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I'd Appreciate Your Advice On Whether I Should Let You Win

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As the overwhelming majority of utterances to come out of her mouth are wont to do, the pep talk slash patronizing lecture slash narcissistic, self-serving soliloquy Rachel prepares on the occasion of the first serious Glee meeting after winning sectionals soon degenerates into a completely irrelevant series of firm nods, lyric quotations and arguments to authority of the Broadway variety.

This leaves Kurt little to do but lean into Mercedes, who's now familiar enough with his choice scent to recognize it immediately and tip her head to the side, allowing the stretching of his back a modicum of composure and elegance.

Mr. Schuester notices anyway, but he seems more chagrined by his own lack of suitable conversation partners than by his students zoning out or flat-out ignoring their so-called "captain" during one of her episodes of verbosity. Kurt can't believe it didn't occur to him it would go to her head and be brought up on a semi-regular basis when he encouraged everyone to appoint her head of the group.

In her most deliciously conspiratorial tone, which is, in hindsight, cruelly misleading considering the words that wind up coming out of her mouth, Mercedes whispers, "Is Brittany holding Santana's hand?"

It can't be called holding hands: Santana's forearm is resting on her lap, perpendicular to her abdomen, and her index and middle fingers are laced around Brittany's near the edge of her thigh. Holding fingers, perhaps, though Mercedes's inquiry stands.

Kurt raises his eyebrows in a carefully perfected sardonic manner. "Are we surprised?"

The look on Mercedes's face can only be classified as annoyed scorn. "I thought they were playing coy," says Mercedes.

"Brittany is a girl of many talents, but she'd never lie to herself that subtlety's among them," Kurt says bluntly.

Mercedes tilts her head trenchantly; her eyes alone would make Kurt take a step back were he not sitting on one of the shrimp-sized, plastic monstrosities McKinley High calls chairs.

"Or maybe they're dating now," Kurt offers.

"Thank you," Mercedes snaps. There's silence for a moment as Rachel shuffles back to her seat and Mr. Schuester hands over copies of the sheet music for New York, New York. Kurt glowers at the back of Mr. Schuester's neck for a millisecond, just long enough to resent him for smiling cheerfully while rubbing half the Glee club's singing-about-getting-out-of-here-despite-being-obligatorily-stuck-in-Lima-Ohio-for-at-least-another-three-years situation in their faces, but short enough that Mercedes doesn't have time to call him out on ignoring her and follow it up with a remark about Kurt finding a high school Spanish teacher even the slightest bit attractive, which, no. "Does that mean Santana's done having sex with Puck for good?"

"I'd rather not know who Noah Puckerman is or isn't getting laid by, if you don't mind," Kurt says, "but it probably only means Santana's having a fairly good-natured day. And don't tell her I said that."

Mercedes holds her hands aloft defensively, and Kurt spares a glance at Puck, who's bending over so his mouth is on a level with Tina's ear. He sees Puck run his tongue over his teeth, and feels his own brows raise. Then Puck's mouth moves, and his smile turns into a sneer before he says something Kurt can't read.

Tina jumps, the poor thing.

For a split second, her lips move like she may talk back, and then she closes her mouth and pretends there was nothing to say.

After they do a first run-through of the song, Puck drags his chair forward and leans over again, and this time he keeps talking at regular intervals, making Tina blush and search Artie's eyes across the room in what Kurt assumes is an attempt to let him know she's had no hand in Puck's bizarre, out-of-nowhere behavior. As if anyone would think she might.

"So that answers that question," Mercedes says, and Kurt doesn't say anything even though he's pretty sure it doesn't. Santana seems more disgusted than jealous about Puck approaching Tina, so Mercedes is probably right anyway.

For his part, Kurt's ears are beginning to burn with second-hand embarrassment, and before he knows it he's standing before Tina and looking down at Puck. It's the music room, he thinks. It gives him courage.

"You're terrorizing a good friend of mine," he admonishes, "and there's a rip on your sleeve. Your conduct is all-around disgraceful."

"That's rich coming from you, fag," Puck snarls, and it's just sad that Kurt is so over being hurt by any synonyms of the word 'gay' thrown in his direction, no matter how derogatory. At this point, Kurt thinks Puck may use the words he uses because a) the specificity to them gives them an extra layer of flaky offensiveness, and b) he doesn't know better, but Kurt doesn't have the strength of mind to try to steer him in the right direction.

"Much as I would like this deep, meaningful conversation to stretch on for hours," Kurt says in earnest, "I believe Tina here has a verse to rehearse. Come on."

"Yeah," Tina says quickly, nodding and standing up, "I should d-definitely go do that."

"And you need Hummel how?" Puck says with a smirk.

"Moral support," Kurt says, even, because he's resolved to be agreeable to his fellow glee club members for the sake of maturity and savoir faire and Puck is unfortunately one of them, "and breathing exercises."

Puck keeps leering at Tina and looking threateningly at Kurt through most of the class, and later, when they slip out into the hall, Tina says, "Thanks for rescuing me."

Kurt nods and says, "Don't mention it."

"You noticed Puck was checking out your ass, right?" Tina says.

"Really, don't mention it," Kurt says. "Don't mention anything that just happened. I refuse to give him the pleasure of believing his new bullying techniques are working on me."

"Is that what it is?" Mercedes says innocently from his other side. "I thought he was just admiring the embroidery on your back pockets."

"Hilarious," says Kurt, and hopes that's the end of it.

*

Two days later, Puck struts over to Mercedes's locker and eyes the cherry slushie she's holding so intently Kurt feels his stomach drop to his feet. It's only third period and he doesn't have time to go home and change right now unless he skips his next class, which would of course not be as dreadful a code violation as sitting through it with his collar wet, but Kurt would rather avoid anything that involves frozen chemicals seeping through his skin altogether.

Fortunately, the plastic cup stays put. Unfortunately, Puck's steps come to a halt once he's facing Mercedes.

He says, "Need a hand?"

Mercedes rolls her eyes to the ceiling, saying, "Puck, go away." The amount of disdain she conveys is impressive, but Puck is unfazed.

"And where would you suggest we go away to?" Puck says with a leer. "Locker room? The backseat of my car? There's this supplies closet on the first floor where you'd fit in great pressed up against me."

Mercedes chooses to take the high road. "Thank you. I'll take that as a horribly phrased compliment. Now could you please—" She gestures at the end of the hall towards which Puck appeared to be walking before he took this turn.

Puck remains unfazed. Maybe Kurt should persuade Finn to punch him in the face again. He and Puck haven't worked out all their issues yet, after all. It would be emotionally healthy—and admirable of Kurt—to push the gates open and let their mutual anger flow.

In the meanwhile, he settles for the next best thing.

"Puckerman," Kurt says, getting Puck to turn around to glower at him, "what are you doing?"

"What, you jealous?" Puck barks, baring his teeth. Whoever told him acting like a dog with rabies made him seem any more appealing or powerful than behaving like a person should be thrown in jail.

Kurt laughs. "Please. I just fail to see what Mercedes has done to you that you would feel the need to harass her in return."

"You won't cover her needs," Puck says, not missing a beat, "someone has to. Thought I'd offer myself for the job, save you the trouble." His voice is blunt, but it has a softer edge than usual, like he's looking to amuse and not to hurt.

"Believe me, you're a bigger problem than any you could possibly spare us," Kurt says. He stumbles over the first word at the aggressive turn of Puck's expression and wishes he had kept his eyes closed while he talked. He developed a Pavlovian response to Puck's near presence when Puck started tossing him into dumpsters, and he's mostly learned to control it, to push it down so fast it doesn't even show, but sometimes it catches him off guard and he finds himself stuck between Puckerman and a wall and losing his cool by the truckload, as evidenced by his using the word 'truckload' in his head.

"Am I," says Puck. He doesn't even bother to make it sound like a question. "You like trouble, Hummel? Happy to show you some." Taking another step forward, he smashes his forearm on the locker behind Kurt, right next to his head, and Kurt has to make a conscious effort not to duck and run. At least Puck is allowing him enough personal space to do it, and that's miles ahead of the way he used to corner Kurt before he joined Glee. In comparison, this approach to torment is laid-back and unlikely to end badly. If nothing else, as soon as the bell rings, Puck will walk away.

So Kurt lifts his chin up and says, "Intimidation is not attractive, Puckerman."

"You think?" Puck says. "You like little chickenshits like Finn better? All you wanna fuck is pussies—you shouldn't even call yourself a fag."

"I actively don't," says Kurt, not loud enough for Puck to take notice and address it. Kurt's cool has officially lost this battle. At least he's not avoiding Puck's gaze yet.

"How 'bout your friend?" Puck breathes. "How d'you think she'd feel about that? About being stared down 'til her panties drop?"

"Okay, that's enough," Mercedes cuts in, grasping Kurt's elbow and dragging him out from under Puck. Puck backs off like he's doing them both a great favor, raising his hands and shrugging as if to say 'don't mind me' instead of apologizing, which is what he should do, even though Kurt knows better than to expect that. "I'm still here," Mercedes snarls at Puck as she laces her arm around Kurt's, "and Kurt's not territory for you to piss on. Let's go."

