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Blaine is fifteen years old and he hasn’t seen anyone in three days except for Thomas, his mother's Def.

He’s been shut up in his room; Thomas has been bringing him food. His parents have cut off his phone, his internet connection, and made sure he can’t get out through his windows. Blaine is fairly sure that his parents are downstairs meeting with lawyers and government officials, withdrawing him from school and changing his (and their) official status. Soon, his parents will be able to try for another child (or adopt one, if necessary), and he'll be... gone.

He's thought about the razor in the bathroom, about the sleeping pills in his dresser and the Vicodin left over from getting his wisdom teeth out. But killing himself would just honestly make his parents' lives easier, and what he is more than anything is angry.

It's late at night on the third day-- really, it's almost the fourth day. The rest of the house is asleep, but Blaine is still awake, counting out Ambien in long straight lines on his desk (the nightmares he'd had last year hadn’t really been all that bad, but they were easier to medicate away than deal with). Thomas slips in through his door without knocking, without a tray of food.

"Do you want help?" he asks, gesturing at the pills.

"No," Blaine says, softly but decisively, then sweeps the pills back into their bottle with the side of his hand. "I just--"

Thomas interrupts him. "Do you know why there’s a three-day wait?" he asks. Blaine shakes his head, because he's never had to think about any of this before. "It's for this," he says, waving his hand at the bottle of Ambien. "It’s to give you a chance to get out, while you're still free to do so."

Blaine sighs heavily. "I don't think I can. My parents-- it'd make it easier on them. To not have to deal with me, I mean-- to not have to deal with the paperwork and the hassle." He laughs, harsh and bitter. "God, that's all I am right now-- a hassle."

"It was pretty stupid, getting caught kissing that boy with parents like yours."

"Don't remind me," Blaine says, shaking his head. He doesn't want to think about Marco-- he doesn't know if Marco's parents are doing the same things his are, or if he's gotten away free and clear.

"There are some things to remember, if you want to live through this," Thomas says. He strides over to Blaine's solid oak desk and perches on top of it, then grabs Blaine's hands. It's the first time he can remember Thomas touching him in the ten years he's been with the household, and Blaine feels how warm his hands are. That's when he knows for certain, because Thomas is allowed to touch him now.

Thomas looks him straight in the eyes the entire time he's talking. It’s a little disconcerting, but Blaine knows how important this is, so he doesn’t look away. "Don't fight until you're placed somewhere. Fighting earlier just gets you labeled uncooperative and belligerent-- two designations that you do not want. Once you're placed, you’ll be assigned a Foster, and that is something to fight for. Fosters are legally required to check in on you every three months for the first two years, and every six thereafter. You are legally able to request that they come even if they're not scheduled, but don't expect their time to be open. They can't do much more than make sure you’re being fed and not permanently damaged, but they'll pull you out of a bad situation if they can. For the most part, they're good people."

Thomas tips up Blaine's chin, smoothing a thumb across his jaw. "You're young and you're pretty, and that's not good for you. Try to get lab work, if you can, because you’re also educated. Don't tell them that you’re comfortable serving one-on-one, even if you think you are-- you're not. Maybe once you're older, but not now."

"Your hair makes you look younger," Thomas says, carding his fingers through Blaine's mass of curls. "I can help you cut it."

Blaine nods. It's finally hitting him, that he’s not going to be part of this family any more. He hands Thomas the pair of scissors from the cup on his desk.

Gently, Thomas cuts his hair.

* * *

Kurt Hummel is the best new designer in New York City. He's worked his ass off to get there, but his line is in all the best stores (Barney's, Saks, everywhere else that's important). It’s been weeks and months of 16-hour days, of not stopping to breathe between meetings with suppliers and buyers, with his crack team of producers. He’s finally made it: he has arrived. People want to be seen wearing his clothes.

It's an amazing, heady feeling. He’s come so far from small-town Ohio, from a school where he was never appreciated by anyone, really, except for his few friends.

He's sitting in his office, looking over the financial statements from the last quarter, when Quinn knocks on his open door. He smiles at her, easy, and waves her in. She shuts the door behind her, and that's when he knows something’s up.

"There's not an easy way to say this," she begins, "but you need a Def."

He blinks at her, surprised. "Don't I have one?" he asks, nodding at her silver bracelet.

"Someone who isn't me. I do a lot for you-- for the company, especially, but you need someone more... personal. I’m more involved with the business side of things. You need someone to manage the day-to-day: make sure you get places on time, deal with your endless string of boyfriends-- that sort of thing."

He laughs, and Quinn smiles at him-- there hasn’t been a man in his life since Greg-three-years-ago, when Kurt was fresh out of college and just starting his own company. It had been a disaster from start to finish-- Greg didn’t understand Kurt’s devotion to his work and expected him to act like any other kid who had just finished college. When he threw his third fit in as many days at Kurt’s late hours, Kurt probably could have dealt with it-- but since he threw a plate along with the fit, Kurt kicked him out of the apartment that night.

("My mother’s plate," he remembers raging at Quinn, who had listened to the whole fight from the safety of her room, hands firmly over Beth's ears. He doesn’t blame her for not stepping in; Greg had been nearly a foot taller than her. "I wouldn’t have cared if they’d been the ones from Ikea, but there’s something sacred about fine china.")

"It’s not something I want," he says, looking at her. She’s leaning against the door jamb, pretty and perfect in a cotton sundress and flats; neither of them are from his line, but they look great on her. As much as he loves Quinn, though, he hates the fact that, for all intents and purposes, he owns her.

"I don't really think you have a choice," she says. "You're being taken seriously right now because your designs are amazing and you’re young-- people will say that you don’t have the resources to take on another Def. But in two years? Three? They're going to start to wonder, and it might be easier on you if you just did this now."

He sighs. Quinn doesn’t like giving him advice on this, so it must be something that she's seriously thought about. He doesn't want someone from New York; all of the Defs he's seen here are slick and polished-- more brittle than any person he’d want managing his private life. "Are you still on good terms with your Foster from back home?" he asks.

"We e-mail," she says.

"Can you get her to make up a list? No Seconds or Thirds, but other than that, I'll trust your judgment on parameters, just-- get me a file. We’ll talk more about it then."

He tries not to think about it, and so he doesn't really until a few weeks later, when Quinn brings him a red file with a government stamp on the front. He frowns at her. "Are you sure I have to?" he asks, resigned.

"Think of it this way," she says. "You're not buying something to use. You're buying someone, who will probably have a better life with you than they would almost anywhere else."

"I know," he sighs. "I hate doing this deliberately-- choosing someone based on random information in a file. With you-- it was something concrete I could do to help. I wasn't picking some stranger." He holds his hand out and she hands him the file.

Later, when they’re back at his apartment and Beth's gone to sleep, they spread the file out over the dining room table. It's full of names and faces, backgrounds reaching back years. His eyes are caught a few times-- soft-looking blond hair, bright and piercing blue eyes. They set aside people who they think won't work out (Quinn pulls out a 16-year-old boy marked as deaf; Kurt removes an older man with problematic knees). It feels mercenary, going through other people's lives this way, and it is.

By the end of it, they have five Defs-- five people-- who might work.

D.S., 28, MD: rebellious @ 12, no problems since acquiring, avail. FaC, basic ed.

A.L., 23, MD: medical: blind in right eye @ 4, no problems, avail. w/cond., basic ed.

Y.D., 30, MD: debt @ 20, mild astigmatism (corr. w/glasses), no other problems; avail. FaC, adv. ed

M. N., 25, MD: petty theft @ 18, no problems since acquiring, avail. w/cond, adv. ed.

B.A., 26, MD: nonconforming @ 15, hosp. once since acquiring, no other problems, avail. FaC, adv. ed.

Kurt finds that he can't really think of them as people, though, not while he's doing this. It's easier to think of them as sets of variables (M. N. had spent a year traveling; A. L. speaks Korean; B. A. can play piano and guitar well) and try to figure out who will work best in his home. He sorts their photographs out from the file and matches each to their histories.

D.S. (maybe Daniel?) ran away from home twice at age 12. The file doesn't give a history beyond that, but there are only so many reasons that a kid that age will run and risk being marked. In the photograph, D. S. looks hard. There’s nothing inside his eyes, as far as Kurt can tell. He shivers slightly, and moves the file (and photograph) into the discard pile.

A. L. (Alfred? Andrew? Alonzo?) is cute; his right eye is clouded and misty but his left is clear and sharp. He looks intelligent, and Kurt toys with the idea of using him as a model-- he's got perfect sandy-blond hair, good teeth, and nice bone structure. It’s the avail. w/cond that has him worried, thought, and he sets the file aside momentarily. It's the same thing with M. N., and maybe he's more anxious about the petty theft than he thought he was when he first looked at the stack.

That leaves Y. D. and B. A. Just looking at their files, there's not much of a difference between the two of them. Y. D. is older, possibly more educated. B. A. is exactly his age, and made it through at least a year of high school before being marked.

He slides the files over to Quinn. "These two," he says. "I don't know how to choose."

She picks Y. D.'s up first. He thinks about what she’s reading-- Y. D. is from Columbus, grew up normal, average. Good grades in school, a few girlfriends, nothing really special. He'd been studying at Ohio University until his father died unexpectedly, leaving the bulk of his education debt squarely on his shoulders. He feels sorry for Y. D., who, as far as he knows, only wanted to get an education. Y. D. is handsome, smiling in the photo that came with his file. He looks 30, not younger or older. His work experience has been mostly menial; some lab work, some one-on-one.

Then there's B. A. It's his eyes that drew Kurt in first, faster than the lines in his history about one-on-one work, his hospitalization at age 18 for appendicitis. B. A. looks more tired than he should at age 26-- not older, just tired. Exhausted. Kurt feels unexpectedly tender towards this man he’s never met; he wants to wrap him up in a blanket and make him sleep for a few weeks.

Quinn's eyes still on one line of the file. "He was marked for nonconforming," she says.

"Which means...?" Kurt asks, trailing off. He'd noticed it, but hadn't understood that it was something to be questioned.

"It's-- well, it’s not code, exactly. It's an easy way for parents to get rid of kids who don't measure up to some standard. I'm rebellious, not nonconforming, because it was my choice to sleep with Puck, and it was my choice to keep Beth. It’s..." She looks profoundly uncomfortable. "Nonconforming means it's something he can't-- couldn't-- change. Nine times out of ten, with no medical note, it means he's gay."

"Oh," Kurt says. He’d always been sort of aware that things like this happened, but he can't quite face this reality. It's not shocking, and that's the worst part about it. Kurt may have been harassed and assaulted and thrown in dumpsters, laughed at and yelled at and stolen from, but he's never doubted that his father loves him. His father will always love him. He'd never had to risk being marked deficient, because his father had made it clear that it would never come from him (he'd been ten, sitting at the dinner table over half-frozen pizza and bagged carrots, and his father had said "I'll never mark you" out of the blue and Kurt had cried into his napkin because the boys at school had called him a fag again and he was starting to wonder if he really actually was).

B. A.'s dark hair is cut short-- very short. In the photograph, he's not smiling, but he is looking up, at the camera and the cloudy sky. Tired is still the best word to describe him, because there are bags under B. A.'s eyes and Kurt thinks that if he saw B. A.'s hands they'd be shaky with exhaustion.

"Him," Kurt says, deciding there. "I want him."

Quinn looks up at him, face skeptical. "You can't save him, Kurt-- he might already be lost, be worthless--"

"He might not, thought," he argues. "You don't know that-- he's good good reviews, if you look at his file. It says he's good with children," Kurt says, and that’s what had tipped B.A. into the yes pile, even more than his eyes or expression. They both try to be there for Beth as much as they can, but she's spending more time in after-school care than either of them want her to.

Quinn brushes her fingers over B.A.'s cheek in the photograph. "Let me set up an interview," she says. "We can do it over Skype, because I don't think that you want to spend the money on the plane if he doesn't work out."

"Great," Kurt says, sweeping up the rest of the files. "Just let me know when."

* * *

Blaine is sitting alone at lunch (chicken and rice again) when Emma comes to find him. Blaine likes his Foster. She’s sweet, kinder than she should be. "You have an interview," she says, smiling at him, red hair swinging forward just a little.

He smiles back, because he's supposed to and because she's nice, and asks "For what?"

"It's some one-on-one work, out in New York. Isn't that where you always wanted to go?" She is smiling, happy for him, and Blaine lets the smile freeze on his face so that she can't tell how terrified he is. He hasn't done any one-on-one in years, and the last time had ended rather poorly. It was before Emma was his Foster, though, so he smiles and thanks her.

Back in his room that night (he's lucky to have one to himself; he knows that it's because Emma thinks he's sweet, like she is), after an afternoon filing at the Department of Labor, he looks at himself hard in the polished metal mirror. He looks just like he has for years: short hair and barely-there hollows under his cheekbones, hazel eyes that he avoids meeting. He contemplates shaving his head or just not sleeping for the next few days, so that he's not as appealing to his potential owner. Oh, sure, the DoL might call it one-on-one work or whatever the euphemism is this year, but it is what it is-- institutionalized slavery, a status symbol for the rich.

He wonders if trying to turn down the assignment will work this time (unlike the last three times, before he'd been with Emma, when he'd still been young and pretty). He wonders if his new owner will be a man or a woman, old or young. If he'll have enough to eat; if he'll have somewhere to himself to sleep. If he'll be beaten or raped-- and, if it happens again, if he'll actually have the courage to kill himself, finally. He hadn't when he'd had the opportunity (long lines of Ambien, Thomas's hands on his scalp), and he's not sure if he can do it now.

Eventually, though, Blaine sighs, watching his shoulders rise and fall in the mirror. He slides into bed, pulls the thin blankets over himself, and does his best to get some sleep.

In the morning, he runs his fingers through his hair but doesn't bother to comb it. Not that there's much there to comb, but it's a gesture left over from when he'd had a great messy mass of hair that he'd let fall into his eyes, that he'd loved playing with-- that Mark, all those years ago, had finger-combed until it was frizzy. He splashes water on his face but doesn't shower; he considers shaving but lets his stubble be.

Emma comes to find him; she leads him to the computer labs instead of an interview room, like he'd expected. "You're doing the interview over Skype," she explains. "Your prospective couldn't make it here in person, so he’s set up the meeting this way."

Blaine relaxes just a little at this; today, at least, he won't be poked and prodded, made to show his paces like a horse on display. Instead, he sits in front of the computer and the webcam, waiting for his prospective Holder to show up. After a few minutes, the call comes through and Blaine answers, but it's a pretty blonde woman on the other side of the screen, not the man he’d been told to expect. She looks a little hassled and a lot busy, and the first words to come out of her mouth are an apology. "I'm sorry, he's running late-- designs to finalize, he swore he'd only be ten minutes, but it's been fifteen."

He thinks he remembers how to do this, so he slips on his best fake smile. "No worries," he says. "I am ready at your pleasure."

"Mm, anyway. I have his list of questions, so we can get started without him," she says. She raises her voice on the last few words and tilts her head toward the door he can barely see through the grainy connection of the webcam.

"Of course," he says. "What questions do you have?"

"The first thing he wants to know is your name," she says. "First name only, for now."

"Blaine, ma'am," he says. It's a weird first question-- usually they're about his background or about his skills. Once the first question had been do you scream when you’re fucked, and thank god, Emma had cut off the interview then.

"Have you lived in Ohio your entire life?" is the next question.

"I was out in Idaho on the relocation project for about nine months; I served one-on-one to a family in Detroit for two years. Other than those times, yes." This is a question he’s more familiar with.

The blonde woman is looking down, writing down his answers. "On a scale of one through ten, with ten being the highest, rate your organizational abilities."

"Eight," he says, because while he is incredibly organized, he doesn't think she'd believe him with how sloppy he looks at the moment-- something he's beginning to regret, as the questions so far have been completely professional.

"How knowledgeable are you about the fashion world?" she asks.

"My previous Holders haven't had much of an interest," Blaine says, "so it's not something I’m trained in. But I do have a personal interest in fashion-- I used to read Vogue." It's another strange question, but he assumes that it ties into her earlier complaint about designs.

"Good," she says, and she smiles for the first time. It looks like a real smile, and as she brings her hand up to tuck hair behind her ear he notices her silver bracelet for the first time. It doesn't match his, but it says the same thing: she's a Def, just like him, and she's... she looks happy. Healthy. She's being trusted to interview him, without her Holder being present, and that says something about the kind of man he is.

"You're--" he says, and curses the fact that he’s out of practice in keeping silent.

"Yes," she says, simply. "I've been with him for ten years."

"Oh," he says. He hadn't really expected her to respond. "I apologize for the interruption."

"Don't worry about it," she says. She's quiet for a minute, looking at the next question on the list. He doesn't know what that means; if she's worried that it's on the list at all, if it's an uncomfortable question.

"Why were you marked?" she asks.

He returns her silence. "I'm nonconforming," he says, finally, because it's what his file says.

"I know," she says. "He wants to know in what manner."

"I--" Blaine says, and he can either choose to lie or tell the truth and risk the consequences. "I'm gay," he says, and it's the truth. "My parents found out when I was 15, and they marked me."

Her lips press together in a thin white line. He can't tell if her expression is pitying or not. "Please excuse me for a moment," she says, and she stands up and walks away from the camera.

Blaine sits there and obsesses over every word of the interview that's been spoken thus far while she's gone. Clearly, saying that he's gay was the wrong move to make, because if it didn't matter, she wouldn't have left-- so it either means that her Holder doesn't like gay people or he likes them too much. Either way, the interview’s probably over, and Blaine's about to go back to filing or be shipped off to New York.

Eventually, the blonde woman comes back. "He'll be here in a minute," she says. "For right now, let me tell you about what your position in the household would be."

He nods, looking as patient as he can.

"There are three of us-- Kurt, who's my Holder, me, and my daughter. Kurt's a fashion designer, and he needs someone to keep track of his day-to-day calendar and take care of Beth while we're at work. I don't have time to do that and be his assistant at the company, so it would be your job to keep him on his schedule and provide companionship for Beth. That's it," she says firmly. "No other tasks. No other... duties." She looks down at her hands. "I don't know all of your history, but Kurt's a good man. He works hard, he won’t mistreat you or beat you. And he wants this to be a choice for you. He really, honestly does-- so think about it, okay? Don't take it because it's better than where you are-- take it if you want it. We’ll listen if you say no."

"Okay," he says, because he doesn't know what she wants him to say. Being able to say no and actually being listened to is a foreign concept to him, and he wonders how long it took the blonde woman to believe her Holder was following any of her instructions. He's saved from having to say anything else to her, though, because the door opens behind her and his prospective Holder walks through.

"Q! Is this him?" he asks. Kurt's a tall man, slim and eminently fashionable. Blaine hasn’t followed fashion since he'd lost access to his mother's issues of Vogue, but he can tell that the suit that Kurt's wearing is impeccably tailored. His brown hair is perfectly coiffed, and his eyes are kind, for all that his expression clearly says that he's got other things he needs to be doing.

The blonde woman-- Q-- says "Kurt, this is Blaine. I've just explained the position to him; here are his answers to the interview questions so far. I am going to go and make sure that Beth’s on time to her piano lesson." She puts her hand on Kurt's shoulder for a moment, then leaves the room, closing the door behind her.

"So," Kurt says, and Blaine looks back at him, patient. "I'm sorry, I've never done this before-- I have no idea what the protocol is."

"It's fine, sir," Blaine says. "Just-- ask me the questions that you have. Let me know your expectations."

"Right, okay," Kurt says. He looks down at the list that Q left behind for him. "So, um, how are you with kids? I mean, Beth's 10, she’s almost not a kid any more, but--" he shrugs.

"I took care of two children, beginning at ages 8 and 11, for two years. I was well-reviewed," he offers.

"No, but-- do you like kids? Do you like spending time with them? Helping with homework, driving to lessons, picking them up from school?"

"I-- yeah. Yes, I do-- I like kids," he says, and he hates how he stutters and stumbles over his words. The whole conversation is throwing him off-balance. Kurt and Q aren't like anyone he's worked with-- worked for-- before, and it’s strange. They're clearly comfortable with each other, and it's part of what makes Blaine fairly certain that he's going to take the job. There are a lot of people who say that they're comfortable with Defs, that they think they're just as good as other people, but those are the same people who looked at him greedily when his Holder wasn't around. Kurt seems different, and Blaine thinks it has a lot to do with how easy he and Q are with each other, how much Kurt seems to trust her.

Blaine wonders if being hit by someone kind hurts any less; he thinks it must hurt more.

"Okay, great. Do you have any questions for me? I think Quinn got through everything else I was going to ask-- sorry that I couldn't be there for longer, but trousers wait for no man," Kurt says, smiling.

"No, sir," Blaine says.

"Great!" Kurt says. "I'll have Q send a copy of the contract over-- please do let her know if you have any questions or concerns. Read the whole contract before you sign, and know that I am amenable to making changes. And-- I'm sure Q already told you this, but you can say no. I won't take it badly, I won't take you if don't want to be here, and it won't go in your file."

Blaine doesn’t quite know what to say aside from "Yes, sir." He pauses for a moment. "I don’t have any questions, but I'll be sure to be in contact if any arise. Thank you for the opportunity, sir." He hopes that his phrasing is polite enough for Kurt.

Kurt smiles at him, one last time, and cuts the connection without saying goodbye. Blaine sits at the computer for a moment, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes until he’s seeing spots. His whole conversation with Kurt has been the most confusing pre-contract negotiation he's ever had, and he doesn't know what to make of Kurt's kindness or Q's (had Kurt said Quinn at some point?) straightforward explanations.

Emma speaks up from where she’s been sitting silently the entire time. "Please tell me you're going to take that contract, Blaine," she says, quietly. "It's the best offer I've heard in a very long time."

He turns to look at her, blinking the spots from his eyes. "I-- yeah," he says. "I do want to read it first, but I can't imagine not taking it, if it's anything like what Q described."

"I'll contact you when the contract comes in," Emma says. "For now, head on in to work for the rest of the day. I'll take care of cleaning up now-- you go on."

* * *

Kurt goes back to work as soon as he's done interviewing B. A.-- Blaine, apparently, which is a pleasantly uncommon name. He'd looked less tired over Skype than he had in his photograph, which Kurt finds encouraging.

He knows that what he's really doing is avoiding Quinn, because she'll want to talk about his reasons for choosing Blaine-- he knows perfectly well what they are. And what they aren't.

He's chosen Blaine because Blaine seems like he needs help, and because Blaine is allegedly good with children. Not because he'd fallen in love with a photograph and a three-minute conversation over a fairly distorted webcam connection-- he doesn't know Blaine, not yet. Kurt knows himself well enough to recognize his romantic tendencies, and Blaine isn't pinging him at all that way: he wants to feed Blaine three square meals a day and make sure he gets enough sleep.

Besides, there's not even the possibility of anything romantic or sexual between him and Blaine. It was incredibly clear to Kurt that Blaine hadn't really believed a word of what Kurt (or Quinn) had said about Blaine's right to choose-- his right to say no. And if Blaine didn't understand that-- even if Kurt did develop feelings for Blaine, somewhere down the line, it's not something he'd ever do. Because technically, Blaine can't consent, not as Kurt's Def. He doesn't have the legal right to say no, and that makes everything-- every possibility, every tiny thread of the future-- impossible.

* * *

The person waiting for him at baggage claim when he and Emma arrive isn't Kurt-- it's the blonde woman he still knows only as Q.

Blaine doesn't have any bags to pick up, and Q (Quinn, he learns, as she introduces herself to Emma) has the notarized ID card that allows her to sign for his transfer. Emma wants to hug him before he leaves, even though it makes her obviously uncomfortable, so he holds himself away from her as much as possible, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder blades.

He doesn't know how Quinn’s relationship with Kurt works, still-- it had seemed better than imaginable from what he'd seen during his interview, but he just can't quite bring himself to believe that it is that good. None of his other Holders have been-- pleasant. It's a word that he keeps using, and he knows that it isn't the word he wants to use.

Quinn is friendly. Someone obviously takes care of her-- the clothes she's wearing are fashionable, and she holds herself confidently. He thinks that they're about the same age, but to him, she seems so much younger than he is. She laughs when she sees his face as they step out of the airport-- he's not here the way he'd imagined he'd be (he's not a freshman at Columbia or NYU), but he's here. In New York City, just like he'd always planned.

But it's bittersweet, because as much as he is pleased to be here (and there's a feeling of unexpected joy unfolding in his chest), he is not here at his own direction. He can't even make the choice between a cab and the subway for getting to his new home-- Quinn hails a cab.

As she raises her hand at the passing cars, Blaine notices that the sleeves on her cardigan are illegally long, hiding the silver bracelet that shows her to be a Def. He doesn't say anything-- it's not his place, not now-- but he keeps it in mind. Not to use against her, because he can't believe that a man as interested in fashion as his Holder appears to be wouldn't notice something like too-long sleeves, but as something that's all at once safer and more dangerous. It's safer, because the cab driver calls her Ma'am and is actually polite. It's dangerous because if her sleeves slip, she could be repossessed, sold to someone else. Someone who won't let her laugh-- someone who won't let her wear her sleeves too long.

"You're awfully quiet," she says to him, in the back of the cab.

"I don't have a lot to say, ma'am," he says, taking the cue from her sleeves and the cab driver.

She nods at him approvingly, and she spends the rest of the cab ride into the city watching him watch the skyline grow.

He is suddenly furious at her and Kurt, for taking his first sight of New York. It’s not his the way it should be. He’s had eleven years to get used to not being able to own anything, but it seems that there are still some things that he wants for himself. And it’s not fair-- it’s not fair that he’s in a cab with a pretty blonde woman instead of the man of his dreams; it’s not fair that she’s got a silver bracelet just like his that she has to hide if she wants to be taken seriously.

But New York really is amazing. Maybe, if he can keep himself in check, keep from getting too messy or too imperfect-- maybe he can make this work.

* * *

Chapter Text

He has half an hour to remember how to do this properly, before they arrive at his Holder's apartment.

He'd been sixteen, standing with the others who were on their way to one-on-one work. Most of the others look bored-- they've heard the lecture before, they know the drills and the effortless motions of the one-on-ones. He's the youngest one there; an older woman looks at him with pity, but she drops her eyes when she notices him watching.

It's easier to remember the instructor talking. Like so many other parts of the DoL, his appearance is nondescript and bland-- but he has such a distinctive voice that Blaine can't imagine not memorizing everything he says. "It is important to be perfect; to be subservient in all things. You should be able to predict the needs and desires of your Holder before he knows them himself; nothing should take you by surprise.

"Learn to read the tone of his voice; the way he holds himself. He will become your world; keeping him pleased should occupy the bulk of your time. Remember his directions and his routines. If he drinks coffee every morning, have it prepared. If his child needs to be woken and readied for school, ensure that everything is in place.

"You will not know the word ‘no;' you will have no cause to use it. You and your body are there to be used in whatever manner your Holder finds pleasing or useful. This could be everything from manual labor to sex," the man says, and Blaine tries but he can't hide his flinch at that. He's never-- he's hardly even made out with anyone.

"Always, the easiest way to indicate you know your place is to kneel, to place yourself physically lower than your Holder. It is a sign that is easy to interpret, and one that many Holders find... gratifying.

"Now, all of you: kneel."

* * *

Kurt's new Def is on his knees just inside the entryway, and Kurt is suddenly so, so glad that Beth's at school, because he has no idea how to deal with this. He looks over at Quinn, panicked, and her wide eyes clearly say that she has just as much of an idea of what to do as he does-- which is to say, not much. The Def-- Blaine-- had just fallen to his knees, three steps inside the door. Kurt's not sure what to say or do or anything, because the only Def he's really known until now has been Quinn, and she's been his since they were 16.

"Blaine?" he says, hesitantly.

"Sir," Blaine replies, not lifting his eyes from the ground.

"Um. Can you stand up, please?" Kurt asks. He feels awkward and uncomfortable, and this is not how he imagined actually meeting his Def (Blaine, he reminds himself, because he's a person, not a thing).

There's a pause, and then Blaine slowly rises to his feet. He's still not looking up, eyes demurely lowered.

Quinn shuts the door, and Blaine twitches at the sound. Quinn winces, and gestures for Kurt to lead them further into the apartment. "If you'll follow me, please," Kurt says with more confidence than he feels, and walks towards the kitchen.

Kurt and Quinn take their usual seats in the breakfast nook; Blaine sort of hovers for a moment before starting to kneel again. Kurt jumps up and catches Blaine's arm as he does so, and Blaine is surprised into actually meeting Kurt's eyes for a minute. His-- Blaine's-- his eyes are vibrant and alive, hazel burning bright and fierce.

"I-- we don't kneel, no one kneels-- not in this household," Kurt stammers, and Blaine straightens.

"I apologize, sir," Blaine says calmly. He stands next to the table, arms hanging loosely at his sides.

"By which I mean, please take a seat," Kurt says. He's not sure if he should be worried or annoyed by Blaine, right now, so he's sort of bouncing back and forth between the two emotions. Quickly and as silently as possible, Blaine sits at the table. He doesn't look up; his hands are flat on his thighs, and Kurt is starting to feel like he's purchased a golem instead of a person.

He takes a deep breath and meets Quinn's eyes across the table. "Okay-- okay. So, Blaine, we wanted to go over your contract, to give you a chance to ask any questions you might have." The typed pages of Blaine's contract are already on the table. "So, the initial term is six months, to be extended or dropped at that time depending on how we both feel. Do you-- is that all right? I know that the contract's been signed, and the DoL doesn't usually like it when contracts are altered after signing, but we could change it, if you'd like."

"It's fine, sir," Blaine says. "Six months will give us plenty of time to get to know each other."

"Good! You have basic household duties-- cooking, cleaning, keeping track of me and Quinn-- but once you get settled in, your primary responsibility will be taking care of Beth," Kurt says. "Here's a copy of her schedule," he continues, sliding a printed sheet across the table to Blaine, "and I've arranged for you to be able to use our car service. Do you have any questions?"

"Sir-- I know how to drive, but I don't have a driver's license," Blaine says hesitantly.

"Oh," Kurt says, flustered, because it's something he hadn't considered. "It shouldn't be an issue-- the car service has drivers. But if you want-- I can sign you up for the exam, if you'd like."

"If you think it's necessary, sir," Blaine says.

"In this city? Not really," Kurt says, smiling, but Quinn's the only one to see it. Blaine hasn't looked up once during the entire conversation, and if this is what training turns Defs into, then Kurt is amazingly glad that he'd gotten Quinn as early as he had, just a few weeks after she'd been marked. "Quinn will take you out tomorrow to get you some clothes and personal items," he says instead of asking Blaine how long it's going to take him to look up. "Try not to get anything too unfashionable."

Blaine nods in acknowledgement. At the moment he's wearing the government-issued grey t-shirt and black slacks, which would be fine if they weren't instantly recognizable, just as obvious as the heavy silver band on Blaine's left wrist.

"You'll be paid for your services," Kurt starts, and Blaine, for the first time, glances up and interrupts him.

"That wasn't in the contract I signed," Blaine says, and immediately drops his eyes and flushes deep red. "I apologize for interrupting, sir," he continues, "but I don't understand."

"I know it wasn't," Kurt says. "And I'm sorry for springing it on you now. It is in the copy that's on file with the DoL." He sighs. "Look, it must have occurred to you by now that I don't-- that I'm not a traditional holder. The only reason I have Quinn at all is that when she was marked, back when we were in high school, I was in the right place at the right time. It was all of us together-- my friends and I, we all pitched in, but it was mostly me.

"I don't believe in owning people. I don't think it's the right thing to do, morally. I've never-- you're the first Def, aside from Quinn, that I've owned. And-- I know you can't spend it right now. But I-- it makes me feel less guilty about this. I pay Quinn, as well. And who knows-- maybe if Senator Boxer actually manages to push through the manumission bill, it'll actually be useful for you."

For a few long minutes, Blaine doesn't say anything. Finally, not moving from his seat and not meeting Kurt's eyes, he says, slowly and carefully, "I would like to call my Foster, please."

Kurt is halfway-shocked. He knows that it's not standard at all for Defs to be paid, but he hadn't expected it would be that much of a surprise. "I-- of course," he says. "Quinn, can you show him the phone and-- send him to my bedroom, it's quiet there."

She's standing before he finishes speaking, and beckons Blaine to follow her. She grabs the portable handset as she walks out of the kitchen, Blaine trailing her like a lost dog, leaving Kurt alone with Blaine's contract.

He can't figure out how things could have gone so wrong so quickly. The man he'd met tonight, with his easy-- too easy-- obedience and neatly combed hair is somehow vastly different from the man he'd interviewed, who was just a bit rougher around the edges, unshaven and stumbling over the occasional question. He can't quite reconcile them in his mind, but he knows that although he aesthetically appreciates today's man more, the first one he'd met is the one he wants to live with.

Quinn comes back in quickly and sits across the table from him. "What are we going to do?" she asks.

Kurt breathes out. "I don't know," he says. "Why didn't I just put it in the contract to begin with? I don't-- what if he wants to leave? Do we start the whole process over? Couldn't we just-- hire a nanny?"

"As a temporary measure, yes," Quinn says. "But the same problem comes around: you will need another Def if you want to be taken seriously."

"I hate the system," Kurt complains. "And I understand that I don't have nearly as much reason as you to feel strongly about what it means for everyone-- for Defs and for Holders and everyone else-- but I still do."

"You and your liberal guilt," Quinn says, half-fond and half-bitter. "All you can do right now is-- be a good man."

Kurt reaches across the table to take one of her hands. "I am trying, Q."

* * *

Blaine can hear the two of them talking as he dials Emma's number with fingers that he refuses to admit are shaking. He's sitting on the floor next to Kurt's drafting table, because Quinn had just left him in the room without indicating if he was permitted to sit on any of the furniture (and he's not sure that all of the chair-like objects are even for sitting).

"Hello?" she says.

"Did you know?" he asks, without introducing himself. He knows that it's rude, and that being rude to Emma is one of the worst decisions he can make, but he just-- he needs to know that it's real, that-- that he's not about to put hope in a lie.

Her silence tells him that yes, she did. "Is it a deal-breaker?" she asks, instead of confirming.

"I-- it. Yes. No. It should be-- having a different contract than the one I signed isn't-- it's not okay. God, who knows what other changes--"

Emma interrupts him. "There aren't any other changes, Blaine," she says. "Not one word. Just this. I checked every line, I promise. No more surprises."

He can hear the smile in her voice, but he can't trust it. Not right now. But the situation leaves him with just two choices: go back to filing paperwork at the DoL or stay with a Holder who'd started out their term by lying to him. Mindless monotony or risking everything with a man he can't trust. But for all that Kurt has deceived him, it seems like he's doing it out of some sort of a sense of-- obligation to be a better person than any other Holders he's had in the past.

"Blaine?" Emma says. "Do you want me to pull you out? Mr. Hummel's already agreed to a no-fault note for your file, if that's what you're worried about-- it won't hurt your chances elsewhere."

"No," Blaine says. "No, I'll stay."

He's not sure where the decision comes from, but once he says it out loud, he's sure. He says his goodbyes to Emma, who's flying back to Ohio the next morning, and just sits on the floor for a minute, breathing into his knees and trying to talk himself out of calling Emma back and begging her to come and get him, because he can't deal with this kindness and hope.

He pads back out to the kitchen in his too-soft slip-on shoes. Kurt looks up from the table-- he's holding Quinn's hand and a brief expression of intense guilt passes over his face when he sees Blaine standing in the doorway.

"Is everything all right?" Quinn says. It's the first time he's heard her talk when Kurt is in the same room.

"Yes, miss," he says, because even if she's not a Holder, she still has more power than he does in this situation. "I apologize for the interruption."

"Did you work everything out?" Kurt asks. He looks more apprehensive than worried, so Blaine smiles at him. It's one of his better smiles, he thinks.

"Yes, sir," he says. "Where were we in the contract?"

Kurt breathes out a barely perceptible sigh of relief, and it is so wrong to Blaine that his Holder was clearly worried due to his actions. It's Blaine's job to keep his Holder happy, and he has been failing miserably so far. "We're still in section four-- um. You have an hour per day of free time-- we'll figure out when is best for that." That sort of compensation is much more usual than being paid (Blaine remembers Cynthia joking about having been a prostitute-- at least when I'm not getting paid I know I don't have a choice-- and he wonders if Kurt paying for it makes Kurt feel more or less guilty). "Do you have any questions?" Kurt asks.

"No, sir," Blaine says, because as much as he might wonder about things, he knows that there's really no way to get answers that he knows are honest.

"Okay," Kurt says. "The next section is your rights-- and please let me know if there's anything I should add-- I mean, the template that they give you isn't very complete." He slides the printed contract over to Blaine, like Blaine hasn't read it before. But Blaine dutifully turns his eyes to the page, because what if something is different (even though Emma and Kurt have both said that nothing is, but Blaine can't trust, not right now)?

1. Both Holder and Defective hold the right to re-negotiate the contract at any point during the Term of Service as detailed in Section 2.
2. The Defective holds the right to end the contract early for any reason. No fault or blame will be given to the Defective for choosing to end the contract.
3. The Holder holds the right to end the contract early for any reason.
4. The Defective holds the right to refuse any order given by the Holder, as long as refusing that order does not result in harm to any individual. The Holder may ask for an explanation or a reason for the refusal, but the Defective is not obligated to give one.
5. Physical violence is grounds for immediately dissolving the contract.
6. The Holder may not ask for sex, or any form of sexual contact from the Defective. Further details are given in Addendum 2.
7. The Holder will provide adequate food and nutrition to the Defective.

It's one of the most comprehensive sets of rights that he's had as a Def. He wants to believe that Kurt will actually give him those rights-- Quinn seems to be happy enough, and she doesn't seem to be mistreated-- but she's clearly Kurt's favorite, and Blaine doesn't know how things are going to be different for him.

"This is very complete, sir," Blaine says.

Kurt actually laughs. "My lawyer said overly permissive, but I like your phrasing more. Anyway, the rest of the document is just the legalese defining our roles-- which I'm pretty sure you already know, it's just what's standard, but you're welcome to re-read." He hands the contract to Blaine, who sets it on the table in front of him.

"I need to go and pick up Beth," Quinn says, glancing up at the kitchen clock and standing up to leave.

"Go ahead," Kurt says, waving her on.

"Why don't you show him around while I'm gone?" Quinn suggests pointedly, and Blaine's hands (but just his hands, he can't let it show any more than that) tense at her tone; he's sure that Kurt will reprimand her and he doesn't want to see it this soon--

But Kurt just laughs again and says "Yes, ma'am," jokingly, like she orders him around all the time. And maybe she does-- maybe this is normal for them. Quinn casually waves back, grabs her keys and her purse, and heads out the door.

Then it's just Blaine and Kurt, alone in the apartment. Kurt's gaze is assessing, like Blaine is being measured against some internal regulation, and every instinct Blaine has is screaming at him to kneel, to be lower than his Holder, to show his subservience and his submission, but Kurt had said not to kneel. Blaine is looking at the tabletop, at the fine grain of the wood, and trying to concentrate on anything but the way his skin is crawling with anticipation and apprehension under his Holder's eyes. Suddenly, Kurt's hand his on his chin, tilting his face up and towards the light; Blaine doesn't know how he got so close without him noticing. Blaine jerks back, knocking Kurt's fingers off of his face and nearly falling out of his chair.

Blaine give in to his instinct because he knows that this is worse than interrupting, this is worse than not being what his Holder wants him to be. He slides off of his chair and folds his knees and his back and presses his fingers and forehead to the floor. "I am sorry, sir," he says; the word sorry repeats in his mind until the buzz of it is all he hears, and it's almost comforting.

"Stand up," Kurt says, and his voice is cold. Blaine can feel his shoulders relax, because this is what he's been waiting for. This is what he's expected this whole time. He stands up in graceful movements, used to rising without using his hands, and waits in front of Kurt for the slap or the admonishment or-- anything.

"Look at me," Kurt orders.

He's seen pictures of Kurt; they've talked over Skype. Blaine has even looked him in the eyes once, accidentally-- but there's a difference between glances and photos and the actual physical reality that he's being ordered to look at.

Kurt is very handsome. Blaine tries not to notice anything else about him (his eyes are blue and his skin is perfect and if they weren't--), but Kurt doesn't tell him to stop looking. "I want to be very clear," Kurt says, and it would be much easier to concentrate on what Kurt is saying if he wasn't looking at him. "I don't want you to kneel, not for me. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable. While I realize that society dictates that you are subservient to me, the only way this is going to work is if I know-- look, you don't have to trust me yet. I just need to know that you won't-- that you know that I'm--"

He sighs, clearly frustrated with himself, and Blaine wishes he knew what Kurt was trying to say. "I realize that saying I want you and I to treat each other as equals is unrealistic. But I don't want you bowing and scraping. I want you to stay standing-- I mean, unless we're all sitting down for dinner or something-- and don't kneel. Please."

Kurt seems to be expecting some response, so Blaine says, "Yes, sir," and hopes that it's enough to placate his very, very strange new Holder.

"Also-- Beth hasn't been around a lot of Defs before," Kurt says, and he actually looks away from Blaine. "We've explained to her that you're coming and what your job is, but she might have questions. I'm not going to tell you not to answer her, but you should feel free to send her to Quinn or to me if her questions make you uncomfortable."

"Yes, sir," Blaine says, and he really wishes he could drop his eyes so that he didn't have to keep looking.

Kurt nods. "One more thing-- and I realize that I'm asking you to do a lot of things, and it's only your first day-- but it's just Kurt. Not Sir, not-- not whatever else you might have had to call your Holders.

Oddly enough, Blaine thinks that this order will be the easiest to follow; his Holders have always dictated their titles. It's true that most preferred the standard "Sir" and "Ma'am," but the Kyles had always asked him to call them Mr. and Mrs. Kyle, so he's used to non-standard titles. "Yes, Kurt," Blaine says, and he can see Kurt's shoulders drop and relax.

"Good," Kurt says. "Now, let me show you around the apartment."

It's a large apartment, especially for New York. Blaine is fairly sure that Beth's room used to be a closet (it's small and comfortable, painted in blues and greens with a mural on wall, full of books and sheet music), but Quinn's bedroom is bright and airy. Kurt's is full of the maybe-chairs that Blaine had seen earlier. Kurt chatters the whole time about designers and fabrics, the provenance of the paintings on the walls, but Blaine still can't quite concentrate on what he's saying.

Blaine doesn't ask where he's going to sleep; there is no extra bedroom or out-of-the-way nook. Kurt doesn't say anything about if Blaine will have any of his own space-- it wasn't written is his contract that he would, and it's entirely reasonable for Blaine to sleep with Kurt or at the foot of his bed. But everything else about this household has been so strangely liberal that Blaine can't imagine Kurt indulging in something that is so indicative of their positions.

Their tour of the apartment is interrupted by a childish voice from outside-- Quinn and Beth returning. Blaine follows Kurt back to the front door, where Quinn is ushering in Beth.

Beth is fairly tall for her age, with frizzy brown hair and brown eyes. She looks remarkably self-possessed for a ten-year-old, but from what he's seen of Quinn and Kurt, he doesn't really expect anything different. "Hi," she says, sticking out a hand for him to shake, "I'm Beth."

Blaine really doesn't understand how this household survives, with the way that everyone in it just ignores the rules right and left. Things can't have changed that much in the years between his last one-on-one assignment and this one; he can't be allowed to initiate contact with Beth. (Thomas had never touched him, not once, except to keep him from falling into a river when they'd been on vacation.) He glances over at Kurt, who raises his eyebrows and tips his head back at Beth.

"Hi, Beth," he says, carefully taking her hand (it's so small), "I'm Blaine."

She beams at him. She's not nearly as reserved as her mother is. "Mom said. She also told me that you're going to be living with us. Where are you going to sleep?"

It's the exact same question that he'd had earlier in the day. He knows the honest answer (wherever Kurt tells me to), but he doesn't think it's what Kurt wants her to hear. "I'm sure we'll figure something out," he says.

Chapter Text

Blaine sleeps uncomfortably on the fold-out couch that night; he lies awake for hours waiting for Kurt to call him in to the bedroom, so that something will at least seem normal in this household.  Kurt hadn't done anything to assert his dominance aside from give Blaine the occasional order; he expected Blaine to join them for dinner, which Blaine had hardly been able to taste.

He finally falls asleep in the early hours of the morning, the stress of the day catching up to him, only to jerk awake just after dawn when he hears one of the other members of the household moving around.  

He isn't immediately sure who's up at this hour; he hasn't quite memorized the layout of the apartment.  Nonetheless, he strips off the soft grey t-shirt Kurt had pressed into his hands the previous night and quickly dresses himself in the same t-shirt and slacks he'd arrived in the day before.  He is ready and waiting in the kitchen before anyone else comes in.

"Good morning," Beth says, yawning, from the doorway.  She's wearing a plaid skirt and a polo shirt that are obviously a school uniform and carrying a hairbrush.  

"May I make you breakfast?" Blaine asks.  She blinks at him, still sleepy, and then laughs.

"You may," she says, with all the grace an amused ten-year-old can muster.  "Mom usually does, but I guess she slept in."

"What would you like, miss?" he asks.

"Can we have pancakes?" she says, clearly excited by the prospect.  

"Of course, miss," he says.  He finds flour and sugar in the pantry, eggs and yogurt in the fridge.  Beth climbs up on one of the stools at the bar above the stove and watches him mix the ingredients together.  

"You make them differently than Kurt does," she says, folding her hands on the bar and resting her chin on them.  "He uses that funny thin pan, most of the time."

"It's because I'm usually making crepes," Kurt says.  Blaine keeps himself from flinching; the sizzle of the batter hitting the pan had covered the sound of Kurt's entrance.  "And you know very well that it's a crepe pan."

"Good morning, sir," Blaine says.  He does wince then, at his own mistake.  "Good morning, Kurt," he corrects.  "I apologize."

"Too early in the morning for apologies," Kurt says, and he comes around to join Beth at the bar.   "Turn around; I'll braid your hair," he says to Beth, and she immediately hands her brush to Kurt and swings around.  "Did you sleep well last night?" he asks her.

She shrugs.  "Fine," she says.  "Dreamed I was a hobbit."

Kurt laughs.  He has a lovely laugh, Blaine thinks somewhat distantly.  "You, my dear, are far too tall to be a hobbit at your age.  Blaine, on the other hand, seems to be perfectly sized."  He winks at Blaine, and Beth giggles.  "She's been reading The Hobbit," Kurt explains.

He thinks he might actually be getting used to being thrown off-balance by this household; he's still not sure how to respond, so he smiles at Kurt (friendly, welcoming), and slides the first pancakes onto a plate for Beth.  He passes them up to her along with a fork and the syrup.  Kurt finishes braiding Beth's hair into a single neat french braid, and she turns herself to face the counter again and starts devouring the pancakes.

"Is there room for one more?" Quinn says, and Blaine has a fleeting thought about making everyone wear bells to announce their entrance.  She takes the third stool at the bar, on the other side of Beth.

"Good morning, mom," Beth says.  "You guys should totally have some pancakes."

Quinn smiles (everyone here smiles too readily and too often) and looks expectantly at Blaine.  "It'll just be a moment more," he says.  He's not sure if he should offer them to his Holder as well, but he doesn't think he'll be hurt for asking.  "Kurt?  Would you like some as well?"

"Just one for me, thank you," Kurt says.  "Quinn, will you tell Marc that I'm taking the day?  I'll be in tomorrow, but I'm going to work from home today.  And I think I'll take Blaine shopping-- I know I'd asked you to do it, but I think some time to get to know each other would be a good thing."

It feels stupidly domestic and comfortable, and that sets Blaine on edge.  

For just a minute they look like Jonah and Emily and Micah instead of Kurt and Quinn and Beth, so Blaine thinks down and in until it's like he's seeing everything through fogged glass.  Nothing hurts when he's down here.  It's easy to be obedient, to not have to think about who he's serving or what he's doing.  It's easier to smile at JohahKurt when he compliments Blaine's cooking; it's easier to clean the kitchen methodically once everyone's done with their breakfast, although it takes him a moment to remember that Kurt's family keep their plates to the left of the sink, not in the cabinets next to the stove.  

MicahBeth is laughing at their mother (Beth's hair is curly and Micah's isn't; there are differences you have to remember remember remember) (where is Sebastian is he still in his room?) as they walk out the door.  EmilyQuinn calls goodbye to both him and Kurt, and Quinn isn't Emily, because Emily never spoke to him when she didn't have to.

Blaine comes all the way back to himself standing in the living room next to Kurt.  The world is sharp and clear again, and Blaine isn't looking for a second child.  

It's been too long since Blaine did one-on-one work if it's affecting him like this; it's the first time he's had a flashback like that but it means that it won't be the last.  He needs to figure out how to make them stop because even though being down there makes things easier (he doesn't need to disobey-- he doesn't need to eat-- he doesn't need to think for himself), he's fairly sure that at some point he'll make a mistake because he thinks Kurt is Alec or Jonah or Mr. Carrick.

Kurt doesn't seem to have realized that anything was different.  

"You need clothes," Kurt is saying, "and then we're going to start looking at new apartments.  Well-- you're going to start looking at new apartments, because I don't have time and you can't sleep on the couch forever."

Technically, Blaine could-- he's certainly slept worse places-- but if Kurt wants to move, then they will move.  "Of course, Kurt," he says.

Kurt smiles.  "It's been too long since I dressed someone outside of work," he says.  "Wait here for a minute."

Blaine waits (not that he has anything else to be doing) as Kurt vanishes into his bedroom and comes back out with a measuring tape and a notepad.  

"I know that the DoL sent your sizes-- but those things are always imprecise, and where we're going I need to know specifics," Kurt says, halfway to himself.  He kneels in front of Blaine, and Blaine's mouth goes dry; he freezes in place, not daring to move.  He blinks down at Kurt, completely unsure of what's going on and half-expecting Kurt to unbutton his pants.  He's never expected that his first sexual experience with his new Holder would be receiving; he doesn't even know if he can get hard right now, and-- "I need take your measurements," Kurt says, interrupting Blaine's half-panicked thoughts.  "And that means I need to touch you fairly, um, intimately.  Kind of.  You don't have to take any of your clothing off, but-- is that okay?"

You will not know the word ‘no;' you will have no cause to use it.  "Yes," Blaine says, because for all that Kurt is strangely liberal and is asking his permission, there can be no other answer.  "It's fine."

Even though Kurt had said he'd need to touch Blaine intimately (apparently Kurt's definition of intimate is radically different from Blaine's, because this is nowhere near as close as some of his former Holders have gotten, even when they weren't having sex), he is quick and professional with the measuring tape, jotting things down as he goes.  He gets off his knees halfway through the session, and Blaine feels like he can breathe again without collapsing.

"Thank you," Kurt says when he's done.  "We'll be leaving in a few minutes-- meet me back here?"  All Blaine has to do is slip on his shoes, so he nods at Kurt and waits, patient..  

* * *

Kurt spends most of the drive to the garment district glancing nervously at Blaine.  His new Def is sitting quietly next to him in the cab, hands folded in his lap.  The silver bracelet on his left wrist shines dully in the April sun, a constant reminder of the fundamental difference between them-- for all that Kurt would love to be doing this with a friend (and he had, with Mercedes, nine months ago), he can't forget that Blaine is only here because Kurt had paid for him.

He still can't quite put a finger on Blaine's personality-- he'd been great with Beth that morning, but had gone strangely distant halfway through serving them breakfast.  It's like-- half the time, Blaine is one of the most present people Kurt has ever met.  He notices everything-- either through training or some natural inclination-- and he is always, always ready.  But when Blaine isn't present, there's a different person in his place, one that smiles on command and never steps a foot out of line without expecting to be hit.  It's exactly what he'd worried about the previous night-- but at least now he knows that the other Blaine, the one he'd interviewed, is still there.

The first place they stop is at Modal; one of Kurt's classmates from FIT works there and is usually happy to let Kurt rummage through the seconds.  Maureen raises her eyebrows at Blaine, who only speaks when spoken to and is clearly wearing government-issue clothing.  "How's Quinn?" she asks pointedly.  

"Quinn is fine-- she's at the office today," Kurt says.  

"And you decided that a... change of scenery would be nice?" Maureen says.

"Blaine is-- he's new," Kurt says, and he doesn't quite know how to explain Blaine.  "We needed someone to look after Beth, because the company's--"

"Yeah," she says, somewhere in between bitter and disappointed.  "I just-- I didn't think that you would bu-- take in someone else."

Kurt breathes out, slow and measured, because he's trying not to be mad at Maureen.  "I didn't, either.  But we needed someone else."

Maureen turns away from Kurt and starts walking.  "Go ahead," she calls back.  "You know where everything is."

Blaine hadn't said anything through the whole exchange.

They spend the rest of the morning going from place to place, acquiring the necessities of Blaine's wardrobe-- shirts, trousers, shoes, everything.  He finds it appalling that Defs are sent to their Holders with just one change of clothing-- he knows that he's in the minority in terms of providing for Quinn (and now Blaine), but he'd still be somewhat surprised to receive a person with nothing personal.  And although he doesn't say anything, the expression on Blaine's face changes from calmly accepting to something tinged with despair, as if Kurt doesn't know how improper he's being.  

Blaine holds every long-sleeved shirt Kurt hands him with trepidation; he immediately pushes up the sleeves when Kurt asks him to try them on.   Kurt knows that it's technically illegal for Defs to hide their bracelets, but he's honestly never seen a Def in New York-- at least, not one owned by someone in his tax bracket-- with short sleeves.  The third time Blaine does this, Kurt stops giving him anything longer than three-quarter sleeves (which generally just look weird on men, but somehow Blaine pulls it off without looking too strange), and Blaine's shoulders relax.

They join Quinn for lunch and Kurt has to tell Blaine that he can order anything he'd like from the menu, because Blaine had sat passively when the waiter had brought them.  Kurt is just glad that the restaurant is either progressive enough or middle-class enough that none of the tables have kneelers for Defs (and he's never noticed or cared, before), or he's sure that Blaine would have knelt on the floor the minute they walked in instead of sitting with them.  

When they get back to the apartment Kurt realizes that there's really nowhere for Blaine to put his new clothes.  "I'm sorry," he says, "I didn't think."

"It's fine, Kurt," Blaine says, and it's becoming clear to Kurt that he's using Kurt's name like a title, reinforcing the distance between them.  Kurt doesn't exactly approve, because he would like them to eventually be at least comfortable with each other, if not precisely friends.

"I'll find something," Kurt says, and he walks back into his bedroom to quietly freak out.  

Thankfully, Kurt is good at multitasking, because even while he's obsessing over his own qualifications to deal with a Def who is so clearly different from Quinn (and, he's beginning to suspect, fairly damaged), he finds a suitcase under his bed that won't look too terrible sitting in the living room.

He drags it back out and finds Blaine methodically sorting and folding his clothing.  As pleased as Kurt is with the fact that Blaine has clothes, now, he wishes that he'd thought a bit more before dragging Blaine out that morning.  Blaine clearly still isn't quite comfortable around Kurt-- which is really only to be expected of anyone entering new employment.  He stands and watches Blaine for a moment as he neatly folds and stacks his shirts and trousers.  He'd hoped that Blaine would be as self-directed as Quinn is, but it's becoming obvious that Blaine either needs or wants more direction.

"Blaine?  Can you stop that for a minute and talk with me?" Kurt says.  

"Of course, Kurt," Blaine says, as he places one more shirt on the pile he's been making.  He follows Kurt into the kitchen, and sits at the chair Kurt gestures towards.

"Okay," Kurt says, and he's really got no idea how to tell Blaine that he can just do things.  "There are going to be at least a few hours during the day where you won't have a lot to do, necessarily-- Beth is going to be at school and both Quinn and I will be at work.  While we're gone, you are permitted to--" Kurt pauses-- "play the piano.  Read a book.  Use the kitchen-- take a shower, anything out in the common areas.  If there's something you want or need that's behind a closed door, you can send me a text or an e-mail for permission, unless it's some sort of emergency, in which case I do not need to be asked.  I-- do you understand?"

"Yes, Kurt," Blaine says.  

Kurt breathes out, because even if he has to make additions or corrections to the list, at least the framework is there.  He is still hoping that Blaine will finish snapping out of the whatever-it-is he's been in since he first knelt in front of Kurt, but he thinks this is a start.  "Great," he says.  "I'll make sure that you have a phone and a tablet by the end of the day tomorrow, so you can keep in contact with us if you need to-- and start looking for that new apartment."

* * *

Kurt brings home a shiny new tablet computer and phone the next day for Blaine, who handles them like glass and almost immediately hands Kurt a slip of paper with his username and passwords for the devices.  Kurt sticks the paper in the back of one of the drawers in his desk and does his best to forget the passwords.  

He gets an e-mail about once a day from Blaine, listing apartments that fit Kurt's criteria.  Blaine's e-mail address ( makes Kurt wince every time he sees it for the first week, because try as he might to forget that Blaine is a Def and to treat Blaine just like a new employee, there are million reminders every day that he can't ignore.  He'd known Quinn before and after she'd been marked, and her silver bracelet just seems like another part of her, but Blaine is so much more of a Def than she is, in some ways (Quinn's e-mail is; she never uses the government-issued one except to talk with her Foster).  

Things do eventually settle into a routine, and Kurt would be worried that Blaine is just ghosting around the apartment while he and Quinn are at work, except for the day he comes home early to Blaine and Beth sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of hummus, carrots and celery and talking about the new Robin McKinley book.  It's the most animated he's seen Blaine, so he just waves at them as he walks into his bedroom.

He slides his satchel off of his shoulder and drops it on the floor next to his drafting table, then sits down in front of it and breathes a sigh of relief.  

Maybe this is going to work out after all.

* * *

Hunger makes him sluggish and weak, but he does his tasks regardless.  His hands are clumsy with the art glass while he dusts, and one of the pieces (a red chinese dragon, fierce and proud) slips through his fingers.  It shatters on the hardwood living room floor.  "Oh, baby," Maria says, from over on the couch where she's sitting and watching him, and he squeezes his eyes closed for just a second.

"Go ahead and clean that up, honey," she says.  He leaves the dusting cloth on the shelf and gets the broom and dustpan from the closet, then kneels down to deal with the shattered glass.  As soon as it's mostly done, he hears Maria stand up and walk over to him.  She's not wearing shoes, so her footsteps are soft, and he's startled (don't show it, don't show it) when she runs her fingers through his hair.  "We only do this so you can be perfect, baby," she murmurs.  It's what she says every time he's not permitted dinner, every time they feed him broth instead of what he still can't help but think of as real food.  

"Yes, ma'am," he says.  "I apologize for my clumsiness, ma'am."  He'd tried asking for food, once, because he'd known that if he could just-- if he could just eat something, he'd be better at everything they asked him to do.  "I'm sorry, honey," Maria had said.  "But we're doing this for your own good."

It's another three months before his contract's up and he sees Joseph again.  He knows that the well-fitting t-shirt and slacks he'd been sent in to they Kyles now hang on him loosely, that his collarbones feel like they could cut glass.  "Christ, kid," Joseph says.  "Couldn't you have kept them a little happier?"

Blaine doesn't say anything; he keeps his eyes down and his mouth closed.  Joseph sighs.  "They want a contract extension.  Another six months."  Blaine can't help but shudder at the thought of another six months with Maria's pet names and Alec's distant disapproval of everything Blaine does, six more months of pleading for every bite of food.  He wonders what he'd look like in six months.  He finds himself kneeling without really thinking about it, pressing fingertips and forehead to the floor in front of Joseph's worn loafers.

"Please, sir," he says, voice as calm as he knows how to make it, "I would rather return to the Department."

"Huh," Joseph says, and he taps Blaine's forehead with his shoe-- not hard enough to hurt, just hard enough to make Blaine look up.  "At least they taught you manners."

Blaine doesn't wake dramatically from nightmares; he hasn't since he was a child.  But he curls up on his side on the sofa-bed after this one-- a memory, rather than a proper nightmare; he hasn't thought about the Kyles that distinctly in years.  His belly thrums with hunger.

After the Kyles, he'd gone back to the DoL, where he'd been watched like a hawk to make sure he reached a healthy weight, but he'd hardly been back eight months before Joseph had set up another contract for him.

In the three years between his last one-on-one assignment and his new contract with Kurt, the note in his file (the one kept at the DoL, not the one sent out to prospective Holders) meant that he had to check in once a month to make sure that he had good eating habits, that he wasn't skipping meals or binging.

But Kurt doesn't know that; Kurt doesn't ever need to know that.

Blaine knows that he isn't eating enough now, but it's the one thing in his life (if he is discreet enough, if no one is paying close attention) that he can control.  It's not healthy, it's not good for him, but it makes him feel in control of himself-- it makes everything sharper and he feels so light and almost free.  Sometimes Beth will insist that he share her afternoon snack, and he does, unless it's something with peanut butter (he detests peanut butter; eating it leaves him feeling nauseous for the rest of the day).  Kurt does tell him to eat, sometimes, and when they all sit down to dinner together it's hard to avoid, but most of the time he can just-- get by.   

As soon as he feels safe here, he'll stop.

He's never felt safe before.

* * *

Chapter Text

Beth is easy. Beth wants to be read to, even though she can read perfectly fine on her own; she just wants to draw while she listens to him read about Thorin and Bilbo and their adventures with Smaug-- and, once they finish The Hobbit, about Meg and Charles Wallace searching for their father. Beth needs to be taken to school and reminded to practice her piano.

He and Beth fall into a routine fairly quickly. She’s the last one up in the mornings-- Quinn wakes her up on her way out the door, so he fixes her breakfast and braids her hair while she’s eating. He sits with her in the car on the way to school, quizzing her on vocabulary words and the history of New York, listening as she chatters excitedly about the story she’s writing with her best friend Jenna. Beth is direct when she wants something-- she doesn’t always expect to get what she asks for when her request conflicts with what Kurt has said (“Can we get ice cream on the way home, Blaine? I promise that I’ll eat all of dinner,” she says, but she’s smiling when he says no. He says no to her weeks before he can even think about saying it to Kurt, because even as queenly as she is, she’s not his Holder.)

Blaine gets his free hour in the morning, after he returns to the apartment from dropping Beth off at her (expensive, accelerated) private school. He hopes that the other students don’t make fun of her for having a Def for a mother, but she doesn’t say anything negative about her classmates if she can avoid it.

He spends the time in the living room, mostly, reading one of Beth’s books or practicing his piano skills on the perfectly tuned upright piano that’s tucked into a nook which once held a fireplace. It’s been a long time since he had the opportunity to just play for himself, not as a performance or a display, and his hands are hesitant when he starts, faltering over the keys. The ceilings in this apartment are high-- over ten feet-- and the clear notes of the piano echo upwards. Sometimes when he’s playing, he can even forget he’s not in New York by choice-- he can imagine an audience and applause and no weight of silver on his wrist, making his left hand just a hair slower than his right.

He’s almost sad that they’re moving out of this apartment, for all that he’s only been there a few weeks. There’s something wrong with almost every part of it (the hardwood floors in the living room are rippled near the former fireplace; the hot water in the bathroom sink only works sporadically), which only serves to make it more real to Blaine, as opposed to the slick, sleek perfection of New York that he’d grown up wishing for. But the first task that Kurt had set him to was finding an apartment, so that’s what he’s doing, even though he could quite happily keep sleeping on the fold-out sofa bed.

Blaine is trying to be what Kurt wants, and he thinks from the smiles and kind expressions he’s been getting from his Holder that he must be doing something right. Kurt is less cautious around him now, less worried about making the wrong move or causing Blaine to drop into a different head space. It’s fairly clear that he’s giving Blaine time and space to remember how to be himself instead of the Blaine he’s been for his other one-on-one assignments.

The first time that Blaine says no is one night at dinner (it’s the only meal he’s eaten that day; he had three bites of cheese and half an apple when Beth came home but nothing else), when they’re all sitting down and Kurt offers Blaine some brussels sprouts, which are fine but not Blaine’s favorite. Kurt smiles like Blaine’s the most amazing thing on earth, and Blaine just sort of blinks at him because he can’t look at someone that bright, so he almost takes some of the sprouts out of reflex.

It’s petty and almost meaningless, and Blaine still isn’t convinced that Kurt would listed to him if he said no to something more important than vegetables at dinner, but it still makes Blaine start to feel... better. More confident in himself and in his relationship with Kurt.

Things don’t get all the way better overnight (he’d spent the next few minutes seeing Mr. Carrick at the dinner table instead of Kurt, and he had to keep reminding himself that his current Holder doesn’t have a voice like a whip and a too-firm grip). Kurt is giving him the space to figure himself out, and Blaine is absurdly grateful for that. It’s more than he could have expected, to be given time to go along with that space. Kurt wants to move, but he’s not pushing Blaine, and the apartments he sends Blaine to look at always have some fault that mean they’re not the perfect place. Eventually, Kurt starts giving him homework-- books on designers and fabrics and clothing construction, so that Blaine can answer questions knowledgeably when Kurt asks for his opinions on designs.

It feels like the Blaine that Kurt wants him to be isn’t a Blaine he’s been in a very long time. He doesn’t know if he’s really ever been that Blaine, if he’s ever been as open as Kurt wants him to be.

He’s still not eating the way that he knows he should be; when Emma calls to check in after his first month with Kurt he lies to her and says that’s he’s fine. Even if things are getting better, they’re not all the way there yet. He still feels like he’s an inch from getting hit sometimes when Kurt gets coldly sarcastic and supercilious (never towards Blaine; Kurt’s always on the phone with someone else but it hurts). Blaine can feel his shoulders set and his spine curl in. He’s never sure how much Kurt notices things like that, but it seems like Kurt isn’t as oblivious as Blaine sometimes wishes that he were.

Because Kurt works in the fashion industry, of course he knows what an eating disorder looks like-- and Blaine doesn’t kid himself, he knows what’s going on with the way that he eats (or doesn’t). And maybe Kurt will realize someday soon that the pants that had fit perfectly when he’d first bought them for Blaine are a little looser; that the tight t-shirts aren’t, any more.

He doesn’t feel entirely safe, not yet, but he starts eating Beth’s afternoon snack with her-- he feels overfull and bloated for the first week and almost stops again, but he pushes through it. If he can be in control of not-eating, then it stands to reason that he can be in control of the opposite as well, so he forces himself into two (small) meals a day. It’s not much, it’s not perfect-- he's not perfect, but it’s something.

* * *

He’s alone and reading in the apartment one morning (Dealing with Dragons, because Beth had insisted that he read her books because they were “better than Kurt’s”; he’s seriously considering looking up a recipe for Cherries Jubilee, as he thinks Kurt might like it) when there’s a rattle of keys at the door. Blaine closes his book and stands waiting in the entryway; neither Quinn nor Kurt had told him that they were coming home early, and Kurt had cancelled the cleaning service since acquiring Blaine.

Still, the sound of keys turning in the lock mean that whoever it is probably has Kurt’s permission to be in his space, and Kurt is not obligated to inform Blaine of visitors. Finally, the door swings open and a short brunette woman strides through, tugging a rolling suitcase in eye-blinding colors behind her.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he says, and she must not have seen him, because she shrieks, drops the suitcase, and fumbles a canister of something-- mace, pepper spray, he can’t tell, because it’s being aimed at him. He drops his face down immediately, falls to his knees, and spreads his hands, hoping that she’ll see that he isn’t a threat (he isn’t, he swears, he was just trying to--).

“I have mace and a rape whistle and I will use them both if you don’t tell me who you are and what you’re doing in Kurt’s apartment within the next minute,” the woman says, all in a rush but confidently, because she’s got him on his knees.

He gets down further, just in case, forehead pressed to his fingertips, flat on the floor. “Ma’am,” he says, doing his best not to babble and stammer out an explanation, “ma’am, Kurt Hummel is my Holder. This is his home.”

She says “Stay there,” and then she doesn’t say anything else. His shoulders get tenser and tenser until they feel like over-tightened, vibrating like a piano string. He cannot get physically closer to the floor, so he does not move. He hears the woman rummaging around in her purse again, and he hopes so hard that she’s putting away the mace, but he can’t be sure because he can’t look at her, not without permission. The only thing he can do is hope, and he’d pray except he stopped believing in anything when his parents had come home hours earlier than they were supposed to and found Mark.

Blaine is trying so hard to keep his head where Kurt wants it to be-- fully lucid and in the moment, not trying too hard to be perfect and forget where he is, what he’s doing and who he’s talking to. But the longer he stays down at this woman’s feet, eyes closed tightly and hardwood underneath his knees, the harder it is not to hear Maria’s voice or Emily’s, telling him to stay down like a good boy (because if he’s good he’ll get to eat; if he’s good she won’t hurt him again), so he stays there and he stays and he stays.

He’s been too open for Kurt; there aren’t enough boundaries between the different parts of himself any more. He’s been to honest and too unguarded, and it’s coming back to hit him at the worst time possible, when Kurt is halfway across the city and he’s in his Holder’s apartment with a stranger. He can hear what he thinks is a cell phone, but whatever this woman is saying isn’t really registering; he doesn’t know if she’s talking to Kurt or to Alec or to Jonah and he doesn’t really care any more. Everything here is fine, and nothing hurts. There are sounds buzzing in his ears but he doesn’t hear his Holder, so he stays.

He stays.

* * *

Kurt really doesn’t have time for Rachel at the moment; the deadline for ads in the fall issue of Vogue is in three days and they’re nowhere close to ready, so he almost doesn’t answer his phone.

“Kurt,” she says breathlessly as soon as he picks up, “Kurt, there’s a strange man in your apartment.”

Fuck, he thinks, and rubs the back of his hand across his forehead. Rachel is supposed to be in Baltimore for the next four days; he has no idea what she’s doing back early. “That’s Blaine, Rachel,” he says. “He’s new, and he’s-- he’s fragile. Please tell me you didn’t do anything.” They both know that he means anything stupid, but their friendship doesn’t allow him to actually say it out loud.

“I don’t know what I did-- I mean, I might have yelled. A little. And asked him what he was doing here, because I didn’t know, Kurt, and he could have been--”

“Are you still at the apartment?” Kurt interrupts. There’s no way that he can leave work for at least another hour, realistically, not if he wants to keep making enough money to hold on to Blaine and Quinn. The ad they’re putting together is incredibly important, and even though he hates not being able to be there for whatever is going on with Blaine right now, he knows that even if he left immediately, there’s no way that he could be home in less than an hour, not with traffic and the cabbies’ strike.

“Yes,” Rachel replies. “The-- Blaine is still here, too, and he’s..” she trails off, clearly uncomfortable. “He’s a Def, right?”

