"How about that one?"
"You are kidding, aren't you?"
"If you say so. I like the color. That yellow—"
"—makes me look ill. And it's not yellow. It's chartreuse."
"If you say so."
"Although it would look good on you."
"A men's knee-length sweater. On me."
"Honey, that is not my style."
"It's a good color for you, though." Kurt unhooked the sweater's hanger and held the garment in front of Mercedes, cocking his head critically. "See?"
Mercedes looked down, then up at Kurt. "A mirror might help."
"Of course. Sorry." Kurt surrendered the sweater, and Mercedes made her way through the warren of racks to a full-length mirror attached to a post. Kurt was about to follow when he realized that Mercedes had dumped her purse at his feet.
"Chartreuse is the new charcoal," a voice said, and Kurt jumped. The voice had come from a sales clerk, a young man in his early twenties, whom Kurt had noticed a few minutes earlier, straightening the ties in a display. He was cute in a gelled-hair kind of way, and his eyes looked very blue.
"I think I disapprove of that," Kurt said, watching Mercedes pull at the sweater, extend a leg, and strike a pose. She was, as usual, completely unconscious of whether anyone was looking at her. He liked that about her: she pleased herself first. Aware that he was probably being rude, he turned to the clerk, who was fussing with a jacket on one of the racks, buttoning it and straightening the collar. "I disapprove strongly, but I can't say why."
"It's a surprisingly versatile color," the clerk noted. "If you're an investment dresser—" He paused, eyes assessing Kurt, who suddenly felt self-conscious. "But I see you're not. I was going to suggest chartreuse as an accent color." His hand came out, almost but not quite touching Kurt's jacket, a double-breasted trench with flaring lapels. "Monarchy?"
"Lovely." Something about the clerk's blue eyes radiated sincerity. "On the off chance you do want an investment piece, you might want to try the sale rack at the back of the store. Burberry has some nice items in this genre."
Kurt mentally filed away the tip, even as he appreciated the clerk's discreet wording. Burberry was far more staid than what he really went for, but something basic at a good price would definitely not go awry. He'd be lucky to get a thousand-dollar Burberry trench for seven hundred, and that was a good four hundred more than the Monarchy. "Thanks. Oh. Where did she go now?" His eyes scanned the area near the pole. Mercedes and the chartreuse sweater had disappeared.
"Your girlfriend? She's in cashmere, over there."
"She's not my girlfriend," Kurt said automatically, even though a misunderstanding along those lines between the two of them had been the occasion of this shopping trip—actually, it was the occasion of Mercedes smashing his car's windshield at the car wash a couple weeks ago, which in turn had led to the mall, by way of apology. He glanced at the clerk, who was reordering jackets by size, and suddenly it hit him: the clerk was flirting with him. A ball had just been lobbed into his court.
"I—I—that is, I—" Kurt said, and then he tried not to blush, even though he could feel his face heat. He'd told his dad. He'd told Mercedes. Could he tell a random stranger? Someone who could possibly be hitting on him? A random stranger whom he would probably never see again? Who, it bore repeating, could possibly be hitting on him?
"I prefer men," Kurt said in a rush. So that the clerk wouldn't have to respond to this information, he hastily added, "She's a good friend and...and...and sartorial advisor."
"Sartorial advisor," the clerk repeated, and he smiled. It was a nice smile—incredibly reassuring, as was the fact that the clerk wasn't backing away slowly. "I like that term."
Kurt willed his heart to slow down. He couldn't believe he'd said it out loud, but processing that was going to have to take a back seat to his current situation. Was this how the game was played? See someone you like and test him out? Except now he couldn't think of anything to say. He couldn't be clever or witty when he was panicking. The only thing he could think of to say was, "I like your eyes," but that was definitely not the right thing.
"I thought chartreuse might be her color," Kurt blurted, and to his relief, the clerk's blue eyes moved from Kurt to Mercedes, who was making her way back toward him.
"Mmm. Her skin is a good color for it."
"That's what I thought. But maybe not that sweater."