"Nice save," Puck yells as they walk down the hall. "You make a good damsel in distress, Hummel. Should look into making a living off it. Get to buy yourself a nice dress."

"That analogy you used was really unfortunate," Kurt whispers to Mercedes.

"I know," Mercedes groans.

Later, when he's home and it's too late to jinx the rest of the day, Kurt thinks it could have been worse: they could have gotten slushied.

Sometimes the little things that don't happen are the ones that keep you from going out of your mind.

*

"Finn looks weird," Mercedes says during Glee a few days later.

"Finn has always looked weird," Kurt says matter-of-factly. "He's tall and clumsy. Looking weird is inherent to his personality and body build. Personally, I find it charming."

"Naw," Mercedes says, "that's not it. I think he's put on weight."

Kurt can't help but direct a surreptitious glance at Finn, who's too preoccupied with researching Rachel's general chest area to notice—thankfully, though sometimes Kurt feels anything but grateful for Finn's obliviousness.

Mercedes is right. He does look rounder than usual, but what strikes Kurt is his complexion seems pastier than ever. It's clear a second skin care intervention is in order.

"Why must you insist on tainting my fantasies?" he despairs, because Mercedes doesn't approve of Kurt's attempts to become indispensable to Finn's assorted cosmetic treatments and therefore to his existence.

"It's my duty as your best friend to shoot down that crush," Mercedes explains. "Don't think I'm giving up on that until you've stopped being stupid."

Kurt sighs long-sufferingly, if not as loudly as would have been both conspicuous and appropriately dramatic, and, as he looks around the room, notices Puck's glance set on Kurt's knees. It lasts long enough to be noticeable, and then Puck raises his head so slowly it makes Kurt shiver a bit. His eyes cover most of Kurt's body on their way up, linger on his mouth, and lock on his.

Kurt blinks and shakes his head to snap out of it. He hums thoughtfully and turns back to Mercedes.

He says, "I've noticed a decrease in the severity of basketball practice ever since Mr. Schue took up with Pillsbury. Coach Tanaka's depression has taken the cruelty out of him. Unfortunately, his sad lack of allure remains strong."

"There's also been a decrease in baby-daddy drama," Tina suggests from behind them, dragging her chair forward as much as is subtly possible. "Maybe that's why he's bloating. Stress burns calories and his life's not stressful enough."

From his place two steps above and behind them, Mike Chang directs a thoroughly confused frown at them. Then, the lights dim—after every other instance of inappropriate teacher behavior he's beheld in show choir this year, Kurt would bet his entire Vivienne Westwood cashmere collection to back up his conviction that Mr. Schuester would light candles for ambience if they weren't a fire hazard—and Quinn launches into a several-month-pregnant rendition of Missing You. Her emotional interpretation of the song strikes Kurt as hinging on the temporary loss of her slender frame, and girl totally works it.

Finn watches her with big, sad eyes, and Kurt says, "No, that's not it," because Finn's approach to song lyrics is so shallow he'd only be able to relate to this one if he'd suffered the pains of long-distance love. Kurt finds it refreshing to be able to read someone's face without second-guessing himself.

The world would crash if more than one in ten people had that particular quality, though, and Kurt is reminded of it the second he looks around the room. Rachel is frowning, presumably at the way Quinn's voice fails to fill the room, but possibly at Finn's obsession with her, or at the fact that she didn't get a solo for once. Mercedes is scowling, which could be due to any number of reasons, from general (former) cheerleader disdain to a lack of conclusion to their discussion. Artie and Matt both look like they're picturing Quinn naked. Tina seems to be enjoying herself, Santana appears to be bored out of her mind, and Brittany is busy tracing shapes over Santana's palm. Mike looks like he'd rather be anywhere else—from what Kurt overheard when Mike was talking to Matt a few minutes ago, Mike would rather be playing basketball.

And Puck—Kurt should know better than to look at him. Even the tiniest bit of attention is, to Puck, an opportunity to mess with Kurt's head, and Kurt should know better than to give him those opportunities. He regrets allowing his gaze to wander over to Puck the moment his brain registers what he's seeing.

Puck is ignoring Quinn's serenading and looking back at Kurt, crouching over in a way that accentuates his left biceps—elbow on his thigh, neck stretched out like he's overlooking the world from the comfort of a lifeguard chair instead of sitting in a classroom full of people who have at one point or another needed to be saved from his folly—and smirking in that way narcissistic people do when they think they're offering you something you'll like.

Puck's arms are hardly an unpleasant sight, but Kurt prides himself in having higher standards than anyone who has ever had the mindlessness to screw Noah Puckerman, and the fact that those arms are attached to him has such a deterrent effect on Kurt that the grimace that blows over his face is not the slightest bit false.

Unfortunately, neither is every curious look in Puck's direction Kurt sneaks in over the course of Quinn's little performance. Even though Kurt chalks every last one of them up to a masochistic need to know the level of Puck's investment in testing new harassment techniques on him, he's sure Puck will interpret them as a messed up sort of success in his endeavors.

He wishes he could just look away, but he can't, so he chooses to meet Puck's eyes and, in a decision that is, in hindsight, crueler than Kurt's finer approach to life condones and overall really fucking stupid, deliberately glance away to pin his full attention on Finn.

For the first time in his entire high school career, Kurt can tell in advance that he has it coming.

*

Surprisingly, for the first time, Puck's retaliation is neither physical nor straightforward at all: it is, in its uncertainty, much, much worse.

Before lunch, Puck gives Kurt a once-over from his table the second Kurt steps into the cafeteria, and keeps his eyes on Kurt as he gets in line. Before Kurt has even reached a lunch lady, Puck struts over, ducks his head into Kurt's shoulder and whispers, "If you find nothing to your taste," and makes this noise like he's licking his lips, which makes Kurt simultaneously frown and grimace, "look for me later. I'll give you something to suck on."

He also nuzzles Kurt's ear for a split second, but that can only possibly be an accident, or a diversion so that Kurt can't say, "Ew," while it's still appropriate.

Then, when Kurt's Physics class ends and Puck's begins, Puck somehow times his entrance so that it can coincide with the exact moment Kurt is walking out, and brushes against Kurt in a full-body motion that no jock terrified of same-gender physical contact off the football field would feel comfortable with, and five minutes into the class Kurt has to ask the teacher for a bathroom pass so he can look in the mirror and make sure he didn't magically turn into a girl.

Kurt can deal with slushies to the face and trips to the pool of dregs at the bottom of the school's dumpsters. He'd rather not, but immediately after they take place they end, and he can clean himself up and not think about the constant trial that is his life until something happens again. Puck's choice of tribulations to subject those he deems unworthy of his indifference to have heretofore been perfectly comprehensible, if only because there was nothing to understand about them, nothing to justify them, and Kurt did nothing special to bring them on.

It will never be his fault that Puck's head is a balloon of darkness and flawed social standards, but Kurt can't refrain from blaming himself in certain ways for prolonging Puck's new methods to make a nuisance of himself. He's encouraged them by letting them irritate him into reacting, and everybody knows balloon-headed people who sport mohawks thrive on negative reactions. They are their destructive vice of choice.

Kurt resolves to cut Puck's supply off instantly.

"Why don't you go make up with all the loved ones you wronged and leave me alone?" he suggests with a long-suffering sigh when he finds Puck standing by his locker after last period.

"They're prickly high-maintenance pains in the ass," Puck says as way of explanation. Kurt's on-the-spot translation of Puck's coded message is: I care about them and I'm scared to fuck up worse than I already have, so I'm using you as a distraction, but ignoring Puckerman implies not psychoanalyzing him, so Kurt chooses not to address this.

"Uh," Kurt says, pursing his lips, "I resent the implication that I'm easier to handle than the girl you knocked up over cheap alcohol and the boy who loves her."

"I'm not interested in handling you," Puck says with an exaggerated grimace. Suddenly, he realizes that's not the MO he's currently going for, and his face shifts into the opposite of disinterested repulsion. "Unless you're interested in me handling you."

"I'm interested in you leaving me alone," Kurt says. "I don't know where you're going with looking at me like I'm a cheerleader who's let you put your hand up her skirt under the bleachers, but it's not going to work. I don't like you. You don't like me. What's the use?"

"You have a crush on Finn," Puck states inanely. Kurt blinks at the non-sequitur—he has always known Puck's brain worked in mysterious, useless ways, but he didn't know one of those ways was jumping from point to point over a black sea of illogicality.

"If that had a point, you didn't succeed in making it," says Kurt.

"He gets enough attention as it is. I'm making cuts."

Kurt raises an eyebrow. "Did he ask you to make cuts?"

"I'm thinking of it as a public service," Puck says. "Cosmic balance or whatever. Every second you spend telling me to go away, you're not looking at him like you want to drop to your knees and blow him. So that part is already working."

