A/N: Written for the Kum Canoe Winter Holiday Christmas Secret Santa Exchangaganza '012 on Ice. Set mostly during the season 4 Christmas ep. Organized like the Dickens novel. I had fun reinterpreting the ghosts. Other increasingly inane statements.

PRELUDE

Winter in the city arrives without fanfare, as the rustle of calendar pages, the hum and chime of vents and pipes in the walls. Exhaust colors the air in seasonal grays and whites, and greenery blossoms behind store windows. Halos form in the glass where glowing bulbs grow. But New York is always a festival of lights. Deflected trade winds buoy the temperature, and autumn-wear clings tight to clothes hangers in closets all over town.

So Kurt barely notices. Earbuds fortify him against carols singing from car radios, distance against dreams of holiday gatherings. Even Rachel's seasonal decorating is overlooked in a storm of application anxieties and work stresses. It isn't until she's rambling her way through frenzied vacation packing that it hits him that it's That Time Of Year again. And once it does, he finds himself professing anticipation for a condition he's carried with him for months: solitude.

Really, though, he's ready to stop feeling alone.

His father's surprise visit seems like the ideal antidote, once the shock of his arrival subsides, and their time together has the surreal, romanticized quality of old home movies. Until the bad news - then like an old home movie it feels expired, a fading memory doomed to degrade as precious time stretches the present forward until it snaps and becomes the past.

And before he knows it the past is the present again: Blaine stands before him, an unsure smile and a duet on his lips. Kurt's stomach turns, in dance or dander; he isn't sure which, at first. But as he muses on past and present and things yet to come, he finds a thought brewing in his brain, one that scares and delights him. It's a long and winding thought, hard to articulate in some ways and outright ineffable in others, but it has a simple name:

Maybe.

They hold a long note. Steamed breath mingles in dangerous proximity. Hold for applause.

The whole world holds for applause.

STAVE ONE

It's a dream, or he's hit his head. Kurt has no other explanation, and since he always has an explanation, since he lives in a rational universe, since time as he understands it is a line or a ray or something (he's a performing arts student, it's not his job to know these things) and more to the point doesn't stop, there is no alternative but that he is currently dreaming.

He finds it much easier to breathe after he accepts this fact.

Around him the world is still. Not the tranquil, metaphoric still of a empty night, or the psychological still of tense anticipation - capital-S-Still. Skaters balanced on thin blades perch like impossibly lifelike statues on the ice, in mid-glide, mid-spin, even mid-fall. Pigeons make feathery chandeliers, hanging from a black sky charged with airplane lights that refuse to blink, stars that won't deign to shine. The relentless yawn of traffic from the adjacent street has ceased, and no others have caught the contagion. When he tries to check his phone, no number of keystrokes or taps or slides will wake the screen. Even Blaine, his achingly familiar gloved hand inches from Kurt's own, is locked and silent. With nervous fingers Kurt touches his ex's arm, the fabric of his coat, the flesh of his cheek. The arm is firm; the coat feels soft, as it should, but no wrinkle stirs; Blaine's skin is warm, but doesn't give at the push of his fingers.

Kurt considers pinching himself, but dismisses the notion as cliché. Besides, Kurt doesn't run from dreams. And that's what this is: a dream. Not even a nightmare. Ha! Kurt laughs defiantly at the flimsy efforts of his subconscious.

"What's so funny?"

Kurt flinches and turns so quickly he loses his footing, and his tailbone, already sore from previous slips, gains another bruise before he's able to reassess his surroundings. "Over here," a different voice - this one is male - offers.

Kurt spots motion amidst the wax figures (easier to think of them that way than as real people, Kurt decides), and pulls and kicks himself back a foot or two, expecting demented clowns or disfigured aliens or high school bullies. But they prove instead to be a boy and a girl; the former paints sharp arcs and crisp coils with his skates, twirling easily around the frozen men and women, elegant and self-assured, while the latter settles for comfortable strokes forward, occasionally gripping a stationary arm to help guide her motions.

And they're familiar, the girl especially. Long hair swirls behind her as she approaches, and though she's taller (how couldn't she be) she reminds him of Rachel, slim and smiling. She has Rachel's passion, too, if not her confidence - her eyes show it, does' eyes, like oceans where Rachel's are forest fires. The memory of a voice grips him at the sight of her, natural and clean: You better shape up, 'cause I need a man...

"You're..." Kurt says, and without thinking grabs Blaine's outstretched hand to help himself to his feet. He wipes his palms on his jacket. "You're the girl who fainted at Sectionals. Marley," he says, suspicious.

Her eyes look pained for a moment, but she nods. "I'm... surprised you remember." She brakes tremulously in front him. Kurt fixates on her scarf - now he knows he's dreaming. Only his subconscious could have chosen a garment so perfectly coordinated.

When the boy stops next to Marley it's as flashy as his approach: His blades bite the ice and send sprays of crystals through the air. He's handsome - well-built, by the look of things, and a little baby-faced. "Jake," he offers, extending a hand.

"Puck's little brother?" Kurt confirms, taking it warily.

Jake nods, and Marley shrugs sheepishly. "It makes more sense if you call him Jacob," she says.

You're too aware to be dreaming, a voice whines in the back of his head, as Kurt feels Jake's grip, notices strands of hair out of place on Marley's forehead. He shushes it. "Sorry - what does?"

Marley looks up, then around the rink, gesturing with a mittened hand. "All this."

Kurt feels the urge to step back again, but doesn't. "I... don't understand."

"You should start with the ghosts," Jake reminds, and Marley smiles self-consciously.

"Right. So..." she says, as though still unsure what to say. "We're ghosts. Spirits, more like."

"But they call us ghosts," Jake confirms.

"Right. Sorry," Marley apologizes. In other contexts, Kurt can imagine finding her shy fluster adorable. At the moment it makes his skin itch. Ghosts. He's fallen on the ice, that's it, hit his head; injury-induced dreams must be different from normal ones.

Marley continues. "We're the first, but not the last. Three others will visit you tonight - they call it 'haunting' but it's really not that bad - usually," she hedges encouragingly. "Hopefully they'll help you fix what's wrong in your life."

Kurt can hear the throb of his heartbeat in his ears. "Wait," he manages. They do.