The clerk laughed. Kurt liked the sound of it. "No, definitely not." The clerk rattled a hanger, and it suddenly struck Kurt that maybe the clerk was as nervous as he was. "If you need any help, let me know," the clerk offered. "Maybe with the Burberry. The sale area is chaotic. You may need a native guide. My name is Tim."
"Hello, Tim." Mercedes extended the hanger with the chartreuse sweater to him. She placed a slight emphasis on "Tim." "Could you?"
"Happy to." Tim didn't seem at all discomfited, which Kurt liked, because the sweaters were right next to them, and Mercedes's tone wasn't exactly polite.
"Oh, honey, yes you are happy to. All I can say is, get in line." Mercedes hooked her arm in Kurt's. "See anything you like?" she asked him, with a head jerk directed at either chartreuse sweaters or the clerk.
Kurt realized then that he loved Mercedes for giving him that opening. He really, really loved her. "I do," he said, letting his gaze linger, and to his pleasure, the clerk pinked up. "Maybe we can come back later. I need caffeine."
"Coffee shop," Mercedes said, and she tugged Kurt around and scooped up her purse. "Chartreuse," she said loudly, for the clerk's—for Tim's—benefit.
"Maybe as an accent color." Kurt turned and gave an apologetic good-bye wave to Tim, who smiled at him as he began organizing the chartreuse sweaters.
"Maybe not at all. As in never."
Kurt found he was clutching at her arm. When they cleared Nordstrom's and entered the mall area, he said, "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. Did you see those eyes?"
From Mercedes's response, it was clear she had. She said, "The ones undressing you?"
"Undressing me? He was undressing me?"
"With those baby blue eyes," Mercedes confirmed.
"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god." Kurt found that he was horrified, but in a good way. It had been obvious, then. That meant he hadn't been wrong. He had been pretty sure he hadn't been wrong, but he could have talked himself out of that certainty, given enough time—ten minutes, say.
"You can stop saying that."
"He probably hits on all the guys."
"Which is why he was so incredibly, cutely nervous."
"He was cute, wasn't he?"
"Kind of heavy on the hair gel," Mercedes said critically.
"One could argue that I'm kind of heavy on the hair spray."
"I didn't think of that. Okay! You're made for each other."
"Oh my god, oh my god—"
"Stop. Here. Sit. Coffee. It's the only thing that's going to calm you down."
"Could you get me a—"
"An espresso macchiato. Yes." Mercedes held out her hand expectantly, and Kurt fumbled in his pocket and handed her a five. "Ten minutes," she said.
Kurt crossed his legs and tried to stop freaking out. His heart was still racing. Mercedes had shoved him into a seat at the last available table in the Starbucks sitting area. It was insanely crowded. Tim. Tim.
"Oh my god, oh my god," Kurt murmured to himself aloud, unable to stop himself, because something had just struck him. Tim was old, as in old enough to have a job in the menswear department at Nordstrom's. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. "Mercedes?" he said a second later.
"I'm six feet away." Mercedes waved at him from the line. "What?"
"He's probably twenty-one or twenty-two. That's a five- or six-year age difference."
"Is that a problem for you?"
Kurt thought about it. "No."
"But what about him? I mean, when he finds out how old I am?"
"Honey, you look your age. Hell, you look younger than your age. I don't think it bothers him."
"There might be some advantages to dating an older man."
"Maybe he's a pervert who likes kids."
"Maybe he likes well-dressed guys with awesome chicks on their arms."
"Maybe," Kurt said, because that's what he was hoping.
"Are we done?"
"Okay. Stop freaking out. I'll be right there. I've got to order. Bye." Mercedes turned away from him as she shoved her phone into her purse, then leaned over to talk to the barista.
Kurt kept his cell phone open and handy in case he needed to make another emergency call. He was still freaking out. He'd probably be freaking out for the next two weeks straight. Tim, an older man who could initiate him into the mysteries of—the mysteries of what, exactly? Oh god, oh god...
