misqueue: Kurt looks grim, wearing a dark hooded coat. In the cloudy night, tentacles writhe behind him. (glee - kurt - TRR cover thumbnail)
misqueue ([personal profile] misqueue) wrote2014-03-24 12:04 pm

[Fic] The Round Room - Part I (2/7)

The Round Room - Part I



Written for the 2014 [livejournal.com profile] kurt_bigbang, featuring cover art and illustations by Riverance.

Please find full headers with warnings here.

[ Prologue - Part I - Part II - Part III - Part IV - Epilogue - And in the end ]


I.



Approaching the winter solstice, the night lay heavily upon Manhattan, a glowering darkness with its velvet belly scraping the spires of the buildings. There were no clouds to reflect any light back down and too much ambient illumination to make out the stars. Featureless black hung above Kurt as he walked with Rachel up the ice and salt gritted concrete. Light spilled from the glass doors, wan and weak, upon their path to the main entrance of the Dance Department. Rachel wanted to spend some extra time in the dance studio tonight, and Kurt had volunteered to be her dance partner. He needed the practice before facing Dance 101 next month.

It still took him a moment, every time he thought of it, to reestablish the knowledge that he had got in. This would be his school soon. The pain of last summer's rejection no longer mattered, for he'd made it—this far anyway. The real work would begin soon enough, but until then, he was grateful, and he was preparing himself with renewed motivation.

Across the small courtyard, Kurt looked up at the blackened windows of the Vocal Performance wing. All but for one: from between the closed, slatted blinds of Mme Tibideaux's office a warm glow leaked. It had been a week since his admission letter came. He should take this opportunity to go say thank you, and she would also see that he was taking his admission seriously, working hard in advance of his classes. She'd made the right decision to admit him.

Kurt left Rachel in the dance studio warming up. There were two other students rehearsing late, so she wouldn't feel abandoned.

After hours, motion triggered the lights in the NYADA corridors. As Kurt made his way up two flights of stairs, the stairwell descended below him into gloom, and the click and bright splash of fluorescents bloomed above. Along the hall, it brightened around him only to fall silently back into darkness at his back. The skin between his shoulder blades tingled, like there were something shrouded in the darkness following along behind him.

He passed through the heavy swinging door labeled "Vocal Performance" and turned down the hallway where Mme Tibideaux's office was located. And promptly gagged.

Nausea surged up his throat and his stomach twisted with sudden cramps. The horrible smell that curdled in his nose and throat was like someone had mixed up a steaming vat of vomit, diesel, and cheap women's perfume.

Kurt choked on the air his lungs refused to take in, and he quickly pressed the cuff of his sleeve to cover his nose and mouth. The clean herbaceous scent of his own cologne took the place of the sickening reek hanging in the corridor. Kurt paused on the verge of turning back, but ahead of him, Mme Tibideaux's door stood ajar, and a soft dread chilled his nausea. Something wasn't right.

Breathing through his sleeve, Kurt approached her open door.

Carmen Tibideaux knelt on her floor in front of her wide wooden desk. Strewn about her, shards of broken porcelain shone on her thick Persian carpet. She held a lace edged handkerchief over her mouth with one hand. Some sort of metallic object was firmly clasped in her other hand.

"Professor?" Kurt said from the door. His voice was muffled, but she heard him, for swiftly, she straightened and her hand slipped hastily into a hip pocket. For a flashbulb instant, her expression appeared terrified, but it returned so fast to placidity, Kurt couldn't be sure it wasn't merely a trick of the light.

"Mr. Hummel?" Mme Tibideaux asked, and, with a grimace, lowered her handkerchief. She rose to her feet with an agility that surprised Kurt, and she glanced over her shoulder toward a shadowy corner of the ceiling.

"Um, is everything all right?" he asked. "That smell—"

"A gas leak," she said evenly. "I've called maintenance, but we should leave here." She crowded him backward through the door, and then she took him by the forearm, forcefully turning him away from her doorway. "Quickly now, Mr. Hummel." she said. "The Round Room will be safe."

Carmen Tibideaux let go of him and walked swiftlyly. Even with his long stride, Kurt was pressed to keep pace. It reminded him of being a child at the mall with his father, trailing behind to admire the window displays of the women's boutiques while his father strode blithely onward, only wishing to get what they had come for.

"Professor?" Kurt said again, skipping ahead to open the next door and hold it for her. She looked at him, inscrutable as ever, but bowed her head in acknowledgment of his courtesy. "If I may—?" he began.

"In The Round Room, Mr Hummel," she said over her shoulder, and moved away from him smoothly and even more quickly. Kurt wondered if she actually had legs under all those colorful swirling layers she wore, or if she'd modified a Segway somehow. He jogged to catch up. Her handkerchief was clutched tightly in her hand, by her side. Kurt saw, in the angle of light flaring from a wall sconce, the bright stain of red upon the white lace.

He waited to speak again until they were standing outside the door to The Round Room and she was fishing a key from her skirts to unlock it.

"Madame Tibideaux," Kurt said, "your hand is bleeding."

"Yes, I am aware. Come in." She stepped into the room, gestured for him to follow.

The lights came up slowly, an indirect glow around the perimeter of the space. The graceful bow of the golden hued timbers arced overhead like the interior of an antique ship. The quality of even the smallest sound changed, coming into this room: their footsteps, the soft rustle of clothing all fell softly and evaporated without echo. The room held its contents in perfect stillness. He looked forward to singing here again.

