Your name is Kurt Hummel and you need to get out.
You aren’t quite sure of what, precisely, so you make a start by crawling out from under the covers. The cold air makes you grimace, and you race to pull on the nearest shirt you can find, but it’s too late and the precious warmth is already lost.
You check the clock – two p.m., otherwise known as too damn early for the third day straight you’ve watched the pale January sun rise with bloodshot eyes. You shiver as the coffee boils, and wish you could get out.
Your apartment feels stifling today. It’s claustrophobic at the best of times, and if there was anyone you ever wanted to invite over you wouldn’t dare to for fear one of you would stretch and crush the other. Of the three tiny rooms the kitchen is definitely the worst, with its counter strewn accusingly with unopened bills. Your shoes are on before you know it, and you’re out the door, coffee in hand, telling yourself you’ll grab a paper on the corner and look through the Wanted ads.
The sidewalk under your feet feels like pacing. Everything is still too close, too tight, and you want to leave. But where are you meant to go? You’re a twenty-two year old high school dropout with nothing to your name but a looming rent deadline, and you might hate it here but this town is everything you have.
You pass the corner shop and don’t look back. You wish you could ditch the coffee; it’s bitter in your mouth and caffeine is not what you need now. You feel overexposed, like everyone is watching you, but that’s ridiculous – everyone here keeps their eyes on the ground, and you’re nothing special. You’re invisible.
There’s a bar across the street. You must have walked past it a million times without looking twice, but this time it catches your eye and you duck through the stalled traffic. It doesn’t look like your kind of place, but by some miracle it’s open and where else will be at two thirty in the afternoon?
The sign on the door says ‘McKinley’s.’
You go inside.
It’s warmer, inside a building where the heat isn’t perpetually on the fritz, and the shock of remembering comfort takes your breath away. That said, the place seems pretty miserable. There are more staff present than customers, and through a haze of smoke you see a small stage occupied by a guy with a Mohawk and a guitar, playing soft and slow.
The blonde girl behind the bar has perfected the twin arts of the service industry: looking bored and sounding unimpressed.
“Welcome to McKinley’s, where the music never stops. What can I get you.”
You hesitate, remembering the rent due Monday, and perhaps that’s why you need this but it’s also why you can’t have it.
“Buy you a drink?”
A blonde head of hair slides into your peripheral vision, and you know he’s a douchebag from the way he’s hitting on a stranger in a bar in the middle of the afternoon, but it’s this or stay sober, so you nod before taking a good look at him.
You’re surprised, and not in a bad way. He’s your age, give or take a couple of years, and you can see muscles outlined through the weirdly abstract T-shirt. He’s wearing sunglasses indoors, though, and he’s paler than you are.
“No worries. Employee discount.”
The barmaid scoffs. “You don’t work here, Dave.”
“No, I just sit around all day looking pretty free of charge. Come on Q, this level of cool has got to be worth ten percent off.”
She shakes her head and walks away, disappearing through a door marked ‘Staff Only.’
“Nice try,” you commiserate, wishing you’d just bought your own. What’s the use in saving for the rent if you’re already short?
“My name’s Kurt.”
The enigmatic Dave doesn’t reply. His expression is blank – it has been the whole time, flat and unresponsive, and the shades make it impossible to see where he’s looking. You wonder if Dave is some kind of vampire, but you can’t see yourself as the type to get ravaged by a handsome monster. You comfort yourself that if Dave does attempt to kill you, it could hardly make your week much worse.
“On the house.”
You look up in time to register a new waitress – blonde again, what is it with this place? – pushing two drinks towards you.
“You’re a godsend, Rox.”
‘Rox’ winks at Dave over her shoulder as she walks away.
You stare at the drinks. One looks like a beer; the second is some kind of cocktail, bright red and sporting an umbrella. Without a moment’s hesitation, Dave takes the cocktail.
It’s only when you take that first sip of beer and sigh that you realise the tautness you have felt buzzing inside you for days now is already gone. The knowledge hits you hard, and you straighten up. You hadn’t noticed yourself leaning forwards.
“Don’t tense up now, babe, fun’s just about to start.”
You barely have time to wonder what Dave means when the door is slammed open with a yell.
