"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.
Recovery went annoyingly slow.
The next morning Kurt woke up refreshed and relieved to be in his own bedroom, but that energy soon waned. "At least I can see better," he grumbled as he slumped bonelessly onto the couch. His vision was barely blurry at all, now. And he'd showered; that helped, too.
Logically, he knew that his body would need time to heal. He'd taken quite a beating and looked it. The sight of his own face in the fogged-up bathroom mirror startled him so much that he'd nearly hurt himself all over again. Bruised, swollen, and pale, he looked more like some movie special effect than Kurt Hummel, College Student And Perennially Underpaid Worker. After flinching from an inspection of that bruised skin, he'd decided to skip shaving that morning, do nothing but brush his hair, and put on a hoodie that could be zipped instead of pulled on.
He'd gotten through his to-call checklist before collapsing onto the couch, at least, even though many of them had proven unnecessary. Carmen greeted him when he called her NYADA office and congratulated him on his release from the hospital. Since he hadn't yet explained his absence, those well wishes had been initially confusing. Then he remembered the news stories about Poor Kurt Hummel. His Spotlight boss had seen the articles, too, and was more sympathetic than Kurt had expected for someone who once tried to get him to work double shifts during school days.
Isabelle was both horrified and relieved, and she'd known earlier than anyone. Vogue maintained a strict policy of running notification alerts on anyone with ties to the company. (Anna Wintour insisted on not being taken off-guard by the news. If the media was talking about Vogue at all, it should be on purpose.) Even though he now only submitted a couple of articles a month, if that, he was still the talk of the office.
Once those were done, he could focus on social calls. "I'm up," he confirmed in a still-croaking voice. The cocktail of antibiotics and painkillers they had him on made his tongue feel like it was covered in disgusting fuzz. "Dad and... and Mom are probably still in Rachel's room until I finish my calls. Rachel's pretending that she can't hear me."
Even without looking over his shoulder, he knew Rachel had intensified her cleaning of the kitchen. She'd given up her bed to Kurt's parents, but of course hadn't dared ask to share his. Her quilt still sprawled across one armrest of the couch.
"How are you doing?" asked Mercedes.
"I hurt," he admitted. "I cut my painkiller dose in half because I fell asleep last night five minutes after taking it. I'm still already wiped out, though."
"Kurt," she said warningly. "You do what the doctors tell you to do."
The label set a daily maximum, not a minimum. In his opinion, he was following orders just fine. "Put Blaine on?"
"Not until you promise me you'll take all your pills."
He yawned pointedly. "Put him on before I fall asleep again?"
She stormed off, grumbling as she did.
"Hey," said Blaine's wavering voice as soon as he picked up the phone. "You didn't call my cell? I mean... that's okay! Thanks for calling, either way."
"This let Mercedes or Sam hear my voice, and that counts as a call to them. I don't know how many I can handle today."
"Oh. That makes sense. How are you feeling?" The last word sounded like a cringe, like he'd realized too late what a stupid question it was.
"Well, my skin is still swelling over the skull fracture, my bruises hurt a lot more today, and earlier it took me about five seconds to remember the word 'toothbrush.'" Kurt waited a second at the silence he got in return. "You didn't actually want to know all of that, huh?"
"Oh god. I... no, of course not. I mean. Of course I did. I just—" Blaine exhaled into the phone, then sounded like he was rubbing his hand over his face. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I was just so scared that you wouldn't ever wake up." With each word, his voice twisted and shriveled. "You looked so helpless, and I hated whoever had done that to you. But I hated the idea of a world without you a million times more. I'm still trying to come down from all of that."
A cold band of tension settled around Kurt at 'helpless' and tightened with each fresh word. No. Absolutely not. He couldn't blame Blaine for thinking it; what other word could you use for someone in a coma? Burt had certainly looked fragile during his. Still, the entire country was thinking the same thing. Kurt Hummel: helpless. Victim. Sad. Pitiful.
He hadn't called Blaine to feel worse.
"Carmen said that I'm excused from class for two weeks with no problem, but I don't want to miss material. Can you please bring anything home on the day it's assigned? I don't want to fall behind."
Blaine was silent for a few seconds at the topic change. He could imagine the look of befuddlement on his fiancé's face, soon morphing into doe-eyed concern. "I... sure, yeah. I can do that. But school can wait, Kurt. And two weeks... she'll give you more if you need it. The doctors were so worried. And you looked so—"
"I really don't want to hear about how beaten up I looked, okay?"
Silence ripped between them like claws. For a few seconds, they felt as far apart as how they'd ever been in Ohio-versus-Brooklyn. His voice had come out sounding like bitter December when the wind picked up.
"Sorry," Kurt said, though offering the apology through his bruised and broken face sent prickles of resentment down his spine.
"Sorry," Blaine echoed. His voice was July: warm, muggy, oppressive with emotion. "I just... I've been so worried about you. And when I tried to hug you, I hurt you again. I thought maybe words could do the trick. I'm here for you, I promise. I just need to figure out the best way to do that."
"Okay. Okay, sweetie, I understand. Just give me some time to heal up first, and then I'll play Meg to your Hercules, I promise."
"...The woman who got killed by that pillar," Blaine slowly replied, and with disbelief he couldn't hide. "Kurt, really?"
"I meant the end, with the rescuing and swooning, and... maybe I should just take a nap. I'm kind of groggy, none of my words are really making sense."
This was a conversation that needed an off-ramp, and Blaine took that one gladly. "Yeah, of course. Let me know if there's anything I can do for you. I'll let you set the pace on everything, so I don't... try to hug you too early again."
"I'll let you know," Kurt promised. "Love you."
"I love you so much."
He smiled, then hung up. Missteps aside, that had been nice. And even better, all necessary tasks for the day were done. Burt left to pick up supplies for household fixes he'd decided must be made: loose floorboards and squeaking hinges and that lingering chill in the air. Carole joined Rachel in cleaning and organizing, still too worried to do anything but hover around him like hummingbirds.
As another wave of exhaustion swept over him, Kurt reached for the quilt Rachel had left. Sleep came hard and fast.
"Sore," he groaned when he woke, hours later, to the sound of Burt swishing sandpaper over a ragged, splintery floorboard. "Pull me up." He'd expected Burt to get there first, but Rachel leapt for him and pulled Kurt upright with all the strength her slender arms could manage. "Thanks."
Her smile was big, teary. Hopeful.
"How are you feeling?" Carole asked, swooping in to adjust his shirt and stroke his hair. Rachel backed away as quickly as she'd come.
"Do you really want an answer to that?" Kurt asked, then smacked his lips together. To brush his teeth, or just use mouthwash....
Carole grimaced sympathetically. Behind her, Burt looked on with concern. "Can I get you something? Tell us what to order, or where to go grab something. Remember those cookies I'd pick up sometimes on the way home from work? I'm sure somewhere around here has snickerdoodles."
Comfort food sounded wonderful. Fear still lingered deep inside Kurt and clawed at him when his thoughts quieted. If he could sate his body with cheesecake or pizza or ice cream, maybe flashes of memory would quiet down, too.
Kurt shifted his weight and pain lanced through him. He frowned down at himself, seeing the cuts on his hands and feeling the bruises on his ribcage. His good eye blinked; the swollen one fluttered. No. He didn't want to placate his demons. He wanted to triumph over them. "There's this soup place around the corner, with a red sign. Could you pick up a few pints?"
Carole began to pull on her coat. "Of course, sweetie. What kind? Chicken noodle?"
No, no. That was food for an invalid. For that helpless, broken boy that Blaine had talked about on a hospital bed. "Something with a lot of protein and vegetables. Something healthy." Kurt shrugged and regretted it. "Fuel, basically. I've got healing to do."
Smiling, she nodded and kissed the unbruised side of his forehead. "That makes sense. Are you sure you don't want some brownies, or...?"
"Okay. Back soon."
She soon returned with three soup containers in a plastic bag: ginger carrot red lentil, vegetable beef, and a something that had chicken and pasta but she promised wasn't plain old chicken noodle. With determination, he tackled a bowl of vegetable beef.
He would rest up, he would heal, he would recover. He'd work his aching muscles until they were stronger than ever before. He wouldn't be the media's victim, and he wouldn't be that pathetic comatose figure Blaine had described.
Carole had also picked up cookies on the way home, despite their discussion of comfort food. He gave his to Rachel.
* * *
Kurt took the offered class absences, as much to avoid the crowded, elbow-jostling subway as anything. But he sang on the night he'd been scheduled to.
The show must go on. Whatever happens, I'll leave it all to chance. My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies. I can fly, my friends. The show must go on.
(Move one of Rachel Berry's Big Apology Spectacular: load him down with inspirational playlists. She seemed to think that 'The Show Must Go On' was significantly more uplifting than it was.)
His voice soared, he put on the show he'd promised. The familiar deep-stomach curl of nerves before a performance was comforting in its own strange way, and the knowledge that friends and family were in the audience helped more. By the end, when he was standing triumphant and alive in the midst of a standing ovation, he'd almost forgotten his injuries.
"I'll go get the car," Carole said and left them there: Kurt, Burt, Blaine, and Rachel.
"I'll talk to you tomorrow," Blaine promised and kissed Kurt feather-gentle. "You were amazing." Kurt smiled back, even though it tugged at a cut on his lip that had torn back open at some point during his performance. They hadn't been able to find the right words until now, but the critique gave them something to talk about besides Kurt's injuries. To say that their reunion in New York hadn't gone as planned was an understatement like 'Gaga is at risk of losing her zeitgeist appeal.' The two of them had always done best when they had something to face together, though.
"Rest up, okay?" Blaine added when they pulled apart. Concern was written in his warm hazel eyes, and his brow furrowed like Kurt had warned him about so many times. That was how it should be: arguments over premature wrinkling versus freakish celebrity botox foreheads. What foods were worth paying extra for. (Cheesecake, obviously, but the bagel difference from four blocks over was not worth the trip.)
Arguments about the world. Not about them.
"I will. I'll see how long I last without getting too bored and going back to class. Maybe I can handle it by Thursday or Friday." Kurt saw the protest coming and spoke over Blaine. "I will be careful."
"Like you were careful that night?" Blaine asked and instantly looked to regret it. His complaints about the risk Kurt had taken were less direct than Burt's, but no less pointed. Over and over that week he'd reminded Kurt not to pick up a too-hot plate when he was visiting, or what food and drink could be safely taken with his painkillers when they talked over the phone. It felt like Kurt was in kindergarten again. But whenever he looked annoyed at the coddling, pain bloomed in Blaine's eyes like he was the one wounded.
Yes, everything was so much easier when they had the outside world to focus on.
"I will be careful," Kurt repeated after a pointed pause.
"I know you will. I... it'll be good to have you in class again, when you're ready. You really were great tonight, Kurt."
He smiled at the memories. "Thank you. Love you."
"Love you, too." This felt like a habit, but at least it was a happy one. Happier than some of the new habits they'd developed.
They took the drive home in relative silence. Carole needed to focus on the unfamiliar roads, and Burt struggled for specific compliments to offer about showtunes once he'd established that he was indeed so very proud of Kurt. Rachel, for her part, remained uncharacteristically silent all the way to Bushwick. She'd gotten the night off from practice, but for all that she offered socially, she might as well have gone to the theatre. There had to be another reason she was there in that car.
"Dad, Mom?" Kurt asked when they'd parked and were heading inside. He barely tripped on 'Mom' at all, now. "This sounds awful, but would you mind going to get dinner or something?" He and Rachel picked up on each other's currents like birds on the wing, now, and he could see what was coming.
Burt grinned. "Yeah, we'll go do that. Good." Everyone looked at him in surprise and he said, "What? When Kurt actually wants help from his folks, you know times are rough. Him telling us to get lost is a good sign! C'mon, Carole. I bet he wants us clearing out of his place tomorrow, too." Though Kurt tried to protest, he held up his hand. "No, no. I'm not going to let you think that I'll be hurt if you tell me the whole truth. Do you want the two of us gone tomorrow?"
"I... it would be nice to have all of my space back," Kurt admitted. "I know all my friends want to come over for dinner again, soon, and that's going to be busy enough."
"Thought so." Burt chuckled, chucked him on an undamaged place on his chin, and then gestured back toward the car. "We'll get dinner, and we'll be out of your hair tomorrow morning."
"I love you, Dad," Kurt said.
"I love you, too. I'm glad you're feeling better."
After a standing ovation, how couldn't he be? His bruises were fading, his muscles weren't so tight, and the doctors promised his skull fracture was on the mend. More than that, he didn't feel so exhausted all the time. (His chances of getting an impressive scar out of all of this seemed to be fading by the day, but Burt had been enormously dismayed to discover that his son had picked up a tattoo. That helped to balance things out.) "I am," he confirmed.
Carole kissed him before they left. Unlike her hesitant embraces earlier that week, she now held on tightly, like she wouldn't ever let him get away.
Kurt and Rachel's walk up to their shared loft was made in silence, with rigid, measured footsteps. They didn't return grandly home after Kurt's triumphant performance; they marched. "So." Kurt adjusted his sleeves after pulling the door closed. "It's just us."
"It's just us," Rachel agreed. Emotion swelled in her. "I'm... so sorry."
"You've said that all week."
She flinched, but for the first time since he'd woken up, stood her ground instead of fleeing from the sight of his wounds. "I guess I'm hoping that it'll actually feel like you're listening, this time. You haven't wanted to hear me, and I've been afraid to speak too loudly."
"And you know things are serious when Rachel Berry keeps quiet," Kurt agreed.
"I've especially been afraid to speak up with your parents around." She rubbed her shirt hem between two fingers, then found a pencil to roll along a table. "Your dad would hate me if he knew what happened."
"I said you don't take risks." Her dark eyes swam with sudden tears. "I said horrible things to you and then you proved me wrong. It's all my fault, isn't it? I nearly got you killed."
"That's what you've been thinking?"
"Of course. It's the truth." He sighed, but she spoke over him. "I... I can never truly make up for this, but if you just tell me what piece of Broadway memorabilia you want I will try to get backstage to steal it. Please don't pick something too big, like the Wicked clock."
"Rachel," Kurt said blankly.
She flinched. "No, no, you're right! If I need to steal the Wicked clock to make this up to you, then I will. We... we live in a big loft! I'm sure it would fit."
"I ran into that alley because it was the right thing to do. I knew I was taking a risk, and that's okay."
"But you almost died," Rachel whispered.
"Then how could it be the right thing to do?"
"Someone needed to. Right now... I sort of can't believe I did it. But I know if I was there again, I'd do the same thing." His gaze dropped. "You didn't hear him screaming, Rachel. No one cared, no one looked. I know what that's like. No one helping is the very worst part."