"That part? There's more than one part?" Kurt says stupidly, and wishes he could glue his mouth shut forever.

"Of course there's more than one part," Puck says, snorting. "What, you think I'm a dimwit or something?"

"Yes," Kurt says honestly, imbuing his words with a hint of sadness, because ignorance is always heartbreaking.

A smile creeps over Puck's face. "That makes it even better," he says, and detaches his back from the wall, walks around Kurt.

"Your sense of logic is a wasteland," Kurt muses. He doesn't bother to follow Puck with his eyes, but he's aware Puck still is within hearing range.

"Love what those pants do to your ass, by the way," Puck says, and his steps fade as Kurt blinks and gathers his things from his locker.

What Kurt doesn't understand is why Puck's risking his reputation by talking to him in public and not causing physical damage before walking away. It wouldn't have been a problem if Puck hadn't made the status-killing decision of dating Rachel Berry for half a day a couple of months ago—everyone would have assumed he had something up his sleeve, an ulterior motive to talk to him—but now it's a bad idea, and whatever Puck is trying to prove is inevitably going to be thwarted by his peers' impatience for long-term results.

What Kurt finds truly terrifying is that Puck has the acting skills to keep it from sounding like a clear lie.

Kurt joins Mercedes two doors down the hall, from where Mercedes seems to have witnessed whatever it is that just happened.

"What's going on?" she asks, looking much more cheerful than the situation requires. What Puck is doing is potentially scarring and needs to be put a stop to immediately, and gossiping about it won't help anyone. Anyone but Mercedes, that is, who sees this as the turmoil they've both been looking for to keep their minds occupied.

Life is so unfair to Kurt.

"He has issues," Kurt mumbles morosely, and at least life is kind enough to him the following day to offer Mercedes a distraction in the form of a duet from Chicago with Rachel, with potential to be performed at regionals.

He's fond enough of Mercedes to be happy for her, too.

*

And yet that's not enough to keep Mercedes occupied. Kurt and she are in his bedroom watching a movie when she loses her mind. It goes like this:

Mercedes raises her head impromptu and searches Kurt's eyes with her own, chin sticking out and brow shifting in a way that makes Kurt instinctively reach for the remote to lower the volume on the TV. Even before she speaks, he knows he's not going to like it, but that's never stopped him from hearing her out before. As bad ideas go, at least Mercedes's often involve salvageable flashes of genius. Nothing sparks as good a revolution as sheer boredom from having no social life does.

"Gossip material's beginning to tail off," Mercedes says.

"I cannot think of a more superfluously accurate statement," says Kurt. "Regrettably, short of slipping accessories into their hands, it's not actually in our power to make people do things."

"Like that's good for them; wouldn't kill anybody to take some fashion tips from people who really care about not walking into school each morning and being subjected to McKinley High's appalling fashion climate," Mercedes laments, and there's a long moment of silence where Kurt files away a sneaky unevenness in a fingernail and they both half-listen to the movie.

Some time later, Mercedes suggests, "We could make a slam book."

Kurt's first thought is that she must have gone delirious from inhaling those evil nail polish fumes, and he trusts his instincts on these matters, so he puts his foot down preemptively. "No."

"Or a score board," Mercedes says. "We could put that old chalkboard in your attic to good use before it melds into the quicksands of time. Hot Boy March Madness."

"Not March," says Kurt. "Also, not enough data."

Mercedes snorts. "You're male," she says matter-of-factly. "You can collect it."

"Even if we lived in a world where I could gather that sort of information without risking a broken nose or the big damned comeback of their dumpster-diving me," Kurt says dismissively, "there's no saying I'd be invested enough to absorb it."

The truth is, he's thought about it, and decided against it on the basis that over two thirds of the boys at school disgust him, and the remaining third consists of boys who would be disgusting naked, and boys who would inevitably punch Kurt in the face for checking them out. The aggressive instinct would be set off by the looking alone, because the collective teenage conscious in this godforsaken town has a ridiculously hair-trigger flight response to being appreciated by its own gender, and Kurt's sure the lingering lack of subtlety some of them embarrassingly bring out in him wouldn't help matters at all.

"Good work harshing my buzz there, Hummel," Mercedes complains.

"I'm not embarrassing myself so we can talk about it," he says. "Besides, I know for a fact my being humiliated for laughs is not a good conversation point. Remember the dumpster ruination of my Marc belt? Tears were shed. Some of them yours. Makes it hard to talk about it when you're sobbing into your regulation, diet-breaking chocolate pudding."

"It was tragic," Mercedes says, followed by a moment of silence to instill her words with the amount of respect they deserve. That was a hard day for Kurt. Then, she begins, "Speaking of Puck's antics." There's a glint in her eye. Kurt doesn't like it.

"What?" he asks warily.

"You could try and see where that goes," says Mercedes.

"Where what goes?" The words stumble out of his mouth too fast.

"Puck and you. You and Puck. That thing you got going on—"

Kurt snorts in a dignified sort of way. He thinks the sentiment comes across, at least. "There is nothing going on between us. He actively annoys me and I put up with him because half the jocks at school are on his side. That's not a thing. That's a no-thing. A sub-thing."

"He's the closest thing to a date either of us is going on any time soon," Mercedes says. Kurt opens his mouth to ask why he has to take the blame for that, but before he can get any words out, she adds, "And don't you dare turn this on me, you know damned well wardrobe maintenance is a full-time occupation."

Kurt deflates. "I could say the same thing for myself," he mutters, but his point goes largely ignored.

"Besides," Mercedes says with a piercing look, "I don't have a stupid crush to get over."

"I'm already over Finn," says Kurt. "I have accepted that he will never love me. And I've never entertained any notions that Noah Puckerman might be interested in me, so your entertaining notions that I might be interested in him would be both hypocritical and counterproductive."

"I'm not pushing you into anything," Mercedes says casually. "I'm just saying you should string him along a little. See what happens. Since you got such a good head on your shoulders where Puck's concerned and all."

Mercedes's decision to give Kurt time to think it over seems like quite the noble gesture on her part, except her ability to wait for an answer wears off in less than a minute. When that time is up, she takes a deep, loud breath and says:

"Kurt, so God help me, I will move to the back row in Glee if you don't pull some strings."

"You wouldn't," Kurt gasps.

"Oh, I would," Mercedes says ominously. "Santana's bursting with inside scoop on the Cheerios. Now, I may not care what goes on in their airhead lives, but at least it would keep me entertained."

"Traitor," says Kurt. Mercedes raises an eyebrow. On her, the gesture is full of meaning. "Fine, I'll play along for you. But I won't like it."

"Boy, you know that's all I need to hear," she says, smiling, and turns back to the TV.

"This is a sad illustration of all the wrong turns my love life has taken ever since I decided I would like to have one," Kurt comments, morose, and decides this calls for a break in his diet in the form of buttered popcorn.

*

Sometimes, Kurt wonders if he could get Mr. Schuester fired on grounds of letting people like Puck prance around the auditorium shirtless during particularly long rehearsals. Kurt wholeheartedly approves of working extra hours whenever the Glee club has to perform publicly, even if they've been booked by someone on the PTA and get no monetary compensation out of the deal for legal reasons, but Puck doesn't even have enough to do in this number to shed more than one tiny drop of sweat per minute. This is purely gratuitous flaunting.

"Like what you see?" Puck asks when Kurt wonders down to the half-empty orchestra to get a Diet Coke. Puck's munching on chips, and he gets rid of the bag before he adds, "Want a bite?"

It's also purely gratuitous flaunting that Kurt was sure Puck wouldn't have a chance to do before his whole make-Kurt-Hummel-vomit-into-his-purse enterprise was over, since they're no longer sharing any part of their schedules that would have them showering at the same time in the same room.

"Don't go promising things you can't deliver on," Kurt counters, and pushes himself to contemplate Puck's bare chest for the sake of provocation. It's not a big sacrifice: Puck's body is attractive in spite of his personality, and it doesn't count as giving him what he wants if Kurt is only trying, officially, to keep Mercedes's gossip engines oiled, and, unofficially, to scare Puck off for good.

Puck looks surprised for about half a second, and then he leans back against an armrest and replies, "Who says I won't deliver?"

"You're a jock and an asshole," Kurt enumerates, not bothering to show any feelings about either fact. "It's not in your system to let me bite you for fun without causing me nonconsensual physical harm afterwards."

Puck just smirks. "Aren't you supposed to be all morally superior and shit? Not judge people by their freakiness or their haircut," he says. "For all you know I could be a," and here his voice gets plasticky, "conflicted young man with self-repressed homosexual instincts."

"The fact that you just used the term 'self-repressed homosexual instincts' tells me you don't have any self-repressed homosexual instincts," Kurt explains.

"Yeah?" Puck says, laughing once, vain, and stretching back. "That all it tells you?"