“Fucking hell, what pathetic excuse for a government introduced educational policies allowing out nation’s schools to hire the kind of dickbrained teachers who take school trips on the subway? Did I miss anything?”
By the time he’s finished talking, Rox has already handed the newcomer a beer, and he’s sat down beside you facing away from the bar. Dave turns his stool in the same direction, and you awkwardly follow suit.
“Relax, it’s only just half past.”
You realise they are looking at the stage. Mr. Mohawk has finished his set and is putting his guitar away, and some dark-haired guy in a cardigan and too much hair gel is adjusting the mic stand.
“Vantas, this is –”
“Some guy you’re hitting on because you’re the best boyfriend, Strider, it’s you. I know you have nothing better to do all day but some of us have actual jobs to worry about.”
“Excuse me, I –”
Your comment is cut short when a cough echoes from the microphone, and Vantas practically gives himself whiplash turning towards the stage. You don’t see what’s so urgent.
You don’t know what it is about him, but it’s something. You’re not even that into music, but you don’t want this song to ever end. You cut out all sounds but his voice and run your gaze over every inch of him, lingering on his eyes, his mouth, his hands – oh, his hands on the piano, gentle on each key as though he is nursing it back to health. Five minutes ago, you would have bet the dented case was more beer than wood, but now he’s touching it like it is precious and beautiful, and in this moment you are inclined to agree.
“So I –”
Vantas begins to speak, and you guess he’s attempting to mutter although the volume is still a hair above normal speaking levels. You shush him without thinking, the same moment Dave does, and out of the corner of your eye you see an approving nod before your attention is back on him.
You wonder if there is some way to kiss a person which doesn’t require them to stop singing.
When the song ends, there is one long moment of silence and every part of you aches. Vantas and Dave begin clapping – Vantas quick and enthusiastic, Dave slow and half-sarcastic – but you just sit there, frozen. No-one else in the bar is even looking at the stage, and the new love of your life takes his hands off the piano and begins leafing through his music.
“Blaine Anderson. The finest piece of ass ever to book the shittiest timeslot McK’s can offer.”
Vantas sighs. “Celibate.”
“Trust us, it’s not because no-one’s offered.”
“I’d say he was fucking straight if it weren’t for the bow ties.”
“Bow ties?” You’re a little short on breath, and your head is far too fuzzy for one beer, and suddenly you decide that bow ties are the best thing ever.
“Those bow ties are the shit.”
“Strider, if we’re done introducing your latest fling to the biggest daily miracle since the days when the buses ran on time, I’m trying to tell you I have to head back to work in approximately three minutes ago. This new guy Chang never showed so we’re one man down unless I can find a replacement in the next two minutes.”
“Kurt will do it.”
A part of you wants to object, to point out that they know nothing about you and for all they know you could be a billionaire, but you bite your tongue and remind yourself that you aren’t, you’re some loser in a bar while the sun’s still out, and this could be the difference between staying in your shitty apartment and sleeping on the streets.
Vantas looks you up and down.
“Kid, how do you feel about having your soul ground down into sand and used as the litter for a thousand snobby purebred cats who eat nothing but curry and boiled cabbage?”
You shrug. “Does it pay?”
“Minimum wage, and the boss is a terrifying alien hellbitch.”
Vantas runs a hand through the black mess on his head, which has absolutely no effect on its overall appearance.
“Okay, fine, so –”
He falls silent abruptly as Blaine begins to sing again.
You take a millisecond to wonder over the song choice – because, really? The Beatles and Kelly Clarkson? – but then your mind is blank because he’s on his feet this time, and he can move. The song is barely danceable, but he leans into it, pulsing and swaying and clinging to the mic like it’s the only thing in this world that’s real, and this song might be cheesy as hell but you can see him meaning every single word.
You’re on your feet. For a moment, you think you just couldn’t help yourself, because your instinct is to move towards Blaine and never go away again, but Vantas was the one who pulled you off your stool and is tugging you towards the door.
“Fuck shit damn we have to leave now, get your ass moving.”
You follow reluctantly, looking back over your shoulder for as long as you possibly can. As you reach the door, you notice Dave, arms stretched out along the bar, finger tapping along with the beat, but head tilted slightly towards you – and then you are outside, with nothing but the echo of the song: “It’s not easy to tell you goodbye...”