“Yes,” Kurt confirms.

“Why do you have another Def?” she asks, almost accusatory.

He ignores the question; he can get into the moral argument with Rachel later. “Is he injured in any way?” he asks, because he has to know.

“No,” she says, and he closes his eyes because he almost hates the next question more.

“Is he kneeling?”

“Yes,” Rachel says. “Yes, he is-- and I don’t-- I don’t understand, Kurt, how could you--”

He interrupts her again, because he has to do his best to get her to understand. “He came to me like that. I’ll be there as soon as I can, but can I talk to him for just a moment?”

“I don’t know if he’ll take the phone,” Rachel says, hesitant.

“Then-- god, hold it to his ear, whatever, just make him hear me for a minute,” he grits out, frustrated with Rachel and with Blaine and the whole mess.

“Okay,” Rachel says. Her voice is quieter and more distorted as she says, “Blaine? Kurt wants to talk to you, can you--?”

Kurt sits down heavily at his desk as he listens to her try to talk Blaine up from the floor; she’s clearly not having much luck. “He won’t take it,” she says, and he voice is starting to quiver, and he just can’t deal with Rachel right now.

“Put the phone to his ear, then,” he snaps.

“Okay,” Rachel says, and there’s the a weird sound as she puts the phone to Blaine’s ear.

“Blaine?” Kurt says, and he isn’t really expecting a response. He can hear Blaine breathing, too fast and too shallow, but he doesn’t say anything. Kurt keeps his voice as calm and soothing as he can as he speaks, but he’s never been very good at it. “Blaine, it’s okay. Rachel is a friend of mine, she just wasn’t expecting you. She got back a few days early, which is why I didn’t say anything about her, okay?”

Blaine doesn’t say anything.

“Right now I need you to do what she says,” Kurt tells him, and he knows that it’s dangerous ground, that if Rachel isn’t very, very careful, things can get a lot worse. He’s not sure if he entirely trusts Rachel to be very, very careful.

“Yes, sir,” Blaine says, and it’s quieter than a whisper; Kurt can only hear it because of the way that Rachel’s phone picks up sound. Kurt breathes a sigh of relief-- Blaine isn’t as gone as he’d feared. He doesn’t even care that Blaine has called him “sir,” because if Blaine is talking, it can’t be all bad.

“Hand the phone back to Rachel,” Kurt says. He doesn’t care if she’s listening in and she’s the one who takes it back or if Blaine does take it and hand it over.

“Hi,” she says, somewhat inanely.

“He should listen to you now,” Kurt says. “I’ll be home by one-- see if you can get him to eat something or read. Or sleep, I don’t really care, just get him off the floor.”

“I’ll do my best. I am very determined,” she says, half like she’s wanting to reassure herself and half like she’s trying to convince him.

“Most determined woman I’ve met,” he lies, but it seems like it’s what she needed to hear.

“Right,” she says. “I’ll call you if I need anything else.” Rachel hangs up without saying goodbye, and Kurt does his best not to think about his Def for the next two hours.

He catches Quinn on her way from one floor to another and explains the situation as best he can; he’d send her home to look in on Blaine but he’s got the feeling that he’s going to be the only voice Blaine really listens to at the moment. She looks drawn but unsurprised. “So like Rachel to screw things up again,” she says, shaking her head.

“I don’t think she meant to,” he says, and since when does he stand up for Rachel Berry? “Ugh, whatever. I’m going home as soon as the ad copy is in, but I need you to stay here until it’s submitted, okay?”

Quinn nods. “Call me if you need advice-- and don’t forget that you can call Emma, too.” She touches his hand and walks by up the stairs.

* * *

He makes it home even earlier than he thought he’d be able to-- the cabbies had finished their strike that morning, it seems, and he’d been able to make it through the city much faster than he’d expected. The elevator at his building seems to take forever, though, so he slumps against the wall on his way up to the tenth floor.

What is he doing with a Def like Blaine? He’d needed someone who could stand on their own, and he’d thought he’d found that in Blaine, when he’d interviewed the other man before meeting him in person. He has a fleeting thought of trying to find a psychologist to talk to Blaine, but he has the feeling that anyone who works with Defs will be more interested in doing the opposite of what he needs from Blaine.

He’d thought that Blaine was doing better-- it’d been a month since Blaine came to live with them, and it seemed to Kurt like Blaine hasn’t been spacing out or having flashbacks or whatever nearly as often of late. There have been more smiles and Blaine has been talking-- actually having real discussions with Beth. He’d thought. He’d hoped.

The bell dings, shaking him out of his thoughts and depositing him on the tenth floor. It’s the top floor, and Kurt’s footsteps echo up the walls as he hurries to the door of his apartment.

Kurt can hear Rachel singing from the hallway-- something much quieter than the Broadway standards she’d preferred in high school. It makes him smile before he pushes the door to his apartment open as quietly as he can, holding on to the handle so that it doesn’t squeak. “Rachel?” he calls.

“We’re in the kitchen,” she calls back to him.

Kurt drops his satchel by the front door and closes and locks it behind him. He doesn’t want Blaine to bolt, and even though he’s shown no signs of wanting to do so, Kurt’s not taking any chances right now.

Rachel is still singing; Kurt doesn’t recognize the song. He thinks it’s ridiculous that singing is still her way of dealing with everything, but Blaine plays the piano, so maybe music is a good way to reach him. When he walks into the kitchen she’s sitting down and Blaine is kneeling on the floor with his head resting against her legs-- it looks like he’s leaning his full weight on her. Rachel is carding her fingers through his hair, measured and patient, and she doesn’t stop singing when Kurt walks in. He stands and waits for her to finish the song before he says anything.

When she finishes singing, he kneels on the floor next to Blaine. “Hey,” he says softly, taking one of Blaine’s hands. His palms are soft and his fingertips are just starting to get rough with callus from hours at the piano. Blaine turns his head to look at Kurt, still leaning against Rachel. His eyes aren’t empty, like Kurt had been half-afraid they would be, but he’s not all the way there either. There’s a spark of recognition when he sees Kurt, but Kurt doesn’t know who Blaine is recognizing. “Will you come with me?” Kurt asks, and he stands, drawing Blaine up with him.

Blaine doesn’t say anything, just follows Kurt, pressed in close and awkward. He stumbles on the edge of the living room rug and Kurt catches him; it’s shocking to feel Blaine’s ribs through his shirt and Kurt feels despair for just a moment, because he hasn’t been home as much as Blaine clearly needs someone to be.

Instead of folding out the living room couch, Kurt takes Blaine to his own room. The bed is more comfortable, the room itself is quieter. He pushes Blaine towards the bed, even though it’s still early afternoon. Blaine is almost frighteningly malleable and docile like this, sitting to allow Kurt to pull of his socks and trying to help Kurt when Kurt motions towards Blaine’s jeans. He stops Blaine’s hands when his thumbs slip under the elastic on his boxers; he does not need to see Blaine naked. They leave Blaine’s jeans and socks in a pile on the floor, and Kurt pushes at Blaine’s shoulders until Blaine lies down in bed, never once looking away from Kurt.

When Kurt walks to the door he swears he hears Blaine keening. He turns back to the bed and sits next to Blaine, running his fingers through Blaine’s short hair, just as Rachel had done.

“I’m sorry,” Kurt says, and he knows that he’s not the one who should be apologizing to Blaine, but he’s the one who’s there. He is apologizing for Rachel, for everyone who hurt Blaine and didn’t let him heal, for the whole fucked up system that is too hard to challenge, too hard to change. Eventually, Blaine’s breathing evens out into sleep. Kurt stands up as carefully as he can, closing the door quietly behind him and walking back out into the common area of the apartment.

Rachel is waiting for him in the kitchen. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. It’s not an excuse and it’s not an explanation, but Rachel nods.

“I couldn’t get him to stand up,” she says. “I didn’t-- is he always like that?”

“I thought he was getting better,” Kurt says. “I thought that he was getting to okay. He’s been telling me no and he and Beth get along so, so, well, and then... I don’t know. I don’t know what made him freak out like that today, but something-- I don’t know if it was something you did or not, so don’t feel too guilty yet-- something made him stop being the man he’s been for the last few weeks.”

“I’m sorry if it was something I did,” Rachel says. “He startled me, and I think I over-reacted.”

“You over-reacted?” Kurt says dryly, and Rachel smiles at him. “How shocking.”

“Is he going to be all right?” she asks.

A day-- a week ago Kurt would have said yes, of course, all Blaine needed was a few weeks of regular meals and somewhere that let him just be himself, but now he’s not so sure. “I don’t know,” he says. “I hope so.”

* * *

Blaine sleeps until dinner. Beth is the one who comes to wake him up, knocking on the door to Kurt’s bedroom and shouting “Dinner!”

He starts awake and for a minute he doesn’t recognize the room he’s in. He casts his eyes around the room until one of the chair-things finally catches his attention, and he sinks into the pillows. He’s in Kurt’s room, after having a very embarrassing episode in front of Kurt and his guest. Blaine’s not sure he should even go out to have dinner with Kurt, Quinn, and Beth (and Kurt’s guest, if she’s still around)-- he’s clearly not stable enough to deal with anything. He doesn’t want to keep being so difficult, but he can’t help it.

Blaine feels like he’s been sick; like he’s had a fever that’s just broken. He never sleeps in the middle of the day, and it’s throwing his sense of time off. Kurt’s bedside clock is an old-fashioned nickel-plated alarm clock. The clock-face shows that it’s just before seven-- he’s been asleep for hours.

He has tried so hard be what Kurt needs, and he keeps failing at it-- he expects Kurt to be cruel and he’s kind; he expects a slap or a blow and instead gets gentle hands on his head, calming fingers in his hair. Kurt is such a contrast to the other Holders he’s had, and Blaine had thought that he’d been getting used to that. He’d thought that he was getting to okay; he’d been doing more than picking at his share of Beth’s afternoon snacks and seriously starting to contemplate breakfast.

He has a momentary flash of never leaving this bed again, of refusing food and water until he’s nothing, until he’s finally, finally gone.

Blaine almost lets himself drift again, like he had before Kurt had put him to bed (and there’s another contrast: Blaine is still in his t-shirt and boxers; he remember Kurt’s hands, firm on his as he reached to pull them off-- any of his other Holders would have had him naked in seconds, whether they wanted sex or not.) But he can hear Beth through the door, talking with Quinn, and he’s never been afraid of Beth. He disentangles himself from Kurt’s sheets and pulls his jeans back on, folding up his socks and sticking them in one of his pockets.

Bare feet are a sign of vulnerability and dependence. The fact that Blaine had been given shoes that first day showed a huge amount of trust on Kurt’s part; he had never once been provided with shoes in the six months he’d been with the Kyles. It’s harder to run with no shoes; it’s immediately noticeable as something that is different. Blaine is sure that if he’d had anything other than the government-provided slippers with their soft leather soles, he would have run hard and fast from the Kyles, because at the time he’d thought that anything had to be better than them.

But he walks back out with bare feet, because he wants to remind Kurt that he is choosing not to run. He’s not sure that Kurt will get it, but he thinks that Quinn will, and maybe she’ll tell Kurt.

The wood is smooth under his feet and he can hear the chattering of Kurt’s household and his guest in the dining room. “Blaine!” Kurt says, relieved, as Blaine walks in and stands awkwardly at the doorway. “I was almost afraid you were going to sleep through dinner.”

Blaine smiles at Kurt, and for once he doesn’t have to force it. “I wouldn’t miss it,” he says, and if he’s stretching the truth, it isn’t by much. Kurt and Beth make him want to try, which is more than he can say for anyone else, including himself.

Kurt has saved Blaine a seat next to his own, and he gestures Blaine into place. “I called Emma this afternoon,” he says, quietly. “I’d like for us to talk, after dinner. You’re not in trouble, there are are just-- there are things I need to know.”

Blaine’s smile is a little more forced, but really only a little. Emma won’t lie to Kurt, but he’s been lying to Emma, so who knows what Kurt wants to talk about. Right now, there is dinner with Quinn and Beth and Kurt’s guest, who introduces herself as Rachel Berry, star in the making. She laughs and says that he can say that he knew-her-when, and she blushes when he smiles at her. Rachel’s much less terrifying when she’s not pointing mace at him or ordering him around, but she’s still frighteningly enthusiastic about everything.

Nonetheless, it’s a good night.

Chapter Text

While they're still sitting awkwardly in the kitchen, Blaine sleeping curled up on Kurt's bed, Rachel toys nervously with one of her bracelets (dozens of silver bangles-- she'd probably shoved them on that morning without thinking; she's not the one who flinches at the sight of Quinn or Blaine's, hanging heavy and too obvious). "I maybe-- I might have pulled my mace on him," Rachel finally admits. "There was a strange man inside your apartment! I didn't-- what if he was lying in wait for me?!"

"You weren't supposed to get back from Baltimore for another three days, Rachel," Kurt retorts. "And you couldn't have called ahead?"

"It's possible that I was so distracted by the successful conclusion of the show that I... completely forgot what date I'd given you. But you have another Def, Kurt! That's the kind of thing you share with your friends!"

"It's the kind of thing that is occasionally incredibly embarrassing to talk about," Kurt counters. "Hi, Rachel, I've just purchased the services of an incredibly handsome man who has no legal right to say no, and I promise I'm not using him for sex!"

"Kurt, I-- I'd never think that of you, I promise," Rachel says earnestly.

He sighs. "I know-- but not everyone has the same trust in my morals. They assume that because I'm gay, because I have this new Def-- that I must be fucking him, because I haven't had a public boyfriend, ever, and I have to buy sex."

"I don't think that."

"I know, Rachel. And I'd never-- even if he wanted to, I don't think I could." He leans back against the arm of the couch, where he'll be sleeping that night if Blaine doesn't wake up at some point during the evening. It's not the most comfortable bed, and Kurt mentally promises himself that he'll push the search for a new apartment along again, so Blaine can have space that's really his own. But now Kurt has to wonder if that's safe, because Blaine had been so-- he'd been too light, too fragile, when Kurt had led him into the bedroom.

Kurt knows the fashion world isn't the kindest to bodies or minds; he'd watched himself closely the entire time he'd been in school for every extra ounce and ruthlessly cut every unnecessary part of his diet until Quinn had pulled him back, thrown out the diet sodas and the endless spinach salads with no dressing ("They're not good for you, me, or Beth," she'd said. "Not for day after day, and we have to live through this-- you have to live through this, or we won't."). He doesn't know if that's what's going on with Blaine (Kurt hasn't owned a bathroom scale since halfway through his sophomore year when everything just got to be too much), but something isn't right.

* * *

Once Rachel is settled and out of the way, Kurt does the only thing he can think of-- he calls Emma, Blaine's Foster. Quinn has been making herself scarce around Blaine for the last few weeks, like she's even less sure of him than Kurt is, so he thinks that Emma is definitely the better choice. They've really only talked once or twice, and only ever about Blaine's contract, but he just-- he doesn't know how to deal with any of this, not right now. Blaine seems to be so far beyond the point where Kurt can do anything to help, and even though he's not sure if talking with Emma will make that better or worse, he has to try.

"This is Emma Pillsbury," she says.

"Ms. Pillsbury?" he says, and he'd like to think that his voice isn't just the slightest bit shaky. "This is Kurt Hummel-- I'm Blaine's--"

"You're Blaine's Holder, of course," she says. "What can I do for you, Mr. Hummel?"

"I've, um," he says, and maybe he hasn't thought this all the way though, because he's not sure how to tell her what's wrong. Honestly, he's not exactly positive what exactly is wrong. "I've been having some problems with Blaine."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. Hummel," she says crisply, and he can hear the chill in her voice. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"He, um-- today. He had a breakdown, I think? And I've been very-- I've been very pleased," he says, wincing at his word choice and the stupid societal implications, because he's never touched Blaine any way but platonically, "but I want-- I need to know if it's something that happens frequently, and how to deal with it-- with him-- if it happens again." Kurt sounds like he has no idea what he's talking about-- and he doesn't, not really-- but he hopes that Emma understands, at least somewhat.

"Can you tell me exactly what happened?" Emma asks.

"I-- no, not everything, because I wasn't here for all of it, but he'd been doing a lot better," Kurt says. "He's been great with Beth-- I swear, sometimes it seems like she loves him more than she loves me-- and he's been saying no when he doesn't like something and not spacing out nearly as often, but my friend Rachel came by today and... I think they scared each other."

"How so?" Emma prompts, apparently sensing his hesitancy. "I'm sorry, Mr. Hummel, but I need to know before I can help."

"He was kneeling-- I don't want him to, but he does it when he's stressed, and-- she told him to stay," he says. "And I guess-- he stayed, and it just-- it's like it broke something, and she couldn't get him to stand back up or do anything, not until she got me on the phone, and even then... I couldn't really do anything until I got home, and he was-- he's bigger than you'd think, you know? Because he always keeps his shoulders in, but I was getting him to sleep, and he's too light.

"And I guess that's why I'm calling. I don't know what I'm doing, because I don't know everything that could be wrong." He takes a deep breath and rubs a hand across his forehead. "Is there anything that I don't know that could be helpful? I don't want to send him back, not unless he'd be happier, but I just-- I can't help him with the information I have, and I know that there must be more of it."

"I don't know if I can help you, Mr. Hummel," Emma says, but she's hesitant, so he presses.

"Please," he says. "Please, I just want to help him."

It's quiet over the line for long seconds; Kurt would be sure that she'd hung up except he can hear her breathing. "I can't legally tell you everything, but you already know that you're not Blaine's first Holder. I'm not Blaine's first Foster, either-- he started out with a man named Joseph, so he has a lot of experience with One-on-One work. He hasn't had any since I took over he case four years ago, though, so it's possible that the re-introduction has been a little rough on him."

"I can't imagine how you came to that conclusion," Kurt says, dryly sarcastic. "Can you think of anything that might actually help?"

"Mr. Hummel, you have to understand that this information is confidential for Blaine's sake and that I can't just give you everything."

"I understand that," Kurt bites out, "but unless you give me something I can do, I'll just-- I'll sue for records, anything. I can't work with what I have, and Blaine won't tell me."

"He could tell you," Emma says. "I mean, you could make--"

"I could make him tell me?" Kurt hisses, almost not believing that she'd even suggest that. "I could force Blaine-- who is already freaked out and mostly unresponsive, right now-- to tell me why he doesn't act like-- why he can't act like--"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Hummel," she says. "It's the most direct way to get the information you want."

"And I'd never use it."

"Okay. Let me-- I can review Blaine's work history with you," she offers, like it's the best she can do. It probably is, and he almost wishes that she was just a little less moral, so she could just tell him what to do.

"Okay," he says, and he scrambles for a pen and paper like he's going to take notes, just before she starts talking.

"Blaine was marked at age fifteen, as you know. He spent the required first six months at our facility in Columbus, learning the rules and regulations of his new life as a Def.

"When he'd completed the orientation procedures, he did his first one-on-one work, with a young married couple. When a Def leaves the Department, we always check their statistics, to ensure they are being treated humanely by their Holders," Emma says carefully, and Kurt has the sinking feeling that he knows what's coming next. "When he left the Department, he was just under five foot six and within our guidelines for healthy weight-- he's never been the biggest guy, I think, but when he got back from the K-- from his first Holder-- he was the same height and had a--" He can hear the hitch in her breathing over the phone. "I'm sorry. It's hard to read this."

She takes a deep breath and blows it out; it fuzzes in the phone. "When he came back after six months, his BMI was 16, which is--"

"Which is starving," Kurt breathes, and he squeezes his eyes shut. "I can't believe that's-- that it's legal to treat someone like that."

"Oh, it's not," she reassures, "and he should have been pulled out months before it got that bad, but... Fosters take a commission for the Defs that work one-on-one," Emma explains. "I don't care about that, but Joseph did, and as soon as Blaine was old enough... he pushed Blaine into it, I'm sure. After he came back from his first Holders and had recovered somewhat, he was sent back out to do one-on-one work again, and that pattern continued. Blaine was with Joseph for about seven years, before I became Blaine's Foster, and-- Blaine's never really talked about it, but there are notes in his file that prospective Holders don't see. There's nothing as severe as his first Holder, as far as I can tell, but we just record the physical data."

Meaning, of course, that there might have been something worse than Blaine almost starving to death when he'd been sixteen. It's horrifying and appalling, but Kurt is beyond frustrated with the DoL, though, if they've known all along that Blaine just... collapses like this when he works one-on-one.

"I don't have anything on file about Blaine having this sort of a-- of a reaction to working one-on-one," Emma continues, and Kurt can maybe forgive her if she honestly didn't know. "I've been with him for years, but he's always done in-house work for me, so I apologize if we've disappointed you."

"Apology accepted," Kurt says, because he does need an apology from someone at the DoL. Blaine needs more than an apology, and he's never going to get anything.

"Do you-- are you going to send him back?" Emma asks, and Kurt is fairly sure that he could never send Blaine back in good conscience, not after what he's learned from Emma. As difficult as Blaine may be right now, he's been Kurt's responsibility for weeks now, and will continue to be so until the end of his contract.

"No," he says, and he's fairly sure that he isn't imagining Emma's sigh of relief. "No, it's-- well, it's not fine, but at least I know that it's not something I did."

"I'm sure it wasn't," Emma says. "Do you have any more questions for me?"

Yes, he thinks. What was worst for him? Am I his fourth Holder or his fifteenth? Why doesn't he like peanut butter and why doesn't he sing along with the songs he plays? Why did Rachel terrify him more than I do?

Why couldn't all of this never have happened?

* * *

Beth goes pounding down the hallway to wake Blaine up before Kurt can stop her, but in the end, he's glad she did. Blaine flinches at half of the things that Rachel says and seems to be moving at half-speed, like he's still asleep, but his eyes are clear and he doesn't look at Kurt like he's someone else. Somehow Blaine's bare feet are more vulnerable than any other part of him, and Blaine seems to be aware of them like he's making a statement-- Kurt doesn't get it, but from the way Quinn stares when Blaine first walks in, she does.

He's almost dreading the conversation that he knows he has to have with Blaine, because he's not ready for it-- and neither, he thinks, is Blaine. But it has to happen now, before things get any worse.

After dinner, Rachel leads Quinn and Beth into the living room to regale them with stories and songs from the tour-- Kurt hopes that his neighbors aren't intending to have an early night, because Rachel sometimes forgets that she's singing in an apartment building and not a four-hundred-seat theater. Blaine sits quietly, waiting for Kurt to tell him to do something. "Clear the table," Kurt says, "but leave the dishes for later. Then come and see me."

He can see how the tension just sort of melts out of Blaine, now that he's got something to do, and it makes him even more nervous than he had been. He walks down the hallway to his room, sits in one of the less-comfortable chairs, and tries to put his thoughts in order. Kurt can hear the clink of dishes from the kitchen and the fainter sounds of Rachel singing in the living room, but his thoughts are all on Blaine.

Kurt isn't trained in any way to deal with this; he's already considered and rejected the idea of sending Blaine to someone-- a psychologist, someone who could help-- but he doesn't know how to look for someone who will work with Defs like they're actual people. He's sure that he could ask the DoL for a recommendation and equally sure that they have no idea what they're doing with their Defs, if Blaine can starve when he's sixteen and be sent back out just a few months later.

Blaine knocks softly at the door and waits for Kurt to call him in.

"Take a seat," Kurt says, once Blaine's in the room and the door is closed. Blaine takes a step towards the bed before turning and choosing a chair that faces Kurt's. It puts them on the same level, and Kurt takes it as a positive sign-- maybe Blaine is getting to be more confident.

"Before we start talking, I just want to be clear on a few things: I'm not sending you away, unless you want to go back to the DoL. You will not be punished for anything you say tonight, and if I ask a question you don't want to answer, please just say so." Kurt takes a deep breath before he continues. "I think we need to talk about what happened today with Rachel."

"Of course," Blaine says. "What would you like to know?"

"Rachel says that you surprised her when she came in, and that's why she pulled out the mace. Do-- can you tell me what happened next?"

"I can't remember all of it, s-Kurt," Blaine says. "I was-- I don't know how to answer this question. She told me to stay where I was, and I stayed there."

"Blaine," Kurt says, trying and failing to catch Blaine's eyes, which are pointed firmly at Kurt's knees, "I think you and I both know that something beyond that went on."

"She reminded me of one of my former Holders," Blaine says, hushed and confessional. "I wasn't sure where I was, for a minute."

This is something Kurt is helpless in front of; he doesn't know how to help. He's done reading on trauma, on stress disorders and what could, possibly, be going on in Blaine's head. "Can you tell me what made you remember?" he asks.

Blaine shifts uncomfortably. "Hearing you over the phone helped-- I do remember that. But I don't know if it's because it was you or whether it would have worked with any of my previous Holders." His shoulders are hunching in and his face is burning red in shame, and Kurt wants to reach out and make Blaine realize that he has nothing to be ashamed of.

"It's fine," Kurt says instead of taking Blaine's hands. "It's fine that you don't know-- I probably wouldn't know either, if I were in your position. I don't need to be-- to be special like that for you."

"You are," Blaine says suddenly, and he actually looks up. He doesn't meet Kurt's eyes, but he's not blushing or looking at the carpet or the legs of his chair (to be fair, they're pretty interesting chairs). "You-- I don't know if you know how different you are from everyone else. You make me feel--" Blaine pauses, breathes out. "You make me feel safe."

Now it's Kurt's turn to blush. "I haven't done anything special."

Blaine smiles, and as far as Kurt can tell, it's a real smile. Kurt feels his shoulders drop, most of the tension gone, because here is the Blaine he's been looking for from the moment he'd stepped into Kurt's apartment and gone straight to his knees instead of being the aware, bitter man he'd met over Skype. He likes this Blaine-- he hopes that this is the Blaine who's under all of those other layers. "Exactly," Blaine says. "Can I-- right now, I think I can try to explain."

"Oh, please," Kurt says, and he almost feels like laughing in relief. "Please."

Blaine sits up a little straighter and gathers himself in, hands held together in front of him. "The first time you go out to do one-on-one work, they tell you to present yourself as physically lower than your Holder-- because that's where your place is. It's where my place is, and it's been my place for a long time, now. Re-learning that is... it's difficult."

Kurt is so amazed that Blaine is finally talking that he almost doesn't process what he's saying. "Okay," he says. "Okay, we can go with that. Just-- if you can talk to me or to Quinn when something gets to be too much, when you feel like you're spiraling-- maybe we can help."

"I can't add any trouble to your life," Blaine says, hesitant as always.

"Believe me-- this will actually make my life easier." Kurt smiles wryly. "I'd much rather help you before things get bad than after they're already there."

"I can't promise that I'll always be able to tell when it's happening-- what happened with your friend was so sudden that I don't think I'd have been able to let you know, in a case like that-- but I'll try. I promise I'll try."

Kurt smiles at him (how could he not, when Blaine is clearly trying so hard right now?) and Blaine smiles back. "There's one more thing," Kurt says.

"Yes, Kurt?"

He thinks that if he comes at this from the side, maybe Blaine won't feel attacked or over-watched. "I've been in the fashion industry for a while," he says, "and I should have noticed earlier. But-- Blaine. Earlier today, when I was..." he breaks off, because he would find this hard to say to anyone, but Blaine is still so fragile.

Blaine's head drops like he knows what's coming, and to Kurt's surprise, Blaine's the one who speaks. "After my first Holders," he says, "I had-- I didn't want to. Food was difficult."

"Okay," Kurt says. He is so relived that Blaine might actually be aware of what he's doing-- the fact that it might be somewhat intentional actually makes him feel better.

Blaine smiles crookedly over at Kurt-- not meeting his eyes, but not trying to disappear, either. "It's one of the things you didn't ask me to do, not in any consistent way. You asked me to-- you wanted me to eat dinner with you sometimes and to grab a snack if I'm hungry, but it's not the same. And I thought-- if I could pretend that it was a choice, most of the time, that maybe-- it's the one thing I'm in control of," he says, and Kurt can hear what Blaine's not saying: please, please don't take the choice away from me.

"Okay," Kurt says again. "Okay, I'm not going to-- I'm not going to tell you to eat. I'm not going to force you, but Blaine-- it's not healthy, okay? I could feel your bones, Blaine, it was terrifying-- but the choice is still yours."

"Thank you, Kurt," Blaine says, and his shoulders relax and his eyes start to get that far-away look they'd had when Kurt had come home that afternoon.

Kurt has a brief moment of panic-- has he pushed Blaine too much too fast, is Blaine just trying to make him happy by telling him all of this? "Hey, hey," he says, reaching out to touch Blaine's shoulder, because he's thought about it the entire time they've been talking-- Blaine holds himself apart so well that he doesn't really invite physical contact, but Kurt can't help but think that he might need it. Blaine blinks up at him, all the way present again. "It's been a long day."

Blaine isn't just present again, he's smiling at Kurt. "Thank you," he says. "I'll go finish cleaning up."

Kurt waves a hand at him. "Leave it for the morning-- go and get some sleep."

Blaine stands and turns to walk out of the room. He pauses in the doorway, one hand raised to the door frame, like he's about to say something, but he drops his hand and pads out into the hallway, leaving Kurt to think alone.

* * *

In the morning when Blaine wakes up his thoughts are as clear as they have been in years. He still feels like most of the previous day was a hazy dream (only parts of it were a nightmare), but right now he can think and, more surprisingly, he can feel. It started with the conversation he'd had with Kurt, when he'd actually felt safe-- like it's okay for him to not be all right. Like he doesn't have to be perfect for Kurt.

He lies in bed for a few minutes, just... enjoying the sun and the soft cotton sheets. It's been a while since he's let himself be. He's not... things aren't bad. There is nothing wrong with Kurt or his life here in New York. He has food and a bed that's only uncomfortable if he sleeps more than eight hours; he's got Beth and he has choice. It's a choice not to eat and he still has that, but it's also a choice to do the opposite: to eat breakfast with Beth and lunch in between cleaning and researching for Kurt, to sit down for dinner every night and not panic because even if eating isn't an order it's clearly expected. There's a reason why so many cultures have rituals around food, because there is something to breaking bread with family.

Breakfast. He can do this.

"Good morning," Quinn says, startling him. He pushes himself up until he can see her, curled up around a book in an armchair across the room. She's wearing an old pair of jeans and a grey sweater that looks like vintage cashmere; it's the most casual clothing he's seen her in.

"Good morning, miss," he says.

She presses her lips together and he wonders what he's done to displease her. "Quinn, please."

"Is there anything I can do for you?" he asks, because it seems like she's been waiting for him to wake up; he's clearly been asleep too long.

"I tried to talk Kurt out of purchasing your contract," she says, all in a rush, and he blinks at her, confused and a little shocked. "It was my idea, him getting another Def, and I-- I saw your face and your background and I panicked, because it suddenly hit me." She bites her lip, then continues. "I know that I've been lucky with Kurt. I've never had to-- I've never had to wonder about my contract or Beth or any of what you must have gone through, because Kurt's been with me the entire time. He pulled me out when I was two weeks into orientation and he and his dad bullied the school board into letting me finish high school-- I don't even know what you were doing when you were sixteen."

He doesn't answer, because at sixteen he'd been starving and terrified all the time and he'd really rather not think about it-- and even with all that, it might actually be better than what she's imagining.

"I don't want to try to drag every detail out of you, because I honestly don't think you'd tell me. But I wanted to tell you why I've been avoiding you. It's not anything you did; I've just been reminded of how lucky I've been, because aside from my legal status as a second-class citizen, I can't even compare. I don't even know anything about you and I know that my life has been better than yours. And I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry," he says. "You don't have anything to apologize for-- you don't have to apologize for how you feel."

"Blaine," she says seriously, looking him straight in the eyes, "you shouldn't have to apologize for feeling."

He takes a deep breath, then exhales, because he is here. Everything is a little bit raw and strange, but for the first time in a long time-- for the first time in years-- he feels like himself. He looks back at Quinn steadily. "I'm glad you didn't succeed in talking him out of it. I'm-- I'm happy here. I could be happy."

"God, Blaine," she says, and she tucks her hair back behind her ear, looking down at her knees. When she looks back up, her smile is shaky but it's real. "I'm glad I didn't, too."

She unfolds herself from the chair and offers him a hand up; he's only wearing a t-shirt and boxers but he left his dignity with they Kyles so he takes it. Instead of leading him to the kitchen for breakfast or sending him to change, though, she pulls him in close for a hug. Her hands come up over his shoulder blades and her face presses into his neck, and they sort of stand there and breathe for a minute.

It's the most anyone has touched him when he was present to enjoy it in a very long time; he's never found Quinn to be the least bit threatening. She's a mom, in the best sense of the word, and even though she's busy enough that she and Kurt had brought him in to help with Beth, she's always got a minute to help with homework or Beth's hair in the mornings. Blaine sees her care for Beth every time she encourages her daughter to do something that she loves because she loves it, not because it's what right or proper or expected. Blaine hugs Quinn back so he can soak up the littlest edges of that mom-ness, so he can feel safe until she lets go.

But she does let go, eventually. Even then, though, she keeps her hold on his hand and tugs him toward the kitchen. Either it's early enough that he and Quinn are the only ones up, or he's slept long enough that they're the only ones still here. "Kurt went in today," she says when she notices him looking around. "And I had Victor drive Beth in this morning. It's just you and me today-- go sit down. I'm making breakfast."

He sits awkwardly at one of the bar stools, still in his boxers and t-shirt; it's a strange mirror of his first morning in New York. Quinn's making something that apparently requires half a dozen things from the fridge and the blender. "I was a cheerleader when I met Kurt," she says. "Our coach was insane-- she'd make us eat whatever fad diet was in vogue, or whatever greenery hadn't made her angry that week. Most of the girls just shrugged it off and ate what they wanted when they weren't at school, but some-- I learned to recognize the signs." He watches her hands while she mixes and measures, not really paying attention to what she's making.

She hands him a glass and it smells so strongly of peanuts that he nearly gags. He pushes the glass back across the bar. "Thank you," he says. "Thank you, but I can't."

"Blaine, you need to eat something--"

"And I will, I promise you I will, I'll eat anything but that," he babbles. "Please, I swear I will, just--"

"Blaine. Calm down," Quinn says, eyes wide. "It's okay."

He focuses on his breathing for a few long minutes, because that's the downside of being this aware-- he knows exactly why he doesn't want to drink what she's made him. "Did you know," he says, careful because he can't just tell her outright, "that some of the most intense nutritional supplements are made from peanuts?"

"Mm," Quinn says, taking the glass from him and leaning back against the sink, sipping it slowly. "Oh," she shudders. "I'm sorry."

"It was a long time ago," he says-- not that it makes it any better, but most days, he can forget about the reasons he doesn't like to eat if he doesn't have to. "Peanuts still aren't my favorite."

"Right-- no more peanut anything." She rinses the blender out in the sink, careful of the blades. "How do you feel about bananas?"

Blaine smiles at her, because she's clearly making an effort, and he does like bananas. "Bananas are great."

Chapter Text

At the end of the school year, Blaine and Beth start spending hours of every day at the park nearest to Kurt's apartment. They leave just before lunch (they stop at the deli along the way and slowly work their way through every combination of meat and cheese), then spend the afternoon running and laughing, conducting scientific experiments on the grasses in the pond and throwing water balloons at each other from behind the safety of the play structures. Beth sometimes invites her friends from school, so Blaine meets Susanna and Julie and Melanie.

If their parents look at him strangely when he meets them at the park, he tries not to notice.

In late June he meets Julie's mom, Paige. She's sparkling and gregarious and always friendly; she's the only parent whose eyes don't stick on Blaine's silver bracelet. She's in finance; she works hard during the year and takes the summers off to be with Julie. She groans about spreadsheets and tax forms for the first few weeks, then mellows out. He never asks her why she's different, but she eventually mentions that her older sister (and she's a Second, oh) works as a nurse for the DoL.

"She used to tell us horror stories," Paige says. They're sitting at the picnic benches, watching Julie chase Beth with a water gun. "She'd tell us all these awful things that'd happen to the people she treated and made the rest of us promise to remember that you're just people."

He smiles at her-- he likes how honest she is. She doesn't lie to Julie the way that some of the other parents do, she doesn't liberal-guilt her way around his job (Blaine works for Beth's dad, they say, never meeting his eyes. He always wears that bracelet because he must like it.), and half the time she brings a ziplock bag full of cookies to share with him while they're watching the kids.

"Thank you," he says.

She shrugs. "If I hadn't seen the bracelet, I would've thought you were Beth's dad. Well, step-dad-- I have met Kurt a few times."

The girls come cannonballing back and demand their cookies and sandwiches. Paige laughs and ruffles Julie's hair before handing her a paper-wrapped sandwich and a juice box; Blaine does the same for Beth. He's not very hungry, so he picks at the crusts of his own sandwich but forces himself to eat the chicken and the cheese, at least, because Paige will notice if he doesn't eat anything. Beth and Julie are talking about their summer reading (they're starting sixth grade in the fall; Blaine doesn't remember having summer reading that early, but it's just one book and less than a hundred pages). Beth had finished it in two days.

The girls bounce back to the tire swing after they finish their lunch (and throw their trash away, because Kurt wants Beth to be self-sufficient and not expect Blaine to do everything for her).

"How are you doing, Blaine?" Paige asks, not quite looking at him.

"I'm okay," he says, suddenly on edge. Paige has never seen him spiral or break down, so he has no idea why she's suddenly shy about asking. "Why do you ask?"

She blushes. "Look, I don't care, and I think Kurt's wonderful-- but some of the other parents have been talking and asking about you--"

He smiles wryly, because he's not mad at her. "Have you ever owned a Def? Has anyone else who's been asking?"

"No," Paige says. "I mean-- a three-day hire, once, when we were re-modeling the bathroom, but nothing long-term. And I'm not really sure about anyone else-- I think Marisa used to, but I don't know if she still has the girl or not."

"Okay." He pauses, trying to figure out how to put out what he feels about Kurt and his relationship with his Holder. "Kurt is the best Holder I've had. Ever. Hands-down, no exaggeration. He's-- what I do for him is honestly just a job. There are no hidden expectations, there's nothing I have to worry about. My job is to make Beth happy; my job is to make sure that she does her homework and practices the piano. My job is to remind Kurt about events and make sure that he calls his parents. It's a job, just like any other job."

"And that's good?" she asks.

"It's amazing-- I don't have to constantly wonder if I'm missing something or if I'm not doing what he wants, because he tells me what his expectations are. I'm not doing anything I don't want to do, and you're welcome to tell them all that."

Paige sighs. "I will. I'm sorry for asking, I just thought you'd rather I ask you than one of the other moms. I won't pass everything on, because they don't need to know, but-- thanks for telling me."

He feels a little guilty for lying to her, because he does obsess about pleasing Kurt, making sure that everything is exactly as his Holder wants it and dissociating when his memories and emotions get to be too much. But those are private things, and while he likes Paige a lot, there isn't really anyone outside Kurt's household he would tell. "It's not a problem."

* * *

It isn't until just after the Fourth of July that Blaine fucks everything up.

The weather is really too hot to be outside, but they go to the park anyway, armed with water guns and empty water balloons. They're going to meet Julie and Paige after lunch, but the morning is all theirs, so they check out the frogs in the pond (and can't find any) and try to identify the different kinds of birds they see ("Pigeon, pigeon, pigeon-- oh! Is that-- no, pigeon.").

Beth is walking over to the picnic tables backwards, feet grapevining and arms stretched out for balance, so she misses the curb and falls over with a high shriek that Blaine knows he'll be hearing in his nightmares, because this is the moment. He's more than halfway through his contract, but he won't make it to the end because this is going to be the mistake that Kurt isn't going to forgive.

She catches herself badly, one of her wrists folding up under her. She doesn't bounce back up like she usually does when she falls, and he freezes in place.

But then he blinks, and he's on his knees next to her. "Ow," Beth says, like she's testing out the word for the first time. "Ow," she says again, louder, in a voice that clearly means this-hurts-a-lot-and-I-don't-know-how-to-express-how-much. She's holding herself up by her left hand (he notices that her elbow is bleeding; she must have scraped it on the cement), so he gets an arm around her back and helps her sit up all the way.

His training didn't cover what to do when the girl in his charge is holding her right wrist like she can't even bear to touch it and her eyes are filling with tears. He's always been the one who is directed-- he's not used to being the person in charge. Beth's left hand grabs his shirt; she's sobbing into his collar and he does no know what to do--

--and Blaine thanks every little god he knows because Paige comes running up with her mom-face firmly in place. "Oh, Beth," she says, kneeling next to Blaine.

He's sort of amazed at how quickly she takes charge of the situation, directing Julie to get water and paper towels from the bathroom for Beth's scraped elbow. She tells Blaine to call Kurt and Quinn and tell them that they're headed to the hospital-- he can't remember which one, the words just flow through him from Paige to Quinn's deliberately calm ears-- and he helps her bundle Beth into her car.

Blaine spares a wish for sirens, because even though he knows that Beth can't really be hurt that badly, it's bad enough for the hospital, which means it's the end for him.

* * *

Kurt doesn't want to get too complacent, but Blaine really does seem like he's doing better-- like he's actually functional.

When something is too much or too fast, when it reminds him too much of his previous Holders or some other awful, awkward moment in his past, he reaches out-- he lets one of them know with a wild glance and a word (Emily, dragon, sheets, Alec, peanut, hands, Mariamariamaria) that means nothing to either of them but everything to Blaine. They learn, though, that Alec means Quinn needs to tell Blaine that he's okay; sheets means Blaine goes to sit on the fire escape and breathe, whether it's pouring rain or almost too hot to touch the metal railings. Maria is the worst; Maria means that Blaine doesn't want to be touched by anyone for hours, until he desperately, desperately does, shaking with need for someone, anyone (but especially Kurt) to hold his hands but not get any closer than that.

It's not that things have been perfect with Blaine (who had stared just a little too long at the candles on Beth's birthday cake and excused himself as soon as he'd been able; who has stayed as far away from Rachel as he could without making it obvious or insulting), but he hasn't had another breakdown.

Kurt is actually humming as he sketches out designs for the winter line. It's actually kind of ridiculous, how content he feels right in that moment.

Quinn's heels are clicking too fast down the hallway, so Kurt spins around in his chair and leans out to catch her wrist as she walks by. "Hey, Q-- what's going on?"

She blinks, like she's surprised to see him. Her eyes are wilder than he's comfortable with, and she's breathing too fast. "Beth fell down at the park and hurt herself, so Blaine and Paige-- Julie's mom-- they're at the hospital. I'm on my way--"

All Kurt hears are the words Beth and hospital. He stands up without even thinking about it and follows her out.

On the table, he leaves his sketchpad full of half-imagined clothes covered in overlapping silver circles.

* * *

Blaine sits in the back seat with Beth as they drive to the hospital, cradling her against his chest. He holds the hand that isn't hurt and wishes he could do something more than occasionally brush Beth's hair off her forehead.

"I'm okay," she says, but there are tears on her face and her voice wobbles. He realizes that she's trying to be brave for him, and his heart breaks a little more. "But it hurts, Uncle Blaine."

"Shh," he soothes, not thinking about what she'd just called him because he can't, it's one more thing to worry about and guilt over; it'll just make him miss her more when he's gone. "We'll be there soon." He wills Paige to drive just a little bit faster so they can get there immediately. She meets his eyes in the rear-view mirror and sees the crease between her brows-- he knows that she's heard what Beth just called him and he can't.

He drops his eyes and looks down at the top of Beth's head. He wants to tell he that everything will be okay, that he'll be there for her when she grows up and help her with her calculus homework, but he's not going to be around much longer, not after he's failed like this.

They finally drive up to the emergency room doors; Paige tells Blaine to go in while she finds parking. He has to be calm because Paige isn't there and Beth is too young to deal with this on her own.

Beth is too big for him to carry so he shepherds her in, one hand careful on her back until they can find a nurse. They make their way to the receptionist, who takes one look at Blaine's wrist and Beth's tear-streaked face and says, "Oh, honey, what happened?"

"Fell down and hurt my wrist," Beth says through her sniffles.

"We were at the park, and she--" Blaine starts, but the receptionist cuts him off.

"Let me get you checked in, sweetie," the receptionist says. "What's your name?"

"Beth H-hummel," Beth says, then grabs Blaine's leg with her good arm and turns her face into his side. "Uncle Blaine, when are mom and Kurt coming?"

"They'll be here soon," he says to her, spreading his hand across her shoulders, and he hopes it's not a lie. He turns back to the receptionist, who's looking at him like he's doing something terrible by comforting Beth. "Her name's Beth Hummel-- she fell and hurt her wrist at the park. I have her insurance card and her health information."

"What's your relationship to her?" the receptionist asks waspishly.

"Her father is my Holder," Blaine says, because legally, that's the relationship between the three of them. "He's on his way."

"I see," she says. "Well, if you give me her information I can get you started, but we'll have to wait for parental consent before we can start any treatment."

Beth whimpers against his side. "I have written permission to make health care decisions for Beth," Blaine says, pulling out his wallet and handing her Beth's insurance card, his identification, and the itemized list of things that he is allowed to do, which thankfully includes emergency medical care for Beth Hummel.

The receptionist is still suspicious, but she runs the insurance card and signs Beth in, then hands her an ice pack and asks her to please take a seat. She doesn't speak to Blaine directly again, she doesn't look him in the eyes or acknowledge him.

Blaine finds a padded bench and takes a seat, helping Beth up next to him. She leans into his side and he slings an arm around her back, holding the ice pack in place on her wrist with his other hand. His phone starts buzzing when they've only been there for a few minutes, so he hands the ice pack off to Beth. He knows that he's not supposed to have his phone on in the hospital, but it's Kurt texting him to say that he and Quinn are on their way and will be there in just a few minutes, barring traffic.

Paige and Julie find them just moments before Kurt and Quinn come swinging in through the doors of the ER. Blaine's not good for much other than letting Beth cling to him, so he lets the others talk and absently pets Beth's hair as she sniffles against him.

He sees Quinn's half-desperate expression and, without saying anything, they trade places, Beth latching on to her mom just like she had Blaine. He stands awkwardly away from them as Kurt thanks Paige for driving Beth in. Paige turns in to give Blaine a hug-- the first time she's done so, but it's been a stressful afternoon.

"Goodbye," he whispers into her hair. She's the first real friend he's made in such a long time, and even though they've only known each other a few weeks, he's going to miss her when Kurt sends him back. She squeezes him tighter before letting go.

"I'll see you at the park, okay?" He smiles as best he can and nods. She walks away, tugging Julie along behind her.

The rest of the afternoon is a blur of x-rays, doctors, and a carefully-wrapped royal blue fibreglass cast. The doctors say that Beth has a greenstick fracture which means that she should be fine but will need to wear a cast for at least four weeks, probably six. Blaine's not sure why Kurt and Quinn look at him expectantly whenever they're called in to a room, like he's still part of their household.

In between doctors, Beth goes back and forth between Blaine and Quinn, tucking her thumb into her mouth in a habit that's years old. Everything seems to take longer than it should, like time is dragging its heels. Blaine does his best to enjoy his last few hours with Beth, which is difficult when she's leaking tears (not sobbing any more, thankfully). He doesn't want to say goodbye to her in front of Kurt or Quinn; he doesn't want to say goodbye to any of them.

Blaine knows that he's spiralling, slow and steady, down and in, but he doesn't tell Kurt or Quinn that it's happening, let them stop it and wake him up. He just lets it happen, because whatever Kurt does to him for failing this badly won't hurt as much if he isn't there.

* * *

Beth's really too big to carry, now, but she clings to Kurt's chest from the time they exit the cab until he sets her down carefully on her bed. Rachel doesn’t come rushing out to meet them, so she must be out somewhere or sleeping on someone else’s couch; he doesn’t care aside from the fact that she is blessedly not there. Blaine follows stumbling behind and turns away from Beth's room, from the evidence of how he's failed so completely. He sits down on the floor in front of the sofa bed in the living room and brings his knees up in front of him. He's not kneeling, because Kurt had made it clear how okay that wasn't, but he can't-- he doesn't deserve anything else, right now.

He'd been so stupid to think he could make it through six months without fucking up this badly. He should have known that nothing this good could ever last, because what's Kurt going to do to him now? There's no way that he's keeping Blaine on, unless it's to hurt him like he'd let Beth be hurt. It's all his fault-- there's no doubt in his mind that he's headed back to the DoL. For the first time in a while he hates that Kurt has made him so aware-- even as far down as he is, there's nowhere to hide from the disappointment and the crushing guilt.

He doesn't even have the words or the right to apologize-- not to Beth, not to Kurt, not to Quinn. He should just make this easier for everyone (he can think of three easy ways to kill himself inside the apartment, but any of them would be awful for Beth, so he doesn't even though it would be easier if he wasn't around to fuck up again) and unpack his clothing from the vintage steamer trunk that had replaced the suitcase. Maybe it's a good thing that Kurt had never found the perfect apartment (there's another failure, because he hadn't even been good enough to find something as straightforward as a new place for Kurt's household to live), because then he and Quinn would be stuck with an extra room until they found someone better to take his place.

Blaine tries to force himself further in, because everything hurts too much. He can't be here, he shouldn't be anywhere; Kurt is entirely justified in anything he does to Blaine. But no matter how hard he concentrates on being anywhere but present, he can still feel the rug under his feet and see the carefully-painted subtle stripes on the wall across from him.

Before he's ready for it, he hears Kurt's footsteps in the hallway. "Blaine?" he calls.

"I'm in here, Kurt," he says.

"Oh, there you are," Kurt says. "I was wondering where you'd gone." He walks around to the other side of the sofa and stops short when he sees Blaine.

Blaine is sure that he looks like a mess-- his hair is growing too long and he's been tugging at his sleeves all afternoon. He's never looked like anyone's ideal Def, but he feels especially sloppy right now. "I am sorry that I failed in doing my job," Blaine says.

"Blaine," Kurt says gently, "these things happen. It doesn't mean that you're not doing your job."

"My job is to keep Beth safe," Blaine replies in a monotone. "She was not safe. I wasn't doing my job."

"She's going to be fine. Dr. Kaspar said six weeks in the cast, maximum, and she'll get everyone to sign it." Blaine can tell that Kurt is trying to be reassuring, but instead he just feels smaller and smaller. Kurt sighs. "Look. I've told you before that I'm not going to get rid of you unless you want to go back to the DoL. I'm not going to hurt you. I just-- I need you to get up and help. I can't worry about you and Beth at the same time, so please-- please just get up."

Blaine looks at his hands. "No, thank you," he whispers. He doesn't know why he says it, but he repeats it again, louder. "No."

"Blaine, please," Kurt says.

"No." His hands are clutching at the fabric of his trousers over his knees. This is what I can do, he thinks; maybe if he says no often enough Kurt won't want him any more and he won't be around to make anyone else get hurt. Maybe if he makes Kurt angry enough to hit him then it won't hurt as much when Kurt sends him back. Everything that's happened today, with Beth and the hospital, and everything that's happened since Kurt bought his contract-- it's all his fault. Kurt's put himself through months of discomfort for Blaine, months of Blaine failing to follow orders properly and flinching every time Rachel was in close proximity. If Kurt had a better Def, one who was actually functional instead of this messed up defective thing that Blaine's become, then maybe none of this would have happened.

"Blaine," Kurt says, and his voice is reassuringly hard like it had been that first night, "please just get up," but he finishes high and frantic, and that's not right either-- he's supposed to be getting angry, he's not supposed to be talking with worry in his voice.

"No," Blaine says again, and then he says it over and over; his hands slide up and over his ears so he can't hear Kurt talking.

When Kurt finally touches him it's not to hit him, which Blaine should expect by now, but his first instinct is always to brace for a blow, to protect his eyes and his neck. Kurt slides his hands gently over Blaine's, and slowly pries them away from his ears. Kurt holds Blaine's hands and says, in a voice so steady that Blaine has to hear (even if he's not listening, not quite), "Stop talking. This was not your fault. I will keep saying it until you believe it, but what happened to Beth is not your fault. Now, I need you to stand up. You are going to put your clothes away, and you are going to make dinner."

It's not safe in Blaine's head, not any more, but he can't deal with the outside world either, so he stuck in some sort of in-between where he's swinging back and forth between the comfort and clarity of Kurt's direct orders and the sudden cacophony of his own thoughts. Kurt drags him to his feet and he sways for a few seconds, Kurt holding him steady. He lets go with one hand to tip Blaine's chin up until Blaine is looking into Kurt's uncomfortably blue eyes. "Clothes, dinner. Can you do that for me?"

He doesn't have any choice. "Yes, sir," he says, then he winces in remembrance because Kurt doesn't like being called sir, even if all the names he has for his Holders sound the same in his head.

Kurt said that he'd listen when Blaine said no, but apparently there are limits on that. Blaine's head isn't right and he can't quite concentrate on anything; dinner's going to be a mess no matter what he does. He wants more than anything to say it again-- he can feel the words bubbling up behind his teeth-- but now he knows that Kurt is just like every other Holder he's had: he won't listen if he doesn't want to.

* * *

Dinner tastes like sawdust; Blaine is silent and Beth is plastered to his side, fuzzy with pain medication. Her new cast is awkward and she hasn't quite mastered how to make it go the right direction. Blaine spears tortellini on her fork one at a time and hands them to her, not making eye contact with anyone.

He hardly eats anything himself and he doesn't care if anyone notices.

* * *

When Blaine finally falls asleep, it's late. Kurt stands in the doorway of the living room and watches him twitch in his sleep before he curls up tight, until Blaine's dark hair is all he can see under the comforter. He runs his hands through his own hair (it's the end of the day and he doesn't need to look perfect any more), then turns and walks into the kitchen.

Quinn is sitting in the glow of the single lamp over the table, fiddling with the handle of a mug of tea. The bright aqua of the mug is at odds with her expression: her eyes are tired and red-rimmed and her hair is pulled back in a messy low ponytail.

He sits across from her, slumping down in the chair.

"I don't think I can do this any more," he admits.

She doesn't say anything.

Chapter Text

"I can't do this any more," he says. "I can't. He's-- I can't help him the way he needs to be helped."

Quinn's eyes are tired. "What are you going to do with him?" she asks.

Kurt sighs, defeated. "Break the contract, I guess." Quinn spins her mug of tea slowly from one hand to the other. "I don't want to do this, Quinn, but it's clear that being here is just making things worse for him."

She leans back in her chair and blows over the top of her tea. "I think this is the first time I've ever seen you give up," she says. "It's not like you."

"There's nothing I can do. He's not happy here; I can't make him be happy. When we talked back in May, I thought things were getting better. He's-- he's been eating more and smiling more and I thought he was happy-- or at least content. But instead he's been... I don't know."

Quinn laughs at him. "Wait-- did you actually think one conversation would fix him? Make him feel safe? Straighten out all the parts of him that've been twisted through years of neglect and and abuse? Really, Kurt-- it's almost funny."

"No, I--" he starts, but maybe he had thought that.

"If someone had come up to you when you were fifteen and told you that your dad was totally fine with you being gay and you should come out to him because it's safe, would you believe them?"

"No, but--" But he is safe, he wants to say, just like Kurt had been with his dad. That doesn't matter, though, because Blaine doesn't feel safe. He doesn't have faith in Kurt (understandable, given his history) or in the contract (which is really much more worrisome to Kurt, because it implies things that Kurt hasn't wanted to think about).

"But nothing. If you send him back, he won't-- he won't be able to be himself any more. You've worked so hard-- he's worked so hard at getting back to what he must be like under the layers of self-protection and blind obedience. I'm not sure what would happen if he was sent back to the DoL by someone he trusts, even if it's to Emma." Quinn sounds so certain when she says this that he has to believe her.

"I know it's not the best option, but I thought that if we're doing more harm than good-- maybe it would be better for him," Kurt says. "I tried to tell him that what happened with Beth wasn't his fault, but he just--" He can feel the frustrated tears in his eyes; he wipes them away angrily because he thought he'd grown out of that habit.

Quinn shrugs. "Let it be his fault for right now. Maybe he needs to own the fact that he messed up-- and he did, according to what's written in the contract. He's responsible for Beth's physical safety, and even though it was unintentional and accidental, she did get hurt on his watch. I don't blame him, you don't blame him, and from the way Beth's been clinging to him, she doesn't either."

"But he blames himself," Kurt says heavily.

Quinn finally takes a sip of her tea. "I think you should call Emma. Ask her if she can come and stay for a few days to help Blaine get back on his feet."

"Okay," he says, and looks over at Quinn, finally registering how exhausted she looks. "How are you holding up?"

She smiles dryly. "Well, let's see-- Beth's got a broken wrist and is going to be in a cast for at least the next six weeks, and she's going to be miserable because that means no water-gun fights in July. Blaine's freaked out beyond words. The factory in California somehow managed to break half of their sergers in the past week, so next month's orders are going to be a week late at minimum, and you and I are just peachy." Quinn's teeth shine for a minute in the soft light of the kitchen as she flashes a scarily perky smile at him.

"So things are good, then," Kurt says, giving her the same smile.

Thankfully, her grin softens. "Things are fine. It'll be hard for a while, but we'll come out of it in the end."

"Really, half of their sergers? How did they even--"

"Believe me, you don't want to know."

* * *

The next morning, Blaine doesn't want to get out of bed. It's worse than it was after Rachel, almost as bad as that first month when he wasn't eating anything. Everything is grey and creeping; it feels like he never came back up after spiraling so far down.

Even though he's had a full night of sleep he's tired. His hands are tangled in the sheets, and his chest is aching with some unnameable need. All he wants is for someone to come and tell him what to do, because right now he is floating and adrift in the grey. He moves his body one piece at a time: toes first, curling them in and rotating his ankles; moving up his body until he's finally awake, until the world is muted shades of pre-dawn.

It's early, before anyone else is awake, but Kurt is waiting for him in the kitchen. Blaine fights the urge to kneel at his feet-- it's the strongest it's been in a while. His limbs feel too heavy when he walks; they drag him down when he sits. He has been trying so hard to be perfect for Kurt and it hurts to know how badly he's failed. He can't look Kurt in the eyes, so he watches his shoulders, his hands.

"If it would make you feel better," Kurt says evenly, "you may kneel."

Almost before he realizes what he's doing, Blaine slides off his chair and onto his knees. It's not as much of a relief as it was four months ago, when Kurt's rules were brand new. Something about his position-- balanced on his knees, head down and shoulders wide-- feels uncomfortable. His knees are pressed too hard against the wood floor, his feet are tucked in too tightly. Instead of relaxing him, it makes his shoulders tense further.

Kurt is waiting patiently for something. He's reading (likely the newspaper editorials, from the way he alternately smiles and frowns) on his tablet and neatly eating a piece of toast. Blaine's stomach is tight with hunger, but until Kurt tells him what he wants, he doesn't dare get up or ask for food.

The longer he kneels the more uncomfortable it becomes, both physically (his feet have fallen asleep and the stinging is moving up his shins, his thighs) and mentally (because it doesn't feel calming or right, not any more). Slowly, he unfolds his knees and sinks down further, until he's sitting cross-legged on the ground. That seems to be what Kurt was waiting for, which is strange, because Blaine's never done it before. Kurt takes a deep breath and lowers himself off his own chair to sit facing Blaine. He's still holding a piece of dry toast, which he tears in half and offers to Blaine.

"I'm very tired," Kurt says, and it's clear to Blaine that what he means is you make me tired. He doesn't look over at Kurt, but he thinks if he did it would be clear that Kurt is as tired as he sounds, and that it's all due to Blaine and his complete inability to be okay.

"I'm sorry," Blaine says, and it's inadequate but it's what he has.

Kurt laughs humorlessly. "None of this is your fault, okay? I've said it before and I can keep saying it until you believe me. You're not the one who-- you didn't push Beth and make her break her arm, did you? You didn't ask to be fucked over by god knows how many people. You didn't-- what did you want to be, when you were a kid?"

The question throws him-- it's not something he's thought about since those first few weeks, when every dream he'd ever had was newly impossible. "I--" he starts, then pauses to actually think. "I wanted to be a musician-- a singer."

"I've never heard you sing," Kurt says. He draws his knees up in front of himself and loops his arms around them loosely.

"I don't, not any more."

"You know that you can, right?" Kurt asks earnestly. "I mean, Rachel is always looking for a new duet partner."

Blaine laughs-- it's unexpected and it surprises even him, because he knows that Kurt loves Rachel for something that happened in high school that neither of them talk about, but he apparently hasn't noticed that Blaine avoids Rachel as much as possible. "I know," he says. "I wouldn't-- you're very kind."

If it's their last morning together Blaine wants it to be a good one. All he can remember ever wanting is to be good for Kurt, ever since he decided that New York and a Holder who didn't treat him like an object were things to hope for and wish for, since he'd gone too deep inside himself so that he could live through everything that happened-- even though it meant muting the good things. He can't deal with praise and he just goes away when he's worried or panicked. It's too much to ask from Kurt, who has been the one to hold Blaine's hands and soothe him when he freaks out. Kurt, who runs his own company and comes home to a good friend and a girl who might as well be his daughter. Kurt, who is tired.

Blaine finally risks glancing up at Kurt, who looks exactly as tired as Blaine had thought he would-- and, strangely, guilty. "I haven't-- I'm not abandoning you," Kurt says. "I'm just tired. I didn't listen to you last night when you said no, and I said I'd never do that. I need a break. And I think-- I think I'm going to go back to Ohio for a week or so, to spend time with my parents. Emma is coming here to stay with you, and I will be back in a week."

"Last night, I didn't deserve listening to," Blaine says. "I--"

Kurt cuts him off. "You always deserve listening to. It's a basic right-- and I forgot that, last night. Being tired and frustrated is no excuse, because you matter. You're a person; therefore, you deserve to be listened to."

But I'm not a person, Blaine thinks. He hasn't been a person since he was fifteen, not legally, not in anyone's eyes but his own. And that's the crux of it, because Kurt can tell him otherwise all he wants, he can make Blaine think and feel, but he can't change the laws and he can't make anyone outside of the walls of the apartment think of Blaine as someone to be listened to. "You're very kind," he says again. "But that's not-- it's not possible for me to be listened to the way you want me to be. Last night, you--"

"Last night was a stupid mistake. I'm sorry that I made you do something that you said no to. I wish I could promise you that I'd never do it again, but up until yesterday I was sure I'd never do it."

"Sometimes I hate that you made me think," Blaine says, shocking both of them, and then his brain catches up with his mouth to stammer out an apology. "I'm sorry, si-Kurt-- I mean-- I--"

"No-- don't apologize." Kurt blinks rapidly. "Maybe I should be apologizing to you."

Blaine shrugs. His filter is apparently gone, and he's still not convinved that Kurt isn't going to send him back to the DoL as soon as Beth is out the door, especially if Emma is the one who's coming to stay with him. "I'm not going to be your Def forever. And I-- it's wonderful, sometimes, being able to think and feel like myself, because it's been so long. But even if I was unhappy before, at least I didn't know it. Now I'll remember."

"I'm sorry," Kurt says. "God, Blaine, I never meant to make you unhappy. And I'm sorry that I'm leaving now, but I don't know what I'll do if I stay here."

If Kurt stayed, Kurt would be able to do whatever he wanted to do. Kurt is able to do whatever he wants to do; he doesn't have a Holder and a pretty silver bracelet with an ugly little tracking chip. Kurt doesn't have orders to adhere to and the endless tedium of filing and rote manufacturing work to look forward to when he's too old and no longer pretty enough to do one-on-one work. Blaine isn't-- he's not unhappy. Depressed, maybe. Crushed. Adrift, lost, tossed back in with all of the other chaff. "I don't know what I'll do when you leave."

His Holder takes a deep, shuddering breath. "You're going to read. You're going to play the piano. You're going to take Paige out for coffee and you're going to call me every single day I'm gone so that I know that you're still here."

"Yes, sir."

He can hear Kurt breathing but he doesn't say anything else. He watches Kurt climb to his feet, boots solid on the kitchen floor. Then there are hands on his own, drawing him up until he's standing and swaying in the early-morning light. He's looking at Kurt's shoes because he can't lift his eyes any higher than that. Kurt's hands are warm in his, and they're driving the grey up his arms; he can feel his fingers in Kurt's and he holds on just a little bit tighter.

"I'm going to hug you now," Kurt says, clearly and evenly. "Tap me twice-- or say something-- if you want me to stop."

Kurt drops Blaine's hands and moves in closer, sliding his hands around Blaine's shoulders and bringing him close in to his chest. Blaine doesn't know what to do with his hands, so he leaves them at his side. His head is pressed to Kurt's chest; it's by far the most intimate position they've been in but Blaine doesn't feel that it's sexual at all. "You matter," Kurt says, his voice rumbling against Blaine's ear. "The smartest person I know says that everyone matters, and I'm going to keep telling you that until you believe it. I am not leaving you. I am not sending you back."

His voice sounds so sure that Blaine can almost believe him. He counts slowly to ten, then starts over and is at seven (three away from where he's sure he would have said stop) when Kurt steps back. Hugs are okay, when Kurt gives him a way out (and he's going to have to start trusting that Kurt will take no for answer again at some point soon) and doesn't expect him to participate, because then they're not hugs any more, but--

"I'll call," Blaine says, and he flicks his eyes up to Kurt's face. His eyes seem even bluer when they're red-rimmed. His hair is tousled and Blaine's fingers itch to fix in, to smooth this raggedy Kurt Hummel back into the seamless man he usually is.

"Thank you," Kurt says, subdued.

* * *

Emma arrives on Sunday, trailing a perfectly-patterned suitcase behind her. She and Kurt trade keys and emergency contact information; they make small talk about the weather and Emma's flight. Kurt, Quinn, and Beth rattle out of the apartment just an hour after Emma arrives, driving long hours to Ohio.

The first night that Emma's there, Blaine tries-- he really does. He knows how to be charming, he thinks he can remember how to be the person he pretended to be for her back at the DoL. But as the afternoon drags on, the wrinkle between her eyebrows sticks there longer and longer, until it becomes permanent after dinner, when he toys with his salad instead of eating it.

"Okay, Blaine," she says, setting her fork down. "I know that things have been tough for you for a while now. But you need to eat."

"I apologize," he says, and it comes out stilted and formal. He winces. "I'm sorry, Emma, but I'm not-- my stomach's in knots, can I please just--"

"No," she says firmly but kindly. "No, Blaine, you may not. Eat, Blaine."

"I would really rather just--"

"Blaine." Her tone holds no room for argument, and the room becomes just a little more distant.

He digs his nails into his palms; the pain is bright and sharp. He breathes in, then out, trying to center himself. "No." This is what he wants back; he can't say it to Kurt yet but he can say it to her.

"Blaine, you have to eat."


"I am ordering you to eat that salad, Blaine."

"No." He can feel a vicious smile creeping onto his face.

"If you don't eat that, Blaine, I'm going to call Kurt and inform him of this." Her lips are pursed in disapproval. "I'm going to tell him that you are failing to follow his orders to take care of yourself. Are you really stupid enough to mess this up? Just eat the salad, Blaine."

"No," he says again, and the feeling is heady, like he's drunk off of refusal. He drops his fork on the table with a clatter. He feels glorious and powerful, and even though he knows that refusing is just going to make his life more difficult and will probably get him sent back, he can't stop. "No. I will not eat that fucking salad. I will not. I refuse."

"This is your last warning, Blaine, before I call Kurt." Her hands are on her cell phone and her eyes are hard.

He pushes himself up and neatly places his napkin on the table. "Fuck you," he growls, looking down at her, and he walks out.

* * *

They're exhausted by the time they get into Lima that night; eleven hours in a car with a broken wrist is not something Beth wants to do again, ever, and she makes her opinion very clear. She grumbles as Kurt scoops her up and out of the back seat, her cast banging painfully against his back.

His dad and step-mom are waiting for them on the porch, even though it's nearly midnight. It's a hot night; he can hear the crickets chirping loudly. For all that Kurt isn't DDad, his parents are certainly GGramma and GGrandpa, so Beth struggles to get down and run to them under the soft light of the front porch. Carole bends down to hug her gently, then shepherds her inside, Quinn following close behind.

Burt takes one look at the shadows under Kurt's eyes and the backseat full of luggage (the trunk is full, too, but it can be left until the next day), and immediately goes for Quinn's suitcase, leaving Kurt to grab his own and walk into the house.

Kurt helps Quinn get Beth settled in the guest room. Quinn smooths down Beth's curls and presses a gentle kiss to her forehead. Kurt follows her out into the hallway and hugs her when he sees her shoulders shaking.

"I feel so guilty that I wasn't there when it happened," she whispers into his collar. "I'm her mom, I'm supposed to be there to make sure things like that don't happen, and to kiss them better when they do."

"You're a great mom," Kurt says quietly. "Beth loves you-- she doesn't blame you for not being there."

"I blame me. God, Kurt, I've been so focused on work-- I'm one of those workaholic moms that doesn't have time for her own kid. What am I going to do when she's older? Is she going to have anyone she can talk to? Because I'm clearly not--"

"Hey," he interrupts, pushing her away and holding her by the shoulders so he can look her straight in the eye. "Stop beating yourself up. We're all of us a family, okay? You and me and Beth and-- and Blaine. All of us together. You weren't there, but Blaine was, and he got her to the hospital."

Kurt's not sure of that-- he doesn't know if Blaine really is part of their family-- but it makes Quinn's shoulders relax. He kisses her forehead, just like she'd done for Beth. "I love you," he says, because she's one of the best friends he's ever had. "Go get some sleep."

She looks at him like she knows he's going to be up for at least another few hours. "Only if you promise to do the same."

"I will-- I just need to talk with my dad first," he promises.

* * *

Blaine makes it as far as the living room before all of the steel goes out of his spine and he collapses on the sofa, arms tight around his knees and shaking hard enough that his teeth are chattering.

Emma follows him out and sits next to him, puts one steady hand on his back until he stops shivering. "When did he give you right of refusal?" she asks.

"My first night," he responds. "He told me I could say no to anything and he'd listen to me."

She takes her hand off his back and drops it in her lap. "When didn't he listen?"

"The other night, when Beth-- when things fell apart. And I was just being stupid, because what he was asking wasn't something I should have refused. But I did, and he didn't listen. It's in my contract, Emma."

"So you have grounds, if you wanted to--"

"I don't want to break contract," Blaine says. "I don't think I can. Besides, having a contract has never stopped my previous Holders from doing what they pleased. And Joseph-- all the Holders knew he wouldn't report them, if they broke contract."

Emma presses her lips together in a thin white line. "I was the one who reported Joseph," she says. "And it wasn't because of you-- it was Jordan E. I don't know if you knew her."

