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When Blaine tells him that he has to transfer for McKinley for their senior year of high school because of his family's financial problems, Kurt thinks ahead to all of the good and bad parts of having Blaine there. He thinks of duets in Glee and slushies in the hallway. He thinks of getting to see each other every day again and being faced with Blaine's sometimes unfortunate wardrobe choices. He thinks of having the same set of friends and confronting bullies hand-in-hand. He thinks of how sad he is for Blaine's situation and how amazing the year is going to be.

He's not precisely wrong in his predictions, but what actually happens is nothing like he expects.

*

On the first day of school, Kurt arranges to meet Blaine in the McKinley High parking lot. Blaine has been to the school before, obviously, but he doesn't really know his way around. The last thing he needs to do is get lost and ask some nice young man in a letter jacket for help. Kurt has slushie-cleaning materials in his bag to be stored in his locker for the year, but he'd rather not have to use them today if he can avoid it.

Blaine is waiting in his car as promised, and he unlocks the doors for Kurt to slide inside into the passenger seat.

"Hi," Kurt says, trying to keep his excitement to an acceptable and mature level but pretty much failing to moderate his smile. They're going to be in the same school again. They are in the same school again.

"Hi," Blaine says, smiling back at him. He's wearing a polo shirt with his jeans, and if he looks rather more preppy than Kurt thinks is necessary it is at least not an obvious bulls-eye. The medium blue looks great on him, too.

"I still can't believe you're here," Kurt says breathlessly, taking his hand. It feels as warm and strong as ever in his. "And we actually have English together."

"And Glee," Blaine reminds him, and just the thought of it makes Kurt's stomach fluttery. They get to perform together again. "I'm getting flashbacks to last year."

"Me, too." Kurt beams at him for a moment before he comes back to himself. "Just don't forget this isn't Dalton," he says, because they can't lose their heads completely.

Blaine grins and shakes his head. "I don't think I could get them confused. For one, you never wore that at Dalton." He gestures to the hat resting in Kurt's lap; it's new and utterly fabulous.

"Even if it had been in last year's collection, it would have been against the dress code. And remember, if someone you don't know takes your hand and offers to show you a shortcut, do not go with them," Kurt tells him with mock seriousness.

"I don't know; that worked out pretty well for you," Blaine says. He squeezes Kurt's hand.

"Those were special circumstances," Kurt reminds him, smiling at the memory. The smile fades a little as a handful of boys in letter jackets walk by. "And that was at Dalton."

"That was at Dalton." Blaine nods and takes a deep breath, his eyes tracking the jocks. "It's going to be fine, Kurt," he says. It seems to be as much for himself as for Kurt.

"It will absolutely be fine." Kurt lets go of his hand and reaches for the handle of the door. A part of him is tempted to lean over and kiss him, but the parking lot is busy, and he doesn't want to give anyone more ammunition against Blaine than they're already going to have between him being new and being associated with Kurt. "Come on. Mercedes is going to meet us at your locker."

They walk side-by-side from the parking lot toward the school, and Kurt clutches his binder to his chest more tightly than is necessary because he's painfully aware that he's not holding Blaine's hand. They rarely hold hands in public, really, because it's almost never safe to show off their relationship, but at Dalton they could whenever they wanted. They were teased from time to time, but only as being lovebirds; there was no threat of actual retaliation. Here, at this school, they don't have that luxury. He feels like all eyes are on them as it is. In fact, it might have been safer for Blaine to have gone in on his own, but Kurt could never have let him do that. Blaine is his boyfriend, and he had to transfer to McKinley. Kurt will be by his side.

Besides, it's not like their relationship could have been secret for more than a couple of days. They will be smart, but they are not hiding.

"This is the best door for you," Kurt says as they enter the school. "It's far away from the gym, and your locker is just around this corner." They make the turn, and it's not just Mercedes waiting there. Tina, Mike, Rachel, and Finn are also standing in a little knot, and they break out in applause when they see them.

"Blaine!" Tina says and throws her arms around him in a hug that he returns with a laugh and a slightly confused glance at Kurt.

"Welcome to McKinley," Rachel says, giving him a kiss on his cheek when Tina lets go. "I wanted to decorate your locker for you, but Mercedes wouldn't let me."

"Not everyone likes pink and stars as much as you do," Mercedes tells her before hugging Blaine, herself.

"Good to have you here, man." Finn pats him on his shoulder and smiles like he hasn't seen Blaine all summer instead of the three of them having watched a movie on the Hummel-Hudson couch two nights before.

"Hey, guys," Blaine says, exchanging a friendly nod with Mike. "Thanks for the welcome!"

"Hi, Kurt," Tina says, smiling over at Kurt, who is watching them all and feeling a bit like he's stepped into some crazy dream. Blaine is really at McKinley, and Kurt's friends are there to welcome him.

"Hello." He bends to give Mercedes a one-armed hug as Blaine gets his locker open and tosses half of the contents of his bag inside. It goes from being empty but tidy to a mess in about five seconds flat, but Blaine seems fine with it.

"I have plenty of supplies if you want to add something to your door," Rachel tells Blaine.

"Thanks, but I only need this." Blaine opens a smaller pocket on his bag and pulls out a picture of Kurt and him from the summer, a close-up of the two of them wearing sunglasses, their hair wind-blown from a day out at the lake. It was taken at arm's length by Blaine. He is smiling like a maniac in the picture, but Kurt is pleased to see that his own expression, though still happy, is more poised; the next picture in the series caught him laughing as Blaine unexpectedly turned his face to plant a sloppy kiss on his cheek. That's the one Kurt has on his dresser, but there are some things he doesn't need to share with the rest of the school.

"Aw," Tina and Rachel say in unison as Blaine sticks it on the inside of his locker door.

"Come on, now. It's almost the homeroom bell," Mercedes says, glancing at her phone.

"I'll walk you there, Blaine," Rachel tells him. "You're right down the hall from me."

"Artie's in your homeroom," Mike says.

Blaine bounces on his toes. "He is? Awesome."

"See you at Glee?" Finn asks.

"I'll be there," Blaine says. "I've been working on my audition song. I want it to go well." He is adorably earnest, and Kurt knows he's been putting time in rehearsing the past few nights, though he won't tell Kurt anything about what's he's singing.

Kurt hides his smile behind a cough as his friends burst out laughing.

Blaine blinks at them. "What?"

"I think you'll find things a little less formal around here than is perhaps appropriate for a show choir that went to Nationals last year, but I, for one, appreciate your work ethic," Rachel tells him before Kurt can explain yet again the differences between the Warblers and New Directions. Blaine seems to have trouble believing they were beaten last year by a group that sometimes didn't even have a set list on the day of their performances.

"We've got to go," Mercedes says, and Kurt checks his watch, because he hasn't even gotten to his locker yet. He's not ready to send Blaine off to homeroom. He wants to enjoy this moment a little while a longer. He wants to bask in Blaine being there with all of his friends. He wants to remember the hundred things he's forgotten to tell him about how to survive his first day.

The warning bell rings, and Kurt knows he's out of time.

"Have a good morning," Tina says to Mike, reaching up on her tiptoes to give him a kiss, and Kurt looks away when Rachel goes to kiss Finn, because he's seen plenty of that over the course of the summer.

"See you in English," he says to Blaine, who smiles at him in return. They don't kiss. They both know they can't. Still, Blaine doesn't even linger like he's thinking about it, for which Kurt should be thankful, because he doesn't want Blaine to be pining for Dalton any more than necessary. He should be thankful, but he finds himself pining for Dalton and the freedoms they had there instead.

"See you in English," Blaine simply replies, and then Rachel is taking his arm and leading him away as the group disperses in the crowded hallway.

Kurt watches them for a second, watches his boyfriend walk away to his homeroom in the same school, and then turns toward the next corridor over. He sees Santana at the other end of the hall when he reaches his locker, and she nods a distant greeting at him but doesn't come over. He's not surprised; it's Santana, after all.

The hall is quickly emptying. Opening his locker, he arranges his cleaning supplies and emergency clothes at the back but leaves the rest of his organization and decoration for later. It looks empty and dull. Last year he and Mercedes had arrived at school early to put up their mirrors and locker murals, but this year he'd been so focused on Blaine's transfer that he'd forgotten to leave time for other important things. It is too late now.

It seems like he shouldn't have even worried about Blaine, though; New Directions has already taken him under their collective wings. Kurt could have spent the entire morning decorating, and Blaine might have had a better - safer, smarter, less target-creating - introduction to the student body than walking in with him. Kurt refuses to be afraid, but he knows Blaine has to be feeling his own history. Maybe he would have been better off without -

No, Kurt ruthlessly quashes that bit of insecurity and punctuates it with a slam of his locker door. It's wonderful that Glee was there, but Blaine is Kurt's boyfriend and best friend. Kurt is always going to be by his side, loving him, watching out for him. The rest of the school will just have to deal with it.

*

They have assigned seats in their English class; Mr. Walters uses the mind-blowing and groundbreaking alphabetical system, which puts Blaine in the first seat in the first row instead of beside Kurt where he should be. The only good thing about it is that Kurt is two rows behind and one over from him, so he can spend the period looking at Blaine's back. He can spend the rest of the year watching Blaine.

Kurt can drink in the graceful bend of his neck when he looks down at his notes or the little flip of the hair at his nape where it escapes from the ridiculous amount of product Blaine insists on using. He can daydream over Blaine's broad shoulders and the sensual curve of his bicep beneath his sleeve. He can catch Blaine's eye and share a smile when Blaine turns around to pass papers back behind him.

He can do it all as much as he wants for as long as he wants, because Blaine is his boyfriend. He's allowed. He's supposed to.

This is going to be the best year ever.

*

Kurt gets to the choir room before Blaine that afternoon, and he throws his bag over the chair next to him to save it as he sits down with Mercedes. It's the first time he's had to do that at McKinley, since he and his friends switch around their seats depending on their moods, their current romantic partners, and the particular gossip of the day, and it makes his chest swell that he is saving a chair for his boyfriend in Glee. Blaine's wide smile when he walks in and sees Kurt makes it even better, and Kurt leans over toward him as Blaine sits. Their shoulders brush, and Kurt feels warm with unexpected contentment. It's nice to have Blaine there. It's really nice.

"How's your first day going?" Mercedes asks over Kurt.

"It's had some really good parts," Blaine replies easily, nudging against Kurt's shoulder again. His eyes look tired, but he seems to be in good spirits. "English. Lunch. Now. Pretty much anything with Kurt in it."

"You are so smitten it's not even funny," she tells him, and he just nods and smiles at Kurt some more.

"Hey, guys," Mr. Schuester says as he walks in the door. "It's great to see all of you. I hope you had a good summer and are ready to work. Last year we made it to Nationals, and this year we're going to win it!"

Everyone claps, and Lauren lets out a wolf whistle behind him that makes Kurt flinch and laugh at the same time. They're back, and if he can't look forward to most of his classes or - god - gym, at least he has this.

Kurt had considered performing a song to welcome Blaine into the club, but he had ultimately decided against it. The traditional costume for "Wilkommen" from Cabaret is out of the question, even if the song is a classic, and he'd been unable to find time to rehearse the choreography with Tina and Brittany, anyway. Besides, Blaine wants to sing, and Kurt doesn't want to take away from that.

"Before we get started, Mr. Schuester," Blaine says, "I was hoping I could have a few minutes. Just to make things official."

"Of course, Blaine." Mr. Schuester cedes the floor to Blaine with a smile and a wave of his hand.

Blaine stands up and walks to the center of the room with the same confidence he embodies when he takes a proper stage. Kurt sits at attention and watches him with his heart swelling in his chest. Blaine is incredible, and he's singing in Glee, as part of Glee. Kurt almost has to pinch himself to believe it.

"You guys all know me and have heard me sing when you beat the crap out of the Warblers," Blaine says with a self-deprecating smile, "but I know it's traditional to audition when you want to join Glee Club, so I've prepared a little something."

"That's great," Mr. Schuester says. "Whenever you're ready."

Blaine nods at Brad and the band, and Kurt has a second to wonder when he had time to coordinate with them - or even meet them - before the music starts and he has to close his eyes for a moment to keep his expression under control. It's Katy Perry, "Last Friday Night" to be exact, and Blaine has been humming it all summer under his breath, even when Kurt had threatened to stop going out on Friday evening dates to avoid it.

When Blaine starts singing in front of them, he's already grinning from ear to ear with delight, and he's as powerful of a showman as ever, even without the Warblers to back him up. In fact he's better, because there's no modest little dip back into the group to let his friends share the spotlight. Instead, in the most charming way possible, he's demanding all of the light for himself. He struts and spins, smiling through the lyrics and playing with the audience without even having to think about it. Kurt's entranced; they all are. Blaine commands attention. He's vibrant. He's a star.

Kurt is smiling, of course he is, he is helpless not to smile when Blaine is singing (even this song), but a part of him can't help but compare in some distant corner of his mind the precision of the performance he had planned in his head with Blaine's crazy energy... and how the rest of New Directions is coming off of the risers to join him. Brittany is first, taking Blaine's hand and spinning around him, and Santana follows a few beats later. Blaine twirls them both, and then Mike comes down, Puck and Lauren behind him, and it's a singing, dancing party with Blaine singing his heart out in the middle.

Their joy in the music is infectious, and Kurt is laughing when Blaine soft-shoes over and pulls him out of his chair to join them. He couldn't possibly resist it, and as much as he's sick of the song he even lends his voice to the chorus with everyone else. It's the kind of riot of bouncy music and free movement that Glee Club loves.

It's also about as far from "Wilkommen" or "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" as it's possible to get. It's nothing like what would have happened if Kurt had performed, he knows as he shimmies by himself beside the piano as his boyfriend serenades Mercedes. He would have been practiced and perfect. He would have done the classic score justice. He would have looked and sounded amazing. It would have been masterful. The rest of glee club would have sat and watched him with respect.

Blaine also sounds great, but at the end of the day he is just having fun. He's jumping around, dipping Quinn, making moon eyes at Kurt, and trying to follow Mike's dance moves. Kurt would have sung to them, but Blaine is singing with them, and Kurt realizes that in a way Blaine is already more at home in and accepted by the group than he has ever been.

It stings a little, but he's happy for Blaine. He truly is. It's a better welcome than Kurt could have given him, and Blaine deserves it all.

*

The Lima Bean is busy Thursday afternoon, and Kurt and Blaine grab the last empty table, a two-top in the corner away from the windows. Blaine slides into his seat with a thump, and even though they've spent plenty of time in here over the past months in regular clothing it is still a little weird for Kurt that it's after school and Blaine isn't tugging at his uniform tie and brushing biscotti crumbs off of his blazer.

"Long day?" Kurt asks, sitting more gently and taking the lid off of his coffee to let it cool; he's always hated burning his mouth, and it's even more inconvenient now that it interferes with his enjoyment of kissing.

"Long week," Blaine says. "I didn't think I could get lost that many times in a single building. I swear, every hallway looks exactly the same."

"It's part of their plan to keep us so confused that we can't revolt."

"It's working." Blaine takes a long drink of his coffee. "Good thing everyone in Glee is so nice about making sure I get to my classes on time. Even Lauren helped me when I was wandering around the wrong corridor today looking for my math class, and I thought she hated me from the way she stares at me sometimes."

"She doesn't hate you. She just wants to keep you as her pet."

"I'm not sure that's comforting."

Kurt nods in sympathy. "I'll save you if she tries," he says, though he's honestly not sure how he'd manage. He'd probably have to blackmail Puck, because Lauren herself is pretty hard to manipulate, even for him.

"You're the best," Blaine says with a smile.

"I know." Preening a little, Kurt reaches for his coffee and finds it cool enough to drink. He takes a long sip, savoring the rich sweet-bitter taste of the mocha on his tongue for a moment before swallowing.

Then Blaine oh-so-casually says, "So I'm thinking of joining Yearbook," and Kurt almost chokes on his coffee.

"What? Why on earth would you do that?" Kurt asks when he stops coughing. His eyes are still watering, and his voice is tight.

Blaine shrugs. "I should beef up my extracurriculars for my college apps; I can't depend on the Dalton name anymore."

"Okay," Kurt says slowly, because he knows that's important to Blaine, "but why Yearbook?"

"Why not?" Blaine spins his coffee cup on the table. "Katie Anastis - do you know her?" Kurt shakes his head. "Well, Katie's in my homeroom and study hall, and we've been talking all week. She asked me today. She's the photo editor, and they need some more help. She seems nice. And it's a good way to meet people, you know? Taking pictures, going to events. I mean, I only have this one year at McKinley, so I kind of need to catch up."

"Catch up with what?"

"With knowing my classmates," Blaine says.

Kurt can't help but stare at him. "Why would you want to know them?"

"Why not?"

Kurt can think of a thousand reasons why he doesn't care about any of his classmates but those in Glee, starting with slushies, ending with being picked last for group projects, and with countless other horrors and slights in between, but Blaine doesn't have that history. In fact, he's already doing better than Kurt, because he's been invited to join a club that has nothing to do with his musical talent. Hell, he's been invited to do anything.

"That's great," he says finally, because he doesn't know what else to say. Blaine loved having tons of friends at Dalton; it only makes sense that he wants them here, too.

Blaine toys with his cup for another few seconds and then squints up and asks, "Do you want to join, too? I mean, I know it's a long shot, but..."

"Do I want to join a club full of people I don't like, the sole purpose of which is to produce a publication in which my pictures have been systematically and thoroughly defaced at every turn by the rest of the school?" Kurt asks.

"Well, when you put it like that..." Blaine shrugs, obviously uncomfortable.

Kurt feels bad, because the last thing he wants to do it make Blaine feel worse about the school. "Look, you should join. If anyone can turn things around it's you. And you're right; you'll meet people. You should be making friends, and people like you, so you will."

"People like you," Blaine says, and at Kurt's raised eyebrow he continues, "Glee likes you. I like you."

"I like you, too. The Yearbook staff is lucky to have you."

Blaine shrugs and toys with his coffee a little more. "I haven't decided yet."