"'Oh god' is like saying 'oh my god,'" Mercedes informed him as she sat down across from him, which is how Kurt knew he was speaking aloud. "The coffees will be up in a minute. They're under the name Esmerelda." Mercedes always gave false names at restaurants. "Here's your change. What is it this time?"
"Everything." Kurt waved a hand. "Just—everything."
"Dating? Kissing? Sex?"
"You are asking the wrong girl, because I know nothing about that stuff. Maybe you could ask Finn. He's a guy."
Mercedes bent down to adjust her purse at her feet, so she didn't see Kurt's reaction. Kurt had long dreamed about Finn, but he knew how unlikely it was that anything would happen in that department. There were eight million reasons: straight, insanely hot girlfriend, straight, had already turned Kurt down, straight...
"I don't think Finn would really have the best advice for me," Kurt said. He mentally ran through men's names, discarding one after the other. "Maybe Mr. Schuester? Definitely not my dad."
"All I know is, if you find someone you like, who makes you feel good about yourself, and you like yourself better when you're with them, then that's who you want to be with." Mercedes covered Kurt's hand with her own. She looked earnest. "That's why I wanted to be with you."
"Oh. Wow." Mercedes hadn't told him that. "That's—I'm sorry I can't—wow."
"So I wanted to go shopping to get you a little something so that whenever you saw it, you'd think of me. You know, because your dad repaired the truck's windshield." Mercedes lifted her hand and sat back.
"I see it and I'm overwhelmed with guilt? Is that the idea?" Not that he'd see it much, because his dad had taken his baby away and put it up for sale.
"Pretty much, yeah."
Kurt sighed just as a harried-looking barista yelled, "Esmerelda!" "I'll get them," he offered, and Mercedes sat back down.
Kurt picked up coffee sleeves in preparation for slipping them onto the hot paper cups. He ignored the look the barista gave him when he said, "Mocha and macchiato for Esmerelda?" He turned, a coffee in each hand, and looked at Mercedes—really looked at her. She looked great: chunky gold necklace, swingy chandelier earrings, black T-shirt and pants, low-riding studded belt, purple jacket that seemed to be all lapel and swing. But that wasn't what looked great about her. She looked confident and strong. She wasn't, for example, clutching her cell phone and muttering "oh my god." She didn't look like she was walling someone off by crossing her legs and arms. She didn't cultivate an air of superior unapproachability.
He felt good when he was with her. He liked himself better when he was with her. She was his accent color: scary and dangerous, because she made him take risks.
"I'm going to do it," he announced as he set the cups down.
"Really?" Mercedes smiled, and it lit up her whole face. She didn't have to ask him what he was talking about. "All right. I say, we wait an hour and then go in."
"An hour?" Kurt said, dismayed. "I'm kind of psyched to do it now. Why not now?"
"Ten minutes shows you're desperate. Two hours would be better, but we have to do it before five in case that's the end of his shift. So an hour. Do you want me to leave you alone, or do you want me nearby?"
"Nearby," Kurt said instantly.
"If this works out, your dad is going to freak."
"If this works out, he's never going to know." Kurt sipped his macchiato.
"Well, an hour will give us time to hit the kiosks downstairs. I still haven't found the perfect thing for you."
"How about this?" Kurt leaned over and Mercedes tilted her head when he brushed her hair back. "This earring," he said. "Go on," he prodded at her puzzled look.
She removed the earring and handed it over. "What do you want it for? You don't have pierced ears."
"This." Kurt pushed his trench coat aside and thrust the earring post through the fabric of his sweater. "Can I have the back?"
He had to do it by feel, but he got the earring affixed to his chest like a pin. "What do you think?" he asked.
"I like it." Mercedes undid her other earring. "On the left?"
"On the left," Kurt confirmed, and she attached the earring to her shirt.
"I really liked those earrings." Mercedes poked it to make sure it would stay, then reached for her mocha.
"That's the point. You can only sacrifice things of value."
"Makes sense, I guess."
"Don't let me talk myself out of it," Kurt said in a rush, and Mercedes laughed.
"You and me with a plan? Unstoppable. Let's make it happen."