The Round Room - Part IV
Written for the 2014 kurt_bigbang, featuring cover art and illustations by Riverance.
"Take my hand," Carmen said.
Kurt opened his eyes and looked up her blearily. "No," he whispered, and struggled to move away from her. "I can't." Every muscle felt like he'd just finished a grueling workout with too heavy weights. His arms quivered and his elbows nearly buckled when he pushed himself to sit up.
"It's the least I can do," she said, but she didn't try to stop his moving away, her hands fell away from his shoulders.
The thought of taking from her, even when she offered freely? He didn't want to do that again to anyone. "I'll be okay," he said. "I just need to rest." He hadn't slept in too long, had pushed his body too hard, and he didn't know how much he'd lost to the device, what proportion of his own vitality, but he trusted that he would recover with time, rest, and some food. The most important thing was: "Did it work?"
With a smile, Carmen held out the device. Around its edge, there was a thin ring of light, a slowly throbbing pale green glow. "Yes," she said.
Kurt moistened his lips and cleared his throat of static. "So you can..." He almost said 'go home', but she wouldn't be, she'd be going somewhere new, a whole new universe. It was still hard to grasp. "Uh, leave now."
"I'll wait until I'm certain you're all right," she said. "What do you need most right now?"
"Calories," Kurt said. "And sleep, but I don't think I can actually sleep yet."
With the device in hand, Carmen stood with a swirl of her colorful skirt. "I'll find you something to eat. This has more than enough power to let me do that and still travel later." Her smile was slim but sincere.
Kurt collected his strength enough to get up off the floor and into a chair. Then he zoned out while she was away. His mind wandered without purpose, as if he were on the verge of sleep, but he remained entirely, obnoxiously conscious.
Carmen returned a short time later with a paper bag and a large takeout coffee cup with a clear domed lid. Kurt could see the generous swirl of whipped cream. "A double shot mocha with extra whipped cream and two slices of pound cake," she said.
It made Kurt warm with anticipation, that sounded perfect; just the smell of the coffee was enough to fortify him. He summoned a wider smile for her. "How did you know?"
"Lucky guess," she said. "Sometimes there's really no substitute for sugar."
"True," Kurt said, and he took a first, glorious sip of the mocha, sweet-bitter richness and heat mingled with the silky cool cream. And he looked at her then, really looked. Saw the fatigue in her face, too, beyond her calm and kindness. How long she'd been running from this thing was a dark weight behind her warm gaze. Kurt wondered at the people she had to have left behind to stay alive herself. Her endurance in the face of it. He missed his father. He missed Finn and Carole. He missed Blaine. He missed Rachel. This should all be over soon, though, and he'd be able to make amends and reconnect.
"Is there any chance you'll end up back where you started? See your family again?" he asked her as he unfolded a napkin and took out a slice of pound cake. It looked good, dense and buttery with a cinnamon swirl.
Carmen's smile turned wistful before it faded to something gentler and sadder. "No," she said. "Even if chance should take me home, I lost my family a long time ago. Although, I suppose from your perspective, I won't lose them for another two centuries."
Trying to make sense of the timeline between universes was too daunting. "I'm sorry," Kurt said around a mouthful of cake. It was so much better than the protein bar had been
"Was it because of the hound?"
She shook her head. "It happened before that, when I was a younger woman. My whole world perished in an invasion. I was among the few survivors."
"Oh," Kurt said, and he took a moment to swallow his cake and digest the information, for there was so much implication in so few words. Genocide and distant planets and an entire existence wholly separate from what Kurt knew of Mme Tibideaux. "So you really aren't from here? Not just this universe, but you're not even—" Kurt fumbled with the word; it seemed rude to say. "Human?"
"That's right," she said.
Kurt attempted some levity. "Well, honestly? That's not the strangest thing I've learned this week," he said, and sobered. "I truly am sorry you lost so much."
"It was hard," she said. "For a long time, I thought I was the only one. I was..." Her gaze upon him softened with affection. "All alone in the universe."
Kurt's eyes widened. He never had asked her what she thought of his performance. "You didn't hate my performance. I thought maybe you had, that I'd disappointed you."
"Not at all," she said, "I loved it. There's a kind of loneliness that finds us all eventually," she said. "I'm sorry you've experienced it in your life already. You've lost someone too."
Astonished, Kurt blinked at her.
"I'm a good listener," she said. "Which means I hear these things. It's why I'm good at what I do, and," she said, "It's also how I recognize in you the potential to be a great artist."
Kurt cast his gaze down, flustered beyond words, and his mind still a scramble, too much to not speak candidly. A particular sympathy in Mme Tibideaux's eyes seemed to pull the words from him. "I hope to be," he said. "All my life, I've felt something... missing. Maybe it's because I lost my mother, I don't know, but, I think it's always been there within me, like..." he trailed off with a frown and a sudden, wide yawn.
"You're sensitive to the void," Carmen said, "it's what drives us. The longing to make our lives meaningful, to experience truth and beauty, and to find something enduring. To create something greater than ourselves in order to connect with others. To feel less alone in the time we have. That though our lives are brief flickers in a long dark night, for the time we share together, we may matter."
Kurt was growing drowsy as he filled his stomach, picking apart the cake with his fingers. "Is it ever enough?" he asked; the question came idly, but as he spoke, he knew it was a serious one.
"Not for me, and I expect, not for you."
Strangely, that comforted him. "I'll miss you." he said, indulging the sentimental urge. No need to hold it back any longer. She'd be gone and he'd be back to his life, as best as he could return, knowing the things he knew now. He wondered if he'd ever be able to share it with someone. To truly feel connected again, intimately, to anyone.
He thought of Blaine, and the regret of pushing him away wrung his heart. Sadness replaced comfort.