"Yes, you have," Kurt says gently, touching the tips of his fingers to Blaine's hand. "You should join. You'll have a good time. And besides, this way I can get final say over any pictures of me."

Blaine grins at him, and Kurt knows encouraging him is the right thing to do, even if the idea of joining Yearbook is so foreign he can hardly comprehend it. "I'll make sure I get your good side," Blaine promises.

Kurt forces himself to grin back; this turn of events definitely has its positive points. "I believe as my boyfriend you're required to think every side is my good side."

"Oh, I do," Blaine says with a warmth in his voice that makes Kurt's breath catch. "I do."

*

The next week, Mr. Schuester calls them to order on Monday with a clap of his hands. "One of our strengths as a group is our individuality, and I never want to lose sight of that," he says, "but we also need to be cohesive if we're going to win Nationals this year. You guys have been able to pull together under really difficult circumstances, but I'd like to see us work together when we're under less pressure."

"You mean we get to pick our songs more than a day or two before the performance?" Mercedes asks in a low voice, and Kurt chuckles as he shushes her.

"There are a number of group-building exercises that are routinely used in the theater - " Rachel begins.

"Or what about one of those rope obstacle course things?" Finn asks. "You know, like, those outdoor team building places."

"No way I'm climbing up a damn tree," Santana says.

"I'm not, either," says Brittany. "The last time I got stuck the fire department had to come get me down. And Lord Tubbington wouldn't let me keep the kitten."

Blaine glances over at Kurt, obviously confused, and Kurt shrugs back. It's Brittany.

"Guys, guys," Mr. Schuester says, "that's not what I had in mind."

"Aw, I was looking forward to dropping people in the trust falls," Lauren says.

Mr. Schuester gives her a disapproving look and continues. "I was thinking more of us all working together on the same page musically. Last year we each did songs from a single album; this week I want us all to do songs from the same show."

Rachel shoots out of her seat and spins to address the group. "The obvious choice is something from Barbra's extensive oeuvre," she says. "Now, I know Funny Girl is a favorite of mine, but given that I've already sung a number of selections from - "

Kurt simply has to cut in from his chair. He raises his hand. "Mr. Schue, if I may. Barbra is amazing, but there are a number of iconic musicals that might showcase a broader range of talent," he says. "Sunset Boulevard, Chicago, anything by Gershwin or Cole Porter - "

"I was hoping to pick something a little more modern that everyone here can relate to," Mr. Schuester interjects, cutting Kurt off just as he was getting on a roll. "Rachel, have a seat, and let's all throw around some ideas."

Kurt sighs and waits for the most boring brainstorming session ever to be over, since he and Rachel are by far the most versed in musical theater, and if their voices are going to be silenced then nothing good can come of this discussion.

Then Blaine raises his hand beside Kurt.

"Blaine?" Mr. Schuester says. "You have some ideas?"

"If you're looking for something modern, Avenue Q and RENT seem like good choices," Blaine says. "There are different sorts of songs for various ranges, and while one is comic and the other serious both deal with issues we can all connect with. Friendship, finding our futures, growing up."

"Sex. Porn," Santana says.

Kurt puts a hand over his eyes, but Blaine says with all seriousness, "And sex and porn. We are teenagers."

"Oh, Blanderson, do tell," she says with a purr, turning around in her chair to look at him. "Give us some details of what you two pretty boys are getting up to behind closed doors. I'm all ears."

Preparing to smack Santana down on his boyfriend's behalf, Kurt drops his hand and takes a deep breath, but before he can speak Mr. Schuester clears his throat. "We're getting off topic here."

"Welcome to Glee, Mr. Schue," Mercedes says, and everyone laughs. Santana turns around with a little wink at Blaine. The moment is behind them, and while Kurt relaxes in his seat, he doesn't take his eyes off of the back of Santana's evil, evil head.

"For the record, I'm all for singing about porn," Puck says.

"I think maybe a different direction would be more appropriate. RENT is a good idea, though." Mr. Schuester writes it up on the board. Kurt sighs; Finn would probably sound amazing singing "One Song Glory" (though Puck and Blaine would give him a run for his money), but what could he sing? "Out Tonight"? (He'd bet his allowance Santana will want that one.) One half of "Tango: Maureen"? Or, worse, they'll tag him as Angel, because stereotypes are so much fun. Although "I'll Cover You" would be romantic if they could transpose Collins' part into Blaine's range. Is it too soon for them to do a duet? They'd talked about waiting for the right assignment, but...

"If you want to think outside the box - " Blaine begins, and Kurt stops glaring daggers at Santana's ponytail and snaps his eyes to his boyfriend, because doesn't he realize he needs to stop talking for a little while? The rest of Glee is supposed to talk in circles about stupid suggestions, make Mr. Schuester frustrated, and then let Rachel and Kurt swoop in to save them all and pick the perfect Broadway vehicle for their voices.

Mr. Schuester gestures to him, though he, too, looks a little worried about what Blaine might say. "Go ahead."

"Well, when you say a show, why not a movie? I mean, not a movie like a traditional musical or even Moulin Rouge but one with music that shapes the film? There are plenty of more recent examples, but the first thing that sprang to mind to me was anything by John Hughes. The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink."

Mr. Schuester's eyes light up, and he gives Blaine an approving little nod. "That is great thinking. Okay, guys, let's think about movies with soundtracks that drive the story."

The room explodes into conversation, and Rachel catches Kurt's eye during the ensuing brainstorming. She looks annoyed that the assignment, originally so perfect, has taken this unexpected and altogether unwelcome turn. He shrugs his agreement and pulls out his phone. It's not like he can text Blaine the way he used to when he was bored in Glee, because not only is Blaine right next to him but he's talking as much as anyone, but he can at least play a few levels of Angry Birds.

After a minute or two he's aware of Blaine's eyes on him, but he keeps playing. It's great that Blaine has made a suggestion that has so excited Glee Club, but Kurt can't help but be upset about losing the opportunity to do Broadway instead of pop. He can't even count how many pop songs they've done, songs where he almost always has to take the background vocals because his voice is better suited for other sorts of music. Something different had almost been within his grasp.

"Hey," Blaine says to Kurt in a low voice while Finn and Puck are rhapsodizing over the soundtrack to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," Kurt replies and smashes another pig into smithereens. It's not very satisfying, if he's being honest with himself.

"I know you have ideas. You have like a hundred movie soundtracks in your iTunes."

Leave it to Blaine to bring logic into it. "I'm in mourning for the lost opportunity to sing Cole Porter," Kurt says coolly. He knows it's petty, but he just can't help it, not when it's clear that what he wants isn't going to happen.

Blaine shoots him a look that's a cross between amused and exasperated and raises his hand. "Mr. Schuester, what about the movie De-Lovely?"

"Excellent idea," Mr. Schuester says, turning from Puck with obvious relief and writing it down on the whiteboard beneath Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mission: Impossible II.

His heart expanding with hope and a fair bit of gratitude, Kurt blinks at Blaine and smiles a little when Blaine grins at him. It's a great suggestion and a smart way to bring the conversation back around to better music. He can only be a little annoyed that he didn't think of it first.

*

At lunch the next week, Tina sits down beside Kurt and after exchanging greetings asks, "How's Blaine settling in? I haven't really gotten a chance to talk to him."

"I think he's doing pretty well," Kurt replies after a thoughtful sip of water. "As well as can be expected, anyway."

"It isn't Dalton," she says with sympathy and spears a tater tot.

Kurt looks around the crowded cafeteria with its established cliques and rampant idiocy and sighs. He's still glad to be back, but he knows the school's flaws all too well. "It isn't Dalton," he agrees. "He says he doesn't mind being here, but I'm sure it's still a shock to his system."

"At least he has Glee. And you. You know, people to hang out with."

"Yes, he didn't have to navigate the muddy waters of high school social groups with only his wits to guide him," Kurt says with a faint grin.

Tina smiles back and knocks her elbow against his. "He's luckier than us, then."

"Oh, we managed all right in the end." He raises a hand at Mercedes when he sees her in the lunch line, and she wiggles her fingers where they're gripping her tray in reply.

"Yeah, we did. But, you know, a lot of it really sucked."

Kurt meets Tina's eyes and nods, because he's glad he's not the only one who remembers. "Yes, it did," he says, and he can't help but laugh a little because, wow, it had, but things are so much better now.

Blaine comes into the cafeteria through the door behind Kurt, so it's Tina who spots him first and waves. Kurt glances over his shoulder to see Blaine waving back while chatting to the ridiculously tall boy next to him. Kurt thinks his name is David or Derrek; Finn would know. He's on the basketball team, that much Kurt remembers, although it's an easy connection, given his height. The boy and Blaine talk animatedly as they go through the line; Kurt keeps half an eye on them as Mike sits down beside Tina and the three of them commiserate about having to sing country songs this week. Mercedes soon joins them.

Blaine takes his time, though, lingering at the registers once they've paid. He looks really happy, bouncing on his toes as he and the other boy discuss whatever it is that's so compelling. Kurt can't imagine what it could be. It's not like schoolwork deserves such an enthusiastic response.

Blaine bids the other boy goodbye and slides onto the seat beside Kurt with a wide smile for all of them. "It's tater tot day!" he says as he nudges his leg against Kurt's beneath the table. "I love tater tot day!"

Kurt smiles back, because of course he's delighted to see Blaine, and he feels a little thrill of awareness travel through him at the warm press of Blaine's thigh. It's like everything in the world is suddenly more real.

"Yeah, he's fitting in just fine if he's already joined the cult of tater tots," Tina whispers to Kurt.

"It's like a gateway drug to the full Lima experience," he murmurs back. "First tater tots, then Super Cuts, dead-end jobs, and despair."

Tina giggles. "I'll be there for you if we need to stage an intervention."

Kurt nods his thanks and takes another bite of his salad.

"Dan just gave me my first Yearbook assignment," Blaine leans over and tells Kurt after inhaling a half-dozen tots and dropping a few more on Kurt's plate. Dan, that was that boy's name. "I'm doing some team photos for cross country." His eyes are sparkling.

"Congratulations," Kurt tells him.

"Yeah, if they turn out well, I'm going to get to go to some of their morning practices before school to do more candid shots."

"I've never heard someone sound so happy about getting up early," Kurt says. He tries to resist the lure of the hot, crispy tater tots on his plate but cannot. He eats one. He's only human.

"You say that like I wasn't there with you the morning the consignment shop had its annual sale. It was still dark out when we got there. We stood outside the doors for two hours."

Kurt remembers. It had been a great day; he'd gotten two new sweaters, three scarves, a shirt, a brooch, and a pair of amazing boots for a steal. "That's different; that was fashion, Blaine."

Blaine laughs and fondly leans his shoulder against Kurt's for a moment, long enough that Kurt finds himself wishing they were somewhere private - or at least safer - so he could do more, more than just lean back into him for a few precious seconds.

"Well, it might not be fashion, but I'm still excited," Blaine says, sitting upright. "Dan's on the team, actually, so he'll be there to keep me from doing something really stupid, like leaving the lens cap on."

"You use cameras with lens caps? How old is the Yearbook equipment?" Kurt asks. Not all of his horror is feigned.

Blaine launches into yet another description of everything Yearbook, and Kurt pokes at his lunch while he listens. He's a little distracted, and not just because he knows most of Blaine's explanations by heart by this point; he finds himself wondering as he picks around the wilted lettuce in his salad and absently eats the other tater tots whether Blaine would have gone to sit with Dan if Kurt hadn't been at lunch.

It doesn't matter, really, because Blaine is sitting with him, and Kurt is so far from jealous it's not even funny, because he and Blaine are absolutely solid, and nothing can shake that. Kurt is there, so Blaine is sitting with him, end of story.

He tries to focus on Blaine's words and the way he can feel the muscles of Blaine's leg tensing and relaxing as he gestures, but the thought of him having lunch with Dan and his friends instead of with Tina, Mike, and Mercedes keeps making its way to the forefront of his mind. Given how they'd been talking and given how excited Blaine is about it all, Blaine might have gone along to Dan's table. It would have been only natural.

The thought sits in Kurt's stomach like a lump even less pleasant than that of the tater tots Blaine had pressed on him. He knows it's not really fair to be upset about it, because he knows Blaine likes Tina, Mike, and Mercedes a lot, but Blaine is personable. He's friendly, and he's reaching out. It's not surprising that he's going to have other options.

But the thing that makes McKinley bearable for Kurt is the company of his friends - and now his boyfriend - and it just doesn't sit well that Blaine might make other choices. It's not right for Kurt to feel that way, because he wants Blaine to do what makes him happy, but he can't quite shake himself out of it.

*

In the first big group number of the semester, Kurt gets paired with Quinn as his partner to dance behind Rachel and Finn as the inevitable leads, and Blaine is assigned Tina. The opening choreography mostly puts them on opposite sides of the stage, so Kurt resigns himself to settling for quick smiles as their eyes meet.

During the second and third verses, however, they pass by each other twice in the back, and every time in rehearsal Blaine reaches out to touch Kurt on his arm, his wrist, his shoulder, his back, somewhere. Every time.

It's so small and simple, and yet it makes Kurt's heart pound and his face flush. He starts eyeing Blaine as he approaches and gets a hungry smolder in return. It makes him feel powerful. It makes him feel more in touch with the music. It makes him feel giddy.

Kurt spins back around with the beat and knows he's smiling like he's lost his mind… or maybe like he's found something precious. Whatever it is, he knows it's noticeable, because Santana keeps shooting him interested looks.

Kurt doesn't care. He just keeps catching Blaine's eye and making his boyfriend watch him instead of where's he's going. It's the most fun he's had dancing in ages. He's breathless, and not with exertion but elation.

In fact, for the first time ever, he's almost sorry when Finn finally manages to learn his very simple steps and the practice is over for the day.

*

Although the Bully Whips have disbanded due to Santana's lack of interest and the entirely expected lack of support from the administration, the hallways at McKinley are safer this year than they were before Kurt transferred to Dalton. There's only been one slushie incident in the first month of school, and that was to Jacob, so Kurt can't really think that it wasn't deserved.

Still, it's high school, so if Kurt doesn't routinely get slammed into lockers and tossed in dumpsters anymore the corridors are still something of a war zone. Artie had his locker defaced two weeks ago, and Tina twisted her ankle on Monday when someone greased the floor at the bottom of the main staircase. She was far from the only injury there; at least she had Mike to carry her piggyback around the school for the rest of the day.

Kurt walks with his eyes sharp, always looking for new dangers. He knows he's probably hyper-vigilant, but it's a hard habit to break. These are the same people who voted him Prom Queen last year, after all. They might not be pushing him around, but he's not foolish enough anymore to think that they might be friendly or even neutral. They're just hiding their feelings.

He turns the corner toward his French class and feels his heart leap as he sees a familiar dark-haired head walking maybe twenty feet ahead of him in the busy corridor. It's silly, but he still gets that fluttery feeling in his stomach every time he sees Blaine, especially when it's unexpected. He hadn't thought he'd see Blaine until their last period English together, but there he is. There he is, Kurt's wonderful boyfriend. Kurt doesn't want to call out and bring attention to them, because he'd have to yell at the top of his lungs to be heard over the rest of the students, but speeds up his steps, trying to reach him.

He makes up about half the distance, skirting a group of chattering Cheerios, and then loses momentum when a heavy backpack bounces hard against his shoulder. He presses his hand to the incipient bruise and glares at the football player walking past. The boy doesn't even look his way, but he jogs his elbow against his friend in a subtle sign of celebration.

"That letter jacket doesn't automatically give you the right of way, you know!" he snaps at their backs, because he can't not say anything, but he knows he has no grounds to report them, and they know it, too. The one who hit him glances back and shrugs the most meaningless apology ever.

There isn't anything he can do but watch as the faster-moving pair approaches Blaine, and Kurt winces at the impending impact... which never comes. They walk right past Blaine and keep going. They keep going.

Kurt slows his steps and watches Blaine greet some girl Kurt doesn't know and disappear around the next corner. It's no secret that he and Blaine are dating, though it's not like they even hold hands very often on school grounds. It's no secret that Blaine is gay. If those football players knew Kurt, they had to know Blaine by association. And yet they didn't hit him.

Kurt should be glad. He is; he can feel the relief jittering through him that Blaine is unharmed and unaware of the potential danger he might have faced. It's not like he wants Blaine to be hurt. He doesn't want things to be hard for Blaine or for him to be reminded of the bullying he faced before Dalton. That's the last thing he wants.

He just doesn't know why his stomach is suddenly twisted in knots that have nothing to do with relief.

*

Despite getting to see Blaine so much at school, the best parts of the week are still the times he and Kurt are able to be alone. Under the guise of making dinner for the family, they're at Kurt's house one afternoon while Finn is at football practice, and while the quiche is cooking away in the oven and the salad makings are all washed and ready to be cut up, Kurt and Blaine are taking a break from food preparation and are happily entwined on the couch. Kurt has Blaine pinned beneath him, just where he wants him, and is working very hard not to leave marks on his warm skin as he kisses beneath Blaine's jaw and finally, finally slips his fingers under Blaine's shirt to skim up his side.

Blaine's just starting to make the needy, low noises deep in his throat that mean he's going to stop being quite so careful about where his hands are roaming on Kurt's body when his phone vibrates where he'd tossed it on the coffee table earlier. They glance over to see the screen lit up with a text message.

"Leave it," Blaine says, his voice rough in a way that goes straight to Kurt's gut, and he tugs at the back of Kurt's hair to pull him down again. Kurt's more than happy to oblige, but a minute later the phone buzzes again. And again, ten seconds later. And again. And again. And again.

"Okay, something must be going on," Kurt says, sitting back on his knees so that Blaine can reach his phone. If his hand just casually ends up resting on Blaine's stomach, it's hurting no one but himself.

Blaine quickly thumbs through the texts and chuckles. With a shake of his head he taps out a message and sends it.

"Care to share the joke?" Kurt asks, sounding more arch than he'd like, but honestly, he doesn't get much time alone with Blaine and resents the interruption just when it was about to get really good.

"It's Artie and Mike. And Puck, but only once," Blaine says.