It occurs to him assuming always leads to being wrong, but Kurt decides to go out on a limb anyway and says, "It also tells me you must have stolen brochures from Miss Pillsbury's office to round out a character I could fall for. I appreciate the effort, but honestly, Puckerman, if you really, really like me, a tearful declaration of love would get your point across much more effectively."

It's cowardly of him, but Kurt grabs a plastic cup and walks back to the stage before Puck can make their pointless back-and-forth devolve into reasons to take any more of his clothes off.

*

"How did it go?" Mercedes says as soon as Kurt gets into the driver's seat of his car, instead of 'hello' or 'why, that purse looks fabulous with those boots,' because she was dropped on her head as a child and her parents forwent teaching her manners in favor of coddling her so she wouldn't resent them.

"Someone should make a study case out of him," Kurt mutters, turning the key in the ignition. "Lock him up in a lab and suck his soul out through a straw."

Mercedes raises an eyebrow. "Okay, first of all, ew, that's a disgusting image," she begins. "Second of all, you're assuming he has a soul. And third of all, and I shouldn't have said 'all' here because I only have three things to say on this subject right now, that sounds juicy. I want a full report on my desk by the next ten minutes."

"You're sick," Kurt says, sullen, "and you're not the boss of me."

"Right," Mercedes says on a sarcastic note, and then grins cheerfully. "That post is temporarily held by Noah Puckerman. Please review his job performance now."

*

Watching Puck play guitar is like watching a hyperactive puppy take a sedative shot: before the animal and the thing come into contact, you honestly fear they must be out to kill you. Once the thing kicks in, you still think they're out to kill you, but you think they're out to kill you slowly. Torturously. Like they don't even mean to. In the puppy's case, you might just die of cuteness, which would never in a million years happen upon being subjected to Puck singing two verses of I'm Your Man on guitar, but whatever, it's a flawed metaphor. On a level, it's also offensive: it's not the puppies' fault they get hyperactive sometimes. Puck is a douchebag on purpose.

"If you're planning to serenade me, you should know I sleep in the basement, where I won't hear you," Kurt tells Puck while the class waits for the bell to ring officially. He figures the way Puck was giving him bedroom eyes throughout most of the song counted as initiating a harassment session, and picking up where Puck left off gives Kurt a chance to have the upper hand for once. "Also, my dad is a very light sleeper. He will happily throw the tire iron he keeps by his bed at your head if you wake him up. And he won't miss."

Puck nods like he's fairly impressed and says, "Don't worry. I'll make sure to knock on your door. No point in giving you a show if you can't appreciate the full awesomeness of it."

"I see," says Kurt, nodding in consideration. "Maybe you should skip the telling me about your deep and endless love part and just kiss me. I promise I won't slap you too hard."

"You should," Puck remarks. "No point in smacking me if you can't leave my ass raw red."

Kurt barely manages to catch his surprise before it shows on his face in technicolor. "Is that what you were doing in Miss Pillsbury's office when you stole those brochures? Getting a good spanking? I'd like to gasp at such a wretched abuse of power, but I'm sure you did something to deserve it."

Kurt can't believe he is, to the eyes of all the world but Mercedes's and maybe also Tina's, lowering his standards so deeply, deeply down. He's flirting with someone who used to toss him into dumpsters. He's flirting with someone who regularly dresses in a bastardization of Ohio pool boy chic—a disgruntled take on something that was a disgrace from the second the mere concept of it was birthed into the world. He's flirting with Noah Puckerman, and he's sort of having fun with it.

"Wanna know what it was?"

There is so much wrong with this situation.

"I think I'll pass."

"Call me if you need help jerking off," Puck says in a low, growly voice, not batting an eye. "I'll tell you that story. Talk you through it."

He also can't believe Puck is keeping up without so much as a sneer to betray him.

*

"I think Quinn and Finn used up all his shame and left him with none," Kurt reports to Mercedes. "And he might have less of an issue with gay people than his constant name-calling would have you believe."

"What do you mean?"

Kurt takes a long, deep breath and blinks to give himself time to come up with a good way of phrasing it. "I think," he begins in an ominous tone, "if we were to play gay chicken, and don't you dare mention it in his presence, I would lose."

Mercedes has the decency to look up, let her eyes widen and say, "Wow."

"Yeah," Kurt sighs, because he really should have known better than to test how far Puck would go just to be a bother. It seems his willpower, when he chooses to use it, stretches further than his dignity. Or maybe he just has no concept of dignity. It's hard to tell.

*

Glee is painful.

Mercedes's take is, of course, that Glee is even more gleeful now that she's playing puppeteer with Kurt, even though it seems to Kurt she doesn't realize Puck's fake flirting is not going anywhere no matter how far Kurt plays along. For one thing, Puck is just messing with him, and for another, Kurt has boundaries. He's put together a fair number of mock résumés, and he's had time to think them through. Even if Puck lacked the morals not to stretch his little stunt onto higher levels, Kurt has principles in spades.

And he's not interested in Puck. That should go without saying. Arrogant ignoramuses have never done much for Kurt.

He's feeling a little tired of pretending to flirt with someone he doesn't even want to have—because he'd like to want to have someone, to tease someone who's not just easy because he's unavailable, someone who makes his palms sweaty and him feel tongue-tied sometimes. It's probably awful that he's romanticizing social anxiety, but all of this keeps reminding him that the closest thing to real flirting he has is Noah Puckerman's idea of covert harassment, even if the main extent of its harmfulness is contained in the fact that Puck is pushing him much less than he normally does.

That's when Puck takes a look at him and moves several seats over, occupying the one Mercedes just left empty.

"I wasn't looking at Finn," Kurt points out. Maybe his boundaries are more rigid than he thought.

"So what?" says Puck.

There are many ways Puck could torment him, but this is the only one that in addition to aggravating him keeps him from reveling in his crush on Finn Hudson. Which he's not really doing on a regular basis anymore, because seeing Finn sexualize girls in his head is getting a little icky. Not that Kurt has anything against sexualizing girls per se, but he'd rather not think about it too much, and watching Finn lust after both Quinn and Rachel for such long spans of time now that he has difficulty interacting with them has begun to put images in Kurt's head that he'd like to erase immediately.

But Kurt keeps asking himself, uselessly, why Puck is still doing this. In the known universe, Puck would have gone back to his prehistoric ways of imposing on people weeks ago. Kurt can't help but expect the other shoe to drop, and the other shoe never drops, and it's beginning to make him feel like an anonymous customer standing in the middle of a Manolo Blahnik boutique during sales season. The only answer he can come up with is that all of this has no point, that maybe Puck genuinely appreciates having someone to talk to and is too much of a vain prick to be direct about it.

Occam's razor aside, it's too simple to be true.

"Why do you insist on talking to me, Puckerman?" Kurt asks. "Or—sulking in my general direction, or whatever the purpose of your hanging around my person is."

The answer he gets is a forced, "Show choir is fucking boring." After a long moment of silence, Puck begins, "Besides," and then just turns to Kurt and gives him a Look. Of the smoldering, supposed-to-make-girls-wobbly-at-the-knees variety. The implication is clear: Puck can't go thirty minutes without toying with someone's nerves.

Kurt is not a girl, so he's unimpressed. Mostly unimpressed. Something about the matter-of-factness of it all does catch his attention. The rest of him is beginning to wonder what's in this—in directing what Kurt assumes are some of his best stud looks at someone whose pants he's not interested in getting into—for Puck, besides killing time and annoying him.

"What about Quinn?" Kurt says.

"She's all moodswingy and shit," Puck snarls. "Keeps trying to scream my head off."

"That's all that's stopping you? You're scared of her pregnancy hormones?" Kurt says, inflicting his voice with just a little less bitchiness than he normally would. Of course, then he fucks it up by going, "Honestly, I thought you were a bigger man than this," which isn't just provocation, and not entirely a lie—for all Kurt knows, Puck's idea of being a decent person could involve supporting women through carrying his spawn without distributing any unfair judgment—, but there's no denying it is, for all intents and purposes, pure bait.

Puck would usually get all up in arms about his manliness being insulted, but he just mutters, "She says drama's bad for the baby. Could make it grow an extra head or lose an ear or something."

"Heaven forbid your offspring sells for less than an off-season pair of Jimmy Choos," Kurt quips instinctively.

Puck's lips shape into a wha, and for a moment there Kurt thinks he might have to either a) come up with something that isn't horribly offensive to Puck's guiltless unborn child, or b) run for his life.

Instead, he hears Puck say, "Whatever, dicksuck," in such a mellow tone it leaves Kurt feeling confused and a little dizzy, not at all offended. And then, to Kurt's surprise, Puck just raises an eyebrow and walks off.

Walks off. Without putting up a fight, or giving Kurt a noogie, or sicking the football team on him.

Like playing neither hard nor easy to get is genuinely endearing Kurt to him.

It's the weirdest thing.

*

"I don't think this is working," Kurt says, plopping down on his bed while Mercedes rummages through his closet in search of a pair of gloves she remembers him buying and he refuses to hand over just like that.

