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Near Misses

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Life is a series of happy accidents and near misses.

A woman forgets her keys and misses an audition for a role that would have made her famous. A young man picks a random class to fulfill a distribution requirement in college and is inspired to follow a whole new career path. A scientist accidentally leaves a petri dish open and discovers something that saves millions of lives.

Or the Browns keep their pool open an extra week, Puck catches Mrs. Brown’s cold, and he stays home sick for a day instead of being in school to suggest that Kurt should go to Dalton to spy on the Warblers as a way to make him stop trying to organize the week’s Glee Club assignment.

So Kurt doesn’t.

Two boys don’t meet on a staircase. They can barely be said to meet in high school at all.

Kurt Hummel doesn’t speak to Blaine Anderson beyond a polite handshake between competitors after New Directions wins the show choir Sectionals Kurt’s junior year. Blaine Anderson doesn’t notice Kurt Hummel beyond being impressed by his brief solo during the performance. Their eyes don’t linger on each other beyond an extra two seconds.

Kurt doesn’t confront Karofsky in the locker room, he doesn’t transfer from McKinley because his life isn’t explicitly threatened, and he doesn’t find acceptance and understanding in a gay friend and boyfriend. He doesn’t find companionship to ward off his loneliness and isolation. He doesn’t find love.

Blaine doesn’t gain a best friend who challenges him and sees through his carefully crafted exterior, he doesn’t learn about what it truly means to be in love, and he doesn’t transfer away from Dalton. He doesn’t find someone who accepts him for his insecurities and flaws. He doesn’t find himself.

One little change, a near miss instead of a happy accident.

Kurt Hummel and Blaine Anderson don’t become friends. They don’t become boyfriends. They don’t support each other through bullying, through proms, through fears and disappointments, through different schools, through reaching for their dreams, through the first fumbling steps of love and all that comes after.

They don’t become Kurt-and-Blaine.

This is what happens instead.

* * *

New York City, September 2013

Standing at the top of a short flight of granite steps, Blaine looked out over the quad, its manicured grassy green expanse covered by countless tables with colorful posters and banners and at least a hundred students meandering between them, and decided with a buzz of excitement that made his stomach flip that college was officially awesome. If this was just the new student activity fair where the various student organizations came out to try to encourage freshmen to join, he could only imagine all of the other opportunities he was going to have here beyond what was represented today.

Dalton had been nothing in comparison to what he saw here, and Dalton had been amazing. Dalton had given him the chance to be safe, the chance to shine, and the chance to spread his wings in so many directions.

Dalton had gotten him here, to college, to New York, and now the whole world was ahead of him. New opportunities. New friends. A whole city of guys who didn’t have a hidden agenda or fifteen, who could be honest about what they valued and wanted. Guys whose idea of fun wasn’t to manipulate, demean, and hurt the people around them for their own gain.

A whole city full of guys who weren’t Sebastian Smythe.

I can't believe you're getting that excited about New York, Blaine could hear Sebastian's bored drawl in his mind. That's so provincial it's not even cute. It's not like it's Paris or Singapore, Blaine. It's not even in a different time zone.

Blaine shook his head, pushed away those thoughts with a firm hand, and skipped down the steps to the quad. He wasn’t going to think about his ex-boyfriend. The pain of the way he'd felt in that relationship was all behind him. He'd learned from it, he was finally in college, and he was going to dive in. It was going to be incredible.

That was the whole point of being here: new experiences, new opportunities, and a new start without all of the baggage his last year and a half at Dalton had given him.

By the time he reached the last row, Blaine had collected a sizeable stack of papers and leaflets for groups that looked interesting, and he’d written his name and new college e-mail address down on sign-up sheets for the LGBT Alliance, the intramural Ultimate Frisbee league, the community outreach opportunity mailing list, and auditions for two a cappella groups. He passed by the sheets for the more traditional choral group and the flash mob society; he wasn’t going to have time for everything, not with homework, too. He kind of didn’t understand the point of an organized flash mob club, anyway, as fun as it sounded.

A neatly printed banner on a table near the end of the row caught his eye: The Independent Student Review: a student-run night of theater and music. A smaller sign on the tabletop read Show us why you’re a star! All majors and years are welcome!

Blaine drifted over and found himself drawn to the collage of photos that made up the center of the display on the table. There were shots of various students singing, dancing, and acting on what had to be one of the small stages in the school, and there were also a number of candid photos of guys and girls mugging for the camera backstage, putting on makeup, painting sets, and just generally having a good time. It looked like fun. It looked like a family. He had dozens upon dozens of pictures on his computer with a similar feeling from his first few years in the Warblers.

Still, he was a little confused. “I thought each department already held its own review,” he said to the student behind the table.

The young man looked up from the book he was reading and blinked at him with impossibly clear blue-green eyes. He seemed surprised Blaine had interrupted him, which was kind of odd because obviously he was there manning the booth so people could talk to him.

“They do,” he said. He had a light, musical voice and was wearing a pair of tight jeans, a long-sleeved charcoal shirt, and a fitted vest in a lighter shade of grey, despite the heat of the late summer day. A substantial and highly detailed brooch in the shape of two crossed rapiers was pinned to the vest over his heart. He gave Blaine an impersonal once-over from head to toe; Blaine felt suddenly under-dressed in his cargo shorts and polo shirt, and he was vaguely jealous of the boy's confidence in being set apart by his style. “This is for those of us whose talents either don’t fit into the tidy boxes set forth by the school’s academic divisions or are overlooked because we aren’t yet upperclassmen.”

Blaine hadn’t had to deal with feeling sidelined when he was first at Dalton, because he’d risen so fast in the Warblers, but it made sense. “What about those of us who just like to be on stage as much as possible?” he asked.

“That would be all of us.” The corners of the boy’s mouth lifted into a grin. It took a bit of the gloss off of his perfection and made him look real for the first time.

Blaine decided he was really going to like college if he was going to be able to spend time with attractive guys like this all day. He was going to have so many options. He wasn't going to get caught in the same trap he'd fallen for in high school, getting stuck in the stifling bonds of a relationship because he thought it was the only healthy way to express himself. Now he could just enjoy himself and be free.

“Well, then,” Blaine said, “sign me up." He picked up the pen and wrote his name and e-mail on the audition sheet with a flare of satisfaction at finding yet another group that shared some of his passions. Even if one or two of these clubs didn't pan out, he'd have other choices. It wasn't like there was only one place he could perform here, unlike at Dalton.

“Auditions are in two weeks; we’ll e-mail you the schedule and more information about it. Even if you don’t get a performance spot, we can always use more hands behind the scenes. It takes a lot to put this kind of show on.”

“Oh, I bet I’ll get a spot,” Blaine said with a wink and a confident grin he was determined to feel. He knew he was good at what he did. He’d kept his position as the front man of the Warblers, after all, despite everything that had happened with Sebastian; he had every chance of succeeding here, too.

The other boy’s smile disappeared as his eyebrows rose. “This may only be our second year, but competition will be fierce,” he said, cool once more. “You'll have to bring your A-game - “ He glanced down to read the sign-up sheet upside-down. “ - Blaine.”

Blaine automatically kept his smile in place and filed away his mis-step for future memory. Right. This wasn’t Dalton; he was going to have to build his reputation step-by-step, not just maintain it through hard work and pretending he wasn't worried. Performing in a student review his first semester seemed like a great way to start. “Thank you for the advice. I always do...” He raised his own eyebrows and held out his hand.

“Kurt.” They shook hands; Kurt’s skin was soft, but his grip was firm. “You’ll hear from Tina, our membership coordinator, within the week.” And with that Kurt went back to his book, dismissing Blaine without another word.

* * *

Blaine logged into Facebook to add a few new friends he'd made on his hall and found his timeline filled with pictures of familiar Warblers' faces in unfamiliar surroundings; they were moving into their new universities just like he was. There were names he didn't know already commenting on their posts and tagged in their photos. Something in his chest tightened uncomfortably, like he was being left out, even though that was ridiculous because he couldn't be left out of other people moving into their own dorms across the country. He couldn't be left out by them at all anymore.

Squaring his jaw, he uploaded the picture he and his roommate, Rob, had taken that morning of themselves sitting in their open window with cups of coffee raised in a toast. He was settling in, too. He was moving forward. He life wasn't only about the Warblers anymore, and that was a good thing.

* * *

The first organization to send Blaine a welcoming e-mail was the LGBT Alliance the next day; they were having an informal gathering that night for the new freshmen hosted by the older students who were around for sports or activity pre-season.

Blaine thought it was a smart idea, actually, given that going to a big new school had to be daunting for most kids, and new roommates who might not be tolerant could add another stress. Rob seemed cool about it, but then Blaine had been clear on his housing forms about his orientation.

So even though Blaine wasn’t worried about being out in a new place, he decided to go to show his support of the organization. Besides, the only person he knew in New York was Wes a few years ahead at Columbia, so it was time to make some new friends. It would be good to connect with other gay students, too. He just hoped he wouldn't seem too small-town in comparison; Sebastian had certainly laughed at him about being unworldly more times than Blaine could count. Blaine had no idea if he was going to make a fool of himself without even knowing it.

He'd just have to be friendly, watch what other people were saying and doing, and hope for the best.

The meeting was being held in one of the activity rooms in the student center, known as the Union, and the bland inspirational posters and selection of soft drinks and cookies on the side counter reminded Blaine of his church youth group gatherings from middle school. The people in the room, though, did not. There were about a dozen students sprawled on the couches and on the floor, and there was room for plenty more. Most were in shorts and t-shirts, but the girl with the spiked magenta hair and the guy wearing a batik caftan with dreadlocks halfway down his back made it clear just how far away from high school in Ohio Blaine was. It was a whole new world.

Maybe he had been naïve in high school, but he could tell he wasn't going to be for long.

Blaine’s smile was genuine with his excitement as one of the boys got up from a chair by the door and came over, his hand extended. “Hi. I’m Peter,” he said. He was tall and had hair as fair as straw with bangs that threatened to fall into his eyes. He flicked them back with a toss of his head.

“Blaine.” He shook Peter’s hand.

“Are you here for the LGBT Alliance?”

“Yes. Am I in the right place?”

Peter smiled at him and replied, “You are. Come on. Let me introduce you around before everybody else shows up and all anyone wants to talk about is what and who - and what with who - they did over the summer.”

The mention of “what with who” made Blaine laugh with the surprise of it, because Blaine’s friends at Dalton had been completely open to his orientation and still had never wanted to hear details, and Peter said, “Oh, you can’t even imagine the amount of gossip you’re going to hear tonight. Just nod, smile, laugh in the right places, and try to remember it all; there won’t be a quiz, but I promise you it’ll come in handy later. In a month, you’re going to thank me when you’ve managed to avoid some of the crazier guys around here.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Blaine said.

“I’m happy to help out.” Peter’s smile lingered just a little longer than necessary, and Blaine felt a familiar prickle of awareness flit up his spine. He was used to it from Sebastian or the guys who’d danced with him when the two of them had been out at a club, but it was nice from a cute college guy, too. It was good to be sure he’d have options here in New York, no matter that he was only from Ohio.

Peter was right that Blaine heard a ton of stories about people he didn’t know over the course of the next few hours as he drank generic soda and chatted with the other students; he wasn’t sure who Hunter was, but after the first thirty minutes in the company of the upperclassmen he was sure he wanted nothing to do with him. Most of the people there were new freshmen, though, and it was comforting to find himself around other students who were finding their world was suddenly so much bigger than it had been in high school.

In fact, it was eye-opening to him how many opportunities he’d had at Dalton that even kids from more liberal states hadn’t been able to experience. He’d been able to be out in high school, he’d had a boyfriend, and he’d had sex. Dalton had given him all of that. He wasn’t the only one by a long shot who had that sort of history coming into college, but some of them were just dipping their toes into the water of being able to be out without too much fear. He wasn’t behind the curve. He'd be able to fit in.

That unexpected realization was such a relief that it was even easier to shrug off the ghost of Sebastian's disdain, relax, and talk with all of the new people around him.

By about ten o’clock, students started drifting out, and when Becca, a tiny and intensely perky freshman who shared his passions for pop music and the films of Ewan McGregor, yawned her excuses and said she should get back to bond with her roommates, Blaine looked around and noticed most of the people sitting around were the older members of the group. He figured they were staying for the new students, so he stood up and threw his cup in the trash. He didn’t want to keep them.

“Hey,” Peter said, breaking off from a group when Blaine passed by on his way to the door. “Thanks for coming tonight.”

“Thanks for having us. It was nice to be able to meet other students like this.”

“And you were great. I mean, a lot of us were really nervous our first time here. It was a big deal. But you weren’t, and you made people comfortable.”

Blaine shrugged at the compliment, a little uneasy by it because he hadn’t been doing anything but showing an interest. “Thanks. I guess I just like meeting people.”

Peter glanced over at the other students, who were starting to gather up their belongings. “Look, we’re going back to Jason’s room to hang out for a while. There’ll be some beer and stuff, but it’s not really a party. Just a chance to hang out, catch up, be little looser than we can be here. You’re welcome to come.”

Blaine kept the smile easy on his face, even though he felt a surge of satisfaction at being included. College was already so much better than his last year at Dalton. “I wouldn’t want to intrude or - “

“Nah, you aren’t. You won’t even be the only freshman. But no pressure,” Peter assured him, and he really did seem to mean it. “I know it’s a lot of new people, a lot to take in.”

“No, that sounds great.”

So Blaine ended up in a group of about fifteen students in a two-room upperclassmen’s suite. Jason’s roommate hadn’t moved in early for pre-season, so the bare extra bed and desk became seating and a makeshift bar for a bunch of cheap beer. Blaine took a bottle when it was offered to him, and by the time he was halfway through his second he’d made friends with Jason, who was one of the leaders of the Alliance, Meg and Julie, a lesbian couple with the kind of unexpectedly raunchy sense of humor that shocked him as much as it made him laugh, and Tim, the student with the caftan who was somehow Pre-Med. They were all so easy to talk to, and even when he didn't understand their stories from past years Blaine found himself laughing along or storing up lessons for the future.

Blaine excused himself from Tim when his bottle was empty, and he met Peter at the desk-bar. “Hi!” he said, smiling widely at his new friend as the room swam a little around them. He was making lots of new friends. He liked friends, especially when they seemed to like him back. Even beer was better in college, probably because of the warmth of the company if not the kind of sticky warmth of the room. He took a drink from his newest bottle. “Thanks for inviting me.”

“Having fun?” Peter asked.

“Yeah. You guys are great,” Blaine replied. They were. They were all cool people, they were out, and they were even better than Blaine had imagined college kids could be when he’d been lying in his bed at home at night, sad and frustrated.

“Yeah, we are.” Peter’s eyes sparkled, and the room seemed to glow around him from the beer in Blaine's system. He loved that, how when he was drinking everything seemed that much better, like he could ignore all of the bad stuff and just focus on the things he liked the most.

“This is way more fun than the couple of PFLAG meetings I went to in Ohio.”

“Yeah, I never went to one of those where they served beer.” Peter raised his bottle, and he and Blaine toasted each other before drinking.

“Where did you grow up?”

“Connecticut,” Peter replied. “Eastern Connecticut. The uncool part. The NASCAR part.”

“I don’t think there’s any cool part of Ohio.” Blaine thought for a second. “Maybe Columbus. Parts of it.”

“And that’s why we all came to New York. To be somewhere cool.”

“With beer.” They toasted again. This was also way better than a night out at Scandals, if only because there were no sad-looking drag queens and older guys drooling over Sebastian, who sure had never stopped them.

“So... did you leave behind a boyfriend, Blaine-from-Ohio?” Peter asked.

“No. I had one, but - “ Blaine shrugged; he didn’t want to think about Sebastian, and he sure didn’t want to talk about him. It would only tarnish how nicely the night was turning out. “It ended badly. The whole thing was kind of bad, actually, in retrospect. But he’s long behind me. I’m a free man.” It felt good to say it. It felt even better to be it, like his heart was floating in his chest and his feet were an inch off the ground. “Totally free," he said with a laugh he couldn't quite hold back.

Peter smiled, and his eyes dropped to Blaine’s mouth for a long moment. Blaine could feel his heartbeat begin to race at the attention. He knew what it meant, and that felt good, too. Someone wanted him. Peter, who was cute and nice and not Sebastian, wanted him. “Well, then. Want to walk me to my dorm?”

Blaine pushed off from the wall and said, “Sure.”

They didn’t have sex as soon as they got to Peter’s single. They split a can of soda and talked for a while, Peter played him an EP of his favorite unsigned local band, Blaine told him about singing with the Warblers, they discussed dining halls and dorm room design, and then Peter very gently pushed him back down on the bed and got his mouth on Blaine's throat and his hand in Blaine’s shorts.

Blaine ignored any lingering voices from the past and very, very happily went with it.

Forty-five minutes later, Blaine pulled his clothes back on, his body loose and warm from the excellent handjob, and he smiled down at Peter, who was still lying naked on his messy bed. “Thanks,” Blaine said, leaning down for another kiss that turned into something more sultry and dirty than he expected. A part of him considered staying for more, because he loved kissing, and if it turned into more...

No. More was a dangerous thought. The tempting idea of more leading to Peter’s mouth wrapped around him wasn’t enough to stave off the flash of panic at the idea of things getting any more complicated between them. They’d had fun, and now it was time to go. That was the whole point. That was what they both wanted. They hadn't talked about anything more. They'd made no promises beyond a temporary yes. That was it. A temporary, healthy, safe mutual connection. It was simple when he thought of it like that.

“Yeah,” Peter replied with an easy smile when he let his hands release Blaine’s hair. “That was great. Any time you want to take the edge off, text me.”

Blaine patted his pocket to make sure he had his wallet and phone and tried not to show any of the anxiety that spiked through him at the offer. He didn't - he couldn't - he didn't want - not again, not after -

“Thanks,” he said with his politest smile to cover the panic, because he didn't want to be in any way hurtful, “but I’m really not looking for anything serious.”

“Yeah, neither am I.”

Much of Blaine’s worry lifted; he hadn’t read the initial situation wrong. This was just friendly. This was just fun. That was what he wanted. “Great. I’m sorry if that sounded rude.”

Peter laughed and shook his head. “That’s sweet,” he said and had no idea how much unwelcome bitterness flooded through Blaine at hearing that word. It was never a compliment. “Don't worry about it. See you ‘round, Blaine. Welcome to New York.”

Blaine let himself out, and as he walked down the city street toward his own dorm the tension lifted from his shoulders. He couldn’t contain his grin. Yes, Peter had been hot and had done amazing things with his hands, but Blaine had also just proven to himself that he could get what he wanted out of college.

One good thing he'd learned from Sebastian was that he liked sex. He liked guys - the way they looked, the way they felt, the way they tasted and smelled and sounded. He was gay, he was proud of it, and he liked expressing it. He didn’t want to be a monk and give all that up.

But the last thing he wanted was another relationship. He didn’t want the tension. He didn’t want the oppressive burden of trying to make another person happy. He didn't want to let anyone down. He didn’t want to feel judged, like he couldn’t measure up, or like a stepping stone. He didn't want to give his heart to another person who didn't want it or him, not who he really was. He didn't want to play that game again. What little he'd get from it wasn't worth it.

And now that he was in New York with so many guys who didn't have an agenda beyond wanting to have a good time the same way he did, he didn’t have to do anything but enjoy himself. And he had. Peter had, too. Blaine wasn't going to get hurt, and neither was anyone else. It was so simple, the way it should be. He was free.

College was going to be great.

* * *

“No,” Kurt told Tina.

“But - “

“No.” He adjusted his tie in the mirror above his dresser and sprayed his hair again to keep it in place; the air was thick and humid in the way only the very end of the summer in New York City could be, and he wasn't going to let it get the best of him. Just because he'd spent the summer in the black hole of style that was Lima didn't mean his personal standards had relaxed any.

“Kurt, I just got to New York four days ago,” she said from her spot on his bed. He was going to have to straighten it before he left for class; he hated coming back to rumpled bedding. “I’m barely moved in. I can’t find my way around campus without a map. How am I supposed to run the auditions alone?”

“You don’t have to do it alone,” he said, “but I can’t help you. Ask Angelica. Ask Ben. No, don’t ask Ben, he’ll just pick the cute girls again like he tried to last semester.” He opened his top drawer and pulled out his antique inlaid box of brooches. “But if the Review is going to succeed then a) I can’t do everything on my own and b) I can’t be accused of playing favorites. The only person you’re friends with is me, and since I’m the head of the thing I’m obviously going to be on stage.”

“But - “

Kurt held up a pin in the shape of a spider to his shirt and considered his reflection. The pin had a low profile but was almost the size of his hand and needed to be placed just so. He inched it up closer to his shoulder, where it looked like it was crawling down his chest. Its delicate chain web draped beautifully against the steely blue of his Marc Jacobs shirt. Perfect.

“Ask Angelica,” Kurt told her as he fastened the pin in place. “She’s nice, for some definition of nice that includes being insanely bitchy without warning. And she won’t try to use her power to find a date. Unlike Ben. If he weren’t a genius with lighting, I would get rid of him in a heartbeat.”

Tina tightened the laces of one of her Fluevog boots and leaned back on her hands. “I think he’s sweet.”

“Only because he knows about Mike. And I may have embellished Mike’s resume to be a black belt in karate as well as a dancer.”

She laughed.

Kurt glanced at her in the mirror and rolled his eyes at her naivety; she'd have a lot to learn in New York about the people around them. “I only wish I were kidding. Ben took one look at you last spring when you came to visit and was about to go full stalker, complete with creepy photo shrine and night vision goggles.”

“Really?”

“Mmm.” He reconsidered the excitement in Ben’s eyes when Kurt had told him Tina was going to join the Review. “Maybe I should have said Mixed Martial Arts instead.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Tina said.

“Creepy stalker photo shrine,” Kurt told her again, turning to face her. "It wouldn't even be one of the artistic collages with black and white photos taken with a telephoto lens; it would be one of the ones with words scribbled all over blurry iPhone pictures with a lipstick he stole from your purse." He paused thoughtfully. "Although, given Ben's talents, it would be perfectly lit by a trio of mini-spotlights suspended from the ceiling."

“My mom got me some pepper spray before I came; I’m not worried.”

“Ah yes, the 'Have Fun in New York Starter Kit'. My dad put a loaded Leatherman because I wouldn't have room for a toolbox, five rolls of quarters for laundry, and about a hundred really embarrassing pamphlets in mine.”

Tina laughed, though there was an interested gleam in her eyes that sent a chill up his spine. Good thing he'd tucked those pamphlets away early last year. “I got The Talk again, but also pepper spray, a rape whistle, and a pocket subway map.”

“Like you didn’t already have the app on your phone.” Kurt had given her a detailed list of everything she'd need for the move as soon as she'd been accepted to the school, but even if he hadn't he was sure she could have figured that one out, at least.

“They meant well. I can't really get upset about anything now that I'm back in the same place as Mike,” she said. “This last year was hard, but now we’re both in New York.”

He sank down in his desk chair to pull on his knee-high Docs, smoothing his jeans into place before zipping up the boots. “At different schools,” he reminded her.

“Close enough. I mean, I can go to his dorm party tomorrow night instead of just hearing about it after.”

“Or seeing the embarrassing pictures on Facebook.”

“Exactly. I might even be in some.” He huffed a laugh at her enthusiasm at becoming a part of the blackmail-worthy photograph industry of the college party scene, and she bounced up to her feet and leaned halfway over him to peek out his tiny window. “So what if Mike and I aren't at the same school? We’re here. Together.”

Kurt couldn't be immune to her joy, and he smiled watching her.

He was happy for her. He was. She’d been one of his few real friends in high school - one of his few real friends ever - and he wanted the best for her. If she was happy being in New York and more or less reunited with her boyfriend, then he was happy, too.

Besides, there was a real comfort in having her in his room not just visiting a prospective college. She'd be around all year. Even if they weren't going to share classes, they'd have the Review, coffee dates, and brunch with Rachel. It felt good to know he'd have another friend in New York, someone he knew liked him. Not enough people liked him, even here, for that not to be incredibly valuable… even if he wished he could teach her some of the lessons he'd learned through painful trial and error his first year so she could avoid some of the same stumbles.

Tina was different than he was, though, and she had Mike. Maybe she wouldn't make the same mistakes.

“Hey, do you want to go to the party with me?” she asked, turning toward him. Her long hair brushed his cheek before she stood. “Come meet some new people at Tisch.”

“No, thank you," he replied without a second's thought, his smile dropping in an instant. It wasn't even an option.

She put her hand on his shoulder and said gently, “Mike says everyone is really open, Kurt. Nobody would give you a hard time. It would be okay.”

“I’m not worried about that,” Kurt told her. “This isn’t Lima. I don’t get hassled often, at least not like that.”

“Then why not come? I bet there will be tons of cute theater boys...” She gave him an encouraging smile.

Kurt shook his head in reply and stood up to gather together the things he’d need for the day. He had to stop by the theater for his work schedule, drop off his amended vocal study slip at the registrar’s office, see if he could pin down the rehearsal space for the Review if Darlene would ever call him back -

“Come on, Kurt, why not?”

He sighed and put his bag down on his bed to tuck everything into place inside. “First, Rachel texted me something about rushing Book of Mormon again on Friday, so staying up partying the night before is a recipe for a night without sleep or a proper skincare regimen and dozing off during the second act. Second, I’ve met tons of cute theater boys over the past year. And cute econ boys. And cute pre-law boys. And cute boys of pretty much every major under the sun. Even after being stuck for the summer in the oppressive backwater of Lima, I just don’t want to meet more boys. The novelty of being hit on - and it was quite a novelty, as you well know - wore off by about last November.”

“Isn’t it flattering?” she asked, sitting back on the edge of his mattress. “I mean, I know you haven’t found someone you really like but... it has to be kind of nice after high school, right?”

Kurt thought about it, about how amazing it had been to arrive in New York and find himself in the company of countless young gay men who not only weren’t repulsed by him but actually thought he was attractive, about how exciting and enlightening his first reciprocated flirtations and sexual experiences had been, and about how empty it had all felt when he got over the heady thrill of being able to express himself and realized that very little of the interest had been about him at all. They liked how he looked, sure, but they didn’t care about who he was.

He'd realized none of the attention had actually been about him, and it hurt. The talk his dad had given him before he went off to college still rang in his ears; he mattered, and he wanted to matter. Maybe it was stupid, but he did.

“It’s tiring,” he said at last. “I still can’t have what I want from them. And when I take what I can get...” He shrugged and went back to packing. He didn’t want to think about how miserable and cheapened it made him feel when he gave into the more desperate parts of himself and reached out for what was on offer.

“Yeah, you never sound happy on those walk of shame phone calls.” She was quiet for a moment and then said more brightly, “At least now that I’m here we can go out for breakfast and commiserate in person!”

Despite himself, Kurt started to laugh, because she sounded so happy about being a part of his least proud moments. “I’ll even buy.”

“That’s a deal.” She twisted up on her knees and put her arms around him; he hugged her back, a little reluctant but also relieved. Rachel was a better friend now that she was at NYADA and they weren’t in competition, but her empathy wasn’t consistent. Tina might have understood him less well at his core, but she expressed her love more. He could count on her. He’d missed that.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” he said into her hair as he squeezed her tightly.

“Me, too.”

“And not just because you’re taking the auditions off of my hands.”

“Oh, god, Kurt.” She pushed him away and flopped back onto his bed. “I still don’t know how you got me to agree to that.”

He smoothed his bangs up into place and said with a grin, “I’m nothing if not determined.”

* * *

By Tuesday evening, Blaine had thirty-eight new friends on Facebook, a sore shoulder from a fall in Ultimate, a friendly but bitter rivalry with Lilah down the hall on Words With Friends, a first-name relationship with the TA in his Intro to Poli Sci class, a favorite table in the dining hall, and the number of the student worker who’d helped him find his Econ 101 books at the bookstore.

The boy had been charming and had had a great smile, but it wasn’t until Blaine saw a picture from last year’s Warblers’ Retreat on Trent’s Wall with Sebastian standing behind him, an arm slung around his waist, that Blaine decided to text Aaron. It was only polite to thank him for his help by taking him out for a cup of coffee at the Union, after all.

And if Aaron invited Blaine to the party he was throwing at his apartment that weekend, well, that was great, too. It would give him something to look forward to while he started on his reading for class.

Blaine was glad he was used to the busy Dalton schedule, because there was just so much to do in college.

* * *

From: Carole Hudson-Hummel
To: Kurt Hummel
Subject: Re: My Burberry Camel and Chocolate Plaid Wool Scarf

Dear Kurt,

I found your scarf in the back of your closet (the pictures you attached were helpful, thank you, and you look very handsome in it!), and I sent it to you Priority this morning; Helen at the Post Office said you ought to have it by Thursday.

Don't be mad that I tucked a box of those chocolate-dipped cookies you like in there, too. (I wrapped the scarf in a plastic bag in case of any melting, don't worry.) You already looked tired enough to break this mother's heart on Skype this week, and this is the best hug I can fit in the mail.

Don't work yourself too hard, honey. We're proud of you.

Love,
Carole.

 

From: Kurt Hummel
To: Carole Hudson-Hummel
Subject: Re: My Burberry Camel and Chocolate Plaid Wool Scarf

Dear Carole,

Thank you; the scarf arrived this morning.

I have hidden the cookies away in the bottom of my desk so that my hall-mates can't smell the sugar from the hallway and try to break into my room like the slavering zombies they are when it comes to sweets. They are my hug, and I'm not sharing.

I'm here to work hard, but if I'm looking tired over Skype I'm going to have to take extra care with my skin care this week. Thank you for telling me. :)

Love,
Kurt

* * *

On Friday afternoon, Kurt walked into his dorm room and let the door shut behind him with a solid thud. He didn’t turn on his lights or set his phone in its charger, just let his bag drop to the floor before he fell on his back onto the perfectly made bed. The tail of his champagne-colored crocheted scarf bounced up with the impact and covered his face, and he flicked it away. The lights of the city outside of his window painted the room in garish stripes of color, like an urban zebra print.

He’d have to remember that idea for a future outfit, he thought to himself before he closed his eyes. Urban zebra print. Urban safari. Something like that.

He was exhausted. He’d had back-to-back classes for two days straight, and it was clear that they were going to be harder than last year. His Shakespeare class had started right in on Richard III, his movement class had been strenuous enough he’d pulled something in his neck he couldn’t quite stretch out, and his vocal professor had immediately taken a dislike to him, as far as he could tell. It was nothing he couldn’t overcome - he’d dealt with worse - but it was discouraging. When he looked at their syllabi, all he saw was harder work ahead. And then there was the Review, which still didn’t have a rehearsal space.

All that and his new shoes apparently weren’t properly broken in, so he’d rubbed the start of a blister on his toe. Plus he was hungry, and he didn’t have anything in his room besides Carole's cookies and the organic instant noodles he kept in case of late night emergency or the flu. He didn’t even want to consider the sodium in the noodles, but he just didn’t have the energy to walk to the dining hall.

He knew he could call Rachel and complain, and Tina would probably even bring him food if he reached out, but it seemed pointless. He could do this. He just needed to rest a little, work out the knot in his neck, and he’d be as good as new.

There was laughter in the hallway as a group of girls walked past his door, probably on their way to dinner. He didn’t know his hall-mates well enough yet even to guess who they might be.

Kurt took a deep breath and let it out slowly. All summer, he’d been dreaming of getting back to New York from the stifling, fashion-barren world of Lima and back to where he belonged. It had been torture having to deal with the looks he’d gotten walking down the street or sitting with friends. All he’d wanted was to get back to New York. Except now that he was here with the work piling on and millions of New Yorkers living their busy lives all round him he was missing his dad and Carole. He was missing Finn. He was missing the easy love of sitting around the kitchen table or mocking the latest season of The Voice with his family. He was missing belonging.

Not that he belonged in Ohio, not anywhere but in his house, and some days he didn’t fit there, either. He’d fought so hard to get free. And yet, New York wasn’t everything he wanted it to be. He wasn’t at NYADA. He wasn’t the rising star of his own program, not yet. He wasn’t automatically understood and loved by everyone he met, the expectation he’d clung to when he was making his way through his days at McKinley one cutting remark and slam into a locker at a time. He still had so fucking far to go.

“It doesn’t matter,” he muttered to himself, and he pushed himself up to a sitting position. “I got to New York without that, and I’ll conquer it the same way. Then I’ll worry about the rest.”

Still, he slipped off his shoes and tucked them away before digging out his noodles. He could handle one sodium-rich meal. Drinking an extra quart of water was more appealing than putting on his game face and going out in public again.

And if he sent an e-mail to make a lunch date with Tina and Rachel for the next week to catch up on everything, that was just being a good friend.

* * *

Thanks to the GPS on his phone and a very helpful young woman in the subway, Blaine was ten minutes early to the coffee shop Wes had chosen because of its location roughly halfway between their two campuses and close to a subway stop. The shop itself was clean and modern but nothing special - one chain looked much like another - but he got himself a latte (some part of him still cringed to order it skim with an extra shot and extra foam because it was Sebastian who’d encouraged him to liven up his order, but he was used to drinking coffee that way by now) and a regular drip for Wes and took a seat facing the door. He smiled when he opened the lid; the barista had swirled the foam in the shape of a fern leaf. He loved that.

Despite it being a grey day, Blaine felt good. He was getting the hang of the city, and if his array of intro classes wasn’t lighting his world on fire he knew he was going to learn a lot and start figuring out what field he wanted to pursue. He’d also gone out with the LGBT Alliance again last night, and he’d met a cute guy named Scott who’d turned out to be really funny as well as having a great body. They’d had tons of fun at the trivia night at the bar before they’d gone back to Scott’s apartment.

Well, Blaine thought as heat rose on his cheeks, they’d barely made it into the apartment before he’d given into the desire to pin the very agreeable Scott against his front door, but that’d been pretty amazing, too.

“Blaine!”

Blaine’s head jerked up, and he smiled broadly as Wes threaded his way through the tables toward him. He got up and gave his old friend a tight hug before settling back down into his chair. It had been a couple of years since they'd been in the same place, and he felt a flutter of nerves and a sense of rightness to be sitting across from him again like they had so many times over lunch or coffee at Dalton.

“It’s great to see you. Did you have any problem finding the place?” Wes asked. He took the cup with a nod of thanks and grabbed a packet of sugar from the crock on the table.

“Not at all," Blaine replied. "I think I’m getting the hang of the subway. And I got a girl’s number.”

“A girl’s?” Wes looked up from stirring his coffee.

Blaine laughed a little self-consciously. “Well, it seemed rude to tell her I was gay after she’d been so helpful.”

“As opposed to not calling her?”

“Hey, it’s New York. Lots of people don’t call people,” Blaine said. “But it felt more rude to refuse to take her number.”

Wes chuckled. “I see you’re settling in already.”

“I think so,” Blaine said, surprised but very pleased by the thought. So far everything seemed to be going well. He was making friends, going to his classes, and not stumbling into repeating past mistakes.

“Good. So, Warbler Blaine,” Wes said with a nod and an ironic twist of a smile, “tell me about your first two weeks of college. Are you enjoying it so far?” He lifted his paper coffee cup in a salute.

“It’s great,” Blaine replied, stretching his legs out as far as he could under the small table; he’d played a hard game of Ultimate Frisbee the day before, and his muscles were still sore. “My roommate is pretty cool, and I can live with the fact that he wants me to listen to music with headphones if it means I don’t have to room with someone like Gus down the hall, who smokes pot all day and hasn’t showered since he got here, as far as we can tell.”

“The freshman roommate lottery is like Russian Roulette isn’t it?” Wes said. “Mine was a Bio major who kept bringing things home from his anatomy lab. Like eyeballs.”

“Animal eyeballs? Or...?” He couldn’t bring himself to say ‘human’.

“Does it really matter?”

Blaine didn't have to think about that for more than a second. “No, not really. So how’s life as an upperclassman again?”

“Busy," Wes replied. "I declared an Econ and East Asian Studies double major, so I’m swamped with a ridiculous amount of work. At least it’s interesting. And then around that and rehearsals for the Kingsmen I’m an RA, which means I’ve got thirty-five bright-eyed freshmen to try to keep out of trouble.” He looked at Blaine and narrowed his eyes. “Hmm. Thirty-six.”

“Hey, since when did I get into trouble?” Blaine asked, leaning back in his chair and flashing his show smile.

Wes didn't smile back. “Just because I graduated at the end of your sophomore year doesn’t mean I didn’t hear things, Blaine.”

“Oh.” Blaine's good mood vanished. He looked down at his coffee for a minute and wished a sip of it could erase the taste of shame in his mouth; he’d kind of hoped that Wes would be part of the clean slate New York was offering him. “Most of that wasn’t me.”

“I’m sure very little of it was,” Wes said. “But that’s behind you now.” It was almost but not quite a question.

“Yes. Definitely yes,” Blaine replied quickly. It was. He wanted it to be. “So far behind me I can’t even see him in my rear view mirror.”

Wes watched him thoughtfully.

Blaine sighed and toyed with his cup. He very deliberately did not let himself rehash all of the foolish things he’d done with and for Sebastian. He couldn’t; it would swallow him up. “Look, I was stupid, but I’m over that. I learned my lesson. And I don’t think I hurt the Warblers... or anybody but myself, really.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” Wes said with a dry edge to his voice that Blaine couldn’t decipher. “Anyway, that was high school, and even compared with someplace like Dalton college is quite different.”

“It really is. I mean, if nothing else there are a lot more people and places to meet them.”

Wes laughed as he sipped his coffee. “I was talking more about academics and opportunities, but your point is true, too. I’m sure you’ll make a lot of friends. You always have.”

“I have already. My Ultimate team is awesome, and I’m hoping to get into one of the a cappella groups on campus.”

“You might have to stand in the background and sing harmonies your first year or two, you know,” Wes reminded him with more than a touch of humor in his eyes.

“I know,” Blaine said. "And that’s why I'm also auditioning for this student theater review today. That way I can be front and center.” He tried his show smile again, and this time Wes chuckled and shook his head.

“I see you have your priorities in order.”

Blaine grinned back, because he knew the semi-parental tone was just how Wes showed he cared. He'd really missed Wes. “I’m going to my classes, Wes. I’m doing my homework. And I’ve actually been spending a lot of time with the LGBT group; Peter was saying they volunteer at a youth center on the weekends, and I’m thinking of going.”

“Peter?” Wes asked with a pointed lift of his eyebrow.

“No,” Blaine told him. “It’s not like that. He’s a friend. Um. Sort of.”

Wes’s eyebrows went even higher.

“No, he is. We’re not - “ Blaine rubbed his hand over the back of his neck and cleared his throat. He had no real idea how to explain that they’d hooked up the once but actually seemed to like hanging out in a group; he wasn’t ashamed of his behavior, but it was Wes. Wes, who had always felt like the epitome of a Dalton gentleman. Wes, who had taken him under his wing and who he'd wanted so badly not to disappoint.

“It’s your business, not mine. Just tell me you’re being smart, Blaine.” Wes leaned back in his chair, his eyes intent on Blaine’s face.

Blaine nodded. “I am. Really. I believe in safe sex. A hundred percent.”

“That’s good, obviously, but I’m not just talking about that. I remember the Gap Attack. I know how hard you fall.”

“Oh, god.” Blaine leaned his elbow on the table and buried his face in his hand. It had hardly been his finest hour, and he’d had a lot of bad hours. Even if Jeremiah had liked him, a public spectacle like that was totally the wrong way to get a guy. He knew that now. He'd never make that kind of mistake again. “I’m not that kid anymore, Wes.”

“Blaine - “

“Come on, Wes," he begged, "let’s talk about something other than how much of an idiot I’ve been. I’m being smart. And I’m in New York. Let’s talk about how cool college is, how cool the city is.”

“All right,” Wes said, but the concern didn’t immediately leave his eyes. “Tell me more about this student review you think you’re going to star in.”

* * *

By that afternoon, the heavy clouds had opened up with a steady warm rain, and Blaine was soaked from his topsiders to his unruly hair. He hadn’t even thought of looking at the weather when he’d left in the morning, but now he was regretting it. Rain was rain as it fell, but in Ohio it didn’t run in rivers down the sidewalks and splash up to his ankles when he stepped off of the curb. It didn’t make the subway smell damp and unpleasantly earthy. It didn’t make trash float like little germ-ridden boats toward the storm drains.

Blaine had always thought of rain as a kind of cleansing process; in New York, he wasn’t so sure.

He wiped his feet on the mat as he went into the theater building and did his best to smooth the water out of his hair, although that only made it drip down the back of his neck. He really was going to have to pay better attention to the forecast and remember an umbrella and extra gel. He couldn’t look much worse.

A few minutes with the hand dryer in the bathroom helped take the chill out of his shirt and turn it from soaked to merely damp, and a quick comb of his hair got it back into place more or less. It was hardly the impression he wanted to make at the audition, but he didn’t have a choice. If he didn’t get the performance spot, it was his own fault for not planning ahead.

There were a half dozen of other students sitting on chairs out in the hallway outside of the classroom the auditions were being held in, and one of them pointed him to a sign-in sheet. He wrote his name at the bottom; most of the twenty or so names were scratched out, and he had to assume they’d already come and gone. He knew from the e-mails he’d received that this was the second day of auditions, and they’d had to add a third to accommodate the interest in the Review. The competition was going to be tough.

Blaine sat and closed his eyes, rolling his neck and trying to focus. He hadn’t had to audition for a part in years until this week, and it was more nerve-wracking than he’d thought it would be. He loved to perform, and he’d loved competing with the Warblers, but there was something about his individual worthiness being judged that didn’t sit well.

He took a deep breath and pushed the thought away. He could do this. The nerves and insecurities weren’t important. He was made to be on stage. If he knew nothing else, he knew that. He knew how to turn on his charm. He rolled his neck again and bounced his shoulders to loosen them. All he had to do was be that Blaine and sing. He could do that.

By the time the other students had been called in, leaving Blaine alone in the hallway, he was ready.

The petite young woman with a sleek bob who’d been directing the auditions came out of the room and picked up the clipboard. “Let’s see,” she said with a grin, looking at the one name left and then up and down the otherwise empty hallway. “Is there a Blaine Anderson here?”

He rose to his feet and smiled at her. “That’s me.”

“Come on in. I’m Angelica. That’s Tina.” She nodded to the Asian woman sitting behind the desk at the edge of the room. Tina gave him a little wave, and Angelica made her way to the other chair behind the desk.

“I’m Blaine,” he said. “I’m not usually so soggy. I’m sorry, but I hope you’ll take my word that I wouldn’t be wearing damp clothes at the actual performance.”

“I don’t know; it could be a draw,” Angelica said with a grin.

“I didn’t realize it was that kind of show,” he replied, letting his smile go a little flirty. He knew just how to play this to appear confident. To be confident.

“You’d be surprised; last year one of our principal performers wanted us all to do the nude song from Hair,” Angelica said. “For the record, we gave that a big no.”

Tina flicked through the pile of papers in front of her and pulled out two sheets stapled together. “Okay, here you are. Blaine Anderson. Freshman?” He nodded, and she read a little further before looking up in surprise. “You’re not in the theater or music departments?”

“No, I - “ Blaine said, quickly searching his memory if there’d been a requirement about that in any of their communications. “I’m officially undecided, but I didn’t think this was just for theater majors.”

“No, it isn’t,” she assured him. “But obviously most of the people who get spots will have that kind of background.”

“I sang in show choir all through high school; I’m just not planning on pursuing it for a career.”

Tina’s eyes brightened, but before she could say anything Angelica said, “Show us what you’ve got.”

“Okay.” And with that he smiled, rolled his shoulders again, and went over to the piano. Unlike the a cappella auditions, where he wanted to emphasize his control, range, and understanding of harmonies as well as his ability to shine, this time he wanted to show his charisma front and center. He had a variety of flirty pop songs to choose from in his repertoire, so he just took a deep breath and dove in.

Angelica sat back and smiled at him by the time he was through the first verse, but Tina made a number of notes on his paperwork. He projected his voice a little further, and she glanced up in response, biting her lip like she was trying to look serious; he could see the sparkle in her eyes, though, and he knew he had her. He grinned to himself through the rest of the song.

When he was finished, they both clapped, and Angelica took a deep breath and let it out as she stretched her hands over her head. “Oh, that was a good way to end the day. I swear, if I have to watch another interpretive dance or soliloquy from Hamlet I’m going to stab my own eyes out like Oedipus. And my ears, too, because I’m sorry but singing something at half tempo doesn’t automatically make it soulful; most of the time it just makes it slow.”

“We have more tomorrow,” Tina reminded her.

“The curse of this show becoming popular. Everybody and their brother is trying to get on stage this semester. But it’s better than the alternative, I guess.” Angelica stood up and slung her bag over her shoulder. “Thanks for coming, Blaine,” she said to him. “You and Katy Perry made my day.”

“I’m of the opinion that a little Katy can make any day better,” he replied. He smiled at them both and took a step back toward the door. “Thanks again.”

“Wait, Blaine, do you have a second?” Tina asked. “It’s not about this, but - “

“Sure.”

“See you tomorrow,” Angelica told Tina. “I’m going to go sing some Wagner and pretend I’m a valkyrie to get the crap music out of my ears. Not yours.” She patted Blaine’s arm as she walked by.

“She sings opera?” Blaine asked once Angelica was out of the room.

“For fun. She’s doing stage design.” Tina grabbed another pile of papers that were on the floor and started to sort them together. “Anyway,” she said as she worked, “I wanted to ask - you were in show choir?”

Blaine nodded and slid his hands into the pockets of his shorts; the lining was unpleasantly clammy. “All through high school.”

“Me, too!” she said with a smile; it lit up her face and made her look even prettier than she already did.

“Really?”

“Yeah, I miss it. I mean, college is great, but that was my family, you know? Only a couple of them are in New York.”

“I know what you mean,” he replied. “I saw one of them this morning, and it was kind of like seeing a big brother. Mildly condescending words of wisdom and all.”

Tina laughed and tucked a strand of her long hair behind her ear. “Totally. My friend who started this review also came from Lima, and he gave me this lecture the other day about the importance of wearing bath shoes in the dorm shower that lasted fifteen minutes and I swear might have included diagrams and sock puppets if I hadn’t cut him off.”

Blaine was caught in the amusement of the story for a moment before what she said really struck him. Tingles of shock ran up his arms and set the hair there standing on end, almost like the feeling of being watched. “Lima? Ohio?”

She nodded. “You’ve heard of it?”

“I went to Dalton Academy. In Westerville.”

Tina put down the papers in her hands and stood up straighter, giving him her full attention. “You were a Warbler.”

“Yes.” He automatically squared his shoulders, and his fingers itched to straighten the tie he no longer wore. Once a Warbler, always a Warbler, isn't that what they said? It was hard to break the habit.

“I can almost picture you in the blazer. We beat you my sophomore year,” she said with a laugh. “McKinley High. New Directions.” She held out her hand, and he shook it.

He remembered them a little from a few years before, mostly the name and the fact the Warblers had lost to them, but one thing still stood out from their performance. “Wow, you guys had the best dancers.”

“Yeah.” She beamed at him before her expression turned even sweeter. “One of them is still my boyfriend. Mike. He’s at Tisch.”

“That’s great.” Blaine rocked back on his heels and wondered why he was so surprised to meet someone else from Ohio. People came to New York from all over the world, after all. And it wasn’t like there weren’t plenty of reasons to want to get out of someplace like Lima.

“Mm hmm. He’s a year ahead of me, so it’s nice to be in the same place again. Especially when it’s here.” She went back to trying to organize her papers. “How about you? New York’s a big change from Westerville, huh?”

“In a good way,” Blaine said and told himself he wasn't going to start hiding now, no matter that it might change her opinion of him. “Ohio’s not the best place to be out.”

Her eyes flicked over him from head to toe with interest, but she didn’t look disgusted; then again, she was working with a group of theater people, so being homophobic wouldn’t have made much sense. “No, it isn’t,” she said with some sympathy. She pulled out an accordion file and slipped the papers into the sections inside. “I can’t even tell you how useless the school was when my friend was being bullied. They barely did anything.” She put away the last of the papers and fastened the elastic around the file as he tried not to think about his own history of being harassed and beaten up. That wasn't her problem, as sympathetic as she sounded about her friend, and it had been a long time ago now. “Anyway. That’s all behind us now, right? We escaped!”

“At least until Thanksgiving break.”

“But then we get to come back.” She put the folder down on her bag and said, “I’m sorry to keep you. I’m just glad to meet another show choir geek, especially one from Ohio. I’m happy you came in, Blaine.”

“Me, too,” he said, and his smile came from his heart. It was always good to meet people who could understand part of him, like where he came from, and she seemed really nice. He liked her already. As she began to push the table closer to the center of the room he automatically took the other end. “Here, let me help.”

“Are you trying to butter up the judge?” she asked.

“Will it work?”

Tina shook her head. “No, but you don’t need it. Unless we get another dozen pop-singing tenors tomorrow I think we’re going to want you.”

“I can sing more than pop,” Blaine assured her, grabbing two of the chairs from the edge of the room and setting them back in their rows, because he didn't want her to think he couldn't do more if they needed it.

“That’s good. It’s not cabaret night. Well, unless it’s from Cabaret.”

“‘Willkommen, bienvenue -’” he sang.

She laughed. “Oh, you’d have to fight for that song. But if you promise to help paint sets as well as perform, I’ll consider kneecapping him for you.”

“It’s a deal.” Blaine extended his hand, and with a mutually satisfied smile they shook on it. He didn’t care about singing that particular song, of course, but the camaraderie Tina was offering was familiar and welcome. He would be stupid not to take it.

Chapter Text

Thursday afternoon, Kurt stomped past the group of boys playing frisbee on the quad and ignored the surprisingly polite apology tossed his way when he was nearly hit by an errant throw. He was running late. He hated running late. He hated it most of all when it was due to other people, including and especially his movement partner for the semester, Elise, who was an exceptional performer and a complete dingbat of a human being otherwise. She'd forgotten her phone, so he'd been forced to wait for her to try to recreate her schedule from memory so that they could plan their next meeting, since he knew from experience that he couldn't count on her to respond to texts.

So he was late, and he walked across campus at his fastest clip, dodging cyclists and pedestrians, glaring at a skateboarder, jaywalking as needed, all while he thumbed through his inboxes on his phone. Invitations to various performances, an addendum to their homework assignment for Shakespeare his professor had forgotten to mention, a note from Carole about his dad's birthday, two Facebook friends requests from people he didn't care about in his classes, an e-mail with his work schedule for the next week, nothing about his latest audition, and a missed call from Artie that was probably a pocket dial. Oh, and there was a text from Angelica reminding him about the rehearsal space being double-booked, like he could possibly forget that. Darlene was being singularly unhelpful, even when she wasn't dodging his calls entirely.

He pulled the deli door open with an apology ready on his lips only to find that none of the sleek booths was occupied by either Tina or Rachel. Fifteen minutes late, he was still the first one to get there.

He tried to be relieved as he slid onto the vinyl seat and readjusted the stiff collar of his shirt, but instead he felt more resigned than anything. They were late to see him, too.

Kurt had touched up his hair in his reflection in the window and was still looking at the menu when Tina arrived, tossing her bag to the far side of the cushion before sitting down.

"Oh my god, I'm so sorry. Have you been here long?" she asked. "I overslept."

"It's three in the afternoon," Kurt said with a lift of his eyebrows.

"I was at Mike's last night. When I got back to my room after my 9 am class I fell over."

He took her in from her barely styled hair to the red mark on her throat her foundation was not completely covering; he was going to have to take her shopping for some better concealer. "I see you're taking full advantage of being in the same city."

Tina kicked him under the table, and with her heavy boots it was hard enough to hurt. "Yes, I am," she said. "And you would be, too. Have you seen his abs, Kurt? Even if I weren't madly in love with him, I'm in the same city as his abs."

Kurt cleared his throat and tried not to think of Mike's admittedly very nice abs. It had always seemed inappropriate to notice them, or at least something that would be unwelcomed from him.

"Coffee," Tina said with undisguised desperation to the waitress who appeared at the end of their booth. "Please. Coffee."

"Make that two," Kurt said with much more decorum.

Tina slumped forward dramatically over the table. "You can just leave the pot if that's easier. Or the whole machine."

The waitress raised her eyebrows at the two of them. "Let me guess; you must be college students."

"What gave it away?" Tina asked, grinning, and waitress smiled right back.

"I'll be back in a sec with those."

"Thank you," Kurt replied. He smoothed his napkin over his crossed legs and bounced his foot.

"Did you hear anything from Rachel about being late?" Tina pulled out her phone.

Kurt checked his. Angelica had sent him another text; the cramped little black box studio space in the basement of the theater building was also booked during the evenings. He thumbed off his phone and tossed it into his bag. He'd deal with it after he ate. "No."

"Me, either. Maybe the subway was delayed. She might not have reception."

"It's Rachel; she's already living her life like a star, including having her own personal time zone. I wouldn't be surprised if she swept in one of these days with a publicist and personal assistant at her heels."

Tina laughed and tucked away her own phone in her coat pocket. "We'll need a bigger booth, then."

"They're staff; they can sit at the counter."

"And when you have yours, they can all sit together."

"When I have mine, we'll be having these lunches at the Four Seasons or the restaurant of the moment," Kurt said. He could picture it without much effort; him in the latest fashions, not knockoffs or bargains but the real thing, a private room for him and his friends, the best food on beautiful china and crisp linen, warm lighting instead of deli-chic fluorescent, simpering waiters at their beck and call, photographers outside the doors, just waiting to snap a glimpse of him for the society pages, maybe a few fans hoping for an autograph or a moment to tell him just how amazing his latest play was -

"Here you go," said their waitress as she dropped off two large ceramic mugs for them with a thunk on the formica tabletop.

"As long as there's coffee," Tina said, breathing the steam in deeply, "I will be there."

Kurt raised his mug in silent agreement.

"Here I am!" Rachel announced as she burst through the door to the restaurant, heedless of the other customers who obviously did not care about her presence one way or another. "Jean-Claude took me out to lunch to celebrate, and I lost track of time."

"What are you celebrating?" Tina slid over so Rachel could drop in beside her.

"I got the final call-back!" Rachel said. "For Evita! The part, not just the play, even if I know I'm not going to get it while that Julia Sturdevant is still at NYADA. I am the only sophomore called back. I might even get understudy." She beamed at them both, her eyes bright and so, so happy. "And next year, Julia will have graduated, and all of the leads will be mine."

Tina threw her arms around Rachel and gave her tight hug. "That's great!"

Kurt could feel how tight his smile was; he'd always loved Evita, after all, but of course he wanted Rachel to succeed, even if he knew it wasn't going to be as easy as she seemed to think it would be. It wasn't like the part would have been his, even if he'd been at NYADA with her. "Congratulations," he said, toasting her with his coffee. "And there's always the chance Julia could get strep between now and the audition."

"We can only hope," Rachel said. "I know it's not Broadway, but it's still the big fall production!" The waitress came over to take her order. "Tea, not too hot, with honey, please."

"Have you heard anything from your audition, Kurt?" Tina asked.

He shook his head. "No. I didn't expect to. There's no way they'll give me Joseph, not as a sophomore; the best I can hope for is one of the brothers."

Rachel considered him thoughtfully. "You could be a good Benjamin. With your face you could play young and fearful."

"Oh, thank you," he drawled.

"Doesn't Benjamin get that calypso song?" Tina asked.

"Yes," he said with a sigh; it was a featured part, but he had no real interest in playing it. Still, a part was a part. He wouldn't turn it down. "I don't know whose brilliant idea it was to stage Dreamcoat. Are we in middle school?"

"The show has been on Broadway and in the West End more than once," Rachel told him. "And - "

He cut her off before she could begin to lecture; it didn't make the play any less exciting if he wasn't going to be playing Joseph. "I know, Rachel. Thank you. Can we talk about something else?"

"All right," she said, raising her chin. "How's the Review going?"

Kurt somehow resisted the urge to put his head on his arms on top of the table and groan; from one unpleasant frying pan into a more stressful fire. He loved the Review, it was his baby, but it wasn't easy to pull it off. "Tina would know better than I would; she's been running the auditions."

"And thank you again for that," Tina said, grinning and nudging his leg. "No, actually, it's been going well. Angelica is awesome, and there have been tons of talented people. A few have stood out enough to be no-brainers, but we're going to have to make some hard decisions about the rest."

"It's a good problem to have," he said. "First semester it was like pulling teeth to get people interested." But he'd still managed through sheer force of will and sleeping about four hours a night for six weeks straight. He smiled grimly; he might have struggled to make his vision a reality, but he'd still succeeded. He'd done it.

"That is so not an issue now," Tina said. "We'll be turning talented people away."

"Just make sure you don't cast anyone who will overshadow you," Rachel told them, slowly stirring her tea. "The point of this is for you to stand out."

"I'm not performing," Tina reminded her.

"A choice I still don't understand, but I was speaking more about Kurt. If he wants to succeed in this business with such a specific talent, he's going to need to push himself out ahead of - "

"Yes, thank you," he snapped, because he knew. He knew just how competitive and unfair the theater world was. "I'm working on it. And I doubt there's another countertenor just waiting to try to upstage me."

"There are two at NYADA," Rachel said.

And he wasn't at NYADA. He gritted his teeth and said, "I meant here. In the Review." He turned to Tina. "Right?"

She nodded. "Right. Although I did promise this guy he could sing "Willkommen" if he wanted to in return for his help with the sets, so that's kind of competition."

"You what?"

"I'm joking," she said with a laugh, though her eyes drifted in such a way he wasn't entirely sure she meant it. Then her whole face brightened. "Oh, I should tell you about him! He's sweet and so cute, and he's from - "

"Tina! What about Mike?" Rachel asked, scandalized.

Tina bumped her shoulder against Rachel's. "Mike knows I'm not blind. Besides, this boy happens to be gay." She focused back on Kurt and leaned forward on the table. "He helped me clean up after the auditions, and he used to be in show choir. In fact, he was a - "

"Tina," he said shortly. "Why are you telling me all of this?"

She rolled her eyes. "Cute boy? Nice? Dreamy voice? Not in competition with you? What could you possibly want from him?"

"Can he get me a rehearsal space?" he asked, shutting down the deep well of longing in his heart as soon as it threatened to open. He'd learned that lesson.

"No, but - "

"Can he get me a part in the fall play?"

Tina shook her head, wise enough not to try to argue again.

"Can he make my professors stop marginalizing me because I don't fit into their ideas of what talent is?"

"Kurt, stop. Maybe he could take you on a date," Tina said gently. "If you met and liked each other."

"That's not what college boys do."

Rachel raised her eyebrows and looked over at Tina. "Two of us at this table are proof that that's not true, Kurt."

"Fine. Then it's not what gay college boys do. I tried already. You know that. I've been to the parties. I've sat at lunch with my classmates and listened to them talk about their weekends. I've seen the catty Facebook messages and the pictures. Oh, the pictures." He spread his hands, helpless. "It is what it is. I can't change it."

"Not every boy is like that," Tina said.

"If they aren't, they're in hiding, or they're just not interested in me. Or possibly they're too busy blissfully holding hands with the boyfriends they already have to cross my path. Whatever it is, they're not exactly beating down my door."

"Kurt - "

He shrugged. "It doesn't matter. I have to focus on my career. Getting to New York was just the beginning. There's so much more work ahead." He looked at Rachel, who nodded thoughtfully; she understood far better than Tina how much more pressure there was with all of the people competing with them, how they had to claw and scrape up that mountain of success with everything that they had and know that they still might fail because of something as small as to a director's whim or a bad hair day. "I'm not wasting my time trying to get blood from a stone. So please don't tell me about the cute stones you meet, okay?"

Tina frowned at him, her eyes dark and unhappy, but she finally nodded. "Okay. But I still think you're wrong."

He looked down at his coffee and admitted, "I wish I were. But if I want my name in lights I don't have time for it, anyway. I should thank them, really, for not distracting me." Rachel raised her eyebrows in a silent reminder of his first giddy few months last year, before he'd been crushed to realize how little his romantic goals had in common with anyone else's. "Okay, for not distracting me for long. Now can we please drop it?"

"We just want you to be happy, Kurt," Rachel said.

"I am," he told her. "I'm as happy as I'm going to be right now. And I'd be even happier if we could talk about anything but boys."

With a slight nod, Rachel flipped her hair over her shoulder, fixed Tina with a smile, and asked brightly, "How are you liking New York?"

"I'm still not over the bagels," Tina replied.

"I know! It's the water."

"What is it with you and your obsession with New York bagel water?" Kurt asked.

"The water is also the reason the coffee is so good," Rachel replied.

"Mmm," Tina said, smiling as she took another sip from her mug.

"Some of the bottled water companies actually use New York City municipal tap water, did you know that?" Rachel asked Kurt. "Because it's special."

"That doesn't mean it's special; it means it's cheap. But I see you have a career in the aquatic marketing industry if being a Broadway star doesn't pan out," he replied.

"Bite your tongue, Kurt Hummel," she cried, pointing her finger at him. "Remember our promise? Other careers are not an option!"

Kurt couldn't help but smile at the fire in her eyes and the unwavering support for him he saw there beneath it all. Rachel might have believed in herself more than anything, but she also believed in him.

"To taking New York by storm." He raised his mug to her, and she met the toast with her own cup.

The waitress came over to take their orders, and after she was gone the conversation turned to other things.

And as they chattered on, talking about their classes and friends and the big, beautiful city all around them and all they wanted to do in it this year, Kurt let his yearning and frustration for all of the things he didn't yet have recede into the background again, at least for a little while.

* * *

Blaine checked his text messages on his way to lunch after his Econ class on Friday:

Rob to Blaine: drank the last soda in the fridge for breakfast - it's your turn to buy

Peter to Blaine: Private party in Leda's room after the Alliance party at the Union tomorrow night, if you're around. Beer.

Sidney to Blaine: Study session this weekend?

Trent to Blaine: David and me doing our best singing Blaine impression. We just can't compare. [photo attached]

J. Hill to Blaine: Revised homework: all of chapter 3. Prof. Ellis says be ready for a quiz.

Rob to Blaine: root beer would be awesome

Julie to Blaine: I've got a bottle of tequila with your name on it. Thanks for the thing with Meg.

Rob to Blaine: or dr pepper

Isaac to Blaine: thnx for last night, see you at Leda's?

Josh to Blaine: Hall pizza party Sunday at 6! Come hungry!

Melanie to Blaine: running late, see you in 10, save me a seat!

* * *

"I am going to murder someone," Kurt said as soon as Angelica picked up her phone.

"And hello to you," she replied. "You know, a little bit of politeness goes a long way."

"Hello, Angelica," he said. "I am going to murder someone."

She laughed. "Much better. What's going on?"

Kurt untied his shoes one-handed with a mute fury. "I just got an e-mail from Darlene."

"Finally! How long has she been dodging you?"

"Long enough to give me an ulcer." His laces began to knot, and he forced himself to take a bit more care. "And then she cowardly e-mailed me at five-fifteen on a Friday afternoon and said oh-so-sweetly that the madrigal group officially has priority over the review for the studio. The studio that I reserved last semester so we wouldn't have to beg for scraps of time and space yet again for our rehearsals. The studio that I specifically selected because of its lovely windows and natural light so that we wouldn't be spending all of our time in a musty basement. The studio that she promised me was ours before she promptly lost my paperwork and forgot that I ever existed."

"Fuck," she breathed.

He pulled his shoe off his foot and started in on the other one. "What is the point of having someone in charge of scheduling the theater space if she can't do her fucking job?"

"Fuck," she said again.

"I should ask for a refund on my tuition for whatever part of it goes to paying her salary."

"Look, we'll figure something out," Angelica said. "We scrambled last year, and we can do it again this year. It fucking sucks, and it's not right, but we can do it."

Kurt dropped his second shoe to the floor and pressed his hand to his eyes. "I knew the minute she started dodging me about the double-booking we weren't going to get it."

"I know, and that's why we both have been trying to find another good option."

"But we haven't found one," Kurt said. He'd done everything right, and he'd still be stuck trying to fit everybody in too-small spaces at odd hours. He just wanted it to go smoothly. He just wanted the Review to be treated like all of the other performances at the school, with respect.

"We have the theater for the performances," Angelica reminded him. "That's the important part. If we have to rehearse in my fucking apartment we'll do it."

"You live in a two-hundred-square-foot studio. With two cats."

"See? A built-in audience. And you know they'll be honest."

Kurt laughed; it might be dry and bitter, but it was still a laugh. Enough of the weight on his chest lifted that he didn't feel like he was going to suffocate. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me. Brunnhilde can be a bitch if she doesn't feel the integrity of a scene."

Shaking his head, he drew in a slow breath. "Okay. I'm going to go send a nasty but just barely non-homicidal e-mail and then get dinner."

"Sounds like a plan. And Kurt?"

"Mm?"

"Get a cookie or something. You deserve it."

"I deserve carbs? What a horrible thing to say."

"You know what I mean," Angelica said.

"Yeah." He sighed and reached for his laptop. "Thanks."

* * *

After a cookie-free dinner with his Shakespeare book in a quiet corner of the dining hall, Kurt checked his e-mail:

From Darlene Madigan: Autoreply to Re: Rehearsal Space for the Independent Student Review: Darlene will be out of the office next week and returns on Monday the...

From Rachel Berry: I've posted a new video on YouTube! It's Barbra!

From Jeremy Fox: New Office Hours for Professor Jones

From Winston Harris: Re: Spring Semester Independent Study for Kurt Hummel

From Carole Hudson-Hummel: Your Dad's Cardiologist Appt

From Julie Friedman: LGBT Alliance Party Saturday Night, bitches!!!

His chest tight, Kurt stared at that last one for a long time before opening the message.

* * *

"Up a little more," Julie said. "It's still lopsided."

"I don't know why you put him up on the ladder," Peter said from the floor as Blaine reached up on his toes and strained to stick the streamer a few inches higher on the wall. "Some of us have longer arms. And legs."

"He's better at taking directions than you are," Julie told Peter. "I haven't forgotten the time I put you on balloon animal duty and ended up with a hundred balloon cocks. With balls."

Blaine let out a shocked laugh at the idea; he could just picture it. He hoped there hadn't been kids there.

"Hey, they were very popular," Peter said, grinning up at him.

Julie took one hand off of the ladder she was steadying to thwack Peter on the arm. "It still wasn't what I'd asked for."

"And it discriminated against half of the Alliance," Blaine added, feeling pleased with himself when Julie reached up to pat his calf in agreement.

"Exactly, thank you." She looked up at the streamers. "I think that's good. You can come down."

Blaine carefully descended the ladder and brushed the bit of dust off of his shorts that had come off of the rungs. "What's next?" he asked, surveying the room.

It had started out a few hours earlier as just a big, bland rectangle with windows on two sides, but with their hard work it was beginning to look like a party. Felix and Kim were over at the sound board, Meg and Ray were laughing while setting up the bar, Kevin was doing something with the lights to make them rise, dim, and swirl, and in them the shimmering rainbow streamers somehow didn't look like a kids' birthday but something special. And it was special, not only to Blaine because it was his first LGBT Alliance dance but because it was a safe place for like-minded students and their straight ally friends to come express themselves without having to go to an off-campus bar or a club. It was like going to one of the Crawford Country Day mixers with his friends when he was at Dalton before Sebastian, only he didn't have to feel bad when he danced with a girl and then didn't want her number. He didn't have to sit out slow dances because Sebastian didn't want to show off his sweeter side 'like they were girls' in front of the crowd and would tempt him with kisses and a smuggled flask of bourbon in a back stairwell instead. The gay students here could just be themselves at school like the rest of their peers, not just one or two of them but all of them together.

Blaine was so excited by how normal it made him feel. He'd get to dance and flirt and meet new people just like everybody else.

Julie turned, her hands on her hips, and said after a check of the list in her pocket. "I think that's it. I've got to get the door people ready, but if we can just get the last of the chairs out of here, and the ladder, we're pretty much good to go."

"Where does the ladder go?" Blaine asked, quickly flipping up the catches and folding it up.

"There's a janitor's closet just down the hall." Julie pointed the way out the door and then rubbed her hand down his back. "Thanks, Blaine."

"I'm happy to help," he said. That was the whole point of volunteering, after all; he might want to make friends, but he was there to lend a hand first and foremost.

She smiled at him, honestly grateful in a way that warmed him to his toes and made him feel like he was wanted and included. "If you want," she said, "grab a beer before we open the doors. You deserve it."

"Thanks." Blaine lugged the ladder to the closet and waved a greeting to Sierra at the door before ducking back inside. Peter was carrying the last of the chairs into the back room, so Blaine headed over to the bar.

Ray handed him a beer as soon as he got there. "Here you go. Boss said to give you the good stuff, too, for helping out. None of that watery lite shit."

"Oh, don't call her that," Meg said with a pained laugh. "You know how the power goes to her head."

Ray shrugged. "You've got to live with her, not me."

Meg handed him a case of beer with a little extra force. "That's exactly my point, Raymond."

Blaine took another long drink of his beer and smiled at how friendly it all was. He knew there was drama in the group, but all of the teasing he'd seen tonight had only had a little bite. Even hanging out with Peter, which could have been awkward, was going as easily as if they hadn't slept together at all. This was just what he wanted, a big group of friends again but this time with no tension at all. He just had to keep everything simple.

"What's he smiling about?" Ray asked Meg, and Blaine drew himself up, a little embarrassed to have been caught in the moment.

"It's his first one," Meg said. "So much beer, so many boys."

"Oh, yeah," Ray said with a nostalgic sigh. "I remember my first Alliance dance. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven after living for so long in hell. Also known as Nebraska."

Blaine felt uncomfortably like he was being talked down to, like they assumed he was naïve and inexperienced in a way he actually wasn't, so he said, "There was a gay bar near where I grew up. I went there a lot. We just didn't have this - " He gestured at the room around them. " - at my school."

"School-sponsored debauchery?" Meg asked.

"School-sponsored ways to hang out with other gay kids," Blaine explained. "We had to find each other, do our own thing, mostly off school grounds. Here, we're doing what everyone else does."

"Grinding on the dance floor and taking people home?" Ray popped a cap on another bottle of beer and handed it to Peter as he approached. "Yeah, I guess that is what the straight kids do, too. Huh. Go, us."

Peter slung his arm around Blaine's shoulder and said with a wide smile, "You ready?"

Blaine had a swallow of beer and nodded, his heart lifting at the casual touch as well as the idea. This was going so well. This was just what he wanted. "I really am."

"Great," Peter said, "because tonight is going to be legen- wait for it…" He swept his arm out grandly.

"-dary," Meg told him, deadpan. "The rest of the word is -dary, Barney."

Peter straightened up like an idea had just struck him. "That would be an awesome Halloween costume!"

"Let's get this party out of the way first before you're planning for the next one," Meg said.

Peter squeezed Blaine's shoulders before letting him go. "It's never too early to start thinking about Halloween. What do you think, Blaine? You want to be the Ted to my Barney? You've got the hair for it."

Blaine's stomach fluttered with excitement, not so much for the offer, because he'd grown out of the idea of Halloween costumes in the past year or two, as what it meant to be given it and to realize that there weren't hidden traps and tricks lying beneath. It wasn't going to hurt.

He smiled over at Peter, bouncing up onto his toes as the swirling lights kicked on again. "I'm game for anything," he said.

* * *

Kurt slid his hands into the pockets of his jeans, his steps slowing unconsciously, as he approached the Student Union. He could see bands of colorful light twirling beyond the windows of the largest common room, and the deep thump of the bass vibrated against the soles of his feet even out on the walkway. Shadows and movement inside and clumps of people outside made it clear the party was in full swing.

He was tempted to turn and escape back to the safe solitude of his room. He could. No one was expecting him. No one would miss him. There was nothing stopping him from leaving and going back to the big pile of homework and responsibilities waiting for him but himself. But no one did care where he was, and he wasn't tempted enough, and that was the problem.

That was the whole damn problem.

So he smoothed the line of his vest, checked his outfit and his hair in the dark glassy mirror of a window he was passing, and went inside. He followed the sounds of music and laughter down the hall, dodging other students without making eye contact. He wasn't there to do anything more than dance. He needed something, some way to release the pressure that had been growing in him since the beginning of the summer and that had been building exponentially instead of dissipating since he got back, but it was going to be dancing. That was it.

He loved to dance. He loved to let his body go free with the music. And if he got to dance with a few people, to share the joy of it, to enjoy the attention, maybe letting someone in close enough to be touched, well... that would help, too. But that was it.

Kurt handed his entry charge and ID to the student at the door, who inspected the latter with a black light before pressing a stamp to the back of Kurt's left hand. He sighed at the necessity; he knew how hard it was to wash those stamps off.

"That marks you as under twenty-one, which means we can't serve you alcohol," the student said cheerily. "Sorry. There's plenty of soda. Have a great time!"

"Thanks." Kurt tucked his ID back into his pocket and slipped through the doorway, narrowly avoiding being brained by a wildly gesticulating girl in a cowboy hat.

The room was crowded but not unpleasantly so; the music was loud by the speakers, he found as he walked a circuit around the space, but on the other side of the room shouting wouldn't be necessary to be heard. As someone whose voice was his prize, he appreciated that, even if he didn't expect to be doing much talking.

Kurt watched the students moving on the makeshift dance floor for a minute before turning toward the bar. The first minute of dancing in this sort of environment was always a little nerve-wracking, since it was so different from a scripted performance, and he needed some liquid courage, even if it was only diet soda.

"I'll have a diet," he said to the student behind the counter, showing him his hand.

"You don't look like you need a diet," the guy next to Kurt told him amiably, his eyes flicking over him.

Kurt didn't spare him more than a brief glance; he was probably a graduate student or else an undergrad on the six-year-plan. He was also in desperate need of a hair cut, a shave, and a tailor. "Yes, well, how do you think I look like this?"

The guy just laughed and said to the bartender, "You have rum back there?"

"Sure."

"Rum and diet?" he asked Kurt.

Kurt flashed his marked hand at him with a pointed raise of his eyebrow.

"And that's why I'm ordering." He held out his own hand to shake, which Kurt did as briefly as possible; the guy also needed a good moisturizing routine. "I'm Beckett."

"Kurt."

"Well, Kurt, would I like a rum and diet?" Beckett asked. He leaned in a little, his eyes sparkling, and Kurt was forced to admit that they were an attractive blue.

Kurt weighed the question for a moment. He didn't want to get drunk, and he didn't want to owe Beckett anything, not even a dance. On the other hand, one drink would only make the lights a little extra twirly and his joints a little looser. He could think of it as replacing the rigorous stretching routine he always indulged in before exercise or movement-related classes. It was a warm-up. It made sense. Besides, he'd learned it blurred the edges of all of the things he hated about this sort of gathering.

"Sure," he replied. "Thanks."

"No problem." Beckett nodded at the bartender, who blithely ignored the fact that he was ultimately serving a minor and poured the drink before setting it between the two of them and walking away.

Beckett raised his bottle of beer, and Kurt clinked his plastic cup against it before taking a drink. The combination of alcohol and chemical sweetener wasn't the most pleasant, but he swallowed a mouthful and breathed through his nose to try to dispel the medicinal aftertaste. Then he took another sip; there was no point in drawing it out.

"I haven't seen you around," Beckett said, turning as Kurt did to look out over the room.

"No, you wouldn't have." Kurt drank some more.

"So what's your - "

Kurt sighed to himself; it didn't really matter if the word finishing that sentence was major, sign, or shoe size. "Look, I appreciate you ordering the drink for me, but I'm here to dance. From your posture and the fact that you're tapping your fingers out of time to the music, I'm certain you won't be able to keep up with me. So thank you, but you're just wasting your time and mine."

Beckett's eyes widened. "Wow. Okay. That was direct."

"Yes." Kurt gave a little shrug of apology.

"Cool. I can respect that."

That he could and apparently did, that he leaned back against the bar but didn't walk away, that he was still half-turned toward Kurt like he'd have a conversation if one were offered actually made Kurt like Beckett a little. Not that he was going to dance with him or even talk to him, but still. It meant that Kurt could stay where he was, surveying the room while he swallowed down his drink.

It was a college party, nothing out of the ordinary except for the rainbow streamers and exceedingly high proportion of same-sex pairs on the dance floor. But it was what Kurt had expected, so he wasn't disappointed. It was loud music and enthusiastic motion, bright lights and knowing smiles, more alcohol than was wise, and too many people for the space enjoying it all. It was two boys grinding against each other in what could just barely be called dancing, two girls kissing in the corner, and eyes everywhere watching, flirting, connecting.

Kurt gulped down another mouthful and coughed a little. The drink was stronger than he was used to, and he could feel the burn down his throat and into his veins. But that was good, because the beat of the music, which he had trouble resisting at any time no matter the source, was beginning to creep into him through his skin. He bounced his hip in time and took a deep breath, his shoulders relaxing and the cramp in his neck beginning to release. He was ready.

Finishing his drink, Kurt smiled his thanks at Beckett and tossed his cup into the nearby trash can. And then he went to dance.

The song was some club song he didn't know with a driving beat and inane, autotuned lyrics. He didn't care. He just slipped between the dancers until he found a bit of space somewhere in the middle, closed his eyes, and let himself go. He felt stiff and awkward for the first minute, too much bounce in his shoulders and hands and not enough elsewhere, but his high school nerves drained away as the music and the rum took over. His year of formal training at school had made him more sure of his movements, and his experience with boys had made him more sure of his body. He was never going to be a great seducer of men, he was never going to be the best dancer, but he understood music. He understood himself, at least more than he used to. And he knew how to give himself over to it.

At first he danced with his eyes closed, letting himself get wrapped up in the beat. Music was bigger than he was. It was everything. This loud, he could feel it under his skin, in his bones. It made the air vibrate in his lungs. It seeped into every cell in his body. A part of him wanted to stay in the music's spell without distraction, but that was why he performed. That wasn't why he went to a party. So as the song shifted he became aware of the other dancers once more. He watched the other dancers through slitted eyes, some in pairs, some in groups, some on their own. Some were flirting, some were just having fun. And as they all moved in time together around him (some more in time than others), he felt his chest loosening. He was a part of the shared experience, and as he twirled, face up to the flashing lights, it felt good. It filled in a few of the cracks in his heart.

Kurt was used to people noticing him; he was a performer, after all, and he'd spent most of his life in Lima as someone obviously different. So he was aware that there were eyes on him, too: one of the two boys seemingly wrapped up in each other a few feet away, a girl with a shaved head who flashed him a surprisingly cheerful smile when he met her gaze, a dark-haired boy wearing a polo shirt that actually fit properly who was watching him while chatting with a few other students across the room, a curly-haired student a few years older with admittedly very nice shoulders, a shy boy leaning against the wall just beyond the dancers, Beckett, still at the bar.

Kurt kept dancing, but he smiled to himself when the curly-haired boy came near and very deliberately caught his eye. Kurt lifted an eyebrow, but he didn't object when the boy moved in front of him to dance together. Kurt didn't touch, didn't really want to besides the vague desire to run a palm over those broad shoulders, but he matched his movements with his partner's, feeling the heat from his chest as the boy edged in closer. Breathing in through his nose, Kurt let himself revel in the attention and nearness, the pull of one body to another with the beat of the music surrounding them, driving them.

That was the first of many boys who came over to him on the dance floor. He let himself enjoy the give and take of dancing, the flirty smiles and flashing eyes, the tug of the most basic sort attraction, and then spun away when a little brush here and there of a chest or leg against his became a more meaningful and knowing touch. He didn't want these guys, not that way. He wanted so much, but he would only take a little. Just enough so he could breathe. Just enough that he could keep going.

So Kurt danced and danced, going dizzy with the sound in his ears, the fleeting touches he knew could be so much more, and the alcohol still burning through him. He danced until the lights sparkled at the edge of his vision, his feet felt heavy in his boots, and his mouth was dry from the exertion. And then he pulled himself out of the music enough to go back to the bar and get a bottle of water. His eyes barely left the dancers, his shoulders still moving of their own accord, as he leaned back heavily against the counter and drank half of the bottle down in a few thirsty gulps. It wasn't even a good brand, but for once he didn't care.

Another student came up beside him, lifting his empty beer bottle at the bartender and getting another one in exchange. Kurt barely registered him in his peripheral vision, but he caught the question posed to him the second time it was asked. "Would you like one?"

Kurt shook his head and finished his water.

"Are you sure? You've got to be thirsty, the way you've been dancing," the boy said.

Kurt took him in from head to toe: broken in but well-kept topsiders, tanned legs leading up to khaki shorts that were actually the right size for his slim hips, a deep red polo shirt, rumpled by now but also appropriately sized and tight in just the right way across his chest and arms, a smiling, open, attractive face, and neatly styled hair with a touch too much product holding it in place. "You've been watching me."

The boy just grinned more and shrugged. "You're hard to look away from."

Kurt rolled his eyes and pushed away from the bar, flexing his toes in his boots and getting ready to walk away. "If that's your idea of a good pick-up line I suggest you don't go into sales."

"Hey," the boy said, catching at his arm for a second, "it wasn't a line. You're amazing out there." He looked so earnest that Kurt backed away from the sharp edge of his disdain.

"Thank you, although I'm hardly the best club dancer in the room."

"It's your energy. I mean, yeah, Felix is tearing up the floor with his moves, but you - you have this passion for the music, like you can feel it, you know? Not everybody feels it."

Despite himself, Kurt let out a little laugh at his enthusiasm. "How many of those have you had?" he asked, nodding at the bottle.

The boy looked at his beer. "I don't know. Two? Four?" He smiled then, wide and bright; it lit up his face in a way that made something twist in Kurt's stomach. "It's a good party! Don't you think it's a good party?"

"Yes, it's excellent," Kurt said dryly. "Now if you'll excuse me..."

"Wait - "

"I'm here to dance," Kurt threw over his shoulder, and he went back to the dance floor where he belonged. Except by the time he reached the edge, the music changed from fast-paced and frantic to something slower, and the whole energy of the room shifted. He stopped in his tracks; he wasn't there to get caught up in the emotion of a couples' song. He glanced to the side as men and women began to pair off. If he hadn't just been there, he'd have retreated to the bar, but as it was -

A warm hand clasped his, and in his shock at the touch Kurt stumbled forward as the boy from the bar tugged him onto the floor.

"What are you doing?" he asked, automatically meeting the boy's traditional dance position, one hand on his shoulder, the other held in a light but secure grip.

"Dancing? I thought that's why you were here."

"It is, but - " Kurt found himself being pulled into a tight spin, and he kept his balance thanks to his own training and the sure, steadying hand on his back guiding him through the turn. "I was going to sit the slow one out."

The boy's answering smile had such a spark in it that Kurt couldn't look away from his face. "What fun is that?"

"Look, I - "

"I'm Blaine."

"What?"

"I'm Blaine," the boy - Blaine - repeated. "Hi."

"Hello," Kurt said. He didn't know why he was finding it so hard to follow the conversation. Maybe there had been more rum in that drink than he'd thought.

Blaine leaned in and pretended to whisper over the sound of the music, "This is where you introduce yourself, too."

Kurt tried to block out the realization that Blaine smelled really nice and that his shoulder was strong and warm beneath his hand. "I'm Kurt."

"Hi, Kurt." There was that smile again, perfect and devastating. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

Kurt recovered himself enough to laugh and say, "You can't be sure of that."

"I'm the one dancing with you," Blaine said, expertly steering him around two girls who were wrapped up in each other from knee to liplock and only vaguely swaying to the music. "So I'm pretty certain about it being a pleasure."

"Are you - ?" Kurt frowned into Blaine's face, trying to read his eyes. It was impossible with the lights flickering over them. "You can stop now."

Blaine's brows drew together, and his hand flexed on Kurt's back. The movement made Kurt draw in a shallow breath; he didn't know why that made his pulse skitter in a way that a guy nearly grinding against him earlier had not. "But the song's not over."

"I meant you can drop the charming act."

"Has anyone ever told you you're very cynical?" Blaine asked amiably.

"Every day," Kurt replied.

Blaine grinned. "Okay. I just wanted to be sure you knew."

Kurt couldn't help but grin back, though he forced the expression from his face as best he could. He didn't want to encourage... anything. Either of them, if he was being honest. Even though Blaine was a surprisingly pleasant dance partner, and Kurt hadn't really had the opportunity to dance like that, to be held formally and twirled around the floor, since his dad's wedding. Blaine might be dancing with more enthusiasm than skill, but it was still nice.

"Oh, I'm well aware, thank you," Kurt replied, though it was hard to hold onto that sharp edge of emotion when the lights were twirling above their heads and Blaine's arm felt so warm and secure around him.

"Okay," Blaine said again and guided him away from the edge of the floor and back into the press of closely twined bodies swaying with the music.

Kurt told himself it was idiotic to be overwhelmed by the way Blaine was holding him; compared to most of the others on the floor they were positively Victorian, barely touching. There was no even semi-intimate contact. There was nothing but the clasp of their hands and a raw but courtly charm to the dance, and yet it was that very charm - paired with a meltingly gorgeous pair of hazel eyes - that was threatening to break through his shell. He knew how to defend against boys with lust in their hearts and their hands; he had no idea what to do with someone being more than a little sweet.

He swallowed and looked out over Blaine's shoulder at the other dancers, but in a way that only made him more aware of Blaine's hand on his back, the smell of his aftershave, the callus rubbing against his fingers where Blaine was holding them. And when he looked back at Blaine to center himself, Blaine just smiled, leaned in, and said in his ear, "You really are a great dancer. I told you it was my pleasure."

"Thank you," Kurt said. "There aren't many boys who learn traditional dance anymore, even just how to lead."

"I learned the box step from my grandmother," Blaine said. "She was a stickler about it. That was a long time ago, and honestly I was always more fond of swing. There's more room for improvisation. But I didn't forget the basics she taught me."

"Basics are important," Kurt said weakly, mesmerized against his will.

Still, as the song drew to an end he tried not to feel anything but relieved when Blaine stepped back and released him. The dance had been unexpected, but it was over. That was good.

"Anyway - " he started to say, about to turn around and walk away, maybe go back to his room before the hollow bubble of want spread any further through him.

But then the next song started, its volume louder and rhythm more demanding, and Blaine grabbed Kurt's arm and said, "I love this one! It's Pink!"

"You love Pink?" Kurt asked.

"Everybody loves Pink!" Blaine exclaimed, starting to move with the beat of 'Get the Party Started.' "Come on, Kurt. You have to like this song."

Kurt didn't reply, couldn't, not when Blaine's hands moved to Kurt's waist to get him dancing. The touch wasn't sexual or even presumptuous; it just urged him to give in to the rhythm already pounding through his veins. It was hard to resist. It was impossible, actually, between the touch and the way the music matched the pounding of his heart. When he let his body start to sway into the beat, Blaine shot him a huge, happy smile and spun around, grabbing his hand when he was back facing Kurt and dancing in front of him. It wasn't crude. It wasn't awkward. It was just Blaine dancing with him, their clasped hands keeping them close and connected.

Blaine's fast dancing was as enthusiastic as his slow; if he had the unfortunate but still kind of adorable habit of making silly faces as he sang along, he at least was on the beat and, as much as Kurt could hear, on key. He knew how to move and had probably been taught a little contemporary dance somewhere, too, or else was just a natural; more than anything, Blaine was just having fun.

It was an aching pleasure for Kurt to watch Blaine enjoying himself, and he found himself looking away so that he wasn't blinded by Blaine's brightness. He was there to dance, not to be entranced by some handsome boy. He was there to let his body move with the thump of the bass, to let the lights and sounds around him take him over for a little while, and to push everything else out.

But every time Kurt felt himself sinking back into the music, Blaine would come closer, touch his arm, his hip, do something big and showy to make him laugh despite himself and pull him right back into the moment. It was annoying. It was disrupting his night. And, if he was going to be honest, it was even better than getting lost in the dance, because he was getting to share the moment with someone else.

There was a surprising amount of joy in having someone twirl him around and sing to him through the chorus. There was a delight in having his partner watching his face and eyes through the dance, not with a leer but with an open happiness Kurt wasn't even sure he knew how to feel.

And there was a thrill in having Blaine lean in with a secretive grin and say in his ear, "I think we may have competition for our spot as the best dancers here," before nodding at a couple entwined and writhing to the beat nearby.

"What is that?" Kurt asked, torn between shock and horror. "Is that even dancing?"

"I think it's the lambada." Blaine waggled his eyebrows in a way that was probably supposed to be lascivious but ended up closer to flailing muppet. "The forbidden dance."

Kurt snorted. "Obviously it is forbidden for a reason," he said and tried not to hate himself for the way his stomach flipped when Blaine ducked his head with laughter.

Underneath the intoxicating warmth that was spreading through him, though, there was a razor-sharp edge of fear. This was dangerous. He knew it was. He was playing with fire again, and he knew better. It was one thing to dance and flirt; it was quite another to let himself think about how best to get this boy to smile again. Blaine was a college boy. Charming, certainly, and more attractive than he had any right to be, but Kurt needed to remember where they were, who they were, and what was happening.

It was so hard with the fire in his veins that matched the fire on his skin everywhere Blaine touched him. It was so hard with the music driving them in the same rhythm, like they were both born to it.

It was so hard when one song bled into another and another and another, and neither he nor Blaine looked away for a moment or seemed to consider finding another partner amongst all of the other dancers in the room. It was so hard when he was getting to know the feel of Blaine's shoulders and arms beneath the fleeting brush of his palms, when he could see the way the tidy edges of Blaine's hair were beginning to curl with the sweat rising on his skin, when he was learning that he could let his eyes smile and not his mouth and still get a grin in return before Blaine spun him out or sang in his ear or did one of a dozen other charming things that made Kurt want to press in close and sing right back to him.

It was so hard not to let go entirely, because Kurt wanted it so badly. He wanted the flirting and the smiles and the gentle touches. He wanted to feel connected, to let everything else fall from his shoulders. It was so close, but -

As the song shifted yet again, Blaine leaned in and said in a puff of hot breath against Kurt's ear, "I don't want to assume anything, but if you wanted to go somewhere quieter..."

Kurt didn't know how it was possible for his heart to fall to his feet and lodge in his throat at the same time. He'd known where this had to be headed, and yet when it was put out there so boldly it was still a heady notion to be wanted and a disappointment all the same.

His mouth dry, Kurt took a slow breath and looked at Blaine, at the open and friendly expression on his face, at the way his arms were toned but not bulky under his sleeves, at the way he was still moving with the music, like he'd keep dancing with him all night if Kurt wanted to stay. He'd keep being charming and adorable, he'd keep smiling at Kurt with his kind, laughing eyes, he'd keep making Kurt's heart flip with every smile and touch if Kurt said he wanted to stay.

The problem was that 'if', because Kurt knew that the longer he stayed within Blaine's enticing spell he only was going to want to leave with him even more.

Kurt knew it was the wrong decision. He knew it. Except that Blaine was cute and well-dressed and hadn't groped him on the floor when every other couple had been grinding and grabbing. He'd been sweet. He'd moved well and felt even better. And Kurt just... he just wanted something, wanted it so desperately, and if he was going to get anything like it, wasn't this nice boy who smelled good and looked a little like an old fashioned movie star the one to do it with?

"I'm thirsty," he said with a lift of his chin.

Blaine immediately looked over his shoulder toward the bar. "Oh, did you want - "

Kurt stopped him with a hand on his arm and met his eyes squarely; if he was doing this, he was doing it. He wasn't going to let himself regret it until tomorrow. "I have water in my room."

It took Blaine a second to get what Kurt was saying, and then his smile grew into something even more beautiful than Kurt had already seen from him. "Okay."

Chapter Text

Blaine apparently had come to the party with friends, so he had a few goodbyes to make before he could slip away. Kurt waited outside in the cool evening air, the bass still pounding through the soles of his boots, and tried not to think too much. He knew his room was tidy, his sheets were clean, and his mini-fridge did indeed have a selection of bottled water and diet soda. The lacquered box on the bookcase beside his bed was also stocked. He had nothing to worry about.

Still, he found his shoulders releasing in relief when Blaine came through the doors and smiled when he saw Kurt. At least he'd been spared the possible humiliation of him not coming at all.

"What a beautiful night!" Blaine said, walking over to him. He walked like he danced: loose, open, and confident.

"Mmm," Kurt said and slipped his hands into the pockets of his jeans so that he didn't do something stupid like loop his hand through Blaine's elbow. It seemed like it would be so natural to do it, but that was the dream of his silly heart. This was reality. "There's nothing like the mingled scents of exhaust and drunk college students." He nodded with his head for them to start walking toward his dorm.

"And here we are on cynical again."

Kurt smiled a little at the laugh in Blaine's voice; there was nothing mean in it. "It's my default setting."

Blaine chuckled. "As long as you're happy with it."

"It works for me," Kurt replied with a shrug, because he didn't really want to think about things that made him happy when he was about to do something that he knew deep inside would not. He just didn't care about that right now.

"Okay," Blaine said with an easy smile.

Kurt's dorm wasn't too far from the Union, and he pulled out his ID and let them into his staircase. He held the door for Blaine at the bottom of the stairs, and Blaine returned the favor at his landing.

And then they were at his own door. He could see Blaine taking in the postcards on the pinboard beside it - black and white photographs of Paris, Chanel concept drawings, McQueen couture, pictures of Sarah Bernhardt, Ginger Rogers, Audrey Hepburn, Madonna, Lady GaGa - but Blaine didn't remark on them, so Kurt didn't have to defend his choices the way he usually did with new people.

"Come in," Kurt said, keeping the door from swinging shut with one foot as he flicked on the lamp in the corner and deposited his key and ID in the basket that held his wallet and sunglasses.

"Wow, you have a single?" Blaine frowned a little and scanned him from head to toe as Kurt shut the door behind him and made sure it was locked; he didn't know his hall-mates well, but a few of them had started to realize he was an excellent source of skin care supplies if nothing else. He didn't need them bursting in. "You're a senior?"

"Sophomore. I'm just exceptionally skilled at blackmail."

"Now this is a story I have to hear," Blaine said, leaning against the edge of Kurt's desk and looking up at him eagerly.

"Fine, in reality I had an excellent number in the housing lottery, and I was willing to sacrifice space for privacy." Kurt opened up his fridge and pulled out some water.

"You have water," Blaine said with a little surprise as Kurt offered him a bottle.

"I actually am thirsty."

"Oh." Blaine laughed a little, like he was mocking himself. It wasn't an entirely happy sound, and Kurt didn't like it. That wasn't the tone they'd been setting at all.

"But maybe I should warn you," Kurt said, trying to get him to smile again, "that I don't have any etchings to show you?"

Blaine's eyes went almost comically wide. There was something like relief in them. "You don't have etchings? I could almost think you have designs on my virtue."

Kurt opened his bottle and took a long drink. It didn't do much to cool him off, but then he had a very attractive boy in his room whom he was probably a few minutes away from getting to know a lot better. "It seems like virtue is overrated these days."

"Tell that to a nun."

Kurt raised his eyebrow. "Do I look like a nun?"

Something in Blaine's eyes went dark as he looked Kurt over again. "I don't think Vivienne Westwood makes a habit," he said, and Kurt's heart thumped hard in his chest that Blaine correctly named the designer of his vest. "And that pin - " He gestured at the Louis XIV soleil brooch on Kurt's chest. " - is definitely not a rosary."

"No," Kurt said.

"So," Blaine said, putting down his bottle and pushing off from the desk, "I would have to say you look nothing like a nun." He took a step closer, further away than they had been while dancing, but somehow it still sucked all of the air from the room to have him near. "Which is good news for me."

Kurt licked his lip to moisten it; his mouth had gone so very dry. "Oh?"

"Well, even if I weren't gay, I'd have a problem asking a nun if I could kiss her."

The husk in Blaine's voice from talking over the music made Kurt feel warm to his toes, but he tried to maintain his composure. "It sounds like you've given this a lot of thought," he said briskly. "Should I be worried about your fixation with holy figures?"

Blaine blinked, the intensity dropping from his face and laughter taking its place. He ducked his head and buried his face in his palm before looking up at Kurt with sparkling eyes. "I'd say oh my god, but you'd probably take that entirely the wrong way."

Kurt couldn't help but grin in return, and he set his bottle on his bookcase and ran his fingers along his bangs, making sure they were still styled to perfection. They were; he knew how to pick excellent products. "You're the one who brought up nuns."

They smiled at each other for a long, amused moment, and then Kurt could feel the humor draining from his expression as Blaine's did the same. Blaine stepped forward, Kurt leaned in to meet him, and they brought their mouths together in a firm kiss. Kurt fought the urge to be so familiar as to cup Blaine's face as his body sparked and tingled at the touch of his lips, but he fisted his hand in the shoulder of Blaine's shirt as Blaine's arm snaked around his waist and the kiss went on and on.

It had been months since Kurt had kissed anyone, and there was something about the way Blaine kissed back, so giving and responsive, that made it feel like it had been worth the wait. He wasn't sure he'd ever been kissed this way, like it was worth doing on its own and not just a means to an end. It made his head spin. It made his chest hurt. It made him want so very much more.

He let out a breathy sigh and slid the hand that had been holding Blaine's shirt up his lovely shoulder to graze the nape of his neck. Blaine made a needy sound and tightened his grip on Kurt's back, hauling him in and kissing him harder. Blaine's chest was firm against Kurt's, his hair soft and a little damp when Kurt threaded his fingers into it, and his mouth warm, eager, and generous.

When he leaned more into Kurt, though, he flinched and pulled his head back. It took everything in Kurt not to follow after his mouth, and he sucked in a sharp breath at how dizzy he already was with it.

"Ow," Blaine said, frowning down at Kurt's chest and rubbing at his own. "I think your pin stabbed me."

Kurt felt his face flush hot; the rays of the sun were rather pointy. He hadn't even thought of that. "I'm sorry. Let me take it off," he said, raising his hands to fumble at the clasp.

Blaine rested his fingertips on Kurt's stomach, stopping him cold, and said, "Or maybe the vest?" He watched Kurt's eyes, demanding nothing.

A little tremor ran through Kurt - of anticipation or of warning, he couldn't tell - but he had to nod, and then he had to try to remember how to breathe as Blaine carefully slipped the buttons of his vest free and palmed up his chest to push the garment off of his shoulders.

Blaine's breath came out in a shudder, and Kurt barely had enough presence of mind to catch his vest before it slid over his hands and onto the floor. He blindly reached out and draped it over the top of his bookcase before Blaine blinked himself back into focus and reached up to cup the side of Kurt's face and draw him into another kiss.

Kurt skimmed his hands up Blaine's arms, resting them just beneath his shoulders for a moment before giving in and curling his arms around Blaine's neck. Blaine smiled and murmured his wordless approval against Kurt's lips, and his other hand slid up Kurt's spine and down again to rest at the small of his back as he opened his mouth wider at the next glide of Kurt's tongue against his.

Blaine's hand was so warm and possessive on Kurt's cheek as they kissed; it shouldn't have felt good, and yet it did. It made Kurt's stomach twist into knots at just how sweet it was to be held that way, like Blaine was happy to have him close, and he had to pull back to breathe and try not to lose his head entirely.

"You feel really good to me," Blaine murmured against Kurt's jaw. "I knew you would."

"Did you?" Kurt asked. He swallowed against his dismay at how high and thready his voice had already gotten. It wasn't sexy. He knew it was so far from sexy.

"Yes. From the minute I saw you dancing, I knew." Blaine skimmed his hand up Kurt's side and sucked at the tender spot beneath Kurt's ear. "You were beautiful under the lights, moving like that, but this is even better. Thank you."

"I - " Kurt had no response to that. How could he? How could he possibly be the one being thanked?

"May I?" Blaine's hand tightened in Kurt's shirt by his waist and tugged a little. "Please?" His words were hushed and thick with want, but he didn't pull at Kurt's clothing any more than the one tug.