"Wait," he says again, for no reason.

Eventually, once the vague memories of a community theater Dickens festival have solidified, he manages: "Three ghosts." Marley nods. "And... it's Christmas Eve." Jake looks impatient; his face says hurry up already. "And you're... Jacob... Marley..."

"It's excruciating, isn't it?" Marley says with a smile.

"The guys in charge couldn't resist sending us as the first," Jake complains.

The pulse in Kurt's head has become the wide thrum of timpany. That's a good sign, he decides; that makes sense, since he's hit his head. It's only natural. But he'll humor his delusions, because he's a nice guy. He isn't curious; he isn't doubting himself.

He isn't.

He crosses his arms. "...this doesn't make sense."

"We get that a lot," Marley sympathizes. "'An undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard...'"

"No - I mean even if you weren't figures of my imagination, which of course you are - it doesn't make sense. I'm not greedy - I may indulge in a few shopping sprees now and then, but only when there's a sale - and, and, I don't hate Christmas."

"Yeah, well, we're not dead, either," Jake points out. "We've shaken things up since the 1840s."

Marley skates in a narrow circle, examining the wax figures' faces, searching their eyes for who knows what. "It's gotten a lot harder to shame CEOs into repentance," she laments, running a hand along a young girl's curls.

"Welcome to corporate America," Jake mutters.

"But we still like to do good where we can. Small things are just as important as big ones, sometimes," Marley says, her smile a study in serenity.

The thrum is a thunder, now. He gives his subconscious this much: It has gotten creative. "And what, exactly, is the sin I'm supposed to repent for?"

Jake does a lazy spin, murmuring something that sounds suspiciously like a list of Kurt's favorites outfits under his breath. Marley rolls her eyes. "Traditionalists might argue that your problem stems from pride," she says, holding a man's shoulders so that she can lift herself to eye level. "But I don't like to think of everything in terms of sin. Think of it as... a choice. A choice you made once in the past - many times, really; every choice is a tapestry of smaller choices all woven together." She lets herself down and brushes past Kurt, catching herself on Blaine's arm. "A choice you're about to make again." Kurt watches her eyes align with Blaine's, eerily lifeless, children's marbles.

"Call it love," she says.

There is a noise like the shine of light on a golden bell, inaudible, torturous, perfect.

When Kurt opens his eyes he's alone.

STAVE TWO

Before the world was still. Now it is empty.

The rink is an empty bowl, a chasm. The wax figures have sublimated into nothing; the ghosts too have vanished, born away on unfelt winds.

Kurt is alone with his dream.

He skates on shaky legs once around the ice, listening for anything at all. But the silence is absolute. Lights shine from buildings all around him, but no cars occupy the streets; even the planes overhead have disappeared. Left to its own devices, his mind wanders quickly toward disaster: plagues, wars, other mass extinctions. It's a dream, he reminds himself. "A dream," he says aloud. It is the nature of dreams to tend toward nightmares. Entropy, or something. Someone's probably written a poem about it.

His scrambling attempts to hold fast to reason miss their handholds, though, and he slides down a slippery slope. Emptiness - it might be some subconscious metaphor. If he has hit his head, maybe he's lost brain function; no activity, no activity. Panic stirs in the core of his chest.

He thinks to stave off worry. "Call it love," Marley said. A choice he'd made worth correcting. A lot of nonsense. When was the last time he'd seen that damn play? He'd never bothered with the novel; Dickens might have lived in a golden age of retro fashion fodder, but Kurt's reading preferences tend more toward Cosmopolitan than A Tale of Two Cities.

He's considering whether it's worth it to check if there's anyone around to stop him from shoplifting from No. 8b when the blare of unseen trumpets slams against his eardrums. The rink shivers in the commotion, and in an instant he's falling backwards again.

"Jesus," Kurt swears, wincing.

"You should be so lucky." There's no choreographed entrance, this time, only a man standing with a slouch and hands in his pockets where before there was empty air. He wears aviator boots, a double-breasted greatcoat, and a sour look, all three emblazoned with detailed fire decals. A cigarette hangs from his mouth, tip volcanic. "No, Jesus is too good for the likes of us. Never mind that they make me work on his birthday every year. Never mind that I visit his actual birth from time to time." The man's tone is as sour as his expression.

Kurt had been near to hoping his brain had moved on to some new hallucination. "You're supposed to be the Ghost of Christmas Past?" he presumes.

The man sneers. "Oh, look at you, top of the class." He swaggers easily toward Kurt; where his feet touch the ice, steam rises. "I'm not supposed to be anything. I am the Ghost of Christmas Past." As he moves, the flames imprinted on his clothes and face seem to move, too; occasionally the outlines catch the light and throb white, and Kurt can't look directly at them.

Gripping the railing behind him, Kurt pulls himself to his feet. The smell of alcohol burns his nostrils as the ghost nears. His impulse is to snark; he's not about to lose a verbal sparring match with a figment of his imagination. Instead he finds himself asking, "...where did everyone go?"

The ghost grunts. "I'm not a people-person."

"I'm getting that." Kurt has read that the faces people wear in dreams are stolen from strangers the dreamer has seen while awake, but he's certain he's never seen a face like this. The ghost's features are roughly handsome beneath the webs of ink, but when he scowls the lines might as well be tire tracks; his nose seems to collapse, his eyes contort like roadkill. A tendril of fright slithers through him. All a dream. "You've got a pretty modern wardrobe for a creature of the past," he observes, feigning boldness.

The ghost makes a noise like a frog dying. "I dress for the occasion, smartass. I'm supposed to babysit you in 2010. All of history at my disposal, and they ask me to waste Christmas Eve wandering in the Year of the Jeggings." He raises a crooked middle finger and aims it at the sky, then scratches the stubble at his cheek, exhaling smoke through his nose. His marks flicker and shine. "Come on. Let's get this over with," he mutters.

Kurt opens his mouth to protest, but before he can speak the cold air in his lungs gets a shock of warmth, as though he is a balloon of hydrogen caught fire, and his stomach sinks, a fierce inertia battling motion he doesn't recognize.

And then the rink is a tight room, ill-lit, damp, a menagerie of sour smells. Just as empty.