"What's not working?" comes Mercedes's muffled voice from a fair few feet away.

"Puckerman's still talking to me," says Kurt. "It's starting to feel weirdly regular."

Mercedes walks back and looks at him, furrowing her brows. "And yet you haven't broken out in hives yet. It's just mind-boggling," she remarks, tone dripping with sarcasm, and sits on the edge of his bed. "Are you sure you don't know where those gloves are?"

He goes for a long, theatrical sigh. It feels good. "I'm not sure of anything anymore," he says, wallowing in the overwrought melodrama of his words. "Maybe I do. Maybe I don't. Maybe Puck is much, much more patient than I ever gave him credit for and he's really biding his time and I'm going to bleed to death when he strikes. Maybe the only ulterior thing about his behavior is that he has no ulterior motives. I have no idea." He lets his eyes widen. "Everything I know is a lie. I need to relearn everything I've ever held as true."

Mercedes snorts at that. "What you need is retail therapy."

"I need retail therapy," Kurt echoes, feeling his spirits rise.

"There, you know one thing for sure," Mercedes says. He sits up and grabs her hand when she offers to help him get on his feet. "And when we come back, you better tell me where those gloves are."

Retail therapy is even more therapeutic than usual. Between purchases, Mercedes allows him to despair over his situation without laughing inappropriately—or even appropriately, but Kurt figures he's lucky he has a friend who makes such a remarkable effort to take him seriously. By the time he's sorting his new clothes into his closet and incidentally stumbling across the gloves Mercedes had asked him for, he's inclined to believe that he can apply the law of parsimony to Puck's behavior with less than a 5% possibility of equivocality.

"Optimism looks good on you," Tina tells him when they meet up with her and Artie.

It's a good feeling, too.

*

"Hummel," Puck greets him on Monday, plopping down on the bench above the one where Kurt is sitting. "What's a little queer like you doing in a place like this?"

A place like this being the stands at the school gym, which are accessible by anyone. Kurt considers lying for effect, but he still feels bad about comparing Puck's baby to wholesale, so he says, "Brittany wants feedback on her jumps. I'm helping her out."

"And not taking the chance to perv on her," says Puck. "Fucking waste of an opportunity."

"I'm proud of who I am, Puck," Kurt says, tone turning serious, and waits for a reaction.

Predictably, Puck scowls at him and says, "Hell are you talking about, Hummel?"

"That whole gay-bashing thing—it's like if someone called you a football player. I won't say it to them because I don't want to bring physical injury upon myself, but since you seem to be taking a temporary break from that sort of behavior, I will tell you: I'm gay."

"No joke," Puck says, like it's the most obvious thing in the world. Which it is, but he's missing the point.

"No, it's definitely not a joke. It's a part of my identity. I'm not ashamed of it, and I don't want people to accept me by pretending I'm not into dick. So, you know, if you're trying to insult me," which Kurt isn't even sure Puck is, "that is not the way to go, let alone succeed."

"Okay," Puck says, frowning in a weirdly aggressive way. There's a questioning inflection to his tone, though, so Kurt feels compelled to elaborate:

"I'm just saying, try harder. The words you've been using are meaningless to me. If your goal with this whole flirting stunt is embarrassing the gay out of me, you're not going to get anywhere. It doesn't work that way."

Puck wipes his hands on his jeans before rising to his feet, and then he looks around as though to ascertain nobody's close enough to witness the following and says, "Good," and then, "Keep not perving on the Cheerios; I'm out."

Kurt doesn't realize he's staring at the exit doors until Brittany whistles and waves for him to pay attention.

*

Optimism is a wretched, wretched approach to life, and Kurt would like to erase that feeling from the world. He's sure it came straight out of Pandora's box, and has been faking its good qualities ever since.

"I think I'm becoming sort of fond of that stupid mohawk," Kurt cries, infusing as much despair and disgust into the word as he can manage, because seriously. This morning he spotted Puck's ridiculous head from the music room door and instead of thinking, 'oh God what am I wearing that I should get to safety before my body makes contact with flying edible goods', he smiled and then his knees, the traitors, wobbled a little when Puck smirked at him across the hall. There's something principle-alteringly intense about him, and the worst part is Kurt can't even tell whether he dislikes it or not anymore.

He blames the fact that ever since he gave Puck that speech on appropriate insults, Puck hasn't called him any names at all. It's disconcerting. Kurt would assume it's a coincidence if Puck hadn't acknowledged their little talk, but he can't see a reason why Puck would incorporate a levelheaded suggestion into a character who's supposed to make Kurt uncomfortable, so it has to be honest. Right?

"Wow," Mercedes marvels. "I honestly never thought I'd hear you say that."

Kurt gapes at her. "Do you think I did?"

"You've had time to mull it over," Mercedes says. "This is the first I'm hearing of it."

"It only just dawned on me that I've stopped feeling the irresistible urge to shave it off in his sleep I used to," he counters. "It's terrifying."

"No kidding," says Mercedes.

*

He's standing in front of a different mirror the next morning, reapplying his lip gloss in the restroom at school, when he hears the door open and close and open but not too widely and close so slowly it screeches, like whoever's outside is deliberately trying to make noise. Kurt considers what on earth would possess someone to do that, and, in a rush of irrationality that would make even Brittany cry, immediately assumes Puck must be trying to throw him for a loop again.

"Society frowns upon eavesdropping, Puckerman," Kurt says steadily. "Either walk in," painful as that would be, "or step out."

"I thought girls didn't like to be watched during their 'beauty rituals,'" Puck says as he walks in, sounding weary instead of his usual brand of acerbic. He leans back against the counter, and doesn't look even remotely willing to tease or hurt or even make an effort.

It's slightly worrying.

Kurt sets his jaw and looks at him for a moment before turning back to his reflection. "Did something happen to you?" he says, slowly, because the words feel so foreign in this context that every time he catches a glimpse of Puck in the mirror he has to do a double-take.

Puck laughs, which makes Kurt feel like an idiot for caring, and even more so for asking if Puck is okay, except there's something weird about the way the sound tears out of his throat.

"Look, I," Kurt amends, "concede that I have no idea where you're going with this. But if you're going to keep fake flirting with me, you might as well fake answer my questi—"

"You fucking like me, don't you?" Puck interrupts. On anyone else, it would sound shy; from Puck's mouth, the words take on the kind of aplomb Kurt would only expect and accept from someone who believed himself a reincarnation of Coco Chanel.

He likes the tone of surprise, though, which is discernible under all the bravado, so, reluctantly, he says, "You may not be the worst person I have ever met." Puck smirks at that, like it's somehow amusing, and Kurt adds, "But I'm not entirely sure. I visited a prison on a field trip once, so it's a close call."

Puck shakes his head like Kurt's the one who's touched in the head, and then he stands to his full height and touches him.

It's weird and thought-stopping, not because it's frightening, but because there's something gentle and earnest about the way Puck wraps his fingers around Kurt's neck, thumb teasing lightly at his pulse point. It's so new for Puck to initiate non-threatening physical contact that Kurt doesn't even see it coming when Puck presses their lips together.

Kurt closes his eyes by sheer instinct.

It's a ghost of a kiss, the same way Puck's lips along his jaw leave a ghost of a touch before he nips once at his earlobe and whispers, "It's fine. You can like me," and leaves before Kurt can snap out of it and ask what that's supposed to mean.

He stands there, feeling really, really confused, for a while. He remembers mockingly telling Puck to kiss him if he liked him that much—remembers using the word 'like', which wouldn't necessarily require any romantic interest. You can like someone as a friend and kiss them to demonstrate it, and Kurt could buy that—from anybody but Noah Puckerman, because Puck is not the kind of person who would grab a random hyperbole, take it seriously, look beneath the surface and make a metaphor out of it. He's not even the kind of person who would remember it.

This can only be Puck upping his game, and Kurt's not sure why his heart pumps harder, why his stomach quivers in discomfort at the thought.

*

Mercedes is busy with Nowadays and Rachel's perfectionism, which means Kurt gets to think about it before he goes babbling to her and regrets it.

Before bed at night, he looks in the mirror, solemn, and asks his reflection, shaking his head in defeat, "What is wrong with you?"

His reflection's contemptuous expression is betrayed by a hint of a foolish, foolish smile.

He pulls himself out of it and glares at the mirror.

*

He doesn't have another run-in with Puck until the night of the Glee club's little PTA-supported gig at the Wingate.

The days leading up to it baffle Kurt more than they clear things up. For reasons that both he—what with his being busy trying to unravel the mysteries of Puck's bizarre actions—and Mercedes—what with her being busy arguing with Rachel about every little variable detail in their duet—have somehow failed to keep track of, Finn starts smiling lightly when he looks at Quinn and her protruding belly, and at one point, Kurt swears he sees Finn and Puck talking in the hallway like civilized people, without even attempting to shoot daggers out of their eyes.