"What's on your mind?" Carmen asked him.
"Just feeling a little lonely," he said. "Missing people."
"Tell me about them," Carmen said, "the people you miss."
So Kurt told her about Blaine, his father, his mother, Carole, Finn, and Rachel, his other friends back in Ohio. His hopes for new friends here in New York. She listened attentively, offering the occasional affirmation or question to draw his thoughts or feelings. They spoke until his speech slurred with sleepiness, and she got her blanket and pillow for him and made him comfortable enough to drift off into unconsciousness.
They made plans for Carmen's departure. She could taking nothing with her and was concerned about rousing suspicions surrounding her disappearance. She didn't wish for Kurt to be drawn into any potential investigation. She spoke to friends on the phone and sent emails, filled them with details to divert any attention from him. Warned Kurt that the hound would come again when she tried to leave. They wouldn't have much time.
It was raining the morning of the day Carmen planned to leave. Kurt traveled to NYADA on a Sunday. Carmen had given him a faculty access card. He met her in The Round Room. They had breakfast together, as had become a semi regular habit, and she gave him a parting gift, a shiny black box with a silver satin ribbon. Within was a small brass elephant, for memory, she told him. It was a miniature twin to the one that sat upon her desk.
Then they went to her office. There would be a window of time between changing the device over from blocking dimensional rifts to actually opening one where they would be vulnerable.
She set the device on the edge of her desk and tapped the sequence of symbols to activate it. It hummed as it warmed up. They stood together in silence, Carmen near the center of the room, Kurt near the wall. He couldn't think of anything to say.
Until Kurt heard the hound, its arrival grating along his nerves. "It's coming," he told her.
Carmen nodded in acceptance.
Then the smell billowed into the air, overwhelming and rank. Carmen held her handkerchief over her nose, and Kurt tried to breath through his mouth. The fabric of reality rippled rhythmically around them as Carmen's device gathered its power, while the black smoke gathering in the corner of the room began to spawn writhing tendrils. With him, Kurt had the ruby-hilted dagger he'd found below the city. Stage combat class had at least taught him to look convincing while holding it. He brandished it and faced the corner.
The hound came through just as the portal began to unfurl a strange shimmering disc in two dimensions. The portal hung between Kurt and the hound; the waves radiating from its edges distorted his view. The blinds on the window rattled and the art on the walls banged. Beneath his feet, the floor shuddered, and whatever lay upon the surfaces of the room shook. A force that was neither wind nor gravity, pulled at the loose edges of his clothing.
The hound moved, a quick pale blur, loping around the edge of the ceiling like lightning and then leaping for Carmen unerringly.
The portal was still small when Carmen dove for it. The ripples in spacetime marred Kurt's view, but she disappeared and the hole began to shrink.
And just then, caught in the vortex of the collapsing portal, the hound's luminous blue gaze locked with his own, and it roared in his mind, a limitless fury and a terrible intention. In its ancient countenance, Kurt perceived a restless hunger, wholly fixed upon himself. And he perceived that the monster possessed a strange knowledge, that it knew this happening was Kurt's doing. Perhaps it smelled his essence in the energy of the device, but he looked at its gaunt, terrible face, and he knew it knew.
But then it got sucked down into nothing with the portal's closure. And everything went abruptly still and silent, like a heavy book had just clapped shut. Kurt unclenched his hand from the hilt of the dagger and took an unsteady breath. Though the hound had been watching him for weeks, this was the first time he'd truly felt seen.
There was blood on the floorboards below where the portal had formed, and the device remained on the edge of the desk; Carmen hadn't had time to grab it—but she was gone, and so was the hound. The worst thing was Kurt didn't know if she'd made it, if she were safe. He couldn't know, and that was an even sicker feeling than the hound's cruel gaze.
Cross-legged, Kurt sat down on the floor because he couldn't think of anything else to do in that moment. His mind slipped away from an answer every time he asked himself, "What next?"
He sat like that for hours, listening to the tap tap tap of the rain upon the window panes as the day darkened beneath heavy clouds, and his spot on the surface of the Earth spun away from the light of the sun. If he closed his eyes, he could almost feel it: the gravity that held him in place as the planet rotated beneath him, caught in its revolution about the sun, which, in turn, made its own path around the edge of the galaxy, which moved tirelessly through the vast, unempty expanse of this universe.
Unmoving, he sat for hours, lost within—or without—himself. He had no means to determine which it was, or if it were both. He felt like Schrodinger's Cat in its box. Unable to resolve his own state while by himself. Which was perhaps for the best; he didn't want company; he didn't want to be fixed in place by another. He needed time to exhale, to exist in flux.
Eventually, he unfolded joints made stiff through his prolonged stillness, stood up, cleaned up carefully, and then he left.
An unshakeable mental distortion lingered on throughout the evening. He stopped at a grocer on his way home to buy fresh vegetables. Above him, the shop's fluorescent lights buzzed deafeningly, the flicker of them an insistent, irritating flutter at the edges of his vision. It made his stomach twist with mild revulsion and his hands shake. But Kurt took his time, attending to just one thing at a time. His focus kept wanting to stall, hang in one place for too long. The texture of the sweet potato's skin beneath his fingers, earthy, irregular, and rough. The gradient of color on the apple, shiny saturated red to vapid yellowish green. The leathery, frilled blue edges of the kale. He could see the recursion in the shape of the leaves, the fractal patterns of growth. It was hard to look away.
It took him an hour just to select the basket full of items for his dinner. He didn't have anything in mind, just bought what pulled at his desire, colors and textures and healthy, vibrant smells that soothed. He also bought a frozen cheesecake.
The cheesecake ended up being his dinner; he ate a quarter of it only half thawed, and put the vegetables and fruit away untouched.