"Yes," Kurt said, finding Blaine's mouth again as soon as the word passed his lips. It was always nerve-wracking to give up the protection of his clothes, but with the way Blaine moaned into the kiss as he got his hand inside of Kurt's shirt it didn't matter quite so much. He rested his hand at Kurt's waist just above his jeans, but all Kurt could think was that Blaine was touching him, touching his bare back, and that hand would soon be everywhere on him, or at least anywhere it wanted to be, and - "God," he gasped and curled his fingers into Blaine's hair, crowding into him and kissing him fiercely.

Blaine moaned and tightened his hold on him, giving back everything Kurt was pouring into the kiss. He was so responsive that Kurt could barely think about anything but the fact that he wanted more. More kissing, more touching, more skin. He could feel Blaine's muscles through the soft fabric of his shirt, but it was only a cruel tease. It wasn't anywhere near enough for him.

"Can I -? Can you -?" Kurt barely lifted his lips to graze the corner of Blaine's mouth as he spoke.

"What?" Blaine gasped. His hands were restless, trailing over Kurt's skin and kneading the muscles of his lower back.

"Sorry," Kurt said as he realized he had completely left out the point of his question. He had to focus, or else this would be a disaster. He raised his head and asked, "I'd really like it if you took off your shirt."

A smile bloomed across Blaine's face, slow but sunny. "I can do that," he said. "But it seems more fair if there's a quid pro quo. My shirt for yours."

"Oh, now there's bargaining?" Kurt asked, already working on pulling Blaine's shirt out of his waistband.

Blaine's smile froze, and his hands stilled on Kurt's clothing. "You don't have to do - " he began, suddenly earnest.

"I was teasing," Kurt assured him, a little fissure in his chest expanding at the concern he didn't quite understand but appreciated anyway. He slid his hands up Blaine's back, shuddering at the strong planes of muscle there, and dropped a soft kiss on Blaine's lips. "Kidding. Joking." Blaine didn't respond beyond leaning back into Kurt's touch. "Please tell me you know the meaning of any of these words."

Blaine's eyes flashed up to his again, and his easy smile returned. "Yes. Sorry. You distracted me."

The worry in Kurt's stomach vanished in an instant. "I'm not apologizing for that."

"No, you shouldn't," Blaine said, and he brought his hands up Kurt's sides, rucking his shirt up with it. "Now come here." Kurt let Blaine pull his shirt over his head and pretended the shiver that ran through him was from the air on his skin, and he immediately went for Blaine's shirt to distract himself from his nerves. They stripped off Blaine's shirt together, and Kurt was so mesmerized by the shape of his body, the definition of his muscles, the dark hair that lightly sprinkled his chest, the color of his skin that was so much warmer than his own, the very perfect maleness of him that sent desire twisting liquid hot into his groin, that he forgot he was being regarded in return until Blaine breathed out his name in a low, hungry sigh.

Kurt jerked his head up, ready to apologize for being so distracted by the dusting of hair beneath Blaine's navel and the sharp lines of his hips that he was acting like he'd never seen a man up close before, but the words died before they could even form on his lips. Blaine was staring, his eyes sharp and eager as they roved over him.

"Kurt," Blaine said again, and somehow Kurt managed to get a hand up between them before Blaine touched him. Somehow he managed to keep his hand from touching Blaine, too. Blaine stopped like he'd been frozen. "I'm so-"

"I think we should take our shoes off," Kurt rushed to interrupt him, the words a jumble.

"What?"

"I think we should take our shoes off," Kurt repeated more slowly. He cleared his throat. "Because I'm pretty sure my legs are going to give out at some point soon, and I'd rather not have shoes on my duvet." He gestured down at his boots and drew in a steadying breath. "Besides, I don't want either of us tangling up the laces with our enthusiasm."

Blaine nodded, looking a little numb but slowly thawing into a grin. "Okay. That's very okay." His shoes came off in a flash; Kurt had to sit on the edge of his bed and loosen the tight laces to slip his feet out one at a time. Blaine watched with silent concentration as Kurt set them neatly aside along with his socks, and then he looked up at Kurt's face again and said, "Now?"

Kurt nodded, and then Blaine was there, his hands on Kurt's face, his lips on Kurt's mouth, his breath coming hard and fast against Kurt's cheek as he kissed him, devoured him, and pressed him down into the bed. Kurt choked against a moan that tried to escape just from the warmth of Blaine's body against his, nevertheless the way his skin felt against his as their chests met. He didn't know what to do with his hands; he wanted to touch everywhere. Shoulders, arms, back, stomach, chest, everywhere that was bare, and everywhere that wasn't, and Kurt turned his head to the side and gasped for air as he struggled to keep this sudden surge of desire at least a little in check. He had to. He couldn't just forget himself completely.

"This is even better," Blaine said, propped up over him and kissing down Kurt's throat. "This was the best idea ever."

"Yes," Kurt said. There was no way he could bring himself to disagree, not with Blaine's hand skimming up his stomach and his mouth worrying at the base of his throat. He clutched at Blaine's arms and slid his foot up the bed so that his raised knee could rest against Blaine's leg. "It's at least one of my better ones."

Blaine shifted his weight a little to the side, got his arm under Kurt's waist, and pulled him in tightly against him. Even as he shivered with the contact, Kurt got his own arm wrapped around Blaine's back and stroked the tips of his fingers up his spine. "If this is only a 'better' one, we are going to have a fantastic time tonight." Blaine peppered kisses across Kurt's clavicle. "And I thought just the dancing was great."

A rush of fierce satisfaction flared through Kurt, because it hadn't just been him. Blaine had liked it. He'd felt it, too, that pull between them, not just the tug of attraction but how well suited they'd been on the dance floor. It hadn't just been him.

"Come here," he said softly, and when Blaine looked up Kurt captured his mouth again, tugging him down until Blaine's weight was half on him. The solidity of his body was enough to make Kurt surge upwards and kiss him harder, because fuck he felt good. He was fit but not too burly to make Kurt feel weak or self-conscious of his own lean frame in comparison. He was heavy enough to make every cell in Kurt's body aware of just how close he was but not so heavy Kurt felt like he couldn't breathe. And he could kiss, wow, the more they did it the better it was, like they were learning each other's rhythms in bed the same way they had while dancing.

It was crazy, but it felt like they were doing something that was for both of them together, not just each of them separately.

So Kurt let go a little more and gave himself to the kiss, to the way Blaine's skin felt under his hands, to the way Blaine made little sounds in the back of his throat when Kurt pressed his mouth to Blaine's jaw, his shoulder, his chest. He gave himself to the way they both gasped when their hips lined up, hardness against hardness, to the way Blaine's hands clutched at his ass to rock them together a few times before inching back, to the way Blaine's mouth was even more eager on his after that.

And when Blaine's fingers danced along the edge of his waistband and hovered over the bulge in Kurt's jeans, when Blaine said "I'd like - May I - ?" with wide eyes so deep they threatened to drown him, Kurt didn't hesitate to say, "Yes. Please."

Blaine's smile was swift, but Kurt didn't see much of it, because his eyes closed of their own volition when Blaine's palm settled over him, his fingers sure in a way that his words were not. He moved his hand in a slow, tantalizing drag, mapping out Kurt's erection through the tight denim.

"Yeah," Blaine breathed. "You feel really good, Kurt."

It was the husky sound of his voice more than anything that made Kurt bite his lip and swallow back a moan, and he rolled his head on the pillow in mute frustration as Blaine worked at his fly and slipped his hand inside. He couldn't stop a whimper from escaping at the feel of Blaine's warm fingers rubbing against him, only separated from his skin by the soft fabric of his boxer briefs. "Oh, god." It had been so long since anyone else had touched him. He almost had forgotten how good it felt.

Careful not to disturb Blaine's hand, he leaned up on his elbow and pulled Blaine in for a kiss. He knew he was losing some of his finesse, but he needed to kiss him, to connect with him, to show how much he liked and appreciated the generosity Blaine was showing.

"Tell me what you want," Blaine murmured against his lips. "Just tell me. I want my mouth on you. Tell me what you want."

"You want - " Kurt's toes curled with the flood of desire that rushed through him and left him light-headed and breathless.

"I want my mouth on you," Blaine repeated, pulling back enough that Kurt could focus on his face. He looked serious. He looked eager. "If that's okay with you."

"I can't imagine why anyone would say no to that." Or to anything you said in that tone of voice.

Blaine shrugged his shoulder, but the oddness of the gesture disappeared as he began to peel Kurt's jeans down just an inch and said, "So that's a yes?"

"Yes."

Blaine smiled and kissed Kurt's mouth, his chest, and down his stomach before leaning back on his heels and slowly tugging Kurt's jeans off of his legs. He stayed where he was after he tossed the pants to the floor, just looking at him.

Kurt reached out and touched Blaine's thigh to keep himself from giving into the deep-seated desire to hide himself. He knew nerves weren't attractive, either. "Did you get lost?"

"No. But as amazing as you looked in your clothes, you look even better with them off."

Kurt did cover his face with one hand then, trying not to laugh and barely succeeding.

"What?" Blaine asked, crawling up him.

"That's the most ridiculous line."

Blaine pulled Kurt's hand away and said with what seemed like utter conviction, "It's not a line."

Kurt swallowed and tried to judge the brightness of Blaine's eyes. "It doesn't matter."

"Kurt," Blaine said, kissing the inside of Kurt's wrist, the bend of his elbow, the hinge of his jaw. "It's not a line."

"Okay," Kurt replied, his heart in his throat in a way he really didn't want to think about.

"You have to trust me on this one." Blaine settled between Kurt's legs, one hand sliding up Kurt's thigh with shiver-inducing slowness, and began to mouth down his chest. He made a wordless sound of pleasure when Kurt reached out to touch Blaine's hair, which was swiftly falling out of whatever sub-standard product was holding it, and he sighed softly with the movement of Kurt's fingers for a second before carrying on.

Kurt had to look away from where his pale fingers were lost in that dark head of hair; Blaine's breath on his stomach alone was enough to make him shiver, and the swirl of his hot tongue in Kurt's navel and edging downwards made him squeeze his eyes shut. This was happening, he knew it was happening, but if he watched it it wouldn't be happening for too much longer.

"Kurt," Blaine said, mouthing Kurt's hip just above the waistband of his underwear. His fingers drifted over Kurt's erection, making it throb with need, and then his mouth followed, sucking wide, wet kisses along the shaft through the fabric.

There was no way to stop himself from moaning, not when Blaine's mouth was on him. He tightened his fingers in Blaine's hair, careful not to go too far with it, and squeezed his eyes shut.

"Good," Blaine said, his hands on Kurt's thighs, slipping them a little further apart. "I like that, too." He nuzzled his face against the fabric before kissing up him once more.

"Oh, god," Kurt said, throwing his free hand up to clutch at the covers over his head. Everything was spinning around him, and he didn't want it to stop.

Blaine's fingertips traveled up the inside of Kurt's legs and under the elastic of his underwear, circling the skin there in a gentle caress. "These should come off, too," Blaine said, the vibrations of his voice resonating right into Kurt's veins.

Kurt nodded and made himself look down at Blaine's hazy, happy eyes and handsome face just an inch away from his erection. He could see the top of Blaine's shoulder, a sliver of his back, and one of his thighs. He was still partially clothed, and Kurt felt a flare of panic in that thought. "Would you at least take off your shorts?" he asked, his voice just barely not shaking. "Quid pro quo."

"Now who's bargaining?" Blaine asked with a heated smile, and he reached into his pocket and tossed a couple of foil packets and a little tube onto the bed by Kurt's hip before shucking off his shorts. The sight of him in nothing but a very flattering pair of boxer briefs made the bittersweet realization that Blaine had gone out prepared nothing more than a footnote. Blaine was gorgeous, and he was ready, interested, and already back pulling off Kurt's underwear and slipping between his legs.

"Hnngh," Kurt said eloquently as Blaine mouthed at his balls and licked along the crease of his thigh.

"Good?"

"Yes," Kurt tried to assure him, petting at his head and letting his legs fall open wider. His mouth was so hot, and it was there, nearly there.

"I think so, too. Wish I could taste you," Blaine said, sounding sad, and then there was a crinkle of foil and the cool, tight sensation of a condom being unrolled down him. "Safe is great, but..." Blaine sucked hungrily at the uncovered base of Kurt's cock, his hand wrapping around the shaft and stroking firmly.

Kurt's shoulders jerked off the mattress as the sensations overwhelmed him for a moment, and Blaine slid a soothing hand up his stomach.

"Shh, it's okay. Let me." He rubbed at Kurt's chest, ran his closed mouth up and down along Kurt's erection until Kurt looked down at him. "Okay?"

Kurt nodded, and Blaine shot him a knowing grin before sinking his mouth over the tip. There might have been a layer of latex between them, but Kurt could still feel the suction, he could still feel the warmth bleeding through and the strong presses and swirls of Blaine's tongue. That it was all muffled was probably a good thing. He whimpered, trying not to embarrass himself by coming too quickly, but he knew he wasn't going to be able to hold off for long.

Blaine moaned around him, the vibrations making the hair on Kurt's arms stand on end, and he shuffled in closer, taking Kurt more deeply into his mouth.

"Oh, god," Kurt gasped out. He slitted his eyes open to see Blaine sinking down over him, such a look of bliss on his face, and he knew that visual was going to stay with him in the best way for a long time.

He clutched at Blaine's hand on his chest, and Blaine looked back up at him and squeezed, drawing back and smiling before sucking his thumb into his mouth for a second. Then he leaned down again, licking up sweat from Kurt's skin, and sucked hard on the head of Kurt's cock as his thumb slipped down behind his balls to rub against his perineum and entrance. It wasn't pushing, just moving in small, slick circles apparently designed to drive him absolutely crazy.

"Oh, god. Oh, god. Don't stop," Kurt said, his hips shifting against his will as his body tried to find the right balance of pleasure between Blaine's thumb and mouth. He tried not to thrust, but he couldn't fully stop his restless movements. He wanted Blaine to take him deep, deeper, but he also couldn't move away from the tease of that pressure.

Blaine moaned again, matching his rhythm, and he released Kurt's hand so that he could wrap it around his erection once more. Kurt buried his fingers in Blaine's hair as Blaine worked him faster, and it wasn't long before his hips were hitching in time with Blaine's hands, his whole body tensing up in anticipation of the release that was threatening to burn through him.

And then Blaine was rising over him, his hand on Kurt's cock but his mouth traveling up his body. "Please," Blaine said hoarsely as Kurt strained toward him. "Let me see you. I want to see you. Please, Kurt, let me see you."

"Okay," Kurt said, not at all sure what he was agreeing to, but he'd probably have given Blaine his favorite McQueen in that moment.

Blaine kissed him hard, and the slight aftertaste of latex remained after Blaine sat back and fumbled with the tube he'd brought. His erection was heavy against his underwear, a damp spot where the head was rubbing, and Kurt reached out to touch it without considering it first. He just had to. His cock gave a warning throb at the feel of Blaine against his fingertips, and Blaine's choked gasp didn't help, either. His mouth watered at the thought of feeling that heat against his palm; there were so many things he wanted to do with Blaine in his bed, so many things he never let himself do. But he wanted to, and right now he could.

Kurt was about to haul him back down when Blaine pressed in beside him, stripped off the condom, and put his lubricant-slicked hand in its place.

After the way the latex had muted everything, the sensation of warm fingers around him - tight, slippery, a little rough and twisting in the best way - was like shaking off a hazy dream and stepping into bright warm sunlight, only if sunlight made his whole body catch fire. Blaine got his free hand in Kurt's hair and kissed him hard, one leg over Kurt's thigh, and stroked him with such intensity that Kurt didn't care that Blaine soon pulled back to watch his face and the helpless reactions of his body, didn't care that he was moaning and writhing under his hand, didn't care that he'd grabbed at Blaine's shoulders like they were the only thing anchoring him.

But nothing could anchor him, not for long. This was so much better than his own hand and his imagination. This was the feel of hard muscles and sweat-damp skin. This was the smell of another man's hair, the brush of it against Kurt's cheek. This was a pair of honey-dark eyes watching his, watching his body, warming even more when Kurt gasped and groaned with each additional bit of pleasure offered. This was Kurt being tightly held, enveloped, taken over, taken care of, while Blaine's voice rumbled soft and low in his ear: more, yeah, come on, come on, Kurt, let me see you.

Kurt couldn't stop himself from responding. He couldn't resist it. And as Blaine sucked a hot kiss at his throat, the fevered arousal coiling up in him finally burst free, and he cried out and came in melting, wrenching pulses over his stomach. He felt broken apart, wrung out, and finally, finally freed from everything that trapped him.

When he stopped drifting and trembling in the haze of sensation, he found Blaine cleaning him up with tissues and dropping kiss after kiss over his chest, shoulders, and face. That was almost as devastating as his orgasm, and he felt something twist beneath his rib cage at the joy of the attention.

He could still feel Blaine hard against his hip, though, and he managed to fill his lungs and say, "Just give me a minute and I'll reciprocate. These beds are narrow, and if I wait until I regain control of my limbs I'll be less likely to fall off or elbow you somewhere sensitive when I roll over."

Blaine laughed, sucking at his neck again before grinning up at him. "You can't be feeling that good if you can still put together sentences like that."

Kurt smacked at Blaine's chest, surprising himself with the familiarity in the gesture, but then he was post-orgasmic. If ever he were allowed to be familiar... "Don't fish," he said. "You know that was amazing."

Something fractured behind Blaine's smile, and the shadow of vulnerability that swiftly hid itself again made Kurt turn onto his side and press a firm kiss to Blaine's seeking mouth. "It was amazing," he said again, this time as gently and with as much conviction as he could put into his voice.

"For me, too," Blaine told him. "Really, Kurt." He leaned in, rubbing his hand along Kurt's hip and thigh, and peppered the corner of his mouth, his cheek, his jaw with imprecise but eager kisses. "You're amazing."

Kurt snorted, because he felt like all he'd done was let Blaine touch him, and that was hardly cause for anyone to praise him except for being brilliant enough to have allowed it.

"No," Blaine said, pulling on Kurt's hip until they rolled again with Blaine on his back and Kurt above him. "You feel incredible." His eyes fluttered shut as his palms swept from Kurt's shoulders down to his ass, and it was so simple for Kurt to get comfortable between his legs, rest his weight on one elbow, and watch Blaine sigh with pleasure.

Now that the burn of his own arousal was pushed to the background, Kurt could appreciate even more how wonderful Blaine's body felt. He skimmed his hand along Blaine's side, pressing in at his ribs where the layer of skin and firm muscle curved over bone, and kissed the dip between his collarbones. This was so much better than his own imagination, too, being able to touch someone like this. Blaine was beautiful, and the faint scratch of his chest hair and the scent of his body were things Kurt couldn't experience on his own.

He pressed his lips to Blaine's shoulder, sucking gently up to and along his throat and feeling rather like his stomach had turned to a bubbly glass of champagne from the taste of him. He wanted to put his fingers and his mouth everywhere.

Blaine's fingers clenched and kneaded at his ass, and he groaned as he rocked his hips up to thrust against Kurt's stomach through his underwear. "Incredible. Incredible," he said, hooking one ankle over Kurt's calf. "See?" When Kurt nipped at the lobe of his ear, Blaine whimpered and snapped his hips faster, holding Kurt's body firmly down against him. "Oh, keep doing that. I can come just like this. Just don't stop."

Kurt knew better than to pull back, even though the bubbles in his chest fizzled and popped, leaving him empty. He had no right to take more than Blaine wanted to give. If Blaine wanted to come and for this to be over, that was okay. And yet Blaine had been so generous, so lovely, and Kurt wanted to have the opportunity to give at least a little of that back to him. Blaine had taken his time; Kurt wanted to, too. He wanted to touch him and to taste him, too. He wanted to experience that. He knew it wasn't up to him, it wasn't about him, but he wanted to.

So he pressed a kiss beneath Blaine's ear and said softly, telling himself to expect nothing, "You don't have to come yet."

Blaine stilled, turning his head to meet Kurt's eyes in question even as his hands dug in a little more.

"You asked me earlier what I wanted. Now I'm asking you what you want. If it's this - " Kurt slid his body up an inch or two and felt Blaine's erection twitch where it was trapped between them, and even that felt so good to Kurt he wanted to do it again. " - we can do this. But if you'd like to take a little longer, let me touch you, let me give you more of what you might like..." He swallowed down his nerves at speaking so plainly; he knew how to look confident, even as he braced himself for rejection. "I'd like that, too."

It only took a second or two for Blaine to reply, but to Kurt it felt like it was long enough for skirt hem lines to drop three inches and platform shoes to come back again. But then Blaine's face broke into a sunny, delighted smile, and he reached up to cup Kurt's face and drop a half-dozen quick kisses across his mouth. "I told you you're amazing," he said.

Kurt couldn't hold back his own smile; he was too relieved at Blaine's response to keep control of his expression. "It's hardly a selfless offer," he admitted. "I'd get a lot out of it, too."

"Oh?" Blaine stroked up Kurt's back again.

"I mean, have you seen yourself?" Kurt brushed his thumb along the edge of Blaine's jaw, just barely rough with a hint of stubble. He felt a surge of satisfaction when Blaine's eyes went even darker from the touch, and he kissed along the path his thumb had just taken. "Do you know what you feel like? Trust me. Not selfless at all."

Blaine drew in a shuddering breath and turned his face to find Kurt's mouth with his own, this time kissing him more fervently.

"Let me give back some of what you gave me," Kurt whispered, drawing back and gently tilting Blaine's head up so that he could suck beneath his jaw.

"Oh my god, I think you're killing me," Blaine groaned, his leg tightening around Kurt's and thrusting once up against him before he stopped himself.

Kurt laughed a little against his skin. He knew he was less experienced than Blaine seemed to be, but he'd learned his way around a man's body, and what he didn't know he could fake. And with how responsive Blaine was to his words and touch, it was easy to keep going.

"I'm not complaining," Blaine said as Kurt slipped down a little and propped himself up far enough that he could get his mouth and hand on Blaine's strong chest. "For the record." Kurt nibbled lightly along his clavicle, relishing the way Blaine twisted up to get closer. "In case that wasn't clear. Oh - " He broke off as Kurt laved a nipple with the flat of his tongue and sucked gently at the nub. "Kurt."

There was something about hearing his name in that tone of voice - desperate, wondering, grateful - that made Kurt's chest crack, and if he'd had a hand free he'd have rubbed at his breastbone to try to make the discomfort go away. But he didn't want to stop touching Blaine, not when Blaine's breath was hitching, not when his stomach was twitching beneath Kurt's hand, not when his fingers were gentle in Kurt's hair, not when everything Blaine was doing felt not like 'I want to fuck you' but 'I want to enjoy you'.

Kurt wanted that, too.

He bent his head, kissing down Blaine's stomach while Blaine groaned and fisted his hand in the duvet. He kissed everywhere he could reach, indulging himself by caressing Blaine's skin with his lips and fingers, breathing in the scent of his sweat and arousal, nuzzling against the hair on his stomach that had so distracted him earlier while Blaine shuddered and gasped and so, so sweetly stroked the back of Kurt's head.

Kurt sighed out his own pleasure, edging down Blaine's waistband to trace the glorious cut of muscle by his hip with his tongue. He palmed Blaine's legs further open and left his hands there, just because he could, just because he wanted to see Blaine spread out and eager under him and Blaine was letting him.

"Kurt," Blaine rasped out as his hips jerked up into the air, his erection straining against his briefs but not making contact with Kurt's chest.

"Is that a good 'Kurt' or a bad 'Kurt'?"

"A good one. The best one. But I'm - I want - I mean, I'd like - If you - "

"Blaine," Kurt said, feeling suddenly powerful at how this boy was falling apart because of him. "Just tell me." He kissed the smooth skin of Blaine's inner thigh, getting a whimper in return. "Do you want my mouth?" He sucked gently, then less so, bringing blood to the surface of Blaine's warm skin. "Or my hand?" He trailed the pad of his thumb over Blaine's balls, so hot through the fabric.

"Would you - I don't know if you want to, but I - " Blaine arched his back, pressing into Kurt's hand.

Kurt could hear the desperation in his voice but also a thin thread of what sounded like anxiety. He couldn't think of anything Blaine could be worried about except for being rejected, so he kissed Blaine's thigh again, his hip, and leaned up so that he could look Blaine in the eye.

"I'm pretty sure there's nothing you're going to ask me I'm going to say no to," Kurt told him with as much of a smile as he could manage, given the way his body was buzzing with satisfaction at how dazed and flushed Blaine looked draped across his bed. "But I'm going to need a sentence in there somewhere so I know what I'm agreeing to."

Blaine nodded a few times and cleared his throat. "Sorry," he said hoarsely.

"No need to apologize," Kurt told him, rubbing his hand over Blaine's trembling thigh. "Just tell me so I can give it to you." He had to kiss Blaine's chest again; it was right there and felt so good against his mouth.

"Would you - " Blaine's hips shifted, and he reached down to take Kurt's hand and slide it higher and in between his legs. He relaxed as soon as Kurt's fingers made contact with him again, and he let go of Kurt's wrist to flop back against the bed. "I have lube. Would you use your fingers? In me? Please? It's okay if you don't want to, but you're asking and I... I'd really like it."

"Okay," Kurt said before he could even think about it, because he didn't want that furrow in Blaine's brow to exist for a second longer. And then he thought about it, what it would look like, what it would feel like, and he said even more strongly, "Yes." He sat back and hooked his fingers in the waistband of Blaine's briefs. "Let's get these off."

Blaine shot him that bright smile again, and Kurt ducked his head to try to deflect some of the force of it; he wasn't sure how much more he could take. Blaine lifted his hips, and Kurt carefully drew his underwear down his legs.

It was only when he was standing beside the bed, dropping the briefs to the floor, that he let himself look at Blaine from head to toe without a stitch of clothing. His cock was full and flushed, as perfect as the rest of him, and Kurt really couldn't believe he was there on his bed, watching him with hungry eyes. His own cock twitched, like it was thinking about getting hard again already, and he turned away and grabbed his towel from the inside of his closet door to try to calm himself down. He could not get greedy.

"How would you like this?" he asked Blaine as he knelt beside him on the bed. When Blaine reached for him, Kurt went willingly, bending down for a series of fierce kisses that left him breathless. Blaine grabbed his hand and kissed his palm, his fingers, the inside of his wrist, watching his face all the while.

"Is it easier if you turn over?" Kurt tried again. He let his fingertips drift over Blaine's cheek as Blaine pressed his mouth to the base of Kurt's palm. "On your stomach?"

"If you want," Blaine said with a little shrug, lifting up on his elbow. Kurt stopped him with a touch to his shoulder.

"What do you want?"

Blaine's tongue darted out to moisten his lip. "I'd like to be able to see you."

"Okay." Kurt reached up and grabbed a pillow from his headboard and covered it with his thick, spa-sized bath towel. "Here." He coaxed Blaine to raise his hips again and slid the pillow underneath. Blaine drew his knees up and let them fall open, leaving himself exposed with apparently no shame in a way Kurt could never in his life mimic, not even for a part.

Kurt's hands were shaking as he reached for the tube of lubricant, his blood surging through his veins at how gorgeous Blaine was, and he got rather more lube on his fingers than he expected. But too much was better than not enough, so he dropped the tube to the towel and knelt between Blaine's legs.

Blaine's eyelids were nearly shut, like he was drowsy, but his eyes were sharp on Kurt's face where they glittered beneath his lashes. Kurt smoothed his dry hand over Blaine's knee and was glad to see a little smile curve Blaine's mouth before it, too, fell open as Kurt slipped the tips of his fingers behind Blaine's balls to glide over his opening, back and forth.

"Okay?" Kurt asked, and he circled his fingers and waited as Blaine breathed and breathed, his hands kneading the duvet, before he nodded.

"Very okay," he said. "Sorry. I zoned out for a minute, but it's very okay."

"If it isn't okay, I want you to tell me."

He waited for Blaine to nod again before he carefully, gently pushed the tip of one finger against Blaine's entrance. Blaine's entire body tensed, then relaxed all at once, and the muscle released enough for Kurt to start to slip inside.

Blaine's moan was loud enough to make Kurt think of his neighbors - though mostly it was a sense of smug revenge for all of their antics - and the expressions that flashed across Blaine's face, from awe to desperation, were even more compelling than the way his body opened to Kurt's touch. As he pressed his finger in, he watched Blaine's face. He watched the way Blaine's cock twitched on his stomach, a bead of moisture forming on the tip, when Kurt twisted in a little deeper. He watched the muscles in Blaine's arms tense and release as he clutched at Kurt's bedding. He watched Blaine bite his lip hard when Kurt pulled his hand away and added a second finger when he eased back inside.

"You are so - " Kurt cut himself off, not wanting to say something stupid, no matter how beautiful Blaine was when caught up in his arousal. He was so generous with that, too, not holding back his reactions, and Kurt leaned down to kiss his chest, just so he didn't have to look at him. It was too much. He wanted it too much, and his own body was reacting to it.

"Deeper. You can go deeper," Blaine told him. Kurt could feel the tremors in his muscles as he struggled not to move.

"Okay." Kurt pushed his fingers in more, but it was a mistake to watch them disappearing into Blaine's willing body. It was a mistake to listen to Blaine's fractured moan. It was a mistake, because his own arousal flared fever-hot and demanding through him, and he couldn't stop it.

Blaine reached out blindly, finding Kurt's shoulder with his hand and grabbing hold. "That's so good." He drew his knees up a little more, using the leverage to rock up into Kurt's hand.

"More lube," Kurt said, his voice tight, and he quickly reapplied some to his fingers, not even sure he needed it but grabbing the only break he could. Then whatever ground he'd reclaimed was lost when Blaine flung his head back and just took it so beautifully when Kurt pushed back in.

"Fuck," he whispered, his mouth dry, and Blaine cracked his eyes open to look at him.

Blaine's smile was a little wobbly around the edges, but his hand was firm on Kurt's arm when he tugged. "Come here?"

Kurt was helpless to resist. He all-but-fell forward, catching himself on his free hand, and he kissed Blaine hard enough to make his lips protest at the pressure, but Blaine was so hot and willing, and he was moaning into Kurt's mouth when Kurt stroked his fingers in counterpoint with their tongues.

"Like that, like that," Blaine begged, keeping Kurt near with an arm at his shoulders and bucking up into Kurt's hand.

Kurt looked down between their bodies to where his hand was twisting into Blaine, and he whimpered before he could stop himself at the sight, at the sound of slick flesh against flesh, at the feel of Blaine clenching tight around him. He pulled back to his knees, trying to regain some control. He came already. This was about Blaine now.

Blaine rubbed a clumsy hand over his sweat-beaded forehead, and his eyes went wide as they traveled over Kurt's body. "Oh my god. You're hard. Oh, fuck, you're hard again." He arched his back, grinding himself down on Kurt's fingers.

"Sorry," Kurt said, shifting his weight so his hips were turned a little away. "It's fine. Don't think about it." He could feel his face flushing with mortification at his body's unwelcome reaction, and he wondered how on earth he could get out of this situation. He couldn't just kick Blaine out, no matter what his instincts said. He could do his part, get Blaine off, and then go look into one of those plastic surgeons who made drug cartel warlords look like entirely different people to escape recognition.

"No. No no no no." Blaine struggled to rise up on his elbows, and Kurt thought in a sharp moment of clarity that there was no justice in the world if being so embarrassed he wanted to disappear still didn't calm the fire in his veins. "Don't. I want to think about it. That's hot. Kurt - "

Kurt looked over at him, and the earnestness warring with arousal in Blaine's expression forced a smile out of him. "You're hot," he said with a self-conscious laugh.

"Then kiss me again," Blaine said, smiling back and reaching for him.

So Kurt bent back down and did, not trying to hide how much he liked it, how much he wanted it, while Blaine met kiss with fevered kiss and moaned and shook and clutched at him like Kurt was the only thing he needed in the world.

"Let me - let me - " Kurt gasped, not sure what he was asking but knowing he needed more. He needed to give Blaine more.

Blaine turned his head toward Kurt, his chest heaving, and looked straight into him. Kurt was so arrested by the depths in Blaine's hazel eyes that he froze, caught in them. He felt open, exposed, and yet somehow not judged for it.

They stared at each other for a long moment, still and silent apart from their ragged breaths, and then Blaine leaned up to kiss Kurt's jaw and asked, "Will you fuck me? Please say you want to fuck me."

Kurt's throat closed up so tightly he couldn't suck in air to answer. He'd never been asked that before, he'd never done it, none of the boys who'd ever looked at him had wanted that from him, not that way, but - "Yes."

Blaine got his hand in Kurt's hair and kissed him hard, all tongue and desperation, and then smiled so brightly it hurt and reached out to grab another condom. He ripped open the packet as Kurt carefully pulled out his fingers, and then Kurt had to slam his eyes shut and breathe through Blaine rolling a condom onto him again with those deft, sure fingers.

To his dismay, Kurt's own hands were still shaking when he squeezed out more lubricant, slicked it over himself, and eased some more into Blaine before wiping off his hand.

"Yeah," Blaine said with a happy exhalation. He hitched his leg around Kurt's hip and hauled him closer. "Come on, Kurt. I want to feel you."

"I know, but it will be better if we don't rush it," Kurt said breathlessly to try to cover the way his stomach was fluttering with anticipation, and then he lined himself up and flexed his body just enough to press inside. "Oh, god." He'd had no idea how tight it would be. He had no idea how warm. Fingers and all the pamphlets in the world couldn't prepare him for that.

"Yeah." Blaine pulled with his leg, knocking Kurt off-balance and making him sink in more quickly than he would have planned, but neither of them seemed to object. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Closer. Come closer."

Kurt leaned forward, getting his weight on his elbow beside Blaine's shoulder, and the shift in position made it easy to meet Blaine's mouth and match his frantic kisses as he pushed into him in short, careful thrusts until they were as close as they could be. He cupped his hand around Blaine's hip to steady them both and focused the jittering energy flowing through him into the kiss.

"That's so good," Blaine breathed against the corner of Kurt's mouth, his hips flexing in minute little movements like he was trying to feel everything. Like he was trying to feel Kurt.

"Yes." Kurt didn't recognize his own voice. But he wanted to move, and he couldn't move, and his brain was shutting off with all of the blood rushing from his head and -

"Kurt?"

Kurt blinked open his eyes, not even aware that he'd closed them, and met Blaine's slightly worried gaze. God, he was embarrassing himself already. He had to keep it together. He couldn't show how overwhelming it was to have Blaine there beneath him, trusting him, wanting him like this. He had to act like this was something he knew how to do, like it didn't want to make him shake apart then and there. He had to make this good for Blaine.

"Sorry," he said. "You feel incredible." It was amazing, really, to be so close and connected to someone else, to have another person's arms around him. Another person's body around him. There was no way he could have imagined it.

"So do you," Blaine told him, shifting his hips a little, but even that tiny motion made the hair on the back of Kurt's neck stand on end. "I'm ready if you are."

Kurt wasn't sure he'd ever be ready, but his body had a different idea. He pulled back a bit and pushed in, biting his lip with the pleasure of it, and when Blaine also moaned and matched the movement with his own Kurt realized suddenly that it wasn't rocket science. It was sex. It was just listening to himself and to Blaine. It was doing what felt good.

So he leaned forward, pushing in deeper as he got his mouth back on Blaine's, Blaine shuddered beneath him and grabbed at Kurt's back, and Kurt stopped thinking so much. He just enjoyed it. And, fuck, did he. It was part of what he wanted, what he craved. He chased after the low growls and moans, finding a rhythm with his hips that made Blaine whimper and scrabble at his skin. He soared with every yes, every more, every breathy Kurt! he could get. And he stayed close, his lips on Blaine's mouth, his shoulder, his throat, because he wanted that, too, to be as near to Blaine as he could in this position. He thanked his years of yoga and dance that his muscles trembled but didn't give out.

It was so intimate to breathe each other's air, to move inside someone, to be welcomed and wanted. It was overwhelming to realize how much it was like a dance; they were working together and feeding off of each other's rhythm, making something incredible for them both. It was better than just touching or being touched; it was both at the same time. It was Blaine's leg at his waist, his voice in his ear, his heat all around. It was Blaine's hand on his back, almost like he was leading again, directing Kurt where and how he wanted him to go except that all he was wanting was in and more and anything that Kurt was willing to give him at whatever pace Kurt wanted to set. It was so simple how it worked.

Blaine had been right; given how well they'd danced, it was no wonder this was also amazing.

The problem was that just like a song it couldn't last, and soon Blaine's hands were hard on his ass, his hips grinding up into him in sharp jerks, his cock rubbing against Kurt's abdomen. "I'm - Kurt, I'm - " he gasped out, and his eyes were as deep as the ocean when Kurt lifted his head to look at him.

Seeing Blaine caught up in his pleasure, caught up in the pleasure Kurt was sharing with him, made Kurt's breath catch in his throat, and he touched Blaine's face with his fingertips in a moment of awe.

"Kurt." Blaine pressed his cheek into Kurt's palm and started to shake, the tremors giving into clenching pulses as he closed his eyes, flung back his head, and came over both of their stomachs.

Watching Blaine come apart was better than Kurt could have imagined; his face was so expressive, his body so beautiful as it worked eagerly against him. He wanted to stop the world and focus only on Blaine, on the way he was clinging to Kurt as he rode out his orgasm. But the sight of him and the waves of pressure around Kurt's erection were too much to bear, and Kurt couldn't hold back. He had to push forward over him, snap his hips in-in-in, and follow him over the edge.

Kurt collapsed onto his elbow, his forehead on Blaine's chest, and tried to remember how to breathe. He couldn't stop shaking and rocking in tiny thrusts with the aftershocks. He felt utterly spent, and yet he couldn't pull back an inch from where he was buried inside of Blaine. He didn't want to. He knew he had to, but he wasn't ready, and so when Blaine nuzzled against his hair and found his jaw to lift him up, he mutely gave himself over to the kiss waiting for him. He wasn't ready to be done kissing, either.

He'd never been kissed like this after sex before - deep, searching, needy, wanting - or even during, really. Kissing wasn't usually the point; he knew that. And yet the way Blaine's mouth was moving on his made him forget all of that, because in that moment kissing was the point for them both. Blaine's hands skimmed over Kurt's back; Kurt touched Blaine's face, his side, his hip, his thigh, anything he could easily reach. It wasn't the same greedy grab that they'd indulged in just minutes before, but it felt like it was from the same place, a place where they wanted to be connected and together for a little while longer. A place where every touch was special.

Kurt clung to that moment as long as he could, but reality soon edged in. He needed to dispose of the condom and clean them off before it became unpleasant for them both. He needed to protect some of his bare skin from the air, because the cooling sweat on it was going to make him shiver. He needed to put himself back together, because every nerve in his body felt raw and exposed and he didn't even mind.

So he pressed another gentle kiss to Blaine's mouth and one to his jaw as he pulled back and away, using the towel to tidy them both up. If he stroked along Blaine's thigh when he pulled the pillow out from beneath him, if he unscrewed the cap when he handed Blaine his bottle of water, if he curled back against him and tucked the duvet over their legs, well... he wanted to, and Blaine didn't seem to be bothered by the attention.

"Thank you," Blaine said, his smile as soft as his voice. He set aside his now empty bottle and turned toward Kurt. Snuggling into the bedding, he set his hand on Kurt's arm, stroking the skin in a gentle caress that seemed to go right into the center of Kurt's chest

Kurt smiled back. "Thank you."

"You're really amazing, Kurt." Blaine's eyes were hazy, his lids drooping, but his sincerity shone through in the way he leaned in and offered him a tender kiss filled with some emotion Kurt wasn't sure he could name, but he knew it filled him.

He watched his fingertips drift along the curve of Blaine's bicep until he knew he had his expression under control; he wasn't used to people talking to him that way, and with his defenses blasted apart by two spectacular orgasms he didn't know how to take it. "Thank you."

Blaine dropped his head back to the pillow and let out a sigh as he relaxed even further. "And so is your bed. It's way more comfortable than mine."

"I swapped out the mattress," Kurt admitted. "Don't tell anyone."

"Never," Blaine replied with a twinkle in his eye that made Kurt grin right back at him. "But it's making it hard to move."

Kurt squeezed his arm and left his hand curled around it; he wasn't going to hold him there, but he also wasn't against a gentle suggestion to linger. Blaine fit so nicely against him, their legs tangled together, their faces inches apart. Kurt wanted as much of it as he could get before it was gone. He wanted to soak up every bit of it. "Take your time."

"Okay. Have I mentioned you're incredible?"

"Once or twice."

"Hmm, that's not enough," Blaine said muzzily.

Kurt watched in surprise as Blaine's breathing slowed, his eyelashes lowered to fan his cheek, and his fingers stopped tracing patterns on Kurt's skin. He watched as the remaining tension in Blaine's face ebbed away as he drifted into sleep.

As sated as Kurt felt, he didn't know how to follow him. He'd slept with his friends - Mercedes, Rachel, Tina - dozens of times over the years, but this wasn't the same at all. They were both naked. They'd had sex, actual sex. They'd both shared something deep and connecting, something that went beyond any hookup Kurt had ever experienced.

And he knew he didn't know Blaine. He knew that meeting at a party and jumping into bed wasn't the start of a relationship, but there was something there. He'd brought Blaine back to his room for a quick physical release, a mutual orgasm with some extra touching to fill a little of the void within him, and that wasn't what happened at all. It wasn't like anything he'd ever had before.

They'd found something in each other that they'd needed, and if Kurt didn't know what that was he was smart enough to realize it was special. It had to be, didn't it? There'd been tenderness. There'd been trust. There'd been a real, honest sweetness coming from Blaine right to him, and it had made Kurt want to be sweet back. It had made Kurt feel like he could offer it and not be rejected. It had made Kurt want to try.

And there was Blaine still lying next to him, his fingers over the pulse point in Kurt's wrist, the very pulse that had leaped and pounded from Blaine's touch and that was now slowing into a soothing rhythm because of his nearness.

Kurt swallowed against the flood of unanticipated feelings threatening to well out of him and watched Blaine's face as he carefully edged the duvet up over them both.

He didn't know what would happen when they woke up, and he wasn't expecting Blaine to fall at his feet and profess his undying love, but Kurt wasn't going to fool himself into thinking this had meant nothing. He was done deluding himself.

He did want something special, and those rushed touches of hands and mouths he gave in to when he was so achingly lonely were never going to be enough. He'd always known it, but now he was even more sure that he'd never be satisfied with that. Not when there were nights like this one. Not when there were boys who had kindness and care to offer, who could be so open to him and with him, who could be tender even afterwards, who could make him feel like it was more to them both than just bodies coming together.

Not when there were boys like Blaine.

* * *

Blaine woke up with a pounding headache, a crick in his neck, and a spear of sunlight stabbing through his eyelids directly into his skull. How much had he drunk?

He knew groaning would be painful, but he attempted a little stretch in the hopes that he could relieve the pain in his neck and bury his head under the pillow for a few more hours... until he realized as he shifted that there was a warm arm resting on his waist, and his own hand was curled on what felt like a very nicely toned thigh.

Fuck.

Visions of the night flashed through his mind. The party. Standing at the bar with Peter. Watching a gorgeous guy dance in his own world out on the floor and not being able to look away.

His eyes snapped open to find that same impossibly attractive face inches from his own, relaxed in sleep on the pillow they were sharing. He remembered that face above him, beneath him, smiling, intent, flushed, open with wonder and pleasure.

Blaine searched his brain for a moment before it came to him.

Kurt. His name was Kurt.

He remembered saying that name. Moaning it. Begging with it. Drifting off with it still on his tongue. And there he was so beautifully lit by the rays of the morning sun -

No. Oh no.

Blaine squeezed his eyes shut against the wave of panic and shame that crashed through him. He knew better. He knew so much better. It didn't matter how much he'd had to drink or how hard he'd come, he knew better than to overstay his welcome. How could he have let himself fall asleep? What a way to repay someone for a good time.

Come on, Blaine, you're like a limpet. If I wanted to cuddle after I got off, I'd go straight and fuck a girl. Give me a little space. Or even better, a lot of space.

He pushed aside the memory of Sebastian's derisive voice. He'd just have to make up for imposing as best he could.

But when he rolled slowly toward the edge of the bed, there was an ache between his legs he hadn't felt in a long time. It stopped him cold. He didn't do that. Not that he didn't like it, but it wasn't something he thought about doing with the guys he'd met since Sebastian. What had happened last night?

He flashed on Kurt peppering his body with kisses, Kurt touching him, talking to him, and Blaine asking for more and more and more because it had felt so good that he got lost in it.

I like it when you beg, baby, but being needy really isn't a turn-on. It's not all about you.

Blaine knew Kurt had enjoyed himself, too. He'd been enthusiastic and beyond responsive to him; he'd felt so incredible that Blaine hadn't wanted to stop touching him. Kurt had clearly liked it enough not to stop him. He'd given Blaine everything he'd asked for and more.

That still didn't make up for Blaine's behavior. That didn't make up for him letting himself go like that. That wasn't what it was supposed to be. Just because Kurt had beautiful eyes and a luminous smile and the most amazing skin and thick hair and wonderful hands and -

Memory after memory of the night flashed through him like a pornographic slideshow. Kurt's mouth on his throat, his sweat on Blaine's tongue, his body eager for Blaine's, his cock pushing into him in a strong, perfect rhythm. God, even in retrospect it left Blaine aching for more. And there he was, right next to Blaine, still touching him, not a memory or a dream but real.

He forced himself to cut off that train of thought. None of it was an excuse for Blaine ruining something that should have been simple.

But he could make up for it now.

Holding his breath, he tried to slip out from beneath Kurt's arm, but as he moved Kurt stirred. His eyes were even more gorgeous than Blaine had remembered when they blinked open and focused on him, the color of the summer sea on a calm morning.

"You're still here," Kurt said, his voice dreamy with sleep. His thumb twitched against Blaine's side, like he was trying to stop himself from moving it, and Blaine's skin prickled with the touch.

It took a second, but Blaine managed to bring out his easiest smile; at least he could do this part right. "Yes, I'm sorry about that. I didn't mean to stay."

"It's okay," Kurt replied after a moment of hesitation Blaine couldn't help but notice, but of course what else could he say? The dimming of his smile was a clear enough indication that he wasn't happy about it.

"Thank you," Blaine said. "Just give me a minute, and I'll be out of your hair."

Kurt pulled back his hand before Blaine could slide out of bed, and he sat up slowly, the covers falling to his waist, as he watched Blaine gather his clothes from the floor. When Blaine looked over at him he took in the perfection of his posture, the trail of red marks on his throat and chest that Blaine had left, and the growing blankness of his expression. It was such a difference from the night before, when everything had shone on Kurt's face, when he'd been communicative instead of contained, but then the night before they'd both been on the same page, more or less. This morning, they were both realizing how far Blaine had overstepped.

Blaine knew he should say something, but the words that threatened to spill out weren't an apology but a litany of praise, and he knew better than to let himself start to gush. He'd just make things worse. That wasn't the point of their time together, after all. It had been fun, and now it was over. He didn't need to re-hash it.

I know how good it was. You don't need to write me a sonnet or pet my hair after.

Blaine looked down at his hands as he pulled on his underwear and checked his pocket for his phone before sliding on his shorts. He had to keep it easy, friendly, the way it was supposed to be. And then he had to leave. That was all he could do to fix how awkward he had made things with his mistakes.

Sometimes a fuck is just a fuck, Blaine.

The shame of getting things wrong hit him hard enough that it took him a minute to regain control of his voice.

"Thanks again," he said when he had his shirt over his head. "That was great. You were..." Kind, gorgeous, perfect, hot, so, so lovely to me. Kurt was watching him with wide eyes, barely breathing like he feared where Blaine was going with that sentence, and Blaine knew he had to keep it simple and casual and not make things worse. He swallowed and said, "You were great."

The last hint of softness in Kurt's expression disappeared as if it had never been there. The blue-green of his eyes went from warm sea to glacial chill in an instant.

His face was still for a moment before the ice broke, and he lifted his chin and said with crisp politeness, "If you'd like a water or a soda to drink on your way there are some in my refrigerator."

Blaine knew a dismissal when he heard one, and he shook his head as he stuffed his feet into his shoes. "Thanks for the offer, but I'll grab a coffee somewhere."

"Okay."

Kurt looked at him, and Blaine looked back. He wanted to reach out and touch Kurt's pale shoulder. He wanted to offer a kiss in thanks, in apology. It had been a wonderful night, and he hadn't meant to screw it up. But Kurt was as stiff as a marble statue and seemed about as welcoming, and so Blaine did the kind thing, the right thing, and just smiled.

"I guess I'll - " he nodded toward the door.

Kurt inclined his head and made a graceful little gesture with his fingers at the duvet draped over his bare body. "Pardon me if I don't get up to let you out."

"No, of course not." Blaine patted his pockets again and reached for the doorknob.

"Wait."

Blaine turned back to see Kurt holding his hand out to him, an unopened condom and his tube of lubricant on his palm.

"These are yours," Kurt said shortly, his eyes shuttered.

"Oh. Sorry about that." Blaine walked over and barely got hold of them before Kurt was jerking his hand back like Blaine's touch was the last thing he wanted in the world. It made Blaine want to apologize all over again for making such a mess of things, but the best apology he could make was to put everything back to the way it was supposed to have been in the first place, before he needed too much, asked for too much, took too much.

Sometimes a fuck is just a fuck, Blaine.

It had been a great night, but that was all. He'd known that from the minute he'd taken Kurt's hand by the dance floor. And now it was over. It was time for a huge cup of coffee and a long day with his schoolwork, not regret for being unable to live up to his expectations of himself.

His chest so tight he could barely draw a full breath, Blaine stepped into the hallway and closed the door on the night and on Kurt.

It didn't matter that doing the right thing didn't always feel good in the moment. He could find consolation in knowing he'd still done it and made everything okay again.

He'd know better next time.

Chapter Text

Kurt to Tina: I need the greasiest and most calorie-filled breakfast known to humankind.

Kurt to Tina: And I probably don't want to talk about why.

Tina to Kurt: I'll be at your room in twenty. You don't have to talk, but you're getting a hug whether you like it or not.

Kurt to Tina: Thank you.

* * *

Blaine didn't check his messages after leaving Kurt's room until he was on his way to his own dorm after grabbing a coffee at the Union.

Julie to Blaine: Hit it!

Julie to Blaine: Hit it!!

Julie to Blaine: OMG! Hit it!!!

Meg to Blaine: sorry about J - I took her phone away (but omg nice one, take pictures)

Peter to Blaine: I think I'm jealous; he's wouldn't give me the time of day.

Rob to Blaine: orange soda? really? where's the caffeine?

Rob to Blaine: is this because i broke your hot plate?

He didn't reply to any of them until he'd showered away the last traces of his evening and was dressed and ready for his day. His coffee was cold, but his hands were steady.

Blaine to Rob: It was all they had.

Blaine to Rob: When did you break my hot plate??

Blaine to Sidney: 1 pm at our usual table? I have a copy of the notes from the class you missed.

Blaine to Julie: Thanks for dropping off the tequila. Come over tonight and share it with me?

* * *

It took two days for Kurt to stop going cold and drawing himself up straight as a ruler at the sight of a boy with well-kept dark hair walking past.

It took two more to make himself stop noticing them at all.

* * *

It was four o'clock on the dot on Friday afternoon when Kurt strode through the door of the music practice room, the only space he'd been able to reserve for his core Review staff meeting. It was small and had only one chair, but it had a door that shut and no distractions, so it would do; when they'd tried to meet in one of the dining halls, it had been impossible to keep everyone on track. Between food to fetch and to steal from each other's plates and the constant interruptions by acquaintances, the conversation had been derailed time and again.

"Is everybody here?" he asked, breaking into the chatter. He dropped his bag and looked around at the other students sitting on the floor. They had a lot to cover, and his mind was ticking along at full pace with ideas and details. He wasn't in the mood to chat.

"Ben's running late," Angelica said. Her eyes flicked over him from head to toe. "You going to be able to sit in that outfit, princess?"

"Of course." Kurt folded himself to the floor beside her with a roll of his eyes. His jacket, though impeccably tailored by his own hands to his proportions, had enough stretch to give with ease; he'd been sitting in all positions in tight jeans and boots for years. "I planned for the day. And when isn't Ben running late?"

"When there's a wet t-shirt contest," Ethan said.

"Next time I'll include that in my e-mail," Kurt replied. He reached into his bag and pulled out the appropriate folder. "Okay, let's start without him. It's not like we have a space for him to mock up the lighting in now, anyway."

"Still?" Ethan asked.

Kurt sighed and flipped through his papers for his notes. "Still."

Tina leaned forward around Angelica. "What about the Music department's seminar room? I thought we could get that one."

"They said no. Reserved for departmental use, even if nobody in the department wants it."

"But - "

"Can we drop this for now?" Kurt snapped, his temper threatening to fray from the frustration that made his jaw clench and his vision go white whenever he thought about the topic. It shouldn't be so difficult to get a space to use, but it was, and they needed to move onto other issues. "We'll keep trying, but we have to start planning the actual performance."

"Which we will be rehearsing on the sidewalk in front of the History building," Angelica muttered.

Kurt ignored the comment. "So let's talk theme."

"I thought we were waiting to discuss that with the whole cast," Tina said.

"I don't want a repeat of last semester," Kurt said. He couldn't find the paper he was looking for and put his folder down to sort through his bag. "Someone suggested we do a rainbow theme with each performer doing something about colors, and it got ugly fast. Queer theory, color wheels, fighting over whether 'Over the Rainbow' or 'Rainbow Connection' would be our finale. And that was just the first five minutes."

"Yeah, it was fun," Angelica said, nudging his foot with hers.

He pulled his leg back before she could scuff his boot and gave up on his search; he could reproduce from memory what he'd come up with, anyway. "I remember your Miss Piggy impression."

"Moi? You were more Kermit with your arms flailing around trying to get everyone's attention."

He preferred to remember it as him forcefully taking charge. "Anyway, I'd like to avoid a repeat. I want to go in with a few solid ideas that we can use if everyone else goes off the deep end."

"We did okay last year," Christa said, not looking up from her phone where her thumbs were drumming on the keyboard at a rapid pace.

"How many people are performing?" Kurt asked Tina, though he was well aware the number.

"We got it down to twenty-four," she replied.

"We had ten fewer people in the cast last year," Kurt told the group. "We're expanding. And trust me, with more people will come more arguments. We need to be ready to take charge."

"Are we going to need to salute you when you walk past?" Angelica asked.

"Don't be ridiculous." He drew in a centering breath and said, "Okay. Ideas. My first was Shakespeare."

"Forsooth!" Ethan cried with a dramatic sweep of his arm, and Tina giggled at him.

"Don't encourage him," Kurt told her, stifling his own grin.

Angelica nudged his boot again. "Isn't that kind of stuffy?"

"Not at all," he replied. "Obviously it gives the actors a bunch of classic material, but it's a theme, not a command performance for the RSC. There's everything that draws from his work: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Kiss Me Kate, West Side Story - "

"Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet!" Tina piped up.

"Exactly." He smiled at her, relieved that someone else could see his vision. "If we apply the theme loosely, it could cover everything from stage fighting to pop songs, even opera." He lifted his eyebrows pointedly at Angelica.

"That's great, but I still don't see why we aren't talking about this with everybody," she replied.

"We will," Kurt said, "but I think being prepared is important. Okay, my second idea is - "

"Kurt, it's common knowledge you like to control your life with an iron fist, but one of the reasons a lot of us like doing the Review is that it's a collaboration," Angelica said, looking around at the others in the room. He could smell the threat of mutiny in the air.

He straightened his back; he'd always liked Angelica for how she spoke her mind, but there were times when it was downright annoying. "This is a collaboration."

"For us - " She waved her hand at the group. " - maybe. But not for everyone."

"We'll talk with them about it next week when we all meet. This is a contingency plan."

"I think it'll be a better brainstorming session if we don't have one. We figured it out with the other shows, and look how well they turned out."

"We pulled out two miracles last year, and you know it. And this year is even bigger. The Review should be getting better. I don't know the cast at all. I haven't even seen them. I don't want this show derailed before we start because a couple of interpretive dancers want us all to do a tree theme and get everyone on board by passing out joints." He could picture it, everything he was working toward just fluttering away in the wind.

"Hey," Christa protested.

"Interpretive dancers who aren't you," Kurt said with a wave of his hand, because he did like her.

Angelica leaned forward and said seriously, "We all know you have control issues, but you gave me and Tina the job of casting the show. You've got to trust us that we didn't let in the crazies, Kurt. We want this to go well, too."

Tina nodded. "We even tested them to make sure they answer e-mail and texts quickly."

"It still makes sense to be prepared," Kurt said, because as much as he did trust them the Review was his project, his passion, his outlet for expressing himself, part of his plan for fighting his way into the career he wanted when he wasn't at the best school for it with all of the clout and opportunities it would have afforded, and he couldn't give it up easily. "I don't know why you're arguing about it."

"Part of why I like doing this show is that we all get to be creative," Angelica said. "We aren't being told by our departments or advisors what we can and cannot do."

"Obviously I like that, too," he replied, willing her to listen and understand. "I just want to make sure we keep on track."

"But we get to set the track," Angelica said. "That's the whole point."

"And that's what I'm trying to do," he snapped.

She threw her hands up in the air and slumped back against the wall. "Oh my god, you know I love you, Kurt, but you are so fucking uptight!"

"I am not going to apologize for wanting to avert a catastrophe before it starts," he said, drawing himself up even straighter.

"A catastrophe?"

"I'm sorry, do you not know the definition of the word?" he asked archly.

"And here come the claws," Christa said. She thumbed off her phone and raised her head to watch.

"Kurt - " Tina started, but Angelica cut her off.

"You have such a stick up your ass," Angelica said, throwing her phone and her binder into her backpack. "Or maybe you just fucking need something up there more often so you'll relax a little."

An entirely unacceptable image of Blaine beneath him, his face flushed with pleasure as Kurt slowly pushed into him, flashed before Kurt's eyes. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end at the sense memory of the way Blaine's body had welcomed him inside, the eager way he'd held Kurt close and clenched around him, the way he'd asked for that and for more from him, and Kurt's throat closed for a moment before he could reply.

"I am not going to dignify that with a response." He bit off every word and tried very, very hard not to think about anything about that night and how incredibly stupid he'd been to have opened himself up to the next morning's rejection.

"A good fuck'll knock that dignity right out of you, too." She tried to zip her bag shut, but the fury in her gesture made the zipper catch, and she pulled the backpack onto her lap to try to sort it out.

"Come on, guys," Ethan said, but Kurt didn't care.

"Contrary to what the majority of this school might think, that's not the answer to everything," he snapped.

"I'm pretty sure it's the answer to this," she snarled back.

"Angelica, Kurt, let's focus on why we're here," Tina said, laying her hand on Angelica's arm.

Angelica shrugged it off and managed to get her bag zipped. "You guys can fucking figure it out. I'm leaving. I'll talk about this stuff next week with everybody else. The way we should be."

"Ang," Ethan said.

She stood up and whirled on him. "I am not going to sit here and be told what to do by some stuck up prude who needs to learn how to listen."

"And I am not going to sit here and be insulted because I care about this project and because I don't go around acting like a two-bit whore on the weekend like most of the student body," he replied.

"Oh, really?" Angelica's smile turned cruel and delighted. "That's not what I heard."

"Angelica," Tina said in warning.

"I do have friends who were at that dance, Kurt. Or did you not know what to do with whatever poor guy you snagged once you got him all to yourself? Let me give you a hint; the good stuff is under his belt."

Kurt could feel the blood draining from his face in horror, in mortification, in razor sharp, ice cold fury. It was bad enough knowing people were telling tales about him, but for them to be thrown back at him in such an insulting and revolting way… "You," he said viciously, rising to his feet, "have absolutely no idea - "

The door swung open, and Ben bounded through. "I'm here, let the party - " He took in Angelica and Kurt's postures, the frozen faces on the other three students in the room, and stopped in his tracks. "Am I late?"

"Actually, I think we're just getting to the good part," Christa said.

Kurt bit back all of the nasty things he wanted to say as he watched Angelica blink herself away from the harsh edge of her mood.

He knew her well enough from the past year to be sure she was as quick to get over her anger as she was to rise to it, and if he was going to have a harder time coming down he needed her for the Review if nothing else. That she would throw his stupid decisions in his face in a fight made him glad he never let her that close otherwise.

And it had been such a fucking stupid decision to go to that dance and to give himself over to a boy like that, no matter how lovely and sincere Blaine had seemed, no matter how much of a connection it had felt they'd had while having sex, no matter how special it had seemed and how wonderful it had been to be trusted to go further than he had before, to be wanted that way, to be asked to share so much, because the impersonal, rushed way he'd left the next morning had made it so painfully clear how much Blaine was like everybody else, in it for himself and nothing further. It still made him sick to think of how different he'd been in the light of day.

He'd known Blaine would leave, of course he had, he wasn't so lost in his own desires that he'd completely lost touch with reality, but for Blaine to have barely have taken a breath before he had fled had been a shock. It had made it all seem so cheap, every sweet touch a lie, a means to an end.

At least Kurt had learned from it. It was a good reminder, really, not to let his heart get ahead of him and see things that weren't there. It was a reminder of where he had to focus his energy: on his career. Maybe when he was older he could let his heart dream of more than that.

Right now he had to focus on his future, and the Review was part of his plan to get what he wanted out of it. The Review had to come first.

"We were talking about a few themes for the show," Tina said to Ben, her eyes on Kurt.

"And then we got a little off topic," Ethan added.

"It was fun," Christa said.

"Okay. What did we come up with?" Ben asked.

Angelica took a deep breath and then shrugged, dropping her bag beside her; some of the fight drained from Kurt as her posture relaxed, even if the hurt remained. "Kurt was in the middle of telling us about his ideas," she said. "The first one was good."

She sank to the floor, and he knew it was the best apology he was going to get from her. So Kurt sat down, too, as Ben got settled, and he forced a tight smile and went on with the meeting. It was polite and stilted, but when they broke up forty-five minutes later they had five solid ideas to fall back on if the full-cast brainstorming session looked like it was going to go poorly.

As he was gathering his things afterwards, Angelica came over and put her arms around him from the side. "I love that you're as fierce as your boots," she said.

"Thank you," he replied, trying not to stiffen at the hug, because he knew she was trying to mend things. He should let her. He needed her, and most of the time he liked her, too. "Even if the term 'fierce' is so four years ago."

"Well, not all of us are as on top of these things are you are."

"It's my cross to bear." He managed a smile and gave her a one-armed hug back.

"Dinner tomorrow?" she asked. "It's make your own crepe night."

Right then, spending more time with her felt like the equivalent of rubbing lemon juice and salt into an open wound, but he knew he'd have himself back together by then. "I'll text you."

"Great." Angelica's smile was warm and real before she turned and left.

Kurt let out a slow breath and tried to make his muscles unlock as the room descended into silence beyond the rustling of his papers. The meeting was over, and so was the unexpected confrontation. He couldn't let it throw him. He'd just have to find some time to do some yoga later before the knots set in for good.

And he'd have to put out of his mind the reality that people were talking about his behavior. He couldn't stop them, and if - when - he became famous he'd have to get used to it, anyway. Tabloids and gossip columns were vicious.

"Are you okay?" Tina asked, and he startled at the sound of her soft voice. He'd thought he was alone.

"Yes," he replied. "It went well. I'd be happy with any of our themes."

"Kurt." She knelt down beside him and put her hand on his shoulder. He didn't know why everybody was touching him all of a sudden, when for once he didn't want people touching him because his body still felt too sensitive and alive for its own good.

He breathed in again and met her eyes. If Angelica instinctively knew how to throw just the right things at him when she was angry, Tina knew how to see when blows landed, even when he was trying to hide it.

"I'm okay," he told her, because he would be.

"What happened? I know you said you didn't want to talk about it, but - "

"I don't."

"Kurt.'

He sank back on his heels and let the strap of his bag slide through his hands. "I was stupid. You were there for the walk of shame breakfast."

"How stupid?" she asked, leaning in. "Please tell me you were safe, because - "

He nodded quickly. "Of course I was. I made a bad decision; I'm not brain dead."

She smiled a little and relaxed to sit cross-legged on the floor. "Okay, good. So what was the decision?"

"If we overlook going to the party at all, it was that I brought a boy back to my room," he said, the words threatening to catch in his throat, because he couldn't be proud of it. "You know that."

"I also know you're avoiding the question."

He tilted his head in acknowledgement. "Maybe because I don't want to talk about it."

"Kurt." Tina touched his arm again. "You've talked about all of the other ones with me. What's so different this time? You don't have to give me details you don't want, but I'm worried. Did you do something you didn't want to? Did he hurt you?"

"Oh my god," he said, smoothing down the lapel of his jacket. "No." He forced himself to remember this was Tina and let himself feel the kindness behind her concern instead of his mortification at how he'd been touched by the liberties Blaine had allowed him. As misplaced as the worry was, it warmed him that she cared that much. "Thank you, but no. It was nothing like that."

"Okay." She sat and watched him.

"I - " Kurt twisted so that he was sitting on the floor and not his feet. He took a slow breath and let his barriers down just enough to tell her. He knew he should. He knew he couldn't keep it all inside, not without the risk of him making another stupid decision down the line. It was when he was feeling so much pressure that he couldn't breathe that he did that.

"He was nice," he said to his knees as he drew them up in front of himself. "Really nice. We danced for a while, and he was cute and funny and kind of adorable. Sweet. When we got to my room... he wanted to take his time. He wanted a connection. It wasn't just a normal hookup; it was more than that. It was so much more. And I thought he was different, too. Not - I didn't think we were going to date or anything, but I thought he was different. And he wasn't." He laughed, but it hurt to get the sound out. He'd been so stupid to read anything into a guy who just happened to be a little more generous in bed than the rest of his fairly limited experience. "God, he really wasn't."

"What happened?"

"He couldn't get out fast enough in the morning. He could barely look at me." Kurt met her sympathy-filled eyes. "It's not like I was expecting a declaration of love, Tina. But it was so clear that what he wanted was over, and he admitted he'd meant to leave during the night." The room blurred, and Kurt blinked to clear his vision, because he was not going to cry about this. It wasn't worth it. "It had been so nice to wake up with someone, even if it wasn't, you know, someone special. It had felt good." It had felt like it had been okay for him to want the things he truly wanted, because even in a hookup another boy wanted a hint of them, too. Except Blaine hadn't. He'd just fallen asleep. Kurt shook his head to try to drive out that awful, painful thought. "And then he just thanked me, told me I was great, and left as quickly as he could."

"Oh, Kurt..."

He turned his eyes to the ceiling and laughed again. "I wonder if I can put that on my resume somewhere. 'Random one night stand says I'm 'great'."

Tina put her arms around him, and he hugged her back but didn't let himself lean his head on her shoulder. He didn't need it. He could do this alone. He had to be able to do this alone. "Someday you're going to find the most perfect guy," she told him, "and he's going to think you're the most amazing person in the world, Kurt. He's going to love you more than anything. And he's going to want you love him right back the same way."

He squeezed her a little more tightly, because, god, he wanted that so badly his whole body ached from the inside out if he thought about it too much. It felt like he was missing something so important, so basic, and he didn't know why he had to live without it, even though he could. But, the reality was - "Today is not that day." After another few seconds, Kurt pulled away again. "It's okay. I know how to wait."

Tina reached out for his hand. "I'm sorry you have to."

"That's life," he said, rising to his feet and using their linked hands to pull her to hers. "Come on, it's way too late in the day for breakfast, but you at least owe me a coffee for making me talk about it that much."

"That seems fair. I'll even buy you one with whipped cream." Grinning, she slung her bag over her shoulder.

Kurt snorted. "No, thank you. Now, a shot of hazelnut I'll consider."

"It's a deal."

* * *

Wes to Blaine: Time to let you in on one of New York's best kept musical secrets. Karaoke at Cliff's, Saturday at 8:30.

Blaine to Wes: Does this officially make me your padawan?

Wes to Blaine: Esther is going to be there. Please keep Jedi references to a minimum.

Blaine to Wes: As you wish.

Wes to Blaine: And Princess Bride references.

Blaine to Wes: But I am not left handed!

Wes to Blaine: Did I say Saturday night? I meant 3pm on Sunday at The Keg.

Wes to Blaine: In Paterson.

Blaine to Wes: New Jersey? Really? And I thought you liked me.

Wes to Blaine: I like my new girlfriend. I'd like her to continue to like me.

Wes to Blaine: You I'm not so sure about.

Blaine to Wes: Is that any way to talk to a fellow Warbler? That's almost besmirching the Dalton seal we wore so proudly.

Wes to Blaine: That's a low blow, bringing the seal into it.

Blaine to Wes: :-D See you on Saturday!

* * *

The main restaurant at Cliff's was fancy enough - all polished chrome details and pressed linen - that Blaine wondered when he walked in if he was in the right place. The diners were dressed nicely, and the music was low and tasteful. Still, the address and the name were right, so he stepped up to the little podium to see if he could clear up the confusion.

The greeter took one look at Blaine's henley and jeans and asked, "Karaoke?"

"Yes," he replied with a relieved smile.

She smiled back. "That's downstairs. It's the next awning over, but you can take the stairs."

He thanked her and followed her gesture to a staircase half-hidden behind some drapery. The atmosphere at the downstairs bar was much more like he'd expected: the groups around the small tables brimming with energy, servers weaving through with trays of drinks, a well-stocked bar standing to one side, and music pouring from the stage. He took a moment to appreciate the petite brunette not just belting out "Big Spender" but playing with the patrons at the tables at the edge of the stage as she sang.

A quick glance found Wes sitting on the upholstered bench that spanned the entire back of the room, and Wes waved him over and greeted him with a handshake.

"Blaine, glad you could make it," he said.

"Getting to meet Esther and karaoke? I wouldn't have missed it." Blaine smiled at the pretty woman beside Wes; she didn't exactly look his type, with her chin-length hair teased out at edgy angles, but she was leaning into Wes like she was perfectly happy to be there.

"And you're exactly the smooth talker Wes promised you would be," she said.

"Hey, 'smooth talker' implies that I'm not sincere," he objected as he sat in the free chair at the side of the table, putting a hand over his heart.

"Blaine," Wes assured Esther, "is always sincere."

Smiling at the compliment it most surely was, Blaine leaned back and glanced at the singer, who was winding up for her big finish. "Wow, she has quite a voice, huh?"

Wes nodded. "A lot of music students come here. They like how big the library is. It's more than just pop and country."

"Nothing wrong with pop."

"Or country," Esther added.

Wes's head snapped toward her, and although he quickly schooled his face neither of his companions missed the look of utter horror that passed across it. Blaine got his feet under him beneath the chair, ready to excuse himself and get a round of drinks to give them a bit of privacy, but Esther just leaned her forehead on Wes's shoulder and started to laugh.

"Oh my god, you should have seen your expression, Wes!" she said, gulping in air.

Blaine began to grin, both in relief and in delight that she was teasing Wes. This night was going to be great. "Do you think they have any Shania Twain?" he asked Esther. "The three of us should go up and sing some together."

Wes took a long gulp of his beer. "I am seriously regretting tonight already."

"And I can't sing," Esther said. "But you two should totally go do some Shania. Or maybe Billy Ray?"

"Everybody can sing," Blaine told her.

"Nope." She pointed at her throat. "Croaking frog. I love music, but I have to play it, not sing it."

Blaine couldn't imagine not being able to open his mouth and just pour himself out through song. It had to be like being born mute, but he also loved to play music, so the two of them chatted for a little while about her love of the violin while a group of guys performed a pretty credible version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" on stage and Wes welcomed a couple more friends to the table.

"If you want to sing, you should go put your name on the list," Esther said during the short break in the music.

Blaine glanced up toward the stage. "I wouldn't want to be rude - "

"Please. It's karaoke, and I want to hear you sing," she said. "Wes has told me a lot about your time together in the Warblers."

Blaine smiled over at Wes where he was looking quite seriously at something on one of his friends' phones. "We had a lot of fun."

She nudged his arm. "So go sing something. You sign up at the bar."

"Okay. Would you like anything to drink while I'm there?"

She lifted her mostly full glass and shook her head. "I'm good, thanks."

So Blaine wove through the tables to the bar and found the sign up sheet on the edge, printing his name at the bottom of the list and wondering how on earth he'd know when it was his turn. He scanned the page. By process of elimination, that group had to have been Gary, Greg, and Gus, so this was Juan singing "When You're Good to Mama" on stage, and there were two more names after his before Blaine's.

Since he didn't know the bartender to be able to get anything stronger, Blaine ordered a water at the bar and turned to look at the room while he waited for his drink. The room was filling up, and given the outfits and loud personalities present it did seem to be a theatrical crowd, which explained the far better than average performances he'd heard so far. He smiled to himself; it was yet another place he could fit in here.

The bartender slid his drink over to him, and Blaine thanked him, dropped a tip in the jar, and turned back toward his friends. As he did, though, his eye caught on a familiar face - an Asian girl laughing up at the boy beside her. Her expression faltered when she saw him like she was trying to place him, and then she smiled brightly and waved her hand.

It was Tina, he realized happily as he made his way over; he hadn't seen her since his audition, though he'd heard from her a number of times via e-mail about the Review.

She got up and hugged him when he got over to the table, and he let himself be pushed forward. "Blaine, these are Mike, Rachel, Jean-Claude, Ethan, and Priya. Everybody? This is Blaine. He was - " She leaned toward Rachel, pausing for effect. " - a Warbler." She nudged him another tiny step forward.

Laughing and rubbing a little at the back of his neck, Blaine nodded and admitted, "I was."

"We beat you," Rachel - the amazing soprano he'd heard when he'd first arrived - told him. She stood up and offered him her hand. "Rachel Berry, formerly the lead female soloist of New Directions. Although I was graciously allowing other members of the group to shine when we went up against you."

"Blaine Anderson, formerly the lead soloist of the Warblers," he replied, shaking her hand politely. "And I would definitely have remembered hearing you sing before. You're exceptional."

"Yes, I am. Thank you," she said, but the delighted sparkle in her eye made the self-confidence charming instead of unappealing. "Since we're no longer in competition, would you like to sit?"

Blaine glanced over his shoulder at his friends, who were happily talking at their own table. "I'm up in a minute or two," he said.

"Then you can wait here until then, right?" Tina offered him her chair and perched herself in Mike's lap; he had to be the boyfriend from Tisch.

"Thanks," he said, smiling around at them as he sat.

"Blaine's going to be in the Review," Tina said.

"Oh, are you a music major?" Rachel asked.

Blaine shook his head. "I'm officially undecided. I'm trying to treat the world like my oyster."

Some of the interest in Rachel's eyes died, and she turned toward Jean-Claude, murmuring something in his ear over the sounds of a version of Sinatra's "New York, New York" from the stage.

"But I'm excited about the Review," he added quickly, and Tina smiled at him.

"First full meeting on Tuesday!" she said.

"It'll be great to get everybody together," Ethan said. "That's the fun part, the big messy ball of creativity."

"For some of us," Tina replied with a knowing laugh. She turned back to Blaine. "So what are you going to sing?"

"Um." Blaine swallowed, suddenly nervous that he'd missed something. "I didn't realize we had to know that yet. I thought we had to pick a theme, and - "

"I meant up there." She nodded at the stage.

"Oh." He rubbed at his neck again. "I don't know. My friend's girlfriend wants me to do something country, but that's kind of a cruel joke to play on another Warbler."

"There's another Warbler here?" Mike asked.

Ethan frowned at them. "What's with the Warbler thing? Are you guys going to rumble like gangs in old movies?"

"We were in rival show choirs in high school," Tina told him.

"Rival show choirs? It must be an Ohio thing."

"Hey, we went to Nationals." Tina poked Ethan's arm.

"We didn't," Blaine said, smiling to try to ease the mood a little. "Because this guy - " He gestured to Mike, whose eyes brightened at the recognition. " - danced his feet off."

"I thought you were choirs," Ethan said. "There was dancing, too? You know what? Tell me later. I need another beer."

"What's with him?" Mike asked Tina quietly when Ethan headed for the bar.

"We had a tough meeting last night," she replied. "Angelica really went off, and that set - "

"Excuse me," Blaine said, rising to his feet; the conversation felt like none of his business. "I need to go look at their library and figure out what I'd like to sing."

Tina smiled up at him. "Sure. Come by again if you'd like. It's nice seeing you."

Blaine nodded his thanks, waved at the rest of the table, and went over to the thick binder of karaoke selections. It was organized by genre, so he flipped to pop and thumbed through until he found something recent and peppy. He wanted to turn the mood of the room a little from all of the show tunes to something bubblier.

He supposed he should have been nervous to perform in front of so many talented people, but it actually took some of the pressure off. He wasn't the only one who had to captivate them for the night. He didn't have to worry about getting the set just right to hold their energy for a half hour; he only had to grab them for a few minutes. He knew how to do that.

So he sang his heart out, flirted just a little with a few female members of the audience through the choruses, and drank in the applause at the end before bounding back to Wes and Esther at the back of the room.

"That was great!" Esther said, drawing him down beside her. "Even if you didn't sing country."

"It seemed rude; Wes was the one who invited me here," Blaine replied.

Wes raised his glass in thanks. "You're still in good voice."

"I got another callback for one of the a cappella groups." Blaine drained his own water in a long gulp; he was always so thirsty after performing. "The fun one, not the formal one." It was the one he liked better, anyway, even if it stung not to make the cut for both.

"After that performance, I think a fun group is the right fit for you," Esther said. "Leave the stuffy Barbershop to Wes."

"The Kingsmen sing much more than Barbershop," Wes said, drawing himself up, and Esther cracked up again.

"He is so easy," she told Blaine as Wes rolled his eyes and wasn't quite able to hold back a smile.

"I really like her," Blaine said to Wes, charmed. Wes had been many things to him over the years, from mentor to friend, but Blaine rarely got to see him so relaxed.

Esther patted Wes's hand. "This was a good idea."

"At least the music is good," Wes replied, but he pulled her close and pressed a kiss to her forehead before settling back to listen to the next performer.

Blaine chatted with a couple of Esther's friends from Columbia until his attention was pulled to the stage again by Tina and Mike singing "Ease on Down"; Mike's voice was solid enough to hold its own, but her soprano was so light and infectious and their energy so warm that it made Blaine's mood lighten that much more just to watch them. His heel was bouncing against the floor, his fingers tapping his glass.

"I'm going up again," he announced when they were finished. "Want to come with me, Wes? A little 'Raise Your Glass' for old time's sake?"

"I need at least one more beer before I can think about Pink," Wes replied, raising his hand to call over a server.

"Okay, I'll go solo again. Unless..." Blaine trailed off, looking expectantly at Esther.

She shook her head. "Trust me. But Dee can do a mean Cyndi Lauper, even if she's too shy to go up alone."

So Blaine led Esther's friend up to the stage and sang backing harmonies on "She Bop" to her actually very good Cyndi, and the buzz from the audience was good enough that he put his name down again before he rejoined the table. It wasn't the same as having the crowd in the palm of his hand as the frontman of the Warblers, but the shared fun of it was energizing in a different but wonderful way. It was everyone singing, like the whole room was a bigger and better Warblers party, only with no shadow of pressure to lead and no ghost of past mistakes to haunt him.

It was almost as fun as dancing with a gorgeous boy who kept smiling at you each time you twirled him out under the sparkling lights, but karaoke had far fewer ways for Blaine to mess it up at the end of an amazing night.

When he got back to his friends, he was surprised to find some new faces there: Rachel, Tina, Jean-Claude, and Mike had pulled over another table to join them.

"I remember you now," Rachel said, patting the seat beside her. "It's a shame you aren't interested in performing as a career; with some training, your energy could be harnessed into something very compelling."

"Uh, thanks?" Blaine smiled; he was pretty sure she meant it nicely.

Tina laughed down at her phone and typed out a message. "Now he says whoever decided to pair navy blazers with grey pants needs to be run out of Ohio to somewhere even less fashionable."

"What?" Blaine asked with a laugh.

"There's another one of them," Wes explained.

"He's home sick," Tina said, sliding her phone into her pocket again.

"We're outnumbered," Wes said. "And they're insulting the Dalton uniform."

"You know what this means," Blaine said with mock gravity, looking at them all one by one.

"A sing-off," Rachel replied, equally serious; Blaine wasn't quite sure she was faking it.

Tina pressed her clasped hands to her chest. "Can't we all just get along?" she said in an overly breathy voice.

"Maybe we should stick together, Ohio against the rest of the city," Mike said.

Wes toasted him with his beer. "Bury the old rivalries for the sake of a new one?"

"Exactly."

"Well," Rachel said slowly, "I suppose that would be all right. I propose we seal this deal the only way we can. With a duet."

"I just happen to be the next singer up," Blaine said, rising to his feet and offering her his hand. "May I have the honor?"

Rachel put her hand in his and regally rose to join him. "May we put this period of enmity behind us," she told the table and promptly broke out in giggles before pulling Blaine toward the stage.

Blaine had already seen that Rachel was an amazing singer, and when she chose "As Long As You're Mine" from Wicked he knew he'd have to be on top form to match her; something pop would have been much easier for him. But even if she was challenging him she was also a generous performer, and she wove her harmonies around him when he had to stretch for a note or two before soaring up above him again. Her smile was wide, her eyes glittering with the elation he also shared at their partnership, and she squeezed his hand hard through the final stanzas. He squeezed right back.

"You are quite a find," she said, giving him a hug as the crowd applauded them. "I'm so glad we've put aside our differences."

The rest of the night was a game of musical chairs as the Ohio contingent took as many slots as they could around the other patrons. Blaine sang again with Rachel (the next time, to his relief, "Stop Dragging My Heart Around"), Wes with Mike ("Under Pressure"), Blaine with Tina ("Let's Call the Whole Thing Off"), Rachel with Tina and a very reluctant Esther ("It's Raining Men"), Wes with Rachel ("Sixteen Going On Seventeen"), Blaine with Mike ("Billie Jean"), Tina with Rachel ("Beautiful Stranger", and the song's chorus repeating the title made Blaine's smile turn wistful for a moment as he thought longingly yet again of that attractive, gentle boy he'd overstayed his welcome with the previous weekend), and more in various combinations until finally, finally Wes, Blaine, and Mike tackled "Raise Your Glass" to cap off the night. Mike even caught onto the sloppy choreography.

It was one of the best nights Blaine had ever had, he realized as they poured out of the door as the bar shut down, and it made his throat feel tight to know that it was over. The thing was, though, that he could do it again. It wasn't a one time thing. He lived here now. They could all get together and do it again, if they wanted. He could have this. He could have these friends and this life, so much more freedom and acceptance than he ever had before.

"This was great," Tina said, wrapping her arms around his waist and giving him a tight hug before pulling back to lean against Mike in the chill of the night.

"It really was," Blaine said, not even trying to fight his own smile. "I'm glad Wes invited me here tonight."

"It's one of New York's hidden secrets," Rachel said.

"That's what I told him," Wes said, and they grinned at each other.

There was an awkward moment of silence as they stood on the sidewalk, and Wes broke it by saying, "We're going back to Columbia if any of you wants to share the subway with us."

"Before we do that - " Rachel put her hand out, palm up, obviously waiting for something from Blaine. She waggled her fingers. "Your phone?" Blaine was so surprised that he took it from his pocket and handed it to her. She spoke as she started typing. "We always come here the first Saturday of the month. If you'd like to be on my e-vite list, just send me an e-mail. I'd be happy to include you." She repeated the process with Wes's phone, which he gave her with an amused lift of his eyebrows.

"Thanks, Rachel," Blaine said.

"Those of us from Ohio have to stick together," she replied, pulling a pair of gloves from her coat and slipping them on. "We know what it means to be here." She took Jean-Claude's arm and waved. "Good night!"

Blaine slid his own hands into the pockets of his jeans and smiled his goodbyes as everyone walked away. It didn't matter that he was the only one going his direction, because Tina was going back to Mike's. He was still happy.

This was his new city. This was his new life. After how complicated his time at Dalton had ended up being because of Sebastian and all of the tension within the Warblers his last year, it felt so good to be free from it. It felt good to be meeting new people who had entirely different expectations of him and who just wanted to have fun doing the same kinds of things he liked to do. It felt good that he didn't have to worry he was letting anybody down.

It felt good finally to be doing things almost entirely right.

* * *

Rachel to Kurt: I had to find a new duet partner last night.

Kurt to Rachel: I'm feeling a little better, thank you for asking.

Rachel to Kurt: We sang Wicked.

Kurt to Rachel: Am I supposed to be jealous?

Rachel to Kurt: Yes.

Kurt to Rachel: I'm not.

Rachel to Kurt: Yes, you are.

Kurt to Rachel: Fine, I am. Wicked? Really? I thought that was ours.

Rachel to Kurt: I was teaching you a lesson. And him a little, but mostly you. The show must go on, Kurt! What's a little cold to a future Broadway star?

Kurt to Rachel: I had a fever! But thank you for your belief in my career prospects.

Rachel to Kurt: I was talking about me. But you, too!

* * *

As Blaine was crossing the quad toward the theater building on Tuesday afternoon, he saw Tina on a parallel path encumbered by a bag on her back and a big banker's box in her arms. He jogged across the grass toward her and reached for the box.

"May I?" he asked.

"Blaine, hi! And yes, please." She handed it over to him with a relieved smile.

He wasn't surprised at her reaction when he felt the heft of the box; it was quite heavy, though not too much for him to manage. "Wow. What's in here? Rocks? Are you a Geo major?"

"No," she said with a laugh, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. "Just a lot of paper. Idea books, music scores, various plays, books about all types of theater and music. Anything we might need for brainstorming."

"As much as I admire the whole old fashioned research thing going on, don't we have internet access?" he asked.

She grinned at him and shrugged. "It's best not to question the master. If he wants to be prepared, we'll be prepared. Now I don't have to go to the gym today. Neither do you."

"How do you know I go to the gym at all? Maybe I work out by helping pretty young ladies carry boxes across campus all day."

"Yeah, that's totally efficient. Besides, you told me you were gay. I'd be more likely to believe you if you said you were helping pretty young men."

Blaine somehow managed not to laugh. "You make an excellent point," he said as seriously as he could. "I'll have to rethink my plan."

Tina giggled and adjusted her bulging shoulder bag; he was really getting to like making her laugh. "Next time talk to me first. I'll help you troubleshoot."

"Oh, thank you," he said, and he found he actually meant it, not for his hypothetical workout-slash-dating plans but because it was kind of nice that even in a joke she took their burgeoning friendship as a given.

"Hey, it's the least I can do in return for you carrying that box. If you promise to help me out with sets and stuff, I'll even try to find you a boyfriend, myself, so you can skip the schlepping."

Blaine just kept smiling, not showing how the idea of any sort of serious dating made his muscles threaten to seize and his skin feel brittle. "I'd rather get a promise for another duet or two the next time we do karaoke instead."

"It's a deal," she replied. "As many duets as you want."

"I'd shake on it, only..." He lifted the box to show that his hands were occupied.

"Here." Tina reached out and put her hand over his at the edge of the box, jiggling it a little. "I'm sealing this thing before you realize you just agreed to work on the crew for the show."

"I was already planning on offering," he admitted. "You've mentioned it in every email, and I'm not afraid of getting my hands dirty if it'll help."

Tina beamed at him. "Thank you. You're the best. It will help so much. Everybody wants to be on stage, but there's a ton to do behind the scenes, too." She gave his arm a squeeze and then skipped ahead a few steps to grab the door for him. "After you, kind sir." She dipped into a curtsy as he passed, and he caught the door with his foot and bowed as best he could with the box as she followed him into the building.

"So are you excited about this meeting?" Blaine asked, falling into step beside her.

"Yes! It'll be great to have everybody together in the same room finally. There are only a few more scheduling things I'll need to tackle, and then I can actually focus on my homework."

"My roommate keeps telling me we don't have to do homework in college," Blaine said with a shake of his head. "He insists it's optional."

Tina laughed. "I hope he enjoys academic probation."

"Yeah, I think he's going to be surprised when we hit mid-terms and he hasn't done any of the reading." Blaine made a mental note to try to talk to Rob again about it before he failed the semester. Maybe he should drop a discreet hint to their RA.

They turned a corner and arrived at the open door of one of the classrooms. "Here we are," Tina said over her shoulder as she went inside. There were more than a dozen students inside, most of them standing around chatting or sitting in the rows of chairs facing the front of the room. "You can put the box - oh, he's here! Come on, there's someone I want you to meet."

She led him up the center aisle to the teacher's desk set off to the side at the front. There was a slender boy standing there with his back to them as he flipped through a few tidy piles, and there was something about the neatness of his hair and the line of his nicely broad shoulders in the crisply tailored military green jacket that pinged Blaine's memory.

"O captain, my captain!" Tina said, bouncing up to him and grinning as she saluted. "I brought reinforcements. Say hi."

As soon as the boy's profile came into view, Blaine knew why his back seemed so familiar. It was Kurt. It was Kurt, whom Blaine had watched dancing from all angles the other night. It was Kurt, who'd been even more amazing and enthralling up close. It was Kurt, who had been kind and funny in a really great, sarcastic way. It was Kurt, who here in the daylight somehow managed to be even more extraordinarily gorgeous than Blaine had let himself remember. Blaine found himself smiling before Kurt even was half turned.

"Kurt? This is Blaine Anderson. Blaine? This is Kurt Hummel." Tina gestured between the two of them in introduction.

"Hi," Blaine said, sorry that his hands were busy with the box so he couldn't offer one to shake; a part of him wanted to touch even a little of Kurt's skin to see if it felt as good as his alcohol-hazed memory insisted. Mostly, though, he'd liked Kurt, and it was a treat to see him again now that the awkwardness of the morning was past. It was nice that their paths had crossed.

Kurt did not smile in return. Instead he froze when his gaze landed on Blaine's face, not quite meeting his eyes; the only change in his expression was the blood draining out of his face, and he was utterly still for a moment before he said, "I see." Then he turned back to his paperwork in obvious dismissal. "Do you have my prop lists in there, or have I misplaced them?"

Tina shot Blaine an apologetic glance before she leaned in and said, "Kurt, Blaine's just agreed to help us out on tech crew. Isn't that great?"

"Wonderful," Kurt replied without inflection. He flicked his hand at the box. "Prop lists?"

Blaine stepped forward and put the box on a clear part of the desk, trying not to show his confusion. Kurt had been cool at first the other night, too, but Blaine had the feeling that if he had extended his hand when Tina reintroduced them Kurt wouldn't have taken it. It was possible that he was very focused on the meeting ahead; it was probably a bad time to meet new people, even if Blaine wasn't exactly someone new.

So Blaine rubbed his palm on his jeans, summoned up the manners he knew so well, and said, "I'll get out of your way."

"Thank you again for your help," Tina said warmly. "And I'm holding you to your promise."

"I don't make promises if I don't mean them," Blaine assured her, and since Kurt's stiff back was still turned to him he just slipped away to find a seat.

Over the next few minutes, another dozen or so students filtered in, but Blaine's attention was mostly focused on Kurt. He tried not to stare, but he kept sneaking glances at him where he was talking with Tina and Angelica, going over notes, leaning over Angelica's shoulder to watch her count something on her clipboard, nodding hello with a tight smile to someone across the room. Kurt's movements were crisp and controlled, not as loose-limbed as he'd been on the dance floor but confident nonetheless.

The impression of confidence only intensified as Tina and Angelica went to sit by the side of the room with a couple other students and Kurt stepped into the center of the floor. Blaine was used to performers and the way they turned on when they took the stage, but he realized Kurt didn't go from off to on; he turned up. He'd already been moving through the world like he expected eyes to focus on him, but he went from expecting the attention to demanding it as his right as he took his place.

"Hello, everyone," he said, waiting with a sardonic tilt of his eyebrow for silence to fall. "I'm Kurt Hummel, the founder and director of the Independent Student Review. Thank you all for wanting to be a part of the show. Let me answer the three most frequently asked questions now to save us all some time. One: yes, this is actually my real voice. Two: yes, I'm gay, how clever of you to figure it out." He rolled his eyes. "And three: unless you happen to have access to high end designers' studios, no, I don't want to go shopping with or for you." The last got him more than a smattering of laughter, but Blaine wasn't entirely sure any of it was a joke. Kurt had said his default mode was cynical, and that appeared to be accurate.

"I started the Review last year with a couple of similarly frustrated students when it was clear that the usual departmental and school-sponsored performances were both too small and too traditional to showcase the wide range of talent we actually have here. I left a long rant on the main undergrad forum about it, a handful of students agreed with me, and here we are." He smiled over at Angelica and the others, and Blaine realized they must be the core group leading the Review. "The point of the ISR is for us to show what we can do, that we don't have to fit into a particular box or have a particular major to be up on stage. Some of us are Broadway-bound, and some of us are electrical engineers, but we all are here because we share a passion and a talent for performing." He paused for a brief, dramatic moment as his smile turned fierce. "And we're going to make the rest of the school see it."

There was a murmur of excitement in the room at that, and even Blaine could feel his pulse pound a little faster. He did love to perform. This was going to be fun, and not just because of getting to spend time with someone as passionate and driven as Kurt.

"I'm going to let Angelica go through some logistics and introductions, and then we'll start brainstorming for a theme for this semester's production. Any questions so far?" Kurt nodded at Angelica, whose arm shot up. "Did I forget something?"

"I just wanted to know if you wanted to go shopping with me," she replied.

Kurt snorted out a laugh, and to Blaine it felt the first sign of entirely genuine emotion he'd seen from him so far that day. "Emphatically no."

"Oh well. It was worth a try." Angelica got up and took his place in front of the group, and Kurt went to sit beside Tina, crossing one leg over the other and leaning over to murmur something in her ear. "Hey guys, as you all know, I'm Angelica. I'm the stage manager and de facto ass kicker of the group, though that's only because Kurt doesn't like to get his boots scuffed. But he does bite, so I'd watch out." Blaine felt heat rise on the back of his neck at the memory of those teeth on his throat, but when he found himself looking over at Kurt without thinking to share the joke Kurt's expression had gone blank again. Blaine's smile faded away even if the sense memory didn't, and he focused back on Angelica.

"Let's start with the boring stuff first. Before you go, we're going to make you fill out your schedules and a bunch of info about what your talents are and what kind of stuff you'd like to do in the show. That'll help us start putting together some groups for the bigger numbers, but a lot of that'll come out of our meetings, anyway. We're still trying to figure out a permanent rehearsal space - and if any of you guys happen to have a small theater or large studio in your pocket that's free at a bunch of odd hours for the semester and that will let us put tape all over the floor to mark out sets and stuff, let me know - but we'll bang out the schedule, at least.

"Oh, fuck this standing." She yanked one of the chairs from the front row and spun it around so that she could sit in front of the group. "Okay, now that we're all comfy, let's go around and introduce ourselves. Name, rank, serial number, major, favorite cereal, what kind of performing arts you're here to share, yadda yadda." She pointed at a girl in the front row. "Go."

Blaine paid close attention to the introductions; it was only smart to get to know the other people as quickly as possible, since they'd be spending a lot of time together over the semester. He didn't want to be rude by not being able to call people by their names.

It was a varied group; about half were from some sort of performance department, but they had history majors and pre-med students and even the electrical engineer that Kurt had promised. Blaine tried to focus on them each individually, though he couldn't help but glance over at Kurt, who seemed able to listen and whisper with Tina at the same time, making notes on a set of large note cards with bits of printed paper pasted to them, kind of like James Lipton.

When they got to him, Blaine switched on his smile and addressed the room. "I'm Blaine Anderson, freshman, very undecided about my major. I'm a singer, and I play the piano. I've been told, occasionally, that I can dance," he said, looking over at Kurt, who seemed very focused on the notecard he was holding. Holding his disappointment inside at not even being acknowledged, Blaine turned back to Angelica. "And to answer your other questions, my rank is probably 'minion' here, my student ID number is on my audition form, and my favorite cereal is frosted wheat squares."

"Oh, interesting choice," she replied. "Theoretically good for you but with a sweet sugary side as a bonus. Since you were the first person not to skip any questions, I'm going to buy you a box of cereal for being a good listener. Or at least steal some from the dining hall."

"What, are we in kindergarten?" Kurt drawled, flipping the card to the back of his pile. "Gold stars for having our hearing ears on?"

"Everybody likes gold stars, sweetheart." Angelica smiled at Blaine and moved onto the next person.

Blaine leaned back in his chair and completely missed the next boy's introduction while watching Kurt across the room. He knew he didn't know Kurt. They'd danced together at a party and had some seriously amazing sex afterward, but that didn't mean they knew each other. Maybe Kurt was just prickly in general; he certainly had been at the dance. And yet Blaine was getting the feeling watching the meeting, watching Kurt look at the boy talking when he hadn't even glanced at Blaine, that Kurt's prickliness was just a little extra toward him. Maybe a lot extra.

What he didn't know was why. He thought they'd both been happy with each other. It had been a good night. A great night, really, intense and satisfying in a wonderful way. If Blaine had seriously offended him by staying or being so demanding, well... all he could do was apologize again. He truly hadn't meant to make things awkward or uncomfortable with his selfishness. He knew all too well how interpersonal problems could hurt a group, and even if they hadn't been working together it would eat at Blaine to know that Kurt was upset with him for what had happened. God, that was exactly what he didn't want. It was up to him to offer another apology and mend the fence.

His mind made up, Blaine felt something in his chest ease. It would be fine. They'd be fine. It had been rude of him, but he could easily make up for it. And then this weird tension he felt would disappear.

By the time Kurt took center stage again to explain the way the Review used a theme to tie the performances together, Blaine could feel his brain sparking with ideas. The Warblers had put together sets based on whatever topics the competitions gave them; they'd only had so much flexibility. This was a whole new level of creativity, and he almost didn't know what to do with the freedom of it. He was used to singing other people's words and dancing in a group. And yet he found himself leaning forward as the brainstorming began, eager to join in if he could keep up.

"Obviously the theme needs to be broad enough to encompass all of the different forms of performance we'd like to exhibit but not so broad the overall experience doesn't feel like it all links together," Kurt said to the room. "We'll have an explanation in the playbill about how each section ties in; don't worry about that. But we need a happy medium. 'Light' is too broad, but the color green is too narrow. We've come up with some ideas, but let's hear yours first."

Animals, food, and sleep were dismissed after a brief discussion, while weather and night were noted down as options.

"Hmm, I like night," Kurt said to Tina, tapping his finger thoughtful on his chin. "It could be very versatile. There's plenty of music in all genres for it, more than enough choice for dramatic scenes, and it could keep the staging fairly simple."

"As long as nobody falls asleep," Angelica added.

"We'll have you do a valkyrie yell if they do." Kurt looked back out over the room, smiling to himself. "Okay, what else?"

"I have an idea," Blaine said.

He didn't miss the way Kurt's eyes shuttered as they flicked toward him. "Yes?"

"What about pop?"

"We need something more versatile than just pop music," Kurt replied, turning away again.

"No, I mean - " Blaine tried to get the vague idea in his head into words. "Pop as in popular. Popularity. Not necessarily now but - " He took a deep breath. If they didn't like his idea, they didn't like it. It wasn't the end of the world. He'd learned that in the Warblers. It didn't mean he wasn't useful in the group. "There's pop music over the decades. The ages, really. I mean, madrigals were once pop. And there's "Popular" from Wicked if you're talking show tunes. Or something from My Fair Lady or Pygmalion if you think a little more broadly. What it means to be popular. How you get it. How you keep it."

"God, think of all the teen movies we could mine," Angelica said dreamily. "And all of the classical rivalries, like Salieri wanting Mozart's popularity. Write that one down, Tina."

Tina shot Blaine an encouraging smile before making a note on her clipboard, and he smiled back, buoyed by the support and acceptance of his idea.

Kurt drew himself up and said, "Okay, what else?"

"I have another one," Blaine said.