"And?"

"Practice just ended, and they want me to come play Call of Duty at Artie's."

Kurt stares at him. Blaine is still flushed and rumpled, so it's fairly distracting, but Kurt has perfected his stare over the course of many years. "They texted you a dozen times in a row to ask you to play a computer game?"

"I think they're going to play on the Xbox, but - "

"Not the point," Kurt says shortly.

"Okay, then, the answer to your question is yes," Blaine says. He continues more slowly when Kurt doesn't respond. "I told them I was busy."

"I should hope so." Kurt's fingers clench just a bit in the fabric of Blaine's shirt over his firm, flat stomach; Blaine's eyes start to go hazy.

Blaine's phone buzzes again, and when Kurt gives a regal nod Blaine checks it. He goes distant, thinking. "Do we have any plans on Friday?"

"No," Kurt says after reviewing his mental calendar. "Nothing in particular. Why?"

"Artie wants to have the guys over for pizza and video games," Blaine says.

"Oh." Kurt's chest feels a little hollow, but he ignores it. This can be a good thing. "Well, Mercedes has wanted to do a mudpack and manicure night for a while now. I'll need to find some time to pick up supplies."

"No, hey, you're invited," Blaine tells him like that should have been obvious. He shows his phone to Kurt. The end of Artie's message says Bring Kurt if he wants.

Kurt doesn't have the heart to tell Blaine that he's never been invited to video game night, not that his idea of a fun evening is hanging out with a bunch of guys trying to kill each other via game controllers and soda-chugging contests. It's strange; he's torn between being pleased at being included through Blaine and resigned that it's only happened that way.

"I think mudpacks are more my style," Kurt says, because they really are. He should stick to his strengths; he learned his lesson with the Mellencamp and the plaid. Besides, he doesn't need to tag along just because they want Blaine to go. He and Blaine can have separate interests. They should have separate interests, at least a few. It will only give them more to talk about, even if Kurt can't imagine what they might have to say about video games.

That isn't the point. The point is that Blaine should hang out with the boys if he wants to, and Kurt can dedicate some serious time to proper skin care. They will both be happy and at home in their surroundings. As they should be.

He gets up off of Blaine and offers him a hand to rise from the couch.

"Hey, where are you going?" Blaine asks, taking the hand and trying to tug him back down. It's so very tempting to give in and kiss the pout off of Blaine's kiss-swollen lips.

"You said football practice is over; that means Finn will be home soon," Kurt reminds him… and himself.

Blaine stands up slowly but doesn't let go. He studies Kurt's face, his own open expression showing his confusion and concern. "What's going on? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Really, Blaine."

"Something's going on."

Kurt takes a deep breath and lets it out. This isn't Blaine's issue, and Kurt doesn't want to color things for him. "Nothing important. I'm really glad that you're making friends with everyone."

"But?" Blaine watches him and waits.

"It's kind of weird to be your plus-one with people I've known longer," Kurt finally admits.

"You're not my plus-one," Blaine says, leaning in to kiss him softly. "You're Kurt."

Maybe that's part of the problem, Kurt thinks as he pulls Blaine into the kitchen to get back to working on dinner.

*

Slushie emergency, east hallway, reads the text from Rachel. It's Tina and Blaine.

Adrenalin speeding his movements, Kurt grabs his bag and snatches up the bathroom pass before his study hall proctor can even look up from her desk, and after a detour to his locker and Blaine's for supplies he rushes to help. Blaine. It's Blaine's first slushie, and though they don't get much better with practice the first one is always the worst.

"Are you okay?" he asks as he bangs through the girls' room door.

"I'm fine," Tina says, looking up from the sink with Rachel beside her. Her hair is wet but mostly clean, and her sodden sweater is in a lump on the floor surrounded by a puddle of blue. There's some residual spatter on her skirt and boots, but she looks largely back to normal already. They must have had bad aim... or else Blaine took the worst of it.

"Where's Blaine?" he asks, surveying the otherwise empty bathroom.

"Boys' room," Rachel replies and guides Tina's head back down for another rinse.

Panic flashes through Kurt. "Boys' room? What is he doing in the boys' room? Doesn't he know they'll follow him in there? That's slushie rule number one!"

"He wouldn't come in here, Kurt," Tina says, her voice muffled by the sink. "He said it wouldn't be right."

"Right? Like being slushied is right!" He clutches his bag to his stomach.

"You should go," Rachel says. "Take care of him. Azimio could come back."

Kurt nods and turns toward the door, but he spins right back around. There's a job to be done. "Do you need anything?" he asks. "A brush? Hair serum? Concealer? Stain remover?"

Rachel picks up a pink Hello Kitty bag and shakes her head. "I've got my kit here," she says, and although her products are inferior Kurt has to agree that she knows more or less how to use them.

"Okay. I'll go find Blaine."

"Kurt?" Tina says before he reaches the door. He looks back over his shoulder. "Azimio was aiming for both of us, but he was looking at me. Blaine stepped in front of me and took the hit."

"Wow," Rachel says, and Kurt has to swallow with pride and a little dismay at his ever-noble boyfriend before he nods and leaves them behind.

There are voices in the boys' room, loud and laughing, and Kurt squares his shoulders before he pushes the door open. He might not be as big as the football players, but he's stood up to Azimio before for lesser offenses. He isn't afraid. And even if he were, he'd go in, anyway, because this is Blaine. He swings open the door.

"She looked like a smurf, dude! The slushie reacted with whatever junk she puts in her hair to bleach it and turned it blue! It was awesome."

Kurt narrows his eyes. He knows that voice; it's Puck.

"Do smurfs even have hair?" he hears Blaine ask. "I mean, apart from Smurfette, but she's blonde."

"You're missing the point," Puck replies. Some water splashes in the background. "Blue. Hair."

Kurt turns the corner into the bathroom and sees Blaine, his clothes still dripping blue all over him and the floor, inexpertly rinsing his hair in one sink while Puck leans against the next one, watching. Blaine is a disaster; Puck is as neat as he ever is.

"What are you doing?" Kurt asks. The question encompasses them both.

"What does it look like?" Puck replies.

Blaine winces a little when he sees Kurt, but he merely says, "I'm trying to get this stuff out of my hair. Why didn't you tell me what it feels like when it starts melting and trickling down your scalp?"

"It's something you've got to figure out for yourself, dude," Puck tells him. "You can't describe it; you've got to live it."

"Ugh, I think there's some in my ear." The dismay in Blaine's voice gets Kurt's feet unfrozen, and he drops his bag out of drip range and rolls up the sleeves of his shirt. He takes a deep breath and tries to settle down a little. He knows what to do now.

"Here, let me help," Kurt says, flicking a pointed glance over at Puck as he starts to sluice out the sticky blue ice. "It's hard to do it on your own."

"I'm bodyguarding," Puck tells him. "Can't have my hands all soapy and slippery if Azimio comes back for round two."

Kurt nods, conceding the point, and tells Blaine, "Next time go into the girls' bathroom. He's afraid of the tampon dispensers."

"I'm not a girl," Blaine says. "It wouldn't be right. They deserve their privacy."

"And you deserve your skin to be its natural color." Blaine's hair is nearly clean, and the soft, dark curls twine around Kurt's fingers in an altogether distracting fashion. "The girls' room is safer."

"And is full of chicks," Puck adds with a gleam in his eye. He looks at the two of them and seems to reconsider his words. "If you like that kind of thing."

"Which we do, if for different reasons than you," Kurt replies. He guides Blaine's head out of the sink. "Stand back up. We'll finish your hair once you're in clean clothes; you're only going to get messy again when you take your shirt off."

Puck pushes away from his sink. "Should I give you two some privacy? You know, wait outside, make sure no one comes in? Bow-chicka-bow-bow." He waggles his eyebrows.

Kurt just fixes him with a flat, unforgiving glare, one of his best, and picks up Blaine's emergency bag. "Yes, because the combination of the smells of corn syrup, old socks, and commercial grade disinfectant is a gay man's biggest turn on."

Blaine laughs, already stripping his shirt over his head, and Kurt forces himself not to look because Puck is watching him. It seems like a missed opportunity for some respectful ogling, really, but that's how his life goes. He pulls Blaine's towel from his bag and wets it in the sink so that Blaine can wipe himself down. Another missed opportunity.

"Here, I'll rinse that out for you," he says to Blaine, giving him the towel and his bag of clothes and taking the sticky shirt in its place. "You can hand me your jeans over the stall door."

"Thanks, Kurt." Blaine shoots him a smile and heads to one of the stalls. Kurt admires his nicely formed if slushie-stained back for just a tiny moment, and yet when he catches Puck's eyes he is still treated to an exaggerated wink and a thumbs-up.

Kurt rolls his eyes and takes Blaine's jeans over the top of the stall. He ignores the fact that his boyfriend is largely naked just a few feet away and goes to rinse out the worst of the slushie in the sink. It's less traumatizing to have to clean Blaine's clothes than his own, but he still attacks them with determination; he was never able to get that Vivienne Westwood sweater back to its proper shape, and he thinks he may have a little lingering PTSD about it. Still, he shouldn't have to be doing this at all. Slushies are supposed to be a thing of the past. And Blaine should never have been touched without Kurt at his side. Never. In Kurt's dreams, he's been able to yell the most scathing retorts possible after their attackers, not just show up minutes later and scrub blue dye out of last year's most popular henley from the GAP.

Blaine quickly pops out of the stall, fully clothed once more, and holds out his arms. "Good as new!" he announces. He comes to peek over Kurt's shoulder at his damp but clean clothes. "You have this down to a science."

"With experience comes mastery," Kurt says. "But this was an easy one; you're not wearing any difficult fabrics." He tucks Blaine's clothes into a plastic bag and gives them back to his boyfriend. "Make sure you wash them tonight on cold, but the stain shouldn't set."

"Thank you." Blaine smiles at him again and then looks over at Puck to include him, as well.

"Not a problem, dude." Puck pushes off from the sink and says, "If you guys are cool, I should get back to history. I'm in the middle of a test."

Blaine's mouth drops open. "You're in the mid- Go, go!" He makes an adorable shooing motion. "I don't want you to fail a class over this."

"Don't worry about it. I've got one of the nerds taking it for me, anyway. It just doesn't look good if I'm not in the room."

Blaine continues to gape, so Kurt says, "Thank you, Puck. We're fine."

Puck studies them both seriously for a moment and then nods. "See ya."

Kurt turns to Blaine as Puck heads out the door. "Are you okay?" he asks quietly. He surveys Blaine from head to toe again; he's clean and seems largely unruffled by the incident. Kurt still watches his eyes for any ghosts from his pre-Dalton past, because being slushied is bad enough but having the memories dredged up of being beaten up for going to a dance could make the whole incident that much worse.

"Cold, a little sticky, but yeah. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, actually, and Puck says it's like a Glee rite of passage." Blaine gives him one of the soft smiles he reserves only for Kurt. "Thank you for coming to help."

"Of course I came," Kurt says. "You were slushied."

"Yeah, but Puck was here and - "

Kurt cuts him off. This should be beyond obvious. "You were slushied. Of course I came."

Blaine touches his arm and says, "Thanks. Really, Kurt."

In about three seconds Kurt is going to kiss him, and he's well aware that they're in the boys' bathroom not that long before the bell to change classes is going to ring. He turns to his bag of supplies and starts to rifle through it, anything to keep himself together. He wants to comfort Blaine. He wants to be comforted. He wants to kiss him, damn it. "I'd say any time, but I'd really prefer you not to get slushied again, so." Then he remembers why Blaine took the direct hit, and he says more softly, "It was nice of you to look out for Tina like that, though."

"I had to," Blaine says with a shrug.

"You had to jump in front of a slushie?" Kurt finds the little tube of hair gel he added to his kit this year and pulls it out.

"Well, yeah. I couldn't just do nothing."

Kurt thinks of the slushies he's taken for his friends, the times he's blocked Tina or Mercedes from the shoves of football players, the insults he's hurled to keep the attention on himself instead of one of the girls. He thinks of his plans for what he would do if he and Blaine were slushied together, of taking the brunt of the blow, of spitting venom back at them. He couldn't do nothing, either.

"I know," he says and hands the gel to Blaine, who is poking at his hair. "Here."

"You have gel?" Blaine says, his eyes widening with wonder. "And it's my brand?"

Kurt takes the wet towel and gently wipes off the last of the residue from Blaine's hair and face. He takes his time over it and watches Blaine's eyes go dark with the tender touch. When he's finished, Kurt brushes his mouth over Blaine's cheek, allowing himself that tiny bit of contact before stepping back. "Remember, size of a dime."

Blaine's looking at him like Kurt's given him the most expensive gift in the world. "You're amazing."

Kurt just smiles at him, his heart in his throat, and says, "I know."

*

On Fridays, Blaine picks Kurt up at his house to drive him to school. Although Kurt also likes how adult it feels to drive over to his boyfriend's house early and go sit at the Lima Bean for fifteen or twenty precious minutes before school, there's something courtly and thrilling about Blaine arriving at Kurt's front door to greet him with a toothpaste-flavored kiss and a steaming cup of coffee he picked up on the way.

So like most Fridays when Blaine is coming over, two days after the slushie incident Kurt dresses with a little extra care, making sure every detail is perfect in the front hall mirror before Blaine arrives. His shirt is unwrinkled, his jeans look amazing, and his hair is impeccable. His new bow tie is absolutely sublime. He smiles to himself with satisfaction; first impressions are so important, even when it's just the first impression of the day.

He hears the purr of Blaine's car pulling into the driveway, and his stomach flips with anticipation. Despite the friendly nosiness of his family, Kurt's house is one of the few truly safe places in their lives, and being able to hug and kiss Blaine as warmly as he likes - within reason, of course, given that his dad is just in the kitchen - is one of the best parts of Kurt's life.

Blaine's footsteps dance up the stairs, and the doorbell rings. Kurt gives himself a slow count to eight before he answers so as not to seem too eager, although he's so, so ready to set his eyes and his hands on his boyfriend. He wonders as he waits what Blaine will be wearing. It's still warm enough that Blaine might be in one of those simple but oddly attractive t-shirts he's been favoring recently, or maybe he's chosen the short-sleeved henley Kurt found for him at that vintage shop. It looks so good with the warm tone of his skin and shows off his strong, beautiful arms. Kurt zoned out completely in English last week when Blaine wore that shirt and had to borrow Blaine's notes from the class afterward. Trying to decipher his scrawl had totally been worth it.

Kurt reaches eight and is already smiling in welcome as he opens the door. His face freezes as he takes in the sight of Blaine. Blaine is wearing a red McKinley High t-shirt, a pair of white jeans (when did he even get those?), and battered red canvas sneakers, and the letters WMHS are neatly written in red on his left cheek with an ink Kurt can only hope is not permanent.

"Hi, Kurt," Blaine says with his usual fond smile, holding out a paper cup.

Kurt doesn't move. He can't. He can't even pinch himself to try to wake up from this most surreal of dreams.

"Kurt?"

"What in heaven's name are you wearing, Blaine?" Kurt asks.

Blaine glances down at himself and laughs. "I know. It's kind of bright, right? But it's better than my old school colors, before Dalton. Orange and green. Everything in the entire school clashed."

Kurt blinks, but the outfit is still as ridiculous when he opens his eyes again. "Why," he says with slow, clear precision, "are you wearing the school colors?" He steps back to let Blaine inside, because it's not like the sunlight is making things any better.

"It's Spirit Day," Blaine says, like Kurt should both know and care. "There have been posters up all week. There's a big football game tomorrow."

"I know about the game. We're going with Dad and Carole to watch Finn."

Blaine smiles as though it all makes sense now. "Right." He holds out Kurt's coffee again. "Here, before it gets cold."

Kurt takes it automatically. "Thank you. But why are you dressed up for Spirit Day?"

"To support the football team?" Blaine says. "I just told you that."

"But why? One of their star players slushied you this week."

"This isn't about Azimio; Finn, Mike, Puck, and Artie are my friends. I'm supporting them."

Kurt just stares at him. He's never even considered dressing for Spirit Day. For one, even he would be hard-pressed not to look foolish in school logo-emblazoned clothing (besides his Cheerios uniform, which had been admittedly quite flattering), but more importantly he does not have school spirit. He likes his friends, certainly, he likes supporting Finn and the other guys from the stands, and he even likes football enough not to be bored during the games, but school spirit has never even been on his radar. It's unthinkable. It's insane.

And yet here's Blaine standing in front of him dressed for the day like he's just any other student. Kurt's not sure whether it's cute that Blaine is invested in Spirit Day so early on in his McKinley career or whether it's a sign that Blaine's trying too hard, but either way it's disturbing. Especially the letters on his cheek, which mar his otherwise perfect face.

Finn comes galumphing down the stairs wearing his football jersey, and he gives Blaine a thumbs-up. "You look awesome, dude!"

"Go Titans," Blaine replies with a grin.

"Go Titans," Finn says happily.

"I can't believe this is happening," Kurt mutters to himself as Finn heads for the kitchen, but he doesn't particularly resist when Blaine pulls him in. He closes his eyes when they kiss, after all.

Somehow before they head to school he also allows Blaine to convince him to exchange his bow tie for his second favorite red scarf.

*

Kurt hears the piano accompanying Blaine's voice from down the hallway as he walks to the choir room at the end of the day a week or so later. He smiles to himself as he nears and recognizes the familiar strains of "Raise Your Glass" and gets a little lump in his throat at the memory of performing it together at Regionals. It had been an exhilarating experience, and their relationship had been so new that every little shared glance had felt special and wonderful. If he's being honest with himself, they still feel that way to him, even this many months later, just like the sound of Blaine singing can still make Kurt's heart expand with joy.

He walks through the door as Blaine reaches the chorus, and he's surprised to hear other voices join in in imperfect but passable four-part harmony. There around the piano are Finn, Puck, Artie, and Mike, with Blaine at the keyboard banging at the keys as he sings. Some of the girls are talking amongst themselves on the risers. Brittany watches the boys, transfixed.