Mme Tibideaux sighed deeply, and Kurt saw relief in the fall of her shoulders. Then she made her way to a solitary antique armchair and eased herself down, to sit like a queen about to hold court, regal and impassive as she regarded Kurt. "What can I do for you this evening, Mr. Hummel?"

"Oh, I—" Kurt came closer, deeper into the room, grasping reflexively the strap of his satchel. "I wanted to thank you."

Her hairless eyebrows rose a millimeter and the smallest smile bent her lips. "You're welcome."

Kurt pressed his lips together and rocked forward onto his toes. She continued to gaze at him with patient and bland expectation. "Was that all?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," Kurt said. "That was it."

A measuring look of approval in reply. "Well, then, I suppose this has been an unexpected adventure for us both tonight." Then she narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. "Can you still smell it? The gas?"

"No," Kurt said, and his gaze returned to her hand. "But your hand," he said. "I have a first aid kit in my bag." Kurt shrugged the strap off his shoulder, dropped his bag to the floor, and crouched to open the flap.

"Were you a boy scout as a child, Mr. Hummel?" she asked.

Kurt looked up, surprised. After all, no one had ever thought him boy scout material at any age. It took him a moment to realize she was aiming for levity. "I took ballet," Kurt said. "The boy scouts would have held me back." He dared to grin.

"Of course." She seemed amused.

The first aid kit Kurt carried with him was small but well stocked with all the essentials. He'd made it himself, from the coordinating plaid on stripe quilted case with all its custom sized pockets, to the particular selection of band-aids and sterile gauze, alcohol swabs and moist towlettes, tweezers and tape, aspirin and antihistamines, antibiotic ointment, chapstick, hand sanitizer, and a compact Leatherman pocket knife with fold out scissors. It had saved him from many trips to the school nurse throughout his time in high school. Carrying it remained a habit.

Kurt began with applying the hand sanitizer to himself. Then he pulled two chairs over, one on which to lay out his kit and the other upon which to sit opposite Mme Tibideaux. And then he hesitated. She didn't exactly seem like a person Kurt should be touching. But, she was unwrapping the blood stained handkerchief from her hand and offering it to him without any apparent hesitation. Gingerly he took her hand and turned it to examine the cut.

It didn't look like she would need stitches. A jagged and shallow tear in the thick pad of muscle at the base of her thumb. No serious harm done, just a lot of bleeding, but it would probably scar.

"Well," Kurt said, tearing open a moist towelette. "I don't think your piano playing should be hampered." He glanced up with a smile.

"I don't play the piano, Mr. Hummel," she replied.

Apparently there was a limit to Mme Tibideux's good humor. Right. He shouldn't be too familiar; they were not equals. Now was not the time to make a new bad impression. Kurt pressed his lips together with a short nod and returned his attention to cleaning and dressing her wound, hoped it would heal well.

Just as he was smoothing the last piece of tape along the edge of the gauze dressing, his phone gave a pulse of vibration from his pocket. "Excuse me," he said. He found a text from Rachel when he checked.

"Ah," Kurt said, raising a sheepish look to Mme Tibideaux, who was flexing her thumb carefully and examining the dressing. "That was Rachel. She's waiting for me in the dance studio."

"Then I thank you for your assistance, and I shall send you on your way."

Kurt stood and bent over the chair to gather up his supplies. Though Mme Tibideaux's continued scrutiny pricked a self-conscious kind of anxiety along his nerves, Kurt took care that everything went back in its assigned locations, with the trash neatly collected for disposal. He dragged the chairs back into place with an unsettling graunch upon the wood floor. He winced, but Mme Tibideaux remained unperturbed. She'd withdrawn a smart phone from one of her pockets and now attended to it. His presence was no longer required or wanted.

"Good night then," Kurt said as he hoisted his bag onto his shoulder and made his way to the doors.

"To you as well," she replied without looking up. "I'll see you next month in class. Be well prepared."

##

The halls seemed to have drawn in even more narrowly as Kurt made his way back to the dance studio. Empty buildings after hours were always creepy, so he shook away the chill crawling up his spine. Since Kurt didn't know any path back other than the one that brought him here, he kept to the halls that were most familiar and cautiously opened the door to the vocal performance wing.

The smell was gone and there was no sign of maintenance people. It mustn't have been very serious. Relieved, Kurt squared his shoulders and pushed through the door.

But he couldn't help but pause outside Mme Tibideaux's open office. It was only curiosity, he told himself. He wasn't being nosy to just look through an open door. Her light was still on anyway; perhaps he should turn it off. Kurt stopped and stood at the threshold, glancing around the room and then looking at the broken ornament on the floor. The stark white of the porcelain lay in contrast to the wood and brass, the darker, warmer materials, the deep red and bronze of the rug. Kurt tried to make out what it had been.

To get a better look, he took a step in. An immediate wave of nausea overtook him, along with a pain in his head so sharp it made his eyes water.

He stumbled back, one hand pressed to his throat. The pain and nausea vanished.

"What the hell?" Kurt muttered. His phone vibrated in his pocket again. Probably another text from Rachel. He straightened and turned and quickened his step. Whatever was going on, it wasn't his business. He was a new student—and barely that—not staff. But all the way back to the dance studio he felt haunted, like there were eyes on his back. And where the pain had been in his head, it was like an itch lingered in the back of his mind. He rubbed at the base of his skull, but couldn't dislodge the sensation.

