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Family (1962-1963)

Chapter Text

Part 1

Kurt wasn't sure he would ever get used to the fact that, in most of the city, the only way to tell how far along the change in seasons was was by what jackets people were wearing. Among men of any standing whatsoever, the pattern was like clockwork. Labor Day meant an end to seersucker jackets and soon the whole city seemed to swelter their way through early September in the lightest-weight wool they could manage while still appearing fashionable and well-to-do as the last gasp of steamy summer weather hung on a few weeks longer than the rules of fashion allowed. Early October brought lightweight trench coats in tans and camels and pale streaked greys, but by a week before Halloween when the first cold front swept into the city and left people complaining about temperatures that they would rejoice over come March, the streets were filled with subtle variations on the same woolen overcoat: knee-length, single-breasted, with a notch lapel. Early evening brought entire blocks of nothing but fedoras and overcoats to the point where Kurt found himself surreptitiously counting the number of greys versus blacks versus browns and silently cheering the men who dared to wear tweed.

He'd had such high hopes for this city. He had imagined a world of swirling frock coats and elegant cloaks and an assortment of interesting hats and a bevy of accessories. He had pictured a world where, with a nearly-unlimited number of retailers, the men of New York could have their choice of a variety of styles and colours. And surely with the level of sophistication, class, and education that New Yorkers had, the men - or at least their wives, Kurt supposed - should be able to select something a little more interesting, to style it accordingly. He had dreamed of a world with fashion in vibrant hues and daring cuts and wound up in a world of felted grey wool single-breasted overcoats.

Nothing had turned out the way he had planned it.

He knew now that perhaps it had been just a bit naive to assume that the city would stop upon their arrival, then whir to life because they were going to set the world ablaze with their talent. But surely it was supposed to be more than this. Surely they were supposed to have better than this by now - it had been almost seventeen months! He was supposed to be a design assistant at the right hand of Hubert de Givenchy, creating simple, elegant looks to be worn by icons like Jackie Kennedy and - his personal muse of the moment - Audrey Hepburn - all on the way to creating his own House. That was how everyone he admired had begun his career: working under a few major designers before striking out on their own to critical acclaim and immense success. Dior and Balmain had worked as primary designers for Lucien Lelong before opening their houses, and Yves Saint Laurent had worked for Dior until he was drafted and had recently opened his own house that the entire fashion world was taken with. Givenchy had worked for Jacques Fath and Robert Piguet and the incredible Elisa Schiaparelli (Kurt's most recent fashion discovery and current obsession) before creating his own line at only 25; Kurt had a lot of ground to make up in the next 5 years to meet the same benchmark. He was supposed to be well on his way to that goal, to taking the fashion world by storm. He wasn't supposed to be the assistant fabric-cutter for Mainbocher, where the last fresh idea had been corsets in the late 30s. 

And that was still doing better than Rachel. Rachel, who had yet to set foot on a stage for anything other than an audition. Rachel, who got secretarial job after secretarial job, only to quit within two or three weeks because the hours conflicted with an audition that she was certain would lead to her big break. 

They were supposed to be stars. They were supposed to have taken the world - or at least the city - by storm. But someone had neglected to point out a simple fact to them, Kurt realized now: Just like they had flocked to New York, fleeing from their small town to the center of the cultural universe, armed with what they considered to be a fresh new taken on the glamourous-yet-old things? So had people just like them, from every other small town in the country. The streets were filled with them - you could spot them easily in winter as they lacked the uniform overcoat and dressed more like Finn - and on particularly bad days, Kurt wanted to stand at the bus depot or walk into the main concourse of Pennsylvania Station down on 31st and scream at them all to go back home. He honestly wasn't sure whether his goal was to get as much of his competition out of the city as he could, or to tell them to save themselves - to get out while they still could, before their dreams and souls had been destroyed by the harsh reality of the grimy city, when they could still go back to their hometowns with their heads held high and do something with their lives there.

That wasn't an option for them, he knew. They would go crazy if they went back to Ohio. But maybe, for some of the kids hanging down there, his shouting might serve as useful guidance as well as his own catharsis.

In the first few months, they had talked about it - going back. When things got really awful, when their tiny apartment's electricity went out for three days because the creepy landlord didn't pay the building's bills; when the first shooting down the block happened; when they found out that theirs was the neighbourhood in West Side Story - and, in fact, their building had been considered for the exterior shorts before the director moved it a couple blocks down and one over, delaying the construction project there for months...that first summer, they had talked about it a lot. But their mutual love of musicals had a solution for everything; a few rousing verses of Ohio, complete with their own ad-libbed gripes about their former home and its backwoods, backwards, bigoted attitudes always helped diffuse the urge to leave the city as quickly as possible. 

They didn't talk about it anymore. Kurt wasn't sure if it was because things were better or just because they couldn't bear the thought of skulking back, expertly-millinered hat in-hand, and admitting failure. For his part, things were certainly no less bleak than they had been a year ago, but he wasn't about to admit it to anyone - not even Rachel.

Oddly, it was easier to get along with her now that they had no common pursuits. Maybe it really had just been competition keeping them at each other's throats all these years. He actually enjoyed her company now, even if he didn't always need to hear her rendition of "Cock-Eyed Optimist" a dozen times the night before every audition. Even so, he couldn't help but feel a little bitter at their continued faux-relationship: it wasn't supposed to be necessary once they got here.

Maybe that was what bothered him the most, what angered him more than any other slight and unfounded expectation. Seventeen months in the city that was supposed to have plenty of people around whom he would be safe, surrounded by individuals with creative pursuits that Kurt had thought for quite awhile meant people like himself, and nothing. No one to talk to. No groups. No places to go. No one who could understand what it felt like keeping this particular secret under wraps so long after he thought he would have to. 

No one to love.

It was never supposed to be like that. It wasn't supposed to be him and Rachel crammed into a two-bedroom apartment that barely fit one person where he was strictly prohibited from painting any walls or hanging anything semi-permanent. It wasn't supposed to be going home to quiet evenings with the least-expensive dinner the two of them could find, to enjoy their one and only luxury: the secondhand television set. It was supposed to be elegant dinner parties with large groups of friends in an enormous, immaculately-decorated apartment, on the arm of-

...He thought of him a lot. More than he would ever admit to anyone. More than he wanted to admit to himself. Some days it was in anger, hoping Blaine was as miserable in California as he was in New York because that was the only way there could be justice in the universe. Some days it was idle curiosity, wondering merely what Blaine was doing. If he was enjoying school. If he had found a group to sing with, because the idea of Blaine giving up music the way Kurt had was too painful to even contemplate. 

Some days he woke up with an empty spot in his chest so cavernous that it felt like he could never fill it up, like someone had dug all the way through him and he had a hole in him so wide that, were someone to walk into his bedroom at that moment, they would be able to see the sheets through him. Some days it felt like he would never in his life be able to stop feeling alone and abandoned and betrayed.

Those were usually the days that led to being angry and spiteful. He knew Blaine didn't miss him, and that was what made it all the worse.

He was supposed to have found someone else by now, a handsome man who understood his passions and wouldn't be ashamed of him. But so far, nothing even came close. So far he hadn't even been able to meet a single other confirmed homosexual, though he had his suspicions about a few of his coworkers and several boys Rachel had talked about having an interest in.

Which was why he stood on the street corner, tugging his coat more tightly around himself against the cold October night air. The streetlights pooling on West 59th Street lit just as far as the edge of the park, where the first row of trees hadn't quite lost their leaves yet. The scarlets and siennas and goldenrods weren't nearly as vibrant as the hues back home and peaked about two weeks later than Kurt was used to; still, it was nice to see some authentic indicator of the change in season - something that wasn't the same identical trench coats with ugly ties peeking out above the double-breasted tan collar.

It had been five weeks since he had seen The Scarf. He had been working late, courtesy of a tailor who underestimated the size of the pleats in the design which meant Kurt had to completely redrape, recalculate, and recut the pattern pieces; he had emerged from the subway at Columbus Circle around 10 and was just about to turn up Broadway when he saw it - a silk scarf in vibrant pinks and tans, with an intriguingly geometric prints. He had never seen anything like it; every scarf he had seen was either solid-coloured chiffon or some synthetic imitation thereof, or with some sort of swirling floral print, or once every so often something with polka dots. This was exquisite, modern and chic, and Kurt instantly wanted it.

His attention was drawn almost immediately to the wearer of The Scarf. Who else in the city where sameness was almost as required as it had been in Ohio, would have such a work of art around their neck? It was tied just so around the slim, pale neck of a man with delicate features - a narrow, upturned nose, a weak pointed chin, large dark eyes that stood out against his light skin even in the dim light of evening. He walked with another gentleman, broader than the wearer of The Scarf, with neatly-parted brown hair. Though he wore the same jacket as every other man in town, The Scarf's owner had an air about him when he walked that made him stand out - an intrinsic grace, a way of walking that seemed light and neat.

This man was like him. Kurt knew in a way he hadn't since he'd gotten hints of a kinship from Blaine early in their friendship - this man, ad possibly also his companion, was a homosexual, too. But what could he do? He couldn't very well shout across the circle "Take me to other men!". He practically sprinted across the street toward the two, but they disappeared around the corner too quickly for him to catch up. By the time he turned onto Central Park West, all traces of the men - and The Scarf - were gone.

But Kurt had never been someone who gave up quite that easily.

Mercedes thought he was crazy when he started planning their evenings around hanging out on a street corner. He didn't see what the problem was - especially in early fall, when the air was crisp and fresh and such a nice change from their respective claustrophobic, stuffy apartments. Why not spend time sitting on a bench at Columbus Circle with his eyes trained on the park in case The Scarf - or possibly the same man with an even more striking scarf - walked past? Sure, there were more than a few guys who walked past on their way from Kurt's neighbourhood down toward Hells Kitchen to get into fights that he chose to imagine more like West Side Story than like the gruesome stories he heard on the news, and at a certain point it did get too cold to enjoy sitting on the edge of the fountain, but this was important.

Really, he swore, Mercedes was just irritated because it meant her roommate beat her home and locked her out of their bedroom so she could entertain her boyfriend until all hours of the night. Of course, with four girls in a two-bedroom apartment, he was shocked none of them had killed anyone with a high heel. Supposedly having them all live together made rehearsing and recording easier, but from the stories she told him, Kurt was beginning to think their manager just wanted to keep all of them where he could see them. Either way, she had jumped at the chance to get out of the apartment with him and Rachel, and he had to admit he wasn't too disappointed that he didn't have to listen to the two of them bicker all night.

She stopped coming with him around Columbus Day, and he had to admit that he missed her company. The time passed a lot slower when he was just staring into space, and while he thought at first that it meant he would pay more attention because he wouldn't be distracted by all the gossip about her crazy roommates, or telling her about his obnoxious boss who asked him questions that had nothing to do with the task at hand, or talking about what movies they would go see once either of them had enough money that they could spare a little to go out for the night...but in reality, he spent a lot more time daydreaming as he stared at the corner of the park.

He wondered if the The Scarf might show up.

He wondered where the guy had bought it. Where he'd found such a thing, because Kurt had been doing more than his share of window-shopping over the past year and had never seen anything like it. Maybe the man bought it in Europe - something that stylish was probably from Paris or Milan, somewhere he dreamed of going...somewhere that a year ago would have seemed within reach, but now all he saw were dollar signs as he tried to contemplate where in the world he would ever come up with the hundreds of dollars it would take to make a trip like that. 

Were there people like him in Europe, like them? He assumed there had to be, he doubted there was something specifically American about the phenomenon, especially considering it was far from a tolerated condition. Maybe there were even more there, living among beautiful people who designed scarves like That One and wore them with that kind of grace. 

He wondered where the guy had been going. If he was coming from somewhere important, or going to somewhere important, because very few people would wear that work of art around their neck just to walk around the park. He would, of course, but he was wearing a Schiaparelli shoe hat in classic black and shocking pink. He understood that every moment was an opportunity for fashion, but no one else he knew did. So either this gentleman understood it as well, or he was going somewhere where he needed to look his best. Either way, Kurt needed to find him and get to know him.

He wondered if the other man was The Scarf's boyfriend. He wondered if the one with so much grace had found someone at all.

He wondered if he was lonely.

He refused to give a certain someone the satisfaction of wondering if that person had been right. It felt like it, sometimes - like New York, for all its glitz and glamour and star power, wasn't any better than Ohio. Nothing was different now except a few new-to-him luxe pieces in his wardrobe and a much, much smaller living space, and a lot less money, and a lot less optimism. He felt darker now - enough that he didn't care how melodramatic that was - and for a moment he would almost let himself wonder if, had he stayed, things would be better.

If he hadn't insisted on this so hard. If he hadn't pushed-

Or maybe he should have stopped being so proud and called him. He knew at least a few of the Warblers could get in touch with him if he really wanted, and maybe he should have just sucked it up and called California. Or been impulsive and moved out there, tried to find-

He wondered if things could have been different. If what he'd been looking forward to and dreaming of for his entire life wasn't actually anything like what he'd envisioned, he wondered what was stopping him now except pride and the passage of time.

...He wondered if Blaine was happy. 

He wondered if Blaine ever wondered about him.

He was wondering so hard that he almost missed it - the sound of people laughing. The laughter was high-pitched but not as high as Mercedes, nervous, almost giddy, like two people who have gotten away with something they never expected to - as though the adrenaline of what they had done and the nervous energy over getting caught released at exactly the same time to leave the two people gasping and tittering excitedly. His head jerked up when he heard it, a strange sound this time of night in this part of town; it was hardly the epicenter of bars that catered toward the young crowd, and most people around here who got away with something illicit knew better than to give themselves away like that. After listening for a moment to the giggles growing closer, he saw the source: two men emerging from the Park via one of the tree-lined pathways. 

At a first glance, they looked like any of the students in the area - dressed casually, disheveled, hanging off each other as they laughed. Drunken college boys, Kurt sighed as he reached up to adjust his hat. Drunken college boys with exceedingly high giggly voices, yes, but still-

But there was something about the way they interacted with each other that was different. This wasn't Finn and Puckerman touching each other, it wasn't a wild Warbler party during a ridiculous ceremony, this was...it was the sort of casual touching Blaine had done with him forever - long before they became boyfriends. It wasn't quite as though these two boys were boyfriends, but it was more than best friends-

...or maybe...

After beaming and laughing and jostling each other for another moment or two, the boys stood up straighter. They drew in a few deep breaths that still came out with choking guffaws and exhilarated grins, then turned to walk across 59th Street. Their touch changed as they set off, their movements became stiffer and less friendly, less familiar, nothing but an occasional glance visible between them.

And then they were gone.

Kurt bounced slightly on his feet. He had to go somewhere, to figure out where they had come from - or where they were going, or what had them laughing. Or who they were. Or what they were doing next.

...Or what they had done that they were amazed hadn't gotten them caught.

He quickly discarded the idea of following them across the south border of the park; that was the way he came many nights, he knew there was nothing there. The Scarf had walked the opposite direction and turned up the west side, and Kurt found himself more ready to follow that pair than the boys that left him at once curious and uneasy. But perhaps most importantly...it was obvious from the way they were acting that they were coming from whatever the excitement was rather than going to it. Unless their exhilaration came from outrunning their parents or dorm monitors who told them not to go out, Kurt was reasonably certain that whatever interesting way the boys were spending their night had to be back the way they had come.

Drawing in a deep breath, he straightened his jacket and strode across the circle, across several lanes of lazy evening traffic, and stepped onto the sidewalk. With another moment's hesitation, he decided it was now or never and slipped into Central Park. 

The path was poorly illuminated, mostly lights from afar streaming weakly through the half-bare trees and casting dappled artificial moonlight over the uneven pavement. This was a horrible idea, he knew that - it was reckless, it was dangerous, and it was almost certainly going to lead to nothing good. With every step, he was increasingly certain that the boys he had seen were just half-drunk college students coming from a really good party and going downtown to meet friends. So they leaned on each other a little too much; that didn't mean anything. All it meant was that they were laughing too hard to stand upright, there was no reason at all to believe that they were like him...or would lead him to people like him...or had anything whatsoever to do with his quest to find as many homosexuals as he could on this godforsaken disappointment of an island. 

Hell, he just needed to find one. He had been happy enough with just one other homosexual in Westerville. Couples could be fine and healthy and happy together - like Rachel's dad. Like Man #16. Like he used to be. So really, if he could just find one - ad the law of large numbers said that surely he should be able to find at least that many in and among people with similar inverted interests to his own-

There was a rustle in the bushes, and he jumped, letting out a startled sound. Why had he left his umbrella at the office? At least it would be something to swing at whoever was lurking and ready to attack him. At least then he could prevent himself from-...something. Although he knew that anyone lurking in the bushes of Central Park at- god, it had to be almost 10 by now - probably would wield more than a stick, so really it would just make him feel better, but didn't that count for something? Didn't feeling better and having peace of mind at least-

The rustling stopped, and he heard a loud shushing noise. Kurt stood still, eyes squeezed shut and waiting for the end to come...but it never did. After the shush, there was silence for a few moments, then the rustling began again. He hurried past the bushes, wishing he had a bag to clutch or something to grip onto other than his hat, something to do with his hands because he did better when his fingers had something to do. That was the real reason he wished he had his umbrella - it would give him something to twirl in his hands and something to think about other than the noise and what type of murderer or thug or wild cat might be lurking in there and whether he could run any faster in these boots. The winklepickers were sleek and gorgeous but hardly practical with their pointed toes and tight ankles. The exaggerated toe of the boot caught on a bump in the path and Kurt flew forward with a terrified gasp, his arms flopping out at his sides as though he could somehow catch himself on nothing but the air. 

He didn't fall. He caught himself with an additional awkward step, the way he had on a few occasions when he hoped no one could see him, but the near-spill left him even more shaken than hearing the sound. He stood straighter, trying to catch his breath. What was he doing? Why in the world had he thought this was a good idea? He needed to get out of here immediately, because he had no idea what - or who - might be around and what they might do to him.

...But that required either going back the way he had come, past the bushes where he knew someone was, or finding some other way out of the park. He had walked through here only a couple times before, always during the day, usually much further up than he was now. He didn't have the first idea where to even begin.

At least out the way he came was shorter. 

He drew in a deep breath to calm himself down and started to turn around as he heard a grunt, then a groan, coming from the bushes. With as much speed as he could manage without winding up flat on his stomach on the path, he scurried further into the park.

Despite having lived only a few blocks west of the park for more than a year, he had been there only a few times - to the Central Park Zoo with Rachel shortly after they had moved there, on a "Welcome to New York" picnic in June after Mercedes had left Spellman without warning at the end of the semestre and taken the bus up to the city, only telling anyone of her plan to drop out of school and be a singer after she literally showed up on Kurt and Rachel's doorstep ...maybe one other time, but he couldn't figure out when as he tried to get his bearings. He should know where he was, he knew that - the rest of this part of town was a grid, it was easy to follow as long as you knew what street you were on or what streets you were crossing, shouldn't he be able to figure out where he was and make his way out here? he wondered as he followed the curved road around the ballfields. Were those north of where he'd been? Or were they to the east, closer to the south end of the park? He didn't think he passed them when he had been there before, but where all had he been? 

Why didn't they light this place better?

Kurt lost track of how long he'd been wandering, he just knew it felt like it had been hours. The silence and near-absolute darkness were beginning to make him paranoid he was going to just fall into one of the large bodies of water on the premises - how would he know not to when he could barely see his hands in front of his face? His heart leapt in relief as he saw light pooling on the intersection ahead of him - that meant he had to be getting closer to civilization, didn't it? He remembered a road running almost parallel to Central Park West at some point, maybe that was where he was and he just had to cut over a little to get home. Once he found himself to the outer edge of the park, he would be fine - he could find his way home from almost any point in the city except, apparently, for anywhere with trees.

Why had he done this? he asked himself, shaking his head. Why in the world had he decided that he needed to wander through a park that was probably full of murderers and thieves at this time of night anyway? Over two boys hanging off each other? What kind of a reason was that? What had he been thinking? Being foolhardy was one thing and was bad enough, but this-

Maybe New York had done more than make him broke and disillusioned - maybe it had made him reckless. Maybe it had made him take stupid, unnecessary chances, because he didn't remember ever being quite this ridiculous before. While he had never been someone who took a lot of stock in the way that things were done or in bowing to people's prejudices, and he had no qualms about putting himself out there where performances or his own self-interest in general were at stake, but this...

Of course, Blaine had always told him he didn't understand the risk before he leapt into something.

He was about to begin blaming his exboyfriend (the 'ex' part of that still made him wince) for this entire decision-making process - because if Blaine would have just gone along with the plan, none of this would be happening and they could be kissing in their bedroom at their apartment that they may or may not share with Rachel instead of wandering through the urban garden at what surely had to be past midnight with no sense of direction - when a flash of pink caught his eye. Was that The Scarf he saw? No - he had to be imagining things. Making it all up in his head in some desperate attempt to justify his own lunacy. After all, he could barely see further than the lamp at the intersection some 50 feet ahead of him, there was no way he could identify accessories under these conditions.

Or could he? His eyes traveled upward from the silken work of art to the wearer, and his heart felt like it stopped. The delicate-featured gentleman was walking, this time with another man that Kurt didn't recognize, along the lit cross-street; they were talking quietly, and Kurt couldn't make out a single word they were saying, but they seemed far less giddy than the college boys had. He quickened his pace and rounded the corner, trying to catch up to the men. Their pace was quick, purposeful - they were certainly on their way to something. 

This was perfect. Now he could find where The Scarf went, where he found other people like them...even just where he went shopping. He just needed to keep up and figure out-

The pair made a left turn, then another quick left off the major road and onto another unlit path. Kurt almost turned back then, hesitating for just a moment before the second left, but the idea of losing The Scarf again...it would all be for nothing if that happened. Five weeks of waiting and watching and freezing would be rendered worthless if he went back now...He hurried to follow them, but suddenly they were gone. His heart sank and sped up, and he tried to run faster, and saw the stone archway only seconds before he slammed into the edge of it. He sucked in a sharp breath and looked around frantically for The Scarf-

What he saw left him truly breathless.

There were men scattered throughout the woods ahead of them. Dozens of them - maybe a hundred, maybe more. They stood in singles and pairs, some leaning up against the trees, some encamped behind bushes, some just standing out in the open, ranging in age from probably just barely older than him to mid-50s...

...doing things he had never even thought of before.

There were men standing back-to-front in pairs (and one threesome which made his eyes practically bug out of his head), pants loosened or down, hips rocking hard against one another, mouths open and panting and moaning obscenely. One man had his arms practically wrapped around a narrow tree as the man behind him jerked against him, causing the man in front to slam repeatedly into the rough bark as he drew in sharp breaths and the man in back whispered something in the other's ear - Kurt had the feeling he didn't even want to know what. Another pair were practically folded over a row of hedges; a third pair rutted frantically against each other against the stone archway just to Kurt's left, and he jumped back with a startled yelp. The two men barely even noticed him and kept doing what they were doing. He stepped forward a few feet, eyes wide as saucers, a permanent blush settling in on his cheeks. 

Everything about this was wrong. It was so-...this was something people should do themselves, in their home or maybe the backseat of a car like their heterosexual counterparts. It wasn't something that should be done in a public park, in the middle of a group of other people. He shouldn't be able to see a man with his pants and wool coat open with another man kneeling in front of him - that was something that should be reserved for home. For...for a dorm room with a boy you were in love with, not-

This wasn't at all what he wanted to find. When he wanted to find homosexuals, he wanted to find a boyfriend - someone he could love, could share little intimate moments with. This was the antithesis of intimacy, it was raunch and filth and made him completely uncomfortable.

He was debating how to get back out of the area without having to pass the two men jerking against each other, he caught sight of something else. A man stood by himself, glancing out with feigned disinterest as others walked past. After a few walked by with no interaction, a slim boy who looked barely his own age walked by. They locked eyes for a second, then another, then another, before the boy jerked his head to the side with a smirk. The man nodded and followed the boy off behind the nearest tree. 

That was something Kurt had seen before. At the drive-in in Ohio, there had been men who hung out near the side, beyond where the cars were parked, and looked at each other like that before disappearing into the grove of pine trees behind the snack stand. When it had been raided, there was talk of sexual acts going on, which Kurt hadn't understood at the time. When he and Blaine - and later he and Blaine and Rachel - had gone there, they had spent the entire time in the front seat of the car, so he had assumed that must mean people were acting like, well, like Finn and Quinn in the backseats, but maybe...maybe this was what happened. Maybe the men who went behind the trees were doing this.

Which just meant he needed to find the other section.

This was definitely not something he wanted any part of, but he just needed to find the date part. The place where boyfriends could go and spend time together and be safe. It shouldn't be too far away, right? Probably just further into the park, or maybe a little closer to the outside of the park just in a different direction. Or on the lake - that would be romantic, with a view of the boathouse and a place they could bring a picnic? That would be incredible. 

Of course, even if he could find the date section, that didn't mean he could find someone to take on a date, because he doubted that anyone at the lake with his boyfriend would be open to the idea of dating him, but he didn't necessarily need to find someone tonight. He just needed to know where to start looking more effectively so he didn't spend the next 5 weeks sitting outside all night to try to follow a man with exquisite taste in accessories.

Which meant he needed to ask someone where to find the other area.

He drew in a deep breath and walked slowly between couples doing things that were more appealing in theory than in visual reality and took the spot of the man who had just left. It looked like a lot of people walked past there, so it seemed like a logical place to stake out a post. All he needed now was someone to stop and tell him how to get back to the main area where a boy could find out where to go about looking for a boyfriend. This was- well, not perfect, he never needed to think about some of the mental images that were permanently seared into his mind and written all over his blushing cheeks, but outstanding. He finally had a plan.

A guy who looked to be around 30, maybe 35, with sideslicked blond hair and hideous brown slacks peeking out from beneath his coat, started past and Kurt stepped just barely into his path. "Hi," he said with a forced brightness as he extended his hand. "Kurt Hummel."

The man he hoped would assist him looked at him as though he had lost his mind. "I don't need to know that," he said, not shaking the outstretched hand. 

That was rude, but he was hardly the first New Yorker Kurt had met who didn't seem to have time for pleasantries. They weren't nearly as impolite as people in Ohio tended to make them sound like, but they were very brusque. Goal-oriented and focused, really. Undeterred, Kurt withdrew his hand and simply replied, "Okay. Could I ask, where-"

The man looked him up and down, almost sneering at Kurt's hat, but giving a sort of shrug. "Sure," he replied, leading Kurt off the main path. That was odd, he thought, but maybe the guy just wasn't that conversational. That the guy knew what he wanted without ever asking "Show me where the couples are" was a really good sign, it meant that was the bigger section, right? It meant-

The feeling of the guy's hand on his pants made him freeze. He sucked in a sharp breath too shocked to say anything. This was wrong, this was all wrong, it wasn't what he wanted- but as the hand began to rub slowly, it felt good. He swallowed hard, absolutely mortified by his body's automatic reaction to the pleasurable sensation. "I..."

"Shhhh," the man practically purred in his hear as he leaned in to kiss his neck. "I'll do you good." It sounded like it was meant to be a promise, but it felt more like a threat. This wasn't what Kurt wanted. He tried to say so, to tell the man that all he wanted was to know where the dates were, where he could go that wouldn't be like this, where he could go if he wanted something sweet and meaningful and soft instead of this rushed, hedonistic, seedy underworld. He tried to say anything but could barely let out a soft whimper as the lips on his neck found a spot that felt way too good for how disgusting he felt.

A few feet away, a high-pitched voice shrieked "LILY!", and suddenly everything that had felt like slow motion sped up to a dizzying pace. "Shit!" the man gasped, pulling back and disappearing between the trees, running in the opposite direction of the path as quickly as he could. All around Kurt, men were hurrying - tugging up trousers, holding them up in clenched fists as they ran seemingly in all directions past him. Where a few minutes earlier there had been couples communicating with complex unspoken codes, now Kurt saw only individuals in loud, frantic chaos. 

He needed to get out of here. He didn't know what was going on, but it was obvious that it wasn't good. 

His head was spinning as he dizzily made his way back toward the path. He couldn't figure out which direction he should go - everyone was trying to make a break for it in a different direction - but he knew that if he tried to cut through the trees the way some people were, he would never make it out of this park, let alone quickly. Maybe he could find his way back to the well-lit crosspath where he'd found The Scarf, that had looked like a main road. That might get him out of here. But he couldn't remember which direction he had come from, how to get back there. Everything felt like it was moving too quickly around him - or maybe he was moving too slow, he didn't know - and he was so out-of-sorts that he had no idea where to even begin.

The stone arch. He had come through there. He had come through there and then seen the men necking...well, doing more than necking, but he didn't know what to call it, what to call any of what had happened...but that arch led back to where he was trying to go. That was the way out.

Relieved to have found clarity, however small its piece in relationship so the much bigger questions of the night, Kurt made a break for it. His hat slipped off and he held his hand on top of it as he ran, unwilling to slow down and keep it on more gracefully. He wanted to go home. He wanted to go back to his apartment and listen to Wonderful Town with Rachel and wax nostalgic about a place he had never liked until he left it. He wanted to barricade himself in his room and figure out here precisely he should start to restructure his plan to search for a boyfriend because clearly this was not yielding the result he wanted. He wanted-

He almost ran smack into the chest of a tall, burly police officer standing just on the other side of the stone archway. "Sorry!" he gasped automatically, then looked at whom he had hit. Surely the officer would know how to get him home. "Excuse me. Hi. I need to get home, I was wondering-" he babbled, out of breath and out of sorts and-

The first sign of trouble was the word the police used. He'd heard it a few times, but usually it was something else. Usually people said 'perverts' or 'deviants' or 'sexual inverts' or the euphemistic 'psychiatric cases' or even 'sodomites.' But when the officer growled, "You're coming with me, faggot," his stomach clenched. That wasn't the voice of someone who was going to show him how to get back to the subway or where Central Park West was, that wasn't a good kind of 'you're coming with me', that was-

An image flashed into his mind suddenly: the newspaper after the drive-in - their drive-in, the closest thing to a public safe-haven he and Blaine had ever been able to find - had been raided, there was a picture of the screen being blocked by a police paddywagon as men were loaded in, covering their faces and trying to hide from the cameras as police manhadled the supposed-perverts toward the station. At the time he had been shaken by the fact that it could have been them. It could have been him under arrest because they had just been there and probably knew some of the people who were arrested and they couldn't be safe anywhere.

This wasn't supposed to be happening to him here. This was supposed to be a safe place. That was the entire reason he'd come here, because he wasn't supposed to have to worry about that. He was supposed to be able to find people and be himself and be safe-

The officer shoved him into the crowded paddywagon where men were already packed onto both benches and crouched in the space in the middle of the car, ducked beneath the low ceilings. Kurt barely had time to get his balance before another man was shoved in after him and he fell forward against the shoulder of the guy in front of him. The door slammed closed and he heard the engine rev before the wagon jerked forward and the men on either side of him swayed and shifted with the motion. 

Oh god.

Chapter Text

He'd seen movies about jail before.

He'd been raised mostly by his father - well, and Mrs. Jones, but still. For a significant portion of his life, weekends and evenings had been just him and his dad, and his dad didn't share his affinity for Hollywood Musicals or grand romances, so they spent a lot of time watching Westerns. Sometimes there was a movie about football, and variety hours were a good way of each finding something to enjoy in the same hour of television, but Westerns were the movies of his childhood. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry fighting for good and singing their way through the West. The boys from Bonanza wooing women who always somehow died right afterward. The Lone Ranger was a favourite - his dad said it was because he had listened to it on the radio when he was a kid. Then his dad would talk about how, by the time Kurt had a son of his own one day, it would probably be on some big hologram that was projected into the room and three generations of Hummel men would watch The Lone Ranger together.

Kurt wasn't sure if his dad had figured out that wasn't going to happen yet. He had assumed after he asked about whether his dad could picture him with a family last year, that maybe the two of them had come to a tacit understanding about what Kurt was, what his life was going to consist of, but judging by his father's response to Kurt moving to New York with Rachel - his 'girlfriend', for all intents and purposes except the ones that really mattered but were best kept unmentioned to one's parents - and his concern about Rachel's honour, Kurt guessed they weren't to that level of understanding yet.

Of course, Kurt hadn't expected this was what his life would consist of, either. He had never imagined-

The point was, he had seen things about jail. He had seen movies and watched tv shows and knew what to expect. There were single cells with bars and a sheriff who was the good guy and protecting the town from-...from bankrobbers and stagecoach-jackers and murderers and guys who blew into town wearing black hats to cause trouble. They were places where Otis the town drunk went because he'd been violating the law and causing trouble, maybe, but sheriffs were meant to be the good guys. They-...they wore the white hats, they were meant to protect the people of the town, they weren't...

They weren't meant to lock you up when you hadn't done anything. They weren't meant to throw you into the back of a trailer with no windows and only one door and no way of moving without being on top of someone else, where it felt like you couldn't even draw a full breath. They weren't meant to drag you through halls like an unruly dog on a leash and taunt you all the way to the booking room. They weren't meant to take your hat and call you a girl. That wasn't supposed to be the nicest thing they could come up with to call you...and they weren't meant to come up with slurs for you you had never heard of but somehow knew exactly what they meant. They weren't supposed to ask how much of a pervert you were and-

Kurt couldn't be sure, but he was fairly certain sheriffs weren't supposed to make him count out loud the articles of male clothing he was wearing as he stripped them off. And he was almost completely sure that their taunting him while he shivered in the processing room in his undershirt and underwear and socks, holding a striped uniform out of his reach and asking if they had an option with a skirt for him, wasn't what they were meant to do.

He should really speak to their supervisor. He-...he should tell someone because there was no way that this was proper arrest procedure.

...Right?

He had never felt so much like he wanted to disappear in his life. The way those men's eyes roamed over him with such disgust...he wasn't sure if the simultaneous revulsion and fascination he saw from one guard was better or worse. Watching them paw through the pockets of his suit had been nearly more than he could take, their fat clumsy fingers poking at his elegantly-cut trousers to dig out his wallet. It was tossed unceremoniously into a carton with his keys, his watch, the elegant chain that had draped from his lapel to his buttonhole, his tie, and his hat. After another minute, they demanded he add his belt to the box, clutching awkwardly at his pants to make sure they sat high on his waist instead of letting them slip down. He didn't trust those looks, even if he didn't know for sure what they meant.

The thick hand on his shoulder took him by surprise, and he flinched, stiffened; the four guys standing around him laughed. "She thinks she's got a new boyfriend, Carl - be careful!" one of them chuckled.

He wasn't going to start crying. If there was one thing he knew, it was how to hold his head high. He had spent the better part of his life being the butt of jokes, the object of scorn and ridicule. He had survived middle school and every practical joke Puckerman had ever played on him and every derisive look Finn had ever tossed his way. He had figured out from the time he was six that the other children in town thought he was hilarious in a bad way, and the adults didn't know what to do with him, and that whenever he went somewhere people would stare at him like there was something wrong with him. He had gotten used to that and to not-...to not cry until he had left the view of people. He had learned not to give them the satisfaction.

But this...

His jaw was so tight he thought he might grind his teeth down, his neck held stiffly and tilted just so, his eyes forced just wide enough to avoid the squinty crying look but not wide enough to actually start crying, as he was pushed down the hall toward a telephone. "One call, queer."

He had no idea who to dial. Mercedes would kill him - flat out kill him - for waking her up in the middle of the night and for getting arrested and for being stupid enough to get into this situation in the first place. She would remind him how many times she had objected to the fact that he sat out at that damned fountain, she would tell him what a moron he had been for going into the park without knowing what he would find...and then what? Even if she wanted to help him out, what could she do? She didn't have enough money for bail-

Assuming they even set bail. Did that happen now? Later? Was he stuck here until then? What if it wasn't until next week sometime? How quickly did that happen? They never talked about bail in shows with kindly sheriffs, except to say sometimes that a person needed to make bail.

Should he be calling his office to let them know he might not be in for awhile? Would the switchboard operator even be able to take a message this late?

Rachel, at the very least, would have access to his bank account, or his chequebook, or something. She could at least bring that and see about getting him out of here. She would ask too many questions and complain - loudly and often - about interrupting her sleep while making the entire night about her, but that...that would be good right now. If he was rolling his eyes at Rachel, at least he wouldn't be remembering the way they stared at him. Besides, she had been there for him plenty of times, including the entire summer between junior and senior years when he didn't know how to explain to anyone, including Mercedes, what he was going through and how much it hurt. Rachel had just sort of...understood, and he was grateful for that. She might make the entire episode about herself, but at least she would also be there when he needed to talk about how ashamed he was and she wouldn't tell him he was stupid for even trying.

If anyone understood searching for love with disastrous results, surely it was his fake girlfriend who had spent years pining after his stepbrother.

With quivering fingers as he tried to keep his voice from following suit and trembling, he dialed the apartment and waited. One ring...two...three...His muscles tightened as he tried to keep himself from seeming impatient, nervous - the guard stared at him, his look bored and skeptical as though taunting him still: Who could he be calling? His wife? His buddy? Who would ever want to answer a call from a faggot like him?

Maybe he was reading into it a little. He couldn't entirely help it.

By the time the phone rang for the eighth time, he was clutching the handset with white knuckles. She had to pick up. She had to answer - surely she was just stumbling from the bed and trying to find the phone in the dark. They always had a hard time finding the switch for the lamp when the apartment was already dark, usually they had to keep the entryway light on for that reason until the living room was already illuminated. So surely she was just trying to get through the room to the lamp to the phone to answer-

The guard slapped two heavy fingers down on the hook switch, cutting off the sound mid-ring. "Can try again in a few hours," he replied gruffly.

"She was waking up-" Kurt tried desperately, not wanting to leave the phone. Rachel would answer and she would come get him and they could leave the entire incident behind them. He could call her back and she would answer and they could-

"She?" he scoffed. "Wives make this part fun. Look on their face when they find out their husband's a cocksucker...'course with you, I doubt it's the first time." He shoved Kurt's shoulder again, steering him this time into a cell with a rough push. Before Kurt could righten himself, he heard the door slide shut behind him with a loud clang.

He wasn't sure why, in retrospect, but he had expected they would all go the same place. They had all been brought in together - himself and the other homosexuals from the park, those men who...while engaging in activities he would never undertake in public (and several of which he would never try ever, under any circumstances...were at least like him. At least they wouldn't look at him like the guards, they would understand. After all, they were all in this together. They were all here for the same reason. He would be okay in a room of other people like him. Maybe he could even start asking some of them about better places to go. Places that wouldn't end up like this.

But the cell wasn't divided by offense; it wasn't split by when people had come in. He didn't recognize anyone else in the holding cell - none of the men he had seen in the park, none of the men whose faces he had peered at in the dim light of the paddywagon, no one he had seen before. No one who seemed remotely like him.

There was a mix of people, each character more unsavoury than the last - people he would cross the street to avoid, especially at night. People he would never have seen in Lima. Thugs and drunks and criminals-

You don't know what they did, he reminded himself, drawing in a deep breath and trying to keep the most even, least-terrified expression he could muster. You're in here just like they are. Maybe they weren't hardened criminals who had been arrested for the murder of entire families, like some of them looked like they might be capable of. Maybe they were just men who were the victims of horrible misunderstandings. Maybe the police had just snatched them up when they went to them for help instead of assisting them because the police in New York City were jerks who jumped to conclusions about what a person was doing or who they were or whether it was even wrong in the first place.

Maybe it was all just a big misunderstanding.

Maybe it would all be over soon.

The cell wasn't one of the private ones he'd seen in movies about men who had been convicted of some offense or another; it was a holding cell, maybe 15 feet on each side, crammed with people. Apparently Wednesday night in New York City was a big time for arrests. Along the back and side were benches, and he started in that direction. If he was going to be here for awhile, and it appeared - he noted with resignation - that he would be, until or unless they would let him try to call Rachel again, at the very least he could sit down. His shoes, while chic and a great bargain when he had purchased them, were hardly comfortable for standing all night, and after everything he felt almost too exhausted to keep his head up, let alone to remain on his feet for the foreseeable future. He wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep. Or to go back in time using some contraption out of an H.G. Wells novel and never go into that park. Or- no. To go back further, to a year and a half ago, when he'd made the stupid decision to actually come here.

Why had he thought this was a good idea, anyway? What had made him honestly believe that the image he had in his head of this gleaming metropolis was remotely accurate? He'd never known anyone who had moved here, he certainly had never known anyone like him who lived here, what made him think that somehow if he just got to the city he would be safe? Why had he thought-

At least Leroy could vouch for California. At least he had been there and seen other homosexuals and met them and talked to them and met them behind old buildings to-...

...To do what the men in the park had been doing, Kurt realized suddenly, his heart sinking further into his stomach. That was what he had been pinning his hopes on without ever knowing it, wasn't it? That was what Leroy talked about when he talked about the men during the war. They weren't boyfriends, they didn't have dinner parties or apartments or go on dates or become couples, they went behind buildings to rut up against one another and sink to their knees in front of other men's crotches and...

He knew the act didn't have to be disgusting or frantic. He'd had experience with it being something wonderful and sweet - Blaine had been so sweet even as he wanted something that seemed so ostensibly strange. But this...what he'd seen tonight, and what Leroy had seen before...

He had pinned his entire hopes and dreams on that story; he had invested every ounce of searching in a beautiful accessory. Both turned out to be nothing more than a twisted illusion, and not what he was looking for at all.

He wondered if Man #16's "homosexual marriage" was really no more than a secretive friendship with a few quick gropes in the darkness of a grove of trees.

Of everything Kurt had been through in the past few hours, all the insults and the humiliation and degradation, all the fear and uncertainty, that was the thought that made him want to cry.

As he approached an empty space on the bench, now more eager than ever to sit down and try to ignore his surroundings long enough to let them fade into nothingness until it was time for him to leave, a man with scraggly, unkempt hair and a sour expression glowered at him. "You want something, cocksucker?" he asked in a thick Brooklyn accent, fumbling for his own fly with one hand while he reached to snag Kurt's wrist with the other. Kurt's eyes widened and he took a startled step back, bumping into a man easily taller than Finn, built like one of his worst bullies from back home (David Karofsky, whose intellect was as stimulating as his appearance which was to say not at all) but with more visible muscles.

"The fuck you think you're going?" the guy demanded, and Kurt drew in a sharp breath, praying the man didn't hit him. He had no faith whatsoever that, were this man to decide to kick him around for awhile, the entire cell wouldn't join in. And when they did, he could almost guarantee no guard would break up the fight. Mumbling a quick apology, he darted around a few people toward the other side of the cell, near where the back wall met the side of the cell that was made of bars rather than cement block.

Then he spotted him.

The boy couldn't have been any older than Kurt was, possibly younger, with light olive-brown skin and curly black hair. Thin, with legs that managed to appear gangly and yet barely reach the floor from the bench. His legs were crossed at the ankles, tucked back under the seat slightly, the white tips of his Converse resting on the disgusting floor of the cell that Kurt didn't even want to think about when it was last cleaned. His jeans were black and tight, his t-shirt loose against his slim torso. The boy sat as straight upright as he could, as though trying to make himself appear taller and stronger, but his arms were folded neatly into his lap and his fingers unconsciously twisted together as he eyed the cell suspiciously with narrowed dark eyes.

But he was definitely like Kurt.

Whether he was picked up at the park or not, or ended up here through some other ridiculous set of circumstances, Kurt could tell. While there had been plenty of men at the park that Kurt knew he wouldn't have suspected had he passed them on Fifth Avenue, this boy...he knew right away.

There was a space on either side of him, and Kurt moved quickly to take the space closer to the bars. The boy stiffened a moment as he saw Kurt out of the corner of his eye, but as soon as he looked Kurt up and down he gave a knowing look and nodded as if to grant permission that Kurt hadn't even though to ask.

They sat in silence for a few moments, neither sure what to say. Kurt wanted to introduce himself, to find out what had happened to the boy, to see if this happened all the time and if he had done something actually wrong or could do something else instead that would mean staying out of this mess. He wanted to ask if they called the boy names, too, because while he was obviously a homosexual he wasn't wearing any designer accessories that had seemed to make Kurt a target so maybe that was the key...though Kurt doubted he would be able to keep himself from adhering to fashion just because there were ignorant people in the world. He wanted to ask if the boy had a boyfriend and, if so, how he found him and could he take Kurt next time because apparently this wasn't going to work out for him and maybe he could-

Before Kurt could figure out what to ask first, the boy glanced at him sideways but kept his eyes scanning the room as he whispered, "Thank God the uniforms only happen in movies. Horizontal stripes aren't a good look for me."

It wasn't at all the statement he had been expecting, and he wasn't sure whether to laugh or not. He could feel tears starting to well up in relief at even the thought of smiling and the mental exhaustion of the previous few hours, and he simply sucked in a quick breath and whispered back, "Black and white's classic, but so boring." The joke was hardly what was really going through his mind, but it felt better to stay on that topic. To talk about the hideous prison uniforms in Elvis movies and photographs of men on chain gangs in comically-oversized striped pajama-looking outfits instead of talking about what he really felt. Instead of talking about how much he couldn't bear the thought of the men staring at him and finding him disgusting (or, worse still, liking what they saw) and how a part of him wondered if everything he'd been looking forward to his entire life had turned out to be nothing more than a fairytale...making cracks about an ugly outfit felt safe. It felt like he could do that and still keep a disinterested expression instead of crumbling and leaving himself vulnerable for the bullies in the cell to take advantage of. The boy grinned and nudged his shoulder ever-so-slightly - enough that Kurt could feel it but he doubted anyone else could see.

"Who designed those things, anyway? Coco Chanel: The Early Years?" His accent was hard to place, sounding closest to the Puerto Ricans Kurt had heard on the subway; they had confused him because they sounded nothing at all like the boys in West Side Story but with accents not nearly as thick as the girls. But there was something lighter about it, a little more melodic, that made him sound more like...well, like Kurt.

He'd never heard someone who spoke similarly to him before. It was reassuring in a way he couldn't readily identify. He wondered if this was what other people felt like all the time, if guys like Finn just walked around hearing people who sounded like them and feeling comfortable.

"A fan of the New Look?" he supposed dryly.

"Baby, I've got hips, I'm not about to let them go to waste," the boy whispered back. It felt fake, like trying to put on bravado to cover up the vulnerability of the absurd situation they found themselves in, but mostly Kurt couldn't believe anyone would be proud of his hips. He had tried desperately to get rid of his own and associated them with exactly two things: having a hard time finding pants that fit just-so, and the fact that technically, medically-speaking, they were a sign of sexual inversion. Even if that was probably the least thing about this boy that was a sign that they were the same, it still struck Kurt as incredibly odd to be proud of something like that.

His confirmation of the put-on enthusiasm came a moment later, when the boy fell silent, stared down at his hands, then whispered, "First time?"

"Yes," Kurt whispered back, staring intently at a spot on a bar most of the way across the cell. "You?"

The boy nodded, fingers twisting tighter in one another for a moment, then he drew in a deep breath and let it out with a sudden bright smile. "Where did you get those shoes?"

Kurt was too busy to answer as he looked around the cell, noticing that every eye was on the two of them. He was used to people staring at him, that wasn't new, but this felt dangerous. It felt like being surrounded by the football team but with a lot bigger threat than a ring of discount milkshakes waiting to hit his favourite jacket and freeze his face off. The glares, the derision, the tightening of a fist from the guy he'd bumped into accidentally earlier, then another guy began to walk toward them - portly, wearing a leather motorcycle jacket, the collar of which was partially hidden by his greying beard. He was nearly-bald with narrow eyes and a confident strut when he walked. This was it, Kurt thought, the man was going to do exactly what every other man who had stared at him all night had wanted to do: kick him around. Punch him. Push him. Make sure he knew exactly how disgusting they found him, how horrible he was for even existing let alone for attempting to potentially act on how he felt.

He wondered if they thought it would make him stop being who he was. Was it a deterrent factor for them? Or was it just barely-controlled revulsion? Because while he didn't plan on ever setting foot in the park again - for any reason, at any time of day, no matter the circumstances - he didn't think there was any amount of arrest that could make him want a girlfriend instead of a boyfriend. No fists could make him like Rachel as anything more than a friend, roommate, and duet-partner. Nothing he could imagine could change that.

He tried to brace himself, to wait for the fist to slam down on his face, but it never came. Instead, the man stopped less than a foot from the pair, turned so his back was to them, and faced the room with a scowl and crossed arms. The message was clear:

Nobody messes with these two without going through me.

Kurt looked over at the boy, who seemed to be covering his surprise with a disinterested arch of his thick eyebrow. At the familiar gesture, Kurt held out his hand and whispered an introduction.

The boy stared at his hand, then up at Kurt with a look that looked frighteningly like Mercedes' 'Are you crazy?' face, then shook it. His hand was soft, his grip and wrist limp, his fingers long and delicate but poorly-manicured. "I'm Ricky," he whispered back. "That guy a friend of yours?" he asked, nodding toward the ad hoc bodyguard. When Kurt shook his head, Ricky simply nodded and settled in against the uncomfortable bench. "Least it means we can relax a little."

Kurt had no idea how he would relax no matter where the guy stood.

* * * * *

By the time he stepped out of the police station, the first dim streaks of light were beginning to illuminate the sky, but the stars hadn't faded completely. Clutching his belongings awkwardly, he shifted over to lean against the wall as he began to re-dress himself. He slipped his wallet back into his pocket first; it was emptier now - despite having most of his expendable income until payday in there, he had received it back with exactly enough money left in it to cover the fine and secure his own release. The change that had been in his pocket, that he had dutifully placed in the box last night before they made him strip off his pants, was gone too - there wasn't even enough left to get home on the subway. He had no idea where he was, but he knew he had been picked up no more than five or ten minutes' walk from home and they had driven at least a few minutes. Exactly what he needed on top of everything else: a long walk home.

He looked around as he stuffed his belt quickly through the carriers, searching for an address or a cross-street or something he might recognize. He could see the park at the end of the street a couple blocks away, but that didn't help him. For one thing, it took up most of uptown and could be seen from virtually anywhere north of 55th. For another, the last place he wanted to go was through there. Finally he saw an address: West 81st Street. Probably just over a mile if he had to walk crosstown at all. He was already too exhausted to think straight, and the prospect of walking for half an hour in his winklepickers was almost too much to bear. He halfheartedly tied his tie, not bothering to straighten it in his collar, and clutched his Schiaparelli hat tightly in his hand as he started down the street.

"Hey, kid."

Kurt would have jumped at the voice, but he was too tired. Looking over, he saw the bearded man from the previous night, hands jammed into the pockets of his black leather jacket. "Yes?" he asked, pulling on his best disinterested front. He didn't know who the man was, he still didn't know what the man wanted or, maybe more importantly, why he had stood there and watched out for them all night. Kurt wasn't sure how long it had been, he had no idea how long they had actually been in the cell - or even what time it was now - but it certainly felt like a long time.

"Where you goin?" He sounded like he had been raised as a jolly southerner, maybe as a farm boy in Kentucky - the accent was definitely further down than even southern Ohio, for all Kurt knew it might be further west too - Kansas or somewhere. What did people from Kansas even sound like? In his mind they all talked like Auntie Em, but that probably wasn't right.

"Home," Kurt replied. The word felt like a mirage, as though the mental image of his bed, waiting there for him, couldn't possibly be real. He wondered if it was because everything else he had thought was for-sure was turning out to be a lie, or if he was just so tired he couldn't fathom being un-tired except by some miracle.

"Where's home?"

"I don't know you," Kurt stated. "I may not have been born here, or- or raised here, but I've been here long enough to know that you don't just tell people where you live, especially not if they can follow you and kill you on the way there."

The man chuckled. "If I could follow you, you wouldn't have to tell me, now, would you?" he pointed out, and Kurt felt his cheeks flush red at the illogical statement he'd made. "And if I wanted to kill you, I would've just let those guys have at you."

"Why didn't you?" Kurt asked. He tried to feign disinterest, but it didn't quite work. He couldn't figure it out - why was this guy interested in helping him? Why had this man who looked like he was probably about like Puck or Karofsky or any of those boys as a teenager, who looked no different from any of the other men in that cell, stepped in to help him? No one helped him unless they either knew him or had some reason to like him. What made this man different?

The man looked down with a faint smile, rubbing at the back of his neck. "Been a long night, you mind if we talk and walk at the same time?"

He wanted to fight but didn't have the energy, so he simply forced a tight smile and replied, "Sure," starting off down the block once more.

The man fell into step beside him. "Saw your friend maybe twenty minutes ago. He rushed off but told me to thank you for the shoulder." Ricky had fallen asleep pretty quickly and, at some point, slumped over onto Kurt's shoulder. He didn't entirely mind, were he being honest, even though it was strange having a total stranger fall asleep on him. Mostly he was disappointed the boy had run off without a chance for another conversation or maybe the exchange of phone numbers. They had a lot in common, and it felt so good to talk to someone with the same shorthand, who could know what ten words were hiding beneath the one Kurt used. For awhile, as he felt Ricky's body shift against his side with each deep breath, he had thought maybe they could even be friends. Maybe even boyfriends - after all, hadn't things with Blaine started out like this? Not like this, there were no police officers involved, but as two boys interested in the same thing who spoke a common language. Part of what he had been setting out to find when he tried to search desperately for a boyfriend was a companion, someone who would understand him in ways Rachel and Mercedes never could. Maybe Ricky, he had thought for a few fleeting moments as he tried not to get lost in his own head, worrying about whether this would show up in the newspapers like when the drive-in in Ohio had been raided.

But that, like everything else in his life, had not turned out as-planned. He supposed he should be used to it.

"He's not my friend," he replied cooly, even though he desperately wished he could say otherwise. "I just met him."

"Oh." The man shrugged and they kept walking until Kurt turned left at the end of the block, heading south.

"So why?" he asked, reminding the man about the question he had promised to answer.

The man shrugged. "They're not gonna mess with me the way they mess with kids like you two. Just trying to help out where I can. Too many men blend in if they can and leave everyone else hanging out to dry. I'm not gonna do that."

Kurt looked over, confused. Surely he was misunderstanding. "Are you-"

"Yep." The reply was quick, matter-of-fact, and the man didn't even miss a step. "What? Don't tell me you thought we all looked like you."

Logically, Kurt knew he was a rare breed even among other homosexuals. Look at Blaine, who no one would suspect unless they asked too many questions or paid really close attention. There was a reason girls found him irresistible (though the thought turned his stomach). But everything the books had said about the condition fit him, and they fit Blaine, and they certainly fit Ricky, but they wouldn't fit this man. For one thing, the man's hips were no more rounded than anyone else's in relationship to his size, and he definitely didn't look like he had particularly feminine interests or pursuits, and he didn't-

The far worse assumption, Kurt decided, than assuming that the man couldn't be like him because he looked more masculine than his own father...was assuming the book knew anything when it had been proven wrong at every other juncture.

Perhaps the stranger thing was the notion of being honest and putting himself in a position to have to explain it when he didn't need to. Rachel's father told no one. No one guessed he was, and he wasn't about to volunteer that information to anyone; he had been skittish even speaking to the two of them when they went to dinner - it was Leroy who had done all the talking. But this guy...

...Blaine could have learned a lot from him, Kurt concluded bitterly. Someone who could hide and chose not to. Maybe he could've said something inspiring that would have convinced Blaine to come out here instead of running to California.

Some good that would have done.

He wasn't sure why he was more angry with Blaine: for not coming with him, because if his boyfriend were here in the city with him there would have been no need to go finding anyone else and he never would have been in the damned park in the first place...or for being right about everything? For now he was sticking with the former; he didn't know that he could handle contemplating the latter in too much detail just yet. He had started to in bits and pieces over the course of the night, but in the pale pink shadow of morning he didn't think he was ready for that much reality just yet.

"Thank you," he offered quietly.

"No problem," the man replied easily. "What's your name, kid?"

"Kurt. Kurt Hummel."

"Well, nice to meet you, Kurt, Kurt Hummel. I'm Ethel."

That one stopped Kurt in his tracks, and he turned slowly to face the bearded, sturdy man in well-worn Levis , beyond skeptical. "Ethel."

"Yep."

"As in Merman."

"As in Mertz, actually. Friend of mine back in Oklahoma is Lucy." Kurt had no idea how to even respond to that, what questions to ask, so he simply kept walking. "They make you count clothing?"

Kurt could feel the embarrassment washing over him as he even thought about the incident and found himself staring stiffly straight ahead. "Yeah."

"Magic number's three. Gotta be big ones, too, you can't get away with just having on men's underwear under a cocktail dress. And socks count as one, not separately. Friend of mine learned that the hard way. Technically it's just meant to be about 'impersonating' a woman, but we all know it's just to harass us. That's a nice hat, but be careful about it, y'know?"

"There are a certain number of men's clothes I have to wear at any given time," Kurt repeated slowly.

"Yep, three."

"Who gets to decide what's a man's outfit and what's for women? Do women who wear jeans get arrested for that?"

"Not unless they're lesbians," Ethel supposed with a shrug.

By the time they reached 68th Street, the sun was beginning to peek through the intersections of the cross-streets, not yet high enough to shine over buildings but enough to bathe the streets in pale light, the pink of morning slowly fading and giving way to the white of day. "Are you far from here? I've gotta check on a friend of mine that way," Ethel asked.

Kurt shook his head. "Five blocks," he replied. "I'll be fine. But thank you."

Ethel flashed a grin that made Kurt think he would probably look sweet and enthusiastic if he shaved that beard, dressed a little less like a motorcycle thug. Maybe that was part of his charm, he supposed. It had certainly served its purpose. "Take care," he said, peeling off as they got to the intersection and leaving Kurt to make the rest of the journey himself.

It really was a short walk, though the area was less than ideal. This time of morning it was more peaceful than Kurt had seen it any other time - shopkeepers opening the grates that protected their wares from nighttime criminals, sweeping off the sidewalks in front of their stores, chasing out the homeless men sleeping on the front stoops. Just another morning on the Upper West Side, he thought wryly.

Turning right on West 64th, he passed the first of several tenement buildings; Rachel still had to count them to avoid going into the wrong identical door, but for him muscle memory had taken over. Their home had been a palace at the time it was built, when the standard of living was judged by the filthy slums of the Lower East Side where entire extended families would stuff themselves into windowless rooms smaller than the cell he had spent the night in. At the time, a separate bedroom - which the landlord had later split into two in an effort to collect more rent - was a novelty in small, somewhat-affordable apartments such as theirs, and windows in more than one room were a luxury. But those days had long since passed, and most of the old homes in lower Manhattan had been torn down to be replaced with more livable quarters or converted into larger dwellings with multiple rooms with their multiple windows, leaving their tiny, crumbling apartment a relatively-cheap, only-partially-roach-infested home that was marginally safer than living in Harlem or Hell's Kitchen.

Well...sometimes safer than Hell's Kitchen. It depended on who was fighting with whom which week.

Rachel had been so excited to find out that their block had only narrowly escaped being demolished to make room for the new performing arts center, and even more thrilled to learn that the project had been delayed so they could film the exteriors for West Side Story. Kurt had been the one to point out to her that it wasn't such a good thing to live in a place that made a suitable background for a film about gang violence where half the main cast ends up dead by the end of the film. In reality, while there were far fewer warring gangs than in the eponymous musical about their neighbourhood - though apparently that was only because they had missed them by a decade or so, reported their neighbours - it was exactly as run-down as it looked. Row after row after row of decrepit apartments inhabited only by people who couldn't afford any better. Stores that were constantly broken into or robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight.

They had gone to see the film together, just the two of them; Mercedes was still at school, and Kurt had just gotten his job so they had a few whole dollars to spend on something frivolous and fun, and it was more affordable than going to see an actual production. It hadn't taken long before they started trying to identify particular corners in their new neighbourhood, laughing and teasing each other as they tried to figure out where the construction site was in relationship to the basketball court or the little fruitstand. There were only a few other people in the theatre to tell them to be quiet, and it felt like the first time they had been able to relax and smile since they had moved to the city - Kurt had his job, Rachel was going on auditions and would get her break soon, and they would soon be heading for the top again.

What he really remembered from the movie was the feeling of tears streaming down his cheeks as he mouthed the words to "Somewhere." They began somewhere around the time Maria said "But it's not us - it's everyone around us," and Tony replied "Then I'll take you away, where nothing can get to us."

That song had meant something, once upon a time. It had been a promise. It had been a vow between them that they were going to get out of Ohio and go be something together. That they were going to escape their small towns with the narrow-minded people who said that they couldn't be themselves, and they were going to be together in the big city and make all their dreams come true. And then suddenly it had been gone.

He hated wondering if Blaine missed him, because he almost always came around to the same conclusion: If he missed Kurt, he knew where to find Kurt. And he hadn't come looking. So that was his answer.

Kurt trudged up the front steps of the building and opened the front door, then climbed his way up two more narrow flights of stairs to their apartment. He could hear Rachel singing all the way down the hall - a fact he was certain delighted the neighbours - but he couldn't tell precisely what song it was until he got to the door.

There isn't an ocean too deep,
A mountain so high it can keep me away

Rolling his eyes, Kurt let out a quiet, exasperated sigh as he turned his key in the deadbolt and pushed open the door. Rachel stood in the kitchen with a bright smile, cooking pancakes; a bowl of cut-up fruit sat already at her place at their tiny kitchen table, and a glass bottle of syrup bobbed in a saucepan of warm water. She stopped singing as she heard him come in. "Well good morning!" she said enthusiastically with a knowing grin. "Looks like someone had a long night."

"Very," he replied.

He loved Rachel, he really did - more than he had ever expected to. But there were times that even looking at her was physically painful because she was so aggressively upbeat. Right now he wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed and sob for a few hours about all the ways he knew his dreams were over; she was going to propose a duet over breakfast, he could tell already, and the song wasn't doing anything to improve his mood. Not after he had spent all night wondering if Blaine had been right all along and if maybe California was nice this time of year, if maybe people wore different coats out there. If perhaps they would appreciate him more out there, treat him better. The fashion scene out there was pathetically, laughably small, but maybe it was time for a change. Maybe if he started out on the bottom of a fledgling market, he would at least be able to work his way up more quickly. Maybe Rachel could take roles in movie musicals. Something. Anything to find a new place, because New York obviously wasn't wokring for them.

"Did you have fun?"

I will follow him
Ever since he touched my hand I knew
That near him I always must be
And nothing can keep him from me
He is my destiny

He wanted to tell her everything. He wanted to be able to explain to her that no, it wasn't fun - it was horrible. He wanted to have someone, anyone, he could explain to about the clothing rules and how The Scarf had failed him and how all he wanted was someone to love him, someone to kiss him and take him on dates like any other boyfriend would do. How he desperately needed to know that coming here hadn't been a mistake or, at the very least, that there was some way to correct it now because if there wasn't, if what he had been working toward and wanting and dreaming of his entire life turned out to truly be this awful then where in the world - literally - did that leave him? He wanted to be able to tell her that he hated this city more than he hated Ohio because at least Ohio had never promised him anything and then ripped it away. At least he had always known not to feel safe in Ohio. Here...

...But the thing about Rachel was, her aggressive optimism made it impossible to tell her things sometimes. It was like kicking a puppy off a cliff, telling her all the ways that her ideas were completely ridiculous and full of logical fallacies and never in a million years going to happen. It was beyond cruel.

"No," he replied simply. He wanted to sit down, but he knew that if he did he would never summon the energy to get to bed. "It was definitely not a fun evening."

She looked sad for him, but recovered quickly, eagerly telling him about an audition she was preparing for and how this one was surely going to be her breakthrough roll, and how there was no reason for them not to give her this part because clearly she was perfect for it, all while happily flipping pancakes.

I love him
I love him
I love him
And where he goes I'll follow
I'll fol-

With an angry glare at the radio, Kurt slapped it off and padded heavily to the bedroom. He closed the door heavily behind him and locked the door just in case Rachel didn't get the hint; he would talk to her later and hear all about her audition, but for right now he simply disrobed, folding his clothes loosely over the end of the bed because he didn't have the energy to put them away properly.

Except for the hat. That he shoved to the very back of the shelf of his closet where he wouldn't have to look at it. It made him sick to see right now, to stare at, to remember how they had held it by their fingertips, the heel unable to support the weight from that angle so the entire thing bent slightly, and asked what kind of man wore high heels on his head instead of on his feet like a good faggot. He didn't want to see the pink and black thing ever again - not until he could think of it once more as a piece of wearable artwork instead of Item #1 of Female Clothing.

He collapsed onto the bed, too exhausted to bother to cry, and fell almost immediately to sleep.

Chapter Text

Mercedes' morning began as it almost always did: with an argument over the bathroom.

"You broke the hair dryer! You gonna replace that?"

"Are you going to replace the powder of mine you used?"

"I did not!"

"It was brand new a week ago, now it's half gone, and you're the only one it matches! Who's going to pay for that?"

It wouldn't be a morning if Regina and Eva weren't fighting over something. The only reason anyone ever got any sleep was because they had split the two of them into separate bedrooms. Mercedes wouldn't have minded if she had ended up with Regina - the girl was kid of a diva sometimes, but she was okay one-on-one. The two of them could lie around the living room reading Seventeen and Compact and gossip about the stars without wanting to strangle each other. And Mercedes had even liked her previous roommate, Shirley, whose wispy voice and quiet, polite demeanor made her easy to get along with.

But no. She had gotten stuck with Eva, the alto whose boyfriend liked to take up residence in their shared bedroom for hours. Eva, who left wet towels everywhere and swore like a sailor and slept until 3 if given half a chance.

She had tried to complain about it to their manager. Girls got kicked out of groups like this all the time, no one could stand her, why couldn't they just get rid of her? Or at least put her in a different bedroom before she ripped out Eva's hair by the root one of these days? But their manager, a broad-shouldered man named Larry Rockwell who went by "Rocko" in music circles and "Lawrence" in business ones, had a way of shutting down complaints while making it sound like he cared. He stressed that finding a new alto would shut down all the progress they were making while they found a replacement, and that Mercedes was the only one who could deal with Eva without either being run over or killing her, so she just needed to stick it out a little longer - just until they got the silver-bullet deal and had enough money to get a bigger place for the four of them. But he would talk to Eva, he promised.

Some good that had done. Not that she was surprised.

But she still couldn't complain too much.

The quarters were cramped, the people were annoying, the music wasn't always very good, but she was following her dream - and, looking at Kurt and Rachel, she was much closer to it than they were.

She had started later than they had, too. They had moved to New York practically the day after graduation. She had wanted to - ached to. Itched to feel like she was doing something that would let her realize her dream. Instead she had been shipped off to Spelman to become a educated young woman of colour. She had tried to tell her parents she didn't want that - she didn't want to sit around a school ad study things she had no interest i while all the girls just looked for educated me of colour to marry anyway. She didn't want to go off to school only to come back in four years to raise a family. And she didn't want to spend the next four years focusing on nothing but her race when that was what the past three years in Lima had been anyway. John was happy at Howard, he liked reading Langston Hughes and being around people like him. That last part sounded nice enough, but Kurt was like her, too. If the last few years had proved anything, it was that black-and-white was anything but.

How could the people who had fought for her to be able to go to a school where it wasn't just other negroes fight so hard to get her to go to a school where there weren't any white people? And how could they be so mad at her when she left the school she told them she didn't want to go to in the first place? She had made sure to stay through the whole year because she knew the tuition money wasn't easy to come by, especially with John still in school too, but she told them not to send her because it would be a waste. Why did they get to be so pissed at her when she'd given them warning it wasn't what she wanted to do? Her mom had read her the riot act for weeks, her dad was completely disappointed in her, John thought she was crazy...

Which was why it was a good thing she had something to show for it, then, wasn't it?

The Melodics weren't exactly on the radio yet, but they were getting there. They had a manager, which usually took groups a long time, and they were this close to getting signed, she could just feel it. Their rehearsals were tighter than their harmonies, Rocko was taking them around to label after label and they were getting really good responses. Usually the all-black labels were already saturated with girl groups and the all-white ones were just starting to take on anyone "like them", but they were just that good. They were gonna get signed soon, and then she could send home their record and show her parents: see? She was doing okay - better than okay. She was living her dream. Wasn't that what they should want for her?

Well. Her dream and another bedroom. Because if Eva and Regina didn't stop shouting about relaxers, the only song she would be singing would be Jailhouse Rock, and that wasn't exactly in her wheelhouse.

* * * * * *

Rachel firmly believed there was no more magical place in the world than a darkened theater. There was a combination of stillness and energy that could only be found in the moments before anyone else arrived, or when only a few members of the tech crew were around, that felt like nothing else in the world. Like waiting for something amazing to happen. Like the night before she and Kurt had left Lima, when she and her mom sat around the dinner table like nothing was out-of-the-ordinary but there was a sense that everything was about to leap into action and life was about to start, to truly begin, and she could barely contain herself even though everything around her remained quiet and still.

She made it a point to get to the theater before anyone else for an audition if she could - and since she wasn't working right now, that was more than possible. She didn't know why the temp agencies didn't understand that her passion had to come first. How was she supposed to pursue her dream if they kept sending her to type financial documents all day for creepy middle-aged men who liked to stare at her more than Jacob ben Israel? They never seemed to understand just how much this meant to her; whenever she would tell them that she was only doing this until she got her big break, they had a habit of laughing at her which she thought was both rude and really strange. Stars didn't come along very often, didn't they recognize one when they saw her?

Though she supposed it was harder than she'd imagined to be discovered. She had planned to be nominated for a Tony by now, at least for a featured actress - she knew sometimes it took a few years to be considered bankable enough to land the lead role, even if she was already vocally on-par with the women who were currently filling those parts. Instead she hadn't landed even a single part onstage - not even in the chorus where she would be miserable but surely could still snag the attention of the critics in the audience; they would come backstage after the show to find out who that stunning brunette chorus girl on the end was so they could add her to their rave review, and then she would have the bankability to move up in the world.

She didn't understand why none of that had happened yet. She was always perfectly prepared for the auditions, she was painfully talented, she had more ambition than anyone else she saw trying out, but for some reason directors weren't recognizing it. They kept casting these blonde girls with no passion and very little talent who couldn't sing nearly as well as she could - they didn''t even look up when she sang, they just called her number and called out a "Thank you! We'll be in touch" before she got halfway through her verse. She didn't understand why; she had tried changing her song a few times on the off chance that maybe the director was just tired of the immortal classics of Rodgers and Hart even though she found they were severely underrated now that everyone favoured the later pairing of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Still no luck. She had tried dressing the part she was auditioning for (with Kurt's assistance - even if he had made snide comments the entire time, the outfits he had helped her prepare had been exquisite. He was very talented, even if she didn't have the accessibility to make him a vocal star in New York), but that had just gotten her sneered at by the other girls auditioning and still no callback. She hadn't even been given the opportunity to showcase her incomparable acting skills yet because she wasn't brought back in to perform a monologue or read a scene, and how they could decide after seeing so little of her that she wasn't what they were looking for was just a travesty of epic proportions.

She kept expecting her mother to tell her to come back home like she had, to go teach somewhere, and she had prepared a speech for when the request came - about how this was her entire life and if she wasn't performing she didn't know how to breathe, but the missive never came. Maybe she really did understand. Maybe she regretted her own choice not to pursue Broadway - Rachel wasn't sure how she felt about that because she knew she was, in large part, the reason her mother had never been able to leave Ohio, but in either event she was glad for the silent show of support. Unlike Kurt's dad who asked every few weeks if Kurt needed money for a bus to come back home. She didn't understand why, since Kurt was doing really well - he had a job in fashion, what more could he want? He was working for a designer and didn't have to go work for a temp agency that tried to keep him from his dreams the way she did (and, though she didn't want to admit it, he was the one paying most of their bills most months, unless she had a particularly bad month and made enough to chip in; she much preferred the months she couldn't make anything because she was simply too busy preparing for and going on auditions, but sometimes the scheduling simply didn't work that way).

She didn't know what was going on with him, but he had looked exhausted when he had gotten home. Of course, staying out all night, he was either working too hard or finally going out and enjoying himself. She knew there were meant to be hundreds of fantastic clubs and bars in Manhattan, but she never had enough money to go to them.

Maybe that was why she couldn't get a role. Maybe it was all pre-decided in smokey bars and piano clubs, and her inability to go because she didn't have enough money because she didn't have a job because they were all given out already, was what was keeping her from advancing her career.

But in the meantime, barring the ability to fix that (though she would ask Kurt about money later, she made a mental note), she decided to show up to the theater as early as she could. Pulling open the backstage door to the Schubert, she stepped inside and felt the energized stillness of the space, the darkness that almost felt like it was vibrating with potential. Babes in Arms had been put on here, and Pal Joey, and Philadelphia Story, and that horrible Bye Bye Birdie. She had been here a year earlier - a year? She thought so, at least, but it seemed like it was either October or November, to audition for a show about the Jewish Garment District. She thought she would be perfect as Miss Marmelstein, which was a tiny part with only one song, but one song was all it would take for her to be famous (even if Kurt told her she was wrong). She hadn't gotten it - that other Jewish girl had. Still, it was a beautiful theater, disappointment or not.

At this point, she wasn't sure she could find a reputable theater in town where she hadn't auditioned unsuccessfully for a role, anyway.

The stillness was broken by the sound of a lovely tenor voice ringing through the building. Stepping carefully over a pile of rope and sliding past a half-upholstered chair, she went to investigate its source. As she crept around a table and peeked out past the curtain, she was surprised to hear what song it was - Falling in Love with Love was usually sung by someone with much more vibrato and much more chest voice, despite its high range, but the man singing it onstage sounded better than the original - in her opinion. It had never been one of her favourites, but she liked when he sang it.

He was very talented. And attractive, his sandy hair combed neatly to the side, his shirt fitting close to his slim body but not so close as to be obscene. He didn't have to strain for high notes the way Allan Jones had, letting them float effortlessly as he sang.

Falling in Love with Love is falling for make-believe!
Falling in Love with Love is playing the fool!
Caring too much is such a juvenile fancy!
Learning to trust is just for children in school.
I fell in Love with Love one night when the moon-

"Okay!" barked a voice from the house, and Rachel was shaken from her reverie to see three men sitting at a table in the center of the auditorium - just like every other audition she'd ever been to. The man in the center of the trio barely glanced over his reading glasses as he said, "Thanks. We'll be in touch."

There was a barely perceptible slump of the young man's shoulders, a tightening of his smile as though he were willing himself to appear as unflappable as possible as he got that response. Everyone within earshot knew what that meant: you didn't get the job, kid. Not what we're looking for. Try again later. Or never. No explanation. No idea what to do better next time or what left you so completely expendable.

Rachel felt bad for him; she knew what that was like. She hated it. She hated the feeling of inadequacy that crept in around the edges, because she knew she was good. She knew she was fantastic and was going to be a star and this man - whoever he was - was going to be lucky to be in the same restaurant as her someday, would be lucky if she gave him the time of day enough to give him an autograph when she was the biggest star on Broadway...but for now she was at the mercy of the man who didn't even look up and was left wondering what she had done wrong...or at least, what she could have done better. Could have done differently. Could have changed to give herself the edge she needed.

No amount of self-confidence in the world could erase that.

The tenor forced a bright "Thank you" and slinked offstage toward her. She thought about slipping away unnoticed, but as she saw the way he slumped even further as soon as he was offstage and out of the trio's sight-line, she felt the need to help reassure him that it wasn't his fault that Broadway insisted on employing only men with no eye or ear for talent as the people responsible for casting. "You were fantastic," she stated quietly, with a bright earnestness she couldn't hold back. He jumped, startled by the sudden voice in the darkness, and she immediately apologized. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. I just heard you singing, and I wanted to say-"

"You don't have to," he flashed a faint smile, a bright row of pearly white teeth - she had a thing for boys with perfect smiles; attention to dental hygiene demonstrated a high sense of self and care for one's self, which was just as important a quality in a boyfriend as it was in a star.

"Of course I do - it's being honest," she stated, a little bit of a flirty oversell creeping into her voice.

"Well, if it's honesty, then who am I to stop you?" he joked, the smile growing.

"Quiet in the wings!" a voice barked, and the boy looked sheepish.

"Sorry," he whispered, more to Rachel than to anyone beyond the stage. He glanced around, then spied a door and walked over to it, the impact of his shoes on the hard floor echoing in Rachel's ears. He pushed it open, glanced to see what was beyond, then beckoned for Rachel to follow. She felt her heartrate pick up as she followed him on tiptoe, her loafers threatening to slip off the back of her heels and slap against the floor. The entire thing felt a little forbidden, creeping around the back of a mostly-empty theater with a boy this cute. It reminded her of her first romance, her only real relationship - kissing Jesse backstage where no one could see them and tell them they shouldn't be together because their schools were rivals. As much as she had hated not being able to tell anyone how happy she was or why, there was an element of the illicit that made everything feel larger-than-life. More theatrical. More like a movie with a tragic couple that can't be together but the need to see one another is so overpowering they can feel it in their bones, in their hearts, in their souls - so all they can do is see each other in secret and sing wrenching ballads about how they need one another.

He took her hand and led her over the threshold into a stairwell. It was dark and dank, leading to god-only-knew-what, and the way his eyes sparkled as he said, "Now we don't have to be quite so quiet" made her want to cling to him.

"I guess not," she replied, a nervous smile crossing her lips. When he looked at her expectantly, she tried to find the words to tell him how good she thought he was without venturing into territory that was too revealing, too effusive. "I just think you're really talented. I loved what you did with the song."

He smiled almost shyly but with enough confidence underneath that she recognized it; he knew he was good, he was just getting used to people saying he wasn't. Like she was. Maybe. "Thanks. I love that song - I know it's usually done by a more vibrato tenor, but I thought I could do it justice."

"Your voice is really resonant."

"Thanks. Only here would that be a high compliment," he joked. Holding out his hand, he said, "Bobby."

"Rachel," she replied in kind as she took his hand - or, more precisely, let him take her hand, because he looked like that gentlemanly type.

"Break a leg in there. Something tells me we'll be seeing each other on the audition circuit a lot. Hopefully not, because I hope you get this, but-"

"I know what you mean," she nodded. He was babbling in a way that was kind of adorable. "Maybe we could both get lucky and get this."

"You heard what he said to me, I'm a 'no.' Oh well. On to the next." He glanced at his watch and shook his head. "I'm sorry, I have to go meet my manager. I'll see you around." With another flash of a grin, he disappeared out of the stairwell, the door closing with a loud slam that made her jump.

"Hey!" A man who looked to be in his mid-30s, wearing head-to-toe black and carrying a clipboard, stared at her.

"Oh- I'm sorry, I-" She tried to explain, but she wasn't sure what exactly to say: 'I was pulled in here by a brilliant leading man that you're letting get away for no particular reason'?

"What are you doing here?"

"I'm-" She swallowed hard and replied, "I'm here for the audition. I know I'm early, but I wanted to get the first crack at things I could." She flashed him a bright smile; he looked bored.

"C'mon. Rest of the girls are down the hall."

"The rest of the girls?" she asked as he led her around the back of the stage, through a door, and down a long hall. At the end, she could hear sopranos warming up with scales and see girls stretching and doing dance warmups against the wall. As she approached, several turned to stare; she doubted it was because they were wowed by her obvious talent.

"We'll start soon," the clipboard-carrying man informed no one in particular as Rachel turned into the room where he had left her. There had to be a few hundred girls waiting there already.

She had a feeling Bobby was right about them passing each other on the audition circuit again for awhile.

* * * * *

Kurt was so tired he could barely see straight. Of course, he supposed that was what he got for dragging himself into work after literally two hours of sleep and a night in jail.

The nausea at that thought came and went even though the exhaustion remained. On the plus side, it meant he had been able to skip lunch, which made him look better - or at least, less bad - to his boss after he showed up at 10 instead of the customary 8:30. Staying late would help that, too; the more people could see his light still on as they left, the less gossip there would be about him being a slacker. He would never understand how it was possible for a group of grown men with professions and families could act so much like high school girls with the gossip and petty vendettas and catty remarks, but he was quickly finding that was the way people around here just...were.

He adapted the best he could. He had always been the kind of person who did his best to figure out the best way to get through the world without compromising his differences. He never tried to stop himself from standing out, not really, but he did try to game the rules of the system to his advantage where he could. He tried to work around or through policies at school, to slip past the politics and make allies with key Cheerios so he would be less despised - or at least a little protected, despite his firmly-cemented status as a loser. He had always managed, more or less...but for some reason it was harder to do here. He knew he needed to learn to play their games a little better, to gossip strategically to get what he needed, but it was harder to figure out what he was meant to do and whom he needed to say what to, in part because they already had their groups when he had gotten there. That hadn't stopped him before, he'd done well enough at Dalton, but-

Well, let's just say his failure to find a Blaine in New York had hurt him in more ways than just one. It wasn't just a boyfriend he'd lost.

On the list of disappointments he had in New York, that was near the top. He was pretty sure spending the night in jail for so much as thinking about being on a date with a boy should've been first on the list, but even thinking about that hurt too much to analyze in detail. Besides, who was to say that hadn't just been one big misunderstanding? Surely it was just a random confluence of events that hadn't happened before and would never happen again. After all, people shouldn't be...doing that in public, he shouldn't be able to walk through a public park at any hour and see naked anyone, let alone those kinds of acts no matter who they were, so in all honesty he wasn't sure he could say the police were wrong except the part where they arrested him.

And everything they'd said to him afterward. Everything that had happened to him had been wrong and violative and he couldn't-

His hands clenched as he thought about it, getting more and more furious with how they had treated him - and Ricky, too, he was sure - balling up fabric with his left hand while his right tightened so tightly around the scissors that they quivered against the grey silk. The looks on their faces as they eyed him up and down, the delighted amusement as they made him take off his clothes so they could inspect him like- He didn't even know what analogy he could give that would convey that kind of shame with no ostensible titillation on the part of the observer.

He couldn't start thinking about that. He had a very strict policy of not crying at work, no matter how much his natural state seemed to be one of waterworks, and he was not about to break that now. Especially not over silk, that would stain and there would be no getting the tears out of it once they fell so he really couldn't afford to-

"Working late?" a pleasant voice asked from the doorway, and Kurt's head jerked up suddenly. It was one of the guys who he had no idea what precisely they did. Most of the job descriptions eluded him even a year later, but what Mainbocher lacked in occupational specificity, it made up for in hierarchical clarity. He didn't know what the man a few years older than him did in the design process, but he knew the gentleman was somewhere around the third-highest echelon: he didn't get to make decisions himself, but he got invited to the meetings where decisions were made and would one day - probably someday soon - get to make the decisions. Probably as soon as someone from the second-echelon left. "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you," he added with a warm smile.

Kurt couldn't remember the last time someone had smiled at him. Normally it felt isolating to consider; after last night, it was enough to make him want to start crying again. But if the silk beneath his fingers wasn't enough of a reason to hold back the tears, the fact that no one wanted to promote the resident waterworks was more than sufficient. His own boss thinking he was pathetic was frustrating but seemed like par for the course - his boss hated him in general. He could live with that. But upper-management thinking he was pathetic was one indignity he refused to suffer today. "Just trying to get this done before I leave."

"Is that for the suit coordinates?" he asked, stepping into the room to get a better look at the fabric on the table.

"The dress is done, I'm just finishing up the jacket now," he replied evenly, adjusting the edge of the muslin carefully with his fingertips.

"Great." The warm smile turned more enthusiastic, and it was almost enough to make Kurt's resolve crack - so much like Blaine's...and one of these days he had to get past that, right? It had been more than a year now, and while he firmly believed that his righteous indignation over how it had ended and his lingering anger over the situation (and at the boy who had created it) was perfectly reasonable...at some point he needed to stop feeling like such a mess all the time.