It's nowhere Kurt recognizes. The ghost settles himself on a ratty chair, its cushion torn and leaking yellow foam. It doesn't sag under his weight. He taps ashes from his cigarette onto the floor and pulls a flask from an inside coat pocket.

Kurt has half a mind to demand to be taken back to the rink, or to attempt to storm out the door. But curiosity's incessant bark distracts him from his umbrage, and he finds himself sitting, too, on the room's only bed, avoiding the comforter's palette of visible stains. Decades-old wallpaper peels before his eyes, a corner sighing open to reveal mold-scarred white beneath. Through a single curtainless window, smears obscuring the view, he watches snowflakes sink against a dusk sky. An engine revs outside.

When nothing else happens, he looks at the ghost. The ghost looks back. "What?" the gruff voice asks, almost defensively. "You want some?" He tips the flask in Kurt's direction.

Kurt shudders; the fire lines flash again, a pharos light, a lodestar. He reminds himself that a well-dressed man is nothing to fear. "No," he says, trying to be gracious about it. "Thanks. ...what are we doing here, exactly?"

The ghost holds the flask forward a second longer, then shrugs, pinching his cigarette between his lips and taking a long swill. "Achh," he says contentedly. "Sorry, kid. I fulfilled my exposition quota years ago. I don't do that shit anymore. Just sit back and enjoy."

The doorknob rattles. Kurt holds his breath.

When it opens, voices outrace bodies. A male voice, speaking slowly, balanced on a razor blade: " - place tomorrow, but it's a holiday, sweetheart. Everything's full, or else too expensive." A higher voice, younger, full of the innocent entitlement of children: "I don't care if it's too expensive! How is Santa going to find us here?"

But the face that first appears owns neither. Even silhouetted against the day's last rays of sunlight, a large box blocking most of his torso, Kurt recognizes the figure.

"Sam?" He stands slowly, unsure what to make of this development. 2010 - two years ago. This place must be a precursor to the motel room the Evans family ultimately took for a home. Will take. Have taken. He hadn't realized... when Sam had confessed his family's situation over a warm pizza box at Dalton, Kurt had assumed it was a new development, a month old at most. When had that been? April? Sam's face comes back to him like a phantom: framed by hair in desperate need of a trim (it only got worse, he remembers), forehead creased with shame, eyes defended by a pane of unshed tears. He steps toward Sam, toward the door.

"He can't hear you," the ghost interrupts - Kurt had almost forgotten he was there.

"I know that," he huffs, feeling his cheeks redden. "It was - rhetorical," he lies.

"Whatever." The ghost blows smoke at the ceiling.

A whirl of unloading follows, of haphazard unpacking, of whining and warnings and foul looks at the accommodations. "I don't understand," Kurt says, dodging Mrs. Evans as she pulls wrinkled finery from a suitcase and lays it out on the bed, a determined look in her eye. "What does this have to do with me?"

The ghost snorts. "First you think this is all just a hallucination. Like you're the center of the fucking universe."

"I never said that." Kurt crosses his arms.

"You were thinking it. Everyone thinks it. That's my whole damn job. The first ghost, the one who has to explain everything, convince everyone." He spits, adding another wet spot to the carpet. "What does this have to do with you? You tell me." He stands, casually, just in time to avoid getting crushed by a box labeled Toys.

"But I didn't cause this," Kurt protests. "I couldn't have stopped this." The ghost shrugs without looking at him, leaning against the wall. Kurt notices his cigarette hasn't gotten any shorter.

They take turns changing in the bathroom. Stacey looks uncomfortable in a lovely white dress, her hair done up with ribbons; Stevie wears a striped tie and overlong trousers. Mr. and Mrs. Evans look spirited in their Sunday best. Seeing them out on the street, no one would ever know that they'd emerged from this hovel. Kurt sits on the bed again, pulling at a thread on one of the pillowcases to no avail.

"Sam?" Mr. Evans bids. Sam has been quiet all evening; it's... strange. Normally he catches Kurt's eye even when he isn't spouting impressions; there's something about him that demands attention, and it's only partly his looks. Yet here, in this tiny room, Kurt manages to lose track of him more than once. It's like... well. It's like he's a ghost.

"Sam," Mr. Evans repeats. "It's time to get dressed."

Sam hesitates by the bathroom, his hand toying with the sleeve of his suit as it sways on a hanger hooked over the door. "I don't think I'm going to go tonight," he says, his eyes avoiding everything.

"Of course you are," Mr. Evans disagrees. "Come on, Sam, we're going to be late if - "

"Dwight," Mrs. Evans interrupts. She gives a forced smile and puts an arm around her husband's shoulders. "Why don't you take Stacey and Stevie to the truck."

"But - "

"I'll be out in a second," she assures.

Mr. Evans frowns, but nods after a short pause. "Alright. Come on, kids," he says, herding the younger ones through the door. His eyes linger on his eldest son as he pulls the door mostly closed.

Mrs. Evan's smile is still forced, but it takes on a sad quality, and Kurt feels his heart break. "Sam," she says, moving toward him, lifting a hand to his cheek, a shallow wave comforting the shore. "Why don't you sit down and talk to me."

Sam nods - just a little - and moves around her, settling himself on the bed next to Kurt. Their arms touch, and Kurt forgets to breathe. He should move, he knows - he thinks - but he doesn't. It makes no sense. Why should it? None of this does.

"I know it's been hard," Mrs. Evans says, that same sad smile marking her face like a wound. "I know it's been very hard for you lately."

"For everyone," Sam corrects in a mumble. "I know it's not just me."

Mrs. Evans swallows. "Yes. For everyone." She takes his hand in hers. Kurt watches the veins in Sam's arms, the life lines on his palm. "But it's not God's fault. You can't punish God for this. We need Him now more than ever."

Sam lets out a breath, and lifts his head to look her in the eye. "It isn't that. I promise, Mom. There's homework and... these places get robbed all the time, someone should be here." One look tells Kurt that his mother doesn't buy it, and apparently Sam agrees. He sighs - a weary sigh, a sigh for the ages. Kurt loses himself in it for a moment, syncing with some binaural beat. "I just - I just feel like I need a little time alone."

Mrs. Evans gives him a long look, considering, soul-searching. It resembles, Kurt realizes, the way Marley looked at Blaine, back on the ice. Then it's a single nod, and she's on her feet, at the door. "I love you," she says.