He shakes his head. "I heard it about it when she killed herself, but I didn't know her."

"I saw her room afterwards," Emma says. "It was, um. Very messy."

Blaine winces. Suicides aren't uncommon among Defs-- they're the easiest way out, if you can't deal with not being a person any more-- but even given that, Jordan's had been notable.

"Her Foster should never have let things get that far," Emma says. "So I reported him, and he lost his job."

"Thank you," Blaine says, because even though not all of his Holders had been as terrifying as the Kyles, none of them had been good people.

"So, knowing that, I'm not going to tell you to stick with the contract if you don't feel like you can. You know you've got the no-fault clause. But Blaine-- it's just two more months. You've made it through four already, and Kurt tells me that you've done excellent work."

Blaine smiles bitterly in surprise. "I don't think I've been doing what I should be doing for him. I'm a mess, I can't do anything right-- I haven't been able to find them a new place to live, and Kurt told me to do that months ago. I was doing okay back at the DoL but I've been failing ever since I came out to New York."

"He trusts you," Emma says.

"He trusts me too much," Blaine counters. "I couldn't function when Beth broke her wrist-- which never should have happened in the first place-- and Paige had to keep me on task. She's the one who told me what to do at the park and she drove to the hospital."

"But who's Beth been clinging to?" Emma asks. He knows it's a leading question, but she wants an answer.

"Quinn," he says, because it's true.

"Just Quinn?" Emma raises an eyebrow.

"No," he says. "She's been attached to me, too."

"You'd be a great dad," she says, and he bites his lip so he doesn't say too bad I'll never be one.

Instead, he says, "Thank you," because she'd meant it as a compliment. "But I'm not being a good guardian, not right now. And I want to be, Emma-- I just can't do it if I'm the way I am right now. If they-- if Kurt still wants me, I want to stay."

"Well," she says briskly. "We have a lot of work to do."

* * *

Kurt might be twenty-six and his own man, but leaning against his dad's shoulder on the couch is still the safest place he knows.

"What's going on with you?" his dad asks. "New York got you down?"

Kurt smiles, because it's the same question his dad's been asking since he first moved to the city for college eight years ago. "New York keeps me up," he says, like always.

His dad smiles. "So what is it? I mean, we're glad to see you, but you don't usually drop everything to come spend a week in Ohio."

He blows out his breath slowly. "There's-- I have-- Blaine. He's my new Def."

"Did you fall in love with him?" Burt asks frankly.

"What? No!" Kurt says. "No-- he's-- yes, he's gorgeous, but no, I don't have any kind of romantic feelings for him."

"Kurt, every fifth sentence I've heard from you in the last four months has been about that man. I don't think it matters if he's your Def or not. You don't have to lie to me--"

"And I'm not," Kurt says. "He's my Def. Even if I-- even if he wanted to, I don't have any way of knowing his feelings were genuine."

Burt shrugs. "If they are, you'll know."

"I-- fine. If I fall in love with my Def and he falls in love with me, you'll be the first to know. But I don't. He's fairly, ah, damaged. Not like-- I'm so glad we got Quinn out when we did."

"Oh yeah?"

Kurt rubs a wrist across his forehead. "He was starving himself for the first month he lived with us and I hardly noticed. He has nightmares and breakdowns and I'm tired, dad. We're on a six month contract with two left to go and I don't know if I can make it that long. I don't know if he can make it that long."

"Jesus, Kurt," his dad says. "Where is he now?"

"He's back in New York, with Emma-- his Foster. She's aware of-- well, she'd better be aware of everything."

"So there's nothing you can do from here?"

"I can obsess and worry," Kurt admits. "But I'm here so I can get away from Blaine for a few days, because dealing with-- helping him is exhausting. I've been so tired, dad."

His dad shrugs the shoulder Kurt's leaning against. "Go get some sleep, kiddo," he says. "We can talk about this just as well in the morning."

Kurt stumbles up the stairs to his old room and strips down in the dark; he still remembers where everything is.

He's exhausted but his thoughts are still racing. What is Blaine going to do when he's gone? What if Emma can't do anything to help-- what if she makes Blaine's problems worse?

When his phone rings he dives for it, scrambling through his pants pockets until he finds and answers it.

It's Blaine-- thank fuck-- and Kurt manages to fumble out a greeting. "Hello?"

"Hello, Kurt," Blaine says.

"Hi, Blaine," he says inanely. "How are you?"

"Still here."

* * *

Blaine drives Emma crazy with piano scales played into monotony; she retaliates by making him wash the breakfast dishes to her own exacting standards. She smiles at him from across the bar and he can't help but smile back, warmly domestic. For once it doesn't feel wrong. Emma isn't like anyone he's met, and he's remembering why she was his favorite person to be around, back at the DoL. The line in her forehead relaxes as the two of them slowly organize everything in the (already uncluttered and well-designed) apartment.

He and Emma talk and talk and talk until his mouth is dry and his lips crack. She helps him analyze and figure things out, and she's someone he can't really lie to about his past, because she has his exit interviews and every single physical statistic. They build his history back in: sometimes he can remember Maria without shaking; he can crack peanuts from their shells but he can't eat them yet. Throughout it all, she tells him that his mistakes are okay and that he doesn't have to be perfect.

Blaine can see that Emma isn't perfect either (even after the apartment is clean she spends too long with a ruler and the curtain rings, making sure they are placed exactly the same distance apart), and that gives him the courage to show his imperfections (he can't help but mouth the words to the songs he plays, now, but he can't sing because he's sure that his voice isn't any good, not after years without singing).

Emma is endlessly patient with him. She knows his stress signals-- Kurt had written them all down for her-- and she can somehow spot the grey before it starts, sometimes.

By Thursday, she's sitting in the sun with him and Paige at the Starbucks three blocks down the street. She's giggling over something Paige has said and Blaine realizes that he doesn't feel tethered any more.

He still feels held-- that's what Holders do-- but it's okay. Even though Kurt is hundreds of miles away, he feels safe. He can wait for Kurt to come back.

* * *

It's not the last conversation Kurt has with his dad that week. They talk about the shop, about his dad's health (You need to stop worrying about that, Kurt), about Finn's most recent girlfriend. Somehow, though, the conversation always turns back to Blaine, the man back in New York Kurt is trying to ignore. He can't help but worry, though-- Blaine's daily phone calls are always some sort variation on "still here," and that's not enough for Kurt to guess if he's doing well or not.

"You know, Kurt, the fact that you can't stop thinking about this guy should tell you that maybe you do want to keep him around," his dad says on Wednesday when Quinn and Beth are out at the park, having a very cautious and rare meeting with Puck.

Kurt sighs. "I know," he says.

The three of them get back to the apartment on Saturday. Kurt's ready to see everything from broken dishes to echoingly empty rooms; he's greeted instead by Blaine, who is smiling. He is standing straight in the entryway; he takes Kurt and Quinn's suitcases deftly and shoulders Beth's backpack. "Welcome back," he says.

Blaine looks like there's a weight that's been lifted from his shoulders, and Kurt has no idea how Emma managed this.

He goes looking for her once Blaine is out of sight, most likely sorting out laundry and dry cleaning from the suitcases. She's sitting at the bar running a cloth over glasses that Kurt is fairly sure can't get any cleaner. "You are amazing," he says. "I don't-- what did you do?"

She smiles at him but keeps working on the glasses. "We talked," she says. "He said no a lot."

Kurt feels a stab of guilt but smiles back. "Thank you so much for doing this for us."

"It's my job," she says, then hops off the stool to start putting the glasses away. He stands out of her way in the kitchen and watches her.

"Now, Kurt," she says once she's finished. "I want you to understand some things: just because Blaine seems happy right now, that doesn't mean that he's ‘fixed.' In all likelihood, Blaine will never be fixed the way you would think of it. That doesn't mean he can't be a functional member of society-- it just means that there may always be some parts of Blaine that are going to work differently. I've left my recommendations for you."

He understands what she's saying but he doesn't want to-- he wants to hear that Blaine is going to be fine, that Blaine is going to be perfect and healthy and whole. But he can work with this if Blaine wants to stay. "Does he-- does he want to stay? Or is he going back with you?"

"He wants to stay," Emma says, and Kurt feels his knees sag in relief. "I'll be leaving in just a little bit-- my flight's in about three hours."

"Thank you again," Kurt says. "I know that we couldn't have done this without you, and I needed to see my parents again."

"All rested up?" she asks.

"Aside from the eleven-hour drive back with an understandably whiny eleven-year-old in the back seat, I feel great," he says, and he smiles, because he can see the light again.

Emma returns his smile and turns to leave the kitchen. She pauses in the doorway and turns back to him. "One more thing, while it's just the two of us. You should start thinking about the end of Blaine's contract now, not in two months when it's done. You know that you can choose to renew or not, but it will be better for him-- and for me-- to know if you're going to keep him on or not."

"I will," Kurt says. He hasn't fully made up his mind, but he thinks he knows what he's going to do.

* * *

When Emma walks out of the apartment, everything packed up neat and tidy and in its place, she leaves Blaine's file, unedited and uncensored, square in the center of Kurt's drawing board.

* * *

Chapter Text

When Kurt first sees the folder on his table, he thinks it's something that Emma's forgotten-- it's unlikely, though, given how organized she is, and it looks like it's been put there deliberately. It's a red envelope, wrapped in brown elastic, and it doesn't look that important. He picks it up before he realizes what it is, and sees Blaine's expressionless face looking up at him from the photograph pasted to the outside of the folder. He drops back on the table like it's about to bite him.

It's Blaine's file.

It's everything he'd ever wanted to know, handed to him freely by the DoL. His fingers itch to slip off the elastic and read about everything, but he smooths his fingers over the front cover (at the end of a long list of names and dates, it's been signed out to E. Pillsbury, JUL 08 2020, but there's no sign-in). There's a post-it on the front with the words Call me if you have any questions in Emma's neat cursive, and that settles the question of whether Emma had left the file behind on purpose.

Kurt knows that he doesn't have right to open it, but he's not sure if Blaine will want it to be opened just yet.

He takes a deep breath and slips the elastic off the file.

* * *

The first week Kurt and Quinn get back from Ohio, they all move cautiously around each other. They're courteous and almost too polite, but by the end of the week they relax into something that feels normal again. Blaine only has one episode, and it's not a bad one (Quinn sits next to him on the couch until his shoulders drop and he smiles at her, bitter but relaxed, because this might be as good as it gets.)

Beth makes Blaine read to her because she has trouble holding the book open and turning the pages herself (or at least, that's her excuse), and he wonders how much she understands when they read books like The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm and she pokes him deliberately when the children escape from the plastic mines. She loves Rita's anger and Tendai's thoughtfulness. It makes Blaine never want to see her grow up, because he loves this Beth, who tries to help without really knowing what's going on, just that something isn't right with Blaine.

He thinks that half the reason she makes him help her with everything instead of Quinn is that for the first week he flinches guiltily every time he sees her cast. Beth makes him sign it with a silver sharpie (provided by Kurt, who had signed it himself on the inside of her palm).

They still go to the park with Julie, but Beth stops wanting to hang out with Jeremy or Susanna after she sees the way their parents look at Blaine. He hates that he's taking away her innocence when it comes to things like him and almost wants to encourage her to invite them regardless.

He and Paige meet for coffee in his free hour the Thursday after Kurt's family gets back from Ohio.

She's smiling (she's always smiling) and waiting for him when he gets there. "Hey, Blaine," she says, standing to hug him, gentle and quick.

"Hi, Paige," he responds. "How's Julie?"

"She's good! Ready for school to start again, which means that I am, too-- I guess there's only so many times she can pelt Jeremy with water balloons before it stops being funny and starts being pathetic." Paige talks with her hands, and Blaine sinks into his skin a little more, regaining another inch of the ground he'd lost when Beth had broken her wrist.

Blaine orders for both of them because it's what everyone expects, and sometimes it isn't worth the energy to prove them wrong. Paige gets her absurdly complicated latte-thing, Blaine gets his medium drip, and they tuck themselves into a corner of the coffee shop so they can talk without being overheard.

"How are things, now that Kurt's back?" Paige asks.

He's not sure how to answer, so he plays with the cardboard sleeve on the outside of his cup for a minute. "Things are okay."

She looks at him seriously. "Really? Because it doesn't sound like they are."

"I--" he starts, then pauses, because he's been thinking things are okay. But if he can't even tell Paige that convincingly, then maybe they aren't. "Kurt didn't go to Ohio on a whim."

"Okay," she says patiently.

"There are some things in my past that neither of us want to deal with," he says, trying to explain. "And I-- I guess I had some sort of a breakdown, and it wasn't, um. Good. So Kurt went to Ohio, and I stayed here with Emma, and I'd hoped things were better, but I don't know if they are."

"Okay," she says again. "Have you tried talking with Kurt about this?"

Blaine shakes his head. "Not since he got back. I think we're both pretending that things are like they were before that happened, but-- I don't know. I do feel better about some things, but..."

"But you're not sure where things stand with Kurt any more," she finishes for him. "Well, I'd try to talk with him."

"I will, if either of us can find the time."

She tips her head to the side. "Make time." Then she smiles, shakes her head, and laughs. "Sorry, sometimes my undergrad psych minor wants to come out and talk."

"It's fine," he says, smiling back at her.

"So, tell me about what you're reading," Paige says, clearly trying to steer the conversation back into somewhere more comfortable for both of them.

"You mean what book is Beth making me read?" They smile at each other-- Beth presses books on Julie, too-- and finish their coffee while talking about things that are much less emotionally charged than Blaine's relationship (or lack thereof) with his Holder.

* * *

That first night, Kurt had opened the file enough to see that there were pictures and shoved everything back in without reading a word.

Now it sits the top drawer of his worktable, burning questions in his mind. He can't open it without Blaine's permission, not without destroying whatever sort of fragile trust they've rebuilt over the past week (Blaine had asked again about moving to a new apartment and Kurt had said yes, keep looking, without changing the requirements of the new apartment, even though there are only two months left on Blaine's contract). Kurt is terrified that there's something in that file that Blaine has repressed past being able to process but he still wants to know. He wants to know how bad it was; he wants to know if there was ever anything good in Blaine's life before he'd come to Kurt.

But Kurt doesn't need to know. Kurt might be frustrated and want to know, itch at the stories in Blaine's past, but reading the file is not something he has to do. He thinks, though, that maybe Blaine does need this. Maybe Blaine needs to see everything, needs to know all the little awful details.

Kurt hates uncertainty.

* * *

"Emma left your file," Kurt finally blurts out, two weeks after he gets back from Ohio. Kurt has taken the morning to work from home (finalize designs and look over apartment choices; Blaine hopes that he's finally hit on what Kurt is looking for in a new home), and it's just him and Blaine alone at the kitchen table.

Blaine breathes in, sharp and fast. "Okay," he says. "I-- okay."

"I haven't read it," Kurt says hastily. "I just-- she left it, and I think she wants one of us to go through it."

"I don't know if I can," Blaine says, and he closes his eyes briefly at the thought of what might be in the file-- the photographs and the terms of the contracts he's had, Joseph's scrawling signature over half the documents.

"I thought you might not want to," Kurt says.

But at the same time, Blaine thinks, maybe there's something in there that he's forgotten, something that might help. "I don't know if I can," he repeats. "I think-- I want to try, though."

"Let's-- can we do this now? Before either of us gets cold feet?" Kurt asks.

Blaine doesn't really feel like smiling, but he tries for Kurt, and apparently it's not too terrible, because Kurt smiles back. "Yeah-- I think we have a few hours before Quinn and Beth get back."

"Okay. I'll get the file, and meet you back here?" Kurt asks, already standing up.

"Of course," Blaine says. As soon as Kurt leaves the room, he slumps back in his chair. He has a minute, maybe less, before Kurt comes back with the file. With his file. He's seen it a million times, carried by Joseph or Emma, edited by doctors or the Columbus supervisor.

He doesn't think that there's anything in there that will make Kurt send him back immediately-- there's nothing that he's done that's unusual or even unexpected. It's just that he doesn't know if he can look at photographs of himself when he was sixteen and not remember how it felt the first time Maria touched his bare skin.

Kurt comes back in and drops the red envelope on the table almost carelessly. It's ten years old and the edges are worn; there's a long line of stamped dates down the front.

It's just an object. It shouldn't terrify him, but it does.

Kurt looks at Blaine's face and he must see how scared Blaine is, because he says, "We don't have to do this today."

"I'll feel like this tomorrow, too." Kurt nods.

"I just want to say before we start that I don't-- I'm not doing this because I feel like I need to know every single little detail about your life. If I ask questions you don't want to answer, you don't have to. If you want to stop, say so and we will, okay? I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to, but I think that this is something we-- something that you need to do."

Blaine closes his eyes again, pretending just for an instant that if he can't see the file, then it doesn't exist and neither does anything that's happened to him.

"Are you sure?" Kurt asks.

Not at all, Blaine thinks. "I am," he says, and because he needs to own some part of this, he slides the elastic off and drops the papers inside into his hand, then onto the table.

There are three pictures of him clipped to the first page of the file and he almost calls the whole thing off right then, because they're from Before. He's smiling and round-cheeked in all three pictures; he thinks he recognizes one of them as his freshman year school photo. Kurt reaches out to touch the photographs, swings the stack of papers towards himself, and Blaine wants to slap his hands away because that's him. That boy is who he should have been, and he bites his lip instead of saying anything.

"You look so young," Kurt says, hushed.

Blaine has to clear his throat before he can speak. "I was, um. I was fifteen."

"Fuck," Kurt hisses. His hands ball up and Blaine tries not to flinch; he knows that Kurt won't hit him, but that doesn't mean that no one ever has.

The photographs are attached to his intake form, which probably would be the easiest document in the file to look at if his mom hadn't been the one to sign it. But there at the bottom is her name (Annette Anderson), and he runs his fingers over the letters.

"You went to Dalton Academy?" Kurt asks, and it's not at all the question Blaine expects.

"For my sophomore year, yes."

"We actually competed against their glee club-- the Warblers?-- at sectionals that year," Kurt explains.

"Oh," Blaine replies. "That's-- how did they do?"

"They came in second to, um, us," Kurt says, smiling wryly. "I don't remember what they sang, but they were good."

Blaine can't help but smile at that. "I was going to be their lead soloist that year," he says wistfully. "I'm glad they still did well."

"They were great," Kurt says, turning the page away from the photographs of Blaine and his mother's signature.

Everything else with the intake evaluation is medical forms, recording everything about Blaine's physical state that a person could conceivably want to know, and Kurt flips through them quickly. Following that is Blaine's work history with the State of Ohio Department of Labor, and Blaine has never been so grateful for years of the most boring filing and database management he can imagine, because the DoL hasn't held any horrors for Blaine for years. For some reason, Kurt reads that carefully, and when he's done, he smiles up at Blaine.

"I've been neglecting your talents," he says. "We could use someone like you in the office."

The incongruity of Kurt's statement and the files they're going through makes Blaine snort ungracefully with laughter.

But the next thing in the file are the contracts and observations from Blaine's One-on-One work. He finds himself unbearably thankful that Kurt's is the first one in the stack, because it means that the Kyles and everything they touched are at the bottom. Blaine holds out some wild hope that Kurt will get bored or lose interest before they reach his first Holders.

Emma, at least, is honest in what she writes. Blaine smiles to see that she'd asked to share his eating issues with Kurt (because Emma does honestly care, amazingly), but Kurt looks furious at the DoL's denial. Pullman's a good supervisor, most of the time, he just has too many people to look after to be able to grant one thing out of policy.

"Who was your old Foster?" Kurt asks, glancing over the notes that Emma attached to the contract evaluation. Some of the forms are ones that Blaine's never seen before (he's familiar with the medical forms and the observation reports; they're the ones he'd filed back at the DoL), and the photocopied internal audit on Joseph makes him wince.

"Joseph," Blaine answers. "His name was Joseph, and he was fired a few years ago, when I was out on a contract. He was--" he was cruel, he didn't care, he lied to the Department and to all of us, he sold us out knowing not all of us would come back-- "difficult."

"It seems like he was more than that," Kurt says, and he's not looking at Blaine or he'd see that Blaine's jaw is clenched and his fingertips are pressed together on the table, ready for Blaine to lay his head down in supplication.

"One of us killed herself and Emma started an investigation," Blaine says, voice low and as calm as he can force it to be. "There were some statistics that didn't make any sense, and no one had picked up on them because he was smart, you know? So it took someone looking to find them, and--" he spreads his hands out and up, slow and deliberate.

"Good," Kurt says in satisfaction, glancing over at Blaine. "He sounds like a dick."

Kurt's about to turn to the next contract (Jonah and Emily; they have two children named Micah and Sebastian; Beth has Micah's hair and Blaine can forget that, most days) when Blaine reaches out and actually touches Kurt's wrist. "Wait," he says. "This is-- these are the things I don't talk about. I don't know what will happen when we go over these contracts, but you have my permission to-- to do whatever you need to do." It feels wrong, giving permission to his Holder, but he knows that if something did go really wrong (if he has a flashback he can't break out of, if he has some other reaction neither of them have thought of), he wants Kurt to be able to do something and not dither about his own moral code.

Because there's a difference between thinking abstractly that he's once been owned by someone named Emily-- Alec-- Julius-- Maria-- and actually trying to remember what had gone on while you'd been under contract with them. Emma can't work miracles, but Blaine hopes that she's performed enough of one on him to get him through his own history.

Kurt's eyes are wide. "Okay," he says, and he turns the page. "Jonah Azeh and Emily Blewette," he reads off the next contract.

Emily is pretty and Jonah is striking. Emily loves her children and her husband and usually forgets about Blaine until he does something wrong. She prefers to punish him like she would a child, for all that he's over twenty. The lemon candies are sour in his mouth, acid biting into his tongue, and she watches him until he eats them within her time limit. She strikes his palms or the backs of his calves with a ruler or with her bare hand.

Jonah laughs with him over coffee in the morning and slaps his ass lightly on the way out the door; he calls Blaine ‘babe' and ruffles his hair whenever he walks by. He thinks that Jonah is the kind of person he could like well enough, given time and--

--and nothing.

He has sex with them because it's in his contract, but they never force him; they never hold him down or give him a choice that isn't really a choice at all. He just sleeps in the same bed they do, and when Jonah turns to Emily she winks at Blaine and of course he does. It's what he's meant to do, and the sex isn't that bad. Sometimes his throat burns because isn't this what every Def wants? To be fed and housed in somewhere that's nice? His Holders don't beat him (much) or rape him (forcefully) or starve him (he can't eat anything the same day as he's given the lemon candies; he tries the first few times and vomits everything back up).

It doesn't matter because he doesn't matter.

"Hey," Kurt says insistently. His hand is just barely touching Blaine's, but it's enough to bring him back to the present and out of Detroit. "We don't have to do this. But if we are, I need you here, not wherever it is you go."

Blaine bites his lip until he knows it'll keep stinging; maybe it will be enough to ground him in the now. "I think if we stop now I'm never going to want to open that again."

"Can you tell me anything about them?"

"They were all right," Blaine says. "They weren't-- they weren't bad. They were just--"

"Personal companionship," Kurt interrupts, and he doesn't do anything dramatic like close his eyes in anger or slam his hands down on the table, but it's clear that he's figured it out.

Blaine shrugs. "They hired me to do the things I do for you."

"They hired you for sex, Blaine."

"It wasn't that bad," Blaine tries, because in comparison to everything else (in comparison to Julius and Maria and Alec), Jonah and Emily had been nothing. He tries to find a way to say that to Kurt, but nothing comes except a half-lie. "They didn't want me to do anything I wasn't willing to do."

The thing is that Blaine has never had sex that he fully and completely wanted to have, so the casual sleepy touches he'd shared with them had been the best it'd gotten. Sometimes it had been Blaine in the middle with both of them around him, all of their attention focused on each other, and it was like he just wasn't there at all. It was... strangely freeing, and if he didn't ever say yes to them, he never said no either. He didn't have to choose because there was no choice. Emily never pressed his hands to the mattress and Jonah never hurt him in bed, not once, no matter how many times Blaine failed.

"There's a world of difference between willing and it being something that you want, though," Kurt says.

He might have stayed with them, if they'd asked for a renewal. He nods his head in acknowledgement-- he gets what Kurt's saying, but he can't make those kind of determinations, sometimes. "I know you think that everything was terrible," he says, "and maybe a lot of it was, but they weren't."

"Okay," Kurt says. "I don't-- you get that I don't-- I don't understand a lot of this," he admits. "I'm trying to, I'm trying to understand you, but I don't understand how you can have had sex--" the words are poison in Kurt's mouth; he spits them out-- "with two people who can purchase you like a thing and never--"

"I never said no," Blaine interrupts, because he wants Kurt to understand. That's what this is about. "I mean-- it wasn't something I could do, and I knew that, but they didn't force me. I'm-- I was used to it, by then."

"Just because they didn't force you doesn't mean it wasn't rape, Blaine," Kurt says like he's quoting something.

Blaine bites his lip again and shakes his head. "There's a difference. Maybe not to you, but there is to me." They might have listened if I said no, but I never knew how to say it.

Kurt looks down, back at the stack of contracts in front of them.

"It doesn't matter how hard you glare at them; they're still not going to catch fire," Blaine says, shrugging.

Kurt snorts and flips past Jonah and Emily's contract.

"Idaho State Department of Labor," Kurt intones. "So you're really good at filing."

If he can't laugh at some of this he's going to cry at all of it, so he half-grins at Kurt and says "Fastest filer in the Midwest," like it's an in-joke he's showing off, and Kurt smiles back.

"Before them was Julius Carrick," Kurt says. "That's a name from children's fiction."

"I think Beth is rubbing off on you," Blaine says, smiling because even though there's no photograph, Mr. Carrick had also looked like an evil uncle. "I was his valet."

"Really? People still do that?" Kurt says, but he looks more intrigued than puzzled at the idea.

"I got appendicitis halfway through the contract," Blaine says. "And he didn't want me back, not after that."

"And-- jesus-- personal service, again." Kurt looks over at Blaine, but Blaine can't meet his eyes, not now when all his secrets (remembered or not; Kurt hasn't touched the Kyles yet) are laid out on the table. "Did you ever have someone who didn't--"

"No," Blaine says. "Well, Idaho. But no-- not until you."

Julius Carrick was excessively proper. He liked his clothes neatly pressed and everything in its right place, including Blaine. Outside of the bedroom Blaine is silent and subtly present, anticipating Mr. Carrick's needs before he voices them. Blaine learns Mr. Carrick's routines faster than anything he's learned in his life before this: coffee ready the instant he walks out of the bedroom, shower at the correct temperature and everything timed down to the minute. If he is late or early, Mr. Carrick is swift to correct him with a raised voice and a raised hand.

In bed Blaine arches underneath him and Julius kisses him, deep and possessive. He's seventeen and his body wants this more than his mind, so he imagines Mark-- he imagines Julius is someone else, he imagines he is someone else. It doesn't work, it never works, and he's left gasping and shuddering from more than the sex every time. The only place Julius is gentle is when they're in bed together, but gentle isn't enough for Blaine; he goes down and in until it's calm and quiet. Afterwards, Julius shakes him until he is aware again, until Blaine is silent and Julius is Mr. Carrick, stone-faced and unshakable.

Blaine bites his lip until he can taste the sharp tang of coppery blood in his mouth, because if he flashes back again with the Kyles he doesn't know what will happen.

Kurt looks at him cautiously and doesn't go back to the contract until Blaine forces a close-mouthed smile. "So, you were his valet. And you got appendicitis."

"I was, I did. The hospital was almost worse than he was," Blaine says, trying for a joke. "But at least the stitches healed faster."

Kurt shoots him a glance that clearly says really? and flips through the medical forms that are attached to the contract until he reaches the end. Blaine almost wishes they'd spend more time talking about Mr. Carrick, about his hands and the hospital, because the last (first, always first and most important) file in the stack is for Alec and Maria Kyle.

Because the Kyles are sheets and the Kyles are Mariamariamaria. The Kyles are in every time he says please instead of no; they're in the way he'd starved himself instead of having a functional body. The Kyles are a glass dragon slipping through his fingers and the first time he had sex.

Kurt turns the page and Blaine says please.

Please can mean yes or it can mean no and it has always been up to his Holders to interpret, Kurt has always been able to figure out which one Blaine wants him to hear but Maria never had. All the same, it strikes Blaine that this isn't just Kurt he's sitting with; Kurt is his Holder and nothing is ever going to change that. His Holder looks across the table at him with worried eyes and so Blaine smiles.

He smiles when his Holder asks him about the Kyles; he gives truthful answers that don't tell the truth. He says they were very patient with me and I couldn't do anything right, when I was with them. Yes, they had sex with me.

If he drops his expression his Holder will have questions.

(No, I didn't want it I never wanted it with her but my body always did doesn't that make it all right?)

No, I never had, before them.

His Holder reaches across the table and over the stacks of papers (somewhere in there is a photograph in which you can count every single one of his ribs and see the outlines of the bones in his wrists) and touches the back of Blaine's hand with nervous fingers.

Somehow it feels like he touches the last inch of Blaine-the-person and he vanishes like smoke, the thing his Holder (Kurt, his name is Kurt) wants him to be. Maybe all that's left now is what he'd been with the Kyles.

Please, he remembers saying.

Alec smiles at Maria over dinner, small and secretive and warm; she touches his chin down where he's been kneeling next to her chair, and feeds him bit by bit, chicken and green beans and torn-off pieces of bread. "You've been so good for us, sweetie," she says, and he hasn't learned to be wary of her pet names, so he smiles into her hand and presses against it for a moment, hoping this means he'll get an extra blanket for his bed that night or a whole meal, a real one sitting at the table like a person. He hasn't earned the right to speak yet, so he can't tell her that he's cold at night or that he's hungry all the time-- it's like they forget that he's sixteen and is (should be) still growing.

"Come with me, sweetie," Maria says after dinner, leaving the dishes on the table and the candles still burning. There's a light in her eyes that he's never seen before, and it makes him nervous because he doesn't know what's going on.

She leads him-- them, Alec is following-- to the bedroom. Not the tiny one where he sleeps, but the real one, with the bed piled high with pillows and comforters, the room just barely growing dark. His nervousness grows with every step they take, until by the the time she's pushed him down onto the bed, he's almost shaking with it.

She spreads her hands up and under his t-shirt, feeling his bones and his muscles through his skin, and she laughs, just a little. Bring your hands up, she says, and he does, hesitant and slow, because there's no mistaking where this is going, now, and it's not what he wants. He doesn't want Maria (he doesn't want Alec), but her hands are soft and expert, thumbs passing over his nipples as she pulls his shirt off over his head. No, he thinks.

He doesn't say no but he says please three times, until Alec comes around behind him and covers his mouth. Quiet for me, sweetheart, Maria says, and he breathes too fast through his nose until Alec moves his hand.

He's been with the Kyles for just over a month, and he'd somehow come to believe that this wouldn't happen-- or that it would be Alec if it did. But he hadn't thought it would be Maria, her soft hands pressing him down and making him shudder and flinch. Alec's hands are on his shoulders, and even though this is not what he wants, not at all, he focuses on them because at least Alec's hands feel right, strong and callused and masculine.

He closes his eyes, because he doesn't want this. He sinks in and away, because he doesn't want her, but he can feel his body responding to her touch and his stomach turns; suddenly he's nauseated and he starts to shiver. It doesn't matter to her, though, and when he tries to reach up his hands to push her away, Alec catches them. "Shh," he soothes, breath warm in his ear, "be good for her."

(He doesn't remember what happens after that.)

He knows intellectually that it was rape, because he'd never been able to say no and be heard; he'd never said no to Maria, not once, but sometimes he can't convince himself that there wasn't some part of it that wanted it-- hadn't he come? hadn't he touched her and appreciated the softness of her skin, the way her hair felt in his fingers?

(No, that's a lie, he remembers every second.)

* * *

"...and I've never been able to talk her out of acid-wash denim for more than a few months," Kurt is saying, and his voice is raspy with exhaustion.

"I hear it's making a comeback," Blaine mumbles. He's still not sure where he is or what he's doing, but if Kurt's there it can't be too dangerous.

Kurt just stops. "Blaine?" he asks.

"Yes?" Blaine responds. He's still figuring out where he is, but his fingers are under his forehead and his feet are tucked in tightly.

"Are you okay?"

Blaine breathes in, then out. His knees are stiff and his back is sore; he wonders how long he's been kneeling.

He's more than kneeling, though: his body is drawn in as tight as it will go. He is as physically small as he can make himself. This is what he did for the Kyles; this is what he did for Joseph when he was begging to leave them.

The difference is that Kurt's hand is on his shoulder, moving in slow comforting circles. Kurt must be sitting on the floor next to him, and that can't be comfortable. Blaine uncurls himself and wiggles his toes.

"I think so," he says carefully, waiting for the pins and needles to start. "Sore. How long was I like that?"

"Long enough for Quinn to get Beth from Paige's and take her to the library," Kurt says.

"I'm sorry," Blaine says. "I didn't mean to, it just--"

"It's okay," Kurt reassures. "I called her; she was happy to go."

"So, where were we?" Blaine says, because he is trying. He can smile for Kurt, he can make it through the Kyles and go even further back, if he needs to, because all Kurt wants is to understand, and that's something Blaine can give him.

"Blaine-- you just spent hours curled up on the floor, and I hadn't even gotten through the whole thing. In what world does it make sense to go back to doing that again?" Kurt is looking at him like he can't believe that Blaine would willingly risk that happening again. "I also-- while you weren't here, I looked at the rest of the file, so you don't have to tell me."

Kurt is giving him a way out; Blaine doesn't have to do this-- but he's made it this far. And he doesn't know what Joseph had written in his observations, so who knows what kind of conclusions Kurt's drawn from them. "I should-- I want to tell you. "

"You do?" Kurt asks, surprised.

"I do, I just-- I want things to be clear. And-- would you--" Blaine doesn't know how to say please don't stop touching me without it sounding wrong, so instead, he reaches for Kurt's hand.

"Oh," Kurt says, looking down at his own hand like it's brand new; gently, he lays it over Blaine's. "You want-- okay. I'm going to keep my hand here, but you can go-- you can go wherever you need to if that makes it easier."

Blaine can do this. He can, but it will hurt if he stays up the entire time, if he tries to do this with all-cylinders-firing, so he closes his eyes and lets go. It's not the same as the spiraling grey; he knows how far he can drift without getting lost entirely. Kurt's hand is warm on his-- not holding, just touching, just anchoring him to the earth, a string to pull him back out of the labyrinth.

When he opens his eyes again, the world is soft, and he can speak.

"My first contract was with Alec and Maria Kyle. They were in their 30's. Alec was a software engineer, and Maria was a financial consultant. The were-- motivated. Powerful. They liked knowing they could own me." Blaine sighs and scrubs a hand across his face; his limbs feel numb and wrapped in cotton. "You hear horror stories growing up, right? And then you're marked, and all of those stories are about you. The three-day wait isn't just for parents to change their minds-- there are so many kids who don't even make it to the DoL."

Kurt is pale and still; the only part of him that's moving is his left hand, slowly tracing circles over the back of Blaine's right wrist. It's keeping him grounded. "Did you ever--" Kurt starts, but he closes his mouth on the question. "I'm sorry, that's-- I don't need to know that."

Blaine guesses at his meaning. "Did I ever try to kill myself?" he asks, looking to Kurt for confirmation. Kurt nods, cheeks red. "No. No-- I never actively tried. But-- not eating sometimes has been close. Not with you," he explains. "It was only ever-- I was going to start eating again. I was eating again, just not enough, and it was never like that, with you."

"Okay," Kurt says awkwardly. "That's-- good. But we were talking about the Kyles."

"Horror stories," Blaine says. "Joseph, my Foster, he was known for not checking. Or overlooking things that would have meant they didn't get past the Foster-- so the Kyles went to him, specifically. They wanted someone. They wanted me, and they wanted me to be perfect, but I was sixteen. And gay. I don't know if they knew that, but--" Kurt slips his fingers into Blaine's palm and grips his hand tightly for a moment; Blaine squeezes back. "Maria thought I needed discipline-- and I did, I was messy and unfocused and I needed someone to show me how to act, but she didn't-- I was hungry all the time." Even though he's eaten that day-- berry smoothie, turkey sandwich on sourdough-- his stomach feels bare and empty, as if he hasn't eaten in days.

"Emma told me that your first Holder starved you," Kurt says quietly, "but the file says that you refused to eat."

Blaine nods. "At the end. At the end, things just-- I was too skinny. And my body stopped-- she couldn't have sex with me any more, not like she wanted to, so it was a choice."

"So you starved yourself so that they couldn't rape you. That's-- it's not a choice at all, how can that even--" Kurt eyes close and so does his mouth, white around the edges from the pressure.

Blaine looks down at where his hands and Kurt's are touching. Kurt's hands are soft, aside from the calluses where his drawing pencils rest. Kurt has never intentionally hurt him.

"No, it wasn't a choice," he says. He can recognize that now, but back when he'd been sixteen, it had been-- of course it had made sense to see it as a choice. "At the end of my contract I asked Joseph if I could return to the Department rather than extend the contract."

"And he let you?" Kurt says, disbelieving.

"He made a joke about them teaching me manners," Blaine says, smiling distantly. "They're the ones who taught me to be obedient, rather than just obey. But he let me come back, and I spent the next few months in medical, until everything was okay."

"Okay," Kurt says, and he closes his eyes. He looks like he's crying, but there are no tears leaking down his face. "Thank you, Blaine. If you'd like, you can come back up now."

There's a popping sound in Blaine's head like he's coming down too quick off a mountain. He opens his mouth wide to crack his ears (that doesn't make any sense, he's nearly at sea level) and suddenly the feelings he'd been keeping at bay rush back in.

Everything is sharp and bright again, and he squeezes his eyes closed against the light. He curls up on the floor, left shoulder against the wood and right shoulder warmed by Kurt's hand.

He shakes, teeth chattering and hands unable to close with the force of it all. Kurt touches his shoulder, gentle but firm, and they wait for Blaine's breathing to calm, for him to gain his balance again.

* * *

He comes back up in stages: his hands stop shaking and he sits up; he breathes calmly and lets Kurt guide him over to the couch and wrap him in a blanket, for all that it's August and almost too warm. Blaine can tell Kurt wants to do more for him-- he brings juice and a plate of toast for Blaine, then grabs his sketchbook and sits in the chair across the room from Blaine, where he can work and hover at the same time.

Blaine eats his toast and drinks his juice and eventually picks up The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm from the small table next to the couch; the She-Elephant had just found the children at Mrs. Horsepool-Worthingham's. Every few minutes, Kurt glances over him, like he's not sure if Blaine will still be there if he looks away for too long.

Blaine did remember everything. There hadn't been anything in the file he didn't already know-- nothing new to help, nothing that he'd shoved down to protect, nothing that hadn't been there the whole time.

But somehow that's reassuring. His mind is his, as it always has been-- even when he can't control it, when he has flashbacks and stupid reactions to innocuous things-- it's his.

When Quinn comes home, she brings Beth with her, and Beth makes a beeline for the couch. She stops before she climbs up next to him. "Mom said you had a bad day," she says.

He looks over at Quinn, who is in the kitchen starting dinner. "I guess I did," he says.

"Are you going to be okay?" she asks, stepping in closer, so he gestures for her to join him and she sits down next to him, tucking her knees under her chin and laying her arm in its cast on top of them.

"I'll be fine," he tells her; he's even fairly sure it's true.

He's still shaky and unsettled, but now he knows: he doesn't have anything to build on, no spark of something good since he was fifteen and his parents decided he wasn't worth anything at all. By the end of the evening he and Beth are sitting close together on the couch. For once, he isn't reading to her-- she's sitting with him with her hand curled in his sweatshirt, reading the book over his shoulder, thousands of miles and hundreds of years away.

* * *

Chapter Text

Kurt hates the person he'd been that afternoon, the one who told Blaine what was and wasn't okay, who told him to dissociate himself so that Kurt could know, and if there was anything new to Blaine, he didn't show it, not once. Ten years, three One-on-One contracts, and in all of it, no one who really cared. No one who talked Blaine through the worst of it, no one who spent the time to make sure that he was comfortable and not fucking killing himself with too little food. The words are still bitter in his mouth (you can come back up now, like Blaine can't make that decision on his own), and he wishes that he could take them back, eat the words that he'd said and let Blaine do this without him pushing.

Kurt knows almost everything, now: he's Blaine's fourth Holder, not counting Ohio or Idaho. Blaine hates peanut butter because the nutritional supplement he'd been given after the Kyles had been peanut-based (there had been a note in the margin: careful with this one, he's Joseph's).

There is nothing in the file about singing; there is note of his other musical abilities, his knowledge of Latin, but nothing about his voice.

The Kyles were Blaine's first Holders, and they were the worst of all. They might not be the source of everything that's broken inside Blaine, but they did enough for Kurt to hate them without ever meeting them or knowing what they look like. It's almost reassuring to know that Kurt will never deliberately hurt Blaine the ways that they did-- but Kurt has the power to do even worse, because Blaine trusts him. Blaine trusts Kurt to keep him safe, to bring him back up and do whatever.

Blaine trusts him, and Kurt can't think of anything as exhilarating and terrifying. He goes to bed uneasy, without saying much to anyone. He kisses the top of Beth's head, squeezes Blaine's shoulder, hugs Quinn, and then lies awake, staring up at his ceiling until he's exhausted enough to sleep.

* * *

Everything is still raw in the morning for Blaine. There were no nightmares to chase him back up from sleep, no half-remembered scenes of who and when (the why is always the same: because they can), but he still feels unsettled. Off-balance. He wants to lie in bed and think about nothing; he wants to pull the covers up over his head and pretend that he's thirteen (before he knew about any of this, before he imagined knowing the unwanted touch of someone else's hands). He wants to be able to breathe without his chest feeling empty. He wants to be able to think about what he could eat for breakfast without feeling guilty or ashamed.

There are so many things he wants.

And that in and of itself is strange, because he's not supposed to have wants. He's not supposed to desire things for himself, because he doesn't matter-- or maybe he does. Kurt has told him that he does, and doesn't that make it true? But there's a contradiction between what Kurt tells him (over over again, until you believe it, Blaine), and what he's been hearing since he was sixteen (be good for me), and sometimes his first reactions are so wrong that he has to stop and remember where he is.

Last night had been... horrible but necessary, and if it tore the bandages off of Blaine's just-healing wounds, then maybe it's for a good reason. Every breath he takes sears his throat and leaves his chest feeling hollow and empty, but he can breathe again.

Small steps.

He smooths his hands across the sheets and then brings them up to feel his chest, his abdomen, every part of him that's his again. He's still thin but it's not scary any more, because he has to press in to feel his hipbones; he can't count his vertebrae in the bathroom mirror. Kurt doesn't hover anxiously when he eats any more. He can say no and Kurt will listen, he can help Beth with her homework and read to her; he can make Quinn smile at him when he plays the piano.

It's August, and his contract is up in the middle of October. Kurt knows now, he knows that Blaine has never had a contract renewed and he knows why. He aches with the thought of not being Kurt's any more, of not have his reassuring presence to fall back on. He's sure that Kurt will try to make sure that he's taken care of. Emma will probably do her best, but now that she knows he'll willingly do one-on-one work... it's a lot of money to pass up.

Kurt owes him nothing, but he keeps giving and giving, and even though Blaine doesn't deserve any of it, it's hard not to take comfort in Kurt's generosity.

Blaine can get out of bed. He can smile at Beth and pour her a bowl of cereal; they can talk about The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. He can make Kurt and Quinn coffee before they leave and he can close the door behind them as they leave. He can braid Beth's hair and get her to school on time, make sure she's got her homework and her lunch. Kurt doesn't look beyond his smile and Beth doesn't look further than his hands (Quinn, as always, is an enigma).

He can be okay, he can be functional. He can be all of the things that Kurt's family needs him to be, and maybe if he keeps acting like he's okay, eventually, he will be.

* * *

Kurt hates waiting-- it's why he was always first in line at sales when he was in high school, why he never procrastinates on designs or paperwork (even though he sometimes works longer than he should or puts things off for good reason, he does not procrastinate). But he knows that sometimes things do take time, and he doesn't want to rush Blaine. So he waits, and he watches Blaine, who doesn't twitch at anything new or have more episodes than usual after the first few days. Blaine is doing everything that he usually does, and Kurt is almost fooled by his calm exterior.

But there are incrementally tiny signs that everything isn't quite as right as Kurt wants them to be before they talk about the contract-- an extra crinkle at Blaine's eye when he smiles at Beth, one chord a quarter-beat off when he's playing for Quinn.

He's waiting for himself, too: he doesn't want to have to give Blaine orders just to get through another conversation, even if this one is different than the one they'd had about Blaine's file. The bitterness is slowly fading from his mouth as he says yes and it's your decision an easy dozen times in between that conversation and Beth going back to school (and she's finally out of her cast, just in time for one last knock-down drag-out water balloon fight with her friends before school starts). If he's honest with himself, too, he doesn't want to think about Blaine's contract until he really has to, until it's almost too late to not bring it up.

The beginning of September is Kurt's self-imposed deadline for talking with Blaine about the end of his contract, just six weeks away. "Hey, Blaine?" Kurt ventures one evening, because he can't stand to have it hanging over either of them any more. He's still worried about what Blaine will think, but he hopes that Blaine wants the same thing he does, and that Blaine won't agree with Kurt just because it's what Kurt wants.

Blaine looks up at Kurt from where he's sitting on the couch and smiles. "Do you need anything?" Blaine asks, closing his book and starting to get up off the couch.

"No, no-- stay where you are, I just want to talk," Kurt says, and he sits down on the other end of the couch facing Blaine. "How are you doing?" he asks. "I just-- it's been a few weeks since anything-- are you okay?"

"I'm doing well, Kurt," Blaine responds, easy and pleasant.

Kurt looks at him closely, trying to figure out if Blaine is lying to spare Kurt's feelings. "Are you sure?" Kurt asks. "It hasn't been too long since we went over the-- and you seem fine, but--"

Blaine looks down and away from Kurt, but his eyes come back up and he breathes out, steadying himself. "It's been hard, sometimes," he admits. "I haven't always wanted to know everything, you know? But-- look, Kurt," he says, and he reaches across the couch for Kurt's hand, "I am so-- I'll never be happy to revisit those memories, but you helped make it safe. And that's more than I could ever think to ask for, okay?" He drops Kurt's hand. "So thank you for that. But it's not like I'm going to be your Def forever, you know?" he says with the slightest edge of bitterness.

Kurt bites his lower lip and looks down and away. "What if-- what if I want you to be? Maybe not forever-- we might both change our minds-- but what about another six months? Or another year?"

Blaine doesn't say anything. He's silent for long enough that Kurt starts to worry, so he looks back up at Blaine.

His eyes are wide and shocked; there are fine tremors running up his hands from where they are clenched on his knees. "Blaine, are you--" he starts, but Blaine cuts him off.

"Yes," he says. He squeezes his eyes shut hard, once, and opens them. Kurt thinks he can see tears glistening wetly on Blaine's lashes and he has a moment of panic, but then Blaine is just looking at him, straight in the eyes, honest and open and entirely without the pretense that Blaine sometimes puts on-- "Yes, I would be. I will be, if you want me to."

"I do," Kurt says sincerely. "I've thought about it a lot, and I think-- things haven't been great sometimes, on both sides-- mine and yours. But I think we can make this work. Beth loves you and Quinn would kill me if I sent you back."

"And what do you think?" Blaine asks, and he blushes hard-- maybe at his bluntness, maybe in embarrassment, but he keeps his head up and keeps looking at Kurt when he says it.

"I think you're one of the strongest people I've ever met," Kurt says. "I think-- I hope that we've hit our low point and there's nowhere to go but up, but I know that we can get through whatever's ahead if it's not."

Kurt's eyes flick down, because he can't say the next part looking at Blaine. "I think I could have been you, and I don't think I would have survived it. And I'm not doing this out of guilt or obligation, Blaine-- I know that Emma would take care of you if you went back, but I-- I want you here. We all want you here."

"I want to be here," Blaine says. His hands are finally calm again, but his shoulders are still shaking with the force of this, at finally being wanted. He's crying, tears running down his face, and Kurt wonders if he even notices, because he doesn't reach up to brush them away.. "God, I'm sorry I'm being so emotional about this," Blaine says. "I've just never been good enough for anyone before."

Kurt smiles-- this is going so much better than he thought it might, because he'd thought that Blaine would welcome the idea of extending the contract, but he didn't know. Blaine has never had a renewed or extended contract (which is a good thing when it comes to Blaine's previous Holders), but it still hasn't done anything for his self-esteem. He's so glad that he can do this for Blaine, make him feel good enough for someone-- even though it's just domestic help, even though it's a job that could be done by someone else. But Blaine is who is here, Blaine is who Beth trusts and it's Blaine who Kurt wants to keep.

"Beth called me Uncle Blaine, when she got hurt," Blaine says, like he's admitting to some major fault or breach in protocol.

Kurt actually smiles at this, because it's the sort of thing he'd actually hoped for, once he decided to keep Blaine on. "Well, that settles it-- I think if I didn't extend your contract, Beth would never speak to me again." He hopes that Blaine feels as relaxed as he looks, as his shoulders and head drop from their anxious huddle, so he holds his expression and waits for Blaine to smile back.

Slowly, Blaine's face lifts up, and he smiles.

* * *

After they finish talking, Blaine goes out to sit on the fire escape to breathe. The air outside the apartment is muggy and hot with the last of indian summer, and he finds himself smiling down at the city. There are tears drying on his face and it's the first time he's cried in years, but he's so glad that they're happy tears (relieved tears, joyous tears, he can't even tell any more and he doesn't care) that he lets his shoulders shake and his eyes burn with more and they wash him clean.

A year is longer than he's stayed with anyone. A year and a half is almost unthinkable: eighteen months with Kurt and Beth and Quinn, re-building the pieces of himself that have been broken or twisted or bent-- it gives him time.

The sense of safe sinks into him, bone-deep and warm. In this moment (in New York, in September, with this family and his friends) he is happy.

* * *

There's someone lying next to him; they have soft hands that are dragging slowly up and down Blaine's side, up over his ribs and skimming the edges of his shoulder blades.

Blaine doesn't have to do anything. He can simply lie there and be touched, be warm and safe and loved. He doesn't know who the other man is and he doesn't care. It's an amazing feeling, and he hums in contentment, because the safety is what he wants more than anything. His eyes are closed, but he can feel the late afternoon sunlight though his eyelids, and the world is a warm shade of deep red.

He leans forward just enough to win a kiss, lips sliding and tongues pressing wetly together; he can feel the barest scrape of stubble on his skin as the other man cups his face with one hand and moves in closer.

Suddenly they're in together tight and close, and Blaine can feel the other man, hard against his thigh. His breath hitches and he cants his hips up and against it, moaning low and wanton because he wants, oh he wants this, and his hips are moving faster and faster, rubbing in and up--

--and it's just the sofa-bed that Blaine is rutting against, but it still feels safe, here in the dark of Kurt's living room. He is so close that before he really thinks about it, he shoves a hand down into his boxers and wraps it around himself and strokes, too fast but satisfying, and he comes, gasping, all over his hand and inside his boxers.

It feels good, and the relaxation is spreading out from his chest. His arms really do feel boneless, and he slides his hand out and cleans it half-heartedly on the cotton of his boxers. His feet are heavy and so are his knees and soon he falls back into sleep, content.

* * *

In the morning, though.

In the morning, Blaine wakes up still sticky, somehow, and he feels disgusting and awkward as he stumbles his way in to the shower. His face is burning with shame at the thought of anyone seeing him, and his mouth is dry with nerves because even though he knows that Kurt doesn't want sex from him, it still feels wrong. Even though he is safe here, even though he has the promise of more time hanging warm around his heart, he can't control what he feels, because Kurt still has time to change his mind, has the right to re-negotiate and send Blaine back or change his mind about some other aspect of the contract, or--

His hands are shaking as he turns on the shower, the ancient pipes creaking as he sits naked on the toilet lid, forehead in his hands, and he lets himself shake.

For the first time he is acutely aware of the disconnect between what he thinks and what he feels, because there's a widening gap between this means I'm healthy and this is wrong wrong wrong I didn't get permission.

He must sit there for longer than he meant to, because it seems that all at once the bathroom is full of steam. He steps carefully into the shower and hisses at the heat; he must not have been paying attention when he turned it on. Blaine washes himself as quickly as he can, not thinking about what he's washing off, because if he wants to get through the morning he has to be able to repress and deny and be okay.

He needs to be able to smile at Beth and mean it, not be so focused on his own problems that he forgets about hers.

He loses time again; the skin on his stomach is raw and stinging. He forces himself to stop scrubbing, because he has to be okay. He leans against the cold tile of the shower and shivers and gasps, because he's not okay, he's not okay at all, and even though it's not as bad as it has been, he still doesn't know how he's going to get out of the shower.

But he does. He dries himself off (on one of the darker towels; he doesn't think his stomach is bleeding but it might be) and he doesn't look at himself. He can't look at himself-- his eyes are open but he's not seeing anything.

Kurt has made it exceedingly clear that Blaine's body is his own, and the fact that it's his body that is out of his own control is maddening.

He'll have to go and pick up Beth later in the day, but he has a few hours free and he doesn't know what to do with himself (there are too many things he could-- that he should-- be doing, but he can't concentrate on any of them). Without consciously considering it, his hands press against the too-soft skin of his stomach to feel the sting of the abraded skin there, and all of his breath rushes out in one long shuddering exhale. He wants to do it again and again, feel the sharpness fade to a dull aching bruise, because he's still not right.

He's not okay.

He gets dressed in dark, soft fabrics because he can tell it's going to be a dark, soft day (the grey is creeping into the edges of his vision) and does all of the morning chores that he can without thinking about them-- dishes clean and put away, sofa-bed tucked back in, closed and seamless like Blaine doesn't sleep there, pot roast defrosting for dinner, and then he goes to find Kurt.

Quinn is out with friends (maybe with Rachel; Blaine hasn't seen her in a few weeks and is perfectly fine with that-- maybe she has finally found her own apartment, because he doesn't think he could deal with Rachel on top of whatever is going on with his body (he knows what's going on but he doesn't, he wants to pretend this is all brand new and a thing he can solve), but Kurt is at home, holed up in his bedroom with his drawing board and pencils, furiously finishing the designs he'd started before Ohio.

Blaine is hesitant to knock on Kurt's door while he's working, but he can feel the world start to fade even more, the biting edges of anxiety closing in. Kurt will understand.

He takes a deep breath and knocks on the door.

"Come in," Kurt calls, his tone distracted and his voice muffled by the wood.

Blaine slips in as quietly as he can and waits for Kurt to reach a stopping point and lay his pencils down. When he does, he looks expectantly-- but not impatiently-- up at Blaine.

"Do you mind if I-- can-- I don't think I should be alone right now," Blaine says. He feels so ashamed to have to ask for this, because he should be strong enough to deal with this on his own. (Sometimes the best way to show you're strong is to ask for help, Emma had said when she'd been in New York, and he has to remind himself of it over and over again.)

"Yes, of course," Kurt says. "Do you need me to do anything? Do you want to talk? I can't promise I'll be any good at it, but--" he shrugs. "Feel free to do whatever you need to do."

"Thank you," Blaine says. "I'll just-- can I sit next to you? Will that be distracting, or..."

"Not at all," Kurt says, and he smiles, like this is okay. What Blaine actually wants is physical contact (he wants Kurt's fingers on his scalp or Kurt's arms around his shoulders; he would want the same from Quinn but Kurt's the one who's here), but that goes beyond being imposing and straight into demanding, and Blaine can't bring himself to do that.

Things being good or fine or even okay is something Blaine's still getting used to, because sometimes he feels too fragile to withstand anything; right now, the skin over his belly is still red and abraded because of that stupid dream. Kurt is good at making things be okay, though, even though he's also the best at sending Blaine spiraling down. It would be terrifying if Blaine hadn't been used to it, back when he'd been doing mostly One-on-One work, when Joseph had been his Foster instead of Emma. He folds himself up as tightly as he can at Kurt's left side and leans against the not-chair that Kurt's sitting on. Apparently they're more comfortable to lean against than to sit on.

Blaine just... drifts. He's not kneeling, but being here next to Kurt is starting to feel safe again. He leans his head against Kurt's thigh, more daring than he has a right to be.

Kurt is humming quietly as he works, the phrases of the song half-catching Blaine's awareness before he comes unfocused again. It's comforting, being this close to Kurt and not being nervous about it, because it seems like Kurt has almost forgotten that he's there.

When Kurt's fingers tangle absently in his hair, though, Blaine jerks upright. Kurt snatches his hand back, cheeks flushing red. "I'm sorry," he stammers. "I'm sorry I-- I used to have a boyfriend who'd do the same thing, and I guess I got so wrapped up in what I was doing that I just-- god, I'm so sorry, Blaine."

"No," Blaine says. "No, it was fine. You don't have to apologize, Kurt, it was--" I liked it, it was what I wanted-- "it was just a mistake."

"Still, I'm sorry," Kurt insists.

It's Blaine's turn to blush, heat building in his cheeks. "You don't have to stop," he murmurs, because he can't ask for it.

"Blaine," Kurt says firmly, tipping Blaine's head up with the tips of his fingers, barely touching Blaine long enough to leave warmth. "If you want this, you have to ask for it." His voice is even and reassuring, like he won't be hurt no matter what Blaine's answer is.

"Please," Blaine says (yes, he thinks), "this is what I want." He gets Kurt's smile again, quick and bright, before he leans back in against Kurt's leg.

Slowly, gently, Kurt's fingers come back to rest in the growing tangle of Blaine's hair. Blaine thinks about his breathing, thinks about the feeling of Kurt's hands on him, and he can ignore the way his stomach stings and his hands shake.

Even though Kurt might know what's going on with Blaine, even though he might know half of the sordid details of what Blaine has done in the past, he's still letting Blaine sit with him, he's still touching Blaine, absent and half-fond.

"Do you want to tell me what's going on?" Kurt asks, quiet, once they've been sitting for long enough for Blaine to lose track of the time.

"I had a dream last night, and it brought some things up," Blaine says, and he tries not to choke on the double entendre.

"Is there anything I can do?"

"Thank you, but no," Blaine says, because he's fairly sure that Kurt would, if Blaine asked, but he's too ashamed to tell Kurt I need your permission to get off and not feel guilty about it, because Kurt wants to think of them as equals, and making him give permission for this would be the opposite of what Blaine wants. "I want to try to deal with this myself-- I think I can handle it."

He's not looking up at Kurt, but Blaine can hear the concern and the doubt in Kurt's voice, and Blaine knows that he can't be trusted with his own health, even, but he has to try to do this on his own. "Please let me know if that changes, okay?"

Blaine sinks down a little further. "Yes," he says, and even though it's not an order it might as well be, in the state he's in right now. He wants to answer but he can't, not yet. If Kurt were the Kyles or Emily, he'd expect an answer, but he's not and Blaine holds onto that, keeps in the knowledge that he has right of refusal and he can say no, if Kurt asks. "No, actually," he admits, "there is something you could do, but-- it's not something I want you to do. It's not something you'd want to do. And I think that maybe it's time for me to-- I want to try this, okay?"

Kurt is silent and considering. "Okay," he says. "But can I at least-- can you tell me if things get to be too much? I just want a safety net, I don't want to control what you do, but-- Blaine, three weeks ago you were--"

"It's been three weeks since then," Blaine says, surprising himself by interrupting Kurt. "It's been almost ten years since I was with the Kyles, and I'm not saying that it wasn't horrible, because it was, and the flashbacks are-- I'm not having them as frequently. I'm eating again, I-- I think I've earned the right to try."

Kurt half-smiles at him. "You have," he says. "I just worry about you."

* * *

Blaine has pushed too hard today; the grey comes back as soon as he is off his knees and he feels like he's looking at the world through a layer of old glass, everything just slightly distorted. He gets Beth from school and helps her with her homework, absently eating a few almonds from the dish he'd put out for her, but they turn his stomach and leave him nauseated, like he's eaten too much and not enough all at once.

He can't eat dinner and it's awful; he picks at the edges of the chicken he'd cooked and nibbles on the steamed carrots. Kurt looks at him worriedly and he forces himself to eat a few forkfuls of mashed potatoes, even though he feels like he's on the verge of throwing up the entire time, because eating is part of this problem. When he's healthy, when his collarbones don't have shadows and his wrists aren't skinny enough for his silver bracelet to slip off, this always happens. He hates it and he doesn't, because it feels so good physically but it makes him feel disgusting and wrong and he excuses himself as politely as possible. Blaine flees to the living room with a bag of trail mix and the last three chapters of The Giver. He eats a cashew every time he reads Jonas's name, a cranberry for Gabriel's. Inch by furious inch, he fights his way back up, pulls his sled over the hill and tries to point it towards the light.

It's not the first day his eating disorder's been stronger than he is, and he hates it and he hates himself for being this weak and this pathetic, to let that stand between him and the person he wants to be.

Jonas pushes the sled down the hill towards the light, but Blaine's not there with him yet.

Days pass and on most of them he can eat something; some mornings he isn't disgusted by his body and he doesn't press too hard against the healing abrasions on his stomach. He hasn't had another dream and he's not sure if that's a good thing or not, but at least things haven't gotten worse.

Blaine is clinging to his progress with teeth and nails, and even if he can't tell Kurt why it's so difficult-- not yet-- at least Kurt helps. Quinn does too, making him smoothies every morning with fresh fruit and yogurt and glaring at him until he drinks them, and it's good. He looks at himself in the mirror and there aren't hollows under his cheekbones any more. His skin doesn't feel too fragile and he can swing Beth up at the park without feeling winded.

But there's a trade-off, because there's always a trade-off, and feeling this healthy-- being this healthy-- means that Blaine can't ignore parts of himself that sometimes he'd really rather weren't there.

It would have been better, he thinks, if getting off hadn't felt so good, if coming had felt as uncomfortable when it happened as it had the morning after. But instead it felt amazing, and Blaine wants to weep in frustration, because he can't reconcile himself.

But he's trying.

* * *

Kurt flips through the photographs he'd barely glanced at the night they'd gone through Blaine's file. One of them has been sticking in his mind, and he finally finds it, paper-clipped to the Kyles' contract.

Kurt almost didn't recognize Blaine, the first time he'd looked at the image. The photograph is black and white, utterly without artistry. It's not making a statement, it's not showing off for a voyeuristic audience. It's clear that it was for some purpose-- to record Blaine? To show him off to potential Holders?-- but Kurt can only guess at the reasons.

But they're Blaine's eyes, set in a face that's too skinny and too hopeless for Kurt to really want to believe that it's him. His hair is cut too short, almost buzzed, and it looks thinner than it should. The rest of the photograph (Blaine's arms stretched out wide, the xylophone of his ribcage and his hipbones, pressing through the skin and stretching his abdomen tight) is... worse. It makes Kurt want to go and find the Kyles, ask them how they could do this to a sixteen-year-old kid, but Kurt already knows the answer.

To people like the Kyles, people like Blaine are never kids. They're nothing, they're objects and playthings and not worth the effort. They aren't people any more, they're Defectives. It's easier to justify torture when the victim isn't human.

Kurt thinks about the designs hidden away in his sketchbook, and mentally moves around his winter collection. He's not naive enough any more to believe that fashion can change the world, but he'll be damned if he doesn't use his fifteen minutes (two years, now, and he's just starting to be a household name) for something real, something positive. If he can use this-- if he and Quinn and Blaine, because there's no way he's doing this without Quinn or Blaine's full consent and participation, can use whatever celebrity Kurt has, whatever ease and grace Quinn has when dealing with the public and the media, and whatever shock value Blaine's file holds-- maybe.


* * *

Chapter Text

Blaine settles in for winter, for all that it's still the beginning of October.  The first bite of cold wind sends him shivering and searching for a coat and scarf in the trunk full of clothes Kurt bought him back in April.  He starts baking bread every other morning just to warm up the apartment-- he's finally found a new place that Kurt approves of (finally a success and not another failure; after months and months of inadequacy, he can point at this one thing he has done right), but the lease doesn't start until January, so it's going to be half a winter of bare feet on cold wooden floors and shivering in the shower before the sun comes up.

The bread is the center of a routine: it starts the day off in a way that he controls, chases away the remnants of whatever he wakes up with.  This morning he's lucky that there are no half-remembered nightmares to battle his way through, no creeping edges of grey to push back.

It's still an hour and a half before Kurt wakes up, and Blaine has the apartment to himself.  He flips the dough out of its oil-slick bowl and drops it on the floured counter-top; he punches the dough down with his closed fist, flour and water and yeast compressing and collapsing.  The dough needs ten minutes of kneading before its second rise, and he folds and pulls and presses it down, feeling the muscles in his arms and shoulders start to complain.  

Once the dough is in the pans for its second rise, he retreats to the living room and wraps one of the throws around his shoulders.  He sets his alarm for forty-five minutes, when the bread will be puffed up to the top of the pans, and he lets himself drift, his back to the window as the sun rises slowly. When his alarm goes off for the second time, he slides the loaf pans into the oven and showers before anyone else thinks about waking up.

He is almost too careful, too gentle when he touches each part of his body and reminds himself that he is made up of all these pieces: arms and shins, the backs of his knees and the knobby bone at the base of his neck.  (Each time he slides his hands across his abdomen he comes half an inch closer to what he hasn't touched yet aside from basic cleanliness, too afraid of what it might do to him to deal with that.) He hasn't hurt himself again and he tries so hard to be okay.

It's been almost two weeks since he last saw the grey and he hopes (and he knows that hope is foolish; he is sure he can't be better this quickly) that it's gone.  He hasn't had another dream since the first, either, and he's not sure if that's a good thing or not.

Blaine pulls on his clothing in the steam of the bathroom (boxers, socks, and pants; undershirt and a henley (today's is blue); he rolls the sleeves up over his elbows because he's going back to work on breakfast), and slips out back into the hallway, smiling at Quinn as he passes her.

The kitchen smells so strongly of fresh bread when he walks in that he pauses, breathes deep.  He pulls the pans out of the oven and flips the loaves onto the cooling rack.  The air in the kitchen is warmer than the hallway but still not comfortable; he curls his toes ineffectually in his thin socks as he pulls butter and jam from the fridge.  

There is something intrinsically safe about bread; he shares it with Beth and Quinn and Kurt as they wake and stumble (Beth), waltz (Quinn), or stride (Kurt) into the common areas of the apartment.  It is something he can always eat, it's something he doesn't have to force down or distract himself in order to eat.  This morning, he spreads a thin layer of butter on his bread, waits just a few seconds for it to melt, and takes a neat bite.

It's a good day.

* * *

Sometimes when Kurt looks at Blaine all he can see is that photograph of Blaine's ribs and wrists and collarbones laying over him like a ghost.  It doesn't help that Blaine struggles so hard with food sometimes, flees the table when he can't make himself eat.  Kurt knows that the image won't leave him alone until he does something, and he's got the feeling that bringing it into his styles isn't going to work-- as beautiful as the interlocked silver circles are, they're somehow not enough.  

It's not enough to make gorgeous clothes.  It's not enough to sit in his apartment, comfortable and secure, just to keep Quinn and Blaine safe-- not when he could do more.  He's sure that he's not the only Holder who feels this way, and if there are more Fosters like Emma, then maybe he could actually start something-- join some movement, actually try to change things.  He researches the current abolition movements, and they all seem to be too radical or too ineffectual, nothing that seems to really be making a difference.  

He really only pays attention to national politics when it affects his work these days (he'd burnt out on activism when he'd pushed and tried in college, striving for something more-- one more inch, one more right, but gotten nowhere).  He knows that every few years there's something that goes through the House or the Senate that is supposed to be the bill, the law that will do everything, make the system obsolete or free all of the Defs.  But he also knows how unrealistic it is that one of them will ever pass, because having had this system in place for over a hundred years makes it so hard to change entirely.

Right now there is something-- a bill that's somehow miraculously made it through the House and is now fighting its way through the Senate.  It's not anything close to perfect, but it's something, and he thinks it's a small enough bill that he, as one person, might actually be able to do something to make a real difference.  

And the thing is-- no one's talking about it.  Maybe it's because it's not about the "right kind" of Defs (only those marked as children), maybe because it puts the financial burden of a Def's freedom on their theoretical former Holder, maybe even because it doesn't go far enough. It's probably at least in part because they're in the middle of a presidential election and no one really knows if Huntsman is going to hang onto his seat or not, so that's the issue that all of the talking heads spend hours discussing.  But that tiny bill is enough for Kurt, because it's something he can do for Blaine and Quinn; it's something that, were he in their place, he'd want his Holder to push for.  Kurt doesn't even try to kid himself that he can singlehandedly storm congress and force the senators to change their minds, but he thinks he has an idea for how to at least start.

Kurt goes to Quinn first, once he's got an actual plan.  He orders sandwiches and calls it a business lunch; they sit in his office with the door closed.

"Why do I get the feeling we're not talking about the spring line?" she asks, raising an eyebrow at the closed door.  Kurt sighs and pushes a folder across the table to her.  She takes it and flips through it, silent, while he eats his sandwich (tomato and spinach with goat cheese on whole wheat) in small, careful bites.  Finally she sighs and drops it back on the table, then picks up her own sandwich (ham and swiss and mustard on a french roll).

"I won't do it without you," he says.  "It's your face, it's your story-- it's your choice, and I wouldn't take that away from you."

She squeezes her eyes closed and breathes out hard.  "I want this.  I want this bill to pass more than anything.  I know we haven't talked about it, I know I haven't even ever lived on my own, but I want to be my own person, not some extension of you."  She doesn't say I hate this; she doesn't say if it wasn't for what you did, I would have fought so hard they would have had to kill me-- she's already said those things to him a hundred times. He doesn't spend hours apologizing to her any more, either.

"I know," Kurt says.  "And if it passes, then yes, yes, of course.  I would give it to you in an instant, if it passes.  But that's the problem--"

"--it won't pass."  Quinn trails her fingertips over the file.  "It won't pass, because no one cares enough about us to make it so that some of us can actually live."

"I just thought that maybe if we put a human face to this--"  He shrugs.  "Last time I made campaign posters I didn't win, but I like to think that my design capabilities have improved since then.  And a national ad campaign is a little different from a student council election."

Her lips quirk up in a smile and he hopes that it means she's okay with this, so he sits and waits for a response from her.  

"They're very direct," she says.  "Startling."

"That's the point," he explains.  "I don't want people to be able to turn the page without reading them, without considering-- well, you."

