doesn't seek out Sebastian to protect him.

Artie blinks, a soft groan escaping him as a headache reasserts itself at the forefront of his thoughts. He paws for his phone, needing the time, and squints at it - 2:47 AM - before setting it aside. Panic claws at his throat as he realizes that he's made it to Puck's house without helping Kurt or Blaine or anyone, and he dials Kurt's number without thinking.

Blaine answers on the fourth ring.

"Hello?" he grunts, sleepy and confused. "S'going on?"

Artie breathes out deeply in relief, grateful that Puck himself snores loudly enough to drown out the sound. "Hey. I, uh. Is everything okay?"

"Yeah?" Blaine sounds even more confused as he says it, a sleepy voice in the background asking what's going on. "Yeah, Kurt and I ... we're ... okay."

Artie nods, wondering if Blaine is standing in the kitchen of Rachel and Kurt's loft know while Kurt and Rachel are asleep, talking on Kurt's phone so Kurt doesn't have to get up. "Good," he says, realizing that Blaine can't exactly see him nod. "That's ... that's really good."

"Yeah," Blaine breathes, sounding on the verge of sleep already. "Would you be terribly offended if I hung up now?"

"It's cool," Artie assured, slowly setting his phone aside.

As he looked around the room - New Directions' boys scattered in a sleepover, the girls at Tina's - he felt a certain peace with it all. He reached down to rub the top of his left leg, confirming his suspicions: he couldn't feel a thing. A soft sigh escaped him at the thought, but he knew that, in the end, it was ... it was worth it. If it meant that Kurt met Blaine and Tina joined Glee and Glee existed, then ... it was worth it.

And as Blaine Anderson crawled back into bed with his ex-boyfriend, who immediately gravitated towards him with cold toes and warm hands, he couldn't help but think that even if this was all he could ever have again, it was worth it.


Author's Notes: My take on the latest promo for the Christmas episode.

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