##

On the subway ride home, the train was sparsely populated. Rachel dozed, her head against his shoulder, swaying and bumping along with the jerk and clatter of the train. While they were above ground, Kurt took his phone out and tapped out a text to Blaine. "I've had a very strange evening," he wrote. Hitting send was still accompanied by a very specific bittersweet pang, regret and longing tightly wound together. It was inevitable to feel the conflict. He accepted it, even as he tried to ignore his sadness in favor of focusing on simpler warm feelings. He was grateful to have Blaine's friendship restored.

Kurt let his hand holding his phone fall to his lap, and stared at the screen until it faded out. This hour, on a weeknight, he didn't expect a reply. But within a minute, his phone buzzed in his loose grip. "How strange is strange?" Blaine asked.

Kurt smiled as he typed back, "What do you think the chances are of a ghost haunting NYADA?"

Blaine's reply came quickly, "You don't believe in ghosts, Kurt." Kurt could easily imagine the affectionate tone of Blaine's voice.

"True," Kurt said out loud to himself and chuckled softly. He texted back, "Good point." Then he sent a question, "Why are you up so late anyway?"

But the train dived down under the river before Kurt got a reply from Blaine. "Shoot," Kurt muttered under his breath, glaring at the loss of signal. He forgot to tell Blaine where he was, but there was nothing to be done but wait. He yawned to pop his ears as the pressure changed and the tunnel went black outside the windows. The shuddering metallic scream of the train roared to a deafening volume. Kurt tipped his head against Rachel's but kept his eyes open.

##

It was too late to catch the bus from the station to the apartment, so they walked, Rachel clinging to Kurt’s arm and glancing nervously into every alley they passed. "Thank you for coming with me tonight," she said.

"Do you want to stop for anything at the corner store?"

She shook her head. "I just want to crash."

"Almost there," Kurt said, as the store fronts gave way to the scrubby park across the street from their building. They waited at the intersection for the signal to cross, and behind them came a loud, largely unintelligible but possibly obscene, yell. It was the usual, random verbal onslaught from the homeless man who lived in the park. Mostly he seemed harmless—Kurt had never seen him do anything more than yell at people—but he still always startled.

"Oh, god, don’t look him," Rachel said, and pressed closer to Kurt. "That guy gives me the creeps."

But Kurt did glance back over his shoulder at the guy, sitting beneath a pair of old coats on the park bench, and staring at the pair of them with red rimmed eyes. It was hard to tell how old he was. Kurt wondered what his story was, but pity and curiosity weren’t enough to keep Kurt from crossing the road quickly with Rachel when the light turned. The city was full of sad stories, and Rachel was right, the guy was creepy. Kurt dismissed him from his mind.

Once safely back in the warmth of the loft, Kurt sprawled gratefully upon his bed and caught up reading Blaine's texts while Rachel showered.

"Boring reason, homework," was Blaine's first reply, followed five minutes by, "Are you still there?" And five minutes after that, "Did you fall asleep?" After another, shorter three minute interval, "Sweet dreams, Kurt. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

Kurt typed quickly: "Was on the subway, sorry! Went under the river. Back now & home, if you're still up?"

But there was no response, so Kurt plugged his phone in and changed for bed.

He was just pulling his sleep tee over his head when the hair on the back of his neck prickled and he heard a faint murmur, like distant voices, just at the edge of his hearing.

Slowly, he smoothed down his t-shirt and turned his head, this way and that, to seek the source, but he couldn't quite bring it into focus. Maybe Rachel left something buffering on her computer. He ventured out of his partition. The shower was still running. Rachel's laptop bag lay closed upon the kitchen table.

The chill spread from his neck, down his chest and arms, but he still couldn't isolate the sound. It must be the downstairs neighbors, and he was just over tired and feeling bad about being too late replying to Blaine's texts. That was all. He filled the kettle, rinsed out the tea pot, and finds the chamomile tea.

##

A large disco ball hung over the broad, open staircase before him, and above the disco ball stretched a wide peaked skylight showing the orange lit underbelly of the partial cloud cover. "Edge of Glory" pumped from the speakers. With a groan, Kurt leaned over to speak into Rachel's ear, "Oh, god, Nationals flashback." Her fingers tightened on his forearm. "You okay?" he asked. Rachel nodded and smiled in bright defiance of nostalgia.

Even in his favorite Paul Smith pants and a brand new Burberry jacket, Kurt immediately felt too small town for this bar, with all its sleek wood and metal and exposed brick. Isabelle stood beside him and Chase was on the other side of Rachel. This was definitely not Scandals. Famous people came to this bar; Isabelle had dropped more than a few names in persuading him on the outing. It was his first time in a Manhattan gay bar. Isabelle insisted on taking him out for a celebratory drink after the news of his NYADA admission. So here they were, in Hell's Kitchen, at a swank, popular bar called Therapy.

"Are you suggesting I need therapy?" he'd asked her when she invited him.

To which, Isabelle had laughed and said, "We all do every now and then."

It was crowded already on the ground floor—mostly, but not exclusively men—and the swelling mumble of conversation interleaved with the music. Isabelle led them upstairs with a hand gesture. Tiny fragments of light glittered around them as they climbed up. Isabelle caught the eye of a pretty blond guy in a tight shirt holding aloft a tray of shot glasses. He came over, they exchanged words Kurt couldn't make out, and then the guy led them to a table against the wall, but near the stage. Kurt mostly focused on not gawking at their waiter or his surroundings. He could be cool.