He woke the next morning as exhausted as he'd been before he slept. He was so tired, running only on the memory of fumes. He took a long hot shower, luxuriated in the heat and steam and the sense of washing away the past weeks. With every pass of his washcloth across his skin, he felt lighter, but no less tired. Doing his hair, he couldn't avoid looking at his face. In the mirror, he appeared older, dark circles bruised the delicate skin beneath his eyes, his cheekbones had gained prominence, and the corners of his mouth drooped. No amount of care with his skin care regimen could disguise it. He was halfway through dressing for work when he changed his mind about going in and called in sick instead. He could begin his life again tomorrow.
He texted Daphne and Isabelle, told them he'd do what work he could from home. They could IM or text him if they needed to discuss anything. He booted up his computer and logged into his work email and messenger accounts, then he undressed again and put his pajamas back on. If this were to be a sick day, he'd make the most of it.
The rain outside continued intermittently, never heavy, just periodic spatters and drips against the windows and the gurgling rush down the building's spouting. Kurt relocated, with his pillows and duvet, to the futon, put on some music, and tried to work.
It was a good day. By late afternoon he was feeling rested and clear-headed. He showered again and got dressed in jeans and a comfortable old sweatshirt. Then he went into the kitchen. His chef's knife had a thin coat of dust on its handle from disuse. He wiped it off, retrieved the vegetables from the fridge, and set to making himself a proper dinner.
He was singing along with the Les Miserables original cast recording and methodically cutting the kale into thin ribbons when the hair on the back of his neck prickled and the whisper passed through his mind with a familiar cloying dread. Kurt dropped the knife and turned in disbelief. Over the savory scent of sauteing onions and garlic, the insidious, unmistakeable reek came: vomit and diesel and cheap perfume.
He had just enough time to turn off the stove and bolt for the door. He caught a glimpse of black wisps uncoiling from the corner in the emptied living room, and then he was out of the apartment, flying down the hall, and bursting through the door to the stairwell.
Faster, faster, he urged. Don't look back. Just get outside. It was behind him, above him, sliding like water along the interior angles. Kurt's lungs burned; his heart beat like it was battering its way through his ribcage. His palms slammed into the fire exit at the bottom of the stairs, and he was out. He didn't stop running until he was down the alley and crossing the street, wrecklessly trusting the reaction times and brakes of the drivers in the road. He heard swearing and horns and the squealing tires, but he made it, stumbling over the curb, but catching himself before he fell. Then he was in the park across the street, and he couldn't smell it or feel it any longer.
He slowed and stopped, doubled over, squeezing the stitch of pain in his side, and gulping for air. His feet stung, and his socks were soaked through and filthy. He didn't have shoes on. Nor did he have his phone, his wallet, or his keys. The rain had softened to drizzle, but the cold and the chill rapidly took hold in his muscles. Adrenaline jittered and jumped beneath his skin. His mind raced for a solution: he couldn't go back inside.
He could go to NYADA with Carmen's access card, to get to the safety of The Round Room, but he knew he wouldn't get far enough into the building to make it all the way. Plus, it was a location the hound would expect, and it could never be a long term solution. The hound knew that territory too well, and Kurt had no wards left to use. The alien device was flat. Running was all that could keep him safe for now. He needed to come up with a plan. He considered, and then dismissed, going back beneath the city. That would just be swapping one danger for another, and there were fewer resources for him to draw on down there.
In the absence of any other bright idea, and the need for at least his shoes, coat, and phone, Kurt found a grungy payphone on the wall outside the corner store and called Daphne collect.
He waited by the door to his building, shrugging helplessly at passersby who looked at with too much curiosity. Eventually, he heard the distinct cadence of Daphne's stride, the clip of her heels. "Hey," he said when she was close enough he didn't need to raise his voice. "It found me, and I can't go back inside. The door's unlocked."
She slowed to a stop, looked at him sadly, and asked, "What do you need from inside?"
He gave her a verbal list: warmer clothes to layer; dry socks and his winter boots; his coat, gloves, warmest scarf, and a hat; his satchel which contained essentials including his wallet, and his phone along with its charger from his nightstand. He asked if she'd be able to help him again if he needed to get anything else from inside. She said she would be.
Then she went to get burgers, fries, and shakes from the diner up the street while Kurt ducked back into the alley and dressed himself more warmly. He tossed the wet socks into a dumpster. Then he joined her back on the street, and they walked together, keeping to the well lit areas in front of open shops, while they ate.
He took the locket out of his satchel and asked her, "I've been wondering, how does it work? Things like this and, um, those pants, and the device."
Daphne took a long pull from the straw of her milkshake before she answered. "Sacrifice is always required," she said. "The more lost, the more pain, the more powerful the magic. And for the ward to be truly potent, love makes a difference."
"But I didn't know my great grandmother," Kurt said. "She died before I was even conceived, so she couldn't have loved me."
"She had enough love for her family at the time she made it."
"And the necropants?" Kurt asked.
"They're a product of a pact between friends, so there's love there too, believe it or not. The sacrifice is given freely upon the natural death of the person."
"And that's what's needed to make the star symbol work?"
"Often," Daphne said. "The Elder Sign can be used for different things, depending on what the person making it needs, but for the protection of a person, yes, love is essential to make it strong."
"So is it possible to make one that doesn't burn out?"
"If the love is strong enough, and the value of the sacrifice high enough, I don't see why not."
Kurt nodded. And he thought about the implications of what she'd told him. Daphne asked Kurt where he would sleep tonight. She could loan him a sleeping bag.
"I don't think I can sleep out here," Kurt said. "I'm just going to walk it off and try to figure out what to do."