She opens the folder again, taps her fingers against the copy of the ad that features her.  "I'll do it," she says.  "But I have one condition-- any time I get a chance to talk because of this, I get to talk.  My own words, not yours, not some speechwriter's-- I'm doing this for me and for Beth and for Blaine."

He only restrains himself from giving a little triumphant hum because he's 26, damnit, and old enough not to.  "Thank you," he says instead, looking straight at her.  "Thank you so much."

"How are you going to bring this up with Blaine?" she asks.  Her hands find Blaine's photograph in the file again, his hazel eyes arresting in black and white.  

"I don't know," he admits.  "I haven't figured out a way to ask that doesn't sound like let me use you.  I mean, I can ask you that because you know what I mean, and you wouldn't have any problems saying no if it wasn't really something you wanted.  But I worry about Blaine."

She smiles.  "You always worry about Blaine."

* * *

The problem is that every time Kurt opens his mouth to ask, he chokes on the words and can't speak.  

Blaine, I have an idea.

Blaine, I need you to--

Blaine, there's this bill in the senate that's--

No matter what he tries to come up with, it comes down to let me use you.  It doesn't matter that it's not for Kurt's benefit; it doesn't matter that doing this would only be useful to Blaine and Quinn-- it's not something that Blaine has brought up.  It's not something that Blaine has asked for for himself.

There's a difference between hiring Blaine to do a job and asking him to show his face, print his story in a hundred newspapers, all across the internet. Using Blaine is the one thing he has tried to avoid since the first day, since that first moment when Blaine had gone to his knees.  Blaine is-- he's used to being used, but Kurt has never wanted to do that to him.  Kurt has hired him for a specific purpose, for one thing and just for that.  Blaine is still great with Beth-- she trusts him more than anyone but Quinn, of course, and Kurt himself.  

He can't use Blaine, even for something like this.  

It's almost annoying, because he's fairly sure that Blaine would think that it's a good idea, but his stupid liberal guilt (and he can hear Quinn laughing at him in his head) won't let him do this.  He knows that most Holders wouldn't think twice about asking.  There had been a year where all of the models for one of Kurt's largest competitors had been Defs, and there had been a mild uproar (not about the ribs and cheekbones that were almost pushing through their skin, but about the fact that they hadn't hired free models), but everyone shrugged and moved on, eventually.  

It's not unheard of to have Defs in the public eye; it is unusual to point out their backgrounds, what has or hasn't happened to them.  And asking Blaine to be okay with that, when talking about it in private, just with Kurt or Emma, had been so hard for him...

Maybe it would be better if he didn't ask-- the ad that Quinn has approved for herself is still good, it still makes a firm statement.  But he knows that it's not as shocking as Blaine's (and that's what he wants to do; he finds that he's distinctly more uncomfortable doing it with a newspaper advertisement than he is with fashion), and therefore not as effective.  But if the choice is what he thinks it might be-- passing the bill or keeping Blaine sane-- maybe it's best that he doesn't ask.

* * *

In the last three days, Kurt has tried half a dozen times to bring something up with Blaine.  Blaine has no idea what it is, but Kurt's been stilted and uncomfortable around him.  It makes him worried, because the last time Kurt had been this nervous, it had been because of Blaine's file, and Blaine's fairly sure that he doesn't have it in him right now to go through that again.

Blaine tries, he really does-- he looks attentive, he doesn't interrupt Kurt, he doesn't do anything to try to shut Kurt down, because whatever it is, Kurt clearly finds it both important and unnerving.  

On the fourth day, though, Kurt seems to give up on whatever it was he was going to ask Blaine, and Blaine finds himself incredibly frustrated by that.  He'd thought they'd come to a place where Kurt could ask him things, even if they were uncomfortable, even if they were things that Kurt didn't really want to ask.  It's a fragile sort of trust, but it's present and it's real.

Blaine tries to ask about whatever it is Kurt isn't asking about, because Kurt looks so defeated by whatever it is he isn't saying.

"Are you okay?" he asks Kurt.

Kurt half-smiles at him, distracted by the morning paper.  "Never better," he says.

"It's just," Blaine says, greatly daring, "it seems like there's something you've wanted to-- and I don't want you to think I can't handle it, whatever it is.  If there's something you've wanted to ask me, please do."

"Don't worry about it, Blaine," Kurt says, and Blaine is seriously tired of being treated like something fragile, like he could break if Kurt breathed wrong.

"Okay," Blaine says.  "If you're sure-- and it's nothing I can help with?  Or if it's something I should change-- something you want me to do, or--"

"Blaine," Kurt says firmly, looking him straight in the eyes.  "It's fine.  Don't worry about it."

And that still shuts Blaine down faster than anything-- a direct order, something Kurt tells him to do with no loopholes or ways to keep pressing.  He swallows up his words and takes another bite of that morning's bread (rye, today-- he keeps thinking about starting sourdough but there's nowhere in the apartment warm enough to keep it going), and does his best to smile at Kurt.

* * *

"He's not going to tell you what he wants," Quinn says, sliding onto one of the bar stools.  Blaine is cleaning up from dinner, rinsing out the glasses and slotting them into the dish drainer, but he looks up at her when she speaks.  

"What is it?" he asks.  "He's started to ask me something six or seven times, and it's like he can't force it out.  Is it really that terrible?"

She shrugs.  "It's a lot, what he's asking-- and he asked me too, don't think I don't know what I'm talking about."  Quinn pauses, clearly considering.  "It's about the bill."

Blaine almost drops the last glass back in the sink, because there's really only one bill she could be talking about.  Almost every Def he knows pays attention to politics when it affects them, and the law that's in the Senate right now is too small for really anything, but if there's even a chance-- "What does he want us to do?" he asks, because he thinks he can get around whatever letter-writing or phone campaign that Kurt has planned, and he wonders why Kurt was so nervous, if this was all he wanted.  If the bill passed, it would mean that there would be a chance that he could be free again-- not that he'd expect if from Kurt (who would certainly free Quinn, if he could, after her years of loyal service, but has no reason to do the same for Blaine).  It would mean so much to the kids out there that are like he was.

Quinn slides a plain manila folder across the bar to him; he dries his hands on a dish cloth and picks it up.

By now he should really know not to open folders or files without feeling prepared or knowing what's in them, because it's always a shock to see images of himself.  Blaine bites his lip harder than he should and carefully sets the folder back on the counter.  Call your senator! wars with eleven years and beaten, raped, and starved in his mind, and it isn't at all what he expected-- it's far more personal, far more intrusive and sensationalist.  "He wants to tell everyone," he states flatly.  

"There's good reason," Quinn says.  Her face is intense, and he can see that this-- whatever it is beyond his face and his story-- this is important to her.  "It's for a good cause-- right now the senate votes aren't looking good, and if either of us wants to take a free breath within our lifetime, this is our best bet.  The bill needs to pass, Blaine-- we need to help it pass."

He doesn't have a good reason to say no but he wants to, he wants to hide his face and his story (and his shame, because that's what makes this so hard, all the time).  It's just his eyes and three words that all at once tell his story and don't say anything about him.

"I don't-- I can't-- Quinn, please, it's my face."  He's not sure why it's bothering him so much-- it is a good cause, it is a law he wants to pass, but he doesn't know if he can put himself out there like that.  He'd write, he'd call, he'd put his voice and his words out there (not that they're any good, but he would), but he can't put his face.

She shrugs dismissively.  "It's just your eyes-- it's not like he's going to be printing your name.  It's not like you have a name, either.  Let him use us for this."

Blaine sometimes wonders if Kurt's kindness, his caring is going to erase every last inch of him, if he'll try to rebuild and find that he has no bricks, no mortar, nothing but a smooth and solid foundation, and this is one of those times.  This is easy, this doesn't require him to actually do anything but give consent; he still wants to say no.  And what will Kurt think, if he gives and gives and gives but the first time he wants to take from Blaine, Blaine refuses?  He can feel his shoulders curling in without his control, and consciously deepens and evens his breathing because he will not dissociate, not right now.

"Think about what you were like when you were fifteen," she continues.  "Think about it.  Wouldn't it have made a difference, knowing that you could get out?  Knowing that you wouldn't be nothing for the rest of your life?  What about all of those kids who are just like you were, just like I was-- we can help them, Blaine, if we let him do this."

"Quinn-- I'm just not sure," he tries, but she keeps pressing.

"You could have a voice in this, Blaine-- you could make a huge difference."  He thinks about saying I have a voice, because here, in this space, he can say no and be heard, he can think and breathe and feel.  And so does Quinn-- she has a voice outside of this apartment, out in the real world where she can and does move like she's free.  Quinn walks with the kind of confidence and self-knowledge that Blaine barely touches.  

"You have a voice," he says.  "You have a voice and a name, Quinn, just like I do."  Maybe there is something besides a foundation building inside him, rising throughout all of these months of safety and space, because six months ago he wouldn't have acknowledged that he owned either of those things.

She shakes her head, insistent.  "Not like this, Blaine-- this is a national ad campaign, this would be everywhere--"

"I can't talk about this right now," he says; he wants to but he can't, and he wishes that she could really understand that.  He starts taking the half-dry dishes out of the drying rack, running the dishcloth over them until they're fully dry.  He stretches to put the plates on the top shelf and ignores Quinn's gaze as best he can.

"Ask Kurt about it," she says as she hops off the stool.  "I'm going to go and read to Beth."

* * *

That night after Beth goes to bed, Kurt is sitting and reading in the living room while Blaine unfolds his bed and smooths over the blankets.  

"Quinn told me," Blaine says, and it takes a minute for Kurt to realize what he's talking about.  

"She-- okay," Kurt says.  "What do you think?"  He's more nervous than he thinks he should be-- he'd already decided not to ask Blaine and just run Quinn's ad, but if Blaine thinks it's a good idea, Kurt's fairly sure that the message behind the ad he's put together (look at what this does to our children) is more powerful, more thought-provoking and startling than Quinn's.

"I'll do it," Blaine says quietly.  "You have my permission to use my face, use my story, my--"  He cuts himself off, and Kurt wonders what he was about to say.  Blaine isn't looking at Kurt, and that worries him, because sometimes he can read Blaine's face more easily than his voice and his words.  "It's okay.  You could have asked me."

"I didn't want to pressure you," Kurt explains.  "I was worried that it might make you uncomfortable, and I didn't want you to feel that way, because you shouldn't feel uncomfortable in your own home."

Blaine's smile is just a little bit twisted when he finally does look over at Kurt.  "Too late," he says, briefly and carelessly.

"I-- Blaine," he says, scrambling for something more to say to make up for this, because making Blaine uncomfortable was never what he wanted.

"I would like to go to sleep," Blaine says, asking but not saying please leave.  

Kurt notes his page and shuts his book (he can't even remember what he's been reading any more).  "I guess I'll see you in the morning," he says helplessly, standing up to leave.  

"Good night, Kurt," Blaine says distantly, already seeming to tune Kurt out.  Kurt watches for just a moment, wishing that there was something he could do to take it back, to have talked with Blaine before he'd made his decision or, hell, to not have come up with it at all.

He's unsettled as he brushes his teeth and applies his various creams and lotions.  The ritual isn't as calming as it usually is, and he still feels unbalanced as he tucks himself into bed.  Either Blaine really is getting to functional or he's getting better at hiding, and from the way that he'd been acting (unwilling or unable to look Kurt in the eyes, jealous of his own space when he's usually so giving with it), Blaine is becoming a better liar.  Or maybe not a better liar, just-- better at pretending things are okay, even now that Blaine has acknowledged that he isn't.

Kurt thinks about Blaine, out there sleeping in the living room (he hopes Blaine is sleeping, because otherwise the morning bread, while delicious, is starting to look like an excuse for Blaine not to sleep, and that's not really good).  Blaine is the only one of them who doesn't really have his own space aside from twelve square feet inside a trunk, and that's not nearly enough to live in.  They're moving in January and Kurt hopes that Blaine can handle one more stress on top of the ad campaign, which might just blow up in all of their faces.  

He has too many things to worry about, but at least the company is doing well and Beth is happy in middle school, which is something of a minor miracle (this month they're studying Egypt and Blaine has been reading her Red Pyramid).  But there's still his dad's health (forever and always, even though his dad is fine and has been for years), Blaine's too-quiet acquiescence and all of Kurt's fretting about the future, because what would happen if suddenly he is out of fashion? if the government suddenly decides that long-term contracts are no longer an option? if the oceans keep rising and suddenly all high fashion has to be waterproof?

They're stupid worries, he knows they are, but sometimes he gets into these spirals of obsessing about every little thing.  It was worse in college, when it seemed like he had more to worry about (what if he can't make enough money to keep Quinn?  what if he doesn't pass that class or that test or what if, god forbid, something happens to his designs?), but now the things he worries about are bigger, less about him.  He quirks a smile at his apparent growth as a person, but it doesn't really do anything to help.  Kurt counts his breaths and tries to calm down, to not think about Blaine or Quinn or his dad.  

Eventually things do settle, and if he's still worried about things that he can't fix or change right now, well, maybe things will look better in the morning.

* * *

Blaine smacks his hands against the surface of the dough, digs the heels of his palms into it and presses hard, kneading firmly, folding and flipping it over and over.  He presses too hard, and the dough tears, sticking and smearing on the countertop.


He rests his forearms on the edge of the counter, takes a step back, and drops his head.  His hands are covered with flour and dough, or else he knows that he'd be running his fingers through his hair, which is finally getting long again.  He breathes, in and out, until his hands stop shaking and clenching involuntarily.

This wasn't-- he's supposed to just be happy with Kurt.  But he wants this so, so much.  He wants to be able to move with his hands free, without that fucking bracelet; he wants to be able to be his own person, finally and fully.  He wants the bill to pass so much.  And it's not just for him: it's for all of the other kids who are like what he was, who are getting that first shock of separation and not knowing why or what or even if they could do this-- be a Def, be good, be perfect.

He's supposed to do what Kurt wants him to do.  This time, what Kurt wants and what Blaine wants are actually the same thing, but Blaine doesn't know if he can put his face out there.  Because it's a national ad campaign-- or that's what Kurt wants it to be, and that's the only way it'd really be effective, but there are people out there who he just-- he doesn't want to show the Kyles his face again.  He doesn't want Julius to look at his eyes and remember how good Blaine had felt for him. (He's always wanted to be good for someone.)  His parents are-- he doesn't know what he feels about his parents seeing him, knowing what's happened (what they've done) to him.  He wonders if they'll still recognize him.

He likes his life here in New York; he's finally finding his feet on solid ground again.  He has a full year here to look forward to, before he even thinks about moving on.

Deep down, under everything, under that solid foundation and all of the hope he might have for a future he can actually influence, he is furious.

He seethes with it and it burns, sometimes, too hot and ready beneath his surface, popping up bright when he least expects.  Right now it's what is making him scrape just too hard at the smeared dough, punch it down with enough force that when he cuts it, eats it, it will sit solid and heavy in his stomach.  Right now it's the ache in his shoulders and his bare feet cold on the floor.

And of course, that's when Kurt walks in.  

He tries to hold the words in behind his teeth, but he can't; they're spitting mad and hot, terrible and confrontational-- the ink's barely dry on his new contract but he pushes himself away from the counter and turns to face Kurt.

Blaine's hands are still covered in flour and he thinks that he must look ridiculous; there's a piece of dough stuck between the thumb and finger on his right hand and he'd forgotten to put an apron on, so the front of his shirt is dusted with flour and yeast and he has the sinking suspicion that there are white handprints all over his pajama pants.

He starts to say is there something I can help you with, but what comes out, in a quite conversational tone, is "I hate you."

Kurt just sort of blinks at him; he's usually not all that functional before his first cup of coffee.  "Blaine-- are you--"

"I hate you," he repeats, just a little louder.  "I hate that your fucking ad campaign is a choice that isn't a choice because if I don't do it I will feel guilty for the rest of my life.  I hate this freezing apartment and I hate my life and that you made me think about all of this.  I hate the way I still want to go to my knees when I see you and I hate that I can't even fucking come without feeling guilty about it and I hate you."  By the end of it's he's nearly shouting and his fists are balled at his sides; his face feels flushed with all the anger and disappointment he doesn't let himself feel and his breath is coming too fast.

Kurt is just standing there shocked, hands half-raised in a placating gesture.

But Blaine doesn't want to be placated, he doesn't want to be quieted and calmed with Kurt's no-doubt reassuring words.  He doesn't want to hear them; he doesn't want to hear Kurt's patronising attitude and he doesn't want to be coddled.  

"I thought we were better than this.  I thought you'd actually started to treat me like a person, I thought you realized that I'm not made of fucking glass, Kurt-- I can do things, I can make my own decisions about what I want and don't want without you deciding them for me.  I'm not a child, I'm not your problem, I'm not anything, why do you care?" He is shouting now, and his breath is burning in his throat.  He's run out of words all at once, like a faucet that's been turned off, and he can't even remember half of what he's just said.  But he knows it was bad, he knows it wasn't anything that Kurt wanted to hear and he knows parts of it weren't true; he knows that this, this is wrong, that he is wrong and he has just lied, flat out, to his Holder (and it's not yes I will and it's not please, more; it was I hate you and he's never said anything he's meant less).

He's about to go to his knees and beg and apologize and plead with Kurt if it means that he can stay-- if it means that Kurt won't break the contract-- when he realizes they're not alone in the kitchen.

* * *

Kurt is still kind of in shock when Blaine finally stops.  Blaine's jittery, now, hands shaking and eyes going opaque and far-away, and Kurt wants to reach out a hand to calm him, but he has no idea how Blaine might react right now, so he keeps his hands at his side and he waits for Blaine to say something else-- to do something else.

Blaine does something that he doesn't expect, though-- he draws himself up and shakes his hands out, then smiles at something behind Kurt.  "Good morning," he says.  It's like looking at an entirely different Blaine, one who hasn't just started to freak out about confronting Kurt (who is still his Holder, even though Kurt would like to think that they're getting closer to even ground).

"You're very loud," Beth says from the doorway.  Her hair is a mess, and it looks like she's just woken up.  Kurt hopes that she hasn't actually heard any of what Blaine's just said-- yelled, really-- and that it's just the volume that's woken her up.

"It's okay, Beth," he says, still looking at Blaine. "You can go back to bed-- it's still early."

"We were just talking," Blaine says encouragingly.  "You can get in another hour so that Ms. Hendricks doesn't bust you for sleeping in homeroom."

"You were talking loudly," Beth grumbles.  "I don't want to fall asleep at school and get sent to the office.  It sucks."

"Sleep, Beth," Blaine says, and it's the closest to a command that Kurt's ever heard him give.

"You guys be quiet, okay?" she says, and she yawns, turns around, and half-stomps back to bed.

If Kurt hadn't been here for longer than the last minute he wouldn't have known that Blaine could do that-- that he could appear so terrifyingly normal after feeling something as strong as what he'd yelled at Kurt.  It makes Kurt wonder what else Blaine is hiding behind his smiles, because Blaine's smile for Beth had looked so genuine, and if he didn't know--

--but he does, now.

Kurt doesn't know what to think about what Blaine had said, because some of it is true (he does treat Blaine like fine china-- like porcelain), and he hopes like hell that some of it isn't (if Blaine actually hates him it's going to be awful).  He needs time to turn it over in his head and figure things out; in high school he may have always been ready with a cutting remark, but he's fairly sure that striking back at Blaine for this will do so much more harm than good.

When it comes right down to it, he's actually kind of proud of Blaine, for sticking up to him and actually letting his feelings show for once, even if those feelings are anger.  Maybe especially if those feelings are anger, because he remembers the man he'd interviewed, back in April, who had seemed bitter.  Who had seemed angry.

But he needs Blaine to be able to be honest with him, and with that smile and those steady hands, Kurt's sure that whatever he gets out of Blaine right now won't be what Blaine wants to say to him.  He doesn't know if anything he says to Blaine right now will make it through the mask.  He waits for Blaine to drop the act.  He has all the patience he needs to wait Blaine out, so he hops up on one of the stools behind the bar and watches Blaine as he goes back to his bread.

Kurt has no idea why Blaine has started this morning routine; the bread is delicious and it warms the house up in the mornings.  It seems to settle Blaine, too-- he hasn't had nearly as many episodes or breakdowns since he started.

Scratch that.  He hasn't had as many episodes or breakdowns that Kurt has seen since he started.  If nothing else, this morning has proved that Blaine is a far better actor than Kurt ever was.

He waits, while Blaine kneads the bread.  He watches the trembling re-appear, travel up Blaine's hands to his elbows, to his shoulders and finally to his chest, until Blaine's whole body is shaking.  

Blaine presses his hands against his stomach, presses them in and makes one high noise that he cuts off abruptly.  "I'm sorry," he says.  "I'm so sorry, Kurt, I didn't mean any of it, I swear, I don't--"

"Yes, you did," Kurt says.  "I don't-- I don't know you, not yet, but I feel like I'm getting to know you, finally, and some of that was true."

Blaine looks so guilty and ashamed that Kurt almost wants to take it back, let Blaine reassure him that every word was a lie, tell Kurt that Blaine doesn't think that he's nothing.  

"And you're right," he continues, "I have been treating you like you're made of porcelain."  His lips twist up in a wry smile, even though Blaine will have no idea why Kurt thinks that's funny.  "I haven't been treating you very fairly, and I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Blaine mumbles.  "It's fine, Kurt, I don't mind."

"I mind," Kurt says.  "And I know that you do too.  Can we stop-- can we stop telling each other what we think the other person wants to hear?  I'm terrible at it, and I don't want you sparing my feelings when something bothers you, okay?"

He's fairly sure that he's asked for honesty from Blaine half a dozen times by now, and he hates that he has to keep asking, over and over again, because Blaine's training means that he says what he thinks Kurt wants to hear-- unless Blaine's pushed too far, like he had been that morning.

"I try so hard," Blaine says.  "I try, and I try, and I want to be okay, but Kurt-- I can't, I want to but I can't, and I'm never going to be okay.  I don't know why you'd tie yourself to me, not for another year, not when you could have someone who is so much better than I ever could be."  He looks up at Kurt, and the dissociative haze is gone from his eyes now, but they're bleak and almost empty.  "You wanted honesty."  His hands have been moving the entire time he's been speaking with Kurt, kneading and shaping the dough into two solid loaves, patting them into the waiting pans.

"You don't have to, you know," Kurt says.  "You don't have to be okay."  

"I don't hate you," Blaine says, quiet and subdued.  "That part was a lie."

It's such a relief that Kurt has to laugh.  "Oh thank god," he says.  "It would be so awkward if you did-- I mean, I'd call Paige and Emma and see if they had any ideas, but-- I'm so glad that you don't."  He remembers something else Blaine had said during his tirade (I can't even come), and flushes because it is something he hasn't even thought about.  Most of the time, Kurt tries to ignore the fact that Blaine is a 27-year-old man, just like he is, because he seems so much younger (and, paradoxically, older, because he's experienced so much)-- so Blaine and sex don't really go together in his mind, regardless of what he's said to Rachel and what other people might think.  "And you can do whatever you need to to feel, um, comfortable," he says delicately, exceedingly aware of the fact that he is blushing furiously.  

Blaine's face is just as red as Kurt's is as he apparently realizes what he must have said during his rant.  "I apologize," he says.  "And you don't have to give me permission-- it was, um-- I was trying to handle it myself."

And oh god, handle it-- Kurt feels entirely inappropriate laughter bubbling up out of somewhere, and he'd keep it in but it's before six o'clock in the morning, he hasn't had his coffee yet, and he's used up most of his filter talking to Blaine.  He can't help the giggles that are escaping, but thankfully Blaine starts to crack up, too, dropping to the ground and snorting.  His hands are still covered in flour and he's wearing his pajamas, and Kurt thinks that here's another Blaine that he hasn't met yet-- one who laughs at inappropriate humor and actually has the occasional hair out of place.

When Blaine is finished laughing, Kurt offers him a hand up.  He pulls Blaine to his feet, and when he lets go his hands are sticky with dough and flour; he makes a face and washes them off in the sink.

He finishes drying his hands and turns back to Blaine, who has temporarily abandoned the bread and is looking at Kurt with steady, open eyes.

"Yes," he says.  "Yes, I want be part of this."

"Are you sure that this is what you want?" Kurt asks, because he can't help but want to make absolutely sure, given how Blaine had acted the day before.

But now Blaine is calm and even.  "I'll say it again: this is what I want.  I give my consent freely."

"But are you--"

"Kurt, I'm sure."

"Okay-- the deal's done, I was just--"

"--you were just obsessing.  It's fine."

Chapter Text


* * *

"Mr. Hummel?" Marc says tentatively, knocking on his door. He likes his boss, he really does, but he gets frustrated sometimes when Kurt does things without warning anyone. Like buying that Def in April, the one that Marc still hasn't met. "We've had a dozen calls from reporters this morning about something you did over the weekend? Some advertisement that was printed? Is it another rumor, or...?"

Kurt sighs. "No, I-- no. It was a political advertisement, nothing to do with the company, so I didn't inform you."

And that's exactly the kind of thing that annoys Marc, because god knows what Kurt has printed, out in the wild by himself. Marc loves working at Humm, but at some point he'd like to be more important than second-in-command (Quinn doesn't even count, she's just a Def), and that means working for a company that doesn't crash and burn because of its leader's political ambitions. "Mr. Hummel, you may not think it, but everything you do reflects on this company, and I can't help with them if I don't know about them."

Linda, Marc's least-favorite secretary, interrupts them by poking her head through the door. Her hair is mouse-brown, just like her personality, and Marc has no idea how she's gotten this far, looking like she does. "Mr. Hummel? There's someone from the Times here to see you, can you--"

"Send him back, Linda," Kurt says, and waves her away. "Marc, I'm sorry, but I need to do this."

"What, are you running for president with two weeks left in the race?" Marc can't imagine anything that would be more pressing, but his boss has always been a bleeding-heart, so god knows what pet issue he's getting involved with.

"No," Kurt says, lifting his chin and seeming even more determined than he had when he'd been just out of college and absolutely certain that he would be successful. "I'm trying to pass the Def act."

* * *

* * *

David buys the Times at a newsstand on his way in to work every morning; he leaves it in his cubicle until the morning meetings are done and he has a minute to sit down with his coffee.

It's the usual-- pages about the election (he wonders how busy Wes is-- Senator Rosen isn't up for election this cycle but things must be a mess in Washington), sports (the Red Sox are still celebrating their World Series victory and the NBA is starting regular season games in two weeks), and buried in the National News section are a pair of eyes that David hasn't seen in years.

He can't be absolutely positive that it's Blaine. There's no real way of knowing-- there must be hundreds-- thousands-- of people out there with those eyes and that hair and-- no, no. It's Blaine. They'd stopped looking, they'd stopped hoping, they'd performed a song at regionals that was all backing vocals with no lead (and they'd pretended not to notice when every member of the Warblers who had known Blaine turned away from the audience or choked or started crying outright in the middle of the song) but here is Blaine. Here he is, in black and white in what David hopes like hell is a recent photo.

He calls Wes before he can even really think about it.

"Wes, did you see the ad? The Def ad, the one in the Times--" he asks, rushed and anxious.

"I did, yes," Wes says, his voice sounding more annoyed than David thought it would, because it's Blaine, how can it not be. It sounds like Wes is walking somewhere, rhythmic thumps echoing through the phone.

"I think it's Blaine," David says, and the thumps just stop. "Wes?" he asks, after a minute of silence has passed.

"I didn't even think about him," Wes says, subdued. "I didn't-- I thought ‘why is this happening now,' but I didn't think about him, I just thought about the hassle and that it's three weeks from the election-- do you really think it's him?"

David swallows. "The initials are B. A., Wes."

"Oh my god, David, I-- have you called Thad?"

"Next on my list after you, but did you read the rest of--"

"Yes," Wes says. "Yes, I did. And I can't-- can you call Thad? and Trent?"

David can still recognize the sounds of Wes starting to over-think; they'd been roommates at Dalton and friends all the way through college (at Harvard and Tufts-- close enough to see each other frequently, but not stifling), and David knows that Wes can and will work himself up so much that he can't focus. "I'll call them-- can you tell Senator Rosen? If you think it might help?"

"I'll talk to Abby tomorrow, I think, and she can tell the Senator if--."

"We found him," David blurts out, because it's what he's been wanting to say since he picked up the paper and realized what-- who-- he was looking at.

"We did."

* * *


It is a matter of public record that Kurt Hummel owns two Defs whose names are B. A. and Q. F.-- but are the stories that he's printed about them true?

It's entirely possible-- close to certain, in fact-- that Q. F. is Quinn F., Hummel's right-hand woman at Humm. If so, she has been seen publicly with Hummel's adopted daughter, Beth, and is well known to be the more human side of Humm. So there is the trifecta: mentor (of the employees of Humm), mother (of Hummel's daughter Beth), and, presumably, a friend of Hummel's as well. Kurt Hummel has held Quinn F.'s contract for at least ten years, and neither of them have publicly attempted to exit the arrangement, and have seemed friendly when they've appeared in public together.

B. A. is more enigmatic; Kurt Hummel purchased the contract of a Def with those initials in April of 2020, but the history of that Def is unknown. The sensationalist claims made in that ad-- that the Def has been beaten, raped, and starved-- are harder to prove and much more controversial. The Department of Labor claims that it keeps close watch on Defs, especially those involved in one-on-one work, so it seems hard to believe that abuse at that level could have gone on unnoticed-- if any abuse did, in fact, occur.

At this point there are more questions than answers, but one thing seems certain: Kurt Hummel's trying to draw attention to this issue-- and it's working.

* * *

The first time Paul Anderson sees Blaine again it's entirely unexpected.

He tries not to think about Blaine too much; he hasn't seen the boy in over ten years. Annette never talks about Blaine, hasn't mentioned his name in years, but Paul-- he regrets what they did.

So when he sees Blaine staring up at him from a newspaper advertisement, he drops the paper on the table and closes his eyes. He's sure that it's Blaine-- it's his initials (B. A., and Paul thinks about the P that should be between them), and he can't ignore that. He can't-- he loved his son, once, and it's possible that he still does.

Annalise comes in with the coffee, setting it next to where Paul has dropped the paper. "Anything interesting this morning, sir?" she asks.

"Striking advertisement-- startled me," he explains, and picks up the paper again. "Thank you, Anna, that will be all."

"Of course, sir," she says, and quietly exits the room.

The advertisement is political-- it's an encouragement to call your senators! about the Defective Manumission Bill, which Paul... well, he's conflicted. Sure, he feels bad about Blaine, but that doesn't mean that every kid who ends up in the system is like his son. There are kids whose parents can't afford them, and he'd rather that they went somewhere they're going to be useful, get an education and contribute to society instead of lazing around on Welfare or getting into drugs. Maybe the moral judgements-- Blaine's choice to be a homosexual isn't something that Paul condones, but it's not illegal any more, and maybe that should make a difference.

He gave away his rights to Blaine a long time ago, but it still irks him that whoever Blaine's Holder is now is using his son to push a political agenda.

The ad talks about Blaine be marked at fifteen, his history of being...

Everyone knows but no one wants to think about it.

Holders use their Defs for sex. Hollywood stars have the prettiest Defs, bright strings of boys and girls, changed out with the fashions each season. There's always the tease of I get to have them and you don't, hands on hips and the back of a Def's neck, bending back a pretty girl's head or making a boy kneel.

He'd just never imagined that Blaine would be one of those boys. Beaten, raped, and starved is what the advertisement says, and Paul wonders how much of that is an exaggeration and how much is truth. He's not sure how much he's going to hate himself, if the story is true.

* * *

CNN Quick Vote:

What is your opinion of Kurt Hummel's recently-printed advertisements in support of the Defective Manumission Bill?
Read related articles.

28% A good idea-- Defs should be able to get out of the system
41% A bad idea-- Defs are in the system for a reason
17% Exploitative-- I agree with the message, but not the methods
14% I haven't seen the ads

Total votes: 16857
This is not a scientific poll

* * *


A representative for the Ohio State Department of Labor has stated that Defective B. A. did not suffer any form of abuse while under their care. According to their printed statement, B. A. was diligently monitored by his Foster while on one-on-one assignments, and there is no written record of abuse. However, Defective B. A. does have a history of a moderate to severe eating disorder. "It's possible that the Defective may have other underlying psychological issues which led to these claims," says Christopher Periera, a representative of the Columbus branch of the Department of Labor. "We keep a close eye on our Defs, and I can guarantee that nothing like this happened on our watch."

* * *

Q & A with Kurt Hummel

This week we caught up with Kurt Hummel, owner of Humm and the cause of recent political controversy. Hummel is a proponent of the Defective Manumission Act, currently in Congress, and has published two advertisements featuring his Defs.

Q: What made you decide to run the ad?

A: I'd been having conversations with B----- and Q----, and it was something that felt very necessary. I discussed the idea of an ad campaign with both of them, and we all felt that doing something like this-- something out in public, something that people couldn't ignore-- was the best way to get the bill the kind of attention it needs.

Q: Does your decision have anything to do with the upcoming Presidential election?

A: No, it does not, and I'd prefer not to share my opinions on Huntsman, Carson, or Hardiwick at this time.

Q: How long have you owned your Defs?

A: Q----'s been with me since we were both 16; we were friends from school and our entire glee club got together the money to keep her safe when she was marked. She's been with me all the way through-- college, starting Humm, everything. I've only known B----- since April of this year, when I hired him to take care of my daughter, Beth, but I was so happy to find him-- he's so great with her.

Q: Will you offer manumission to your Defs if the act passes?

A: Absolutely. I would rather never have had to own them in the first place-- I would have hired Q---- in an instant to work at Humm, and B----- is great for my daughter, Beth. But I'd rather have hired outright; I'd rather that they had full choice to come and work for me. I am comfortable with saying that I am in favor of full abolition-- I believe that the Def system is too open for abuse. From my point of view, the ability for parents to mark their children for anything that they personally disagree with or believe that they can't handle-- everything from mental illness to homosexuality to drug use-- is horrific. Some of those teenagers do need help, but the Def system isn't necessarily the answer, especially when you add the effect that being marked can have on a teenager's mind and self-image. I don't think that it's something that should be allowed. I do see some of the benefits of the Def program, such as their educational and vocational programs, but overall, I think there are better ways to offer such programs.

Q: Have you heard from any other Holders about your campaign?

A: Yes, I have-- actually, I've been contacted by several Defs, who, with the support of their Holders, are going to become part of this campaign. That's who it's really about, anyway: the Defs. It's not about us at all.

Q: Are the ads true?

A: You know, I've heard the accusations and I've heard that I'm clearly lying, so let me be clear. I've known Q---- for ten years, and I can state without qualification that she is a fantastic mentor to many employees at Humm, she is an amazing mother, and she is one of my closest friends. In terms of B----- -- I understand that the claims are more controversial for him, but I have independent verification of every single thing that I published. I have seen undoctored photographs of bruises, I have read reports of B-----'s struggles with his eating disorder after being starved by his first Holders, and I am absolutely positive that he has been raped repeatedly. If I am somehow proved wrong, I will happily print a retraction, but a simple statement that no abuse occurred? That's not proof-- it's just the DoL trying to cover for themselves.

* * *

Mom and Kurt are sitting at the table when Beth and Uncle Blaine get home. Beth immediately gets nervous (not anxious, she hears Ms. Kendricks say), because they're only ever all there right after school when something bad has happened.

"How was school today?" Mom asks her, while Blaine gets her a snack.

"It was fine," Beth says. Justin had left his vocab book at home again and Ms. Kendricks had made him share Beth's for the third time in a week; Marianna had accidentally gotten her in the head during dodge ball in P.E., and Julie had forgotten to bring back Red Pyramid. "We had pizza for hot lunch."

Mom smiles. "We just wanted to talk to you for a minute, sweetie," she says. She only calls Beth "sweetie" when Blaine isn't around to hear, and Beth hasn't quite figured out why, yet. Sometimes she pretends to be Nancy Drew, like in her mom's old books, but she knows better than to snoop around in the locked drawers in Kurt's room. (But she's fairly sure that there's at least one secret passage in their apartment somewhere.)

"Mmkay," she says. Blaine walks back in with a plate full of cheese and fruit and sets it in front of her. "Thanks, Uncle Blaine."

He smiles like he always does and walks out of the dining room, probably to go and read on the couch like he almost always does when they're not doing homework and she's not teaching him to knit (it's slow going but she thinks he'll have a scarf by Christmas, unless he keeps mixing up his purls and his knits in the ribbing. Adults are so tiresome).

Mom looks nervous and Kurt looks... guilty, maybe? Beth's not quite sure, but it makes her even more worried than she already is. "Things might change around here a little in the next few weeks," Mom says.

The only time they've had a conversation like this is when Blaine came to live with them, so of course it's Blaine that she thinks of first. Beth knows that Uncle Blaine is a Def, just like Mom is. She wants Blaine to always be around, but all of her classmates and the books she reads say that Defs can leave, be sent away, so she has this moment of panic because what if he wants to go or what if Mom and Kurt want him to go-- "You're not making Uncle Blaine leave," she says firmly. She will save all of her allowance if she has to, but Uncle Blaine is staying.

"Of course not," Kurt says. "No, nothing like that." He pauses. "Your mom and I-- and Blaine-- we're doing something that's really important, but it's going to be more public than you're used to."

Beth remembers the three weeks after the New York Fashion Week when Kurt had first gotten popular and reporters had tried to corner her (as the daughter of the new! great! Kurt Hummel!, and she'd wanted to explain that he just makes pretty things that are comfortable). She shrugs. "No one's going to, like, kidnap me or anything, are they?"

Her parents exchange glances. "No, sweetie," mom says. "We're doing this so that everyone has more choice with what they do in life, okay?"

"‘kay," she says. "Can I go do homework now?" Beth doesn't really care if people ask her questions-- right now she couldn't care less about some reporters outside her school. There are usually half a dozen hanging around anyway, because one of the girls in eighth grade is Senator McKenna's daughter, and she's learned that the best way to get past them is to ignore them and keep her head up. Besides, Blaine is always there to take her home.

"Yeah, go ahead," Kurt says, and Beth grabs her too-heavy bookbag (she should really ask her parents for a Zuca this year for Christmas-- most of her classmates have them and it seems so much easier (and they have light-up wheels, which is the coolest thing ever)), and goes to curl up next to Blaine on the couch until she's done with her reading for History.

* * *


Kurt Hummel's fashion sense has always been cutting edge-- but are his political ambitions taking it a step too far?

Hummel is dipping his toes into the political pool and making the first national public push for the Defective Manumission Bill, still being heavily debated in the Senate. The advertisements, featuring Hummel's own Defs, ran in papers across the nation over the weekend, and appeared as well in widespread online distribution. Only one paper (The Washington Times) refused to print the ads entirely, but several have printed apologies or redactions of the message the ads were trying to send: that Defs marked in childhood should have the opportunity to leave the system.

The first ads featured just two Defs, identified as B. A. and Q. F., who are known to be Hummel's. The next series contained a half dozen more, whose stories ran the gamut from blinding to sexual abuse to lives just as lucky as Q. F.'s-- Defs who have never had to do anything against their will. It seems that Hummel has found at least some support among his fellow Holders.

It's clear that Kurt Hummel isn't alone in his opinions. A recent Gallup Poll shows that nearly 55% of voters nationwide support the bill-- numbers which are not repeated in the senate, where the bill is expected to be defeated by a sizable margin.

But it is Hummel's methods, not his message, that are being called into question.

"I think it's in incredibly poor taste to showcase these Defs," says Rudy Lippman of the PostDef Society, a group that works to re-socialize short-term Defs. "Kurt Hummel made the choice to splash their stories out for everyone to see, and I'm not sure how much thought he put into it before he printed their names, numbers, and faces."

According to Jory Weirshauser of the ACLU, "Hummel was entirely within his rights to print these ads, and they are doing a lot to raise awareness of this issue, which is a huge human rights problem in America."

The latest twist in the story is that the Ohio Department of Labor denies the claims that Defective B. A. was "beaten, raped and starved," and says that there is no evidence that such abuse took place. Although we asked for an interview with B. A. to discuss these claims, Hummel denied our request, citing B. A.'s desire for privacy.

* * *

On Thursday Emma Pillsbury walks out of the Columbus branch of the Department of Labor with a stack of files in her arms, red and blue and black and stuffed full of papers, audio recordings, and photographs. As she's about to take her last step through the front door, she takes a deep breath and visibly straightens.

Alfred Pullman, branch head of the Columbus DoL, stands at his office door and watches her go. "She's not coming back, is she," says Moira, his assistant.

"No," he says mildly. "No, she's not. Not if things don't change."

"Are you going to stop her?" Moira asks.

"I've had too many years of this," Alfred says, turning back into his office. Just before he closes the door, in a voice that is mostly resigned, he says, "She can do whatever the hell she wants, now. And Mo-- if she asks you again, give her whatever she needs."

* * *

Statement made by Emma Pillsbury on the NBC Nightly News on Friday, October 23, 2020.

My name is Emma Pillsbury, and I have been employed as a Foster for the Ohio State Department of Labor for the past thirteen years. In that time, I have been responsible for nearly one thousand Defs.

Every Foster has Defs who have a hard time. The suicide rate among Defs is up to eight or nine times higher than the rest of the population. It isn't unheard of for Defs to develop non-standard behaviors, such as compulsive cleanliness or non-normative dress. Defs are more likely to die before age 50 and more likely to sustain a serious physical injury related to their career than the rest of the population.

Among Defs who do one-on-one work, those numbers are even higher. A fraction of Defs perform ‘personal service' as part of their contracts-- they provide sexual service to their Holders. Within that group, as many as one in ten attempts or commits suicide. Seventy percent of Defs who are contracted for personal service request or are assigned to psychological services upon returning to the Department of Labor.

B. A. is not an outlier, given his age and experience. His situation may have been exacerbated by the actions of his Foster, who was deliberately misleading in his observational reports, but B. A. is not unusual. His experiences are shared by hundreds, if not thousands, of Defs across the nation, including many here in Ohio.

B. A. served three one-on-one contracts with private individuals in his first five years at the Department of Labor. All three of the claims made by Kurt Hummel are proved through examination of B. A.'s history as shown in his DoL file. Through a combination of deliberate underfeeding on the part of his first Holders and an eating disorder he developed during the contract period, B. A.'s body mass index at the end of his first contract was within the World Health Organization guidelines for starvation. His psychological reports for the end of the contract show that he was repeatedly beaten and raped by those Holders, and these actions were repeated by all individuals who held his contract.

These are common experiences for Defs who perform one-on-one work. While the intention of one-on-one work is both to provide service to the Holders and to provide outside experience to Defs, it is supposed to be the Def's decision to perform contract work. However, it is all too easy for a Foster to push a Def into doing one-on-one work, especially as there is a financial benefit for Fosters whose Defs perform one-on-one work.

It is a system that has done a great disservice to many of its most vulnerable members-- children at or just above the age of sixteen, when they are legally permitted to do contract work. The first time B. A. was sent on a contract, he was just a week over sixteen, and he very nearly didn't come back from that-- his Holders had abused and neglected him to the point of starvation, beaten and raped him until he had very little sense of what was acceptable behavior.

There are other names I could give you-- J. L., whose suicide prompted an internal investigation into B. A.'s Foster; L. R., whose Holder rented her out-- and parts of their stories would all be the same. I've seen first-hand the damage that this system can do to Defs, especially ones like B. A. Isn't it time to give these Defs-- these people-- a chance to live their own lives?

* * *


Since becoming visible on a national level, Kurt Hummel has always claimed that the relationship between himself and his Def is "completely platonic." But we we took a closer look to find out if that is actually the (unlikely) case.

Hummel is well known to be flamingly gay (despite rumors that he is the real father of his adopted daughter Beth), and has been seen out and about with a certain short-dark-and-handsome man who wears that telltale silver bracelet. They've been spotted in coffee shops, delis, and, sweetly, picking up Hummel's daughter from school on several occasions.

Sources inside Hummel's fashion kingdom state that he has been distracted and missing work far more than usual since April, around the time that he acquired his new Def. "He's always been too soft on Q," says our source, who prefers to remain anonymous (Q is Hummel's other Def and ostensibly the mother of his daughter.) "He treats her like she's better than the rest of us."

And it's easy to go from a soft spot to something more-- Hummel has yet to have a public boyfriend, so it's no real surprise that our reporters caught Hummel and his entirely handsome new Def in a passionate embrace just outside Hummel's New York apartment.

One wonders at Hummel's sudden motivation for pressing the Def act the way that he has been-- is it to soothe his guilty conscience for sleeping with his Def? Or is something more sinister at play? Hummel has never been known to be politically motivated (although his father is two-time Ohio Congressman Burt Hummel). So why now? Hummel has owned Defs since he was a teenager, but has never openly supported an issue like this before. Could it be that he is being manipulated by the mysterious B. A. into supporting a bill that he would otherwise be against?

We'll keep you updated on this story as it develops.

* * *

"I know how lucky I've been," Quinn explains. She's sitting across from Elizabeth and it's like she was born to be in front of the cameras-- she knows exactly where they are at any moment but doesn't seem to obsess about them, like someone new to television might. "I am well aware of how much Kurt Hummel has done for me. But that's just it-- Kurt can only do things like this for one or two people. We need to see a real, national change in this system."

"Can you tell us about your experience as a Def?" Elizabeth asks. Quinn is the first Def she's interviewed like this, live and on-air.

Quinn twists her bracelet and smiles sharply. "Sure," she says. "I was a high school sophomore and I made a stupid decision-- I got pregnant. Suddenly I wasn't the perfect blonde cheeleader of a daughter that my parents expected me to be, and because it was up to them, I wasn't their daughter any more. I was lucky that my first Foster was sympathetic, and that my high school glee club managed to raise enough money to buy my contract. I was lucky that Kurt decided to renew my contract, and that he's been able to keep me since. I am lucky to have been able to keep my daughter. I am lucky to have a Holder that understands me and asks me what I want, but I shouldn't have had to have this kind of luck. When I compare my experiences to Blaine's, though, it all seems so-- he's had it so much worse than I have."

"So you believe the stories?" Elizabeth asks, because the viewers will want to know--and, well, she's not entirely convinced herself. Quinn isn't exactly a neutral party in the debate, but she's as close to B. A. as anyone is likely to get, considering that the Def has refused to be interviewed.

Quinn just looks at her like she's stupid (which is incredibly uncomfortable-- Elizabeth has a master's degree and five year's experience in broadcast journalism, she shouldn't be cowed by a girl-- by a Def-- who is half a dozen years younger and far less educated). "Of course I believe them. I live with him-- I've heard his nightmares, held him through flashbacks, watched him start to starve himself again because he didn't know any other way of coping when things got bad."

She's determined, firey, and it's the kind of passionate intensity that Elizabeth is used to seeing in politicians, in preachers, and it's so foreign to see in a Def. They usually know their place, know how to stay quiet and unobtrusive. Elizabeth wonders what Quinn would be if she wasn't a Def. "I believe him absolutely, and it-- honestly, it makes me angry when we're treated like we're untrustworthy or stupid or that we don't know our own minds, because people like Blaine and I are smart, we are dedicated, and we are determined to see this bill through."

* * *


Representatives of the Ohio State Department of Labor have retracted their earlier denial of claims by Defective B. A. that he was abused while under their care.

"There are too many Defs in the system-- even just in Ohio-- to be able to keep track of all of them. Yes, there are failures-- but there are also successes, such as the Defs involved in the agriculture and manufacturing programs," says Alfred Pullman, branch head of the Columbus Department of Labor. "But what happened to B. A. is inexcusable, and I am ashamed to say that it happened on my watch."

It sounds like a poorly-plotted novel: young Def B. A. was assigned to Foster Joseph Carthy, a man with very particular-- and selective-- clients. Carthy was, at the time, Foster to nearly 100 Defs, and his care led in part to some statistically significant increases in Defs' visits to the health and psychiatric ward. B. A. was one of those Defs, spending a total of over ten months in the medical ward-- primarily for a severe eating disorder-- during his four years of one-on-one work. "It started just after he turned 16," states Emma Pillsbury, B. A.'s current foster, "right after it was legal for him to serve out a contract." Pillsbury is currently suspended from her position at the Department of Labor due to her public comments on the scandal. According to records provided by Pillsbury, Carthy's clients did beat, rape, and starve B. A., who rarely had more than three months between assignments, as opposed to the standard six months.

And it seems like Kurt Hummel's ads are right, too-- B. A. is one of the lucky ones. Many of Carthy's Defs attempted or committed suicide, and an internal investigation prompted by one of those suicides led to Carthy's suspension.

Carthy is no longer employed by the Department of Labor.

* * *

The Power Behind the Throne: Defectives in Modern-Day America

Our first article in the series takes a look at fashion icon Kurt Hummel and his Defectives. Subsequent articles will appear each Monday for the next four weeks.

It's been an open secret in the fashion world for years: if you want something done, don't go to the men and women in charge of the largest fashion houses-- go to their Defs.

"I wouldn't know what to do without Quinn," says Kurt Hummel, lead designer and owner of Humm, New York's fastest-growing fashion house. "She keeps me on track, helps me make all of the decisions around here." We're speaking in person, and he's brought Quinn F., his Defective, with him. It's my first time meeting either of them-- and I did, in fact, arrange this interview through Quinn. She certainly seems to be the more put-together of the two; Hummel himself arrived several minutes late. They've seated themselves like a fashion spread in Hummel's glass-and-chrome office, and I begin to wish I'd brought a photographer with me for the whole interview.

When I ask the pair how long they've been together, Hummel defers to his Def. "It's been eleven years," she says. "I was fifteen and stupid, and we were on the cheerleading squad together, so when everything happened, he helped me." It's not hard to imagine Quinn as a cheerleader-- she's tiny, and looks like she'd be easy to throw-- but Hummel seems more unlikely. He's dressed immaculately in Yves St. Laurent and a shirt from his own line, and seems as far from the polyester uniforms and pom-poms of a cheerleading squad as one could get.

He laughs. "It was mostly our glee club that brought us together, honestly. I helped Quinn out of a tight situation when we were in high school, and she's been with me ever since-- through college, internships, and starting this company."

Quinn F. has come a long way from small-town Ohio. After becoming pregnant at age fifteen with her daughter, Beth, Quinn was marked Defective. The reason? According to her parents, rebellion. "It was, hands down, the worst day of my life. To find out that your parents see you as less than human and that there's nothing you can do about it-- if it hadn't been for what my friends-- my teenage friends-- did at that time, I wouldn't be sitting here with you. They raised enough money to pay for my contract, so I could stay in school and with people I knew." It's a sobering statement, and a reminder that in some ways, Quinn has had incredible luck. "There are some good things that have come out of it, for me-- growing up, I thought I'd never leave Ohio, and here I am, in New York. I still have my daughter, and I have great friends and the company here."

Quinn doesn't take a back seat at Humm, either-- she's the only person aside from Hummel himself who is authorised to finalize designs, orders, and publicity. According to our sources within the company, she's the most visible face of authority within its walls-- she knows everyone by name, interns to managers to janitors. "She's the one our interns get references from," Hummel says. "I'm lucky if I can remember anyone's name past three days, but she's the name other companies recognize."

Quinn smiles, clearly flattered. "I've been very proud of the work I've done with Humm," she says, "but I'd like the chance to work outside this company, and things need to change in this country for that to happen."

She's speaking in reference to the Defective Manumission Bill, currently being debated in the Senate. Early predictions had the bill being defeated by a sizable margin-- something that Kurt Hummel and Quinn hope to change. Hummel is the driving force behind a national ad campaign aimed at changing public sentiment (and, he hopes, votes) on the issue of Defectives. "Over 60% of Americans believe that Defs marked in childhood should have a way out, and this bill does that-- shouldn't we make that a possibility?"

It's not the Hummel family's first foray into politics. Kurt Hummel's father is Burt Hummel, a two-time Ohio congressman who was notable for being the only non-Democratic congressman to vote for the Defective Rights Act of 2013 (Hummel served both terms as an Independent). Kurt Hummel says that he has no interest in running for public office-- "The last election I was in was for Senior Class President back in Lima, Ohio, and I was crushed," he says-- but it's clear that he's inherited at least a little of his father's political savvy.

While the elder Hummel was known for his straightforward approach to politics, his son's tactics are a bit more refined, but no less effective. The ad campaign that Kurt Hummel has designed uses stark imagery of Defs, accompanied by brief descriptions of their experiences while marked. Quinn's is one of the most hopeful-- her ad says that she has been "a mother, a mentor, and a friend." The text accompanying the ad featuring Hummel's other Def, 27-year-old Blaine A., is much more disturbing: it reads that he has been "beaten, raped, and starved." And there are others just as disturbing-- an old man with cloudy eyes who is given the description "blinded"; a teenage girl who, just like Blaine A., has been raped.

Only now are some Holders coming forward with stories about their Defs, and it's due in part to Hummel's campaign. "It's something we need to talk about, as a country," Hummel says passionately. "I wanted to get the conversation started, get people thinking-- because Quinn isn't the only one who's been as lucky as she has."

Hummel's more reluctant to talk about Blaine A., whose background has been the subject of a fierce national debate; when the ads were first published in mid-October, the Department of Labor denied knowledge of any of those events. However, Blaine's Foster Emma Pillsbury came forward to confirm the claims just a few days later, sending rumors of government cover-ups of Def abuse spinning.

"I've held Blaine's contract since April of this year," Hummel says, "and I can assure you that each of those words is true." When pressed, he gives a bit more. "I hired Blaine to work as a personal assistant and nanny to my daughter. And it's a bit disconcerting to realize that your new Def is dealing with a severe stress disorder and starving himself when all you want him to do is filing and child care. He's doing much better now, but it was a wake-up call for me that something had to be done."

So Kurt Hummel is doing what he can to change the country while also managing a national company that employs several hundred people, along with his two Defs and his adopted eleven-year-old daughter. How does he keep going? "I just know that if I don't, there's going to be someone else out there who isn't as lucky as Quinn."

* * *

Blaine looks out and up, into the camera flashes and the reporters, notebooks and recorders at the ready, and takes a deep breath. He knows that Kurt is out there somewhere, that Quinn and Beth are watching from the safety of Kurt's couch.

"My name is Blaine Anderson," he says. "And when I was fifteen, my parents walked in on me kissing another boy. I almost killed myself three days later, and there are some days when I wonder why I didn't." He swallows, and there's a roaring in his ears, and he wants to stop but he doesn't, he pushes through it. No one's really going to believe any of it if they don't see more of him than his eyes, if they don't hear him speak (and he knows that not everyone will, even after this).

If he gets through it now, he won't have to do it again (please, not again), and he can forget the audience and he can even forget that Kurt is there. He can collapse once it's done, once he's home and safe again.

"Everything that I have said is true. There is documentation of a lot of it-- when I came back from my first one-on-one assignment I weighed just ninety seven pounds. I was sixteen. I should have been going to prom and worrying about homework, not wondering how many days it was going to be before I was fed and if I would make it to the end of my contract-- if I wanted to make it to the end of my contract. I almost died then-- and it wasn't just the-- the starvation." There are notes on the podium but he doesn't need them; he remembers every instant, every word and gesture and touch. "They tell you when you go in that you don't want to do one-on-one work, not at first, but the wrong kind of Foster can make it so that it seems like it's the only thing you can do.

"You forget how to say no. You forget everything except what your Holders want you to remember, want you to be. And then you come back up afterwards, back at the Department, and nothing makes sense any more. You forget how to act, how to dress, how to do little things like wear shoes and not kneel all the time." Blaine can feel the cold tile of Emily's bathroom under his feet (even though he's wearing shoes); there are ghost-bruises on his knees from Mr. Carrick (but not the Kyles, at least, he's better than that). He doesn't want to be here right now, he doesn't want to be out in front of anyone-- in front of everyone-- but he has to be. He has to. He clenches his hands on the edges of the podium, because he has to be here, he has to be now.

"It was only five years of my life, but I still remember every second like it was yesterday. Now, today, I've had to re-learn myself, because I haven't been allowed to be a person since I was fifteen. There are days when I am so angry that I can't focus. There are days that I lie in bed and wish that I was dead.

"I'm finding that now, for the first time, at age 27, someone is actually asking me what I want to do, what I want to be, and for a long time I didn't have an answer because I thought that this-- being a Def-- was all I'd ever be.

"This is not who I am. This is what happened to me. And my name is Blaine Anderson."

* * *

Chapter Text

Blaine is okay until they're almost at the car.  He walks out of the room with his head held high and his hands shaking, Kurt just a step behind him through empty hallways to the quiet exit they'd arranged.

He walks as far as his feet can carry him but he stumbles at the curb, tripping and falling, catching himself against the windows of the waiting car.  There is no crowd around them, no flashbulbs flaring and no voices screeching for a quote or a scandal, so he almost, almost lets himself fall.   But Kurt is there and he takes Blaine by the shoulder (and his hands are careful and Kurt doesn't touch Blaine more than he needs to, no sweep of a palm across his lower back or slow fingers up his spine), and somehow Kurt gets the door open and Blaine into the back seat before he really goes away.

There are moments, after that-- Kurt helping him out of the car, Beth attaching herself to him as soon as he gets in through the door (he does not kneel, he must not, Blaine, we don't kneel in this household, and the new rules have never been harder to follow).  He thinks Kurt brings him food but he's not sure; he knows that he doesn't eat because he remembers Kurt's lost, hurt expression when he says no, thank you for the tenth (first) time.  

He wants to be okay but he knows he isn't, that he's pushed too far again and that it's setting everything back months, that speaking in front of the crowd was the best worst decision he's made in a long time.

He's let his routines slip; he's sleeping less and almost stopped making bread on the long cold mornings. Blaine's not sure when that stopped working, when the thump of the dough on the counter and the yeasty scent of the bread stopped being enough to ground him against everything-- everyone-- who wants something from him, wants some piece of himself for their own.  Quinn wants him to work with her for their freedom; Rachel wants a duet partner (and Rachel's back; that's a whole other set of issues that he doesn't want to think about, not when she's small (like Maria), and loud (like Emily), and it makes him want to never, ever sit next to her or even be in the same room that she is); Beth wants someone to read to her and help her with her homework; and Kurt just wants him to be okay but he's not.

Because right now he's down, he's down farther than he has been in a long time.  His knees buckle when Kurt walks into the kitchen as he's washing dishes after the dinner he didn't eat and Kurt catches him by the elbows, just like he's been catching him all day.  Really, since all of this started, since the press had started wanting words from Blaine, not from his Holder.  Kurt had listened to Blaine, listened to his I don't think I can and his no, not yet and no, no, I can't.  Kurt had passed on his stories and his regrets and hadn't pushed him to speak for anyone else.  (Quinn had; Quinn had asked him why not and said it would be easier for all of us if you would and that he should tell his own story, not let Kurt speak for him.  But then, Quinn had taken to the media easily, staying three steps ahead of them and not letting anything touch her.  Blaine wishes he had her facility and her grace, but tonight he just feels stained.)

Kurt catches him, but Blaine falls anyway.

* * *

Kurt feels like screaming in frustration.  It's been a long two and a half weeks of speaking with reporters and trying to keep his company from completely going under; Rachel had chosen Wednesday to re-appear and take up residence on the trundle bed in Quinn's room, so there's been her to deal with, as well, and he doesn't know how much more he can take.  And Blaine had just been so strong all week, firm with Kurt and with himself about his boundaries and what he was and wasn't willing to do.

At the beginning, speaking to a crowd of reporters hadn't been anywhere on that list; it hadn't even been on the maybe-someday portion.  Kurt has no idea what changed; he'd asked Blaine when the possibility had been brought up but Blaine had just shrugged and said that it was time.  Right now he hates himself for not prying, making absolutely sure that it had been what Blaine wanted, but it had just been so much easier to have Blaine be willing to talk, willing to tell people himself instead of through some intermediary.  The consequences are starting to show that maybe it wasn't worth it, because Blaine didn't eat dinner and now he's here again, kneeling in front of Kurt like he had that first night.

Blaine's eyes are terrifyingly unfocused and blank when Kurt follows him down to the floor. It's been weeks since Blaine's had an episode this bad-- even when he'd yelled at Kurt he'd still be there, still been present and aware.  And now he's kneeling, feet tucked underneath him neat and clean, trembling with anticipation.

"Hey," Kurt says, reaching slowly for the plate that Blaine is still holding.  "Can you hand me that plate?"

Blaine moves like he's in a trance; he keeps his eyes trained to the wood of the floor in front of him and presents the plate to Kurt like an offering.  

Kurt takes it from him and twists around to place it on the counter, because he doesn't want to fret needlessly about his mother's china while Blaine's-- while he's not himself.  He folds his legs until he's sitting crosslegged and pulls his phone out of his pocket, sending a quick text to Quinn to ask her to please keep Rachel and Beth occupied and out of the kitchen.  

"How are you doing?" he asks Blaine, not really expecting a response.  Blaine hasn't spoken before when he's been like this, too far away from the rest of the world to interact.  He glances over at Blaine and Blaine is-- he licks his lips and his face sort of seizes for a moment, and--

"Kurt," he says, like he's tasting the word, speaking it for the first time.  "Kurt, I--"  He stops, but his lips are moving like he's still speaking, and Kurt moves toward him involuntarily.  

"Blaine?" Kurt says.  "Blaine, are you-- what can I do?" he asks, and he tentatively reaches out to touch Blaine's shoulder, which seems like the best place to touch him if Kurt's going to (it's not threatening, it's not at all sexual, it's just-- it's a shoulder, and Kurt's internal monologue is starting to drive him crazy, now).  

Blaine's shoulder twitches when Kurt touches it, and then it's like watching an earthquake happen all through Blaine's body.  His shoulders and then his collarbone and his chest and his hands all start to shake, like Blaine's coming apart at the seams.  Kurt tires to snatch his hand back, like that will stop the shaking, put Blaine back together, but Blaine grabs for it and holds Kurt so tightly that he thinks he can hear bones creaking.  Blaine gasps for air like he's drowning and he shakes and shakes, rocking back and forth.  Kurt doesn't know what to do, not at all.  He's not thinking straight, because Blaine doesn't break down like this-- he doesn't need people when he has an episode, he just needs momentary human contact so that he can feel grounded in the real world again.  

But this isn't just an episode, this is Blaine breaking in front of him, and Kurt doesn't know what to do.  He's worried that if he touches Blaine more that it won't be anything resembling good; he's terrified that if he doesn't, Blaine will shake himself to pieces.  So he talks, because if there's anything that Kurt Hummel excels at aside from his devastatingly perfect sense of style, it's talking.  "God, Blaine, you're so brave-- getting up in front of all of those people like you did," he says, grasping at anything positive he can say about Blaine.  "I was so proud of you, up on that stage today."

And finally that seems to reach Blaine, because his grip on Kurt's hand loosens and he draws in a deep, shuddery breath.  "I hope so," he says, and he sounds choked up, like he's about to cry, like it's almost too hard to get the words out.  "I want you to be," he continues with some sort of deep-seated longing, and maybe this is what Blaine has wanted all along: for someone to be proud of him.  Not of what he's done, not of his skills and his accomplishments, not of their ownership of him, but just proud of Blaine.  

"Yes," Kurt says firmly.  "I am so proud, Blaine."  He turns his hand in Blaine's and laces their fingers together, holding tight for just a moment.  "I'll always be, for you."  

"I-- god, Kurt, how do you--" Blaine says, stumbling over the words but pushing them out anyway.  "I just keep fucking up and I'm not-- I can't be what you want, and please don't ask me to do this again, Kurt, because I will, I'd do it for you and for this but please don't ask."

Kurt ‘s taken aback.  He doesn't know what to say-- has he asked?  Did something he's said make Blaine think that doing this was the only acceptable course of action?   "Did I-- if I've made you feel like you had to do this, then-- Blaine, I just want you to be safe."

"No, no, you-- you didn't ask, but it was-- it wasn't an option, not to do this.  And I'm sorry, I'm sorry I can't--" Blaine tugs his hand out of Kurt's and pushes himself back, until he's just barely in reach and Kurt is stuck, because all he wants is to gather Blaine in and hold him until he's woven in his loose ends, until he's figured out the person he wants to be.  Kurt doesn't really touch people, as a general rule, but there's something about Blaine that tears right through that.  "I'm sorry," Blaine repeats, dropping his head, shoulders slumping until he just looks defeated.

"You don't have anything to be sorry for," Kurt tries, but Blaine shakes his head.

"I'm never going to be what you want me to be, Kurt," he says, quiet and empty.  "There's not enough of me left."

"Blaine--" Kurt tires, but Blaine isn't done talking yet.

"You should just-- you should find someone better for this, someone who can actually do this."  And that's just wrong, because Blaine is exactly what they-- what he-- needs.  Kurt has made the choice to keep Blaine over and over again, and if Blaine hasn't realized by now that Kurt wants him--

"In March I didn't know what I was looking for," Kurt says abruptly.  "Quinn told me that I needed another Def, and I had her put together a stack of files.  It was all sorts of people-- all guys, all different ages and skills and pictures.  Some of them had just been in the system for a few years, some for a lot longer than that, and I had no idea how to choose.  I didn't know how to value musical skill versus accounting, how to work with anyone in that stack of files.  But there was a guy, and from what I could tell of him from an incredibly uninformative government file, he was exactly what I wanted.  He was smart, skilled, and not-- not some government drone, not taken over by who-- by what he was.  And I chose him.  I wanted you, Blaine Anderson."  He offers both hands to Blaine, who is finally, finally looking back at him.  "It's been hard, sometimes, making this work, but it is still working.  You are still my choice, Blaine.  I don't want someone else," he says, and he's almost crying in frustration and anger at everyone who's ever told Blaine that he wasn't worth more than what he could do.  

"Kurt--" Blaine breathes, and all of his doubts and fears are still showing on his face, but he takes Kurt's hands.

"If I were still in my high school glee club this would be the time I'd serenade you with a song about the power of friendship," Kurt jokes, and he squeezes Blaine's hands briefly.  "But I'm not, and I'd really--"

"We're friends?" Blaine asks, looking up at Kurt, surprise showing clear and bright on his face before he drops his head back down, flushing in shame.  "I'm sorry for overstepping, you must have meant generally, not like--"

"I'd like us to be," Kurt interrupts.  It's not that they aren't-- Kurt's just never really thought of them that way.  They're colleagues and housemates and more than anything, Kurt helps Blaine.  But Blaine helps him, too, so maybe they're more equal in that.  He knows some of the most intimate details about Blaine, but he doesn't know what Blaine's childhood was like, what he did in high school, what he would have been if he hadn't been marked (Would they have met earlier?  Would Blaine be in New York right now?  Would he?).

"I would like that too," Blaine says carefully.  

Kurt worries at the inside of his lip for a moment.  "Even if this passes-- and I don't know that it will, even with everything that we're doing-- it's going to be a while before it goes into effect and you can be free.  I'd like for us to be friends, because we're going to be together for a while."

Blaine shows a small, bitter smile.  "I don't expect it to pass.  I don't-- I know it's not going to be some magic wand that will make all of everything go away and be fixed forever.  But this is something I've wanted for a very long time, and knowing that we are so close and being part of it and--" He takes a deep breath, grips Kurt's hands firmly, then drops them.  "It's not going to pass, Kurt, and then where will I be?  Where will you be, when you've spent your political capital and no one's willing to do business with Humm any more?"

"I have back-up plans," Kurt says.  "And back-up plans to my back-up plans.  You're going to be safe, Blaine-- as safe as I can make you."  It's one of the first things he'd done, when he'd decided to go through with this crazy plan to make the Def act pass-- he'd set up things with Emma and his dad so that if anything happened to him, Blaine and Quinn would go to his parents, not back into the system.  He shifts a little on the hardwood of the kitchen floor. It's getting more and more uncomfortable the longer he sits-- he has no idea how Blaine can kneel so patiently and not hurt all the time-- unless he does, and Kurt just can't see it.

"Do you mind if we take this conversation elsewhere?" Kurt asks, because his knees are seriously starting to complain.

Blaine nods, says "Of course," but he's looking around, not making eye contact, like he'd rather be anywhere but having this conversation with Kurt.

"Or, I mean-- it's late, you could--" Kurt offers, and Blaine jumps without hesitating.

"Yes, Kurt, I think I'll-- sleep should be good," he babbles.

Kurt levers himself up from the ground, wincing as his knees pop-- sometimes he forgets that he's not sixteen any more. He offers his hands again to Blaine, who is still kneeling on the floor.  Blaine looks at his hands and then licks his lips, takes a deep breath.

He pushes himself up off the floor, and Kurt smiles.

* * *

When Blaine goes to bed that night, he's still unsettled.  He feels like he's swimming through thick fog, like there's some sort of thin veil between him and the rest of the world.  It's isolating and numbing and he hates it; he wishes that his hands could tear through it and that he'd finally be free of this horrible grey.

Instead he strips, methodically, alone in the living room.  He unbuttons his shirt, toes off his shoes and socks, slides off his slacks.  He runs his hands up his ribs (he's getting skinny again, too little to eat and too little time; he needs to start baking again and re-gain some of that control but there's no time), tugs at his hair (too long getting messy getting sloppy all over the place, should be short so he isn't so pretty, isn't so desirable), and tries to get his mind to quiet, because even though the rest of the world is grey, his thoughts aren't, they're racing half a mile a minute with thoughts of how he could-- how he should-- be, all the behaviors and routines from the other times he's done one-on-one work tumbling back in, running rough-shod over everything he's learned with Kurt.

If he's good, if he's proper and right, then maybe his Holder will feed him enough and maybe he'll get enough sleep and maybe, maybe he won't feel this awful all the time.  Maybe if he remembers where he is all the time (is he still with Emily or are those Julius's clothes that he's forgotten to fold before he'd been pressed back onto the bed?) he'll settle in, be the kind of Def that he's supposed to be, actually fulfill the promise that Joseph had seen in him, years ago.  

Blaine steps on the corner of a paperback book that's sticking out from under the sofa, and suddenly he's back, with Kurt and Beth and Quinn.  He's not lost in his own mind, he's not reeling from Holder to Holder or spending month after month in quiet solitude at the DoL, afraid to get too close to anyone he worked with (what if they leave what if their contract is purchased what if they take the way out), only really vaguely entertaining thoughts of going back into the free world.

But that's where he is right now: in New York, with a family that wants him to be good things for them.  He wants to please them, he always wants to please, and if that's what had made Joseph pick him out of a stack of new Defs, then so be it, because it's brought him to Kurt and Beth, to Quinn and Paige and Rachel, even (he thinks he'd like Rachel if she didn't look like she does-- if she didn't sound like she's yelling at him to stop, Blaine, you're acting like a child-- you're acting like Micah, Jesus, stop crying--).