"I tried to help, you know. Back then." Her face was suddenly hopeful when she looked back up, like this memory of their friendship's origins would score her points on whatever forgiveness tally board she had in her mind.
"I love you, and this hasn't changed that." Kurt squeezed her arm. "Don't try to rip apart the Wicked backdrop."
She nibbled her thumb. "Galinda's wand?"
He smiled; a wan, pale thing, but it was there. "Don't tempt me." As she clearly wanted more, he continued, "If you feel bad, apologize, but just don't act like I didn't do this all on my own. All right? At least the news has stopped paying attention to me by now, but I had dozens of stories about how I was a victim. Some object that people did things to. I was this sad, pathetic little news item that only mattered because of who my dad was. It was like they wanted to have a Sarah McLachlan song playing over the news report."
"Oh. I didn't... that wasn't how I meant to make you feel."
He brushed that aside. "It's okay," Kurt lied. "It's how everyone made me feel."
"Then that's not okay."
She wasn't wrong. He shrugged, a weak gesture.
"I'm sorry I yelled at you and said terrible things," Rachel settled on. "And I'm so glad you're here with me tonight. I don't know what I'd do without my best friend."
"Come here," he sighed and extended his arms. She was such a tiny little thing, curled up like that against his chest, but she hadn't always felt so small. The scrawnier boy who'd first met Rachel Berry probably wouldn't have left that alley alive. Before this week, Kurt had only appreciated his growth spurts for how they improved the fit of his clothes. "Love you. And now I want to sleep."
"Go sleep," she agreed. "I'll let your parents in when they get back."
It was like he barely slept at all. Eyes closed in the darkness and seemed to immediately open the next morning. "Kurt," Rachel hissed. It was an unpleasant way to wake, and he groaned as she jostled him. "Kurt!"
"Quiddit." He flung an arm over his face, flinched when it landed, and tried to pretend he was asleep, anyway. Had his parents already left? It seemed like he'd heard rolling suitcases. Maybe that was just a dream. Dreams were nice. Rachel needed to go away and let him dream again.
"Kurt, get up!" Rachel grabbed his wrist and tugged. "You're back on the news!"
Kurt sat, rod-straight. "What?" He tumbled out of bed, hair and clothes askew, and made a beeline for his laptop. Before he could open it, she shook her head and pulled at his elbow to direct him toward the television. "Wait, the TV?" he asked as they rounded the corner and he saw a video of himself performing at the critique the night before. When Rachel clicked off the mute button, his voice pierced the silence.
It did a fine job of standing in for the flesh-and-blood Kurt. Though his mouth hung open, he couldn't find a thing to say.
"I was clicking through the channels," Rachel explained, "and you were here."
"Why?" he croaked. Asked a month earlier, and he would have been thrilled at the idea of having his critique performance televised across New York City. Now, as the face of America's Poor Pathetic Victim, Kurt wanted the media to forget he existed. He'd been the nation's chew toy for days. Why dredge this back up when he was finally being forgotten?
"I don't—shh, watch!" Rachel said, smacking his forearm needlessly as the clip ended and a reporter came onscreen.
Kurt smacked her back, and watched.
"A source has told WABC News that initial reports about Ohio Congressman Hummel's son Kurt, seen here in a clip of a NYADA performance he gave last night, were wrong. Congressman Hummel's son was not targeted for an attack. Rather, he deliberately ran into that alleyway to save another man. Although he likely saved that man's life, his identity remains unknown."
"Well, how about that?" asked the genial co-anchor, and smiled at the camera. "Sounds like we've got ourselves a real hero living in the city."
"And he nearly paid a terrible price for that courage," she reminded him. Her smile returned to the audience. "If you're watching, Kurt: well, you've made all of us here at the station proud!"
"And I'm sure you just got your dad some more votes in Ohio," added the co-anchor, chuckling. With that lighthearted exit, they cut to commercials.
"Oh," Kurt said blankly as a Coke ad started playing.
"Oh," Rachel echoed, perhaps even more stunned than he was. "Well... that's good?"
By the time Kurt found his voice again, the Coke ad had ended and they were being reminded to watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (In theatres now.) He was a news story again, the world had taken him by surprise, and some reporter had apparently snuck into his critique for fresh footage... but he wasn't a victim. 'A real hero.' He liked the sound of that. "I think that's good," he agreed.
Still rooted, both of them stood there until the news came back from commercials. The story about Kurt was forgotten, replaced by a discussion of bribery allegations for a local politician. Impulsiveness flared and he grabbed the remote from Rachel. The source had spoken to this one station; would anyone else pick up on the story? It seemed like the entire world had wanted to paint him as a victim. Surely he was owed more than one lousy news story to correct that mistake.
By the time he'd completely circled the channel lineup, he was on CBS. The local FOX came next, and a blurb on MSNBC. Each blip of five or ten seconds felt like vindication, and by the time his old headshot made another appearance on CNN, Kurt breathed a long sigh of relief. "There," he said and nodded in satisfaction. "At least they've tried to make up for their mistake."
"You're not on Fox News," Rachel pointed out after they'd cycled the stations again. She sounded a little dizzy.
Kurt laughed, sharp and short. "Fox News isn't carrying the story of how Burt Hummel's son saved someone's life?" He grinned; it felt like remembering how. "Who'd'a thought? You know, Dad always said they hated him. Maybe they hate me, too." His phone rang. As Rachel ran to get it, Kurt's smile slid into a smirk.
He didn't mind being hated by Fox News.
Culture Warrior's Son is Actual Warrior
A warrior? Not a headline he'd ever expected to see written about Kurt Hummel, but he could hardly complain. (Warriors didn't have to forgo shaving and deodorant, right?)
Like Father, Like Son: Burt Hummel's Son Takes On All Comers, Too
He did have a lot in common with his dad, didn't he? With a proud, lopsided grin, Kurt gave a thumbs-up to that link Burt had shared on his professional Facebook page. His father had probably felt even prouder than Kurt when he found that news story. Burt had called him on the drive to JFK, and they both crowed with laughter about the trouble that the Hummel men could cause when they put their minds to it.
Opinion: Rep. Hummel's Son Used By His Father's Campaign
Kurt struck an expression of mock sadness as he read about how his father was exploiting him to push his evil, naughty gay rights agenda through Congress. Or... how he surely would, when he got back to D.C. "Thank you for your concern, Fox News," he sniffled and laid one hand across his chest. "You truly have my best interests at heart."
"Look!" he giggled when Blaine and Mercedes came for a visit. He was still on the couch with his laptop while CNN played on the television. "I'm everywhere!"
"Oh, wow," Mercedes said in amazement as she took a seat next to him. Though CNN had been talking about some natural disaster, her timing was perfect; they soon switched to an interview with Burt. Kurt's student photo for NYADA hung in the corner of the screen. "That's you!" Mercedes squealed.
"It's me!" Kurt squealed back.
Just as awed, Blaine took the seat on his other side and watched the interview. "Of course I knew," Burt said. He was dressed professionally: in a suit, without his typical cap, and the rainbow flag lapel pin was now twice its usual size. "I talked with my son in the hospital and learned everything that happened."
"Were you upset, angry, proud...?"
Burt snorted. "All of the above. A father's never happy to hear about his son being hurt like that, but at the same time I was proud that he helped that man."
"Do you know the identity of the man he saved?"
"The NYPD hasn't made any arrest reports for the men involved in the assault. Are you applying any pressure to get them to address these gaybashings in New York?"
Burt paused and Kurt tensed. He wasn't as practiced with politics as his father; Burt had taken on the hallowed corridors of the Capitol Building with as much vigor as Kurt had run into the alley. This had the sound of a land mine, though, not a brawl. Even to Kurt's untrained ears, something was wrong. "The best thing I can do, as a politician and as a father, is to tell America that this needs to stop. We need to stop viewing millions of our citizens as disposable because of who they love, how they worship, or the color of their skin. People need to stop thinking they have a right to hurt other people, and we need to get damn upset when it happens. I'm damn upset. I hope everyone else in New York who's damn upset calls their Congressmen and gets them to make some changes."
"He's good," Kurt said, awed.
"He avoided sounding like he wanted to control a city in another state," Blaine summarized, one eyebrow up. "Nice. They were obviously trying to trap him."
"He keeps this up," Mercedes said wryly, "and there's gonna be a 'Draft Hummel' campaign for 2016, you know."
The image dizzied Kurt anew. "I could be Malia Obama."
Blaine laughed at that, and carefully embraced and kissed him. "It's so good to see you smiling."
Kurt kept his eyes trained firmly on the television during the hug. "That is a good headshot of me." NYADA didn't do standard yearbook shoots; every performance student had a real headshot for each year of their schooling, ready to be presented to casting agents at a moment's notice. That surcharge for the professional photography was so very worth it. "Isn't that a good headshot?"
"Of course, look at what they had to work with." Blaine smiled in adoration. Kurt smiled back, even though his cheek still hurt.
The door slid open again and all of them turned toward it. Rachel, Tigger-like, bounded into the room with paper bags in hand. "Good, you're here! I hit every food place in a block's radius. We are going to catalog Kurt's big explosion into the media, and we need sustenance!"
It wasn't an idle threat. As soon as Rachel set down her acquisitions, she started a spreadsheet. Station, time, reporter, best pull quote: every cell needed to be filled, and they had a busy day ahead.
"Oh my god!" Kurt laughed in disbelief, hours later. There had been a lull in the action, but by early afternoon he was a hot story again. This station had video footage of him, but it wasn't anything new like the critique performance. This national broadcast had been aired before. "Wow, I can really kick high," he noted as the Cheerios win at Nationals played out. "I'll have to keep that in mind the next time I take someone down."
Blaine gave him a chiding look over the cookie he'd picked from Rachel's stash.
"What, am I not supposed to be a vigilante in the night, now?"
Rachel and Mercedes joined Blaine.
"You guys are no fun," Kurt said. At Rachel's affectionate eyeroll and sigh, he waved off the bag she offered. "I'm healing up, remember? I'm eating healthy. After all," he said with a gesture toward the television, "I'm a role model."
She began to protest with another snack offer, then actually looked at the television. Kurt's headshot was there again, as was the label A Role Model for Modern America? The first few seconds of the actual story teased a glowing portrayal of father and son, both overcoming obstacles in life to showcase the strength of diverse lives and familial love in 2014 America.
"We definitely want to watch this one," Kurt said.
By early evening, when Rachel had to leave to attend practice, it was clear that the media was enraptured by the truth they'd uncovered. Kurt had been so locked inside his own aches and pains that he hadn't seen how this would look from the outside; now that he had, it seemed like a Movie of the Week had to be forthcoming.
His father had won a shocker of a victory over candidates from both major parties. Without funding, ad budgets, or anything but pure determination, he'd pulled off an unlikely win. And while one lightning strike was notable enough, Burt Hummel had pulled off a repeat performance. When he won re-election, neither the Republicans nor Democrats were taken by surprise. He still returned to D.C. as the face of his district. Like before, this firebrand refused to accept the silence that seniority rules would impose upon him. Whenever the media needed comments on anything remotely controversial, they could usually count on Burt Hummel; when the topic was gay rights, he was first in line.
Already, the media was primed to pay attention to the Hummel name. The gay rights politician with a gay son made a tidy enough story on its own, and Kurt had been mentioned in passing already. So had Carole; losing her husband after his return from Desert Storm made her another kind of easy media shorthand. It was no wonder that, when America's face of marriage equality and employment protection had almost lost his son to gaybashers, the media had paid keen attention to this tragic irony.
But Kurt had made it through alive, and there wasn't much of a lasting story in that, was there? The only reason his assault had mattered was his father's name, and they probably wouldn't have noticed if not for the initial error over who had been attacked. Other men had died on New York streets and the media hadn't even pretended to care.
The thought of those other victims, forgotten and worthless in America's eyes, clenched Kurt's fists where he sat. It wasn't right.
A political hero with another hero as a son, though... that was a story the news could have fun with. The Hummel name ticked off countless demographic boxes: midwestern, coastal dwellers, small towns, big cities, political activists, small business owners, college students, gay, straight, parent, child, blended families. Mellencamp and Sondheim.
Burt Hummel was already a media favorite. With his life-saving son in the mix, it was a frenzy.
"Thanks for coming over, sweetie," Kurt said at the end of a long Saturday. He kissed Blaine but didn't get up. Sitting on a couch shouldn't have been so tiring, but watching one's self broadcast to every house in America was surprisingly draining. "This was nice."
"It was nice," Blaine said in undisguised relief. "I can come over tomorrow, again?"
About to say yes, Kurt hesitated. "This week must have been crazy for you, and you don't get Monday off like I do. Do you need to do homework tomorrow?"
"Oh, I can bring it here!" Blaine instantly said. "Don't worry. There's... a lot to catch up on, yeah, but I can just bring it over."
"Stay home, be productive," Kurt implored. "You don't get to pull the coma card to make your teachers go easy on you." Blaine flinched at that and he shrugged. "Sorry. Dark humor helps me deal."
"Right, of course. But I don't want to leave you alone...."
"Oh, don't worry, I'm just going to be here, watching the news." Kurt gestured around the loft. "I can take care of myself."
"Sure," Blaine said after a long pause. "No, that's a good idea. I really didn't get anything done today."
"Except for watching stories about your super-famous boyfriend," Kurt corrected with a grin.
"Except for that. I'll text you though, all right?" That worked for both of them, and after a quick kiss and an affectionate stroke of Kurt's hair, Blaine stood. "Love you. Mercedes?" he called, and she replied from the bathroom that she was coming. "We're going."
"Love you," Kurt said, and smiled at Blaine until the two of them had left. He waited until he heard the lock click, then raised the remote again.
That was a great headshot.
* * *
Kurt was starting to become used to being a news story, though these positive portrayals still felt odd to see after the initial surge of misery and woe. Over the past years, he'd learned how to ignore his father being demonized in the media. Burt's words were twisted, his intentions warped. "Tune it out," Burt told him over dinner one night. "That's all you can do. There are some people who are never going to like you and will never be on your side. Don't give them any attention. Keep on doing what you know is right, and don't scramble to answer the wrong questions just because they're asked."
If he hadn't already become used to that constant low buzz around Burt, both the highs and lows after his attack would have been much harder for Kurt to take. Still, the question a reporter asked Burt the next day took both of them by surprise.
"What was your reaction," asked a NBC reporter as Burt made his way to work, "when you thought you might have lost both of your sons in one year?"