"I love you too, Mom."

The door closes, and Sam is the center of attention again.

He's still for a moment after his mom leaves, his fingers spread on his knees, white with tension. Kurt wants to touch him - to pat his shoulder, or hug him, or something - but he doesn't dare. He feels simultaneously intrusive and powerless, a voice singing off-key too softly for anyone to hear.

When the moment's up, Sam pulls his phone from his pocket, presses a number on speed dial - Quinn, Kurt sees, leaning in carefully. The phone rings and rings. He hangs up and tosses it dismissively onto the nightstand, and spins, pulling his feet up and lying back, his head falling into Kurt's lap.

Kurt feels his pulse quicken, his throat clench. It's a bizarre sensation - he feels the weight of Sam's skull, the brush of his hair against his thigh, and then, suddenly, nothing, as Sam falls through him, onto the bed below. Kurt lurches to his feet and stumbles across the room as the ghost snickers to himself, downing another finger from his flask.

Sam's hand finds his pocket again, and pulls out a cracked iPod Touch, scrolls through songs with his thumb. Kurt is cautiously creeping back across the room to see what he's looking for when his own voice erupts from the tinny internal speakers.

Sam's eyes close. Kurt's open wide.

At first he's only shocked; then it occurs to him to be creeped out - where had Sam gotten recordings of him? But as the tune continues he remembers: the samples he'd sent, to convince Sam to be his duet partner. A strange little smile blooms on Sam's face.

Something anonymous makes Kurt chest cramp, and he sits himself down on the floor before he can't. This is a dream. I hit my head, and this is a dream.

He's not sure he believes himself anymore.

"What do I do?" he asks, after a while, when his mental fog is good and thick.

The ghost pushes himself off the wall with his shoulders, tucking his flask away. "'What do you do'?" he says, like it's the stupidest thing he's ever heard.

Anger turns the fog to storm clouds, dyed red by an aching sun. "How do I help?" he tries again, balling his fists, knuckles grazing the thin weave of the carpet.

The ghost smiles, for the first time - a vicious smile. His flames quake, glow like hellfire. "You can't," he says, the air smoldering around him. "This is the past, Einstein. It's writ, it's cooked, it's done. You could've reached out to him anytime, and you didn't. Not that it stopped you from mooning from afar, like a goddamn stalker."

"Mooning? I was interested in Blaine by now," Kurt roars, rage yanking him to his feet.

"Really," the ghost replies with oily calm, gesturing at Sam. "So you're telling me that if I were to hop over to your house right now I wouldn't find you getting your rocks off to this kid's facebook page?"

Kurt feels his face flush deep red. He manages to open his mouth, but nothing comes out.

"Who even cares?" the ghost continues, throwing up his arms as he circles around to Sam's side of the bed. "Oh no, a stack of Christmas mail from distant relatives won't ever get here because the bank doesn't have a forwarding address. Boo-hoo, no iTunes giftcards for the little brats."

"Shut up!" Kurt shouts, and before he knows what he's doing he's moved forward to shove the ghost back from the bed. His hands get within centimeters before they recoil from a sharp heat. "How can you be so - awful?! You have no idea what he's going through!"

The ghost almost laughs. Almost. He coughs instead, and the flames dance on his face. They're bright enough to overpower the light in the room, now; fluttering shadows play over Sam's face, serene, unmoving. When the ghost speaks, his voice is smoother than before, like it's a different voice altogether. "I have no idea, do I. No idea." Bitterness presses the life from his words. "You know everyone always makes a biiiig fuss about Yet to Come, like he's some all-seeing badass." He pulls his cigarette from his lips and flicks his wrists to let the world know what he thinks of that. The ashes rain down over Sam's face. "But some people," he says, leaning down, looking at the back of Sam's eyelids, "some very smart people, believe that humanity's time on this earth is well past halfway over." He blows smoke over Sam's mouth and stands again. "So which is bigger, huh? The Past or the Future?" He turns his head toward Kurt, but Kurt can't see him; the light - "'I have no idea.' Fuck you. I've been smoking this cigarette for 2,000 years, retroactively, before the damn things were invented, sometimes two, three at once on opposite sides of the world. Jesus's cradle is swimming in tar from this cigarette. I've seen every Christmas there is, Christmas in war zones, Christmas funerals, Christmas plague, Christmas smallpox, Christmas starvation, Christmas suicides." The whole room sweats in intense heat. Sweat pours from the ghost's eyes.

"Men weren't made to live in the past," he says, the world fading to fire and light.

They're back on the ice. Kurt feels exhausted, confused. He sees Sam on the back of his eyelids, hears his own voice in his ears.

The ghost is just a man again, puffing away next to him, face expressionless. He holds out his hand. At first Kurt thinks he wants him to shake it, and the thought terrifies him. He doesn't want to touch him. He wants him to go away.

Then he realizes the ghost's palm is up, as though asking for something.

Kurt gives him an uncomprehending look.

The ghost jiggles his hand expectantly, and when Kurt's expression doesn't change he rolls his eyes. "It's customary to tip your ghost."

Kurt's mouth opens slightly. "I... I don't have any cash on me..."

The ghost looks at him in disgust. "You have got to be fucking kidding me."

And then he's gone.

STAVE THREE

The wax figures are back again, embalmed in darkness and buried under stadium lights. Children and parents and siblings, lovers and friends: all cast shadows - brittle things, thin and half-hearted, ghosts of Christmases past. Near the center of the rink, Blaine offers the same hand, the same half-smile, the same possibility.

This time, Kurt is there to receive it.

Another Kurt, that is. Frozen like the rest, his doppelganger's mouth hangs open, for breathing or in song - an awkward, unflattering capture, the kind he deletes from his camera on sight. A lock of hair, no doubt disturbed during one of his slips, juts out to one side, and without thinking Kurt runs a hand along his own scalp, smoothing down the matching imperfection he feels. His face - the doppelganger's face - is blotched red with cold; the markings are shapeless, but his mouth dries at the memory of fire drawn on skin.

He'll be ready for the Ghost of Christmas Present, he decides. His rational mind offers a weak dissent, but he feels sure: He's due for another visit. Happy to avert his eyes from this newest effigy, he skates a cautious perimeter around himself and Blaine, bracing for noises, combing the stillness for motion.

