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Singing the Journey

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Of all the things Blaine has worried might break them, he's never envisioned this one.

"Kurt, c'mon, it's not that big a deal," he says.

Kurt levels a truly epic bitchface at him. "Not that big a deal? You know, I put up with this kind of thing from Mercedes because she grew up with it. But you— You aren't doing this out of habit. You're doing this on purpose."

Blaine snorts. "You're talking like it's something I'm doing to upset you."

"It is!" Kurt spits. "What happened to teaching?"

"Find me a school that still has the funding for a music program and wants to hire someone who's not certified yet, and we'll talk. Until then, it's a job." Folding his arms, and turning away, Blaine adds, "It's not like you think."

The only answer he gets is the slam of their door as Kurt vanishes into the sticky late summer evening. Blaine thinks about going after him, thinks about sitting down at their piano. But in the end he chooses neither and goes into the kitchen to wash the supper dishes. He runs the water too hot; it hurts his hands, and he makes himself concentrate on that. It's easier when his hands are under the soap suds and he can't see the ring on his finger and wonder how much longer it will be there.

Kurt comes home late, after Blaine's turned out all but the front porch light and gotten into bed. The air conditioner is off. Blaine can't bear the thought of its hum covering the noise of Kurt's return.

Blaine hears the front door lock, followed by the soft sound of Kurt entering their bedroom. Kurt makes a stifled noise when he realizes the air conditioner's not running and picks his way around the bed to turn it on. Blaine stays quiet and still, eyes open in the darkness to catch Kurt's silhouette at the window. He must give away that he's awake, because after the fan purrs to life Kurt crawls on to the bed, still clothed, and reaches for Blaine's hand.

"Hey," Kurt whispers. His voice is gentle.

Blaine feels the tension in his body ease somewhat. "Hey yourself," he chokes out.

Kurt, who knows Blaine so well, pulls him on to his side and curls around him, face tucked into Blaine's hair. "I'm sorry," Kurt says. "I didn't— I was mad, but I didn't mean to scare you. I wasn't leaving, okay? I just needed air."

"I— Okay," Blaine manages. He can feel Kurt's hand pressing into his belly, the weight of Kurt's arm draped over Blaine's waist. Blaine can't quite keep himself from lifting a hand to touch Kurt's finger, to feel the ring sitting warmly there.

"Oh, Blaine," Kurt breathes. His arm tightens around Blaine and he presses a kiss to the back of Blaine's head. "I love you. I'm sorry."

It takes a few breaths for Blaine to be certain of his voice. "I love you, too," he says.

Kurt squeezes him again. "Can we talk about this in the morning?"

Blaine nods and waits for Kurt to get up to undress, or at least to wash his face. He doesn't. He stays right there, the buttons of his shirt making indentations in Blaine's back and his exhalations hot on Blaine's ear. It's not comfortable, but it is comforting. It's enough, and Blaine drops off to sleep.

*

Kurt is making faces when Blaine wakes up. He's sweaty and his clothes are rumpled, and his exaggerated distaste for the state of his skin makes him look younger, seventeen and not almost twenty-three. Not, Blaine reflects, that even twenty-three is all that old. Everyone he'd met yesterday had been obviously refraining from telling him how young he was. And possibly how precious.

"I'm lucky no one squeezed my cheeks," he mutters.

Kurt's startled, "What?!" informs Blaine that he said at least part of that out loud.

"Just thinking about yesterday." He sits up, watching Kurt disassemble yesterday's outfit, and asks, "Can I try telling you about it again?"

"Sure," Kurt says. "But first, showers?"

Blaine nods. "Showers. And breakfast." He wants to offer to go first, wash quickly and cook for them, but Kurt beats him to it.

"I'll cook, so I better shower now. I'll be fast, I promise," he says, looking contrite.

"Uh, okay," Blaine manages. He has never been so thoroughly wrong footed as he is this morning. He stays in their bed and listens to Kurt's noises. In a better mood he'd be amused to have proof that Kurt can be in and out of the bathroom in thirty minutes. His moisturizing routine must have happened at light speed. Instead, Blaine dawdles in the bedroom and wishes for more time to gather his thoughts.

He gets so preoccupied in the shower that he washes his hair twice – Kurt will have something to say about stripping too much oil, he's sure – but by the time he's toweling off, Blaine thinks he has a coherent presentation to make.

He's glad he's prepared, because when he's dressed and sitting down at the table Kurt gives him a level look, pushes the plate of crêpes toward him, and says, "Okay. Pitch it to me again."

"First off, it's a job. I didn't get a graduate associate position, and I need some kind of work. That's not nothing, all by itself. Second, it's a relevant job. This will look a lot better on my resume than working in a coffee shop or at the library. This pays pretty well, is in my field, and will help me get another job later," he says, ticking his points off on his fingers. Blaine pauses to take a bite of the crêpe he's been assembling; it's delicious, thin and perfect and drizzled with the strawberry syrup he and Kurt made last month. He wishes it didn't stick in his throat.

Kurt's face is carefully neutral. "Well, that sounds promising. What kind of job is it?"

Blaine stares at him. "What—"

"We're starting over, right?" Kurt interrupts. "Tell it all to me again."

"Um. Sure," Blaine says. He sets his fork down and settles his hands in his lap. Sitting up straight and squaring his shoulders, he faces Kurt as directly as he can. "It's a music direction job. I'd be in charge of a choir, and sometimes providing piano or other accompaniment, or coordinating other musicians, for, um. For a church." He cringes. "Not what you're thinking of, though. I mean, probably not what you're thinking of. It's a Unitarian Universalist church: they're very liberal, and non-dogmatic, and this one is a 'welcoming' congregation, which means they have a policy of being welcoming to gay and lesbian people. And bisexual and transgendered people," he adds, for good measure.

Kurt raises one eyebrow. "And you would be joining this church?"

"No, I wouldn't have to, but I guess I basically would be since I'll have to attend all the services," Blaine says. "You don't have to go, though. I told them, at the interview, that my partner might not choose to be involved and they said that was fine."

"I'm relieved to hear I won't be expected to provide a casserole for the potluck," Kurt says dryly.

Blaine, personally, is relieved to hear some humor in Kurt's voice. "You won't," he promises. "You'll have to put up with me being gone on Thursdays for choir practice, and at odd hours, and I won't have any more lazy Sundays with you, but that's it. This doesn't have to affect your life any more than any other job would."

"And this is what you want?" Kurt asks softly.

Nodding, Blaine says, "It is. It works around my class schedule amazingly well and it's valuable experience. Besides, with all the funding cuts there's no guarantee I'll get a job in a public school even after I have my degree and my teaching certificate. A master's degree with no employment in sight isn't really the best plan. This is something else I can do, a fallback option." Recognizing that he's come to the end of his organized thoughts, Blaine falls silent and lets Kurt consider this.

Kurt eats his crêpe thoughtfully. Long minutes pass before he asks, "What about student teaching?"

"I don't do that until my second year, and it won't conflict. That'll be done by three, four at the latest, and I can move things around if I have an evening event with the school. I might be able to get volunteers to take on some of the work, too, if I get too busy. Photocopying, maybe. And it's not like I'm going to stop playing the piano, or the guitar, or singing. I might as well get paid for it." Blaine is not holding his breath. He's not.

"It does sound like a good opportunity for the next year or two," Kurt says, finally. "I find it ... uncomfortable, to think of you working for a church." He holds up a hand, forestalling Blaine. "It's better than it could be, I know."

Blaine waits.

Now Kurt sets down his fork and squares his shoulders. "Well. Congratulations on the job, Blaine. And—" he pauses for a sip of coffee. When he speaks again, it's in the same tone he'd used when he'd found Blaine the night before. "I am sorry about last night. I'm sorry for not listening. Thank you for telling me about it again."

Under the table, Blaine works his left thumb against his ring. His right hand he reaches across the table to grasp Kurt's. "Thank you. For listening now," he says.

*

Blaine really wishes he could have talked with Kurt about this. Kurt would have helped him prepare, or at least made fun of him for being afraid of the crowd of middle-aged soccer moms and retirees who are probably waiting for him. Kurt would definitely make fun of him now for standing scared in his office – his office! – unable to open the connecting door into the choir room.

The tap on the door makes him jump. "Dr. Anderson? We're all here," says a woman's voice.

"Uh, I'll be right out," Blaine calls. He looks down to check his tie one more time, promising himself he'll get a mirror, and takes a bracing breath. Then he opens the door.

There are thirty people sitting in a loose circle of chairs, looking expectantly at him. He hopes they're arranged by vocal part, because he's already thinking of them that way. Also, if they don't know enough to group themselves he'll have to come up with a new plan for everything.

"Dr. Anderson? I'm Cheryl," says one of the sopranos. She's the one who knocked on his door. "We're so pleased to have you here."

"Thank you," Blaine says, manners kicking in. "It's not doctor, though. I'm just starting grad school, and I'm working on my master's."

Cheryl smiles. "Mr. Anderson, then?" she asks.

Blaine takes them all in: the basses with flyaway white hair or bald heads; the baritones, half of whom look strangely like Burt Hummel; the tiny wedge of tenors; and the mass of women making up the altos and sopranos and spanning every age from 30 to 90, by the looks of them. One of the altos has clearly seen his shaking hands, and she winks at him. It helps. "You can call me Blaine," he says. "But don't think that means I'll let you get away with anything."

They laugh. Thank goodness.

"I thought we'd start off easy," Blaine tells them, taking a seat at the grand piano. He's seriously wondering if the promise of this beautiful grand would be enough to get Kurt to set foot in a church. "David— I mean, Reverend Mitchell—"

"Don't worry, we all call him David," says the bass with the wildest hair. He continues, in a tone of reminiscence, "In fact, there was one time—"

"Yes, Bill, we know," three of the sopranos chorus, and Blaine makes a mental note to practice his redirection strategies.

"Thanks," Blaine says. "So, David told me which hymns he'd like us to have ready for our first September service. I was thinking we'd go through those, so I can get to know you vocally, and then do some more conventional introductions after that." He pulls his notes out of his pocket, then looks up. "Before that, maybe someone can tell me where the hymnals live?"

All three of the tenors stand up. "They're in the closet off the sanctuary; Paul has keys," one says. Another, evidently Paul, jingles a key ring. They're back in minutes with armfuls of grey books, including two spiral-bound volumes for Blaine.

"Do we need the teal books too?" Paul asks, and Blaine can only look at him blankly.

Cheryl's appeared at his elbow while Blaine wasn't paying attention. She looks over the list of hymn numbers and shakes her head at Paul. "No four-digit numbers," she murmurs to Blaine. "The teal hymnal is all 1000 and higher. It's a supplement."

He nods at her with a grateful half-smile and wishes he'd known that before rehearsal started. It's getting to be a familiar feeling already. She smiles back and slips off to her seat, straight grey hair flying as she turns. "Okay," Blaine says to the room, "so the theme is—"

"Oh no, don't tell us!" cries the winking alto. "Let us guess."

There's some snickering from the sopranos and the woman next to Cheryl says, "Hmm, first fall service, early September ... must be a water communion." Everyone groans and grins; Blaine thinks the camaraderie in the room is nice, but he'll have to watch out for loose cannon behavior. Maybe this is better practice for teaching than he'd thought.

"Uh, yeah. Got it in one," Blaine tells them. He looks at his list. "Turn to number 100, please. 'I've Got Peace Like a River.'" He slides down the piano bench. "I'll give you your pitches, and a verse of introduction." Rolling the opening chord slowly, he hears a few people humming. He'll have to train them out of that. Blaine falls into the music, swinging the eighth notes just the tiniest bit. He plays the first verse through with them, to settle them in. After that he calls, "Keep singing! I want to listen," and stops his playing, standing and pacing the perimeter of the room. All the baritones are singing bass – no surprise there – so Blaine spends a verse tucked up behind the tenors, bolstering the three of them. He spends another verse standing in front of the altos, enjoying the depth they bring and thinking that for middle-aged soccer moms, they aren't bad. He does have to stop thinking of them all as soccer moms, though.

When they hit the fifth verse, Blaine's with the sopranos, who are clearly enjoying carrying the melody and are rushing, almost imperceptibly. He gets behind them and starts clapping the half notes; Cheryl jumps, and the woman next to her grins at Blaine and picks up his rhythm. By the time he's back at the piano and playing through the final measures, the whole choir is clapping.

Blaine cuts off their final chord with a gesture. "Okay! Not bad," he tells them, smiling. "Let's do two more. Number 210, please." They sing "Wade in the Water" in unison, as written, following Blaine's directions pretty closely even when he's paying more attention to the piano than to the choir, and he's pleased.

"Good, thank you," Blaine says when they finish. "Last one: 343. A firemist and a planet, a crystal and a cell–" It's another unison piece and the piano line isn't hard, so he gets to take in the lyrics. Given the theme, it's obvious that this hymn's been chosen for the third verse. It's the fourth verse that he can feel sitting with him, though, as the choir winds down. "And millions, who, though nameless, the straight hard pathway trod — some call it consecration, and others call it God." He wants Kurt to be here so badly, wants them to sing this together and talk it over afterwards.

Blaine shakes it off and stands up, goes to perch on the tall stool sitting in the crook of the piano, and smiles at his choir. "All right. I think we can do good work together." When they cheer, he laughs and adds, "I may not learn your names for a month, but I'll know your voices, so practice your parts!"

The choir chuckles appreciatively at his words, making mock threats to each other about consequences.

"So, introductions." Blaine gestures to himself. "Blaine Anderson, graduate student at OSU, doing a master's in music education. I'm new to Unitarian Universalism, and to church choirs, actually, so please forgive me my dumb mistakes."

"What about your smart mistakes?" the winking alto asks.

Blaine looks levelly at her, and then at the rest of them. "Call me on 'em. I'll try not to make too many. Now, let's do names and how long you've been singing here, and that'll be enough to overwhelm me for tonight."

*

Blaine spends the drive home thinking about names and faces. Cheryl, Bill and Paul he has firmly in his head, and Di, who's the winking alto, and the woman who sits next to Cheryl is Lynn. He's got a few others: after tall, skinny Paul it's easy to remember that the other tenors are John and Luke. John's balding, middle-aged like Paul, and Luke's the opposite with his full head of white hair and wrinkled face. The baritones and basses are still mostly a blur of elderly features that have Blaine more worried about recruiting younger voices than learning names, but he knows that's not fair. He'll learn more of them next time.

Of the women, he picked up a few names based on particular interactions. Marie and Nan invited him to dinner, so he has to remember them. He'd stammered his way through a thank you, pointing out that he'd have to consult Kurt first even though he might not come. Nan had squeezed his arm and Marie had nodded, understandingly. Blaine hadn't been sure at first whether they were inviting him to dinner together or separately. They soon made it clear that they were together, giving a single address and a shared phone number. When they turned to leave and he saw Marie's hand reach out to tug Nan's long silver braid affectionately, and Nan's kiss to Marie's weathered cheek, Blaine knew that even if he could never share a phone number with Kurt, he wanted that.

