Kurt and Blaine met at night, when it was too dark to see faces and quiet enough to memorize voices.
It started with Kurt walking home because he didn't have enough money for a cab and he was just buzzed enough that he was feeling spiteful about everything under the sun—or moon, in this case. Alcohol never did wonders for Kurt and some nights he wondered why he bothered drinking. This was one of those nights.
He was passing some of the empty warehouses a few blocks away from home sweet home when a clanking metal sound got his attention. Immediately alert, he checked his phone (turned on and silent) and his pepper spray (ready at hand and never been used), and his flashlight. Then he started to shuffle forward and took care to say in the lowest and loudest tone possible, “Hello—?”
His shoe bumped into something hard and he glanced down to see a can. A spray paint can.
Kurt fumbled for his phone, but a figure darted in the shadows on top of the warehouses, moving, moving, gone. Except not because a voice answered Kurt, a voice that sounded both terrified and exhilarated.
“From your friendly neighborhood street artist!”
Kurt was left standing in the dark with an abandoned spray paint can. He listened for any more stirrings in the blanketed silence that followed, but all he could hear was the thudding of his heart. The adrenaline was still pumping through his veins and the alcohol gave him enough liquid courage (or so he thought at the time) that Kurt found himself scaling the warehouses, trying to find where the mysterious street artist had been standing before. In the end, he held up his cell phone to serve as a meager source of light in order to see a bold red cartoon figure with a top hat and saucy wink, square teeth bared in a mischievous grin.
“Oh, it's you again,” Kurt muttered under his breath, but his lips quirked into a smile despite himself.
He snapped a few pictures with his phone, making sure to focus on the signature left behind by the man who had yelled back so cheerfully:
But earlier that day:
It wasn't that Kurt hated Starbucks; it was just that Starbucks was ridiculously overpriced.
But coffee was coffee, and Kurt was in a rush. He had no time to drive to the nearest and less hyped Peet's Coffee, so he ordered as quickly as he could, deciding to get a skinny mocha for himself and two orders of white chocolate mocha for Lauren and Sugar who were opening the store today. He listened to the strains of pop music playing, shifting the bag on his shoulder because it always felt unusually heavy early in the morning. It was a weekday, but early so that there weren't gaggles of teenage girls indulging in dessert coffees that they drank for fun because they hadn't yet learned that life. Was. Work.
So business-type people hemmed and hawed in front of and behind Kurt, and when his order was finally called, he came forward with relief written all over his face and evacuated the facility as soon as he could get a proper grip on the tray with all three drinks.
He sped through one red light for a small thrill and waited patiently at the others. By the time he arrived at Timeless, he could see that Lauren was setting up various displays inside of the store and Sugar was tinkering away at the cashier.
The bell above the door tinkled as he entered the store—his store. “Hello ladies,” he said gravely, his tone a contrast to his eyes which sparkled with amusement.
“Kuuuuuuurt!” Sugar cooed at him, snagging his arm and pulling him to the counter. “Kurt, I found these shirts in a thrift store yesterday and they only cost five bucks total. Five. Bucks. Only. Aren't they cute? They'll sell, don't you think?”
Kurt handed her a coffee, grimacing slightly as he scanned the shirts. “Sugar, you're very sweet, but you really didn't need to.”
Her reply was shrill and excited. “Oh, but I had to!” She winked and traipsed away to the back.
He stared after her, and then turned to Lauren who shrugged and reached for her own coffee. “I've tried explaining to her that the point of having a salary is so that you can spend the money for yourself, not on your work,” Kurt joked half-heartedly, and Lauren's normally bored and/or apathetic expression broadened into a smirk.
“Well,” she drawled, “what's on the schedule today, Hummel?”
“Same as usual.” He waved an airy hand, circling the racks on the store and inspecting the occasional jacket or scarf. “You ladies run this place as smoothly as the Gershwin Theatre and I find the products to pull in customers and hopefully your next pay raise, if all goes well.”
Lauren raised an eyebrow at him. “You ever want to change things up sometimes?”
“No,” Kurt said too quickly. “Not at all. Timeless is doing fine.”
“What about you?”
Kurt Hummel didn't do heart-to-heart talks this early in the morning, especially not in the middle of his own store which he had built up from the ground (metaphorically speaking, of course) with one of his coworkers who was usually more concerned with food than with other people's personal lives.
So he smiled at Lauren—oh, how disarming a smile could be—and said very firmly, “I'm doing fine too.”
Timeless was a vintage clothing shop.
