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With honor

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Attentively and quietly, Mercedes Jones glanced over at her best friend. He looked upside down to her from her position, and he appeared no less striking to her as he pondered her question and then readied his answer

“Like my Winter coat,” Kurt decided firmly. He nestled his chin on his arms as he lay on his stomach, cradled by the soft shrubbery under him. “That shade.”

Mercedes disagreed and frowned before shaking her head. She decided, “No, that’s too dark. Your Winter jacket is dark. My grandfather said it was lighter than that, at least that’s what his great grandfather told him. It had to be more like … the pajamas that Carole got you for your birthday. That shade, Kurt.”

Kurt hummed and thought fondly of the bright blue, soft pajamas that he slept in nearly every night. He had other night clothes, sets of them really, more than he needed, but Carole’s gift was his favorite. They were the softest he’d ever felt, heavenly to sleep in, and perfect to lounge around in on a rainy day. It hadn’t rained for months though, and it probably wouldn’t rain for months more. Kurt probably wouldn’t be around when it finally did break through.

“You’re probably right.” He plucked a few strands of browning grass between his fingers. “The elders have very good memories. But I can’t imagine something that blue up there.” He looked up, frowning at the dark clouds. “They must have been beautiful when they were blue. And next to the sun all bright and yellow?” He sighed. “I’d give anything to see a blue sky and a yellow sun.”

Mercedes rolled to the side and pinched his arm lightly. “The sun is still there, you know. It’s still up there. It’s probably still the same color, too. It just can’t get through the clouds, that’s all.”

“True,” he admitted slowly. “But does it count if we never get a peek at it? Or feel it, for that matter?”

“Do you suppose it actually felt like anything?” Mercedes asked. She shifted from her side to her back, fingers lacing and folding over her stomach. “The sun, it was warm, right?”

Kurt nodded. “Warm enough that everyone says there used to be two extra harvest months a year, maybe more. But we do fine with the time we have now, so I’m not sure if that’s why people make such a big deal about it.”

“There had to be something remarkable about it,” Mercedes concluded. “Just because we don’t know what it is, doesn’t make it less remarkable.”

Kurt’s eyes rose off the brown grass in front of him back up to the dark skies above him. He could just make out darker clouds in the distance, likely acidic in nature. They’d have to go in soon, someone would be sent to fetch them if they didn’t hurry.

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“It’s pointless to even think about it,” Kurt declared, head turning to the side and eyes closing. “You can’t miss what you never had.”

Mercedes knocked him playfully on the arm. “Sure you can.” She rolled closer to him and closed her own eyes, taking in the mere presence of Kurt, enjoying everything about him. “I miss my parents all the time, and I never knew them. So maybe I miss the sky, too. And the sun.”

Reluctantly, Kurt shifted up and admitted, “I miss my mom, too. Carole is wonderful, Mercedes. Really, she is. She’s made my dad so happy. But she’s not my mom. And I miss my mom.”

“At least you had her for a while.” Mercedes would have given anything to have the few memories of her parents, that Kurt had of his mother. She clung desperately to the stories her grandparents could bear to tell her of them, and the memories that they dared to share when it was late at night, and most people were asleep in the house. “That’s something, Kurt. And no one can ever take that from you. Never forget that.”

Kurt swallowed hard and nodded. Propping himself up on his elbows, he said determinedly, “My mom’s eyes were blue. That’s what my dad days. Blue like the sky.” His father said it like the sky was still there, blue and shimmering and beautiful. Then again, he said a lot of things like she was still alive. Sometimes Kurt wondered if he would ever fully comprehend her death, or maybe even the fact that Kurt was nearly grown now, and not the scared little boy he’d been when the soldiers had come and she’d been too pretty for her own good. “I remember her eyes, Mercedes. So I guess, in a way, I know what the sky used to look like.”

Mercedes nudged him playfully. “You’ll get to see it. A blue sky and a bright sun. Everyone says the Eastern front has white clouds and blue skies, not like here or anywhere else. And everything in between? That’s all sun. When you go away, you’ll get to see the things we only dream about, and our parents only tell us about. What you’ll get to see, I never will. So I’ll expect you to write me about it.”

Kurt sat up fully and Mercedes followed suit, asking curiously, “Why are we talking about this anyway? Didn’t we come out here to gossip?”

“This is gossip, Kurt. I like to lead you into the steamier stuff with something a little more proper. I am supposed to keep you a lord of your station. What good would I be to your father if I let you in on all the raunchy stuff right away?”

With a roll of his eyes, Kurt smiled fondly at her. She was the only one he dared share his secrets with. She was his only confidant, and his best friend. He didn’t know what he’d do without her. His father had offered her to him, offered to let him take her with him, but he couldn’t do that to Mercedes. He couldn’t take her from all she’d ever known, and her grandparents. He couldn’t snatch her from her home, like he was being taken. He loved her too much for that.

Mercedes hastened to add, “Speaking of, do you want to get to it already? Because I gave some incredibly risqué information that was dropped into my lap just this morning.”

Kurt gave her a sideways glance “You know I want to know.”

“Tina told me that Rachel’s in quite the family way.” Mercedes’ eyebrows rose suggestively. “And the culprit?”

“Jesse?” Kurt finished for her, trying not to sound hopeful. Of all the people he knew, and of everyone he loved, he dared not even tell Mercedes of Finn’s dalliance with Rachel. Of all the girls their age, Rachel seemed the least likely to find herself in such a situation, but if it was true, then Kurt knew it would mean severe damage to their family if Finn was linked to her or the illegitimate child. Finn couldn’t be the father, not with his engagement to Quinn reaching the point of marriage. Finn needed to marry Quinn to preserve their family’s honor, the two were Promised to each other. And that meant that Kurt was going to try and push anyone else towards the spotlight of probably candidate, especially Jesse.

“Can you imagine?” Mercedes asked, fanning herself. “St. James is--”

“The most likely suitor. He comes to call on her frequently. He has a reputation, Mercedes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the truth. He could hurt Rachel’s status.”

“I didn’t think you cared much for Rachel Berry.”

“I don’t,” Kurt said firmly, and he didn’t. Rachel Berry was given the least of his favor. She talked too much, and cared too much for herself. She consumed and wasted and Kurt couldn’t possibly bring himself to understand why Finn felt for her as he did. But there was always Finn to consider. Whatever Finn had with Rachel, Kurt would excuse on his age. He was young and Finn understood his place. Kurt had the utmost confidence that Finn would end whatever fling he had with Rachel by the time his wedding date rolled around, and he would bring honor to their family by marrying Quinn. The match was perfect, and they’d have beautiful children, and Quinn would look after Kurt’s brother. That was how things would happen, and as such, Kurt excused Rachel.

“Then …”

Kurt asked, throwing her off, “Do you think the sky is a blue color on the Eastern Front?”

Mercedes blinked large brown eyes at him, taking a moment to track the change in conversation. “Maybe,” she said slowly. “Kurt, why are you so nervous all of the sudden?”

Kurt tucked his legs under him and reasoned, “I’m not about Rachel, if that’s what you mean. I couldn’t care less about her right now. She has her problems to deal with and I have mine. I’ve been … I’ve been thinking about those problems, Mercedes.”

“About going away, right? Because it’s not safe to travel?” Mercedes asked questioningly. “The roads are too dangerous most of the year. There are thieves. And murders. And worse. It’s not safe to go anywhere now.” Her eyebrows pulled together sharply. “You think you could be better prepared to travel? Or are you more worried about what comes after you get there? Kurt, you know your dad wouldn’t send you to anyone who’d hurt you. He wouldn’t. He hand chose your Promised. You’ll be okay. You know that, right?”

Kurt was quick to nod his head. “I’ve seen my contract. It’s stipulated that I’m kept at home, cared for and protected.” Darkly, Kurt said, “Sheltered, as I’ve always been.”

“For your own good.”

“For my father’s good.” Kurt stood quickly. He brushed at his clothing. And snapped, “Maybe I would like to the see the front line. Most of the fighting is happening out there, isn’t it? Maybe it would do me good to know where men are fighting and dying, and to properly understand the means to the end.”

Mercedes followed him up to her own feet and put her hands solidly on his shoulders. “You’re a lord, Kurt. You were born into your station, and it’s all you’ve ever known. It’s your place. We all have our place, and this is yours. You’re not meant to see the wars. You’re not meant to have any place being near them. You should consider yourself lucky. You’ve been Promised to the son of a General. You’ll be more than taken care of. You’ll be more safe with your new husband than anyone else. That’s why your father Promised you to him. That’s the only reason he’s relinquishing his grasp on you. A father only ever wants to see his child protected. My parents did that when they died to save my life. And your father is giving you away to do the same.”

They came closer every year. The battles which had been fought before in the past, between the High Guard and the Militia, the peasants and the well bred, drew closer to Kurt’s home with each new season. It was Kurt’s father’s fear that soon they’d be on their lands. The last time they had come, Kurt had lost his mother. They’d nearly lost everything else in the fire. Burt Hummel had risen from the ashes to power, but for what they had lost, nothing seemed worth a repeat.

“The General’s home is well protected. It’s next to impenetrable.” Mercedes’ hands pressed more firmly on his shoulders. “And you’ll be part of his family before the year is done. That protection will extend to you. These wars won’t last forever, Kurt. They come and go in cycles. Alliances shift. You’ll see, before long, you’ll be able to come home for a visit. But you should understand, your father won’t risk you before that. Sending you away is your best chance.”

With a deep breath, Kurt nodded. “I do, Mercedes. I do understand. It’s why I didn’t fight him on the matter. It’s why I willingly signed my contract. It’s why I’ve agreed to be wedded. I know he loves me. He’s why I’m going. But I don’t think the wars will end. They won’t, and you know it.”

“Then they don’t,” she said, features hard. “But you’re still protected. That’s all your father cares about. That’s all I care about.”

Kurt wanted to grab her and shake her. He wanted to understand why it didn’t bother her in the way it bothered him. He could barely stomach the idea of moving so far away, from everyone he knew and his home, to be near the front line of the war, and yet never truly know what it meant to be at war.

“Mercedes,” Kurt asked quietly. “Do you think I’ll be happy?” It seemed such an alien idea. He’d seen so many around him marry for convenience, and for wealth or power. Most of the matches had been disastrous romantically.

Her voice picking up, she reminded, “You’ve been Promised to a General’s son, Kurt. Imagine that. You’ve gotten so lucky.”

That hadn’t been his question. “Do you think the marriage will …”

“It’s a good match,” she said. “It’s the best match I’ve ever seen. My grandfather drafted the contract and he said it’s the best he’s ever seen, too. You’ll bring your knowledge to the marriage, and the General’s son will bring his wealth.”

“I have wealth too,” Kurt grumbled. He had a large home, servants, more than enough to eat, and his own personal guard. He had all of that.

Mercedes amended, “Power, then. General Anderson is very feared in battle. No one will ever cross the Hummel name after your marriage. Your father will be … he’ll be safe, Kurt. You know that, right?”

“Of course I know that.” Kurt started off down the pathway back to the house. In the distance, he could see Sam’s bright blond hair, watching him carefully, sweeping the area for danger. “They’ll stop threatening him.” Sam caught up to them in a matter of moments, hanging back just enough to give them the illusion of privacy.

In a clipped tone, Mercedes asked, “Are they threatening him again?”

“No more than usual.” Kurt waved a hand. “But the letters are taking on a more urgent tone. They want him to build more war machines for them. They want his knowledge. And they want it soon. I think the Rebels are loosing their war. They’re more desperate than the Guard, at least. And yes, Mercedes, I live with the knowledge every day that they won’t dare come for my father once I’ve taken my husband’s name. My protection will extend to him, and to Carole.” Kurt grimaced. “And Sophie.” His beautiful baby sister. His world.

“Good.”

Kurt said sadly, “He doesn’t let me read the letters anymore. I think the content has changed. The way he looks at me … the way he doesn’t let me go far anymore … the way he Promised me to Blaine …”

“You think the letters are about you?” Mercedes dared to ask.

Kurt nodded. “I’m his son. I know what he knows, or at least a good deal of it. I think they’re threatening him with me. My guess is that it’s the reason he’s willing to sell our secrets off to the General. I suppose he’s the lesser of two evils.”

“Bite your tongue,” Mercedes hissed.

“Oh, come off it!” Kurt scoffed.

Mercedes swatted him hard and scolded, “Don’t speak ill of the General. He stands to gain as much for the marriage as your father does, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t of a higher status than the both of us.”

“I’m higher than you,” Kurt said tersely, “and you manhandle me about all the time.”

Sam chuckled a little behind them and Mercedes smiled, all teeth and joy. “That’s because I’m your best friend, and someone has to keep you grounded in reality.”

“She’s got you there, Kurt,” Sam teased. He was often too quiet, and Kurt hated when he was. But when they were alone, just the three of them, friends before anything else, it was easier to draw Sam into being as vocal as the rest of them. “And I’m pretty sure you’re a little afraid of her, too.”

Mercedes glanced over her shoulder at Sam. “I’m trying to figure out if that’s an insult or a compliment.” Her fingers jabbed him in the arm.

Sam caught her hands instead and brought the back of it up to his mouth where he kissed the skin gently. “Both, my lady.”

Mercedes giggled and Kurt gave a dramatic swoon. “I’m sure you two will be signing your contracts within a year.”

“With luck,” Sam murmured.

Mercedes radiated happiness, and though Kurt had teased them about it, he loved that they were so utterly committed to each other. Next to his parents, Kurt knew they were a true example of the best possibility of a Promised match. They’d marry for love and convenience, and the best combination of both.

“We should get going,” Sam reminded. “Your father will be looking for you Kurt, especially after this morning.”

When Kurt looked next he was walking alone, and Mercedes had fallen back, her hand held tightly by Sam’s. “Of course he is.” Kurt had slipped out earlier that day, stopping by Mercedes room to steal her away from her chores. He wasn’t supposed to have left the house at all. The very last of his contract was left to examine, and there were still details to discuss. They were important things, things Kurt fully intended to busy himself with, just not that morning. That morning he’d wanted to be anywhere but in his fathers study.

Mercedes hedged, “Have you written to him?” The him of who she spoke was not in question. She was likely more curious about the General’s son than Kurt was.

“Once,” Kurt said, careful of their company. Sam was a friend, but Kurt also knew he was obligated to tell her father everything that was important. Sometimes it was hard for Kurt to determine what Sam would think was important. “The General sent his son’s letter to me with an armed guard. I wrote back, and the solider took it with him. I don’t expect a response this close to the wedding.”

“And?” she demanded. “Tell me. No one seems to know much about him. Nothing worth saying, at least. What did he write to you about?”

Off in the distance, Kurt could see the home he’d grown up in. To other people, he supposed it looked large, and foreboding, and maybe even dangerous. There were high walls, and thick fencing, and armed guards standing watch. But to Kurt it was home, and he could only think of the carpeted hallways he’d often run down as a child, and his nursery room, and the wonderful library that was unparalleled.

“I’m afraid I don’t know much more than you do,” Kurt said. “His signed his letter Blaine, if that’s anything you wanted to know. He was writing out of obligation, Mercedes. He wrote because it’s in the contract, and I wrote back for the same reason. You’re trying to make this more than it is.”

“And the content of the letter?”

“Standard,” Kurt dismissed. “He wrote to tell me that he would perform to a standard that I deserved. He assured he would be a fair and decent husband, and never abuse me, and see me through to the end of our days. He promised his loyalty to me, and faithfulness, along with his attention and care. He described the home that would be ours, and its contents and staff, and what I would have access to. He wrote to say that he knew of my passion for reading, and that he’d spend the past few months having the best literature collected. There was also a mention of a piano he procured for me. Really, Mercedes, what do you want to know?”

She clutched her heart and visibly swooned. “Have I said before that you’re lucky?”

Kurt stared at her. “I’ve told you before, I don’t care about being lucky.”

“You should,” she insisted. “and he sounds wonderful. Romantic, even.”

“I guess.” Kurt bit the inside of his cheek before saying, “But I probably won’t see much of him. He spends most of his time on the front with his father. He said that, too.”

“And is he handsome?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?” Mercedes demanded. “What do you mean, maybe?”

At that, Kurt laughed and explained, “I’ve never met him, Mercedes. I don’t exactly know what he looks like.”

Sam startled them by saying, “The rumor holds that he’s handsome.”

Kurt turned to peer at Sam and asked carefully, “You said he’s handsome?”

A crack of a smile appeared on Sam’s face. “The other men say that. Some of them have family who’ve gone on to the front line. Some have come back. The General’s son is a prominent fixture on the front line. He plays his role well, and they say he’s handsome.”

Kurt thought of everything he knew about the General, a man he’d seen only once in his life, several years ago. The General had been tall, taller than any man Kurt had ever seen, and incredibly broad shouldered. He’d already been graying at the temple, and had a face creased with hard worry lines. He hadn’t been fat, but there had been a bulkiness to him that implied his power. And when he’d spoken, setting in motion a wedding contract that wouldn’t come to be for a least a decade more, Kurt had hidden behind his father’s legs at the booming voice. The General was scary.

The General’s wife, a small, petite foreign woman, had been completely different. But Kurt didn’t remember much of her.

“Are you sure?” Kurt asked Sam. “Because I remember the General, and he wasn’t very attractive.”

Sam’s head dipped. “I hear the General’s son takes after his mother.”

Kurt had tried his best, ever since his contract had become a serious matter, not to imagine anything about Blaine Anderson. There was no point to considering him. Kurt would marry him to preserve the lives of his family, and to protect the people of his town. He’d go away to keep everyone safe, and that meant it was of little consequence to him the kind of man Blaine was, or his attractiveness. Kurt had long readied himself to be married to a vicious or violent slob of a man. Hoping for anything better was dangerous.

“And he’s handsome?” Mercedes broke in. “How handsome are we talking?”

Sam shrugged. “I’ve never seen the General’s son personally. I only know what the other men say.” Sam hesitated, then added, “He has curly hair, but the men say he slicks it back when he goes to battle.”

Once more, Mercedes sighed dreamily.

“He has his own command?” Kurt asked, unable to shake the growing curiosity.

Sam seemed much more at ease with the change of topic. “Yes. He commands a specialized division of his father’s ranks, The Warblers. They’re mainly used as a tactical resource, and see very little actual battle themselves. He holds the rank of lieutenant colonel and regardless of who his father is, guarantee you he earned that rank.”

To Kurt, that was telling. His future husband wasn’t battle hardened. He’d seen the ways of war, he knew them intimately, but there was little engagement of his own accord. Or rather, maybe it said more about his father. Kurt’s respect for the General grew, at least at the notion that he seemed bent on keeping his only son and heir away from the fray of battle.

“The Warblers.” Kurt rolled the name off his tongue. “I’ve never heard of them.”

Sam cleared his throat. “There are some things, young lord, that are not spoken of in select company.”

That said it all.

“Kurt,” Mercedes said, touching his wrist gently as the house came even closer. “I’ve got to go. My grandmother will have my head if I’m not in the kitchen before lunch. But I’ll meet you for early evening prayers?”

Kurt nodded and let himself be led along by Sam’s firm hand on his back.

“I’m fine,” Kurt said once they were inside. He braced a hand on Sam’s sturdy arm as he changed out his dirty shoes for something more appropriate for the house. He thanked the woman who took his shoes and said, “You’ve seen me inside. I’m going to go change now and then I’ll go directly to my father’s study.”

Sam shook his head. “I was told to stay with you the entire time.”

Kurt slid out of his light jacket and rolled his eyes. “And who told you that? You know the rules. I don’t need to have you shadowing me in my own home. I’m--” Kurt froze, words dropping from his lips as he moved further back into the house and came within view of the first of two drawing rooms. His father’s office was further back, but the doors to the drawing room were open, and Kurt could see two figures in darkened coats, unclean and looking quite dangerous. They were men Kurt had never seen before.

Sam was to his side in a second, taking the coat from him and passing it off to a nearby girl. He gave Kurt a firm pull to the side and out of view. “I’ll walk you to your room.”

Kurt was halfway up the stairs before he found himself enough to ask, “Who are they?”

“No one,” Sam said gruffly. Sam was usually in a good mood, or at least pleasant enough to be around. Only infrequently did Kurt see him as he was now, and it was only when there was danger lurking around.

“What’s going on?”

“Walk,” Sam said, and nearly manhandled him to his room.

“Who were those men?” Kurt asked once more when he was in his room. He leveled a heavy glare at Sam, demanded that the man give him the truth. “And why are you acting like this?”

Kurt had known Sam for two years. Sam had come along after a particularly dry year had threatened some of the crops in the area. There had been plenty of work to go around, and after a while, Sam had migrated into working for Kurt’s father. Kurt had met Sam before that, when he was in the fields, and had always known him to be a fair and respectable individual. Sam cared for his younger siblings, and with more affection and tenderness than Kurt had seen many men show for their loved ones. Stevie and Stacy reminded Kurt of Sophie and he adored them. For that reason, and the caliber of Sam’s character, Kurt trusted the man to judge situation for him. It was why he’d let Sam pull him along to his room and away from the mysterious men in the drawing room.

“You don’t go near them, okay? Are you listening, Kurt? Those men …”

“Who are they?”

Sam leaned back against Kurt’s door and asked, “Do you know the way to the Eastern Front?”

“No,” Kurt admitted. “I’ve never … I’ve seen maps, but it’s a little confusing. They all seem different. I don’t … I just know you have to go through the badlands.”

“The barren lands,” Sam elaborated. “The badlands. Nothing grows there, Kurt. Nothing exists there. It’s just mile and mile after death, and the people who go through it … not a lot o them come out the other side. You don’t go through the badlands if you can help it. You just don’t.”

Eyebrows furrowing, Kurt inquired, “Then how am I going to get through the badlands to my Promised?”

“Most people go around,” Sam explained. “If they go at all. It takes months longer, increases your odds of being attacked, and drains supplies, but most people go around.”

“I asked how I was going to get through. I am going through, right? My marriage is set before winter comes. I have to be there in four weeks.”

Reluctantly, Sam said, “I’ll tell you, but I want you to sit on the bed right now. And you won’t speak until I’m through, okay?”

“You’re not my father,” Kurt reminded as he moved to the bed. In fact, Sam was a year younger than he was, only hardened from years in the fields and a strict training regiment. “Now tell me.”

“Your father can’t take you, right?”

Kurt shook his head at once. “It’s out of the question. He’s needed here, to produce for the General’s war effort. And Sophie is still so young. If anything happened to him on the roads … no, he can’t go.”

“Then how did you think you were going to get there?”

Kurt stopped. He hadn’t given the question any thought. “I guess I thought you would take me. Or one of my father’s more seasoned veterans. I don’t know for sure.” And maybe he would have, if he hadn’t run out on his father’s need to see him that morning. If he hadn’t gone to hide on the countryside, instead of learning the important things of his trip.

Sam gave him a wry smile. “It would be murder to send you out with an inexperienced guide. Your father doesn’t want to send you with anyone else, but he doesn’t have any choice. He’s got to get someone who can lead you through the badlands, someone who knows his way through, and can handle all of the obstacles that will come your way. He needs a Ranger.”

Kurt paled. “A Ranger? Are you serious. Sam. They’re dangerous. They’re not to be trusted. They’re … Sam, are you sure?”

“He’s in your father’s study as we speak.” Sam sat gingerly on the bed next to Kurt. “The two men in your father’s drawing room are his companions. There are two more in the front yard.”

Kurt shook his head. “ I didn’t see anyone.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Sam said. “You don’t see them unless they want you to.”

Feeling shaken, Kurt couldn’t help asking, “Are you sure about the Ranger? My father is giving me to a Ranger?”

Sam cracked a smile. “He’s not giving you to him. But my gut tells me you’ll go into his care, at least of the duration of your trip. Yes, Kurt, I agree, Rangers are dangerous. They’re not to be trusted. But this is your best shot, and your father has to get you to Blaine in one piece. He has to. You know the penalty for him failing to deliver.”

Kurt’s eyes fluttered closed and he swallowed hard. Everything would be lost if he failed to show. He was Promised. The contract was signed. It was more than his father’s honor that was riding on his marriage. His father had nearly signed himself and their entire family over to the General as collateral.

Tentatively, and with his face growing hot, Kurt mumbled, “I have to give myself to Blaine to seal the marriage.”

Sam coughed politely and turned away. “You’re thinking of the reputation Rangers have, especially considering women and beautiful boys, such as yourself.”

“Not even the beautiful ones.” Kurt looked to Sam. “Can he be trusted with my chastity? It seems doubtful.”

“It’s Puckerman,” Sam said abruptly.

The name meant nothing to Kurt, and his face showed as much.

“I’m not surprised,” Sam said easily. “It’s not a name that would be said around you.”

And there it was again. It was frustrating to hear Sam, and even Mercedes, tell him of how information was withheld from his ears. He was no young girl, or even mother. He wasn’t an elderly man with poor health, or a little boy. He was sixteen. He was almost a man, and he was his father’s son. He deserved to know about the world around him, and the information that was withheld from him only served to grate on his nerves.

“Sam.”

“Eh.” Sam leaned back a little, the most nonchalant Kurt had ever seen him. “It’s a name, Noah Puckerman, that gets around. I’m not saying much is known about him, but he’s been wandering for a good deal of his life. And he takes on the jobs that most people won’t. He gets things done.”

Kurt wasn’t impressed. “Many men are capable of performing their duties to a high quality. I would rest my life in your hands, before his, whoever this Noah Puckerman is.”

“I wouldn’t,” Sam said honestly. “He’s the only person that I can name who’s crossed the badlands several times. He served, at least for a period, with the Militia, and he comes high recommended. He may cost your father a good deal of money, maybe more than he should be willing to part with, but Puckerman is worth it. He’ll get you to the General’s son in time for your wedding, and your chastity will be intact.”

As Sam slumped down, Kurt sprang to his feet. “You truly expect me to believe that if I’m alone with a Ranger, that he won’t force himself on me. Sam, I know what happened to Tina, and it’s widely known that Rory … he … you know how he is now. They were both … Rangers … I won’t be safe.”

“Puckerman prides himself on his name and reputation,” Sam insisted. “This won’t be the first time he’s escorted someone to their wedding. And he’s delivered before, without complication or soiling. Kurt, I can’t promise you he’ll be nice, or gentle with you, but he will not violate you, and he will be careful to keep you from harm.” Sam hastened to add, “Your father is employing him as we speak.”

Kurt moved to the screen separating his wardrobe from the rest of the room. His fingers worked at the buttons on his shirt quickly and he called around the divider, “You really think that’s what my father is doing?”

Sam laid completely back on the bed, taking in it’s soft bounce and silken blankets. In his home, a small house down the street from Kurt’s home, Sam shared a single bed with both his brother and sister. They stuffed hay under the bedding to soften it, and sheered sheep with the local farmers to create the woolen blankets they used. The house was small, barely big enough for the three of them, and a vast contrast from the House of Hummel that Sam served. But it was Sam’s, and he loved it, and he prided himself in being able to provide for his siblings.

“Honestly? Yes.”

Kurt hung his shirt over the divider and reached for a fresh one. “If there was time, Blaine would have sent for me himself.”

“You mean,” Sam said, “he would have sent a company for you, maybe the Warblers themselves.”

Kurt agreed, “Yes. But there’s just not enough time. We have to be married before the Winter months, and I have to start contributing to the war effort as much as my father. The winter will quickly turn this fast paced and deadly war into one of attrition, and it will be the knowledge that my father has passed to me, that will keep the Guard strong. We can’t afford to wait. I suppose, with that under consideration, Puckerman isn’t such an unexpected option. “

Sam pursed his lips as he watched Kurt’s pants be slung over the privacy patrician along side the shirt. “I think it’s something more simplistic, Kurt.”

Kurt’s head peeked around the side. “What do you mean?”

Sam saw a flash of creamy shoulder and averted his eyes quickly. Kurt was lenient with him, as was his father, but there were boundaries never to be crossed. Kurt was too beautiful for his own good, and there was nothing Sam could do about noticing such a thing. But he kept both his eyes and his hands to himself. There was never any other option but to do that. He’d steer clear of any of those kinds of thoughts towards Kurt, no matter what.

“Your greatest weapon during your cross to the Eastern Front will be anonymity. You can’t have that with a large group. If the General’s son sent a company of men, you’d merely be painting a target on yourselves. In this way, I think you increase your chances of making it across. A lord and a ranger make less of an imprint than a whole company of men.”

Finally, Kurt stepped out, dressed sensibly but as always, well. “Will I have to go alone with him? What about his companions?”

Sam stood, and then moved to hold the door open for him. “I suppose that’s what your father will tell you.”

Kurt paused next to him, then admitted in a shakily voice, “I’m worried, Sam.”

“You’ll do fine.” Sam dared to shuffle a bit closer. “You’ve been preparing for this moment your whole life, whether you’ve known it or not. There aren’t many things in life to look forward to. And there are even fewer joyous things. But this, Kurt? This is something not to worry over. You’ll do fine, and everything will fall into place, just like it should. Everything will go well.”

Kurt took a deep breath and nodded. “Thank you.”

“I mean it.” Sam gave him a wide smile. “You were born to carry on for your father in this way. You’re going to be okay.”

Kurt relaxed a bit. “Alright. I’m ready to go. I suppose it’s time for me to meet this Noah Puckerman.”

“And god help us all,” Sam added.

________________________

 

Burt Hummel was a kind man, likely more kind than he ought to have been, given the world he lived in and the things he had been witness to. Yet ultimately Burt had never really lost the urge to see the best in people, and fight for causes that were just to him. For Burt, each life was important to him, especially those under his care, which extended to most o the townspeople in the small community they called home. In some way or another, Burt felt a responsibility for them. Most were like family. Some were.

For that alone, Burt worked against his better judgment, providing the Guard with their doomsday machines, their killing machines, and the very knowledge that he safeguarded only to himself, and to his heir. For the people who depended on him, and for his family, Burt ignored the morality at hand, and promised the General an end to his war. Kurt would bring that end with him.

Kurt.

Burt supposed he’d never really fallen out of love with his child. Form the moment his wife had collapsed back against the bed, sweaty and exhausted, and she had insisted that he be the one to hold their child first, it had been love. Kurt, who was excessively careful and clean and curious. There weren’t many ways in which Kurt was like Burt, but Kurt had always taken to the workshop. He’d picked up the basic, fundamental lessons Burt had begun teaching him long before puberty. And yet his son remained soft and beautiful, and even after the recent birth of Burt’s daughter, his pride and joy.

Now he was giving his only son away. If there had been any other way, Burt would have sought it. But there was none, and danger grew closer to them every day. There wasn’t much Burt thought he could do, other than bargain with the General, and trade his sweet, innocent boy for peace.

Carole said to him, “You shouldn’t feel so bad, Burt. Kurt will be well cared for. Once he fulfills his part of the bargain, he’ll be expected to do little more than make routine visits to the other lords and ladies who host parties, and dress well, and act as a model citizen.”

She adored Kurt, much in the way that Burt cared for Finn, but Kurt was not her son. Kurt was not hers to give away.

In the recent days, Burt had tried to shake himself free of the impending loneliness. The only thing that mattered, the only thing that ought to have mattered was the fact that the General’s son, Blaine Anderson, would provide for Kurt. He would care for him, and keep him protected. The war would never reach Kurt, so long as he married well. Kurt would learn to love his new husband, and he would learn to be happy. Kurt would adapt. He would.

“You come highly recommended.”

If Burt could have taken Kurt himself, he would have. If he could have even left town, it would have been the preferred option. But the roads were dangerous, especially for Burt, and the chance of being taken captive, or killed, was too high. He had Carole depending on him, and there was Finn’s upcoming marriage to oversee. And Sophie. Sophie was so young. She would not survive without him to ensure a proper match for her. She’d been such an unexpected child, with Carole past her prime and Burt finding little time to share a bed with her other than in sleep. But she was loved. Sophie, his little girl. He wished at times he didn’t feel as if he were sacrificing one child for another.

That still left the glaring fact that Kurt would need a competent companion to take him the way. Across the badlands. There were few suited for the job, and fewer who could be trusted. The man in front of him, the Ranger, he was the best candidate for the job.

“Do I now?” Puckerman asked with a laugh. “You’ll have to tell me who. I’ve been run out of the last three towns I’ve passed through. I don’t seem to be very well liked.”

Burt folded his hands behind his back. “There’s a difference between being well liked and being highly capable.

The smile remained on Puckerman’s face. He reclined back in his chair and waved a hand at Burt, requesting, “Go ahead. Ask what you will. I know you haven’t brought me here to enjoy my company, be as enjoyable as it is.”

Burt sat across from him, happy for the small table separating them. Noah Puckerman was clearly the best chance Kurt had in getting across the badlands. But as Burt was kind, neither was he stupid. Puckerman was a Ranger, and Rangers were not to be trusted, especially with things of value.

“I would like to know how it is that you came to be so highly recommended. I think it’s safe to say that your reputation precedes you. And there are a great deal of people who do not like you, and would not like you regardless of your title. But they speak well of your services. If I’m to employ you for the task at hand, I would like to know why.”

In a show, Puckerman straightened up, and the smile fell away. Seriously, he said, “I work well with my hands. And I like being on my own. It seemed a good combination to take on the tasks that others shied away from. I’m no miracle worker, but getting out of trouble comes easily. Probably as easily as causing it does.” At Burt’s raised eyebrow, Puckerman added, “I am a Ranger.”

“But you’re not like the others,” Burt observed. “I’ve come across more than my fair share over the years. They tried to burn this town to the ground at one point. But you, you put your talents to use for the benefit of others. The trouble you cause is minimal. People trust you, even when they know they shouldn’t.”

Puckerman shrugged. “I like wealth. People need things done. I do them. I gain wealth. The concept isn’t so revolutionary. You follow?”

Burt wanted to strangle him. He was cocky and arrogant and obnoxious.

“Look,” Puckerman said. “I’m good at what I do. I go to the bad places that your kind of people won’t go. I get things done that need to be done. Why do you care about how I got to be so recommended? My work speaks for itself. I’ve never failed to deliver. I don’t damage the goods. And I guarantee you, there isn’t anyone else who’s passing through this way who’s going to be half as professional as I am.”

Burt weighed his words for a minute, then said, “I need a package delivered. It has to go across the badlands, and it must reach the Eastern Front before winter comes. I need it to be done in less than a month.”

Puckerman pursed his lips. “It’s safer to go around.”

“I know that,” Burt said snappishly. “Everyone knows that. And if I could afford to wait the time it would take to go around, I would employ someone half as skilled as you. But as it stands, Mr. Puckerman, I have a deadline, and the reason I’ve chosen you is because it’s said that you’ve gone through the badlands several times. I want you to do it again.”

“And take your package.”

Burt nodded. “And get it through in one piece. Can you do that?”

“I’ve been through,” Puckerman admitted. “More than a couple times. It takes about two weeks, and that’s if you don’t run into trouble.” Puckerman deadpanned. “You always run into trouble. It’s hot, barren, and dangerous. Yeah, I can make it through. That’s what you really wanted to hear, right?”

“With delicacy?” Burt pried. It felt stuffy in the room, and he wanted to open a window, but the air was thin outside and he feared it would only make him feel worse.

Puckerman’s face scrunched up. “What do you mean? With delicacy?”

“Carefully,” Burt amended. “The package must go through in one piece. It can’t be damaged. It must be treated carefully. Do you understand?”

Bluntly, Puckerman asked, “What’s the package?” When Burt hesitated, Puckerman added, “What could possibly be so important that you want me to play nice?”

Exhaling, Burt said, “It’s my son. He’s the package.”

Burt almost felt a bit of a thrill at catching Puckerman off guard. It was further highlighted as Puckerman stammered a bit, “Your son?”

“My son,” Burt confirmed. “His wedding is in four weeks and his Promised is at the Eastern Front. In order to complete the contract, they have to be joined together there, and before the winter months. It’s of the utmost importance.”

Puckerman crossed his arms. “Why didn’t you just say it was your son in the first place?”

At that, Burt was forced to admit, “He’s precious to me. I have to be certain, before I relinquish my claim on him, that he’s in good hands.”

Puckerman didn’t seem incredibly impressed with the idea of escorting a boy across the badlands, and Burt hoped it wouldn’t deter him from taking the job. Burt still held a dislike for Noah Puckerman, but he was growing more confident in his belief that he was the right man to keep Kurt safe. It pained him to admit it, but Puckerman was more than qualified.

“What’s so special about getting him there before the winter months?”

Burt bit his tongue, unsure of how much to say. There was no telling who Puckerman would come in contact with, or what he might say to the wrong individual. There was never such a thing as being too careful, especially if Burt hoped to help end the war now raging on the Eastern Front sooner, rather than later.

“Lord Hummel?”

“The war,” Burt said n a hoarse voice. “What do you know of it?”