He ended up seated against the wall, across from Isabelle with Rachel beside him. Chase asked the table for their drink preferences. "One drink," Isabelle promised him with a wink. "You've earned it." Kurt asked for something fruity and sweet, and Chase went to the bar to order. Kurt picked up the bar snacks menu to give his hands something to do. The music, though quieter upstairs, was still too loud for easy conversation.

Maybe it was because he was still sober, but Kurt found the environment overwhelming enough that he hoped a drink would help. Places like this, he was certain, were designed to be enjoyed best through a minimum slight haze of inebriation. Regardless, it was nice to be out of the loft and out of the office, somewhere new; and Isabelle had never taken him anywhere he didn't enjoy. But there'd been a strange, vague anxiety crawling beneath his skin this week that he hadn't been able to shake. The excess sound and activity around him wasn't settling it, instead seemed to be rubbing his skin the wrong way. He felt twitchy, like a cat with mussed fur. Too many people around him in a new location when he wasn't performing felt like too much potential scrutiny. He had to keep reminding himself, he was no longer in Ohio.

It could be that Christmas was coming up in a few days. He hadn't bought a plane ticket home. Had explained to his father that he needed to save the money for rent and tuition, which was true, but it wasn't the only reason. Seeing Blaine again held too much ambivalence for his heart, and his promise to talk with Blaine seemed too big a thing to face. He hadn't even managed a simple phone call to tell Blaine that he wouldn't be coming back to Ohio for the holiday after all. It was already the twentieth.

Rachel was away on Christmas Eve, on a cruise with her Dads for the holiday, so he'd be in the loft alone, which he was looking forward to. Living with Rachel in the loft hadn't permitted much privacy, quiet, or solitude. But it was Christmas, and that was hard to think about spending alone when he knew the family home in Lima would be filled with people. Carole's sister and brother-in-law would be visiting from Zanesville, along with a selection of Finn's cousins. Kurt had never spent a Christmas without his Dad.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Isabelle asked.

They chatted, mostly talk about work, an exhibition opening to which Isabelle was contributing some of her work from the early nineties, and the year's most Oscar worthy films. Chase returned, handing Kurt a pale drink called a Pearanoia. Rachel giggled over her cocktail, dubbed a Size Queen, and batted her eyelashes at Chase. It was very strange. Kurt took a long, grateful sip through his straw. Expected a gasoline taste, but was instead greeted by the sweet and clean flavor of pears with a more complex warmth lingering on the back of his tongue.

In retrospect, he probably drank it too fast. The subtle alcohol overlaid with sweet fruit was surprisingly compelling and went down easily. His self-consciousness fuzzed at the edges, and Kurt could feel himself relaxing as if all his tension had become liquid and was slowly draining down his spine and away. They talked and laughed, and it was so good, hanging out with Rachel and Isabelle and Chase (and Kurt spent a good amount of time pondering Chase's sexuality, but Chase carefully maintained his air of friendly enigma, and eventually Kurt gave it up as a pointless endeavor anyway.)

At some point, food appeared on their table. Chicken skewers and nachos and pizza—all very tasty and fresh. Shortly after that, Kurt decided he needed to empty his bladder and wash his hands, so he excused himself and made his way back down the wide stairs, carefully trying to minimize the inevitable bumping against other patrons heading up the other way.

The sound fell away markedly in the bathroom, and Kurt was pleased to find it decently clean and not too densely occupied. He did his business and went to wash his hands. And then he felt it, the increasingly familiar prickle on the back of his neck, like someone was watching him. But a sweep of the room behind him in the mirror revealed no particular attention. His stomach twisted in discomfort and his head swam with a brief surge of dizziness. He held tightly to the edge of the sink and breathed. It was probably just the alcohol, too much stimulation, and the exhaustion of the week. He wet his fingers and fussed with hair until he felt steady again. But then caught the edge of a whisper close to ear, but no one was there. "Get it together, Hummel," he mumbled under his breath.

This was a night for celebration, not for indulging weird bouts of anxious fatigue. He'd call Blaine tomorrow and apologize. Blaine would understand, and anyway, he no longer had a specific obligation there. Which seemed an uncharitable thought, but it was hard to think kind thoughts when an uncomfortable heat was breaking out on Kurt's skin, sticking his shirt to his chest. God, he hoped he wasn't getting sick.

After exiting the bathroom, Kurt was still smoothing his jacket and straightening his cuffs as he made his way toward the stairs, when someone touched his arm. Deliberately. Kurt looked up into the face of a rather attractive dark-haired man. At least, in the low light, Kurt was content to assume attractiveness. "Yes?" he asked. He probably had toilet paper stuck to his shoe.

"Hi," the man said, "I'm sure I would remember you if we'd met here before." His warm gaze was steady and shockingly intimate. Kurt clenched his hands and felt the heat of a blush on his cheeks, couldn't stop himself from grinning as he fumbled with words to reply with some semblance of wit.

"Oh, I, um—" he stammered, failing.

"So you must be new to the city?" the guy asked, as if he were genuinely interested.

"Yes," Kurt said, relieved. "Completely."

"And are you here on your own?" He moved closer, pressing past the usual boundaries of Kurt's personal space.

"With friends," Kurt said. "Upstairs."

"Then, if they won't miss you too much, may I buy you a drink?"

Technically, he was single, and the guy seemed nice enough, so, "Sure," Kurt said, and the guy waved over one of the lovely boys carrying a tray of shots.