Kurt used the term “vintage” loosely. The Kurt Hummel from high school turned his nose up at clothes that were less than genuine (even if he bought knock-offs more often than he would like to admit), but he had grown up and realized that money didn't grow on trees, and to top it all off, making his own livelihood was difficult enough that he realized his expensive taste wasn't helping matters. It went further than that, though. There was a time when he had refused to settle for anything that fell short of his standards because Kurt knew that he mattered. You didn't settle because you needed to shoot for the best. You were worth it. Kurt was worth it.
And he still was worth it. It was just that Kurt also learned to settle.
He found himself on his knees in the back room of his store, sorting through endless piles and bundles of clothes that he found in various trips around the area. He could buy dozens of T-shirts for paltry sums and then rework them, resell them. He looked for clothes that stood out, clothes with unusual stitching, clothes with bold patterns and funky decorations. He took these clothes and called them “vintage” for suckers who didn't know any better—but he made sure each shirt was unique and passable, so that had to count for something.
It wasn't just clothes either. There were shoes with ridiculous heels, necklaces with over-sized pendants, and even a gorilla costume that was more of a photo opportunity than a sale item. Kurt also frequented Etsy, selling ribbons and bows that he made with extra fabric and beads that he got at good prices from the dollar store owners who knew him by name. More often than not, he felt like a scavenger, searching for the occasional cocktail dress or flared jeans that he could adjust and personalize.
It was strange how people learned to settle for less, and yet here he was. He was on his knees, helping his store thrive, and he felt absolutely restless.
It was around noon when Lauren was about to take off to get lunch for them. Kurt volunteered instead, opting to walk toward a nearby deli that sold sandwiches and wraps he approved of. “I need the exercise anyway,” he said almost apologetically, but Lauren waved him off and Sugar gleefully told him to buy a soda for her.
It was true that Kurt needed to exercise more, but the lunch run was also an excuse to pass by the Wall.
The Wall was a bland expanse of gray that stretched nearly the entire length of the street two blocks away that he turned onto in order to reach the deli. The Wall would have been boring in of itself except that nearly every inch of it was covered in graffiti.
There were bubble letters, block letters, crooked letters. Kurt couldn't read most of the words that were spray-painted on the Wall, some of them painted with more skill than others, but there was something almost wholesome about it all. The sheer amount of color that burst in his vision, bold tints and shades that spread like flowers on an otherwise plain surface. The words and colors changed every now and then, but every day without fail, the Wall would be noisy and colorful and simply wonderful to Kurt. He knew that the police occasionally patrolled the area, hoping to catch one of the culprits at work, but the cops still had better things to do with their time and most graffiti artists seemed to be careful people.
Today was no exception. Kurt walked slowly past, eyes dancing over the bloated letters that didn't always make sense, when one work caught his eye. Squeezed between a lemon yellow display and a rainbow one was a funny little character.
It was stick-like and painted in black. It had a round head with little round eyes and a “X” for its mouth as if it didn't have words to say. Two little curly hairs (at least, Kurt thought they were hairs) sprouted from its head like antennae and its elongated line of a body was stretched until it split into two legs with round feet. Stick arms sprouted from the middle of its body and one arm clutched the string of a bright red balloon. The character seemed to look out at Kurt, wordless and puzzled-looking, like a bizarre animal watching a human watching it.
The balloon had a name on it like all of the other graffiti pieces. Kurt squinted, trying to read the black letters. “Curly Q,” he read.
The little stick man was...cute. For lack of a better word. It was strangely childish and playful in the midst of loud color, a simplistic sketch that seemed lost in its own world. He stood and looked at it for a long moment, noting its blank eyes and needle-thin fingers. Wondered about the artist behind the art, about eyes widened or narrowed with creative intensity, lips pursed, fingers tapping. About the clandestine affair of Man and Art.
But: “You're getting sentimental, Kurt Hummel,” he said to himself, and the words came out like a long sigh.
He moved past the Wall and Curly Q's curious art shifted to the back of his mind.
(Kurt remembered when he used to lie on his bed and pretend to be dead. He would fold his hands and close his eyes, trying to channel peace and stillness. Sometimes he would even have a flower.
Most times, he fell asleep.)
Ten years ago, Kurt Hummel entered high school and promptly decided that he hated everything about it on the very first day.
He hated his classes, filled with sleepers and gum-chewers. He hated many of his teachers who rarely looked as if they enjoyed being there. He hated the cafeteria with its greasy aura and mindless chatter. He hated the boys' locker rooms where one aimless gaze could mean death—in the metaphorical sense, at least.