Maybe he was just exhausted. He swore most days didn't feel quite this bad. It was just the combination of last night and today being too long for anyone to handle. He should just go home and get some sleep. Like a week's worth.

"Don't stay too late now," the man told him, an odd fondness in his voice considering he'd never technically met Kurt before and no one was fond of or nice to people that far below their own hierarchical rung for no reason whatsoever. With another flash of a grin, he headed for the door and tossed a "Goodnight!" over his shoulder as he departed.

It was the most friendly interaction he'd had at work since he started.

Which was how his disappointments over work managed to top the list of all broken promises - managed to beat out the loneliness, and the tiny, no-frills apartment that Rachel insisted on trying to 'help' decorate, and the budget that barely left them with enough to eat some months let alone for the type of wardrobe he'd envisioned for himself once he got to the big city, and even the incarceration for not doing anything. He had thought that, at the very least, once he got to New York they would appreciate his keen eye for style. They would be able to understand his passion for design and let him put it to good use. It was hardly a rarity for young designers to make it big after a few years in the business - Givenchy had his own house at 25 after working for the best in the business. And he...

...he was stuck cutting out hideous jackets from streaky pale grey silk.

The silk wasn't the problem, not really; it appealed to their particular demographic and wasn't awful in and of itself. It would've looked nice as an evening gown...or a cocktail dress...or an elegant sofa...but that wasn't the point. The fabric choice for the garment in question was all wrong, and the garment itself was just hideous. A ballooning top over the bust that nipped in at the waist with an almost pencil skirt, worn with a Chanel-style jacket over it? Who thought that looked good? But the jacket couldn't just be ripping off Chanel - that wouldn't be creative enough. Chanel, who rated somewhere below the person who decided that midwestern women's dresses should be indistinguishable from their sofas in Kurt's eye, at least had designed something clean in its boxiness; this had large same-fabric buttons and a sewn-on placket and a strange collar that more closely resembled that of a baseball uniform, curving from the placket up into a collar that neither stood up nor folded down. He couldn't imagine any woman alive who would think it looked appealing or would want to buy it based on aesthetics; that left only buying it based on the label, and Mainbocher...well, it wasn't Givenchy. Or Dior. Or even Chanel. It was a house more remembered for designing the WAVES uniforms during the War than anything else, and that wasn't much to speak of two decades later.

How had a label that had kept its relevance by designing essentially suits for women come up with something so utterly unappealing? He shook his head as he resumed cutting it out. He could've made this work, had he been part of the design process. Well- First of all, he would have told them not to do it, but if they had insisted, he would have at least cut it differently. Made it less boxy and more tailored, more like the Dior New Look jackets. That would've meant tailoring the top of the dress more, but what a shame that would be - not making it look like a woman could fit herself and a six-course dinner complete with roasted turkey in the top at the same time. The bottom of the dress was perfectly fine, though not particularly interesting. Which left only the collar.

What to do about the collar? The ridiculous ring of fabric that neither made a statement nor got out of the way of the rest of the garment.

If he were being forced to mitigate the horrible things about this design, rather than starting fresh, what would he do about the collar? A basic men's-style lapel might be a bit much, regardless of whether he made it peaked or notched; a grown-on collar would just make the entire thing completely uninteresting, but it might be what he would end up with if nothing else looked right - at the very least, it wouldn't make anything worse; a standup collar would be too unconventional for the fabric and for the dress, though they intrigued him generally and if he were starting over from scratch he would redesign the entire thing around being able to add a standup collar; that left only-

Turndown.

Yes, a turndown collar. it would need to be a point of interest in order to make up for the boringness of the rest of the garment and to balance the dress, to be a feature instead of just another out-of-place, poorly-conceived detail. An exaggerated turndown collar like on an overcoat was exactly what this was calling for.

If only he were designing this instead of whatever second-echelon simpletons had signed off on it.

With a final snip of the scissors, he began to gather the pieces. The silk that was to become the dress was already neatly folded on the table by the door, and Kurt carefully counted the jacket pieces as he moved them. Fronts, facings, backs, sidebacks, upper arms, lower arms, plackets-

He had cut the wrong collar. Lying on his table was a turndown instead of what the jacket was meant to have. He had to admire how well it was cut considering it was the product of wistful-thinking and daydreaming when he had barely had enough sleep to remember his own name; apparently he was getting good enough to literally do this job in his sleep. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not, but he was guessing it wasn't. For sake of his own sanity, at least.

He needed to go to bed. He would fix it in the morning - because if he tried to fix it now, he had a feeling he would somehow cut the same thing again. Or cut the entire thing so badly off-grain he had to redo it anyway. At least now he had only wasted a small amount of silk; if he kept going, he could only imagine how much he would ruin.

With a deep sigh and a roll of his eyes, he pulled on his coat and flicked off the light on his way out of the room. He really hoped Rachel's audition had gone poorly - not for her sake, but for his own. He didn't know if he had the energy to pretend to listen to her gushing about how wonderful it had been right now.

Chapter Text

Kurt had to admit that he did feel better after a full night's sleep. Still not good - his skin felt tight and dry because he had missed his moisturizing routine two nights in a row, being too exhausted the previous evening to think of anything but collapsing into his bed. His eyes still felt raw and gritty from alternately trying not to cry and dissolving into a stream of tears. His back still felt stiff from sitting on the hard bench against the wall all night, but he had gotten used to his back aching from the height of the cutting table so it barely warranted a mention. So he felt better.

Except when he thought about it too hard.

Still, he felt sufficiently rested to get up early and make breakfast. Usually he and Rachel split the household duties, and he had always enjoyed cooking to relax. The first summer in the apartment, he had found himself making more meals than they could possibly eat and using up most of their budget on food because the simple act of whisking egg whites helped to ground him. If he could focus on something other than life's disappointments, he could slip past the bitterness and frustration a little more easily than if he was left to dwell and stew in the living room or tried to sing out his devastation at the top of his lungs.

Their neighbours weren't too fond of that coping mechanism, either. Some days he didn't care, but other days the last thing he wanted to deal with were irate people showing up at their door. It really put a damper on his plan to try to stay positive about the city and his prospects and his chances of staying lonely forever. 

With his morning face routine complete and Rachel still in bed, he set to making waffles. He wondered if Carole had ever managed to get the egg whites all fluffy like his father preferred - he'd had plenty of practice, but she was still so new at all of the homemaker duties that sometimes he wondered if his father was even surviving with him gone. He knew that was silly, that his father had eaten just fine the year he was at Dalton, but there were times he wondered. Of course, neither his father nor Finn were nearly as particular about food - or anything really - as he was, so he supposed it was probably a case of 'good enough for me' and they left it at that.

He wasn't sure whether that thought was liberating or completely depressing - not being needed in Ohio like that. Three years ago it would have been his salvation; he had worried for awhile whether his father would be able to manage without him if he moved so far away, if his familial obligations and need to run a tire shop would keep him in that cow town forever - that horrible, backwards place that somehow looked better to him every day he wasn't there. Now it felt...well, it felt like New York: like he was disposable, completely interchangeable with any other boy in that house. Like his father and Carole and Finn were living as a perfect little family and he was the one who was so different that even New York couldn't handle him.

That was ridiculous, he told himself as he whipped the batter harder. Especially now that Finn had gone and joined the Navy, so it was just his dad and Carole in that big house they had moved into after the wedding. He was sure they were probably enjoying the opportunity to be newlyweds, even at their ages, and he was glad his father was happy. He really was.

He just wanted a little happiness for himself, too. That was all.

"Good morning," he said brightly as Rachel padded out from her bedroom, hair in low pigtail braids, her nightgown displaying a disturbing quantity of lacy ruffles. "Breakfast should be ready in a minute."

"Someone's cheerful this morning," she pointed out. Even a year later, the fact that Rachel took a few minutes to wake up properly and stop seeming so bleary-eyed and grumbly was a novelty he felt like he should be able to exploit somehow. She maintained that five minutes to wake up was hardly out of line; he was fond of pointing out that it was closer to fifteen or, on occasion, twenty. In either case, he supposed it wasn't too big a price to pay for her company. They really did get along surprisingly well as roommates - both fastidious about their space, understanding of one another's ambition...it really was a perfect match. Were they compatible in other ways, Kurt wouldn't have objected to actually dating her...but then, his safety was part of what she found so intriguing, he was pretty sure. She did have a tendency to pine after boys she could never have.

He wondered if that was why she never brought boys around. His reason was obvious; hers, less so. He supposed she was probably telling herself she was focusing on career, but he wasn't sure he understood that logic. If he could find a boy to love him, it wouldn't take away all of his complaints about his career progress or lack thereof, but it would certainly improve his spirits about the whole thing. 

"Just well-rested," he replied simply as he placed a bowl of mixed berries on the table and checked the waffle iron.

"You did go to bed pretty early last night," she observed. "Still resting from the night before?" The pointed look was a sign of her really waking up, and Kurt just hoped she wasn't quite alert enough yet to notice the stiffening of his back or the way his fingertips gripped the formica countertop. 

He couldn't answer questions about it - not now, not ever. He didn't know how to even start to tell her about what had happened, about the hedonistic playground of the park and how achingly close he felt to being able to find what he was looking for, only to have some guy grab him and then a police officer arrest him for doing nothing but being who he was in the company of others who were like he was. He couldn't begin to describe the looks on their faces or how utterly humiliated and- and violated he had felt by it all, how the other men in the cell had looked at him, or the complete confusion and relief of meeting Ethel, or the boy he couldn't quite get out of his mind.

He wondered if Ricky had gotten home safely. If he had gotten arrested again in the meantime. 

If he knew where to find other boys. If he had a boyfriend, someone he could explain everything to who would understand what it was about those names that were making Kurt's eyes well up to even think about, even though he knew it was stupid because it wasn't as though he hadn't heard every one of those words before - directed at him, even. 

And besides, even if he could talk about it with Rachel, even if he had the words to explain any of it, he still couldn't. They didn't utter anything that sounded like "We should pack up and go home." After the first few months, they had made an unspoken rule against that kind of self-pity and desperation. He couldn't tell her about the city's most wrenching disappointment to date because he knew the next words out of his mouth would be that it was no better than Ohio here. In some ways worse because at least in Ohio he could go largely unnoticed; he doubted the police had suddenly sprung upon the park without knowing that was a place where homosexuals gathered - even Officer Krupke wouldn't just happen upon such a gathering without knowing what he was looking for. It was just like the raid of the drive-in back home. And if he had escaped for a reason and that reason didn't exist, then...

...then Blaine was right.

Which was why he couldn't say anything to Rachel about it. He couldn't utter those words out loud without wanting to curl up in his bed and disappear. Not after telling himself for two years that he was the victor.

"I was working late," he explained, his voice tight and distant, and he took a moment to make sure he was fully collected before he glanced over his shoulder at Rachel to see whether she bought it.

"Usually you call," she pointed out, which was true - if he was going to be later than usual, or if he hadn't told her that he planned on meeting Mercedes at Columbus Circle after work, he generally called so she didn't wait to eat until he arrived.

"I didn't realize how late it was," he offered, knowing it was a horrible excuse, and she looked skeptical for just a moment before lighting up.

"And then you tried to call but it was already after midnight," she concluded. "I tried to get to the phone in time, but it had stopped ringing by the time I found my robe." He didn't know why she thought she needed her robe to answer the phone when she was the only one in the apartment, but he didn't bother to ask. "Well. I'm just glad it wasn't anything serious. Are you working late tonight, too?"

He gave a quick shake of his head. "Not that I know of." He placed a plate of waffles in front of her and turned to get his own.

"If you are, call me," she requested as she delicately spooned berries onto her breakfast. "I want to try a casserole recipe I saw."

"I will," he replied as he sat across their tiny table from her.

She began to cut her waffles, then cocked her head slightly to the side and smiled broadly to herself. Glancing up, she stated, "This feels so domestic." He wasn't sure why that occurred to her after more than a year of doing this, but he had learned not to ask those questions of Rachel. "You make an excellent homosexual boyfriend."

There were so many things he could say to that, but all he could manage was a tight, wavery smile as he began to eat his breakfast. He only wished someone else would think so.

* * * * *

By the time he arrived at work, Kurt had managed to resuscitate his mood to the point where he wasn't spending every second wondering if everything he had done in the previous three years had been one giant mistake. It was a feeling that came and went, and it had for the previous three years, but at least for the moment he had consoled himself with the knowledge that, were he still in Ohio, he would be spending this time changing tires wearing a jumpsuit while Finn ate all the donuts (except not, and that was even stranger to think about) and customers shot confused looks his way while his father had to quietly defend him. And he would have to be actually dating Rachel instead of just pretending to - and even at that, they barely pretended anymore anyway. There was no need when they didn't run in circles with the same ten people and family members weren't constantly prying to see what they were up to and whether they were contemplating marriage yet. They didn't need to make a production of their "relationship," even if their landlord did find them incredibly strange for wanting a two-bedroom apartment together rather than two studios in the same building. At least here there was still hope of each of them finding someone who could understand them.

And the clothing options, while limited-by-choice for everyone else, were still much preferable to Ohio where he had exactly one mail-order catalog for all his coats. That had just been unacceptable. At least here, there were thousands of stores he could choose from (when he had the money) and the possibility of career advancement. Maybe not as quickly as he had hoped, but it was still better than nothing. While Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent had found huge success very early on, that wasn't typical and he knew that, so all hope was not lost. Patience wasn't his strong suit, but waiting was far superior to floating with no possibilities on the horizon and not even the potential for things to improve. Things could all be a lot worse.

His smile was only a little forced as he greeted the girls in the front office, both of whom complimented his blazer with wide red, black, and grey stripes and his black tie woven with metallic Metlon threads. Though men with more manual-intensive jobs, even in the couture and runway departments, were permitted to dress a little more casually, but Kurt refused. Being blue-collar had never influenced his fashion choices in Ohio and it certainly wasn't about to when
he worked in fashion. There was always the chance that he would be selected for additional assignments based on his clear sense of personal style - though that possibility seemed remote with every passing day. 

He descended the stairs to his workroom and hung his overcoat by the door. On the edge of his work table was a stack of fabrics and muslins with a note detailing precisely what needed to be made. An ugly beige-gold floral brocade with a matronly empire-waisted dress - just what the world needed, another one of those. A hideous floral print sundress with a note that rhinestones would be added to the flowers later. 

Maybe he should send his portfolio to Givenchy again. Or he could try Balmain's ready-to-wear division, because if this was what passed for couture he supposed there really was no such true thing anymore. 

But that would be tonight. First he had to recut the collar from the night before. He turned to the table by the door to grab the grey silk-

It was gone. The table was empty.

No. That didn't make sense, why would there be nothing on there when he wasn't done yet with- Unless someone had come by already to pick it up, but it wasn't done yet. It still needed the collar cut because he had done it wrong and there was no way that his luck could be so bad that the one time - the one time - he cut something wrong, they would come get it early before he could correct it. Even he couldn't have that bad of a break that on the day after he spent the night in jail for doing nothing at all, he made a single, solitary mistake at work that was now going to be seen by everyone higher than him including the boss who already hated him for no good reason. There was just no way-

He began to look through the workroom quickly, looking under tables, searching under benches and in boxes and places that there was no way the fabric would have ended up unless someone was actively trying to mess with him, but to no avail. The fabric had already been taken upstairs to be sewn.

At this rate, he would end up back in Ohio whether he wanted to or not because he couldn't very well afford rent when he lost his job. A hundred people wanted this thankless job, and while Kurt doubted any of them had his eye for style or would know why the collar was horrible in the first place, they would at least be able to cut it correctly which was, at present, his one and only responsibility. 

He was definitely getting fired. 

* * * * *

Rachel had a really good feeling about this audition. She couldn't figure out why, but it didn't matter. She knew it was going to go her way. And because she was a little bit psychic and therefore could trust her instincts on things like this, she was absolutely getting this part.

The theatre was tiny, not even 200 seats, and to be honest she wasn't entirely sure why she had even bothered coming on the audition because such a small venue was unlikely to ever result in her getting a starring role on Broadway, but at this point she was getting desperate. A lot of famous plays had gotten their starts here at the Cherry Lane Theatre (which was on Commerce Street, nowhere near any streets named for fruits of any kind), and maybe, if she was cast in a production off-Broadway, she could make the transition to the Great White Way with the show. Besides, Tonys were given for only two categories of people: those who revived a classic role, and those who originated a role. No one won a Tony for being the third person to play Maria, they won for being the first. And how better to show her creative and interpretive skills than to create a role out of nothing without any previous portrayals to base the character on?

There were far fewer actresses waiting in the pre-audition room here than on prior auditions, which was cause for both optimism and skepticism. If no one else wanted this role, was it really worth considering? While an established actress could survive being associated with a flop, a new actress couldn't. 

But who was she kidding? She needed this part, she needed to be on stage again, to hear the cheer of the crowd - however small - and to feel them feeling her emotions, to sing at the top of her lungs and not worry about their neighbours banging on the walls or ceiling to tell her to stop. She missed that so much she craved it and dreamed about it and was close to starting to sing on a streetcorner just because she desperately needed to hear people applauding for her. Of course, she knew she was more talented than some busker - no half-drunk man with a guitar could hold a candle to her passion, years of training, or skill - but as a last resort it might have to do.

Assuming she didn't get this.

She found herself halfway looking for Bobby as she walked through the narrow halls under the theatre, from the girls' holding room toward the stage. She did tend to see a lot of the same people at audition after audition - the girl who had gone two before her was also at the audition for "Nowhere to Go but Up", and at least three of the other girls had been at the auditions for that "Stop the World' one, and two of the girls with short hair had auditioned with Rachel to play little boys in Oliver!, but apparently with no luck for any of them. She wasn't sure where they were holding the boys or if they were even also auditioning today, but maybe this would be a chance for both of them. Bobby was definitely talented, and he was charismatic and oozed leading-man potential with that smile, and while she was a very talented actress it would make playing a romance easier if she had chemistry with the gentleman picked to play opposite her.

The stage lights were cheap, outdated, and as she stepped out onto stage she found herself unable to see out to the audience even a little; usually with a little squinting, once her eyes adjusted for a minute, she could see the director and better read him, but not in the harsh glare of these lights.

"Who are you?" came a disembodied voice from somewhere in the house.

"Rachel Berry," she stated, noting with approval the excellent acoustics.

"What are you singing?"

"So in Love, from Kiss Me Kate." She had heard other actresses give the name of their song like a question, as though they were unsure, and while she had spent a considerable amount of time selecting just the right number, she was sure of both its name and the fact that it was perfect. The character she was auditioning for was sultry but vulnerable all at the same time, which made this a great number to showcase her ability to play both sides, and it was an excellent choice to demonstrate her vocal range in addition to the emotional range. 

"Ah." The voice - or at least the person whose voice it was - sounded rather unenthusiastic, as though he had heard it too many times already to be interested, but Rachel was undeterred. Just because there were other girls who sang the song she had selected didn't mean that she wouldn't have the edge over them all. "Well, whenever you're ready."

She drew in a deep breath, then nodded to the accompanist who squinted at her music for a moment before he began to play.

Strange, dear, but true, dear,
When I'm close to you, dear,
The stars fill the sky,
So in love with you am I.


It had been a long time since she had felt so comfortable on-stage, so unrushed. Usually there was practically an assembly line of auditions - sing a few bars, get an "Okay, thank you," and leave to go wait by the phone obsessively for days or weeks before concluding there was no callback. At times it could all feel so rote, but there were moments where Rachel felt like she was exactly where she was meant to be: on a stage, in a theatre, with just her voice and the darkness beyond the stage lights.

Even without you
My arms fold about you.
You know, darling why,
So in love with you am I.


There were times she thought about going home. Times she wondered if this had been foolish - coming all this way and leaving everything behind only to fall flat on her face. Some of the girls she heard audition were really good; she was talented, and she knew that, but some of them were even beyond her abilities. And then she would see them again at auditions a few weeks later, which meant even they hadn't been good enough to get the part they were both going out for. And if they weren't good enough, where in the world did that leave her except in a tiny apartment with Kurt.

He was the reason she didn't say anything. She didn't want him to think that he needed to pack up his life and leave, too, because she knew that he probably couldn't stay - at least not in their apartment - by himself out here. And New York was his dream, too, she couldn't just change her mind or move back to Ohio to perform in Cleveland where they were closing all the theatres in Playhouse Square. And he was such a good friend that he wouldn't want to keep her in New York if he knew she was unhappy, so she couldn't tell him how horrible things were sometimes. She couldn't tell him how humiliating it was to go to these auditions and feel like a backwoods yokel who could barely sing a note compared to some of these girls who had been training professionally, who had Broadway credits to their name - or at least off-Broadway credits like this one.

But when she got up onstage, when it was just her and the darkness and her voice, she still felt unstoppable. Just for a moment. Just as long as she could lose herself in the melody and the bigger-than-life emotions. She would always be in love with the theatre.

In love with the night mysterious
The night when you first were there.
In love with my joy delirious
When I knew that you might care.


As much as she hated to admit it, she was surprised when the director or other creative team didn't cut her off as she moved into the bridge. Usually they kept songs pretty short, feeling they needed to hear only a few bars - or sometimes only a few notes - before curtly cutting her off. She wasn't entirely sure if that meant the director had left the room to go get a cup of coffee and forgotten about her or if, as she more strongly suspected, they were so enjoying her performance that they didn't want to stop her. Unable to stop a smile from crossing her face despite the highly emotionally-charged nature of the song and its lyrics of unparalleled, unwavering devotion, she charged on with more power and confidence.

So taunt me and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I'm yours 'til I die,
So in love,
So in love,
So in love with you, my love, am I.


Her eyes began to adjust to the lighting and she looked out beyond the edge of the stage to try to see the director. A man in his mid-to-late 30s, he was resting his chin in his hand as he looked absently toward the stage, a dreamy expression on his face as though he were under the spell of her voice, and she felt almost giddy at the thought. He understood. He could see the beauty of her talent and could appreciate her abilities. He was impressed by her - or maybe by her potential. Maybe that was what the dreamy look was for, he was imagining all the roles he could cast her in.

She could be his muse.

Yes! That was perfect. Every great artist needed a muse, and while this show wouldn't make her a star - yet - the right actress could make a part her own and make herself a star, and with the right person writing and directing her, with someone who was inspired by her...they could be an unstoppable team. 

In love with the night mysterious
The night when you first were there.
In love with my joy delirious
When I knew that you could care.
So taunt me and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I'm yours 'til I die,
So in love,
So in love,
So in love with you, my love, am I.


As the last note resonated through the tiny auditorium, she heard the voice from before call out, "Lights please, Mac?" and the floodlights dimmed. She saw the director approaching the stage with a smile that was part thoughtful and part adoring. "That was incredible."

It had been so long since someone - well, someone other than Kurt - had complimented her that it felt overwhelming to hear even such simple words of praise. Like the time Kurt had reluctantly hugged her after she'd had a particularly bad day and the simple affectionate act had seemed like it might break a dam inside of her after being untouched for so long. Back in Ohio, she'd gotten used to things, to being told she was incredible, to being hugged and touched, to being the star. Now, starved for all of it, even the slightest glimmer of that which she needed was almost too fantastic to believe.

"Thank you," she replied, a beaming grin crossing her face.

It had been too long since someone recognized her talent. But she wasn't about to say that out loud. People apparently found that intimidating or grating, or so her mom claimed. 

"I've seen a dozen girls do that song in the past couple weeks as we've been casting, and that was by far the best. Better than Patricia Morison, even," he stated, and Rachel's grin stretched even further. He thought she was better than the original. That was the highest praise a director could give in a land where the original cast was golden, as far as she was concerned.

Even if she did prefer other renditions for their tonal quality or emotional depth. 

"I think I prefer Shirley Bassey's version," she admitted. Kurt had played it over and over for a few weeks at one point before Mercedes demanded he return her album.

He looked surprised for a moment before leaning against the stage casually and asking, "Have you heard her do 'Climb Every Mountain'? I don't like the scoops at the beginning-"

"But the emotion as she goes into the repeat is beautiful." 

"Stunning," he agreed with a smile, then extended a hand up to her. "I'm Cal."

With him on the floor and her on stage, she had to kneel down in order to reach his outstretched hand. He kissed the back of hers, and she blushed because she'd never had a man do that to her before. "I'm R-"

"Rachel Berry. See? I remember?" There was something entrancing about his smile, something that wanted to draw her in immediately even had he not been complimenting her. "We still have some auditions to get through, and of course we have to confer about callbacks, but you really were fantastic. And it's obvious you love music - it's rare to find a beautiful girl who lives and breathes it as much as I do." He flashed a grin and added, "May I take you to dinner to continue the conversation?"

She didn't even know what to say. A director - of a tiny show, sure, but a director nonetheless - thought she seemed like a lively conversationalist in addition to being incredibly talented and a probable callback? She had to be dreaming. This was too amazing for words. 

It had been a slow start, but things were finally going to change now. The movies were right, it really did only take one person seeing you and recognizing your talent, and your entire career could just start. She was on her way now. She was a sure thing.

Okay, maybe he wasn't quite saying that, not in as many words, but from the way he was smiling at her it was obvious. She had the role sewn up. There was no way he was going to select anyone else after the way he was smiling at her and complimenting her. She had seen how directors treated everyone else, and then there was this. This was how a star was treated - or, in her case, a future star. 

This would be an entire chapter of her memoirs. She had started writing them when she was 10 and was now on chapter 15. Chapter 15 would be the place where everything changed, where her entire life as the public knew it began. She would be able to write about how she had sung about being so in love with the stage that the director couldn't help but find her entrancing and needed to cast her in his small-yet-exceptional production. Then they could talk about music for hours at a time and she could inspire his next project, where naturally she would be a fit for the lead (having essentially created the role for herself and in precisely her range to maximize belting). Tony awards would follow immediately thereafter.

This was amazing.

Cal turned to return to his seat, pausing a moment to toss a smile over his shoulder at her, and Rachel stood slowly. Her head was spinning as she smoothed her skirt and walked offstage, the theatre echoing with the sound of her character shoes on the stage. There was a pause, then an "Okay, next!", and she could hear the smile in his voice. A girl who had already racked up several ensemble credits, stepped out onto the stage and launched into "Wonderful Guy" from South Pacific. She made it barely four lines before Cal cut her off with a "Thank you very much!"

...She really had been special. He didn't let just anyone finish, and he didn't compliment everyone. 

She was on her way.

Fighting the urge to squeal in delight, she clapped her hands together and rushed out of the theatre, ready to tell everyone in the West Village that she was, at long last, about to become a star.

Chapter Text

Kurt was midway through cutting a sundress out of ugly floral pique - which, a note on the fabric indicated, was to be adorned with crystals after the shell was sewn, because what the fabric really needed was to be more busy - when a thud shook his table. His head jerked up in surprise, and he instinctively glanced down for a second to be sure he hadn't torn the fabric; no, of course not, the thick cotton would not die. He looked up again quickly and saw his boss standing across the table from him with a scowl. Stu had never smiled in Kurt's presence - not unless he was gossiping with other second-rung-up people about the stupidity and incompetence of lowest-rung people like Kurt, which he made sure to do every so often just near enough for it to be clear what he was saying without his actual words being overheard - but now he looked downright furious. His arms crossed over his chest, he glanced from the box that sat between them on the table up to Kurt and back again, as if to ask 'aren't you going to look inside?' Kurt craned his neck to peer in and saw large quantities of tulle jammed into the carton. He had no doubt that if he were to try to lift it out, it would explode like a pop-out snake toy into a stiff, wrinkled, difficult-to-work-with mess that would take over his workroom.

"Since you seem unable to do even the most basic parts of your job," Stu said with a sneer, and Kurt felt his stomach sink. This was about the collar. He'd thought he was okay because it had been a few days and no one had said anything; he had assumed that someone in the sewing room had just cut a new collar - the right one - and been too preoccupied with their work to decide to ruin the life of the boy who worked in the basement. "I thought I'd give you something simpler."

It was a lie, and a blatant one. While the person making petticoats was generally seen as less prestigious (and therefore less talented) than the person who got to cut the pieces of the actual garments, tulle was more difficult to work with than most people realized. There was a reason the man whose job it was to sew petticoats and crinolines and underskirts all day had a complex that was widely joked about. Silk may have required a gentler hand, but tulles and nettings were more wiley, less likely to lay flat, harder to pin without puckering or sliding, and almost impossible to refinish cleanly if cut wrong. The machines practically spat out netting in disgust, the thread breaking every few inches because even a skilled dressmaker had a hard time getting a constant tension on so-called fabric that was more hole than fabric, and because it just kept wrinkling and trying to fly away, Kurt could only imagine how long it would take him to complete whatever this new assignment was.

But he supposed he deserved it, right? Even though he'd only cut it wrong because the design was horrible in the first place, and even though he had had every intention of fixing it but it had been taken away before he'd had the chance...He had screwed up.

If he were still in Lima, he would have fought Stu about it, Kurt knew. If he were still living back there, if he were still the person he was when he lived there...the person who believed he was better than everyone around him and had a list a foot long that detailed the reasons why, the person who knew he was too good for the pathetic cowtown and its backwards yokels, the person who knew that New York held great things for him...

But that person had long since been crushed, beaten down under the weight of a cold city and smashed under the heel of an industry that was nothing like Kurt had envisioned, left to slink along the remnants of his discarded dream that seemed more remote, more unlikely, practically by the minute.

The new Kurt, the one who was stuck on the lowest rungs of the least-innovative company, unlike the positions the old Kurt envisioned himself taking, simply nodded and offered a tight, "Okay. I assume the pattern's in there?"

Stu smirked. "In the bottom of the box," he replied in a fake bright tone. Kurt would have to dig for it, pulling all the fabric out first before he could figure out what he was even meant to cut or make. Brilliant.

"You'll have it before I leave tonight," Kurt replied, pasting on an equally fake smile.

"Good. And if you don't fuck this one up, I might only make you cut tulle for a couple weeks instead of the rest of your life," Stu turned to leave, mumbling about how the little priss-ass had embarrassed him, then hesitated in the doorway for a moment. He turned back and, with a surprisingly curious expression, asked, "You have friends around here, right?"

Kurt's eyes narrowed suspiciously at the question. The answer wasn't important - that he had a few but nowhere near as many as he thought he would have. Besides, Rachel and Mercedes were more than adequate, and he wouldn't have lasted as long as he had were they not here. But that didn't matter; what mattered was why Stu had asked. "Why?" he asked slowly.

"Well, I just thought...you seem quiet down here, lonely, and if you're busy being lost in your own head it's going to make you screw up more." Kurt had a hard time refuting that one, but still wondered why precisely his boss - who had alternately hated him and delighted in humiliating him from day one - was taking such a sudden interest in his personal life. "Look, I get it: You want to be higher in the process, you want to design. No one wants to be stuck down here in the cutting room forever. But you've gotta pay your dues first - we all do. And believe me, when I was down here all day, the only way I kept from going crazy was to go out after work sometimes." There was something suspicious underneath the sudden burst of compassion, but Kurt couldn't put his finger on it. Maybe he was just paranoid after all this time. Maybe the city had done that to him.

Maybe Stu was just a jerk because he was territorial. Kurt had long suspected the hierarchy was what really made people bitter around here, the way echelons were so strictly-defined and rungs on the ladder were equivalent to power no matter what a person actually did. Maybe Stu just kept himself distant from everyone, especially his subordinates, to make him better able to climb to the top. Kurt could understand that; he had spent enough time in his life keeping everyone at arm's length because it made it easier not to feel things.

He did it now, he realized slowly. He did it with Rachel - not telling her how much everything hurt sometimes, not telling her how many times a month he dreamed of going back to Ohio and reveling in simplicity and being the biggest freak the town had ever seen because at least then people would notice him, would know he existed, unlike here where a million people could pass him every day and yet if he were dying on the sidewalk no one would even stop except to kick him into the gutter to get him out of their way. He didn't tell her because he had to stay strong and uncaring and because saying it would make it all too real, too painful, and the next thing he knew he would be packing his bags to return to a place he remembered hating but couldn't remember why.

Maybe Stu was just as lonely as he was.

"There's a bar some of us go to sometimes - after work. Up on 81st. I think you'd like it." He scrawled an address and a name on the pad of paper on the corner of the desk, then turned to leave again before he added, "There are a lot of cute boys there who might be interested. Give you someone to release all that tension."

Kurt's eyes widened as he realized what Stu seemed to be saying. A bar with boys who were like him, who liked boys? A place to potentially find a boyfriend? But after last time- "What kind of a place is this?" he asked slowly, his face as skeptical as he could make it when the possibility of finding what he had been searching for was practically right under his nose.

"Bar, all guys, pretty mixed crowd."

"But not like the place in the park, where it's just a bunch of men clawing at each other?" he asked. He had no desire to ever see that again, let alone to take part in it or seek it out. It was the last thing he wanted. "Because that's not what I'm looking for."

Stu looked away for a moment, allowing Kurt to miss his smirk, then his cat-with-the-canary grin, and by the time he looked back at the wide-eyed young man his smile was more conventional. "You want a boyfriend." It was as much a statement as a question, and Kurt nodded, glad Stu understood what exactly he was seeking. "Don't worry, this isn't like the Ramble," he said with a half-laugh and a grin Kurt couldn't quite read. "You should check it out." His grin softened to an awkward smile as he added, "After you finish your work. Right this time?"

"Yes," Kurt replied, beaming at the prospect of having a lead on somewhere to find what he was so desperately seeking. The tulle punishment almost seemed worth it for that kind of information. "Absolutely."

* * * * *

"Hang on," Mercedes said, staring up at him from where she sat at the table. "Your jerk of a boss who has tortured you since you got the job, who came in to punish you for cutting something wrong-"

"Not wrong. Just not what the pattern called for," Kurt corrected, unable to stop smiling as he worked his way across the tiny kitchen to prepare dinner.

"He came in to yell at you and make you do gruntwork for the next month because you cut the collar that way. Then he just gave you an address to the place you've been wanting to go?"

"Well he didn't know that when he came in," Kurt pointed out as he carefully placed the marinated chicken breast into the pan. "He came in to yell at me, but then he realized why I did it."

"So he gave you directions to a homosexual bar because your designs are better than his?"

Kurt rolled his eyes, not sure what about this was so hard for Mercedes to understand without him spelling out the entire thing for her. "No, he gave me directions to a place with other homosexuals because he understands I'm lonely."

"Why would he do that?"

"Because he thinks it will improve my work. He said it was because I was daydreaming, and it's true - I was. I was thinking about anything except what I was supposed to be doing."

"You were daydreaming because your job is boring," Mercedes corrected. "And if your work gets better, doesn't that threaten him? The way you talk about circles and ladders at that place, if you do well it means he's gonna be down a rung doesn't it?"

Kurt hesitated. That part was true, a little bit. Power around there was zero-sum, which was why the politics were so cut-throat. For every person who rose, another fell; for everyone who succeeded, another failed. "Well...sort of," he replied, busying himself with checking the vegetables in the steamer tray above the pot of boiling water.

"So why would he help you if it's gonna hurt him?"

"Because it might not," Kurt defended. "He's my boss, if I make him look bad it doesn't help him. So if I do well, that does help him because he can show he has leadership and supervisory potential." It was clear from the look on Mercedes' face that she didn't believe him. "I think it's bigger than that. I think he's a homosexual too."

Mercedes rolled her eyes, settling back in her chair. "And why do you think that?" That was harder to put his finger on than Kurt had realized until Mercedes wanted him to put it into words. He didn't know how he knew, he just did. He didn't know why it had felt so blindingly obvious except that it had. "Did he tell you?"

"Well, no-"

"Did he flirt with you?"

"Ew, Mercedes, no."

"So how do you know?"

"Because," Kurt said, trying to figure out a good way of describing the feeling. "It's just something you can tell sometimes. The way I felt kinship with Hiram and Leroy, the way I knew about Blaine, the way I felt like I understood Ricky within five seconds."

"Baby, you know I love you, right?"

Kurt turned quickly to look at her at the nonsequitor. "Of course."

"Because I do. And I want you to be happy even if I don't understand...all this. Right?"

If someone had told him when he was fifteen that there would be something that left Mercedes less comfortable around him than Rachel, he would have sworn the person was crazy. But Mercedes, for all he knew she loved him and wanted him to succeed, still wasn't completely comfortable with some of the more explicit conversations about him dating a boy. Not the way Rachel was, where she wanted them to go guy-watching together and embraced his untapped-sexuality almost as much as her own. But he knew Mercedes tried, so he simply replied, "What are you trying to say?"

"You really think there's a homosexual feeling? Something that makes you instantly understand all other guys who like guys just because of that?"

It wasn't something he could explain readily, nor was it something he had enough experience with to say for sure. But he thought there might be - there had been so far. He had felt like he understood Leroy so well just from going to dinner once, because his own experiences were similar and they had so many intangible things in common. He had felt an almost instant kinship with Ricky when they had nothing at all in common except their circumstances at that particular moment - he knew nothing else about the boy but felt like they were connected.

He had certainly felt it with Blaine, from the first time their eyes met - from the moment Blaine took his hand there was something there...

He had felt it for a moment with Stu this morning, too, a sort of kinship. Like he understood. Like he could feel Kurt's loneliness and had maybe even felt it himself. And he said "us" and "we" about the bar, too, which just underscored the point that they were in this together.

"Yes," he replied simply. There was a connection, there was something bigger there, even if he couldn't put it into words when Mercedes would inevitably ask him to explain it.

There had to be something bigger there. Otherwise he was just as alone as he felt, and that was too depressing to contemplate.

"I think you're crazy," she stated, and Kurt shot her a dirty look as he carried their plates to the table. "What is this?"

"Chicken breast and rice in a light mushroom sauce with broccoli."

"Why?"

"Because it's good," he replied, because what other answer was there?

"I went to school with all black people for a year, and I didn't feel connected to anything. It's not about finding people you share one trait with. I had as much in common with the girls at those school than I do with the girls in the group - which is nothing. If I had to eat one more meal with them, I would shove a hair dryer down Eva's throat."

"That's just because she's Eva. I would have cut off her hair in her sleep a long time ago," Kurt replied dryly.

"And that was before last week." Mercedes poked at the broccoli distastefully but dug into the rice hungrily. "She tried to go get Rocko to give her my solo by putting on her shortest dress and unbuttoning the top as far down as she could. My damn solo." She shoveled more rice into her mouth and shook her head, barely swallowing before she added, "I would've pulled her hair out by the roots if it weren't all a wig."

Kurt gave a withering smile, watching her fork scoop up more quickly. "Did he go for it?"

"No. He barely likes her more than we do. Don't get me wrong, he's a jerk, but he's not gonna be with her unless he can tape her mouth shut."

Kurt nodded, then asked, "So then why are you eating like there's an egg timer on your rice and whatever you don't eat in three minutes will disappear?"

She rolled her eyes. "Photo shoot next week." When Kurt looked confused, she added, "He wants me to lose fifteen pounds. Fifteen. Pounds. And they keep watching everything I eat and- Hey!" she exclaimed as Kurt whisked her plate off the table, carrying it swiftly toward the kitchen.

"Mercedes. You need to lose fifteen pounds in a week and you're shoveling rice into your mouth?" He shook his head as he set her plate on the counter.

"Can I at least have the chicken back?"

"I should make you some chicken broth - I hear it works wonders for Judy Garland," Kurt mused. "That's what she ate for years, and look at her. She looks fantastic."

"I barely got anything."

Kurt sighed and turned to look at her. "Mercedes. Do you want this?"

"Didn't you hear me say-"

"No. Not the chicken." He sighed again, not sure why she could never quite grasp that she was closer to living her dream than any of the rest of them. He knew things weren't perfect for her, but they were closer than they were for him or for Rachel, and at times he almost-...he didn't resent her, he was glad she was finding success. He was sorry she was stuck with her obnoxious groupmates and roommates and she fully understood that she wanted - and deserved - time away from them. He could sympathize with her having a smarmy, untrustworthy manager because his own boss had, until today at least, been similar.

But there were times he honestly wondered if she even cared about what it was she was trying to go after, or if she was just doing it because she would rather not go back to school and was too proud to go back to Ohio.

"Mercedes, you have an honest-to-god shot to live your dream. You're this close to getting a record contract, to getting to hear your own voice on the radio. Isn't that more important than a few days' worth of food?"

"You think I have to be thin to sing? Have you heard me?"

"I don't think you have to be thin to sing, but I think you have to be thin to get signed. Or to be an actress. Or to model on a runway. Just because no one back home is a couture 12 doesn't mean that's not what the stars are. It's not fair, but it's the way things are. And if not eating for a week could get me a promotion, would put my sketches in front of the right people? I would do it in a heartbeat." He shrugged and leaned back against the counter.

He wished it was that simple. He wished he could trade something relatively small to get what he had thought he would have by now. Hell, he wished there was something big he could trade because right now he would do it. But he didn't even have the option of that kind of currency. "Look at me - I spent all day cutting tulle. Tulle. To become underskirts for the ugliest dress I've ever seen because my boss got mad at me for having a design idea. He might be willing to help me personally, but he's not giving me any professional breaks. And right now Rachel's out with a director that I think is probably up to no good, but she won't hear it because she's so desperate to believe she's going to be a star that she has to cling to the first person in power to show her any attention or give her any praise. Nothing is turning out the way any of us planned, but at least you have a a chance to make it. If you throw it away over some chicken, that's just foolish. Fifteen pounds is huge, but not as huge as your talent."

She sighed, arms crossed over her chest. "So you think I should cave? Just do it?"

"I think I'm starting tomorrow on a gorgeous dress for your first meeting with the label," Kurt replied. "But it'll be a size smaller than usual."

Mercedes glared at him for a moment, then rolled her eyes and replied, "Fine. But make me look great."

"It will," Kurt assured her with a smile, which she returned. "Let's go - I'll walk you to the subway. It's on the way up to this bar." Mercedes stood, casting a forlorn look at the trash as Kurt scraped the leftovers he wouldn't be able to salvage.

It wasn't until they were almost to the station that she finally asked what Kurt had been trying to avoid putting words to all day:

"If you think Rachel's director is up to no good, and we know Rocko's a snake...why are you so sure your guy's got your best interest at heart? I know you think he's lonely and stuff, but...what happens if you're wrong?"

Kurt wanted to tell himself it didn't matter - that even if Stu wasn't trying to help him, if worst came to worst he would still have a lead on a place to meet a boy. And that it really didn't matter because he really did believe Stu understood and wasn't a manipulative monster. He genuinely believed that Stu wanted to help him out the same way that Ethel did, that those who were different and living secretively needed to protect one another.

But Mercedes' question did give him pause, mostly because he didn't know that he had an answer.

* * * * *

Dinner was lovely.

Rachel had dreamed big as a child, even comparatively speaking - she had envisioned dinners in little black dresses with all sorts of famous producers and actors and bigwigs, talking about new projects and juicy gossip about her fellow actors. She imagined lounging on a chaise in a smoke-filled back room drinking champagne and listening to the Broadway power-brokers wheel and deal and create.

And here she was. She was sitting at a table in Sardi's, with a director who was going to make her his muse, eating a salad nicoise and drinking wine and feeling like she was in the middle of the best dream she'd ever had.

No fewer than three actors she recognized had come up to their table already. Cal knew them - he brushed it off, saying he had roomed with two of them when they all moved to New York a decade ago and that the third he had directed in a tiny summer stock production, he was so modest like that, but the fact was that he knew them. He knew all these famous people and could work the room with them, move among them with grace and poise Rachel could only feign...for now. She was destined for this, she knew; given a few more dates and a little more training under Kurt's watchful eye - he knew more about proper dinner etiquette than she could ever hope to on her own, and he had reluctantly educated her in the bare essentials before Cal's car came to pick her up.

...He had sent a car to pick her up. She could hardly believe it when the elegant black towncar had arrived in front of their building. Given their neighborhood she was almost surprised no one had vandalized it.

But with a little more training and a few more dates, she could move as gracefully through these circles as Cal did. She was looking forward to it.

She smoothed the front of her dress as Cal talked about his production last summer. Cal had complimented her on it as soon as she got out of the car and onto his waiting arm in front of the restaurant. She did like the beading, even if she couldn't quite get used to the way he stared at the embellishments around her neckline so frequently. He had auditioned Grace Kelly once, before she became a princess, and he said Rachel looked more beautiful tonight than she had.

She had barely known what to say to that. She had been called a lot of things in her life, had dabbled in flirtation with Finn and dated Jesse for a few months, but no one had ever called her beautiful before. Then he had told her that she could inspire a hundred musicals and she had been floating ever since.

He was so charming, so charismatic, and she could see their entire future together. He wrote in addition to directing - he told her about it offhand, like he didn't think she was paying attention, but she was - and she could imagine the fantastic art they could create together. He would write roles that would showcase her, would win her accolades and Tony awards, and they would be the new unstoppable power couple. They would host soirees with other musical theatre veterans and up-and-coming stars, and one of them or maybe Kurt would play the piano for everyone to sing all night. He would design her gowns for all the galas, too, so she could make him famous too. It would work to help make them all famous. All their dreams would come true because of this man who thought she was incredible.

She might be in love with him already. With that smile, with the way he looked at her as though he was subconsciously measuring her for elaborate costumes or planning how to best light her to capture her beauty onstage in a threatre that would seat thousands of people...all while talking about his adventures in the world of the Broadway production...she never wanted the evening to end.

He put the dinner on his tab - she'd never known anyone with a tab at a real restaurant before, nothing nicer than Breadstix - and pulled out her chair, then held out his hand for her to take as she stood. He looked her up and down again with a sweet grin before he suggested, "Let's take a walk."

With the stories he told and the way he engaged her as he spun tale after tale, she couldn't imagine much she would like more. Slipping her arm into his, she followed him out into the brisk November night, her mind reeling with the combination of the lights, the sounds of the city, her visions of the future, and the intoxicating smell of Cal's cologne.

Chapter Text

It took Kurt walking past the bar four times before he finally found it. The decrepit brick building with thick boards over the windows looked like it had been condemned years ago and no one had ever gotten around to tearing it down, and it wasn't until he saw a middle-aged man duck inside that he even believed a person could go inside. Whether it was safe to do so without the roof caving in remained up in the air - pun not intended, even if it did make him chuckle nervously to himself. He doubled back past number 127, a closed-but-not-shuttered restaurant, looking to see if any other entrances were hidden between that and the pharmacy at 121, and finally saw a tiny, peeling "125 W. 81st" in white above the door. So this was it, he supposed, as he folded the paper Stu had written the address on and tucked it into his pocket. The building looked out-of-place on a relatively-nice street like this, and Kurt couldn't figure out why in the world something with boards over the windows hadn't been torn down already for whatever construction project was just itching to swoop in. 

But there it was. The building on which he was pinning all of his hopes and dreams.

Mercedes would say that was overly dramatic. But she also would say that he was foolish for coming here in the first place, so he wasn't about to start believing her enough to change his plans. This needed to work. This needed to be a place he could find someone, because he was running out of both leads and patience. He had sworn that he felt as awful at 16 as it was possible for a person to feel without just curling in on himself, and now things were starting to almost hurt worse because now he knew what he was missing. Before it had just been loneliness without a known cause; now the reasons were known and so was the solution: a boyfriend. A boy who would understand him and love him and be sweet and romantic with him. Unfortunately that was easier said than done.

And, as he was painfully reminded at almost every turn, it hadn't exactly turned out as he had planned the first time.

But if Central Park had seemed gloomy under the grove of trees that night, this seemed downright depressing. It made the slums of West Side Story look bright by comparison, and he half expected someone to pop out of the building and mug him. Deciding it was now or never, Kurt drew in a deep breath and tugged open the heavy door, blinking as his eyes tried to adjust to the poor lighting inside. It was darker than the street, dingier, smoke-filled, but as he looked around he began to notice something.

Men. Lots of men. Not a single woman to be found, save one behind the bar who looked bored by the entire affair and whose gender he could discern only from her substantial chest; her hair was buzzed shorter than his (in a cut that was far less-flattering than his own, he noted) and she wore a tie with her work shirt and trousers. Her watch had a thick leather strap like a men's watch, the face and buckle flicking light as her hands flew to churn out drinks quickly. But everywhere else Kurt looked, he saw men - in suits and in jeans, a couple dressed like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Men leaning against the walls and sitting at tables that lined the walls and standing around the bar. One man was practically leaned back over the jukebox while another crowded him, both smiling slyly like each of them had the power. 

It wasn't at all appealing. It was intimidating as hell and just as raw and sexual as the park even though - thankfully - everyone was still fully-clothed...but it looked like people were going to change that as soon as possible. There was nothing that held his interest beyond the upbeat music playing from under the flirtatious man and the potential a place like this might hold.

It couldn't be just this, could it? This couldn't possibly be all that was out here for him. There had to be something more to homosexuals than a desire to copulate in public - otherwise...

...Otherwise what did he have to look forward to?

He couldn't start thinking that way. He needed to get out there and find something, because he refused to believe that Man #16 had given up that way. It was a crutch he relied on every so often, when things felt hopeless - it was silly, and he knew that, like opening his mother's old dresser and pretending he could see feel her by scent alone, which he had done right up until the day he left home. It was childish and pathetic, and he tried not to fall back on it too often, but at a time like this when he had to force himself to have a reason to trust in the unknown despite everything that had gone wrong...

Man #16 had found his 'homosexual husband.' Kurt couldn't guarantee that was what he would have called it, but he had settled on the term if only because he couldn't imagine himself - and therefore also not the illustrative case study patient - with a homosexual wife. Man #16 had found professional contentment and a homosexual husband, and he had started somewhere. Maybe in a place like this.

Kurt doubted it. He felt like Man #16 deserved more romance than this, for one thing, and that someone who prided himself on aesthetics probably wouldn't settle for picking up some man draping himself over a jukebox playing a mediocre hit from three years ago. But maybe. Maybe this place wasn't as it seemed.

Drawing in a deep breath and steeling himself with his best 'don't touch me and definitely don't touch my hair' look, he strode to the bar and slipped up onto a stool. "Whatcha want, kid?" the woman asked, and Kurt swore her voice was lower than his. 

He'd never had a drink before, and he wasn't really sure he wanted to start now. He'd certainly imagined drinking in New York, but that was mostly elegant parties with well-dressed, well-coiffed, fascinating people. Then he and Rachel had gone to see Breakfast at Tiffany's and been at once disturbed and fascinated by the eccentric partiers...they had vowed not to ever get that sloppy. He didn't want to be the woman in the mirror having a complete meltdown. For that matter, he didn't want to be the woman draped over the guitar across the lap of four men, either. In the most sophisticated voice he could manage, summoning all the elegance he had been cultivating in his twenty years, he replied, "Shirley Temple."

Her brow lowered, then quirked skeptically as she looked him up and down. "You think I keep grenadine around here?"

Kurt could feel the blush burning high on his cheeks. "You should," he replied haughtily, well aware of the fact that if she really wanted to, she could snap him like a twig - or throw him to the wolves in the rest of the bar, he was sure they would have no objection to pawing off his clothes and letting their hands roam all over him like the man in the park. When she looked unamused but like he couldn't matter less to her, he requested, "A martini then." They seemed like a sophisticated drink, a festive drink, something enjoyed by elegant people. He'd seen them in movies, women in gorgeous gowns clutching the stem delicately between their manicured fingers while they swooned over men who looked like Clark Gable and thought it was as good a drink as any to start with. The glass felt cool beneath his clammy fingers as he drew in a deep breath and raised it to lips, coughing and sputtering with the first sip.

"Too much too fast?"

Kurt looked up quickly to find a boy leaning casually against the bar beside him. "Boy" might not have been accurate, he looked older - but not by much. Unlike the majority of bargoers who seemed to have at least a decade or two (closer to two) on Kurt, this gentleman looked only a few years older than he was. He had an easy smile, sparkling blue eyes, and dirty blond hair with just a hint of a wave to it that could have been natural or could have been from being combed into one style for too long. "A little," he replied slowly, trying to size up the stranger.

"I can't do anything with vodka. It's like swallowing lighter fluid." He had dimples, which Kurt had never found particularly cute or interesting, but they made the boy's smile even more obvious and interesting. The music changed, a familiar vamp swelling, and the boy pushed himself off the bar. "Wanna dance, cutie?"

Kurt blinked, not sure which word perplexed him most in that sentence, but the one he managed to choke out was "Dance?"

"Yeah." The boy held out his hand to Kurt, smile gleaming pearly white in the dim light of the dingy bar. "I love this song. Do you know it?"

Where the boys are
Someone waits for me


Of course Kurt knew it - it was Connie Francis. That was like asking if he knew a Judy Garland song, the answer was so obvious it barely required a response. But this boy didn't know him, didn't know anything about him. He didn't even know Kurt's name, let alone his taste of music, and yet he wanted to dance with him. And he thought he was cute, which Kurt couldn't even wrap his mind around. More importantly, this boy was a complete stranger and wanted a piece of him he'd never given anyone.

...Not for lack of trying. He had wanted so badly to dance with Blaine in public and settled for a private moment swaying to a record in the tiny dorm room, which he later found out had been a lie anyway. Just like the promise of one day being able to dance with another boy in public. Just like all the other promises.

He glanced away, not sure what to say to this strange - and intriguingly attractive - boy, and his breath caught at what he saw: couples dancing. The men who earlier had been scattered at tables and against the walls now swayed in the center of the tiny space, arms close around one another. Some looked awkward, both men trying to lead; others moved fluidly as though they had done this before. One man in a leather jacket had his cheek resting against another man's shoulder, his eyes shining in contrast to two shades of black leather, as they rocked slowly back and forth together, lost in their own little world.

Men were dancing together, and no one could tell them not to.

"Yes," he whispered so softly he wasn't sure he could even be heard over the music. "I want to dance."

Smiling face, a warm embrace
Two arms to hold me tenderly


The boy led him out to join the group, his arm wrapping around Kurt's waist in a well-practiced motion. He reached to take Kurt's right hand, flashing a smile as he tugged Kurt gently closer, and suddenly it all felt so enormous - the act of dancing. It was something simple, something Kurt had been doing and practicing and pretending with his eyes closed in his bedroom and his mother's high heels for as long as he could remember. But pressed so near to another person as bodies of other men swayed around them, it suddenly seemed magical. Wildly improbable. A dream come true. 

He had known this day would come. Deep down, somewhere, he had known this had to be out here, it was just a matter of finding it. 

And it had been exactly where he thought it would be. ...Sort of. He wouldn't have picked a gritty bar on West 81st Street, maybe, but he knew there had to be a place out there where people like him could have what everyone else had, and he had known it would be in New York.

Take that, Blaine Anderson.

Where the boys are
My true love will be
He's walking down some street in town
And I know he's looking there for me


He hoped Blaine was proud of himself. He hoped Blaine was happy with his decision to run away and not trust what Kurt had known to a near-scientific certainty three years ago. He had told Blaine things would be different here, that they could be themselves here - and sing together, and dance. Blaine could have been here right now, swaying with him, leading him across the floor; instead, he was dancing with a blond boy with dimples who was also easily five or six inches taller than his exboyfriend.

So there.

...Except that wasn't what he wanted. 

In this world of a million people
I'll find my valentine


He didn't want to stick it to Blaine and gloat in his mind about how he was right. He didn't want to hope Blaine was miserable in California with his- his lies and his girlfriends. Kurt shuddered to think about that. He didn't want him to be miserable; he didn't want to be bitter and angry.

He just wished Blaine were there with him.

He wished those were Blaine's arms looped around his waist and cradling his hand. He wished he were looking down just slightly into those beautiful amber eyes that could express love so deeply, so completely, that Kurt had never felt more precious than when the boy looked at him. He wished they were living together in his bedroom, with Rachel pestering them constantly and impromptu three-part harmony over dinner. He wished they were skipping through the city together like he'd dreamed of, and meeting other boys like them, and that he could just sit on the couch and watch Blaine do his homework all evening while records played quietly in the background. 

He wished that he could have what he'd envisioned. He had proof now that it would have been possible, and he couldn't help but feel cheated by it all. 

He wished Blaine were dancing with him in this disgusting, unpolished, miraculous dive of a bar. He wished Blaine could have believed him, could have trusted him, enough to follow through on their plan. 

He wished Blaine could be happy, wherever he was. That they both could be.

He wished he could stop wishing so much.

And then I'll climb to the highest steeple
And tell the world he's mine


Blaine wasn't coming back. He wasn't going to magically change his mind about everything and believe in the magic and power of New York City. Kurt had believed he might - the entire first year, he expected to get a letter or a phone call or a visit or somethingfrom Blaine, saying he had been wrong and wanted to come back and pick up where they left off, saying they should begin their future together in a year like they planned. When he moved to New York, he had wondered if maybe, just maybe, Blaine had somehow ended up in the city anyway and they could find each other in some sort of fairytale way and begin to rebuild what they had lost when Blaine balked and bolted. The entire first year he had wondered what Blaine was up to and, alternately, if there was anything he might be able to do in northern California since clearly things weren't going his way in New York anyway. But facts were facts, and it was time to realize that even if Blaine at some point left the West Coast it was unlikely they would ever find each other here, they were unlikely to ever find each other again. What they had had been beautiful in so many ways, but it...it wasn't going to be recaptured.

It was time to move on. 

Wasn't that what his attempts to find a boyfriend were about, anyway? If he didn't want a boy to go with, why had he been searching for one so hard? Unless he thought that somehow Blaine would know through psychic brainwaves that he had found a handsome boy and rush out to New York to tell Kurt not to move on without him...an unlikely scenario though a fantastic movie. Wasn't it time to try to move on?

'Til he holds me
I'll wait impatiently


This boy was sweet. He was attractive, and he looked at Kurt like he thought he was worth getting to know - not the raw, naked lust he had seen from the other men. He looked at Kurt like he was intriguing in a good way, not an overdressed or eccentric freak, and like he was cute of all things. He seemed sweet...and he was a talented enough dancer. He had impeccable rhythm, and Kurt found himself wondering if it might relate to musical talent. 

Kurt liked the way he felt in his arms. He liked the way he felt under the gaze, seeing that smile. He even liked the fact that he was a few inches shorter than this boy - it made him feel safe, protected.

But mostly he liked the way the boy had come right up to him. He was confident. He wasn't aggressive, he wasn't too dominant and forward like the jerk at the Ramble who had pawed over him after looking him up and down like slim pickings. He didn't hesitate and run away six times before Kurt finally dragged him haltingly into a dance. He didn't balk when Kurt shifted his arm up onto his shoulder and moved just a bit closer; he smiled, like he was glad they were on the same page. He seemed comfortable with himself, in his own skin, in his identity, in his sexuality. He wasn't trying to pretend Kurt was a girl or shove him away or hide him behind anyone or anything.

He wouldn't run away at the first sign of someone knowing.

Kurt's heart leapt at the thought, suddenly feeling full of possibility. 

Where the boys are

The problem with Blaine hadn't appeared out of nowhere, it had been evident from a thousand miles away - from the moment Kurt's attempt at a relationship had begun. From day one...hell, from day negative-six, Blaine had bolted as soon as Kurt made a move, then slowly - oh so agonizingly slowly - inched his way back to where they had started. It had been painful from the start, gathering the courage to take a leap only to be abandoned because Blaine was too far in his own head to be able to understand that he wasn't the only one in the relationship. And while yes, he had slowly gotten more comfortable, and true, he had reasons to be skittish, that wasn't enough to keep a relationship. And surely enough, he had run away at full speed as soon as things got too serious, too forever.

But this boy wouldn't.

Where the boys are

This boy wasn't afraid of who he was. He wasn't afraid of who Kurt was, of who they would be together. This boy didn't hesitate before asking him to dance - in public, no less - and while maybe it was an anomaly, a sense of security created by the isolated and homogeneous atmosphere, he had an easy confidence and charm about him. Blaine's confidence was like a painting by Seurrat: mind-blowing, full, and realistic from far away, but made up of tiny, isolated specks from close up with a lot of holes in between. This boy was like a photograph: whole and real.

Where the boys are
Someone waits for me


He didn't even know where to begin. He wanted things with this boy, but he'd only just met him and didn't even know his name, let alone how to become his boyfriend. Kurt wanted to; he knew that much for certain. He wanted this boy to look at him like that all the time, to stare at him adoringly and hold him and dance with him and hopefully sing with him. But he didn't know how to go from a romantic gesture to an actual romance. He had never really done this, not like this; he had been best friends with Blaine first, and confidantes, then fallen slowly into a relationship after months of push-and-pull. This had been mere moments.

Was he supposed to ask the boy to be his boyfriend? To go on a date? Was this a date - he didn't think so? Was the boy supposed to ask him? Was he supposed to indicate he was available should the boy want to ask him? 

He had no idea. There weren't any reference points for something like this. But he was fairly certain he should know the boy's name first instead of just calling him "the boy."

He leaned in close so he could be heard over the music. The smell of aftershave was nearly overpowering at this distance and it made him dizzy in a way he had missed - the sort of dizzy and breathless he had gotten when Blaine said certain things or looked at him and flashed a grin when he sang or when they laid tucked against each other on Blaine's narrow bed. "I don't even know your name," he said, his voice high with nervousness, tight as he tried to keep it from shaking. For all he knew, the question was too personal for a place like this - it had been the other times he had tried, he knew that. 

The boy smiled; Kurt could see his dimple crinkling slightly out of the corner of his eye. "I'm Ken," he replied almost directly in Kurt's ear, and Kurt felt like he might swoon at the sudden intense feel of everything, the sensation of warm breath over his neck and ear. "And you're...beautiful." He pulled back a few inches, blue eyes smoldering with intensity, and Kurt's breath caught in his throat as he saw Ken move forward again slowly, his arm drawing him in closer. His eyes fluttered closed as if in slow motion as the music crescendoed and modulated into the climax, stomach jittery as he realized he was about to be kissed for the first time in years, the first time by anyone other than Blaine, and it was the first time in a long time he had wanted to be kissed. He wanted-

The lights flicked on suddenly and chaos erupted as loud, low-pitched shouts echoed through the tiny space.

'Til he holds me
I'll wait impatiently


Ken jumped back as all the couples pulled apart, scurrying and screaming in a rush of noise and movement. It took Kurt a moment to figure out what was happening, too caught up in the feeling of hands touching his and the spicy scent of aftershave and the pitifully-desperate desire to be kissed. It wasn't until he saw the first police officer in full riot gear bursting in the front door that adrenaline kicked in. He tried to figure out where to go, but there were three doors he could see from here and people seemed to be rushing toward all of them, toward the back of the bar, toward whatever lay there - he didn't know. He didn't know which door led toward an exit or which would leave him cornered somewhere, and why-

Where the boys are

A hand closed around his wrist and he tried to yank free before bright blue eyes came into view and Ken tugged him quickly toward the door where the majority of the patrons were pushing and shoving, all trying to fit as quickly as possible through one narrow exit. Past the threshold Kurt could see a bathroom, then a tiny dark corridor illuminated by a single lightbulb. The grasp on his wrist was tight, unyielding, as Ken tried to fight their way through away from the police toward safety.

Where the boys are

A door at the end of the hall swung open, the blackness of the door replaced almost immediately by the darkness of dark uniforms and guns. A desperate cry went up from the escaping patrons, half shrieking and half warning to the people who hadn't yet gotten buttonholed into the hall and could still find another way out. Kurt tried to force their way back out how they came, back toward the main room where at least he could try one of the other doors, but the crush of people toward the back was impenetrable. As people pushed in from both sides, Kurt popped up onto his toes long enough to see officers pushing as many homosexuals as they could toward the back, only to be trapped in the corner by the bathroom door as a second group of officers came through the back entrance. There was no way in or out.

Where the boys are
Someone waits for me


* * * * *

Cal's apartment was smaller than Rachel was expecting. She would have thought that a director who knew everyone in town would have a much nicer place than his tiny one-bedroom in Hell's Kitchen. Normally it wasn't a neighbourhood she would want to be anywhere near, but it was conveniently located between Broadway and the more innovative theatres in the Village which, she supposed, made it convenient for him regardless of where he was working.

Normally she would never go to a boy's apartment on the first date...though she supposed she didn't really have enough experience to make that a rule. After all, she had never dated someone who had his own apartment before - only boys back in Lima who were still in high school. Things were different in the big city, living a fast-paced world with people who had important jobs and their own lives instead of being children who worried about their parents' rules and homework. The idea of going out to dinner with- not a boy, but a man - who had an apartment he could bring her to when she said she was getting cold in the November evening, was novel.

She felt sophisticated and mature as she sat delicately on his couch, legs crossed delicately at the ankle, as he offered her a drink and returned a few minutes later with a glass of wine. "If I'd known you would end up here at the end of the night, I would have had champagne chilling," Cal offered as he sat down on the other end of the small couch, his own wine glass in his hand. She took a long sip, hoping her lipstick wouldn't come off on the rim, and found it much sweeter than the wine at dinner. Dessert wine - it reminded her of Temple. 

"Next time I should give you notice," she joked in reply, wondering if there was anything more lovely than a date that ended with champagne toasts at the man's apartment. She would have to test that theory next time; in the meanwhile, she sipped the wine slowly. She was a little worried because it was her third glass, but she had eaten dinner and wasn't nearly the teetotaler people teased her for being - she had four glasses every year at Passover, she could handle wine.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I worked with Richard Rogers?"

An hour later, Rachel felt like she could barely believe the type of theatre royalty she was in the presence of. Over the course of a glass of wine for each of them and a scotch for him - which Rachel had curiously taken one sip of and spent the next ten minutes terrified her voice would never return while he laughed at her indulgently and rubbed her back soothingly - he had told her about the notes that The Richard Rogers had given him to improve his musical; about Yul Brenner and his scandalously-flimsy wardrobe in early rehearsals of The King and I; about songs that had been cut during previews in a handful of shows, some of which he still halfway remembered or swore he could find her a copy of; about actresses he'd seen come and go; about the moment the lights went out on Broadway in commemoration of the death of Oscar Hammerstein. She had observed the passing with Kurt in her bedroom, lighting candles and singing Kaddish to a variety of classic melodies the legend had written original lyrics for, all the while trying to explain the significance of Kaddish to her non-Jewish non-boyfriend, and yet now here she was in the apartment of someone who had witnessed the actual tribute. 

She said something about that, she wasn't sure precisely what - she was getting a little tired and casual with her speech - and Cal patted her leg gently, grinning. "Stick with me, and you'll be going places," he half-joked, but to her it wasn't funny; it was true. This man had the power to give her everything. He could make her a star, he could take her places, he could get her noticed by everyone in town. He could introduce her to all sorts of fascinating people, and he could write stars for her to show in (or was that shows for her to star in?), and he would do all of those things because he liked her. 

He really liked her. Why else would he be staring at her all night?

She giggled at his statement, blushing and ducking her head at the thought, and he reached out to place a couple fingers under her chin, guiding her face up until her eyes met his. He had been staring all night, but now he was staring, eyes dark and practically boring through her like she was irresistible. She wasn't used to feeling like he made her feel, like he wanted her, and then his lips were on hers. He kissed the way he spoke: quickly, full of passion, like he couldn't stop or he would miss some opportunity, and in a way that left her completely enraptured. He tasted sweet like the wine and smokey like the scotch, and when he pulled back for a moment to catch his breath all she could manage was a soft "Oh." He leaned in to kiss her again, his hand sliding slowly up her thigh to rest just below her hip, and she felt like her head was spinning. His tongue pressed against her lips and she let them fall open for him, let his tongue rub sloppily against hers. She would have thought that a man who had champagne but just needed to chill it, who had all sorts of wine in his very own apartment, would kiss more refined than that, but she didn't mind too much.

She lost track of how long they kissed, her lips puffy and sort of buzzing every time their lips parted, and she wasn't sure how his hand had ended up cupping her butt like that. She must have been distracted by the way his lips felt under her mouth and trying very hard not to bite him; he had agreed to keep kissing her after she did it the first time, but she really didn't want to chance ruining this by repeating the mistake. His hand trailed slowly up her back to where her skin appeared over the top of her dress, and the way his fingers stroked over the skin there was so gentle, like he really loved her. His other hand shifted up to-

Oh.

The hand on her breast felt strange, heavy, and like things were going a little too far. She hadn't let anyone do that before, except for Jesse, and they had been dating for months before she even considered it. She didn't want to be easy, after all, and she had been lucky to find a boy who respected her enough to not press the issue.

But she had also been 15 then. More than 4 years had passed since that. She was an adult now. Just because no one else had been allowed to do that before didn't mean she wasn't allowed to let him now if she really wanted. Who was going to find out, anyway?

She gasped as his mouth left hers to trail hot kisses down along her jaw and across her neck, pausing to suck just below her ear as she felt his thumb brushing over the front of her breast as though trying to tease out the sensitive nipple, and that-...that felt really good. She was surprised by how nice it felt. He really did know how to make her enjoy this - clearly he was better than those boys in high school who just wanted to touch girls enough to get their own pleasure. Cal was far more mature than that.

His hand slipped down from her back and she felt a sudden chill sweep over her. Why-...Oh, her zipper. Her eyes widened and she pulled back as she realized what that meant. "What are you doing?"

"What's wrong, baby?" His voice was soft, concerned, maybe just a tiny bit patronizing, and she wasn't sure how to express how she felt. How this was further than she had ever gone before and she wasn't sure this was a good idea. How she had never been naked in front of anyone before, and while she worked hard to look her best because she never knew what she might need to wear onstage and because taking care of one's self was a marker of high self-esteem and a strong self-worth, it made her nervous to think about Cal's eyes roving over her. He was experienced, she assumed, he had done this before and she didn't want to be inadequate but at the same time she was so worried about what he might think...

"I..." She didn't want to tell him to stop, exactly. Or, she did, but a part of her didn't. A part of her kept pointing out something fundamental to the issue: This wasn't Lima. This wasn't somewhere people got married at 18 and had babies and never did anything with their lives. This was New York City, where everything was very different. People moved faster and they lived with fake boyfriends instead of finding a husband, and they dated people well into their twenties, and maybe this was just how things werehere. Maybe her hesitance was only because she was still a small-town girl at heart, which was the last thing she wanted to be. Maybe it was because she still felt like a teenager even though she wasn't - well, technically for a few more months, but really she was an adult.

Adults were different. This city was different. Everything moved faster here, from the people to restaurants. He wasn't going to think she was easy if she let him keep going, not like a boy back home would. Cal understood, and he loved her and appreciated her. He valued her. 

That made all the difference, didn't it?

"Kiss me," she whispered, and he obliged eagerly, his kisses getting rougher as the passion ratcheted up slowly while her zipper slipped down at an even pace. 

Her dress came off in stages, really: first opening in the back to expose her brastrap, which Cal took full advantage of as he unfastened it and reached awkwardly around to the front to touch her; then off her shoulders so the top fell awkwardly around her waist, bunching up near her stomach; then hitching up the skirt as his hand wandered up her pantyhose before finally she realized that the dress wasn't doing any good or covering anything anymore anyway. She pulled away from his mouth, from his embrace, and stood to slip out of the nearly-useless garment, but he stood and grabbed her by the wrist. When she started to protest, he grinned and led her from the couch into his bedroom. The shades were drawn, leaving it dark save the remnants of light peeking in from the streetlamps, and by the time he shut the door it was so dark she could barely find him. That would make it hard to kiss him, wouldn't it? 

She did want to keep kissing him, didn't she?

Her stomach was full of nervous energy despite the slight fuzziness the wine put on all the edges of things, and if ever there was a time to tell him to stop it was now. But she didn't know that she wanted him to. She didn't want him to think she was a child, or that she was too small-town, and he was so mature and strong and powerful and handsome. He was a man when she was used to boys, and she definitely did not want to give him any reason to think of her as a little girl. She-...she knew Kurt made fun of the way she dressed sometimes, with the plaid skirts and the cardigan sets and the fact that sometimes she really liked saddle shoes even though they were a little outdated now, but Cal didn't seem to see her like that. 

He really liked her. She wanted to keep it that way.

* * * * *

Kurt wasn't sure whether jail was worse when he knew what was coming or not.

He contemplated it as he slunk home at around 7. It had taken longer to get a hearing this morning than last time, he would barely have time to take a shower and get dressed before going off to work, and he was absolutely exhausted. It made for a much more existential reflection now that he was drained instead of terrified. For example, was it better to go into the process blind and not know what lay ahead, or was it preferable to know what was going to happen so as to be as prepared as possible? Was it worse to start counting your male articles of clothing in advance and know that the police would taunt and tease you as you removed everything on your body, bit by bit, piece by piece, until you were nearly naked in front of them in a cold cement room? Was it worse to know just how long the night was? To know it was going to feel like forever, especially when there wasn't a single friendly face this time?

There was no Ethel this time. He had no idea what had happened to Ken, but they hadn't ended up in the same cell. He had seen Ricky briefly in passing, just for a moment - the Puerto Rican boy being shoved forward by three cops in handcuffs as the police used insults Kurt couldn't understand. The boy looked harder now, had more of a sharp edge to him than he had that night in the cell when they had been able to share the fact that both of them were terrified. He had called out to Ricky, whose head jerked up and over toward him for a split second. Their eyes didn't meet, but he knew the boy had seen him from the way a falsely-self-assured smirk worked its way onto his face and his chin shifted a little higher even as the police officer spat on him.

Kurt had almost gagged, watching that, his hand clapped over his mouth in horror. What they did to him was degrading enough, but that was worse.

But the look on Ricky's face was one of defiance, one that said 'call me all the names you want - you still won't be as good as me.' If only it had been real instead of something so forced. ...If only Kurt hadn't been able to tell the difference from personal experience. He was a master of the "Huh. As if I care" face.

The first slivers of light were just starting to peek through the bottom of their window as Kurt turned the key heavily in the lock and entered. He half expected Rachel to be attempting to make breakfast with a worried expression, or to just be sitting at the table with a clock and a lecture he didn't have the energy to handle right now, but instead he found her sitting on the couch, an afghan pulled around her shoulders, feet tucked under her. Her hair was wet, freshly-combed, and she stared into space with a worried, haunted look. When she didn't say anything, he announced his presence quietly. "Sorry. It's a long story."

She would ask, he knew she would. Rachel Berry never accepted that sort of answer without suggesting he tell her alllllll about his troubles because, as his best friend and girlfriend-who-secretly-wasn't-his-girlfriend (always accompanied by an eager smile an exaggerated wink), it was her duty to listen to his problems when he had an especially bad day. And Rachel definitely didn't accept brushoffs when she had been personally inconvenienced, like by staying up all night to wait for him like it looked like she had been.

Maybe he should tell her. She was going to find out sometime; if the photographers and news video cameras he had seen as the police had hauled him out of the bar last night were any indication, his misadventure was about to become famous which meant there was a chance they would have relocate to somewhere no one would ever find him and he probably couldn't get away with not telling her why. But he didn't know if he could form the words - not yet. Not while he still could practically feel the chunky, unmoisturized hands on his skin, could smell the cigar the captain kept chomping away on as he "oversaw the search", could feel their eyes boring into him with such disgust it made him feel sick to his stomach. Maybe sometime he could tell her about his night, but not now.

She looked over at him, her face conflicted, her eyes raw, for a split second before she tried to offer up a smile. It was weak, lopsided, and obviously fake considering her acting abilities; even if she wasn't quite as incredible as she thought she was sometimes, she was much better than that. "It's okay. I didn't get home until a little while ago anyway."

There was a story there, too, and usually she would dive right into it, talk all about her date and the crazy adventures they had, but he was too exhausted to stick around long enough to risk hearing about it. He could worry about her once he'd had sleep. With barely enough energy to keep his head up, he padded slowly to the bathroom and turned the water to hot as he stripped out of his clothes. The world's longest shower sounded really nice about now.

Chapter Text

Mercedes looked skeptically out the window as the car pulled up in front of a seemingly-abandoned warehouse. She didn't know where they were exactly; the ride over had been spent trying to ignore Regina and Eva squabbling like teenage sisters. She at least had gotten the front seat; poor Shirley was stuck between them, and when Mercedes glanced back at her former roommate, the girl looked like she would rather crawl into the trunk and suffocate than be wedged there any longer. She was just glad it wasn't her squashed into that middle back seat - she would have smacked them both.

The car slowed to a stop, and the door opened to reveal Rocko, decked out in a flamboyant double-breasted suit with a loud silk pocket square and a fedora. As Mercedes stepped out, Regina slipping out of the back seat followed by Shirley and Eva in turn, he removed the cigarette from his mouth, letting it dangle between his fingers as he held out his arms. "There's my girls," he beamed proudly. "Big day today."

"It's just pictures, we're not going to the moon," Mercedes pointed out, and Rocko fixed her with a warning look, the kind that said "I can take all this back in a second if you don't want it," and she fell silent. Kurt did have a point, she guessed. She was trying to get her dream, and if she wanted to see her name on an album someday...she supposed there would be pictures to go with it. Though on the other hand...what was he gonna do? Kick her out for not being excited enough about a photo shoot? He kept Eva in when she caused fights with everyone and broke every rule he made, he kept Regina in no matter how much she complained to him. She was easy compared to the two of them, and if Rocko kicked every girl out of the group who crossed him he'd be left with Shirley and no one else. He needed them as much as they needed him.

"Now. Let's go get some photos." Rocko flashed another grin and turned dramatically to lead the girls into the dingy building. What looked crumbling from the outside was anything but when they entered: dark, but bustling as people rushed about, fussing with lights and the set and dragging wardrobe trolleys that held more gowns than Mercedes had ever seen in her life. They rolled past the girls who stood, gobsmacked, just past the threshold, then curved in a wide arc to make their way across the large, dim workspace and behind the set. The set was exceedingly simple: a stark white backdrop and floorcloth, with a podium covered in light pink plush velvet. But the way people rushed around it, scurrying to tweak lights and sweep the floorcloth to make sure it was pristine, to carry large palettes of makeup behind the backdrop, Mercedes couldn't help but feel like it was huge.

This was a real, live set. For a photo shoot to go on an album.

Well, so Rocko claimed. Or at least to get them signed to a label so they could have an album. Either way. It counted as a big step.

"We're really making it," Regina said quietly beside her, and as much as Mercedes usually thought the cheesy stuff was dumb, she couldn't help it. She had been dreaming of being a singing star since she could remember, and here she was on a set with real photographers and makeup people and that whole rack of gowns she'd seen? Those were for her. All of this was her domain now.

She was going to be a star. They were making it.

By the time they were led back to hair and makeup stations, Mercedes really felt like a star. The entire thing was surreal, as one woman powdered her face with a thick layer of light brown powder and another gave her nails a quick manicure to make sure they looked their best in the picture, in case she was posed in such a way that they were visible. A layer of pale pink, an emery board, and ten minutes later she leaned back slightly in the chair while blush was applied to her cheeks. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see two women working quickly on Regina's hair and another helping Eva into a dress while she complained about it not being flashy enough. Mercedes wanted to ask just how dumb her roommate was that she didn't know how sequins looked in a photo - did she not own a record where they tried that on the album cover? Or looked at a magazine lately? 

Maybe she just knew because of Kurt. He liked to point out stuff like that. He would love all of this, too, all the bustle of the fashion stuff. She wondered if he would be able to enjoy it or be too busy lamenting his own career to appreciate her own...even if maybe he had a point. Sometimes success meant sacrifice, and even though she thought he was rude for taking away her dinner, she guessed a couple days of eating broth might be worth the payoff.

Besides. She wanted to look damn good on the album cover she sent home to her parents to prove she had made it big in the big city.

"Okay," the woman said, stepping back a second to check Mercedes' makeup, then she nodded to someone over Mercedes' shoulder. He came into view in the mirror carrying a foam head with a wig on top.

"What's that for?" she asked, eyes narrowing.

"For pictures. It's a better texture than your hair - more even." Mercedes's eyes narrowed as she tried to figure out what exactly that meant. Her hair was certainly an even texture, it felt the same all the way through - why else would she do her relaxers? The wig was a flip, like a bunch of girls she'd gone to high school with only exaggerated just a little, curling out on the sides with a bang that she would never, ever wear. 

She looked over to see if anyone else was getting the same treatment, and from the looks of it only Eva was. Regina's hair was being puffed out slightly into a bob, and Shirley's long smooth locks were being twisted and curled and pinned on top of her head like a prom queen. "Why?"

"Rocko insisted." She looked from the woman to the man as though waiting for them to give her the actual answer to her question, but neither did. When a few seconds of silence passed, the man simply smoothed the wig onto her head and set about eagerly fixing it, fingers moving quickly to pin the wig into place but avoid mussing its smooth, shiny surface.

It felt funny on her head, heavy and awkward, but...there was more than that. Looking in the mirror, she barely recognized herself - with this hair and the light powder covering her neck and face, set off with dramatic stage makeup. It wasn't quite how she'd envisioned herself looking when she became a star, at any rate. But then, she also hadn't planned on having to rely on a girl she would rather strangle than put up with another day, and she had pictured herself onstage, not in stage face. She would look right in the photos. Besides - it wasn't like they hadn't changed her hair before. 

"There we go - go see Maria for your dress."

Mercedes had to admit, she was a little nervous about the dress. She hadn't lost as much weight as Rocko would have liked, even though she had tried and had eaten like she was supposed to - not to Kurt's strict standards, maybe, but he was obsessive over things in a way she never would be. She liked things more than being as thin as Rachel. Things like french fries. And chocolate cake. But for something like this, where maybe Rocko was right about their whole future riding on it...she wished she could've done a little more maybe. She slipped out of the chair and walked over, keeping her head as still as she could to not unseat the wig even though it was pinned pretty tightly. She could already see the dresses on Eva and Shirley - black silk cut straight across the bust, with lace trim at the neck and straps, with an A-line skirt that Mercedes just knew was going to make her look bigger than she was. She didn't go in the same way Eva did, and Shirley had no curves at all, she was practically straighter than Rachel. What if Kurt had been more right than he realized, and this was going to mean she didn't make it? Either because the picture didn't work so the whole group failed, or because Rocko kicked her out of the group like he threatened sometimes? Not just her, but any of them who was acting up. He had yet to follow through on any of it, but maybe she really wasn't cut out for all of this like she thought.

"Here ya go, hon." Maria unzipped the dress and held it for Mercedes to step into, sliding it up into place and zipping it. To Mercedes' surprise, it wasn't too small in the least - it was actually almost too big. Maybe she really had lost more than she'd thought by eating healthy for the week, she thought proudly as Maria began to take in the back with pins, not caring if they showed because she would only be viewed from the front anyway.

"Oh good," Maria mumbled to herself, smiling and shaking her head as she drew in the bust until it was snug against Mercedes' skin. "Rocko said he had a big girl but didn't say how big, and I was afraid I might-"

Mercedes blinked, going from pleased to borderline homicidal in a matter of moments. "He said what?"

"Girls, on-set please! All of you, now!" A pleasant-sounding man with a clipboard directed from the edge of the makeup table. 

"Just one more- there," Maria said as she fastened one last pin into the back of Mercedes' dress. "Go ahead, dear." Mercedes smoothed the front of the dress awkwardly, frowning at how the extra fabric bulk shifted oddly behind her as she walked. She followed Regina out onto the set, stomach fluttering excitedly. This wasn't about the dress her jerk of a manager thought she would be too big for, or the hairstyle - because honestly, they had changed her hair plenty of times before, it was just never this artificial before. It wasn't about the strange makeup that made her face look funny in the mirror. All these people were here for her...well, for her and her girls. A couple years ago, when she was sitting in a girls' dormitory, she could never have dreamed this would actually happen, but now as the lights flashed brighter and a guy began to move Shirley and Regina into place on either side of the podium, with Rocko wheeling and dealing just off-set...it was really happening.