It's not what Kurt had expected to see, but he adds his voice to the mix, and Blaine turns his head immediately to grin at him. He stops playing when the chorus is finished and gets up from the piano bench when Kurt walks over. He's not wearing the Dalton uniform from Kurt's memories, but that doesn't matter; the delight bright in his expression is the same.

"I always knew you'd try to turn the boys of New Directions into the second coming of the Warblers," Kurt tells him. He reaches out to adjust the collar of Blaine's shirt where it's lying slightly askew, and Blaine's eyes warm even further. "You need backing harmonies to live, don't you."

"Not to live," Blaine replies, bouncing a little on his toes. He seems really happy, and Kurt can't help but feel his own mood lift in return.

"Watch out if he wants you to wear matching blazers," Kurt tells them.

"This is fun and all, but you're not getting me into one of those uniforms," Puck says. "The whole dudes' school thing seriously isn't my scene."

"Don't worry; even with the uniform, no one would mistake you for a Dalton student," Kurt assures him.

Puck frowns at him. "Not sure if I should be offended by that or not."

"It's the hair," Blaine says, ever the peace-maker. "But you guys sounded great."

Kurt doesn't bother to disguise his snort of laughter.

"Ouch," Artie says, raising his eyebrows. "Way to be harsh, Kurt."

"Let's put it this way," Kurt says more kindly. "You get points for raw enthusiasm, but you're definitely less disciplined than the Warblers."

"Hey," Finn says, but his protest dies as he looks at the other boys and down at himself. "Okay, fine."

"They're picking it up really fast," Blaine insists.

"I just want to learn to do that little Warblers two-step in my chair," Artie says. "It's harder than it looks; my wheels don't go sideways like that."

"That would be awesome if we could make it work," Blaine tells him and does a few steps beside him as if trying out some choreography he's imagining. Kurt has to shake his head at them all. He's not sure what the point of the exercise is, but nothing good can come of it besides Artie rolling over Finn's horrible sneakers and forcing him to get new ones.

"For the sake of my shoes as well as my self-respect, I'll be over here." Kurt goes to sit by Mercedes, who glances up from her phone when he takes the chair beside her.

"I thought you'd be over there showing those boys how it's done," she says with some surprise.

Kurt shakes his head as his boyfriend, Mike, and Artie start to move back and forth in something kind of like unison. "How could I show them? I have no idea what they're doing."

"They're singing and dancing, Kurt," Santana tells him with an arch twist of her mouth. "Glee Club? Ring a bell?"

"They're having fun," Brittany corrects her. "I want to be a Warbler. I want to live in a nest."

"They're not Warblers," Kurt tells her, but Brittany is already up on her feet and joining them. Blaine welcomes her with a smile and offers her a spot next to him.

"No offense, Kurt, but your boyfriend is kind of crazy," Santana says, watching them all try to spin in the same direction and dance backwards to the beat. (Finn, of course, goes the wrong way.) "You know, with the hair and the jumping around and the adoring male groupies."

Kurt is forced to agree. "At least he's enjoying himself," he says with a shrug and pulls out his French homework while they wait for Mr. Schuester. He likes watching a train wreck as much as the next high school student, but some things are just too ridiculous.

*

The next day is the best of what fall in Ohio has to offer: bright blue skies, a crisp, cool breeze, and a perfect reason for Kurt to wear his new Marc Jacobs jacket out for the first time. He and his friends eat lunch as quickly as they can so that they can spend the rest of the period out in the courtyard.

"What a gorgeous day!" Tina says as they stake out an area of their own on the steps.

"I should've brought my guitar," Puck says. "Everyone in the school is out here. I could've made a few bucks."

"You're going to need them," Lauren tells him, slipping on her sunglasses. "Ms. Zizes wants a nice night out on Saturday."

"Bowling?" Puck asks.

"Nicer than that," she says, and he looks worried.

Kurt sits down beside her and watches Blaine stare up at the cloudless blue sky for a minute. The sunlight does spectacular things to his hair, and the line of his jaw and throat is divine. He's beautiful. He's beautiful, and he's Kurt's. It's incredible. He doesn't know how it's possible.

Last year at this time, Kurt had been bullied at school, heartbroken over his father, and so very alone. Now he has an even bigger family and the most amazing boyfriend in the world. And Blaine is right here, sweet, sexy, talented, funny, warm, thoughtful, and… just Blaine, and he's standing so close Kurt could reach out and touch him, pull him close and enjoy the wonderfulness of being together. He wants to. He really, really wants to.

Kurt's mouth goes dry, his heart starts to pound, and he looks away, flustered by the intensity of his feelings. He is utterly in love with Blaine, and he's so lucky that he gets to be, but this is not the place. This is so not the place.

"I can totally see why you're getting yourself some of that," Lauren says, also watching Blaine. "Too bad he only plays for your team, because I'd love to be the meat in a man sandwich with him and Puckerman."

There are so many parts of that sentence that are disturbing that Kurt doesn't know what to respond to first. It does at least take the edge off of his own inner yearnings. "Thank you so much for that visual," he manages weakly.

Apparently Lauren is immune to sarcasm, because she replies, "You're welcome. Something to keep you warm at night."

Kurt considers getting up to sit beside Rachel as the lesser of two evils when Blaine drops down next to him, his legs falling just open enough that their knees touch.

"I know I told you this morning, but that jacket is gorgeous on you," Blaine murmurs in his ear, and Kurt feels himself flushing with the compliment.

"I do have excellent taste," Kurt replies haughtily, and Blaine grins.

Tina squeals from the next step up and smacks Mike playfully on the arm. He laughs and pulls her into his lap, and Kurt wonders what it would be like to be so comfortable in public that he could do that with Blaine. Not that he needs to be such a spectacle, but still. It's such an alien concept, and yet it shouldn't be. Should it?

He glances over at Blaine to find him also watching Tina and Mike. When he feels Kurt's eyes on him he focuses back on him.

"They're kind of too cute for words," Blaine says mildly. "I know I'm supposed to be disgusted or something, but I just can't. It's sweet."

"They're happy," Kurt says, shrugging. "How can you begrudge them that?"

"Exactly." Blaine puts his hand on top of Kurt's where it rests between them on the cement step. "It's a beautiful day, and I'm with you. I'm happy."

Kurt flips his hand over so he can thread their fingers together, and his pulse speeds up with uneasiness even though the gesture is hidden from view by their bodies and their group of friends. The touch still feels forbidden or at least something precious and rare to be rationed out, and his joy is tainted by a surge of anger that he has to worry about something as simple as holding hands because of the ignorance of the people around them.

But then Blaine smiles, warm and open in a way that Kurt could never be in their surroundings, and Kurt loses the ability to worry about anything else. He's beautiful, and he's Kurt's.

"I'm happy, too," he says, squeezing Blaine's hand, because even if the world is unfair Blaine is still wonderful.

*

"I was thinking we could go to the Gene Kelly revival on Saturday," Kurt says to Blaine as they slide into the front seats of Blaine's car after school. He buckles his seat belt with extra care not to wrinkle his coat.

"That sounds great, but I can't," Blaine says, glancing over in apology as he starts the car. "I have a basketball game."

"You know I have no problems with your height, but I find it hard to believe you're on the basketball team now, too," Kurt tells him.

Blaine pulls out of the parking space and into the line of cars waiting to leave the lot. "First of all, there are plenty of good NBA players who aren't giants."

Kurt raises an eyebrow. "Plenty?"

"Well, some. A couple. Fine. But, no, I'm not on the basketball team. I need to go take pictures for Yearbook. I'm the only person on the photo staff who isn't busy, and it's a key game. Eliza's writing the copy, but they need me for the pictures."

Kurt had been thinking about the revival for days now, but he hadn't felt it was pressing to bring it up. Apparently he had been wrong. "I see I'm going to have to book your time further in advance," he says, fiddling with the seat belt.

"Hey, it's just one game. Jake usually covers them."

"It's fine."

Blaine glances over at him again. "Kurt, is this a problem?"

"No," Kurt says, shaking his head, because it isn't. He's disappointed, but it isn't a problem. "Besides, you're the Gene Kelly fan."

"We could do a DVD marathon on Friday night," Blaine suggests with one of his most charming smiles.

Kurt wants to be immune to that smile, but he never has been and probably never will be. He smiles back, despite himself. "I suppose we could do that."

"And you could come with me to the game on Saturday," Blaine says a little more tentatively. "Keep me company, mock the other team's cheerleaders, complain about the lack of healthy options from the concession stand, make scathing comments about the school's respective sports and arts budgets..."

Kurt doesn't mind going to football games to cheer on Finn and to have yet another reason to wear his scarves, but he's really not interested in basketball. Going to games as a Cheerio at least put him in the spotlight; sitting in the stands bored out of his mind while his boyfriend is glued to his camera and hundreds of his schoolmates yell and scream for a game he doesn't care about does not sound like it's worth his time.

The thought of spending Saturday afternoon at home studying instead of being with Blaine isn't all that appealing, either, though, and if he's going to be unhappy shouldn't he at least be unhappy with Blaine?

"And Eliza's not that bad," Blaine continues. "She's really friendly, and she's into organic food and always brings snacks. They're not as good as yours, but - "

"Blaine," Kurt says, cutting him off because he really doesn't want to hear any more, "you had me at mocking the other cheerleaders."

The brilliant smile he gets in return will make an afternoon stuck in the school gym with screaming students and sub-par organic snacks worth it. It probably will, anyway.

*

"And I'm thinking a really big hat," Mercedes is telling Kurt when they walk into the choir room a week later.

"Obviously a big hat. But what color?" Kurt muses. "I've been wanting you to have a bronze moment." They make it halfway across the room toward where Tina's sitting before he realizes that Blaine is already there and is in a chair next to Santana on the other side of the risers. Kurt's stride falters. Blaine's sitting with Santana?

Mid-conversation, Blaine smiles his welcome and gestures to his bag saving the seat beside him. Though they all do move around and sit in different places, Kurt would pretty much always pick Mercedes and Tina over Santana, especially since that nasty lunch room incident last week over who got the last the fruit cup. He hadn't known Santana felt so strongly about sliced pears. He hadn't known she could even eat them as a Cheerio.

Mercedes looks back over her shoulder at him and sets her bag on the floor next to Tina. "Go sit with your boo," she tells Kurt gently. "We can talk colors after Glee."

Kurt is torn between Blaine and fashion, an unthinkably horrible choice, and he clutches his bag strap for an indecisive moment. Blaine comes with Santana and no Mercedes, but Mercedes and outfit planning comes with no Blaine.

"It's okay," Mercedes says. "Sit with Blaine."

Blaine's looking at him with a little frown forming in his eyes, so Kurt says to her, "I will brainstorm the entire practice."

"I expect amazing ideas," she replies with a smile and waves him over to the chair Blaine has reserved for him.

"I saved you a seat," Blaine says with pride when Kurt sits down beside him and eyes Santana warily.

"Yeah, he even managed to keep Rachel from sitting down, and you know how determined she can be when she wants to talk your ear off," Santana says. "Or in this case Blanderson's ear."

"She seems to think I need to teach Finn to dance," Blaine explains.

Kurt's eyes widen. "If Mike couldn't do it, what makes her think you can?"

"I don't know, but she's very determined."

Glancing back at Rachel, who is speaking very intently to a shell-shocked Finn, Kurt opens his mouth to respond but is interrupted by Mr. Schuester walking in.

"Okay, guys, this week's theme is another pop culture icon," Mr. Schuester says excitedly. "I can't wait to get started."

"Aretha?" Mercedes says.

"Patti LuPone?" suggests Rachel.

"Jay-Z?" says Puck.

Mr. Schuester shakes his head. "Not even close."

"Katy Perry?" Blaine asks, leaning forward in his seat.

"Seriously, you need to get over your fixation with her," Kurt tells him.

"The Spice Girls?" Santana says. "Kylie Minogue?"

"I still think it should be Aretha," Mercedes says.

"Nope." Mr. Schuester spreads his arms and says, "John Denver!" He is met with a moment of stunned silence.

"Didn't he win American Idol?" Brittany asks.

Kurt looks over at Mercedes across the room and mouths, "John Denver?" He vaguely remembers him from some movie with the Muppets. He had terrible, terrible hair.

She shrugs back at him, and he rolls his eyes. He glances over at Blaine, who looks baffled but who is dutifully paying attention to Mr. Schuester's speech, anyway. Kurt wonders suddenly if Blaine had been a Boy Scout or an altar boy or something when he'd been younger. He'll have to ask.

Then Artie wheels in at top speed, apologizing for being late, and he pulls in beside Kurt and cuts off his view of Mercedes. With a sigh, Kurt clasps his hands over his knee and prepares for a long rehearsal.

Even with Blaine beside him it is one of the most boring New Directions rehearsals he has ever sat through, and not just because it's about John Denver.

He does, however, come up with a dozen fabulous ideas for Mercedes' outfit.

*

Their ankles tucked against each other between their chairs, Kurt and Blaine are sitting side-by-side at the kitchen table sketching out ideas for the staging of "Pip, Pip, Hooray!" when Finn wanders in. He opens the refrigerator door and peers inside.

"What if we break out beyond the proscenium arch with the columns?" Blaine says, bending over the paper and drawing a few squiggles on the plan that Kurt assumes are meant to be the columns.

"If they're fixed, they could get in the way when the carriage flies out over the audience," Kurt says, "but if we put them here instead..." He erases one of Blaine's squiggles and adds a much more recognizable marking a few yards further out to the sides.

"Hey, what's that? An aquarium?" Finn says from where he's suddenly leaning down between them, and Kurt jumps and presses a hand over his pounding heart.

"Yes, Finn, we're spending our afternoon drawing aquariums," he says sharply. "And I think you just made me lose a year of my life. I hope it is one with big shoulder pads and neon accents and not something good."

"It's a stage plan," Blaine tells Finn.

"Cool." Finn stands back up, giving Kurt enough space to erase the stray line he scratched across the page when he was startled. "Hey, are you staying for dinner?" he asks Blaine.

"Uh, I don't know." Blaine looks over at Kurt.

"If you want to, I'm sure that would be okay with Dad and Carole," Kurt replies. "It's lasagna night; there should be plenty."

"It is okay with you, too?" Blaine asks.

"Yes," Kurt says with a little laugh, because of course it is. That will give them extra planning time afterward, too, because when Blaine stays for dinner he never, ever leaves before curfew. It makes Kurt's heart lift. "What a ridiculous question."

Blaine smiles at him and says to Finn, "Then I guess I'm staying for dinner."

Finn smiles, too. "Cool. Puck's coming over after. The four of us can hang out."

"Since when do we all hang out?" Kurt asks. It's a weird thought, and besides, he has a bag full of fabric swatches for costumes he hasn't even told Blaine about yet.

"I don't know. Since Blaine started coming to video game nights?"

"I'm a bro," Blaine tells Kurt proudly.

"You're a bro," Kurt repeats, trying to make sense of the word.

"Yep!" Finn says, and he and Blaine share a friendly grin.

With a sudden, vertigo-inducing shift in perspective, Kurt realizes that of the four guys in question he'll actually be the odd one out if they spend time together; it's not going to be Finn and Puck in one group and Blaine and him in the other. Blaine has a relationship with them on his own. It's great, Kurt wants that for him (and he has a giddy thrill of pride in his choice of boyfriend that his step-brother thinks Blaine is worth hanging out with), but it's new.

It also makes him a little unsettled, because Blaine is not his and his alone. Not that Blaine has been since he transferred, not that he should be.

"There wasn't an initiation or anything," Blaine assures Kurt when he doesn't reply.

Kurt considers the two of them for a moment and then puts voice to the question he really has to ask, even though he's fairly certain he's not going to like the answer. "I can't believe I'm actually asking this, but am I a bro?"

"You're my brother," Finn says, like the whole thing is obvious. Maybe it is to everyone but Kurt.

"Right." Kurt draws out the word and waits for further explanation.

When it's clear Kurt doesn't get it, Finn says, "Of course you're a bro."

"Because I'm your brother." It doesn't hurt. Kurt tells himself it doesn't hurt, because at least he's sort of being included.

"And because you're in New Directions," Blaine adds, seeming to understand Kurt's thoughts far better than Finn does.

"So I'm a bro-by-association?" Kurt asks.

Finn blinks at him. "What?"

"Never mind," Kurt says. He focuses back on his stage plan. "We'll hang out after dinner if we can get this done now."

"Cool!" Finn claps Kurt on the shoulder and wanders off.

"I think we may need to reconsider the whole castle set," Kurt says briskly, but Blaine takes the pencil from his fingers and holds onto his hand.

"Hey," Blaine says.

"It should split in the middle, and the carriage - "

"Kurt." Blaine's voice is soft but firm, and Kurt is forced to look up at him.

"It's fine, Blaine," Kurt tells him quietly. "Let's drop it."

"You think you're only included in the group because of Finn or Glee, and you want to drop it?"

Kurt swallows and chooses his words carefully. He is always honest with Blaine, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't consider how he says it, at least once in a while. "There's a lot of history," he says. "It's different with you because you're - " able to pass, interested in sports, less effeminate, more outgoing, better with people, able to tolerate boys being stupid, not like me in so many ways " - you."

"I think you're selling yourself short," Blaine says, stroking the backs of Kurt's fingers with his thumb. It's stupid, but the touch actually makes some of Kurt's tension unwind.

"That's not usually listed among my flaws."

"Well, it is today."

Kurt raises an eyebrow. "Oh, now I have flaws?"

Blaine smiles at him and raises Kurt's hand to his lips for a kiss. "You're changing the subject," he says.

"Yes, I am." Kurt smiles back, just a little. He leans in to taste those lips for himself. When he pulls away he says, "And you're going to let me because you love me."

"I am?"

"Yes, because being unable to go against my wishes is one of your flaws."

"That's true," Blaine says, nodding to himself.

"If only," Kurt scoffs and turns back to the stage drawing, but though the hurt lingers Blaine is true to his word and doesn't bring the topic back up again that night.

*

On Friday, Blaine shows up at Kurt's door wearing his navy pea coat and an absolutely divine new scarf, and he's holding not only the usual cup of coffee but what might be the only copy of the latest Italian Vogue in the entirety of Ohio.