Kurt cringed like another strike had landed. That's... that's not fair. He's not your story. Leave him alone.
Normally, Burt would brush past a gotcha reporter with a few quick words. This clearly caught him off guard as much as Kurt, though, and he stopped. "I'm a father," he said after those few seconds. "I felt like any father would." That was all NBC got; he set back into motion and was soon through a door.
The swooning stories resumed soon enough, but a bitter aftertaste lingered. There had been a few articles written about the tragedy suffered by Congressman Hummel's family earlier that year, but in general, privacy had been granted. It was a paragraph in the Washington Post, a short article in the Columbus Dispatch. None of them particularly liked the media, but that week had been as respectful as they could have hoped for.
For Kurt, though, it was apparently open season after he'd been sent home from the hospital. CNN thought its readers wanted a diagram of the alley, with a reconstruction of Kurt's approach and attack. (The sight of a silhouette meant to represent his battered body sent shivers through Kurt. He clicked quickly away.) USA Today was kicking off a series of profiles on recent bashing victims around the country, but Kurt was of course the first one examined.
Soon the stories blurred together. It had been a week since the attack, they'd already written about his hospital visit, and Burt knew how to shut down the media when he didn't want to answer a question. With little new content to pick apart and scant hope of finding some big break after so long, the stories across CNN and MSNBC and Yahoo and the Huffington Post all overlapped. Congressman's son. Brave hero. Nearly a victim. Gaybashing laws. NYPD reports. A dozen different spins on the same basic content.
His body still had healing to do, and so Kurt drifted off during midday when the discussion seemed to have steadied out. Rachel's spreadsheet was forgotten. The natural media cycle was spitting Kurt out as it churned through every other topic in its endless stream of news. He fell asleep knowing that he'd wake up to a headline about Miley or childhood vaccinations or trade deficits, and this downward trend would continue.
Or instead, he'd wake up to a photograph of his father standing with one arm around Kurt's celebrity crush.
omg! was all Blaine had managed to type.
"Oh my god," Kurt weakly agreed as he stared at Burt Hummel arm-in-arm with Chris Evans. Burt grinned; Chris smiled like the sun. My dad is touching Captain America.
Dazed, he read the story Blaine had sent him. The latest Cap film had dropped just that week, and its premiere press tour had ended—naturally—in Washington, D.C. Even in the midst of the movie's press blitz, its star had heard the news about the alley fight. Not only was Evans impressed with Congressman Hummel's ongoing work with gay rights, but he'd read those stories from the perspective of someone with a gay family member of his own. And so he'd gotten in touch.
Captain America knows who I am Kurt thought, clenching his jaw tight so that he wouldn't squeal into the echoing expanse of the loft. My dad is touching Captain America's muscles. I am one degree away from having hugged Steve Rogers!
Maybe Burt could introduce them. Maybe Chris Evans wanted to send Kurt an autographed picture. (Maybe he had pictures to use where he wasn't wearing any clothes.)
Like a runner with a second wind, the media exploded soon afterward. They had something new.
If only Captain America had been there that night, said some websites with a pop culture bent, Burt Hummel's son never would have been hurt. Running into that alleyway was something Captain America himself would have pulled, others argued. (Kurt preened at that.) No: this was a shameless blend of politics and entertainment; Congressman Hummel should be ashamed of himself! Clearly, Congressman Hummel was in Gay Hollywood's pockets; this was blatant liberal propaganda. Didn't Disney own Marvel, now? They'd been supporting the gay agenda for years.
Kurt closed the spreadsheet entirely and clicked off every article. The media could argue what they liked, twist things around like they wanted.
His dad had met Captain America.
He fell asleep early that night, and with another smile on his face.
As it usually did, Monday brought bad news. "Lock your Facebook," Artie said urgently.
Kurt groaned and blinked at the clock. Pleasant dreams of him in Peggy Carter's place were already fading. "Artie, it's not even seven, what's wrong with you?" Artie's self-chosen and provided ringtone was Kanye's 'Good Life,' and the thumping bass line was hardly Kurt's normal way to greet the day.
"Get up right now and lock your Facebook, Kurt. Do it!"
The uncharacteristic tone woke Kurt up more, and he sat. Frowning, he stumbled over to his laptop and clicked open Chrome. "What's wrong?"
"Lock first, then talk."
Kurt had never adjusted his privacy settings before; he'd never had enough attention placed on him to demand it. Hardly anyone had wanted to be friends during high school, and although he'd bloomed since then, NYADA was a small college. He'd only added a dozen classmates that year, a few people from Vogue and the diner, and of course Dani and Elliott.
Besides, he'd gone through media bootcamp at his internship. He lived on Instagram, now, not Facebook. Vogue loved Instagram. On top of that, his dad was on Facebook and Kurt didn't dare post anything that might look bad for his career. Over the past few years he'd gotten into the habit of avoiding opinion posts, then pictures, and finally anything but the most generic of congratulations and birthday wishes.
Because of that, it took him a few clicks to figure out where to go. And because of that, he noticed the twenty-eight thousand friend requests waiting for him. "Oh my god!" he yelped and clicked around more rapidly. "I think that did it. Did it do it?"
"I... yeah, you're locked. I woke up to two thousand invites. I can only imagine what your inbox looks like."
"You don't want to know," Kurt said weakly. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, he clicked back to the profile that had been left foolishly open during this time. He hadn't even glanced at Facebook for two weeks. His last update had been about his upcoming NYADA critique performance.
With what his inbox looked like, the number of comments on that post was hardly a surprise.
Kurt was a hero. Kurt was a worthless, hell-bound faggot. Kurt needed Jesus. Kurt was an inspiration. Kurt would look good with a ball gag in his mouth and— "Oh my god, what is wrong with people?" Kurt shrieked. "Who are they? Why are they here?"
"It's the Internet," Artie sighed. "I think they raided your entire profile for anyone who's ever posted there."
An even sicker feeling hit Kurt; Artie's profile had been public, too. He'd gone through the same awkward period in high school that Kurt had, and without a famous father to tamper his enthusiasm, he'd made far more posts. Embarrassing, vulnerable, longing posts. "I am so, so sorry. I haven't even looked yet, and I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," Artie said. "But... thanks."
Kurt flinched at the confirmation. "Um. I had... a lot of old pictures on my Facebook...."
"Yeah. Reporters know. I've already seen an old one of you and Rachel used; apparently, they wanted a shot of you and your roomie."
God. "I hope it's a good shot." At least the pictures Kurt had recently posted to Instagram should be safe; he didn't use his real name there. Or... had he? Ever? Had he ever posted a linked picture to Facebook? Had any of his friends ever pointed to his account? Sick again, he clicked to Instagram. Twelve thousand new followers.
It would probably be rude to throw up while he was on the phone with Artie, right?
"Well," Kurt said with a weak laugh, "at least I knew better than to do something stupid like... posting naughty pictures online." A long pause was his response. "Oh my god, Artie. No."
"They found my Twitter account."
"What is wrong with you?"
"I'm a filmmaker! I'm supposed to be subversive!" Artie paused again, just as long. "So... do you want to know what the damage is?"
"No. Tell me."
"They know basically all of our life stories. Which wouldn't be an issue if it was just people wanting to call you 'Mini Captain America.'"
"Mini?" Kurt echoed, frowning. Obviously Evans was far larger than he was, but still: he had saved a man's life. I knew I needed to work out more.
Artie ignored that. "But I hadn't realized how many people hate your dad. I mean... hate him. There's some seriously scary backlash coming this way. It's kind of a perfect conspiracy theory storm: he's for gay rights. He wins two elections that should have been impossible. His gay son nearly dies, then gets talked up as a national hero. And then Captain Friggin' America chimes in for Hollywood? Yo, we are facing some Moon Landing-level Limbaugh wackos."
"Moon Landing?" Kurt echoed before Artie's meaning hit. "They think I faked being in a coma?"
"Your dad told Republicans to stop whining about Obamacare. So obviously, he has an iron grip over the new pro-government hospitals and made them participate in his grand media conspiracy." Artie swallowed. "Yeah, I really wish I was kidding with that one."
Head limp in his hands, Kurt stared at that damnable post on Facebook. Why did so many men want to do things to him just because he'd been on the news? "Please tell me this is just a fringe that will soon go away." Artie had mentioned 'Limbaugh,' and that had to consign this ridiculous reaction to the AM radio crowd. Right?
"Oh... oh, yeah! Totally. All we need is the next tasty story, and they'll totally ignore the photogenic dad/son duo who are trying to mold America in their gay rights image after a suspiciously heroic late night rescue. Sorry, did my sarcasm seep through?"
Kurt groaned. "So what do I do?"
"Let it blow over, I guess. Don't react. Have you ever heard of the Streisand effect?"
Confused, Kurt looked over his shoulder toward Rachel's bedroom. "No?"
"The more you try to stop people from seeing something, the more they want to see it. Just don't give the media any new content to focus on and they'll naturally move on. We have to take a marketing class and that's one of the first things they taught us. Just lay low."
As that sunk in, Kurt clicked around until he figured out how to lock his Instagram. Maybe I should just delete both of these profiles. "Why is it named Streisand?"
"I don't know, we ran out of class time."
"Well, thank you for calling me," Kurt sighed. "Really. I should have locked everything down right away. I'm so sorry that they went after you for knowing me."
But how could it be? The terrible shadowy undercurrents of the Internet had naughty pictures of his friend. "Are you sure?" Kurt ventured. He wasn't going to insist upon beating himself up about this, not when he had a healing cut high on one cheek and pain lanced through his eye socket from the fracture above it. Still, they'd been friends for years. It was only polite to double-check.
"Apparently, the consensus 'is that dude in the chair is hella hung.'"
"Oh. Um. Congratulations."
"Thanks." Artie's voice sobered. "I'm sorry you have to go through all of this. It kind of... no, it literally is piling insult on top of injury. Are you doing okay?"
"I knew what I was getting in for with the injury," Kurt said wryly, "and I'm used to the insults. I'm okay. I'll lie low, and I'm sure you're right: this will all blow over. Have a good class," he added, remembering that his poor friend had digital editing at 8 AM. Before he hung up, Kurt reconsidered and said, "I really am sorry that they found those pictures. No one should be talking about you like that without your permission."
Hesitation, then, "Thanks, Kurt. I have to go. But thanks."
Kurt smiled wanly as the call ended. He'd known Artie was putting on a good face for him; everyone had, ever since he'd woken up. Still, no one should have to go through this, especially as collateral damage from what he'd chosen to do. No one else picked up their phone at this hour, and so he left messages with everyone and wrote post-its for Rachel. She had already gotten a bit of media attention for her Broadway casting, even before its debut, so he didn't bother waking her early to lock her profile. The horse was already out of that barn.
Adrenaline faded once Kurt had done all that he could. His Facebook had been sanitized years ago, thanks to Burt, and he'd long since gotten into careful Instagram habits as a Vogue intern. If there was still some bomb lurking there, the media had already found it. The only thing left to do now was not post anything new until everyone had found some hot topic to keep their attention.
Come on, Miley. Do something offensive again. I have faith in you.
He collapsed back into bed and pulled the covers on. As Kurt drifted back to sleep, he was distantly glad that he wasn't returning to school that week, after all.
* * *
"Kurt!" said his father's breathless voice hours later. "Turn on MSNBC!" Burt always pointed his family there whenever big news hit; he'd had some good interviews with Rachel Maddow and had been favorable to the network ever since. In return, they tried to paint things favorably, or at least fairly. Burt pointing to MSNBC was often a defense mechanism when he knew his family might see him shredded in the national spotlight again.
Something about this suggestion, though, sent an uncertain, queasy feeling deep inside Kurt. This didn't seem protective, like Burt wanted to steer him away from the worst tendencies of Fox; this seemed proactive. "What am I watching, Dad?"
"Just pay attention to the TV!"
A few seconds later, Burt appeared in a recorded clip. He, standing with a cluster of Democratic colleagues with whom he often caucused, was in some formal room deep within the Capitol. Footsteps came up behind Kurt, but he ignored Rachel's approach. His whole body was powerline-tense as he stared at the television.
"Last week," TV Burt intoned, "I got a call that my beloved son had nearly been beaten to death, just like many other gay men in New York City. Though the nation paid attention, it was only because of who his father was. Nine days later, the NYPD has yet to implement a task force to address this crime wave. Why? Because they refuse to accept that innocent Americans are being targeted for who they are. I've heard from those New Yorkers I encouraged to talk to their Congressmen. It's become obvious that we have a bigger problem on our hands."
"Dad...." Kurt said uncertainly.
TV Burt continued, "I and my seven colleagues have drafted a bill that would implement national standards for the recognition of hate crimes targeted toward homosexual, bisexual, and transgender Americans. No longer will individual police forces be able to get away with saying these are isolated crimes. Every American will know that they're protected under the law."
The reporter there asked, "I understand you already have some support from senators?"
TV Burt nodded. "Senator Portman—"
"Also from Ohio," the reporter provided. "And a Republican!"
TV Burt nodded again. "He and Senator Sanders have both worked with me and are promising to champion this bill in the Senate."
"Oh god," Kurt whimpered.
As the television report wrapped up, Burt laughed delightedly in Kurt's ear. "How about that, huh? I can't believe I got so many people on board with this, but we're going to make it happen!"
"That's... that's great, Dad!" Kurt said with all the enthusiasm he could muster. And it was great: if this bill passed, lives would be saved. It was an important, necessary bill, and it had been brought to Congress based on the strength and determination of a father's love.
And it was going to turn the attention on them up a hundred times from where it had been before.
As Rachel looked on with concern, Kurt closed his eyes and gathered his strength. He'd found that courage after he woke up in the hospital, when he knew that the risk he'd taken had been worth doing. He'd been willing to put his life on the line to save one man. How could he do anything else when he might save thousands more? It's not like I'm running into an alley again. I'm just dealing with some idiots on the Internet. "That's great, Dad," Kurt repeated with more enthusiasm. "Do you need me to do anything?"
"No, son, you just keep recovering. This is my fight, now."
He breathed out in relief. He'd been ready to fight again, but he hadn't wanted to. Real or not, the increasingly torture porn-esque comments about him were hard enough to face. "Got it. I'm going to go stock the fridge, then. I'm starting to get a little stir-crazy in here," he added when Rachel instantly leapt in to say that she would go and that he didn't need to trouble himself about anything. "Love you, Dad."
"Love you too, kiddo. Time for me to go do the ass-kicking, now."
Kurt smiled tiredly as the call ended. Was he ever not going to feel exhausted as these days ticked by? "So much for the Streisand effect."