She felt right here. It wasn't quite like being onstage, but it felt exhilarating nonetheless. She could imagine doing this for a long time, having people rush around and fetch drinks and fix her makeup and fluff her dress. It was like being queen, only better because she didn't just get it by being born to the right parents; she'd earned this. That was her voice on their demos, and she sounded damn good. It made the reward feel all the sweeter.

"Where the hell do you think you're standing?" Eva demanded shrilly as Regina moved in front of her, leaning against the side of the podium.

"Where they put me," Regina shot back over her shoulder with a roll of her eyes, then gave an exaggerated flip of her overly-styled hair so it swept across Eva's face.

"I will rip that out of your head - by the roots!"

So much for the world of a music star.

As Rocko swept in to calm the waters and patronizingly talk each of the girls down, Shirley made a quick exit, coming to stand beside Mercedes on the sidelines. "Can't they ever stop?" she asked, rolling her eyes.

"No," Mercedes replied. "I don't know how you didn't smack at least one of them in the car on the way over - I almost did."

"What would I even say?" She smiled faintly as though she knew it was futile to even try piping up. "'No, stop that'? Please. They don't listen to me."

"You've gotta make them listen." Mercedes looked Shirley up and down - fit into her dress perfectly, slim arms clasped behind her back, hair piled on top of her head, with all the spitfire of a 12-year-old whose biggest dream was to be prom queen one day with that hair. "You've gotta stand up for yourself when they start stuff. They will run over you if you let them - you've gotta dish it out as well as they do. Eva doesn't push me around because she knows she can't."

"Except when she locks you out of your room so she can make out with her boyfriend."

Mercedes wasn't sure whether to be annoyed or proud that Shirley pointed that out...or amused that Shirley thought that was all Eva was doing. "Better than walking in on it," she replied, and Shirley laughed. "Just learn to have more of a backbone, you know?"

"You're right, it's just not so easy," Shirley offered, and Mercedes shrugged because she could understand that, but she wasn't sure how to explain to a person how to tell someone else to knock something off. It was one of her many gifts, cultivated from an early age over her mother's - and especially over her father's - objections, but it served a person well when used properly. For one thing, it got her out of a backseat between two girls who could start a catfight over literally anything.

"Okay, girls, let's try this again," Rocko called as he stepped off the set, Regina and Eva for now mutually sulking around the podium. 

"Are we taking bets on how long this lasts?" Mercedes joked as she walked out, starting to take her place at the front of the podium, across from Regina.

"Actually." The director moved over to take her gently by the arm. "We're going to put you up here." he guided her to the back half of the podium, next to Eva, then lightly grasped Shirley's hand and drew her to the front side with a fond smile. "Like that, exactly."

Shirley was taller than she was; Mercedes had known that for quite awhile now, but it was suddenly evident by just how much when she was suddenly standing behind the girl. Probably by about four inches. And that was before the updo added more height. "Excuse me?" she asked, popping her head out so no one could miss her. "Why is she up front here when she's the tallest of all of us?"

"Don't worry, we'll fix it - Mark? Would you?" the director called, and a young man brought over a short stepladder. It took Mercedes a second to realize what he wanted and move out of his way, but he quickly and expertly set it, checking the angle to camera before stepping back and offering her a hand. She couldn't see over Shirley's hair until she was on the second step, her fingertips resting awkwardly on the podium, but the director called out "Great! Okay, now let's get started..."

It felt like hours passed, standing up on a narrow step in uncomfortable heels - and why did they put them in heels when they were only photographing the group from their waists up? - with a giant smile pasted on her face until her cheeks started to ache, then the muscles there started to twitch so it felt like her face was vibrating. Her shoulder went numb after about twenty minutes, then they changed her position to lean more heavily onto the podium which sent pins and needles down her arm. They shifted her behind Shirley no fewer than six times and told them all to look sweeter, look more wholesome, look polished, and when Regina couldn't keep a straight face because she was thinking of too many jokes and nasty things to say about Eva being wholesome and polished, Rocko cleared his throat and shot her a dirty look that would have made Mercedes start laughing if she thought she could move her cheeks. 

And to top it all off, it was sweltering.

The studio that had seemed so cool, with its white-painted cinderblock walls and drafts, when they arrived had heated up quickly once the lights went up, and Mercedes swore more people just kept piling in - she didn't know what any of them did, but they were all white and all very busy doing nothing at all. They would scurry from one end of the room to the other with a clipboard, pick up a hat and scurry back across the room to hand it to a different person than the one they had just spoken with, only to repeat the whole movement over again but this time with a necklace, none of which ever ended up on-set as far as Mercedes could tell. Maybe they didn't even do anything but bring coffee every so often, she concluded. Maybe it was like the equivalent of those kids who were even lower on the ladder than Kurt in the fashion world, who were there just hoping someone would notice them and let them do something else. Like those girls who worked as secretaries at record label offices because they thought they could get discovered enough to at least be a studio musician, then get her big break. 

She was so glad she wasn't stuck doing that. If she had to kiss someone's butt all day while they made her run around with hats, she wouldn't last five minutes before she would get back on the bus to school, she would hate it that much. She didn't get people coffee. No way.

But she hadn't realized that, when people talked about the bright lights of show business, they meant it literally.

By the time the director of the photo shoot called "Makeup!", Mercedes was so dripping with sweat that she was surprised the director hadn't already yelled at her for the powder caking to her cheeks and forehead in wet, uneven patterns. The women from earlier swooped in with handfuls of compacts and brushes and shadows to touch all four of them up as quickly as possible, starting with Mercedes. She stepped off the ladder, flexing her feet painfully inside the shoes, and tried to figure out whether taking off her shoes would make it better or worse. They wouldn't be able to tell, so she could probably get away with it, and the things hurt. But standing in nothing but stockings on a wooden ladder rung for hours might hurt more. She tried to stretch her cheek muscles even as the woman attempted to fluff more light brown powder all over her, sighing and shaking her head as it looked wet and ruined almost as soon as it hit Mercedes' clammy skin.

"Hey - excuse me?" she asked one of the many scurriers as one walked past. "Can we turn these lights down? I'm boiling up here, I think they want to kill me for what I'm doing to the makeup."

He rolled his eyes. "No. 'Course not," he replied sarcastically. "Sorry." With a flick of his eyebrows that looked like he might be sorry or might think she was a diva for even asking, he kept walking around to the back of the set.

What the hell kind of answer did he think that was? Groaning in her heels, she waved off the makeup lady and marched after him. "Why not? I know you don't get to call the shots or anything, but you could at least ask!"

"Because I know the answer," he shot back. He gave her a pitying look as he added, "Look, I'm sure you girls are...swell. But they keep the lights so bright 'cause they've gotta lighten you up. How else are they gonna sell you? When lights are turned that bright that long, they get hot. So they have to put more powder on you - which doesn't match your skin either. So...sorry. But no, they won't turn it down. And I'm not gonna ask because the last time I did? I'm not about to let them fire me when I'm only a couple weeks away from my bus ticket out of here." He shrugged and walked back toward the rack of wig "options" mumbling something about her not being worth a sit-in in Mobile, leaving Mercedes standing beside the rack of unworn gowns.

"Mercedes!" Rocko said, popping around the back of the set and snapping his fingers. "We need you back out there." Mercedes just nodded dumbly and walked out to take her place again on the step ladder, pasting on her best fake smile. It was amazing how easy muscle memory made it.

* * * * *

His picture was in the newspaper.

Kurt arrived at work to find it taped to another box of netting - right there on the front page of the Metro section of the New York Times, under the headline "Police Crack Down on Homosexual Establishments; Hundreds Arrested." A picture of the paddy wagon right before they shoved him in, face-first, with a clear image of his face, eyes wide, mouth tight. The hands shoving him into the already-crowded vehicle were just as beefy as they had felt, and Kurt subconsciously rubbed his forearms where he swore he could still feel the phantom grip of calloused fingers on his delicate skin. He looked stunned in the image, as though he'd had no idea this was coming. 

Maybe he hadn't at the time, but looking back it felt like he should have known all along. He should have believed Mercedes, should have known anywhere that seemed halfway good was too good to be true, he shouldn't have gone in the first place. He should have...

It didn't matter anymore, though, did it? Too late to change any of it.

But now he was definitely going to be fired. No one employed people who got arrested, Kurt knew that much, and if he knew anything about his current job it was that he was most definitely expendable. Replaceable, certainly. Any fool could cut silk and satin according to muslins - probably better than he could, given the collar incident, and it wasn't as though he was like some of the other boys in the company. Some of them had close ties with people further up, had enough friends throughout the line that someone could stand up for them. Some of them even had friends who would vouch for them instead of stabbing them in the back to get their position - those were admittedly more rare. 

He had neither. He had no one.

He found himself spending the morning alternating between wondering just how much tulle he would have to cut before his boss came down to tell him he would no longer be employed, how much his boss had known before he suggested that bar...because even as obnoxious as Stu was, he couldn't possibly have known the place was going to be raided, could he? Even assuming Kurt had been wrong about Stu's motives - completely and utterly wrong, even if Stu was just an ambitious jerk who had so little moral compass and so few feelings he had never been able to comprehend theoretical loneliness let alone felt it himself...even assuming that Kurt had managed to create an entire human side to his boss in his head because he was so desperate to believe that he wasn't alone. Even then. Stu couldn't have known when a bar was going to be raided. And surely he wasn't devious enough to call in the raid himself, was he? No, that-

No one could be that evil, could they?

He didn't know anymore.

He wondered a lot about the men in Ohio who had been caught in the drive-in sting at...at their theater, his and Blaine's. He wondered if any of them got fired from their jobs they had at the time. He imagined they must have been, if only because the only news story he had been able to find prior to coming to terms with himself had been about homosexuals at a bar in Columbus and Leroy had told him that was common and the men usually lost their jobs. It was why Hiram was so afraid of everything - well, that and Rachel, but he wasn't technically meant to see her anyway. He wondered if any of the men turned out okay after that, or what ever happened to them. Or their boyfriends, he knew at least a few of them had been couples at the time - they had seen them together a few times.

He wondered if that was really the beginning of the end of them. If that was what had made Blaine know he couldn't do any of this, that he couldn't trust anyone or anything anymore - not even Kurt. Not even what Kurt had been so sure of.

He wondered if maybe Blaine had been the smart one in all of this. If maybe he should have listened and not come out here. If maybe he should have settled for a dorm room somewhere covered with ivy, or a town in California, or somewhere else where they would never tell anyone how they felt for one another. If maybe everything he'd envisioned about being proud to be himself for even five minutes was just as ridiculous as finding loneliness in Stu's past when there was nothing but deception and ambition.

He wasn't sure of any of it anymore.

The netting was rougher today than the tulle from a few days ago, and it tore up his fingers the longer he tried to manipulate it. What were they trying to make - tutus? Those were high-fashion, certainly. And next they could make tap costumes because obviously that was the direction they were going in now. He had no doubt he would be in charge of beading and sequining until his fingers bled. Or fell off. Or he quit. It refused to lie flat no matter how many places he weighted it to measure the pieces, and as soon as he tried to cut more than one layer at once it slid across the table like a piece of paper under a ceiling fan. "Oh just stay already," he groaned pitifully as he chased the half-cut line with the tip of his scissors, trying to wrangle it back into place without cutting a giant angle in the so-called fabric.

"Having fun?" Stu sing-songed from the door, a look of schadenfreude on his face but with something darker - not merely being happy about Kurt's misfortune, but twisted delight in bringing about his public humiliation. A few of his friends crowded around him, trying to get a good look at Kurt, and it took everything in him not to let them see how agonizing it had been. He held his back stiff, his mouth tight, eyes just a bit too wide as he simply looked up at them like he didn't care about the comment. Or the fact that they were staring at him. Or the fact that he had trusted him. Or-

He swallowed hard, corners of his mouth twitching just a little, and his eyes fixed Stu with a sharp glare, watching as he and his cronies disappeared down the hall with uproarious laughter as though his misfortune was the funniest thing they had ever seen, but the tears mercifully held back until they had passed his door. 

Kurt had been humiliated plenty of times in his life. He had been shoved into every borderline-disgusting substance or refuse that could be found in Lima at some point in time. He had been invited to classmates' parties as a joke, he'd had every rumour possible spread about him in middle school, and he had once managed to nearly fall on his face trying to dance in the choir room. He had found out at a bonfire with every person he was close to in the entire school that his boyfriend was leaving him for the opposite coast and had a shouting match at more than a few rites of passage, and he had listened to his brother trying to feel up his girlfriend on more occasions than he cared to count - only to face questions from his brother about why, when it was Finn's turn to chaperon Kurt's 'dates', Kurt didn't try to make out with Rachel in the backseat. But nothing remotely compared to the realization that he had made up every ounce of humanity he had attributed to Stu, that he had created it out of nothing at all, and that he had a second arrest on his record and the entire city was going to know about it.

The only thing he could console himself with was the fact that no one in the city except Rachel and Mercedes had his father's address, so there was no way his family could ever get a copy of this. And that neither Rachel nor Mercedes regularly read the Metro section - only the Arts.

The sound of whispering outside his door made the tears just fall harder. Everyone around here knew, it seemed. Stu had certainly made sure plenty of people saw the newspaper before he put it in Kurt's workroom. Or enough people read the Times to find it on their own, but he wasn't betting on that. He would bet everything it was all his boss's fault at this point. Of course it was. Because apparently making one mistake meant being ruined for life with-

"I told you it was him!" he heard the hushed voice and almost choked on his own throat as he tried to pull himself together. Really? Hadn't he been punished enough? Hadn't he suffered enough for believing what he thought was a good-faith suggestion by someone who turned out to be a snake? Did he really have to-

"I can't believe you recognized a boy in a newspaper picture," came another whisper, this one genuinely incredulous.

"You just can't believe I spent that much time studying the picture to ID people."

"You're right, I think it's unhealthy. And a little obsessive."

"I think we know too many people who could've been in that picture. And we know a lawyer."

Kurt tilted his head, his hands stilling on the tulle as he tried to figure out who the men outside were. And what they were talking about - beyond the obvious. It was easy to tell that one of the men knew who he was because he was in the picture, but how did they know other people who could have been in the picture with him? Others who went to that bar? How did they know- there were six bars raided the same night, how did they even know what bar Kurt had been at? And how did they know him? No one around here knew him except the girls in the front office who liked how he dressed and asked his opinions on their makeup...well, them and Stu, but these voices weren't laughing at him. Pointing, yes, but laughing...not quite.

A familiar face appeared in the doorway - the third-echelon man with the smile like Blaine's who told him goodnight like he actually meant it. His dark brown eyes were so worried and compassionate that it made Kurt want to sob, just curl up in the middle of the room and lose it kind of bawling. He was just so exhausted and ashamed and it was like the first time a person was asking why he looked half-dead because Rachel had been lost in her own mind with something she wasn't ready to talk about, either, and that one look- "Are you okay?"

He wasn't going to cry in front of his boss's boss's boss. He wasn't. He swore up and down he wouldn't, even as he could feel the tears working their way forward. With a proud jut of his chin and a rigidly-stiff back, he replied with a very quiet, high, "Why wouldn't I be?"

The man stepped into the room, gesturing for whoever his companion was to enter as well. The second man was taller, boxier, with dark hair worn too long and nearly-black eyes. "Oh sweetie...we've all been there..." The first man shot his taller friend a look and paused to close the door behind them. "We've all been there," he repeated more sympathetically.

Kurt wasn't sure he understood. Was he saying that he had been arrested, too? For-...for this? That he was-

Oh, wow. Did that mean-

"I'm Don," the first man said in a calm tone with a reassuring smile, as if he could sense that Kurt was starting to try to process everything too quickly and needed to take a step back. "And this is John...my lover."

My lover. He said it so casually, like it was a perfectly normal introduction to make, but Kurt felt like his world stopped spinning for a moment. His lover. The man he-...he shared things with, his more-than-a-boyfriend, his-... 

He had a million questions but couldn't find a way to get to any of them, couldn't pull any of them from where they were spinning through his brain to his throat enough to give voice to the things he wanted to know so badly - how had they found each other? What was it like, having one? How long had they been together? 

Were they happy?

"Why in the world would you go there? Of all the places-"

"Exactly," John jumped in, shaking his head. "You have to come out with us instead. We have safer places. Promise," he added with a grin, but Kurt felt sick. 

He wanted to believe them. He wanted to believe in the earnest smiles and the way the two of them glanced at one another before speaking. He wanted to say yes, absolutely - they should take him to a nice safe place where he could meet a boyfriend before disappearing back into the safety of his apartment except for possibly going out to another safe place for dinner every so often. He wanted to ask them where they had met and where other boys met other boys and how long had they been together because neither one looked too much older than he was - unless they were much older and just looked younger, considering he still looked like a high school student. He wanted to go with them.

Really, he wanted to believe John's earnest smile.

But the problem was, he did believe it.

He did. He believed it. He believed that Don and John (and he couldn't tell if the matching names were adorable or an unfortunate coincidence) wanted to help him. He believed Don's tender expression and John's earnest grin. He believed that they wanted to take him somewhere safe because they understood what he had gone through. He believed that they wanted to show him kindness because they had been through the same humiliating experiences, and that maybe he could find a boyfriend and some genuine friendships out of this entire mortifying affair.

But he had believed the same thing about Stu. He had really, truly, and honestly believed that Stu wanted to help him because he knew true loneliness. He had convinced himself of kindness and altruism where neither existed - where neither had reason to exist except for his own desperation. There was absolutely no reason he should have thought that Stu was out to help anyone but himself, and yet he had made the entire thing up in his head and then convinced himself it had been real all along, only to end up in jail.

He had believed New York would be an amazing fantasyland with homosexual couples on every corner, where he and Blaine could skip through the streets holding hands and singing love songs to one another, based on no evidence at all except stories Leroy had of California and the vague missive that he should "head for the coasts" because that's where the homosexuals used to hang out on Naval bases 20-some years ago. He had made up an entire future that had no basis in reality and not known any of it until it was too late.

Hell, he had believed that he and Blaine had a future together. He had believed that Blaine really was committed to New York the way he was, that his boyfriend was invested in all of this and going to go come a year ahead of him to start preparing their life together. 

This was what he did. He seized on tiny hints of moments to draw out something that represented the smallest glimmer of hope, and then he built the whole thing up in his head - adding details and creating a backstory for every single action until before he knew it, he believed something so genuinely and so fervently that he would act on anything that made sense in the world he had created...

And it never ended well.

Mercedes had tried to tell him he did this before, and he had tuned her out, claiming she was just-...just uncomfortable with him, or just didn't like Blaine, or just didn't understand what it was he saw because she hadn't been there. But maybe she really was right. He made these things up and then wondered why they weren't true, why he ended up heartbroken - or in jail - when there had never been any reason to believe things would work out the way he planned.

So the problem wasn't that he didn't believe that, with the way the two of them looked like they wanted to start holding hands and the tender concern on both their faces, they wanted to help him; he had no doubt in his mind that they did. But his sense of doubt rarely - if ever - lined up with reality.

And he couldn't go through another disappointment like that right now. Certainly not if it involved another night in jail.

"No," he forced out quietly, the word having to practically be shoved from his throat so roughly it hurt. "Thank you, but. I can't."

He wasn't about to jump into things again. He couldn't.

He was done

Chapter Text

Rachel loved the holidays.

Growing up as a proud Jew with a strong sense of her heritage, Chanukkah was a magical time - full of presents and her mom's latkes and family coming over to see her. But from the time she was little, so much of Christmas just seemed more...appealing. After all, while she had more days of presents, she knew that her parents loved her too much to limit themselves to just eight gifts for her so really, if they celebrated Christmas, she would have come out ahead. And Christmas came with beautiful decorations - trees with bright lights and glittery balls and baubles in so many festive colours, garland hung from every shelf and mantle, swirling velvet dresses and an excuse to take photographs wearing them? What wasn't to like?

And, perhaps more importantly, they got all the good songs.

To be honest, there really weren't any Chanukkah songs meant for anyone except an untalented-six-year-old to sing, and she surpassed that level when she was sixteen months. She liked dreidels just fine, and her pronunciation when singing in Hebrew impressed even her Rabbi, but even her exceptional rendition of Maoz Tzur couldn't compare to the majestic musical beauty of O Holy Night. 

Her father understood. Of course, her father also celebrated Christmas now, at least a little - he and Leroy had a tree that they decorated, and she assumed if Leroy put on carols her father joined in. He understood that there were considerations beyond just heritage. Her mother always said she was just jealous of her friends who got more gifts than she did and wanted a leg up on the competition for leads in the Christmas pageants at school. And if she had been, so what? Were those such bad things? Shouldn't she stand a fair chance of getting the solos when she was the most talented student there, even though she didn't have the advantage of singing these songs from infancy? Shouldn't she be able to sing "Silent Night" as well as any other child at her school, which required knowing it inside and out so she could best show her talents to the biggest town event of the year?

She saw nothing wrong with celebrating both. Besides - Kurt celebrated Christmas, and it wouldn't be fair to make him give up something he looked forward to. Last year had been nothing short of amazing: their first holiday season in New York, with the lights and the window displays? To say nothing of the shopping; the Macys at Herald Square was bigger than even the largest mall Rachel had ever seen, and they had everything, with holly and wreaths everywhere and people bustling about...it was magical, the way the city of her dreams transformed into something even more dreamlike during the winter. On the way back it had started to snow, too, and she had stood on the corner and belted out "Let it Snow" while Kurt rolled his eyes at her and joined in begrudgingly. 

This year was even better, too. They had more money, thanks to her role in her very first show, and she was finally starting to feel like this city was turning out to be everything she knew it had the potential to be for her. Cal had already promised to whisk her around to holiday parties of every sort and kind, which meant she was getting to spend a lot more time with Kurt to design dresses for her to wear that would best convey her obvious sophistication and class while also making people want to get to know her better, and now they had the entire afternoon to decorate the apartment the way she knew Kurt had always wanted to. Last year they hadn't been able to afford a proper tree, just a wreath and a few strands of tinsel, but this year... She sang along with the radio as she hung brand new metallic balls on their tree.

Rockin' around the Christmas tree 
At the Christmas party hop
Mistletoe hung where you can see
Ev'ry couple tries to stop


She leaned in playfully to Kurt as she danced back toward where he was sorting the ornaments on the table. He seemed to think she couldn't be trusted to place them in the right places unless he pre-arranged them for her, as though she were a child or something. Sometimes he could be so patronizing - just because she had never done this before didn't mean she couldn't figure out how. She had been looking at pictures of them in magazines for the past decade with envy, and it wasn't exactly complicated. But she understood; this was just what he did. She did kind of encourage it, she guessed, because he was so visually-talented that she relied on him for it. He was always ready to offer a comment on her clothes (and he was less mean about them now than he used to be), and he enjoyed picking out furniture even more than she did, so she let him have that aspect of apartment life...even if she did wish he wouldn't look at her like she was a child. She knew not to hang all the red ones together, thank you very much.

Even if she did still think the green balls would have matched the tree better and didn't understand why Kurt had looked at her like she was out of her mind.

Kurt didn't dance back, not even that little shoulder shimmy he usually did if he tried to dance while he was sitting. He didn't even really look up at her, just flicked his eyebrows in her general direction and set the empty boxes aside before picking up the bowl of popcorn. It smelled amazing in their apartment, but he swore it was for stringing instead of for eating. 

He had spent most of the morning rolling his eyes at her. Actually, he had spent most of the past few weeks rolling his eyes at her. He always had a little, but he was seeming more frustrated by the day - and she could understand that, but it didn't mean she had to accept it. Pasting on a big smile, she picked up several balls and danced her way back to the tree.

Rockin' around the Christmas tree
Let the Christmas spirit ring
Later we'll have some pumpkin pie
And do some caroling


He was probably just worried about his dad coming to town, Rachel told herself. That couldn't be helping matters. She knew if her mom were coming, even as much as she loved and missed her mom and their intense, loving rivalry, she would probably be nervous. And at least her mother knew that Kurt wasn't really her boyfriend. His dad didn't, and they hadn't needed to pretend to be dating in quite awhile. She had been practicing by herself all week to make sure she was prepared, looking at all the pictures of them from when they lived in Ohio to ensure she could give her best performance, but Kurt seemed so subdued about the whole thing.

Maybe he was worried about what Cal might think. But Cal was on-board and to be honest kind of amused by the whole thing, which made her feel a lot better about it. Otherwise she would have needed to not kiss Kurt and that might have put cracks in their carefully-crafted performance. She had read that couples who lived together were far more intimate with each other than ones who didn't, which was part of why they were so controversial as a pair, but that meant she couldn't fall back on how she had played their relationship while they still lived with their parents - she had to step it up a notch.

You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear
Voices singing "Let's be jolly -
Deck -


"Rachel." His voice cut her off in the rest before she could finish the line. Still, it was the first time he had bothered to really acknowledge her presence the entire song, as he looked up at her, fingers delicately holding a popcorn kernel. "You know I of all people can appreciate your talent and...enthusiasm." He wore a tight, pasted-on smile and said 'enthusiasm' like it wasn't what he really wanted to say. "But do you have to be so cheerful?"

They had exchanged their share of insults over the years, friendly barbs as one or the other would go out for a role the other person wanted or thought someone else might deserve more, but it was the first time in awhile he had so much as implied - let alone said - that she was too much. "What's bothering you?" she asked as she sat down across the table from him. She was sure he had a good reason, Kurt wasn't just cruel for nothing - at least not to her - so she was certain it was simply a matter of figuring it out.

She was fantastic at figuring out what was bothering the people she cared about. It was part of what made her such a good friend.

"Nothing," he replied, focusing intently on his popcorn garland.

"Kurt-" He rolled his eyes, which was- well, not so much new, she guessed, but it hadn't happened in quite awhile. "I know something's going on. You won't dance, you're not even bothering to check that I'm following your instructions about where to hang things, you're just sitting over here with a needle and some popcorn with your back to everything. You aren't even singing along, and I know you know this."

"Everyone knows this," he pointed out dryly, but he sounded more sad than irritated.

“You love Christmas.”

“No I don’t.”

“Yes, you do. Last year, you remember, we went around town looking at all the displays and laughing and singing carols on the sidewalk? And then it snowed and the flakes started coming down as we hit Seventh and it was completely magical?” There was a faint glimmer of recognition, of acknowledgement, on his face, the tiniest of sad smiles, and then both were gone again. “Then we came back here and you decorated the entire apartment for $10.”

“Seven,” he corrected quietly, staring at the table top. 

“See?” she smiled, nudging him, and he offered a very small smile, casting a sideways glance in her direction for just a second. “We have more this year, because of course I’m making my debut soon, and I thought you would be excited – we have a real tree and everything, not just that wreath.” She waited for him to respond, and when he didn’t she prompted, “Why aren’t you even interested in any of it?”

He sighed quietly, his fingers working the needle slowly through each kernel as he began, “I guess I’m just worried-“

“About your dad coming,” she filled in with a sympathetic nod. “I thought so. But don’t worry – I’ve been reading up on what couples do in Manhattan and I have plenty of stories we can tell him about things we’ve done together as a perfectly normal boyfriend and girlfriend.” She was about to say that she was even prepared to convert her bedroom into a guest bedroom to avoid suspicion – a trick she had learned from her dad, even though it was kind of the opposite, and it did mean she would have to stay in his room for the weekend but she was sure he wouldn’t mind – when one of her alltime favourite Christmas songs came on. It was one her mom hadn’t minded, either, because it wasn’t really about Christmas, just the holiday party season. 

The holiday party season she was finally going to get to experience firsthand thanks to her lovely new boyfriend, Cal, who – while not quite what she might have expected and not as much of a gentleman as most of the boys back home, certainly made up for it in charm and class. Plus his ability to recognize her obvious talent put him much higher on the list than the boys in Ohio who threw milkshakes at her every day. He had, after all, given her the lead role.

“I really can’t stay,” she sang, nudging Kurt again with a playful grin as she waited for him to sing the second half of the duet. He didn’t; instead, his neck went stiff, fingers tightening on the popcorn strand, and he stared straight ahead and the edge of the kitchen cabinet. “I’ve got to go ‘way… - Oh come on, you know this one, too. – This evening has been so very-“

He reached over and turned off the radio in a quick motion, then replied simply, “Just because you like half a duet, Rachel, doesn’t mean I’m going to join you for the other half.”

She didn’t understand what was wrong with him, why he was acting like this. Was it- “Do you only know the girl part?” she asked, because that had happened on a few musicals. Kurt sang so high and was used to singing that line, so sometimes he didn’t know and then felt bad. It had happened when they sang West Side Story, too – he only knew Maria. It was kind of cute, actually, but she didn’t think telling him that right now would go over very well. “We can switch if you want, if you don’t want to be the boy-“

“No,” he replied coldly. He placed the half-finished strand on the table in a messy coil, straightening it fussily for a few seconds with stiff fingers before standing. "I'm going to go clean the bathroom. He'll be here first thing in the morning." He picked up and nearly clutched a bottle of bleach as he strode across the apartment to the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

...Well. Just because he was in a curiously-foul mood didn't mean she needed to be. It was the holiday season, after all, and she wasn't going to let anything - not even Kurt - bring her down. Glancing to be sure he had closed the door all the way and therefore couldn't hear her, she turned the radio back on and sang just a little more quietly, "The neighbours might think...say, what's in this drink?" She wondered how the inflection should go on that and made a mental note to rehearse it several ways later. It was a Christmas staple and she should know it flawlessly, just in case she was ever called-upon to fill in for someone at the last minute. Or if she might someday be asked to perform it even without someone else canceling.

She should have a partner lined up, just in case. She would give Kurt his musical and acting notes in the morning - hopefully by then, he would be in a better mood and they could squeeze in a rehearsal before his dad arrived.

* * * * *

Mercedes could barely contain herself as the car drove past the done-up windows of New York City. She barely noticed them, all a blur of lights and festivity that seemed far away - far beyond what really had her excited. She could actually hear the songs on the radio, which was highly unusual. The backseat was silent for once, and - even more novel - not because two of its occupants were adamantly refusing to speak to one another. In fact, as she glanced over her shoulder to make sure one of them hadn't surreptitiously strangled another, she couldn't help but be struck by the way that everyone actually looked pretty happy. Sure, Eva had on her face like she was too cool to care, and Shirley looked terrified, but everyone was just as thrilled as she was. 

They should be; this was a big deal.

For months, Rocko had been talking about how they were close - this close, he always swore up and down - to a meeting with a label. He knew a guy who had an in, or he knew a guy who knew the guy who had signed some other group no one had ever heard of, or a rep would be coming to this tiny booking where no more than six people (none of them related in any way to a record label) showed up, and Mercedes' skepticism had been increasing slowly. Regina was more outspoken in her belief that this would never actually come to fruition, but she certainly seemed happy to be proven wrong.

They had only had a day's notice, and Mercedes swore she hadn't gotten more than about ten minutes' sleep at a time since then - they had spent hours rehearsing parts of different songs, whittling them down to only the strongest verse and chorus, because Rocko assured them that most groups barely got the time of day to get through more than a tiny fraction of song; then they had spent what felt like hours trying on clothes and attempting to figure out whether they should coordinate or not, look formal or not, look sweet or city-cool. It had taken nearly three hours for all four girls to get ready and look as perfect as they thought they should, but even the resident warriors couldn't make a fight stick today, because they were about to make it.

She couldn't stop grinning every time she thought about it. Who knew? Okay, fine, she had been saying she would be a star since she was old enough to know what one was, and she knew she was more than good enough, but who knew it would actually happen after so many months of being frustrated and dealing with groupmates who hated each other? It was within reach now; all she had to do was lead her group through a great meeting where they dazzled the guy with their talent, and everything she had wanted would finally be hers.

Fine; theirs.

She wondered if they would have news before Christmas in a couple days. She really wanted to be able to give her family good news. Her dad still didn't know what to say to her when she called; her mom had finally gotten past it enough to at least not drop it into every sentence, even though she made crystal clear what she thought of Mercedes' decision to leave school and pursue music, but her dad...

He got John, who loved school and loved being surrounded by people like them and maybe wanted to go into that organizing thing they were doing down South. She felt like that should be enough, you know, that they had one kid who did what they wanted. Some parents didn't even get that. But in a lot of ways that made it worse because how was she supposed to compete? How was she supposed to make them proud when her big brother did everything they wanted him to want to do, and she hated every second of it?

Her mom said it was about practicality because no one made it as a singer, no one could live off that. And Mercedes really, reallywanted to prove her wrong...in part because she had no other choice. If this didn't work out, she would be even worse off than Rachel and her greaseball director or Kurt and his two-faced boss because at least they still had an apartment. Besides, what else would she do? The only thing she really loved out there was music, and if she had to take some secretary job or find a nice guy to marry and settle down and have kids with...

But this was going to work. They were so close now, and she knew if it were on her shoulders she could lead them through and get them this deal. They were good, and she had never wanted anything more in her life: a winning combination.

The car pulled up in front of a mid-town high-rise, so different from the run-down apartments that lined the streets on the south end of Harlem or the neat, identical ranch houses that sprung up daily around town in Lima. Wreaths hung from every window on the first floor, creating a border of green with red ribbons all the way across the front of the building that had to be two or three times as wide as even her building which was a lot bigger than most places in town. A thousand glittering windows ran from the base of the building to the top at least thirty-five stories up, interrupted only by narrow beams and short bands to mark each floor. She craned her neck up to try to see what people were doing, because with all that glass it should have been easy to watch people scurrying around the offices - or sitting around and doing nothing, like her parents thought about a lot of people with jobs in offices - but she couldn't see inside.

In that building was the man who was going to give her her shot. He was probably near the top, right? That's where they put the important people? Up there was a guy who was going to sign them and make her the star she was born to be. Up there was where her dreams were going to finally come true.

Rocko was waiting on the sidewalk as usual, but his bravado looked more forced today - like he was nervous and excited about this, too. That really did mean this was big, didn't it? She was almost impressed he gave a damn if they did well or not, because usually she figured he was too busy wheeling and dealing around town to care about them in particular instead of just as another part of his portfolio, but maybe this really was a big deal to him, too. Good; she was glad he cared. She was glad he wanted them to make it. That meant he might actually try to do something useful for a change, because sometimes she wasn't so sure.

"There's my girls," he said, his smile a little too wide as he held out his arms, checking his watch subtly. He looked each of them up and down as they got out, nodding approvingly at Regina, then Shirley; Eva got a glare as she held her gloves in her right hand, flicking them back and forth against her left palm as though she were too bored and above it all, and she grumbled and rolled her eyes but put them on.

She didn't even fight him on it. Another first.

He gave Mercedes a nod, but that wasn't a surprise. She knew how to dress. She didn't dress up all the time, not like Shirley, but her mother had made damned sure she knew how to put her best foot forward. She knew how to look nice, and even if she didn't she was sure Kurt would have insisted on "helping" until she did. Her best church dress fit the bill just fine, with her jacket and gloves and matching shoes - she looked a little overly sweet, maybe, but Rocko had told them to. He kept looking at her with an unreadable expression even as he said, "Let's go win them over. Sing your little hearts out." He gestured toward the door with a sweeping arm movement, and Regina led the way inside, but when Mercedes started to follow, Rocko caught her elbow. "What?" she demanded, not sure what was going on but not liking the feeling she got. Her excitement was starting to turn into nervousness, which - she had been told - became attitude. He raised his eyebrows at her, and she rolled her eyes. "What?" she asked again, a little less snotty this time.

"Behave in there," he stated.

She laughed. "That's all? I'm not the one you gotta worry about, Rocko, that'd be Eva the Diva over there. I'm fine."

"You talk too much."

The admonishment came out of nowhere, and she stared at him with confusion. She'd been told a lot of things in her life, been given a long list of things people didn't like about her attitude, but no one had ever told her that before - no one but teachers who wanted her to pay more attention in class. "What do you mean?"

"You take charge in these things, you're gonna go in there and answer all the questions yourself."

"I'm in charge. I'm the lead singer." Everyone knew it worked that way, and Mercedes didn't get why all of a sudden Rocko had a problem with that. Hell, he'd been the first one she'd heard say it out loud even though everyone who had ever watched a variety show where the host asked the musical groups questions knew that. 

"You gotta back off, Mercedes. Let Shirley answer."

"Shirley?" she demanded. "The girl's too timid to stand up to Eva - to stand up to Regina. She can barely speak up enough to order dinner, and you think she's gonna get us signed?"

"Let her do the talking," Rocko stated again with a warning look, much more severe than the ones Eva got when she got a stern talking-to but no actual punishment, then walked over and pulled open the door for her with a pasted-on grin. Mercedes followed him into the lobby, blood boiling.

* * * * *
Kurt knew it was stupid to be nervous.

For one thing, it was just his father. His father, whom he had missed quite a bit over the past year and a half since moving to New York, who had never tried to tell him to abandon his dreams no matter how foolhardy they must have seemed in Ohio. His father, who had never seen New York and would probably want to spend the entire holiday seeing tourist sights Kurt had explored with Rachel his first month there, and again with Mercedes last June. He knew his way to Battery Park like the back of his hand, and he could point out every great shopping opportunity in the city practically with his eyes shut. It would be fine - they would catch up a little, he would pester his father about his diet, and then they would spend a few days looking at lights, letting his father be confounded and wowed by the big buildings that Kurt no longer thought looked so impressive. Then his father would return to Ohio, and his life would return to normal.

So it was stupid to be nervous.

Kurt rolled his eyes at himself as he sliced the strawberries. Everything would be fine. Better than fine, really - he had honestly missed his dad, it felt like it had been forever since he'd gotten to see him. Last year at Christmas, there had been too much work and not enough money to make the trip home, and-

It was strange. Awkward. He had called as he did almost every Saturday and told his dad the news, and his dad's first response had been to offer to pay for the bus fare. It had just been because they wanted to have a big family holiday - what they could, anyway - but Kurt hadn't felt right saying yes. He was an adult now, he was supposed to be living his dream in New York and that dream included having enough money to pay for things. Telling his dad that yes, the money was the reason he had said no but the offer of payment was great so he would arrive on Tuesday, would be admitting to the utterly broken imperfections of the city he had been dreaming of since he could remember. He was too proud for that.

Plus he didn't want his dad to worry. He and Carole had enough to fret over with Finn away. At least he was safe and sound with a roof over his head.

But this would be good - his father could see the slightly-less-austere version of his and Rachel's life, complete with a nice tree and a couch that, while still secondhand, didn't have clawmarks from the previous owner's cat (he had hated that couch so much; it was Rachel's first purchase toward the apartment and he had almost demanded she move out on the spot. Both she and the offending piece of furniture remained until he had finally found a suitable replacement in April). This was a version of things he could show his family without being ashamed.

It wasn't everything he'd ever dreamed of, but his dad wouldn't know the difference. He had been pretending things were fine when they weren't for most of his life.

So there was really no reason at all to be nervous. Besides, anxiety and cutlery were never a winning combination.

"So is everything ready?" Rachel sing-songed as she emerged from the bathroom, freshly showered and dressed in an outfit he had approved the night before; Rachel's penchant for plaid was worse during the holidays, but at least this skirt was flattering enough. 

"Just about," he replied, lifting the edge of the pancake with the spatula to check for done-ness. "He called from a rest stop in Hanover about an hour ago and said he would be here in an hour, breakfast is almost done, I have the maps of the city out in case he doesn't trust my sense of direction, the tree is up...I think everything's set."

"Great." She grinned. "And for my part, I've been rehearsing a few great anecdotes about being young lovers in the city, told Cal I can't see him quite as much the next few days - though I do have to meet with him after breakfast to start working on my monologue in Scene 7-" He shot her a look, but she ignored it, "-and I've moved all your necessities into my room."

Kurt stared at her. "I'm sorry, what?"

“Your alarm clock, your things for work, that book you were reading last week, and all your in-season clothes. They don’t really fit in my closet, since I did get the room with the smaller one, but I squeezed them a little to-“

The image of Rachel moving his clothes, let alone pressing them together as tightly as she could manage so she could jam them into her tiny closet alongside her polyester sweater sets almost made him ill and certainly ratcheted up his already simmering panic level. “Why?”

“Well, it would look really funny if we didn’t share a room, wouldn’t it? I mean, it’s a big enough deal at home that we’re living in sin, but if we’re living in sin but with separate bedrooms, that just seems-“

“Like we’re being economical but not actually doing anything?” Kurt asked with an irritated raise of his eyebrow. 

“Is that the story we want to tell? Because I think any actual boyfriend of mine would be interested in doing at least a little, if I would let him.”

“Oh my god,” he mumbled, rolling his eyes as he leaned against the counter. “Rachel-“

“I mean, I am kind of a catch, and we did date for almost two years in Ohio before we came here- Most of the kids we went to school with had sex long before that point even if no one was supposed to know that part, so I just thought-“

“I’m not pretending to be intimate with you, Rachel.”

“You’re sure it won’t make your father suspicious?”

“I’m sure my father never wants to think about me…doing that…ever. With you or with anyone else.”

“But are you-“
“No,” he replied sharply with a pointed look that left no room for debate, and she drew back at the sudden icy tone. He felt like he should feel bad, but he just- why couldn’t she leave anything alone? It wasn’t enough that she spent all her time having sex with her actual boyfriend, she wanted to come pretend that with him now? And with his dad, of all people? 

On another morning, his apology would have been quiet, but relatively quick and offered freely. Now, it was a begrudging look of contrition and handing her a plate of pancakes. He knew logically that she was trying to help in her own, Rachel-ish way, but he was tired of people trying to help. He was tired of her taking initiative and being aggressively upbeat all the time. He was tired of her singalongs to songs he never wanted to hear again. And he was tired of everything being an acting exercise with her, some opportunity to display her range.

He had reasons for dating her, and he had reasons for not telling his family the truth; she seemed to think it was a game, now that her reasons for dating him were gone. Although he guessed she wasn’t really acting too differently than when they had been in high school-

It was just that he had forgotten what that felt like. It was an entirely different level of hiding that made him ache to think about.

“Let’s just keep things simple this weekend,” he requested as he turned back to the skillet to start another batch of pancakes. 

“So I should move your things back?”

He hesitated, about to say he would rather she watch breakfast than touch his treasured outfits again, but realized that maybe she had a point. Most boys would jump at the chance to share a room – and a bed – with their girlfriend. Most of them would never think to get a two-bedroom apartment if they didn’t have to, unless they wanted a spare room for some reason. Most boys without his secrets would wade past the Love’s Baby Soft and the ugly plaid and want to kiss Rachel if they were dating. 

And she did have firsthand experience seeing what homosexuals had to do to cover this sort of thing up.

He shook his head and replied, “You can leave it. But I’ll sleep on the couch. You kick in your sleep.”

“I dream in music – that’s dancing,” Rachel stated with a proud smile as she started on breakfast. He bit back a reply about how he wished she would practice her sashays somewhere other than his shins and ladled the batter onto the crackling hot surface.

The buzzer sounded, and Kurt jumped at the irritating drone. “He’s here!” Rachel observed with a bright smile, and Kurt nodded, an odd and surreal calm settling over him as he walked to the intercom and said, “Come on up, Dad,” before buzzing him in. He moved back over to the stove, fiddling with the pancakes and straightening the plates on the counter until he heard the knock at the door. 

“I’ll get it!” Before Kurt could say anything, Rachel was out of her seat and over to the door, unlocking the deadbolt and pulling it open. “Good morning, Mr. Hummel! Won’t you come in? Kurt’s just finishing the pancakes.”

“Shouldn’t you be doing that?” Kurt swallowed hard as he heard his dad’s voice, the calm dissipating quickly into a sort of anxious awkwardness as it suddenly occurred to him that even the things that had been normal for him when it was just the two of them (and Mrs. Jones) or the four of them (with Finn and Carole) weren’t necessarily normal now, not with a girlfriend and an apartment of his own. 

Rachel responded quickly and with poise, and Kurt was suddenly very glad she had rehearsed. “We trade off. Kurt’s just such a good cook, I can’t resist.”

“He is,” Burt allowed with what Kurt could picture was a gruff but fond smile. He was used to hearing it over the phone, picturing his dad in the back room of the shop and talking to him while he did the inventory, but it sounded different from just around the corner.

There was no reason to be nervous. 

"Hi, Dad." He poked his head around the corner and offered a smile, relaxing as his dad looked so genuinely happy to see him. He looked his father over - had he always looked so old, or was he aging faster in the past couple years? His face looked more tired under the bill of his baseball cap, his posture was more slumped-

Don't be silly, he chastised himself. The man just drove across the entire state of Pennsylvania, plus most of Ohio. He was allowed to be tired; it didn't mean he wasn't taking care of himself.

It was just strange not to be the one who kept an eye on him anymore. To have no idea if his dad was actually eating properly or not or if, with Carole working again, he was just grabbing burgers on the way home from work; Kurt knew he had been the only thing standing between his dad and a daily cheeseburger for most of his life, so he had no idea if his dad was keeping up with the healthy regimen Kurt had tried to get him to stick to. 

He didn't know what business looked like these days, not the way he did when he lived there, and he didn't know if things looked different in the house now that he was gone. He didn't know if the drug store on Maple had ever been torn down to build that new grocery store like they were considering as he and Rachel left because it wasn't anything important enough to ask his dad about during their weekly phone calls, but it suddenly felt like the latest in a long list of things he would know if he were in Ohio but didn't know about now. One of the latest in a long list of things that made his home feel like a foreign land.

Funny; when he lived there it had never felt as much like home as it did now that his dad was standing here in his entryway.

In a way he wished he were doing Christmas there so he could catch up on everything - really catch up. In another, he knew it was probably better this way; going back and seeing everything different would just remind him how much time had passed...and how little he had to show for it.

"Lemme get a look at you, buddy." He stepped around the corner and his dad looked him up and down appraisingly. Bottom lip puffed out a little, jaw forward, his dad gave a nod that Kurt recognized as an approving one. "You eating okay? You look skinny."

"He's just gotten taller," Rachel said with an exaggerated fondness, like she was letting his dad in on a secret only she knew, and he fought the urge to glare at her - but only just. "We're eating well, don't worry."

His dad looked at Rachel, then back at him and asked, "Really?"

He forced a faint smile of acknowledgment and agreement. "Yes," he replied. Of all the things wrong in his life, all the things they had to do without sometimes when Rachel wasn't working, food was not generally one of them. Their wardrobes, yes - which some months felt worse than if he didn't buy food, because when he got stressed, when he felt like he had been lately, he didn't really wantto eat but he desperately craved new clothes to help himself feel better and more confident...but ultimately groceries did win out. 

He saw the same approving nod, then his dad pulled him into a tight hug. It felt like too much, like too much contact and not enough all at once. It took his body a moment to react, to return the hug and let his fingers curl just slightly into the back of his father's thick jacket. "I missed you, kid. It's been too long since we saw you." 

Kurt forced a faint smile as he ducked back into the kitchen, not wanting his pancakes to burn. "I know. It's a shame Carole couldn't come, too." It was, though he was almost glad to have only one piece of home to deal with at a time. And while he loved Carole, when he missed home and his family it was always his dad first.

"Yeah, well." He leaned forward, resting his hand on the back of the dining chair as he watched Kurt cook. "She picked up a few extra shifts over the week before she knew I was gonna come out here, so."

There was a gruff sadness in his voice, and Kurt suspected things weren't quite as rose-tinted at home as he liked to remember. It felt familiar and foreign all at once, like a tone and an emotion he could understand but one it had been awhile since he'd heard coming from his father. Not since before Carole was in their lives at all, really. "How is she?" he asked quietly.

His dad shrugged. "It's been rough on her - Finn being away and everything. She worries a lot. Working helps, I think, makes her feel...you know, like she's not just sitting around waiting for letters. She can't get used to how long mail takes to get to the ship, keeps saying when it took this long to hear from Christopher something was wrong."

"How is he doing? Finn?" Rachel asked, seeming just a little too eager to know, a little too curious, and Kurt shot her a look as he carried the plate out and set it in front of his dad.

"It's the Navy. It takes more than a week for care packages to get here," he pointed out as he retrieved his own plate.

"That's what I tell her. When I used to write buddies during the War, it always took awhile to get there. But it's different when it's your kid - weeks you miss calling, I start to wonder. This city isn't exactly that safe. You'll see when you two have kids."

Kurt swallowed hard, his entire body stiffening, as he felt like he might choke. He had known this was something he would need to deal with while his dad was in town - going back to pretending in a way he hadn't in years, and he had resigned himself to just following Rachel's crazy lead. But now that the moment was here, he found himself almost unable to breathe. He could see an entire future suddenly: having to actually marry Rachel because there was only so long this charade could remain. At some point, after years of dating and living together and not marrying, they would need to either break up and find separate apartments, or get married - wouldn't they? Around here, people could get away with living a little less traditionally, but still not that nontraditionally. At some point they would need to take the plunge he had been avoiding thinking about for so long. And after that...the questions about children would start, wouldn't they?

He wasn't about to lie about who he was, and he knew at least initially the plan had been to just keep the facade up until they both got to New York, but for a moment Kurt could see it spiraling quickly out of control into an entire life - a life they at least both knew about, both consented to, unlike whatever poor girl Blaine was probably engaged to by now, but the opposite of what he wanted.

At some point he was going to have to either be honest or pretend to make an honest woman out of Rachel. Neither option was fair to anyone and, least of all, to him. 

"I'm not ready for them just yet, but we have talked about it," Rachel said with an eager smile, one that Kurt knew was acting but his dad probably wouldn't. It was just this side of too exaggerated to be believed. "We want to be more established first - don't we sweetheart?" She crossed the room to wrap her arm through his and place her hand on his bicep, looking up at him with an adoring smile. When it took him a moment to play along, she winked her upstage eye, as if to say "Don't worry, I'm just acting." 

The urge to roll his eyes was almost overpowering, but he forced a smile of his own - one that more accurately said "I would kill you right now if I could, but I won't with my father in the room." "Yes," he replied tightly, unable to stop the sarcasm from creeping into his voice completely. "Speaking of established - don't you have to go meet with your director...dear?"

"I can stay a few more-" Kurt shot her a look, and she quickly amended, "I should probably go. The 1 is so unpredictable this time of day." She leaned in to give him a quick kiss, but changed her mind at the last minute and kissed his cheek awkwardly, squeezing his arm before she grabbed her coat and left the two Hummels in awkward silence. 

Chapter Text


Mercedes had been frustrated plenty of times in her life. Between living in a town where the court had to step in to say she had the right to go to school with her best friend, a dad who thought school should be her only focus, a mom who rode her hard on things because she loved her, a love of her life who was looking for another boy, that obnoxious girl Kurt's brother used to date who made racist comments about every five seconds, and a roommate whose romantic life was really healthy, she had spent more than her share of time being irritated by the people around her. But having to watch while another girl flushed her dreams of stardom down the drain was almost too much to take.

It wasn't that Shirley meant to ruin things; she meant well, that was the problem. She wanted so badly to do this, and she understood how much this was all riding on her now since she was supposed to talk for whatever stupid reason Rocko had, and so she was trying extra hard. Her voice was wispier than usual, higher, and she kept leaning forward while toying awkwardly with her hands and hair. Every so often she would giggle - in the middle of a sentence - in a high, girlish way that made her sound like a dizzy cheerleader. 

Shirley wasn't - Mercedes knew that. They all knew that...except the one person in the room who really mattered. 

James was a lot younger than Mercedes had been expecting, probably not that much older than they were, babyface all the more obvious against his expensive tailored suit. He toyed with a pen absently as Shirley spoke, and Mercedes wasn't sure if he was just trying to look bored or really didn't care. Shirley just kept trying harder to get his attention, to make him look at her, then glancing over her shoulder at Rocko when he didn't seem interested, like a little kid asking her dad 'What do I say now? Why doesn't he like me?'

Mercedes would've been good at this. She would have made him listen. And she would have done it with an attitude that matched his. No one liked people who begged for approval, who pleaded to be noticed - no one liked Rachel Berry, they just put up with her because they had to. Shirley was even worse; at least Rachel - and Mercedes hated to give her credit for anything, but at least Rachel carried herself with confidence. Shirley looked like there was no reason at all for James to pay attention to them.

She could get not feeling confident all the time. She was really nervous about all this, and she was even more nervous when she thought about how much was riding on this one meeting. This was a chance at a big-time deal, at getting to actually make a record, and there were so many groups that never made it. But now was the time to at least pretend to know how good they were as a group - or how good she was on her own, if it came to that. Shirley didn't know how to even pretend to know what she was doing.

It was painful to watch.

At some point James set down his pen, looking out the window of his office. "Let's hear you," he said, not looking at them. Mercedes didn't know what that meant, and she looked at Regina and Eva - did that mean he didn't even really care if he heard them but had to listen anyway? Or that he wanted to just hear them, like on the radio? Was this good or bad? Or just some guy in a suit who didn't know anything or care but got to decide what happened to them anyway? She glanced reluctantly over at Shirley, who looked downright relieved that her time answering questions was over, and Mercedes looked over her shoulder at Rocko with a sharp glare. This was his fault. What kind of manager was he, anyway, thinking she should be the one to talk? She was too timid to stand up to Regina, let alone Eva, least of all this guy, and who the hell did he think he was to change their order around? But he simply nodded with an encouraging look, as if to say "You heard the man - sing what we rehearsed already!"

Mercedes didn't like the song they had rehearsed, either - it didn't really show what they could do. It was too thin, too meek, too Shirley and not enough the rest of them. Sure, the harmonies were great, and their blend was okay, but it sounded like those other wispy girls on the radio and not like what made them really good. Nevertheless, she stood and walked to the open part of the room, her groupmates gathering around her as they began.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Everywhere you go
Take a look in the five-and-ten,
Glistening once again
With candy canes and silver-

James turned to face them again, holding up his hand. "Okay, girls. Very nice, thank you."

Mercedes felt her blood starting to boil. All that and they weren't getting anything from this. They could have had this, they could have gotten a deal from this if they'd had the right song and let her do all the talking. "You didn't even listen to us," she stated irritatedly.

"Of course I did."

"Yeah - three lines," she shot back.

"Mercedes!" Regina hissed, turning to stare at her with angry wide eyes that said 'shut up before you ruin this!' It was already ruined, the guy hadn't even listened to them; couldn't she see that? She wasn't about to just walk away sweetly when she knew they were better than this - that she was better than this-

"You'll have to excuse Mercedes, she's a little overzealous sometimes," Rocko chuckled heartily, but the look in his eyes said she would pay for this later. 

"She's a spitfire - I like that," James replied with a laugh. "I didn't need to hear any more. You girls have anything coming up?" 

"They're singing on Christmas Eve, up at AME," Rocko jumped in to supply.

"AME? Not bad," he nodded appreciatively. "Big crowd, especially Christmas. Al Brown still in charge of music up there?" 

"Yeah," Rocko nodded. "Choir and soloists."

James smiled. "I went to school with him, he's a good guy. Knows his stuff, too - he has a great ear. I'll bring Clark up then."

The first name Mercedes recognized was enough to pull her back into focus. Clark wasn't a common enough name, outside movie stars and a guy she went to school with until high school and the big shot in charge of the label.

James was bringing the big shot in charge of the label.

She looked over at the other girls, to see if she'd heard that wrong because that didn't make any sense. They were singing at big church on Christmas and that was all it was meant to be - praising and celebrating and singing. Was it really going to be an audition, now, too? Eva was staring with a deadpan expression, and Mercedes could tell the next words out of her mouth would be 'No shit?' if no one stopped her from speaking; Shirley's smile was just as pasted-on, but her eyes were wide with disbelief, but it was Regina who really cemented it: Beaming. Almost giddy. The way Mercedes would feel if it were real.

A sudden terror washed over her. As if one audition weren't enough, they had to try again with someone even more intimidating? They had to do all this again, and she had to watch as Shirley giggled and flailed her way through another interview? They had to-

...No, she concluded slowly, a smile crossing her face as it dawned on her. Not an interview. A singing audition. In their own element - not some stuffy midtown office where girls came to have their hearts broken. At church. At a big church full of people at the biggest celebration of the year. She couldn't remember a year she hadn't sung at church on Christmas - either by herself, or part of the choir, or one time as a solo with those few other girls backing her up. If there was one place in the world she knew exactly what to do and how to sing her best, it was at church.

They had this.

* * * * *
By the time the end of his dad's second day in Manhattan rolled around, Kurt felt as though he had seen every inch of the city he never had a particular desire to see. Standing in Battery Park as the December wind whipped around them, going out to some stadium for one of those sports teams he tried actively to avoid paying attention to (baseball? Did New York have a new team? He had no idea. He only knew that whatever sport was usually played there wasn't in season, for which he was grateful.)

Even wandering through Rockefeller Center to see the 67-foot tree that was dwarfed by the enormous buildings all around it, the city just felt exhausting. Everyone bustled about, and his dad - moving at a midwestern pace - looked around at everything like he didn't understand why it was a big deal but was surprised by the structure of everything at the same time. There was silence every few steps, which made Kurt nervous that his father wasn't enjoying himself, so he turned into the best tourguide ever and began to chatter incessantly about the buildings, their architecture, what they housed, what types of people worked or lived there, what subway lines would take a person there...

He knew logically that he and his father had existed in silence for a decade without any problem. From the time his mother had died, they had been a quiet house, save Mrs. Jones and her firm voice that could be heard from rooms away if she wanted it to. Most nights they ate a nearly-silent dinner and then sat quietly at opposite ends of the house while Kurt taught himself to sew and his dad watched television - which wasn't to say they didn't love each other or didn't get along. Kurt knew his dad loved him, that had never been a question - not even for a second. He had known from the time he could remember that his dad loved him and was proud of him...he just didn't understand him more often than not. The feeling was mutual. And at home, that seemed fine; in Ohio, at least before Carole and Finn had come in and brought sound to the house again, quietly coexisting felt like the natural state of being for two men with absolutely nothing in common. But for some reason, in a new place, that seemed so cold and...distant.

Maybe it was because they talked on the phone once a week, and it seemed like when they were together in person there should be more conversation than that. Maybe it was because he got chatty and awkward when he felt uncomfortable or out of his element, so the need to fill the silence turned obsessive.

By the time they were seated at dinner, Kurt was exhausted. His back was sore from getting stiffer every time he felt awkward, his feet ached from bounding down into the subway and back out no less than eight times because each time he asked his dad what they should see next, they ended up on the opposite side of town, only to come almost all the way back again for the next site because his dad didn't know where anything was. It had taken a bit of coaxing to get his dad to come to dinner where he wanted, too; after lunch at a grimy diner in the heart of Times Square, and lunch at an automat the day before where his father had raved about how good and cheap and convenient the food was while Kurt held his nose and gagged down some kind of unidentifiable soup, Kurt's insistence on a real New York dinner had been met with more derision than interest. They didn't need something fancy, his dad had insisted, but he knew the alternative was a $2 special somewhere, and he wasn't about to waste the only opportunity he had to eat out somewhere he could try to recapture the magic of New York. 

His dad looked as out of place in La Fonda del Sol as Kurt should have expected, tugging at the collar of his shirt awkwardly as he studied the trilingual menu. "What's this 'tapas' stuff?"

"Appetizers, Dad. You pick what you want. It's like dim sum."

"What's that?"

Kurt fought the urge to roll his eyes. He knew his dad didn't have any way of knowing - there was an Asian restaurant in Lima, but only the Asian people ever went to it, unlike in New York where everyone ate everyone else's food. Back home, everyone stuck with their own cuisine and never tried anything they hadn't eaten at least a dozen times before. It was stifling and constricting and there were reasons he had left, none of which were his father's fault. Just because he and Rachel had gone a few times, if only because the small items made for a less expensive breakfast than anything else except the tiny greasy diner a few blocks uptown from their apartment, didn't mean his dad had any reason to know.

"I think almost everything in the main dish section is made with pork, you should be able to find something there," he offered.

"Anything like a chop?"

He was being selfish, and he knew it. He was selfish for getting frustrated with someone who really did just want to spend the holidays with him. But he wanted everything back the way it was. He wanted his dad back in Ohio where it was easy to talk about things from afar, he wanted his bedroom back because his neck hurt from sleeping on the couch and he was exhausted from having to wait until everyone was asleep to lie down and waking up before anyone else to clean up his makeshift sleeping area. He wanted to be able to go back to his apartment and make something unconventional, intricate, and cheap that would keep him busy all evening and let him wallow in loneliness at the same time. 

"So no Rachel tonight?"

Kurt looked up, not expecting the question. "She's working. Meeting with her director." It was partly true, at least; Rachel was spending an hour or two with her costar and then spending the rest of the night with Cal, the same way she had for more than a month.

His dad looked like he wanted to say something, shifting awkwardly in his seat with a grimace, but instead suggested simply, "Guess that means we go home after and watch one of those specials, then. Should be something on, right? With Christmas Eve tomorrow?"

"The set's broken," he replied, glancing back at his menu. 

"Really? How long?"

"Before Thanksgiving sometime." He had barely noticed, in truth. For that matter, he didn't think Rachel had particularly minded; until Oscar or Tonys season, he didn't watch very much. If the record player broke, he would be saving up to replace it immediately, because the idea of sitting in the apartment in silence was nearly unbearable. Anything short of that could wait - even his sewing machine, really; who had the energy after spending all day staring at fabric?

"Why's it still sitting there?'

"It's pretty heavy to move myself," Kurt offered. 

"We should do it before I leave, then. You kids have got a lot of stairs up to that place - I don't know how you do it."

"You get used to it."

They fell into awkward silence again. Had it always been like this for them? Kurt swore it didn't used to be - he knew they had spent most of his childhood being quiet in the same place, but he didn't remember it ever feeling awkward like this. He remembered sitting across the table from each other with whatever Mrs. Jones had made for them, eating before they went their separate ways for the evening - Kurt to his room, his dad to the living room for whatever was on tv - but had it felt like this? Like there was nothing at all for them to talk about and the dinner would never end? Like it was exhausting to even try to converse? Like it was agonizing to try to relate to another person?

He felt like he should try, at least, like he should attempt to make conversation, so he started with the only thing he could think of. "How's the shop?"

It wasn't the best topic of conversation if only because there wasn't much to say, and they both knew it. The shop was the shop; there were good years and bad years, but that was all the more they could really say about it - even when he still lived there, even when he still worked there, there wasn't more to say than things were fine and they needed to order more of this tire or that one. "Pretty good. Had to bring in some help - with Finn gone and you here and everything. He's a good kid, though, hard worker, can change out spark plugs faster than I can." Kurt felt a pang of guilt at that. Some other boy was working at the family business because neither son was around. Finn had a real reason to be gone; he'd joined up to avoid being drafted, to do something honourable with his life, to follow in his father's footsteps. Kurt could understand that even if he could never in a million years imagine doing it - or imagine Finn excelling at any of it. His awkward, dimwitted stepbrother would be the one to accidentally shoot himself on his way to kill the enemy, he thought mirthlessly. But at least Finn was doing something for the right reasons.

Why was he still here? What was his excuse? 

He'd had so many good reasons to come to New York, so many things that seemed noble and important and like they would save his life and his dreams. He'd left Ohio because he felt like he was suffocating and would never be able to live safely there, to be himselfthere. He'd left because Rachel needed him to. Because he'd thought he could fulfill his dreams in this big, metal-shiny city. Because he had wanted to find more people like himself and he thought- he really thought- that this would be the place to do it. Because he was going to be a world-famous designer and travel the globe bringing his designs to the masses. And all of those were good enough reasons to leave Lima, to hurry away from his family and his obligations, to run from the family business and leave his dad in the lurch. Besides, Finn had been there to be the son his dad always really wanted, right?

But with Finn gone...and him here now...

He nodded shortly in acknowledgment, stiffening further in his chair, fingers fiddling with the edge of the menu. He didn't know what to say - 'That's nice' felt too cold, disinterested, but an apology (however sincere) seemed wrong. After all, hadn't his father encouraged him to do this? To go after his dreams? To find where he belonged? His dad understood why he'd come out here, and any contrition would go over like a lead balloon. Instead he listened to diners around them conversing happily over the speakers playing a jazzy instrumental version of holiday classic. 

"So how's the fancy job going?" His dad looked uncomfortable but sounded earnest, like he wasn't sure how to ask but wanted to know. Like he knew he didn't understand what exactly it was Kurt did, but he was so happy for him to be doing it...

It made his heart ache just to hear the question; to try to answer it made him feel sick.

The problem was, he and Rachel had this deal: they didn't talk about the times they hated the city. They didn't talk about how much easier things would be back home. They didn't talk about how horrible people were here or how much everything hurt. He didn't tell her how much he wondered if he'd made the right decision to come out here, if his life wouldn't be better if he'd never left the cesspit of Lima, if maybe he'd made the worst decision of his life to follow his stupid, misguided dreams. He didn't tell her about being arrested, being thrown in a cell and humiliated and stared at like he was the most loathsome creature on Earth. He didn't tell her about stripping down to count his clothes or the way everyone at work laughed at him as they passed. He didn't tell her about how much everything hurt these days, how the thought of getting out of bed some mornings to go spend the day cutting ugly silks and tweeds and rough tulles was almost too much. 

Even if he wanted to, even if he could find the words for it and admit it to himself in words instead of merely acknowledging his loneliness in passing recognition...it wasn't as though she were home more than a few minutes at a time. Her career and relationship might have been built on a sham, but at least they were there.

But if he didn't know how to tell Rachel, how in the world was he supposed to tell his dad?

He pasted on a smile. "It's great," he replied. 

It shouldn't have been so painful to lie; he'd been doing it his entire life in some form or another. Telling his dad no one was hassling him when they were, saying he was fine when he wasn't, pretending to date a girl he barely liked because the boy he loved was, well, a boy. It should have been second nature by now.

Maybe that was why it hurt so much. He'd convinced himself he wouldn't have to do this anymore, but he did more than ever. He'd genuinely believed he could move to New York and live life the way he felt it, and here he was - surrounded by laughing groups of friends but feeling completely alone, listening to a carol about being home for Christmas but wishing he could stay in his apartment and ignore the whole thing.

His dad smiled - not much, just a little bit, but so sincere it made him feel like he might start crying because if his dad knew...if his father had any idea how big a lie he had told in those two words... "Yeah?"

Kurt swallowed hard, his voice going higher as he replied, "Of course. It's fantastic." His dad looked skeptical for just a moment when he didn't say anything else, so he decided to change tactics. The more he could say about what he did, where he went, what he and Rachel and Mercedes did, the less it would seem like he spent his time in New York just being arrested or sitting in his apartment alone with a stack of Judy Garland albums. He launched into the first story he could think of, about the picnics he and Rachel had in Central Park last summer and the great bakery with its fresh baguettes up on 82nd that made the best sandwiches he'd ever imagined.

He could almost convince himself that things were worth it, when he talked about things like that. If he talked about silly little happy things for a few minutes, he could almost forget how horrible the big things were. It was a tactic he'd used for as long as he could remember, but it felt like it worked less now than it used to. The distraction lasted for less time and wasn't complete; at best, it evened the score a little. Made things feel just a little less desolate and impossible but not good. And even as he talked about the few things he could think of that made him feel amazing in New York - the way Times Square looked at night, the snow falling as he and Rachel got back from shopping last Christmas - he could feel everything else bubbling up in him, ready to pour out.

He couldn't do that. He wasn't about to break down into tears over dinner in the first really nice place he'd been in quite awhile. He had spent a lifetime trying to learn to control his tears, and he was determined that maybe if he tried just a little harder - just a little more, just a little longer - he could keep them at bay. 

At least for a little longer.

* * * * *

Rachel wasn't sure there could be a more wonderful feeling than cuddling on the couch with her boyfriend. And not just any cuddling, either; she was dating a director, after all, and he had a very finely-honed sense of how to create a mood. Candles lined the dim room, resting on every available bookcase - fireplaces were so rare in apartments, she'd found, even if they were more romantic, but a few dozen tiny flickering flames were a nice substitute. The Frank Sinatra on the turntable went so well with the darkness and the smoky sweetness of the brandy, and it all just felt so...adult. Like the kind of romantic atmosphere a person might see in movies. Her shoes sat neatly beside the couch, and she was so glad she hadn't fought Kurt on the dress he had picked out for her. She had insisted that anything without sleeves would just be too cold - it was December, after all, and even though she would have a coat for the trip to and from the party, she was concerned about being too cold when they were there and afterward; Cal's apartment had one window that never wanted to shut quite right, so it was really chilly sometimes. But the party had been plenty warm, with all the people in such a small space and the heat blasting to accommodate the women in their dresses, and as soon as they stepped into Cal's he had wrapped his arm around her - to keep her warm, he swore. She could feel the warmth of his arm through his shirt sleeve, could smell the light spice of his aftershave and cologne, and it was all just so...perfect.

She'd never thought much about what a grown-up relationship in a big city would look like. She'd seen a few in movies, but Fred and Holly Golightly were hardly the functional couple she wanted to be like even if Kurt adored them, and as romantic as Tony and Maria were they were younger than she was. She knew what it looked like when two people graduated from high school and got married and found a house in Lima - she'd seen that her entire life. She knew what they would look like as they grew old together, as they had kids and grandkids and jobs...and she knew what she and Kurt looked like, young lovers who weren't but could fool everyone around them. She had imagined a future with a boy but never really seen it with a man...until tonight. When Cal had introduced her to everyone as his "star and muse", she hadn't been able to stop smiling.

She had wanted to be that to someone forever, but now that it was actually here it felt even better than she had expected. 

Usually that wasn't true. She had exceptionally high standards, and people failed to meet them. Her mom said she built things up in her head so nothing could ever be as good as she expected, which Rachel thought wasn't true and her mom thought was genetic. But it was rare for something to be even better than she imagined.

This was.

She had never been the girl everyone wanted to be around, that every boy wanted to date. But tonight, at that party, she had walked in with her powerful and artistic boyfriend and everyone had wanted to talk to the two of them. And he had taken her by the arm and led her around, laughing and joking with all the influential industry people he knew, and it had been everything she'd ever dreamed of.

He really was a great boyfriend.

She had been worried at first, with how things started, with how fast everything had moved, but all her fears had been unfounded. So had Kurt's subtle asides about her boyfriend's seriousness and true motives. She knew something was wrong with him, but she didn't know what - and all attempts thus far had been rebuffed. Maybe it was just strange having his dad in town; she knew that as much fun as she and her mom would have in this, the city of both their dreams, it would probably be a little awkward to be achieving everything her mom never had and have to flaunt that in front of her. Kurt's dad had never gone further than Indiana, and he seemed confused by so much of the big city that she was sure it was at least kind of uncomfortable to try to lead him through things that Kurt thought were automatic. And Kurt was out of practice at acting - she'd been pursuing her craft relentlessly for the past two years, but Kurt hadn't acted since high school. It was probably taking him awhile to fully embrace the character while his dad was in town, and it was obvious that he hadn't been crafting backstory of their relationship for weeks the way she had. So she could excuse his jabs - for now. Because he was wrong, but she was a better person than that now.

Cal made her feel like she should be better.

He talked to everyone, even those who were nobodies, even those pitiable girls at the party who wanted roles but lacked her talent and dedication. He could make anyone feel like the most important person in the room.

And how lucky was she that she got him all to herself?

She sighed quietly, deeply contented, and he immediately asked, "Everything okay?"

"Oh - yes. I was just thinking about how perfect all of this is. You know, with the drinks and the music and the lighting - it's obvious you know how to craft a moment and evoke a particular feeling," she offered, a little too shy to be impulsive and say 'I love you' but feeling it more strongly than she had before. 

"Hmm," he mused, the smile evident in his voice as he added, "Because I was just thinking about how perfect you are."

Now she knew she was in love.

* * * * *

As they emerged from the Columbus Circle subway station, Kurt wished his jacket were a little warmer. His dad was still confused by the way transfers worked, so he had decided it would be easier to just walk instead of trying to explain why they had to backtrack, but the wind whipping across the open space pierced the wool of his blazer more sharply than he had expected. He stood a little straighter, picking up his pace, and paused when he heard a chuckle from behind him.

"Hey, buddy, you walk too fast - let your old man catch up first."

He glanced back to see his dad trudging along, hands deep in his pockets, and it occurred to him just how out-of-place his dad really did look here. He walked slower than anyone else around him, and his simple, cheap, bulky jacket was unlike the sleeker trenches and expensive overcoats favoured by Manhattan men this time of year. He wasn't used to his father sticking out anywhere; in Lima, his dad was the every-man, the epitome of a local boy all grown up, and Kurt could guarantee that when they walked into a restaurant or the supermarket and every head turned to them, it was because of him. Because he was too different. Because even if he tried to fit in, he didn't. He knew what that felt like; he was used to it. But to see his dad in that role...to know that when the heads around here turned to them, it was impossible to tell which one of them the locals found more eccentric.

But at least his dad had Lima. Where the hell did he have?

He'd thought this would be it. When he had imagined New York as a child, he had thought about coming here and blending seamlessly into an enclave of eccentric people in striking jackets and stylish footwear - the kind of place that he would be at home and his dad would be out of place. An Ozian utopia, a wonderland like Alice's in which nothing was what it was in the rest of the world. But as much as New York was unlike Lima, he still wasn't really anything people could understand. He was still too eccentric for the masses. too fashionable. Too strange.

Too easy a target.

He could feel the familiar burn of eyeballs on him as he walked slowly along Broadway with his dad. For the first time in a long while, it made him feel defeated. He knew it shouldn't, that if he was used to it then it really shouldn't bother him this much, but the conversation over dinner - and really, his father's very presence in town - served as a constant reminder of what he'd thought New York would be when he still lived in Ohio. What he envisioned his future would hold that was nothing at all like the life he was living. It reminded him how he used to talk about New York when it was just a place in his imagination and not an actual city with an address and a tiny apartment and a job he disliked and a boss he hated, before it was a real place with real people who didn't like him any more than the people he'd grown up with.

If it wasn't any better than in Ohio, what was he really doing here anymore?

He held his head a little higher, too proud to let anyone know it bothered him - especially not his dad, who was oblivious to the stares as he lumbered down the dark streets. Eyes scanning automatically for a potential threat, a force of habit he could trace back to his kindergarten days, his gaze stopped on a familiar figure leaning against a streetlamp. In a thin coat that looked too big for him, Ricky looked like he must be freezing; Kurt recognized the stiff posture that practically screamed 'You're not about to let me show you that anything's bothering me' - it reminded him of the way the boy had straightened up and fought back just a little as the cops dragged him down the hall the second time he'd spent the night in jail. 

It reminded him of how he felt.

He saw the proud glare in Ricky's eyes drop for a moment, replaced by something more sympathetic and worried, and his hand raised from his hip, thin fingers curling over the outside of his jacket just above where his heart would be - then a jerk of his head toward the midwestern man, as if to say 'well, go on then.' Kurt didn't know what that meant, what the look was for, why Ricky didn't have a better coat - it wasn't as though it was something so stylish that it was the only option, the way his own was, just something simple and unseasonably inadequate. He didn't know why something about the boy was so magnetic, made him want to cross the street and talk to him about anything - anything at all, any topic to just keep the conversation going. It wasn't something he could name, it wasn't love or attraction or any of the things he'd experienced before, it wasn't like the way Blaine drew him in with that smile and those eyes, or the way the boy at the bar had made him want to believe everything he said. It was simpler and deeper at the same time, just an overwhelming need to find some reason to talk to this boy who kept showing up where he was.

Kurt felt a hand on his shoulder and jumped, eyes finally leaving Ricky to look at his dad. When had his dad gotten so short? he wondered suddenly. He remembered being so much smaller than his dad, not looking him in the eye- "C'mon, kid, let's go. It's cold out here." 

"Right," Kurt replied. He glanced back across the street, and when his eyes met his counterpart's the softer gaze was gone, replaced by the harder look Kurt had seen at first. Ricky shrugged and tilted his head slightly, everything about him saying 'So go then', and as much as Kurt wanted to make an excuse to stay...he wasn't sure what one might be. He offered a very faint smile in place of a wave and let his dad lead him further down the street toward home.

"I don't know how you do it, walking around like this all the time. And in those weird shoes you wear, too." Kurt glanced over his shoulder as his dad grumbled about the distance, but Ricky was looking elsewhere and the connection was lost. With a quiet sigh, he wrapped his arms around himself to try to draw the jacket in tighter and led the way back to the apartment

Chapter Text

Christmas Eve was a quiet affair. Mercedes was singing at a church - Kurt hadn't caught all the details, but he knew she was excited and something about it was a big deal. She had said she hoped to have news when she came over the next day, so that meant something was going on at least. Knowing Mercedes, it probably had to do with her career progress...either that, or the three girls had gotten together and decided they were going to kill Eva on Christmas Eve. He couldn't blame them for that one, but it didn't sound quite like what his oldest friend would do to celebrate one of the holiest days of the year.

Not that he saw it that way. To him, it meant beautiful songs and glitzy specials on television and elegant decorations in the windows. It meant the smell of pie baking and goose roasting, and brown paper packages tied up with string, and family.

He tried to remind himself that he hadn't always felt that way. After all, most years it had been just him and his dad trying to forget that Christmas had been his mom's favourite holiday, opening a few small gifts under a tree he had decorated by himself, before he went over to the Joneses' for a holiday feast and his dad made an excuse to get work done. But the last few years at home had been a proper Christmas; despite Carole's shortcomings as a homemaker, she certainly got into the holiday spirit, and they had cooked for hours his last year in Ohio - three different kinds of potatoes and stuffing and a mountain of cookies...sure, maybe it had been an attempt at distraction on his part, trying not to think about Christmas duets and whether a certain someone was back in the state for break, but it had worked. And last year, when he and Rachel had had nothing, it had still been nice - not perfect, but exciting with the rush of their first holiday in the big city, with enough to do to distract both of them from the fact that neither of them were with family. It felt like striking out on their own and making their own way in the world, and that had in itself been enough to make the holidays still feel magical somehow.

But this year...

It had been just long enough that the novelty of the city had worn off but not long enough to feel like it was really his home. He wanted to be in Ohio, gazing at the large pine in the living room, covered in ornaments he and Finn had made in elementary school, while snow swirled outside. He wanted to be where it smelled like gingerbread and from-scratch gravy instead of staring at the woefully small tree Rachel had trimmed, listening to Judy Garland while he curled on the couch with an afghan around his shoulders.

He tried to remind himself that it wouldn't be like that at home anymore, anyway. Finn was gone, and Carole wasn't herself because of it; his dad was picking up more hours at the shop, and he...well, he wasn't really part of any of it anymore, was he?

"So no Rachel again tonight?" his dad asked as he settled into the chair. He glanced at the menorah on the window sill meaningfully, as though he wasn't sure why they needed that but he didn't like that she wasn't here to light it.

Kurt shook his head. "She'll be back later."

"She with that, uh, director again?" The question was loaded, and Kurt knew it, but he didn't have the energy to engage the deeper parts of it. Pretending to be even remotely okay took all of his energy; he didn't have the wherewithall to pretend to be bothered by the fact that his supposed-girlfriend was spending all her time with another man. 

"I think the entire cast is having a dinner." 

"And that's okay with you?"

It was and it wasn't. On one hand, trying to field all her attempts at helping, to think quickly enough on his feet that he could easily follow the backstories that would come out of nowhere and massage them into the stories he had told his dad over dinner at La Fonda del Sol the night before, to act like an appropriate leading man to her ingenue, was exhausting to even contemplate, especially when his heart wasn't in it. But at the same time, he missed her. He missed dancing and singing around the apartment. He missed cooking dinner for more than just himself, which he had forgone a few weeks earlier. She had been the only person he could talk to about anything real, since Mercedes' schedule and discomfort level ruled her out, and even if Rachel was rarely helpful, she was a good friend. She tried, at any rate, and sometimes he just needed someone to try even if they got it wrong. Sometimes he just wanted someone to ask if anything interesting had happened at work - it hadn't, it never did, but the realization that he had fewer conversations now than when he was a lonely, unhappy teenager was depressing. 

It wasn't how he had envisioned things at all. He imagined talking about his day over dinner and spending the night cuddled on the couch with the boy he loved while Rachel lived down the hall with a boy of her own. Instead Rachel had moved on without him, and the couch was cold. 

He tugged the afghan more tightly around himself as he replied, "I don't tell her where to go and when."

"I thought you two were together."

He wasn't sure why he wanted to say no all of a sudden, to just come right out and tell his dad that his and Rachel's relationship was one of convenience, a way to get both of them out of the state. He couldn't, he knew that. He couldn't tell his dad that he and Rachel weren't together because if a boy and girl living together without being married was strange, then a boy and a girl living together without any romantic entanglement was going to seem completely foreign to his poor father. And he would have to justify his lack of involvement - Rachel was a nice enough girl that she should have been a catch - at least for him...which meant he would have to tell his dad either the whole truth or nothing at all. Telling the whole truth wasn't an option, not remotely. He knew his dad loved him, but he knew that if complete strangers treated him badly because of who he was, then the man who was personally invested in his future wouldn't react well. It was hard enough to have his dad know he wasn't normal, to worry about him because he didn't like sports and he didn't get along with other boys and he wasn't content to sit in Ohio and work on cars his entire life. This would be a thousand times worse.

He was slowly coming to terms with the fact that he was going to be alone forever; he didn't need his dad to worry about him for it. He would be fine - really.

"You don't tell Carole she can't see her friends from work," Kurt pointed out; he hadn't lived there while Carole had been working, but he knew his dad and knew that wasn't something that would ever occur to him. 

"No, she can go have lunch with the ladies if she wants. But she doesn't do it every night."

She didn't; she worked every night instead, the best Kurt could tell, but he wasn't going to point that out. He and his dad were both allowed to have things they didn't talk about, and Kurt doubted the way to get scrutiny off his romantic life was to cast it onto his dad's. They fell into awkward silence again, and he stared at the wall as he clutched the afghan beneath his chin. The final notes of "The First Noel" faded out, and the gentle strum of the next song faded in, signaling the start of Kurt's favourite and least favourite song on the album. 

There were a dozen or more adaptations of this song now, and each of them had their favourites. Rachel loved the romantic feeling of Frank Sinatra and Mercedes preferred the upbeat, jazzy Ella. Some years he liked the Connie Francis best - he did love almost everything she sang...but when things felt too much, there was no one like Judy Garland. Blaine had been right, she sounded like she was trying to convince herself everything would be okay through song, and sometimes...most of the time...that was how he felt with music anymore. It wasn't about showing off or a career the way it was for either of his friends; it was about trying to hold himself together and let go all at the same time, and for a fleeting moment he wished his dad needed to go to the store or had stayed in a hotel or something because maybe - just maybe - if he could sing along he could feel better. If he could express himself, maybe he could let out all the sadness and frustration and loneliness and start to feel better again. It had worked before, he remembered, though he couldn't put his finger on precisely when anymore. He knew it had helped, but it had been so long...

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.


He had never understood the problem in Meet Me in St. Louis. He knew they were sad about leaving before the World's Fair, but he didn't understand how anyone could be disappointed by having to move to New York - how anyone could see it as an obligation instead of the most incredible opportunity. He had wanted to go since he could remember, and so watching the remake on television (which might have been okay if he didn't already know the original soundtrack) when he was 17 he couldn't fathom why they were upset, why the younger daughter needed consoling. New York was the one place he looked forward to being, the one hope he hadfor his life. It was the one place he could go and not have to worry about being different, where he could live his dreams and have everything he'd ever wanted. Didn't they know what was waiting for them in the big city? There would be more excitement in a day than the World's Fair, and it would be like that all the time instead of just once. There would be a hundred lovely boys to meet on the trolley instead of just one and a thousand elegant balls...Why in the world would anyone choose to stay in their tiny town when New York was an option?