There's a really strange moment during dress rehearsal when Quinn trips over a step and Puck hauls her up by her forearms. As he helps her—which she lets him do without more than a tiny glare of protest—into a chair, his hands touch her hips and two things happen: first, Kurt notices Puck's hands. Kurt never notices anybody's hands unless he'd like them to touch him, so this really weirds him out, but he chalks it up to all the shit Puck's been saying to him: he was the one who put sexual thoughts in Kurt's head, and it's not Kurt's fault his brain may have extrapolated those thoughts into a newfound admiration of a visible body part Kurt's inclined to fetishize.

Then, Puck looks at him and his face freezes in an expression that is somewhere between a frown and a leer and a smile, sort of where those gestures would overlap if someone made a Venn diagram out of them, and then Puck looks away and Tina asks Kurt something and Kurt's focus finally shifts to more manageable matters.

And that's the extent of his communication with Puck until they're in a hotel room with a large in-room counter and mirror getting ready to go out and sing.

Just as Mike's leaving, Puck shrugs out of his jacket and says, "I'm not going out in this shirt," and unbuttons it so quickly Kurt feels a little vertigo just from seeing Puck's fingers work.

"Why?"

"It hides my guns," Puck says, looking at Kurt like it's so obvious, duh, which Kurt is pretty sure it isn't. "I haven't worked to get my babies to look like this just to hide them in an oversized shirt."

Kurt blinks. "Our audience is all in their forties."

"Dude," Puck says, raising an eyebrow meaningfully, and Kurt realizes there's a pretty high chance he's cleaned the pools of a substantial percentage of the PTA. When Puck considers his message delivered, he adds, "There's gotta be a tighter shirt around here somewhere," and shrugs out of the unbuttoned one he's still wearing.

That makes Kurt find him one, not because he doesn't appreciate the view, but because he'd appreciate not having the chance to appreciate that view even more.

He finds a smaller-sized shirt under a denim jacket in an armchair, like someone put it on and discarded it earlier. He attempts to take out the crinkles with his hands, because he knows Puck won't bother, and hands it over.

The door clicks shut with Mike at the other side of it, and Puck tosses the shirt over the back of a chair and takes a couple of steps towards Kurt, who takes less than half a step back before his butt meets the countertop.

"I have meant it every single time I've told you intimidation is not attractive. Honestly. Every single time. You should have absorbed it by now," Kurt says, sharp and going for a haughty edge. Unfortunately, his voice cracks as soon as Puck takes a step forward and looms right over him. His arms are so well-formed and the light coming in through a clean strip on the foggy, murky lamp overhead keeps making his nipple ring fucking gleam, which is both appalling on an aesthetic level and horrifyingly distracting.

"I get it," Puck says dismissively. "I also get that you didn't step back when I—the other day, and I think you want a little push to realize you're a lot more into me than you want."

"I can't imagine how your neanderthal brain misconstrued this, Puckerman, but the fact that I might not be completely repulsed by your existence does not equal that I'd like a demonstration of your attributes."

"You think you're seeing my attributes?" Puck says hoarsely, the questioning inflection barely discernible. He points at his abs and adds, "This is just the wrapping."

"That only makes sense if you're a mutant and about to show me your internal organs," Kurt says, and then, in a moment of delirium-induced gullibility, the kind where every superhero movie and comic you've ever so much as glimpsed at flashes through your mind, he adds: "Please don't show me your internal organs; I'd like to keep this afternoon's lunch."

Calling the face Puck makes at him a frown is like saying Kurt wouldn't mind winning a Tony: neither is an outright lie, but they don't even begin to convey the graveness of the truth.

As soon as he snaps out of it, and it doesn't take very long at all, Puck locks his eyes on Kurt's for a long, long attention-grabbing moment, so intent that when Puck looks down, his gaze drags Kurt right down with him.

Kurt should just walk out. Puck's been flirting with him for a month; there's no way this is a drawn-out practical joke. That's not even Puck's style. And if this is not a joke, and Kurt isn't completely wrong about Puck, Puck will let him step out with most of his external dignity intact. And then tell his friends to make rude gestures in Kurt's direction at lunch again.

The only problem is, his eyes are glued to Puck's crotch, and he thinks, stupidly and underlined with hope that nobody will ever know he thought anything like this ever, please don't show me your external organs, I'd like to keep my virginity, while his heartbeat quickens for all the wrong reasons. Then, Puck undoes his belt, and, when Kurt is thoroughly distracted, steps into the V of his legs and smashes his mouth against Kurt's.

It's not soft or careful or even remotely subtle; their teeth clash and Kurt is almost sure the rush of pain to his skull is the only thing that compels him to grasp at Puck's shoulders and pull him closer instead of push him away. It's a little harder to skip the blame for returning the kiss as eagerly as he does, opening his mouth for Puck and arching into Puck's hold on his waist until Puck's hands slide possessively over his ass in a way that makes Kurt's skin tingle in anticipation, and then—

—and then there's a knock on the door, and Mr. Schuester yelling, "We're up in five!" like he's just had an ill-fated encounter with Rachel and is still reeling from trying to talk over her diva voice.

Kurt's sanity catches up with him in a single blow. He coughs, detaches himself from Puck, and straightens out his clothes as Puck grabs the shirt Kurt found for him and slides it on, dodging eye contact.

Kurt would call Puck a coward, but he's not brave enough to risk getting talked back at.

*

Mercedes has a fashion emergency after their performance that holds her and Tina back in the girls' dressing room for the longest time, so Kurt finds himself walking around the dining room, thinking about the April Rhodes fiasco every time he feels compelled to grab a glass from one of the trays the waiters are waving around, and finally sitting down with a serving of lemon cake to fork his sorrows into.

He does his best to forget Puck even exists, because it's easier to erase a person's entire actuality than just a small part of it. It works until one of the party guests—someone's mom, though Kurt's not sure whose—shuffles over to Puck and says something to him. Kurt would ignore it, except then Puck fetches his guitar and sits on a stool, and a small circle of cougars gathers around him before he even starts playing.

Puck revels in the attention, because he's Noah Puckerman and he enjoys having middle-aged women openly lusting after him for heaven knows what reason. He employs a lower register than he did when he did this in Glee, and he doesn't even bother to sing some of the lines: he breathes them out instead. One of the women bites her lip in the most ridiculously overt way when Puck sings he'll wear a mask for her, and Kurt rolls his eyes.

Of course, Puck somehow notices him looking, and directs that entire simmer he's got going towards Kurt, so fucking intense that Kurt effectively chokes on his drink when he hears the word 'inch'.

Every time Puck reaches a halfway dirty line after that, he looks away from the cougars and stares right at Kurt like he's thinking about where that thing that happened before they were interrupted could have gone had they not been interrupted, like he enjoys thinking about it, like he wouldn't be opposed to the idea. His face is incongruously, conspicuously open and sincere and frankly kind of desperate when he rasps out, "Or if you want to take me for a ride, you know that you can," prolonging the pause between that and the eponymous line of the song as though he knows Kurt needs time to register this shit and he's willing to give that time to him.

This time, Kurt flees; he walks past the girls' dressing room and into the boys' deserted one—everybody's taking advantage of the open bar—, and decides to wait for Mercedes by fixing his hair.

*

It turns out to be one of the most pointless things Kurt has ever spent time and energy on.

His focus keeps leaping around from his hairbrush to his reflection to his hands, his wrists, his face and back to his hair. A little part of him wants to tear it all out in frustration, and a slightly more substantial part of him wants to cry out of sheer confusion.

Crushing on Finn Hudson for ages was bad enough, and Finn never gave him mixed signals, or any sort of signals; Kurt knew he was off-limits from the beginning, and never let himself wallow in the possibility that his crush might be requited. It was just never going to go anywhere. Even once Finn stopped being a jerk to Kurt, he was still naturally predisposed to adorably ogle assorted pairs of boobs.

And Finn apologized to him for all the bullying he'd taken part in. Puck instigated most of that bullying, and he has never come out and said he's sorry, or that he'll never do it again. He's just stopped being as much of an asshole to Kurt as he used to be and started phrasing his bullshit like Kurt is allowed to draw intentional entertainment value out of it as opposed to being hurt by it, and Kurt can't tell if Puck is doing that on purpose, if it's only temporary, or if it's meant to distract him from something worse Puck has saved up his sleeve.

This is just a fluke. It's totally just a fluke. Kurt can probably choose to stay in love with Finn; Finn is nice and oblivious and safe. Kurt needs to go back to crushing on Finn until he finds someone who's just as harmless but much more available.

His mind takes a turn for the absurd after that. Mercedes is too busy to deal with him in his time of need, but if she weren't, Kurt imagines she'd be that little devil that perches on a character's shoulder when they face a moral quandary. It's not that Mercedes isn't a good person, because she is, she really is, but the idea of her as an angel seems insulting to her personality, and anyway, she's being evil by not talking Kurt out of this thing he's gotten himself into.

It occurs to him that, were his life one of those movies, he'd be missing a little angel to steer him in the right direction. It's clearly a social and moral handicap, and if anybody asks, that's the only reason Kurt has let himself fall this deeply into such a doomed situation.