Inevitably his mind wanders, and his thoughts draw faded scenes in watercolor, stylized and imperfect, of other holidays past: Halloweens spent trodding slowly across muddy lawns, desperate to keep his costumes unsullied; Easters filled with paisley eggs and stomach aches; Thanksgivings over pre-cooked turkey in the company of his dad and empty chairs.

Not so lately; last year Carole had roasted the bird herself, with Kurt playing sous-chef, and the table had been near to overflowing: his father, Carole, Finn, Rachel, Blaine...

And Sam. Kurt remembers him as quiet, then, too, but happy - glowing, almost, in the candlelight. His professions of thanks had had an almost off-putting sincerity to them, and not only the ones uttered at Carole's prompting as they took turns around the table. Only a few days had passed since Blaine had introduced himself via slander (that memory still makes Kurt bristle, however contrite Blaine professed to being after the fact), but at the table Sam treated him like a new friend - not a close one, to be sure, but a friend nonetheless; forgiveness always seemed a given with Sam, and he offered it unprompted. Kurt finds himself smiling, an echo of an old smile, at Sam's reception of a stumbling apology of Kurt's own, presented after a misguided attempt to clean the makeshift guest room where Sam had slept before Kurt had moved out. Cleaning had turned quickly to organizing, and, alright, perhaps it's a little unsettling to have someone rifle through the thing's you've left out in your room, but Kurt had shown restraint, really. Some. A little. He'd only sorted the clothes in the dresser, not the garments still in Sam's suitcase, and he hadn't looked at anything when he'd gone through the desk, certainly not the journals or whatever they were, and as for the computer-

He feels something press between his shoulder blades and jumps out of his skin. Or he tries; his skin has other plans, and instead he ends up on his ass again. His tailbone whimpers righteously.

A strangely familiar laugh issues from somewhere behind him, and his head spins to find its source, but there's no one there. He stands, peeks over Blaine's shoulder, around his lookalike's back, even thinks to look up; nothing. He frowns and narrows his eyes. "Hello?"

There's no response, until he's turned away again. Then a voice to match the laugh speaks, and a shiver runs through him that has nothing to do with the cold. "Come on. You're more observant than that."

It's his own voice.

Kurt wheels around with all the grace of a drunken dervish and examines himself again. Though the figure remains impossibly still, its mouth, he realizes, is closed now in a gloating grin.

"It's incredible, the things you miss when you aren't looking," the statue says suddenly.

It makes no sense to be afraid of himself, he tries to reason, but after his experience with Past he elects to be wary. "What is... why are you - me?"

It's like seeing himself on film: The movements, though undisputedly his own, look unfamiliar, from the way his skin folds when the figure winks to fall of his arm as it unfreezes. "You look disastrously pale," he watches himself comment. "I know it's impossible, given our respective natures, but I'd give anything for the chance to give my predecessor a piece of my mind one of these days. He leaves everyone a mess." Not-Kurt smiles. "Well, we do live for makeovers, don't we?" His eyes lift as though straining to see his forehead, and he daintily adjusts the strands out of place. "If you haven't already guessed, I'm to be your usher slash emcee for the next act of tonight's production. The Ghost of Christmas Present the 2012th. That's MMXII, if you ever plan on committing it to stationary."

Not that Kurt's had an easy time communing with the spirits who've come before, but he finds himself at a complete loss as to how to interact with himself. He laughs nervously. "I see. Do you always take the form of the people you visit?"

The ghost shakes his head. "No. No, you dictate my shape, oh chosen one. I appear as your opposite, in some fundamental way. Full of laughter for the bah-humbug types, cautious for the acutely manic, that sort of thing."

"But..." Kurt turns his head slightly, keeping his eyes fixed on the ghost. For some reason the obvious question feels dangerous, heavy.

"Why am I you, then?" The ghost shrugs sympathetically. "It's happened once or twice. You'll have to forgive me; I'm not apathetic like my forerunner, but there are times when the implications of these things are best left to be discovered. Teach a man to change a tire, as our dad says." Kurt watches identical worry blossom on his doppelganger's face. "Besides which, I seem to be delightfully mischievous." The ghost's worry disperses, replaced by a wicked grin Kurt knows but hasn't felt take shape in longer than he cares to remember. Since before he grew up.

"Grew up, huh," the ghost says skeptically, tugging at his bangs in a disturbingly familiar motion.

Kurt sinks into his shoulders, a man retreating behind castle walls, and dons a look of distrust. "I didn't - "

"Say anything? I know." The ghost smirks. "I also seem to be delightfully perceptive. Granted I cheated. It's easy enough to access your thoughts, being you. And you're dying for a hint, aren't you, even though deep down you're already starting to understand, if you'd only let yourself. Well, it may not be a hint, exactly," he apologizes, "but it's something you should know: If I appeared to your friend Sam, I'd take on his form, too.

"And speak of the devil."

They're in Kurt's room, back in Lima, but as soon as he sees the posters on the walls he remembers that it's not his room anymore; Sam has moved in. He remembers Sam's awkward request, put forward the night before Kurt left for New York - Finn's old bed left much to be desired, apparently.

"It's incredible, the things you miss when you aren't looking," the ghost repeats, though Kurt isn't sure why. He sees the ghost roll his eyes.

Kurt wanders between the familiar walls, taking in pictures, clocks, calendars, the like. He's musing at how much less dramatic Present's relocation trick was than Past's - "Moving through space is markedly easier than moving through time," the ghost provides - when the door opens. Dressed in a forest-green sweater slashed with two red stripes, Sam looks twice the dork he normally does, and Kurt hides a smile behind his hand before he remembers that Sam can't see him. Rat Pack-era Christmas tunes follow Sam into the room, the tail end of a Frank and the first measures of a Sammy.

Time has been good to Sam Evans. Of course Kurt saw him briefly in and after Grease, but at the time his senses had been paralyzed by thoughts of Blaine, lodestone and brimstone both. Sam's boyish looks remain, but they've wizened, crystallized, something; there's a maturity there that wasn't before.

"Or that you just didn't notice," the ghost suggests. Kurt glares at him, and can't help but notice that he's biting his lip, brushing his fingers along the backs of his hands. "What?" the doppelganger says defensively. "I never claimed we had bad taste."