"You are the best boyfriend in the world," Kurt breathes and pulls him inside to relieve him of his gifts and then push him up against the door.

His mouth feels swollen for the first three periods that morning from the intensity of their kisses. He can't stop smiling, not even during his French quiz.

*

"Duets!" Mr. Schuester announces, and Kurt sits up straight in his seat and reaches out to grab Blaine's arm. His heart lodges in his throat. He's been waiting for this week since Blaine first told him about transferring to McKinley. They are going to sing together, they are going to sound incredible, they are going to blow everyone else out of the water, and they are going to go out to a lovely night at Breadstix on Mr. Schuester's dime. Kurt will have to keep himself from smirking in Santana's heartbroken face when they take the prize.

"I'm so ready to get my Breadstix on," Santana says smugly, and Kurt thinks that he'll definitely have to smirk a little.

"I'm changing things around this year, though," Mr. Schuester continues, and Kurt's heart falls. Change and Mr. Schuester are almost never good. He squeezes Blaine's forearm in dread, and Blaine puts his hand over Kurt's. He doesn't know exactly how much Kurt wants to win this competition with him, but it's a duet; he obviously wants to sing it with Kurt.

"Mr. Schuester, Finn and I will be - " Rachel begins.

"Let me finish, please, Rachel. Since our focus this year is on getting back to Nationals and winning, I want to be sure that we as a group are able to work in different combinations. So for duets week this week, you have to pair up with someone you aren't dating and don't sing with regularly." He smiles broadly and seems unaware that everyone else in the room is slumping into their chairs. Kurt can barely feel his own face with all of the disappointment flooding through him, but he's sure his expression isn't pretty. He feels like he could throw up. He feels like he could throw things. "Let me get a marker so we can work out the partners."

While Mr. Schuester digs through his bag for a white board marker, the ones for the classroom having been taken by Puck the first week of classes for after-school sniffing, the glee club mutters to itself. Kurt can't bring himself to look at Blaine, and with a last squeeze to his arm he withdraws his hand. It's not a bad lesson, but he wants to sing with Blaine so badly he can taste it. They've been so good about not flaunting their relationship like everyone else in Glee does. This would have been the perfect opportunity to sing together and show what they can do.

He becomes aware of a little movement out of the corner of his eye, and he sees Rachel waving a few seats down. His head lifts. If he can't sing with Blaine, Rachel would be an acceptable partner. Their voices sound wonderful together, and they have similar taste in music if not in anything else. (Also in boys, a voice deep in the back of Kurt's head adds, but he refuses to listen to it.) She may be a diva, but so is he. They could win. They will win.

And then he realizes that Rachel isn't smiling at him but at Blaine, and Blaine is nodding back. While he can appreciate how good the two of them sound together, Kurt still has to take a deep breath to keep his expression calm. Rachel and Blaine. His two best choices gone in one fell swoop. The two people he most wanted to sing with chose each other. Just like that.

"Kurt," Mercedes says from two rows up, clearly not for the first time, given the tone of her voice.

"Sorry," he says, turning to her.

"Let's wipe the floor with the rest of them," she says, and he forces himself to smile back, because he knows they could.

"You can try, Mercedes," Rachel says.

"Oh, we won't just try," Mercedes assures her.

"Okay, let's sort out these partnerships," says Mr. Schuester, calling them back to order.

They split off into pairs a little while later, Kurt moving up to sit with Mercedes and Rachel taking his vacated seat beside Blaine. He watches their heads leaning into each other for a long moment before focusing on the task at hand.

"I would've liked to see you two sing again," Mercedes says, her voice low with sympathy.

"Me and Blaine or me and Rachel?"

"Either, but I meant with Blaine. You haven't done a duet yet for Glee."

Kurt shrugs. "Yes, well. We were saving it. Letting Blaine settle in before blowing you all away. Mr. Schue scuttled that plan, didn't he?" Why, yes, he is bitter about it.

"Yeah. But, hey, we'll still get dinner out of it. We killed it as Cheerios, and we'll kill it here." She grins at him.

He has to grin back, because it's not like he doesn't love singing with her, too. She's amazing, and he adores her.

And they will be great, he knows it. He just can't quite tamp down the feeling of longing when he watches Blaine smiling and making plans with Rachel. Singing with him would have been so much better.

*

"You all were wonderful," Miss Pillsbury tells the club earnestly at the end of the week. She stands by the piano with her hands clasped in front of her hideous plaid skirt. "Really wonderful. It was a hard decision."

"Just put the rest of them out of their misery," Santana says, buffing her nails. "I haven't eaten in two days so I can get down an extra dozen breadsticks."

Kurt, while having eaten his usual sensible diet, can't really disagree with her for once. He wants to know who won the duets competition. He wants to have won the duets competition. He wants to have crushed them. He reaches out for Mercedes' hand and gives it a quick, fierce squeeze.

"All of you deserve the prize, but - " Miss Pillsbury begins.

"No point in making a frog wear a ribbon to eat cake," Coach Beiste says beside her. "Congratulations, Rachel and Blaine."

Rachel lets out a high-pitched squeal and throws her arms around Blaine to give him a quick hug. Kurt feels disappointment settling heavily over his shoulders, but he isn't actually surprised. Their rendition of "Love is Battlefield," while heartfelt, had clearly pandered to the ages of the judges, as opposed to the Adele song he and Mercedes had chosen.

He sighs as Glee Club erupts into the expected chaos of disapproval, and it takes a few minutes for Mr. Schuester to get them settled down again.

"Congratulations," Kurt says to Blaine as Coach Beiste picks up Santana and puts her back into her chair.

Blaine shoots him a smile and continues to attempt to pry Rachel's hand from his without looking like he's doing anything of the sort. "Next time it'll be ours."

Kurt has to smile back, because Blaine is thinking of him instead of just reveling in the win, and although he still feels robbed of the experience he wanted - singing with Blaine or winning or both, damn it, he wanted both - he's almost in a pleasant enough mood to be cornered by Rachel at the end of practice. She's tugging Finn behind her like a giant leaden balloon.

"I've been thinking," she says without preamble, "and I think it could be considered inappropriate for Blaine and me to go out to dinner together, given our intense if brief romantic history. A fast-burning blaze can still leave hidden, smoldering embers even after it is extinguished."

Blaine looks up from his bag, his eyes wide and terrified, and Kurt chokes back a laugh. Finn just looks confused.

"So as we are both currently dating other people, I think it makes more sense for the four of us to share the prize," she continues. "The gift certificate is for two free dinners, so we can double date, and each couple will only have to pay for one meal."

"A double date?" Finn says.

"Yes. It's the only sensible solution," Rachel replies.

Kurt can think of a half-dozen other solutions off of the top of his head, but the only objection he has to Rachel's plan is that he has to watch her moon over Finn over dinner, which is pretty much what he'd see if the four of them were hanging out at his house, anyway. It's certainly better than the thought of her talking poor Blaine's ear off for the span of their meal alone.

"Sounds great," Blaine says quickly, like he's thinking much the same thing as Kurt is.

Finn nods. "Yeah. Cool."

"Excellent. I will send you all e-vites, and I expect prompt replies," Rachel says, and sweeps off with Finn trailing behind her.

"Not that I really mind having dinner with them," Blaine says to Kurt as they gather their things and leave the room, "but this prize makes so much more sense if you get to sing with your boyfriend."

Kurt smirks over at him. "It's Glee Club; please leave your logic at the door."

"I think I'm getting that."

*

"So then Madame Klein pulls out this wooden ruler from her bag," Kurt says, laughing as he speaks, "and walks over to Azimio's desk, and he starts freaking out."

"Doesn't he know corporal punishment is illegal in 2011?" Blaine asks and stops in front of his locker.

"I'm not sure he even knows how to spell corporal punishment," Kurt says, and then his heart freezes in his chest as an utterly innocuous piece of folded notepaper flutters down to the ground when Blaine opens his locker door. It should be innocuous, anyway, except that it is clearly a note that was stuck through the vents in the door. A note. Kurt has had dozens of them over the years, cruel, vindictive, poorly spelled bits of venom on college-ruled paper. There hasn't been one recently, but the memories are still vivid.

Kurt's mind races. Should he be the one to pick it up? Should he read it first so that Blaine doesn't have to? Should he just grab it and toss it in the trash so neither of them has to read whatever hateful words are inside?

He starts to bend down, because whatever he does afterward he needs to get to it before Blaine does and shield him as best he can, but Blaine is quicker, not hindered by a split-second's indecision, and he's opening the note before he is even back upright.

Kurt can't breathe. He can't. He's forgotten how, he's so absolutely furious that Blaine - his Blaine - has to face even an iota of what this school can dish out... and then Blaine laughs and slides the note in his pocket, and Kurt still can't breathe because Blaine laughed. He laughed.

"Santana has the most colorful use of language of anyone I've ever met," Blaine says, shaking his head and grabbing the books he needs for class.

Kurt scrambles for a response as he tries to back away from the anger that is surging through him, apparently for no reason, at least not at this moment. It's much harder than he thought it would be, and he glares daggers at the students around him, because they surely deserve it for something.

"You okay?" Blaine asks, frowning a little as he looks into Kurt's eyes. "Kurt?"

"Yes. Everything's fine," Kurt says, and he takes another calming breath.

"Kurt."

"Really, Blaine. Not everything is the end of the world." He repeats that phrase silently to himself once more as they head to English.

*

Later that week, Kurt and Blaine go through the lunch line together, which is always an exercise in patience for Kurt because Blaine makes the most awful choices. He's learned to keep most of his commentary to himself, though, because although Blaine will eat the grilled chicken sandwich and side salad if guilted into it he looks so unhappy doing so that it makes Kurt feel bad.

Sometimes, however, Kurt just can't help himself. "Chili cheese fries? Really? What part of that is actually food?"

"The chili, cheese, and fries?" Blaine replies after thanking the lunch lady. She never responds, but he always thanks her, anyway. It's charming in its own hopeless sort of way.

"You mean the processed mystery meat, orange plastic, and greasy bits of I don't even know what?"

"Yep. Yum yum."

Kurt snorts and reaches for a dish of anemic-looking melon.

"Hey, Blaine," a guy says from Blaine's other side. He's a little taller than Kurt, dressed in Urban Outfitters' finest, and has floppy brown hair that desperately needs a trim and a judicious application of product. Kurt recognizes him vaguely.

"Hey, Justin," Blaine says easily. "How's it going?"

"Not bad. Not bad. You up for working on those layouts this afternoon?" Justin asks.

Oh, Justin is from Yearbook. Blaine talks about him sometimes. Kurt glances out over the cafeteria to see if Mercedes has already snagged a table while he half-listens to the conversation.

"Sorry, I have Glee practice after school today," Blaine says. "Are you free on - "

"Justin!" A perky blonde bounces up behind Justin. Kurt raises his eyebrow at her shirt, the most ghastly combination of purple and brown. Was she blind?

"Hey, Lily," Justin says, and they all take a few steps forward as the line inches toward the registers.

"Hi," Blaine says to her.

"Hi, Blaine! I didn't see you there," Lily says. She leans in and gives him a quick little hug. Kurt's eyebrows rise even higher.

They reach the dessert section of the line, and Blaine's eyes go wide. "Ooh, butterscotch pudding," he says, reaching for one of the little cups. Kurt smacks his wrist, and Blaine looks over, wounded. "Ow?"

"Last time you told me to remind you that this isn't Dalton's homemade pudding," Kurt says.

"Did I tell you to hit me?" Blaine asks and rubs his wrist.

Kurt shrugs, mostly hiding his grin. "I improvised."

Justin and Lily are looking at the two of them with pretty much identical expressions of realization.

"You guys know Kurt, right?" Blaine says to them.

"Sure," Lily says, though Kurt knows they've never spoken. But then by this point he assumes most of the school knows who he is. He's not exactly a bland wallflower, and his fashion sense would set him apart even if the rest of him did not.

Justin looks between the two of them for another second or two and says, "Oh, right. Right. Yeah."

"Hello," Kurt says, because if they're Blaine's friends he ought to be at least nominally polite, even if there's something that sits wrong with him about the whole exchange.

Justin asks Blaine, "Are you free during activity period tomorrow for those layouts?"

Blaine replies, they make plans, the line moves forward, and they part at the registers, Justin and Lily going one way and Kurt and Blaine going the other to sit with Mercedes.

It isn't until later when Kurt is sorting beads for his latest wardrobe embellishment that he realizes what felt so weird about the conversation. It's not just that Blaine has friends outside of Glee, because Kurt certainly hears enough about Yearbook to be aware of them; it's that they had forgotten Blaine was gay. Okay, surely not forgotten, because this is high school in Ohio, but they'd been momentarily surprised when reminded of it by Kurt's presence beside him. It's not the first thing they think of when they think of Blaine. They think of Yearbook, they think of his easy charm, they think of singing, and then they think of his orientation.

That's so foreign to Kurt's experience at McKinley - in life - that he almost doesn't know what to do with it. He's always gay first and everything else after... if he's lucky enough that someone actually thinks beyond gay gay gay. It's great for Blaine, it's wonderful, it's how it should be, it's how it was at Dalton, but it's not at all what Kurt is used to.

Kurt sorts about a dozen iridescent seed beads into the faceted clear glass bead compartment in his shock, and he has to dump them out and start over.

*

On a Tuesday a couple of weeks later, Kurt gets an e-mail from Jeff inviting him to a Warblers party on Saturday afternoon that promises an Ultimate Miniature Golf Sudden Death New Jersey Rules Cage Match, whatever that is, with a cookout afterward at Jeff's house.

No RSVP is required, and Blaine is on the CC list, so Kurt just puts it in his calendar and assumes they are going. And then Blaine doesn't mention it. Blaine, who waxes poetic for days in advance about them having tickets to the theater or a New Directions night at Breadstix, doesn't say anything about seeing the Warblers.

Kurt waits and tries to gauge the situation without actually asking any questions, but Blaine has so much practice looking unruffled that it's hard even for Kurt to read him sometimes. He knows there's something going on beneath the oh-so-easy surface, but he doesn't know what it is.

So on Thursday afternoon while he's teaching Blaine to make risotto, he breaks down and asks, "Did you see Jeff's invitation for Saturday?"

Blaine looks up from the asparagus he's peeling (all wrong, Kurt will have to go over the distinction between woody and non-woody parts again). "Sure. Don't you want to go?"

"I'd be happy to," Kurt replies and turns so that he's facing Blaine. He leans his hip against the counter.

"Okay." Blaine attacks the next stalk.

"Will it be hard for you, being with them?" Kurt asks softly when it's clear nothing else is forthcoming besides anorexic-looking asparagus. "I mean, they're your friends, but I know you miss Dalton."

Blaine shrugs and toys with the vegetable peeler. "It'll be okay," he says. "I'd like to see them."

Kurt watches Blaine's face, sees the turmoil in his eyes and the fight there to contain it. It hurts that he can't fix it, but at least Kurt can listen to him. "You don't talk about it much. Having to leave."

"There isn't much to say, Kurt," Blaine replies, finally looking up at him. "I had to. I didn't have a choice."

"I know." Kurt puts his hand on Blaine's arm, sliding down to his hand and clasping it in his own. He remembers how positive Blaine had tried to be when imparting the news months ago, and yet how small and lost he looked with his shoulders hunched beneath his blazer and his tie askew.

Blaine's fingers tighten around his. "I won't say I don't miss it, but there are some definite positives about being at McKinley." He smiles and squeezes Kurt's hand.

"Oh? Because with your fashion sense I can't think the relaxed dress code is actually doing you any favors."

"Hey." Blaine tugs him in for a hug, resting his temple against Kurt's and sighing a little into his hair. "I love seeing you every day. And I love New Directions. Yearbook is actually fun, and the rest isn't as bad as I'd expected." He sounds like he means it, not like he's trying to convince himself of it.

"Really?" Kurt can't hide the disbelief in his voice. He'd missed his friends every day at Dalton like a piece of him had been taken away, and McKinley has far less to offer Blaine in return than Dalton had for Kurt.

"I don't know. Most people are pretty nice once you get to know them."

"Once they get to know you," Kurt corrects, because that hasn't been his experience at all outside of Glee.

Blaine pulls back to look into Kurt's eyes. "I'm not forgetting last year, Kurt. Karofsky, Prom. I haven't forgotten. I won't."

"I know." The words come out soft at the fierceness in Blaine's expression. "I'm happy you're seeing another side, though."

"I am, too." Blaine's quiet for a moment before adding, "It makes things easier."

Kurt hugs him tightly, because he wants everything to be easy for Blaine. Everything. He hates that the world is so unfair. "I'm glad," he whispers into Blaine's shoulder and feels Blaine cling back that much harder.

"What time should I pick you up on Saturday?" Blaine asks when they pull apart in an obvious attempt to switch the subject.

Kurt decides to let him. "Just late enough that they've already started the miniature golf match when we get there," he replies. He goes back to shredding the parmesan.

"You don't want to play?"

Kurt rolls his eyes. "I'm not sure I even want to watch."

"Come on, it'll be fun," Blaine tells him, his habitual smile already reemerging.

"The words Cage Match and Kurt Hummel only go together in the same sentence if fashion is somehow involved," Kurt says haughtily. He reconsiders. "Or possibly a competition solo."

Blaine laughs and knocks his elbow against Kurt's. "Fun to watch, then. Besides, nobody will be in uniform; there will be plenty of fashion to see."

"For the last time, Blaine, the GAP is not fashion."

"Hey, for these guys any time they get to dress in their own clothes is fashion."

"And yet they make the worst choices."

Blaine just shakes his head and decimates another stalk of asparagus.

"You do realize they're going to make you sing with them," Kurt says after a minute of watching Blaine's smile fade again.

Startled, Blaine looks up. "You think so?"

"I'm sure of it," Kurt says, and he is, but he still is going to e-mail Trent to suggest it.

"They'll want you to sing, too," Blaine says. "You were a Warbler."

"I'm sure I can remember how to sway back and forth in the background, but they'll want you to lead them."