He's considering asking Tina to be his conscience from this day forth when he hears the door open and shut with two clean bouts of noise.

Kurt turns around, and his face hardens. "What are you doing here?" he says evenly.

"Dude, you just disappeared from there," Puck says, stepping into the room and walking placidly towards Kurt. "I thought the floor had swallowed you up or something."

Kurt chuckles and thinks for a moment, sucking in air. "Well, as you can see, I'm still on the right side of the ground. You must have gone about this wrong."

Puck's steps draw to a halt barely two feet away from Kurt. He shakes his head. "I don't do shit wrong."

"As far as I can see, option B would be that I missed your point, and I'm not sure you had one in the first place, so that can't be it."

"That what you think?" Puck says, strangely quiet.

Kurt bites the inside of his cheek and shrugs. Being honest is probably a bad idea, but given Puck's general aversion to things like sincerity and niceness, Kurt knows it's up to him to clear things up.

"What I think," he says, returning the calm tone, "is the point has shifted since you started doing this. I think you don't need a distraction anymore, but you're still talking to me. You're not even actively trying to annoy me. I suspect I'm not completely off in assuming you don't despise me all that much."

Puck's entire face shrugs. It comes out looking like overcompensation. "You're not that hard to pretend to like," he says casually, shrugging and pressing his lips into a complacent moue.

Kurt laughs heartily; he thinks, if he's going to dig his own grave, he might as well dig it all the way down to the other end of the globe. "Pretend? Your heart rate begs to differ," he says, running a playful fingertip over Puck's chest, and he thinks the fact that Puck doesn't punch him or even wince speaks volumes to how unsubstantial the power the whole school hierarchy system holds over everyone these days is.

Kurt moves his hand to Puck's arm, a light touch Puck doesn't dodge, and then he takes a deep breath and closes the distance separating their lips. He kisses Puck; Kurt needs to repeat it in his head to believe it. He just kissed Puck, and Puck isn't moving. Puck's not in the process of killing him for doing it, but he's not responding either.

For a torturously long moment, Kurt panics. What if he's just set up the grand finale to Puck's month of bizarreness? To Puck, this is not a romance. To Puck, this is a horror movie, where the denouement is always grotesquely painful. Puck has built up to this for the sole reason of hurting him, and here's Kurt, giving him the perfect opportunity to reject him, rendering every effort not to forgive Puck on the basis of a lie worthless.

His mind keeps repeating oh my God, I'm such an idiot over and over, urging him to let go of Puck's sleeve and run. The only reason the words don't leave his throat is that his mouth feels dry; the only reason he doesn't turn around and walk out with his dignity mostly intact is this ridiculous hope. It's hope that keeps him grounded to the floor, and panic that takes up the energy he'd need to fight that curiosity.

By the time his trance-like state of mind fades, Puck's hand is holding the back of his neck, fingers ruining everything Kurt just did to get his hair to look decent, and Kurt's being pulled back in.

He doesn't bother to hold back; this is the third time Puck's consciously kissed him, the second time he's slid his tongue past Kurt's lips, and Kurt can't think of a single reason why he shouldn't make the most of it.

When Puck slides his hands down over Kurt's ass this time, he keeps going down his thighs, pulling him up. Kurt's legs fly around Puck's hips of what feels like their own volition, and it occurs to Kurt that maybe he doesn't want to keep his virginity all that much. Purity is overrated, anyway, and it's not like he'd feel any better if he stopped right now.

Besides, it's one thing to know Puck works out obsessively, and something else entirely to be carried across a room with what seems like a minimal effort. After Puck singlehandedly pushes every discarded piece of clothing off the hotel bed and lowers Kurt on it, Kurt's pretty sure his life will be a happier place if he goes through with this.

It's not that difficult to do when Puck's taking every decision for him to begin with, yanking Kurt's shirt out of his pants and biting at his jaw, down his neck. It feels like Puck's hands are all over him, like Puck's everything is all around him. One of Puck's legs is shoved between Kurt's, thigh pressing against him every time Puck dips his head to kiss his neck, lick at his collarbone. One of Puck's hands is struggling to get Kurt's shirt off while the other unfastens Kurt's zipper, and his mouth moves so fast it seems to be everywhere at once and somehow still free for long enough to growl when Kurt's pants refuse to slide down his hips easily.

"Get these off," Puck says, voice low and raspy, and Kurt nods shakily as he pushes them down. He tries to take them off, but Puck doesn't give him enough time before he's holding Kurt's hips and fuck, Kurt has no idea how long he's been hard, but his boxers are tented and the second Puck spends seemingly gauging what getting Kurt off would involve is freaking mortifying.

And then, because he's not the kind of person who would get hung up on little things like the fact that he's never in his life handled another guy's dick, Puck sticks his hand down Kurt's underwear and wraps his hand around him.

Kurt's breath catches in his throat, and he shuts his eyes until Puck kisses him and says against his mouth, "Look at me," so Kurt does, though Puck's so close Kurt can't actually absorb the view, and then Puck says, "I'm not touching your dick so you can picture someone else doing it," as he presses his thumb into the slit and spreads the fluid that's gathered there down Kurt's cock.

Kurt feels kind of bad for about two seconds, a little guilty even though he knows he has no reason to, and then he just lets himself revel in the fact that he has someone else's hand—Puck's hand, Puck who's always been a jerk to him and now is giving him a handjob without prompting for fuck knows what reason—jerking him off, and it sometimes stops moving at the wrong time or loses rhythm, but it feels amazing.

The pressure builds and builds until it suddenly and randomly dawns on Kurt why people commit crimes over sex, and then he feels his jaw go slack and he's coming all over Puck's hand and his own belly, his heartbeat ringing in his own ears, his breathing loud and awfully telling.

When he regains the ability to think and opens his eyes, Puck is lying on the bed with his feet on the floor, knees spread open and a hand between his legs, over his jeans. His neck is stretched out in a weird way that simultaneously allows him to see Kurt and makes him look ridiculously attractive, but it's probably post-orgasmic idiocy that makes Kurt leap off the bed and kneel between Puck's calves.

It makes him feel exposed, so he pulls his pants up as well as he can, sort of grateful that they're so tight they won't fall down if he doesn't bother to button them up.

He bats Puck's hand off, and Puck reacts by undoing his jeans and pushing them down and off his feet. He's wearing nothing underneath, which isn't a surprise but makes Kurt lick his lips unconsciously.

"Stay still," he says, holding Puck's hips down, and proceeds to wrap his lips around the head of Puck's cock.

It's—okay, it's not like Kurt hasn't thought about sucking dick before, but it's still a little weird. Not bad, just bizarre, something that might take a while to get used to. Puck's dick is heavy and warm on his tongue, and Puck lets a breathy moan out when Kurt sucks on the head slightly, experimentally. He flicks his tongue around it, and feels Puck's hand on the back of his neck, barely pushing down; Kurt thinks Puck must be making an effort not to force Kurt to go faster than he's comfortable with.

Kurt just takes a deep breath, makes sure to cover his teeth, and goes down on Puck's cock until he feels it hit his cheek. He keeps a hand on Puck's hip and grasps at the base of his cock with the other one, trying to match his strokes to the steady up-and-down slide of his lips.

Puck's hand on his neck gets less and less careful and his hips more difficult to hold down, and then he tugs at Kurt's hair hard, whether on purpose or not Kurt doesn't know, and Kurt takes it as his cue to pull his mouth off Puck's dick and replace it with his hand, lengthening and speeding up his strokes as he stands up to sit on the edge of the bed and watch Puck lose it.

It's not something Kurt thought he even wanted to see, but the way Puck's chest rises and falls and he bites his lip and squeezes his eyes shut as he gets close—there's something about knowing Kurt's doing this to him, about having this sort of control over Puck's body that Kurt would really, really like to feel again.

It doesn't take long for Puck to tense up and come with a loud groan.

Kurt starts feeling sticky while Puck's still regaining his breath, and he attempts to get up, but suddenly there's a big hand cupping his jaw, thumb pressed between Kurt's swollen lips, and Puck's looking at him, studying his face.

Kurt thinks Puck's thinking about kissing him, about licking the taste of himself out of Kurt's mouth. As a matter of fact, Kurt thinks Puck is legit going to kiss him until Puck blinks and sits up. He cleans himself up, finds the shirt he came in wearing—in a moment of panic, Kurt realizes they just ruined Glee costume material, but doesn't let himself dwell on it because hell, he may have just ruined the entirety of his high school career—and spares Kurt a few glances as he gets dressed.

Kurt can't think of anything to say, and Puck doesn't appear to be feeling particularly eloquent either, so the extent of their pillow talk before Puck leaves is this long, unreadable gaze—like Puck's trying to find answers in Kurt's face.

It occurs to Kurt that this is the first time Puck has seemed anywhere near uncertain as to where Kurt stood with regards to him, and Kurt can't tell if he's pleased or freaking out so badly his own anxiety doesn't even register.