Puckerman said, “I know my history from before, back how things were. My grandmother had a whole volume of books about how it used to be like. It’s the same now, as it was back then. It’s just a bunch of people who think they’re better than everyone else, fighting a bunch of people who want to be better than everyone else. Back then it was peasants and nobles. Now it’s the Guard and Rebels.”

“Crude,” Burt said distastefully.

Puckerman held firm. “Isn’t that what it is?”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

With a scoff, Puckerman crossed his arms. “In the end, it all comes back to that. So yes, I know about the war. I know that the Guard and the Rebels are killing each other, destroying the land, wiping out everything, and making an already crappy world even more shitty to live in. When they’re done, there isn’t going to be anything left worth having. Every part of this world is going to look like the badlands. And the people who are in the badlands? Get ready to have them everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if things went back to the way it was when the bombs dropped. How’s your kid’s wedding got anything to do with the war going on in the East?”

Surprised, Burt questioned, “You know who I am. You know what I do.”

“Hummel,” Puckerman said with a nod. “Everyone knows you’re a genius. You know … practically everything there is to know about machines. You know what everyone forgot. You keep the war effort going, at least for the Guard.”

Puckerman’s words chilled Burt. Was that true? Burt had spent most of his life working to stop the war. But was he really only prolonging it?

“I …”

“You know,” Puckerman cut in, “if you helped the Rebel forces as much as you helped the Guard, the fight would be a fair one. And then history would repeat itself. Things would get quiet again. You might think about that.”

If he did, Burt reasoned quickly, if he stopped helping the Guard, the little protection that the Guard offered him now, would be gone. And the opportunity to stretch that protection out to the rest of his family would be gone. The Rebels, if Burt thought about it, likely had the better cause. But they had less to offer him, and less to offer Burt’s family. Keeping Carole safe, and Kurt, and Finn and Sophie alive, that was his purpose in life. That was why he lived and breathed. Nothing would change that.

“Kurt’s been Promised to General Anderson’s son.”

Puckerman stilled and Burt felt a small rush of victory. Even Puckerman, who lived above the law and out of the clutches of society, feared the General. It was clear in his eyes. The General had sway over everyone.

“The General’s son?”

“We’ve made a deal,” Burt confided. “The General was looking for an ideal match for his son, and I was looking for the same for mine. General Anderson’s son will provide for Kurt in the manner that he’s accustomed to, and keep him safe, along with my wife and our other children. Their protection extends to whatever families they may have one day. In return, Kurt is going to give them the knowledge that they’ve wanted since the war began. They’re going to learn the secrets I’ve withheld from them, and only shared with Kurt. That may be enough to end the war.”

An odd look passed across Puckerman’s face as he questioned, “You just offered your kid up?”

Burt was insulted. “The contract was drawn up when Kurt was ten, but by no means has he been forced into anything. He’s choosing this of his own free will, because he’s selfless, and he understand what it means for his family, and for the people he cares about. He respects the bigger picture, and I couldn’t be more proud of him for putting himself second.”

Reiterating, Puckerman said, “So you need me to take him, get him across the badlands, and into the General’s care. And you need it done before the winter months.”

Burt nodded and added, “His chastity must be intact. He has to be pure.”

It was Puckerman’s turn to look insulted, and he nearly seethed, “I don’t mix business with pleasure. I understand my title is misleading, but make no mistake, I can keep my hands to myself. Neither do I enjoy unwilling partners.”

“He has to be untouched,” Burt repeated. He achingly crossed a leg over his knee at the ankle. “It’s one of the major stipulation of the contract. Kurt is to remain pure and give himself to his husband. He’s taken pride in the fact that he’s managed that over the years. He’s a clean and honest soul and he has to arrive to Blaine in that way. I have the General’s word that his son has done the same. If he’s … soiled in any way, the contract could be considered null and void.”

Puckerman said angrily, “I won’t touch your boy.”

“I’m not worried about you,” Burt said flatly. “You remember, I have your recommendations. I know you won’t touch him. I’m worried about others. The badlands breed that type of character. If anything happens to Kurt’s virtue while you pass through … you can’t let that happen. More than anything else, this is what I’m employing you to protect.”

Slowly, Puckerman nodded. “I understand. Now, you know my fee?”

“I do.” Burt said. “And I’m prepared to honor it. If you’ll just tell me the way in which you prefer to be paid--”

“No. No.” Purckerman stood. “You’ve never used me before, so you wouldn’t know. I’ll take your job. I’ll get your kid across the badlands and to the guy he’s supposed to marry. And I’ll take half of my payment now. My associates will handle that.”

Burt arched an eyebrow. “And the other half?”

“I’ll pass back through,” Puckerman said easily. “I always do. I’ll pick the rest up then.”

It wasn’t what Burt had expected to hear. He hedged, “Wouldn’t you rather have it all upfront?”

With a laugh, Puckerman asked, “Aren’t you good for it?”

“Yes,” Burt said firmly.

“Then do we have anything else to discuss?”

Burt couldn’t help himself in asking one more time, “You will be careful with him, won’t you?”

This time Puckerman’s laugher was less light, and more grating. He asked, “Is there something wrong with the kid? He sick? Gimp?”

“Delicate,” Burt said, then thought it wasn’t the right word at all. Kurt was growing into as much of a man as any of the other young boys around him. But there was a softness to Kurt that most of the others had already lost. “What I mean is, I’m to blame for the way Kurt is. He’s been sheltered. I’ve made him completely ignorant to the world around him. He doesn’t understand the way the world works. He reads and he listens to other people talk, but he’s never been allowed out. He’s never gone anywhere or experienced anything. He’s innocent. He’ll need care.”

“Am I here to babysit or deliver?”

“Both,” Burt said honestly. He couldn’t say otherwise. “I’m very serious. Kurt doesn’t understand anything beyond these walls. I’ve done that purposely, to keep him safe and away from the things that could hurt him. And now I’m asking you to take him through the badlands, where he runs the risk of being exposed to things that he can’t even begin to imagine happen. I want your word that you will shelter him to the best of your capabilities. Kurt will grow up the moment he’s married. He shouldn’t have to do it any sooner than that.”

Puckerman sighed.

Burt hastened to add, “I’ll pay more, if that’s what you want.”

“No, no.” Getting to his feet, Puckerman said, “I get it.”

“Do you?” Burt demanded. “My son is sixteen. He’s fiercely intelligent and more curious than you can imagine, but he’s still a child. I need you to treat him like that, for his own good.”

“Alright. I’ll take care of him.” Puckerman looked more serious, and Burt believed he would honor the word he’d given.

Burt winced a little. “Also, there’s something else.”

“What else could there be?” Puckerman groaned.

With a bit of trepidation and a grimace, Burt told him, “Kurt is a wonderful boy, really. There are few finer than him. But …”

“But?”

Burt blurted out, “Kurt can be difficult at the best of times.”

Puck requested, “Describe difficult.”

Burt braced an elbow on his bent knee and couldn’t help the smile that drifted to his face. He said to Puckerman, “Kurt’s very headstrong. I have no doubt in my mind that he isn’t especially excited for his upcoming nuptials. I can’t promise you that he won’t take that feeling out on you. In fact, I think it would be best if you had thick skin. Kurt has quite the talent for getting under your skin in ways you don’t anticipate.”

Puckerman pointed out, “You said he willingly agreed to marry General Anderson’s son.”

“He did,” Burt insisted. “I would never force him.”

“Then?”

“He’ll marry Blaine Anderson. I just don’t think he wants to. Not really.”

“So,” Puckerman surmised, “he’ll be a pain in my ass most of, if not all of the way?”

“Probably,” Burt said, a bit sorry.

“Well,” Puckerman said, shoulders heaving, “I hate to break it to you, Lord Hummel, but your boy isn’t going to be the first person I’ve had in my care. And he probably won’t be the worst. I’ve had my fair share of difficult clients. I’m sure I can handle him. I’ll manage.”

Burt hurried to add, “He won’t try to run away. I mean it when I say Kurt will go to the Eastern Front. Just … don’t expect him to be particularly happy about it. Kurt’s leaving everything he’s ever known. He’s leaving his home. It’s difficult for him, and he’ll likely take it out on you.”

Confident, Puckerman told him, “I’m not worried.”

A quick and sharp series of knocks sounded at the door.

Burt’s face lifted and he stood. “That’ll be Kurt now. I’ll introduce the two of you.”

Burt let Kurt in quickly, and took in the smudged skin at his son’s neck and palms. Kurt had clearly tried to hide it, but he’d been outside. He’d been down the pathway that led away from the house and to the countryside. Of course he had. Burt had expressly forbid it with Kurt’s marriage so close at hand, so naturally Kurt had gone. He’d probably taken Mercedes with him. And if the boy had any common sense, which Burt prayed for, Sam had gone along.

“Father,” Kurt greeted formally, his eyes sweeping over to Puckerman. “You called for me.”

Burt’s hand went to the small of Kurt’s back as he guided him across the study to stand near Puckerman. “This is Noah Puckerman,” he introduced. “I’ve employed him to take you to your new husband. He’ll be responsible for your safety during the journey.”

Kurt’s eyes raked over Noah, taking note of the complexion of the Ranger in front of him. His gaze swept across Noah’s strong shoulders and well defined arms. The Ranger wore a heavy coat, heavier boots, and it was impossible to determine his actual figure, but if Kurt was willing to guess, he was certain it would be one of power.

“Puckerman?” Kurt asked, standing as tall as he could. He was tall himself, and only his father and a few of the other men in the manor were taller than him. But Noah had a couple inches on him and it was a nice sight. “Noah Puckerman.”

Nearly startling him, Noah reached out, wrapping fingers around Kurt’s thin wrist. He brought Kurt’s hand up and kissed the back of it, greeting, “Little Lord.”

Kurt scowled furiously and jerked his hand back. “I’m no lady.” He wanted to press at his skin and wipe away everything, including the memory of the brief kiss Noah had given his skin. And part of him couldn’t bring himself to.

“I believe,” Noah said cheekily, “that’s why I called you a lord. Though you are beautiful enough to give most of the girls in this town quite the competition.”

Kurt blushed an angry red and Burt cleared his throat. The older man said, “Kurt, I trust you had somewhere very important to be this morning.”

Eyes dropping, Kurt mumbled, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Burt said with a sigh. “We should sit.”

When that was completed, Kurt couldn’t help blurting out, asking Noah, “Are you really a Ranger?”

Noah quirked an eyebrow. “Are you really a lord?”

Another glare slid onto Kurt’s face as he remarked, “I was only asking a question.”

“Yes,” Noah said finally, finding the scowl on Kurt’s face more attractive than he should have.

Noah couldn’t deny it, Kurt Hummel was more than attractive. Tall and leggy, he was exactly the type that Noah preferred. With milky skin and classic features, Noah thought that Kurt was the kind of beauty that hardly existed anymore. It made a great deal more sense why Burt had hidden him away from the world.

Kurt look to his father and asked, “And he’s going to take me to Blaine?” Kurt risked a look back to Noah and added in a stale tone, “Alone?”

“Oh, don’t worry, Little Lord,” Noah barked out, making Kurt jump a bit. “Your virtue is safe with me. Though I would hope that’s the least of your worries when we cross the badlands. The Rangers that exist there, and the Runners and Marauders, none of them take hostages. They wouldn’t be returning you to me after, if I let them take you.”

Kurt paled and Noah regretted his words.

Noah wasn’t sure what he expected from Kurt next, but it certainly wasn’t the defiant response that came, “Stop calling me that.”

Amusement growing, Noah said, “It’s what you are, aren’t you? Though you’ll drop that title when you marry, won’t you?”

Kurt looked away.

“Kurt’s question stands,” Burt said, curious as well.

Noah cleared his throat. “I’ll take him by myself through the badlands. We’ll move faster just the two of us, and we’ll be less likely to be noticed. I have contacts near the Eastern Front. If I feel we need them, I’ll have them ride along with us the rest of the way until we reach the General’s position.”

“And before?” Kurt questioned. “It’s a two day hard ride just to reach the edge of the badlands from here. I saw two of your companions downstairs. Will they come with us?” The idea of more than one Ranger disturbed Kurt. It made him anxious and worried.

“As for that,” Noah decided, and directed his words to Burt, “You’re free to ride with us until we reach the boundary. Or you may wish to send some of your men along to observe me.” Noah swung back around to Kurt. “Now tell me, Little Lord, how would you know how far it is to the badlands?”

At the moniker, one which Kurt suspected would stay merely because this Noah Puckerman could already determine how it annoyed him, Kurt said haughtily, “I’ve observed great deal of maps charting this area. Unlike the badlands which are poorly detailed geographically, those for this area are extensive. I’m sure I could tell you more of the geological features comprising this land than you could, and I’ve never left this town.”

“Confident,” Noah observed.

Ignoring Noah, Kurt told his father, “I don’t feel confident. Dad. I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Then what would you have me do?” Burt demanded, voice dropping. He leaned his head closer to Kurt and reminded, “You have to be married by the winter months. We have four weeks until the first snow. It would take twice as long to go around the badlands. That’s not an option. Noah Puckerman is the only man qualified to take you through the badlands in any way regarding a safe manner. There is no one else, Kurt. It has to be him.”

“Don’t you trust me?” Noah asked teasingly.

Kurt’s head snapped back to him and he said, chin raised, “I’m not sure I’d trust you with my laundry.”

It was that tone that Noah hated. It was that superiority that Noah despised. And it was Kurt Hummel that Noah was beginning to associate with the social class of Lords and Ladies that he’d run from years ago. He let his eyes narrow and said, “Don’t forget, Little Lord, your life is in my hands here. You’d do well to remember that you are not superior to me, as your tone would indicate. I will not be talked down to. You need me. It’s not the other way around.”

“Kurt,” Burt cautioned. “Your temper.”

Kurt’s long fingers brushed at his bangs. “You can’t expect me to travel with this Ranger. You can’t.”

“You will,” Burt said firmly. “It’s not up for discussion. And I’ve raised you better than that. We don’t judge others based on such petty things as preconceived notions.”

Ashamed, Kurt nodded slowly. “You’re right.” Kurt turned his piercing eyes to Noah and said, a clipped edge to his voice, “I ask your apology, Ranger Noah Puckerman.”

It wasn’t polite, not even slightly. Noah returned, “Of course, Little Lord.” He stressed the little, challenging Kurt.

“Mister Puckerman.” Burt cleared his throat. “I would prefer to send Kurt off with familiar faces. I can’t make even such a short journey, but I will send along a few of our men, those that Kurt is familiar with. I trust that won’t be a problem.”

“No,” Noah told him, his eyes still on Kurt. “I think the Little Lord would like that very much.”

Bluntly, Kurt asked, “Are you as good as they say you are?”

“You mean,” Noah interpreted, “should you trust you life to me?”

Kurt squared his shoulders. “Yes. My marriage to General Anderson’s son is very important. It’s probably more important that you will ever truly understand. That said, I would very much like an assurance from you of some sort that you can deliver on what you’ve promised my father.”

Noah folded his hands across his stomach. “Listen to me when I speak, and you may actually learn something.”

Kurt leaned forward. “I’m listening.”

Burt sighed.

Noah leaned in as well, his face mere inches from Kurt’s as he spoke. “I’ve been across the badlands six times. That’s likely more than anyone has that you will ever meet in your life, combined. I know the roads to take, the areas to avoid, and how to keep us alive and living off the barren land, if necessary. I can protect you, and your virtue, and get you to your husband to be. And I can do it all before we even get close to the four week deadline.”

Kurt’s eyes were wide, his attention focused clearly on Noah. Noah felt in command of the situation even as Burt said gruffly, “Good. That’s what I wanted to hear.”

Noah continued, “But here’s the deal, Little Lord. You listen to me. That’s the stipulation. I’ll get you there, but you have to do what I say. I know what I’m doing, and I doubt you know color the ground is an hour out of town. If you want to stay alive, and you want to stay safe, my word is law. You’ll do what I say, when I say to do it, and you won’t fight me on it. You don’t have to like me. You do have to listen to me.”

A forced smile made its way to Kurt’s features. “Don’t worry about the liking part,” he said, voice too whimsical to be anything but fake.

“Then,” Burt said as he held his hand out to Noah, “we have an agreement?”

Noah met his hand and grasped it hard. He said, “I’ll be back in a fortnight. Kurt will need to be read then.”

“So soon?” Kurt asked, outraged at the idea of leaving so quickly. “I haven’t even begun to pack. I haven’t said my goodbyes. It’s just too soon.”

Noah leveled at him, “You’ll bring one bag. That’s it.”

As Kurt gasped at him, shocked with the idea, Burt assured, “I’ll have him ready. You’ll collect your payment then?”

Noah nodded. “Then would be fine.”

“Wait, wait,” Kurt said, mind spinning. “We can’t leave so soon. You said you’d have me across the badlands in two weeks flat. It’s two days just to reach the badlands from here, and two days to the Eastern Front after we pass through.”

Noah questioned Kurt, “Have you ever spent a night outside of your plush little bedroom?”

“No,” Kurt admitted. He was fairly certain that the nights he’d slept in his parent’s bed as a young child didn’t count.

“You have four weeks,” Noah told him, “but we have less. The badlands are barren and scorching hot during the day, but this time of year, the nighttime temperatures will drop drastically low. And each day we wait, it will only get colder. If we wait too long, we’ll freeze to death at night. It’ll be too dangerous most nights to build a fire, and we’d might as well not go if we don’t leave within the next few days. You don’t want to freeze to death, do you?”

Wordlessly, Kurt shook his head.

“Then we leave when I say we leave.”

Burt walked the short distance to the door and opened it. “I’ll see you to the drawing room where you can collect your companions.”

Kurt slumped down in his chair as Noah left.

“I don’t think he likes me,” Noah told Burt as they neared the drawing room.

Burt barked out a laugh. “You’ve just put him off by not giving him the satisfaction of being your intellectual superior. He probably likes you a lot more than he’s willing to let on, maybe more than he’s willing to admit to himself. Give it time. He’ll come around.”

“He’d better,” Noah said. “Or it’s going to be a very, very long journey.”

____________________

“What next?” a soft and feminine voice asked. “Tell me, Kurtie. What was her name?”

Kurt grinned wide and leaned forward to smooth down the heavy duvet covering his younger sister’s small body. He told her quietly, “Her name was Sophie, of course. Princess Sophie. And she was the most beautiful girl in all of the lands. She was kind, too. Generous and sweet and loving.”

Sophie giggled, little fingers grasping at the edge of her blankets. “What happened?”

“Sophie was loved.” Kurt’s eyes met hers, and he desperately wanted her to understand the meaning behind his words. “She was loved so much by her mommy, and her daddy and--”

“And my brothers!”

Kurt shushed her gently. “Hey, now. This is a bedtime story about Princess Sophie, not Sophie Hummel.” Sophie giggled, not believing him. “But yes, for the record, she happened to have two older brothers, a Prince Kurt and a Prince Finn, and they loved her too. She was everyone’s favorite.”

“Oh,” Sophie breathed out. “Good.”

Kurt loved her so much it hurt at times. He’d never imagined the chance to have a younger sibling, not after the death of his mother and his father’s refusal to take another wife. But then Carole had come around, caring for the younger children during a particularly grueling harvest which required all of the adult’s participation, and his father had fallen in love. Sophie had been with them the following year, and his father, he’d married for love. He’d done the impossible.

“Sophie had so many friends, and all of the other girls and boys liked her. They’d go play all day, and have so much fun. And Sophie grew up that way, not having to worry about anything. Everything was perfect.”

He thought about all the things he’d miss. He’d miss her fifth birthday early the following year. He wouldn’t be there to help her dress her properly, and help her grow up into a young lady. Kurt would be all the way on the Eastern Front by the time she discovered what romance was. And more than anything else, he’d miss her betrothal. He’d miss her being Promised to someone. There was a good chance he wouldn’t know of it until it had already come to pass, or maybe until she’d had children, or become a matron of the town. He’d miss it all, and that was if things went smoothly.

She couldn’t be allowed to know he wouldn’t be there. Not until he was long gone. It would be better that way.

“What next?”

“Next,” Kurt continued, “well, Sophie Ann, here’s the most important part, so listen carefully.” She shuffled up in bed a little, brown hair falling onto her shoulders. “Princess Sophie grew up, and she was even more beautiful as a young lady, than as a little girl. And she fell in love.”

Sophie asked excitedly, “With a Prince?”

Kurt laughed. “Not a Princess?”

Sophie’s head shook. “Prince.”

“Okay. A Prince. Princess Sophie fell in love with a handsome Prince who loved her back. Together, they went to the Princess’ father, King Burt, and asked for his blessing to marry. And do you know what happened?”

Sophie shook her head, enthralled with the story.

“King Burt loved his daughter so much, and she was so important to him, he said yes!” Kurt leaned in, butting his forehead against hers gently. “Want to know a secret? Princess Sophie was so loved by her father, she could have married a farm boy and he would have said yes. Her happiness was more important to him than anything else. So she married for love, and everyone was happy. Sophie and her Prince lived happily ever after.”

Sophie collapsed back against her pillow and said, “Good story.”

“You liked that?” Kurt helped her scoot down fully into her blankets. “Good.”

“A lot,” she said. “Nurse Mary never tells good stories.”

“I think,” Kurt posed, “her stories always have lessons in them. Mine are … they’re different.”

Sophie asked, “Will you tell me one more?”

Kurt bent to press a kiss to her forehead. “You know it’s your bedtime, Sophie. In fact, you should have been asleep five minutes ago.” Kurt had hated the look of pity that Sophie’s nurse had given him when he’d asked to be the one to put her to bed that night. She’d known he’d never have the chance to do it again. It was likely the only reason she’d broken routine and let him. “Little girls who don’t get to bed on time hardly ever grow up to be beautiful Princesses.”

Sophie stilled immediately, eyes closing in a fake sleep.

“I love you,” Kurt promised. He loved her kind nature, and her selfless inclinations. He loved the way her hair curled at the edges and framed her face. He loved her bright brown eyes, and short stature, and willingness to please. He loved everything about her. And he hated that he wouldn’t get to see who she grew up to be.

“I love you too, Kurtie.”

Kurt stood from the bed and promised, “You’ll grow up into a Princess, don’t worry. You’re already a Princess.”

One eye peeked open, and then another, and Sophie asked, “Will you tell me another story? Tomorrow?”

“Go to bed,” Kurt hushed.

He gave her a final kiss, and then moved quickly from the room, afraid if he lingered too long he’d never be able to go.

“Why would you tell her those things?”

Kurt jumped, more than a little surprised to see Finn standing out in the hallway. His brother usually turned in early, even earlier than their sister. Finn liked to work with the men in the fields, something that required a rising time of dawn. Their father didn’t approve, but the man was kind and lenient.

“Tell her what?” Kurt demanded, leaning back against her door. “It’s just a bedtime story. I’m sure she won’t even remember it tomorrow.” No, tomorrow she’d be struggling to understand why he’d gone away, and why he wasn’t coming back of a very long time, if ever.

Finn scoffed. “You couldn’t have told her something more practical?”

“Practical?” Kurt’s eyebrows rose. “I never thought I’d hear that from you. Aren’t you the one that let her ride around on your back for an hour, and let her call you her pony.”

“That’s different,” Finn demanded. “This is … you’re getting her hopes up.”

“For what?” Kurt crossed his arms. “For a good night’s sleep?”

Finn blurted out, “Telling her she’s a princess.”

In a dangerous tone that dared Finn to challenge him, Kurt said, “She is a princess. And if you ever, and I mean ever, tell her to her face that she isn’t, I will personally destroy you.”

Finn joined him against the door and asked quietly, “All the way from the Eastern Front?”

“I’ll find a way,” Kurt mumbled.

After a moment, Finn said, “That’s what I’m talking about. You’re giving her hope that the same thing that’s happening to you, isn’t going to happen to her. The same thing that’s happening to me.”

Kurt frowned. “It’s not the same, Finn. Not between you and I. You know why I was Promised to Blaine. I’m my father’s heir. You’re not. I have to go away because of my dowry. I have the bigger dowry, and more to offer the marriage, so I go to him. That’s how it’s always been. He’d come to me if he held the knowledge that could help end the war. You’re not bringing that kind of dory to Quinn. In fact, she’s bringing a bigger dowry to you.”

“Burt said we’re pretty equal,” Finn said. “It’s a good match.”

Kurt agreed. There was no better match for Finn. Quinn’s father owned most of the livestock in the town, and certainly all of the sheep that were sheered to create their clothing.

“You’re lucky,” Kurt remarked. “I don’t think you know how lucky you are to be marrying someone that you already know. You’ll go into your marriage knowing how to make Quinn happy, and what’s expected of you. I’ve never even met Blaine. He’s written to me once, and most of the letter was standard--promises of how he’d take care of me and provide for me. Not what I wanted to hear.”

Finn shrugged. “Everyone says he’s a good man.”

“No,” Kurt cut in. “They say that the General is a good man. He’s scary, but good. They say the General is a man who takes care of his family, but they don’t say anything about the General’s son. I’m just to assume Blaine is like his father? Look how different my father and I are.”

Finn’s shoulder knocked into his. “Not that different. Maybe the little things, but you’re both good men.”

“I hope Blaine is a good man, too.”

“Do you really think Burt would let you marry anyone who wasn’t a good man? Even to end the war?” Finn didn’t think so. “And it’ll be the same with Sophie. He’ll find her a good match, like he found for me. She’ll marry someone who’ll be good for her, probably in ways that she can’t see at first, but she’ll appreciate later on. That’s why our parents make our matches for us. They know best.” Finn sighed. “But telling her that she can just fall in love with whoever she wants, that’s only going to hurt her in the end.”

“She can,” Kurt said defiantly. “She can fall in love with whomever. No one can stop a heart from falling in love. That’s not how it works.”

Finn gave a grunt. “Okay. She can fall in love with the farmer next door. That’s true. But Kurt, she can’t marry that farmer, and you know it. She’ll never be able to marry just any farmer. She’s been born a lady. That’s what she is. You’re always talking about our responsibilities because of our station. It’s no different here. She can’t marry just anyone. She can’t, and giving her false hope is just mean.”

“She’s five, Finn. Let her be a child. Let her have her dreams, before reality comes in and steals them all away from her.”

Finn stood up completely and took a few steps away, urging Kurt to walk with him. When they were on their way, he said, “She’s going to be heartbroken, you know. She won’t understand why you have to go away.”

“That’s okay,” Kurt said. “You’ll be here for her. You’ll explain things as best you can. And in time, she probably won’t even remember me. After a few years, I’ll just be a distant memory. And if I ever come to visit, you’ll probably have to introduce us. Time heals all wounds.”

“Of course,” Finn chuckled darkly. “Leave the sobbing little girl to me.”

Kurt patted Finn on the arm. “You’ll be fine. But I do have a favor to ask of you.”

“Anything.”

The halls were empty, even though it would be hours before most of the house went to sleep. Kurt wondered if everyone knew about his departure the following day. He wondered if they were giving him his space, or if it was merely a coincidence.

“Take care of our family?” Kurt asked. “I know you say I fuss, but I do for a reason. Sophie is young, and she needs people who care for her, not just nurse maids. She needs people who’ll listen to her, and cultivate her imagination and take the place of the friends she should have. If there were more kids her age, I wouldn’t be worried, but the birthrate lately …” The birthrate over the past decade had been troubling. Not many were willing to admit it, but there was an obvious decline, and with no foreseeable reason. If anything, the environment around them was continuing to show signs of improvement. Notoriously barren lands had grown more fertile over the past few years, and the pockets of acid rain were becoming fewer. But still, birthrates were down. Considering that, it seemed the worst possible idea to then be having young, strong men and women killing each other in battle.

The looming birthrate crisis made Kurt question why he’d been promised to a man, then, and not a woman. The General had a daughter of suitable age. She was fourteen, a little young, but not unheard of. What was so special about Blaine? Especially given that there would be no biological children between himself and the General’s son.

Low birthrates also meant that it was almost assured that Sophie would end up married to a man much older than she was. That pained Kurt. She deserved a young, handsome man that shared her interests, and not anything else. Or a wife, if she so chose. Even if Sophie had insisted on a prince during her story, it was still too young to determine where her preferences truly lay. Kurt wanted her to have the option of marrying a beautiful young woman one day if she so chose it. And not a man in order to preserve their bloodline.

“Of course,” Finn said without question.

Sophie was an oddity herself. Kurt’s last wish was to know the intimate details of his father’s marriage, but he knew that at first, Carole had only been a moment of weakness. His father had sworn never to love again, but men had needs, and Carole had been the method of taking care of those needs. But then she’d endeared herself to his father, and her trips to his bed had increased in frequency, and she’d come to stay with them, along with Finn. Kurt wasn’t sure that if Sophie hadn’t come along, Carole would have never been anything more than his father’s companion.

But Sophie had come. She’d been a miracle and a blessing and his father had married Carole to do right by her. Or maybe Sophie had made his father fall in love with Carole. Kurt wasn’t sure. The only thing that was certain now, was that Sophie was the only one of her age in the town, with only a few younger, and a few older. And Burt, he loved Carole now in a way he’d said he would never love another woman again.

“And your mom,” Kurt continued. “She does so much for others, and so little for herself. I guess that’s where Sophie gets it from. She takes care of the little ones, and tutors the older children. She helps with the laundry and the cooking, and all of the chores that she doesn’t need to, that we have other people to do for us. She does it anyway, because she wants to make everyone have to work just a little less hard. And that’s after she’s finished talking my dad into taking his meals on time, and leaving the workshop for a decent amount of time.”

Mutely, Finn nodded, guilt on his face. Kurt hadn’t meant to make him feel guilty. There was nothing to feel guilty over. Kurt simply spent most of his time around the house, watching Carole work, while Finn spent his days in the fields, working towards the harvest.

“Should I even start about my dad?” Kurt asked. “When I’m gone, you have to be firm with him. He won’t get mad at you. He won’t yell at you. Quinn will move here, to be with you in this house for the fist year. That means you’ll have a good opportunity to take care of dad. You have to make sure he doesn’t work himself too hard. The workshop is hot and humid, you have to get him out of there for long breaks. Help your mom encourage him to eat better, and not leave his plate half full in lieu of going back to work on a project. Tell him not to worry so much, and take some of the burden off his shoulders when you can. I know I’m asking a lot, but please, this is important to me. I don’t know if I can go off to the Eastern Front unless I know that someone I trust is taking care of the people I love.”

Finn stopped him in the hallway, right in the middle, where anyone could walk by. He stopped him by taking his shoulders in hand and then pulling him in roughly for a firm, strong hug. Finn mumbled into his hair, “I swear to you, Kurt. I’ll take care of everyone, like you do.”

Kurt’s face pressed into Finn’s shoulder and he enjoyed the feeling of his larger brother. He and Finn weren’t especially physical, and hardly ever shared moments of familial intimacy. But when the moments were had between them, Kurt valued and cherished them.

“And don’t forget you, Finn.”

“Me?” Finn asked, nudging them into a slow pace again. “What about me?”

Shortly, Kurt said, “You know what I’m talking about. I need you … I need you to focus. I know you like the fields. I know you like working with your hands, and contributing. You’re not my father’s heir, you’ve never been expected to do the things that I have, and you’ve always had more freedom that you knew what to do with. Things changed when our parents married. You … you lost your ability to decide your future. I’m sorry about that, but you have to be practical.”

Darkly, Finn snapped, “I’m marrying, Quinn, aren’t I? And once we’re married I won’t work the field anymore. I’ll stay in all day, running numbers, keeping the books, and providing Quinn with a child. That’s what I’ll do. That’s what I know I’m supposed to do. So I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Kurt caught Finn at the elbow and pulled him into a nearby room. It was empty, but well furnished, and Kurt recognized it as a guest bedroom, one that hadn’t seen company since Carole hadn’t been his father’s wife.

“Today Mercedes told me about the latest gossip in town. It’s about Rachel and the way she’s found herself in.”

Finn’s finger came up threateningly and he seethed, “You don’t know anything about her.”

“I know you’re having a dalliance with her.” Kurt’s head cocked to the side. “Deny it.”

Finn couldn’t. Kurt had known as much.

“People talk, Finn. This town is not that big. Everyone talks, because everyone knows the business of everyone else. You’ve always been sweet on Rachel, for years now, and that was fine until the moment you were Promised.”

Eyes narrowed, Finn said, “My mom said I wouldn’t be Promised. I told Rachel, I wouldn’t be Promised.”

“You’re a Hummel now,” Kurt said with a head shake. “You’ve been a Hummel for years now. You were going to be Promised the moment you took the name.”

“What do people say?” Finn demanded.

“Not that you call on her, and for that, you should be thankful. Only that you’re sweet on her. You’re Promised to Quinn, and Quinn’s father is very watchful. He might break the contract if he thought you were paying favor to Rachel over Quinn. But he hasn’t, so I think we can assume he believes you and Rachel to be good friends. Regardless, people say you’re too close. That has to end, before it endangers the contract.”

“I can’t just …” Finn fumbled for words.

“You have to,” Kurt insisted. “Your heart should belong to Quinn. And if it can’t, then your head should, at least. You could damage this family through Rachel. And Finn … I have to ask you something. It’s important.”

Finn looked away.

“Is she pregnant? The gossip says she is, but I want to know if there’s truth to it.”

Finn stiffened and said only, “I love her.”

Kurt took a long, drawn out breath. Resound, he told Finn, “You’re almost a man now. You’ll be a man when you marry. Rachel is your past. She’s youthful curiosity. She’s from a point and time in your life when you weren’t honor bound to fulfill your promise. And it doesn’t matter if she’s pregnant. You wouldn’t be the first man in this town to have a child with someone other than his wife, and you won’t be the last. But her child, male or female, is not your heir. It’s not legitimate, and it never will be. It can’t be. Rachel will have it, you are within your rights to visit under whatever formal pretense you want, but it isn’t your child. And you’ll need to make Rachel understand that as well. Finn, Quinn is your wife. She’ll have your heirs. She’ll continue on your legacy. And she will keep this family well respected.”

“How can you be so cold!” Finn spun on him with aggression. “How can you be so mean?”

“Because,” Kurt shot back. “This is about more than one silly little girl and the baby she’s carrying. This is about preserving a line. This is about a family that has accepted you, and loved you, and taken everything you do in stride, the good and the bad. It’s about survival, Finn. I’m going to do what it take to make this family survive, and so are you.”

Finn sank down to his knees, hands covering her face. “She’s sixteen,” Finn said, voice muffled. “And she’s alone.” Her fathers had died years previous. Their’s had been a cruel death, the same suffered by Kurt’s mother. “It’s my baby.”

“No.” Kurt moved to kneel in front of him. He caught Finn’s chin with cold fingers. “It’s not your child, Finn. And if you admit to it, you’ll shame this family. You’ll shame Quinn’s family. You’ll cause so much damage.”

“I love her.”

Carefully, Kurt’s dry lips graze Finn’s stubble covered jaw. “Look at the world we live in. There’s no room for love. Love is the bedtime story I tell our younger sister. That’s all it is. Love is a fantasy. Obligation and responsibility. That’s what matters. That’s what you understand to be true.”

Finn’s shoulders shook and Kurt held him tightly.

“You’ll be okay,” Kurt promised. “You’ll be okay, and so will I. We’ll all be okay. And in time, everything will be better.”

Slowly, admitting it out loud, Finn, “Rachel is the past, Quinn is the future.”

“Good.” Kurt swallowed hard. “I know you think I’m callous, and maybe even a little petty, but this for the best. We all do what we have to do, and then we hope for better for the next generation. That’s what my dad told me, and that’s what I know yours would have told you.”

“Yeah,” Finn said shakily.

“Look, here’s what we’re going to do.” Kurt guided him back up to his normal posture. “We’re going to wait until I leave. My father has enough stress in his life right now. And you’re going to wait a couple of days until after I’ve left and things calm down. Then you’re going to go to him, and you’re going to explain the situation.”

Finn looked like he wanted to protest, and Kurt quieted him with a severe look.

Kurt instructed, “You’ll tell him about Rachel, and about her child. He’ll be angry, but he’ll move past it. You’ll ask for a stipend for Rachel. She’ll be able to move out of the room she shares with the Johnson family, and she’ll be able to use that to provide for the child. Dad will do that much for her. But it’ll be up to you to decide if you want to tell your mother.”

Finn looked as if he might cry. “She’ll be so disappointed.”

“She’ll be cared for.” Kurt tried to sound firm with his still hesitant brother. “She’s bearing a child, Finn. Even if you can’t claim that child, it’s still a blessing to the town. The people here will make sure she’s okay. Every new mouth to feed is a blessing. Nothing will change that. And in time, you’ll see, the hurt and the pain will go away. What you’re feeling, it’s only temporary. Rachel is a smart girl. We all take the hand that we’re dealt in life and make the most of it. She will too. It’s up to you to give her the opportunity to do that, and to move on with your life.”

“I hate being Promised,” Finn bemoaned. “I hate everything about it.”