"All right," she said, and her gaze was sad. "I'll tell Isabelle not to expect you back yet, and you let me know if you need anything else from your apartment or want that sleeping bag."
"Thank you," Kurt said, and he watched her go.
He walked all night to bleed off the adrenaline and fear. It didn't help to cling to it. So he walked and he walked, long past the point where he would normally stop. He'd been so busy getting by in New York, he'd neglected many of the more obvious and iconic activities the city offered. He'd never been across the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, so he made that his destination. The path through the poor areas of Bushwick kept him awake and wary and moving quickly. But he slowed as he passed the old Navy Yards, craning his neck to get a glimpse beyond the buildings at the antique cranes and the abandoned piers and drydocks.
He made it to the bridge without mishap while still pondering his options. The drizzle clung a cold mist around him, fuzzing the midnight lights of the city and the motion of the traffic into soft focus. The river surged below, tireless and glittering in the night. At the center of the bridge he stopped and gazed out over the water. He breathed deeply and relaxed the tension in his shoulders and simply looked, tried to let himself break free of his own concerns and appreciate what lay before him. This was a view he didn't want to give up. It represented the life he'd worked toward for so long, the sparkling towers of opportunities in a city full of art and vision and unrelenting forward motion. New York was the most perfect crucible for his dreams and ambitions.
He took out his phone and snapped a series of shots for a panorama. He wished he were with someone to share this small moment of beauty. Without any reluctance, he texted the photo to Blaine with the sincere message: "I wish you were here." Then he sniffed, blinked back his tears, and kept walking.
In Manhattan, on the street, the shops and restaurants might as well have been locked or boarded up, for he couldn't go inside any of them. Kurt had often felt apart from people before, but never like this, never as if some sharp transparent blade were carving his existence away from that of others. He saw the man from the club that he had danced with so long ago, the man who said he would have remembered Kurt had they met before. But they passed on the sidewalk, and Kurt met his gaze. There was no recognition returned, just a fleeting, uninterested glance. The regret went down bitterly. Even the trivial moments were lost to him.
But he knew what he had to do.
Returning to Lima was a challenge. He took seriously Carmen's advice to avoid enclosed spaces, which ruled out any conventional means of making the trip. But he had his bicycle and acquired, with Daphne's help, some minimal camping gear. So he packed the things he needed most for the trip, left the rest of it with Daphne, and set off.
Not being an accomplished cyclist or athlete, he overdid it the first day, pushing himself to cover thirty miles before he finally stopped, exhausted. He found a sheltered place not too far from the road, and set up his tiny, portable one-man tent, and he trusted the flexible material to provide no anchor for the hound while still giving him some protection from the elements. He fell into a fitful sleep, full of half formed dreams made of memory and horror.
The next morning, he found he could barely stand. It required a long session of gentle stretches to get moving, and he swore bitterly about the impossibility of a shower. His skin felt like an extra, unwanted layer had spawned overnight. He did his best with baby wipes and moist towelettes, but that mostly just left him feeling sticky and smelling of flowers. And his hair wasn't even worth thinking about. He'd kept it hidden under the helmet all day and tied a bandana over it that night to spare himself the disgust at how lank and unkempt it had become. He did the best he could hygiene wise—which was unsatisfyingly little, but at least he had clean underwear and socks. Then he packed up his things, and walked with his bicycle until his muscles had warmed enough to try riding again. He only made it ten more miles that day, but he slept better that night.
He relied on a diet of granola bars, protein bars, and chocolate to keep his energy up. In the finish it took him just over two weeks before he was coasting past the Welcome to Allen County sign. Throughout his journey, he sent vague but reassuring texts and excuses to Isabelle, to his professors at NYADA, to his father and to Blaine. He hated having to mislead so many people he cared about, but he couldn't see anyway not to. The truth was both too difficult and too dangerous. He understood now, the distance Carmen had cultivated with the people around her.
Every night on his way, once he'd stabilized his energy and he was tucked away safely in his tent, by the light of his hand cranked LED light, Kurt poured over the cryptic books he had found below the city. There was so much he still didn't understand—and so much he resisted understanding. He skimmed for only what he needed most. And those things he memorized, diligently. Rituals and magic that may save him, now that he was the hound's chosen prey. He found and learned the things he required to execute his plan. He tried very hard not to learn too much of the terrible things within the books, because he could sense the way the knowledge wanted to take hold of his mind and unravel him, to put him in the thrall of beings even worse than the hound.
Some nights, while falling asleep, he thought of his ninth grade History teacher, who liked to quote Nietzsche.
"That which does not kill us makes us stronger," was his teacher's favorite, but everyone knew that one: it was practically a cliche, offered without critical thought, as if it were some broadly know tautology. But Kurt remained undecided on the truth of it; he'd often hoped it were true, that every setback he'd faced was forging him into a better version of himself. Recent events made him less hopeful; with every passing day, he felt more brittle.
"If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." That one seemed accurate; it was why he was trying not to look too hard.
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster." This Kurt took to heart as a solemn warning, and he considered that maybe Nietzsche knew the big scary things too. Kurt would be careful. He knew enough for that.
Thus, when he finally got to Lima, he avoided the pull to go to his home, nor did he go by McKinley. He didn't see anyone. Instead he went directly to the cemetery and found his mother's gravestone. He sat in the dry, dead grass beside her for a long time. He talked to her, and he cried. He even asked her advice, but none came.
Then, after dark, he dried his tears and got out the small, portable shovel from his bag. He assembled it, and carefully cut a square of turf from the top of her grave. Then he started digging. The hollow aluminum of the handle warmed in his hands as he worked, and he had to dig deeply into the uniform brown soil. His shoulders ached, but he hadn't had a day without pain for so long, he was able to put it from his mind.
Eventually, with a hollow thunk, the blade of his shovel hit the wooden top of the box containing her urn. He reached down with bare hands to scrape the dirt away from the top of it and clear enough space that he wouldn't need to unseat it from the earth and bring it up. "If there's anyone listening, please forgive me," he said, and then he wrenched open the top of the box with the blade of the shovel.
He took only as much as he'd need from her urn. Packed the ashes inside two sturdy zip-lock baggies, and tucked them carefully into a discreet zippered pocket in his backpack. Then he did his best to return everything to the way he found it. The last thing he wanted was for his his father to discover her grave had been disturbed.
Then Kurt simply turned around and made his way back to New York. At a rest stop, he found an outdoor spigot where he stripped down to his underwear and cleaned himself up. It was the cleanest he'd been in weeks, and even shivering in the cold night as he put his dirty clothes back on, he felt reinvigorated by the simple, if inadequate, ritual of bathing.
Otherwise, he was like a machine. He'd gone beyond exhaustion, so flattened out inside and aching, all he could do was endure it. There were times he wondered, as he rode, had he undergone some kind of psychotic break? That he'd desecrated his own mother's grave, just like that? He didn't feel remorse for what he'd done, more vague distress for how easily he'd ended up doing it.
That was all he had available to him though: the doing of things. One action to lead to another action, and he would string them together in a logical progression of cause and effect to try to solve his current problem. Kurt didn't stop. Just kept moving to maintain precious momentum. He kept pushing down on the pedals, kept getting up in the morning, kept his eyes up and looking forward. His mother would tell him not to give up, and, with her help, he wouldn't.
When he finally got back to the city, he didn't contact Daphne. She'd already done so much for him, more than he would have expected from anyone. Any further involvement at this point could only endanger her. His vanity, too, didn't wish for him to be seen in his current state by people whom he respected.
The only thing left was he needed something to buy himself time. Carmen's device was completely flat after her trip. He didn't want to skip universes, just wanted to find himself fifteen minutes of safety inside the loft. (Or, maybe thirty minutes so he could have a hot shower).
Using his phone and the wifi of a nearby Starbucks, Kurt ordered everything else he would need from Amazon and paid for next day delivery. Then, he set himself up against the low concrete wall in the park across from his apartment to wait until it were delivered. He would need to be fast, to catch the UPS guy before he entered the building.
While he waited, he began writing a letter to Blaine. He didn't know if he would send it, but he wanted an account of everything that he'd been through to exist, in case he didn't survive. Someone should know, and he couldn't tell his father.
It was after dark, and Kurt had been unable to stop himself from drifting off. The ambient sounds of traffic lulled him into vulnerability. He woke with a start when a rough hand closed around his throat.
A startled grunt was all he managed, the man's grip was so tight. It was the homeless man, the one who always yelled and jeered at him and Rachel and the other passersby. His eyes were wide and wild, bloodshot and crusted. His breath was a fetid fog of sourness in Kurt's face. Kurt scrambled to get his feet beneath himself and grabbed at the man's arm, tried to break his hold.
The guy babbled under his breath, and it was hard to make out his words, but Kurt heard him repeat a desire for a reward, if he were the one to kill "the boy", then "it" would be pleased and grant him favor. Kurt gritted his teeth and got a knee aimed at the man's groin, but only managed to hit him hard in the thigh. But it was enough to throw off the man's balance and they tipped over, and Kurt pursued the moment of advantage, rolling the man to his back and jamming his other knee into the man's belly, which made him howl.
"There's no hope for you," the man sang, and stars burst at the edges of Kurt's vision. He tightened his hands on the man's wrist; the man's sleeve slid up his arm and bared skin. Kurt took the opportunity to dig his nails in, and the the man winced and giggled. "There's no hope for any of us," he said, with such force his spittle hit Kurt in the face.
"Fuck you," Kurt gritted out with little air to spare. His vision dimmed at the edges. He was not going to die like this. Something beyond panic bloomed in his veins, a hot and urgent need.
"The idiot god hungers as he sleeps," the man babbled. "All we are is his nightmare..."
"No," Kurt said—to himself, to the man, to the very notion of a idiot god—and he felt the gathering of it in his body, a pulling from deep within him, it dragged from his hands upon the man's bare forearms, drew a warm blossom of power down into his belly.
"And when he wakes— Wait! What are you—?" The man broke off with an animal scream of pain, and his hands fell away from Kurt's neck.
Kurt shoved him off and scrambled to his feet. His palms burned with vital heat, and his blood pumped with vigor. All his fatigue vanished. His mind was clear and certain, and this man was nothing to him. "You should run," Kurt told him.
The man cowered on the ground, ashen-faced and dazed. Kurt stared down at him without pity, watched him as he crawled away, cringing and fearful, before he stumbled to his feet and limped away.
"And I'm still a fucking atheist," Kurt yelled at his back, because monsters weren't gods.
He turned back to his things, his tipped over backpack and rumpled blanket, the sheets of Blaine's letter strewn about. He gathered them up with a sigh and shuffled them into the correct order. The adrenaline faded, though the energy remained, and Kurt grew queasy with the knowledge of what he'd just done, what it had cost him to save his own life. That it was done in self-defense didn't reassure him; he'd had so little control in the moment, had felt within himself the cruelty of a stranger. Stealing from another person like that, no matter how deranged and violent the person was... He refused to become a monster himself.
And yet here was the opportunity he required. He bent over and dug into the bottom of his backpack, withdrew the device. With the surplus, unwanted energy from the man humming in his nerves, Kurt could give something to it. And, he supposed, it would be a sacrifice from a man who would want to please its makers, if not Kurt. That might be enough. It would have to be. He couldn't continue living on the streets and outdoors indefinitely. The homeless man's aggression was warning enough.
Kurt needed to practice drawing the Elder Sign, and the lines of it had to be precise for it to hold power. He also practiced another, simpler temporary ward he'd learned, that he would use to buy himself even more time than the device would give him, enough time and safety to make the Elder Sign itself.
When he was ready, and could no longer put off the inevitable, he returned to the loft with his belongings, the device, and his box from Amazon. Inside, Kurt ignored the compost stench of the kale rotting in the sink, and took the briefest shower possible, shaved his chest, and dressed in just an old pair of dance pants. He gathered his supplies and lit candles to work by. He got out the book he'd been reading to double check his work by its diagrams. Carefully he worked though the steps to draw a heptagram on the floor, invoking the names of planets and their corresponding long dead gods at each point, and he hoped it would last long enough for what he needed. He was careful not to scuff any of the chalk lines as he stepped into the center of it.
It didn't feel any different standing there. This ward wasn't blocking anything, just making a small point where he could sit unmolested while he worked.
To make the more permanent, more effective ward, he needed his other supplies: a mirror, rubbing alcohol, disposable scalpels, his mother's ashes, iodine, and the incantation. He also had gauze, medical tape, and steri-strips. First, he doused a cotton ball in rubbing alcohol. The fumes burned in his sinuses and it was cold as he wiped methodically over his chest. His freshly shaved skin stung and then chilled as it dried, causing goosebumps to break out across his torso. He should have thought to turn the heat up. Never mind.
Once he was sure all of the alcohol had evaporated, he picked up the mirror in his left hand, and a black Sharpie in his right. Carefully, Kurt held the tip of the pen against his chest and made the first sweeping line upon his own skin. Studied it to make sure it was right. He could not afford a mistake.
The instant the device failed, Kurt knew. A sort of psychi white noise rose to a low volume in his consciousness, barely audible, but he'd become so sensitive, he noticed it instantly. He didn't sense the hound yet. Maybe it didn't expect him to come back here. Didn't expect its prey to be so stupid. Fortune favored the bold, Kurt told himself. He couldn't remember who said that one. Alexander the Great or Aristotle? Maybe it was Betty White.
With a steady hand, he drew the next line. It was precise and correct. The tip of the pen tickled as it dragged across his skin. He'd successfully oriented his first line so that the second avoided his nipple, and Kurt smiled his relief at that smallest of mercies. His vanity might have been less than it once was, but this still mattered.
On the third line, his hand grew less steady. He exhaled the breath he was holding and that helped keep the line as it was meant to be. He pushed ahead, wanted to get as far as possible before the hound caught up with him. Lines four and five required more speed to capture their arc with accuracy. He shivered and then adjusted his grip on the pen and the angle of his wrist to draw the eye at the center. It required the most detail and fine work to capture its peculiar asymmetry, and he was glad he had practiced drawing it backwards.
It took Kurt a while—it felt like tens of minutes passed though it must only be seconds, artificially bloated by his reluctance and trepidation—to reach for the scalpel. It was only going to be pain, he reminded himself. It wouldn't last. (And he wished he'd thought to bring pain killers into the heptagram to kill the pain after). As for the Elder Sign, he needed that to last. He recalled the brief time he considered getting "courage" tattooed on the inside of his forearm. This wasn't that different.
The cold made his hands clumsy as he unpacked one of the sterile scalpels. His grip on the instrument felt too weak and unnatural. He'd practiced with a pen only, and the flat handle of the scalpel didn't fit in his fingers in any familiar way. It was neither a pen nor a chef's knife. He fiddled with it, spun it in his fingers, tried to find the grip that was strongest and most comfortable. Realized he was procrastinating and firmed his hold on it.
But the mirror tipped in his left hand, slewing up to reflect his face. It caught him for a moment, how calm he looked. He didn't realize that's how he wore fear and resignation. He reoriented the mirror, took a breath, and brought the sharp blade to the first line upon his skin. Offered up a silent wish to the universe, for the blade to be sharp enough that he wouldn't feel it too much. Pleaded within himself to be brave enough not to flinch. Hoped the hound would stay away. Tears were hot collecting in his eyes. He blinked them back and pressed in.
The pain was filament thin, but ferocious. A focused line blazed down his opening skin. Blood beaded bright along the fine incision, but he couldn't stop to staunch it.
"Fuck," he said to make the air come out of his lungs and his teeth unclench. "Breathe," he told himself. And then, more wryly, "Courage, Kurt." He heard the echo of Blaine's voice.
He got to the end of the black ink line and lifted the blade from his skin with relief. Cold sweat broke out all over his bared skin, and the bright pain of the cut sank into the deeper ache of injury; it told his body things were terribly wrong. His fingers were slippery as he adjusted his grip and prepared to make the second cut.
The murmur began just as he was sinking the blade into the second line and gritting his teeth against the sharp flash of pain and the overwhelming reflex to just stop. The whisper, vile and insistent, seethed in his brain and Kurt tried to swallow the viscous wad of nausea gathering in his throat. He tightened his grip on the scalpel and made himself keep going, pushed deeper as the sharp blade glided through his skin. It hurt, fuck it hurt. His heart pounded, urging flight or fight, to stop, to leave, to hide, to faint away, to scream or cry or... He couldn't.
He didn't look away from the reflection in the mirror, his own hand, his own flesh, his own blood. He tried to distance the pain from himself, bit into his lip so hard he tasted the iron tang. It was dull and familiar and did nothing to distract. And meanwhile, the growl of the hound built in his mind and the disgusting stench of it gathered in his nostrils.
The heptagram should keep it at bay, he reassured himself, and if it didn't, then, the homeless guy was right: there was no hope left for him anyway. There wasn't enough time to get outside. The ruby dagger lay by his leg. He could try to fight the hound. But he knew his chances weren't good against an immortal creature from the birth of time. The enchantment on the dagger wasn't a strong one.
"Fuck off," he said to the hound, but he still refused to look, not even to see where it was coming through. There was an audible splintering sound, and the snarl in his head increased in volume, trying to overwhelm every other thought he held, to replace it with mindless terror.
So he thought of his mother as he turned the scalpel in his hand and approached the third line. The combination of adrenaline and endorphins was smoothing the pain from sharp, squirming agony to duller throbbing heat. Movement came in his peripheral vision, slickly moving and pale, skirting along the edge of the floor. Kurt didn't let it distract him. He kept his attention on his hand and the blade and the line he was following, and he tried to retrieve his earliest memory of his mother.
Lying in the sun on a soft flannel blanket watching her cut flowers, irises and tulips, she had named them. They fascinated him when she lay them on the blanket next to him and let his tiny fingers touch the petals. The world had been so large and full of color.
The recollection was vague, Kurt wasn't sure if it were even a true memory, if the magic lay there, but it steadied his hand down the line. When the third incision was complete, he couldn't stop himself from looking up.
The hound paced around him, fluid, gaunt, and unhurried. It hung on the edge of the candle light, its long, sharp toothed mouth gaped open and its electric blue eyes glowed, pitiless and alien. Its body looked like it contained too many bones, disjointed and wrong, with too little of its thin hairless skin stretched over them. It felt, in his mind, content to wait for an opening, for him to falter. And of course it would be patient; it had all the time in the universe. He was the fragile mortal here, not it. It had never experienced anything like the fear it invoked in its prey.
The fear, growing again, was stealing the strength from Kurt's hands. His fingers were nearly numb with it, refusing a sturdy hold as he brought the blade to the fourth line. The thin metal wavered; his hand trembled, and the blade glanced his skin off to the side of the mark. Fortunately it only scratched, no damage done. He closed his eyes and breathed as deeply as he could, through the reeking odor the hound brought with it, and he tried again to banish his fear with memories of love. Thought of last Christmas, the afternoon with Blaine, skating. The last perfect moment he could easily recall. But it was both so remote and so recent. The dichotomy fed too much regret.
So instead he returned to thoughts of his mother; it was her love he needed most to invoke tonight:
The first day of school, her helping him choose his outfit—sky blue slacks, a bright yellow shirt with a green plaid bow tie, and brand new penny loafers. She let him stand in front of her full length mirror and smiled at him as he turned and posed as if he were a model. Then, she waited with his father at the end of the driveway while he clambered up the tall steps of the bus, and as the bus pulled away, they waved at him from the street until he was out of sight. She wore a skirt with purple flowers on it, irises.
Too common a memory, perhaps, but the warmth it held was real.
And the hound stalked him, round and round. Kurt watched; his chest burned and ached. The scalpel was motionless in his hand. He looked away from the monster to the blade. He lined it up with the next intended cut, and then the absurdity of it all struck him like a blow to the head. The hound was here. It may never leave. He was maiming himself. Defiling his mother's memory. For what?
For what? To get back to his life? Could he? Even if this worked, it didn't mean he'd won. He just endured. Coming to New York was meant to be a new life, not another test of how much crap he could withstand while hoping for a better day. Nietzsche was full of garbage. The ward might work, but the hound would always be here. And for it to be here hunting him now, it must have caught Carmen. It's the first time he'd admitted the likelihood of that to himself. That she'd perished.
Which meant everything he did, everything he'd seen and learned and suffered amounted to being completely worthless after all. He couldn't save her. Everything she had endured led only to to the worst possible end, the thing she'd tried to hard to avoid, so she could have her life. Or a life. He was a fool to resist the inevitable.
He could kill himself. Right now, like this. The sharp edge of the blade would sink into his wrist almost painlessly compared to what he'd just done to himself. He'd barely feel it. He'd bleed out on the floor. His blood would run over the careful chalk lines of the heptagram. The hound would come for him, then, but he'd already have passed out. He wouldn't feel it; he'd already be gone. Maybe he couldn't win, but the hound would lose. And he'd be finished, nothing more to worry about.
There were tears in his eyes.
Who would find him? What would they find? Would there be enough left to identify him. Someone would call his father. They would have to tell him, "Your son is dead."
"How?" his father would ask.
"Suicide," they would reply.
And, all right, it might not go exactly like that. But, his father would... His father would...
Kurt sobbed, tears came, fast and copious, wet down his faces, running onto his chest, mixing with his blood and stinging in the wounds. Snot and tears and an open sobbing mouth. His father could never know.
The hound looked on. It didn't care.
And, then, in a bizarre wave of calmness that overtook him in the face of the hound's impassiveness, his tears stopped. And suddenly all Kurt wanted was to talk to someone. Needed to. Yearned to hear Blaine's voice and to tell him everything. If anyone would listen and not judge him, it would be Blaine. But his phone was across the loft, on the kitchen table. He'd been foolish. He was rarely so unprepared.
But he didn't want to die. He wanted to talk to Blaine again. Wanted to see him. Wanted, too, to spend Christmas with his family again.
Kurt dried his cheeks and he settled. He stared back at the hound without flinching, watched it as it watched him. Looked at its horrible form until it was familiar enough to him that his hands no longer shook.
He finished cutting the Elder Sign into his chest, and then he methodically packed the cuts with his mother’s ashes. It took a long time—hours maybe, making sure he didn't waste anything. It was horribly painful, bloody, and harrowing. The hound whispered to him the whole time. When the job was done, and he'd affixed the steri-clips to the wounds and dabbed them with iodine, Kurt had no will left to stop himself from passing out on the floor.
Morning came. Bright and hot and too much. Kurt woke stiff, with agony bursting in every cell of his body. He groaned and looked for the hound. Listened. Smelled. The hound was gone. It must have left him alone after he lost consciousness. For a being with infinite patience, Kurt didn't understand why it didn't wait. But he was glad it had gone, because his bladder was bursting. Kurt crawled out of the heptagram.
With a wince and a grunt of pain, he stood up and shuffled to the bathroom, grabbed some painkillers from the medicine cabinet. Then he gently taped gauze over the angry red and ocher stained cuts. He got a good look at himself in the mirror, and found a mess. He couldn't shower with the freshly packed wounds on his chest, wondered if he could risk a shallow bath. He still didn't sense anything, so he indulged himself.
Maybe it worked. Maybe he'd be safe now.
He bathed, shaved, exfoliated, moisturized, it was amazing. Then he went to his bedroom, touched his clothes, remembered all their fine colors and textures. And then he lay down on the bed, and considered what now. Thought about calling people again, but only thought about it. It was too soon. Got up again because he was hungry and needed protein. Pulled on a pair of jeans, but didn’t put a shirt on. Then he went to the kitchen. The milk was sour, and the bread mold spotted and stale, but the eggs were okay. He scooped the rotten vegetable mass from the sink and washed his hands. Really should have asked Daphne to do something about that weeks ago.
Kurt scrounged up a meal of eggs and crustless toast and took his time in both making it and eating. It wasn't great, but it was his food in his kitchen in his home—and it wasn't a processed bar of any sort. He was still hungry after he'd done the dishes, so he ate some crackers and peanut butter, washed them down with bitter, black coffee.
He was still alone. Was he safe?
He ended up going down to the bodega on the corner and to buy more groceries. Then he came back to the apartment, ate again, and caught up watching DVR'ed episodes of American Idol that he'd missed since he'd left. Eventually he fell asleep.
Kurt woke around midnight, refreshed, warm and comfortable. His chest ached and itched beneath the bandages, which he took as a good sign. Again he thought about getting back in touch with people. The absence of fear was odd. It felt like a wholly unnatural state for him to be in. Surely if the hound were going to come for him again, it would have already. So the ward must be working. It was keeping the hound away and blocking his awareness of it. He considered going back to class in the morning and Vogue in the afternoon.
Unfortunately Kurt underestimated the hound's sadism.
The hound came that same night, having left him just enough time to hope again. The whisper roused Kurt from a comfortable slumber in his bed, but at first, he wasn't sure what had disturbed his sleep. It was the smell that made him sit up and realize. Quickly he stripped off his t-shirt with the intention to expose the Elder Sign. He ripped at the tape and gauze, but the tape was stuck too firmly to his skin to shift easily. He caught a fingernail in a scab and whimpered in pain. Heat crackled beneath the lines anyway, so maybe it was doing something even while covered. He left the bandages alone. The ruby hilted dagger was on his nightstand. He picked it up.
Surprisingly, he wasn't afraid as he moved about the loft, seeking where it was coming through. It approached him in the emptied out old living room. The blurred chalk marks were still on the floor. The hound was salivating, hungry, and whispering cloying seduction in his mind. Kurt stepped toward it. It stopped, and he saw, for the first time, caution. That was interesting. They stood, regarding each other. And Kurt decided to go for it. He stepped forward as quickly as he could and grabbed for the monster.
In his hands, it was slippery and cold and the very touch of it ached. It bit down into his upper left arm, and its teeth sank into his muscle and bone as easily as if it were tearing wet tissue. Kurt sobbed at the searing white agony beyond his comprehension. Unthinking, Kurt jammed the knife against its side, and that was about as effective as trying to spear a cabbage with a butter knife. Its jaw only tightened on him, crushing, deafening pain. Kurt gagged and gasped for air, and fell to his knees. The dagger fell from his hand, and, in his desperation, he grabbed the hound by the head. It's bony skull stabbed into his palm. Kurt remembered the bird: a dead thing he gave some mockery of life to.
What, then, could he take from an immortal creature that had never been born? With sweat falling into his eyes and his entire body raging with pain, Kurt tried to do the reverse of what he'd done to the bird, to consciously take instead of give. It was entirely different from easing the passage of Carmen's friend; and different again from his panicked stealing from the homeless man. This was a struggle: his will versus the hound’s. The agony in his arm lanced through his chest, excruciating and violent, seemed to wrap right around his heart and tried to stop its beat. Roared and gibbered in his mind, even louder than the hound. But Kurt didn't let go.
This thing didn't deserve its life, so Kurt tried to take it. It was futile, he knew, there was little he could take from an infinite well. But he could feel the draw from it to within himself, burning cold and strange. And eventually the hound's body shuddered and it collapsed into itself, back to where it had come from. Kurt fell to his back on the floorboards. The scars on his chest throbbed hotly, but they were not harming him. A blueish glow emanated from beneath the gauze covering. The sign might not have worked entirely as he'd hoped. It still had to heal, but it had allowed him the opportunity to injure the hound. Though it was a small injury, it was an injury nonetheless. The monster hadn't enjoyed being in pain.
Kurt turned his head and looked at his arm. It was a wreck of bloody torn skin and deep gashes, and he couldn't move his fingers. Kurt rolled and pushed himself up to his knees with his good arm. He knee-walked into the kitchen, bleeding everywhere, with a horrible chill taking hold of his arm and creeping toward his heart. There was no one to call to for help. Wry, he hummed to himself a few bars—all alone in the universe—and reached for the dishtowel where it hung on the oven door. Perhaps there was some victory to be had in surviving to fight another day.