He bites the inside of his cheek and he's in the living room again and this is not good.  This is as bad as it was the first few weeks, when he hadn't been able to look at the new family without seeing any of his old Holders like a weird second shadow over them.  If it wasn't so late he'd get his-- he'd get Kurt-- but it's nearly midnight and the rest of the house is quiet.  Rachel had left a few hours previous to go out with some of her friends from the show, so there are no soft lullabies being sung to Beth that he can listen to through the door.

If he holds the mute on the piano, maybe he can play for a while, calm himself down with the complexities of the music-- but that would still be too loud, even if he could think of something to play in this state (there are titles flashing through his mind of all of the songs he played while he was in high school-- Katy Perry and Train and all of the stupid pop music he pretends he's grown out of).  But the piano makes him think of Rachel, again, and he pulls on a t-shit and curls himself up on the bed, buried under wool blankets that are softer than they might be and cotton flannel sheets that are perfect for the cold winter.

He's too hot or he's too cold, though, and he can't-- he just can't force himself to sleep like he'd learned to do early on (sleeping four to a room the size his closet at home had been; Naomi on the bunk above him is tossing in her sleep and Greg is whimpering somewhere to his left) and so he burrows in tight, wraps the blankets around his head and tries not to be; he lets the grey spiral him down until he's just not really there any more.  It's not sleep, and it's not restful, but he doesn't have to think about Kurt or Quinn or Rachel or what he might have to do tomorrow, next week, a year from now.

The sheets don't smell like Rachel, but her perfume is still hanging heavy in the air, somehow, hours after she's left.  It's difficult let go of, the last of his senses tugging him up toward wakefulness.  He presses his face deep in clean cotton, and breathes and breathes.

Eventually he drifts off into something like sleep, and it's enough.  

Rachel is small (like Maria), and loud (like Emily), and it makes him want to never, ever sit next to her or even be in the same room as she is, but she's Kurt's friend, and she isn't going anywhere.

Rachel grabs his hand to show him something (come here, sweetie, show me how you're good for me) and he doesn't snatch his hand back; she tousles his hair on her way from the living room to the kitchen (come in closer, closer, I just need a little more--) and he doesn't flinch away from her touch.  

It's a relief when she goes out for auditions and to see her other friends in the city, because he feels like he can breathe in the apartment again, and if the air smells like Rachel's perfume, he opens all the windows until it's clear again.

(in his dreams, the door to Kurt's apartment opens, closes again.)

There is someone in bed with him and he's warm, too warm, but she is soft against his side and he doesn't want to wake her (because waking her will mean needing to please, again and again, and he just wants five more minutes before his day starts.

She turns her face into his shoulder and he panics, silent and immobile, because he can't tell if she's Maria or Emily or one of Julius's friends, but her breath is hot against his bare skin, and she hums loud enough to--

--loud enough to wake him up, and it's her, she's here and he keeps still, not daring to move because how did she get to New York (New York, he's in New York and not in Ohio not in Detroit) and it takes his sleep-fogged mind too long to realize that the woman plastered to his side is Rachel.

She's still mostly dressed and she smells like a bar, alcohol and cigarettes and the subway all mixed up with her perfume.  The grey is gone, fled away with memories and adrenaline, and "Rachel Rachel Rachel," he says, scrambling back and pushing her away from him.  

"Mm?  Finn?" she says, not quite awake and reaching across the sofa-bed at him.  He pushes her back again, but his legs are tangled in the sheets and he can't get away fast enough.  She flails, grasping for him and her hands land on his wrists; she must be stronger than she looks because that's enough to keep him there.  

"Rachel-- please, you need to wake up," he begs, trying to be loud enough for her to hear but quiet enough not to wake up the rest of the household.  

"G'back to sleep," she says, and her hands relax enough for him to scramble out from underneath her.  

He doesn't know why she's in his bed and he doesn't really care, he just wants out of it.  

Blaine winces when his knees hit the floor before his feet do and he pushes himself up, stumbles into the armchair nearest to the sofa.  There's a crocheted red throw folded neatly over the arm (Kurt had found it at an antique store for a steal, apparently, and Blaine's mind can stop throwing up useless information because he really has to sleep more and there's no way he's getting back in bed with her, not when he doesn't know how he's going to wake up).

It's too cold for him to get fully back to sleep (it's still the first week of November and it is so, so cold, even tucked in tight in the chair and wrapped up in the throw, but it's only been three or four hours since he'd forced himself to bed, and if he wants to be worth anything the next day, he needs to not be awake right now.  Sleep doesn't come and it won't come; he drifts for a few hours before his alarm goes off.

He makes soda bread in the kitchen, the sour smell of the buttermilk and the tang of the baking soda chasing away the last vestiges of Rachel's perfume.  Once the bread is in the oven, he sleeps until it's done.

* * *

Blaine always knows where Rachel is.  He can smell her perfume and hear her singing or humming absently to herself from across the apartment; he knows her footsteps and how she always skips the bottom stair when she's walking up to Kurt's.  She'd woken up in his bed and been confused and apologetic, but he'd shrugged off her concerns and handed her a piece of bread.  He'd been unsettled enough to be awoken by her that he can't deal with her apologies in the morning.  Right now she's in the living room, sitting on the couch (his bed) and obsessively watching the same half-dozen videos over and over again while he's cleaning the kitchen.

The sound quality isn't great, and she's not playing the videos too loud, but there's something familiar about the music that's trickling in to the kitchen.  It sets him swaying in a way that music doesn't any more, and he steps and turns with some left-over muscle memory, and-- oh.

Absently, he drops the dishcloth he's holding on the counter and walks to the living room.

"That's the Dalton Academy Warblers," Blaine says abruptly, interrupting Rachel and her video.  He hopes that he hasn't startled her too badly; she's easy to surprise and he cannot deal with her shrieking right now.

Rachel jumps a little but doesn't say anything until she checks the file name.  It's them, he knows it's them, but she has to check.  "Are you a show choir fan?" she asks.

He almost laughs, because if she knew him at all-- but she doesn't.  None of them really do.  "I was," he says, and it's the first time he can remember him talking about anything in the past with her.  She still looks a little confused, she still doesn't get it, so he gestures toward her tablet, video of boys in neat uniforms and striped ties frozen in time on her screen.  "May I?" he asks.  Rachel hands it over and watches him curiously.  

It's almost too much to look at the screen, to see Wes and David and-- is that Thad, maybe?-- and Joey, their soloist his sophomore year-- and there, in the back.

There he is.

He zooms in on a kid with too-curly black hair and a cautious-but-enthusiastic smile and hands the tablet back to Rachel.

It takes her a minute.

"Oh my god," she whispers, looking up at Blaine.  He's smiling crookedly down at her, because if he doesn't smile he's not sure what expression is going to show on his face.  "That's you-- that's you before."

"Yes," he admits.  This is the past that he never says anything about, because admitting that there was a Blaine before he was fifteen, before he was marked and not the same person any more-- not a person at all.  He can admit to things that happened to him when he was sixteen, he can talk about his Holders now, just a little, but sometimes it's like he didn't exist before then.  Kurt knows that he was at Dalton, but not that he was in the Warblers; he's never heard Blaine sing.

"How long before?" she asks, and grimaces-- he wonders if it's at herself or at his messy hair and off-beat steps.

"If this is regionals, then-- maybe six months?  I'm not really sure."  He doesn't think about this; he doesn't think about Dalton and Wes and David and the friends he'd had there-- real, true friends that he hasn't seen since they waved him off, laughing, at the end of his sophomore year.

"You look so young," she says, and he can feel his smile get just a shade bleaker, try as he might to keep everything hidden.

"I was."  He doesn't know what he's going to say if he keeps standing there and looking at Rachel (she makes him forget where he is, but she's not around enough for him to get used to her and her scent and her footsteps; he wants her to stay around long enough for him to know her but at the same time he never wants to see her again), so he says something about needing to finish the kitchen and flees as gracefully as he can.  He hates that he doesn't know what he's going to do, half the time.  He hates that he doesn't know what he's doing, that sometimes he doesn't know where or when he is.

It feels like something under his feet is cracking, like the ground he's walking on is becoming less and less stable; god knows if he's going to be able to finish everything he has to do today (sort out Kurt's personal finances for the next month and make sure Beth's tuition is paid and finish cleaning and dinner).  He pushes his sleeves up over his elbows and twists his bracelet one-two-three times, a reminder of what he is and what he has to do.

The Comet is kept under the sink and it spills teal and powdery across the counter-tops; he thinks about the way it burns his throat when he breathes in and doesn't listen as Rachel starts the video one more time.

* * *

The phone rings.  Blaine thinks that Kurt's sort of strange, still using a land-line even though he's got a cell phone, everyone does, but maybe there's something about the 60's throwback phone that appeals to Kurt.

They've mostly been letting the answering machine pick up and weeding out the journalists and the prank calls at the end of the day.  But he's alone (Rachel has left, thank god-- her ex is in town and they're seeing a show) and today's a day for not thinking, so he picks up the handset.  "Hummel residence," he says.

"Hi," the person on the other end of the line says.  The voice is pinging something in his memories-- like some familiar whisper that's years out of date.  "This is Marco-- I was looking for Blaine Anderson?"

Blaine's hands are shaking and his toes, oddly, have gone numb.  "I'm sorry, Mr. Contreras, but you have the wrong number," he says, knowing that he's made a mistake the minute the words leave his mouth, which is too dry; his tongue feels too large and too slow.  This is-- no.  No, he cannot, not today, but his hands aren't listening to him and they hold the phone to his ear almost too tightly.

"Shit, no, Blaine--" Marco says.  "Please, Blaine, don't hang up, I--"  Blaine can hear him breathing and that's just not.  

"Marco, please," he says. No, not today.

"I'm sorry, Blaine, I'm so sorry, I just--"  Why is he sorry?  Why is Marco sorry?  Blaine's the one that fucked everything up-- he doesn't even know what's happened to Marco since, he doesn't know if he's talking to another Def or to someone walking around free-- but anything that happened right after, that's going to be his fault.  "I'm sorry," Marco says again.  

"Why?" Blaine asks.  "Why are you sorry, you didn't-- you didn't do anything, Marco, it wasn't your fault, it was me--"

"No, no--  Blaine, I didn't do anything.  I should have-- I should have told your parents it was my idea, I should have said something-- I can't believe I found you."  Blaine can't believe that he even looked, that anyone looked for him after he was found wanting as a person, cast aside and not worth the effort.  "How are you?"  Marco says awkwardly, and if he expects Blaine to be able to say anything back to that--  no, not today.

"I'm sorry," Blaine says.

"What? No, Blaine-- it's--"

"I'm sorry," he repeats.  "I can't, Marco, not-- I can't, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he says, and he watches distantly as he presses end call; his hands drop the phone and his knees just sort of crumple, until he's a collection of skin and muscle and bones, piled together awkwardly in the hallway.

Marco was half his life before he was a Def and if he's seen the advertisement it means that Blaine's parents almost certainly have; it means that Blaine may have more people to deal with, more people who know who and what he was before all of this and he doesn't-- he can't think about being fourteen again, about being ten or seven or having parents who actually cared, and it's easier to just forget that than try to reconcile it with what he is now.

But it's like trying to stop an avalanche with his hands (he got piano lessons as a birthday present when he was seven his grandmother died and he'd stood solemnly next to his father in Cleveland where the Kyles live and he'd sung the national anthem at his middle school graduation before he'd learned to close his mouth and his mind) and so he closes windows in his mind one by one (his music; his emotions; his tangled relationship with Kurt; every single part of himself that is him carefully packaged into a box that won't open) until he is kneeling, neat and silent, waiting for his Holder to come home.

The phone rings.

* * *

Chapter Text

There is a roaring in his head and it sounds like Marco's voice; it drowns out every other thought he has and fills his head.

He has tried to forget Marco since he was fifteen and just-marked, since his mother and father came home too early and found them curled together and couldn't ignore Blaine's sexuality any more. He has tried to box himself up into a neat, small package but there are things spilling over the edges, though the cracks.

He has tried to forget Marco, but Marco is still there.

* * *

He's going to ask Marco to the dance. He is, he is, once he gets over himself and musters the courage to actually say something. Marco's his best friend, has been for years, and there have been enough shared glances for Blaine to know that at least he won't be rejected out of hand. They hang out together practically every day after school, so it's not going to be a surprise when Blaine knocks on the Contreras' door.

It's two weeks before the Sadie Hawkins dance that Westerville High is throwing, and Blaine's not a girl, but he thinks that he can get away with asking Marco, since they're both guys. He's not quite sure how he's going to bring this up with his parents, but it's not like they've said they're that against gay people. Not that Blaine is gay, he'd just-- he'd rather go with Marco, as friends, than as a date with a girl that he-- Blaine just hasn't found the right girl, not yet.

When he finally gets over to the Contreras', history homework in hand, it's Marco's younger sister Yoseline who answers the door, not Marco like he'd expected. "Hi, Yoseline, I'm here to see--"

"You're here to ask my brother to the dance," Yoseline announces, like it's the most obvious thing in the world. "But you can't, Blaine, oh my god." She's thirteen and kind of a brat, but apparently, she knows him too well.

"I--" Blaine starts, ready to deny it, but Yoseline just raises one eyebrow like she must have seen her mother do and drags him inside.

"No, Blaine. You're going to take me to the dance as a favor to your best friend, because you can't go with him and I really want to go, okay? I know that he'd go with you-- and look, you can totally dance with him at some point, I'll get the rest of the girls in homeroom to make an honor guard or something, but you can't go with him," Yoseline says, biting her lip. "He's waiting for you upstairs."

Blaine walks up the stairs to Marco's room and when he opens the door he sees Marco's apologetic face and knows that there's no way.

In the end he does go with Yoseline; she gets dressed up in a fantastic hot-pink dress and he borrows his father's tie. Marco's there, too-- he's been brought by Neesa from the drama club, and he'd told Blaine that she's pretty (Blaine hates her a little for that). He spends most of the night staring at Marco except for when Yoseline drags him out on the dance floor and makes him shake and shimmy along with the rest of her friends. It's ninety percent fun and ten percent agony, having Marco close enough to touch but never being able to.

Eventually it's too much, too many teenagers in the cafeteria dancing-- thrashing-- too much that is too loud-- and he makes his excuses to Yoseline, fleeing to the hallway outside the dance and breathing in the cooler air. He reminds himself over and over than Marco is just a friend, that Marco is his best friend, and that there doesn't need to be anything more than that. They are friends, and Blaine isn't gay (no matter how he feels during sleepovers when it's just the two of them in Marco's room and their faces end up too close and they both hold their breaths, and if either of them moved forward--).

The other boys see Blaine before he sees them. It doesn't matter to them that he and Marco are just friends, apparently, because they get up in his face and push him down the hallway, away from the lights and the staff monitoring the dance. He thinks they're seniors, but he's not sure, and for one panicked moment he bolts, running as fast as he can, the soles of his dress shoes slipping underneath him.

The only sounds he hears are his breathing and the boys behind him, but everything is covered up by the muffled thumping of the dance, two hallways over and still too loud. One of the boys catches the back of his jacket and Blaine goes down; he tries to scramble up again but the boys have circled up around him (grinning like hyenas, except hyenas are scavengers and that means he's already dead meat). They follow him down like a pack descending on prey; he waits for the first blow, the first punch or kick to his side or his face, but it doesn't come. One of them rips his jacket open-- Blaine can hear a button clattering away down the hallway. Two of him are holding his arms and there's a clicking sound and the smell of alcohol and he realizes what they're doing the minute the marker touches his shirt.

One of them keeps up a running monologue of all of the things Blaine has done wrong, hissing in his ear as his friends write on him (looked at him too long looked at all of us too long and Marco's a good kid, he's not sick like you you twisted fucking defective fag, your parents should have marked you years ago-- should know what their son does when they aren't around, should know that their son is a freak) and all Blaine can do is say please over and over again.

Blaine keeps his eyes closed until they're done, until his shirt is covered in words he doesn't want to think about and his dad's tie is ruined by the ink (the last thing they did was push up his sleeve and draw a thick black line around his wrist, like the words they'd written on his chest weren't clear enough).

They leave him there in the hallway, walking away like nothing's happened, joking about football as Blaine curls up on his side and resolutely does not cry. He's okay. He's not hurt, except for where his arms are sore where they'd held him down, and he pushes himself up and wraps his jacket as tight as he can around his chest. He doesn't think any of the words are visible but he just wants to find Yoseline and Marco and leave. Blaine sees Yoseline's friend Lily standing at the doorway of the dance and he can't quite make himself go back in there, so he asks her-- begs her-- to get Yoseline and Marco.

Marco comes outside first; he takes one look at how Blaine is holding himself and reaches out. Blaine can't help but flinch back, out of range of anyone, and Marco draws his hands back and clenches them at his side. "Let's get out of here," he says.

They stand next to one of the chaperones (who doesn't ask, who doesn't even look at them), and Yoseline exits a few minutes later, tossing her long hair and hooking one arm through Blaine's. He thinks about pulling away but she just looks at him, like she had when he'd come to ask Marco to the dance (and he is so, so glad he hadn't, now). She tilts her chin up, defiant, and leads the way out of the building.

It's just a few blocks back to Marco's house and Blaine flinches at every passing car, every crunch of leaves under their feet and kicked-out pebble. As soon as they're out of sight of the school Marco slides an arm around Blaine and he and Yoseline keep him going every time his knees waver. Blaine's arms hurt where the guys had held him down too tight against the linoleum of the hallway and his eyes are blurring with tears; he can't really see where they're going, but he knows it's somewhere safe.

When they finally reach the Contreras' front porch Blaine tries to stop and at least vaguely clean off his face, but his suit jacket is polyester and it doesn't absorb his tears at all. Mrs. Contreras opens the door before he's ready for anyone to see him and her face just drops. "Come inside and get cleaned up," she says. "I'll call your mom and tell her you're staying here tonight."

He wonders if she can see any of the words that have been written on his shirt and he almost doesn't care because she's letting him stay anyway. Marco shepherds him upstairs to his bedroom; Yoseline hugs him in the doorway and leaves for her own room.

Marco shuts the door behind her and turns back to Blaine. "I'm sorry," Blaine says. Marco had to leave the dance early because of him and he looked like he'd been having fun with Neesa-- Marco has done so much for him and Blaine is just stupid and defective, like those guys had said (and it's not the first time he's heard that, in whispers in the hallway and in the way no one will stand near him in the locker room). Blaine's voice is clogged with tears and snot and he feels disgusting, like they'd written on him and not just his shirt. "I'm so sorry, Marco, I--"

And Marco doesn't-- he doesn't just stand there. He reaches for Blaine and pulls him in close and Blaine sobs into his collar for what feels like hours, until his throat is raw and his eyes ache. Marco helps him out of his suit jacket when Blaine's fingers are shaking too hard to manage the remaining buttons. He looks steadily at Blaine's shirt and Blaine can't look back at him, not while he's seeing all of those words. "It's not true," Blaine says desperately. "I'm not-- I'm not a freak or a fag but what if I am? What if I should be-- I should be marked--"

"I don't care if you are," Marco says fiercely, and Blaine flinches back at the strength in his tone. "You're my best friend, Blaine, and if you are-- if you should be marked," he pauses, takes a deep breath, "if you should be, then I should too."

"No," Blaine says, and he shakes his head, because that's just wrong-- Marco is so much better than he is. "No, Marco, you're--"

"I am too," Marco says. "I think my mom suspects-- it's fine, Blaine, really, it's okay. You can stay here tonight, and we'll figure something out."

Blaine bites his lip hard enough that he can almost taste blood because even though he thinks that maybe his parents would be okay with this, with him, he can't be sure. He can't imagine telling his mom that he likes boys, especially if he's not sure that he does (even if his dreams are full of strong hands and firm chests and not soft curves and high voices; in his mind he is so, so sure).

Marco bends and twists quickly, pulling a soft cotton t-shirt out of a drawer and offering it to Blaine. There are still tears tracing slow tracks down Blaine's face, and he hates that he can't control this, that he is weak enough that he hasn't stopped crying entirely. Marco doesn't let go when Blaine takes the shirt; he uses it to draw Blaine in until the two of them are face to face, bare inches apart.

Marco drops his hands from the shirt and cups Blaine's face, thumbing away a tear. "I don't want all of your memories of tonight to be terrible," he says, and he leans in and kisses Blaine, soft and sweet.

And Blaine, he keens into it, feeling Marco's lips on his and Marco's hands warm on his face. It's nothing like he'd imagined his first kiss would be and everything it should be; he lets go of the shirt and it falls to the floor at their feet. His hands come up around Marco's waist and it's okay; Marco doesn't push him away or call him defective. He can be this-- they can be this-- and it's okay.

In the shower that night at Marco's he scrubs at the last traceries of the ink that had bled through his shirt until his skin is bright pink and raw in places; he can still see the word freak across the top of his chest and there is a stubborn grey circle around his left wrist. He slips on Marco's t-shirt in the heat and steam of the bathroom and doesn't say a word about the places where his skin is almost broken open. Marco is careful of the bruises on Blaine's arms and cautious of coming too close, too fast, and Blaine curls into Marco, cocoons himself in blankets until it's warm and dark around them, and they sleep together, chaste.

I am I am I am, Blaine whispers in the dark.

* * *

In the morning Blaine has to go home. He leaves the marked-up shirt at Marco's and carries the rest of his suit in a paper bag, handing it to his mother without a word when he walks in the door. He walks straight up to his room and looks around at everything that is him-- the guitar he's just learning how to play, the football posters and the fencing trophies.

He picks up Romeo and Juliet (they're supposed to be reading it for English but Blaine hasn't been able to make it past the first act) and stares at it blankly until his mom comes in to ask about the dance.

"It was fine," he says.

"Did you have a good time with Yoseline?" she asks.

"Yeah," he says. Maybe if he doesn't give real answers she'll give up and go away and he won't have to explain what had happened to his shirt and his father's tie.

His mom sits down at his desk, though, and he knows that he isn't getting out of it that easily. "Did you get in a fight?" she asks, and it's not the question he was expecting.

"No, mom," he says and he wonders why she's asking; maybe there's something in his shoulders or his arms that says someone hurt me last night. But it's only a fight if everyone is throwing punches, he thinks, and even though his shoulders and lower back are sore from trying to push himself up off that floor, it wasn't a fight.

"Yoseline's mom was really worried when you guys came home last night," his mom says. "Is everything all right?"

He has to tell her something, he knows that, but he can't see himself opening his mouth and saying Mom, I'm gay, much less Mom, I'm gay, and everyone can tell. "There were-- there were these guys. And I guess they think that Marco and I-- but we're not mom, we're not, I swear, but they thought--

"Are you all right?" she asks, cutting him off.

He doesn't say that his shoulders ache and his head is throbbing, still, after he'd cried for hours on Marco's shoulder the previous night. "I'm fine," he answers.

"I'm glad," she says. "And Blaine, I'm glad that you aren't-- that. You have to understand," she says, touching his wrist so that he looks at her, at her sincere expression, "you have to understand that that sort of thing isn't acceptable. It's not right."

"I know, mom," he says, and he can't start crying in front of her or she'll know.

"For people to choose that kind of life, that kind of lifestyle-- there has to be something wrong with them, Blaine, and it's something your father and I don't support. So many of them are Defectives for a reason, Blaine."

"Marco and I are just good friends," Blaine lies, but up until last night it would have been true. They are still friends-- they are still best friends, but there's this extra layer now, and it's something that needs to be kept secret and safe. He wants to hunch his shoulders and look down and away, but he knows that'll just make him look guilty, and-- he can't take that kind of risk. He's fourteen; he has three more years before he's safe, if his parents would go further than just saying something is wrong with people-- people like him.

She smiles at him, smooths one hand over his. "That's good," she says. "But your father and I have been talking, even before last night-- we think you might do better somewhere that's more disciplined."

"I don't want to leave my friends, Mom," Blaine says, because Westerville High's academics aren't the greatest and the only extracurricular he does is choir-- and even there, he's just one more decent tenor. It's the only reason he can give, and he doesn't even have that many friends. But there's something about more disciplined that scares him; there are images of military school and strict guidelines shoving their way through his head.

She shakes her head. "Yoseline's mom called me about your shirt, Blaine," she says, and he just goes icy-cold and numb; he wonders if Marco's mom told her all of the words written there or only that it had been ruined. "If you're at a school where things like that are possible-- well, we think you'll do better at Dalton."

"I don't--" Blaine doesn't know much about Dalton-- it's half an hour away and it's an all-boys school, but he hasn't heard much more than that. He doesn't know what about it has caught his mom's eye.

"We'll talk more about it later, Blaine. I'll send Thomas up with some lunch for you." She stands up and brushes invisible lint off her skirt, walks back downstairs. Blaine doesn't pick up his book again.

* * *

"Don't get marked," is the first thing Thomas says when he brings Blaine a turkey sandwich half an hour later. "Your mother's worried now that you're non-conforming, so don't do anything rash."

Blaine freezes, because if Thomas knows, Thomas could tell his mom, and--

"Hey, no. I'm not going to say anything to your parents about this. I don't care, Blaine, but they do."

"Do you really think they'd--" Blaine can't actually ask the question, not even to Thomas, who's been his confidant since Blaine was four and carefully covering up scrapes from falling in the garden instead of something that could get him marked, make him just like Thomas. Thomas has made sure he's arrived at school on time and cooked him dinner (and never touched him once, not even when he'd bandaged Blaine's knees or handed him a handkerchief to dry his tears after a particularly bad day at school. It had been strange when Thomas first arrived and Blaine had always reached up for a hug or to be lifted up to see something, but now it's normal, it's them). Thomas is always there.

"I don't know," Thomas admits. "Not without proof that you are-- and don't tell me, Blaine. I don't want to know, because if your mother asks me I won't lie."

"I'm not gay," Blaine says, tasting the lie.

Thomas just looks at him, staring hard until Blaine drops his eyes. "I'm not," he argues. "I just--"

"Ah-- stop. I don't need to know either way, Blaine. They're going to send you off to Dalton-- it's a done deal-- and you shouldn't argue. Just go. And be careful until you leave-- if there's a boy, don't kiss him, don't hug too long or spend hours on the phone. They want you at Dalton because they won't have to notice anything, if you are."

"They're my parents," Blaine says, voice lowered down almost to a whisper.

"And they do love you," Thomas agrees. "They're good people, Blaine, but their idea of what's best for you might be very different from anyone else's. I could have done a lot worse than your mother, but-- be careful."

* * *

Dalton is half an hour outside of Westerville, traffic permitting, so Blaine boards-- he tries to tell himself that it isn't because his parents think he might be gay, that they might suspect, but his father's unfinished sentences and his mother's new refusal to look at him directly make it hard not to think that they're sending him away so they don't have to see him. His father shakes his hand and his mother hugs him too briefly and tells him to be a good man.

Blaine has a roommate (Spencer, who plays lacrosse and has a girlfriend in town that he sees every weekend and rhapsodises about while Blaine is trying to do his homework) and a schedule full of classes that are actually challenging. During his second week at Dalton his AP government class gets into a debate about the legality of the new Def minimum physical safety regulations. It's a conversation that never would have happened at Westerville, and Blaine thinks for the first time that maybe even with all of Dalton's traditions and strange rigidity (Blaine has had to memorize the headmasters of Dalton in both chronological and alphabetical order and learn the school fight song, which is kind of ridiculous given the football team's record) he thinks he might actually fit in.

At Dalton, Blaine joins the choir (and the Warblers, a few months later and by accident, after Trent overhears him singing in the shower) and the debate society, slowly coming to appreciate everything that Dalton offers. He stops being startled by the sound of footsteps in the halls, he doesn't hunch his shoulders when two of the upperclassmen come up behind him. He calls Marco once a week and they talk for precisely half an hour; at Dalton he meets Wes and David, Trent and Thad and Nick and Jeff-- he finds he has more friends there than he's ever had before. Wes doesn't care that Blaine never talks about girls and even though he hasn't come out officially to anyone, no one makes assumptions about him having a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Dalton feels safe-- maybe Dalton even is safe, so Blaine lets himself breathe.

He doesn't come out to anyone at Dalton until just after winter break; he'd spent the two weeks at home not speaking to his parents and spending as much time as possible at Marco's house. Marco is still at Westerville High, and Blaine sees the dark circles under his eyes and worries more than maybe he should. They don't kiss again, not then, not when Blaine is leaving for Dalton and Marco has another six months at Westerville before he's free again. Yoseline clings to him and Marco's mom hugs him for too long he last time he comes over at the end of break and says be careful like it's something he'd forget.

When he comes back, he hesitantly joins the Gale Benevolent Society-- the posters ask all friends and friends-of-friends of Dorothy to come and listen. Blaine figures out that half the fun of Dalton is in seeing who is hiding what from their parents, and how far the administration will go to aid them. The GBS performs a musical review that is all wide-eyed innocence at song choice (Blaine sings Bills Bills Bills with half a dozen of the other Warblers, and that's nowhere near as inappropriate as some of the other songs they sing) and they laugh, backstage, at the expressions on their donors' faces.

Wes is the first person Blaine tells. It's the first time he's said the words I'm gay out loud, and he holds his breath until Wes shrugs and says "I kind of guessed. None of us care, Blaine."

Blaine ends up with everyone's phone numbers and Wes's uncle's business card when he tells the rest of the Warblers. It's okay; he's okay. He stops lying about himself (he's gay, his mom's Filipina; he doesn't want to be a lawyer or a doctor like his parents expect him to be). It's the first time that Blaine's really felt accepted as all of his different parts, and he revels in it, singing louder and dancing on the furniture during rehearsal with the Warblers. His parents can't make it for Family Day but he finds himself not really caring. He is fifteen and he is untouchable-- the Warblers want him as their lead soloist next year, since Joey is graduating, and he's thinking about going out for the fencing team when he comes back in the fall.

He goes back to his parents' house in June with his head held high, shoulders back and eyes clear. His mother smiles approvingly and his father claps him on the back, suggesting that they re-build a car that summer. They don't ask about what he's learned about himself at Dalton, so he doesn't have to make the choice between lying to them and telling them the truth.

When he sees Marco again it's like falling back into orbit. They circle each other, touch fingers and palms together, Blaine's new calluses from the car and from his guitar catching against Marco's skin.

They're careful; they try so hard to be careful, and they almost only ever kiss or touch at Marco's house. Sometimes, when Blaine's parents are going to be away for hours, they go up to Blaine's room together and Blaine stumbles through love songs on his guitar. He still can't quite look Marco in the eye when he sings them, because he's not in love with Marco. Not quite, not yet, but he thinks that he could be. He could be.

Blaine's parents go out to see The Time Traveller's Wife and Marco comes over to ostensibly watch a movie-- really, Blaine is going to pull something at random off the shelf and they set an alarm for half an hour shy of when his parents' movie will end. They get too close on the couch (and, maybe, make out for a few stolen minutes). Neither of them are paying attention to anything outside of each other; Marco's hands are on Blaine's face and on his chest, resting just above his heart. Blaine breathes into Marco's mouth and leans in just an inch more.

They don't hear the door open. They don't hear Marco's cell phone ringing; they don't hear Blaine's mom's shoes in the entryway or his father's voice or Thomas shutting the door behind them, trying to usher Blaine's parents upstairs or into the kitchen.

Blaine hears his mother's heels on the tile in the entryway moments too late and he jerks back from Marco but it's too late, it's too late.

"Blaine," his mother barks, knife-sharp, and Blaine closes his eyes and sinks into the couch like he's trying to disappear. His face is numb and his hands are shaking; he's not touching Marco's warmth any more and he doesn't know if he ever will again. He wants to reach for Marco's hand but the inches across the couch cushions feel like miles and he thinks it would just make things with his parents worse.

"Hi mom," he tries, because maybe she didn't really see, maybe he can salvage this and things will still be okay. "How was--"

"Be quiet," she says, cutting him off. "Marco, go home. I will call your mother later. I need to speak with Blaine right now."

Marco stands up and bites his lip, takes a look back at where Blaine is still sitting on the couch and mouths sorry back at him. Blaine's mom watches him walk out the front door and then turns back to Blaine.

"Give me your cell phone," she orders, and that's when he loses any shred of hope that things will turn out all right, because if she's cutting off his communication it can really only mean one thing. He digs his phone out of his pants pocket and hands it to her without saying a word. He has no illusions that doing what she says will help.

"I have told you that this is unacceptable, Blaine," she says. "I hope that you have no expectations that your father or I have changed our minds. I am beyond disappointed in you, Blaine."

"Mom--" Blaine says, desperate, and he hates that his voice is shaking and that he feels so weak right now, that his father is standing just out of his line of sight and not doing anything. "I'll do better, I won't be-- please, mom--"

"No," she says firmly, tipping her chin up so that she isn't looking at him any more. "No, Blaine. As far as I am concerned, I am no longer your mother."

"Please," he begs, "please, mom, you don't-- I'm still your son, please--"

Blaine's cell phone rings in his mother's hands; she checks to see who's calling and her mouth firms into a thin line. "Thomas," she says, "would you take Blaine up to his bedroom? Lock the door behind yourself, bring back his computer, and make sure the windows still won't open."

He looks to his father, who is leaning back against the wall, one hand over his mouth. He shakes his head at Blaine; there will be no help from him. Blaine feels like he did over a year ago, when he'd come back from the Sadie Hawkins dance in a stained shirt and felt that every word was written on his skin. He pushes himself up slowly from the couch and wraps his right hand tight around his left wrist. Thomas beckons for him to follow, and Blaine walks a few steps behind him, steps heavy, like he's moving forward through molasses.

Thomas unplugs his computer and checks the windows, then turns to face Blaine.

"You have three days," he says, looking directly at Blaine. "Wait it out-- they might change their minds." Then he leaves, and Blaine is alone.

He sits on his bed and doesn't know what to think. This is something he's been waiting for since the first day he'd looked at another boy's body and wanted, since he'd been kissed by and kissed Marco, since Blaine's mom-- his mother-- had said unacceptable.

All of the things he'd learned at Dalton are falling away; Wes's uncle's card is sitting uselessly in his pocket and he won't be able to speak to anyone until it's been three days and it's too late for anyone to help. He wonders what his parents will tell their family, his friends. He wonders what his mother's going to say to Marco's mom, if Marco is going to face the same thing that he is, now that he is no longer just attracted to boys in theory. There is something wrong with Blaine, there must be, if he has pushed his parents to this. He is all those things those boys said about him: he is a freak and a fag and he's defective.

Thomas brings him dinner hours later and doesn't say anything, just nods at Blaine before leaving. Blaine doesn't sleep at all that first night; he lies awake and stares out his window at Marco's house until it's dawn. He feels numb, like the world is grey and he's just floating through it.

Blaine finds the pills in his bathroom on the second day and thinks about his razor on the third-- he finds it somewhat ironic that his parents have taken away his access to the outside world but have left him every opportunity for him to remove himself from it. Even if he is defective, though, there's something that keeps him from swallowing the pills or slicing his skin open. Maybe it's the way that Thomas looks at him every time he brings food-- half-relieved and somehow hopeful to see Blaine still be there. Maybe it's because when the anger hits him on the third day he wants to be as much of a problem for his parents as he can.

Blaine Anderson is fifteen and he hasn't seen anyone in three days except for Thomas, his mother's Def.

* * *

Blaine A. is twenty-seven and he's on his knees in his Holder's kitchen. The phone is ringing.


Chapter Text

Somewhere to be, somewhere to be. Coat, keys, shoes (shoes?), down the stairs and out the door and there's a car waiting (for him? he doesn't-- the man with the car opens the door and yes); through the streets and up to the gates of a building-- school it's a school, it's Beth's school (why is he here?) and she's coming out of the gates and headed for him-- she slides off her backpack and drags it onto the back seat behind her and she's--

--they're home and she's ahead of him on the stairs ("Why is this taking you so long, Blaine?" she asks but there's no malice in it; still, he hurries as best he can)--

--and he's in the kitchen cutting up apples (knife knife knife why did they leave me a knife and how sharp is it); he can hear her humming in the other room as she does her homework (L-Y, she sings, like it has meaning and maybe it does-- he's not good at these things sometimes)-- he brings her the apples and she looks up at him with worried eyes--

"Are you going to answer the phone?"

--the phone is ringing again; at this point it's just background noise but it won't stop why won't it STOP--

* * *


You HAVE!!! to see this video. Third row back, fourth one in. Tell me when you see it!!!


Rachel Berry

Kurt rolls his eyes as he skims Rachel's e-mail-- it's probably another video of her singing along with herself (he never should have introduced her to GarageBand) and slips his phone back in his pocket.

Days at Humm are twice as busy as they'd been in the beginning of October. Through a combination of the winter flu and Kurt's political activities, they're down dozen staff members-- including Marc. On one hand, Kurt is glad that he's gone because there are no more half-nasty comments about Quinn; on the other hand, now he has no assistant. He doesn't have time for Rachel right now, not when there are designs and fabrics to finalize and contracts to approve-- and god knows that Quinn is just as busy as he is. Kurt has no idea what he's going to do without her if the bill passes, because he has no illusions about how long she'll stick around at Humm if she has somewhere else to go. She's been such an asset to the company that he almost can't imagine it without her.

He's on his way from the accountant's office to Quinn's when Linda grabs him. "Mr. Hummel? Your daughter's on the phone," she says, and she hands him the cordless phone from the front office.

It's unusual for Beth to call in the middle of the day, but not completely unheard of, so he takes the phone into the empty meeting room to his right and hits the ‘hold' button.

"Hey, Beth- what's up?" he says, expecting a question about a mid-week sleepover (no) or a special request for dinner (probably).

"Kurt?" she says, small and vulnerable, and now he's worried. "I think something's wrong with Blaine."

"Sh-- okay. Can you tell me what he's doing?" he asks.

"I don't know," she says. "He picked me up and made me a snack but he didn't steal my apples like he usually does, and now he's just sitting-- he's not even reading or knitting and it's weird."

Shit, he thinks-- he should have known that their conversation the previous night wouldn't have been the end of it. Really, he should have taken the day of and stayed home with Blaine, but he can't, not right now, not during this time of year. He sits down heavily in one of the chairs and presses a hand to his forehead. "Is Rachel there?" he asks-- not that Rachel is Blaine's favorite person, but at least there would be another (nominal) adult around who could watch Beth until he got home.

"No," Beth says. "Just me and Blaine and the phone keeps ringing."

"Okay," he says, thinking as fast as he can-- the last time he'd gotten a call like this, it'd been from Rachel, and that hadn't ended all that well. "Okay, Beth-- I'm going to call Paige and see if she can come and get you, okay?"

"Okay," she says.

"I'm going to hang up, but I'm calling Paige from my cell so if something happens, call me right back, okay?"


"Bye, Beth."

"Bye, Kurt," she says, and he hits end call.

He give himself thirty seconds to push the heels of his hands against his eyes and worry, because this is what he'd been afraid of. Kurt needs to be able to trust Blaine when he says that he's okay and maybe he can't; either Blaine isn't being honest with him, or something's happened (the phone keeps ringing, Beth had said) and he doesn't know if Blaine's all right. He won't know, until he can get home and assess the situation, figure out if this is like what happened with Rachel or what happened when he and Blaine had gone over Blaine's file (or if it's somehow worse this time, if whoever is calling has managed to shake something loose in Blaine that they haven't even considered). And maybe he's over-reacting, maybe Blaine will be just fine when he gets home, because he has been more able to deal with things, he's been able to know his own limits and where he needs to-- where he should-- stop.

When he reaches Paige, she's entirely able to go and get Beth. She asks him if he knows what's going on with Blaine and he has to say I don't know. He still has to make the choice between leaving early (what if something happens to Blaine before he gets home?) and staying until the end of the day (if they get one more ad out will they increase their market share? is the down-market deal with Target really going through or are they pulling out?).

Paige calls him once she has Beth. "I really think you should come home now," she says, somber. "He's okay, but there's definitely something weird going on." Kurt cuts out an hour early and takes a cab instead of the subway.

* * *

He comes back to himself sitting on the couch in Kurt's apartment, Beth standing in front of him with her school bag in hand. There is something not right with him, and he knows that he's not-- he's not quite present enough to know exactly what's going on, but Beth is worried and that's not okay. He's too far down to reach out to her right now like he knows he should. He doesn't remember leaving the apartment to get Beth or the drive back, like he's been sleepwalking and is just waking up. He feels fragile, like one wrong word or gesture could send him shattering into a thousand tiny pieces, too broken to fix.

"I'm going over to Julie's," Beth tells him seriously. "Her mom is coming to pick me up, and Kurt knows I'm going. Okay, Blaine?"

Blaine is up enough right now that he knows those names, he knows what Beth is telling him and that she expects a response. "Okay," he says, and she nods at him.

"Do you need a hug?" she asks.

"I--" yes, he wants to say, suddenly; he wants the human contact more than anything, but Beth is just eleven, and it wouldn't be fair to put that sort of burden on her. "You could sit next to me until Julie's mom is here?" he offers.

"Scoot over," she says, and she climbs gingerly up next to him, pulling her bag with her and taking out Breaking Through. She tucks herself up next to him, pressing herself against his side, and she holds one hand up against her mouth in a half-remembered gesture, like she's looking for comfort.

He takes a deep breath and lets it out. He is safe here, as safe as anywhere can be for him. "Can I--?" he starts, but he leaves the words hanging because he doesn't know how to ask, hands making some gesture towards her.

She looks up at him gravely. "You may," she says, and she turns back to her book.

He slips one arm around her shoulders, careful and cautious and looking for any sign that it makes her uncomfortable, but she just hums and wiggles closer.

Okay. He can do this-- maybe he can do this. But when Paige and Julie arrive he gets as far as "Hi, Paige," before he's lost again in too many people, too many levels of this-is-how-I-act. He looks up at Paige from where he's stuck on the couch and gestures thank you to her, because all of his words have fled, left him mute.

They leave, Beth casting one last worried look back at Blaine, and he lets himself sink back down.

It's not as comforting as it used to be; he can't stay down like he'd been able to with the Kyles or with Mr. Carrick. He keeps surfacing, whether he wants to or not, like a bobber on a fishing line, unable to stay safe underwater. When he's up, even for brief moments (sun coming down, should start dinner before Kurt comes home and he finds out I haven't, haven't been able to do anything all day but the phone isn't ringing any more so maybe I won't have to tell him), he wants to stay down. The light is too bright and the noises of the city are too loud, even ten stories above the streets. It's like he can hear every creak of the apartment, every shout from their downstairs neighbor.

He feels like a fish trapped under the ice, stuck horribly in-between, breathless and frozen and unsure, unknowing.

* * *

When Kurt gets home, Blaine's not there. He's not present, he's not really even aware. Except that he is-- he follows Kurt's movements with lowered eyes and close attention. He watches Kurt's hands as they flutter uselessly in the air near him. Kurt doesn't know what happened during the day to make Blaine retreat like this, and while he's in this state, Kurt won't-- can't-- ask, even if Blaine could answer. But there are these flashes, instants when Blaine is all the way present, and Kurt tries to say it's all right, tries to get Blaine to stay with him.

At dinner Blaine doesn't say anything; he looks at Kurt and tries to speak once or twice, but Kurt can tell what a struggle it is. He seems like he's more aware than he had been when Kurt first walked in, but he's not all the way there, not yet. Kurt doesn't have anything he can really talk about without feeling incredibly awkward, so it's a quiet dinner.

Afterwards, Blaine follows him back into the kitchen, carrying half of the dishes from dinner. He and Kurt wash and dry the dishes, and Kurt is so grateful that they've reached the point that they don't really need to talk for something like this.

When Blaine finally breaks, it's the most innocuous thing: Kurt brushes past him, moving around Blaine to put the last of the glasses from dinner away, and without even thinking about it, he puts a hand on Blaine's shoulder for balance. "Hands," Blaine breathes, quiet. "Hands hands hands--" It's not one of Blaine's more common trigger-words, but Kurt knows that he needs to give Blaine his space, let him get out of the apartment and into the fresh air. There's only one way out of the kitchen, unless Blaine decides to vault over the bar, and Kurt's in the way of it.

Kurt immediately jumps back, shoves his hands in his too-small pockets, and follows Blaine out of the kitchen and through the living room. Blaine slides the door open and rushes through it, pressing himself to the freezing metal railing of the fire escape. Kurt quickly grabs two of the blankets from the living room and follows, closing the door behind them. "I brought blankets," he says. Blaine doesn't say anything in response, just stands at the railing and shivers, his breath fogging out in the cold. Kurt carefully drapes the blanket over Blaine's shoulders, wincing regretfully at Blaine's hard flinch when the blanket comes down. He wraps the other one around himself and backs up, gives Blaine space.

It takes a long time and Kurt's toes are numb before Blaine starts speaking.

"Is Beth okay?" he asks.

"She's fine," Kurt replies. "She's at Julie's." He pauses, considers what he's going to say next. He has waited so long for Blaine, been so hesitant to push, that asking directly feels strange. "What happened this afternoon? Beth said something about the phone ringing, but it must've stopped before I got home."

Blaine is silent for a long moment, and Kurt is about to repeat the question when he finally speaks. "I got a phone call this afternoon," he says. "From my best friend from before I was-- before."

"Oh my god," Kurt murmurs. "What did they want?"

"To apologize," Blaine says, more bitterly than Kurt would think. "He wanted to-- I haven't thought of him in twelve years, I haven't wanted to think about him because what if the same thing that was happening to me happened to him?" He gathers the blanket around himself and keeps looking out into the city; Kurt's not sure what he's seeing.

"What was he apologizing for?"

"He was there," Blaine says flatly. "He was there when-- we were watching some stupid movie and my parents came home early and-- he just left. My mom told him to leave and he walked out the front door and my parents-- my mom--" He pauses, and his shoulders are starting to shake again, like they had in the kitchen the night before. "She took away my phone, and she told Thomas to take me upstairs."

"He was there when you were marked," Kurt realizes, and he is suddenly blisteringly angry at this boy-- this man, he must be-- that he's never met. "And he just--"

"We were fifteen," Blaine says, interrupting. "I'm not-- he was almost safe, even if I wasn't. I don't blame him, I could never blame him, but he left me, god, why did he leave me--"

Kurt can see tears on his face and he wants to hug Blaine so badly, hold him until he stops crying, but Blaine had said hands and that meant no touching, no careful grasp on his shoulders or thumbs on his cheeks to wipe the tears away, because if he does, Blaine will shudder and become pliant, loose and obedient under Kurt's careless hands. He holds himself still and quiet as Blaine grips the railing until his knuckles are white. Kurt wants to peel his fingers off the railings and bring Blaine back inside and out of the November cold, but he doesn't.

Blaine does.

Blaine's hands loosen and drop from the railing; he turns to face Kurt with red eyes and shaking hands, blanket pulled tight around his shoulders but not tight enough to hide his shivers-- Kurt can't tell if they're from the cold or the tears. He takes a small, faltering step towards Kurt across the tiny metal grating of the fire escape, and Kurt can't help but open his arms, getting ready to catch Blaine if he stumbles.

Instead Blaine deliberately moves forward, presses his body to Kurt's and oh. His face is against Kurt's collar and his hands are just barely brushing Kurt's sides; Kurt gently lifts his hands to wrap them softly around Blaine's back. Blaine shudders into him, his breath scorching in contrast to the frigid November air, and Kurt holds on just a little tighter.

Maybe if he keeps holding on, Blaine won't fall apart any further.

* * *

Blaine feels like a radio station that's just barely in range-- the songs are mostly clear but there's static, interference in the movement of sound. Kurt ushers him back inside carefully, hand in hand like children. Blaine's feet are freezing and he can't feel all his toes; he knows that it was stupid to run outside in just his socks but he wasn't thinking. He hasn't been thinking all day.

Kurt tries to sit down out the couch in the living room, but Blaine can't help his flinch-- all he can think of is Rachel, her hands and body covering his. "I'm sorry," he says. "I can't-- not there." He doesn't know where is safe any more; it seems like everything sets him off (the kitchen has knives and he can't be in the living room until it doesn't smell like Rachel any more; all of his places are taken over, useless).

"Okay," Kurt says. "Where do you-- is there somewhere else?" Blaine can't believe that Kurt is being this patient with him, this accommodating, when Blaine is so clearly broken.

"I don't know," he admits. "I'm sorry I'm so-- I'm so fucked up Kurt, I don't--" I'm falling apart right in front of you, why don't you just give up?

"It's okay," Kurt says. "You don't need to be okay right now-- god, even if you were I'd still worry. I think-- come with me." He leads Blaine out of the living room (away from the memory of Rachel in his bed, the ringing telephone and the knives in the kitchen), down the hallway. Blaine stumbles behind him, his feet just starting to tingle and burn in the relative warmth of the apartment.

Kurt pushes the door of his bedroom open and walks through it; Blaine stops on the threshold. He's only been in the room three times, and every time it's because he hasn't been okay, but even then, in some ways, it's the most neutral room in the apartment for him, here (if this is his Holder's room,s e should be kneeling; he should be asking for his Holder's shirt-- but Kurt isn't-- he's not-- Kurt has never asked him to do any of those things, and this is safe. It has to be). "If you don't feel comfortable here, we'll find somewhere else," Kurt offers.

"No," Blaine says. "No, this is fine." He steps inside.

Kurt nods. "Right, okay-- just-- sit wherever," he says, gesturing at the whole room. Blaine takes in the maybe-chairs, the one rolling chair by the draft table, the floor. The pristine bed. "I really don't care," Kurt says. "Anywhere is fine, as long as you're comfortable."

Everywhere that Blaine could choose has expectations and history and he can't, not right now (the radio's in tune but he doesn't know the song that it's playing). So he just stands there and trembles, a little, because he can't even do this, make one simple choice (the bed means that his Holder wants something from him, wants sex, but no, Kurt has never asked him, never touched his stomach his thighs his--) (the floor is where he belongs-- where he has belonged-- but it doesn't work any more; it should be safe but it isn't). Static.

He is sitting on the bed, the blanket still wrapped around him, and Kurt's hands are just leaving his shoulders. He blinks up at Kurt, who is looking down with this sort of half-sad, half-wistful expression. "You back with us now?" Kurt asks.

Blaine nods. "I don't know how much-- this whole day has been up and down."

"Do you have any idea why?" Kurt asks, and Blaine can tell that he's trying to be careful in how he asks, like he knows, somehow, that it was Marco asking a question so much like that which send Blaine tipping over the edge.

He doesn't know how to start; he doesn't know if he should start twelve years ago with a dance or sixteen hours ago with a woman stumbling into his bed. If he starts with the dance, though, that means his parents and Thomas and Marco and everything he's spent the last twelve years avoiding. "Ra-- last night, it was. She-- she came in late," he starts, and even this is difficult. He can barely force out the words; he has no idea how much sense he's making and he doesn't know what he's going to do if Kurt asks him to repeat any part of this.

"I didn't wake up, not at first," he says. "And by the time I did-- she thought I was someone else, and I couldn't get out-- I couldn't leave, she was on top of me and I--" couldn't push her off and it was just like every other time, just like the first time and like the last, and I haven't-- not since--

He loses himself again.

There's a touch on his face. "Blaine," Kurt's voice says, low and urgent, from right in front of him. "Blaine, you have to breathe, okay?" One of his hands is on Blaine's cheek, just barely making contact, and Kurt is kneeling in front of Blaine. It's so backwards that it actually shocks Blaine back up, and he feels like he should pop his ears at how fast he rises.

"‘m back," he says. "Sorry, I-- sorry." He doesn't know how much longer he can keep apologizing before Kurt gets sick of it. Sick of him.

"We can talk about this tomorrow," Kurt offers. "You should probably get some sleep."

"Okay," Blaine says. He has no idea how he's going to sleep on the fold-out tonight; maybe he can manage another night in one of the chairs, instead. He starts to push himself up from the bed, but Kurt shakes his head.

"In here," he says, and Blaine drops like a stone. If Kurt touching him brought him back up then this is the opposite of that-- he hasn't dropped this far down so fast in too long, but he can hear Kurt talking through it. "Not-- by yourself, not with me, I'll take the couch, Blaine, are you--"

He feels like a yo-yo now, bouncing up and down whenever Kurt tugs on him, and all his metaphors are mixing terribly. "Stay here," Kurt says, clear and direct, looking straight in Blaine's eyes. "I'll take the couch."

Kurt stands up and catches Blaine's hands, squeezing them briefly. "You don't have to be okay," he says, and Blaine wonders if he's talking more to him or to himself. "Just-- just be here."

"I am trying," Blaine says, and he tries to keep his voice from breaking. "I want to be-- and not just for you-- I want to be okay. I want to be able to-- I want to be able to go out for coffee dates with Paige and not panic about staying longer than an hour. I want to be able to be in the same room as Rachel without wondering when she's going to hit me or--" He shrugs. He can feel tears pricking at the corners of his eyes but he doesn't let them fall; he clenches his jaw in frustration. "I don't know how to fix me-- half the time, I don't know what I'm doing."

"Well, that makes two of us," Kurt says, and even though it's a weak attempt at a joke, Blaine smiles. "I'll be out of here in a minute-- I'm just going to brush my teeth and grab my pyjamas."

"Okay," Blaine says, and he watches Kurt move around the room, taking his pyjamas from a drawer, sliding his drawings into their protective case, and he waves awkwardly at Blaine when he walks out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Blaine doesn't know what he's supposed to do. He stands up, stiff and slow like and old man, and he unwraps the blanket from around his shoulders, folds it carefully and places it on one of the almost-chairs. He turns back the duvet, leaving the sheet in place (even if Kurt has told him to sleep there, it is still Kurt's bed), then strips out of his slacks, his socks and button-down shirt. It's cool in Kurt's bedroom, not cold like it can get in the living room, but Blaine inches his way onto-- into-- Kurt's bed. The moment he's fully on the bed, though, every instinct that he has is suddenly screaming that this is wrong, that his Holder is going to be so angry when he finds out that Blaine has taken this liberty with his own personal property, but he--


The bed is soft, and Blaine can feel himself sinking in. The duvet is patterned in a fine grey stripe, one thin orange line running perpendicular to the other stripes. The pillows are just firm enough, and for one hysterical moment, Blaine feels like Goldilocks. He draws the duvet up over himself, wriggling his toes, and it's--

Everything smells like Kurt. This is where Kurt lies, this is where his Hold-- no.

This is where Kurt lies. This is where he sleeps, this is where he dreams. This is his bed, and in this bed, he has no expectations of Blaine.

Suddenly Blaine curls in on himself, folding up on his side, because he-- he's abruptly terrified, teeth clattering and hands shaking and-- Kurt isn't there. He doesn't have anyone to be afraid of, even if Kurt were there. In his head he trusts Kurt, but there's something in his body that can't; when Kurt comes up behind him he still tenses, even though by now he knows that Kurt would never hurt him. He has nothing to be terrified of: there is no Holder coming for him to punish him for taking liberties, there is no one coming to tell him that he has not fulfilled their duties.

No. He is safe.

He's-- he's being held without being touched, and that somehow makes all the difference. Kurt wants him to be there, in his soft bed and warm room, but he expects nothing in return. And that might even be okay.

He might even be okay.

* * *

There are thirty-seven messages on the answering machine.

The first three are solicitations or invitations to be interviewed-- one of them asks his permission to interview Blaine, and he presses the delete button perhaps more forcefully than he should.

The fourth is quick: "Blaine? It's Marco-- call me back. 937-5424-0556."

There are a dozen more from the same man-- Blaine's friend from before he was marked-- scattered throughout the rest of the messages; his voice gets increasingly panicked and weary as the messages continue.

"Blaine, I just need to know that you're okay. I'm sorry. I'll leave you alone, I promise, I'll stop calling, I just-- please call me back. Please, Blaine. I-- you have my number by now."

"I'm sorry. I never should have left."

"I tried to find you. I looked everywhere, I swear I did-- I called the DoL, I talked to my mom and I-- I tried, Blaine. And I just couldn't-- I looked, but I couldn't find you. I'm sorry."

"Whoever is listening to this-- can you please call me? I need to know if Blaine is all right, I-- please. Please call me. 937-5424-0556."

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I could apologize for the next twelve years and it wouldn't make a difference, I know it wouldn't, but I am so, so sorry."

It's not too late in New York, and Kurt had recognized the Ohio area code from the first call, so it should be early enough to call Marco back. He picks up the phone with hands that feel too heavy and dials the number Marco had left in the first message. The phone at the other end of the line rings twice-- three times, and Kurt tangles his fingers in the phone cord, waiting for someone to pick up.

"Hello?" It's a woman's voice, which he doesn't quite expect.

"Hi-- this is Kurt Hummel. I'm looking for Marco?"

There's a pause, silence. "I'll go and get him for you. Hang on just a moment." He can hear footsteps leading away from the phone, then nothing.

Kurt takes the minute to examine his fingernails-- he's overdue for a manicure, and his cuticles look atrocious-- but finally, there's someone picking up the other end of the line.

"Hello?" Marco's voice is shaky.

"This is Kurt Hummel," he says. "I'm Blaine's-- he's with me."

"Is he all right?" Marco asks, and Kurt can't hear anything in his voice-- it's flat, exhausted.

"He will be," Kurt says. I hope. "He's asleep right now."

"Thank god," he breathes. "I-- thank you. Thank you, thank you so much. Is there-- can I do anything? Is there something you need? Something he needs? Can I--"

"I don't--" Kurt interrupts, then pauses. "I don't think he can talk to you right now."

"Oh," Marco responds dully.

"It's not your fault," he explains. "He's not-- he's not doing as well as he seemed in that broadcast, and when I came home tonight, he was reallyout of -it. He'll be okay, I think, but I don't want to push him to do something that he's not ready for. And I think that you-- I think that talking to you is something he's not-- that he can't do. Not yet."

"Okay," Marco says, voice thick.

"I'm sorry," Kurt apologizes. "I wish things were different. I wish that he was-- I wish that he was better. I wish that he could talk to you, and if and when he can, I will absolutely make sure that he gets your number."

"Can you tell him that I'm sorry?" Marco asks.

"I will," Kurt assures him. "Is there anything else you want him to know?"

"I'm free," Marco says. "I h-- I live in Dayton. I got married last year to-- her name's Cassie. She's a nurse. My family moved to Columbus just after-- right after what happened to Blaine. My parents are-- they're good. Yoseline's at Smith, she's a geology major."

"I'll tell him," Kurt promises. "And you can call me on my cell if you need anything, okay?" He tells Marco his number, and they say their goodbyes.

He hangs up the phone and scrubs the heels of his hands across his face. He should not be this tired-- it's not even nine o'clock.

Kurt walks through the house, turning off lights as he goes. He cracks the door to his bedroom open just enough to see Blaine's sleeping face smushed into the pillows, then closes it silently behind him. Blaine is safe, and that should really be what matters right now. Blaine is safe, Humm will survive, and Kurt-- he'll make it. Never mind that he has no time for a social life, never mind that Rachel's more distant than she had been his second year of college, when he'd transferred schools and left his dream of Broadway just on her. Aside from Quinn, she's really his only friend from back in Ohio, and he misses her, even when her life's a mess. He misses having someone to talk to who isn't obligated to be there, and even if he and Rachel aren't as close as they had been when they'd arrive in New York together, she's still one of the only people who really understands his ambition. It shouldn't matter that he hasn't spoken more than pleasantries with her in months, but it does-- it aches.

It shouldn't matter that he hasn't seen his dad since that summer; it doesn't matter that Quinn might leave once the bill is passed and take Beth with her.

He's just tired.

Kurt grabs the green throw off the arm of the couch and curls up in one of the armchairs. He slips his cell out of his pocket and stares at it for a few minutes. He could call Rachel (out with friends from her show) or Quinn (dinner with a producer from one of the major networks; he has no idea which one), but really, there's only one person he wants to talk to when he's like this.

He taps his phone on, scrolls down to his contacts, and dials.

He hears the click of the phone being picked up, leans back, and closes his eyes. "Hi, dad," he says.

"Hey, Kurt," his dad responds. "How's it going?"

"Fine," Kurt says. "I was wondering-- do you or Carole have any Thanksgiving plans yet? Because I was thinking-- the two of you could come out, spend Thanksgiving with us, spend time with Beth and Quinn before--" He cuts himself short.

"Before what, Kurt?" his dad asks.

"Before they leave," he says.

"Where are they going?" his dad asks. "You're not sending ‘em anywhere or anything like that, are you?"

"No, no," Kurt says, and he sighs. "If the bill passes, I'm freeing Quinn. And she's going to leave, I know that she is, and I just-- I'm going to miss her. Them."

"Her and Beth?"

"And Blaine," he confirms. "It's the right thing to do-- I know it is, I want them to be free, but is it selfish to want someone to stay?"

"It's not selfish to want someone," his dad says. "You're a good man, Kurt, and you're going to let them go, even if it sucks for you. Yeah, being by yourself sucks, but you're going to find someone who is just as amazing as you are. You're not going to be alone forever, even if you let them go. Now, I haven't lived with Quinn in a while, but I'll bet she'll bring Beth around-- you'll work out a schedule, or something, and Blaine will-- it's not going to be the last time you're going to see ‘em, Kurt."

"I know that, but it doesn't feel like it, not yet. I just don't want to lose them."

"If the bill doesn't pass, then you might not be able to," his dad offers, and he winces-- neither of them want that. It is selfish of him to want Blaine and Quinn and Beth to stay, when they could have their own lives that aren't dictated by his.

"No-- no, I want it to pass. It needs to pass. We've worked too hard for it not to pass," Kurt says. But what if his dad knows something-- Kurt knows that he still keeps in contact with some of his friends from the House, maybe there's something he can share. "Have you heard anything about it?"

His dad sighs. "It's still an if, kid. Roger thinks it'll make it through the Senate, but not before the election, and that's all that anyone's thinking about right now. Patricia thinks that Huntsman'll sign, but only if it's still popular when it passes, and his chances of re-election are slimming. If he doesn't win his re-election, then it'll probably be Carson, and there's not a chance in hell he's signing. It could be that Huntsman'll sign it if he loses, if he thinks it'll be good for his legacy, and it could be that Carson'll experience a radical shift in policy, but-- it's still an if." Sometimes it still takes Kurt by surprise when his dad talks about politics-- it's been years since his stint in the House of Representatives, even if it had been an experience that had changed his high school experience for the better-- no one wanted to mess with the Congressman's kid, and his dad's support of a few key equal protection acts had been what finally gave him the courage to come out the day he turned seventeen.

It's a reality check that Kurt isn't really sure he wanted-- he's asked so much of Blaine and Quinn in the last month to try to make sure that they can have this possibility of freedom. He sighs. "Thanks, dad."

"I know it's not what you wanted to hear," his dad says apologetically. "I wish that it was different, but it's what we've got right now."

"I know-- it's just that it's not fair." He feels about ten, complaining that it's not fair that stupid bossy Rachel Berry got the main role in the school play when his voice sounded better than hers.

"The whole system isn't fair, Kurt-- but things are changing. It's just slow."

He thinks about saying But why can't it be different now?, but instead he forcefully changes the subject. "So, Thanksgiving?"

"I'll have to talk to Carole," his dad says, "and Finn's girlfriend-- Sophia, I don't think you've met her-- invited him to her parents' this year."

Kurt raises an eyebrow-- he had no idea that Finn was getting that serious with his girlfriend. "That's interesting."

"Don't even start, kid," his dad says. "Your brother's doing fine. Not shaking up the country, but he's in the shop five days a week, does well for himself. And Soph's a nice girl-- she's a hygienist, makes more'n he does."

"Great," Kurt says, trying not to think of Rachel's late nights and her stupid, desperate love for his overgrown brother, who seems to have moved on from their romance, finally. He's happy for Finn-- honestly, he is-- he just wishes that Rachel could find someone, too. "So you'll ask Carole?"

"I'll get back to you with an answer by next week, okay?"

"Yeah. I love you, dad," he says, suddenly needing for his dad to hear it. He doesn't say it often enough any more.

"Love you too, Kurt," his dad responds. "I'll talk to you soon."

"Bye, dad." He presses end call and puts down the phone.

* * *

Kurt sits on the couch in the living room, staring blankly at the book open in front of him (it's a new Audrey Hepburn biography and he's been trying for weeks to read it, he just can't concentrate), reading glasses perched on his nose. He has too many questions-- too many worries-- and no answers yet. The election is next week, and that's part of what's going to determine all of their futures. He hates waiting like this, hates having something in the work and no way to check on how it's going. Maybe I should have gone into politics, he thinks wryly, but then he remembers his father's two terms in the House and how tired he'd been all the time. He'd thought that he burnt himself out on politics in college, shouting for non-discrimination policies, equal rights to housing and employment, but he got tired. He got tired, and there was the company and Quinn and Beth, and he couldn't push everything the way he'd done in college.

(Please, please stop-- I can't help Beth by myself if they decide this is a crime, please, Kurt-- we can't do this without you, please stop.)

Quinn opens the door carefully, quietly, at just past ten o'clock. She looks surprised too see him in the living room, and she hangs her purse up on one of the hooks in the hallway, slips off her shoes, and comes to join him on the couch.

She tucks her knees up under her chin and looks younger than she did back in high school, when she'd almost always acted older than her age.

"How was dinner?" he asks. She'd been out with one of the producers from one of the television interviews she'd given in the past few weeks-- there have been enough that he hasn't kept track of them all.

"It was good," she says. She opens her mouth like she's about to say something, closes it again, and he just waits her out. She smiles, and it seems like it's almost involuntary, just twitching around the edges of her mouth. "I got a job offer."

"That's wonderful," he says, taken aback. He's happy for her-- of course he is-- but this is it. It means that she's leaving. "I'm so happy for you, Quinn."

"Then why do you look so disappointed?" she asks, accusing. She's not as sharp as she'd been in high school-- he doesn't worry that she'll shatter and break, either-- but she can be incisive when she wants to be.

"I am happy for you, Q-- but I-- the company's going to miss you."

She pokes him in the shin with her toes. "Liar."

"Fine," he says. "I'm going to miss you when you aren't here any more, Quinn."

Quinn rolls her eyes. "I'm not leaving you now," she says. "The whole offer was predicated on if the bill passes, which means it's not really a job, I guess. But it was nice to be asked, you know? It was nice to be considered something other than a pretty face," she concludes visciously. She's looking at her hands, resting on top of her knees, and not at him when she says this.

"You know you're more than that," Kurt says. It feels like years since Quinn's said something like that.

"I know," she says. "I just worry that someday, when all this is gone-- when I'm not pretty any more-- what am I going to be then? Some washed-up PTA mom with no education and nothing to look forward to?" She bites her lip, then continues. "Sometimes I feel like it'd be safer just to let you keep me."

"It might be safer," he allows, "but I don't think you're-- Quinn, you're not happy here, with me."

She sighs. "I love you," she says. "As a friend, as maybe my best friend. But no, Kurt. If this-- if Humm was something I chose, then I think I could be happy there, happy here with you in this tiny life, but I can't-- I need more. I need this. I can't wait to get back to school, to finally live on my own and make my own choices, to finally do whatever I-- whatever we want to do."

"I love you, too," he says. This is why he's going to miss her-- because even when they argue, even when they have fights and bicker over the stupidest things, she's still his best friend. "And I do understand. I wish that things were different-- I wish that you could have done all the things you wanted to do. I'm sorry that I dragged you along on my dreams. I'm sorry that you couldn't live your own." He reaches out for her hands, and she reaches back for him.

"You don't have to apologize," she says, squeezing his hands.

"I know," he says, looking down. "I still feel guilty, though." He shakes his head and smiles up at her: he is going to be happy for her. "So, tell me about this job."

* * *

The light is coming in through the window at the wrong angle.

Blaine starts awake in an unfamiliar bed in a half-familiar room, warm and for the first time in weeks, fully rested. He stretches out in the bed, his toes brushing the cool cotton of the sheets and his knuckles knocking against the headboard; it's just as comfortable as it had been the night before, and he is mildly jealous of Kurt for having this bed.

The room is almost too bright, sun coming in full through the window, weak as it is in late October. The sheets smell of Kurt, and it's oddly comforting-- he and Kurt aren't close often enough for him to be used to the scent, so it's just a reminder: Kurt sleeps here, this is his house and his space. Blaine shouldn't be as comfortable here as he is, but there's something about the sun and the colors of the room (grey and red and orange, just a few odd shapes of turquoise and bottle green); he feels at home there in a way he hasn't since he lost his first home.

He doesn't know if he's really okay; he doesn't know if Kurt is going to trust him around Beth by himself, after he'd been so wrong, so unable to handle a simple phone call. But right now, at this moment, he can't do anything about that, and he pushes the worries as far out of his mind as he can. He and Kurt will talk, and they will take things from there. It's all he can do.

He pushes down the sheets and comforter, swings himself out of bed. He pulls them back up, smoothing them down, folding neat corners and re-arranging the pillows. Kurt will probably want them washed that day, before it's his bed again, and he makes a mental note to call the laundry service. Blaine can't quite understand why Kurt is being so generous, so liberal with his belongings, but he appreciates it nonetheless. He pulls on the slacks he'd folded the night before and runs his fingers through his (tangled, messy, just long enough) hair.

The bedside clock says that he's awake early enough that Kurt probably won't be up yet, and he has time to make biscuits. They're quick bread, not something that requires rest and rising, but it's good. It's better, it's functional, it's...

He's okay.

It's like something-- someone-- has thrown the curtains open and let the sun come pouring in. All of the things that were in the dark are still there (Marco, a glass dragon shattering on the floor, Maria, the twinge in his knees from kneeling on the floor for hours), but everything is illuminated, lit up and present. They're not terrifying any more.

He doesn't try to kid himself-- he knows it's not going to last, that sooner or later there'll be some other setback, and he'll end up on the floor or the balcony, clinging to his sanity with teeth and nails. But for right now, he is okay, he's normal and functional, all the things he wants to be.

There's a pair of slippers in the hallway that everyone uses (they're comically huge on Beth, tight on Kurt), and he slides his feet into them.

The kitchen is freezing, but he turns on the oven to pre-heat and puts the kettle on the stove for Kurt's coffee and his and Quinn's tea, and the heat from the stove leeches into the rest of the room.

The cookbook that the biscuit recipe is in looks like a rescue from a 1970's jumble sale, price penciled on the front page ($2.75), half its pages falling out. He mixes flour and butter, eggs and milk and baking soda, folds the dough over itself and cuts it into precise circles with a re-purposed wine glass. There's flour on his hands and the front of his slacks, more of it scattered across his shirt from an overly-enthusiastic flip of the dough.