“Come on.” Kurt pulled him to the door. “It’s late. You must be tired.”

Kurt took Finn directly to his room, and then made his way one hallway over to his own. He was feeling wrecked, and the implication of what would happen the following day was starting to set in. He wanted one last night of peaceful sleep in his bed, surrounded by his things, and in the safety of his father’s house.

His father was waiting by his door. Waiting for him.

“Dad?” Kurt ventured, not sure why the man was there. Hadn’t everything that needed be said, already been said?

“Kurt,” his father said, sounding broken. “I wanted to … son, I’m not sure what I wanted. I should … I just …”

Kindly, Kurt smiled at him. “It’s okay. I know. It’s okay.”

“I feel,” Burt said with a sigh, “like I’ve done wrong by you.”

Kurt frowned. “Not possible. You’ve been the best father a son could ever hope for. You’ve always looked out for my best interests. You’re … you can’t say that.”

“I Promised you to a man you know nothing about. I’m sending you into danger, across the badlands, where so much could happen to you. I’m giving you to another, Kurt. I’m taking you from my home, and placing you in another, where you won’t know anyone. And you’re sixteen.”

Kurt shrugged, moving forward. “You married mom at sixteen. She was fifteen.”

The edge of a smile pulled at Burt. “Her father made us wait until at least then, or else I think I would have married her the moment I met her.”

Warmth and happiness bubbled up in Kurt. “You were eleven.”

“Some things,” his father explained, “you just know. The fact that I was going to marry your mother, that was one of them.”

Hands twisting, Kurt said, “I don’t blame you, and you shouldn’t blame yourself. Being Promised to Blaine, I’ve known for years. And I’ve always known, before he had a name, or a gender for that matter, that you’d choose the person I was going to marry. I’ll admit, I wish I knew more about Blaine, and I wish he were closer, or I wasn’t so far away, but you are not forcing me to do this.”

“In a way,” Burt said gruffly, “I am. You know what it would mean for this family if you didn’t marry him.”

“Ruin,” Kurt replied. “And that’s why this marriage is not a burden. Because you’re family and I love you. I’d do anything for you. As long as this is for the safety and well being of my family, it’s not a chore. It’s an honor.”

Burt hugged him fiercely and Kurt thought of everything, he would miss his father’s hugs.

He slept next to nothing that night.

“Kurt,” Carole urged the following morning at breakfast. “Honey, you need to eat something.

He’d tried. He knew Carole had been up early that morning, personally fixing him his favorite breakfast food. And it was an insult to pick at it like he was, but his stomach felt heavy, and he was worried if he tried to eat much more, he’d be sick.

“I know,” Kurt said apologetically.

At the head of the table Burt said, “Eat something, Kurt. Puckerman will be here soon.”

Kurt stilled, surprised at the words. “So early?” he asked. He’d been under the assumption that it would be later in the afternoon. He’d packed the previous day, and he knew his father had gotten his affairs in order in record time. He was primed and ready to leave at any moment, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to go into town, and say goodbye to Tina, and Artie, or any of his other friends. He wanted to see Sophie one last time, and spend at least a few moments with Mercedes.

Burt nodded. “You’ll need to make it at least half way to the Red Forrest Inn by the end of the day.”

Kurt had even less of an appetite as he confided, “I thought I’d have more time. Just a bit more.”

“We wish that were the case, sweetheart.” Carole covered one of his hands with her own.

Voice thick, Kurt said, “I wanted to see Sophie before I left.”

Carole smiled sweetly. “You know what a later sleeper she is, and then she’ll take her morning meal with her Nurse.”

“She’ll be okay,” Finn spoke up, trying to ease the mounting tension.

Burt pushed at his own food. “With a little luck, Kurt, and some real patience, you may be able to come home and visit.” In a few years, Kurt added to himself. He wouldn’t be back for at least a few years.

“I know,” Kurt said quietly. He had another bite of his fruit porridge and tried not to think of how much he wanted to go back to bed, crawl under the blankets and cry himself to sleep.

“I’ll have Sam escort you as far as he can,” Burt said after the meal was finished. Burt pulled him to the side and was personally helping Kurt into his heavy coat. It made Kurt sweltering hot to be under the thickly layered woolen coat, but he knew he’d need the extra insulation for the badlands. “You’ll also take a few other men. If I could, you know I would see you to the boarder myself.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Kurt was quick to say. “I understand.”

Burt’s hands brushed across Kurt’s masculine shoulders. “You’re my everything,” the man said, voice heavy with emotion.

Further down the foyer Kurt could see Noah Puckerman waiting, the Ranger’s calculating eyes watching their exchange.

“I love you,” Kurt said fiercely, and meant it more than he had every meant anything before. “And I’m going to make you proud.”

Burt drew him into a final hug. “You’ve already done that.”

“And you’ll make sure Sophie knows I love her?” Kurt asked, worried for his young sister. “She thinks I’ll have another bedtime story for her tonight. She’ll be waiting up for me.”

Burt promised, “She knows you love her, and she’ll understand. And I’ll tell her when she’s older, you’ll come to visit. She can hold onto that. That’ll be enough.”

Kurt couldn’t help himself, lunging forward to catch his father off guard in a second hug. The first probably should have been enough, but the second felt just as necessary.

“I love you,” his father said.

Kurt squeezed him tighter.

“Ready?” Noah asked when Kurt’s eyes were slightly wet and Burt had disappeared off to double check the horses he’d procured for their trip.

“Yes,” Kurt said flatly. He could see Mercedes, peeking around a corner, further down by the hallway that led to the pantry. She couldn’t be present as he left, but he desperately wanted a hug from her as well. He wanted to kiss her cheek and tell her that she was his best and most loved friend. The most he could give her now, unfortunately, was a small wave of his hand.

“Then get a move on,” Noah said, brushing past him. “The days are shorter now. We have to make some distance before nightfall.”

At those words, Kurt turned back to look at his father, and Carole, and Finn. Finn caught his attention, toes pointed slightly inward, shoulders hunched, and head down.

“Finn,” Kurt called out, waving his brother over. He offered Finn a hard handshake and then a longer embrace. He promised, “You’ll be just fine, Finnegan. I believe in you.”

Finn clutched him tighter. “Thanks, Kurt. And be safe.”

When Kurt let him go he regretted the years he’d spent resisting growing close to Finn, afraid he’d be tarnishing his mother’s memory somehow by bonding with his new family.

“I will.” Kurt dared to press a kiss to Finn’s cheek. “And be happy. Whatever it takes, be happy.”

Kurt was not a rider. His father owned a stable full of horses, more of a display of wealth than anything else, and Kurt had ridden more than his fair share of them, but not regularly. And he’d always done so with Mike, the stable hand, guiding him along. The trotting motion made him uncomfortable, and the smell was unpleasant. Now, looking at the horse he’d sit on for two weeks, he felt nauseous.

“Kurt,” Sam greeted, steering him close to the brown horse, spotted white in various locations. “This is Tomas. He’s reliable. You’ll be fine.”

Noah mounted easily onto his own horse and Kurt asked Sam quietly, “Can you tell I’m nervous about riding?”

Sam nodded a bit. “Just a little. But I’m going to ride next to you the whole way, as far as I can, and I’ll make sure you’re okay. Now, you do remember how to get up on a horse, right?”

Kurt made a sour face. “It’s been about a year, Sam, not a lifetime.” He slid his left foot easily into the stirrup and gripped the pommel. He asked Sam in an embarrassed tone, “Don’t let me fall on my butt in front of everyone?” There were his father’s men that Kurt recognized around them, two faces that he welcomed riding with him. But there were two more that he did not. They were Noah Puckerman’s men, and not the same ones that had been in the drawing room a day pervious. It made Kurt wonder how many men Noah employed.

“Never,” Sam swore. And true to his word, as Kurt hoisted himself up, Sam’s hands were there, sure and steady, helping Kurt settle into place. He took the reins firmly in hand until Kurt was comfortable, and kept the horse still as much as he could. “You good?”

“Having trouble?” Noah called out, the smile that Kurt was beginning to hate on his face. “Don’t you lords ride around all the time on your fancy, well bred horses?”

“Ignore him,” Sam said.

“Kurt?”

Kurt reached a long, slender hand down to his father and smiled when it was caught. “This is goodbye?”

Burt nodded. And for the first time since his mother had died, the world burning around them, Kurt thought his father might cry.

“Be strong,” Burt commanded. “And be safe.”

“I will,” Kurt swore. And he’d be home. No matter what it took, he’d come home some day.

Kurt supposed one never really forgot how to ride. He’d needed Sam next to him for the distance out of town, but after, once their horses had reached the softer soil outside of town, he began to sink into the motion of the horse. His thighs loosened their grip on the saddle slightly, and his fingers uncurled from where he’d been holding the reins as tightly as he could.

“Getting better, right?” Sam observed.

“Yes,” Kurt breathed out, relieved. “I just forgot for a while.”

“Not sure how you can forget,” Sam laughed. “To me, this is the best feeling in the world. I’d ride a horse all day long if I could.”

Kurt tried to pay attention. Sam was friendly and earnest. But there was so much to see. He’d been out of town only a few times in his lift, and never recently. He’d forgotten the landscape, and the features that he’d dreamed of. There were trees in the distance, and a ridge of mountains even further back. He could see grass and fields, and things he often read about.

The sky was the same, though, dark and dreary and hiding the sun.

“Kurt?”

Kurt shook himself back into focus. “Sorry. Sam. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.” Noah road in front of them, still within earshot and Kurt was willing to bet that he was listening. “About Mercedes.”

“Kurt,” Sam said in a hushed tone, pale features blushing.

“It’s important,” Kurt insisted. “You love her, don’t you?”

Sam looked off towards the forest they would soon be entering. He told Kurt, “Yes.”

“And you plan to marry her? To make her your Promised?”

Sam could only shrug. “I’m not like you, Kurt. I’m not a lord. And I don’t have parents to arrange that kind of thing. If we marry, it may be without a contract after all. She has her grandparents to figure her dowry, but who do I have for mine?”

“Firstly,” Kurt said, trying not to roll his eyes, “You’re going to be sixteen in three months. You’re old enough to marry, and being that your parents are dead, you’re the head of your house. You have the legal authority to arrange your own marriage. And you’re employed by my father, which puts you in a very nice position to offer stability to your future wife. Your station is your dowry.”

Sam questioned, “What about Mercedes? Her grandparents never seemed to warm up to me. Her grandfather … he just kind of scowls at me all the time.”

“Grandparents are like that,” Kurt said dismissively. “Trust me, they wouldn’t let you court her without a contract if they didn’t approve. Now, tell me you’re going to set a proper date to marry her. I want to know that my friends are taking care of each other, when I can’t be there to make sure they are.”

Noah’s head turned back to them as Sam said, “Yeah. I think we will. Next year, then? In the fall?”

“Good,” Kurt said, content. “And I expect there to be babies when I come back to visit. I want a whole house full of them, and you’ll make me godfather, right?”

Sam gave him a firm pat on the back and assured, “Of course you’ll be godfather. But no more talk about babies, okay? Let me work on getting her grandparents to agree to let us be Promised first. The babies we can think about after.”

Noah called back to them, “Don’t look so crest fallen, Little Lord. I’m sure you’ll have your own house of little military babies to look forward to.”

Kurt snapped, “In case you weren’t informed, I’ve been promised to the General’s son, not his daughter.”

“In a great mood today, aren’t you?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Kurt asked, feeling frustrated.

“Ignore him,” Sam repeated his words from earlier. “We have a long way to go. This won’t be the first time he tries to get you worked up.”

Kurt mumbled, “Thanks, Sam.”

“So try and look a little happier,” Sam urged. “Because things are only going to get tougher from here on out. A little positive thinking might go a long way.”

“Positive thinking?” Kurt echoed. He looked back out over the expansive landscape and told Sam honestly, “I wish I could. But it breaks my heart, Sam, with every second that we’re further away from home. And I wonder,” Kurt said, shoulders folding in a bit. “I make all these promises, to my dad and to myself, and to other people, but I really wonder.”

“Wonder what?” Sam asked.

Noah was listening again, but Kurt couldn’t bring himself to care as he answered, “If I’m really ever going to see home again. I don’t think so.”

___________________________

Kurt was struggling. A day into their ride and he was struggling more than he’d expected. He did his best to hide the pain he was in, and cover for the discomfort that would not abide. But there was no getting around the fact that he was struggling, and he wasn’t sure if there was anything to be done about it. Though neither could he imagine spending the next two to three weeks in the kind of pain that he was.

The worst part was that no one else seemed to be experiencing what he was. Of course all of the men in their party were likely used to riding for hours upon hours. Kurt had seen their hands, thick and calloused. They’d mounted up on their horses like second nature while Kurt had needed Sam to help him keep his balance. They had tough skin, and powerful thighs. Kurt had nothing suited for riding for all hours of the day. And he was struggling.

Next to him Sam chatted idly, and Kurt did his best to keep his face controlled. The last thing that Sam needed was to be distracted from their surroundings. The blond was talking fondly of his younger brother’s recent apprenticeship to the metalworker in town, but his eyes were careful and calculating. They scanned the landscape for potential dangers without hesitation. Kurt couldn’t bear to endanger them all by telling Sam how much pain he was in.

Maybe it would pass? Kurt wasn’t sure. He’d only ever spent infrequent amount of time on horses in the past. He’d learned to ride at his father’s behest, but had never taken to it. He wondered if this was his punishment now for avoiding what everyone else took the time to accustom themselves to. Even Mercedes was an accomplished rider.

“Master Quell thinks Stevie has real talent,” Sam told him, hands loosely gripping his reins. “In another decade or so he may be ready to take over. There’s still a lot to learn, and more for Stevie to prove, but potential is potential.”

Kurt forced a smile and nodded politely. “Master Quell doesn’t just apprentice anyone. Your brother should always remember that.”

Sam laughed abruptly and told Kurt, “Did you know that Stevie looked like he might cry the moment I told him that I was escorting you on your way?”

Kurt worried immediately. “We’ve taken every precaution we can, Sam. I hope you told him that you’d be fine and come back to him.” Kurt knew it would be so incredibly devastating to Stevie, and to Stacy for that matter, if they lost Sam. They’d be alone if they did.

“Oh, no,” Sam said, laughing again. “Not because of that. I think Stevie believes I’m invincible. He’d never be worried for me.”

“Then what?” Kurt questioned.

“You,” Sam said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “You know he adores you, Kurt. Why do you think he began hanging around Master Quell in the first place, running errands for him, earning his friendship?”

Kurt shrugged. “Stevie is a very responsible child. I always thought--”

“He wanted to be worthy enough,” Sam provided, a wide grin on his face. “He’s had it in his mind for quite some time that he was going to marry you. Of course I’d told him a thousand times that you’d already been Promised. I think he thought that if he became Master Quell’s apprentice, and then eventually succeeded him, you’d see him as the better match.”

Kurt gave pause, then broke out with his own smile. “I just thought he was fond of me.”

“Overly fond.” Sam patted him firmly on the shoulder. “He probably always knew you were going to marry Blaine, but you know how children are. And crushes are crushes.”

“You’ll give him my regard?” Kurt asked. Stevie was a wonderfully polite and bright child. Kurt wanted only the best of him.

“Of course.”

Noah rode ahead of them, as he had from the beginning, but as the terrain began to shift upward, sloping up several noticeable degrees, he dropped back. “We’re completely through the forest now,” Noah said. “It’s all uphill from here. It’ll be an even harder ride. Are you up for that?”

Kurt barely spared him a glance, eyes remaining forward. “Of course. I can keep up.”

Noah hummed a bit, then said, “We can afford to take a break soon, if you need one.”

“I don’t need one,” Kurt nearly snapped, able to sense Sam’s inquisitive eyes on him. “I can ride just as long and far as you can.”

“Doubtful,” Noah said, voice flat. “You’re riding too stiffly. The tension in your back is going to be a problem before too long.”

Kurt’s gaze finally slid toward him and he questioned, “How is it that you can see my body when you haven’t so much as looked back at me over your shoulder in half a day.”

“Fine,” Noah said gruffly, handsome features twisting. “Don’t say I didn’t try to help. Suffer in silence for all I care.”

Noah pulled ahead once more and Kurt called after him, “If that’s your definition of help, Noah Puckerman, then we have vastly different opinions on the matter.”

“Kurt,” Sam said, hand at the crook of his elbow. “Are you in pain?” Sam could barely wait for Kurt to answer as he continued, “Of course you are. How could I be so stupid? You’re not used to riding for so long. You must be in agony.”

Kurt finally allowed himself to grimace. “It’s not so bad.”

“It’ll be worse tomorrow,” Sam said with a sigh. “And it’ll be bad for a lot longer before it gets better. I’m sorry. I should have remembered.”

“It’s just my back,” Kurt said quietly, not wanting to attract attention to himself or his predicament. “It’s very stiff. And there’s a sharp pain in my lower half.”

Sam asked knowingly, “And your legs, right?”

Kurt gripped the pommel of his saddle tightly. “They burn.”

“Because,” Sam finished for him, “You’re not used to having to grip with them for so long.

Kurt nodded. “I tried not gripping so hard, but then it feels like I’ll fall off. I’m afraid to fall off. I’ve seen someone die from a fall.”

Sam scanned Kurt’s posture for a moment, then leaned over to him and pressed a hand firmly at the small of his back. “Lean forward,” He commanded. He pushed as hard as he dared, even when Kurt gasped quietly in pain. “Grip hard but lean forward, and point your toes a little.”

“Is this supposed to help me?” Kurt asked, doing as instructed. He found that when he did lean forward, more of the pressure felt to his arms and thighs, and less on his back. It hurt for a moment, and then there was only a release of pressure. “I stand corrected. Sam, you’re the best ever. I’ll marry you instead.”

Sam chuckled. “You’ll get used to it, Kurt, I promise. It may feel a little awkward to be leaning like that, but it’ll help. Keep like that for as long as you can, and when you shift back, it shouldn’t hurt as much. For the next couple days you’ll have to keep at it, at least until your body gets used to what it takes to ride all day.”

Kurt confessed, “My dad told me to start taking my riding seriously. I told him I would, and then I snuck out with Mercedes to go down to the valley nearly every time.”

“Well,” Sam said, “no point in thinking about it now. Just do as I said and you’ll be okay.”

Kurt thanked him and promptly ignored the way Noah was looking back at him. He said louder, “I appreciate your patience, Sam, in recognizing I’m out of my element. You’re a true gentleman.”

Sam looked confused, and as Noah turned sharply away, Kurt felt a bit smug.

They rode until just before dusk, and then pitched tents in a fortifiable position against sheetrock at the edge of a small canyon. Kurt felt even more useless as he was unfamiliar with how to set up camp, the things needed to secure it, and how to care for the horses who were tried and in need of attention. Kurt stroked Tomas’ nose gently as he watched Sam unsaddle the horse and said sorry, “Isn’t there anything I can do to help?”

Sam handed him a fine bristled brush and said, “You’d only be in the way. I’m sorry. But I’m sure Tomas could use a good brush down. After, you can feed him and by then we should have camp set up.”

Kurt took the brush and looked over to where the men were working quickly and easily together to pull up the tent that Kurt knew would be his for the night. It would be the last time he’d sleep in a tent. He’d have a room at the Inn the following night, and after that he’d be in the badlands, and sleeping under the sky without protection.

“I’ll be back,” Sam promised, and then left Kurt alone with his horse.

“I’ll learn,” Kurt swore to Tomas. “I’ll find a way to be useful.”

The horse snuffed at him and Kurt scratched his nose.

True to Sam’s word, just as night fell, the camp was ready, a fire was going and Kurt had a plate of food in front of him. His body ached terribly and he was in a sore mood, but he ate what he was given, appreciative to the man who’d cooked for him. He was one of Noah’s men, and had smiled at him gently when he’d handed the plate of stew over.

“Aren’t you going to eat more?” Sam asked, watching Kurt carefully throughout the meal.

Kurt gave him an awkward look.

Voice dropping, Sam inquired, “Is the pain fading at all?”

Kurt shifted painfully, as if to prove his point. “Only when I’m absolutely still.”

“Give me your leg,” Sam requested, setting his own plate aside. He leaned back against the large boulder he’d been propped against and gestured to Kurt. “Come on.”

Kurt felt embarrassed, most of the men watching them.

“Do you want to feel better?” Sam asked.

“Yes,” Kurt said finally.

Kurt slid his leg over and Sam pushed up his pant leg, requesting, “This could be construed as highly inappropriate. How about you don’t tell if I won’t?” At Kurt’s leg, Sam’s hands began to work his calf muscle.

It was the most amazing sensation ever and Kurt nearly moaned aloud. Sam’s hands were firm in the worse places, and gentle after he’d worked the kinks out. His legs felt like they were on fire, but Sam helped the burn fade a bit, and after only a few moments, he was beginning to feel better than he’d ever thought possible after the day’s hard ride.

“Come now, Little Lord,” Noah called across the fire. “Surely your fiancé wouldn’t approve of a simple peasant touching his future husband in such a way. Especially in a way he’s never been touched before.”

Kurt scowled fiercely as the other men began to laugh.

“He’s trying the same tactic again,” Sam said, helping Kurt turn so he could reach his other leg. “Don’t let something so repetitive win.”

“We’ll slow our pace, if that’s what our Little Lord needs,” Noah continued. “You’re quite delicate, I see.”

Kurt kept his mouth firmly sealed, refusing to participate in the ribbing.

“Nothing to add?”

Kurt asked Sam, “Do you think we’ll keep to our timetable?”

Sam worked his skin diligently. “I think so. Tomorrow we move to the rougher terrain, but the road is straight through. Now,” he said, letting Kurt’s legs fall to the wayside. “You should get to bed. I know you have to be exhausted.”

Kurt was, and he nodded, standing on shakily legs. “You’ll … I mean …”

Sam walked him swiftly to his tent and assured, “I’ll stand watch outside most of the night. Puckerman will keep watch on your tent for the other half. You’ll be able to sleep in peace.”

Kurt let out the breath he’d been holding. “I feel like all I do is thank you, but really, Sam, thank you. I know none of my father’s men would ever try to … but Noah Puckerman’s associates …”

Sam understood immediately. “I’d never trust you to them. Never.”

Kurt offered Sam a small wave and ducked into his tent, finding his bedroll in the small space inside. He dove into the blankets and pulled them over his head. Curling onto his side, he hugged his arms around himself and let himself cry. With any luck, no one could hear him.

In the morning he could barely move. His body stung like a thousand needles. He bit down on his hand to avoid making too much noise, unsure of how he was going to make it through another day of hard ridding.

“You look pale,” Sam said as soon as he emerged from his tent, dressed and ready to go.

Kurt waved off Sam’s attempt to get him to eat and said instead, “I had a hard time sleeping.”

Sam frowned. “I looked in on you last night. You seemed okay. You’re not coming down with anything, are you?”

Across the camp, most of the men had already saddled their horses and finished their breakfast. Kurt felt his spirits plummet as Noah looked him over, disapproval on his face.

“Sam,” Kurt said quietly, slipping his coat on and doing the buttons up. There was a heavy wind and he was already chilled. “I’m going to need you to help me on my horse again.”

Sam nodded seriously. “Yeah. No problem. “How about you just try and eat something, and then we’ll go.”

Kurt rebuked, “I’m really not hungry. I just … I just want to go.”

“Come on.” Sam caught an arm around his shoulders. “Walk with me to our lovely oatmeal breakfast. I’ll spoon feed you if necessary.”

Kurt kind of loved Sam.

“Up you go,” Sam said, his hands indecent on Kurt’s rear as he boosted the teenager up. The grip was necessary when he’d determined that Kurt’s legs were hardly going to support him on the hard pull up to the high saddle. Sam did his best to position them away from the other men, but like always, Noah Puckerman was watching. His gaze seemed unavoidable, no matter how much Kurt wanted it gone.

“Ride close,” Sam suggested, pulling his own horse close. “And I want you to promise me something, okay. It’s something important.”

Kurt blinked down at him oddly. He’d never heard Sam that that type of tone with him. “What is it?”

“Tell me,” Same urged. “When you start to hurt again. When the pains gets bad. Tell me, okay? I’ll make Puckerman stop. We’ll take a break.”

Kurt wanted to tell him he already hurt. He wanted to say that he was in near agony. Instead he nodded. He was determined to make his last day in Sam’s company enjoyable. He wouldn’t stop them and he wouldn’t let Sam know. There were more important things. “Sure,” he said, and grinned. “As long as you promise to name your firstborn after me.”

Sam laughed loudly. “What if it’s a girl?”

Kurt offered him a wink. “Sophie calles me Kurtie. That sounds pretty feminine, right?”

Sam pondered and decided, “How about Elizabeth? That’s your middle name, right? It was your mother’s name? If it’s a girl, we’ll call her Elizabeth. I think Mercedes would be okay with that.”

Kurt beamed at him. “Deal.”

They picked up a fairly quick pace from the beginning. It was a pace that aggravated Kurt’s already strained muscles, but he kept quite. And there was an added incentive. Noah, who’d spent the entirety of the first day riding at the front, taking the lead as they traveled towards the badlands, rode next to him.

Kurt asked him, near the noon hour, “Is there a problem with your previous position?”

Noah had smiled wide at him, eyes mischievous with a twinkle, and said, “Maybe I like it back here with you, Little Lord.”

Kurt scoffed. “Maybe you just like the smell of someone who bathes regularly.”

“Or,” Noah drawled, “I’m waiting for your precious little tush, as cute as it is, to get so numb that you personally ask me to have us stop for a break. I suggested it yesterday, and you weren’t willing to take me up on my gracious offer. But today, I get the feeling today is going to be different. I don’t want to waste any time. I’ll be right here when it happens.”

Kurt fumed silently. He wouldn’t give Noah the benefit. He’d suffer in silence for however long it took.

“Lay off,” Sam snapped right away.

Noah shrugged. “I can wait.”

“You can wait in silence,” Sam said.

Kurt bit his tongue. He wouldn’t ask for a break if it killed him.

And he didn’t.

By the time the Red Forest Inn came into sight, Kurt felt like he might slide off his horse at any moment. His thighs had gone from painful to numb, and the shooting pain in his lower back was so excruciating he wasn’t sure how he was going to get off his horse. Maybe he would fall off it after all, if it was the only way to get down.

Much to Kurt’s relief, it seemed there were only a few others staying at the Inn currently, their presence indicated by the nearby stable.

“Why’s it called the Red Forest Inn?” Sam questioned. He looked around. They’d only passed through one, small forest on their trip from Lima, and it could hardly be called that. There had been tress then, but there were none now.

“There used to be a trees here,” Noah said, making Kurt jump a bit. He’d lost track of the hired hand when he’d dropped back to have a few words with his associates. The man threw a powerful leg down to the ground and dismounted easily. “They were red.”

Frowning, Sam asked, “How long ago?”

“Don’t know.” Noah shrugged. “Before we were born. Before our parents. Something like that. I guess the name just stuck. You get the Little Lord down from his valiant mount and I’ll get us our rooms.”

“I hate him,” Kurt declared as Sam moved to help him.

“You don’t hate him. You don’t know him. You can’t hate someone you don’t know anything about.” When Kurt scoffed, Sam added, “Plus, in order to hate someone, you really have to care about them first.”

“Fine.” Kurt tipped himself to the side and reached down for Sam who helped him down. “I hate that he calls me that. I hate the way he treats me.”

“That’s fair,” Sam compromised. “But don’t let him know that. You can’t let him know he’s getting under your skin. And you’ll only have to deal with him for a few weeks. That’s not too bad. Nether will you ever have to see him again. It’s no big deal. Think of it that way.”

“Sure,” Kurt said. He groaned as his feet hit the ground. “Look for the positive.”

It was nice to have a room for the night. He was sharing with Sam, probably more for his own benefit than Sam’s, but it was still nice. They shared a heavy meal together in the canteen, and then retired to their room. Currently Sam was sleeping in his bed across the room, snoring lightly, making up for the sleep he’d lost the previous night. Kurt lay in his own bed, trying desperately to sleep. Eventually, he gave up.

He only meant to go back down the canteen and have a cup of warm milk, and maybe sit by the fire for a while. The Innkeeper, a heavy set, friendly man, had assured them they had the run of the place for the night, and Kurt had only wanted a few moments of peace to himself.

But there was Noah Puckerman, by the fire, feet up on a bench, nursing a cup of amber liquid. It was probably alcohol.

Kurt huddled as far away from Noah as he could.

Still, the man turned to him, looking surprisingly sober, and said, “I thought you’d break.”

Kurt tucked a leg under him. “What?”

In the light of the fire, Noah looked even more handsome. “I knew you came from good breeding. How could you not? You live in a fancy house and wear expensive clothing, and probably have anything you want. You’re a Lord. And I knew you probably didn’t have much, if any, experience riding. I knew you’d be in pain, and I knew I was pushing harder than I had to, just to try and get you to admit that.”

“So what did you want?” Kurt asked, resting his hands on the table in front of him. “You just wanted me to say that I was in pain? That you were the better rider? Why did you need me to say something you already knew?”

Noah sighed in a frustrated way. “Sometimes you want other people to tell you things you already know. It’s called being self centered. It’s one of my many, many flaws.”

Unsure, Kurt could only say, “Oh.”

Noah continued, “But you didn’t make a peep. You just rode on, even though I could tell you were in pain. You didn’t ask for a break, you didn’t make us stop, and you didn’t complain. You didn’t complain even once.”

Kurt couldn’t help being proud of himself, and maybe a little of Noah for noticing. He said, “Being noble isn’t about fancy clothes and eating well. I know some people make it into that, but it’s not that for me. It’s a state of mind. It’s a way of acting, and a way of being. For me, that meant not slowing us down, and doing the best I could.” Begrudgingly, Kurt added, “And not giving you the satisfaction.”

Noah laughed into his cup. “Stubborn.”

“My dad raised me that way,” Kurt said happily. “Or maybe he just gave up trying to get it out of me.”

“Your protector isn’t much of a rider either,” Noah observed.

“Sam?” Kurt asked, unsure.

“Sam,” Noah echoed. “He had you shifting around a lot. I bet that only made it worse.”

Kurt grimaced. “It was better for a while. But then it did get worse. Sam spends plenty of time on a horse, so he probably thought he was helping. I can’t hold it against him. It’s more than you did to help.”

Noah rose from his seat near the fire and moved closer, placing himself across from Kurt, but still managing to look twice as relaxed as Kurt could manage to fake.

The Ranger said, “I don’t doubt that, but he probably for short amounts of time. He’s built up an endurance for it slowly, and without noticing. You had to do it all at once.”

Steadying himself, Kurt asked, “Any advice?”

“Yeah,” Noah said, surprised at Kurt’s question. “You could ride sidesaddle for a while.”

Kurt drew back, almost angrily. “I thought we already established I’m not a girl.”

“You’re pretty like one,” Noah said teasingly.

“But I’m not.”

“No.” Noah nodded. He agreed, “You’re not. But you’re not used to riding like a man. And that’s what we’re talking about here. If you ride sidesaddle, you’ll give your thighs a break, though it probably won’t help your back. You’ll have to ride even more straight shouldered, but it’ll help with enough time.”

The hesitation was clear on Kurt’s face as he mulled the idea over.

“Or,” Noah said, and Kurt leaned forward, “we could pad your saddle. It’s a trick for kids. So you go ahead and decide, do you want to ride like a lady, or a kid?”

“No other options?”

Slowly, Noah shook his head. “And I’m guessing that your legs are pretty discolored right about now. It’ll only get worse when we ride even harder through the badlands. Sure, it’ll get better over time, but we’ll practically be through by the time that happens.”

Kurt decided, “I’ll think it over tonight.”

“Don’t stay up too late thinking about it.” Noah took another long drink, nearly draining the cup. “We’ll be into the badlands tomorrow before the lunch hour.”

Kurt’s fingers inched up onto the table in front him, tapping nervously as he tried to feel out the shifting dynamic between himself and Noah Puckerman. They’d started out on a less than positive note, and they’d been on a tumbling ride of ups and downs since. But this, Kurt reasoned, this was the first time he’d felt like he and Noah were communicating, without any prejudices or judgments.

“What?” Noah asked, eyebrow cocked.

“Tell me about the badlands?” Kurt asked. “No one … I’ve tried asking before. No one in my town has actually been, and none of the records are concise. Everyone just says it’s bad, and aptly named. I’d like to know what I’m riding into. I’d like to know the danger I face.”

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Noah offered Kurt his cup and said, “Want a drink?”

Kurt made a face. “I’m not allowed alcohol. It wasn’t allowed in the house at all. My father used to sneak some into his workshop, but he never let me have any.”

“Live a little.” Noah pushed the cup again at Kurt. “You’re not in your daddy’s house anymore, are you? You’re old enough to be married, and that means you’re old enough to drink like a man.”

Tentatively, Kurt took the cup in his hand and brought it up to his lips. The drink was horrible, flavorless and burned at his throat. He coughed right away as Noah laughed.

“That’s horrible!”

“It’s an acquired taste. Or maybe a learned one. Hard to say. Sure you don’t want to try again? It gets easier.”

Kurt shook his head empathically. “No. No more, please. Just tell me about the badlands.”

Noah nodded. “This way through, from west to east, it’s barren for a couple of days of good, solid riding. Nothing in sight. The ground is wasted. You couldn’t get anything to grow there if you put your blood to the ground with hard work. The soil is like ash, and it’s hard as rock. It’s cracked, too. Some of the cracks are bigger than others, so you have to pay attention to where you’re guiding the horse.”

Kurt listened diligently and tried not to interrupt.

“That’s two, maybe three days,” Noah reasoned. “After that, it changes.”

“How?” Kurt asked, unable to help himself.

“Big, sheer rocks,” Noah said, arms coming out as an example. “They’re bigger than anything you’ve ever seen before, jagged and in every which way. The trick there is going to be finding a path through. We might be able to climb over, though I wouldn’t recommend it, but the horses can’t. It could take us half a week if we don’t find the right way.”

Kurt bit his lip. “I thought you knew your way through? Isn’t that why my father is paying you such a large fee to take me through?”

“It’s different every time,” Noah explained. “When you see it, you’ll understand. It’s impossible to know the way through completely. The only people who do are the ones who live there.”

Kurt froze. “There are people who live in the badlands? How is that possible. I mean, I’ve heard rumor, but I thought it was just that. The badlands are uninhabitable.”

Noah finished his drink. “Mostly the degenerate, as you might expect. There isn’t a lot of law, not with the war right now, but there’s some, and outcasts like to live above it. They exist there, venturing out only to make their plunders and kills. They live in the badlands because it’s the only place where no one will come after them, and no one will control them. You’ll find some Rangers out there as well, the worst of them, the ones that bring the stigmata attached to the name. Which, Kurt Hummel, leads me to the worst part of the badlands.”

“Something more than the people?”

“Where they live,” Noah clarified. “And we’re going to steer clear, at least as much as we can. But we might not be able to completely. We won’t be able to take all the supplies we need with us. We’ll have to find some there, and the locals out there pretty much have a cap on any of the natural resources in the badlands that won’t kill us outright. I know a couple of places they don’t, and we’ll try those first, but getting through the middle part, where they live, that’ll be the worst part.”

Noah was big. He was strong and he looked as if he could handle himself in a fight. But Kurt, he’d never so much as been in a childhood scrape with another boy. He knew he couldn’t handle himself if they ran into trouble. Kurt knew he was wholly dependent on Noah to keep him safe from other people.

“What happens if we do run into them?” Kurt asked.

“Then you get down,” Noah said, voice rough and serious, “and you stay there.” Noah shifted forward, the firearm strapped to his back coming into view more clearly. Then the Ranger leveled a foot up on the bench he sat on and pulled at his right pant leg. Kurt could see another pistol strapped to his calf. “I can handle myself, and I’ll make sure you’re okay. Your job will be stay out of my way. If it comes down to that, trust me to take care of it.”

Fumbling a little, Kurt rushed to say, “I have a pistol. I hide it in my bag. My father gave it to me right before I left.”

“And have you ever handled a firearm before?”

Kurt shook his head.

“Then you’re more likely to blow your own head off, than anyone else’s.”

“I also have this.” Kurt reached behind his breeches and slid out a sheathed but dangerous looking dagger. He turned it over in his hands. “I used to help Mercedes out in the kitchens, trying to make the work go faster so we’d have time to go play, or explore. I think I’m okay with it. At least I won’t cut my own fingers off pulling it free.”

“Good.” Noah liked the knife better. “Then you leave the guns to me, and you keep that knife. And you better be prepared to use it if we run into trouble. Because if those scavengers out in the badlands get past me to you …”

Hand shaking, Kurt said, “I know what they’d do to me.”