Maybe the Smiths had known what he hadn't, he concluded sadly. Maybe they had known all along what he was only learning after a year and a half of being stuck in the cold, unfeeling city: there were no boys on trolleys here. No boys next door, no one to dance with when he showed up in a borrowed tuxedo. Maybe if he'd stayed in Ohio...

...if he'd stayed in Ohio, then what? He would still be alone, just expectedly instead of assuming he would find someone. He wouldn't actually be any better off, even if it seemed like he would feel better.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away


"Kurt, what's going on with you?"

The question came out of nowhere, and it felt like a cold breeze sweeping through the room. On one hand, it was terrifying; his father knew. He knew things weren't right, that everything was going wrong, and he'd tried so hard to keep his dad from figuring that out. He'd given every happy anecdote he could think of over the past few days, and he'd tried to show the best possible side of the city, to prove to his dad that sending him here was worth it. It was worth having to hire someone else at the shop, and his dad and Carole being alone in that big house, and it was worth the astronomical rent and the job with the long hours and the tiny, cramped apartment. His dad had seen through him in a way he'd thought he was skilled enough to hide and now he was going to have to explain himself.

On the other...his dad knew he wasn't okay. After no one asking how he was, and Rachel being even more self-obsessed than usual, and Mercedes spending all her time ranting about her stupid group-mates and how frustrating success might be when she got there, after no one at all caring that he felt like he wanted to curl up in his room and never venture out again...his dad could still see through him and cared eough to know why he felt so horrible.

Unfortunately that didn't do him much good. He couldn't very well explain what had him so upset, why things in New York had gone from frustrating to agonizing in the past few months. He couldn't tell his dad about the humiliation of being arrested and stripping down in front of men making fun of every inch of exposed skin, of the aching loneliness that came from realizing he was never going to find a place he belonged or a boy to love him the way he imagined. He couldn't tell his dad any of it.

So he fell back on what had served him well in the twenty years he had been alive. "Nothing." His voice was high, the way it always was when he was hiding something, but he added, "I'm fine. Why do you ask?"

His dad fixed him with a look that begged how dumb Kurt thought he was, but Kurt said nothing. Maybe if he stuck by his story, his dad would back off and drop the conversation they couldn't have. Maybe- "Because you look like you did when you were thirteen."

Kurt tried to force a smile in the hopes it would put this to an end, but he didn't do a very good job of it. He could feel his dad's eyes still boring through him even as he nonchalantly picked lint from the afghan. "Everything's fine, Dad, really. You don't have to worry about me."

"Mmhmm." The response was dry, almost sarcastic, in a way Kurt didn't think he'd ever heard from his dad, and he looked up in surprise. "Buddy, I know you. I've seen you since you were born, and believe me - 'fine' doesn't look like you look." Kurt didn't know how to refute that, what he could possibly say, and he glanced just past the side of his dad's head so he wouldn't have to look him in the eye. He wasn't fine, and he knew that, but he didn't know how to say it. Besides, his dad worrying about him wouldn't help anything and didn't seem entirely fair. There was nothing wrong with him, nothing that could be fixed at least, nothing that was worth sitting around Ohio and being concerned about, nothing that had his life in danger the way Finn's was... "What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"Don't give me that."

"Honestly, Dad, there's no reason to-"

"Kurt." He stopped and finally looked at his dad. He looked so much older than Kurt remembered, more tired, but he wasn't sure how much that had to do with spending three days walking around a city when his dad was used to driving everywhere, and how much of the change was just because they hadn't seen each other on so long. After all, his dad thought he looked tired and thin and sad, and he didn't feel like he'd changed that much. "What's wrong?"

He didn't know how to say 'nothing' anymore, how to summon the energy to keep pretending he was perfectly fine. He drew in a deep breath and forced the best smile he could; it was small and tight, lopsided, and just made him want to cry even more. "Things just aren't as easy as I thought they would be," he began. It was that simple, really, if he thought about it and tried to boil everything down to one easy-to-explain problem. He'd thought New York would have everything he wanted just waiting for him, and it turned out to be no better than where he'd come from. 

"Things are never easy - not for you. Never got to you before."

Kurt didn't know how to explain that that was the problem. He had coped with things being harder than they should have been most of his life. Most other kids didn't get teased the way he did, their moms didn't die when they were little, they didn't have throngs of people telling them not to be friends with someone or have to be shipped off to boarding school because of narrow-minded segregationists. Most boys didn't have to feel as wrong as he'd felt or hide their first grand teenage romance. Most didn't have to convince the person they love that they weren't sick or pretend to date a girl they barely liked. It had never bothered him quite this much, never felt half as impossible as all the little things felt now. He simply nodded and offered a tiny shrug, not sure how to explain himself.

Once again, as in olden days,
Happy golden days
Of yore


"I guess I just thought things would be different here," Kurt ventured very slowly. He hadn't said it aloud before, hadn't admitted to anyone- 

He and Rachel had things they didn't talk about. They didn't talk about how disappointing New York was, because if they started admitting that to one another, they might want to go back...and especially now that things were going well for her and no better for him, he didn't know how to start talking about the lies this city had told him because she was happy. She was having her dreams come true, even if it was through an untrustworthy louse of a director, and he...

It hurt to say.

"Work isn't what I thought it would be, and the people aren't like I expected, and it's just..."

"Harder," his dad filled in quietly, and Kurt nodded. "Never knew you to give up on stuff before."

He knew what his dad was trying to say, and on someone else it might have worked. On someone who needed to be told to buck up and rise to the occasion, that would have been fine. He understood where his dad was going with the statement - Kurt had never given up in the face of things being hard before. He had survived Ohio and not dressed more conventionally to make things easier on himself; he had managed to get out of the state when no one else in his graduating class, save Rachel and Mercedes, had accomplished the same. He had never backed down from a challenge in his life, and now wasn't the time to start - that was the pep talk his dad was trying to start.

But the problem wasn't that he was giving up. If he were thinking about giving up, he had a ready-made solution right there in his living room. His dad was right there, with an empty car practically begging to take him and all his belongings back to Ohio. He wasn't seriously considering that, not really. He wasn't giving up, he was just exhausted and quivering under the weight of everything, staring out at a long road with no turnoffs in sight.

"I'm not," he replied quietly, defensive. "It's just hard. That's all I was saying. I'm not giving up on anything."

"I didn't say you were. I was trying to-" His dad sighed and shook his head. "I know stuff's rough for you. But I don't know how this big city world you're in works. If you were home, I'd know who to tell you to talk to, how to get you a better job or find something you like doing. I know the shop was never your dream, it's mine and that's okay, y'know, you've gotta do what makes you happy. But you look miserable, kid." He couldn't refute it, so he just gave a tiny nod.

Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us
Once more


They fell into awkward silence again, and after a moment his dad stated, "I'm gonna buy you guys a television before I go. Bring it up, get that old set outta here."

Kurt looked up in surprise at the nonsequitor. "You don't have to-"

"The old one's busted, and I know better than to think you and Rachel can hoist a new one up all those stairs yourself."

"Really, Dad, we don't need a new tv."

"I know you like all the specials and stuff on it-"

"I'm serious."

"-And I don't want to think about you sitting up here by yourself listening to sad songs like this every night." Kurt stopped and looked at him, seeing an uncharacterstic vulnerability to his dad as he said, "There's a lot I can't do for you boys now, but this one's easy. Let me do this for you."

It wasn't about him, Kurt realized. Well, it was, but it wasn't. It wasn't about the television or about being able to watch variety shows on Sunday. His dad had gone from having two sons at home, from providing for them and giving them hours at the shop, to not being able to help either of them. They could send little bits of things to Finn, but nothing big, nothing that really helped or would keep him safer, and here Kurt was in a world that made almost no sense to his family, needing things his dad could never give him. The television wouldn't help him, but it wouldn't hurt either...and it would help his dad feel useful. Less helpless.

He could appreciate that.

"Okay," he replied with a very faint smile. "It will be nice to have one again - Rachel was getting worried about not being able to watch the Oscars."

His dad shifted uncomfortably, lips pressed together. When he spoke, it was in an awkward, halted tone, like he regretted everything he was saying but needed to get it out anyway. "Look, buddy, I know it's none of my business what you and your girlfriend do. I know things are different here in the big city, and boys and girls living together- well, it's not 'living in sin' here, so I'm not gonna lecture you. But I think you've gotta be careful about her. You trust the people you're close to, and that girl..."

"Dad."

"I know. I don't wanna say it, I've known Rachel a long time and she's...y'know, she's ok. High-strung, but you like that. But something about her and that director guy...she shouldn't spend that much time with him. And I don't want you getting hurt."

Kurt swallowed hard, fighting the urge to just tell his dad everything. He didn't know what would happen if he did, what kind of-...he knew that even though he knew there was nothing wrong with who he was, no one else seemed to understand that. His dad was already worried about him without adding this on top of everything, and he couldn't- "I won't, Dad."

"You're sleeping on the couch, looks like you already were."

His eyes widened even as he tried to keep his face neutral, swallowing hard as his mind raced. "How did you-"

His dad looked at him like it was a ridiculous question. "You're up before everyone else, you always go into the room I'm staying in if you need something, you two don't touch each other unless you have to."

Kurt looked away, cringing internally. He'd known this was a horrible idea, trying to pretend that wasn't his bedroom. Rachel said she'd learned from her dad and his lover, but she had figured out the two of them in about three visits - and Rachel wasn't the sharpest when it came to things. He should have known his dad would guess. "That's my room," he confirmed.

"I know they do things different here, but I don't know a teenager who wouldn't share a bed with his girlfriend if he had the chance. Even when I was your age, and we were more conservative then."

Kurt didn't know how to keep pretending anymore, what in the world to say to that. He'd been caught, and the amount of energy it took to craft some sort of elegant lie. The only options he could see were lousy: Either go along with what his dad feared for him, that Rachel was cheating on him with her director and he'd been hurt and was sleeping in the second bedroom because he couldn't bear to look at the woman who had betrayed him; or the truth, which was far uglier.

"Dad..." he began slowly, his voice quiet and nervous. "Rachel's not my girlfriend."

"I get that places to live are expensive around here, but it can't be worth living with an ex, especially not when she's, y'know, moving on with another-"

"She's not my ex, we were never-" He stopped, not sure how to explain himself, to explain them. He drew in a deep breath, and when he began his voice was a lot quieter. "Do you remember when...I was at Dalton, and I called you really early on a Sunday morning to ask if you ever thought about....me growing up and having a family?"

"Yeah." His dad nodded slowly, trying to figure out where this was going, but Kurt could barely hear the response over his heart beating in his ears. "You sounded strange, like something was going on."

"I-it kind of was?" Kurt replied, his throat feeling tighter by the moment. He swallowed twice to try to relax, but instead he just felt like he was going to choke.

"You didn't start dating her because I said you couldn't go with Mercedes, did you? 'Cause in a big city like this-"

"No," Kurt replied quietly. He had to just say it, because if he didn't he was going to lose his nerve and keep feeling like this, and have to make up more stories from now until the end of the week when his dad went home...and again the next time they saw each other, and again and again on that neverending road- "I wasn't asking because of Mercedes." He wasn't sure how to phrase it and almost wished his dad would say something so he could respond again, could be the one in the position of answering instead of preemptively stating everything. He hadn't tried to tell anyone in a couple years now, and even then he had only really ever told Mercedes and Blaine and he wasn't sure how to begin. "I came to New York because it's supposed to be a city of dreams. The place where everyone can be whatever they want to be. And what I am...is..." He could feel his eyes filling with tears already, and his stomach churned violently. He hadn't even been this scared when Rachel had confronted him about it, when he thought everyone knew about him, that everyone could tell...but now, knowing his dad didn't know but was about to- All he heard was the rush of blood in his ears as he mouthed the words, "I'm a homosexual." 

He wasn't sure what response he had been expecting, but awkward silence felt wrong all around. It wasn't anything he could respond to, anything he knew how to deal with, and he found himself babbling uncomfortably. "I don't want to date Rachel or Mercedes or any other- girl, I want to-" His dad cut him off with a sharp nod before he could say anything else and embarrass himself further, and he fell silent, staring at his father's face and trying to will himself not to cry. 

His dad had always been prototypically Midwestern, stiff and unreadable in his expressions, and Kurt cursed the firm clench of his father's jaw and the dim light that made it impossible to see his eyes as well as Kurt would have liked. He couldn't tell what the man who had raised him and taken care of him his entire life was thinking or about to say, and he didn't think there was a scarier moment than the few seconds that tense silence hung around them before his dad grumbled a single word.

"Okay."

"...Okay?" Kurt repeated slowly.

His dad nodded again with a stiff shrug, shoulders raising and slumping again as he added, "I dunno what to say about it. But...okay."

He didn't know what he'd been hoping his dad would say, but the lack of an opinion was unnerving. Of course, on the other hand, he had no right to hope for outright acceptance and certainly not happiness over the news, so he supposed neutrality was better than being told he was sick or- or wrong. It wasn't as satisfying as he hoped, nor as devastating, and he felt like there should be morenow but didn't know what else to say.

It appeared his dad didn't, either, as they both shifted in their respective chairs. After a moment, his dad rose and announced, "I think I'm gonna make some toast, you want some?"

To anyone else, it would have seemed like an odd gesture, but Kurt knew better. His dad couldn't cook, which was part of the reason for Mrs. Jones coming to work for them - between the lack of cooking skills and his inability to drop everything to take care of his 6-year-old son, there were no other options. Over time Kurt had learned to cook, pretty well if he did say so himself, but his dad never needed to. There were exactly two things he could make: toast and warm milk. Over the years, Kurt couldn't even count the number of times his dad had made him toast - with cinnamon and sugar when he was little, then plain with butter as he got older - and watched him eat it after an especially hard day. They didn't talk; At first it was because Kurt couldn't find the words to explain what happened, what had hurt him so badly, then later because he didn't want to worry his dad by telling him just how horribly boys at school and adults in town alike treated him just for being himself. But the toast made him feel better anyway. "Sure," he replied softly, his smile weak and watery but genuine.

His dad nodded, mouth tight, and walked toward the kitchen. As he passed the couch, he paused and reached out for a moment, grasping Kurt's shoulder and giving it a light squeeze. They didn't look at each other, didn't speak, didn't try to find inadequate words to fill the silence, but it was enough to make the tears that had been welling in Kurt's eyes start to spill over. He swallowed hard as the tears rolled slowly down his cheeks, eyes red and burning, and his dad squeezed again before continuing into the kitchen to set about making toast for both of them, letting them both retreat into blissful silence.

Someday soon we all be together
If the fates allow
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Chapter Text

She didn't understand how this had happened.

Rachel stared at the room full of other auditionees, four dozen girls between 18 and 26 all vying for the same three chorus spots. The chorus. With no solos or lines or skill and virtually no chance of even being noticed by the reviewers or producers or anyone else worth mentioning. And this was only one batch of them; there had been another open call the day before, and from the tag pinned to her shirt and how exhausted the director's assistant running the whole process looked, she was guessing that it had been just as many or more.

For three spots. Three insignificant, meaningless, yet potentially-life-changing spots.

She had been the star a week ago; not just the star - the muse. She was going to be the basis of a dozen future roles, all of which she would play brilliantly to rave reviews. She was going to be a surefire Tony nominee and have her own concert bookings on Mondays because too many people wanted to see her. She had been the entire origin of the creative process for someone, and now...now she was number 113.

She just couldn't figure out how it had happened, let alone so fast. How Cal could be so completely in love with her one day, and the next-...

The entire thing had happened under her nose, too. She had witnessed it and told herself...she had sworn up and down that he really was just talked to that willowy blonde about a part in his next production because he was in the process on writing something with a bit part for a Swedish milkmaid. After all, the girl might have been attractive enough but there was no way she had even half of the talent necessary to attract Cal's attention. He hadn't just showed interest in her after her audition for nothing, Rachel told herself up and down at the party as she watched her boyfriend work the room and laugh everything the blonde said. She was clearly more talented and therefore she had no reason to be worried. None at all.

Then midnight came, and as everyone else was ringing in the New Year and downing flutes of champagne, he was nowhere to be found. And now here she was, eight days later, sitting in a room of other girls practicing their songs and demi-plies to warm up while a man with a clipboard shuttled them out in groups of ten for vocal auditions while that- that blonde stood on her stage and read her lines and sang her songs, getting direction from her-

...ex-boyfriend, she supposed.

She just didn't understand how this could have happened. How he could have picked someone like that over someone with her obvious talent and skill. Would that girl even be able to able to show the kind of emotional depth the role required? Would she even appreciate Cal's genius as a director? Would she give him everything she had?

...Would he break her heart, too? Was this just what Cal did? Should she have seen this coming a mile away?

But how would she have known? Rachel wondered. Cal was so genuine, so entrancing, so honest as an artist. How could she ever have known that this would happen? It must have been a fluke, some crazy mistake on Cal's part, because there was no way-

"Hey! One-thirteen! You coming or not?" She blinked, shaken from her thoughts by the irritated bark from the doorway. She glanced around and saw that the crowd in the room had dwindled down to only six other girls and herself; her group was up. She stood, hurrying quickly past the assistant into the hallway. He led the line of ten girls down from the holding room to backstage, and she wondered why this was happening to her. To her, of all people - hadn't she suffered enough on her path to becoming a star? Hadn't she put in her dues enough to just be discovered already? Why shouldn't she get the shot she deserved? Why should some other girl get her ticket to stardom?

She didn't understand why no one else could see how talented she was. If even people in Lima could appreciate her talent, what was wrong with the directors of New York that they would rather talk to some blonde thing who couldn't hold a candle to her natural abilities? Why should she be relegated to the meaningless chorus call for a spot she neither wanted nor would get when she was destined to be a star?

"Next!" barked a voice from the house, and the first girl in the line marched proudly onstage. Rachel couldn't see her, but she could hear a confident voice begin to sing about washing the man right out of her hair; barely two lines in, the director called, "Thank you! Next!" and Rachel's stomach clenched.

She'd thought she was done with this, with having to prove herself quite so hard. She was supposed to be able to just-

"Hey!" She turned her head quickly at the sound of a friendly voice and found herself staring at the sandy-haired tenor from a few months earlier, the one who had tugged her into the stairwell and gazed at her with those intense eyes. "Rachel, right?" He flashed his perfect smile at her, row of bright white teeth gleaming in the dim light of stage left.

"Right," she replied. "Bobby," she recalled, and he grinned more broadly at her recognition.

"I haven't seen you around lately - did you get something?"

He sounded so genuinely happy at the thought that she had done well for herself, gotten a short-run show, a reading, a callback even, anything that would have broken her out of this neverending audition circuit...No one else understood that the way he could. He was trying to find the same escape route to stardom, after all. Kurt just rolled his eyes and made tea, said something about how unsurprised he was, then went back to skulking around his room, completely unsupportive. She couldn't call her mom and tell her how little success had come her way, not after her mom cautioned her against moving out here in the first place, and she didn't really know anyone else here. She knew Mercedes, but the two of them had never really gotten along in the same way they each got along with Kurt, and she had met a few of the other girls who were on all the same auditions she was, but they were her competition and it was a cardinal rule of auditions not to let the competition see any weakness.

But Bobby wasn't her competition. He wasn't someone she needed to impress. He was a fellow thespian who could appreciate the heartache she was going through - not only for herself and her relationship, but for the loss to her career as well.

"I did, but it was ripped away. The director found someone else, and he-"

Bobby's eyes went wide and he looked like he might choke for a moment. "Wait. This wasn't that production down in the Village that Cal was running, was it?"

Her eyes widened in surprise that he knew. She'd only met him once, she would have assumed that, while he would have been aware of her potential star-turn eventually, it was premature for that. "Yes, how did you-"

"You're that girl?"

"What do you mean?"

"The girl on his arm. He always casts the girls he's trying to date in his shows - what happened, did he find someone else?"

The way he said it, so casually and matter-of-factly, as though this were something everyone knew, was baffling. She didn't understand how he could just say something like that, like it was a simple fact of life on Broadway, like that was how it just worked. Like that was something she should have known -

Like that was how it was at all. It wasn't, she was sure of it. "That wasn't what happened," she replied firmly.

He smiled faintly, but patronizingly, like Kurt had when she'd told him about the breakup, and opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it, as though he wanted to fight her but didn't want to be the one to say it, and when he spoke again he simply said, "Okay."

Okay? Okay wasn't nearly good enough because he was wrong. Cal had- well, if not loved her, at least felt strongly for her. Felt fondly for her, and respected her talent and natural charisma. "It isn't. He cast me because I was exceptional. He told me he wanted me to be his muse."

She had never felt silly saying that before, but the way Bobby looked like he was about to laugh when she said it made her suddenly feel very young and like maybe-...

...Was that what had happened? Was that why she had gotten the role?

No. No, that couldn't be it. It wasn't. She refused to believe that was why she had been cast. If that were why, it would mean her vocal talent and glittering personality meant nothing and she was just some pretty face waiting for the right guy to notice. She absolutely would not accept that theory. "You know what? I don't have to prove anything to you. But I'm going to go out there and earn my place in the chorus fair and square."

"Next!" came the voice from the front of the house, and Bobby simply smiled and held out his arm, as if to say 'after you.' She fixed him with a stern look and strode out onto the stage.

He was wrong.

Maybe he thought he was right. Maybe he wasn't trying to be malicious; after all, she wasn't competition for him, either - all roles, even boring chorus spots with no solos or intricate choreography, were divided by boys and girls, so they would never be going up against one another for the same place. But maybe he did have a girlfriend who was trying for her place in the chorus. Or maybe he was just vindictive - a bitter actor who was jealous of her success, however shortlived. After all, he hadn't gotten any callbacks or readings or been cast in anything, if he'd been around enough to notice her absence. But she was going to make sure he knew that he was wrong, that she had been cast for her talent and her talent alone.

She flashed her best smile and launched into the song that had garnered her the last role. She emoted brilliantly on "So In Love," channeling the beauty and depth of feeling with ease. If anything was going to earn her this place, it would be that song.

Strange dear, but true dear
When I'm close to you dear-

"Thanks. Next!"

The piano stopped short as soon as the words left the director's mouth, and Rachel stared at him in surprise. "I wasn't finished." That wasn't how this was supposed to go. She was supposed to be able to finish her song because she captivated the room. She knew she was that good, she had- she had stage presence, she had an incredible voice, her tone was fantastic, her emotion was genuine and pulled from the depths of her soul, how could he just say no to-

The director looked up from his sheets, regarding her first with curiosity, then a stern lowering of his brow. "I know. Thank you. Goodbye."

"But- but I sounded fantastic. You can't just ask me to stop after two lines, that's taking away-"

"Honey, I've got a lotta girls to see and not a lotta time. You're not what I'm looking for - and with that attitude, you're not gonna make it long in this town. Get back on the bus back to Illinois or wherever you came from. Next!"

It was a rejection she'd gotten countless times before, but she needed this. She needed to know that Bobby was wrong and that she was as talented as she knew she was, that that was what she was being judged on, and if that wasn't it-

...If that wasn't it, then what exactly was she supposed to do?

She held her head as high as she could as she strode offstage. Bobby was staring at her incredulously, unable to believe she'd had the nerve to try to convince the director he was wrong like that - no one did that. No one unless they were either extremely arrogant, extremely new at this, or both; the two did tend to go hand-in-hand. As girl 114, a brunette with a red dress and a familiar fierce determination in her stride, brushed past them to take her turn, Rachel felt ridiculous. She had been accused of being overly zealous her entire life by a lot of people, but it was the first time she'd been unable to brush off the statement and declare that genuine enthusiasm could never be too much. She felt-...

...She felt foolish. Not just for the way she had yelled back at the director, not just because Bobby was looking at her like she'd lost her mind, but for everything. For believing what Cal said, for thinking it would be that easy.

"You sounded great," Bobby offered; it didn't mean much, and they both knew it, but it was sincere and it did help to hear. She smiled faintly, and he added, "Even if your A was flat."

"No it wasn't-"

"Okay," he said again, smiling faintly, and they fell into comfortable silence as the girl onstage began to belt out "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better". By the time she made it to the third line, the song choice felt like a slap even though she didn't actually know this girl.

"Apparently she can," she said quietly, wondering when Kurt's sarcasm had rubbed off on her. She prided herself on being an upbeat and positive person, and his dark wit were beginning to bring her down; she needed to talk to him about that so it couldn't fester anymore.

Bobby laughed softly and put his hand on her shoulder. "C'mon, don't say that. Ok, look - this is what we signed up for, isn't it? The girl up there? Last year she understudied as Reno Sweeney over at the Orpheum. Now she's up for the same ridiculous three chorus parts. You'll get your break. You have so much confidence - it takes a lot of that to try to talk back to a director. Either confidence or being crazy," he teased, and she smiled faintly. "Are you going to the call for the one with the funny name by the guy who did Gypsy?"

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? Of course." An hour earlier, she would have made it sound as though she wouldn't be available. After all. if she got this job she wouldn't need to go on to the next. But if this wasn't going to happen (and clearly it wasn't), she needed to get used to the fact that Bobby was right: this was where she was for now.

But hopefully not for long.

One-fourteen ran past, alerting everyone happily that she had gotten a callback, and Rachel grinned as even Bobby couldn't help but roll his eyes at the display. "Looks like you're a little jealous, too."

"Me? Oh, I'm just happy on your behalf. After all, if she's here, she won't be there next week."

Well. There was just a bright side to everything.

* * * * *

When Mercedes had envisioned becoming a famous singing star - which was pretty much her whole life - she thought about all the people she would have working for her. There would be a person to pick out her clothes (probably Kurt) and a team of people to dress her in them, make sure she had her stole, and fix her shoes when they came unbuckled. There would be a makeup girl, and a girl or two who did her hair so she didn't have to, and all of them would be directed by her and make her look exactly as she wanted but without her having to do anything.

There were two points to being famous: everyone knowing who you were and wanting you, and not having to do boring things yourself. And after years of having to do her own hair in the morning, she was ready for it to be someone else's turn.

That wasn't what it was like.

"Then he took us to this guy whose whole job it is to tell us how to look like young ladies. He's gotta be fifty." She reached into the bag and snagged a few Fritos, eating them all at once as she shook her head. "He brought in all these people, it was crazy."

"For what?" Kurt asked. He wasn't nearly as interested as he knew he should be, but he was trying. He did like makeovers, and this sounded like a lot of people were going to manage to tame the things about Mercedes he had wanted tamed for years. He had been saying since they were 11 that leopard print was tacky, to the point where it had become such a comfortable conversation for them that it was the fight they had when something else was wrong. He had never liked that particular hairdo on her and she always wore more eyeshadow than he thought was flattering on her. But it was hard to listen to the makeover story when he wasn't the one doing it, and when it was emblematic of her career going places while his had improved only to the place it had been last fall. He was back to silks and ugly printed cottons instead of tulle, and he was considering that the biggest victory he had a right to hope for.

And that was pathetic. And he knew it.

It was hard to be interested in anything these days.

He knew that sounded ridiculous...and more than a little pathetic. He knew it was the sort of statement that Rachel would toss out to try and prompt him to respond to her dramatic nature, which was why he hadn't said it out loud yet. The downside was that Rachel and Mercedes kept talking at him as though he cared...and he wanted to, he did. He just...couldn't.

It was hard to care about Rachel lamenting the tragic and untimely end of her relationship and how this meant she would be alone forever when he'd been alone for so long. It was frustrating to listen to Mercedes talk about how hard it was to get along with people when he could go literally an entire week at work without anyone but the girls in the front office saying so much as 'hello' to him. Things were slightly better than Christmas, and he knew he should be happy Rachel was back around because it had been unspeakably lonely in the apartment when she was at Cal's every night, but instead it seemed...

...It was rude to say that the only friends he had were more effort than he had to give; he knew that. He just...couldn't.

He knew he should want all the details of Mercedes' makeover - what clothes they were putting her in, which precise shade of blue or pink because some would make her look fantastic and others would make her look like she thought she was a billboard in Times Square. What exactly they were doing to her hair to make her face look less round. What designers they had her - or the other girls - wearing and whether she could get him an 'in' with those lines because if he had to cut out one more hideous jacket he might scream. But that required a level of energy he didn't have. He had exactly enough energy to feign listening, which took a surprising amount of effort, and to sit ramrod straight on the couch; it felt stiff, but it helped keep everything else in check and kept him from looking as exhausted as he felt.

"They're changing my hair - again," she stated. "Bigger on top and shorter on the sides. They're cutting Shirley's off, she cried for two hours." She was clearly expecting a bigger reaction than the "Mm," and raised eyebrows Kurt gave her, and she gave him an odd look. Kurt just hoped she didn't start making it about him. It would be a nice change, but he certainly didn't have the energy to edit his narrative of the past few months; if he could speak at all, it might all come tumbling out.

He was pretty sure he couldn't talk about it at all at this point, so he didn't think he was in too much danger.

"They're putting us all in dresses."

"As opposed to...?" Kurt asked dryly, and Mercedes glanced down at her pink pedal pushers and back up at him with a look that said 'really, fashion-boy?' He tilted his head slightly in acknowledgment of her point, and asked, "What's the overall concept?"

"A lot of dark colours." Mercedes waited for him to say something, because she wanted to. She wanted to ask if that was normal or if they were doing what the disgruntled photo shoot assistant had said. They did put them in black a lot - she thought it was because it was classic, and all kinds of women looked good in black dresses so it suited their group where no one had the same shape. But the more they did it, the more it seemed like it really was true, they really were trying to make them look lighter. They looked paler against black, especially with those big flashes or bright lights...was that why? And was it strange that she felt uncomfortable with it?

Maybe it was just because of the rest of the conversation that it felt like they were trying to make her something she wasn't. Maybe she was thinking too much about everything because of one stupid comment. And maybe they hadn't even meant that the way it came across.

She wished Kurt would say something. Even if it was telling her she was crazy. Anything. Because right now at home it was all about Shirley and her hair and Eva not wanting to give up her red nailpolish and Regina wanting taller heels, and none of them seemed to get what she felt like this was all about. It was the kind of thing John's friends would jump to, or that one radical girl at Spelman who thought everything was unfair...and everyone thought they were annoying for a reason. They couldn't stop talking about being black until it was all there was about them, and that was one of many reasons she had hated school. If she had moved to New York only to become that person anyway?

"You do look stunning in black," Kurt replied.

"Plus it's not leopard, right?" she joked, and he looked up suddenly, studying her carefully. She seemed okay, she didn't seem agitated, but he didn't know anymore.

"Well, it is hideous and doesn't photograph nearly as well as you like to think. Besides, I thought you said this was all about creating a sweet and wholesome look - leopard looks like you're trying to be wild."

That was another thing that didn't make sense to Mercedes. They were - with the exception of Eva - pretty good girls. They all went to church without Rocko trying to force it, they all called their mothers at least once a week, they didn't smoke or drink - much...they were good. They were wholesome. Why did they have to pink up their cheeks more to make it look like they were? And didn't black dresses make them look less sweet? The girls back home who wore black were usually up to something - like Sandy Lopez when she wasn't wearing her cheerleading uniform. Who was going to think they looked sweeter in black? Shouldn't they be in pink or floral or something? She didn't really like floral, but it made girls look nice.

She was supposed to keep talking about leopard, but she needed to know if she was completely wrong or not. If Kurt thought she was crazy - well, crazier than they usually thought each other were - she'd let it go. But it felt too weird to just drop, and Kurt might be able to help figure out why. "We had individual consultations, too. How to talk and walk, act, present ourselves," she started, and Kurt looked curious, confused. "They want me to change my name."

That got Kurt's attention. That was new. They had changed her hair more times than he could keep track of, and dress styles changed every year. But name...that was big. That wasn't really changeable once you were in the public eye, so if Mercedes stopped being Mercedes she couldn't really go back again. "Why?" he asked. "It's not like you're Archibald Leach or anything - is there another Mercedes Jones out there?"

Mercedes shook her head and looked awkward before admitting, "They said something about it not having enough appeal, and that if we're going to the trouble of making our image better, it would be a shame to ruin it with my name."

Kurt blinked. He didn't know what that meant, but it felt...wrong. It felt like there was an insult lurking just beneath the surface, but he couldn't put his finger on precisely what. But what was he supposed to say? Tell her not to do it and throw her career out the window over it? "Plenty of celebrities have changed theirs. Doris Day's last name was practically unpronounceable. And would anyone think Frances Gumm sounded like an international star the way Judy Garland does?" he pointed out.

"That's what I thought you'd say," Mercedes replied, but it didn't make her feel better. Kurt didn't seem any more comfortable with it than she did, he looked like he couldn't put his finger on why it was wrong either, but it was the same thing he'd been saying for the past year: Do whatever it takes to get ahead. She knew he meant well, that he would do anything he could to get out of that stupid basement cutting room, but it seemed like there had to be a limit somewhere. She couldn't just change everything about herself and still be herself when she was a star...could she? She used to think that was how it worked, but the more it felt like it would never end. If she took the new name and wore the black dress, then what was next? When they put out their first album, she knew they wouldn't get to pick the songs, or where they sang, or- anything.

She just never thought it would be like that.

This whole time, she'd been looking forward to being able to send her parents her first album, to show them what she was doing with her life and why it was better than going to a school she hated. Why living her dreams was worth crushing their dreams for her. She wanted to believe it would all be worth it once her names were up in lights.

But what if it wasn't her name that was up there?

She couldn't send them an album that listed "Mary Johnson." They had named her, they had picked it and called her that her whole life. It was their name, too. What did it say if she wasn't that anymore? They couldn't even brag about her if they wanted to - "Hear that on the radio? See that record? That's the Melodics. My daughter's in that group." "Oh? Which one is she?" "Mary Johnson - I know my last name's Jones, they changed hers. But it's okay - just listen to her sing!" It made her feel queasy to think about it.

But if she didn't change it...what did she have to show for herself? Rocko wouldn't keep her in the group if she didn't go along with it, and then what could she send home to prove to her parents that dropping out of Spelman had been worth it? That her dreams weren't some ridiculous fantasy, they really could come true?

"You're right," she told Kurt. "It's like eating nothing but soup before the photo shoot. It's not right, but it gets me where I need to be. Right?"

Kurt swallowed hard as she looked at him, everything about her crying out for confirmation that she was doing the right thing...and he didn't know if he could tell her that she was. It was just a name, just a stage name; he had no doubt that if Rachel had a strange last name, she would have changed hers like half the other Jewish stars in town. If his own surname were a little more German, he would have changed it - even though that couture designer who was fizzling out was going by his real name now instead of Roland Karl, there was no way he himself would have ever chosen to use a Swedish-German last name that the press spelled three different ways. (Logerfeld? Lagerfelt? Lagerfeldt? No one even knew which it really was, and names needed to be instantly recognizable in the public eye.) But the reality of it felt...wrong, somehow.

"Well, you'll always be Mercedes to me," he replied simply with a forced smile. "And just think - I'll be able to say I knew you when. Not just before you were a star: I've known you so long that I knew you back when you were Mercedes." She returned an equally-forced smile, and he decided to take the conversation to its logical conclusion. "Buy any hideous new leopard lately?"

It was a comfortable diversion, and they both took it. What else was there to say?

Chapter Text

Rachel couldn't believe how quickly her luck was turning around again.

She knew of course that it should, she was certainly more than talented enough, but lately she had started to wonder if that talent really meant anything at all. What if it was all arbitrary, not based on talent or skill or passion at all but based instead on things like having the right look. Obviously looking like a star was important, but it seemed like every girl getting roles looked like Julie Andrews, and she didn't - and never would. If that was the criteria for being a star, instead of actual honed talent and hard work and pure emotional connection to the song, then she would never have the kind of success she had dreamed of. 

But today...today had restored all of that. Even if Bobby was being jealous and refusing to be happy for her. Today was the first step on the new road toward becoming a star.

And then Cal would eat his words - or take her back again. She wasn't sure which one of those options she liked better, but she liked the possibility of either one.

She had hoped Kurt would be home when she arrived so she could share her good news. Sure enough, she could hear the faint sound of music coming through the door as she unlocked it - she just hoped it wasn't Judy Garland again. While she did love the emotion poured into those songs, Kurt had been slowly rotating through her entire discography and Rachel was starting to have her fill of the tormented songstress. Besides, she couldn't even sing along; not only was the range too low, but Kurt gave her a dirty look whenever she tried. She pushed open the door, grinning as she heard a new album - Kurt hadn't played Connie Francis in awhile, and she looked over to the couch where he sat, arms wrapped around himself. His head tilted slightly as he stared at the top of the window frame without seeing it, and he didn't even look over when she came in. "Have you been there all day?" she asked.

He drew in a deep breath, looked over, and replied as though she were an idiot for asking, "Of course not. I got home from work an hour ago."

"How was it?" Kurt shrugged and didn't volunteer information, so she launched into her own news. She couldn't help herself, she was too excited - and Kurt, of all people, would be excited for her, because he understood how hard she'd worked. "My day was fantastic," she stated as she set her audition bag on the table and unbuttoned her coat.

"The audition went well?"

"No, not at all," she replied matter-of-factly. "It was in a small room, and you know I don't do as well at those as I do on-stage, where I can show my real power. The director cut me off after five bars. But that's not the point." When Kurt looked skeptical, as though he could figure out what the point must be then, she continued. "As I was leaving, I heard someone calling my name, and I turned around. And there," she paused dramatically, "was Arnold. He was sitting on the end during my audition, and he had to come out to tell me that he disagreed completely with what the director said. He thought I was brilliant." He had actually used that word, too - brilliant. She had started to wonder if anyone would ever see that about her again, because she knew she was...but how could that possibly show through when she was only given 5 measures in a tiny, uninspiring audition room after sitting in a cramped hallway for two hours? Even her brilliance was tested under conditions such as those. But not to Arnold. But that word wasn't even the best part. "He said he had heard about the great work I was doing for Cal, and he wanted to meet with me to talk about another show he's working on."

She expected a celebration. Hugs- well, ok, Kurt didn't hug much, but something like that. Dancing around the apartment to the most upbeat songs they could find on the radio. Going out on the town and getting ice cream from that little stand on 8th they liked that was the only place that didn't close down all winter. Skipping through the park and singing the way they always imagined they would when they moved to New York. She expected a genuine expression of joy and congratulations. 

And it didn't come.

Kurt quirked an eyebrow and rolled his eyes, turning back to stare at the top of the window frame. It was a look she had learned well over their many years of knowing one another: he was trying not to say something. She didn't know what or understand why, but it was clear from the thin line of his lips, the tension in his neck, the tilt of his head... Maybe he just didn't understand what this meant yet. Maybe he was used to the way things worked in his industry, where maybe it worked completely differently. Maybe he just didn't understand how big this meeting could be. 

"So we're going to go get dinner on Saturday night, and he's going to tell me all about it," she continued, her brightness a little more forced than before. "He's an associate producer on 'Jennie,' and that puts him in the position to-"

"To do nothing," Kurt finally said. When the words were out of his mouth, he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "Associate producers are barely more powerful than I am, Rachel, they aren't-"

"You don't know what you're talking about. It's- it's not even your industry, your field. How do you know what Albert can do? He said-"

"Rachel." He stood and walked over, looking exhausted, like saying all of this was too draining for him to do but he was doing it anyway, like she should be grateful he was bothering, and it just made her more angry with him. "I could tell you that I work at a famous design house and have pull. It wouldn't mean I could actually make you a model." His tone was so patronizing, too, and absolutely infuriating.

"You don't know that," she stated, because he was wrong. He didn't understand, that was all. He'd given up theatre after they moved to New York, saying something about how there were no parts anyone would ever believe him for because he wasn't a leading man type, and he had moved to fashion, and he just didn't understand how it worked outside their tiny little performance group. She wouldn't try to tell him about his prospects for promotion because she didn't know anything about it, after all. "It's different on Broadway, people wear a lot of different hats, and he's trying to-"

"Have sex with you," Kurt filled in. The vulgar nonsequitor threw her for a moment as she tried to figure out how in the world to respond. It seemed too ridiculous to be worthy of a response, but she didn't know how to successfully convince him of that. Kurt seized the opportunity and continued. "You are a beautiful girl, Rachel, and if I were interested in girls at all, I would certainly take every opportunity to use a position of power to seduce you. That you find power an aphrodisiac makes it all the easier. But as beautiful as your voice is, the offer has nothing to do with your talent."

She stared at him, trying to figure out what in the world he could be trying to say. Because that didn't make any sense. She was a performer, she had been her entire life, and now he was trying to tell her that someone was honestly trying to- He looked tired and thin, too exhausted by explaining his cynical, jaded view of her future to bother to sugarcoat things. He had been so withdrawn lately, so upset about everything- he was just trying to deflect from all of that and lash out at her because he didn't have anyone better to be upset with. It was what best friends did with each other sometimes. So she had to do what best friends did in return and take care of him, whether he wanted it or not. "I think you're delusional. You haven't eaten a proper meal in too long. I'll make something."

"I'm not hungry," Kurt replied quietly. "And you don't cook."

"Of course I do," she replied as she pulled a box of pasta from the cabinet. He was just being difficult because he was angry at his own lack off career progress - it couldn't possibly be easy to see her succeeding, in addition to Mercedes' recent career windfall, when he was struggling. It couldn't be easy to be so disillusioned by this city he'd wanted to move to for the entire time she had known him. He could be prickly when things were bothering her, that was all. 

Because he was wrong.

...Wasn't he?

After all, she was more than deserving of a role - a leading role, no less. And just because an offer came unexpectedly or through a different channel didn't make it seedy. Plenty of people were discovered in unorthodox ways - more in Hollywood than on Broadway, but it happened all the time. Being recognized for her talents by a person who wasn't technically in charge of the audition for this show was strange, maybe, but not unheard-of and certainly not wrong

Kurt just didn't understand.

...and neither did Bobby. Or-...he understood, but he was jealous. That was all. He was jealous because she was getting asked to dinners to discuss upcoming theatre projects and he wasn't. He was almost as jaded about things as Kurt was, and she was flying in face of all his cynical notions about the futility of the audition process. Because here she was, making her way in the world and rising above the cattle-call while he was stuck in the fray. 

"I would have thought you could be happy for me," she stated, trying not to sound quite as hurt as she felt; she failed. "You're my best friend, and if neither you nor the only other halfway decent person I've met in the audition process can appreciate how much this means to me, who can?"

Kurt sighed and leaned against the counter beside the stove, looking down at her. "Did you ever think there's a reason for that?"

"You mean aside from bitter jealousy?" she replied tightly as she began to search the cabinet for something to make an appropriate sauce.

Kurt rolled his eyes and replied, "What exactly did this guy promise you?" He sounded resigned, and Rachel knew it. She had known he was going to have to be happy for her eventually. Now that she'd called him on his real reason for being reluctant to support her, he couldn't very well hide behind that mask of his and would have to accept that they were all going to have career ups and downs, and that even though his career was down - and looked like it might be staying there for awhile, poor Kurt - hers was on the way up. And if they were going to expect support in return, that meant supporting one another in the first place.

"Well, since you asked," she smiled. "He said he can get me an automatic callback for the lead, because the director has worked with him before and will trust his recommendation." Kurt looked at her skeptically, and she could practically read his thoughts, so she added quickly, "No, it's not the usual way things work, but it's happened before. Sometimes when people know about a star's work they won't even make her audition, they just offer her the role."

"Established stars."

"He said he heard about Cal's show," she reminded him. She had barely been able to believe the way word about her show had spread like that, especially considering she wasn't going to technically be given credit for originating the role thanks to that new blonde thing playing her part. But apparently she had made just that much of an impression that she was being talked about in the salons of the Broadway elite - she had thought she wouldn't hit that milestone until she was at least 23, and here she was, three years ahead of schedule. She was even better than her own timeline had given her credit for. "I know it's not a sure thing, Kurt, but I really believe once they hear me-"

"Rachel. You know I love you."

The declaration came out of nowhere, and she turned to look at him quickly. "Of course I do," she replied with a soft smile. They didn't say it to one another - as far as she knew, Kurt didn't say that to anyone, not even his dad even though it was obvious how strong their relationship was...she'd never heard him say it, anyway. But she knew, and she loved him too - other than her mother, Kurt was the person she was closest to in the world - probably even more than her father and his lover, as amazing as they were-

"And that your voice is magnificent."

"Of course," she replied again, because that wasn't even a question. Even when he gave her critical notes, even when he gave her dirty looks for singing along with Judy Garland, she knew he was talented enough to recognize her excellence.

"There is no callback."

They were back to this again. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. "I know you love me, but that doesn't mean you're incapable of jealousy-"

"Of the many people I envy, it's not the girl who's being casting-couched," Kurt replied flippantly. "There's no callback. There's no audition." That seemed like such an odd statement that she couldn't help but look at him curiously. "You read Playbill as religiously as I do. You know 'Jennie' is being developed by Mary Martin for Mary Martin. There's no audition for the lead - it's hers. He's using you."

That didn't make any sense. She-...she knew Kurt was right about the show, she remembered reading it in a profile interview with the actress, but that couldn't be the whole story. Could it? Because people didn't do things like that...did they? Who could be so cruel as to prey on the whole-hearted desires of a talented young ingenue like that? Who would do such a thing? 

And why her

Was it because she seemed too willing? Too desperate to be a star? Too ambitious? Because clearly he didn't know her at all if he thought she was the kind of girl who would ever seriously consider sleeping her way to the top. She knew that some girls did, but she would never - never in a million years. The idea that she might even think about it was insulting. 

She didn't need to use her body to get ahead. She was more than talented enough to make it to the top on her own. 

If that had anything to do with it. It was supposed to, but Kurt's insinuations made her wonder even more - was this the way people thought things worked? Was this something she was meant to participate in if she was going to get ahead? Was everything she had ever believed about- about talent and ambition and charisma just some big lie fed to young would-be stars like her by every adult she had ever met? Was this something she should have just known about? Like an open secret everyone knew but no one had told her? 

Did she even have a choice? Did she have to do this now, to get ahead?

No - absolutely not, she thought to herself proudly. Never. She would not stoop that low. 

"I can't believe he would even try that," she stated, indignant at being placed in a position to be used by a man who had barely met her. "That he would think that I, of all people, would ever let someone use my body in order to further my career. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Why would he think such a thing?" It was almost funny, when she thought about it. She was absolutely cut-throat when it came to her goals, but she had principles. She had pride. She had-

"Because you already did," Kurt replied, his tone dry and matter-of-fact.

She stared at him, mouth gaping. "I did not! When would I ever-"

"You really thought he gave you the part? And just happened to take it away when he broke up with you?"

She blinked, stunned that he could make such an accusation about her relationship with Cal. She would never in a million years let someone use her like that - that hadn't been what the two of them were at all. "He couldn't keep seeing me because it was too painful, and I...I got the part because I was the best audition, because I fit the vision for the role-"

"After you slept with him."

Her eyes widened, and it felt like he had slapped her with a dramatic flourish. How could he say that? How could he possibly be implying- but more importantly, "How did you even know about that?" she practically whispered, staring at him. He looked at her like that was the dumbest question he'd ever heard, and she couldn't take it anymore. The accusations were bad enough, but the implication that she was as naive as they came was almost too much. "It wasn't like that. Never. We were in love with each other."

"Correction: You were in love. He was giving the part to the unsuspecting next girl he lured to his bed."

The way he said it, so blase, like it didn't surprise him and barely warranted a mention...he had known. He had known what was going on the entire time, hadn't he? He had known the entire time she was dating Cal, and he didn't even try to warn her. He had known she wasn't being judged by her talent and had said nothing. "How could you not say anything? How could you let me be humiliated like that? He-...everyone knows about that," she said, the realization dawning on her as she said it. Bobby had laughed when she mentioned she was working with Cal, he knew something was going on. And Albert had said he heard about her work with-...She was getting reputation of being the kind of girl who never made it onstage but made it to everyone's bed. She was never going to be able to get a role that way, not with sweet-as-pie girls with their wholesome appeal around. Not when every role she dreamed of called for innocence and she...she was anything but. She could get a meeting with every director in town now, but not one of them would give her a callback.

She had trusted him. She had given him a part of herself, a part she had never given anyone before and had intended to never give anyone until she was at least 23 and well-established. And he had taken it and thrown it away because it had all been a lie to begin with. 

"At least you had a boyfriend. And career advancement. And no police record," Kurt added quietly. "We're not in Lima anymore." He walked slowly past her, head held just a little too high and stiff, and closed the bedroom door behind him, leaving her alone with a half-made dinner and the remnants of her broken dreams.

* * * * *

From the time she was a little girl, Mercedes had dreamed about growing up to make a record. Well, not exactly, but close enough. She thought about what it would feel like to hear her song - her voice on the radio. How cool it would be to see her face on an album cover in the record store, right there where anyone could walk in and buy it. What it would be like to see packed dance halls twisting and swaying while she stood onstage and belted out songs she had made famous. She had even thought about what it would be like to be on a variety show and know her parents were tuned in back home, watching their little girl on television singing her heart out. Every one of those things meant first making a record, so she thought it was the same thing as dreaming about the actual process of recording a song.

Boy, was she wrong.

They stood in two soundbooths - her by herself in one, to sing lead, the other three in the other, much smaller booth. The window between the two made it easy for her and Regina to roll their eyes at one another and even easier for Mercedes to see exactly how displeased Eva was with the more crowded space. To say nothing of the window into the other part of the studio, where it seemed like a half-dozen men were all staring at her and waiting for her to get this just right.

When she was little and dreamed about having a hit song, she never thought about how strange it would be to have chunky, heavy earphones on, pumping a symphony and the other girls - and herself - back through as she sang. She always pictured holding a mic in her hand and smiling at her adoring public, not leaning up to try to sing close enough to the microphone that looked like it was probably older than she was. And she definitely never thought about it being this kind of song.

It was all wrong for her. It wasn't really right for any of them except maybe Eva. The tone was too thin, the lyrics were too silly, and it all sounded like whining instead of like belting out deep, emotional ballads the way she liked. The harmonies were nice enough, but it didn't feel like the kind of song that would make them stars. It wasn't even their song - some other girl was releasing it, too! And one of the competing executives had a group of girls doing it, too. Mercedes didn't know what their arrangement sounded like, but she doubted it was going to sound different enough that the Melodics' version would be a sure hit. Especially since she couldn't make it sound right.

It's my party and I'll cry if I want to
Cry if I want to
Cry if I want to
You would cry too if it happened to you.


Mercedes breathed an internal sigh of relief as they got through the opening chorus without stopping; they were on take six and that hadn't happened yet. She glanced over at the other girls and caught Regina's eye, smiling as her groupmate gave her a look that said 'finally!' At least she wasn't the only one who hadn't expected things to be this intense. 

She was used to just singing. To opening her mouth and letting everything she felt pour out of her. God had given her a gift in her voice, and she appreciated that. Rachel tried to take credit for everything she ever sang, but Mercedes couldn't. She had a great voice naturally, and even though she guessed singing all the time probably helped her get better, she couldn't remember a time she hadn't been able to just start singing and win people over. She was damn good. But now she wondered if she'd been taking it for granted. The way those men in the booth kept stopping her, frowning over at Rocko like she was completely wrong and she didn't know why...she didn't even know who most of those men were, just that they worked for the record label and made the song sound like a song instead of just a bunch of solos and some music recorded two floors down last week.

Nobody knows where my Johnny has been
And Judy left the same ti-


"Cut!" The music came to a halt in her headphones, and a rat-faced gentleman with untamed hair who looked like he might well sleep in the studio leaned forward to push the intercom button that connected the three rooms. "Mary, don't scoop that." 

It took Mercedes a moment to remember that was her. "Scoop what?" she asked.

"Time. Hit it right on the note, nice and clear. Got it?" 

Mercedes nodded, even if that didn't sound right to her, and adjusted the headphones again. She glanced over and saw Eva rolling her eyes; she probably had some cool date tonight, and if this went too long she might miss it. She had a feeling she wouldn't get to sleep in her bedroom tonight...which was almost - but not quite - enough incentive to take longer. Adjusting her headphones, she heard the music start again just before the place where they had started.

At least they didn't have to sing the opening chorus again - that was progress, right?

Nobody knows where my Johnny has been
And Judy left the same time.
Why was he holding her hand
When he's supposed-


"Cut!" She rolled her eyes and heard an audible groan from Regina this time. How did anyone ever make a record in less than two years, at this rate? "Mary, don't belt that."

"But it sounds good that way."

"Think young girl, not grown woman. You're not trying to be Dinah Washington, here."

"Why not?" she demanded, snapping more than she intended. Why shouldn't she sing like Dinah Washington? She was kind of her idol. That woman had a voice, she had soul, she had everything Mercedes did but...well, at least a little better. 

"Because this is for radio play. Let's go again."

Mercedes sighed and looked down at her sheet music again as the sound began to pump through her headphones. She didn't get what they wanted, why they didn't think it sounded good when to her it sounded fantastic. Unlike Shirley who kept going flat because she didn't put enough behind the words, or Eva who went nasal when she didn't pay attention...but with a resigned shake of her head, she sang again, trying to do what he asked.

Nobody knows where my Johnny has been
And Judy left the same time
Why was he holding her hand
When he's supposed to be mine?


"Cut! Mary, you were flat."

"I can't hit that note if I'm not belting, it's too high," she pointed out. "It's at my break."

"Lighten it up. Think thin."

"Thin," she grumbled. She'd been told that before, too - and not just about a note. She hated that word. That word meant salads and weakness and no punch behind the sound. It meant silly little girls instead of real...anything.

But what choice did she have?

She tried again, but she could feel her voice quavering as she tried to hit that note without belting or floating or in any other way singing something different, and when the producer yelled "Cut" again she threw up her hands. "I don't know what you want from me, I should be belting that note. It's not gonna sound good any other way-"

Rocko leaned in and said something to the producer, his words silenced by the thick glass, and the producer held up his hand to cut her off. She rolled her eyes and turned to look at the other booth, where Regina shrugged and Shirley played absently with her new, short hairdo. "Well?" she mouthed to Regina, who shrugged again. Mercedes couldn't say for sure, but she thought it meant 'You're right but I don't produce the record.' Eva glared in her direction and rolled her eyes, but Mercedes was cut off from returning the gesture by Rocko's voice from behind her. "Mercedes. C'mon, baby. We can't do this all day."

"It's not my fault - the song's not right for us. This isn't what I'm good at."

"You want me to give the lead to Shirley?" The question sounded innocent enough, almost helpful, but the tone was passive-aggressive to the point of being threatening. She knew without a doubt that if she gave up this lead on this song, she would never get it back - not the way Rocko doted on her and protected her and put her in the front of photo shoots, the perfect little thin girl who never said anything bad and never wanted anything she wasn't supposed to. The girl who couldn't talk back because she couldn't stand up for herself. 

"Shirley's flatter than I am," she pointed out. "She won't fix your problem."

"Watch it, Mercedes," he said, his voice low but sharp. He raised it as he said - for everyone's benefit, even though the reception through the microphone and speakers couldn't have been good at that distance - "Let's get back into it." He fixed Mercedes with a stern glare and added, "Thin. Clear. Girlish. Remember who we're selling to."

As though Mercedes needed reminding. As though it weren't clear at every single turn that she wasn't the person they would ever want to show as the face of the group - fat, dark, diva, not at all the wispy-thin innocent blonde girls she saw on tv. Why else would they blast lights so hot during the photo shoot and change her name? 

She knew what no one was allowed to say. She got it - she did. Colored girls were ok on the radio, but not on tv, and even then they had to sound enough like white girls if they ever wanted to be hits. It was one of those things she kept trying not to think about, to keep away the uneasy lurch it gave her stomach every time she wondered just what would happen next. As she remembered being patted down with thick powder and realizing that even though her friends had to literally go to court to make the high school let her attend, even though she remembered Kurt talking about how it was good that she didn't get to go to McKinley her junior year anyway because they couldn't have gone to Nationals together, even after a year at a college where they spent a lot of time talking about issues, standing there in that black dress had been the first time she had ever been uncomfortable with her skin colour.

Just like today was the first time she had ever felt like maybe her voice wasn't right. Like it should be something else. 

She'd thought Kurt might be right about some of this stuff. Maybe she should be thinner. Maybe her name wasn't all that great for show business and the change wasn't as big of a deal as she thought. Maybe he was right, that they just looked really good in black - she knew she looked good, at least. But if there was one thing she was sure of in the world, it was that her voice? Was flawless.

And changing it? Manipulating it and trying to get it to do things it didn't want to do? Trying to hold it back and not let it get too big?

That was a bridge too far.

"No," she said, taking off her headphones so she could shake her head without them banging against the sides. 

Rocko stopped just inside the studio, hand on the doorknob, and turned back. "What?"

"No. I'm not gonna change my voice for you."

"Mercedes-"

"And I'm not gonna change my name, either. Or my size. Or how I dress, 'cause I don't care what you say - I look good in leopard." The more things she listed that he'd asked her to do, the more angry she felt. How had she let one guy make her do so much? How had she gotten as desperate as Rachel Berry to the point where she'd do whatever the guy told her? "I should've said no when you tried to call me Mary because that's saying what my mother named me wasn't good enough for you. But my voice? Hell no. That's too far. Why shouldn't I sing like Dinah Washington? She has more power in her voice than in six groups of stick-thin girls put together. I know which I'd rather be." 

She knew from the way Rocko said her name again that this was now or never. She was treading a very dangerous line, but she hadn't crossed it - yet. If she wanted to be a star, she could still go back, give him a few days to cool off, apologize, and take the boring harmonies in the background for awhile to pay her dues until Rocko thought she was ready. She could get Regina to stand up for her, probably Shirley too because the girl was sweet enough, and she could stay in the group. She could still have her name - sort of - and her voice - also sort of - on an album, on the radio, at concerts...

Kurt could do whatever he wanted with his own life. He could bend over backwards to chase fame, and so could Rachel. But she wasn't gonna give everything and get tokens back. 

"I'm done," she stated with a quick tilt of the head before she strode out of the studio and down the hall, leaving a booth full of stunned faces in her wake. She'd never felt more proud of herself.

Chapter Text

The mood in the living room could not have been more bleak.

The music was Kurt's choice, and for the first time in weeks Rachel didn't even try to challenge him on it, try to suggest something more "upbeat" - who could be upbeat? Not the girl tucked into an afghan, staring at a rapidly-cooling cup of tea with a mournful expression at having discovered the entire world was a lie, that was for sure. Not the one flopped into the armchair and glowering defeatedly at the boxes the contained every bit of property she had in New York. Mercedes' apartment had been taken care of by their manager to keep the group together and under his watchful eye, so after her storm-out... Kurt wished he could have seen her do it, from her retelling it sounded like quite the spectacular display of strength. Unfortunately for her, it had ended with temporary homelessness. He was just glad there was less fighting this time than the last time Mercedes had been living on their couch; he suspected it was because neither of them could really muster the energy or determination to quarrel beyond picking snits over who should run down to the store for dinner ingredients.

He usually did, on his way home from a long day of cutting out oversize turndown collars. He wasn't sure when those had become part of Mainbocher's repertoire, they certainly hadn't been last fall; if they had, he wouldn't have spent months cutting tulle until his hands ached. But at least it forced him to get up and out of the house. He could only imagine if he didn't have that, how tempting it would be to do absolutely nothing all day the way his girls seemed to be going.

Not that he could blame them. After all, he'd been dealing with the realities of this city and the lives they would never lead for months now. He'd gotten used to the idea that life as he knew it would never measure up to anything he'd envisioned for himself gradually over time, sinking slowly - the two of them had the rug pulled out from under them suddenly, and now, as they stared up from the bottom of the same pit, only he wasn't bewildered by it; Rachel and Mercedes were still looking around, wild-eyed, trying to figure out how such a thing could have happened.

He wished he could have more empathy for them, because he remembered too well how much it hurt to come to the unavoidable conclusion that their high school dreams had been foolish, unrealistic, even completely impossible...but empathy required more energy than he had. He settled instead for making rounds of tea and being sure to pick up dinner on his way home from work. It was small, but it was constructive.

"What happened to us?" Rachel asked, sounding almost child-like in her confusion as she looked at the two of them. "We were supposed to do great things. We were going to be stars, and now look at us."

Neither of them said anything. Mercedes rolled her eyes and went back to staring in the general direction of the boxes stacked up in the corner of the room, while Kurt wasn't sure what in the world to say. As much as he had started to feel like everything good he'd ever dreamed for himself was just retroactively creating hope so he could dash it himself, he knew she was right. He'd had dreams, he'd had big dreams. When they moved here...he'd thought he was going to conquer the fashion world. Find a boyfriend. Find someone he could throw parties with and grow old together, someone who could make him feel the way Blaine did- but better. The way he had imagined feeling with Blaine once Blaine stopped being so scared. A year and a half later, and he was further than ever from finding it and terrified to even start looking. Not as long as a boyfriend was synonymous with being shoved into the back of a crowded paddy wagon and strip-searched while a half-dozen former football players pointed and laughed. He shivered at the memory, and Rachel absently held out a corner of the blanket; he shook his head, shrugging into the warmth of his sweater, and she withdrew her hand dejectedly.

"What happened to us?" she asked again, to herself this time as she tucked herself deeper into the corner of the couch.

"New York happened," Kurt replied quietly with a deep sigh. "Reality. This city isn't anything like we imagined it. We thought it would be a place where people skipped through the streets singing, where we could find boys who would understand us and appreciate our talents, and instead..."

Her eyes widened and she stared at him with a look that was equal parts stunned and relieved. "For you, too?"

"What?"

"It's as disappointing for you as it is for me?"

There were times Kurt thought he knew just how self-absorbed Rachel could be, and then she would surprise him with the most ludicrous of statements. Had she not noticed? Had she honestly not seen how lonely and defeated he was? How frustrated by everything around him? Was his roommate genuinely so blind that she didn't realize every one of his hopes and dreams had been dashed?

Considering how she'd gotten into this funk, he supposed it was a silly question. Of course she was. Rachel saw what she wanted to. Sometimes that myopic worldview fed her determination and helped her - he doubted they ever would have been able to come here in the first place were it not for the two of them and their single-minded efforts to leave Ohio. But he wished that maybe, just for a few minutes, either of them had thought to- that either of them could have known enough to pause, to...to maybe never come at all. 

There were probably boys at the drive-in back near Westerville, and they had only been raided and arrested once. Unlike the places he'd been able to find. And there were couples there, men who came with each other week after week. Boyfriends. Maybe even homosexual husbands. All the things he had expected to find in New York in larger quantities with more safety. All the things he wanted so desperately but couldn't find in what was meant to be the easiest place in the world to find them.

"Yes," he replied simply. New York was exactly as much of a disappointment for him as it was for her - maybe more. Though she hadn't lost the only relationship she'd ever had because of this damned place. If he hadn't pushed, maybe...Blaine might have-...

"You know...I'm sure if we started packing now, we could be out by the end of the month..." Rachel sounded as defeated by that possibility as he felt, but after a year and a half, it seemed like an attractive option. If they left then, they wouldn't have to pay another months' expensive rent, and in a few weeks they could be back in a place that, while it was far from perfect, at least felt warmer than this damned city. At least there were people there who might ask how he was doing and care about the answer - people other than Rachel, who could be relied on to ask but not necessarily to care about the answer except to give her own...and Mercedes, now that she had nothing to do and was around again instead of constantly being dragged from one effort to another with ultimately nothing to show of it. "If you call your dad-"

"Are you two crazy?" Mercedes interjected, staring at them.

"I'm sure he can take your things, too, Mercedes, even if it takes a second trip," Rachel offered. "The truck was completely full when we moved the first time, so I don't think it would all fit in the same load this time anyway, since we didn't have a couch yet, and there's the new television set."

"You're talking about going back to Ohio?"

"Well, if things here are the lie they seem to be, what choice do we have? We moved here to pursue dreams that can't exist anymore, not in a world where men can just use you for whatever they want and throw you away as soon as a prettier blonde girl comes along - not in a world where talent counts for absolutely nothing."

Mercedes turned to fix Kurt with her skeptical stare. "You're seriously considering this?" she asked, and he shifted under her gaze. What choice did he have? He'd come to New York to live a fabulous life, and, as was becoming increasingly clear, his life was never going to resemble anything like his fantasy. The city was cold and mean, and Lima sounded so warm...or at least home did. Home, with his dad and Carole, and...he would have a job waiting for him there. His dad wouldn't have to hire someone else to man the shop while Finn was in the Navy because he would be able to pick up the slack - he'd been changing tires for as long as he could remember, it seemed only logical. They wouldn't have to spend the extra money to pay some other person to help run the family business, and he would have - quite frankly - more prospects for career advancement at Hummel Tires and Lube than at Mainbocher. His housing would be cheaper - free, even - which would give him back the clothing budget he'd missed so badly, and he was certain the housework had been sorely neglected with Carole working so much these days. 

"Maybe it's the best thing for everyone," he replied quietly. "Between my dad and his shop, and how much he worries about me here...and face it, Rachel's right. The dreams we had aren't going to happen in this city any more than they'll happen in Lima, so why not move where the cost of living is lower? We could get a much better place to live at home than here if we really wanted to."

"Kurt, you've had a list of reasons you wanted to get out of Ohio from the time I've known you. Half of it's in crayon, but it's still true."

He knew the list she meant. He'd shown it to her after they'd been friends for probably only about two weeks. They were talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Mercedes said she was going to be a lady at church in a fancy hat who sang solos in the choir, and Kurt said he was going to be a famous person in New York because that was where Broadway was (Judy Garland had taught him what Broadway was, what with giving her regards and all). When she had asked if he would miss home, like her cousin did when he moved to Chicago, he shook his head, retrieved his list from its hiding place in the liner notes of Meet Me In St. Louis, and showed her. He still remembered some of them - mostly he just remembered writing it. Pulling it out whenever things at school were awful, whenever people spat at the two of them in the street, whenever he felt like he would be apart from everyone around him for his entire life. The list had grown substantially over the past decade and change, but he remembered the very last entry:

To prove him them wrong.

He wished he were. He wished he could, but so far everything he'd thought would be proven wrong had been proven right, and he felt like that had to invalidate at least part of the list. Plus so much of it was childish and dumb, things like more than one place to eat and the subway that he'd thought sounded exotic and futuristic until he'd actually ridden on it. 

But there were better things on there, too. Things like being able to go places with Mercedes and not be stared at. Like being able to find more than homespun cotton in fabric stores and seeing styles change from year to year instead of people who wore the same shirts and jeans until they wore out. The feeling of people rushing around, of going somewhere and doing something instead of the stagnation of Lima, the sense that everyone was just trapped in the small town and waiting for the next artificial milestone he would never have. Unless he wanted to measure his life in marriage and children and fishing trips, he was pretty sure Lima wasn't going to give him much in the way of satisfaction on that front.

Even if he wasn't anywhere near hitting any of the milestones he'd dreamed of...at least other people were hitting them. At least other people were striving for them. No one in Lima would understand why one of the things he wanted most out of life was to see one of his original designs on a person on the street, but people here could understand that...even if they were his direct competition. He dreamed of seeing a person he actually knew - namely Rachel - onstage in a Broadway show, belting her heart out, and of going to the record store to buy Mercedes' album, and even if those things weren't going to happen, at least those weren't laughable dreams here. People were working towards the same things they were, they engaged in the same flights of fancy. That was part of the problem, really: competition.

But she might have a point.

"I can call your dad and have him get the list and send it, if you want," Mercedes added with a pointed look. "Or he can read it over the phone if you really need an intervention."

"No," Kurt replied. "But thank you."

"This week was awful. But look at you two - you won't get off the couch! Yeah, Rachel, a guy used you. But do you know how many guys are in this city? I gave up my entire chance at having a record...but it was right. If they can't like me for who I am, I don't want them to have me. I lost out because I was too good, but that doesn't mean I'm sitting around here and sulking. Let's go out."

"Out where?" Kurt asked wearily.

"Anywhere with a piano and a microphone. I'm gonna sing my heart out tonight, and no one can stop me."

* * * * *

Even through the thick smoke that hung in the air, Kurt could see he didn't really belong here.

The bar was old - historic, the old man working coatcheck had boasted - and had a longstanding feel to it. It reminded Kurt of the Black Cat they used to go to that way; he could imagine decades' worth of teenagers going there and looking back on it fondly as they aged. Only here, at this well-named Hot House, everything was pushed back a decade or two as the mostly-thirty-something crowd milled between tables, chatting and laughing with friends over the jazzy saxophone onstage. It didn't feel like the bar where his coworkers congregated sometimes after work, where people seemed to be forever passing through, proving themselves to be the best one in the room, before moving on to somewhere else; nor was it like the bar he'd gone to before his second arrest, where people slunk in and out and tried to do whatever it was they were there to do as quickly as possible. The Hot House seemed lived-in, comfortable, unpretentious...and loud.

Mercedes had picked this place because she said there was meant to be an open mic night. Kurt wasn't sure yet; in Lima, any time people were allowed to get up and perform without prior audition, there were always at least a few who were awful, and the band onstage certainly sounded professional. Not that he knew much about jazz, except for the few Mr. Jones really liked, but it sounded good and the crowd didn't seem to disagree with him - and they definitely seemed to know a lot more about jazz than he did.

It was strange, he realized as he surveyed the room slowly. He had known Mercedes most of his life, and for a long time he had gone almost everywhere her family went - everywhere but church, really. If she wasn't at his house while his mom took care of things, then he was at her house listening to records and talking about clothes and rolling their eyes at John's bad jokes, and when errands needed run or they were going to the shopping center, he went with them. He had been stared at then, been asked what he was going with them, been harassed - not as badly as Mercedes had been for going around with him, but enough to have a taste of it and be able to anticipate when and where might be safe. But never in his life had he been with her in public and been the only white person in the room.

He knew it shouldn't have surprised him - the club was up in Harlem, she knew about it thanks to one of Regina's ex-boyfriends - but it was still offputting for a moment. "I stick out like a sore thumb," he whispered to her as he noticed the stares. He lifted his chin a little higher in an instinctive act of defiance, even as he felt questioning looks burning into him, and he suddenly wondered if this was such a good idea. Going out had never worked well for him in the past, and he didn't have reason to think it would be better now. He knew he probably wouldn't be arrested just for stepping outside his front door, but there were bans on serving alcohol to homosexuals, and he could see the bar from here. People were arrested all the time, according to the newspaper, and if-

"Okay, you've gotta relax," she told him. "If I could put up with years of Breadstix with your guys' glee club, you can handle one night." He opened his mouth to protest, and she looked at him the way her mom would - the expression clearly asked 'how dumb do you think I am? I know you, boy,' and he knew better than to try to explain himself. He'd given up on that somewhere around age 9. She smirked at her victory and led him over to the first two seats she saw together. "Is anyone sitting here?" she asked.

The younger-looking of the two gentlemen across the table fixed Kurt with a hard glare. "What's he doing here?"

"Ignore him," the other man instructed them. "He's been hearing too many stories about the Cotton Club lately down at the Temple."

Kurt didn't even know what that meant, but Mercedes either did or covered well because she replied simply, "He's not taking over anything, he's with me."

"And just who are you?" The question was more flirtatious than threatening, and Mercedes rolled her eyes a little. "I'm here to sing."

"You any good?"

She grinned, putting on just enough bravado to puff up the genuine pride as she replied, "Pretty good." It had been awhile since he'd seen her even a little confident - it reminded him of how she'd sounded when they still lived in Ohio and someone would ask about her future plans. She knew she was good. She knew she was better than good. And tonight, no one was going to be able to tell her otherwise.

He wondered if there were some kind of open mic equivalent for fashion. Maybe something like this was all he needed to get some of his confidence back, to start breaking down the ambivalence that had clouded over him since November. Probably not, he concluded glumly as he sat down, trying to ignore the younger guy's suspicious glare. Mercedes hadn't sunk as deep as he had, she'd been knocked down by the setback but scrambled up. She had other things going for her, she hadn't given up all hope. She'd only been down a few days, and he...

...He wasn't sure what it would take to recover from a year of hopelessness. 

But at least an evening out couldn't hurt. Besides, if there ever were such a thing as a place he could go and just make beautiful, interesting clothes for people to see, he would want Mercedes to come support him. Rachel, too, even though she had informed them both that she would be no good to either of them and decided to stay in and go to bed early instead. 

"You better get up there then," the older man encouraged with a jerk of his chin toward the stage and a sly grin. "Don't wanna miss your chance."

Mercedes regarded him a second, trying to size him up and see if he was trying to lead her astray, if that wasn't how this worked at all, but as the band finished their song and the crowd applauded, she decided it was worth trying. Guy had no reason to lie to her, it was how things usually worked back home, and she wanted to get started. She wanted to get up on that stage and just feel like herself again - to sing like herself again. She ascended the stairs with just a quick glance out of the corner of her eye to see Kurt still sitting there to cheer her on, then walked over to the bandleader.

"It okay if I jump in?" she asked, sounding more confident than she felt, and he nodded and gave her a prompting look. A thousand songs ran through her head, and she picked the first one that felt right. She hadn't gotten to sing it in a long time, and it wasn't a new song, but he hoped these guys might know it - it was jazzy, so they might... "I Don't Hurt Anymore? Dinah Washington?"

He grinned, impressed by her choice, and nodded again. "Sing it, little sister."

She only barely fought the urge to roll her eyes - she'd never understood the sister thing, not at school and certainly not now. For one thing, Kurt was more her brother than those random guys at the table. John was more into it than she was, but he got to call her his sister anyway. But the bandleader meant it affectionately and seemed encouraging enough, so she simply smiled and stepped forward to take her place at the microphone. It had been awhile since she'd sung anything by herself, without backup, and she glanced back first to see if the girls were ready before remembering it was just her.

It was all about her.

Her favourite kind of moment onstage.

She drew in a deep breath and sang the first note a cappella, in full voice, belting it out in a way she hadn't been allowed to belt in-...she couldn't even remember how long. Even before the meetings with people from the label and image consultants and studio people, Rocko had tried to tone down that part of her voice. He said no one would know what to do with it, that it would scare people.

As far as she could tell, it didn't scare people...but it did make them shut up and take notice of her.

Conversations stopped, trailed off, as she sang the first line - "I don't hurt anymore" - so that by the time the band came in to vamp behind her, the patrons were nearly silent, watching her, unable to not watch her. She sounded fantastic - she knew she did. She knew her voice well enough to be sure of it, and their reaction fed her confidence further as she belted out the first verse.

All my teardrops are dried

No more walking the floor

With that burning inside



The audience was digging it, swaying and bobbing in time to the blues riff the band played behind her, and the energy it gave her felt incredible. It had been years since she'd been able to do anything close to this; singing in church was important to her, and she loved doing it, but it wasn't about her, or even about her music. It was about praising something much bigger and more important than herself, and she was more like a vessel for it than anything. But this was about her, about her talent, about her voice, about them loving her. She hadn't felt that since the last competition she'd done at her first high school; she didn't get any solos once she was at McKinley, something about being accessible to the judges, and Mr. Schue was never good at spreading parts around when Rachel and Sandy protested it. But for a few minutes, when she was fifteen, she had ruled that auditorium with nothing but a microphone and her God-given abilities, and it had made her feel like she was flying.


This was better.


It was fewer people, but they understood what she was doing. It was a song she loved, unlike the solo had been, and it hadn't occurred to her back then just how different music was for different people. She knew she and Kurt had different tastes, but that was because she didn't like musicals as much as he did. Then John went off to college and started sending back albums, talking all about "our people" and "our music", and she...she never got it. Even when she went down south for school-...it wasn't until she stood on the stage in front of a bar full of patrons who knew Dinah Washington - who loved Dinah Washington - that she got what the fuss was about.


Just to think it could be

Time has opened the door

And at last I am free

No I don't hurt anymore



She let her voice soar above the music, fueled by the cheers whenever she did. Rocko would have said she was showing off too much, that she was sounding too big. Too soulful. Too much. He had all these euphemisms when what she thought he was really trying to say was...not like a white girl. Not like those wispy girlgroups made up of three or four girls who looked like Rachel in a blonde wig. They were trying to be popular, and Ella never got her due - neither did Dinah, or Billie, or anyone else she listened to. Not for how good they were, compared to other singers at the same time. And only one at a time could make it even that far. There couldn't be a group of girls who sounded like she sounded, not if they wanted to ever get a hit record.


But maybe that would change.


Her mom talked about listening to the radio when she was Mercedes' age and not being able to hear any black singers unless she turned on a different station. They could never have been on the big shows everyone listened to - and then they could, but they couldn't sound like they were. "They had to drain the soul out," she said. But Sam Cooke was popular and he had soul, singing mournful ballads about growing up with nothing but sounding nothing like the hillbilly campfire songs from the Depression. And everyone knew Ray Charles, and Chuck Berry... and ten years ago there were almost no women on the radio, but now they were all over the place - all those girls Kurt listened to? 


Maybe she would get her shot, just not yet.


She didn't like it, she didn't want to wait, to hang out around New York doing nothing until people could understand her voice well enough to know how great it was. But standing onstage in her bright pink dress, with no one telling her to be smaller or meeker or lighter or how to do her hair or to wear black so the lights could wash her out better?


She might be able to survive off of this until her day came. For one thing, she couldn't imagine that standing in a recording booth could ever feel half as good as this did - even if it didn't mean having a record she could find in a store or take home to her parents. 


No use to deny

I wanted to die

The day you said we were through

But now I find

You're out of my mind

And I can't believe that it's true



Kurt hadn't heard Mercedes sing like this in what seemed like forever. She'd been spending so much time and energy trying to make that ridiculous manager of hers happy, to fit into that group of girls she didn't even really like...and he'd been encouraging her. He'd been telling her to just lose more weight, to let them change her name, to wear whatever they told her and do her hair however they wanted...and for what? So she could give up this, her incredible voice, and make herself smaller to be able to blend in with girls who didn't have the same belting power? So she could be more like him - miserable, out of place, alone, and uncomfortable? So she could be as disillusioned with the city and with the world as he and Rachel both were now? 


No, he assured himself. It wasn't that he was trying to keep her miserable; he just didn't know there were other things out there. He had gotten so locked into his own ambitious, all-or-nothing head that he let himself think that the only way she could find happiness or success was by being as miserable as he was, by doing whatever it took. He'd let himself believe that was all there was; he wasn't trying to sabotage her, he was trying to help her see what could be out there if she did what people wanted. 


But it looked like she had found something much better.


I've forgotten somehow

How I cared so before

And it's wonderful now

That I don't hurt anymore



He hadn't sung in far too long - anything besides mournful ballads when everything felt like too much to handle without expressing himself - so he'd forgotten just how incredible the experience of singing in front of people could be. Music these days for him was...well, like fashion: a career path, made up of auditions and requirements and meetings and discussions about what people did or did not want to see or hear and making an innate form of expression into something technical and analytical. No wonder it didn't feel like it used to or do the job it needed to do for him anymore. 


But watching the way Mercedes had lit up, feeling the way the entire room was clearly into what she was singing, knowing all of them could see the amazing things he saw in Mercedes...it was so warm, so supportive, so energetic and downright jubilant. And she deserved every bit of it - after months of people not understanding her music, and years of people not understanding her, she deserved that kind of warmth. 


No use to deny

I wanted to die

The day you said we were through

But now I find

You're out of my mind

And I can't believe that it's true


Looking around the room at all the people cheering and clapping and dancing to the song, he couldn't help but remember the way the Commons had looked the first time he ever saw the Warblers perform. It was a similar enthusiasm, so different from the derision of all things musical he had known at McKinley, so refreshing in its excitement over the performance...

Of course, who wouldn't be excited to watch Blaine? His ex boyfriend had an undeniable stage presence, especially when he looked straight at him, singling him out of all those boys, fixing him with those beautiful golden-brown eyes...

But that wasn't why that moment had been great. Not really. In retrospect it seemed that way, maybe, but that wasn't the biggest part of it. Yes, Blaine had taken his breath away, but he hadn't known yet what that meant. What he'd known at the time was that, even as the only boy not in a uniform, it was the least out-of-place he had ever felt in his sixteen years. He'd known he wanted to talk to Blaine because there was something there. And he'd known that...maybe, if this group were at Dalton, he could...he didn't know yet. But he remembered his dad telling him that, with a group like that, he would fit in just fine...and he remembered believing it. He'd never had it before, he'd yet to find it since, but that little enclave of boys who listened to him and appreciated his voice...

He was glad Mercedes had found that now, too. Maybe there would even be a boy in here who couldn't take his eyes off her and would make something more of the performance. He just hoped, for her sake, that there wouldn't be a swift, terrified breakup at the end of it all. They wouldn't be able to tell at first, it would all seem so sweet, so conversational, and then...

...that was the thing, he realized very slowly. With him and Blaine. It hadn't started that way, it hadn't started as a relationship or as being homosexuals together, it had started as being homosexuals...together. Not as a couple, but as two people who didn't have anyone else in the world to talk to about any of it. He'd felt so much for Blaine the first time they met, but he hadn't put any of the reasons why together until later, and Blaine had known who he was but claimed time and time again that it was during "Over the Rainbow" when he first realized anything bigger might be there, and they'd talked before that. And between when they knew how they felt and when they - okay, he - had finally tried to act on it, there had been months of...of listening to Judy Garland records and having conversations - slow, hesitant, halting conversations about how each of them felt. Talking about how they knew and what it meant...and even if most of the time, he was the one to do the talking because Blaine was too afraid to utter the words or was terrified that someone might overhear, it was still the first time in his life he'd been able to talk about musicals with a boy. Or to have someone to read Vogue with every month. Or to ask how he knew and for how long.

That was what he needed so badly. Someone to talk to. Someone else who understood how he felt and-...and what it was like to be terrified to walk down the street now because every police car meant the potential for another night in jail. He couldn't talk to Rachel or Mercedes about things like that, they wouldn't understand. Mercedes had her own problems, and Rachel had...well, her own drama, at any rate...but they couldn't understand what it was like to be in this place that was supposed to have so much promise on a personal level (not just professional) and see it all go up in smoke. They didn't know about how much time he spent standing in front of his closet and counting his articles of clothing as he put them on, trying to prepare himself for the moment when beefy hands would steer him into removing them and counting them in reverse. No one he knew understood that or could possibly relate.

...Except maybe...

What he wanted desperately was a boyfriend - someone to share a loft with and a life with, someone to be his homosexual husband one day. But what he needed was a friend. A place like this, a community, and someone to go with him and chatter all the way home about how it felt. Someone to share things with instead of taking them in and pushing them further and further down in himself until the only way to let them out was to sob his way through wrenching ballads or risk suffocation under the weight of his own crushed dreams. 

The reason Mercedes was glowing up there onstage wasn't because of the potential for a man to call her own, it was because there was a bar filled with people who understood and appreciated her, who saw how incredible her voice was. 

I've forgotten somehow

How I cared so before

And it's wonderful now

That I don't hurt anymore


The applause and cheers in the bar were nearly deafening, but Kurt was the first one to leap to his feet and clapped the hardest and fastest.

* * * * *

Kurt drew in a deep breath as he stood in front of the office directory in the main lobby. He couldn't ask the secretaries - they would want to know why he was trying to find someone so high above him, and he didn't have a ready excuse he could work out in so little time. If he waited a couple weeks, he was sure he would be able to come up with a great legitimate reason to go up there, but not yet. 

And he needed it soon. If he didn't go soon, he would forget what it was he was looking for, he would forget what seeing Mercedes in a room full of people who could appreciate her felt like, and he would never get up the nerve again.