He feels good, he feels happy and content and warm. He's sure that it's not going to last, that this will all come falling down around him because good things just don't happen to him, not like this; one night of good sleep isn't going to fix his fucked-up psyche. The sunshine isn't going to stick around, but he's going to enjoy it while it lasts.

He opens his mouth, because for the first time in a very long time, he wants something beyond being okay. He wants-- there are half a dozen melodies racing through his head right then, lyrics and choruses, and he almost can. He can taste it, he can feel the song building in his throat, his teeth and tongue. He lets out a breath; he's not ready, not quite yet-- the song is building, growing, but it's not ready to sprout forward. But the feeling doesn't dissipate, not even when he goes back to the fridge to pull out eggs, butter, and jam.

The tea-kettle is whistling, the biscuits are in the oven, and Kurt is starting to grumble in the other room.

* * *

Kurt wakes up to the sound of Blaine humming in the kitchen, and even though his back hurts from sleeping on the couch (they are moving, goddamnit; he can't believe Blaine hasn't said anything about how uncomfortable the fold-out bed is), he hopes it's going to be a good day.

* * *

Chapter Text

* * *

It's strange: things are good.

And they keep being good, which is the weird thing. Blaine feels like he's reached some sort of equilibrium, like the tightrope under his feet has stopped bouncing and he can finally walk forward, like he can slide his feet along the cable.

He makes breakfast for Kurt and Quinn, smiles at them over the kitchen table and feels momentarily guilty when Kurt winces and stretches. "I'm so sorry about the couch," Kurt says. "As soon as we move, you're getting a real bed."

"I don't mind," Blaine says, resolving to do his best not to let Kurt sleep on the sofa-bed again. "I think it's because you're taller than me."

He keeps expecting to see Micah and Emily overlaying Kurt and Quinn like ghosts, like they had back at the beginning, when he'd first arrived in New York. But they don't-- Kurt and Quinn remain Kurt and Quinn. The tightrope that he's walking is steady and even beneath his feet.

"I called Marco back, after you went to bed last night," Kurt says, and Blaine puts his biscuit down. "He wanted you to know that he's okay-- he lives in Dayton, he got married last year-- he's okay."

Blaine expects it to hurt, to know that Marco is free and alive and okay in a way that he himself may never be, and it aches a little, but not like he'd thought it would. It's the good hurt, the kind that comes from a healing bruise, and he nods, sips his tea.

"Are you okay?" Kurt asks, and then he winces, like he thinks that maybe he shouldn't have asked.

Blaine puts down his cup of tea and looks into it for a long minute. "I think so," he says. "I'm not going to freak out and stop functioning right now, at least." The corners of Kurt's mouth twitch up in a smile and Blaine feels himself mirroring it.

"Call me?" Kurt says, voice raising at the end of the sentence to make it like question instead of a command. "If something happens-- if you feel off, or anything, just give me a call, and we'll talk through it."

"I will," Blaine promises, and Kurt's smile is full and genuine, this time.

After they've both left for another day at Humm, he calls Paige. She's already dropped the girls off at school, but she won't be seeing her first client until almost eleven. He busies himself in the kitchen until Paige arrives, carrying Beth's overnight bag and a coffee from the place at the end of the block that he secretly likes more than Starbucks. "You're a lifesaver," he says, smiling crookedly and taking Beth's bag and the coffee from her.

"Good morning to you, too," she says, taking advantage of the fact that his hands are full to give him a quick hug. "How are you doing?"

"All present and accounted for," Blaine replies. "I'm so sorry about what happened yesterday."

Paige shrugs and runs a hand through her dark, curly hair. "I didn't mind getting Beth," she says cautiously, "but are you sure you're all right?"

"No," he replies, almost surprised at his own candor. "I don't think that I'll ever be really sure, but right now things feel okay."

"That's good to hear," she says. "I mean, you must be on edge, with the election coming up, and everything."

"I-- no, I'd forgotten. Is that this week?" he asks. It can't be that soon-- his sense of time can't be messed up that badly.

"Tuesday," Paige replies.

"There's not enough time," Blaine says, his mouth suddenly dry.

Paige looks confused. "Time for what?"

"It hasn't even come up for a vote yet," Blaine says. It's just a few days away, if the election is on Tuesday, and there's no way that anything that charged will make it through the Senate and to the president before the polls open. "The bill. The manumission bill, the one that we've all be working on."

"Oh," she says, and her eyes go soft. "There's still a few days, maybe--"

Blaine shakes his head. "Right now they're passing stupid feel-good resolutions that won't mean anything to anyone outside of the states they're getting re-elected in-- they're not going to push something this controversial through at the last minute. And Huntsman is our best chance of getting it through, because Connors is going to lose and there's no way in hell that Carson's going to pass it."

Paige sighs. "I know," she says. "I'm so sorry, Blaine."

"I guess I'll just-- wait and hope," he says, shrugging because he's clinging to the last inches of that hope and he can't do anything, not right now.

She reaches across the table and holds his hand for a few quiet moments, and he accepts-- appreciates, really-- the small, human comfort of her touch. It's more than he's allowed himself from anyone but Kurt and Beth in so long; he's just starting to be able to stand anyone touching him for longer than a few seconds (it's part of the reason that he doesn't take the subway, even when he's out by himself-- just imagining that crush is almost too claustrophobic). He dredges a smile up from somewhere, and Paige squeezes his fingers briefly.

"I was ‘on edge' last night because a friend of mine called from back home-- from Ohio-- yesterday, when Beth was at school," he says, looking at their hands instead of her face. Her fingers tighten around his again. "It was-- I was glad to hear from him, but it brought up a lot of things that I hadn't--"

He sighs. "It's like-- I think I know who I am, and then something comes along and just blows me out of the water, and I feel so... scattered, and it takes a long time to put all the pieces of my back together. It's why I was so out of it-- I could get Beth home, but I couldn't actually be there." He remembers Kurt saying you don't have to be okay, just be here the previous night, and looks out the window at the sun, at the skyline and the occasional tree that breaks through the glass and metal and concrete. "I am trying to be okay, but I'm learning that I can't do it all the time."

She doesn't offer him platitudes or tell him that it's okay if he's not okay all the time; she's done both those things before. Instead she pulls a cookie out of the ziplock bag in her purse and hands it to him, then asks about how Beth is doing with Breaking Through.

He follows the change in conversation gratefully, and they sit and talk about nothing in particular until they finish their coffees. She has to get in to meet with her client and he has-- nothing to do, not really, but play the piano and read all of Beth's books.

Blaine is stuck somewhere between frustrated and at peace: they're stuck on the doorway with this bill, unable to move forward or backwards until someone opens the door or pushes them out, but he feels that he is more... cohesive than he has been in a long time. The feeling he'd had when he'd woken up that morning, that he might end up being all right in the long run-- it seems to be sticking around, persistent and almost too hopeful.

He hates that just as things are starting to come together for him, personally, they're falling apart outside. He can look in the mirror and see a person, finally, but more than half of Congress doesn't see what he does. Blaine has worked to hard on this to see it fail, has shown pieces of himself in public that never should have seen the light of day, much less the camera flashes of the media.

That anger stays with him, and the fact remains that right now, there's nothing he can do but hold on to whatever hope he has left. He pounds out songs on the piano when everyone else is out and sometimes he feels the tickle of words in his throat; sometimes he thinks about singing protest songs and the furious, angry punk songs that he'd had a brief flirtation with when he'd been thirteen. Before Kurt comes home he slips back into classical, hands slow and gentle over the keys while dinner cooks in the oven, like he can will himself back into being the easy, relaxed person he can sometimes be with Kurt. For Kurt.

He smiles at Beth over dinner and tries not to think three days.

* * *


The current front-runner of the three-way race is Sean Carson, whose Tea Party nomination came as no surprise. He holds the lead in much of the mid-west and south, although his campaign is weaker New England-- especially Massachusetts and New York-- as well as in California, which holds the highest number of Electoral College votes of any state. It will be a challenge for Carson's far-right views to sway either state away from Democrat Blythe Connors, who currently holds a ten-point lead over Carson in both states.

That said, Blythe Connors will likely take California, New England, and a few scattered other states-- but don't count on a Democrat in the White House any time soon. With popular opinion polls showing Carson with a solid lead over both Connors and Huntsman, Blythe Connors is likely to make a decent showing in the popular vote, but not gain the Electoral College votes she needs to make it the rest of the way to the White House.

The current White House resident, incumbent President John Huntsman, Jr., is on his way out. Polls show him in the lead in a scant handful of states, and unless something changes drastically in the next week, he will be heading home to Utah. Huntsman was abandoned early by much of the Republican base, who then rallied around Tea Party candidate Sean Carson.

There are a few states that could swing either way come election day, but for the first time in a very long time, it looks like a third party will take the election.

* * *

"...and even with California declared for Connors, it looks like Sean Carson is going to be the next President of the United States."

"Are we calling it?"

"We are-- the official MSNBC call for this election is Sean Carson, the Tea Party candidate from Arkansas. With a likely total of 351 electoral college votes, he has handily beat out John Huntsman, the Republican candidate, and Blythe Connors, the Democrat."

"It's an expected result-- Huntsman was largely abandoned by his party early on, and it's no surprise that Connors couldn't muster enough support to carry the Democrats to a victory-- although it's worth noting that she carried the entire West Coast, as well as most of the electoral college votes from New England."

"This is the first time that we've seen this kind of three-way split, isn't it?"

"It's going to be an interesting four years, especially sin--"

The television clicks off, screen going black and empty. The four of them in the living room are still and silent, still starting at the screen. The remote is in Kurt's hand, and he looks at it almost in surprise.

"Fucking shithead," Quinn says venomously, staring at the television screen. "What the fuck does he--"

"Quinn," Kurt snaps, and she looks at him, eyes wild and furious.

"Fuck you, Kurt-- we just lost, and this whole fucking thing is--"

"Bedroom. Now." Kurt's voice is uncompromising, and it's the closest thing to an order he's given in a long time-- but Beth doesn't need to hear this, not with how infuriated Quinn is right now. Kurt is all for kids learning about the democratic process, but she's watched the vote, and it's almost eleven o'clock. Quinn stands up stiffly and stalks off to her bedroom, blonde hair flying out behind her.

"Beth, why don't you get ready for bed?" he says, gently. "I'm just going to-- I'm going to talk with your mom for a minute." Beth looks over at him, eyes wide. "It'll be fine, Beth-- your mom's just--"

"--she's angry, Kurt," she says. "I'm not five."

He smiles. "Goodnight, Beth."

"Goodnight, Kurt," she says, and she leans back against Blaine.

Blaine, who still hasn't really moved since Kurt turned the TV off. Kurt bites his lip and thinks about saying something, but Blaine turns to him and nods. "Come on, Beth-- you should go brush your teeth. I'll grab your book, okay?"

Kurt shoots a grateful look at Blaine and heads to the front of the house, where the bedrooms are.

He can hear Quinn from outside her door, yelling at nothing and throwing her pillow against the wall. "Quinn?" he calls, knocking on her door.

"Fuck off," she says, and wow, he hasn't heard that tone of voice since they were eighteen and Quinn had been going through a thankfully-brief pink-hair-and-black-clothes phase. He sighs and pushes the door open anyway.

The fury on her face doesn't match her sundress or her haircut. Quinn spends so much time being acceptable and appropriate and passionate, sure, that he forgets how angry she can get sometimes. He catches the pillow that she flings at him when he comes in through the door and tosses it back to her.

"I hate this," she says, looking at the floor and gripping the pillow too tightly. "I just want to be free, Kurt, and I thought--" she stops, breathes, puts the pillow back on her bed-- "I thought that this was going to be our chance to do that."

"It's not over yet," Kurt offers. "Huntsman is still in office, he might--"

"--he might do nothing, Kurt, just like he has been doing nothing for the last two months." All of her anger seems to drain out of her, like water through a sieve, and she sits heavily on her bed. Kurt sits next to her, wrapping one arm around her waist, her head resting on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry," he says into her hair. "We tried."

She laughs bitterly. "We tried, sure. We could have done more, we could have gone to Washington and made them see--"

"See what, Quinn? Something different from what they see at home? What they see in the halls?"

Quinn rubs her hands together in her lap. "I know," she says. "I just wish that-- however frustrating Huntsman was, at least we had a chance, with him still in office."

"I liked Blythe," Kurt says.

"Of course you liked her," Quinn says. "She has good style."

"Any woman who wears Vivienne Westwood on the campaign trail gets my vote," Kurt says, only half-joking. He'd voted before he'd gone into Humm that morning with Quinn waiting for him outside the voting booth and hoped that his neighbors back in Lima were thinking of Quinn when they cast their ballots, that the people in Nevada and Idaho and North Dakota had Blaine on their minds-- but even if they had, it wasn't enough.

It's fairly dark in Quinn's room; there's just enough light from the bedside lamp for Kurt to see the edges of the photograph of Quinn's mother that she keeps tucked into her mirror, just barely in sight. Judy calls on Quinn's birthday and on Beth's, but Quinn never actually speaks to her. He pulls her in just a little tighter against his side. "We're going to get you out of this-- both of you. All of you."

"I think you've used up your fifteen minutes of fame," she says, smiling crookedly. "And neither Blaine nor I had any to begin with."

"Maybe I'll go into politics," he shrugs. "I don't know, maybe I'll-- chain myself to the gates of the White House. Or to that godawful abstract statue they put up in the park last year--"

Quinn laughs at that, her shoulders shaking. "Not the one with the--"

"Oh, yes, that one." He smiles. "We should probably head back out and let Beth and Blaine know that we haven't killed each other."

"I haven't honestly tried to kill you in years," she says. "Not since the time I made you a protein shake and almost made you choke on that hunk of banana that the blender totally missed."

"I think that one only counts as manslaughter."

* * *

* * *

After the election, November seems bleaker than it had before. The cold settles in to stay, frost growing on the windowpanes in curlicues of ice. Blaine watches the sun melt it slowly while he waits for the morning's bread to rise. Sometimes he loses hours, minutes, just standing still and watching the city from Kurt's windows.

He doesn't lose hope, because hope is the one thing he's kept close to his chest for years and years, clutched tight and precious. This is just one more setback, one more resounding no that he'll live with until there's a softer, answering yes. Two years after the last bill like this failed, the provisions for Defs to be provided with further education had been passed; not freedom, but something like it, almost. Freedom for their minds, if not for their bodies.

Even though this bill isn't dead, it feels like it is-- Huntsman stays still and silent on the issue for weeks, even after the election, speaking nothing of the issue. It goes back to committee, not even on the table any more, and fades quietly, without any fanfare. Blaine learns to stop hoping for this bill. For the hundreth time, the question of his freedom has been decided by a group of people he didn't-- can't vote for. In a few years, there'll be another one, and maybe, if he's still with Kurt, if he's still in a position to hope, he can work for that bill, that proposition, instead.

Until then, Blaine will survive. Somehow, he always does.

* * *

"I invited my dad and Carole to spend Thanksgiving with us," Kurt says. "I wanted to make sure that you knew in advance-- they're not staying here, god knows there's no room-- but I know that you--"

"--don't handle change well?" Blaine finishes, smiling crookedly. "Do you mind if I ask-- where will they be staying?"

"At a hotel-- there's one that they usually stay at when they come to visit, it's not too far from here. I have the name somewhere-- I make the reservations for them, most of the time, because my dad still can't quite manage to understand that heavy of an accent over the phone-- one time they ended up in a bedroom with two twin beds that I swear were made for kindergarteners, and I'd like to avoid a repeat of that."

"I'd be happy to take care of it," Blaine says. "I would--" He pauses, because what if Kurt thinks that he isn't ready for this? "I would appreciate the opportunity to do more. For you, of course, I'd be happy to do anything you'd ask of me, but-- I have a lot of time, here at home, and I find myself without much of anything to do."

"Are you sure that you're ready?" Kurt asks. "Not that I don't think you know your own mind or anything, I just-- it hasn't been too long since everything that happened with your friend from Ohio, and I worry."

"Quinn says that you always worry," Blaine replies, smiling. "And no, I'm not sure that I'm ready, but I think I need to-- I need to get out of this apartment more." He crosses his arms loosely across his chest, leans back against the countertop. "I see you guys, I see Paige and Julie and our barista and the guy at the deli on the corner, but I don't-- even at the center in Columbus I knew more people. I wasn't close to them, not really, but sometimes, here, I feel like I'm too closed in."

Kurt looks so shocked that Blaine is worried that he's said too much, pushed this on Kurt all at once with no real thought-- but he has thought about it, he has been thinking. For a long time he'd been happy in his small life, the apartment had been warm and cozy and all the space that he needed to grow, to heal, but now he's become root-bound, trying to grow too far in a too-small space. He feels things enough to care about them, now.

"Okay," Kurt says, the surprise on his face fading into an expression that looks more pleased than anything else, and he sets the dishcloth down on the counter. Blaine relaxes, seeing the hint of a smile on Kurt's lips, because he knows that telling this to Kurt was the right decision. "I'll see what I can do."

* * *

Kurt's father and Carole arrive in a flurry of hugs and suitcases, and Blaine stands quietly in the background, waiting for someone to need his help.

"You must be Blaine," Carole says, Beth attached firmly to her side. She reaches for Blaine's hand, and he offers his, carefully, half-expecting her to pull him into a hug. Which is, of course, exactly what she does, pulling him halfway off-balance and sending him stumbling into her.

"I'm sorry," Blaine apologizes, ducking his head and disentangling as quickly and politely as he can. "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."

"Oh, none of that," she laughs. "Just Carole."

"Of course," he says. "May I help you with anything?"

"We're taking most of this to the hotel later," she says, and winks at him. "But I think there might be something for Beth in here somewhere."

"Oh my gosh, Gramma Carole, did you bring me a present?" Beth asks, looking up at her with hopeful eyes.

"Small bag, in the front," Carole responds, and Beth shrieks and races off. "She's usually such a quiet child." She looks fondly after Beth.

"You've clearly never seen her having a water-gun fight," Kurt says, and both Blaine and Carole turn to face him.

"Kurt! Sweetie, it has been too long," she says, and Blaine freezes.

He expects himself to shut down, he expects to start chanting Maria over and over again like he had in July, in September, he expects Kurt to take too gently by the elbows and steer him over to the fire escape. His reaction to things like that (like stupid fucking pet names; they're something that is supposed to be safe, something for kids and friends and lovers, and how idiotic is it that he can't stand to hear them anymore) is something he can't control, and there are a lot of things that he expects.

But this isn't any of those things.

Blaine's hands shake and Kurt is looking directly to him, seemingly ready to spring into action, but there's nothing, no fading grey or sharp fall into nothing, just the last whisper of a dying ghost. He drags a smile out of somewhere and puts it on his face like a half-mask, not quite ready to show his full expression.

Kurt hugs Carole tightly and buries his face in her collar for a moment; Blaine realizes that he's staring and looks away. Beth reappears in front of him, bouncing up and down and clutching a stack of books.

"New books?" he asks, somewhat inanely, still thrown off by his lack of reaction to Carole.

"Duh," she says, looking up at him and raising an eyebrow, like she knows exactly how stupid he's being. "But I haven't read these ones yet."

"You need to finish your book for class first," he reminds her, and she makes a face.

"But it's boring," she complains, and he ruffles her curls.

"Read it anyway," he says, smiling fondly at her, and when he glances back up, Kurt is looking at him with some expression that he can't quite define, caught somewhere between hope and sadness. Blaine raises both eyebrows, questioning, but Kurt shakes his head.

"So, dinner?" Kurt says to the group at large, clasping his hands in front of him and shifting his attention away from Blaine.

Blaine ducks his head, puts his hands in his pockets, and follows everyone out the door.

* * *

The Monday before Thanksgiving, Blaine comes in after coffee with Paige, toes off his shoes, and hangs up his scarf and coat. He walks through the kitchen and snags the book that Beth had left there after breakfast (it's The Grey King, and Blaine doesn't understand half of the mythology but the writing is beautiful) and wanders into the living room, intending to spend the rest of his free hour reading before he tackles Kurt's post-college files again.

He's surprised to find Kurt's father sitting in the chair closest to the fire escape, newspaper in hand and reading glasses perched on his nose.

"Morning," Kurt's father says without looking up from the paper.

"Good morning, sir," Blaine replies. He knows that Kurt loves his father but he can't seem to get a read on the man; he's the only person Blaine has met since coming to Kurt that hasn't corrected Blaine when he's called him sir. He's all too aware that Kurt's father is a former congressman, that he must know what a proper Def looks like and how far Blaine is from that, right now. Blaine can't help but wonder if his presence, his ways of being, are shaming Kurt somehow.

"How was your coffee date?" Kurt's father asks, and Blaine finds himself almost at a loss for words.

"It was fine, sir-- although it wasn't a date," he corrects. "Paige is the mother of one of Beth's friends from school."

"Must have been good coffee," Kurt's father says, eyes dancing in some private joke. "Kurt told me not to expect you for another half hour."

"I wanted to catch up on my reading," Blaine explains, before he remembers that Defs aren't really supposed to want things. "That is-- I'm reading this along with Beth, and she's half a dozen chapters ahead of me--"

"Well, don't let me bother you," Kurt's father says.

"Is there anything you need, sir?" Blaine can't help but ask.

"Sit down, kid," Kurt's father says. "You're making me tired just looking at you."

Blaine nervously takes his seat on the couch, drawing one of the throws over his lap to ward off the chill coming through the glass.

"You'd think that my kid would keep this place warm," Kurt's father says.

"It's all the windows, sir," Blaine says. "He could keep the furnace running all day and it'd still be cold."

"Figures that Kurt would like the light more than keeping things warm." Kurt's father smiles at Blaine and he smiles back, showing the kind of expression that he'd give any Holder that he didn't know.

"He doesn't mind the cold."

"Not in all those layers he wears, no," Kurt's father says. "And it doesn't bother you?"

"It's not my place to question it," Blaine replies, even though he's sure that Kurt would try to do something about it if he did mention it. "I'm usually warm enough." He curls his toes under the throw when he says that, like it will excuse the lie, because sometimes he likes the cold. Sometimes it's all that wakes him up in the mornings, the frost on the windowpanes and the thought of the first thump of bread against the countertop.

"Hm." Kurt's father turns back to his newspaper and Blaine opens Beth's book to his bookmark-- Bran is teaching Will to pronounce Welsh and if Blaine were alone, he'd try to wrap his mouth around the syllables, following along.

After ten minutes of quiet and turning pages, Kurt's father speaks. "What do you think about Kurt?" he asks.

Blaine doesn't know what kind of answer Kurt's father is looking for. "He's an excellent Holder," he offers.

"No, but-- what do you think of him, as a person?"

"He's a good father, even though Beth isn't technically his child," Blaine tries. He has no idea why Kurt's father is asking him, and he's suddenly terrified of being trapped by something he says, here. "Anyone would be proud to work for him."

"So it's just a, ah, working relationship?" Kurt's father asks, and now Blaine can sense the edges of what he wants to know-- but he still doesn't know what the correct answer is, whether it's to say entirely professional, sir or he has helped me so much.

"Very professional," Blaine compromises. "But we're-- we live together, there's a certain amount of, ah, closeness that develops with that."

Kurt's father chuckles, and Blaine still doesn't know if he has done this right. "I'm sure it does," he says.

Blaine slides the bookmark back into his book and folds the throw neatly, needing to be anywhere but here, right now, with Kurt's father and the uncertainty. He thinks that perhaps they were having two conversations, but he doesn't know what Kurt's father was hearing. "I have a task to complete," he says. "Do you need anything, sir?"

"Nah, I'm fine," Kurt's father says.

"I'll be just down the hallway, if you do." Blaine sets down the book on the table behind the couch, and stands to walk out of the room.

"You make him happy," Kurt's father says, and Blaine turns around to see that the paper is lying in his lap and he's looking at Blaine over the tops of his reading glasses. "Last night after dinner-- I haven't seen him smile like that in years."

"I try, sir," Blaine says, and it is so true that it almost hurts, aching just a little inside Blaine's chest. Kurt has done so much for him in the past six months that sometimes he can't believe it; it feels like it's happened to someone else.

"Keep it up," Kurt's father advises, looking back down at his newspaper. Blaine nods quickly and flees for the relative safety of Kurt's files.

* * *

* * *

They're at the grocery store picking up the turkey and a few last-minute necessities when Kurt's father calls. "For the last time, Dad, I am not going to forget the cranberries," Kurt says, rolling his eyes and smiling at Blaine across their cart.

Kurt's eyes close and his jaw tightens and Blaine feels the bottom drop out of his stomach; something must have gone so wrong for Kurt to look like that. "How long ago did they start?" Kurt asks, and he nods, even though he must know that his dad can't see him. "No-- no, I'll tell him. Okay. Okay, we'll be home as soon as we can be."

When Kurt opens his eyes, they're clear and there's a hint of a smile playing around his mouth; Blaine is just confused by now.

"They're voting," Kurt says, smile growing until it's lighting up his whole face, and that doesn't make any sense. The election was weeks ago, what are they--


Blaine's mouth is dry, and he has to lick his lips before he can speak. "I thought they killed it," he says.

Kurt shakes his head. "No, they sent it back to committee to die, but it-- Blaine, they brought it back and they're voting on it. We have to get home, we have to watch this and---"

"Thanksgiving recess," Blaine says, because it's two days before the holiday and surely all of Congress isn't around to vote on this-- who knows if there's even a quorum-- but Kurt is smiling and he keeps shaking his head.

"Huntsman made them stay. They're-- god, they're voting, Blaine, we have to get back and watch this." Kurt is almost giddy with excitement, pushing Blaine and the cart along in front of him.

"Kurt, wait--" Blaine says, and Kurt pauses, raising his eyebrows expectantly. "The turkey," Blaine finishes, unsure if Kurt had intended to actually stop for that or not. "And the cranberries, your dad will--"

"Right. Turkey, and cranberries, and that goat cheese Quinn likes, and you are going to monitor this on your phone until we get back because oh my god, Blaine."

Blaine bites his lip and doesn't point out that Kurt is probably more hopeful than he is, right now, that Kurt is nearly bouncing down the aisles of the grocery store. Blaine is gripping the handle of the grocery cart with white knuckles, because he's almost positive that there are not nearly enough votes for the bill to pass; it's going to be one more failed attempt at making his life better. One more step that doesn't move them anywhere.

While Kurt is at the butcher's counter picking up their turkey, Blaine loads the C-SPAN website on his phone. "They're still reading the bill," he says quietly to Kurt. "The actual vote won't start for at least another twenty minutes."

"Good," Kurt says, reaching across the glass of the butcher's counter to take the turkey, wrapped in plastic and paper and incredibly unwieldy. He flashes a grin at the middle-aged woman who'd handed him the bird, then turns back to his shopping list. "Goat cheese, cranberries, and we are taking a taxi back because I am not taking a fifteen-pound turkey on the subway or missing more of this vote than I have to."

* * *

When they walk through the door, Quinn moves in immediately for a hug, not waiting for Blaine to put the grocery bags down. "It's about to start," she says. "I'll put things away, you go and watch."

He's-- he doesn't know what he's feeling. It's almost like he's floating between anticipation and dread, trying to keep a balance between absolute certainty that the bill is going to fail and a hope so great that it chokes him, leaves him breathless and uncertain. Quinn takes the bags and Kurt shepherds him toward the living room, where his parents are already ensconced in the chairs and Beth is curled up on one end of the couch with a pad of paper and a pencil. There's only enough space for two more people on the couch, so as Kurt takes his seat on the far end, Blaine sits cross-legged in front of Beth, leaning back against the couch. "Hey, Blaine," she says.

"Hi," he says.

"Plenty of space on the couch," Kurt's father says mildly.

"Quinn and Kurt have been on their feet all day," he demurs.

Kurt's father raises an eyebrow. "And you haven't?"

"I'm fine on the floor, sir," Blaine says, sharper than he means to be, biting his cheek to rein in his jagged edges.

"Quinn! It's starting!" Kurt calls, and Quinn hurries in, drying her hands on a dishcloth. She sits quickly next to Kurt, dropping the cloth on the coffee table.

Vice President Hart calls order, and the voting begins.

The first vote is nay, and so is the second; Beth makes two neat tally marks on her pad of paper. There's a pause between each vote, a moment of who-which party-how will they- before they hear the yea or nay.

Blaine very deliberately does not keep track, but every so often Beth will say "Twenty-four nays," or "sixteen ayes" and he'll think-- he still doesn't know what to think. He's trying for a sort of studied indifference, so that no matter what happens he will not care.

But then Beth says forty-five ayes, and everyone sits up just a little bit straighter. Kurt's father leans forward in his chair, rests his elbows on his knees, and out of the corner of his eye, Blaine sees Quinn take Kurt's hand. This is too close, and too real, and Blaine feels abruptly like he needs to be outside, in the relatively fresh air, but he forces himself to sit, still and silent and not hopeful.

It's all white noise and anticipation and the absolute silence of everyone in their living room. Blaine wonders absently about the other Defs that must be watching or listening, half-terrified and half-hopeful; he wonders how many of them are sitting like he is, how many are kneeling next to someone who's running their fingers through their hair, how many are being held down and forced to watch, because their Holders will never, ever free them.

"Forty-eight," Beth says. They need three more, just three more, and there are still a dozen senators to cast their votes.

Blaine stops counting, at least consciously. He drops his head, brings his knees up and wraps his arms around them.

This is too close.

"Ron Wyden," says the man leading the vote, and then there's a moment of silence.


In their living room, no one speaks for what feels like minutes-- everyone is focused on the television, staring unblinking at the screen.

"Fifty-three," Beth says quietly.


"I have to go," Blaine says, scrambling up from the floor, careless of his manners and whoever might be watching-- he's certain that he can feel all eyes in the living room on him, but he can't be there right now. He can't be inside, he can't be with other people, he needs to--

It's freezing outside. Maybe not literally, but it's close, and his breath is clouding the air. He's not sure how long he stands there and shakes, because fifty-three. Somehow it only takes fifty-three people to change this for him, and he wonders where those fifty-three people were when he was fifteen and terrified, when he was sixteen and starving.

"I keep following you out here," Kurt says from behind him, and Blaine starts a bit because he hadn't heard the door slide open. He takes the coat that Kurt offers him.

"I'm sorry," Blaine says. "I'll come back in in a minute-- I just need to--" He makes a weak gesture towards the open air, the city, everything that's been closed to him and is now bright and shining open.

"I don't mind staying, if you don't mind having me here."

"Of course," Blaine responds. He minds and he doesn't, but makes a difference that Kurt is there, because without Kurt, without everything he has done for and around Blaine, Blaine wouldn't be there at all, holding fast to the railing; he feels warm, safe, held. Blaine turns back out to the city, to New York and all the possibilities that it held when he was fifteen.

He puts his hands on the railing and tries not to fly.

* * *

Chapter Text

Freedom has edges.

The bill passing doesn't suddenly make him free, doesn't give him back the years he's lost to subservience and lowered eyes, the weight of someone else on top of him and being absolutely unable to make any of his own decisions.

But what it means is that he has options, again. He can look forward to a future that isn't anything he doesn't choose-- within reason, of course, and only if Kurt makes the choice to offer Blaine his freedom. It's Kurt's choice, it's always his choice, until he decides to hand that power to Blaine or to someone else. So he is patient; he waits for Kurt to come to him. He takes Beth to school (and Ms. Kendricks says congratulations when he sees her at the classroom door; her eyes are soft and he smiles back at her), he inventories the kitchen and contacts the moving company that Paige suggests.

He and Paige go for coffee the morning after the bill passes, like they always do, and she hugs him when she sees him, holding on for long moments with her face buried in his shoulder.

"Did you ever think it would happen?" she asks, once they're seated.

"I couldn't afford to," he says. Hope is the worst thing, sometimes, and every other time, the defeat had been crushing. After the election he put it out of his mind entirely as one more thing lost to the system, to the politicians and public policy. But now he's sitting here with Paige, and he's not free.


There may be boundaries to this new freedom, but at the same time the limitless future looms, vast and open wide, like the sky in Idaho had been, sometimes. It's fantastic at the same time it leaves him breathless in fear and anticipation, because he hasn't had to think about a real future outside of the system in more than ten years.

When he gets home, Kurt's father is there. "Morning, Blaine," he says, from his seat in the living room. The TV's on and there's a football game on; Blaine hasn't watched football since he was a teenager. None of his Holders have been fans, and Defs aren't exactly encouraged to continue interests from their previous lives.

"Good morning, sir," Blaine says. "Can I get you anything?"

"Nah," Kurt's father responds. "Got a beer, got a couch, got a good game on."

"I'll leave you to it, then," Blaine says. He's halfway out the room when he hears Kurt's father's voice.

"You like football?" he asks.

"I used to," Blaine admits. "I haven't had the chance to watch it much recently."

Kurt's father chuckles. "And I know Kurt's not the biggest sports fan, for all he used to be on the football team," he says. Blaine tries not to show surprise; there's a lot he still doesn't know about Kurt. It's amusing and startling to think of Kurt participating in a sport as rough and sweaty as football-- even if he clearly does know how to use his elbows on the subway. "C'mon, sit down. I can tell you what you've missed." He gestures towards the other chairs in the room, and Blaine takes one, hesitantly. He pulls the throw over his lap, mimicking Kurt's father because it is cold, and it would be unspeakably rude to change into something warmer. All of his clothes are in the trunk that Kurt's father has set his bottle of beer on, and there is no way that Blaine is asking him to move it just so he can be a bit more comfortable.

"Now, see, they changed kickoffs to the 35 yard line back in 2012," Kurt's father starts, as they settle in to the game. Blaine isn't sure who he's supposed to be rooting for. Thankfully, Kurt's father is the demonstrative type, and it becomes clear early on that the team in white and red-- the Buckeyes-- is the one to follow. He remembers watching the same team with his father, maybe, years ago, and it aches-- but less than it could; less, maybe, than it should. But Kurt's father is not his father, and Blaine contents himself with smiling and watching Kurt's father watch the game. He has no personal attachment to either team, but he's happy to watch the game.

"See, now that was a pass," Kurt's father says, gesturing at the screen, where there's instant replay of the throw. Blaine hums assent and Kurt's father grins. "It's a good game," he says.

"It is, sir," Blaine replies.

"You know," Kurt's father says, looking sideways at Blaine, "you can call me Burt." The way he says it makes it clear that it's an option-- Blaine's not being required call Kurt's father by his first name but Blaine can, if he wants to.

"Thank you," he says. "Burt."

Kurt's father-- Burt-- smiles again, but doesn't say anything, and they finish watching the game.

* * *

One of the first things that Kurt does the next day is call Quinn and Blaine's Foster to find out how this whole process is going to actually happen. He knows somewhere in the back of his mind that Emma's resigned or been fired or something (he's been a little busy), but he's still surprised when the voice on the end of the line is male.

"Columbus Department of Labor, this is Alfred."

"Hi," Kurt says, flustered. "This is Kurt Hummel-- I'm the Holder of two of your Defs."

"Ah, yes," Alfred says. Kurt hears the sounds of paper shuffling and something that might be a drawer opening. "Quinn and Blaine, right?"

"Yes," Kurt confirms. "I was wondering about the manumission process."

Alfred chuckles. "Well, considering that the bill just passed last night, we probably have about the same number of questions."

"Right," Kurt says. He knows that the bill passing doesn't immediately free Quinn and Blaine, but he'd sort of hoped that he'd be able to get something more out of their Foster.

"Here's what I know," Alfred says. "If Huntsman signs-- his Twitter says that'll happen in a few hours, so that's really a when-- the bill will go into effect on the first of January. At some point within the next few weeks we'll have a stack of forms as thick as a dictionary for you to fill out if you're interested in manumission, but for right now all you can do is sit tight. I know there are plans for exit classes that your Defs will be required to attend, things like that, but there's not a lot more that I can tell you."

"Is there a way for you to contact me once a procedure is in place?" Kurt asks.

"Sure-- I've got your e-mail on file, I'll send you the documents once they come down from the head office," Alfred offers.

"Thank you," Kurt replies, and they say their goodbyes.

It's not quite what he wanted-- it seems the DoL was as unprepared for the bill to pass as any of them were, which is unsurprising-- but he'll take it. Quinn has been waiting in his office while he spoke with Alfred, and she smiles wryly when he hangs up the phone.

"Not quite there yet, are we?"

Kurt shakes his head. "It's what we expected," he says. "They don't know, we don't know-- there isn't even a time frame, really."

Quinn shrugs. "It'll get there," she says. She sounds so sure of herself, like she's not imagining the million ways this could all go pear-shaped (What if Carson pulls it? What if there are half a dozen restrictions on who can be freed and Quinn and Blaine don't pass all of them? What if something goes wrong before then-- what if Blaine doesn't-- what if he can't--). Kurt wishes that he had her optimism with this. It's such a change from her usual furious, sardonic temperament that it takes him back, a little. He's never seen her like this, as far as he can remember, and he wonders how many masks she's wearing now.

When they'd met she'd already been on the cheerleading squad for a year and was its captain-- he's never known her without some facade firmly affixed. They're almost as close as two people can be, but there are parts of Quinn that Kurt may never really know. And really? That's all right. Quinn deserves to keep some things to herself; he doesn't have to know her deepest, darkest secrets. She can smile to herself and have her own space and if that's the thing that separates Kurt from other Holders, then it's a good thing. Quinn's going to have her own space, separate from him, and--

"What does this mean for Beth?" he asks, the thought coming from out of the blue.

Quinn goes still. "She's my daughter," she says, calmly.

Kurt freezes. He feels suddenly like Quinn wants to take Beth from him, even though she's not really his at all, except for legally, and even then-- does the bill even say anything about situations like theirs? Beth isn't-- she's not his daughter, but she feels like she is. He's bandaged her scrapes and picked her up from school and he was the one who got her to read, finally, with Miss Rumphius, when she'd hated it before then.

"She--" he says, but he can't think of anything else to say.

"She loves you," Quinn says, with that same calm. "And she loves Blaine, and I-- I don't know how it's going to work, but I'm not going to take her and move back to Ohio, Kurt." She looks at him like he's an idiot, and maybe he is, a little bit. But it's Beth-- she's not half his life, because his life has too many parts to it-- but she's more than his best friend's daughter. She's his, at least a little bit.

"Okay," he says. "I guess we'll have to-- we'll figure it out."

Quinn smiles. "I have a plan," she says.

Kurt smiles, the weight in his chest easing. "You always have a plan," he says, and she laughs.

"She's your daughter as much as she is mine," Quinn says gently, and Kurt feels himself relaxing the rest of the way. "I don't want-- I want to move out, and I will move out, as soon as everything's in place, but Beth will still have a place in your life. And even if it's just after school and on weekends, sometimes-- we'll figure it out."

"I love you," he says, sincerely, reaching for her hand. She takes it, squeezing his fingers just a bit.

"Love you, too," she replies. "I'd stay with you if being here had been my choice-- really, I would-- but it wasn't, and there's so much more out there. I'm-- I'm so happy you got me out of Ohio, Kurt, but it's time for me to move on. I can do that here-- I'm happy here."

"Just not with me," Kurt says.

"I don't want to be second to someone my entire life," she says. "It's not about you, specifically. I'd feel the same way, no matter who was my Holder." Quinn pauses. "But I'm so glad that it's you, Kurt."

"It was almost Mr. Schue," he says, and she fakes a gasp, looking scandalized.

"He never--"

"He did," Kurt says. "It was before that whole mess with his wife and the faked pregnancy--"

"Actually, it wasn't," Quinn replies, grinning, and she tells him the entire sordid story-- how Mr. Schue's wife had offered to adopt her baby, before everything had turned on its head. It's been twelve years since it happened and it's the first time they've really talked about it-- it's not just Blaine who has things in his past he doesn't speak of. Something in the air eases between them, and it's different, now.

Kurt thinks he's starting to let go.

* * *

They have Thanksgiving the next day and it's quieter than perhaps it was going to be. Carole says a quick grace that doesn't mention God at all, and the rest of them bow their heads. They share what they're thankful for; no one is surprised when Quinn says "President Huntsman," but Kurt is touched and a little startled when Blaine says "Kurt."

There's turkey, of course, and the cranberries that were almost forgotten; mashed potatoes and green beans and stuffing. There are sweet potatoes (without any marshmallows, which Kurt thinks are an abomination but Carole swears are a necessity), salad, and three kinds of pie for dessert.

After dinner, Burt and Carole try to talk them into heading over to the parade, but Quinn and Kurt's rapid (and forceful) dismissal of the idea shoots it down entirely. "We can watch it on TV, like everyone else," Kurt offers, because he knows it will be a madhouse on the streets. "All the good spots will be hours gone, by now." Beth nods along sagely, even though she's only been to the parade once, and she was too young to remember it all that well.

Blaine is quiet throughout the meal, retreating to the living room as soon as it's polite to do so. Kurt wanders out to check on him ten minutes later, and finds him curled up on the couch.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

"Ate too much," Blaine responds, and Kurt takes him at his word. "And everyone is-- your family is amazing, Kurt."

Kurt smiles, because he can't help but agree. "Let me know if you need anything," he says.

"I will," Blaine says. "But I think I'm okay, now."

Kurt turns to walk back into the dining room, but he hears Blaine's voice behind him.

"Kurt?" He turns back around, and Blaine is looking at him nervously. He thinks that if Blaine were the kind of person to have a tell, he'd be showing it right now. "I meant what I said at dinner. I am-- I am so thankful for you. You make me want to be-- you made me want things again, and I don't know if you-- do you know what that means?"

"I think I'm starting to," Kurt says. He walks further into the living room and sits on the couch next to Blaine. "I'm thankful that you're a part of our lives, too."

Blaine squeezes his eyes shut and Kurt reaches for his hand, holding it lightly. "Thank you," Blaine says. "I don't think I'll ever be able to-- thank you." Kurt squeezes his hand, just like he had with Quinn the day before. It's different with Blaine than it had been with Quinn-- of course it is, they're two very different people-- and Kurt wonders, not for the first time, what Blaine wants to do once he's free. But there'll be another time to ask, and so he leaves the question unasked.

"I should let you get back to your family," Blaine says, and Kurt shakes his head.

"It's fine," he says. He doesn't say I am with my family, but he thinks it. It's been just seven months, but Blaine is as much a part of his family as Carole is-- as much as Quinn is, really. And it's not in the same way that Quinn's a part of his family, not at all. Blaine is-- he's just different. Kurt doesn't quite want to think about how Blaine is different, but there are moments, instants, where Blaine turns his head and Kurt catches him in profile, and he's breathtaking. They have conversations about music or fashion and Kurt honestly finds himself forgetting, sometimes, who and what Blaine is. And if things were different, if they'd met one of a hundred-- of a thousand-- other ways, then maybe-- maybe they could be friends, real friends, without all of the politics getting in the way.

But they are who they are: Kurt is a Holder and Blaine is his Def, and those instants and moments stay hidden in the back of Kurt's mind, safe.

* * *

Everything after Thanksgiving is a mad rush to the holidays; Beth's school is putting on a Chorale and she has rehearsal three days a week after school. She's not a featured singer on any of the songs but she has three lines of a solo in 'Let it Snow.'

And in all of this, they have to move. There are boxes to pack and belongings to sort through; Kurt's family has lived in this apartment for years, and there are things built up in corners (and Beth's closet in particular) that need to be sorted through before they can be packaged. They're not moving far, but they're moving far enough.

In some ways, it's strange to be moving so soon after the bill passes, because it means that soon enough, they won't need the space, necessarily. Blaine doesn't know about himself, not yet, but he's sure that Quinn will be moving on; as devoted as she is to Kurt, she shows more passion towards freedom. (Blaine doesn't want to think about what that means for Beth, whether she will stay with Kurt or leave with Quinn; he wants her to stay, but he feels that it is too selfish to want, really.)

It could be weeks or it could be months. Blaine wants to get out of this apartment more than anything, sometimes, but he wonders what they'll be giving up by doing so. He imagines empty bedrooms in Kurt's new apartment (Would Kurt fill them? With clothes or with people or incomprehensible furniture?), empty places at the dinner table, but he leaves those images where they come to him: at night, in the dark.

Blaine and Quinn and Kurt move around each other like an increasingly complicated dance-- none of them seem to be home at the same time, but together, they manage to get Beth fed and clothed and to school (mostly) on time. Beth sails through it all, serene as ever, as the adults in her life get more and more crazed. She helps Blaine bake dozens of cookies for her teachers and her friends, she goes Christmas shopping with Quinn and lets Kurt braid her hair in the mornings, even though she is quite able to do it by herself, now.

It's the routines that get them all through it-- Blaine still bakes bread in the mornings, rising hours before the sun to mix yeast and flour and water together, losing himself in proofing and kneading the dough. The mornings get colder, but he wears slippers and a soft, worn sweater that Kurt had given him, and he doesn't feel the chill quite as much. Some days he wakes up and there's just the barest hint of grey in his vision; on those mornings he makes his tea just this side of too hot and bakes chili flakes and cheddar into his scones.

It might not be the life he thought he'd choose, but it's a good one. Even though he sometimes thinks about taking the subway as far as it would take him and just... losing himself in the city, something about this family keeps him coming back.

His freedom may have edges, but he hasn't found them, yet.

* * *

They have Christmas between stacks of moving boxes; Kurt buys a real tree and they decorate it with tiny and perfect glass ornaments interspersed with ones that Beth had clearly made in school (and one, a glass ball with a photograph of a woman and a child inside, that says Kurt on the back in childish scrawl).

Blaine remembers getting in snowball fights with Marco, before; he remembers his mother singing on Christmas Eve and sitting beside his father the next morning as they opened carefully-wrapped presents.

Christmas with Kurt's household is more jumbled than Blaine guesses it usually is. Kurt buys everyone scarves for Christmas: Quinn's is soft white angora, Beth's is woven purple and green, and Blaine's is a grey and red knit that he wraps around his hands, first, before looping it around his neck. Blaine had been unwilling to accept Kurt's offer of funding a present-buying expedition, so there are cookies for each of them: sugar cookies the shapes of ducks and dinosaurs and spaceships for Beth, chocolate-molasses-ginger cookies for Quinn, oatmeal lace for Kurt.

Quinn gives him a red-and-black striped coffee mug and Beth gives him coffee to fill it with, as well as a second-hand copy of Matilda.

After breakfast, they all retreat to their own spaces. Blaine sits half-curled on the sofa, running a hand over the cover of the book Beth gave him. He hasn't read it since he was Beth's age himself, but he remembers the controversy his fifth-grade teacher had engendered by assigning it to his class. It's not the content of the book that gives him pause-- it's the book itself.

It's not the first time his Holders have given him things, but it's always been the understanding that it's as it please you; Blaine has dressed himself in clothing from their hands, worn jewelry and eaten delicacies, but he's never really been given things of his own, because they make him happy. (Emma, one year, had given him a handful of chocolates the week before Christmas, but it really isn't the same thing at all. He had eaten one and it had been almost sickeningly sweet.) There is an expectation of reciprocity with this family, but it's because they are just that, and Blaine is slowly becoming accustomed to the thought that he might be part of that, someday.

It's in all the small things: the way Blaine was included in their Christmas without a thought, in the way that Beth sets a place for him at dinner (even when his hands itch to be the ones picking up the cutlery), a thousand thoughtless inclusions in addition to the deliberate ones. Every time it happens, he gets drawn in a little further, entangled a little more in this family that has inexplicably chosen him.

And it's not just about them giving him things-- it's about making him feel a part of things, feel included in the day-to-day boring routines that make up their lives. He can list off each and every duty and task that he completes for them, but it doesn't feel the same as doing some of those same tasks for Emily and Jonah had felt.

Because with Kurt, Blaine doesn't always feel like a Def. He practices scales and songs on the piano, even though he hasn't regained his voice, not yet; he bakes bread, even though it's never been asked of him; he'd even made them all cookies, for a holiday that he hasn't celebrated in years-- and he does it all because he's a person, not a possession. He is trusted with something precious and it's not because he's afraid of what might happen if he breaks it (because Beth's broken wrist over the summer had taught him that; he had failed so thoroughly but been forgiven). It's out of love, and devotion, and caring-- things Blaine had thought he'd forgotten years ago.

* * *

After Christmas, they have just over a week to move. They pack boxes and boxes full of knicknacks and loose ends, books and papers and clothing. Half of the time packing comes with stories; Beth has lived in this apartment for almost as long as she can remember, so she tells Blaine about every mark on her walls, every book and stuffed animal she places carefully in a box.

"My dad gave me this the last time we went to Ohio for Christmas," she says, handing Blaine a plush duck in an odd shade of purple. "I think sometime he forgets I'm not five any more." It's odd to hear Beth talk about her dad as being anyone but Kurt-- sometimes Blaine forgets that Beth isn't Kurt's biologically.

"At least you like ducks?" he offers.

"Ducks are awesome, Blaine," she says, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. "I'm going to study ducks when I grow up."

"In between being an author and an astronaut and--"

"Ducks, Blaine."

He grins and ruffles her hair. "I'm going to go and see if Kurt needs help-- it looks like you're doing fine."

She nods and sticks the duck in one of the boxes labeled Important-open first in Kurt's neat handwriting.

Kurt is staring at his closet like it contains all the secrets of the universe. They have a moving company that would happily pack up all of Kurt's clothing, but he doesn't trust them with any of it-- really, he doesn't trust anyone with it, not even Blaine or Quinn.

"Having trouble getting started?" Blaine asks.

"I know exactly where to start," Kurt says, not turning away from his closet. "It's just-- daunting. But, I suppose one can never have too many scarves."

Blaine smiles. "You could just wear all of them at once and call it the newest fashion trend." Kurt turns to stare at him, eyes wide and disbelieving. Blaine shrugs. "It's the right time of year for that."

"I would end up on Go Fug Yourself and not as a trendsetter, Blaine," Kurt says, horrified.

Blaine smiles, soft and easy. It's moments like these when he feels like there is less of a power difference between them: Kurt's expression is unguarded, and Blaine feels... close. Like he's okay, really okay, and not just okay-for-now and maybe things will get better. Like things will be okay for a while, like things are better now. Moving may be a weird in-between time, but Blaine is being taken with the rest of their belongings. He's not being tossed in the back of the moving truck along with Kurt's scarves and Quinn's cardigans-- he's going with them, as part of the family.

Kurt smiles back and turns back to his closet, a look of concentration on his face, and Blaine drifts out, leaves Kurt there.

In the living room, Blaine's trunk is full and there's a small cardboard box labelled Blaine sitting on top of it. His entire life fits in two boxes, while Quinn and Beth have dozens and Kurt more than that. It hurts and it doesn't; he's never had much attachment to physical objects, knowing that they can be easily lost, replaced with each new Holder as they see fit. It's the first time he's had things that he wants to keep for himself, that he might actually be able to keep for himself.

They're all small things: the scarf Kurt had given him for Christmas, a handful of rocks and feathers from his and Beth's walks in the park that summer. He had come to the Hummel household with nothing, as he always did, but now he has things, objects and emotions and people he wants to take with him. And he can-- he's not going back to the dormitory at the DoL or to another Holder. He's staying, because he is wanted. He is wanted and he wants, and both of those things are okay.

Blaine takes a deep breath and stretches up towards the ceiling, facing the windows to soak in the last of the winter sun. It's past the turn of winter, and the days are starting to get longer again. Maybe as they get brighter, the sunlight will fill him up and chase away the last of the grey. Even though the room is bare of the sofa-bed to curl up in (it's been donated; Kurt has ordered a couch for the new apartment) and there are no blankets or throws to wrap himself in, Blaine feels warm.

* * *

Blaine walks through the empty apartment and hears his steps echo; the space seems bigger without everyone's things in it.

It's odd, the way that he's become attached to all the physicality of the apartment-- it's too cold in the winter, and in summer the sun streamed through the windows and made it nearly too hot. It's where he re-learned parts of himself; it's where he'd first met Kurt (on his knees in the entryway; he passes the worn hardwood and remembers what it was like to spend months on his knees, before Kurt). He's not sure if the new apartment will be the same for him-- he thinks it's going to be good, in some ways, to have his own space. He won't have to be in the middle of everyone any more-- he won't be perpetually in their way, he won't be living in a fishbowl at all.

His own. He'd gone out shopping the previous week for a bed and a dresser and he doesn't know how he's going to repay Kurt's kindness in this. It's the first time since he was fifteen that he's had a bed that no one else expected to share (sometimes he hadn't had his own bed at all-- and the sofa-bed in Kurt's apartment isn't that bad, no matter what Kurt said, but it's not quite the same thing).

It's... he knows that the DoL isn't going to just dump them all on the streets after the act comes into effect, but he's not sure what kind of exit program there's going to be-- if they're going to have classes (god, the DoL education system is a complete and total mess) or just be given a packet of information and told to make their own ways. There's to be transitional housing, according to the information put out by the DoL, and he can't help but wonder what it's going to be like-- it could be anything from the dormitories at the DoL, where you couldn't find a quiet corner if you looked for hours to the same sort of fish-bowl existence he'd had in this very apartment, viewable from any angle? There's so much he doesn't know about what's going to be required of him, if he actually wants his freedom-- transitional programs or just counseling or more than that, somehow?

There are people who probably don't need a transition at all-- like Quinn, like some of the other Defs he's known-- but there's so much about being free that Blaine can't quite fathom. Maybe he's not quite good enough to be free; maybe he'd stumble and fail at the first sign of trouble, sell himself back into the system because the system is its own safety net. The system has (had) people like Emma, who made sure that he ate and slept, even when he didn't want to, even when he didn't deserve to-- and what's he going to do without that? Who is going to be his Holder if he can't Hold himself?

It's just an empty apartment, clean floors and closed windows, the granite counter-tops in the kitchen gleaming, the hooks in the entryway empty of their usual detritus of jackets and scarves, mittens on long strings. He's not supposed to have any attachment to it, not really, and on the days when he's struggling to breathe inside it, when he wishes he were anywhere but there, it's stifling. Other days, it's as worn and comfortable as an old pair of jeans, like the ones Kurt wears around the house when he's not planning on being seen by anyone.

There are thousands of tiny things that make up Blaine's life: coffee with Paige, bread in the mornings and tea with Quinn when (miraculously) neither of them is busy. He reads with Beth and goes to the park with her and Julie; he went to Back-to-School night because both Quinn and Kurt were busy. He is useful and he is wanted and he thinks, maybe, that there's no better feeling in the world than that.

And then there's Kurt.

Blaine is vaguely aware that in another universe, he and Kurt would-- that they might. Be something else. Be something that's more than Holder and Def, more than friends, more than-- more than what they are. But here and now, they are not either of those things-- they are friends (barely). He doesn't know what Kurt's childhood was like, aside from a few thoughtless mentions; he knows Kurt's coffee order but he doesn't know anything about how he started his company.

Kurt is dangerous, because Blaine is not ready. He hasn't thought about-- he hasn't had the choice to think about who he might--

The thing is that Blaine has never had a someday; there's never been a chance for romance, a glimmer of what he'd dreamed about when he was younger. There is no prince riding in to rescue him; there has never been light at the end of the tunnel for him. Blaine's grown out of that-- he's had those dreams beaten out of him alongside his innocence and his youth. He'll never perform on stage and he might never be normal or even fully functional again, but he's learning to dream again.

But then there's Kurt, and Kurt isn't a prince and he isn't the light waiting for Blaine: he's the reason that Blaine is starting to dream.

* * *

He's been in the new apartment half a dozen times, easily, but this time it feels different. All of their boxes have been moved and left in the appropriate rooms, although Blaine is sure that there's going to be a box of kitchen supplies that will doubtlessly end up in the bathroom, Quinn's things mixed in with Beth's.

The new apartment has four bedrooms and each and every one of them has a door. The living room has carpets and the kitchen has a better oven than the old apartment. It doesn't feel like home yet, and Blaine's fairly sure that it'll take a while before they all settle in (and he considers the possibility that Quinn will be gone before that happens). Nothing is unpacked and the new couch is still wrapped in plastic in the living room; Blaine knows that his bedroom (his own) has a bed and sheets and a duvet, but likely no more than those and his two small boxes.

All of his things are inside but he is standing on the threshold; he isn't afraid to cross it, but he has some-- reservations? Because what if the new apartment doesn't help fix him-- what if new space is just new space, and he's left stagnant through the change. But Kurt is smiling next to him, and Blaine holds tenaciously onto hope. It's not the only thing he has, not any more, but it is fragile and breakable, and he worries that it will shatter at the next disaster, the next time he fails.

He's exhausted from the move, physically and mentally, and he'd like to do nothing more than collapse onto something-- even if it's just the bare floor-- and lie there for hours. But there's still work to be done, and Blaine is stuck in the doorway.

Beth is at school and Quinn is dealing with the last of the details of the lease and the new landlord, so it's just the two of them. Blaine pushes himself past exhaustion and nerves and over the threshold (it's just one two three steps through and inside; he's done more difficult things than this and survived), and Kurt follows him confidently. Kurt's shoes click on the hardwood; he walks like he already fully inhabits the new apartment.

Without speaking, they both come to rest standing in front of one of the picture windows in the living room. It's quiet in the new apartment without Beth or Quinn, but it's a companionable kind of quiet, and they stand and watch the sun go down.

* * *

Chapter Text

January has its own peculiar kind of bitter cold; it’s one of the coldest winters on record and the city braces for ice and snow, icicles growing from the eaves and wind cutting through even the warmest coats.

The new apartment has central heating that reaches every room, but Blaine can’t seem to stay warm-- it’s like he took the chill of their last address with him, and instead of the sun burning out the grey, it feels like the winter is seeping into his bones, making them heavy and sluggish. He grits his teeth and pushes through it, using every trick he’s learned to make himself better. And he thinks he really should be better by now. They’ve moved, he’s come so far from where he started-- shouldn’t he be good by now? Shouldn’t the good parts last longer than a week, longer than a month?

He wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes, aching with something he doesn’t want to define, and it takes him too long to recognize the walls of his room; he can’t see the sky the same way he’d been able to from the living room. He doesn’t get too cold when he sleeps, but he doesn’t sleep as well, either. It’s like he’s learned to live with discomfort for so long that now, in this warmth, in this comfort, he is off his footing.

What is worse are the times when he gets suddenly, irrationally angry at nothing, at things that have never bothered him before-- everything from Beth forgetting to grab her backpack when they rush out the door to Kurt changing his dinner plans at the last minute. Blaine presses his lips together and doesn’t say anything, but there are words waiting behind his teeth, and even though he can’t bring himself to say them, he thinks them, every time. (And a few minutes later, the anger is gone like it never existed, leaving him like ash, quiet in its wake; it feels like that time in the kitchen, when he’d yelled at Kurt and not been punished for it. Kurt is patient and Kurt is so, so breathtakingly kind towards Blaine, but Blaine doesn’t want to push him, even after all these months.)

He's tired, every inch of him. He pushes himself until he can't any more, until all he can do is run piano scales and nap in the middle of the morning, too exhausted for anything else. One morning he gives himself a haircut with a pair of Beth's scissors, glancing at the bathroom mirror to make sure he doesn't look too terrible; Kurt laughs when he gets home and fixes it, hands warm and gentle in Blaine's hair. It's the first time he's felt warm in weeks, and he relaxes into it, sighing and letting his shoulders go slack. Kurt smiles at him as their eyes meet in the mirror, and Blaine lets himself think that maybe things will end up okay after all.

But he can't fight timing, and he can't delay things he's not even sure he wants to put off, because the papers come three weeks after Christmas.

They arrive in a heavy envelope that Blaine picks up with the rest of the mail; he’s not positive about what’s in it but he can guess from the DoL seal. There is a moment when he gets the urge to tip the whole thing into the garbage chute before he even reaches the apartment, but he doesn’t-- it’s not just that they're addressed to Kurt, it’s not that it wouldn’t do any good in the long run: he wants to be free. He does, he does so much.

It’s just that the free world is so huge. He hasn’t thought about what he wants to do if (when, it seems) he is freed-- the question of what do you want to do when you grow up had been taken away from him when he was fifteen, and he’s not sure where to even begin. He has the vague memory of filling out a questionnaire during his sophomore year for Dalton’s guidance office, but he can’t see himself on stage, not any more, and for a lot of other careers-- he’s too old. He’s too old for so many things, and too broken, and yes, he wants to be free...

But he doesn’t know what he’s going to do once he is. He's lived so long in this narrow, cramped box of Def, and trying to move outside of that is intimidating. He leaves the envelope on Kurt’s desk and waits for Kurt to speak with him about them, feeling full of nervous anticipation.

He doesn’t trust himself with his own freedom, not really. Being here is safe, and he feels like he’s tottering out of his nest, unsure whether he’s ready to fall or fly. Sometimes he feels absolutely sure, absolutely ready for something beyond the walls of Kurt's apartment, outside of Beth and Quinn and Kurt; other times he wants to beg Kurt to let him stay, let him be kept safe.

Blaine may be cold, here, but there is comfort in it. It's familiar and he knows where the boundaries are, even when it seems like there aren't any. He has routine and a path to follow; he has work to do for Kurt and meals to prep for all of them.

He starts baking bread in the mornings as soon as they're settled in: cinnamon swirl, loaves of heavy dark rye, brioche, challah for the Fridays that Rachel comes for dinner. For a week he sends Beth to school each day with a different kind of cookie in her lunch (plus a few extra for Ms. Kendricks) and pretends the extras don't disappear as soon as Kurt and Quinn get home in the evenings.

The papers he'd left for Kurt don't get mentioned until they show back up on Blaine's desk, filled out in Kurt's neat handwriting. Blaine feels like he's free-falling with those papers in his hand, and he closes his eyes against the vertigo. But he can do this-- he has to-- so he stands, waits for the dizziness to pass, breathes slowly until he's centered again.

He sits down at his desk and signs each of them, hands steady, eyes clear.

* * *

Blaine brings Kurt the signed papers faster than he’d expected. He looks calm enough but he’s swaying on his feet, so Kurt takes the papers from him and leads him to the chair next to his desk.

"You signed them," he states, sitting down in his own chair and flipping through the first few, noting Blaine’s neat initial at the bottom of each sheet.

"I did," Blaine replies, looking down at his hands like they’re brand new. "I signed them."

Kurt can’t help but smile a little at that, even though Blaine almost looks like he’s in shock. "I’m happy for you," he says. "I know I’ve said it before, Blaine, but I’m so proud of you, what you’ve been able to accomplish."

"Thank you," Blaine says. "I-- thank you, Kurt. You know I wouldn’t have been able to-- not without you."

"I just have a good PR department," Kurt says, trying to be dismissive of his own role, because it’s something that should have happened a long time ago, and really, he didn’t do that much. It was never a personal risk to anything but his finances-- he wasn’t made nearly as vulnerable by the ad campaign as Quinn and Blaine were. "Are you okay?" he asks, because Blaine still looks overwhelmed.

"I’m fine," Blaine says. "It’s just-- a lot. I haven’t-- I don’t even know where to start, and I’m not even free yet."

"But you will be," Kurt says. He smiles at Blaine, because this is further than either of them thought they’d get-- Kurt had been so sure that the bill wouldn’t pass, that they’d never get around to moving, that Blaine--

Blaine is here, and he’s healthy, and that’s more than Kurt thinks he could have asked for, last April. It’s been nine months, and Blaine’s barely recognizable as the same man who arrived on his doorstep and knelt-- fell-- lowered himself in front of Kurt. There’s life in him, there’s strength and vitality and an adorable mop of soft curls that hang just above Blaine’s eyes (Kurt’s glad that Blaine accepted his help in fixing that haircut, because it looked like Blaine had attacked his hair with nail clippers. Not a good look).

The smile that breaks across Blaine’s face is breathtaking. "I’m going to be free," he says.

"As soon as I mail the papers in, and you finish-- whichever way you want to get out," Kurt reminds him.

"I know," Blaine says. He looks over at Kurt. "It’s just finally feeling real, you know?"

Kurt nods. And that’s when it hits him: Blaine is going to be free. He’s not going to have any more reason to stay than Quinn does, and when he’s gone... Kurt’s going to be by himself, again. It’s not new, it’s not any different-- it’s just now, like Blaine’s freedom, it’s real.

"I-- have you thought about what you’re going to do?" he asks awkwardly, suddenly off-balance.

Blaine shakes his head. "I haven’t even started. There are just so many things I used to want that I don’t-- I don’t know what I want to do, now. I know that I want to be free, I know that I want-- something-- I just don’t know what it is. I don’t even know where to start, and that’s why-- that’s a lot of why I’m so-- off."

"You know that you can stay as long as you need to, to figure it out," Kurt offers. "Not that you should feel obligated, or anything-- I’d like you to stay, if you want to, but you don’t have to, not at all." He’s still reeling from his own realization that Blaine has no reason to stay, once he’s passed the final evaluation.

Blaine smiles, and his shoulders relax. "I hadn’t even thought about that," he says. "I mean, our current contract runs through October, and I was just-- I was assuming, which I shouldn’t-- and you shouldn’t feel obligated to give me a place to stay, either," he says hurriedly. "The DoL has housing set up for Defs who are transitioning, and I could-- if you’re offering because you feel--"

"I’m offering because I want you to stay, if you want to. At least until everything’s set," Kurt says. "I mean, we’ve only just gotten you a real bed."

"The couch honestly wasn’t that bad," Blaine protests.

"I slept on it once and I swear I can still feel that spring digging into my lower back," Kurt jokes.

Blaine smiles. "I should really go start dinner," he says. He’s a lot calmer than he had been when he’d first walked in, and Kurt can tell that he’s more settled.

"Don’t let me keep you," he says, and Blaine nods briefly, stands, and walks out, leaving Kurt with his papers.

It’s not that he didn’t expect Blaine to sign them-- it’s just that he thought they’d have more time. He knows that he’s being selfish, wanting Blaine and Quinn to stay even though they’re free, but he’s not used to being lonely any more. He’d done a lot of his growing up in a quiet house, and even after Finn and Carole had moved in, the home he’s built here is louder, warmer, more full for him. It’s not fair to ask Quinn to stay; it’s not fair to ask Blaine the same thing. That doesn’t stop Kurt from wanting to, because if he could he’d keep them, jealous of the world’s attention. Neither of them are his (except legally, and all that’s changing) but Kurt thinks that maybe he’d like someone who is-- he wants someone to hold him, he wants someone to be sitting at the other side of the dinner table, someone to snore just too loudly in bed, someone to complete him, because as much as he’s wanted to, Kurt can’t exist as an island.

He’s already transferred Blaine’s case to New York, so Blaine’s staying at least until he’s free, and Quinn’s not leaving immediately-- but still, at some point they’re going to be gone-- they’ll be friends, hopefully, see each other for dinner parties and holidays, New Years and birthdays, but they won’t be this little found family, something that Kurt can call his own.

Because islands don't own people -- people own islands, and maybe Kurt is really the one who's been held.

* * *

Kurt starts staying at work longer than he needs to. It's not just that they have a new line coming out-- it's a thousand little things he used to have Quinn do, before he knew she was leaving. She’s still there, most days-- he hasn't hired anyone to replace her, even though he knows he should, and quickly, but right now he'd rather not think about how soon she's leaving. He’s taking over her responsibilities one by one so that when she does go, he’s ready for it. He knows that he could ask Blaine to fill in for her, at least for the short-term, and he's sure that Blaine would be good at most of the things Quinn does, but there's something awkward about that, somehow.

So he stays at his desk until his hands start to cramp and he's on his fifth cup of coffee of the day. He drops his pencil and rubs his eyes until his vision blurs; when it's clear, the designs in front of him don't change.

The dresses are patterned in tiny interlocking silver circles that don't quite close; the handbags have rows of open o's.

He's always tried to keep his politics and his work separate, because while fashion does-- and should-- inspire, hold meaning, push the limits, he’s never wanted his designs to be overtly political. But this is different-- these designs show his politics clear as anything. "At least I didn't design jewelry to go along with them," he mutters, and shoves the drawings into his portfolio.

The office is mostly dark, although one of the interns is still there, photocopying like there's no tomorrow, and he nods at the kid on his way out. The kid smiles at him, clearly a little intimidated, and Kurt wants to stop and reassure him that he was in just that spot ten years ago, an intimidated intern in the hallways of Vogue. Instead, he just calls a soft goodnight and reminds the kid not to stay too late.

He should go home-- he knows he should, but instead he walks down to the sample room, drops his bag, and slides down to the floor, back against the wall. He doesn't bother to turn the lights on, so the room is in shadow, just the bare outlines of things in front of him.

The clothes in front of him are what he does. This is what he's good at, what he's loved since he was three and playing dress-up with his mom. The first time he'd designed something and tried to make it, it'd turned out too small, tight in all the wrong places, but his mom had shown him how to pick out the stitches and ease the fabric into the right shape. It's one of the best memories he has of her, and he keeps it close and tight to himself. He hardly ever talks about his mom, because it's been so long since she'd died and his dad hadn't-- he loves Carole. They both do. But by the time he'd met her he'd already known needle and thread, been able to cut up freezer paper to make patterns, known the history of fashion more intimately than anyone else he knew. Fashion has been his life since he’d been able to look at and understand his first copy of Vogue, but he doesn't know if it's going to be enough any more.

Quinn's the first person who really taught him not to be alone any more. She'd slept in the room above his and showed up in his basement when her feet hurt, when she wanted to talk, when none of her clothes fit. She’d cried into his shoulder when the rest of glee club found out about Puck, and she'd been his gracious partner to the senior prom, years later. They weren't always the closest of friends-- there'd been Mercedes before her, and Quinn had always been friends with Santana and Brittany-- but she'd pushed her way into Kurt's life until he couldn't imagine being without her.

And now he has to, because she's leaving. She's not going to be there in the mornings with a smoothie and a warm smile, she's not going to be in the office fixing everything that goes wrong and booking new models. She's not going to be down the hall when he needs her (or when she needs him), she's not going to be there. She's taking Beth with her, and it hurts, because Kurt has learned not to be alone. He hasn't been alone since they were both sixteen, and now that he is...

For Kurt, fashion is a solace, fashion is safety. Fashion was there for him before Quinn ever was, and it will still be there after she's gone. He just needs to remember that, needs to figure out what it was that made him pick up that first pair of scissors and thread a needle to help his mom. Maybe the new collection is the way to do that-- reclaim himself as his own person, even if that person is alone.

He's been alone before; he can learn to be alone again.

* * *

In late January, Blaine is standing outside Beth’s school at the end of the day, blowing on his hands to warm them and chafing his fingers in the cold (he is never forgetting his gloves again, he swears). He curses his childhood dream of moving to New York, because if he’d known that it would be almost as cold as Columbus, he’d almost rather have stayed in Ohio. He’s seen most of the other students in her class stream by on their way to warm cars and after-school lessons, but Beth still hasn’t emerged from the building.