Two vodka shots later, Kurt was dancing with the guy, whose name he had told Kurt, but Kurt couldn't actually remember. He didn't really care, the dancing was enough. His body had shed the discomfort from the bathroom, and it felt so good to let the music into his muscles without worrying about form and balance and control, to just move and be and have someone looking at him like he was worth looking at.

And maybe more too. It was remarkably, wonderfully easy to sway into the man's touch on his waist. Undeniably thrilling to let himself be reeled in closer until their bodies were brushing and Kurt could feel the man's breath across his cheek. He felt good, he was single, he was young, the world was his. Letting go felt amazing. This was what his life in the city should be, the fearless embrace of new wonderful experiences. He grinned at the man, the man grinned back and pulled Kurt in closer, into the rhythm and heat of his body and masculine scent of his cologne.

But then, out of nowhere, Rachel was right there, beside him, tugging at his shoulder like an impatient child and making him step back from the guy he was dancing with. He offered the man an apologetic smile and turned toward Rachel. "What?"

"Kurt, oh my god," she said, and then she leaned in so close to his ear he felt her lips against his skin. "Where were you? It's past time to go. You wanted to get home before midnight, remember?"

"Sorry," Kurt called to his dance partner. "I've got to go. Thanks for... everything?" He was sure he was being awfully rude, but Rachel had a fierce grip on his arm, dragging him toward the doors.

"Kurt, that guy was almost as old as Mr. Schue!" she hissed in his ear. "When I said you should move on and date other guys, this is not what I meant!"

He managed a shrug. "He was hot and looking at me like..." He trailed off with an illustrative hand gesture that Rachel didn't seem to understand. "I was having fun."

She stopped and looked at him critically. She brushed a cool hand across his forehead. "He wasn't that hot," she said. "Are you okay? You're burning up. How much have you had to drink?"

"Just... three... things?"

"Well, you look like you're about to hurl."

"I’m fine," he protested, but as she dragged him out the doors and the cold night air hit his face, it made him feel better enough that he realized perhaps he wasn’t entirely fine.

Chase and Isabelle stood on the street, waiting. Chase gave Kurt a raised eyebrow, but passed Kurt his coat and scarf without comment. Isabelle said, "I'll pay for a cab to get you kids home safely."

"Sorry for kind of ditching you," Kurt mumbled as he shrugged on his coat and fiddled with the toggles of it. It was too complex a motor task, so he gave up and tied his scarf into a simple knot. "I was dancing."

"So long as you had fun," Isabelle said, not unkindly. "Drink plenty of water when you get home. I don't want you hungover at work tomorrow." Then she packed them into a cab with a smile and a squeeze of Kurt's shoulder. "Sleep well."

##

Back home, Rachel poured him a tall glass of water and put him to bed.

As he lay on his bed with Rachel pulling his boots off, all the while sighing dramatically as if horribly put upon by his irresponsible behavior, he could hear the whispering filtering in again, louder. Loud enough that it seemed he should be able to make out words, if he just listened closely enough. "Can you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Rachel asked, and said, and then she straightened, turned away, and faced his curtain. "You're going to have to take your own pants off if you don't want to sleep in them."

Kurt pushed himself up and untucked his shirt before undoing his pants and shimmying out of them. "There's a voice or someone talking nearby. I can't make out any words. Can you hear it?"

"No," she said, staring at the ceiling, "I don't hear anything." She kept her gaze averted as she leaned over to reach under his pillow to retrieve his pajamas. She handed them to him. "Drink the rest of your water and go to sleep, Kurt. You'll feel better in the morning."

"Okay," he replied, shaking out the folds from his sleep pants before pulling them up his legs. "But can you, please, stay with me?" He reached out and grabbed for her hand. "Just for a little while?"

She glanced back at him with a smile. "Yeah, all right," she said and he scooted over to make room for her. She kicked off her shoes and climbed onto the bed, still in her dress. Kurt pulled the blanket over to cover them both and she curled against his side, head pillowed on his shoulder.

"Are you mad at me?" he asked her.

"No," Rachel said. "You just scared me a little bit."

"Scared you?"

"That guy? I'm ninety-nine percent sure he didn't want to date you, Kurt, and you were... not at your best. I didn't want you to do anything you were going to regret. I know you've been lonely since Blaine—"

"Things are fine with Blaine," Kurt said. He wasn't in the mood to hear Rachel disparage Blaine's character tonight. He knew she meant well, was trying to show solidarity, but the truth was, he wasn't lonely for just anyone. The guy at the bar had been a mistake; he'd gained enough distance and sobriety to feel a sharp pang of regret and embarrassment at what could have been if Rachel hadn't interrupted him. "Thank you for getting me home without mishap," he said. "I don't remember the guy's name, and I probably wouldn't have, and you're right, that's not what I want."

"It's okay," she said. "It's good for you to put yourself out there, you know? Meet new guys, have new experiences. Just be more discerning. It's healthy to want to connect with someone, and you're single now, so—"

"It's not by choice," Kurt said softly. "I'm not lonely, Rachel. Honestly, I miss him. I miss Blaine. It's just too hard to figure things out right now with everything that's happened and the distance, and... ugh." He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm getting a headache."

"Hey," Rachel said, and she petted across his chest soothingly. "You're just having one of those nights. It'll all look better in the morning, I promise. Just think about all the amazing things we've got going for us here in New York. I mean, come on, Kurt, we just went to a famous bar with Isabelle Wright, and we'll be in class together at NYADA next month. You just said you and Blaine are fine, right? So just enjoy being friends again, see how it goes. Don't pressure yourself needlessly."