Rachel jolted, then perked up. "The what?"
"Never mind. I'll be back soon."
"Do you want me to go with you?"
For a second Kurt considered it. He couldn't take on assailants again, not until he finished healing, and even though he knew they wouldn't be out roaming the streets of Bushwick in broad daylight, it would be safer to go somewhere with Rachel. For the type of men who'd attacked him, even walking next to her would be some level of protection. Just as quickly, he rejected the idea. Harmless or not, he refused to use another person as his shield. Rachel was a hundred pounds soaking wet; what sort of person would he be to even think of doing such a thing? In his mind, Burt nodded approvingly as Kurt shook his head. "No, I won't be long."
The nation had spent days commenting on his body and god only knew all of the specific faults those Facebook commenters had identified. Kurt walked past his favorite bakery with determination and didn't stop inside. Thanks to his father's efforts, the spotlight hadn't moved away from Kurt Hummel; it had intensified. It would be worth it, it would absolutely be worth it, but in the meantime he wasn't giving anyone fodder to criticize him on.
He found things to splurge on that were healthier than his normal comfort foods: fresh whole-wheat pasta, lean and expensive meat, high-end coffee. The bag he ended up carrying home wasn't indulgent, exactly, but if he was going to be in the spotlight as some sort of mini Captain America, Kurt Hummel needed to forgo the cheesecake for a little while.
When he rounded the last corner, the world exploded. Kurt jolted. It took him a few precious seconds to realize that the light that had nearly blinded him had come from a bank of reporters' cameras. The cameras kept clicking, taking shots of a Kurt Hummel who looked like some startled fawn in the forest. Too late, he collected himself and held his chin high. His outfit was flattering, he'd taken the time to do his hair, and the reporters would get a great shot of that wound that was healing with stubborn slowness.
"Mr. Hummel!" shouted a few reporters as he strode past them.
"What do you think of your father's bill?"
"Are you proud to have inspired it?"
"Did you and your father plan this together?"
"Do you resent that man you rescued for running away and leaving you to die?"
The last question made him twitch, but Kurt walked past the reporters without lowering his head or slowing his stride. This was a performance, the same as any he'd ever given. Burt Hummel was handling this. The only thing Kurt Hummel needed to do was strike a good figure in the meantime.
How did they find my address?
"Mr. Hummel!" shouted one last, determined reporter again as she actually followed him into the building. Kurt's resolve broke and he slammed the elevator door closed with more energy than was really graceful.
"I got coffee," Kurt weakly said as he returned. Rachel gawked out the street front window, then back at him.
* * *
"It's worth it," Kurt reminded himself as he texted Sam to stop messaging him with those links, please. "It's worth it. You've tuned out idiots for years. It's worth it."
Burt asked how he was doing. Kurt looked away from comment sections with detailed fantasies of his bloody death, and said he was fine.
His old Instagrams, snagged before he locked his profile, ended up as a gallery story on the Huffington Post. Look at how different his life was from his father's, based in small-town Ohio. According to some comments, it was a touching story about how families could be wildly different and still love each other. According to others, Kurt Hummel was a sign of the seeping corruption that dwelled in coastal cities; he'd ruined his upstanding citizen of a father.
Instead of thinking about that, Kurt cleaned the kitchen. He rearranged items on shelves so that they were perpendicular to the wall. He obsessively picked pills of material off a sweater he hadn't worn for years.
This was fine.
He was fine.
He... would be fine.
First image: Kurt reading something on his laptop. Second image: an editorial on Fox News' site wondering if Kurt is pretending to be gay for the sake of Burt's bill.
* * *
"I'm fine," Kurt said with practiced ease. It barely sounded like a lie, now.
Blaine hesitated. "Really?"
"Really!" Kurt said brightly. This was a facade that couldn't drop until his father's bill passed. Though a shadow moved through Blaine's eyes at the lie, Kurt ignored it. If he acknowledged that anything wasn't fine, everything would suddenly become much harder to handle. "How are you?"
"Fine," Blaine lied back.
Well, wasn't this an impasse.
"Did you get everything locked down all right?" Kurt said after a long, awkward pause. "I'm sorry that happened."
"There were some Facebook comments," Blaine said, but quickly added, "Nothing big. Don't worry about it."
"Are you sure? You seemed pretty stressed when you walked in."
"No, I just... the reporters," Blaine said. He was shooting for 'light,' almost certainly, but his voice instead sounded choked. "Everyone around you is turning into a story, too."
The ground tilted. "What?" Kurt asked. He'd known that anyone close to him was a target of Internet trolls; it was an unfortunate reality of the medium. The trolls were like ants discovering a bit of food. And of course he'd dealt with the reporters who sometimes swarmed his building, wanting a fresh shot of the young man who'd inspired this national bill. But Blaine? Why was he a story? Why was he bothered with anything but the most obnoxious of online passers-by?
"Just... look," Blaine said and took him to Google News. A search for 'McKinley' told the story.
McKinley High School had become the nation's soap opera of the week. A school shooting scare. National championships in cheerleading and choir, and a state championship for football. A teacher fired on suspicion of student molestation, another gone after a nervous breakdown, and a third permanently maimed after abusing narcotics on the job. "What?" Kurt asked, bewildered, before he remembered the gossip about their old shop teacher. "Those weren't narcotics! And he drank that after... never mind, you don't care."
"We're... intriguing," Blaine said helplessly. "They looked to see where you came from, and apparently it wasn't what people expected to see."
"They probably expected Mayberry," Kurt muttered. He hadn't even considered looking at stories that didn't directly involve his father and himself; they were exhausting enough. "And we weren't Mayberry."
With that new back-story in mind, the media had written stories about Kurt that weren't about the present or didn't just rely on old photos. Every reporter thought that they, and they alone, had come up with the one true version of the boy whose face was changing national law. And the nation still thought they were owed Kurt Hummel's existence to dissect and discuss.
One profile of Kurt told about a gentle, soft-spoken boy who worked at his father's business and helped him through a medical crisis. That Kurt joined extracurriculars, but it was mentioned in passing; far more important was his father's marriage to a war widow and the loss of one of their blended family's sons. Kurt's heart wrenched at that and he struggled to maintain control. In this story, Kurt's alleyway rescue was inspired by his warrior of a father and the memory of a lost brother. That was true enough, he supposed.
In another, he was a shining star of William McKinley High. (If only.) He helped to found the glee club that, in just two short years, would claim a national title. On national television, he led the internationally known Cheerios to their seventh consecutive win. He was a football star that gave the team their first victory in ages; by next season, they were champs. I played like... four games, total, Kurt thought in disbelief. A heroic profile was one thing, but this was idiotic. It sounded like something that Emperor Kuzco's PR team would dream up.
At least that swooning write-up balanced out some others. This reporter had learned that young Mr. Hummel had needed to transfer schools after disciplinary issues. (His whole body tightened at that; they hadn't been his issues.) He transferred back under equally sudden circumstances and, with the power of his dark reputation, intimidated the student body into voting for him as prom royalty despite his lengthy absence. Kurt's jaw dropped. Can I go back to 'idiotic?' This is obscene!
He was a political activist. He was a second-rate performer struggling for relevance. He was the next Anna Wintour. Oh, won't she love seeing that. Kurt rubbed his face tiredly. "How can all of these reporters write stories on me when they haven't even talked to me?"
"Yeah, it's funny how that works," Blaine said sharply, and Kurt was reminded of what had kicked this all off. With a low, sick feeling, he took Blaine's iPad and read the tabs he'd opened.
Kurt's roommate was an impossible diva who, rumor had it, had once tried to get her competition killed in a bad neighborhood. Kurt's roommate was flawlessly talented and destined to explode onto Broadway. Kurt's roommate had two gay fathers and might be part of Burt Hummel's scheme to manipulate the pro-homosexual media.
Kurt's old choir instructor was teacher of the year. Kurt's old choir instructor had crashed and burned as soon as Kurt's class left McKinley. Kurt's old choir instructor had left his original language teaching position due to gross incompetence.
It was one thing to read about Rachel, Kurt thought in a daze; she had thrown herself into the spotlight through her own work. She walked past Kurt's reporters on the way home. But Will Schuester? How deep was this rabbit hole he'd fallen into if Will Schuester was now a news item simply by fact of their overlapping existence?
The next tabs got a million times worse than stories about Will, just as Kurt had known was coming. Kurt's rumored boyfriend was president of his senior class. Kurt's rumored boyfriend was falling behind the fashion curve. Kurt's ex-boyfriend had been dumped.
"Ex? Dumped?" Kurt echoed disbelievingly. "Where are they even getting this?"
"Apparently," Blaine said with a razor-thin smile, "some of our fellow students helpfully told a reporter than we weren't living together any more."
"How thoughtful," Kurt muttered. Well, if that news had filtered out, no wonder Blaine was his rumored boyfriend despite countless shots of Kurt with a ring on.
"And, of course," Blaine continued, "there was that Instagram picture."
Kurt blinked. "What picture?"
"Of you kissing someone else."
"Elliott," Blaine reminded him sharply and Kurt groaned.
"God, it's like these people never take pictures with friends. Every single thing I have ever done is getting the worst spin possible put on it."
"Tell me about it," Blaine said bitterly.
The earlier protestations that Blaine was 'fine' crumbled and blew away like November leaves. Kurt hesitated. Obviously, Blaine wanted to him to ask what was wrong. Just as obviously, though, this had the feeling of a land mine conversation equal to anything his father faced in D.C. "What's wrong?" Kurt asked as gently as he could, and with barely any fear lacing his voice. Please don't say he posted naughty pictures, too.
"They're saying terrible things about me," Blaine said after a long pause. His voice, steady at first, cracked by the end. "And it's not just the slurs... I can ignore that. They're just being ignorant. But people pay attention to me and find things to make fun of."
"Oh, sweetie," Kurt sighed, feeling his deep tensions melt into sympathy. "I know. It's awful, right? I'm so sorry, this will blow over soon."
"No! You don't know!" Blaine's expression wavered. Too late, Kurt noticed how much gel he'd used that day. When Blaine sought that much severity in his appearance, he was either running late and didn't have time to coax the perfect volume... or he felt overwhelmed and needed to find control somewhere else. It should have been a warning sign, but then, they'd both missed signs in each other lately. "Everyone is talking about how great you are."
"They're really not," Kurt said blankly.
"You're Captain America, Kurt," Blaine retorted. "Do you know who I am? I'm the guy who is being discussed to see if I'm worthy of you. I had to read through conversations on my own post about whether you should stay with me or go for that cinnamon roll guy."
"I love you," Kurt reminded him. In the corner of his eye, he saw a text come in from Burt. God, what now? With every limb suddenly feeling like it weighed twice as much, Kurt finished, "They don't know you, Blaine. Just ignore it. Let it all roll off your back and then it's done."
Blaine's forced smile looked more painful than any sob. "Apparently, bow ties aren't 'hot' any more. If I'm dating someone who's posted Vogue articles, I should know to go back to neckties."
"You always dressed how you wanted to dress, and I love that about you," Kurt said. "Bow ties are in, bow ties are out... you don't care. And it's not like they're bellbottoms; plenty of men still wear them with confidence. You know what works for you, just like I know that skinny jeans work on my body. Rolled cuffs are the next big thing, but you know what? It's not for me."
Something in that round of encouragement made Blaine's jaw twitch.
"What's wrong?" Kurt asked. He'd intended to be soft and gentle; instead, it came out as a sigh.
That sigh made Blaine flinch and it took him a second to respond. "It just seems like... there should be a way to get them to stop."
"Get them to stop?" Kurt echoed and twitched when he saw another text from his father. "Blaine, I am a freakishly undertanned claymation dentist who sounds like a girl and probably gives blowjobs like a remora." The recitation of his Internet-identified faults took Blaine aback. Good; he'd intended them to. And that had been a tiny selection of what he'd read: no insults to his family both living and dead, no gory and specific threats, no wishes to see him in an unmarked grave. "If I could get them to stop, believe me, I would. I think you can deal with people making fun of your bow ties for a few days."
Betrayal ripped through Blaine's expression and was just as quickly covered. "It's not just the... the bow ties!" he protested. "They're making fun of my body—"
"You're perfect, don't even worry about that."
"Not according to some pictures," Blaine said. "And they're measuring me up against every man you've ever been seen in a photograph with. Sam has better abs."
"I'm not dating Sam," Kurt said flatly, with annoyance he couldn't hide.
After a long pause, Blaine said, "Sorry. I know you have it worse. This has just been hard to take. Now I'm scared to even come over here with those reporters."
"They'll be gone soon."
Blaine waited for more, then bit his lip and looked down.
Kurt looked down, too. Blaine still had access to his Facebook. Just because he probably hadn't wanted to look at the endless string of comments insulting Kurt, threatening him with murder, or wondering how he'd sound mid-rape didn't mean they weren't there. Of course... Kurt hadn't looked at the specifics of Blaine's Facebook, either. He had enough misery heaped on him already; there wasn't much slack left for whatever comments people made about Mercedes' weight, Blaine's appearance, or Artie's... everything. "Let's watch a movie," Kurt said, defeated. Talking clearly wasn't an option.
"Yeah," Blaine said with a sigh, and still didn't meet Kurt's eyes. "Let's watch a movie."
Kurt seldom minded being alone, but that evening, he felt lonely.
Rachel was at practice and he wouldn't dare to ask anyone else to brave the paparazzi to come visit him. Knowing that he had to be alone was a harsh enough blow, but the rigid visit he and Blaine had shared was worse. They hadn't even wanted to take advantage of their privacy. Kurt kept glancing at the window like some reporter would suddenly scale the walls, and whenever his hand rested on Blaine's torso his fiancé leaned back like he hated the contact.
Perhaps worst of all, Burt kept texting him with encouraging developments. He was working late nights these days, securing support and making the deals that greased Washington's wheels. Things were going wonderfully.
And that meant that Kurt had to keep a smile on his face while he sat there in his big, empty apartment.
When the phone rang, Kurt picked it up on instinct. Burt had probably rounded up another couple of votes.
Kurt pulled the phone away from his ear, squinted at the screen, and returned it. "Elliott?"
"Too much?" Elliott's warm laugh sounded across the line. "What can I say? You'll probably need to give me a week or two to de-yogafy when I get back to New York."
"It was a little much," Kurt confirmed, but still felt a wave of relief wash through him. Elliott Gilbert was a port in a storm, a bedrock. Hairstyle and boot selection could put him at six-and-half feet of tattoos and eyeliner, and yet he'd felt like the most restful presence in Kurt's life for months on end. Hearing his voice was exactly the balm his jangled nerves needed. "Did Rachel call you?"