Blaine smiles at some of the other parents, and they smile nervously (Hanna’s mom, Jemma’s dad, Suzy’s parents) or they wave, friendly (and there’s Paige; he needs to schedule coffee or something with her, because now that she’s back at work, he hardly sees her).

He finally sees Beth, carrying her books in her arms and carefully rolling her backpack behind her. Once she catches up to him, she says "Here!" and promptly dumps all of her textbooks and Ella Enchanted into his arms.

"Beth," he says, because he knows that Kurt had bought her the rolling backpack in December so that she wouldn’t have to carry her books (and for some reason her school refuses to switch to digital texts), "why aren’t your books in your backpack?"

She shrugs. "Got a surprise for Kurt in there, and my books won’t fit."

"And what sort of a surprise is it?" he asks. Beth isn’t usually like this-- she’s one of the most responsible kids he’s known, so for her to be this blasé-yet-giggly is worrisome. He just hopes she doesn’t have something like a fishtank full of piranhas in her bag.

Beth grins cheekily up at him. "It’s a surprise for you too, Blaine," she says, and then she flat-out giggles, like the eleven-year-old that she is but doesn’t usually act like.

He sighs, because she clearly isn’t going to tell him. "Is it poisonous?" he asks, because he at least needs to know that before he lets her get in the car. Their lease does allow pets, if it’s something living, and if it’s some spun sugar creation or intricate diorama instead, then it’s better safe than sorry.

"It’satankfulloftarantulas," Beth says all in a rush, and she laughs too loudly when he jerks back. "Oh my god Uncle Blaine your face," she crows. "No, it’s not poisonous. Come on, it’s too cold out here."

They pile into the car (Beth’s bag makes a disgruntled noise, and Blaine resolutely does not ask) and take the over-full streets home. The subway would be faster to get to their new place (really, the subway is faster to get almost anywhere), but the car and driver are such a part of their lives that it no longer seems strange. Blaine could swear he hears Beth’s bag purring at least once, but he waits for her to make the reveal when they get home.

The elevator ride seems twice as long as it usually does, holding all of Beth’s books (which weigh a surprising amount; no wonder she’d asked for the rolling backpack). Beth pulls the backpack behind her carefully, once they reach their floor, and calls for Kurt as soon as they’re inside.

"I have a surprise!" she all but yells, after making sure the front door is closed behind her.

Kurt sticks his head out of his bedroom-cum-studio. "Can it wait five minutes?" he asks, a pencil stuck behind his ear and graphite marks on the outside of his hand.

"Nope," Beth says gleefully, unzipping her backpack. "This is Oscar! We found him in a trash can at school!"

For a long moment, nothing moves inside the backpack. Then, a ratty grey pair of ears pokes their way outside, followed quickly by a head and four paws and a tail. Oscar is, apparently, a cat-- and a freaked out cat at that, judging by the way he shoots under the couch as soon as he emerges from Beth’s backpack.

"...Oscar is a cat?" Kurt says faintly, staring at the couch.

"Yep," Beth says, crouching down on her knees and peering under the couch.

Kurt turns to Blaine, eyes a little bit wider than they usually are. "Does the lease cover pets?"

* * *

"Looking for a new place?"

Quinn brushes her hair behind her ears and looks up from her tablet. "Trying to find something in budget that doesn't leave Beth with an insane commute to school every morning."

"You could stay," he offers, knowing she won't take him up on it.

She sighs and shakes her head. "I need my own space. Now, more than ever, when I just feel like I'm itching to get out. I just want to pass the evaluation and move on with my life."

Kurt sits down across the table from her, takes one of her hands in his. "You will, okay? I know you, Quinn, and you're not going to let an evaluation stop you." He smiles. "If Coach Sylvester and the school board and the DoL couldn't stop you, nothing can."

"I appreciate your confidence," she says, smiling back at him. "But if I don't find a place, I won't pass the eval and I'll be stuck in those idiotic classes with Blaine." She pauses. "Not that I think-- they'll be good for him."

Kurt knows this, but he wishes they weren't-- he wishes that Blaine could be as confident as Quinn is, as sure of himself and as ready to leave. Not that he wants Blaine to leave-- not at all. He just wishes that Blaine could, if it's what he wanted. "I know," he says. "I hope finding a new place doesn't take as long for you as it did for him."

Quinn snorts inelegantly with laughter. "That's just because you're insanely picky, Kurt. Anyone else would have found something to be happy with months before we moved."

"And now you're moving again," Kurt says. "Good thing you never really unpacked."

She looks a little guilty at that. "It's not that I don't love this place, it's just--"

"You knew it wasn't going to be your home for long," Kurt interrupts, finishing the sentence for her.

"Exactly," she replies. "I didn't want to get too attached to a place I'd be leaving, and I-- it's not that I don't want a place here. It's not that I don't want Beth to have a place here-- and we still have to figure out her schedule-- it's just--"

"Quinn, it's fine," Kurt says, interrupting again. "We've been over this, and it really is. I get it, I understand-- I left home at eighteen and I only come back for holidays. I know what it's like to want to feel like an actual adult, and being in the place you are here isn't that."

She smiles crookedly and squeezes his hand. "I get weekdays and we alternate major holidays?"

"If you think there's any way I'm not inviting you and Beth to Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, you're crazy," Kurt says, and Quinn laughs.

"We'll figure something out," she says. "As soon as I figure out where I'll be inviting you to come for birthdays and baptisms." Kurt can feel his jaw drop at that, and Quinn laughs even harder. "What, now that I'll be her legal parent-- there are certain religious things that I've skipped out on--"

"You're joking," he says, because she must be-- she doesn't even go to church any more.

She nods. "I am," she says, sobering. "Mostly. I know that you don't believe in God, Kurt, and I don't want to push Beth into anything-- but I miss that kind of community. If I'm going to live my life, it has to be mine."

He can't think of anything to say, so he just takes her hand and squeezes it. "I am sure that whatever you do, it's going to be amazing," he says.

Quinn has this smile that Kurt's only seen half a dozen times-- it's the one that means she's secretly proud, that she can't believe something good is actually happening, and she's wearing it now. "It will," she says, and grips his hand tight.

* *

Oscar doesn’t trust any of them, not really.

They’d called shelters and checked the neighborhood around Beth’s school, but no one is missing a cat. Beth and Blaine spent a memorable afternoon in the bathroom, coming out with a few scratches but a significantly cleaner cat. Quinn finds a vet, and Oscar comes back even grumpier but with all his shots. Oscar spends the next few days hiding under the living room couch, only coming out in the middle of the night to eat and use the litter box that is absolutely Beth’s responsibility to clean.

Sometimes he will deign to let Beth pet him, and it’s during one of those rare afternoons when it’s just him and Beth that Oscar jumps up on the couch and, oddly, starts purring. "Hi," Beth says, quietly, stroking Oscar’s fur tentatively. He purrs a little louder, so she keeps going. Blaine closes the book that they’re in the middle of and stays silent. Oscar starts kneading at the couch cushions while Beth pets him. "He’s for you," she says. "He’ll keep you company when I’m gone."

"Beth--" he starts, but she talks over him.

"It’s just going to be you and Da-Kurt. And mom already said that I can get a puppy next year, if I want to-- and Kurt doesn’t get home until late, and I think--" She stops talking, and Blaine can see her biting her lip. "I don’t want to leave."

He doesn’t want her to leave either, and his glued-together heart breaks a little, right then. "Your mom and Kurt are-- they’re close, Beth," Blaine says. "They’ll make sure we see each other, yeah?"

She sighs. "But it’s not going to be the same," Beth says. "This is dumb-- why can’t we just stay?"

"Your mom wants her own space," Blaine says, trying to explain. He and Quinn haven’t talked about it a lot, but it’s evident in the way she hasn’t fully unpacked from the move, even though it’s been almost a month. Her room is neat and tidy, but there are two stacks of boxes in the back, packing tape still on. "She’s missed out on a lot, and she knows what she wants to do."

"So why are you staying?" Beth asks. It’s curiosity, not mean-ness, but Blaine is still taken a little aback, because it’s not that he doesn’t know the answer-- he just doesn’t quite know how to respond.

"Beth-- your mom is really strong," he starts. "And I-- we’re really different, she and I."

"I know," she says impatiently.

"I just-- I need a little more help than your mom does," he says, trying to put it in terms an eleven-year-old will understand. "I’m not ready to leave, not yet."

"Neither am I," Beth says. "We just moved, and I don’t want to leave again, and I know that Kurt isn’t really my dad, but it still feels like he is, you know?" Blaine nods, and Beth continues. "I don’t want to just spend every other weekend with him, like Jeremy does with his dad."

"Have you talked with your mom about this?" Blaine asks, as gently as he can.

Beth shakes her head. "I don’t want to make her feel like she should stay. But she should, Uncle Blaine, because we’re a family."

There are families in all of Beth’s books-- odd ones, most of the time, ones built out of cast-off pieces, but Beth doesn’t really have a traditional family, either. Blaine remembers Beth talking about Ms. Honey and Matilda, about Tendai or Meg and their siblings-- so many of those books have parents who aren’t really there, and Beth’s worries are familiar and alien all at once. Blaine knows that Beth thinks of him as part of her own strange family, even though he doesn’t feel like it, most of the time.

Beth’s parents love her and care for her and aren’t staying together; Blaine’s parents didn’t love him or care for him, apparently, and they had stayed together, as far as he knows. "I’m never going to say goodbye to you, Beth," Blaine says honestly. "Even if we’re on opposite sides of the world, as long as you want me to pick up the phone or write you a letter, I will. And I’m sure that Kurt feels the same way-- he’s your dad, and he loves you."

Beth buries herself in Blaine’s side, Oscar all but forgotten next to her. The cat keeps purring, and Blaine holds on to Beth as tightly as he dares.

* * *

Blaine meets his new Foster a few days after he signs the papers. She's half a foot taller than he is, and much broader-- quite a change from Emma. She looks like she could crush him without thinking about it, but she has a smile that's as warm as Emma's, and her eyes are kind, so Blaine takes her hand when she offers it.

"I'm Shannon Beiste," she says, shaking his hand firmly. "I'll be taking care of you until you're all the way out."

The way she says it makes him smile back at her. "I'm Blaine," he replies, maybe unnecessarily, because she clearly already knows who he is. She gestures for him to sit in the chair opposite her desk, and picks up a familiar stack of papers.

"Just so you know, I read up on all my kids before we start," she says, and he's immediately nervous, for all that she's been kind so far. "Emma had real good things to say about you."

Maybe Emma hadn't included his breakdown in any official report-- it's not like it's the worst thing that's happened to him on assignment, and it's something that would seriously damage his chances of getting good Holder, next time--

--and he stops, takes a deep breath. There isn't going to be a next time, because he's going to be free. He is, if he can just get over himself, if he can force himself to be okay, be normal, to just-- push past his issues and be the person he should have been.

"You okay?" Shannon asks, and Blaine realizes that he's been silent for too long.

"I'm fine," he says. "Just-- had a moment. I'm sorry, ma'am."

"Please, call me Shannon," she says. "How's everything else? Emma said you had some trouble with a few things, but it's been a while since you've seen anyone."

"I'm doing much better," he says, and it's so hard to remember that he doesn't have to lie about it, not any more. The words feel like they should be false because before Emma (and even sometimes with her), lying to his Foster had been a matter of course. And even if he's not all the way to good, he's eating better and he's sleeping okay. "I haven't-- there have been a few--" He stops, rubs his hands across the top of his thighs. His palms are damp with nervousness, even though right now, he doesn't have anything to be worried about, not really. "There are things I'm working on, but I will be fine."

"That's great to hear," she says. "If it's okay with you, I'd like you to have a physical at some point within the next few weeks-- if I'm looking at you right, it seems like the one we have on file is out of date."

Six months ago, the thought of being (literally) weighed and measured would have terrified him, would have sent him spiraling down and away from everything else, peanut butter thick in his mouth and the grey heavy on his mind. Today, he just nods, understanding that even if he's not going to be a Def for very much longer, the DoL still wants measurements.

"So, Mr. Hummel sent in your papers, and it looks like everything's in order," she says, shuffling the papers she's still holding. "Now, were you wanting to try for the evaluation, or for exit coaching?"

"Exit coaching," Blaine replies, and Shannon nods approvingly.

"Makes sense," she says. "No use trying to win a triathlon without learning to bungee jump, right?"

Blaine's fairly sure that bungee jumping isn't one of the triathlon events, but he agrees with her. "Some people are ready to just walk out," he says, "but I'm not one of them."

"I'm hearing that from a lot of my kids," Shannon says. "Even the ones who aren't eligible or whose Holders are hanging on to 'em are thinking about what they would do, at least."

"That's what I'm having a hard time figuring out," Blaine says. "I don't-- I know that I want to be free, and I am so grateful to Kurt for making that a possibility for me. But I don't know what I'll do, if I am."

She smiles at him. "Well, that's part of what the exit coaching's for-- helping you figure out where you want to take your life. And it's not like you don't have skills, Blaine-- Mr. Hummel took you on on the basis of your work history, so it's not like you'd have a lot of trouble finding a job, based on that."

"But I'll have been a Def," he argues. "It's not like--" He pauses, again, and she waits for him patiently, not pushing, as he thinks over his words. "When I was a kid, before I was marked, I wanted to be a singer or an actor-- I wanted to be on stage, I loved having everyone's attention. And now that terrifies me; I don't know if you saw that press conference that Kurt set up, but I could barely make it through that. Nothing that I wanted is something I still want, and I don't even know where to start." It all comes pouring out of him in a rush, and he's embarrassed by the end of it, to have put so much in front of a woman he's only known for a matter of minutes.

"Hey," she says, "you've got time. No one's expecting you to make a decision tomorrow. Maybe you'll figure out that singing really is your thing, even if you only do it in a studio-- hell, maybe you'll end up playing pro ball or guerrilla knitting. You're only twenty-seven, Blaine-- don't rush it."

Her words are calming, to an extent, but Blaine still feels that pressure, that push. "But I--" She raises her eyebrows and waits him out, lets him put his thoughts together. She's a good Foster, from what he's seen in the past ten minutes, and he hopes that he hasn't read her wrong. "If I'm free but I don't have anything I want to do, then what's the point?" he asks, finally. It's what he's been thinking for a while now, but it's the first time he's put it in words. If he's just going to flail around and not do anything special, does he really deserve to be free?

"Do you want to be free?" Shannon asks. Her face is blank, devoid of judgement or anything that could give him a clue of how she wants him to answer. Joseph would do the same thing sometimes, and Blaine feels an echo of remembered panic at trying to figure out what Joseph wanted him to say, because even with an open-ended question, there was always a right answer.

"Yes," he says, because there isn't another answer, so this has to be the right one. "Yes, I do."

"Good," she says, and she smiles at him. "Then we'll start from there."

* *

"Well," drawls a voice much too close to Blaine’s ears, "aren’t you a sight for sore eyes."

Blaine starts and turns in his seat. The man standing behind him is tall and sharp-faced, probably around Blaine’s age, with well-styled brown hair. He’s wearing a suit that fits the lines of his body perfectly, tie knotted neatly at his throat. His voice is confident and in control, and Blaine doesn’t meet his eyes; he ducks his head automatically, and catches sight of the suit’s sleeves, cut shorter than is fashionable, just above the man’s wrists.

The silver bracelet that hangs there looks startlingly out of place, for a man who holds himself as self-assuredly as this one does. Blaine is reminded of the other Defs he’s seen out and about-- New York Defs, sharp and sleek and polished, just like this man is. He makes Blaine feel messy, out of place in his cardigan and jeans. Still, he’s a Def, and Blaine relaxes just a bit.

"Thanks," he says. "I’m Blaine."

"Oh, I know who you are," the other man says, tapping the underside of Blaine’s chin so that he looks up. It’s startling and, honestly, a bit invasive; Blaine isn’t used to strangers touching him any more, but he stops himself from jerking back. "I could never forget a pair of eyes like yours."

"I--" Blaine starts, but the other man interrupts him.

"I’m Sebastian," he says, and he offers Blaine his hand. "I heard you’d be here, and I had to come and see the great Blaine Anderson for myself. You’re the reason all of us are here, after all."

Sometimes Blaine forgets that he’s put himself out in the public eye, that people he’s never met know who he is by face and name. He can feel his cheeks heat in embarrassment, and he takes Sebastian’s hand tentatively, unsurprised when Sebastian’s grip is almost too strong.

"The session will be starting in a few minutes," Blaine says, taking his hand back as gently as he can.

Sebastian’s lips twist up in a smile. "Polite," he says, and Blaine drops his eyes and raises his shoulders in anticipation of--

He expects to be hit, honestly, because Sebastian may be a Def but he doesn’t speak like one, he doesn’t act like one-- he reads like a Holder, and that makes him dangerous. Blaine waits for a blow that doesn’t come, and hears Sebastian’s chuckle instead. "It’s fine, Blaine," he says. "We’re all Defs here."

"Sorry," Blaine says. It’s been months since he’s had a reaction like that-- he thought he’d learned by now to trust other people just a little. But then, he’s only been with Kurt for nine months, and before that, he’d had ten years of missteps met with harsh words and heavy hands.

"You’re a legend for us," Sebastian says, and Blaine tries to demur, because he’s-- he can’t be. He’s no kind of role model, not for anyone. "Don’t be modest-- you’re the most famous one here."

Blaine can feel his face heating, his mouth turning dry. "Thanks," he says.

"I can’t believe your Holder is letting you go," Sebastian says. "You’re really a catch-- I, for one, would never let you out of bed."

"It’s not like that," Blaine says quietly, thinking of how careful Kurt is with him, like he’s still so fragile. Kurt had made it exceptionally clear from the beginning that sex was not on the table, was never a thing he wanted from Blaine, and even though he knows that's not standard, he's annoyed that Sebastian makes that assumption.

"Oh really?" Sebastian asks, raising an eyebrow. He sits, finally, across the small table from Blaine. "Are you all pure and untouched?" His eyes travel up and down Blaine's body, and that shouldn't make Blaine uncomfortable, he should be used to it, being looked at like something to be devoured-- but it does, and his skin crawls.

"I--" he starts, but he doesn't know where to go from there. He doesn't want to admit to this stranger that his Holder hasn't been using him fully, even though that fact makes Blaine happier than he'd thought possible. What he and Kurt do or don't do is their business, and it's no one else's. He nods, uncomfortable and too aware of his skin. "Not by-- I've done one-on-one for years," he says. "But Kurt--"

"He's different, yeah," Sebastian finishes for him. "You've said. But come on, Blaine, he's gotta be giving you something-- and if he's not, I'd be more than happy to."

"Your Holder--" Blaine tries, but he knows it's a dead end, given where they are.

And sure enough, Sebastian shakes his head. "He doesn't want me anymore. And even if he did-- you'd stop me, for sure. That bashful schoolboy thing really works for you."

Blaine thinks that it hardly can-- he's almost thirty, and even though he looks younger than his age, schoolboy is more than pushing it. "Thanks, but no," he says.

"We could do such things together," Sebastian says, and he draws his hand, whisper-light, over Blaine's.

"No," Blaine says sharply, drawing his hand back. "I should-- we're starting in a minute. I need to find my group."

Sebastian smiles at him, teeth razor-sharp. "I'll help."

They're in the same group, it turns out, along with half a dozen other Defs, most of whom look shocked to be there. Blaine feels Sebastian's eyes on him the whole time; he feels naked and exposed, even though all they're talking about is basic getting-to-know-you games. Blaine's not the only one who's been in this long-- Sebastian was marked just under a year after he was, it turns out, and they're the same age; there's an old man who moves like his joints ache who talks about not even remembering his parents. Blaine feels his shoulders move up as the session continues, because none of them really want to share.

They're the Defs who couldn't make it on their own, so they have to have help. He almost feels ashamed, because he's nearly thirty and he should have figured out his life ten years ago. But being in a group helps, too, because he finds out that he's not the only one who can't decide on anything resembling a career path, once he's free.

Afterwards, he feels hollowed-out and achey, unsure on his own feet. He can't quite decide if it's a good hurt or a bad one; the session had been mixed for him. Kurt isn't waiting to take him back, even though he'd walked him through the doors, and Blaine hadn't expected him to be-- Kurt had had some business deal to finalize, designs to send off. He wishes that Kurt were here, though, that he were waiting with lukewarm coffee and an unfinished book, because then maybe he'd know what to do, now.

He's lost, adrift, and he realizes that he's been standing next to the doorway for too long when Sebastian passes him, puts a hand on his shoulder. "You all right?" he asks, and Blaine startles, shoulders jerking.

"I'm fine," he says automatically.

"Sure," Sebastian says, and he smiles again-- his mouth isn't full of shark's teeth this time, but Blaine doesn't imagine for a second that he's harmless. "I'll see you next week."

"Of course," Blaine replies, dragging his manners up from somewhere.

"Oh, and Blaine?" Sebastian says, turning so that Blaine is looking straight at him. "Think about what I said-- I could show you a really good time." With that, he saunters off, moving like the Holder that Blaine had mistaken him for at first. He doesn't understand Sebastian's confidence, not at all.

He needs to leave, he needs to get out of the DoL and back to the safety of Kurt's apartment, so he can just figure this out, sort through everything that's happened and make sense of it. He walks until he hits the subway and makes his way back, walking alone, closed in on himself, like a Def.

* * *

Blaine comes back from his session and waves at Beth, but he walks directly to his room and closes the door behind him. (He has a door that he can close and it shouldn’t mean as much as it does, because he would never deny Kurt entry but the barrier is still there and Kurt respects it. He has a door.)

Blaine toes off his shoes out of habit but leaves his jacket on. He is cold, like he used to be in their old apartment, shivering even though he knows that it’s warm inside.

He'd figured it out on his way home: he isn’t strong enough for this.

He feels sick and off-balance, worse than he had at the DoL, because Sebastian had barely touched him, barely spoken to him, but he'd knocked Blaine off of any stable ground that he'd been able to gain. Kurt has been great-- Kurt has been amazing-- but Blaine knows that there are things waiting that he hasn't even started to think about, not consciously. His body is a minefield, and even though his thoughts might be his again, for the most part, he avoids looking at himself in the mirror if he can help it. Beth is really the only person who touches him, and the brief warmth of Kurt's hands in his hair fixing his haircut had faded too soon.

If he can’t even deal with someone-- a Def-- hitting on him, how is he supposed to handle the real world? If he can’t hear compliments without feeling sick, if he can’t-- if he can’t handle normal human interaction with people outside his tiny family, how can he be free? What business does he have in pretending that he’s normal and functional and okay?

He’s not sure how long he lies there, mind as blank as he can make it-- long enough for the room to start to grow dark, even though the blinds are open. He aches, even though there’s no reason for it, not really.

Because Sebastian was nice. Sebastian complimented him and Sebastian maybe got in his space a little (but isn’t Blaine used to that? Isn’t he supposed to be?), but Sebastian is a Def, just like him. Sebastian is supposed to be safe, but Blaine only barely feels safe here, behind a locked door in the apartment that belongs to the closest thing Blaine has to family.

Kurt knocks softly at Blaine's door and Blaine gathers enough of himself up to respond, tell Kurt that he's fine, that he'll talk about it later but he just needs some time, please.


And because Kurt listens when Blaine asks, because Blaine knows that he can expect at least that much, Blaine has the rest of the night to lie awake and think, turn things over in his mind until he reaches some point of equilibrium. It's not quite the same stable ground that he'd had before, but he can think about everything without wanting things to just stop-- no, he's not okay, but he's known that for a while.

He's not okay. He can't take a compliment and he has no idea what he wants to do, but he's not the only one. He doesn't know how to apply for a job but he doesn't hate his body anymore; he's never going to be tall but he almost has music back. He finds the compromises, the places that fill each other up until he's back in balance. It's not the same as figuring everything out, it's not everything that he could be. But it's a start, it's something to build on, and he unfolds himself, wincing at the movement. He takes off his jacket and hangs it up, unzips his jeans and stretches out his shoulders. The clock tells him that it's just past three a.m. so it's no wonder that he's exhausted; he walks slowly down to the bathroom and brushes his teeth, avoids his own eyes in the mirror.

It's a compromise.

* * *

Chapter Text

* * *

It’s not as simple as falling.

* * *

It happens in inches, in small, careful pieces of ground gained, smiles given, touches granted. The equilibrium he’s gained steadies him, puts both his feet back on the ground. He breathes a little deeper, stands a little taller; slowly, the nightmares fade. Bieste greets him with a handshake every time they meet, and Blaine’s hand gets firmer in hers. There’s still a silver bracelet on his wrist, but it doesn’t feel as heavy as it used to, doesn’t weigh down his hand when he’s playing the piano or catch on utensils while he’s cooking. He finds it almost funny that after eleven years of wearing it, he’s just now become comfortable with the band around his wrist; in a few months, it won’t be a part of him any more.

It happens slowly, but it happens: he wakes up in the morning, puts bread in the oven, collects the scattered parts of Beth’s school bag. Before he knows it it’s February and the city is beginning to divest itself of its coat of snow and ice. The melting snow doesn’t take all of the cold with it, but it takes enough. He sleeps in on Saturdays and wakes up to Kurt making crepes in the kitchen, with Beth and Quinn chatting at the table and Oscar twining between their feet, small and cozy and family.

He knows it’s not going to stay this way, but right now it’s so good-- he saves all the memories he can and waits to get cold again.

And even that is different-- he waits for the cold with the knowledge that even if it comes he’ll be warm again; he’ll stretch out in the sun in the new living room and breathe in slowly; he’ll bake bread in the mornings and eventually, things will be okay. He’s not fooling himself any more, either: it’s true, it’s real.

He’s going to be okay.

* * *

They go forward: Quinn accepts the job offer from MSNBC she’d received months ago, Beth scowls at her math homework, Kurt argues with his co-workers about the designs for the next collection, Blaine slowly relaxes into their new home.

It’s like they’re holding their collective breath, almost-- they’re waiting for something that none of them want to admit is coming, and even though they all move, there’s a hesitancy to it. They don’t talk about future maybes, they talk about the certainties: when Beth will be in seventh grade, when Quinn will be free again (they don’t talk about Blaine that way; they don’t talk about Quinn moving out or the future of Kurt’s company because none of those things are certain).

Kurt’s not pretending everything is fine-- repression may be one of his finely-honed skills, but he knows when it’s a bad idea, and this is one of those times. He’s spent hours with his CFO and his HR team, trying to find space in the budget and a good candidate to fill the position Quinn’s leaving (he thinks they’ve finally decided on someone, a tiny girl-- woman-- named Marley who is almost too sweet but surprisingly steel-spined when she needs to be), and he’s tired. He doesn’t take more work home than he absolutely has to, but the collection of papers in his bedroom-cum-workshop is steadily growing.

The tension finally breaks one night when Quinn taps at his open doorway. He smiles at her, even though his eyes feel half-closed with exhaustion, and waves her in. She closes the door behind her softly and he knows that this is what’s he’s been waiting for-- this is part of the hesitation he’d felt.

“I found a new apartment,” Quinn says, and Kurt holds his breath, wondering how far apart they’re going to be, if she’s going to be on the other side of the city or in some tiny apartment near Beth’s school, if he’s ever going to be able to see her at all--

“Oh?” he says, hating the slight tremble in his voice that betrays how anxious he is.

She smiles at him. “It’s three floors down from here, in the same building. It’s tiny and it’s just a two-bedroom, but it’s close and it’s available.”

And just like that, the floor is underneath him again-- he’s not being left after all. “Oh,” he says again, and he breathes out, relieved.

“What, did you think I was moving across town?” She’s still smiling, but there’s a gentleness to it now, like she’s being careful with him. “I wouldn’t do that to you or Beth.”

“I know you wouldn’t,” Kurt says. “But I still worried, because what if--”

“What if,” she echoes. “I know, Kurt-- this could have been something huge, but I didn’t want to make things too hard on either of us.”

He half-smiles. “Best to be prepared for the worst, though.” They’re both quiet, for a minute; they’re both so used to the worst that something going right-- going easily-- feels off.

“I--” Quinn says, breaking the silence, then pauses.

“Hm?” he replies, wondering what she’s bringing up now.

“There’s not-- Kurt, you have to acknowledge that we’re going to leave.” She stops talking again, looks down. “I’m sorry. That was-- it was harsh. But Blaine and I are going to leave, eventually. My lease starts next month, and Blaine-- it’s going to happen.”

Kurt sinks back in his chair and sighs, closing his eyes. “I know,” he says. “I haven’t wanted to think about it, because-- I am prepared for the worst. I just don’t want to have to be.”

“You have other friends,” Quinn reminds him. “There’s always Rachel, Mercedes-- you haven’t been out with anyone in months, Kurt. You have a life outside of us.”

“I’ll always love Mercedes and Rachel and everyone else, but it’s not-- they’re not family.” They don’t say it that often out loud, but that doesn’t stop it from being true. “You guys are.”

She looks down at her hands, which are clasped in front of her. The bracelet on her wrist catches the light; she always dresses to match it and he wonders what her fashion sense is going to be like when she’s free. “It’s been a long time since I was fully my own person. I don’t think I ever really have been-- I went from my parents to you and I’ve just-- I’ve never held a job or had my own place or any of those things,” she counters. “I know that you know this and that I love you, but this is something I need.”

“I know,” Kurt says. “I know, I just wish-- I hate that one of the worst things to ever happen to you ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me, but I can’t imagine what my life is going to be without you in it every day. I’m going to miss the hell out of you, Quinn.”

She rolls her eyes at that. “Like I’m going to forget about you,” she responds. “I’m going to be three floors down. I really doubt that Blaine is going to go much further than that.”

Kurt sighs. “I know. I know, but I am being resistant to change.” He enunciates the words carefully, like it’s going to help the reality of the situation. “Have you told Beth yet?”

Quinn nods. “I took her to see the apartment with me. She’ll have the sweetest little writing nook.”

“She still set on becoming the next major young adult novelist?”

“Please, like she’s going to stop there,” Quinn scoffs. “I think it’ll be good for us, having our own space.”

“Just in time for her to be a teenager.”

“And you can be the cool uncle who lets her stay up late and eat too much ice cream,” she says, grinning, and Kurt smiles back.

“No, that’ll be Blaine-- I’ll be the one who gets her pretty things.” They both laugh, and it takes Kurt a minute to remember what they’d been talking about just moments before: Blaine is going to leave eventually, and Quinn is leaving soon.

Quinn notices his mood dropping and offers her hand, pulling him up and out of his chair. “Come on,” she says, “time for dinner.”

Beth and Blaine are setting the table and there’s something that smells amazing in the dutch oven at the center of it.

“--and then, Jasper said that Max hadn’t been the one on the swings after all,” Beth says, looking smug. “I knew there couldn’t actually be another cat in the garbage can.”

“Oscar’s more than enough,” Blaine says, nodding, as the cat twines between his feet.

Beth nods. “Exactly.”

Kurt pulls out a chair and sits, waiting for Quinn to get a glass of wine from the kitchen and Blaine to finish setting out the napkins before he leans over and pulls the lid off the dutch oven. “This smells amazing,” he says. He can’t quite tell what it is-- meat and vegetables, obviously, but beyond that he’s got no clue.

“Braised beef,” Blaine says, passing a bowl of roast potatoes to him. “It’s almost too warm for it, but the meat’d been sitting in the freezer since last month, and--”

Amazing,” Kurt repeats, and he picks up the spoon sitting next to the dutch oven to serve himself.

Blaine smiles, waits for everyone else to finish serving themselves before picking up the spoon. It’s one of the things that Kurt had noticed about him back at the beginning, when Blaine was still jumping at everything-- he always serves himself last. (Back at the beginning sometimes Kurt had to tell him directly that the food was his to eat, that it was okay for him to be at the table; now, Blaine sets the table and makes sure there’s enough food for everyone and serves himself last. Even if things aren’t perfect, they’re better.)

“So what’s this about cats in the garbage cans?” Kurt asks.

“Raccoons, actually,” Beth replies, spooning potatoes onto her plate. She shrugs. “Nothing that important.”

They eat in silence for a few minutes until Beth, very calmly, puts her fork down on her plate. “I don’t understand why we’re leaving,” she states.

“Sweetie, we’ve talked--” Quinn starts, but Beth interrupts her.

“I don’t get it,” she says. “We’re only moving like five hundred feet away. It doesn’t make any sense-- why can’t we just stay?”

“You know why,” Quinn responds. “We need our own space for a little while.”

I don’t,” Beth argues. “I want to stay here with Kurt and Blaine and you.”

“You’ll still have a place here,” Kurt offers. “You can keep your room just like you want it, and your mom and I are going to figure out a schedule so that you can see both of us.”

“I thought that having parents who weren’t married meant you guys would never get a divorce,” Beth says, sounding like she’s about to start crying. “I don’t want to move. I don’t want to leave you and Blaine.”

“Oh, honey,” Quinn says, reaching for her hand. “We can work out a schedule so that you don’t miss any of us.”

“But it’s not going to be the same,” Beth says, tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.

“It’s not,” Blaine agrees, speaking unexpectedly. “But sometimes things change, and the only thing you can do is move forward.”

* * *

Blaine wears a navy wool coat to his sessions all month, pulls the cuffs down over his wrists and ignores the fact that most of the time, they cover his bracelet. On the subway, he raises his hand to grasp the plastic loop and his sleeve slips; he’s visibly a Def again and the man standing closest to him steps away, looks down. He catches the eye of a woman sitting nearby and her face is soft with pity; this time he’s the one who looks away.

The coat doesn’t always keep him warm-- every time Sebastian touches him he shivers, but the cold never goes deeper than his skin, doesn’t sink into his bones and keep him frozen. He doesn’t take the cold home with him, and as the weeks pass, Sebastian’s hands get warmer until they’re not noticeable, just shadows passing over his skin.

Even so, Sebastian pushes. Blaine can’t think of a better way to say it, because that’s what Sebastian does: he sees Blaine’s weak spots, and he pokes them until he gets a reaction. He’s not sure why-- he thinks it’s probably just what Sebastian does, what his Holder trained him to do (because Blaine knows by now that there’d only ever been one Holder for Sebastian; he’d been marked almost as young as Blaine had and there are these moments in the group sessions where they just look at each other, because Sebastian knows, he understands). He thinks that maybe, in another life, they could’ve been friends, if he weren’t so cracked and Sebastian weren’t so twisted.

They’re both habitually early, and so there’s nearly always fifteen minutes before the sessions that’s just the two of them, waiting. Blaine’s started bringing a book-- one of Beth’s or one of the baking books that’d started showing up on the shelves a few weeks after he’d started making bread every morning. This morning, he’s just started a new book, and the prologue is a meditation on bread.

everything is leading you, pushing you,
instructing you, bugging you to supreme,
perfect enlightenment. This means
there are no mistakes. You might do it
differently next time, but that’s because
you did it this way this time.
Perfect, even if you say
too much this too little that.
It’s you and please be yourself.
Offer yourself.
Feels good. O.K.?
Cooking is not simply in the tongue,
in the palate.
It is in the whole body
flowing out of the groin and chest
through arms and hands.

“Hey, killer,” Sebastian says, interrupting Blaine’s reading as he settles down in the chair next to Blaine’s.

Blaine nods a greeting and turns back to his book. Sebastian may not bother him as much as he used to, but he’s been learning better where to prod and it’s still painful, sometimes. He’s not sure why he hasn’t talked with Kurt about Sebastian yet. He knows that Kurt would somehow put a stop to it or get Blaine placed in another session, but Blaine likes the counselor and he likes the rest of the people in his group, so he’s determined to deal with Sebastian himself, somehow.

Sebastian leans back in his chair and shows the long line of his neck, bare and deliberately inviting. Blaine glances over and Sebastian catches his eye and curves his lips up. “See something you like?”

“Your tie doesn’t match your shirt,” Blaine says quietly. It’s something Kurt would say, and Blaine smiles down into his book, back to ignoring Sebastian. He can see Sebastian’s expression fall out of the corner of his eye, and he’s more pleased with himself than perhaps he should be-- but on the other hand, if it keeps Sebastian from bothering him, maybe it’s okay.

He reads his book and glances at his watch, waits for the session to start. Sebastian moves closer, into Blaine’s space, and Blaine lets himself go, drops down just far enough that he can still hear Sebastian’s voice but his words aren’t reaching him.

Suddenly Sebastian’s hand is on his, just barely touching him, and Blaine starts, closes his book. “Hey,” Sebastian says, voice quiet, “where’d you go?”

Blaine blinks and he’s back again; he shakes off Sebastian’s hand and shrugs. “You know,” he says. “Away.” It’s kind of uncomfortable, this moment of intimacy between just the two of them, and Blaine wonders what Sebastian sees when he looks at Blaine.

Sebastian’s quiet for a minute. “I never got the hang of it,” he says. “My Holder liked me present while we fucked.”

And there’s one of their differences-- Sebastian’s only ever had one Holder, he’s been with the same man for ten years, and Blaine can’t imagine what it must be like to lose that. He’d never felt too close with any of his, before Kurt-- maybe Jonah and Emily, sometimes, when they hadn’t been-- Anyway, it’s not the same as what Sebastian had. Blaine ducks his head and shrugs. “It’s useful, sometimes.”

“I could do anything to you, while you’re like that,” Sebastian says idly, and there’s a moment, a pause, like they’re both holding their breath.

“No, you couldn’t,” Blaine says. “Not now, anyway.”

“But if I--” Sebastian grins, pauses. “I could help you out with that, after we’re done for the day.”

Blaine rolls his eyes. “My Holder doesn’t like it when I’m home late,” he lies.

“Oh, he doesn’t have to know,” Sebastian assures him, leering openly, and Blaine sighs. It’s almost tiresome, dealing with him. Blaine’s been dealing with Sebastian for over a month, now, and he’s managed to find coping mechanisms, things that let them interact without Blaine going home and shaking himself to sleep afterwards. They’re not friends-- they’ll never be friends-- but Blaine thinks they’ve reached a kind of stalemate, whether or not Sebastian acknowledges it.

“He’d know,” Blaine says sharply. “Believe me.”

Sebastian leans in, bending over the armrests of the chair. “I could send you home all hot and bothered, mess up your hair and wipe that perfect fucking smile off your face.” His voice is low and dangerous, and Blaine can’t help it-- he laughs. “Is it really that funny?” Sebastian asks, one carefully shaped eyebrow raised.

Blaine shakes his head. “No, not really,” he says. He takes a deep breath. “This isn’t the place to talk about it, but I don’t think either of us is ever really honest in session, are we.” It’s a statement of fact, not a question, and Sebastian nods in acknowledgement, mask firmly in place.

“Neither of us is ever going to be the person we should have been,” Blaine says. “We’re just-- we’re fucked up. I know it, you know it-- but we’re two different people, and we come from two different worlds. You think that because I shake and fall apart and-- sometimes I go home and just go blank-- you think I’m broken.” Sebastian is staring at him, for once without a response. “You’re trying to be like-- you’re trying to be like a Holder. You’re trying to push me down and put me in my place, and it’s not going to work.”

“Really? Am I?” Sebastian asks. His voice is sharp and disbelieving, and Blaine feels a chill crawl up the back of his neck.

“I’m not-- I’m not broken the way you think I am. I was, I have been, but I’m not-- everything I’ve said is true. We both know what it’s like to have someone else buy you, do what they like with you, but I can see a future now. You set me off-balance, you kick my feet out from under me, sure, but you don’t-- you’re not going to break me. I can stand back up, and I will keep standing back up until you back off and leave me alone.”

Sebastian blinks. “I think that’s the most I’ve heard you say at one time,” he says. “And I don’t think you’re broken-- I just think you could stand to have some fun.” He grins, and it’s so out of place in that moment that Blaine blinks, confused.

He’s not sure if Sebastian’s lying or not-- Sebastian’s too good at hiding his feelings, most of the time. “You’re not going to get what you want out of me,” Blaine says, and he stands, sighing. “Come on, the session’s about to start.”

* * *

It’s nine in the morning and even though it’s only February, the sun is shining bright like June. Blaine is doing dishes in the kitchen and Kurt’s sitting at the kitchen table, bills spread across the table in front of him. There’s a song playing on the radio that Kurt doesn’t recognize, and Blaine’s humming along, twitching his hips to the rhythm. Kurt quirks a smile at Blaine’s back because really, he’s adorable, and goes back to his work.

When he hears Blaine start to sing he doesn’t think about it, much, but Blaine gets louder and his voice is-- it’s good, strong and confident and maybe just a tiny bit sharp in places, and Kurt’s nodding along to the rhythm before he realizes what’s going on.

Blaine is singing.

It’s-- Kurt doesn’t even have the words to describe what it’s like, hearing Blaine sing. Even though it’s not for him, it still feels like he’s being let in on something private, something that Blaine wouldn’t necessarily want anyone else to see. His fingers are numb and he drops his pen on the table, where it clatters loudly.

Blaine stops singing and Kurt curses internally, because he feels like an idiot for stopping him. “Sorry,” he says.

“For what?” Blaine asks, a smile on his face.

“You were, ah--” Kurt pauses, swallows. “You were signing.”

“I-- oh,” Blaine says, and he stops, licks his lips, touches his mouth like it’s brand new. “I didn’t realize.”

“I figured,” Kurt says, deliberately not looking at where Blaine’s fingers are still pressed to his lower lip. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just-- I’ll go.”

“No, stay,” Blaine says, making an incomprehensible gesture towards Kurt. “I didn’t mean to--”

“Your voice is amazing,” Kurt admits, before he can stop himself. “It’s really-- I can see why you used to sing.” He’s certain that his face is bright red; it always gets that way when he’s embarrassed or flustered. He looks at Blaine, who’s still standing in the kitchen and touching his mouth, and-- he wants to kiss Blaine, he realizes, and that’s-- he can’t even think about it, not right now.

“Thank you,” Blaine says, quiet. He’s put down the dishes and he’s walking towards Kurt, and Kurt can’t be here right now, because this is what he’s been feeling: he doesn’t want Blaine to leave, he thinks about Blaine all the time, he’s...

He’s been falling in love with Blaine.

“I have to go,” he says abruptly, gathering his things. And there’s no other way to put it: Kurt flees, like he’s running from something terrible, even though all he’s leaving behind is Blaine and a kitchen full of light.

He closes the door to his bedroom and slides down against it, shedding papers as he falls, until he’s sitting on the floor, knees folded in front of him. Kurt’s always known that when he falls for someone, he falls hard-- head over heels, tumbling into longing and blushes that scream his feelings all too loudly. He hates this, because there are butterflies filling his stomach and his palms are sweaty; it feels like the first time he’d met Greg four years ago, nervous and hopeful all at once, but more than that this time.

Because this is Blaine. Blaine, who is amazing and wonderful and great with Beth; Blaine who still has nightmares that Kurt can sometimes hear from down the hall and who used to only eat when prompted. Blaine, who bakes bread in the mornings so the apartment smells like a bakery by the time Kurt gets up. He reads children’s literature and he-- fuck, apparently he sings while he’s doing the dishes and now that he’s-- he’s healthy and maybe he’s even happy some of the time and that’s-- it’s good. It’s so good, and Kurt’s so happy to have been a part of that for Blaine, but he doesn’t--

Blaine was supposed to be safe with him. Kurt isn’t supposed to look at Blaine and think about sex; he’s not supposed to think about doing that to him. He’s not supposed to see Blaine’s hips swaying and think what they might look like in Kurt’s bed, what they’d feel like against Kurt’s hips. It’s not just the physical either, of course-- that would be too easy, too dismissible as Blaine being Kurt’s type (even though in a lot of ways he’s not-- he’s not particularly athletic or broad; he’s shorter than Kurt and Kurt would have thought that-- but apparently not)-- it’s emotional, as well. Kurt has well and truly fallen for Blaine-- he’s--

He can’t imagine what his life might be like without Blaine now. They’ve been together for ten months, shared bread and tears and four outer walls; they’ve raised a child and lived.

Kurt can’t keep him.

He has to let Blaine go, when Blaine is ready. He can’t keep Blaine trapped in the same cage he’s been in for half his life; he has to help Blaine venture out of the nest that he’s built here, with Kurt. But he wants to; he wants to keep Blaine by his side (and in his bed)-- he wants something he told himself he’d never want.

It feels like a betrayal, to be falling in love with Blaine.

The thing is that Kurt isn’t falling-- he’s fallen, he’s in the past tense already. There is nothing that he can do but hide his feelings, because putting this on Blaine would be-- it’d be something that Kurt can’t even contemplate. He’s sure that Blaine would feel obligated to do something, and Kurt already knows about Blaine’s other Holders.

He will not be like them.

He won’t tell Blaine; he won’t burden Blaine with his feelings, with the added weight of expectation, even though Kurt honestly wouldn’t expect anything. He doesn’t want to see Blaine the way Blaine’s other Holders had seen him, as an object to be possessed. Blaine is not his, should never have been his in the first place.

To Kurt, Blaine is a person to be loved-- and maybe that’s the problem.

* * *

Sebastian is far from the worst thing that’s happened to Blaine-- at worst, he’s an annoyance who gets under Blaine’s skin again and again-- but he crawls inside of Blaine’s mind and leaves him wondering and wanting. He doesn’t want Sebastian, he doesn’t want to know what Sebastian’s Holder taught him, he doesn’t want to be physical with someone, but he wants...

He wants to own his skin again.

Here, at Kurt’s, he only does things with his body that he wants to do. He sang a few days ago, for the first time since he was fifteen-- in the kitchen, with Kurt, where he feels safe (although he’s still stuck on why Kurt reacted the way he did, ran out and left Blaine with wet hands and a full voice, alone in the kitchen with its plate-glass windows and the sunlight streaming in). He doesn’t have to put on a show with his body or his voice, he doesn’t have to show obedience in Kurt’s bed or any of the things he’s had to do in the past because his Holders wanted him to; instead, this is something he wants to do.

He wants to be able to enjoy having a physical body. There have been months-- years-- where his body has betrayed him, where his Holders have told him what to do and where to go and how to breathe right, and it’s only just now that he’s able to see and know that his body is his own. He has ownership of his hair and his eyelashes, his fingernails and the divot between his collar bones. He can do what he wants with his elbows, his knees, the shape of his mouth and the curve of his ribs.

He knows all of this, but he’s not sure he believes, not really.

Sebastian talks about his own body like it’s a weapon; he speaks insidiously and whispers in Blaine’s ears, but Sebastian’s not in this room right now. Blaine is alone in his bedroom, behind a locked door and secure in his privacy. He’s naked under his duvet, and it feels... illicitly thrilling, like he’s sneaking something that he shouldn’t be.

Blaine runs his hands over the skin of his belly; it's soft, and there's a trail of hair leading lower, down to where he hasn't touched himself unnecessarily for years (except for that one time months ago, gasping and half-asleep, not thinking about what he was doing or how he might feel in the morning).

His body is softer, now, than it had been-- he can feel bones beneath his skin but they're padded, not so sharp.

He has permission to do this, if he wants to. Kurt had given him that months ago, stumbled over his words and blushed bright red, but his meaning had been clear: he doesn't need or want Blaine to ask him for his permission to come. Blaine can touch himself if he wants to, and even if he isn't certain right now-- if he is hesitant and more gentle with himself than he might be otherwise-- right now, he wants this. He wants to feel warm and alive and not broken, not like some humble shell of a person, someone who can think and feel but not like this.

Blaine breathes in, breathes out, lets go of as much tension as he can. His shoulders settle back against the pillows and his toes, oddly, feel cold, for all that they're tucked under the blankets with the rest of him.

This is his body, all of it. From his cold toes to the crown of his head, it's his. If he wants to touch it he can; if he never wants to, then maybe that’s okay too.

He's not really turned on but he takes himself in hand, the contact making his cock twitch just a bit. He sighs, trying to relax into it. Masturbating at 27 is different from doing it at 15, when it seemed like everything turned him on. Now, he's got too much experience at ignoring things that could be arousing to settle on something to fantasize about-- so he lets his mind drift, lets himself just enjoy the physicality of it.

It feels good, which he hadn't quite expected. This time there's no guilt burning hot in the pit of his stomach; he's fairly sure he'll wake up in the morning as okay as he gets.

His cock hardens in his hand, and he keeps things simple: one hand on his stomach, one on his cock, moving slow and as softly as he can manage. His arousal builds slowly, and it's more spread-out than he remembers it being; he’d been used to the tight, too-hot feeling that he’d gotten when he’d forced arousal, been forced, back before Kurt. Instead, his toes curl up in the sheets, starting to get warm, and sweat breaks out across his chest and his upper lip. He's suddenly too warm underneath the blankets, but he doesn't quite dare throw them off; this heat is welcome.

He moves his hand on his cock, spreads the hand on his stomach wide and feels his breathing stutter beneath his palm. Blaine realizes that his heart is hammering in his chest and slows his breathing, tries to calm his body back down. It doesn't work and his breath hitches, catching in his throat until he lets it out out, lays both hands flat and just breathes for a minute, because this is-- this is--

He can’t believe he can actually do this. He’s here, in his own bed, in an apartment that he can actually, truthfully call home. He’s not turned on by any specific thing, not really, and that’s okay, that’s what he wants. He wants this, he wants to do this, he wants his own hands and his own thoughts, safe in his own bed.

His cock is still hard, tenting the sheets, and he moves his hands back up to touch himself again. This is good, it’s enough, it’s what he wants. It’s what he wants, and he moves his hands faster, teasing at the head of his cock and stroking up and down the shaft until his body tightens, gathers up of all the sensations that he’s feeling and he pushes out, and he’s--

He comes, by himself and by his own volition. For a few long minutes afterwards he just… floats, suspended on his own endorphins and a stubborn feeling in his chest. It might be laughter or it might be tears and he won’t know until he lets it out. He lets go and it’s laughter; he comes back down to earth, laughter fading until he’s back in his own bed. Even though he’s grounded again, Blaine feels light as air, like someone could blow him away like a dandelion, floating and loose.

He's sticky and he's tired, and his hand and body are kind of a mess, but he's okay. He exhales and shifts, trying to find a comfortable position before giving up and getting out of bed to clean himself off, because he's got a feeling that waking up stuck to his sheets won't do him any favors.

He cleans himself as best he can with the tissues on his bedside table, tosses the top sheet in the laundry, pulls on a pair of sleep pants and falls back into bed, tugging the duvet back over himself, content.

He’s still kind of buzzy from the orgasm, and he can feel the smile sticking to his face. If the feeling doesn’t last until the morning, that might be okay.

* * *

And in the morning he wakes up and he’s okay.

He doesn’t open his eyes, not yet-- he keeps them closed against the sun (he’s slept late-- he must have, because the sun doesn’t hit his windows until after seven, this time of year), presses his face against his pillows and inhales. He breathes in, breathes out, and the sun’s coming in through the windows and he feels... gentle.

He feels like he could get out of bed and walk every street in the city; he feels like he could wake up like this again, try this again and maybe it’d still be okay.

It’s the last that gets him, makes him curl up and sigh, letting the weight of his body push him down into the mattress. His body is real and present and he can remember each moment of the previous night-- the way his toes curled and the way the blankets were almost too hot afterwards; it’s the morning and he’s okay.

He’s okay.

* * *

It’s been a few days, but Kurt still can’t keep Blaine’s singing voice out of his mind-- the way he’d lengthened the phrases, the way he’d leaned into the vowels, the shape of his lips and the--

He needs something mindless to do-- something to keep his mind off of Blaine and the things he’s not thinking about, because he cannot be that person. He’s home from work and doesn’t have that to distract himself, because he’d promised Beth that he’d leave work at work for the time being. He decides on clearing out his e-mail, so he grabs his tablet and starts archiving and deleting everything that isn’t immediately relevant, because he needs something in his life to be clean and organized, and his head certainly isn’t at the moment.

His fingers hit the e-mail he’d gotten from Rachel months ago and he stops, pauses, clicks on the link, because even if it’s the millionth video of her singing something from Les Miserables, he can use the distraction, and her voice is always amazing.

But instead it’s a shaky video that looks about ten years old-- it’s a boy’s a cappella choir, and it takes him a minute to recognize the uniforms. He knows them, from somewhere-- that’s a group they’d competed against in high school, he’s fairly sure of it-- it’s--

--it’s Blaine’s old group, back from before he was marked. He can’t see Blaine anywhere in the front of the group, so he must be in the back, in with the singers who don’t have solo lines-- and there he is, curls gelled flat to his head, wide grin on his face as he oo’s along with the rest of the group.

He hears Blaine’s singing voice again, just barely, as part of the choir, and that’s enough to make him pause the video, leave it frozen with Blaine’s face just off the screen.

It’s shocking and startling to see Blaine like this, in motion and joyous, but not as much as it might have been six months ago. He’s more used to seeing Blaine smile, even if the singing is new, and it’s... it’s different. Blaine is different than he was when they first met, and Kurt’s not sure what that means, not yet. He tosses the tablet away and sighs, because he’s still unsettled. So he reaches for the phone that’s tucked inside his pocket and does what he does every time he needs guidance: he calls his dad.

The phone rings, and rings, and Kurt’s about to give up and indulge in his misery when there’s the click of someone picking up the receiver. “Hello?” comes his dad’s voice, and Kurt almost just hangs up the phone, because he can’t tell his dad how badly he’s failed.

“Kurt?” his dad says. “Did you pocket-dial me again?”

“No,” he manages, voice rough. “No, I’m here.”

“Are you okay, kid?” his dad asks, and Kurt has to chuckle at that-- almost thirty, and his dad’s still calling him ‘kid.’

“I’m fine,” he responds. “I just-- I told you that you’d be the first to know.”

“First to know what?”


His dad interrupts him, saving him from having to say it out loud. “Aw, hell. It’s Blaine, isn’t it.”

Kurt’s chin wobbles and his hands shake and right now he hates how well his dad can read him, even when it’s just his voice over the phone. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, it’s-- a few days ago, he was singing in the kitchen, and I just looked at him, and it was like--”

“I know, kid,” his dad says, soft and sympathetic. “It was like that with me and your mom-- me and Carole, too. I get it.”

“But he’s-- I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. You don’t even--”

“You going to try speaking in complete sentences at some point?”

That startles a laugh out of Kurt, and even though it’s short, it makes him feel a little bit better. He grabs a tissue from his desk and wipes at his face. “I looked at him and he was so happy, so I just ran. I couldn’t-- I couldn’t stand to break his trust like this, and that’s what I’ve done, isn’t it?”

“Hell, Kurt,” his dad replies. “You’re not the same as the other bastards that’ve hurt him. You’re a good person, and I’m proud to have you as my son. However this thing with Blaine works out, I’m sure you’ll do your best by him.”

“Thanks,” Kurt says. “It was just sort of shocking to realize. He’s been so-- he’s been amazing, Dad, even with everything that’s been going on-- Beth’s unhappy to be moving again, and Quinn’s about to start her new job, and I’m--” he pauses, just for a second, even though he knows his dad’s going to notice. “The company is fine, it’s just going to be a little lean for a while.”

“And how are you?” his dad asks.

“I’ll be fine,” he replies. “I just needed some time to process, because this isn’t something I’d expected.” His dad chuckles. “Unlike, apparently, everyone else.”

“You talk about him all the time, Kurt. An’ I don’t think you’ve ever been inappropriate with him, or anything, but he looks like your type. At least he does now.”

“Thanks,” Kurt says again, and he sighs. “I’m not going to tell him, anyway. He’s better, he really is, but I wouldn’t put him in that position, not while we still live together.”

“Sure,” his dad says. “That makes sense to me, too. But you might be surprised, Kurt-- you’re a likeable guy.”

Kurt snorts indelicately. “Right,” he says. “He’s going to fall madly in love with me in a way that isn’t entirely co-dependent and we’ll retire to the countryside and raise, I don’t know, whippets.”

His dad laughs. “Maybe not that,” he allows. “But hey, Kurt?”


“You’re allowed to be happy, you know.”

Kurt sighs. “I know,” he says. “But right now, this is the choice I’m making. If it means I’m unhappy, then--” he shrugs, even though he knows his dad can’t see it over the phone, “at least Blaine isn’t.”

Burt sighs. “Come on, kiddo-- give an old man some hope.”

Kurt smiles into the phone. “I’ll do my best,” he says, and they say their goodbyes.

* * *

It’s been three days since he’d touched himself, felt liquid and loose in bed, and he’s alone in the apartment at mid-morning. It’s just past ten, and Blaine’s skin feels alive. He doesn’t get it at all-- he’s sitting in a chair (it is a comfortable chair, but unless his sexuality is way weirder than it was when he was fifteen he doesn’t think that’s it) and he’s reading A Wrinkle in Time at Beth’s insistence. She’s at school and the others are at work; he’s alone in the apartment and glad of it. He’d been thinking about lunch but now he’s mostly thinking about what’s going on with his body.

He puts the book down, noting the last page he’s read, and walks awkwardly to the window. They’re up high enough that he doesn’t worry too much about the neighbors across the street looking in (he’s fairly sure they’re all at work, anyway). He closes his eyes stretches his arms up in the early February sun and soaks in the heat. His can feel his t-shirt riding up and his toes curl at the drag of it against his skin and oh oh oh. He is in every inch of his skin and it is glorious.

All Blaine wants to do is drag one of the rugs over to where the sunlight is pooling on the hardwood and curl up like a cat, arch his back and then tuck his knees in tight.

He has a few hours before Beth gets home, so he takes the rug with the thickest, plushest pile and lays himself down. The sun feels like honey soaking into his bones, like he’s been cold for years and he can just now get fully warm.

He doesn’t mean to fall asleep, but the sun relaxes his shoulders and his face, melts the tension from his spine.

When he wakes up, Kurt’s there, leaning over one of the arms on the sofa and watching him fondly, just the smallest hint of a smile on his face. The smile grows when he notices Blaine blinking up at him. “Good afternoon,” Kurt says.

Blaine smiles back, because he can’t help it: this is the happiest he’s ever been. He doesn’t care that he’s probably slept through the time he’d set aside for lunch; he doesn’t care that Kurt is home in the middle of the day instead of at work. “Afternoon,” he breathes, and rolls over so that he’s looking at Kurt upside down.

The corners of Kurt’s eyes crinkle when he smiles. He laughs with Quinn in the kitchen more nights than he doesn’t and he calls his father and stepmother in Ohio at least once a week. And Kurt’s family goes both ways-- Beth doesn’t call him Dad, but it’s clear that’s what he is to her. Blaine’s coming to finally admit that he is part of Kurt’s created family, too, held tight in its warmth. Kurt is smart and he’s funny and he can be devastatingly sarcastic when he isn’t thinking about it, but he’s unbearably kind sometimes, too-- and really, it’s Kurt, more than anyone else, who makes him feel safe.

Kurt makes him feel free.

He feels something that he hadn’t felt since he was fifteen and unsure and making all the wrong moves, but he recognizes the feeling for what it is.

He’s in love.

Blaine can feel the smile spreading over his face and doesn’t do anything to stop it; he can feel the corners of his eyes crinkling just like Kurt’s are and he’s grinning so hard his cheeks ache. He knows that he can’t really share what he feels with Kurt but he doesn’t care. This is-- he thought he’d never get this back. This is like what he’d had with Marco but amplified, like a full symphony orchestra in place of a string quartet.

He almost feels like he could burst with all the light inside him, but instead he takes the hand that Kurt’s offering and pulls himself to his feet. His feet are weightless on the ground, and he thinks he must still be grinning like a madman because Kurt raises one eyebrow and says, “Good dreams?”

Blaine nods. “The best,” he says, even though it’s not his dreams that have left him feeling like this.

Kurt smiles at him and pulls him towards the kitchen before dropping his hand. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s make dinner.”

Blaine follows him, floating.

* * *

It’s nothing like falling, not at all.

* * *

Chapter Text

For the second time this year, they spend a week in a flurry of boxes, packing up clothes and books and kitchen implements. Quinn’s planning to buy things that are just hers, once she’s moved, but in this kitchen there’s a set of blue ceramic cups that she’d picked out when she and Kurt were moving to the city for the first time; there’s the blue and red whisk that had appeared in the kitchen one morning that’s always been Quinn’s, first. Beth sulks, but she packs none the less, and Blaine starts writing notes to tuck into the boxes that she can find when she unpacks, three floors and an ocean of distance away.

Kurt pretends not to notice; he’s pretending not to notice a lot of things about Blaine, these days. Blaine’s happy and he’s healthy, and right now, Kurt can’t ask for more.

Instead, he helps Quinn pack, folding sweaters and snagging a garment rack from the company that’ll fit in the elevator so she doesn’t have to fold her skirts or dresses. It feels like they’re in high school all over again, new and nervous with each other. One night, they stay up too late talking about everything and nothing until their voices are raw and the tea that Quinn had made is cold. That night she falls asleep in his bed, soft and sleepy next to him, and he cards through her hair and thinks about how he might have wished that this was his life, once.

Quinn had come to his family broken-edged and bleeding, arms crossed tight across her growing stomach like a barrier against the rest of the world. She hadn’t trusted any of them-- Kurt’s dad least of all-- and she had only warmed to them slowly, inch by inch. She hadn’t been comfortable in Kurt’s house until months after Beth was born. It’s been years since she’d shouted at Kurt, told him how much she hated him for buying her contract, for not letting her fall into anonymity and obscurity and just… left her where she deserved to be.

She’d pushed Kurt down on his bed and he’d pushed back, because she was crying and he just wanted her to stop. She’d collapsed in a heap on his floor and cried; she cried harder when he sat down next to her, when he grabbed a comb from his nightstand and untangled her hair, soothed her to sleep. It’d been awkward, at first, and he couldn’t help but think of doing this for his mom, just a few times, but in the end, it was a comfort for both of them.

They’ve both changed, and in different ways.

He’s holding a summer-weight sweater and kneeling in front of a box when he says it, voice cracking like he’s a teenager. "I don’t want you to leave."

She turns to him, and her expression softens. "Come on," she says. "I’ll make tea."

Tonight he holds Quinn tight and pretends that they’re both sixteen.

* * *

He’s in love.

He’s in love, he’s in love, he’s in love.

His lungs expand and his toes feel like dancing more often than they should; he plays the radio just too loud in the kitchen after everyone is gone for the day and teaches himself the jive and the jitterbug from YouTube tutorials. More than once he catches himself thinking about calling Paige or talking with Quinn or Shannon or even calling Marco (Marco, who had taught him what the first rush of love feels like, who had shown him that touching and feeling and being the way that he is-- the way that he likes-- were possible), about reaching out to someone and letting everything spill. Because this isn’t just-- it’s not-- he hadn’t even thought about getting past where he’d been at fifteen, and now--

He might be more than okay.

Blaine cares that it’s Kurt, he wants Kurt in some ways that he doesn’t examine too closely, but he’s… He’s not as broken as he thought he was. There is glue filling in his cracks, pulling him back toward whole. He doesn’t-- he knows that it’s okay if there are things that he still can’t do, if the smell of peanuts always turns his stomach or if grey walls make all the air leave his lungs. He doesn’t have to pick all of his pieces up-- some of them have been ground to dust under a deliberate heel, crushed against hardwood and stone, like a glass dragon falling to the floor.

But this is something he didn’t think he’d get back. He remembers what it felt like, with Marco-- he remembers the first creeping feeling of warmth, the nervous heat in his hands and the way his breath shook out, sometimes, when they stood too close. He remembers all of that, and this is...

The first time he’d recognized this he’d thought of an orchestra crescendo, and it still reminds him of that, but the way it spreads through him is like wildfire. It doesn’t-- his surface is scorched by it, shocked by it, but there are tender green shoots poking up through the ash. Even if Kurt doesn’t love him back, he’ll continue to grow-- maybe not the same way, maybe the trees that started as aspens will end up redwoods-- but he knows that he can do this.

He can do this.

He just can’t tell Kurt about it, because Kurt will...

Kurt won’t love him back. And the last thing he wants is for Kurt to feel guilty, to be anxious or awkward with Blaine, now that they’ve finally reached this equilibrium. So Blaine closes his mouth, but he lets it curl up into a smile whenever it feels like it. He bakes Kurt’s favorite cookies and plays the songs that he’s seen Kurt nod along with; Blaine does his best to make sure that Kurt’s happy, but he doesn’t ask for anything for himself.

He’ll take whatever Kurt gives him, because knowing that he can do this will be enough.

* * *

Quinn moves out on a Saturday.

Her eyes are downcast, and she’s holding Beth’s hand, even though Beth is a little old for that. Quinn’s got a small case in her other hand, and she walks down the hallway without looking back. Beth does, and Kurt waves at her, seeing Blaine do the same out of the corner of his eye. They stand in the doorway until Quinn and Beth are on the elevator, headed towards gone.

Once the doors to the elevator close, Kurt lets out a heavy breath. "I need a drink," he says, shoulders sagging.

Blaine smiles. He’s doing that a lot more, now, and Kurt takes it as one more sign that Blaine’s improving, getting ready to leave-- hopefully not too soon, Kurt thinks, and then kicks himself for thinking that, because it’s Blaine’s decision and no one else’s. "I think we’ve got half a bottle of chardonnay," Blaine says, shrugging apologetically and glancing towards the kitchen. "Nothing all that exciting."

Kurt sighs and turns back into the apartment, motioning Blaine in front of him and closing the door behind them. He knows that there’s not really a difference, but it seems like the sound echoes more than it used to. The apartment feels emptier than it had.

Blaine walks into the kitchen, and Kurt can hear him rummaging around in the cupboards, opening the freezer. Instead of following him in, Kurt collapses onto the sofa in the living room, staring into the fake wood in the fireplace and trying not to think about anything at all. "We’ve got the wine and a tiny bit of that sweet tea vodka that Rachel left," Blaine calls from the kitchen.

Kurt shudders at the thought of the vodka. Wine he can do, but it’s absolutely too early in the day for anything harder. "Wine, please," he calls back to Blaine, and he sinks down further into the sofa, lets Blaine pour him a small glass.

Blaine sits down at the other end of the couch and hands the glass across to Kurt. Blaine has a cup of water, not wine, but he raises his glass towards Kurt. "New beginnings?" he offers, and Kurt obliges, clinks their rims together.

"Looks like it’s just you and me," Kurt replies, and even though he’s not-- even though he hasn’t said anything to Blaine, even though he isn’t going to say anything to Blaine, he feels like the air in the apartment is charged, like there’s suddenly this tension.

Blaine doesn’t seem to feel it, though-- he smiles easily at Kurt and sips his water. "Looks like it," he responds. "It’s quieter."

"I know," Kurt says, and he can’t help but feel a little miserable about it, because even this new quiet isn’t going to last. He’s going to have to find a new place again, he realizes ruefully, and this time he won’t even have Blaine’s help.

They sit in the quiet and watch the sun sink slowly behind the buildings, still and silent. Kurt sets his glass down, empty, and Blaine stands and takes it out of his hand, their fingers brushing. Kurt feels his cheeks heat at the unexpected contact, and he hates how he’s become this teenager again, overly aware of every movement, every glance and every half-expected word. Blaine walks into the kitchen and Kurt watches him leave; he wonders if he’ll always be watching Blaine go.

* * *

Blaine has to tell someone-- he can’t keep this to himself, let the words sour under his tongue and poison him, drive his feelings back down. But most of the people he sees are Kurt’s friends too, and he can’t ask them to keep this kind of secret. He doesn’t want to give Sebastian something else to hold over him in group, even though he can’t help the smile that leaks out of him whenever he talks about Kurt.

So the words stay hidden until his meeting with Shannon, almost a week after waking up and realizing that Kurt had awoken this feeling within him.

"I’m falling in love," Blaine says abruptly, door still open behind him. Shannon looks up at him and smiles.

"Why don’t you come all the way in and tell me about it?"

He shuts the door behind himself and makes his way to the chair he usually sits in. Everything still feels brand-new and tender, like the first buds of spring, like new skin grown over a wound. Even here where he should be safe, he is still hesitant to describe what he’s feeling. "I just feel--" He stops, unsure of where to go from there. "I didn’t know that I could be in love."

"Who is the lucky fella?" she asks.

"Kurt?" he says, and he says it like a question, even though he is so, so sure of it. "And it’s not-- I don’t expect anything from him, and he has been clear that he doesn’t want anything from me. It’s okay, it’s fine, I don’t need him to love me back, I just-- I didn’t know that I could feel this." He knows he’s babbling, so he looks out the window of her office to calm himself. It’s a sunny day, and he can see new green leaves at the tops of some of the trees. "I didn’t think I could, not any more. I thought that I-- I wasn’t even looking, you know? But he was there, and it was just--"

"Love has a way of doing that," she says, and she touches the place on her hand where a wedding ring would sit. "Blaine, I’m real happy for you, but--"

"I know," he says, ducking his head. "I know it’s not-- I can’t expect anything. I’ve only ever been-- there was this boy, back in Ohio, before I was-- but it wasn’t. And now I know I can feel like this, and even if Kurt doesn’t-- and I know he doesn’t, and that’s okay-- but it means that I might. Someday."

Someday there might be someone for me.

He takes a deep breath; he’s glad that Shannon is patient, because he’s not making any sense. "I’m sorry," he says. "I’m sure this isn’t what we’re here to work on today-- I just wanted to tell someone."

"I’m here for whatever you need me for, kiddo. And I’m glad you’re happy about this." She pauses for a moment, like she’s debating her next words, and Blaine waits for her to speak again. "I just don’t want you to get hurt."

Blaine shakes his head. "I know that nothing’s going to happen. I don’t even think I’m going to tell him. Personal service isn’t even in my contract, and Kurt’s been very kind. I shouldn’t burden him with this-- I wouldn’t want to make him feel obligated to me, somehow."

"Don’t shut the barn door just because all the lights are on," Shannon says, and Blaine laughs. "Look, kid-- Kurt’s still your Holder. And like I said, I don’t want you to get hurt. I don’t want you to fall for the first guy who’s nice to you. I don’t want you to put yourself in a position to get hurt."

Blaine looks down at his hands. "I don’t think he could hurt me," he says. "There have been times-- there have been moments when I’ve thought that maybe he should, because I’m the one who fu-- messes up, and that’s how it works, isn’t it? But he’s kind. He’s so talented and kind that I--" He takes a deep breath. "I don’t know how I couldn’t be in love with him. I think that I might have been in love with him for a long time."

She smiles at him. "This is a good step, Blaine," she says. "Do you still want to gain manumission?"