Kurt sighed through a smile. "You're right," he said.

"Of course I am," she said and kissed his cheek before extricating herself from his embrace. "I'll see you in the morning."

##

He dreamed that night. An old nightmare from his childhood. The little bird, dead. And then not dead, broken and awful and hungry.

In the morning, he woke, still feeling slightly dizzy from having drank too much alcohol, and his mouth tasted like something had died in there. The nightmare hung in the back of his consciousness all day, right along with his hangover. He moved through the day, heavy with ineffable dread. Isabelle teased him gently and sent him home early.

That evening, he got an email from his Dad. Attached was an e-ticket home for Christmas. The relief it brought surprised him. Tears pricked Kurt's eyes, and he called his Dad immediately to thank him, and then, with only mild hesitation, he called Blaine with the good news. He could push all his reservations and regrets from his mind and take Rachel's advice.

##

The house was full—too full—on Christmas day, Kurt spent most of the morning in the kitchen cooking with Carole. Family passed through from time to time, getting snacks and drinks and in the way. Finn's cousins were both younger and louder than Kurt had anticipated. By the time the afternoon came around, and Finn and his Dad were clearing the table, Kurt was more than ready to see Blaine for their scheduled ice skating and hot chocolate date.

When the doorbell rang, Kurt excused himself hastily and nearly jogged to answer the door.

On the doorstep, Blaine stood, pink cheeked, smiling, and so handsome it stole the breath from Kurt’s lungs. It was so good to see him now that Kurt felt able to look again. "Hi," he said.

"Got your skates?" Blaine asked in reply. Nice and uncomplicated. Kurt picked them up from beside the door with a grin and a flourish, and they went.

Blaine drove them to the park by the river. Skeletal trees stood stark and black against the pale winter sky. The sun hung low behind them, growing orangey and fat as the winter afternoon waned and the temperatures dropped. Fortunately, there was no breeze, and on Christmas day, the park was empty of others. They sat together on a hard wooden bench to lace up their skates. Blaine hit the ice before Kurt, pushing off into graceful curving paths across the frozen white river.

Kurt made his way down the snowy bank and gingerly stepped out, the loss of friction beneath his feet always disoriented him, and it had been a while since he'd done this. It was not like riding a bicycle. He swayed and held his breath as he found his balance and then carefully sent himself gliding toward Blaine.

Blaine grinned as Kurt approached, and he turned to meet him. Blaine caught Kurt by his forearms when Kurt didn’t manage to slow himself; then he pulled Kurt into a slow spin that inadvertently threw Kurt off balance entirely. Kurt fell, backward, pulling Blaine down with him.

His backside and Blaine's knees hit the ice hard.

"Ow, ow, fucking ow," he swore. Blaine was leaning over him, bracing himself either side of Kurt's torso, against the ice with straight arms, but his head was bowed, his expression hidden. "Are you all right?" Kurt asked, tentatively touching Blaine's upper arm.

Blaine shoulders shook and he lifted his head. Amusement lit his eyes and he laughed. "I thought you said you could skate," Blaine said.

His face was very close to Kurt's, his eyes bright and happy, and his cheeks flushed. Kurt stopped breathing.

"It's been a while," Kurt said hushed and nervous, couldn't stop himself from looking down at Blaine's lips. Found them looking soft beneath the sheen of chapstick, parted around Blaine's fogging breath.

"Evidently," Blaine said, his voice just as soft as his lips looked, and his gaze searched Kurt's. Kurt didn't look away, even though there was something sharp in his throat, urgent but stuck, words whose shape he couldn't give form or sound to.

And then Blaine's mouth was pressed lightly to his, a silent question in a fleeting, uncertain kiss. Blaine withdrew, his eyes wide and brimming with questions Kurt didn't know how to answer.

"Blaine, I—" Kurt started and broke off with a hiccuping breath. Blinked a sudden hot rush of tears back. "I..." He still didn't know exactly what he wanted to say.

Blaine looked away and sat back to give Kurt room. "Crap, I'm sorry, Kurt." He grimaced and ran a hand over his knitted hat; it was a familiar, reflexive gesture. Comforting in a way. "I really shouldn't have… done that."

"It's okay," Kurt said automatically. He didn't mind Blaine kissing him, even if he couldn't tell if he wanted to do it again or not, because kissing Blaine meant things he didn't know if he could mean again, not yet. "I just—" He broke off with a helpless shrug.

"I know, we need to talk," Blaine said, with matter-of-fact acknowledgment and a rueful smile.

"Yeah," Kurt said and sighed into a smile of his own. For all the things he didn't know how to say to Blaine, there were just as many he did know. It was less daunting a thing now than it had seemed in New York. Here, on the ice, with Blaine near him, smiling and safe. He knew they'd be able to find the words together.

Blaine clambered to his feet and looked down at Kurt. "Sing a song with me first? And then we can... go somewhere else?" He reached down with a gloved hand for Kurt.

Kurt reached back and Blaine helped him up. "Well, it is our tradition," Kurt said.

"We'll take it slow, okay?" Blaine said; he held Kurt's hands and skated backwards, coaxing Kurt to follow along with him. "I promise, I won't let you fall again."

"So what are we singing?" Kurt asked, pushing back against the ice with more confidence to stay near Blaine. His body was beginning to remember how to do this.

"Just hear those sleigh bells jingling...?" Blaine started slowly, a playful query. His smile shone performance bright, but the warmth in his eyes was completely sincere. Kurt grinned and joined in on the "Ring-ting-tingling..."