“No,” Noah said sharply. “You don’t know. I’m sure daddy told you that they’ll steal everything you have and rough you up and--”

“--they’d rape me.” Kurt looked fiercely at Noah. “They would rape me. I know that’ what would happen. After, they’d probably rip me apart, limb from limb. And if I was very, very lucky, they’d do it in that order. I’m not stupid.”

Noah demanded, “Who told you that.” It was his impression, given to him by Burt Hummel, that Kurt knew nothing of the worst of mankind.

“Not daddy,” Kurt scoffed. “But the other elders in the village, I help them with various chores from time to time, and they talk. Sometimes they forget I’m there when they talk.” He clamped down on his hands. “Every year we have to take our harvest to the nearby towns to trade. A lot of the adults who go, they take their children, so the next generation can learn the proper way to haggle so we have the supplies we need to survive the next winter. It usually goes routine. A couple of years ago, it didn’t.”

“Bandits,” Noah guessed.

“Rangers,” Kurt spat, startling Noah. “Some of them, at least. I suppose they were bent on making our people pay a tithe of some sort, or maybe they just wanted to rob them blind.”

“Near Lima?” Noah asked, unease in his voice.

“I knew all the people who were attacked.” Kurt’s eyes finally shied away. “But two of them, Rory and Tina, they were friends. Rory was so young. He was still a child. He was the youngest of the group, and what happened to him … to them all …it’s …”

“I’m sorry.” Noah sounded sincere.

“So I know, okay?” People talk. I listen. And I want you to know that I understand if they take me, and you’re dead, that I’m better off putting a bullet into my head, than suffering through whatever they’d do to me, and I plan to do that. Make no mistake.”

Noah looked impressed as he said, “That’s good to hear. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to explain to you the necessity of something like that.”

“I’m not so delicate, you know,” Kurt huffed. “I know that I’m clueless on a lot of things. I don’t know a lot of things. Other than right now, I’ve never really been away from my home. I read a lot, but books will only tell you so many things. So I get it, I’m sheltered, and I’m okay with that. It’s kept me safe long enough to complete my part of the marriage contract. I’m not upset. But I can handle the harder stuff. I can handle the truth. And I can do what I need to, if things go sour.”

“Your father wanted me to make sure you stayed the little boy he thinks you are.” Noah chuckled at his own words.

Kurt looked down into his folded hands. “He loves me very much. He loves me more than I have known a father to love his son. I’m blessed in that manner. He only wants to protect me, so I don’t hold anything against him. And I certainly don’t tell him that I’m not nearly as naïve as he thinks I am. I’m not worldly, Noah Puckerman, but I’m not clueless, either.”

“Good,” Noah grunted.

Kurt felt as if he’d won some kind of battle just then, one he hadn’t even been aware he’d been fighting.

“Now,” Noah cleared his throat, “getting back on subject, after that, we have to curve down south a little, and that takes us into swampland. It’s just as hot, but twice as humid. We’ll loose most of our time there, and keeping dry will be the most important part.”

“Is there an end to the bad news at any point?” Kurt inquired.

“The swamp does end. But then it’s rolling hills of sand and not much else. But once we get through that, we’ll hit a town pretty quickly. I’ll get you to the front a little over a day after that.”

Kurt shook his head slowly, truly unable to imagine so many different environments in one, single space. Even more, it was hard to believe they could all be so horrible. Kurt had hoped for better. He told Noah as much.

Noah stretched his hands out behind his head. “There are places like the badlands everywhere. Most people don’t know that. It doesn’t matter where you go, you’re going to find some place that is completely wasted. And some of them will still make you sick.”

“Sick?”

“Yeah,” Noah said, “sick. The water and the ground. Maybe the sky. I don’t know. But a lot of places further east, and some of them out west, they’re still polluted--contaminated. If you go there and stay too long, or drink the water or eat the food, you’re going to get sick, and maybe even die. We’re lucky, the badlands we’re going through, they’ve cleared up some. But it’s still bad, and I don’t want to stick around to find out if there is still anything that could make us sick out there.”

“What makes the land bad?” Kurt asked. “Is it because of the bombs?”

“You know about the bombs?” Noah asked, surprised at that. “Most people think it’s just God being mad at people for doing bad things. Those religious zealots are having a field day, and have been for a long time.”

Kurt repeated, “I know about the bombs. I had books, remember? There were some that were really old. They said that a long time ago there was war then, like there is now. And our ancestors built bombs, and then used them against each other.” Kurt paused and admitted, “The books say that the bombs practically wiped out life, but they don’t really explain what these bombs are, or how they work. I don’t know if my dad knows, but if he does, wouldn’t tell me when I asked.”

Noah fumbled for a minute, then said, “You know what happens when a fire has been going for a long time, right? Only you don’t know for how long and it’s behind a door? And then you open the door, and there’s an explosion? A bomb is like that. It’s like a fire exploding, and destroying everything.”

Kurt’s mouth opened wordlessly as he took in the words.

“Isn’t your great big dowry supposed to be your brain? What’s your father been teaching you if you don’t know the basics?”

“I don’t know about bombs,” Kurt said defensively. “My dad works with metal. He’s taught me how to craft it, and make it useful. And we’ve been working on steam propulsion. That’s a better dowry than knowing what a bomb is, I assure you.”

It was Noah’s turn to be confused. “Steam propulsion?”

Kurt leaned forward and confided, “Imagine finding a way to move things without having to physically touch them at any time. Imagine better, faster modes of transportation.”

“Imagine,” Noah interrupted, “quicker and deadlier ways to kill people. That’s what I’m getting from this.”

Kurt glared. “I’m taking this information to the General himself. He’ll use the information for the betterment of everyone, whether they realize it or not.”

Noah snorted loudly. “There’s naive, Little Lord, and then there’s naive.”

Kurt crossed his arms. “My father wouldn’t have agreed to pass on a knowledge that we’ve closely guarded for generations, if he didn’t think the General would use it wisely.”

“Or,” Noah said, “he’s just a father, who’s so desperate to keep his son safe in an escalating time of war, that he’s willing to sell out his principals in order to protect someone he loves.”

“My father is a better man than that.”

“He’s a father,” Noah said simply. “That trumps everything else. You’ll understand some day.”

“And you would?”

Noah smiled. “I think it’s time for all good Little Lords to go to bed. I want to leave early tomorrow morning.”

Seriously, Kurt asked, “I want your honest opinion on our chances of getting through. If I do as you say, I want to know. In my father’s house, I was subservient to him. But here, on the road, I’m a man and I want to be told the truth.”

“Fair to decent,” Noah said with a shrug. “It would be better if we left sooner in the year, but if you do what I say, and we move as quickly as we can, I’m promising you, I’ll get you through.”

“Alright.” Kurt stood and drew his jacket closer to his body. “I’ll go to bed now. Thank you.”

“Kurt,” Noah called after him. “Two hundred and forty-seven years ago our ancestors were so desperate to win their wars that they were willing to risk killing everyone, and damning the future generations that we lucky enough to exist. They did that and look how we live now. I think you need to keep that in mind. General Anderson is a man who’ll do anything to win his war. Anything. Think about that.”

It was a scary thought, and it kept Kurt up all night.

_____________

It was fair to say that the last moments he spent with Sam were the hardest. There had been cause to remain stoic when he’d left his home. He’d had his father watching, and Finn, and Carole, and whether they’d admitted it or not, he’d known he needed to be strong for them. He’d needed to look as if leaving the only home he’d ever known was nothing to him. But there was no need for decorum now. There was only Kurt, several strangers, and someone he’d known for years, and cherished as a friend.

They’d left early that morning, but not before a large breakfast. Where previously Kurt had been unable to eat, that morning he’d hard two large portions, and nearly managed a third. Maybe his talk the previous night with Noah had done something to his confidence, because he’d sat across from Noah at the breakfast table and held a more than civil conversation.

But that was then. Now they were hours away from the Inn, and as far into the boarder to the badlands that a good deal of the group was willing to journey.

Sam helped Kurt down from his horse and said, “This is it, then. From here on out, you’re on your own.”

Kurt squeezed Sam’s hand tightly until he was firmly on his feet, and then even a little after that. “I guess so.”

Blocking Kurt from Noah’s view, Sam hunched down a little and said, “You’re going to be okay. I know that’s all you’ve heard for the past few days, but I really mean it. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Kurt smiled weakly.

Only a little hesitantly, Sam kissed his cheek fondly and said, “I know Puckerman is an absolute jerk. But he really is the best. He knows what he’s doing, and you should do what he says. He’ll keep you alive, and then when you’re living some fabulous life over on the Eastern Front, and things quite down a bit, I want you to send word back.”

Kurt reached forward for a quick hug. “Have babies,” Kurt urged. “Make Mercedes happy. And be safe. That’s all I want for you.”

Kurt couldn’t help clinging to Sam. Sam was, at least for him, the last little bit of home that he had. Letting go of him and ridding off with Noah Puckerman seemed the last straw to complete isolation.

“Kurt,” Sam whispered. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

And then he was ready. He was ready to let go of Sam, and step back, and be on his own.

From the side, Noah’s voice drifted over and said, “We need to get moving. We have to make a lot of distance today.”

Kurt let Sam help him back on his horse, even though he was getting more and more used to the motion and was sure he could manage it on his own. And then he waved to Sam and steered Tomas over to where Noah was waiting on his own horse.

Kurt promised himself he wouldn’t look back.

Noah remarked, “You looked awfully close to Sammy boy back there.”

Noah had been right about the land. As Kurt looked on in the distance, he could only see the flat plains of the desert like environment ahead of them. It looked as if the land went on forever, barren and dead, and it was a foreboding thought to think they’d be going straight into it.

“We’re good friends,” Kurt dismissed.

“That kiss looked like more than a good friend.”

“Noah,” Kurt said in clipped tone. “Don’t.”

“I don’t kiss my friends like that.”

“I imagine you don’t have a lot of friends.”

Noah steered his horse closer, nearly bumping into Kurt. He asked, “You going to kiss your husband like that?”

Kurt felt his irritation concerning Noah rise back up. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Touchy subject much?” Noah shrugged at him. “Look, we’re going to spend the next two to three weeks together, and I suggest that we pass the time by actually talking. Is that such an unfair concept, Little Lord?”

“Yes,” Kurt snapped, “when you call me that and talk to me in a condescending tone.” He’d thought they’d made progress the previous night, but it seemed that Noah couldn’t help reverting. Kurt was disappointed.

As Sam and the other men they’d traveled with began to feel more and more like a memory, Kurt tilted his head up at the sky and remarked, “It’s already hot.” In only a few shorts days they’d gone from a much windier, fall environment, to something that felt like it would be horrible to travel in.

“It’ll get worse.”

“I assume.” Kurt’s eyes narrowed at the dark clouds in the sky. “Is that … am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?”

Noah looked up as well. “What?”

Shakily, a smile found its way to Kurt’s face. “I think I see the sun.”

“It is up there.”

Kurt wanted to try and explain that he’d never really seen it. During the hotter, summer harvest months, it was there, but always lurking behind the black clouds and lower layer of murkiness that was inescapable. He’d never just seen it, bright and clear and bold. He’d never even seen a sliver of it, not like he was seeing now. It was breathtaking.

“It’s just the sun,” Noah said, sounding a little annoyed. “You’ll see a lot more of it.”
Still, it was a foreign feeling to Kurt. He’d never labored in the fields like any of the other men in the town, and he burned easily with his delicate skin, so when the sun did manage to take form beneath the dark skies, he’d been shepherded inside by Carole, or his father, and away from the warmth. Most of his life had been lived indoors, and it was hard to be outside, experiencing radical weather for the first time.

“Then what would you have me call you?”

Kurt held tighter to his reigns. “What?”

Noah rolled his eyes. “You have a problem with how I address you?”

Kurt straightened up. “You may address me by my formal title, if at all. If you’re going to be rude, I’m more than capable of spending our entire time together in silence.”

“Okay,” Noah said easily. “Let’s test that theory.”

Kurt’s chin rose.

“There we go.” Noah put a good distance between them again and laughed a deep chuckle that hit Kurt in his gut. “There’s that pretentious Little Lord I know so well.”

“You don’t know me,” Kurt snapped. “You don’t know anything about me. You make all these assumptions and think that if you’re subtle about your insults, that I won’t realize, but I do. I’m not stupid, Puckerman.”

“Puckerman?” Noah’s eyes widened. “That’s a first. Not going to call me Noah anymore?”

“A first name is earned,” Kurt decided.

“Alright, Lord Hummel.”

“Ranger Puckerman.” Kurt nodded.

Noah looked a little ruffled, and Kurt wondered what it was. But then he was distracted as his horse veered sharply to avoid a large crack in the ground he hadn’t noticed.

“What did I say?” Noah demanded, moving quickly to his side and reaching for Kurt’s reins. He nearly snatched the straps out of Kurt’s hands as he chastised, “You have to watch the ground. You can’t count on your horse to realize the danger. You just got lucky there. Do you know what a bust this would be if your horse was injured?”

“We’d have to go back?” Kurt asked, a little shaken by the earlier, quick movement of his horse. He’d nearly lost his balance and fallen to the ground. He wasn’t sure what was worse, a lame horse or a broken arm. Both might slow them down equally as much.

Noah hooked Kurt’s reins on his own horse. “Yes. At this point, the answer is yes. We need two horses to get through this wasteland. Anything less is suicide.”

“I’m sorry,” Kurt apologized sincerely.

“You should be.” Noah took a deep breath. “You can’t mess around. This is serious.”

Kurt leaned forward, pressing his fingers through Tomas’ mane. He braced himself on the pommel and tried to comfort the horse who was fidgeting a bit.

“Just …” Noah broke off, shifting uncomfortably. “Watch the ground. You can be mad at me all you want, Little Lord, but watch the ground.”

Kurt kept his mouth firmly shut and his eyes ahead of them. He doubted that Noah was willing to give him back the reins any time soon. And sure enough, as the hours passed excruciatingly slowly, they were locked side by side.

Ignoring the decorum that Kurt had been raised with and to believe in, he’d unbuttoned his white, collared shirt as low as it could after they broke stride for a quick lunch. His sleeves were rolled up and he fanned himself as they rode. He was starting to feel a bit dizzy from the heat and his skin was itching as the sweat rolled down.

To his amazement, the sun had broken through.

“Wait,” Noah said abruptly, stopping them. It was the first they’d spoken in a while. He slid down from his horse and rounded to Kurt’ side. “Down you go.” He held his hand out to Kurt, ready to brace him down.

“What?” Kurt asked, confused. He ignored the gesture Noah made towards him.

“Get down,” Noah demanded.

Kurt huffed, “I can manage on my own.” And he did, for the most part. There was a bit of a stumble when he caught his leg on the edge of the saddle, and he’d been riding for so long that his legs felt a bit like jelly, but he managed to get to the ground on his own. He tried not to look so proud of himself for such a simple task.

His mouth tasted like ash, and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He’d never really known the heat as it was currently, and he’d never been so thirsty in his life. He would have given anything to drink from the canteen hanging from his horse at that very second, but he knew they had to conserve what they had. He could hold out. He could wait until Noah drank.

“Do you have an extra shirts?” Noah demanded, gesturing at his pack. “A light undershirt? Anything not heavy? Something simple.”

Kurt looked at his own clothes in that moment. They were finely tailored, and made of expensive material. They were the best, his father knew how picky he could be about his clothing, and there was nothing simple that he owned.

“Well?”

The sharpness of Noah’s voice was jarring.

“I have a sleeping shirt,” Kurt said finally. “It’s thin.”

By the time Kurt pulled it from his satchel Noah looked even more angry than he had moments ago.

“What’s wrong?” Kurt asked.

A bit childishly, Noah asked, “Have you actually even been in the sun before?”

“You know I’ve never left my home before,” Kurt defended. “And the sun doesn’t come out there. So no, I’ve never actually been in the sun before.”

Noah snorted and ripped Kurt’s sleeping shirt to pieces.

“What are you doing!” Kurt demanded, lunging for the shirt.

“I bet that’s not on accident.” Noah made quick, precise rips, easily and practiced in his motions. “Is it, Little Lord.”

Kurt’s features pulled sourly. “I don’t understand.”

Noah caught his chin in a surprisingly gentle grasp and then began wrapping the shirt around Kurt’s head, carefully using the material to shield Kurt’s forehead and most of his features.

“It’s a common practice between the more well bred Lords and Ladies. They deliberately keep their children inside, mainly to keep them pale and their skin soft. When it comes down to it, being able to pass your child off as a little porcelain doll is beneficial when finding them a good match.”

“I still don’t …”

Noah sighed. “Pale, precious little Lords fetch a higher price. They require smaller dowries. That’s it. There’s nothing to understand. The color of your skin is a selling point.”

Kurt had never heard anything so ridiculous in his life. The color of someone’s skin? Why would that have mattered in the slightest bit? He said, “But I know plenty of--”

“You lived in a bubble,” Noah reminded, his hands falling away from Kurt finally. “You lived in a tiny, perfect little bubble. But you’re a big boy now, and you’re going out into the real world. Some people, the more stupid ones, place an emphasis on the color of someone’s skin. They think it means something. And whether you knew that or not, I’d be willing to bet anything, your father certainly did. You’re as pale as they come, and you’re that way for a reason.”

Kurt reached up to touch the wrap on his head. “What’s this for?”

“Haven’t you been listening to what I said?”

“Mostly.”

Noah flicked him on the forehead softly. “You’re not used to the sun. You won’t just burn, you’ll fry. We have to protect your head and skin, and this is the best way. It’s going to be hot, and probably uncomfortable, but for the next three or four days, you’d do best to wear it. It’ll protect you more than anything else.”

“You’re not wearing one,” Kurt pointed out.

Noah ran a hand over his head. “I spend most of my time outside. I’m used to it. But I’ll make one eventually, too, especially as we go further in. Unlike you, I don’t have to worry about damaging my face. I get by on merit.”

Kurt lifted a leg up onto the stirrup and managed to pull himself completely onto his horse. “Don’t talk to me,” he snapped.

“Back to the silent treatment?”

“I wouldn’t give it to you if you were nicer.”

Noah snorted. “Little Lord, there isn’t anything you could give me that would be worth having.”

Kurt resolved not to speak to him at all, at least not until he received an apology. It was only later on that he realized it might be a while.

Several hours later, after the worst of the heat had passed, and the sun was setting, Noah stopped them and said, “We’ll camp for the night. It’s too dangerous here to move through the night. I’m going to start setting up. We’ll make a fire tonight, we’re still close enough to the boarder to risk it. But don’t get used to it. It might be the last time.”

Kurt nodded, but remained silent. He dismounted and stood a bit awkwardly. He hadn’t been involved with any of the previous times camp had been made, and he still had no idea how to do it. He petted Tomas, the horse sniffling at the motion, and waited.

“Go find us some scrap wood if you can,” Noah barked, waving at him. “There’s bound to be dead tree scraps around here somewhere. But don’t go far. I want to be able to see you at all times.”

Kurt took a look around. They’d started out in a vastly empty area, but they had quickly moved into land that sloped a bit more, and the sheer rocks that Noah had warned him back a day pervious were beginning to show signs of appearing. And upon closer observation, he could see the remnants of trees that had long since died.

The worst part, in Kurt’s opinion, was that the heat of the day was waning fast. He’d at least been comforted by the idea that he wouldn’t freeze to death at night, not like how could he’d been the last time they’d made camp. It was almost scary how hot it could be during the day, and how cold he could already tell the night would be.

“Kurt!”

“That’s Lord Hummel,” he corrected, his first words to Noah in hours.

“Well then,” Noah said breathy, giving a mock bow, “if his Lord Hummel would like to move his delicate rear end and be of any use at all, that would be greatly appreciated.”

Chin up, Kurt stalked off, thankful for the distance between them.

Dinner was eaten in silence, and then when it was later than Kurt was used to being awake, Noah decided, “We should head to bed soon. We’ll have to get up early. I think we’ll make most of our time in the morning, when it’s still cool, and slow down during the hottest hours. Something tells me we’ll have to pace ourselves.”

Sitting across from Noah, as close to the fire as he dared, Kurt glared a bit. He was certain that was a dig at himself.

“Shouldn’t one of us stay up?” Kurt ask, breaking his silence. “You know, to keep watch?”

Noah shook his head and stood, kicking a bit of sand and dirt into the fire. It snuffed down the flame to a low burn, and the light around them dropped considerably. With the pure black sky above them, Kurt could barely see Noah even so close to him.

“I’m a light sleeper,” Noah assured. “Nothing is going to sneak up on us.”

“Nothing?” Kurt wondered aloud. Didn’t he mean no one?

Kurt startled as he felt Noah’s hand on him, guiding him down to lay against his pack, and across the cloth tarp they’d laid out earlier.

“Don’t freak out,” Noah said, voice dropping.

“What’re you doing?”

On his back, Kurt shifted about, trying to get comfortable and trying even more to hide his nervousness. He could feel Noah next to him, laying down as well, too close for Kurt to do anything but wish he were further away. Noah was warm and firm and smelled wonderful. It was distracting as much as it was terrifying.

“Getting ready to sleep,” Noah said, like it was normal.

“Why are you …” Kurt broke off. He hugged himself tightly as Noah threw an arm around his stomach and stilled.

“Go to sleep.”

Kurt couldn’t. He just couldn’t. It was impossibly inappropriate to have Noah so near him. Even under their circumstances, there was nothing that was strange enough to permit him to touch Kurt the way he was. And Kurt wasn’t sure how he could explain the situation away, to himself or anyone else. His bedroll was his own, not Noah’s, and it was not to be shared. Quarters were not to be shared. That was a right reserved for family. Noah was not family.

“Stop moving,” Noah moaned out.

Kurt held his breath.

Tense, he let his eyes keep to the night sky, recalling his books and the stars that had once been visible from the ground. Orion’s Belt. Cancer. Capricorn. The Big Dipper. He’d memorized them one winter, cooped up inside of his room with a terrible cough and a fever that had his father more than a little anxious. The town doctor had assured everyone that he’d recover, but his cough had persisted for weeks and weeks, and Kurt had been kept sequestered to prevent him from passing anything along. People had left him alone, but he’d had his books.

He’d read about the stars them, bright and shiny in the night sky so many hundreds of years ago. He’d leaned the different patterns, and why they were called such. He’d even learned about the men who’d named them. It seemed there was no shortage of information on the sky, and even though it was gone now, there was no reason not to be informed.

“What’s wrong?”

Kurt couldn’t help startling once more. He’d thought Noah had gone to bed. The man’s body had been lax against Kurt’s, relaxed even. Noah’s breathing had been deep and even, all the signs that he was sleeping.

“Nothing,” Kurt swore. He hadn’t meant to wake Noah, if he had.

“You’re fidgeting.”

“I’m not.”

“You’re tense.”

“Well,” Kurt said, a little breathless, “it’s quite hard to sleep.”

“You managed it two days ago,” Noah mumbled, shifting a bit. “Was it because you had that fancy tent?”

Quietly, Kurt shook his head. “No.”

“And if I got you a fancy bed, would the Little Lord be able to sleep then?”

Bluntly, and fatigued, Kurt told Noah, “You’re touching me.”

Kurt had been able to feel the crease of Noah’s arm across his stomach for what had to have been the past hour. And the tips of Noah’s fingers had been grazing his hip, a move so intimate and so sexual and Kurt had almost felt ill.

“What?” Kurt felt Noah shift even more drastically, and then he knew the man was sitting up. “I’m touching you?”

“Yes.”

“I touched you all day long,” Noah said. “Several times.”

The way it sounded, Kurt couldn’t help requesting, “There are better ways to say that.”

“I’m tired,” Noah groaned out. “I’m tired and I want to go to bed. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, and stamina is going to come into play. So I suggest you get over your sudden phobia of being touched, and go to bed.”

Kurt whispered, “It’s different now.”

“Different?” Kurt could hear the tolerance leaving Noah with each passing second.

Admitting the problem seemed the only way to find a solution, and Kurt was forced to tell him, “This is inappropriate.”

Noah scoffed. “I know you’re a blushing virgin, so I’m going to cut you some slack. But inappropriate? You don’t know what that word means if you think this is it. It’s cold out. It’s damn near freezing, and if we didn’t have the fire, we’d really be in trouble. But even a fire can’t keep a person warm in the best way. Sharing body heat is important. Trust me, you’re about the last person I’d want to share body heat with, but it’s going to get us through the night. Now, if you’re worried or scared, even though I’ve reminded you multiple times that your virtue is safe--”

“Stop mocking me.”

“--then I’ll remind you again, I won’t take advantage of you, I won’t touch you in a sexual way, and I’ll be sure to deliver you with virginity intact to your future husband. Got that?”

“I’ve never been touched by another man, not like this,” Kurt blurted out. “Never as I’m lying down.”

In the faint glow of the fire, Kurt could just make out Noah’s frown as the man said, “I already assured you, your virtue is safe.”

Kurt shook his head frantically. “You don’t understand. I’m chaste. I’m … I don’t …” Kurt paused, then rushed to say, “This never would have been allowed. I don’t know how to let you touch me.”

“Maybe I should call you Lord Prude,” Noah laughed.

Kurt felt his eyes sting. “It’s not being a prude. I’ve just been taught … Noah, you just don’t understand.”

Oddly, Noah said, “I do.”

“How could you?” Kurt demanded. “You touch me so carelessly, and with such cavalier, but I’ve been taught that touch is sacred. My father would never allow someone to touch me, and not just for the sake of my chastity. I’ve never so much as shared the bed of another person, outside of my family, in an intimate way or not.”

Kurt had slept in his parents bed when he’d been young, and then again after his mother had died when he’d needed to be close to his father, to reassure himself that he’d still be there in the morning. But he’d never given himself to another, and never shared a bed. Not like Finn had. Not like his father had.

Kurt moved to sit up and he was caught off guard by Noah when the man asked, “You’re completely chaste?”

“Yes,” Kurt said carefully, not sure about the turn in the direction of the conversation. “You knew that.”

“No, no,” Noah said a little desperately, “I don’t mean you’ve never had sex. I mean … have you even pulled it?”

Kurt was never so thankful for the darkness as he flushed heavily. “What?” he had a clue what Noah was talking about, but it was horribly embarrassing.

“Okay. Wow.” Noah cleared his throat. “Have you ever kissed anyone?”

Shuddering, Kurt could only repeat, “I’m chaste. I’m chaste and I’ve waited for Blaine.”

“There’s a difference,” Noah grossed, “between being virgin, and being chaste.”

“It’s in my contract. I’m to remain chaste. I don’t understand why that’s such a big deal to understand or respect.”

“Kurt.” Noah’s hand was heavy on his knee. “You should have told me.”

“I did,” Kurt said, voice stressed. “I’ve told you time and time again. I’m chaste, and you can’t touch me. Not while we sleep. Not like you’ve been doing for the past hour. It’s wrong. It’s inappropriate. It makes me uncomfortable. I can’t sleep while you’re touching me in a way that’s reserved for my husband.”

“I hope your husband is willing to touch you a lot better than I have,,” Noah said bluntly. “But kid, Kurt, you need to get it through your thick skull, there’s something different between intimacy and sex.”

“And you need to respect my boundaries.”

Noah was quiet for what felt like forever. He was still and silent next to Kurt, probably thinking, but Kurt couldn’t be sure.

“We have to share body heat,” Noah said finally. “That’s not something we can compromise. It’s basic survival. And if you think this is cold, you have no idea how much worse it’s going to get. Right now is nothing. We’re just sleeping next to each other right now. Give it a week. We’ll be sharing the same roll by then, and maybe even more.”

Kurt let his fingers rest lightly over Noah’s. “It feels weird to be touched, at least in bed, when I’m vulnerable.”

“You’ve really never been kissed?”

Kurt couldn’t help laughing a little, and it felt good. “How is that so hard to believe?”

Noah shrugged. “By the time I was your age I’d kissed everyone in my town, and probably most of the people in the two towns nearest me.”

It was weird and almost a little scary to hear Noah mention even the smallest of things about his own life. Noah never really spoke of himself, and Kurt knew next to nothing about him.

“I was Promised to Blaine by the time I was ten,” Kurt explained. “I knew, even when there were … urges, that the contract was going to be more important than anything else. There was no one worth taking the risk of breaking that contract.”

“What? Did you have a bunch of ugly guys everywhere? No prospects?”

Noah laid back down against him, though with a bit more room now, and Kurt felt better than he had before.

“It wasn’t that.” Kurt frowned. “You’ve been to Lima several times now, I’m sure. There are several handsome young men to choose from, some are even still unattached. I’m sure any of them would have been willing to kiss me, several offered.”

“Then why didn’t you?” Noah rolled to his side, head cradled by a hand. “I know I gave you a hard time about being so pale and delicate, but you really are exceptional looking.”

Squinting a little, Kurt wondered, “Are you paying me a compliment?” It sounded like Noah had called him attractive, but he couldn’t be sure.

Noah scooted a little closer, and Kurt would be hard pressed not to admit that it was warmer when Noah fitted against him.

Noah corrected, “All I’m saying is that if I’d been a teenager in your town, you’d totally be my first choice.”

Tentatively, Noah’s arm came back around his waist. It didn’t feel so heavy now, and Kurt had less of an urge to shrug it off.

“My dad says I’m a hopeless romantic,” Kurt giggled a bit. “He doesn’t mean it in a bad way, and he says mom was just like that. I get it from her. I want to kiss someone. I want to know what Finn’s always talking about, and why my dad always looks so happy when he kisses Carole. I want to share that with someone, and experience it. I really do. But the person has to be right. You only have one first kiss. I want mine to be magical. I need it to be special. And if that means I have to wait a while, then so be it.”

“And after that little speech, you’re going to tell me that you’re more than willing to just fork it over to a kid you’ve never met?”

“Blaine?” Feeling drowsy, Kurt leaned into Noah. “I feel better knowing he’s saving himself for me, the same as I’m doing for him. And he wants me. He’s written me telling me as much. I don’t think he’d lie, there’d be no cause for it. When I share my first kiss with him, even if it’s arranged, I know it’ll mean something. It’ll be worth something. And I’ll have both the honor and distinction of knowing I gave myself wholly to my husband, and to no one else. He’ll be the only person who owns anything of me like that. I don’t suppose many people can claim that.”

“Don’t know many people would want to.”

Kurt sighed. “It’s a matter opinion. Of propriety.”

Noah grunted. “Go to sleep.”

Kurt made to tell him he couldn’t, not while Noah was so close, and they were touching. But he’d found in a few moments they’d spent talking to each other, his nerves had calmed. It didn’t feel nearly so uncomfortable, though it was still inappropriate.

“Sleep,” Noah said once more.

Kurt closed his eyes. He thought of home, and everything that he loved.

“Okay,” Kurt said, determined to endure. “Goodnight.”

Noah woke up cold. That wasn’t anything completely unusual, but he sensed there was something wrong immediately. Cracking his eyes open he took a moment, taking inventory of himself, and then …

“Damnit!”

Noah struggled to get free of his blanket for a second and then was on his feet a moment later, spinning wildly, trying not to panic. But it was all he could do. Kurt was missing. Kurt, who’d spend the night tucked in close, mumbling about things Noah couldn’t make out, was missing.

“Kurt!”

This was bad. He’d warned Kurt about straying from his side, and always keeping within eyesight. He thought he’d stressed the importance of it.

But Kurt was headstrong. He was sheltered and a little unsure of himself, but he was so damn headstrong and stubborn and difficult at times. Kurt couldn’t see the danger around him, or the need for caution. And even if he could, Noah was under no illusion that Kurt wouldn’t have just wandered off to go explore this new word without care or thought. Noah had seen that in Kurt from the beginning, from his wide eyes, to the constant curiosity. To Kurt, everything outside of his little town was a new adventure, and something wonderful to experience. Whatever trepidation Kurt had about his impending marriage, he seemed determined to take in all that he could before such time.

“Kurt! Answer me!”

They were a day and a bit more into the badlands, still close enough to head back if they ran into danger, but also far enough in that danger could easily find them if it wanted. Kurt going off on his own was inviting danger to play with him. And he wasn’t sure if Kurt could handle anything that came at him in the badlands. At least not without backup.

Noah thought Kurt needed a good spanking for wandering off and acting as inconsiderate as a child.

“You had better answer me!”

Noah slipped on his boots. He’d have no choice but to go out after Kurt. A quick look at their campsite had him able to determine the freshest set of tracks around them, and the direction they led off to. The footprints were large, male, and held a heavier pressure on the front of the foot. Noah had seen Kurt walk, almost like he was floating by. The tracks were Kurt’s without a shadow of a doubt.

“Maybe you should go far, far away!” Noah decided, following the tracks quickly. “Because when I get my hands on you, I’m going to strangle you!”

It worried Noah how far the tracks went on. They went on several minutes out of camp, and into a grouping of boulders.

“Kurt Hummel!”

“Come now,” a pretty voice huffed, one that was all Kurt Hummel and completely unmistakable, “you don’t have to yell.”

Noah wasn’t sure what he’d expected to find. But Lord Kurt Hummel perched easily on top of a sheer rock, legs crossed, looking far too nonchalant, was not one of his expectations. Kurt had taken his canteen with him and was using it, along with an odd looking comb, to style his hair. He looked as if he’d been awake for a while, and whether Noah wanted to admit it or not, his hair was near perfection, coifed and pristine.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Noah demanded, realizing for the first time that he was out of breath. His heart was beating frantically and he was only just now beginning to come down off the rush of adrenaline that he’d been on moments earlier.

“Nothing,” Kurt insisted. He brought the comb once more through his hair, carefully styling it with the aid of a small mirror. “And don’t yell at me.”

“I told you not to wander off on your own. It’s dangerous.”

Kurt scoffed. “It’s fine. I checked. All good monsters have gone to bed. It’s just us out here.”

Noah barked, “You’re as naïve as you are stupid. And stop wasting water on your hair!” Especially considering it would only be destroyed when the sun was too high once more and it was too hot and humid.

Kurt looked over at him, face stale in its expression. “It’s my water. I can do whatever I want to with it.”

Noah wanted to grab him and shake him for being so difficult. His plan had been to stalk over to Kurt, grab him by the arm and drag him back to camp.

Then he saw it. Small, black, and partially hidden by Kurt’s form. Noah knew what it was immediately. He’d seen his fair share of them in the badlands, and knew firsthand what they could do to a fully grown man. Kurt had no idea the danger mere inches from him, and Noah was hesitant to let him know. He wasn’t sure how Kurt would react to seeing the deadly scorpion near his hand, ready to strike.

Decided to err on the side of caution, Noah moved to distract Kurt, asking, “Is it so completely hard for you follow my directions and not wander off? Because if you can’t listen to what I say then we should turn back now. There’s no point of you getting me killed because you want to be petulant and independent.”

Kurt scowled. “You were still sleeping. I just wanted to freshen up. It’s not my fault I’m used to rising with the sun and you want to sleep all day like a lazy lark.”

Noah towered over Kurt, hoping he’d keep still.

“Lazy?” Noah laughed. “Forgive me for being tired for staying up all night and listening to your whining. That would make anyone tired.”

Kurt looked so utterly and fiercely beautiful as his face twisted towards rage. Noah stomped down on the feeling of attraction as quickly as he could, but he couldn’t forget the flush of need and want in his body, or the idea of how easily it could have been to seduce Kurt. A less noble man probably would have taken him already. It was such a flaw that Kurt failed to realize how beautiful he was.

“I’m done withy you,” Kurt decided. As he shifted to move Noah stomped down with all his might on the scorpion that had nearly stung Kurt. It startled Kurt and he shouted, “What’s wrong with you?”

“Scorpion,” Noah said calmly, raising his boot so Kurt could see. “They call them Nightshades out here. They usually only come out during the day, and search for the warmest spots they can. These rocks get warm during the day, and I’m sure your body heat was appealing to him. If I hadn’t come by he would have stung you.”

Kurt clamored to his feet. “You could have warned me.”

“When they sting you,” Noah continued, “there’s vomiting, and aches and a fever. Quickly after that there’s paralysis. You’re useless to me if you can’t ride, so try not to get stung by any poisonous creatures, okay? And stay near camp. This is what I’m talking about. You can’t just wander off to do you hair.”

Kurt crossed his arms. “I would have been fine on my own.”

“You didn’t even know it was there.”

Kurt snapped, “I’m not helpless. I don’t need you. And I’m going back to camp.”

Kurt headed quickly back in the direction they’d come from and Noah gave a deep sigh. He looked back down to the squashed scorpion and tried not to think of how close he’d come to loosing Kurt. He’d seen men die from poisonous stings, and Kurt wouldn’t have stood a chance, especially given the likelihood that he’d never built up resistance to poison of any kind.

The idea of loosing Kurt, as much of a pain in Noah’s ass as he was, took his breath away.

Noah hurried after him, calling out, “Don’t bother eating breakfast. We need to start out right away. Can his Little Lord’s delicate stomach manage that?”