"Yes?" Kurt asked with a cool brusqueness just beneath the nominally polite surface.

Blaine sat up straighter in his chair; slouching made a bad impression, and he was hoping Kurt would listen. "Transformation. It's kind of tied to popularity, in a way, but in terms of - "

"Perfect," Angelica said, pointing her pencil at him and cutting him off. "'Midsummer Night's Dream', about ten million songs about love, I can imagine some amazing dances coming out of it... Tina - "

"I already wrote it down," Tina replied. "And I think you owe him two boxes of cereal."

Kurt cleared his throat pointedly and brushed a bit of fuzz off of his epaulet. "If that's all, let's go over some of the concepts we'd already come up with so that we can start to narrow things down."

Blaine didn't have much to contribute during the winnowing process, because it seemed rude to support his own ideas or tear down other people's. And yet somehow when it was down to five, both of his ideas were still in the mix along with Shakespeare, night/day, and joy (or search for or lack thereof). He tried not to show the bubble of elation growing in his chest that he'd contributed something useful beyond his voice to the process.

"All right." Kurt wrote the 'y' in 'joy' with a twirl on its tail and snapped the cap onto the white board marker before spinning around neatly to face them again. "These are our five possibilities for a theme this semester. Your job this week is to come up with three possible performance options for yourself for each theme and to e-mail them to Tina before eight in the morning on Friday. This is not a final proposal of what you'd like to do; if something is especially brilliant we may try to hold you to it, but this is just to give us a general idea of how things might shape up. We'll send out a copy of everyone's suggestions by Sunday, and then next Tuesday we'll be able to talk about them and decide as a group which direction makes the most sense. Any questions?"

Angelica raised her hand.

"I still will not go shopping with you," Kurt replied, and she slowly lowered her hand to her lap. He turned back to the room, his mouth quirked up in a smile. "Anyone else?"

There were a few basic procedural questions, which he handled quickly, and then he said, "Okay, Angelica's going to pass around the forms we need you to fill out, but before she does, let me just say thank you again." He looked slowly around the room, his voice softening just a touch. "The Review is an important showcase of our abilities, but even more it's a way for us all to express ourselves the way we want to. I appreciate you giving it your time and energy. This opportunity is what we make of it, and I know we're going to make it incredible." He waved Angelica to the floor and accepted Tina's one-armed hug with a happy little smile that made something in Blaine's stomach twist. He liked that smile. He had to make it so it didn't go away when Kurt looked at him.

So he rushed through filling out his schedule but pretended to linger over the form, watching Kurt talking with some of the other students. And when the room was nearly empty and the threat of Kurt leaving was getting high, he signed his name at the bottom of the page and gave it to Angelica.

"Two boxes," she said. "I'll bring 'em next week."

"It's really not necessary," he assured her, laughing.

"Hey, we're college students. Food is worth more than gold. Don't say no."

"Yes, ma'am."

His smile faded as he turned, though, and he squared his shoulders as he crossed the room to where Kurt was packing his bookbag. "Kurt?" he asked, pitching his voice quietly enough that the others wouldn't overhear but not so low it would get their attention by feeling secretive.

Kurt turned, crossing his arms over his chest when he saw it was Blaine. He did meet Blaine's eyes, and Blaine had to take it as a good sign, even if there was chill in them instead of the warmth he knew they could contain. "Yes?"

"I - " Blaine swallowed and told himself to act like the man he was. He knew how to do this. "It seems clear to me that I need to apologize to you."

"No," Kurt said shortly, and he went to turn back to his bag. Blaine stopped him with a hand on his arm, surprising them both if the way Kurt's eyes went wide was any indication. He took a half-step back, enough to dislodge Blaine's hand, but stayed facing him. It was such a clear rejection and such a contrast to the way they'd been so eagerly wrapped up with each other that night that it nearly took Blaine's breath away.

"I think I do," Blaine insisted. "You seem upset with me."

Kurt gave a jerky shake of his head. "I'm not."

Blaine didn't know him well, but he knew Kurt was upset. He could see it in the tightness of his jaw, the flat wall of his eyes, the tension in every inch of his body. He dropped his voice. "I'm not going to tell anyone, if that's why you're worried," he said, ignoring the sick knot forming in his stomach, because it wasn't his place to judge Kurt on what he might or might not want to share with his friends. It wasn't anyone's business but theirs, anyway. "It was between the two of us. I respect that."

"All right." Kurt glanced over Blaine's shoulder for a moment. "Is that all?"

Blaine licked his lips and said, "Just let me apologize again. I was drunk, and I know I stayed too long and asked for more from you than I should have and I - "

Kurt's face went pale again, even harder and colder than it had been when they'd stood in the very same spot an hour and a half before. "If I accept your apology will you please stop talking?" he bit out.

Blaine stared at him, his mouth open in dismay, before nodding. How was he getting this wrong? But he knew an apology was supposed to be about the recipient and not the giver, so if Kurt wanted him to stop, then that was what he would do. "Yes."

"Excellent. Consider it accepted." Kurt swept the papers from the table into his bag, flung his bag over his shoulder, and walked out of the room.

Blaine schooled his expression into what was enough of a smile that Tina seemed to believe it when she waved to him and left talking with Ben, and only when he was alone did he let himself slump onto the edge of the desk.

Blaine thought back to their night together. He remembered dancing, how much fun it had been, how well they had moved together. He remembered him testing the waters politely later on and Kurt inviting him back to his room. He remembered how Kurt had responded to his touch and he'd responded just as enthusiastically to Kurt's. He remembered how wonderful it had been, how much care he'd felt from Kurt. He remembered Kurt asking him what he wanted and not hesitating to say yes when Blaine had told him. He remembered the warmth in Kurt's eyes, the sweetness in his touch. He'd seemed happy. Blaine had been happy. Hadn't Kurt been happy?

Blaine would have sworn at the time he'd made Kurt very happy, at least until he fell asleep. And that was a mistake, yes, but was it really so unforgivable? Blaine had learned his lesson.

Hadn't he also re-learned about the danger of losing himself in touch? He'd always been hungry for it, desperate to drown in the feeling of another person's body touching his. But hadn't he been reminded by his time with Kurt that he needed to set better limits so that he didn't impose on another person's kindness, no matter how beautiful his eyes, how clever his hands, or how comfortable his bed? Blaine might have gotten too greedy when it was supposed to be something quick, but hadn't he proven to himself he knew how to keep himself in check by giving Felix a blow job just the other night and jerking himself off through it instead of asking for anything in return or drawing it out, no matter that it felt more empty in comparison?

He'd been reminded that it wasn't fair to ask for too much for himself alone, that he was better than just being pushy for what he wanted. It was about them both. That was only right. He'd figured that out during his time with Sebastian, but he'd lost his head with Kurt because he'd been caught up and burning with how good it all felt. He wouldn't do it again. He wouldn't. And he'd tried to fix it.

But was it more than just that? Kurt was upset. Kurt obviously didn't want anything to do with him. Kurt could barely look at him.

Blaine rubbed his hand over his face and sighed. He knew not everybody was going to like him, no matter how hard he tried, but obviously he'd mis-stepped somewhere important. He'd seen Kurt's smiling eyes directed at him, and that was clearly gone. He had to fix it. He wasn't allowed to apologize, but he couldn't spend the next semester working with him and knowing Kurt was unhappy with him, disappointed in him. And if he dropped the Review and, damn it, Tina, and karaoke with her friends, and -

No. He pushed away from the desk as his blood went cold at the thought. He could lose so much over this mistake.

He didn't have to give it all up. All he had to do was show Kurt that he wasn't that guy. He wasn't the guy who imposed and asked for more than someone wanted to give. He wasn't the guy who didn't know how to keep himself in check and composed. He didn't want to be that guy, anyway.

So he'd be nice. He'd be helpful. He'd do whatever he could when he was asked. He'd be so perfectly mannered that Kurt would see he didn't have to worry about what he'd do next. Kurt would see that he wasn't actually as bad as he'd seemed.

And then maybe Kurt would be willing to look him in the eye again.

Chapter Text

Kurt to Rachel: Do you have my Sondheim compendium?

Rachel to Kurt: How can you ask that? I have my own.

Kurt to Tina: Do you have my Sondheim compendium?

Tina to Kurt: I think Rachel has it.

Kurt to Tina: She says she has her own.

Tina to Kurt: I'm pretty sure I saw your name in it the last time I was in her room.

Kurt to Rachel: Would you please check?

Rachel to Kurt: I'm sure I don't have it.

Kurt to Rachel: Just check.

Rachel to Kurt: Honestly, Kurt, why would I have your Sondheim compendium?

Kurt to Tina: Are you sure?

Tina to Kurt: 92%

Kurt to Rachel: Humor me.

Rachel to Kurt: I'll give it back to you at brunch Sunday. You must have left it here.

 

Tina to Blaine: I know it's late notice, but up for brunch today?

Blaine to Tina: Sorry, I just got up now. Maybe next time?

Tina to Blaine: Sure! Hope you had a good time last night. *8-D

Blaine to Tina: I'm never drinking again. I woke up on my friend Meg's floor with a sharpie moustache. It's going to take me forever to get this thing off.

Tina to Blaine: Kurt says to try rubbing alcohol, mild soap, lotion, or peanut butter. He could be kidding about the peanut butter.

Blaine to Tina: Oh. Okay. Thanks. I wish it were as easy to get rid of pictures of me sleeping with Meg's giant teddy bear. Apparently I cuddled with anything they put near me.

Blaine to Tina: It's been a LONG week.

* * *

The Review meeting the next week was an exercise in patience for Kurt. Not only was it a seemingly endless round of discussion about which theme they wanted to pick, and not only were two people absent without warning - he'd have to talk to Angelica about how quickly they could kick them out officially - but Blaine was there. Attractive, charming, apparently talented, so-very-sorry-to-have-taken-our-time-and-done-wonderful-and-new-to-you-things-and-made-you-feel-special-because-that-was-a-mistake Blaine, who smiled too much, who never dropped his politely intense listening face, who said all the right things, who made Tina laugh, and who got Christa back on track when she threatened to derail the conversation.

Kurt was used to having his mistakes thrown in his face again and again. It was just how his life went, from Finn to Sam to that stupid well-dressed Zack from his theory class whose name he'd doodled in hearts last fall until their third date when Kurt gave him a handmade boutonniere and Zack said he didn't want anything serious.

(Kurt's response had been a snapped, "It's a calla lily, not an engagement ring, Zack. Don't get ahead of yourself." And then he went home and cried… and then stopped crying, because it was ridiculous to waste his time on boys who didn't want him.)

Kurt was used to seeing them all day in and day out in class, in his own home with Finn, whose kind smile could be a kick to Kurt's stomach long after his crush was gone, just because seeing it made him remember when he'd been foolish enough to feel more.

So he knew how to shut off the disappointment and mortification at his actions and move forward, because forward was the only direction worth going. He didn't have to like Blaine, he certainly didn't have to be friends with him, but he could be in the same room and be civil and productive, because he was Kurt Hummel, and Kurt Hummel did not let anyone else pull him down. If Blaine was a useful member of the Review, then Kurt should want him there. So Blaine had seen him at his most vulnerable. So what? They both obviously were happy to put that behind them. Kurt would look forward instead.

It just took a lot of effort, and by the end of the meeting he was exhausted.

It wasn't only having to be around Blaine, of course. Working with performers was like herding cats - down to the claws and inflated senses of self - and they hadn't been able to come to a consensus on theme. The actors and dancers were at complete odds about the viability of night/day and Shakespeare, nobody liked joy this week, and Blaine's ideas of popularity and transformation had enough support not to be discounted. They were barely further along than they were last week, which meant now they were officially behind.

Kurt let out a sigh and leaned against the back of his chair as the other students began to put the room back to rights; one of the problems of using a classroom was that they had to move the chairs into a circle for their meeting and then back again into rows before the left. It was hardly the end of the world, but still. It was one more reason to have their own dedicated rehearsal space.

"You have that look on your face again," Angelica said, tugging on his chair until he got up.

"What look?" Kurt asked.

She shoved the chair into place in the front row. "The one that makes me think you're going to stage a coup. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if you ended up as one of those crazy dictators of a small country, maybe in Latin America or something. Everybody marching - no, dancing - in time in front of you while you stand there in a fabulous uniform."

Kurt huffed out a laugh; as ridiculous as the idea was, he couldn't disagree that there was a certain appeal to everybody doing exactly as he told them. "Obviously the uniform would be fabulous."

"Obviously." She pushed her hair out of her eyes. "But still. You've got coup all over your face. Want to grab dinner with us in the Union? You'll bitch, we'll listen, curly fries for everyone."

"Who's us?" he asked, because if it was a big group he just was not in the mood, not even for curly fries.

"Me and Tina."

"I'm in." He leaned down to grab his bag and slung it over his shoulder. A tasty but unhealthy meal and some sympathetic ears sounded like a perfect way to decompress a little.

And so of course when they walked over to Tina, who was talking with Blaine, she smiled at the news of Kurt joining them and announced, "Blaine's coming, too."

"To dinner?" Kurt asked. There went his plans for decompressing.

"Yeah," Tina said, gathering up her bags.

Blaine's smile remained fixed, but his eyes flicked between them. "I don't have to. I mean, I'm sure you guys have things to talk about that are - "

"We're just going to bitch over fries," Angelica interrupted him, taking away the perfectly good out Blaine was giving them. "Of course you should come. I'm buying."

"The Union's on the meal plan," Tina said with a laugh.

Angelica leaned toward her and hissed, "Shut up. I'm trying to make him feel special so he won't walk out on us mid-semester when he realizes he's the only one painting sets."

"Whoops! Yes, Blaine, Angelica's buying."

"Thanks, but I - " Blaine looked back at Kurt, and there was something worried in his expression, like he felt he wasn't really welcome.

He wasn't, of course, at least not by Kurt, but if this was what Tina and Angelica wanted then Kurt could suffer through the meal and go back to his room after and find his peace there with a pair of professional grade ear plugs and a soothing steam facial and avocado mask. Blaine had kept Christa on topic and saved a good ten minutes of tangential chatter with a few perfectly timed questions, and he'd even come early to help arrange the chairs, which had meant when Kurt got there later than he'd planned because his vocal professor's office hours had run over he arrived to find the room in order and Tina and Blaine collating the print-outs to be passed around instead of the disaster he'd expected. Blaine deserved at least a few curly fries, and Kurt could force himself to watch him eat them.

"I'd take her up on her offer if I were you," Kurt told him. "First cereal, now fries. Pretty soon she'll be feeding you every week."

Blaine's smile grew a little, and Kurt pulled out his phone to check his messages while the other three finished packing up and chattered amongst themselves. He busied himself answering a few texts and fell in behind them when they left, trying not to notice how nicely Blaine's waist was defined by the woven belt looped through his dark jeans or even the way Tina had her arm linked with Blaine's like she sometimes walked with Kurt. He looked out over the quad instead, and he was surprised to find that a little part of him missed the open spaces outside of Lima instead of the limited grassy areas in the city bounded by architecture that stopped the eye. Most of the time he found New York's busy streets filled with streams of people and building after tall building exciting and energizing, but sometimes it was just stifling. Sometimes it made him feel like he didn't have room to breathe.

Kurt shook his head as they turned a corner and under an archway to the next little quad. He was in New York. This was the only place in the world he'd ever be able to breathe. He just had to make his own space here to do it.

The Union was crowded, and it took a few minutes for them to gather their meals (Kurt decided on a salad; there was no reason to eat too much grease before a facial) and find a table for four. Ultimately they ended up tucked against one of the big windows, a group of about twenty jocks behind them and a study session on the other side.

"I thought we were done fighting for a table when we got out of high school," Tina said, sliding her tray onto the table and dropping into her seat. Kurt surreptitiously hurried around Angelica while pretending to dodge one of the jocks and took the seat beside Tina, although his hope of avoiding sitting next to Blaine ended up with them across from each other instead. Kurt tucked his feet under his own chair so that there was no possibility of them touching and angled himself toward the girls.

"My mom says we never get out of high school; we just leave the building." Angelica dipped a curly fry in a little paper container of grainy mustard and smiled as she took a bite.

"And isn't that a depressing thought," Kurt said.

Blaine shrugged. "I liked high school."

Kurt stared at him for a moment before spearing a piece of cucumber. Of course Blaine had liked high school. He probably had been popular and surely had never seen the inside of a dumpster.

"Even the blazers?" Tina asked him with a giggle.

"What is it with you guys and the blazers?" Blaine said, grinning right back at her. "I liked them, too."

Angelica dipped a fry into her ketchup. "What are you talking about?"

"Blaine went to private school," Tina said. "He had to wear a uniform every day. Blazer, tie, dress shoes. Every day."

"Oh, you poor thing," Angelica said.

"Hey, the Dalton uniform wasn't that bad, not like some of them," Blaine insisted, and Kurt put together Tina's text messages from the weekend's karaoke night and a comment she'd made weeks ago about a boy from Ohio and had a moment where the world went muffled and slow-motion before it snapped back to normalcy.

"You went to Dalton Academy. In Westerville," Kurt said flatly.

"I did," Blaine replied, looking over at him.

"He was a Warbler," Tina said.

"Also true." Blaine shrugged a little, like he wasn't sure if he was expected to apologize for it.

"Kurt was in New Directions, too," Tina said.

Blaine's eyes brightened further. "You were?"

"And this is one of the Warblers Rachel adopted at karaoke?" Kurt asked her. He couldn't even think about how it would have felt to have come face to face with Blaine unexpectedly at one of his favorite monthly outings, one of the few places he could be himself. He was lucky he had been sick, even if it had put him behind in some of his reading.

She nodded with enthusiasm. "Mm hmm. We ran into them there. They said they might join us for our monthly night out."

"Excellent." He bit off the word and reached for one of her fries. This was just the way his life went, wasn't it. When he'd lost his head he'd somehow picked the one boy on the dance floor who, despite not wanting him, seemed to be inching his way into his life and not letting him forget his bad choice. It took all of Kurt's effort to look at Blaine's face and not remember how it had lit up with pleasure that night (and had held nothing of the sort the next morning), and the way things were going he was going to have to see it again and again when what he wanted to do when he was with his friends was be with the few people who cared about him and let him forget about the rest just for a little while.

He just wanted time and space to be himself without worrying about anything else. It didn't seem like too much to ask, but clearly it was.

He took another curly fry and wished he could taste it over the bitterness of his frustration.

Across the table, Blaine chuckled suddenly and ducked his head. "Oh."

"What?" Tina asked.

"He was the one texting you insults about the uniform, wasn't he?" Blaine asked her with an amused wince.

"Yep!"

"This all makes sense now."

"I'm glad it does for someone," Kurt muttered darkly. Apparently Blaine had even been sharing in his texts. He wondered what else his friends had said or done.

"Okay, Hummel, what's going on?" Angelica asked, dropping a few of her own fries onto his own plate. "I promised you curly fry therapy. Here you are. Let it out."

"I'm fine."

"You aren't," she said.

"No, I am." He sat up straighter in his chair; there was no way he was going to get into any of what was eating at him. He wasn't going to talk about the Review, his classes, not getting a part in the musical, or anything else in front of Blaine. The way it was going, he was never going to have an outlet to talk or decompress again, and that thought - as absurd as he knew it was in the logical part of his brain - made him feel as trapped and helpless as he ever had when he'd seen a boy in a letter jacket walking toward him in the hallway. There wasn't enough air in the room or anywhere to hide, only doom heading his way.

"Kurt, you can talk to us," Tina said, but Kurt could see Blaine nodding out of the corner out of his eye, and he just couldn't let this keep going tonight. It was bad enough to have to sit across from the boy who had made him feel special and then apologized for it like it had been a mistake, but to have his friends making a show of just how much pressure was weighing on him and make him seem even more vulnerable than he already was in front of Blaine… no. This couldn't happen.

"This isn't all about me," Kurt said with a false cheeriness. "Let's talk instead about the bright mind who decided a classic navy blazer needed red trim and a garish seal the size of a dinner plate and then paired it with poorly tailored grey slacks."

Blaine's smile faltered. Kurt refused to feel bad about it; the uniform really was awful, no matter how cute some of the boys had looked in it. The realization that Blaine was probably one of the boys he'd checked out in the Lima Bean out of the corner of his eye while in high school made his stomach roil, and he set his fork down.

"Kurt - " Tina started.

"I'm going to go," he said. "I'm just not in the mood for this."

"No, I will." Blaine pushed back his chair and picked up his bag before any of them could draw breath to argue. "Have a good meal with your friends. I'm sorry I imposed."

He looked so earnest and apologetic that Kurt couldn't help but lose a little of the jagged edge of his feelings. Still, he couldn't bring himself to meet Blaine's eyes. He just couldn't. He felt too raw, too trapped by suddenly not having anywhere of his own.

"You aren't imposing," Tina told Blaine.

"We invited you," Angelica said.

"And thank you," Blaine said. "I'll see you later." With that, he nodded politely to the jock behind him who nearly bumped into him and left.

"Kurt - " Tina began again.

Angelica's tone was far less gentle. "What the fuck was that?"

Kurt lifted his chin and stared her down; she might have a temper to rival his, but he sure wasn't afraid of her. "What?"

"You know perfectly well what," Angelica replied. "I didn't realize your bitch fest was going to include him. He didn't do anything."

If it had just been Tina there, Kurt might have been tempted to snap back about just exactly what Blaine had said and done to him and how much it hurt, but with Angelica he wasn't going to take the risk and share that part of himself. So he clenched his jaw to keep the words in and then said, "I don't like him."

"You don't like him?"

"How can you not like Blaine?" Tina asked. She sounded shocked.

"I just don't," he said. "There's something in his smile. It's too polished. Fake. And who's that helpful, really? Does he think it's going to get him a bigger part?"

"I think he's just that nice," Angelica said. "I mean, he's from Ohio."

Kurt rolled his eyes. "I lived in Ohio, Ang. Trust me; people there aren't that nice."

"I don't think he's faking it," Tina said, frowning a little. "I really don't."

One of the reasons Kurt loved her so much was the fact that she truly was a good, kind person, but sometimes it got in the way of her seeing the reality in front of her. "Just watch. I bet he'll leave tech high and dry by November when he realizes it won't get him anything extra. You'll see."

Tina shook her head. "I think you're wrong."

"I'm not," Kurt replied. "I'm sure he'll leave. And probably apologize." And with that he took a bite of his salad and gave them both a hard stare to signal an end to that part of the conversation.

* * *

Tina to Blaine: There's an awesome jazz band performing at Tisch on Thursday afternoon. Want to come with me and hang out with Mike and people for an hour or two? We can take the subway over, grab a slice for dinner on the way back after?

Blaine to Tina: I should probably focus on my homework, but thank you.

Tina to Blaine: Okay, but if you realize you have time, let me know. It'd just be the two of us from here.

Blaine to Tina: Can I let you know tomorrow? Put me down as a definite maybe.

* * *

From: Darlene Madigan
To: Kurt Hummel
CC: Dean Daniel Shah, Pamela Walker
Subject: Re: Continued inability to find rehearsal space for the Independent Student Review

Kurt-

I'm sorry you're having so much trouble finding rehearsal space for your production. I know you must be frustrated, but obviously our space is limited and departmental productions and more well-established school sponsored student groups take priority. I'm sure that your bringing this matter to the attention of the Dean will help the administration in future years streamline their reservation process and perhaps open up a few more of the studio rooms as dedicated rehearsal spaces after class hours. As you know, it can be difficult to have classes and rehearsals held in the same rooms, because the mocked up sets and even markings from a production can get in the way of the teaching environment. Academics must come first.

As I've previously informed you, the theater department does not have any rehearsal space available to you this semester. I know that there was a booking problem around your request, but at this point we simply don't have anything to offer your group.

I have received your reservation form for next semester. Thank you for getting that in so promptly.

We look forward to seeing what you all in the ISR will be performing this semester.

Best,
Darlene Madigan

* * *

Kurt to Angelica: If they find my body in the Hudson it's going to be because Darlene pulls me in with her when I push her off a bridge.

Angelica to Kurt: Duct tape is your friend. Keep her hands stuck tight together so she can't grab you.

Kurt to Angelica: This is why I keep you around.

Angelica to Kurt: That and the fact that I do most of the fucking paperwork for you.

Kurt to Angelica: That too.

* * *

Beer was the most amazing invention humans had ever invented in the entire list of inventions in invention history. Unless... was beer like wine? Because wine wasn't invented; it was discovered. Like when grapes fell into a hole in some rocks and fermented on their own and some ancient person decided to drink it, because one thing he'd learned at Dalton was that there was always someone stupid enough to try anything once. Sometimes it was even him.

Blaine chuckled to himself at the idea of a Neanderthal sipping Pinot Noir out of a gourd with his pinky in the air. That was awesome. Neanderthals were awesome. Beer was awesome. And Pinot Noir was, too. Or it probably was; he hadn't really had any. His parents preferred dry whites.

"Wow, look at you, and it's only nine," Meg said to Blaine, leaning against the wall beside him.

"Meg!" he said, happy to see her. "Hi!" He gave her a hug. Hugs were nice. She was nice. And even though he wasn't attracted to girls, they were super nice to hug because they were soft and curvy in ways boys weren't, and that was pretty cool. "You're nice to hug."

"Okay, you got here like a half hour ago. How many of those have you drunk?" she asked. Her hair spun around her head in a halo, like she was an angel, and he wondered if it would be rude to ask her if she had wings. "Focus, Blaine."

"Um." Blaine looked at the bottle in his hand and at the two on the table beside him. "These? Isn't beer awesome?"

Meg put her hand on his forehead, and he leaned a little into the touch. He liked being touched. He liked Meg.

"I like you," he said.

"No fever. Are you high?"

"No, Meg." He shook his head, and the world shook around him. "That would be wrong. Drugs are wrong." He leaned in closer. This was serious. "Just say no, Meg."

She laughed and set him back upright. "Okay, sport. Have you eaten today?"

"Um." Blaine tried to think back on his day. It was Saturday. He'd gotten up late, had a dry bowl of cereal in his room because there was no milk in the fridge and he didn't have time to get to the dining hall (and he wasn't going to have cereal with soda, no matter how awesome Rob said it was), went to his study group, played some Ultimate, sat out on the quad and fell asleep in the sun because it was going to be one of the last warm-ish days of the season, and after that he'd gone to take a shower after because he really needed one, and then there'd been some Mario Kart with Rob and a nerf gun war in the hallway, and now he was here. Here in Felix's room. At a party. "We're at a party!"

"Have you eaten, Blaine?" Meg asked again.

He nodded. "I had some cereal this morning and an orange after Ultimate. And water. And some soda. And coffee. Always coffee."

"Well, that explains that. Look, Blaine," she said, getting all excited like she was going to throw a ball to a dog, "there's pizza! Have some pizza!"

He got excited, too, because pizza! "I like pizza!"

"Then have some. Have a lot. Trust me, you are going to feel so much better after you've eaten."

"I feel good now," he insisted as she piled a couple of slices on a paper plate for him. He felt great, kind of warm and fizzy and numb all at once.

"You'll still feel good, but you'll also feel more like yourself," she told him, shoving him toward a chair.

He toppled into it, and the chair was nice enough to catch him. "Can I not feel like myself? Because this is better."

Meg patted him on the cheek. "Eat up."

"Okay." Blaine dug in, and the pizza was salty, greasy, and delicious, so he ate the two slices she'd given him and went back for a few more, and once they were all gone the world was still bright and sparkly but a lot less confusing, which was cool. And he could stand up and sit down without fear of falling over, which was even better.

Meg was so smart.

The music was good, so since he'd regained his balance and cleared his head a little with the pizza he danced a bit with some of his friends, nothing serious, just a little bouncing in the corner until Hector knocked over a lamp and someone told them that they all had to go sit down again. Blaine flopped on the end of one of the beds and scooted back until he could lean against the wall. Someone else handed him another beer, and he looked up to find it had come from Peter.

"How's it going, Blaine?" Peter asked with a smile, pulling over the desk chair to sit beside him. "I haven't seen you all week."

"I'm okay," Blaine said, smiling back. "What's up with you?"

"The usual. Too much homework, not enough fun. It's the time in the semester all the professors seem to remember we're here to do what they tell us."

Blaine sighed in relief at that. "I thought it was just me. I mean, the rehearsals for the Keynotes started up last week, and with that and the Review and Ultimate and the Alliance I'm beginning to feel like there isn't enough time for my homework."

"Oh, you got into that a cappella thing?"

"Yes," Blaine said proudly. "I won't get a solo yet, but that's okay. At least I'm in." It was a little weird, actually, to be singing harmonies in the background, because he'd risen so quickly to the front in the Warblers, but he could pay his dues. He could do it. He could do what was expected of him.

Felix walked by and gave him a little nod; Blaine nodded back. See, that's what things were supposed to be like. He'd hooked up with Felix, and they could be in the same room like it didn't matter that they had. Because they'd both gotten what they wanted. That was true with Peter, too. He and Peter were friends. They could talk, hang out, have a meal, touch each other without flinching. Sex wasn't supposed to get in the way or change things, not if you did it right. He'd learned that. He knew that.

He didn't know why things were so different with Kurt. All he knew was that they really, really were. And it didn't feel good. It felt awful, actually.

"What's wrong?" Peter asked.

Blaine shook his head. "Nothing."

"Blaine. Your face just fell like a thousand feet in two seconds. If you were an airplane your oxygen masks would have come out of the ceiling."

"I - " He knew it wasn't right to talk about it, not if Kurt didn't want him to, but he had to talk to someone, and Peter was his friend. He just wouldn't say anything specific, since Kurt had been clear that he didn't want to tell people about it. "There was this guy the other week. We went back to his room and..." He didn't know what to say about that. How could he encompass in words what they had done, how intense and wonderful it had been?

"Had some fun?" Peter supplied.

Blaine nodded, grateful for the help. "Yes. And it was good. Great. No, better than that. Amazing, actually, but I've seen him around a couple of times since, and I think he's upset with me."

"Did you both get off?"

"Yes, of course," Blaine said, surprised that Peter would even ask. That was the point, wasn't it? For both parties to feel good?

"Were you safe?"

"Yes."

"Did he push you into anything you didn't want or vice versa?"

It took Blaine a second to answer, but he was certain everything they'd done had been okay with Kurt, even if he'd asked for a lot. It's not like he'd asked to fuck Kurt. "No."

"Then you're good," Peter said with a shrug, taking a drink from his beer.

"But... he's not okay with me."

"So? What does that matter?"

Blaine gaped at him. Kurt was upset with him because of what they did; of course it mattered.

"No, seriously, Blaine, what does it matter?" Peter asked. "You hooked up, you had fun, and it's done. What do you care what he thinks now?"

"But - if I did something wrong, then - "

"What you're doing wrong is thinking too much. It's just one guy. You can't let it get under your skin. Have another beer."

Blaine wasn't sure Peter was right, but he also knew that Peter wasn't going to be able to help him. So he took the beer, drank it down, and threw himself back into the party. That, at least, he knew how to do, and not only was it fun but it made it so that he couldn't think about his failings anymore.

Some time later, he ended up meeting an upperclassman named Adam who reminded him of Sebastian, but in a good way, all tall and lean and with amazing hair and a biting sense of humor. They talked for a while about movies and books, about politics and favorite coffee places, and when Adam invited him down the hall to his room, Blaine was happy to say yes. He was happy to get pushed up against the door and kissed out in the hallway as Adam fumbled with the lock, and he was happy to feel Adam's hands sliding up inside of his shirt once they were in the room. It felt so good to be wanted.

But when Adam got his hands on Blaine's shoulders and started urging him down, saying, "Come on, baby, you're so hot, let's do this," the dreamy, giddy haze around Blaine disappeared like fog pushed away by a stiff ocean breeze. He wanted it, he did, he wanted to lose himself in Adam's body, he wanted to be wanted, he wanted to touch and be touched and held and made to feel special again, he wanted so badly to feel that special, but all he could see were Kurt's beautiful eyes, so warm and then so cold, the way they barely could meet his across a table, and Blaine couldn't do that again. He couldn't.

He couldn't have someone else look at him like that. He just couldn't bear it.

He knew Adam wasn't Kurt, and he was pretty sure it was going to be quick and easy and not even get them near a bed, but until he figured out what was going on and how to fix it for good, he wasn't going to chance it.

It wasn't worth it if there was the possibility he might hurt someone.

So Blaine just pushed away, apologized as sincerely as he could, and went back to his dorm alone.

His bed was cold and lonely, but at least he wasn't doing anything wrong there.

* * *

First thing Monday morning Blaine stopped by the cafe in the fine arts building for a much-needed cup of coffee on the way to his poli sci class.

The minute he stepped through the glass doors into the pale wood and chrome nook that passed for a restaurant, however, he stopped. There was Kurt, sitting at a little round table with two other people Blaine barely noticed, and his head was thrown back in bright, unfettered, joy-filled laughter. It wasn't just the sunlight streaming through the wall of windows that was making him glow. It was something in Kurt.

Blaine needed caffeine like a drowning person needed air, but he wanted even more not to have to see Kurt's expression shut down when he caught sight of Blaine. And he knew without a doubt that that was what would happen. That joy would just be gone. Because of him.

His stomach tight, he turned around and left without his drink.

* * *

Rachel to Kurt: Are you avoiding me?

Kurt to Rachel: What are you talking about? I saw you yesterday at brunch.

Rachel to Kurt: You haven't responded to my karaoke e-vite.

Rachel to Kurt: I sent it out on Saturday.

Rachel to Kurt: KURT. You ARE avoiding me!

Kurt to Rachel: It's been an hour since you texted, and I was IN CLASS. And karaoke is two weeks away.

Rachel to Kurt: You're out of class now, and you still haven't responded to my e-vite.

Kurt to Rachel: I'm not doing this with you.

Rachel to Kurt: It's fine if you don't want to go. I have someone else who will sing Wicked with me.

Kurt to Rachel: Yes, I haven't forgotten.

* * *

Tuesday morning on his way to vocal practice, Kurt heard the sound of peppy harmonies drifting on the breeze, and instead of going in the back entrance like usual he skirted the building and followed the music to the courtyard in front.

There he found a sizeable group of students standing around one of the co-ed a cappella groups as they sang and danced by the fountain. They were performing "Walk Like an Egyptian" complete with cheesy arm movements, and although the alto singing lead didn't quite have the range to pull it off properly there was a smokiness to her voice that Kurt found compelling. He found himself bouncing his leg in time, smiling to himself a little wistfully as he anchored his hand on his bag strap and watched. He was glad to be out of Ohio, but he'd always think fondly of his days in New Directions.

It wasn't until they finished the song and were readjusting their places for the next that Kurt realized one of the background tenors was a familiar face wearing an equally familiar charming smile.

Blaine.

Oh.

So that was apparently his show smile. Of course it was. That made sense, since that whole night had been a show.

Some of Kurt's growing contentment faded, but he decided to stay through the next song, anyway. Good music meant more to him than who was singing it.

* * *

Blaine to Angelica: I think I may have found a good lead on a rehearsal space for us.

Angelica to Blaine: Did you hear that whoop of joy wherever you are? That was me. I think I shattered some windows. I have lab now - tell us about it today at the meeting.

* * *

"Okay, so that's Kurt, me, Tina, Ethan, Leigh, Kaya, and Blaine for tech crew," Angelica said, making another note on the paper on the desk in front of her. "And Ben if we tell him one of the girls accidentally got her shirt covered in paint and had to take it off."

"Is that enough?" Tina asked, tapping her pen against her lips and frowning down at their cast list.

Kurt stretched his arms above his head and arched his back to try to get it to stop aching; his movement class had been a killer that morning. "It's going to have to be. We'll go minimalist on sets. And the reality is we'll probably lose those last three once we hit mid-terms."

"Leigh and Kaya I get that feeling. Blaine?" Angelica shrugged. "We'll have to see. Oh, and he may have found us a rehearsal space."

"What?" Kurt asked, dropping his arms as his heart leapt at the thought. "Where?"

"I don't know. He'll tell us when he gets here."

"Full meeting starts in five," Ethan said, nodding to the clock. "We should get ready."

"Thank you for coming early," Kurt told them all. "The more we can get done without the whole group the faster these big meetings will go."

Angelica saluted him with a grin, apparently finally seeing some of the wisdom of his ways, as she stood up and started to drag her chair around to form the big circle they'd need for the meeting. Kurt retreated to the teachers' desk to put away the extra papers and notes he didn't need for today's session; they had to decide on theme first and foremost, and if they didn't get that done nothing else mattered.

"You don't think Blaine'll bail?" Ethan said to Angelica while they worked, their voices not so soft that Kurt was unable to hear them.

"I don't know. He's a freshie, so he might get overwhelmed, but he seems really enthusiastic."

Ethan let out a low, knowing chuckle, and the hair on the back of Kurt's neck stood on end. He tried to tune them out. It didn't work.

"Hmm?" she said.

Ethan moved onto the next row. "Nothing."

"Okay, buddy, what does that mean?" Angelica asked, stopping and putting one hand on her hip. "You can't just say something like that and not tell the story."

"To be fair, I didn't say anything."

"Ethan Motherfucking Allen, and I don't care that that's not your real name because that's all I'm going to call you from now on, you give me all the dirt you know or I'm going to make your life a living hell. Rule number one of the Review is that all gossip goes through me."

"I thought rule number one was not to argue with Kurt," he said, and Kurt smiled to himself, even as his stomach was going queasy. It shouldn't have been. Any gossip around Blaine meant nothing to him.

"Nah, I gave up on that one after the first week," Angelica replied. "Tell me."

Ethan shrugged. "I don't really know anything. I just know my roommate saw his name on the cast sheet and told me Blaine was really enjoying college."

"So?"

"He's really enjoying college boys. You know."

"Ha. Well, he's cute. Good for him," Angelica said through the buzzing in Kurt's ears.

"That's not nice, you guys," Tina interjected.

Kurt was glad he already had a hand on the desk beside him, because the world was tilting like a carnival ride. He knew this about Blaine. He did. Obviously. Blaine had propositioned him with condoms and lube ready in his pocket, and he'd certainly been comfortable and easy with the whole encounter. Obviously Blaine was experienced. Obviously he was happily engaging in casual, attentive, really very sweet sex with a variety of people he didn't know, because he hadn't known Kurt, either.

It just still hurt somehow to have it out there so boldly, like it was common knowledge, like everybody had known but him just who Blaine was. Like he was the last one to catch on.

Not that Kurt had expected anything different, but -

It didn't make sense to have this kind of reaction, but it still made his stomach churn and his chest feel tight. It still made his breath go shallow and fast for a minute until he very, very deliberately pulled himself up and got himself under control. This was not news. He knew it better than all of them.

And it didn't matter. It didn't matter, because Kurt knew who Blaine was, and he knew how he acted, and he knew, he knew that worrying about Blaine wasn't worth another minute of his time, because this was in the past, and Kurt was only looking to the future. To his future, where he'd be a star and have a fabulous apartment with granite countertops and bamboo floors and floor-to-ceiling windows and a shelf by the fireplace specially lit just for his Tonys.

This was just a step along the way.

So he got his notes in order as the cast arrived, he made sure his tie was lying straight and his silver scorpion cufflinks were displayed with just the right amount of cuff from the sleeve of his slim navy sweater, and he turned around and called the meeting to order.

"Our first order of business is to come up with a theme for the semester," he announced as the group settled to silence, "and none of us is leaving the room until we've sorted it out." He allowed himself a tight smile. "And in about an hour you are going to be wishing I was kidding and that you didn't have that extra large latte on your way here. Let's get to work.

"Joy is out, period. Popularity is too hard to explain, in my opinion, so can we get a show of hands to knock that one out, too?" More than half of the room raised their hands, so he wiped that one off of the white board as well. "That leaves night/day, Shakespeare, and transformation. Pros and cons, taking into account everyone this week and not just your personal favorite performance for yourself, please?"

It was a fight to get to a consensus, but Kurt had known it would be and had come prepared for it. He'd competed for attention and solos against one Miss Rachel Berry, he'd worn his own exceptional clothes to school and ignored the abuse hurled at him and the dumpsters he was hurled in, and he'd started this Review when it was clear that being a countertenor was still an oddity instead of an asset, even in New York. He could handle two dozen college kids who felt like going off on tangents. They didn't have to like him; they just had to focus.

Forty-five minutes and only one screaming argument (between Christa and Leigh over something about Isadora Duncan - Kurt had tuned out the specifics since it wasn't about her fashionable but ultimately unfortunate penchant for wearing long silk scarves) later, they had a theme: transformation. It wouldn't have been his first choice - obviously that would have been one of his ideas - but it was rife with possibilities. He'd narrowed it down to a half dozen songs that would fit the bill; he'd have to work on all of them and see which showcased his talents the best. He should probably sing them for Rachel, too; she was nothing if not honest when something wasn't perfect.

Erasing the other options from the white board, he took a satisfied breath and rocked forward on his toes. It was only the first step, but this show was beginning to pull itself together. With people's initial performance ideas in his head, he could see a shape of the show: songs, dance, comedic and dramatic scenes. And he might get to spread his wings a little on the costuming, too. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Changing from one thing into something better... or worse. There were so many options.

He was going to knock this one out of the park. But then he always did.

He spun back around to face the group and said with pleasure, "And now we get to start the fun part: figuring out exactly what we're going to perform to blow away our audience."

The energy in the room brightened from the post-decision slump, but before they could dig in Ben said, "I've really got to go see a man about a horse first. You promised you'd let us out after we decided, Kurt."

"I did. All right. Ten minute break, then come back ready to work. We came into today behind, and I want us to catch up."

Kurt hummed to himself and tapped his fingers against his thigh as he leaned against the teacher's desk, spinning out the feel of the show in his head. Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. He doubted he'd sing "Defying Gravity" in the Review, but it might become his unofficial anthem for it, just something in his mind as he thought of the build of the show from soft and introspective to powerful and emotional, ending on a note that would take everyone's breath away. He could almost grasp the shape of how it might feel, and they hadn't even decided on their pieces yet.

"Kurt," Angelica said, interrupting his thoughts. She came over, leading Blaine by the hand. Tina trailed after them. "Get your dancing shoes ready, because you're going to do a jig when you hear the news."

"I'm not sure I'd go that far," Blaine said quickly. He smoothed the front of his polo shirt like he was looking for the tie he used to wear.

"No, neither would I; I've never danced a jig in my life," Kurt replied as his good mood broke into pieces and sloughed away. Why couldn't he have five minutes to think about something productive and exciting without having to face Blaine again? Ethan's words were still echoing in his ears, and if the world had been fair he would have been able to have a little time to put them behind him like he'd done with the actual encounter.

Angelica nudged his side with her elbow. "And now's the time to break that trend. You know why? Blaine has a rehearsal space for us."

Blaine shook his head. "I have a lead on one. I think it's a good lead, but I don't want to make promises - "

"Where is it?" Kurt asked, not interested in the apologies but very interested in the details.

"The poli sci department's debate room. It's being renovated, but I heard Rose, the admin, talking today about how they'd had to put off the work until next semester. A union problem or something. They'd already moved all of the tables and stuff out to the temporary space, so it's just empty."

It sounded promising, but... "And why would they let us use it?"

Blaine shrugged. "Why wouldn't they?"

"Oh, that list is longer than the passenger manifest of the Titanic," Kurt said with a sigh. "Starting with the fact that we're way out of their departmental purview."

"It sounds like it's worth checking out," Angelica insisted. "I mean, it's not like we have anything else."

"And it's not being used for anything," Tina added.

"Oh, yes," Kurt said. "I will. I just won't be holding my breath while I do it."

Blaine cleared his throat and appeared to hesitate before offering, "I could go with you, if you'd like. I've kind of gotten to be friends with Rose."

Kurt really didn't want to hear about yet another person Blaine had wooed with his easy charms, especially not after Ethan's comments earlier. It wasn't the same thing at all, but he just didn't want to hear it. He had to stop being reminded of his mistake. "Oh, yes, you just have so many friends."

A quick flash of surprise registered on Blaine's face for a moment at the touch of venom in Kurt's voice before his polite smile slid back into place. "Well, I - "

"You should take him with you," Angelica said. "We need all the help we can get."

"I think by this point I know how to request room space," Kurt replied, adjusting the cuff of his sleeve.

"Yeah, how's that worked out for you so far?" Angelica asked.

"Come on, guys," Tina said, holding up her hands. "There's no need to fight about this."

Kurt glared at Angelica for another second in frustration with the way she always seemed to need to poke at him when he was least in the mood before backing off enough to say, "No, of course not. I'll look into it."

"You should go with Blaine if he knows her," Tina said.

"I'm happy to go," Blaine said after another brief hesitation.

Between not wanting to spend time with Blaine in specific and his general preference not to spend time with anyone who seemed reluctant to be with him, Kurt had no reason not to say, "I'll be fine."

"Kurt - " Tina started, putting her hand on her hip.

"I don't need help making a simple request," he snapped back.

"We're desperate," Angelica reminded him. "Stack the fucking deck, Hummel."

Kurt raised his jaw and stared her down. "There's desperate, and then there's pathetic. We may need the space, but I am perfectly capable of asking for it." He turned to Blaine and said in what he hoped was obvious dismissal, "Thank you for bringing it to our attention."

Blaine's eyes flicked between the three of them, and then he just smiled, put his hands in his pockets, and said, "You're welcome." Tina touched his arm as he stepped back and left them alone.

Her eyes on Blaine, Tina leaned in and asked Kurt, "What is with you?"

He looked down at the desk and told himself it wasn't his problem that Blaine's smile hadn't reached his eyes. He didn't need help, and he especially didn't need Blaine's help. And he'd thanked him. He hadn't done anything wrong.

So he didn't address her question. "It's time to start up again."

Tina watched him for a moment, her eyes narrowed, but she didn't say anything else. He had a sinking feeling she wasn't going to drop it for good.

And he was right. He got through the rest of the brainstorming session in peace (if he discounted the chatter of two dozen excited performers), and by the time they'd put the room back to rights afterwards he'd just begun to relax into a self-satisfied glow of progress. He was back to humming to himself as he packed up his bag and almost entirely missed the soft conversation Tina had with Blaine at the side of the room before Blaine left.

But then when the room was clear, Tina rounded on him and said, "You're walking me back to my room."

Kurt glanced up, still organizing his bag. "I have to - "

Tina stared him down. "You're walking me back to my room, Kurt Hummel, or we're going to have this conversation right here, right now."

He could see the seriousness in her eyes and in the set of her hands on her hips, and he nodded.

As they walked in the bright fall sunshine, they talked about the ideas the group had thrown out through the meeting, but Kurt could feel the sword of Damocles hanging above his head. He wasn't afraid to talk with Tina, but she was rarely so forceful with him. That just wasn't her personality. She hadn't invited him back to her room for tea and scones.

Tina's roommate was out, thank goodness, so Tina gestured for him to take her desk chair as she closed the door behind him. He sat stiffly on it and wondered not for the first time how she managed to live in such a small space with a slob. He arranged the pencils on her desk and tried not to look at the other half of the room while she set down her bag.

"Okay," Tina said, sitting down at the end of her bed so that she was facing him. "We need to talk about Blaine."

"What about him?" he asked, raising his chin.

"What your problem is with him. He's only been nice, Kurt. He's been helpful. Do you know he helped Angelica the other day measure out the performance stage so we'd have exact details when we tape out the floor for rehearsing? He didn't have to do that. If you keep it up, you're going to drive away our most helpful member. And he's really fun, too. He was so great at karaoke. Even Rachel liked him, and you know how guarded she's gotten since she went to NYADA."

"Rachel liked him because he sang duets with her."

Tina leaned forward. "Kurt, he sang duets with Rachel. And she picked hard ones. And he sang with the rest of us, too, and - "

"That's great, you all love him, let's invite him to brunch." Guilt crept into her expression, and Kurt felt a weight settling further onto his chest. It became that much harder to breathe. "Wonderful. You've already invited him to brunch."

"Just once, but... I like him, Kurt. What I want to know is why you don't. Because I know you're under a lot of stress, but it's not like you to give someone such a hard time."

Kurt moistened his lip with the tip of his tongue and tried to figure out how to answer. In the quiet safety of her room, he forced himself to take a mental step back. It was easier to wrap himself up in his disdain than to be honest, it was easier to be wounded than to be fair, but deep inside he knew she was right.

This wasn’t like him. This wasn’t fair. He hated to admit it, but it wasn’t.

The reality was that Blaine hadn't made him any promises and hadn't done anything that a hundred other guys wouldn't have done even half as sweetly. Maybe that’s why this time was so much harder for Kurt. It wasn't Blaine's fault that Kurt had disappointed himself by feeling more than he meant to. It wasn't Blaine's fault that Kurt had let himself go more than he should have. It wasn't Blaine's fault that he'd given Kurt an unexpected taste of all of the things he wanted so badly and opened himself up to yearning and sadness in a way he worked so hard not to feel.

It was Kurt's problem, not Blaine's. He knew he was holding onto hurts that were entirely based on his own dreaming heart. He knew it was him, because Blaine had been nicer than any other guy Kurt had met, even in the cold light of day. Maybe Blaine came across as too earnest, too polished, too perfect to be honest, but that was hardly reason to hate him.

And Kurt didn't hate him. He just wanted to. He wanted his hatred to fester and burn and cover up every other emotion inside of him. It would be easier. Still, the easy way wasn't the right way.

He had to face the fact that Blaine hadn't actually done anything wrong.

Blaine wasn't responsible for Kurt's foolish, aching, wanting heart.

Kurt was.

"You're right," he sighed finally, his shoulders slumping. He looked up at her, penitent and resigned. "You're right."

Tina reached out and touched his knee, rubbing her palm over it. "Give him a chance," she said. "He's really sweet when you get to know him."

Kurt laughed darkly; he'd seen that sweetness up close and personal, after all. That wasn't Tina's problem, though, and it didn't seem fair to tell her that the guy he'd slept with was Blaine and color her vision of him. It wasn't fair to make her feel like she should pull away from Blaine out of loyalty for Kurt when Blaine hadn't actually done anything wrong. It had all been Kurt's fault. He'd been the one who couldn't handle something so simple as a basic college hookup. It was him. "I'm sure he is."

"Maybe we should all go out this weekend. You know, just hang out. Go for pizza or something?"

"Let's start a little smaller," he said, because the last thing he wanted was to be stuck with Blaine and his friends for an extended period of time. He realized with a sense of dread, though, that it was going to happen at some point. Probably soon. He'd have to sit there and watch Blaine flirt and laugh and smile and dance and pretend he'd never had it directed at him. He couldn't start that way. "I'll e-mail him and ask him to go with me to talk with the poli sci admin, okay?"

"Okay," Tina said with a bright smile of approval. She watched his face, though, and grew a little more serious. "Are you sure you're all right?"

Kurt nodded and forced a smile of his own. "Yes. He and I just got off on the wrong foot. It's fine. I'm sure he'll add a lot to the Review."

"And karaoke night. You should hear him sing." She shook his knee. "Seriously, he's going to need a really great spot in the Review, because he's going to wow everyone."

"Yes," Kurt said with a sigh. "I'm sure he will."

* * *

From: Kurt Hummel
To: Blaine Anderson
Subject: Rehearsal space

Blaine,

I apologize for being so abrupt this afternoon. I have no excuse. I'm sorry.

If your offer is still open - and I am well aware of how horrible a segue this is - I'd appreciate your help talking with the poli sci admin about our rehearsal space.

I get out of work at 3 tomorrow. Are you free then?

- Kurt

 

From: Blaine Anderson
To: Kurt Hummel
Subject: Re: Rehearsal space

Dear Kurt,

Sure, I'm happy to help. I have class in DuPont until 3:15. Where would you like to meet?

Blaine

 

From: Kurt Hummel
To: Blaine Anderson
Subject: Re: Rehearsal space

Blaine,

I'll be in the main theater in the props and costume department. Since it's on your way, do you want to swing by and find me? I've got my eye on a new sweater and am happy to work the extra fifteen minutes/half hour.

Thank you again.

- Kurt

From: Blaine Anderson
To: Kurt Hummel
Subject: Re: Rehearsal space

Dear Kurt,

That plan works for me. See you then!

Blaine

Chapter Text

Blaine hurried through the corridors, apologizing over his shoulder to a couple of girls he almost opened a door into but not slowing down. His TA had snagged him after class to discuss his latest reaction paper, and now it was already a few minutes after three-thirty. He knew Kurt had said he was fine working longer, but Blaine had made a promise to be there. He didn't want to let Kurt down.

He wasn't all that familiar with the backstage area of the main theater, but there were enough signs that he didn't have to slow his steps too much to find his way, and the harried woman in the theater office pointed him to the unmarked, open door that supposedly was the props and costume department.

Composing himself, he walked into the tiny, unoccupied office, its grey cinderblock walls covered in all sorts of odd props from stuffed parrots to carnival masks to what looked like a musket, although surely it couldn't be a working model.

Behind the drab metal desk, another door was open, and there was the sound of music filtering through the doorway.

"Kurt?" Blaine called. He skirted the desk and peeked inside into what seemed to be a combination warehouse/work room. There were rows upon rows of shelves and racks filling the large space, with dozens of larger items suspended from the ceiling. It was a funhouse of props and clothes and was somehow both claustrophobic and wildly exciting. Every hat, every chair, every book or candlestick was the promise of becoming a whole new person.

Off to the side were a couple of tables, one with two sewing machines, the other covered in what looked an awful lot like a hot pink version of Carol Burnett's version of Scarlett O'Hara's dress, heavy gold braiding and all. There, under about five yards of tulle underskirt, was Kurt. Only his head was visible.

"I'll just be a minute," Kurt mumbled around the needle he was holding tight between his lips, and Blaine turned a little to the side so that he wasn't noticing Kurt's mouth. It seemed rude; he knew things were uneasy between them, but manners would smooth the way. "I want to finish tacking this ruffle back on."

"Take your time. Rose said she'd be there 'til 4:30."

Kurt looked up. "Oh?"

"I asked her this morning, just to be sure. I didn't want us to waste our time and have to find another time to go back together."

There was a minute shift in Kurt's expression toward the cooler, but he bent his head again and used the needle somewhere behind the pile of fabric that Blaine couldn't see. His movements were fluid and sure, his eyes sharp on his work.

"I've never learned to sew," Blaine said, filling up the silence.

"No, I'm sure you didn't," Kurt replied in a distant voice. "Most boys don't. Most girls, either, these days."

"Did your mother teach you, or - "

"No." Kurt tugged the thread tight and tilted his head as he examined the skirt. "She died when I was young."

"Oh." Blaine swallowed, unsure of what the proper response was to that. Well, beyond the obvious: "I'm so sorry." He was; even if he and his family had their issues, at least he had them.

Kurt shrugged his shoulder. "Thank you." He looped the thread a few more times and then used a pair of shears to snip it. Standing up, he brushed the tulle into place and then shook out the gown. It was even more garish and exaggerated than Blaine had thought. "God, this dress really is hideous, isn't it?"

Blaine couldn't help but laugh. "I was thinking the same thing," he admitted, and Kurt's eyes warmed again, the corners of his mouth lifting.

"If it's any consolation, the woman who will be wearing deserves it," Kurt said as he hung it on an empty dress form nearby, "but it's still a crime against fashion." He knelt to fluff the underskirt and tugged here and there, probably checking his work. "All right, let me get my bag."

Kurt picked up his phone from the table and turned off the music coming from it, then walked past Blaine into the little office and grabbed his bookbag from behind the desk. Blaine trailed after him, not too close but not so far that he was slowing Kurt down.

Kurt led them out of the office and through the inner warrens of the theater to a door that let them out into the fresh air, and they walked side by side down the path in the direction of the poli sci building. For a few minutes, they were both silent, Kurt looking straight in front of them and Blaine trying not to look too much at Kurt, because that charcoal jacket fit him so perfectly it was distracting, and the peek of red shirt beneath it was doing great things to Kurt's skin.

It didn't matter that he'd had his mouth on that warm hollow beneath Kurt's ear, he told himself; the whole point of what they'd done was that it had begun and ended that night. It didn't matter that Blaine wasn't blind to an attractive boy, even if he wasn't going to do anything about it. It wasn't right for Blaine to think even for a second of what it would feel like to kiss that hollow again, especially since Kurt, despite his apology in his e-mail, was still barely willing to look at him.

So he set that aside, told himself to be the gentleman he'd been raised to be, reminded himself that Kurt wanted him to be helpful but nothing more, and was utterly surprised when Kurt broke the silence between them.

"So you're from Ohio."

"Yes, I am," Blaine said, happy enough to grab onto the topic. "I went to school in Westerville." He laughed a little at himself. "Which you know. And you're from Lima."

"Yes. How are you liking New York?"

Blaine thought of the energy, the people, and the buildings all around them. "I love it. I thought I would, but the reality is even better than I'd expected. What about you?"

"Oh." Kurt shrugged, his voice going a little thoughtful. "I do love it. I thought I'd find - well, I thought it would be more different from Ohio than it actually is, but I still love it."

"What's not different from Ohio?" Blaine asked, watching him. "I feel like everything's different."

"Of course you do; you don't have to wear a tie." Kurt shot him a bit of a grin.

Blaine found himself smiling back. "More than that. And thank you for not picking on the blazer."

"We'll say it's part of my apology," Kurt replied. "For me, I'm still facing some of the same problems here that I was in Lima, the same prejudices around certain things, the same differences in outlook, and I thought they'd disappear here." He shrugged again, his hand flexing on the strap of his bag. "It's still infinitely better than Ohio, but it's far from the utopia I'd dreamed it was when I was in high school."

Blaine was reminded of the first half of high school, after he'd gotten to Dalton and realized he truly was safe to be out there, and all of the silly thoughts he'd had about what it meant to be able to date a boy openly, how easy it would all be, how the other person would just accept everything he gave and love it, would support and love him, scars and all. It had been hard to face the fact that reality didn't work the way his dreams did. "I guess that's part of growing up," he said with understanding.

Kurt nodded. "I know."

They lapsed into silence again, this time a little less awkward than before, and Blaine didn't hesitate when they passed a big pumpkin-shaped poster to say, "I can't believe it's Halloween in a couple of weeks."

Kurt made an indecipherable little noise. "Already. Sometimes I feel like my college experience is me lifting my head from my unending pile of work and finding that another two months have passed."

"I'm sorry," Blaine told him, bothered by the thought. "I mean, I know school is important, but that's life going on without you."

"I'm working toward my life," Kurt replied with an edge to his voice that made Blaine pull back his shoulders.

"But this is your life, too," Blaine said quietly, not quite sure he should.

Kurt turned them toward the main doors of the poli sci building. "Not the one I want. This is just me getting there."

Blaine couldn't help but think that was sad, but he knew he couldn't say that without Kurt taking it as criticism. Kurt seemed to be very different from him, and this was just another way.

"What do you want?" he asked instead.

Kurt let out a sigh and said with a distinct air of wistfulness, "So many things," before looking over at Blaine and cutting himself off like a trap snapping shut. "Here we are."

Getting into game mode, Blaine cleared his throat and pulled out a smile before turning the corner into the office; he stopped in the doorway and knocked on the frame. It was a common space, but he knew Rose enjoyed the show of manners.

"I keep telling you you don't have to do that," Rose said from behind her desk when she looked up and realized it was him.

"I like to," he said, coming in with Kurt following behind.

"So, is this your friend?" she asked, her eyes flicking over Kurt with some curiosity but her smile not faltering.

"This is Kurt," Blaine replied, because he was certain Kurt wouldn't claim him as a friend, and a proper introduction was never wrong.

"Kurt Hummel," Kurt said, offering her his hand for a firm shake. "Blaine said you might be able to help us?"

Rose glanced between them. "He did? What do you need?"

"Well," Blaine said easily, because he knew the best way to get her help was to make it as simple as possible for her to say yes, "Kurt's the head of the Independent Student Review, kind of a group performance, and I'm lucky enough to be in it this semester, but we're finding ourselves in a bind. We are looking for a space to rehearse."

"Blaine," Rose said with a laugh, "this is the political science department, not theater."

Blaine smiled back. "I know, and obviously we'd talked with them first, but there was a conflict, and we lost our space. We don't need anything fancy, just a big enough room without any furniture in it, and I happen to know that poli sci has one of those. The debate room."

"That's slated for renovation."

"But not until next semester."

She nodded. "True, but that doesn't mean we can just let the theater department - "

"We're not the theater department," Kurt told her. "We're a bunch of students working independently, and we're from all different majors. This isn't anything official, it's not a land grab from theater, and we practice after hours so you won't hear or see much of us."

Blaine jumped in after him. "All we need is some time in the afternoons or evenings and the ability to stick tape to the carpet - which comes up, but you're going to be replacing the carpet anyway, so you don't even have to worry about the chance of it getting gummy. The room is just sitting there unused, with nothing scheduled in it, right?"

"That's right," she replied.

Blaine held his breath while she thought, because he really, really wanted this to work. If he fell on his face in front of Kurt -

"Okay," she said. "Let me talk with the department chair and the faculty advisor for your group, but I don't have a problem with it."

"Thank you," Blaine said with relief. He hadn't failed. He hadn't succeeded yet, but he hadn't failed.

"Yes, thank you." Kurt bent over her desk to write down the advisor's name and e-mail; Blaine wasn't even sure who it might be since he'd never even heard an adult mentioned, nevertheless seen one around, but that seemed par for the course for all of his student-run groups. "When do you think you'll know?"

"By the end of the week, but if I can grab a few minutes of their time possibly as early as tomorrow," Rose said.

Kurt smiled at her as he straightened up. "That would be wonderful. Thank you."

Blaine felt light on his feet as they left, and the fact that Kurt was still smiling when they reached the quad made it even better. He'd done that. It was a good moment.

"Thank you," Kurt said to him, stopping at the bottom of the steps. "I hate to admit it, but I'm actually hopeful."

"I'll stop in tomorrow and try to put in another good word," Blaine promised. "But I'm hopeful, too."

Kurt adjusted his bag on his shoulder, his smile turning a little more self-mocking. "I never would have found it on my own."

Blaine glanced away, a bit uncomfortable as always about how to respond to praise even as he wanted to bask in it. "Well, I was just in the right place at the right time to hear about it, and I figure it doesn't hurt to ask when you want something." He felt his cheeks heat, because of course he'd asked Kurt for things without thinking it through, but maybe that was getting to be water under the bridge.

"Well, if everybody gave me such an easy yes I'd ask more often," Kurt said, apparently not picking up on the potential subtext. "As it is, I find I have to insist and not give them an easy chance to say no."

"I've never been good at insisting," Blaine admitted.

Kurt grinned and replied, "I've never been good at asking."

Blaine laughed and ducked his head, because Kurt's smile made his chest do funny things he didn't want to think about. He shouldn't think about. He should just be glad he was getting a smile at all.

"Anyway," Kurt said, "this went very well. May I offer you an official thank you coffee from the ISR and from me? My treat?"

Blaine was about to say yes when he stopped himself short. He'd redeemed himself a little in Kurt's eyes, but if he said the wrong thing yet again, he could do more damage than the good he'd already done. He knew he couldn't trust his instincts when it came to this kind of thing; he couldn't count how many times he'd mis-stepped over the years and thrown himself in head-first only to meet with disaster. So he was going to learn from his mistakes and keep things easy. He would be smart and mature and not jump on the offer. He'd quit while he was ahead today and know he'd be welcome tomorrow.

Besides, Kurt's smile was thanks enough.

"I don't want to take up any more of your time," Blaine said, and if that smile tightened it remained on Kurt's face, which was a huge improvement over their past interactions.

"All right." Kurt stepped back and said, "Then I hope you have a good day."

"Bye." Blaine stayed where he was as Kurt turned and walked away. He watched the proud tilt of his head, the brisk assurance in his walk, and the perfect lines of his clothing moving with him until he rounded the corner and was out of sight.

Only then did Blaine turn toward his own dorm. A few minutes later, he realized something and sat down hard on the bench he was passing. Damn it. He yanked his phone out of his pocket.

I just realized the irony of declining your invitation thirty seconds after you said you didn't like to ask people for things, he tapped out in a hasty text message.

A minute later his phone buzzed.

Don't worry about it; I appreciate irony more than most people, was Kurt's reply, but it didn't make Blaine feel any less like he'd let him down.

* * *

Wes to Blaine: As your unofficial RA, I think it's time for us to have a catch-up coffee. Friday afternoon?

Blaine to Wes: The Keynotes are performing outside the Union at 2:30 Friday. Want to grab a cup after?

Wes to Blaine: Sounds excellent. See you there.

* * *

It was such a relief for Blaine to be able to perform on Friday. There was a magical release that came from opening his mouth and expressing himself through song. He loved the way it felt to dig deep from his lungs and belt it out. He loved the way he could connect with an audience and draw them in. He loved the glow he felt from watching people have fun because of him. It was one of the best feelings in the world.

Performing in the Keynotes wasn't quite the sweet rush the Warblers had been for him, but he knew it had nothing to do with the other members of the group. They were great. It just wasn't the same not being out front, both from not getting the audience's direct attention and also from not feeling the support and trust of the other guys. It had been a lot of pressure to lead the Warblers, but it had also been a great source of pride for him that they wanted him to. He'd loved being out there with them.

Still, singing at all was a fun way to let out of all of the tension that had been building up in him over the past weeks with all of the pressure of his schoolwork, the busy schedule of his other activities, and the knowledge that he'd mis-stepped somewhere with Kurt in a way he still hadn't figured out, and it was another bright fall day in New York, so Blaine let the sun on his face and the crowd of students energize him as he swayed and harmonized while Caleb sang lead on "Tardy for the Party." He'd be a valuable member of the group until he could prove to them he was able to be more than that.

About halfway through the second song of their three-song set, Blaine caught sight of Wes watching from behind a clump of girls, and he flashed Wes a wide grin before going back to singing to the whole crowd. He wasn't nervous about Wes hearing him sing, but he hoped the Keynotes measured up to Wes's exacting standards. If nothing else, he didn't think Wes lecturing the fairly casual group on harmonics was going to win Blaine any friends.

Wes was all smiles when they finished, though, and he clapped Blaine's back in a half hug when they met up. "I'm impressed," Wes said.

"Thanks," Blaine said, warmed by the approval as much as the performance itself. "We might not be the caliber of a competitive show choir or the Kingsmen, but we still work hard."

"I can see that. Though it's still strange seeing you sing with women in the group, I have to say."

"I'm embracing life after Dalton. Come on, let's get something to drink." Blaine led the way inside after waving to his fellow 'Notes, and he and Wes grabbed a couple of coffees and settled in two comfortable chairs at one of the low tables in the atrium.

"It looks like you're finding a place." Wes took a sip of his coffee.

"In the back right now, but… yeah, I think I am." It felt good to say it, and it wasn’t just in the Keynotes; it was in the Review, the Alliance, his classes, and his dorm. It made his heart ease to think about it, that so many of his fears about not being able to measure up outside of Ohio or the Warblers had been unfounded. Maybe he hadn’t lived in Paris or lived up to his ideal as a leader, but he still was fitting in.

"You'll rise to the front again. You didn't get every solo at Dalton because of your pretty face. Well, not just because of it."

Blaine ducked his head, laughing. "I didn't get every solo."

"True. There was, as I recall, one duet before I graduated, and a few more after, or so I heard." Wes sipped from his cup again, watching Blaine's face. "And that song at Regionals last year that you gave up."

"Oh." Blaine's good mood swiftly drained away at the memory. "Yes."

"There were a lot of stories about it that made their way to me," Wes said when Blaine didn't say anything else. "I've always wondered what the truth was."

Blaine rested his cup on the arm of his chair and met Wes's eyes, because Wes was the Warblers for him. He couldn't dodge the question, as much as he might have liked not to think about it. "There was a lot of tension in the group about who should have that lead. There were complaints about how often I was chosen to be out front. It was fracturing the Warblers into groups. Stepping down from the song seemed like the only thing to do to fix it."

"So you gave it to your boyfriend, who is nowhere near the singer you are."

"No," Blaine insisted, leaning forward. He couldn't have Wes think that. "No, I didn't. I only said that the rest of the Council should pick someone besides me. I recused myself from the discussion. And they chose him." He'd known they would, of course, because Sebastian had been the one trying to unseat Blaine from his position as unquestioned leader of the group by scheming among the junior members, but at least it had stopped tearing them apart. Besides, even when he'd found out that Sebastian was the ringleader, Blaine had still been so stupid in love he'd believed Sebastian's talk of spreading out the parts to showcase more of their talent was in fact the right thing to do. Part of him still did. The Warblers weren’t all about him. "I was trying to do the right thing."

"It wasn't without a cost," Wes said.

"Besides my pride when Sebastian and I broke up a couple of weeks later?" Blaine shook his head; he'd gone over this situation a thousand times or more in his own mind. It was painful, even without the memory of the nasty way they'd split, but he was sure he'd done the best he could have. He didn't think any other choice would have turned out better. He really hoped not. "We would have lost against Vocal Adrenaline at Regionals, regardless; they were exceptional. But having Sebastian stirring up dissent for the rest of the year would have been worse for the group, because it would have carried over into this year. This way it was over when we graduated. It became a personal problem, not a Warbler-wide one."

He didn't let himself say any more. It wasn't Wes's problem that the betrayal of Sebastian angling for Blaine's fairly awarded part had made his stomach churn for weeks. He still couldn't believe that Sebastian would put his own wish to be out front over not only what was best for the Warblers but also the happiness of his own boyfriend. It wasn't Wes's problem that half of the Warblers, mostly the younger members, had barely wanted to speak to Blaine during his last quarter at Dalton because of the split. It wasn't Wes's problem that Sebastian had been cutting and dismissive of him in rehearsals even before they finally broke up, undermining Blaine's authority as a member of the Council and diminishing the pride he felt in being chosen to co-lead them. Blaine had worked hard to keep his temper in check in public and had held his head high. The Warblers had deserved that. That was what mattered.

He only wished Sebastian had agreed.

Wes put his coffee on the table between them and didn't speak for a moment; Blaine felt like he was waiting for a verdict from a judge. "Then you did the right thing," Wes said finally, and Blaine let out a breath he'd barely known he was holding. "Although I'm sorry to hear that the Warblers were anything but a place of support for you."

Blaine smiled a little, because Wes most certainly was remembering his first sight of Blaine, bruised and anxious after what had happened to him at his old school; although those scars would always remain with him, that day seemed like a million years ago. "By the time this happened, I didn't need the Warblers to be a refuge. I just wanted to leave the group as strong as it was when I'd joined."

"Which is admirable." Wes leaned back in his chair. "I always knew you were a good addition."

"Thank you. I wanted to be," Blaine said softly, truly touched in a way he didn't know how to express. "But I'm still sorry to have brought any problems into the group."

"I'd think less of you if you didn't,” Wes said. “But that's behind you, and you can focus on college, maybe a new special someone who is less - "

Even if Blaine had been blind he would have been able to see the twinkle of a question in Wes's eyes. "I'm not looking for that," he said. "But speaking of special, how's Esther?"

"She's amazing, and she can also probably see you changing the topic from Columbia."

"There's nothing to say about it. Let's talk about you two." Blaine smiled broadly at him. "You were very cute together at karaoke."

"Blaine, if half of what I've heard about Sebastian is true, then - "

"Look, Wes, thank you for your concern. Yes, things ended very badly, but I learned a lot from dating him, about myself and about love. It was good for me. So drop the 'poor Blaine, he needs a boyfriend' worrying and tell me about your amazing girlfriend." Blaine met Wes's gaze without wavering. It was entirely true. It was better that he had learned early that relationships were a difficult dance between two people and that all of the things he'd thought were romantic were too much, that the movie vision of supportive partnership and adoration was as much of a fantasy as actors' airbrushed photo shoots in glossy magazines, and that, despite what he'd always assumed, he didn't have to be in a relationship to connect with people. In fact, it was actually easier without all of the baggage of expectation around dating and all of the ways he could disappoint someone. It was all of the good with none of the bad.

Despite how much it had hurt by the end, it was good that he’d dated Sebastian. He couldn't imagine what it would have been like to show up at college and still believe it was romantic instead of annoying to serenade a boy in the middle of the quad. (That was great, Blaine, Sebastian had laughed, slinging an arm fondly around his shoulders, but I can think of a better use of your mouth next time you want to surprise me. That maintenance closet's always unlocked.) He would have made the biggest fool of himself giving handmade gifts for holidays. (Oh, how cute. Origami.) He would have thought that going to a musical or holding hands at a restaurant was actually a sophisticated night out instead of a juvenile dream. (If we leave at intermission, we can still get to Scandals before half-price drinks are over.) He'd been such a kid.

He was grateful to Sebastian for teaching him all of that. They'd been hard lessons at the time, every single one, and honestly they still stung. But they were necessary, and now he was enjoying college with them already under his belt. He was doing so much better than he would have if he'd come in approaching boys the way he'd tried with Sebastian. He understood what he wanted and what other people wanted. There was just one notable exception, he reminded himself, but he hoped he was on his way to figuring out what had gone wrong there, since Kurt was being a little less cold to him. When Blaine understood his mistake, he could stop worrying and go back to having fun.

Wes searched Blaine's eyes for a long moment, but then he dropped his shoulders and nodded. "She took me to the opera," he said, allowing the change of subject. "And I liked it."

* * *

Kurt could barely contain himself as he strode into the Union, his phone clutched to his chest with the e-mail he'd just received from Rose still displayed on the screen. They had a rehearsal space. They had a rehearsal space. This was a huge weight off of his shoulders. It was like he could breathe for the first time in weeks. He could dance. He could sing. He could hug someone.

He caught sight of a familiar profile across the Union, and he was so wrapped up in his joy that he was halfway to him before he realized that Blaine wasn't alone. Kurt skidded to a halt on the slick tile floor and watched Blaine shoot one of his perfect grins at the other boy and toast him with his cup.

Right.

It was a much-needed reality check. Kurt suddenly remembered who and where he was. He stood there staring for a minute as the world expanded back to its usual size from the narrow focus of his happiness. It didn't pop the bubble in his chest, but it did remind him there was more going on around him than just this excellent news. He didn't need to lose his head over it.

Laughing to himself, Kurt looked down at his phone again. He might have hugged Blaine. What a disaster that would have been.

Shaking himself out of the worst of his giddy mood, Kurt turned toward the coffee counter to get himself the drink he'd needed so badly before the news had hit him harder than five shots of espresso in a row would have.

* * *

From: Kurt Hummel
To: [ISR Mailing List]
Subject: Rehearsal Space
Attached: [debateroomrulesletter.doc]

Everyone,

We finally have an official rehearsal space! The Smith Debate Room, currently stripped for an upcoming renovation, in the poli sci building is ours for the semester. I am attaching the official list of rules and restrictions as sent to me by the department; please be sure to read and respect them. We don't want to give them any reason to be sorry they're doing us this favor.

Angelica will be in touch about scheduling ASAP.

Special thanks to Blaine for both finding the space and helping us secure it. If I used sports analogies, I'd name him MVP of the week. :)

See you all on Tuesday in Smith! We'll be starting to finalize some of the big group performances.

- Kurt

* * *

The e-mail notice about the LGBT Alliance Annual "Come As You Aren't" Halloween Party went out on Saturday afternoon.

Blaine dutifully marked the time and location in his calendar.

Kurt deleted the e-mail.

* * *

The rehearsal space was surprisingly perfect. True, at this point Kurt didn't require much beyond a large enough room without annoying furniture and with doors that closed and windows that could be shaded at night, but the privacy of the space down in the basement of the building was unexpectedly lovely. It was quiet, no one else used it so nothing got moved around in odd ways and they never had to wait to get in, and not being in one of the theater buildings meant that nobody was popping in to interrupt them or snagging him for 'just one little thing' when he walked down the hall. It was their space and theirs alone.

Kurt leaned against the windowsill with his arms over his chest and surveyed the room happily as the rest of the cast gathered up their belongings, put on their coats, and began to drift away. It had been an excellent meeting, too. Despite his early concerns about their ability to focus because of the theme debacle, the group was, as a whole, very creative, bright, and enthusiastic for being amateurs. Angelica and Tina had chosen well; he'd have to be sure to tell them.

Even Blaine was an asset, Kurt was forced to admit. Despite the issues that lay between them, if Kurt was fair he could see that Blaine was very helpful, not just in securing the room - although that was huge - but also in jumping in when an idea or extra hand was needed. He'd shown up promptly for the tech meeting beforehand and even had some mechanical experience, apparently. It wasn't in set construction, but at least he wasn't afraid of working with his hands.

(Kurt skirted the innuendo of that thought as quickly as it popped into his head.)

Plus, Kurt assumed, given that Blaine had been the lead of the Warblers and had a place in the Keynotes, he could sing. He already knew Blaine could dance, at least somewhat.

Blaine deserved to be there, too. Kurt could be mature enough to admit that. He didn’t have to like it, but he could be polite about it.

Pushing away from his perch, Kurt picked up his coat from where he'd neatly folded it and placed it on the ledge earlier. He hummed to himself as he put it on, glad that the weather had finally turned properly cool enough for his fall wardrobe. He'd missed his scarves and warmer sweaters, and soon it would be time for gloves and hats, too. There was so much to look forward to, even if he'd have to check that he had a good supply of his more intensive moisturizers; the dry air was the down-side to the winter.

He got his bag and stopped by Tina where she was retying her boot and getting ready to leave.

"Hey, sailor, going my way?" she asked with what was probably supposed to be a saucy grin, but she was just too sweet to pull it off, at least when he was the recipient.

"Back to my dorm. You?"

"Off to Keller to drop off my English paper, then dinner. Want to walk together as far as the arch?"

It was a little out of Kurt's way, but he preferred to spend the time with Tina than walk alone. "Sure. How are your mid-terms going?"

Tina pulled the laces tight and grabbed her bag. "They're mid-terms. But I think I'm doing okay. There weren't any questions I couldn't answer on my anthro exam."

"That's always a good sign." Kurt reached for the door, but instead it burst open, and Blaine bounded through.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Blaine said, nearly crashing into Tina and instead sweeping her into a neat little dance spin that released his momentum in a much less violent way. "I forgot my phone. I didn't think anyone would still be here."

"It's okay," Tina replied with a giggle, and Kurt couldn't help but notice that Blaine kept a hold on her arms until she was steady on her feet again. "It's not every day someone unexpectedly dances with me, at least not since Mike went to college."

"I'll keep that in mind." Blaine grinned at her and scooped up his phone from where it was tucked next to the wall in a slice of shadow.

"We're going to the arch," Tina said, "if you want to walk with us."

Blaine glanced at Kurt, who had no trouble keeping his expression neutral, and then said, "Sure, thanks." He held the door for them both, following them through.

A few dry leaves were being twirled by the wind in front of the door, and Tina swatted one out of her hair as Kurt tugged his collar up closer to his face.

"It really feels like fall," she said. "I wasn't sure it would be the same as home, but it is. Even if there aren't as many trees."

"We'll have to go to Central Park this weekend," Kurt said. "The colors are beautiful. And there's a view over the Hudson up at the Cloisters that will make you forget you're even in the city."

"That sounds great. Although I can't believe we're at the end of October already."

"It's almost Halloween," Blaine said, stepping onto the grass to let a cyclist pass by.

Tina nodded. "Yeah. My RA said something about dorm trick-or-treating, so I'm thinking I'm going to spend the night at Mike's. They're having a real party."

"The Alliance is, too," Blaine said so easily it was like he didn't even connect with the fact that he'd hooked up with Kurt at a different party, but then, Kurt knew, it hadn't been such a big deal for him. Kurt looked straight ahead as Blaine continued. "Although it's 'Come As You Aren't', and I don't have any ideas for a costume."

"You could have messy hair and dress like a rapper?" Tina suggested, bumping Blaine's shoulder with hers. Kurt privately had to admit it was a funny thought.

"That's an idea," Blaine replied, though he sounded unconvinced. He hesitated for a second and then said, "Do you have a costume for the party, Kurt?"

Kurt was so shocked by the question that he didn't think before responding, "Why would I even go?"

"Oh, I thought..." Blaine trailed off and slid his hands into his pockets. "I apologize."

"Kurt's not really into parties like that," Tina explained, and Kurt couldn't meet either of their eyes, because although it was mostly true they both knew different parts of just what happened to him when he went to them.

"Besides," he said, "with the exception of performing, I prefer to be who I am, not pretend I'm something I'm not."

"Even when who he is is someone who struts down the hallways in high school dressed like Lady GaGa," Tina said.

Blaine made a choked sound, and Kurt could feel the heat rising into his cheeks at the judgment of it. His jaw rose higher. He knew he was different; he wasn't going to apologize or make excuses for it. "That was one week for an assignment, and I notice you left out that you were similarly dressed."

Tina patted his arm. "You looked better than I did."

"That must've been interesting," Blaine said slowly, like he wasn't sure what to say.

"The jocks certainly thought so," Kurt replied, drawing to a halt just off the path in front of the arch; it was where they needed to split up.

"This is me," Blaine said, nodding down the path to the right. "I'm heading to my dorm to try to convince my roommate he needs to eat more than Mountain Dew and candy to survive mid-terms."

Kurt couldn't help the noise of disgust that escaped. He didn't even want to think about what he'd feel like if that's what he were eating. God, or what his skin would look like.

"I know," Blaine said with a laugh. "It's bad when a greasy pizza is the healthy option, but he needs to eat something with actual food in it. Wish me luck."

"Are you going there right now to drag him to dinner?" Tina asked.

Blaine nodded. "Yep. I think it's going to be a fight."

"I have a paper to drop off at Keller first, but if you want I can come with you. Two are more persuasive than one, and I'm surprisingly strong." She flexed her arm. "You know, in case the dragging becomes literal."

"That'd be great," Blaine said with a smile, and it looked warmer to Kurt than the usual perfect one he wore; he wondered when he'd started trying to categorize Blaine's endless smiles.

"Besides, you know I totally want to meet this mysterious roommate of yours," Tina said, linking her arm with Blaine's.

"He's a good guy," Blaine insisted.

"I think Mike's still laughing about the story of you coming back and finding him buried under a hundred empty soda cans when the pyramid on his bookcase collapsed. And he just slept through it."

"Yeah, I should've taken a picture."

"Anyway," Kurt said, taking a step back and trying not to feel left out of their easy conversation. He did, but he didn't have to give into it. "Enjoy your dinner."

"Do you - " Blaine met Kurt's eyes, his expression nothing but friendly. "You're welcome to join us."

Kurt shook his head. "I have a mid-term tomorrow I need to get ready for," he said, and even if he hadn't he wasn't all that eager to accept the invitation, though a part of him had to appreciate being included. "But thank you."

They said their goodbyes, and as Tina and Blaine went off one way and Kurt went another he found himself thinking of the other two, of their easy conversation, of the time they were clearly spending together beyond the Review. They seemed like they were getting to be friends.

He didn't feel jealous. By the time he got to his room he was certain it wasn’t jealousy he felt about their connection. Tina was his friend, and her liking Blaine didn't change that. He was more wistful than anything. They reminded him of what he didn't have.

He missed the camaraderie of Glee Club, even the people with whom he wasn't close. He missed hanging out in a group like that, just one of them. Obviously he had friends and a social life, such as it was, but having Tina in school with him again was making him miss that feeling of a loose-knit community around him in the choir room, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways that he wasn't sure he'd ever really appreciated while he'd had it.

He missed belonging, being known, welcomed, and invited by people, even if they didn't always understand him. The Review was kind of like that, but he was in charge. It was different. No one was including him; he was already there.

Pulling out his sheet music and setting his electric kettle on to boil for some tea, he wondered if he should agree to go to dinner if he was invited again so he could feel that sort of acceptance into other people's lives.

He didn’t need it to survive, and it still wouldn't be the same as walking into that choir room, but he decided it probably wouldn't hurt.

* * *

Trent to Blaine: It's official! Warbler reunion at my house on the day after Thanksgiving!

Rob to Blaine: holy fuck i may have finished a draft of my paper

Meg to Blaine: I'm thinking of going to the party as Paris Hilton. Remember her?

Meg to Blaine: Please stop me.

Rob to Blaine: is your offer to read it over for me still good?

Rob to Blaine: also, i bought cherry coke, it has fruit in it. proud of me?

Tina to Blaine: Aw, thank you for your note on my door! <3 Good luck to you, too! See you tomorrow!

Sidney to Blaine: Tell me you didn't understand the reading, because I didn't understand the reading.

Peter to Blaine: The youth center is thrilled you want to come sing - we're on for next Sunday @ 2.

Rachel to Blaine: I noticed you've switched your e-vite response from tentative to confirmed. I am going to e-mail you a few duet choices. Please get back to me ASAP.

* * *

The afternoon before Halloween, Blaine was feeling very celebratory. Not only had he gotten through all of his mid-terms, but his poli sci one, the one he'd expected to be hardest, had gone really smoothly. He'd written so fast he'd gotten a cramp in his hand he couldn't shake out even three hours later, and he wouldn't know for sure until he got the grade back, of course, but he still felt really good about it.

Plus, Rob had managed to finish his paper and had even done all of the reading for it beforehand so it actually made sense. All he had to do was turn it in in the next ten minutes.

It was a great day. Blaine turned his face up to the late afternoon sun and smiled.

"I'll be out in a minute if you want to catch a few rays," Rob said, drawing to a halt in front of the door closest to his professor's office.

The sun felt really good after a couple of weeks of being buried under his books, so Blaine said, "Sure," and went to lean against the retaining wall a few feet away.

He basked for a long moment, just soaking up the light through his eyelids and relishing the feeling of not having ten tons of work sitting on his shoulders. But then the happy chatter of students and the sounds of the city filtered back into his consciousness, and he opened his eyes to watch the world go by until Rob returned. It was one of his favorite things to do in New York, just let it happen around him.

It was another few minutes before he noticed the figure sitting across the small quad on a similar retaining wall, that one in the shade. It was a boy dressed in grey and black, and it wasn't so much the way he blended into the shadow but his posture instead that made Blaine not immediately recognize him. It was Kurt, but his shoulders weren't stiff and straight like usual; they were hunched. His head wasn't up, his eyes sharp on the world around him; instead he was half bent, brooding over the paper in his hands. He didn't look confident; he looked defeated.

Blaine was pushing away from his own spot before he realized what he was doing and stopped himself. He wanted to go to Kurt and find out what was wrong, but he knew it wasn't his place. They were just barely friendly; they weren't friends. But Kurt was clearly hurting, and Blaine didn't know where politeness was trumped by compassion. He didn't want to make things worse, but -

His indecision was made moot by Kurt squaring his jaw and his shoulders, putting the paper in his bag, and standing up. He didn't look happy, but as he turned and walked away, he had regained that veneer of self-assurance he usually did. He looked like he knew exactly what he was doing. He looked unhurt, able to conquer the world.

He looked like Kurt again.

Blaine wondered suddenly how much of the Kurt they all saw everyday was covering up a boy hurting inside.

He was still looking down the path Kurt had taken by the time Rob came back.

* * *

Later that afternoon, Kurt's phone rang with 'For Good', and he pushed himself upright from where he was lying on his stomach on his bed slowly flipping through last month's Vogue for the fourth time in a row.

"Hello, Rachel," he answered.

"I need to complain. Tell me something," she said.

It was a game they'd started last year when getting to New York hadn't actually rid them of their woes and in fact had made every disappointment or individual struggle that much harder and more upsetting.

Kurt, per her request, started. "I was outbid at the last minute on a perfect pair of Louboutins yesterday."

"My roommate used up the last of the honey and didn't replace it so I couldn't warm up properly this morning," Rachel said.

"Elise was late again and nearly missed our mid-term slot."

"I still can't get the phrasing right on that Sondheim piece, and I have to perform it tomorrow."

"The interpretive dancers in the Review insist they want to perform to 'The Flight of the Bumblebee' even though they're supposed to be butterflies," he said. "They say it's close enough."

Rachel's voice went a little softer and more serious. "Because I'm just the understudy I'm not going to be able to show everyone I was born to play Evita."

Kurt swallowed; he'd hate that problem as much as she would, even if he would have liked to have it. He would have liked a role in his school's fall play. He would have liked to be at NYADA, too, even if it meant he still wasn't being cast. But still, he understood. "My vocal professor has decided that because my range is exceptional I'm hiding behind it and am being lazy in other areas. Even though he had to give me an A on the oral part of my mid-term because I nailed it." He sighed and looked over at his bag like he could see the paper inside; the injustice of it still burned in his chest, and there was nothing he could do to fight it but try to be as utterly perfect as he possibly could. He had to do well in the class. "You should have seen his written comments. They were scathing."

"I think I'm breaking up with Jean-Claude," Rachel whispered.

Kurt closed his eyes at the sadness in her voice. "You win," he said, their usual ending to the game. "What's going on?"

"He - " She took a shuddering breath. "I don't know, Kurt, there isn't anything big. He's nice, he tries to be supportive, he understands what it means to have a dream. It's hard, us both wanting the same thing, but I think we could do it. If we wanted. But... he's not the one."

"Oh, Rachel..." Kurt might not have had the chance to be in love the way she had, but he knew exactly what it was like to want something and not have it, not have a way to getting it with what you already had. He felt for her deep into his chest.

"He just isn't," she said, watery. "I can't change that."

"I know."

She sniffled for a minute and then whispered, "And I miss Finn."

"I know," he said.

"I don't want to. I know why we had to break up when I left and he stayed in Lima. I should be happy here with all of the New York men. But I miss him."

"I know, Rachel." He knew, too, the many ways New York men could fall short, but this wasn't about him. "I know he misses you, too."

"He's dating someone. You told me."

"Yes, but I know for a fact she's no Rachel Berry." Kurt actually liked Caitlin, but that was beside the point. She wasn't Rachel. She'd make Finn happy, and she might be the right one for him long-term, but she wasn't the same kind of shining star in his life.

"It doesn't matter," Rachel said. "I don't want to get back together with Finn. I just... I want someone to make me feel like he did. I want to feel that special."

Kurt wasn't sure Rachel was as over the relationship as she insisted, so he gave her a minute, but when nothing else was forthcoming he said, "I'm sorry about Jean-Claude."

"Thank you. I haven't decided yet, but..."

"Yes, you have."

She laughed a little, without much humor. "Yes, I have. I have. He's not the one. I can't - I don't even think I can wait until tomorrow now that I've said it out loud." She laughed again. "I'm going to lose my date for the Halloween ball. And he paid for the tickets, so I can't even ask someone else."

Kurt found himself smiling to himself; Rachel always had her own view of the world, and he hoped it never changed. "You can always come here and watch movies with me. We can curl up together and do mud masks. It'll be like senior year."

"Don't you have plans?" she asked, sounding tentative but hopeful.

"I do now," he replied. He took mental stock of his skin care essentials to be sure he didn't need to pick anything up.

"Thanks, Kurt. You're the best. But you should come here. I have a bigger TV."

He refrained from pointing out that he'd have to carry a bunch of bottles and jars on the subway. She was the one having the crisis. "I'll be there at 6," he said. "You get the ice cream; I'll bring the rest."

* * *

The LGBT Alliance Halloween party was in full swing by the time Blaine got there. He'd struggled with an idea for his costume since he'd heard the theme; there were so many things he wasn't, but it made him uncomfortable to have to put his failings and weaknesses out there for everyone to see. He knew he was overthinking it, but it was enough for him to put off making a decision until it was too late. In fact, he might not have gone at all if he hadn't gotten a handful of texts from some of his friends asking where he was and insisting (upon his replies) that he didn't need to dress up.

The majority of the other students were wearing some form of costume, most of it handmade, much of it at least marginally revealing, but Blaine was relieved to see he wasn't the only one in jeans and a shirt.

He went over to the bar, feeling the music start to work its way into his bones but knowing it would go faster with a beer or two. As always, Ray, the bartender, ignored the fact that Blaine was marked as under twenty-one and slipped him a bottle without being asked.

"So what are you, B?" Ray leaned forward over the bar. "Or what aren't you?" He was wearing a big set of glittering black bat wings and was somehow able to talk around the set of fangs in his mouth.

"I'm just me," Blaine said with a shrug.

"Huh. Interesting choice. Seriously meta."

"No, I'm - " Blaine began to explain, but Ray fluttered off to help a pair of girls at the other end of the bar.

By the end of his second beer, Blaine was no longer self-conscious about not having a costume. He was just happy to be with his friends. Meg did indeed make a fantastic Paris Hilton, and Peter as Donald Trump was so wrong that it was perfectly right. The music was good, the beer was cold, and there was nothing at all he had to worry about while he was dancing. If his partners didn't move as well as Kurt, they were more than skilled enough for Blaine. He was having fun.

It was a great night.

And yet as he spun Julie around the floor or let Peter pretend to grind up behind him in his tacky suit, Blaine realized he just wasn't all that interested in going off with any of the other guys who flicked their eyes his way, even if he would have let himself with the unknown Kurt mistake still lingering. He didn't want to.

He didn't feel like hooking up with a guy he didn't really know when he could spend time with people he liked, even if it meant giving up the sex he still would be very happy to have.

So he smiled at the handsome guy watching him from across the room, grabbed Meg around the waist, and happily let himself fall into the amazing feeling of being with people who wanted him to be there and liked him back.

* * *

From: Rachel Berry
To: [Elite Karaoke Mailing List]
Subject: Uninvited Guests at This Weekend's Karaoke Gathering

Dear friends,

As many of you know, I just went through a difficult break-up, and while I'm sure you would like to help me move on as quickly as possible, I appreciate in advance you not bringing along any uninvited gentlemen to see if they might meet my approval. My emotions are still in a delicate state, and I will be focusing on my craft and career for the near future.

Also, my standards are exceptionally high.

Love,
Rachel

p.s. For any of you who haven't yet confirmed that you're coming, I am assuming you will be rallying around me in this time of need.

*-*-*-*
Rachel Berry!
Sophomore at NYADA, soprano
Find my YouTube channel at....

 

From: Kurt Hummel
To: Rachel Berry
CC: [Elite Karaoke Mailing List]
Subject: Re: Uninvited Guests at This Weekend's Karaoke Gathering

Rachel,

You are certifiable.

I couldn't wait until Saturday to mention that.

<3

- Kurt

 

From: Blaine Anderson
To: Rachel Berry
Subject: Re: Uninvited Guests at This Weekend's Karaoke Gathering

Dear Rachel,

I'm so sorry to hear about your breakup. Please let me know if there's anything I can do for you.

See you Saturday.

Blaine

* * *

Blaine's arrival at Cliff's on Saturday was unlike the previous month's, and not just because he had learned where the entrance was; he also was not arriving alone. This time he'd come over from school in the company of Tina and Ethan, with whom he'd had a great time talking on the subway, and his hand was clasped in a hearty shake by Mike when they met up with him at the coat check to divest themselves of their warm layer of outerwear. He already felt much more like he belonged, and he wasn't even too worried about doing something to make them sorry they'd included him. He knew he could sing, after all.

Rachel, Wes, Esther, and a few others had staked out a few of the small round tables in the center of the room, so after he and Mike grabbed some drinks for the others Blaine settled down beside Wes and leaned in to catch up with him. They chatted about mid-terms, Blaine dodged the question about the Warbler reunion over the upcoming break with a quick reference to not knowing his parents' plans, and then Rachel stood up from her seat and said with a dramatic gravity, "I am ready to sing."

She turned and went to the sign-up sheet, leaving them all staring at her.

"So she had a bad break-up?" Wes asked the group with a lift of his eyebrows.

"Yeah," Tina said.

"Should we...?" Blaine trailed off, not sure what to offer, but surely they should do something.

"Let her sing. It's the best medicine," Mike replied.

Blaine already knew that Rachel was an incredible performer, so he was looking forward to hearing her sing even before she took the stage, but when the music started he was doubly excited.

"Watch how his eyes light up," Wes said to Esther. "It happens every time he hears Katy Perry."

Blaine was too transfixed to respond; Rachel's rendition of "Firework" was amazing. Her voice strengthened and soared as the song grew, and the determination in it to show her glory was palpable. It wasn't like the whole room grew quiet to watch her, but Blaine felt like they should have. She wasn't just singing the song; she was living it. Blaine's breath caught in his throat, totally enthralled.

"No. Oh, no," came Kurt's voice from behind him as Rachel hit the last chorus. Blaine turned enough to see Kurt drawing to a halt by their table, his hands unwrapping his red cashmere scarf from around his throat.

"What's wrong?" Tina asked, coming back from the bar and settling down beside Mike again.

"How long has she been singing?"

"I think this is her first," she replied.

Kurt narrowed his eyes at the stage. Rachel belted out the last of the song, curtseyed, and went back to the sign-up sheet as the next performer took up the microphone.

"All right," he said with an edge of suspicion. He slipped off his coat and draped it carefully over the back of one of the free chairs.

"Kurt!" Rachel came over, wrapping her arms around him, and Kurt hugged her back with an ease Blaine had never seen from him.

Well, that wasn't true, he realized. He just hadn't seen it since the night they'd met on the dance floor, when Kurt hadn't had any of his usual reserve around touching, the reserve Blaine was so used to by now he didn't even notice it until it was gone. He tried not to think about why that made his mouth go dry and his stomach roil; he just took a sip of his soda.

Speaking softly to Rachel, Kurt led her to a seat on the other side of the group of tables, and Blaine fell back into talking with Wes, Esther, Mike, and Tina. They were all easy conversationalists, and it turned out Mike and Wes had some family friends in common back in Ohio, which actually made Blaine feel more like he was a part of the group rather than less, despite not sharing the connection, because it seemed like it was becoming an actual group and not just strangers who'd come from the same place.

Tina was up next to sing, and she pulled Wes up with her to sing; somehow they decided to sing "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'." which earned a raised eyebrow from Kurt and a diatribe from Ethan about how much he hated Oklahoma!. They sounded good, though, and Blaine had to smile at the way Mike watched Tina with such pride from their table. It was sweet to see such love between them. He was happy they'd found each other and were clearly so content with what the other had to offer.

Still, as wonderful and Tina and Wes were, Blaine's eyes were drawn from them to Kurt. He told himself it was because he was worried about Rachel, who was sitting with a rigid and determined dignity in her chair, but it was Kurt's head bending toward hers as he murmured in her ear that was what caught Blaine's attention. He felt like he was watching a private moment, but even when he looked back at the stage he couldn't erase the memory of the softness in Kurt's eyes when Rachel glanced up and replied to him. It made something in his chest feel small and lost.

He'd seen that softness before. Hadn't he?

"Blaine Warbler," Rachel said, standing up.

Blaine jerked out of his reverie and shot her an attentive smile. "Yes?"

"You promised me a duet. In fact, I believe you promised me many." She held out her hand to him.

Getting to his feet, he stepped around Mike's chair and took her hand, not quite meeting Kurt's eyes as they passed. He didn't want to know what they'd look like focused on him; it wouldn't be like they did with Rachel. He could feel them on him all the way up to the side of the stage, though, where Rachel opened the thick binder of songs and flipped through them with determination.

"I'm thinking Barbra. Obviously, her oeuvre is extensive enough she has at least a dozen songs suitable for every occasion, but if we look at her duets and... ah. Yes." Rachel poked her finger at the page. "This one."

Blaine had heard the song once or twice in his life, but it was hardly one he knew. "I'm not that familiar with it - " he began.

"You'll be fine," she said. "Don't step on my harmonies, and don't skimp on the emotion."

"But - "

Rachel typed their - her - selection into the karaoke machine, and Blaine didn't really have any choice but to follow her on stage and hope for the best. It wasn't like he could leave her to sing on her own. If he fumbled the song, well, she'd make up for it.

'You Don't Bring Me Flowers' started up, and Blaine almost froze and missed his cue when Rachel turned to him with sadness and the hint of tears in her eyes and began to sing. Her voice was made for Streisand… and his was made for Pink. He was overmatched with her yet again; the next duet they sang would have to be something he picked. But she waggled her eyebrows meaningfully when he was meant to jump in, and he gave it his best. A smile of approval was floating just at the edge of her mouth, so he kept singing and singing, focusing on her instead of the room because it was that kind of song.