Kurt didn't fall again. They sang the song, and skated some more with Kurt feeling enough confidence to swing himself through some figure eights and loops up the length of the river. But in a race straight back down to where the car was parked, Blaine still won easily.

The winter sun squatted on the horizon and a bitter wind roused from the north. Kurt shivered as he sat beside Blaine and swapped the skates back for his boots. "I'm ready for that hot chocolate," he said. "Where to now?"

With a thoughtful press of his lips together Blaine considered him. "I was wondering if, um, my place would be okay? I've been trying out different hot chocolate recipes, and we'll have some privacy... to, you know, talk. My parents will be heading over to a neighbor's for their annual Christmas evening drinks. They're never back before midnight, so..."

Kurt blinked at him, and Blaine winced.

"Or we can go to Starbucks. I'm really not meaning to… push," he let out a long gusty breath and slumped in some kind of resignation. "I don't know what I'm doing," he said to his knees. "I really miss you, Kurt, so much, and I've been looking forward to seeing you. I wanted everything to be perfect today, but—"

"Hey," Kurt interrupted him. Smiled when Blaine cautiously tilted his head to look back at him. "It's been perfect so far, and I'd love to try one of your new hot chocolate recipes."

"Yeah?"

Kurt reached over to give Blaine's thigh a friendly squeeze. "Yeah."

##

They talked in the Andersons' spacious kitchen, sitting at the table, nibbling sugar cookies and drinking Blaine's chosen best hot chocolate recipe: real chocolate melted into cream with a dash of chili. They talked for over an hour. Mostly it was Blaine talking and Kurt listening, and as Blaine spoke, more candid and vulnerable than Kurt had ever seen him, Kurt refrained from trying to soothe away his sadness with glib reassurances. He just listened, and he came to understand some things he hadn't.

"I'm sorry you felt that way, Blaine. I had no idea."

Blaine's smile was weak, but genuine.

"I want you to know, I was thinking of you, all the time. You got my post cards, right?"

Blaine nodded. "I'm sorry."

"I know, but it's going to take me a while to..." Kurt waved his hands in a vague gesture.

"Trust me? Forgive me?"

"I do forgive you, but it's a process. The trust is harder. I can hardly bear to think about... the physical things."

"So is there any hope for us?"

It was hard to say it, but Kurt knew honesty was necessary here. "I still want what we had together, Blaine. I do. I just can't right now."

"Right," Blaine said and glanced down at his empty mug.

"Look, I want us to be friends, okay? I meant it when I said you're still my best friend. You're still someone I want in my life—I miss you too much when you're not, but..."

"But not as your boyfriend."

Kurt hesitated, bit his lip and had to look away. "I need to do what I'm doing in New York. Focus on that, Vogue and NYADA. Long distance wasn't working for us, but maybe when you get to New York—"

"If, Kurt. I haven't been accepted yet. I don't even know if I've made the first cut."

"No. When. When you're there, we can, maybe, start fresh?"

"Really?" Blaine was so tender and hopeful. "You'd be willing to try again?"

Kurt reached for Blaine's hand and squeezed. "With you, yes."

##

Later that night, after Blaine had dropped him off with a long hug on the doorstep, the house was still quieting from the busyness of the day. Carole was back in the kitchen with his Dad cleaning up, and Finn ferried Christmas gifts upstairs and wrapping paper out to the garage. All the lights inside were still on, making everything brighter than a typical evening, and the stereo had cycled around to Carole's classic Christmas playlist with Bing Crosby smoothly crooning "White Christmas". With a lingering warmth and lightness in his chest, Kurt hung up his coat and set to work, tidying up the living room, collecting all the remaining glasses soiled with eggnog and wine, small plates with scraps of crackers and crudites, and half full serving bowls of nuts and chips to take back to the kitchen. It looked like everyone had had a good time, but Kurt wasn't sad he'd missed the evening.

For the first time, his heart and his head felt like they'd found a quiet accord. He could think of Blaine and smile without pain. His being was peaceful. Resting and waiting and ready to meet the new challenges of New York. In this moment, as he wiped down the coffee table for crumbs and stray spills, he felt uncomplicated optimism.

##

It was the bird again. Within the dream, Kurt was aware he dreamed, but he couldn't change the course of it, couldn't stop his young dream self from reaching up to the handle of the heavy glass door and dragging it open, couldn't stop himself from picking up the bird, couldn't wake himself until it'd played out with all the horror of dropping the brick and collecting the horrible remains and digging, digging, digging under the gardenia until his fingers ached.

But one thing was different. This time when he buried the bird, the feathers and flesh melted away from the thin white bones, and on the sightless skull it flared like fire: an irregular, five pointed star with an eye in the center. His dream self blinked at the brightness and the afterimage marring his vision. When it faded, what remained on the smooth bone was the shape of the star with the eye, marked in black char. The shape looked completely familiar, and it urged him to understand it.

And suddenly, he was looking, not at the remains of the bird, but at his own dirty hands, and they were his hands as an adult, and night was falling fast around him. A cold wind picked up, biting bitterly at his back and shoulders as he crouched beside the gardenia. Leaves fell around him in the moonlit night, tossed by the winter wind. Then he woke up.