There were too many people with the same name, and he had to start narrowing it down based on general department and who was likely to work hours similar to his, who was on a high enough floor to be high enough in the chain but not so high as to be outside of the realm of possibility. That narrowed him down to two possibilities on opposite ends of the building. With a memo in hand that needed to be delivered to one of the junior designers so that he could maintain deniability of he went knocking on the door of the wrong gentleman - "I'm so sorry, I was looking for Needlemayer, is he not on this floor?" - he quickly jotted down both office numbers and set off through the building.

Maybe this was crazy. Maybe the man had given up on him and written him off when he didn't say yes right away. Maybe - more likely - it was all a trap anyway. He'd believed the first guy to come along even when he shouldn't have, and he had been arrested; what evidence in the world did he have that would indicate he would fare any better here? And when he went wherever this guy suggested and was arrested for a third time and had to leave the city in disgrace, he would only have himself to blame for being the fool who trusted too much. One of these days he would look back on his failures in life and know that this was the moment where he could have saved his career and his dignity but he didn't because Mercedes had a good night at a bar in Harlem he'd never heard of. This right here would be the moment...

...that he realized he was even more dramatic than Rachel.

He rolled his eyes at himself and continued down the hall, trying to remind himself of the feeling at the bar, of what it was like to be part of a group of 18 boys in a single (hideous) uniform, of what it might be like to talk about West Side Story in a tiny apartment instead of a tiny dorm room, of why this could-

He heard a familiar voice coming from down the hall, and his steps quickened as he doublechecked the number on the sheet in front of him. This was definitely the right place. He turned the corner into the office suite and realized only then that he didn't know what precisely to say. Here the man was, having a conversation with his secretary, and what was he supposed to say? "Please show me other homosexual places where I might not be arrested" seemed a little on-the-nose for a public conversation, and "How did you find your lover?" seemed too personal to ever be asked; "Is the offer still open?" would be far too vague, and "How are you?" would be even worse. But how should he-

Don looked over, and the familiar warm smile appeared. "Kurt. Good to see you. Do you need something?" he asked, the confusion appearing thankfully only in his eyes and not in his voice. His secretary tapped away at her work quickly, ignoring the conversation until or unless a buzzword she needed came up, and Don gave Kurt a concerned look.

He forced a jovial grin and held up the paper. "I need your signature on this, please - this will only take a minute?" He hoped Don would understand that he wanted to talk in private without saying something that might arouse suspicions, and he was in luck; the man nodded knowingly and started into his office. 

"Of course. Rose, remind me to make that call around 3:15 - until then, I'll be reviewing these sketches," he said, then beckoned Kurt to follow him. Once the door was closed behind him, he asked quietly, "Is everything okay?"

It wasn't, but it was. It wasn't but it might be? It might never have been in the first place? He didn't know how to answer the question with anything but the request for which he had come. "Take me to where the boys are?"

Chapter Text

This, Kurt concluded as he stepped out of the subway stop at 13th and Seventh Avenue, was probably the dumbest, most short-sighted thing he had ever done.

That wasn't as high a bar as it might be if he were someone else, but it was high enough: he'd mouthed back to bullies who threw malteds in his face; he had worn practically everything a teenage boy in Lima should never set foot outside his door wearing, he had; he had tried out for the title role in No No, Nanette when he was 12, a choice that had not endeared him at all to the local theatre group; and he had moved to New York with nothing but a best friend an impractical dream. But if there was one thing he would not be able to forgive himself for, it would be going to a restaurant he'd never heard of, in a part of town he'd never been to, based solely on the word of a man with the power to ruin his career forever with whom he'd spoken exactly three times. 

What kind of fool did that after being arrested twice already - once on the advice of a coworker who seemed trustworthy at the time, and once by following a scarf as one knew accessories were always trustworthy? Just how myopic could he be?

But what choice did he have?

As much as he knew he shouldn't believe Don, he knew he was going to go crazy if he didn't. If the extent of his communion with homosexuals had begun and ended with Blaine, he would lose his mind. There had to be more boys out there - there just had to be. And they had to be somewhere safe, because Don had met John somewhere and Man #16 had made a life for himself and there was meant to be an entire society of some kind in this city if he could ever figure out when or where they met. There were people, and they had to be somewhere other than a jail cell or passing in hushed whispers in the hall.

Even if there were just a few, Kurt concluded. Even a few might be worth it. More would be better, because he gathered from Mercedes that there was safety in numbers, but even just a few boys... 

His bar wasn't even that high. If the evening didn't end in arrest, he would consider it a victory. He wasn't holding out much hope of that, given previous experience, but if there were other boys and he didn't end up arrested or beaten up in a back alley somewhere, that might be enough to give him a little bit of hope and let him try again another night.

Maybe.

He wasn't sure why Don seemed like the sort of man to be believed, a sentiment that intensified as he tried to find his way along the narrow, dark streets. This wasn't anything like the Upper West Side and certainly nothing like Midtown, with its gleaming lights and throngs of people and cars at all hours of the day and night. Nothing was numbered, there were no intersections at right angles, blocks were completely different sizes...he hadn't realized just how much he had come to rely on the uptown grid to figure out precisely where he was going without one of those silly tourist maps. Who needed a map when the address clearly said the building was on 47th Street, which would be exactly three blocks from where the person was standing on 50th Street? But these names bore no resemblance to anything he could recognize or figure out - West 13th ran into Greenwich and became Horatio; he veered left and went two blocks (two?) before coming to West 12th, but at least it continued on both sides of Greenwich so he took it. He had gotten off on Seventh and needed to get to Sixth - or stop before it, really, that much Don had told him, as if that explained everything...but then West 4th intersected 12th and he gave up even trying to know where he might be.

Well, he thought mirthlessly as he stared down at the address again as though that might solve his problems, as if directions might magically appear in hidden ink under the dim light coming from the window of that Italian restaurant. At least whoever found their way to this place must be safe, because he doubted the police could find it, either. He chuckled to himself even though it wasn't funny.

Peering ahead, he thought he saw an 8 on the street sign at the end of the block only a few dozen yards away, and he walked over quickly - at least then he would know if he needed to turn around and go back the opposite direction, if this were Eighth Avenue -...it was, but only to the right; to the left, it turned into Abingdon Street, and Kurt wasn't sure what direction that meant he was going. He turned down it, hoping to find West 11th Street eventually, and wondering if maybe he should have included a further qualifier in his definition of success for the evening: not getting arrested but also not wandering aimlessly through a crazy part of town. Because at this rate-

"Hey there baby." A familiar voice cut through the conversation and street sounds around him, and Kurt finally looked at eye level instead of up at signs and down at the scrap of paper twisted in his hands. An oddly-shaped pseudo-park filled the space between two crossroads, fenced off with a name Kurt couldn't read at this distance. He could hear high voices coming from further in, but the one that had signaled him came from the thin boy in a red jacket with fur trim, posed in the pool of yellow light from the lamp post. "Long time."

Kurt could never figure out what precisely it was about Ricky that made him want to let his guard down, especially now; the first night, it had been a sort of awkward forced solidarity, the sense that they were both in an untenable situation together and the only ones who could truly understand each other in a cell full of men who looked ready to pounce. But the other times, the same feeling had washed over him unexpectedly, until he found himself standing less ramrod straight, letting his grip on the slip of paper loosen a little, a half-smile crossing his face. Looking across the intersection, he swore he could see Ricky do the same thing - relax a little, move from an overly exaggerated pose into something that reeked of more sass but less faux-fashion. But maybe he was just imagining things again, seeing things in people around him because he felt them in himself. He had certainly done that the last time he had gone out, and he probably had with Don, and maybe now with Ricky, too. "Very. Christmas."

"Yes, you poor dear," Ricky replied, waving him over with a quirked eyebrow that Kurt could relate to immediately. "Get over here, I don't bite unless you pay extra." Kurt was too busy dodging traffic across the intersection to wonder about what that meant, tucking the slip carefully into his pants pocket. "So no shoe hat tonight?" he asked, looking Kurt up and down. He had opted for a particularly tame ensemble tonight, in part because he wanted to fill the night with as little humiliation as possible. If he were arrested - which he still believed was likely to happen - then at least he might not have to suffer the indignity of being forced to count his articles of clothing as he stripped slowly. He wasn't donning some boring woven shirt - never. He was still going to express himself. And he was certain no one else would be wearing his beautiful wool jacket that he had found at a secondhand store - he was fairly certain it was from the 1920s, which meant it was more than time for the style to make a comeback, and he planned to lead the charge. But it was clearly not a coat intended for a woman, there were far too many manly details - from the military inspiration, to the length, to the fabric - which would help him play it safer. Not too safe, at least not when paired with the bowtie he had made from scraps of camouflage fabric...but safe enough. 

"It's at the cobbler's," Kurt replied without missing a beat, then laughed awkwardly as Ricky gave him a look that seemed to ask how dumb he was, but in a less-hostile way than most. There was almost a fondness to it, but at the same time...not quite. Enough distance to keep them from enjoying the same long suffering back-and-forth he and Rachel had, but the sense that they could have that someday. If they saw each other not just in passing under street lamps, inverts of twilight. 

"Don't bring it around here," he warned with a knowing look. "Bitches will snatch it off your head and you'll never see it again. Vicious queens, all of them. I lost my best shirt that way." Ricky shrugged, a move that started with his shoulders moving one direction and his neck moving the other and worked its way down and up his body. Kurt had never seen anyone shrug in such a way that his hips and eyebrows both joined in the motion before. "You hungry, baby? It's been a good week if you need-" The bushes rustled down the path leading from the park and instantly Ricky stiffened. He stood up straighter until he was only an inch or two shorter than Kurt, shoulders held back as though trying to effeminately puff out his scrawny chest, then thrust his hip out to the side and planted one hand firmly on it. In reality it wasn't so different a position, but the change in body language and tension was startling, and Kurt looked quickly to see who might be coming, wondering just how far into the Village he could run before he would be so lost that he would run back into the police officers who were after them. He was surprised - and confused - to see a tall, scrawny boy wearing what looked like an old curtain as a dress, cinched at the waist by a belt, strutting down the path in beat-up black heels. The boy wore makeup, exaggerated dark and light stripes crudely drawn on his cheeks as though he'd dug his fingers into two different colours of blush and dragged them across his face, with lipstick and eyeshadow that were both too pink against his skin. Hardened eyes glared out from beneath the rose-tinted lids as he leaned against the fence a few feet away in an imitation of a starlet's seductive pose. "Don't even think about it, Mamas'," Ricky stated in a cool tone. "Keep walking."

"Even if I'm not here, no one's gonna want you," the boy snapped back, glowering at Ricky with such intensity that Kurt felt like there would be a brawl if someone didn't intervene. The look was one of pure challenge and anger, territorial, like what Finn's friends would look like because someone said something about one of the other guys' girlfriends, right before someone threw a punch. But instead the second boy leaned in a little, look flaring even more intensely for a moment, before spinning on his heel so hard Kurt worried he might break his ankle in those shoes and flouncing down the sidewalk a few feet - but only a few. He turned back to look at the two of them with a contrary look that wordlessly proclaimed, "You can't tell me what to do, I'm moving because I want to but you're not gonna make me go further." 

Ricky rolled his eyes and turned back to Kurt, posture slowly deflating. "So how'd you finally find us?"

Kurt tried to find words, not sure how to process what he had just seen enough to comment on it or ask what in the world had just happened. He wanted to ask who in the world 'us' consisted of - just the two boys he'd just seen nearly come to blows over three feet of dimly-lit sidewalk, or the others he could hear chatting and laughing inside the small triangular park? The idea made him curious but even more uneasy. He wanted other people like himself, but he had fought his entire life and relished the idea of being able to give that up. He didn't fancy himself particularly territorial, willing to glare that intensely over a bit of fence to lean on, and he wasn't one for makeup - which even Ricky seemed to be wearing, on closer inspection. Not much, and far more skillfully applied, just a little bit around the eyes to highlight them and draw attention there. What was more, it didn't seem like the kind of place that would ever be safe - and considering he'd seen Ricky arrested the second time he was, and it didn't look like it had been sheer coincidence that they were each arrested for the second time on the same night. The boy had seemed like a bit of a pro at it by the time they saw one another again, and if this was where he was hanging out?

He hadn't meant to find this place, and he wasn't sure if it was anything like where Don and John were leading him. Or if that place was a trap, if maybe here was a better alternative. At least he knew it existed and the police hadn't shown up yet - not that that was much security at all.

"Well, once 4th crosses 12th I just gave up on finding what I was really here for, and here you are," he offered with a forced fake smile. Every second he thought about staying, about not trading in what he'd found - and the familiar face it led him to - for the unknown, but it didn't feel any better than Central Park. Less copulation but more tension, nothing friendly or inviting but whatever spark of something Ricky seemed to have...and even then only with him...

"You're an uptown kind of boy," Ricky surmised with a good-natured teasing smile. "I was, too, but it's better down here. More boys willing to come out in the darkness, far away from their bosses and wives and coworkers."

"A-actually I'm meeting one of mine," Kurt stated. He needed to get out of here, stop the growing need to look over his shoulder every few seconds. His actual destination might not be any better, but either way - his apartment felt safer than a street corner like this. "A coworker, not a wife," he added with a nervous chuckle.

"I didn't figure - what girl would think she could date you?" he shot back with a smug look up and down Kurt. "You're one of us. Be careful: coworkers are dangerous. I knew a girl who lost it all that way - twice. Dumb Mary didn't learn her lesson the first time." He rolled his eyes and gave Kurt a concerned look that felt equal parts real and fake. He wondered if anyone else's concerned look was have any realness at all - he doubted it.

"I know," Kurt replied, swallowing hard and trying not to take Ricky's lesson to heart. What kind of fool believed a coworker twice when the first one went so badly? But whatever quality it was that made him want to stay her and keep talking despite the ever-present danger of law enforcement, made him feel like there was something he could rely on with Don. He just hoped he wasn't as foolish as Mary - whoever she was. Probably a girl like Rachel who meant well but didn't know any better. "How do I get to Greenwich from here?" he asked.

"Which Greenwich?"

Kurt blinked at him. "Certainly not in Connecticut."

"Street or Avenue, baby?" Kurt had no idea there were two, let alone which one he needed, and he thrust his hand into his pocket to grab the address. "Where are you trying to go?"

"Some place called Mama's-"

Ricky's face lit up. "Oh, you'll like it. It's a nice place. She's a little..." he waggled his hand like he couldn't think of what word could adequately capture the person he was trying to describe, but added, "but much nicer than that fucking ice cream shop. They don't rip you off - or chase you out, like at Howard Johnson's sometimes."

It was a real place. And it was nice, not like that bar that apparently everyone but he knew was a dump. Kurt felt like he couldn't breathe, relief flooding over him, and he grinned. But it was shortlived as he realized there was a much more important question. "Are the police...?"

Ricky shook his head. "Paid in full." He didn't know what that meant, head spinning, but he managed to listen to Ricky's directions - Bleeker to Charles which would take him right there, Ricky swore - and nodded dumbly as he thought about it.

A nice place. And there were other places, too, that weren't so nice, but it was more places than Kurt had known existed and that cemented it: he didn't have to settle for skulking by parks. He was going to go meet Don and John at this Mama's place. 

Assuming he ever found his way there.

* * * * *

Twenty minutes and a double-back to correct from a missed turn later, Kurt was ready to walk around with a horrible tourist map from now until the end of time if he could just find what he was looking for. If he could have found an open convenience store, he would have stopped in to get one - because they all sold them - but it was nearly midnight already and the only lights he could see came from the fronts of smoky restaurants and behind a few boarded-up windows in bars that looked as seedy and dilapidated as the place he had gone before his second arrest Just when he was sure he would never find his way out again - and that it would be no great loss because the place he was going probably had boards on its windows, too, even if Ricky did say it was nice because the boy was hanging around a park with a terrifying assortment of unsavoury characters, after all, so what did he even know anyway? - he came to a much busier, brighter intersection than the ones he'd been crossing. He looked up for a street sign and instead saw fogged-over windows, lit brightly from within. He couldn't make out much of anything inside, but it certainly seemed like life in the midst of a cold, dark, dank streets. He caught sight of the sign over the equally-fogged door: Mama's Chik n Rib.

Well. He had found it, at any rate. And it certainly looked nothing like the bar he'd been to. Maybe Ricky was right, maybe it really was nice.

Doing his best to keep expectations low, he stepped up to the door and pulled it open. He could hear the familiar beginning of the Ronettes' song - that one Mercedes rolled her eyes at, something about how the girls pretended to have sass but sounded just as thin and fragile as all the rest of them. A blast of hot air hit him, then a blast of cool, and he shivered as he tugged off his gloves but left his jacket in place. At least now he knew how they kept the windows fogged like that, he thought to himself with a roll of his eyes as he looked around.

Men. There were men everywhere. At tables and booths, at the counter, leaning against tables to talk to friends - friends! there were people here who clearly were friends and all of them were men and there was no indication that any of them were any less homosexual than he was. Some were more masculine, were more like Don or Blaine, and a few even reminded him of Ethel, with his beard and stocky frame, but some seemed just as inverted as he was. At a table in the corner, a group of three boys were bopping from side to side, tilting their heads to and fro with an affected flirtatious quality, mouthing along to the song and teasing each other. Everyone was talking and laughing, and then-

He had seen men together before, had watched them paw at one another through the darkness at the Ramble, had seen them flirt and dance and touch one another at the bar, but the sight of one man leaning over to kiss another made him freeze. It was so casual; the two were sitting at a table by themselves, hands touching occasionally as they drank coffee, and one of them said something that made the other roll his eyes with a look of complete adoration, nothing but fondness for the other man and all his quirks and bad jokes, and then he just leaned across the table and kissed him. Right there, in front of everyone...and it was as though no one noticed but him. It was a short kiss, just a chaste peck really, nothing remotely sexual or even all that romantic, but it was so free, and the single most beautiful thing Kurt had ever seen...until a second later when the first man gently squeezed the second man's hand as they both settled back in their seats and they shared the most incredible look. Even if this was the only place they had to be themselves, even if everyone else thought they were sick, they knew what they meant to one another, what they shared.

"Kurt!" The sound of his name pulled him from his trance, and by the time he blinked and looked again, the men were back to just talking to one another, but the intimacy of their shared gaze remained. He looked toward the source of the sound and saw John bounding over to him. "I knew you'd come. Don thought you might still be scared, but I knew." He threw an arm around Kurt's shoulders and led him to a small booth. "Look who I found," he proclaimed to Don, who smiled so genuinely it made something in Kurt swell - Don was happy to see him. So was John, apparently, though his effusiveness was confusing and a bit much for Kurt. He didn't remember Don's lover being quite this outgoing the only other time they had met...but in fairness, that had been at work, where a certain amount of decorum was expected.

Don's lover. He wondered if thinking that would ever feel less magical. He knew he had set out to find just friends, but suddenly more than that was seeming like a possibility again, if not his raison d'etre. It wasn't what he needed, but it might be nice - and he might be able to find one.

"Someone needs to renumber the streets around here," he stated, and Don laughed heartily.

"You've never been down here?"

"No. I stay where 84th doesn't cross 92nd."

"Just wait until you see where Waverly crosses itself," John teased, slipping into the booth beside him. "That really messes with you. Oh, hang on - Charlie!" John hopped out of the booth again, going over to greet a friend excitedly.

Don chuckled softly to himself. "He's a little much when we come sometimes - like a puppy when you first let them out after they've been cooped up all day," he said, but there was the same fondness on his face that Kurt had seen before. If John seemed more effusive and jubilant here, Don seemed relaxed, content to sit back and watch everything else going on around him. Kurt could understand why: it felt safe here. Comfortable. If he weren't so giddy, he might be relaxed too. But the sight of men everywhere, talking and laughing and just being together...he felt like he couldn't stop smiling.

He had known a place like this had to exist. He had pinned his hopes and dreams on it, after all - he had known that somewhere, in some city, in some building tucked in some neighbourhood, there needed to be a place like this. He had defended that to anyone who would listen, even - or perhaps especially - when the person was trying to tell him there would never be anywhere with that kind of freedom. But after a year of not finding anyone and another six months of finding nothing but rough, lewd contact between two men with primal urgency and no love or romance...and being arrested every time he so much as thought about finding a boy who might look at him like that...his confidence in his dream had faltered. But now, surrounded by men who nudged friends affectionately and looked at boyfriends and lovers and perhaps even homosexual husbands with sweetness and love, seeing boys and men interact with each other with openness and fondness for one another...

He had likened it to Dalton last week, when he went with Mercedes. Even as wonderfully supportive as those boys had been, they could never compare to this. Ever.

He just wished he could show it to the person who needed to see it the most. 

"Are you hungry?" Don asked, waving a waiter over even before Kurt could reply. " My treat."

Kurt realized a menu had been sitting in front of him and he hadn't even bothered to look at it. He scanned it quickly and picked the first thing that sounded good, even though he wasn't all that interested in food; he was far more interested in watching the people around him. "Turkey sandwich and Coke please."

"You've got it," replied the waiter, a short boy who looked about Kurt's age who spoke with a high lilting voice. "John eating too?" he asked Don as he jotted down the order.

"Bring him a coffee, he'll come in for a landing at some point," Don replied, and the waiter laughed knowingly.

"As if he needs caffeine. For you, too?"

"Can I get a slice of that chocolate cake up on the counter?"

"Coming right up." The waiter nodded and flashed a hurried smile as he took the menus and strutted off toward the kitchen. Kurt had never seen a man walk quite like that before - it as more exaggerated than his on stride, and he'd gotten teased enough for it as a teenager. He bet Ricky walked about like that, remembering the way he talked proudly about his hips that night at the jail and everything. That book he'd found way back when, linking inversion to homosexuality...well, it might not have been all wrong, even if its assessment of the relative sickness was clearly wrong.

Clearly.

Because staring at all these men who looked so normal...a lot of them didn't look like anyone else Kurt had ever known, but they looked like any other man...and yet every few seconds, a voice in the back of his head would point out They're all like you! and he would feel giddiness surge through him again, because this was-

"I'm glad you came," Don stated, interrupting Kurt's thoughts, and he looked at his superior.

"So am I," he replied sincerely, then admitted, "I almost didn't. The last thing I need is another night in jail."

Don smiled sympathetically. "Especially after the newspaper... It's bad enough when it's just the officers taunting you all night, but when everyone stares at you with that smug look, like you're laid bare and they think you're the most vile thing they've ever seen..."

He had been trying to figure out if and how to talk about it since it happened. He knew he should just put it behind him because there was nothing he could do about it and thinking about it made him feel sick to his stomach, but there were times it would just come bubbling up - the anger, the hurt, the humiliation - and he couldn't say anything. Not only did he not know how, but who would he tell - Mercedes, who would tell him he shouldn't have been doing it in the first place? Rachel, who would somehow make the entire thing about herself even though she'd never been so much as questioned by a police officer, let alone arrested, let alone had it splashed all over the crime pages in black and white for everyone in the city to see. Would either of them even want to listen to the story? And even if they did...could either of them possibly understand what it was like, what he felt?

Don did. It was all over his face, and his words rang true. Don knew the look. He understood. He had been through it himself, after all.

"I never thought..." he began, but he realized as he got to the end of the three words that it encompassed so many things and he wasn't sure where to start. With the fact that he was sitting here with someone to talk to? That things would get as bad as they had been? That they would get better?

"I've gotta ask," Don said with a shake of his head as their food arrived. "Why in the world did you go there? The only way anyone knows that place is from news stories about raids, it's not somewhere anyone would be caught dead in unless they didn't know better. How did you even find that hole in the wall?"

"Because I can't help myself," Kurt mumbled, poking dejectedly at a fry. If he'd listened to his instincts, he would never have gone there. He would never have believed his jerk of a boss and could have just come somewhere like here instead. If only he'd known this place existed. ...Of course, without the bar, he wouldn't have found Don so he couldn't have found this place because there was no way he would have accidentally hopped the train down into a part of town he'd never been to in his 18 months in the City, so he supposed some good had come of it. Maybe. He sighed and began, "Stu told me about it. He suggested I go, so I wouldn't be so lonely and distracted - and he was right, I was. It's the reason I cut the thing wrong in the first place to earn three months of tulle hell, so-"

"Wait, back up. The reason you what?"

"The day after the first time I was arrested, I was exhausted and couldn't stop thinking about it. Next thing I knew, I had cut the wrong collar - and I was going to fix it," he stated, taking a long swig of his Coke. "There was plenty of silk left, so I left it on my table to do in the morning. I came in and it was already gone."

"Grey silk?" Don asked slowly, eyes wide, head tilted. "Dress and a jacket?" Kurt nodded. Of course Don knew what garment it was - he was high enough to see most things in the label, Kurt assumed, but he hadn't realized word of his careless mistake had traveled all the way up the company ladder. Great; now he really would be cutting ugly fabrics for the rest of his life. Of course he couldn't catch a break when it came to his career - but personally was enough, he told himself firmly, making it a point to let his eyes sweep over the room again. This was more than he had ever imagined a few hours ago, and it was certainly enough to make New York feel less. At the moment it made the city feel wonderful again, magical, full of possibilities - even if he was going to spend his entire career cutting unattractive silks and brocades for hideous dresses.

Then Don started laughing. Laughing, shaking his head, grinning like he just couldn't stop because it was too much - too funny, too uproariously hilarious to give Kurt a break, and he wondered if it was everyone in fashion who had a bit of a cruel streak to them, or just everyone in New York. "I was going too quickly, I hadn't slept, It was a careless mistake, do you really have to-" he began tersely, but Don shook his head more deliberately and reached out to place his hand over Kurt's forearm.

"You humiliated him."

"Yeah, he made that part clear."

"No, you don't understand," Don laughed, and Kurt rolled his eyes and wished that if there were a point, the guy would hurry up and make it so they could move on from a discussion of the lone error he'd made in his time doing absolutely menial tasks. "He tried to throw you under the bus for it, but everyone in the room loved the change."

Kurt stared at him as the music changed, trying to figure out exactly what that meant - where to start. They loved the new collar? Stu had tried to roll over on him - that was no surprise. But they loved it? They had seen the same thing he did, which was that the collar the jacket had was hideous and the incorrect scale and boring and so, so wrong, and they had liked his attempt to modernize it? They...they agreed with his design choice? "Really?"

"Oh yeah," Don nodded enthusiastically. "It went straight from cutting to sewing, who assumed the design had been changed and a new sketch just hadn't been done. By the time anyone saw it, there was an oversized turndown collar. We tried to figure out who had changed it, and in front of everyone Stu basically said he'd never seen such a horrible mistake and would make sure the one responsible for it was fired. My boss looked him in the eye and said 'Are you kidding? It's great - we're using it.' It's in four more looks this season"

Kurt didn't understand. That didn't make any sense. He had cut the wrong one, not what the people who were paid to design the suit wanted. But he had cut several more - deliberately, per instructions - in the past few weeks. And he had always thought it would look better. And if he was the reason Stu was dressed down by his bosses, then that-...that would lead to punishment, wouldn't it? Because Stu was insecure and obnoxious and had never liked him anyway, so that- "It is?" he asked, unable to keep the surprise and pride out of his voice. His collar was going to be seen by people. He had done it better than people above him in the foodchain...and his jerk of a boss had been yelled at because of it...and he had inspired the people above him to use his idea in more outfits. He had-

He knew it was silly to be so excited, he knew that of course he knew what he as doing. His ability to spot trends in fashion was one of his gifts, he knew that. It had just been so long, and he had started to think...

"You seem surprised." Don's expression was unreadable, a smile playing at his lips but concern in his eyes, and Kurt tried to sort through his pride and relief and confusion enough to come up with something to say - anything, really. He wasn't even aiming for something especially witty or impressive; the ability to express himself at all would be a plus after the evening he'd had, how dizzy and euphoric and amazed he felt.

Because it had been so long since he'd had anything good happen, and it was almost too much all at once like this.

"I...had my doubts," he explained very quietly, staring at his turkey sandwich because he wasn't sure he could explain why it came as such a shock without letting all his frustrations pour out, and he didn't want to let Don stare at him so bare like that - not yet. Even though there was a relaxed understanding radiating from the older man, Kurt had never been much good at confiding in people. "All I do is cut tulle all day, and that's not exactly what I dreamed of when I pictured living in New York. I thought I would have so many things, that I could come here and life would start, and then...when a year and a half went by and nothing happened, I thought maybe..." 

"Kurt." When he didn't look up, Don added, "Look at me a second." Kurt reluctantly raised his gaze, not proud of how small and weak he knew he must look right now to someone he wanted to think highly of him. Don looked him directly in the eye and told him, "You're doing fine. You're way ahead of where I was when I was your age. I know it feels like everything should be set already - I remember when I moved here, I thought everyone must have lied to me because I spent my first five years sewing beads onto evening gowns. My fingers have only just recovered. I was dating some girl even though I knew who I was, I thought nothing would ever change because the longer it went on... but it did. It's slower than you want - I know. Especially when the city moves so fast and it feels like everyone else is rushing by on their way to something important, and you're stuck cutting out dress pieces." Kurt managed a very faint smile. "But you'll get there. You're on the right path, and you have the eye - I can tell. I see the way you dress, the way you put things together...you'll be a designer, and a damn good one. Just pay your dues a little longer. I promise you, you're going to have all the things you want."

For the first time in a long while, Kurt didn't feel stupid for believing something like that.

* * * * *

He shouldn't have been surprised he got lost on the way home. Don had tried to give him directions - he swore it was right up Greenwich and it would be impossible for Kurt to get turned around, but a few odd five-point intersections later he found himself wandering down 12th again. At least he knew where he was - sort of - or had been there before, at any rate. In truth, he wasn't sure he would even mind just milling down the dimly-lit streets all night, floating from restaurant to restaurant on the sound of people enjoying themselves while he was unable to stop smiling. It was taking intense self-control to not twirl around the street lamps like Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain.

He couldn't remember smiling so much in his life. Everything hurt - his cheeks, his chest, his feet because these shoes weren't the best for traipsing through the unfamiliar neighbourhood - but he didn't care. He was pretty sure he had never felt this good, this hopeful in his entire life. Everything Don said, every conversation he and John cycled through with ease and the kind of teasing affection that showed they'd been together long enough to really know each other, every friend of theirs who stopped by the table - and there were a lot of them. John seemed to know everyone who set foot in Mama's, and everyone came over to say hello to him and Don, and it was like a big homosexual Breadstix reunion, like when they would go out for dinner on a Friday and everyone stopped by to say hello to Finn or Puck or one of the Cheerios...but here there were men embracing and even a few dancing between the tables, all behind the safety of fogged-over windows. He had left only reluctantly as he realized it was midnight and he would be absolutely exhausted the next morning at work but was already planning his next trip. There were so many wardrobe options to consider - everyone had loved his jacket, especially Don. He had gotten actual compliments on his clothes instead of odd, put-off stares or suspicious glances as though he were trying to trick someone with his intricate garments. 

It was perfection. If a night were capable of being flawless, this was it.

He couldn't help but laugh to himself as he passed 4th again - if confusing street names were the price he had to pay for this kind of Wonderland, he would endure it. He might have to get a map, but he was sure he would learn his way quickly enough if he came every night the way he planned on. Hell, he wouldn't even mind an extra-confusing Cheshire Cat sitting on the corner at this point, considering what an amazing mad tea party John would throw if given half a chance.

The street dead-ended into the park, and he found himself instinctively looking for Ricky, to thank him for the directions but really to gush about how incredible his evening had been. To talk about the fantastic people and wonderful conversations and the two men who just sat at a little round table and drank coffee and held hands right there in public with no one giving them a second glance. To invite Ricky to go with him next time, because he could only imagine how much John would have fun with him - boundless energy and sassy strutting from table to table. To see how Ricky's night had gone, because he didn't understand the appeal of the tiny park but maybe he was just missing something and...really he just wanted to talk to someone. The floodgates had opened on his emotions, and he found himself wanting to talk about everything he felt - good and bad, really, though tonight it was all good. He hopped onto the base of the streetlamp, holding on and gazing across the intersection into the park, too giddy to care how foolish he looked-

...and he stopped.

The slight figure curled up on the bench seemed too fragile to be his friend, but at the same time Kurt knew for certain he recognized the red jacket pulled tightly around the boy. His head was propped up on a seabag, hair tossled and falling over the green canvas. In this angle, the glow of the light over the bench made the jut of Ricky's cheekbones look almost dangerous, and Kurt found himself hoping he just hadn't noticed the boy's makeup before. 

Why was he still here? Why wasn't he-...did he not have anywhere else to go?

Good mood dashed, he hopped to the ground and made his way quickly across the street with fear and determination. Maybe there was a perfectly logical explanation for this. Maybe he was waiting for a bus across town or something, or on his way to somewhere else, or...waiting for someone to pick him up, or...

Because it couldn't be that Ricky was sleeping here all night. Could it?

He had to do something.

He wasn't sure if he and Ricky were friends yet, really - they'd only spoken twice, and usually about the most superficial things, and while he didn't have much experience in friendship with boys he was pretty sure it required more than that. It had certainly required more than that with Rachel before he was friends with her - she and Mercedes both, he'd known them forever. But the idea of going home and doing nothing made him queasy. It was freezing out, and clearly no one else was helping.

There was something deeper, though. This was New York, he passed a dozen homeless people a day, and none of them made him ache like this. None of them made him want to take him in and make him dinner and get him a job at Mama's because surely they would have to do something to help, too, wouldn't they? They had to; they had to help each other. 

He wouldn't have found any of this if it weren't for Don. Don and John had gone out of their way to make sure he knew there were places out here, and if it weren't for them he would never have had the kind of night that made him feel like there was a future out there. And he wouldn't have even made it to that point if it weren't for Ethel stepping in - he wouldn't even be alive, he was sure of it, and neither would Ricky. Those men would have torn the two of them limb from limb and pointed and laughed as the queers died on the floor of that disgusting jail cell, but Ethel stood watch over them all night and kept them safe. Those acts of kindness were the only reasons he was still here or had any reason to believe there was some chance of his dreams coming true. They tried to help, they...they gave him understanding and compassion when no one else would - or could even if they wanted to.

No one else was going to look out for them. If they didn't take care of one another, who would?

And even if he didn't understand it, he was connected to Ricky. There was something about him that made him want to open up and let his guard down, and it was clearly mutual. He couldn't just go home and do nothing.

He stood over the bench and reached out to awkwardly touch the boy's shoulder. "Ricky?" 

He started awake, sitting bolt upright with a flustered, frantic expression - the picture of fight-or-flight. Looking around quickly, he blinked, and as his gaze fell on Kurt he tried to pull himself together as seamlessly as possible, to pretend Kurt hadn't found him asleep on a park bench in the cold. He crossed his legs at the knee and looked up at him with a put-on attitude. "Did you ever find your way to Mama's, or did you just keep walking in circles the last couple hours?" Kurt gave him a look as he sat down beside him, because who did the boy think he was fooling?

Maybe if they sat and talked awhile it would help. Maybe he could help Ricky swallow his pride and come with him - or at least find out what was wrong so he could help. He sat on the bench, crossing his legs as he replied, "I had a great night. How was yours?"

"Slow," Ricky replied with an exaggerated yawn. "No one interesting, I thought I'd just take a nap while I waited for the night to really start." Kurt arched an eyebrow skeptically, but Ricky didn't back down.

* * * * * *

Kurt woke up the next morning with a boy in his bed.

Chapter Text

Rachel had seen her share of better weeks.

It wasn't just about losing the role, it wasn't even about the completely insulting offer the man had given her. It was about everything. It was about all the other girls getting her roles and all the auditions she was leaving empty-handed. What was the point of any of it if her talent wasn't going to count for anything? If the line between stardom and obscurity had nothing to do with superior acting skills or a fantastic voice or the ability to cry on cue, but was left in the hands of some casting director thinking she was worth sleepingwith? What was the point of any of it?

She could be a little dramatic, she knew. She liked to think it was one of her finer qualities, even though Kurt tended to roll his eyes when she pointed that out. But it just seemed so painfully arbitrary, like everything she'd been working toward was a lie. She thought that being the best was good enough, but apparently it didn't matter. Not if she wanted to be a star.

It didn't help that everyone else's moods had mysteriously picked up around her lately. Mercedes should have been even further in the dumps than she was, after throwing away her very promising career like that, but she had gone out to some bar and come back as happy as ever - maybe more. Rachel wasn't sure she'd ever seen the girl smile so much...though that could have been because Mercedes didn't like her very much. She didn't understand why, she was a perfectly courteous makeshift roommate and an excellent friend as Kurt could attest, but Mercedes always seemed one eyeroll away from snapping at her. In either event, her mood had been much better since that night - and even Kurt, who had been down in the dumps practically all year, had come back that night with a newfound sense of determination and an optimistic look in his eye. And Kurt had definitely never been a bright and happy person, not even when he was little. A few moments here and there, maybe, and most of their first year in New York, but then he had just sort of withdrawn and started looking...awful. But now he was eating again, he had cooked dinner a few nights ago for all three of them and actually seemed to enjoy himself a little bit, and the music had taken a frustratingly cheery turn in the apartment.

She couldn't believe she was actually longing for the days of nonstop wrenching ballads. Not that she didn't enjoy singing them, but that after a few hours they had a tendency to suck the light out of even the brightest room. 

But now...now that her entire career path was a lie and her future was one big mystery...now she understood why Kurt had given her a dirty look every time she had asked if they could turn on the radio instead of listening to such sad music. Now she wanted to curl inside those albums and live there because they were the only thing that could adequately express the depths of her disappointment and loss.

Until one morning when she awoke with a sudden and profound sense that maybe all was not lost. 

The lightness was strange after a solid, neverending week of darkness, but as she laid in bed and listened to pigeons cooing outside her window, she was struck by the knowledge that those directors were not the only ones out there. After all, there were plenty of genuinely talented stars in the business, and they must have made it on their talent. She highly doubted that Julie Andrews was sleeping with her directors to get the parts she got, and even as much as she resented Mary Martin for having the career she wanted right now she was fairly certain the star wasn't the type to fall prey to that, either. She knew her talent was beyond compare, she just needed to find the right person to not only recognize how good she was, but to use her talent effectively rather than looking at her like a potential conquest.

Maybe Kurt was right that Cal had just been using her, or maybe it was like she thought - that he really did love her and her talent, even if he could only recognize one because of the other - but in either case, maybe it didn't matter. There had to be hundreds of directors and casting directors in this town, and surely at least one of them would be able to see what she did.

She just needed to put herself back out there.

She smiled as she threw off the covers. Was that so hard? she thought to herself proudly. She didn't understand why it had taken Kurt six months to get over his existential crisis when hers had lasted only a week. Maybe she should have given him more advice on how to feel better about whatever it was that was bothering him. In either case, he seemed better now - but she would keep it in mind in case there was a backslide.

She needed to find another audition to go to, she concluded with determination as she stepped into her slippers and tightened the bands on her braids. She couldn't call her agent until 9, but that was no excuse to loaf around until then. A nutritious, hearty breakfast sounded like just the thing, plus catching up on the housework that had fallen by the wayside during her dark time. It sounded like Kurt was up and moving around in his room already - probably picking out his clothes for the day, that usually took quite awhile - but he would appreciate the effort. And Mercedes might, too, she concluded.

Things were always so strained between the two of them, and she could never figure out precisely why. She knew neither of them were as close to as each other as they each were to Kurt, but sometimes it seemed like Mercedes just came after her for no earthly reason. Of course, it had been much worse last time than now. Ever since Mercedes had given up her big chance at stardom and come crawling back to their tiny abode, she hadn't been nearly as confrontational. She knew there was something about girls fighting at the home she'd lived in last, and Rachel suspected that might have caused the aversion to nit-picking fights with one's roommates. 

Also she seemed...happier. Quiet, but comfortable. Rachel wasn't sure how in the world that could be the case - she didn't even have a record deal anymore - but she thought the change seemed like a good thing anyway.

With a bright smile and humming quietly under her breath - it had been nearly a week since she had properly worked on her vocal technique, and if she was going to call her agent in a few hours to ask for auditions, she needed to be back in practice. After all, what if he said he had an audition she could go on today? She couldn't very well say no just because her own crisis had meant slacking off for a few days - she made a pot of coffee and began to make her famous French Toast. Well, it wasn't famous yet, but when she was famous herself it would be. She could see it already, magazine spreads about her elegant life at home. The reporter would take gorgeous photographs of her lounging on chaises and sitting at a piano - even though she didn't play - and style her in furs and robes that were meant to make her look casual but glamourous all at the same time. Maybe even a turban like Gloria Swanson's in Sunset Boulevard. She could be a young, pre-fame Norma Desmond, couldn't she? But her star wouldn't die because she wouldn't be stuck in a dying art form like the silent movies; Broadway would be king forever.

"What is that?" came a sleepy voice from the living room.

"French toast - would you like some? I can make more," she offered.

"Sure." Mercedes padded over to the table, still looking more asleep than not. She ran her hand up through her short disheveled hair and rolled her eyes, then slumped heavily into the chair. "It smells really good." 

"Thank you," Rachel smiled brightly. See? They could be civil even when Kurt wasn't in the room, even if she knew Kurt didn't believe that. She had a feeling they could even be friends if they tried. Mercedes was certainly an interesting person, and they really did have things in common - a love of music, for one, and an appreciation for this big, beautiful, sometimes-frustrating city. Besides, she was an excellent friend and was sure that would help them form a bond. "So. What are you up to this morning?" she asked.

"Hopefully drinking coffee first," Mercedes said, raising an eyebrow. Well, then - this wasn't going to work if Mercedes was going to be so negative about things. She glanced witheringly over at the coffee maker and pulled herself up, padding over to pour herself a cup. She paused, then grabbed a second mug from the cabinet and filled it, setting it in front of Rachel.

Maybe this would work, Rachel concluded. Some people just weren't as naturally charming and energetic as she was first thing in the morning. She smiled as she slipped a spatula under the toast and lifted it onto a plate, then passed it to Mercedes before dipping another piece of bread to start Kurt's breakfast. 

"Thanks." Mercedes dug her fork into the breakfast and moaned quietly. "Oh this is good..."

Rachel smiled proudly. "Thank you, Mercedes. It means a lot to me."

She paused, fork in mid-air, looking at her skeptically. "That I like your cooking?"

"Well, no, not specifically," Rachel replied, a little flustered as she tried to explain herself. "But we're kind of friends, now, or I would like us to be. If you're going to be living here. And both of us are Kurt's best friends, and I think we should get along - all three of us."

Mercedes smiled faintly, setting down her fork. "Yeah. It's better when we're not at each other's throats," she agreed. 

"Much better," Rachel confirmed. "Especially better than last time." She hadn't meant it as a slight, but Mercedes' face fell. She turned quickly back to the stove, flipping Kurt's toast and trying to figure out what a good friend should say here to resuscitate the conversation. "I'm sorry, I didn't-"

"You're right," Mercedes admitted. "Last time I was so focused on proving myself. You were already doing things, Kurt had his job, and I was a year behind. And...maybe a little jealous."

She turned quickly. "Jealous?"

Mercedes offered a sheepish grin and explained, "You two had this whole relationship. He and I've been best friends since we were little, and you came in..." She dug the side of her fork into the bread to cut it, giving herself something to focus on instead of the awkward admission, and Rachel just stared at her. She was jealous of her and Kurt? Of her success? Mercedes had come so much closer to fame than she ever had - at least yet - and given it all away...but Mercedes was jealous of her?

Rachel drew in a deep breath and turned off the heat as she set Kurt's breakfast on a plate for him. She could make hers later, but she wanted to say something first. She slipped into the chair - they only had two, but if Mercedes was going to be sticking around they should really get a third. It was a space concern, really, as well as some monetary when they first moved, but eating on the couch was hardly a proper meal. Just because some families in Ohio thought that television frozen dinners eaten on trays were sufficient didn't mean they were the same kind of bonding experience as a real dinner around a table. Her mother had always made sure that they ate together no matter how long rehearsals ran, which meant a lot of dinners at 10:30 pm, but at least it was together at the kitchen table. She wondered if Mercedes' family did the same thing - she knew Kurt talked about dinners with just his father which seemed to suggest that Mercedes' family ate together, but she realized she wasn't actually sure. In either event, it was something she wanted to institute in their little household. Since she was turning over a new leaf and everything.

"I really admire what you did," she stated, and Mercedes looked at her like she must have misheard what Rachel was saying. "Walking away like that. I don't think I would have had the courage to do that. I would have wanted it too much. I'm too ambitious for my own good." She couldn't imagine how bad something would have to be before she walked away - if she felt like it would make her a star, she would keep doing it, she knew that. Even if she had known about Cal, she didn't know that she could have walked away, not as long as there was a chance that it might have led to something for her career. She could endure almost anything if it would make her a star, and it took a certain kind of fortitude to do what Mercedes had done. "Was it hard? Leaving something that would make your dreams come true like that?"

Mercedes shook her head. "I just let it all come out. I didn't think about it first, I just did it. Maybe that's what you've gotta do."

Rachel almost laughed, grinning and shaking her head. "No. I jump at chances too much already, the last thing I need to do is be more impulsive. Kurt keeps telling me I don't think things through first."

"You too?" Mercedes joked, and it felt good to laugh together - they'd never been able to do that before. Maybe they were growing, Rachel concluded proudly. The ability to look beyond petty rivalries and see the person beyond the competition was a sign of maturity. The ability to be friends with one's former enemy was even moreso. They were really growing up, weren't they? she thought to herself with a broad, genuine smile. 

That was good for two reasons. First, with maturity came career advancement. While young ingenues were golden in Hollywood and to some extent on Broadway, most of the singers who landed the roles of a lifetime weren't 18 - they were young but not quite thatyoung. It was a sign that she was gaining the type of experience and carriage that would help her pull off the kinds of parts she really aspired toward. And second...entertainment was full of stories of mortal enemies who became friends. Every bit of life experience she gained could give her something to pull from when she acted, and that could only help.

"I have an idea," she stated. "We should celebrate. I have to go see my agent later, but other than that I don't have anything I need to do today, and I think we need to go on a spree. Not too big," she added, because they never had much money, and the rent being split three ways only worked if Mercedes had an income which she didn't yet. "But to mark a fresh start - no more men for me, no more crazy girl groups for you, just the two of us focusing on our careers and being the biggest, best stars we can be."

"Kurt takes all the fun out of shopping-"

"Not him, just the two of us," Rachel corrected. They'd never done that, spent time together outside the apartment without Kurt, but she had faith they could handle it. They were growing, after all, and there was respect between them. Besides, if nothing else they could bond over the fact that Kurt drove them both crazy sometimes. "Two girls out on the town on a weekday afternoon."

Mercedes grinned. "Yeah, that sounds fun. I need some new clothes anyway, for the club - all the dresses I had with sparkle, Rocko got to keep. Good luck to him finding a girl who looks as good in them as I do."

Rachel laughed, but it was good to hear Mercedes sound confident, and she knew how good it felt to be that confident in one's self again. This would be good for them. It might even be fun, too. She heard Kurt's door swing open, old hinges creaking the way they did every morning, and grinned as she called, "It's okay, Kurt, we're getting along and everything. And we're on to you - you can't keep-"

But Kurt wasn't who emerged.

The boy looked lanky for someone who wasn't very tall, body slightly hunched with early-morning stupor. Every bit of him was slim - from his neck that drooped forward, to the narrow ankles that sat just below well-defined calves - except for his torso, which looked almost gaunt, hints of ribs and bones visible beneath the hairless skin. His complexion was the colour of her morning coffee, how light it was when Kurt said she added too much milk to even taste the strong drink anymore, and atop his head rested an unruly nest of tiny ringlets in tight spirals. 

She fell silent a split second before Mercedes, staring at the unfamiliar boy who had somehow ended up in their home last night - in Kurt's bedroom. Was Kurt okay? What if this boy had come to rob him blind and hurt him and-

He paused a moment just outside Kurt's door, dug his first into his eyes to clear them, then cast the two of them a withering glance as he padded around the corner into the bathroom. She heard the door close, and a few moments later the sound of water running filled the otherwise-silent apartment. "Kurt?" she called, a note of panic in her voice. What if the boy's calm was just a ruse to cover up his crimes the night before? And even a thief needed to be clean and probably didn't have a reliable place of his own to-

"Just a minute," Kurt called back from his room, sounding like nothing at all was wrong. Sounding perfectly chipper as he often was in the morning, ready to start his day despite his long night. He hadn't even been home when she'd gone to bed, even though she had tried to wait up for him to see how his evening had gone, where exactly this mystery outing of his had taken him, and if-

...OH.

She looked over at Mercedes quickly, wondering if her friend had made the same mistake about the boy's intentions in the apartment that she had and ready to explain if necessary; Mercedes looked slightly queasy, uncomfortable in her chair, and she glanced wearily in the direction of the bathroom before digging into her french toast again. "It's okay - Kurt invited him-"

"I know," Mercedes replied, but she didn't sound any more at ease.

* * * * *

From time to time, Kurt had evenings so surreal that the time passed between one morning's routine and the next seemed to surely be more than 24 hours. it was a phenomena he had become acquainted with when he was six. One morning he was up at 8 a.m. and his mother was down the hall in her bed - albeit very sick - and by the time 8:00 arrived the following morning, he didn't have a mother anymore and an eery stillness had settled over the house. He had to look at the calendar beside the stove when his dad asked when he had last been to school - three days earlier - because everything was too different for it to have only been three days. he was too different - too changed on every conceivable level.

In a similar - but much happier - way, he remembered the first day of classes at Dalton after Christmas the year he was 16 - twelve hours after Blaine kissed him for the first time. It felt so surreal, like the entire evening hadn't actually happened and was just a dream he'd had about listening to The Sound of Music even though he could still feel the press of Blaine's lips on his own. A person's entire life and everything they knew about who they were weren't supposed to be able to change that quickly. But there he had been, a boy destined to be alone, and then suddenly Blaine was his boyfriend.

Okay, maybe the label hadn't appeared so suddenly, and there had been more than their share of missteps especially so early on, but the sense of possibility had arrived that quickly.

And this morning...

This time yesterday, he had been selecting outfit after outfit, nervous but mostly resigned to his fate. He would be arrested - he knew it for a fact, and he needed to plan accordingly. He had counted pieces and debated a brooch he loved or whether that would disqualify the entire jacket because he really didn't know the rules that well, he had made plans to stop at the bank to pull out enough money for bail and his fine if he needed it, and he was trying to talk himself into the evening without scaring himself enough to back out. Then the evening had actually happened, and here he was a day later...

He was still a little too in awe of Mama's to really believe it had happened. It seemed just a touch too fantastic to actually be touched, like an elaborate fantasy his mind had conjured in a last-ditch attempt to give him enough hope in something to not move back to Ohio. He'd had stranger and more wonderful dreams than a coffeeshop packed to the brim with homosexuals, but he couldn't say his realities had ever been quite that ridiculous.

But the boy who had spent the night in his bed couldn't be written off so easily.

Not that Ricky was a souvenir of his evening. He was just the one piece of proof Kurt could look at and know the images swirling in his mind were memories and not the desperate creations of his twisted, yearning mind. 

They had spent hours talking - hours. Kurt wasn't even sure when he had finally coaxed Ricky back to his apartment, but he knew they had sat in the park for a lengthy discussion of why Doris Day could not (in Ricky's mind) be any more adorable but wouldn't last five minutes in the real world, what really killed Marilyn, all the places in Europe they wanted to see one day (Ricky wanted a Roman Holiday of his very own, Kurt dreamed of strolling down the Champs-Elysees and speaking snobbish French). It was all fluffy, superficial, completely unimportant, but at the same time it seemed monumental. It wasn't like the conversations he had with Rachel - it was, but at the same time it wasn't. Kurt couldn't put his finger on why, on what made it special; the word 'homosexual' was never mentioned, it wasn't an overt conversation, but their shared nature lurked just under the surface of everything. They didn't have to talk about the serious topics for Kurt to know that this was someone who had gone through the same things he had. Rachel and Mercedes could never know what it was like to huddle in a cement cell and look around and know that most of those men would love to pummel them and no one would stop it or what it felt like to have police officers stare and laugh and point and thoroughly enjoy causing abject humiliation...but Ricky did. He didn't know why that made him feel better when they were talking about how glamourous Audrey Hepburn was, but it did.

He had tried to bring it up at one point. After they returned to the safety of his bedroom, with locks separating them from the hostility of the wider world, as they lay untouching side-by-side in his bed, he had mentioned Ethel, asked if Ricky had seen him - or was it her - lately, and Ricky cut him off with the statement that George Peppard was nice and all, but if he were Audrey he would pick Gregory Peck, because he did love a man who knew how to wear a suit. And that had been the end of that.

But still. It was hard to imagine a better night existing anywhere in any time or place.

He knotted his tie expertly by feel, adjusting his collar before he checked his reflection in the mirror - perfect. The smile looked unfamiliar on his reflection, but he couldn't help himself. Even if the entire night felt like some dream still, it was certainly a wonderful one. He pulled on his jacket and toed on his shoes before he opened the door and stepped out into the living room...

...where two inquiring faces greeted him.

"Good morning," he smiled, fighting the urge to giggle. It was just that things felt so good now, so bright and hopeful after what seemed like years of darkness and despair, and the lightness of it all left him feeling uncharacteristically childlike - almost silly. He wasn't alone. Not only did he have an entire coffeeshop full of people like himself, not only had he seen firsthand that it was possible to find a man and be a couple like he'd always dreamed of (He wondered what Don and John were like at home, if it was something straight out of his fantasies about what New York would be like. He bet it was; they were both aesthetes at heart, after all, and he could easily imagine them reading Vogue and the New York Times Style section in a well-apportioned living room while ballads played in the background), but he had another boy he could talk to about what it was like to be like them, what it was like to be arrested and feel hopeless and honestly believe there was no one out there like them and-

The entire world was open now. All the sturm and drang was just a heavy curtain hiding the undeniably bright world he'd been searching for. Everything was perfect there, as long as he avoided the police on his way. Like everything he'd ever dreamed - except that one thing, but even hope of that was creeping back in, and he felt...at peace, almost, with the lack of a boy to kiss him. At least for now, and really for the foreseeable future. Yes, he wanted what Don and John had, but connection of any kind was something he'd been desperately needing for so long, and from what he'd been able to see, connection and physical contact seemed to be mostly mutually exclusive anyway, so he was content.

He had a new best friend and an oasis. Who needed more than that, honestly?

He walked into the kitchen and poured coffee into the mug Rachel had left sitting by the pot for him, humming softly to himself as he smiled. She even had a plate sitting out for him, too, and while french toast could be a little heavy he did really like hers. He carried his mug to the table and stood in the place where they needed a third chair, cutting his toast with the edge of his fork. "Someone was up early," he smiled. "This is great, thank you," he added sincerely. Rachel stared back at him with a wide-eyed look he couldn't quite read. "...What emotion are you supposed to be practicing?" he asked. "Because it's not coming through. You look confused and terrified, and that's a stage direction I've never seen."

"There's a Puerto Rican in our shower," she whispered dramatically, pronouncing it with an 'o', as though it were an Irish location - Port O'Rican. 

"That's Ricky. He's..." Kurt smiled to himself before he used a word that was wholly inadequate but the only one that came close, "a friend." Mercedes shifted uncomfortably in her seat, shoving a forkful of syrup-soaked toast into her mouth, but Rachel smirked for a moment before grinning broadly.

"A 'friend' who stayed the night," she pointed out.

He wasn't sure he wanted to go into the odd circumstances of that part of the night yet, not until he knew what was going on and whether he was free to discuss it. It seemed like the sort of thing he shouldn't go around gossiping about with other people, and it was definitely something Ricky didn't seem to want to talk about. At least, not yet. His smile faded as he pictured his friend curled up and freezing on that damned bench in a park in the middle of the night - but maybe it really was temporary or not so bad. "We were talking, it was late, so we came back here."

"Oh, of course," Rachel replied brightly, clearly not believing him. "I understand." She winked exaggeratedly, mouth open, one side of her face scrunching before she gave a nod and a smile as if to say 'just between the two of us.'

Oh god. She thought they-

"No! Oh my god. No. That was not-" he sputtered, choking awkwardly. "We didn't- Rachel!"

"I know I'm hardly the one with the moral authority to lecture you about making wise decisions with regards to 'knowing' men, given my own recent history, but...don't you think it's a little soon? I...I know that I moved too fast with Cal - I let him move too fast, and I really regret it. I shouldn't have let my heart overtake my head that way, or I might have realized the things he was up to, I mean...how well do you even know him?"

It was an impossible question to answer. On one hand, barely at all: they'd spoken a handful of times, never about anything serious, he didn't know where Ricky was from or what school he'd gone to or what his parents were like...but on the other, so well he couldn't begin to explain it. But the more important thing to point out was- "Nothing happened. It wasn't like that. He's a friend, that's all."

"Is 'friend' one of those words you use because there's no appropriate word for homosexuals?" she asked, adding, "...I should call my dad..."

Kurt tried very hard not to roll his eyes, but he was unsuccessful, a mumbled, "Oh my god" escaping before his eyes finally met hers again. "We aren't involved that way. He isn't my- we don't-"

"Don't what?"

The sound of a new voice got everyone's attention, silence blanketing the dining area as Ricky looked at them all skeptically. He was dressed in his clothes from the night before, curls glistening in the overhead light as they were still damp from the shower. His posture was defensive, stiff but sassy - unlike Kurt who tended to go ramrod straight when he was trying to get out of an awkward situation. He started toward the door, and it occurred to Kurt that he wasn't sure what happened when Ricky left - how would he find him again? Because he'd seen him at that park but he'd also seen him other places in town including up on this side of the Park which was a far cry from the Village, and in this city of a few million people how was he supposed to be able to find him again? 

He grabbed a piece of paper from the pad beside the phone, scribbling their number onto it, and held it out to the boy. "Here." When Ricky looked at him skeptically, he added, "So we can talk. Or find each other again, for that matter. Or we could go to Mama's together-"

"Mmhmm." Ricky sounded skeptical, distant, so unlike he had the night before when they giggled over horrible movies and sighed wistfully over dreamy actors. "I've gotta go, doll, but thanks." 

It was something in his tone, Kurt realized. He recognized it, he did it himself, but he couldn't pick it out or identify it if Rachel asked him to (which he was sure she would if he ever tried to say anything) - something affected. Not flirtatious, not feminine like Audrey or Grace Kelly, tighter but melodic at the same time, more cartoon than human.

"Do you want some breakfast?" he asked quickly, able to practically feel Ricky slipping away even though they stood in place. "Rachel made plenty, and she's actually a good cook - I'm better, but it's good. You can have mine-"

"No, I'm fine." Ricky cast a weary look past Kurt at the two girls at the table, then fixed him with an intense and nervous glower Kurt couldn't quite understand; it made him swallow hard and hold his position even as he wanted to drag the boy back. No. He wasn't going to- He couldn't have found the one and only other person he could talk to only to have him run away again.

Was this what his life was going to be? Intense and meaningful connections with boys for barely a few moments, then loneliness and emptiness? Hadn't he done that already? Wasn't New York supposed to be different? Could he even-

Ricky's look softened a moment as he took the slip of paper from Kurt's fingers, looking away and down as he did as though he were ashamed of himself for giving in, for not standing his ground and retaining his distance, and then he was gone.

* * * * *

Rachel knew that she was lucky her agent's building had an elevator at all, since he was on the eighth floor and not all the buildings in this part of town had them, but the tiny box of a space barely had room for the two of them plus the elevator operator, let alone all their shopping bags. It had been a successful trip - nowhere too fancy, just Macy's, but Mercedes had found some beautiful dresses in light pinks and blues - she insisted, something about not wearing dark colours anymore because she didn't have to - with sequins and beads that looked great on her, especially when she smiled like that. She had found a few nice dresses of her own, ones she was certain would help her stand out at her next audition. She had even changed into one of them in the bathroom when they stopped for lunch, which Mercedes said was low-class but she thought was simply the nature of needing an appropriate outfit for when she saw her agent without wanting to go all the way uptown to their apartment first. It was a little too springy for the climate, but she couldn't help it if the sunny yellow dress matched her disposition today.

"This shouldn't take too long," she assured Mercedes as the operator slid the gate to the side and lifted the door, revealing the eighth floor's office suite. "I just need to ask him for dates, which will only be a few minutes. Unless he wants to discuss a change in direction for my career, in which case-" Mercedes shot her a skeptical look, and Rachel amended, "in which case I'll schedule a time to speak with him later this week." Things were going well and she didn't particularly want to wear out the tentative truce by making her friend sit around in the lobby for awhile while she plotted her future career progress. Plus that would be insensitive, since Mercedes was only partly involved in her chosen field these days. Though she had said something while they were shopping about the club paying her to sing on weekends, which was apparently a big deal. Rachel wasn't sure why, since any good performer should be compensated and Mercedes was certainly good at what she did. 

She gave the receptionist her name and that she was there to see Mr. Reynolds, then led Mercedes to the row of chairs in the entryway while they waited. Her agent was the talkative sort sometimes, so if he was on a phone call it might be a few extra minutes - but they could use that time for bonding, too, she was sure. "Did your family eat together growing up?"

Mercedes went from studying her manicure to staring at Rachel like she'd lost her mind. "What?"

Rachel shrunk back a little, feeling silly. "It's just something I was wondering this morning. I liked having breakfast together, and I think we need to get another chair so we can have dinner - and lunch on the weekends - at the table instead of in the living room. Just because some people's families eat crowded around a television set doesn't mean we should. My mom always made very clear that meals were for family time and conversation, and I realized I didn't know if your family did that too."

Mercedes stared at her suspiciously for a moment, as though trying to figure out whether she was serious or not, then replied, "Yeah. Every night."

"Really?"

Mercedes nodded. "We'd make dinner for Kurt and his dad, then go home and make dinner for us and eat it together."

"You couldn't just take food from-"

"Why would we? We could afford our own."

"I didn't mean that, I...just thought it was silly to make dinner twice, is all."

Mercedes sighed, and when she spoke it was quieter but a little patronizing. "She worked for Kurt's dad. It wasn't cooking for fun, it was her job. His dad's great and everything, but it was different. Except holidays, then she cooked for all of us - or Kurt did, one year."

Rachel couldn't imagine what that must be like, working for someone else's family like that, being friends with someone but knowing it wasn't really like a normal friendship, and she didn't know quite what to say. After a long moment of trying to figure out something, she offered instead, "So you think we should do that? Have a regular dinner routine?"

Mercedes smiled faintly. "That sounds nice," she agreed.

"We should pick up chairs on the way home. We need at least one, plus a second one in case Ricky comes over again. Any guest, though, really, it's just impolite. I felt bad when Mr. Hummel was in town, we had to eat Christmas dinner on the couch because otherwise one of us had to stand all the time. This will be perfect."

Mercedes blanched as she asked, "...You think he's coming back?"

"Probably not for a few years. I know he misses Kurt, but he's not a city boy and it's hard for him to get away from the shop, especially with Finn...away...so we'll probably make a trip out there before he comes back, but it's still-"

"Not him. Ricky."

Rachel paused, looking over at her, confused. "Well, Kurt said he's a friend - and I think more than that, the goodbye was much too awkward for neither of them to want anything to happen. I remember how uncertain I felt when I left Cal's for the first time after our evening together, and they did get home awfully late. So I think..." She noticed Mercedes shifting uncomfortably again, looking away. "What's wrong?"

"I don't want to think about that."

"About what?"

"Look, I know Kurt's...Kurt. But that doesn't mean I like it, or...want to think about what that means he..." Her voice was quiet, nervous. "I love him, but that doesn't mean I love everything he does."

"You mean him being a homosexual?" Rachel asked, confused, and Mercedes shushed her with a nervous glance around. "Oh come on, Mercedes, it's New York, I can say-" 

"You shouldn't."

"He's going to find a boyfriend the same way I am. Or would be, if I weren't focusing solely on my career for the foreseeable future because the last thing I need is another man using me to further his own status and ego." 

Rachel's head turned quickly toward the receptionist's desk as she heard a familiar voice say, "Fred Hayworth here to see Mr. Reynolds."

"Of course, Mr. Hayworth, I'll let him know you're here."

She'd known they shared an agent, but she hadn't yet seen the elusive star of film and Broadway. She'd been trying to catch a glimpse of him since she had seen his picture on her agent's desk more than a year earlier. He was even more attractive in person - tall and strong-looking with hair that looked more strawberry than blond under these lights. His square jaw softened slightly with each smile, which he flashed freely, and though he had a great presence, he carried himself more like an every-man than like the headliner he was. 

Well, not quite headliner, but close to it. He'd starred in a couple different shows, though he had only originated one role so she only had him on one of her albums, but he was well-known around town as a star who was soon to become a star. From this distance, she could certainly see why - and from his voice, she knew he would succeed.

"Fred!" Her agent greeted warmly as he strode into the lobby, extending his hand for the star to shake. "Good to see you. Come on back to my office." 

"You were here first, shouldn't he-" Mercedes started to point out.

Rachel forced herself out of her reverie and realized she was staring at the empty space in the direction where the two men had walked. "I have all day, he's a man about town with a much more full schedule."

Mercedes looked at her skeptically, brow low. "What happened to no more men?"

"What? Oh - no. Not at all. He's just..." she couldn't stop the tiny dreamy sigh. He was talented and attractive and any girl in town - or in Hollywood - would want him. She didn't hold any illusions about her prospects. She hoped to one day have his level of success was all, which did give her hope. Obviously her agent had the necessary expertise and connections to help her attain that goal, which was a good sign.

"He is pretty cute," Mercedes joked.

"And an established star," Rachel pointed out, eyes darting toward her agent's office, ignoring the way the receptionist rolled her eyes. "And I meant it."

A few minutes later, the men emerged again, her agent shaking Fred's hand (when had he become just 'Fred' in her mind? As if they were on first name basis with one another!). "Good seeing you. Take care, and I"ll call you when I get word."

"Thanks." He flashed Rachel a quick smile as he departed the office, leaving her a little breathless because even if she had no intention of trying to pursue anything, the gentleman was stunning.

"Rachel - thanks for waiting." He held his hand out in her direction, and she stood, leaving her bags with Mercedes as she followed him back toward his office. "I've got a couple open calls I can send you on, one's a little smaller so your chances are better. Oh - and he asked for your number so I gave it to him, hope that was okay."

"Who?"

"Fred. I figured no girl would turn him down - if you do, don't worry, he's not a cad. But don't be shocked when he calls you. So. Next Tuesday morning over at the Nederlander, there's a minor role I think you'd be good for..." He flipped through the packets on his desk, but Rachel's mind was spinning at the idea that a star had asked for her number.

Maybe 'no more men' didn't have to apply to leading men...did it? Especially not to good guys? Because she was going to have a hard time saying no if he called.

Chapter Text

In the grand scheme of things, Kurt knew that the awkwardness with Ricky was relatively minor. Compared to the agonizing loneliness that had persisted for years, to the death of his mother, to the wrench of Blaine's abandonment, even to the daily frustrations that came from sharing an apartment with Rachel, it should have meant nothing at all - merely the uneasy dance of two people who didn't quite know each other or know why they felt drawn together. It wasn't as though either of them had had an easy time of things, that much he knew, and he also could recognize how distrustful he himself generally was of people and their motivations; it was an instinct he'd had in childhood after too many boys pushed him on the playground that only sharpened after each trust he tentatively offered was broken. Maybe Ricky's instincts were just better than his. Maybe he was just slower to pin his hopes on someone - Kurt knew that was a weakness of his, that once he decided someone seemed like they might be acting out of kindness rather than malice he tended to fling himself open and leave himself vulnerable. The boy probably wouldn't have trusted Stu, for one thing. Maybe not appreciating how genuine his inexplicable affection for the boy was, wasn't such a bad thing after all.

Though his instincts couldn't be too good, Kurt concluded, if he kept ending up in jail and had been sleeping on a park bench.

But for some reason, no matter how reasonable the distance, Kurt couldn't put it out of his mind.

It wasn't so much the distance itself that was the issue, but the problem it presented: he felt a kinship to this boy, he finally had someone to talk to, and it felt incredible, but if Ricky was going to run off like he had in the morning, he wasn't sure it actually felt any better than being alone. Ephemeral, frantic connection weren't exactly what he was searching for, and a part of him wondered if that wasn't all he had a right to expect. After all, most of what he'd seen fit that model - men pawing at each other in a desperate, hedonistic frenzy for momentary pleasure?

Not all of it, he reminded himself as he snipped his way around a blouse pattern. Don and John were more than that. 

Not that he was thinking of Ricky in those terms. It wasn't like Blaine, where he was instantly taken with the boy. He had been sincere earlier when he said nothing happened - and unlike the night Blaine had spent at his house in Lima, he hadn't wanted it to. He wanted to talk to Ricky all day and night and feel-

...however it was he felt. He was having a hard time putting his finger on it or giving it a name. But he wasn't going to have any better chance identifying the sensation or how to replicate it if Ricky had vanished again.

Had he said something that put him off? Done something? Was it Rachel and Mercedes who made him uncomfortable? Was it-

He sighed as he set down his scissors, carefully folding the silk with its muslin pattern still attached and placing it on the table by the door. The knowledge that there was the potential for people out there in the world to understand him was exactly as useful as the knowledge that he wouldn't be in the cutting room forever: it was nice to hear, it was necessary to improve his state of mind, but ultimately it didn't help anything yet. It could pull him out of the funk he'd been stuck in for the past few months, and that was important - he didn't know how much longer he could live feeling like there was nothing left for him except a legacy of sad songs - but at best it put him on sort of neutral ground. It was enough to sustain him, but not enough to let him thrive and live up to all the dreams New York had offered him back before he'd ever set foot in the city. 

Mostly he just needed to know what to do now.

He'd found people like him - an entire restaurant full. And a park full, and, if John was to be believed, an entire part of the city full. And he'd been assured that his eye was as good as he knew it was. But how he could get from where he was now, where he was still not exactly happy, to where he wanted to be...well, that was still a mystery. What he'd thought he was meant to do hadn't worked over the past two years, that much was for sure, but he wasn't sure what he was meant to be doing instead.

But unlike a few days before, he did have a resource now. He had inside information - or, even better, someone who could give him whatever inside information he needed. Someone who liked him and his style and was willing to help him.

Determined, Kurt snipped his way around the final piece of the pattern - the blouse's large collar - and set the piece on top of the stack. He scooped up the bundle of fabric into his arms and strode confidently upstairs. After all, if he was trying to be helpful and take the fabric to the sewing room to save them time but didn't know precisely where that was because he'd never actually been to where the next cog in the Mainbocher machine was, would it be his fault if he happened to wander up a few floors to run into Don and ask for directions? Could anyone blame him or say he was doing anything completely wrong? Surely not. He smiled slyly to himself at his plan and his alibi as he walked deliberately through the halls, the silk and muslin pieces draped over his arm, doing his best to look at once obliviously lost and completely purposeful. 

It wasn't until he got down the correct hallway that he realized he didn't actually remember the number for Don's suite. The clusters of offices - four or five, half of them along windowed walls and the other half along interiors, surrounding a pool of desks with secretaries and what Kurt assumed were detailed junior staffers - all looked ostensibly the same with their wood paneling and bright, unflattering fluorescent lights overhead. Even the secretaries looked the same, women in uninspired dresses and strands of pearls, hair cut short or pulled up and back with headbands. He wasn't sure he remembered what Don's secretary looked like enough to pick the right suite, and what was he going to do in the meantime - go into each secretarial pool and ask where he should take the fabric, see if he spied someone familiar or if Don came out at the sound of his voice, and if neither of those happened then simply moved on to the next?

...In absence of a better plan, he took it, watching the far right windowed office in each suite where Don would be if this were the right place. The first two yielded nothing - a junior staffer in the first one looked at him like he was out of his mind but pointed him down to the second floor, while a kindly secretary in the second one pointed him toward the third, which did make Kurt feel a little better that apparently no one quite knew what anyone else did or where they did it. But on the third try, he recognized the tacky gold-framed photos on the desk nearest to the hall and stood a little straighter as he walked over to Don's secretary. "Excuse me."

She peered down at a legal pad and quickly typed to the end of the line before looking up. "Yes?" she asked, not unkindly.

"I was wondering where to take these," Kurt stated, speaking deliberately a little bit louder than he needed to. The doors couldn't be that thick, after all, not with how quietly the secretaries spoke to one another as though they were trying not to disturb the men working in their offices, and he knew Don would hear him if he were around.

"What are they?'

"They're a blouse - with a large turn-down collar," he added, then laughed nervously to himself. What was he doing? Did he think that a reference to the jacket he hadn't actually screwed up was somehow a shibboleth to call Don out of his office. 

The secretary just stared at him. "Third floor."

"Really?"

"Yes." 

The flaw in the plan, of course, the real flaw, was that at some point he was going to finish the short conversation he'd prepared on having, and if Don didn't hear him or happen to come out, what was he supposed to do then? Find some other reason to wander up here and pretend he didn't know he was four floors too high for what he was meant to be doing? At what point would that make him look like a buffoon instead of a go-getter, anyway? 

"...You're not here for the blouse."

Kurt looked at her, eyes wide. "Of course, I just-"

She looked him up and down a moment. "You need to be careful. He'll get paranoid if you just show up here without a good reason. Just between us," she added with a wink before pressing the intercom button. "Mr. Harlow, someone's here to see you if you have a moment." Kurt was about to ask what she meant when a familiar voice crackled through the speaker, and she flashed him a smile. "Go ahead in."

"Thank you." Kurt quickly moved to the door and pushed it open, feeling instantly more comfortable as soon as he saw Don. Similar to the sensation with Ricky, though not quite as strong, there was something powerful that washed over him as soon as he knew he was in the company of someone who understood him. "I hope I'm not interrupting-"

Don looked up quickly and nervousness flickered behind his eyes, but he offered a friendly smile. "Kurt. Yes, come in." When the door was closed securely behind him, Don asked, "Did you have any trouble getting home last night?"

"No - thankfully," Kurt smiled. "For the first time, I didn't spend the night at a police station, so that was a plus. I wanted to say thank you."

"Oh, that didn't require thanks. There are plenty of places you can go that don't end in jail-"

"Not just that," he tried to explain. "Last night was...incredible. I had started to give up on the idea of ever finding a place like that, and it was exactly what I needed." And it had been, in every conceivable way. Not just getting out to enjoy himself, not just smilingagain for the first time in what felt like an eternity - or, at least, smiling for his own happiness and not because of Mercedes' star turn at the club. Feeling like he wasn't completely isolated or as much of an aberration as he had been in Ohio, but like there were other people in the world who could understand and even appreciate him. Let alone the budding potential friendship that confused him as much as it piqued his curiosity. None of which could have happened without Don's invitation. "Why did you help me?" he blurted out, then blushed and tried to walk back the seemingly ridiculous question. "Not that I don't appreciate it, but you don't even know me and you gave me something that changes so much. Why-"

"Because I've been there," Don replied. "Because we can hardly tell anyone and we can trust even fewer. We've gotta stick together the best we can. I know not everyone's like that - there are guys you have to watch out for, guys who'll blackmail you or turn over your information to authorities - but for the most part...I mean...if we don't look out for each other, who will?"

It reminded him of Ethel, walking home any of the weak-looking boys he saw, standing in front of him and Ricky all night to make sure no one messed with them, and he couldn't help but feel a little warmer at the prospect. "So there's a connection," he concluded.

Don smiled and tossed out in a playful tone, "Why do you think we call each other 'family'?"

It wasn't something he'd heard before, but he liked the sound of it anyway. Like the guys at the club who called Mercedes their sister even though they weren't related and would have protected her just as fast as her brother would have if someone tried to mess with her - especially him. "So we're family," he repeated slowly. "You and I?"

"Yeah. And John, and the boys last night, and the boys in the newspaper...all of us. It's not a personal, one-to-one kind of a thing, it's...all of us."

All of us. It sounded so simple but held so much promise, so many things he'd dreamed of but hadn't witnessed... "I like that."

"Good. Now. We've gotta get you a better alibi if you're going to be coming up here every so often. What did you use to get past Dawn?"

"A blouse, but-"

Before Kurt could explain that Dawn knew he was there to talk to Don - or express surprise and amusement that Don's secretary was named Dawn and didn't that get confusing? Even before he could make a joke about whether he was even allowed to talk to Don since his name didn't rhyme with the rest of the crew - Don shook his head. "No, too obvious. I've gotta find a project to put you on."

"What do you mean?"

"Kurt- well. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there's no reason a kid from the cutting tables with no family connections in the business would be talking to an associate designer unless it's not about work."

Kurt tried not to look as crestfallen as he felt. "So I shouldn't come talk to you," he surmised slowly.

"No. Not at all. If you want to, or if you need something - by all means. We just need to give you a good reason so people won't ask too many questions. If I put you on a project or some kind of specialized assignment, it'll give you an excuse to come up here." Kurt blinked, not sure how to feel about that, and Don added, "It works out well for you all around. You get to start adding some things to your portfolio, you get to meet more people in the company than just that pissant you call a boss, you get to spend time outside that cutting room..."

"Sounds fantastic - I might even see sunlight," Kurt offered brightly, laughing awkwardly at his own joke. It did sound promising - if unexpected. "Are you sure-"

"Remember what I told you last night?" Don cut him off pointedly. Kurt wasn't sure what thing Don meant; he had told Kurt a lot of things, and he doubted 'don't trust any bar without a bouncer who knows patrons on sight' was applicable here. "You have the eye and the talent. In fact..." He thought a moment, then lit up and nodded. "I know just the thing. Because something tells me you know your fashion history."

"Well, anything that's been in Vogue since 1946," Kurt allowed.

Don laughed and clapped his shoulder, grinning as he shook his head. "This'll go back a little further. C'mon - I'll explain on our way down to the library." He opened the door of his office and led Kurt out, calling over his shoulder, "Dawn, I'll be back in a few minutes." Kurt wasn't sure how Don managed not to catch the knowing look his secretary gave them, but he would ask about that later. 

"So am I allowed to know what this mystery project is? Or are you just sending me to 42nd Street to kill time?"

Don hesitated a moment as though trying to figure out how to break down months' worth of conversations into something succinct and easy for Kurt to understand out of context. "There have been a lot of meetings lately about our direction. We're not at the forefront of anything anymore, except for the fact that we have a House in the US which almost no one does. In the 30s and 40s, we were even ahead of Dior, but now the only people who come to us are, well, the stuffy wives of even stuffier businessmen if you know what I mean." Kurt nodded that he did, and Don continued. "Main doesn't want to go modern." It took Kurt a minute to realize who Don meant, that it wasn't an odd reference to the state; he meant the founder, the designer, the one whose name was pronounced "Maine Bocker" instead of the elegant French-sounding "Mainbocher." Because Don was high enough on the ladder to actually talk to the man and be on a first name basis with him. Which meant this assignment was only one step removed from the designer in charge of everything. "He keeps saying that our strength is in our luxury and ability to flatter a woman's body. I think he's right, but I don't think that's what we do anymore - I think we make a lot of custom pieces that don't look outstanding on anyone and come across like a second-rate Chanel. So what I want to do is pitch to him some designs and concepts to take us back to the sophistication of our roots but look like something a woman under age 40 might wear. Because this-" he indicated the pieces of the silk blouse draped over Kurt's arm "-isn't going to do it."

"I couldn't agree more," Kurt stated. "Everyone wants Givenchy, even Dior seems old-fashioned now and he revolutionized the entire shape of women for 15 years. Instead we do calf-length dresses and boxy cropped jackets, and ugly floral prints with stones?"

"See? I knew you would understand what I was saying. The two guys who work directly under me just stared blankly when I tried to explain what I wanted, but you..." Don smiled proudly. "You get it. You see it."

Kurt smiled proudly, then asked the ever-important question. "So what do you want me to do?"

"I'll show you when we get there. It's not as glamourous as you'd like, I'm afraid, but it's a step up and at least uses your brain - and your eye - instead of just your cutting hand."

Anything would be an improvement, Kurt knew, and being praised for being able to see how trends played their way out in fashion meant this was already the best day he'd had on the job in more than a year and a half of employment. His smile grew as they turned the corner and he saw John striding down the hall in their direction. He knew the man's reaction would be even more enthusiastic - judging from last night, Don's lover was incapable of being anything less than effusive, so wholehearted in his emotional expression. John wasn't happy, he was jubilant; he wasn't concerned, he was worried in a way that had him wanting to reach over and take a person's hand with big sympathetic eyes. If anyone could share in his triumph of finally moving his way out of the cutting room, finally getting an assignment he had any interest in, finally feeling like he was doing anything even remotely related to fashion, then surely it would be John. "John - guess who is the newest-" he began excitedly, but was cut off with a stern Look from the other man before his gaze jerked back up to just above eye-level.

He looked to Don curiously, wanting to ask what the man thought was wrong with his lover, but the look on Don's face was distant, closed-off, devoid of any familiarity with the man he shared what Kurt assumed was his entire life with. "John," he acknowledged coldly, no more intimately than he would have greeted any other person in the hall, with a short jerk of his head and a low exchange of unpleasantries.

"Sir," came the reply, John's voice pitched down a full octave from where it had been the night before. It didn't sound forced but seemed completely unnatural even though it went along with the stiff, purposeful gait and the affected disinterest in John's eyes.

Then suddenly he was past them. Kurt looked over his shoulder to see the man disappear around the corner, then looked up at Don in confusion. The two of them were lovers, they were intimate, they were...sweet together. Had they had a fight after he left Mama's last night? Maybe Don thought John wasn't spending enough time at the table with him, flitting around to talk to everyone else in the restaurant - he supposed if he had a lover he would want to be the center of his attention, but still it seemed so sad to think of the two of them not being happy with one another. Especially considering how matter-of-fact Don had been about John's excitability at being surrounded by people like them - how he'd good-naturedly joked with the waiter about how John would come in for a landing eventually and want dinner when he did, the sweet-on-you look in Don's eyes as his gaze followed John from table to table. What had happened the night before to cause this kind of distance and downright coldness? 

Before the question could leave his lips, Don's response came: "Don't do that here."

Kurt was about to ask what 'that' Don meant - Brag? Say hello? - when suddenly it hit him: Don't acknowledge homosexuals from outside your station at work. Because if people knew he knew Don, they would want to know why. Because if people knew that Don and John knew each other, they would ask questions - let alone if it was obvious that they spent a lot of time together. Obviously no one could know they were lovers, he didn't know why that hadn't occurred to him before because it was so obvious, but even the act of saying hello to one another too familiarly was dangerous.

He swallowed hard, trying to settle the queasy feeling in his stomach. Even here, even in New York, even in fashion where he was fairly certain it was nothing but inverts of varying degrees, it wasn't safe.

"Here we are," Don said as though nothing had happened - because for him it wasn't anything novel, Kurt realized - as he pushed open a door. Kurt found himself standing in a windowless room maybe half the size of his cutting room lined with shelves with a small desk in the middle. "Unfortunately you still won't get sunlight, but at least it's above ground instead of in the basement so the hallway's a little less gloomy. But you understand, we can't have too much light - it would fade them."

"Fade what?"

Don made his way around the shelves, each of which held row after row of bound notebooks, all labeled with dates on the spine. He pulled out a volume marked "1935" and handed it to Kurt. Flipping open to a random page, he saw a large black and white photograph under which was scrawled, "Marsha Hunt, "The Virginia Judge." On the opposite page he found a sketch of the same ensemble with fabric pasted around the edges. Some were labeled - a soft chamois-coloured felt with the notation "Hat - Robert", two black patent leathers and a suede labeled "shoe options" - but some were self-explanatory, like the square of soft green and white tweed that clearly comprised the majority of the ensemble. Kurt turned the page carefully and found a similar arrangement, this time for an emerald green evening gown in chiffon and silk. "What is this?"