It had nothing to do with not wanting to see what certain members of the audience might think of his performance.

Rachel linked her hand with Blaine's as the song drew to an end, squeezing tightly, and he felt more than a little relieved that he'd made it through. It wasn't that he was worried about his abilities, but he knew where his strengths lay, and this wasn't it. He was better at energizing a crowd than drawing them into a sad song. His time in the Warblers had taught him that he just didn't have the same ability to pull out emotions from himself or the audience that Rachel did, but singing with her made him try. At least she didn't seem to be sorry she'd chosen him.

"I'm signing up again," she told him, keeping hold of his hand as she put her name on the list ("Rachel Berry!" with a little star afterward, he saw) and tugged him back to the table in her wake. She patted the seat beside her, so Blaine had no choice but be polite and take it, smiling weakly over at Kurt beyond her.

"I can see you're a huge Barbra fan," Kurt said, and Blaine looked down even though Kurt's tone was more amused than unkind.

"I'm better with more recent music," he admitted.

"Blaine!" Rachel gasped, scandalized. "Barbra is timeless!"

"Yes, yes," Kurt told her, patting her hand. "It's all right. He's not insulting her. Not everyone shares your taste."

Rachel made a little noise of disappointment, but she picked up her drink and half-turned in her chair so that she could watch the next singers while she sipped.

"That could have been nasty," Kurt said to Blaine.

Blaine winced and reached for his own drink across the tables, since he wouldn't be in anyone's way if he did so. He didn't want to be rude and interrupt the other conversations. "Sorry."

Kurt shrugged. "We'll have to find you something current for the Review," he said, meeting Blaine's eyes with a level, thoughtful gaze. "Or a number of things, actually. You're wasted in that a cappella group."

"I - " Blaine wasn't sure if he was more surprised that Kurt was complimenting him or that he'd heard him in the Keynotes. "You've seen us?"

"Yes, a few weeks ago. But I couldn't catch your voice in the background in particular." Kurt spun the straw in his drink and used it to poke at a few of the ice cubes. "Now I remember why I was so impressed by the Warblers that year."

"Thank you," Blaine said, too stunned by the compliment to smile.

Kurt's mouth twitched into something more wry. "Even if it was probably wise of you to have stayed well away from Barbra."

"Well, I always try to play to my strengths," Blaine told him.

Kurt's "hmm" was noncommittal.

"Ladies," Rachel said, twisting back in her seat and addressing the table. "It's time for some Sinatra. Nancy Sinatra."

"Rachel - " Kurt began, but she gathered up the women and somehow managed to barge in line.

Kurt turned his chair, hooking his arm on the back as he faced the stage sideways, and frowned at his friends as they worked their way through 'These Boots Are Made for Walking' in a variety of emotions, from nervous Esther to smiling Tina to earnest Rachel.

"This is bad," Blaine heard Kurt mutter.

"What's going on?" Blaine asked.

Kurt shook his head, pulling out his phone and seemingly tuning out the room - and certainly Blaine - as he tapped away on the screen. So Blaine leaned across the empty chair to join the conversation with Ethan and a boy from Columbia Blaine didn't know. He was fairly certain his name was Jon. Blaine noticed Rachel returning, but she was focused on scolding Kurt for texting while they were out, so he stayed well out of it. If he was honest, he found her a little daunting. Talented, sometimes sweet, but definitely daunting.

Tina and Mike were the next of their group to perform, a version of "Shall We Dance" that had them twirling in seemingly effortless circles around the tiny stage. Somehow they didn't knock off any of the equipment, and Blaine applauded as loudly as anyone when they were finished. Not only were they talented, but they were just happy together, and that made every bit of their performance glow just that much more. Tina's eyes sparkled at Mike's imperious tone through the song; he kissed her hand in delight when it was finished. A part of Blaine was amazed to see that their easy give and take was as natural as breathing for them. He'd never seen love work so well.

A few minutes later, Rachel cleared her throat and tapped on her glass to get the group's attention. "Carrying on the evening's unofficial Rodgers and Hammerstein theme, I would like to propose 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair' as our next group number. Any of our not-exclusively-heterosexual male friends are welcome to join us, of course."

"No," Kurt said sharply, making Blaine's head snap up in surprise at his tone.

"It was just an invitation; you don't have to sing the song - " she replied.

"No one is going to sing that song," Kurt said. "I thought you were beyond this. No more angsty girl power anthems. No. This isn't healing; this is wallowing. We are done with wallowing."

Rachel's expression went fiery. "I'm not wallowing. I'm celebrating my strength as a woman who doesn't need to be in a relationship. In fact, maybe I don't need love at all. Maybe I need - "

Kurt rolled his eyes and stood up. "All right, that's enough. Come here. I'm going to give you exactly what you need."

"But you're gay, Kurt."

"Oh my god, Rachel, just get up and sing with me."

She huffed with her frustration, but she followed him to the side of the stage where Kurt spoke with the waiting group with a tight smile and sharp movements of his hands until they waved him to take their place. Blaine watched him speak low and determined to Rachel, not even pausing when she started to interrupt. That in itself was impressive, but it was even more so to Blaine when Rachel finally nodded and acquiesced, taking the microphone he offered her.

When the music drew to a close, Kurt walked up onto the stage and took the microphone from the stand. "My friend here has just gone through an unpleasant breakup," he said to the crowd, "and although it was her choice and absolutely the right thing for her she is still upset about it. So we will be performing a song that will get her past the moping stage and into something more productive. Hating him."

Even Blaine couldn't help but laugh at that, and Kurt wiggled his fingers to call Rachel up onto the stage. She went to stand at the opposite end of the tiny space from him, her arms crossed. Kurt nodded down to someone Blaine couldn't see, and then the track started. It was another selection from Wicked - "What is This Feeling?" - and Blaine was so relieved he didn't have to try to sing it with her.

"Dearest darlingest Momsie and Popsicle," Rachel started, her tone cheerful as the role needed but her posture stiff.

"My dear father," Kurt drawled.

And then Kurt started to sing, and Blaine lost track of the words for a second, because how was that his voice? It was beautiful. He knew Kurt's speaking voice was higher than his, but he'd never thought Kurt could reach notes like that so effortlessly. He was a countertenor? Blaine had never even thought about it.

He leaned forward, rapt, as the two sang together, "There's been some confusion, for you see my roommate is - "

Rachel trilled out after the appropriate pause, "Unusually and exceedingly peculiar and altogether quite impossible to describe..."

Kurt looked out over the audience, quirked his eyebrow, and said in a perfect deadpan, "A soprano."

Across the stage, Rachel squeaked with a shocked laugh at the substitution of the lyric before she schooled her features, and something in Kurt's posture loosened. Blaine could feel it in his own chest, too.

As Blaine turned his chair so that he could see more easily, Tina slipped in beside him, getting a little closer to the performance. Kurt and Rachel were playing at hating each other on stage as they wound up into the song, but their voices twined so beautifully that it was only joy to watch them.

They stepped closer as they sang together again. "What is this feeling? Fervid as a flame, does it have a name? Yes! Loathing. Unadulterated loathing."

Rachel forced out a nasal, "For your face."

Kurt rolled his eyes. "Your voice."

"Your clothing," Rachel shot back, her eyes positively twinkling as she gestured at Kurt's impeccable outfit, and he smoothed his asymmetrical sweater with a glare.

Despite the way they were playing with each other, neither of them missed a beat as they rejoined each other in perfect harmonies like they were born to it, and Blaine found it difficult to draw a breath. He didn't want anything to interfere with his focus on the song, on their gorgeous voices.

"They're amazing, right?" Tina leaned over and said in his ear.

Blaine couldn't look away from Kurt, who was so vibrant and alive up there on the stage. "Exceptional."

"Yeah. He should be at NYADA, too."

There was no way Blaine could reply. He watched Kurt and Rachel circle each other, their voices rising in strength and pitch, making it seem effortless. It was nothing like what Blaine did on stage; he was all about the audience, and they were all about the performance. The audience followed because there was no other choice but to be focused on them.

Still, by the time they reached the end of the song, they were openly beaming at each other, Kurt's arm around her shoulders and hers around his waist, despite the lyrics of the song. It was about loathing, and yet as they promised to hate each other forever, Blaine thought they were both substituting love in their minds. It was clearly such a different vow.

Something about watching it made Blaine ache, not because he wanted to be up there, but because the way they loved each other made him feel the lack of someone looking at him that way. He had great friends, but Rachel and Kurt were different. Blaine had nothing like that.

Kurt's grin was huge as he pronounced the final "Boo!" and Rachel dutifully said "Eek!" before reaching up to kiss him on the cheek. They both turned to the audience as the room erupted in applause, curtseying hand-in-hand.

"Thank you very much for humoring us," Kurt said. "And I promise there will be no more girl power breakup songs tonight. From our table, anyway." He looked down at Rachel. "Right?"

Rachel giggled into his shoulder and nodded at the room before they left the stage.

"Okay, I'm not replacing you as my Wicked partner," Rachel was saying to Kurt as they slid back into their seats. "Sorry, Blaine."

"No, I - " Blaine held up his hands.

Kurt took a long swallow of his drink, the color high on his cheeks. "Of course you aren't. And now you can get over that waste of an ex-boyfriend of yours. I mean, really, Belgium? Why couldn't he have come from a real European country?"

Rachel smacked him lightly on the arm. "Stop it."

"And I'm sorry, but if I can sing lower than he can he should be ashamed to call himself a tenor."

Laughing, she smacked him again. "Kurt."

He grinned over at her, so comfortable and open and warm, and Blaine had to push back from the table.

"My turn to sing, I think," he said and went to sign up at the bar.

He didn't know why it was making him uncomfortable to see Kurt so relaxed. He knew Kurt had friends. It was good that he did, obviously. Blaine was just so used to seeing him pulled together and focused that it was a shock to his system to realize that this Kurt, the one who laughed easily with his friends and looked after them, was the real Kurt and the other one, the one who was almost always around, wasn't. This Kurt wasn't fire banked under ice; he was a living flame. He joked with more wit than cruelty. He cared. He sang like he was meant to live his life through song and only tolerated speech because the rest of the world required it.

Watching Kurt rest his cheek for a moment on top of Rachel's hair as she leaned into him, Blaine realized with a jolt that this was the Kurt he'd slept with. They hadn't had the camaraderie and the same built-in jokes, but they'd had the same connection through music, the same tentative but tender touches, the same sharp focus on each other that Kurt had with his friends.

Maybe that's why it had been so incredible. Maybe that's why Blaine had lost himself that night. Maybe that's why he'd kept asking for more, because Kurt hadn't been just going through the motions. He'd been there, for whatever reason.

Maybe that's why the other guys felt different to Blaine, less, because Kurt had been different. Maybe everything Kurt did was exceptional. Maybe Kurt didn't know how to do things any other way.

It should have been a relief to have figured it out.

Instead it just made Blaine wish Kurt held him in high enough regard to consider him a friend.

Chapter Text

From: Rachel Berry
To: [Elite Karaoke Mailing List]
Subject: December Karaoke E-vite

Dear friends,

Thank you for making last night so special for me. My heart is healed, and I go into the final weeks of rehearsals for Evita with a new energy. You are all invited to the performances, of course. Details to follow when tickets are on sale. I am particularly fond of roses.

I have sent out an e-vite for next month's karaoke night already; during the busy multi-denominational holiday season it makes sense to commit to important events early.

I believe we should all thank Blaine, especially, for being willing to lend his voice to almost every group song in the second half of the night. I'm not sure he sat down for more than five minutes! If only we were all so generous with our talent we could all but monopolize the evening at Cliff's instead of being forced to sit through sub-par renditions of country songs.

Love,
Rachel

*-*-*-*
Rachel Berry!
Sophomore at NYADA, soprano
Find my YouTube channel at....

* * *

Tina to Blaine: I didn't want to interrupt, but you sounded amazing last night rehearsing with Ang.

Blaine to Tina: You just made my morning. Thank you! :)

Angelica to Kurt: Final specs for the set in your e-mail. Going to go sleep for a million hours now. Or, you know, get a double espresso and go to fucking class.

Kurt to Angelica: OMG the piece that spins and opens like a flower? You're a genius!

Angelica to Kurt: Yes, I am. :D Thank you for noticing.

Blaine to Peter: Lunch Wednesday?

Peter to Blaine: Sure! Greek?

Kurt to Tina: Are you going to be anywhere near anyplace that serves food on your way over tonight?

Tina to Kurt: I can, why?

Kurt to Tina: Would you please pick me up anything that isn't fried and has vegetables? I can't handle another night of instant noodles.

* * *

From: Kurt Hummel
To: [ISR Tech Mailing List]
Subject: Tech Schedule/Meeting Reminder
Attached: [tech.pdf]

Angelica has finalized her stage design, so we're ready to start building. As you'll see from the plans, it's mostly modular pieces, some columns and cubes, some on casters, some that can open or twist into different shapes. The stage will also transform through this cleverly designed set. :)

I'd like to start building the big pieces ASAP and be largely finished by Thanksgiving so we can focus on our performances. And finals. Please see the tentative schedule I've attached and get back to me with any changes at the meeting tonight.

- Kurt

* * *

"Whoa," Angelica said, letting out a low whistle from across the table in the Union as Kurt set down his laden tray. The huge window next to them was like a mirror from the relative darkness of the quad outside.

"What?" he asked. He tugged off his scarf and coat, the gnawing black hole that was his empty stomach making his movements jerky with frustration.

"Are you really going to eat all of that?" she asked. "Didn't you have dinner before tech? It was only a couple of hours ago."

Kurt twitched open his napkin and put it on his lap as Tina, Blaine, and Leigh joined them. "Angelica, I haven't eaten dinner since Monday."

"What?" Tina asked with a frown.

Blaine seemed to have frozen with his tray an inch above the tabletop. "Why not?" he asked, slowly setting it down.

"There's just too much to do, especially now that all of the rehearsals are split up into smaller ones." Kurt picked up his fork and stabbed it into a piece of penne. His stomach growled as he chewed, eager for the pasta and meatballs, and he swallowed the bite down with a sip of water. "Pardon me if I'm taking advantage of our planning time to eat something."

"Hey, you're skinny enough as it is," she replied, leaning back in her chair. "I'd give you half my cookie, too, if you'd take it."

Kurt smiled at her, though the word 'skinny' had connotations of scrawny and weak; he would have preferred toned or slim. It didn't seem worth fighting about it when he could be eating instead. "I'm hungry enough I might even give in tonight." It sounded really good, actually.

"The pecan butterscotch ones are great," Blaine said, watching him like he was trying to figure something out. It made Kurt uncomfortable, like an itchy tag or a shoe that pinched, but he knew how to ignore discomfort and tried not to let it show.

"As long as we're not looking at an eating disorder in the making here," Angelica said.

"No," Kurt assured her. "Just a scheduling disorder. You find me an extra fifteen minutes in my day, and I'll be happy to eat dinner every night."

"Well, you could start by not doing your hair," she suggested and laughed when he reared back at the horrifying idea. He ignored the looks everyone seemed to be giving him and took another few bites of his meal before he called them to order.

And when Blaine went up to the counter later to get himself a cookie and brought back enough for the table, Kurt grabbed one gratefully - and hungrily - and kept talking.

* * *

Blaine to Rachel, Tina, Kurt, Mike: Wes is in a concert at Columbia on Sunday at 7 with some other Ivy League a cappella groups. He can get us free tickets. Who wants to show some Ohio choir spirit?

Rachel to Blaine, Tina, Kurt, Mike: Unfortunately, I have rehearsal. Thank you, though!

Tina to Mike, Kurt, Blaine: Mike and I talked over dinner and would love to!

Blaine to Tina, Mike, Kurt: Great! As soon Kurt answers, I'll let Wes know.

Tina to Blaine, Mike, Kurt: Yay!!

Blaine to Kurt: I'm sorry to bother you again, but I haven't heard back from you yet and need to let Wes know about the tickets this morning.

Kurt to Blaine: Sorry. I fell asleep doing homework last night and had to cram in two acts of Comedy of Errors before my coffee today. Yes. I'm in.

Blaine to Kurt: Great! :)

* * *

The a cappella groups on stage were all incredible; compared to the Keynotes they were a whole other class of performance. They were tight, perfectly arranged, and impeccably polished even in their moments of humorous choreography. The Kingsmen were exceptional. The Krokodiloes were flawless. The Wiffenpoofs and their signature style were like nothing Blaine had ever heard. They all made the Warblers seem like a garage band, more fun than finesse.

And yet, despite the caliber of the singing, Blaine's eyes kept drifting to Kurt's face a few seats down. Kurt was rapt, his eyes bright as he leaned forward and watched them. He looked enthralled. He looked utterly caught up in the performances. He looked happy.

Blaine was so drawn in by him that it was difficult for him to focus on the stage when he could watch Kurt's expressive face shift through his reactions instead, from impressed through wistful to amazed and back again. He could watch his face all night; there was something about it that was so compelling. Kurt seemed to hold so much back behind the tight control he seemed to keep over his life, down to the very care with which he styled his hair, but when he didn't he was like a sun shining bright in the sky, and watching him Blaine felt like a confused plant stretching toward his light.

It was so difficult to look away, in fact, that Kurt caught him still watching as the audience burst into applause; Kurt's eyes widened just enough for Blaine to catch the shock in them before they shuttered and Kurt looked away, his mouth and jaw tightening.

His stomach dropping to his feet at the dismay and disapproval in Kurt's reaction, Blaine made himself face forward the rest of the concert. He knew he'd been being rude. He knew his attention wasn't welcome.

Still, no matter how good the singing was, it just wasn't as enjoyable seeing it only through his own eyes.

* * *

Rachel to Kurt: Do you want to take the subway to the airport or reserve the shuttle for our flight home?

Kurt to Rachel: How many bags are you bringing for the long weekend this time?

Rachel to Kurt: Are you seriously asking ME this question? Like I'm going to be the only problem?

Kurt to Rachel: I'll book the shuttle.

* * *

Kurt smiled to himself as he checked his mail on his phone. Sore from a few productive hours of building, hauling, and painting set pieces, he stretched his neck and rolled his shoulders while he scrolled through Carole's long, detailed, very organized message. She'd used bullet points. How did she even know how to insert those into her e-mail? He wondered who taught her; it sure wasn't his father.

"What's the smile for?" Tina asked. She had a smear of paint on her cheek, and after stowing his phone he grabbed a wet wipe from his bag to clean it off for her.

"Oh, Carole's getting ready for Thanksgiving. She doesn't want a repeat of last year, I think." He worried a bit at the blue streak but was careful not to rub too hard and damage her skin.

"You mean when she forgot the yams, made oyster stuffing instead of sage, and didn't brine the turkey? And then you yelled at her about it?"

"I didn't yell at her," he said.

Tina fixed him with a look. "Kurt."

He turned to toss the wipe in the trash. "I didn't yell," he insisted. "I might have kept my mouth shut for days while I politely stewed until she started to discuss her plans for 'fixing up' Christmas dinner, and only then might I have suggested at a higher volume than may have been necessary that she talk to me first instead of ruining the holidays in my absence."

Carole had been so startled that for a second he thought she was going to cry or attempt somehow to ground him while he was back at school, but then she'd started laughing and promised him that she'd plan everything jointly with him like they'd always done while he was still at home full-time, no matter how much she wanted to take the pressure off of his shoulders.

"At least she learned her lesson," Tina said severely, and Kurt rolled his eyes, because she was mocking him.

"These things are important to some of us."

"And to some of us Thanksgiving is all about family," she replied, retying her hair into a loose ponytail.

He thought about his dad, Carole, and Finn sitting around their table, smiling and laughing as they ate and being perfectly at ease together, and a warm ache grew in his heart. He missed that. He missed them. As crazed as the trip made him feel with the pressure of getting everything done around it, it would be worth it to be home with them and wrapped up in the people who loved him without reservation. It almost hurt to think about how good it would feel. "Of course it's all about family," he said. "That's the point. That's why it should be perfect."

"What should be perfect?" Blaine asked, carefully wiping paint off of his hands as he came over with Angelica. "Did we mis-measure something again?"

"No, we were talking about Thanksgiving," Tina told him. "Kurt's kind of psycho about it."

"Kurt's kind of psycho about everything," Angelica said.

"Excuse me," Kurt said, bristling at the oh-so-casual comment. "There's nothing wrong with aiming for excellence."

"How else can you get there if you don't?" Blaine said to Kurt's surprise and delight.

Kurt shot him a grateful smile; it was nice that someone saw things the same way. "Exactly."

Tina bent down to get her bag. "Well, where I want to get is the Union for dinner. Who's in?"

"Me," Kurt said without hesitation. He was starving; he'd only had time to grab a banana for lunch.

"As much as I'd love some curly fries after this fucking week," Angelica said, "I've got a paper that isn't going to write itself. And I'm not copy-pasting some crap from the internet, so I need to knuckle under."

"Sorry, Ang. Blaine?" Tina asked.

"That'd be great," he replied, though his eyes were still on Kurt.

His stomach falling, Kurt focused on packing his bag; there was another of those looks Blaine had been throwing at him recently. He was getting tired of them, though there was nothing he could do about it if he didn't want to confront him and cause more drama when all he wanted was peace.

Kurt wasn't certain he'd ever understand Blaine. He understood (and admired and enjoyed) his talent as a performer who knew how to catch and captivate an audience, but Kurt had discovered that New York was full of people like that, even if Blaine was particularly skilled. It was Blaine's actual personality Kurt wasn't sure about.

Blaine seemed to be always pleasant, unerringly friendly, and usually smiling. He was ready to lend a hand, didn't mind getting his neatly styled hair messy when they were hauling pieces of the set through the shop, and yet was so very careful when his hands were dirty not to touch anything. At one point Kurt caught him trying to turn on the sink with his elbow to keep from smearing it with the paint on his hands. It might have worked if it had been a lever instead of a knob.

Everything Kurt asked of him at the Review, from moving a flat with him to speeding up the tempo of the song he was working on to helping them hash out the order of the performances with color-coded notecards spread out across the rehearsal space floor, Blaine did, and he did it well.

Honestly, Kurt liked all of that even if Blaine wasn't as warm and connected as he'd seemed that first night, but there was something beneath Blaine's smooth, helpful surface, something watchful of Kurt, that was increasingly making him uneasy. It wasn't like before, but a whole new way. It felt like he was being judged and wasn't measuring up.

He was used to that from other people and had been for years, but when he noticed Blaine's eyes lingering on him Kurt was surprised and a little unsettled by it. Blaine was so nice to everyone else that it didn't make sense that he was judging Kurt. He knew they'd started off on a bad foot, but hadn't they both been rising above that? Kurt was doing his best to overcome his prejudices and let Blaine prove himself beyond what Kurt already knew of him. Yet when Kurt tried to put Blaine's sharp eyes out of his head, because he'd long ago given up thinking anyone's opinions of him mattered beyond his own, a day or two later he'd see it again, like he just had or the other night at the concert.

It was beginning to make him feel wary and on guard in a whole new way, and he didn't like it. At all. Maybe they weren't going to be friends, but if Blaine was going to be friends with everyone Kurt knew at least he ought to accept Kurt.

But then, so few people did accept him, really, he thought with a resigned sigh. He was used to it by now.

"Well, quick, get your stuff before I start gnawing my own arm off," Tina said. "I'm starving."

Blaine headed toward his things on the other side of the shop. "I'll hurry; it's rude to keep a lady waiting."

Kurt winced as his shoulder complained as he put on his coat; he'd have to break out the heating pad tonight before it completely stiffened up.

"Have fun," Angelica said with a wave.

"Wait - " Kurt stopped her. "There's something I should say while I have you all here."

She lifted her eyebrows, and he made himself wait until Blaine had walked back over to them. It was only fair to include all three of them. Blaine deserved to hear this, too.

"I just wanted to say," he said, taking a deep breath and putting voice to the feelings that had been growing inside of him over the past couple of weeks as the Review had really been pulling itself together for the semester's performance, "that I appreciate how much work you're putting into the Review, and I couldn't do it without you. I couldn't do it without the whole group, but especially you three." He turned to each of them. "Tina, you keep me calm when I need it most, and you know I do need it. Angelica, not only is your set going to be amazing, but you do some of the ass-kicking for me so I can put my energy to better uses. And Blaine - " Kurt met his eyes, surprised to find apprehension there beneath the surface. " - you're the most dependable new person we have. It's not often I find people I can trust to do what I ask.

"The Review is incredibly important to me. It's a dream I'm turning into reality. Thank you for making it a priority in your lives, too. I - This isn't a one-man show, no matter how I might act some days. So really. Thank you all."

"Oh, Kurt." Tina put her arms around him, hugging him tight, and he felt his heart expand as Angelica came over to do the same around them both. Blaine just slid his hands in his pockets and gave him an awkward smile, the color rising high onto his cheeks; Kurt guessed that he shouldn't have expected more. He certainly wasn't looking for a hug.

"You are a big softie," Angelica said, patting Kurt's back. "And the Review fucking rocks."

"Yes, well..." Kurt could feel his throat starting to close from the show of affection, and he didn't want to get too emotional, not when Blaine was still standing there watching. "Now let's get dinner, because having a hungry Tina this close to my neck is giving me vampire flashbacks."

Tina giggled and made a little biting sound before squeezing him again and letting go. He smoothed his jacket back to rights and made sure his new white and black barbwire-knit scarf was settled just so as his pulse went back to normal.

The three of them headed to the Union, Tina linking her arm through Kurt's and Blaine walking on the other side of her. The Union itself was crowded and noisy, with students letting off steam from their ever-increasing course load and the looming excitement of the next week's vacation by eating unhealthy food and talking at high volume.

They split up to gather their meals from the various counters, and Kurt walked into the main area of tables with his tray feeling rather foolishly like he had in high school, wondering if his friends were somewhere in their own safe haven or if he ought to stake out a table and wait for them to appear. He didn't have to worry about Karofsky pushing him into the wall or tipping his food onto the ground, but it was still uncomfortably familiar to be on the outside without a place to go.

He stood at the edge for a long minute, scanning the faces of the other students, until he caught sight of Blaine turned toward him, half out of his chair like he was going to come get him. Kurt let out a breath of relief, shook off his memories, and hurried toward the table.

"This place is a madhouse," he said as he reached Blaine. He knew it would be rude to sit diagonally from him on the four-seat table when Tina wasn't yet there, so he chose the seat directly across.

"Their curly fries are really good." Blaine glanced down at Kurt's fry-free tray. "I'm sure their sandwiches are, too?" he added more uncertainly.

"They have an excellent pesto marinade for their chicken," Kurt said, a little defensive, though that was ridiculous because he'd gotten exactly what he wanted. It was that hint of being judged again, poking at him like a pea under his very nice mattress. "And I was in the mood for the slices of avocado they put on top."

"No, I - " Blaine broke off, rubbing at the back of his neck. "I wasn't being critical."

Kurt glanced at Blaine's own choices and said without too much bite, "Feel free, because I'm certainly critical about a cheeseburger and fries. Nothing green? Really?"

"Well..." Blaine lifted off the top bun from his burger to show the toppings underneath. "Do pickles count?"

Thinking for a moment, Kurt said, "Not especially." He softened the blow a little with a grin.

Blaine shrugged but didn't seem overly concerned by the criticism. But then he rarely seemed concerned about anything. "Tina said she was going to get a stir-fry, I think."

"Then it'll be a few minutes." Kurt leaned back in his chair and was struck by what Blaine was wearing; it was a step up from his customary henley or polo shirt, and he must have put it on when he took off his coat at the Union. "Is that Brooks Brothers?" he asked, gesturing to Blaine's maroon shawl collar cardigan. It framed his shoulders and arms to perfection and was a very good color on him.

Blaine glanced down and tugged a little at his sleeve. "Oh. Yes. It's from high school. I need to do laundry," he said like it was an apology.

"Their classic styles do outlast a single season," Kurt said. "It suits you."

"It does?" Blaine looked down at himself again in surprise. "I thought it was frumpy. Seb- some people have called it a grandpa sweater."

"Then they have no idea what they're talking about. It looks good on you." Dismissing the fashion morons from his mind, Kurt caught sight of Tina, and he waved his hand up in the air to catch her attention. She smiled and headed their way.

"They have veggie pizza!" she said, sliding into the seat next to Kurt; it made him feel a little rush of warmth that she chose to sit next to him. He wasn't proud of it, but it was still true. "With extra mushrooms today. Yum."

"Oh, I love their vegetable pizza. Maybe I'll get a slice if I'm still hungry after my burger," Blaine said, looking over his shoulder wistfully toward the pizza counter. "Kurt just scolded me for not having anything green on my plate."

"What about pickles?" Tina asked.

"They apparently don't count," Blaine replied.

Tina took a bite of her pizza, closed her eyes in pleasure, and turned to Kurt as she chewed. "Would they count if they were non-pickled cucumbers?"

"Not three little slices, no." Kurt's stomach rumbled, and he had some more of his sandwich. As good as it was, now that he was smelling it he should have given in and had the pizza.

"Well, I - " Blaine looked down at his plate, then over at Tina.

"He's not the food police, Blaine," she told him. "Honestly, the best way to deal with Kurt is to argue back when he's being annoying."

"Excuse me?" Kurt said, dialing up a glare and focusing it at her.

Tina just grinned. "You're just mad I said that because you know you always listen when people argue with you. And sometimes you actually give in." She leaned over toward Blaine. "Besides, I know for a fact that he can gulp down a pint of Ben and Jerry's or a trucker's breakfast in about ten minutes with the right provocation."

Blaine glanced between them, his eyebrows lifting. "What's the right provocation?"

Kurt waved an airy hand and tried to steer them away from the subject before Tina revealed too much about him, especially when it might point to how he'd felt about Blaine. The last trucker's breakfast he'd had had been that horrible morning after the dance. "Oh, you know, the rumor of Wicked closing."

"So…" Blaine trailed off, looking thoughtful, and then his eyes took on a gleam that made his smile seem anything but polite. "When you criticize my meal I should point out that avocado isn't a vegetable?"

Tina beamed at him. "Exactly."

"Lettuce is," Kurt insisted. "And tomato."

"One leaf hardly counts, Kurt," Blaine said.

"And tomatoes are fruit," Tina said with feigned innocence.

Kurt sighed; as a pair they were about as threatening as a stuffed puppy, but it still wasn't fair that they were turning the tables on him. "If I'd wanted this kind of attitude I'd have had dinner with Angelica," he muttered.

Tina nudged at his arm. "Oh, you love us. You can't be mad because I gave Blaine one little tip on how to deal with you."

"For which I shall be forever grateful," Blaine said to her, pressing his hand over his heart, all earnestness. Even the twinkle in his eye blazed with sincerity. But Kurt could see the fondness behind the gesture, the genuine emotion there beneath it. It was the sort of thing that Blaine never directed at him. Not that Blaine should, but the distinction between the actual person who could tease with Tina and the way Blaine hid behind the polished smile and careful choices of words with Kurt was suddenly clear.

"We have to stick together," Tina replied. "Not just because we're from Ohio but because we have a common enemy."

"Early onset diabetes?" Kurt suggested, gesturing at their trays.

Tina nudged him again. "You. More specifically, your ego. We need to keep it in check, just a little."

"You really don't," he said.

"Only enough to make sure you don't try to stage a coup on the theater department and usurp all of their funding for the Review."

Against his will, Kurt let out a wistful sigh. "Oh my god, imagine what we could do with their budget." It was such a lovely thought. They could have real sets, new costumes, a run for longer than two nights...

"He'll be in la-la land for a while," Tina said to Blaine. "So how did your concert at the center go?"

"It was great, thank you," Blaine replied, and the way his voice went soft and warm like he was touched by the question pulled Kurt right back out of his reverie and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Kurt knew it was ridiculous that he felt a momentary pang of worry about their friendship, because the part of him that didn't want to share Tina needed to remember that he had already been sharing her with the rest of their friends for years. He wasn't going to lose her entirely to someone she might like better.

Still, there was something in Blaine's voice that made Kurt stop in his tracks, and he let them talk as he forced himself to face why. Blaine wasn't just being nice; he was being genuinely sweet to her, like he liked her, like he cared about her the same way she cared about him.

Kurt had been very wrong.

The boy who'd sparkled at Kurt on the dance floor and who'd been so completely wrapped up in him in bed was real. He was still in there. He might have been fueled by alcohol that night, but he was still there. It wasn't only the drink. It wasn't only the flare of attraction that Kurt could write off and forget. It wasn't all an angle, a flirtation, a show, or a lie.

The boy who had made Kurt's heart flutter and ache wasn't an aberration. He was still in there, all sweetness and enthusiasm and gentle smiles for Tina that made Kurt's breath catch and his chest hurt to see them.

All of it was in there, hidden beneath the charming surface. All of it was him. All of it was as compelling as the first time Kurt had seen it, even without the sexual undertones. It just apparently was a part of Blaine he didn't want to show directly to Kurt again.

Maybe he didn't think there was a reason to.

Given how things had gone between them, Kurt realized he couldn't really blame him for it.

* * *

Tina to Kurt: I didn't ask in front of Blaine 'cause I know how you are, but are you okay? You were quiet tonight at dinner.

Kurt to Tina: Just tired. Things are catching up to me.

Tina to Kurt: :(

* * *

From: Trent "Sassy" Warbler
To: [Warbler Mailing List]
Subject: Warbler Reunion FB Page!

Hey guys,

I set up a Facebook page for our upcoming reunion! I put up some photos and videos there so we can all get excited about the good times before we get together at my house for food, singing, and fun!

The party starts at 3 on the day after Thanksgiving and goes until morning. There's plenty of room to sleep here overnight. No drinking and driving! Thad'll be making his famous pancakes for breakfast.

RSVP if you haven't already so we can be sure we've got enough food and drink for everyone.

Warble on!

- Trent

* * *

It wasn't until Sunday that Blaine gave in to the urge to look at the Facebook page. He loved the Warblers, and he really wanted to see them all, but his memories were tainted enough by the drama around Sebastian that he kept putting off his decision around going to the reunion until the texts and e-mails from Wes, David, Trent, Nick, and others were beginning to reach critical mass. So he took his laptop to a quiet corner of the library to get away from Rob, who was vibrating with caffeine and a late paper deadline, and went to look.

At first, he smiled at the rows of familiar faces in their matching uniforms. It was amazing how quickly he'd gotten used to seeing his classmates in college in regular clothes; the jackets and ties of Dalton looked a little stiff and strange in comparison, though they'd been as normal to his eyes as ratty t-shirts and shower shoes in class were now. He flicked through the pictures one by one, scrolling quickly past the formal club shots to linger on the candid ones. He found a few from his first year in the group; he couldn't believe how young he looked, all big eyes and even bigger smile. But he looked happy, too, and that's what he remembered the most from joining the Warblers, how happy he'd been to find a place where he not only didn't stand out in a bad way but was accepted and admired for his abilities. He'd been not only welcomed but respected.

There were competition videos and stills with them on stage performing or all posing with trophies afterwards. Blaine's breath caught at one where he was being hugged by the rest of the group; it had been his first competition solo, and they'd easily won. It had been a great day; he'd ridden that high for a week afterwards.

But then as the photos went on chronologically, Blaine's smile slowly died. In his junior year, Sebastian had joined, and the pictures soon shifted from Sebastian being a part of the group to being out front dancing to being at Blaine's side in every candid shot. Blaine's own face in those pictures shone with adoration toward him.

He had adored Sebastian. He had loved him. He shouldn't be ashamed of that fact.

But he remembered why his hair was so messy in that party shot, because Sebastian had dragged him off to the bathroom to get them off fast and hard once the drinks had made Blaine loose enough not to care too much what the others thought about it. He shut away the shame in that memory as quickly as it stirred, bitter and oily, in his gut. He'd made his choices, and he'd wanted it, too. Sebastian had made him want a lot of things he wasn't going to let himself regret now.

He remembered how hard Sebastian had fought to do a duet with him at Sectionals and all of the angling for a solo he did afterwards, which made the triumph in his eyes in the shot of them singing together on stage take on a whole new meaning. At the time, Blaine had thought it had been about the glory of singing with his boyfriend, about their love and connection. Now he knew better.

And when he saw a formal picture of the graduating seniors from his year, he remembered the way Sebastian had refused to retreat and let the Warblers heal after their split, so Sebastian was front and center on the couch, his smile broad and his whole body relaxed, while Blaine stood stiffly in the back and gave the camera the company smile his parents had drilled into him for years. He remembered how quickly he'd left the room once the portraits were finished.

He clicked over to the Wall. The pictures were the past. That was all over. It had been nearly six months since they graduated. What had happened had happened. He might have wished his time there had ended on a better note, but it was water under the bridge.

But there among the debates between Jeff and Nick about what kind of beer they should get and between Thad and Wes about whether it counted as an impromptu sing-along if Wes e-mailed out music beforehand was a little comment from Sebastian about having learned some great new moves in his group at Georgetown that they should all try out before they got too plastered to stand. A bunch of the younger Warblers had replied with the same fawning enthusiasm they'd always held for him, and as much as he knew that from anyone else the comment would have also gotten him excited about the prospect of pulling together a new song among the group, Blaine only felt sick.

Sebastian and his friends were going to be there, and too little was going to have changed. Sebastian would be laughing, drinking, dancing, flirting, telling stories and making snide comments, cutting him down with a smile on his face under the guise of sharing favorite stories, the same guy he'd always been since long before Blaine had figured it out.

This wasn't going to be a return to his first amazing year in the Warblers, no matter how many alumni were there; it was going to be the very same thing it had turned into by the time he graduated.

He knew he should go to the party. He knew he should go and show that he was a bigger man than all of the drama he and Sebastian had brought to the group. He knew he should go for the sake of healing whatever wounds might still be there. He knew he should go to prove that it was all behind him. He knew it was the right thing to do, the mature thing.

But to have to force himself to smile all night, to have to watch how much he drank so he didn't get too open with his feelings, to have to smile at Sebastian like he hadn't ripped out Blaine's too-soft heart and tarnished his standing among the group he admired so much... he couldn't.

He just couldn't.

Blaine shut his laptop with a snap. He had to get out of the stifling silence of the library so that he could find some air to breathe. He felt like he was being suffocated by silence and memories. He felt like his lungs, his heart, and his head were filled with nothing but dust.

Pushing open the main doors, Blaine stumbled down the front steps into the quad, squinting against the blinding sunlight, and nearly collided with someone at the bottom, a pair of strong hands on his biceps the only thing keeping him from tripping off the last step.

"Blaine?"

He knew that voice. Of course it was Kurt. Of course, the person to see him like this, when he still had pictures of Sebastian behind his eyes and barely knew which way was up, would be Kurt.

Blaine cleared his throat and pasted on the best smile he could. "Hey, Kurt. I'm just - " He gestured in a random direction.

Instead of releasing him, Kurt's fingers dug more tightly into Blaine's coat. "Are you all right?"

Blaine nodded, blinking himself out of the past as best he could. He focused on Kurt's worried face. "Yes, I'm fine. Thank you."

Kurt slowly let him go, but his eyes were sharp with concern even as he drew back. "You don't have to tell me the specifics," he said. "But if you're going to lie I suggest you work on your acting."

"I'm not - " Blaine started to protest, but of course he was lying, even if it was for the sake of politeness. "I'm sorry."

"You don't have to apologize, either." Kurt tilted his head and studied him for a long moment. "I was just about to go get a cup of coffee," he said carefully. "Would you let me buy you one?"

As much as Blaine didn't want to be alone with his thoughts, he couldn't impose upon Kurt, who had clearly been on his way to - "You weren't going to get coffee; you were going to the library," he said, gesturing to the steps behind him.

Kurt huffed out a laugh. "Fine, yes, but at least you caught my lie through logic and not through my tone of voice," he said and then added more gently, "Come have coffee with me. You look like you could use it."

There was something about the kindness in his voice that touched the desperate misery in Blaine's chest and made him say, "Okay. Thank you."

They walked in slightly awkward silence around the edge of the building toward the street, and then Kurt started telling stories about the various other performances in the Review, nothing so engaging that Blaine had to pay close attention but amusing enough that he could laugh and nod in the right places as he pulled himself a little bit back together. He had to; he couldn't stay like this.

By the time they were in line in the chain coffee shop down the block, he felt enough like himself that he could smile at the barista when he gave his order: non-fat latte, extra shot, extra foam.

"Hmm," Kurt said thoughtfully after he ordered his own mocha and handed the barista a few bills to pay for their drinks.

"Hmm, what?"

Kurt shrugged one shoulder. "Nothing, really. I wouldn't have pegged you for a complicated drink order kind of guy. Not that it's that complex, but..."

"Oh." Blaine's stomach fell as it always did when he was judged and came up lacking. "My ex turned me onto it," he said, because he was too raw to come up with a better explanation.

"Oh." Kurt stepped forward toward the end of the counter where their drinks would come out. "Well, at least you didn't order one of the ones with sprinkles or seasonal flavorings. Rachel likes those."

"I can just see her with one of those huge ones with gingerbread syrup, whipped cream, sprinkles, and a drizzle of caramel on top," Blaine said, though his amusement faded some at the memory of Sebastian calling the holiday flavorings provincial and only fit for overweight Americans.

He had to stop thinking about Sebastian.

"I could never prove it, but in high school I think she used to color-coordinate her horrible animal sweaters with the sprinkles on her drinks. Although," Kurt mused, smoothing the lapel of his dark wool coat, "given her sense of fashion that's probably giving her too much credit. Ah, here we are." He took their drinks from the barista and turned to consider the room. "That one looks quiet." He pointed with his elbow and then led the way to the far corner to a small table with two comfortable leather chairs flanking it.

Kurt placed their drinks on the table, set his bag on the floor, and carefully unwound the incredible steel grey scarf from around his neck. It was soft and almost fluffy, but the way it was knit it looked almost like a heavy chain; the detail of it was almost hidden when looped around itself, but as Kurt unfurled it the pattern of the knit was clear. Blaine, as always, was impressed by his exceptional sense of style. And then Kurt slipped off his coat to reveal a neat charcoal sweater over a crisp white shirt and tight black jeans, and Blaine had to look away because he wasn't blind to how stunning he was in that outfit, and it wasn't right for him to notice those kinds of things about someone who didn't particularly like him.

Blaine sat, dropping his bag and pulling off his own scarf and pea coat with far less finesse, and fiddled with his cup as Kurt got settled. He should have declined the offer to go here with him, because the hurt from the Warblers wasn't going away, and it was bleeding into the hurt he felt about Kurt, because Blaine knew he hadn't done anything so wrong that Kurt should hate him. Even though they were much friendlier than they were there was a wariness to them both that didn't have to be there. Blaine knew it didn't, because he'd slept with Peter and other guys and didn't have that at all with them.

But even with as much time as they were spending together, Kurt still didn't look at him like he did his other friends, and if Blaine was being honest it hurt. It really fucking hurt to be rejected and held at a distance even within the group. He'd lived it before, and he hated that he was having to do it again.

He didn't know if it was because of their past together or just because Blaine wasn't someone Kurt would ever like, but he didn't know if it mattered. It was still what was happening. Kurt hugged Angelica, played with Tina's hair, and bumped Ethan with his elbow when he wasn't moving fast enough, but he always kept Blaine at arm's length, both literally and figuratively. He talked with Blaine, but he barely laughed with him or even smiled at him, not in the genuine way he did the others.

He knew Kurt could laugh with him and smile that wide, unguarded smile of his he gave out so rarely, because he'd done it before, that night, and now he didn't. He just didn't.

It shouldn't have been a problem for Blaine, because he knew people weren't always going to like him no matter what he did, but with the scars from Dalton fresh in his heart it made the low level ache turn into something much, much worse.

"Blaine?" Kurt asked softly, breaking into his thoughts. He was leaning partway across the table, his eyes so very warm and concerned.

"I'm fine," Blaine replied, so automatic he didn't even think before the words were out of his mouth.

"Remember what I said earlier about learning how to lie?"

"I'm sorry."

Kurt sighed and sat back in his chair. "And here we go with the apologies."

"Sor- " Blaine stopped himself before apologizing again. He scrubbed his hand over the back of his neck. "I am sorry," he said. "I'm really not fit for company."

Kurt watched him for a moment, his expression slowly cooling like a mask hardening over his face. "Okay, then we'll chat about nothing in particular while we have our coffees, and you can go wherever you need to be." He toasted with his cup and took a sip. "Do you have any plans for Thanksgiving break?" he asked, all polite, distant interest and making Blaine want to curl his arms around himself in the chill.

Blaine shook his head, not able to trust his voice; that feeling of all of the air rushing from the room was returning. He couldn't go to Trent's party. It didn't matter if it was the right thing to do.

"I have my usual busy weekend planned," Kurt said breezily when Blaine didn't have more of a reply. He spoke with the air of someone who was determined to carry on through a difficult situation, and Blaine's feelings of guilt flared, because he knew how to talk to anyone, he'd been taught that from an early age, and yet here he was utterly failing at it. "Thursday is the meal, of course, followed by my dad and Finn yelling at the television no matter how many times I remind them that the players can't actually hear them, and then Friday is my annual Black Friday shopping trip with Rachel and our friend Mercedes, with a sleepover at Rachel's that night. We'll sleep late and recover from the marathon shopping there on Saturday, possibly with some other of our friends, and then Sunday is another day for my family." He met Blaine's eyes at the end of the last sentence and lifted his eyebrows, as if handing off the conversational ball to him.

Blaine knew he should say something about his own schedule for the weekend, although it was far less exciting than Kurt's, but the distance in Kurt's eyes, in his voice, the chilly precision that had returned to his movements... it was all too much with the memories of other rejections so fresh in his mind.

"Kurt, can I ask you a question?"

Kurt nodded a bit warily, crossing one leg over the other and linking his fingers over his knee.

Blaine took a deep breath and put down his coffee. "I don't want to upset this thing between us, because I like working with you, but I need to know. When we - after that dance, did I do something wrong? Because I'm pretty sure you were upset with me. And maybe still are."

Some of the color drained from Kurt's face as his expression shifted from shock to resignation to sadness, but his eyes stayed steady on Blaine's as he spoke. "No, it wasn't you," he said quietly.

"But - "

"I wanted to blame you, and I did for a while, but it wasn't your fault. It was me."

Blaine was sure he should have felt better with just that much, but he didn't. "I don't understand."

"I shouldn't have done it. Not because of you, but because of me." Kurt took a deep breath, like it was hard to get the words out, but his voice remained even if soft. "I'm not made for something casual. I know that. But I did it anyway, and it hurt."

"Kurt - "

"It's not your fault," Kurt repeated. "Okay? You really didn't do a single thing wrong." He smiled just a hair, more sad than anything. "Honestly, you were wonderful. Thank you."

It took a moment before Blaine could put words together, because it was upsetting to know that he'd been the cause of Kurt hurting - because even if Kurt had made a choice that had wounded his own heart he'd made that choice with Blaine, and Blaine had been the one to make the offer in the first place - but also because there was such intense relief to know that he hadn't done something wrong, he hadn't missed some obvious signal or made some horrible mistake beyond a few basic missteps here or there. He hadn't been selfish. He hadn't been rude. He had not actually done the opposite of everything he wanted to do. It took him a second to be able to take a breath around how huge and releasing that knowledge was.

"You were - " Blaine didn't think he could possibly tell Kurt just how remarkably perfect he'd been, how just thinking of that night took his breath away because Kurt had made him feel special and cared for, and he could see in that memory how Kurt had been yearning for a deeper connection than two strangers could have. No wonder it had been so different. "You, too. Thank you."

Kurt's shoulder twitched, not quite a shrug. "I'm sorry I took my issues out on you. I do that sometimes."

"It's okay. I understand."

Picking up his cup, Kurt swirled his coffee around and around. "I know that wasn't what you were looking for that night. Or any night. So I apologize for dragging you into it when you were just wanting to have some fun." He frowned thoughtfully to himself. "Another thing I should have known better about."

"No, Kurt, it's fine," Blaine insisted, because the bitterness coloring Kurt's words twisted in his own heart. It had been a good night; he didn't want Kurt to regret it. "I mean, now that the cold shoulder treatment is over... It's over, right?"

Kurt looked up, startled. His eyes were so clear and beautiful. "Of course."

"Then we're okay. Aren't we?"

After a moment, Kurt nodded. "I'd like us to be. I mean, we do seem to be spending a lot of time together." His voice dropped and turned ironic, like he wasn't sure of how the next sentence would be received, maybe even by himself. "And I actually am fairly certain I like you."

It was Blaine's turn to be shocked. He rocked back in his chair. "You do?"

Kurt blinked at the disbelief clear in Blaine's response. "Yes? Is that all right?"

"Yes, I - " Blaine laughed, another huge weight lifting off of his chest and leaving him feeling a little giddy. "I thought you didn't."

"Probably because for a while I refused to consider it, and then I was annoyed that you were charming all of my friends, and then I was annoyed you were being sweet to my friends," Kurt said with a grin and something like hope in his voice despite the snarky edge to it. "But I'm getting over it."

"Liking me?"

"Being annoyed."

"Oh." Blaine felt a smile blooming across his face.

Kurt's mouth curved up in an answering smile, and there - finally - was the smile Blaine remembered from their night together and even more remembered from Kurt giving it to his friends. It was warm, happy, and intimate, not in a sexual way but as an expression of a shared, welcome moment between them. "Of course," Kurt said with a quirk of his eyebrow, "this may all be moot."

Blaine sat up straighter. "Moot? Why?"

"Well, you haven't said anything about liking me," Kurt said, bouncing the foot on his crossed leg. "So this friendship could be dead in the water before it even gets out of the dock."

"No," Blaine said. He reached out with his foot and dared to bump Kurt's with his own. "We're going to be friends." He loved the sound of that sentence floating between them. Kurt was undoubtedly special, and to be friends with him would be an honor and a pleasure.

"Not if you keep scuffing my boots." Despite the warning, Kurt bumped Blaine's foot in return, and the gnawing something that had been worrying at Blaine's heart for months finally disappeared. They could be friends. It was a gift, not just because it was an affirmation that Blaine hadn't been doing something wrong with the guys he'd met in college but also because Kurt was clever, witty, and thoughtful, and Blaine really liked that. He really liked him. Blaine had a lot of friends, but Kurt seemed like an especially good one to add to his list.

"So," Kurt said easily, leaning back in his chair, "what are you doing for Thanksgiving break?"

"Oh." Blaine looked down, his good mood evaporating like it had never existed. "Spending it with my family, I guess."

"You only guess? It's in a few days. Don't you have plane tickets already?"

Blaine nodded. "Yes. Yes, I'm flying home Tuesday night. I - " His hands flexed helplessly. He really didn't want to talk about the Warblers, but suddenly there they were front and center in his mind again. "I guess I'm weighing my options about my time when I'm there."

"Do tell. You've already heard about my whirlwind social calendar. What's on yours? I bet it isn't mud masks and deep discounts at the mall." Kurt actually looked like he wanted to know.

"It's not that interesting," Blaine hedged.

Some of the light in his eyes dimming, Kurt said, "All right." He tipped up his cup and drained the last of his coffee. "I'm finished. Are you? We can just go."

Blaine knew he should agree and let Kurt go on his way, but if he was alone then everything was going to tumble back on top of him. Just thinking about it made his stomach clench with misery. "Would you like another one?" he asked. "My treat."

Kurt searched his face for a moment before settling back and saying, "Sure. Tall non-"

"Tall non-fat mocha," Blaine told him, and Kurt smiled in response like he was pleased.

"That's right."

"I pay attention."

Blaine used the diversion of going up to the counter and ordering to take a few deep breaths. He didn't want to talk about the Warbler party, but it might help him to get a little of it out. Kurt of all people would understand the rivalries and jealousies of show choir. If Blaine kept the conversation as neutral as he could, didn't talk about things that pointed to his own failings... maybe it wouldn't jeopardize their burgeoning friendship.

And if it did, well, Blaine was used to Kurt not liking him. He knew how to live with it, as much as he didn't want to.

So when he handed Kurt his cup and sat back in his own seat, Blaine bit the bullet and said, "There's a Warbler party over the long weekend. That's the big event on my calendar."

"That's - " Kurt began brightly, but then he took in whatever was showing on Blaine's face and finished the sentence with a slower confusion. " - not nice? I thought you loved being a Warbler."

"I did," Blaine was quick to say. "It was the best part of Dalton, and that's saying a lot because I loved Dalton. The Warblers were - are - great guys, and I love to sing, so..." He shrugged.

"So...?" Kurt prompted.

This was harder than Blaine had thought it would be. He didn't want to dredge up all of the old drama, because he didn't want Kurt to think less of him for it, but it was a part of everything that was making him uneasy about going to the party. "I mentioned that I had a boyfriend."

Kurt made a little sound of acknowledgement. "He who hates simple coffee orders."

"That's the one," Blaine said, the description surprising a little smile out of him. "Sebastian. He was also a Warbler."

Kurt shifted in his seat, re-crossing his legs and drawing his hands in from the arms of the chair onto his lap. "And you're worried about seeing him at the party?"

"No, I - it's more complicated than that. I mean, it ended badly, and we're not friends. But then I'm not sure we ever were. So it's more than that."

"You weren't friends with your boyfriend?" Kurt asked, sort of squinting at him like he was out of focus. Maybe he was just trying to understand.

"That sounds really bad when I say it out loud," Blaine realized. Still, looking back with eyes not blinded by love, it was true. He and Sebastian had shared a lot in common, at least on the surface, had spent a lot of time together, and had enjoyed exploring their sexuality with each other, but they'd never been friends, not with the selfless caring and companionship he saw in rare couples like Mike and Tina. Sebastian had tolerated at best and more often laughed at Blaine's interests outside of the Warblers, like fashion or old movies or makeover shows, and he'd certainly shown by the end how much he valued his own happiness over anyone else's, including - and maybe especially, a voice inside of him whispered - over Blaine's.

Kurt made another noise of agreement. "Yes, it does."

"Is it any better if I thought we were at the time?"

"I would hope you did," Kurt said. "I mean, why would you date someone you didn't like?"

"You'd have to ask him that," slipped out before Blaine could stop it. He snapped his mouth shut, but it was too late.

Kurt tilted his head, his eyes going soft with sympathy. Or maybe it was pity. It didn't really matter; Blaine shouldn't have said it.

"Anyway, it kind of blew up at the end," Blaine said, soldiering on, "and the way it happened got some of the Warblers involved. If I go to the party, those tensions might resurface. I respect the Warblers too much to want to bring any drama back into the group."

Much to Blaine's surprise, Kurt turned his face into his hand and let out a laugh.

Blaine's heart fell; he was opening up about this difficult situation, and Kurt was laughing? "What?"

"I'm sorry," Kurt said, waving his hand in front of him. "I know this is important to you. But if we didn't have drama in New Directions we'd never have had anything to sing."

Mike and Tina seemed calm enough, but from what Blaine knew of Kurt and Rachel that actually made a lot of sense. "That's not how the Warblers work," Blaine said. "We pride ourselves on being gentlemen of Dalton." Of course, not everyone was, but that they went against the basic assumption of the group was one of the reasons why Blaine had been so caught off guard by Sebastian's actions.

"Mmm. No wonder we beat you." There was a distinct twinkle in Kurt's eyes as he said it.

Blaine knocked his foot against Kurt's in response; he wasn't quite sure about where the line for teasing back lay yet.

"So it will be awkward," Kurt prompted.

"Yes." Blaine could imagine conversations dying when he walked by, the fake plastic smile he'd need to keep fixed on his face, the way he'd have to be aware of Sebastian's location at every minute so that they didn't come face to face without him having some warning, the way every Warbler who talked to him would be thinking about their relationship in the back of his head. He could imagine being greeted with open arms by only some of the guys there instead of all of them the way he used to be, the party not a refuge with friends but rocky shoals to be carefully navigated. He could imagine having to laugh like it didn't matter at the barbs and embarrassing stories being sent his way. He could imagine having to sing in the background when Sebastian stepped forward to lead a song. He could imagine ending up sitting quietly in the corner as the party got rowdier and rowdier and not daring to join in with the drinking for fear of what anger might rise in him if he wasn't in complete control of himself.

He remembered all of that from his last months in high school.

Kurt shrugged. "It can't be more awkward than having crush after crush on straight boys and one of them becoming your brother," he said.

"What?"

"That's a story for another day," Kurt said with a wave of his hand. "You don't want to go to this party because the guy you weren't friends with is going to be there, and you don't think you can act like an adult even this long after?"

"No," Blaine said, something snapping in his chest at the blasé - and incorrect - way Kurt summarized the situation. It wasn't him. He could be an adult. He always tried to act that way, even when it hurt. "I don't want to go to this party because the guy who broke my heart and tarnished my standing and reputation in the Warblers is going to stir up all of the old problems within the group and make everyone's night miserable just because he can, and no matter what I do and how mature I am I can't stop him." He cut himself off too late, breathing hard.

Kurt's eyes went wide, the shock at Blaine's outburst turning his usually expressive face blank. It cemented Blaine's decision not to go to the party; if he couldn't control himself talking about it, what hope did he have being there?

"I'm sorry," Blaine said, putting down his cup and getting ready to stand up. "I should - "

His chin lifting, Kurt stuck out his hand as if to offer a handshake. Blaine blinked at it for a moment before looking back up at him.

"Well, hello, Blaine Anderson," Kurt said. "It's a pleasure to meet you finally."

"What?" Blaine automatically shook Kurt's soft, strong hand, but he didn't understand what was going on at all.

"I've been wondering what's behind that polished exterior of yours."

"I - "

"Blaine," Kurt said more gently, "contrary to whatever you may have learned singing in lockstep in unfortunate uniforms at that stuffy prep school of yours, you're much more interesting if you actually let yourself have feelings about things."

"I have feelings about things," Blaine protested.

"And yet your first instinct was to leave the second you got upset."

Blaine wanted to object, but it was true. "It's called having manners."

"Putting your napkin in your lap and knowing how to use an escargot fork are manners," Kurt said. "Having feelings is being human."

"And keeping them under control is back to being polite," Blaine told him. He knew that was right.

Kurt leaned back and studied him for a moment, like he was weighing his words and the new peace between them. He looked serious, maybe even concerned, but finally he lifted his shoulders in a little shrug that felt almost like he was giving up. It didn't feel good, even though it meant he was letting Blaine off of the hook.

"Okay," Kurt said. "Anyway, I can see why you're torn about the party."

It was hardly a more comfortable topic of conversation, but it did at least stop the tension between them. "Yeah," Blaine said. "I really can't go."

Kurt bounced his foot thoughtfully. "I don't know. You could always go with the plan to ruin the night for him. Turn the tables. Surround yourself with your friends and be so above it all he can't touch you. It might drive him crazy."

There was a shining second where the idea shimmered with temptation for Blaine, but then reality intruded. He couldn't do that. Even if he wanted to, even if he were willing to put the Warblers through that, neither of which was true, he didn't have the skill to hurt Sebastian like that. He wasn't important enough to Sebastian for him to be hurt like that.

If he had been, things would have gone a lot differently.

"No," Blaine said with a shake of his head. "That's not me. I'll just..." He cast around for an idea to spend the day beyond sitting at his house with his parents and their guests. "I heard there are good deals at the mall the day after Thanksgiving."

Kurt leaned forward, all seriousness. "Oh, Blaine. No. Going to the mall on Black Friday is like skiing a double black diamond trail; novices should stick to the bunny slopes and online shopping."

"How do you know I'm a novice?"

Kurt just waved a hand at Blaine's simple striped crewneck sweater. "Please. Those are not the clothes of an expert shopper."

Blaine tried not to take too much offense at that; he certainly didn't take sartorial risks the way Kurt did. He'd put together enough laughable outfits in high school that he'd learned to keep it simple. But the comment still rankled deep inside, and he pushed it down so that it didn't show on his face. "Okay, I'll do something else." He didn't know what, given that all of his friends would be at Trent's party, but that wasn't Kurt's problem. He tried to disguise his sigh with a sip of his coffee.

"I'm sure you're capable of managing your own time, but..." Kurt began, tugging at the cuff of his shirt sleeve until it lay just so over the fine bones of his wrist. "My weekend is already booked solid, but I know for a fact that Tina is always looking for an excuse to get away from her family and, more importantly, Mike's." He looked back up into Blaine's eyes. "You should text her. They usually go to the movies with a bunch of friends on Friday to escape. It won't be much calmer than the mall, but there's some safety in numbers."

"I wouldn't want to - "

"You're not imposing," Kurt said with a roll of his eyes. "Or intruding or any other of a dozen worries. I mean, you might be offended if you happen to meet Puck, but you'd be welcome. In fact - " He pulled out his phone and tapped out a quick message. "There, now Tina knows you're free."

"You just - "

Kurt lifted his eyebrows as if daring Blaine to continue to protest; despite his misgivings about Kurt's methods, Blaine quieted. "I bet you'll hear from her in the next hour. And then you can tell the Warblers you're spending the day with friends instead." He hummed thoughtfully. "Maybe see if you can get Mike to take a picture of you with his shirt off for your Facebook; those abs'd make anybody jealous."

"But he's Tina's boyfriend. And straight."

"So?"

Blaine laughed and shook his head; that was definitely a step too far. "Thanks, Kurt," he said, warmed by Kurt's concern and the kind if unorthodox way he offered it. "For that and for this." He gestured to indicate the corner of the shop they were sitting in and all their conversation had encompassed.

Kurt's voice was soft but sounded genuine when he replied. "You're welcome."

Blaine's phone trilled with an incoming text. It was probably one of the Warblers, so he left it in his pocket.

"I'll bet you another coffee that's Tina," Kurt said.

"You're on." Blaine pulled out his phone and laughed when he saw her name there. "Your usual again?" he asked, his head spinning with a mixture of delight and relief that he really, truly hadn't gotten things wrong with Kurt and maybe was actually getting a few things right.

Kurt sat back in his seat, a smug smile on his face. "Yes, please."

Chapter Text

Kurt to Tina: Just snatched these shoes from a woman w/ surprisingly strong grip. Love? She's stalking me around the department in case I put them down. [picture attached]

Tina to Kurt: LOVE. Thank you! <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Kurt to Tina: K. I'll give her my best bitch glare and tell her to back off. Almost done with this store.

Tina to Kurt: If you're done early, do you want to come see the movie with us? We'll be at the megaplex at 2.

Kurt to Tina: There is no EARLY on Black Friday. But thank you.

Kurt to Tina: Blaine's going with you, right?

Tina to Kurt: Yes. He's meeting us after lunch.

Kurt to Tina: Good. If he tries to get out of it, tell me so I can glare at HIM instead. M and R say hi.

* * *

Facebook:

Blaine Anderson and Finn Hudson are now friends.
     Tina Cohen-Chang, Mike Chang, Rory Flanagan, and two others like this.
     Kurt Hummel: Oh my god.
     Finn Hudson: He likes football, dude.
     Blaine Anderson: You never told me your brother sang, Kurt!
     Kurt Hummel: Oh my god.

* * *

There was a low murmur of conversation and classical music from his parents' party below, but Blaine's room was blessedly quiet otherwise. He liked noise and excitement as much as the next person, maybe more, but there was a difference between a Saturday night out with friends and one in where he had to be on his best behavior. He'd been thrilled when his mother had told him he wasn't expected to attend.

He knew he should probably get a head start on the reading he was supposed to do over the long weekend; he'd meant to do some of it on the flight home, but it had been delayed by snow, and by the time it had taken off the busy weeks had caught up with him. He'd slept the whole way. Since then he'd been wrapped up with his family apart from a really nice day out with Tina and her friends yesterday.

The afternoon at the movies and the dinner that followed had been a whirlwind, but with Tina and Mike kindly at his side until he got used to the back and forth of the various personalities - and now he could see why Kurt had laughed about trying to imagine his glee club being drama-free - it had been a really fun whirlwind.

Who knew Kurt's brother had been in New Directions, too? And was so tall?

Who knew Kurt apparently had a thing for earnest and admittedly attractive but not all that bright football players? Blaine wouldn't have guessed it was his type, but what did he know?

Shaking his head at himself for even thinking about that, Blaine started to dig through his bag for his poli sci book but was brought up short by his phone buzzing on his bed.

It was a text from Kurt: Tina assures me you survived your day with them, but I'm checking in, anyway. How are you doing? Nobody tried to slushie, harass, and/or blackmail you? No incriminating pictures I need to find and delete?

Blaine smiled at the concern and typed back, I'm fine. I even met Puck without any lasting harm.

Lasting?! was Kurt's reply.

There might have been a popcorn incident between Sam and him in which I took some collateral damage. Don't worry. I put the shirt in the wash when I got home.

Blaine's smile began to fade when there wasn't an immediate response, but then he jumped as his phone vibrated in his hand with an incoming call from Kurt.

He had barely tapped the answer button before Kurt was speaking over the sound of a door shutting. "What shirt was it? Did you pre-treat it? Please tell me you pre-treated it. That grease doesn't come out easily, and even though the majority of your wardrobe is uninspired there's no reason that Puck should ruin - "

"Kurt," Blaine said, laughing, "it's fine. It came out."

Kurt cleared his throat. "Oh. Good." There was a little pause in which Blaine wasn't sure if things were uncomfortable or if Kurt was just settling down from the potential wardrobe emergency. "So you had fun with them?"

"I did. There were even fewer Warbler jokes than I expected." Blaine sat down on his bed, plumping the pillows against the headboard so he could lean back on them.

"Well, Rachel would probably be the worst about pointing that out, and she was with me," Kurt said. "Maybe Santana, but she didn't come home for the break." He paused again. "Everybody liked you. In case you were worried."

Blaine would have been lying if he'd said he hadn't been at least a little concerned. These were Tina's friends, Rachel's, Mike's, Kurt's. If it had gone horribly, it might have made things awkward back in New York. "I liked them, too," he said.

"Apart from Puck, obviously."

"No, even Puck," Blaine insisted. "We played some frisbee in the parking lot after the movie."

"You played... of course you did." Kurt's laugh was dry and without much humor. "No wonder Sam was trying to get Rachel to invite you over all day today."

"He was?" Blaine perked up at that, although nobody had called him, so maybe he shouldn't have been so happy about Sam wanting to include him.

"It's a little awkward getting together at Rachel's with all of the breakups. I think Sam was hoping to have another guy there besides Mike. The two of them were feeling outnumbered, since Rory was only able to drop by for an hour."

Blaine frowned, trying to put together the pieces of the New Directions puzzle. "Wait, what do you mean another guy besides Mike? Weren't you there?"

"Yes," Kurt answered after a moment. "Obviously."

"But you're not - "

"Blaine," Kurt said with a quiet resignation, "I know you're smart enough to connect the dots about how I fit in, so can we please move on?"

Something in Blaine's heart started to hurt, because if these were Kurt's friends and they still stereotyped or misunderstood him - "Sure," he said quickly before he could get too angry on Kurt's behalf and not be able to acquiesce to his request. He could get angry later if he needed to. It wasn't right. "Okay. What do you want to talk about?"

"Well... Where are you? At home?"

"Yes. In my room." Blaine tried not to remember how Sebastian used to ask him something very similar and what exactly those phone calls turned into; he couldn't even think of it without feeling his face heat.

"Then I have one question for you."

"Yes?" Blaine asked with some trepidation.

"Do you have any more Brooks Brothers sweaters stashed away?" The smile was evident in Kurt's voice.

Blaine laughed, relieved beyond reason. "As a matter of fact I do."

"Then that is what I want to talk about."

They spent the next hour with Kurt badgering, cajoling, and finally threatening Blaine over his wardrobe, making Blaine text him pictures of the various items in his closet, most of which he'd worn before he was with Sebastian. Some of them Kurt similarly dismissed as horrible, but his approval was warm and effusive when Blaine showed him his cache of sweaters, and there was a husky hitch to his voice at the picture of Blaine's hats all neatly sitting on his closet shelf.

"You should pack all of that in your suitcase and leave your laundry behind," Kurt told him.

"I like my clothes," Blaine said with a laugh, though his heart gave a thump in his chest at the thought of wearing some of those items again. He just didn't like looking like a fool in them.

"Yes, but you shouldn't like your clothes; you should love them," Kurt said.

Blaine smiled a little, remembering how much he used to enjoy picking out just the right hat or tie, at least until he'd learned that there was a big difference between what people could wear in pictures and what looked right walking down the street in real life. Although he had to admit that he saw a lot more variety on the New York streets than he ever had in Ohio…

"Honestly, Blaine," Kurt continued like he was gearing up for a good-hearted lecture, "I don't know why you're dressing yourself from the GAP when you have pieces like that."

"I don't shop at the GAP," Blaine insisted, thinking back to Jeremiah and that ridiculous serenade. He hadn't wanted to show his face there again.

"J. Crew, then. Banana Republic. Abercrombie. They're all the same. Do you want to blend in that badly?"

"I - " Blaine didn't know what to say, because he would have said he didn't. He was just dressing simply and inoffensively. But compared with Kurt, of course he was blending.

Was it bad, though, to fit in with and be like other people?

"I'm sorry," Kurt said quietly, losing the humor and much of the animation in his voice. "I shouldn't have said that."

"No, it's okay," Blaine insisted, his stomach dropping at the sudden end of the happy moment between them.

"No, you were probably right. It must have been a lot easier for you than it was for me looking like - hang on." The phone went muffled for a minute, like Kurt had put his hand over it. "My dad's calling," he said with a combination of fondness and frustration. "I know it sounds like I'm trying to get rid of you, but he is."

"It's okay." It wasn't how Blaine wanted to end the conversation, but he was a little heartened to hear a man's voice faint in the background.

"You know how family is. I've been out all day, so of course they don't want to give me too much time to myself."

"Yeah," Blaine said, though his family was nothing like that at all.

"I'll... talk to you soon?" Kurt asked, a little hesitant.

Blaine smiled to himself at the offer. It was something friends did. They were friends. It felt good to see it, to know that their conversation - and his outburst - the other day had actually made things better. "Absolutely."

"Yes, I'm coming!" Kurt called away from the phone. "Sorry. Bye, Blaine."

Kurt was gone before Blaine could reply, leaving his room feeling suddenly empty.

Blaine's hats - and the fanciful dreams they'd once embodied - mocked him silently from their closet shelf.

With a sigh that was only a little wistful, he frowned down at the sweater in his hands for a minute before he put everything away neatly and closed the doors once more.

* * *

Later that night, his moisturizing routine complete and the house quiet around him, Kurt gave into the stupid urge he'd been fighting for weeks. He curled up on his bed with his laptop and pulled up the Warblers' performance videos.

At first he smiled at how young Blaine looked as he danced around in his uniform and pulled the most ridiculous faces as he sang, but his smile faded as he was drawn in by the songs. Blaine was an incredible performer. Kurt knew that, of course, because he'd seen him at karaoke and in rehearsals for the Review, but there was something so alive in him on the big stage in front of hundreds of people. He was absolutely mesmerizing.

He'd remembered the Warblers being good, but his own performance nerves and disdain over their outfits must have colored his reception of his competitors' songs. They were fantastic. Blaine was fantastic. And through the videos Kurt could watch him without having to critique for the Review or worry about any chance of Blaine being made uncomfortable by it. He could just enjoy.

He watched every video on the Warblers' YouTube channel in order, from competitions to clips of nursing home appearances. If Blaine was there, Kurt watched it with rapt pleasure until his heart was pounding from so many excellent, enthusiastic, charismatic performances, even though he heard some of the same songs over and over. (Although whoever thought "Animal" was an appropriate choice for a geriatric ward must have been high.)

But then he reached a competition duet with Blaine and a tall, odd-faced boy with overly styled hair and saw the sweet, shining light in Blaine's eyes as they sang, and something twisted in Kurt's chest, because he hadn't known Blaine could even look like that. He hadn't really known anyone could look like that. He looked so happy. And it wasn't Blaine acting through the song, Kurt realized as he scanned the description of the video. He was singing like that because the other boy was listed as Sebastian, clearly his boyfriend at the time.

Kurt shut his browser window and pressed a steadying hand to his stomach. He felt absurdly like he'd stumbled on something intimate. He felt like he'd been spying on his friend instead of just watching a video posted freely on the internet.

No wonder Blaine had been so hurt by Sebastian; he'd been in love. Blaine had said as much, of course, but it was something else to see it. It was so obvious. It was so real. It was all right there on his face, in his eyes, in every unconscious inch he leaned toward Sebastian as they sang.

As badly as it had turned out for him, Blaine had been in love.

Kurt knew it should make him feel better about his own desperate ache to be in love to see it there so plainly between two teenage boys from a school not that far away from where he was sitting, but it didn't.

Instead, seeing it on his screen and now burned behind his eyes, it just felt that much further away. It felt that much more out of reach.

For all of his ill-advised crushes and college dates, for all of his wishing and trying, even for how wonderful that night with Blaine had made him feel at the time - which he hadn't mistaken for anything deep, but it had still seemed to touch a ghost of what he was seeking - the harsh reality was that Kurt had never come close to having anything like love like that at all.

* * *

From: Rachel Berry
To: [Elite Karaoke Mailing List]
Subject: December Karaoke Night

Dear friends,

I know most of us are spending this weekend with family and friends gorging ourselves on the carcasses of inhumanely raised and slaughtered animals, but I'd like to take this moment of peace in my own house (tofurkey is so much easier to prepare and clean up after!) to remind you of our December karaoke night, which is coming up next Saturday. I expect to see all of you there, and please update your e-vite status if necessary.

Love,
Rachel

p.s. Whole Foods also has excellent vegan gravy options.

p.p.s. We have no formal holiday gift exchange for our karaoke group, but if you wished to donate money in my name to the ASPCA or PETA I would certainly not object. :)

*-*-*-*
Rachel Berry!
Sophomore at NYADA, soprano
Find my YouTube channel at....

* * *

Kurt to Blaine: So, is there room in your suitcase for at least one of your sweaters? Or a hat?

Blaine to Kurt: It's definitely heavier than it was on the way home. :D I'm already at the airport.

Kurt to Blaine: You are? I'm not going back 'til tonight.

Blaine to Kurt: It's easier for my parents to drop me off in the morning. Have a safe flight!

Kurt to Blaine: You, too. See you Tuesday?

Blaine to Kurt: Yes! I'll be the one in J. Crew.

Kurt to Blaine: I have plenty of ways to make your life miserable, you know.

Blaine to Kurt: So do I: J. Crew, Banana Republic, Abercrombie...

Blaine to Kurt: :D

Blaine to Kurt: Kurt?

Kurt to Blaine: I haven't decided if I'm speaking to you anymore or not.

* * *

"I swear, Rachel, I don't know how your luggage always weighs more than mine," Kurt grumbled as he swung her suitcase into the back of the waiting airport shuttle. Someday - someday! - he was going to have a dedicated car and driver to pick him up from his flights, and said driver wasn't going to be too busy texting to put his bags in the trunk. "You didn't even buy much when we were shopping." He placed his own suitcase into the luggage area; the bag was full to bursting with items (both old and new) to fill out his winter wardrobe, but it was still lighter than Rachel's.

"You know I can't get the brand of soy milk I like here," she said, smoothing her hair over her shoulder and heading for the door of the shuttle.

Barely able to keep his jaw from dropping, Kurt followed after her. "You have soy milk in your bag?"

"It's shelf stable," she insisted. "And it costs so much to mail because of the weight."

"I should send you my chiropractic bills," he said. "We'll see if they're any cheaper."

"We both know you're stronger than you look." Rachel patted his arm and then used it to tug him down beside her on one of the bench seats.

He tucked his satchel on the floor between them and muttered, "Apparently because I've been working out by lifting soy milk."

"Don't be a baby about it. I said thank you."

"Actually, you didn't."

Rachel cleared her throat and said with the perfect diction of her training, "Thank you, Kurt," before shooting him a sunny smile.

"You're welcome," he replied, smiling a little in return. She really was ridiculous and at times even more selfish than he was, but he couldn't help but love her.

"Now," she said, holding out her hand and wiggling her fingers at him, "give me your phone so I can see what I missed while we were flying. I forgot to charge mine. Maybe Julia came down with a sudden case of chronic and incurable laryngitis and won't be able to perform."

"We can only hope," he said dryly as he passed her the phone. He'd already checked his messages while waiting for their luggage, so he leaned back against the seat as they pulled away from the curb and let the sights and sounds of the airport wash over him. He still wasn't used to this being his home, but he didn't quite feel like a visitor anymore, either.

Rachel made a disappointed sound as she scrolled through the items in the browser window. "The only e-mail I have about the play is just a change to our tech week schedule."

"There's still time for laryngitis," Kurt told her.

"Although as her understudy obviously I am prepared to go on at a moment's notice, I'd really prefer to have more rehearsal time so that I can be sure my every nuance is perfect and, more importantly, not a surprise to the rest of the cast."

Kurt shook his head and leaned it against the headrest, careful not to disturb his hat. "I'm glad your priorities are in order."

"I'm one heartbeat away from Evita, Kurt!"

"One heartbeat?"

"Well," she said, apparently a little ruffled by her own vehemence, "one voice-debilitating illness away. I'm so close."

"I know," Kurt said, responding to the ache in her voice if not her actual words. He hadn't had the same opportunities she did, but if he'd been in her shoes he knew his skin would be itching with just how close and yet how out of reach what he truly wanted was. An inch was as far as a mile when you couldn't touch the thing you wanted. "But you're only a sophomore. There's always next year."

"It won't be Evita next year."

"No, but maybe it'll be Funny Girl."

Rachel's eyes lit up as she dropped her hands and his phone to her lap. "Oh, Kurt. Funny Girl."

"Don't get too excited," he said. "I'm not on the committee."

"I'm going to e-mail them right now." She picked up his phone again and bit the inside of her lip as she started to type furiously.

Kurt shook his head again and let his gaze drift out of the window. The murmur of the other passengers in the shuttle - mostly students, by the look of them - was enough of a blur that it became white noise like the sound of the road as they left the airport behind. Even the highway signs were becoming familiar to Kurt, the various towns and boroughs marked on exits no longer exotic but just places to pass on his way to the city that was becoming his. Even the skyline, once nothing but a dream to a boy lying on his bed in Ohio planning his escape, was familiar. It was still beautiful enough to make his heart lift, especially lit as it was by millions of lights shining through the night, but he knew the shapes and silhouettes now like he did the planes of his own face. He knew the grime and glory that was waiting in the shadows of those buildings. He knew that the people and opportunities were nothing like what he'd hoped for as a high school student but were still amazing in their own rights.

As much as his heart had hurt and his eyes had stung when he'd tightly hugged his father goodbye at the airport that afternoon, there was a similar measure of relief to turn from the highway onto busy city streets and see the steam rising from grates that had always been in the background of his fantasy winter city-scapes. There were the cabs, the stores, the people all around them, just as he'd pictured them. Even if he wasn't walking hand-in-hand with a beautiful boy, his heart full of song and his resume full of conquered roles, even if he couldn't manage to get a part in a school play, well... he was still here. As hard as it was and continued to be, as little as he was accepted and understood, he'd still made it this far.

He had made it here.

That was worth something.

"Let's do something this week," he said to her.

"What?" Rachel glanced up.

"Let's do something, Rachel."

"We have karaoke on Saturday."

"No, something New York," he said, taking her hand and gesturing out of the window at the city around them.

He watched Rachel's reflection in the window and held his breath for the moment when she stopped seeing the endless traffic and piles of trash on the sidewalks waiting for collection and instead saw New York, the city they'd both dreamed of. Her smile bloomed bright and wide, his own answering in kind.

"Yes," she said, squeezing his hand. "Yes."

* * *

Blaine actually liked painting sets. It seemed like a funny thing to enjoy, brushing color onto wood and canvas, but there was something so simple about it. He hadn't been given anything detailed to do, so he didn't have to worry too much about precision beyond smoothing out drips and making sure that every inch of the piece was covered in the right colors. That was it. And yet, since he had to pay attention, his mind didn't drift into more threatening territory like the pile of reading he still had to finish, the concerned e-mail from Wes he had to answer before Saturday if he didn't want to be confronted at - or worse, skip - karaoke, or the off-campus party he'd been invited to for Sunday night that for some reason he wasn't sure he felt like attending.

He could just paint.

Well, given that he was in the shop with a half-dozen other people, he could paint and listen to people's conversations and join in where appropriate. Ethan and Leigh talking about going to see a friend in the student production of Joseph wasn't of much interest, and Angelica counseling Tina on the various Women's Studies professors wasn't useful to him, but instead of feeling excluded he found himself enjoying the fact that he could be there and be a part of things without him having to do anything special.

Kurt swept in about a half hour late, slipping off a black vest as he came through the door; Blaine thought he caught a flash of something that looked like a web of silver tape as trim on the back, but Kurt folded it too quickly and set it well aside, as he always did with his best garments when there was paint out.

"Sorry," Kurt said to no one in particular. "My vocal professor is something out of a Stephen King novel, only without the quaint New England charm. Ang, how are the - "

"Hey," Tina said to Blaine, dropping down beside him on the tarp and picking up an extra brush. "How are you today? You seem kind of quiet."

"I take painting very seriously," Blaine told her with a smile. He shifted over so they could both work on the front of the big platform.

"I can see that." She dipped her brush in the can of paint and started to edge her half of the flat. Even though it was a second coat, she worked carefully. "So did you have a good break? It was great you could come with us to the movies."

"Thanks for inviting me. I had fun with you guys, and the rest was fine. I thought I'd get more homework done when I was home, though."

"Me, too," she replied with a laugh. "But between the holiday and seeing friends and sleeping, I kind of didn't have time. I'm glad it's not just me."

"Nope," he assured her. "I'm heading to the library after this, because I know if I try to read on my bed I'm going to pass out in about twenty minutes." He caught a drip with the tip of his brush. "I figure I'll make it at least a half hour before those big chairs in the library do me in."

Tina laughed again. "That's a whole ten minutes more. Good thinking."

Blaine grinned back. "Every little bit helps."

"If you want, I could come with you tonight. We could poke each other every couple of minutes to stay awake. We might even get a whole hour out of it."

"I'd love the company," he said, his heart lifting at the thought. Even when studying quietly, it was always nicer not to be alone. And she actually could help keep him awake.

"Great!" She leaned into him, nudging her shoulder against his before going back to painting. "We can be study buddies."

He chuckled. "That phrase always makes me feel like I'm in kindergarten and have to hold hands with a friend to walk down the hallway in school."

Tina scrunched up her nose as she looked at him. "I think holding hands would make it kind of hard to turn the pages."

"Not to mention what Mike would think about it." Blaine dipped his brush into the can and wiped off the excess paint on the edge.

"Oh, he's pretty much the least jealous person in the world," she said with a little shrug, like she knew him so well she didn't have to be worried at all about any of his reactions. She could predict them.

"And I'm gay," Blaine added, ignoring the little twinge of... well, it wasn't jealousy, because he didn't want what they had. He wasn't looking for that anymore. But maybe he wished he'd been able to experience even a little of that kind of understanding with Sebastian.

"And you're gay. But he also knows I love him."

Blaine smiled at her. "That's - "

"Tell me you don't have plans on Friday," Kurt said, dropping to the floor on the other side of Tina, well off the paint-spattered dropcloth. His eyes were bright and sparkling. "If you do, cancel them. You have new plans."

"Hi, Kurt," Tina said calmly.

Kurt flicked his fingers in a wave and continued without pausing for breath, "We're having a New York night. There's a Hepburn double-feature at the Odeum - Audrey, not Katharine. Rachel just e-mailed me. Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Yes, I know it's horribly racist, but we can throw popcorn at the screen during the Rooney scenes and enjoy the rest. It starts Friday at 6, so we'll grab a quick dinner beforehand. I'm thinking proper New York pizza to celebrate the city, since we can't afford any of the good restaurants."

"I'm sorry, but we're going out with some of Mike's friends on Friday," Tina said. "His RA is in a departmental showcase, and we're all taking him out after to celebrate."

"Audrey Hepburn, Tina," Kurt insisted, but he sank back onto his ankles with a sigh, the eagerness in his expression turning to disappointment. "Fine. I'll just go with Rachel and her obnoxious NYADA friends."

"I like Audrey Hepburn," Blaine said before he thought about it. He wasn't sure if he'd been invited or not, but he hated for Kurt to lose his excitement.

"You do?" Kurt asked, his eyebrows lifting in surprise.

"Yes," Blaine replied. "Why wouldn't I?"

"Well, for one, you like football."

"I'm pretty sure they aren't mutually exclusive," Blaine told him, a little annoyed about it if he were honest.

"He has a point," Tina said.

"Obviously, but I had no idea how wide-ranging your interests are," Kurt said.

"Very," Blaine said, though with Tina there and the others around he didn't think it was the time to mention that he used to have a subscription to Vogue as well as the one to Sports Illustrated. There were some skeletons he didn't need to let out of the closet. "Banana Republic and J. Crew, remember?"

Kurt let out a laugh and said, "Oh, I remember." His eyes took in Blaine's plain white t-shirt. "Although that looks more like Target."

"I'm painting," Blaine reminded him.

"Yeah, Kurt, some of us are actually working around here." Tina leaned over to pick up another paintbrush and held it out to him.

"Oh, no. No painting for me today. This shirt is DSquared2, and I don't have a spare with me. You're lucky I'm even this close." Kurt pushed himself off of the floor and brushed the dust off of his jeans. "Okay, I'm heading to the prop room to start pulling costumes. If you don't hear from me in an hour, one of the old, overloaded racks has probably finally given out, and I'm buried under two tons of cheap polyester and sequins."

"We'll send in the rescue dogs," Tina promised.

"Thank you." Kurt nodded at her before looking over at Blaine. "I'll text about Friday?"

"Sure," Blaine said, smiling as Kurt walked away at how much easier everything felt now that there wasn't any tension between the two of them. He didn't have to wonder whether he should accept the invitation at all or whether the evening was going to be awkward because Kurt wouldn't talk to him. It was such a relief. He could just do what he wanted. What he wanted was to go.

"I bet you'll have fun," Tina said, nudging his elbow. "On Friday?"

He nodded and dipped his brush back into the paint. "I love both of those movies."

"Mmm," she replied with a little smile on her lips as she went back to painting.

* * *

Wes to Blaine: I see from your Facebook that you're back in New York, so I know you're alive. Everything okay?

Blaine to Wes: Yes. I had other plans on Friday, so I couldn't make it to the Warbler party.

Wes to Blaine: I know; you'd said. You were missed, though. It wasn't the same without you, Blaine.

Blaine to Wes: Thanks.

Blaine to Wes: See you at karaoke?

Wes to Blaine: Absolutely.

* * *

Kurt couldn't help but sing "La Vie en Rose" under his breath as he pushed through the subway turnstile and all but danced down the steps to the platform, Blaine beside him. He'd watched both movies more times than he could count, of course, but there was extra magic in seeing Miss Audrey Hepburn in all of her perfection (and in all of her clothes) projected across a huge screen in a darkened theater. He was still caught up in it.

It made the world seem bigger and brighter, a little more wonderful and sparkly, especially since he'd eaten breakfast with Rachel at that very spot at Tiffany & Co. more than once by now. It was a special tradition for them when times were exceptionally tough to remind themselves that no matter what else was happening they were in New York. Kurt wasn't in Ohio; he was living on the very edge of that beautiful dream they'd spun out together for years in Lima before they'd finally graduated. It wasn't everything, most of the time it felt like crumbs when he was starved for the whole feast, but on nights like this one it seemed enough.

"Do I need to hold onto the hem of your coat to make sure you don't accidentally drift off the edge of the platform?" Blaine asked, watching him with a smile on his face but his hands in his pockets, so clearly he couldn't be too concerned about Kurt's demise.

"No," Kurt said, pivoting toward him but still keeping his weight on the balls of his feet like he did when he was dancing. "I'm high on Audrey, not drugs. I'll be fine." He was aware that he should probably pull himself together in front of Blaine, wipe the dreamy smile from his face and snap back into sharp focus, but he just didn't want to lose the magic if he could hold onto it for a few minutes more. Reality would settle on his shoulders again soon enough.

"Okay, but just in case, let's walk down this way," Blaine said, gesturing further down the platform where there was a little more space between them and the drop-off to the tracks.

"Fine." Kurt followed him, humming.

Still smiling, Blaine continued to watch him after they found a new spot to stand. "So when you say you like Audrey Hepburn, you don't mean 'like' as in 'I like broccoli'."

"No, I mean 'like' as in 'I like breathing'," Kurt agreed. "She's Audrey Hepburn."

"Yes," Blaine said with a laugh.

"Her eyes," Kurt said, caught up in the awe of her memory. "Her face. Her hair. Her clothes, Blaine. She's an icon."

"Yes, she is."

"Did you know that Givenchy - " Kurt's thought was cut off by Blaine wrapping his warm hand around Kurt's wrist and tugging him away from the edge as a train whooshed into the station a few feet beyond. He was more surprised by the contact than he was that he hadn't noticed the overhead announcement of the train's upcoming arrival; those were usually muffled gibberish that he tuned out out of habit.

"Watch out," Blaine said, holding onto his wrist for a little longer than Kurt thought was necessary, but maybe Blaine wasn't sure Kurt was going to stay where he had put him, like he thought Kurt was so far gone he would drift right back into the side of the train. That was ridiculous.

Still, even though Kurt had been in no danger, it wasn't like him not to be aware of everything and everyone around him, and he forced himself a few steps further toward reality as they boarded the mostly empty rear car.

"Sorry," he said, taking one of the corner seats; Blaine used the pole to swing himself down beside him. "I got a little caught up."

"I noticed. But it's fine. You were happy, and you're in one piece, so what's the harm?" Blaine smiled at him with a surprising amount of fondness, and it made something in Kurt's stomach flutter with how nice it was not to have to be so cautious with him anymore. After that complicated but surprisingly real conversation with Blaine at the coffee shop before Thanksgiving, it was as if they'd unlocked some door between them. Kurt wasn't sure how far it would open, but it was still such a relief to be able not to be on guard about everything he did or said.

"Besides to my image of myself as a self-assured New Yorker?" Kurt asked with a roll of his eyes at himself.

"I won't tell anyone," Blaine promised, rocking into him as the train started to move.

"Thank you." Kurt took a deep breath and let it out, the acrid fumes of the subway in his nose pushing aside the imagined floral of Audrey's perfume. "Those movies... I used to watch them at least once a month in high school, dreaming I was in New York or Paris, and now I am. Not that there's a Humphrey Bogart sweeping me off my feet, but that was never the point, anyway. It was just being here." He gestured at the subway car, but he meant so much more than that.

"It's probably best about Bogart; he'd be seriously old if he were alive."

"Yes," Kurt said with a moue of distaste. "Not appealing."

"I think even Audrey's acting skills would have been tested if the Cryptkeeper was the one showing up at her door." Blaine grinned and made a kind of creepy monster clawing motion toward Kurt.

"Stop that," Kurt said, pulling away as far as his seat would let him. He knew Blaine was just teasing him, but he'd never been able to stomach monster movies after that one time he'd snuck downstairs to watch the midnight Creature Double Feature on TV when he was eight and had been traumatized for life by the beautiful mummy who had turned into a withered husk at the end. It still made his skin crawl to think of it. "That is seriously disturbing. Also, you may have ruined Sabrina for me forever now."

Blaine dropped his hands into his lap and settled against the back of the seat again. "Okay, okay. Just think of her in that dress."

"Which one?" Kurt asked, interested to get another bit of insight about Blaine's taste. You could tell a lot about a person from the clothes they responded to.

Blaine's smile grew as he said, "All of them."

Kurt let out a happy sigh and smiled back; it was exactly how he felt. "Yes."

"Although," Blaine said slowly, like he was testing the waters, "at the risk of ending our friendship, I have to admit Roman Holiday is my favorite of her movies."

Kurt raised an eyebrow, turning that thought over in his head. It was an iconic film, but... "Why? Because it's her first?"

"I don't know. There's something I like about the princess's joy at getting to escape from her life, you know? Just for a little while. She shines with it." Blaine shrugged.

That idea fit for Kurt like a puzzle piece slotting into place and showing him a little more of the bigger picture of Blaine, and he tucked it away to think about later. "I bet you wanted to go on the Vespa ride, too."

Laughing, Blaine admitted, "I really did."

Kurt nodded; of course Blaine had. "Still... I think our friendship can survive the blow," he hold him with an air of gravity as the train slowed coming into the next station.

"At least I didn't tell you I liked the remake of Sabrina better, right?"

"Oh my god," Kurt said, so horrified by the thought he could barely blink. He fell heavily against the rail at his side when the train stopped.

"I know. Unforgivable." Blaine scooted closer so that an elderly woman carrying multiple shopping bags could take the seat beside him.

"Unthinkable. Julia Ormond is lovely, but -

"She's no Audrey," Blaine said. His expression went a little wistful. "Although Greg Kinnear..."

"In an expertly cut tuxedo," Kurt agreed, equally wistful at the remembered visual. "Mmm. That was a good look on him."

After a moment, Blaine ducked his head and laughed, almost like he was embarrassed. "Anyway," he said, tapping his fingers against the pole next to him.

"What, we can't share a celebrity crush?"

"I don't know." Blaine looked at his hand and then back at Kurt. "Isn't that weird?"

"Is it?" Kurt asked, his confidence quickly eroding and leaving him unsure. There was probably a whole subset of etiquette between two gay friends, and he couldn't even imagine how many footnotes gay friends who once slept together and then could barely speak to each other would add to the rule book. He had no idea what was right in this situation. He'd been just acting like he would with other friends, but Blaine was right to remind him that he was different. "My close friends have always been girls. We spent a significant amount of time in high school playing marry-fuck-kill and sighing over the pictures in Us Weekly."

"Mar-" Blaine broke off, clearing his throat.

"You know, where you pick three celebrities and say which one you'd marry, which one you'd - "

"i know the game," Blaine said. "Some of the guys at Dalton used to play it. About girls. I didn't join in, but..."

"I'm sure it's a lot easier when you share the same romantic interests as the people you're playing with," Kurt told him with a fair bit of sympathy.

"I had problems with the whole concept, really," Blaine admitted with another self-conscious laugh.

Kurt looked at him for a moment, judging his sincerity about being bothered by a game, before laughing as well; Blaine really was that kind of guy. "I'm just not that nice. Sometimes I threw all three off the cliff."

"Ouch."

"What can I say? I have high standards," Kurt said airily, and somehow he managed not to wince too obviously when he realized to whom he'd just made the remark. Maybe their friendship was doomed to be awkward.

Blaine, whether because of his manners or a lack of awareness about any undertone, just skirted the whole issue by saying, "That seems to be true across the board for you."

Kurt was caught off-guard by the respect in Blaine's voice in the comment, and he hesitated for a moment before admitting, "I don't like compromising."

"You say that like it's a bad thing," Blaine replied, turning a little in his seat, leaning his shoulder against the back of it so that he was facing Kurt more.

"It isn't," Kurt said. "It's how I've gotten everything I've wanted, from my first Barbie to the A I'm going to pull out of my vocal professor if I have to go to his apartment and sing myself hoarse outside his front door to get it." He flicked a bit of lint off of his knee; at least he hoped it was lint. "But it can be inconvenient."

"Why inconvenient?"

Kurt smoothed his fingers over his knee where the fluff had been as he considered his words. He wasn't sure what or why Blaine wanted to know, and he'd learned to gloss over the trials of his youth long before he'd reached New York. Nobody wanted to hear about it, and he didn't really want to think about it. He'd escaped it, after all.

"I grew up in Lima," he said finally, deciding short and sweet was the best idea. "Looking like this, sounding like this. You know what it's like there. And I didn't want to hide, even if I could have; I wanted to be myself. Middle school was hard. High school was worse. I could've saved myself a lot of bruises and dry cleaning bills if I'd been willing to compromise. But I wasn't. And college, though a huge step in the right direction in so many ways, is still a fight every day to get the respect I want." He shrugged, like it didn't eat at him some nights how much he had to push and claw simply to be heard. "It's inconvenient. My life would be easier if I were different. But it's who I am."

"You were bullied in school?" Blaine asked, leaning in a little closer.

Kurt had to look away from Blaine's warm hazel eyes as the shame and helpless fury of the memories rose in his mind. "I was the only out person there," he said, re-crossing his legs and shifting just an inch to look down the length of the subway car. His former classmates were less than nothing, he'd survived years of torment with next to no help or even concern from friends or teachers, and he was in New York now. It was all in the past. He would not let them continue to hurt him.

"I was, too," Blaine said after a moment; his voice didn't waver, but he sounded sad. "Bullied, I mean."

"You were?" Surprised, Kurt turned back toward him. Blaine was nothing like him. He was friendly and easily blended in with the straight kids, even in the handsome Brooks Brothers sweater he was wearing tonight for the special evening out; it was hard to imagine anyone not liking him. "I thought you said you loved Dalton."

Blaine shook his head. "No, before that. I went to Dalton to get away from it."

"What happened?" Kurt asked.

He wasn't sure he'd ever seen Blaine look quite so serious, even though he clearly was trying to minimize the hurt as he stated with calm resignation, "I took a boy to a dance and got us both beaten up for it."

Kurt winced, reaching out with his foot to nudge it against the side of Blaine's because he had to do something. "I'm sorry," he said softly, and he hoped Blaine could see he meant it.

Blaine nodded. "It's why I went to Dalton."

Kurt felt something small and lonely in him fade a little, just looking into Blaine's face and seeing a blurred mirror of his life there. "If it makes you feel better," he said shakily, "I took a girl to prom and was still named Prom Queen."

"Ouch." Blaine twisted some more so that he was sitting completely sideways in his seat, fully facing Kurt. His knee just barely brushed Kurt's leg. "How did that even happen?"

"The combination of a thug of a football player who had it out for me and an inept principal who didn't care," Kurt said, forcing his voice to stay light. He knew his smile was tight and bitter, but it was the best he could do. "I was the surprise write-in candidate." He gestured to himself and dipped his head to the side. "Surprise!"

"God, Kurt." Blaine's words were so hushed Kurt could barely hear them over the noise of the train, but there was something in his eyes - not just pity or sympathy but a real, bone-deep, aching understanding of how that must have felt and how it could have been Blaine if their situations had been reversed, the first person who knew of Kurt's story who'd ever had that personal of a reaction - that made Kurt's throat close up and his heart hurt with a hard sort of relief. He hadn't realized how little people had understood that moment, that awful, shame-filled moment, until someone did. Blaine did. He took a shuddering breath to keep himself from getting overwhelmed by how good it felt as Blaine asked, "What did you do?"

"I marched up to the stage, refused the cheap plastic crown, and told them all that I'd rather be the lowliest commoner than royalty in Ohio with them as my subjects," Kurt said, not mentioning the part where he'd walked out of the prom soon afterwards, leaving Mercedes to dance dateless with their friends for the rest of the night, but he'd known she'd be fine. There was no way he'd wanted to stay with all of those mocking eyes on him. He wouldn't have been able to enjoy himself for a second.

Blaine's mouth curved into a melancholy but admiring smile. "I bet that wasn't what they expected."

"I have no idea what they expected," Kurt said. He still didn't; he was fairly certain they hadn't even thought that far ahead. "I take it things were better at Dalton?"

"Yes. They have a zero tolerance policy across the board around harassment and bullying. So once I got over jumping at the sound of car doors being slammed, I was safe there. Everyone was, not just me. Even the kinds of things that were said to me in public school - and probably you, too - would've been an immediate expulsion. Although I never saw it in practice, because nobody did anything like that."

The car slowed coming into the next station, and Kurt let himself lean against Blaine's leg with the momentum. "That's how it should be," he replied with a sigh, though it felt about as far away from reality as Narnia. He couldn't believe it had only been in Westerville.

"Yeah." Blaine watched his fingers as he trailed them along the edge of the seat. "I wish I hadn't needed to run from my old school when it got bad, but at least I had someplace to go."