To get to that, they'll have to get through this evening, and so many more like it. Blaine parks the car and reaches for his satchel, weighted down with piano editions of the hymnals and a pad of notepaper. It's late now, since he'd lingered in his office making notes and listening to his choir stack their chairs in the storage closet. He has ideas for the coming service, scrawled down hurriedly as he'd thought about a cappella arrangements and the voices he has to work with. As he walks up to their door, he thinks about how he'd emerged from his office and found Cheryl sitting on the floor outside his door.

"Can I walk you out?" she'd asked.

"Sure," he'd answered, shouldering his bag and offering her his arm.

Cheryl'd smiled at him. "Such a gentleman. So tell me, do you have someone waiting at home?"

Blaine knows his face softens when he thinks about Kurt. He's seen it happen and been teased about it many, many times. "I do," he'd said. "His name's Kurt. We've been together since we were seventeen." Cheryl reminds him of his aunt; he wants to tell her things. "I mean, we're only twenty-two now, but."

"Five years is a long time," Cheryl had said. "Especially when you're young. And he makes you happy. I can see that."

"He does." Blaine had opened the door for both of them and seen Cheryl to her car, telling her the stories of how he met Kurt and how they got together.

She'd leaned on her car door, arms folded, and even in the deepening twilight he'd been able to see the corners of her eyes crinkling. "Any chance we'll get to meet him?" she'd asked. "Or is he not interested?"

Blaine had tensed. "He's an atheist," he'd admitted.

"So am I," Cheryl'd replied. "At least, I think I am. The older you get, Blaine, the harder it is to be certain about these things. You let me know if you think I could help him feel welcome, okay?"

"It's not a matter of welcome, I don't think." He'd stepped sideways, leaning on the hood of Cheryl's car. "He's had some hard things happen to him. And people have tried to comfort him with religion, and he just ... isn't helped by that. I'm not sure I can explain it."

Digging out her keys, Cheryl had shrugged. "You don't have to. But I'd like to know him. I'd like to know you both."

Blaine had stood there, awkward, and finally blurted, "Is it weird if I want a hug?"

"No, dear," Cheryl had said. "It's not weird at all." And she'd hugged him, quick but firm, and said good night.

Kurt's not there when Blaine opens the door. There's a note that reads Out. With theatre people. Back late, hopefully not too late. <3, K taped to the facing wall. It's fair, Blaine thinks, that Kurt should be out making new friends tonight, but it stings to be reminded that Kurt doesn't want to know how things went at Blaine's rehearsal.

Blaine makes his way through the kitchen to drop his satchel on the table. He doubles back to read the second note, on the fridge: Baked a pie. Blueberry, your favorite. Had to buy from Michigan grower to get organic berries - don't tell! <3, K At that, Blaine can't help but smile. He cuts a slice, heats it in the microwave and tops it with Kurt's vanilla bean ice cream, and sits at the table to think about all the names for kindness.

*

Technically, Blaine doesn't need to attend services until September starts, but sitting in on the last service of August feels like the right thing to do. He's remembering his confusion about silver books and teal books; reconnaissance is sensible. It's not David who's the celebrant today but Elizabeth, the assistant minister. She's young, and her husband stands with her and their daughter until she moves up to the altar. Her family moves to a pair of chairs in the front row.

They sing an opening hymn, 1008 out of the teal book, and when they sing "When we tell our story from deep inside, And we listen with a loving mind," he wishes for Kurt. Then the third verse makes mention of God, and Blaine almost retracts his wish. He redirects his focus, taking in the acoustics of the sanctuary and the voices of the congregation. They are woefully out of tune, even with a volunteer playing the piano.

The next hymn is 1009, a meditation, and the congregation settles into pitch with each other after three rounds. Intent on the music, Blaine startles when someone takes the empty seat next to him. It's Di, auburn hair in a short braid. "Sorry, boss," she whispers. "Didn't mean to scare you."

He smiles and whispers back, "It's okay," sliding back into the music.

"That's my husband at the piano," she tells him, pointing unnecessarily at the man playing. He's bronze-faced and dark haired. Latino, maybe? "He's your back-up, if you need him," Di adds.

Blaine nods to her as the congregation finishes singing, Elizabeth cutting them off.

"Thank you, and welcome. Wherever you come from, wherever you are on your life's journey, you are welcome here. Whoever you are, whomever you love, you are welcome here. If this is your first time among us or your thousandth, you are welcome here."

Elizabeth lights the candle in the chalice, then the second, smaller chalice for their partner church in Transylvania. Blaine boggles a little, but quietly. He stills his face when Elizabeth asks them to turn and greet their neighbors, attaining solemnity just in time to meet Kate, Mark, and Sue, who looks familiar and turns out to be in the choir. Blaine looks beyond them, wondering if this congregation will surprise him with racial diversity; it doesn't. Almost everyone in this church seems to be white. He'll have to ask Cheryl, later, if there are a few others who are Latino like Di's husband, or hapa like Blaine himself. For now he shakes his head, turns to his right and offers Di a handshake, for completeness.

Blaine doesn't really listen as Di's husband plays something, or as Elizabeth reads a quotation about community. He's thinking about that welcome and how Kurt would react. He comes back to himself for another hymn, one that the congregation flounders on. Blaine despairs until they hit the chorus, and suddenly they're all together thundering, "We are standing on the side of love." They fall apart on the next phrase; Blaine fishes a piece of paper out of his pocket and writes "1014 needs rehearsal. And leadership." That moment stays with him, though, that brief achievement of unity.

"Standing on the side of love," Elizabeth says when they've finished singing and taken their seats again. "We do like to say that we are, don't we. We have a national movement named, 'Standing on the Side of Love,' founded on the ideal that love requires action, and dedicated work toward righting wrongs. We've worked toward justice and equality for the LGBT community, for immigrant rights, for more civil discourse in this country. We've had UUA presidents arrested for acts of civil disobedience, and we've done a great job with our catchy slogan and bright t-shirts. Even when people look at us and see bleeding-heart liberal do-gooders, they know what we stand for.

"Do we stand for love?" Elizabeth pauses, and the congregation sits silent. "Do we? Whom do we love? Our side?

"I would argue that the side of love is opposed to the side of hate. We stand in support of actions that exemplify love. We stand in opposition to actions that promote hate. When we worked against Proposition 8 in California in 2008, we were supporting the right of individuals to love and to marry. We opposed the hateful actions of Prop 8's promoters. But did we oppose the promoters themselves?

"Some of us did. Some of us vilified them. And that's human, to be angry and hurt and to lash out. But where was love in that? Is it loving to respond to fear with anger?

"I'm not asking you not to stand up for yourselves, or for our community. I'm not asking you to give up your anger. I'm asking you to consider this: Jesus, a person thought to be wise by an awful lot of people, advises us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He doesn't say 'only the neighbors that you like,' or 'only the neighbors who share your politics.' He says 'neighbors.'

"The Reverend Kate Braestrup tells us that there's a trick to this that we're missing in our English language translation. In Greek, which Jesus would have spoken, there are three words for love: philos, eros and agape. Philos is what we now think of as brotherly or sisterly love. Familial. Friendly. Steady. Eros is sensual or sexual love, what we feel for our partners, or certain movie actors, or very good chocolate. Fresh fruit, a cool breeze on a summer's day. What Jesus probably meant when he asked us to love our neighbors is the third kind, agape. Agape has been translated to mean many things, including divine, unconditional, self-sacrificing, active, volitional, and thoughtful love. Reverend Braestrup suggests this definition: 'earnestly desiring the wholeness and happiness of the beloved.' It is the love that a parent may have for a child, and it's this love that Jesus would like us to bear for each other.

"Some of you are rolling your eyes now at the invocation of Jesus. To that I can only ask, would you roll your eyes if I were quoting the Dalai Lama? I can quote him too. The Dalai Lama tells us that all human beings seek to achieve happiness and avoid suffering. Everything people do, whether or not it helps you, whether or not it hurts you, is something they believe will make them happy. He suggests that we respond in ways that nurture others' happiness, that they may then nurture ours. Listen with interest when someone speaks; act with compassion when others are hurting; move beyond anger and hate, and their concomitant desire for revenge, and toward thoughtful action that strikes at the root of the problem and not at other sufferers.

"In short, the Dalai Lama asks us to 'Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.' So yes, fellow bleeding-heart liberal do-gooders, let us stand on the side of love. Let us take action to prevent hurt and promote love. But let us not hurt others in so doing. Let us remember that our opponents are just as human as our allies, and that all of us only want to be happy. Let us earnestly desire the happiness of others, and the wholeness of others. It is only happiness and wholeness that can bring others out of fear and misunderstanding and let us all stand together on the side of love."

Blaine drifts through the rest of the service, watching others light candles and absently digging out his wallet for a $5 to drop in the collection basket. He's thinking about Elizabeth's sermon, yes, but also about the advice one scared seventeen-year-old gave another, years ago. He feels strengthened and shaken all at once. This idea of love and compassion being the best, the only courses that lead forward is one that he'd thought he understood, and then one he'd found naïve. But Blaine's never truly given up on it, and now maybe he's found a place to talk about how to live those values.

Elizabeth gets up to give the closing reading, and Blaine wrenches his attention back to her. "From Reverend Braestrup's book, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, a scene in which she explains the three kinds of love to eighth grade students."

Blaine wishes briefly, futilely, that someone had delivered this lesson to him in the eighth grade. How different his life could have been. It's different where Reverend Braestrup is, or maybe just in that one school. Blaine's middle school experience had been harsh and, as far as he could tell, typical. And still not as bad as his first high school, not as bad as lying on the cold pavement outside the Sadie Hawkins dance, wishing to have received love rather than hate and fear.

He looks up, focused again, as Elizabeth reads,

"'When Jesus says to love your enemies, agape is the word he uses.'

"'I don't love my enemies,' said Sophia firmly. 'I don't even like them.'

"'If he uses this word, though, maybe he's saying we don't have to like our enemies,' said Olive thoughtfully. 'If we were supposed to like them, he would have used philos.'

"'Or eros, if we were supposed to feel, you know, sexy about our enemies,' Gordon put in.

"'That would be sick, dude,' said Fred.

"'But we have to want them to be happy,' said Olive."

Elizabeth sets down her papers and leans forward. "Here endeth the reading," she says. "Let's close with 1031, 'Filled with Loving Kindness,' first two verses. Then pause!" She grins and the congregation rises.

They pause as directed after two verses, and Elizabeth switches her mic on again and holds up a hand in benediction. "May you go forth to do justice, to love kindness, and to earnestly desire the wholeness and happiness of all whom you meet. Thank you for a wonderful morning," she says.

The congregation launches into the third and final verse of the hymn. Part of Blaine makes a dispassionate note to work on graceful re-entry into song for future services. The rest of him sings, and loves.

*

"How was church?" Kurt asks.

Special, Blaine thinks. Moving. Intimidating. Inspiring. And then terrifying, when Di had dragged him into the social hall and what felt like millions of people had come to shake his hand. "Fine," he says. "How was your morning?"

Shrugging, Kurt says, "Routine. Went for a run, did some yoga." He looks up from his magazine and waggles his eyebrows. "So I'm very bendy right now, if you're interested."

"Uh, yes," Blaine manages. He drops his keys and notes on the counter and leans over Kurt, kissing him deeply.

Kurt tugs at Blaine's necktie. "You know, as much as I love it when you wear these things, I bet you didn't need one today. My research suggested you wouldn't."

"I didn't," Blaine admits. "I was way overdressed."

"You should know better than to question my fashion judgment," Kurt scolds, grinning. "You'd better get out of these clothes right away."

Blaine starts for their bedroom, calling, "Sir, yes sir!" over his shoulder.

Kurt follows, laughing. When the door's closed behind them, he undresses and drapes his clothes carefully over the chair in the corner. He takes a moment to fix the pile Blaine's suit makes, stooping to pick it up and hang it neatly over everything else on the chair.

"Whoo!" Blaine yells. "Nice view!"

Kurt huffs. "You did that on purpose? To watch me bend over?!" His outrage is feigned, and adorable.

"I did," Blaine says, taking Kurt's hands and drawing him in. He peppers Kurt with kisses: face, neck, ears, shoulders. He's thinking about eros and the pure, sensual pleasure he gets from this man. "God, you're beautiful." He mouths Kurt's ear until he moans.

"So are you," Kurt answers. "I never thought I'd be as lucky as I have been," he murmurs into Blaine's hand, kissing the palm. He sucks two of Blaine's fingers into his mouth and tongues around the tips.

"Unf," Blaine groans. He stumbles back and falls on to the bed, bringing Kurt and his perfect weight with him. Their cocks align as they settle into each other, years of practice and knowledge at work, and Blaine wraps a hand around them both. "Like this?"

"Mmm," Kurt hums. He sucks at Blaine's neck.

It's distracting in the best way. Blaine loses his rhythm, arching his shoulders and pushing himself at Kurt's mouth.

Kurt pulls back and licks along Blaine's collarbone. "I've been thinking about you all morning. About this." He breaks off, panting.

Blaine has no words to answer that. He tightens his hand on their cocks, reveling in the building tension in his body.

"This way is a waste of my bendiness," Kurt adds as he presses himself down harder against Blaine.

Stroking them faster, Blaine manages, "Don't care. You'll be – oh – bendy again, right?"

Kurt rolls his hips into the motion of Blaine's hand. "Regularly."

"I'll – uh, ah – hold you to that. Oh, Kurt!" Blaine comes and Kurt follows after, collapsing on top of Blaine and mashing the mess of their come to his chest. Blaine doesn't mind. He wraps his arms around Kurt's waist, keeping him there for the moment. Eros and philos, he thinks, because Kurt is family more than anyone else in the world.

Eventually, Kurt squirms against him. "Blaine, I love you but we're disgusting right now. Shower?"

Blaine lets him up. "Sure," he says, standing and heading for the bathroom. Eros and philos and agape, sex and family and the most earnest desire for Kurt's happiness and wholeness. Maybe, if he can find the words, he'll try answering Kurt's question about his morning again.

*

Blaine's sitting at their battered upright piano, picking out the melody to "Our Lady of the Highways" and wondering if someone, somewhere has already arranged it for four-part choir and might be able to save him the trouble. The piano is one Kurt found and rescued from a thrift store, probably dumped with someone's estate and in miraculously good condition. When they'd first moved here two months ago, and Kurt had grumbled about leaving New York, Blaine had developed the habit of simply sitting down at the piano and playing him out of his bad mood. It's not that they couldn't have had a piano in New York City; it's just that it's easier in Columbus, Ohio.

Kurt joins him on the piano bench, head cocked. "What are you working on?"

"Folk song," Blaine says absently. "Well, not like an old folk song. Folk singer-songwriter kind of folk song. It's for, um, work."

"That's okay." Kurt hums a pitch that harmonizes with the key Blaine's still holding down. "What?" he says to Blaine's surprised face. "I can't be interested in the music?"

"You can. I just didn't know you would be, that's all." Blaine feels cautiously hopeful. "Since you're interested, can you grab that staff paper? I'm trying to figure out if I can do this with the choir. I was thinking four parts, for simplicity, but five would work too. Or six – I definitely have enough sopranos."

Kurt stands and grabs paper and pencil, and Blaine's iPod. He holds up an ear bud. "Can I hear it first?"

Taking the iPod and thumbing the wheel, Blaine says, "Yeah, of course. Here." They take an ear bud each and listen.