Sam crosses to what was once Kurt's bed and brings his hands to his waist, hiking the sweater over his head and tossing it across the room; Kurt lifts his hand to catch it on instinct, but it passes through him (the briefest touch of warm wool and then nothing), landing on the vanity instead. It doesn't take long before Kurt realizes Sam isn't stopping there, and moves aside only to avoid being hit with more clothes and certainly not for a better view. The undershirt comes next, and Sam's jeans are unzipped and his thumbs are in the waistband of his boxers when Kurt is turned about by a violent tug on his wrist.

"OoooK," the ghost exclaims, hauling Kurt from the room, toward the hall stairs. "I didn't bring you here to indulge your voyeuristic streak," he chides, though Kurt doesn't miss his furtive glances over his shoulder.

Kurt thinks about trying to act indignant, but scraps the idea; goddamn mind-reading ghosts. "Why did you bring me here?" he asks, yanking his hand away.

His twin descends to the kitchen, and holds out his hands. "This."

Kurt blinks, and then frowns. There's nothing unusual about the room, as far as he can see, nothing out of place or missing. Dim moonlight glances at them from hanging pots and pans. An unremarkable tree - fake, Kurt expects, given the absence of any pine aromas, and therefore not selected by his father - squats nearby in the living room. "I don't see anything."

The ghost lifts his chin. "Exactly." He crosses to the fridge and pulls it open; when Kurt's eyes bug, he explains as an aside, "The past is gone. There's no messing with it. The present is a bit more malleable, with a little effort. Mm?" he offers, lifting a quart of eggnog.

Kurt shakes his head. Overhead, he hears the shower starting. "What, so... you're saying I should have come home for the holidays?"

"I'm not saying anything." The ghost pours himself a glass. "We get defensive quickly, don't we? No, I'm showing you that your friend is in an empty house, all alone, on Christmas Eve. Solitude, if we want to put a dramatic name to it, and naturally we do."

Kurt crosses his arms. "Finn told me Sam was dating Brittany." He is not getting defensive. He's being rational.

"So did we. A rewarding experience, as I'm sure you remember."

"It's different," Kurt insists, sitting down at the kitchen table. "Obviously I wasn't actually interested in her."

The ghost smirks. Kurt has gotten annoyed with himself before, but this is ridiculous. "And he is, huh? Did you happen to see his calendar, up there?"

Kurt's brow creases as he struggles to recreate the image in his head. Surprisingly it hadn't shown a spandex-clad hero or movie personality, though plenty of surfaces did; instead a landscape, brown and green and saturated with emissaries from the natural world, lorded over the days and dates below. Something else - the last week of the month was neatly colored in, each square an ominous red, bricks barring entry to the new year.

"December 21, the end of the world. Or so he expected," the ghost says, sipping.

"...seriously?" Kurt has never been sure exactly how deeply Sam occupies the fantasies he surrounds himself with; it's always been a source of mild discomfort. On the one hand, Kurt understands the lure of succumbing to other worlds, of implanting himself in stories brimming with life. It's unusual enough, at least in its intensity, that he's felt, on several occasions, a surprisingly intense desire to share his obsessions, swap worlds with another corrupted soul. Blaine skims his interests like a skier, covering oceans, a paragon of breadth; Sam, Kurt senses, is a deep-sea diver, like himself.

On the other hand, there's immersion and there's delusion. "Exactly," the ghost says with a little smile, and Kurt ducks his head again, holding his thoughts close. "As Sam has inevitably discovered, dating Brittany. Yes and no, to answer your question," the ghost supplies, "but it doesn't really matter whether he did or not. The important thing is that he wanted to believe it."

Kurt frowns, watching his double dab at his mouth with a napkin. "Why?"

"Why, to have something to believe in, of course. To be robbed of responsibility for the future. The same reasons he's dating Brittany." He downs the last of the eggnog daintily and rinses the glass in the sink. "Consider his history. Quinn, Santana, Mercedes. He was left each time. Why attempt to find something more meaningful when losing is the only constant? Of course he's a romantic, like you - not the sort to offer a first 'I love you' out of nowhere over a cup of coffee. No offense," he says. "We're awfully frank, aren't we? I like it. But a romantic, yes. Even when he tries a fling, he ends up on his knees, proposing. Of course then it's a matter of trying to imbue something meaningless with meaning. What better than the end of the world?" The doppelganger sits down beside him. "He's almost as convoluted as we are."

The darkness plays tricks with Kurt's eyes; the ghost looks older than before, shadows etching wrinkles into his face. "I'm not convoluted," he mutters, though his thoughts linger on Sam, and it's as though he's squinting through a fogged window, wiping down the glass to see what waits beyond.

The ghost lifts his nose. "You're your own opposite, for goodness sake. But if you say so."

Kurt scrubs ineffectually at a smear on the table in front of him. Moonlight catches the ghost's hair and paints it gray. "What now, then? What happens next?"

"Oh, nothing. It's a shame; I know we're fans of theatricality - or you were, once. Maybe I've been using the wrong tense this whole time." His doppelganger smiles with a strange sadness. Kurt isn't imagining it - the figure beside him is shriveling like a dead leaf. His voice dries, summer tones drying into winter. "Alas, the present is fleeting. How quickly it becomes the past, unchangeable again. What now, you ask. Now you meet him."

The syllable does something to the air; it ripples, as though suddenly unsure of itself. In the mouth of his rapidly aging twin it sounds old, the millennial sigh of decaying rock. "The Ghost of Christmas Future?" Kurt whispers.

"Oh, for the love of God, don't call him that." The ghost's bones leer behind papery skin, press a smile into thin canvas. "Yet to Come. He's not the easiest to rile, but using the wrong title is a good way to start.

"Tell him hello for me," the ghost says. Kurt watches his body lean forward. The shower stops, footsteps sound. And though no clock (save the microwave display) occupies the room, grandfather bells peal in long, hollow tones, twelve seraphs sounding the coming of a future unknown.

STAVE FOUR

Kurt has felt the world combust, the sparks of history calcine. He has watched his own body wither into more kindling for the flames. But when Yet to Come arrives, the cold comes, too.