Kurt remained silent and Noah figured he’d have another day of the silent treatment to endure. He was fine with that. As always, Kurt was quite pretty to look at, and less annoying when he wasn’t talking. The silent treatment suited Noah just fine.

___________________

 

“It’s really a bit beautiful.”

“Beautiful?” Noah echoed. He shook his head slowly as he glanced around. “That’s not exactly the word I would choose. How about barren instead?”

Two full days of travel, most of it spent with few words passed between them, had taken them much deeper into the badlands. And they’d entered, like Noah had said, a section of sheer, rocky landscape that seemed equal parts out of place and dangerous. Kurt, who was used to the flat plains of his home, was fascinated by the rocks.

“No, really,” Kurt insisted. “Look at the way the rocks meet, and how they’re cut. Look at the shapes and the sizes and the colors. You can’t tell where one starts and the next begins. It would be amazing to climb them.”

The look of curiosity and excitement on Kurt’s face was beautiful. That was what Noah thought was beautiful. Not rocks he’d seen time and time again, which were hot to the touch, rough and deadly.

“Why do they look that way?”

Noah glanced over to Kurt. “What way?”

Kurt gestured vaguely. “The rocks. Look. Some are curved, and some are straight. I’ve never seen that before.”

“I doubt you’ve seen rocks before in your life.”

With a bit of a huff, Kurt said, “Of course I haven’t. But I had several books on geographical features. I know it’s quite unusual for rocks to curve in this way. Is it because the bombs dropped here?”

Noah pondered for a moment, then admitted, “Possibly. I don’t really know. Do you know what people call these rocks?”

Kurt shook his head, almost frantic to know.

“Turtle rocks.”

“Turtle rocks!” Kurt laughed, stretching back on the horse. It only served to elongate his body and Noah had to turn away quickly. “Why are they called turtle rocks?”

“Do you know what a turtle is?” Noah questioned.

“Of course I know what a turtle is.”

Noah nodded indulgingly. “Because of your books, right. Kurt, you can’t learn everything from books.”

“Kurt?” he said quietly.

Noah was quick to correct himself, “Lord Hummel.”

“No. No.” Kurt steered his horse closer to Noah. They’d already been close, but now they were nearly pressed shoulder to shoulder. “When you’re not being an ass, you can call me Kurt. I’d prefer it.”

Noah asked, “Me calling you Kurt, or not being an ass?”

“Both?”

Noah smiled. “Anyway. The rocks, most people call them Turtle Rocks. I know it’s a little hard to tell, but if you get up close, enough of the rocks are rounded in oval shapes, and there’s an odd pattern on top, mostly from the sun breaking through the clouds.”

“It’s weird,” Kurt mused, “seeing the sun, I mean. Back at home, we considered it a fruitful harvest season when it was just warm enough to grow our stock. We never saw the sun. It was always overcast and always murky. I spent my childhood wondering what the sun was like, the color and the heat and the intensity. Mercedes and I would lie out in the grass and talk about all of the things we wondered about. We talked about the sky and the sun before I left, actually. She knew I’d see both one day. She probably wont.”

“You’ll see the sky, too,” Noah guessed. “Maybe in a couple of days. But don’t think seeing either of those is a good sign. The badlands get their name because the sun shines here. It’s more dangerous when the sun is out. It’s easier to die.” From the heat. From the radiation. From exposure. From any number of things.

“Can I go see the rocks?” Kurt’s bottom lip jutted out a bit. “Just for a second. I swear. I want to see the pattern. I want to see if it really looks like a turtle’s shell. I’m going to write back to Mercedes when I can, and it would be amazing to be able to describe the pattern to her.”

“No.” Noah was quick and definitive. “It’s too dangerous.”

“It’s too dangerous to climb the small, round turtle rocks. That’s what you’re telling me.”

Snappishly, Noah said, “Everything, and I mean everything about the badlands is deceptive. You can see the turtle rocks just fine from here. I bet they look totally harmless to you, too. And you wouldn’t be the first to mistake it for safe. What you can’t see are the jagged rocks hidden down the side of them, and under them. I guarantee it, you’ll slip. I’ve seen it happen. Everyone slips.”

“Like those?” Kurt pointed a finger down to a series of sheer rocks a bit off in the distance. “I can see those.”

“No. Not like those.” There was a moment of temptation in Noah, to take Kurt to where he was talking about, and let him see first hand so he would understand the severity of the situation. There was sure to be some poor bastard’s remains left down there somewhere. “Sharp and small, like a board of nails. When you slip and fall from the round part, the only thing you can fall on are those rocks, and they’ll impale you. If you’re lucky, it’s an instant death, but I imagine more than one person had lived to suffer for days.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t let you put yourself in that kind of danger,” Noah repeated.

Kurt sighed. “I still think it looks beautiful.”

“Yes,” Noah agreed quietly, looking again to Kurt. “Still beautiful.”

“But along with that beauty there is a level of waste I have never seen before,” Kurt continued. “I knew the badlands were completely inhabitable, but this is …”

“Not uninhabitable,” Noah cut him off. “Don’t mistake that. Our lives could be on the line here. There are people who live out here. They’ll cut your throat if they think you’ve seen them, too. So you keep your eyes open, and if you see anyone, you tell me right away.”

“You said back at the Inn that the people out here are dangerous. I haven’t forgotten that. What I want to know is how many of them share your title?

“Rangers? Some, but not as many as you’d think. There are worse things, Little Lord, than Rangers. You should remember that. There are more things to be scared of than the bedtime stories your nanny told you as a child.”

“It’s still hard to believe that anyone could live out here. It’s a complete wasteland.”

“Been this way since the bombs dropped,” Noah said. “And it never changed. I came through the first time about five years ago. It looks the same now, as it did back then. I get the feeling that a thousand years from now, it’ll look the same way.”

Kurt listened carefully, then prodded, “How old are you?”

“I’ll be twenty-one in about a month or so, right around the new year.”

And if that was the case, Kurt quickly did the math, it would have make Noah around Kurt’s age the first time he went through the badlands. It seemed more than improbable.

“I’m not sure I believe that.”

Noah barked out a laugh. “It’s not a lie. But I also wasn’t alone. I had a Master. I had someone show me how to survive, and adapt, and become who I am. Most have that. You Lords, you all have such horrible ideas about who we are and what we do, and the fact is, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Assumptions, that what you have.”

“You’re selfish,” Kurt said, voice tentative and not looking to start a fight. “You live on your own, you take what you need, you don’t settle down and you don’t have families. You don’t do anything for the betterment of mankind, and if anything, you hurt it. You’re selfish. How is that an assumption?”

“Living free?” Noah questioned. “If that’s being selfish, then yes, I guess we are selfish. But it’s a good selfish. And I wouldn’t want to be any other way. I’d never go back to what you are.”

Kurt’s eyebrows rose high, up to his hanging bangs. “What I am? Someone who cares about other people? Someone who’ll do what right and put others before himself? Is that what you’re talking about?”

“I became a Ranger,” Noah said gruffly, “because being a team player cost me everything. I live above the law because the law never did anything to protect me or my family. And I don’t care about other people because they’ve done nothing but hurt me. And maybe when you’re a little older, and you’ve been in that loveless marriage of yours for a few years, and you start to see the war for what it really is, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Heck, maybe you’ll even want to be a Ranger yourself.”

“Never,” Kurt vowed. “And whether you like it or not, duty is duty. Duty is an obligation, not a choice. And it doesn’t matter if you like it or not. You make the best with what you have, and that’s what I plan to do. Being Promised is not something I wanted for myself, but I’ll be fine. I can learn to be happy again. That’s not such a heavy burden, not like you’re making it out to be. And I won’t loose my faith in people. I won’t.”

Noah argued, “You might, the minute you see the war for what it really is. Or maybe when you realize how much you’re helping the Guard hurt people.”

Kurt’s face pinched and he wondered aloud, “The Guard hurt you?”

“Rangers and Guard don’t get along. Never have, never will. Different philosophies, you know? They’re pompous, and we’re renegades. We get along better with the Rebel forces.”

“No. I don’t mean yesterday, or the day before. I mean … maybe a while ago. Back when you had a title.”

Noah flinched and Kurt knew instantly he’d been right. He’d guessed early on, and never been more sure as of that moment.

“What title?” Noah scoffed.

“Lord,” Kurt guessed. “Maybe a lesser title. It’s hard to tell. But you had a title of some kind. I can tell, even if I can’t pin down the specifics.”

“The sun is getting to you again. And don’t think I need to tell you how ridiculous those titles are. They’re worthless.”

Kurt reached over and pressed slim fingers to the base of Noah’s neck, down where his shoulder blade met. “It’s the way you carry yourself. I can tell, you’ve tried to change it, I’ve seen you slouching, but it’s completely forced. You grew up in an environment that forced you to carry yourself very well. You have very good posture.”

“Maybe I grew up with the Sisters or Brothers.”

Kurt gave him a flat look. “If the Brothers or Sisters raised you, as much as you’d want to leave that past behind you, you’d carry religious momentums with you. You’d say your prayers at the required time of day. You wouldn’t wear what you do. There are some things, Noah Puckerman, that can’t be beat out of you, after being raised by either of those sects.”

“You’re delusional.”

“Your vocabulary gives you away as well. Your accent, too.”

“Excuse me?” Noah asked, fingers clenching tightly on his reigns.

Kurt’s fingers finally fell away from Noah and he said, “I don’t know why you’d give up a life of privilege for this, and think it was better in any way.”

Noah shrugged. “Some things you have to figure out for yourself.”

“I knew it.” Kurt smiled, eyes averted. “I knew it.”

“Don’t look so smug. My business is my own. Don’t expect us to have story time here.”

“But it was the Guard?” Kurt pressed. “They had something to do with you becoming a Ranger, right?”

They picked up their pace, Noah nudging them both along to a faster, harder ride.

“Noah?”

“I had a sister.”

“Had?”

Noah cut him a hard look. “And now I don’t. Does that tell you enough.”

Kurt quieted immediately, thinking of his own Sophie. He loved her so much. And he held onto the knowledge that one day, after he’d been married for a while, and things had stabilized out, that he’d be able to go home to visit her, hopefully in time for her wedding. The idea that she could be gone, dead, was enough to leave him breathless.

“The Guard did that? They--”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Kurt nodded solemnly. “But … I have to ask, Noah. If you have such poor history with the Guard, if they’ve hurt you so, and you must hate them, why are you taking me to my Promised? Why are you taking me to Blaine? You know what my dowry is. You know that I’m carrying information that is going to help General Anderson and the Guard win this war. Or at the very least he’ll have a huge advantage over the Rebels. You’re taking me to help the very people who hurt you.”

Noah grunted. “The people who hurt my family are dead.”

Kurt swallowed hard. He had no doubt as to what Noah meant by that.

“But you’re--”

“I just want the war to end.” Noah said it was such exhaustion and such disgust that Kurt felt physically drained himself. “I need it to end.”

“I think everyone wants that,” Kurt assumed. He gave Noah a comforting look. “My father wants that. That’s why he promised me to General Anderson’s son. It was the most mutually beneficial marriage for both parties. I understand, I really do. So I’ll go, and I’ll help the Guard, and hopefully, with time, things will change. You can’t have a war with only one side. Right?”

“And you think it’ll be that simple?” Noah asked angrily. “Do you have any idea what Anderson is going to do to the Rebels once he gets whatever is in the at pretty little head of yours?”

Kurt shook his head wordlessly. “Stop the war? End it?”

“He’ll end the war for sure. On that account, you’re right. He’ll use everything you know, every bit of advantage you’re about to give him,” Noah told him, “to develop a new war machine. He’ll take the war to the next level, and be so completely and utterly more advantaged than the Rebels that he’ll wipe them out. Anyone, and absolutely everyone who stands again him on the battle field, will die. That’s a fact. And known associates will die. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a few affiliated townships are wiped out. Or maybe just the whole north-east portion of the Front. Everyone knows the Rebel have their base of operations somewhere up there.”

“I don’t--”

“There won’t be a war anymore. That much is true. But it won’t be because two sides met in battle and the better side came out victorious. It’ll be because one side slaughtered the other side. That’s all.”

“Then I have to ask again,” Kurt said, trying desperately to push the idea of being responsible for a genocide of some kind from his mind, “why are you escorting me? It doesn’t make sense. Is this just a job to you? Can you put your past behind you enough? I don’t think so, not if something happened to your family.” Kurt wouldn’t have been able to.

Noah said bluntly, “I’m not loyal to the Rebels. And I don’t care about the Guard. I told you, the people who hurt my family, they’re dead. I don’t blame the entire institution for the actions of one company. And if that’s what it takes to end the war, then that’s what it takes. As long as it ends, I don’t care who wins.”

“Noah,” Kurt asked quietly. “Do you … do you think General Anderson will slaughter everyone?”

“Do you want me to lie to you?”

“No.” Kurt shook his head.

Noah said, “He’s the General for a reason. He’s tasked with being victorious and no one really cares how that happens. He’ll take the quickest, least taxing route, and if those were my orders, wiping everyone out would be my first inclination. So yes, I do think he’ll kill everyone. I think he’ll kill every man and woman on that battle field, and then all of the children in the surrounding towns.”

Kurt startled. “The children? But children don’t offer any--”

“Children grow up,” Noah reminded. “That’s something no General ever forgets.”

There were certain things Kurt understood, and had always known. Duty was one of them, and responsibility was another. He knew how many people were depending on his marriage, and what the ramifications would be for everyone if he failed to appear in time. And yet now, as he truly thought about the consequences of his knowledge, it seemed impossibly hard to take even one more step towards the man waiting to marry him. He wondered why it was the first time he’d really thought about it.

“I don’t know if I can … I don’t …”

“Weren’t you the one who was telling me about responsibility and obligation?”

“Well, yes, but--”

Noah squinted up at the sky and frowned. “I don’t like the look of those clouds.”

Distracted, Kurt looked up. It had been typical and cloudy all morning long, just like the days before. To Kurt, everything looked normal. The clouds were dark like they always were. Nothing looked out of place to him. In fact, he was still waiting for the sky that Noah had promised him would make an eventual appearance.

“What do you mean?” Kurt asked. “What’s wrong?”

Noah brought them to a slower pace. “I’m not sure. Could be nothing. They’re pretty far out, but they’re also moving fast.”

“They’re just clouds,” Kurt said with a shrug.

“We’ll ride carefully, just until I’m sure.”

“Don’t we always ride carefully?” Kurt mumbled.

Noah gave no reply.

“Noah,” Kurt asked again. “About the war. I need to ask you. Do you think what I’m doing is … good? Right? What if I help General Anderson hurt all those people?”

With a scoff, Noah told him, “Obligation, remember?”

“No,” Kurt said, frustrated. “This isn’t about obligation. Noah. I could get people killed.”

Noah, eyes still on the skies, said, “General Anderson gets plenty of people killed every day with absolutely no help from you. People die all the time. It’s a fact of life. I don’t get why you’re so bent out of shape.”

Kurt ran a hand across his forehead. It had been just cool enough with the clouds that day that he hadn’t needed to wear the head wrap that had been required for days earlier. It felt good not to be weighed down by the wrap, but also a bit unfamiliar. To him, the wrap had come to symbolize a form of protection, and he felt almost naked without it.

“I’m not bent out of shape. I’m just worried.”

“You’re a Lord,” Noah said tersely. “You’re not supposed to be concerned with other people, remember? Isn’t that what they teach us?”

“That’s not what my father taught me,” Kurt countered. “No one person is more important than the next. Lives are not ranked in value. That’s what I was taught, and I’m sorry if you were taught differently, because everyone is important. And everyone deserves to have the right to live and try to be happy. Don’t you think that?”

“Life, liberty an the pursuit of happiness.”

With a frown, Kurt asked, “What’s that?”

Finally, Noah looked away from the sky, and to Kurt. He asked, “I thought you read a lot?”

“Yes.” Kurt waited for more of an explanation.

“It’s a quote from the Declaration of Independence,” Noah expanded. “It’s, uh, I’m not sure how to explain it. I guess, back before the bombs dropped, it was the basis for law around here. It was a document that outlined the exact freedoms that people had. One of them was the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“Sounds nice,” Kurt said earnestly.

“It’s gone now,” Noah said. “The idea and the copies of it. People have bigger things to deal with now.”

Eyes narrowing a little, Kurt asked, “Then how do you know about it?”

Smiling, wide and proudly, Noah recited, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

“You have it memorized?” Kurt asked excitedly.

Noah added, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Kurt sighed happily, obviously impressed.

“My grandmother made me memorize it when I was a kid,” Noah explained. “Her father, and her father’s father, all the way back to before the bombs dropped, were pretty much history enthusiasts. After the bombs dropped, and everything was in shambles, I think my family was one of the few who remembered the things from before, and preserved them. I have a lot of words stored up in my head, important things. There’s no appreciation for them now, or place, for that matter.”

“So this Declaration of Independence, it was a list of rights? For all people, regardless of their station?”

“Not so much a list, but a general idea,” Noah said.

Thunder cracked in the distance.

“What else do you have memorized? Is there more to the Declaration of Independence? Independence from who?”

“Quiet!” Noah hushed, eyes back to the clouds.

“Noah?” Kurt’s voice was only a whisper.

“I really don’t like the look of those clouds.”

“They’re bad?” He supposed rain would be bad. Noah had said they couldn’t go near the turtle rocks, and without that as an option, there were only the bigger, broader and jagged rocks in the distance to take shelter under, and Kurt didn’t like the look of them. He stopped to consider that even if it did start raining, maybe Noah would make them ride through it. Kurt had been out in the rain only once in his life, and didn’t relish the idea of experiencing it again. Especially in his expensive riding boots.

“I still can’t tell.” But it said something that Noah reached over and took Kurt’s reins.

“When will you?”

Noah cleared his throat. “Look, Kurt, about this General Anderson business.”

“You don’t have to, Noah. I know you don’t want to talk about it anymore. I can--”

“You don’t speak for anyone else, okay?” Noah looked him straight in the eyes. “And you’re not responsible for their actions, either. All that matters is you, and what you choose to do with yourself. What General Anderson does is his own business. Get it? You’re not killing anyone, and don’t think for a second that you are. Do you hear me, Lord Hummel?”

Slowly Kurt nodded, but he didn’t feel any better.

They rode for only half an hour more before Noah stopped them completely to stare more intensely at the clouds.

“What--” Kurt made to ask.

Noah hissed, “Shit, I wish it wasn’t so hard to tell them apart.”

“What’re you talking about?” Kurt wondered aloud. “They just look like clouds.”

“No.” Noah amended quickly. “Maybe. I don’t know. I just don’t. But we’re going to ride hard, okay?”

“Ride hard for what?” Kurt demanded, watching Noah tie Tomas’ reins to Noah’s horse, Charlie. “For where?”

But then they were off, galloping faster than they’d ever gone before. Kurt had to grip the pommel of his saddle hard, and lean forward as the horse jerked about in a dead run. The whole matter terrified him.

“Noah!” Kurt tried to shout. But his voice was lost somewhere in the wind, and he knew the Ranger couldn’t hear him. Kurt looked up instead of trying again, once more to the clouds that had Noah so worried, but they were still unassuming. He didn’t get the panic.

They were heading for the rocks. Kurt could tell they’d changed direction slightly and veered towards them. But they still looked scary, and a poor choice in destination.

“Noah!” Kurt couldn’t help trying once more. There was a sudden gust of wind, followed by another, and not simply from the motion of riding as hard as they could. Kurt could tell, for the first time since they’d entered the badlands, it was growing windy. And it was a warm wind, horrible feeling, and uncomfortable. Kurt hated it right away, and wanted to slow down, but he suspected that Noah wouldn’t let him. Noah still had his reigns, too.

Riding so hard was beginning to aggravate Kurt’s thighs and legs. Over the days he’d become more and more comfortable on his horse, becoming accustomed to the rocking motion of the riding, and the strain on his muscles. Sam had claimed it would get better for him, and it had. Noah had said so, too. But at the end of the day he was still sore sometimes had cramping in his legs. It was bearable, though, and that was all that mattered.

This galloping was different. It was a strain on his body, and he was hurting already. Noah showed no signs of stopping, or even slowing down, but Kurt wasn’t sure how long he could go on. His back was on fire, and his legs felt as if he was developing even more bruises on top of the ones he already massaged delicately at night.

Kurt reached out and managed to snag Noah. But it was a misjudgment and with the horse moving so rapidly under him, he lost his balanced quickly. He could have tumbled down, to the gap between their two horses. But then Noah was grabbing him, hauling him up so effortlessly and keeping him safe. He could see Noah shouting at him, his lips moving, but even so close, the words were lost to the wind.

The bit of sun which had shone through dark haze earlier blanketed out completely. It happened as such a horrific speed that Kurt could only look up, amazed and dazed. He wondered why it had happened, and how, and when the clouds in the distance had gotten so close.

“Kurt!”

Kurt heard him then, as the were upon the rocks, and the horses were skidding to a stop.

“Noah!”

“Get down!” Noah jerked hard on the reigns as he shouted. “Get down from the horse as fast as you can and run for the rocks!”

Tomas stopped so suddenly Kurt almost went flying over him. But then he scrambled down, following Noah’s words as quickly as he could, frightened of the tone of them. He stumbled over his feet when he was on the ground and had to grip Tomas’ mane to keep himself upright. The horse gave a sound of protest, indicating how hard Kurt had pulled.

“Noah? What’s going on?

“Run!” Noah hissed, already off his horse and tugging at the straps of Charlie, trying to untie his pack. “Are you deaf?”

It was almost impossible to hear Noah again. The wind was ripping viciously into them.

“Tell me what’s going on!”

Noah threw the pack at him quickly and rounded to Kurt’s horse, trying to free his pack. He spared a moment to shout loudly, pointing up at the sky, “Rain!”

Kurt held the pack awkwardly. “I’ve been in the rain before! It’s no big deal!”

“No!” Noah gave him a rough shove, startling Kurt and nearly pushing him to the ground. “Run you idiot! It’s acid rain!”

And then the drops started. There were only a few at first, but the first alone was enough to have Kurt sprinting towards the rocks, barely keeping hold of Noah’s pack. He ran as hard as he could, breathlessly, and felt the rain sting the back of his neck, and his hands, and everywhere else he was exposed. It was light and minimal and hurt already. It was enough to make him push even harder.

There wasn’t cover. There wasn’t a lot of it at least. There was a large, bigger crevice a bit away, but as Kurt shimmied into the tight space in front of him, he realized he’d have to go out into the rain to reach it. It wasn’t an option, and now he was pinned down, wedged between two rocks that created a space barely large enough for him to fit into, and were angled the wrong way to weather the storm.

Kurt swung his arms around to his head and folded them as tightly as he could the moment the first drops were brought into his hiding place by the wind. The wind was the real problem. It was going to hurt him much more than the rain itself. And it was going to completely jeopardize his shelter.

“I’ve got you!”

“Noah?” Kurt blinked open eyes he’d had clenched shut. There wasn’t much to see, though. But he could feel Noah, pressed wholly against him, covering him, with their traveling tarp tucked around Kurt.

“Just hang tight,” Noah said, and when he shifted a little, Kurt could see a grimace on his face. “Are you alright? Are you safe? Are you being hit by the rain at all?”

“No.” Kurt shook his head quickly, checking himself. “I’m okay. I’m fine.”

Noah seemed to hunch over him a bit more at that, as if Kurt had said the opposite.

“What’s going on?” Kurt asked. He was certain it was all he’d said lately. But he was confused and he hated being confused. He hated not knowing what was
going on. They had acid rain back at home, but it was nothing like what Kurt had felt. It wasn’t nearly as intense or sudden.

“Acid rain.” Noah’s breath was warm against Kurt’s ear, and soothing as the rain continued to echo off the rocks around them. “I wasn’t sure. I knew there were patches of it in this area, but it’s so hard to distinguish from the regular clouds.”

“You knew?” Kurt demanded. “You forgot to mention that, don’t you think?”

Noah crowded in more and asked, “Is there any way for you to scoot down anymore?”

Kurt tried, but he was stuck. “No. I think I’m in as far as I can go. Acid rain? That’s something you should mention. That’s important, especially if it’s this strong.”

“I didn’t want to worry you,” Noah said. “You have this really annoying habit of worrying about everything.”

“Don’t start with me,” Kurt snapped.

“Just, come on, try and scoot a little further.”

The continued requests had Kurt feeling claustrophobic and he pushed back against Noah, breathing a little harder, in need of space.

“Stop. Kurt, stop pushing. Please.”

It wasn’t the please that had Kurt stilling. Rather, it was the way Noah shook against him, face puckered, and forehead wrinkled. It was the way Noah’s teeth clenched and his muscles were tense. Something was wrong.

“Noah,” Kurt said quietly, his cheek brushing against Noah’s. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“The acid rain--”

“No.” Kurt’s lips came dangerous close to brushing against Noah. “With you. There’s something wrong with you.”

“Sure you can’t move down any?”

“Yes,” Kurt said once more. “I’m sure. I can’t.”

With a dry laugh, Noah told him, “We’ll, you didn’t exactly pick the best spot for two men to squeeze into. In fact, I’m not really squeezing.”

“What?” Kurt moved immediately, trying to bring his hands down from his head and over to Noah.

“Don’t,” Noah said sharply. “Don’t move. If you move, I move, and I think we’ll shift the tarp in a bad way. I might not be able to keep you covered completely.”

Under the tarp the air was heavy and stale already, and Kurt wanted to be out from under it. But Noah’s words worried him even more. He asked, “Are you not all the way in? Are you … the rain …”

“It hurts like a bitch,” Noah explained. “A really, really, really angry bitch.”

Kurt protested, “I can’t let you get hurt like this. We’ll figure something out, we’ll trade places, something. But the rain … I can’t--”

“Quiet,” Noah requested, breath still against Kurt’s ear. “It’s my job to protect you, not the other way around.”

“Acid rain is deadly.” Kurt could only think of how badly it had to be hurting Noah, and how horrible he was for staying down, and letting Noah get hurt instead.

Teeth gritting, Noah said once more, “I’m here to keep you safe. I’m here to protect you from everything, including the weather. I promised your father, I gave him my word, that I would get you through safe and sound. So just stay still. When you move, you make me shift too, and it hurts even more.”

Kurt kept deadly still. “I’m so sorry,” he mumbled, voice wavering.

“It’s okay,” Noah said simply, and then they waited in silence.

The rain passed minutes later.

“It was moving fast,” Noah explained when the rain stopped echoing. “I couldn’t tell how fast at first, but I knew it was fast. We’re lucky. Very lucky.”

“Can I …” Kurt wasn’t sure if he should ask.

Noah seemed to sense his question and took a deep breath. “Give me a minute more. I’m not sure I can move just yet.”

It was then that Kurt’s lips did brush Noah’s cheek. He hadn’t meant to, it just happened as Kurt tried to gain a bit of leverage and keep still at the same time. He was angled down oddly and had been from the beginning.

“Okay,” Noah said finally. He managed to take a step back, and even though he was obviously hurting, he offered a hand out to Kurt to help him along.

“Let me see,” Kurt said right away, slinging the half ruined tarp aside and nearly forcing Noah around with firm hands. “Take off your shirt.”

“Careful,” Noah cautioned, “that’s very forward of you, Little Lord.”

“Stuff it. Take your clothes off now.”

Photobucket

Kurt did his very best not to make a sound as he got his first look at Noah’s back. He hadn’t been lying when he’d said he’d been exposed, but he also hadn’t expected the damage to be so visible. But then there was the evidence, staring him right in the face, with Noah’s heavy ridding coat damaged, burned through in spots, and the exposed skin red with welts.

“How bad is it?” Noah asked, wincing as Kurt probed the surrounding skin carefully.

“Bad,” Kurt said, no room for lies. “But I think we can take care of it.” He worked quickly, using their spare water to clean the wound and dry it gingerly with strips of clean clothing. Then he bound Noah’s back and chest with the last of his own, thick clothing, and decided as long as Noah was careful, and kept the wounds clean, he would heal just fine.

“Thanks,” Noah groaned.

“No.” Kurt’s long fingers curled around Noah’s wrist. “Thank you. You … you protected me. You shielded me. You got hurt because you were making sure that I didn’t.”

The older man protested, “I told you, your father--”

“A lesser man wouldn’t have been so adamant about keeping me completely safe.” Before he could rethink his actions, or question the propriety of them, he leaned up to properly kiss Noah’s cheek. “Thank you. Now, what about Tomas and Charlie?”

A quick survey of the area showed that Charlie, after Noah had abandoned him in favor of seeing to Kurt, had huddled himself in the space that Kurt had eyed after he’d found his own. It was large enough to have completely sheltered the horse, with the rocks cut in the right direction to prevent the rain from blowing onto him. Charlie was fine, shaken and restless, but fine.

Tomas was not.

“Oh, no,” Kurt said, running his hands along the damaged horse. “Tomas. My poor, poor baby.”

Noah inspected the sprawled out horse carefully. He remarked, “It looks like there wasn’t much room in the space for more than Charlie. Tomas tried, but he didn’t quite make it. I’m sorry, Kurt. He’s … it’s not good.”

Tomas had been so good to him. He’d been gentle and friendly when Kurt had been learning to ride him, and Kurt had come to care for him deeply. On the days when he and Noah had barely spoken to him, he’d keep a quiet conversation with his horse who never seemed to tire of him. Kurt couldn’t stomach the idea of Tomas being beyond repair.

“Maybe I could just find a way to … to …”

Noah shook his head.

“Then what are we … Noah, we can’t …”

Noah stood and walked to Charlie. He took the reigns and placed them in Kurt’s hand. “Go back to where we left our packs. Take Charlie, and get them tied to him again. See if you can put both into one, especially since we just used a lot of our clothing and supplies. And then stay there. Don’t come back here.”

“What’re you going to do?” Kurt asked, but he had a good idea of what it was already.

“Go,” Noah said with a gentle nudge. “You don’t want to be here for this.”

Kurt protested on principal alone, “I don’t have weak stomach. I’m as much a man as you. I can be here when you--”

“It’s not that,” Noah said kindly. “Tomas is your friend. You care about him. You shouldn’t be here when I put him down. It’s not something you need to see.”

Kurt took another long look at the sprawled out horse, and then slowly nodded. “You’ll be quick, right? And as merciful as you can be?”

Noah leveled his heavy gun up. “Of course. Just go take Charlie, now, and do what I said.”

Gripping Charlie’s reigns tightly, Kurt hurried across the barren desert ground, some of it now soggy, towards the place where he’d left their packs. He moved quickly to shovel the last of his breeches and a shirt, into Noah’s pack, and then consolidate their water. He’d just finished trying the pack to the back of Charlie when a gunshot echoed.

Kurt flinched, eyes prickling instantly.

“Ready,” Noah asked when he joined them a minute later. He walked stiffly, but hid his pain well.

“Yes,” Kurt said quietly, not in the mood for anything. Noah was injured, Tomas was dead, and Kurt felt down.

“Climb up,” Noah said, gesturing him. He let Kurt use his arm as a brace as he hoisted himself up.

“Do you want me to shift forward?” Kurt asked, expecting Noah to mount up behind him.

“No.” Noah took Charlie’s reins and started walking, leading the horse with him.

“What’re we going to do now?” Kurt asked, feeling bad that Noah was walking with his injury. Their pace, as well, had slowed considerably.

“Pray maybe?” Noah said, and in a tone that indicated he thought it was a complete waste of time. “For some better luck. That would be great.”

“Yes,” Kurt agreed. “And no more of the bad kind.”

Kurt gasped suddenly and Noah flinched towards him. “What? Are you hurt?”

Kurt’s head tipped backwards and his eyes were wide. “My god.”

Noah looked up as well. “What?”

“It’s blue,” Kurt rushed out. He shifted towards Noah impossibly happy and flush with pleasure. “It’s blue, Noah.”

With the passing of the acid rain, just enough of the murky haze that covered the sky had opened up. There was the tiniest of break in the dark clouds in the sky and something blue was visible. Against the dark backdrop, the blue was brilliant. “I promise you the sky, didn’t I?”

“It’s so pretty. I never …” Kurt let out a shaky breath. “It’s amazing.”

“Sure is,” Noah chuckled

Charlie lurched forward some more and Kurt looked back to the sky. “I think I’ll do Mercedes a disservice to merely describe it to her. There aren’t proper words for how blue it is.”

Noah shrugged. “In any case, you should memorize it. There’s nothing blue about the Eastern Front. Enjoy it for what it is now.”

“Agreed.” Kurt planned to.

____________________

“Ow! That hurts!”

“Stop moving, you big baby!”

“Can’t you be a little more gentle? I’m the injured party here.”

“Be thankful I’m being as nice as I am.”

Noah flinched away from Kurt once more and ducked enough away that he could twist around and scowl at the pale boy. “I know you can be nicer than you’re being. I know, it’s fabled, that niceness, but it’s there somewhere. Hidden. How about you dig it out?”

Kurt crossed his arms. “I thought you were a grown man. You’re acting worse than my sister when she scrapes her knee.”

“You clean her scraped knees?” Noah asked skeptically.

“Yes. And my sister had quiet a few, despite her age and gender. She prefers me to clean her up. So I know what I’m doing, and you should trust me on that. Now get back here. I have to finish.”

Noah reluctantly scooted back to Kurt and settled down. “Just try and be a little kinder, okay? It really hurts.” Noah added, “On principal alone, you should be babying me. I got this wound being very heroic and saving your butt.”

Kurt rolled his eyes and turned his canteen over, spilling clean water onto a piece of cloth. “Baby,” Kurt muttered again. “Do you want this to get infected? Do you think that’s a good idea?”

Sullen, Noah admitted, “No.”

And the danger was there. As Kurt cleaned the splotches of acid burn on Noah’s back, he couldn’t help but think that they were playing with fire. Every day for the past three days Noah had insisted on keeping Kurt up on Charlie while Noah walked along side. The wind from the acid storm had prevailed and spent all day dragging sand and dust particles up onto Noah’s skin, threatening to sully his wound. Kurt spent his days trying to talk them into changing spots.

“You’re aggravating you back,” Kurt sad, noting the additional red splotches that hadn’t been there that morning. “I think you’re moving around too much. You’re pulling at your back muscles, and that’s pulling at the skin that’s trying to heal. You have to stop it.”

“I’d love to hear your plan of how that’s going to happen.”

“I’ve told you,” Kurt sighed.

“You’re not walking.” Noah said it definitively. “You’re not.”

“I don’t see why not.” Kurt winced himself as he caused Noah to flinch. “I have thick boots. I could stand it. If you can do it day in and day out, so can I.”

“You think you were hurting from the ridding, Little Lord? Try walking. It’s worse. I bet before now you spent most of your day on your cute little butt, and not on your feet.”

Kurt was desperately thankful Noah couldn’t see him blush. “I told you, I liked to read.”

“You’re not used to walking a lot, regardless of your boots. You’d get sores, and the sores would burst, and you’d be in agony.”

Kurt’s face soured at the idea of welts or sores. “Then I could walk for a little. Or we could take turns. It’s honestly not that big of a deal. I just don’t think you walking all day every day is a good idea. Or maybe we could both ride Charlie.”

Noah shook his head. “Our combined weight is too much, at least for long periods of time. Charlie’s a good horse. I’ve had him for a long time, and he’s still reliable, but he’s also getting old. We can’t risk him going lame. He’s all we have right now, and as far as I’m concerned, because of that, he’s worth more to me than you are.”

But Kurt thought back to the way Noah had forgotten the horses, and left them to die, and come to find Kurt during the storm. Noah hadn’t given a second thought about Charlie or Tomas when Kurt had been in danger, and Noah hadn’t left him at all to go check on them. Noah had covered him, tucked over him, and protect him, even at risk to himself. Noah had thought only of him.

“Just think about it,” Kurt pleaded.

Noah hummed a little in response.

“I think it’s a valid--”

“Christ, Hummel! You’re trying to kill me.”

Now Noah was being ridiculous. Kurt snapped, “This isn’t even the worst burn I’ve ever seen, Noah Puckerman. Now stop putting our gender to shame. Stop acting like a five year old. You’re making this twice as hard as it has to be, and costing us time. Just let me clean your back. I don’t see why it has to be a fight every time.”

“And what other burns have you seen?” Noah asked suspiciously. “Acid rain is hardly concentrated to the badlands but you won’t find it stronger anywhere else. You won’t even see this kind of rain on the Eastern Front, and trust me, kid, the kind of environmental nightmare you’re walking into over there is going to be nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

Kurt waited a moment, then said, “My brother Finn. You remember him, right?”

“Yeah. Big guy, kind of dumb?”

Kurt smacked Noah hard on the shoulder. “He’s not dumb. He makes poor choices, and he doesn’t think things through, but he’s not dumb. No matter what, he’s not.”

“What about him?”

“He makes poor choices,” Kurt reminded. “A couple of summers ago he and some of the other boys finished early out in the fields. They decided to rig a sled to a couple of the plow horses and see how fast they could get it going with someone on the back. Finn was the unlucky soul to try it out first.”