"Yes," he says automatically. "Yes, I-- I don’t think I’d be in love with Kurt if I thought he wouldn’t give it to me. I want to be free to choose the people I want to be with." There’s a moment of quiet; he lets it pass. "I want to be with him."

"You’re allowed to be happy, too," she says, and he nods.

"I know," he says. "I am. I’m happy just to be with him, even if we don’t-- even if he doesn’t love me back, I’m happy."

* * *

Kurt’s tongue is leaden with secrets; it lies in his mouth and doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. It’s like February of his sophomore year of college when he lost his voice and had to communicate with Rachel with a pen and paper and awkward hand signals for a week.

He sees Blaine differently, now: the curve of his cheek and the way that his hair falls. They pass in the hallway and it’s like Kurt’s re-discovering what it’s like to be attracted to someone. He feels the warmth of Blaine’s body next to him on the couch while they’re watching the news after dinner and his cheeks fill with that same warmth; he thinks about starting to sit in one of the chairs instead.

He’s in love and he doesn’t want to be. The last time he’d felt this was had been his freshman year of high school, with a boy who’d later be his step-brother, and he doesn’t feel this fading the same way. Once he and Finn had started sharing a laundry room and a kitchen, the light had faded from that particular flame; with Blaine, they’ve built a life together for close to a year, and Kurt doesn’t see anything about his feelings changing, now that they’re here. Now that he’s in love, he’s going to stay there.

Kurt wants to call his dad, but he’s fairly sure that his dad will just tell him to go for it, and he doesn’t think that he can make that leap, tell Blaine how he feels and risk losing everything. He wants to be an island but he can’t be that lonely, not yet. He hasn’t been alone in years, and his solitary childhood is too far away to be of any use right now. He is selfish in this, in his desire for Blaine and his need to just not be alone.

And he thinks about the last time that he felt this way, even though it wasn’t as bad, because he still had Quinn: the summer after his senior year of high school, when he’d been miserable and working at the Lima Bean because he’d failed at getting into college in New York-- none of his safety schools had accepted him, and he’d been waitlisted everywhere. NYADA had still been a pipe dream, and it had taken Quinn and his dad to push him to just go, fly to New York and live with Rachel for three months.

He wants Rachel, he realizes abruptly-- the Rachel he’d known when he was nineteen and new to this city. She’d been there just long enough to be wise, even if he could sometimes tell that her bravado was faked, that her knowledge of the city was third-hand from another NYADA student. He wants the Rachel who had competed with him endlessly, the Rachel who fell asleep on top of him in their shared apartment at least three times a week, until Quinn moved in with them and Rachel had started falling asleep on her instead.

His phone is in his pocket, and he gets it out with just a bit of uncomfortable wriggling. He’ll be glad when skinny jeans go back out of style; pants that were workable when he was eighteen are verging on unflattering at twenty-eight. He dials Rachel’s number from memory, and she picks up after half a dozen rings. "Kurt!" she says, her voice full of surprise and delight. "I didn’t expect to hear from you."

"Hey, Rachel," he says, and his voice is more tired than he thought it’d be. He can hear something in the background-- music and conversation, which means she’s probably out, probably with people from her show, and he doesn’t want to take her away from that. "Sorry for interrupting your night."

"Anything for you, Kurt," she says, mock-serious. He can still tell when she’s joking, most of the time.

"Do you ever miss living together?" he blurts out. He knows that it’s not fair to ask her, not when she’s not-- when she doesn’t have a place of her own, and he’s got an empty bedroom that he hasn’t offered to her. He knows it’s because he still wants to believe that Quinn and Beth are going to come back, and even though Beth’s room is fairly untouched, Quinn’s is as impersonal as a hotel room. He could offer it to Rachel. He could.

She pauses. "I miss being close, like we were that first year," she says, and he hates that he’s relieved, in some ways. "But I don’t-- we’re too different now, I think, to actually live together." Rachel laughs. "You have a company and a kid and I have an off-Broadway show that’s ending in three weeks and a suitcase that really needs to be replaced. You’ve got Quinn and Blaine and you have this whole life, Kurt, and I wouldn’t-- I’ve stayed on your couch enough times, I think."

Kurt can feel tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. "I’m sorry," he says. "Do you want to-- we could get dinner, some time this week? I haven’t meant to--"

"I’m fine," she says. "The show’s gotten good reviews, and I’ve at least got enough singing students to keep my head up until I get my next role. And if not--" he can almost hear her shrug over the phone-- "that’s what the union’s for."

"Are you sure you-- I have a guest room," he offers, because he’s been a terrible friend, lately. He’s hardly seen Rachel, even when she’d been crashing with him, because Blaine-- Blaine. He’s been… focused, lately, on Blaine, and maybe he’s been focused in too close.

She laughs. "Quinn mentioned that you did," she says. "Look, why don’t we go out later this week-- we’re going to this new bar that Brody likes, and I’m sure it’ll be terrible. We can make fun of the decor and get drunk." Rachel’s voice is cheerful, and it doesn’t hold the brittle tone it has when she’s really getting in over her head, with no work on the horizon and no spare rooms or couches to crash on. The theater has rooms in the back for actors, but Kurt’s been in enough of them to know that finding a friend to stay with is better by far than living at the theater.

"Sure," he says, and they set a night to meet up. He’ll try to widen his focus and see more than just Blaine and his co-workers. He’s never really had a social life, but that doesn’t mean he can’t start having one now.

When Blaine’s done, when he’s gone, when the last part of Kurt’s constructed family walks out the door and into their own lives, Kurt will have time. He’ll have hours, he’ll have weekends, he won’t-- he won’t have to help Beth with her French homework (except on the nights when she’s there; he already feels like he misses her more than he should), he won’t have Blaine waiting at home-- he already doesn’t have Quinn in the office any more.

He’ll have room for Rachel, if she wants. She isn’t the same, but he’s changed, too.

Maybe it’s time to see if they still fit.

* * *

Even after Blaine talks with Shannon, it’s still February, and everyone’s thinking about love.

It’s February, and the shops are filled with red and pink and white, commercialized versions of the heart-shaped sugar cookies that he bakes for Beth’s class on Valentine’s day, frosting them carefully in every color of the rainbow. He leaves one (frosted in yellow and red stripes) on the counter for Kurt, and boxes the rest up. He comes with Beth to school that day, sits next to her in the car and listens to her talk about her friends, the books she’s reading, how she’s been decorating her room at the new apartment. He smiles at her and braids her hair during the drive and finds he’s missed the contact more than he expected to.

Blaine gets out of the car with her when they reach her school, giving the driver a purple cookie as he leaves. She gives him a hug, takes the box of cookies from him, and rushes off to join her friends for pre-homeroom chatter and gossip. He smiles wistfully after her and doesn’t wave.

He walks three blocks east and meets Paige at the coffee shop she’s fallen in love with. She gives him a ziplock baggie full of chocolate cookies, just like the ones she’d had last summer, and he gives her one of the last sugar cookies, this one frosted green. "You look happy," she comments, biting off the tip of the heart.

He looks down at the table and smiles. "I think I am," he says. "At least, I’m getting there."

It’s different, now: they’re meeting as friends, still, but they both know that Blaine’s looking forward at a future that he still can’t quite picture. It’s possible that when he’s… done, when he’s finished with his evaluation or with his exit coaching or whatever euphemism the DoL has come up with by the time he’s done, that he might move on entirely, leave the apartment he’s just beginning to call home. He doesn’t want to-- he wants to stay with Kurt, he wants to be with the man that he’s falling in love with-- but he knows that he might. He might see Beth once a month and Kurt less than that; they might become occasional friends instead of what Blaine secretly wishes they might be.

And he and Paige are-- they’re good. They’re friends, they share baked goods and coffee and book recommendations, they’re comfortable with each other, but Blaine still doesn’t know if he can tell her about his feelings for Kurt. He doesn’t know if she’ll tell Kurt-- after all, she knew Kurt before she ever met Blaine. He likes her, but things are still… he’s still a Def.

He’s still a Def, and he’ll keep being one for a while.

It’s not that he trusts Defs more than he trusts Holders, more than he trusts people who aren’t involved with the system at all-- it’s just that he understands them better. He can understand why Sebastian acts the way he does, why some of the people in their group speak in hushed voices, why Quinn had broken free as soon as she was able. After Marco, after he’d been marked, he’d learned that his body came first, his body was what was desirable, and he didn’t matter, except as a thing to be broken. For the first time since that first night with the Kyles (even though he still can’t think about them without his stomach turning and his hands shaking, even though that first time he’d felt someone else’s hands on his bare skin), he’s started to think of what he might like.

He feels like he’s tending to a sapling: he’s got the trunk, he’s got a few leaves and branches, but someday he wants to see the grown tree.

It’s different, wanting things.

So he and Paige talk and he’s happy. They hug when they say their goodbyes, and Blaine walks back towards the nearest subway station.

Sebastian is the last person he expects to run into.

"Blaine!" he says, a look of genuine surprise flitting across his face. "I didn’t expect to see you here."

"I was meeting a friend for coffee," Blaine explains.

Sebastian grins. "And here I was about to ask you to lunch. I’d be happy for the company, at least."

Blaine hesitates, unsure of Sebastian’s motives, whether Sebastian honestly wants company, or if he wants something else, if he wants time to keep pushing Blaine. But on the other hand, maybe this neutral space is what they need to get everything out in the open, reach a real truce instead of the uneasy one they’d reached a few weeks ago. "Sure," Blaine says. "I have time."

"It’s this way," Sebastian says, beckoning Blaine on, grin still splashed across his face like it’s painted on, like it’s the only expression Sebastian knows. Blaine’s even more unsure, now, but he’s said yes and it would be rude to take that back.

And besides, Sebastian is a Def.

He realizes his mistake as soon as he follows Sebastian around a corner, as soon as he sees Sebastian standing, waiting for him, hands loose at his sides and a tight look around his eyes. There’s nothing there but the end of an alleyway, dirty and smelling like something that Blaine tries to ignore.

"Sebastian?" he says, taking a cautious step backwards, but Sebastian follows him, turns him sideways until Blaine’s body is pressed against the concrete wall of the building. He can feel the heat of Sebastian’s body, the way he trembles, see the desperation in his eyes.

"This is your fault," Sebastian says, hissing the words into Blaine’s ear. "We were fine. I was Held, I had a place and a life and now I have nothing."

When he feels Sebastian’s hands close around his throat, when Sebastian’s fingers press against his pulse and catch in his hair, his first reaction is to kneel. It feels like everything is happening in slow-motion, like he’s underwater and gasping for air. His knees start to tremble and collapse, but Sebastian pushes him back harder against the rough concrete of the building and doesn’t let him fall, even as his hands come in tighter and Blaine’s mouth opens, trying to draw in a breath.

He’d thought the fight had been beaten out of him long ago, but his hands come up without thinking about it, pulling at Sebastian’s wrists. His nails scrabble along Sebastian’s skin, scratching at it. Throughout it all, Sebastian’s staring at him, but he doesn’t meet Blaine’s eyes.

Blaine closes his eyes and his hands find Sebastian’s chest; he shoves with all of his strength and Sebastian stumbles back, pulling Blaine with him to the ground, but he lets go. Blaine falls on top of him and for a moment Blaine just breathes, sucking in air as deeply as he can, before he pushes himself up and away, scrambling to his feet. There’s a roaring sound in his ears and everything goes distant for a long minute. Sebastian just lays on the ground and Blaine worries for just a minute that he’s hurt Sebastian, pushing him down onto the ground, but Sebastian levers himself up on one elbow and looks up at Blaine, still not meeting his eyes.

"Fuck," Sebastian says, barely loud enough to be heard, and Blaine’s hearing clears. Sebastian gets to his knees and Blaine walks around him warily so that Blaine’s back is to the open street, so that he can run if he needs to. "I’m sorry," Sebastian says, and he bows his head. "Blaine, I’m--" He breaks off and starts shaking, like he can’t continue.

And Blaine almost feels like he should stay, make sure that Sebastian’s okay, but he’s-- he needs to go. He can’t-- if he touches Sebastian he doesn’t know what his hands might do. He doesn’t know if his neck will bow, if his hands will rest flat on his thighs as he-- if he’ll reach for Sebastian like-- he doesn’t know. "I don’t want to see you again," he says, and his voice is rough, creaky, like he’s been talking for hours. He winces as the skin of his neck pulls and he’s sure that there will be bruises soon.

"I’m sorry," Sebastian repeats, not moving, not getting off his knees-- but Blaine leaves him there, doesn’t turn back to see if Sebastian ever moves.

Blaine picks up his bag from where he’d dropped it (he doesn’t remember dropping it, but he must have-- he doesn’t want to think back, figure out if it was before or-- he must have dropped it) and walks away without looking back. He knows where he’s going-- really, there’s only one place he can go, and that’s home. He hails a taxi, uncaring that his sleeve rides up and his bracelet is clearly visible. He gives the cabbie his address and sits in the back, stares at the cracked paint on the ceiling and breathes. The cab smells like day-old takeout and sweat, but Blaine can’t imagine anything smelling better right now.

The cab arrives at Kurt’s building and Blaine pays the cabbie absently, swiping the card Kurt gave him for expenses across the reader.

Blaine feels loose, unglued, like a ship without a mooring. His hand shakes on the door handle, his knees are weak. He gets into the elevator and leans back against the wall, feels the chill of the metal through his clothes and tries to ground himself. When the elevator dings and opens, he takes careful steps down the hallway until he reaches his own door. He fumbles in his bag for his set of keys and examines them with shaking hands; suddenly all of the keys look the same, and he tries three before he finds the right one. He has a moment of senseless panic when he can’t get the door open because what if Sebastian followed him what if someone else is here to see him what if there’s something in the hallway behind him what if what if what if--

--and the key turns in the lock and the door opens.

He's inside and he should be safe, but he doesn't feel it the way he wants to. He's-- he's in the kitchen, and it should be his safest space, and for a moment, he feels safe. His hands are covered with flour and butter and the oven's on when he comes back down to earth, stops floating somewhere else. He finishes the cookies he'd apparently started and puts them in the oven before sitting down.

What is he going to do? Should he do anything? He can't even think about reporting Sebastian to the DoL, because what if it meant that he couldn't be freed? He can’t-- he just--

He feels disconnected from his body; he looks down at his hands and can’t quite feel them. He folds his hands together and the pressure is muted, like there’s a layer of cotton between them, and he can’t-- that’s not good. He knows it isn’t, he knows that something is wrong, he just--

The cookies are done.

He’s at Quinn’s door and he doesn’t quite remember how he got there, but he’s holding a plate (one of Kurt’s nice ones; he looks down and hopes it’s okay that he’s got it here, outside the apartment) and it’s covered in cookies that are still warm from the oven.

She opens the door and raises an eyebrow at him. "I made cookies," he says, unnecessarily, and his voice is creaky, like an old man’s.

"And these are different from the ones you gave to me this morning?" She smiles and lets him inside, closing the door behind her. "Are you okay?" she asks. "You sound terrible."

He almost drops the cookies, but he squeezes his fingers tight around the edge of the plate-- he can’t drop it-- and takes a deep breath. She’s Quinn, he can talk to her, even though Defs aren’t safe anymore. "I’m sorry," he says. "I’m just-- I don’t remember how I got here."

Her eyes get a little wider. "Okay," she says, softly, and she takes the cookies from him. "Well, these are still warm, so you probably just came down from Kurt’s."

Blaine closes his hands and digs his nails into his palms just a bit. The pressure grounds him, and he feels more present. "I think-- I’m only missing a few minutes, just--"

"Why don’t you come sit down? I’ll make tea." Quinn walks towards the kitchen, and Blaine follows her belatedly. He sits carefully at her small table, bare except for the paperwhites in a glass vase. Quinn fills the kettle and sets it on the stove, then comes to sit down across from him.

"Do you know what happened?" she asks, carefully folding one of her hands over his.

"I think-- I went to coffee with Paige, after I dropped off Beth," he says, because really, he hasn’t lost that much. "And on the way back, I ran into--" He stumbles, here, because he doesn’t want to-- he understands Sebastian, and what Sebastian’s going through. He can only imagine what he’d feel like if Kurt were getting rid of him to replace him with a-- a newer model, younger Def, whoever Sebastian’s Holder has waiting. And Sebastian does want to be free, Blaine’s heard him talk enough to know that-- he thinks he knows that, but what if nothing Sebastian has told him has been true?

"I ran into someone from the DoL-- another Def." He doesn’t want to, be he knows that Quinn will ask, and she’ll keep asking, and-- "His name’s Sebastian. He--" He pushes me, he wants to know things that I can’t say out loud, his hands around my neck felt familiar but I was terrified, I didn’t want-- "He invited me to lunch."

"And?" she prompts.

"And he-- there was this alley, and he-- he’s so angry, Quinn, and he--" Blaine bites at the inside of his cheek and raises a hand to his neck, and he’s wearing a scarf he doesn’t remember putting on. It’s Kurt’s, and it’s patterned with black and white skulls; he shivers as he unwraps it. He can hear Quinn suck in a breath as he folds the scarf up and places it carefully on the table. "Is it bad?" he asks. He hasn’t looked.

"It’s not good," she snaps. "Oh my god, Blaine, how did you--"

"I pushed him off," he says. "I think that he-- I think that he was more surprised that I fought back than anything-- I was surprised to fight back, I think I just--" He lets his shoulders slump. "I don’t know. And then I was home, and there were cookies in the oven, and--" When he shrugs, it tugs at the skin on his neck and he winces. "Then I was here."

"Okay," Quinn says. He can see her gather herself together, and waits for her to tell him what to do. "Okay," she says again. "Do you want to call the police, or--"

"No, no. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want that to-- I don’t want to do that to him," he protests. "He didn’t-- I don’t think he wanted to--"

"What, kill you?" she says, and there’s no emotion in her voice-- it’s flat, like she can’t quite process what she’s saying. He shrugs again, not caring about how it hurts. "Well--"

Whatever she was going to say is cut off by the shriek of the teakettle as it comes to a boil, and Blaine’s hands tense. Quinn bolts out of her seat and turns back towards the stove. She busies herself with teabags and honey for a minute, and he sits, waits patiently for her to tell him something. He knows that she’s a Def, still, technically, that her assessment is next week, but right now she’s just someone who is settled.

She brings him a cup of lukewarm chamomile tea. "For your throat," she says. "I’m assuming a doctor is out of the question, too."

Blaine sighs. "I think I’ll be fine," he says. "I didn’t pass out, and I think I’m just-- I’m just sore. I’ll be okay." He gives her a lopsided smile. "I’m always okay, right?"

Quinn sits back down with her own cup of tea. "Of course you are," she says. "But you know that you don’t have to be, right? You can spend an hour of your life being not okay, I promise."

"I know," he says. He thinks he’s okay, he-- he’s still not sure what he feels, but he’ll be all right. He’s just not looking forward to having to explain this all to Kurt, when he comes home. "I promise that I-- if I’m really not okay, I’ll tell you. I swear."

She sighs but reaches across the table to squeeze his hand. "Let me get you some ice for that bruise," she says, and she turns away, leaving him at the table alone.

* * *

When Kurt gets home, Quinn is on his couch, the light of the table lamp turning her hair gold. She’s got a textbook and a cup of tea, and beyond her, he can hear Blaine and Beth talking, probably in the kitchen.

"Hey," he says, hanging his bag up on the hooks near the door.

"Hi," she responds, looking up at him.

"What’s the occasion?" he asks, sitting down at the other end of the couch. "Not that I don’t love seeing you, but you usually call first."

She presses her lips together. "Blaine came to see me this afternoon," she says, and he has a moment of irrational panic-- has Blaine somehow figured out Kurt’s feelings for him? Is he moving out? Has Kurt done something wrong? "Something happened-- an altercation with another Def-- and he’s hurt, but he’s okay."

"Oh my god," Kurt says, and he starts to rise from the couch, run towards the kitchen, but Quinn puts a hand on his wrist and he freezes.

"I promised him I’d talk with you first," she says, "because he was scared enough by what happened, and he doesn’t-- he doesn’t want to disappoint you." She speaks carefully, like she’s reciting. "He doesn’t want to report what happened, and he doesn’t want to see a doctor." She stands up. "I’m going to send him in. You stay here."

Kurt stays where he is, like he’s glued to the couch, and he can hear conversation coming from the kitchen. After a long minute, Blaine walks through the door, flicking on the overhead light as he does.

There are bruises pressed into the fragile skin of Blaine’s neck, red and purple and ugly, like the worst kind of flowers blossoming over his skin. Blaine moves carefully, like he doesn’t want to jar his neck, and Kurt jumps up, looking for a way to help. Blaine waves him back down. "I promise you, I’m really okay," he says.

"Who did--"

"He didn’t mean to, not really," Blaine explains, cutting him off, and he sits down in the space that Quinn had vacated. "It’s not as bad as it looks?"

"It looks terrible," Kurt says flatly. "It looks like someone tried to kill you, Blaine, how did--"

"It’s-- it’s not new," Blaine says, saying the words slowly, like he’s feeling them out. "It’s not the first time I’ve been--" He waves a hand at his neck. "I’m okay. He wasn’t really trying to hurt me."

Kurt already had enough reasons to hate Blaine’s old Holders, and the knowledge that it’s not the first time Blaine’s been strangled doesn’t make Kurt feel better about them at all. "For someone who wasn’t trying he certainly did a lot of damage," Kurt says. "Who was it? Was it someone from your group?"

Blaine shakes his head slowly. "I don’t want to say," he says. "I’ll talk with my Foster about it, I just don’t want to-- he already blames me for enough."

Kurt wants to yell, he wants to hurt whoever did this to Blaine, but it’s not-- Blaine already carries enough, and Kurt wants to carry this weight for him. "Okay," he says, instead. "Okay, I guess we can just--"

"He was supposed to be safe, you know?" Blaine interrupts, and there’s a catch in his voice. "He’s a Def, like me, and we’re not supposed to hurt each other." The not unless we’re told to goes unsaid. "I think I-- we-- not everyone wants manumission, even if it’s offered, and he didn’t-- I thought he wanted to be free, but maybe he-- I don’t know."

It’s disconnected but Kurt understands, more than he wants to; sometimes, it’s easier to stay in the life that you know than it is to take that leap across to something new, even if it seems like it’ll be better. "I don’t know him," he says. "I don’t know what his life is like, I don’t know what he wants, and I don’t even know if he knows what he wants. But, Blaine-- he hurt you, badly. Are you sure that you don’t--"

Blaine shakes his head again, wincing. "I’m sure," he says. "I’m sorry, I know that you and Quinn want to do something, but I’m just… I can’t be angry about this." He looks down at his hands. "I’m sorry," he repeats. "I just-- I understand him, a little."

Kurt wants to reach out and touch Blaine-- just hold his hand or tuck a stray curl behind his ear but he can’t, not without Blaine’s permission, no matter how much he wants to, so he laces his fingers together and squeezes hard, pretending that it’s Blaine’s hand he’s holding. Blaine glances over at him and something around his eyes softens, and he--

He reaches out for Kurt, and Kurt meets him halfway, tangling their fingers together and letting them rest on the couch. "I’ll be okay," Blaine says, and Kurt lets himself run his thumb up and down the swell of Blaine’s palm once.

"Is there anything I can do?" Kurt offers, and Blaine shrugs.

"Not unless you have something other than ice for this," he says. "But really-- I’m fine." He squeezes Kurt’s hand and detangles his fingers, laying his hand flat on the couch. "These shouldn’t take a long time to heal, and besides, it’s scarf season." He smiles at Kurt, and there’s been something different about Blaine’s smile for the past few days, something that Kurt can’t quite place.

"It is," Kurt agrees, touching the silk wrapped around his own neck. "Let’s see if we can’t find you a few things that match your colors."

* * *

Blaine is-- he’s not-- there’s a new fracture running down his center, but some of the places he thought were cracked turned out to be healing where he couldn’t see, because he’s--

He can fight back.

The instant of Blaine’s hands on Sebastian’s shoulders had been enough to send him reeling back, enough to keep Blaine breathing. Kurt’s looking at him like he’s more hurt than he actually is, but Blaine knows that this isn’t a wound that will scar. This is one more inch gained, one more step taken, and even if he loses this inch, maybe he’ll find a new one tomorrow.

His smile grows wider, and he accepts the hand that Kurt holds out, lets himself be pulled up and off the couch. He wants to keep holding Kurt’s hand as they walk down the hall, wants to keep touching the smooth skin of Kurt’s fingers, feel their warmth, but he lets Kurt’s hand drop as soon as they’re out of the living room. Blaine waves at Beth and Quinn in the kitchen on his way to Kurt’s bedroom and they wave back, but he follows Kurt without pausing.

The ache has settled in around his shoulders, and there are still bright-hot spots of pain around his neck, but this is a pain he knows how to carry. This is a pain he can smile through, because he knows that Kurt won’t--

Kurt won’t make the bruises last.

Blaine will have time to heal, and even if he gets hurt again, it won’t be the same thing. He might have to wear a scarf for a few weeks, until the bruising is mostly gone, but that’s-- he can do that, it’s easy. He’s all the way back in his body again, after the shock of Sebastian’s hands, the fury in his eyes, and it’s almost weird to feel this… okay. He’s okay, and even though he might still be a little shaky, sometimes, he knows that he’s going to stay this way.

Blaine hasn’t spent a lot of time in Kurt’s new bedroom, and they walk right through it, so he doesn’t have much time to take a look. The chair-things have been replaced by actual chairs, this time around, but the grey and orange duvet is still spread across Kurt’s bed. At the far side of the room, Kurt slides open the closet door, and Blaine joins him there. Kurt’s closet is well-lit and spacious, almost as big as Beth’s room at the old apartment had been. It’s almost obsessively organized, too, and Kurt knows exactly where he’s headed.

Kurt holds up scarf after scarf, everything from slips of silk to wider knit pieces, until he’s found half a dozen that meet his requirements. Blaine sits on the low bench in the center of the closet and lets himself drift, responding to Kurt when he has questions but otherwise just… letting himself be.

"Hey, are you all right?" Kurt asks, and Blaine realizes that he must have missed a question.

"I’m fine," Blaine says. He smiles. "I’m just tired-- I must have drifted off for a second." It’s nice here, surrounded by things that Kurt loves. It feels safe, and warm, and the sounds of Kurt’s voice are a comfort.

"I shouldn’t be keeping you--"

"I don’t mind," Blaine says, interrupting Kurt. "I kind of like it in here," he admits. It’s been a long time since he’s worn clothes that were entirely his own choice, and Kurt’s style doesn’t quite match what he’d choose himself, but he can see things that he wouldn’t mind, either-- the collar of a polo shirt he’s never seen Kurt wear, brightly colored jeans, a set of bow ties in a glass display box set on one of the low shelves.

Kurt smiles at him. "We’re almost done," he says, holding up one more scarf. "And then I’ll cook dinner and you can keep Beth entertained."

He lets himself drift off again, lulled by Kurt’s quiet words and the safety of the closet around him. He’s not asleep, not quite, but it takes Kurt touching his knee before he’s fully aware and awake again. Kurt is kneeling in front of him, their faces almost level, and Blaine thinks wildly for a moment about what it would be like to lean forward and kiss Kurt, press their lips together and--

He bites his lip, instead. He wouldn’t, not without asking, not without Kurt knowing how he feels, not without-- he wouldn’t. He probably won’t, ever, and even though his cheeks flush and his lips ache, he pulls back. "Did you find what you were looking for?" he asks, looking at the scarves that Kurt has left hanging up.

"I did," Kurt says, and Blaine’s eyes are drawn back to his face, where there are spots of color high on his cheeks. Blaine has to remind himself that Kurt doesn’t want him, not like that. Kurt offers him a handful of scarves, most of them heavy enough for February, and Blaine takes them, runs his fingers over wool and cashmere and thinks about wrapping one of them around his neck and being surrounded by Kurt for the next few weeks.

He stands up without help from Kurt and Kurt stands up at the same time. They’re still too close, but the closet is small, and Blaine can pretend that he doesn’t still want to lean forward and touch Kurt. "Thank you," he says.

Blaine almost doesn’t want to leave the closet, where it’s safe and warm and there’s Kurt, but he breathes in, breathes out, and pulls Kurt with him, back into the rest of the apartment.

* * *

Kurt can’t get Blaine out of his head.

He can’t-- every time he looks at Blaine he wants to hold him, soothe the bruises around his neck and promise him that nothing like that will happen to him, ever again. He wants to touch Blaine, he wants to press careful kisses to the curve of his shoulders, run his fingers through Blaine’s hair and he can’t. He won’t let himself, but his fingers ache and his hands feel empty. His bed is emptier.

When he’d had Blaine in his bedroom, when Blaine had been soft and pliant in his closet, he hadn’t let himself consider anything, not even when their faces had been almost too close and Blaine had looked, for a few short minutes, like he wouldn’t mind it very much if Kurt had kissed him.

Kurt just-- he needs to get out, go somewhere and find someone who won’t mind if Kurt uses him, if Kurt pretends that he’s someone else and lets him--

It’s been years since Kurt wanted something like this, years since he felt like half his skin was new and that he’d burst open if he was touched; it’s been ages since he needed like this. His fingertips are too hot, and every time he wants to reach for Blaine they burn. He misses his cool, he misses the way that he’d been able to not see Blaine as someone who he could--

He won’t.

He can’t-- it’d be a violation of trust, he’d break everything that they’ve built together, wreck the life which has just begun to run smoothly.

He needs someone who isn’t Blaine, and he keeps coming back to that. There’s no one in his limited social circle that he’d be willing to ask for this-- he’s not on good terms with any of his exes but Adam, who’s all the way over in England, and there’s no one else he could ask. He’s going out with Rachel, though, and for once he doesn’t have a reason to break that plan, because even though none of her theater friends are really tolerable (they’re all self-obsessed and way too into the who’s-doing-who gossip of the theater world), there’s bound to be someone at the bar who he can touch.

Even though he always chooses his clothes carefully-- he can’t afford not to-- he’s even more selective this time, picks out an outfit that he knows will get him hit on. He doesn’t wear anything from his own line, because there’s only so much gossip that he can afford, and "designer spotted having salacious public affair" is not something that his tattered public image can take.

Rachel meets him outside the bar and looks appreciatively at what he’s wearing. "Come on!" she says, taking his arm and leading him inside. "Everyone’s been waiting to meet you-- half the time, they think I’m making up our friendship."

He laughs and follows her inside. It smells like cigarettes (even though no one’s smoking) and spilled cocktails, which is a step up from Rachel’s friends’ usual haunts. She waves at a group over by one of the tables and drags Kurt over to them, and someone hands him a drink.

It’s a fun night-- he drinks more than he intended to, but he doesn’t let himself get sloppy, and Rachel’s friends are loud and impassioned, like every other actor he’s known. Some of them are clearly over-impressed by him, and he and Rachel share eye-rolls when one of them spends five minutes gushing over Kurt’s shoes-- which, while reasonably chic, aren’t the height of fashion. Kurt had chosen them based on the likelihood that the bar would have sticky floors, and while this one isn’t as bad as it could be, he’s glad he didn’t wear his favorite boots.

Eventually, the music gets louder and the lights get dimmer, and Kurt shimmies his way onto the dance floor. He’s looking but he’s not-- he wants to dance and get close to people and maybe, maybe he’ll find someone to go home with, just for the night-- but he’s not looking for someone to take home, not to where he’d left Blaine with a smile and a wave. It’s warm out on the floor, and Kurt lets the tension melt from his spine, and he flows with the music. It’s different, now that he’s almost thirty, but in some ways it does feel like being back in college, the first blush of freedom in the big city. Rachel finds him in the crowd and he laughs with her, catches her hands and pulls her close, dips her while she shrieks, and they cling together.

"I’m so glad you came out tonight," she says, half-shouting to be heard over the music, which is something with more bass than anything else.

"Me, too," he says back at her, and he tightens his arms around him for a moment before he lets her go.

The music is pounding in his chest and as the song continues, he remembers that he’s not just out of college any more, and maybe dancing the night away isn’t the best way for him to get rid of the heat that’s still trapped underneath his skin. But he keeps going, moving his feet and his shoulders; he lifts his hands above his head and closes his eyes, letting the bass pound through him. Kurt misses dancing, sometimes; he misses singing more often. He doesn’t regret the choices that he’s made, he doesn’t regret his life or his business, but sometimes he wishes that he hadn’t transferred, that he and Rachel (and Quinn, of course Quinn) had started a mad band of actors somewhere out in the city.

A pair of hands sliding around his waist remind him of where he is, and he starts in surprise, then turns around in time with the beat. The man who’s still got his hands on Kurt’s hips grins broadly, flexes his hands, and laughs at Kurt’s raised eyebrow. The sensation of someone else’s hands on his body is electric, and Kurt can feel goosebumps crawling up his back. It’s not a bad feeling, though, and they finish out the song together. The other man is just barely shorter than Kurt, with dark hair and skin, and a dimple in his left cheek when he smiles, which is frequently.

Blaine’s smiles are still rare, even though they come faster now, and Kurt shoves the comparison away as he pulls the other man closer.

The song ends, and in the few seconds of relative quiet, the other man dips his head down next to Kurt’s. "I’m Lars," he says, more loudly than he really needs to, but his voice is lovely. "What’s your name, gorgeous?"

Kurt laughs, because this is-- it’s almost ridiculous. "I’m Kurt," he replies.

"This your first time here?" Lars asks.

Kurt nods. "I came with friends."

"Can I be glad that they’re not the ones dancing with you?" Lars’s hands are still on his hips, the thumbs making slow motions that drag on Kurt’s shirt, and he shivers. He almost-- he thinks about saying Let’s get out of here, thinks about finding an empty stall in the bathroom and--

But the music starts again, so he puts his hands on Lars’s shoulders and steps closer, until their hips line up, and leans in. "We’ll see how the next song goes," he says, just barely audible over the music, and Lars grins at him.

Three songs later they’ve found that empty stall; Kurt wrinkles his nose but the bar isn’t that old, and it doesn’t smell as bad as he expected it to. The tiled walls are clean, and even though there’s something sticky on the floor under his shoes, it’s-- it’s good, it’s fine, and then he stops thinking about the bathroom, because Lars’s hands have moved up, cupping Kurt’s face, and his lips are as nice to taste as they are to look at. It’s nice, it’s good-- it’s safe, in a lot of ways. He couldn’t do this with Blaine, he’ll never be able to do this with Blaine, and he can’t--

He can’t.

Kurt pulls back, shoulders pressing against the cool tiles, breathing heavily. There’s no more fire under his skin, and he just feels burnt. "I’m sorry," he says. "I’m sorry, I--"

"You have someone waiting for you?" Lars says, and Kurt shakes his head.

There’s no good explanation, no good reason for any of this other than that Kurt has failed, massively and spectacularly, at being a good person. "I don’t," he says. "I just-- I can’t."

Lars shrugs and steps back. "You change your mind, you give me a call, yeah?" he says, pulling a business card out of his pocket and pressing it into Kurt’s hand.

"Sure," Kurt says, automatically, slipping the card into his pocket. Lars nods at him once, then unlocks the stall and steps out, leaving Kurt alone.

He splashes water on his face at the sinks, but avoids his own eyes in the mirror. Back at the bar, Rachel is still surrounded by her friends, and he rejoins their group, hovering around the outside until Rachel notices him. "Kurt! I’ve been wondering where you got off to," she says, reaching a hand out to him.

Kurt takes it, but his fingers feel like ice. "I was just-- dancing," he says, blushing at the pause and smiling, because she’s still having fun, and he doesn’t want to ruin her night with his own fuck-up. Rachel’s friends laugh but she frowns, dropping his hand.

"I think it’s time for you to go home," she says. "Some of us keep weirdly normal schedules." Her friends laugh again, and Brody gives Rachel a hand up and off her stool. "Thank you, kind sir," she says, laughing, and she presses a kiss to his cheek. "I will see all of you tomorrow," she announces, "but I have to make sure this one doesn’t fall over before he makes it to a cab."

She gets hugged by half a dozen people; no one but Brody waves to Kurt on his way out.

Outside, Rachel pours him into a cab and climbs in next to him; he fumbles his way into his seatbelt and leans his head on her shoulder once he’s done. She gives Kurt’s address to the cabbie and looks straight ahead, not at Kurt. "I’m sorry," he mumbles.

"I’m sure you are," she says, voice carefully controlled. "Do you want to explain why I’m here right now, instead of back in that bar with all of my friends? Or, for that matter, why you’re here instead of with that guy on the dance floor? Don’t think I didn’t see you two, Kurt."

"I couldn’t--" He starts to explain and then realizes that he can’t, he hasn’t told Rachel about Blaine, about the way that the sun looked on his hair and the way his lips looked, shaped around the sounds of a song. He turns his face into the shoulder of her coat and inhales, breathing in Rachel, the way they’ve been there for each other for years, since the last few years of high school and almost all the way through college. "I’m sorry," he says again, words still a little unstable. "I was just trying to-- get it out of my system. I’m sorry."

"Get what out of your system?" she asks, and he’s not looking at her but he can imagine her expression-- he knows Rachel’s voice when she’s annoyed and she’s using it right now. There’s an undercurrent of worry, too, and that one he’s less used to hearing.

"Blaine," he responds, which he hopes will be an explanation and an excuse all at once.

The line of her shoulders softens slightly and she sighs, one hand finding his in the flashes of light. "I’m sorry," she says. "When’s he leaving?"

"That’s not-- he’s not--" Now it’s his turn to be frustrated with the words he isn’t saying. "It’s not that, not yet. It’s just-- week before last, we were in the kitchen together, and--"

"And?" Rachel asks, when he’s paused a second too long for her tastes.

"--and I felt, just for a minute, like I wanted to kiss him." He bites the inside of his cheek to try to ground himself, then continues. "I think I’m in love with him."

Rachel shrieks-- there’s no other word for it. Kurt groans and tries to cover his ears, and the cabbie shoots her an irritated glance. "Sorry," she says, clearly not apologetic at all. Kurt sits up and glares at her. "It’s just that I’ve been waiting for you to find someone, Kurt, and--"

"Seriously?" he says. "You’ve honestly been waiting for me to fall in love with my Def-- the one person I absolutely cannot have a relationship with-- don’t give me that look, Rachel, you don’t even--"

She shrugs. "I don’t think you fell in love with your Def," she says. "I think you fell in love with Blaine."

"Does it even matter?" Kurt asks helplessly. "He’s my Def, until the day he isn’t, and by then, I’m sure he’s going to want to be gone."

Rachel shakes her head. "Don’t sell yourself short," she argues. "Maybe he’s also nursing a secret passion that will only be revealed by some sort of--"

Kurt rolls his eyes, leaning back against the questionable leather of the cab. "Too much Broadway, Rachel," he says.

"I think you’re running out of Broadway magic," she replies. "Come to a show with me sometime this week-- we’ll get your mind off this for at least a few weeks and see how things look after that."

"This isn’t-- it’s not going to be solved by some Wicked revival with a sub-par Elphaba," Kurt argues. "No, I just need to keep quiet about everything until he’s-- until he leaves."

"And you’re just going to let yourself be alone like that?" she asks. "Come on, Kurt-- don’t you think you deserve a little more than that?"

He shrugs. "What am I going to do, ask him to stay?"

"Why not?" Rachel asks, and he just stares at her for a moment. She tips her chin up. "I mean, from what I’ve seen, he’d tell you if he didn’t want to."


"Give yourself some credit, okay?" she says. The cab stops, and Kurt finds a twenty in his wallet for the cabbie. "Go tell that boy how you feel," Rachel says, and she pushes him out of the cab. "You’ll regret it if you don’t."

And with that, she leaves.

Kurt takes a minute for himself, outside his building, breathing in the cold air and looking up at the clouds, orange with reflected light. It’s not quite freezing, but even with his coat on, he’s still colder than is comfortable, and he doesn’t have the heat to keep himself warm any more. But that’s all right, because he’s where he needs to be. In a minute, he’ll go inside.

Kurt takes the elevator up to his floor and walks down the hallway; it seems longer tonight than it usually does.

His key clicks in the lock and he walks through, closing and locking the door behind him. He hangs up his coat, pulls off his shoes and shuffles into the slippers in the entryway. The apartment is quiet but there’s light coming from the living room, so he walks through, making as little noise as possible.

Blaine is asleep on the couch in the exact same spot he’d been when Kurt had left, curled up with a blanket pulled halfway up his back. Silver on the Tree is on the floor next to him, and the lamp next to the couch is providing a soft glow. Kurt feels his heart melt, and he’s torn between the desire to kiss his forehead and wake him up that way or let him sleep, because even though the heat is gone, the desire to touch Blaine is still there.

But really, they’d moved so that Blaine wouldn’t have to sleep on a couch any more, so Kurt kneels down next to the couch. "Blaine?" he says, softly but loud enough to be heard.

One of Blaine’s eyes slides open, and a smile blooms across his face. "Hey, Kurt," he says, voice full of sleep and contentment.

Kurt can’t help smiling back. "You should probably go to bed."

Blaine yawns and runs a hand across his eyes. "What time is it?" he asks.

"Late," Kurt responds. "Come on, I know you have a bed that is more comfortable than this couch."

That gets a sleepy chuckle out of Blaine, who pushes himself up so that he’s sitting, blanket wrapped around his waist. "Was waiting for you," he says. "I didn’t think you’d be out this late."

"Rachel is very talkative," Kurt says, and Blaine smiles again. Kurt offers him a hand up, and Blaine takes it, but he doesn’t let go once he’s upright. Instead, he pulls Kurt in and wraps his other hand around Kurt’s back, tucks his head in under Kurt’s chin, and sighs into Kurt’s chest. Blaine is hugging him, and it’s almost an echo of the other man earlier that night, but Blaine is what he wants. Blaine feels right, he smells right, and Kurt wants nothing more than for this to never end.

But after a too-long minute, Blaine takes a step back, dropping his arm from around Kurt’s back. "You looked cold," he explains, squeezing Kurt’s hand one more time before he lets it go. He folds the blanket efficiently and drapes it over the arm of the couch before he pads out of the living room. "Are you coming to bed?" Blaine asks, and even though Blaine can’t possibly mean that the way that Kurt wants him to, there’s nothing he can do but follow.

Maybe the apartment feels empty, sometimes, but right now, Kurt is filled with warmth.

And for tonight, it’s enough.

* * *

Chapter Text

February lasts longer than he thinks it should, fading out like a slow song. Kurt’s desire doesn’t fade with it; he keeps it banked like a slow fire, burning just under the surface. Blaine comes and goes and Kurt stays quiet, aching in the cold of February.

Eventually, Blaine's bruises heal. February turns over into March, and the ring of purple on Blaine's neck softens. He stops borrowing Kurt's scarves, and sometimes Kurt almost forgets that Blaine had been attacked. He watches Blaine helping Beth with her math homework and Blaine's eyes are soft; Kurt wants to run his fingers through Blaine's hair and press a kiss to his forehead but he stays at the other side of the kitchen table, colored pencil clenched too tightly in his hand.

Life goes on, and as much as he almost wants to press pause and keep things frozen-- even though there are parts of his life that he desperately wants to change-- he wants to take a breath, he wants a break. He sees Beth and Quinn half as often as he'd like, even with the schedule that Beth had written up, because Quinn has classes and Humm is finally starting to get busy again, after the mess that had been November and December.

So it's a nice surprise when Quinn shows up at Humm one morning and follows him up to his office. No one questions her, and Marley only looks up briefly from her desk as Quinn walks closely behind him. Quinn shuts his office door behind her and turns around to face him.

He raises an eyebrow at the closed door but doesn't comment on it; he waits for Quinn to open the conversation. She sits down at one of the chairs in front of his desk, and he notices that for the first time since she was sixteen, she's not wearing the silver bracelet that marks her as a Def. He wants to say something about it— wants to congratulate her and tell her how happy he is for her, but she's talking before he can.

"Beth's school play is in a week, and I told her you would make the costume she needs," Quinn says.

"Of course," he responds. "She gave me the requirements last week." Which Quinn must know, so this conversation can't just be that. Besides-- Beth's costume is a phone call, not a closed-door work ambush. He'd given up trying to figure out Quinn ages ago, though, so he just waits.

"I passed my assessment," she says, finally, a soft smile breaking out across her face. "I mean, I knew I would, but-- it's nice."

"Nice?" he repeats, smiling back at her.

Quinn rolls her eyes at him, like the teenager he'd first known her as. "Fine, it's amazing. I can finally wear long sleeves again."

Kurt laughs. "I'll design something for you."

"I'm holding you to that," she says, and she relaxes back in her chair.

"I'm happy for you," he offers. "I mean, I didn't-- I never wanted that life for you."

She smiles. "I know you didn't," she says, tucking her hair behind her ear and showing off her bare wrist. "It feels weird, not having to plan everything I'm going to wear around a silver accessory."

"You could have a whole new wardrobe," he says.

"I'd settle for a college degree," she shoots back, and he grins. She rolls her eyes again. "Why did I think that taking classes and trying to keep a job at the same time was a good idea?"

"Because you're an overachiever," he reminds her. Even with everything that's changed, he thinks she's still one of his best friends, and right now, he can't contain how happy that makes him. He doesn't see her over breakfast every day any more, though, and sometimes the separation chafes.

"We miss you," he says, almost unintentionally, and then races to backtrack. "I mean-- I miss seeing you every day, I don't know how Blaine feels--"

She raises an eyebrow at him. "Look, it's obvious to anyone with eyes that something's going on with you and Blaine," she states. "Do you need to talk about it?"

Kurt lets out a long breath. "No," he says. "Thank you, but no."

"I've seen the way you look at him," she says, and Kurt freezes in place, feeling like all the blood in his body is pooling at his feet. The easy camaraderie of a moment before is forgotten, like Quinn had just flipped a switch, and he can't think of anything but Blaine.

Quinn smiles, just a little, and Kurt isn't sure if that's a good sign or not; his feet are still too heavy, like he can't escape from this conversation by walking away (and maybe he doesn't want to). He tries to think of something to say to defend himself, but his mind is blank. Quinn starts talking again. "I would have said something earlier if I thought you were— Kurt, it's— "

"It's not okay," he says, because it's not, it can't be.

She looks back at him levelly. "Probably not," she agrees. "But look— Kurt, you're a good man. You're not going to fuck this up as badly as you think you are."

Kurt sighs and fiddles with his cufflinks. "Are you sure about that?"

"We'd be having a different conversation if I thought you would."

He looks at one of the framed pieces of pop art on the wall by the door instead of at her. She's always had this way of getting inside his head, and he knows that he should just tell her everything, let it all roll off his tongue. She could help him, maybe, remind him of all the reasons why he can't, why he shouldn't.

Why he can't be in love with Blaine.

But he is, he is. "I'm in love with him," he says, and the words are heavy in his mouth; he feels like they choke him when he speaks. "I know that I shouldn't, I know that he can't— he can't consent and that's— I can't tell him, I can't ever let him know, not until he's— " He takes a breath. "Not until he's free, and god, who knows where he's going? I can't— "

"I know," she says, and there's kindness in her voice and her eyes. Quinn leans forward and touches one of his hands, briefly, before settling back in her chair. "And I can't tell you what to do, but— you deserve to be happy, Kurt." It's the same thing that his father had said, almost, but it sounds different coming from Quinn. "And Blaine does too— and Kurt, I don't know how he feels about you, but I don't think he'd be shocked about how you feel."

"I can't put that on him, Quinn— I can't make him feel obligated or— "

"So don't— I promise you that he can understand that, okay? He's not broken or— " She gestures upwards with her hands. "He's come a long way from where he was last year. He's not going to fall into your bed just because you tell him you have a crush on him."

"I'd like to believe that, but— "

Quinn rolls her eyes. "When was the last time Blaine did something he didn't want to do?"

"You could argue that— "

"He can say no to you, and you'll listen," she says. "He can, I know that he has, and I don't believe you wouldn't listen to him if he said it now— I don't believe you wouldn't ask him a dozen times before you held his hand, let alone kissed him, but it's your life, and you can be miserable if you need to be."

She's right that Blaine has said no to him countless times in the last year. He rarely says the word on its own, but he'll gently suggest something else and Kurt never disagrees. But there's a difference between cooking a different protein at dinner and an emotional burden; Kurt doesn't find the comparison fair. "It is my life," he agrees. "And I'll— I'll think about it, okay?"

"That's all I want," she says, and she stands up to leave. She pushes the chair she'd been sitting in back into place and turns to leave the office. Kurt looks down at the expense reports on his desk and tries to ignore the ache that's building under his breastbone, because they have nothing connecting them, not any more-- it feels selfish and wrong, because the bracelet had always been more of a handcuff on Quinn, but for one bright second he misses it.

"Kurt?" she says, and he looks up at her, and all he can see is her silhouette in his doorway. "Sometimes he looks back."

* * *

On the tenth of March, it starts to rain.

Blaine wraps himself in a warm knitted blanket and curls up in one of the chairs in the living room, watching the raindrops stream down the windowpanes. This new apartment doesn't get as cold as the old one did, and maybe that's— it's different, it's fine.

He's warmer, too.

He drinks tea and tucks his toes in the blanket; he makes himself a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch and eats it while finishing The Grey King, his mouth forming the strange syllables of Welsh as he goes. Then, he closes his book and goes into the kitchen to wash his plate and the pan he'd used for the grilled cheese; he wants to hold on to the rhythm of the everyday, when everything else is changing.

After, he leaves the blanket on the couch and stands on the balcony, letting the rain soak into his skin.

It's not a baptism; he doesn't discover something new in the rain. He doesn't become born anew, but he—

He heals a little more.

He takes a shower afterwards, lets the steam fog up the bathroom mirrors as the hot water pours over the nape of his neck, flattens his hair down into tangled mess. He touches the soft skin of his abdomen and remembers what it felt like to chafe it until it bled, how the pain had grounded him in his own skin.

Today, he doesn't.

Today, he steps out of the shower and towels his hair dry. He turns on the fan and lets it suck all the steam out of the bathroom, shivers in the cold air that sneaks in under the door. Once he's dry, he pulls on a soft pair of pajama pants and one of the oldest shirts he has, the worn cotton just beginning to fray at the collar.

His hair is still damp when Kurt gets home, tendrils of it curling underneath his ears, sticking to his temples as he finishes cooking dinner.

“Hey,” he says, and Kurt sighs, drops his bag to the floor and sits on one of the stools at the bar that overlooks the kitchen.

“Hey,” Kurt replies, but he doesn’t say anything else, just watches Blaine cook with this sort of half-smile on his face.

“Long day?” Blaine asks.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Kurt says, lapsing into silence again. “I just-- the change to a new assistant is proving to be harder than I thought it would be. She's great, she's just--” not Quinn, Blaine finishes for him, because neither of them needs to say it out loud.

Quinn is too close and too far; Blaine almost suggests that they invite her and Beth up for dinner, but he lets the question die unasked. “She’ll get used to you soon,” he says instead. He turns to the sink to drain the pasta before returning it to the pan to stir the sauce and vegetables in. "And I'm not going anywhere." He doesn't really think about it when he says it, but he has this moment of horrified realization that he just— "I mean," he babbles, backtracking, "I'll stay as long as you want me to, Kurt, I just— "

"No, no, it's fine," Kurt says, talking over him, eyes wide. "Stay."

Blaine feels his lips curling up and his cheeks heat. "Dinner's ready," he says, pouring it into a serving dish. He's already set the table, plates and silverware and a pitcher of water, condensation beading on the outside. He carries the pasta over and sets it in the middle, waiting for Kurt to sit and serve himself before taking some for himself.

This should be normal; it should be like any of the other nights they've share a meal and a table, but there's something just slightly off, something that makes Blaine feel the silence too acutely. "So," he says, feeling awkward and trying to push past it, regain some of the normalcy that he should have. "Um, how was your day?"

"Long," Kurt says, and Blaine feels his cheeks heat with embarrassment, this time, because he'd already asked that, and-- "How was yours?"

"It was fine," Blaine replies, because honestly his days aren't that exciting. "I'm almost done with The Grey King, and I mostly just, you know, hung around here."

Kurt presses his lips together. "You know, you don't have to always be here— you could go out with friends, or— "

"I know!" Blaine interrupts. "I, um. I know that I can, and I'm having lunch with Paige tomorrow and Quinn on Friday, and I just— I like it here." He pauses, looking at a drop of water making its slow way down the side of the pitcher. "It's warm."

Kurt hums. "It's warmer than our old place."

"And there's a lot more space." The conversation feels inane and Blaine wishes that he could just— cut through the awkwardness and get to something more— something more right. Things have never been entirely comfortable with Kurt, but they've been better than this slow stuttering mess he's turned into since he realized he was in love with Kurt. "The rain was nice?" he tries.

Kurt actually smiles at him this time, and he can't stop himself from smiling back. "I'll be happier when I see more flowers, that's for sure." Blaine makes a mental note to bring home flowers from the market this spring, if they're something that Kurt enjoys that much. If he's still here when spring is in full bloom, of course.

If he's still here.

"How's the new collection going?" Blaine asks, stumbling for words, for something to say that will make this even a little less awkward.

"It's— it's fine? I've got the designs mostly done, so it's that and then— " Kurt must stick his feet over to Blaine's side of the table because he feels the scratch of Kurt's wool socks against his bare ankle, and they both freeze.

There's a long minute where they blink and look at each other in total silence, and then Kurt moves his feet too fast and his knees bang the underside of the table. "Sorry!" he says, and Blaine doesn't know what expression is on his own face, but Kurt's expression is full of embarrassment and horror and his cheeks are bright red. "I'm sorry, I— "

"No, no, it's completely fine," Blaine says, trying to gain some control of his face. "It's fine, I didn't— you have long legs."

"I, um," Kurt says eloquently. He re-folds his napkin neatly in his lap. "Sorry," he says again. "It won't happen again."

"It's fine," Blaine repeats, forcing a tight smile across his face and ignoring the part of his brain that's asking him what it might have felt like, if Kurt hadn't moved.

They finish the rest of the meal in silence.

* * *

"Can I tell you something in confidence?" Blaine asks Shannon later that week. Today he's wearing a long-sleeved striped shirt and he can't stop himself from playing with the hem around his left wrist. He's still wearing his bracelet, because he's not— he's not ready. He's not Quinn, ready to strike out on his own and be his own person.

"If you need to," Shannon replies cautiously. "I keep most of what we say here confidential, Blaine, but because of the nature of our work, some things need to get shared."

"No, I know," Blaine says. He's never expected that his Fosters would keep the things he's said to them private— he's a Def, he doesn't get privacy. He hadn't talked to Joseph much; Emma had known him best. He and Shannon are okay, though, and this is something that he can't keep quiet about. It's not— he has to tell someone, and it can't be Kurt, and it can't be the police. Shannon might actually be able to do something about it, and she's been watching his bruises heal just like Kurt has (almost like Kurt has, but there's something in his gaze that's absent in hers). "I just— someone should keep an eye on Sebastian," he says in a rush.

"The guy in your group?" she asks, expression mild. She doesn't call him a Def, and that gives him the courage to continue.

"Yes," he says, nodding. "I don't think— I think he should talk to someone."

"Are you gonna tell me why?" she asks, and he lets himself rub a hand across the almost-faded bruises on his neck. She'll know it for the tell that it is, and maybe he won't have to spell it out for her. He knows how these things work— he's been a Def for over ten years, and even though he's only known Shannon for a few months, he knows that she'll understand.

"I ran into him outside of group week before last, and he doesn't seem like he's adjusting," he says, compromising between what actually happened and what he's able to say. He can't tell her about Sebastian's hands around his neck and his voice in Blaine's ears, because she'll have to report that, not just talk to Sebastian's Foster. He can't give Sebastian another reason to come after him; he can't expose Sebastian's vulnerabilities like that.

"You know that his Foster has conversations with him, just like we do?" Shannon says.

Blaine nods. "I know," he says. "I just— I think he could benefit from someone else looking in on him."

"You want to tell me why?"

"You know I can't," he says, looking at his hands. "I don't— just, check on him. Please."

She writes something down on a sticky note. "It's good that you're concerned, kid," she says. "But look out for yourself too, okay?"

He nods and bites his lip; the sharper pain lets him ignore the ache in his neck, his shoulders. The tension bleeds from his back, and he can look at her again.

"And how are you doing?" she asks once he meets her eyes. He can't read her expression, but he's met with her enough times that he's fairly sure that he can answer that question honestly.

"I'm— some days are harder than others," he says. "I'm doing okay." She smiles at him, then, and he looks down at his hands. "Looking forward is strange," he admits. "Being able to decide where I'm going next is— it's not something that I'm used to. I don't know that I'll ever really get used to it?"

"You might," she says. "Or you might not— but either way, there are decisions you're going to have to make along the way."

He breathes in, breathes out. The prospect of making decisions is something that he's a lot more okay with now than he was when he first was contracted to Kurt, but it's still— he can decide things when they're to please other people (what kind of food to make, what kind of shirts to wear, where to place his hands, his knees), but doing things for himself is— it's new. He is reminded every day that things are different, that the world might be changing faster than he is. "I'm not ready," he says, because that's one thing he's certain of.

"Okay," Shannon says. "You know, there are some programs starting up— residential things up north, not in the city— for Defs transitioning. That might be something you're interested in."

Leaving the city would mean leaving Kurt and Quinn and Beth, and he can't— "I can't leave the city," he says too fast, looking up at her and blinking twice, three times. Even though he's sometimes thought about leaving, packing a bag and going, the city is where he's safest, and he can't quite seriously consider leaving. Shannon raises her palms, soothing him.

"That's fine, Blaine," she says. "We can find you something here, too."

"That might be better, yes," he replies, feeling his breathing slow. "I told Kurt that I wouldn't leave."

She's silent for a long moment. "Did he ask you not to go?"

"No," Blaine says. "No, he— he told me that I could leave whenever I wanted, and— maybe I should, but I just— I'm still in love with him. That hasn't changed, and I don't want to mess up his life any more than I already have. Maybe I should leave."

"Are you happy with him?"

He nods, breathes in. The breath shudders out of him, even though he's not anywhere near tears. "I'm happiest with him. I'm not— things are still hard, but I'm so much better now than I have been in years. I'm not afraid as much."

"He makes you feel safe?" He can hear the question at the end of the sentence, even though it's phrased like a statement.

"He always has," Blaine says. "I don't think I'd love him if he didn't."

"Are you going to tell him?" she asks.

He shakes his head. "I can't. I just want to be near him, as long as he'll let me."

Shannon nods. "I think that's the right choice, Blaine. Relationships are complicated, no matter who you are, and I know that Kurt's a good man, but— "

"I know," Blaine says. He doesn't care that he's interrupting. "I know, I just wish that things could be different." But there's no way for that to happen, not unless everything is different, and that's just— he can't think about what would have happened if he hadn't been marked.

They sit in silence until Shannon says, "Have you thought about where you'll go once you're free?"

Blaine shakes his head. "I want to stay with him, but I know that isn't— it's not feasible. He's not going to want me around if I’m not working for him, even though he told me— he said I could stay as long as I wanted. But I don't— he won't want me to be around."

She nods. "We should start looking at your options, then. I'll have some ideas for you, but I'm giving you homework, too."

"It'll be the first time since I was fifteen that I've been assigned homework," he says, grinning.

Shannon smiles back at him. "I want you to try to figure out what you want to do once you're free. You have a lot of great skills— and you don't have to make a decision this week, or even this year, but it's time that you started thinking about it, at least."

"You think I'm ready for that?" he asks. He can't help but be nervous about it.

"I think you're more ready than you think you are," she says. "Don't let the horses out before you've built the barn."

"I'll try," Blaine says-- and he thinks he even understands what she's saying, this time. He just doesn't even know where to start.

"That's all I'm gonna ask from you," Shannon says. And maybe Shannon's pushing him because he's one more Def for her to work with (but she's kind; she's nothing like Emma except in all the ways that matter), but maybe she's pushing him because he needs to be pushed. He's-- things are almost too easy, back with Kurt, even with the weird tension that he's been feeling. He has a place to live and a job to do and people who care about him, but he doesn't-- there has to be more than that to his future.

It's like-- it's almost like he was looking out a fogged-up window, and he could see the things outside of it, but just barely, and now the window's clear and there's a whole world where he only used to be able to see the edges. Maybe it's not the best world, and it certainly isn't a perfect world, but he wants to open that window and see where he fits outside of the glass.

* * *

Kurt feels like he's stuck.

The inside of his lip gets swollen, bruised and bloody because he bites it so much, trying to keep his words from spilling out. He's used to keeping himself behind a mask— he's hidden parts of himself since he was eight and his mother was dying (he'd been terrified of losing his father, then— and he's kept that fear ever since). He's practiced at seeming unbothered, used to presenting himself like ice.

With Blaine, though, he's let a lot of those masks come down. Not that Blaine knows everything about him, not nearly. But he can imagine telling Blaine about his mom and McKinley and glee club, things he hopes Blaine can relate to. There are so many things that he wants to say— so many things he could say— but he can't, he won't, not without telling Blaine the one thing that he really can't say out loud.

Things don't really change, except in the smallest ways. Beth starts a new book and tells them excitedly all about Percy and Nico and their adventures. Marley finally stops looking quite so intimidated every time the phone rings and finally learns to hang up on sales calls, so Kurt gives her a raise. Quinn has midterms, so Beth stays with Kurt for a few extra days while Quinn lives off coffee and Blaine's cookies and studies her ass off. And Blaine—

--Blaine looks at him differently.

Kurt's fairly sure that he's not imagining it (like he had with Finn, back in high school before they were brothers). There's something soft and warm in Blaine's gaze when Kurt catches him looking (and Quinn's right; he does look back). It's enough to give Kurt hope, stupid and fragile and probably terribly misguided— hope that Blaine might feel the same way that he does.

And he's— there's love, he knows there is, and this heat that thrums under his skin and wakes him up gasping some mornings.

But nothing else changes; he tongues the inside of his lower lip and it still feels bruised.

* * *

It doesn't get any less awkward.

It's like there's this layer of conversation that goes unsaid; there are times that Blaine feels like Kurt is about to say something and holds himself back. He does the same thing. He is careful with his hands, careful with his arms and the way he holds himself. After dinner most nights, Kurt retreats to his room to draw ("finishing the new collection," he says) instead of staying in the living room with Blaine. It— Blaine's not sure if Kurt wants to hold him closer or push him away.

He's not sure if he wants to be pushed away or held, either. He knows that there's a timeline on their relationship. Shannon has been talking more and more about when and less about if; he's come up with half a dozen things that he could do, once he's free. He's going to be free, he is, he just—

He wants to see the world outside the apartment. He wants to be unleashed, he wants to stay free and run for hours, jump on a bus or a train and just go. He wants to go back to Ohio and yell at his parents, if they're even still in the state. He wants to be alone by choice, not because someone's left him.

And at the same time he wants to stay here, wrap himself in a blanket and tuck himself in the corner of the couch and press his toes against Kurt. He wants to huddle down in the winter and bake loaf after loaf of good dark bread; he wants to watch Beth grow up and Quinn break free. He wants to kiss Kurt's fingertips, his face, the corner of his eyebrow. There are reasons to stay and reasons to leave, and he can't decide. He doesn't even know if staying is actually even an option, or if Kurt is just too nice to kick him out.

He and Shannon talk about his ideas— baking, office work, child care— things that he's done before and doesn't find mind-numbing. He'd thought about music, about maybe playing the piano as a session musician or even as a street performer, but his voice is still something that he doesn't have back, not all the way, and he can't imagine playing for a living and not being able to sing. There had been a time when all he'd wanted to do was perform, when the lights and the thought of a thousand eyes on him was what kept him sound asleep at night, but now-- now. Now he can sing, sometimes, when he forgets where he is, when he forgets he isn't fifteen any more.

Now he's twenty-seven, and he's forgotten how to sing.

But he remembers how it felt, when he'd been with Kurt in that kitchen-- how he'd felt safe, and warm-- and maybe his voice is something that he can get back.

They're making small talk at dinner one night when Kurt asks him about his sessions with Shannon. It's something that he's done before, and Blaine thinks it should be no different, but when he mentions career plans and that maybe, someday, he might have his own place, Kurt's hands tighten around his silverware. Blaine stops in the middle of a sentence and watches Kurt's knuckles turning white. He's not— he shouldn't be afraid, and he's not, really (and he can tell that he would have been, nine months ago— he would have already been on the floor), but there's a frisson of tension that runs up his spine, and his mouth is dry.

"Kurt?" he asks, voice as quiet and gentle as he can make it.

"Fuck, sorry," Kurt says, dropping his knife and fork on the table. "I didn't mean to— and I've told you, you can stay as long as you want to."

"I'm not leaving any time soon," Blaine promises, and he wants to reach out but he's frozen in place, not sure if his touch would be welcome.

"No, I know, I just— I want you to stay," Kurt says, and it has the whispered air of a confession, like he hadn't meant to say it.

"I— " Blaine starts, but Kurt starts talking over him like he can't stop, and Blaine is frozen in his chair.

"And I don't want you to leave because I'm— I'm in love with you, and I know that you don't, and I can't— I won't ask anything of you, and I just— fuck. " Kurt collapses backwards into his chair, presses his hands over his eyes. He looks so small, not broad-shouldered and tall and the one steady part of Blaine's world. Maybe Kurt is just as fragile as he is, in some places. "Forget I said anything, please, Blaine, I'm so sorry."

"It's okay," Blaine says. He's still sitting in place, suddenly unsure of what to do with his hands— he's pretty sure that this would be a hugging situation if it weren't— if Kurt hadn't said what he'd just said. "I don't— "

"It's really not okay," Kurt interrupts. "You're my Def, you're my property, I'd be within my rights to— "

"But you won't," Blaine says immediately. He's not certain of many things, but he's certain of this. "Kurt, I— you'd never ask anything of me that I wouldn't be willing to give."

Kurt finally lowers his hands but his face is miserable, eyes and cheeks red. Blaine's hands want to reach out but he flattens them against his thighs instead. "Please don't be okay with this," Kurt says, and it's almost a whisper. "I don't— this can't be okay."

"It's okay," Blaine says. It feels like saying no. He perches on the edge of his chair and lets himself lean forward this time, take Kurt's hands. They're freezing cold, like he's been wandering around in the rain for hours, and Blaine wants to make them warm, like the feelings that have been burning slow and quiet inside him for weeks now. Blaine looks out the window instead of at Kurt, but his hands stay tight around Kurt’s. “There’s no way to go but forward,” he says. “And this-- this could be a really good thing, okay? And I’m not saying that because I feel like I should, or because I think it’ll make you happy, or--”

He thinks about staying silent, keeping his words and his feelings tucked inside where they're safe, but he-- this is what he wanted. This is something he'd never really let himself hope for, something he thought he wouldn't ever put into words. If he stays silent, maybe he stays safer, maybe he doesn't open himself up to something that might end in heartbreak, for either one of them. Staying silent is the easier thing, maybe-- it might be the best thing, even, for Kurt to never know, for Blaine to never tell him, but he--

This is about building the kind of future that Blaine wants to have. And he wants Kurt to be a part of that future-- he wants Kurt by his side, wants to hold Kurt's hands in his, wants to kiss Kurt's cheek, his lips. This is something that he wants for himself, but he wants it for Kurt, too-- this is something that could make them both happy.

He breathes in, breathes out. “I’m saying it because I started falling in love with you in February, when the sun came back, and even though it’s raining now, knowing that I love you is part of what’s keeping me warm and dry. I don’t expect anything from you, but I know that I-- I want to be a part of your life, for as long as you’ll have me.” The rain is streaking down the windowpane and Blaine’s breaths are slow and measured; it’s cold outside but he is still warm.

Kurt’s hands tighten around his and Blaine looks back over at the top of Kurt’s head because Kurt is bent over, holding on to Blaine’s hands like they’re a lifeline. “Say something?” Blaine says, even though he’s not really worried about Kurt rejecting him at this point.

Fuck, Blaine,” Kurt says, exhaling, and Blaine smiles.

“It’s okay,” Blaine says. “You can’t-- you can’t control how you feel, okay? I get that. And even if I didn’t feel the same way, it would be okay for you to have feelings for me. I’ve talked a lot with Shannon about it,” he offers. “I never would have guessed if you hadn’t said anything, but I’m glad you did.”

Kurt finally looks up. His eyes are red-rimmed and his hair is much more of a mess than usual, but he still looks amazing. Blaine smiles at him, because Kurt is usually so composed, and he reaches out a hand to touch Kurt’s face. Kurt pulls back, Blaine's hand dropping from his face. He blinks fast and his eyes shutter, gaze falling to where their hands are still joined on the table, where Blaine's bracelet is shining softly in the lamplight; maybe now, it won't be the only thing connecting them.

He's worked so hard to be where he his, to be able to reach out and speak and touch-- to not be an island any more, and when Kurt is holding his hand, it feels like he can do anything. But Kurt squeezes Blaine's hand once before dropping it, slumping back in his chair, and Blaine is adrift again, lost to the current.

(This time, this time, he might be able to anchor himself.)

"Blaine, I--" he starts, and then stops, looking down at the pasta that's still in front of him. Blaine can be patient, here-- he can wait for Kurt, because he knows now that there's something to wait for. Kurt scrubs at his eyes with his palms. "I don't know if I can-- this all feels like a dream, okay? And I'm not sure that it's entirely a good one, and I just-- can we maybe-- can we go to sleep, talk about this in the morning?"

It's not what Blaine wants Kurt to say, but he can hear truth in it, and right now Kurt looks like he's about to shatter into pieces. So as much as he wants to stay here with Kurt, or curled up on the couch in the living room, he listens. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, let's-- in the morning, okay?"

Kurt heaves out a breath that's somewhere in between a sigh and a sob, pushes back his chair, and stands up. "I do-- I still love you, I just--" He waves a hand in the air. "I just need some time, okay?"

"Yeah," Blaine says, and he stands, too, reaching for Kurt's plate so that he can put them in the kitchen. He still doesn't-- he barely feels like it's his place to say anything, but Kurt is looking so fragile, so unsure of himself, that Blaine can't-- he can't leave it like this. “It’s okay,” Blaine repeats, because there's nothing else he can really say, not tonight. Maybe in the morning, things will be different-- maybe, in the light of day, Kurt will feel more like this is possible. He wants to hug Kurt, touch his face, his hands, but he knows that wouldn't be welcomed, not tonight.

This isn't something he can give up, though, not now that he knows how Kurt feels, now that he can see how great they could be. He clasps his own hands in front of him because he can't take Kurt's, and the touch grounds him, lets him straighten his back and catch Kurt's eyes. And something in Kurt's eyes opens, softens, blooms enough for Blaine to smile at him and say, “I love you, too.”

* * *