On an overcast Saturday afternoon in early April, Dave drives his father's car to Hummel Tires & Lube and asks for an oil change.
The guy who waves him into the garage is not Burt Hummel. Neither is the guy who's working on a tiny Volkswagon on the next lift over. But when Dave steps out of the car and hands his keys over, he spots Mr. Hummel standing in the doorway of the front office, studying a stack of papers in one hand and scratching under the bill of his cap with the other.
It's the first time Dave has seen him in person since making his insufficient apology in Principal Figgins' office a year ago. But he couldn't have forgotten what he looked like, even if it hadn't been for all the campaign ads and interviews and photos that, for a while, popped up on Dave's homepage a dozen times a day along with the oft-repeated phrase The arts were my son's refuge.
Burt Hummel never specified who Kurt needed refuge from. Dave didn’t need him to. He already knew.
"Yeah? What can I do for –" Kurt's dad starts talking before he looks up. When he sees Dave's face, the words stop, and his mouth is left dangling open in a silent, sideways "0."
"I brought my dad's car in for an oil change," Dave says.
Mr. Hummel studies his face for several long seconds.
It might be more terrifying than being looked at by Kurt.
"He hasn't brought his car here before." There is no inflection in Mr. Hummel's voice.
Mr. Hummel shrugs, shuffles the papers in his hands, and doesn't take his eyes off Dave for a fraction of an instant. "Nothing wrong in that. There's other good shops in town."
"I wouldn't know about that, sir. Kurt tells me it's not really worth $40 to have your tires filled with nitrogen."
Dave thinks he sees a hint of a smile curl the edges of Mr. Hummel's lips. "Well, Kurt's a smart young man."
"Yes, he is, sir." Just as Dave feels a smile start to spread on his own face, Mr. Hummel 's returns to a frown.
There is no way that Dave is going to be able to ease into this. He looks down at his feet, notices that his laces are starting to come undone. But his sneakers are clean and white, a stark contrast to the worn concrete floor and the grease-stained brown leather of Burt Hummel's work shoes.
"I wanted to talk to you about him. Well, sort of about him," Dave says, looking back up.
Mr. Hummel is still looking at him. His eyes are greener than Kurt's, but they're just as inscrutable. "You don't have to buy an oil change to talk to me."
Dave shakes his head. "The car's due for one. And our old mechanic was a shyster."
Kurt's dad rolls the papers in his hands and waves Dave to follow him into the office. The battered chair behind the desk lets out a creak when Mr. Hummel settles into it. Dave stands there, not sure where to look or what to do. The office is organized chaos – neatly stacked piles of paper everywhere, some with post-it notes labeling what they are (1935 Buick Cabriolet; Arts Funding; Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education; Delphi order), others serving as perches for framed photographs (Mr. Hummel and his wife cutting their wedding cake, the topper on which is a lot nicer than the one that Dave stole; a toddler whose upturned nose and smile-crinkled, ambiguously blue-green eyes unmistakably identify it as a very young Kurt Hummel; Kurt and Finn hovering in front of a mirror in formal wear, Kurt looking at Finn gently but authoritatively and Finn one step behind Kurt in tying his bowtie).
"Have a seat," Mr. Hummel says, gesturing to a metal chair at the side of the desk.
"Yes, sir." When he moves to sit there, Dave catches sight of the desktop of Mr. Hummel's computer screen – a picture of Kurt hanging upside-down on a scaffold while twirling knives in his black-gloved hands (and Dave never knew before that fingerless leather gloves were a thing for him but, apparently, now they are), his biceps bulging out of short white sleeves and the tails of a short scarf brushing against the ear that Dave has surreptitiously studied for an accumulation of hours when he was supposed to be doing homework at Blaine's house.
Dave scoots the chair to a safer spot, angling it so he's directly across from Mr. Hummel and can't see an inch of the distracting computer screen.
"What do you want to talk about?"
Dave has the outline of a speech planned. It's supposed to start with an apology. Instead, what comes out of his mouth is, "I started seeing a therapist."
Mr. Hummel nods. "Couldn't hurt."
"Right, sir. It helps a lot, actually."
"You didn’t used to call me 'sir.'"
"No, sir. I didn't."
Mr. Hummel picks a pen up off his desk and grips it in his fist. He looks like he's about to start tapping the end of it against the desktop, but he stops before it makes contact with the surface. "So there's something you wanted to tell me?"