"I'm glad you did," Kurt told him, and Blaine looked up quickly, like he was surprised or maybe even guilty. "I am. I'm glad there was somewhere better for you." He could barely imagine what it would have felt like to be that safe. Of course, it hadn't been all sunshine and roses for Blaine. "Too bad they didn't have a zero tolerance policy on asshole boyfriends."

"Sebastian wasn't - " Blaine began, stopping at the lift of Kurt's eyebrows. "Okay, he was at the end."

Kurt was pressed against the side of the seat as the train pushed forward once more. "I mean, what's the point of being able to date openly in school if you end up with a jerk who ruins your friendships?"

"He wasn't that bad." Blaine drew himself up a little, and Kurt reminded himself again sternly that Blaine wasn't one of his other friends, no matter how easy it was feeling to talk to him.

"I'm usually the one people come to for post-break-up trash talk," Kurt said by way of apology. "I'm sure he had many admirable qualities." He continued on, because he really didn't want Blaine to list them. "How long were you together?"

"Over a year."

Kurt had known it wasn't a fling, given the depth of emotion in Blaine's eyes on the videos he'd watched, but for high school that was a significant relationship. It was for college, too, really. It wasn't some dates here and there, a little fooling around; it was being a real couple, weathering highs and lows and everything in between. But then anything was significant compared with Kurt's own experiences with boys who weren't looking for commitment at all. "That's a long time," he said.

"Too long," was Blaine's rueful reply.

There wasn't really any response Kurt could give to that; he didn't want to ask too many awkward questions, and obviously Blaine had come to the conclusion through his (too long) time with Sebastian that relationships weren't worth the trouble. It was a depressing thought that someone so in love as Blaine seemed to have been didn't want that anymore.

Kurt wondered if he'd feel the same way after he finally was able to experience love, himself. It seemed unthinkable, given how much he wanted it, especially when he looked at how happy his dad was with Carole… but then even his dad had taken nearly a decade to get married again. Maybe being alone had more benefits than Kurt appreciated; he might feel differently about it if he ever was in a relationship.

Maybe he really was being foolish to have such high hopes for love.

He just didn't know how to stop. He didn't want to have to give up that dream.

"This is where we switch," Blaine said as the train pulled into the next station, and Kurt stood up as the train slowed, easily balancing himself without holding on against the forces of momentum. Blaine, on the other hand, held the pole with one hand and grinned as he let the motion tilt to him the side. "I love the subway; it's like an amusement park ride for grown-ups."

"Aren't roller coasters amusement park rides for grown-ups?" Kurt asked, falling into step beside him.

"Yeah, but you can't ride one to work every day."

They walked through the station while Blaine waxed poetic about the joys of amusement parks - apparently he'd sung at a number of them in high school, and he'd become a self-proclaimed ride aficionado - and moved from that topic to the trials of performing for hostile crowds (in Blaine's case sunburned and tired park patrons; in Kurt's case the entirety of the McKinley student body) to the strangest show choir competition judges they'd had to Kurt's lingering trauma over horror movies to Blaine's lingering trauma over late-night infomercials.

"I was sitting there with my hands over my eyes just hoping Ron Popeil would somehow make it through the segment with all of his fingers," Blaine said, mimicking his nine-year-old self while Kurt sat beside him, laughing silently into his own hand where it was propped on the back of the seat. "I wanted to turn off the TV, but I couldn't sleep until I knew how it turned out!"

"It was a commercial, not a scripted drama," Kurt reminded him. "Don't you think it would have been bad for their sales if they showed him being maimed by the device he was selling?"

"I was nine, Kurt. Cut me some slack."

Kurt shook his head, amused, and patted Blaine on the arm as he stood up. "Come on before you tell me you cry over greeting card commercials and I have to mock you some more."

Blaine mimed zipping his lips and followed him off the train and up the steps to street level. They exchanged favorite (Blaine) and least favorite (Kurt) commercials as they strolled along the street and turned into the main part of campus. A few minutes more and they found themselves by the Union, where their paths diverged.

"Thanks for inviting me along tonight," Blaine said as Kurt stopped and turned toward him in the bright puddle of light beneath one of the lamps that lit the path.

Kurt slid his hands into his coat pockets and replied, "Any time." He found, surprisingly enough, that he meant it. It would have been a wonderful night even without Blaine, but their conversation on the way home had been an excellent way to end it.

"Okay." Blaine took a step back, still facing him. "See you tomorrow? Karaoke?"

"Yes."

"Let me know if you want to go over together."

Kurt nodded, and Blaine shot him a warm, happy smile that got Kurt's mouth curling upwards in reply. "Great! 'Night." He waved.

"Good night," Kurt said to Blaine's back. He turned toward his own dorm, hunching his shoulders a little against the chilly December air.

He couldn't help but reflect on Blaine as he walked down the largely deserted path; it wasn't often he enjoyed talking with someone so much, especially a new person in his life. Now that their defenses were lowered and the air was cleared, Blaine had proved himself to be remarkably easy for Kurt to talk to, from serious topics to frivolous. There hadn't been a single truly awkward pause, and if they were far from the same person it turned out that they shared quite a bit in common, more than just the basic facts of being gay and from Ohio, but also music, movies, politics, and so much else.

In a way, though, that they were from the same place was also a huge thing to Kurt, because they'd been able to hear each other's stories and fill in the world around them. It went beyond just the words to the emotional toll of growing up gay in a place that didn't approve of it and lashed out against it. Blaine understood what that meant. Kurt could barely believe how amazing that felt; it made a lump rise in his throat just to think of it. Someone understood. Kurt had had friends who cared about him in their own fashion, but he hadn't had someone who truly knew how he felt, and now in some small way he did. He might have been alone through all of those years, but he wasn't now, not entirely.

Kurt realized with a sense of bitter resignation that if he hadn't gone to that dance they could have become friends through the Review from the start instead of suffering through the uncomfortable and painful past months and having their friendship forever colored by some very embarrassing and vivid (at least on Kurt's part) memories of each other's sexual abilities. He fought against even acknowledging those glimpses of the past, but they still popped up when he least expected them. He could have seen the bright gleam in Blaine's eye and not remember it being turned on him on the dance floor. He could have seen Blaine's smile and not remember how it felt against his skin. He could have caught a whiff of Blaine's hair product and not have an unwelcome sense memory of breathing in its scent with his hands buried in Blaine's dark hair.

They could have just been friends.

It was probably easier for Blaine to separate that night from the rest of their relationship than it was for him, Kurt knew. Blaine had had love, after all. He knew the difference. He knew what the real thing felt like, knew he wasn't seeking it, and knew what he was missing and what exactly he was getting when he did make a connection with another boy for a night. It had to be so much less confusing for him than it was for Kurt who had none of that perspective, just silly, romantic dreams.

Blaine clearly had a lot more knowledge about these kinds of things than Kurt did. He hadn't just dated Sebastian at Dalton; he'd taken a boy to a dance beforehand. There could have been others, too. And he knew through those experiences that he just wanted to have fun; hadn't he talked about loving to watch Audrey escape and be free and happy for that day in Roman Holiday? He knew exactly what he was doing.

Kurt could learn a lot from him. Not that he wanted the same things as Blaine, because as foolish as it might be he still didn't, but he could learn how to take what they did less seriously instead of flashing back on it with the dual regrets of having let himself feel so much and of not being able to keep feeling that way. He could truly just box it up and put it in the past, where it belonged.

Kurt keyed open the door to his dorm, remembering the butterflies in his stomach and the fire in his blood when he'd had Blaine beside him that night.

No, trying to forget it entirely was the right thing to do. No more whispers in the back of his mind, no more regrets. Blaine had shown tonight that he had a lot to offer him as a friend, after all, and Kurt didn't have so many friends that he could overlook what that meant to him. He could grow. He could do this.

He could put all of those memories and feelings about Blaine behind him.

Chapter Text

The night after the Hepburn double feature, Blaine found himself growing nervous as the hour for karaoke approached. It wasn't the prospect of singing, obviously, or even meeting his friends outside of Kurt's dorm, although that location with its enticing and uncomfortable memories might not have been his first choice. It didn't really bother him, though, because the conversation on the subway the previous night had cemented the fact that the tension between them was evaporating and leaving relief and a tentative joy behind for Blaine from possibly making a real friend, one who shared experiences Blaine wished neither of them had had to go through but who could make Blaine's old if never-quite-healed wounds feel that much less tender just from talking about them.

It wasn't any of that that was making Blaine nervous.

It was Wes.

Well, it wasn't Wes as a person, because he was always a gentleman and mentor, but he'd been at the Warbler party. He was probably going to talk about it, even if he didn't criticize Blaine directly for not attending. Which he might. Which he probably should, because Blaine knew if he'd been the man he was supposed to be he would have found a way to go there and hold his head high through the night, no matter what happened.

The problem was, of course, that Blaine was just not as much of a man as he wanted to be. He'd avoided the situation instead of rising above it. He'd made the decision to spare the rest of the Warblers the drama, but it still wasn't the best answer. It was just the only one he'd had.

So he was nervous about having to talk about it, and he found himself bouncing on his toes with extra energy as he waited with Ethan outside of Kurt's staircase door. It only took a minute or two for Kurt and Tina to clatter downstairs and sweep them along toward the subway, but it was just long enough for him to get a cramp in his calf from the cold and be haunted by the sudden worry that someone had given Wes a new gavel at the party and he was going to have it with him tonight.

Not that he would have admitted it aloud, but for years whenever Blaine had had a stress dream it either involved his father calling him into his office or Wes and the Council with that gavel.

Blaine forcibly pushed aside his concerns and put on his game face for the subway ride; this wasn't his friends' problem. He didn't want to let his mood bring down their night out. So he asked Tina about her classes for next semester, argued with Ethan about the outcome of the college football season, and even got a laugh from Kurt over his description of his father's colleague as a cross between Tracy Morgan and Thurston Howell III.

"How is that combination even possible?" Kurt asked from where he was sitting beyond Tina on the subway's bench.

"He always dresses like he's at the yacht club and comes out with the most insane rants without warning," Blaine explained.

"How is that different from any other member of a yacht club? And who even has a yacht in Ohio?" Kurt said.

"We border a Great Lake!" Tina reminded him, bumping her shoulder into Kurt's.

He rolled his eyes. "Not Lima. Or Westerville."

"Yes, because people who have yachts can't drive," Ethan said, swinging gently back and forth where he was standing gripping the upper handrail in front of their seats.

Tina nodded. "They might even have drivers."

"I still think someone who has a yacht in Ohio has an inflated idea of their own importance and a serious problem facing reality," Kurt said.

Smiling at the way the conversation had turned right back around to his point, Blaine said, "Thurston Howell III plus Tracy Morgan."

"Yes, I see it now," Kurt said, grinning back.

Arriving at karaoke was the usual flurry of coats to check (Kurt kept his with him and set it carefully over the back of his chair) and drinks to order. They were the first of the group to arrive, so they pounced on a grouping of three small tables and added a fourth when another couple got up just as Rachel and some of the others came in.

Rachel had brought along a friend Blaine didn't know, an older student named Asher, and he came back to the table from signing up to sing with a half-dozen bottles of beer from the bar. "Help yourselves," he said before turning back to talk with Rachel and one of their other NYADA friends.

Blaine's beer was halfway gone by the time Wes showed up. He was alone, and after he got himself a drink and greeted the group - minus Rachel, who was on stage - he came to sit by Blaine.

"Is everything okay with Esther?" Blaine asked quietly, leaning in so the others wouldn't hear the question. If they'd broken up, he didn't to be the one who announced the news to everyone.

Wes nodded, waving away Blaine's concern. "More or less. She's in bed sick, but I left her with a big bowl of soup and some extra soft tissues."

"I hope she's better soon."

"Thanks; I'll let her know."

Blaine was saved from whatever else Wes might have said next by Tina coming over to pull him up to the stage with her, and even more than usual he was happy to oblige. Singing was a great way for him to avoid having to think or talk about things, so with a few brief breaks to catch his breath and take a drink he jumped from the duet with Tina to a group number with Mike and Ethan to backing Rachel on her next trip up to the stage.

It wasn't until an hour or so later that he found himself seated back at the table while Kurt and Rachel entranced the room with yet another duet. Wes slid into the chair beside him.

"How was your break?" Wes asked.

"Good," Blaine replied absently, most of his attention focused on the way Kurt's voice blended so beautifully with Rachel's. They were made to sing Gershwin together. They were made to sing everything together.

"And your family?"

"They're my family. You know." Blaine shrugged and took another swallow of beer; he had to be sure to give Asher some money before he left, because it was awesome of him to be keeping the table supplied. "How's yours?"

"They're doing well. They asked after you." Wes paused for a moment, and out of the corner of his eye Blaine could see him watching him. "So did Thad. And David. And Nick. And - "

"That's great, Wes. Thanks." Blaine tipped his bottle up again, finishing it.

"Blaine," Wes said, that old authority in his voice making Blaine look over despite himself. "We were sorry you weren't there. Why is that a problem for you?"

"It isn't," Blaine replied, even if it made his skin crawl to think of what people had been saying about him when he wasn't there. He knew his real friends wouldn't have said anything cruel, but they weren't the only ones at the party. The old whispers might have started up, too, the ones that judged, mocked, and maligned.

"I know that you and Warbler Sebastian had your problems - you've told me about some of them - but I hope you know you would have been welcomed with open arms. The past is the past. The Dalton Academy Warblers are a brotherhood that lasts well beyond graduation. We pride ourselves on it."

Blaine eyed the only unclaimed bottle of beer, just out of reach in the center of the tables. It would have been rude of him to take it, not when Rachel and Kurt hadn't had any yet. "I know, Wes."

"And as a member of the Council, you swore an oath to uphold that fraternity above all - "

"Wes, I know." Blaine slumped a little in his seat from Wes's disapproval. He had been so happy the day he'd been voted to the Warblers' Council, because his peers had respected and liked him enough to entrust him with the honor of helping lead them. And it was such an honor to him. He only wished he'd lived up to it. "I had other plans."

"The Blaine I knew at Dalton would have put very few social opportunities above the Warblers," Wes said.

The truth of it stung Blaine, and he looked away at the now-empty stage for a moment before turning back to Wes. Back in the day, he'd put the Warblers above everything. "I've grown up. And part of growing up is having to make choices. I chose to spend the day with other friends rather than face the possibility of dragging us all through the mud."

Wes leaned in a little, speaking even more gravely. "You know I admire your dedication to keeping your personal matters out of the group, but you could have gone and shown that you have grown up and are beyond whatever drama was in the past. Your Warbler brothers would have been there to stand beside you."

"Wes," Blaine said, trying so hard not to beg him to stop talking about the topic altogether, because half of him wanted to crawl under the table and hide from it, half of him wanted to flip it over with his anger that fucking Sebastian who was supposed to have loved him was ruining his friendships even now, and all of him wanted to be anywhere else in the world. "You can't - "

"Were you at Dalton with Sebastian, Wes?" came Kurt's voice from the other side of Blaine. It sounded like a perfectly cordial question, but there was a sharpness in Kurt's eyes that Blaine knew all too well. He was glad it wasn't directed at him this time.

"No, I graduated before he arrived," Wes replied. "I saw him in videos of their performances, of course, and met him recently."

Blaine glanced over again to see Kurt crossing his legs and leaning back in the seat beside him like he was happily settling in. "And were you in close contact with Blaine while he and Sebastian were dating?" Kurt asked Wes. "I thought last month you'd said you two were renewing your friendship after drifting apart when you went to college."

"That's true."

"Blaine," Kurt asked, turning his attention to him and making Blaine's pulse race with a flash of anxiety, "are you still actively performing with the Warblers? Do you owe them a large sum of money? Do they know where you've buried a body?"

"No," Blaine said slowly. "To all three questions."

Kurt looked back at Wes, lifted his eyebrows, and stated with calm challenge, "Then I don't see why it's any of your business who Blaine spent his time with over Thanksgiving."

"I am merely telling my friend that he would have been welcome at the party," Wes said, as unruffled as ever. "And that I wish he'd been there with us."

"Yes, I'm sure he got that much from the actual invitation," Kurt replied. "What you're doing is trying to make him feel guilty for not wanting to spend time with a bunch of boys who would let a giant power-tripping ferret have any say whatsoever in what they think or do."

"They are your friends," Wes said to Blaine. "That's what I'm trying to remind you of. We're all adults. You didn't have to stay away."

"I know - " Blaine began, because he knew Wes was right, he knew it, but he just wasn't strong enough to have to face the whispers and insinuations and lies all over again. Not when he couldn't fight back against them. Not when that's what the party would have become about for everyone instead of just a happy opportunity to hang out the way it should have been.

"Oh, yes, because adults are never cruel and vindictive," Kurt scoffed. He rose a few inches out of his seat and leaned over the table. "Rachel! I'm going to ask you to make what I know is a horrible sacrifice and sing a duet with Blaine right now."

"Okay!" Rachel called back. "I'll be right there!"

"Kurt - " Blaine began, because he couldn't just walk away from Wes in the middle of a conversation, no matter how little he wanted to be having it.

"You can't keep your duet partner waiting. Come on." Kurt pushed back from the table and stood. "I'll help you pick something that's actually in your range; if you leave it to Rachel you'll be straining for every note while she shows off around you. She can adjust."

"I - " Blaine looked back at Wes, helpless, but Wes just waved him on.

"Go on," Wes said. "I've said what I wanted to say."

Blaine could feel the weight of Wes's disappointment following him as he trailed after Kurt. "How do you know I'm even right?" he asked Kurt when they got up to the song binder. Kurt began to flip through, but Blaine didn't even look at it. "There are two sides to any story. I could be the one wrong here. I probably am. I mean, we are adults now, and - "

"Blaine, I may not know you all that well, but I know more than enough to make this call," Kurt said with a shrug, like it hadn't been the first time in a long time someone had jumped to Blaine's defense without asking questions first. "Besides, you looked miserable."

Blaine ducked his head, grimacing; he'd thought he was better at hiding that sort of thing. "That's probably because I was."

"Exactly. So I stepped in. Now let's get you up on stage. You always seem happy when you're singing."

"I am," Blaine said.

Kurt looked over at him with something like sympathy or maybe even camaraderie in his eyes. Either way, it made Blaine's heart flutter with gratitude. "Me, too."

"I'm here!" Rachel announced, appearing like a genie at Blaine's side. "I have the perfect song!"

"We're already ahead of you," Kurt said as he punched the selection into the computer.

"We are?" Blaine asked.

Kurt surreptitiously kicked Blaine's ankle, which was kind of painful because he was wearing heavy boots. "Yes," he said firmly. "Up you go." He shooed them onto the stage.

"What are we singing?" Rachel asked Blaine.

"Uh - " Fortunately the monitors kicked in, showing the lyrics to the song. Kurt had chosen Debbie Gibson's "Electric Youth." Blaine beamed down at him as the music began to start, and Kurt smiled back from where he was leaning against the bar.

It was a perfect song, bouncy and fun and way easier for him to sing than a show tune like Rachel usually picked. Blaine found himself unable to stop grinning as he jumped around the stage with Rachel. It was so much fun, and it wasn't just because of the beer. Okay, maybe it was a little because of the beer, because he could see the lights starting to blur and spark the way they always did when he had a buzz creeping up on him, but Rachel was also as enthusiastic as he was. She gave back every bit of energy he offered her and more.

Even looking out to see Wes watching him didn't dull Blaine's happiness too much. Wes said he was finished. Their talk was over, and the night was going to go so much better.

When they finished their song, Kurt was there at the stage steps and steered Blaine toward the seat next to Rachel instead of letting him return to his chair beside Wes. Blaine grabbed another beer from the new round at the table, and when Angelica unexpectedly showed up a little while later, he towed up her to perform "Light My Candle" from Rent better than he ever had before. Somehow she managed to sing well, too, around the way she was laughing at him as he acted out his lines.

They reshuffled their singing partners, and Blaine lolled in his seat when it wasn't his turn, almost as happy to listen to the performances as to be up there. Watching Kurt up on stage with Angelica singing some complicated song he didn't know, Blaine realized they were all amazing in their own ways. He was lucky to be able to be there with them.

Song led into song, beer led into beer, a flirty girl he didn't know in his lap somehow led to a flirty boy leaning toward him by the bar, and then he was in his coat out on the sidewalk between Kurt and Ethan and on the subway and standing in front of his dorm room trying to make the key go into his lock.

"Let me," Kurt said, taking the key from his hand and fitting it into the lock the very first time.

"You're really good at that," Blaine told him, impressed.

"And you're really drunk," Kurt replied. He got the door open, and Ethan steered Blaine through.

"Okay, but that doesn't mean you aren't totally awesome with a key," Blaine said. Oh, hey, he was sitting in his chair. Cool.

"Yes, it's one of my many skills," Kurt said dryly, looking around the room. "An exceptional vocal range, an even more exceptional fashion sense, and the unparalleled ability to put a key in a lock." He didn't seem impressed by Rob's soda can pyramid on the window sill, but then it had been cooler two weeks ago before their RA made him recycle all of the old ones because he was afraid it would attract bugs.

"You have other skills, too," Blaine insisted. "Like - "

With a little clap, Kurt cut him off brightly like he didn't want to hear Blaine praise his organizational abilities. "And let's get this coat off and some water into you so that I can go back to my own much cleaner room and get some sleep!"

"Whoa!" Ethan said, stumbling backwards as the lump of comforter and clothes on Rob's bed reared up to reveal Rob, himself.

"Hi!" Blaine said.

Rob scrubbed at his messy hair, his voice scratchy with sleep. "Hello, Blaine and people I don't know."

"I believe this belongs to you," Kurt told him, gesturing to Blaine with one of his lovely, talented, long-fingered hands.

"I don't belong to anyone," Blaine murmured, softly enough he was sure nobody could hear him.

"Uh huh. Drunk again?" Rob asked.

"Again," Kurt agreed.

"Okay." Rob yawned and pushed himself out of his bed. "I've got him. Come on, Blaine, are you steady enough to take a shower?"

"Only if you want to be in there with him," Ethan said.

Rob shook his head. "I'll pass."

Warm hands were slipping off Blaine's shoes, and then a bottle of water was in his own hand and his bed was right there underneath him like magic.

"This has been the best night," he said, smiling up at the three of them. "There was magic. And singing! Singing is like magic."

"You should lie down," Ethan said, guiding him onto his side on top of his covers.

"We sang together," Blaine told him, grabbing at Ethan's hand but just missing. "It was magic, too. I sang with you and Rachel and Angelica and - " He caught sight of Kurt standing at the foot of his bed. "Kurt, we didn't sing together! We should sing together! Why didn't we sing together?"

Kurt placed Blaine's room key on his desk and said crisply, "You're drunk, Blaine."

"I know, but I really like you, and you have the coolest voice because I didn't know guys could even do the things you can, and we didn't sing together." It didn't make a lot of sense that they hadn't, and Blaine felt sad about it. Maybe next time. Next time he could sing all of his duets with Kurt, just so he didn't feel left out. He didn't want Kurt to feel left out. Nobody should be left out. And Kurt had been, not just because of the singing but because of his stupid high school classmates and all of the awful things they'd done to him. And even his friends made him feel left out, because they said he wasn't a guy when he totally was a guy and Blaine had proof.

Kurt tugged on his gloves. "Do you have this?" he asked Rob. "I think you only have to worry about him rolling out of bed or talking himself hoarse."

"When he starts getting this affectionate it means he'll be asleep in a few," Rob said. "I'm good."

"Make sure he stays on his side in case he throws up," Ethan reminded him.

Rob nodded. "Yep."

"Thanks," Kurt said to Rob before looking at Blaine for a moment. "Get some sleep, Blaine," he said softly.

"Okay," Blaine replied, closing his eyes. "Are you still there?"

"We're leaving now," Kurt said. There was the sound of footsteps retreating toward the door.

"What about now?" Blaine asked. If his bed hadn't been so comfortable he would have looked to be sure; it was awful to feel his friends pulling away. "You'll come back, right?"

"Good night, Blaine," Ethan said, laughing. "Man, he's a soppy drunk, huh?"

"Apparently," Kurt replied with a sigh, and then there was the sound of the door shutting.

Blaine curled around his pillow and let himself sink down through his bed and the floor into the room below. He hoped whoever lived there didn't mind too much.

* * *
Blaine to Ethan: Thank you again for making sure I got home safe last night.

Ethan to Blaine: Any time. It was no trouble. You'd do the same.

Blaine to Kurt: Thank you again for making sure I got home safe last night. I'm sorry.

Kurt to Blaine: You're welcome. I wasn't going to let you walk around the city on your own; with the state you were in you probably would have become a Hare Krishna.

Blaine to Kurt: Oh my god. So I really was talking about magic?

Kurt to Blaine: And how streetlights were the most amazing invention.

Kurt to Blaine: They're lights. But on a street. On a street, Blaine!

Blaine to Kurt: Oh my god….

* * *
"Oh, I need to go in here," Blaine realized, turning into the doorway for the pharmacy and holding the door open for Tina.

Tina glanced at her watch as she followed him. "We're due at the theater at five-thirty."

"I know. I'll just be a minute." Blaine looked up at the overhead signs hanging from the fluorescent-light-studded ceiling. "Over here."

"What are you buying?" she asked. "Or should I stay by the door and not ask?"

Blaine could feel a flush creeping up his face, because as comfortable as he was with expressing his sexuality he'd still been raised not to talk about his own personal interactions so openly, but he replied firmly, "Nothing like that. I need some lint brushes."

"Oh, okay." She bounced along beside him, her long coat flowing behind her as they moved quickly through the aisles. "Now you sound like Kurt."

"Well, actually, they're for him."

"It's just like him to have a lint brush emergency," she said with a warm laugh; there was nothing but love for him in it. No mockery, no judgment, just love. It was a really nice sound, Blaine thought.

He scanned the aisle. Hair dryers, curling irons, flat irons… "They're a gift."

"A gift?" Tina looked over at him, her eyes bright on his face.

"More of an apology," he explained. "For after karaoke this weekend, when he helped me home."

"I'm sure you don't have to apologize for that," she said. "Friends take care of each other."

Blaine smiled a little; as much as he didn't like that he'd gotten so drunk in public that he'd become a nuisance to be dragged along the subway instead of just being the guy snoring in the corner of the living room the morning after somebody's apartment party like usual, he did like knowing that he had friends. There were plenty of people he wouldn't have trusted to care about his well-being. Hell, he'd dated one of them; he could remember waking up one summer morning on the front porch of David's lake house freezing cold while Sebastian was tucked up in a blanket on the couch inside, apparently unconcerned.

But Ethan and Kurt had gotten him home. He could buy Ethan a pizza, but Kurt needed something a little less generic to show that Blaine was thanking him. He knew now Kurt had been overlooked and underestimated a lot, and Blaine didn't want to contribute to that trend.

Besides, it wasn't the first time Blaine had been drunk and selfish around him. He wanted to smooth things over right away, even if Kurt sounded okay in his texts.

"Still. It was thoughtless of me. Ah. Here we are." He picked up two of the better brand of sticky brushes and held them together in his hand. Not good enough. "And he hung up my coat in my closet and everything."

"He always says clothes deserve our kindness as much as people," Tina said, flicking her fingers over the top of the row of boxed electric toothbrushes. "Maybe even more."

"I don't believe he thinks that for a minute." Blaine grabbed another few rollers. "I know he loves his clothes, but people are people."

Tina tilted her head and watched him. "Exactly," she said. "He hasn't always had the best experience with them."

"I know," Blaine said, meeting her eyes, because even though she knew way more than he did because she'd been there in the same high school he still understood a lot about what Kurt must have felt to have been ostracized and taunted every day. If it had been even half as horrific as his own experience prior to Dalton, Blaine didn't know how Kurt was still standing, really; he'd had to run away from his own bullies.

"Do you?" she asked like she was trying to figure out what exactly Kurt might have told him.

"A little. Enough," he said. "But I also see him with his friends, and I know he might cry over losing that slate Westwood sweater he loves so much but he'd give it up for you in a blink if that were the choice."

"Huh," she said thoughtfully.

"You don't agree?"

"No, I do. I just didn't know you knew so much about him."

"I'm getting to," Blaine said, his heart beating faster because he knew it was an honor to have been let in so much. He also knew how uplifting it was to have a friend who understood your overall point of reference as well as your interests. He hoped Kurt felt the same way. After the imposition of the other night, he thought it was worth a little extra effort to nudge Kurt's feelings in his favor.

He gathered together the brushes in his hand and was struck by inspiration. "Hey, do you think they have ribbon here?"

"Maybe by the balloons and wrapping paper?" Tina suggested.

"Let's go look. We're going to be late."

* * *
"This is for you," Blaine's voice came from behind Kurt, startling him where he was standing by the sound board watching Ben adjust some of the lighting.

Kurt turned and found himself momentarily speechless. He stared for a second. Blaine was standing in front of him, his arms extended as he offered him a bunch of… "What is that?"

"It's a lint brush bouquet." Blaine held it out a little further toward him. It was indeed five lint rollers tied up with a shiny red ribbon in a large lopsided bow. Blaine's smile faltered as Kurt blinked at it. "I thought about getting you a loaf of bread from this awesome bakery my friend Lilah found last week, but an apology baguette seemed a little weird. I thought this could come in useful with the costumes for the Review. And you can't have too many lint brushes." He smiled gamely.

"That's true," Kurt said, taking the bouquet. Up close it didn't make a lot more sense. "May I ask why you're giving me lint rollers?"

"Apology lint rollers," Blaine corrected. "Just to say sorry again for the other night."

"What - Oh." The memory of a very warm, very happy, and very drunk Blaine curling up against his shoulder on the subway came back to Kurt in a rush. "You don't need to apologize for that," he said.

"I do. I'm sorry, and thank you." There was a furrow between Blaine's dark brows, and Kurt could see the seriousness in his eyes. For whatever reason, this was important to Blaine, and Kurt had received neither apologies nor lint brushes often enough in his life not to respond to them with a giddy lift in his mood.

"Thank you," Kurt said. It really was a very sweet if surprising gesture, after all. "And you're welcome." He offered Blaine a small grin. "At least you're a pleasant drunk. No sobbing or yelling, just rhapsodies about streetlamps and the magic of singing."

Blaine winced a little, but he grinned back.

"And you brought me one of my favorite personal care items," Kurt said, still reeling a little at the thought, "so if there were anything to forgive it would be forgotten now."

"Whew," Blaine said, making a show of his relief, but Kurt wondered just how much of it was real.

The other night at karaoke there'd been quite a bit of vulnerability peeking out from behind the edges of his smile - from the way he'd barely been able to defend himself against Wes for choosing not to go to a party where he knew people would be hateful to the way he'd looked intermittently happy and lost when they were getting him into bed - and for the past few days Kurt had found himself mulling over just what was going on inside of Blaine's head. He still clearly cared about the Warblers not liking him, he was scarred by everything that had happened with his jerk of a boyfriend, and he'd been bullied, too, before he'd been able to escape to Dalton. For whatever reason, he was holding onto all of that behind his brave, friendly, polite face.

That vulnerability made Kurt's heart go out to him. He knew what it was like to have hurts that couldn't fade, even if his were different ones. He knew just how that felt and how those hurts could weigh so heavily that you needed a break from them.

So if Blaine got drunk and sang insanely flirty songs with girls and enthused over all of his friends and even a few strangers at karaoke and on the street the same way he was overly affectionate to boys he'd just met on the dance floor, well… it wasn't going to be the end of the world for Kurt to watch him reach out to people the same way he'd also reached out to Kurt that first night while drunk. He didn't need to be flirted with, especially not by Blaine, but he could watch out for him when he needed to let go a little or needed someone to stand by his side and ward off someone else's criticisms. Kurt could do all of that.

They were friends, and that's what friends did. Especially for friends who apologized so thoughtfully.

"But don't think giving me gifts is going to get you out of moving the sets in tonight," Kurt told him, carefully tucking the lint rollers into his bag.

"Oh, no, I showed up to work." Blaine stretched out his arms to show his faded grey t-shirt and jeans.

"In Target's finest again?" Kurt asked, ignoring how nicely the tight sleeves showed off Blaine's biceps.

"It's only going to get dirty." Blaine leaned in and tapped the bag he had slung over his shoulder. "But there's a sweater in here for after I think you're going to like."

Trying not to grin too widely at the idea that Blaine might have taken some of his wardrobe suggestions to heart, Kurt said, "We'll see. Now come help me move that big flat before Christa drops something else on it."

* * *
From: Rachel Berry
To: [Everyone!]
Subject: Evita at the NYADA main stage!

Dear friends,

Tickets are on sale now for Evita. You can buy them at the virtual box office at nyada.edu, but I also am able to comp a few for those of you who haven't budgeted properly for the event.

I will probably not be able to share my own nuances of expression on the NYADA stage, since our leading lady's immune system is proving to be remarkably strong even during this nasty flu season, so I have posted some videos of me singing iconic numbers from the musical so that you can get a glimmer of what my truly masterful performance would have looked like. The link is below!

Love,
Rachel

*-*-*-*
Rachel Berry!
Sophomore at NYADA, soprano
Find my YouTube channel at....

 

From: Rachel Berry
To: [Closest Friends]
Subject: Lunch before our final show

Dear friends,

My dads have offered to take a few of us out to lunch to celebrate on the Sunday of the final performance of Evita. Please watch your inbox for an e-vite as soon as I have the details. Save the date!

Love,
Rachel

*-*-*-*
Rachel Berry!
Sophomore at NYADA, soprano
Find my YouTube channel at....

 

From: Kurt Hummel
To: Rachel Berry
Subject: Re: Evita at the NYADA main theater!

Rachel,

I got everyone who knows you together tonight at rehearsal, and we're all coming to the Saturday performance. I booked our tickets.

I'm sorry you won't be in the title role. I know how frustrating it is. Julia is talented, but I'd still rather see you.

- Kurt

p.s. I've blocked off lunch with your dads on my calendar. I'd say I can't believe they're flying out for this, but of course I can. :)

 

From: Rachel Berry
To: Kurt Hummel
Subject: Re: Evita at the NYADA main theater!

Dear Kurt,

Thank you for coming. <3 While performing is its own joy, it's even better when there are friends and family in the audience to support me. :) And I know my dads will be happy to see you; they ask about you every week when I talk with them.

The one benefit to being the understudy is that I don't have an extra rehearsal this Saturday, so I'll definitely be at the Review to see YOU! You were so smart to form your own show so you can star in it! Obviously I should have done that these first few years to get around the politics of being an underclasswoman.

Love,
Rachel <3

*-*-*-*
Rachel Berry!
Sophomore at NYADA, soprano
Find my YouTube channel at....

* * *
Angelica to Kurt: This is a fucking disaster. I know the final tech run-through always is, but come the fuck on.

Kurt to Angelica: I'm just glad the light didn't actually hit the floor when it fell from the grid. Or hit Christa.

Angelica to Kurt: I don't know; after that whole dream sequence dance crap we might be better off without her.

Kurt to Angelica: Just because you don't understand modern dance doesn't mean it isn't good.

Angelica to Kurt: Don't pull that you don't understand it crap. I understand I don't like it.

Kurt to Angelica: I'm going to use that argument against you the next time you call out people who don't like opera.

Angelica to Kurt: Wow. B is killing it.

Angelica to Kurt: I see you smiling over there.

Angelica to Kurt: And you're not even paying attention to your phone anymore. FML

Kurt to Angelica: Pardon me, I was enjoying a performance without falling lights or missed cues.

Angelica to Kurt: Or modern dance.

Kurt to Angelica: That, too.

* * *
Kurt woke with a start, trying to shake off the hazy despair of his dream the same way he dug himself out of the confusing yards of fluffy crinoline that must have toppled over on top of him while he dozed. He gasped for breath as soon as he was clear and leaned back heavily in his chair. What a way to wake up, half-suffocated and caught in the memory of being tormented by shadowy figures and closed doors. Not that he should have been sleeping at all. He'd just put his head down on his arm for a minute after finishing up the hem on the Edwardian-era-inspired gown for the vignette from Pygmalion for the Review.

Oh, yes, just a minute, he scoffed to himself, looking up at the clock on the wall to find that it was nearly one in the morning. He could hear the distant whine of the cleaning crew's vacuums at work elsewhere in the theater building and wondered if they hadn't woken him up if he would have slept slumped on the costume work table all night long.

Kurt took another deep breath and stretched his arms high overhead, popping his neck and trying to ease some of the tension in his shoulders. He'd have to take as long and hot of a shower as he could stand in the morning to loosen himself up. It was a big day of classes and a presentation for Shakespeare, and then it was time for the Review. Finally. He hoped it would go well. He hoped everyone in the cast was going to give it their all, no matter how tired they were.

He hoped people would come to see it.

It was a ridiculous worry, he knew, because most of the tickets were gone already, but until he saw the theater full the idea that they'd be performing to a largely empty house wasn't going to leave him. It was hard sometimes, especially in the middle of the night, to believe that it would turn out any other way, no matter how much he'd worked to build the reputation of the event as a performance worthy of attention.

He pushed himself up off the stool and shook out the dress before flipping off the big overhead lights and heading into the office. He flicked through his messages on his phone when he unplugged it from its charger - a few texts from Angelica, a picture from Rachel in her costume at her dress rehearsal, an e-mail from Carole about a Christmas present for his dad, an e-mail from Rachel about their annual New Year's sleepover movie night, a forwarded lolcat from Blaine that made him smile despite himself, and nothing at all from Elise about their final presentation, of course - and stuffed it and the cord into his bag.

December in New York didn't carry quite the same threat of snow as it did in Ohio, but there was still enough of a damp bite to the air outside that he turned up his collar against the wind and hoped the bone-chilling mist didn't turn into rain before he got back to his dorm.

Although he was beyond tired, Kurt found himself ticking off his to do list in his head as he walked. The lighting board was finally fully programmed (and the lights all double-checked to make sure none of the other clamps was broken - they'd been very lucky at the tech rehearsal that nobody had been hurt), the flyers for the show had been up around campus for a week (and he'd gone to the Union and a few other key places each day to be sure they hadn't been obscured by other people tacking up their much less interesting notices on top), and he'd personally put the chair of the theater department's tickets into his mail slot in his office. The costumes were done, the sets were in place, the theater was set except for a final vacuuming by the cleaning crew, and the performances were as polished as everyone was going to make them. The AV crew had scoped out spots for their tripods to record it all.

They were done. All they had to do was get up on stage.

Of course, there was also life beyond the Review, which meant that he should go over his presentation notes again before he went to bed so that they could sink in while he was sleeping. He should probably text and e-mail and call and possibly send a messenger pigeon with a note to Elise to find a time to get together. He should do his extra moisturizing mask tonight to prepare his face for the stage makeup application and removal process coming up. He should definitely start his paper on Henry V in the morning so he wasn't trying to squeeze in his homework backstage or after the cast party like last year.

All of that was important, and he wasn't going to let any of it slip, but there was a sense of fierce, bright anticipation building him that was more vital to him than anything else besides breathing. It was filling his veins with more than just blood; it was also with power. He was going to be up on stage, showing the world what he could do, and the spotlight was going to be on him. Not the whole night, of course, because he wanted the others to shine, too, but when he was there singing his solo or acting with some of the others he was going to have people's eyes on him. And he knew they were going to be impressed.

He was going to make them be impressed, whether they wanted to be or not.

Kurt had always had to fight for the spotlight. He'd fought for solos, for respect, for a place in a theater program to launch him into his dreams. None of it was easy. He'd lost enough times that looking ahead to the night's performance he couldn't help but be proud that here was another time he was winning. He'd made it happen with his own literal blood, sweat, and tears, and tonight nobody was going to stop him.

It felt amazing.

Tonight he was going to win.

Tipping his head up to the cloudy night sky washed with the lights of the city like a banner above him, he made a mental note to send out an appreciative e-mail to the rest of the members of the Review before he went to bed. It was their night, too. One thing he'd learned from his time in New Directions was that victory was even better when it was shared with friends.

* * *
From: Burt Hummel
To: Kurt Hummel
Subject: break a leg

Kurt,

Carole and I are thinking of you tonight. Wish we could be there. Finn, too. We're real proud of you. Can't wait to see the videos.

Carole's reading over my shoulder and says they're probably not called videos anymore. You know what I mean.

Everything's good here. Shop's doing well, I haven't eaten anything with flavor since Thanksgiving. You'd be happy.

Love you.

Dad

p.s. Carole here: Break a leg, Kurt! We love you! See you soon! Thanks for e-mailing the pictures! I printed out the one of you and Tina covered in paint for the fridge! I think Finn is still in shock over it.

* * *
Blaine stood as still as a statue just out of sight in the wings and watched Kurt sing. They hadn't had time to do a full run-through all together, so he hadn't heard much beyond a few bars of Kurt's solo to test the acoustics and lighting before moving onto the next scene at the tech rehearsal.

It wasn't that Blaine didn't know how incredible of a singer Kurt was, because he was always entranced by him at karaoke, but as excellent as he was there that was just singing with friends on a tiny stage in a busy room full of people talking and laughing. This was just Kurt, dressed in a simple pale grey suit, singing with a spotlight and nothing else, not even accompaniment, on a dark stage in front of an audience so quiet you could hear a pin drop in the pauses he took to breathe.

He was quite literally captivating. Blaine wasn't sure he could have moved if he'd tried. But he didn't want to.

He wanted to stand there and watch his friend sing French words Blaine didn't understand, starting with a soft sadness and building and building with power, volume, and pitch until Kurt was digging deep from his diaphragm to propel a feeling of determination to the very back of the audience. The song itself was probably about transformation, but the performance certainly was; Kurt seemed to grow in stature as the song continued, his shoulders falling back, his head lifting, his voice gaining strength and clarity with each rising note. He was just a man standing still on a stage, but to Blaine it didn't feel limited in its simplicity. It felt like nothing else in the world could matter in that moment, so nothing more was needed.

Blaine had already known Kurt was exceptional. He'd known that from the first moment he'd seen Kurt dancing, lost in the music. It wasn't a shock to watch him.

It was just a shock that every time he got another glimpse of who Kurt was behind the layers of sarcasm and pointy accessories he was actually more amazing than Blaine had thought.

It wasn't the way Blaine was at all. He performed not to reveal his inner self but to be something more. He knew all too personally about trying to hide his weaknesses beneath his public face, but why Kurt wasn't showing everyone every minute of the day every beautiful and extraordinary thing that was inside of him he just couldn't understand.

* * *
Angelica to Kurt: I can't sleep. We really fucking earned that standing ovation!

Kurt to Angelica: Yes, we did. :)

Kurt to Angelica: And I can't sleep either.

Angelica to Kurt: Want to come over and get drunk to celebrate?

Kurt to Angelica: It's two in the morning. And we have another show tomorrow.

Angelica to Kurt: So?? There's a long, honorable tradition of drunk-ass singers.

Kurt to Angelica: Good night, Ang.

Angelica to Kurt: Fine. Party pooper. I've got a bottle of vodka with your name on it for the cast party. I'm not taking no for an answer.

Kurt to Angelica: We'll see about that. Good night. And thanks for everything.

Angelica to Kurt: You're welcome. TY to you, too.

* * *
"Kurt!"

Turning in surprise from the mirror in the hallway where he was checking that he'd returned his hair to its usual tidiness after the heat and excitement of the performance, Kurt got his arms open just in time to catch Rachel as she launched herself at him.

"Kurt, you were wonderful!" she said, squeezing him tightly and reaching up to kiss him on the cheek. "And I'm not just saying that so you'll be similarly effusive about my performance next weekend!"

"Thank you," he replied with a laugh. He was too happy to care that she was warping the knit of his sweater with the way her hands were fisting in it. The second night of the Review had gone just as well as the first, maybe even better, with a standing room only audience. The Dean had been one of the first on his feet at the end, and even if that was only polite as a leader of the school Kurt would take it. He only wished there were more nights to go. He wished he could perform on a proper stage every day instead of having these moments parceled out to him one at a time like rare slices of white truffle, too precious to be used too frequently.

"Tina!" Rachel cried, the pitch so close to Kurt's ear making him wince, and he was happy enough to let her go to greet the others. She didn't know most of the cast, but there were only a few places Rachel was more comfortable than backstage - on stage being one of them - so she bounced from person to person, praising them however she thought was most appropriate. He didn't watch too closely.

Kurt did the same in his own way, moving through the crowds of performers and well-wishers spread through the halls and dressing areas as he made sure they weren't forgetting anything important that they couldn't leave until tomorrow when they broke down the sets. Filled with joy and energy, he nodded his approval at the cast, shook the hands of people who offered them - including the Dean, he was pleased to note - and basked in the buzz of two excellent performances. He wasn't being too vain in his assessment, either, he thought, not like he might have been in the past. They really had been excellent. All of them, from Christa's dancing to Blaine's incomparable pop appeal.

Looking down the hallway at all of the chattering people in various states of costuming, he smiled to himself at how great it felt to be a part of a group working together. As hard as that time had been, it was his favorite memories of high school. Here he was, getting some of it again, just a little. Tonight, before it all disappeared again, it was enough.

"Kurt!" Rachel said again, all sparkling smiles as she bounced up on Ethan's arm. "Are you ready to go to the cast party?"

"In a few minutes. I want to be sure everybody's leaving before I go."

"Well, hurry up," she told him, "because I will sit on the floor if I have to, but I'd really rather get there while there are still chairs."

"You aren't a part of the cast, Rachel," Kurt reminded her.

"I know. Christa invited me." She slid her arm out of Ethan's and into his instead, and a part of him was happy to feel her slight, familiar frame against his. It had always been a grounding physical manifestation of their friendship to have her there beside him. "And if she hadn't, I could always go as your date."

"God forbid," Kurt said with a shudder.

"Platonic date. I know I'm not your type." She leaned closer, grinning up at him. "Although I still think we should consider having a baby if we're both single when we're thirty - "

Kurt held up a hand to stop her. "Rachel. Now is not the time. I'm not sure there is ever a time for that conversation, but standing backstage after a triumph of a night is not it."

"But think of how talented our child would - "

"I'm getting my coat now." He disentangled himself from her grip and her crazy plans and walked away.

Christa shared a loft with two other similarly bohemian dancers and, somehow, an International Relations major aiming for working at the UN. Their apartment was (for New York at their price point) large and open, and their couches and beanbag chairs, though far too big and bloated for Kurt's taste, were surprisingly comfortable. It was a good place for a cast party, especially since there were no RAs to worry over the large amount of alcohol set up on the tiny kitchen counter.

Kurt's cup contained only water, because as much as he wanted to unwind and celebrate, he knew he had to keep his wits about him. He told himself - and everyone else - that it was because it was a long walk back to campus and someone had to be sober enough to flag down cabs for people who needed them, but a part of him also knew that it was because Blaine was happily drinking enough for them both across the room where he lay with his head in Christa's lap as a group of them talked. Blaine's smile was brilliant, and he looked more relaxed and easy than Kurt could ever be even when drunk as she stroked her fingers through his hair.

It was seductive for Kurt to be happy, and he didn't need his feelings to turn from feeling protective about his friend not drinking himself into alcohol poisoning (though he wasn't anywhere near that yet, but Angelica had an easy hand in refilling cups when she passed by) to melancholy about when he'd had his fingers in that lovely hair… or anybody's hair, really. That was the last thing he needed to think about. He'd had a good night. He needed to feast on this victory, because it was going to have to feed him for a while. There was no point in diminishing it by wishing he had other things, too.

He wasn't wishing about Blaine, obviously. Kurt wanted a relationship, after all, someone to love, and Blaine would never be that. It wasn't a problem, just the truth. Besides, he truly was happy to be finding a friend in him. He poked that thought, open enough from the night to be honest with himself, and found no bitterness there. His heart might have been opened and bruised for a while from their special night together, but he wasn't pining for Blaine at all. There was nothing there for him besides a friend.

He just really would have liked someone special to share the moment of victory with.

"I can hear you thinking, Kurt," Rachel said from her spot where she was half-perched in his lap, the two of them sharing the big wing chair in the corner of the room. She twisted so she could look into his face. "You're supposed to be celebrating, not thinking!"

"I can do both," he replied, smiling at the seriousness in her eyes. "I'm an accomplished multi-tasker."

"I still say you should stop thinking for a little while," she said. "You deserve it. You can start planning next semester's Review tomorrow."

"I call foul!" Angelica cried from her seat on the floor. "No talking about the next Review before the old set is struck!"

"Oh, I didn't know," Rachel said. "I'm so sorry!"

Angelica poked Rachel's knee. "Not good enough. The rule is you don't get to have a solo in the next Review if you do that."

"But I can't be in the Review at all," Rachel reminded her.

"This is a good point," Angelica said. She was in her cups enough that it took her another long moment to figure out what to do with that information. "I know! You have to sing for us now to make up for it."

"Oh, god, don't encourage her," Kurt muttered, but Rachel was already up off his lap.

As so many gatherings with musicians did, the evening quickly evolved from talking and drinking to singing and drinking, most of it spontaneous, very little of it coordinated, and all of it enthusiastic. Kurt joined in where he knew the songs and listened with a surprising amount of contentment where he didn't. Music was the driving force of his life, and sharing it with others made it even better. It was almost enough.

After a while, enough neighbors banged on the floor and walls that they stopped singing, and Ethan's strumming on his guitar in the corner with an occasional vocal accompaniment became the background to the rest of the party.

Some of the cast began to leave around one, and Kurt was tired enough that he wished he could go with them. However, not only was he not going to leave without Rachel - who was still going strong in her conversation with Tina and Leigh on the big patchwork couch - but he felt like as the head of the Review he ought to stick around until a critical mass of people had left. It was his vision that brought them all together. It was his show. He should be there to celebrate it, too.

He probably should have made a speech beyond the short one of thanks he'd given at their pre-show energy circle, he realized. It was too late now. Too much alcohol under the bridge. He made a mental note to remember next semester.

Kurt had done enough rounds of socializing earlier in the evening, so he ducked through the open window onto the fire escape, shivering in the bite of the cold night air but appreciating the way it woke him up and cleared his head. He wrapped his arms around his knees and looked down the alley to the street, watching the cars and people passing by, the lights twinkling on the storefronts, and the wisps of smoke rising from the roof of the building across the street.

He took a mental picture of everything from the pigeon droppings on the steps above him to the piles of trash overflowing in the dumpster below, because he knew he'd want to remember this night, even this trash, when he was up to his elbows in motor oil and judgment back in Lima over the break. It might not have been accolades in the papers and his name in lights, but this was still a good night.

He wanted to hold onto it.

"Wow, it's cold," came Blaine's voice from his left, and Kurt turned to see Blaine sitting on the bench in front of the window, his arms crossed on the sill, looking out at him.

"Yes," Kurt agreed. He tried not to sound too surprised to see him, but he'd last noticed Blaine smiling very agreeably at Ben's friend Stu, who had been smiling right back, and he'd half-expected that they would have left the party together already. He might not be proud of his reaction, but it was unexpectedly nice to find Blaine talking to him instead.

"Okay." Blaine pulled his sleeves down over his bare forearms and rested his arms back on the sill. "Hi, Kurt," he said with the open, alcohol-fueled smile that had become all too familiar.

"Hello. Having fun?"

"Yeah. Everybody is great," Blaine told him. "I like them. Thanks for letting me be a part of this."

"You absolutely earned your place in the Review," Kurt said. "Thank you."

"No, I mean - " Blaine waved his hand in the general direction of the room behind him. "For letting me be a part of this."

"This is Christa's - "

Blaine leaned a little further forward out of the window. "Kurt, this is your baby. Your night. Your dream. I'm thanking you. For not giving up on me."

"Blaine…" Kurt shook his head and gave up trying to follow too closely; he knew Blaine was drunk. "You're welcome."

It was apparently the right thing to say, because Blaine positively beamed at him. "Did I tell you you were great tonight? And last night? Because you were great, Kurt. No, you were amazing."

Kurt had to smile, even if the critical eye of the person bestowing the praise was currently suspect; it was still praise. "Thank you. So were you."

"No," Blaine told him. "I knew you could sing, but watching you… and then the scene from Midsummer Night's Dream was just - " He broke off and put his hand on Kurt's knee, going serious. "You were born to do this, Kurt."

Swallowing back the lump of emotion in his throat, because it wasn't often people said that sort of thing to him, as deeply as he knew it in the marrow of his bones, Kurt said with equal gravity, "So were you." He tried to tuck that bit of admiration into his heart so that he could hold onto it, too. His path was cold and long; he needed to remember that he wasn't the only one who thought he could do it.

Blaine shook his head and pulled back. "No. I just sing. I don't… do what you can do."

"No, you do what you can do," Kurt said, because Blaine waving off his talent was absurd. "I can make people watch me. I know how to do that. But you can make people want to watch you, Blaine. Do you know how rare that is? It's special. You are. It comes from inside of you." It was a gift Kurt would never have, something he would never be, no matter how hard he worked, and if he didn't need to have it he could still admire it. Blaine had had the audience in the palm of his hand from the first second of his performance. He hadn't had to reach out and grab them the way Kurt did; they'd taken one look at him and jumped there willingly. Even Kurt had, and he'd been busy helping direct the show; he'd still had to look up and watch Blaine perform, so bright it felt like he didn't need a spotlight to be seen. It was such an incredible, enviable talent.

Blaine's eyes went wide and fixed on Kurt's face for a long moment. "That's one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me," he finally said in a soft, awed voice. "Thank you, Kurt."

Kurt wanted to brush off the gratitude, because he was just speaking the truth, but he knew how it felt to be noticed after being taken for granted or discounted. It was hard for him to believe that Blaine was ever overlooked with how he was such a shining presence wherever he went, but if no one had told Blaine what was so incredible about him then maybe he really didn't know. Maybe he needed to hear it.

"You're welcome," he replied gently. He just hoped Blaine would remember the praise in the morning.

Sighing softly, Kurt tightened his arms and pulled his legs in a little closer, looking up into the night sky. He could only do what he could do. He couldn't fix the world; he couldn't even fix his own life, not yet.

"You must be freezing," Blaine said, all concern. "Do you want to come back in?"

Kurt shook his head. "I'm fine."

"Okay." Blaine settled down on the bench until his chin was resting on his arms, his face tipped up toward Kurt. "I like Rachel," he said.

Kurt glanced over, startled by the comment. "Not a lot of people like her."

"I do," Blaine said. "A lot. She's fun. And she's actually nicer than you'd think. Not than you'd think, obviously, because you know her better than I do, but nicer than she seems at first."

"Yes, she is," Kurt said, unsure why this topic had come up or where it was going.

"I think she likes me, too," Blaine said more slowly, like he was feeling out the idea.

"Of course she does. She did from the first minute she sang with you. You have no idea how much she talked about you for a good two weeks afterwards."

"Oh." Blaine looked down at the platform of the fire escape.

"What?" Kurt asked, trying to catch the nuance of Blaine's expression in the shadow of the light coming through the window.

Blaine shrugged his shoulder, and Kurt reached out to touch it before he could think about it. He was surprised and pleased to find that the contact didn't contain the shock of memory it would have even a few weeks before.

"Blaine?"

"I'm glad she likes to sing with me," Blaine replied, pasting a smile on his face, only with the amount he'd drunk it was like he'd put it on sideways and about an inch too far to the left.

"She likes more than that," Kurt told him and gave him a little shake before withdrawing. "She likes you."

"Really?" Blaine's head bounced up, his smile twisting into something real again.

"Yes." Kurt fought the urge to roll his eyes; Blaine was such a bundle of emotion when he was drinking. Of course, he'd seen it in action a couple of times by this point; he was getting used to it.

"That's great, because I like her for more than her voice, too. She's really sweet. And not just to me. She's sweet to you, too."

"When she's not crazy," Kurt said, thinking back to her comments about having children earlier than evening.

"No, Kurt, she loves you," Blaine said earnestly, like it was really important that Kurt understood for whatever reason.

"I know she does."

"And so does Tina. And I think Angelica, but I'm not sure."

"Okay…"

"You need people who love you," Blaine said.

A flare of panic rushed up Kurt's spine, driving away the chill of the night and leaving his skin prickling. "Thank you," he said slowly.

"I told you you're amazing, Kurt," Blaine continued on. "You need people who see that. I don't know why everybody isn't telling you that."

"It's one of the great mysteries of the universe." Kurt eyed the party going on behind Blaine and wondered if he had any chance of signaling anyone to get Blaine to move out of the window before the conversation got any more awkward.

"It is. Like who built the pyramids or how many licks it takes to get to the center of a blow pop."

"We know who built the pyramids," Kurt told him.

Blaine nodded. "Okay. But that still doesn't solve the mystery of Kurt."

"I don't think there's a mystery." Kurt took a shaky breath; if he didn't generally have any interest in talking about why people didn't like him - nevertheless love him - he certainly didn't want to talk about it with Blaine. It was uncomfortable enough of a topic with someone who knew him better… or less well in some very particular love-related ways. And he really didn't feel like rubbing that part of his heart any more raw on what had been a wonderful night. He knew most people weren't going to like him. That was enough. He wasn't going to change, and he really didn't want to think about it any more.

"It's a mystery to me," Blaine insisted, his eyes focused and steady on him, and it made Kurt that much more discomfited to be under such scrutiny. It was the flip side to being seen, he guessed; it was being judged, pondered, and pulled apart, and he didn't like that at all, even though Blaine seemed to mean it in a good way.

"You're drunk, Blaine," Kurt said with just enough of a distancing tone that it might shift the conversation, even if he was sorry to break the connection that had built. It was colored by Blaine's drinking, anyway; he was always more effusive and friendly when he had been. It was just a fact about him that Kurt had learned, like the fact that the Earth revolved around the sun or that Rachel could not be calmed if Barbra's reputation was besmirched. Blaine became more affectionate. "The alphabet is probably a mystery to you."

Frowning, Blaine seemed to think for a moment. "Which one?" he asked.

"All right." Kurt pushed himself to his feet and shivered as he moved through the cold air. "I'm coming in."

"Oh! Great!" Blaine got up and stepped back, and as Kurt ducked through the window into the bright glare of the apartment Blaine held out a hand to help him down from his perch.

Kurt looked at it for a moment, frozen partway through the opening; Blaine was offering him his hand like it was the simplest thing in the world, when to Kurt - for so many reasons, most of which had nothing at all to do with Blaine and were the product of years of distance from others and the inevitable gender stereotypes that such a gesture brought to his mind - it was anything but. Still, it was a nice thought, and Kurt's legs were actually kind of cramped from the cold. So he told himself not to be rude to a friend, slipped his fingers into Blaine's surprisingly warm hand - but then anything was warm after the freezing metal of the fire escape - and for once let himself be helped.

Blaine's smile when he did was so happy it made Kurt's chest ache, and he held Kurt's fingers with a steady sureness until he was safely on the floor.

The party wrapped up soon after, and Kurt made sure nobody was walking home drunk and alone before he escorted Rachel and Tina to Tina's dorm and then headed to his own. If he felt a little lonely walking in solitude through the fairly quiet campus when so many of the others had other people to celebrate with, well… it had still been an excellent night. He was satisfied.

When he reflected on the evening tucked into his bed an hour later, he thought of the shine of the spotlight on him, the applause they'd all received, and the warmth of singing as a happy group in Christa's home.

He thought of smiles turned his way, of easy camaraderie, and of belonging.

He thought of future triumphs, of ovations on Broadway, raving reviews, and his name spelled out in lights shining out into the night.

He thought of that bamboo-floored apartment of his dreams, with its big windows, perfect accessories, and a big, comfortable bed that might someday belong to two people instead of one.

He thought of so many things that made his heart soar.

But the last thing that lingered in his mind before he drifted off entirely was that moment of unexpected, courtly kindness when Blaine had so sweetly helped him through the window.

Chapter Text

Rachel to Kurt: Kurt. KURT. I just walked past Julia and she was SNEEZING. KURT!!!!

Rachel to Kurt: SHE IS STILL SNEEZING!!! OMG, I can't decide whether to lurk around and watch or stay away so I don't catch anything.

Rachel to Kurt: KURT!!!!!! Why are you in class right now????? I COULD GET TO GO ON AS EVITA!!!!!

Rachel to Kurt: I should have my dads change their flight to come out earlier.

Rachel to Kurt: And maybe put in an anonymous call to the theater reviewer at the Times.

Rachel to Kurt: Never mind. She put too much pepper on her chicken salad, apparently.

Rachel to Kurt: Yet another reason to disapprove of people who eat animals.

* * *

"Thank you," Blaine said to the student behind the coffee counter, tucking a dollar in the tip jar before grabbing his cup of coffee and muffin. He had fifteen minutes before he had to be at class, so he was faced with the decision of sitting in the Union to gulp down his breakfast or heading to class and doing it there. It was a grey winter morning, so neither option was overly appealing; the Union seemed dim and dull without sun streaming through the big windows, but on the other hand walking to class in the gloom with cooling coffee in his hand wasn't really enticing, either.

Blaine turned toward the big open seating area, already pulling out his phone to scroll through headlines while he ate, when he saw Kurt sitting in one of the nearby upholstered chairs on the periphery, a silky blood-red scarf at his throat held in place by a pin in the shape of an arrow with enameled fletching, a steel grey coat draped over the arm of his chair, and a pen in his hand tapping out a rhythm on the thick book open over his crossed legs.

It seemed to rude to interrupt Kurt's reading, so Blaine was about to turn away when Kurt looked up, blinking in surprise for a second when he noticed Blaine watching him. Then the corner of his mouth turned up in a smile, and he flared his fingers at him in a wave.

It was invitation enough, so Blaine smiled back and walked over. "Good morning!"

"Hello, Blaine," Kurt said. He raised an eyebrow as he took in what Blaine was holding. "Cake for breakfast?"

"It's a muffin."

"Only by a technicality." Kurt shut his pen in his book. "Blueberry?"

Blaine nodded. "With a crumb topping."

Kurt shook his head, but his grin grew and took any sting out of his comments for Blaine. "I should have known."

"You put chocolate in your coffee," Blaine pointed out with a grin of his own. "You don't have a lot of room to judge."

"Chocolate is full of antioxidants," Kurt said, protectively putting his hand over the cup on the table next to him.

"So are blueberries!"

Kurt let out a laugh, and Blaine enjoyed the triumph surging through him at the sound, though he wasn't exactly sure if it was for winning the point or just making Kurt laugh at all.

"All right. We'll call it a draw." Kurt gestured to the chair across from him. "I'm supposedly meeting my movement partner here in a few minutes, but she's always late. You're welcome to sit, if you'd like."

"I have to get to class," Blaine said apologetically, looking at the deep red chair with some longing. It looked comfortable, and it would have been nice to talk with a friend for a little while. He checked his phone to be sure, but there just wasn't time to stay. "Thanks, though."

Kurt's smile didn't shift, and he re-crossed his legs and opened his book again without taking his eyes off of Blaine. "Have a good class."

"Have a good meeting."

"Thanks."

Blaine stood there dumbly for a second, before laughing at himself internally and heading for the door.

It wasn't until he was halfway to class that he realized he hadn't thanked Kurt again for the hospitality of the Review and his extremely kind words from the other night, but a part of him wondered if he even had to. He was getting the feeling that it was just the kind of thing Kurt did for his friends.

Blaine liked that, both the kindness of Kurt's heart and the fact that he was included in it. He liked it a lot.

* * *

From: Kurt Hummel
To: [ISR Mailing List]
Subject: Review Pictures

Everyone,

Thanks again for making the Review such a success last weekend. I've forwarded along the various e-mails I've received from the faculty and administrators who saw it, and of course you saw the almost entirely positive review in the student paper. (Remember: those who can - do. Those who can't - write reviews.)

Tina has a ton of pictures up on the ISR Facebook page from the performances as well as the semester. Please feel free to take whatever you'd like for your own memories and add in your own photos if you took any.

We all hope you'll try out again next semester for the show; alums get preference in the selection process. You'll hear from us when we're back from break in January.

Thank you, really.

- Kurt

* * *

Blaine to Rachel: Break a leg! I can't wait to see the show!

Kurt to Rachel: It may look like I'm applauding for everyone tonight, but really it's all for you.

Rachel to Kurt: <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

* * *

Blaine whistled to himself as he bounced up the front steps of Tina's dorm. He used his ID to let himself into the building, holding the door for the group of girls coming in behind him and smiling at their giggled thanks and wide eyes at the flowers he was holding in his hand. He wondered if Tina was going to have some explaining to do if people saw her walking out with him, nicely dressed and with a dramatic bouquet of crimson amaryllis. It would be easy to get the wrong idea, even though it was perfectly innocent. He hated for people to think badly of her, but he guessed it would be all right, because Mike knew the truth. He just didn't want any gossip to hurt her.

He skirted the handful of students gathered at their mailboxes in the front hall and took the stairs two at a time to Tina's floor. He couldn't help it; he was nearly done with his first semester of college, he'd had an amazing performance with the Keynotes at the LGBT youth center that morning, and he was going to see one of his friends perform in a musical he loved and then go out to celebrate afterwards with her and a bunch of other friends. It was going to be way better than a night in the dorms or even the party Peter had invited him to, though he'd promised to stop by there on his way back. It'd be a fun way to cap off the night, letting everything go loose and easy with people who liked him and maybe some new people, too.

Blaine rapped on Tina's door, rocking a little on his toes. He'd never seen Evita on stage before, and if the woman playing the title role was better than Rachel then the NYADA performance was going to blow the movie with Madonna out of the water.

There was a faint mumble from inside Tina's room, and Blaine knocked again. The mumble came louder, and there was the sound of shuffling feet.

The door opened. Instead of revealing the usually bright-eyed and bright-smiled face of his friend, it pulled back to expose the zombie version of Tina: flushed cheeks, clammy skin, messy hair half-out of a ponytail, and rumpled mis-matched pajamas.

"Oh my god," she croaked. "I fell asleep. Give me, like, five minutes."

"Tina," Blaine said quickly, "you're sick."

She shook her head. "No, I'm - "

"Sick," he insisted. Her eyes were glassy and barely seemed to be able to focus.

She drew in breath to respond and only managed to sneeze into her own elbow. "I'm sick." She sneezed again. "Let me just get dressed."

He stuck out his foot to keep her door from closing. "You can't go like that."

"But it's Rachel's play. I said I'd be there. You know how she is."

Blaine nodded, because by this point he did. Rachel would expect all of her friends to be there for her big night. And yet Tina couldn't possibly go like that. He tried to think of an argument to convince her. "Do you really think she'll want you sneezing and coughing in the audience and drawing attention from the stage?"

Tina blinked at him for a moment and pushed her hair out of her face with a clumsy hand. "You're probably right."

"She'll understand," he told her. "Go back to bed."

"Okay." She swayed a little on her feet, but when he moved in to try to catch her in case she fell she backed away. "No. I don't want to give it to you. I'm fine."

"Do you need anything, like soup or - "

"My roommate will be back in a while. I'll be okay."

"Are you sure?"

"Go," she said. "If I don't show up and then I make you late, too, Rachel will never forgive me."

Blaine had to admit the truth of that statement, as hard as it was to walk away from a friend looking so miserable, and after a few more assurances from Tina that she wasn't going to be alone - because he knew just how awful it was to feel unwell and have no one who cared enough to help - left without her.

A group of them were supposed to meet by the subway entrance just beyond the library to go over together, but when Blaine got there he only found one person: Kurt.

Kurt was standing in the pool of lamplight from the streetlight overhead. He was in profile to Blaine, all long legs, high boots, and severe grey coat with a grey and black scarf around his neck and a dark leather cap on his head. In his hands was a bouquet of pale flowers - Blaine couldn't see the exactly what kind from where he'd for some reason stopped dead rounding the corner out of the gate onto the sidewalk - and when he turned and saw Blaine, his eyes warming at the sight of him, for a single, insane moment Blaine wondered with a sudden ache what it would be like for someone to be waiting for him like that, perfectly dressed, flowers in hand, and happy to see him.

He'd never had that. He wasn't going to, because life didn't work as neatly and sweetly as it seemed to in the movies. It would never live up to his childish ideals, but just then Kurt looked like something from a movie, framed in the warm puddle of light against the brick wall, his breath visible in the cool night air, and Blaine found himself caught for an instant in that dream of his youth.

It was only a fantasy, though, a flight of fancy, and when Kurt smiled and stepped forward toward Blaine the moment was broken. It was only his friend again, well-dressed as always and standing by the wall to try to protect himself from the cutting December wind whipping down the street.

Blaine blinked himself back into the real world and smiled, too, even as the ache took longer to fade. "Hey," he said when Kurt reached him. "Those are pretty." He nodded at the bouquet of yellow roses wrapped in paper against the cold.

"And entirely overshadowed by those amaryllis." Kurt leaned in to look at Blaine's arrangement, carefully edging aside the paper to get a closer look. "Quite the theatrical flair to them. She'll love them."

"I saw them and thought they screamed Rachel." Blaine leaned his weight onto the balls of his feet, buoyed by Kurt's approval.

"If I know her, she is going to scream 'Blaine' when she sees them." Kurt frowned a little, looking over Blaine's shoulder. "You're alone?"

"Tina's sick," Blaine said. "I convinced her Rachel wouldn't want her sneezing through the show, so she's back in bed."

Kurt made a sympathetic sound and then hunched his shoulders in as the wind gusted around them. "It's just the two of us, then," he said. "Everyone else is meeting us there."

Blaine gestured toward the stairs leading down to the subway. "After you," he said, and Kurt shot him an appreciative look over his shoulder and went ahead of him.

The minute they were out of the wind, Blaine let out a sigh of relief, and by the time they were on the platform they were warm enough that Kurt was slipping off his black leather gloves and putting them into his pocket, carefully holding his bouquet in the crook of his arm as he did so.

"You know, we're setting a bad precedent," Kurt commented. "Now she'll expect all of her friends to bring her flowers."

"Do you think she didn't before?" Blaine asked, honestly curious. He might have brought flowers to any friend in this kind of performance, but for Rachel it had seemed a given.

Kurt chuckled. "Oh, she probably did."

The train rumbled in, pushing a mass of exhaust-filled air ahead of it. It was busy, so they were forced to stand at one end of the car, holding onto the bar above them.

"Are you getting more sleep now that the Review is over?" Blaine asked, noting the faint dark circles under Kurt's eyes now that they were so close to each other.

"Not really," Kurt admitted with a shrug. "I'm having to make up for the time I spent doing that instead of my schoolwork. But it's nearly finals, and then it will be break. I can sleep then."

"Sleep sounds great," Blaine said. "Do you have any plans for vacation? Besides sleeping?"

"The usual family things, of course. I'll work for my dad for some extra wardrobe money. I'm sure there will be the requisite New Directions parties." Kurt tilted his head, his eyes bright on Blaine's face like he was interested. "What about you?"

"We're going to my grandparents' house in Toledo, I think. We usually do."

"Do you have a big holiday with lots of family?"

"It's not that many people," Blaine said, thinking of the formal dinner around his grandmother's dining room table and the perfectly wrapped packages under the tree in the living room, "but it's still a big deal. I used to get to unwrap a new suit every year on Christmas Eve so that I could wear it for Christmas dinner the next day."

"No wonder you felt so at home at Dalton," Kurt said, though his smile was kind of sad.

"You're never going to let go of the blazer jokes, are you?"

Kurt thought for a second before admitting, "I don't think so." With his eyes crinkling at the edges with amusement like that, though, there was no way the comments could sting.

"You can't tell me that you don't get dressed up for Christmas," Blaine said, touching the tip of his finger to the airplane brooch Kurt had fastened to his lapel.

"I just polished that," Kurt said, swatting his hand away. "And of course I always have a perfect holiday outfit for the day. But I'll be lucky if my dad will take off his cap at the table and Finn isn't wearing a football jersey or his pajamas. Carole, at least, will probably be wearing a red sweater or something. She has a - " His voice dropped, like this was something dire. " - plastic rhinestone-studded Christmas tree pin she insists is festive."

"So you're still unique in your own home," Blaine said thoughtfully. "I guess that makes sense. I can't imagine a family of Kurt Hummels."

"No." Kurt's expression turned a little sadder. "There's just me. Fighting over the placement of the napkin rings and trying to keep gravy off of my new Louboutins while my father and brother argue over football and Carole laughs at them and reminds them to keep their feet off of the coffee table while there's food on it."

Blaine had never heard a mixture of fondness and loneliness quite like that in Kurt's voice, like he was longing for home but knew he wouldn't be entirely happy when he got there. "Maybe we should switch," he offered, unsure of what else to say. "You can dress for dinner with all of my family, and I'll argue football with Finn and your dad."

"They'd love you," Kurt said with a nod. "But I've seen your suits, at least via text picture. I'm sure I wouldn't like them any better in person."

"Some of them are Brooks Brothers," Blaine insisted. He wished he hadn't put that sadness in Kurt's eyes; he hadn't meant to.

Kurt's mouth twisted into something of a smile. "Not exactly my style, Blaine."

"No, I can't really imagine you in anything so stuffy."

"I would have used the word 'traditional'," Kurt said.

"But only to spare my feelings."

Kurt looked torn, and after a moment he admitted with a bob of his head, "Yes. But honestly it looks good on you. There's a lot to be said for a classically well-dressed man. Don't sell it short. You should just own it." His eyes went a little distant. "That's the secret to all fashion, owning your own style. Being yourself, or dressing for the you you want to be."

Blaine nodded; there was a certain sense in that. He'd always taken pride in how he presented himself, after all. Impressions mattered. He knew that. "Which do you do?" he asked.

"Oh," Kurt said, snapping back from wherever he'd gone. "I'm always myself. Whether I'm wearing couture or coveralls, it's always me."

"I can't really imagine you in coveralls," Blaine said, squinting at the fashion plate in front of him and trying to imagine workmen's clothes instead. The picture didn't work.

"My dad has a garage," Kurt told him. "I grew up in coveralls. Of course, I bedazzled my name on them as soon as I could spell it."

Blaine laughed, because it made much more sense to think about a tiny Kurt with immaculate hair and ironed, pristine coveralls with his name carefully spelled out in rhinestones on the chest. "I didn't know your dad had a garage."

"Mmm. I've been fixing cars since I could hand him a wrench."

"My dad and I fixed up a car one summer," Blaine said as he moved aside so the woman sitting in front of him could get to the doors. "A '59 Chevy."

Kurt's face was open with interest as he watched Blaine step back next to him. "Oh? How did it turn out?"

Blaine nodded, turning the memory over in his head and still not finding it particularly palatable. "Okay. It was father-son bonding more than anything. I think he did it because he thought it'd make me less gay, but I still learned a lot."

Kurt snorted, rolling his eyes. "If fixing cars turned you straight, I'd be at a frat party doing body shots off of some blonde sorority girl right now instead of going out for a night of musical theater wearing Vivienne Westwood and carrying a dozen perfect roses to give to my best friend who thinks she is the second coming of Barbra Streisand."

"I didn't say it was a good idea," Blaine said with a laugh.

"Well, obviously. You are who you are."

It seemed so easy for Kurt to say, but then he always seemed so sure of himself and who he was in his own skin. Not that Blaine thought that his father's attempt to turn him straight was even anywhere near possible, but Blaine had been wrong about parts of himself before. He'd thought he was so certain, but in retrospect he could have been wrong. It probably hadn't been a bad reality check, all things considered. It would have been easier to change when faced with his father's hopes, and yet he hadn't. He might no longer be the romantic he'd thought he was when he was a kid, but at least he was certain he was gay. Although, really, his time with Sebastian could have taught him that… and more clearly; he didn't need his father's automotive reinforcement when the way his whole body lit up from touching another boy made it so very obvious.

"I'm sorry about your dad," Kurt said, nudging Blaine's arm with his own as the train shuddered through the tunnels. "Mine might not always understand me, but he's always let me be myself."

Blaine pushed down the lick of long-held anger that burned in his chest; he couldn't expect his parents to be anything but what they were, either, he reminded himself firmly. They were doing their best with him. "It wasn't too bad. I learned a lot from that summer."

"Everybody should know the difference between a carburetor and a compressor," Kurt agreed. "But I don't know how anyone can appreciate the beauty of a well-designed engine when you're getting lectures on the side about who you should love."

"To be fair," Blaine said, "he never said a word about that. There was just a lot of stuff about sports and gear ratios and the smell of motor oil."

Kurt scoffed, "Because that's so much better."

"It could've been worse."

"I'm glad he wasn't yelling and threatening you, but he was still trying to make you straight, Blaine," Kurt said more sharply.

Blaine straightened his shoulders, something hot prickling beneath his skin. "I know, but - "

"How is there a 'but' after that sentence?" Kurt asked with a shake of his head.

"He's my father."

"And?"

Blaine's jaw tightened. "And he was wrong, but he was trying to do what he thought was best for me."

"Well, at least you recognize that it was wrong." There was a dismissal in Kurt's tone that Blaine just couldn't stomach, like Blaine wasn't smart enough to realize what his father's disapproval had done to him, eating him up inside and making him feel like he wasn't good enough just as he was.

"Of course it was wrong," Blaine snapped back, anger flaring into a full burn. "I'm gay. He shouldn't even want to change that, even if he could. Which obviously he can't. It doesn't matter how many spark plugs I change, this is who I am, and he shouldn't think it's a problem."

Kurt went still beside him, his eyes wide and fixed on Blaine's face.

"I'm sorry," Blaine said, taking a deep breath and looking away. He tried to pull all of that anger back inside and shove it deep down where it belonged.

"No," Kurt said, letting go of the bar over his head and touching Blaine's arm. "I am. Blaine." He waited until Blaine looked back at him. "I'm sorry. I'm not mad at you. You shouldn't have had to go through that. Of course you shouldn't. No one should ever have made you feel bad for being who you are, especially your family."

Blaine swallowed against the lump in his throat at the empathy on Kurt's face. Kurt's dad sounded about a thousand times better than Blaine's own, but Kurt still could understand what it must have felt like to have to stand tall and figure things out on his own without that support. It was like cool water on the fire of his unhappiness.

"It could have been worse," Blaine said again, this time more quietly, and Kurt reached up to grab the bar again as the train rounded a sharp corner. They both swayed with the motion of the car.

"And it could have been better," Kurt replied with a sad, sympathetic smile.

"Isn't that true for everyone?"

Kurt's smile grew just a little more as he nodded. "Oh, yes. Remind me to tell you the story of my dad bonding so well with Finn someday. It includes my own disastrous attempt at pretending I was straight."

"Any time," Blaine said, meaning it. He wanted to hear all of Kurt's stories, not just because Kurt was his friend, not just because he wanted to know more about him, but also because having someone who had faced a version of some of the same problems made Blaine feel so much less different and wrong for having had his own.

"There was plaid flannel involved," Kurt said with a wry grin. "And a cheerleader, and it all went horribly wrong, which everyone else figured out long before I did."

"Wow, that's… really hard to imagine," Blaine said. It was heartening, in a way, to know that Kurt had had his own moments of doubt in the past, but try as he might he just couldn't picture Kurt dressing like his brother.

Kurt dipped his head to the side in agreement. "I'll tell you about it another night. If we're here trading stories all evening, Rachel will never forgive us for ignoring her."

"Okay." Blaine leaned forward to check the signs through the window as they pulled into the station; he'd lost track of where they were because he was so caught up in the conversation. "This is us."

"Mmm." Kurt re-settled the flowers in the crook of his arm and said in a soft voice as he followed Blaine off of the train, "In more ways than one."

* * *

Facebook:

Rachel Berry added 23 new photos to the album Evita 2013!
     Hiram Berry, Will Schuester, Helena Bishop and thirteen others like this.
     Rachel Berry: Check out the amazing flowers from Kurt and Blaine!
     Blaine Anderson: I'm glad you liked them!
     Kurt Hummel: Very subtle hint to the rest of your friends, Rachel.

* * *

Peter to Blaine: missed you last night - great party!

Blaine to Peter: Sorry, I went out to eat after the play and didn't get back 'til late. I needed sleep more than beer. Next time!

Peter to Blaine: Sleep over beer? Crazy priorities! ;) want to have lunch this week?

Blaine to Peter: Sure! Tuesday?

Peter to Blaine: Perfect

* * *

Kurt rapped on Tina's door on Sunday afternoon, a plastic bag in one hand and a bottle of hand sanitizer tucked into his coat pocket for easy retrieval. He heard some sort of muffled response that sounded something like actual words, so he didn't knock again and waited for the door to open.

"Kurt?" Tina said in surprise. She looked like a disaster, from her red nose to the rat's nest of her hair, and Kurt clucked his tongue.

"Come on. Back in bed," he told her, shooing her ahead of him.

"But - "

Kurt ignored her objections, and in no time she was propped up in her bed with her covers pulled neatly over her lap and a warm container of matzoh ball soup in her lap, which he'd brought back from the deli from his lunch with Rachel and her dads.

Tina moaned around her spoon. "Thank you. I owe you forever."

Waving that away, Kurt unpacked the rest of his bag. "The very best moisturizer to help your nose from being too sore, some lotion-infused tissues, a bottle of chewable vitamin C, some honey, and a box of decaf tea." He lined them up on her desk and then squirted some sanitizer onto his hands and rubbed them together. He absolutely could not get sick.

"Thank you," she said around another mouthful of soup.

"How are you feeling?"

"Like I want to die but am not going to, so better than last night. How was the play?"

"Excellent," Kurt said, only slightly bitter that he wasn't at NYADA to participate in their caliber of shows. "Rachel did a credible job of blending into the ensemble, actually, and the dreaded Julia did well enough." In fact, she'd been outstanding, but it seemed disloyal to Rachel to admit it.

"I'm sorry I missed it. Was Rachel mad?"

"She understood and appreciated you not disturbing the performance by coughing."

Tina smiled a little. "That's what Blaine said she'd think."

Kurt leaned back against her desk. "He's got a good bead on her," he said, smiling back. There was something satisfying to find another person who understood Rachel and actually liked her for her quirks instead of despite them. He tapped the heel of his boot against the floor and put voice to an idea that had been percolating in his mind for the past week or so. "I'm thinking of asking him to join the core staff for the Review. What do you think?"

Her initial response was a sneeze, but once she blew her nose and wiped her eyes she said, "I think it's great. He did so much this semester."

"Mm." Kurt fiddled with the button of his coat.

"What 'mm'?" Tina asked, watching him as she carefully sipped some more soup. "I thought you two were getting along now."

"We are," Kurt said. "He's only a freshman, though, and - "

"So am I."

"But you're my friend… and a textbook case of nepotism."

"Oh, yes, the only case of that in the theater world," she said with a giggle that turned into a hoarse cough.

Kurt handed her the soft tissues and then re-sanitized his hands. "I was hoping that I was above that most of the time."

Tina grinned at him. "Ask him."

"I'll think about it," he said, nodding. He knew Blaine was very busy; his Facebook was littered with pictures of his various activities and comments from those friends. He couldn't assume Blaine would have any more time to spare for Kurt's pet project. "There are finals to get through first."

Groaning, Tina let her head thump back against her pillows. "Finals. Oh my god, I have to get better."

"You will," Kurt said. He stretched his arms over his head and cracked his back. "I hate this sprint up to finals. I always feel like I need a daily back massage from sitting for so long and someone dedicated to fetching me coffee. I should have a servant."

"Or a boyfriend," Tina suggested.

"I think a servant would be easier to find," Kurt said, pushing away from the desk with a sigh at the fantasy. It would have been lovely to have someone like she did, someone who cared about her and did little things to try to ease the pressures on her. "Although I wouldn't have to pay a boyfriend."

Tina flashed him a saucy grin, ruined only by the raw cough that followed. "Only in sexual favors."

"Well," Kurt replied, arching an eyebrow even as he could feel a flush rising on his cheeks, "if I did it right, that would be mutually beneficial."

"And would probably relax your back," Tina said.

Kurt choked out a laugh. "Probably." He reached down for his bag. "Anyway, I'll let you rest. Let me know if I can bring you anything else."

"Thank you." She coughed into another tissue. "Are we still on for caroling on Wednesday at Tisch if I have any voice at all?"

Kurt nodded. "I got out of my shift at work. That's half of a new scarf I'm giving up for you." In truth, though, he didn't mind, because the idea of going around the campus caroling with Mike, Tina, and a bunch of other friends sounded remarkably festive and seasonal in the midst of the misery of the upcoming exams.

"If it's half it was a cheap scarf anyway," she said.

"Or one on an excellent discount."

"I was wondering," she began as he reached the door. "I can go over on my own on Wednesday if you want."

"Why?" Kurt asked, turning back to her. He liked riding the subway alone, but it was an odd thing for her to offer him.

"Well, Blaine's going, too, so…"

"So?"

Tina shrugged and plucked a tissue from the box. "The ride over would give you guys some time to, um… talk, or…?"

Kurt stared at her in question for a moment before he realized what she was offering and why. Oh. No, this needed to be nipped in the bud immediately, he thought with a flare of horror. "Stop it right now."

"What?" she asked sweetly as she dabbed at her nose.

"Do not start trying to matchmake. We are friends."

"I'm not matchmaking," she insisted. "But you are friends, and - "

"I said no, Tina," he said. "That's all we are. And we haven't always been, so stop putting pressure on it."

Tina blew her nose again. "But Kurt - "

"But Kurt what?" he asked more sharply. He knew if he told her about their night together, that Blaine was the one he'd slept with who had hurt him so much, she'd back off, but now more than ever he wanted to put it behind him. It had been a mistake, and he'd nearly lost out on having a friend who shared so many things about what it had been like growing up as they both had, despite their differences. Each glimpse he got of the true, wounded heart of Blaine beneath the surface made him feel more sure that he wanted his friendship, wanted it for them both. He didn't want to dredge up the past with her now, and he didn't want his stupid choice to change her own relationship with Blaine. "We're friends."

"But you like him."

"Hence the word 'friends'."

"But he likes you."

"Friends."

"And you get along really well, and it just seems like - "

"Tina," Kurt bit out, "how many times do I have to say this? Do you know how many people I've met since I got to college? Hundreds. And how many do I like and who like me, without either of us having to change or overlook major character flaws? Very few." He took a deep breath and continued with less ire. "This is important to me, like you are important to me, like Rachel, like Finn, and you know I don't say that lightly. Blaine is a friend, and he's the first one I have who seems to get all of me at once, not just Rachel who understands ambition or you who understands love or Finn who understands… whatever it is Finn understands, which is probably very little, now that I think of it. I love all of you, you know that, but Blaine understands all of me, or at least more pieces of me, and I need you to let me have that without trying to make it into something else."

"I wasn't trying to stop you from having it," Tina insisted.

"But that's what would have happened." He trailed his finger along the edge of Tina's desk, thinking about all of Blaine's no-longer-quite-so-hidden hurts and all of the ways he tried to deal with them, such as drinking and hooking up so readily. It wasn't his place to judge - well, he did judge, because he was Kurt Hummel, but he wasn't going to turn away from him just because he was making some unconstructive choices - but it seemed like they weren't actually solving any of Blaine's problems.

"And I'm beginning to wonder," he said more softly, frowning a little, "if Blaine could use that from me, too." He wasn't used to people needing something specific from him, not beyond the surface, not beyond Rachel and their shared vision for the future that got them to New York in the first place, but it felt like maybe Blaine did. Maybe he needed Kurt, too.

Tina bit her lip and looked like she wanted to say more, but he stared her down, and she finally nodded; Kurt felt the knot of tension in his chest unravel a little. "Okay," she said. "Sorry."

"I know you mean it out of love," he replied. "But I'm going to be keeping my eye on you, closer than Coach Sylvester on the punch bowl."

She laughed, then coughed, then moaned and flopped back against her pillows, burying her face under her comforter. His frustration turned into sympathy at her plight.

"Do you want some tea before I go?" he asked.

She shook her head, her eyes closed. "No, I'm just going to go back to sleep. Thanks for bringing me soup, Kurt."

"Any time," he said before slipping out of the door and sanitizing his hands once more for good measure.

He only wished he could clean the matchmaking bug out of Tina's head as easily. That would be pretty much the most disastrous thing she could do for either of them.

* * *

Blaine's phone vibrated in his pocket Thursday afternoon as he walked through the lobby of the fine arts building, and he stopped in the middle of the wide, empty space to read the message; it was flurrying outside, and between the slippery sidewalks and the damage water could do to his phone it made more sense not to walk and text.

He only wished he'd remembered a hat. His hair was going to be damp at best by the time he got back to his room. He didn't even want to think how it was going to curl.

It was from Peter: I found your gloves in my coat - I must've swiped them at lunch. Sorry. You around?

Blaine typed back: I'm going back to my dorm in a few. Where are you?

Peter to Blaine: My room. Want to come over? Mario Kart and beer?

It was tempting, but… I have a final tomorrow. I need to study.

All work and no play makes Blaine a dull boy, was Peter's reply, and Blaine had heard that enough in the past to know it was true. Sebastian might have said it in a mocking tone, but Blaine's grades hadn't actually suffered all that much when he spent more time out partying, after all.

He was about to reply with a yes when another text came in.

Kurt to Blaine: You want a cookie.

Blaine stared at his phone in confusion. What? he typed back.

Kurt to Blaine: You want THIS cookie.

Frowning, Blaine typed back: Who is this? Have you stolen Kurt's phone?

Kurt to Blaine: Look to your left, Blaine.

Blaine did, and there, beyond the glass doors setting off the café, was Kurt standing in line in front of the counter. He was looking through the doors at Blaine and was holding up a cookie on a plate in front of him, his phone in his other hand and a grin on his face. He raised his eyebrows at Blaine expectantly.

Laughing, Blaine pushed through the doors. "Hi!"

"It's chocolate chip," Kurt said, bobbling the plate a little.

"Yum," Blaine said with feeling. It looked soft and a little melty.

"I knew it was calling to you. And I'll let you in on a secret." Kurt leaned closer. "They have coffee here, too."

"You're in a good mood," Blaine said; it wasn't a common thing to see in the midst of finals. Or really all that common a thing to see on Kurt at all, actually.

Kurt nodded. "I just turned in my Shakespeare paper, I got into the seminar I was waitlisted for next semester, and I will be home in less than a week with no homework and no terminally late study partners for the better part of a month. And I just saw a stack of scripts come into the theater office that might be for next semester's play, and if they are I am in a very good mood." He bounced on his toes, his smile tight but wide, like he was trying to contain it but couldn't quite do it.

"That's great!" Blaine found his own smile growing bigger.

"So…" Kurt waggled the plate with the cookie. "Need a study break?"

"Absolutely." Blaine took the plate when Kurt offered it to him and stepped up to the counter to order a coffee as well.

His phone, forgotten in his hand, buzzed with a text. Blaine looked down to see it was from Peter.

What about if I throw in the idea of ordering pizza?

"Sorry. Let me just answer that," Blaine said to Kurt, juggling the plate for a second before Kurt took pity on him and grabbed it.

Blaine felt a pang of guilt about picking one friend over another, but if he had coffee with Kurt he'd still be able to study after dinner; if he went to Peter's he'd probably come home with a buzz and forget everything the second after he read it. Besides, Kurt being so sparkly was too rare to miss out on; it reminded Blaine a little of how caught up in the magic Kurt had been after the Audrey Hepburn movies, his eyes distant and his smile serene. He wanted to see more of that.

Blaine to Peter: Change of plans. Mario Kart tomorrow night instead to celebrate being partway done with finals?

Peter replied almost immediately: I'll invite some of the guys. We'll have a tournament.

Perfect, Blaine typed back with one hand, taking his cookie from Kurt.

"So tell me about the play," Blaine said, tucking his phone into his pocket.

The light in Kurt's eyes sparked even brighter. "Get your coffee first. This news will be even better with refreshments."

"What news isn't?" Blaine asked with a grin.

"Exactly."

* * *

Rachel to Kurt: Thank you for a wonderful end of semester high tea. The whole afternoon was lovely, from hats to scones, and of course the company. <3

Kurt to Rachel: Thank YOU. It was. <3

Rachel to Kurt: Though I still think that waiter was hitting on you.

Kurt to Rachel: He wasn't.

Rachel to Kurt: He was winking.

Kurt to Rachel: He had a facial tic.

Rachel to Kurt: He was winking! And with that bone structure he has to be an actor or a model

Kurt to Rachel: Not with a facial tic.

Rachel to Kurt: Kurt! He was cute and interested! And as actors you obviously would have things in common!

Rachel to Kurt: Unless you were in competition. Being gay does make that more complicated. At least I'm not going up against boys I like for my parts.

Kurt to Rachel: I'm not interested. He smiled too much. He stayed at our table too long. He asked too many questions. He kept touching my shoulder. I just wanted another pot of tea.

Rachel to Kurt: He was flirting! With you!

Kurt to Rachel: I'm not dating a twitchy and unprofessional if handsome waiter.

Rachel to Kurt: So you admit he was handsome!

Kurt to Rachel: Rachel…

Rachel to Kurt: Come on, Kurt, how are you going to find love if you're not out there looking for it?

Kurt to Rachel: I'm looking, I'm looking. He wasn't love.

Rachel to Kurt: How would you know???

Kurt to Rachel: How did you feel the first time you saw Finn? Or Jesse? Or Jean-Claude? Or Reed-the-jazz-musician? (How's that going? Has he called?)

Rachel to Kurt: Like the sun was rising and the music was swelling all around us. (And no call, but that's good. I'm just not that into the trumpet.)

Kurt to Rachel: There was neither sunrise nor music for me with Brad the cute waiter.

Rachel to Kurt: You know his name!

Kurt to Rachel: He said it a thousand times. (And he was cute.) But he's not it. I didn't feel anything.

Rachel to Kurt: Are you LETTING yourself feel anything?

Kurt to Rachel: When am I ever able to stop myself?

Rachel to Kurt: Kurt, I want you to find love!

Kurt to Rachel: I want that, too. You know I do. And I also want it for you. I'm sorry about Reed.

Rachel to Kurt: Thank you. I'm most sorry I didn't get to experience his embouchure for myself. I'm told it makes for some excellent kissing.

* * *

Mario Kart was awesome. Beer was awesome. That new guy named Jim who'd kept touching Blaine's arm and leg all night and then had given him his number before he left was awesome. And Peter was awesome, because he let Blaine sleep on his futon instead of having to stumble home in the cold.

Peter smelled really good, too, which was also awesome, because Blaine's head had fallen onto his shoulder at some point, and the sweater pressing against his face smelled fantastic, like cologne and fabric softener and pizza.

Blaine liked things that smelled good. Like oranges. And coffee. And some aftershave. And flowers. And Kurt. And other flowers. And chocolate. And baby powder, except for when it got up your nose and made you sneeze.

"Stop talking, Blaine," Peter mumbled, nudging him off his shoulder. "It's two in the morning."

"Sorry," Blaine told the pillow his head landed on and went back to sleep.

His head was still fuzzy when the light coming through the window and a persistent ache in his groin woke him up, and he snuffled into the warm object he was wrapped around and lazily ground his erection against it in a satisfying roll of his hips until he realized that it wasn't actually his knotted-up comforter but his good friend Peter, who was beginning to wake up, too.

Groaning with a combination of mortification and frustration, Blaine rolled over onto his back and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. "God, sorry," he rasped out as the world spun and his cock protested the lack of contact.

"It happens," Peter said muzzily, turning onto his side and slinging his arm over Blaine's waist. He tucked his closed eyes against Blaine's shoulder. "You should give Jim a call. He'll take care of that for you. You probably need it; I haven't seen you pick up anyone in a while."

"No," Blaine agreed, but the thought stopped him cold and woke him up that much more.

It was true. He and Kurt had sorted out their issues, and yet he still hadn't been hooking up with anyone. He'd flirted with guys, danced with them, even kissed a handful, but he hadn't actually wanted any of them enough to have sex with them.

"Then you're overdue," Peter said. "Call Jim. He's a good guy. Ninety-eight percent chance he's not a stalker or into using funny voices in bed."

"I don't want to call Jim," Blaine said slowly as he ignored the commentary and tried to work out what was going on.

"Why not?"

Blaine thought a little more. Jim had been smart and funny, and he'd been tall and lean in a way that Blaine really liked. But even so, he just didn't feel like calling him, even though he was pretty sure Jim would be up for anything he offered.

"I think… I think I'm just not that interested in guys I don't have any real connection with." When he considered it, when he imagined pressing up against Jim and having his eager hands roving over him in return, as good as it could feel at the time and as amazing as it was not to have to worry about hearts and expectations he wasn't suited to fill, it was still kind of impersonal and empty. Sex didn't have to be. It didn't have to be roses and romance to be good, but it could be something more than just bodies working together. It could be so much better. It could be about being liked, not in a huge and serious way but in some way.

Peter tugged up the blanket over them both. "Novelty's wearing off, huh?"

"I guess it is," Blaine said with some wonder. He hadn't even noticed, probably because he'd been so busy with his friends and everything he was doing at school, and his own hand was a lot more convenient than finding someone else when he had a minute. It was weird that he hadn't noticed, but his drive to meet new people must have been dwindling. He'd rather spend the time with people he cared about and who cared about him. That was what he wanted most of all, if he had to prioritize.

"Well," Peter said, tucking his head back against Blaine's shoulder, "the offer still stands with me if you change your mind about repeats. We have a connection; we're friends." His arm was warm over Blaine's stomach, but he didn't make any sort of pressuring move with the suggestion.

"No, that hasn't changed," Blaine told him, sure of that much. It still made his heart stick in his throat to think about all of the entanglements having someone special entailed. Even just the idea of a friend he had sex with more than once felt like it was edging into dangerous territory, where he'd feel like he had to do things in a certain way to keep the other person happy, where he'd have to compromise and change what he cared about, and he just didn't want to feel that trapped by those sorts of expectations. "But thanks." He had to smile, though, because one of the things that was great about having Peter as a friend was that he knew his refusal wouldn't change anything between them. Peter knew he wasn't being rude. He was just being smart.

"Okay, then stop talking. It's only seven-thirty, and I'm fucking tired."

"Sorry," Blaine whispered, and he was comfortable enough that even with this new realization spinning in his mind it was actually pretty easy to drift off again.

* * *

Blaine to Kurt: I know it's a long shot, but are you flying home on Wednesday morning?

Kurt to Blaine: Rachel and I are going that afternoon. Why?

Blaine to Kurt: My parents can't get me from the airport. Just trying to find a ride. Thanks.

Kurt to Blaine: :( Depending on the time, Finn might be able to get you. You should ask. Or I can, if you'd like.

Blaine to Kurt: Thanks. I'll be fine. :) I have other people to ask. Worse comes to worse, my parents can call a car service for me.

Kurt to Blaine: Okay. :(

* * *

Voicemail from Kurt to Rachel:

Rachel, if you do not stop sending me list after list of potential movies for our New Year's sleepover, I am going to strangle you while you sleep during that sleepover. It is finals. It is snowing. My fingers are so cold I am calling you instead of sending an e-mail because I don't have time to thaw them out to type on my phone. And when I get home I have to save Christmas from Carole's well-meaning clutches. So please, for the love of Barbra, give me a week. Or at least let me get home and sleep off finals for a day or two. We will pick the perfect movies then. Thank you.

* * *

Late Tuesday night, Blaine returned to his room after spending the better part of forty-five minutes trying to dig his suitcase out of the cramped storage room in the dorm's basement. It was bad enough that it was dimly lit and packed so full it was ready to burst, but his suitcase was the same big black roller bag pretty much everyone else had, so even though he was pretty sure he'd remembered where he'd put his bag it had taken a while to haul out cases and check luggage tags to find the one that was actually his.

He yanked open the door to his room and caught it with his knee before it closed, and then he wheeled his bag through, tossed it onto his bed, and flopped down on his back beside it. "Ugh," he said.

"Mm," Rob said noncommittally from his desk chair.

"And now I have to pack." Blaine didn't even want to think about it. His brain was total mush from his last final that afternoon, and the thought of figuring out what he'd need for a month at home was beyond him. He knew he couldn't just shove everything in his suitcase and sort it out there, though. Could he? No, no, he had to be smart and plan.