When the final chorus finishes, Kurt looks consideringly at Blaine. "That's interesting," he says. "Not church music."

"They're not very church-y," Blaine answers, laughing. "I played it for David – he's the one in charge of the service this is for – and he liked it, and the program is light on music so ..."

"It's for this Sunday?" Kurt furrows his brow. "I guess you could Skype Wes and get an arrangement done in time, but is your choir good enough to learn this in one rehearsal?"

Blaine slumps. "I wish I could say yes, but they're not. Dang it."

Kurt hits play again and considers the piano. "How about a simplified piano line, and a soprano for harmony? I can help you work it out, if you've got someone who can sing with you."

"Yeah, that could work. I could get Lynn and Cheryl; Lynn's got a pretty good ear, and Cheryl—" Blaine pauses. He hasn't considered Cheryl critically, really. He's mostly been relieved to have someone he feels so comfortable with. What if their voices don't mesh? What if she's a terrible singer, and he's been distracted by the beginnings of their friendship?

"And Cheryl?" Kurt nudges him.

Stop panicking, Blaine tells himself. "I don't actually know if Cheryl's up to it. I can't remember," he says sheepishly. "She was really nice to me, last week, and now I can't remember what I thought of her voice. I just remember liking her company."

Arching an eyebrow, Kurt teases, "Should I be jealous?"

"Ha, no. She's like my aunt." Blaine picks up the pencil and toys with it.

Kurt nudges Blaine again. "Aunt Judy?"

"Yeah." The staff paper is sliding off the piano's music rack, so Blaine fixes it. "I miss Aunt Judy. Anyway."

"You would have noticed if her voice was bad," Kurt says. "Maybe it's not great – probably it's not great – but it's fine for this."

Blaine nods.

Sitting up straighter, Kurt says, "So, let's write some harmonies. Tenor and soprano descant on the chorus. We'll just write one line and the ladies can lean on each other, hmm?"

"Sure. Thanks, Kurt." Blaine kisses his cheek before turning back to the keys, looking for his opening notes.

*

David takes his place at the front of the sanctuary and nods at Blaine, who's lurking behind the sanctuary's piano. He can't get over two grand pianos in the same building, but it's nice to have them in both rooms without having to move one back and forth. He's certainly not complaining. Blaine stands and looks over the choir, making eye contact with as many people as possible. Then he gestures them to their feet.

They're dressed just as he'd asked, black slacks and skirts with shirts spanning every shade of blue. Blaine's in his navy blue suit, wearing a Kurt-approved tie in vivid cerulean. They're clearly dressed for a water service. Blaine smiles, makes a fist for strength at the tenors and mouths, "Don't rush," at the sopranos. Then he moves to the piano keyboard and plays their pitches.

Amazingly, they don't hum. In only two rehearsals he's taught them that. Now if only they're holding their pitches in mind as well as refraining from humming, this will be fine. And if they're not, well, Blaine will have learned his lesson for next time. He launches into the piano part and they come in solidly, not in perfect tune but not nearly as ragged as they could be. At the end of the first verse he nods at David, and David brings the congregation in. The combination of piano and choir is enough to keep them in key. Blaine lets out a small sigh of relief.

There's no second hymn this morning, since David had felt 100's six verses were enough to center the congregation. Everyone finishes together and Blaine leaves the piano to take his seat at the edge of the sopranos. The body of the piano blocks most of the congregation's view of him, so Blaine leans in a bit and gives the choir a surreptitious thumbs up.

David welcomes everyone and lights the chalices, just as Elizabeth had last week. When he asks the congregation to greet their neighbors, Blaine wonders what the choir will do. To his amusement, they solemnly turn to each other and introduce themselves, joking, "Hello, stranger, come here often?" and "Funny we've never met before. I think we have a lot in common!" Cheryl shakes Blaine's hand and grins at him; Lynn leans across Cheryl to do the same.

When the cacophony of introductions dies down, Blaine stands and takes the piano again. He plays Benjamin Britten's Dawn, from the Four Sea Interludes, and when he's finished the sanctuary is utterly still.

"Blaine Anderson, everyone," David says into the silence. "Our new Music Director." The congregation rubs their hands together, producing a susurration of applause.

Blaine doesn't think he should bow, so he settles for inclining his head and smiling. He listens as David gives a reading, relaxing into the knowledge that the next piece is a straightforward hymn.

"From Kathleen Dean Moore's Riverwalking," David says, putting on his reading glasses. "The essay is 'Winter Creek,' and the subject is that of 'poking around in the natural world." He clears his throat.

"'... poking around is recreation, re-creation, in the most literal sense. John Locke says that what gives each person his or her personal identity is that person's private store of recollections. If so, then people should be careful curators of the assortment of memories that they collect over the years. Every time you notice something, every time something strikes you as important enough to store away in your mind, you create another piece of who you are. If someone asks, "Who are you?" it is not enough to say I am Kathy, or I am a professor, or I am Dora's daughter or Frank's wife. The complete answer will acknowledge that a person is partly her memories: I am a person who remembers a flock of white pelicans over Thompson Reservoir, pelicans banking in unison into the sunlight, banking into the shadow, flashing on and off like a scoreboard.'

"And now please rise as you are willing and able for our next hymn, 210. 'Wade in the Water.'"

Blaine runs through the whole thing on the piano before nodding to the choir. They start, and the congregation follows. It's still ragged. Blaine knows they'll have to come up with a better mechanism for starting everyone at the same time. At least the congregation seems comfortable with the chorus.

David smiles beneficently at the choir as they take their seats again. "Today, as you may have guessed from our choices of music and reading – or perhaps from the title printed on your order of service," he says, pausing to let the congregation titter at his joke, "is our Water Communion. It is our Ingathering, as we return from summers spent traveling and recreating, as we bring back our memories, whether they be Kathy Moore's flock of pelicans or my own rather more mundane stories of home maintenance. Like the agricultural society we are built upon, we observe summer as a time for independent action and work on individual projects. And like that agricultural society, we see fall as a time to come back into community so that we may bolster each other through the winter and into the spring, until we may come into next summer and our time of plenty again. Our lives are no longer jeopardized by solitary winters, but there is still something in the human animal that craves company and communion in the dark and the cold. We are each other's promise of returning light and each other's safety nets.

"Unfortunately, we cannot share our individual memories of our seasons apart without committing to sitting here until Thanksgiving. So instead, I'll ask you to bring forward your flasks of water and pour them into our communal bowl; we'll use it to water the new tree planted on the grounds out back, which I invite you all to visit. Your water is hopefully drawn from a place you visited this summer that holds meaning for you. Whether it be a river, an ocean, or a kitchen tap is entirely your determining. For those of you who may have forgotten your water, or perhaps who are new here and were not aware of today's service, we have a pitcher of, yes, tap water from our church kitchen. Please use it as a symbol of your interest in this place and your desire to form memories here.

"Before I ask you to come forward, however, I'm going to enjoy the ministerial privilege of doing just what I told you that you could not: I'm going to tell you about my summer."

Blaine can't keep his focus on David's sermon as it drifts into a doubtless symbolic meditation on home repair and group dynamics. He's getting performance jitters thinking of the song he's about to try to pull off, backed by two enthusiastic singers who have more joy than talent. What David's said about bolstering each other through the winter settles him, somehow, and makes him concentrate on trust and hope and how they go hand in hand.

David draws his sermon to a close. "Now I ask that you come forward, one at a time, to add your water to our communal memory. Please form a line down this aisle; choir, I'll ask you to go last if you don't mind." The choir nods and waves their agreement. "Our music will be provided by Mr. Anderson again, this time with Cheryl McLeod and Lynn Miller."

The piano introduction rolls smoothly out under Blaine's fingers and he sings, "Thank God for the radio and convenience-store coffee, Three hours you've been on the road, and it should have been dawn." The bowl, which had seemed impossibly large, now looks to be filling alarmingly fast from what Blaine can see over the piano. He thinks about that instead of his worries about the chorus and he's glad he has when Cheryl and Lynn hit their descant perfectly. "Blessed be," he sings, and hears their ornamental echo as he continues, "the children and the strangers." They join his tempo, floating above his voice, on the rest of the chorus and lifting away as they finish, "Bless all the wanderers far away from home." After that, it's easy to relax into the second verse and watch the mystery of a bowl that somehow holds a splash of water from every vessel in the sanctuary.

The last notes linger sweetly in the air before they start again, Blaine hitting the melody line harder on the piano as Cheryl and Lynn encourage the congregation to sing along. By their fourth repetition, they sound wonderful, arrayed in octaves over and under Blaine's tenor. The rest of the choral sopranos have picked up the harmony quickly, and he can hear some of the altos – Marie and Nan, maybe – building a harmony that's mostly tonic notes. It takes eight rounds altogether to get all the water gathered, and it's something else to hear the choir and their harmonies moving through the sanctuary. Blaine contemplates processional music for future services while he smiles, knowing that it's not show face he has on now but genuine joy. It's magic.

He rides the high through David's second reading and only starts paying close attention again as David calls for the final hymn. The choir leads the congregation through 343, two weeks of practice not quite keeping them from scooping the notes of the last line. Blaine is so grateful for the work there is to do. He's already not sure what he would do without this place and the moments it brings him. The third verse ends "come from the mystic ocean, whose rim no foot has trod — some people call it longing, and others call it God."

David holds up his hands, speaking into the podium mic. "May you go forth to do justice, to love kindness, and always to find your ways home. Blessed be and amen."

Blaine brings the fourth verse in solidly, and it's so, so satisfying to hear all the voices around him singing with ease. The congregation's not fumbling like they had last week, and it's because of something Blaine's brought about.

As everyone files out and into the social hall for coffee, David makes his way over to Blaine. "Good work," he says, shaking Blaine's hand. Then he reaches his free hand around to clasp Blaine's shoulder and leans in. "Ready to do it all again in an hour?"

With a grin lighting his face, Blaine answers, "Oh yeah."

*

It's mid-September, the day after classes begin, when Blaine caves under the heat of Indian summer and shows up to choir rehearsal in shorts and a t-shirt. He'd feel self-conscious, but it's so hot that when he looks at the soprano section he sees mostly tank tops and Betty's left her knitting at home. Sue's wearing something that looks like a jumpsuit, which Blaine just cannot explain. He reaches for his phone, thinking of subtle ways to take a picture so Kurt can puzzle over that outfit with him, but then decides it wouldn't be appropriate. If Kurt were here, if he knew these people like Blaine is coming to, if he felt affectionate toward them, it would be different.

Blaine hops up on his stool and tries to call them to order. He's interrupted immediately by Di's shout of, "Ooo, look at those legs! And those guns! Nice, boss!" She's backed up by catcalls from the baritones, led by Roberto. Blaine's unnerved, but he covers it by flexing and smiling. When they settle down, he says, "Yeah, thanks," in his best deadpan. Everyone laughs. "It's hot, you know? And besides, you guys know me well enough by now. It's been a whole month!" He winks. "Before we start, let's open some doors."

The choir props open every door, even the one to Blaine's office, hoping for air circulation that comes only half-heartedly. They can't prop the front doors of the church, but there's a fire exit from the choir room and Roberto knows how to disable the alarm. Blaine takes them through next week's hymns quickly and starts them on the featured music for the children's service, thinking about soloists and warning them that three weeks will pass before they know it.

When they've covered most of the ground he'd hoped for, Blaine tells them to take an early night. He retreats into his office, as has become his wont, and pushes the door half closed before sitting at his desk. Some minutes pass before there's a tap on the doorframe. "Yes?" he calls.

Cheryl's face appears. "Hey," she says.

"Come in," Blaine tells her, and watches as she steps around the door and takes a chair. Her shorts and sleeveless top expose the cellulite on her thighs and arms, present despite her slender build, and she reminds Blaine even more strongly of his favorite aunt when she sits with her legs pulled up, knees tucked under her chin.

"Did they rattle you?" Cheryl asks. "Di and Roberto? They don't mean anything by it. They're just playful, and flirty, and sometimes they take things too far."

Blaine sighs. "I know. I'm not— It's just weird. Kurt and I aren't married yet, but we might as well be in the eyes of basically everyone we know. It's been a long, long time since anyone but him commented on my appearance."

Cheryl lays a hand on his arm. "And the heat doesn't help, I bet. I know I'm starting to feel a little desperate about it. Ninety degrees with high humidity is supposed to stop with August!"

He chuckles in agreement. "It is."

"So c'mon, hot stuff. Let's go get pie." Cheryl grins at him.

"Pie, huh?" Blaine gathers his things and checks that he has his keys. They're the last ones out tonight, so he'll have to check that everything's locked.

She nods decisively. "Pie. It's been a horribly hot day, and I'm sure you haven't felt like eating much. I know I haven't."

"I spent the day holed up in the library reading about pedagogical theory," Blaine admits sheepishly. "It was cooler than anywhere else, but there's no food allowed."

Cheryl gives him an understanding look. "I thought so. Therefore: pie. Cold and with high caloric value. I'm thinking chocolate cream."

Blaine bumps his shoulder into hers. "I like the way you think." She takes his bag while he sets the alarm and locks the church, then passes it back as they walk out to the parking lot.

"I'll drive," she offers. Blaine flops dramatically into the passenger seat, only to perk up again when her music comes on.

"Indigo Girls? Cheryl, is there something you'd like to tell me?" he asks, winking.

Giggling, Cheryl answers, "I went to the first Lilith Fair, not that you're old enough to know what that is."

"I am too!" Blaine cries indignantly. "And I'll defend my musical knowledge in a moment, including areas of ancient history, as soon as I finish texting Kurt."

Cheryl waits, and then asks, "How is Kurt?"

"He's ... he's fine. I think he's getting more comfortable with the idea of me working at a church, even if he's not all the way there. His play's going well, so that's good." Blaine checks his phone; no answer yet.

"And he's acting? Or something else? I forgot, I'm sorry," Cheryl says.

Blaine shrugs. "It's okay. He'd like to be acting – well, he'd like to be singing and he's willing to act to get to do that. But I don't think he'd get a job in a repertory theatre without more professional experience. He's actually working production on this one. It turns out a degree in fashion design will get you a job creating costumes for the university theatre department. He's as happy with it as he's going to be with any arrangement in Columbus."

"He still wants New York, doesn't he." Cheryl turns into the parking lot of a diner and Blaine makes a mental note of it. He can imagine a thousand circumstances under which he might need an all-night diner near the church.

"He does. We're doing this here because neither of us ever stopped being Ohio residents, since we were both technically still dependents, so it's a lot cheaper for me to do grad school in our old state. And our families are here." They step out of the car and Blaine's phone buzzes. He checks it. "Kurt says hi, by the way," he relays.

Cheryl waves at Blaine's phone. "Tell him hi back from me," she says and pulls open the door of the diner.

Blaine texts Kurt back, promising not to be out too late, while he slides into their booth. "Sorry," he tells Cheryl. "I'll put it away now, I promise."

"Don't worry about it," she says. "So if I can keep prying?"

He makes a "go ahead" gesture at her.

"Is the deal two years in Ohio and then back to New York City? Coffee and pie, please," she adds as the waiter arrives. "Decaf and chocolate cream."