And immediately felt he was not alone. The whispering, sibilant and curious, curdled in his mind. And he lay in bed, frozen, feeling the sensation of being watched so strongly, he could barely breathe. A sliver of moonlight brightened his curtains, illuminated enough of his room that he knew there was nothing there but himself. He hated how the recurring nightmare lingered. Except, it was different tonight, like he was actually there, transported somehow in time or space or... It made no sense, but there was an impulse—no, a compulsion—burgeoning within him. Kurt sat up and turned on his light.

He didn't question the urgent need that drove his heart to beat faster. He pulled on his dressing gown and thickest socks, and crept downstairs. The murmuring followed him, though he tried to tell himself it wasn’t real, there was nothing there. Rachel didn't hear it, after all. Auditory hallucinations were not uncommon, he told himself. But it didn't turn him back toward his room. The memory of the dream was pushing him. He got his coat and boots and hat, his Dad's keys, and quietly let himself out the back door. There was a rusting trowel on the planting bench on the patio. He took it.

The night was freezing, and Kurt was glad his Dad's truck was still parked on the street. He didn't need to wake the house. It was a ten minute drive to the house where he grew up, barely enough time for the engine to heat up.

The half moon was still rising, bright in the dark night as Kurt parked at the end of the street and keyed off the ignition. The houses were quiet, but Christmas lights lined the eaves and windows of a few. Their old next door neighbor still put lights on his neatly trimmed junipers. Kurt hoped his being here wouldn't disturb anyone, but he had to know.

He shivered and walked briskly down the old familiar lane. It's where he learned to ride his bicycle. Where his Dad took him Trick or Treating. With a smile, he recalled the year he wanted to go as Inigo Montoya, so his father went as The Dread Pirate Roberts. But Kurt's warmth at the memory faded when he got to their old house. It looked so small and shabby now. Timeworn and forgotten, and somehow foreign as well as familiar, like it was a forbidden place now that it was no longer his home. The hawthorn hedge was gone—it would’ve been laden with berries now if it weren't—as was the old oak tree, which had been dying anyway, but it made Kurt sad to see the yard so bare. He hoped the gardenia was still there.

Quietly, he picked his way across the snowy yard, keeping to the places where the snow was already well trodden. A half melted snowman leered crookedly up at him from where its head had melted into its torso. He crept around to the side of the house where the gardenia grew near the AC unit. It was still there. Kurt let out a breath of relief, but his next breath in was full of fresh trepidation. The handle of the trowel was solid in his hand. He knelt down, grateful for the moon rising higher before him, and he began to break through the icy snow to get at the hard ground beneath.

He didn't have to dig far below the bark chip mulch before he found it. White shards of bone in the black dirt. He pulled off his gloves, set aside the trowel, and, heedless of the dirt getting under his nails and the freezing chill of the ground, touched with his bare fingers, pushed and scraped through the cold hard dirt until he uncovered the skull. It was half crushed and unmarked but for the stain of dirt and time, but the remains were there, unmistakably. It crumbled in his hand, and he let go.

Numb from cold and realization, Kurt sat back on his heels. A cold gust of wind shook the gardenia and he forced himself to breathe. It was not a nightmare, but a memory. He didn't even know how it could be possible, only that, having uncovered the evidence, he felt its veracity down to his own bones. Part of him, he suspected, had always known it was a memory, but it was so terrible and so incredible, he convinced himself it was a dream.

Robotically, Kurt pushed the dirt back into place, tried to arrange the bark chips and snow on top so it wouldn't look like someone had been digging around here. He wiped his hands on his coat, picked up the trowel, and retraced his path back to the truck. Drove home while barely attending to the streets. He ran at least one stop sign. Thanked his luck that there was no traffic at three AM on the day after Christmas. And he ended up back at home, letting himself back in the back door and shivering uncontrollably.

He silenced the questions in his mind and focused on washing his hands in the laundry sink, thoroughly and with warm water. Then he filled a mug with milk and stuck it in the microwave. He hugged himself as he stood in front of the microwave, watching his mug slowly rotate behind the perforated shielding of the door.

When the milk was warm, he sat at the island and stirred cocoa mix into the milk, kept stirring so a skin wouldn’t form. Kept stirring while he tried to not think. And he listened as he sat and stirred. Waited for the creeping low volume of the wordless voice to return. And it did, soft and sinister, and he wondered if it were somehow real too. "Who are you?" he asked it. Could it be the bird? Was he being stalked by some kind of vengeful bird spirit? It sounded ridiculous. He couldn't seriously entertain the notion, and yet, something was altogether off kilter. He wasn’t sure what he should believe now. Maybe he was losing his mind.

He got up to get the pad and pen from beside the phone and then sat back down with his cocoa. On the pad, he tried to draw the shape from his dream, the five pointed star with the eye in the middle. It looked so familiar, but he was sure he'd never seen it before.

He stared at it as he sipped his cocoa. Stared and stared until his vision blurred and its shape seemed to writhe upon the paper. Then he remembered the locket. His Aunt Mildred gave it to him when he was young, told him it had belonged to her grandmother. It was special, a good luck charm. Kurt thought it was ugly, too plain, just a tarnished gold lump of a disc with the star engraved on it, messy and uneven like someone had hand drawn it in a hurry. Inside the locket wasn't a photo, but a coiled lock of light brown hair set behind a time-dulled piece of glass.

Kurt rinsed out his mug and crumpled up the piece of paper upon which he'd drawn. Upstairs, he opened his closet and went to the back where he still stored some personal items. There was a shoe box of mementos, and within that box was a threadbare green velvet box, and within that box was the locket. He took it out. It was warm in his palm, and quite suddenly, the whisper at the edge of his hearing went silent.

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