"These are our archives. Every design, every year since 1929. I always thought we should split it by type of garment instead of by year, but for obvious reasons this is easier to keep updated. I want you to go through these, especially the ones before about 1948, and see what stands out...and what that is signature Main would still translate well to a new audience."

It seemed like an enormous undertaking, and a potentially important one - especially considering anything he told Don had the potential to become an actual design - but he couldn't quite get past the knowledge that one day, probably next year, his collar would be in one of these books - the picture wouldn't match the sketch, it would look a hundred times better, because of him. 

He had loved fashion for as long as he could remember. When he was five he had asked his parents for a subscription to Vogue for his birthday, he had tried to increase his allowance when he was 7 so he could afford more new clothes. His teenage years were a blur of trying to find more interesting clothes than the local Macys carried, ordering from catalog after catalog based in far-away places. Fashion - not just clothes, but fashion as a concept - had represented not only a hobby and an opportunity to bring aesthetics to a world that considered overalls a perfectly acceptable thing to wear in public, but a kind of power he had. He couldn't choose much about himself, not his inversion or his backwards, segregated town and the way it treated him and his best friend. So much of his life was defined by immutable characteristics and the way the rest of the world reacted to them, but fashion was something he could consciously choose. Not only that, it was ever-changing. Ever-progressing. Nothing in fashion stayed the same for very long - even the New Look was old within five years. It was about constantly trying to push boundaries and reinvent an entire world.

A world he was part of now.

"I'll leave you to get started," Don smiled as he left Kurt alone in the room filled with 33 years of history and the infinite possibilities of the future.

* * * * *

Rachel knew that she was amazing enough to expect great things out of life. From the time she was a little girl in tap class, her mom had made two things very clear: just because she was better than everyone else didn't give her an excuse not to do her best because otherwise the other kids would catch up; and if she stayed focused she could get whatever she wanted. Usually Rachel thought that applied just to roles she wanted, which of course she could get when she was in Lima because she was more talented than the rest of her competitors, but she was quickly starting to realize that it applied to men as well. She knew that she had declared herself on a break from any boyfriends, but she had been clear to herself about what she wanted and obviously that had attracted the right type of man because the date with Fred...

She had never felt so incredible in her life.

She practically danced her way back into the apartment at just past 11, unable to suppress her smile. He had clearly asked their agent about her because he knew all sorts of things about her, about where she was from, and all night he asked questions and listened to her talk. She even tried to apologize for talking so much at one point and ask him about his life, and he said he likedhearing about her. That he found her fascinating.

A star. Found her fascinating.

She had to admit, she had been skeptical - after the previous two men who had expressed an interest in her had turned out to be nothing but pigs who wanted to use her and prey on her naivete - but Fred had been a perfect gentleman. He had pulled out her chair for her and offered his arm when they walked, and then he had walked her home and dropped her off at the front door of the apartment building with a soft kiss on the cheek and a promise to call her soon, brilliant smile flashing in the moonlight as he departed. 

She set her purse on the table and picked up the note that had been left there - Mercedes asking Kurt if "that boy" was ever going to pick up his things or if this meant he was planning on staying over again. Rachel spied an unfamiliar duffle by the door that Ricky must have left and smirked to herself. Kurt could say nothing had happened all he wanted, but she would never have left a bag over at Cal's unless she planned on staying there for most of the weekend...or longer. Clearly this was much more serious than he wanted to let on because why else would Ricky even have a duffle bag with him when he arrived? Though she hadn't seen him in a few days, which seemed odd. Maybe he was just busy at work and didn't have time to be social - Kurt did that sometimes.

Kurt sat on the couch with a notebook and a magazine, taking notes intently, and she paused to watch him. She wanted to tell him about her night because he was the person she told things to - even if he wasn't always kind about them, he at least cared about her in a way that a lot of other people didn't. But if he was busy, she should leave him alone. Studying him, he seemed much more...focused than she'd seen him in a long time. This new boy must be good for him if he wasn't curled up on that chair singing sad songs anymore. Not that she couldn't appreciate that feeling, but it was hard to watch that over the course of months - unlike her own crisis of a mere few weeks. But he looked like he might even start eating again at this rate - which was good, he was too skinny now. His jackets hung off him in a way he would have been aghast to see a few years ago. She was tempted to tell him so...also as a convenient way to start conversation...when she heard him mumble, "Rachel, I can feel you hovering."

She smiled faintly and stepped closer. "I didn't want to disturb you."

"Hovering is disturbing," he pointed out, looking up from his magazine finally, but he flashed her a look she'd dubbed 'You're strange but I love you anyway.' It was one of irritation but also indulgence, like he would put up with it from her but no one else would and he wouldn't take it from anyone else. She found it kind of endearing, really, that they had special looks for each other, even if it was a sign of how crazy they drove each other sometimes. Though it was kind of par for the course, wasn't it? Being a modern, non-married couple and everything. At least they got along better than Mercedes' roommates had.

"Sorry. I just got back."

"I know - before 11:30? Was he boring?"

"How could a star be boring?" she pointed out, and Kurt raised an eyebrow. "He wasn't boring," she replied. "He was actually really...wonderful."

"How so?"

She relayed the entire story of the date - from the way he complimented her dress, to the way he showed her off proudly but without making it about himself like Cal had. It wasn't about "Look how great I am to have such a great girl on my arm," it was more about her and made her feel so special and beautiful to even be in his company let alone his dinner companion. She told him about the way Fred had taken her hand gently on top of the table as they ate even though it meant he had to eat his salad with his left hand, and how he walked her home, concluding with, "He said he would call me soon. It was such a lovely evening, Kurt, you have no idea."

"Sounds like it," he said quietly, his tone distant and stiff, and she immediately cringed. Of course he had no idea - he wasn't allowed to have any idea. He couldn't take the boy he liked out like that any more than he could have taken Blaine out like that in Ohio.

"What made it lovely was him, not the atmosphere. Obviously dinner was nice, and it felt great to be out on the arm of such a handsome leading man, but I'm sure you can find a boy who's just as much of a gentleman and treats you just as well, one who makes you feel the way Fred made me feel. Maybe you and the boy - was it Ricky? - can have a nice candlelit dinner here. I'm sure I could get Mercedes out of here for the evening - or maybe I could go with her to the club one night-"

Kurt rolled his eyes and replied in his trademark deadpan, "As entertaining as it would be to see you up there, Ricky and I are just friends."

"Then why is his bag here?"

Kurt froze, then tilted his head. "What do you mean?"

"His duffle bag is still here - Mercedes left a note asking if he was ever going to come back to get it. I'll talk to her again, she just needs to understand that just as I have boyfriends, so do you, and Ricky- well. He's an unusual choice, maybe, but he certainly seems nice enough and not like he's going to take all of our money or tell the Sharks where we live-"

"Rachel." She fell silent reluctantly, and Kurt continued, "Put his bag in my room, would you please? Because now he'll have to call me to come pick it up, and I want to...know where it is."

Rachel grinned and gave him a knowing wink. "In your room where it belongs."

"No! Just-" He sighed softly. "The second he calls, tell me. Tell Mercedes, too, if you see her before I do."

"I will. And if you need a night alone, just let me know. I can even vouch for the fact that you make a very good boyfriend if he needs references."

She saw the look again, the one that said Kurt was wondering why he didn't find a different fake girlfriend sometimes, but he simply replied with a begrudging, "Thanks." With a smile, she turned and carried Ricky's bag to Kurt's room before taking her own purse into her bedroom, closing the door behind herself as she got ready for bed. Soon both of them would have boyfriends around to make them happy. While she thought it was awfully forward of Ricky to leave a bag of his things here to stay with Kurt, she couldn't help but imagine someday - very far in the future - living with Fred in what she was sure was a very nice apartment while Kurt and Ricky lived here, all happy together.

Chapter Text

By the end of the second day without a phone call, Kurt was beginning to wonder if the duffel bag contained anything at all. It couldn't be anything too valuable if Ricky didn't care about getting it back. Sometime around lunch on day three, he was struck by the horrible thought that maybe Ricky was looking for the bag but simply didn't remember where he'd left it. After all, the boy was certainly seen all around town - what if he was trying to retrace his steps up and down the entire island of Manhattan in search of the bag and simply hadn't gotten to Kurt's yet? What if he just couldn't remember where he might have left it?

...What if Ricky didn't remember him?

He dismissed the fear quickly. Even if Ricky couldn't remember his exact address, he wouldn't be able to forget that kind of connection...would he? He had probably just lost the scrap of paper with Kurt's number on it. He had probably just lost the paper and couldn't remember exactly which block Kurt's apartment was on.

Kurt hoped, at least. 

Mostly, as he sat at home for the third straight night waiting for the phone to ring, he wondered what exactly he was meant to do now. He wanted to see the boy again - not just to return the bag, but to talk. To ask him what he thought of Nancy Wilson's new Broadway album and to make plans to go see I Could Go On Singing because even though he was more of a Judy Garland fan than Ricky was, he had a feeling it would be more fun to go see the movie together than with Rachel sulking around him. Besides, she had a boyfriend - or a date, at least - to go see movies with, he thought to himself ruefully with a faint smirk at the empty apartment. But more importantly, he'd seen a new column with all sorts of rumours about what went on on-set with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton while they were filming Cleopatra, and Ricky had mentioned how handsome he thought the leading man was the last time he was over, and...

It was silly, he knew that. He wasn't someone who fawned over boys, even celebrities. But there was something positively liberating about hearing Ricky talk about Richard Burton or Marlon Brando (before he got fat), even if he did so in a borderline crude way. Or not crude, exactly, so much as...proudly sensual. Ricky didn't just admire their acting or their eyes, he thought about all sorts of acts with them that Kurt would never in a million years speak of, and he admitted to them freely. The brashness of outright Ricky saying that he wanted to bed Marlon Brando five years ago but not anymore... For all Rachel teased him easily about getting a boyfriend, Kurt couldn't imagine ever saying something like that around her. But Ricky was different.

He wondered if maybe there was some way he could find the boy. Maybe there was something in the bag that would give him a phone number - Ricky had to have somewhere he was reachable, right? He had to have some place that Kurt could call and at least let someone else know - if not Ricky himself - that the bag was sitting on the floor of his bedroom on the Upper West Side. But the only way he could think of was to look inside the bag. Would that be wrong? Would it be an invasion of privacy to look through the possessions tucked into the tattered canvas bag - and if it would, which he might have to concede, would it be worth the invasion if he was trying to do the right thing? Because otherwise an unopened bag might sit in his room for who knew how long - and if Ricky had lost Kurt's phone number, what other choice did he have? 

It would make more sense than wandering the city in search of him, wouldn't it?

But at the same time, it felt wrong. It felt like the act of unzipping the bag would automatically violate the fragile budding friendship no matter what his reasons. Ricky was so standoffish, so reluctant to answer anything more personal than his celebrity heartthrobs, and Kurt knew if anyone were to rifle through his things, he would probably be mortified - let alone if they touched or ruined his clothes...still it was so tempting-

The ring of the phone jolted him from his thoughts and he pulled his hand back in toward his body as though the person calling him could see what he had been contemplating. He was on his feet a moment later, hurrying into the kitchen to answer on the third ring. "Hello?"

"Do you have my bag?" Ricky sounded more brusque than Kurt had heard him before, a little rushed. Maybe he really had been trying to retrace his steps across all five boroughs and just finally got to where he'd spent the night a few days earlier and was panicking at trying to track it down-

"Right here," Kurt assured him.

"Can you-" There was a pause, then a sigh and a defeated-sounding question. "Can I come get it?"

Kurt's eyes lit up. Perfect. "Of course. Or I could bring it - no one's here all night-"

"Great. I'll see you soon." The phone went dead, and Kurt was left staring at it, wondering what had just happened. After a moment, he hung up and smiled to himself as he began to straighten up. Suddenly a night alone listening to the rain and reading Vogue didn't seem so dull. Not if he had someone to share it with.

With the apartment cleaned, all of Rachel's sheet music back in her room, and Mercedes' clothes back in her suitcase beside the couch, Kurt glanced at the clock. Fifteen minutes had passed since the phone call, but there was no sign of Ricky. He could feel himself getting more excited by the minute, anxious for the impending relief that seeing the boy would bring. Three days ago had been like a break of fresh air, and after worrying about his whereabouts for a few days, it was hard not to look forward to their evening together. Ricky had said last time that he had never heard The Sound of Music, or Camelot, or even south Pacific - that alone would be a great night. He loved opening a person's eyes to an entire genre, to watching someone's face light up as they heard a show for the first time, as the story unfolded...as Ricky let his cold exterior drop and could just enjoy the beauty of the story and the songs... It was a little late, but they might even get to My Fair Lady if they stayed up. Mercedes would probably be gone awhile, though he wasn't sure exactly when her sets were tonight, and Rachel's second date meant she would be gone awhile - more likely until morning, if it went well for her, and he could imagine sitting with Ricky on the couch all night, laughing over "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?", then setting the mugs aside to dance clumsily through the overcluttered living room to "I Could Have Danced All Night"... 

The buzzer shook him from his thoughts, and Kurt placed the albums he had preselected on the table beside the record player. He practically skipped to the kitchen to buzz Ricky in. It occurred to him that he should have snacks - it was part of being a good host, and he wasn't sure if Ricky had eaten dinner yet. Sadly the lack of preparation meant the best he could do was a plate of crackers and the two cheeses he had been saving for finger sandwiches with Rachel and Mercedes during Sing Along with Mitch on Friday. He got as far as hurriedly making an artful arrangement of crackers when he heard a knock on the door. Beaming and ready to start the evening he pulled open the door-

Ricky stood in the hallway, dripping wet. His curls splayed messily over his forehead, water running in rivulets, down his temples and into his wide, dark eyes. In the yellowy light of the kitchen, Ricky's cheeks looked hollow, a little green - especially high on his left cheekbone, where it was hard to tell whether the dark areas were harsh shadow or a fading bruise. The collar of his red coat was matted, brown fur looking and smelling like a wet dog. The right side was dirty, and the right sleeve cuff was torn - not clean through, just enough to let the silver-grey lining peek through. Ricky's smile was too bright, painfully forced, and the look on his eyes was too tired...too defeated.

"Did you take good care of my things, baby?" The exaggerated tone was back, high and flouncy, with a cluck of Ricky's tongue that made him sound even more ridiculous than he had at the park. He pursed his lips as he waited for the answer, but the longer Kurt hesitated, taking in the entire pathetic picture before him, the more uncertain the look in Ricky's eyes became until he more closely resembled a half-drowned animal pouting at his condition than a young man who could strut confidently through a park like he owned it.

"Yes," Kurt replied finally.

"Didn't take any of it, did you? I'm sure not, you do tend toward a more fetching type of a look, you wouldn't have much use for jewels." the statement began as an accusation, and a paranoid one at that, before backing off as though in self-rebuke. "Besides, you're too good for that kind of petty crime - aren't you?" He sounded heart-breakingly desperate, like his entire world hinged on Kurt's answer.

Kurt answered with the only thing he could think of. "I didn't even open the bag to look."

It was the first genuine smile he'd seen from Ricky since the door opened. Kurt wasn't sure why that made him almost want to cry.

He couldn't let Ricky go back out there, not in this storm, not to whatever had him looking so alone, so Kurt offered the only thing he could. "The bag's in my room - why don't you come in for a minute and dry off? I was about to make tea."

Ricky's response was a put-upon, "Oh, well, if you insist," but he couldn't conceal the look of relief that crossed his face in the split second after he heard Kurt's question. Kurt stepped back to let Ricky in, and the boy shrugged carefully out of his sopping coat. he ore a thin white undershirt with the same pants he had been wearing a few days earlier. Apparently wherever Ricky had been, Kurt concluded he hadn't had access to clothes. But surely his entire wardrobe couldn't be sitting in that dilapidated duffel bag on the bedroom floor...could it?

"I'll make tea," Kurt suggested awkwardly as Ricky shifted uncomfortably int he middle of his tiny dining area. "And I was just putting together a snack when you came," he added, moving the plate of crackers over to the table. "I can go get the bag while we wait for-"

"It's okay," Ricky replied. He sat down int he seat closest to the plate, looking at the crackers hungrily. "Tea sounds good first - if you were making it anyway."

"Of course." Kurt moved over to the stove, putting on the kettle. "It looks like it must be bad out there." He looked over his shoulder at Ricky, who paused with a cracker partway to his mouth.

"It's not so bad - but I have to say that singing in the rain is a lot more fun in movies than in reality," he replied. "Or maybe it's just more fun with Donald O'Connor."

Kurt smiled faintly at the reference. "Really? I always thought Gene Kelly seemed like the better guy. Or maybe I just like a man who can dance. besides, he had my heart from the time I saw On the Town." It was an obvious thing to say - so simple, and no one who knew him would have thought twice about the truth of it. Practically everyone who knew him knew he was a homosexual, and it went without saying that his crush on a man in a sailor uniform came with the territory. Except that, in going without saying, it felt momentous to...well...say it. Even with Rachel, he wouldn't talk about things like this - he wouldn't lie, of course, and he never tried to hide his relationship with Blaine when he had one, and if he were to have a boyfriend now he wouldn't actively conceal anything, but gossiping about which boys he found cute was still largely unexplored territory.

Except with Ricky. Because Ricky understood. To Ricky, it wasn't even novel enough to stop the conversation. "Frank Sinatra in that - ooo, honey, I would take him up to my place in a heartbeat. He'd be sweet...naive, maybe, but earnest. That makes some of the best lovers." Apparently it wasn't enough to stop the conversation because there was so much further to go. Kurt blushed at the statement, but Ricky kept going. "They want to please, for you to like them, so they try hard, and they're gentle. Rare, but nice if you can find it." He fiddled with a cracker between his fingers a moment, then flashed a brighter smile in Kurt's direction - a more honest one, like admitting he wanted a nice boy was a secret he could share only with him.

He carried two cups of tea over to the table and sat down before admitting, "That's what I want. A nice boy - a boyfriend? Just someone I can love, who loves me...like a great romance in a musical. With bigger-than-life emotions and tender ballads, like...like Maria and Captain VonTrapp." It really was that simple, wasn't it? That pure, that uncomplicated - he wanted ordinary moments and a boy who would curl up on the couch with him at the end of a long day and listen to soundtracks and watch Ed Sullivan. To laugh and weep together while time goes on its flight - to kiss you every morning and to kiss you every night...

He hated that he couldn't hear that song without thinking about his first kiss. Not that it was a bad kiss - it had been perfect, to be honest - it was everything that came after that had been so horribly wrong. Maybe in another world things could have been different, if Blaine were less scared if he were a year older, if they could have at least made their escape from Ohio together, if only-

It wouldn't do him any good to keep thinking those things, though, and he knew it. It was just that he wanted the promise of that moment back.

"Who?"

Kurt blinked, trying to remember what city he was in. The lamps of his apartment cast a harsher light than the warm glow of late wintry afternoon he saw in his mind. "What?"

"Who are they? Some strong soldier?"

"From Sound of Music. They're-...it's a love story." When Ricky kind of stared at him, Kurt added defensively, "Maybe it's silly, but that's what I want. There are two men I work with, and they're so in love with each other - and at Mama's the other night, there were two men not that much older than us-" or at least, than him, he realized he wasn't actually sure how old Ricky was exactly "-who couldn't keep their eyes off each other. They smiled at everything the other said, and it was all so perfect." He still wanted it desperately, but the knowledge that it was out there for him - somewhere, at least in theory - diminished the urgency of the need. Even so, he could feel Ricky's judgmental gaze on him, and he sighed softly. Maybe the boy didn't understand. Maybe he'd been all wrong about-

"I wouldn't mind an Edward Rochester," Ricky admitted with a faint embarrassed smile. Now it was Kurt's turn to stare, confused, and the boy rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. "Didn't they make you read Jane Eyre at whatever fancy white school you went to? Even small-town boys should know that one."

"What makes you think I'm from a small town?" Or went to a fancy school, Kurt wanted to add, though both were true at least in part. 

Ricky raised an eyebrow at him. "Oh please. Honey, you're cute, but you're not nearly the New Yorker you think you are. You're too naive to be one of us." When Kurt bristled at the accusation, Ricky soothed, "But it's okay. Dreams don't have to be practical - they can be as dumb as we want them to be. They don't hurt anyone. Don't cost anything, either, which is good if you got nothing to spend. Nothing wrong with wanting to be Lady Diana-" When Kurt was again confused, Ricky added, "from The Sheik - that one you should know, they made it a movie, it plays at one of those nickel theaters every couple weeks even though it's silent. But it's worth it to stare at Rudolph Valentino, he's got a great smoldering gaze and arms that can fling you around like a rag doll." Kurt didn't know that he understood why that would be a good thing, why it sounded like fun, but he liked the sound of Ricky's broader point, of dreams not hurting anyone or costing anything.

If only it had been the case for him. Dreams had hurt him time and time again, had come back to bite him...dreams had cost him dearly. But what choice did he have - giving up? Maybe that was all Ricky meant, that the cost of dreaming wasn't nearly as high as the cost of not dreaming, of not hoping, of giving up entirely on the idea of having wonderful things and an incredible life. Because if believing in something only to have it all come crumbling down around his head hurt, then the absence of dreaming had been agonizing. He shivered, thinking about the effort it had taken just to get out of bed every morning before he started thinking happiness was possible again. And now look at him - sitting in his apartment with a boy who understood how he felt and could talk about men to fall in love with.

"Now that I know you like romances, I really have soundtracks for you to listen to," he offered with a smile, and Ricky rolled his eyes a little.

"Ay, you and your Broadway, all the glitz and the bright lights, everything over the top - you couldn't be more gay if you tried."

"Gay?" 

"Well, 'queer' is so nasty - true, maybe, but I have enough nasty words about me to fill the New York Public Library and don't need another. And 'homosexual' is something only doctors say - well, doctors and you," he added with a good-natured smirk. The smirk faded and he looked uncertain for a moment before asking, "Do you mind if I clean up?"

Given the state of the boy's hair, and the way he kept trying not to shiver in his undershirt, and the fact that he'd been wearing the same pants for several days, Kurt could certainly understand the question, and he nodded. "Of course. Go right ahead."

"Thanks, baby." He flashed a quick smile and excused himself from the table, darting into Kurt's room. Through the mostly-open door, Kurt could see him kneel and unzip the bag, a look of deep relief and comfort settling over his features. He rifled carefully through his belongings before retrieving a shirt of some kind - it looked like something blue and silky from where Kurt sat - and a pair of pants, then disappeared around the corner into the bathroom. 

Kurt set to cleaning up, a strange uneasiness settling over him as he took Ricky's empty teacup and the mostly-empty cracker plate to the sink. The easy, relaxed feeling he had whenever he was actually talking to the other boy dissipated too quickly, the way it always did, and he was left with the sense that things didn't quite add up. Obviously Ricky hadn't had anywhere to go that night in the park, but that couldn't be a permanent condition, could it? There was no way that the bag in the bedroom contained everything Ricky owned - there was just no way. Because the boy laughed too much and smiled too broadly and joked too crudely, and there was just no world in which the boy who gave Kurt hope for his own future could have such a bleak one himself. That just didn't make any sense. 

But what else could it be? Why else would he have been sleeping on a park bench? Why else had he not changed his clothes since Kurt had seen him three days earlier? From the way he had slipped cracker after cracker off the plate and into his mouth during the conversation so Kurt hadn't noticed the plate was mostly empty until after the fact, he wondered when the last time the boy had eaten was. Did he have anything?

It was all a ruse, Kurt realized slowly, heart aching as he scrubbed more quickly at the mug. The put-on effusiveness, the awkward over-ease, the too-bright smile, the flippant roll of his eyes...all of it was a cover. He should have recognized it before - he did the same thing. Not nearly as big, but he had his own tight grin, his own attempts at bad jokes, his tense stance and proud raise of his chin to tell the world he was fine when inside he felt like he was closer to dead than anything. No wonder they understood each other.

He smiled weakly as he heard the muffled sound of Ricky singing - who knew he was an Eydie Gorme fan? It wasn't perfect by any stretch, but it was more or less on-key and sounded...pleasant. Heartbreakingly normal. Like Ricky were any other boy singing in the shower and not someone whose bed for the past few nights had been some grimey bench in a park - or worse. God, what if it were worse than where he'd seen? What if he'd been in jail again or-

He heard something muffled outside the apartment, but before he could get worried that someone was prowling in the hallway - or that his neighbour was trying to spy on them again because the crazy old bat two doors down was convinced they were communists - he heard Rachel giggling. He glanced at the clock on the stove; she was back early again, which meant this was either the best possible guy for her or there was something wrong with him. Judging from the look on his roommate's face as she pushed open the door, he was inclined to say the former. Her eyes were starry, her smile broad and dreamy, and she leaned back against the door with a happy sigh to herself, hands clasped over her chest like a Disney character, before she noticed his presence.

"Kurt. I wasn't sure if you'd be home or if you had plans."

"I take it you had a nice time?" he asked fondly. 

"It was lovely. He's perfect, Kurt, I-" she cut herself off, looking uncertain, and asked, "Are you sure you want to hear about this?"

Kurt looked at her skeptically. "You're home at a reasonable hour, it can't be anything too scandalous - can it?"

"What? Oh - no." She almost giggled, the very picture of a giddy, lovestruck schoolgirl. "I just wasn't sure if you wanted to hear about my wonderful night when you're alone every night." She looked at the two clean mugs sitting beside the sink, then listened and grinned broadly. "Unless you're not..."

"No," he replied quickly. "Ricky just came to get his bag, and he got caught in the storm so he's cleaning up."

"Why is he singing Eydie Gorme?"

Kurt stared at her, not sure what kind of question that was, and moved to change the subject quickly before Rachel could start in on all the questions that put him and Ricky in some fictitious, not-at-all anticipated relationship. "How was your date? Did he take you somewhere nice where he could show you off?"

"Of course," she replied with a grin and a roll of his eyes like he was silly for even asking such a thing. "He took me to Lutece, which was amazing - I think the bill must have been more than we spend on groceries all week. When I get my big break, I'm taking you there. You would love it, it's so elegant and everything is so rich and luxurious."

"Have you talked about your big break yet?" he asked. With Cal it had been practically the first topic of conversation, and considering how random the request for a date from the star had been, he assumed it had to be part of the package somewhere. 

Rachel shook her head and put on water for her own tea. "It's not like that with Fred. He doesn't talk about it in those terms. Don't get me wrong, he certainly knows enough people that he could make it happen with the snap of a finger, but he doesn't want it to be quid pro quo. I can imagine that women must be throwing themselves at him because he's so accomplished - plenty of young ingenues looking for their first real job..."

"Women are throwing themselves at him because he's staggeringly attractive."

"I know," she almost giggled again. "His smile, Kurt, he lights up so brightly...whenever he talks about where he grew up, or his work, or me..." She hesitated before admitting, "I really like him. I know we've only been going out a few weeks, but I think he could be the one. We're so perfect together, we never have awkward lulls in conversation, and when I'm with him I feel so..."

Kurt knew he didn't need a boyfriend. That wasn't what he was craving - not anymore. He wasn't desperately trying to find someone to become his lover, or to share an apartment with as a fabulous little married couple (well, kind of). He admired what Don and John had, but the urgency wasn't there anymore as long as he could have someone who understood him.

But that didn't mean he didn't miss that feeling. The way a boy could look at him and make him feel like there was no one else in the entire world, like he made his life make sense even though things were terrifying and uncertain...He missed the adoration.

"...special," he filled in quietly, and Rachel beamed.

"Exactly," she replied. "I adore him. And he adores me. And he respects me, too, which I have to say is a much harder thing to find in this city than I would have expected. He hasn't even tried to do more than kiss me - chastely, I might add, just a sweet little goodbye peck - and he talks about the future like he thinks I'll be in it."

"Isn't it a little soon for that?"

"What makes it soon?" she asked. "If two people are moving toward the same things and are right for each other, why should they wait for their futures? If I know that we'd be good for each other-"

"Based on what?" Kurt asked. When Rachel just stared at him, he added, "Obviously he makes you happy, and you know I support you - I absolutely do." Rachel nodded that she knew, and Kurt continued, "But how well do you even know him?"

"What do you mean?"

"If you two really are made for each other - and I'm not saying you're not - then why are you jumping into-"

"We're not jumping into anything, it's not like he's tried to make anything official...not yet anyway. I just meant that he talks about us like it's not a casual date. Like I'm special. Like Cal never did."

The look on her face reminded Kurt of a kicked puppy, and he did feel bad for suggesting this wasn't worth her efforts - or her happiness. It was just that she jumped into things fast and wanted them so badly and wasn't always realistic about their actual prospects. But she deserved to dream, didn't she? She didn't have to be realistic all the time, she was allowed to have fantasies about how the world would be...even if his had been dashed and he was feeling his way slowly through reality in an attempt to navigate the devastating disappointments New York had to offer without losing all hope or joy. If she wanted to keep up the illusion, then why crush her spirit? Especially if she really wasn't making any actual, tangible moves or changes for this guy, what was the harm? Kurt did have to admit, he seemed like he was good for her, and he could certainly see the appeal.

"You are special," he replied sincerely, and she stopped looking quite so wide-eyed and sad. "I just want someone who's actually good for you. As your fake boyfriend, that is part of my role, right?"

She grinned at that, replying, "Well, there aren't any official rules for something like this, but I think so."

"Do I get to meet him?"

Before Rachel could answer, the tumbler clicked and Mercedes pushed open the door. She looked exhausted, hair mussed, her garment bag over her arm. "That was the longest single set ever," she replied exasperatedly. "These three white kids from Columbia showed up and were trying to pass out flyers for Freedom Rides, like they know anything about it. A couple of the guys who are really into the Nation tried to tell them to go away, and it turned into this huge fight. Then one of the kids threatened to call the police - all during my first two songs. It took four hymns before everything calmed down again, but even then the mood wasn't really great. Most people went home so they told me to come home early and-" she paused, listening for a moment. "Who's singing?"

Ricky had switched to something a little more up-tempo, and Kurt smiled to himself as he imagined the boy smiling and dancing as he sang it. He sounded positively exuberant, and when the sound of the water stopped Kurt could hear him whistling the instrumental break. Before he could say anything, Rachel filled in, "Kurt's boyfriend."

Kurt sighed. "He's not."

"Kurt, it's okay - you can be honest with us," Rachel replied earnestly, though the look on Mercedes' face was far less eager to hear about it.

"I am. He's not."

"Is it because one of you hasn't made the first move yet? I would have thought with two men the problem would be two people moving first, not neither person moving first..."

It was a ridiculous statement. At least, part of it certainly seemed ridiculous; he wouldn't know how to move first if he had to. He remembered trying to very hesitantly, tentatively nudge his way into a relationship with Blaine, and even then - even with the boy who was terrified of his own homosexual shadow - it didn't feel like he'd made the first move. Of course, he realized he wasn't entirely sure what making the first move felt like, so maybe her statement wasn't quite as dumb as he thought. But in either case, the first part of what she had said rendered the second part moot.

Was it really ridiculous to think about dating Ricky? He knew it shouldn't be, there was every reason to think it might go well. Ricky opened up around him, and he loved spending time with the boy just talking about anything and nothing. And the only relationship he'd been in before started as being best friends, hadn't it? Though as he thought about it...Blaine had always made him feel different. Even before he understood why, even before he had a name for what they were, the touch of Blaine's hand left him breathless. It wasn't like that with Ricky. It was more pure. Simpler.

If Ricky would let it be simple, that was. So far that part seemed less certain than he would have liked. Hopefully tonight would be a turning point and Ricky would give Kurt some way of contacting him in return so he wouldn't be forced to just sit and wait for the boy to call him. If Ricky even did call him, he had only called this time to get his bag back.

Although...what if the bag had been some kind of a ruse? What if Ricky had left it there on purpose, so he'd have a reason to come back? The more Kurt thought about it, the more that sounded like the most logical explanation. The bag contained all his worldly possessions and all his changes of clothes, and he just left it somewhere and didn't come back for a few days? What were the chances of that? None, Kurt concluded. Ricky had other clothes somewhere, but he had left the bag so he would have a justification to call Kurt and come back to see him. He must have. So he would do the same thing this time, he bet - and play it off like something silly, call after a few days with a roll of his eyes and that put-on tone and an "Oh sweetie, how dumb of me, I seem to have left my bag in your room again. Would you be home tonight so I could come get it? I'd lose my head if it weren't attached," and before long Ricky would just be a permanent fixture in their apartment with no further need for justification. He beamed, pleased with himself for unraveling Ricky's plan, happy to play along with a wink and a smirk if it would make them feel better.

"He's off-key," Mercedes pointed out stiffly as she laid her garment bag over the arm of the couch.

"It's a difficult song, not everyone has our skill," Rachel replied. "He was singing Blame it on the Bossa Nova earlier, though I'm not sure why-"

"What?" Ricky asked sharply as he emerged, dressed in a bright blue silk top that looked more like a blouse than a shirt, at least on him. His robins egg blue pajama bottoms were either too short for him or had been cut off to resemble pedal pushers, and they hung off his slender frame. He had wrapped the towel around his head like a turban, and Kurt could imagine he was mourning the lack of a suitable jewel and matching dressing gown. There was something very Norma Desmond about him, especially when he planted his hand on his jutted-out hip and fixed Rachel with a glare that seemed to dare someone to challenge him. "You thought I could only sing La Bamba?" he asked, deliberately slipping into a thicker accent.

"No, I-...well, I assumed you had different music, the way Mercedes does-"

"Oh, you did not just say that," Mercedes replied.

When Rachel turned to try to justify her comment to Mercedes, Ricky slipped out of the living room and back into Kurt's bedroom. As much as a part of Kurt did want to hear Rachel try to explain why she was not just right, but sensitive to appreciate Mercedes' unique culture, he had other priorities. He followed Ricky into his room, closing the door behind himself defensively. It was silly, he knew, as though Ricky were a stray cat that might escape if the door were left open, but he didn't want to leave things like this. What if Ricky decided he didn't want to come back after being insulted? It would be reasonable, especially since the boy didn't know Rachel. "She didn't actually mean that," he began, and Ricky looked up from his bag to stare at him skeptically.

"You're trying to defend her?"

"She's...eccentric, that's all. She doesn't always think of how things sound before she says them. But she means well, and she's not nearly as ridiculous as she sounds - not once you get to know her."

There was a long silence as Ricky neatly tucked his dirty clothes and damp undershirt into his bag, then tugged the towel off his head. He hesitated, hands running over the rough terrycloth for a moment before he folded it neatly and set it on top of his bag. "Is it okay if we just talk in here? You had records you wanted me to hear or something?" he asked, nodding toward the smaller record player that sat on top of Kurt's dresser.

Kurt let out a sigh of relief he didn't know he'd been holding. "Yes. That'd be great. I can go get them - do you want anything else?"

"No, baby, I'm good." Ricky held out the folded towel, and Kurt took it, flashing a quick smile before darting out to retrieve the albums. 

"They'll be having this argument for awhile, they won't even notice we're gone," Kurt offered with a smirk as he returned. "Do you have one you want to start with, or should I pick?"

Ricky thought a moment, then ventured, "Put on the love story - the one with the captain guy you were talking about earlier."

Beaming, Kurt slipped The Sound of Music out of its sleeve and put it on the turntable. He opened the drawer carefully, not wanting to scratch the record or make it skip, and plucked out a pair of navy silk pajamas before he closed the drawer just as carefully. "I'll just-"

"Oh honey, I don't care that much, you're not my type and I've seen a lot more," Ricky replied easily. Kurt smiled faintly and made quick work of changing into his pajamas before lying on the bed beside his friend. They both fell asleep before the end of the first side, but not before Ricky reached over to wrap his arm around Kurt's, holding and squeezing his hand for a moment before going back to asking drowsy questions about the plot.

When Kurt's alarm went off the next morning, both the boy and the duffel bag were gone.

Chapter Text

The next call came two days later. 

Kurt had meant to go home on the early side of things, he really had. He'd spent the past day and a half worrying about Ricky and whether he really was as homeless as it seemed like he might be, and he wanted to be able to watch for any calls - just in case. He knew Ricky had taken all his belongings and wouldn't have an excuse to call him again, and he got the distinct sense that the boy was too proud to call and say he needed a warm bed and a hot meal, but maybe there was a chance the boy would call anyway. Maybe he wasn't creating this entire connection in his head the way he had in the past, and Ricky really did like him and would want to see him again, and would call...and since he had no way of calling the boy back, he would lose his chance until the phone rang again if he missed the call when it came in.

It was just so hard to keep track of time in that windowless room. Especially once he had pulled out the thinner book on the shelves, labeled "Military" rather than a year, and found the uniforms Mainbocher had designed for the women of World War II...well, he had always loved a well-tailored military jacket, and before he realized it he had six pages of sketches and the clock on the edge of his desk told him it was well past 7.

He practically sprinted from his office, cursing under his breath as he just missed the train and tapping his foot impatiently and rolling his eyes as he waited what felt like forever but was, in reality, only six minutes. By the time he arrived at his front door, his was breathless from speedwalking from the subway and taking the stairs two at a time. He paused long enough to fish his key out of his bag and his heart leapt for a minute as he heard voices inside - one sounded like Rachel, and one was someone else but didn't sound like Mercedes...and she would be gone already this time of night anyway. Maybe Ricky had just stopped by, he thought with a grin, unlocking the door and pushing it open.

He tried not to be disappointed as he saw Rachel on the couch cuddled up to a familiar blond. Rachel hadn't been lying, Fred was definitely more attractive in person, and that was a very high bar to begin with. "Hi, Kurt," Rachel called, looking over at him with a contented smile. "You're home late."

"I lost track of time."

"He works in a closet," Rachel informed Fred, who looked amused but a little perplexed.

"Not a closet, exactly, but it's close enough," Kurt replied as he set down his bag, then crossed to the living room. "I just wanted to say I've seen everything you've been in and are fantastic - the movie with the space invaders and all," he stated, and Fred grinned - Rachel was right, it really did light up a room.

"Thanks. You must be Kurt." He offered his hand easily, and as Kurt shook it he added, "Rachel speaks really highly of you."

"Oh - before I forget," Rachel jumped in, a bright smile spreading across her face. "You got a call while you were at work," she chirped, bordering on sing-song, and Kurt didn't even have to ask who it had been - she wouldn't be nearly so upbeat about his dad calling to check in on him or let them know Finn had sent another letter. He sighed - his one chance and he had missed it. What if Ricky didn't call again? Was he going to have to wait two more days to hear back? "What's wrong? Are you two fighting already? Because he didn't sound angry with you."

"No. He's just a very hard person to get in touch with."

"I think that's my cue," Fred said stiffly, standing. Kurt just barely hid the roll of his eyes at the star's obvious discomfort as soon as Rachel made it sound like he was dating a boy. He wasn't...but the fact that he wanted to was objectionable enough. "I'll see you tomorrow, honey?" he asked her.

"Of course," she replied with a sweet smile, sitting on the edge of the couch, legs crossed demurely at the ankles. She leaned up, practically batting her eyelashes, and this time Kurt didn't even bother to hide his eye-rolling. Fred leaned down to give her a light peck, straightening with a smile, then tucked her hair back behind her ear before leaving. "Isn't he just as amazing as I said?"

Kurt knew that asking for acceptance for who he was, was a lot to ask from most people. But was it completely unreasonable? A part of him felt like at the very least any man Rachel was willing to spend that much time with shouldn't be scared off so easily by the topic - for one thing, if he ever planned on meeting her dad, the guy would have to get used to the fact that her dad's "colored homosexual lover" came as part of the deal. Though considering so far he had met only one boy their age who wasn't gay who was accepting, and in light of the fact that he wasn't even sure what state Sam was in right now, he supposed it might be too much to ask.

At least for now. Maybe one day he could make that a criteria for anyone Rachel introduced to him, anyone she considered a potential suitor. At some point that would cease to be such a tall order, wouldn't it? Assuming she wasn't married by the time that happened, anyway.

"He's even more dashing than you said," he replied simply. "You look good together," he added sincerely, and her smile went from adoring to jubilant. 

"You really think so?"

"Absolutely. And I could put you in fantastic coordinating ensembles for the Tonys one day."

"Would I have anyone else make my dress?" she smiled fondly. "You should call Ricky back - otherwise he'll think you don't want to talk to him. And don't worry about looking desperate, he did call twice and hang up before he finally told me who it was. He has such a crush on you..."

Kurt gave her a deadpan look, but he was worried - he called three times? What if Ricky was in trouble? What if he was in jail again, or his things had been stolen, or he needed somewhere to go so badly that he couldn't risk it anymore- "I can't call him back," he stated, voicing his biggest frustration. He didn't know if Ricky really didn't have a phone regularly - as he suspected - or just refused to give Kurt his number - which was less likely but what Kurt hoped was the case - but in either event he had no way of contacting the boy.

"Why? Is he always too busy out and about on the town?"

"...Yes and no," Kurt replied, because that was the simpler explanation.

"What does that mean?" Rachel asked, laughing softly as she walked over to the sink for a glass of water.

"It means...I don't know. I think there's something going on with him."

"Another boy?" she asked, eyes wide and sympathetic. The look was achingly piteous, and he cut her off quickly to avoid the oncoming soliloquy about how she knew exactly what that felt like because she had been through the same thing.

"No!" What was so hard for her to understand that they weren't dating, so any boy Ricky chose to see wouldn't be any of his business or concern as long as they were still friends- but she had such a knowing look at his quick answer that he knew that any explanation he tried to give would fall on deaf ears. "There's no boy. At least, not that I know of. It's complicated."

"Because your love is forbidden," she stated matter-of-factly. "I know how hard that's been for my dad-"

"Rachel, there is no love. We're friends. And...I think he's in trouble," he ventured cautiously.

"What kind of trouble?" she asked, concerned, then her eyes widened. "I've heard the police will arrest homosexuals sometimes. You don't think..."

It was times like this, Kurt concluded, that he was reminded just how frustratingly naive Rachel could be. It wasn't her fault - she meant well. She meant to be a shoulder he could lean on, she really did. But she had never really known so many things. She knew of things, tangentially, because of her dad and his lover or her single mom or Mercedes or him, but she hadn't experienced any of it. She was genuinely shocked that the police arrested people like him - and not just that they did it here, but that they did it at all. He had known that for years. He had known since that horrible moment when he was sixteen that he had opened the newspaper to find a movie and seen the only safe place he knew splashed across the page along with the names and occupations of everyone who had been there. And now he knew far too many details about exactly what the police did when they arrested homosexuals - how they looked, the names they used...

And Rachel had no idea.

Part of that might be his fault, he realized. He as much as anyone tended to not tell her the whole truth of things, to let her stay in her own little world where she was the ultimate star and nothing bad happened to people she liked. He could have told her - in theory. If he had known where to begin, he could have told her...but the idea of watching her eyes grow wide and her face fall as he detailed everything that the police did when they arrested those unlucky gay souls in whatever corner they happened to swoop down that night...

"It's not that," he stated, choosing instead to skip over the conversation entirely. She wouldn't understand it anyway, he rationalized as he turned his attention back to the problem at hand. She would find a way to make it all about herself in her own naive way, as though some time she was worried or called a name could compare with being ordered to strip in a drafty interrogation room while police called him every foul name and accused him of every vile crime they could think of. Rachel would never be able to truly understand - and that was okay. It just meant he needed someone else in addition to Rachel, someone for whom he didn't have to explain the dark underbelly of everything. But it was starting to occur to him that maybe the reason Ricky understood meant there was a lot more darkness than Kurt wanted to think about. 

How could someone just have nowhere to go? How could this boy - who couldn't be more than a couple years older than him, at most, and seemed like he might even be younger though Kurt had no idea - not have somewhere to sleep or keep his clothes? What could possibly have happened that Ricky needed to shower at his place instead of at his own apartment?

"Well, he sounded fine when he called," Rachel concluded after a moment of Kurt not explaining what the problem was. "As upbeat and chipper as ever - and as adorable. You know, it sounds like he has a busy night planned anyway."

"Really?" Kurt asked, eyebrows raising just slightly. It seemed strange that Ricky would call to tell him he had other plans, so he suspected it must have been a ruse - just downplaying a request to come over and listen to more albums, making it sound like it was fine that Kurt wasn't there because he had plenty of things to do instead. 

"Yeah, he said he was going to his mother's house and just wanted to know if you wanted to go with him - since you had been talking about it," she relayed as best she could remember. "You really need to work on this story of yours, Kurt, because if you're not dating then why in the world would he be taking you to meet his mother? Unless she's like my dad, in which case-"

"Mama's?" Kurt asked, and Rachel looked at him curiously. "Is that what he called it?"

"I think so, why?" she asked.

"It's a restaurant," he explained, already gathering his things. "Did he say he was still going?" 

"I don't know. Maybe. It's worth a shot, isn't it?"

For all her incessant insistence that his relationship with Ricky was more than what it was, he did appreciate that she was eager for him to see the boy. It could have been much worse - he remembered how abandoned Mercedes had felt when he had started talking to Rachel more than to her, and he knew when Rachel was going out every night with her sleazy exboyfriend he had felt even more abandoned and lonely in their undersized apartment. She really did want him to enjoy himself. He paused getting ready, asking in the same spirit, "What are you up to tonight, then? A quiet evening at home? More scales practice?"

"No, I'm going out."

Kurt's eyes narrowed - that wasn't the usual response of a girl who had just told her boyfriend she would see him tomorrow. "Really."

"Yes. Well- not going out, not on a date," she clarified. "Fred's busy all night, he has a meeting with a producer, so Bobby and I are going to get dinner and then try out monologues and songs on one another. Neither of us have had much luck lately, even though we're both incredibly talented, and since I'm choosing not to use my star-dating power for good or for ill, we're going to be each other's coach." 

"That sounds like fun."

"And a great way to get a fresh perspective on what we're each doing wrong," Rachel stated. "Though I doubt he'll have much to pick apart."

Kurt rolled his eyes fondly at Rachel's typical response as he pulled on his jacket. "Have fun."

"You too. You can bring Ricky back to entertain him here if you want. We're getting a late start because Bobby had to pick up a job waiting tables. I feel bad - I remember what that was like, back when I had to try to schedule auditions around a mundane job as a typist or someone's assistant, getting coffee when I should have been singing. Oh well. It will serve both of us well when a director needs someone who can bring the kind of raw frustration and despair that suffering in a tedious unrelated job can create."

On that note, Kurt decided it was probably best to leave. He just really hoped Ricky was still planning on going where he said he was and it wasn't a ruse to cover his embarrassment over calling. It was so hard to tell with that boy sometimes, but an evening at Mama's talking about musicals sounded like the perfect night.

* * * * *

With the combination of wine, song, and helpful criticism, Rachel wasn't sure there could be a better or more enjoyable way to spend the evening. It wasn't just enjoyable, it was productive. Rachel went first - as she always did when given a choice - and though she thought Bobby was wrong that her A was flat, his comments had otherwise been reasonable enough: Pull back a little in the middle of the second verse to move more strongly into the chorus, hold the belt just a fraction of a count longer. All of it was designed to better showcase her talent, and Bobby certainly seemed to understand what it was about her voice that would make her a star. 

If only directors saw what both of them did. 

It wasn't until Bobby began to sing that she realized she had only heard him once before, that first audition where he barely got through the first few lines before being cut off. She knew he sounded great that day, but she hadn't been able to see just how much he lit up.

You have the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth
Yet there's that upturned chin and that grin of impetuous youth
Oh I believe in you
I believe in you.


Not only was his voice better than most, with a sweet quality she found lovely, but his emotional connection to the song was perfect. It was strong, genuine - she believed every word he was saying, which was almost never the case when she heard people audition. Especially the men - it seemed like so few of them understood the importance of really conveying the emotional meaning of the song. It was crucial to a perfect performance, yet so many of them would just stand out onstage or front and center in a tiny casting room and bark out lyrics about being in love without ever looking like they were. Sure, they were singing it to a panel of directors who were all men and most of the performers weren't homosexuals so that might be awkward (and awkward for the directors as well), but that wasn't the point. In order to fully express the song as well as their acting abilities, they needed to act as though they were in love with someone in the room when they sang about love. Bobby, though...while it was a song more about being in love with himself than with a girl, he sounded convincing inasmuch as the song was about convincing himself that he was good enough. 

I hear the sound of good solid judgment whenever you talk
yet there's the bold, brave spring of the tiger that quickens your walk
Oh I believe in you
I believe in you


She was thankful he didn't do any gimmicky things like Robert Morse did on the line about the tiger - that would have ruined it by making a cheap joke. No; Bobby was far too sincere for a growl to work there. He sounded like he was really convincing-

...himself. And her, because she was pretty sure he believed in her, too, but mostly himself.

She could picture him standing in his bathroom mirror every morning, practicing scales in the shower because that room definitely had better acoustics than the rest of his tiny studio, warming up before his audition, then singing this affirmation to himself in the mirror. He really was sweet that way, with that grin of his and his expressive eyes.

And when my faith in my fellow man all but falls apart
I've just got to feel your hand grasping mine and I take heart
I take heart


He stopped singing to himself on the bridge, eyes piercing her in a way that made her feel flustered and excited all at once - the same way they had the day they met, when he tugged her into the empty stairwell. She gazed back at him, slipping forward a little on the edge of his bed, watching him intently. 

To see the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth
Yet with the slam, bang, tang reminiscent of gin and vermuth
Oh I believe in you
I believe in you...you...you</i>

As he finished the song, he looked at her, breathing a little hard from a combination of holding the last note and the exhilaration of a song well-sung, and asked with a proud grin, "Well?" It was a tone Rachel knew well, one she used frequently herself: Bobby knew he'd performed amazingly well, but she had to give him credit for not preening. It was difficult sometimes not to. 

"That was fantastic," she replied, returning his grin. "You had a real emotional connection to the song, the depth of it was perfect. And your tone was beautiful."

"Thanks." He brushed back his hair with his fingertips, smile softening. "Do you want something to drink?"

"Sure," Rachel replied, then added as a thought occurred to her. "But not-"

"Milk, I know," Bobby assured her as he crossed the one-room apartment to the kitchen area: It was practically just a counter across the room, no longer than Rachel was tall, with a stove and sink crammed in. He reached up to grab two glasses and poured water for each of them.

"Should we do our monologues now?" Rachel asked, reaching for her bag. "I brought a few classics I thought I could try, maybe we could even practice cold readings together. I know I usually don't have anyone to practice with, Kurt tends to get tired of it after the third hour so I don't get nearly as much rehearsal time as I would like. And since it's more and more common now to do that instead of a traditional monologue, maybe it would be a good exercise for us."

"You never stop, do you?"

Bobby's question and it's accompanying fond smile confused her. "What do you mean?"

"You're so focused on our work all the time," he pointed out as he sat beside her on the bed - the only piece of furniture save his dresser, an upright piano, and some bookshelves that were crammed with sheet music and classic plays. "We sang through a song apiece and knocked them out of the park. We don't have to keep trudging along and worry about getting through everything. We can have a little fun, you know."

He was so close as he said it, smiling so sweetly, looking so genuinely interested in her response, that Rachel knew he could only mean one thing by that. To say she was flustered would be an understatement as she sprang to her feet. "No," she replied quickly. "I don't know what you might have heard about me, I- I know that you heard about Cal and I - but I am not focused on that. Besides, I have a boyfriend, and we're very happy, so you can forget about trying to use a perfectly-sung song to get-"

Bobby's eyes widened and he choked on his water, sputtering and shaking his head quickly. "No," he choked out. "Rachel- please, no, I wasn't- Don't g-" A coughing fit cut him off, but Rachel was pretty sure the word he was trying to say was 'go.' She couldn't very well let him die from choking on his own water, so she reached over to rub his back as he slowly began to get under control. "That was not what I meant," he said, his half-laugh coming out more like a throaty chortle. He swallowed, then clarified, "I just meant you should relax a little bit."

"I can't afford that," she stated, hoping that if she blew right past the question of why she assumed that was what he wanted, he wouldn't bring it up. "Everyone in this city wants the same thing you and I want: They want to be stars, to be famous, to be brilliant singers and actors and dancers. Every minute we don't work, we're only helping their chances at taking our dreams. If I'm going to win by first Tony Award by the time I'm 25, I can't possibly relax and let loose, certainly not on a night we've dedicated to perfecting our audition skills."

"Who's to say we can't do both?" Bobby pointed out. "If you're anything like me - and believe me, you are," he added with a teasing grin as he stood and crossed to one of the bookcases. "You have what others might call a 'strange idea of what fun is.' I know that's what they said about me back home. Because while all the other boys were out playing catch, what I thought was fun..." he pulled out a songbook and moved over to the piano, patting the bench beside him.

He did have a point. While all the other girls in Lima had thought the most fun a person could have was spending all day doing nothing but talking with friends, Rachel had never seen it that way. She was always her happiest when she was performing - not just because she felt productive, but it was because that was what she loved more than anything. "What songs do you have?" she asked, smoothing her skirt as she walked over to sit beside him on the piano bench, glad her misunderstanding earlier hadn't made Bobby awkward. That would have been even more mortifying. 

"Plenty of them," he replied. "I thought we could start with some Rodgers and Hart - I assume you've heard of them," he added, teasing.

"Well, only a little," she replied with a dramatic wink. 

Bobby began to play, and Rachel could barely do anything but watch him - he came alive when he played almost as much as when he sang, his entire body bopping along happily as he pounded out the big band chords. She loved this song, too, if only because it meant she got to belt out a note in the perfect place in her range to be truly impressive. Plus it was a very difficult song to sing, which spoke volumes of her talent, and she knew if anyone could appreciate that it was Bobby. But she couldn't help but remark, "You're really good."

Bobby looked up at her, shaken from his musical world, and smiled almost shyly. He kept playing as he replied, "Thanks."

"Do you like singing better, is that why you're not playing professionally?"

"I don't know," he replied simply, but it did seem genuine rather than evasive. "I just always wanted to sing and dance on Broadway - you know what that's like."

"I do," she confirmed. "But this would certainly have to be a better backup job than waiting tables. If I could play like that, I would do it in a heartbeat instead of being a secretary between jobs. I bet I could find someone who could help you get your break into the industry. Every audition needs a pianist, plus rehearsals, performances, even some composers don't play themselves - or don't play well enough. I'm sure if I talked to Fred-" He stopped playing, staring at her for a long moment as though trying to figure out what her agenda might be, and she jumped in immediately to explain, "I just want to help you. You're really good, and you seem to enjoy it, and I thought-"

"So you really are dating a little star?"

"What?"

"Well, he's not big enough yet to be a big star. He will be, he's really good at what he does, but he's not yet. Hence, 'little star.'"

"Oh," Rachel said, blinking. "Yes, I am, then."

"Then why are you here?" Rachel didn't even know what that meant and she stared at him, eyes narrow, as she tried to figure out what he was trying to say. After a moment, he went on. "You could have anything you wanted dating him, I'm sure he could get you a job. When I asked if you wanted to work on auditions, you didn't have to say yes out of pity-"

"I didn't," she replied quickly, grasping his hand where it rested on the keys. "I'm not asking him for anything," she explained. "He hasn't offered, but I haven't asked. I want to make it on my own, I don't want to rely on the kindness of someone I'm dating to define the roles that I can get. I'm more than talented enough, I should be able to do it my own with pride."

"Then why are you dating him?" he asked.

"What do you mean? Isn't it obvious?" Maybe it was just because Bobby was a boy that he didn't understand - well, a heterosexual boy, because Kurt certainly didn't try to tell her that Fred wasn't a good boyfriend. He was charming and funny and kind and he didn't treat her like something disposable, and his eyes were bright and his smile was brighter. Who wouldn't want to date him?

"Well I know it's not for intimacy - you're not his type."

She stared at him, not sure what he could possibly mean by that. Was it because she wasn't like those beautiful blonde-haired girls with the delicate features and high cheekbones and light eyes, the ones who looked glamourous and local all at once while she just looked...Jewish? Was it because she wasn't established enough? Some stars only dated others of their caliber because they were who would fully understand the demands of the industry, and she didn't know enough about Fred's dating history to know for sure whether that was his usual choice of a girlfriend. "Why?"

Bobby just stared at her, as though trying to figure out if she were kidding or not, then shook his head. "I'm not going to explain that one to you. No way. I had to do that to another girl once and she didn't take it well at all."

So it was that there was something wrong with her, Rachel concluded, that made her unsuited to being considered one of his usual choices. That had to be what Bobby meant - why else would it have gone so badly with the previous girl he had a similar conversation with? She looked down, trying to figure out what could possibly be so wrong with herself, asking, "What do you mean?"

Bobby shook his head again. "Let's keep singing." He started another song

You don't know that I felt good when we up and parted

"Wait, no - really. What did you mean?" Rachel asked, irritated more by Bobby's evasiveness than by what he said. Not that he said much of anything at all, had he? "Why wouldn't I be his type? And why is it any of your business anyway?"

"It isn't," Bobby replied before singing his line. 

You don't know I knocked on wood, gladly broken-hearted
Worrying is through-


Rachel cut herself off to reply. "That's right, it's not. So why are you-"

"Because I care about you," Bobby replied, looking at her with the same earnest eyes as before.

Rachel was taken aback by the admission, eyes widening. "Bobby...I'm flattered, honestly I am, but I can't date you- even if you don't understand why, Fred is my boyfriend and I'm not going to do anything dishonest to him. For one thing, it would cause a scandal, him being an almost-star and all, and for another I really do like him - a lot, I might love him - so you-"

"Who said anything about dating you?" Bobby replied, staring at her like she'd lost her mind now, and Rachel didn't understand what happened so quickly. "I didn't mean like that, I meant I care about you - as someone who thinks you have the potential to be an amazing star someday soon if you don't keep dating every man in New York with some minor amount of power or influence."

Rachel's eyes widened further, bordering on comical, stunned. "How dare you think that's what I'm doing?" she demanded.

"Isn't it?" he shot back pointedly. "First the director anyone could see was sleazy from a mile away, then the guy who propositioned you, now the B-list star on his way to the top? You can't tell me you aren't attracted to that kind of power and what it can do for you. You're ambitious, Rachel, and you're not stupid. Which is why I'm saying you have got to look down the road a little ways - I don't want you to become a joke. You're too talented for that."

"You think I'm dating Fred for the career perks? If that were true, then why is he not offering to help me? Why am I here with you instead of out at his meeting with his producer friend? she asked. Because Bobby had no idea what he was talking about. Fred hadn't so much as tried to get her roles yet, though he did say he knew she was talented and would be a star but everyone knew that. How could Bobby possibly claim that she was using Fred for his power and influence when she hadn't asked him to exercise any? 

She loved Fred. Or she might - she could. She certainly could very soon. Who wouldn't? He was sweet and kind and beautiful and treated her like she was worth something instead of blowing her off the way other boys did, and he lit up when he saw her - if that didn't mean he loved her, too, then what did? She might not be the most experienced at this kind of thing, but she was pretty sure that this wasn't like Cal. Even Kurt didn't think so, and he was the most skeptical, cynical person she knew.

Except apparently Bobby.

He was silent for a moment, considering his response, then replied evenly, "There are two choices, the way I see it. Either he respects you and your abilities enough to let you make it on your own, or he's stringing you along and using you. But given your history of not being able to tell, I'm not sure I trust you to be right."

Rachel wasn't sure whether to be more insulted by his insinuation that she was too naive to know what was going on or the idea that Fred was using her and just pretending to be a good guy to lure her into a false sense of security. Either way, she wasn't going to sit there and listen to it. With a dramatic flourish, she stood and stormed out, hair bouncing behind her.

Yes - The evening had been going perfectly well until Bobby had to open his big mouth.

* * * * *

By the time Kurt arrived at Mama's, he was absolutely convinced he had missed Ricky for the night. He wasn't even sure Ricky had ever been actually intending to go to Mama's, for all he knew it was just some story he made up for Rachel to make it sound like he wasn't just trying to call and come over, and even if Ricky had actually planned on going who knew if he had actually gone once he though Kurt wasn't coming. And even if he had shown up at some point, that had been an hour or two by now, and how long could one boy sit at a restaurant without anyone else there?

But at least Mama's would make for a good evening, Kurt hoped. He might run into Don and John again, at the very least, and finally have the chance to ask them the things he'd been wanting to ask them for weeks. It was just that there was never a good time - Don was afraid to talk about things during work, even though the new position was meant to give him more of a chance to interact with the man during business hours, and he didn't even know where in the building John worked or what precisely he did. So either way the evening probably wouldn't be a waste - and he might meet more new friends, though who he really wanted to see was still the boy who understood so much about him without even trying.

But maybe other boys there would understand him, too. He remembered the conversation in which he first met John, the comment "Oh honey we've all been there" - when talking about his being arrested and having his photograph plastered all over the paper. Maybe it really was commonplace enough that plenty of the boys at the restaurant would understand what he was going through and appreciate his creativity and general love of all things unique.

He stepped into the restaurant after getting lost for only a few blocks, smiling faintly to himself as the hot and cold air blasts hit him at once - it may not have been comfortable, but the fogging of the windows made it more than worth it, watching boys dance or even kiss like two of them had done the other night. He looked around, taking stock, when he heard a familiar voice chirp, "Vonny!" Kurt looked toward the source of the sound and saw Ricky, dressed in different clothes than Kurt had last seen him in - which was good - sitting at a booth toward the front. He looked better than he had the last time Kurt saw him, even if he still looked too tired and too thin, and his broad smile was accentuated by the rouge pinking his cheeks, eyes lined heavily with makeup. "Over here," he added brightly with a wave. 

He looked good. Made-up but not like the tiny half-drowned boy Kurt had found on his doorstep a few nights earlier. Maybe Ricky's situation wasn't as dire as he had feared.

Kurt moved eagerly over to the table, slipping into the vinyl booth across from him. Ricky started to speak almost before Kurt was seated. "Oh good, you got the message. I knew you had found this place eventually the other night, and you liked it so much...but your roommate's kind of crazy so I wasn't sure you would know I was here until it was too late."

"She thought we were a serious couple and you were asking me to go meet your mother."

Ricky stared for a moment, then burst into a fit of giggles, brown eyes wide and sparkling. "Oh Vonny, she didn't."

"That's Rachel," Kurt replied dryly, then backtracked. "Vonny?" he asked with a skeptical raise of his eyebrow even as he smiled.

"It's what I've decided to call you," Ricky replied definitively. "Kurt's so...boring. But Von Trapp is a bit formal for us, isn't it? Hence, Vonny. Like The Sound of Music - like you played for me."

It was the first time Ricky had ever referenced the time they had previously spent together, Kurt realized. He always made clear that they knew each other, they weren't like Don and John in public, but usually he didn't talk about anything they had talked about or done before. Of course, usually their time together was the result of something completely humiliating, so Kurt supposed he could understand why. But it felt nice - and it was certainly nice to see the boy relaxed and happy, even if it was a little out of the blue.

"Have you eaten yet?" Ricky asked, indicating his own half-eaten BLT. He picked up a fry and looked prepared to point it at Kurt in admonishment if he didn't like the response.

"Not yet, let me-" Kurt started to fish for his wallet, but Ricky cut him off.

"None of that. Dinner's on me tonight - it was a good day," he added with a flash of a proud grin. Kurt wasn't entirely sure what that meant, and he started to protest but the look on the boy's face made clear exactly how seriously his arguments would be taken.

Maybe it was a pride thing on Ricky's part, paying him back for food and a place to stay the other night. Either way, he hated to take it from someone who couldn't afford it, but for all he knew he was wrong about what his friend's situation was. For all he knew, Ricky had been going through a rough patch with his roommates - if Mercedes were a different kind of person, he could easily see where she might have opted to stay somewhere else - anywhere else - rather than dealing with her groupmates some nights. Maybe he had made up the entire sad story in his head because his overactive imagination didn't have nearly enough things to create these days.

"So you liked the musical," Kurt concluded with a smile as Ricky snapped his fingers to summon one of the waiters. 

"it's still a little optimistic of a love story if you ask me. But it was nice."

"Optimistic? They had to escape from Nazis," Kurt pointed out.

"So they traipsed through the Alps overnight," Ricky replied with a dismissive wave of a fry. "They were people from barely-different worlds who ended up together by singing and dancing and bringing music back to Germans."

"Austrians," Kurt corrected.

"Future-communists. Whatever. But it was sweet, if a little simple."

"Simple romance can be nice," Kurt replied. "The way it feels to just be with a person you really love, who really loves you? To hold his hand and share a glance across the room that no one else is privy to. It's beyond nice, it's...magical."

"You want a Disney movie," Ricky teased, and Kurt felt himself start to bristle. What was wrong with that? What was wrong with wanting any of that? What was so horrible about wanting the same things everyone else wanted but was allowed to have? But Ricky's voice softened, and he said quietly, "I hope you find it, honey. I hope you find a prince - then you can have little birds dress you in the morning and sew those gorgeous jackets of yours."

Kurt laughed softly at that, then asked, "Have you ever found it?"

Ricky rolled his eyes. "Who has the time?" he asked dismissively. "Or the nerve for it - like any man in this city wants to be seen with the likes of us."

"I know men who've found it," Kurt replied with certainty, thinking of his boss and his lover, of the way they looked at each other right here last week. "It's not perfect, but it's there somewhere."

"Not for us," Ricky repeated with a shrug as if to say 'and who needs it,' then asked with some hesitation, "...You've found it, haven't you? But lost it again?"

"He was afraid," Kurt replied quietly. "We were in Ohio, and I thought he was coming here to have what my boss and his lover have, and then suddenly he...wasn't anymore."

Ricky nodded sympathetically, patting Kurt's hand. "Anyone with your cheekbones stands a better than average chance of finding a good man, one day," he allowed, then withdrew his hand and snapped back into his less-serious voice. "Where is that waiter?" he asked, snapping again. Kurt wondered if the snapping of Ricky's fingers was exactly what was keeping the waiter away, even if he might have done the same thing, and he let his gaze wander.

The restaurant was just as crowded as it had been the other night, and Kurt thought he recognized some of the same men from before - the group in the corner booth, a few of the younger guys sitting at that end of the counter, the four men - or was it two couples? - in their forties or so sitting at the table near the center of everything. He loved the idea of this being a place people could just come and spend their evenings, like a few of the restaurants back home, somewhere where everyone knew each other and looked out for each other. That community thing Don talked about, the idea of there being more people out there and the need to take care of one another. Maybe if he came around more often he could be part of this - really part of it. If he were going to find a boyfriend, it did seem like the most likely place, and to find more friends and people he could talk to it seemed the perfect location. Either way, it felt safe here. Comfortable. Full of people who-

His gaze landed on a familiar thatch of well-styled blond hair and a beaming grin. Kurt watched as Fred touched the arm of an attractive young man, laughing at something the stranger said, then looked around with a jovial roll of his eyes. He could see the exact moment the star saw him: all the life seemed to drain from Fred's face beginning with his eyes as they turned first dead then fearful, then the colour left his cheeks as he paled, then his smile faded slowly, drooping down. He swallowed hard, clearly caught, practically begging with his gaze:

Please don't say anything.

Chapter Text

Kurt was not a person who enjoyed secrets.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. He was perfectly capable of keeping them - he had kept his secret from his dad until Christmas, there were still things he wasn't telling Rachel or Mercedes - and probably never would. He didn't reveal confidences , that was for sure. He appreciated too well why there was information that could be damaging or traumatic to share with others. Unlike Rachel who seemed to go blithely through life without any care for what might or might not be appropriate to share, he understood why people couldn't reveal everything about them, and he respected it. If Ricky shared anything with him, he wouldn't tell a soul.

But that was different. Fred's secret was different than what Ricky's situation might be or his own night in jail. Who he loved, who he wanted to be with, didn't hurt anyone around him. It didn't involve anyone but him and maybe - if he was lucky, one day - a beautiful boy he met at Mama's. Fred, on the other hand...

Did Rachel even know?

She must not, he concluded, if Fred looked so scared that Kurt might tell someone. He might on some level be afraid that Kurt would tell the press, would tip off a theatre writer for the Times and end the man's career before it could really take off. But not only would the newspaper not print such salacious, filthy gossip when it had nothing to do with Fred's acting...but Rachel wouldn't be able to call Fred her boyfriend without an exaggerated wink if she knew the secret. She would go around telling Kurt about how she had managed to snag a second "boyfriend" to help him avoid suspicion of homosexuality. She would laugh about how great it was to have two men wanting to date her even if they secretly wanted to date each other, and she would try to get Fred to take him out on a date where no one could see them. She wouldn't understand the dozen ways what she was saying was wrong or made one or both of them uncomfortable, but she would mean well and she would genuinely want them to be happy even if she couldn't see all the realities of their lives.

Rachel couldn't keep her mouth shut if her life depended on it. If his first confirmation that Fred was gay like he was, was seeing him at Mama's...then Rachel must not have any idea.

Was he really supposed to not tell her?

"You're awfully quiet tonight, Vonny. Too much chocolate cake?" Ricky asked as they strode back to the subway. He couldn't help but notice he hadn't actually asked Ricky if he wanted to come back tonight, and Kurt wasn't sure if that was progress or not. He wished he knew whether it was because Ricky wanted to spend time with him or because things were so bad- though if he'd had a good enough day to buy dinner, including dessert and coffee for them both, he figured the situation couldn't be too dire tonight. He couldn't help but smile a little at the idea that he was no longer coaxing the boy back to his apartment with a trail of appetizers and the promise of a hot shower; even if he had bigger problems tonight, that was a step in the right direction. 

"No - but oh my god it was good," Kurt commented, and Ricky laughed, nudging his shoulder as they crossed 14th Street toward the station.

"I swear, I could eat that every night. But I hate to think about what I'd look like if I did," he groaned.

"You could afford it," Kurt replied, eying him.

"Oh, men love an overweight queen bursting out of a too-small gown," Ricky laughed, rolling his eyes.

They fell into easy silence, and it surprised him a little that Ricky would ask what was wrong but not circle back to the subject. Though considering how much Ricky tried to avoid serious conversations in favour of surface-level discussions of rock stars and Hollywood, it wasn't too strange when Kurt thought about it. He was going to have to be the one to delve into the deeper topic if he really wanted to talk about it...and he did. Or at least, he needed a second opinion to help him figure out what to do. "I saw someone tonight," he ventured as they descended the stairs.

"Ooo - you should've told me! I would've left to give you privacy," Ricky replied, slapping him playfully on the arm with a roll of his eyes. 

"What? No-"

"You'd do the same for me," Ricky added with a shrug as he fished through his pocket for a token.

"Not someone I wanted time alone with," Kurt replied with a blush at the thought. When Ricky continued to look skeptical, Kurt went on to explain. "The guy Rachel's been dating."

"The star?" Ricky burst out, fighting a giggle.

"Yes - how did you-"

"She's not exactly quiet about it. Ay, that's too funny - shouldn't be surprising, though, any girl who pretends to date you...no offense, Vonny, you know I love you," Ricky laughed, and Kurt shot him a glare as he deposited his token and pressed his way through the turnstiles. "But any girl who pretends to date you is probably not going to have the most macho taste in men. Especially not in theater, where almost all of them are like us even if no one's allowed to say it."

"Really?" Kurt asked, surprised, and Ricky gave him a side-eyed glare and a roll of his eyes as they meandered down the platform. "So far all the men she's tried to date were secretly - or not so secretly - trying to casting-couch her."

"There is that," Ricky smirked. 

Kurt sighed, staring across the platform absently. "I have to tell her," he declared. She and Mercedes had been his friend back in Lima where he'd had no one, and even as he gathered friends slowly but surely in New York he owed the two of them everything. He wasn't sure he would have been able to survive the first few years in this city without so much as a single person in his corner, and as imperfect a friend as she could be sometimes, she always meant well. It wasn't her fault she was so blissfully naive about the ways of the world. It wasn't Rachel's fault that she honestly believed men liked her when they were using her for some reason or another, and he could relate to it in a sad way. He had spent too much time believing the people around him - at least one of his arrests could have been avoided completely if he hadn't convinced himself that Stu was secretly as lonely as he was. 

And at least now he had people to look out for him, Kurt realized. He had Don and John and maybe Ricky, all in addition to Rachel and Mercedes who might not always know how to help - might not ever know how to help - but at least wanted to, if they could. Rachel...she didn't really have anyone, did she? It was strange, coming from Ohio where she might not have been beloved but at least had people watching out for her and was still higher in the pecking order than he was, but aside from a few superficial pseudo-friendships she might have formed with a few other auditionees she saw on a regular basis, did Rachel even have friends in this town? He was pretty sure the answer was no. Mercedes had people she worked with up at the club, the bartenders all treated her like a little sister and kept patrons from hassling her...but Rachel...

If he didn't look out for her, who would?

"I have to tell her," he repeated, more sure in his conviction, and turned to Ricky. The look on the boy's face was one of skepticism, with pursed lips and rolled eyes that said 'You couldn't be more of a moron.' "...Yes?"

"No," Ricky replied with a shake of his head.

"She has no idea, and I owe it to her."

"No."

"She's my best friend-"

"That doesn't make it better," Ricky stated. "All it gives you is more to lose when she gets mad at you for telling her what she already knows but doesn't want to hear. It's not your business."

"Of course it is," Kurt replied. "She thinks he's in love with her, she's falling for him. She needs to know-"

"No," Ricky said again, drawing out the word this time with a wave of his hand. "It's none of your business, and there's no way it's going to end well. We don't know his story, we don't know his life, and if you go around telling every woman dating or married to a fellow queer you're gonna be too busy to listen to your musicals anymore. Trust me, Vonny, I know you think it's good for her, but it's not. You don't know what's going on."

"He's using her. He's dating her so no one will know he's going to Mama's and God only knows where else, and she needs to-"

"No."

"You have no idea what she's done for me," Kurt tried to explain. "We helped each other get out of our small town. She dated me when we both knew I was in love with a boy at school, and she was the first person who told me it was okay. She's my best friend, and if I were dating someone who was secretly-" He couldn't help but stop at the gratuitous eye-rolling from his friend, and he added, "I owe it to her."

"Let me tell you what's gonna happen, baby," Ricky said, putting his hands on Kurt's upper arms and looking him in the eye. "You'll go tell her because you mean well, because you want her to be happy and with someone who loves her. She won't hear any of that, she'll only hear that you were staring at her boyfriend all night, and the next thing you know she's not talking to you anymore. No one wants to hear the truth. Not about this. Not about us. People wanna hear what they wanna hear and you're not changing that in the next half hour."

Kurt stared at him. It sounded like too personal a story to be something Ricky was conjuring up. He wondered if that was how he ended up temporarily homeless - if it really was temporary the way he had suspected. Since now Ricky seemed like he had somewhere to go and a source of income even though he was following Kurt home...maybe his roommate was like the Puerto Rican Rachel and had reacted just as badly when Ricky saw one of her boyfriends out with a man. Maybe that was why he'd been sleeping on a park bench and had nowhere to go for a few days - because she was so angry she made him leave or he couldn't deal with her... "She won't take it that badly," Kurt assured him. It was sweet that he was worried for his sake, he really did look so achingly concerned...like he appreciated his situation too well and couldn't stand the thought of Kurt going through whatever it was he had experienced. "Rachel gets dramatic sometimes - a lot of the time. But she won't take it out on either of us. Most likely she'll just do a lot of air quotes and exaggerated winking for awhile. Maybe if it's really bad, I'll get dragged into a few extra singalongs like when she was so down after Cal broke up with her. But she needs to know what she's getting into."

Ricky didn't reply except to grumble and turn toward the tracks as the train whooshed into the station, fluttering Kurt's hair and jacket. Honesty about himself to the world writ large was important enough, though there were limits. But honesty toward people with whom there was an intimate relationship...that was crucial. Anything less left him with a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. It was dishonest, it was unfair to everyone involved, it was...cowardly in a way that made him viscerally angry.

He had to tell her. Fred had an obligation to it, too, but if he wasn't willing to live up to that then Kurt would have to take things into his own hands.

Even so, he had hoped he might at least have a few hours to prepare how to break the news to Rachel - she was out for the evening with Bobby, after all, so he should be able to wait until breakfast tomorrow. But as soon as he unlocked the door, he heard the eerie music of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour coming from the living room. Rachel sat on the couch, an irritated scowl on her face, and he barely held back a sigh as he hung up his coat and toed off his shoes. "We're back," he called quietly.

"Did you have fun?" she asked, her voice too high and fake-bright to be sincere.

"Dinner was great," Kurt replied, then ventured, "You should come sometime. You'd love it. The music they play, and the boys-"

"No, she shouldn't," Ricky replied, narrowing his eyes at him.

"You should," Kurt repeated. "It would be fun, you would like-"

"Did you see any girls there?" Ricky demanded. "Except Mama herself in that one ugly blue dress - barely even street girls, they don't like us cruising there even if we can eat a good dinner. No one else. No one's going to show up if it's not safe."

"Rachel's perfectly safe."

"No she's not," Ricky replied with a sharp glare.

"You guys, I'm right here-"

"If you like it there, you won't bring anyone who's not like us," Ricky stated, his tone leaving no room for argument. "No queer is going to show up he might run into his girlfriend."

Kurt froze, unable to be anything but uncomfortable, and Rachel peered at him, eyes locked on his even as she asked Ricky, "Whose girlfriend would be seen at...?"

Kurt sighed. He had wanted to be able to ease her in gently, to let her come into the news slowly, but with Ricky - damn his condemnation of the perfectly well-meaning invitation to the one place in the entire city that made him feel as safe and happy as he'd once imagined the entire island of Manhattan would - bringing it up, he couldn't very well say nothing was wrong. Nor could he pretend Ricky had pulled that example out of nowhere. He could try, but it wouldn't be remotely convincing, even to the ever-oblivious Rachel.

He moved over to the couch, sitting beside her. "Rachel. You know I love you. You're the closest thing to family I have in this state - and everything I'm about to say, I know you would do the same for me if I were in the same situation." Who knew when that could possibly be? but what did it matter. Rachel stared at him, brown eyes wide and confused, and he drew in a deep breath, trying to figure out how to best say what they had seen. He glanced over at Ricky, whose expression clearly said 'don't look at me, Vonny, youwere the one who wanted to tell her.' He flopped down dramatically on the chair, arms and legs crossed, a smug expression on his face. Deciding straightforward was the way to go, Kurt decided to start with the beginning. "We saw Fred at Mama's tonight."

Rachel stared at him for a moment before venturing, "He was having dinner with his friend, a producer, so maybe-" He could hear Ricky mumbling in Spanish, and for the first time he wished he hadn't taken French. He caught a few words, mostly articles, and he was pretty sure that "gringa" meant either Rachel or crazy-something based on the derisive tone. She glanced over at Ricky but decided not to ask what he was saying about her, turning back to Kurt to finish, "Maybe a friend of his is a homosexual so they went to dinner at a place where the producer would feel comfortable."

"It's not the kind of place people bring friends," Kurt replied. "Ricky's right. It took forever for me to find it, and it's safe inside but it's not the kind of place you risk going into or out of if you're on the cusp of stardom...unless you don't have anywhere else you can go."

"Fred's not judgmental or afraid like that," Rachel stated. "He would go anyway."

"He could barely look me in the eye once you started teasing me about Ricky," he pointed out.

"Excuse me, teasing you 'bout what about me?" Ricky asked, sitting up in his chair, accent coming out stronger as he got defensive. 

"Now either," Kurt continued, moving past Ricky's question without explanation, "it means he feels the same way everyone else does about me, or it means he's afraid of what it makes him. In the first case, he wouldn't be caught dead in a place like that."

"Maybe-"

"He saw me and looked terrified, Rachel. He knows what I know. He wouldn't be afraid of me telling you if there weren't a reason he was there." It was getting tiresome to try to beat back her baseless defenses. She looked more defiant the more rounds it went, the more obvious it was that Kurt had seen exactly what he thought he had seen. 

"He's not a homosexual, Kurt, he's just a sensitive and nonjudgmental gentleman."

"Sensitive gentleman means he's not having sex with you," Ricky stated with a roll of his eyes, and Rachel's head jerked up sharply.

"Excuse me, that's none of your business-"

"Mmhmm," Ricky replied, clearly unamused and unpersuaded. "Denial isn't gonna help you, and even if it would - if he's not having sex with you, he's not just a little queer. He's a mary just like the rest of us, and believe me - it's better to know now and get out than to find out from finding some boy with him in your bed in five years."

"That's not going to happen," she stated firmly, chin jutted up in the air, eyes blazing with anger.

"Of course it is," Kurt replied. She turned to look at him slowly, betrayed, and he sighed softly because if one of them was going to be the one who was more gentle to Rachel, it was definitely supposed to be him. "Can your dad go back to your mom?"

"N-no," she said slowly, not sure where he was going with this. "He has Leroy now, and he's happy even if he's terrified - but they're in Ohio, they have a right to be. You were scared there, too," she pointed out quickly.

Kurt didn't think he needed to explain that he was scared here too, but for slightly different reasons and much bigger consequences. Instead he moved on to his next question. "So if Fred is the way he is..."

"But that doesn't make any sense," Rachel said, shaking her head. "Why would he date me if he's a homosexual?"

"Because Broadway isn't that much better than Lima," Kurt replied, and Rachel looked at him like he'd lost his mind. H e sighed softly, trying ot figure out the best way to succinctly pack all the ways that New York was a disappointment into a neat package that would best convey why Fred had to hide, but Ricky beat him to the punch.

"No one's going to hire a faggot to play a man's role. They've all got fake wives. Be glad he's not having sex with you while picturing a smooth-skinned boy." Ricky stood smoothly, clearly nonplused by the conversation, and strode into Kurt's room like he belonged there, leaving Kurt to figure out how exactly to clean up the soiled remnants of the conversation.

Rachel swallowed hard and stood quickly,. With a nervous smoothing of her skirt, she swished over to the kitchen. "Does he have to be so vulgar about everything?" she asked, her voice tight as she tried to keep herself together. "It's hardly well-mannered of him. And I'm sure he must be better-educated than that..."

"Rachel."

"You know, I think this is about you," she accused, but her voice sounding like she was trying to be angry instead of broken.. "You can't have a boyfriend so you don't want me to have one, either. Even though Ricky's right there so you could-"

"If that were the case, don't you think I would have warned you off Cal?" Kurt replied, standing and following her to the kitchen. "I didn't tell you to hurt you. You deserve to know. What you do with the information is up to you. I mean...if you really wanted to, you could keep dating him. You said you really like him..." She nodded in confirmation, staring at the dish she was washing. "If you want a second fake boyfriend, then do that. But I needed you to know it wasn't real. I didn't want you to be like Jean."

"Who?" Rachel asked, looking up at him with teary eyes and pink cheeks.

"Long story," Kurt replied with a wave of his hand. "Are you-"

"I'm fine," she replied breezily. "Go keep Ricky company. And if you're playing more musicals, you should introduce him to West Side Story - I bet it'll be familiar to him, since it's his story." He doubted the boy in his bedroom had been the victim of a turf war in their neighbourhood and fallen in love with a white boy...though in fairness, he couldn't be sure. 

"I'm sorry," he offered gently, and she shook her head.

"I'll talk to him tomorrow. But I'm still pretty sure you're wrong." 

Everything in her tone said she was absolutely certain Kurt was right, but he chose to let it go with a shrug. 

* * * * *

By the time her date rolled around the following night, Rachel was nervous.