"Same," Blaine says. He turns back to Cheryl. "That's the idea, with room for adjustments to suit reality. He might— his dad's had some health trouble, in the past. That might keep us in Ohio, if something comes up."

Cheryl hums. "And his mom?"

"Deceased. He lost her when he was eight." Blaine adds cream to his just-arrived coffee, then offers it to Cheryl.

She shakes her head. "Oh, kiddo. That's hard." She passes him the sugar.

Blaine contemplates it, but decides against. It's late, and the pie will be sweet enough. "It is. I never knew her, but I wish I had. And I wish I'd been there, you know? I don't know what comfort I would have been as an eight-year-old, but I would have liked to try." He stirs his coffee, deciding what to tell. "When he was seventeen, before we met, his dad had a heart attack. He was in a coma for a few days. That's when Kurt made up his mind about God, and about religion, I think. His friends offered to pray for his dad, and Kurt told them not to. His life's been too hard for him to accept anything about how things are 'meant to be,' or in any kind of plan."

Cheryl chews her lip, considering. Their pie arrives while she's thinking, and after a first bite she says, "Oh, that's good pie." She swallows another bite before speaking again. "Blaine, you remember the woman Elizabeth quoted, at the first service you attended?"

"Yeah, Kate something?" he says.

"Kate Braestrup. You might want to read her book. Not the one Elizabeth read from, but the one before it. It's called Here If You Need Me. It's about how she became a minister after her husband died in a car crash. There's a part—" Cheryl pauses, starts again. "They had four children. There's a part in the book where she talks about her children asking where God was in their father's death. I can lend it to you, if you want."

The pie is just as cool and sweet as promised, melting on Blaine's tongue. When he's swallowed, he says, "But Kurt doesn't believe in God."

Cheryl shrugs. "Neither do I. But enough people do that it's worth considering. If everyone tells you that horrible things are in God's plan, how can they live with that worldview? How can you live with them?"

They eat in comfortable silence for a while. When Blaine's pie is half gone, he looks up to see Cheryl considering him.

"Can I ask, kiddo, what you believe?" She cocks her head.

Blaine cocks his head too, mirroring her. "I don't know. I've had horrible things happen to me, and even if they weren't as bad as what's happened to Kurt ... it's hard to imagine where God might be in them. I—" he hesitates, then decides to take the plunge. "I got beaten up, in high school, after I attended a dance with another boy as my date. It was bad, like hospital bad. If there's a loving God, like people say, I don't think much of him letting that happen. And if it he let it happen as a punishment for being gay, that's not something I can accept. So I think it might be easier not to believe in God." He takes another bite of pie.

"I'm sensing a 'but' in there," Cheryl says.

"But there's something that happens when I'm singing. Or looking at the night sky, or the ocean. It's not every time, but sometimes I just feel like there's something so much bigger out there, and if it's bigger than everything else, maybe it is God, you know? Like that hymn we sang at the water service." Blaine drops his gaze, chasing crumbs with his fork.

Cheryl nods. "Some people call it longing, and others call it God."

"Yeah, and all the other things it says: evolution and autumn and consecration. If we know there's something, and it's a matter of what to call it ..." Blaine trails off.

"Yeah," Cheryl echoes. She raises her mug to him. "No easy answers, but at least we're asking the questions." She finishes her coffee. "Shall we get you home?"

Blaine checks the time on his phone. "I'd better get home, yes." He steals the check from Cheryl and pays for both of them. "We're asking the hard questions, right? And we're not done, so you can buy next time."

"I like how you think," Cheryl says, and hugs him tightly.

*

Kurt turns twenty-three that Saturday, and Blaine commits to staying out as late as Kurt wants, despite needing to perform in the morning. He thinks Kurt knows what he's trying to say. They hit the bars with Kurt's theatre friends, grad students and a few undergrads who are over 21, or possibly have convincing fakes. Blaine doesn't ask.

It's eleven o'clock when Kurt cries, "Karaoke!" They change bars again, seeking out this new requirement, and Blaine thinks frantically of reasons not to sing that don't involve explaining his job. He wants to fit in with Kurt's friends, wants to be just another grad student out on a Saturday. He compromises by taking the first song and plans to beg off after that, telling everyone he needs to save his voice without saying why.

Singing "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" to Kurt gets him a roomful of cheering fans, much to his satisfaction. Blaine dances around the tiny stage, all show face and gestures. His hand describes the shape of Kurt's hair as he sings "this fragrant skin, this hair like lace," he sways and spins to cover the instrumental interlude, and there's a fierce promise in his eyes for "Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight." He jumps off the stage on the last chorus and hits his knees in front of Kurt on the final "Ohhhhhhhhhh, lovers in a dangerous time."

Kurt's blushing, but looks pleased as he pulls Blaine to his feet and kisses him. "Thank you, you ridiculous show-off," he says.

"I'm glad you liked it," Blaine says, beaming. He hands off the microphone to Josh and turns politely to watch him sing.

"Is that how you see us?" Kurt says into Blaine's ear. "Lovers in a dangerous time?"

Blaine shrugs. "It's better than it was when we were younger, but the world's never going to stop being dangerous. There's a million things that could happen to us or that we could do to each other. I don't ever intend to lose you, Kurt, or my sense of wonder. I'll be yours for as long as you'll have me, and I'll never give up the beauty of the world, no matter how many ugly things I might see."

Kurt puts an arm around Blaine's waist and squeezes. "I do love you. And your sense of wonder." He kisses Blaine's cheek, then his lips, and adds, "And I never plan to give you up, so you'll be mine for a long time."

"Good," Blaine says, lifting his left hand to Kurt's and lacing their fingers together. Their rings catch the garish stage lights. "We're being horribly rude," Blaine murmurs, starting to face them toward the stage. Josh is finishing, and Kelly's already bouncing on the balls of her feet at the edge of the platform.

"Don't care," Kurt singsongs. "Birthday boy, remember?" His impish grin fades back to sincerity as he says, "I miss this. You've been so busy lately, with your job and orientation and school starting. I know we see each other at home, but I miss being out with you."

Blaine's shoes stick to the floor as he moves, tugging Kurt back from the karaoke crowd. "I miss it too," he says. "Somehow I didn't realize how much work grad school was going to be. And I'm glad that you have your theatre friends – I'd never ask you to give them up – but I do wish we had more evenings together."

"And I'm glad you have your choir friends," Kurt responds. "It's nice to think of you out having pie with Cheryl when I'm holed up in the costume shop with Charlotte and Reece, sewing for our lives." He ponders for a moment, then offers, "Maybe we need a date night?"

"A date night," Blaine repeats. "I like that. And hey, it was only pie that once."

Kurt smirks. "Once can be a beginning," he teases. "And you like Cheryl. You ought to spend time with her."

"Yeah, I do. She wants to meet you, you know," Blaine says.

Kurt nods. "I'd like to meet her sometime," he says. "Also, don't we have a dinner invitation to answer?"

"We do," Blaine groans. "I gave Marie and Nan a firm 'maybe' and forgot all about it. So you want to go? Next week, maybe?"

"I— Yeah. Let's go. But not next week. Can we do it in two weeks?" He laughs. "What am I saying? We'll check our calendars and figure this out later. Right now, I should be picking the perfect song to end this evening."

Blaine gives him a puzzled look. "But the night is young!"

Waving his watch in Blaine's face, Kurt says, "Not that young. Besides, I need to get you home by midnight or you'll turn into a pumpkin and oversleep tomorrow."

"Fair point," Blaine says, grateful. "All right, your public awaits. Let's find you a song."

*

Dinner with Marie and Nan happens on a Monday in early October, and Kurt's as charmed by them as Blaine thought he would be. They serve stew in Fiestaware bowls and their Golden Retriever puts his head adoringly on Blaine's shoe, and afterwards all four of them take him out for a walk, the crisp fall air made more pleasant by the memory of September's heat.

Somehow Marie and Kurt get half a block ahead, deep in some conspiratorial conversation. Nan offers Galen's leash to Blaine, which makes him grin. Maybe he and Kurt can have a dog, someday. She fixes her braid while they walk, mesmerizing Blaine, and Galen's tags jingle happily. Blaine sighs.

"That was a big one," Nan says. "What's on your mind?"

"This," Blaine answers, gesturing around them. "You two have a really good life. I just want that for Kurt and me."

Nan pats his shoulder. "One day at a time is all you can do, you know?"

"Yeah." Blaine stops to let Galen sniff something. "And we're doing it. It's been five and a half years, so our track record's pretty good. Sometimes I get impatient, that's all. I want a house and a dog and a settled life."

Snorting, Nan points at Galen. "Want this one? He lulled us into a false sense of security and then destroyed a sheet yesterday."

"No!" Blaine laughs. "He seems like such a good dog." Galen's ears twitch, and Blaine stoops to pet him. "You're a good dog, aren't you Galen?"

"He is," Nan admits. "And if I'd done a better job pinning the laundry to the line, maybe the sheet wouldn't have looked so much like tug-o-war waiting to happen. Still, he's got a lot of energy that he needs to burn somehow." She looks Blaine up and down. "Do you run?"

Rueful, Blaine says, "No, I don't do much of anything, these days. I used to swim. Now I read, and rehearse, and—"

Nan cuts him off. "I get it. Well, even if you just want to take him for walks, you'd be welcome."

"Sure, that'd be great." Blaine brightens. "And hey, Kurt runs. Maybe he could take Galen out sometimes. Kurt!" he calls.

Kurt and Marie stop and turn. "Yes?" Kurt calls back.

Blaine jogs up to him, Galen whuffing beside him. "Would you ever want to take Galen for a run? Nan says he needs more exercise. I mean, if that sounds good to you, Marie."

Marie waves a hand. "Nan's the dog expert. If she thinks having him run with you young things is a good idea, I say go for it."

"Hmm," Kurt murmurs. He kneels and scratches Galen's ears. "How do nine minute miles sound to you, buddy? Nothing too fast, just steady."

Galen shoves his head at Kurt's hands. Nan, walking up in time to see, says, "Looks like a yes to me. We'll make you boys a key."

Kurt's eyes light up. "And can I use your kitchen? If you're not in it, that is."

"Absolutely. But I get a cut of whatever you make," Marie says.

"What have you been plotting?" Blaine eyes Kurt.

Kurt smirks at him. "Wouldn't you like to know."

*

Fall settles into a routine: Blaine spends his days in class or at the library, and at least one evening a week arranging parts and photocopying music. He's enjoying the opportunity to find lesser-known songs that fit the services. He's brushing up on his classical piano, for the instrumental interludes, and if his violin skills haven't atrophied too much maybe he'll mix some of that in as well. On Wednesday afternoons, he's carved out some time to walk Galen. It helps, getting off campus and moving through the autumn air.

Kurt's busy in his costume shop nearly every day, and his evenings are filled with invitations to dinners and parties. He turns down half of them, and Tuesday becomes sacred date night. Sunday mornings Kurt and Galen go for long runs. His Saturdays, Kurt fills with phone banking at the Franklin County Democrats' headquarters. He starts after his conversation with Marie, having been recruited to bake for the volunteers.

The first Saturday after their dinner with Marie and Nan, Kurt coaxes Blaine into spending the day going door-to-door with voter registration pamphlets rather than getting ahead on his instrumental techniques reading. They're working mostly democratic precincts, but they're careful to be as neutral as possible. "It's important that you register, and important that you vote," Kurt implores.

Blaine adds, "This is part of your voice. Don't lose it." They smile and shake hands and offer to drop the forms off themselves. They register fifty people, and leave information on the doorknobs of many more.

"I like doing this," Kurt says as they drive back to headquarters for their next assignment. "I feel useful, you know?"

"Yeah," Blaine nods. "It's nice." He thinks about telling Kurt that the service at the church the Sunday before Election Day is planned to be a Get Out the Vote effort. He hesitates, not knowing just how Kurt will react. Maybe he'll tell Kurt later. Right now, he has to prepare for the children's service tomorrow.

For two weekends after that, as Kurt disappears after lunch to spend hours talking with strangers, Blaine wants to tell him. So finally he does.

He's idly playing through one of the hymns for the voting service, number 170, singing quietly. "We are a gentle, angry people," Blaine sings, "and we are singing, singing for our– Kurt!"

"Don't stop on my account," Kurt says, a laugh in his voice. "If you're singing, singing for your Kurt, you should definitely continue." He leans over Blaine's shoulder. "Is this church music?"

"It's for the first Sunday in November. They're going to encourage people to go vote." Blaine shifts on the piano bench, making room for Kurt.

Kurt slides on. "But is this church music? A hymn?"

Blaine blinks at him, puzzled. "Of course. I know this doesn't look like a hymnal, but it's the piano edition."

"So your church has a hymn that includes, along with 'young and old' and 'of many colors,' 'gay and straight together' as types of members?" Kurt tilts his head. "That's surprisingly progressive of them."

"I told you they were welcoming," Blaine says.

"Yes," Kurt drawls, "but there's a difference between 'welcoming' and 'printed in the hymnal,' Blaine."

Blaine flips back a page in the hymnal. "They also have 'We Shall Overcome,' and," he flips the pages forward, "'N'kosi Sikelel' i Afrika,' which is a little weird when the congregation is overwhelmingly white," he says. "But I think they figured they should print a hymnal with everyone in mind, in the hope that everyone would feel included."

Kurt turns the page back again and hums the melody to 170. "It's a nice goal," he says at last.

"Do you want to come hear it?" Blaine asks, suddenly nervous all over.

"No," Kurt says, "but thanks for asking me. Honestly, I think I'll start skipping my Sunday morning runs with Galen. I'm just so tired, lately."

Blaine tries not to let his disappointment show. "Maybe you should cut back on phone banking."

"I can't." Kurt shakes his head. "The closer we get to the election, the more they need people. And of course, now is when the theatre department has to decide to mount a second production before the break. What can you do?" he asks dramatically.

"Just try not to get sick," Blaine says. "Remember, we're hosting your family for Thanksgiving."

Kurt quirks an eyebrow. "Do you really think I could forget? I've already gone through three drafts of the menu." He leans against Blaine. "If you're that worried about my health, why don't you come take a nap with me?"

Blaine leans into Kurt. "Okay." It takes them a while to stand, enjoying each other's presence, and when they do Blaine follows Kurt happily down the hall and reaches for him once they're under the covers. Everything they have to do will keep for an hour or two.

*

On Blaine's birthday, Kurt insists on driving him to choir rehearsal. Blaine assumes he needs the car for some costume-related errand – that's probably what the box in the backseat is for. To his surprise, the box turns out to be for him.

"Take it inside," Kurt orders as he parks in the front of the church parking lot. "And don't tip it."

"What is it?" Blaine starts to lift the lid.

Kurt slaps his hand lightly. "No peeking. You can't open it until you get inside."

"This better not be something kinky," Blaine mutters darkly. "I've opened those gifts in public before." He's betting it's art for his office, really, but it's fun to needle Kurt.

"I only did that once, and we were twenty!" Kurt insists, mock-indignant.

Blaine tries to keep a straight face and a threatening tone when he says, "And you'll never do it again," but his mouth twitches and gives him away.

Kurt laughs and leans over to kiss him. "Dessert when you get home," he says. "Have a good rehearsal."