Blaine's eyes light up at the thought, and for a second Kurt can see just how much Blaine longs for everything he left behind. But then Blaine drops the peeler and sings the opening bars of "Teenage Dream," and Kurt only stops laughing when Finn comes in and gives them both the oddest look, like he's not sure if this is a private moment or just another weird Kurt and Blaine thing he doesn't understand.

*

The air is chilly, but the night sky is clear and beautiful, and when Blaine drives Kurt home after the party they go to sit on the back steps to look up at the stars.

Blaine's quiet, and Kurt just moves up a step to sit behind him, wrap his arms around Blaine's shoulders, and tuck his legs against Blaine's sides. He leans his head on the top of Blaine's, breathing in the smell of him beneath the scent of fresh air and hair product. He doesn't try to fill the silence with anything but the touch. It had been a fun gathering for Kurt seeing his Dalton friends, and Blaine had been sparkling and energetic through it all, but he knows it wasn't as simple as that for Blaine. For Kurt it had been a chance to catch up; for Blaine it had been a confrontation with all that he'd had taken away. Kurt remembers how much he'd ached when seeing his McKinley friends before he been free to transfer back. So he just holds Blaine and lets him think, feel, stare at the sky, whatever he needs.

After a long while, Blaine takes a deep, shuddering breath. "I had a good time," he says. "I've missed them."

Kurt nods against Blaine's head.

"But you know what I realized?" Blaine asks.

"What?"

Blaine turns in Kurt's arms and kneels on the step so their faces are level. "I'd rather see you every day than go back," he says with an intensity that takes Kurt's breath away. "I already knew that, but today cemented it. I like them, I liked Dalton, but I love you."

Kurt's heart leaps in his chest, and the sharp, glittering joy of it threatens to overwhelm him. He's never been jealous of Blaine's attachment to Dalton, but to know that Blaine would choose him if he could leaves him speechless. He simply has no idea how to form words in reply. Instead he cups Blaine's face and kisses him hard, harder. He dives into Blaine's mouth, fists his hands in his hair, and just devours him. Kurt loves him. Blaine loves him.

"God, Kurt," Blaine gasps against his lips, pushing closer though there's not much closer to get, not on the steps, not with clothes on.

"I know," Kurt says, kissing him again. What he feels - what they feel - is so huge and overwhelming, and it's so right. "I know."

*

"And then Jeff used way too much lighter fluid, so when he lit the grill it went up like a fireball," Blaine tells Mercedes on Monday, leaning against the locker beside hers.

"It's fortunate that the greatest abuser of hair product at the party was across the yard at the time," Kurt comments, earning him a grin from her and the most ineffective glare ever from Blaine.

"This from the boy who single-handedly widened the hole in the ozone layer by about three miles from the hairspray he used his sophomore year alone," she says, checking her own hair in her locker door mirror.

Kurt lifts his chin and says, "At least I've learned my lesson. Less is more."

Giggling, Mercedes says, "Yeah, right," and gestures to his outfit. All right, the studded leather suspenders may be a little much, but they coordinate perfectly with his boots.

"Anyway, the grill was still kind of sizzling ten minutes later, so we brought in pizza instead," Blaine says. His phone buzzes, and he checks the text, smiling to himself as he taps something back.

"I had to fight to get one vegetarian pizza. One," Kurt tells her. "That's the problem with parties full of boys; they have no respect for non-grease food groups."

"You're talking to the wrong person. I'm an extra pepperoni girl, myself." She and Blaine high-five, and Kurt rolls his eyes.

Blaine waves to another student walking down the hall and says to Mercedes, "Maybe next time I'll invite you."

"To a party full of boys who rarely get to see girls? Boys who can sing? I'm in."

"It's not as great as it sounds," Kurt says wistfully.

"What are you complaining about? You already have a boyfriend," she says, smacking him gently on his shoulder.

"Yeah, hey," Blaine says, poking Kurt's other arm.

"I wouldn't be a good friend if I didn't warn her that the fantasy is far better than the reality," Kurt says.

Blaine pouts a little at him. "I think I should be offended."

"You're an exception," Kurt says, and he only blushes a little when Mercedes awws at him, because it is true, after all.

Blaine gives Kurt a soft smile that warms him to his toes and makes his stomach flip, and then the smile is gone so suddenly that Kurt feels like the floor has gone out from under him.

"Oh!" Blaine says, looking over Kurt's shoulder. "There's Eliza. I've got to talk to her before class. We're having a problem with one of the spreads. I'll see you guys at lunch." With a fleeting touch to Kurt's arm, he's bounding down the corridor to be greeted by Eliza and another girl at their lockers. They seem happy to see him.

"I can tell you one thing, the boy isn't short on friends," Mercedes says, shutting her locker door.

Kurt shrugs his agreement and sets off down the hall with her in the opposite direction from Blaine. "He's Blaine. He likes people; people like him." He can't really imagine it for himself, but he sees the spell Blaine works on people just by being himself. He certainly fell under it. It makes him wonder, not for the first time, how they fit together so well, the two of them. Sometimes it doesn't make much sense.

"Even you," Mercedes says, "and you pretty much don't like anybody."

"I prefer to think I have discerning tastes," Kurt says, because there are some people he likes. "That's why I like you."

She laughs up at him. "Damn right you do. We'll be discerning together."

"Perfect."

*

Kurt is early to English later in the week, and he's forced to stand outside of the classroom with a knot of other students until the previous class lets out. They're just a bunch of second-rate jocks and ditzy girls, so ignores them all, instead taking out his phone and scrolling through his messages. There's nothing interesting, but anything is better than having to talk to his classmates.

Finally the door opens, and he shoulders his bag and heads inside. As he sails past the other students, though, there's a muffled cough from one of the boys that in no way disguises the "Fag!" in the middle of it.

Kurt goes cold, then hot, and he gives them his archest look as snaps over his shoulder, "You should get that checked out; it sounds like a textbook case of the Moronic Plague."

One of the girls giggles, and the group wanders inside and congregates by the door like they can't be bothered to remember where their desks are. Kurt can see them sneaking glances at him from the corner of his eye. He wonders if they'll egg each other on to another comment before their teacher returns.

Kurt sits down in his seat with his spine rigid and takes his books out of his bag with sharp, deliberate movements. He will not show them that his stomach is churning with fury. They are bigots, they are idiots, and they don't deserve the pleasure.

He hopes the man-made fibers in their clothing give them some horrible disease. He imagines coming to a high school reunion only to refuse to give any of them his autograph. He imagines them begging outside his stretch limo for money for food and ordering his driver to keep going. Maybe he could even accidentally run one of them over. It's a warming thought.

Then he hears Blaine's voice out in the corridor, and every part of him snaps back to attention. If they say anything to Blaine, if they look at him, if they dare to -

"Good time on your run yesterday, Caleb," Blaine says to one of the boys as he walks through the door.

The boy glances over at Kurt, who is watching with narrowed eyes, and then replies, "Thanks, man."

"Hey," says one of the girls, and she almost sounds friendly.

"Hi, Angie," Blaine says with a smile, which widens when his eyes land on Kurt. "Hi, Kurt."

Then Mr. Walters walks in, and the students quickly disperse to their desks. One of the jocks just barely misses the back of Kurt's head with his bag on the way past.

Kurt doesn't deign to reply to the boy's mumbled apology. It's possible that it was an accident, but he doesn't believe in accidents like that anymore. They're morons, pure and simple, and he knows what their true colors are. He knows what lies beneath those smiles and apologies. He has the shiny plastic Prom Queen crown at home to prove it.

The only thing Kurt doesn't know is whether he hates them more or less for being nicer to Blaine than they are to him.

*

Rachel corners Kurt the next day after sixth period.

"Kurt," Rachel says, taking his arm in a grip that is entirely too tight to be kind to the fine cashmere sweater he is wearing, "we need to talk."

"I need to go to French," he replies, trying unsuccessfully to wiggle his arm free.

"We can do both." She starts to walk, and he hurries to keep up. It's either that or be dragged along, and neither his sweater nor his self-esteem can stand up to that.

"We have a problem with Glee Club," she says.

"Rachel, we have many problems with Glee Club."

"And while I realize that Blaine is your boyfriend and while I appreciate the obvious and much-needed talent and passion he brings to the table - "

Kurt gapes at her as she guides him around a group of students stopped to talk at one of the lockers. "You're coming to me to complain about Blaine?"

"No," she says. "Only peripherally - "

"And yet you led with it," Kurt mutters as she keeps talking.

" - but I think Mr. Schuester is so enamored of Blaine's ability to keep up with his obsessive need to try to spice up our repertoire with well-trod songs from the '80s plus Blaine's limitless enthusiasm for pop that he's losing sight of our real strength as a team."

"And what might that be?" Kurt says, turning the corner into the rear hallway.

"Us," Rachel says.

"Us?"

Rachel nods earnestly. "Us. You and me, and our unmatched ability to perform the best that Broadway has to offer."

He can't help but smile, because he and Rachel really do have a special talent in that area, and as much as she can annoy him he also loves her for seeing where they both shine. "True."

"Kurt, you and I, we're artists who can rise to any challenge, as we have both repeatedly shown by our standout performances in a variety of genres, but we're meant to sing Broadway, and for Mr. Schuester to stop listening to my opinions simply because some charismatic front man with a propensity for - "

Kurt is fortunate that he doesn't have to be the one to cut off Rachel's rant before she thoroughly insults his boyfriend, but the negative side to that is that her rant is interrupted by a pair of freezing slushies being hurled into their faces. It's been a while since Kurt has been slushied, and it is just as bad as he remembered. The mortification at being the target and the shock of the assault are like old enemies he'd hoped never to encounter again. It's like being splashed by a truck going through a deep puddle of slush in the middle of a horrific winter sleet storm, only the slush is sweet and sticky and the truck is actually a laughing neanderthal dressed up like a teenage boy. The slush is also purple, Kurt finds when he lifts his hand to wipe off his eyes, which is awful on two counts: it stains, and he hates the way the grape tastes. It tastes like chemicals. It takes like medicine. It tastes like shame.

"You losers looked like you were getting kind of heated!" one of the hockey players says as he and his buddy high-five and walk away.

"Better heated than stupid!" Kurt calls after them. It's not one of his better retorts, but he's out of practice. He supposes he should be grateful for it, in a way.

"Oh my god," Rachel says as she stands there dripping on the floor. "I can't believe this. I thought slushies were a thing of the past for me. I'm a Senior. I'm dating a football player. I led Glee Club to Nationals last year. Don't they know that?"

"Come on," Kurt says with a sigh, because all he knows is that his sweater is almost certainly ruined. "Let's go clean up. We're going to be late."

They grab their emergency bags and reconvene in the girls' bathroom nearest to their classes. It doesn't take him long to rinse out Rachel's hair for her, and his sweater's only hope of resurrection is the skill of the finest dry cleaner Lima has to offer, so it's a fairly quick clean-up.

Kurt is indeed late for French, but since his teacher is apparently covering the subjunctive again for the slower members of the class it isn't a big deal. He just slides into his seat, holds his head high, and pretends that this day hasn't happened to him. That's always been the best way for him to handle it.

*

Of course the first thing Blaine says when he meets Kurt at his car after school is, "Weren't you wearing something different this morning?"

"Yes," Kurt replies, nodding at Tina as she joins them. He can't hide what happened from his friends even if he wanted to, so he goes for breezy instead. He is above it, after all. "My hair was also better, and my favorite new cardigan wasn't destined for the rag bag."

"What happened?" Blaine says.

"Slushies before seventh period," Tina tells him. "Him and Rachel."

"You were slushied?" Blaine asks Kurt.

"Yes. They must have gone out during lunch and brought them back. They were still freshly frozen."

"What flavor?" Tina asks.

Kurt shudders and thinks of the sweater, now mottled with purple, sitting in a plastic bag in his satchel. "Grape."

Tina says with sympathy, "Ugh, I'm sorry. I hate grape. I hate them all, but I really hate grape." She looks up and her expression brightens. "Oh, there's Mike. See you guys tomorrow!"

"See you tomorrow," Kurt says, and he pulls out his car keys and unlocks the doors.

They both get in, but instead of fastening his seat belt, Blaine stares at him for a second, frowning. "Why didn't you tell me you were slushied?"

"I just did, Blaine," Kurt reminds him.

"No, I mean, why didn't you tell me then, when it happened?"

"I don't know. It didn't occur to me," Kurt admits, because it hadn't. He'd gone into automatic recovery mode like he has for years. "I guess I have wardrobe repair down to a science." He offers a wry smile that's half apology.

"I could have helped," Blaine says.

"Can you get purple dye out of cashmere?"

Blaine shrugs. "Sure."

"No, you can't," Kurt tells him, "because if I can't, you can't."

"Okay, but... you helped me when I was slushied."

Kurt reaches out to put his hand on Blaine's leg, because Blaine looks unhappy enough that he probably could use the contact. "I just didn't think of it. I'm used to dealing with it on my own."

"That doesn't make it right."

Stung, Kurt pulls his hand back and raises his chin. "I said I didn't think of it."

"No," Blaine says, touching Kurt's arm and making the hurt fade before it really takes hold. "I meant it's not right for you to have to deal with it alone. You have your friends. You have me."

Kurt nods slowly. "Rachel was already there. There wasn't anything you could do."

"Kurt," Blaine says seriously, "this is one of the things I was looking forward to when I transferred. I mean, if we're going to get slushied, we can at least have each other to help afterwards."

It sounds wonderful, it does, except these are exactly the types of events Kurt doesn't want Blaine to have to experience. He knows they both will, but if there's a positive from Kurt's perspective about Blaine being seen differently it's that he gets to be a little more sheltered. As much as he values having Blaine by his side, as much as he gains enormous comfort from Blaine's hand steady in his, Kurt would do anything to keep him from facing even the smallest fraction of what can get tossed - in all senses of the word - at them. And here is Blaine throwing himself into the fray anyway. Kurt loves it about him... but he also really kind of hates it when Blaine does it when he doesn't need to be there. He hates it.

"Honestly, Blaine," he says, "if you aren't the one being targeted why would I bring you into it? Why?"

"Because I love you," Blaine suggests.

"And I love you, which is why I can tell you it isn't necessary for you to be the white knight on the charger for every little thing."

"How is this me being a white knight?"

"How isn't it?"

Blaine narrows his eyes. "Kurt, why are you so prickly about this?"

"I don't know, maybe I don't enjoy being slushied and don't really want to have to talk about it endlessly after the fact?"

"One conversation is endlessly?"

Kurt sighs and resists the urge to thump his head back against the headrest. "Yes. It's bad enough getting a giant cup of frozen high fructose corn syrup thrown in my face, but now I have to deal with you guilting me over not letting you rush to my rescue."

"You rushed to mine," Blaine replies.

"Because you needed help. I know what to do," Kurt snaps. It's happened to him dozens of times, after all. He refuses to listen to the little voice inside of him that insists that even if Blaine were slushied a hundred times Kurt would still want to rush to his side. That's irrelevant.

"And I can't learn?"

"You don't need to learn. You need to keep doing whatever it is you're doing that makes everyone love you."

Blaine stares at him, really stares, like he's seeing something he's never realized before. He looks hurt, then angry, then sad in quick succession. "I thought we were doing this together," he says.

Kurt's stomach feels like it's suddenly in free-fall. "We are," he replies, confused and dismayed by Blaine's reaction.

"Shutting me out is together?"

"It was just a slushie."

"But - "

"It was just a slushie," Kurt tells him again, as firmly as he can. It was. That's all it was. "Will you feel better if I promise to text you the next time?"

Blaine considers the question for far longer than Kurt thinks is necessary before shrugging helplessly and saying, "Yes."

*

When Mr. Schuester announces that not only has Principal Figgins asked New Directions to perform at the big pep rally next week but that they're performing Beyoncé, Kurt nearly has a heart attack. Beyoncé. She's one of pop music's biggest divas, and she's a style icon. Kurt adores her and her songs. He starts to have visions of belting out one of her anthems (there are so many options; he can't decide), though he knows Mercedes will get the lead on the main number. Beyoncé! He grips the edge of his seat with one hand so he doesn't swoon off of his chair.

"Breathe," Mercedes murmurs with a laugh next to him.

"I don't think I can," he tells her, and when he looks over she grins at him. She's as excited as he is.

"First we should decide if we're going to focus on her latest album or pick selections from her entire - " Rachel starts.

"We're only doing one song," Mr. Schuester says, and some of the excitement drains from the room.

"It's still our theme for the week," he continues quickly. "Even though we'll only be performing one number at the rally, everyone in Glee Club will prepare something here."

"Great. This is Gaga all over again," Puck grumbles. "Why can't we do some dude music?"

"I'm willing to talk about an alternate artist for those of you not interested in stepping into Beyoncé's shoes," Mr. Schuester says. "I was thinking Billy Joel." Finn brightens; Puck slumps in his seat. "But for right now let's focus on the assembly."

"We should do 'Say My Name'," Mercedes says.

"'Independent Women'," Santana adds.

"'Single Ladies'," Tina says, winking at Kurt, and he balances his mortification of performing that dance in front of the school with the thrill of performing a solo in front of the school.

"I want to sing 'No Scrubs'," Brittany says.

Santana shakes her head and says, "That was TLC, Brit, not Destiny's Child."

"I know," Brittany replies, "but I always thought Beyoncé should have been in TLC instead of Chilli. Then they could have been BLT." There's a moment of silence in the room, and then she adds, "I like BLTs."

"Sorry, guys," Mr. Schuester cuts in, "Principal Figgins actually requested a specific song. We're going back to her Destiny's Child days and doing 'Survivor' for the pep rally."

It's a good choice, Kurt thinks. It's anthemic enough for the context and sure to get the audience energized. Plus, they can really expand on the harmonies with their range of voices. He knows he'll sound amazing; it's a perfect showcase for his talents.

