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 12:08 pm

[Fic] The Round Room - Part II (3/7)

The Round Room -Part II



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 ]


II.



Winter afternoons turned the conference room at Vogue dot com into a glasshouse. The sun drifted low in the sky and glared through the triple glazing. Kurt loosened the scarf knotted tightly at his throat and reached for his bottle of iced water. Under his shirt, his great grandmother's locket pressed a warm, alien weight against his sternum. He resisted the urge to rub at it through the material of his shirt. The lump of it remained hidden by the tails of his scarf.

At the head of the table, Isabelle shuffled some papers nervously and flicked a smile at Chase as he seated himself to her left. Daphne drifted in five minutes late, slim and severe in a black wool suit and shiny red stiletto ankle boots that matched her lips. She settled beside Kurt with her usual blank demeanor. Her hair was so sleek and done so perfectly, Kurt wondered if she actually wore a wig.

"We're all here, then?" Isabelle asked, redundantly.

Kurt took another mouthful of water. He hadn't been sleeping well since he returned to the city, and his first full day back at work dragged at him, an incessant trap of time when he wanted to be nearly anywhere else. His first class at NYADA would be tomorrow, first thing in the morning. But that wasn't all it was. These group meetings were typically the highlights of his work days. He got a break from running errands and answering phones to participate in creative work. Today he couldn't enjoy it. The work seemed less important, a distant concern when there were more immediate things worrying at his concentration.

The pale splinters of bone in the cold black dirt beneath the gardenia flashed behind his eyelids when he took too long a blink. The nightmares hadn't stopped. He'd been wearing the locket at night too, in the irrational hope it would ward the bad dreams, but if anything they'd become more vivid, more urgent, as if there were something for him to learn about the strange star-shaped symbol and the purpose of his own hands. Kurt stifled a yawn against his knuckles.

The locket did seem to settle the whispering in his mind at least, even if the dreams persisted. Curious, he had experimented with it first, to try to isolate the nature of the perceived sound. Without wearing the locket, first, he'd had tried blocking the murmuring out with his noise canceling headphones, then with his white noise machine, and finally with drug store earplugs. But the sinister voice at the edge of his understanding was just as present, even with his iPod turned up uncomfortably loudly, pumping pink noise directly into his ears. The confirmation that the sound was somehow originating in his own head had turned him cold.

He'd refrained from looking up the symptoms online, afraid of what he'd find. A brain tumor or some other degenerative neurological disease. Or he was going crazy. Or maybe it was just temporary tinnitus and a change in the weather would fix it. Or it was actually nothing, he was just over tired. But the locket helped, unmistakeably so, which made for a peculiar placebo. It had to be a placebo effect, for there was no mechanism by which it should work. But then, nor was there anything about it that should make his brain believe in its efficacy enough for it to seem to work. And then, just as hard to accept and believe: the bones of the bird were actually there under the gardenia.

Since their discovery, over and over he'd told himself, his memory must be faulty. He'd simply buried the bird after she'd hit the window. The terrible reanimation was nothing more than a fantastical nightmare. The resurgence of those nightmares, no matter how they dogged him, meant nothing more than he was tired and anxious. It was a normal way for his psyche to try to exorcize his nerves over starting at NYADA. Digging up the bones of the bird was symbolic of him dredging up old anxieties about starting at a new school. That had to be it. Still, the locket hung around his neck, unnaturally warm, growing hotter than his body temperature over the course of the morning and into the afternoon.

"... what do you think, Kurt?" Isabelle was asking him, and Kurt snapped back to the present with a startled blink. Beside him, Daphne mirrored his blink slowly. In Kurt's sudden discomfiture, it felt like casual mockery, though he doubted that it were. Daphne simply unsettled him.

"Um," Kurt began, and he straightened in his seat, trying to find some trace of awareness of what the table had been discussing during his space out. "About which aspect?" he said, trying to adopt a thoughtful air.

"Doing an historical piece," she said.

"The history of leather," Chase clarified, offering Kurt a reassuring smile from across the table.

Kurt returned it with gratitude, and he straightened in his chair, cleared his throat. "Right."

"I still want to do something with Amanda's idea," Isabelle said, almost apologetically.

"Looking back could be interesting, it provides context for modern designs," Kurt said quickly, hoping he wasn't repeating anything others had contributed already. "Something like the evolution of trends in animal hide?"

"Exactly," Isabelle said with a relieved smile. "All right, then, I want Kurt and Daphne to work on this piece together. One of the directors at the Design and Fashions Arts museum owes me a favor. I'll arrange for you to have access to their full collection, to get some good ideas. It doesn't have to be a big piece, but find some unique items that our readers will appreciate."

"Okay," Kurt said, and Daphne nodded vacantly before turning her attention out the window.