"Okay," Blaine agrees. "Love you."

"Love you too!" Kurt pulls out once the door's closed, and Blaine and his mystery box make their way into the church.

Di spots him before he makes it into the choir room. She's in the foyer, hanging up her coat. "What's in the box, boss?"

Blaine shrugs. "A surprise from Kurt. He told me not to open it until I got inside."

"You're inside now," Di says helpfully. She takes the box from him and holds it level while he sheds his coat. "Open it?"

"Why not?" Blaine says. He lifts the lid, careful not to hit Di in the face, and grins disbelievingly. "Huh. Wow."

Di, muffled by the box, asks, "What is it?"

"It's a cake. A huge sheet cake. No wonder he asked me how many people show up to choir rehearsal. That sneak." Blaine closes the lid and takes the box back. "Come on."

Marching into the choir room and setting the box across two chairs, Blaine draws some attention. He clears his throat to draw the rest. "Due to circumstances beyond my control, rehearsal will be delayed tonight," he says solemnly.

The choir makes noises of concern. Marie hides a smile behind her hand.

"Also, I think we have a spy in our midst, Marie." Blaine mock-glares at her. "Confess what you've done!"

"I have aided and abetted the delay of rehearsal," she says. "But only through providing food allergy information, I swear." Next to her, Nan makes a face of exaggerated innocence.

Blaine heaves a dramatic sigh. "I suppose we can't go on until we take care of this, then." He flips the lid of the box back up to reveal the cake, decorated with music notes and the words Happy 23rd Birthday Blaine in flowing script.

"Happy birthday!" his choir cries, voices overlapping.

"Ooo," Cheryl says appreciatively. "Kurt's doing?"

"Yes." Blaine considers the cake, then looks up at Marie. "Do you have plates and forks and a knife? He didn't give me any, and if we're going to eat this with our hands we'll have to wait until after rehearsal."

Marie holds up a tote bag. "Okay, I provided more than food allergy information. I am also ground support," she admits. "But we'd better take this in the social hall to cut and serve. There's a cake cutter in the kitchen."

Mike the baritone grabs the cake and follows Marie out, and the rest of the choir trails behind them. Blaine watches them leave and wonders if he should post a note on the door for any stragglers. He decides against it. They'll hear the noise and follow.

He winds up with Cheryl on one arm and Di on the other as they walk out. "Happy birthday, kiddo," Cheryl says as she squeezes his arm.

"Yeah, boss, happy birthday." Di tilts her head into his.

Blaine gets his arms free and wraps one around each woman. "Thanks," he says, and lets them carry him along to the hall.

*

Kurt's waiting at the curb when Blaine walks out. He'd wanted to stay after rehearsal and help wash the dishes, but Nan had made fearsome shoo-ing motions and Mike had threatened to carry him out. The left over cake is back in its box; Blaine sets it on the backseat before climbing in to the car.

"How was rehearsal?" Kurt asks. His voice is neutral, but his face is smug.

"Good," Blaine answers, turning to face the window in an effort to hide his pleased smile. "But somehow I'm not hungry for dessert anymore. Also, someone's turning my altos against me."

Kurt makes a noise of dismay. "Who would do such a thing?" His façade breaks at the same time as Blaine's, and they sputter and giggle their way home. Kurt makes a very undignified snort when Blaine tells him about Cheryl's suggestion that they make Blaine eat his piece of cake with no utensils.

When they get home, they wind up on the couch, Blaine's head in Kurt's lap. Kurt runs his fingers through Blaine's hair, pulling his short curls out carefully and watching them spring back.

"Hey," Blaine says, tilting his face up. "We should get married."

Kurt huffs a laugh. "We are getting married," he says, waving his left hand over Blaine's face.

Blaine grabs Kurt's hand, pulls it down and kisses his ring finger. "No, I mean we should get married this year. I don't want to wait until I'm done with grad school."

"When you say 'this year,' do you mean 2016?" Kurt asks, wide-eyed.

"Oh, no." Blaine grimaces. "That's way too fast. I know you planned your parents' wedding in a week, but I was thinking of the end of this school year. Like June?"

"I like June," Kurt says. He puts his hands back in Blaine's hair and rubs at his scalp.

Blaine moans. "Never stop doing that, okay? Actually, can I put that in our vows?"

"No." Kurt doesn't stop massaging Blaine's head. "June. Hmm."

*

Cheryl offers Kate Braestrup's book to Blaine again, and since she's holding a copy in her hand he takes it. He ought to be polishing his presentation on repertoire choice for middle school choirs, or pulling out his violin, but instead he reads it that Saturday while Kurt's off calling people. The book is always open in his hand as he shifts from their bed to the table for his solitary lunch, then to the couch. He cries, more than he might if Kurt were watching him, so maybe it's for the best that he's home alone.

He cries when Kate's husband, Drew, dies in a car crash, and again when Kate hears Drew's voice on a home movie, months after his death. He cries for their children, cries when their seven-year-old son says fiercely, "Maybe Dad has been reincarnated already. Maybe Dad is a tiger." Blaine can't help but picture Kurt, eight and grieving for his mother. He wonders why Cheryl wanted him to read this book. It's painful, and it's impossible to read it without imagining himself losing Kurt.

Blaine knows, though, why Cheryl lent him Here If You Need Me. He reads about Kate's neighbor, appearing at her door forty minutes after Kate hears of her husband's death with potholders on her hands and brownies still hot in their pan, tears on her cheeks. The other friends and neighbors and family who come with food, who do chores, who listen. He reads about her ministry with Maine's game wardens and about her answer to the question, asked in divinity school, "Why are you here?" "I'm here because Drew isn't," she answers. Blaine thinks about what it would feel like to take up the mantle of Kurt's dreams. He closes the book and breathes.

He regains his equanimity and reads on, fascinated and moved. When he hits chapter seventeen, he finds the part Cheryl described.

My children asked me, "Why did Dad die?"

I told them, "It was an accident. There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table. And there are large accidents, like the one your dad was in. No one meant it to happen. It just happened. And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it anymore, and so he died.

"God does not spill milk. God did not bash the truck into your father's car. Nowhere in scripture does it say, 'God is car accident' or 'God is death.' God is justice and kindness, mercy, and always—always—love. So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love."

Blaine thinks about this, wonders where God is in cancer, or a heart attack, or the fists of fearful teenagers or his father's careful disinterest in Blaine's life with Kurt. Nowhere, he thinks. Those are only things that happen.

He gets near the end of the book and is struck again by an email from Kate to her brother.

"It doesn't matter how educated, moneyed, or smart you are: when your child's footprints end at the river's edge, when the one you love has gone into the woods with a bleak outlook and a loaded gun, when the chaplain is walking toward you with bad news in her mouth, then only the clichés are true, and you will repeat them, unashamed. Your life, too, will swing suddenly and cruelly in a new direction with breathtaking speed, and if you are really wise—and it's surprising and wondrous, Brother, how many people have this wisdom in them—you will know enough to look around for love. It will be there, standing right on the hinge, holding out its arms to you. If you are wise, whoever you are, you will let go, fall against that love, and be held."

Blaine can picture holding Kurt, can see himself falling into Kurt's arms, can feel certain that the two of them can get each other through anything. He knows that if something happened to him, Burt would be there for Kurt in an instant. If something happened to Kurt, Blaine thinks, his mother might come for him. She'd want to. But his father wouldn't understand what Kurt meant, and that would be worse than being alone.

He hadn't understood when Blaine had called to tell them about moving up the wedding, just as he hadn't understood when Blaine and Kurt had gotten engaged. Blaine had heard a phone click down and known his father had hung up the second line. His mother's vague, "That's nice, Blaine," was only better by comparison. If they can't muster happiness for him, or even acceptance, when he has good news, Blaine doesn't know what he could expect from them if the worst happened.

*

They go out for date night this week, Ethiopian food near campus. Kurt's jittery about the upcoming election, and tired. Blaine watches him down cup after cup of hot, strong tea – a compromise, since it's too late for coffee.

It only takes a little work to steer Kurt from politics to costuming, and Blaine loves the stories of impromptu sing-a-longs in the shop. Kurt has taught his undergraduate helpers to sing Wicked from start to finish; they can now perform the show without a recording playing in the background. It was, of course, in the midst of this that their director walked in to check their progress. "So I flung out my arms, naturally, because it was the climax of the song, and I hit him in the nose, Blaine, it was awful. But also hilarious, once we knew he was okay."

"Oh Kurt." Blaine shakes his head. "At least you didn't hit him hard?"

"I did not," Kurt confirms. "And he has excellent reflexes for an aging professor. He was also very gracious about the whole thing. He kept telling me that he was young too, once, and he understood the impulse." Leaning forward conspiratorially, he adds, "I think this might help me get cast in a spring show, actually."

Blaine grins. "That's great! I know you miss it." He tears off another piece of injera and ponders the stews in front of them.

"I do." Kurt grabs a piece of potato and chews it thoughtfully. "I bet I could learn how to make this," he says.

Raising his eyebrows, Blaine asks, "The potato dish?" He loves the potato dish.

"All of it," Kurt says grandly. "With enough practice."

Blaine thinks about asking for some on their Thanksgiving menu, but then reconsiders. Kurt's head may explode if the holiday plan gets any more complicated. They eat in silence, and as the mood quiets Blaine surprises himself by asking, "Hey, Kurt, what would you do if I died?"

Kurt looks up, startled. "You're not dying, are you?"

"No, no," Blaine says, holding up a placating hand.

"Good," Kurt breaks in. "Because that would be a terrible way to tell me bad news."

Blaine makes an apologetic face. "No news, I promise. I've just been reading this book – well, I finished it this weekend – about this woman who lost her husband in a car accident, and it got me thinking. She went on, you know? She kept raising her kids, and looking for the good in the world, and making a career and a life for herself ... and then she fell in love again."

"That's good," Kurt says. "That's what I'd want you to do."

Blaine looks down. "I don't know if I could. I can't imagine losing you, Kurt."

Kurt grabs Blaine's hand, heedless of the stew on his fingers. "But you will someday. Or I'll lose you. That's what happens to people, eventually. And, you know, my dad and I kept going, and after a while he found Carole, and I found you. Not that losing a parent is the same as losing a spouse, but there was a big hole in my life, too."

"Is it— I've never thought about that happening to us. And now it's like I can't stop." Blaine keeps his hold on Kurt's hand as he looks up. "But I guess you're right. Neither one of us is going to live forever."

"No, we won't. But if we're happy, and loving, and loved, isn't that what matters?" Kurt picks his tea up awkwardly, wrong-handed, and drinks. When he puts the cup back down he says, "Do you want to talk about this more?"

Blaine shakes his head. "Maybe later. But Kurt? If I died, I'd want you to find love again, too."

Face soft, Kurt closes his eyes and exhales. "Yeah," he says, and his eyes are full when he opens them again. "And maybe I'll read that book, if you've still got it."

*

Blaine comes home from his church choir rehearsal that week to find Kurt on the couch, Here If You Need Me open on his chest. There are tear tracks on his face, and dark rings around his eyes. Blaine lifts the book away slowly, marks his place, and grabs the blanket off the back of the couch. Kurt coughs in his sleep, but doesn't wake when Blaine covers him.

Sitting down on the carpet, Blaine watches Kurt sleep. He gives himself five minutes before he stands again and goes into the kitchen to tidy up. The evening's choir rehearsal is on his mind; he thinks they're ready for their service on Sunday, and the hymns they're using will work, but he's frustrated that he couldn't find the perfect music for it.

David has been encouraging Blaine to make more of the decisions about the music for services, asking him to choose hymns as well as instrumental pieces. They're singing 170, of course, the hymn that had surprised Kurt with all its kinds of "gentle, angry people," and 131 for openers. The combined length of those two hits nine verses, but David thinks that'll be okay. Everything else is out of the hymnal as well, even the pieces the choir will sing without the congregation.

It would be nice if every set of music came as easily as Blaine's additions to the water service had. He knows that's not realistic, especially now with the term over half gone. OSU's quarters are shorter than NYU's, and he's looking at his list of presentations and papers with dread. There's a particular term paper, on historical arguments for music programs in public schools, that's already a monster. It needs to double in length in the next two weeks for Blaine to feel good about it.

Sometimes he thinks about handing the responsibility for music choice back to David and Elizabeth. He doesn't want to, though, any more than Kurt wants to give up the second production he's costuming. They're both worn out, all the time, and they won't get a break until ... Blaine's not sure, actually. He's used to looking at winter break as a glorious two weeks off from everything. But despite finding himself with nearly a month off by OSU's calendar, he knows he'll be working hard to get a Christmas service put together. He can't even think about the chaos of people leaving town or hosting guests. Maybe they can schedule extra rehearsals, catch-as-catch-can?

The kitchen is as clean as it's going to get, Blaine decides, and he can't solve December's schedule problems tonight. He walks back into the living room and frowns down at Kurt. He's curled into a ball, face pale and breath raspy. Blaine thinks about letting him spend the night there, but he'll be more comfortable in bed.

Kneeling to shake his shoulder gently, Blaine says, "Kurt, wake up a little. Kurt."

Kurt's eyes blink open. "Blaine?"

"Come on, honey. It's time for bed." Blaine gets Kurt up and moving, then hits the lights and checks the locks before following him. He gets to their bedroom in time to guide Kurt into bed. Kurt's out the moment he's horizontal, and Blaine's happy to follow him into sleep.

*

Sunday morning, Kurt stays in bed and falls back asleep soon after Blaine kisses him goodbye. There's no need to worry about him, Blaine tells himself. What he needs to worry about is keeping his energy, and the choir's, up through the service. They get the congregation on their feet singing "We Are a Gentle Angry People," and keep them there with "Love Will Guide Us," just as Blaine hoped. David looks pleased as he welcomes them.

The choir's introductions to each other have stopped being cute fake meetings and progressed into short reports about everyone's weekend. Cheryl turns expectantly to Blaine, and he shrugs. "Term paper," he says. "And Kurt's got a cold. There was a lot of tea, and a lot of tissues, and a stack of books taller than my leg is long." Cheryl laughs. "I'm not kidding!" he insists. "That's the literal truth."

"You need pie," she answers.

Blaine inclines his head. "I do. But I'm not going to get it for another week or so."

"Okay," Cheryl sighs. "Next week."

They sing "Finlandia," using the hymnal edition for convenience, as the service's next musical interlude. Blaine loves the harmony they pull off, leaning into the dissonant chords and making the resolutions into almost tangible relief. "O hear my song, thou God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine," they conclude. He'd worried that it was a reach, too much about international affairs and not enough about domestic, but now on this Sunday morning he can see the congregation responding thoughtfully, taking it to heart about the divisions in this country as well as the world. The first sermon he heard here, Elizabeth's words about standing on the side of love, come back to Blaine.

David steps back up to the microphone. "Our first reading is by Walt Whitman. 'Election Day, November 1884.'

"If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyserloops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones—nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi's stream:
—This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name—the still small voice vibrating—America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd-sea-board and inland-Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling— (a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails."

David takes off his reading glasses. "Please rise as you are willing and able for hymn 34. 'Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire.'"