“Not dumb, you say?”

Kurt hit him again. “Poor choices, not dumb.”

“Okay, okay.” Noah’s head ducked down. “Not dumb. I get it. I also can assume safely that it didn’t end well for him?”

Kurt shook his head and cleaned the last of Noah’s back. “He made it one length of a corn field and promptly fell off. That might have been the worst of it if he was normal, but Finn’s always had a string of bad luck follow him. His foot ended up tangled in the sled and he couldn’t get himself free. It dragged him for a while.”

Noah asked, “What about the other boys?”

With a cool hand at the back of Noah’s neck, Kurt began pressing clean bandages against Noah’s back. He was worried they’d run out of clothing soon. They were already dangerously low now, and Noah needed clean cloth to keep his back infection free.

“Half of them ran when they realized what was happening. And the one idiot on the horse managed to fall off. Finn hit him on accident as he and the horse went by and knocked the poor boy out. He was okay, though.”

With the passage of the rain several days earlier, they’d gone right back to the patchy cloudy sky and the dangerously hot sun. Already Kurt could feet it making him uncomfortable and they were barely into the post dawn hours. The blue was gone from above them and Kurt desperately wanted it back, if only for a short moment.

“What happened after that?”

Kurt continued, “Eventually, Finn got himself free. But by that time the horse had dragged him all around, and he’d torn his clothes to shreds, along with a lot of his back. I think Finn was worried he’d be in a lot of trouble if anyone found out how badly he was hurt. So he tried to hide it. He managed to hide it for a couple of days, which let me tell you, is where poor choices come back in again. He must have been in so much pain.”

Noah guessed, “It got infected.”

“Yes.” Kurt had to lean forward and intimately pressed himself close to Noah as he wrapped strips of cloth around Noah’s torso. He held his breath and tried to keep as still as he could. “That’s when he came to me, begging me to help him. I cleaned his wounds, dressed them, and we manage to hide it for several more days. I think we were lucky to this day to have that much time.”

With Kurt finished, Noah stood gingerly. “You got caught?”

“Of course we got caught,” Kurt laughed. “Parents always find out. I assume this to be a law of nature. They always know when their children are trying to hide something from them. And unfortunately for us, it was very difficult for us to hide his fever, and the rashes that developed from the fever and infection. We had to tell someone. I lost my library privileges for a month. Finn didn’t get to go back in the fields until the following year’s harvest.”

“Oh,” Noah remarked causally, and Kurt realized how easy they were around each other now. And how right the ease felt.

“So I may not have seen acid burns before, but I’ve seen burns, and I know how to take care of them. Finn waited too long to get help, that’s why his wounds became infected. I’m not going to let that happen to you. It’s my turn to take care of you, so you should just get used to that right now.” Kurt’s hands went to his hips automatically.

Noah gave him a hard look, one that was so intense it made Kurt a little uncomfortable. Then Noah said, “No room for argument?”

“No.”

Noah smiled weakly. “You’re going to make a very good husband.”

Kurt’s shoulders fell. What was that supposed to mean? And why had it sounded so horrible coming from Noah? Kurt was trying to look forward to being married to Blaine, and yet when Noah said it, it sounded like the worst fate in the world.

With a groan of pain, Noah bent down for Kurt’s thermos and said, “We need to cut down on how often you’re cleaning my back.”

“We only do it twice a day to begin with,” Kurt pointed out. “Once in the morning, and once in the evening. If I thought I could talk you into a midday cleaning, I would. I still think you need it.”

“No.” Noah tossed the nearly empty canteen at Kurt. “We have to start saving our water. That’s our top priority as of now, not my back. Cleaning me takes too much of our water. Between us and the horse, we can’t spare that much.”

“I can’t clean your back without water.”

“You’ll have to figure something out,” Noah said, slowly slipping his shirt on. “Because we’re moving slow, now. And our water is running low. If we run out, we’re as good as dead. Keep that in mind.”

Kurt shook the canteen a little, hearing the water splash around. He decided, “Then we’ll keep your water for drinking, and mine for keeping you healthy.”

Noah was quiet and it didn’t bode well.

Kurt pursued, “Are we near a water source?”

Unhappily, Noah grunted, “Not one that isn’t contaminated.” He lifted a finger in a direction a bit off from the way they were heading, but Kurt couldn’t imagine how he knew the right direction in the first place. “There’s a water hole up that way, but I’m sure that the rain passed through, and that means the water is contaminated. And there’s another spot, but the last time I came through it smelled funny, and I’m not willing to risk it.”

“So you’re saying we’re not going to have any water?”

Noah moved as fast as he could, putting their camp together and getting Charlie ready to go.

“At the moment we’re just going to conserve. We’ve got another couple days worth of water. That’ll be okay for now, and give us time to find a place to refill. Don’t worry about the water. Worry about avoiding heat stroke. Worry about me. You’re good at that. Just don’t worry about the water.”

Kurt couldn’t help but worry. He could see the expression Noah tried to hide on his face.

Kurt lifted himself onto Charlie and said, “I’ll ride until we have lunch. Then we’ll switch. No arguments, remember?”

Noah took the reins and remained quiet. Kurt hated the silence now.

Kurt had thought that Noah might fight him at the noon hour, but they made the switch flawlessly and Kurt ended up in control of Charlie for the fist time while Noah rested on the horse. Kurt knew Noah would never admit it, but Kurt could tell the man needed the rest. The way his shoulders sagged gave him away.

There was no water to be found that day, or the next, and it was then that Kurt began to panic a bit. He couldn’t slack with Noah’s back, but they had completely exhausted Kurt’s canteen and were under half for Noah’s.

Kurt sighed, “If we hadn’t lost that canteen in the storm we’d be better off, right?”

“Of course,” Noah said truthfully, once more up on the horse. “But there’s no use in thinking about that, right? I know a place up ahead. It’s usually dry this time of year, but it can’t hurt to check.”

It was, like Noah had expected, dry.

“There’s usually water here?” Kurt asked, kneeling down to press a hand against the dry, cracked earth.

Noah nodded and stubbed a toe at the dirt. “This is another reason I don’t like to go through the badlands this late in the year.”

Kurt stood slowly. “Then why did you agree?”

Noah shrugged.

“So what do we do now?”

“Keep going,” he said simply. “We’ll hit another water hole soon enough.”

It was Kurt’s turn for the horse before long and he mounted with fuss, and without a struggle. It was getting almost easy for him now, and while he wasn’t completely sure, his legs and thighs felt as if they were getting stronger. Maybe he was building muscle definition like Noah had. It looked good on Noah, attractive even, and Kurt doubted it would look the same on him. Still, it seemed inevitable.

“I can’t believe there are people living out here. With so few water sources?”

Noah led them away. “I told you only the hardest of people live out here. It’s a cruel, mean life, but it’s possible. How did you think they survived? Not on friendship and goodwill, I assure you.”

“I just thought maybe there were more resources that normal people didn’t know about.”

“There are,” Noah assured him. “But not as many as you’d want to think. Doesn’t matter anyway. Nothing is ever going to grow here. Or maybe not for a very long time. And a lot of the water is tainted. The stuff that’s underground, most of it isn’t safe to drink because of the land. But you find pockets of the good stuff from time to time. Life has this funny way of sneaking through even the worst devastation. The trick is finding it.”

“What if we don’t?” What if they were stuck in the middle of the badlands without any water? What would they do then?

Kurt did his best that day not to drink any water. He sipped at Noah’s canteen a little, and faked longer drinks, but conserved as much as he could. He never saw Noah drink more than a bit himself, and Kurt did his part as well. Then, when they were pressed together in the freezing cold of the night, Kurt trapped between the heat of Noah and Charlie, Kurt asked Noah for the truth.

“We’ll be able to go another day with the water we have,” Noah answered promptly. “There’s no point in keeping the truth from you. That’s about what we have left, and that’s if we continue to hoard what we do have, and you don’t clean my back in the morning.”

Kurt dared to ask, “And what happens after we run out of water?”

The night was pitch black and there was nothing to allow Kurt to see Noah right next to him, but he could feel the Ranger press three fingers against his bare shoulder. He’d used the last sleep shirt he’d owned on Noah days earlier and now had only the shirt he wore during the day. There was nothing, however, that would convince him to remove his pants in Noah’s company. Nothing short of a lake full of clean, drinkable water.

“Three?” Kurt pondered.

“It’s called the rule of three. You can go three weeks without food, but only three days without water.”

“So we have three days?” Before they what? Before they died a horrible and painful death? A thirsty death?

“No. It’s three days in an ideal situation. It’s over a hundred degrees during the day. It’s hot and humid. We’re loosing a lot of water, even the one of us who’s riding at any given time. I’d say, out in this drastic of weather, we’ve got a day after our water runs out. We’ll be able to go one more day. After that we’ll start hallucinating, and making poor decisions, and thinking will become incredibly difficult. I’ve heard tell of men just wandering off in the badlands, so desperate for water. You can imagine what happened to them from there.”

Kurt pressed his forehead into Noah’s shoulder, trying to find comfort in his closeness. “What can we do?”

Noah’s fingers were rough, almost like sand paper as they came up to cup the back of Kurt’s neck. Noah rubbed for a moment, then just let them rest there. It reminded Kurt of when he’d let his own fingers rest on Noah’s neck.

“I’ve been thinking.”

“That’s dangerous when Finn does it. I hope it’s not the same with you.”

Noah cuffed him over the back of the head gently. “There’s a place up ahead. It’ll have water for sure. And if we go all through tomorrow, and don’t stop at all, we might make it.”

“A place? What kind of place? What’s out here?”

Noah elaborated, “A city. A lost city. You’ve read about them?”

Kurt nodded faintly. “From before the bombs, right? The cities that were there before.”

The cities that had existed from before the bombs, the ones located out of the badlands had long since been build over and forgotten. But Kurt knew there were some left in the badlands, still partially intact, a memento of a time that few remembered, and fewer cared about.

“There’s one up near us,” Noah said. “I’ve seen it before. It has a well, and the water isn’t polluted. It’s clean. I’ve stolen water from it before. I know it has water this late in the year, too.”

“Stolen,” Kurt said carefully, mindful of the word Noah had chosen to use. “Stolen from whom, exactly?”

Charlie shifted next to Kurt and it was a bit of a distraction, but not enough to deter Kurt.

“Remember when I said there are people who live out here?” Kurt nodded. “Well, they tend to live in the lost cities. Karofsky and his gang inhabit the lost city nearest us. I’ve stolen from him before. I know my way in and out.”

Karofsky. The name meant nothing to Kurt, but he hadn’t imagined that it would.

“What if we just asked for some? I have a few possessions that could be worth some kind of value to him.”

Noah laughed dryly. “The only possession you have that he’d be interested in is your virginity, and trust me, he wouldn’t be giving you anything in return for it.”

Kurt drew his legs up. “He’s a bad person, then.”

“Bad?” Noah said the word like he didn’t recognize it. “I don’t know if there are bad people, Kurt. I don’t think there are good people and bad people. Not in the world that we live in. You just have shades of gray here, and people doing what it takes to survive.”

Kurt demanded, “And hurting me or other people would be essential to his survival how?”

“I guess he figures that if he’s the biggest and most feared ass in this part of the badlands, and if he makes it clear how far he’s willing to go, that other assholes will leave him alone. That’s his method of survival. And think what you will of it, and call it really shitty, because it is, but it works. It’s a good way to be topdog. But I’ve seen Karofsky. I’ve seen him with pretty little boys he’s snatched from boarder towns. I know his taste, and you’d be more than just a way to prove himself. He’d probably keep you around for a while.”

“I’d kill myself first!”

Noah’s fingers stroked the soft hair at the base of Kurt’s skull. “I don’t want to take you anywhere near Karofsky and this thugs.”

Kurt sensed a but.

“I just don’t know what else to do. I’ll think about it some more.”

Kurt took a long breath and said, “No. It’s our best shot at survival, right? We should go. We should steal some water from him. We should get in and out fast, and be done with it.”

“He’ll have someone guarding the water,” Noah pointed out. “I’ll have to kill whoever it is.”

“I’ll … I’ll look away.”

“And what if I want you to kill whoever it is?”

Kurt stammered, “Me?”

Noah pressed in even closer, something Kurt hadn’t really thought was possible. The Ranger said, “Any of the thugs who work for Karofsky, if they saw you, they’d be on you in a second. They’d rape you and kill you and loot your body. They wouldn’t even bother to bring you back to Karofsky to see what he had to say on the matter. They’d do it without thinking about it. And they’d probably be glad to do it. The people who live out here are different, Kurt. They’re more than ruthless. And I need to know that you can be willing to go to a place that you never even considered before.”

“I don’t … I’m not sure I could kill anyone.”

“What if he was pointing a gun at me?”

Kurt pictured it in his mind. He could see a faceless thug, firearm aimed at Noah, poised to kill.

“I’ll kill anyone who even thinks about hurting you,” he said, surprised by the viciousness in his own voice.

It seemed the right thing to say, apparently, because Noah chuckled in an even, satisfied way. “There’s hope for you yet, Little Lord.”

Kurt felt ruffled. “I don’t think proving that I’m capable of killing is a good thing.”

“I guess not,” Noah said, still chuckling a bit. “But at least now I know you’re not a liability.”

Tentatively, Kurt asked, “Do I really need to kill anyone?”

“You might. Can’t say for sure. But as for the poor bastard guarding the water, I’ll deal with him. I’ll take a blade to him and be done with it.” Decidedly, Noah said, “We’ll go right for the lost city at first light tomorrow, and hopefully make it by sundown.”

“Okay,” Kurt whispered, and closed his eyes. Noah’s hand remained against the back of his neck, fingers in his hair. “And I meant what I said.”

Noah’s foot tapped against Kurt’s. “Good to know.”

They used up all their water in the next day’s hard ride. At first light Noah mounted up behind Kurt on Charlie and brought them to a gallop. Kurt worried for Charlie but kept his mouth closed, trusting Noah to do what was best for them all.

And apparently they made good time. They likely had another hour and a half before sundown when Kurt saw the first remnants of the lost city. He’d never seen a lost city before. He’d only read about them , and there had never been any drawings or descriptions before.

The city was amazing. It was incredibly. It was unbelievable.

With Charlie trotting in a tired way, Noah brought them into the city. He pressed his lips close to Kurt’s ear and said, “Kind of beautiful, isn’t it?”

Kurt’s eyes traveled up the tall buildings, taking in the twisted steel and the unfamiliar shapes. Everything was foreign and alien and new. He couldn’t possibly begin to process what he saw.

“Yes,” he mumbled a little, leaning back against Noah’s sturdy form. “The buildings. They’re so high.”

There were only a couple standing buildings that were of an amazing height, but one would have been enough. He counted levels as high as ten up, and guessed on other, nearby buildings. They were pressed close together, some falling into others, and comprised of materials he couldn’t quite discern.

Kurt shook himself a little, disappointed he’d let himself get so distracted from his surroundings.

“It’s okay,” Noah said, nudging him a little. “I’ve been through here enough to know Karofsky’s patterns. The city is huge and he’s not on the outskirts. None of his men are, either, and they don’t use this side to pass through towards the boarder towns. We’re safe. I’m watching. You can look.”

Kurt hadn’t needed to be told a second time. “I can’t believe I’m seeing this.”

“A lot of the other lost cities were taken back into the earth quickly,” Noah explained. “Some of them were overgrown with habitation by the first hundred years after the bombs. And people tore down some of the others, thinking that the cities only represented the mess they’d brought on themselves. But this place, there was no one here to do that. And the climate helped preserve some of the buildings. A lot of it is in ruin, but this is what the world used to look like before the bombs.”

Kurt’s head tipped almost all the way back. “How’d people get up so high? How was it safe?”

Noah shrugged. “With stairs, probably. Or maybe a pulley system. And we have homes and buildings with more than one level. It’s no so impossible to think that before the bombs, people had buildings this tall. Not really, right?”

“I’d never feel safe being up that high,” Kurt remarked.

Noah let his eyes stray for a moment and said, “I think they were more advanced than we are. I think they were smarter. Maybe that’s what got them in trouble. And the stuff that you and your dad worked on, what you know, I think it’s the first step in taking us back to how we used to be.”

“To the bombs?” Kurt asked sharply.

“Don’t know. I would like to think that we’re going to do it differently this time around. Not make the same mistakes twice, you know? It took a couple hundred years just for it to be safe enough for us to live above ground in most places. We can’t go back to that. We can’t do that to our children and children’s children again. We can get here again, but we have to be smart about it. We have to learn from out mistakes.”

Kurt turned a little so he could see Noah’s face. He agreed, “I think things will be different this time. They have to be, right?”

Noah turned his watchful eyes back to the road head of them, guiding Charlie along. “People never change,” he said. “Everything else does, but people don’t, not really.”

They moved deeper into the lost city and Noah took them down side streets that he knew with haunting familiarity. Kurt tired to imagine thousands of people living in the city hundreds of years ago, and what their lives might have been like. He couldn’t, not really.

Noah took them to an area that offered a good view of the surrounding city and it stunned Kurt to see how big it really was. He’d been wrong when he’d assumed thousands of people had lived there. He knew now the number had to be much higher, and he could only see some of the city around him, not all of it.

“That’s where Karofsky holes up,” Noah said, pointing to the highest building in the center of the city. “He’s on the top floor. Apparently he doesn’t have an issue being up high. If he’s here now, that’s where he’ll be.”

“If?”

“He goes out occasionally,” Noah said. “To get those pretty boys I told you about.”

Kurt tried not to shiver at the reminder.

“And the water is over there,” Noah continued, moving his finger to a spot about a half mile away. “That’s where we’re going. We’ll put Charlie near, but we can’t take him in with us. It’s too big of a risk.”

“Are you sure there’s only going to be one guard?” It seemed too easy to Kurt. Ridiculously easy.

Noah asked, a facetious tone to his voice, “Who would dare steal from Dave Karofsky.”

Kurt gave him a steely smile. “Yes, which dummies do you imagine would be stupid enough to do that?”

“Right?” Noah slid down from Charlie. “But remember, we’re not talking about dumb people here, just people making poor choices.”

Kurt followed him down. “Talk about your poor choices.”

It took another half hour to make their way stealthily to a strategically placed building that had room enough to hide Charlie in a comfortable way.

“Are you ready?” Noah asked. He had his heavy gun strapped to his back, and a long, serrated knife in hand. He’d tasked Kurt with carrying their thermoses. “We only get one shot at this, and we have to make it fast.”

Kurt was certainly not ready, but he nodded anyway and prepared himself for the task at hand. They would do worse to him, Kurt reminded. And not for water, or something necessary for survival. They’d hurt him in worse ways just for the hell of it, or for fun. To keep himself and Noah and Charlie alive, Kurt could do this. He would do it.

Kurt had never seen so much water in his life, not bottled and stored in jugs lining the walls. Kurt had only really known water from the wells in his town, and from other natural sources. It seemed almost unnatural to see it as it was. But they needed it, and they planned to take it.

Silently, Noah gestured to the guard sitting in a chair in the middle of the room. His back was to them and he was tipping his chair onto its far legs, balancing himself easily. He carved something in his hands, but Kurt couldn’t get a proper look from it at his angle. And he didn’t want to. He just wanted to be done with it all.

It was honestly the first time Kurt had seen Noah as a proper Ranger: stealthy, lightening quick, and completely deadly. Noah moved impossibly graceful, and before Kurt could properly comprehend what was happening, and far before the guard could right himself, Noah had grabbed a fist full of his dark hair. Noah pulled back as hard as he could and cut the man’s throat, slicing from ear to ear in such an expert manner that Kurt knew he’d done it before.

This was why parents told their children bedtime stories about Rangers, and instilled a fear into them. This was why, in a nutshell, and Kurt was scared of Noah for the first time.

“Kurt!” Noah hissed at him. “Go!”

Kurt’s legs felt stuck to the floor. The guard was still alive. He was twitching on the dirty ground, rapidly bleeding out, but he was alive and his eyes were open, staring right at Kurt.

Noah grabbed him at the elbow and jerked him hard. “Get going!”

As Kurt fled to the stored water, moving to fill their canteens, Noah wiped his blade on his pants and gave the guard a kick for good measure. Kurt turned away after that.

It probably took less than five minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Kurt’s hands shook and Noah stood by the door, keeping watch, ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Then he was finished. He’d filled his canteen, and Noah’s, and their spare. They had enough water for half a week, and that gave them a significant bubble to find a water source not being guarded, and certainly not in the middle of a lost city.

“Ready,” Kurt whispered, nearly flying over to Noah’s side. He wondered why they weren’t moving. “Noah?”

Noah took his hand to keep him still, and Kurt tried to look anywhere but towards the dead man laying near them.

“Can you feel the ground?” Noah asked.

Feel the ground? Kurt shook his head.

“There are horses coming. A lot of them.”

“Then we need to go--”

Noah surprised him by dragging him out of the water storagearea at an alarming rate. They were running, sprinting hard, and as fast as Kurt could run, he was having trouble keeping up. Then he was slammed hard into a wall and Noah held him in place with his body. Moments later horses rode past them, easily a dozen. Noah hissed, “Fuck me.”

They were hidden down a side alley of some sort, kept from view from the riders who slowed to a stop, but they were still afforded enough room to see them. The group looked rough and mean, and everything Kurt had expected, and then so much more.

Kurt counted thirteen of them, all male, mostly large, and extremely dirty. They wore ripped clothing, sported missing teeth, and snapped loudly at each other. They’d rip him apart, Kurt realized. If they ever had him, they’d hurt him worse Noah had told him, and Noah had been drastically blunt.

Then a young, female scream reached them.

“Oh, god,” Kurt said breathlessly. He buried his face in Noah’s chest, the man’s arms coming around him to anchor him. “Noah. They--”

“It’s not our business,” Noah hissed back. “Keep still and quiet.” If they moved at all out of the short alley, Kurt knew they’d be seen.

“But they … they have a girl.”

Noah moved them in an instance, barreling through a door Kurt hadn’t even seen, and into a spare building that was run down but thankfully safe.

“We have to help her.” Kurt didn’t know if there was anything else he they could do. That poor girl, crying, still screaming for help.

“Get it together,” Noah demanded. He bracketed Kurt’s face with his hands and pulled him closer. “We can’t help her. We can only help ourselves.”

“They’re hurting her!” Kurt’s voice rose and he was angry. She was still screaming so loudly and so desperately. Kurt didn’t know how to not help her.

Noah’s hand slammed over Kurt’s mouth and he said bluntly, “It’s us or her. You want to think about that for a second?”

Kurt pushed at Noah roughly, tears in his eyes. “I can’t not help her. I have to. I have to help her, Noah. They’re--”

“Us or her,” Noah said again. “And if you go charging out there, the same thing that’s happening to her right now, is going to happen to you. You’ll be screaming just like she is now.”

Kurt couldn’t stop the tears. He couldn’t stop the feeling of desperation in him, eating him up inside, telling him to help the poor girl who hadn’t looked any older than Kurt was. There had been one, brief glance he’d gotten at her before Noah had dragged him into where they currently were, but it was enough for Kurt.

“Kurt, Kurt,” Noah said, shaking him a little. He gathered Kurt up in his arms and hugged him tightly. “Cover your ears, okay? Close your eyes and cover your ears.”

It felt juvenile and stupid, but he did just that. He clenched his hands over his ears tightly and slammed his eyes closed. It was barely enough.

With the sensory deprivation it was impossible for Kurt to tell how much time passed. He was barely aware of anything as he waited. He hummed when his hands alone weren’t enough to keep out the screams.

The thing that saved him, Kurt was convinced, was his ability to concentrate on Noah. Noah, who was warm and close and safe. Noah, who held him tightly and rubbed his back and if Kurt had been listening, probably would have been promising that they would be fine, and make it through, and be safe.

Gently, Noah’s hands tugged at his wrists and when Kurt let him pull his hands away, it was mostly quiet. In the distance, Kurt could hear men talking, still shouting at each other, but there was no screaming.

“Is it over?” Kurt asked shakily.

“Yes.”

“And the girl?”

Noah shook his head. “I don’t know. But probably dead. They don’t take captives out here, remember?”

Kurt sniffled, and was surprised when Noah’s rough, calloused fingers brushed at his cheeks. He realized then at some point he’d started crying. Now he stood still as Noah brushed the tears away.

“We need to go,” Noah said firmly. “We have to get out of here before they discover the body at the water shed. If we don’t get out before then, they’ll know someone is here. Give me your hand.”

Kurt looked down, and he could see Noah’s hand out to him, palm up. It felt a bit like Noah was babying him, but it also felt like he needed it.

“You’re right.” Kurt tried to recover as quickly as he could, placing his hand in Noah’s. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Noah pulled him along, through a back exit he hadn’t realized was there. “It’s hard. I know you think I’m completely desensitized. I am. That’s not the point. But I know. I know, okay? I remember what it was like to realize how shitty the world is for the first time. I know.”

There was some comfort in that, Kurt just wasn’t sure how.

They had to move carefully back to the building they’d left Charlie in. There’d been just one person to avoid when they’d arrived, and now there were a dozen, prowling around, likely to discover the man Noah had killed, and quickly.

“Move fast!” Noah said, the second they were in the building they’d left Charlie in. The horse was perfectly fine, happy even, and Kurt was so thankful to see him. He felt like next to Noah, Charlie was the only stable thing he could count on. “Get up on the horse and I’ll guide us out.”

Kurt dug his heel into the saddle and even with the water weight, was able to pull himself up easily enough.

There was a sudden, increase in shouting, louder and more frantic than it had ever been. Bad.

“Shit,” Noah swore.

On top the horse, Kurt guessed, “They found the body?”

Noah kicked hard at the ground. “Damn it. We’re really up shit creek now.”

“Can we leave now?”

Noah shook his head and offered his arms up to Kurt. “No way,” Noah said, the moment Kurt was down, his feet back on the ground. “At least not for a while. They’ll block the city off for about a mile radius right away. That’ll keep us in.”

“I thought there were only about a dozen of them?”

“We only saw a dozen,” Noah pointed out. “I get the feeling there are more, and even if there weren’t, they’d spot us. The alarm is going up now. There’ll be someone up on a watchtower, maybe a couple someones. The horse is a dead giveaway, and we can’t leave him behind. No. We have to sit tight. We’ll be quiet while they check around, and if we’re lucky, they’ll gloss right over us. Then, with enough time, they’ll think we slipped through their fingers and we’ll have enough room to get out.”

With Noah’s hands still on his waist, and Kurt’s arms still on Noah’s shoulders, Kurt felt drastically unsure if it was appropriate or not. He’d grown closer to Noah ever since Noah had saved him from the rain, and far more friendly. They fought much less, tolerated each other much better, and there was an odd, fluttering in his stomach every time Noah touched him now. Kurt didn’t know what it was, or how to make it stop, or if he even wanted it to stop, but decorum seemed to be flying out the window fast. Decorum didn’t really seem necessary anymore, not with the trust he carried in Noah.

“Our luck has been nothing but bad up until this point,” Kurt reminded.

Noah’s hands squeezed his waist. “We’ll be fine,” he repeated. “We’ll lay low tonight, they’ll get bored or tired or distracted, and we’ll get out then.”

Kurt nodded slowly.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep at all tonight,” Kurt confessed, using his arms to pull Noah into a tight hug.

Noah’s chin rested on Kurt’s shoulder. “Then you can keep me company tonight.”

“True.”

He should have let go of Noah.

“We’ll be okay.”

Kurt hugged him tighter. “I believe you.”

_________________

“I was wrong about you, and I’m ashamed.”

The first thing they’d done was board up the front door with scraps of the decaying building around them. There were at least a dozen more entrances and exits, but Noah only seemed preoccupied with the main door. Then they’d settled Charlie in for the night, and dug themselves into a back room.

There would be no sleep that night, but Noah had encouraged Kurt to huddle against him and try and relax a bit. To close his eyes, and try not to be so tense. Anything to prevent the panic attack that Kurt had been bordering on for half an hour.

“What?”

Kurt had taken the tarp they carried with them and laid it out on the dirty ground. He’d pulled his ridding jacket tight around his shoulders and curled up as neat and compact as he could. He’d invited Noah to join him, and had wanted the man near him, but the Ranger stood across the room, at the boarded window, watching carefully for danger.

“I was wrong, and I’m apologizing.”

For a while there had been a flurry of activity outside, men shouting and horses racing by. But then, as the hours has passed, less and less had been heard. Noah had theorized that the men were spreading out, having already checked their area. It was something Kurt dared to hope for, that and a speedy get away the next morning.

“You’re not making any sense, Little Lord.” Noah crossed his arms and looked back from the window to Kurt. “What do you have to apologize for?”

Kurt cleared his throat and sat up, bringing his jacket with him. He slid his arms through the sleeves and did up the buttons. “When I was a kid, I had nannies. I had several, and they did their best to scare me into behaving. That’s not unheard of. Finn’s mother told him the same things that my nannies told me and the other children were told by their parents. We were told stories about Rangers, and we grew to fear them.”

“Kurt,” Noah said quietly, sounding as tired as Kurt felt, “you don’t have to--”

“I do,” Kurt interrupted. “Because I grew up with those stories, and believing every word of them, even though I knew better. It’s okay to believe stories when you’re a child, but it’s not okay when you grow up. Because if you do, if you hold onto those childish beliefs, you grow up to be ignorant and judgmental and just plain rude.”

“You’re not those things.”

“I was,” Kurt snapped. “I met you and right away, before I learned the measure of your character, decided that I was going to hold those stories to be true. I wasn’t even going to give you a chance. And I think that’s what caused most of the friction between us in the beginning. I was so stubborn, and so wrong.”

Noah rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “You think I didn’t judge you? All I saw was this pale, soft looking young boy, someone who didn’t know anything, but was completely full of himself. That’s what I decided, and I treated you accordingly.”

Kurt’s legs tucked to the side and he couldn’t meet Noah’s eyes. “But even if there hadn’t been stories, even if no one had ever told me a single thing they’d heard about the Rangers, I would have still hated you the moment I saw you. I would have still mistrusted you and treated you badly.”

“Why?” Noah asked earnestly.

“Stories are stories,” Kurt said, “but you’re also not the first Ranger I’ve ever met.”

There were a couple hundred of them in the area, Noah supposed, men and women who stuck to themselves, stole, evaded the law, and did whatever they wanted. And there were varying degrees of Rangers, from the war hardened kind, to the softer, less violent types. Noah had known Rangers to rape and pillage the same as the men in the lost cities. But he’d also known them to be family oriented, and overly protective of their own bit of peace. Rangers were as varied and different as any other type of people, but it was never surprising only to hear the worst of the stories about them. No one ever spoke about the good that Rangers did, if and when they did it.

“Rangers pass through towns easily enough,” Noah agreed. “It’s not surprising you might have seen a couple over the years.”

“No. That’s not what I mean.”

“Well, what do you mean?”

Kurt stood uneasily and made it to Noah’s side quickly enough to confess, “Seven years ago tensions between the Guard and the Rebels flared up again, right? There’d been a small amount of peace before that, but at that point, things turned bad quickly. Lima ended up right in the line of fire. It was so bad my mother begged my father to take us away. She was worried for herself and for me, and for everyone.”

“But you didn’t,” Noah said knowingly.

“Of course not. My father’s workshop wasn’t portable. And he was just starting to make the first of the breakthroughs that would endear him to General Anderson. He couldn’t leave, no matter how badly he wanted to.”

Noah admitted, “I remember how bad it got. A lot of people just packed up and moved, mostly to avoid being forcibly drafted into the war, or just to avoid becoming a casualty of it. But Kurt, I have to tell you, I’ve never really met a father that cared as much for you as your father does. I get the feeling he’d move heaven and earth for you. The idea that he wouldn’t abandon his workshop to keep you safe is a little unbelievable.”

“He was going to send us away, my mother and I. I have an Uncle Andy to the west, and an Aunt Mildred a couple hundred miles from Lima towards the south. He was going to send us away to one of them when the Rebels engaged the Guard unexpectedly. The town fell under a blockade because of the nearby battle, and for several weeks no one knew exactly what was going to happen. A town a few miles away had been burned to the ground earlier that month by the Guard, and only because they’d been accused of being Rebel sympathizers.”

“And something did happen?”

“The Guard won,” Kurt said simply. “And they moved on quickly to the next battle. Some of the townspeople in Lima were affiliated with the Guard, or had family members with them. The leftover Rebels weren’t glad to find out about that. They sacked the town. They tore it apart, really. And then, when we were down and hurt and in pieces, the Rangers came. They said they could help us.”

Noah sighed. “For a price.”

“It was too high,” Kurt said, not willing to explain any further. “We fought back. They had us outclassed.”

Noah put a hand on Kurt’s shoulder, but it wasn’t long before his fingers were sliding along, cupping the back of Kurt’s head fondly, drawing him closer. It was becoming a familiar gesture that Kurt cherished.

Kurt swallowed hard. “A lot of people died. And the Rangers tried to burn us out of our homes. During the confusion and the fire and the chaos, I got lost. I was only eight, and I was always small for my age back then. This is a recent growth spurt. I digress, I got lost in a crowd of people, and separated from my parents. I suppose the Rangers took me for an orphan, or fair game. They tried to take me. They were going to sell me and some of the other children off to slavers.”

Noah knew exactly what would have happened to Kurt if he’d been sold into slavery. He would have fetched a ridiculous sum, and probably been sold into the kind of child slavery that made Noah’s skin crawl. The kind that turned pure, innocent children into broken dolls.

“How did you get away?” Noah asked, curious and enthralled with the story.

“My mother,” Kurt said with a bitter laugh. “She knew. She just knew I was in trouble. She killed the Ranger who took me. She killed the man who was trying to force me to go with him, and hurting me. She took his head clean off.” He said the last bit with pride. “She was never loud and never angry and always happy, but in that moment I knew she was capable of defending her home and her family. I knew she was just as fierce as the men who were fighting out on the street. And she wasn’t going to let anything happen to me.”

But there had been a Lady Hummel at the Hummel home when Noah had arrived, and she hadn’t been Kurt’s mother.

“How did she die?” Noah wondered if it was from the attack years previous, or something else.

Kurt leaned forward, face pressing into Noah’s neck. “There were more of us, but the Rangers were better at killing. They killed most of the men in the town in battle, and then they started butchering the women who wouldn’t give up their children--most of them wouldn’t. They made an example out of my mother, for daring to protect me. They made her pay, and then everything burned to the ground.”

“What happened to your father? How did you survive? Did the Rangers leave after that?” Noah hadn’t heard the tale before. He’d never really heard of such a thing being caused by Rangers. Rangers rarely traveled in large groups, and they attacked only when they were threatened. It seemed difficult to believe, and as if there were more questions than answers.

“The Guard came back through.” Kurt’s voice was muffled a little. “They were coming back to see my father. They’d been involved with another battle already, and needed some repairs done. They took care of the Rangers for us just in time, but the damage was done. My father was barely alive, only a couple dozen men had survived, and a lot of the women and children had been hurt or killed. My mother was dead. I didn’t speak for weeks. Everyone was traumatized. Everyone grew to hate the Rangers from that moment on, and they told everyone they could. So I heard stories about Rangers went I was little, and then I lived the stories when I was a bit older.”

Noah’s lips pressed at Kurt’s temple, chaste and warm.

“General Anderson was a Major then. He was Major Anderson. That’s when he met my father. That’s when they struck up an accord. Major Anderson convinced Central to help us rebuild, in exchange for my father’s assistance for the war effort. My father’s heart was never really in it, and I think that’s why he never shared all of his knowledge. Major Anderson knew that. That’s when, a little while later, Blaine and I were Promised to each other. It all culminated in that.”

“Hard to believe your dad let me take you out from under him.”

Kurt thought so too, but he said, “It speaks volumes that he did, and how important this marriage is. I know you think I’m being idealistic and childish, or maybe even stupid, but I think I can help. I have to try. And the mere thought of helping General Anderson kill thousands of people tears me up inside, and it makes me doubt a lot of things about the world we live in and myself. But this has to stop. One way or another, it has to.”

“You know,” Noah said with a huff, “if more people were like you, we probably wouldn’t be in the middle of a war.”

Kurt couldn’t say either way.

Noah gave him a gentle push and said, “You should go lay back down. They’re probably still sweeping the city. It’s huge, and I think we’re going to go unnoticed, so you should take advantage of this down time to go rest.”

“I couldn’t rest if there was no one out there,” Kurt protested.

“Try?”

He wanted to, he really did, but there was something more important on his mind, and he’d barely worked up the courage to ask. “I have a question,” he told Noah, and followed up quickly with, “but you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. It’s terribly personal. I know I probably shouldn’t even ask it, but I can’t help but wonder--”

“Kurt.” It was the loudest Kurt had hear Noah’s voice since they’d entered the lost city. “Ask.”

