"Congressman Burt Hummel (I-OH), attacked, in hospital."
Burt looked grimly up from his phone as it clanged at him. His Twitter account, gotten at an intern's insistence and used only by her, kept bombarding him with notifications no matter how he tried to change his settings. Haley the Intern tweeted his opinions on anything from farm subsidies (good) to Russia's LGBT laws (outrage) to Obamacare (is the GOP going to hit a hundred failed votes before they stop wasting everyone's time?).
It wasn't like he needed more exposure. Though his Congressional career was still short, Burt had already made a name in the national media for being the surprise independent victor in his district, pulling off an even more unlikely repeat victory over the major parties, and never, ever shutting up.
He was the firebrand, the speech-maker, the wild card, the newbie who didn't know his place. The smalltown business owner who'd been approached by the Tea Party but caucused with the Democrats, and had made an according number of enemies along the way. The bald, overweight Midwestern mechanic who thought Joe the Plumber was an idiot and had the policy positions to go along with that assessment.
With his reputation, it was no wonder that this one journalist's tweet was wildfire across the news. Soon other outlets picked up on it, each claiming to have a little more detail than their competition.
"Congressman Hummel (I-OH) comatose," said the Washington Post.
"Hummel (I-OH) attacked on visit to NYC," said the New York Times.
"Representative Burt Hummel (I-OH) attacked; his policy votes to blame?" wondered Fox. Burt's lips thinned; he'd always hated them, and with every gotcha interview their DC reporters tried to pull, the rancor only grew.
His phone rang and rang, but he ignored every attempt to reach him. Carole had been called and was trying to find a flight; if not, she'd drive. He'd already texted his interns and a few friends in Congress, and as for the guys at the garage... maybe he'd call them tomorrow. Everyone else could twitter at him all they liked, and he'd stay silent and let them clean up their own damn mess.
Unsurprisingly, the Times was the first to clue in. This was their home turf, after all; they probably had contacts that no one else did.
"CORRECTION: Hummel (I-OH) not hospitalized. Son the one attacked, injured."
As the doctors walked silently past him, and Kurt's friends offered comfort that sounded more hollow than Burt felt, he turned off his damn phone.
* * *
It wasn't easy to read the headlines. The screen was small, one of his eyes was swollen shut, and the other was blurry after the blows taken to his head. The doctors anticipated a full correction, but bodies needed time to heal. Still, Kurt Hummel had become a national news story. Blurry vision or not, Kurt was going to zoom in and read those headlines one giant letter at a time if he had to.
First image: Burt looking with concern at Kurt in a hospital bed. Second image: a news story on an iPhone mistakenly reports that Burt was the one attacked.
He was famous, sure enough: famous for being a victim. One story after another discussed the wave of gaybashings that had struck New York City. A Congressman's son had been a tragic victim and nearly a tragic statistic. Some editorials wondered if this random attack wasn't so random; Burt Hummel was one of the most outspoken voices in the country for gay rights, and wore a rainbow flag pin like most politicians sported the Stars and Stripes.
Unable to help himself, Kurt scrolled to the comments below the CNN article. He rolled his good eye and regretted the movement from the pain that hit a second later.
"What?" Burt asked gruffly, stuck between concern over the flinch and his lingering grumpiness.
"You did not deserve this," Burt instantly said, his face reddening. "And if I see one person saying that—"
Oh, they surely were, but not in the comment that had earned that eyeroll. Before his father could grow too heated, Kurt turned around the phone and showed Burt the display.
As Burt saw did that dude seriously name his son Kurt?, his anger deflated as quickly as it had come. His mouth twitched.
"It's okay, Dad," Kurt said. His voice sounded so strange to his ears; raspy and thin and seeming to echo inside a too-big skull. "You can laugh."
Any faint amusement died. "You're giving me permission to laugh when you're in a hospital bed looking like that?" Burt demanded.
Kurt shrugged. That hurt, too. "I knew what I was doing."
Like a circling vulture, their argument turned back for another pass. It already felt well-worn: he'd been foolish, it was the only thing he could do, he could have called for help, he would have listened to someone die while he waited if he had. Arguing with his father was more exhausting than his injuries, and so Kurt lied and said, "Look, Dad, I'm really not up for this again, okay? Not right now. I'm tired."
Mentioning his injuries had the expected effect; Burt wilted and nodded. If they were going to butt heads over Kurt's decision again, at least that matchup would wait. "Sure." The shadow of his hand moved over Kurt's face, and Kurt flinched before callused fingers could actually brush bruised and swollen skin. "Sorry," Burt instantly said and jerked his hand away. "I was just going to brush your hair back."
"Been a while since you've worn it down," Burt finished awkwardly. His hand dropped.
The sound of the opening door sent a sudden wave of exhaustion through Kurt. He'd lied to avoid their argument, but now he really did crave more sleep. Chances were, he didn't want to deal with whoever else was there.
Mercedes had been the only one whose presence didn't draw on any energy reserves, and so he didn't like those odds of everyone who might be in that hallway. Artie and Sam wanted to know too much about what had happened, like he was a victim of the week on Law & Order and they wanted details on the perp. Blaine was a red-eyed wreck, and Kurt had found himself softening the truth and dodging topics not to protect himself, but his fiancé. And if that was draining, it was nothing compared to Rachel; she wanted one of their big emotional exchanges and looked alternately expectant that he'd be ready for one and horrified that he wasn't. Mercedes, at least, had the sense to sit by his bed, stay quiet, and occasionally rub the unbroken skin of his forearm gently with her thumb.
With a deep breath that hurt his ribs, Kurt turned to look at someone who probably wasn't Mercedes Jones. It wasn't, but the alternative was even better. He smiled. "Hi, Carole." From the broken look on her face, she would be another person who needed to have the truth softened. He was still glad to see her.
"I love you," Carole said in a shaky voice as she walked up to join Burt. "I'm so happy to see you awake, and I am furious with you."
"Join the club," Kurt said and gestured with his fingertips toward Burt. The dark look he got in return quieted him.
"Do you know what it was like?" Carole asked after a long pause. "When I thought I was getting that call again?"
Silence hung over the room for a long beat. Kurt, shamed and heartsick, dropped his head and shook it once. He and Burt had skirted discussions of the hole in their family's world, like both men somehow knew it was Carole's topic to breach. "No."
As Carole rubbed a hand over her face, a nurse let herself in and quietly checked Kurt's vitals. As she left, Carole found her voice again. "Why? Burt said you did this deliberately? Why in god's name would you do that, Kurt?"
"They were killing him," Kurt said. More power lay behind those words than he'd been able to manage for hours. "Because he was gay. No one else was doing anything."
The sound of the closing door broke Carole's long, agonized pause. She looked up at the ceiling and exhaled. Her gaze lingered there, but when it dropped back to him, a tiny smile had bloomed. "I'm still furious with you."
"Join the club," Burt said. He smirked at Kurt as he echoed his son's earlier words.
Very gently, Carole perched on the edge of Kurt's bed. Unlike Burt, she made no move to touch anywhere near his injuries. After an instinctive tense second Kurt relaxed. "I thought everyone would be in here. I was all ready to chase people out before I gave you the mom talk. You probably wouldn't want to have me yell at you in front of your friends."
"I already played the bad guy, there," Burt said. "It got a little crowded and I know Kurt needs his space, especially when times get... tense, and so I claimed the right to make decisions. Two visitors in the room at a time, max."
Kurt nodded to Burt in thanks. His stupid argument with Rachel returned to mind: being an adult, taking risks. Kurt sometimes felt years older than his always-best friend and sometimes-aggravator, but right now it was comforting to be a kid again and let Burt handle things. Everything hurt and he was tired.
And further down, past the pain and exhaustion, was fear. It coiled inside bruised organs and around battered bones. Whenever flashes of memory tried to scuttle toward the light, he crushed them hard like a cockroach, a spider, like a thousand wriggling insects inside a battered sofa. If he ever missed smacking one down, it might reach the light. Kurt didn't know how much fear lurked inside him, but he knew he couldn't face it. Not yet. And when well-meaning people distracted him, sometimes the fear scurried a bit too close to daylight.
"Dad?" Kurt asked after he ruthlessly crushed another sliver of terror crawling up from his gut, and his voice teetered. "Can you stay in town for a few days?"
"I mean... with me? And Mom?"
Carole hesitated and fear began to scurry up Kurt's throat again in a squirming black surge. "Of course." Her eyes glistened for a second, but then she blinked hard and really smiled. "You called me Mom," she offered for an explanation when she saw one was needed.
Fear retreated. It was still a tight, hot knot inside his stomach, but as her words settled into the room Kurt felt some strength return. "When do I get to go home?"
"They might want to watch you longer," Burt said uncertainly, "but I'll check." He looked around the hospital room, harsh with unflattering lighting and chemical scents, and wrinkled his nose. "I remember recovering a lot faster at home than I ever would in a place like this." Thankful that Burt understood, Kurt nodded and watched him leave in search of a nurse or doctor.
Carole sought out his hand after the door closed. Her touch was feather-light and carefully avoided the bloody scrapes on his knuckles. Even a loose grip was comforting, and they sat like that in silence. As Kurt breathed in and out, he saw that she was watching his chest move. He kept breathing until the words erupted. "I miss him."
Her hand hurt when it tightened, but Kurt didn't flinch.
"Maybe I was thinking of what he'd do," Kurt added quietly. As Carole's breath grew ragged and her eyes glistened, he asked through a choked throat, "Is it really okay? That I called you Mom?"
"It's wonderful. Just... please stay here, so I can hear it again. Okay?"
As he nodded, not trusting his voice, the door opened again. Both looked up to see Burt there with a relieved expression. "When they heard you'd have people around, they said it was okay to go home. You wanna get out of this place?" He found the clothes Kurt had been brought in wearing, neatly folded but probably stained with dirt and his own blood, and raised them in question.
Around Kurt were scraped linoleum floors and stained ceiling tiles, and a lobby full of people who didn't understand that they felt like a prison cell when they all came at him at once. He desperately craved the familiar sounds of Bushwick and the uneven floorboards of home, and even the loud neighbor across the airway who never missed a chance to show the world his nipple piercings. Kurt nodded. "I really, really do."
There were indeed bloodstains everywhere on his clothes: red Morse code that told the tale of the second-worst night of Kurt's life. (The worst was the phonecall. The worst would always be the phonecall.) He hesitated as he looked at the stains, but then pulled his dark coat close around him. It covered the worst of everything. "Let's go.'" The hallway was blurry around its edges, but he could walk well enough in a straight line.
Like it was choreographed, everyone in the lobby shot to their feet when he walked in. "I can go home," Kurt explained shortly to all the staring faces. "I'd rather sleep in my own bed."
Relieved, they rushed forward in a sloppy celebration of him being strong enough to leave the hospital. Mercedes clutched his arm, Sam tried to clap his shoulder, and Blaine pulled him close. Everything was too tight, especially when the inadvertent Sam-and-Mercedes tug-of-war began. Kurt hissed in pain when Blaine's joy turned abruptly into a painful clamp around a bruised rib.
Everyone backed off, hands up. Any thought of soothing Blaine's guilt faded when fresh agony tore through Kurt not like a needle, but a sword.
"Rachel, would you like a ride home?" Carole asked as she found the keys for her rental car.
Pale, Rachel looked between the family.
"Oh, come on," Kurt said. He still didn't have the energy to coddle Rachel's guilt over their argument, nor the desire. "You shouldn't walk. I've heard this is kind of a bad neighborhood." The dark joke earned only distressed looks from everyone around him. With an irritated noise he walked toward the parking garage as fast as his battered body would allow.