Blaine and the choir stand along with the congregation, and he nods to Roberto at the piano. This one is easy for the congregation to sing – the melody is "The Water is Wide," which most of them know. He focuses his attention on the choir, bringing out the harmonies. "And have not love, my words are vain," they sing, the altos descending perfectly. The tenors hit their harmony on the next phrase, stronger now that Paul's brought his teenaged son along and Luke recruited his fishing buddy. It's good.

He can see the congregation responding as they had to Finlandia, maybe more so since they're singing this one, too. The choir is confident enough that Blaine can half-turn and direct the sanctuary at large. He likes it. "Let inward love guide every deed, by this we worship and are freed," the hymn concludes. Blaine acknowledges congregation and choir with a twist of his hands and goes back to his chair by Cheryl, smiling.

"Thank you," David says to the choir. He turns to the congregation and begins his sermon. "This is the marvel of modern democracy: a bloodless revolution, every few years. It is not perfect, but that lack of perfection gives us something to strive for. We strive also for true representation at the polls. We've been hampered by spurious distinctions based on race, and sex, and class, by partisan ploys and, most insidiously, by apathy. We are a country in need of enthusiasm, and of reform.

"On Tuesday, there won't be much we can do about election reform. I applaud those of you who turned out last month to register voters. Now what I ask of you – what your country asks of you – is that you carefully consider the issues and the candidates before you, and that you discuss them with all who will listen. Talk to your neighbors, your coworkers, your families. Develop informed opinions. Seek out opposing arguments and consider them fairly. The internet is wonderful for providing the arguments, if not the fairness.

"And offer help. Ask your neighbors if they need a ride to their polling place. Check in with the College Democrats and the Young Republicans to see if there are students who need a lift. Pick up some of the maps we have in the social hall that clearly detail precincts and their assigned polls, and pass them out tomorrow. We can't make the development of opinions easy for others, but we can provide support with the practical logistics."

David delves into the history of suffrage, and Blaine's too tired to follow it well, thoughts drifting. He's so proud of Kurt and all his work for this election, so glad to say that they spent a Saturday registering voters. He wishes he could go out tomorrow with maps and take Tuesday off to drive people to vote. It's not practical for him to do it. Maybe he can at least take the car to campus in case some people from his program need a ride.

He and Kurt will go vote together, first thing in the morning, and he knows they'll be up late watching the returns come in. When David reaches the end of his sermon and asks for the hands of all those who promise to vote, Blaine raises his hand high.

He lapses back into inattentiveness, promising himself he'll wake up for the second service of the morning after a cup of coffee. Cheryl nudges him when David motions the ushers to pass the collection baskets, and Blaine jumps up and beckons the choir to their feet.

"Circle 'round for freedom, circle 'round for peace." The altos have the melody, for once, and Di is beaming in the front row. Behind her, Nan and Marie look equally pleased, if not as exuberant, and they're good indicators of the section's mood as a whole. Blaine reminds himself to look for other pieces that pass the lead. He winds them gracefully down into the final lines. "For the children of our children, keep the circle whole," and lets his choir hold the final chord a moment longer than they should. Then he checks that the baskets are still circulating and brings them back in again, half for the pleasure of hearing their voices raised in that song a second time.

David shuffles his papers. "Our second reading is short, but relevant. Matt Taibbi, of Rolling Stone, said this of voter apathy: 'When one hundred million people don't vote, the nation is not bitterly divided. The nation mostly doesn't give a shit.'

"I am asking you, on Tuesday, to give a shit. And with that indelicate request, I would now like to ask you to join me for hymn 142, 'Let There Be Light.'" He turns to Blaine, who nods to Roberto.

It's a short hymn, but one in four-part, unfamiliar harmony. Blaine lets Roberto play through it completely before the choir begins, and he encourages the sopranos to go to town on the melody. It pays off when the congregation responds with confidence. Blaine's learned that they learn better from hearing other voices than they do from the piano, so for every hymn that David or Elizabeth flag as new he gives the sopranos permission to sing out as loudly as they'd like.

Even tired as he is, it's impossible to miss that what he's doing is working. And that more than makes up for all the long hours and the worries.

*

The choir is dispirited when they come together that week. Blaine gives them a few minutes to discuss their unhappiness with Tiberi's re-election, and let them shrug fatalistically at their new republican president. Then he cuts them off.

"I know it's hard to feel grateful for much right now. But we have a Thanksgiving service to prepare for, so let's let the music drag us up, okay?" Blaine asks from his perch on his stool. "I have the hymns, and we'll be doing a contemporary piece as well. Does anyone here know the Decemberists?"

Paul's son, Kevin, puts his hand up.

Blaine looks around the room. "Anyone else? No?" He hops off the stool and walks over to Kevin. "High five, man. You and I are the only cool ones here."

Kevin smiles and slaps Blaine's hand. The rest of the choir boos good-naturedly.

"Fortunately," Blaine says as he returns to the front of the room, "I brought a recording. I don't have the arrangement finished – we'll do that next week – but I do want to familiarize you with the original version. So let's run these hymns, and then we can rock out a little." He grins out at his choir.

He kicks off with "For the Beauty of the Earth," which has the virtue of no complicated rhythms and lets them move quickly on to "Give Thanks." The choir's mood has lifted under the influence of the songs of gratitude, and they seem sincere when they sing, "Give thanks for the homes that with kindness are blessed."

"Good," Blaine praises. "Two more! Turn to 349."

The basses stumble over "We Gather Together," singing the mainstream Christian lyrics and not the UU ones until the third time through. Blaine does not pull at his hair, or give much sign of his frustration, but Bill is casting wary looks in his direction so perhaps he's not hiding it perfectly. Eventually they get it, and Blaine calls for a break while Paul and the tenors take the silver books back and fetch the teal hymnals.

Cheryl taps him on the shoulder. "Pie tonight?" she suggests.

"If it can be short, you're on," he says with an apologetic look. "I don't have a lot of extra time, but I could use the break."

"Deal." She takes her seat again and accepts the teal book Lynn holds out. "Oh, are we singing 1010?"

Blaine nods. "We are. 1010, everyone!" He takes the piano bench from Roberto and runs through the hymn once alone, enjoying the ornamentation on the part. "Ready?"

They are, and they're obviously comfortable with this one. "Oh, we give thanks," the choir sings, faces beaming, "for this precious day, For all gather'd here, and those far away; For this time we share with love and care— Oh, we give thanks, for this precious day."

Yes, we do, Blaine thinks.

*

Kurt rubs absently at his neck, then works a hand down his shoulder. "Ugh, too many hours of sewing."

"We don't have to do this today," Blaine says.

"Yes we do." Kurt frowns down at his list. "We can't leave this to the last minute. Have you ever been in a grocery store the day before Thanksgiving? It's not pretty, Blaine."

Holding up his hands in surrender, Blaine lets Kurt and the shopping cart pass by. "Okay, if you're up for it. Just— If you wanted to take some time to relax, it would be okay. We still have twelve days until Thanksgiving."

"But only two Saturdays," Kurt shoots back. "Just one, really, since today's half over." He stalks through the produce section, picking over organic delicata squash. "Honestly, we should have gone to Whole Foods. I know it's a drive, but their squash is better. I can't get something that's already nearly inedible and expect it to keep for a week."

"I can go shopping closer to the time," Blaine offers.

Kurt stops and turns to him, a squash in each hand. "You really can't." Then he softens. "I appreciate the offer, I do, but I want everything to be perfect and that means picking the produce myself. You can get the canned and frozen things, if you want."

Blaine shrugs. "Only if it's helpful. I don't get why you're so stressed about this. You've cooked lots for your dad and Carole and Finn."

"But this is the first time I'll be doing it in our home. It's fine to go home and cook in Dad and Carole's kitchen, but we're hosting. I want it to be perfect." Kurt settles on a few squash and puts the rejects carefully back.

"You said that," Blaine says cautiously. "But I don't think it's going to be perfect no matter what you do."

"I know," Kurt sighs. "But I can try. Look, will it make you feel better if I promise to take a nap after this?"

Blaine steps close to Kurt. "And will you let me push the cart?"

Kurt smiles. "You're like a five-year-old, I swear," he says affectionately. "Yes, let's go."

*

"So I said—" Kurt pauses to cough. "I said, 'I can't believe you're wearing that in public. Are you color blind?' And he was!" He laughs, but his laughter descends quickly into a coughing fit.

Blaine frowns. "Are you okay, Kurt? That sounds like a chest cough."

Kurt waves a hand. "It's fine. I'm just a little run down. I'll sleep in this weekend." He coughs again, presses a hand to his chest. "Actually, can I take the car this evening? I'll drop you off at your rehearsal and pick you up after. I just don't think I should take the bus if I'm contagious."

"Sure, that's fine," Blaine says.

"Great." Kurt stands and starts to clear the table.

Blaine stops him. "Hey, I'll do that. You cooked. Maybe you can lay down for a bit now?"

When Kurt doesn't argue, just goes to the couch and makes himself a nest of the throw pillows and blanket, Blaine worries more. The sound of his cough is clear even in the kitchen, and when Blaine looks in on him his body is racked with it. But his eyes are closed. Blaine tiptoes away, hoping Kurt will get some rest.

He washes their dinner dishes, scrubs the saucepans smooth and clean, stacks everything as quietly as he can in the drying rack. A half hour passes too fast. Blaine gathers his choir things slowly, dawdling until he can't wait any longer. He wakes Kurt with a gentle hand to his shoulder.

Kurt sits up and rubs his eyes blearily, slouching. He coughs again, shoulders rounded inward, and presses a hand to his chest. "Ugh," he says. "I wish I could shake this bug." He makes a fist and strikes his breastbone, like he thinks he can jar his congestion free. It doesn't work, and he cringes.

Blaine wants to fret over him, but he's left their departure until the last minute. He says, "Kurt, I need to go. Do you want to stay home?"

"No, no, I need to go into the shop," Kurt says, eyes unfocused. "Sorry, just give me a second." Not long after, he's up and moving, albeit slowly. He lowers himself gingerly into the driver's seat of the car. "Maybe I do have the flu or something. I've been achy for a while."

"Are you sure you need to work this evening?" Blaine asks, pleading.

Kurt considers this while they drive, but finally throws Blaine an apologetic glance and says, "I do. With two productions coming up, I need to put in the time. If I can just make it through this push, I can rest afterwards. Well, after I put on Thanksgiving." He pulls up to the church, idling on the curb.

Sighing, Blaine unbuckles his seat belt. "Okay," he says, and he leans over to kiss Kurt goodbye. "I'll see you in two hours."

Blaine tries to be present for the choir, only letting his mind wander to Kurt occasionally. It's hard to forget the wince on Kurt's face when he'd thumped his chest. "Oh, ow, I won't do that again," he'd wheezed. He catches himself frowning into space twice. The second time, he looks down and finds Di watching him. He's sure that if he looked to the left, Cheryl would be frowning too.

Shaking his head, Blaine makes a show of waking himself up and smiles apologetically to the choir. "I don't know where my head's at this evening," he says. But he does know, and he can't wait to be done so he can get home to make Kurt drink tea and go to bed early for once.

Rehearsal is almost over when Kurt appears in the doorway, looking flushed and coughing weakly. Blaine drops his music; it crashes on to the piano keys as he stands. "Kurt?"

The choir murmurs and turns in their seats, curious about the infamous Kurt. Blaine's shifting his weight awkwardly, wanting to get to Kurt but unwilling to abandon his post. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Cheryl elbowing Lynn.

"Hey!" Lynn shouts. "Eyes on your music, people. You're going to look dumb next Sunday if we don't get this down."

Di's gesturing Roberto to the piano. Blaine yields gratefully to him, and to Lynn as she rises and comes to stand next to him. A hand grabs Blaine's wrist; it's Di. "Go on, boss. We can finish up here."

Blaine gives her a weak smile and makes his way through the chairs to Kurt. He puts an arm around Kurt's shoulders and draws him back into the foyer of the church. The sound of Lynn starting rehearsal again drifts out the door to them. "You look awful," Blaine says.

"I feel awful," Kurt answers. "I think— I think I need to go to the hospital, Blaine. It's hard for me to breathe."

"Okay, let's go." Blaine pats his pocket for his car keys and feels the ring of building keys there beside them. "No, wait, I have to—" He turns back and sees Cheryl in the doorway of the choir room, walking toward them.

"I'll lock up, don't worry," she says. Her gaze lifts past his face and settles on Kurt. "Hi, Kurt," she says softly as she reaches over to rest a hand on his forehead. "Blaine said you were hot, but I don't think this is what he meant." She turns back to Blaine. "Hospital?"

He nods. "Yeah." Blaine drops his building keys into her waiting hand. "Thanks, Cheryl."

"Sure, sweetheart. Call me when you get home, okay?" She obviously wants to hug him, but isn't sure if she should with Kurt standing there, leaning into Blaine's side.

"I will," Blaine promises. "Now, let's go," he says to Kurt, and they step out into the night.

*

It's past one am when Blaine gets home, alone and dragging his feet. He can't imagine going to sleep here when Kurt's lying scared in a hospital bed with an oxygen line under his nose. He's only coming home because Kurt made him; he'd woken up after sleeping for a few hours and scowled at Blaine. "You look awful," Kurt had said. "You're not going to get any rest in that chair, and then you're going to get sick too." He hadn't let Blaine argue, just asked him to go sleep properly and come back in the morning.

Now Blaine's back home, and there's a piece of paper taped to his front door. He welcomes the distraction of whatever it might be.

The paper is a list of names, phone numbers, and types of food. Blaine squints at it, wondering how tired he is, and then notices Di's handwriting along the top. Pick whatever, whenever, and we'll deliver. Can't have you going hungry, boss. Oh. He lets himself tear up a bit, feeling too much, before remembering his promise to call Cheryl. He sits down at the table and holds his breath as he dials.

She answers on the second ring. "Blaine?"

Blaine exhales. "Hi. I'm sorry to call so late, but—"

"No, I made you promise. What's the news?" she asks. Blaine can hear rustling on her end.

"Pneumonia," he says, and his voice shakes. "They said the prognosis is good – he's young, and strong, and it's bacterial so they have him on IV antibiotics and oxygen now. But Cheryl, he made me leave him there, and I'm worried they won't let me back in tomorrow. Without a marriage license, they don't have to. And I have to call Burt, oh god." Blaine puts his head in his free hand.

"Breathe, honey," Cheryl says firmly. "They're not actually going to keep you from Kurt unless there's a major problem." She pauses. "Do you want me to come over and be there while you call?"

"No," Blaine says into the table. "He's basically my father-in-law, he's not allowed to kill me. I better do that now, before it gets later."

The noises on Cheryl's end stop. "Okay, I'll let you go. I'm thinking of you both."

"Thanks. Good night," Blaine says, and her voice comes back, "Good night, dear."

Sitting up and dialing the Hummel household number is even harder than calling Cheryl. Burt picks up with a gruff, "Hello," his tone of voice making it clear that Blaine woke him up.

"Hi, Burt, it's Blaine. Kurt's in the hospital with pneumonia," Blaine says in a rush.

"What?!" Burt yells. "How— I thought you were gonna take care of him!"