Kurt squared his shoulders. “The Rangers who burned my town to the ground, and killed the men, and did worse to the women and children, they … what I mean to ask is … did you … have you …”

“No,” Noah said almost ruthlessly. “I’ve never done anything like that. Why would you assume?”

“I’m sorry,” Kurt apologized. But he was thinking of how effortlessly Noah had killed the water guard. “I just wanted to ask. To be sure. I just … I’m sorry.”

Noah took him by the shoulders and walked by memory back to the tarp. He pushed Kurt down to the ground and followed him into a kneeling position. Then he explained, “All Rangers live by a different code. Like all people, some are good, and some are bad. That’s just all there is to it. We don’t have a code of honor, but we don’t usually set out to deliberately hurt people. Still, everyone is different and that’s the best explanation. But I swear to you, I would never have done anything like that, and I’d have put a stop to anyone doing it if I were in the area.”

Kurt believed him. “I am ashamed, you know. I’m very ashamed. I thought you were just like them in the beginning. I was angry and mad with you to cover up my terror. I was so afraid to be alone with you. I thought you might do to me what someone did to my mother. And my chastity--”

Kurt broke off and Noah knew instantly that Kurt had seen a lot more than his mother’s mere murder. As a child, he’d seen something much worse happen to her. And it likely explained his father’s wildly overprotective urges, and Burt Hummel’s determination to keep Kurt locked away from a world that did nothing but destroy everything beautiful and worthwhile--everything like Kurt was.

“Don’t be sorry. And don’t be ashamed.” Noah assured him, “We’re past that, right? We look out for each other. We care about each other. Everything before now doesn’t matter.”

“Thank you,” Kurt said, voice light and wispy.

“No more apologizing,” Noah warned. He helped guide Kurt back down to a laying position. “And fair’s fair, right?”

“Huh?”

Noah shuffled down next to him. “You told me something important about your past, now you get to know something important about mine.”

It seemed a rare and special privilege, and he wasn’t sure what to ask. But then after a moment more, he knew what he was the most curious about. He asked Noah, “Tell me about your family. I told you about mine, you tell me about yours.”

In the distance a faint shout carried through the wind to them. But it was distant enough that Noah wasn’t worried.

“It’s not a pretty story, you know.”

“And mine was?” Kurt asked.

Noah admitted, “Before I became a Ranger, I was a Lord. Or at least I would have stood to inherit my father’s lordship.”

“I knew it,” Kurt cheered happily.

Noah poked him in his side, causing a burst of giggle to erupt. “But for your information, I did study with the Sisters for half a year. They tried to beat some common sense into me, obviously it didn’t work. I came home even more determined to be my own person, and not the perfect little heir that my father wanted.”

“You said you had a sister?”

Noah held up a hand, even though Kurt couldn’t see it. “I have to build up to that, okay? We have to start a little earlier.”

“Sorry.” Kurt tucked in a little more securely. “Continue, please.”

“My father a lot of land. I mean a lot. Growing up, I could look for miles and miles and everything was his. He herded sheep during the winter months, and then sheered them in the spring, sold the wool, and kept us living a very comfortable life. It was what his father had done, and his father’s father, and I guess he just expected that it was what I was going to do. He expected me to fall in line, and when I didn’t, he wasn’t willing to hear the reason why.”

“You’re supposed to do what your father says,” Kurt said, feeling a little foolish as he did.

Noah snorted in a way that made him feel worse. “Fathers are supposed to want happiness for their children. I didn’t want to sheer sheep. I just didn’t. I don’t think that’s so hard to understand. I didn’t care about the sheep. I wanted to go out, and travel, and see new things and meet people, and learn. I just wanted to learn. When I told him that, he shipped me off to the Sisters with strict instructions to send me home a responsible man.”

“You don’t strike me, Noah,” Kurt said teasingly, “as the type to spare even the Sisters.”

“I let loose a flock of geese in the dinning hall my first day there, and that was only the start.”

“How did you manage to gather up a flock of geese?”

Noah grinned cheekily. “I’m very skilled with my hands.”

Kurt hid his face in his jacket.

“The, uh, the Guard was ramping up their attention on the more southern stationed Rebels at this point. They needed uniforms for their new recruits, and a lot of them. My father was pretty much the only chance they had in getting everyone outfitted before the winter months.”

Confused, Kurt wondered, “And he didn’t want to?”

“The family has Rebel ties,” Noah confessed. “It goes back pretty far, at least a couple generations. It’s kind of like the family’s dirty little secret. We pride ourselves on being so much better than anyone else, but we get into bed with the Rebels day in and day out.” He said the last part so angry, like he was still personally affronted by the fact.

“Did the Guard know this?”

Noah rested his head on his palm and crossed his legs. He’d thought it would be hard talking about his past, relieving a part of his life that he desperately wanted to forget about. But it was easy to be open with Kurt, and almost rewarding. Therapeutic.

“No way. The family would have been ruined long before. My father was pretty slick about it. He gave the Rebels what they needed to keep their members identifiable and warm, and in return, they got things smuggled into the city for us that the Guard wouldn’t allow.” Noah expanded, “Illegal things. But then the Guard came around, wanting things too. And if the Rebels found out that my father was supplying the Guard, their sworn enemies, with wool for their clothing, they would have gotten out of bed faster than a mistress. So my father had to say no to the Guard, he didn’t have a choice. He had more of a relationship with the Rebels, and more on the line with them than the Guard. We had a summer house down south, and they always kept the roads clear for us. They kept us safe. My father was a lot of things, but careless was his family wasn’t one of them. He had to say no. He didn’t have a choice.”

Kurt’s breath hitched, as if it was his own story. “The Guard didn’t take it well?”

“They ruined my father.”

“The Guard did?”

Noah’s eyes stung, and he refused to believe that he could shed a tear over it. “Yes.”

Kurt’s hand, soft and cool, touched his cheek carefully, and then cupped his jaw in a comforting way. “What did they do to you?”

“Not to me.” Noah tried not to push into Kurt’s hand. “The sheep. It took less than a half hour, and by the time they were done, they’d killed every last one of the sheep. It was everything my father had. Everything that kept us going, and provided for us, and kept us alive, was gone. Thousands of them, Kurt.”

Kurt wondered what his father would have done if the Guard had destroyed his workshop. His father’s life’s work. Everything that mattered to them.

“That’s insane!” Kurt exclaimed. “They needed those sheep.”

“They still had them.” Angrily, Noah kicked the ground, and his perched angle odd but still enough to vent his frustration. “They made sure to sheer the sheep first. They took all the wool, and then they killed them. They hit us twice, and did it ruthlessly and purposefully to make it hurt as badly as it did. They wanted us to break us and that’s exactly what they accomplished.”

Shakily, Kurt had to ask, “What happened to your sister?”

“Sarah,” Noah said fondly. It was surprising how quickly Noah’s voice and tone could shift. Kurt supposed it was understandable, though. He had his own little sister, and he knew just thinking of her could brighten his mood. “Her name was Sarah.”

“That’s a very pretty name.”

Noah pressed on, “She loved those sheep. My mother was so upset that she’d rather go play with them in the fields than dress nicely and help entertain her guests. Sarah liked to be dirty, and free, and she hated being told what to do, just like me. We were alike in most ways. She hated the idea that one day she’d have to get married and move away. She hated anything that would happen to take her away from her sheep. I think she had a name for each of them. She swore she could tell the difference between them all, too. I’m not sure, but she was.”

“Noah?” Kurt’s fingers soothed across the plains of Noah’s arm, nails digging in just slightly. “What happened to her?”

“We didn’t know they were going to kill the sheep at first,” Noah explained. “We thought they were just going to sheer them, and take everything. When we realized what they were doing, Sarah, she refused to sit by. Those were her babies. Her sheep meant the world to her, and she wasn’t going to let them get away with it. She tried to stop them.”

“Oh, Noah,” Kurt said sympathetically.

Noah said confidently, “I was there. I saw it happen. And the soldier who did it, this nameless, baby faced kid, he didn’t mean to. It was an accident. Some of the other men in the town reacted right away, not just my sister. My father might have held ownership to the sheep, but the men sheered them, and took the wool to be sold, and their wives wove it into clothing. The whole town depended on those sheep. And Sarah, she just came up behind the kid. He didn’t realize she was just this tiny, mousy eight year old. Before I killed him, he told me how sorry he was, and how he hadn’t meant to. He was truly sorry.”

But Noah had killed him anyway.

“I regret it to this day.”

“Your sister dying?” Kurt asked softly. “Noah, it wasn’t your fault. She--”

“No,” Noah said suddenly, “Not that, Kurt.”

Noah’s arm shifted around, palm turning up, and he was able to catch Kurt’s hand. He squeezed hard and let their fingers intertwine.

“Then what?”

“Killing that kid,” Noah admitted. “He was young, probably just sixteen or a couple months off. He’d obviously just seen his first battle, and he was jumpy--still scared. He reacted in self defense when my sister came at him with one of our father’s firearms. He reacted accordingly to an unknown threat. I should have … I shouldn’t have let my anger cloud my judgment. He killed her, but it was an accident, and I didn’t have the right to deliberately take his life. I still regret it.”

Kurt squeezed back. “You should know, Noah, that you’re forgiven. The sins of the past are forgiven.”

Noah laughed in a stale way. “I didn’t destroy your family, Kurt. It wasn’t your brother or son or cousin that I killed. It wasn’t your friend. I don’t think you get to forgive me for something you have no connection to.”

“Of course I do,” Kurt argued confidently. “I’m your friend now, aren’t I? And I’m telling you that the mistakes we make as children are growing pains. Even ones that are this bad, they’re not unforgivable. They’re not impossible to learn from. You’re a good man now, and that’s all that matters. I would never hold your past against you, and if you ever let anyone else in, I’m sure they wouldn’t either.”

Gruffly, Noah said, “Don’t be so sure.”

The story needed to be finished, and Kurt asked, “Is your sister’s death why you became a Ranger?”

“I guess,” Noah said, and he sounded sincere. “Maybe. A lot of my town died when Sarah did. Her death spurred most of the men to take up arms against the Guard. They died because of that. And when it was all said and done, there weren’t a lot of people left to pick up and start over. A lot of people didn’t want to, either. My father couldn’t. He’d been a hard man to live with, and harder to love, but Sarah had been his world. He’d loved her more than anyone else. I think all daughters are that to their fathers. But she was dead, and he didn’t care if he lived. I left because there was nothing left for me at home, and it was too painful to stay. I kind of fell into being a Ranger.”

Kurt giggled a little at the notion. “How do you fall into becoming a Ranger?”

Daringly, Noah kissed the back of Kurt’s hand. “Some stories are left for another day.”

The back of Kurt’s hand tingled, the skin feeling oversensitive. It meant nothing, Kurt urged to himself. Noah was his friend now, a good and worthy friend who was sharing a very intimate part of his past with him. They were trusting each other with their weaknesses, and offering comfort. There was nothing sexual to the way Noah had kissed him, but Kurt couldn’t shake the notion that maybe it could have been. Or should have been.

He chalked it up to being in Noah’s company and Noah’s alone for the past week. And the fact that he was sixteen.

Still, he couldn’t deny the way Noah made him feel, even if it was completely normal. And he couldn’t stop thinking about how Noah had protected him, and kept him company, and given him his space when he’d needed it, and kept him close when it had been necessary. He thought of the kiss to his knuckles that had just happened, and the kiss Noah had given him earlier to his temple. He remembered the way Noah felt, pressed up against him, powerful and determined, and the way he smelled, completely masculine.

With all of that on his mind, he tried to focus back to Blaine, his Promised one, and the man who was waiting to receive him on the Eastern Front. Blaine, who Kurt would marry ,and grow old with. That was who mattered in matters of romance, and certainly not a Ranger who’d be gone as soon as the job was through.

“You’ll tell me?” Kurt asked a little surprised.

“Eventually,” Noah agreed. “But how I became a Ranger isn’t the important part. It’s why I’m one.”

“Because you don’t have to hold yourself to the same rules and restrictions as everyone else?” Kurt guessed. There was nothing more that Noah valued than his freedom, that much was clear.

“I guess that would be true, but you’re not really hitting the nail on the head.”

“Noah, I’m not sure--”

“Shh!” Noah’s hand released Kurt’s hand and covered his mouth suddenly with warm, clammy fingers.

Kurt froze, wanting desperately to sit up, especially if they needed to run, or move quickly. But Noah seemed to be pinning him down a bit, using his body as leverage over Kurt’s, keeping him in place an still.

They held in place for long, agonizing minutes, then Noah said, voice hushed, “We need to keep silent until I say so.”

Kurt nodded a fit frantic, worried there might be men only feet from the entrance to their hiding place. He didn’t know what Noah had heard, or if they were in danger, but he followed orders complacently, and didn’t try to move.

Eventually, Noah lifted off him and moved back to his spot next to the window, the barest of light from outside filtering in, giving Noah a silhouette. Kurt watched him for the rest of the night, and far into the morning. Noah never moved, always vigilant, and Kurt could bring himself to be any less.

Just as the sun was coming up Noah moved to his side, knelt down and said, “It’s been quiet outside for hours. I think we should go, before there’s more light.”

Kurt stood as quickly as he could, his legs still a bit asleep, and moved with Noah to the room they’d stashed Charlie. The horse seemed agitated from being cooped up for so long, and was happy to duck outside as Noah and Kurt led him along.

“You’re going to get up on Charlie and ride him, okay?” Noah said, not waiting for Kurt’s full compliance as he helped lift the teenager up onto the saddle. “If there’s trouble I want you to ride as hard as you can out of the city. Don’t stop for me and don’t come back for me.”

“What?” Kurt demanded. “You can’t expect me to--”

“I expect you to keep yourself alive. I expect you to put you first, and I don’t want to hear any bitching about it.”

Kurt couldn’t leave him. He wouldn’t. Not even if Noah made him promise. So instead he said, “If something happened to you, but I got out, I’d still be dead. I couldn’t … I couldn’t make it through the badlands on my own. I wouldn’t know the right way to start, and I wouldn’t get far without you. I’d die without you out there, Noah, so don’t expect me to leave you here to save my own ass. It isn’t going to happen.”

“You ride hard,” Noah insisted again. “Don’t look back and don’t stop. You get out of the city, but don’t go that far from it. Find a place to hide and watch for me. If something goes wrong, I’ll distract them. Then I’ll come and find you.”

Kurt reached down for him, unable to let go of Noah’s hand. “You won’t die, right? Swear to me.”

Noah scoffed cheekily. “Do you know how hard it is to kill me? People gave up ages ago.”

“Noah.” Kurt felt himself sliding off, loosing his balance. But then Noah’s big hands were pushing him back into the saddle, keeping him there. “I’m not kidding around. I can’t … I can’t loose you.”

“And you won’t.” Noah smiled at him. “So don’t worry about me, Little Lord. I’m damn near indestructible. How about we worry about you instead. What if you develop riding calluses? Your delicate skin will never be the same.”

Kurt was able to reach Noah’s wrist and pinch him hard. “None of that again,” Kurt said playfully. “I think I’ve proven I’m not some china doll.”

“You have,” Noah agreed more seriously. “And we’re going to be okay. I’ve gotten us this far, now I want you to trust me to get us the rest of the way.”

“I do.” Kurt straightened up and let Noah’s hand fall away. “I’m ready now.”

“And you’ll do as I say?”

“Only,” Kurt hastened to say, “if you promise you’ll be behind me, and you won’t leave me alone, and under no circumstances will you die.”

“No dying.” Noah held up a hand solemnly.

“I mean it. No joking.”

Noah gave Charlie a firm pat on his backside. “I promise. After all, if I wasn’t here, who would you have to complain at?”

“Very funny, Noah.”

Noah took Charlie’s reigns and led them to the large, bracketed doorway. “I try.”

They slipped out onto the city streets easily enough, but Kurt found himself holding his breath. He knew it had been quiet outside for hours, but they were still close to the water house, and there were sure to be patrols going around.

“Are you sure they won’t see us?” Kurt asked, finding he hunched down instinctively at the idea of a sniper being able to spot him from a distance with even a semi decent rifle.

“No.” Noah pulled them along down a side alley.

It took twice as long to backtrack toward the edge of the city. Kurt felt his palms sweating the entire time, and he didn’t start to feel remotely better until he could see the rolling, dirty, sand caked hills in the distance.

“It’s about time,” Kurt said with relief, “that we got some good luck.”

There were only a couple more blocks of housing to traverse and it looked like they were in the clear. Kurt cold hardly believe it.

“I never thought I’d be glad to see so much dirt again,” Kurt said.

A bunt force slammed into him. It was so solid, so powerful and so painful that Kurt lost his grip on the pommel of Charlie’s saddle without hesitation. He hit the ground hard, his body screaming with pain and his mind so dazed he couldn’t even more. He laid there, dizzy and numb from the fall, and could only see Charlie’s hooves dancing far too close to his head.

His legs were gripped and suddenly he was flying backwards, his jacket and shirt ridding up at the force of the pull. He managed to scream, “Noah!” but then he was coughing, his chest burning and aching.

It was around the time that he was dragged up to his feet that Kurt realized how far he was from Charlie, and that Noah was nowhere in sight. Instead he was surrounded by the men he’d seen a day previous, the ones who’d been hurting that poor girl. Scary men. Men who would hurt him.

Kurt fought. He pushed and kicked and hit and put every ounce of his strength into getting away from the prying hand that were grabbing his hair, pulling at his clothes and knocking him around.

“Noah!” he screamed again. “Noah!”

Someone punched him in the head. It did more than hurt him. It sent Kurt spinning to the ground, hands barely coming out in time to brace himself. And then there was a kick to his ribs, and finally, finally, he could hear the men he could see. He could hear them yelling and cheering and screaming. And the one on him, big and sweaty and smelly, was jeering at him.

“No! Get off me!”

The men laughed at him.

“Noah!” Kurt pulled himself up to his feet and looked desperately for Noah. But he could only see their attackers, everywhere, and in greater numbers than Kurt had seen the day earlier. There was no way they were escaping, but all Kurt wanted to do at the moment was find Noah, and to know he was okay.

Kurt screamed, voice tearing through his throat at he was lifted over someone’s shoulder. Suddenly he was upside down and his confusion doubled. Worse, his strength was leaving him with every passing second.

“Kurt!”

That was Noah! Kurt would have known his voice anywhere, even mingled with the others. Noah was alive and he was well enough to call for him.

Kurt pitched himself back as far as he could, twisting as he fell. It was just enough to knock his captor off balance and send them both to the ground. Miraculously, Kurt recovered first, and with a quick snap, he delivered a head crushing blow the skull of the horrible man who’d been groping him as he carried him.

“Noah!” Kurt struggled free of tangled limbs everywhere.

There! Kurt saw him. Noah was fighting off several of them, taking heavy hits, but plowing through, moving towards Kurt. He was standing and alive and that was all that mattered.

“I don’t think so!” A heavy, unwelcome voice reached Kurt’s ears and he was spun around. Something sharp smashed into the side of his face and as he collapsed once more to the ground he could feet a wetness sliding down the side of his face. A swift check produced bloody fingers and feeling of hysteria. “Shut up!” the voice snapped, and Kurt realized he’d been screaming for Noah again.

His vision was graying. He was gasping for air. He couldn’t tell up from down anymore.

And where was Noah?

“Noah!”

“I said shut up!”

The weight that hit him was too heavy. With Noah lost from his line of sight, Kurt passed out. And for the moment, he was blissfully unaware of how utterly in trouble he and Noah were.

____________

He couldn’t have been out long.

When he woke up he knew he hadn’t been moved. He was still on the dirty, broken down streets of the lost city he and Noah had entered so reluctantly. He was still surrounded by filthy, intimidating men. But now his hands were bound in front of him, pulled painfully tight with thick rope.

“You with us again, little girl?”

Kurt squinted up at the voice and recognized it as belonging to the man he’d kicked in the groin, the one who’d been trying to carry him off. Smelly. The one who smelled worse than all the others, though maybe that was just because Kurt had had the displeasure of being in such close contact with him.

“Don’t call me that,” Kurt snapped, finding his wits as quickly as he could. “You pathetic excuse for swine.”

Smelly knelt down, pressing into his space, and caught his chin in a fierce and hard grasp. “You’d better watch your mouth, or I’m going to find something better for you to use it for.”

Kurt felt silent, and instead looked for Noah. His last memory of the man had been seeing Noah fighting towards him, throwing off their attackers, and surprisingly enough, managing to hold his own. At least for the most part.

Now Kurt realized he was alone. There were men everywhere, but none of them were Noah.

“What did you do with Noah!”

Kurt struggled up to his knees and then sat back on his haunches.

Smelly laughed, and his cohorts joined in.

Kurt supposed he ought to have been thankful. He’d been there, in person, when the men had ridden into the city a day earlier. He’d been hidden, but angled enough to be able to see what they’d done to the poor girl they’d had with them. What they’d done to her, Kurt had been sure they’d do to him, and without preamble. Without hesitation. Certainly without waiting for him to be conscious. But he felt okay for the most part, and sore, but not in the way that Carole had gently told him one year earlier that he would when his virginity was nothing more than a memory. They hadn’t violated him, though that didn’t mean he wasn’t still in danger.

“Where is he?” Kurt strained around a little bit.

Smelly gave him a hard push that had him sprawling out onto the ground. “He got what was coming to him.”

Kurt gasped loud, and then again, and again, until his breaths came out jerky, and uncoordinated and desperate. He bowed forward, pressed his face into his forearms.

Noah couldn’t be dead. He just couldn’t. Noah had promised him. There had been a promise.

Kurt felt a heavy hand catch the back of his neck and drag him a bit, pulling him up to his feet and tucking him against a hard side. “Don’t cry, precious,” Smelly taunted, “there are plenty of us to warm your bed at night instead.”

Kurt paled. He hadn’t needed to check his body, he felt the lifted weight of the firearm he carried, and even the dagger he’d had strapped to his boot. His means of self defense were gone, and worse, his means of saving himself of a fate worse than death. He wondered what the chances were of making a move, and forcing one of the men to shoot him. Or managing to get his hands on one of their guns.

“And we’re waiting why?” A man demanded, nearly toothless.

A terrible, sharp nailed finger trailed down Kurt’s face as Smelly remarked, “You are something beautiful, aren’t you? Most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a while.”

“Don’t touch me,” Kurt seethed.

The finger trailed down deliberately, catching the folds in Kurt’s shirt near his chest that had caught and torn in the fight.

Kurt held his ground. Eyes fixed firmly in front of him, he refused to give anyone the satisfaction of known how shaken he was.

That was when he noticed the ground. There was spotting all around Dark, red patches of what could have only been blood. And when Kurt glanced about at the men who’d moved in closer, he could see Noah had managed to damage a number of them before he’d been subdued. Kurt counted several broken noses, and various other cuts and abrasions. Kurt felt a burst of pride in Noah that he’d done so well against so many opponents.

And that said, there wasn’t nearly enough blood to indicate that someone had been killed. They’d lied. They’d had to have been lying when they’d implied Noah was dead. The human body contained obscene amounts of blood, and Kurt knew whether by gunshot or knife, if Noah had died, there would be evidence of it. Noah wasn’t dead, they just wanted him to think he was.

“I can smell it on you, precious,” Smelly said, hand lifting away finally. “I can.”

“Smell what?” Kurt demeaned, dragging his eyes to the taller man in front of him.

“So pretty.” Smelly circled him, taking stock of everything he could see. “The kind of boy who’s still fresh.”

The men laughed again.

Of course they could tell. These men, who rode into boarder towns and took captives and brutalized families, of course they could tell he was chaste.

A nearby man moved in, hand wrenching into Kurt’s hair, tipping his head back forcefully. “Fresh,” he agreed. “Virgin.”

A strong arm caught his waist and suddenly Kurt was spinning, thrown down to the ground and in a position that made him twice as vulnerable.

His father had wanted to give him a phial before he left. He’d taken Kurt down into his lab, and into a little room in the back of it that his father used as an office. Kurt hardly ever went in it, there was never any need for him to. And so as Kurt stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, he’d been unsure what his father was doing as he rooted around in boxes.

“Here,” Burt had said, pressing a thin, clear phial into Kurt’s palm. “You need to take this with you. Just in case.”

Kurt had needed to ask, “What’s this?”

His father’s answer had him shaking a bit, clutching the vial tensely.

“Just in case,” his father repeated.

Kurt had left it behind, tucked into a dresser drawer, forgotten in a room that would never be used again. He wasn’t sure why the idea of swallowing a phial of poison had disturbed him, and the reality of shooting himself in the head being a possibility hadn’t, but it was enough to have him leaving the poison behind. He nearly regretted the action now.

“Get off of me!”

Kurt fought the moment that a heavy weight settled over his hips. It wasn’t Smelly, but it was the other one, the one that had been leering at him for quiet a while. He pressed forward, locking Kurt’s tied hands above his head with one hand, and using the other to grope freely.

“Get off me right now!” Kurt kicked out aimlessly, trying to gather any kind of leverage.

The man on him laughed, free hand settling at top of Kurt’s breeches. “Calm down, sweetie, I just want to have a little fun.”

“Filth!” Kurt twisted away.

“Don’t be like that, sweetie.”

He was tiring quickly. Kurt knew he wouldn’t be able to struggle for much longer, his muscles were already burning with the effort he’d exerted. And that was probably what they’d been waiting for all along.

“Enough.”

Smelly, the unlikely hero, ripped the man off Kurt and punched him swiftly in the face.

“What the fuck was that for?” the man demanded.

Kurt continued to breathe heavy on the ground, afraid to move, not sure what was what anymore.

“Look at him,” Smell demanded, jabbing a finger at Kurt. “Take one fucking look at him and tell me that you want to risk getting your head blown off for a hole to stick your dick in.”

Kurt rolled to his side as the man wiped at his jaw, stood his ground for a minute, and then stalked off.

“Why would you help me?” Kurt hissed, still angry, still confused.

Smelly bent and grabbed his arm, pulling him up to his feet. “Don’t get the wrong idea, precious,” Smell assured. “If I didn’t answer to anyone, I’d have bent you over hours ago, back when you and your boy thought you were just going to ride out of our city without being noticed. But lucky for you, precious, you really are the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen, and that makes you untouchable.”

“Untouchable?” Kurt echoed, unwilling to believe that for a second.

They kept his hands bound and led him over to a nearby horse. Kurt tried to look for Charlie, but he couldn’t find him. He didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.

Smelly helped him up on the horse and then settled in behind him, too close and too sexual in his handling. “Where are you taking me?” Kurt asked, feeling Smelly’s arms lock around him as he reached for the reigns.

“I suggest,” Smelly said, the rest of the men mounting up, “that you practice keeping quiet. That’s how Karofsky likes them, pretty and quiet.”

Karofsky. Dave Karofsky. They were taking him to Dave Karofsky.

If Smelly hadn’t been hold him so securely, Kurt might have tried to throw himself from the horse.

They rode directly for the tallest building in the city, the one that Noah had pointed out yesterday that Karofsky lived in. And they took him straight in, barely letting him get off the horse on his own.

“How are we going to get up there?” Kurt asked, glancing up at the ceiling. On their approach he’d counted fourteen levels, more than any of the other buildings.

Smelly, still holding his arm, pulled him towards set of stairs and up they went.

The city was in ruin, buildings falling down, materials crumbling, and dirt everywhere. The outside façade of Karofsky’s building had been no better. But when they reached the thirteenth floor, one less than Kurt had expected, and were taken into the main room, there was nothing but luxury to behold. It was more than Kurt had seen in his own home, and he knew they lived better than anyone else Kurt had ever met, or knew about, save probably for the General and his commanding officers.

It was decorated nicely, with hanging drapery and fine furniture. Pillows and blankets were scattered about with dried, crushed flowers leaving a smell of cleanliness in the air. And there were people littered about, some dressed more finely than others, some dressed more than others. Kurt took note of the half dozen young boys, most his age, refusing to meet his eye.

Karofsky was at the center of the room, commanding the attention of everyone.

“Brad said you had something for me.”

Dave Karofsky was, in a word, terrifying. Even dressed finely, completely clean, and lounging about, he was scary. Kurt stopped just short of him and met his eyes, troubled by the lack of emotion, and the blankness.

“Yeah, here.” Smelly gave him a push, this one less harsh. “Found him with another. They stole some water and were trying to make it out of the city unnoticed. I might have given my men a little time with him, but I thought you’d appreciate him more. He’s very pretty.”

“Very pretty,” Karofsky agreed.

Kurt felt Karofsky’s scrutiny and hated it.

“Well,” Karofsky asked, impatient, “what’s your name?”

He thought for a moment to give his full title, to throw what little weight around that he had, but he knew ultimately it would be fruitless. It might even upset Karofsky. And now, with Noah alive somewhere, Kurt’s focus became bidding his time.

Shakily, Kurt said, “Kurt. Kurt Hummel.”

“Kurt.” Karofsky tried his name out. “That’s a fine name. Do you know who I am?”

Kurt straightened up as much as his bound arms would allow. “You’re Dave Karofsky.”

Karofsky stood and strolled his way closer to Kurt, circling him like the men had done earlier. “And how do you know my name, pretty?”

“What’s with all the pet names?” Kurt demanded haughtily. “Pretty, precious, sweetheart! I have a name. It’s Kurt. Learn to use it.”

Karofsky laughed, and everyone followed suit. “You brought me someone with a little feistiness. I like him!”

Kurt huffed.

Sobering, Karofsky dismissed, “So you know my name. What I’d rather learn, pretty, is how you came to be so far into the badlands.” Karofsky reached forward and took Kurt’s hands in his own, turning them over, stroking the soft, sensitive skin. “You’re much too well bred to be this far out. What are you, a lord?”

Kurt despised his touch. It burned. It was worse than the men who’d touched him earlier. He wanted to pull away, but he couldn’t bring himself to.

“Lord Hummel is my father,” Kurt said, stumbling only a bit over his words. “And I … I’m …”

“Yes?”

Kurt blurted out, “I’m on my way to my wedding.”

“A wedding?” Karfosky said boisterously. “We love weddings here, don’t we?”

A cheer went up, though it was half hearted and more insulting than anything else.

“Where’s the wedding, pretty?”

Lying felt impossible. “The Eastern Front. I …” Kurt swallowed down the lump in his throat. “I’ve been Promised, and time is of the essence. Now, as you’ve deduced, I’m quite well bred. My marriage is of some importance and if you’ll see me on my way, I’m sure both my father’s house and my future husband’s will see that you are rightly compensated for your troubles. I’m certain a fine gentleman as yourself can see the logic in this.”

Karofsky’s grip on him tightened and he was pulled forward, nearly up against the bigger man. “I don’t think you understand how things work here.”

Kurt hastened to repeat, “The house of Hummel will pay--”

“Look around,” Karofsky cut him off. “I have plenty. I don’t need your father’s wealth. You don’t hold that kind of value here.”

Kurt could feel them watching him, all of the people in the room. They were waiting for the moment that he understood why he’d been taken, and why there would be no random. Kurt wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.

Flatly, Kurt asked, “You like pretty things.” It was a question, but it came out far more like a statement.

“I like pretty things,” Karofsky repeated. He let the pads of his fingers touch Kurt’s cheek. “There are plenty of pretty people out there, but you are byfar the most gorgeous I’ve seen. You’ll look even better at dinner, when you’ve cleaned up, and not bleeding all over my floor.”

“Dinner?” Kurt’s eyes widened.

“About that,” Smelly said, eying Kurt. “He was being difficult. The boys and I had to rough him up a little.”

Kurt reached up a shaking hand to touch the side of his head. He’d forgotten he’d taken a heavy blow. Now his forehead was tight and itchy with dried blood.

“Then you can have the pleasure of cleaning up what you got dirty,” Karofsky said dangerously.

He was passed back to Smelly who complained, “I’m not a babysitter.”

Karofsky turned back to his seat, a beautiful woman flocking to his side with a goblet of what was probably wine. “Get Lopez to do it.”

“Lopez won’t like it.”

Karofsky waved a meaningless gesture. “Then remind her what happens when she doesn’t like things.”

Before Kurt could process the last bit of conversation he was being dragged back towards the hallway, then down two flights of stairs to a door that Smelly pounded on.

“What?” The voice that came from behind the door was snappish and sharp and very female.

The door cracked open and Smelly gave it a hard kick, forcing it open even further. Kurt watched a young girl stumble back, beautiful as she was furious.

“Got another one for you,” Smelly said, and then Kurt was released, and sent her way.

“Oh, no,” she snapped, shoving them all out from what looked like her home and closing the door behind her.

“Karofsky’s orders,” Smelly said. Then, much to Kurt’s surprise, he turned and left them.

Kurt waited until they were alone, and then maybe a half second more before turning to her and saying quickly, “You have to help me. You need to help me get to me friend--”

“Stop!” she barked, reaching behind her belted pants to draw out a pistol. She leveled it up on him and said, “Quite chirping at me, kid. Don’t waste your breath or what little intelligence you probably have. So keep your mouth shut and listen, because I’m only going to explain this to you once.”

Flabbergasted, Kurt couldn’t say anything in response.

“You’re here, and that means you’re Karofsky’s property now. You keep your head down and yourself in check, and you’ll live a while yet.” She gave him a long look. “You’re prettier than expected.”

“What’s going on,” Kurt asked desperately.

She quickly freed his hands, but used the pistol to guide him down the hall. “I just told you, kid, you’re property now. I don’t know what you did before, but you’d better get used to sucking dick, because that’s about all you have going for you at the moment.”

Kurt stumbled over his feet.

She caught his arm and hoisted him up. “What are you, twelve? Some kind of milkmaid?”

“No,” Kurt stammered. “Who are you? What is this place?”

They moved to a bathing area, and with her arms crossed, she said, “Start washing up.”

Kurt looked between here and the basin filled with water. “Wash?”

She rolled her eyes. “Karofsky likes to parade his new toys around when he gets them. He’ll expect you to be clean, and I mean that. You’d better scrub hard.”

Kurt took a cautious step towards the water and asked, “Do you have a name? I’m--”

“I don’t care about your name,” she said. “I don’t care about where you came from, or who you are. You’re a little dancing doll now. You’re Karofsky’s, and that’s all that matters. Be thankful for your face, pretty boy. Now get going.”

“I wasn’t alone,” Kurt whispered to her. “I had a companion. I had a protector.”

“Wasn’t very good, was he?” she scoffed.

“Noah was brilliant!” Kurt’s hands balled. “He was brave and he was kind to me. We had our differences, but I care deeply for him. He was taking me to my husband.”

“Forget that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She rounded on him, asking, “What part of me telling you to get used to sucking dick do you not understand?”

“I …” Kurt broke off. “I couldn’t … I just …”

“You will.” Her eyebrows were high, and Kurt could tell she was amused. “Or else Karofsky won’t have a use for you anymore. And make no mistake, that’s all he wants you for. He gets bored with his boys very fast, and those are the skilled ones. Do you know what happens to the boys he casts aide?” Kurt shook his head. “They go to the other men, and then they’re never seen after that.”

He had to escape. He had to get away. He had to find Noah and they had to get out. It was his only option. He would not compromise himself, not even to gain time. He couldn’t. If he did, and they managed to escape, he’d be in void of his contract, and there’d be nowhere to go but back to his family, with his shame.

“My name is Kurt,” he repeated, “and I was on my way to my wedding. I’m sixteen. I’m the son of a Lord. I had only one companion and I care deeply for him. I’m scared, I’m alone now, and I will not have myself compromised, no matter the penalty. Now, what’s your name?”

Photobucket

He’d never seen her coloring before. It was a bit like Noah’s, which was lighter than Mercedes’ had been, but different. A different shade of brown. It was beautiful, however. Kurt loved it, and her skin looked silken. He wondered how she’d survived, surrounded by dirty, horrible men. Though she was strong willed and strong mined, that much was sure.

Finally, and Kurt hadn’t really thought she would, she said, “My name is Santana. But this doesn’t change anything.”

“I’m supposed to be married,” Kurt reminded. “I’m Promised. And my dowry is important. The condition of my contract, my virginity, it’s equally as important. I won’t be compromised. I can’t be. I’d rather die first. I want you to understand that, every time you tell me that I’m a toy, or a doll, or what my expectations should be.”

Santana’s eyes narrowed. “You think you’re the first noble boy to get snatched? The first Promised?”

“Probably not.”

Santana pointed. “There’s some soap, and a brush. You should make yourself presentable. I’ll wait outside, and be thankful for that much.”

“What am I bathing for?” The idea of being forced was horrible, but it had been nearly a week since he’d had any kind of thorough bathing, and he was beginning to smell. He spent his days sweating in the sun, and wearing the same clothes day in and day out. Bathing was a wonderful thing, but he wanted it to be under his conditions, and nothing else.

“Weren’t you listening?”

“Dinner?”