He is less than a shadow. When Kurt turns his head to see, his vision distorts, or the ghost unmakes himself; he is a galaxy hidden by invisible gravities, a knot of dark matter, the memory of a star yet to be born. Kurt can feel him, though - a presence, haunting a slow orbit through the wax figures. He brings a wind with him, thicker than air, dense like tar, that sticks in Kurt's throat and labors his breathing. His scarf doesn't flutter, but he feels its pressure against his skin, grim fingers that massage the warmth from his pores.

His procession is patient, formal, dirge-like, but Kurt doesn't dare to move. A paralyzing calm takes him, and he remembers thick black robes on an old stage, the weight of no words in a crowded theater.

When he is beside him, Kurt knows, somehow.

"I'm ready," he says. What else is there to say?

The wind rises, and the Earth is uncoiled. Sun and stars unite in the sky as people collage before his eyes, men and women merging, multiplying. Manhattan blurs to a soft fuzz.

A street corner, December 24, 2016. A coincidence.

Kurt bumps into him, literally, during an afternoon filled with last minute shopping and the accompanying rampage of desperate pedestrians. He's no stranger, in one sense - Blaine keeps in regular contact with his best friend, after all - but in another he's deeply unfamiliar, in the way that only familiar things can be.

"Sam?"

"Kurt!"

They exchange shy pleasantries, and spend far too long professing the desire not to bother one another on Christmas Eve. Eventually, though, they shove their way into a nearby coffee shop, one Kurt's never been to. At a small windowside table, their feet collide by mistake over, and over, and over.

"Success has been good to you," Kurt says with a smile.

"Show me the money," Sam says lamely, in his best Cuba Gooding, Jr. "I guess it has. I don't know what I'm doing, really." He shrugs.

Kurt raises an eyebrow skeptically. "You could have fooled me. But then you always had, I guess. I remember I was shocked when I first heard you had sold your work to, uh - whatever, that private collection. - No offense," Kurt adds sheepishly, "I just mean that I didn't even know you'd been painting."

Sam turns a porcelain mug between his hands. "Really? ...I tried to show you, once. Or I wanted to. I had this weird idea..." Sam shakes his head dismissively. "Anyway, yeah. I don't know what I'm doing. That never seemed to matter before, but. Well." He leans forward slightly. "Do you ever - I don't know, maybe it's different in theater - but there's this feeling like... something's left you? Suddenly you're out of colors? Not literally, but it's like I'm renting movies in my head and there's only things I've already seen, or... I don't make any sense, I know. Lately I just feel like I've - you ever feel like you've - "

"Lost your muse?" they say together. An ache passes between them, and they sip their drinks in a long quiet.

A shiver helps Kurt break it, the sudden sense of a deep cold, as though a draft has snuck out from some hole in his heart. "Is it me or is it cold in here?"

Beside him, the ghost stands motionless, in something more profound than silence. Kurt watches the tableau through a sheet of dirty ice, cold biting at his toes, the tips of his fingers. He admires the artwork on the walls, scenes stenciled red on pale blue, the dark peacoat that clings to Sam's shoulders.

He sees a wedding band on his future self's left hand, like a single link from a silver chain.

"Do you ever..." Sam says, and shakes his head again, scolding himself. "Mm. I hate this low winter sunlight. It feels uncertain, or something. I always feel like it's trying to knock me over, or... like it's the first sign that the sky's starting to fall. The sun's slipped down..." He smiles bashfully. "I don't make any sense."

"No," Kurt agrees, tapping his foot against Sam's. "Ever the mystery."

"Mystery?"

Kurt leans back in his seat and averts his eyes. "Kind of. I don't know. Sometimes I feel like I never got to know you as well as I could have." He looks at Sam. "Is that weird?"

Sam shakes his head, just barely. Forests grow and die behind his eyes, the green of his irises bearing witness. "Can I tell you something stupid?"

"Absolutely," Kurt encourages. "But only if it's about me." He winks. "I'm very self-involved."

Sam's cheek pinches his lips into a smile, the way it does. "I was always bummed you stopped doing fashion. Not that I don't think you're a great performer but... I don't know. It's probably just the artist in me, but that was an act of creation, you know?" He shakes his head. "I'm saying this wrong. You just... really seemed to love it. I guess I was surprised when Blaine told me you gave it up."

"I didn't give it up," Kurt says defensively, slouching slightly in his seat.

"No, I know, I just meant - "

"Yeah," Kurt interrupts. "I know." He shifts. "I don't know, with Blaine at NYADA... we had such big problems my first year in New York - well you remember, obviously. What happened once we started doing different things... I guess I was sort of afraid it would happen again, if I didn't... commit myself... don't look at me like that," Kurt says, with a touch of anger. "Relationships are about compromise. Anyway do you honestly think we'd be married now if I'd stayed with Vogue?"

Sam shrugs. "No," he concedes.

Behind the panes of ice, Kurt feels the ghost stir. The black wind rises, and Sam's hair flutters.

A sudden gust sweeps through the coffee shop door as a customer holds it open for an aging couple, and Sam's hair flutters; on impulse Kurt leans forward to fix it. He's brushing blonde strands from his forehead when he realizes what he's doing, and yanks his hand back, cheeks going pink.

Sam gives him a strange look, rubbing at his forehead with his wrist. "Better?"

Kurt clears his throat. "Yeah," he says. Sam taps a rhythm out on the tabletop, and Kurt counts the seconds. "I guess I should get back to shopping," he says, when the lull in the conversation doesn't lift.

"That wasn't the stupid thing I was going to tell you," Sam says, staring at his hands.

Kurt pulls his coat tight around him. "Oh?"

"Oh," Sam agrees. "Yeah I don't know, I was just remembering... do you ever get these really strong memories, like for a second it's deja vu even though, you know, the thing isn't happening again?" He shrugs shyly. "I'm having one of those. It's kind of funny because it never even happened the first time."

"Cryptic much?" Kurt says, with a smirk.

"I'm full of riddles," Sam says, smirking back. "Anyway. I don't know how much you picked up on - sometimes I thought - well. You might have suspected, but I had this huge thing for you back in high school," he says, eyes unsure where to settle.

Kurt feels the chanting of his heart in his chest. "I - I had no idea," he says, trying to sound amused, surprised.

"Really?" Sam says, daring to meet his eyes.