There was a short pause. "No. I just realized I hadn't paid attention to the outside world for... a week? Two weeks? Should she have called me?"
How did you tell someone that you'd saved a man's life, nearly lost yours in the process, and ended up on the front page of every news site in the process? "You've... missed something."
"Kurt? Is everything okay? Your voice sounds all tight and strange."
"Hang up and visit CNN, or wherever. And call me back."
"Okay," Elliott said uncertainly, sounding like he didn't know whether to expect an ABBA reunion tour or Godzilla's imminent stampede through downtown Manhattan. The call clicked off and Kurt waited. Three, two... there. "Are you okay?" Elliott boomed as Kurt answered. "Oh my god, Kurt!"
"I'm fine. I'm fine, I'm healing up. It's all okay."
"You're the number two story on Google News!"
That drew a slight smile. "What's number one?"
"No, seriously. What happened?"
With a sigh, Kurt told him: the screams in the alley, the flash of determination that was soon beaten away into nothing. Waking up in a hospital as a bundle of bruises and pain. Being the nation's pitiful victim, which felt like the strongest blow anyone had landed. And a week later... this.
"Do you want me to come back?" Elliott said after a long pause.
Kurt clutched the phone tighter and took a second to answer. This retreat was a trip Elliott had been saving for, and he'd scheduled a semester that focused on independent study and developing a video portfolio. Right now, Elliott Gilbert was peacefully ensconced in the lush forests of Vermont. He was connecting with his artistic center, he was... doing whatever yoga did for a person. He was— "Yes." The word vomited out.
"I'll leave today. Or tomorrow, if I need to tie some things up with the place, but—"
"Thank you," Kurt said. He felt like an idiot, but also felt no desire to retract the request. Elliott was a rock to stand on in a storm. Rachel made storms of her own, Carole was home, Burt was on a mission, Artie had never truly filled the role, Mercedes was busy with Sam, and Blaine was... their old rock now felt covered with slick, wet moss that proved treacherous when the tides came in. Kurt Hummel was the number two story on Google News. He needed a rock.
"Stay safe, okay?" Elliott added.
"I'll try to do a better job of that," Kurt said wryly. His voice quieted. "Seriously. Thank you."
"Of course. See you soon, okay?"
"Okay." A tiny knot of tension unwound inside Kurt.
It tightened again as he remembered to warn Elliott about the reporters.
* * *
"Is it safe to hug you?" Quinn demanded, and gave him just enough time to respond before she latched onto Kurt and squeezed. "Are you okay?"
"Hey," Puck said, with just a quick jut of his chin for greeting. "I took some leave time."
"Hey," Kurt replied blankly as they pulled him inside. At the sight, Rachel squeaked and ran over to embrace them both.
"We're sorry that we couldn't visit before now," Quinn explained once they'd settled in and Rachel had served them the snack foods that Kurt still refused to eat. "But like Puck said, he had to get leave."
"You didn't mention you were coming," Kurt said in a daze. "And I... didn't expect you. At all. Especially you, Puck."
"You don't have to put us up or anything," Puck said. After a survey of the loft, he continued, "Because yeah, we could take over Rachel's bed, but no walls makes it awkward. I'm kind of loud."
Rachel wrinkled her nose as Quinn cleared her throat.
"Charming," Kurt muttered. "So... you just stopped by to say hello? After a very long drive to see me? Me?" Some recent interactions with Noah Puckerman hadn't been on the most comfortable of terms.
"We'd always wanted to visit New York again," Quinn explained. "And it seemed like a good chance to kill two birds with one stone. When we saw the first stories, and when I got that text from Mercedes... it felt like my heart was in my throat. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I wished I could have been here."
"It was pretty hard to see in person," Rachel said. The girls shared a soft smile.
"I'm glad that we knew about the reporters ahead of time," Quinn continued. "Puck thought to show up in his uniform. He thought it might make them let us in, and he was right. They let us through. I can't even imagine what it's like trying to come in on—"
"How many were there?" Puck interrupted. His sharp gaze was focused only on Kurt. The indulgent, sloppy boy from McKinley seemed long gone. His uniform was as sharp as his hairstyle. "How many guys in the alley?"
"Th—three, I think." Kurt swallowed. Trying to recall that night had sent a stab of his old fear back into him. "Three sounds right."
"You ran into an alley with three men?" Quinn asked in disbelief. In her eyes was the same judgment he'd seen from everyone over these past days: Burt, Blaine, Rachel. Even if it had been a heroic movie, it had been a stupid one. America could treat it as wholly positive or negative from a distance, but the people who knew Kurt personally had to balance his act against the price he'd almost paid.
"Of course he did," Puck said into the silence. He'd never looked away from Kurt. "The guy needed help, right?"
When Kurt turned to fully meet his gaze, neither man blinked, even during a beat of shocking connection. "Yeah. He needed help."
Though the girls sighed, Puck nodded like that explained everything.
Despite that second of understanding, he and Noah Puckerman had never really talked easily about anything but Rachel. In short order Quinn and Puck's stop was marked off their checklist, and Kurt and Rachel gave them a list of New York attractions that would be far better to visit than the Statue of Liberty or the Empire observation deck. Still, Kurt decided as they left, it had been a nice visit. At least one person seemed to think he knew was he was doing.
An hour later, Kurt changed his mind.
Congressman Hummel's Gay Rights Grab Now Involves the Military
"Dammit, Puck," Kurt grumbled. He knew he shouldn't have trusted him.
* * *
Letting himself be wrapped in Elliott's warm, comforting arms, Kurt sighed against his chest and tried to forget the world. "Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You didn't have to come here. Thank you."
Quickly figuring out that Kurt didn't want to be let go, Elliott awkwardly shuffled both of them into the loft and onto the couch. They moved as an inelegant unit and collapsed just as gracelessly. "So, I missed something."
"I hate this," Kurt confided into Elliott's jacket. Elliott still smelled like the forested retreat he'd left behind, and under that was the him that Kurt had come to know for one of his rare cuddle-worthy friends. He didn't have to keep up a facade for his fragile best friend or his even more fragile fiancé, or for the father who needed Kurt to be strong and noble in the background of his crusade. Elliott Gilbert understood Kurt, and unlike that second of connection he'd had with Puck, it wouldn't blow up in the media an hour later.
"You hate this?" Elliott echoed.
"I just...." Kurt trailed off into nothing. Blessedly, Elliott let him.
They sat for a half hour, maybe more. Kurt rolled away from Elliott and stared at a wall, and Elliott turned on a television show that neither of them truly watched. Though Elliott's strong brow furrowed with concern, he never pushed. Even as they waited through some terrible sitcom and emotions whirled through every last cell of Kurt's body, Elliott never pushed.
"I don't feel like I have any control," Kurt said in the middle of a Mr. Clean commercial.
Elliott hit the mute button. "How do you mean?"
Kurt could be misunderstood, and that was fine; he'd always know that he was better than those ignorant louts. He could feel ignored, and that was fine; he was strong on his own. But he couldn't take losing control. All of the strength he'd cultivated in himself out of bitter necessity was useless if he lost control. He could stare open death in the face in an alleyway and do so fearlessly; he couldn't take a whispered death threat that went ignored by all around. And he could fight and struggle to be heard himself... but staying meek and silent while Burt worked was agony.
At the end of his explanation, Elliott frowned and leaned in. "You're trying to fly under the radar? You?"
"It's what I have to do," Kurt said with a sigh. "The Streisand effect."
"The what, now?"
"If I give them more to focus on, they won't leave me alone. If I actually try to get them to go away, then it'll be even worse. So all I can do is sit here in my house, useless, and let me dad use me as a prop." Kurt swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat. "Everyone I care about is being dissected in the media and I can't react because it would just draw more attention to them."
That sounded better than how he'd put it to Blaine during their last visit. He probably should have said it that way. The right words had just stopped coming.
Elliott hesitated, then offered a lopsided smile. His eyes were nothing like the honey hazel of Blaine's warm eyes or Puck's intense gaze. They were a slate grey, blue when the light hit them right, and even paler than Kurt's own. They should have seemed cold, but they were better than anything Kurt had looked into for weeks. "This sucks."
Kurt paused, then laughed quietly at the summary. "That it does."
"You don't seem like someone who should keep his mouth closed, though. You... you know who you are, Kurt. It's what I like most about you."
"You're like a giant Care Bear with eyeliner," Kurt said with a lopsided smile. "If we're offering compliments."
Elliott smiled wryly. "Thanks. I think. But really... if you feel like you're losing control, then think about how you could get it back."
"I can't even step outside," Kurt mumbled. "You just showing up here is probably going to have people gossiping about how we're... doing it." He'd already had this 'cinnamon roll guy' discussion once with Blaine; he didn't know if he could take round two. Worst of all was the knowledge that Blaine would have to sit through hearing strangers compare him to Elliott like they were two smartphones on the market, and Kurt couldn't do one damn thing to stop it from happening.
"Eh. There are a lot of worse things." Elliott grinned and got another smile in return; weak, but at least Kurt had it in him. "What are you going to do next, do you think?"
Kurt sighed. "I have to go back to class on Monday. I mean, I could probably get an extension if I wanted one; this fracture won't totally heal for weeks. But I have to do something to distract myself. And how interested could those reporters be in me just going to school and back?"
"Okay, but I meant about the control." Frowning, Elliott squeezed Kurt's arm. "You're like the last person I've ever met who should stay quiet."
"I am so happy you came back. That's super selfish of me and I don't even care." Kurt flung out his arms.
Elliott leaned obligingly in for another hug, but didn't let Kurt go at its end. "You didn't answer me."
"I'm going to let it blow over."
"Okay," Elliott relented, sitting back. "I guess... okay."
"Okay," Kurt agreed with a sigh, and tried to believe it.
* * *
"Surprise!" said her muffled voice. Finding a place to set the basket, she dusted off her hands in satisfaction and studied her work. "It's festive! Right?"
"It's like the Allied Army is invading," Kurt said blankly as he took in the sheer size of the thing. Though plenty of the table still remained around its footprint, it felt like their entire dining area had been lost to a monstrosity of basket-delivered goodies. It looked large in their loft, even with its open design and high ceilings. In some normal apartment it would feel like a full-sized Christmas tree of apology. Even now, she didn't totally believe that she wasn't in some way responsible for his injuries? "And the soldiers are all stuffed animals."
As was typical, Rachel refused to have her enthusiasm squelched, nor her intentions challenged. "Look!" She grabbed two animals and plunged onto the couch next to him. In her rigidly forced enthusiasm, she hit so hard that she bounced. "I'm Bear-y Sorry."
"Yes, that is what the heart says," Kurt agreed, holding the plush white bear at a distance after she passed one over.
The other one danced madly two inches in front of his face. "Get it? Bear-y? And Berry, like Rachel Berry?" When that didn't have the desired effect, she resumed the second bear's dancing. Its plush limbs flailed. "And see this one? You're Grr-ate!"
As those soulless black button eyes stared at him, Kurt intoned, "Someone actually got paid to come up with these slogans."
Rachel's hand dropped and the bear stopped its frantic tango. "Kurt," she implored. "I'm trying to say that I'm sorry."
He collected both toys and set them aside. "I believe you! You've said it! Please stop assaulting me with stuffed bears."
She looked back at the basket. "There's also a hippo."
Whatever the hippo had to say about him, Kurt didn't want to know. "Rachel," he said more seriously, catching her hand and holding on tight. "Rachel. Please listen to me. I don't want you to cover our apartment with 'I'm sorry' banners, or pelt me with stuffed animals. All right? I believe you. Stop. Please."
Rachel Berry could look so heartbroken when she gave that tremulous smile, and somehow the person sitting next to her could feel even more shattered from it. "I'm sorry." It sounded as sincere as anything she'd ever said in her life. "You just seem so unhappy and I don't know how to fix it. This is everything you've ever wanted and you're miserable. How am I supposed to help my best friend through that?"
"Everything I've ever wanted?" Kurt repeated blankly.
"You're famous," she answered. "And I know you hated the first round of stories, when it was about something you went through. But this time it's for something you did. And I know it's hard seeing people talking about you. I... people have been commenting on pictures of me."
Kurt flinched and wondered how much she hadn't told him.
"And this bill that your dad is proposing, I mean... it's huge." Rachel's hand squeezed his, now. "No one would be able to pretend that bullying was okay, or that those men weren't specifically targeted. This is so big and important, and he's able to do it because of you."
"Yeah," Kurt agreed with a sigh. "I can't complain about that."
If only he was doing something more than sitting in a room, though.
* * *
"What?" Kurt asked, just as blankly.
"Fox News. Website, not TV."
Fox. Great. They must have used some shots of Elliott coming in. After rubbing his face and wondering how long he could avoid the world, Kurt reached for his laptop and opened it. The sharp, quick motion had been intended to power through his hesitation, but the gusto nearly wrenched off the monitor. When he saw the story to which Blaine had referred, Kurt began to wish he had broken his damn computer.
"Oh." His voice sounded detached to his ears, like it was floating somewhere up near the ceiling. "Well. How about that."
Kurt Hummel: A Player in His Father's Gay Rights Act? wondered the headline. Below were two pictures: Rachel teetering up the stairs with a heart-covered gift basket in hand and he and Rachel embracing in front of a window, later that day. It was only their silhouettes, but both of their profiles were unfortunately easy to identify.
"So let me get this right," Kurt said in mounting exhaustion as he scanned the full article. "I am actually straight and living with my girlfriend. I'm pretending to be 'a gay' for the sake of my father's civil rights campaign. Oh, and the attack was probably played up for the media, too. Or maybe they were only actors and I was in stage makeup, and never hurt at all. I see that theory's coming back for round two."
"That's what I took away from it, yes." Blaine paused. "I... I mean, it's just an editorial. They're not pretending that it's actual news. Just a conspiracy theory."
"Is Rachel pregnant? That'd be a neat trick."
"It could happen!" Kurt said. Tension began to bubble out of him. Before, it had come out as snappish comments, isolation, fear. This latest article, a big bold 'Kurt Loves Rachel' valentine under the Fox News banner, broke open something new within him. This time, the tension spilled out as laughter. "Do you know how many times I've seen her naked?"
Blaine sighed, but if he had anything else to say, Kurt's helpless laughter steamrolled it.
"Maybe we are together! Who knows! Maybe we're erotic heterosexual sleepwalkers and Fox News has the big scoop!" He gestured wildly at the ceiling. "And it's a good thing that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is out the door; I had a killer threesome with a hot Air Force officer and his lady friend!" Raw, painful chortles poured loose. "Mmm! Breasts!"