Great. Kurt squelched his disappointment and thanked Isabelle for the opportunity, told Daphne he'd email her his NYADA schedule so they could set up a meeting at the museum.

##

It was barely five AM when Kurt woke to Rachel shaking his shoulder and sing-songing too loudly and cheerfully, "Good morning, good morning! You've slept the whole night through!" It was far more energy than any human being should possess at this hour. Outside his window it was still black.

Kurt grunted as he pushed her hand away. He squinted and gritted out with a sleep raspy voice: "That's not how that song goes." Nor did he bother to correct her assumption. He had only managed to fall asleep properly after three. His psyche was falling into a regular schedule of fall asleep, have nightmare, wake up, toss and turn, and then, as morning grew close, eventually find some respite in unconsciousness.

"It's a Berry family variation," Rachel said primly. Then with a sunny smile, she added, "I've made your coffee. Happy first day at NYADA!"

"I was planning to sleep for at least another hour," Kurt said.

"You don't want to be late or groggy for your first dance class, Kurt, trust me," she said. "Do you want soy milk with your oatmeal?"

"Yeah, sure, thanks," Kurt said and he sat up; the covers fell away from his shoulders bringing the cold of the morning to cling unfriendlily to his bare arms. He covered his mouth as he yawned and Rachel turned on his bedside lamp.

"What's that?" Rachel asked, pointing to the gold locket. It had slipped free of the neck of his t-shirt overnight.

"Oh," Kurt closed one hand around it self-consciously. "Just a good luck charm. Old family heirloom."

"Can I see?" she asked.

"Yeah," Kurt said, because he couldn't think of a good reason to say no, but he didn't expect her to reach for the chain and lift it to take it off him. Determinedly, he didn't flinch—that would be ridiculous—as she pulled it off over his head. Kurt took a deep breath in and out, and began to relax, hoping there'd be no adverse effect. But, sure enough, the the creeping presence and whispering returned. He flushed hot, his head swam, and his stomach twisted. He pressed a hand to his stomach and pinched his eyes shut with a gasp. This shouldn't be real. He swallowed thickly and reached to Rachel to take the pendant back.

With a frown, "Are you okay?" Rachel asked him, but she relinquished her hold on the necklace.

"It's five in the morning, of course I'm not okay," Kurt said, and he took the locket back, put it back on. Immediately, he felt better. But correlation was not causation, he reminded himself. Then he got up, and pulled on his robe.

"It's kind of ugly," Rachel said with a critical twist of her mouth. It was refreshing in a way, Rachel's critique: familiar, expected and—best of all—normal. He needed more of that.

With a tepid smile, Kurt shrugged, and then he prompted, "You said you made coffee?" He just wanted to get through the day intact.

##

Kurt made it through his first eight AM Dance 101 class without passing out or being singled out by Cassandra July. Perhaps he'd made a decent enough impression back in November. He texted Rachel an extra thank you for the dairy free, green protein smoothie she made him drink before she let him out the door.

With an hour to kill before Vocal Performance, Kurt had planned to meet Rachel in the Student Union. The coffee stand, where they were to rendezvous, was an easy landmark. There was no sign of Rachel yet, and no response to his text, so he ordered a double-shot mocha for himself, grabbed an extra packet of sugar to keep his energy up, and found a clean table to sit and wait. As he cooled off after the exertion of class, his legs were beginning to feel about as robust as wilted lettuce. Kurt took the lid off his coffee and stirred in the sugar as he watched the between class hub-bub around him.

It resembled high school, but for the sloppier standards of dress and personal grooming—a girl had just walked by wearing a rumpled duffel coat over her pajamas. He saw signs of cliques, recognized the shared body language, aesthetic, and attitudes of small social tribes. Starting a semester late, he knew would be a detriment to fitting in, but he had hoped it would be easier here. He worried he'd still find himself on the outside looking in. He wondered what the NYADA equivalent of New Directions would be.

Idly, he glanced over at the bulletins boards and kiosks where fliers and posters advertising clubs and events hung. There was an older student, blond with a coarse knit beanie—very New York hipster—taping up orange and red posters, but Kurt couldn't make out the words. He caught Kurt's eye and flashed him an unexpectedly bright smile. Kurt glanced back down to his coffee and his cheeks warmed. He definitely didn't need the complication of a cute flirtatious boy this week.

He still had Blaine, sort of. So Kurt pulled out his phone and tapped through to send Blaine a text. He smiled as he typed out a brief message: "I survived Cassandra July."

While Kurt waited for a response, he tried to recall what class Blaine would be in second period. Was it some kind of elective Art class? Or Sewing? Crafts? It wasn't long before he got a reply from Blaine, "Off to a good start. I'm glad! :)"

Kurt smiled and typed back, "Vocal Performance looms next, so I may yet succumb to doom."

"But Mme T likes you, right?" Blaine reminded him.

"It's not impossible," