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Blue Rubber Band

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Puck chafed his hands together for another few minutes before he decided it was just too fucking cold in the subway that afternoon to make the money worth it. He carefully laid his beat-up guitar in its case, but not before gathering the change and bills that had collected at the bottom and stuffing them into his pocket. Then he picked up his bag and the guitar case and headed up the concrete staircase to hit Santana up for coffee.

It wasn't great coffee, but it was free, and it wasn't from the shelter. Somehow, drinking their coffee and knowing it was made by people who had homes always made it taste worse. She brewed a fresh pot for him whenever he came into the video store, the last vestige of a dying empire, across from the subway. She never said anything about his clothes, or maybe if he needed a shower. She didn't treat him like he was an invisible person, and that was enough of a reason to trust her.

"Cold as ass out there today," she commented, as he blew in. He set his guitar down along the wall out of the way and leaned against the counter, grinning at her.

"I think the phrase is cold as a witch's tit," he said. "And yeah. Too cold to play the bar chords. I decided today was a bust."

She looked at him across the display of candy shaped like little hamburgers as she fixed him his cup of coffee. "You think so? You could warm up, try again."

Puck took the mug and held it in his hand, feeling the heat seep into his chapped palms. It was still too hot to drink, almost too hot to hold, but it felt so good. He couldn't put it down, couldn't miss the opportunity to warm up, even though it was a little too much. "Maybe," he said.

That meant no, but he was hoping it would be enough to keep her off his back. The alternative to busking in the subway was doing it on the street, and that was way more dangerous and generally not as fruitful. But he also knew Santana knew the other alternative was selling, and she didn't like hearing about that.

You're better than that, she'd said, the first time she saw the silicone rubber bands around his wrist. She wasn't dumb; she knew what they meant. No decoration here. This was business. Each rubber band meant Puck had to sell enough to provide his dealer with a wad of cash to fill it. When he'd filled each one, he'd get his take, and enough junk to last him until his next fix.

Puck didn't like selling. He only did it when he had to. Which, unfortunately, usually was in the winter, when the New York subway gave him little respite from the bitter cold, and he couldn't stay warm enough in his wool coat to play enough hours. It wasn't the worst thing, and Puck was badass enough to keep from being mugged, had enough cred even though he didn't belong to a gang anymore to keep from getting shot. He just didn't like knowing that he was part of that system, the one he was trapped in, where he had to use to get through his next day, and had to sell in order to use, and the people he sold to just stared at him with hollow eyes and took what he gave them with desperate fingers. He knew what that was like, and he hated it, but it was just the way things were.

He wasn't wearing any rubber bands today, but he could find his dealer if he needed to, pick up a couple. He wasn't quite ready to admit it to himself yet, though. First he was going to drink this coffee, and flirt with Santana and pretend he was a regular guy, who just happened to be stopping at the video store to pick up a DVD before heading home.

Home looked different in his imagination, from day to day. It wasn't the house he grew up in, anymore. Sometimes it was a little brownstone in the Village, where he made dinner at the stove and sat at the table, eating whenever he wanted to, whatever he wanted to make. Sometimes it was a big house with a bunch of other guys, where they could throw awesome parties and the drugs were fun, not awful. Sometimes it was a studio apartment above a bar, where he could perform at night and people actually came to see him, instead of walking by him on the street, looking through him like he didn't exist.

"I still think you should play at Charlie's," she said, interrupting his idle fantasies. He tried a sip of the coffee, but it was still too hot. He hated having a scalded tongue.

"You know Charlie won't hire me." Puck blew on the surface of the coffee, watching the cream ripple on the surface.

"He would," she said. "If you stopped using."

Might as well say stop breathing, for all the good that thought would do him. He shrugged. "He's got other guys."

"They suck. Your songs are good, Puck. I'm not saying that to get into your pants." She rolled her eyes at his leer. "Hey, really. You know we play for different teams."

Puck wasn't going to push it. Santana might be a pretty hot chick, but she wasn't some skank, or a one night stand, and that was about all Puck was good for these days. He could probably coax her into bed, or get her drunk, but he wasn't going to do that to her.

"How come you're not dating some chick, then?" He leaned his chin on his hands, trying to transfer some of the warmth from the coffee into his chapped lips and frozen face.

"Because the chick broke my heart, and I'm stupid enough not to let that go." Her smile was more acerbic than the coffee. "So I'm hopelessly single, holding out for something I can't have."

"Dreams are kind of pointless," Puck proclaimed. "Fuck 'em all. Live for today. And today's apparently worth -" He dug in his pocket and placed the resulting handful on the counter, surveying the coins and bills. "- thirty-two dollars and seventy-eight cents, and one subway token." He grimaced. "Not even enough for a room."

"You know you can crash at my place," she said, but he was already shoving the money back into the worn pocket of his jeans and picking up his guitar.

"Not a freeloader, Santana. I don't have a kid to support, don't have rent to pay, don't have a job to worry about. No reason for me to take up space at your swanky pad. Thanks for the coffee."

"Anytime, Puck." She didn't watch him go, but Puck knew it wasn't because she didn't care. She cared a little more than made him comfortable, actually. It wasn't a wanna-hit-that kind of caring. No matter what kind of leer Puck turned on Santana, he knew she wasn't really interested, and to tell the truth, he wasn't really, either. He hadn't fooled around in a way that meant anything with anybody in years, but he was pretty sure Santana wasn't his type anymore. She was just a friend - maybe his only real friend anymore.

And wasn't that a fucking depressing thought.

He used the subway token to get him back to his dealer's stop, figuring he'd better find him before it got close to dusk if he had any hope of making today's quota. He chased a drunk bum away from his usual spot with a glare and a few sharp words - he could count on the mohawk and his jawline working in his favor when it came to playing the badass.

The veins in his arms had been shot months ago; he'd mostly been having luck with the ones on his calf this month. He slipped a rubber band off the wad of receipts and cash and cards that he kept in his pocket and stretched it around his ankle, letting it restrict the blood flow in his leg until he could find a likely vein. Then he settled down to shiver and wait for his dealer to show. He figured it wouldn't take long.

Puck knew he had no hope of getting clean. It wasn't even something that crossed his mind. When Santana talked about Charlie hiring him to play at his bar, it felt more like a sick joke than anything else; a cruel taunt. See, something else you don't deserve. Will never have. A real job. A real home. A real life.

Footsteps approached, slowed, and stopped. "I can always count on you to be around when the temperature slips below thirty," he heard behind him. Puck closed his eyes, feeling the shiver of an impending fix.

"Hey, Blaine," he said. "How many you got for me today?"

"Enough to get you what you need." Blaine reached over and tucked a hand against Puck's chest, sliding it into his coat, leaving behind the plastic bag containing his junk. This wasn't for Puck; he wouldn't get that until he'd made his take, and he'd be fucked he tried to get away with dipping into Blaine's product. That would definitely get him killed. Blaine deposited three rubber bands into Puck's palm. "Now you get me what I need."

"Don't I always?" Puck didn't have the energy for witty banter today. He was just cold and tired and hungry and he'd been doing this for too fucking long. "I'll come find you later."

"Don't take too long. It's going to get cold tonight." Blaine's hand rested on Puck's shoulder for a moment, turning into a caress. "You should plan to be indoors."

Puck's lip curled a little, but he tried not to jerk away from Blaine's touch. Blaine might be a little slimy, but he wouldn't hurt Puck. "I've got it covered, thanks."

"I'm just saying. You're too pretty to be out on a night like this."

"Subtle," Puck said, shaking his head. "I told you, not interested. I'll be your dingo, but not your boyfriend."

"Sometimes a warm bed's worth a little extra." Blaine's hand slid off his shoulder as he walked away. "Just keep it in mind. Have a good afternoon."

Good, thought Puck, his thoughts turning rancid as he checked his leg. Yes, there was a likely one. He slid the rubber band down over his sock, like a promise to his poor, abused body: You don't have to fuck that guy to stay warm. I'll get you something better.

Blaine was attractive enough, he supposed, and he was right that the idea of a warm bed was compelling. But he didn't fit anywhere in Puck's dreams of what home looked like, not even on his most destructive days. He wasn't going to lose the last piece of his dignity he had left.

He stashed his guitar under his blankets and newspapers. Then he purchased a ticket for the train that would take him to a place in the city where he could find enough desperate college students and businessmen to meet his quota. It was always a risk, leaving the guitar there, but there wasn't much worth stealing about it, and he wasn't going to connect his dealing and his music, not if he could help it.

Santana's expression, and her words, you're better than this, flashed through his head, as they usually did anymore when he slid the rubber bands over his wrist. He just had to ask: Better than what?

He squared his shoulders and stepped through the doors of the subway, invisible once again.

Puck had a pretty good run before the snow started coming down. He cursed the first few flakes, because people wanted to get home when the weather got like this, and he'd lose a lot of his customers if it got any worse. But he couldn't stop until he met his quota, because sitting all night with this kind of cash on him was a fucking dangerous prospect. Not to mention it would mean one more night without a fix, and Puck was just about at the end of his rope.

It felt very personal, to be ignored. But even though he might make more money if he were dressed a little better or tried to look like he had something going for himself, he tried to use his invisibility to his advantage. People wouldn't look at him unless they wanted something from him.

Puck moved down the sidewalk half a block, watching. That was when he saw the wallet in the gutter.

He bent down and picked it up, glancing around at passers-by, trying to see if anybody was looking for it, but it was cold and a little wet from the snow. He figured it had been there a while.

He slowly slipped it into his coat pocket and tried not to think about it. If it contained a little money, he might be able to cut this short and go back inside, but he wasn't ready to admit defeat quite yet. He wasn't a thief - but he could borrow the money from the wallet. Just for tonight. Puck tightened his hands into fists inside his pockets. No.

It took another hour and a half to clear enough to fill the third rubber band, and by that time his feet were frozen beyond sensation. He stumbled down the staircase to the subway and made his way back to his guitar, his thoughts muddled and confused by the cold.

His guitar was still there when he got back. On the ground behind the bench, he spread out the newspapers and layered the blankets on top of them, giving himself some insulation from the cold concrete. Then he sat cross-legged on top of them and took out the wallet.

It was good leather, honey-colored and clearly expensive, and in good condition, not too full. He flipped through the billfold, but there was no cash inside. That made him feel a little better, that that temptation wouldn't present itself. Carefully, he took it apart, placing each item on the blanket in front of him in rows, examining each in turn.

There was an Ohio driver's license. Kurt Hummel, birthday December 6, 1993. That was six months before his own. Expired, but not too long ago. There was a change of address sticker on the back, but it was wet and he couldn't read the current address. Two credit cards, a Visa and a Discover, both current, though he figured they'd have been cancelled already.

He pulled a photo out of the pocket behind the driver's license. It adhered a little to the wet leather, but he could still see the little three-person family there. A boy with brown hair and a cute smile, and a mother and a father to match. They looked happy, normal. Puck traced the little boy's grin with one finger. On the back, in smeared ball-point pen, were the words June 1998.

He felt a tugging in his gut when he realized the boy shown here had only been a few months shy of his own daughter's current age. Not that he'd been allowed to see her, or even talk to her, since she'd been a baby. Quinn had made it very fucking clear that Puck wouldn't have any access while he was "under the influence of substances." Sometimes his fantasies about home included her, but most of the time, he couldn't bring himself to go there. He didn't even know what she looked like anymore. It made whatever he imagined seem just that much more impossible.

But here... this was a family that worked. Clearly, if it had led to a man who carried a wallet that looked like this. Kurt. He looked clean and together in his driver's license photo. But he wasn't perfect. He did let his license expire. And he had lost his wallet to begin with.

Puck didn't have a wallet. He'd carried one for a little while in high school, a canvas one, but now there wasn't much need for one. He just put one of his rubber bands around the few business and discount cards he had, and kept it in his pocket. He didn't have a driver's license or a credit card. Kurt did, though. Kurt had a punch card for a coffee shop in Queens, half-full, and a receipt for a pair of brn boots, lthr from an upscale men's shoe store in Manhattan. He had a stick of gum, neatly torn in half and re-wrapped to save for later. What kind of guy did that?

Puck touched each of the objects from Kurt's wallet, feeling almost awed by the totality of it. He tried to make the pieces fit together into a pattern that would reveal something of meaning. Maybe he could look up the old Ohio address and see if there was a number associated with it.

That wasn't what he wanted to do, though. He wanted to fit himself into this guy's wallet, into this tidy, methodical life. He wanted to put his cards into the wallet and slip it into his pocket and pretend that he could have that, that he could be the guy with the smiling family and the Blockbuster rental card and the brn boots, lthr on his feet. Kurt Hummel. He sighed.

"What's that?"

He looked up to see Blaine in his expensive suit, looking curiously over his shoulder at the array of items on his blanket. Puck wanted to gather them up and huddle over them, protecting them from his prying eyes.

"It's nothing." He swept the things into a little pile and stuck them back into his pocket, where they mixed with his loose change and pieces of paper and his blue rubber band. It felt kind of awful, knowing he was inflicting his chaotic life on that of Kurt's.

He reached into his inside pocket and took out the rolls of money. Blaine leaned in and half-hugged him, accepting the cash.

"Not a bad night." He smiled at Puck, satisfied now that his quota had been reached. "You think about my offer?"

Puck smiled back. "Still not interested. I bet you could find some company if you went down to Seventh."

Blaine's smile faltered a little, but he shrugged. "I'll manage. Here, I got you a coffee and a donut."

He handed Puck a paper cup and a little bag, which almost certainly did not contain a donut. The coffee was hot, though, and Puck held it in his hand for a while as he watched Blaine walk away. When he was out of sight, he walked to the tracks and poured the coffee onto the rails, watching it sizzle with distaste. Then he went back to his blanket.

Before doing anything else, he sorted through the things in his pocket. He put everything back into the damp wallet where it belonged, folding it up and tucking it carefully into his coat. Then he reached under his pant leg and moved the rubber band back to his ankle, waiting for the vein to pop while he prepared his fix.

Puck woke in the middle of the night, not knowing what woke him, but it didn't seem to be anything he could change. He considered rolling over and trying to sleep on the other side, the one that was a little less frozen, but it wasn't any more comfortable, so he just got up, took his guitar and walked upstairs to the dark city.

He had enough change to try calling. It was still too early, but at that moment, it sounded reasonable enough for him to try it anyway. There was still a public phone outside the bank on the corner. He dug into his pocket for a handful of change, and picked through to remove the silver. Then he crammed it all into the coin slot and dialed her number.

"Who's this?"

She sounded suspicious, which was healthy for a single mom. Puck wouldn't expect anything less of Quinn. He paused, then cleared his dry throat.

"It's me, Quinn."

"Puck." Now her tone was flat. "You'd better have a good reason for waking me up at 4:30 in the goddamn morning."

"I just want to hear her voice. You don't have to let her talk to me." He sounded completely pitiful, but he couldn't stop himself, he just pushed through the shame and made his voice stronger. "I can't deal with not knowing who she is."

"She's not yours, Puck. You abandoned your right to have her when you injected that stuff into your body. I can't let her be touched by that world."

"Then tell me about her, at least," he begged. "Please, Quinn."

She sighed. "What do you want to know?"

He didn't even know what to ask, but he thought of Kurt and his smile. "Her smile. Mine or yours?"

"Yours," she said. "And your chin, and I think she's going to keep her curly hair. Still blonde, though, and my eyes and skin."

"Does she like music?"

"Yeah. Dances like a spaz, but she loves it, and I can't slow her down for anything. She'll be an impossible teenager someday."

He smiled into the cold receiver, watching his breath float upward into the dark sky. "You can handle it."

"I'll have to. It's all I've got." She sounded tired and resigned, but not, Puck thought, unhappy. "Can you tell me you're clean?"

"You know I can't," he began, but she interrupted him with a sharp word.

"Yes. And until you know you can, I don't think you should call again. I'm not looking for perfect, Puck; I'm just looking for somebody who's ready to put their energy in the right place. Beth deserves it; so do I. So do you."

He laughed and leaned heavily on the phone booth. "Somebody else told me that. I just don't know what more there could be for a guy like me."

"You ask for what you want, and you see if you get it," said Quinn. "Puck, I'm going back to bed. You let me know when you get clean, and we'll talk again."

The click sounded very final indeed. Puck turned, leaning his head back, staring up at the cold, unforgiving stars. No one was around to hear his frustrated growl, nor was anyone there to see the tears streak his grimy cheeks.

When Santana got to work the next morning, she found Puck waiting on the front step. He looked terrible, eyes red and rimmed with dark circles, but determined.

"I need your help," he said.

She was touched by his directness. Puck seldom asked for anything. "Come inside," she said, unlocking the front door, "and I'll make you some coffee. What's up?"

Slowly, Puck laid out all the items from the leather wallet on the counter. "Kurt has a real life," he said, holding Santana's gaze. "A real one. I can't steal that from him by keeping his wallet. I have to return it. Can you look up his number in the Blockbuster computer? You don't have to tell him it was me, or who I am or anything. He'll never know me; I'll never know him. But he deserves to get this back."

Santana was sure there was a rule somewhere that would prevent her from doing that, but she just said, "Yeah, Puck, no problem. Just leave it with me and I'll make sure he gets it back, assuming he even lives around here anymore."

"He does," Puck assured her. "Just a second." He dug in his pocket and pulled out his own stack of cards, held by the blue rubber band. From inside the stack he withdrew a picture of himself and Sarah when they were kids. He thought for a minute, then scribbled something on the back. Then he slid it into the wallet with a shrug. Santana thought he might be a little red in the face. "I can't not say thank you."

"Thank you for what?" She accepted the wallet with confusion. "What's going on, Puck?"

"This." Puck held up his stack of cards with the rubber band. He peeled the rubber band off and flung it into the trash. "All my life I've been willing to do what other people want me to do, because I didn't think I was good enough. I'm not going to be the fucking rubber band man anymore."

She reached out and took his shaking hand. "Puck..."

"You've got some Narcotics Anonymous thing, don't you? Something you did, when you got clean?"

Santana nodded. "It was a long time ago, but I still have contacts. I can set you up. And I'll go with you, if you want."

He let out his breath slowly. "I'd like that. First thing, you look up this Kurt guy in the computer. And then I'll make myself scarce the rest of the day. I'll go shopping. I need... I'm going to get myself a wallet."

Santana found Kurt Hummel in the database and returned the wallet. Puck kept his appointment with NA and Santana went with him every week, even when things got ridiculously Christian. He lost weight, got a little shaky, but in a couple months, things started to feel a little more in control. He found a room at a local men's shelter who were willing to house him in exchange for him looking for a job.

Puck didn't look very hard, but he spent a little time every day asking for application forms and filling them out. He took regular showers and put on his clothes every day, because, as he told Santana, that's what normal people do. It didn't matter that he was taking his showers at truck stops or shelters; it mattered that he was doing it.

NA continued through the spring. He hit his milestones and people clapped for him, and for a while he felt like maybe he was going to get somewhere. After group one day, Santana brought an older man over to introduce him, smiling.

"This is Charley," she said. "I mean, it's really Jack Proust, but he owns Charley's. Jack, this is Puck, the one I've been telling you about."

He looked Puck up and down, frowning. "Santana tells me you're a hell of a musician, and you're clean now."

"Two months," said Puck. "Still lots of work to do, but I'm closer than I ever thought I would be."

He nodded approval. "Well, why don't you come by the bar and I'll hear an audition. You can play me what you've got."

Puck almost skipped out on it, but Santana must have guessed he would need some encouragement. She showed up at the shelter with a cup of coffee, this time from Starbucks. He took it with a surprised grin.

"My treat," she said. "Something other than crappy store coffee for tonight. You know what you're going to play?"

Puck's audition, such as it was, turned into an epic jam session with two of the other occasional musicians at the bar, who did indeed suck. Puck played everything he knew, from the Beatles to Whitesnake, and the patrons watching sang along. It went on for over an hour before Puck laughed and waved off yet another request.

"You're in," Jack said, shaking his hand. "Fridays until close, minimum wage and tips. We'll see how it goes and maybe expand to a few other nights. Any sign of tracks and you're out the door, understand?"

"Yes sir," Puck agreed. He wasn't going to let Jack down, or Santana, or himself.

By summer he had enough saved up for a security deposit and first two month's rent, and Santana helped him find a low cost efficiency. It had a bathroom and a kitchen and barely enough room for a bed, but it was his. Puck found himself sitting on the bed at a loss about what to do.

"Uh..." He stroked the bedspread with one hand. Feeling foolish, he said, "Kurt?"

Right here, Kurt would say, and duck his head around the kitchen cupboards, smiling at him. What do you want for dinner?

"I made some soup," he said, smiling back. "I wanted it to be ready when you got home."

Home. Puck had no idea why his real house had the imaginary Kurt Hummel in it, but the idea made him feel warm inside in a way that living alone did not. He knew he had no hope of that happening, but it told him something about what he did want, and the kind of guy he might want it with.

Fridays at Charley's soon became four nights a week, and eventually Puck got hired to tend bar on the other nights. He never got tempted by the alcohol in the same way the junk called to him, and he didn't feel nearly so bad feeding addiction to people who got something good out of it. Mostly people seemed to enjoy being at the bar, spending time with their friends, having a few drinks, and listening to Puck or singing along with his cover tunes. Even Santana would join him on stage occasionally to sing a duet or croon some torch ballad while he strummed.

It was late in the summer when Jack said, "Santana tells me you write original songs."

Puck paused only a moment before responding over the drink he was mixing, "I used to. Not for years."

"Maybe throw in one or two in the first set tonight," Jack suggested, which really meant Do it, and I'll be listening to see if I bet right or wrong. But Puck had been taking orders from Jack for almost half a year now, and he hadn't yet asked for something Puck couldn't deliver. Hell, if somebody had told Puck six months ago he would be sober come next July, he would have told them they were nuts. So he was a little more willing to accept that there were actually things he didn't have control over, and maybe he needed to give some of that up.

When Puck introduced the first song as "a little thing I wrote a while back, when stuff was bad," there were a few scattered rounds of applause. Everybody knew Puck, and if they weren't there to hear him sing, they were at least willing to listen.

So I wonder how she's doing
I hate it when the rumors fly
They give off such a strange sense of mission
Wing your helplessness on high

But she would never run from strangers
She sang alone like a bell will toll
Way above the clang and the clatter
Out of fear of her demon soul

Maybe none of this is my business
And none of what I hear is true
I am far from the mint condition
Circulation's hard on you

Hold tight, hang tough
Love's not enough
To keep you off that stuff
To save you now

He could always find the holes in the bottles
Even with a blindfold on
Never kept his seat on the wagon
Rolling off like a rolling stone

Blue chalk between his fingers
Hustling a poolroom song
He always kept a line for the singer
Pointing his cue right from wrong

The song got a more thoughtful, concentrated round of applause afterwards. Puck stuck to covers for most of the rest of the night, but at the end he threw in a high-energy original song that had the audience clapping along.

"She wasn't lying," Jack told Puck. "They are good. Play the originals every time. Get yourself an audience. God knows they're not here for the ambiance."

"I will, sir," said Puck, grinning. "Thanks."

Puck didn't think much about the weather until it started to get snowy again. By then it was December. He had a better coat now, and he took the subway every day to his job, and every day he left it to return to his own apartment. He didn't need to worry about how cold it was outside, now that the heat was paid by his super and his biggest concern was keeping it turned down low enough so he didn't waste gas.

Puck sat at the tiny table in his kitchenette, eating spaghetti and watching the snow come down outside. "If I were out there," he started, then stopped.

You'd be underground, in the subway, Kurt would tell him, and put a comforting hand on his knee. You'd be warm enough. You always were.

"No," he said. "No, I wasn't. I mean, I had to be, but it was never enough." He wiped his nose. "Fuck. Why am I crying?"

Because it's my birthday, said Kurt. And it's snowing.

"Your birthday?" Puck looked up, to the empty room - and began to cry in earnest.

I can't miss what I never had, Puck told himself, hugging his own arms around his shoulders and holding on. I can't. This is insane.

Puck saw Blaine first, walking down Broadway toward the train station. He wasn't sure what to say, but avoiding his eyes would be too much like going back to being invisible, and Puck wasn't that guy anymore. So he just gave a little wave and held out his hand as he got closer.

"You're looking good," Blaine said, his eyebrows high, shaking his hand. "I don't think I would have recognized you if you hadn't stopped me. How're you doing?"

"Better," Puck told him. "I got cleaned up, got a job. Place to live. How about you? Things about the same?"

"About," Blaine agreed. "I'm downtown on business, picking up some tickets for a client." He gestured at the marquee. "The show's supposed to be blockbuster."

Puck stared at the figure on the marquee. "That's - fuck. That's Kurt Hummel."

"Yeah, of course," said Blaine. "He's in line for a Tony for this performance. Did you read the reviews?"

"How do I get tickets for this show?" Puck demanded.

Blaine shrugged. "Know somebody. Or know the right things to offer."

Puck considered this for about two seconds, then braced himself, grabbing at Blaine's sleeve. "Anything. Whatever you want."

"Anything, huh? You never offered that before."

"I never had anything worth offering it for," Puck said. "Please."

"In that case, take it." Blaine handed Puck one of his tickets. "Consider it a farewell gift to one of my best clients. Enjoy it... and I hope to never see you again."

Puck hugged him. "Thank you. You - I can't tell you how much this means."

Puck couldn't even tell himself why it was important, to see Kurt Hummel on the stage, after so many months of talking to him in his kitchen. He knew he had to be there to clap for him, no matter how bad he was.

And Blaine was right. Kurt was good. Puck didn't know theater, but he laughed and cried and did all the things people always told him should happen when you watch a play. There wasn't any singing, but Puck was spellbound until the last curtain, and he stood and clapped and whistled when Kurt came out to take his final bow, smiling broadly. He looked so much like the five-year-old in the picture that it made Puck's heart ache.

Then it was over, and Puck was leaving with the rest of the audience. "Is there any way I can talk to one of the actors?" he asked at the box office on the way out.

"You can wait by the stage door," the guy said, shrugging, "but there's no guarantee. And it's a little cold outside."

"I don't mind," Puck said. "I can wait."

It only took forty-five minutes. Kurt almost walked right by him, but Puck put out a hand to touch his sleeve. "Kurt?"

"Yes?" Kurt looked up at him expectantly. While Puck thought furiously about what to say, he saw Kurt's eyes widen. "Oh my god."

"I'm not a serial killer or a weirdo or something," Puck assured him. Kurt shook his head.

"No - you're the little boy from the picture. Noah." Kurt took his outstretched hand. "You returned my wallet."

"My friend at the Blockbuster found your number in the system and called you. I wasn't sure what else to do. I just wanted you to know somebody cared." Puck felt his face flush. "Not - that I even knew who you were, but -"

"I know," Kurt murmured. He was still holding Puck's hand, shaking it slowly. "You did care. You could have just kept it."

"No, I couldn't," Puck said.

Kurt smiled, not his stage smile, but one that made him look vulnerable. Puck nearly stopped breathing at that smile. "No," he agreed.

There was an awkward pause, and Kurt dropped his hand. "Did you enjoy the show?"

"I really did," Puck said, nodding emphatically. "I mean, I don't know anything about theater, but it was really good. I'm a musician myself."

"Oh? Where do you perform?" Kurt began to walk along the sidewalk, and didn't object when Puck joined him.

"Charley's, on the east side. I'm there most nights, tending bar if I'm not playing." He hesitated, then rushed in with, "Kurt, can I buy you a drink? If you're tired now, another time. Please. I - have to thank you for your wallet."

"Noah, you did." Kurt pulled the wallet out of his back pocket, and carefully slid the photo of young Noah out of the left side. "This... I can't tell you what this meant to me."

"It did?" Puck stared at the photo, then back up at Kurt. "Why?"

"Because last winter, I was barely keeping things together. I was living here in the city, working a dead-end job in fashion because I was afraid to make the leap, to really go for what I wanted. I'd been turned down for NYADA years ago, and I'd just about convinced myself I wasn't good enough, that it wasn't worth trying, no matter how much I wanted it. Some things just aren't possible, right?"

Puck gazed down at the ground, afraid to watch Kurt talking, afraid at what was surely showing on his face. He saw the boots peeking out from beneath Kurt's pant legs seconds before filling in lthr boots, brwn.

"Anyway, when I lost my wallet, that was kind of a turning point. I wasn't an Ohioan anymore, but I didn't really belong here, either. And then I got this call from Blockbuster, telling me they'd found it." Kurt smiled across the sidewalk at Puck. "And your picture. And I just thought... wow, in a world of basically useless human beings, this man took the time to track me down and give me my wallet back. For no reason, other than to be... helpful. To be good." He held out his hands helplessly. "How can I not try my very best in a world that works like that?"

They kept walking, more slowly this time, Kurt close enough to brush against his coat. "So, I went to five auditions that week, and quit my job, and eight the week after that, and I got a part. A good one. And another good one after that." He looked back at the sign above the theater, where his name was spelled out in the proverbial lights, shaking his head. "I might say the rest is history. But you... how did you find me?"

"A piece of good luck," Puck said, his voice a little hoarse. "Must be. I don't really believe in fate."

Kurt's eyes flashed. "No... I don't, either. But you said you wanted to thank me?"

Puck took his own wallet out of his back pocket. It wasn't as nice as Kurt's wallet, but it was leather, and felt smooth and comfortable in his pants. He pulled a picture out and showed it to Kurt. "This... this is Beth. My daughter."

"Your daughter," Kurt echoed, his smile slipping away. Puck hastened to explain.

"I had her when I was in high school. An accident. Me and her mom, we were never in love, and when she found out I was... using heroin, she told me I couldn't see her anymore." Puck looked down at Beth's school picture. "I didn't see her for five years."

"Noah, that's terrible," Kurt whispered.

"Yeah. It was. But it was the right decision. Quinn, she had to protect her daughter from the things I was doing. She told me, when I got clean, I could see her again. But I never thought I could. Until... I found your wallet."

Kurt looked at him quizzically. Puck sighed. "I'm not doing a very good job of explaining."

"You're doing fine," Kurt said, and touched his hand. Puck sucked in a breath at the touch, and something on his face must have affected Kurt, because he blushed and took a little step back. "Let's keep walking. I'm still listening."

"The wallet," Puck tried again. "It made me think, realize... all the things I was missing. The things I never thought I could have. But something about your picture made me think, maybe, I could try. That it was okay for me to want a family like that."

"That picture, of me and my mom and my dad." Kurt shook his head. "It was taken weeks before my mom was diagnosed with cancer. She died two years later. My father and I lived alone until I was in high school, when he remarried. I have a stepbrother now, and they have a new baby."

"That's... I'm sorry? And I'm glad, I guess?" Puck shrugged at Kurt's laugh.

"I'm sorry, and glad, too. Families change, just like people do. We have to be okay with that. You, and your daughter, and her mother...?"

"No. We're not a family. Not like that. But I do get to see my daughter now. She'll be seven in the spring."

They walked in quiet for a few minutes. The snow had slowed to almost nothing, and there was just a dusting on the sidewalk. Kurt glanced at the taxi waiting on the corner.

"I should probably head home," he said. He looked back at Puck, waiting for something, seeking his face. Puck wasn't sure what he could put there to get him to stay, but he had to try.

"Kurt." He reached out, touched Kurt's hand. Kurt looked surprised, but he took it, and held it in his own, warm and slim. "You... this sounds kind of dramatic, but you changed my life. You made me a better man. I got to be the person I always wanted to be, because of who you are. I'm not a man of faith, by any mean, but I've got to think that means something."

"Noah," Kurt breathed. There was uncertainty in his face, but none of the fear Puck had worried about, and he pressed on.

"You're just a guy, and I don't know anything about you. But... but I kind of do. I know you're organized, and thoughtful, and you love your family. I can't stop thinking about you. I... I cried on your birthday last week because I thought we would never meet."

Kurt just watched him, his eyes enormous. He swallowed, nodding.

"I... don't want us to have never met," Puck said with feeling. "I want to get to know you. Because you gave me a chance at a life I never thought I would have. I couldn't have let myself talk to you, last winter. You deserved so much better than the guy I was then. But now... I think I'm ready to try. I think I'm worth something now. I think I can give you that." He paused. "If you want it."

Kurt laughed quietly, a little incredulously. He hadn't let go of Puck's hand.

"I don't know, Noah," he said. He searched Puck's face for something, smiling. "But I think I'm willing to try. You took a chance on me. I owe you that, at least."

"You don't owe me anything, Kurt," said Puck, feeling the joy surge up inside him. "But thank you. God... thank you so much."

"Thank you," Kurt said. He turned down the street, gesturing in front of them. "I think you mentioned something about buying me a drink?"

I found a wallet
I found a wallet
Inside were pictures of your small family

You were so young
Your hair dark brown
You had been born in nineteen (ninety)-three

Your winter birthday
Was stamped on the plastic
Of a license so recently expired

I was so tired
As I walked through my door
I laid all the contents of your wallet on the floor

And like a holy relic
Or a mystery novel
I thumbed them in the dim light
Searching for a clue
A blockbuster card
An old stick of juicy fruit
A crumpled receipt
From a pair of leather boots

I have no wallet
I have no wallet
I keep my cards together with a blue rubber band
And with a free hand
I search in my pockets
For pieces of, pieces of paper and change

I'll take your wallet
To my local blockbuster
They'll find your number
In their computer
You'll never know me
I'll never know you
But you'll be so happy
When they call you up

- Regina Spektor, "Wallet"