Santana turned her back on him, heading to the door. “Don’t try and escape,” she advised. “You’re up further than you can jump. And even if you decided to end it that way, the windows don’t open. Just get your shit together and get clean. I’ll be back in fifteen.”

She slammed the door behind her and Kurt couldn’t help springing into action, rushing to the windows and trying to pry them open. They were up more than a good distance, and Kurt wasn’t certain he would have jumped even with the opportunity. He knew Noah hadn’t died in the street, there hadn’t been enough blood for that. But who was to say he hadn’t been taken to another location and killed there? Until he was sure, he couldn’t do anything.

He needed to find out from Santana. She seemed to be the key, and he was certain she knew more than he knew to ask for. She was obviously reluctant to speak to him, and she wasn’t going to be nice about it, but there was a chance he could gain information from her. A chance was all he needed.

Ten minutes in his fifteen minute allotted time, her head peeked in and she asked, “Drown yourself, baby doll?”

Kurt remarked, “You people really have a problem with pet names. And what are you doing here? I thought you said you’d give me some privacy?”

She leered at him. “Not much to avoid being seen there, baby doll.”

Kurt blushed painfully and covered himself.

“I brought you some clothes. Put them on when you’re finished, then I’ll take you to a room.” She ducked back out.

Kurt couldn’t help thinking about the poor girl the men had raped and killed the day earlier. Why was Kurt getting such treatment when she’d been handled so harshly? Was it because of his gender? Because clearly Karofsky preferred a male gender? It didn’t seem fair that she hadn’t gotten the same chance to escape or make her own choice.

Santana had left him the plainest of clothing: white breeches and a white shirt. The color was a stark contrast to the waste around them. He wondered who the clothing had been stolen from.

“Tell me about Noah,” Kurt asked, fully dressed by the time she returned.

She drawled, “Was this Noah a cute piece of ass like you are?”

Kurt shrugged. Was Noah cute? No. He was handsome. He was roguish and attractive, but he wasn’t cute. Cute wasn’t the proper word for him. Cute applied to younger, softer men. Noah might have been cute as a child, but even then, Kurt doubted it. “Handsome,” he told her. “Noah is very handsome.”

“They probably killed him on the spot.”

She still had her pistol out, and it was still trained on him as they moved back down through the hallways. Kurt couldn’t really blame her. No one trusted anyone else, that was clear. And she was right not to trust him. If he had the chance to take her gun, and to escape, he was willing to do whatever was necessary to accomplish that. He was willing to take her life, if it meant saving Noah’s. He’d kill anyone who got in his way.

“They didn’t,” Kurt argued. “There wasn’t enough blood. Noah wasn’t killed when they took me. That means that took him someone else. Do you know where?”

“Give it up, baby doll,” she signed. “You’re never going to see your friend again. You’re never going to have the life you had before. You’re never going to see anything but this place ever again. I thought I told you to get used to that.”

“Noah is strong.” Noah wouldn’t have died without a fight. Noah hadn’t let them take him without a fight. “He’s young and strong and durable. Is there any place they might have taken him? Any place at all?”

She hesitated, and that was all Kurt needed to see.

“Please, Santana,” he pleaded. “I’d do anything to keep him safe. I’d do anything. If you can tell me he’s alive somewhere, please, I’m begging. I need to know he’s okay. You’ve just got to tell me.”

“Sounds like you’re in love with this guy.”

Kurt froze. “In love?”

“Did I stutter?”

Kurt thought about it for a moment. He told her, “I’ve never been in love. I don’t know what it feels like. And even if I was, I probably wouldn’t be able to recognize it. But I do know this, and it’s very important that you listen tome now.” He took her silence as a cue. “Noah saved my life. He wouldn’t put up with any of my attitude, and instead he helped me every step of the way. He gave me companionship, and I truly think he’s helped me become a better person. Less selfish. He did for me what no one else has, and all of that in about a week.”

“Still sounds like love. Pathetic, puppy love.”

“He makes me laugh, and smile, and want to go on even when I think it’s too hard. I get these butterflies in my stomach when he touches me, and the nights that we spend curled together are the best moments of my life. When he holds me … I feel like I can say anything I want to, and be anything I want to. I feel free, and that’s something I’ve never felt before.” God help him, he was in love with Noah.

“There’s a place,” she said reluctantly, looking away, “it’s where they take people sometimes. It’s on the outskirts of town. If your boy was big and strong, they might have taken him there.”

Kurt dared to hope. “So he could be alive?”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” she said snappishly. “It’s not a good place to go. If he went there, his chances of lasting are slim to none. The men are going to use him as a form of entertainment.”

“What kind of entertainment?”

Santana stopped them in front of a door. It looked like all the other doors, but it wasn’t unnoticed by Kurt that there were a couple of Karofsky’s men prowling around, giving him longing looks.

“Get in,” she said, pushing at his shoulder. “Before they loose what little self control they have and try and piss all over you for first rights.”

The room was nicely decorated, like the room that Karofsky had been in was. There was a bed, and a vanity and several other pieces of furniture. And there was one, large window across the way, likely sealed shut like the others had been.

Santana kicked the door closed behind him and said, “You make sure you wedge something under the door on your side when I go. Some of Karofsky’s men may know what’s off limits, but some of the others don’t. If you want to survive around here, you’ll need to learn which are which.”

“What kind of entertainment?” Kurt repeated. He needed to know as much as he could, if he stood a chance helping Noah.

“There’s an arena?” she said it as if she wasn’t sure about the word, as if it wasn’t the right one. “It’s across the city. They’ll make him fight, mostly against the other people they’ve picked up, and sometimes against Karofsky’s men. He’ll fight and they’ll bet either for or against him. That’s how they stay entertained between their raids.”

“They’ll make Noah fight people?” He guessed he should have been disturbed by the idea, but he thought back to the guard Noah had killed, and then how Kurt had seen him fighting Karofsky’s men. If anyone could hold their own until help arrived, it was Noah. Maybe Noah wouldn’t even need his help. “Noah is strong. He’ll be okay for now.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Santana said, gentler than he’d imagined she was capable of. “And don’t let Karofsky know what this Noah means to you. That’s in his best interest, and yours.”

Kurt nodded, when held out his arms. “What do I do?” When she looked annoyed, he added, “Here. Right now.”

“I’ll come back in a couple of hours,” Santana said, hips swaying as she walked to the door. “I’ll bring you some better clothes.”

“Better?”

“More appropriate,” she corrected. “You’re having dinner with Karofsky tonight. He’ll expect to hang you off his arm and have everyone be very jealous. You’ll need to look the part.”

Kurt wiggled his bare toes against the ground. “So I just sit here? And do nothing?”

“Pray to your god?” She snorted. “Pray for a better god.”

“I’m not religious,” he snapped back. “I did my prayers because they were expected, and my father believed. Regardless, you don’t get to be disrespectful towards something just because you don’t believe in it.”

“Look around you.” Her hand twisted at the door knob. “Look at where you are, and who’s got you, and what your life is going to be like. “Take a good, long look around, and then tell me that you still believe in god.”

“I believe in helping myself.”

She spun back again. “You want to help yourself? I have an idea for you.”

“Why don’t you share with everyone then.” He put his hands on his hips. “Go on.”

She jerked a thumb at the bed across the room and said, “Those sheets are decent. Karofsky likes his toys to have nice beds when he comes to visit them. They’re thick and they’re strong.”

“So?” He’d had nice sheets at home, and had never really known a poor quality of them. He didn’t follow her.

Santana pointed up, next.

The room was nice, but the ceiling was a bit trashed, open in some places, thick looking beams exposed in other places. The room looked unfinished, or rather, just falling apart. It was a testament to how old the building was. And it made Kurt feel less safe being so high up. It kind of felt to him like the whole place could come down on his head at any time.

“Yes?”

“The beams are strong, too,” she said bluntly.

Kurt’s head tipped to the side.

“You can’t possibly be that stupid, baby doll.”

Oh. “You mean--”

“You wouldn’t be the first boy,” she said, opening the door. She added, “Your god can’t help you now. Karofsky’s going to have you tonight. And there’s nothing you can do about that. You can only help yourself. Chew on that.” She was gone in a flash after that.

He hurried after the door and pressed against it. Kurt sank down to a seated position and pulled his legs up close to his chest, eye going back up to the exposed beams.

She’d been telling him to commit suicide. She’d been advising him to take his sheets and hang himself from the beams, rather than submit himself to Dave.

“No,” Kurt told himself, almost angry. “No taking the easy way out.” Not while there was Noah to think of, and not while there was still time. He had hours before dinner, and hours longer before Karofsky came for him. Suicide wasn’t a solution to consider yet.

Not just yet.

________________

 

Rage. That was the emotion Noah had experience the moment he’d seen Kurt fall to the ground, dazed and unmoving. That was when he’d fought twice as hard, providing little thought to his own wellbeing, or the promise he’d made Kurt not to die on him. The only thing that had mattered was getting to Kurt, and killing the men who’d dare touch him.

He’d seen Kurt pass out. While he’d struggled to get to him, Kurt had passed out, and been at the mercy of the men circling him, jeering and laughing and taunting.

They’d swarmed Noah. There were too many of them and they swarmed him, holding him down, keeping him pressed hard against the ground, whispering promises of vile nature towards Kurt’s limp body.

He’d been trussed up quickly after that, and thrown over the back of a horse. Noah had expected them to kill him. Or to kill Kurt. He’d expected the moment they’d been ambushed for their lives to be over. But they hadn’t killed him, and they’d hurt Kurt, but left him breathing.

His last glimpse of Kurt, as the horse he was thrown over rode off, was of him still on the ground, still unmoving, and thankfully, still breathing.

But the mere idea that he’d failed, that he’d let someone hurt Kurt, it boiled his blood. He hated himself for it, and for the things he knew would happen to Kurt now that they were separated.

Noah wouldn’t have put it past Kurt to be able to defend himself in a fair fight. Kurt had his firearm, and a large, sparing knife. He had good balance, sharp movements and an intelligence that was above average. In a fair fight, one on one, Kurt might have stood a chance. But not now, not with the situation he was currently in. They’d take his weapons, and tie him down, and there’d be no chance for a fight.

They’d ridden far across the city, and it had taken a while. And then Noah had been flung around, herded underground sharply, and thrown into a small cell that he now occupied. There were three, molding walls, and one barred way in or out. There was a cot in the far corner, and pieces of a lavatory that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years, if ever. The stench was horrible.

And now he was alone. They’d stripped him of everything but his clothing, even taken his shoes, and now he was utterly alone. Alone without Kurt, and without his weapons, and without any means of escape.

Noah sat down with his back against the far wall and folded his legs, eyes closing briefly. He’d taken several powerful hits to his head, and more than a few kicks to his ribs which were aching fiercely. He was coming down off his high from the fight, and it was making him lethargic, and depressed, even. And for the first time in years, not that he would allow himself to, he thought it might be acceptable to cry a bit. Crying over the loss of Kurt was tempting.

He’d never felt like such a failure. He knew he’d never see Kurt again. He’d never deliver Kurt to the Eastern Front, and he certainly wouldn’t keep his promise to Burt Hummel. The war would continue right along, and no one would ever know what happened to them.

“Psst! Hot Cheeks!”

His back was killing him. Cooped up in their hiding spot after stealing the water, Kurt had washed his back effectively, cleaning out days of procrastination in the form of dirt and sand. Kurt had said, “It’s looking bad again, Noah. The skin is more red than it should be.” They’d lost their light shortly after that, and Noah was thankful. He hated to have Kurt fretting over him and his wound.

“I’m talking to you, handsome.”

Noah looked around the small cell. He was still alone, and only a few candles lighting the outside hallway offered any light. It was poor at best.

He offered quietly, “Hello?”

“Over here!”

It was a female voice. Noah crawled towards it, finding that at the back of his cell, past the toilet, there was a small hole, no bigger than his thumb, that went all the way back through to the cell next to his. He worked it for a moment, trying to see if it would open up anymore, and when it wouldn’t, he sat back on his feet and asked, “Who are you?”

An eye blinked through the hole and said, “Sit back, baby, I can’t get the full picture with you this close.”

Noah snorted. “Dream on, lady.”

“I’m no Lady.” The eye moved back a little, too, and when Noah leaned forward, he could make out the form of a woman, heavy set, with long hair and men’s clothing on her body. “You can call me Zizes.”

“That’s a pretty crappy name,” Noah barked out with a laugh. He was so glad to have company, especially the type not prone to trying to kill him right away. “I’m …”

“Lauren Zizes,” she said, “but I stopped letting people call me by my first name because it make them feel bad for me. It made them underestimate me. It made them weak.”

Maybe she didn’t care who he was, not like he wondered who she was. Maybe she was that type, and Noah had come across enough of them. Some people liked to talk, mostly about themselves, and Noah was in no position to be picky.

“Why’s that make them weak?” he asked.

She crossed her arm and perked up. “What’s a handsome thing like you doing here?”

“Handsome?” Noah looked down at his calloused hands, and pictured his own, sun leathery skin. He didn’t think of himself as handsome. Though neither did he think he was grotesque. He’d had plenty of offers to share his bed, and on the lonely nights, he took the offers up. “My name is Noah Puckerman. And you didn’t answer my question.”

She made an odd, clicking noise with her tongue and smiled. “I used to let them call me Lauren in the arena, and it made it too easy for me to kill them.”

“The arena,” Noah said flatly. “This is where you tell me that that is.”

“They go out,” she said easily enough, “the patrols, and they bring back supplies and pretty boys for Karofsky, and then men. They bring back men, too. Strong ones. Young and fit. Handsome sometimes, like you.”

Noah heard often of the boarder towns being hit by thieves and scoundrels like Karofsky’s gang. They usually rode through and stole easy targets, food and children. Sometimes teenagers, particularly the pretty ones. But he’d never heard of grown men being targeted. They were hard targets, capable of fighting back and putting up more of a struggle than was usually worth. This was something new.

“Why men?”

“For the arena. Aren’t you listening? When Karofsky’s men aren’t out being a total pain in everyone’s ass, they like to drink and gamble. Karofsky gave them the arena to keep them distracted from how he sits on his ass in luxury, and they live in squalor, doing what he tells them to. They put us against each other, and make us fight to the death. Winner gets to come back for some more. Loser? I think I just told you what happens to the loser.”

Human sport wasn’t unheard of. Some of the country, not the part that Kurt had lived in, or he would have ever gone near, was not nearly as civilized as everyone wanted to think. But here in the badlands? It seemed such a trouble to bring potential participants so far into the badlands. Or maybe they just waited until poor, unsuspecting travelers were too close to realize the danger they were in.

“So that’s why I’m here,” Noah assumed. “Were they running low on men?”

With a glint in her eye, Lauren said, “Why yes they are.”

He dared to ask, “And what do they use you for?” She might have been dressed in men’s clothing, but she was very much a woman. She even smelled like one, through the tiny hole that allowed them to see each other. She had womanly curves, and the capability to carry children. He could only see one reason as to why they had kept her around, and she did look as if she’d been around for a while. But neither did she look broken down, or abused, or injured. She seemed fine. Better than fine, despite her living conditions.

“Why do you think they’re so low on men to fight?”

Noah’s eyes widened. “You fight? They let you fight?”

She leaned back on her hands. “Let me? Let me tell you, handsome, I’m their prize fighter. I’ve been here years, and I’ve never lost a fight. I eat better than the rest of this lot put together, probably as good as Karofsky, and it’s because I’m the best. I take down everyone who stands in my way.”

“You fight?” he had to say again, mostly in disbelief.

She reminded, “They used to call me Lauren. I used to let the others call me Lauren. But then some of them felt bad about hitting a girl. Some of them refused to. They made it too easy. But that was mostly before they realized I wouldn’t spare them. Then they started calling me Zizes and we didn’t have a problem anymore.”

Noah leaned a hand down on the floor as he bent back towards the hole. She looked too smug. “I’m next on your list, right?”

Lauren winked. “You’re handsome. You’re probably a good guy. But it’s me or you. And baby, I’m not dying anytime soon.”

“I can’t fight,” Noah said, leaning forward. “I have to find Kurt. He was my companion.”

“If you’re lucky, you might run into him in the arena. You’d be able to give him a mercy death, then.”

“No.” They’d never do with Kurt, what they had sentenced him to. “Kurt wouldn’t be here. He’s .. he’s different.”

“Different how?” she asked.

“Soft,” he said bluntly. “Pretty. He’s a Lord by birthright. Before this, he’d never even left his home town. He’s naive. Innocent. He’s no warrior.”

“Okay then,” she agreed. “Rule this place out.”

“I have to find him.” They wouldn’t have killed Kurt, not even if he fought back or gave them trouble. He was much too valuable to them, more valuable than Noah was. Kurt was alive somewhere, and probably waiting for a rescue. He’d gone and lost Kurt, and he could start to make up for that by finding him again. “I have to save him.”

“Honey,” Lauren said, looking as sympathetic as he thought she could possibly get, “if he’s a pretty face, he certainly isn’t here, but that’s not good news. If he’s not here, there’s only one other place he’d be, and that’s with Karofsky. And he’s not just keeping him company, if you catch my drift.”

Noah smiled a bit and remarked, “Maybe Kurt will drive him so absolutely crazy he’ll send Kurt here instead.”

“High maintenance?”

“You have no idea.” Noah bowed forward a bit more. “He’s so headstrong it drives me up the wall. He’s determined to do what he’s going to do, and he’ll never let anyone talk him out of it. He doesn’t like being told no, either. No to him is like a jumping off point for him to start working a yes in there somewhere. In fact, no probably isn’t even in his vocabulary, especially when it’s said by someone he doesn’t respect. And don’t even get me started on what happens if you tell him he can’t do something. He’ll make a point of doing it just to prove you wrong, and what’s more, he’ll do it better than you expected, just to add insult to injury. Maybe better than you’d do it yourself. He’s like that. Determined. Headstrong, like I said.”

“You said he’s a lord?”

“Yes,” Noah told her, “which makes him educated, and just too smart for his own good. He’s probably read every book in his town, and asked about the things he doesn’t know about. It makes him cocky, and very sure of himself. He likes nothing more than to know something that other people don’t have a clue about.”

Lauren asked, gaze shifting about, “Sounds like he has a lot of faults.”

Noah added, “He’s mouthy. He’ll ramble on and on, and do it just to annoy you. He’ll talk about everything, and absolutely nothing at all, and has all of these ideas that he wants to share. Once you get him started, it’s damn near impossible to get him to stop. But then, when he does stop, it’s because he’s mad. He never just stops on his own, to give me a break, or to enjoy some peace and quiet. No, if he’s going to be quiet, it’s because I did something or said something to make him mad. He’s like a girl, god, don’t ever tell him I said that. But he has these vicious mood swings and the tiniest thing can set him off. I have to watch what I say, because most things are offensive to him. It’s like he’s a child at times and he only wants me to say the things he wants to hear.”

“You said your name was Noah?” she questioned.

“He’s so stubborn,” Noah said, finding his second wind. “Especially when he knows he should ask for help, and he knows it would be in his best interest, but he’s so stubborn and prideful that he’d rather ride it out. Like when we first started out. He knew I was setting a pace that was too hard for him, considering he’s never spent much time on a horse. He knew he’d be in pain all day long, but he refused to ask. He refused to seem weak. That’s something else he doesn’t like. Weakness and Kurt Hummel don’t go hand in hand with him, as far as he’s concerned.”

“Noah.”

“He’s too curious for his own good. I say stay in one place and what does he do? He wanders off. I say, don’t touch that, and he has to touch it. I say stay in my line of vision, and he up and disappears on me. It’s crazy. Everything distracts him. Shiny things distract him. And that means I have to watch him twice as hard--which only serves to piss him off because he thinks I’m babying him, and I don’t trust him. You wouldn’t trust him either if you knew what a trouble magnet he is. He could find trouble in a library, or just sitting on his butt in the middle of nowhere. It follows him around, I’m convinced. He--”

“Noah!”

“What?” he startled. “What?”

“Why do you care about this Kurt kid so much?” she asked. “He seemed like nothing but a bother. You should be glad to be rid of him.”

The idea froze him. “Glad? No.” He shook his head. “No way. No. Lauren. You don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“He’s such a pain in my ass.” Noah flopped back onto his butt, crossing his leg and resting his elbows on his knees. “Sometimes, I just want to strangle him. But he is honestly, without a doubt, the sweetest, nicest, more genuine person I’ve ever met in my life. He just has this way about him, it makes me feel like … like ..”

“Like?” she prompted, looking a bit bored.

“He’s just this pint sized thing,” Noah explained. “I mean, he’s tall, don’t get me wrong, but he’s skinny, and gentle and kind. But he doesn’t let that slow him down. He’s courageous, and I get the feeling he’s the kind of person who stands up to injustice. He puts others first, and doesn’t care about the consequences to himself. That’s the kind of person he is.”

“So,” she drawled, “he’s stupid.”

“Brave,” Noah argued at her kindly. “And caring. I got hurt a couple days back, got caught in a bad batch of acid rain. And every day after Kurt took care of me. He could have left me alone, we still weren’t really on speaking terms. But he looked after me, and nagged me to death about not letting my back get infected, and drinking enough water, and taking turns riding the horse.”

“So?”

“So,” Noah sighed, “he’s genuine. He thinks everyone is important, regardless of who they are and what they’ve done in their past. He doesn’t just give second chances, he gives redemption. He gives the brutal, honest truth, and then he gives comfort after, and reassurances. He doesn’t let anyone think they’re worthless, and he doesn’t think anyone is himself. He doesn’t give up in himself, and he doesn’t give up in others. He tries to look for the best, and be the best, and have faith. Most people look out for themselves, and Kurt’s the rare breed that looks out for others. He was raised in a way that could have made him petty and selfish and he turned out just the opposite. There’s no one else I’d rather have watching my back.”

Slyly, Lauren said, “You mentioned pretty, right?”

“Gorgeous,” Noah deadpanned. “Legs for days, and an ass to die for. He’s tight and compact and got curves in all the right places. His skin? Flawless. And he’s got these eyes, all big and wide and crystal clear. Sometimes they look blue, and sometimes they’re more green. I think they change with his mood. It’s weird and beautiful all at the same time.” Noah snapped a finger, adding, “He’s the son of a metal worker. A mechanic--engineer, but he’s got soft hands. You’d never know it. You hold his hands and they’re so smooth. He’s not pretty, Lauren, he’s gorgeous. And it’s very rare in life that you come across someone who’s that gorgeous and equally as beautiful on the inside.”

“Stop,” she said flatly, “you’ll make me cry.”

“He’s perfect,” Noah concluded.

“Sounds like you’ve got something raging for him.”

If Kurt were there, he would have blushed, and Noah sputtered, “What?”

“Noah, is there something you’d like to share with the class? Maybe this giant man love you’ve got going on for Kurt?”

“You’re talking crazy, Zizes.”

“And you,” she said, jabbing a finger in his direction, “are talking like you’re in love with this kid.”

“I’m not in love,” he denied right away, but there was something terribly suffocating about the statement that made him think too long about it. “I couldn’t be. Do you know what I’m doing out here with Kurt? I’m taking him all the way to the Eastern Front to be delivered into the hands of his future husband. He’s getting married by the end of the year to General Anderson’s son, and that’s the only reason we’re out here. He’s been Promised, probably for years now, he says as much. He’s Promised that that’s that.”

“I didn’t ask you if he was Promised,” she said, eyebrow arched.

Noah stated, “Kurt’s determined to get married. It’s his obligation, as he calls it. He thinks he can do something for the war effort. He thinks he can make a difference, and he’s going to do that with his dowry when he gets married. He won’t be swayed. If this hadn’t happened, he’d still be on his way to getting married to Blaine Anderson.”

“Again,” she said snappy, “I don’t care about Blaine Anderson. I asked if you, handsome, have the total man love for pretty boy.”

“Kurt’s just a job,” Noah said, squaring his shoulders. “A good one, but still just a job.”

“You keep telling yourself that, sweet cheeks. I can see it. Plain as day.”

He couldn’t be. It wasn’t right. Like he’d said, Kurt was a job. Noah was being paid to deliver him to Blaine. And sure, they’d managed to strike up a friendship. They’d become close, and taken comfort in each other and cared for each other, but love? That was impossible. It was wrong. It was something that would only end badly. Very badly. “No,” he repeated.

“Handsome, you’re a horrible liar.”

Noah settled with, “Kurt’s my friend, and I made him a promise. I’ve got to try and get to him. Even if I die, at least I can say I tried and I gave it my best shot. He’d do the same for me, so how can I do any less?”

“And do you have a plan to go along with this idea?”

Noah looked back out to the bars on his cell. He waited a few moments, listening for any sound of Karofsky’s men. “Well, uh, I don’t have a plan. Not yet.”

When next he made to look at her she was glancing down at her nails like she didn’t have a care in the world. “I guess,” she told him, “you just suppose when they come to take you to fight, you’ll try and overpower them, and hope for the best.”

“Yes?” Noah said, unsure.

“You’re an idiot.”

“And you have a better plan?” Noah snapped.

“No,” she said simply, “but you might start by trying to gain an advantage of some sort. How about finding out when the patrols come by? And when the meals are delivered? How about you ask around and see what kind of weaponry the men wear down here, it’s different than the more mobile, topside patrols carry. And what about the layout of this place? How far down do you think you are? Where are you in relation to where Karofsky is?”

Slowly, he cocked his head and asked, “You know these things, don’t you?”

She shrugged. “I also know if you get caught, and you probably will, they’ll kill you. They can use you for a few laughs, but they won’t if you’re that much trouble.”

Noah placed both hands flat on the ground and then stood, removing himself from her line of sight. He said, “I don’t care if I die trying. I already told you that. But I’m going to try. I will. Now, you tell me what you know and increase my odds, or you take your chances against me in the ring. But you should understand this, if you’re right, and you think I do love Kurt, then you probably understand how much I’m willing to do to get back to him, and who I’m willing to go through. Can you say you’re fighting for anyone else but yourself?” He moved back to his spot near the bars, and tried to shake off how lost he felt.

“Handsome.”

“Don’t talk to me,” he called out, “unless you plan on helping. Otherwise, we have nothing to say to each other.” He’d kill her. She was a woman and he’d never raised a hand to one before, not even to a few he’d thought deserved a swift kick in the ass. But for Kurt, and a chance to get to him in time, he’d kill Lauren. And he wouldn’t hesitate. He’d kill anyone they put in his path.

“Patrols come by every twenty minutes.”

Noah looked up sharply at her voice.

She continued, “And the fight today, which I’m sure will be us, is in five hours. They like to have them at night, makes it more ambient. They’re stupid, the patrols. If you go like a good boy, and let them take you to the holding area, they won’t come down hard on you. They probably won’t pay you any attention, they’ll be trying to get their bets in at the last second. If we’re going to have a chance, it’s going to be then.”

Noah crawled on his hands and knees back to her. “We?”

“We,” her voice carried back. “Consider yourself lucky, I’ve been getting bored beating everyone. I’m looking for a challenge.”

“Okay.”

“Okay,” she echoed. “But you should know, I’m only doing this because you’re so handsome.”

“Careful,” he warned with a smile, “rumor has it, might be in love. You don’t stand a chance.”

“Settle down,” Lauren said. “And sit down. We can’t do anything until they come to take us.”

Noah did his best to make himself comfortable. “How’d you get here?” he asked her, genuinely curious.

“”It’s a long story, you’d better take notes.”

Noah crossed his legs at his ankles and listened to her speak. The image of Kurt’s face, smiling and bright and so very lovely, crept into his mind. It was just enough to hold him over.

Noah expected the next time he saw anyone, that it would be the patrol coming around for the dinner meal. Lauren had insisted it was the only time of day they could actually count on being fed. He’d been listening carefully to the heaviness of the way the patrols walked, and their frequency, taking in the smallest details, and even those that seemed worthless at the time.

Most of the patrols that did pass by didn’t spare him more than a glance. When he gave then no trouble, they continued on, and Noah made a point to seem as unthreatening as possible.

But then, less than an hour before Lauren said they’d come to take him for the arena, lighter footsteps could be heard, nearly silent and a less trained man would have missed the completely. They brought with them, much to Noah’s surprised, a scowling, reluctant looking beauty. She crossed her arms in front of his cell, held her ground, and said, “Damnit.”

Noah got slowly to his feet. “What?”

“You’re Noah?” she wanted to know, no room for hesitation.

“The one and only.” He rested his hands on the bars and asked, “Who’re you?”

She gave a long look down the hallway, but Noah knew another patrol wasn’t scheduled to come through for at least ten minutes. It would be the final patrol before they were taken to the arena’s holding room.

“Who am I?” She looked flustered. “I’m someone with a soft spot for pretty boys.”

Noah lunched forward a little, startling her as she jumped back. He demanded, “You’ve seen Kurt? You know Kurt? Is he okay? Is he being treated well? Have they hurt him? Do you--”

She snapped, “Calm down, I don’t even know why I’m down here. I don’t know why I let him get under my skin.:

Noah smiled a bit toothy. “Kurt? He has this nasty little habit of getting under your skin. Trust me. I know first hand.”

Her scowl cracked a bit and he knew he’d been right. She’d been in contact with Kurt, and she’d tried desperately hard not to like him. But it was hard. Kurt was likable.

“Tell me he’s okay.”

She moved closer to the bars so she could speak quietly to him. “He’s okay for now. My bet is he’s getting ready for dinner with Karofsky.”

“Karofsky,” Noah hissed. “The last time I passed through here he was just a pig farmer with delusions of grandeur who had a couple of idiots willing to do what he said. That was only a year ago.” Before that … Noah thought it best not to let on how well he knew Karofsky.

She seemed to have no answer for him as to how Karofsky had risen to power quickly. She said only instead, “He’s a lot more than a pig farmer now. And there aren’t just a couple of idiots here, there’s a small army of them.”

“How many?” Noah asked. He’d expected a couple dozen, but he knew there had be more now.

“Thirty in the city,” she guessed, “probably twenty or thirty more out stealing and pillaging and killing.”

That complicated matters. He and Lauren, if he could trust her to have his back, couldn’t take out thirty men, or more if some of the wandering patrols came back early. They wouldn’t stand a chance, not even if they got to Kurt had had his help.

He asked, “How many people are down here?”

It as Lauren’s voice this time that interrupted, and he imagined she was pressed against her own bars, and had been listening to their conversation. “Twenty to thirty at any given time, but I told you, handsome, we’re running a little low on numbers right now.”

That was interesting, and potentially helpful.

“He’s safe,” she told Noah, referring back to Kurt. “At least for the minute. He’s Karofsky’s pretty little baby doll right now. Karofsky won’t be able to resist the urge to show him off to everyone else, especially all of the people he’s already discarded. He won’t touch Kurt until after that, and if you’re lucky, he won’t even do it tonight. He’ll just drink himself out like he does a lot.”

Noah’s eyes narrowed and he asked suspiciously, “Why are you here?”

“I already told you, I’m here because I have a weak spot for pretty boys.” She added reluctantly, “And because he was more concerned for you than him, and that’s something I haven’t seen here in a long time. Don’t get your panties twisted up, it doesn’t mean we’re besties. It just means I met a rare breed of kid, and he should learn how to care more about what’s going to happen to his own hide. You’re as good as dead down here, but he doesn’t have to be up there.”

“You care about him?” Noah asked, “Even a little bit?”

“He’s a nice kid, but I have my own problems to deal with.” She looked away, and wouldn’t meet his gaze. “I feel bad for what’s going to happen to him, but talking about it or thinking about it isn’t going to stop it, so we might as well drop it.”

“I’m going to stop it,” Noah vowed.

“You’re delusional.”

“A little,” Noah laughed. “And I don’t care what it takes, but I’ll get to Kurt before Karofsky has the chance. I gave him my word to keep him safe, and to preserve his honor. I’m not going back on my word, not while I’m still breathing. So you can either admit that you don’t want to see anything happen to him while you know you could have done something, or you can get the hell out of my way.”

She shook her head slowly. “You’re not delusional, you’re crazy.”

Slowly, a weight lifting off his shoulders, Noah told her, “I love him. I’d die for him. And I will save him.”

Nearby Lauren have a knowing laugh.

“Yeah,” the beauty sighed, “he’s pretty head over heels for you, too.”

“Then help us,” Noah urged. “Help Kurt. You and I, I can tell, we’re different. We’ve seen the world for what it is. We’ve been hurt by it. Kurt hasn’t. He’s still pure and still innocent like that. He doesn’t know the worst of it, and he shouldn’t have to, not just yet. You can spare him from that. You can save him, in the way that you should have been. You can make a difference in him.”

She held up a quick hand. “God, enough with the pity party. You’re going to make me throw up. You’re an idiot if you think I’m going to put my neck on the line for anyone else. What I have here is absolute shit, but it’s mine and it gets me through.”

Noah eyed her carefully.

“What?”

“I know how Karofsky operates.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ve got a Kurt,” Noah told her bluntly. “I can see it on your face. You have someone who means as much to you as Kurt does to me. And my guess, which is probably a pretty good guess, is that Karofsky is using this person to keep you in line. You’re a smart girl. I can’t imagine you’d want to be out here in the middle of a wasteland being treated like you’re inferior just for fun.”

“I--”

“Don’t deny it.”

“You don’t know anything!”

She was close enough that Noah could reach out and pinch her hard. “Do you know the kinds of people who don’t have a game face? The ones that are in love. Guess what, sweatheart? You don’t have one, and from one hopeless sap to another, I know they’re using someone against you.”

“Look at where you are. Do you really think you can help me? You can’t even help yourself,” she accused.

Noah told her, “If you help me, then I’ll help you. If you help me get Kurt, I can promise to protect you and the person you’re trying to keep safe. I give you my word.”

“So It’s going to be me and you against all of Karofsky? Dream on.”

“And me,” Lauren called out.

“And,” Noah added, “maybe twenty or so of the people down here. I say we spring them. They’ll have plenty of reason to go after Karofsky, rather than just try and run. Not to mention, Karofsky must have at least a few disgruntled lackeys. I say we start a fire and see how far up the chain we can get it to burn.”

“Listen,” she hissed at him, quiet and borderline mad, “this is how it works here. I fall in line with Karofsky, and do what he says, and he and his men don’t touch my girlfriend. It’s not overly complicated. I take care of the shit he doesn’t want to do and when I go to bed at night, I have someone to come home to. Brittany is the most important person to me in the world, and I’m not willing to risk her safety because you want to bust your boyfriend out.”

He asked, “You like being here? You like getting the shit work and being degraded? And you like having to trust Karofsky to trust his word? What happens when the day comes that he runs out of pretty things to parade around? What happens when his men decide they’re going to do what they want? If you’re sure that you don’t want to hear what I have to say, then go ahead, walk away. But I’ve known Karofsky for a long time. Trust is not a word in his vocabulary, and neither is honor. If I’m still alive when he stabs you in the back, or decides you aren’t useful anymore, don’t worry, I won’t say I told you so.”

She turned on heel and stormed off.

“Well,” Lauren said, “that was a bust. What if she opens her mouth to Karofsky?”

“Doubtful,” Noah answered. “Karofsky is a shoot the messenger kind of guy. And something tells me that she’d like to see him get bit in the ass by us, if by that slim chance we succeed.”

“Back to waiting,” Lauren groaned.

Noah followed her lead by sitting back down, ever vigilant for the heavy boots of the patrol.

This time he didn’t hear her when she came back. But she was suddenly crouching down next to him, peering at him through the bars.

“If I do this,” Santana demanded, “if I help you, then after we get Kurt, your number one obligation is going to be to me and Britt. I want your word as a Ranger that you will get us out of the city and back towards a better place.”

Noah’s eyebrows rose high. “How’d you spot it?”

“I didn’t,” she admitted. “Not in your mannerisms. But I saw the way you took care of the guard in the water house. Karofsky made everyone go down and look. It was effective, proficient, and had Ranger markings all over it. Only Rangers slice at that angle. It’s the angle they’re taught to inflict the most damage with, and frauds are easy to spot.”

“And you’d trust me word? The word of a Ranger?”

“Never been stabbed in the back by one.” She shrugged. “First time for everything.”

“What if I can’t be trusted?” He couldn’t help egging her on a little bit.

“Then I’ll show you how renegades slit throats. Same outcome, I assure you.”

Noah stuck his hand through the bars. “I’m Noah. Noah Puckerman.”

He saw something flicker on her face, but she met his hand easily enough and gripped it hard.

“You have a plan?” she wanted to know.

Noah thumbed towards Lauren’s cell. “We’re working on something. Come back in fifteen minutes after the patrol passes.”

She gave him a silent nod and left. This time, he knew she’d be back.

“Score one for us?” Lauren asked, her voice sounding far off. He assumed she was at the back of her cell, where the hole was.

“If Kurt could see us now,” Noah said with a laugh. “Our luck seems to finally be changing. He’d never believe it.”

“You can tell him in person,” Lauren said.

“I will,” Noah promised. And his word was good.