It wasn't so much a question of whether Kurt was right - not really. She supposed she did need to hear it from Fred's own mouth, but that wasn't the real question. The real question...

...well, she was still working on that. She wasn't sure whether it was why he hadn't told her, or why he needed to do this, or whether he loved her at all or had she just made it up, or what they were meant to do now- There were a lot of things to figure out. But at the very least she was confident enough in her belief that Kurt wouldn't lie to her about this and was almost certainly right about what he'd seen that she could be thoroughly nervous about the rest of the evening.

Fred's building was swanky enough to have its own doorman, and he knew her now so she didn't have to wait to be buzzed in. Instead she simply walked past him with a forced bright smile and a wave, then took the elevator up to his apartment. She knocked on his door, then paused to smooth down her dress, drying her clammy palms as she did. Kurt said the dress was too striped and distracting, but she thought it looked fun. It was like a grown up seersucker version of Dorothy's gingham jumper, which - as she pointed out to Kurt - had the pattern pointing in multiple directions over the skirt. He had simply rolled his eyes a little and shaken his head, like he did when he was exasperated by her fashion choices, but she liked it anyway. It helped conceal the fact that she didn't have many curves to speak of - ok, none at all, really.

...Was that why she was Fred's choice for a girlfriend when he really wanted a boyfriend? Because she looked more like a boy? She didn't think she did, but she certainly was no Marilyn Monroe type; her chest was kind of flat, her hips were really narrow even with a petticoat, and her face certainly wasn't pretty like most of the aspiring actresses she'd met. Was that why of all the girls in town, Fred picked her? 

No. That was just ridiculous. Clearly he knew of and appreciated her talent. If he was going to spend time with someone he had no interest in actually dating, he probably just wanted someone he could sing a lovely duet with to pass the time. Someone who would appreciate his career and understand the demands of his rise to stardom without begging for scraps of attention. 

...Except he hadn't actually met her before he asked their agent for her phone number. He had no idea she was talented, just that she wanted to be a star. Plenty of people did without having what it took the way she did.

Maybe it was just the luck of the draw. Maybe she was just the type of girl he would like if he did like girls, and he thought that maybe she would be his best chance to live normally. Maybe-

The door opened, and Fred beamed at her. "Hey - you're a few minutes early, you must have caught the train right as you got to the station," he teased. She would have normally found it endearing that he knew enough about her travels over to his apartment that he knew she timed her trains to arrive at precisely the stroke of when she should be there while building in approximately three minutes of wait time on the platform - long enough to be safe and not have to run in heels but not so long that she would get restless or have strange men leering at her for too long. Normally she would have been distracted by how casually and effortlessly handsome her boyfriend was, dressed in a white buttondown shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the middle of his strong forearms, collar unbuttoned to reveal just the top edge of his undershirt, wearing light grey slacks that fit him perfectly...she supposed being able to afford a tailor must be nice instead of relying on Kurt to take things in when he had a few minutes in the evening after work. "Come in." He stepped back from the door, gesturing her in with his half-full drink. "I was just getting ready, I found this great little place I think you'll like. There's a pianist there I know, he can play anything you want. I know you've been planning duets for us for weeks, and I thought now might be the perfect night for a serenade or two." She stepped into his spacious living room, still getting her bearings as he pressed a Pink Squirrel into her hand - her favourite, even if she thought a French 75 felt more sophisticated. "I'm just going to change my shirt and get my jacket if you'll sit tight a minute." He flashed her another grin, and she wished she didn't melt so much whenever he looked at her. That would make all of this so much easier. "I know the cliche is that I should be sitting in your living room with a drink while I wait for you to get ready," he joked as he walked into his bedroom - which she had seen only once and never for the reasons a girl usually saw a handsome young man's bedroom - and kept talking as he changed. "But I had a longer day than I expected. You don't mind, do you?"

"Of course not," she called back after sipping her drink. "I'm not that traditional."

"Clothes to the contrary," he teased. "You look fantastic tonight, by the way."

"Thank you." She smiled a little to herself, adding a snide "So there, Kurt!" to herself before she remembered that it didn't much matter. "Was the long day productive, at least?"

"Maybe," Fred replied, reemerging in a fresh shirt - light blue this time, which brought out his eyes and made his cheeks look rosy so he appeared entirely too exuberant just at the thought of dinner with her.

It wasn't fair, she thought to herself mournfully. He would have been the perfect boyfriend if it weren't for the reason he couldn't be her boyfriend at all. 

"Ready to go?"

"Actually." She thought about setting down her drink, then downed most of it instead. "We need to talk about something." He looked confused and concerned at the same time, though she wasn't sure if it was because he knew what was coming or because he had never seen her drink alcohol that fast. It was a decision she was regretting already, especially with how badly it burned her throat. She knew it was only temporary, but it was unpleasant. 

"That doesn't sound good," he laughed easily, sitting on the chair across from her usual place on the couch.

"Are you a homosexual?"

The reaction was so instantaneous that even had she not been certain about what Kurt told her, even had the news come from someone she trusted a lot less than her best friend, there would have been no doubt left in her mind as soon as the words passed her lips. Fred froze in his chair, eyes wide and bewildered, face pale, looking as though she had literally knocked him off-balance unexpectedly. "He told you-"

"He didn't want me to get hurt," she stated. "He didn't want anyone using me-"

"I wasn't," Fred replied sharply.

"Fred-"

"I wasn't using you. I wasn't lying, I wasn't telling you things were other than what they were. I wasn't trying to-"

"You made it seem like we were dating, I thought we could have a future together!"

"And we could!" Fred was out of his chair in a flash, clasping her hands between his, and the aching sincerity in his eyes made her stomach twist. "I like you more than I ever thought I would. And I'm not an expert or anything, but I'm pretty sure you like me too. Not in a 'he's not so awful for a New Englander' way, either. You like what we have."

"I did, sure, before I knew it was all-"

"What?" Fred asked before she could say it. "A lie? It wasn't, I told you. An omission is different. They have to be. They're necessary to be who we are, who we want to be."

"Why me?" The question came tumbling out before she could stop it, and he froze, clearly not expecting the question. He searched her face a moment before looking away, clearly conflicted, and when he looked back at her again he looked so vulnerable that she wanted to take the words back. To take the entire conversation back. Because if his expression of happiness was elation and unabashed joy, then his tentatively open sadness was expressed as breathtaking sorrow with wide eyes full of fear and mourning. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't-" she started to say, but he shook his head to cut her off.

"I heard you talking to Mercedes that day," he replied with a tiny shrug as if to make it not matter even though they both knew it did. "About your friend and the boy he liked - you didn't care. You talked about them like they were any other people, and I knew that you would be the most likely to understand. That even if I slipped up, you wouldn't tell the world my secret. I knew that if he could trust you, then so could I."

She had no idea what to say to that. Though in a way she supposed she shouldn't have been too surprised - the reason Kurt knew he could trust her enough to be fake-boyfriend-and-girlfriend back in Lima was because of her dad and his homosexual lover. And she knew that the only reason Blaine had trusted her was because Kurt had, and in a way that was a credit to her and her tolerance. People knew that they could trust her to be enlightened and sympathetic in their time of trouble based on her track record, and that was good. But at the same time, the knowledge that he hadn't wanted to date her, just her tolerance level, didn't make her feel any more desirable.

"This doesn't have to change anything," Fred stated quietly, eyes shining as he gently held her upper arms. He offered a nervous half-smile, and she wanted so badly to believe what he was saying when he smiled... "We still care about one another. I can open doors for you, you know. I know you've never asked, and I know I've never offered - I wanted to be sure, some girls just want to take advantage of contacts like that. But I can introduce you to people, to moguls who can make you the star you deserve to be. You're so talented, Rachel, you're amazing. Any guy would be lucky to have you, and I know what I can offer you isn't much as far as being a boyfriend goes, but maybe...maybe the contacts can make up for that."

She wasn't sure whether to be flattered or insulted. An almost-star thought she was talented...and thought the ability to expose that talent was a fair price for pretending to date him. Six months ago she would have jumped at the chance. Six months ago, before Cal, before the absolutely insulting offer from that lying jerk of a producer, before she ever came to this city, before she ever thought she had a role somewhere...she would have done anything to get exactly what Fred was offering. It wasn't as though she had never pretended to date someone who couldn't reciprocate her interest to get something out of it for herself, right? She had dated Kurt when she knew exactly what he was because she knew it was her best chance to get out of their town and to the Big Apple.

....But that was when she had had no options to speak of. When her choices were to pretend to date a boy, or to have to actually date a boy who would want to tie her down in Lima for the rest of her life instead of letting her spread her wings and become a Tony Award Winner, the choice was a lot easier. In New York, that wasn't meant to be a decision she was faced with anymore. She was meant to be better than that here. She was supposed to be more independent than that here and more able to survive on her talent alone.

She was supposed to be allowed to date someone because she liked them and not because it would be a mutually beneficial arrangement.

She offered the best smile she could, but it was mournful enough that Fred's face fell even before she could get the words out. "I'm sorry," she said, adding, "One homosexual fake boyfriend is my limit." The attempt at humour fell flat, but at least it kept her from crying just yet. She started to step back, and Fred's hands gripped her arms more tightly - not harshly, just wanting, trying to hold on to what he thought he might have had. "Fred-" her voice broke on his name, and he swallowed hard. 

"Don't- Please-"

"I won't tell anyone," she promised as she finally stepped back. "I do like you too much for that. Just not enough to settle for something...something less than I deserve."

"You deserve everything," he murmured, meeting her gaze and trying again to smile.

She chose to exit then, so at least those could be the last words he ever said to her. It wasn't much consolation as she hurried past the doorman and out of the building with tears streaming down her cheeks, but it was something.

* * * * *

The more time passed, the less Kurt seemed to have a handle on what was going on with Ricky. It wasn't just that he seemed completely without any food or shelter one day and able to pay for dinner for two - with cash to spare, Kurt had noted - the next. It was that he ran so hot and cold all around. He would call up with some excuse to come over, spend the evening during which he may or may not voluntarily pay for dinner, spend the night after listening to musicals or watching tv specials...only to disappear the next morning without any word or promise of when he might come back. Then a few days later he might pop up again-

Okay, so it had only happened a few times. But it seemed to fit a distinct enough pattern that Kurt felt comfortable finding it disconcerting. 

It just didn't make any sense. Whenever Ricky was there, he was warm enough in his own way. Kurt understood all too well that sarcasm didn't necessarily mean a person didn't like someone, and he was starting to be able to recognize the moment when Ricky felt threatened by the way his voice shifted higher, his body language snapped more quickly, and his hips swayed more from side to side. And there were moments when he felt like he really saw what was beneath all the shields his friend piled up in front of himself. Like Sunday, when they were watching Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, and Ricky lit up and giggled watching Ludwig von Drake, mumbling to himself something about the ridiculous accent, and for a fleeting moment he looked so young, so innocent and not at all cynical...then Mercedes said something about how come all the ducks on the show had to be white and Ricky immediately transformed back to the sassy, irritated-sounding young man who rolled his eyes and derided all naivete and optimism as quaint ideas held by tourists. Then he swished his way to the kitchen, hips rolling from side to side more than anyone that thin had a right to, to get himself a glass of water.

At least that, Kurt could understand. He could recognize the same change in himself when he was talking to Rachel as opposed to when he was talking to people at work, let alone how open he could be with Ricky. But that was such a small part of the entire picture of this boy, and everything else was so...so murky.

He had no idea when Ricky would call again. If he would call at all. And if something happened, or if he was worried, Kurt still had no way of contacting him - no phone number, no apartment, no office that should be kept secret but was an option in case of emergencies, no nothing. As far as Kurt's address book was concerned, Ricky might not as well even exist for how reliably he could contact him. He kept expecting it to change. Each time they would fall asleep in the same bed, Kurt would wake up half expecting there t be a scrap of paper on his pillow with an address for a tiny, horrible apartment uptown somewhere since it was obvious that at best Ricky's living situation was hardly a plush one. But so far not so much as a telephone exchange, a neighbourhood, anything. And just when Kurt would start to think that the boy was gone for good after a few days, a call would come suggesting they spend the evening together, always making it sound like it was Kurt's idea. Not that he wouldn't take credit for it, but he would like the option to call every once in awhile.

And by "always" he meant a few times. But every time, so it seemed reasonable to generalize.

Was it supposed to be like this? Kurt had no idea. He knew Don and John had rules about when things were to be kept distant and when they could be like any other couple - what if this was some rule he just didn't know about? What if the rules of homosexuality required playing it cool, noncommittal, as though friendship were ephemeral and only until something better came along? What if it was something he should know to expect now and in the future instead of it being, as he had initially thought, idiosyncratic to Ricky and Ricky only? 

There was only one place he could turn for answers. 

Kurt wanted to say that his plan to work late was multi-purpose. For one thing, there were only so many times he could listen to Rachel mournfully belt out "Oh I want a boy to call my own - I want a dream lover so I don't have to dream alone!" For another, and more importantly, he had made some headway on synthesizing the most iconic and popular designs of the Mainbocher line to come up with a few key points he thought Don might be able to turn into something. And for a third, if he happened to stick around the office late enough double-checking his pitch so that he and Don happened to be the only ones left in the office such that he could ask for advice, then wouldn't that just be a happy accident?

As his plans went, he'd had better ones, but he'd also had worse attempts at tracking his boss down so he would take what he could get.

Sketchpad in hand, he strode down the hallway toward Don's office and was relieved to see that his light was still on but that no one else appeared to be around. Pleased with the simple genius of his plan, he stepped confidently over to the closed door and rapped three times, rearranging his papers as he waited for a reply.

"Ah- Just a second!" a slightly-frantic voice called through the door, and Kurt worried for a minute that he was walking in on something he shouldn't before it occurred to him that what he could be privy to might be different than what others could know about.

"It's Kurt, sir," he called, not sure where the sudden formality had come from especially since there was no one else around. 

He heard a scuffle, then the tumbler clicked a moment before door opened to reveal John smiling broadly. "Hey - come on in," he said warmly.

"I didn't mean to interrupt. I think I've put together a good synopsis of what has worked in the past so-"

"At 8 at night?" John asked skeptically, casting a teasing glance at Don who sat at his desk with a drink, looking more relaxed than usual for the office but nowhere near as relaxed as he had at Mama's. "I know you work for him now, but he's not that much of a slavedriver." 

"Don't tell the kid that, I need him to be at least a little scared of me," Don groaned. His teasing wink in Kurt's direction was reassuring, but not as much as the fact that the two men were back to acknowledging one another. Since the incident in the hallway, he had wondered if they could ever be near one another in this building or if they had to wait until they were a couple miles downtown or wherever their apartment was located - assuming they had one apartment, but Kurt was certain they did. At least in his mind they did. It was good to see that they might be cautious but not unreasonably so.

"Actually it's good that you're both here," he ventured.

"Oh?" John perched himself on the edge of the desk, crossing his legs at the ankles. "Boy advice?"

Kurt offered a faint, tight smile before replying, "Not exactly."

When John looked crestfallen, Don rolled his eyes fondly and explained, "He loves giving boy advice. Can't get enough of it."

"It's more...friend advice."

"Let me guess - you have this friend?" John surmised, teasing. "Let's cut to the chase - the friend is you."

"No, an actual friend," Kurt replied. "I don't know what's going on, he runs hot and cold all the time, he doesn't tell me how to contact him but he calls me every few days whenever he needs a place to stay for the night - or sometimes he needs a place, sometimes I think he just likes the company. He turns prickly at the drop of a hat, he doesn't let me in on practically anything. He'll drop his guard every once in awhile, and he's so genuinely sweet when he does, but then he's right back where he was again. Is that normal? For boys?"

"Yes," Don replied at the same time John chimed in, "No." Kurt stared at them - well that was no help. John sighed and explained, "It's not normal, just common. We can't share all the things we want to, so we fall back on silliness and sassiness to make things hurt less. But something tells me you don't need to be told about putting up walls," he added with a pointed look, and Kurt tilted his head slightly in acknowledgment. "So what's really going on?"

Kurt sighed. "I think something's going on with him," he said, but unlike when he tried to tell Rachel and stopped after the generic statement, he went on to explain. If anyone could help, if anyone knew what might be going on - or was at least more likely to have a reasonable theory - it was the two men whose response to his night in jail and debut in the paper had been 'Oh honey we've all been there.' He shouldn't need to start from square one with the two of them to try to validate why he thought there was something deeper than a boy who may have had a fight with a roommate. "He shows up all over town but never in the same place twice, and he won't tell me how to find him. He drops of the face of the earth for a few days at a time, and what am I supposed to do when the weather gets bad or there's violence around? Look up 'Ricky' in the phone book? I don't even know if his full name is Richard - would it be Ricardo since he's Puerto Rican? And does that make me Lucy? Because I cannot handle Rachel making one more comment about how we're secretly dating but just don't want to admit it in my own home, ok, that is more than I care to push back on tonight." 

He finished his explanation and awaited an answer, but none came. Don and John exchanged a look before John turned to him once more and said, "Oh, sweetie, tell me you just gave him a sandwich and a warm bed."

"What do you mean?"

"Ricky's a sweetheart, and just because he needs it doesn't mean you have to let him repay you for it."

"Wait, how do you now Ricky?"

"Honey, everyone knows Ricky," John stated unequivocally. "About this tall, curly little hair, big brown eyes with too much liner? Looks like he needs to eat a couple dozen pieces of cake to be healthy?" When Kurt nodded that the description matched his friend, John sighed softly and shook his head. "I hoped...there are so many boys out there, you don't have to..."

"What he's trying to say, Kurt," Don began awkwardly, "is that there are boys who will go with you because they like you, not because they're hard up for money."

Kurt regarded them, eyes narrowed, trying to figure out what they were even trying to say. "Go with me where?" he asked slowly.

"Sex. You can-"

Kurt's eyes widened and he held up his hand, not wanting to have that conversation ever, certainly not with men he worked with, least of all with his boss, and he replied quickly, "Ricky and I never did that - or anything like that, we never even kissed, we're not-" His words tumbled out awkwardly, cheeks burning red, and John breathed an audible sigh of relief.

"Good. Don't get me wrong, you'd be nicer to him than any other boy he's had that day I'm sure, but what he really needs is someone to give him a meal ticket and not collect if you know what I mean. Warm bed, hearty breakfast, maybe even a hot shower for a few minutes - he starts to look like a zombie after awhile, but who can blame him? Bouncing from alley to alley to bed to bed with every grimey, creepy older man in the city who wants to satisfy himself without letting anyone else know what he is..."

Kurt had opened his mouth to ask what in the world John was talking about when suddenly he understood what the man was saying. It wasn't a particular word or phrase that made it click, but with some clue everything that had been off, odd, disconcerting began to fall into place. The unstable money supply, the ferocity with which Ricky was ready to defend a tiny portion of fence in the park that night, the off-putting jokes, the fact that everything the boy owned really did fit in that duffel bag...the haunted look in his eyes the night of the rainstorm...

Ideally in a situation such as this, Kurt would have wished for something eloquent to say; in that moment, he was mostly just glad he didn't throw up.

Chapter Text

By the time he returned home, Kurt wasn't sure whether he hoped Ricky would call or not.

That came out wrong, even in his head, but he didn't know what in the world he was meant to say...let alone what to do.  He had to do something, didn't he?  He couldn't just let the boy stay out there on the streets, not merely homeless but- but doing that with strange men so he could eat something?

Oh god.  Dinner the night before- that was how Ricky had paid for it.  Chocolate cake and coffee and sandwiches and fries- he didn't even need fries, they just sounded good, but now that the mental image of some creepy old man pawing at Ricky's thin, naked body was permanently imprinted in his mind, he couldn't enjoy the memory of the food at all.  He felt queasy, like he had participated somehow.

He had.  He should have known about it enough to help keep Ricky out of the situation.  He should have known enough to turn down the boy's offer to pay for dinner.  He had tried, but Ricky had just seemed so insistent, so proud.  Like it was his job to pay back the kindness Kurt had previously shown him and make up for it by giving Kurt a meal in return...and he had been able to appreciate that.  He had understood why it was important to his friend, who took every act of altruistic kindness as a debt he now owed and tried to pretend he didn't need anything, would want to pay Kurt back like that, even if it wasn't at all necessary.  He had been able to understand it completely, right up until the moment when he found out exactly what Ricky had needed to do to get the money for dinner.

Kurt couldn't stop thinking about it.  He wanted to - he would give anything to be able to stop thinking about what it must be like, what it must have looked like, but every time he tried to distract himself, it came back to Ricky.  He tried thinking about movies - especially which ones Ricky would tease him less about seeing, or which ones Ricky would beg to go to but hate, or which ones Ricky would make fun of but love - and music - and what albums he still needed to share with his best friend - and restaurants - and what Ricky would have to do to whom in order to afford dinner-

He set his bag down heavily, glad not to see a message on the counter or table.  He hated that he was relieved that Ricky hadn't called.  Usually when he was happy not to see a note on the table it was because he was worried he had missed his one chance to snag the boy for the evening and would once again be at the mercy of Ricky's fickle sense of interpersonal connection until he got a call in a few days.  Tonight, though...

He didn't know what to say to the boy - to anyone.  He had lost all control of words beyond "What do you mean?" and "Really" since John had told him he could just take Ricky home and give him a sandwich and didn't have to have sex with him for money.  Funny how that had never occurred to him as a barrier to spending time together before.

"Hey, Kurt," Mercedes called from the living room as he ran his fingertips along the edge of the tabletop, trying to stop the images that pervaded his thoughts.

He looked up and forced a faint smile, too tired to conceal the tightness of the expression.  "Mercedes.  No shows tonight?"

"No - I have the night off."  She stretched a little then stood, walking over.  "Are you running off somewhere?"

In all honesty, the idea of doing anything but taking a long bath and trying unsuccessfully to sleep felt too taxing for how mentally drained he was.  It was exhausting to have his mind racing at that speed.  He shook his head.  "No.  I'm in for the night."

"Rachel's out doing who knows what, I thought we could have dinner or go see a movie.  I feel like we never even see each other lately.  You work until 7, I leave for work at 6, by the time I get home you're asleep..."

The last thing he wanted to do was try to be social, but Mercedes looked so wistful about it...and she did have a point.  He saw Rachel every day.  The two of them had dinner together whenever she wasn't going out with a boy or he wasn't going somewhere with Ricky.  And Rachel and Mercedes saw each other during the day whenever Rachel wasn't working which was almost always, especially now that they had more money as a household thanks to Mercedes' work.  But he couldn't remember the last time he'd had a meal that wasn't breakfast with his oldest friend, and even if tonight wasn't the ideal time as far as he was concerned...he did miss her.

"Okay," he relented, and Mercedes grinned.  "What did you have in mind?"

"We could get a pizza," she suggested.

"We would have to go out," Kurt pointed out.

"Since when do you not like going out?" she teased.  "I seem to remember someone saying he would go to a different restaurant from a different country every night once he moved to New York, back when he was just a smalltown boy in Lima."

"A smalltown boy in Lima whose obligations usually ended by 3:30," Kurt replied, glancing at the clock.  It was already 7:30 - late nights were more common now that he had more say over what his day involved, which seemed strange to him.  He'd always assumed that having a taskmaster boss like Stu who directed him when and what to cut before he left for the day had to be more time-consuming and more exhausting, and in a way it had been.  His fingers no longer ached when he got home, and the crick in his back was finally straightening out now that he wasn't bent over a cutting table all day.  But as exhilarating as it was to be creative, it did leave him more drained by the time he shuffled home...plus there were some years that were downright cumbersome to trudge through, trying to find something inspiring in sketch after sketch of unflattering, matronly dresses.  

Still, he really hoped he wouldn't have to go back to the cutting room now that his project was essentially done.  He'd found what he considered the best of Mainbocher's ensembles, the most signature gowns, the smartest suits, the richest fabrics, and now...well, now it was up to Don what to do with them, and even assuming he liked them - which Kurt believed he should - it would go through a variety of other departments before Kurt ever saw them again, as a pattern and yardage of fabric to be painstakingly snipped out.  Unless he got another assignment after this, which was a nice thought but certainly not guaranteed.  

"That's true," Mercedes acknowledged with a faint smile.  "We could heat up frozen dinners and watch tv.  What's on Thursdays again?"

"Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reed, then- Have you seen The Nurses?"

"A couple times, when I still lived with the girls," Mercedes replied.  "Catch me up during Leave it to Beaver?"

"Last week's was pretty good," Kurt stated as he moved over to the freezer to see what tv dinners they had.  He and Rachel both preferred to cook, but they were nice sometimes when he was too tired or Rachel got in too late, or if they were just cooking for one.  And Mercedes liked them for an early dinner before she had to go to work, so he found the freezer well-stocked.  "Turn on the oven for me?" he requested, then began to recount the episode.  "A woman came into the hospital with a heart attack - she was young, too, and the man who brought her in was pretty attractive but a little bit older.  He didn't want anyone to know who he was, they were making him very mysterious, but Ricky managed to guess-"  he turned, holding two of the chicken dinners to see Mercedes scowling.  "What's wrong?  Don't tell me the oven's broken - Rachel said the girls in 3G were having trouble with theirs last week, something about the gas line-"

"No," she replied with a shake of her head.  "It's fine, it's on."  She shifted awkwardly, hands held stiffly in front of her, then ventured, "Kurt, can we talk about something?"

Kurt didn't like the sound of that, but he replied, "Of course." 

"I know you and Ricky are...friends or something now," she began.  He forgot sometimes how shy she sounded when things got serious.  He was used to her sounding larger than life, telling Rachel exactly why what she thought was crazy, and especially now that she would talk about bantering back and forth with the bartenders and patrons at the club over breakfast - she'd been that way for as long as Kurt could remember, too: full of sass until her mother shot a Look in her direction and made her back down a little.  She'd spent most of her life not letting things get her down by distracting herself with-...well, with conversations about why leopard print was a good fashion choice.  Kurt smiled very faintly to himself at the memory of that.  They were similar in that regard, retreating back to clothes - usually whether hers were awful or not.  It was something he and Ricky did, too...maybe it was something everyone but Rachel did.  Rachel tended to talk things to death, especially when it was what a person least wanted to discuss.  

But when Mercedes got serious, she seemed so much smaller suddenly, far more withdrawn and hesitant, like she didn't think she had a right to ask anything serious.  As much as he didn't like the sounds of where this was going, he simply raised an eyebrow and waited for her to continue.

"I don't like how much time he spends here," she stated.  "I know you like him, but he makes me uncomfortable.  He's always just kind of here, and he's so-..." She shifted again, her face twisting a little to one side in a slight grimace, eyes kind of rolling, but she fell silent and didn't explain further.

Kurt stared at her, eyebrows lowering, trying not to jump to what he thought it was about.  Maybe she had a reason.  Maybe there was something about having another person in the apartment that was a problem in general - there wasn't enough hot water for four showers in the morning, or they needed more chairs because she didn't want to eat breakfast over on the couch, or there was some other reason his presence was objectionable.  "Why is that a problem?" he asked, his tone painstakingly even.

"He's-" She rolled her eyes a little.  "C'mon, Kurt, he's just a lot to take."

He wanted desperately to be wrong about her discomfort and its source.  "What do you mean?"

"He's loud-"

"He's quieter than Rachel.  Let alone than you and Rachel when the two of you start bouncing off each other."

"Yeah, but it's different with Rachel.  She's usually talking about men who want to take her out or why she's going to be a star or what show she'll see one day when she has enough money for tickets.  Ricky's always talking about...men.  About sex."

Kurt tried not to let it show on his face when the queasiness that had been lingering over the past few hours made his stomach lurch again at the knowledge that Ricky wasn't talking about men half as much as he was doing other things with them.  It didn't help that what Mercedes said confirmed what he had been trying desperately to avoid.  "Rachel talks about men, too, you just said so," he pointed out quietly, staring at her.  

She looked at him with an uncomfortable, piteous look, like she didn't want to have to be the one to break the news to him, as she said, "It's different, Kurt.  She's a girl, she's meant to.  I don't care if a boy takes me out, but she does, and that's fine.  But he's...he shouldn't."

"So...because you're uncomfortable with us being gay, he shouldn't come over," he concluded.

"I didn't mean you."

"Why not?" he demanded.  "I am, too.  I'm just like he is."  He was except he wasn't.  He didn't know what had happened to make Ricky suffer so much, to put him in such a predicament, but somehow it hadn't happened to him.  It couldn't be tied to their arrests, so it had to be something else.  Something had happened to leave him with nothing even though he was so smart and funny and kind - and open once you could pry him that way.  Somehow this boy who deserved all the same good things he did had ended up huddled on cold park benches and curled up against hot, disgusting men for a few dollars, and the thought left Kurt cold and stiff, unable to move or think beyond the two-sided question he couldn't get out of his mind:

Why him?

Why not me?


"You're different," Mercedes replied.  "You're Kurt.  He's a strange boy I met a couple months ago.  Why isn't it enough that he makes me uncomfortable?"

Because he had nowhere else to go where he could be safe and not have to do disgusting things to afford breakfast.  Because somewhere along the way something had gone horribly wrong and left Ricky with no one else who would let him stay with them or care for him or stop him from doing that to himself.  Because for all he knew, Blaine had traded in his navy blazer for too much eyeliner instead of for a three-piece suit and a house in the suburbs.  Because if whatever had happened to Ricky had happened to him, he would want her to extend the same kindness to him that he was extending to his friend.  

He couldn't say any of those, couldn't begin to explain to her the direness of his situation when she couldn't even see that Ricky shouldn't make her uncomfortable just because he was gay.  Instead he replied with a simple, cool, "Because he has as much of a right to be here as you do," then turned and walked into his bedroom, closing his door behind him.  Sighing, he sat on the bed, smoothing the comforter absently.  

He didn't know where his friend was spending the night, be he hoped it was hospitable and came without strings.  And he hoped that, if it didn't...well, if it didn't, then he hoped Ricky would call.  

The phone never rang.

* * * * *

Something about standing in an overcrowded hallway with a hundred other girls who wanted the same spot she did had started to feel more impossible with Fred gone.

Rachel wasn't sure what the problem was.  It wasn't like Fred had promised her things the way Cal had, so she hadn't been spared the humiliation and unending frustration that came with cattle call chorus auditions.  She hadn't had any more success while she was dating him, either, so she'd been in exactly the same position a week ago that she was now.  But somehow...

Maybe it was just another rejection, she reasoned to herself as she found a spot halfway down the hall to warm up.  The doors were set more deeply off the hall in this building which gave her plenty of space to nestle in a threshold, put her foot up on the chair rail, and slowly stretch out her muscles.  She could remember a time when she was confident going into dance class.  After all, she had been dancing since she was fourteen months old - her mom swore she had great balance and a perfect turnout from the time she was six months old but no studio would let her begin classes until she was at least a year - and there was something intense and gratifying about pouring all her emotion into a movement, letting everything she was feeling surge out through her limbs.  It would never surpass singing in her heart, but she had truly enjoyed dancing before.  When she was still in Lima.  When she didn't look at the girls to the right and left of her on the line and feel like they were all at least six inches taller and effortlessly breathtaking when they danced.  
Treating the chairrail as a barre, she was attempting to move through a proper warm-up when the door behind her opened, narrowly avoiding hitting her in the hip.  She jumped and turned to give whoever it was a piece of her mind – who just opened a door like that without knowing or at least expecting that someone was warming up on the other side.  Didn’t they know she had an audition to warm up for? – when she heard a familiar voice tease, “I’m sorry, Rachel, I didn’t know you were right there.  I think it’s the quietest you’ve ever been.”
 
Bobby’s grin was nearly infuriating after she’d been nearly knocked from her dancing perch, and her first instinct was a mild glower at his comment about her being loud the rest of the time.  But as she recovered from being jolted out of her pre-audition mindset, she softened a little.  It was pretty funny, she guessed, opening the door and expecting to just walk out only to find someone with her hand midwaup up the wall, moving through positions and plies.  “Are we here for different auditions or the same one this time?” she asked.  “It’s so hard to tell in buildings like these where they rent rehearsal space to practically everyone in town at some point or another during the year…”
 
“I’m not auditioning,” Bobby informed her.  She thought for a moment he might be there to encourage her and apologize after their fight last week – she understood now what it was he’d been trying to warn her about with Fred, and why he might have been reluctant to tell her, but it was no excuse to lose their friendship and mutually-beneficial practice relationship – but it occurred to her that if he hadn’t known she was here that was unlikely.  Before she could ask why he was there, he blurted out, “I’m rehearsing.  Third day, so everything aches and no one knows what they’re doing, but- it’s a show.  With an actual paycheck and everything.”  He sounded so exuberant about it, about the novelty of success, of having a job where he would be paid to dance and sing…and she wanted to be able to share it.  Really she did.  But it was so frustrating, seeing everyone around her succeed while she was still standing in a hallway with 100 other girls trying to elbow for space to warm up, and even if Bobby deserved to do well – and even if she knew how talented he was – didn’t she deserve it, too?
 
She forced a smile, trying to at least be happy for him until he turned he turned his back and she could let her petty jealousy show again.  “Congratulations.  That’s really great – what show?”
 
“Fiddler on the Roof.  I know it’s a strange name for a show, but the music’s great so far.  At least what we’ve learned of it.  I’m surprised you didn’t go out for it.  There were a lot of ethnic girls there.  It’s all about a village of Russian Jews, so there aren’t quite as many blondes around which would’ve cut out two thirds of your competition.”
 
She heard commotion up the hall and poked her head out of her entryway to see girls gathering their bags and shuffling into the room.  “It looks like they’re starting,” she informed him.  “I have to go.”
 
“Break a leg,” he said sincerely.  “And as soon as I get my first payment, I’ll take you to dinner to celebrate.  I need someone who will appreciate the story of how I quit my job at the restaurant as much as I enjoy telling it,” he added with a grin before disappearing down the hall in the other direction.
 
Rachel tried to pull herself back into her audition mindset, repeating affirmations to herself in her head as she walked down the hall.  She was more talented than these other girls.  She was just as pretty as they were, and not everyone wanted actresses who were so tall – they would tower over the boys and throw off the entire look of a party scene.  She might not be the best dancer in the room but she was certainly good enough to warrant a callback because she had such presence that she could not be ignored.
 
She would not be ignored.
 
With a more genuine smile and with complete, single-minded determination, she walked into the audition room, set her back to the side with everyone else, and selected a spot at the front of the group.  She wanted the people from the show to have no choice but to look at her and see how talented she was.  
 
The combination was exactly in her comfort zone.  Nothing too difficult, plenty of places she could shine, with an emphasis on dancing with expression.  Perfect.  By the time they had learned six counts of eight, she was convinced she had this audition in the bag.  She didn’t even remember what show this was for anymore, but that wouldn’t matter – it would be on her paycheck when she got this.  
 
It was her time.  Bobby had started auditioning after she had, at least that she had known of, and they were evenly matched, which meant she should be getting her break any day now.  Why couldn’t today be that day?  Why couldn’t today be the day that she found the right combination of confidence, skill, and an audition that would play to her strengths?
 
And of course the other girls were good, the combination wasn’t hard so unless they were completely unskilled they would be guaranteed to do fine.  But she had still brought such personality and grace to the combination that there was no way she wouldn’t at least be called back to sing.  Then she could really wow them.  Singing was where she shone the brightest – just her and the music, with nothing but her flawless vocal control to distract them from the pure emotional belting and ability to act beautifully while singing.
 
And so, twenty-five minutes after she had entered the room, Rachel stood in the middle of the line and felt confident about her chances, even as the casting director glanced them each slowly up and down.  She had done her best – which was, of course, exceptional – and would no doubt be rewarded for her efforts with a callback for the vocal auditions in a few days.  She stood tall and proud as the director’s assistant called through numbers in a bored voice, waiting to hear “42” and step forward to collect a sheet with information about the callbacks.  She wondered what she should sing, if this was going to be-
 
“Thank you all very much,” the assistant concluded with a blasé quirk of his eyebrow.  Rachel blinked, looking around, trying to figure out what had just happened, because the list couldn’t be over yet.  She hadn’t heard her number, so there had to be more-  
 
Maybe she had missed it.  That could be it, she had been daydreaming pretty hard.  All relevant to the audition, but distracting nonetheless.  She forced a bright, confident smile and stepped up to the assistant.  “Excuse me, I think I missed it.  Did you call 42?”
 
“No.”
 
That made even less sense.  “Are you sure?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“Check again,” she insisted, getting more frustrated by the moment.  “Because I’m sure that I must be on that list, I just-“
 
“No,” the director replied as he heard her.  “Thanks, baby, but you’re not what we’re looking for.”
 
She was about to protest, to ask what he could possibly mean that she wasn’t what they were looking for – she had been fantastic.  And just because other directors and a couple boyfriends and basically everyone else she knew who could possibly decide that she wasn’t what they were looking for had done so already didn’t mean that was the case now.  But she caught sight of the girls who were holding the callback informational sheet.
 
They weren’t too tall, maybe an inch or two taller than she was, which was as much a pleasant surprise as anything, though it did make her wonder what they had that she didn’t since she knew it wasn’t long legs.  But they didn’t look like her, that was for sure.  They looked like…well, like Julie Andrewses.  Or little Mary Martins – short hair, almost all blonde though there were a few brunettes and one redhead with an adorable turned-up nose.  They all had cute little noses like that – along with narrow chins, light eyes, with pale complexions and rosy cheeks, like something straight out of-…well, straight out of The Sound of Music if all seven children were around the same age.  And all girls.  A bevy of cute Austrians ready to flee the Nazis but not a single Jew in sight.
 
…Except for her.
 
What Bobby had said to her earlier about the show he was in suddenly made a lot more sense.  She wasn’t sure what exactly made a person ‘ethnic,’ or if there was another word that was more accurate because “ethnics” was one of those antiquated words that one of her great uncles used for Poles and Italians because he thought it was less rude than the other words he knew, but…looking at those other girls, the ones who got her callback, it wasn’t hard to see what Bobby had meant.
 
She knew she was different from other girls in Lima, she knew she wasn’t Quinn Fabray or any of the other blonde cheerleaders, but she didn’t think she was so different – she wasn’t like Sandy Lopez or Mercedes or any of the kids they were literally trying to keep out of the school for being coloured.  She wasn’t.  She was Jewish, which was a big deal to her family and very important to her and her sense of self, certainly, but never in a million years had it been a reason for her to not get a role.  Her mom got the lead in every production with adults because she worked hard and was very talented; Rachel had inherited her talent and strong drive from somewhere after all.  And the two of them had racked up more lead roles than any mother-daughter team in history.  She’d never not gotten something for being Jewish-
 
…Or had she?
 
It was hard to say, looking back over two years of fruitless auditions with literally thousands of other girls – probably tens of thousands, even! – but when she thought of who ultimately got all the roles she wanted, of whose pictures beamed up at her from every cast album in her’s and Kurt’s rather extensive collection, it was hard to deny that none of them looked like she did.  They all had big, light eyes and delicate features and short, fine hair curled in a neat bob – not at all like her.
 
She’d never given it too much thought before, not really, anyway, not beyond wondering if maybe the reason boys didn’t notice her was because she didn’t look like one of the cheerleaders, but as she trudged slowly out of the room with her head forced high so as not to look like a sore loser, she suddenly felt very conscious of the size and shape of her face.  
 
After all, if even Bobby thought she should get a role based on how she looked and not her talent, maybe there were others out there who factored that in.  And if that was the case…then she wasn’t really sure what she should do next.
 
* * * * *
 
By the time Ricky called again, Kurt had worked himself into a constant state of nausea.  In fairness, it wasn’t an unusual state for him; he’d experienced the same thing countless times before, when things were especially tense or frustrating or anxiety-inducing, but it didn’t make him feel any better to know that he’d been this upset about something before.  It just made him wish all the harder he knew how to make any of it go away.
 
The call sounded just like any other of Ricky’s cryptic communications:  a bright greeting by nickname (Kurt’s chest ached when Ricky so happily exclaimed “Vonny! Long time!” even though it had only been a few days, the same as it always was – had the past few days been longer and harder than usual?  Was that why it seemed like forever?), a smooth invitation to spend time together that made it sound like Kurt was the one who had invited him, like Kurt was the one who needed the companionship and Ricky would give it only a bit begrudgingly (Kurt hated to admit that maybe he did need to see Ricky right now, to know he was okay, even though he had no idea what to say to him), an offhand reference about not being able to stay long (which always ended with an “oh, well, if you insist” and a thin boy practically passed out in Kurt’s bed all night), then a “See you soon” and the click of what Kurt could only assume was a payphone on some streetcorner.
 
He knew logically that nothing had changed in the past two days…but at the same time, everything had.  Even just the sound of Ricky’s voice, so light and high, made him wince – how could he sound like that with everything he’d been through?  Everything he had done probably even just today?  How could he sound so fine when everything was wrong?  When he had to do such vile things to such unsavoury characters for what Don had led him to believe was a paltry sum.  
 
Kurt was woefully transparent, he knew that; it was easy to tell he wasn’t fine when he said he was.  It didn’t take much to know that he was miserable.  Usually it wasn’t a matter of no one being able to figure it out, it was that no one particularly cared – or they knew and cared but didn’t know why.  But Ricky genuinely sounded fine, normal, happy, open the way that – as best Kurt could tell – was unique to him.  Ricky sounded the way he always did when he was just talking to Kurt.
 
Not like he’d just had sex with three dirty old men to be able to buy himself a sandwich before sleeping on a park bench.
 
The nausea was back in full force, and Kurt swallowed hard as he hung up the phone to try to keep it at bay.  Knowing from experience that working on something, having something pleasant to throw himself into, usually helped to diminish ache and emptiness and worry, and knowing from knowing too much that Ricky probably hadn’t eaten properly since they last saw each other, Kurt began to pull ingredients from the cabinet.  He hadn’t made the boy his famous spaghetti sauce yet, and it would be hearty and warm and homey…none of which did Ricky have.
 
Did he?
 
Did he even have a home, a family, people who knew what he was doing and could worry about him?  Or did Ricky treat his family the way Kurt did – loving them but leaving them in the dark about the realities of life in New York?  He would never tell his dad just how horrible things were here, and certainly not about his nights in jail.  Maybe Ricky’s family honestly had no idea.  Assuming he even had family; Ricky didn’t talk about them, aside from a reference to an aunt that slipped out once – a woman on his mother’s side who walked out of her house slippers whenever she tried to cook in them, which was often.  Did she know where Ricky was?  Did his mother?  Or was he the only person in the world who could even try to watch out for the boy?
 
He broke an extra handful of pasta, hoping it might sustain his friend a little longer.  Just a little more.  He didn’t know what else to do.
 
Ricky looked good enough when he arrived that it at least put one question to rest in Kurt’s mind; he didn’t need to keep asking how he hadn’t known when the boy looked okay like this.  He wasn’t the drowned rat from the second evening or even the shivering, combative rodent-child from the first.  He looked like he needed a shower, like he could have used a new and more weather-appropriate outfit, like he was probably a little hungry, but even those things Kurt only noticed because he knew.  If he’d never heard the truth from John, he probably would have thought Ricky looked like he was finally starting to just come to visit instead of to seek out shelter.
 
In a way, for just a fleeting moment, he wished he didn’t know.  After all, there was nothing he could really do to help…was there?
 
Maybe he could.  Maybe he could offer Ricky a more permanent place to stay, make clear there were no strings attached.  They were family, right?  And that was what family did – they looked out for each other.  Mercedes’ discomfort aside, there was no reason that Ricky couldn’t live in his room until Kurt could help him find a job somewhere, doing something that wasn’t so harmful. Maybe he could do something constructive with this knowledge.
 
“Vonny – whatever that it smells amazing,” Ricky grinned as he stepped inside, slinging his familiar duffle bag onto the floor of the entryway with a dramatic flourish.  “You didn’t have to go to any trouble for me, certainly with so little notice.  I was just in the neighbourhood – well, up near 92nd, and you’re the closest person I know who I thought might want to spend an evening.”
 
“It was no trouble, I was making some for myself anyway,” Kurt replied, his falsehood delivered smoothly enough to sound like the truth.  He hadn’t been able to eat much of anything in the past few days, but fixing dinner for Ricky was absolutely what he needed to do – so it was true that it wasn’t any trouble.  In fact, he insisted upon it.  “Have a seat,” he added.  Ricky looked at him like the invitation was a little oddly formal for them, which it was, and Kurt cringed internally as he moved over to the stove to retrieve the pasta.  “So how’ve you been?”
 
Ricky narrowed his eyes, looking up at him skeptically.  “Fine, honey, how about you?  Everything okay?”
 
For Ricky to ask him that, with everything Kurt knew, was agonizing.  Everything was fine for him.  Everything was okay as far as hislife was concerned – but not Ricky’s.  Nothing was fine for a boy living on the streets.  
 
He didn’t want to bring it up, not really.  He and Ricky didn’t talk about serious things, usually because they didn’t need to – they didn’t need to go into detail about how they felt because they both knew they both knew.  But this was important.  He couldn’t help unless he at least acknowledged there was a problem…and, perhaps more vitally, until he knew the cause and extent of Ricky’s needs.  If it was just about food and shelter, Kurt could easily provide that.  If there were someone-…Kurt didn’t even know what, someone forcing him to do this or someone else depending on him somehow, then he needed to know that too before he could offer the kind of assistance his friend would find useful.  
 
Besides.  If there was anyone in this world who would be helpful rather than cruel, it would be him…right?  It was just that he cared about Ricky so much and was so worried about him- he had to say something.  He had to do something.  
 
“You tell me,” he replied, sitting down across from him.  He wore the expression he hoped would best remind Ricky that he could open up to him, that he could understand – or at least try to.  
 
“…Well, I had a pretty good few days,” Ricky replied slowly, his tone halting and suspicious as though he was waiting to see what information Kurt might have before revealing anything.  “No big deals either way…”
 
“Oh?” Kurt asked, trying to suss out any information he could from the non-response.  Did that mean no one had paid him much?  Or just that neither anything exceedingly good nor dreadfully rotten had happened since they’d seen each other last?
 
Ricky set down his fork and rolled his eyes.  “What’s your problem, Vonny?” he asked.  “You’re asking more questions than the police.”
 
Kurt sighed softly, looking across the table at him as he said “Ricky…it’s okay.  I know things aren’t fine for you.”  
 
He was expecting a look of relief, or one of being caught, or something.  Instead he was met with a lowered brow and a puzzled gaze.  “What do you mean?”
 
“I mean…I know how you got us dinner the other night.”
 
Ricky paused a moment while it sunk in, then jumped back, knocking his chair over in the process.  “You take that back,” he demanded.  “What, you wanna search my bag, too?  I didn’t take a damned thing, I paid – you saw me pay.  Who the fuck do you think you are to-“
 
Kurt’s eyes widened as he realized what Ricky meant – or, rather, what Ricky thought it was that he meant – and he jumped in to clarify.  “No!  I know.  You didn’t take anything, I know that, you paid.  I saw you – that’s the problem,” Kurt tried to explain.  Ricky stopped mid-rant, staring down at him, eyes wide and furious at the imagined slight.  That did not bode well for how he would react when Kurt brought up his actual concern, did it?  “I…I know how you got the money you used to pay,” he clarified.  When Ricky didn’t respond, Kurt sighed softly and came right out and said it.  “I know you have…sex  For money.  And not just like a girl in old Hollywood movies who dates for dinner, you-…you do things and they hand you cash.”
 
Ricky blinked slowly, eyes narrow.  “…And?”
 
Of the many things Kurt had anticipated he might say, that wasn’t one of them.  “And…you shouldn’t have to do that.  You shouldn’t have to sell yourself like that, you shouldn’t have to have sex like that – or ever but especially not like that – and you should have a romance like in all the books you like.  You don’t have to do that, Ricky.  You can stay here as often as you want.  I can get you a job somewhere – I don’t know where, it might be the cutting room assistant which is even worse than where I started but at least it pays, and that way you wouldn’t have to-“
 
He was met with a flurry of Spanish and a roll of Ricky’s eyes and what he assumed was cursing but couldn’t be sure.  “You-“ Ricky spat out the word, shaking his head, eyes boring holes into Kurt’s forehead.  “I should have known you’d be one of of them.  You rent boys, all the same – think because you have a roof over your head at the end of the month it doesn’t count what you do?”  His arms crossed defensively over his chest, and Kurt blinked, having no idea what the boy was talking about.
 
“Rent boy?” he repeated, eyebrows lowered in confusion.
 
“Don’t think I don’t know about you, too, Miss Thing.”  Ricky’s accent got thicker when he was upset, and now was no exception; the word ‘don’t became two syllables, ‘think’ lost its k and ‘about’ its t.  The cadence faltered, speeding and slowing in different directions, and his neck developed an odd tilt and sway even as the glare became more ferocious.  “I saw you with that man at Christmas.  You do the same shit I do, but you get paid more at a pop and hold down another job on the side.”
 
Man at Christmas?  Who was- “That was my father!” Kurt exclaimed, unable to keep the disgust and scandal from his face and voice as he tried desperately not to think about doing what Ricky was suggesting with his dad.
 
Ricky’s face registered shock and frenzy for only a moment as the boy worked to figure out how to walk back or play off the gross misinterpretation, then he rolled his eyes and his neck at the same time.  “I don’t need your ‘hospitality,’” he stated firmly.  “Give it to some other boy you wanna treat like your charity case.”  He snatched up his bag with such force that it swung and hit the wall, then barged out with a slam of the door, leaving Kurt in the kitchen with two untouched plates of spaghetti.

Chapter Text

Ricky had to be here somewhere, Kurt knew as he hurried through the twisting streets of Greenwich Village. He couldn’t have gone too far, he only had a few-minute head start. By the time Kurt had raced downstairs after the boy, he couldn’t see anyone on his block, so he hightailed it to the subway, figuring that Ricky was probably trying to get as far away as possible. Probably back to somewhere the boy felt safe.

Probably to anywhere that wasn’t Kurt’s apartment.

How had he ruined this so badly? He’d been trying to help. He’d been trying to offer Ricky somewhere he could be safe and innocent and romantic and open in the way that Kurt knew was rare for them both. He’d been trying to protect him against further arrest – let alone the indignity of having to-

But to no avail. Now his friend was winding his way through a part of the city Kurt knew he could never keep up in, almost certainly never to call again.

* * * * *

When the phone rang at 3:30 in the afternoon, Mercedes was draped across the living room rug on her stomach, the latest issue of Billboard open in front of her. With a roll of her eyes, she climbed to her feet and padded over to the phone. She’d learned the hard way during her first week in the apartment that Rachel got really paranoid about missing calls – she could understand that more now, she guessed. If she missed a call from someone wanting her to do another set, then it went to someone else, and if she missed a call from a booking agent who had seen her perform and wanted her for another gig, then she had missed her only chance. It was the same for Rachel with calls from her agent. And ever since Kurt started hanging around with that boy, he was more paranoid than usual about it. Practically the first thing he asked when he got home was whether anyone had called…and facing the wrath of either of them didn’t sound like a good way to spend her evening (or the following morning). She snagged a pad from the table on her way, ready to take a message, then plucked the receiver from its cradle on the fourth ring with a quick, “Hello?”

“Hey, munchkin!” Her brother’s bass-baritone voice let her know who was calling even before the nickname, which she detested.

“What have I told you about calling me that?” 

“To do it as often as possible, right?” he teased, and she rolled her eyes a little. “How’ve you been?”

Mercedes set the pad down, picking up the phone and carrying it partway across the room so she could at least sit down while she talked. It had been awhile, and catching up could take some time that she didn’t want to spend standing around the kitchen. The one real advantage to Manhattan’s tiny apartments was that the phone could reach most of the way across it, unlike back home where if she was lucky she could move one room away – nowhere near up to her bedroom. “Good. How’s school?”

“Just finished finals so I’m done for a few months and can focus all my efforts on the march. You’re coming, right?”

“Why?”

“Oh, c’mon, Mercedes,” he groaned. “You’d like it. It’s not like school was, I promise.” 

“How would you know?” she pointed out. “You like school.” It wasn’t just school her brother liked; he liked being surrounded by people like himself, by people like them. He liked talking about what it meant to be brought up in a world that looked at them a certain way, about how they could change things…and she didn’t. She understood it better now than she had at Spellman, she could acknowledge that much. She understood how good it felt to look out into a room and not feel like she had to make herself be something other than what she was. She loved the look of recognition in guys’ faces as they heard her start a song they knew and loved already – they all knew Ella and Billie and Dinah almost as well as she did. But she still wasn’t sure she would ever be as interested in politics of it as he was. Even in Lima, she had never felt like it was her job to change things the way her brother had – he’d been out there protesting their separate school from the time he was probably about 14; he had even wrangled Kurt into it a few times. He had always planned on being the one to make the world better, and she…well, she just wanted a place she didn’t have to worry about it so much. And for now, at least, she’d found that.

People didn’t bother her so much around New York. Certainly not the way they had in Lima, but then again most of the country north of the Mason-Dixon Line wasn’t as bad as Lima had been. But back there, it had been something people clung to, something that certain old men and women held onto under the banner of the phrase “the good old days.” Back in the good old days, they didn’t have to worry about things because there weren’t negroes around, and the negroes knew their place, and those colored kids didn’t try to go to school with their white kids. The way things had always been was something comfortable, something familiar that should be returned-to…unlike here. Here, in New York, even before she had found Harlem, it was the kind of place where anything the South did was seen as inherently backwards and ignorant. Of course it was wrong to keep black kids from going to school with their white classmates – only bigots did that.

Things weren’t perfect. She was well aware of it even without listening to people talking up at the club. But for what she wanted, for the things she needed in order to live happily, they weren’t so bad. She didn’t have to work as a maid, and black men were doctors and dentists and, if their offices were in the right part of town, white patients would even go see them without a second thought. That was all the further she’d dreamed when it came to equality of the races, and she was more than happy. She had a lot she still wanted professionally, of course, but that was different.

It just wasn’t different to her brother. He saw it all tied together and wouldn’t stop until everything was completely equal. He wanted it all to be fair. It was admirable, she guessed, even if it didn’t seem like something that would ever happen. Or maybe she just didn’t think much needed to change for her life to be fair now. Either way, spending her days talking about what it meant to be a proud black person wasn’t her idea of a good time.

“It’ll be great, Mercy, you’ve gotta come,” he urged. “From the way everyone’s talking, it’s gonna be huge – the biggest march yet. You can stay with me, so it won’t cost you anything but a bus ticket, and believe me, it’ll be worth it. You don’t know what strength feels like until you stand in a park full of people just like you and raise your voices to demand a place to call your own.”

“I have a place like that already,” she pointed out. “You should come up here and visit me instead, you’d love the club – it’s all the music you introduced me to. A couple guys in the band lived here during the Renaissance back in the 20s.”

“No one tries anything funny with you, do they?” he asked, and Mercedes rolled her eyes at how quickly he could go from a young man trying to change the world to a protective big brother who wanted to be able to report back to their parents that no strange men were trying to harass his sister in the big city. 

“It’s not like that. Most of them are Dad’s age – or older. They look out for me.”

“Oh, he’ll love to hear that,” he chuckled.

Mercedes paused a minute before venturing, “How are they? I know they weren’t happy I missed Christmas. We had a gig, and it was a big deal, and-“

“Mom may have spent half the day grousing about how you could have been singing at our church instead,” he admitted, and Mercedes fought a sigh. She knew it was a big deal to miss Christmas at home, and she knew that coming on the heels of their disappointment in her for not finishing school it couldn’t have been easy. But what choice had she had? “And you know Dad doesn’t like that you’re there. But mostly they just worry about you – all alone in the most dangerous city in America and all.”

“I’m fine.”

“I know. That’s what I tell them when they ask if I’ve checked up on you lately,” he joked. “Besides, you’ve got people there. How are those crazy roommates of yours, anyway?”

“Rachel’s Rachel.” There wasn’t really any other way to describe her, and he laughed in understanding.

“And our little white brother?” he prompted teasingly.

Kurt was still a sore spot for her, and the way her brother mentioned him as though he was part of the family – and he was, she guessed, but she didn’t exactly want to be reminded of it when she didn’t know what in the world to say to him or how to talk to him. They were polite enough to each other, if cold…but it probably helped that in the week since their fight, Kurt had spent almost every night out searching for that boy. “He’s okay.”

“Okay? What’s going on with you two?”

“What do you mean?’

“I mean, since you two were eight years old, a question about Kurt would get a paragraph-long answer about what you’d done and who you’d pretended to be and where you’d looked at what clothes at the mall,” he laughed. “Two words, one of them ‘okay’? Something’s going on. You two have a fight or something?”

“Something like that,” she admitted. “He’s…I don’t know. He’s changed since we came here. I don’t really know how to talk to him anymore.”

“What do you mean, changed?”

“He’s just…really into…boys.” She was awaiting an uncomfortable silence, or maybe just a hum of understanding, but the response she received was puzzling.

“How is that a change?”

She blinked, eyes narrowing, as she tried to figure out how to respond to that. “Because it’s different, and he’s…obsessed or something.”

“Why? Because you’re not trying to see anyone, so he’s cramping your two’s style?”

“What? No! We’re not like that.”

“Then why?”

“Because it’s…wrong.” She wasn’t expecting the silence that followed, and when her brother didn’t respond to her statement she felt as though she needed to justify it. “It is – it says in the Bible that’s not okay, and I love him – I really do. He’s practically family. But that doesn’t mean…I have any idea what to say to him anymore. It feels like he’s just a completely different person.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean?”

“Kurt’s been queer as a three dollar bill since he was seven – and probably before that,” he laughed. “You can’t act surprised by it now. I knew and I was only nine.”

“How did you-“

“Most kids his age would be following me around the way my friend’s little brothers did. He spent all his time talking about clothes and musicals with you. That’s part of why you two got along so well when you hated all the boys you went to school with.”

In a way, she guessed maybe he was right. Kurt was always different, that was part of what she liked about him. What did she care about football and cars when boys in town would talk about them? But Kurt didn’t have any interest in them, either, and they could talk about singers instead. That was probably why he had been her first – and thus far only – crush. But that didn’t solve the real problem.

“But aren’t we supposed to help people we know are sinning so they won’t anymore?”

“We all sin, munchkin,” he pointed out.

“Sure, but that’s a bigger one than not always loving my neighbor.”

“In the case of that last roommate of yours, I don’t blame you,” he teased, and she grinned. “But…I don’t know. I guess I figure that loving my neighbor means taking him where he is, even if he sins roughly more or less than I do since God forgives all of it anyway. And besides – if Dr. King sees Brother Bayard fit to organize the entire march, and he’s a queer and a communist? What place is it of mine to judge?”

* * * * *

The third night of searching took Kurt back to Columbus Circle. He had no idea what he was expecting to find there but he was starting to worry that Ricky might be a lost cause.

He could understand why the boy was angry – or at least, why he was embarrassed which he was covering with anger. He could appreciate why Ricky might not be quite so eager to come back if he felt as though he were being judged, even though he wasn’t. And he wasn’t surprised that Ricky felt self-conscious about the job he’d been forced into, even though Kurt didn’t think less of him as a person or a friend. It wasn’t Ricky’s fault he had to do those things. He didn’t know what had happened or what twist in life had taken the two of them in different directions, rendering him gainfully employed in a job that – while imperfect – did allow him to keep a roof over his head without resorting to lewd activity for money…but forced Ricky into that type of horrible, day-to-day existence. But he wanted to try to help anyway.

He needed to. 

He understood what it meant to be proud, too proud to ask for help, and he knew that even if he were in a situation like that he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone how awful things were. Hell, he couldn’t even tell Rachel how much of a disappointment this city was for him and that should have been a lot easier to admit than engaging in- in those activities. He knew how hard it could be to ask for help…but if someone would have known and offered, at the very least he could have-

Well, like Don and John. He couldn’t accept their offer right away, but at least he knew where to go when he was ready to try again. At least he knew who he could safely go to, who he could ask to take him somewhere he could find boys like him, a place he could be happy. At least he knew what his options were.

And now Ricky…

…well, Ricky did know, Kurt tried to comfort himself. Ricky knew he knew, and he knew that if he needed anything Kurt’s door was always open and his kitchen was always stocked. He knew that his call would always answered – Rachel was under strict instructions to stay home and listen for the phone all evening, just in case he called, just in case he needed somewhere – she was to invite him up, send him to Kurt’s room, heat up the soup in the fridge… Ricky knew that it was a safe place he could stay if he needed it – why else had he kept coming back? Why else had he shown up every few days, usually looking hungry and disheveled, if not because he knew Kurt would help take care of him?

He liked to think it was because of their friendship, but as he sat in the warm spring night, watching men dart into the Park every so often, he wasn’t so sure.

* * * * *

By the time Rachel stepped into the room for the audition, it was obvious exactly who the part was going to. It wasn’t hard to tell, really – the girls who looked like the next Julie Andrews exited the room with smiles on their faces while everyone else just looked tired. Nevertheless, she pasted on her brightest grin and opened her mouth to introduce herself and her selection.

“No. Thank you. Send in the next girl.”

She blinked, mouth falling open. Just because she knew who was faring best in the auditions didn’t mean she’d expected it to end quite this quickly. “But I didn’t even start my song-“

“You’re not what we’re looking for. Sorry. Next!”

“But-“

“Next!” he called again more insistently, his glower practically daring Rachel to try to question him again.

She’d had enough.

Turning on her heel, hair bouncing behind her as she stormed out with a flounce and a flourish, she strode quickly down the hall, down the stairs, and out onto 50th Street. This entire process was ridiculous. It had nothing to do with her talent, with her years of rehearsals and lessons and leads in productions. She had won her first dance competition practically before she could walk, she had played Annie Oakley at 7 and been in South Pacific when she was 10. She had taken piano so she could better appreciate the fundamentals of music, she had started every day with vocal warmup exercises for an hour before school from the time she was 8 until she moved to New York at 18, and that was in addition to being a member and lead vocalist of literally every singing group in Lima that was open to white high school students – and a few that weren’t. And for what? To be told she wasn’t what they wanted before she even opened her mouth so they could hear how good she was?

It was absurd. What was the point of being excellent if they couldn’t get past the way she looked?

…Unless…

She paused outside a storefront window, examining her reflection. Did she look so awful? Maybe not – but maybe so. She didn’t really know anymore. She looked like her mother, only not as tall thanks to her father’s short stature, and in either case…neither parent had ever really fulfilled their show biz dreams despite obviously having talent. She had always chalked it up to her mother being trapped in Lima to care for her husband and obviously-talented little girl, but maybe…

…Maybe even if she’d never come along, her mom wouldn’t have made it because of the way she looked. Dark hair, severe cheekbones, and a nose that – while not as obviously Jewish as many Rachel saw around the city – limited her prospects to visibly Jewish characters.

She couldn’t do anything about that, Rachel concluded as she gazed forlornly at the young potential star staring back at her. She couldn’t do anything about her nose or the shape of her chin or her height. But she could do something to alter her appearance.

On one hand, it felt strange – like selling out who she was to cash in on something better, shoving away her roots to make room for a new life. Mercedes had certainly said no to all of that when she was asked to make changes to herself…but then, Mercedes wasn’t a star, and Rachel planned to be. She could never be content with singing in clubs after hours; she wanted the entire world to know her name, and she was more than talented enough to make that happen. So the real question was, did she truly have the dedication and the will to do anything necessary to make her dreams come true?

With a determined nod of her chin and a fierce gleam in her eye, Rachel turned and strode down the block in search of a hairdresser that might be able to see her without an appointment. If it was Mary Martin they wanted, it was Mary Martin they would get.

* * * * *

Kurt wasn’t sure why every night seemed to bring him back down to the Village, but it did. Maybe it was just the area he knew best by now – a terrifying thought given its nonsensical street numbers and even more difficult to understand building numbering system. Maybe it just seemed like the place he was most likely to run into Ricky, seeing as how that was where he’d seen the boy the most.

Maybe he just didn’t know where to wander anymore.

He’d tried everywhere he could think of over the past five days – the Park, the Howard Johnson’s even though Ricky had said that ‘they’ got thrown out of there by management all the time, he checked Mama’s practically every hour on the hour because someone somewhere was bound to have seen him if John was right that everyone really did know the boy. He’d been uptown, downtown, even through Times Square which was apparently much creepier at night than he’d realized; somewhere in the sea of tourists and lonely businessmen, he could hear boys who sounded like Ricky, who might sound like him if their high voices weren’t so put-on, calling out like beacons to anyone who might want to help them buy dinner or find somewhere to spend the night-

It was so hard to still love this city sometimes. So hard to see the magic in a place that held so much more than just the theatres he’d dreamt of since he was six – also boys who had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but to call out dirt cheap prices for their bodies and practically wait for a cop to scoop them up before a so-called customer could. The disappointments for himself had been more than enough reason to doubt that this was the city of dreams he’d once envisioned; watching boys younger than him bargain for sex the way men back home would shop around for the best deal on a television set was downright horrifying.

He didn’t know why he’d never seen it before. He’d been through Times Square at night before – not often, but several times which should have been more than often enough. He remembered being fascinated by the shimmer of the iron and steel and chrome above the harsh glare of neon lights; he didn’t remember anything about boys his age being bought and sold for services like a mop. He would have remembered that, surely, he would have noticed.

Unless, as he suspected, he just didn’t want to notice. The same way that, in retrospect, he should have known what Ricky did to get by but had never put together until John forced him to.

In truth, he’d expected the call to come the way it always had. He expected that his friend – his best friend, the only boy he trusted with his secrets – would have come knocking on his door after a few days, when he got too hungry and tired and weary to spend another night on a park bench alone somewhere. But the call never came, leaving Kurt to circle the seediest spots he knew of in Manhattan and pray the police wouldn’t find his mere presence there as sufficient evidence to arrest him for planning to engage in homosexual activity of some kind or another.

From the things he’d seen in the past week, the last thing Kurt ever wanted to think about again was the idea of having sex with a man. It had been a ghost of a desire at the back of his mind before, something far down on the list of what he wanted from a boyfriend; now he found it hard to believe that any man who could do that with someone like Ricky, someone so desperate and defenseless, would ever value him in the way he deserved.

Rounding the corner toward the park near where streets crossed themselves, Kurt froze as he saw what certainly seemed like a familiar head of tiny curls atop a too-slim body. He paused, tilting his head a little to get a better look. The boy was dressed oddly, as though trying to pull something together with a very limited closet and fabric selection – a pink scarf around his forehead to push his hair up and back from his face, which sported too much makeup: heavy eyeliner, too much blush, and red lipstick that had smeared more than the wearer would have been happy with had he known. The dress – if Kurt could really call it that, which would have been charitable – looked like an old curtain and not a very good curtain at that. From the dingy brownish sections at the bottom to the putrid olive green damask, it was obviously an inexpensive fabric choice and not a person’s first selection. Around his waist was a rope, wound around at least four or five times to help give the illusion of an hourglass figure, although the silhouette lacked any real bust line or hips to help fill it out so it just succeeded in making the boy look emaciated. But something about the way he moved was still familiar, and before Kurt could stop himself he called out, “Ricky!”

The boy looked up, then froze as he saw Kurt, his gaze closing off into a hardened glare. He spun on his toe, which would have appeared more dramatic had the curtain been a fabric that took movement well; instead, it shifted stiffly around his legs before settling back into place. Ricky hurried further into the park, and Kurt very narrowly avoided being hit by oncoming traffic on Eighth Avenue to try to make it to the tree-lined path before losing sight of his friend. Even now, Ricky pranced more than he ran, and as they moved further from the entrance even the prance turned into an angry stride, hips jutting angrily from one side to the other as he moved. “Get lost,” he spat over his shoulder. “No one wants to be reminded it’s a boy they’re fucking, and you just blew my cover.”

The phrase was absurd on its own, outside of a spy movie, let alone the idea that Ricky was believable enough as-…well, as anything other than a young boy in a ridiculous costume and maquillage. “Then why do it?” he asked, even though the answer was obvious even when he didn’t want to think about it so much.

Ricky sighed deeply and turned to face him. In the harsh glow of the streetlights, his eyes looked sunken beneath the heavy black mascara he wore, his cheeks jutting out of his face highlighted by the petal pink blush. “You already think you know, so just take that answer and go away,” he replied…but instead of rolling his eyes and turning to leave again, he simply waited with a bored expression, as though he were a parent explaining something painfully simple to a toddler. It was patronizing as hell, as Kurt had no use for it.

“You need help,” he stated. “You need money. I don’t know what must have happened to make things this way – you’re smart, that much is obvious, and you do have fashion sense although this current ensemble is making me rethink that-“ He hoped the joke would remind Ricky of the things they had in common, the things they could talk about. It had been a way to coax the boy back to his apartment at least once before that he could remember, but it wasn’t effective now. His grin faded and he tried to look like he hadn’t just attempted such a pathetic attempt at pseudo-humour. “I don’t know why this is what you think you have to do, but I can help.”

“You can’t,” Ricky replied sharply.

“I can get you-“

“No,” he stated firmly. “You don’t get it. I like it here. I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. I am doing exactly what I would be doing anyway if I were just a fag like everyone else in this city, only I get something out of it. I’m doing what you’d do if you weren’t so scared of the police, but it buys me dinner instead of just making me feel cute. And I am – you should see the way the boys come for me,” he added. The exaggerated tone was back, which was never a good sign, but he looked dead serious. “You want to try to save me. I don’t need saving and I don’t want to be part of your little dream world. Go find some other boy to rescue.”

“It’s not-“

“I have plenty of mon-“ He lowered his voice to a whisper, eyes darting nervously around as he informed Kurt, “I have plenty of money. It’s warm out, and I like the freedom. And I like men liking me. So whatever that makes me, that’s fine with me.” His head bobbed as he said the last part, voice getting louder and more accented, more sibilant. “Now get lost. I don’t need you.”

As the boy turned to walk away, the words tumbled out of Kurt before he could stop them. “I need you.” The puzzled look on Ricky’s face bought him a few seconds to compose himself, to try to walk himself back from the embarrassing admission he’d made and the even more mortifying way in which he’d made it. “I need you around,” he stated in a more together voice, sounding far less desperate than he had, but Ricky still laughed – laughed!

“Oh Vonny – god, baby, you’re sweet, but you’re so-…no. You’re too much like me. You’d never be my type. There are boys for you out here somewhere, just look for ones who don’t do scare drag and-“

"No! Oh, no. No. Definitely not,” Kurt stated firmly, eyes wide in near-horror at the idea of ever trying to have sex with Ricky even for emotional connection rather than something more clinical or – worse yet – mercenary. “I didn’t mean-…I don’t think of you that way, either. I could never…”

“Good.”

“I meant…” He tried to find a good way of explaining what it was he did mean. It wasn’t something that came readily for him, talking about how much people meant to him, and it was even more difficult with Ricky who rejected so much sentimentality as cheesy even though he did love romantic books and Disney movies and- “You’re the only person I don’t keep secrets from. You’re the one I tell them to. And you make me laugh even when things hurt so badly – that’s not easy, you know. Talk to people who know me and they’ll tell you-“

“I know,” Ricky confirmed.

“My dad spent most of junior high school trying to get me to even crack a smile, but around you…” He flashed a faint one for Ricky’s benefit, hoping it would help to convey what he meant. The boy was so hard to read when he wanted to be, arms crossed over his chest, head tilted just so, mouth tight, eyes narrow but not glowering. “If this were anyone else, I would be bothered by it – those boys in Times Square were so heartbreaking, but you…I couldn’t stand anything happening to you. And not just because you’re the only person I don’t have to tell about what it’s like to be thrown in jail, but that’s part of it, too.”

“You only know one other person who’s been tossed in for a night?”

Kurt nodded. “When I was arrested – the first time, when Ethel-“ Ricky nodded and gave him a quick ‘get on with it’ hand gesture. “I was at the park because I was trying to find other men like us. I wanted a boyfriend so badly, I was so…lonely.” It hurt even saying the word, the ache flooding back to him so suddenly it felt like his chest might squeeze and contract until it killed him. “That isn’t the case anymore.”

Ricky nodded slowly, just a tiny bit, still held so tightly that Kurt had no possible way of gauging what the boy might be thinking. “I…like spending time with you,” he admitted haltingly, as though it pained him to do so for reasons Kurt couldn’t begin to fathom. “And not just because your tv is big and you’re a great cook. And the musicals you want me to like…aren’t awful.” The last part was an understatement, and Kurt knew it. He glared playfully at Ricky, who rolled his eyes and uncrossed his arms, throwing up his hands as he admitted, “Ok, ok, no need to get like that – I like them. Well, most of them – that Oklahoma one…” He shook his head, rolling his eyes again. “But I named you after one, didn’t I?”

“You did,” Kurt acknowledged with a soft smile.

“So there ya go.” Ricky turned to leave, less angrily this time but still not what Kurt wanted.

“Wait.” Ricky paused but didn’t turn back, simply looking over his shoulder with a ‘what now?’ expression. “Stay with me?”

Ricky sighed. “I’ve gotta work, Vonny. You understand, don’t you baby?”

“Please.”

There was a long pause, then Ricky turned slowly and there was another long pause, before finally he spoke. When he did, his tone was one of certainty that left no room for argument or negotiation, no room to wiggle around what he decreed would happen. “I’m not stopping what I do,” he stated first and foremost, and when Kurt opened his mouth to protest, Ricky held up his hand. “I’m not some damaged little coloured boy you can save. I’m not a project – I know what I’m doing, and I like it. And if that’s not something you can learn to be at peace with, then I can’t know you anymore.”

It was so awful, thinking of Ricky doing those things – the way he had all week. And the idea that his friend could think something so awful was so- so normal and fun and worth doing even under these conditions-…but then, Mercedes thought he was crazy and sinful for being who he was and wanting the kinds of relationships he wanted. Maybe he needed to show the boy a little more of what he wished she would show to him. He quirked an eyebrow to indicate he was ready to at least proceed to the next condition.

“Good choice, Vonny,” Ricky praised with a faint smirk before stating, “I pay some of the groceries – I don’t look like it, but you know I eat.”

“Oh, I do,” Kurt agreed. The boy ate more than he did more often than not, and even if Kurt assumed most of that had to do with being starving so much of the time, he supposed that groceries were a small price to pay. 

“And rent.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

"No," Kurt insisted more forcefully, horrified by what extra work Ricky would have to do to make that kind of sacrifice. 

Ricky nodded, then looked like he was ready to leave. “Then we’re done.”

“This can’t possibly make enough-“

“You’d be surprised. I’m very good.” The proud smirk turned Kurt’s stomach, but he swallowed hard and nodded. “Your roommates are gonna love this. One can’t stand me and one loves the idea of us being in love.”

“I’ll worry about them,” Kurt assured him. They stood awkwardly for a moment before Kurt ventured, “Do I need to let you go…worknow, or-“

Ricky paused a moment, biting his lip, then replied, “You had more musicals to play for me, didn’t you?”

“There are always more musicals. You haven’t even seen Rachel’s collection. It’s bigger than mine.”

“That’s terrifying.”

“That’s Rachel,” Kurt replied.

They paused in silence again before Ricky offered, “Then we better get going, if we want to get through more than one a night. But I’m buying dinner. Do you like Chinese? There’s a place I love only a few blocks from here, up on 22nd, and it’s open late.”

His tone left no room for argument. Kurt supposed that, for now, he would have to learn to oblige.

Chapter Text

Even if Kurt wasn't sure he would ever feel at-ease letting Ricky pay for things now that he knew where the money came from, he had to admit that the food smelled heavenly. It reminded him of the smells that came from the block of restaurants over past the Chinese Community Center back in Lima - and though the sight of ducks hanging in the windows on the street where Ricky had taken him was a little disconcerting, the scent of crispy orange-infused skin was more than good enough to make him hungry despite the visual. "One of these days you'll move further downtown, Vonny, and we won't have to walk so far to eat - I'm starving."

Kurt's stomach twisted a little as he asked, "Have you had anything since-"

Ricky looked at him with a deadpan expression, and Kurt could tell he was barely restraining the urge to roll his eyes. "Lunch at the automat around noon, but it's almost nine now," he pointed out. "Please don't tell me you're gonna ask every time." Kurt forced a faint smile as he unlocked the front door of his building, and Ricky sighed. "I really am fine. It's just hard to get a place - first month, last month, deposit, plus most places don't wanna rent to someone like me. And sure, there are bad days. But I ate, baby, you've gotta let me do what I do without trying to protect me so much." His tone was softer than it had been in the park, and Kurt liked to believe it was at least partly appreciative. Like maybe Ricky didn't mind him trying to help, it was just new for him - Kurt would certainly be able to understand that. Or maybe Ricky appreciated the end result but not the hovering.

He would try not to, anyway. As long as Ricky didn't stop showing up again: he thought that was a fair compromise.

As they trudged up the stairs toward the apartment, he could hear Mercedes singing, though it was tough to make out what exactly until they arrived on the fifth floor landing. It wasn't her usual fare - usually the only men she sang along with were Ray Charles and maybe Chuck Berry once in a blue moon, and it was much too short and upbeat for her to really show off, which made Kurt guess she was probably just getting ready to the radio, but it was nice to hear. She didn't sing around the house as much anymore. Maybe it was because she wasn't really interested in Broadway the way he and Rachel were, and that was what was usually on the turntable. Besides, she sang all night, every night, which meant she probably shouldn't strain her voice any more than she already did if she wanted to be able to keep her vocal strength up. But it had been awhile since he'd heard her play around with music like that; he'd missed it more than he realized.

It was also good to hear her sounding like herself again. Like she had when they were high schoolers in Ohio and he could hear her singing from the time he hit the front porch of her family's home - or, at the very least, from the time he was on the third step up to her room. She hadn't sounded like that when she was part of that group and they kept trying to change her. This...

Their differences aside, it was good to hear how she sounded. The next time his dad asked how they were - either on behalf of her mother or on his own - he could report back honestly about at least one member of their household.

Maybe two members now. Maybe.

He grinned and handed Ricky the second bag of food as he fished out his key, then unlocked the door and pushed it open. Surely enough, Mercedes was bopping her way through the living room, suitcases open across the floor, clothes draped over the couch as she tried to figure out what to wear.

Who was that man?
I'd like to shake his hand
He made my baby fall in love with me!


"Hey," he offered brightly, and she lifted her head. Her grin faded as she took in both of them and a slightly uncomfortable look came over her. Kurt barely managed not to sigh or grimace - he didn't know what her problem was or why she couldn't just get over it for both their sakes, but for now it simply...was what it was, he supposed. "We brought food if you have time - it smells so good, it's from this Chinese place that Ricky swore was right next to where we were but was really twenty blocks away."

"It's not my fault you're not a New Yorker," Ricky replied with a smirk, and Kurt rolled his eyes fondly. "And probably only 15. Besides, I said it was on 22nd, you knew where we were!"

"It could've been 12th. Or 4th. Or 6th. Or any other number below about 25. How was I supposed to know?" But he was learning his way around down there - he'd found the park where Ricky was on the first try, hadn't he?

"Oh Vonny," Ricky sighed dramatically with a roll of his eyes and a piteous shake of his head. "Get out the food, I'm gonna go change." He took his duffel automatically into Kurt's room, closing the door behind himself, and Kurt began to set out the square containers of food. They covered almost the entire table - he might have gotten a few too many options, he thought with a rueful grin, but it all had sounded so good and it was pretty late... his stomach rumbled in agreement as he moved to the cabinet to retrieve plates.

"It does smell good," Mercedes offered as she walked over to the table, looking like she was considering whether eating with him was a good idea, and Kurt sighed softly to himself. "If there's enough," she added, and he quirked his eyebrow at her skeptically.

"Mercedes. There is no room left on the table for any more food. This makes my first Thanksgiving here with Rachel look like a tiny, intimate affair - and you remember how I do up Thanksgiving." She smiled faintly in acknowledgment, and he continued. "There's plenty. Come eat with us." He held out a plate, and she hesitated for only another moment before taking it and beginning to scoop out food from the assorted containers. 

"What's this one?"

"Chicken something. I don't know, Ricky swears it's amazing." Mercedes seemed satisfied with the answer and took a few pieces, and that seemed like as good a time as any to announce, "He's staying here for awhile." She looked over at him with an unreadable look, and he added, "If you knew the things I know, you would agree it's a good idea." 

He braced for the backlash, for the questions about why he had to be there and make her uncomfortable, about why he had to stay there when they were already so crowded, but they never came. Instead, he was met with a simple, "Okay. But only if he stays in your room - I'm not giving up the living room."

"...Really."

"There's no room for my suitcases in your room, and I know you're not gonna give up your mirror in the mornings," she pointed out. "Besides, I've slept in a bed with you, and you kick."

"I do not!" he replied, taken aback, but things did feel more like they used to when she teased him.

"Mmhmm," she replied dryly. "You do. Not as much as Rachel though."

"Well, that's true," he agreed. "No one kicks as much as she does."

"It's like she's doing Swan Lake in her sleep," Mercedes grumbled as she dug into her food, opting for a fork despite the chopsticks Kurt had proudly laid on the table. 

"I can never tell if she thinks she's Clara or Ginger Rogers. Were you there the time that Carole came running upstairs because she swore one of us had been hurt after Rachel knocked half the books off my bookshelf with an inappropriate jete?"

"No!" Mercedes laughed, eyes wide. "Your room was much too tiny for that."

"Oh, believe me - I know," he replied, placing his hand over his chest in a gesture of sincere reassurance. "I knew that before she leapt and almost slammed into the door in the process." Mercedes started giggling at the image, and Kurt couldn't help but follow suit. "And the best part," he added, laughing harder at the memory, "was that my dad was right behind her to see if we'd left the door half-open the way we were meant to!" The look on his dad's face had been priceless: stern, ready to lecture him about respecting Rachel and treating her like the young lady she was, expecting to find the two of them in a state of partial-undress or at least being mussed from heavy kissing, only to see Rachel sprawled across the floor beside the door, clutching her foot, eyes wide in panic, with books strewn all over, while Kurt sat on his vanity bench with what he was sure had been a look of pure confusion and skepticism because how in the world could she have possibly-

"Too bad my mom wasn't still working there, she would have loved to tease you about that," Mercedes smirked, and Kurt looked a little sheepish because there was nothing like Mercedes' mother's look to make him feel like a disobedient child, but it was true - she would have given him a hard time about it for months.

"Tease him about what?" Ricky asked as he emerged, eyes bright with the potential to tease his friend about something - or maybe they just looked that way without his eyes surrounded by thick, dark liner. His makeup was gone, scrubbed off until his cheeks were pinker than Kurt had seen them, and he had changed out of the horrible drapery dress into a pair of soft-looking, well-worn pajama bottoms. They hung off his hips as he slipped on the mismatched top, then strode over and picked up a plate before beginning to fill it happily with steaming, fragrant food.

"His girlfriend," Mercedes joked. Kurt wasn't sure why that was ok to tease him about, why she didn't feel awkward making fun of the fact that his relationship with Rachel was an open-secret fraud, but why the idea of him actually dating a boy made her so uncomfortable considering they were, in his mind, two sides of the same coin. Why would he have a fake girlfriend if he were actually interested in a girl? Though he supposed that, since Rachel's relationship with him was just as fake, but she was willing - if not eager - to find a real boyfriend, maybe it was different. 

Or maybe she was trying. He hoped so, anyway.

Ricky looked over at him with a mixture of disgust and pity. "Oh baby, no - not you too.." he started, then paused. "What girl in their right mind would believe you? That gorgeous man over on Canal, sure, but not you! No offense, of course, but it's like when my tia would try to throw me at girls, who took one look at me and tried to get me to do their makeup instead." When Kurt just stared at him a moment, unsure where to even begin, he added, "Not their fault mine was better."