"Yes," Dave says, and he realizes – he supposes he realized it before, but not with the full body knowledge he has right now, with his stomach seizing and his lungs refusing to expand and his tongue firmly stuck to the roof of his mouth – how stilted and laborious this whole conversation is going to be. He wishes he'd drunk an extra Mountain Dew before coming over here. Sometimes it helps loosen his tongue.
Dave takes as deep a breath as his shy lungs will allow. "I'm not here to ask for your forgiveness. I know I don't deserve it."
Mr. Hummel tilts his head to the side. "My son has apparently forgiven you."
Dave nods. "I don't really understand why."
Mr. Hummel takes off his cap and rubs his thin hair. "Honestly, I don't either. It's a trait he gets from his mother."
Dave looks down at his hands. "So anyway, I'm seeing a therapist, and we've been talking about this. About why I still feel bad when Kurt doesn't feel bad about it anymore, and I've come out, and –"
"Kids at school treating you okay?"
Dave looks up and nods. "Better than I treated Kurt."
"Okay. I wondered about that, after I heard what happened at the football game. You tell me if it changes."
Dave risks cracking a joke. "I thought you said that Kurt gets his forgiving nature from his mother."
"A safe and decent public education for every student is a big part of my platform."
Dave nods. "I remember."
"Anyway, I think I got us a bit off the subject."
Dave shifts in his chair. "Sure. Um … Me and my therapist – we've been talking about apologies, and why they're not enough."
Mr. Hummel sighs and puts his elbows on his desk, leaning forward. It closes off the gap between them a little. "Look. I know I didn't really believe your apology last year in Principal Figgins' office, but you did the PFLAG thing like Kurt wanted and I know that if Kurt was willing to forgive you, it must be because you started doing something different. And I think I've come to understand that you hated yourself more than you were trying to hurt Kurt. It doesn't make it okay, but it explains a few things."
"I'm not asking you to believe my apology. Or forgive me. I know I can't earn that."
Burt Hummel doesn't say anything, but there's a spark in his eyes that says he agrees. He nods for Dave to continue.
"Someone I care about got hurt a while back. And it was one of the scariest things I've been through in my life. It freaked me out more than any of the times I almost got outed at McKinley, and it hurt more than when I broke my fingers playing hockey – which really, really hurt."
"Is he okay?"
"Yeah." Dave nods. "He is now. But it got me thinking about you, and what it must have been like for you to be scared for Kurt, and the things you did to protect him."
"Like trying to get you kicked out of McKinley?"
Dave shakes his head. "Yeah. And after that, too. Finn told me about your honeymoon. That you cancelled it so that Kurt could go to Dalton. But I know you must have given up more than that, because I looked up the tuition for Dalton and it's a lot pricier than the typical Waikiki honeymoon package."
"He's my son." Mr. Hummel's face is still, but there's a shift in his eyes – something sad and full of compassion. It's a look Dave's seen on Kurt's face countless times. "Parents are supposed to make sacrifices for their kids. You know that, right?"
Dave swallows hard to staunch the tears that suddenly threaten. He's not going to cry in front of Burt Hummel. He didn't come here for sympathy. He came here to try to return some of what he stole. So he plows ahead. "You wouldn't have had to make that sacrifice if it wasn't for me. I'm the reason Kurt went to Dalton. So I should pay you back for Kurt's tuition. It's my responsibility."
Burt Hummel swings in his chair so suddenly that it almost tips over. "Come again?"
"I want to pay you back for Kurt's Dalton tuition. I can't make up for the hurt I caused your family, but at least you could have your honeymoon."
Mr. Hummel opens his mouth like he's going to say something, closes it, chews on nothing, then opens it again. "Did you talk about this with your therapist?"
"Yeah. When I realized it was what I wanted to do."
"And what did your therapist say?"
"That I should come talk to you, as long as I didn't think you'd, you know, beat the crap out of me as soon as you laid eyes on me."
"And your parents? Did you talk to them about this?"
"No. I wanted to talk to you first."
"And you're planning to get the money where?"
"I inherited some money from my great aunt. It's not enough, especially if you factor in all the gas money from Kurt having to drive back and forth between Lima and Westerville, but I've been saving money from odd jobs every summer, too –"
"Saving it for college?"
"I'm not gonna take your college money, kid."