Blaine slumps. "I tried, I did, but—"

"I trusted you with him," Burt says. "And now he's in the hospital?" His voice drops off; he must be explaining the situation to Carole, who says something unintelligible back to him. "I'm leaving now. I'll be there in two hours."

There's a sound from Burt's end. "Oh, you will not," Carole says, and Blaine startles at hearing her voice so loudly. He pictures them with their heads pressed together, sharing the handset. "I won't have you getting in a car accident because you're too tired to drive. Blaine, honey, what are they doing for him?"

Rubbing his eyes, Blaine stammers, "Uh, IV antibiotics and one of those, um, oxygen lines."

"A cannula," Carole says, sounding satisfied. "And they're keeping him overnight?"

"Well, it was nine when we got there. They said they want to keep him until tomorrow evening, to make sure the antibiotics are working." Blaine gives in and rests his head on the table again.

Carole hums. "Good. He's going to be fine, I'm sure of it. Burt will be there tomorrow afternoon—"

"—or earlier," Burt breaks in.

"—and you can both bring Kurt home. Call me when you do, okay? I want to know what they've got him on." Carole pauses, probably giving Burt a look. "Try to get some rest, Blaine. Kurt will need you to be healthy tomorrow."

Blaine promises to try and tells them good night. Carole says, "Good night. We love you," and Burt rumbles it after her.

It's pointless to try and sleep in their bed, so Blaine lies down on the couch and doesn't sleep. And doesn't sleep. And then, finally, he does.

*

Cheryl rings the doorbell at nine the next morning, and Blaine drags his rumpled self off the couch to answer. "Cheryl?"

"Hi, sweetie," she says, inviting herself in and wrapping him in a hug. A bag hangs off her shoulder. "I brought breakfast. Or rather, I brought what will be breakfast, if that's okay."

Blaine gestures her wordlessly to the kitchen, following her through and sitting down at the table. "Don't you have to work today? Not that I'm not grateful," he adds quickly.

"Oddly, there's not much doing at the Columbus Public Library on the Friday before Thanksgiving," Cheryl says, wry. She's dicing an onion, and her eyes are watering. "Phew, these things always get me. Anyway, the library will be quiet until after the holiday, with the exception of the cookbooks. Those get a workout the night before Thanksgiving. Olive oil?"

Blaine gets her the bottle and falls back into his chair, watching her sauté the onions and add a can of tomatoes. He thinks he should ask what she's making, or something. "They didn't mind you calling in?"

Cheryl adjusts the heat on the stove, then comes to join him at the table. "I told them I had a family emergency," she says.

"Oh," Blaine says dumbly, and then he crumples forward, crying. "Thank you," he manages.

"Of course, my darling," Cheryl says as she catches him. She settles his forehead on her shoulder and lets his tears soak into her shirt, lets her body absorb his gasping, heaving sobs. Her hands move slowly over his back until he quiets. When he sits up, sniffling, Cheryl asks, "Shall we pretend it's the onions?"

Blaine laughs, wetly. "No, I think you know it's not the onions. It's Kurt. I'm just so scared for him."

"I know you are. He's in good hands, though, and pneumonia isn't something young people die of. He needs antibiotics and rest, which he's getting right now, and this afternoon you'll bring him home and wait on him hand and foot." She stands and fetches a paper towel for him to blow his nose on. "Hang on, let me check on breakfast."

Cheryl breaks eggs into the tomatoes and scrambles them, then turns the resulting dish out onto two plates. "Eat," she says, "even if you don't think you're hungry."

So Blaine eats, and finds that he is.

*

Cheryl won't let him drive to the hospital. She orders him into her car and takes him there herself, helping him give directions to Burt when he calls to say he's near. They meet up in the parking lot, where Burt hugs Blaine immediately. "You okay, kid?"

Blaine nods. "Yeah. Um, Burt, this is Cheryl. She's a friend from, uh—"

"I sing in a choir Blaine directs," Cheryl breaks in. "Nice to meet you, Burt."

"Likewise," Burt says.

Cheryl bows out discreetly. "I'll be at the coffee shop for a while," she tells Blaine. "Let me know if you need a ride home."

Blaine leads Burt up to Kurt's room and they settle into the chairs there, watching Kurt sleep. It's comforting to see him despite the air of fragility the hospital bed gives him. They talk in low tones, not wanting to disturb Kurt. One of the nurses tells them that he's not likely to wake for some time.

"It's normal, with pneumonia," he says. "Poor guy's worn out. That's why he got sick."

"Thanks," Burt says. He turns to Blaine. "I'm planning to stay here all afternoon, if you've got stuff you need to do. Not that you're not welcome—"

"No, I get it," Blaine answers. "I should probably go home and eat some lunch, take a shower. Do you want to go eat first, and we can trade off?"

Burt nods. "Sure." He puts a hand on Blaine's shoulder and squeezes it before he goes.

Blaine tries to use the time to consider his term paper, or the music for the Thanksgiving service. He starts thinking through the piece he'll need to have ready for his voice recital in a week and a half. It's no use: he can't focus on anything but Kurt. When Burt comes back Blaine stands and softly tells Kurt goodbye, promising to be back in a few hours. He kisses Kurt's hair.

"I'll call if he can leave early," Burt says.

"Okay," Blaine agrees. "I'll be back around five if I don't hear from you."

Cheryl's ready to drive him home, as promised. The traffic's light in the middle of the day; Blaine doesn't have enough time to organize his to-do list. He keeps thinking of things that need doing only to discard them as excessive. Does he really have time to vacuum? Will Burt care if he doesn't?

"I don't know what to do first," he admits to Cheryl, and is interrupted by the doorbell.

Cheryl answers it. "Di! Come in."

"Thanks," Di says. She leans around Cheryl to make eye contact with Blaine before moving into the kitchen. "Hi, boss. I brought you a casserole."

Blaine blinks at her. "Oh. Um, thank you."

Casserole safely on the counter, Di comes over to hug him. "I actually made six," she says sheepishly. "I went kind of wild after rehearsal. Roberto talked me out of bringing all of them."

"We might need six, actually," Blaine says. "My father-in-law is here, at the hospital right now, and neither he nor I can cook. Kurt—" He breaks off, gathers himself. "Kurt is the cook in the family. And the baker."

"You got it," Di promises. "And where's that list?" She peers around the kitchen and spots the food list on the table. Snatching it up, she says, "Don't forget about this. We mean it, boss. Call in the evening, let us know what you want to eat the next day."

Blaine looks down. "I don't want to be any trouble. Everyone's already been so great, about me running out of rehearsal, and I don't know if I'll make it to services on Sunday—"

"Blaine," Di says.

He looks at her, startled.

"Call. Or I'll assign a rotation, and you'll end up eating nothing but lasagna for a week." She lets that sink in before continuing, "It's not trouble. We want to do this for you."

Blaine is reduced, once more, to saying, "Oh," and closing his eyes against the upwelling of emotion.

When he's regained his composure, he sees Cheryl and Di pondering the back of an envelope. They're making a schedule for him. "It's okay," Blaine says. "I'll call, I promise. It's just a lot to take in."

"You'll get used to it," Cheryl says. "We're Midwestern. We feed the ones we love."

One of these days, Blaine is going to stop getting teary. He hugs Cheryl, hiding his face in her shoulder briefly. "Thanks," he tells them both when he pulls back.

"Now," Di says, "You need Sunday off? Would you like one of us to call David for you?"

Blaine shakes his head. "No, I can do it. Do you think it's going to be a problem?"

They laugh. "Not a bit," Di says. "You see, boss, David has this thing for singing rounds in Latin."

"It's his standing back-up plan." Cheryl rubs her hands together. "Oh, we're going to sing 'Gaudeamus Hodie' twenty times this weekend!"

"At least," Di confirms. "If he makes us sing until it sounds good, that might be the whole service."

Blaine snorts. "Singing rounds. In Latin. I guess I should be glad there is a back-up plan."

"People get sick, or have crises," Di says philosophically. "And it's fun. We'll do it some time when you're there, you'll see." She checks her watch. "Oops, I have to get back to work. Call. Or it'll be lasagna." She points at Blaine and makes a stern face.

He raises his hands in surrender. "I will, I will!" He hugs Di and walks her to the door. "Thank you."

Her hand on the doorknob, Di looks back at him. "You're welcome. Believe it." And then she goes.

Blaine walks to the table and grabs his phone. "I'm going to call David, and I should shower and clean before Burt comes here," he tells Cheryl. "Would you like to borrow a book or something?"

"Sure," she says. "And if I can be a help with the cleaning, I'm happy to pitch in."

"Okay. Can you vacuum? The vacuum cleaner's in the hall closet," he says.

Cheryl nods. "I can do that."

Blaine starts down the hall to the bedroom, but turns back. "Cheryl?"

She tilts her head. "Yeah, kiddo?"

He clears his throat. "I— You probably have other plans, but would you like to come have Thanksgiving here?" Can you stay here this weekend, this week, and catch me when I need it, Blaine doesn't ask.

"Sure," she says easily. "I'd love to."

Blaine keeps standing there, and Cheryl touches his shoulder as she walks past him. He thinks she knows what he couldn't say.

*

They drive to the hospital in the late afternoon, Blaine secure in the knowledge that he's now clean and ready to offer his father-in-law a guest bed with fresh sheets. Cheryl drops him off with a reminder about the soup she left in the fridge for Kurt. "It's in the big Pyrex bowl, which is kind of ridiculous, but that's what I could find in your cabinets."

"Got it," Blaine says. "Thank you so much for everything."

"Of course," she answers.

Inside, he meets up with Burt and waits while Burt deals with checking Kurt out and picking up his prescriptions. Blaine passes a set of Kurt's pajamas to a nurse, heavy flannel ones, and watches the elevator impatiently with Kurt's coat over his arm. He hates seeing Kurt brought out in a wheelchair, hates how frail he looks. But when Kurt stands on wobbly legs and presses himself to Blaine's side, Blaine forgets everything but his relief.

"Your dad's doing the paperwork," he says softly. "How do you feel?"

"Mmm, better," Kurt murmurs. "I can breathe again, more easily than yesterday, at least. I am desperate to get home, though. The food here is terrible, and the color scheme in my room did nothing for my skin tone. Please tell me we're leaving soon."

Burt joins them as Kurt's finishing. "We are. C'mere, Kurt," he says, and Kurt falls into his embrace.

"Thanks for being here, Dad." Kurt pulls back to look at them both. "I'm sorry for scaring you."

"No, no, don't be sorry," Blaine says. "But maybe sleep more and push yourself less next time, okay?"

Kurt shifts his weight, leaning back into Blaine. "Okay."

They bundle Kurt into his coat and out to the car, Burt taking the wheel and saying nothing when Blaine slides in back with Kurt. He listens as Burt outlines the new holiday plan: Burt staying with them for the week, Carole and Finn arriving for Thanksgiving and the weekend after. By the time they get home, Kurt's blinking tiredly and slumped against Blaine.

Blaine gets Kurt into bed, the feather duvet tucked tightly around him. Kurt falls asleep immediately, just as the doctor's notes said he might. There's plenty of time before he needs to take any pills, and Burt wants to sit with him so Blaine doesn't fuss too much over getting him water or extra pillows. If Kurt needs anything, he knows one of them will be close by. They'll wake him in an hour and offer Cheryl's soup, if Kurt's not up by then.

He stands and watches Kurt breathe, the pale evening light that slips around the blinds making his face visible. The hectic flush is out of his cheeks. Blaine bends and kisses his forehead. His eyes never leaving Kurt's face, he straightens and says, fervently, to the empty air around them and whatever force or chance brought them here, "Thank you." Thank you for Kurt, for giving him back to me, he thinks. Who he's thanking, he couldn't say, but he feels it too strongly not to say it aloud.

*

Kurt insists on getting his own breakfast the next morning, stubbornly making oatmeal and banishing Blaine and Burt to the living room. Blaine smiles into his hand when Kurt comes out to join them with his bowl and finds them both on the ground, the couch wide open for him.

"I don't need the entire couch. I'm just eating oatmeal, not doing a gymnastics routine," he says.

"Uh huh," Burt replies. "Did you make enough oatmeal for everyone?"

His spoon in his mouth, Kurt nods.

"Then I'm going to have a bowl myself, and maybe explore your neighborhood a little," Burt says, standing with a groan. "Oh, my knees."

Blaine sits while Kurt eats, asking questions about Kurt's preferences from the list of choral foodstuffs. When Burt sticks his head in to say goodbye, Blaine gathers himself to take advantage of the privacy Burt's giving them.

"So, uh, I kind of fell apart while you were in the hospital," he says. "I was a wreck. If it weren't for Cheryl, I probably would have spent the whole day curled up in a little ball. Or breaking things, or something."

Kurt pats the couch beside him. "Come here, Blaine."

Only too happy to join him, Blaine gets up and arranges himself beside Kurt, their thighs pressed together. "And then I called your dad at one in the morning, and he yelled at me for not taking care of you, and I was just so miserable." Blaine takes in Kurt's face. "Don't apologize, it's not your fault. I just wanted you to know what it was like for me, I guess."

"I don't have the stamina to have this conversation and sit up," Kurt says. "Scootch."

Blaine moves to one end of the couch, and Kurt puts his head in Blaine's lap.

"There," he says. "Okay, I'm not apologizing, but. I am sorry you were scared, and sorry that my dad yelled at you. You guys seem okay now, yes?"

"Yeah," Blaine says. "He hugged me when he got here. I think Carole had some words for him."

Kurt smiles, satisfied. "They're good for each other." He settles bonelessly into the cushions. "Did you eat?" he murmurs.

Blaine looks down at him, puzzled. "Yes?"

"Good," Kurt says. "Then you can be my pillow for a while, and we'll both feel better."

There's a book on the coffee table from Cheryl's vigil yesterday; Blaine picks it up and reads until Burt comes back. He greets Burt with a finger to his lips and a tilt of his head toward the sleeping Kurt.

Burt nods. "I'm glad he's resting," he says quietly. "So, I noticed you boys don't have much furniture. I, ah, found a recliner while I was out. Would you mind having one?"

"No, sure, that'd be fine," Blaine says, startled. "It could go right there, where that lamp is."

Burt nods again. "All right. I'll get it for you this afternoon. Might need your help bringing it in, once Kurt's shifted off your lap." He pauses and rubs his head. "Blaine, I owe you an apology for yelling at you yesterday. Thursday. Whenever it was that you called."

"Burt, it's fine—" Blaine begins.

"It's not fine." Burt fixes Blaine with his gaze. "I worry about Kurt. It's something I've done since he was born: I can't help it. I thought I'd worry less about him when you came along, but I was wrong. Instead I started expecting you to be some kind of miracle worker and shield him from everything.

"Look, I've been married twice, and I know how that goes. I know, as much as anyone can know, what it feels like to love someone the way you love Kurt. And if someone blamed me when Carole was hurting, or Kurt's mom, I wouldn't know what to do." Burt leans forward. "So I'm sorry, Blaine. You're doing your best to be there for him, and we both know he won't let anyone wrap him up in bubble wrap, as much as we might like to."

They both startle when Kurt speaks. "That's right, I won't," he says to his dad, eyes opening. "I pushed myself too hard, and I got sick. Those were my choices, and my responsibility. You shouldn't feel guilty, Blaine, and you shouldn't blame him, Dad." He closes his eyes again. "That's all I have to say."