"Mm," Rob said again. "Sucks." He turned the page of the notes he was reading. "Hey, Tina stopped by."

Blaine sat up in surprise and disappointment. He'd missed Tina? "She did? When?"

"Like twenty minutes ago. She was with that guy with the hair." Rob gestured to his own messy head.

"Ethan?"

"No, the good hair. And a scarf."

Blaine's heart twisted even less happily. "Kurt," he sighed. He'd missed them both, and he was leaving in the morning. He probably wouldn't see them again until they were all back in school in January, they'd all been too wrapped up in finals to get together, and now he had lost out on his chance to say goodbye in person.

"That's the one. They came by."

"I was just downstairs. Why didn't you text me?" Blaine asked.

"I wasn't listening when you told me where you were going, and your phone was here," Rob said. Still looking at his notes, he flung out a hand behind him to point at Blaine's phone where it sat on his desk.

"Oh." Blaine went over to pick it up and found on it a message from Tina saying they were going to pop over and one from Rob saying he had friends there. "Thanks." He knew Rob was studying for his exam in the morning. He couldn't expect him to be focusing on Blaine, no matter how frustrating it might be in the moment.

"No problem. They left messages."

Sure enough, there were two pieces of paper in the middle of his desk. One was laid out flat and was covered with Tina's looping handwriting in the blue ball point pen he had left there:

I'm so sorry we missed you! I hope you have a great holiday with your family! Text me! Love, Tina.

The other was folded neatly in half and contained Kurt's tidy letters written in a smooth black ink from a pen Blaine wasn't familiar with:

Blaine,

You survived your first set of college finals! Congratulations! It is no small feat.

I hope you have a good time in Toledo over the break. At least you get to dress for dinner! You could always use the opportunity to try out one of those bright ties in your closet for variety… although then some aged aunt might faint into the lobster bisque or the canapés, and we couldn't have that.

Although didn't you say something about having green bean casserole at Thanksgiving? Maybe there's no bisque. Maybe it's Campbell's soup. My mental picture of the Anderson family Christmas is crushed…

Take care and safe travels. See you in January, or sooner if you are back near Lima?

- Kurt

Blaine smiled to himself at the thought of his Aunt Tilly fainting into the soup (neither bisque nor Campbell's but her own famous butternut squash recipe) because he wore a vibrant tie, though she'd be more likely to laugh than anything. He liked his Aunt Tilly.

Still, despite the smile, he felt a little well of sadness hollow out his heart that he hadn't been there to see his friends when they came by. It was great that they wanted to and had been thinking of him, but he still wished he'd been able to return the good wishes in person.

Have a great vacation, he texted to Tina. Sorry I missed you!

He typed out the same to Kurt and then added, I'm not sure I should be taking fashion advice from someone who will be wearing coveralls for the next few weeks.

Kurt's reply was swift: Perfectly tailored, accessorized, pressed coveralls. Of course you should take advice from me. I turn any garment into fashion.

You tailor your coveralls? Blaine wrote back, mystified.

It's amazing what a difference a little nip here and there can make, Kurt texted back.

Blaine grinned down at his phone. You inspire me.

As I should! :) was Kurt's response. Fortune favors the bold, Blaine. Wear a bright tie.

Yes, sir. :) And maybe even a hat.

To dinner? Better have some smelling salts in your pocket.

Chuckling, Blaine typed out, Every prepared gentleman always does.

Kurt replied, :)

Blaine sat down in his desk chair, tucking the two notes into his top drawer instead of throwing them into the recycling, and when no other texts were forthcoming, he pulled out another piece of paper and began to make a list about what he needed to pack for his trip.

If he did end up wearing a tie, he thought, he'd have to send a picture to Kurt. He smiled again as he wondered if Aunt Tilly would go along with posing for a picture where she was pretending to faint. He was pretty sure she would.

* * *

Weary from the flight with its uncomfortable seats, loud passengers, and lack of anything even remotely edible, Kurt wheeled his suitcase out past the ticket counters, his heavy carry-on on his shoulder, and looked around at the crowds for a familiar face. It was the pre-Christmas rush, so there were people everywhere - students, senior citizens, groups, couples, people hugging, kissing, waving, talking, and crying - and somewhere in the mess was his ride.

He wasn't even sure who it was, because his father hadn't replied to his last text. He checked his phone again to be sure, but there was nothing. His shoulders slumped. Rachel had been swept up by her fathers the moment they'd come out into the concourse, and Kurt had let them go to find his own family, but now he was wondering if he should have stayed with them a little longer, just in case.

Years of having his reflexes honed in the dangerous hallways of McKinley High kept Kurt from being hit by a student's overstuffed rucksack, and he started to walk toward the front windows, seeking refuge from the chaotic crowds.

Almost there, he caught sight of a tall figure waving his hand in the air, and he changed course with relief to where Finn was standing by one of the exits. His dad had been smart to send Finn, Kurt thought with a smile, because at least he could see and be seen over the people around him. And he was strong, so he could carry Kurt's bag, which would be nice, too.

Weaving his way toward his brother, Kurt stopped short when he got there, a greeting on his lips, as he realized Finn wasn't alone. Beside him were his dad and Carole, both beaming at him. His dad and Carole were there, too, waiting for him, smiling at him, happy to see him. They were so busy with work and the holidays, and the airport was such an annoyance. He hadn't even considered that they'd all be there.

His throat closed up as he stepped forward and right into his dad's open arms.

"Welcome home, Kurt," his dad said, enveloping him with his familiar hug and smell that made Kurt feel about three feet shorter, ten years younger, and safe in a way nothing and nowhere else in the world ever did. He let go of the handle of his suitcase and hugged him back, pressing his face into his dad's shoulder and trying not to cry. It felt so good.

His dad was smiling, but his eyes were bright, too, by the time he passed Kurt over to his step-mother.

"It's so good to see you, honey," Carole said, squeezing him tight and giving him a kiss on his cheek. "Is that a new scarf?" She smoothed it carefully. "It's beautiful."

Kurt nodded and tried to find his voice. "Thank you."

"Hey," Finn said, his smile wide and his hug more comforting than Kurt would have expected. He'd never anticipated that he would miss Finn all that much when he went off to college, but there was something about coming back and seeing that smile and feeling that welcome that made him realize he loved Finn more as a brother than he ever could have as a romantic interest. He felt right, too, a part of Kurt's heart that had been missing. Finn pulled away first, his hands on Kurt's shoulders, and looked at him with a frown. "Are you getting taller?"

Laughing a little and blinking back the threat of tears, Kurt said, "I can only hope."

"And thinner," his dad said with a frown.

"They're probably related," Carole said, patting his dad's arm. "We'll make sure he gets plenty to eat while he's here so he can catch up to Finn." She smiled over at Kurt. "Come on, honey, let's get you to the car. I bet you're ready to be out of here."

"Please," he said, and he laughed again as Finn and his dad fought over who was going to carry which bag, Kurt insisting he could get one and save his dad the strain, which of course backfired as his father refused to admit he wasn't as strong as he used to be.

He ended up walking unburdened with Carole's arm around him, his father pulling his wheeled suitcase and Finn lugging his carry-on. He felt a little dizzy, like he'd stepped off of a moving sidewalk onto the pavement or from black-and-white Kansas into technicolor Oz… or maybe vice versa. All of the attention, just like all of the Midwesterners around them, was so familiar and yet nothing like his daily experience anymore.

It was wonderful and uncomfortable, the warmth of his family and the odd, curious looks they got as they laughed and talked their way toward their car, his family dressed for comfort and him dressed in Marc Jacobs. His dad's car had the same license plates and the same plaid lap blanket in the front seat for when Carole got cold, but it was a new vehicle, replacing the one Kurt had learned to drive on so many years ago now. Carole's tone of voice when she teased Finn was familiar, but the new nickname was one Kurt hadn't heard. The announcer on the radio station that came on when the car started up had a familiar Midwestern accent Kurt knew as well as his own, and yet it felt oddly foreign.

"Are you hungry, Kurt?" Carole asked from the front seat. "We thought we might all go to Breadstix for dinner, if you'd like. I know it's not the kind of fancy New York restaurant you're used to, but…"

"It will be perfect," he assured her and tried not to gawk as they pulled out into traffic. It was strange and disorienting to be in a car, not on a subway or on foot, and there were so many Ohio plates, so different from the New York ones he was used to. And, dear lord, the bumper stickers

Kurt was happy and yet out of place. He was where he belonged and yet didn't belong at all.

He was home.

* * *

Blaine's house looked the same as it always had. Everything was perfectly in its place. The fresh flower arrangement of the week in the foyer was different, of course, but it was still staid in its composition in his mother's favorite crystal vase. The house was silent apart from his breathing and the ticking of the grandfather clock in the dining room.

He shut the front door after waving at the car service and carried his suitcase and carry-on up to his room; he didn't call out, because he knew no one would be home. That's why they couldn't pick him up, after all. His father had had a last minute business trip, and his mother had gone with him to Chicago to do some shopping.

His room was the same, too. The same color, the same bedspread, the same prints on the walls. The same framed formal portrait of the Warblers from his senior year sitting on his desk. He'd removed the individual ones of Sebastian when they'd broken up, but that one he'd left on display. He couldn't bring himself to put it aside. They'd been his friends. They were his friends. Most of them. Some of them.

Not enough of them.

Looking away, he put his bags to the side; he'd have to do some laundry to get ready to go to his grandparents' house, but it had been a long travel day, fraught with delays. A snack and a shower sounded like a good start. Then maybe he could collapse on the couch and see what was on Bravo, one of his few guilty pleasures.

Downstairs he found a note on the refrigerator with a fifty dollar bill attached to it: Blaine, We're not leaving until Friday, so feel free to have your Dalton friends over tomorrow. Love, Mom.

He gave a hollow laugh, but he realized after a minute it wasn't a terrible idea if he was smart about it. Blaine knew Wes was already in town, and a quick flip through Facebook on his phone reminded him that Trent and Nick were back, too. Maybe he could host a get together, just with the Warblers he knew the best. They could hang out, eat, sing a little. He did miss them; the Keynotes just weren't the same, as great as they were. And it would keep him from going stir-crazy in his empty house all day with way too many memories of all the things he used to do with Sebastian while his parents were out.

Some of it had been entirely innocent, and he could still smile over the picture in his mind's eye of the fond looks Sebastian had given him the afternoon Blaine had been playing classical pieces on the piano in the library while Sebastian struggled with a beast of a lab report on his laptop. He could remember with a sense of peace the way Sebastian had said a soft, surprised thank you when Blaine had brought him grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner later on. He could remember poker nights with some of the guys over holidays, where Sebastian would help him set up the table and food beforehand and slide a gentle hand across Blaine's back as they passed in the hallway.

A lot of their time in the house hadn't been innocent, though, but that he was less eager to think about. Decadent hours in his bed and out of it he'd enjoyed but didn't miss, not with Sebastian in specific. He had thrived on the time and attention then, coming fully to understand his body and his heart, but he didn't want it from someone who didn't like him or respect him. He might miss feeling special, but he didn't miss Sebastian.

Blaine felt like he ought to miss him, really, given how long they'd been together and how much it had meant to him, no matter how badly it had ended, but the thought of being with him now was stomach-churning. It was a mockery of everything he'd thought they'd had. It would be worse than a one night stand with someone he didn't really know. Time with him would be worse than empty.

It was just hard being trapped in the house and knowing that he'd once had that kind of affection, for whatever reason it had been given, or that he'd been able to throw great parties there with all of the Warblers before half of them had turned out to not be his friends after all.

But that last part didn't have to matter so much any more, he reminded himself, because he wasn't at Dalton. He was in college, with new friends, and maybe he could just enjoy hanging out with people he liked without the pressure of keeping the whole group balanced. Maybe just this once he didn't have to invite everyone, just a few of them. He didn't have to be the peacemaker and leader all of the time. He could spend time with people who liked him and forget about the rest, at least for a little while.

This could be a good plan.

Then he saw an update pop up on his timeline:

Kurt Hummel is home and already wishing he were blind thanks to the resurgence of acid wash in Lima. Or maybe everyone in Ohio has developed selective blindness to think it's attractive.

Without even pausing to think about it, Blaine flipped to his text message app.

Blaine to Kurt: I have an extra day before I go. Coffee tomorrow?

Kurt's reply was swift: I'm free at 10 or at 4.

Blaine to Kurt: 10. Where?

That would be perfect; Blaine could have a relaxing morning with him and still have the guys over for a late lunch. He went to the drawer where his parents kept the take-out menus to see if that Chinese place still delivered. Jeff would do pretty much anything for those sesame noodles; he'd be tempted to drop whatever other plans he might have to come over, and where Jeff went Nick was sure to follow. The whole day went from a yawning chasm of boredom to something great.

And he'd get to see Kurt, too, which was turning into one of his favorite things.

Kurt to Blaine: Do you know the Lima Bean?

Blaine to Kurt: Yes! See you there.

Kurt to Blaine: See you tomorrow. :)

Chapter Text

Kurt got to the Lima Bean at five minutes to ten and was swept up in a wave of nostalgia as soon as he walked through the doors and smelled that familiar combination of coffee, baked goods, and whatever disinfectant they used to clean the tables. He'd spent so much time here in high school with his friends - studying, talking, planning for competitions and celebrations - and although it had only been a month since he'd had a restorative mocha here on Black Friday it still seemed like a place from his former life. It felt a touch smaller, brighter, and more gauche than he remembered. It didn't have the big comfortable chairs of his favorite off campus coffee place in New York or the bustle of the city beyond its windows. It had tiny pale bagels in its display case instead of big glossy ones with perfect chewy exteriors. Even the music was mindless top-forty instead of the eclectic mix of indie and world music he was used to in New York.

It was no longer a refuge from high school where he could sip coffee drinks with fancy names and pretend he was an adult on his way somewhere important. It was just the Lima Bean in backwards, small-minded Lima, Ohio.

Kurt didn't belong here anymore, no matter how familiar the little tables still were. But then he really never had, and hadn't that been the entire problem?

The mantle of his high school ostracism threatened to settle onto his shoulders, so he squared them in his military-cut jacket and went to order their drinks. He added a blueberry muffin for Blaine and took a table by one of the pillars when their coffees were ready.

It was strange to realize that while he recognized some of the regulars, like the old couple in the corner happily people-watching, there were so many faces he didn't. The baristas were new, and the group of high school boys laughing in the corner all looked terribly young to him. A few years and living most of his life six hundred miles due east made such a difference.

One of the boys had a striped scarf in red and blue that reminded him of one of Blaine's, and Kurt realized that they were probably Dalton students incognito in street clothes now that school was out. They'd always been impossible to miss in their uniforms, though Kurt had never let his eyes linger on them when they were walking by, no matter how nice it had been to see well-kept boys wearing something other than t-shirts and basketball shorts. Now it seemed ridiculous that that boxy uniform had been a high point of his fashion viewing life in Lima, but then it had been a refreshing change.

Kurt realized not for the first time that he might have seen Blaine back then, just another attractive boy in a blazer. They could have walked right by each other without even knowing. Certainly they'd competed against each other and had to have seen each other then, but they might have passed by the other on the street or sat at adjacent tables and never known.

It made his stomach feel hollow at the thought. He'd been so sad, so very different. Just to have known there was another gay boy in the same area, not even to have become friends but for him simply to have known in those isolated years that he wasn't the only one there…

"Kurt?"

Kurt looked up from where he was staring at the steam rising from his coffee and found Blaine standing by the table. He pulled himself sharply out of his melancholy thoughts. "Good morning!" He gestured to the cup and plate across from him. "For you."

"Thank you," Blaine said with a smile, the same kind of easy smile he always had, but the warmth of it right there in the Lima Bean was enough to make Kurt's breath catch for a second from its contrast to the lingering remnants of his cold, lonely memories.

Slipping off his scarf (this one grey) and unbuttoning his coat, Blaine slid into the opposite chair and reached for his coffee. He lifted the lid and inhaled with a happy look on his face before taking a big swallow. "No, really. Thank you. My parents have a new coffee maker, and no matter how many buttons I pushed on it this morning I couldn't make it do anything but gurgle."

"My pleasure," Kurt replied, leaning back in his own chair and relaxing a little. He still might not belong in Lima, but it felt much more comfortable with a friend. "Although, did you consider googling the instructions?"

"That seemed way too complicated before actually having coffee."

"You may have a point," Kurt conceded. "At least you're here now. Their supply is nearly endless."

"And this is so much better than what we get in the dining hall." Blaine snapped the lid back on and blinked at the plate in front of him. "Hey, you bought me cake for breakfast," he said with a delighted grin.

"Yes." It had been a flight of fancy, but it was worth it for the way Blaine's face lit up even more when he took a bite.

"Oh, it's good, too. Not that there are a lot of bad muffins, apart from the ones I made in home ec in seventh grade."

"Not a success?" Kurt asked.

"They were like shot-puts, only heavier." Blaine pushed the plate a few inches toward Kurt. "This is delicious. Want some?"

Kurt shook his head, holding up a hand to decline. His eyes caught on some of the boys in the corner as they stood up and started to put on their coats, and he asked, "You seem surprised. Didn't you come here when you were at Dalton?"

"Oh." Blaine dusted a few crumbs off of his fingers and cleared his throat. "I did a few years ago, but Sebastian hated the service here and thought the Daily Grind was nicer." His mouth twisted into a humorless grin, and he admitted, "I think he just liked the potential innuendo to the name, honestly. But I went there most of the time as an upperclassman."

Kurt didn't know why that fact disappointed him, but he supposed he shouldn't actually be surprised. If there had been two boys in love in the same room he was sitting in, he would have noticed. Hell, he probably would have thrown a tickertape parade.

"Then it's probably safe to assume you weren't one of the boys I glared at when they were sitting at our favorite table," he said lightly. "So I won't apologize."

"If you'd glared at me, I'm sure I would have moved," Blaine said. "I've seen your glare."

"If only everyone felt that way," Kurt said, affecting a sigh. It would have been wonderful if people really did just do what he wanted. "Which reminds me, I got a very nice e-mail from Darlene right before I left, CCed to the department head, assuring me that we have rehearsal space for next semester. I'll believe it when I see it, but it looks like we probably won't need you to pull another miracle out of your pocket."

"That's great," Blaine said. "And not just because the debate room's going to be under construction."

"It would be a relief if the Review could go smoothly for once." Kurt took a deep breath and told himself just to ask the damn question instead of second-guessing himself. There was no reason for him to start worrying about Blaine saying no; he either would or he wouldn't, and if he didn't want to help then Kurt would certainly be able to carry on without him. Blaine didn't have to care about the Review the same way he did. "Which reminds me that I was wondering if you'd like to join the - " Kurt made air quotes and used a more ominous voice for the next two words. " - 'Inner Circle' for next semester. I know you're busy, but we'd love to have you if you have the time."

Blaine's whole face changed and softened like he was truly surprised and touched. He leaned forward, his voice dropping, as Kurt's heart skipped a beat. "Kurt - "

"Hey, Blaine," another voice interrupted

Kurt looked up to find three of the Dalton boys standing a few feet away; he'd been dimly aware of them moving around the room, his now usual New York awareness of odd people nearby already turning back into his old Ohio watchfulness toward groups of potentially hostile teenagers.

Blaine straightened up in his chair, the overly polite smile Kurt realized he hadn't seen in a while snapping into place. "James," he said with a nod. "Good to see you. How are you?"

"I'm great, thanks." James looked over with interest at Kurt, sending a chill of warning up Kurt's spine. He raised an eyebrow and looked right back. "Aren't you going to introduce us to your friend?"

Blaine sighed a little, barely enough to notice. "Kurt, these are James, Charlie, and Ned. Guys, this is Kurt."

"Warblers?" Kurt asked Blaine as the boys said their hellos.

"Yes."

"Mm," was Kurt's dismissive reply, because if these particular Warblers were Blaine's friends he'd eat his new Diesel hat. He took a sip of his coffee and hoped they'd take the hint to leave.

"Sorry if we are interrupting something. You two looked kind of intense," James said.

An acid 'You are' was about to fall off of Kurt's tongue when Blaine said, "No, it's fine. We were just talking."

"Yeah, J, you know if something special was going on Blaine would have been singing to him," the one Kurt thought was Ned said. There was a mocking edge to his voice that had Kurt narrowing his eyes.

"Oh, I forgot," James said with a laugh. "Blaine always did love to break out in song."

"And here I thought you were supposed to be a show choir," Kurt said. "If you have such a problem with actually singing no wonder we beat you."

"Kurt, it's fine," Blaine insisted with a laugh of his own, but it was the one he pulled out when he was trying to be friendly and had nothing to do with humor. "They got to see some of my least proud moments, but that's what friends are for, to remind you of them."

"Oh, is that what friends are for?" Kurt asked archly. "I didn't realize." He was not built to sit there and let them think they were superior when it was clear they were just trying to wind up Blaine, but Blaine just waved an easy hand at him like he didn't want the help.

"Hey, are you going to be around for New Year's?" James asked Blaine. "Ned's having a big party at his house. You should come."

"I'll be out of town with my family," Blaine replied, all politeness. "But thank you. That's very kind of you."

"That's too bad," Ned said, pushing back his stupid floppy hair. "Sebastian will be there, and I'm sure he'd love to see you."

"You could bring Kurt if you wanted," James offered, and Kurt had to tamp down on the urge to tell him where he could stick his invitation; if Blaine seemed to want to be nice to them, Kurt could try to play along.

"What part of 'out of town' did you not understand?" Kurt asked instead with an icy smile.

"Maybe he can change his plans," James said, shrugging. "We missed him at the Warbler reunion over Thanksgiving. We know he isn't trying to make it feel like he doesn't care about his old friends, but we'd love to see him."

"Look, guys, it's a family thing," Blaine said, his smile apologetic. "But if my plans change I'll be there."

James stuck out his hand, and Blaine shook it. "Great. We'll send you the info."

"Thanks," Blaine said, still with that same plastic façade covering up everything that Kurt found interesting and compelling about him, all of his kindness and fire. It was disconcerting to see it, like he'd suddenly turned from a flesh and blood human into a charismatic and polite robot, even as Kurt appreciated that it wasn't something Blaine focused on him anymore. "I'll see what I can do."

"Cool. Anyway, we've got movie tickets. See you around. It was nice to meet you, Kurt," James said.

"I'm sure it is," Kurt replied, not offering his own hand or looking away until they turned to go.

"Hey, see if he'll do 'It's Not Unusual' for you," Charlie shot back over his shoulder, and the other boys laughed.

Blaine's smile was absolutely perfect as he waved. His eyes followed them out of the door and past the windows down the sidewalk until they were out of sight. Then and only then did he look directly at Kurt again.

"So they're great," Kurt drawled.

Blaine shrugged, the motion stiff. "They're fine."

"They're a bunch of morons."

"They're just - "

Kurt set down his cup with a thunk, the sound making Blaine jump a little in his chair. "Blaine, you know as well as I do that they were mocking you. You know better, actually, because I have no idea why you singing is so amusing to them. I've seen you sing, and it's anything but funny."

Blaine took a long, slow breath, his jaw clenching and unclenching. "They were Sebastian's friends," he said. "And they were there when I made a fool of myself serenading him. More than once."

Kurt didn't want to think about the way Blaine had sung with his heart in his eyes on stage, nevertheless picture him doing that to Sebastian someplace more private, choosing a song, surprising him, singing out his feelings. He couldn't imagine how Blaine could have been anything other than perfectly sweet and sincere in his performance, and it made every inch of him ache before he shut off the feeling. He couldn't lose sight of what was important here. "Did you forget the words?" he asked, because he couldn't think of anything else that could have gone wrong. Maybe he had fallen off of something; although if he had one would have thought it would have cured him of his habit of jumping on things, which it obviously had not.

"No, I sang to him," Blaine said, shaking his head.

"I don't see the problem."

"The problem was that he didn't like it."

Kurt sat back, not understanding at all. "How could he not like - "

"He just didn't."

"But - "

"Kurt, please drop it," Blaine snapped, his eyes flashing dark. "It was a disaster. I've already had to relive enough of it today, okay?"

"I'm not telling you to relive it," Kurt said, unable to pull back from his own temper. "I'm telling you they're morons and probably wouldn't know a good song if they fell over it."

"Why can't you just believe me that it was one of the worst ideas I've ever had?" Blaine asked, throwing his hands up. "It was. I looked like an idiot and embarrassed him in front of all of our friends, and it was awful. Okay?"

Frozen in Blaine's glare and the deep, deep hurt in his eyes, Kurt took a moment to keep himself from snapping back his support and then said, "All right."

"Thank you," Blaine said with a nod.

"But for the record," Kurt said stiffly, because he had to say it, "I still think it sounds sweet."

Blaine's eyes went even darker with anger for a second, but as he searched Kurt's face they softened again. He looked down at his drink and said, "Thanks. It was supposed to be."

"You're welcome," Kurt replied. "I'm sorry it didn't turn out the way you'd planned and that those idiots seem to think they should rub it in your face."

"Yeah." Blaine rubbed at the back of his neck, his gaze still averted. He took a slow breath. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I keep showing you the worst parts of me."

"They're not the worst parts; they're the most real," Kurt said, confused.

Blaine shrugged again.

"I value people who are real, Blaine," Kurt insisted. "That's why I like you, because you show me the parts underneath all of your impressive manners, too. That is what friends are supposed to be, people who can see you and make you feel better, not worse. Right?"

Pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose, Blaine closed his eyes for a second and took in a slow breath. Then he looked up and said with a quiet, calm sincerity, "I've never had a friend like you."

Kurt's heart leapt into his throat, despite himself. "There is only one of me," he said breezily to cover the way it was pounding at Blaine's words and the vulnerability of the emotion in his handsome face. His own voice was threatening to tighten from his own appreciation of finding someone so special, someone who understood and shared so much, but he had to speak. "I've never had a friend like you, either." He dared to put his hand out on the table, palm up. "I'm glad I do now."

Blaine looked at Kurt's hand for just long enough that Kurt feared he'd over-reached and assumed way too much, just like he had so many times in his life with people who were nice to him, but then Blaine slid his fingers into it and gave him a brief, grateful squeeze before they both pulled back, satisfied. "Me, too," he said. "But I'm still sorry about that. I don't like losing my temper, and it wasn't even about you."

"It's okay. Honestly, Blaine, I do it all the time," Kurt said, though usually his fits of rage were for people who thwarted his plans or couldn't do their jobs, not people who broke his heart or didn't appreciate him. He'd never be anything but angry if that were the case.

"I guess I'm not as over all of that as I'd like to be," Blaine said. He twirled his cup in small circles on the table.

"There isn't a set timetable for how long you get to be hurt about people being rude to you," Kurt told him. "Hurt is hurt, Blaine."

"I know," Blaine said, watching him carefully, like Kurt held the answer to some question Blaine desperately wanted to understand.

Kurt wasn't sure he did have the answer, but at least he was honest, which was more than he guessed Blaine's backstabbing ex-friends had been. "And you don't have to talk about it with me if you don't want to, but I promise if you do I'll be extremely catty and rude about everyone who deserves it. Especially that jerk of an ex-boyfriend who doesn't appreciate being sung to. What kind of singer doesn't like music?"

"Well, he's more of a dancer," Blaine admitted.

"Oh, a dancer. That explains everything," Kurt said with a roll of his eyes, and he felt something in his chest loosen when Blaine laughed - actually, honestly laughed - in reply.

Blaine set his elbow on the table and rested his head on his hand, smiling at him. "I really am getting the full Kurt Hummel treatment."

"I told you," Kurt said. "Catty, bitchy, and rude."

"With a big helping of kindness underneath," Blaine said, and Kurt was so surprised by the remark that his mouth dropped open for a second, which made Blaine's smile grow further. "Don't look so shocked. I pay attention, Kurt."

Kurt reached out and took a piece of Blaine's muffin for lack of anything better to do with his hands. His heart was pounding in his chest again; he wasn't used to people seeing more than he wanted them to. It didn't feel so much threatening as disconcerting, though, not when it was Blaine. "I don't know what to say to that."

"What about thank you?" Blaine suggested.

"Thank you," Kurt repeated dutifully.

"You're welcome."

"So…" Kurt took another piece of the admittedly tasty muffin and attempted to change the subject before he got lost in the fond way Blaine was looking at him. "About the Review."

It was Blaine's turn to look startled. "You asked me to be on your staff," he remembered with some wonder.

"My staff," Kurt said, turning the thought over in his head. It was almost as good as the idea of minions, fearful helpers scattering around at his word like Anna Wintour with her terrified underlings. "I like that. I wonder if I can get uniforms made. Or tasteful name badges. 'I do Kurt Hummel's bidding. Ask me how.'"

"No wonder Ang warned me to watch you for signs of megalomania," Blaine said with a laugh.

"Oh, please. I'd be a benevolent dictator at worst. Mostly benevolent, anyway." Drawing back from the very enjoyable fantasy of having a team of dedicated servants, Kurt tilted his head and asked, "So, what do you think? You can help steer the ship. And you automatically get a performance spot..."

"I'd be honored, Kurt," Blaine replied, his voice warm. "Thank you for wanting my input."

"Of course I do. I'd like to think I have an excellent eye for talent as well as fashion."

Blaine chuckled, as Kurt knew he would, but he ducked his head and grew serious as he rubbed at a ring of moisture on the table. He looked back up at Kurt. "Thank you," he said. He looked younger somehow, smaller, like he was peeking out a touch more from behind the Blaine-façade he presented to the world. It made Kurt feel honored in return to see it.

Kurt nudged Blaine's leg beneath the table, not wanting to extend his hand again but wanting to connect with him somehow. "Thank you. There aren't a lot of people who'd be willing to help… and even fewer I'd trust."

"I'll do my best not to let you down," Blaine promised.

Kurt shook his head. "You're not going to," he said with a frown and another nudge of his foot. He couldn't imagine how Blaine would disappoint him with the Review unless he stopped coming to meetings entirely. "Although I have to ask one thing."

"What's that?" Blaine asked; he didn't draw his shoulders in or look away, but the very stillness that came over him made his wariness clear to Kurt's eyes.

"Please stop apologizing to me when you get angry or have opinions. If I wanted catatonic yes-men I'd hand out valium at the door before every meeting." When Blaine didn't say anything, Kurt continued, "I mean, obviously I want everyone to agree with me, but I want them to do it because they know I'm right, not because they're not saying what they really think." Blaine kept sitting there, unmoving, and Kurt grew more worried. "Blaine?"

"Okay." Blaine's voice sounded a little hoarse, but he got a smile onto his face with visible effort. "I can do that."

"Good," Kurt said. He was confused by Blaine's reaction, like he was touched or surprised or sad or all three, but he wasn't sure he should push any more than he already had.

Blaine's smile melted into something a little more real, and as Kurt was pondering whether he should pursue the subject Blaine pushed himself up from his chair. "I need another coffee," he said. "Do you want one? Then you can tell me all about the Hummel Family holiday plans; I bet you have a bunch of traditions."

"Old and new," Kurt said. "Blended families means blending traditions, even if those traditions include green bean casserole made with condensed soup."

"You know I like that," Blaine said.

"Of course you do." Kurt shuddered. It really was the most vile concoction, even worse than the jell-o with fruit in it Carole insisted was good summer cookout food. There were such dramatic down-sides to his father having remarried; he didn't get enough credit for putting up with them.

Blaine just laughed. "Your usual?"

Kurt nodded.

"I'll be right back."

"Okay." Kurt watched thoughtfully as Blaine went up to the counter, and for a second he was back in high school, watching a cute boy from across the Lima Bean. He almost told himself to look away before anyone noticed, especially the object of his attention.

It was different, though, because not only was Kurt no longer that naïve boy dreaming of the perfect future he was impatient to have in New York but he also knew that if Blaine caught him looking he'd just smile instead of feeling threatened by the attention. In fact, Blaine had liked Kurt's attention once, and that reminder made the knot of remembered anxiety from high school evaporate. Blaine wouldn't mind Kurt's eyes on him, even here. If Lima hadn't changed, most of the time Kurt was somewhere where he didn't have to guard himself quite so much with the people around him, and Blaine was one of them.

So he looked, appreciating the deep navy cardigan stretched perfectly across his friend's shoulders and tapering down to his waist, and smiled back when Blaine turned and met his gaze.

Kurt was surprised at how fiercely satisfying it was to have that kind of reaction in the Lima Bean, the pleasure of it tingling all the way down to his toes, and he smugly adjusted his tie. No matter what the other patrons of the Lima Bean and all of his high school classmates might have insisted, two gay boys smiled at each other across a table and across the room, they'd held hands for a brief moment, they'd shared confidences and jokes, they'd enjoyed each other, and the world hadn't crumbled around them.

* * *
Checking his Facebook the next day, Kurt was surprised to find Blaine tagged in dozens of pictures from a Warbler party at someone's house that had happened the prior evening. Blaine had mentioned he was getting together with some of his Dalton friends, but this wasn't three or four guys grabbing a pizza; there were at least fifteen different boys in the pictures, sprawled on couches, posing with sodas in front of a huge kitchen island, playing video games, and picking each other up in various combinations and positions.

Kurt found himself grinning at the goofy poses and wide smiles, especially because Blaine's own smiles in the midst of them were as genuine and happy as Kurt had ever seen them. Maybe more. It was like this youthful, giddy-looking Blaine was in his element at last, or possibly again, if this is what his high school life had been like. No wonder he'd been so hurt to lose it. No wonder he still held onto it so deeply.

Glad and only a little wistful that Blaine had finally been able to connect with friends who were worthy of him, Kurt clicked like on his favorite few before closing the window and going downstairs to go over his holiday prep list with Carole.

* * *
Blaine woke up mid-morning at his grandparents' house on Sunday. There was the tempting smell of coffee drifting up from the kitchen, but Blaine buried his face back into his pillow. He'd have to face his grandmother's questions about school at best, and at worst Cooper would be up being himself. It wasn't fair to have to talk to Cooper before his first cup of coffee.

He cracked an eye open and fumbled for his phone to check the time. Ten-ten. Cooper might not be up, but after his antics during the previous night's marathon family Bridge tournament Blaine just couldn't chance it. He'd stay in the refuge of his bed a little while longer.

Unfortunately, after about fifteen minutes of tossing and turning, Blaine had to admit that he wasn't going to go back to sleep, so he rolled onto his side and thumbed on his phone. He scrolled through his e-mail, replied to a few texts that had come in over the night, read the news headlines, checked his Facebook, and then flopped back onto his pillow with a listless fwump.

He knew he should get up. It was the right thing to do. It was his family, after all. They loved him. He was supposed to be spending time with them.

Instead, he pulled up his text app again.

Blaine to Kurt: Are you awake?

Kurt's reply took a minute and a half to appear: It's 10:30. Of course I am.

Blaine typed back: I can't sleep.

Kurt to Blaine: 10:30, Blaine.

Blaine to Kurt: I'm a college student. I'm supposed to sleep 'til noon.

It was five minutes until Kurt replied again: Are you looking for sympathy from me? I've been up since 8.

Blaine to Kurt: Why??

Another five minutes passed, then a series of pictures came through: a sink full of dirty dishes, a half-sheet pan covered with parchment and little balls of dough, a half-dozen cooling grids covered with cookies, a piping bag filled with red icing, and a tight shot of a beautifully iced sugar cookie in the shape of a snowflake.

Blaine to Kurt: YOU'RE BAKING COOKIES?

Kurt to Blaine: How did you figure it out? :P

Blaine to Kurt: My mouth is watering. Now I want cookies.

Kurt to Blaine: I'm pretty sure you always want cookies.

Blaine laughed, because he kind of did. He typed back: It's not fair to taunt me with cookies when I can't have any. And I'm stuck with my family, which means I don't just want cookies. I NEED them.

Kurt to Blaine: Since I can't actually make cookies while texting with you, I think it's even.

Oh, I'm sorry. :( Blaine texted him, though his heart fell a little. I'll let you do that.

Don't be sorry, was Kurt's reply. But I do need to focus on the tuiles. They wait for no man.

Okay. Have fun. Blaine put his phone down on the bedspread and sighed, trying to psych himself up for getting out of bed.

Two minutes later, his phone buzzed again, and he opened up his message to see a picture of Kurt from the chest up, his hair impeccable as always but his apron, the long-sleeved charcoal T-shirt underneath, and one fair cheek dusted with flour and cocoa. His eyes were sparkling, and he was miming biting into a gorgeous white-and-red-frosted cookie that looked just like a present.

Another text came in as Blaine was gaping at the picture. And if I were taunting you with cookies, THAT is what I would have sent you, Kurt wrote.

Blaine sent back a picture of himself pouting, bed-head and all.

Kurt to Blaine: Get some coffee, Blaine. :)

* * *
Kurt slid out from beneath Mr. Nevins' car and sat up on the dolly. "All set, Dad," he said and wiped his hands off on his rag before getting to his feet.

"Thanks, Kurt," his father replied from the next bay, checking something on his clipboard.

"It just needs a careful touch," Kurt told him, "but you should look at it. It's not going to last long. It's more rust than metal."

"Okay. I know he's going to try to baby it as long as he can. Money's tight in this economy. But I'll take a look and give him his options."

Kurt nodded. He brushed his hands off on his coveralls. That was one of the problems with working at his dad's garage; he equated the smells of oil and grease with love and family, but he hated the way they made his hands never feel clean. It made his skin itch.

But then part of that itchy feeling was just being in Lima. He'd only been home a week, and although his heart felt like it was a barely damp sponge being slowly filled to bursting with love from his family, the rest of him was already feeling dry and tired from the eyes of Ohio on him. It was the double-take even of his father's employees upon seeing him in his street clothes. It was the obvious suspicion of people on the sidewalk when they heard his voice in conversation with Rachel. It was the accumulation of years of being judged and hated for exactly who he was that never seemed to go away, no matter how many months he spent in New York.

He wondered not for the first time if he was ever going to find everything he wanted.

"What's next?" he asked with a sigh, because he wasn't going to dwell on it.

"That's it for today," his father replied. "Go do something fun, kid. I know you've been working hard. Enjoy your vacation."

"I do have more shopping to do," Kurt said, perking up some.

His dad adjusted his cap on his head. "Well, that's probably fun for you, huh? Okay. See you at dinner?"

"I'll be there," Kurt said with a smile. He headed into the office and had toed off his boots and unzipped his coveralls to step out of them when his phone buzzed in his pocket. It wasn't a text; it was a call.

He pulled his phone out and raised his eyebrows when he saw Blaine's picture displayed there (not the one from the other morning with Blaine's hair all deliciously rumpled against his pillow in a way Kurt didn't want to acknowledge but one from the cast party with Blaine beaming at the camera with his arm around Angelica). "Hello?" he answered, his heart skipping with worry that something was wrong.

"You sent me cookies," Blaine said with awe.

Kurt laughed and leaned back against the wall as his concern melted away. "I did."

"You sent me a tin full of cookies. They look amazing. They smell amazing." The sound of Blaine inhaling came through clearly.

"Thank you."

"No, thank you. You sent me cookies. How did you even find out my grandparents' address?"

"The phone book?" Kurt suggested with an elated grin at Blaine's happiness.

"Do they even have those anymore?"

"Good point. A little bird told me?"

"Kurt," Blaine said with a laugh and more than a hint of exasperation.

"A little Warbler told me. He was very helpful when I sent him a message on Facebook." Kurt bounced up a little on his toes with delight; Blaine had clearly been stressed about his family visit, and he was thrilled this present had been such a hit.

"You asked Wes?"

"Mm hmm."

"Kurt. I can't believe you did this for me." Blaine's voice was warm and soft and real in his ear, and the near-purr in it made the hair on Kurt's arms lift in unconscious, remembered response. No, he told himself firmly. No. Don't even think about it.

"You said you liked cookies," Kurt said as airily as he could. After all, he'd given some to his friends in Lima, too, and those he'd delivered in person, which was more meaningful according to the etiquette books.

"This is the best Christmas present I'm going to get this year," Blaine told him.

Kurt could feel his cheeks heating in a blush, and the smile on his face was getting so wide it was going to hurt in a minute. "Rachel's going to give you a framed head shot of herself," he managed to reply. "If you're lucky, she might sign it."

Blaine chuckled, but he said, "That's not even close."

"Even though you can reuse the frame for a different picture?"

"I'm thanking you," Blaine said with a smile Kurt could hear as clearly as the words. "Just say you're welcome, Kurt."

"You're welcome," Kurt said, his heart fluttering in his chest from Blaine's sweetness. His voice came out more softly than he'd planned. Then he heard the soft sound of chewing. "Are you eating on the phone?"

"They're cookies," Blaine said, a bit muffled. "I can't resist them."

Kurt rolled the back of his head with joy against the cinderblock wall and tried his best to keep from laughing. "Oh, great. I'm enabling your addiction."

"I can stop any time I want. Oh, some of the lacy ones have chocolate!" There was the sound of a door slamming and voices coming closer. "Oh no. They're home early. I need to go hide these before Cooper sees them. He'll give up his latest no-carb eating plan in a second."

"Okay," Kurt said, his stomach plummeting as he dropped like a stone back into his body from the giddy high of making Blaine so happy.

One second he'd been up in the clouds, and now he was back in his rumpled clothes under his coveralls, with grease dark under his fingernails and Ohio all around him. Reality was a slap in the face.

"But thank you," Blaine told him in a whisper. There was creaking like he was creeping up the stairs.

"Merry Christmas, Blaine."

"Merry Christmas."

With that, the call ended.

Kurt didn't linger dreamily over his phone or the lengthy process of cleaning the grime off of his hands and moisturizing them to replace the oils lost. He didn't let his mind drift to the warmth in Blaine's voice as he refreshed his clothes to go outside. But even so, he was still half-smiling over Blaine's surprise about the cookies by the time he reached his car. He'd succeeded in what he'd set out to do: making his friend happy.

If he was being honest it had been a welcome treat for him, too. Not only did he get to share the joy of this wonderful season with a friend - baking, wrapping, and planning the surprise, all of which filled his heart - but thanks to Blaine's call he also got to be lifted out of Lima for a brief but much-needed moment.

Both parts felt good.

* * *
Blaine to Kurt: Would you like your tin back? [image attached]

Kurt to Blaine: Blaine Anderson, did you eat all of the cookies in that tin in less than twenty-four hours?

Blaine to Kurt: No, but I got you for a minute there, didn't I? :D

*

Blaine to Kurt: Anything good for Christmas? :)

Kurt to Blaine: My dad and Carole got me a new coat. Burberry. It's so gorgeous I'm still in shock.

Kurt to Blaine: What about you?

Blaine to Kurt: I got some delicious cookies.

Kurt to Blaine: No, really.

Blaine to Kurt: I told you they'd be the best gift I got. But I also got some books I wanted.

Blaine to Kurt: Merry Christmas, Kurt.

Kurt to Blaine: Merry Christmas. :)

*

Blaine to Kurt: You're quiet this week. Everything okay?

Kurt to Blaine: Just working. In Ohio. But it's good money & time with my dad if I ignore the rest. What are you up to?

Blaine to Kurt: Helping Cooper send headshots to every director in Hollywood.

Blaine to Kurt: He's having me spray his cologne on them before I put them in the envelopes.

Blaine to Kurt: I'm pretty sure this isn't how you get parts.

*

Kurt to Blaine: Happy New Year, Blaine. :)

Blaine to Kurt: Happy New Year!!!!! I'm having the best year already even if it's only ten minutes old and I hope you are too!!!

* * *
Facebook:

Rachel Berry added 19 new photos to the album New Year's 2014!
     Sugar Motta, Mike Chang, Kurt Hummel and four others like this.
     Tina Cohen-Chang: Almost as good as Times Square, and a lot less crowded!
     Blaine Anderson: You guys look like you had a good time!
     Rachel Berry: We did. :) But we missed you last night, Blaine! See you soon?
     Blaine Anderson: :) I'm back on the 8th. My hangover should be gone by then. Ow.
     Rachel Berry: Kurt and I are flying in on the morning of the 10th. <3

* * *
Finn to Blaine: Hey, you around? We're doing another big movie day tomorrow.

Blaine to Finn: Hi, Finn! Happy 2014! Sorry, I'm in Chicago, but thanks for the invitation!

Finn to Blaine: No problem, dude. Maybe next time?

Blaine to Finn: I'd love it.

* * *
"Left, left," Hiram insisted as LeRoy pulled the car out of the Hummel driveway. "You're going the wrong way."

"I'm taking the back way to the highway," LeRoy replied, not changing course. "You know there's construction on Elm."

"But there's that speed trap on Second that means it'll still take longer," Hiram said. "You should turn around."

"I'm not turning around," Le Roy said. "If you want to drive, be my guest."

"Now, that's not fair," Hiram said, twisting his hands in his lap. "You know I don't drive. Not after that horrific turkey drop incident in Cincinnati. I couldn't even ride on that highway for years."

Rachel leaned across the back seat of the car toward Kurt and said, "It was awful. His nightmares are why I first considered turning vegetarian."

Kurt made a noncommittal noise as the Berry family continued to debate about the best way to get to the airport and his own house faded further and further behind him. He could still feel his dad's arms around him, still smell Carole's perfume in his nose, still feel the warm, full throb of his heart in his chest.

Being with the Berrys - his second home in high school once he and Rachel had become friends and the hope he held onto in the face of his experiences that two gay men could find each other and build a life - was almost as good as being with his family, but he'd already taken the first and biggest step on his trip. He'd left his house and was on his way back to New York, and soon he'd be waving goodbye to Rachel's dads at the security check and to Ohio as the plane rose into the air. Soon he'd be back in the city he loved, with its millions of people and opportunities.

Kurt wasn't good at goodbyes. He wanted to hold onto everything, because he knew how hard it was not to be able to have it again. He knew everything in life was temporary and yet the feelings for it lingered forever; his heart still had a special, empty place where his mother's love was supposed to be. So, since it was so hard to part, he'd asked to hug his family at home, where a tear in his eye would only be greeted with love, and now could use the time in the car to begin the slow process of pulling himself back together, bit by bit, into the Kurt that the rest of the world saw, the Kurt without his dad's broad shoulder to rest his head on, the Kurt who was the envy of other well-dressed students in coffee shops, the Kurt who didn't stop working, who didn't accept defeat, who didn't let anything get him down.

He was that Kurt, too, and in New York he could and would use all of that part of himself to reach the heights that he wanted, but it was hard to set aside the Kurt who played a laughing if ruthless game of gin rummy with Carole at the kitchen table, who helped his dad pick out just the right charms for her bracelet at the local jewelry shop, and who snuck down early Christmas morning with Finn in their pajamas to cook a wonderfully imperfect breakfast in bed for their parents. It was hard to put those parts of his heart back behind the walls he needed to face the rest of the world. It was hard to have to be strong without all of that love, when it had been so wonderful to be wrapped up in it again.

Still, he needed to go back to New York, where in theory he could have everything else he wanted. There was so little for him in Ohio besides judgment, disdain, and that one perfect house and its inhabitants, there was no way he could be who or what he dreamed about when he was there, but it was still a heavy price to pay to leave it to be able to have the rest of his life.

But the amazing rest of his life he was going to have, he reminded himself as he set his jaw and watched Rachel's fathers sitting so familiarly together in the front seat, and it would be worth it in the end. It had to be.

* * *
From: Kurt Hummel
To: [ISR Inner Circle Mailing List]
Subject: First Spring Review Meeting

Everyone,

I hope you're all rested and refreshed from your vacation. I, for one, am happy to have traded the wholesome snowscapes of the Midwest for the grey, trash-studded slush of New York, if only because I have more well-dressed people to look at than just the reflection in my mirror.

I know some of you aren't back on campus yet, but our audition team (Tina and Angelica again, thank you) is already hard at work. So let's have a working dinner at Theo's tomorrow night (the 11th) to rough out the semester ahead. 6 pm. We'll take the back tables, pizza is on me.

Let me know if you can't make it.

- Kurt

* * *
Blaine bounced into Theo's about ten minutes early, too eager to see his friends to wait until the appointed hour. He'd been stuck with his family for the entire break, first at the sterility of his grandparents' and then in a hotel in Chicago with his parents when his father got called back on business - although Cooper had stayed with them through New Year's, and most of what Blaine remembered of their night out had been incredible, at least until Cooper had gone off with two leggy blondes, leaving Blaine to find his way back to the hotel in a city suddenly empty of cabs - and now that he had gotten back to where he was free from all of his family's expectations he was more than ready to see all of his friends again and get back into the much less emotionally tense swing of college. He could just be himself again.

He'd spent the past two days catching up with his dorm-mates as they trickled in, but this was the first time he'd see anyone from the Review. He missed them, all of them, from Kurt to Christa, and he just couldn't slow his steps to get there on the dot of six.

Besides, it was a restaurant. He wouldn't be inconveniencing anyone by getting there ahead of time, and it showed that he took his new role as part of the Review's driving force seriously. He wanted them to be glad they asked. He still couldn't quite believe Kurt trusted him that much and wanted his help and opinions, and he was going to try to prove to him he deserved the honor. This was important.

His smile fell when he found that the back tables of the pizza place were empty, but he slid into a seat facing the door and took out his phone to pass the time. A little bit of Words With Friends later, the door of the shop jingled as it opened and Kurt was walking through toward him.

The tightness of Kurt's expression softened a touch when his eyes lit on Blaine, but he still looked stiff and rigid in his new coat - which looked even better on him than it had in the pictures Blaine had coaxed him to text - his shoulders set and his gait almost stilted in its rigidity.

"What's wrong?" Blaine asked as soon as Kurt was close enough to speak to him. Maybe it wasn't the politest opening to a conversation, but he was too concerned to care. He hadn't seen Kurt like that in months.

Kurt's mouth tightened more. "Nothing," he said, flicking open the fastenings of the coat. He looked nothing like the easy, happy Kurt he'd been in the Lima Bean a few weeks before.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm fine." Kurt dropped his bag onto the table across from Blaine and draped his coat on the chair back. He was dressed in a narrow-corded navy sweater with coordinating epaulets and a stark white shirt beneath, his only accessories a navy and black tie knotted tightly at his collar and the thin silver chain serving as laces for his heavy black motorcycle boots. The outfit was put together well, of course, but it didn't ease the feeling of severity Blaine was getting from him. "How was your trip back? I still can't believe you saw a man traveling with his rat."

"It wasn't a rat," Blaine told him with a laugh, because they'd already had this very argument via text. "It was some kind of hairless teacup dog. I just thought you might like to see the Louis Vuitton carrier it was in."

"I still think it was a knock-off," Kurt insisted. "The clasps didn't look right. Besides, pets are not accessories." He held up a finger toward Blaine. "And if you hold up Paris Hilton as an example to the contrary, our friendship is over."

Blaine just laughed again. "I wouldn't dream of it."

Kurt's mouth loosened a bit more into a smile. "Good." He opened his bag and began to flip through whatever papers he had inside.

"How about you? Are you happy to be back in New York?" Blaine asked as Kurt grew serious once more.

Kurt shrugged and kept digging through his bag. "Yes. Mostly."

"Kurt…" Blaine trailed off, not sure what to think. He and Kurt had traded quite a few texts and Facebook comments over the break, but he'd thought everything was fine. Yet suddenly Kurt was distant again, and Blaine wasn't sure if he'd done something wrong or if he'd imagined the friendship he'd thought they'd had or -

"I'm sorry," Kurt said with a sigh, looking back at him with those striking eyes of his. Blaine had almost forgotten how lovely they were. "It was a long vacation."

"Isn't that good?"

"Mostly," Kurt said again.

Blaine was about to ask if something had happened with Kurt's family - though wouldn't Kurt have said? - when Tina bounded in, Angelica on her heels, and Blaine found himself swept up in hugs from them and a flurry of chatter about being back in school and Tina's new honey-colored highlights.

It wasn't until everyone had arrived and pizzas were on the table that he could lean over to Tina, his eyes still on Kurt where he was looking at something with Angelica on the calendar on his phone, and ask, "Is Kurt okay?"

She glanced over, too. "I think so," she said. "Why?"

"I don't know." Blaine mulled over what to say; it seemed weird to point out that Kurt was kind of stiff. Kurt always held himself tall. He always dressed well. But he was still off to Blaine. He was running their meeting with a brisk efficiency and far fewer smiles than Blaine would have expected for reuniting with friends. "He looks like something is wrong."

"Oh," Tina said, her voice dropping. "I forgot you haven't been through this before. Rachel calls it the Ohio Effect."

"What's the Ohio Effect?"

"Being at home for a long time is hard for him."

"But I thought he had a good relationship with his family," Blaine said, frowning even more, because it didn't make any sense. It's not like he had the best time with his parents, but even he loved vacations.

Tina nodded. "He does. They're great, but he hates being in Lima."

"But he's not there now."

"Yes, but - I think he's torn between being with people who love him or being here where he can be himself. You know?" She tilted her head and looked at him thoughtfully. "Or maybe it's different for you?"

"It's, um - " Blaine didn't know what to say, because it wasn't like Ohio was idyllic for him or anything, but his history there was pretty different from Kurt's. For a start, Dalton had been a safe haven; he hadn't really had any trouble being out once he'd transferred there. The uniform - and most of the other guys wearing it - had protected him, and nobody really bothered him about his sexuality now. And also: "I'm not that close to my family."

"Oh." She smiled and patted his knee. "Well, don't worry about him. He does it at least twice a year, and Rachel assures me he'll get over it when he gets used to being here again. And his clothes will be extra fabulous until he does, which is something to look forward to."

"Okay," Blaine said. He didn't want to argue with her, but it didn't seem right to let Kurt go through all of that without trying to reach out. He might not ache for his own family or hate being in Ohio, but it seemed awful that Kurt did. How could he be happy anywhere if he was always being pulled somewhere else?

"We have a date," Kurt announced to the table, putting down his phone and effectively ending Blaine's conversation. "Tina, let's talk scheduling those auditions."

As active as he was during the rest of the meeting, Blaine continued to mull over Kurt's interactions with Tina's bit of context in place. He could see how Kurt had pulled his defensive shell back around him, and he could now read into the tightness of Kurt's smile or the way his laughter seemed forced and see the pain beneath, coloring everything. It only made Blaine worry more. He knew Tina knew Kurt better than he did, but just because Kurt was used to pulling himself together on his own didn't mean it was right.

Blaine chewed on that thought in the back of his mind over dinner, and when the meeting was over he made sure he left the restaurant beside Kurt. "Where are you headed?" he asked, willing for once to lie about his own destination if it meant they could go in the same direction.

"The Union," Kurt said. "I have to drop off a form at the Student Activities office mail slot."

"Great," Blaine replied. He was pleased he didn't even have to lie, because his dorm was that way. "Mind some company?"

"Of course not," Kurt said, smiling a little at him in a way that almost looked genuine to Blaine's watchful eyes.

They headed down the sidewalk, past a few lingering piles of snow from the last big storm, which they'd missed while they were on break. Blaine hoped there'd be another storm before the winter was over; as crazy as it was, he was looking forward to seeing the city covered in a blanket of sparkling white snow. He could only imagine how it would look falling in the twinkling lights all around them, like a magical movie set come to life.

Blaine pulled himself out of his fanciful daydream; he had way more important things to think about right now. "Two more days until classes start," he said. "Do you have any big plans?"

"No," Kurt said, almost a sigh. "I'd thought I'd get in some extra hours at work and treat myself to something special with the paycheck, but they don't need me. You?"

"Nothing much. I kind of wanted to do something fun in the city."

"Like take in a show or go to the top of the Empire State Building?" Kurt asked as his eyes brightened with interest.

In actuality, Blaine had been thinking about the Hayden Planetarium, because there was nothing that put his feelings into perspective better than sitting in the dark and realizing just how insignificant he really was in the grand scheme of the universe, but he didn't think Kurt would go for that. Instead he said, "Or walking the High Line or taking the ferry somewhere just to do it. Although January might not be the best time for that."

Kurt nodded thoughtfully. "They'd be better in the spring," he agreed.

"Maybe something indoors," Blaine said, and then he paused, like he was considering something instead of having focused this whole conversation to get here to this precarious spot. "Is there something you might want to do? We could do it together."

Blaine could feel his heart pounding, and he told himself it was ridiculous to be so concerned about Kurt that he didn't want to be turned down over a simple offer to do something together. He just really wanted to be there for Kurt so that his friend wouldn't hurt so much, and if Kurt didn't want him to be then Blaine was out of options about how to help him.

All he could do was offer.

Kurt readjusted his bag on his shoulder, and although in reality it was only a few steps before he answered it felt to Blaine like they'd walked miles. "I feel like I should warn you I'm not very good company right now."

"That's okay; I can be good enough company for us both," Blaine insisted, and Kurt's grin broke free like a child seeing a pile of presents, unable to stop itself.

"You have a very high opinion of your charms," Kurt said with a laugh.

Blaine fought back his instinct to protest that he didn't and said instead, "And I think you have a very low opinion of how much fun you can be to be with."

Kurt's lips parted for a second in surprise before he snapped his jaw shut, raised his chin, and said as if in a dare, "We'll see how you feel after I drag you through the Costume Institute tomorrow afternoon."

"If I'm miserable, you can buy me coffee afterwards," Blaine told him, though the thought of being able to see some of the clothes he used to gaze at in Vogue in person was enticing enough that he knew he'd have a good time there even alone, and in Kurt's company it was going to be amazing. "And if I'm not, it's on me."

"Okay. It's a deal," Kurt said.

Blaine stepped to the side, waving his hand to gesture for Kurt to precede him through the narrow arched doorway they'd reached that would take them into the quad. "It's a deal," he replied.

* * *
Three days later, Tina sent Blaine a text: Had dinner with Kurt tonight. Looks like the Ohio Effect is already going away. Stop worrying!

Blaine, who had spent the afternoon with Kurt at a black-and-white film retrospective at the art house cinema two blocks from his dorm, sent back: I'm not worrying!

He wasn't, because even if Kurt wasn't talking to him about why he was so unhappy beneath it all, as they spent time together the shadows in his eyes seemed to be lightening all the same.

* * *
Blaine to Kurt: You want a cookie.

Kurt to Blaine: Excuse me?

Blaine to Kurt: You want this cookie. [image attached]

Kurt to Blaine: What is going on?

Blaine to Kurt: I don't know; it worked when you did it to me…

Kurt to Blaine: In that instance, you were standing in front of me, and I had a cookie in my hand.

Blaine to Kurt: I have a cookie next to me!

Blaine to Kurt: See? [image attached]

Kurt to Blaine: And it's midnight, I'm in my room, and I can see from your picture that you are in YOUR room. It's not the same. :P

Blaine to Kurt: Huh. I guess I didn't think this through.

Kurt to Blaine: I guess not. And also I'm less susceptible to baked goods than you are, as much as I like them.

Blaine to Kurt: Fine. You want this spring green pea risotto with mascarpone and crusty bread. [image attached]

Kurt to Blaine: Did you just grab that off of google images? I know you don't have that in your room. Also it's watermarked.

Blaine to Kurt: … yes.

Kurt to Blaine: :P Cheater.

Kurt to Blaine: But it does look good. :(

* * *
Kurt's fingers beat a silent rhythm against the strap of his bag as he sat on a bench in the lobby of the fine arts building and stared without seeing across the pale, polished stone floor.

He had so much to do, and he turned it over in endless loops in his mind: set his preliminary work hours, e-mail his seminar professor, double-check the Review's budget from the student activities account, start in on his reading, replenish his supply of lemon tea for his throat, help Rachel select her audition song for the musical, reorganize his accessories drawer before it became so much of a jumble he spent ten minutes every day looking for the item he wanted like he had that morning, reply to Carole's note about -

His list cut off short when he saw Blaine skipping down the steps from the second floor and smiling as soon as he caught sight of Kurt.

Kurt stood, his heart lifting in his chest and a smile growing on his own face.

"Are you ready for this?" Blaine asked, buttoning up his pea coat as he walked over. "I know this is like a religious pilgrimage for you."

"I'm ready," Kurt assured him. "I'm more worried about you. I know you watch the show, too."

"I have a handkerchief just in case either of us tears up." Blaine patted his bag, and the way he was grinning made Kurt feel positively giddy.

Kurt gestured toward the doors. "Then I think we're ready. Shall we?"

* * *
Facebook:

Blaine Anderson added 6 new photos to the album New York.
     Rachel Berry, Rob Kusiowsky, Sidney Barrows and three others like this.
     Tina Cohen-Chang: OMG! You went to Mood? Did you see Tim Gunn?
     Kurt Hummel: Sadly, no Tim. :(
     Blaine Anderson: But we did see Swatch the dog! :D
     Tina Cohen-Chang: Awww! :) :) :) Is he as cool as he looks?
     Kurt Hummel: Swatch was very well-behaved. Unlike my companion.
     Blaine Anderson: He WANTED me to pet him. DID YOU SEE HIS EYES?
     Kurt Hummel: I should have taken a picture of you lying on the floor with him. :P
     Blaine Anderson: You should have! It could have been my new profile picture!

* * *
Kurt to Blaine: Did she really just do that?

Blaine to Kurt: How could she pick him??? Can't she see he's just using her?

Kurt to Blaine: Oh, god, why is he using tongue??

Blaine to Kurt: Why is she letting him?

Kurt to Blaine: And that dress is definitely a shirt. Tim Gunn would be horrified.

Kurt to Blaine: No! Don't let him - oh, screw this, I'm calling you. I can't type and watch the TV at the same time.

* * *
Blaine was just on the verge of dozing off over his Econ reading in the middle of the coffee shop when his phone rang. He straightened up, blinked himself awake and answered it. "Hello?"

"Blaine! Oh, thank god," came Angelica's relieved voice.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Are you ready to do me a huge favor that will keep you in boxes of cereal for at least a month?" she asked.

"Sure?"

"Are you free tonight around eight to help me with auditions? Tina's lab section got moved, and I don't want to reschedule everyone who signed up."

Blaine tamped down his excitement and focused on his schedule for a moment, since the semester had barely started, and he didn't have his class and extracurricular meetings fixed in his head yet. He thought for a second. Yes, tonight was one of his clear nights. "I'm free, and I'm happy to help!"

"You are the best," she said with a sigh. "Thank you. It's in room one-sixteen in the music building. We start at eight."

"Do you want me to come a little early to help set up?" he asked.

"I can do it. You're already doing me a favor by pinch-hitting, and - "

"Angelica," he said with a fond shake of his head, "I don't mind at all. It's not all on your shoulders, you know. We're in this together."

He could hear her smile in her voice. "Just for that you're getting an extra box, mister frosted wheat squares."

Blaine laughed. "Okay."

"Oh, hey, could you let Kurt know about the switch? I know he trusts you and doesn't want to be involved in the auditions, but I've got to get to class, and I don't want him to find out about the changes after the fact."

"Sure, I'll tell him right now," Blaine said.

"Thanks. You're the best, and you know I don't say that lightly."

"You are, too, Ang. Thanks for asking me." Blaine couldn't help but smile as he shut off the call, warmed and thrilled that he was asked to step into such an important role as vetting the prospective participants in the Review.

"Everything okay?" Kurt asked, glancing up from his own reading where he sat in the comfortable chair across from Blaine.

"Ang asked me to take Tina's place at the auditions tonight; Tina's lab got moved."

Kurt stretched his neck and settled back into his chair. "Better you than me."

Kurt's response was so easy and accepting, like it didn't bother him at all, that Blaine had to ask, "So you really don't mind?"

"Why would I mind?" Kurt asked, looking up in surprise. "I asked you to help out with the Review. Clearly I trust your opinions."

"Oh. Okay." Blaine's smile grew a little softer with the matter-of-factness of Kurt's faith in him, and he looked down at his reading as he tried to keep his elation to a reasonable level at finding his feet on such solid ground in this group. He'd just missed it so desperately since everything fell apart from the Warblers, and here it was being offered to him like it was the easiest thing in the world. "Thank you."

"You're the one doing me the favor." Kurt put down his book and stood up. "I need another coffee, I think. You?"

Blaine nodded and gestured to his own reading. He felt like he was falling asleep just glancing for a second at the pages. "Yeah. Econ 102 is already about as dry as 101."

"That's why I keep telling you to take higher level classes or subjects that are a little more interesting. My theater seminar is going to be hard, but it'll be worth it for what I get out of it."

"I just thought I should get some basics out of the way," Blaine said.

"College isn't for basics," Kurt said. He rooted through his bag for another minute before he pulled out his wallet with a little sound of victory. "It's for learning and absorbing as much as you can about the things you're passionate about so you can get out of here ready to spread your wings."

Blaine could see the merit in Kurt's thinking, but then Kurt was already well down the road toward success in his field. He was already an exceptional performer, and he was focused and driven. Blaine loved music and performing, but he didn't have the same fire about it that Kurt did. He wasn't sure if the drama within the Warblers had taken that away from him or if he'd just grown up and seen the wisdom of his father's advice to have more in his life than just that, even if nothing he'd found made his blood burn like being on stage did.

"I don't know what I want yet," he admitted, trying not to feel too much like he didn't measure up in comparison, "so I'm sticking to building a foundation for now."

Kurt tilted his head and looked at him. "If you don't know what you want, shouldn't you be trying out lots of things to figure it out?"

"I'm trying econ," Blaine reminded him.

"Yes, and how's that working out for you?" Kurt asked with a lift of his eyebrows and a little laugh.

Blaine pulled out a charming grin. "Well, for a start, I'm catching up on my sleep."

Kurt rolled his eyes, but it was clearly without malice, and he tapped his wallet. "Which is why you need a coffee. I'll be back."

Blaine watched Kurt pivot gracefully on the ball of his foot and walk up to the counter to order, his long silver scarf trailing down to his knees and his jeans just the perfect shade of greyed denim in contrast, and wondered what it would be like to be so sure of who he was and what he wanted. He knew Kurt was mature for their age, because it wasn't like most college students had their goals planned out. That was what college was for, wasn't it? Not to be too serious and just to have fun and let yourself figure things out as you went?

Blaine wasn't Kurt, and he wasn't going to be Kurt. He would never be that secure or special. He'd faced that fact often enough - with his father, with Cooper, with Sebastian - to know it was true. He knew he was charismatic and likeable when he tried, but it wasn't the same. Every time he thought he knew what he was doing, he was wrong: he was beaten up going to a dance, he chased a guy who wasn't interested in him, he found a boyfriend who was focused on all of his faults, he lost his status with his friends while trying to make peace, and he got his heart torn apart and stomped into the ground.

Kurt pushed and made things happen like the Review. Blaine pushed, went entirely the wrong way, and fell flat on his face.

That was why in college he was doing everything differently, because what he'd thought was correct in the past had been so very wrong.

No, he thought, watching Kurt standing so assuredly at the counter, there was no way he could be half of what Kurt was, but that was part of the fun of being friends with him. Blaine could enjoy his sure sense of direction vicariously without having to choose his own path and risk getting stuck yet again doing something that wasn't right for him.

He could just enjoy the honor of being able to sit across from Kurt and watch him be his amazing self and reach for those stars.

Maybe someday he'd figure himself out, too.

Looking at Kurt, at how extraordinary he was and what amazing things he could achieve, Blaine found that he really wanted to.

* * *
Rachel to Kurt: The NYADA spring musical was announced today!!!!!! You'll never guess!

Kurt to Rachel: Ours is up tomorrow. I've been trying to snoop in the office, but Karen kicked me out. :(

Rachel to Kurt: Fingers crossed for you! Want to wait until I come over for Tina's surprise birthday dinner tomorrow to share the news? It'll be like our college letters all over again!

Kurt to Rachel: Yes, remember how well THAT went. :P

Rachel to Kurt: You know what I mean!

* * *
"It's Annie Get Your Gun!" Rachel announced with delight as soon as she saw Kurt walking into the lobby of the Union.

"Brigadoon," Kurt said, sighing out the word. He slumped down next to her onto the padded bench and let his bag drop to the floor. He'd been so excited when he'd seen the stack of scripts for Kiss Me, Kate in the theater office the month before, but apparently they were for one of the seminars. Not that he expected to have gotten a lead, but it would have been a dream to have been in the production at all. For the musical to be Brigadoon instead, so saccharine and pointless in comparison to the brilliance of Cole Porter… He sighed again.

Rachel's face fell before she pasted on a more cheerful expression and said, "On the plus side, there are a lot of parts in it."

"Yes, it will be a crowning achievement for me to play Scottish Villager Number Three," Kurt told her. "Although at this point it would be an achievement to get cast." He tried to think positively. He couldn't change their choice, after all. "At least I'm pale enough for it."

"This is why you started the Review, Kurt," Rachel reminded him. "You know how it is being an underclassperson."

Kurt was beginning to think that even as a senior he wouldn't get more than a background part in the play, but he didn't feel like arguing about it. Pessimism was the last thing he needed to encourage. He just had to keep working. "Any hope that La Sturdevant won't try out for Annie Oakley?" he asked.

"None at all," she replied with a sigh of her own. "But I think they're doing the original version of the musical, so if I don't get Annie I will allow myself to settle for Winnie and her two songs. They're duets and not solos, and Annie's songs are better, of course, but I can be humble and wait my turn if I absolutely have to." She twisted her hands in her lap, her eyes going fierce. "I'm sure not going down without a fight, though. I'm going to sing my heart out at that audition. If Julia thinks she can rest on her laurels and her seniority, she should think again."

"Make it hard for them not to cast you."

Rachel nodded. "Exactly." She reached out and took his hand; her hand was small but strong, a familiar comfort in his own. "Never make it easy for them to say no. Fight until we can't fight anymore, right? And then keep fighting, anyway. That's what we said before we came to New York."

Kurt smiled a little, remembering their more optimistic selves on their final night in Lima before driving with their parents to college. They'd both spent the evening at home with their families, but as it approached midnight Rachel had called him, and they'd talked into the wee hours in hushed voices about their hopes and dreams, one last time before that big step of moving toward them.

"That's why we're here," he said, squeezing her hand. Rachel might have her self-centered moments, but she understood his drive best of anyone, he thought. She understood what it meant to want something so badly you'd throw yourself against the rocky shoals of rejection over and over again in the desperate need to make it to the beach of success beyond. She understood what it meant not to be willing to settle for mediocrity. She understood what it meant to want to have it all - career, love, respect, everything - and to fight and fight to try to make it happen.

"To make it," she agreed breathlessly.

"Even if it means auditioning for Brigadoon," Kurt said, half in amusement and half in resignation.

"There are no bad plays, only bad actors, Kurt," Rachel said.

"No," Kurt told her, "there are plenty of bad plays."

"All right, fine, but you can still be discovered in them!"

Kurt patted her hand and let it go. He watched a group of guys walk through the lobby and wondered what it was about wool winter coats that could make even disreputable college boys look relatively well put together. It was probably that the coats were long enough to cover their ratty sweaters and show off their broad shoulders and trim waists and that their too-long hair was disguised by much tidier hats. Whatever it was, he didn't mind that they were nicer to look at than normal. He deserved a little eye candy, too. He deserved something to make his heart beat a little faster.

"… and I still have some money left over from the holidays," Rachel was saying as he turned his attention back to her. "Do you want to rush a show this week before our classes get too intense?"

Kurt weighed the unpleasantness of waiting outside for hours in the cold with the prospect of sitting in a Broadway theater as the orchestra swelled and the lights rose on the stage and said, already caught in the magic of it, "Absolutely."

"Let's draw up a list of what we'd like to see, and we can narrow it down from there."

"I'm up for anything," Kurt said. "Any of the big shows." He blinked himself back from the dreamy thoughts of the theater with the memory of a recent argument he'd had. "Except Starlight Express." He turned more fully toward her. "I don't care how much Blaine begs and pleads, I don't care how big his puppy dog eyes get, Rachel, I am not going to the revival of Starlight Express. Do not let him convince you. He will try, but you need to stay strong. Do it for me. Do it for yourself. Do it for him, because he clearly needs to develop good taste."

Rachel's eyes were wide, and he thought for a horrible minute that she was going to argue with him and say that she wanted to see it, too, and then she smiled sunnily and said, "I will hold firm, I promise."

"Keep your guard up. He can be very convincing," he told her. How else had he ended up walking across the Brooklyn Bridge with Blaine in January, no matter how bright a day it had been?

"I'm sure," she said, still smiling. Her gaze flicked over his shoulder, and she said, "Oh! Here's Mike!"

"Whew, I was worried I was late!" Mike said, and almost as soon as they'd all greeted each other Blaine and Tina appeared, too, coming in arm-in-arm through the doorway.

Blaine's grin grew as Tina squealed at the assembled group and threw her arms around him, squeezing Blaine until he laughed before rushing over to get caught up in a big group hug.

"Surprise!" Rachel said.

Mike kissed the top of Tina's head. "Happy Birthday!"

"You guys!" Tina beamed at them each in turn. "I thought you'd forgotten!" She poked Mike in the chest. "And I thought you had class."

"Nope," Mike said, and the soft smile he gave her, full of amusement and adoration, made Kurt's chest ache both with happiness for her and with the same sense of sadness for himself he could never quite forget at a reminder that he didn't have anything like what they did.

"And we have reservations for dinner, so I hope you're hungry," Rachel said, interrupting the sweet moment in her inimitable way.

"I'm always hungry," Tina said with a grin as she leaned into Mike and Kurt's chest hurt that much more.

Kurt scooped up his bag and followed his friends out into the chilly night. He hunched into his collar against the bite of the wind and was glad for his thick scarf, even if he wished a hat would have gone with his outfit. The things he suffered for fashion.

A minute or so later, Blaine fell back so that he could walk beside him. "She seemed surprised," he said, tucking his hands into his pockets.

Kurt nodded. "I think so. Did she give you any trouble getting her here?"

"Not really. She was so sad about her birthday being ignored that it was easy to get her to go out with me." Blaine looked over at him; with the way his brows were drawn together, he didn't seem happy. "I feel kind of bad setting her up like that."

"That's how surprise parties work," Kurt reminded him. "If she'd known we were all waiting for her to take her out, it would have defeated the purpose."

"I guess I don't like surprises that much," Blaine said, his focus returning to Tina's back. "It doesn't seem right that she has to feel bad to be happy."

Kurt watched Blaine a little more closely and went with his suspicion to say, "Not all surprises are good ones."

"That's true," was Blaine's all-too-knowing response. "You don't always get what you want. Or give the other person what they want."

Kurt wondered which had happened to Blaine. Probably both, and it made him sad to think about it. Whether it had been his family or his ex-boyfriend who had let him down, Blaine deserved better than that. "But sometimes you do," he said gently. "She seems happy now, don't you think?"

"No, this is a good one." Blaine's smile returned. "You're right."

"Of course I'm right," was Kurt's automatic response, and he laughed as Blaine grinned at him.

"Hey," Blaine said, walking just a hair closer to him. "Speaking of being right, did you hear about the play today? Kiss Me, Kate?" His eyes were bright and hopeful on Kurt's behalf.

Kurt's shoulders dropped with the memory, as much as he was charmed that Blaine had remembered. "No. Brigadoon," he said hollowly.

"You make that sound like a death sentence," Blaine said.

"It is. An insipid death sentence filled with horrible accents. And probably no kilts."

Blaine watched him, frowning a little. "But you're still going to audition, right?"

"Oh, yes," Kurt sighed. "Of course I am. I'm a glutton for punishment if there could be a spotlight at the end."

"Good. Not the punishment part, but you should try out."

Kurt was about to ask why it mattered to him when Rachel looked back over her shoulder from where she'd been talking with Mike and Tina and said, "Blaine! We're rushing a show on Friday. Are you free?"

"I am, and I'd love to!" he said, a bounce coming into his step. "What are we rushing?"

"We aren't sure yet," Tina said.

"I've really been wanting to see Star- " Blaine began excitedly.

"No," Kurt cut him off.

Blaine turned to him, his eyes going sad. "But, Kurt - "

"No," Kurt told him.

"But they're on roller skates!" Blaine said, turning even more so that he was walking backwards in front of him.

"Exactly!"

"But - "

"Absolutely not, Blaine," Kurt said, and he kept his expression firm as Blaine looked up at him pleadingly from under his impossibly long lashes. It wasn't easy, but the threat of Starlight Express was enough to keep him steady.

"Oh, we will definitely make this work out," Rachel said with a laugh.

Kurt was too busy glaring at Blaine to focus on the ominous undertone to her words.

Chapter Text

Tina to Blaine: Dinner tonight at the Union for hump day? Veggie pizza and curly fries! Y/Y?

Blaine to Tina: Yes! 6?

Tina to Blaine: Perfect! See you there!

 

Kurt to Angelica: We need to redo part of the schedule. FML. Darlene strikes again.

Angelica to Kurt: Fuck her and the fucking cow she fucking rode the fuck in on.

Kurt to Angelica: I can't believe you're not going to be a motivational speaker with pithy comments like that.

Angelica to Kurt: You fucking love it. :) Want to meet over dinner? Union at 6:15?

Kurt to Angelica: Great.

Kurt to Angelica: Wait, no. Sorry. I thought it was Tuesday. I work 'til 8 on Wednesdays. Late dinner?

Angelica to Kurt: I have film class at 8:30. Let's do tomorrow lunch? Usual table?

Kurt to Angelica: See you at 12.

* * *

"I don't know why I picked chem," Tina said, setting her tray down across from Blaine on the two-person table in the Union. "Someone should have told me."

"What's wrong with chemistry?" he asked. He waited until she was settled and had her napkin in her lap before he picked up one of his fries.

She tucked her hair behind her ear and said, "It's all of the mess of bio and all of the math of physics. I should have picked something easier for my lab requirement. Like geology."

"Rob's taking that. He says they get to go on a camping trip in April to look at rocks out in the wild."

She giggled. "Ooh, rocks in their native habitats. I hope they don't bite anyone. I hear they're dangerous when cornered."

"You never know," Blaine said, smiling back. "Although I read his syllabus to see if I wanted to take it next year, and it doesn't sound as easy as he thinks it's going to be."

"At least you don't have to memorize equations." She took a bite of her pizza and closed her eyes with a pleasure that was contagious. "Mmm, pizza."

Blaine dipped another curly fry in his ketchup and popped it in his mouth. "This was a good idea," he told her, and he meant more than just the food, which was better than the dorm cafeteria's. There was something about her that he just really liked; she sparkled, she cared, and there was a quiet seriousness beneath the surface that called to something deep and still within his own heart that yearned to be touched.

Her smile grew even brighter. "I think so, too." She bumped his foot with hers beneath the table. "Oh, and Mike says hi."

"Hi to Mike," Blaine said.

"He also said to say thank you again for helping with my birthday, but I'm not passing that along because I'm still not sure I forgive you." She delivered the sentence with such cheer, though, that he wasn't worried.

"It was all his idea," he reminded her. "He was sure you'd like it."

"I did!" she said. "Even if I had to spend the afternoon moping and feeling unloved, the evening totally made up for it."

That last lingering bit of worry in Blaine's heart eased; she'd been happy. Mike had been right that she wouldn't mind long-term. "I'm glad he knows you so well."

"He'd better after being together this long," she replied around another bite of pizza.

"You guys have something special," he said. He'd never seen a couple so young work so well together. He had to be impressed. A part of him wished that it was so easy for everyone, because if that was what love was everyone should have it. Unfortunately, as he well knew, it wasn't. Love could hurt and twist in your gut and make you feel frustrated and foolish instead.

"We do." She chewed her lip and smiled down at her plate for a moment, like she was thinking of something fondly, and then looked up and asked, "So how are your classes going? Is your schedule set?"

He nodded. "I stuck with what I registered for," he said. "It's kind of boring, but I'm getting a good base and crossing off my requirements."

"That's good," she said. "Though I'm sorry it's all boring. I mean, I can tell I'm going to have to fight my way through chemistry, but at least I have my awesome anthro class to look forward to, you know?"

"Yeah." Blaine swirled the tip of his fry in his ketchup, watching the ripples it left behind slowly smooth back out again. "Kurt told me I should branch out more, but I just don't know. I want to be smart about it."

Tina's eyebrows raised, her eyes going sharp on his. "Sometimes Kurt is very wise."

"Oh, I know," he said with a self-conscious laugh. "He definitely is. And he's probably right. I just couldn't see telling my father I was going to drop microeconomics to take a psychology class." It had been tempting, though; a whole class about learning about how other people think would have been interesting. And then there had been all of the offerings in the music and theater departments…

"Maybe next year," Tina said. "I mean, college is about us, right? If Mike had listened to his dad, he wouldn't be at Tisch studying dance. He'd be premed or something right now at one of the Ivies. It was a close call."

That made Blaine stop with the forkful of pizza halfway up to his mouth. "Mike wasn't going to dance?" he asked. It was unthinkable. "But he's so talented. He's incredible."

"I know, but it's not the 'smart' choice," she said, putting air-quotes around his own word.

"Wow." He sat back in his chair and put his fork down. How could someone with such an obvious talent be willing to give it up? "That's like Kurt deciding to be an investment banker. I mean, I'm sure he'd be good at it if he put his mind to it, and he'd probably revolutionize Wall Street fashion, but it's hard to imagine him not performing or doing something creative."

"It is, isn't it," she said with an enigmatic smile playing at her mouth. "You're getting to know him pretty well, huh?"

"I think so," Blaine said, suddenly uncomfortable, because he didn't want her to think that he was assuming he was closer to Kurt than she was. She'd known him for years, after all, and he and Kurt hadn't been friendly all that long, even if sometimes it felt like they'd known each other forever. It wasn't just the extra insight he had about Kurt because they'd had sex - though if he thought about it, which he tried not to because the experience had hurt Kurt so much and because it felt rude to fantasize about a friend, he definitely could see more of Kurt's heart because of it - but because there was just something in their friendship that he'd always been looking for without knowing, a bone-deep connection between two people, and it filled him up like nothing else. It made him nervous even to think about how much he liked it.

There was nothing bitter in her smile, though, which helped take the edge off of his worry that he'd offended her. "That's good," she said. "He's great."

"He is," he said.

"He seems to like you, too," she said, still smiling.

"I hope so," he replied honestly.

"You'd know it if he didn't," she said, which made him laugh, because he knew that very well, after all.

"I'm pretty sure we already did that part."

She laughed back and said with such warmth in her voice, "Yeah, he takes a little while to warm up. But once you're in, you're in."

Blaine sincerely hoped so, because the last thing he wanted was to be shunned by Kurt again; it had hurt the last time, and he'd had no idea what it was like actually to be friends with him then. It would be crushing to do it again. But he was going to do his absolute best to make sure that that didn't happen.

A warm hand landing on his shoulder broke him out of his thoughts, and he jumped in his chair and looked up to find Peter standing there, his smile already warm. "Peter!" he said with pleasure.

"Hey, Blaine. Sorry to interrupt," Peter said, smiling his apology at Tina. "I had a question for you, and it seemed silly to text you from three tables away when I could just walk over and ask."

"It's not a problem," Blaine assured him. "Tina, this is Peter. Peter, Tina."

"Hi," she said with a little wave of her fingers.

"Hey," he replied, then turned back to Blaine. "So the director of the youth center just e-mailed me and wanted to see if you might be able to come sing again this weekend. He said they're trying to get a new group started on Saturday afternoons, and he thinks having some college kids there doing music would really help draw them in."

"Sure!" Blaine said. He didn't have to think about it; he loved helping out there, and he loved singing. Obviously he would do it. "I'd be happy to. I'll see if I can get some of my friends to come, too."

"That would be awesome." Peter squeezed Blaine's shoulder and then patted it, and Blaine's heart beat a little faster at how great it was to be thought of and appreciated. "I'll text you the time when he gets back to me, okay? I think it's around two or two-thirty."

"Great," Blaine said, smiling up at him.

"Great," Peter said, smiling back before turning his attention to Tina. "Nice to meet you."

"You, too," she said as she chewed thoughtfully on her straw. She waited until he was out of earshot before saying, "He seems nice."

Blaine nodded. "He is. I met him the first week of school at an LGBT Alliance meeting."

"And you sing at a youth center with him?"

"Not with him. He doesn't sing. Not well, anyway," Blaine said with a laugh. "But sometimes I perform with some of the other students, and we had the Keynotes over a few times in the fall. I think we'll do it again, though it's kind of short notice for this weekend because everyone's schedules are so crazy. I can ask, but…" Inspiration struck in a flash of brilliance, and he leaned forward over his tray toward her. "Hey, do you think Kurt might like to go?"

Her eyebrows raised again, but after a second her face lit up with another of her wonderful smiles. "I bet he would," she said. "You should definitely ask him!"

"Okay," he said, nodding. "Did you know Kurt and I haven't really sung together? I realized that on the last karaoke night. I haven't sung a duet with him yet. I feel like I have with everyone else, but not him." It always looked like Kurt was having fun with his duet partners, too, and Blaine was ready to be on the receiving end of that challenging and yet inclusive look in Kurt's eyes.

"You should absolutely do that, too," Tina told him, her smile growing even wider. "All you have to do is ask him."

Blaine smiled back, because now that he and Kurt were getting to be such good friends, it really was as easy as all that. There wasn't anything prickly between them anymore. He could just ask, and Kurt would say yes. "I can do that."

* * *

Finn to Kurt: Dude, those flowers you sent were awesome, mom loved them

Kurt to Finn: I'm glad. I'm sorry I couldn't be there for her birthday, though. :(

Finn to Kurt: us too, Burt took us to Breadstix and made her cry with the necklace he bought her too - she had a good night

Kurt to Finn: Good.

 

Kurt to Rachel: Break a leg on your call-back tomorrow. Remember, we are here to make it big. It's why we do everything. Don't take no for an answer.

Kurt to Blaine: I have to go to the bookstore tomorrow morning. Do you have all of your books for your classes?

* * *

"Wait, why is Econ 102 in between Econ 304 and English 311?" Blaine asked, peering at the computer printed labels on the white metal shelves that held row after row of books for the university's classes.

"Because the college bookstore is one of Dante's lesser known circles of hell," Kurt replied. He readjusted the wire basket containing his books where it was looped over his arm. It was heavy and uncomfortable, but even more it was threatening to leave compression lines on his svelte suede coat.

Blaine frowned at the label, which looked like it had been printed by a machine that was running out of toner and was possibly also intoxicated. "I don't understand why they aren't arranged by course number."

"I think I just answered that question."

"Hmm." Blaine turned to the stacks of books on the marked shelf, glanced at the paper in his hand, and then looked back at the books. "Okay, my syllabus says we have four books, but I only see three here. No wonder I'm missing one."

"Is it on the end cap?" Kurt asked, twisting so he could see what was displayed there. "No, those all seem to be in Italian."

"That adds weight to your Dante theory." Blaine folded up the paper in his hand. "I'm going to have to ask someone. I need it for this weekend; I can't order it online."

Kurt trailed behind him as Blaine set off for the counters; he wasn't sure if he should be impressed by Blaine's optimism or just feel sorry for him that his hopes for finding a helpful person at the store were going to be dashed on the sharp rocks of the reality of minimum wage student employment.

There was a single student with a name badge working the information counter and a line of three people waiting for his help, so they took their place at the end of it, Blaine with determination and Kurt with a sigh. At this rate they were going to have to skip their planned post-bookstore coffee and head straight to lunch.

"Hey, speaking of the weekend," Blaine said, "are you free Saturday afternoon?"

"I have my call-back for Brigadoon at two-thirty," Kurt said; it was hardly cause for celebration, but a call-back was a call-back. "I should be out by three-thirty."

Blaine's face fell sharply for a second before he smoothed it out again. "Oh. Okay."

"Why?" Kurt asked, taken aback by how disappointed Blaine had looked.

"I was hoping you'd come to the LGBT youth center with us, that's all. It's okay."

Even more surprised by the content of the invitation, Kurt had to ask, "With us?"

"The Alliance. I'm sure you've met some of them: Peter, Julie, Meg… The center asked us to sing Saturday afternoon, and I thought you might like to do it with me. That's all." Blaine shrugged and offered him an easy, unassuming smile.

"Oh." They edged forward in line, which gave Kurt a welcome moment to regroup. He was more pleased than he would have expected that Blaine wanted to include him in one of his own activities, but he also had so little interest in any of the Alliance members. He knew Blaine was friends with that group, but Kurt's dealings with them had been largely centered around the meat market that was the college hookup scene, and no amount of engaging in social outreach and STD awareness was worth having to suffer through their seemingly endless sexual adventures, either in conversation or right in front of him. He supposed they could have some redeeming qualities if Blaine liked them, but… "I have my call-back," he said again, both explanation and apology.

"I know. It's okay. Break a leg."

"Thanks. You know how I'm dying to freshen up my brogue."

"It's an important skill for any actor," Blaine said with a grin, stepping up to the counter. His smile turned bright and professional as he turned to the worker behind it. "Hi, I'm looking for - "

"Blaine!" the boy said, and Kurt couldn't help but give him a quick head-to-toe once over from the top of his messy brown hair, down his rugby shirt, to the scuffed Converse sneakers to his feet. It was boring and was all he needed to dismiss him, except for the fact that the boy seemed very happy to see Blaine.

"Hi, Aaron," Blaine said; Kurt saw him glance at Aaron's name badge, but he did it so smoothly he doubted Aaron noticed. "It's nice to see you."

"You, too. How's your year been treating you? I haven't seen you since that party last fall."

"I'm great, thanks. How are you?" Blaine glanced over at Kurt and then smoothed his syllabus out on the top of the counter.

"Good, good. So what's up?" Aaron asked.

"I was wondering if you could help me find this book for my Econ class."

"Is it 102 with Peters?" Aaron said, looking at the paper. "Yeah, that theory book isn't in yet. Try again Wednesday or Thursday."

"But we have reading due Monday," Blaine said, his brows drawing together.

Aaron shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you. Maybe it's on reserve? We don't have it here."

"Okay." Blaine slid his syllabus back into his bag and pulled out his friendly smile again, the one that Kurt now knew didn't actually make it into his eyes. "Well, thanks. It was nice seeing you."

"You, too," Aaron said. He gave Kurt a quick once-over, shrugged to himself, and said more quietly to Blaine, "Look, we have a party at our apartment almost every Saturday if you wanted to stop by again."

Blaine's smile froze, and Kurt realized with a jolt that Aaron was trying to pick Blaine up right there in front of him. It wasn't like he couldn't, because Kurt was only Blaine's friend, but he still didn't need to stand there while it happened like he was nothing, like he wouldn't care at all. He felt the blood rush from his face in shock and something far too close to dismay to be comfortable about it.

"Um." Blaine cleared his throat and so very obviously did not look at Kurt. It was all the indication Kurt needed that Blaine didn't want him to be there, either.

"I need a new pen," Kurt said as brightly as he could as he stepped back. He knew how to be a wing-man, at least in theory, after so many years of watching Finn and Puck. He could do this. He knew how to do this. "I'll meet you at the registers, Blaine?"

"No, I - "

"Or do you want to skip coffee?" Kurt waved breezily over the thundering of his heart and backed up another step. "That's fine."

"I'll meet you at the registers," Blaine told him, directly meeting his gaze. "I'll be there in a minute."

"Take your time." Kurt shot Aaron a tight smile and went over to the stationery section of the store, focusing on the various pens on display with his back to the two of them. Blue, black, red, green, extra fine tip, medium tip, rollerballs, fountain pens, highlighters, markers, mechanical pencils - it all blurred together, but it didn't matter. He was giving his friend the space he needed. That was the point. Pens were irrelevant.

He tried not to feel too relieved when Blaine joined him only a couple of minutes later, but he couldn't help himself. Whoever Aaron was, he wasn't worth chatting with. Blaine, who could draw out a goodbye with Kurt for a good fifteen minutes, had barely lingered.

On the other hand, Kurt thought more acidly, it didn't take long to arrange an assignation with a willing partner.

Not that it was his business. Blaine was going to do what he was going to do, and Kurt knew that. He accepted that. It didn't change their relationship any; Kurt had known it from the very first moment they met, after all. It was just what Blaine wanted from guys. It was fine. It was a part of who Blaine was, and Kurt accepted it. Of course he did. Blaine was his friend.

It did make him very happy, though, that he wasn't free to go spend the afternoon with Blaine's Alliance friends. He didn't have to be faced with everyone being so free and loose with themselves and how well Blaine fit into that. He didn't need to see it up close and personal again, he thought with a flare of revulsion. He'd seen flirty Blaine out at karaoke enough as it was.

But that didn't matter, he reminded himself firmly over the pounding beat of his pulse in his ears, none of it did, because that wasn't what was important about his relationship with his friend. It didn't change anything. Blaine was who he was, and Kurt liked him. What Blaine did in his free time, what he did with other guys, it wasn't going to stop that.

It had nothing to do with him, absolutely nothing at all.

So Kurt made himself smile as they got in line to pay, and Blaine's own smile, which seemed tentative and nervous, probably for whether Kurt's delicate sensibilities could handle even such basic steps of dating (or whatever he wanted to call it), warmed in return.

"He seemed nice," Kurt offered, unsure of what exactly a wing-man was supposed to say; he usually tuned out Finn and Puck by this point in the assignation.

"Oh." Blaine looked behind him toward the counter. "I guess. I don't know him well. I met him last fall, but we only hung out once."

"I see." Kurt took a step forward in the line. He wasn't exactly sure what to say about that, since he'd obviously also had one night stands and had no room to judge, but it wasn't a comfortable topic for him to talk about with their particular history. He supposed he should just be happy that he'd made more of an impression on Blaine than that particularly bright and helpful specimen of a bookstore worker. At least Blaine had been happy to see him again the next time they'd met.

"I'm sorry about the interruption," Blaine said.

Kurt shrugged. "It's fine," he replied. "You are allowed to know other people, after all." The tightness in his chest eased a little when Blaine grinned back.

As Blaine waved him forward to pay first, though, Kurt's smile faded again. He felt as if he'd just failed an important test, at least in his heart.

Part of him had to wonder if he'd ever stop hurting deep inside, feeling small and alone and unspecial, when their sexual history or Blaine's activities were shoved unexpectedly in front of his face. He hoped so. He wanted to. He wanted to be able to look past that kind of thing all of the time like everyone else instead of still having to work at it when taken off-guard. He wanted to be as unconcerned about it as Blaine was.

He wanted not to think about it at all.

He raised his chin and made sure his smile was in place when he rejoined his friend. This wasn't Blaine's problem. Blaine hadn't done anything wrong; it was just him, with his soft heart and dreams of better things. Kurt had to stop himself from dwelling on it. He had to or risk Blaine picking up on it and things going awkward again. He didn't want that.

So when he saw the headline on one of the glossy magazines by the counter he made a distinct effort not to curb his tongue about it. Blaine responded with a laugh and an opinion of his own that Kurt also had to mock, and somehow with a little effort and the usual harmony between them by the time they got to the coffee shop for their promised post-shopping beverage, it was almost like nothing had ever happened.

* * *

Rachel to Tina and Kurt: Are we on for Sunday brunch? I was invited to a morning choral concert, but of course you both come first. Especially since it's church-related, and the person who invited me only has a music theory concentration.

Tina to Kurt and Rachel: I'm in! Usual time and place?

Rachel to Tina and Kurt: That would be fine. Is Mike free this week?

Tina to Kurt and Rachel: No, he's working.

Kurt to Rachel and Tina: Sunday is good for me.

Rachel to Tina and Kurt: Do you want to invite Blaine, Kurt?

Kurt to Rachel and Tina: Sure. I'll check with him this afternoon.

Rachel to Tina and Kurt: Excellent!

Tina to Kurt and Rachel: :) :)

* * *

Facebook:

Kurt Hummel added 8 new photos to the album A Lesson About the Excesses of Belgian Waffles with Whipped Cream.
     Finn Hudson, Rachel Berry, Blaine Anderson and two others like this.
     Finn Hudson: That looks AWESOME. That's like a whole person's head full of whipped cream on those waffles.
     Kurt Hummel: I still can't believe they both ate it. I can't believe the deli served it.
     Santana Lopez: It's way too easy to say wanky about this one. All that cream.
     Tina Cohen-Chang: It was delicious, Kurt. :P Even if it was messy.
     Blaine Anderson: You should have tried some! Yum!
     Santana Lopez: And again, too easy.

* * *

Blaine's phone chimed with an incoming text as he walked down the sidewalk, and he pulled it out without breaking stride. He didn't want to be late.

Aaron to Blaine: you didn't come by saturday - next time?

With a sigh, Blaine tried not to feel too guilty about not having gone to Aaron's party. He just didn't feel any pull to him, and he'd spent the evening with Rob watching Indiana Jones movies instead.

He typed out a quick but polite reply: Thank you for the invitation, but I'm usually busy on weekends. It was nice catching up with you at the bookstore.

The requirements of good manners satisfied, Blaine dodged around a parked taxi and crossed the street toward the little gallery he'd seen the other day and had decided he wanted to visit.

Blaine started smiling the second he caught sight of a pair of familiar shoulders in a lovely navy jacket, and he switched his phone to silent as he hurried over to where Kurt was peering in through the gallery's window.

He could deal with any more texts later; he didn't want to be distracted from their afternoon of art appreciation and window shopping by things that didn't matter.

* * *

"Okay," Kurt said, turning back from the white board. "Our preliminary idea session has come up with seasons, Shakespeare again, birth and rebirth, aching, and night and day… and if we choose that last one I'm singing Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and will fight to the death for it." He looked around at his core group and hoped they all knew he wasn't kidding. "We have two minutes left. Throw all of your craziest ideas at me. Let's see if any of them stick."

"The wind or weather," Christa said.

"Dragons," said Ethan.

"The senses," said Tina.

"Technology," Ben suggested.

"What?" Ethan asked him. "How is that a theme?"

"It's a theme," Ben said.

"What would you do for it?" Christa asked.

Ben shrugged. "We could use fiber optics in our costumes, sing with music from our iPods…"

"No," Kurt said. "This isn't a gimmicky reality TV challenge. This is art." He checked the clock on the wall. "Forty-five more seconds."

"The rise of only semi-benevolent dictators," Angelica piped up from beside him, and he rolled his eyes at her.

Blaine raised his hand, and when Kurt quirked his eyebrow at him in amusement at the gesture and in acknowledgement of him wanting to speak, he said, "Animals!"

"That's almost as bad as technology," Kurt told him.

"We could dress up the dancers in bull costumes and do a matador number for the finale," Tina said, her eyes sparkling at the horrible, horrible Latin music week memory from Kurt's senior year. The only positive of that week, besides the new pair of shoes, was the extremely attractive teacher, although Kurt had not let himself stare as openly as his female friends.

"No. Okay, time's up," he replied; it was close enough.

"Come on, Kurt," Blaine said as they got up out of their chairs. "Animals!"

Kurt snorted and started to pack up his bag. "What? "Muskrat Love"? A dramatic reading of Watership Down? Anything from Cats?"

"Or Harvey?" Angelica suggested.

"The Lion King," Blaine said breathlessly, coming closer, and Kurt couldn't help but smile, because Blaine had been waxing poetic ever since they'd rushed the show; they'd chosen it the other week when Rachel learned he'd never seen it, and his eyes had been as big as saucers throughout the performance. He'd even had tears in them through the opening number. "Those puppets and costumes were incredible."

"Yes, and we're a student production with almost no budget," Kurt reminded him with a laugh.

"I bet we could pull something together," Ethan said thoughtfully.

"Oh, god, don't you start," Kurt said.

"It's the circle of life," Blaine began to sing, throwing his arms wide and grinning broadly at Kurt.

"No," Kurt said, but he didn't even try to control his smile as Tina and Ethan joined in, because he was too amused by their antics.

Christa began to dance around them in a rather convincing attempt to look like a gazelle, and Kurt sank back into his chair as the rest of them pranced and spun around the room. He almost wanted to join in. Almost. It felt like he would be letting them win if he did, but it was still fun to watch.

Blaine looked so happy as he sang with the group; all of them did, but there was something in Blaine's smile that was just especially delighted. A part of Kurt wanted to agree to Blaine's absurd theme suggestion just to keep that smile there, but he was too sensible to give into a flight of fancy like that when his career was at stake, so instead he sat and laughed as Ethan picked up Christa and raised her toward the ceiling like she was a giant, blonde baby Simba.