"I swear." Kurt's feet sway, touch only table legs. "How... I mean - I'm sorry, I'm just - when did you... you're saying you're - when did you come out?" Kurt finally manages. His skin itches.

Sam looks away again. "I mean... I was never really in it. The closet I mean. I didn't like broadcast my sexuality, but I don't know. I once told Quinn I wasn't gay, but that's true, I'm bi... No one really asked."

Kurt's mind is a well of colors.

Kurt feels the chanting of his heart in his chest. His skin mind is a well of colors. His hands press against the ice, grow numb from the cold.

"But yeah, I guess I was remembering because uh. That Christmas when you and Blaine were broken up, I had this weird idea that I was going to make a move or something. This is unforgivably awkward, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..."

"No," Kurt insists. The word comes out as a squeak; his lungs hoard air, whine when he tries to breathe out. "No, it's... go on."

Sam steals another glance, and shrugs again. "I had this thought that I was going to meet you at the airport, and show you this painting I did of... I was working from a photo obviously, but it came out good. It was Broadway, and I had one of the theaters showing your name in lights, you know, like you were starring... I can't even remember what show it was. I sort of wish I'd kept it, it would have been kind of funny to show you..." He brushes the past away with a little wave. "Of course you didn't come back that Christmas, and then by the time you did..." He shrugs. "That would have been hilarious, though, right? I kept imagining the look on your face, when I gave it to you. Starting as that sort of cute confused expression where your eyes get all wide, deer in the headlights. Wow, I don't sound creepy at all, do I." It's like he's tripped, and there's nothing to do but let himself tumble down the stairs. "Obviously it was for the best. You and Blaine... not that I'm saying you would have - you know, reacted or anything, but even if you hadn't Blaine would've been pissed at me. I don't know. Stop talking, Sam." Maybe he doesn't hear himself, because he doesn't. "I just frankly at the time, it didn't seem like... It seemed like you guys were this casualty of momentum, this mistake that kept repeating itself. I love you both, this is sounding awful, but it was like you guys couldn't get past this idea that you were it for each other, it I mean like the only choice. Shackled by this weird soul-mate destiny idea, or something. Like it was habit, and easy, so why not? What did I know, of course; things worked out great. And this was forever ago, man. I was just sharing because I thought, you know, kind of funny to remember - what are... Kurt?"

Sam's lips are hot from the coffee, Kurt's cold from the unseen chill. They fuse, melded in some secret forge, and Kurt's hand rakes aisles in Sam's hair, pulls weeds from his scalp, sows seeds to harvest later. He watches the backs of his eyelids bloom metallic, scream lightning, a bolt, a rictus, feels stubble sand his chin, the table edge an iron bar against his stomach. The longest second of his life.

He isn't sure what he imagined would happen. That he would open his eyes and Sam's awed smile would greet him, that time might be undone, the silver chain link unbound. That Sam would lean forward next, make ruins of Kurt's hair, clothes, all of him. Or even that they would laugh, mutually embarrassed, and forget it ever happened.

Sam's eyes are wide, his mouth bent in something like terror. A hand guards his lips; the other presses Kurt's chest back, ungently, and then recoils as though burnt. A cavern opens in Kurt's gut. He knows this look. It's the one he wore when Karofsky stole his first kiss.

"S... Sam," he says.

"Get the - what are - Kurt," Sam says.

His mind is a pile of ashes. "I was just... it was..."

"You're married, Kurt," Sam says.

"I - I know that, but - "

The wind yawns against the ice, leeches the heat from eternity.

Sam's expression leaves him frozen, an ice sculpture, a wax figure. "I - I have to go," Sam says.

"Sam, wait, it was - it was a joke, I was - "

"Bye," Sam says, as though to no one, disastrously polite. "Merry Christmas."

"Sam - !"

The wind is pulling, now, sucking him backward, into the arms of the ghost unseen, and he claws at the ice, digging with unfeeling nails, holds his forehead against the window - and for a moment he is the other Kurt, Yet to Come, watching a man in a dark coat wade through snow and a sea of people toward nothing - only away.

The wind carries him home. He wades through snow and a sea of people, skates marring the rink, toward nothing.

In the center, Blaine waits, hand outstretched.

Kurt takes his place.

The whole world holds for applause.

STAVE FIVE

They leave the rink with a hug and a smile, enjoy a friendly meal with his dad. Kurt talks and laughs and avoids Blaine's longing looks like the plague.

On December 26, he rides a plane to Lima, Ohio, wrapped in the haze of dusk and smelling of springtime.

His eyes search the airport crowds for a face that couldn't possibly be there, and doesn't find it. But he imagines it all the same, and feels a knocking in his chest, one that scares and delights him. It's wild, outrageous, folded carefully between past and future, hidden in the fleeting present, but it has a simple name:

Maybe.

Sam's eyes are wild, too, jungle green, when Kurt steps inside the kitchen. He stands over a bowl of cookie dough, t-shirt and boxers dusted with flour.

" - Kurt," he says, as though it's the end of a sentence he's been stumbling through for years.

"Sam," Kurt says.

"What are you doing here?" Sam steps behind the counter, all modesty.

Kurt hesitates, but his gaze never wavers. "I thought maybe you had something to show me."

The painting sings with light and shadow, the crowded energy of the City That Never Sleeps. Tears flood his vision when he sees his name on the theater marquee.

"Kurt?" Sam says.

Sam's lips are cold from long silences, Kurt's hot with plans in motion. They fuse, melded in some secret forge, and Kurt's hand rakes aisles in Sam's hair, pulls weeds from his scalp, sows seeds to harvest later. He watches the backs of his eyelids bloom metallic, scream lightning, a bolt, a rictus, feels stubble sand his chin, the countertop an iron bar against his stomach. The longest second of his life.

When he pulls back, Sam smiles.

"What about... Blaine?" he asks, breathless.

Kurt's hand brushes Sam's cheek. His eyes roil with hidden thoughts. "Men weren't made to live in the past," Kurt says. He kisses him softly, again. "Incredible, the things you miss when you aren't looking."

Sam looks, and misses nothing; Kurt looks back. Call it love, Kurt thinks, and the kitchen floor is a skating rink, and they move together, tiny choices joining hands, drawing closer, and closer, and closer.