Blaine touches his shoulder. "There's one more thing. I don't know if you heard, but your dad wants to buy us furniture. It's okay with me if it's okay with you."

"Man needs a recliner," Kurt agrees with no hint of irony in his voice. "Now can I go back to sleep?"

*

After calling at regular intervals throughout the weekend, Cheryl drops by on Monday afternoon.

"Sunday went fine, just so you know. David lit a candle for Kurt, and another one for you," she tells Blaine.

"That was nice of him. How was the music?" he asks. "Latin?"

"We did, in fact, sing 'Gaudeamus Hodie.' Thirty-four times. I counted for you," Cheryl teases.

Blaine raises his eyebrows, skeptical.

"Well, David has an ambitious sense of tempo, and Roberto went along with it. It didn't take as long as you're thinking." She grins. "So, what's the holiday schedule look like? Anything I can get for you?"

"Carole and Finn are coming Wednesday night or Thursday morning, depending on the weather. We could use an air mattress, since Finn's too tall for our couch – do you have one we could borrow?" He surveys the kitchen. "I don't think we need any food. Di was right about the choir feeding us."

"Good food, too," Burt adds, joining them. He nods and says, "Cheryl."

"Burt." She nods back. "I'm glad to hear it. We take feeding these boys seriously."

Burt grins. "My wife's like that," he says. "Carole will appreciate that there's someone local on the job. A lot of someones, it seems like."

"They have that effect on people," Cheryl says, fond.

"They do." Burt claps Blaine on the shoulder. "Hey, Kurt's awake. You want to see him?"

Blaine doesn't know why Burt would be asking him that. Then he realizes that Burt's asking Cheryl, who had gone home after dropping Blaine off on Friday. He wonders if he should say something, explain to Burt that Cheryl and Kurt have only really interacted through him.

It's too late. "I would," Cheryl answers. She follows Burt down the hall to the bedroom.

When Burt comes back out to settle in the new recliner in the living room, Blaine tiptoes to the bedroom door. It's ajar, and he can hear Cheryl and Kurt's voices coming softly from the inside. He can't make out what they're saying, but he doesn't need to. He smiles and goes back to the kitchen to make mashed potatoes for Kurt's dinner.

*

The choir brings them a parade of food. Blaine had found Kurt's final draft of their Thanksgiving menu and approximated it as closely as he could off the choir list. The squash is still organic, and if the green beans may have come entirely from cans, Kurt doesn't say anything against them. Cheryl shows up Thursday morning and nods approvingly at the dishes stacked carefully in the fridge.

"And I have the turkey," she says.

Blaine eyes the giant bird she's brought and nods. "You do. I'll get the roasting pan." He kneels to search for it in the cabinet.

"Marie and Nan are bringing pie," Cheryl adds.

Startled, Blaine narrowly avoids cracking his head on the edge of the counter. "Marie and Nan are coming?" He sets down the roasting pan and starts counting chairs. "Where are we going to put them? We don't even have enough chairs for the people who are currently here."

"Yes we do," Kurt corrects. He's leaning on the doorframe. "We have those folding chairs in the laundry room. Some people will have to hold their plates in their laps, but that's okay. Hi, Cheryl," he adds.

She smiles at him. "Hi, Kurt. Good to see you up and about."

Kurt makes a rueful face. "You say 'up and about' like I'm not going to nap three times today," he says.

"Do you want to sit?" Blaine asks. "Or lie down on the couch? Or—"

"I'm okay." Kurt steps over to Blaine and wraps an arm around his waist. "Stop worrying."

Blaine snorts. "Unlikely," he says.

"All right, you two, why don't you go sit at the table and tell me where things are. I need to start this turkey," Cheryl says. "Then we can rotate the hot dishes through the oven and everything'll be ready."

They cede control of the kitchen to Cheryl and, inevitably, the singing begins. Kurt listens as Blaine and Cheryl sing hymns, dancing a little in his chair and sometimes clapping time. It isn't long before Carole and Finn show up and steal Kurt away. Blaine gets up and starts counting out place settings, half-listening to Carole checking up on Kurt and half occupied with keeping up with Cheryl's tempo. Thank goodness they have enough silverware.

Nan and Marie arrive just before noon and take advantage of the space that's opened in the refrigerator. They bring the promised pies: apple, pumpkin, pecan and chocolate cream. Cheryl winks at Blaine when the chocolate cream goes past them. Blaine looks in on the Hudson-Hummel reunion in the living room, checks if anyone needs anything, and returns to the kitchen. There he gets swept up in a round of "Gaudeamus Hodie," Nan doubling with him until he knows the melody.

He's surprised when another male voice joins in – Kurt's lungs aren't up to singing, yet – and it turns out to be Finn, standing in the doorway. When they break, Blaine looks inquiringly at him.

"Kurt's taking a nap," he says, "and I thought Burt and Mom might like some time alone, you know? Anyway, you guys sound good."

Cheryl gives him a little wave. "Hi, you must be Finn. I'm Cheryl," she says. "We only met in passing. This is Nan, and Marie." She pauses to consider Finn. "So you sing, huh?"

Finn shrugs. "Yeah, I was in glee club in high school. I haven't done much singing since, but I still like it and everything."

Cheryl has a certain gleam in her eye. "How's your Latin?"

Marie huffs. "He doesn't need to know Latin to sing rounds with us. Finn," she says turning to him. "Repeat after me: Dona. Nobis. Pacem."

"Dona nobis pacem," Finn repeats dutifully.

"There, he's ready! And he can pick up the melody line by singing. Blaine, you want to partner up with your brother-in-law, there?" Marie asks.

Blaine nods. "Sure. It goes like this, Finn—" he says, and they all sing it together. The women drop out on the next round, Finn showing off while he and Blaine sing the first piece of the song. Marie and Nan come in as the second line, and Cheryl takes the third part. They're starting to sound pretty good when Blaine sees Carole in the doorway, filming them on her iPhone.

"Very nice," she says. "I promise I won't put it on YouTube, or wherever."

"I think it's public domain," Cheryl says. "Hi, Carole, I'm Cheryl, and this is Nan, and Marie."

Carole waves. "Are you part of the food brigade?"

Marie laughs. "Four pies," she says, pointing to herself.

"Good," Carole says. "You seemed like my people."

*

They have the table set up buffet style and the chairs in a loose circle in the living room when Kurt wakes up. Blaine's at the piano, playing the accompaniment for 1010 and singing at the top of his lungs as Cheryl dances with Finn and Marie dances with Nan in the center of the room.

Kurt walks in, rubbing his eyes, and sits next to Blaine on the piano bench. After studying the music for a minute, he elbows Blaine into letting him take over. Blaine gives him the bench, standing up and continuing to sing. Kurt's improvising off the chords, not worrying about hitting all the flourishes as written. Blaine loves listening to him. When he looks up, he sees Burt watching them with a smile on his face. Carole's pulled out her iPhone again; Blaine is really looking forward to the video files of all this.

For now, he looks around the room at the people gathered here, pleased and loved, and his eyes rest on Kurt as they finish singing, "Oh we give thanks for this precious day."

Cheryl shepherds them into the kitchen to get their food, and Blaine watches Burt hover near – but not too near – to Kurt. Marie pops the apple pie into the oven to warm before taking a plate, while Nan fusses over whether the pumpkin pie should be out of the fridge. Blaine waits until everyone's seated to dish up his food. Everything is delicious.

"Now, how many kitchens did this come from?" Carole asks.

Blaine counts. "Six. It's really seven, since Cheryl made the turkey, but she cooked it here and that makes it look like six."

Carole smiles. "Impressive. I'll volunteer right now to help wash things when we're done. Can you count my kitchen too?"

"Sure," Blaine laughs. "Okay, eight then."

*

Sunday comes too soon, but Blaine feels okay about leaving Kurt home with his family on hand. He excuses himself from the breakfast table he's been sharing with Carole and Burt and goes to dress for church.

When he comes out in his suit, he sees Burt emerging from the guest room in a button-down shirt. "Are jeans okay?" he asks.

Blaine takes in his outfit and blinks, confused. "Okay for what?"

"For church," Burt says. "I thought I'd go with you, if that's all right."

"Sure," Blaine answers. "Jeans are fine, and you're welcome to come."

There's a thin layer of snow on the ground, but the roads are clear. Blaine parks closer to the church than he usually does. He gets Burt a visitor's name tag and describes where the choir sits before he hurries off to the sanctuary for warm-ups and last minute rehearsal details.

Cheryl comes in behind him, and as she tucks her purse under her chair she says, "Your father-in-law is telling our greeter all about how excited he is to see you direct the choir. It's about the sweetest thing I've seen all day."

"It's only eight-thirty," Blaine says dryly. But he smiles.

Elizabeth comes over while the congregation is getting settled. "How are you doing? How's Kurt?" she asks.

"He's still sleeping a lot, but he's doing well," Blaine answers. "Which means I'm doing well too."

"Good," she says. "I'm so glad." She gives him a warm smile before walking back to the altar.

They open with 1010, Blaine playing the piano and wishing it would never end. The congregation is confident and happy, and the choir is strong. Then they move to "For the Beauty of the Earth," pausing while the congregation switches hymnals and finds number 21. "For the beauty of the earth, for the splendor of the skies," they sing. Blaine leans on the melody and listens to his choir filling in the chords below.

When they finish, Elizabeth steps up. "Wherever you come from, wherever you are on your life's journey, you are welcome here. Whoever you are, whomever you love, you are welcome here. If this is your first time among us or your thousandth, you are welcome here." She lights both chalices and invites the congregation to greet their neighbors.

Burt must be sitting close by, because Blaine can hear him introducing himself to someone. A little searching reveals him in the first row, directly in front of the choir but half hidden by the piano. He can't quite make out what Burt's saying over the rest of the people speaking, but it's nice to know he's found a spot near by.

Elizabeth draws everyone's attention back to the front of the sanctuary, and Blaine steps up to lead the choir through the Decemberists' "Sons and Daughters." Wes had worked his magic over several long Skype sessions, and he and Blaine had hammered out a version that suited the choir's abilities. Roberto sits at the piano, playing the all-purpose backing instrumental that grounds the choir. "When we arrive, sons and daughters, we'll make our homes on the water," the tenors open. Kevin grins at Blaine, and Blaine grins back.

He brings the altos in on the second verse, letting them linger ever so slightly on "making this cold harbor now home." Then he gives the tenors back the third verse, lets them all rock out on their parts for the bridge, and flings his arms out to let them lay into the chorus. They sound glorious.

Elizabeth lets the congregation sit in silence for a moment after they finish, then rubs her hands together in the UU gesture of quiet applause. The congregation joins in, smiling. After a moment, she inclines her head to the choir and turns forward again. "Our reading today is a responsive one. Please turn to 512 in your silver hymnal." She waits until the books are open, then begins,

"For the expanding grandeur of Creation, worlds known and unknown, galaxies beyond galaxies, filling us with awe and challenging our imaginations:"

"We give thanks this day," the congregation reads.

"For this fragile planet earth, its times and tides, its sunsets and seasons:"

"We give thanks this day," they respond again.

"For the joy of human life, its wonders and surprises, its hopes and achievements:"

"We give thanks this day."

"For our human community, our common past and future hope, our oneness transcending all separation, our capacity to work for peace and justice in the midst of hostility and oppression:"

And the congregation concludes, "We give thanks this day."

"We do, this day and every day," Elizabeth says. "Whether we are paying attention or not, we engage in casual acts of gratitude. We say 'thank God,' or 'thank goodness' for all kinds of small blessings and reliefs. Those of you who are mathematically minded may calculate the odds of success and, from time to time, find yourselves impressed and pleased to have defied those odds. Some of you are doubtless grateful right now that our service is slightly altered, omitting the usual hymn we would normally sing before launching into my meditation of the week, and others of you are remembering to be grateful that you are ordinarily afforded one more opportunity to sing.

"We have just celebrated a national day of thanks-giving, one built upon a pretty story that is almost certainly not true. Still, we may take from it the idea of gratitude for things both large and small: for friendship and food and successful harvests.

"We may feel gratitude in many situations. Our response to beauty – a sunrise, the first flower of spring, a spider web spangled with dew drops – or wonder – a newborn child, a meteor shower, a foal standing on gangly legs – is easy to turn to thankfulness. The moment we open our mouths to say, 'Oh' or 'Ah,' we can add a 'thank you.' It doesn't matter who the 'you' might be in those two words. Some of you may thank God, or Goddess, or a pantheon of gods, or your ancestors. You may thank the thousand little chances that led you to see the spider web, the collision of rock with atmosphere that burns trails of light into the sky, the genetic lottery that causes you and your nephew to share a nose.

"And we might find ourselves grateful for the mundanities of our lives. I am not speaking of a slavish, 'we're not worthy' gratitude. We are worthy, by virtue of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, of receiving all that the universe may offer us. I am speaking instead of mindfulness, of Jane Kenyon's poem, 'Otherwise.' She says to us,

"I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

"When we bear this in mind, we bring ourselves to a state of appreciation that helps us to focus on what we have, rather than what we have not. We live in one of the most fortunate, privileged societies imaginable, and many of us who are told by the relentless advertising machine only of what we need lose sight of what is ours already. We forget those who have no roof over their heads and grumble instead that our house is too small. We forget those who have no food in their bellies and complain about the offerings of our tables when they fail to meet our every desire.

"Action is important when we consider those who lack what we have. We strive to work in our communities and through our organizations to share resources, and that is good. But thought is also important in shaping who we are, and I suggest that who we are can be people who are grateful, who are aware of their blessings.

"I offer you a final thought to ponder, a meditation from Denise Levertov: 'An awe so quiet I don't know when it began. A gratitude had begun to sing in me. Was there some moment dividing song from no song? When does dewfall begin? When does night fold its arms over our hearts to cherish them? When is daybreak?'"

Elizabeth lets the moment hang in the stillness of the sanctuary. Then she concludes, "May you strive to hear the song of gratitude, to look for dew and daybreak, to count your small blessings and daily beauties, and to thank those who touch your lives with love.

"In lieu of our candle lighting for today, I invite you now to speak what you are thankful for into the silence and the space of our congregation, that we may all be grateful," Elizabeth says.

Voices murmur from all over the sanctuary, words overlapping. Blaine whispers, "Kurt," up to the rafters and pauses, self-conscious, before adding, "family, my choir."

Cheryl hears him, if the small smile on her face is anything to go by. He can't quite make out what she's saying until she raises her voice and concludes, "and Blaine and Kurt."

"Cheryl," he says, and meets her eyes. Then he leans out around her, half-turned, and says slightly louder, "the most amazing array of casseroles, and Di's work to keep us fed." He watches heads turn among his choir, gazes finding him as people nod in acknowledgement of his words. Di touches her hand to her heart.

From the first row, Blaine hears Burt speak. "My wife, Carole," he says, "and my boys: Kurt, Finn, and Blaine."

Blaine cups his hands over his face and breathes. He can feel Cheryl's hand rub his back, and when he looks out over his fingers he sees Burt with his eyes closed and his face relaxed. This, Blaine thinks, is what it is to be held.