"She means Rachel." Ricky almost choked, and he quickly assured him, "It was just to get us both out of Ohio."

"Oh, I get it," Ricky nodded. "Marriage of convenience. It's better that way than the other, where the girl has no idea- oh, hey, I love this song," he announced as the music changed. "California must be amazing - none of this rushing from place to place like New Yorkers, just boys and beaches as far as the eye can see."

"In the movies there are a lot more girls than boys," Mercedes pointed out, and Kurt was about to reluctantly agree - then ask if Ricky had seen Gidget because he still loved that one - when Ricky stiffened and rolled his eyes.

"Not on any beach I'd go to," he replied with an irritated tilt of his head. "The movies make it look like there are women all over Manhattan, too, but I know where to look." He shifted, his posture stiff, and everything about him more closely resembled the Ricky that Kurt saw at the parks than the one who usually stood in his apartment.

But he couldn't worry about that. Not only was he getting used to the on-off switch his friend seemed to have, and not only did he understand why it was there, but he found himself distracted by a thought: Beaches full of boys. Places like Ricky was used to, just on another coast, with more sand and fewer stores and linen instead of overcoats... he hoped Blaine wasn't there. Or, more precisely: he hoped Blaine was on beaches and enjoying himself, and he would even go so far as to think he hoped Blaine was surrounded by boys somewhere instead of sitting on a blanket beside a girl as she rubbed tanning oil over herself. But he hoped the boy he'd loved, who had been so sweet to him when he wasn't terrified...he hoped the boy wasn't having to resort to entrees into Ricky's world. He still didn't know what had happened to his friend to lead him into such a dark underbelly, but he hoped the same fate hadn't befallen Blaine. For that matter, he hoped the boy he'd loved wasn't one of the patrons of boys like Ricky, either - sneaking through the darkened streets at night, while his wife slept in their shared home, searching for someone to take away the itch he wanted to forget about in the morning... 

Just as it was hard to think about New York as a city without thinking about its disappointments and the lies he'd been fed about the life he would have there, it was hard to hear the word 'California' without imagining what might be for the handsome, charismatic, utterly insecure boy he'd once known. He only wished it could be the life Ricky was imagining for all California boys...but his experience here made him more skeptical. No one dreamed about becoming Ricky one day, but somehow he came about anyway.

"They're doing a summer hits night," Mercedes offered, snapping Kurt out of his thoughts. "Since Memorial Day is Thursday."

"How is it summer already?" Kurt asked. 

"I don't know. It's strange without school to keep time by," Mercedes agreed. "This time last year I was wrapping up finals and making plans to move up here. Everything was changing in May and June. Same thing the year before that - you and Rachel were getting ready to move, we were graduating...and the year before that-"

The year before that, plans were happening without Kurt knowing anything about it, but he didn't think that was the right thing to mention - especially not when Mercedes was still not at ease with certain things.

"-You were finally coming home from that fancy school so we could finally go to McKinley together."

They had been so excited for that before the fact. They had waited for that day for years, and then when it had finally happened he'd spent most of the summer trying to distract himself from the worst betrayal he'd ever experienced, from the boy he'd thought he would spend forever with. He hadn't even really been able to enjoy the victory. But he forced a faint smile of acknowledgment anyway. Mercedes' face fell a little, and she uncomfortable look she'd had for most of the past few months settled back into place, as though once they were removed from a conversation about their good times before, she didn't know how to be around him anymore. 

She was trying, he knew that, but that didn't make things any more comfortable. Especially not when Ricky was reverting into his cool, stiff stance in the chair, legs crossed tightly, back arched in a way that Kurt knew would look right on one of the benches downtown but which looked just sad and desperate perched on his kitchen chair. With the happy, nostalgic chatter gone, the two seemed to have remembered they didn't like or trust each other, and he...well. He didn't know exactly what to say to either of them.

The sound of the lock in the tumbler to announce Rachel's arrival left him wondering whether her ability to make every conversation about herself would be a godsend or another cause for awkwardness and frustration. On one hand, it meant Ricky would clam up more the way he did around anyone who wasn't Kurt, and Mercedes would either roll her eyes or get competitive, and neither of those would help matters. On the other, he had a feeling that well-meaning-yet-flawed plans of a path to stardom might break the ice again, might be something that would help-

Then he saw her.

The first thing he noticed, oddly enough, wasn't the colour; it wasn't even the length, as for all he knew from that position the lack of hair visible down her back was because she had tied it up in a bun for dance. No - it was the nest of puffed-up curls perched at the front of her head that caught his attention the moment she stepped inside. He wondered if she had found an old ratted switch in some costume bin - though why anyone would have kept such a thing, let alone, she would have ever put it on her head, least of all where her bangs had once been, was beyond him. Then she turned to lock the door behind her, and he gasped as he saw how short the back of her hair was; where once long, dark hair had swung to her mid-back, now...now it was almost shorter than his hair. Not quite, but too close for his comfort. 

And the colour...

It wasn't blonde, not quite, but it wasn't dark anymore, and it wasn't quite red, not exactly auburn - he supposed maybe it was closest to a strawberry blonde, but really it just looked like the mutt of all haircolours, void of distinguishing characteristics except for a list of things that it wasn't. As she stepped forward toward the kitchen, he could see light glinting off platinum blonde highlights scattered unevenly through the curls, strewn in a way that might have been careful before the monstrosity of a 'style' had been formed, but was now just a mess.

"Oh. My. God."

The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, and Rachel beamed for a moment at having clearly stunned him before she caught sight of his face - of all their faces, because Kurt didn't have to look at either of his friends beside him to know that they were similarly unimpressed. He could hear Ricky trying not to start laughing, and Mercedes shifting like she knew something she wanted to say but also knew she shouldn't. He tried to come up with something to say, but he couldn't get anything cruel or snide to come out.

"What did you do?" Mercedes asked finally, at the same time that Ricky said piteously, "Oh, girlie, no..."

Rachel raised a hand to the back of her hair, self-consciously trying to at one smooth it down and fluff it up to make it look like there was something there when there wasn't. "I thought it needed a change," she offered. She forced a smile, but it looked nervous, and Kurt wished she could give her confirmation but it was-...it was bad. "You don't understand, I go into auditions and it's nothing but blondes a foot taller than me, and they're who get the roles. Directors want Mary Martin types, not-...not ethnic girls like me-"

"If you're 'ethnic' what am I, hm?" Ricky asked with a roll of his eyes, and Kurt shot him a look, but Mercedes laughed under her breath in what Kurt assumed was as much agreement as it was amusement. 

Rachel faltered at the interruption but kept going. "So I thought it would be best to give them a little bit of what they wanted - not completely, I mean I didn't go all blonde, the hairdresser asked me when I got there if I wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe and I said no."

"She died alone and miserable," Mercedes pointed out.

"But was successful when she was alive - but it doesn't matter. I wasn't going to go that far, I would look ridiculous." Before Ricky could say anything, Kurt held up his hand; he supposed it was a credit to their friendship that Ricky kept his mouth shut, because he knew it definitely wasn't out of loyalty to the girl whose feelings would be hurt. 

Contrary to what Rachel probably thought, he did care about that. He cared about her, and seeing her insecure enough to think she should get a frankly horrible haircut...he couldn't be cruel to her in that moment. He couldn't compare her hair to deranged woodland creatures or ask what dyes had exploded to create quite that colour, not when she seemed so lost. 

"So I thought this was a nice way to look like the directors want - so they can see past how I look and at least consider me, then my talent will blow them away," she stated.

"Rachel, why-" he started to ask, but before he could even get out the question she jumped in in a frustrated rush.

"Everything was all wrong," she stated. "My hair was too dark, it was too long and heavy, and the bangs - I liked them, but no one else did. Besides, it made my face look shorter and my nose look even bigger than it is, and this should help minimize all that."

"You thought it would make you nose look smaller?" Ricky asked, incredulous, and Kurt shot him a look. Just because he was rightdidn't mean it needed said - especially not tonight, and Rachel would figure it out on her own at some point...or maybe not, she still hadn't figured out what proportions looked right on her and what made her torso look short while her legs looked freakishly long, what made her chest look completely flat even though there were breasts under there somewhere - Kurt knew, somewhere, just not...readily visible to men who wanted to find them. And maybe it had taken her forever to figure out that knee socks weren't okay on anyone who had graduated from high school, but-

...Okay, maybe she wouldn't figure it out on her own. But she could be told in a couple days.

Ricky rolled his eyes at Kurt's sharp glare. "Well it doesn't, anyone can see that. All her features look darker, I'm not gonna lie about it," he pointed out.

Rachel's eyes widened as she surmised slowly, "...So it's worse?"

"I don't know that I'd say worse..." Mercedes began softly.

Rachel turned to stare at herself in the reflection of the kitchen window, studying, tilting her head to and fro for a moment before her eyes widened. "...It is," she confirmed, her voice resigned for just a moment before she turned to them and demanded, "Put it back!"

"What?" Kurt asked.

"You know about things like this, I know you could tell even if you were being very sweet and trying to spare my feelings - thank you, but there's no time for that, we have to get it back the way it was."

"Rachel-"

"You don't understand, I have been trying for almost two years to make it and there is no way that I just cut off all my hair to help make myself more desirable to casting directors and producers only to look less like what they want. Okay? There is no way I cut off all my hair to-...oh my god, I cut off all my hair..." Kurt stood and walked over to her, taking her by the shoulders and guiding her away from any reflections, over to the couch, sitting her down as she lamented, "I ruined it, didn't I?"

"Ruined what?" he asked, trying not to sound as dry at her melodramatic tone as he wanted to.

"My chances - it's going to take forever to grow out...Even if I get it dyed back tomorrow, the length...what do you think? Is it just the colour?" She was clinging to hope, wanting him to say that dying it back to brown would save everything else and let her still be Mary Martin, and even as much as he wanted to spare her he still had to be honest.

"The colour might be a start, but the shape...with the curls..."

She sighed dramatically, slumping onto the couch, resting her chin sulkily against the back of the cushion, and Kurt took a seat in the easy chair, not sure what exactly to say to her. He could appreciate why she was upset, even if she was overreacting in her quintessentially Rachel way: she'd been trying just as hard as he had to get all the things she'd dreamed of - in many ways, she'd been fighting harder than he had. At least when it came to their careers...he at least had an inroads toward what he wanted. He wasn't moving quickly, and for all he knew he would be stuck in the basement again as soon as Don didn't have a side project for him to work on, but at least he didn't have to prove himself over and over again every week, day in and day out. He had more than enough rejection in his life, and maybe...just maybe...Rachel had more

And he had been used to it before they moved. He had been thrown out of restaurants in Lima for his friendship with Mercedes, he had been shoved by every boy in school by the time he was 7, he had been abandoned by the one boy he thought he might have a future with, and all of that on top of losing his mother and feeling inexplicably wrong for a decade. By the time they got to New York-...yes, he'd expected more, he'd expected everything to be perfect. But at least he had known how to deal with disappointment. Feeling isolated and out of sync with the rest of the world wasn't a new feeling for him; he'd thought that made everything worse for him, because he'd been expecting Oz: a place where he could be the hero, be someone who was inspirational and admired. But maybe...maybe it was even worse for Rachel than it was for him. She didn't know how to not be the standout. She didn't know how to not be the best, the star. Between her mother's influence and her honest-to-god talent, she'd never had that a day in her life before they moved. She'd never had to reassure herself because everyone else told her how great she was. Maybe no one their age liked her much, and he could understand why - he had once been among them - but at least the thing she prided herself on the most was appreciated by the adults in town. Directors in Ohio could see how talented she was, could see her in these roles in a way that no one in New York could.

She wasn't just being dramatic about her hair, or even about a director liking her or not. It was so much bigger than all of that.

He stood, ready to go to their records and pull out the Wonderful Town soundtrack, the one they had listened to over and over after they moved - to sing about why oh why oh why-oh they had ever left their home state where they were (or at least she was) appreciated...but the radio provided a much better option.

Come on baby
Let's do the twist


During the summer before their senior year of high school, after he'd come back from Dalton and spent a solid week in his room not wanting to speak to anyone, torn between whether or not to write to Blaine - he did have his address at home, after all, and he could easily find an address at Stanford - and demand that Blaine undo both the breakup and his plans...after a week of listening to nothing but ballads about men who got away and the girls whose hearts they left broken behind them, Rachel had begun to come over and park herself in his room. At first he thought she was trying to move in on Finn, since they would be in Ohio for another year and since Quinn still hadn't been seen or heard from so Finn had gone on a date with one of the cheerleaders whose name no one could remember in an attempt to move on, but after awhile her forced brightness and insistence on listening to upbeat songs on the radio had worked their magic. He couldn't even count how many times they'd danced together up in his room, teasing each other and rolling their eyes at how they looked...and at least slowly bringing him back to feeling human again instead of someone who was so down in the dumps he couldn't bear the thought of dealing with people.

Now he could return the favour.

He held out his hand to her, and when she just stared at him he urged, "Come on."

"No."

Come on baby
Let's do the twist


"Let's dance."

"No," she replied, her tone verging into the petulant. "I look ridiculous."

"No more than I do," he replied. "Or every other person on the planet doing this dance. It's kind of designed to make everyone look silly. Come on."

Take me by my little hand
And go like this


Rachel sighed dramatically and gave him a put-upon look that he almost felt proud of - she had learned it from him, clearly - but put her hand in his and let him pull her up and past the coffee table, twisting along with him half-heartedly, rolling her eyes a little at how bad of an idea it was, but Kurt knew otherwise. He remembered giving her that look a thousand times in the first couple weeks, especially when she made him do the dance every single time the song came on - and it was the song of the summer that year, so that was roughly every half hour- he'd been ready to throw her out for good. But eventually it had worked.

A smile started to crack on Rachel's face, and Kurt felt a brief shining moment of victory before he heard Ricky burst out laughing behind him. He turned his head quickly, hips still moving, to demand, "What?"

"Vonny, what do you think you're doing?"

"What?" Kurt asked, not understanding.

"What in the world is that dance?"

"The Twist - what? You know the Beach Boys but not Chubby Checker? I thought everyone with a radio knew-"

Ricky gave him a deadpan look. "Yes, we do," he replied with an irritated roll of his head. "But that? Is not a twist. That's a little...shimmy thing." The waggling hand movement he did in the direction of Kurt's hips came with a sad shake of his head, as though he regretted it had come to this. "See? Like this." Ricky moved over closer to him and Rachel, beginning to dance; unlike Kurt's stylized shimmy or Rachel's very classic side-to-side movement with occasional dips down and stiffly bent elbows, Ricky's hips rocked in doubletime even as they swayed to the beat, and somehow he looked effortless in it. "C'mon, baby, with your hips - I know they're skinny, but they work," he teased, then stared at Rachel and his hips stilled. "Okay, okay, stop. Just stop."

"What?" she asked, sounding more indignant and hurt than the comment would ordinarily cause.

"You're so stiff. Like a little windup toy, back and forth-" he imitated, and Kurt almost laughed at how spot-on it was. "Like this- okay? Feel..." Ricky grasped her hips lightly, guiding them, rolling his eyes at how stubborn she was.

Kurt caught sight of Mercedes still sitting over at the table, watching them awkwardly. He didn't know what her problem was, if it was that Ricky still made her so uncomfortable - though after earlier he wasn't sure he understood why, the two of them had managed to laugh at him and at Rachel just fine together - in a nice way, he guessed, but still. Or maybe she just felt left-out. She had certainly felt that way when he first started fake-dating Rachel, so maybe...

...Maybe she really was trying but wasn't sure how all the time. He could appreciate that and try to meet her halfway. He missed being each other's family, especially out here where there were so few hallmarks of home, and she was the only one who would understand anything he talked about before about age 15. She was the only other person in this entire city who knew so many things about him, who knew about the year he borrowed Grace-from-down-the-street's Brownie uniform and worn it to school for Halloween, who knew what his old house looked like - the one before his dad married Carole. She was the only other person in the world who knew why he slept with his bottom drawer open sometimes - because when he was 8 the bottom drawer of his parents' dresser was the only thing that still smelled and felt like his mom in the house, and then the dresser was moved into his room when he was 11, and then it got to be a habit. They had so much history together, so much intimacy in a way that only family could bring, and he owed it to her to try - or, at least, to appreciate her trying. 

They owed it to one another.

He walked over to her and held out his hand. "Mercedes," he said with a soft smile. "Dance with me?"

Ricky giggled loudly, and she glanced past Kurt's shoulder for a moment; he looked back to see Ricky trying to demonstrate how to dance and Rachel bouncing on the balls of her feet while trying to twist like a bird trying to leap and flap and use its tail all at once- He felt a hand in his and turned to see Mercedes flash him a smile in return and stand, then lead him over to the couch to start twisting the way the three of them had in Lima during the worst summer of his teenage life - just with one extra member.

* * * * *

"Vonny?" The voice was quiet in the darkness of Kurt's bedroom that night. He knew from experience that he couldn't easily roll to face Ricky in the narrow bed, and that even if he could he would only see his friend's profile illuminated in the narrow strips of moonlight streaming through the window. 

"Yeah?" he whispered back, staring up at the ceiling.

"I'm sorry about earlier. Chattering then icy- I know it doesn't make for the best party guest," he offered, and Kurt could hear the awkward, forced smile in his voice. The words 'I'm sorry' probably didn't come easy for Ricky - less easy than for most people, which was saying quite a bit.

"You were fine," Kurt assured him. "Mercedes will warm up to you pretty quickly if the two of you can bond over teasing me. And Rachel likes you already."

"I'm sure the offer to fix her hair and teach her what to do with curls didn't hurt," Ricky observed, and Kurt laughed softly in agreement. They fell comfortably silent before Ricky added, "I don't know how to be with you but around other people." Kurt wasn't sure what to say, and after a moment Ricky continued haltingly, "It's hard to let the wall down for you but not for them, so it's...all over the place."

There was a lot Ricky wasn't saying, and Kurt knew it. He knew exactly how it felt to try to let down his guard and let people in, to be terrified of being hurt again, or arrested, or abandoned by boys who didn't believe his dreams were possible. He knew how dangerous hope seemed, and trust, and friendship... Ricky didn't need to utter the words "I'm scared" for Kurt to know they were just beneath jokes the jokes about Rachel's curls. "I understand," he stated quietly, with absolute sincerity, and the response came in the same tone and spirit:

"I know."

Chapter Text

The job practically fell into Mercedes' lap the week after Memorial Day.

In retrospect, she wasn't sure why she believed the man who sat at the bar sipping rum and Cokes all evening. She'd seen him before, but only two or three times - he wasn't one of the regulars - and something about his suit seemed just a little too slick. But his compliments were less effusively-flattering than most of the smooth operators she was used to at the club, and he sounded so genuine when he said she sounded great (she did, especially that night; they had a new bass player, and he knew how to pull something out of her she couldn't explain but could feel as she belted out the songs). Then he mentioned his cousin had a job at a record label and needed a secretary.

She was insulted at first - what girl wanted to be a secretary her whole life? - but the man pointed out that it was how most of the women on the radio got their starts. It was how Motown worked, he'd said, and she knew that part was true. A girl, especially a girl who wasn't a stunning beauty but could sing her lungs out, got a job at the label, worked hard, learned what the decision-makers liked, then made a single that blew everyone away.

Besides, she told herself, the extra money couldn't hurt. The apartment was getting too crowded - it really was only meant for two people, and with four there now, especially since Ricky tended to keep night hours which meant when she got home practically the entire group was still up... it wasn't a good place to live longterm. It was more fun than she'd expected, and Ricky wasn't half bad the more she saw of him - he was still a lot to take in large doses, but he could make all of them laugh from practically nothing, and he made fun of all the same things about Rachel and Kurt that she did. 

And he made Kurt happy, and she did like that.

But four people crammed into two New York-sized bedrooms and one tiny living room wasn't any way to live, certainly not for long. Plus the apartment was kind of a long way from the club, especially after midnight, and a place further uptown, even into Harlem, would be nice. Just a little place of her own, where she could unpack her clothes instead of living out of suitcases, and leave the table as messy as she wanted, and sleep in peace without Rachel doing vocal warmups at all hours. But none of that was possible with just the money from the club; it was enough to chip in for Kurt and Rachel's apartment and help buy groceries, even enough to save up a little bit now that Ricky was chipping in despite Kurt's protests, but it wasn't enough to shell out for her own room every month. So the promise of a steadier job, with a normal paycheck instead of a handful of cash at the end of each night, was appealing on its own once the idea was put in front of her. 

Five months of living on her best friend's couch was her limit, she decided on her way to the interview. And if she could do that andbe on her way to the career she really wanted all at once? What could be better?

And then summer brought the Heat Wave.

The first time she heard the song, she sat staring at the radio for a solid three minutes - not because of the song, it was simple and catchy like everything else. But the voice singing the song...

It wasn't wispy. It wasn't thin and sweet, and it definitely didn't sound like the girl singing it looked like Rachel. The voice was big and sounded like she should have been singing a great gospel song instead of the "yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah" parts. She sounded...

...She sounded like Mercedes. Not exactly the same, they hit notes a little differently and everything, but the style was similar. The soul of it was similar, the depth and richness and the way she wailed on notes. She sounded like what Dinah Washington would have sounded like if she were trying to make the Billboard charts. She sounded amazing and sassy and strong even though she was singing about how being confused and taken by a boy the way every other girl on the radio was. She wasn't pining like those other girls, for one thing, and the vocal power of the "yeah-yeah"s was...

Well. It was exactly what she'd been trying to find for as long as she could remember: Someone who sounded the way she did. Someone who was allowed to sound like she did.

The single arrived in the mail three days later, with a note from her big brother:

If you haven't heard these girls yet, you have to. Listen to the lungs on her!
Now go get yourself a record contract, Munchkin!
-J



As she slipped the note off the top of the record, she found herself staring at the picture on the cover. Three girls stared up at her - one grinning, one smiling, and one at least a little annoyed by the photographer from the looks of things. She could certainly appreciate that girl; she remembered too well standing in front of podiums for hours with a crick in her back and an ache in her cheeks from smiling for too long and makeup running and hairspray everywhere, in an ugly black dress.

These girls wore white. Maybe not white, maybe in colour it would be a pale pink, but it was very light against their dark skin. The photo was sharp, the girls' broad noses showing up as clearly as their dark eyes and teased-up hair. These weren't the Ronettes, who were supposedly mixed but always looked so washed-out in pictures that you couldn't see who they looked like - or anything but the shape of their face and their thick black eyeliner and ponytails. These Vandellas looked...well.

They looked black.

They were on the cover of a single looking like who they were. Looking like her, like her friends back home - the girl at the top with the big grin looked like Marla, a girl she'd gone to church with back in Lima from the time she was a baby right up until the day she left. And they looked nothing like the Melodics, that was for damn sure. 

They looked like who Mercedes had wanted the Melodics to be. And they sounded like she wanted to sound. Or...like she already sounded, but like she wanted others to be allowed to hear. If voices like theirs could be on the radio now, could be on an album cover without trying to hide their faces so ignorant white kids would still buy the record...then why not hers? She was certainly as good as they were, she just needed the right person to let her fly.

And she just happened to have access to all the right people now.

Unfortunately, every girl in town who looked or sounded like her had the same idea.

Every morning when she arrived at her desk at exactly 9:03 - 3 minutes late but still 20 minutes earlier than her boss, so he'd never know - there were already at least two potential acts waiting in the lobby. More often, she had to squeeze past at least fourteen people in the space that was built for five - three groups of three or four girls each, plus management. Over the course of the day, she saw easily another 10 groups, plus a handful of individual singers looking to be placed in groups at the very least, given a solo contract at the most. A lot of them started as church groups, but more liked jazz and blues, and every one of them seemed to think the same thing she did: Heat Wave wasn't just a song. It wasn't just another catchy summer hit that the radio would play next year leading up to Memorial Day. It meant something. It was a sign that things were changing, that things may have taken too long to get right but they were heading that way now. 

Except then they weren't.

It wasn't anything overt Mercedes could point to, anything that said for sure things weren't what those eager girls in the waiting room were expecting...but it didn't look any different to her than when she had been through it the last time. Every group they put under contract sounded just like the old ones, and the photographs looked the same, and the voices were just as small as they'd always been, all of which led her to a realization as she sat at her desk, working her way through a list of phone calls she needed to return to the managers of girls who thought they were going to be the next Martha:

She might have a job, but it wasn't going to get her to stardom.

At least, not here. What they were doing at Motown sounded different - she heard a few of the managers talking about how Berry Gordy had a whole set-up out there that made New York look small-time, with all the same charm school classes and in-house writers like A&M or like Phil Spector had over at Phillies, but bigger and better for new artists. They toured all the time, and they didn't just cover the same songs once they belonged to the label like everyone else did. And...maybe more importantly...

...They didn't try to not be coloured. They were - and they were proud of it. They made music that sounded like gospel and rock mixed together, and they didn't try to make their girls - or boys for that matter - look pale. They were always cleancut, they had to be, but it wasn't like this. The entire management was different out there.

Maybe she should leave, she thought as she hung up the phone from politely declining a manager's request that she schedule him to see her boss again. Maybe...if New York wasn't where she could be a star, maybe she should go out to Detroit. See if she could get the same job out there and work her way up. She didn't mind working for what she wanted, or starting slow and small - she'd done that already, and it wasn't so bad.

It wasn't so bad because she also had the club, she reminded herself. She had a stage of guys backing her up who treated her like a talented little sister, she had a crowd of people who came out to see her - some even only came on nights that she sang...or so they had told her. She had no way to check that. But she could stand the boring, day-to-day struggle - and the dullness of the office job - because she had somewhere she could just let her voice out and do whatever she wanted. She didn't have to be someone for anyone else up there. If she liked a song and the guys knew it, she could sing it - and she had yet to find anything the guys couldn't learn in a day or two. If she wanted to sing Heat Wave, she could bring it up to them tomorrow and she bet Gary and Ralph would already know it and could teach the rest of the band. If she wanted to follow it with some Ella, she could do that, too, and there was no one to tell her what her next song should be or what image she needed to project so people would like her.

People liked her for who she was up at the club. And anyone who didn't could leave whenever they wanted.

And maybe...maybe for now that was what she cared about more. Was it any good to have an entire gymnasium cheering for her if they didn't like her, they just liked who Rocko or someone like him told her to be? Was that worth it? Was it worth being someone else to have a few more people hear and maybe like her voice?

Or was she better off staying where she was, and doing what made her as happy as she could imagine being, even if it didn't get her on the Billboard charts?

The more she thought about it, the clearer the answer was. She thought at first that she needed to put herself first, then her music, then fame, but as soon as the words were in that order... she was her music. Or at least, she was her music - if she was singing her way, with her songs, in her own voice? What could be putting herself first more than putting her own voice out there?

She bet if she asked for a raise at the club, she could get it. Not a big one, just enough to afford her own place so she could quit her day job and go back to singing more nights up there. She doubted they'd give her a hard time for it; up there, they knew she was worth every penny.

* * * * *

Kurt wasn't sure if the series of small, relatively insignificant assignments he'd been given after he was done combing the archives for what he called "The Quintessential Main" were meant to be vaguely insulting and a sign that he couldn't be trusted with additional tasks, or if his hand selection for the duties was instead a sign that Don trusted him - and wanted to keep him away from Stu - but didn't have anything pressing to put him on for now. He wasn't arrogant enough to be certain it was the latter, but he chose to believe it was. After all, if he'd done such a horrible job, he figured that no amount of 'family' status could keep the man several steps above him on the company ladder from throwing him back into the cutting room. Besides, the opportunity to meet different people within the assorted levels of production could only be an asset, especially since the vast majority of the people he met seemed to like him well enough. Not all of them expressed it quite as effusively as John did - though no one expressed anything quite as effusively as John - but as far as he knew there weren't any complaints about his work.

There shouldn't be; he worked efficiently and carefully and brought his own flare to things, but after two years of Stu breathing down his neck, he'd become wary. 

But after searching the archives, Don had sent him to work as a fabric runner for a couple weeks while one of the usual runners was out for some kind of surgery Kurt didn't remember the details of, which had sent him scurrying up and down the halls to take pieces from the cutting room up to the sewers, then half-finished garments up for fittings and design adjustments and back again, then finished garments to be altered...all of which had been exhausting but oddly fun, especially as a few of the seamstresses old enough to be his- well, if not his grandmother, then certainly his spinster aunt - had taken a shine to him and showed him what made a particular cut of dart all wrong for a certain shape. Not only had that information come in handy for Ricky, whose discovery of Kurt's sewing abilities had been followed quickly by insistence that Kurt make him something "to bring all the boys running to me and not those other queens", but knowing more places in the building helped him immensely when Don asked him to help reorganize the tailoring studio, which hadn't been used much in the past decade except for a few older wealthy clients here and there who wanted the same garments they'd been getting from Mainbocher since the early 1930s. And once that was set up - though there was no additional staff there yet - Don had sent him to work with the art department for a week while their usual junior assistant was on vacation, where the broad-faced Italian who had worked there since coming out of high school criticized his sketching and drawn proportions for at least an hour a day. Suffice it to say, he had changed the ratio of waist to hips significantly on his drawings since then - a development Ricky liked because he said it "gave him more to work with."

He wasn't sure he understood Ricky's love of gowns. Sometimes it seemed like a costume - and Kurt did admit he'd played dress-up plenty as a child, especially before his mom had gotten sick. He liked the ways the skirts twirled when he spun around the living room to Broadway soundtracks, was all. But after she died - and certainly by age 9 or so - the costume box had been put away and there were no more dresses. He could appreciate a beautiful dress on the right person, and he'd certainly tried to steer first Rachel and then Mercedes into more flattering, more appropriate skirts - though between Mercedes' love of bright colours and loud patterns, and Rachel's obsession with plaids, that was often a tall order...but the idea of wearing one himself wasn't appealing, no matter how many of his jackets might have appeared less-than-masculine and even if he did own at least half a dozen beautiful silk scarves that made lovely ascots. Ricky, on the other hand, seemed to vacillate between liking the glamour of a dress, thinking it helped him bring in more income, and enjoying the fact that he wasn't supposed to do it. And if he had thought that finding a dress that fit right on Rachel, who had no curves, was a tall order, then creating a dress that would make Ricky look like anything but a boy in a dress was impossible...but he was learning. And Ricky was so appreciative... That much he could understand; he'd seen the boy's wardrobe, and it consisted of about four "normal" outfits (at least by his standards, though he was sure most people found them eccentric), a set of curtains that had been resewn with crude hand-stitching into a column of fabric that hugged no part of Ricky but his hips and had a tendency to slide down his chest, and a gown that he guessed had been dragged out of a dumpster at some point judging from the ragged patch on the side and the number of sequins it was missing.

He wasn't sure he would ever like what Ricky did. But seeing the way his eyes lit up as he saw the light blue number Kurt made - painstakingly and with a storebought pattern, much to his own disappointment...whatever it was Ricky liked about it, Kurt would keep trying to help. And maybe where Ricky went once the dress was on wasn't so bad, even if he couldn't imagine finding it anything but horrible. Maybe he didn't need to understand every single thing about his friend in order to understand him. And as long as Ricky kept coming home at the end of the night, safe and sound and sharing jokes...Kurt would have to learn to live with the rest.

As he walked toward his latest office-home - a broom closet-sized space that made him think he wasn't supposed to have anywhere to go at all but Don had carved something out for him - he wondered if Ricky might wear something shorter if given the chance. He could picture him looking really nice in a dress like Anita's in "America" - and even though Ricky would probably give him a deadpan look and ask something like "Vonny, why do you think I'm your own personal West Side Story?", to which he would reply, "Because you think I'm your own personal Sound of Music?", he was pretty sure that between Ricky's long, pretty neck, and a more flared skirt to help give the illusion of shape, and the pale pink colour, it would look pretty great. Or maybe he would just start planning how to wrangle Ricky into more stylish coats as it got colder, because the red with the fur was looking pretty threadbare, and pants would be more practical...

He smiled as he saw a portfolio on his desk - another assignment of some kind, he was certain. Which was good, because any time Don told him he needed to redistribute thread among the sewing rooms, it was obvious that Don didn't really have anything for him to do. He flicked on his desk lamp and ran his palm over the smooth black cover before flicking it open. The front page was a memo detailing how many of what types of items Mainbocher had sold in the past five years; knowing it was important to someone but likely not to his work, he flipped to the next page and stopped as he saw his sketch.

Not his sketch, technically. It had been redrawn by someone with a much better hand for drawing - he had a good eye but wasn't a person with much sketching experience, which explained why he had been drawing the chest too broadly for a woman's pattern until he was chastised for a week. But it was definitely an ensemble he had come up with, looking more elegant on a croquis with smooth, effortless pencil lines, in a larger scale, on clean white paper instead of in the margins of his notepad as an illustration of a point he'd been trying to make about jacket proportions. There was no mistaking it, though - the combination was his, the length of the jacket sleeves was definitely his, the fabric swatches glued beside the sketch weren't quite what he imagined but were very, very close... he ran his fingers delicately over the ivory silk satin as though it might vanish beneath his fingertips were he to press too hard, and he couldn't help but smile at the richness of its texture. Turning the page, he found a dress that wasn't his own design but did exemplify exactly the changes he'd told Don they should make: structure, shape, moving closer to vintage Dior than vintage Chanel, all in luxurious fabrics with impeccable tailoring. Another page and he found the cape-backed jacket he'd drawn in detail, paired with an interesting and understated knee-length pencil skirt, with a variety of muted grey wool tweeds - and a beautiful sapphire blue silk suggested for her blouse (a bold move he wouldn't have suggested for such a conservative look but would have absolutely put together if he had his own house). Page after page, 10 or 15 in all, from elegantly understated suits to stunning gowns, all with clean lines and rich fabrics in conservative colours. All with a timeless simplicity but enough interest to know precisely whose house it came from. All designed to make Mainbocher look like what Givenchy hoped to one day grow into.

It was absolutely perfect. 

As he flipped the last page, he found a folded piece of paper wedged against the binding edge. Curious, he pulled it out; it felt bulky beneath his fingers, and when he unfolded the paper he could see why: Inside was a polaroid photograph of a light grey slub-silk dress, covered by a jacket with an oversized turndown collar, on a dress form. He could tell from the background that the form was lined up with all the others for the upcoming Fashion Week exhibition, likely waiting for a fitting on the woman who would wear it in the show. Waiting for the woman who would walk it past Diana Vreeland at Vogue-

He couldn't breathe all of a sudden, a wave of giddiness almost overtaking him, and his fingers quivered as he hurried to unfold the note and read it.

Kurt -
I thought you should see this before I presented it to Main and the rest of the top design group next week. Take it to the Art Dept. so they can reproduce it. Great job, and thanks for your help!
-Don
P.S. The next time a junior designer position opens up, you're at the top of my recommendation list. We need more people like you around here.
The one that's likely to come up first would probably be in Evening - do you have any experience with gowns?



Kurt wasn't sure his cheeks had ever hurt from grinning so hard before.

* * * * *

By the time Rachel stepped on stage, she was certain she was going to wow the director. For one thing, she looked amazing - she had finally figured out how to get her hair in exactly the style she wanted, and while she wasn't completely sure about the colour in the bathroom mirror every morning, it did look great under stage lights. And more importantly, she wasn't going into the audition blind and hoping they liked her; she'd had help. Kurt might have known clothes - okay, fine, he did, and he had helped her pick a dressthat was easy to throw on over her dance clothes that would give her the sort of sweet-but-glamourous look she wanted to convey. But he was worthless with a makeup brush and just rolled her eyes when she asked for help. Ricky, on the other hand...

She didn't know how he got so good at makeup or why he had so much, but he was amazing. And even if she was pretty sure he was talking about her under his breath in Spanish at least half the time, the way she looked afterwards was worth it. She had even checked out the audition beforehand to be sure that stage makeup was what she wanted - Ricky had asked her how close the people would be, how good she needed to look, because apparently it made a difference whether she was on-stage or in a small rehearsal-style room with the director nearby. She guessed it made sense, too, so they would know what the lighting would be like on her face and how to make her nose look good. Well...less-bad, anyway.

Actually, by the time Ricky was done with her, she looked pretty great if she did say so herself. With a strong, dark blush and plenty of mascara to draw attention up to her eyes and out to her cheekbones, it would help deflect attention from her nose. And stage lights made her nose blend in a little better anyway, all of which helped elevate her confidence. As far as she was concerned, Ricky could help her get ready for every audition from now on.

She stepped out into the blinding lights, smiling proudly as she walked over to hand her sheet music to the accompanist, the gold heels Ricky had found for her somewhere clacking satisfyingly on the stage. She had decided on "Whistle a Happy Tune" for today, though she knew from a few of the girls who had gone ahead of her that they were handing out songs to learn for the callbacks. That sounded ideal to her - she hadn't gotten to put her stamp on a song that wasn't well-known before, and she couldn't wait. The director couldn't help but think she was right once he saw her, once he heard not only her voice but her ability to interpret and create a song with the sort of emotional depth that a Broadway performance truly required. 

Crossing to center stage, she smiled broadly out into the auditorium, giving her eyes a moment to adjust to the light. "Hello, my name is Rachel Berry and I'll be singing 'Whistle a Happy Tune' from the classic musical 'The King and I,'" she stated in her clearest voice. Beyond the stage lights, she could see the director sitting in the middle of the sixth or seventh row with a thick half-used-up legal pad on his lap. She gave him a moment to see if he would nod for her to begin or if he wanted to ask her anything first; when he didn't look up, she looked over and nodded for the accompanist to begin. 

He had barely played two bars when the director called out, "No! Thank you very much."

"Wait, but I hadn't even started yet," Rachel stammered, eyes wide. No. This wasn't happening again. She looked perfect, she couldn't possibly look any better, and he hadn't even heard her sing a note yet, how could she-

"You're not what I'm looking for."

She'd had enough. She'd been fighting it for two years - two years of being told she wasn't right, she wasn't good enough, of only being called back when it turned out that the director wanted to sleep with her, of not being allowed to- she couldn't breatheanymore, she'd been away from an audience for so long, she hadn't been cheered on since moving to this- this stupid city that she had loved the idea of her entire life. She couldn't breathe or stand or think clearly because nothing she did was right and there was no one willing to help her be right, and even Bobby got to be onstage while there was cheering now - sure, he was only in the chorus, but that was better than anything she'd managed, and- "How can I not be what you're looking for?" she demanded, her voice bordering on shrill from the start. There was silence, all of the stagehands and people running the audition stunned by her outburst, but she kept going. "I- I have the right hair, I look great in this dress, I look fantastic onstage and you haven't even heard me sing yet but I'm outstanding. Why-"

"Because you're not right for the role." 

"What does that even mean? Okay? Everyone keeps saying it-"

"It means..." His voice was calm and even as he stood, removing his glasses and pushing them up onto the top of his head. "...that you aren't the right look for this role. More than that, you don't feel right for it."

"Why not?" she asked. "What about me could possibly look wrong for this?" She had done everything right, she had cut her hair and made it lighter, she had done everything she could to distract from her nose, she was standing with her good side closest to the director's sightline, why-

"We need an ethnic girl for this."

That stopped her cold. They needed an ethnic girl? But that should have meant she would be perfect! "I am," she replied, eyes wide. "I am, I'm-"

"Not Italian a few generations back." He rolled his eyes. "Only in New York does that count as 'ethnic.' No - we need a Jewish girl."

"I am!" she replied, seeing her chances go up by the minute. "I am, I'm that girl - I'm Jewish, ask me anything."

"We need a Jewish girl who looks it," he replied, sounding exasperated by the conversation. "If we didn't, we would have stuck with Mary Martin in the first place."

She didn't even know what to say to that, but the emotion she had been storing up to use for a meaty, wrenching role over the course of the past several years welled up suddenly, and she could feel tears start to prick at the back of her eyes. Not many, not hard, but it was all so defeating - she had done everything she thought they wanted, she wanted to be Mary Martin so they would be able to see her talent, and now he wouldn't even hear her sing because of who she looked like? "I'm sorry," she offered as she turned away for just a moment to dab at her eyes, hoping it wouldn't make her mascara run too much if she caught it early. "I came like this because the last few roles they said I was too ethnic, I-" An idea occurred to her. "What if I go clean up and come back and try again? My hair grows fast, it'll grow out quickly, I can wear a wig until-"

"You know how I said you're not the right feel for it?" He flashed a faint, sad smile, then thought a minute and walked toward the front of the stage. "Come sit a minute." It was an odd request, but she walked to the front of the stage and sat carefully, legs dangling over the edge. She was still above him in this position, but not by as much. "Look, you seem like a sweet girl. But sweet isn't what we need here. Fanny's...she's scrappy. She's a fighter who has to struggle to prove her talent to everyone she meets, and she doesn't compromise. She talks about being a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls - she's proud of it. She thinks it's a selling point. While I don't doubt you can relate to how many times she gets turned down...I don't think you have the chops to play a girl selling her qualities. Fanny wouldn't change her hair or whatever else-"

"Shade her nose," Rachel filled in quietly.

"Exactly," he confirmed with a faint smile that made him look at least a little kind even as he was crushing her hopes for the role. He paused a moment, then asked, "How long have you been trying to make it?"

"My entire life," she replied softly. She couldn't remember a time when this hadn't been what she'd wanted more than anything. She was sure that there as probably a time she cared more about food and storytime, but she couldn't imagine thinking of herself and a future and not seeing a Broadway marquis. It was all she'd ever dreamed of.

"How long here?"

"Almost two years."

He nodded slowly. "Can I give you a little advice?"

"Please," she replied quickly, her eyes bright. Maybe he could help, because clearly she was doing something wrong in all of this if someone with her talent couldn't even land a chorus role.

"Every kind of girl wants to be a star," he stated matter-of-factly. "I've seen every type and size and style of girl and voice just today, when I'm looking for something specific. All of them can sing. All of them. The girls who can't get weeded out of musical auditions pretty quickly. So after that, it comes down to some kind of an inner spark. An 'it', an x factor, that girls either have or they don't. Today...I'm sorry, but you don't. But I have to wonder if you really don't, or you've just gotten so beaten down and tried so hard to turn yourself into someone that you're not that you've lost what makes you special." She tried not to sniffle so she stared at her hands in her lap instead, and he patted her knee gently - not like Cal would have, more like a kind uncle. "You can't be any good at being someone else until you can be yourself and be comfortable that way. Everyone in this business is a dime a dozen - Jews, gentiles, we've got 'em all," he winked, and she managed a watery laugh. "Get comfortable with yourself first, and you'll be right for someone, for something." He patted her knee again, then headed back up the aisle toward his seat.

Rachel stood, smoothing her skirt and subtly dusting the back to brush away any stage-dust, dabbing at her eyes again. Maybe he was right - maybe there was someone out there who would recognize her for who she was, just as she was. Not like this, though. Not with Ricky's makeup caked and running all over her face, and hair that sat on top of her head like a pelt, and a song that was too upbeat and sweet for her to really do anything with. She wasn't right for everyone, but if she tried it would just keep being hit-or-miss: if she showed up trying to seem ethnic, it wouldn't be right if the director wanted a blonde...but if she showed up like this and the director wanted an ethnic girl... The only way to keep from blowing the jobs she would be perfect for was to just be herself. "Thank you," she called with a weak but sincere smile as she collected her music.

He returned the smile, then added, "By the way, Mary Martin's nose is bigger than yours. Never stopped her from being a star. Her nose may be big, but her talent's bigger." 

Rachel grinned. She might not have the role, but she was pretty sure that was going to become her new personal slogan

Chapter Text

It was Rachel who insisted they watch the March.

Despite Mercedes' insistence that she didn't care and it wasn't nearly as big of a deal as everyone was making it out to be - "Do you know how many marches there've been? My brother's been to at least six in the past two years without going further than Virginia, and that's nothing compared to how many they have further south!" - and Ricky's insistence that it was all just theatre, she wanted to see it. It was a big deal, she insisted because it was the largest march of its kind and it was in the nation's capital, and it was going to make a difference to people like her father's lover - who was a negro, yes, but just as deserving of rights as her father was. And just like President Truman had changed the law to allow him to serve in the Navy...though he'd served during the war, but away from all the white sailors, but that wasn't the point. Just like President Truman had changed the law to let her father's negro homosexual lover serve in the Navy with all the other sailors, President Kennedy was going to change the law to-

Well, she wasn't sure to do what, exactly. Schools were already desegregated, even if a few schools were still trying to resist the way that McKinley had. And the march was called "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," but she wasn't sure exactly how a president - or anyone, really - could give freedom. Jobs she understood, maybe, because at least that could be changed through a law like the military was, but-

She supposed she'd just have to watch to find out, wouldn't she? Whatever it was they were asking for, she was sure she could support. As a minority herself, she understood the call for freedom - she was Jewish, after all, and it wasn't so long ago her people couldn't take jobs even in the US. Even now she couldn't have the jobs she wanted - there were roles on Broadway that might as well hang the same sign that used to hang in the windows of stores across Manhattan: No Jews Need Apply. But with renewed confidence, and a few alterations to her haircut and its colour, she was starting to feel more confident that she would still become a star one day despite her handicap.

She was glad Kurt agreed to watch it so it wasn't just her. She couldn't fathom how Mercedes and Ricky could not be interested - it was about them and their futures and their families. If a hundred thousand Jews marched on Washington, she would be there with them. As it was, she wished she'd known earlier just how many Jewish people were going; there were even a few rabbis as part of the program, she'd seen in the newspaper. If she'd known it wasn't just for negros, she would have gone in a heartbeat to show her support for the cause. When everyone got back from the march, she would have to see what organizations she could join to help prepare for the next march. From the way Mercedes was talking, there should be another one like this in a few months.

She'd never heard of this Joan Baez woman, and while her voice wasn't what Rachel would normally favour - it was too thin and pinched for her liking...there was something really powerful about even such a wavering voice singing over that many people. Standing on the National Mall, they were stretched as far as the camera could see, a sea of people so dense that it didn't look like people anymore - it looked like little cap-topped heads on a sea of cotton fluff, with silhouettes of buildings and tiny flags waving in the background. She'd never known something so quiet and peaceful could sound so emotional before, but the pure hope and longing as thousands and thousands of people sang along to her strumming guitar... Rachel couldn't help but watch, completely transfixed.

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day.


Kurt had long since stopped asking why he seemed to care more about these things than Mercedes did. Even when they were little, he had felt more invested in their being able to go places together than she had. Her brother had been- well, as close to a militant as one could get away with being in Ohio, which was to say that he believed strongly that Lima had a tendency to break the law whenever they didn't want to treat people equally, and which had been more than enough to scare most of the town. But Mercedes had taken a far more laid-back approach to it all for as long as he could remember. They didn't talk about it in grander terms than what the two of them wanted to do together but couldn't. They wanted to go to the same school, to sing in the same choir, to be able to go eat at the diner without getting spat at. As much as he hated hearing what people said about her - and her family, and her friends...he knew she had to hate it even more than he did. She just didn't show it the same way her brother did. 

But he needed to see this for himself. He needed to see progress. He needed to see things changing, to know that little kids in Lima weren't going to have to worry about the same things they did. To think that maybe, just maybe...more things could change.

We'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand some day
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome some day.


He knew it was a long shot. He knew that a hundred homosexuals marching anywhere probably couldn't happen - they'd all be arrested for one thing. Let alone a thousand - a hundred thousand? They were nowhere near that point yet. They couldn't even considering something like this, and even if they could he wasn't sure what exactly they would be asking for. It felt like they needed everything, but at the same time...he wasn't prohibited from school for being the way he was even though everyone had known it since he was five, unlike Mercedes had been. And he still had his job, and so did Don, and John - though was that only because Don and John played it so cool and didn't want anyone to know? Was that why? Because he found it hard to believe that there was anyone at work who didn't know who he was, either. Stu knew, that much was certain because the man had sent him to a bar to set him up for arrest, but he'd kept his job even if he'd lost his dignity. So that was different, too - or it might be. But at the same time, Mercedes had never been arrested just for going to a park or being in the wrong restaurant - could they march one day to demand that the police leave them alone? 

So much of what he wanted, no one else could give him no matter how many people marched. But the idea was tantalizing nonetheless: the Mall full of people like himself, Ricky by his side, as they stood up and said they deserved to be just as happy and free as anyone else. An entire community of gay men standing proud...

The country would go into conniptions at that. As it was, he was sure this wasn't going over well in Lima; no, in his town where the chief of police had been called because a group of kids from Mercedes' school had protested by standing outside with placards reading "This is not our school" and "Separate is Unequal - and Unconstitutional" before the first day of classes and those unmoving, silent children represented an apparent hostile takeover of the town...he could imagine what the people he grew up with were saying. How scared they were of what this meant - of what kind of changes it might bring.

Personally he couldn't wait.

We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We are not afraid today
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome some day.


Mercedes still wasn't sure she understood the point of all this.

She understood things were a lot worse in the South than they were even in Lima, let alone where she was now - she'd seen it during her ill-fated year at school, for one thing, and her brother faithfully reported back stories of the Freedom Riders and what was being done to organizers throughout Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia, but she guessed...maybe it was because she'd grown up in a place where their community was pretty insulated and separate, but she didn't understand what the march was supposed to do. A bunch of people walking didn't change laws, not unless there was money involved like during the bus boycotts. This wasn't a boycott, this was just a lot of people who were already known to be in support of a change, standing up to once again say they wanted change. And what good was any of that going to do? Congress wasn't even in session, and they'd had a few dozen marches like this covered on the news, so what good did it do anyone to make the trip to DC and walk for miles in the hot sun? 

She'd always known her brother was a little crazy, in the way every little sister knew that about her big brother, but this took the cake. It was supposed to be over 90 degrees in Washington today, and he was going to be walking miles in that heat, with probably little or no water, and knowing him he would be standing out there long before the march ever started and helping clean up long after the last speaker was done because he volunteered at all these things.

But seeing the entire crowd file neatly off the Mall and toward the Reflecting Pool, heads and signs held high, watching men and women from her age on up to her grandparents walking proudly side by side to demand that they be given everything - from jobs to dignity - that their white counterparts had...seeing so many people...

It didn't look like Spelman had felt to her. It didn't feel separate from everything else. It didn't feel like blacks who were only friends with blacks and read only back books - for one thing, there were a lot of white faces in the crowd; Kurt could have gone with her there, her brother would have made sure of it. 

And there was something about it that felt...powerful

She remembered the day the court decision had come down, the one declaring that McKinley would be desegregated immediately; she remembered the way the entire neighbourhood felt like it could just explode from happiness - everyone she passed on the street was beaming, was asking each other if they'd heard about the ruling, if they knew what it meant, if they'd seen the look on the superintendent's face when he'd learned he had to follow the law...it was a victory for all of them, not just the plaintiffs, not just the kids who were still school-aged. The whole part of town had won something that day.

That feeling, that power, that joy, was what this looked like. Even from a few hundred miles away, she could feel their energy.

She should have gone, she concluded grimly. Her brother had been right - she should have gone. She should have gotten to be part of this. 

Next time. She wouldn't be caught missing the next one. That was for sure.

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day.


* * * * *

By the time Ricky got home from work that night, Kurt was the only one still awake. Mercedes had turned in early after a long phone call with her brother, and Rachel was always in bed by now...and Kurt knew he should be, too, but he couldn't. He couldn't turn off his brain, too busy replaying the speeches and songs and images over and over in one euphoric loop. "Hey, Vonny," he whispered brightly as he closed the front door behind himself quietly. Kurt smiled faintly to himself at the care his friend took; they'd learned the hard way that waking Mercedes or Rachel up at 3 in the morning was never a good idea, let alone both of them at once. And one accidentally-slammed door would be more than enough to do it. "What are you still doing up, honey?"

"Thinking," Kurt replied quietly. "I made tea."

Ricky shook his head and went to the fridge, pulling out a glass and a carton of orange juice to pour himself a drink. "How was the rest of the..." he waved his free hand a moment and rolled his eyes.

"Amazing," Kurt stated. "I can't believe you left."

"I can't believe I stayed as long as I did - and any more and I think they would have strangled me with my own shoelaces," Ricky replied. "Rachel asking why I wasn't more excited since it was about 'my people' was my last straw, okay? It's not my people. Mercedes, sure. And you and Rachel are fine already. Every one of those men up there said 'black and white' - brown's a whole different thing, trust me."

"Doesn't everyone win when there's equality?" Kurt pointed out.

Ricky gave him that look he hated, like he thought Kurt was the dumbest - cutest, but most naive - boy he'd ever met. "Just because the police hate everyone doesn't mean it's equal. Let alone getting a job - they think anyone who talks like I do is stupid and barely literate. I can read, okay? Probably better than they can. And in two languages - let's see the pompous ass up there do that, hm?"

"Is that why...?" Kurt asked, and Ricky glared at him sharply. Kurt simply held up a hand in an 'okay - okay' gesture and didn't question further. It was part of their arrangement that just as he wasn't allowed to try to talk Ricky out of his profession, he wasn't allowed to ask too many questions. Ricky said it had something to do with Kurt being unable to not be judgmental, which Kurt of course thought was crazy, but he acquiesced. "Dr. King gave an amazing speech - about a day when children can live in a country where they won't be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character."

Ricky snorted derisively. "That'll be the day. Lemme tell you something, Vonny - I think it's great people wanna march. I do. I think it's even better they're picking a place they won't get firehoses turned on them. But it's gonna take a lot more than a march to change people's minds. And the law doesn't do enough - that young guy was right. What was his name?"

"Which one? Lewis?"

"Yeah," Ricky nodded. "I liked him. The law they want to pass won't help anyone against the police, and that's who's the worst."

"Maybe," Kurt allowed reluctantly, but really he just wanted to be able to believe. To be able to hope that things really would be better because of this. That so many people gathering around the Lincoln Memorial - so many they went beyond the Reflecting Pool! - had made an impact. "...Hey, Ricky?"

"Yeah, baby?" Ricky replied after swallowing a gulp of his juice.

"Do you think there will ever be a march like that for us?" He'd been unable to stop thinking about it all day: a march of a thousand homosexuals demanding the police leave them alone, that they be allowed to live openly. A thousand men like them all in one place.

Ricky scoffed and shook his head. "Not in our lifetime, Vonny." He paused, then added, "...It'd be nice." It was clearly intended to soften his statement, but he followed it with a gentler but nonetheless firm, "But not while we're alive."


* * * * *


Like clockwork, with Labor Day's passage, the wardrobe of the city changed, as though every New Yorker had spent the holiday weekend doing exactly what Kurt had: packing up all of his white trousers and seersucker and short-sleeved shirts into boxes labeled by season and year and pulling out all of his darker wool suit pieces out and hanging them neatly in his tiny closet. Ricky thought he was crazy - "The temperature doesn't drop on September 1, Vonny, it'll still be too hot for those for another month!" - but he did clear out a few of his lighter-weight dresses and pull a few lightweight jackets and pants out of the duffel bag where his not-commonly-used clothes were still residing. 


As soon as Kurt stepped onto the subway on Tuesday morning, he could tell the difference - where lightweight shirt dresses and pastels and florals had been on the women on his way home on Friday, now he saw a sea of wools and tweeds in rich reds and browns and emerald greens on the sweltering train car. The men's wardrobes, of course, changed far less obviously; most New York men didn't bother with seersucker or white in the city - they were strictly country-wear and even then only on older gentlemen who remembered the heyday in their youth - but there was still a difference. There was always a difference, a subtle way of marking the seasons before the temperature could be bothered to change.


Which was why, inevitably, the sudden temperature spike the next weekend caught everyone off-guard. After weeks in the low 70s, the Saturday after everyone's warm-weather clothes were packed up hit 90 before noon. Try as they might to cool down the apartment with fans and keeping the lights off, by 1 they had decided that at least fresh air at street level would be better than stagnant humid air five floors up and fled to Central Park along with the rest of the city. The Great Lawn was densely dotted with people in pairs, threes, fours, spread out on blankets, some with picnics, most with books, a few in bathing suits they had somehow managed to avoid packing the weekend before but most in lightweight dresses and short-sleeve shirts.


"How about here?" Kurt suggested as they traipsed across the lawn with their sizable collection of items necessary for a day in the sun.


"I don't know," Rachel replied. "Over there looks sunnier." She adjusted her dress subtly as though no one could see the bright yellow vertical panels of her bathing suit under the white shirtwaist dress, let alone be able to tell from the added bulk of fabric from her chest to her upper thighs that she had layered sunbathing clothes under something acceptable to walk around the city in. Of course, Kurt didn't think any of it was acceptable since both garments should have been packed away already, but he'd long since learned not to talk to Rachel about what her clothes out to do or be; it only ever led to frustration.


"We came out to get out of the heat," Mercedes pointed out, and Kurt was inclined to agree.


"Not all of us want sun," he pointed out, eyebrow arching high under the brim of his light grey fedora. The last thing he wanted was to have to plan his week's wardrobe around vibrant red uncomfortable skin - to say nothing of all the ways it would change his skincare regimen. The idea of getting a sunburn was as exhausting as it was counterproductive: what was the point in working to make sure his skin was the perfect texture only to dry it out in one afternoon?


"Over there-" Ricky started to suggest, only to roll his eyes as a young couple swooped in to snag the spot.


"We could try that way to see-" Rachel tried, but she trailed off as they all started to look for a space that would fit all four of them.


Mercedes shook her head and set down the picnic basket she was carrying. "Here it is then," she stated, and this time there was no opposition. It took only a few minutes for her and Kurt to spread out the blanket, and Rachel looked around nervously for a moment as though trying to be sure she wouldn't be the only one who thought sunbathing in September followed the same rules as sunbathing any other time. 


"There's at least twenty other girls here in a lot less," Ricky pointed out as he stooped to unpack the sandwiches.


"You think so?"


"Look around - there's plenty even just where we can see." 


Rachel glanced around a moment, then concluded, "You're right," as she began to unbutton her dress. "You should have brought yours, Mercedes."


"Sunbathing? How much darker do you think I can get?" she pointed out with an easy teasing tone as she settled in on the blanket, snagging one of the sandwiches. "Kurt's got room to go though." 


Kurt shot her a playful glare. "Not on your life."


"Aw, c'mon. Unless you think you'd blind us all."


"My skin will remain its natural pigment, thank you," he replied.


"What fun is that?" Ricky teased, unbuttoning his garishly bright Aloha shirt. Kurt had no idea where he'd gotten it, but it had emerged from the duffel bag sometime midsummer and become a staple around the apartment even if he couldn't stand the thing. He swore Ricky wore it just to tease him judging from the wicked smirk he would get whenever he caught Kurt staring at the lack of discernible pattern and ugly yellow amidst the bright blues and lime greens and purples, but it did look comfortable. Even if it also looked like something not even Rachel at 15 would have been caught dead in because it was too loud.


"What are you doing?"


"Enjoying the one perk I get of being a boy," he joked. "It's too hot out here for extra clothes, Vonny." He slipped the shirt off his shoulders, balling it up and laying back on the blanket. After a moment, he reached down to roll up the hems of his already-short shorts until they clung to his slender thighs, then he laid back again and let out a long, contented sigh. "I don't know how you do it, all covered up all the time. Especially since you put away all your lightweight clothes - I told you that was dumb, baby, the weather doesn't know we've hit some magical date that means it's fall now."


Kurt wasn't sure he would ever get used to how young and vulnerable Ricky looked when he relaxed. In the beginning it had just been fleeting moments, usually before bed, but now it was out in the open, even with Rachel and Mercedes around... the more time went on, the more he was certain the boy was younger than he was, but he had no idea by how much - and no way of knowing without asking outright, which seemed rude.


"Besides, you break fashion rules all the time," he added as Kurt reached over to grab a bag of grapes from the basket. "This is the only one you follow?"


It was a valid point, he had to admit, and he popped a grape into his mouth to buy himself some time to answer before replying simply, "It's a way to mark time."


Ricky opened one eye and snorted derisively. "That's gotta be one of the silliest ways of marking time I've ever heard. I'd ask if it's something that people do on farms out there where the skyscrapers are four stories tall because you all live in ranch houses, but don't you just mark it by crops and the first frost or something?"


Kurt wasn't sure if he was kidding or not, and in truth it was only partly a joke. In Lima, planting season mattered - and so did harvest, and so did the annual week of the county fair, but here...maybe here in the city, without school to mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next, with no summer vacation to come to a close, the only way to keep track of the year really was the progression of clothes, from seersucker into light wool, to tan trench coats to woolen overcoats in dark shades, to light wool to seersucker again. "Here - have a crop," he joked, popping a grape in Ricky's mouth. 


After he chewed and swallowed, Ricky gave him a dirty look. "I may not know much about that other part of the country," he said, as though New York were at least equal to everything else in America, "but I do know you don't have grapes in Ohio."


Rachel looked up from her paperback to counter, "That's not true. There's a winery up near Lake Erie-"


"All of six grapes grown in the entire state," he replied with a deadpan expression. "That doesn't count. That means we grown things in New York, too, with that rooftop garden up at 128th and Lexington."

Rachel's eyes lit up. "We should try one of those," she stated. "Fresh produce is so expensive here, and it wouldn't be hard-"

"You're not doing any of it," Kurt replied firmly. "I saw what happened to our plant when we moved in."

"What?" she asked innocently.

"It was dead within a week! It had been in my room in Ohio forever, it spends one week on a window sill with you watering it and it's dead."

"Maybe it was just its time," she suggested.

"Wait, the purple-ish one you used to have?" Mercedes asked. "The one my mom helped you plant?"

Kurt nodded gravely. "The bergenia. It even survived Carole trying to transplant it into the garden at the new house before I rescued it. I thought it could survive anything - until Rachel," he added.

"I didn't do anything to it, I swear-"

"What's going on over here?" A new voice booming from above caught them offguard, and they fell silent, staring up at the man above them. He was imposingly large, seeming even more impossibly tall from their position on the ground, and from the way he was backlit it was difficult to make out any distinguishing features besides his broad shoulders, hat that flared to a wide trapezoidal shape atop his head, and dull glint of his badge against a field of what otherwise looked black but Kurt knew was dark blue.

He swallowed hard, an icy weight settling in his stomach and a flutteriness in his limbs telling him to run - he'd done nothing wrong, he knew that, but a year of built-up instincts and too short a distance from the sight of his first arrest left him ready to flee, to ensure it wouldn't happen for a third time. He looked over at Ricky, whose posture had resumed its stiffness that Kurt had gotten too used to over the course of several months, even if everything about his friend seemed cool and collected; Ricky rolled down the hems of his shorts until they were a more normal length with a forced casualness, then looked up and tilted his head slightly as if to ask 'anything else?'

"Same thing that's going on across the whole park?" Mercedes replied, not understanding what the officer's question even referred to, and Kurt had to admit he wasn't sure either. There weren't any men lurking around, he wasn't touching anyone, no one was kissing or trying to make a pass at anyone else-

"Little uncovered, aren't you?" he asked, and Kurt could hear the sneer in his voice. 

"I'm sorry, Officer - I saw other girls, I thought-" Rachel started, but he held up his hand, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where the policeman's eyes were trained, even in shadow like he was. Ricky's eyes narrowed in a challenging glare, but he wordlessly plucked his shirt from behind him on the blanket, shrugging into it and buttoning exactly two buttons, lips pursed. He uncrossed and recrossed his legs, then leaned back on his hands; his shirt slipped half-open across his chest, but he didn't move to cover up any more, clearly challenging. 

The officer shifted his gaze to Kurt, who swallowed hard and sat up a little straighter. "What's your story?" he asked, glancing between Kurt and Ricky for a moment as though trying to figure out whether they were a couple, or maybe if they were 'working' together, Kurt didn't know. 

"Just enjoying the day," he replied cooly, back stiff, mouth tight.

"Not out prowling? Tryin'a cruise on some unsuspecting family men?"

From the tone, he was pretty sure there was no answer he could give that would satisfy the officer, and his mind raced to come up with something other than the obvious "No sir" - because he wasn't, and he never would, and he certainly wouldn't in public like this, but he didn't think that was going to be a very convincing-

And suddenly came saving grace from an unexpected source.

Rachel slipped closer to him, placing her hand on his arm and wrapping her other arm around his back. "Of course not," she stated firmly. "My boyfriend and I are just trying to enjoy a day out in the park, like every other couple out here." She had on her 'I'm acting now' voice, her words just a little too clipped and exaggerated as though she were defending his honour from a stage in front of a few thousand people, but the officer didn't know her like Kurt did. To other people, she could just be eccentric and deliberate-of-speech.

"Your boyfriend," he repeated skeptically.

"Of course," she replied. "We've been together for - how long is it now, honey?" she asked sweetly.

Kurt forced a smile, though it was a little nervous, and replied, "Almost four years, dear."

"We moved here from Ohio together. High school sweethearts." She leaned her head against Kurt's shoulder with an exaggerated contented sigh. Kurt ran his hand over her back, looking up at the officer to see whether their charade was working. When the man's posture hadn't changed, he knew what he needed to do to convince him. With as little awkwardness as he could muster, he tilted his head a little and leaned in to kiss her gently. He'd done it before - but in anger, in revenge. This time he was grateful - for her, at least, if not for the need to do this.

After a few moments, he heard the policeman grumble above them, "Okay, okay. Just make your friend keep his damn shirt on. Don't want him attracting the wrong crowd, nice kids like you."

As soon as he was gone, Rachel settled back a little bit, smoothing Kurt's shirt and shaking her head. "I can't believe someone would do that to you here. In Ohio, sure, but here..." She rolled her eyes, and Kurt was struck by the sudden, nearly overwhelming need to tell her it wasn't the first time. That as terrifying as this was, it was only because of what he'd witnessed and experienced before - that a shadowy figure wasn't nearly as scary during the day as he was at 2 in the morning a few blocks away deep in the Ramble. That police weren't as troublesome when he actually wasn't doing anything suspect.

He couldn't, not like this, but...soon maybe. If he could start to find the words...he wanted to. Even if she might not understand right away, she would support him; he knew that beyond a doubt. And if she made the conversation about her...that was just her, and he found it almost endearing. 

She might understand more than he thought, he realized. She jumped in to defend him in a way that a person didn't just fall into; maybe she understood it more than he would have expected.

"You wear too many clothes, they want to make you count them to be sure they're the right clothes. You don't wear enough, they want to make you put them back on," Ricky mumbled, unbuttoning his shirt and slipping it off again. "You hear how he acted like I wasn't even here - or couldn't speak English?"

"I'm just glad he didn't want to know what our story was," Mercedes replied. "With the two of them acting all coupley..."

"Oh no," Ricky laughed, shaking his head. "He'd believe me as your girlfriend before he'd ever believe me as your boyfriend, and that wouldn't help me any. Vonny can get away with being Rachel's boyfriend, but I-"

"Boyfriend?" Rachel looked up quickly at the familiar voice. Bobby stood over them, hands in his pockets, confused expression on his face. "I didn't know you had-"

"I don't," she replied, laughing. "He meant Kurt - it's a long story," she added. Bobby knew about Kurt, of course, even if they hadn't met- "Speaking of which. Kurt, this is Bobby. Bobby, this is my best friend Kurt."

"Nice to finally meet you," he smiled, looking relieved though Rachel couldn't understand why. "I've heard a lot about you."

"Likewise," Kurt replied, shading his eyes beyond the brim of his hat as he looked up.

"Rachel, can I...talk to you a minute?"

Rachel's eyes narrowed a little in confusion, but she stood. "Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, I just wanted to ask you something." He glanced beyond her to the rest of the group, and she nodded, understanding that he meant he wanted privacy. 

"Of course," she replied. As he led her through the picnickers, she realized she'd left her dress back at the blanket and started to turn back for a moment but kept following, hands clasped in front of her as though they could cover up...well, anything really. It felt so immodest - though he had seen her in her dance clothes which didn't leave any more to the imagination than her one-piece swimsuit, she supposed.

Bobby led her up the wooded path toward Central Park West, which was significantly less crowded than the lawn - a few people with blankets coming or going, an odd bicyclist every so often, but at least the illusion of privacy as he stepped off the path beside a rock large enough to sit on. "How've you been?" he asked.

"Okay," she replied. "A few callbacks, so far no luck - but I think it's going much better. I have four auditions next week, and I think I'm really close to getting something. I don't know how to explain it, but I just know." He smiled broadly, and she asked, "How's your show?"

"We're almost entirely choreographed," he stated, his grin turning weary but still happy. She understood exactly why; she couldn't wait to be exhausted from a long rehearsal and know she was putting together a show and learning the things she would perform onstage to a crowd of enthusiastic theatre-goers. "Jerome Robbins is amazing. He just sees things in a way I could never imagine."

"The Jerome Robbins?"

"Is there another?" he joked. "You would love working with him. It's tough, but I feel like I've learned so much already..."

"I can't believe it - you're on your way," she offered, grinning even though it wasn't her own success. He really did deserve it, he was so good-

"Yeah...about that..." He trailed off, the nervous look returning. She studied him carefully, not sure what he could possibly say that would have him so nervous. It wasn't as though he had watched her audition and had to be the bearer of bad news that they wanted something other than her for this show...maybe he still felt bad about the fight they'd had. They hadn't been able to see each other very much since then, and even though she had reluctantly acknowledged he'd been right about Fred all along - though without the gritty details of course. But that seemed like such a minor altercation to need to talk about so many months later- "There's something I've been wanting to talk to you about."

"I know," she stated, nodding. "And I'm sorry for the fight we had. You were right, and you were trying to warn me for my own good, so I don't-"

"What?" He looked at her, confused, then his eyes lit up slightly with recognition. He shook his head. "Not about that. Ancient history, as far as I'm concerned. No, I wanted to...well, ask if you would want to-"

"What?"

He looked like he was going to start to say something, but the words fell into a grin and he shook his head slightly. "You really never do let me just speak, do you?" he joked, and she wanted to defend herself but there was something about his tone that sounded so darn fond of her that she wasn't entirely sure it was intended as a criticism. "You have to jump in and ask because you're so desperate to know, and that's...adorable." She blinked, sure she'd misunderstood, and he sighed softly. "I've missed you lately, Rachel. I've been busy, you've been working so hard to land the shows because that's how ambitious you are, and it occurred to me...I missed not running into you. And maybe instead of just waiting on the fate of the Great White Way to get to see you, we could set something up instead."

"You mean more rehearsal for auditions?" she asked. "You hardly need it now that you have a steady job, but I would love to-"

"No." She blinked as he cut her off. "That's not what I meant. Not rehearsal. Not scouring audition notices for roles we'd be perfect for. I meant...would you go out with me?" Her eyes widened as she didn't know what in the world to say, and he continued. "Look, I know I'm not the big star or the powerful director you probably want, I- well. I can't get you roles, I can't advance your career, and maybe you think I'm just a good scene partner and friend, but...I like you, Rachel. I like the way you look when you sing - like the entire world goes away except what you're feeling and the notes pouring out of you? And the way your face kind of scrunches up when you stretch before you dance. And I like the way you always sing an A flat just the tiniest bit sharp no matter how many times we work on it - you can tell when I'm off even a little, but somehow that note always..." he trailed off, grinning. "I don't know what you did with your hair, but it suits you, or it could, and I like the way you walk, when you're so excited and determined to get somewhere, with your arms out a little-" he demonstrated, arms angled down and out, hands in fists, and she wasn't sure whether to feel insulted or awed or to laugh because it looked like such a ridiculous gesture on him. "You just look like such a force of nature - and you're going to be a star one day. And when it happens, I want to be onstage beside you, or cheering you on from the front row. And in the meantime, I want to take you to dinner next Friday. My show doesn't pay much yet, but I know waiters at a lot of restaurants who can get us a great table at-"

"Really?" she asked, her head spinning. A gorgeous, talented boy liked her and wanted to go out with her and somehow made it sound like he was getting the better end of the bargain? A boy with that smile and that voice-

"Really," he murmured, beaming shyly, taking her hand. 

"Of course," she beamed, looking up at him. Then slowly - just like in the movies - he leaned down and kissed her. It lasted only a few moments, and maybe it was just her overly theatrical imagination but she swore she could hear music swelling behind them and the rest of the world melting away. His lips were firm but gentle, and they didn't push her, didn't try to force anything at all, and the way he looked when they parted...

"I have to go," he said quietly, an adoring smile all over his face, "But I'll pick you up at 8 on Friday?"

"Sounds perfect," she murmured back.

"Break a leg at your auditions," he added, squeezing her hand before heading back up the path and out of the park.

Chapter Text

"Kurt, come on!" Rachel called anxiously from the couch.

"The cocoa's almost ready," he called back as he stirred the milk in the saucepan. The cookies were already arranged on the one suitable serving tray they owned, with space left for two mugs.

"Forget the cocoa, you're going to miss it!"

"I can hear it from here, it's not starting yet," he pointed out. "How big do you think our apartment is? We've only been here two years..."

"Okay, but if I have to hear you complain about missing even one minute, I'm reminding you of this moment," Rachel replied. Kurt rolled his eyes to himself with a smile, because he had no doubt she would remind him regardless, but he wasn't about to miss any of it.

Even though it had only been on a week, The Judy Garland Show on CBS was already mandatory Sunday night viewing. She was just so good - her costumes, her presence, her ease with the guests, and her voice... It may have been decades since her heyday, but her talent hadn't diminished even in the slightest. She still had such a powerful belt, and even if the show tended to focus on upbeat numbers - or at least it did so far - it was obvious she was still the same Judy Garland he'd been adoring for as long as he could remember.

"Who's on tonight?" Kurt asked as he carried the serving tray into the living room just in time to see the title card. He smirked a little at Rachel for his timing, but she was already too enthralled by the show to tear her eyes from the screen.

"I don't know yet," she replied, reaching blindly to pick up a cookie.

"I bet it's Gene Kelly," he stated as he curled up on the couch with his mug.

"Why do you say that?"

"Well, it was Donald O'Connor last week," he pointed out. "And he was flawless. I bet she's working her way through the cast of Singing in the Rain." He could feel her skeptical look in his direction, but he kept watching the screen. He really had been flawless, even when things went wrong. Even though the tribute to old Vaudville numbers had come off a little odd, it hadn't felt stiff like sometimes these shows did - especially when they were new. Maybe Kurt could chalk that up to the jackets they had worn, which had reminded him of his old school uniform in a fondly nostalgic way, but Kurt was pretty sure it had more to do with the way Judy handled it. It all felt like something she was doing in her living room during a party with friends, like the two of them had gotten up in front of a bunch of quasi-former stars and decided to put on a show off the cuff.

Now that was a dinner party he would gladly attend. He wondered if that was how this show had been pitched: an old friend who had someone producing television, attending a dinner where Judy had no choice but to jump up and start singing along because someone just happened to play piano...

Maybe it was just wishful thinking on his part. He knew it probably was more conventionally conceived, but he liked the idea of that being what her dinners were like. And one day he would throw that kind of fete himself - he and Rachel would jump up and start singing because they couldn't help themselves, and their friends would all join in...

"You just want to stare at Gene Kelly," she accused as Judy made her entrance. She was wearing the same top as the week before, white with some sort of glittering contrast stripes and what looked like a faux white buttonfront shirt underneath, and he had to wonder if the wardrobe people couldn’t do a better job at providing her with more than one outfit in addition to the costumes. “Not that I can blame you for wanting to watch him – he is very talented. I’ve loved his movies since I was little, too, but it’s television.”

“And?”

“And agents get picky about who they let do television,” she stated with her ‘this is my business, not yours’ voice. “Established stars on variety shows-“

“Happen all the time, including as hosts,” he pointed out.

“Maybe but-…oh…no,” Rachel groaned as Judy introduced her first guest in song. The young woman who stepped out to join her was easily recognizable, from her trademark blunt bob-cut, to her, frankly, excessive eye makeup, to her nose.

Barbra Streisand hadn’t reached Ms. Garland’s level of fame yet, but she was well on her way to becoming a household name. Kurt couldn’t even count how many specials and variety hours she’d been on since her album had come out in February.

“She’s everywhere,” Rachel lamented. “Can I have just one show – just one hour a week – where I don’t have to feel compared to her? Where I can enjoy the best that the entertainment industry has to offer without being reminded of exactly what they saw in her but not in me?”

“It’s a show that highlights the best of music and performance,” Kurt pointed out dryly, glancing at her sideways. “Of course she’s on it.” She was still not used to it, clearly – she didn’t know how to avoid the cameras catching nothing but the side of her haircut with her nose just barely peeking out beyond the heavy locks. “She’s fantastic.”

“She’s not that good,” Rachel tried to argue, but before he could even say anything she had to correct herself. “Okay, she is, but that doesn’t mean she should get to be on every show.”

Kurt smiled faintly to himself, glad that Rachel’s ever-asserted need for artistic honesty – or, at least, honesty about artistry – won out even over her own grudges. “You just wish it were you. To be honest, so do I – You would get to bring your wardrobe master with you, and then I’d get to meet the incomparable talent that is Judy Garland,” he grinned. The smile she offered in return was a little more subdued, but it was genuine.

Well if I really am your guest
I have a small request.
Anything you want to do.
Anything?
Anything.
Can I replace you?

Kurt couldn’t help but scoff at that. “She’s fantastic but she’s not that fantastic,” he stated, rolling his eyes.

“Now who’s jealous?” Rachel teased.

“Of what? Jealous on Judy’s behalf?” he pointed out, settling in and grabbing a cookie as the Smothers Brothers began their introductory schtick. “No one will replace her.”

“No one?” Rachel asked.

He considered a moment, then conceded, “Well, maybe you.”

“Not at this rate,” she mumbled petulantly, rolling her eyes and drawing her knees up as she kept watching.

“Rachel…you took a little longer to find your confidence, that’s all,” he stated gently. “You’re certainly as talented as Barbra Streisand is – and you have all the same qualities that everyone loves about her. She’s the same age we are, and a year and a half ago she was singing in a nightclub with no one coming to see her. Now she has a hit record and is being literally touched by Judy Garland. A lot can change in a year. Think of her like…well, like a trail-blazer. The country’s ready for girls with noses and big voices to belt out songs on every television show – she helped make it easier. That’s all. Like all those girl groups coming out of Motown now that ‘Heat Wave’ was such a hit.” She smiled faintly, and he added, “You’ll be as big as she is one day. You’re amazing.”

“You really believe that?” she asked, looking him in the eye, and he reached over to squeeze her hand.

“Of course I do.”

She beamed, moving over a little closer as she picked up her cocoa and began to sip it. “Someone’s promotion certainly agrees with him,” she commented, and now it was his turn to preen. It wasn’t much – yet – but it was something. Don had been true to his word: the first junior designer position that had opened up had been offered to him, with what he learned later were strong recommendations from Don as well as from some of the other higher-level people he’d done tiny makeshift assignments for. While his expertise still wasn’t really in gowns – his knowledge of menswear and jackets in particular was much deeper – he had a feeling he would be learning very quickly. From what he’d been able to gather, his department was among the more highly-regarded specialties. It made sense, he supposed, given that the hallmark of almost any house was its couture and eveningwear. Either way, it was definitely a step up from cutting tulle in the basement.

A lot could change in a year.

Forget

your troubles
Happy days
C’mon get happy
Are here again
You better chase all your cares away
The skies above are clear again
Shout hallelujah
So let’s sing a song
C’mon get happy
Of cheer again
Get ready for the judgment day
Happy days are here again

Sometimes Kurt had a hard time believing how much time had passed; other times, how little. Ohio felt like a lifetime away, like a world he’d imagined a very long time ago but hadn’t thought of in awhile. Friday night dinners with his dad and Carole and Finn, and school, and being hassled at the Diner for walking around with Mercedes… what he remembered most from back then was planning all of the things he would do once he got to New York – what he would have, who he could be here…and none of it was what he’d dreamed.

There were no soirees with Blaine and all of their friends, followed by quiet evenings of records and crossword puzzles. He couldn’t see his designs on men walking down Fifth Avenue on his way to watch Rachel in her favourably-reviewed Broadway show. Everything he had sworn he would have as soon as he could get out of his backwards cowtown had gone by the wayside…but for the first time in a long time, that didn’t bother him. Because there also weren’t cold nights sitting on a bench in Columbus Circle waiting for a man in a green scarf to pass by anymore, and his hands didn’t ache from cutting stubborn, rough underfabrics all day, and he didn’t feel like there was an enormous wall surrounding him and cutting him off from every other person he saw. And the idea that that had all changed in less than a year was mind-blowing.

The sun is shining
All together
C’mon get happy
Shout it now
The lord is waiting to take your hand
There’s no one who can doubt it now
Shout halleluah
So let’s tell the world
And just get happy
About it now
We’re goin’ to the promised land.
Happy days are here again

Nothing was quite what they had expected. But maybe that wasn’t inherently a bad thing. Maybe that wasn’t a sign in and of itself that they were doing something wrong, that something was wrong with either of them. Maybe there was nothing at all wrong with either of their talent; it was just their dreams that needed adjustment.

Not the goal. Not the end result they were seeking. Just details.

Rachel might not win her first Tony by 25. And he wouldn’t be running a major house by the time he was 27 like so many of his idols had. But that was okay; none of that meant they were failures. If he didn’t live up to the promise of Yves Saint-Laurent – who had lived in an entirely different era, it was worth noting…If he didn’t make it by 27, his dreams would still be there when he was 28, and 30, and 40. There was nothing about ambition that had an expiration date.

So what if he’d imagined that by the time he was in New York for two years, he would have his own place and throw amazing parties with a handsome and talented lover sharing his life? So what if he had assumed that everything in this city would be more fashionable than reality held? There was nothing wrong with any of those dreams, but they were just that: dreams. Idealized versions of what he wanted. They didn’t take reality into account – not just the way the police would hassle people in New York as much as in Ohio, but basic facts like the cost of rent and food and how industries worked - really worked. They didn’t include other people wanting the same jobs, or bosses, or nights when he was too tired to cook so they ordered Chinese food instead.

They left out good things, too. His dreams had never included Don and John, with their adorable fondness for one another, their relationship that – while admittedly not ideal inasmuch as it had to remain a secret from so many people - was, at its best, so breathtakingly beautiful and…aspirational. And if he had never thought of the two of them before meeting them, then certainly his dreams had never included the person who meant more to him than almost anyone else in the world.

No; his dreams had never thought to conjure up a best friend like himself. He certainly would never have imagined a boy who shared his bed without ever sharing a kiss, but now he didn’t want to imagine a life without Ricky in it, somehow, some way.

We’re headin’ cross a river, soon your cares will all be gone
They’ll be no more from now on
From now on…

There were still things he wanted here, still things he yearned for, but nothing he needed. He still had plenty to fight for, to seek out, to work toward, but the aching, desperate loneliness and despair that had settled in his chest for so much of his first year and a half in Manhattan had been replaced by something much more functional that let everything feel much more possible.

He could achieve things. He would achieve things, and so would Rachel. And so would Ricky, and Mercedes, and even if those things didn’t happen in a way that any of them would have envisioned, that wouldn’t make them any less sweet.

Forget your troubles
Happy days
And just get happy
Are here again
You better chase all your blues away
The skies above are clear again
Shout hallelujah
So let’s sing a song
And just get happy
Of cheer again

For the first time in a long time – maybe for the first time since moving to this city they’d dreamed of, to the city that had crushed them and beaten them down or nearly two years straight, to the city they’d wondered why they had ever come to more times than they cared to count…for the first time in what felt like ages, Kurt had no doubt in his mind:

They would do great things, the four of them. They were where they were supposed to be. And they would be stars.

One day.

Happy times
Happy times
Happy nights
Happy nights
Happy days are here again