"In order to keep with the feel of the original group, we're going to have three leads on this song," Mr. Schuester says. Rachel raises her hand, but he doesn't call on her. "They will be Mercedes, Santana, and to cut off your complaints right now that music has no gender - " Kurt holds his breath and clutches at his seat, his heart thundering in anticipation. Is Mr. Schuester finally going to make good on all of the promises he's made about appreciating Kurt's talent? - "Blaine."

"Wait, what?" Mercedes says as all of the hope and joy in Kurt's body drains out through his fingertips. "What about - "

"Blaine has proven himself to be our strongest male pop singer," Mr. Schuester tells her. "We need to put our best foot forward. You guys always talk about wanting more respect from the student body, and this is the perfect opportunity. Maybe we can draw in some new members and fill out our ranks for Sectionals."

Kurt's chest is beginning to ache, and he realizes that it's because he is still holding his breath. He lets it out slowly, carefully, because the last thing he wants is to draw attention to himself. He doesn't know why he's so hurt, but - No, of course he knows why he's hurt. He's being overlooked yet again, this time for a song that would be an excellent showcase for his range and abilities. He even has the perfect pair of boots for it.

He glances over at Blaine, who is engrossed in the sheet music Mr. Schuester is handing out. Kurt can't be angry at him, because Blaine's passion for pop is undeniable, but something still burns deep in his chest. Frustration. Resentment. The same surge of blood red, bitter determination to be acknowledged and respected that has driven him for his entire high school career and that will get him out of this one-sushi-restaurant town and to the bright lights of New York as soon as he graduates.

Mercedes touches Kurt's arm, the knowledge of just how much he loves Beyoncé in her eyes, and he shakes his head almost imperceptibly. If it were anyone else, Kurt might fight for the lead, but he's not going to go up against Blaine in the sing-off that would be sure to follow his complaints. He knows he'd make a strong showing and could very well win, but even if he did it isn't an important enough part for him to make a fuss over, not to take something away from Blaine. It's just one song in a pep rally. He might want it for himself, but he doesn't want to hurt Blaine in the process.

Still, he spends a fiercely happy minute imagining wiping the floor with Blaine in competition for the part. He can picture Glee Club jumping to its feet with applause when he sings his selection. He can picture Blaine staring at him with admiration and just a touch of awe. He can picture Mr. Schuester apologizing for his earlier mistake when he gives Kurt the lead. He can picture the school's riotous ovation at the rally itself. It isn't his proudest moment, but it does make him feel much better.

He holds onto that mirage of triumph while he hums and sways in the back behind his friends during their first run-through.

At the end of their rehearsal, Mercedes draws him aside as they pack up and says, "Why didn't you say anything?"

"I've given up on trying to help Rachel with her fashion choices," he replies. "She's on her own."

"Stop it, Kurt. You know what I'm talking about. The male lead."

Kurt shrugs and slides his music into his bag. "Blaine sounds great, and the arrangement is more interesting with a voice that isn't in the female range."

"I never thought I'd see Kurt Hummel be happy playing second fiddle to his boyfriend," she says, putting a hand on her hip.

"That's not what I'm doing," Kurt says, though he kind of is - again - and the thought stings.

"Oh?"

"Mercedes, I am not - " Kurt cuts himself off when Blaine bounces over.

"This is going to be so much fun!" Blaine says. He looks between the two of them and takes in their less-than-enthusiastic expressions. "What did I miss?"

"Nothing," Kurt says. He slings his bag over his shoulder. "Ready to go?"

Blaine doesn't make a move toward his own belongings. "You know, I'm not blind. I can see your face." He gestures to it.

"Kurt would make an amazing Beyoncé," Mercedes says, and Kurt fixes her with a glare that would, if only the world were fair, burn her alive.

"The hair might be a little much," Blaine says, squinting at him as if he's trying to picture it.

"She means singing," Kurt snaps. "And I would, and, yes, the hair would be way too much."

"Oh, uh - " Realization blooming on his face, Blaine glances over his shoulder at Mr. Schuester. "You're right. Of course you would. Maybe we could ask - "

Kurt feels a scream building up inside of him, and if he doesn't leave soon it's going to burst out and decimate his two best friends. He's just so tired of being overlooked. "I am not having this conversation," he says decisively. "And neither are either of you. You two are going to perform your song in front of the entire school, and I will make Glee Club fall at my feet when I show them exactly how a more mature Beyoncé is meant to be sung. End of story."

They both stare at him, and although Mercedes has known him longer Blaine is the one who recovers first. "Kurt - "

"End. Of. Story." He can see Blaine thinking, like he's going to do something idiotic like offering to give up his part, and Kurt is this close to losing what's left of his control over his temper.

Then Mr. Schuester says, "Mercedes, Santana, Blaine? Can I talk to you three for a minute before you go?"

Blaine and Mercedes both look at Kurt, still concerned, and he just shoos them off. "Go. We were done. See you tomorrow."

"I have to go to Mike's tonight to do that lab report, but I could skip Yearbook this afternoon if you - " Blaine starts, and he has that intense, earnest look in his eyes that never bodes well for anything but a serious conversation, which is pretty much the last thing Kurt wants.

"Don't be ridiculous. I'll call you later." Kurt jerks his hand in a wave as he walks off, but he doesn't look back.

*

"You must be really happy," Finn says that night as they're washing dishes together after dinner. Finn is washing, because he doesn't care if the detergent dries out his hands, and Kurt is drying and putting them away, because he's far less likely to drop and break them.

"Yes, because washing dishes is the culmination of all of my life's hopes and dreams," Kurt replies.

"No, I mean about Blaine. Him being at school with you. I was thinking about that today."

Kurt looks over at Finn and decides that, no, there is no sarcasm in his voice or obvious joke at the end of this conversation. "Yes, I'm very happy to see Blaine every day again."

"Yeah, going to different schools must have sucked."

Kurt makes an affirmative noise and wipes down the next dish.

"And you're in Glee Club and everything together, which is awesome," Finn says.

"It has its moments."

"I was just thinking about that, with him getting a lead and all. How cool it must be for you."

Putting a plate in the cabinet, Kurt raises an eyebrow and looks over at him. "It's cool for me that Blaine got a lead?"

"Yeah."

"I do like watching him perform, but I don't really understand what you're trying to say, Finn."

"I don't know." Finn sloshes around in the soapy water. "It's just like, you're not the only one out there, you know?"

Kurt stares at Finn, trying to make his words make sense. "We don't even have the same range."

"No. I mean, you're gay, he's gay. You sing, he sings."

"You like football, Blaine likes football," Kurt says, although he's beginning to see a horrible glimmer of where Finn is going. He takes the glass Finn just rinsed and doesn't even comment on him not washing the dishes in the proper order.

"I just mean you're not alone. You're not the only out gay kid anymore. And he's doing the same stuff you are. You know, like performing. That's got to be cool. You have someone who knows what you're going through."

"Finn, just because Blaine is gay doesn't mean we're going through the same things."

"But... he's your boyfriend."

The comment hits uncomfortably close to home, and Kurt tries to deflect. "Does Rachel have the same experiences at McKinley that you do?"

"No," Finn admits.

"Then why would Blaine and I?"

"I don't know. I mean..." Finn trails off, apparently at a loss for words. Finally he says, "Sorry. I guess that was stupid."

It would be so easy for Kurt to let it go, because he's tired of it all, but this is Finn, and he means well. And Kurt is hurting, whether he wants to be or not. "If it's stupid then I was stupid, too," he says quietly. "And please don't take this as me saying that Blaine isn't supportive, because he's wonderful. But we're different, and people see that."

Finn looks over, watching him, but Kurt focuses on wiping off the dish in his hand. "Yeah, but..."

Kurt tries to keep his tone light. "It's great for Blaine, actually. It would have been horrible for him if he automatically came with all of the baggage of being like Kurt Hummel on top of being new and out."

"He seems to be doing okay," Finn says tentatively.

"He's doing very well," Kurt says. "He's fitting in, he's making friends, he's being Blaine."

"Then why don't you sound happy about it?"

Kurt sighs, because he is happy for Blaine. He is. This isn't a problem with Blaine at all; it's a problem with Kurt. Obviously. "Let's put it this way: if Blaine were to become Prom King this year it would be because he runs for it."

"You think he's going to run for Prom King?" Finn asks with a worried look in his eyes.

"Finn, you're missing the point. I was made Prom Queen as a joke. He could run for King and actually get at least a few serious votes. Do you see the difference?" Kurt tries not to sound sour, but he can't stop the emotion from bubbling up.

Finn nods slowly, and Kurt gives him a minute to think it through. He wipes down the last two plates, puts them away, and closes the cabinet door. He dries his hands delicately on the towel.

"That's not fair," Finn says finally. "You're not a joke."

Kurt threads the towel through the loop, watching his hands manipulate the cloth. "No, I'm not," he says. "But I am to most of the school, and he isn't."

"But - "

"I'm not saying he doesn't get laughed at or passed over for being gay, but it's not as much. For whatever reason, because we're different." Kurt pulls out the towel and re-folds it more neatly before putting it back. "Because of what he looks like, because of what he sounds like, because of his personality, because he's new and people aren't used to looking down at him, because he charms his way through life instead of bluntly speaking his mind, because of his shockingly mundane taste in clothing when left to his own devices - " He breaks off suddenly, shocked that he didn't stop himself sooner, and jerks his shoulder in a shrug.

"But that's not fair."

"No, it isn't," Kurt snaps, because it really, really isn't fair, because even though they might be different he isn't a joke, either. He tugs sharply on the towel, trying to straighten it out just so. It won't lie right in the loop. "But it's enlightening, isn't it? All this time, I thought people hated me because I'm gay, when it turns out a lot of it is that they just hate me." He takes a short step back and realizes he's shaking. He can't believe he just said that. He can't believe he just said that to Finn.

"Kurt, I'm sorry - " Finn starts, and he reaches out a hand toward Kurt, but Kurt shakes his head. He knows if Finn touches him he won't be able to maintain his composure, and he's not going to cry over this.

"It's just who we are, I think," Kurt says, swallowing back the emotion as best he can. He can't break down in front of Finn. He lifts his chin and tries to sound strong. He is strong. "If Blaine's pop music, I'm Broadway. The audience who appreciates musical theater is much smaller, especially someplace like Lima."

Finn looks at him, unhappy and helpless, and Kurt skirts around him to head up to his room. He needs to pull himself together.

"But I'm still happy to see him every day," Kurt says before he leaves the kitchen, because he feels it's important to make the point again. "You're right about that."

*

Later that night, after his homework is finished, Kurt really looks at himself in the mirror as he performs his evening cleansing and moisturizing routine. He takes a little extra time to turn his head from side to side, noticing all of the changes. When he pays attention, he can see himself aging, though at the moment it is not in a bad way. His skin is clearing, and his jawline is becoming that much sharper. His features are growing more defined and mature. He's getting taller, and his chest and shoulders are broadening. He might still be a boy in the eyes of the state, but he's becoming a man. Hour by hour, day by day, he is getting older.

In a few years, he knows he'll regret the process, but tonight it is a satisfying thought. It means that he's not going to be this age forever. He's not going to be here forever.

His image blurs as he blinks back the tears springing into his eyes. One more year. He just has to get through one more year, less than that. Then he can leave. Then he can go somewhere where he doesn't have to see these people anymore. He's sure that New York will have idiots, too - with that large of a population, it's statistically impossible that it doesn't - but he also knows that the average person he'll encounter in his fabulous, fashion-filled life there will be far more likely to appreciate who he is than his current classmates.

It doesn't matter, he tells himself firmly, why people don't like him at McKinley. It doesn't matter if it's because he's gay or just because he's himself. It doesn't change anything.

Except that it does. His orientation is a fact of biology; his personality is him. It may be foolish to feel that if they hate him at the cellular level it's less personal than it is if they just don't like his sense of style or humor, but it does cut more deeply. They hate him. He's always known they didn't understand, but he thought it was driven by his orientation. Maybe it isn't, not entirely. The thought worms its way beneath the armor he tries to wear like a second skin around himself and makes his heart bleed in his chest.

He turns away from the bleak expression in his mirror and goes to make himself a cup of warm milk. He finds his father sitting on the couch with Carole watching some sitcom, and Kurt curls up in a chair for the rest of the show, letting the laugh track and the comfort of family wash over him.

"Everything okay?" his dad asks during the commercial when Carole goes to get another cup of tea. "I thought you hated this show."

"I do. It was just a long day," Kurt replies.

"Okay, well. You know, if you ever need to talk…"

Kurt smiles a little, because he knows how much his father hates talking about feelings. Still, he appreciates offer. "I know where to find you."

His father nods. "Door's always open for you."

Blaine calls later than usual that night, which is okay with Kurt, because it gives him some more time to get his emotions under control. He knows Blaine will want to encourage him if he opens up, but he's not ready to hear it.

"Sorry," Blaine says when Kurt answers. "I was at Mike's doing that lab report, and then Puck came by to hang out, and we kind of lost track of time."

"It's okay," Kurt tells him. He just can't bring himself to resent Blaine's easy friendship with the boys, even if it still makes his stomach twist a little when he thinks about it; none of this is actually Blaine's fault, after all. His presence is just the reason Kurt has realized the truth.

"Are you all right? You sound tired."

"I'm exhausted," Kurt says, and he is, by everything.

"Do you want me to let you go?" Blaine asks.

Closing his eyes and leaning back against his pillows, Kurt shakes his head, and it takes him a second to remember Blaine can't see it. "No. Just talk to me. Do you mind?"

"I love talking to you," Blaine says, and as he regales Kurt with stories of meeting Mike's parents Kurt feels the threads of tension in him begin to unknot a little. The hurt is still there, but he has room to breathe.

Because the thing is, even if the school hates him and not just his orientation, Kurt knows he's amazing, and part of how he knows it is that Blaine, who is also amazing, loves him. He doesn't need Blaine to define himself, but Kurt figures if he has the world's best boyfriend he might as well allow himself to draw comfort from it. He just listens and breathes, pulling himself back together bit by bit as the words flow into his ear and remind him just how much he loves the best parts of his life and himself.

"Are you sure you're okay?" Blaine asks quietly before they get off the phone for the night.

"I will be," Kurt says. He knows how.

*

As soon as Mr. Schuester sets down his bag at the beginning of rehearsal, Kurt raises his hand and says, "Mr. Schuester, if I may?" Blaine turns toward him in question, but Kurt doesn't look his way. He's doing this on his own, because he has to. He has to remind himself and the world what he's really made of.

"What is it, Kurt?" Mr. Schuester asks.

Kurt rises from his seat and sees Mr. Schuester's shoulders drop with resignation before he pastes on a forced smile and waves Kurt to the center of the room.

"I've prepared a song," Kurt says. Blaine looks concerned and a little hurt (probably that Kurt hadn't mentioned it beforehand), Finn looks confused, and the rest of the group settles into their seats for the performance. Kurt isn't worried about them, any of them. He is going to sing, and he knows he'll draw them in. It's what he does.

Mr. Schuester takes a seat at the edge of the first row. "Okay. What Beyoncé song have you chosen?"

"I'm not singing Beyoncé today," Kurt tells him.

"You're doing Billy Joel?" Finn says. "Awesome!" Rachel shushes him.

Kurt makes sure that Brad and the jazz band have their music ready, and he ignores Finn's comment as he explains, "I've taken the liberty of going on a tangent from our assignment this week; it's hardly the first time it's happened around here. Instead I have been inspired by the theme of survival from our pep rally song." He nods to Brad. "Hit it."

He'd stayed up late last night rearranging the disco hit "I Will Survive" into a more sultry jazz tempo, and the music sounds even better in person than it did in his head. With the band behind him, he stands tall and proud before his friends as he begins to sing. There's no choreography, no costume beyond his simple but fabulous outfit, just him. This song is all about him.

He starts low and soft, his voice honeyed and mellow, but he lets the power build line by line, verse by verse. It's a slow growth of emotion instead of the pounding beat of the original. He sings out his frustration, he sings out his pain, he sings out his anger at all of the injustices of his life, and he sings out his unshakable determination not to be bowed by any of it. He won't. He will find his way, and he will be loved and appreciated. He already is by the people who count, and that knowledge makes him even more firm.

As his voice rises in volume and emotion, he knows he has his audience, but even more he knows he has himself, strong and centered in his very core. He is who he is, and he's not going to change. He is in complete control. He can see by the rapt expressions on his friends' faces that he's in control of them, too.

Rachel is leaning forward in her chair with the uneasy look she gets when someone is doing something better than she thinks she could, Mercedes is smiling at him broadly, Finn is frowning between him and Blaine, probably because the song is ultimately about a break-up, and Blaine is just wholly focused on Kurt, his eyes shining. He looks torn between joy and sadness, but he also looks completely caught up in Kurt and his performance. Kurt closes his eyes for a second, reveling in it all.

Kurt's singing from deep in his lungs by the end of the song, singing from his heart that nothing will break it, and he ends on a long, perfect note, a rush of pride, and a little bit of light-headedness from not having quite timed his breathing right. He rocks back on his heels, smiling, because he was right. The performance was just what he needed to get out his feelings and remind himself who he is. He feels light and free. He's Kurt Hummel, and the world had better watch out.

As the class applauds, he curtseys once, twice, and then goes back to his seat.

"You should get every solo in the world," Blaine tells him fervently, reaching out to take Kurt's hand.

"I'm not that greedy," Kurt says, though he really wouldn't mind. He straightens his cuff the extra half-inch it needs to fall perfectly at his wrist. "I'll share them with you."

Blaine smiles at him, and the warmth in his eyes makes Kurt want to kiss him then and there. "But that song... Should I be worried?"

Kurt smiles back, aware that Mr. Schuester is talking but not caring in the slightest. He leans in closer, lets their shoulders and temples brush. "Not for a second. None of the bad parts were about you. They never will be."

*

That day after school a handful of hockey players are tossing nerds into the dumpsters by the parking lot. If he were with Blaine, Kurt might have steered them down a different path to keep him from having to deal with them, but he's alone today. Kurt squares his shoulders and glares daggers at them as he walks past. He dares them to touch him. He dares them to speak.

They don't, but he doesn't think he's imagining it when he feels their eyes on him the rest of the way to his car. Oddly enough, that makes him feel even more triumphant.