But mostly he hated how he was resigned to another four years of crossing off days in the calendar, waiting until he could leave for somewhere bigger and better—a place that still only existed in abstract form, a castle in the clouds, but he was going to get there one way or another.
“Welcome to McKinley, fresh meat!”
Somehow he was going to get there, Kurt wiped slushy from his face, wincing from the cold and cruel hoots of laughter that echoed in the hallways.
It was then when he saw her. Or more specifically, he saw her ridiculously colorful knee socks and her big nose. It was Rachel Berry from his Literature and Writing class who didn't care much for John Steinback but went absolutely teary-eyed over Romeo and Juliet. It was Rachel Berry who talked a mile a minute and stared ahead as if there wasn't anything worth looking back on. Rachel Berry who wore blouses and sweaters that would look cute on little girls and adorable on old ladies, but appeared absolutely abominable on teenagers.
(A small note: she had no friends. Kurt had no friends. By default, they should be gathering up all of the losers in McKinley and forming some sort of loser circle that would ultimately make a triumphant victory of sorts. Except this was high school in real life and that kind of drama didn't happen.)
She was someone with tunnel vision, the kind of person his father had warned him about when he was teaching Kurt how to change a tire.
“It's not just about driving, Kurt.” Burt Hummel leaned on the car and touched the brim of his hat pointedly. “It's life. People with tunnel vision—well, they're gonna miss out on a lot if they don't change. They're not thinking about others, so they're not gonna think about themselves in the end.”
It was more than that, though. Rachel Berry had ambition.
Even more than that, she sang.
Kurt Hummel looked at the sign-up sheet for glee club. He never once considered joining when Sandy Ryerson had been director, but now he was gone. (Removed like a bad tooth, a dead battery.) Rachel Berry who had been one of the few students to sign up, the gold star sticker winking faintly at Kurt as if it were beckoning him.
But my voice. My voice. My voice is.
So he brooded in his room, sorting his scarves by color, and watched Rachel Berry sing on YouTube. He wondered what her audition song was. He wondered if it would be from a musical.
A musical like Les Miserables.
She had covered two songs from Les Miserables on her channel. He skipped “On My Own” because he didn't want to admit that it gave him a sharp pain, as most songs did, because it was a song sung by a woman to a man. Because it was a girl song and he never hesitated in singing girl songs, but today he was tired and he still smelled faintly of cherry slushy and his heart hurt because he had an inkling (no, stronger than an inkling; much stronger) that he wouldn't change the pronouns. He wouldn't want to.
He listened quietly, hands stilling, as Rachel's voice filled his room.
“I dreamed a dream in time gone by...”
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving...
When the song ended, he scrolled down to look at the comments. There were few, but the few that existed were shockingly offensive. They were probably from the jocks and Cheerios from school, the people who hated the Rachel Berrys of the world. People who hated the Kurt Hummels too, and as he read on (“no wunder ur adopted berry u screech lik a hag”), he thought that it would be better if he didn't join the newly formed glee club. No sense in involving himself with more targets like Rachel Berry. Never mind that they might share incredibly similar tastes in music. Never mind that she was a phenomenal singer for all the confidence she said. Never mind that sometimes he saw a lurking sadness in her eyes often mirrored in his own.
Never mind any of that because he was alone at McKinley and he wasn't going to pretend otherwise.
Others could emphasize, but no one would understand.
It was as simple as that.
Once, he imagined having a conversation with Rachel Berry in his mind. It was a different Rachel Berry, less manic and more calm. A more world-weary Rachel Berry, older and creased like a forgotten piece of paper. Actually, he didn't know if he had imagined or dreamed. Perhaps both.
“You are not alone, Kurt,” she said. More world-weary, but still so optimistic. It was sickening.
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you aren't—”
“Oh, I suppose you like to think otherwise because you have your ego and talent as lifelong companions,” he snapped then.
There was a flicker of dry amusement on her face. “I am talented,” she replied, “and I always believed that I was a star, and I am. But what I didn't know was that there are so many more stars in the world and I'm just one. I was so insignificant that I wanted to die because what did I have besides my voice? I was nothing without my voice.”
“But you made it.” He knew that, for some reason. The woman in front of him was successful—had been, at the very least.
“You don't know that yet."
“But you did.”
“But I learned. I learned that I could be special in a different way. I had experiences. I had people I loved. Making it didn't matter as much because even if I lost my voice, I would still have something.”
Kurt's voice wavered. “I'm not like you.”
“We're more alike than you think.”