"I got a partial scholarship. And I can work while I'm in school for the rest of it, take out loans if I need to." Dave reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wadded-up piece of graph paper. He unfolds it and places it in front of Mr. Hummel. "I figured out some of the numbers – what I can pay you now and what I can pay you later, and when. It'll take a couple years to get it all done, but the first part should be enough to cover your honeymoon as soon as you want to go."
"You know I can't take this, right? I mean, yeah, so my wife and I gave up our honeymoon in Waikiki so Kurt could go to Dalton.” Mr. Hummel slides the paper back toward Dave. “You pay for it and you're sacrificing your life."
"Not my life, sir."
Mr. Hummel leans over the desk as far as he can without getting up from his chair. "Maybe not literally, but you're young. This money can mean a lot to you now. What's your scholarship for?"
"And what if you get injured next year and can't play anymore? What if you decide you just don't want to play anymore? Principal Figgins told me you were one of McKinley's brightest math students What if you realize you're at the wrong school and you want to transfer to, I don’t know, MIT? You'll need money then, and I hope your parents will help if they can, because that's what parents do, and then I'llbe indebted to them."
"I'll apply for loans."
"You know the kind of debt that can rack up? The only debt I have is my mortgage."
"Finn said you borrowed against your mortgage to pay for Kurt's tuition."
"Apparently I need to talk to Finn about eavesdropping on private conversations between his mother and me." Mr. Hummel sinks back into his chair, curling his hands around the armrests on both sides. "Look, kid. All I ever wanted out of this was for Kurt not to fear for his life every time he went to school. And I thought it might be a nice bonus if you stopped being a psychopath. Apparently, I got both those things. Win-win."
Dave clears his throat, even though it's tight as a vise. "It doesn't seem like enough."
Mr. Hummel stands up, pulling his wheeled chair behind him until he's on Dave's side of the desk. He sits down so that he's almost knee-to-knee with Dave. "I'll let you in on a little secret, kid. Nothing is ever enough. We go through our lives and we make mistakes and we hurt people. Sometimes we hurt ourselves. If we're lucky, we don't hurt anyone beyond repair. You didn't hurt Kurt beyond repair, and you didn't hurt me beyond repair. And Dalton – yeah, you were what made it happen, but you weren't the only reason that Kurt was having a hard time at McKinley. Whether you'd been in the picture or not, I think it was good for him to go there."
Mr. Hummel takes off his cap and twists it in his hands, but he doesn't take his eyes off of Dave's. It almost hurts, to be looked at so closely. "It doesn't justify what you did, David. Nothing can. And nothing can make it go away. But it doesn’t have to define you. You don't have to look in the mirror every day and beat yourself up over it. Just don't do it again."
This is not the time or the place to cry, no matter how much Dave's eyes ache with the need for it. "But I do," he says. "I see myself when I look in the mirror, and I … It’s not always the best thing to see first thing in the morning, you know?"
Mr. Hummel sighs. "You know what I see? I see someone who's made some really awful mistakes but has learned from them. I see someone who's been as screwed over by Lima as much as my son's been and who needs to get out just as bad." He leans forward. "You know, the difference between people who seem good and people who seem evil is that the good people have done some bad things and regretted it, and they try to outweigh them by doing good. The people who seem evil – they did bad things and decided those things defined who they were, so they kept doing more of them."
A tear almost leaks out of Dave's eye. He blinks it back. "I wanted … I knew I couldn't make it right. But it still feel like I stole something from you, and I just wanted … I really want to return it."
Mr. Hummel reaches forward and tentatively grips Dave's shoulder. "No worries, kid. I got it back a while ago."
The compassion in Burt Hummel’s eyes is too hard to bear. So Dave looks down as he scoots up from his chair. "After I finish school, if you still haven't gone on your honeymoon, I’ll be here again with the same offer."
Mr. Hummel nods. "You’re welcome back anytime, David."
"Thank you, sir." Dave makes his way to the office door. "And sir? I'd appreciate it if you didn't share any of this with Kurt. I mean, I don't care if you mention the oil change, but the rest of it – whether I pay you back or not – it's just something I wanted to make right between you and me."
"Sure." Mr. Hummel stands and holds out his hand to Dave. "It's between us."
"Thanks, sir." It's a solid grip, but not too tight. The calluses on Mr. Hummel's palms are reassuring.
"And quit with the 'sir,' kid. 'Mr. Hummel' will do."
"Sure, Mr. Hummel."
When he gets home, Dave steps into the shower and finally lets himself cry. It feels like rain after a long drought.
* * *