*

The next afternoon, Kurt is curled up against the pillows at his headboard, while Blaine lies across the foot of the bed on his stomach like a faithful dog, if a dog wore a cardigan and the most perfect jeans and kicked its feet in time with the quiet music playing on Kurt's laptop on his bedside table. They're both reading, the door is open halfway, and there's the faint sound of explosions from down the hall where Finn's playing some video game in his room. Blaine would probably know which one; Kurt doesn't care.

After a while, Kurt stretches out his legs, and he rests his sock-clad toes delicately against Blaine's shoulder. Blaine smiles and leans into the touch. The contact makes Kurt feel all warm and comfortable, and if the sounds of mayhem and the reading material don't quite work with his mental image he still can't help but slip into a daydream about a lazy weekend in a future apartment in New York, just enjoying the simple pleasure of being together. It's so easy, being with Blaine. Sometimes it's complicated by the desperate need to touch him, but even that's easy for Kurt now. He never thought it would be. He never thought it could be, but it's Blaine. Being with him, whatever they're doing, is as natural as breathing.

Blaine shuts his book and sits up, watching him, and Kurt's heartbeat skips. He shifts from cozy to hungry in under a second; Blaine looks edible in that outfit, and he's right there. All Kurt has to do is reach out and tug him into his arms. He wonders how long Finn will be playing his game. Not long enough, but Kurt wants to kiss Blaine badly enough that he'll risk Finn walking in on them again.

"I think we should talk," Blaine says, inching a little closer and crossing his legs.

"It's just Gatsby," Kurt says, marking his place in his own copy and setting it aside. "We both read it last year. There's nothing to talk about."

"Not about the book."

Kurt raises an eyebrow. "I can think of other things we could be doing if we're not reading." He draws his fingers over his collarbone like he's not even aware of it, though he definitely, definitely is.

Blaine's eyes flick to Kurt's hand and up to his mouth for a breathless moment, but then he blinks and shakes his head. "Talking first. This is important."

"Okay." Drawing his knees up and lacing his fingers together over his shins, Kurt tilts his head and says, "What do you want to talk about?" Blaine hasn't seemed particularly unhappy, but he holds his hurts deep inside sometimes. Whatever it is, Kurt will always be a loving ear to listen to him.

Blaine takes a deep breath like he needs to steady himself, and then he says, "It's about you and the pep rally song."

"Oh, god, I don't want to talk about that," Kurt says, letting his head fall back on the pile of pillows behind him with a soft thump. It's the last thing he wants to talk about; he doesn't want to have to feel hurt by it all over again. He'd been so foolish to think Blaine was going to let it go just because they hadn't discussed it. He should have known better; Blaine never lets anything go.

"I think we need to."

Kurt lifts his head again. "There isn't anything to say unless you want my help picking out an outfit for the performance."

"No. I mean, I'd love that, but there's more to talk about."

"Oh?" Kurt tries to sound as unwelcoming as possible.

Blaine carries on anyway, and Kurt doesn't know whether he should be impressed or frustrated by his tenacity. "Why didn't you fight for the male lead?"

"I didn't see any reason to," Kurt replies.

"But you wanted it," Blaine says, watching him so, so carefully, and Kurt has to force himself not to fidget, because sometimes Blaine can read him better than Kurt wants him to.

"Blaine, I want every lead. So do you."

Blaine mulls that over and then asks, "If it had gone to anyone but me, would you have challenged Mr. Schuester's decision?"

Kurt pretends to weigh the question, despite his first inclination being to deflect as quickly as possible. He has to be honest, even though he is starting to feel backed into a corner. "Probably."

"Then why didn't you?" Blaine asks, leaning forward. He's all earnest inquiry and concern, and something in Kurt splinters and gives way.

"I don't know, Blaine, why wouldn't I complain to Mr. Schue about my boyfriend getting a part I want?" Kurt snaps back. "Why wouldn't I?"

"You shouldn't hold back because of me. You've never done it before."

Kurt rockets off of the bed; it's either that or start yelling, and he really doesn't want to yell. "I am not holding back," he says, pacing a few steps across his room and then whirling around to face Blaine. "I am being a good boyfriend."

"What are you - "

"I realize that your transition to McKinley has gone infinitely more smoothly than I could have expected," Kurt continues, "but pardon me if I don't want to be another person who takes something away from you. That's the last thing I want to do, Blaine."

Blaine opens his mouth but closes it again without speaking. His eyes drift to the wall for the span of a few breaths before he looks back at Kurt. "Wow, okay. That wasn't what I thought you were going to say."

Kurt shrugs one shoulder, his arms crossed over his chest. "I do hate being predictable."

The corner of Blaine's mouth curves up in response, but the smile is only there for a second. "I told you I'd pick being here with you over Dalton."

"I know, but you didn't have the choice. You lost your friends, your no-bullying policy." To lighten the mood, he adds, "Your dapper uniform, your leads."

Blaine is quiet for another long moment. "I'm not going to break if I don't get every solo," he says, apparently willing to leave aside the other, harder issues for now. "No matter what your time in the Warblers might make you believe."

"I know," Kurt replies. "I never thought you would."

"So..." Blaine searches his face, looking for answers to questions he hasn't voiced.

Kurt takes a slow breath and sits carefully on the edge of the bed. "This is your first official performance solo with New Directions, though the way things are going I'm sure you'll have one at Sectionals, too." Blaine nods, acknowledging Kurt's words if not necessarily agreeing with them, though Kurt knows he's right. "And you'll be amazing."

Blaine ducks his head a little, the way he still does when Kurt praises him; it just makes Kurt want to praise him more.

"I know if I brought it up to Mr. Schue I could convince him it was only fair to make us both audition for the lead," Kurt says, "and since humility isn't one of my virtues I know I could get it. I might not, but I could."

"You're incredible, Kurt," Blaine agrees. "And I'd love to watch you perform in front of the school like that."

"Thank you. But I've already had a lead in front of the school, in the Cheerios if not in Glee, and you haven't. Not here. You deserve it."

Blaine reshuffles a little, leaning a bit closer over his crossed legs. "That doesn't mean that you shouldn't fight for a lead on a song you love."

"Believe me, it was my first instinct," Kurt says dryly.

"Then why - ?"

"Blaine." Kurt swallows and makes himself meet Blaine's eyes. "Do you really think I could be happy singing that part knowing I took it away from you?" It would sting, too, to be given the opportunity to get the part only by throwing a fit, but that road he's had to travel before.

"What does that matter? I'd know it wasn't personal."

"Would you challenge me for a lead I'd already been given?"

Blaine doesn't even have to think about it; he just looks sheepish and says, "No."

"There you are," Kurt says. "I'm considering it an indication of my own personal growth."

"You know," Blaine says after a minute, "it never even occurred to me that we'd be in competition for parts. I mean, aside from the fact that our ranges are different."

Kurt reaches out and pats his hand. "That's because you came from the land of the Warblers, where you got to sing every song you wanted and were even allowed to pick your duet partner. Although I'm reliably informed that choice wasn't based on singing talent."

"Not only talent," Blaine corrects him, grinning fondly.

Kurt grins back, just a bit. "This is a different world," he says. "If you're not Finn or Rachel, you're not given anything in Glee." He considers that statement and the light in Mr. Schuester's eyes when he talks about Blaine. "I think I may be adding you to that list soon."

Blaine shakes his head. "No, come on, it's one shared lead."

"I don't think so," Kurt says.

"But that's not fair," Blaine replies, and he obviously isn't pleased about it.

"It's just how it works. I'm happy for you."

"I don't want - "

"Blaine." Kurt takes his hand. "It isn't fair, but I'm still happy for you."

Blaine bends his head and looks down at their hands. He strokes his thumb softly over Kurt's skin, setting Kurt's pulse skittering. He's quiet for a long time, watching their hands as Kurt sits and watches him, waiting.

"School is the same for you now than it was last year after you came back, isn't it," he says finally, meeting Kurt's eyes. He looks exceptionally serious. "Not just Glee Club. Everything."

Kurt shakes his head. "You're here." It makes all the difference in the world.

"That's not what I mean. I know things have been mostly okay for me so far, not like my old school, but I thought it was just because the atmosphere at McKinley had changed a little. But it isn't easier for you."

"It is some. It's not like it was before I went to Dalton."

"That's like saying someone's hair looks a little better than it did after a two-year-old went after it with safety scissors."

Kurt smiles faintly, because how can he not, but says, "It's public high school in Ohio, Blaine. How good can it be?"

"It can be better," Blaine tells him firmly. "Not just for me. Better for us."

"Your optimism is charming, if misplaced," Kurt says, patting him on the leg with his free hand. "I can see why everyone likes you."

"Why is it misplaced?"

Kurt repeats the obvious: "Public high school in Ohio?"

"That shouldn't matter."

"I know," Kurt says, and he does, he really does, he understands so deeply that he aches with it sometimes. Even with Blaine, even with this love he never thought he'd get to experience here, he aches with the unfairness of it. But at the end of the day, that they're in Ohio, in public school, does matter.

Blaine's grip tightens around Kurt's fingers. "The absolute best part of being at McKinley is getting to share so much with you," he says. "Neither of us should be doing this alone."

"We aren't alone. We have each other."

"I know, but... it wasn't supposed to be like this. I mean, I'm having a pretty good year, and you're - "

"I'm having a good year, too, Blaine," Kurt tells him, because compared to past years this one is a dream.

"But it's different."

Kurt's heart lodges hard in his throat with how very different their treatment has been, and it's difficult to get his words out. "We're not the same person."

Blaine looks pained. "But - "

"We aren't. I'm me, and you're you. Everyone can see that. It was naive of both of us to think we'd have the same experience."

"But I want to. I want to do it all with you."

"I know," Kurt says softly. "And I love that about you."

"I love you," Blaine tells him with a fierce intensity, like he's trying so hard to express something beyond the words, but Kurt doesn't know what it is.

"I love you, too," is all Kurt can say in reply, because he truly, deeply does, and he has a spot in the back at the pep rally performance to prove it.

*

The next morning Blaine is waiting for him in the school parking lot, and he opens Kurt's door as soon as he parks the car.

"Hi," Kurt says, smiling up at him from his seat.

"Hi." Blaine glances around and rocks on his toes like he's distracted by something while Kurt gathers his bag and gets out. When the door is closed and locked, though, he immediately grabs Kurt and presses him gently but firmly back against it. He looks into Kurt's eyes for a few seconds as Kurt gapes at him, and then Blaine kisses him. Blaine kisses him, right there in the middle of the busy parking lot, and Kurt can feel himself flush with mortification and a hint of terror even as his hands are coming up to grip Blaine's shoulders and his mouth is moving to kiss him back.

The kiss is fairly subdued for what they get up to behind closed doors, but still it's far beyond what Kurt could have imagined doing on school grounds. Blaine is gentle but insistent, exploring Kurt's mouth with lips and tongue, touching his face with one hand and holding him close with the other at the small of his back. Blaine sighs into the kiss, the soft sound going straight to Kurt's heart and making it pound with joy and desire and a simple, sure sense of rightness. It's good, so good, so breathtakingly good, the way every kiss between them has always been. It doesn't matter where they are; all that matters is them.

By the time they pull apart, Kurt is dizzy with the feel of Blaine's mouth and the amazement of having kissed him in the parking lot at all. "What was that?" he asks, blinking and trying to get anything else in focus besides Blaine's handsome face right there in front of him.

Blaine laughs, and he sounds slightly hysterical around the edges. "A kiss? Honestly, Kurt, if you don't know, I'm doing something wrong." He cups Kurt's jaw and brushes their mouths together again, and this time Kurt is the one who draws it out, lingering over the soft kisses. If he's going to be put squarely in the sights of the school, it might as well be on his own terms.

"Hi," Blaine says again when they pull apart. He draws his fingers down Kurt's shoulder and along his arm to take his hand. Kurt clasps it securely and finally glances around them. A few students are giving them decidedly displeased looks, while others are just curious, and he knows the news will be all over the school before homeroom.

Blaine's eyes are focused only on Kurt. "I'm sorry," he says, low and gentle. "I know I should have asked you first, but I just had to."

"No, I - No. It's okay." And it is, because even though Kurt might have liked some warning, there's no way he is ever, ever going to deny Blaine or what they have. Not ever.

Blaine watches him for a long moment longer before nodding. He pulls back, picks up his bag from where he'd dropped it at some point, and tugs Kurt along by his hand.

"What's going on?" Kurt asks him quietly as they walk up toward the building.

"I want everyone to know how I feel about you," Blaine tells him.

Blaine's hand is shaking a little in his, and Kurt holds it even tighter. "I think they figured that out when you serenaded me in the courtyard last year."

"Yes, but I go to McKinley now."

Holding his head high and glaring at anyone who looks like they might say even a single word to them, Kurt is quiet with his thoughts until they reach Blaine's locker. He knows it wasn't as simple of a kiss as Blaine might like him to think. "You don't have to prove anything," he says as Blaine opens the door one-handed.

"Not to them," Blaine says.

Kurt pulls on Blaine's hand until he looks over. "Or to me."

"This is about you, but it isn't for you," Blaine assures him. "It's for me."

"What do you need to prove to yourself? I know you love me."

Blaine fiddles with the latch of his locker for the span of a few breaths, and Kurt reminds himself that he does know that Blaine loves him. It's not in question.

"I don't have control over what people think," Blaine says. "How they see you, how they see me. I can't stop slushies or Glee assignments. I can't change any of that. But this, this - " He holds up their hands. " - this we are doing together."

Kurt can feel his smile unfurling like a flower opening for the sun. He tries to tamp it down because, honestly, the crowded morning school hallway is about the last place he wants to show he's this happy, but it's Blaine. It's Blaine wanting his identity to be more tied with Kurt's, and even if a grand gesture on that front wasn't necessary it's still beyond wonderful. "Okay," he says breathlessly.

Some of the insecurity melts from Blaine's eyes, and he smiles back at Kurt. "If they like me, they can like me being madly in love with my boyfriend."

"I like you being madly in love with your boyfriend," Kurt says, tilting his head and grinning.

"Just wait until I make you hold hands with me after English."

Kurt shrugs and tries to hide at least some of the giddiness he feels bubbling up inside of him. He's sure Blaine can still see it in his eyes. "My emergency bag is fully stocked. I'm not afraid."

"You're never afraid," Blaine says.

"That's not true," Kurt replies. "I just never let it stop me."

*

Kurt walks into the choir room that afternoon still in the same clothes he arrived in that morning, which he considers to be a personal victory. He takes the seat next to Blaine, nods at Artie on Blaine's other side, and smiles at his boyfriend, who is also still slushie-free. He doesn't expect that they will get off as easily for the rest of the year, but as a single day of kisses and hand-holding (all perfectly chaste and appropriate apart from the greeting at the car) goes it's been remarkably peaceful besides a lot of watchful eyes. Kurt knows he can't get used to the peace, not here, but in the future, somewhere else, he really, really could. He really, really will.

"Okay, everyone," Mr. Schuester says, clapping his hands as he walks in. "Pep rally rehearsal time!"

"Actually," Blaine says, "I have a song I'd like to sing first, if you don't mind. It's for the week's assignment. I promise." Kurt raises an eyebrow.

"You didn't have to prepare another song," Mr. Schuester says. "You already have a lead."

"I know, but I wanted to."

"Okay." Mr. Schuester shrugs and steps away from the piano.

Blaine stands up and touches Kurt's shoulder as he goes to take his place in front of the class. Kurt's heart seizes, because he doesn't know what Blaine is doing. Is it going to be a sappy love song to turn their day into something drippingly emotional and obvious? What if it's something inappropriate? Blaine has the worst track record ever for picking songs. What if it's Pink? What if it's Katy Perry? Oh, god, it's going to be Katy Perry. Kurt finds a point on the wall to be his meditation spot so that he can keep his face straight if - when - it all goes horribly wrong.

"May I?" Blaine asks Brad, who raises his eyebrows but slides off of the piano bench so Blaine can take his seat.

Blaine takes a deep breath and begins to play. Kurt recognizes the song after a couple of bars: Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind." The choice surprises him; it's both unusually old and soulful for Blaine to sing. It's nothing like Katy Perry at all, and it's certainly not saccharine. Instead it's simple and understated, especially when only accompanied by piano. The tune is sure and steady in Blaine's hands, and when he starts to sing there's a pure, serene beauty to his voice that goes straight to Kurt's heart.

Blaine sings the first line with his eyes closed, but then he opens them and he looks nowhere but at Kurt. His voice is smooth and warm, and though it fills the room it's only directed at Kurt. It's not a traditional love song, certainly not dripping with sexual overtones the way so many of Blaine's other song choices have been, but it still makes the hair on the back of Kurt's arms stand on end. His heart starts to pound. His eyes blur with tears he is not going to shed, because they're from happiness, and they're his and Blaine's alone.

It's a song about a love affair with a city. It's about contentment, of feeling centered and happy where you are. It's about being in love with New York. And, with Blaine singing the song where he is, how he is, it's about being in love with Kurt. Being centered with him. Being in love with the dream of being in New York with him.

Kurt knows what Blaine is trying to say. Blaine doesn't need McKinley to be like Dalton to reach that contentment; he needs Kurt. And they're going to New York next year, where they'll be able to be together with so much less trouble and judgment from the people around them.

They can be themselves and enjoy this last year in Ohio as much as they can. And then they're leaving - together - because at the end of the day that's what they both want. New York. Happiness. Each other.

The song ends, and Kurt claps furiously from his seat, his chest tight with a bright, aching joy. Blaine gives the floor back to Mr. Schuester and returns to his chair, his eyes on Kurt all the while.

"I love you," Kurt murmurs in his ear, and Blaine beams at him in return.

"Next week I want to do a duet, no matter what the assignment is," Blaine promises. "But this was just for you. I hope it - you usually make fun of my song choices."

"It was perfect," Kurt tells him, and he cups the side of Blaine's face and gives him a swift, sweet kiss.

Blaine bows his head with delight and holds tightly onto Kurt's hand until it's time to practice their choreography.