He applauded when the song ended and wasn't all that surprised when Ethan and Blaine launched directly into "Hakuna Matata." It was almost too much to watch his friends coming together like that, finding joy in each other because he had brought them together for his own personal project; it still awed him a little that he wasn't just creating a performance but a community, as imperfect as it was. It was his idea that was giving it to them, and they were actually happy about it. He'd never had that kind of response before.

It was beautiful, this little family it was becoming, some closer than others but all an ever-tighter unit, and there in the middle was Blaine, shining like a gorgeous star, with Tina spinning out from his hand like a sparkling comet with laughter trailing behind and everyone else circling around.

The thought was edging toward overwhelming, like he might really get to belong somewhere someday, so Kurt pulled his mind back from it, made himself look away from the boys dancing in the middle of the floor, and went back to packing up. If his chest felt a little bubbly with joy, it wasn't hurting anyone but himself.

Tina flopped down in the chair beside him a minute or two later. "This went well tonight," she said. "We got a lot done."

Kurt nodded. "Until it devolved into a Disney sing-along, anyway."

"Hey, I saw your face," she said, poking his elbow. "You were loving it."

He didn't dignify that with a response, because she knew he knew she was right.

"Blaine's fitting in well," she said softly after a moment. "Don't you think?"

"Mm." Kurt glanced over at Blaine demonstrating a tight, graceful, appealing little boy band spin for Ethan as part of the choreography they were apparently coming up with for the chorus of the song. "He is," he said, looking back at her as he fastened the buckles on his bag. "He has some good ideas, too, when not under the influence of Elton John and Tim Rice."

"He just loved the show. I can't believe you're complaining about someone loving the theater, Mr. Broadway."

"I'm not," he said. "Except for when it derails my meeting."

"Which was already over."

"There were thirty seconds left," he said with a haughty lift of his chin, but she knew as well as he did that he was putting on an act.

"Anyway, I'm really glad you asked him to join, Kurt," Tina said with an encouraging smile.

Kurt rolled his eyes at her. "I think I prefer how Rachel says 'I told you so'," he said. "She just comes out and says it to my face instead of hinting at it."

"I'm not saying 'I told you so'." She got to her feet and smiled even more at him. "I'm just happy you changed your mind about him."

He acknowledged her comment with a wave of his hand, because she still didn't know why he had had such a hard time with Blaine at first. "I can admit when I'm wrong," he said. "On the rare occasions it happens."

"He is very likeable."

"He is," Kurt agreed with a little sigh and a flick of his eyes over toward Blaine again. Christa and Angelica were joining in with the choreography now, and Blaine had to be a miracle worker to get Angelica to dance at all. Then again, he was very charismatic; he probably had just had to smile at her to get her to agree. Kurt knew how it felt to be on the receiving end of that smile.

To Kurt's surprise, Tina gave him a quick squeeze of a hug around his shoulders.

"What was that for?" he asked, pausing for a second while buttoning up his coat.

"I'm just happy," she said. "Hey, do you want to go get something to eat? I'm starving."

"Sure." He slung his bag over his shoulder. "Blaine and I were heading to the Union if you want to come with us."

"Oh. Um..." Tina froze and bit her lip before grimacing and saying, "I'm sorry, Kurt, but I totally forgot I have a bunch of studying to do tonight. I should go to the library instead."

"I thought you were hungry."

Tina scooped up her coat and her bag and said, "Work comes first. Have fun!" With a wave over her shoulder she took her leave of the group.

Kurt watched the empty doorway for a moment, wondering why she'd hurried out and if she was having trouble with her classes, but then Blaine hummed and soft-shoed his way over as he knotted his scarf around his neck, and Kurt put Tina out of his mind. It was time for dinner and probably another hour of Blaine rhapsodizing over The Lion King.

He'd worry about Tina tomorrow.

* * *

Rachel to Kurt: Are you free on Thursday night?

Kurt to Rachel: Possibly. Why?

Rachel to Kurt: I thought we might all go out to dinner. Priya found a great Cambodian restaurant last week we should try.

Kurt to Rachel: Sounds good.

Rachel to Kurt: 6:30? I'll check with Blaine and make sure he's free then.

Kurt to Rachel: He should be. Thursdays are good nights for him.

Rachel to Kurt: Great! :-D Want to dress up for it? Do it right in New York?

Kurt to Rachel: Always!

*

Mike to Blaine: Tina is making me wear a tie to dinner. Is she making you wear a tie to dinner? :(

Blaine to Mike: She did mention something about Rachel setting a dress code.

Blaine to Mike: What's wrong with wearing a tie?

*

Peter to Blaine: call of duty Thursday night?

Blaine to Peter: Sorry, I already have plans. :(

Peter to Blaine: k, but I miss hanging out with you.

Blaine to Peter: Are you around on Friday? I'm free after 4.

Peter to Blaine: awesome - come by my room

Blaine to Peter: See you then!

*

Tina to Kurt: I need to stay late at work - go over without me.

Kurt to Tina: Okay.

Tina to Kurt: You have the address, right?

Kurt to Tina: No, I thought I'd wander around Manhattan aimlessly and hope I found the restaurant all of my friends were in.

Tina to Kurt: Don't be grumpy! I just don't want you to be late!

* * *

Kurt wasn't late. In fact, he got to the restaurant a few minutes early, and he carefully stomped the slush off of his patent leather shoes in the entryway and, after a cursory glance around the restaurant for any familiar heads, took off his coat and folded it over his arm as he sat to wait on the padded bench by the greeter's podium.

His phone trilled in his pocket, and he yanked it out and set it to vibrate before he read the text.

Tina to Kurt: I can't get away tonight until 8. Mike's coming to pick me up here instead for a late dinner. See you tomorrow?

Okay. :( We'll miss you both, Kurt typed back.

Have fun! :) <3 was her reply.

I'm sorry, Mike texted a minute or two later.

Kurt thumbed through his e-mail, then sighed as the door opened and let in a gust of chilly air but not anyone he knew. He was hungry, and he'd had a late class but had still found time to dress to the nines and get there on time. He didn't know why everyone else couldn't do the same.

He flicked on his phone as the time ticked over to six-thirty, and like clockwork in came Blaine, his ears pink from the cold. A smile bloomed on his face as soon as he saw Kurt.

"Hey, am I late?" he asked.

"You're perfectly on time," Kurt told him with an approving smile of his own.

"Oh, good." Blaine stomped his own feet and slid off his coat to reveal a beautifully cut grey sweater over a white shirt with a red and black striped tie, and Kurt was more delighted than he could have said that his sartorial suggestions seemed to have taken at least a little hold. Blaine looked so much more stylish than he would have in the basic navy blazer every preppy boy seemed to have in his closet.

"We're just waiting for Rachel," Kurt said. "Tina has to work."

"Oh, that's too bad," Blaine said sadly.

Kurt's phone vibrated in his hand, and he said, "Excuse me," to Blaine before answering it.

"Are you both there?" Rachel's voice asked.

"Yes, Blaine just got here," Kurt told her as Blaine looked at him in question.

"Oh, good," she said. "Well, I have a sore throat, and as you know I have a vocal rehearsal tomorrow, so I need to rest tonight. I won't be able to come."

Rachel's voice sounded as smooth as ever, and Kurt narrowed his eyes. "What's going on?"

"Nothing," she said quickly. "I have a cold."

An icy trickle of suspicion started to thread its way through Kurt's veins. This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening. "Rachel Berry, are you - " he began.

She gave dainty cough and said, "I have to go, Kurt! You and Blaine enjoy your dinner!" And with that she was gone.

Kurt stared at his phone as the pieces of the puzzle fit themselves into place in one and only one possible configuration. He knew he was by nature suspicious, but this was too obvious to be brushed away. His stomach went into free-fall; his heart clenched in dismay in his chest. He couldn't look at Blaine as he dialed Mike's number.

"Mike?" Kurt snapped as soon as the call picked up.

"It wasn't my idea, I promise," Mike said. "It was the girls. I'm sorry. Have fun?"

Kurt hung up the phone, closed his eyes, and took a long, slow breath and reminded himself that if he murdered anyone he'd only be able to perform on prison stages, which might have worked for Johnny Cash but would not be a good venue for showcasing his particular talents.

"Kurt?" Blaine asked softly, way too soon for Kurt to have himself under control. "What's going on?"

"I have the most thoughtless friends in the world," Kurt bit out. When he looked up to see Blaine recoiling at the remark, Kurt waved his hand at him. "Present company excluded."

Blaine sank down on the bench next to him. "What's going on?" he asked again.

Kurt took another breath and tried to paste a smile on his face, like that would be in any way enough to counteract the utter humiliation of the situation. He couldn't believe they'd put him in the position of having to say any of this to the one boy in the world with whom it would be the most awkward and filled with unpleasant baggage they'd been doing a good job at overcoming. "They're setting us up."

"For what?" Blaine glanced around, and the confusion in his eyes made Kurt's mortification grow that much deeper, right into the marrow of his bones. Of course Blaine didn't even understand, because there was nothing in their relationship that would make him think of Kurt in a romantic light, not a single thing beyond that one stupid, wonderful night.

"They're setting us up on a date," Kurt made himself say.

Blaine's eyes snapped back to him, his mouth dropping open.

"Right now," Kurt continued. He swallowed to get rid of the thickness in his voice. "They've all canceled. I bet the reservation was always just for two. They seem to think I need help finding - " He shook his head. "I'm so sorry you got caught up in this."

"Why are you sorry?" Blaine asked. "It's not your fault."

"They're my friends. Or were," he added darkly.

"They just care about you," Blaine said.

Kurt abruptly got to his feet. He had to get out of this restaurant. "If they did, they'd never do something so insensitive." He shook out his coat and went to slip it on.

Blaine stood up and put a hand on his arm to stop him. "Wait. Where are you going?" he asked with concern.

"Blaine," Kurt snapped, "we aren't dating. We aren't going to date. You know that."

"We can still have dinner." Blaine's thumb was gently rubbing the bend of Kurt's elbow, and he may have meant it to be soothing, but the tender touch only made even more of a mockery of everything Kurt wanted from an actual romantic encounter. "Kurt, we're friends. We eat together all of the time."

"Yes, but not - " Kurt swept his hand at the room around them.

"It doesn't mean anything unless we make it mean something. Aren't you hungry?"

Kurt looked into his friend's earnest eyes, clear of guile or the intense horror that churned inside of himself, and tried to see it his way instead, without all of the feelings and wishes in Kurt's own heart. Blaine looked so sure.

Maybe Blaine was right. They were friends, and he'd gone out with Rachel a dozen times with a similar ambience without blinking. He wasn't happy, but maybe they could save the evening from being ruined by having a good meal. It could be about them and what they were instead of about their friends and their delusions about what they could ever be.

Drawing his courage and pride from deep within himself like it was a mantle he could sweep around his shoulders, Kurt let himself accept what was being offered and nodded.

"Okay, then let's have dinner," Blaine said happily. "I'd really like to try it. It smells incredible in here."

Through force of will and the knowledge that Blaine didn't deserve any of his ire because he was the most innocent person in the entire situation, Kurt pushed back his anger at his meddling friends enough that he could be gracious. "It does," he said, and he met Blaine's answering smile with one of his own.

The reservation was indeed only for two, and the server led them over to a small table in the corner, lit by a low candle. Kurt silently cursed the names of his friends as they settled into their chairs and opened their menus. The atmosphere was intimate and warm in the little puddle of soft light, and he was very aware that he was sitting across from a very handsome boy while wearing his favorite Westwood suit and that under different circumstances it would be perfectly and breathtakingly romantic. It wouldn't be a farce but a wonderful dream of an evening.

Instead it was more embarrassing than he could put words to.

It was awful to have his desperate longing brought into the light like it was a tiny nothing of a wish that could be fulfilled by a party trick, and it was even worse when it was being displayed to Blaine, who'd already suffered because of Kurt's heart.

They should have just left him alone. Tina and Rachel knew he didn't want what college boys were willing to offer, they knew he didn't want to be set up at all, and he'd specifically warned Tina off of setting him up with Blaine. They should never have taken matters into their own hands and made it look like he didn't know how to set up a date on his own. He did; he just chose not to. They knew that. There should have been no way this could ever have happened.

He probably should have told Tina about their history, he realized, even if he'd been trying to do the right thing and not to color her friendship with Blaine. He wondered if he was going to have to suffer through the humiliation of telling her now to explain just how bad, how thoughtless this idea had been. Or maybe he should save himself the embarrassment and stop talking to her and to Rachel entirely.

It might be the right decision, really.

Even if he and Blaine hadn't already slept together, that they'd set Kurt up with Blaine of all people, a boy who so clearly didn't want anything to do with a relationship, was such a sign of poor judgment he didn't know how they could have considered it. They knew Kurt. They knew what he wanted. And they knew Blaine, too, and what he didn't. How they'd ever thought that this could ever work -

"Aren't you seeing something you want?" Blaine asked from across the table, and Kurt realized he'd been glaring at his menu. "Do you want to go somewhere else?"

"It's fine," Kurt said, forcing a more pleasant expression onto his face. "I like Cambodian."

"I don't think I've ever had it," Blaine said. "It looks good. Some of it seems like its own French-Asian fusion."

"Mm. Colonialism does have its up-side," Kurt said, and he couldn't help but relax a bit more when the dry remark got a familiar soft chuckle of Blaine.

Kurt smiled despite himself, and he realized that it didn't matter all that much that it wasn't a date; it was simply the two of them. Blaine was right that they could have a great dinner together, anyway. Kurt just had to do his part. He could deal with his friends later.

He went back to reading the menu, this time with the task of figuring out what he wanted to eat. They chatted some about their options, and by the time the server came over to take their order they'd gotten a little further past the disastrous start of their evening.

Still, when their menus were gone and their drinks were served, Kurt found his heart falling again as he looked across the table at his friend. It was a quiet table with a perfect presentation, and Blaine looked as handsome as ever sitting there, relaxed and happy in his chair as the candlelight flickered on his face and turned his skin to a beautiful, living gold.

Kurt wasn't blind to any of it. He could appreciate it all. The problem was, as lovely as it was, the moment could live up to none of the promises someone from the outside looking in might think, and Blaine should never have been brought there under false pretenses. He shouldn't have had to be subjected to any of Rachel and Tina's foolish schemes to help poor, dateless Kurt find someone - anyone - to love him.

"I am sorry," Kurt said. "Even if they meant well - and I'm not sure I'm willing to agree that they did, because it's not like I need their help to find a boyfriend like I'm socially inept - they shouldn't have dragged you into this."

"It's okay," Blaine said with a little laugh. "I don't mind. It's not like this is exactly torture, Kurt. I like you, and I like dinner."

"I know, but - "

"Romance isn't evil," Blaine said. "They're not trying to torment you by wanting you to find someone."

"Given my dating history, you might think differently," Kurt drawled.

Blaine tilted his head, watching him a little more closely. "We've never really talked about that," he said in surprise.

"That's because there's so little to talk about," Kurt said, lifting his chin. He didn't need to get into those failures, too. "It doesn't matter. I'm used to them thinking they know best about me, but if nothing else, Blaine, they should have respected the fact that you don't want the same things that I do. You're not looking for this." He gestured at the warmly lit table and their nice clothes, at the linen tablecloth and restrained flower arrangement, at all of the trappings of a perfect date. "They should never have even considered this for you. I'm the silly dreamer looking for romance, not you."

Blaine's mouth compressed like he was uncomfortable. "I haven't really discussed that with them," he said.

"It's not like you've kept it a secret, though. People know what you do." Blaine looked down at the table, sucking in a sharp breath. Kurt leaned forward, quick to reassure him, "They're not judging. Blaine, nobody cares. It's college. Everyone is doing it. But they do know."

Blaine nodded, and he slowly lifted his eyes to Kurt's again. "I'm not ashamed of anything I've done, but I'm not great with people talking behind my back."

"I'm not surprised," Kurt said with some sympathy, because between Blaine's past with the Warblers and being bullied before it made sense to him that he would be sensitive about that kind of thing. He'd certainly been whispered about enough in his own life to care. "But it's just friendly gossip. I haven't heard anyone say anything bad about you. I wouldn't lie about that."

"Okay," Blaine said with another nod.

Kurt watched him, but Blaine seemed to be calming, so he continued on. "But that's why this whole thing doesn't make any sense. Since they know about you if not about our particular history, I don't know why they ever thought this was a good idea. I don't know why you're the one they roped into their never-ending quest to find me something that just doesn't exist."

Blaine's eyes were dark on his. "They don't know about… us?"

Kurt shook his head. "Not from me."

He watched Blaine's chest rise and fall with a few deep breaths and wondered why Blaine's relief made his own chest tighten instead.

"Okay," Blaine said again. He drew himself up and gave Kurt a smile, faint but real. "Although you can't get mad at them for loving you enough to try."

"Watch me," Kurt told him flatly.

That startled a laugh out of Blaine. "Kurt! They're your friends."

"And yours. That doesn't mean they aren't meddling in things they don't understand." Kurt looked up at the ceiling. "Great, now I sound like a bad movie."

"Or a really good one."

"Honestly, I can't decide if I'm more offended on your behalf or my own," Kurt said, though he was pretty sure he was more mad about them trying to push Blaine into something he didn't want. Kurt had known Rachel and Tina long enough to be aware of how they liked to 'help'; Blaine was just an innocent bystander whose own wishes had been totally ignored.

"It's fine, Kurt," Blaine said gently. "There's no harm done here, right? We're still friends. This doesn't change anything."

"I know."

Blaine fiddled with his silverware as the server brought them their food, thanking her before turning back to Kurt. "I actually think it's kind of nice of them," he admitted.

"Nice of them?" Kurt said.

"You know, that they care about you that much. They want you to be happy."

Shrugging one shoulder, Kurt picked up his fork and poked at the vegetables on his plate. "They should learn to trust me that it's not going to happen right now. I mean, you know what it's like. Nobody is looking for romance in college. They're looking for sex." He could feel himself flushing, but if he couldn't talk about it bluntly with Blaine then there was no one he could talk with at all. "And as wonderful as sex can be - " He met Blaine's eyes then, the only way he could acknowledge how incredible their night together had been. " - it's not the only thing I want."

"What do you want?" Blaine asked in a voice as soft and gentle as his expression.

"Love," Kurt said, and as mortifying as it was to say it out loud like he was saying he wanted a fairy godmother he held himself tall because it was true. "I want someone's eyes to light up when I walk into the room. I want someone who smiles at me first thing in the morning and talks to me last thing at night. I want to support each other, to be best friends, to know everything about each other. I want walks in the park, dates for dinner or a play, flowers and holding hands and anniversaries and shared jokes and sides of the bed and all of the silly things I should probably grow out of." He had to stop, out of breath from just how sharply he could feel that yawning void in himself. He wanted all of that so much, someone he could open his heart to and who would open his heart right back. He swallowed and tried to keep the threat of tears out of his voice. "But I can't. I can't stop myself from wanting it."

"You shouldn't have to," Blaine told him, his eyes fixed on Kurt's face. "All of those are good things."

Kurt shrugged again and took a bite of his dinner, because he was pretty sure that he was going to have to keep living without any of it. If someone as kind, warm, and wonderful as Blaine, who shared his interests, who liked him, and who had at least once found him attractive - the only person he'd met who was all of those things wrapped up together - wasn't interested in relationships then Kurt wasn't sure anyone would be, at least not for a long time.

He certainly wasn't looking for a relationship with Blaine, but realizing that he'd met someone who was so close to everything he wanted and yet still was missing the most important piece made Kurt that much less optimistic that he'd ever find what he ached to have.

"Kurt - "

Kurt shook his head before he had to hear pity creep into Blaine's voice, and he raised his eyes to Blaine's face and asked the question that kept plaguing him in the back of his mind. "Was it worth the heartbreak with Sebastian to have had any of that?" It had to be, right? Even when it hurt, it was love. "Better to have loved and lost?"

"There wasn't a lot of romance with him," Blaine said, shifting in his seat. "He wasn't interested in that."

"But you were in love," Kurt said softly.

Blaine nodded. "I know, I was, but… I'm not sure he was," he said with a tight shrug.

"Oh." Kurt felt that much more foolish; he hadn't even considered that, that he could find himself in a relationship and not have his boyfriend be in love with him. It was devastating just to think about it. Maybe he was lucky he hadn't gotten anywhere near that stage with anyone. He could have found himself head-over-heels the way he always did, and his boyfriend could have just been fond of him. He wasn't sure if that was better or worse than not being wanted at all. "I'm sorry."

"The worst part was that I didn't realize he wasn't," Blaine told his plate. "I'm just figuring it out now. It explains a lot."

"Blaine." Kurt reached out without thinking to touch the back of Blaine's hand where it lay on the table; Blaine looked up at him with a start. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Blaine said. "It wasn't all bad. I'm not sorry I dated him, even if I think he might have liked my position in the Warblers more than he liked me."

"Blaine, that's horrible."

"No," Blaine said, shaking his head. "I mean, yes, that part was, but most of it wasn't so terrible. We had a connection, a good one. We wouldn't have lasted as long as we did if we hadn't. And honestly, I learned a lot. I was such a kid before we started dating."

Kurt drew his hand back. Even though he knew Blaine wasn't talking about him he still was well aware he was probably closer to who Blaine had been at sixteen in terms of love than he should be.

"I was - " Blaine broke off, laughing self-consciously. "Did you know before Sebastian I organized the Warblers to serenade this guy I liked? He worked at the Gap, and I chased him all around the store singing to him."

Kurt could picture it, Blaine with his over-the-top singing faces tagging along after a cute boy. "That's - "

"So dorky, right?" Blaine said with a grimace.

"I was going to say adorable, actually," Kurt admitted.

"It wasn't, though. I got him fired."

"On purpose?" Kurt asked in surprise around a mouthful of his food.

Blaine laughed again. "No. Of course not. But Seb helped me learn that sometimes I come on too strong, when what I was doing would be great in a movie but was just too much for real life. I had to tone down what I thought was romantic."

Kurt nodded and focused on getting another bite onto his fork. He still thought it sounded wonderful to be serenaded, but it seemed juvenile to mention it again since Blaine was so against the idea.

"And being in a relationship let me figure out where I was asking for unreasonable things," Blaine continued. "You know, that it's about what both people want, not just me. We weren't always compatible that way, and I had to learn not to be so selfish."

"You don't seem selfish to me," Kurt said slowly.

"Thanks," Blaine said with a smile, like it was a compliment instead of a serious point of confusion for Kurt. "I try not to be. But even when things were great between us some of the things I liked - like those serenades - were embarrassing to him, and some of the things he liked - like not caring about what our friends thought if he wanted to be alone with me at a party - were uncomfortable to me. We had to compromise."

"He gave things up for you, too?" Kurt wasn't against compromise as a rule, despite wanting everything to go his way, but it felt like there was something off in Blaine's description of their relationship. He didn't know how to describe it. It wasn't like he had experience of his own with which to compare it.

"Absolutely. We just had to focus on what we had in common, like school, like the Warblers, like our utter dominance as a team in ruthless games of mini-golf - " Blaine laughed, the fond nostalgia in his eyes doing strange things to Kurt's stomach. " - instead of the things that made us so different."

"I see," Kurt said softly.

"So even if he never fell in love with me, even though things went really badly at the end, I'm glad I had the time with him. I know myself a lot better now. I know what I want."

"I guess that puts you on the 'better to have loved and lost' side of the argument after all," Kurt said.

"I guess it does," Blaine said in surprise, drawing back and frowning a little at the candle. "I mean, I'm not sorry I had of all of that. I'm not sorry I tried. It made me better, I think."

"Our experiences either tear us down or make us stronger," Kurt said, nodding as he watched the flickering light reflect in Blaine's eyes. "Even if it hurts in the process."

"We both know about that." Blaine's smile turned sympathetic. "I mean, don't you feel the same way about the guys in your past?"

Kurt lifted his chin; he didn't want to go down that road of exposing too much of the hurts in his own past, even as a part of him wanted to share and be understood that much more. He knew he would look like such a child in comparison. "I certainly have learned a lot from them." Things like how a person could be drawn to his body but not his personality, like how a kiss could feel empty in retrospect, like how kindness was the surest way to crack open his heart and leave him vulnerable against his will. They were all important lessons.

"So what do you want, Blaine?" he made himself ask, even though he knew it would probably keep crushing his own romantic ideals. Maybe that was a good thing. "What are you looking for?"

"Something totally easy," Blaine sighed out, and then he blanched, his eyes going wide as he stared at Kurt in horror. "I don't mean you were - you aren't - "

"I know I'm not easy," Kurt said, letting him off the hook of the unintended insult, even if he had to feel a twinge at having to be lumped in with all of the other boys in Blaine's mind. "You mean something uncomplicated."

"Yes. Uncomplicated." Blaine cleared his throat and reached for his water but didn't take a sip. "I did a lot of things wrong with Sebastian, and I don't want to do that again. There were a lot of problems between us, a lot of issues I don't want to go through again. I want the opposite of that."

"You said you learned; maybe you'd do things right."

"What I learned is that I shouldn't be anyone's boyfriend," Blaine told him. "That I don't want to be. I'm not - it's not - I don't want that anymore."

"You don't want to be in love?" Kurt asked softly. It was unthinkable to him, really. It was like saying he didn't want to breathe. There was something in the way Blaine dismissed it that made Kurt's chest hurt and his stomach feel sick.

Blaine shook his head, still toying with his glass. "No. Not anymore. Not - no. I'm not good at it. It's not good for me."

Kurt couldn't keep himself from furrowing his brows, but he knew Blaine well enough by now to know that he had to trust him. Blaine was a great person, and if he didn't want love and romance then there had to be a good reason for it.

He wondered if he'd feel the same way whenever he was able to experience love. He wondered if it wouldn't be everything he thought it could be, if it wouldn't lift him up, make him feel valued and needed, make him feel accepted and adored and welcomed and understood and cherished. Even the depressing thought that he could be chasing a dream that would turn out to be a disappointment couldn't make him stop wanting it, though. He yearned for it. He couldn't give it up.

"Are you happier now?" he asked.

"I am," Blaine said without hesitation.

Kurt could see the conviction in his friend's eyes, and he let himself smile that at least one of them had found what they were looking for. "Then I'm happy for you," he said.

"Thank you," Blaine said. "I wish you could find what you're looking for, too, Kurt."

Kurt looked around them at that romantic, candlelit table with delicious food on his plate and a boy who he could talk to about the deepest wishes of his heart across from him and still felt so very far from getting anything he wanted that his dinner tasted like ashes in his mouth.

And to know that someone in some ways so similar to him, who had once been a dreamer and a romantic in the same ways, no longer wanted such a thing made Kurt feel like he might be lost in a fantasy instead of just biding his time. It made him feel cold, like he was out lost in a dark winter night all alone.

His career, his love life, even his family back in Ohio… it was always all so out of reach. Maybe he couldn't ever get there. Maybe he wouldn't. Maybe he was stupid to try, just like so many people had told him over the years. Maybe there really wasn't the future he wanted waiting for him at the end of all of his struggles.

No.

He wasn't going to indulge in any of that kind of doubt. Squaring his jaw, he made himself swallow down those doubts with a long sip of his water.

He was Kurt Hummel. He wasn't ever going to admit defeat until he was being dragged forcibly off that stage, and maybe not even then, so he pushed aside his hurts and unfulfilled wishes. He made himself smile again and raise his glass in a toast because the meal was actually good and Blaine could be turning into the best friend he ever had.

If this is what he had right now, if this was all there ever was, he should enjoy it. He should enjoy it and still keep reaching for more.

"To us getting what we want," he said to his friend.

Smiling back, Blaine raised his own glass and chimed them together. "To us getting what we want."

* * *

Rachel to Blaine: How was your dinner? :-D

Blaine to Rachel: It was great, but only because Kurt is the most resilient person I know. You need to apologize to him.

Rachel to Blaine: But it was great???

Blaine to Rachel: You need to apologize to him, Rachel.

*

Rachel to Kurt: I think it is selfish of you not to be answering your phone when I call. I was trying to act in your best interest as your friend, after all. There is absolutely no reason for you to be shunning me.

Rachel to Kurt: :(

* * *

Kurt stared at the e-mail for a minute. He blinked, looked over at the morning sunshine streaming through his window, and then turned back to his computer. The message remained the same.

Was this really happening?

Was it real? It had to be real. How could it be real?

Not taking his eyes off of the screen, he reached out blindly for his phone, and he was about to press the button to call Rachel before he remembered that he wasn't speaking to her. His racing heart fell into his Doc Martens. He had to tell someone about this news, and he had to do it right now.

He scrolled up to the As and pushed Blaine's number.

"Hey, Kurt," Blaine said, his smile audible over the connection. "How are you?"

"I got the part," Kurt blurted out breathlessly, and his hand flew to his mouth as if he could capture the words so that they didn't fly away and become untrue.

Blaine's voice went more alert. "What?"

"I got a part in the musical," Kurt said.

"You did? I thought you - "

Kurt couldn't wait for him to finish the thought about him not having been cast originally. "Somebody dropped out. They offered me a part. It's just in the ensemble, but I got a part. I got a part!"

"Kurt! That's so great!" Raw enthusiasm powered Blaine's every single word.

Kurt couldn't stop the huge smile spreading across his face, and he hugged one arm across his chest because he had nobody to grab onto. "I can't believe it! Oh my god, I did it."

"I'm so happy for you!" Blaine said.

"Thank you." Kurt tilted his head up and beamed up at his ceiling. "I know it's only a school musical, and it's Brigadoon of all shows, but…"

"But it's still a part, Kurt."

The warmth in Blaine's voice settled in Kurt's chest, making it that much harder to catch his breath. "It's still a part," he all but whispered. He'd gotten a part in a musical as a sophomore against scores of talented upperclassmen. They'd chosen him, maybe not first, maybe not for a lead, but still. He'd done it.

"When do your rehearsals start?" Blaine asked.

"This week," Kurt said. "I've missed a few by now, but I'm sure I can catch up. I'm a quick study. I had to be with New Directions; we were always picking our competition songs at the last minute. This will be easy in comparison."

"You're going to be great."

Kurt smiled and bit his lip at Blaine's enthusiasm and support; there weren't so many people who believed in him that he wasn't touched deeply by it. "Thank you."

"I don't know anything about the show. You'll have to teach me some of the songs," Blaine said.

"Honestly, they're not very good."

"You're going to be in it; I still want you to teach me. Oh! We should sing one tonight!"

"Tonight?" Kurt's good mood dulled some as he pulled himself back into the reality of the rest of his day. "Oh. Karaoke." He took a shallow breath. "I… I think I'm going to skip it."

"You can't skip it!" Blaine insisted, like Kurt had announced something truly horrible like he was going to shave his head or wear only clothing he found in dumpsters. "Especially now you can't. We need celebrate the news!"

"Honestly, I don't really feel like spending the evening with Rachel and Tina," Kurt said. "But thank you."

"Didn't they apologize?" Blaine asked more gently, clearly concerned.

Kurt cleared his throat and admitted, "I haven't talked to them."

"Kurt, it's been days."

"I know. I'm still angry." Kurt smoothed out a wrinkle on his duvet and flicked away a piece of fluff. "And hurt."

"That's okay," Blaine said. "Tell them how you feel."

Kurt knew the minute he talked with them he'd be on the road to forgiving them, because he loved them and knew they loved him. He wouldn't forget, but he'd start to let the fences get mended.

The thing was, though, that they had made so many stupid assumptions about him and Blaine - because even if the spark between them had certainly been sexual once, neither of them wanted that part back - that he really wanted to coast on his high dudgeon for a little while longer. It was humiliating enough to be set up against his will, but for it to have been with Blaine, who was certainly not interested in dating him and with whom his relationship still felt precarious and fragile when certain topics came up, was just horrifying. It made him feel exposed on so many fronts. "I'm not over it, Blaine."

"You don't have to be," Blaine said. "But I still think you should come to karaoke, and I don't want this to stop you."

Sighing, Kurt looked over at that e-mail again and swung his feet a little where they hung off the bed. He'd gotten the part. He'd gotten the part. He bit his lower lip as he began to smile despite himself.

"Come on, Kurt," Blaine pleaded.

Kurt wanted to be happy. He wanted to celebrate. He wanted - today like every day - to sing.

So he made himself back away from his sharp edge of anger and said, "Okay."

"Great!" Blaine's smile was back in full force, the sound of it making Kurt buzz all of the way to his toes. "Want to meet at the subway and go over together?"

"No, I'll meet you there," Kurt said after a moment of thought. "I have something to do first."

He answered the director's e-mail, sent out a couple of texts, called his dad at the garage, and tried to focus on his homework for the rest of the afternoon. Then he showered and got dressed in one of his favorite charcoal jackets, his long, narrow silver scarf that was knit in a pattern of interlocking rings, and an impeccable pair of black jeans and went on the subway on his own.

Tina and Rachel were waiting for him at a table in the corner of the coffee shop down the block from Cliff's. Rachel opened her mouth as soon as he approached, but he stopped her with a stern look.

"Right now, I have one thing and one thing only to say to you, and you have to promise me you will not repeat it to anyone," he said, sitting down stiffly at the empty chair.

Rachel opened her mouth again. "Kurt - "

"Yes or no?" he asked her.

"I promise," Tina said, and after a moment Rachel did as well.

"Okay." Kurt folded his hands in his lap, took a deep breath, and steeled himself for the uproar that was sure to follow. He didn't want to do this, but he knew he absolutely had to if he wanted to stop his friends from pushing Blaine at him. It was his only option. "Do you remember the guy I slept with in September?"

Tina nodded. "The one who was really sweet and then ran as fast as he could blink in the morning?"

"Yes," he said, and he wished that description didn't still rankle, because even though he wasn't upset with Blaine anymore it still hurt when he thought of how it had felt to have been left like that, so abruptly and impersonally.

"Oh my god, do you have an STD?" Rachel asked, leaning toward him. "Because I've heard the clinic on - "

"I don't have an STD," he snapped. "I was safe, and I got tested, anyway, like I do after every time."

"You can never be too careful when - " she began again.

"It was Blaine," he told them and locked his jaw to keep anything else that might threaten to spill out of his heart inside where it belonged.

Tina was the first to recover. "What?"

"Mr. September was Blaine," he said.

She reached for his arm, and he allowed the touch, as much as he wanted to jerk away, because her sympathy was almost too much to bear. "Oh, Kurt, we didn't - "

"You didn't know. I know. That was the point," he said. "I didn't know it was him until after he showed up at the Review." He drew in another slow breath. "It's all behind us now, it wasn't his fault, and we're friends, but that's all we're ever going to be. You have to stop. Both of you." He met their eyes each in turn.

"Oh my god," Tina said, staring at him.

"This shouldn't change anything between you," he told her. "I'm the one who freaked out. It was my silly heart."

"It was Blaine," Tina whispered. "Kurt - "

Kurt felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest from the compassion in her voice, but he kept going. He had to get through it and make sure this insanity of theirs was over for good. "We're okay now. It's not important. It's ancient history. But after this ridiculous scheme of yours, you apparently needed to know."

"I understand the delicacy of the situation, given your past," Rachel said, studying him, "but I don't see why you can't still be compatible as a couple. I mean, you said yourself that you had some serious chemistry that night, and - "

"Rachel," he cut her off, "there have to be at least a dozen reasons we aren't going to get together, but even if there weren't Blaine doesn't want a relationship at all with anyone. You know that."

She hesitated for a moment before saying, "But he likes you."

"Yes, and I'd like him to keep liking me, so please back off and don't make this whole thing more awkward than it already is, okay?" He met her eyes squarely, hoping beyond hope that she could see how important it was that he didn't lose Blaine as a friend. He'd finally found someone who got him in ways no one else did, and to have Blaine chased away now by his well-meaning but misguided matchmakers would be a loss he didn't even want to think about. "This can't happen again. It can't."

"I'm so sorry, Kurt," Tina said, rubbing his arm.

"I am, too," Rachel said more stiffly. "Even if I think it's a shame that two musically inclined - "

"Rachel, stop," Tina told her with a shake of her head, and amazingly enough Rachel did.

"Okay," Kurt said, standing up and straightening his coat. "That's all I have to say. I'm still angry with you both, to be clear. And now I'm going to go sing my heart out, because I've had some good news today."

"What is it?" Tina asked.

He shook his head. "I'll tell you down there. I need a minute to clear my head first."

"Kurt - " she started, but he shook his head again.

"I'm going to take a minute. I'll meet you there. And remember that you promised not to talk to anyone about this, not even Blaine. It's in the past. It needs to stay there."

After they assured him they wouldn't, he walked down the street a little, stood at the edge of the sidewalk, looking down the busy New York street with its bright signs and endless stream of people, and took a few deep gulps of the exhaust-filled air. He let the tension seep out of his body as the cold sank in.

He'd done what he needed to do. He'd pushed past his own personal embarrassment and preference for keeping some things close to his chest to get his point across.

It had been easier than he'd thought to get through that conversation, actually. He still felt like there was an oily residue of shame over the whole night together when he thought about it too closely, but now Rachel and Tina knew the full depths of his stupidity, and now they'd stop hatching ridiculous plans to get him together with Blaine. Maybe they'd stop trying to set him up entirely.

That would be good. That was what he wanted, after all.

Well, it wasn't what he wanted, much like a spot in the chorus of Brigadoon wasn't what he wanted, but it was the best of what he could actually have.

He took another shuddering breath and did his best to push the past back behind him again where it belonged. He had something to celebrate, after all.

He was getting very good at living on crumbs. For a minute or two here and there he could even forget that he was hungry.

* * *

With a smile Blaine handed his coat and scarf to the woman behind the coat check counter before he hurried into the main room at Cliff's. He was excited and not just because it was karaoke night. Kurt had gotten a part, and even if it wasn't the starring role he might have liked it was still a part he'd won against stiff competition. Blaine was thrilled for him. He couldn't wait to celebrate with him, maybe buy him some sort of fancy virgin drink with fruit and an umbrella or in a vibrant color in a martini glass; he wasn't sure which Kurt would like better, but he did know Kurt would both have an opinion and appreciate the gesture.

Blaine's eyes swept the room, and his heart fell a little when he found Priya, Wes, and Esther at a group of tables in the middle of the room without Kurt; he'd been waiting for hours to congratulate Kurt in person and felt like he was ready to burst with it. He'd just have to wait a little longer. At least he could hang out with friends while he did.

So he went to sit with everyone, bought a round of drinks, and tried not to worry too much about what was keeping Kurt. It wasn't like their starting time was set in stone, after all.

Still, when Rachel and Tina came in together looking subdued soon after Mike, Ethan, and Angelica had arrived, Blaine started to worry that Kurt might have decided not to come at all. He'd been so upset about the other night - his discomfort and pain had been written across his face in the restaurant - that he might have changed his mind again. It was Kurt's prerogative, of course, but it had been such a small and ultimately good-hearted trick from his friends that it didn't seem like it was worth missing out on one of their most fun nights of the month because of it. Besides, they did need to celebrate.

Blaine pulled out his phone and switched to his message app. After considering and discarding a few sideways attempts at ferreting out what was going on, he decided that polite straightforwardness was the best approach.

Blaine to Kurt: You're still coming tonight, right?

It took a minute or two until Kurt replied, and Blaine relaxed when he read it.

Kurt to Blaine: Yes. I'm just down the block. I'll be there soon.

Blaine to Kurt: Good. :)

Putting his phone back in the pocket of his cardigan, Blaine sat up straighter in his seat and bounced his leg along with the music (a fairly decent version of "What A Girl Wants" sung by two young men) as he waited.

Before the song had ended, Kurt was sweeping through the door, slipping off his coat as he entered and carrying it with him like he always did instead of checking it. He looked tired to Blaine, and his cheeks were rosy from the cold, but his mouth turned up into a smile as soon their eyes met. He came straight over to the empty chair next to Blaine. Draping his coat over its back, Kurt flicked a little wave to the rest of the table as he sank down onto the seat.

"Congratulations," Blaine said, unable to keep his smile from spreading even further across his face.

"Thank you," Kurt said softly, grinning back at him. He leaned in closer, glancing for a second at the others. "I haven't told them yet. Just you and my dad."

The honor of being one of the first to hear the news wasn't lost on Blaine, and he reached out to touch Kurt's arm; the fine fabric of his slim jacket was as cold as his cheeks looked, like he'd been outside for a while or his coat wasn't warm enough for the night. "You have to tell them, Kurt. And then I'm buying you a swanky nonalcoholic drink of your choice. It's up to you whether you want an umbrella, fruit, or a fancy glass."

Kurt's smile wobbled, and he looked down for a second. "What if I want all three?" he asked, his eyes bright when he focused back on Blaine.

"Then you can have all three," Blaine assured him and was rewarded by another huge smile. His heart lodged in his throat at just how happy Kurt was about his part.

"Thank you," Kurt said, holding his gaze for a serious moment before he twisted so he was facing the rest of the group and raised his voice. "Excuse me. I have an announcement." He waited until his friends were all watching him. "I got an e-mail this morning from the director of Brigadoon. Shockingly enough, someone didn't want to spend their semester dancing around in a mythical, mist-shrouded Scottish village, and I got his part in the ensemble."

"Kurt!" Rachel squealed, jumping up out of her chair and crushing him from behind in a hug.

Kurt patted her arms awkwardly where they crossed his chest, but Blaine could see the pleasure in his eyes as she and the others congratulated him.

"Now, I know they tell you you're supposed to blend in when you're in the ensemble," Rachel told Kurt, sitting in the chair beside him with her hands still on his shoulders, "but you're never going to be discovered that way. Sing every note like it's your last. Make every spin and step perfect. Sparkle even when you're in the background, because if people notice you - "

"Thank you, Rachel," Kurt said.

"I'm certain my dedication as the understudy to Evita last semester helped me secure - "

Kurt stood up and disengaged her hands from his clothing. "Let me get through one rehearsal before you give me advice, all right?" he said to her over Tina's shoulder as she gave him a hug of her own. "I was hoping to bask in the news for a least two or three minutes."

"You should bask longer than that," Blaine insisted.

"I don't think it's going to be my choice," Kurt replied with a dry laugh.

"Does this mean we're going to get to run the Review without you?" Angelica called out from the next table. "The mice get to play while the cat's off soft-shoeing?"

"More like the lunatics trying to run the asylum," Kurt said.

"Like you aren't a lunatic, too," Angelica said.

"Maybe, but I'm still the lunatic in charge. I'll find a way to do it all." Kurt's smile flattened a little. "We'll have to look at our schedule again once I get my rehearsal times."

Blaine rose to his feet beside Kurt and put his hand on his back to get his attention before the conversation could turn to practical matters instead of what was important: Kurt. "Hey, you can talk about this tomorrow. You're supposed to be basking tonight. And I promised you a drink," he said.

Kurt's eyes were dark with thought for a second or two after they swung to Blaine, but then he seemed to let himself let go of whatever was on his mind. "Yes, you did." He turned back to his friends. "Excuse me, I'm going to find some sort of elegant beverage and then get up on that stage and sing."

"I'd be happy to sing a duet with you - " Rachel began.

"Later," he said, not unkindly. "Right now I want to be on stage alone."

"I suppose that makes sense; you'll have to share the spotlight in the show, so - " Rachel was saying as Blaine gestured for Kurt to precede him and followed him toward the bar.

"One of the best things about Rachel is one of the most annoying," Kurt commented to Blaine as they slid up to stand against the wood and chrome counter. "She is never anyone but herself."

"Neither are you," Blaine said.

Kurt nodded and wrote his name on the sign-up sheet to sing. "That's why we're friends. That and our single-minded determination to succeed in a business that would like us to be something quite different."

That made Blaine's stomach twist a little, because he of all people knew what it was like to be told over and over again that he needed to work harder to meet other people's expectations and be who he was supposed to be instead of who he was. Kurt was special, though. He was exceptional. "You shouldn't have to change," he insisted.

"I know. But it would be easier if I did."

The bartender came over, and Blaine pulled out his wallet and watched in growing amusement as Kurt conferred with her at length and came up with an order that suited him: a pretty blush-colored drink in a sugar-rimmed martini glass. It wasn't garnished with fruit or an umbrella, but Blaine was delighted to see that it did look sophisticated. It wasn't diet soda in a plastic cup; it was a real celebratory drink, apart from the lack of alcohol.

"Thank you," Kurt told him as Blaine paid her and dropped a dollar in the tip jar. He twisted around so that his back was against the bar and smiled at Blaine as he took a sip of his drink.

"It's my pleasure," Blaine said, turning his body to face the room as well but his attention staying on Kurt. He didn't want to look away. Kurt's eyes were shining. "You deserve something special."

Kurt dipped his head and took another sip. He looked happy but almost like he was trying to hold it back. Maybe, Blaine thought, he didn't want to gloat, although he wished Kurt would let himself feel the unfettered joy that had to be trapped inside. He deserved that, too.

Still, it wasn't up to him, so Blaine nodded to the drink. "Is it good?"

"Very," Kurt said, gazing happily at his glass. "This is much better for getting me in the mood to sing than well-meaning and unsolicited advice."

"What are you going to sing?"

"I don't know." Kurt took a deep, dreamy breath. "Something… unexpected."

"Unexpected? Like the Spanish Inquisition?" Blaine flinched internally; his giddiness at the night and the news was making him speak before he thought, and he always said stupid things when that happened. It was like the night he'd told Sebastian he loved him, and that had gone so well. He tried to pull himself together, no matter that Kurt was sparkling brighter than the polished metal trim they were leaning against.

"More like a song not sung by Barbra, Patti, or Idina," Kurt said with a lift of his eyebrow. "They'll expect it; they heard me sing enough of those songs in high school. But this isn't high school. This is a step into something new."

"Isn't there a song about that from High School Musical?" Blaine asked as a tune popped up in his head. "Something about starting - "

Kurt pushed away from the bar and rounded on him. "Blaine whatever-your-middle-name-is Anderson, bite your tongue. I have standards."

"I know," Blaine was quick to apologize, but he stopped when he realized Kurt was trying and failing to hold back his laughter. It should have hurt to know that Kurt was poking fun at him, but it didn't at all, because there was such a fondness behind Kurt's eyes that it felt safe instead.

So he just grinned at Kurt and was rewarded by a warm grin back that seemed to grow from the span of a breath into minutes, years, a century or more of twinkling eyes and curved mouths and joy shared and welcomed and -

"It's almost my turn," Kurt said, taking a step back and biting his lip as he glanced up at the small stage. "I think I know what I'm going to sing."

Shaking himself out of the strange little moment of happiness, Blaine asked, "What?"

Kurt just smiled. "You'll see."

Blaine went back to the table as Kurt conferred with the staff member who was running the karaoke machine, and as soon as the woman singing "Eleanor Rigby" finished, Kurt walked up the stairs to the stage, carefully placed his drink on one of the speakers, and lifted the microphone to his mouth.

"I'm betting on 'Some People'," Rachel murmured to Blaine.

"Good evening, I'm Kurt Hummel," Kurt said, his voice clear above the chatter of the room, "and in celebration of my triumphant return to the school-sponsored stage and in honor of my friend who just felt the need to quote Monty Python to me - " His eyes gleamed as they met Blaine's across the room. " - I'm going to go directly against the point of karaoke and sing unaccompanied for you tonight. The original orchestration of the song is humorous, but the sentiment is anything but."

With that, Kurt cleared his throat, closed his eyes for a moment, and opened them again as he began to sing.

Blaine had heard Kurt sing a number of times before, but there was something about him standing still on stage just like he had at the Review, dressed in dark clothes that made him look a foot taller than he really was and a silver mail scarf looped twice around his neck and its ends still hanging nearly to his knees, that made the hair stand up on the back of Blaine's neck. Kurt was beautiful. His voice was beautiful. This wasn't a surprise, it wasn't a revelation, he'd known it since the first night when he'd seen Kurt on the dance floor, but it still made it impossible for Blaine to look away from him even as Rachel gasped and leaned over to say something in his ear.

He had no idea what she said; he could only hear Kurt.

"If you trust in your soul," Kurt was singing, his voice strong and impossibly lovely, "keep your eyes on the goal, then the prize you won't fail. That's your grail. That's your grail."

Blaine realized it was one of the Lady of the Lake's songs from Spamalot, and Kurt was right that the comedic flourishes and trills of the original wouldn't have suited him or the mood he was creating at all, but the simplicity of the song stripped bare was as perfect for him as any of the classic ballads he so loved.

So, Blaine had to admit, was the content of the song, itself. It was all about seeking what you wanted and not letting anything stop you, and Kurt more than anyone Blaine knew was the poster child for doing that very thing. He knew what he wanted - in his career, in love - and he wasn't accepting anything less. It was a fight for him every single day, and yet he didn't shy from it. He didn't fear it. He reached for it, and when he didn't get it, he just kept going.

"Life is really up to you," Kurt sang, just a boy in a spotlight, just the brightest star in the entirety of the sky. "You must choose what to pursue. Set your mind on what to find, and there's nothing you can't do."

Leaning forward in his chair, Blaine felt like the ground was falling out from underneath him.

It wasn't about Kurt, because this wasn't anything he didn't already know about Kurt; it was about himself. He was none of what Kurt was. He wasn't strong like Kurt. He wasn't determined like Kurt was. He'd been burned by trying to be that way in his life, by trying to out-shine Cooper, by standing out at the Sadie Hawkins dance, by failing to lead the Warblers. He'd come to college to try a different way, an easier way, a way where he was freer of expectations he clearly couldn't meet.

And yet as good as it felt not to have a specific path he had to try to follow when he got to college he realized that he wasn't actually drifting happily like he'd hoped. He was lost, unsure of his direction. He was floundering.

When he sat there and looked at Kurt standing up there with only a little of what he wanted but always, always striving for more, Blaine had to face the fact that he wasn't floating gently as the current carried him down the stream of life, as he'd expected; he was stuck in place, spinning in small circles in a stagnant pool.

Blaine wasn't just not as special as Kurt was; he was choosing not to be as special as he could be.

He had a lot of great friends and fun activities in his life, but when he really stepped back and thought about it he wasn't actually satisfied. He might be comfortable, but he wasn't happy. He couldn't even remember the last time he had been.

He knew Kurt wasn't happy, either. Having a dream hurt, too. Blaine had certainly learned that over the years, when what he'd tried to do and be hadn't worked the way he'd hoped. He hadn't been able to be out and proud in public school. He hadn't been able to be the son his father wanted to show off. He hadn't been able to be the stupid romantic he'd dreamed of being when he had a boyfriend. He hadn't been able to retain the respect of his peers at Dalton.

But Kurt had been knocked down, too, again and again and even again a few days ago by his unwitting friends, and somehow he was still standing strong.

Blaine admired him. He could learn from him. He should. He'd never be Kurt, he'd never be as amazing as Kurt was, but he could learn from the way Kurt listened to his own heart, even when it hurt him. Kurt had said as much about himself when he'd described his wonderful dream of love over dinner.

If Blaine wasn't happy, it was because he wasn't listening to himself. He needed to figure out how to do that. He needed to be able to want things the way he used to, important things. It didn't matter that it hadn't worked out for him before. It didn't matter that he'd let everyone down in the past. He needed to face his deepest dreams and desires and, even if he couldn't manage to make them happen, at least stop pretending they weren't there.

It was, he had to admit, an absolutely terrifying thought. He had no idea where to begin.

All Blaine knew, as he sat there and watched his friend enthrall the audience with his simple but powerful performance, was that what he was doing wasn't good enough. He couldn't ever measure up to Kurt, just like he couldn't be as mature and detached as Sebastian wanted, just like he would never match Cooper's charisma, but he could do something.

He could reach for something that he wanted. If he failed, he failed. It wasn't like he hadn't before. No matter how often he'd been told that failing was unacceptable and not an option, he knew now the world wouldn't, in fact, end if he did.

He just had to be careful that he didn't screw up the things that were important to him that he already had. He couldn't be selfish. He couldn't be single-minded. He couldn't get lost in the things he wanted. He needed to learn from his time at Dalton and keep his head clear. Maybe, if he worked hard enough, though, he could keep his friends and aim for something else, whatever that might be.

He could try.

Kurt's voice rose as he tipped his head toward the ceiling and he drew out the final, triumphant note of the song, and Blaine's breath caught at just how talented and unique his friend was. He was so perfectly himself, from his voice to his clothes to his heart. He didn't shy away from anything. That was what Blaine should be trying to be, not another Kurt, obviously, but the very best Blaine he could be.

He had to stop pretending he didn't want to be.

His heart pounding in his throat both from the beauty of Kurt's performance and the intensity of his own revelations, Blaine whooped and clapped proudly. He just managed to keep himself from jumping out of his seat for the ovation.

Kurt blushed as he dipped a curtsey before reclaiming his drink and skipping down the stairs, and he dropped into his seat beside Blaine with a smile still on his face.

"That was incredible," Blaine told him, setting aside his worries as best he could to focus on his friend. "You are incredible, Kurt."

"Thank you." Flushing a little more, Kurt took a quick sip of his drink and then turned to the rest of their friends. "Who's next?"

Rachel stood up. "I am. And I'm not going up alone." She crooked her finger at Blaine. "I'm not taking no for an answer."

"But, I - " Blaine looked at Kurt, torn about leaving him when they were supposed to be celebrating.

"Go sing," Kurt told him with a regal wave. "That's why we're here."

So Blaine found himself up on stage singing "Anything You Can Do" with her, apparently in protest for her not getting the lead in NYADA's musical, he worked the crowd during "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor" with Mike dancing beside him, and he let himself get caught up in the rest of the night as it passed in a breathless blur of internal worries kept at bay by good music and even better friends.

Near the end of the night, Blaine offered Kurt his hand to come sing with him, and to his great delight Kurt smiled at him, placed his fingers in Blaine's, and let himself be pulled out of his seat.

As Blaine danced and spun up on that stage with Kurt for their first ever duet and sang his heart out into Kurt's sparkling eyes through the bopping beat of "Private Idaho" by the B-52s, how good they sounded and how well they played off of each other only cemented the idea in Blaine's heart that he needed to pull himself together. If this is how high he could soar just singing for fun, if this is how filled with joy he could feel just spending time with a friend who accepted him for who he was and whose performing abilities made Blaine want to push every note and dance step, then he could only imagine how great he could feel all of the time if he could find something even bigger in his life.

In that moment, though, he didn't want anything bigger. He was too happy to watch Kurt shimmy and twirl, his scarf spinning around him, and listen to their voices blending together so beautifully. He was too caught up in the song to look away and sing anywhere but into Kurt's smiling eyes. He was too drawn into the playful way Kurt gave everything back to care about anything else. They were great together. They should do a song in the Review this semester, he decided; he had to find a way to make it happen.

His blood was pumping as he laughingly slung his arm around Kurt's shoulders as the song drew to an end, and he squeezed Kurt into his side as they hit the last notes, keeping him there as the room applauded for them. He couldn't help but be struck by the ghost of a memory of what it had felt to have Kurt in his arms before, so long ago now, but mostly he just was thrilled he got to share the moment with his friend.

"That was fun," he said in Kurt's ear once they were back at their tables. "We should have done that before."

Kurt looked over at him, his eyes fathomless and somehow sad for a moment before he blinked back into a smile. "You're right; we should have," he said and raised his glass in a toast.

Blaine happily met it.

Chapter Text

Rachel to Kurt: I don't want to offend you, but I have a couple of great pictures of you and Blaine singing last night. Would you like me to send them to you? They're very flattering.

Kurt to Rachel: There isn't a media blackout about Blaine, as long as you aren't trying to set us up. Obviously I would like them.

Kurt to Rachel: Besides, I accept any and all good pictures of myself, regardless of who else is in them. That's why there's Photoshop.

*

Kurt to Angelica: FYI, we're going to have to move some meetings around. I got my rehearsal times. They conflict. Of course.

Angelica to Kurt: What a shock.

* * *

Blaine's phone buzzed in a rapid series of vibrations, walking its way halfway across the library table before he even got a pencil in his book to mark his place. He grabbed his phone as it was getting dangerously close to the edge.

He had eight text messages. They were all from Cooper.

Cooper to Blaine: Are you busy?

Cooper to Blaine: I need you to do something for me.

Cooper to Blaine: I need you to go to YouTube and set up a new account.

Cooper to Blaine: Then I need you to go to my channel and hit the thumbs-up on all of my audition videos.

Cooper to Blaine: And then I need you to make another account and do it again.

Cooper to Blaine: Like 100 times. Or 150. Or more! Get your friends to do it, too!

Cooper to Blaine: Oh, and leave comments! Use words like masterful, powerful, charismatic, handsome, sexy, lickable, well-muscled, chiseled. Use your initiative. Think about what makes a guy hot, and talk about that about me. Be specific.

Cooper to Blaine: Thanks, Blainey! :D

Blaine stared at his phone for a minute in disbelief. He knew he should be used to his brother's antics, but then again he wasn't sure anyone could ever be used to them, really. Cooper was something else. He was always totally his self-absorbed self, always trying some new plan to reach his goals.

Too bad the plans were mostly ridiculous.

Still, Blaine thought with a sigh, returning to the same thoughts that had been churning through him for days instead of letting him get any work done, at least Cooper had a goal to work toward. It was more than Blaine had. The way things were going, the way he was silently talking himself in circles about what the right thing to do was, it was more than Blaine was ever going to have.

His phone buzzed again.

Cooper to Blaine: I don't see any comments yet! :(

Blaine to Cooper: I'm not doing that, Cooper.

Cooper to Blaine: Come on, what's more important than helping your big brother?

Blaine to Cooper: For one, passing my classes.

Cooper to Blaine: How many times have I told you college is a waste of time?

Blaine let his head fall back against the chair and closed his eyes. Even on a good day, Cooper's advice was annoying and kind of confusing. Today it just made him want to go back to bed. He needed a calm voice of clarity, not this.

He picked up his phone again.

Blaine to Kurt: What time are you out of rehearsal tonight?

Kurt's reply came a minute later: 10:30. Ugh.

Blaine to Kurt: :(

While he was looking sadly at the screen, feeling adrift, Blaine's phone buzzed once more.

Cooper to Blaine: What if I promise when I get famous you can live in my guest house? I'll give you a great deal on rent!

Blaine shut off his phone entirely and tried without much success to focus on his reading instead of the swirling ball of questions inside of him.

* * *

Kurt pushed through the door of the studio as he slipped the last button of his coat through its hole. It was nearly eleven at night, and he had an eight o'clock class in the morning he still had to finish the reading for. He wasn't sure if he should try to focus on it now or set his alarm for five and deal with it when he'd had some sleep. Neither option sounded good. All he wanted to do was crawl into bed and wake up about ten hours later.

Distracted by that luscious thought, he very nearly let out an extremely undignified squeak of surprise when he looked up from his coat to find Blaine leaning against the wall in the corridor, thumbing through his phone.

"Hello," Blaine said, smiling at him and pocketing his cell.

"What are you doing here?" Kurt asked, re-shouldering his bag. He realized as soon as the words were out of his mouth that they sounded rude, but he really hadn't expected to see him there.

Blaine pushed himself upright. "I was still in the library trying to study when I saw the time, and I thought I'd come by."

"Oh. Well, hello." Kurt dipped his head to the side and couldn't help the smile that spread across his face. It was nice to have someone thinking of him.

"Hi." Scooping up his own bag from the floor, Blaine asked, "Where are you headed? Want some coffee?"

"At this hour?"

Blaine leaned in like he was sharing a secret. "I heard they can actually make it without caffeine."

Kurt sighed wistfully as they headed toward the main doors. "I can't. I have class at eight, and I still have reading for it."

"I'm sorry," Blaine said with feeling.

"Yeah," Kurt said, pushing the door open and holding it for Blaine. "I had to stay for extra dance blocking tonight to catch up, so there went another half hour."

Blaine tucked his hands into his pockets as Kurt slipped on his kidskin gloves against the insidious February dampness. "How's rehearsal going?"

Kurt shrugged. "All right. The rest of the cast is good enough that even I can admit they deserve to have the roles. And if I'm pretty much getting to do the musical theater equivalent of standing in the back and swaying, I'm used to that from glee club."

"Is this where I tell you there are no small parts but only small actors?" Blaine asked.

"No, this is where you tell me I'm way too talented to be stuck in the background and that they'll all be clamoring to be in the ensemble when I originate my own Broadway lead," Kurt told him, his lofty tone offset by the grin he couldn't hold back.

"You are definitely way too talented to be stuck in the background," Blaine said earnestly.

"And they'll all be clamoring…?" Kurt prodded with a lift of his eyebrows.

Blaine laughed and said, "Yes, that part, too." The smile faded from his face too quickly, though, and Kurt tilted his head and watched him with more concern.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes," Blaine replied, but he seemed to hunch in a little more, and despite the way he curled into his navy pea coat it didn't look like it was from the cold.

When Kurt put that together with Blaine seeking him out late at night mid-week when they both had a lot of demands on their time, he was concerned. "What's going on?" he asked.

"Nothing," Blaine said.

"Blaine."

Blaine shook his head and said with a sideways glance toward him. "You just really amaze me, you know?"

"Me?" Kurt tried to stop his heart as it leapt and fluttered in his throat from the comment. He couldn't let it fluster him. This was just Blaine. This was sometimes flirty, sometimes supremely sincere, always nice to everyone Blaine. Just like the way Blaine showered him with attention and gorgeous drinks at karaoke was him being a supportive friend. It didn't mean anything else, no matter how much he liked how it made him feel to have that kind of attention. Kurt knew that.

Blaine nodded, meeting his eyes as they crossed the quad. "You know who you are. You know what you want. And you just go for it."

"Yes," Kurt said more slowly, because of course he did.

"That's huge, Kurt."

It didn't feel huge. It merely felt like a basic necessity if he was going to get what he wanted. "When you grow up not fitting in anywhere, you learn to make your own path," he replied. "Even if you have to beat down doors or stand in the back and sway to get there."

"I know," Blaine said, his mouth setting into a thoughtful line as he drifted back into unusually grave silence.

"Blaine," Kurt said more gently. "What's going on?"

Blaine took a slow breath and looked out over the grass before turning back to him and saying in a muted voice, "I've spent a lot of time in my life trying not to rock the boat, and I'm finally realizing the only way I can do that is by not moving at all."

"That's quite a metaphor," Kurt said as he tried to take in the scope of it. It seemed so simple to him, but he was pretty sure it was actually big and complicated for Blaine.

"It's all I have," Blaine said with a helpless shrug.

Worrying the inside of his lip, Kurt reached over and skimmed his gloved hand down Blaine's arm. This seemed like a far deeper conversation than they could easily have walking outside at night while bundled up against the winter chill, but if Blaine was coming to him Kurt had to do his best. "What brought this on?"

Blaine shook his head, watching the path in front of them. "I've just been thinking. A lot."

"About?"

"Myself. Who I am."

When nothing else was forthcoming, Kurt asked, "So are you going to rock the boat?"

"I don't know," Blaine said. "Maybe. Yes." Clearly troubled by the idea, he rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. "I don't know. I think I should. If I can."

"Well, if you want me to talk you out of it, you've come to the wrong person."

"I don't want you talk me out of it," Blaine said, his voice going a little weak and his eyes dark and vulnerable on Kurt's.

"Okay," Kurt said, his heart leaping into his throat again at the way Blaine was looking at him. He told himself to focus on the problem at hand. "So what's stopping you?"

Blaine hesitated again before answering. "I just don't want to get it wrong," he finally said. "I don't know what I should be doing."

"I don't think there's anything you should be doing besides being yourself," Kurt said gently. "I think that's the point." It felt like a weak answer, but Kurt knew all too well about how Blaine could be so polite and eager to please that whatever he wanted was obscured beneath that polished surface. It was part of the reason he liked it so much when Blaine was willing to be upset in front of him; that was the real boy underneath all of his lovely manners.

"But which me?" Blaine asked, flinging out a hand in frustration. "The dutiful son? The good student? The team player? Which one?"

Kurt pulled him to a halt in the shadow of two buildings with a hand on his sleeve. He couldn't do this and walk, not when he could hear the frustration crackling in Blaine's voice. "They're all you, Blaine," he said, looking straight into his eyes. "The guy who dances like a dream, the guy who gets choked up at sappy commercials, the guy who tries to keep the peace but who stands up to me even when I'm in the foulest mood, and the guy who wishes he hadn't run away to Dalton when he was bullied but who is secretly glad he did. They're all you."

Blaine's breath was coming out in sharp puffs. He didn't say anything as his face twisted with emotion he was just barely holding back.

"What's going on?" Kurt asked again as softly as he could. He squeezed Blaine's shoulder, feeling the trembling tension in the muscles there. He wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do to keep touching Blaine, it certainly was always a risk for him to reach out to anyone, but something released in the tight line of Blaine's jaw when he did. So he let himself follow that instinct.

"I'm - " Blaine cleared his throat and looked up at the sky for a moment. "I guess I'm realizing I don't have things as figured out as I thought I did when I came to college. I thought I knew what I was doing, but now I don't."

"That's okay," Kurt said, his hand still moving like he was trying to gentle an animal. "That's the point of college, or so I'm told. You're supposed to challenge yourself and your assumptions. You don't have to have it all figured out now."

"You do."

Kurt huffed out a laugh at the absurdity of that statement. "No, I don't. I'm not at the college I wanted to go to, I have a pitiful part in a play I hate, and I haven't yet been discovered on the street to take Broadway by storm."

"Um, I don't think Broadway works like that," Blaine said slowly.

"See? I don't have that figured out, either."

"But you already - "

"Blaine," Kurt tried to assure him as his friend's brows furrowed even more deeply, "you don't have to know what you're doing. I know you want to, but you don't. It's all right. I think it's normal, actually."

It took a moment for Blaine to digest whatever he was taking from Kurt's encouragement, and he slowly pulled himself back from the edge in front of Kurt's eyes.

"Okay?" Kurt asked.

"Yes," Blaine said. "Thank you. I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry. Did something happen?" Kurt asked him softly as Blaine relaxed under his touch. He couldn't imagine what it might have been. A call from Blaine's parents? Something Warbler-related?

Blaine shook his head. "No. Well, nothing bad. I think I had an epiphany the other night."

"About rocking the boat?"

"Yes." Blaine's eyes lifted back to Kurt's and caught there, taking Kurt's breath away with their depth. "And how maybe I want to."

Kurt didn't know what was going on, but the liquid intensity in Blaine's eyes was arresting. There was turmoil in them, as well as confusion, but there was a raw, heated need, too. Kurt didn't know what it meant. He didn't know what it was for. All he knew was that as much as he tried to keep himself together he couldn't look away.

"You should," Kurt said in a whisper, because that was as loud as he could make his voice in that moment. He wanted to continue to verbalize his support for Blaine doing whatever it was would make him happy and true to himself, but those two words were all he could manage to say.

Maybe it was good he couldn't say any more, because he wasn't sure what might have escaped if it had been able.

They stood like that, fixed on each other, until Blaine tore his eyes away, gave a jerky nod, and broke the moment. He took another shaky breath. "I knew you were the right person to talk to," he said with a smile. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Kurt swallowed hard and clamped his hand on the strap of his bag before it wandered off on its own with the flight of fancy Kurt was trying so, so hard not to indulge in. This was just Blaine talking to him, needing a friend. This was a hard topic. That was all that was going on between them. He knew that. Just how gorgeous Blaine's eyes were and how nice his arm was to touch were entirely irrelevant. "I'm always happy to listen."

"I know," Blaine said. He gestured down the path toward Kurt's dorm. "Even outside at night in early February when you're exhausted."

"We don't always get to choose the timing of life events," Kurt said. A gust of damp air blew into their faces, and he was glad for the way it cleared the cobwebs out of his head. That strange, intense moment was over; the world was back to normal. "Including epiphanies."

"Especially epiphanies."

Kurt fell in behind him as they passed a group of students taking up the majority of the path. "Much like emergency dental work."

Blaine turned his head to look at him over his shoulder with his eyebrows lifted. "Are you comparing my inner life crisis to a root canal?"

"I don't know; isn't an epiphany about as painful?" he asked. He hadn't really had any in his life that had been pleasant ones, not realizing he was gay, not realizing he would never look or sound like the perfect leading man, not realizing that falling in love just didn't seem to be in the cards for him yet.

Blaine frowned thoughtfully as Kurt caught up again. "More. But then there's no Novocain for it."

"I believe it's called alcohol, Blaine," Kurt told him.

Bumping his shoulder against Kurt's, Blaine laughed a little. "I knew you were the right person to talk to," he said again, his voice soft and easy in a way it hadn't been that night.

Kurt pressed his lips together tightly so that his smile didn't go too giddy. It was stupid to get so dizzy over a few nice words and a little appreciation, as nice as they felt. There was no point in starting to flutter over the attention the way he used to in high school; he'd grown up since then.

When he was sure he could keep himself under control, he replied, "That's what friends are for."

* * *

Blaine to Kurt: Thanks again for talking with me last night. Did you get your reading done?

Kurt to Blaine: Just barely, and it was a good thing, because there was a pop quiz. :|

Kurt to Blaine: And you're welcome. Any time.

*

Peter to Blaine: call of duty in my room after the center on Sunday?

Blaine to Peter: Can it be Mario Kart? I don't really feel like shooting things.

Peter to Blaine: sure :)

*

Rachel to Kurt: Sound of Music in the NYADA theater Sunday afternoon? It's a sing-along!

Kurt to Rachel: I have a paper.

Rachel to Kurt: But it's the Sound of Music!

Kurt to Rachel: It's 25% of my grade.

Rachel to Kurt: No one will ever understand the sacrifices we have to make. At least not until we write our autobiographies. <3

* * *

Blaine used the tip of his stirrer to toy with the foam on his latte. The barista had made it into the shape of a heart today, and he carefully teased it out until it was an artistic swirl of a question mark in cream and brown. It seemed so much more fitting, even if he was probably ruining the hard work of the barista to get the drink's textures balanced just so.

Kurt might have been right that it was normal in college not to have a plan for the future but to be figuring it out, but Blaine had always liked to be prepared, from getting his choreography perfect when he performed with Cooper for the neighbors to going into a test ready to answer any question the teacher might ask. It was uncomfortable not to know. It was wearing on him that it had been a week and he still didn't. He didn't even know how to get there.

He'd made so many bad choices in his life, he'd followed his instincts to disaster time and again because they'd seemed so right in the moment, and he just didn't know how to listen to the best one now. He wasn't sure he knew how to listen to himself at all anymore. Maybe he'd forgotten how. Maybe he'd never known.

" - it to my professor, but… then Esther said she wanted to take a hot air balloon to class, so I got mine out of storage and set it up on the sidewalk outside of her dorm."

"That's great," Blaine said automatically, poking at the dot of the question mark to get it a little more circular.

"Blaine," Wes said from across the table.

Blaine looked up, catching up with the conversation. God, he was really failing at being a good friend. "I'm so sorry," he said. "I'm distracted. I'm sorry. Tell me more about your seminar."

"I know emerging markets in Asia isn't the compelling subject for most people that it is for me," Wes said, waving away the suggestion. "Long story short, I'm the only junior in the class, and I'm going to have to prove I belong there."

"I'm sure you will," Blaine replied. "It's your passion, after all. How many of the other students can say that?"

"Quite a few, actually."

"Mm." Blaine wondered if when he was a senior he'd be so sure of his path and passions. He hoped so. He hoped it wouldn't take that long. "When did you know it was right for you?"

"When I was salivating over the textbooks for upper level classes in the bookstore my first semester," Wes said with a nostalgic laugh. "I couldn't wait to get through the pre-reqs to read them. And when I took the pre-reqs I got even more excited about the idea."

Blaine nodded slowly. He hadn't found anything that sparked him like that, but then he hadn't taken anything much outside of what his father had suggested as a good broad base for business.

"Why? Are you thinking about what you want to declare already?" Wes asked.

"No," Blaine said. "I mean, I guess I am, but not in that way." He took a slow breath. "I'm trying to figure out what makes me happy, and I don't think I've found it yet."

"You're only a freshman. You have time."

"I know," Blaine said, his leg starting to bounce under the table, because he didn't want to wait. He wanted to know. He wanted to be trying, not still floundering, now that he realized he was. It was huge and terrifying, and he wanted to be doing it, not just sitting around uselessly and thinking about it. He wanted to be taking those big next steps. He wanted to be the kind of person who did. "But I still want to be working toward it. Toward figuring it out, at least."

Sipping his coffee, Wes tilted his head and considered him. "Blaine, it's only your first year," he said. "Just step back and think about what interests you and what might make you happy going forward."

Blaine nodded again. It seemed so reasonable when Wes said it like that, even if it was still a leap to consider taking a psychology or a theater class. They could be just as wrong. "All I know is that what I'm doing now isn't it."

"Then try something else," Wes told him and then said more pointedly, "Just don't drop out of the classes you're in now, because you need those credits to graduate on time."

Laughing a little, Blaine said, "You're really getting into the whole idea of being my second RA, aren't you?"

"I can't help it," Wes said with a wry smile. "But as your friend, I just want you to be happy. I always thought you'd either be a politician or a performer with your charisma, but you need to find your own dream and chase it."

Blaine couldn't imagine having to run for office, glad-hand with so many people, and try to win all of them over. It sounded awful, like everything he'd been brought up to do and be. And performing wasn't a sensible career… or at least he'd never thought so, not until he'd met people like Mike, Rachel, and Kurt, who made it look so right and realistic.

He didn't know. He just didn't know.

"As long as I've known you, Blaine, you've always put a lot of pressure on yourself to get things right," Wes said. "Sometimes you just have to let yourself get things wrong."

"I've gotten plenty of things wrong," Blaine insisted.

"And haven't you learned from all of them?" Wes asked.

Blaine had learned a lot of things, from how not to win over a boy's heart to how not to trust his own, from how to lose friends to - to -

He stopped for a second and listened to himself. He kept coming back to Sebastian every time he thought about all of his failures, and that had to mean something, too, didn't it?

He knew it had been a pretty big disaster, involving not just his own heart but the health of a group that meant so much to him, but still. Shouldn't he really be over that? It had been nearly a year since they'd broken up. So he'd dated a guy, he'd been head over heels for him, he'd made some bad choices because of it, and he'd been hurt when it had ended badly? Yes, it had been a big deal, but why was that still so much in the center of his thoughts?

Blaine slowly sat back in his chair, feeling the weight of those questions settling on his shoulders. It didn't solve his problems to ask them, just gave him more to think about, but maybe it was time to face them head on. He wasn't sure what that meant, but maybe it was time for him to try to put those ghosts to rest, because clearly, no matter what he'd told himself, he had not.

"You know," he said, looking back up at Wes, "I think I'm still learning from them."

* * *

Tina to Kurt: Hey, do you know where Blaine is? Is he with you? He's not answering my texts.

Kurt to Tina: I have no idea where he is, sorry. I've been in the library all day.

Tina to Kurt: Okay, thanks. It was worth a try! :)

Tina to Kurt: Almost done with your paper?

Kurt to Tina: Getting there. The end is in sight.

Tina to Kurt: Good luck!

* * *

Blaine glanced over at his phone on the arm of the futon as it lit up again with a new text, and the distraction nearly made him steer his go-cart off the track. He bit his lip and leaned into the next turn, hoping to make up for his mistake.

"You know, that doesn't actually help you," Peter said, beside him.

"What?" Blaine asked.

"Leaning. Like when you duck in your car when there's a low bridge."

"How did you know I do that?"

Peter laughed and steered his own cart through a power-up. "I've hung out with you pretty much every week since last fall. I think I know you by now."

Blaine leaned to the left again, bumping his shoulder against Peter's; it might not have been the most gentlemanly way to play Mario Kart, but physical interference was a universally accepted part of the game, as far as Blaine could tell from his years of playing video games at Dalton and now college.

"Fuck!" Peter said, laughing, as his cart skidded on the screen. He scrambled to get it back on track.

"It looks like it's helping to me," Blaine told him with a grin.

"Oh, you want to play dirty, Anderson?" Peter lashed out with his elbow and barely missed knocking the controller out of Blaine's hand.

Blaine pulled a leg up onto the futon and backed into the corner so that he could keep Peter at bay if he lunged again. "I went to an all-boys' high school; you'll have to do better than an elbow-bump."

"Hey, I'm still winning," Peter pointed out.

"Not if I can - damn it." Blaine missed a power-up and, no matter how he tried, couldn't quite catch up with Peter, who threw up his arms with a cheer as he crossed the finish line first.

"Death to cheaters!" he crowed.

"Hey," Blaine said with a laugh, because he hadn't cheated. Also - "You did the same thing to me."

Peter grinned at him and tossed his head to get his bangs out of his eyes. "Only in self-defense."

Blaine reached over and grabbed his beer from the floor. "I'm pretty sure that wouldn't hold up in court."

"Need another?" Peter asked, opening up his mini-fridge.

"Sure," Blaine said and drained the rest of his bottle in a long gulp. His phone buzzed again, and he was surprised to realize how long he'd been hanging out with Peter. It had only felt like an hour or two, but the clock on his phone and the row of empties on the floor showed he'd been there far longer. He'd have to go soon if he wanted to be up for his Monday morning classes.

"Anything wrong?" Peter asked and nodded at Blaine's phone.

Blaine thumbed through the texts and shook his head. "Nothing time-critical," he said, though the worried tone of Tina's last few made him feel bad. He quickly tapped back to her that he was okay, was out with a friend, and would be around tomorrow at lunch if she still wanted to get together then. "Sorry." He put the phone down again and accepted the beer, because he knew it was rude to be texting with one friend when you were hanging out with another. "Rematch?"

Peter flopped down onto the futon beside him, slinging his arm over Blaine's shoulders in a warm, happy gesture. "Only if you can handle the humiliation of losing again."

"You'd better be ready to eat your words when I win," Blaine told him.

"Oh, that's not going to happen." Peter reached down to pick up his controller and grinned broadly over at him in a way that had Blaine smiling right back until the game began and he had to concentrate as best he could around his buzz, Peter's friendly jabs, and the familiar pull of feeling Peter's body leaning so comfortably against his own.

He woke up the next morning fuzzy-headed and mildly hung over, and he sat in the dining hall with a big mug of coffee, a glass of orange juice, and a cinnamon-raisin bagel and stared out the window as his brain slowly crept online.

A part of him had to wonder if he should back off on his drinking, because it was hell having to get up for early classes when he'd been out late. The problem was that he'd had a great time with Peter last night. It seemed stupid to go home early to get a good night's sleep. School nights and curfews were for high school. This was college. All students had to learn to balance their social and academic lives, and he wasn't dumb enough to take a test or anything feeling this way. Having to wear sunglasses when he walked to class was a small price to pay for spending time with friends.

Besides, the time with Peter had been fun, and, after a week spent trying to go to classes and meetings and do his homework but instead spinning in endless and fruitless mental circles about what he wanted to do with his life so that he could figure out what direction he needed to be pushing in, it was wonderful to have some time where he could just hang out, relax, and be free.

Last night, he hadn't had to think about serious subjects or have intense conversations, even if that was probably what would be the most useful for him. It had been such a relief. He'd just needed a few hours where he wasn't feeling like a failure just for not knowing what would make him happy, nevertheless for not being able to get it. It had been so blissfully easy.

Then again, being with Peter was always easy. It was one of the reasons Blaine had liked him from the night they'd met that first week of school in the fall. Peter was just fun. He didn't make a lot of demands on Blaine's time or draw him into the LGBT Alliance drama when it wasn't relevant to him. Instead he was happy to hang out and laugh over lunch or video games, dance at a party or sing along at the youth center.

Blaine smiled into his coffee. He'd been lucky to find Peter as a friend.

He'd been lucky to have Peter as his first sexual encounter in college, too, he realized. Not only had he been responsive and giving in a way that not everyone Blaine had met since had been, but he'd also been upfront about not expecting anything more. It had taken the tension away for Blaine about whether he could make hooking up without hurting anyone work. They'd parted happily, and when they'd started hanging out soon after it wasn't at all awkward because it wasn't something that weighed on their relationship. Peter had left the door open for them to have sex again, and yet it hadn't mattered that Blaine hadn't taken him up on it.

Peter was the perfect guy to have met first.

Blaine knew he wasn't that all that good at relationships. He and his family were not close, not even Cooper. He hadn't been able to satisfy Sebastian as a boyfriend, and he'd barely wanted anything from Blaine. He hadn't been able to maintain a lot of his friendships at Dalton when everything had gotten complicated because he'd been too caught up in the drama. He wanted so badly to be a good friend, but it had been difficult to balance everything and everyone. He'd tried too hard and made a mess of things.

The whole year with Kurt had proven to Blaine yet again that he had trouble treading on shaky ground and finding a way through it, although at least with Kurt it seemed to be turning out well. At least Kurt was willing to forgive him for his faults and let him into his life despite it all. He'd turned out to be a wonderful, wise, and supportive friend, and Blaine had almost never had it. Between how they'd met and how often he seemed to be unable to keep his emotions under control in Kurt's presence, Blaine was lucky he hadn't messed it up completely. He was lucky someone as pulled together as Kurt liked him anyway.

With Peter, though, it had never been difficult. They'd slept together, they'd hung out together, they'd gotten drunk, they'd even curled up in the same bed more than once after a party when Blaine hadn't been up to walking home, and it was still easy. Every time, Peter just made him feel good, like Blaine was welcome to do or be whatever he wanted.

When he thought about it that way, it made something in Blaine's heart twist and melt, and he held his breath for a moment, caught in the feeling. There weren't many places in his life where there were no expectations for him and where he was accepted just as he was. There weren't many people who accepted him without reservation.

That was something precious and special to him.

Peter was special to him.

It was frightening to come to that realization, like he hadn't known he was standing on the edge of the chasm until his toes were already dangling over the cliff. It was true, though; Peter did make him feel safe and happy. He made Blaine feel okay, no matter what he did, no matter how drunk he got, no matter how dorky he was. None of it made Peter even blink.

Blaine didn't just like how that made him feel; he was desperate for it. It was something he wanted, and now that he was being honest he could admit it. And there Peter was, offering it to him.

Reeling, Blaine caught sight of his watch and had to gulp down his coffee before grabbing his books and hurrying off to class. He tried to push aside the wonder that was growing in him as he realized just how much his friend really meant to him, but Peter's face kept swimming up in front of his eyes as the day went on.

Peter laughing at a joke. Peter smiling at him over a beer. Peter tucking a blanket over him as he fell asleep. Peter texting him just to hang out. Peter dancing with him. Peter kissing him, so many months ago.

It all added up to Peter liking him. Peter liked him, and Blaine liked him back, and suddenly it felt so much bigger, because this was one relationship Blaine had never screwed up. Even with Kurt, who understood him better than anyone, from his life in Ohio to his favorite movies, he'd screwed things up enough that the solid ground they were now on felt like a gift, but being friends with Peter was simple. Maybe there was a reason why.

Maybe there was something bigger, some compatibility, some secret connection between them that was different from anything Blaine had ever had. There was a basic acceptance that went in both ways. They never had to explain anything. They never argued. They never judged each other. They could just be, and Blaine really liked that. Blaine loved that.

Blaine wanted that.

Blaine stopped dead in the middle of the quad, not even able to apologize when the student behind him bumped into him.

He wanted something, and he wanted that.

And as he sat on his bed with his laptop late that night, flipping through pictures on Facebook with his heart pounding each time Peter's face appeared, Blaine let himself think about what that might mean.

He knew he was terrible at being a boyfriend. He knew he was terrible at giving someone else what they wanted from romance. He knew he did a lot of things wrong in the past with Sebastian, with Jeremiah.

But he also knew that Sebastian had been a self-centered, arrogant jerk, at least some of the time, and maybe part of the problem between them had just been them. Sebastian had come onto him first and gotten to know him second; as he'd gotten closer to Blaine, he hadn't liked what he found. He'd been very clear about his disapproval of the workings of Blaine's heart.

Maybe with someone else, someone who had very different expectations of him, it wouldn't be like that.

Peter wouldn't judge him if Blaine pushed too hard; he'd laugh instead of scowl if Blaine serenaded him, no matter how ridiculous it was. If Peter didn't want to hold hands, he'd just say so, not scoff loudly enough to make Blaine feel ashamed for reaching out toward him. If Peter didn't want Blaine to spend the night, he'd tell him kindly, not dismiss him. Peter wouldn't put limits on them, either how much or how little time they could spend together. He wouldn't demand fixed date nights if Blaine was busy or get mad if Blaine didn't feel like going dancing. He'd just roll with it, like he rolled with everything. If Blaine didn't get everything right, Peter wouldn't care.

Dating Peter would be just as easy as being friends with him.

Blaine froze as he let himself think that thought.

Did he even want a boyfriend? He'd thought he didn't, not after how much it had hurt to be with Sebastian, but Kurt's words about love had been rolling around in his head for days. He wasn't looking anymore for the sweeping romance Kurt was; just by his nature, Kurt seemed to be from that sort of amazing fantasy world and would probably do it all perfectly, but Blaine had proven himself to be flawed and fumbling, and he'd never be able to make grand gestures anything but awkward.

Still, though, at the core of Kurt's wishes were ideas that were within Blaine's reach and whispered teasingly at his heart: a relationship with a great friend who cared about him and who would do special things with him, a boyfriend who would smile as he kissed him goodnight and know how he liked his coffee in the morning, someone who would save him a seat at dinner or cheer extra for him when he sang in the Review. Someone who was a friend but who was something more, too.

"Oh, god," Blaine breathed, because when he looked at it that way he was pretty sure he did want that. He was pretty sure it was a big piece of what was missing in his life and in his heart.

It was like a switch that he'd turned off in high school suddenly turned back on.

It was terrifying to want all of that, but he did. God, he did. He always had. Even if he'd learned that the ideas of storybook romance he'd grown up with were over the top, he still, in his heart, wanted somebody to care for and to care about him. He wanted somebody special. He wanted to feel special to someone. He really did.

And if that was what love could be with the right person and not the twisted charade of love his relationship with Sebastian had become, and if that was within reach…

His heart racing, Blaine stared blankly at his computer screen. He didn't know what to do. Realizing that he wanted a relationship again didn't mean he was ready for it. It didn't mean that he knew how to get one or how to keep one. All it meant was that he was a hundred times more confused than he had been the day before.

Sitting there didn't make him feel any better. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he felt like he might get sick to his stomach. He didn't know what to do. Should he say something to Peter? Should he take him out to dinner? Should he sing to him?

No, he shouldn't sing to him. He knew better than that. It was crushing to realize, though, that that was still his instinct. Maybe he wasn't ready. But how was he going to get ready?

After what felt like an eternity of spinning in mental circles, Blaine finally shut his laptop and set it out of the way before he turned out the light. He wasn't going to be able to figure it out tonight. He had to sleep on it, think on it, and get past the first wave of nerves. Then it would be okay.

He would be okay.

And if he wasn't, if he was still confused and terrified, he'd just have to talk about it with someone.

* * *

Finn to Kurt: happy tuesday!

Kurt to Finn: Thank you?

Finn to Kurt: you always tell me I don't text you, so I am

Kurt to Finn: Thank you. Happy Tuesday. :)

*

Blaine to Kurt: Hey, are you around for dinner?

Kurt to Blaine: Tina and I are eating together in Warren tonight. Want to join us?

Blaine to Kurt: Thanks, but I'd really like to talk with you alone. Do you have time to meet up after?

Kurt to Blaine: Hang on. Let me see what I can do.

Kurt to Tina: Lunch tomorrow instead? I think something's going on with Blaine.

Tina to Kurt: Sure. I hope he's okay!

Kurt to Tina: Thanks. Me, too.

Kurt to Blaine: I'm all yours for dinner tonight. When and where?

Blaine to Kurt: Café in the fine arts building at 6:30? I'd like somewhere quiet.

Kurt to Blaine: I'll be there! :)

* * *

Having gone to the café directly after his last class let out, Kurt had stalked and then snagged the two best chairs in the little restaurant and was halfway through his second cup of coffee as well as the first act of Hedda Gabler when Blaine came in. Blaine was wearing that deep red cardigan Kurt liked so much on him, but he looked distracted and strained, his eyebrows furrowed even when he caught sight of Kurt and smiled.

That was not Blaine's normal smile. It wasn't even Blaine's polite smiling facade; it was forced. Kurt closed his book and tucked it into his bag. Something was wrong, and he was going to give Blaine his full attention.

"Am I late?" Blaine asked, glancing at his watch in confusion as he took in Kurt's untouched sandwich and empty cup on the little table between the two comfortable chairs.

"No, I came early to get some work done," Kurt assured him.

"Oh, good." Blaine let his bag drop to the floor beside the other chair. "I'm going to - " He gestured at the counter. "Would you like anything else?"

Kurt shook his head and worried his lip as he watched Blaine go get his food. He knew Blaine was in turmoil over his whole boat-rocking-metaphor issue, but in their conversation last week Blaine had been intent, frustrated, and confused. Tonight he looked like he was going to vibrate out of his dark, well-kept oxfords. If he hadn't seen Blaine drink five cups of coffee in a few hours with no ill effects before, he'd wonder if he'd had too much caffeine and was jumpy and anxious because of it.

Whatever was going on with Blaine was clearly serious. Kurt's heart tightened; he needed to do whatever he could to help.

Kurt had his face composed into an expression of polite interest when Blaine turned back with his drink and wrapped sandwich. That he hadn't also gotten one of the café's rich chocolate chip cookies was as sure of a sign of his agitation as anything else.

"How are you doing?" he asked as Blaine sat.

"I'm okay." Blaine put his food down but didn't make a move to open it. Instead he sat a little forward in his seat and flexed his hands in his lap. "How are you?"

"Blaine," Kurt said gently. "I'm fine. But you don't look like you are."

"I'm - Okay, I'm kind of a mess right now, and I need to talk to you." Blaine looked up into Kurt's eyes, his own gleaming. "Can I talk to you?"

"Of course you can," Kurt said, leaning on the arm of the chair closer to him.

Blaine swallowed and nodded, like he was reaffirming Kurt's permission to himself. "Thank you. Okay." He stared at his hands for a moment before drawing in a shuddering breath. "I've been thinking some more since we talked the other night."

"And?"

"I think I've been doing things all wrong."

"What things?" Kurt asked.

"Well, everything," Blaine said with an unhappy little laugh. "But I'm talking right now about love."

Somehow Kurt kept himself from rocking back in shock. It was the last thing he would have expected from Blaine, who was always so sure of how he wanted to handle himself when it came to that subject. "Love," he repeated dumbly.

"Yes," Blaine said. "Because you know things were bad with Sebastian."

He seemed to want an answer, so Kurt nodded.

"Parts of it were good, but the parts that were bad were really bad. He made me feel - " Blaine broke off as his voice went tight. "He made me feel really good when he wanted to, but I think I hung onto that longer than I should have. I think I thought all of the good things made up for the bad ones."

Kurt's chest ached for his friend's remembered pain, and he could feel his expression softening with sympathy as much as he tried to keep it under control.

"I did learn a lot from him," Blaine continued. "I know I keep saying that, but I did. I just think I didn't learn all of the right things. Or I learned the right things, but I drew the wrong conclusions from them."

Kurt swallowed and tried to find his voice, because this was Blaine, and it was important, even if he felt like he was walking on a shaky bridge to some unknown destination. "What kind of wrong conclusions?"

"Well," Blaine said with a thoughtful frown, like he was reading notes in his head, "for one, it wasn't all my fault."

That topic was solid enough ground. "Of course it wasn't all your fault," Kurt told him. "That's not how any relationship works. And given what I know of Sebastian, I'm pretty sure it wasn't even anywhere near fifty-fifty in terms of who was at fault."

"I'm far from perfect, Kurt," Blaine told him.

Kurt rolled his eyes. "Oh, I know that. That doesn't negate anything I just said to you."

Blaine's mouth curled up into a ghost of a smile. "All right. But I'm not as smart as you, and it took me until now to figure out just how much of it was us and not me. I didn't screw it up. I couldn't have worked harder. I couldn't have made him happy somehow and make him want to make me happier. We just weren't a good match."

"Okay."

"Okay?" Blaine asked.

"Yes, okay," Kurt said, not quite sure what the issue was. He'd seen his friends fall in and out of love enough to know that there were always faults on both sides. "That seems reasonable. I mean, I still think the problem was Sebastian, but if you're determined to take a share of blame I don't care as long as you can see it wasn't all you."

"I - " Blaine laughed and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. "This is a big revelation for me, and apparently you already knew?"

Kurt raised his eyebrows. "Sorry?" he offered.

Blaine waved that away. "No. No, this is why I'm talking to you, Kurt. You understand."

"Then keep going. What's bothering you?"

With another nervous laugh, Blaine looked out of the dark window beside them before focusing back on Kurt. "It means that, if it wasn't me but us, then if I was in a relationship with someone else it would be different."

Kurt's heart started to hammer in his chest, even though Blaine's thought was obvious. He ignored the pounding beat of his pulse. "That's how relationships work, Blaine. Each one is different."

"I know, but - " Blaine inched forward on his chair, growing more animated. "Remember how I said Sebastian and I weren't friends?" He waited for Kurt to nod. "That means he didn't like me even at my best, or not all that much. He didn't hate me or anything, we had fun together, but - but if I dated someone who already was my friend, I wouldn't have the same problems. Because he'd already like me, right?" Kurt nodded again when Blaine paused. "So when I got something wrong, it wouldn't be as big of a deal."

Blaine paused again, like he was waiting for Kurt to say something, and all Kurt could come up with was to repeat, "Because he'd already like you." He felt like he couldn't quite follow what was going on, like he was pinned to the seat by the very topic.

"Exactly." Blaine smiled at him then, his whole handsome face lighting up. "I've been thinking about what you said the other night at dinner about what you wanted from love. You wanted a friend to do things with. You wanted someone who shared your interests. You wanted someone who knows everything about you. Right?"

"Yes," Kurt said, his heart racing even faster. He could feel it jumping inside his rib cage, pushing the blood in a rush through his veins.

"I've been thinking about that a lot. That's what it would be like to date a friend. Someone who likes you and loves you."

Kurt managed to give a jerky nod. He didn't want to read into this conversation, but Blaine was scooting even closer and looking so deeply into his eyes and -

"I've been thinking maybe I could do that," Blaine continued softly. "Maybe I want to. Maybe it's not as crazy as I thought to want something a little more meaningful again. Just with somebody better than Sebastian. Somebody way better." His eyes were so deep, endlessly deep, as they stayed locked on Kurt's like he was the only thing in the world.

Barely breathing and utterly transfixed, Kurt said, "It doesn't sound like it's hard to be better than Sebastian."

Blaine laughed and inched to the very edge of his chair. "Do you think I'm crazy?" he asked. "To want this?"

"What's crazy about wanting love?" Kurt asked. His eyes felt as wide as saucers, his whole body frozen as he watched Blaine. What was happening? He didn't know what to think. He didn't know what to do.

"What if I ruin a really important friendship?"

"What if you make it better?" Kurt could have kicked himself for saying it, but Blaine's face was so handsome and filled with hope, and his gaze was fixed on his without wavering.

Blaine nodded. "You're right." He reached out and touched Kurt's hand with his own, and Kurt sucked in a sharp breath at the contact. "Of course you're right."

"Of course I am," Kurt echoed. He didn't know what to think.

Was there more than one way to read this conversation? Blaine had finally let himself move past his horrible high school boyfriend and had realized he did want a relationship, and he wanted it with a good friend who liked him and shared his interests and understood him, and -

Blaine's hand was so warm on his, and Kurt's fingers twitched with the desire to flip over to touch palm-to-palm. He swallowed and kept his eyes on Blaine's face, which honestly wasn't much less compelling.

Kurt had tried so hard to keep Blaine's effusively friendly nature toward everyone and his disinterest in having a romantic relationship in the forefront of his mind, even and especially when Blaine was smiling at him across a candlelit table, saying sweet and admiring things to him, or singing with him with fire in his eyes. He'd chalked it up to the same part of Blaine that saw the world and all of his friends in it as perfectly wonderful and worthy of effusive compliments and extra touching when he was drunk. It didn't mean anything. It couldn't mean anything. It was just the way Blaine was, and even if it could make Kurt's stomach twist and flutter, he always, always remembered it had nothing to do with him.

But now, he realized that maybe he had been wrong. Maybe the quiet voice in the back of his head that said that Blaine's smile was just that much bigger for him, that Blaine's willingness to be vulnerable and share his history and his heart with him showed how close and comfortable he felt, that Blaine's eyes did actually linger on his mouth when they found themselves suddenly close… maybe that voice was right. Maybe Blaine had been scared about how he was feeling because Sebastian had hurt him so much, but now that he was realizing that he was willing to try again, maybe he was finally letting himself see Kurt, with whom he shared so much in common, who was nothing like Sebastian, who wanted everything that he wanted, and who was so ready to be loved and in love and couldn't think of a better, kinder, more wonderful and appealing person in the world than Blaine to be that person and -

"You really don't think I'm crazy?" Blaine asked, watching him intently. "Because I don't know what I'm doing, Kurt. I don't want to mess everything up chasing after some dream of a love that isn't real."

Kurt hitched in a breath. Blaine was so close, close enough that it wouldn't take much to lean forward and kiss him again, to see if his mouth was just as sweet and lovely as he remembered. He wanted to know. He needed to know. "I don't think you're crazy at all."

Blaine's smile went even wider, and he squeezed Kurt's hand. "Okay. Good. Okay." He laughed a little, self-consciously, and pulled his hand back. "Okay."

"Okay?" Kurt looked down at his hand in confusion, now alone on the arm of his chair.

Blaine nodded. "I'm going to ask him out." He laughed again and rubbed his fingers over his smile like he couldn't quite believe what he was saying.

It was like Blaine was speaking Swahili, or maybe Kurt just couldn't hear him over the waterfall rushing in his ears. "What?"

"Peter. I'm going to ask him out," Blaine said, sitting back in his chair and looking satisfied and terrified all at once.

"Peter?" Kurt knew he sounded like a parrot, but none of this made sense, and he was pretty sure as soon as it did it wasn't going to be good. His fingers were tingling and cold, like his heart had stopped circulating blood entirely.

"Yes," Blaine said with a dreamy smile. "I can't remember - have you met him?"

Kurt shook his head. The name was vaguely familiar, but then in that moment John Barrowman's name was only vaguely familiar, too. Peter. Peter. Blaine had a friend named Peter. Right. Blaine had been talking about Peter. Peter. Of course it was about Peter.

"He's great," Blaine told him. "Better than great. He was my first real friend on campus after Rob, and he's a really nice guy, not just to me but to everyone. We can just hang out, you know? I don't have to get it all right. I don't have to have things figured out with him, because he's still figuring himself out, too. He doesn't have any expectations. There's no pressure."

"That sounds wonderful," Kurt said hoarsely as all of the hope and joy in him drained away like a plug had been pulled from his chest and he was being emptied out from the inside.

He'd been reading it all wrong. Again.

And this time it wasn't confusing kindness for interest like with Finn or Sam years ago or sexual attraction for interpersonal connection like with the boys last year; it was a far, far bigger mistake - thinking friendship was something better, thinking companionship was connection, thinking misplaced hope and loneliness was love - and now his heart, which he tried to keep so carefully contained, was exposed to the air and bleeding raw the way he never wanted it to be.

He kept himself from pressing a hand to the pain in his chest; he knew it wouldn't help.

"He is," Blaine said. He ducked his head and smiled even more, a soft, bashful expression that cut deeply in its sweetness, because it wasn't directed at Kurt. "He really is."

"I'm happy for you," Kurt said, because there was nothing else he could do. Blaine had figured out what he wanted. That was good. He was happy for him. It wasn't the only thing he was feeling, but it was still in there.

Blaine leaned forward again, this time not touching him, which was probably good because Kurt was feeling so brittle he was fairly certain he might shatter if Blaine did. "Thank you for supporting me."