*

Mercedes does catch up with Kurt eventually; it was bound to happen, and Kurt guesses a well-timed accident is better than keeping the truth to yourself for so long it begins to feel like you're lying.

"Oh, hey," she says in the middle of their Sunday skin-care-and-bad-reality-TV ritual, "how's the thing with Puck going? Did he crack yet?"

Kurt freezes for a moment, then tries, "I don't think anything he's done lately would count as 'cracking', no."

"Did you discover he's secretly an alien? A prima donna? Give me something here."

Kurt shrugs. The motion feels so contrived, but Mercedes doesn't notice.

"Nothing?"

"Nothing much," he lies, and sustains eye contact until her gaze becomes a little too intense for his liking.

"Oh my God," Mercedes says, and Kurt regrets being a coward instantly, "did you sleep with him?"

Kurt gives her his best poker face. "Define 'sleep'."

"Good god, can I not be busy for one goddamned minute? You did not whore yourself out to Puckerman because I told you to play along," Mercedes says. For such a strong statement, it sounds more questioning than determined. "Oh, Christ, does this make me a pimp? Kurt, tell me you did not make a pimp out of me."

"You're overreacting," says Kurt. "This has nothing to do with you."

Mercedes scowls. "Hey. If this is a good mistake, I want my share of the blame."

"How can a mistake be good?" Kurt asks, outraged by Mercedes's flaky stand on this whole situation. Can't she see that he needs someone to decide for him on the matter of his thoughts on Puck?

"I can't call it a straight-up good thing," says Mercedes. "It's Puck. Those two things don't mix."

"Fair enough," Kurt concedes.

Mercedes sighs and leans back, letting the couch engulf her. "So, is it over?"

"I haven't the faintest idea."

A flicker of realization rushes through her face. Careful, she asks, "Do you want it to be over?"

Kurt chuckles, a bit of a sad sound, and says sincerely, "I don't know."

"Well, you know what they say: if you think you might, then you probably do," Mercedes says.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Mercedes sighs wistfully. "Just don't let it catch you by surprise, alright?"

*

Kurt doesn't. This probably makes him sound self-aware and responsible. In all honesty, he just has no idea what 'it' is supposed to mean, and therefore can't grant it permission to shock him. Technically, he's not letting 'it' do anything, including but not limited to catching him by surprise. 

He knows that wasn't the point of Mercedes's advice, but it's never a bad thing to have ammunition on the off chance she asks him if he even listened to her and he has to rebut her argument.

Barely useful advice aside, Kurt does find himself letting Puck do things like push Kurt into an empty classroom and shove Kurt's hands down his pants.

"You're supposed to be freaking out," Kurt says, unzipping Puck's jeans and cupping his hard dick through his boxers.

"I don't do freaking out," Puck says, and his hips jerk into Kurt's hand, and his head tips back, and it doesn't compute.

"Seriously?" Kurt says, pulling his hand back. "But—"

"Hummel," Puck says, enunciating, "I let you suck my dick. You didn't think that was a hint?"

Kurt tilts his head in consideration. "Keyword being let. I started that. My mouth could have been any mouth and all those excuses closeted people tell themselves to sleep at night."

Puck rolls his eyes. "Your mouth was your mouth. Believe it or not, when I have sex with someone, at least I know who they are." Kurt can't think of anything to say to that, so Puck adds, "Do you want me to say your name? Kurt, will you stop talking and put your hand back somewhere useful."

It's not a question, not even a polite suggestion, and Kurt doesn't bother to address it as anything other than a direct order he's really not that fussed about following.

That's one thing Kurt lets happen. He also encourages a few other incidents, from Puck getting on his knees before him in a luckily very, very clean bathroom stall to a fair amount of subtler, more serious flirting during Glee practice. From what Kurt gathers, the latter leads more than once to Puck dodging Finn's questions instead of avoiding Finn entirely, and Kurt doesn't know what feels more bizarre: the way he's basically rebounding on Finn with Finn's longtime best friend without ever having had or lost Finn himself, or the fact that none of this had crossed his mind until now.

Kurt also enables an unfortunate incident in his car that leads to cleaning come off the co-pilot's seat, but he's keeping that off his mental list of dubious things he has let Puck do, given it is mostly his own doing. There's also this one time where Mr. Schuester practically forces the Glee club to get to know each other better over dinner and Kurt winds up groping Puck in the coatroom. As far as classiness goes, it's still a few steps above making out with him in the shoe room at a bowling alley.

It hits Kurt during one of these borderline undignified incidents that Puck has stopped trying to humiliate him in public, has made some semblance of peace with Finn and Quinn and therefore doesn't need a distraction, and the only thing he's getting out of this is spending time with Kurt. And sex, but Puck's been doing fine in that regard for as long as Kurt can remember; it's not like there aren't several dozen other people at school Puck would like to fuck, and Kurt's sure some of them return the feeling.

"Why are you still doing this?" Kurt says, pulling back for a second. There's no edge to it; he's deeply curious, and at this point he's probably more likely to get an honest response if he asks point blank than if he engages Puck in a session of worthless verbal sparring. "I gave in. My self-restraint isn't infallible. You win."

Puck just gives him a blank stare—because that's really going to get them places, Kurt thinks.

"You're not really a self-repressed jackass, are you?" he says. "You're definitely a jackass, don't even try to deny that, but I'm doubtful on the self-repression part."

"Dude, I don't repress shit, I bench-press it," says Puck, smirking and hooking his thumbs in Kurt's belt loops. "You should know by now that I'm fucking awesome at not holding back."

"That's not what I meant," says Kurt, making a conscious effort to stay focused and not bite that horrible smirk off Puck's face.

Puck rolls his eyes. "I'm hot. I think you're hot. I'm not a fucking fairy, but I'm not exclusively straight. I'm comfortable like that. Is that good enough or do you want me to draw you a fucking chart?"

"Oh," Kurt says, letting Puck steal a kiss, and another, and then Kurt's biting his lip to keep himself from moaning as Puck sucks what's likely to become a hickey into the bottom of his neck. "Wait," Kurt says suddenly, blinking, "does this mean I win?"

"Win what?" Puck growls, nibbling at skin.

Kurt hums under his breath as he thinks about it. "Well," he says, "considering the state of our social lives, we're both losing in the grand scheme of things."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Puck says unrepentantly, and yanks Kurt's shirt out of his pants.

All of this happens in a badly lit janitor's closet, which is ugly and uncomfortable and probably unhygienic despite the layers of fabric Kurt is wearing, not to mention pathetically plebeian, and, if he weren't otherwise distracted, Kurt would point this out.

As it is, he moans into Puck's mouth when Puck's hands crawl over his back and grasps at his chest and hopes that conveys the right message, though even Kurt's not sure whether the message he's trying to get across is your choice of make-out spots disturbs me or I draw the line at losing clothes outdoors.

After the five-minute waiting period from the moment Puck slips out meant to keep people from guessing too closely before Kurt has even figured out what in the world he's doing making out in janitor's closets with Noah Puckerman of all people, he walks out and finds Mercedes waiting by his locker, grinning like a lightbulb.

It's terrifying.

"What happened to you?" Kurt asks warily, lacing his arm around hers.

"Impromptu run-through of the song with Rachel," says Mercedes, "but that's not the point."

"She didn't drug you, did she?" says Kurt. It's a very serious question, but Mercedes dismisses it just like that.

Kurt wonders if he's missed something, but then Mercedes is saying, "I think Matt wants to ask me out."

"Seriously?" Kurt says in his most supportive tone—not because Mercedes isn't a wonderful girl who should have suitors lining out her door, but because it's his duty as her best friend to revel in the unexpectedness of it all. Mercedes just nods in excitement, so Kurt adds, "What are you going to say? I say he's hot, he's nice, and he's into you that way: you should go for it."

Mercedes shakes her head and says, still smiling, "You know 'going for it' isn't the answer to all of life's questions, right?" which is a little pointed, but Kurt figures he deserves that. "It's not even always the right choice."

"I'm aware of this, yes," Kurt says. "I still think it's the right choice for you. In matters of the heart, not that I am well-versed in them, but in matters of the heart, if the choice you want to make is to go for it, then it is the right choice."

It probably is, anyway, and taking the context into account, it's good advice. Kurt's thing with Puck is not a matter of the heart as much as it is a matter of not wanting to stop being dragged into secluded places and getting to want someone else openly and physically and being reciprocated, so he doesn't regret going for that either. Holding off on trying to make whatever it is into something it's not is just being sensible: pushing someone out of the closet, figuratively or literally, is a definite no even if that someone is Puck and has done his share of punishable offenses, and whatever good came out of it would be largely blemished by the bad.

And it's not like he wants to date Puck, anyway.

"Well, I hope you're right," Mercedes says cautiously, eying Kurt for a moment.

Kurt offers a small smile, and his expression takes on a tinge—a feel—of unexpectedly genuine contentment as they walk into the music room.