"Is there anything I can do?" Blaine asked in the hollow silence after Kurt trailed off.
Kurt shrugged. "Wait until it's over." He leaned forward and grabbed Blaine's cardigan, and pulled him in for a kiss. "Thank for bringing over my... you're not wearing a tie today?"
Blaine smiled, exhausted. "I'm waiting until it's over."
"Mr. Hummel!" said a reporter, early on Monday morning.
"Shit," muttered Kurt under his breath, and just as quickly hoped that they hadn't caught it on film. His father was trying to introduce the bill this week. His father needed him to be Mini Captain America to get it through the House, and Steve Rogers did not say "shit" to ABC News.
How had they found him? How had they known that he was coming back to NYADA that week? Other students, Kurt knew as soon as the question hit. Carmen had warned every student who shared a class with him about his medical restrictions. Although officially allowed back, and although his visible wounds had healed, Kurt's head would be vulnerable for another month. In a school where people moved backdrops and practiced choreography and swung stage combat gear, it was a very real risk. And unfortunately, it meant that dozens of fame-hungry students had been alerted to his return. Any one of them could have fed his information to the news, hoping for some sliver of attention themselves.
"Are you planning to attend the debates in Washington?" asked the reporter as she shoved a microphone toward him.
Kurt blinked at the camera's light in his face. "No? No! No, I have class. I need to get to class."
"Although officially named the 'Sexual Orientation Defense Bill,'" she continued like he hadn't spoken, "the nation is keenly aware that your father is doing this with you in mind. It's touching, really: a father's love may change the country. Because of that, some people have started to call this 'Kurt's Law.'"
He'd heard nothing of the sort and desperately hoped she was making that up to get a reaction. "I'm very sorry," he said formally, swallowing down all the comments he wanted to make. Don't give them anything new. Lay low. Low. "I need to get to class. I can't be late on my first day back."
She was waiting with three more reporters when he got out that afternoon.
"Mr. Hummel!" she said again, brightening. She couldn't have waited there all day; she must have gotten his full schedule from someone and been ready to pounce. Pulling his coat around himself, Kurt walked quickly for the subway station. She and her fellow reporters followed at a brisk trot. "Debate has currently started in a subcommittee regarding Kurt's Law—"
"That's not its name," Kurt snapped before he remembered himself. Squaring his shoulders, he stalked off again before he could add anything else. Pedestrians looked on in curiosity as he brushed past them with his trail of cameras and reporters. He tried to ignore every last one of them. They're not going to follow me onto the subway... are they?
"I love my dad," Kurt reminded himself through clenched teeth as he stormed down the sidewalk. "He is doing something amazing. This will change lives. It's good that he's doing this."
"Conservative lawmakers continue to argue that you played up your injuries to further your father's political goals—"
"I love my dad." It was like the whispered encouragement he gave himself at the end of a long workout, when he couldn't possibly do another ten push-ups and had to be convinced otherwise. "I love my dad. I love my dad."
"Are you aware of any higher political aspirations for your father?"
"I love my dad." It was even less audible than before, and forced through an even tighter jaw. "I love my dad. I. Love. My. Dad."
The second that Kurt's eyes started tearing with frustration, he made an abrupt turn and nearly dove into the first storefront. I can't let them see, Kurt desperately thought. Him crying on his first day out of school? Him crying when asked about his father's bill? This would be catnip to them, and who knew what it would do to the debates in Washington? He'd be seen as manipulating the media, surely. He'd be playing it up. He was a performance student, after all; this would all be proof that it had been one big act. Or it would be proof that he was weak, after all, and nothing but that pathetic boy in the—
The bathroom door slammed behind him and Kurt clicked the lock.
He didn't know what fast food restaurant he'd ducked into. The light overhead was very bright, as bright as the cameras outside. They were waiting for him. As soon as he stepped outside, they'd pounce again. And he couldn't do anything. This had all started because he chose to fight and now he had to sit and let the entire country do whatever they wanted.
Kurt ripped desperately at his scarf. His skin tingled and his eyes swam with tears that refused to spill over.
"I have to get out of here," he whispered, though there was nowhere to go. Even if he did manage to get home, what would happen next? He'd grown up as the son that Burt Hummel was supposed to be ashamed of but never was. Now he somehow had to be a son that no one could fault, or he'd be responsible for a law crashing and burning. A vital law. A law that would save lives.
He'd almost lost his life. Kurt tried not to think about that, but the walls were closing in. The bright light overhead was dimming. There'd been pain, so much pain, and he'd barely had time to be afraid. But he remembered the fear now, that instant where his body stopped working. When they kept hitting him and he couldn't do a thing to stop them. He couldn't stop them. He couldn't stop this. He couldn't stop...
Gasping, Kurt clutched at his chest as pain lanced through it. I'm having a heart attack, he thought in mute terror. Like father, like son some hysterical part of him added as he dropped to his knees. The door's locked and I'm having a heart attack and I can't stop it and I need help I need help HELP ME.
The door rattled. Had he said something out loud?
Was he choking? His throat didn't work. He clawed for air, desperate as he felt his heart lurch in his chest. I'm dying, Kurt thought with a shudder as he collapsed into a tight ball. Every exposed inch of skin prickled.
EMTs arrived soon.
They easily diagnosed a panic attack, and offered to call Kurt a cab. Like that fixed things. Like everything would be all right when he got home.
That night, Rachel stared at the note he'd left for her. "Kurt, I... I don't think I can do this."
Knees held tightly to his chest, Kurt stared at the television and didn't look up. The news hadn't gotten his diagnosis, so everyone was speculating on what lingering injury had nearly taken Burt Hummel's son away from him that day. I sure stayed below the radar, didn't I? he thought bitterly. "Rachel. Please. I really need you to."
"All... all right." She steeled herself, then reached for her phone. "Hello, Ms. Tibideaux. It's. Um. It's Rachel Berry, and I'm calling on behalf of Kurt Hummel. He doesn't feel up to attending this week, after all. If it's all right, he'll take another week off. Thank you." She hung up and quietly said, "I just left a message."
"Can I get you anything?"
She hesitated, then squeezed his shoulder and walked away.
Kurt sat there for a long time, staring at the news and sending blandly reassuring texts to his father.
If only he could fall asleep.
* * *
"Nope," Kurt said dully.
"Are you really okay?" Blaine asked, reaching for his leg. Kurt tensed and moved it away. Any contact felt like it suffocated him. After a long second of working his jaw, Blaine moved his hand back to his side.
"I said I'm fine," Kurt snapped. Was no one paying attention to what he had to say?
"You're not fine," Blaine said.
Kurt felt his heart began to speed again. He swallowed. "Okay, I'm not 'fine.' But I am the kind of 'fine' where you are not supposed to bug me about it." God, he was about ready to shatter into a million pieces; why wouldn't Blaine stop pushing him?
"Bug you about..." Blaine took a deep breath. "Rachel had to call me to explain why I saw a story of an ambulance rushing to pick up my fiancé. And you didn't answer any of my calls yesterday. I should be allowed to 'bug you' about that!"
Kurt's fragile control tipped and shattered, and for one dangerous second he felt pain lance through his chest again. Instead of falling into another panic attack, he found a different outlet: the voice he'd denied himself. Weeks' worth of restraint exploded in an instant. "Can you just not? For one second? Can you please just leave me alone?"
"Leave you alone?" Blaine echoed in disbelief. "I was terrified!"
Terrified? Kurt had thought he was dying of a heart attack in a bathroom, of fists and a brick in an alley. "So was I! Because no one will leave me alone!"
"Distancing yourself from the entire world isn't the answer!"
"You don't know what the answer is, Blaine!" Kurt said. His voice felt ready to shatter right along with his nerves. "Because you have no idea what I'm going through!"
"We're all going through things, Kurt, but you never let me in! Do you know what this has been like for me? We should both be helping each other!"
"What this has been like for you? You?" Kurt repeated, disbelieving.
Blaine opened his mouth, then paused and sucked in a deep breath. He didn't shout again, but his tone was barely more controlled. "I am trying to help you through this, but you're only hurting yourself by being so distant."
"I'm 'distant?'" Kurt echoed. The entire country felt like it was trying to pry its way into Kurt's brain and heart and body, and he was blamed for being distant? He'd taken a brick to the face and he was hurting himself? "Have you ever considered that you are freakishly needy and clingy?"
"You know what relationships are, Kurt?" Blaine asked. He was like steel rods knotted together with wire, all tense and hard. His thick sweater with its oversized shawl collar, one that Kurt normally loved to cuddle against, looked like it was draped on a bronze statue in a park. "Relationships are people wanting to be together! If you don't actually want to be with someone, then why not go live out as some hermit in the woods? You'd have all the privacy you'd ever want."
Kurt folded his arms. He could do this: he could fight back instead of cringe and wait for everything to be over. His voice was mocking as he used Blaine's words, twisting them around to his perspective. "If you want to live near people, then why aren't you okay with your neighbor borrowing your circular saw at 2 in the morning? A good neighbor would be friendly! All the time!"
"That's not the same, and you know it."
"A good neighbor would be totally fine with his hairy, fifty year old neighbor going skinny dipping in his pool! A good neighbor would be A-OK with hearing details about the next door couple's adventures in BDSM!"
Blaine's jaw set, and he said nothing.
"Why have any boundaries?" Kurt demanded. His arms flung apart and gestured broadly. "Why not prioritize everything and everyone exactly the same, twenty-four seven? Why not demand access to everyone's life, and act like they're the bad guys for wanting some privacy? Ever?"
"Demand access?" Blaine echoed. "I am your fiancé, you're supposed to want to let me into your life! Even if I feel locked out!"
"Well, I feel like you're breaking windows in the middle of a hurricane," Kurt said, just as sharply. "And do you seriously not get that I was talking about the news? Do you seriously not get that right now, privacy might be something I value kind of a lot?"
"You value your precious privacy more than me. All the time. So yeah, I know. And it's not just about the news—"
"It is about the news. You think your damn bow ties and unflattering pictures of your ass are more important than me nearly getting beaten to death!" Kurt snapped back. He felt like an angered cat: fur up, claws out. His eyes flashed in the low light of the loft. "So if you want to talk to me about priorities, Blaine Anderson, try counting up the number of stories written about the two of us. And think about how amazing it is that you are supposedly the one suffering, here."
Shadows molded around Blaine's face. They made him look older, angrier, like a trained attack dog that wasn't backing down. "You can make up insults for me to make yourself look better, but don't you dare try to say that I don't care that you were hurt. I'm the one of us who actually gives a damn about the other."
Apparently, suffocating someone equals 'giving a damn.' Kurt laughed. "Oh, I don't need to make up insults. You're acting like an idiot all on your own."
Blaine narrowed his eyes. His shoulders squared. "You don't prioritize me. You make me feel like my existence annoys you, sometimes. And then you run into an alley to save some stranger, and that makes you this huge hero? I have to see all these stories about how you're America's favorite son, but you don't have any time for me?"
"You're jealous!" Kurt realized with another round of breathless laughter. "You are actually, legitimately jealous that people are giving me attention! For saving a man's life! For being in a coma!"
"I went to the hospital too, Kurt, and it was to save you."
The memory took a second to retrieve, and Kurt gawked when it did. "The slushie? I'm sorry, are you seriously comparing my gaybashing coma to Sebastian's evil Warbler revenge plot?"
Blaine held up his hands, smiling smugly at whatever point he thought had just been proven. "I go through eye surgery for you, and it means nothing. Should have seen this coming."
"I appreciated it," Kurt seethed, "but that was an attack meant for me in the first place. Not you. Because that guy you'd been seeing behind my back—"
"Do not even try to paint it that way."
"—wanted to take out his aggressions over you on me—"
"Right, I forgot, everything's about you." Each word from both of them was louder than the one before, like whoever screamed their way into some unjudged, unscored victory would see their worldview proven correct. Like there would be a new round of headlines the next day: Kurt Hummel: Selfish Bitch or Blaine Anderson: Conceited Leech. CNN would run a new round of polls, and the nation would keep having input on their lives while everything right there in that room felt like it was spinning out of control.
"Everything's about me?" Kurt's face screwed up in a sickly sweet smile. "Well, when the comparison is 'this picture made me look fat' or 'that worthless fag's family is ruining America,' yes, I think the focus should stay on me. Or does it just blow your mind to not be in the spotlight for once?"
"And I see you're avoiding the topic of how I kept you out of eye surgery. You're welcome, by the way."
"Oh my god." Kurt rubbed his face roughly. "Oh my god! Stop clawing for sympathy—"
"—when your piece of something on the side was trying to blind me!"
"He was not my something on the side, and stop being so dramatic! He was trying to ruin your clothes, not blind you! I took things worse than they were planned and you didn't even try to get him back for it!"
Kurt barked a high, thin laugh. It felt like the argument had left barely any air in his lungs. The room tilted and grew fuzzy around the edges. "Oh, yeah. Sebastian was trying to ruin my clothes with salt. That salt wasn't in there to hurt me, it was just for my shirt. Sure, yeah. You know what ruins clothes just fine on its own? Red dye number 40!"
"Does everything have to be a worst case scenario? Or only when it makes you the focus? He wasn't trying to blind you, Kurt!"
"Unless you think they knew in advance that we were all wearing black—"
With a crisp, clear snap, something inside Kurt broke. Mid-sentence his voice silenced, his shoulders sagged. The fierce light in his eyes died. He was no longer a cat with its claws out, he no longer had his fists at the ready. From one second to the next, Kurt was nothing more than exhausted again. "What are we even doing?"
Blaine, still on the attack, tried to react to this new tone. His eyebrows pulled together and shadows highlighted the shifting muscles of his expression. "What?"
"We're arguing about food dye." Kurt stared at his feet. The shoes were scuffed; he needed to polish them. So many things had fallen by the wayside over these past few months. So many things were suddenly showing their age. "I've got a fractured skull and I'm still screaming at my fiancé, even though every word hurts, and the argument is about... food dye."
The summary pricked a hole in Blaine's outrage. He deflated visibly. For nearly a minute they studied anything but each other. The high roof caught a passing wind, then a rumbling train sent the beams to shaking. Lights quivered at each movement and shadows danced around their feet. "You're right. We're both tense because of everything that's happened, and—"
"I can't do this," Kurt said, whisper soft.
Blaine went very still. "What do you mean?" Silence answered him and he repeated more stridently, "Kurt, what do you mean?"
Without looking up, Kurt pulled off his engagement ring. The movement was more sudden than running into that alley, and hurt as much. The skin under it felt vulnerable in the chilly air. "I can't do... us."