Kurt pasted on a smile. He was proud to find that he'd learned from the last time he'd opened his heart to Blaine; this wasn't Blaine's fault, and he wasn't going to make him suffer for it. So he just said, "You're welcome. I hope it goes well for you."

"Well, I know not to sing," Blaine said with a laugh, "so I think I've got a chance."

Through a mixture of determination and the lovely numb cocoon of shock, Kurt managed to keep himself giving at least reasonable answers through the rest of the conversation, and then as soon as it seemed appropriate, which was not soon enough, he excused himself for the evening. He even smiled honestly when Blaine patted him on the shoulder and thanked him again, because even though he'd read the entire conversation wrong he really was glad that his friend was going to reach for something that would make him happy.

Kurt walked back to his dorm with his head held determinedly high, and he said hello to his RA, Kevin, as he checked his mailbox before he climbed the stairs to his room. He flicked his fingers in a wave toward Devon and Ruthie in the hallway before unlocking his door and going inside.

And then, as soon as the door was shut, Kurt leaned back against it and, with his coat still buttoned and his bag on his shoulder, slowly slid down until he was sitting on the floor. He pulled his knees up against his chest, put his head down on them, and utterly failed at stopping himself from crying.

He'd made a pact with himself more than a year before that he wasn't going to cry anymore over his love life or lack thereof because college boys weren't worth it, but this wasn't just stupid Zack with his stupid unwanted boutonniere. This wasn't one of dozens of boys who flirted with Kurt but didn't care about him.

This was Blaine.

Blaine liked Kurt, laughed at his jokes, came to him with his deepest problems, and seemed to love spending time with him. Blaine was growing into Kurt's best friend, the person who could get parts of him no one else ever had, no matter that he had other friends who loved him. Kurt could just be himself, all of himself, around Blaine, and he thought Blaine felt the same way about him.

Maybe he did. This didn't mean that he didn't. This didn't change their friendship. It didn't make it any less important.

All it did was mean that when Blaine finally realized that he was ready to be in love again, Kurt wasn't what he wanted.

Shuddering like he'd been punched in the gut, Kurt curled his fingers into the fabric of his jeans and tucked his body into that much smaller of a ball.

He knew that falling in love wasn't a mathematical equation but was magic… or at least that's what it looked like from the outside. He knew that he couldn't line up all of the pros and cons on paper and make two people a match. He knew hearts felt what they felt.

But he also knew that Blaine was everything he wanted in a boyfriend, from his effusive personality to his kind heart to his romantic notions to every single shared interest or opinion, and now that Blaine was looking for someone, too, Kurt was simply not the same ideal for him.

He didn't want Kurt.

Kurt pulled his legs in more tightly against his body as his tears soaked into the knees of his jeans. He knew he should stop crying. He knew he was stupid to be so upset at all, but the most he could do was keep himself silent besides the shaking wet gasps of his breath.

Blaine was so close to perfect - not as a person, not up on a pedestal, but because he was all of the amazing things that made up Blaine - and he didn't feel the same way about Kurt. Maybe that's why he felt that way about Kurt.

He'd said he'd wanted to date Peter because he was so easy-going and nice. No one would accuse Kurt of being either of those things. Blaine wanted to date Peter because he had no expectations. Kurt was all expectations. He knew he was sarcastic and often cold. He was driven to the point of near single-mindedness sometimes. He was high maintenance. He was inexperienced. He was prickly. He was focused on himself, because he had to be to get what he wanted.

Unless what he wanted was Blaine, a voice deep in his heart whispered, but it didn't matter, because he was who he was, and there was no changing him. He was never going to stop reaching for things or being himself, he couldn't do that if he wanted to stay himself, and if Blaine didn't like that about him - if nobody did - then he couldn't help that. It was who he was.

He was who he was, and Blaine was who he was: warm, friendly, charismatic, well-loved. Anyone would want Blaine, but of course Blaine didn't want him.

Kurt lifted his head and wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand, even as more tears spilled over. This wasn't something new, he told himself sharply. Nobody had wanted him before, not in Lima, not even here in New York, not for himself instead of being a willing body. That Blaine didn't want him now, either, shouldn't be an extra wound; it should be a reminder that he had to stop dreaming about things that weren't going to happen now, maybe ever. He'd already known he wasn't going to get what he wanted from college boys. This was just a reaffirmation, not a new hurt.

This was a good thing. It was a reminder of where his head needed to be, on his career and his future, instead of letting himself get lost in the dreamland of a handsome boy who liked him. Liking him was enough. Blaine still made him feel good, made him feel special and understood, even if all he said and did was out of friendship, and he should just accept that. It was still rare and precious to him. It was still important.

And if his heart felt like it was split in two and bleeding freely in his chest - like a literal broken heart, and if this was anything like what it felt like no wonder his friends were so upset when their relationships didn't work out - well, he'd survived his father being in a coma and a rejection letter from NYADA, and he'd survive this, too. Those were much bigger hurts in the grand scheme of his life.

"Okay," he whispered to himself, trying so hard to blink back his tears. "It's not a big deal." It was one boy. It was one more stupid crush that didn't mean anything, no matter how deep and true it felt in his heart.

It didn't matter that it was Blaine. In fact, it was probably good, because he hadn't ruined anything with his assumptions, because they'd been so far away from reality that Blaine hadn't even noticed the way Kurt had been reacting.

Blaine hadn't even noticed.

Kurt wiped his cheeks again and laughed a little without humor, because, god, he had the worst instincts when it came to love.

All he could do was hold onto the hope that someday he would get it right.

And if he didn't? Then he'd just keep going forward, anyway.

Like he was going to right now.

His lungs aching with the effort of getting himself under control, he let himself sit with his head tipped back against the door for a few more minutes, breathing hard and deep like he'd been running, until his tears stopped threatening to flow.

When he was sure he was finished feeling sorry for himself, he pushed himself up to his feet, straightened his coat with shaking hands, and grabbed his bag again. He had two choices for dealing with his heart, and since he wasn't going to go admit to Rachel or Tina how stupid he'd been again and let them ply him with pizza and sympathy he'd go to one of the practice rooms and push himself with his vocal exercises.

His phone buzzed with an incoming text, but he barely heard it. He'd deal with it later.

It would be better for him in the long run to work on his voice, anyway, he told himself as he headed out of the door. His career was the thing he needed to focus on, not the pain and longing in his heart.

After all, it was clear his foolish, desperate heart wasn't going to be what made him happy.

Chapter Text

Tina to Kurt: Is everything all right with Blaine?

Tina to Kurt: You don't have to tell me what's going on, but I'm worried.

Tina to Kurt: It's getting late. Are you guys still talking?

Blaine to Kurt: Thank you so much for talking to me, Kurt!

Kurt to Tina: Blaine is completely fine. Don't worry.

*

Tina to Blaine: Hey, want to have lunch with Kurt and me?

Blaine to Tina: Sure! :)

Tina to Blaine: Yay! 12 @ Warren

*

Peter to Blaine: I can't remember what you said about dinner, I was half asleep when you called - meet at 7 or 7:30 at the arch?

Blaine to Peter: 7, please. See you then! :D

* * *

Kurt re-read the e-mail he'd written to his dad and Carole - short and focused on his classes and the Review, with a brief reminder to his father at the end that cream-filled chocolate hearts weren't good for his heart - and clicked send. It was good enough.

He picked up his mug of now lukewarm coffee, leaned back in his desk chair, and sighed. It had taken him too long to write too few words this week, but there wasn't much else to say. It wasn't like he was going to recount the previous night's disastrous conversation with Blaine or how hard his seminar was turning out to be. He checked in with them regularly because he didn't want to worry them and because he wanted to be able to share a little of what he was experiencing, but he wasn't looking to them to support his every up and down. That wasn't their job. He was on his own now.

He took a sip of his coffee and breathed slowly, centering himself, as his eyes drifted upwards to the pinboard of pictures on the wall above his desk.

Though he meant it to showcase his friends and memories, it was also like a slideshow of himself over the years. Sitting with Rachel, Artie, Mercedes, and Tina early on in glee club, and what had he been thinking with that outfit? Standing with his dad, Carole, and Finn on his parents' wedding day, all of them beaming at the camera and united as a family for the first time. Tearing-up with Rachel on stage at the Gershwin on that first amazing trip to New York. Standing formally beside Mercedes at their junior prom, the metal studs covering his waistcoat sparkling even in the shadow of his tuxedo jacket. Almost lost in the jubilant crowd at Nationals as they celebrated their victory.

There was a group picture of all of the graduating seniors posing in their caps and gowns on the choir room risers. Mr. Schue with his arms around Finn and Sam. Coach Sylvester with her bullhorn, Santana scowling beside her. Sugar pressing a kiss to Puck's shocked face. Angelica with her arm around Kurt's shoulders, the two of them slumped on a couch with exhaustion and triumph after the first Review showcase last year. Ben up high in the lighting grid, waving down at the camera. Ethan spinning Christa out in the middle of the quad to music only the two of them had been hearing. Rachel beaming at the camera from under the Tiffany and Co. sign, a bagel held proudly in hand.

And Blaine, of course there was Blaine there, too, now. Blaine with Tina and Mike up on stage at Cliff's. Blaine with a splotch of pale blue paint on his nose from painting sets. Blaine and Rachel at brunch. Blaine smiling, laughing, and looking serious, from different angles, with different people, there, there, everywhere Kurt looked on his board, because Blaine was almost everywhere in Kurt's life.

And as much as his heart still felt cracked open and battered from the night before, Kurt let himself look. He let himself look at Blaine's smile from their walk across the Brooklyn Bridge a few weeks before and remember how much lighter he had felt from spending the day with him, even if his nose had gone a very unflattering color of red from the cold. He let himself look at Blaine's careful hand as he spotted Tina while she hung a poster on the wall of her dorm room. He let himself look at the picture of Blaine singing with him at karaoke the other week, their eyes focused on each other, both of them so happy they were almost glowing.

Kurt could, he knew, let himself go so brittle and hard that he couldn't feel this deep, throbbing hurt in his chest with every beat of his heart. It would be easy. It would be smart. It would take so little effort.

While it was certainly necessary for him to do it to some extent to weather this hurt and keep going forward - because forward and upward was where he was going to go - he knew he couldn't let himself retreat entirely, because if he did, if he closed himself off from it all, he would lose everything on that pinboard, too, all of those people he loved and who loved him in their own ways.

He didn't want that. He liked them, he liked how they made him feel. He liked the warmth they showed him, the care they gave him, the support, the kindness, the laughter. He even liked the smile he had for Blaine on that stage, and he didn't want to lose it.

So if he was going to shield his foolish, wanting heart until it healed up again and he could forget that he had for a few breathless, wonderful moments forgotten himself and allowed himself to feel the possibility of wanting and having more with someone so special, he couldn't let himself freeze entirely. Not only would it be bad for his growth as an artist - as Rachel would surely remind him if she knew, because pain was fuel for a performer - but it would hurt his friendships.

Friendships were all he had, that and his family, and they meant too much to him to lose them.

Blaine meant too much.

So Blaine was taking big new steps in his life. So Blaine wanted something other than him. So Blaine was kind of perfect in his own imperfect way. It didn't matter, really, because he was still Kurt's friend, and Kurt couldn't bear to lose him.

Kurt pushed back in his chair and got up to get himself the rest of the way ready for the day.

It would hurt to see Blaine again, it would hurt to watch him fall in love, but Kurt just had to remember what was important to get through it, and the fluttering dream of his own heart was not it.

* * *

Blaine's stomach was twisting in giddy knots as he made his way into the sunny first floor dining hall in Warren. He'd called Peter last night before his nerve had given out, and they were going on a date tonight. It wasn't officially a date yet, he knew, because he hadn't told Peter how he felt about him, but he'd do that over dinner. He'd gotten reservations at a little Italian bistro he'd gone to once with Meg and Julie, and over candlelight he'd open up his heart to Peter. Then it would be a date.

He hoped Peter would be receptive. After all, Peter had been involved in the same kind of casual hooking up that Blaine had, but they were such good friends. He had to see how great it would be to be boyfriends. They'd have fun together, the sex would be good, and there wouldn't be any pressure on each other to push things further or faster than either of them wanted. It was the natural next step.

He wondered if Peter would frame his face with his hands again when he kissed him tonight. It wasn't too soon to kiss again, right? No, this was college. This was real life. People didn't wait for the second date or the swell of an orchestra; Sebastian had taught him that. So Blaine could totally kiss Peter. His stomach flipped again to the point that he was almost queasy.

Smiling to himself about the night ahead, Blaine served himself some hot lunch from the cafeteria line and skirted a group of laughing girls to walk into the dining area. He saw the back of Kurt's head first across the room; the straight way he almost always sat unless he was very tired or relaxed was as easy to spot as a neon arrow pointing at him would have been. Across from him was Tina, and she smiled and waved as soon as she saw Blaine.

"Hi," Blaine said, sliding his tray onto a free side of the square table.

Kurt moved his own tray out of the way and shot him a tight smile as Tina leaned over to give Blaine a little hug.

"How are you today?" she asked.

"Great!" Blaine smiled over at Kurt with gratitude for all of his help the night before; he didn't know if he could have convinced himself to take this big step toward love if he hadn't had Kurt there who believed in romance and him. "I'm great."

"We were just going over the first round of performance concept submissions," Kurt said, focused on scrolling through his phone.

"We have a good group; I bet there are some fantastic ideas," Blaine said. He unfolded his napkin onto his lap and picked up his silverware.

Kurt kept scrolling. "They're a start."

"We can do that later," Tina told him. "I didn't invite you to lunch to go over Review business."

"It needs to be done," Kurt said, still focused on whatever was on his screen.

Rolling her eyes, she plucked his phone from his hand and set it gently on the table. He reached for it, but she kept her fingers on it until he looked up at her. "Not right now. Now is for friends."

Kurt's jaw clenched and released, but he didn't argue. Instead he picked up his fork and speared a piece of his salad, shaking off a few drops of dressing before he lifted it to his mouth, like he was worried it would drip onto his beautiful tone-on-tone charcoal herringbone vest. Then again, if Blaine had such a nice outfit, he'd probably worry about getting stains on it, too; he was only wearing a striped - and machine-washable - henley, though, so he took a healthy bite of his lasagna.

Blaine smiled over at him encouragingly. He knew Kurt worried about the Review, but he'd helped Tina and Angelica pick out this semester's participants, and they really were good. It had been difficult to narrow them down. He was very optimistic about how the performance would end up.

"You don't need to be worried, Kurt," Blaine assured him.

"Of course I need to be worried," Kurt replied with a dismissive roll of his eyes. "It's my show."

"Well, yes," Blaine said more slowly at the tautness in Kurt's voice, "but I mean in general. We have a great group. You've met them."

Kurt waited until he swallowed his bite of salad to speak. "I'm not sure we have enough dancers."

"Angelica says we have too many," Tina said. "And what did I just say about this lunch being about friends and not the Review?"

"Angelica thinks one dancer is too many," Kurt told her. "I want to be sure we can do more than walk around to the beat when we get to the big numbers. I don't need a dozen Finns." He tipped his head thoughtfully. "Although to be fair to our cast, he couldn't even walk to the beat most of the time. I'm not sure there are a dozen people like that."

"I'm sure they'll be fine," Blaine said. He wasn't sure if Kurt was criticizing their choices or just caught up in his own perfectionist tendencies. He would have put money on the latter, but that didn't stop a little tendril of worry from creeping through him that maybe he'd gotten some of the casting wrong. It had been the three of them deciding, but they could have not chosen what Kurt was looking for.

"Do I need to put you on notice?" Tina asked Kurt with a lift of her eyebrows. "I will confiscate one skin care product from your room for each time you mention the Review for the rest of this meal. You know I'll do it."

"Tina, threats hardly seem - " Kurt began, sitting up even straighter.

She pointed her fork at him. "Starting with your favorite Lush face mask."

He opened his mouth, and she pointed again with her fork. He sighed and lowered his head in acquiescence. "I think I liked you better when you were shy and pretended to stutter so you didn't have to talk to people," he said darkly.

Blaine blinked. This was news to him. "You were shy?" It was hard to believe, really; Tina always sparkled with life.

"She was also goth," Kurt said. "I have pictures."

"And I look good in them," she said with a grin and a toss of her hair.

"I'm sure you did," Blaine said. He tried to imagine that, too, but failed; she dressed in such cheerful colors now. It sounded like it was easy for her to reinvent herself, and he had to admire her for it.

Kurt made a little sound of disagreement. "I seem to remember lime green extensions one week."

"And what's wrong with lime green extensions?" she asked.

"It's not a flattering color on anyone," Kurt said definitively.

Blaine mentally shoved his lime green polo shirt into the back of his closet. It might be from Brooks Brothers, but Kurt knew so much more than he did about these things. He would bet Kurt knew more than he did about pretty much everything besides video games and football, and having met Finn Blaine wasn't as sure of Kurt's standing with those as he used to be.

"Like you can talk, Mister Duck Hunting Orange and Camouflage," she said as Blaine's eyes widened at the thought.

Kurt lifted his chin. "That outfit was a statement," he replied loftily. "A metaphor."

Tina shot him a warm grin, and Blaine had to admire how easy it was for her to tease Kurt without worrying about really hurting him, especially as prickly as he seemed today. "I know. A metaphor in orange and pea green."

Kurt did that wonderful thing where he smiled with his eyes but not his mouth; it always made Blaine smile to see it, even when it wasn't directed at him. "Exactly," Kurt told her.

"Actually," Blaine said, "since we're talking about clothes, I was hoping to get your opinions on what you think I should wear tonight."

"What's tonight?" Tina asked.

"I have a date," Blaine told her, unable to keep himself from smiling about it as butterflies started looping in his stomach again. But then, he didn't have to hold back, he remembered. This was a good thing. This wasn't like with Sebastian, where the Warblers were nominally supportive but always didn't want to hear the details. Kurt and Tina were his friends. He could be open with them.

Tina's eyes darted to Kurt, who was focused on neatly cutting up a wedge of tomato, before she said brightly, "That's great!"

"Thanks," Blaine replied, his smile growing. "But if I'm left to my own devices I'm either going to wear head-to-toe J. Crew or give in to the urge to wear a bow tie, and I need your help."

"What's wrong with a bow tie?" Kurt asked. He wasn't wearing one today - the necktie tucked beneath his vest was matte black and tied in a perfect half-windsor at the collar of his pearly grey shirt - but he'd certainly worn them before, and Blaine backpedaled sharply, because the last thing he'd ever want to do was criticize Kurt's unique fashion sense. Not only would it be rude, but it would be wrong.

"Nothing," Blaine was quick to say. "Nothing at all. Only not everyone can pull one off, and I don't want to be too formal."

"I always like a guy in a tie," Tina said, glancing over at Kurt again.

"If he doesn't want to wear one, he shouldn't wear one," Kurt said, watching his knife slice a piece of cucumber into quarters. "Although I'm sure it would be flattering."

Blaine was torn, because he did feel confident with a tie around his neck after so many years in the Dalton uniform, and he thought it made him look older and more polished. It made him look put together, like he should be taken seriously. He was also realizing under Kurt's tutelage and example that he enjoyed putting thought into an outfit and presenting himself a certain way. A date should have been a good time to do it. The problem was that Peter was pretty casual, and Blaine should match him without looking like he didn't care.

"I was thinking maybe a nice sweater," Blaine said. "It's somewhere in the middle, not as formal as a tie but not just a shirt."

"A sweater is good," Tina said. "They're nice for hugging, too. I always like Mike in sweaters."

Blaine smiled down at his plate. There could be hugging. There would be hugging.

"Okay," he said. "I'll do that."

Kurt cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. "You should wear your navy Thom Browne shawl collar cardigan," he said quietly as he wiped his fingers on his napkin. He glanced over at Blaine. "Even without a tie it will look like you're making an effort. And the fit is very good for your frame."

"Thank you," Blaine said as some of his nerves dissipated from Kurt's words. It was amazing how much better he felt with even just a little helpful advice and encouragement from Kurt; he really didn't want to make a stupid mistake like wearing lime green.

"But wear a collared shirt beneath it, not a crew neck," Kurt continued. "Something with texture if you have it. You may be dressing down, but you should have standards."

"I still like a man in a tie," Tina said.

"As do I," Kurt told her shortly, "but he's not going on a date with you."

Tina frowned at him a little but turned back to Blaine and said, "Who's the lucky guy?"

"My friend Peter," Blaine said, another smile bubbling up out of him.

"Oh, I think I met him. Tall, blond?" Tina asked. "Kind of frat boy-ish in a good way?"

Blaine nodded. "That's him."

"Well, um - " She bit her lip, like she wasn't quite sure what to say. " - congratulations?"

"Thanks," he replied. "I'm actually sort of terrified, because I don't exactly have the best track record asking out guys, not for something like this."

"I'm sure you don't have to worry," Kurt said as he smoothed his napkin in his lap. "You'll be fine."

"I told you about the guy in the Gap," Blaine reminded him, worry spiking in him. "I'm really bad at reading signals and saying the right thing." He didn't even want to bring up the fact that he'd thought he and Sebastian were dating for two weeks before he realized that making out in the stacks in the library didn't mean they were boyfriends; that had been an awkward conversation as Sebastian had all-out laughed at his mistake before Blaine had officially and a little self-consciously asked him to be exclusively his.

Kurt took a slow breath and turned toward him a little more; Blaine appreciated his patience. "Just be honest and open, Blaine. He won't be able to resist you."

"Be yourself," Tina agreed. She reached over and patted his arm.

"All of yourself," Kurt said, looking seriously into Blaine's eyes. His own were deep and dark, unwavering. "Because you want him to want all of you."

Blaine gave a jerky nod. "I know," he replied, grateful for the support. "Honest, open, myself." He could do that. He had to do that if he was going to get what he wanted, which was someone who liked, loved, and supported him and not just his own agenda.

"You're going to be fine, Blaine," Kurt said softly and turned back to his lunch.

Kurt's encouragement made Blaine's chest loosen a little. He would be. He could do this. Peter was nothing like Sebastian, and Peter already liked him. He knew Peter was attracted to him, too. The basics were already covered.

"Thank you," Blaine said to them both. "I shouldn't be nervous, right?"

"You shouldn't be," Tina said as Kurt picked up his fork to spear a chickpea from his salad. "But it's okay that you are. It's sweet, actually."

Blaine's smile twisted into something a little less happy. He reminded himself that she meant it in a good way, not to be belittling, but given that it had to do with the topic of dating it still rubbed a wound that wasn't quite healed.

"There's nothing wrong with it," Tina told him.

"Sorry, I just don't have the best history with being called sweet."

Kurt glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "And that's why this time you're going to date someone who likes you."

Tina's gaze flicked between them again. "Maybe you can redeem the word?"

Nodding, Blaine cut off another piece of his lasagna and then set his fork down again without eating the bite. "You're right," he said as he turned over that idea in his head. "I shouldn't color this relationship with all of the bad stuff from my old one." The word relationship made his heart flutter a little.

"It wouldn't be fair to either of you," Tina agreed. "I mean, you have to look at the person as he is, right?"

Kurt turned his phone on and off where it rested on the table, maybe checking the time.

"Remember what I said about Review business," Tina warned him.

"I wouldn't dream of it," Kurt replied. He pulled his hand away and took a bite of his own lasagna, looking out over the dining room like he was distracted or bored.

Blaine straightened up and cleared his throat a little; he knew he should stop monopolizing the conversation. That wasn't being a good friend, especially when Kurt was looking so drawn, his face and gestures tight. He clearly was feeling under pressure. So he smiled at Kurt and asked, "How are the rehearsals going for the musical?"

"Let's talk about anything but me today," Kurt said briskly, sitting back in his chair. "Tina, show Blaine the picture of the dress we found you for Friday."

"Oh, it's great!" she said, digging in her bag for her phone. "It's red but not red-red."

"It's cranberry," Kurt translated. "And it fits like a dream. We found it in a vintage boutique in Soho. Mike's eyes are going to bug out when he sees you in it."

Tina giggled, but she looked delighted with the compliment. "I hope not. I like his eyes just where they are."

"Oh, that's pretty," Blaine said as she held out her phone to show a picture of her posing in the doorway of a tiny dressing room wearing a cranberry mini-dress. He realized with a start that Friday was Valentine's Day, and his heart lodged in his throat that he'd probably have a boyfriend by then. He reminded himself firmly that two dozen perfect red roses were for Hollywood, not reality. "You look fantastic."

"That's why I go shopping with Kurt," she said.

"He has excellent taste," Blaine agreed.

"Yes, I do," Kurt said, but it wasn't with as much enthusiasm as Blaine might have expected. It made his heart fall. But then they were talking about Valentine's Day, and Kurt didn't have someone to love. Maybe Blaine should keep his eyes open and find someone who was worthy of that big, generous, romantic heart of his. Then they could all be happy.

Kurt wasn't happy now, though, so Blaine tried to be more understanding and focus on to safer subjects like their classes and what shows they should try to rush, and Kurt slowly unwound until he was actually laughing softly at a story Tina was telling about her hall-mate's hidden gerbils, the squeaks of which had made their RA think the dorm was infested with rats.

It was so good to see him smiling.

Still, when Blaine came back from dropping off his tray when they were finished with their meal, he saw Tina talking with Kurt in a low voice, her hand gentle on his arm as Kurt vehemently shook his head and snapped something back, and the knot of worry in Blaine's stomach returned and grew that much tighter.

Blaine wanted to offer his support if he could, but when he got close, Kurt just gave him a smile that didn't quite warm his eyes and said like none of it had happened, "I hope everything goes perfectly for you tonight, Blaine."

So Blaine didn't ask. He couldn't, not if Kurt didn't want to talk about it with him.

When they went in different directions outside of the building, Kurt flicked his fingers in a wave and left with Tina without looking back. Blaine watched them walk away, watched Kurt bend his head to Tina's and shake it again, and wondered what was going on.

Clearly, something was.

He hoped Kurt was just stressed about the Review, but something was wrong, and Blaine didn't like that Kurt wasn't telling him. It hurt. It felt like he was being shut out, like he wasn't good enough.

He'd have to be a better friend and try to figure it out.

Tomorrow, after his date.

His date.

Torn between concern and elation, Blaine turned toward his afternoon class.

* * *

Kurt was walking briskly toward the Union to pick up a wrapped sandwich for dinner and some sort of hot beverage on the way to work late that afternoon when his phone rang in his coat pocket. He almost considered not answering it when he saw Tina's smiling face on the screen, but if she was calling when he'd seen her a few hours before either something was wrong or she was still going on about Blaine. The first deserved his attention, and the second needed to be nipped in the bud.

"Hello?" he said, not breaking stride.

"Hi!" Tina voice came through the phone. "My study group isn't meeting, so I wondered if you wanted me to stop by and keep you company at work. I know you can talk and organize."

"I'm altering costumes tonight, actually," Kurt told her, "but I saw you a few hours ago. Is everything all right?"

"Oh, yeah," she said breezily. "I just thought you might want to hang out."

It was the second issue, then. His heart fell, and he started to walk faster to let out some of his frustration. "Tina, I just saw you."

"So? We're friends! We can't see each other more than once in a day?"

"Tina."

He heard her sigh over the line, and her voice grew more serious. "I saw you today, Kurt."

He set his jaw and didn't let himself waver at her worry. "I'm fine. I'm busy. I'm working. But I'm fine."

"I know you can't be happy that - "

"Didn't I tell you to stop?" Kurt drew to a halt at the side of the path and tried to keep his temper when he could feel the throbbing ache with each beat of his heart. "There's nothing to talk about. He and I are friends. Wasn't I clear about that weeks ago?"

"But things have changed," she said, her soft voice filled with warm concern.

"I haven't," Kurt said flatly. Wasn't that the whole problem? His personality was what it was. His heart was what it was. None of it was going to change. None of it was ever going to be easy for anyone, himself included.

"But he wants a relationship, Kurt," she said. "And you two are so - "

"He may want a relationship, but he doesn't want one with me." Somehow he managed to get the words out without cracking. He was proud of it, really; he wouldn't have been able to do that the night before.

"But - "

"Please stay out of it," he told her. "Please. It's fine. We're friends. And friends last a lot longer than most college relationships, so I'd much rather be on this side of things." He didn't let himself think about how Blaine's horrible high school relationship had lasted over a year; a terrible college one could last even longer. It didn't matter. He'd be Blaine's friend for as long as it lasted and beyond. He'd give wardrobe advice - good advice, even - and laugh over shared jokes and sympathize over shared pain, and he'd be grateful for it.

"But… I can see that you're hurting," she said softly.

He let out a dry, bitter little laugh. His hopes and dreams fluttered in his chest like a trapped bird banging against the walls trying to get out. "I have to go to work."

"Kurt - "

"Bye," he said and hung up the phone, pocketing it as he walked on.

* * *

From: Julie Friedman
To: [LGBT Alliance Mailing List]
Subject: LGBT Alliance Post-Valentine's Day Debauchery Party, bitches!!!

This weekend you'll be getting your hearts and sweetness on, and we've got the perfect remedy! Come to the party next Friday night from 9 to 2 in the Union! Drinks, dancing, debauchery!

Cupid wings optional, but you won't be fooling anyone. We know you're all naughty. ;)

- Julie and the LGBT Alliance Board

* * *

It was just after seven-thirty when Kurt looked up from the tunic he was mending at one of the big tables in the props and costume department and noticed the time. He'd been buried for hours at work, and even if a lot of it didn't require all of his focus he knew how to push aside difficult thoughts when he had more important things to accomplish. He tried not to do more than calculate how long he had until he could go back to his room and get started on his homework.

Still, he couldn't help but remember that Blaine was already out with his date, his eyes warmed by candlelight and probably the very same sort of joy that shone on screen in those videos of him singing with Sebastian. He could picture it, from how perfectly attractive he would look in his sweater to the way his skin would glow across the table in the flickering light. He could see Blaine's smile, feel the soft touch of his fingers as he reached out to take his hand and open up his heart.

No, there was no way Peter wasn't going to be swept away by Blaine.

Kurt shook the thought out of his head and made himself look back down at his work; the last thing he needed was to stab himself and get blood on the ivory fabric. He had to focus on what was important, not get lost in his dreams.

So he set his jaw and made sure every single stitch was perfect. Even if no one would notice it, even if no one else would care, it mattered to him that he got the smallest details right.

He was going to please himself.

* * *

Peter looked fantastic lit by candlelight, Blaine decided. It made the lighter threads of his hair shimmer like gold, and if his sweater was that grey one with the hole in the elbow the nubbly pattern stood out like a carved relief.

It did make Blaine glad he hadn't worn a tie, after all, despite having held one at his throat when he was getting ready, because Peter was dressed for comfort in one of his favorite outfits, and Blaine didn't outshine him to the point of making him self-conscious. Kurt's advice had been perfect.

"This is cute," Peter said, glancing around the room with approval before picking up his menu.

"I'm glad you like it," Blaine replied. "The food is good, too."

"You had me at something besides going to the cafeteria or having pizza delivered. It's getting to the part of the year where I'm craving my Nana's hamburger helper, just for the variety." Peter leaned in a little. "And let me tell you just so you can get an idea of how big a deal that is, one time she made it without the hamburger."

Blaine's heart pounded as he took the next step and dared to say, "We should do this more often."

Peter smiled back, easy as ever. "That'd be great." He opened his menu. "Hmm. What's good? Besides the company, anyway."

Hiding his pleased grin behind his own menu, Blaine took a deep breath. This kind of friendly conversation wasn't anything unusual for them, but it felt filled with new meaning tonight. Even their mundane discussion of their entrée options felt infused with importance, like when they both expressed their passion for a good, rich chicken marsala, which to Blaine was just another indication of their compatibility.

After they'd placed their orders and gotten their drinks, Peter settled back in his chair and asked, "Hey, are we still on for Friday?"

"Friday?" Blaine's pulse skittered; Peter was thinking of spending time with him. That was great.

"Yeah, the Valentine's Day club crawl? I think there are about fifteen of us now. Hunter's narrowing down our options, but I think we're going to go to Chelsea. There are a bunch of eighteen-plus nights going on there. We can pre-drink at Hunter's before we go."

"Oh, yes, I'm definitely in for that," Blaine said, and he could just picture how great it would be to go dancing with Peter all night long, because he knew Peter wouldn't be like Sebastian and go flirt with every other guy in the place before coming back to him at the end of the night.

"Great!" Peter's smile warmed Blaine to his toes. "I just got Jay and Liv to say they'll come, too," he said. "It'll be a good group."

"It sounds like it." Blaine took a steadying breath, drawing confidence from that smile to try to broach the subject that was weighing on his fluttering heart.

Before he could pull himself together, though, Peter asked, "Have you met that new guy? Simon? He might be there. He's a transfer this semester?"

"I don't think so."

"He's cute," Peter told him. "I think you'd like him. He's your type."

"I have a type?" Blaine asked in honest surprise. He really didn't think he did. He'd only had one boyfriend, after all.

"Yeah. You know, tall, fun, good hair, good rhythm. Friendly." The last word was said with a knowing lift of the eyebrows, and Blaine knew he meant sexually.

"I, um - " he started, flustered. This wasn't a turn he'd expected in the conversation, though it was hardly the first time Peter had introduced him to someone Blaine had ultimately liked.

"Blaine, I've known you since September. You don't think I know what you like by this point?"

"People change and grow - " Blaine began.

"Sure," Peter said with a wave of his hand. "You've definitely settled in. I mean, we all went through that explosion of excitement when we first got here. It's college, you know? It's like being a kid in a gay candy shop. But after a while you realize just because you can have sex pretty much any time you want doesn't meant you actually have to want it all the time."

Blaine nodded and felt like he was on more solid ground. He cleared his throat a little. "Exactly. I've been thinking a lot about that."

"That's kind of why I want you to meet Simon," Peter said. "He might be good for you. He's funny and smart, too. I think you'd be friends after like you and I are."

"I don't think I'm going to feel about him the same way I feel about you," Blaine said before he could stop himself.

Peter leaned forward and put his hand over Blaine's, and the touch sent shivers up Blaine's arm. "You can have more than one friend, Blaine," he said with mock solemnity before he cracked a grin.

"No, I know," Blaine said. "I just meant, I think you and I have something special. Don't you?"

Peter watched Blaine's face and slowly went serious. "Of course I do," he said, squeezing Blaine's hand. "You're one of my best friends. I'm even kind of glad you didn't take me up on the whole casual repeat thing when I offered it the first night, as cute as you are, because I don't think you would've liked me so much if you had."

"That's probably true," Blaine said, because it seemed likely he would have kept up a barrier between them if they'd had sex again, not that it would have been personal. He'd just been so blind to what he'd wanted. At least now he knew, now he could reach out for it.

Peter released Blaine's hand with another pat and sat back in his chair. "See? So this is why you should meet Simon."

Blaine shook his head. "No, I - I mean, I'm happy to meet him, but I'm not looking for that right now. The one night stand thing. I don't want it anymore."

"Really?" Peter waited as the waitress delivered their salads.

"Really," Blaine said, trying to get the conversation back on track. "I think I want something more than just that."

"Yeah, it can get tiring. Like, it's fun in the moment, but sometimes you just want to go home with someone you know at the end of the night."

"Exactly," Blaine said. "And I had an epiphany." It seemed kind of pretentious to say it aloud to him, though Kurt had understood immediately so maybe Peter would, too.

"What kind of epiphany?" Peter asked.

"I realized that Sebastian, my ex?" Blaine waited until Peter nodded. "I realized that he was kind of an ass, and a lot of what happened wasn't my fault. So if I dated someone else, someone who was my friend, it would go a lot better than it did with him."

"I can see that," Peter said. "You have a lot of friends, and you'd make a good boyfriend."

"I would?" Blaine could barely get the words out around the lump of hope and joy in his throat.

"Sure," Peter said with another of his warm smiles.

Blaine could feel himself flushing. "Thank you."

"You're fun, you're thoughtful, you're loyal, and you're easy to spend time with. Plus, you're attractive."

"Thank you," Blaine said again, a little overwhelmed by all of the praise. He didn't know how to stop the smile on his face.

Peter waved the words away. "You're a catch, Blaine."

"So are you," Blaine told him as sincerely as he could.

Flicking his bangs out of his eyes, Peter laughed and said, "Thanks. That's us, a pair of catches."

Blaine knew that this was where he was supposed to take a deep breath, muster his courage, and jump off that cliff with his heart on offer. This was where he was supposed to admit his feelings. Peter had made enough positive comments about him throughout the conversation that Blaine thought he had a good chance of Peter feeling the same way. Them being together made sense. This was something special.

It was the moment. It was time.

And yet as Blaine sat there and looked at Peter watching him affectionately across the table, he couldn't make himself open his mouth and bare his heart.

"More water?" Peter asked, picking up the bottle of mineral water they'd ordered and holding it out to fill up Blaine's glass.

Blaine nodded and watched the water fizz and bubble as the candlelight illuminated its stream, and he knew he should feel just as effervescent.

Peter was smiling at him, saying so many of the things that Blaine ached to hear, treating him with kindness, saying he was special, and yet… and yet…

And yet Blaine couldn't jump off the cliff toward him.

He couldn't.

He sat there and looked at Peter's kind face and just couldn't, because it hit him like a bucket of ice water in the face that if they dated things wouldn't be all that different than they were right then. He could feel his expression freezing even as his blood did in his veins.

He couldn't make that leap when he pictured them going out to dinner or dancing and realized Peter's face would light up when he saw Blaine but his eyes wouldn't spark with fire for him. His pulse would speed up but wouldn't race. His hand on Blaine's back or shoulder would be fond but never possessive. His supportive words would be right, but the fierce pride in Blaine fueling them would be missing. His advice would be thoughtful, but it wouldn't include a determination to fight to keep them together if either of them had a goal that might make things difficult. Blaine would be important to him, but all of his friends were important to him. Blaine could be his boyfriend, but he wouldn't be special, not like there was always a spotlight shining on him in Peter's eyes.

It wouldn't be the studied disinterest that Sebastian had sometimes shown him. It wouldn't be unkind or uncaring. It would be casual, easy, and without pressure. It would be fun. It would be loving. It would be friendly. It would be warm and supportive. It would be undemanding and uncritical.

Peter would care about him, possibly even fall in love with him, but it would never be a grand romance.

He would be all of the things Blaine said he wanted, all of the things he came into the evening to try to get.

And as he sat there and had it right in front of him, Blaine knew with utter certainty it wouldn't be enough.

It was never, ever going to be enough for him.

Blaine's breath caught with terror and wonder wrapped up together. It was like now that he had opened up his heart to the possibility of having anything, he suddenly, desperately wanted everything.

He didn't want a little; he wanted it all.

He couldn't even think about what that meant. It was too big. He just knew from the very depths of his heart that he wanted everything. It was what he was built to want, it was what he had always wanted, and he wouldn't be happy with anything less.

And he wasn't ever going to get it all from Peter.

He sat back in his chair, his hands shaking. God, he'd caught himself just in time, before he'd made another stupid mistake.

"Thank you," he said hoarsely, for helping him realize the truth of his heart as well as for the compliments.

"Are you okay?" Peter asked.

"Yes," Blaine said. He cleared his throat and picked up his fork. He felt like he'd dodged not just a bullet but a bomb. "I think I'm just hungry."

"Then it's good we're out at dinner," Peter said and took a bite of his salad.

"It is," Blaine said, and when Peter turned the conversation to the paper he was writing about political theory in the works of Thomas Aquinas he tried to listen and ask questions the same way he always did.

Nothing had changed between them, after all.

It was Blaine who was changing. Or maybe he was just listening to himself. Maybe he finally was.

It was terrifying to think about what that might mean.

As ever, he and Peter had a good meal together filled with easy conversation despite the worry clawing at Blaine's stomach, but as soon as he was alone on his way back toward his dorm, his mind started to whirl.

He examined his heart again, trying to cast light into every hidden corner he'd been pretending wasn't there, and came to the same conclusion: he didn't actually want casual. He wanted more. He wanted something serious, someone who loved everything about him. He wanted someone to love him.

God, when he thought about, when he really sat back and let himself think about what that would be like, what he'd always dreamed of before Sebastian, he wanted that. He wanted the big gestures and the dreams of the future. He wanted passion. He wanted connection. He wanted everything, everything his parents didn't have, everything he'd never had. If he looked back at himself, at everything he'd tried with Sebastian, at how lonely he'd felt even through all of the great guys he'd met in college, every cell of his being had been yearning for more and always had been.

It made him dizzy just thinking about it.

But what did that mean? What should he do?

Walking through the gate back onto campus, he realized he should probably talk to someone. That was a good first step. Obviously it couldn't be Peter, because that would be awkward, but maybe Wes? Wes had a girlfriend. He might get it, although he might not understand the background of the gay dating scene, and Blaine didn't really want to have to explain it all to him just to get some advice. Tina might be better, but -

Kurt. He should talk to Kurt.

Kurt would understand, just like Kurt seemed to understand everything about him, from the importance of a neat knot in one's tie to the draw of old Hollywood glamour to marriage equality to the joy of performing to the best shows on TV to the invisible scars that bullying could leave. Of course Kurt would understand, especially about this subject, because he wanted things like Blaine did. He wanted the very same things Blaine did: romance, passion, loyalty, friendship, companionship, a consuming, adoring, forever kind of love.

Kurt wanted the same things.

Kurt, who was strong and smart and wonderful and gorgeous and talented and kind and funny and so, so good in bed wanted the same things that Blaine did, and he was Blaine's best friend and he was single and he had that way of smiling that made Blaine's stomach flip -

No. No, no, no.

Blaine hitched in a breath and stumbled over a crack in the pavement, coming to rest with a hand against the wall beside him.

No.

This was where he had gotten in trouble with Peter. Hell, this was where he'd gotten in trouble with Jeremiah and Sebastian and even the whole fall he'd been hooking up.

Blaine didn't think. He just threw himself in, even when his heart was the worst barometer of what was right for him. He never thought at all about what it would mean, and because of it he'd chased a guy who didn't want him, dated a guy who wanted him but for all of the wrong reasons, and tonight nearly threw himself at a guy who was a great friend and would have made him feel miserable and unloved as a boyfriend. And now he was setting his sights on Kurt? No.

He couldn't do that to Kurt. He couldn't put Kurt through the Blaine Anderson dance of bad decisions and inappropriate serenades. Kurt deserved better.

Blaine couldn't do that to himself, either, because Kurt always saw things more clearly than he did, and Kurt wouldn't let himself get drawn into the mess that Blaine clearly was. Even though Kurt would be right, a rejection from him would scar their friendship and hurt Blaine's heart. And Kurt had to reject him, because what could Blaine offer him, really? He couldn't even figure out what he wanted to wear, nevertheless what he wanted to do with his life.

Kurt was everything that he was not - focused, together, sure of his heart and his dreams, and in control of himself. Blaine would never be able to match him. There was no way. And if he tried to convince Kurt that he could, he'd just mess up the best friendship he'd ever had, and he couldn't do that. The icy spike of panic that shot through him at the mere thought was painful enough that he couldn't imagine how he'd handle it if he really lost Kurt now that he had him as his best friend. He could not mess things up with him.

He needed Kurt too much.

Besides, his stupid heart was shifting so rapidly that maybe in a day or a week or a month he'd decide he wanted something entirely different, and where would that leave them? No, he couldn't do that. Just because sometimes he was tempted to lean over and kiss him when Kurt was smiling at him in that secretive way he had like they were sharing something special, just because he missed Kurt like air on the days they didn't see each other, just because Kurt was still the most attractive and impressive person Blaine had ever met, none of that meant anything when it came to the suitability and sustainability of his feelings.

And even if this crush stayed with him forever, he'd still never have enough to offer Kurt. Kurt had turned down so many boys in college because they weren't what he wanted. Why would Blaine be any different? And then what would happen to their friendship? What would happen to the one person who seemed to understand the anger at the past that sometimes bubbled up inside of him and didn't run from it?

Blaine walked down the path toward his dorm, his lungs aching in his chest. No, no, no, he couldn't say anything to Kurt.

All he could do was hope this infatuation would pass so that he could face his friend without guilt at trying to remember the taste of his mouth or just how soft the skin of his stomach had been.

"Stop it," he told himself. He wondered if the gym was still open so that he could hit a bag for a while and let out some of his emotion in a productive way. Just because he'd had this fluttering in his stomach pretty much since he'd first laid eyes on Kurt didn't mean he had to give into it.

For a glorious second, though, he could see their whole future unfold in front of him, flirty duets and dressing up for dates, serious conversations and smiling kisses, dancing and shopping and building memories together and the heart-stopping joy of waking up to those beautiful eyes every day, and he just wanted it. He wanted it so much his throat hurt and his eyes burned, and he shut it away the way he'd learned to do with his craziest dreams since childhood, because there was no point in imagining something he could never have, and he'd totally mess things up if he did what he wanted to and tried anyway.

No, Blaine needed to figure himself out somehow, and Kurt needed somebody better. A good boyfriend, a mature one. That was the real future ahead.

* * *

Peter to Blaine: Hunter's 8:30 on Friday - a bunch of us are going over together, 8 @ the arch

Blaine to Peter: Great, see you there!

Peter to Blaine: dinner was fun last night, btw, thanks!

Blaine to Peter: I'm glad we did it. :)

* * *

"If we move this here," Kurt said, leaning forward to switch around two of the colored notecards he had laid out on the floor in front of him, "and put the piano piece before the intermission, then we can keep both the Mamet and the Pinter and still have time for the ballet." He sat back on his heels and studied the first pass of the acts for the Review they were trying to put together into some sort of order.

"I don't know why you think we should keep the ballet," Angelica said beside him. "It's just people prancing and leaping in uncomfortable shoes."

"It's art," Kurt told her, most of his attention still focused on the cards. He knew a lot would change before their final line-up was set, but he could feel the whole of the performance starting to take shape in his head. It wasn't right yet, but it was a start.

"Arguably."

Kurt glanced over, ready to snap back about her endless complaints about dance, but he caught the teasing quirk of her mouth and rolled his eyes instead. "I'd say you have a problem with people moving their bodies in time to music, except I've seen you on the dance floor when you've had a few drinks."

"That's me moving, not watching people moving." She leaned forward and pushed a card out of the line. "Hey, what if we moved the as-yet-to-be-determined pop number to close the first act and made it a group thing? Blaine could still be the lead, but it might be a good way to finish."

"I was thinking of cutting him out entirely, since he's so late," he replied, though didn't actually mean it. It just wasn't like Blaine to be anything but punctual. Kurt didn't want to think about what could be distracting him. He knew Blaine's priorities would change with having a boyfriend, but the specifics of that were not something he needed to dwell on.

"Aw," she said. "And I was hoping to weasel my way into a duet with him."

"You and half the cast," Kurt replied. He couldn't blame them, of course; Blaine was a very generous performance partner, even in something as unrehearsed as their song at karaoke, which had had such a fun connection between them Kurt's heart had been pounding in his throat for minutes afterwards. Add that to Blaine's talent and charm, and it was kind of a no-brainer that everyone with ears and eyes would want to sing with him.

"Yeah, but I have seniority over the rest of them, so I win." Angelica laughed as Kurt flicked a blank card at her.

"Do you think we're going to have enough money in our budget for those costumes Allie wanted?" Tina asked, frowning at the spreadsheet she had open on the laptop.

"Given that we're trying to run this thing on the change we collect from under couch cushions, probably not," Kurt said. "What I wouldn't give for a tenth of the budget of Brigadoon. They could cut out twenty yards of tartan, which they should anyway out of kindness to the eyes of the audience, and we'd be able to afford something other than what we can scavenge from the prop room."

"I'm so sorry," Blaine said breathlessly as he pushed through the door. "I completely lost track of time." He was flushed and flustered, his hair curling at the nape of his neck like he'd either not put in enough product or had been doing something to disturb it, and Kurt immediately shut off his speculations about what sort of activity that could be. It was none of his business.

"Good thing you got here," Angelica said with a Cheshire-cat grin, leaning back on her hands on the floor. "Kurt was about to cut you from the Review entirely."

Blaine looked utterly stricken, his eyes going wide and penitent. His hands froze where he was taking off his scarf. "I'm sorry, Kurt. I didn't realize it was so late, and I - "

It would have taken a stronger man and a less kind friend than Kurt to resist the pull of that horrified face. "It was just a joke," he assured Blaine. "You haven't lost your solo."

"I still should have been here," Blaine insisted.

"Angelica is trying to kick out all the dancers, I'm trying to keep the Mamet and Pinter scenes from running back to back, and Tina is taunting me with the idea of a budget for proper costumes," Kurt said with a shrug. "There, you're all caught up."

"Okay. Thanks." Blaine went back to divesting himself of his scarf and coat, but his brows were drawn together as he did so, like he was still troubled. He probably was; Kurt knew he was always harder on himself than anyone else was.

"It's okay," Kurt told him more softly as Blaine knelt down beside him. As much as Kurt wanted everyone to be there promptly, he knew Blaine wouldn't have been late on purpose. "No harm done. All right?" He waited until Blaine looked over at him and nodded. "Now help me find a place for the girl who looks like Bjork and sings like Aretha Franklin, because I don't want her to get lost."

"Anastasia," Blaine reminded him.

"Sure," Kurt said, because her name really didn't matter; he knew who he was talking about.

"Hmm." Blaine leaned forward and carefully considered the cards in front of them, and after a moment Kurt tore his eyes away from the lovely dark curls teasing his neck that he half-remembered toying with months ago and focused on their work.

It wasn't that hard to do, really, once they got into it. Kurt could be single-minded to the point of obsession, and sometimes he could harness it for good instead of for stalking a devastatingly straight football player who would later become his brother. It just required a little concentration to shut away the whispers in his mind about Blaine and his new boyfriend and the state of his own heart.

Blaine relaxed as the evening went on, too, they were joined by the rest of the core group, and by the time their meeting was finished they'd hammered out quite a bit of the most important details for the line-up. They still had to work with the other members of the Review and start rehearsing to see whether their ideas could be polished enough to be put on stage, but Kurt was feeling like things were more under control.

It was a much-needed bit of weight off of his chest, and Kurt swung his foot with pleasure as he sat perched on the windowsill and typed a few notes into his phone as the group packed up.

Coming over to him, Blaine said with quiet sincerity, "I just want to say again that I really am sorry about being late."

Kurt saved his note before looking up. "I know. Don't worry about it. I know you have other things in your life."

Blaine shook his head and insisted, "I lost track of time at the gym, but I couldn't come here all sweaty, so - "

"What's this about you being sweaty?" Angelica piped up from across the room.

"I was at the gym before I came here," Blaine told her.

"That's not as fun as what I'd imagined," she said. It was, however, better than what Kurt had imagined. No, not better, he reminded himself and clamped down on his fluttering heart. Just different. It was fine, whatever Blaine was doing.

"Sorry?" Blaine replied.

"A girl can dream." Angelica slung her bag over her shoulder and headed for the door. "See you guys later. I have to go catch up on a week's worth of Italian before I go to bed."

"How can you be behind already?" Kurt asked. "We're only a month into the semester."

"Talent, sugar." She grinned and waved at the group.

"Hey, Kurt?" Tina asked, typing something into her laptop with a sigh. "Can we cast an econ major next year so that I don't have to do the budget?"

"We have an econ major," Kurt said. He hopped off of the windowsill and bent down to get his bag. "Dee the ballet dancer. And we have Blaine, who's on his way."

"I am?" Blaine asked, looking up from where he was putting his phone into his bag.

"You've taken two semesters of it," Kurt pointed out.

Blaine fiddled with the clasp of his bag before standing up. "Well, yeah, but that doesn't mean I'm going to major in it."

Kurt was going to say something only a little pointed about how Blaine was probably going not so much choose as fall into the major when he woke up one day as a junior and realized that he'd coasted into taking most of his classes in it, but he remembered that this was a part of Blaine's life epiphany. He'd changed his mind about what he wanted from dating; he might figure out his classes, too.

"Then the answer is no, Tina," Kurt said. "Dee would drive me crazy, and Blaine's not going to go into econ. The budget is yours."

"This doesn't seem fair," she muttered and closed the computer.

Smiling a little, Kurt bobbed his head and said, "Life's not fair."

"Anyone who says differently is selling something," Blaine added.

"That's 'life is pain'," Tina said.

"I was taking poetic license with the line," Blaine said with a grin.

Tina giggled at him. "Oh, you're a poet now?"

"And I'm not left-handed."

"Neither am I!" She pretended to lunge at him with an invisible sword, and Blaine hopped back out of the way.

Carefully draping his scarf around his neck, Kurt felt an additional pressure settling onto his shoulders as he watched Tina transform back into the smiling friend she usually was from the stressed woman she'd been staring at her laptop a minute ago. The last thing he wanted to do was make her so miserable she didn't want to help. He didn't want her to be miserable at all, period, and if she got to the point where she just couldn't do this for him he'd have to scramble without warning. It was better to take it off of her list now.

"Let me take the budget back," he said, tucking in one of the fringed ends and letting his hands drop.

"You're already - " she began.

"You've done the hard part, setting up everything for the semester. I can do it. I did it all last year." Kurt left out the part where they'd had far fewer people to spread their meager allowance from the college around to, but he was involved in all of those decisions, anyway. He would just have to take on dealing with receipts and the spreadsheet, plus keeping on top of people so that they didn't overspend. He could do it. "Just send me the spreadsheet."

Tina put her laptop in her bag and shook her head. "No. I can do it."

Kurt crossed his arms over his chest. "Tina, this is a hobby for you. This is my life. Let me do it."

"I can do it," Blaine said. He smiled encouragingly when Kurt's head snapped toward him in surprise. "I'm almost an econ major, after all."

It was tempting. Kurt definitely didn't want to add to his own plate, and he knew Blaine was reliable. He knew Blaine would take it seriously and be responsible with the funds.

Except… Blaine had a new boyfriend and new priorities, and Kurt just didn't want to be disappointed if Blaine did what he should do and put them first. He couldn't put himself through that. He just couldn't. He'd suffered enough setbacks and disillusionments.

"I'll do it," Kurt said and didn't quite miss the way Blaine's smile faltered for a second. He knew the rejection was probably hurtful, but he didn't know how to avoid future pain by answering in any other way. "Thank you, though."

Blaine looked down as he fastened the buttons on his coat. "Okay, if that's it here, then I'm - "

"No, wait!" Tina said. "You have to tell us about last night!" She looked over at Kurt guiltily, like she was still harboring her crazy thoughts about it being somehow disloyal to him for her to support Blaine having anyone else as his boyfriend. "If you want."

"There's not really anything to tell," Blaine said, looking down for another moment longer before lifting his eyes. "I didn't say anything to him."

"Oh," Tina said with sympathy as Kurt froze.

He had no idea what that meant; there were a million reasons it might not have been the right time. There was no need for his heart to be thudding like a drum. There was no reason, and it needed to stop.

"No, it's fine," Blaine said with a little shake of his head. "It's actually good."

"Okay." She glanced between them. "Want to tell us as we walk?"

Blaine laughed, but it sounded hollow. "There isn't anything to tell," he said again. "I realized when I was sitting there that I was wrong."

"About Peter?" Tina asked, holding the door for them as they walked into the hallway.

"About me," Blaine said to her. "I was wrong about what I wanted. I don't want a boyfriend like that. I don't know what I was thinking."

Kurt was glad he was trailing behind them so that he didn't have to school his expression quite so carefully. He wasn't sure he could keep his shock and disappointment off of his face.

It didn't even make sense that he was upset, because it had nothing to do with him. Blaine's heart and wishes for it had nothing to do with him.

Except, he realized as he walked on heavy feet, one last small, hopeful part of him had been clinging to the idea that Blaine had changed his mind about love. It wasn't because of Blaine - Kurt knew that wasn't going to happen, no matter his stupid flight of fancy the other day - but because if Blaine had then maybe some other boy who was right for Kurt would change his mind, too, and look at him across a romantic table and say all of the right things.

But it wasn't going to happen. It wasn't. Not soon, not in college. Maybe not ever.

He had to stop pretending it could.

" - had a really good dinner, though," Blaine was telling Tina with a laugh when Kurt made himself pay attention again. "We all should go there sometime. The tiramisu was amazing."

"That would be great," Tina said. "I love tiramisu! Kurt does, too."

They looked back over their shoulders at him, and he forced himself to smile. "I do," he agreed.

"Then we'll all go," Blaine said, smiling back.

"Wonderful," Kurt said. The thing was, he knew it would be. He liked his friends, and he liked going out with them. It would probably be a great evening. It was certainly the best kind of night out he could expect right now.

Kurt knew he'd spend the time there wondering where Blaine had sat with Peter and what had made him decide that a quiet candlelit dinner with a boy he liked wasn't actually what he wanted, but he wasn't going to be chained by his heart. He wasn't going to sit and cry. If his friends were going to go, so would he, and he'd enjoy himself.

"If it's that good, maybe Mike and I should go there on Valentine's Day," Tina said.

"It's really romantic," Blaine told her. "I'll send you the information."

"Thank you! We've been trying to decide where to eat. That sounds perfect."

"Perfect," Kurt sighed to himself.

At least his friends were happy. Tina had her solid relationship with Mike, Rachel had her ever-rising star at NYADA, Blaine had new goals to figure out and work toward, and Kurt had his own path ahead of him. That would have to be enough. He would make it enough.

They parted ways at the arch, Tina going to her dorm and Blaine heading to the Union, on the way to Kurt's dorm.

Blaine seemed quiet, his conversation trailing off as they walked together, and Kurt didn't press him. If he didn't want to talk to Kurt, he didn't have to. Still, as they reached the quad and neared the bright lights streaming through the Union's large windows, Kurt felt like he had to make some comment on the Peter situation, since Blaine had come to him to talk about it beforehand. Besides, they were friends. Just because Blaine had changed his mind yet again about what he wanted didn't mean they weren't.

"I don't know whether I should offer my sympathy or my congratulations," Kurt finally admitted.

"About what?" Blaine said, looking over at him in surprise.

"About Peter and it not working out."

"Not sympathy," Blaine told him. "Definitely not."

"Okay. Then congratulations on not having a boyfriend?" Kurt offered him a smile.

Blaine laughed a little, clearly self-conscious. "Thanks. I, um, had another epiphany."

"Oh?" Kurt asked, watching him.

"We were having a great time, the setting was perfect, the moment was right, and I looked at him and just knew it was wrong for me. It was all so wrong." Blaine hesitated, then closed his mouth, like he decided not to say anything else.

Kurt nodded slowly, taking in what that meant for Blaine. It might not have matched his own dreams, but he had to be happy for his friend that he was listening to himself instead of the other voices around him. Blaine needed to do that. Everyone did, as far as Kurt was concerned. "That's good," he said with smile; it wasn't a big one, but at least it was honest. "Isn't that the point of having these epiphanies? To figure out what you want?"

"Yeah." Blaine glanced at the Union and then back at Kurt. "I guess I'm a work in progress."

"Aren't we all?"

"Some more than others," Blaine said, and Kurt knew he was comparing them again. In the light of the week's events, it didn't feel quite as positive to Kurt as it might have before, because Kurt was even more acutely aware now that his very nature, his drive and determination, was part of what was keeping people away. Once it had been what got him away from the homophobia and isolation of Lima; now it was both an armor protecting him and a barbed-wire fence people didn't care to scale.

But it was all he had. It was all he'd ever had.

Kurt tipped his face up to the cloud-covered sky; it seemed so much smaller and lower seen only in a patch between the buildings with the lights of the city reflecting from it than it ever did in Ohio. There the open sky above his house had made him feel like the world was stretching away forever, only he wasn't able to be out exploring it; here it felt like he was trapped in the bubble that surrounded this amazing city and there was nothing else but where he was. This was all there was. There was nowhere else to go. This was it.

He had a moment of intense claustrophobia, making his head swim, before the world telescoped back to its normal size.

"We're all trying to figure things out, Blaine," Kurt said, looking back at him and unable to make his voice come out any way other than quietly.

Blaine was watching him with unreadable eyes. "I'll try to remember that."

"You should," Kurt told him. "Because if nothing else maybe you'll be less hard on yourself about it."

"Do you think you ever will?" Blaine asked.

"Stop being hard on you?" Kurt frowned a little at the idea. "I don't think I'm hard on you."

"Hard on yourself," Blaine said in clarification.

"Oh." Kurt slowed his steps as they reached the front door of the Union. "Probably not," he said after a long moment's consideration. He couldn't give up his dreams, and thus he couldn't do anything but push himself, even when he would have loved to sit down and forget about it all sometimes like everyone else seemed to be able to. He could relax when he had what he wanted. Maybe. "But it would be nice if I could."

"Yeah." Blaine nodded seriously to himself like he was affirming something, and then he gathered himself together with a sharp breath and gave Kurt a smile. "Here's my stop. Text me later?"

"Sure," Kurt said, smiling back because it was Blaine. It was impossible not to.

Blaine watched him for another moment, taking a few steps backwards, before turning and going into the Union.

Kurt felt his own smile fade as soon as Blaine was out of sight, and he slid his gloved hands into his pockets and headed toward his dorm. He felt spun around. Between the impending loneliness of Valentine's Day and Blaine's sudden switch back to wanting to be unattached, Kurt felt like he was two steps behind and fraying around the edges.

It didn't make any sense to him, not wanting love. It just didn't. It made no sense, and that his friend felt that way ate at him. Blaine wanted people to like him, he seemed to live for it, but he didn't want a special someone to like him best of all? How was that possible? Was this just another way that Kurt was backwards from everyone else?

Why was it even a surprise to him that he was? When hadn't it been true in his life?

And why was he worrying about Blaine, when Blaine clearly had a better handle on his heart than Kurt did?

Kurt exhaled deeply, blowing all of the air from his lungs like he'd learned in that wacky yoga class Rachel had roped him into taking last year. The class had been too touchy-feely to be believed, but that trick did help clear his mind.

He needed to be calm and focused, and instead doubt, sadness, and isolation were creeping in. He knew them too well; just because he'd escaped to New York didn't mean they hadn't followed behind. All he could do was try to hold them at bay.

Maybe it was a good night for a deep moisturizing mask and extra stretching before bed, just to keep himself pulled together and polished. Sound body, sound mind, sound heart. Besides, the chocolate scent of his cupcake mask always made him feel better.

It was the best way he knew to give himself a break. It was soothing but still productive, in a way.

He could work on everything else in his life and his ever-extending to do list tomorrow. He just needed some way to escape for a little while tonight.

Chapter Text

Rachel to Kurt: There's a Lonely Hearts hors d'ouevres and open mic night at NYADA on Friday for Valentine's Day. Would you like to be my date?

Kurt to Rachel: Doesn't that negate the point of the evening? Having a date?

Rachel to Kurt: Fine, my platonic gay BFF non-date date.

Rachel to Kurt: It would be fun to dress up and go, don't you think? Mingle a little, meet some new people?

Kurt to Rachel: At NYADA, land of ego and oneupmanship?

Rachel to Kurt: Just because we're talented doesn't mean we're not people!

Kurt to Rachel: You want my help with your outfit, don't you.

Rachel to Kurt: Kurt! Come with me! That cute boy in my interp class is going, and he's either yours or mine!

Kurt to Rachel: You make it sound so tempting.

Rachel to Kurt: Hooray! :D

Rachel to Kurt: Wait, is that sarcasm?

Kurt to Rachel: Yes.

Kurt to Rachel: Anyway, even if I wanted to - which I don't - I'm working.

Rachel to Kurt: It's Friday night. It's Valentine's Day! How can you be working?

Kurt to Rachel: I picked up extra hours. There's a Marc Jacobs sample sale coming up.

Rachel to Kurt: You're breaking my heart, Kurt! :( :( :(

Kurt to Rachel: You can text me pictures of your dress options.

Rachel to Kurt: Thank you!!!!!! <3

*

Blaine to Kurt: Did you get my e-mail about the V-Day club crawl tomorrow?

Kurt to Blaine: I did, and I am happy to report that I will be busy working then.

Blaine to Kurt: :( Okay.

Kurt to Blaine: But thank you for the invitation.

* * *

There were guys everywhere: tall guys, muscular guys, well-dressed guys, barely dressed guys, and everything in between. The music was loud, the crowd was happy, and Blaine was in the thick of it, dancing his heart out. It felt so good to let go with the alcohol and the music pulsing through him, to let himself move in a sea of bodies caught up in the same shared beat.

It was better than normal, in a way, because he wasn't looking at any of them in particular to see if there was a spark. He knew there would be a spark somewhere, because he liked people, and he knew how to try to make people like him.

Most people, anyway.

But that didn't matter, because he didn't want to find a spark tonight. He didn't even have to look for it. He just wanted to have fun with his friends. He knew where his spark was. Not literally, because Kurt had said he had to work, but it was late enough that Kurt couldn't be working. He shouldn't be working. He should really be out with Blaine, but if he wasn't he should be doing something he enjoyed. Like watching old movies or having coffee and a cookie or all of the other things he did with Blaine that made him like Blaine but not like Blaine, and that was okay, because Blaine would screw that up, so it was better that Kurt didn't like Blaine at all.

Dancing, though, Blaine knew how to do, and since he didn't want to go home with anyone there he just threw himself into the music. And if cute boys bought him drinks and smiled at him trying for that spark, well, that was kind of nice, too, because it meant that he had something to distract him from the fact that Kurt wasn't there dancing with him.

The only good part about that was that Blaine didn't have to worry about saying something stupid because he was so all over the place with his feelings and epiphanies and everything else in his head. He didn't have to worry about blurting out how much of a mess he was. As badly as he wanted to be dancing with Kurt - or sitting across from the table from Kurt as he sewed or organized or whatever it was he was doing at work or even just doing homework on a Friday night with him - it was a lot simpler to be without him.

Less fun, but simpler.

* * *

Kurt checked his voicemail on the way to breakfast on Saturday morning. The electronic voice gave the 12:42 am timestamp before the message played.

Kurt! Kuuuuuuurt! It's me! Blaine! Which you probably know, because I hope you know my voice by now. Maybe you don't. It's me! Blaine. Hi! You should be here! This club is awesome. There's music and dancing and lots of cute guys. Lots of them. And they're really friendly. You'd like them! And I met someone! I met lots of someones, but I met a someone for you! His name is Ted. Or Ned? Ed! I'm pretty sure it's Ed. He's really tall. And cute! And funny. And he's not wearing J. Crew! And he's tall. He goes to NYU, and he's really smart, and he's a good dancer. But not like Mike. He's a good dancer for a normal guy. I'm going to get his number for you, okay? Because he seems amazing, and you're amazing, and you guys could be amazing together! I just wish you were here to see him. And also so I could dance with you, because you're a good dancer, too, you know? Even if you don't - Oh, wait, here he comes, let me see if I can get him to say hi, oh, shi-

The call abruptly ended like Blaine had fumbled his phone, and Kurt just as abruptly deleted the message.

Kurt sucked in a sharp breath and closed his eyes for a moment before continuing on the path to the dining hall.

He knew he should be if not amused then at least touched that Blaine was trying in his clumsy way to hook him up, especially since Blaine was his usual endearing drunk self while doing so, but it was still the last thing he needed to hear. He didn't need to hear the boy he had feelings for trying to toss some other guy at him like he would accept just anyone Blaine met on a dance floor at some random club in New York.

Kurt tried to tell himself he wasn't hurt by the gesture. He shouldn't be. He should be grateful that Blaine was trying to look out for him and find him happiness in his own way.

He knew Blaine was just trying to be a good friend, after all.

But it did hurt to hear Blaine out with other guys, and it did hurt to hear Blaine trying to set him up with someone else, and Kurt had to be glad that he had not been tempted to go out with Blaine the night before, even if it had meant his Valentine's Day evening company had been the echoes of his music in the cavernous prop storage room, Rachel's incessant texts about the NYADA mixer, and Gigi playing on his laptop before he went to bed before midnight. Alone.

Grand romance it had not been, but at least it hadn't done more damage to his heart.

* * *

Rachel to Tina, Blaine, Kurt: Drop everything! Vitally important emergency sheet music shopping today at 4! I need your help!

Tina to Rachel, Blaine, Kurt: Sorry, but I need to finish up this paper.

Blaine to Rachel and Kurt: I'm free if you need me.

Kurt to Rachel and Blaine: Rehearsal, sorry.

Kurt to Rachel and Blaine: Also, I did the heavy lifting on your last sheet music emergency, and I'm not eager to repeat the experience.

Kurt to Blaine: Don't let her walk all over you.

Blaine to Kurt: I'm sure it will be fine. :)

Kurt to Blaine: Optimism is an admirable trait.

Rachel to Blaine: I will send you directions! See you there!

* * *

Blaine checked the name of the music shop on the awning and then opened the door, its bell jingling to announce his presence. The guy behind the counter didn't look up at the sound, but Rachel did. She was standing in the middle of the store in a bright peacock blue coat and matching hat, and she beamed when she saw him.

"Thank you for meeting me," Rachel said to Blaine, coming toward him down the aisle in which she'd been browsing. She offered him her hand, and for a moment he didn't know whether he was supposed to shake it or kiss it, but apparently the answer was neither, because she used it to hold him steady so she could lean up and kiss his cheek.

"I'm happy to," he said, a little flustered by the sweetness and intimacy of the gesture. "Thank you for asking."

"I always like to have another set of eyes with me when I'm picking out sheet music, and as the former lead of the Warblers I know your taste must be excellent."

He followed her back down the aisle she'd been looking in. "That depends on who you ask," he said with a laugh. He'd heard plenty of comments and good-natured teasing over the years.

"Oh, I know your taste leans heavily toward pop, but that just means you won't have preconceived notions when I sing you selections from the various classic music scores I'm considering."

Blaine glanced over in worry at the bored man flipping through a magazine by a register, but it was a music shop. He probably had people singing in there with some regularity.

"In fact, I think you'll be a breath of fresh air for me," she said. "I can't trust my friends at NYADA not to have an ulterior motive when they give me advice." She began to flip through the musical scores arranged in the bins. "That's one of the drawbacks of going to such a competitive school. Even students in other concentrations are thinking of themselves first." She pulled out a book and glanced over its contents. "Of course, the benefits outweigh the negatives."

"I'm sure," Blaine said, because he wasn't certain what else she wanted from him besides his agreement. He hadn't actually spent much time with Rachel one-on-one, he realized, despite the fact that he'd done a lot of things with her in a group, and it was kind of disconcerting to have no one else there to help respond to her focused energy.

"The faculty is excellent," Rachel continued. "The opportunities are greater. And having other exceptional students there pushes me to work that much harder. At McKinley, while the other members of the Glee Club had talent, it just wasn't the same."

"Mm hmm." Blaine followed behind her as she moved to the next row of scores. He still wasn't sure what she needed the music for, since she hadn't mentioned it when she'd texted the invitation, but he didn't want to interrupt to ask.

She sounded a little more wistful as she went on. "I do miss them, though."

"Your friends?" he asked.

"The solos," she said with a sigh, but then she looked over and smiled. "And my friends. At least some of them came to New York, too, if not to NYADA."

"Tina mentioned one time that Kurt applied to NYADA with you."

"He did." She made a noise of interest when she picked up another score, and she flipped through it. "I can't say I'm not sorry he hasn't been caught up in the drama of my school, but he still deserved to be there."

"I'm surprised he didn't get in," Blaine said. An image of Kurt on stage rose in his mind, such a talented and compelling presence. He didn't know how anyone could find him anything other than irresistible. "He's incredible."

Rachel nodded. "He is. But the competition is fierce. He understood that; he never assumed it would be easy. He's used to hearing no. I'm just glad he's making the best of his rejection. He was so smart to have put together the Review. I really should have done something similar so that I could stand out as an underclasswoman." She offered him the thin book. "Would you mind holding this for me?"

"Of course," he said, taking it automatically.

She gave him a sunny smile. "Thank you. So polite. What a refreshing change from the average college boy."

"Um, thanks." He tucked the score under his arm.

"I always seem to like the gay ones best," she said and turned the corner to look at the display on the end cap. "Kurt says it's because I'm a Daddies' Girl as well as a future diva, but you're all so much more compatible with me, apart from the obvious problem that I can't be your boyfriend."

Blaine had no idea how to answer that, though a part of him had to appreciate how she phrased herself. He'd never come across anyone quite like her before, and he found he was glad that Kurt had had a friend like her growing up. She must have been a good support to him in her own way. He could see why they were so close. "I'm sure you'll find someone."

"I don't want someone; I want the right one," she said. "I thought I had a new possibility, too. I wore the perfect dress to this Lonely Hearts mixer the other night, thanks to Kurt, but the boy I was going to see wasn't interested. I should have made Kurt go with me after all. At least someone could have enjoyed Tyler's perfect jaw and lovely baritone."

Something bitter rose in the back of Blaine's throat, and he looked away in case Rachel might catch a hint of it on his face. Kurt's potential suitors had nothing to do with him. He should have been happy that Kurt had other friends looking to find him a match. Wasn't he doing that, too?

Still, hearing Rachel talk about Kurt dating someone else made that tender part of Blaine's heart that was constantly singing Kurt's name burn. As much as he was getting tired of his revolving door of epiphanies, a part of him couldn't wait until he could just think about Kurt like a friend again. Wanting him and not having him or even trying to made him feel pulled apart and on edge. It was like knowing he was parched and the most perfect water fountain was right there, only he wouldn't let himself go near it.

"But no," Rachel said with a sigh. "Kurt had to work and missed out on yet another social opportunity. And this time it was so he could afford a new jacket. I understand sacrificing love for his career, but for a jacket? Wouldn't a boyfriend be a better accessory? And it might last more than a single season."

"Kurt doesn't get rid of his clothes at the end of the season," Blaine said, latching onto the easiest thing to reply to. "He has a whole system of repurposing, alterations, and archival storage."

Rachel's eyebrows raised, her attention focusing on him like a spotlight tightening on a performer. "I know," she said in surprise. "He told you?"

"Yes," Blaine said, a little uncertain in the face of her response. "Shouldn't he have?"

"He doesn't usually like to share his secrets," she replied. She watched him for another long moment before continuing on in her search.

Blaine thought back to the way Kurt had been upset and talking to Tina and not to him the other day and said with a twinge of hurt, "I know." He trailed behind her to the next row, wondering how much he really could say. He didn't know what wasn't his business to know, because maybe Kurt didn't trust him with everything he was feeling the same way he wouldn't trust him with the budget for the Review, but even as that fact stung he couldn't let it lie. It was Kurt. "I'm worried about him."

"You are?" Rachel handed over another score.

"Doesn't he seem stressed to you?" he asked her.

"Kurt always has as much on his plate as he can handle," she said. "Sometimes more."

"And that's okay?"

Rachel looked over at him, her dark eyes soft. "That's Kurt," she said. "If you're going to be his friend, you have to accept it."

Blaine opened his mouth and closed it again, because it wasn't that he didn't accept it. He knew Kurt was trying to conquer the world, and Blaine supported it. He just wanted to help him.

"I don't know a lot about your life in Ohio, Blaine, or your dreams for the future, but Kurt has had to fight for everything he has, and he doesn't have all that much that hasn't come from himself. He has his family, he has his friends, and he has his talent. That's it. Doors don't magically open for him. Arms don't, either. It's unfair, but I also know him, and I know what he can do. He can make it. He will make it. But it's not easy for him."

"I know," Blaine said, because he had seen all of that with his own eyes. He hadn't been there like Rachel, but he thought he understood Kurt's struggle to be himself in a different way than she possibly could. Blaine didn't like it, he couldn't like how Kurt was treated by his friends, by his department, and by the world, but he understood it.

"As his friend, you have to accept who he is and how he deals with it, even if it's not always good for him. If you can't, I hope you'll just get out of his way." Rachel's eyes stayed locked on his, serious in a way he wasn't used to from her when she was talking about anything but herself. She stared him down, like she was testing him and waiting for his answer.

"I'd never want to be in his way," he assured her, not looking away. If this was a test, he didn't want to fail it.

"Then you have to let him be stressed, offer him an outlet where you can, and help pick up the pieces afterwards if he falls apart." She narrowed her eyes and gave him another calculating look. "Which doesn't happen very often."

Blaine wasn't sure he could just sit back and let Kurt fall apart in front of his eyes if there were something else he could about it, but Rachel was oddly daunting for such a small woman. The discomfiting way she was watching him made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, so he nodded his acquiescence. "Okay."

Smiling again, she reached out and patted him on the arm. "It's nice that you care, though. I'm glad we ran into you that night at Cliff's. You've been a welcome addition to our little group."

Blaine ducked his head, touched and a little overwhelmed by the way her emotions jumped around. "Thank you. I'm glad, too."

"And not just because I finally have a duet partner who can keep up with me." She flipped her hair over her shoulder and went back to browsing. "Besides Kurt, of course, but he always fights me for parts."

"Have you thought about giving them to him sometimes?" Blaine asked her. "Without the fight?"

"It's a part, Blaine," Rachel said, her eyes wide with shock like he was asking her to give him a kidney instead.

To Blaine, it only seemed fair to split them even on days when Kurt wasn't having a hard time. If he was, it was an even nicer gesture, a gift of song, of standing out when Kurt was feeling unappreciated. It was the gift of being heard.

But then Blaine was the guy who stepped aside to give a competition solo to his boyfriend, so he probably wasn't the best judge about this sort of thing.

She pulled out two more pieces of music and gave them to him to carry before gliding down the aisle in front of him.

"You're really not worried about him?" Blaine asked as the idea continued to worry at him. Kurt was growing so tense in person, and his texts were getting less frequent. Something didn't seem right.

Rachel turned so that she was facing him. "I know he's busy, but is there something I don't know going on?" she asked; she sounded almost offended at the thought.

"I don't know," he admitted. "He just seems…" It all was so ephemeral when he tried to put it into words. He just knew that Kurt seemed to be getting more brittle, and it felt like he was pulling back. But maybe it wasn't with everyone. If Rachel didn't see it, maybe it was just with him.

Maybe it was just him and his succession of epiphanies that was the problem. Maybe it was just that Kurt needed a step back from him when Blaine was so all over the place. Maybe it was just that Blaine was acting strangely because of all of these feelings he was trying to keep inside, and Kurt could tell he was off and didn't like it. Blaine couldn't really blame him for any of that; he would have been thrilled to take a step back from his own head and heart. "I don't know," he said again.

"Why don't you ask him?" she asked more gently.

Blaine squared the corner of the stack of scores he was holding. "I'm not sure he wants to talk to me about it."

She watched him a little more closely. "Then why would I break his confidence if I had it?"

"You're right," he said with a nod. He shouldn't even be asking. Kurt would talk to him if he wanted to talk to him, and if it hurt that he didn't, well, Blaine would have to get over it. Friends didn't expect other friends to tell them everything. This feeling of being shut out was just due to his overreacting heart. He wanted to be as special to Kurt as Kurt felt to him, but that was ridiculous. And temporary. It had to be temporary. He'd get struck by some other epiphany soon, and everything would go back to normal. They could go back to being the great friends they were without everything being colored by Blaine's apparently mercurial feelings.

He was just glad he was past his serenading phase, because at least he wasn't going to make a spectacular fool of himself trying to get Kurt's attention. He needed to let Kurt be Kurt and give him some space instead.

"Still, the best way to get something out of Kurt is to ask him," Rachel told him, drifting along down the aisle. "I always think it's best to be blunt."

"I'm not trying to put him on the spot," Blaine said. "I'm just worried."

"Then you're not going to know," she said with a flick of her hair. She pulled two more scores out of the display and handed them to him without looking.

"I guess not," he said softly and tried to resign himself to that fact.

* * *

Kurt to Blaine: Dinner tonight? You spent the morning with Rachel; I'm here for you to process the craziness.

Blaine to Kurt: Game night at Peter's. Thanks for the offer, though!

Kurt to Blaine: Have fun!

Blaine to Kurt: Lunch tomorrow?

Kurt to Blaine: Sorry, working 11-2.

Blaine to Kurt: Still the Marc Jacobs sample sale?

Kurt to Blaine: Also known as heaven, yes.

Blaine to Kurt: :D

Kurt to Blaine: I could do breakfast. Though you don't have class 'til 10:30, right?

Blaine to Kurt: That's okay. I can hit the gym after breakfast. 8:30?

Kurt to Blaine: 8's better for me. Class at 9.

Blaine to Kurt: Okay.

* * *

"Coffee," Kurt said with a dreamy sigh, holding the cup of uninspired but effective cafeteria-grade coffee up to his nose and inhaling with satisfaction. He could feel the synapses in his brain beginning to fire just from the smell of it. He inhaled again, letting the rich scent do its magic before even the first sip. Forget his hall-mates and their addictions to Red Bull and caffeine pills; coffee was the perfect beverage for waking up. It did the job, but even more it was a sensual pleasure of taste and smell - and sometimes sight if the barista was particularly accomplished with foam pictures - which was not a joy he wished ever to overlook.

A chuckle broke him out of his reverie, and he opened his eyes to see Blaine's eyes focused on his face before they snapped down to his own tray of breakfast like he didn't want to watch any longer.

"Don't you dare mock me," Kurt said, affronted. "I've seen you in raptures over a simple chocolate chip cookie, and this has caffeine."

"I'm not mocking you," Blaine told him. He speared a piece of melon before looking up, not quite meeting Kurt's eyes. It was odd. Maybe it was just early; Blaine had been out with Peter last night, which meant he'd probably been drinking.

Kurt didn't want to think about Blaine and Peter. Even if they were just remaining friends, that Blaine was attracted to him, that Blaine liked him enough to consider him as a boyfriend, rankled in a way it really shouldn't. It shouldn't, because Blaine was Kurt's friend, Blaine was free to do what he wanted, and their own sexual connection was long, long past. It shouldn't, because Kurt had no claim on him and didn't want one, not with a guy who didn't want him and was all over the place about whether he wanted a relationship at all. It shouldn't, because Kurt was supportive of all of his other friends finding their own happiness without thinking of himself at all. None of it should have hurt him in the slightest.

It shouldn't bother him at all, but it still did.

He took a sip of coffee so that he could pretend the bitterness in his mouth was from the drink and not his own silly emotions.

"So," he forced himself to say brightly, pouring his little bowl of strawberries on top of his Greek yogurt, "how was music shopping with Rachel?"

"Intense," Blaine replied with a laugh.

"It always is." It was among the reasons Kurt had declined to go when she'd asked him. He might have been able to squeeze it in before rehearsal, but it had seemed better to pass on the craziness.

"Does she always sing all of the selections at top volume in the store when she's deciding what to buy?" Blaine asked.

"More often than you'd think," Kurt told him. He smoothed down his scarf so that there was no danger of it dangling into his food and reached over his tray for the salt shaker in the middle of the square table. "Did she ask you to sing the duets with her?"

"No, I escaped that." Blaine took a bite of his pancake as Kurt cracked open his soft-boiled egg and salted it. "It was definitely one of the weirder shopping experiences I've had," Blaine said. "But I didn't mind. I've never really gotten to talk to her for that long before."

"A mixed blessing?"

"No," Blaine said immediately, which made Kurt like him that much more, because Rachel could be difficult, but she was still one of his best friends. That Blaine could enjoy spending time with her was a big point in his favor, even if he didn't really need another one. "She's great."

"She is," Kurt said with a smile. "And she's a good friend, once you get past the crazy."

Blaine looked away again, his jaw tightening like he was uncomfortable, and Kurt toyed with a slice of strawberry on top of his yogurt, confused. Had Rachel done something to upset him? Had she said something? She could certainly speak without thinking.

"She likes you a lot, too," Blaine said.

Kurt's heart fell like a lead weight into his feet. Was that why Blaine was looking uncomfortable? Had she talked Kurt up to him to try to set them up again? She never knew when to stop. She'd even tried to get him to go to that stupid NYADA mixer to meet some boy on Valentine's Day, despite how clear he'd been about his feelings. Usually her determination was one of her best qualities, but not when it came to interfering with his life.

Blaine brushed some crumbs off of his shirt, a ratty Dalton Academic t-shirt that had either been purchased when he was much younger or had shrunk in the wash, and Kurt turned his own gaze away from how the soft cotton was clinging to the lovely curves and planes of his wonderfully toned -

No, he told himself as his stomach went into free-fall. He was not looking at any of that. He was eating his breakfast. He was talking to his friend.

"When she's being bossy or manipulative, the best way to deal with her is to shut her down quickly," Kurt reminded him, though he really wasn't sure Blaine had it in him to do it. Not many people did.

"She wasn't," Blaine insisted. "Protective, maybe, but not bossy."

Protective didn't sound much better, Kurt thought as a chill went through him. "Blaine, if she said anything - "

"She didn't," Blaine said shortly, looking up at him again. It should have been encouraging, but given the way Blaine sounded, disappointed or frustrated or something, Kurt was more worried than relieved.

"Okay," Kurt said, picking up his spoon and slowly scooping out a bite of his egg. He tried to find some more even footing. "Well, I'm glad you two had a good time, at least."

Blaine nodded and pensively drizzled a little more syrup on his pancake, splashing some onto his tray as he jumped when one of the students in the kitchen knocked over a tray of silverware in a noisy clatter of metal.

The room burst out in laughter and then applause, and by the time the commotion died down, Blaine had something like a smile on his face again as he mopped up the excess. He asked, "So, do you have a busy week?"

"No more than usual," Kurt said with a shrug, and he watched with confusion as Blaine's expression tightened at his response. "What about you?"

"I have an econ test," Blaine said, poking at his pancake for a second or two before he put his fork down.

"Not good?" Kurt nodded at Blaine's plate.

Blaine shrugged and looked over his shoulder to where the students were cleaning up the mess. "I guess I'm just not that hungry."

"Okay." Kurt chewed on a strawberry and tried not to feel like he was being shut out. He was probably being oversensitive. He was probably reading too much into things. Blaine was probably just hung-over and tired; for all Kurt knew Blaine hadn't slept much at all.

And none of that was Kurt's business, he reminded himself immediately, not letting himself think about Blaine drinking, about Blaine dancing, about Blaine flirting with a new guy and - no. None of that was Kurt's concern if Blaine didn't want to talk about it. Or even if he did. It wasn't about Kurt.

All it meant was that Kurt needed to remember that his happiness didn't depend on Blaine's mood or his friendship. It shouldn't depend on anyone else at all.

In fact, it absolutely couldn't.

And the last thing he should be doing was obsessing over every little thing that Blaine said or did to him, over every smile or lack of one, in a way he never would with any of his other friends, because the next thing he knew he'd be waiting outside of his classes the way he used to with Finn or making a boutonniere or any number of the kind of foolish, obsessive, inappropriate things he did when his feelings took over his common sense. He wasn't going to let that happen with Blaine. He was going to be smart and strong instead.

So when Blaine brought up an e-mail Angelica had sent the night before about the Review, Kurt was relieved to talk about less personal matters until their conversation moved out of this stilted territory and found something like its usual rhythm.

If it felt more detached and awkward than usual, if it felt less satisfying than he had hoped when he'd extended the invitation for the meal, well, Kurt was doing his best not to put his feelings on Blaine's shoulders. He was standing on his own two feet, not leaning on him.

It was the right thing to do for them both.

* * *

The solid weight of the punching bag against Blaine's fists was a familiar and much needed shock to his system, the impact jolting up his arm and into his shoulder and driving away everything else with the adrenaline from the action.

He needed that. He really did. He was so smart to have decided to work out after breakfast with Kurt.

It had taken everything he had not to stare at Kurt as he drank his coffee, his face lit up with a kind of rapture Blaine wanted to see again and again and in new and different (and non-coffee-related) ways. He hadn't stared at Kurt's face, so beautiful in pleasure with his eyes closed and his lips curved up in a sweet, appreciative smile… well, he hadn't stared for long, because it wasn't appropriate. Friends didn't stare at friends, not like that, not when watching Kurt's mouth open to a strawberry made Blaine's blood rush from his head and leave him dizzy and teetering on extremely unhelpful arousal.

So he stopped himself from looking, stopped himself from thinking, stopped himself from engaging too much, because he couldn't lose Kurt, he couldn't, and if he didn't keep himself under control he was going to do something really, really stupid and unforgivable, and he'd lose the best friend he'd ever had, a friend who filled holes in him so deep and wide he hadn't even imagined they could be filled, he had barely been able to see the scope of them at all, like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and thinking that he could snap his fingers and have it be flat once more.

He couldn't lose that through being impulsive, through having epiphanies of the same kind that got him chasing Jeremiah and dating Sebastian. This one seemed so real, but didn't they all? Wasn't that the entire problem? This one seemed so real and true, down deep into his heart, that Kurt was someone he could love, that all of the things that bound them together as friends would make a romance even better, but what would happen when it wasn't true? What then?

No, he had to step back until he had himself together. He had to take a step back, not ask for too much, let Kurt dodge all of his questions like it didn't matter, and punch the bag over and over until the only thing in his body was pain and release, not longing and love.

He wanted to be a friend, a good friend, and the constant push-pull he was feeling toward Kurt was going to take that all away.

He couldn't let it.

* * *

Kurt to Tina: Are you up for non-judgmental shopping this afternoon?

Kurt to Tina: Well, judgmental shopping, non-judgmental friendship. I could use it, I think.

Tina to Kurt: I'm so sorry! I have work 3-8. :(

Kurt to Tina: That's okay; I can go alone.

Tina to Kurt: :( I'm sorry.

Kurt to Tina: It's fine. I enjoy my own company.

* * *

Blaine pulled up his Facebook the next morning to find a beaming picture of Kurt staring at him on the screen. It took him by surprise to see that wide, open smile there, and it was a minute before he managed to do more than stare at Kurt's face. He was so happy. He shone. That was the way Kurt should always look, and he so rarely did. Blaine swayed closer to the screen, drawn in by him like his heart was tethered to the smile on his screen.

The text attached to the photo read Vintage Versace, and Blaine looked away from Kurt's face to take in the olive double-breasted suit jacket Kurt was wearing while posing in the dressing room mirror for the camera. The waist could have used to be taken in a touch, and the style, which was clearly from the eighties, didn't suit Kurt's usual aesthetic, but it was still impeccable vintage Gianni Versace; Blaine could understand Kurt's joy in finding the garment.

What he didn't understand, as he sat there and read the comments of various friends who didn't seem to understand just why it was so special, was why Kurt hadn't texted him about it when he'd found it. Blaine loved fashion, in his own way, and he'd even told Kurt about his old subscription to Vogue. Blaine would have been so excited for him. If he'd found the jacket somewhere he would have immediately texted Kurt about it, just to show him. He understood.

But for whatever reason, Kurt hadn't felt like sharing the find with him.

There certainly wasn't a rule that he had to, but Blaine of all people would have understood, and Kurt hadn't thought of him.

Or Kurt had and had chosen not to text him anyway.

Cutting off that thought before it could spiral further, Blaine pushed himself back from his desk and slammed his computer shut. Kurt could do whatever he wanted. Kurt didn't need to do everything with him, as much as Blaine would have loved it.

Kurt didn't owe him anything. Kurt didn't have to tell him anything. Kurt didn't have to give him anything.

It was just hard, because Blaine wanted it all, anyway.

He grabbed his gym stuff out of his closet and told himself firmly that he had to get over this stupid obsession with his best friend as quickly as he could.

* * *

Julie to Blaine: drinks chez moi before the PAR-TAY on Friday! I'll bring the tequila, you bring your dancing shoes… and dancing booty!

Blaine to Julie: After Valentine's Day, I think I'm going to lay off the partying for a little while.

Julie to Blaine: what did I tell you about avoiding a hangover? beer before liquor, etc.

Blaine to Julie: Still, I'm going to skip this one.

Julie to Blaine: :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :(

Blaine to Julie: I'm sorry. I have other plans. Next time!

Julie to Blaine: if you change your mind come by!

Blaine to Julie: Thanks. :)

*

Blaine to Wes: Hey, do you have any plans for Friday night?

Wes to Blaine: Esther's dorm is having a talent night, and she signed us up. :P All the karaoke has increased her confidence.

Wes to Blaine: You're more than welcome to come, if you want to. There's an open mic at the end.

Blaine to Wes: Can I say maybe? It might be a good change of scene for me.

Wes to Blaine: Sure. I'll e-mail you the info.

* * *

After the Review meeting had finally come to a close, Kurt sank into the chair next to Blaine's, every inch of him tired, and asked hopefully, "Dinner?" It had been such a long night, and a plate of curly fries and a friend who could talk about the full Bravo line-up instead of the intricacies of performance pacing sounded like utter perfection.

Blaine glanced over at him, and a smile began to bloom on his face that made Kurt's heart soar with anticipation of an easy yes, before Blaine shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "I have too much homework." He sounded penitent. He looked penitent. But he was still saying no.

Kurt sighed, his shoulders falling. He took a steadying breath and said, "Okay." He knew it wasn't Blaine's job to cheer him up, but it still would have been nice.

"I'm sorry," Blaine said again.

"It's okay," Kurt said with a wave of his hand. "I should probably get started reading Lady Windermere's Fan, anyway. Time and tide and Oscar Wilde wait for no man."

"I thought Oscar Wilde waited for quite a few men, actually." Blaine fastened the flap of his bag.

Kurt smiled a little in appreciation of the quip. "And look where that got him." He pushed himself upright. "All right." He gathered his bag again and began to plan for his evening of work ahead.

Blaine followed him out of the door, unusually quiet, and after they got outside Kurt cleared his throat and said to break the silence, "The Odeum is showing Princess Bride Friday night."

"I love that movie!" Blaine said brightly.

"I know," Kurt replied. He loved it, too; there was a purity to the romance and the magic of the storytelling that still made his heart flutter, and it wasn't even a musical.

Blaine mimed thrusting an imaginary sword at a lamppost. "'My name is Inigo Montoya. You kill my father. Prepare to die.'"

Kurt couldn't help but laugh at Blaine's atrocious accent. "And here I thought you'd rather be the Dread Pirate Roberts. Westley's the star, after all."

"I like him, too," Blaine said with a nod. "That fencing scene is amazing. I always wanted to learn to do that."

"I thought we could get a group together and go, maybe do dinner first?" Kurt was dreaming of sushi, actually, but he'd get people to agree to the night first and then push his toro maki and eel hand roll agenda on them.

"Oh. Um. I have plans Friday." Blaine shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat and watched the sidewalk in front of them.

Kurt's heart dropped into the churning pit of his stomach, and he said with as little inflection as he could manage, "Oh, that's right. The Alliance dance is that night." Of course Blaine would want to go to that with all of his friends. Of course he'd want to go drink and dance and flirt.

Blaine cleared his throat a little. "Actually, I think I have plans with Wes. There's a talent show and open mic night at Esther's dorm - apparently there are a ton of theater people who live there - and I thought I might like to meet some different people."

"I see." Maybe this was part of Blaine's epiphany, that he'd met enough of the interested boys in their university and needed to go to a different one to see what his options were there. Kurt looked out ahead of them, not seeing anything around him. All he could picture was Blaine singing to an audience of doting admirers, hanging on his every note and spin.

"You could come," Blaine offered.

"I don't think so," Kurt replied shortly, because the last thing he needed was to experience a night of watching Blaine charm a whole new group of boys. Blaine was going to do what he wanted to do, and that was fine, but Kurt didn't need to subject himself to it, not when his heart was still so raw from getting Blaine's signals wrong about himself. He didn't want to see those same smiles and flashes of his eyes and be reminded of what they weren't, which was for him and him alone.

Blaine didn't answer right away, and his brows were drawn together like he was troubled when Kurt glanced over at him. Finally, Blaine asked, "Kurt, are you okay?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"I don't know," Blaine said, still not looking at him. "You just don't seem okay lately."

Kurt took a slow breath and raised his chin. He was going to have to be more careful around Blaine; he clearly was letting more show than he wanted to, and he didn't want to color their friendship with the foolish assumptions he'd made. If it hurt to close himself off even more, it was just for a little while. He could do it.

"I'm fine," he said.

Blaine stopped and turned to look at him, and Kurt faced him, kept everything inside the way he knew how, and just gave Blaine the smile he deserved.

"I'm fine," Kurt said again.

Blaine searched his face for a moment before looking back at the sidewalk. "Okay," he finally said, and then he shook his head, squared his shoulders, and met Kurt's eyes. "No, not okay. You're not okay. I know you aren't."

Kurt hesitated, surprised by the vehemence in Blaine's voice. "I am," he said somewhat less forcefully.

"And you're lying to me," Blaine said, his eyes dark with hurt and something even more fiery like anger.

"I'm - " Kurt began, but Blaine cut him off with a sharp gesture.

"I know I'm not your only friend, and I know you don't have to tell me things. I know I'm a mess, and maybe you don't think I'd get whatever it is you're going through, but I am your friend, and I don't know why you're standing there and lying to me."

"I'm not lying to you," Kurt insisted, although even that wasn't quite true. "I'm fine."

Blaine took a step back, his jaw and his hands clenching and his face a study in shifting tides of emotion. "Kurt - " He took a deep breath. "Something's wrong, I can see it, I care about you, and I want to help."

Kurt barked out a laugh, because if this wasn't irony he didn't know what it was. The whole reason his heart was hurting was offering to help, like he could buy him a coffee or listen to his sad story and patch up the wound with a cute superhero bandaid when it was a hole the size of a cannon ball right through his chest. Blaine didn't want him, but he thought he could somehow fix that? "You can't possibly help me," he snapped without thinking.

Jerking like he had been punched and his mouth dropping open in dismay, Blaine took another step away from him.

"I'm - " Kurt started to apologize, horrified that he'd put that expression on his friend's face by being so thoughtless to the person he least wanted to do that to.

"No," Blaine said thickly, shaking his head. He looked devastated and like he was trying and failing to hide it. "No. I get it."

Kurt felt like he might be sick. He'd fallen into the familiar pattern of attacking instead of defending like he had a million times before over the years, and maybe it was the best way to get some distance, but he hadn't meant to hurt him. "No, I didn't mean - "

"It's fine." Blaine took another step back as Kurt reached out toward him. "It's okay."

"Blaine," Kurt said desperately, dropping his hands.

The rays of the setting sun cast Blaine in honey-colored chiaroscuro like an angel in an early Renaissance painting, if an angel wore a pea coat and chocolate corduroys. Kurt had this awful feeling if he let Blaine slip away he'd become just as ethereal and untouchable as that sort of supernatural creature, never to come close again.

"It's fine, Kurt," Blaine said again as his expression started to edge toward resigned, toward bitter, toward done. "You don't have to tell me - "

"You're my best friend," Kurt said, standing tall and looking him right in the eye. He couldn't possibly explain what was going on with him, what was eating at him, but at least he could give him that much. It hurt to get the words out; it shouldn't have, but it did, because his heart was too raw to want even that much of it exposed. But he had to say it, because Blaine was worth it, and Kurt wasn't going to stop fighting for things that were worth it. "This just isn't something you can help me with."

"Why not?"

"It just isn't," Kurt insisted.

Blaine watched him for a long moment, his jaw working and his brows furrowed, before his shoulders dropped, and he released a slow breath. "Okay," he said softly. "But I still want to."

Kurt's heart was still thundering in his chest, and he wished he dared to reach out and touch him. Blaine was too far, too upset. He could still go, and Kurt would be alone, even more alone than he could have imagined six months ago, and the Blaine-sized space in his heart would never, ever heal.

"Thank you," he said instead.

Blaine let out a dry laugh of his own and looked away out over the quad. "You're my best friend, too," he said.

It should have been wonderful to hear, but the resigned way Blaine said it, like he wasn't happy about it, like Kurt wasn't giving him what he needed, just made Kurt hurt that much more.

"I'm sorry," he said softly as the armor around his heart cracked and fused back together in new and more painful ways.

"I know," Blaine told him, and when he jerked his head the way they'd been walking Kurt fell into step beside him and wondered when this had gotten so hard on them both and if it was ever going to stop hurting so much, if he was ever going to stop hurting them so much with the dreams of his heart.

He had t