Your bones ache like they are hollow inside.
You’re halfway to the subway station before you try talking. You consider waiting until you reach the subway – you’re struggling to keep up with Vantas, even though he’s a good three inches shorter than you – but it seems important to ask.
“Karkat,” he snaps. For a second you think you’ve blown it and in your mind you’re already back in your apartment wondering what went wrong this time, but he doesn’t say anything else, and you take a moment to slow your heart back to normal speeds, which isn’t easy when you’re half-running to keep pace.
“Karkat,” you repeat. “Where are we going?”
Clearly, V-Karkat doesn’t feel like talking, but you know the place. Everyone in town knows about that towering monstrosity – the first and largest of what was now a national chain of department stores. They price for the tourists and hire from the slums; working there is practically the definition of selling out – but right now, your artistic integrity is the last thing on your mind.
As you get on the subway and Karkat combines his continued refusal to acknowledge your existence with a sudden loss of his former tendency to monologue into a steaming heap of uncomfortable, you start wondering about ‘Vantas.’
You’re sure you heard Dave use the name – a nickname, perhaps? It might even be a pet name, if they really are boyfriends. Of course, boyfriends don’t normally hit on other guys or ogle bar singers together, but this city takes all types and if there’s one thing you’re sure of, it’s that neither of these two are normal. Besides, there’s something about the way they had moved around each other – as if you weren’t even there – which makes you certain they’re more than friends.
You hear a familiar tune, and realise Karkat is humming under his breath – the quietest sound you’ve yet heard him make. After a couple more notes, you identify it: the Kelly Clarkson song, and suddenly your head is full of Blaine’s voice again.
“I’ll spread my wings and I’ll learn how to fly.”
It had felt so right.
You realise you’re smiling at absolutely nothing, and force your expression blank again. It’s hopeless. You’ve never even spoken to Blaine. And apparently he doesn’t date. This is just some meaningless crush which will never get anywhere.
When you reach your stop it’s cold outside, and you barely register that thought before you’re shivering violently. Fortunately, Skaia is less than a block away, and the store is so packed full of people that the heat is overwhelming.
You follow Karkat to the Help Desk, where a black girl with a fixed smile is talking on the phone.
“No, I’m afraid we cannot allow animals in the store unless they are registered guide dogs. Not even falcons. Even if they’re trained. I’m sorry sir, it’s against company policy. Thank you for your enquiry, have a good day!”
The second the phone is put down, she scowls at the pair of you.
“People are idiots,” she declares.
“Jones, we need a new uniform here.”
She glances at you with the most suspicious look you’ve received in a long time.
“What happened to Mike?”
“He’s a no-show, for all I fucking know the fish queen lured him into her lair and let her larvae devour him whole.”
She rolls her eyes. “What goes on the nametag?”
Karkat glances at you, apparently only just realising he hasn’t asked your second name.
“Hummel,” you supply.
“You didn’t know?” Jones hisses. “Did you pick him off the streets or something?”
“No, I picked him up in a bar.” Karkat’s voice is dripping with sarcasm, but she isn’t fooled.
“You actually did, didn’t you? She’s going to murder you. You are going to be the first person ever to get stabbed through the chest in a department store.”
“That’s probably not true,” you say automatically. They both look at you, incredulous and confused. “Black Friday happens every year.”
The girl laughs. Karkat looks at you and rolls his eyes, which is quite possibly the least aggressive action he is capable of performing.
“Jones. Mercedes. Queen of all she surveys, who rules the first level with justice and kindness to all. You can fudge the books. She doesn’t have to know. Think of it as your own personal contribution to our country’s unemployment rates and the delicate ecosystem which is my perfectly balanced emotional state.”
She pauses. “I’m listening.”
Karkat leans forwards. “Do you know who Abrams left McK’s with last Saturday?”
She shakes her head eagerly.
“Well, you will if we make it through this shift with a full complement of staff.”
“If he shits on the floor, you’re cleaning it up.” She glares at Karkat one last time, then turns to you, beaming. “Welcome to the team, Kurt Hummel.”