For a long, terrified second, Blaine was like a statue again. "Don't be silly, Kurt," he said with forced good humor. His voice fractured desperately under the veneer. "We're both stressed out and we're acting like idiots. Me most of all," he added quickly. "You're absolutely right, you're going through more. We should both just—"
"Stop." Kurt had never felt more broken. "We don't work."
Blaine swallowed. "We are soulmates. We are destined to be together. We just need to make it through these hard times, and then we'll have everything we... ever...."
The haunted look on Kurt's face quieted him. "It was a beautiful story," Kurt agreed. He felt hollowed-out, like the next breeze that caught the roof might whip him away with it. "It was a perfect fairy tale. I wish I actually lived there."
"We do. Please, stop."
"I live in the world where my dad gets cancer, my brother dies, and I nearly get beaten to death. All of that is hard enough... too hard. And then my boyfriend sleeps with another man—" Blaine flinched hugely and gave him those soft, hurt eyes he seemed to wear during half of his waking hours. Kurt looked at his shoes again. "Because he feels like I'm not there, and I can't really trust him again when we do get back together. We're...." He trailed off.
"If we're broken, then we figure out how to heal. Like you're healing. You're so strong, you know."
"We're not broken. We just don't fit."
"Kurt, no. Don't."
"We're both in love with someone who hasn't existed for years." Kurt swiped at his cheek; when had that tear come? "And who we are now... we have no idea who the other person is, any more."
Blaine was rigid again, but with fear, not anger. "So we'll learn."
"It was a beautiful proposal," Kurt said. When he held up the ring for Blaine to reclaim it, it felt like he was lifting an anvil. "Thank you. You're—" A hiccup tore out of him, then a muffled sob. "You're going to make someone very happy."
Like he was moving in a dream, Blaine lifted his hand for the ring. Sense returned to him a few inches away and he jolted and refused to close the gap. His hand trembled before he balled it into a fist, with no open palm to accept the return. "But I love you."
"I love you, too." Kurt pried the fist open; after a second of resistance, he was allowed. Blaine flinched when it touched, like the metal burned. "I loved my mom, and I loved Finn, and some times things just don't work out." Tears trickled over his smile. "Finn was going to be my best man when you and I got married."
Tears didn't trickle down Blaine's face; they streamed.
"You're going to make someone very happy," Kurt choked out again. "Goodbye."
Blaine opened his mouth to plead, but then the light went out of his eyes as abruptly as it had left Kurt's. He stared at Kurt for a long, last moment, like he was memorizing the planes of his face, and then walked out of the loft. The closing door echoed in the silence. Thirty seconds later, Kurt heard the muffled swarm of reporters.
He was still on the couch, curled into a tight knot, when Rachel got home. "Kurt?" she asked, letting her purse slip to the floor. "Are you okay?" His splayed, unadorned hand was her answer. By then, the skin that had once been under his ring felt like any other. It took her a few seconds to understand what she was seeing. She gasped when she did.
"I'm ready to wake up, now," Kurt said dully, though it felt like he couldn't manage anything but sitting there.
"Put it under 'Staff Writer.'"
Isabelle Wright frowned over her caramel macchiato. "Really, Kurt?"
Kurt stared morosely at his tea. Tea. He missed junk food. "Really."
She bit her lip and studied him. He let her.
Isabelle Wright was one of the kindest, most gentle people he'd ever met. She'd been frantic with worry ever since the first night of the attack, and his radio silence since then had heightened her fears. When Kurt had half-jokingly asked her to come out all the way to Bushwick, not believing it would really happen, she'd made the trip. She'd picked up Starbucks on the way. And then she'd come in and he'd found it hard to talk about anything.
(The bill was moving through. No one knew whether it would make the vote or not, but at least there would be a national discussion. Some thought that Portman and Sanders might introduce their own version in the Senate if it failed. Sure. Whatever worked.)
After seeing the second round of ambulance stories, Carmen had called him back to let him know that Ms. Berry's request was acceptable. Kurt honestly wasn't sure whether he had a job at the diner any more and didn't really care. His thumb brushed the spot where his ring had once rested; it still felt like something was missing from his hand. He'd made a huge mistake, hadn't he? But the only bigger mistake would be pretending that they could make things work.
He needed control. He needed something to focus on. And the only thing he could do with even the slightest bit of control was to submit another article to Isabelle.
"I've never seen you look so sad," Isabelle eventually said.
"Makes sense," he said and shrugged. "I am sad."
"Talk to me. Don't be so sad. Say what's wrong and maybe we can find a way to fix it."
"I broke it off with my fiancé yesterday." He smiled wanly at the way her eyes widened. "Yeah, I don't think you can fix this."
She took a long sip of her macchiato. The stark answer had clearly shaken her, but Isabelle gamely gathered herself again and nodded. "I'm very sorry. What else is wrong?"
"My dad is doing something amazing. Something that's going to change the entire country, if he can make it happen. He is going to save lives. He is going to keep so many kids from going through some of the things I've experienced." Kurt took a sip of his tea and finished bitterly, "That and my wedding should have been the two most amazing things I've ever been part of, and instead I'm crying into a drink that I don't even like."
"Why are you sad about what your dad is doing?"
"I don't even know," Kurt whispered. "I just feel... when I woke up out of a coma, I felt ready to take on the world again. How could I be so strong then, and feel so weak now when I don't even have any bruises left?"
"Why do you feel weak now?"
"What are you, my therapist?"
Isabelle smiled lopsidedly. "I've had a lot, can you tell?"
He watched steam rise from his tea until he could think of anything to say. "I thought I knew who Kurt Hummel was. He's brave, and he makes himself heard, and he was going to get the happily ever after that was very sorely deserved. Now I'm collapsing in a Five Guys bathroom, shutting up so I don't ruin my dad's work, and... and...." He trailed off and held up his bare hand again. Some things were too painful to describe.
"You told me that you had a panic attack. Having a panic attack doesn't mean you're not brave... it just means that you had a panic attack."
"I don't want to talk about this," Kurt decided after a few vulnerable seconds. "I just want to write about boot lengths."
"And if I'm already a distraction for my dad because of Monday," Kurt continued, "then I can't keep giving the media more things to focus on. Kurt Hummel cannot be writing things for Vogue. Credit it to 'Staff Writer.'"
Isabelle frowned. "Why can't the media pay attention to you? The whole country heard about you doing something amazing. You don't need to hide from that, and you don't need to fall completely off the radar just because your dad is fighting for this law."
"I'll distract from what he's doing," Kurt said, shaking his head.
"Your father is trying to protect you, Kurt. In all ways. And you're miserable. He wouldn't want you to be so sad!" Isabelle's face crinkled in sympathy and she scooted her chair closer to him. "Your dad loves you, right?"
"Yeah. A lot. I mean... we love each other."
"So there's something to be happy about." She smiled at him, clearly trying to get one in return.
Why was she making this so hard? Isabelle Wright helped managed Vogue.com, a major outlet of a major magazine. If Artie had learned about this in his sole marketing class as a would-be filmmaker, then surely Isabelle had to know about the dangers of being heard at times like this. "The Streisand effect," Kurt sighed. "If I do anything, things will get worse because they'll pay more attention to me. And instead of trying to save lives, I'll be a front page story about how I couldn't...." His eyes screwed closed and a tear slipped past.
How had he and Blaine ended up screaming at each other? How had he reached a point where the man who'd proposed to him told Sam to fend off Kurt's calls?
"The Streisand effect," Isabelle repeated blankly.
"I know what it means." Isabelle sipped her coffee again and studied Kurt. "Do you?"
Uncertain, he waited for her explanation.
"A man wanted to show off his aerial photography skills," Isabelle eventually continued. "This was before the days of Google Maps, so when he happened to catch Barbra Streisand's house in one of his pictures, it was a big deal. She didn't want a photograph of her back yard on someone's web site, so she had her lawyers try to get it taken down."
"Like those pictures of Beyoncé at the Super Bowl," Kurt remembered.
Isabelle pointed at him and nodded; she was always proud when her little workplace ducklings could apply marketing knowledge beyond her own examples. "Before she did that, no one really cared. But as soon as people heard that Barbra didn't want them looking at one particular picture, everyone rushed to see it. If it had gone ignored, I bet no one would have ever known that it was her house."
"I feel like there's a lesson here," Kurt said after she'd stopped and was looking at him expectantly. "But I don't know what it is."
"If you have one thing that you genuinely don't want people to focus on, then no, you shouldn't try to force attention away from it. But that doesn't mean that you have to hide everything or totally shut down. Barbra Streisand still makes albums and does TV specials and all of that stuff. People love her for it. And she didn't move out of that house just because there was one picture of it that she didn't like." Isabelle's voice softened further. "You're not 'Staff Writer.' You're Kurt Hummel, and he can take credit for his story. I can't even imagine how hard this is, but don't hide everything that makes you... you. Please."
Kurt smiled humorlessly. "So, are you saying that I shouldn't have tried to ignore everything wrong with my relationship until we were screaming at each other?"
Isabelle flinched. "Well... yeah, that would probably be a good idea. In the future."
"I really don't..." He took a sip of tea to cover his shaking voice. "I don't think there's a future, there, Isabelle. I think we let it get too bad. And I don't know what to do next with... with anything." When he laid low, the media made up their own version of Kurt Hummel and everyone else he knew. When he stepped outside, he was a victim again. Either way, he might ruin his dad's attempt at something great.
"You're going to write a story as Kurt Hummel," Isabelle decided. "Let me know the topic. But don't write about boots. We're heading into summer, it's the wrong time of year."
He smiled wryly. "Oops."
"I need to get back to work," Isabelle said regretfully. "Kurt... are you going to be okay?"
"I always am. Somehow."
After she left, he listened to Rachel's playlist. Another hero, another mindless crime. Another heartache, another failed romance. Maybe 'The Show Must Go On' wasn't a bad choice, after all.
* * *
"He...." Rachel dropped her hands, one still with a phone in it, to her sides. "He's not mad at you, Kurt. I mean... not too mad. He thinks back to that hospital bed with you in it and he can't believe some of the things he said to you."
"And he thinks back to that perfect proposal," Kurt guessed tiredly, "and he can't believe some of the things I said to him." Her expression was confirmation enough. "You can stop trying to call him, Rachel. We...." He swallowed and looked at his feet again. He still needed to polish his shoes. "Maybe we can start being friends again. In a while."
"Oh, Kurt," Rachel sighed.
For the rest of the night, Kurt looked blankly at fashion articles and wondered what he was supposed to write about for Isabelle. Probably not bow ties.
On Friday, Rachel tried to get him to go to a matinee before her practice. The top-billed movie at the nearest theatre was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Kurt went to bed early.
On Saturday, Kurt forced himself to eat. He'd barely been touching anything but protein bars and almonds ever since his panic attack, he realized as he attacked a turkey sandwich. He hadn't realized how hungry he was. And by early Saturday evening, Rachel finally came up with a good idea.
"Is it safe?" asked Elliott as soon as the door slid open, and peered dramatically around the apartment.
"Hurry, hurry!" Rachel urged and pulled him inside.
"Elliott," Kurt said, startled, and set aside his laptop and the words that wouldn't come. His friend wasn't dressed like himself; he had on a basic black hoodie and unremarkable jeans. The hood was up, surely ruining the hairstyle under it. "What are you doing here? And why do you look like you're ready to rob a bank?"
After the look Rachel and Elliott exchanged, Kurt's stomach plummeted. His bank heist suggestion had been a joke, but the two of them looked halfway between Bonnie and Clyde and Team Rocket. Scheming was afoot and he had the terrible sinking suspicion that it centered on him. "What are you doing here?" he repeated, voice more strident.
"The reporters out front are crazy," Elliott said, pulling down his hood and ruffling his hair back into some semblance of order. (Of course they were, Kurt thought sadly. The news of his broken engagement had gotten out. According to some, it was a sign of how gay marriage was nothing more than fool's gold.) "I told them the story you suggested, Rachel. But they only believed I lived in the building when I invited one up to my apartment and asked if he wanted to use my toilet while I watched." At Kurt's pale, gawking reaction, he shrugged. "It's Bushwick. I wanted to blend in."
"I think that was a little much," Kurt said weakly.
"This is a jailbreak," Rachel explained, grinning.
"A jailbreak?" Kurt looked between them, eyes wide. "No, stop. The two of you are plotting. And I love both of you, but I've been caught up in the schemes of Rachel Barbra Berry before. I don't want to fall on my face—literally—on the front page of CNN."
"Probably won't happen," Elliott said and shrugged. "I have a ladder."
Rachel saluted both of them, then gathered her things and pulled on her coat. In a few swift seconds she looked like a Broadway ingenue in training, rather than his boundary-free roommate who always ran out of socks before she relented and did laundry. "I need to get to practice."
"Can you give us five minutes, minimum?" Elliott asked.
"Darling," Rachel said, more affected than her Barbra Halloween costumes from both junior and senior year, "I'll give you ten."
"Hey!" Kurt shouted. His foot hit the ground, hard, but he barely acknowledged the jolt of pain. "What the hell is going on?"
"From the sound of things, you're about to lose your mind. You can't walk around your own neighborhood or go to your own school without being stalked. So this is a jailbreak," Elliott repeated. "I'm sneaking you out the back while Rachel distracts the reporters. Put on your shoes and grab a coat."
"I've practiced years for this," Rachel said airily. Her head tilted up in a perfect profile. "I know how to hold paparazzi attention."
Something that might be real, unfiltered excitement clutched Kurt's spine. It had been so long since he'd felt that running along his nerves, rather than sick anxiety. "I don't have 'a back' to sneak out of," he protested even as he pulled on a pair of shoes.
"You have a window. And like I said, I have a ladder." Elliott grinned. "They're remodeling a place nearby and I slipped them twenty bucks to leave it here tonight."
"Please, Kurt," Rachel implored him. "You're just... reacting to things and trying not to exist. Please do this? For me?"
"This is idiotic," Kurt said and pulled on his coat. Elliott nodded proudly. "Thank you."
"Wait until the reporters are busy with Rachel," Elliott said once she'd left them in the loft. "I'm sure we'll be able to—"
"—Hear her," he finished, amused. "Let's go."
Kurt hadn't been out at night like this since his attack. As he swung out of the window and onto the ladder Elliott had promised, his heart thudded as much from fear as enthusiasm. It was an active sort of fear, though; not the paralyzing kind that had circled him ever since he was a sad, Sarah McLachlan song victim.
He'd almost forgotten how to move.
Elliott landed roughly next to him, heavier than Kurt had managed. "Okay, let me move the ladder so someone can't tell your window is unlocked," he whispered. With a jolt, Kurt realized that the reporters were still close and could easily come running. He helped Elliott stow the ladder in a dark nook in absolute silence. "Come on, I parked a block away."
"Parked?" Kurt echoed before he remembered Elliott's trip upstate; he must have needed to invest in a car while living out in the splendor of nature. It was a tiny, ancient thing, but it ran. Giddy, Kurt held back his laughter until they were another two blocks away.
"We're just going to the park," Elliott said when Kurt's excitement apparently built too high for his tastes. "Sorry, I didn't have any big plans except for getting you out of there. Rachel and I just got the feeling that you were kind of suffocating."
For an answer, Kurt breathed deeply.
This didn't fix things, but he felt awake. He abruptly remembered tattoos and piercings and every other foolish attempt to feel alive, and took another deep breath. I'm awake. I am awake. And I made it through once before. "Let's walk through the park," Kurt said like it was the best idea in the world.
Elliott struck an imposing figure in the darkness, particularly with the thick-soled boots he'd chosen. Perhaps it should have felt dangerous to be out there, but for weeks, actual physical harm had felt like the least of Kurt's concerns. That was the one thing he could overcome. Wrapped in the quiet of night, with a friend at his side and no one else around, Kurt relaxed. He could almost remember what the sound of his own thoughts felt like.
They walked nearly a mile along the Prospect Park paths in silence. Elliott naturally seemed to understand it was what Kurt wanted and let him set the pace. By that mile marker, though, Kurt's pace slowed. "What is it?" Elliott asked.
"I... did Rachel tell you about me and...."
With a sigh, Elliott nodded. "I'm really sorry."
"I don't think I can fix this." Kurt, stopping, shook his head. "I don't know if I even want to try. I said that we don't fit together any more and I still think that's right."
"You love him a lot, though," Elliott pointed out.
"He loves me with his whole heart," Kurt said, shoulders sagging, "and he was jealous of me when I was miserable. And I love him, and I still treated him like an easy target whenever anyone annoyed me. I... it's only a few days later and I'm heartbroken but relieved. It's like I'd been preparing for this for months without ever realizing it."
"That's really not fair to him, you know." Elliott said it like he always did: without judgment, but with no plans to coddle Kurt's behavior. "I'm not saying you have to be with him, but it's still not fair."
"No," Kurt quietly agreed. "I don't know if I can handle an apology until this all blows over, though. If I'm tense, I might start screaming at him again. And that... would kind of ruin the ambiance."
Elliott chuckled. "Just a little bit." They walked around a hillside turn in comfortable silence. "So you don't think you're 'soulmates.'"
Kurt groaned, long and deep. "It's a beautiful idea, I would love to believe it, and if I think about it too much in practice it absolutely breaks my heart."
"Did my dad lose his soulmate forever when I was little, or was he just wasting time with someone meaningless until he met my new mom?"
"Oh," Elliott said, surprised. "That makes sense. I'd forgotten your dad remarried. I guess it would be kind of depressing to think you only get one shot at things, then."
"Yeah." Kurt squinted up through the New York light pollution. He missed the stars, sometimes. "I never asked about your parents."
"Still together, never married."
"Never?" Kurt asked in surprise.
Elliott grinned. His teeth gleamed white in the darkness. "Yeah, they met in this organic hippie farm compound in the Willamette Valley, and marriage wasn't for any of them. Then they moved to Portland and shifted into full-on Pearl District hipster mode... though they didn't call it that, back then. They decided that it wasn't fair to get married if their gay friends couldn't. And by now, they just didn't want to bother."
The names tugged at Kurt's memory. It took him a while to place, all the way back to American History and stories of the Oregon Trail. He gasped. "You're from Oregon?"
"I told you I was from Portland! My dad's an illustrator, mom teaches guitar? Remember?"
"I thought that you meant Maine!" Kurt nearly stumbled over his own feet. "What else don't I know about you?"
"For one thing, I can say 'Oregon' properly. Two syllables, not three."
"That's how I said it," Kurt protested.
"Whatever you want to think, Hummel."
Kurt smacked his arm, smiling. A chill had begun to sink in and he hadn't grabbed the right coat. He hugged himself as he walked, but otherwise let the cold clear his head. "Isabelle wants me to write something for Vogue.com. I don't know what to do, but she wants me to stop hiding and get my name out there."
"Sounds like a good idea."
"But what?" Kurt asked. "I can barely think about anything but what my dad is doing! How am I supposed to write about the end of the peplum era?"
Elliott frowned and scratched his head. "Do you have to write about fashion? Maybe you could write about music. I could sneak you out again, take you to a concert or something. It'd be good to get you out of the house."
"That's sweet," Kurt said on reflex as his mind started working. "You know... you're right. I've only ever worked in fashion, but there are other areas. I'm sure I could find something I'm ready to talk about. Let's stop. Squint, I'm about to turn on my phone."
Elliott obligingly squinted as the iPhone gleamed into the darkness. When their eyes adjusted, both men leaned in and scanned the content before them. "Go to culture," Elliott suggested, "there should be a lot of options there."
"Movies, tv, books," Kurt mumbled, "and... wait a second. Opinion?" His finger hovered over the screen, then tapped. He felt suddenly nervous again, though he couldn't say why. He didn't have the slightest clue about this part of the publication, not with how he'd clung to Isabelle.
It was Elliott who read the title of the latest article aloud. "'When Disaster Strikes—One Woman's Story of the Boston Marathon Bombing.'" He grimaced. "Well, that's a lot more serious than I was expecting."
"It is," Kurt echoed. He'd worked for Vogue.com for more than a year. He'd read the magazine for a decade. And he'd never put two and two together and realized that their web presence would also have hard news articles. Fear crept back into his body, but this time it didn't coil between organs and claw at his mind. It grabbed his muscles, it jostled his feet, it encouraged him to move. Just like when he'd run into that alley. "Let's keep walking," Kurt said after that long pause. "I need to think."
They walked more than they talked. Kurt thought and moved and planned, and never stopped.
"Thank you, Elliott," Kurt said when they were approaching his building in Elliott's terrible, tiny car. He didn't see any reporters; they must have given up for the night. Besides, why bother with getting fresh new content about Kurt Hummel when one could simply make up more stories about the Congressman's son?
"What are friends for?" Before Kurt could slide from his seat, Elliott caught his hands. His large, warm fingers rubbed the spot where Kurt had once bore a ring. "You're going to get through all of this."
"I am," Kurt agreed after a long pause. He smiled at Elliott; Elliott smiled back. "Of course I am. I'm Kurt Hummel."
* * *
Kurt should have known he would. The weight of the entire world had felt like it was on his shoulders: responsibilities for lives in danger, the court of public opinion, media wars playing out in the world of him and his friends. Caught up in that, he'd somehow forgotten that his father, above all else, knew that he'd raised a fighter.
"I know what I want to write," Kurt told Isabelle. He'd made himself visit her in her home that Sunday, even though it had meant passing another reporter as he left.
"Fantastic!" She grinned and leaned in. "What?"
"This," Kurt said and passed the pages over.
"What is it?" Isabelle wondered, flipping through the article. She turned back to the first page and read the title: Why I Ran Into That Alley. "Kurt," she said slowly as she began to understand what she was holding: the only real interview that America's Favorite Pawn had ever offered. "I... this would be amazing to post, but you don't have to do this. I was just hoping that you would feel confident enough to talk about—"
"Peplums?" Kurt guessed.
"Well, I want to talk about this."
She bit her lip. "I'm not going to say no, but... you were so broken before. Why did you change your mind?"
With a deep breath, he answered. "The world wants me to shut up. The world thinks that I don't fit. When I talk, people make fun of me. Even when I do stay quiet, they find something else to mock. And I thought there was something bigger at stake, so I tried to shut up anyway."
His body buzzed with the truth. "People were happy when I was a statistic. When I was just another attack victim, they didn't care. If they hadn't noticed me because of my dad, they never would have cared. And now, when they did notice, everyone thought they could still speak for me. The news thinks they know who I am, but they've never done anything but shout questions at me. People on my Facebook profile used me in arguments they were already in. Well, I'm sick of it."
Isabelle smiled lopsidedly.
"My dad is dealing with terrible people every day to try to make a difference. I am not going to make a difference by being the mascot for what he's trying to accomplish. People need to listen. They're going to say terrible things about me anyway, so I might as well shove something real in their face while they do."
"Does your dad know you wrote this?" Isabelle asked quietly. "Not that he has to approve, of course, but—"
"He proofread it," Kurt said. "Thumbs up."
"I'll have to run this by some other people at the office," Isabelle said, but Kurt was already nodding. "Well... it won't go live until tomorrow at least, assuming people are okay with it, so you'll have time to change your mind."
"Thanks. I won't." He grinned faintly. "I've heard that I'm kind of stubborn."
As he walked out of Isabelle's narrow townhouse, his hands shook.
They shook even more when he dug out his phone. "Hi, Sam," Kurt said. "No, don't try to get me off the phone. I know you hate me, so I'll be quick."
"I don't hate you," Sam protested. "I... just... kind of have to pick sides."
"I'm posting an interview on Vogue. Well, it's not so much an interview as an article, really. I'm talking about everything that really happened in the alley, and what it's been like for me when someone's not hitting me with a brick." He could almost see Sam cringe. "You can laugh, that was a joke."
"Ha," Sam said weakly.
"I talk about Blaine's proposal."
Sam stopped any attempts at laughing; he didn't make any sound at all.
"It's all positive, don't worry." A gnawing, hollow feeling crept into Kurt's chest again, like he suspected would happen for a very long time to come. "I say how... how anyone would be ridiculously lucky to feel as loved as I was in that second. And how it just kills me that everything went so far south after that, and how something beautiful got turned into a punchline on Fox. I tried to be very open and honest about how things happened. You know: mentioning how tense and snappish I get. I've certainly heard it enough to know it's the truth."
"Did you talk about me being a clingy, jealous idiot?"
Kurt froze at the new voice. "Uh... Sam?"
"I put you on speakerphone."
The hollow feeling in Kurt's chest dropped straight to his gut. "Hi.... hi, Blaine."
"So did you?"
"This... this article was about me. I talked about me. So, no." Kurt swallowed. "I'm sorry." He'd been the one to end it; his apology needed a real chance to grow and blossom.
"Oh." Blaine quieted for a second. "You could have."
"We hadn't been happy for a while, had we?"
"No," Kurt admitted.
"It's going to be a long time until I want to see you again." Blaine's voice sounded thick when he spoke again. Once, all those emotions had been oppressive to Kurt. Now, he smiled like his heart was breaking all over again. "But... I will. Some day. Is that okay?"
"Yeah. Some day." Kurt hesitated as he remembered something. "Um, I'm going back to school tomorrow." Blaine muttered something and Sam laughed, then apologized immediately after. "But... I'll give you space."
"You always did like space," Blaine agreed, a bit too pointedly. No, this wouldn't go quickly. But it was moving forward, and they weren't hiding. And they were both speaking up.
* * *
"It'll make it through. It has to," Mercedes insisted.
"Either way," Elliott pointed out, "there was a really important discussion in the news. It's hard to overstate the value of that. Right?"
Rachel lobbed a piece of Chex Mix at his head. "Don't jinx it."
Kurt grinned and grabbed a handful for himself, stowing it next to his baby carrots.
Once he'd released his article, the media suddenly cared about his opinions. He wasn't just a collection of high school stereotypes, nor whatever soap opera people could piece together out of his social media feeds. He was a living, breathing man who'd made a snap decision to save someone's life, and a living, breathing man who had nearly been marked down as 'disposable' despite that decision.
It was one thing to say that no one should look at something, then do anything it took to be ignored. It was another thing entirely to give them something better to focus on. Kurt Hummel had never been very good at shrinking down into nothing.
"Ugh," Mercedes groaned when the House called an end to debates for the day. "Don't drag this out forever! I can't keep coming out to friggin' Bushwick."
"Don't you love us?" Rachel asked with a pout.
"I do, but Artie comes over whenever I leave for more than a few hours. And then boys start acting like boys, and when I get back that whole place smells like corn chips."
"Gross," Elliott said.
"And so I'd better not press my luck." Sighing, Mercedes stood. "I'll be back tomorrow, I guess." When Kurt kissed her goodbye, she hugged him back, hard.
"I don't want to wait until tomorrow," Rachel grumbled after the door had slid closed. "If this was a movie, your dad would have been able to squeeze in a big dramatic speech that won it for him right there. Wrap things up, politicians!" she demanded, striking her hand into her open palm with each word.
"If off-the-cuff speeches got you votes," Kurt said wryly, "my dad really would end up as president."
Elliott chuckled and pushed himself up. "Right, then. Hopefully things all get wrapped up in a neat bow tomorrow."
"Dare to dream," Kurt said airily.
As Elliott pulled on his coat, he hesitated mid-sleeve. "Hey, uh, Kurt... no matter what happens, do you want to go somewhere tomorrow? Might be in celebration, might be in... whatever you call it when you give conservatives the middle finger."
"Sounds like half of my high school existence," Kurt giggled and began collecting the remnants of their drinks. "Yeah, sounds fun! If we go early enough, Rachel could come, too!" Elliott's smile faltered and Kurt's still-aching chest fluttered for one sharp, sudden beat. "...I would love to go somewhere with you, and only me," Kurt corrected.
"That sounds great," Elliott said with faint relief. "Uh, not that I don't like you, Rachel."
She smiled, too big.
"See you tomorrow, Kurt," Elliott said after a long pause. His eyes were beautiful, and how had Kurt ever thought that he was too much of anything? He was exactly the right amount of Elliott.
"See you tomorrow."
"You just got out of a major relationship," Rachel reminded Kurt when they were alone.
"Which is why I am just having fun with a friend." Kurt dropped cans into the recycling bin. "And we'll see what happens after that. One day at a time. No rushing, no pressure."
"Be careful," she said more gently. "I know you wouldn't want to lose him as a friend, but I also don't want to see you get hurt."
"I'm tough," Kurt said with a grin and grabbed his cell phone as he tidied. About to shove it in his pocket, he hesitated. Something drew him over to the next page of icons, and with one firm click he opened Instagram. For a long, silent moment, Kurt considered this record of his recent life: the school selfies, the shameless love of Broadway, and the pictures with his closest friends right there in that very room. The blinks of an eye that people had tried to twist and warp into whatever story they wanted to tell, and he'd hidden safely away.
Kurt looked at his life for a few seconds more, then brought up his settings and changed his account back to public.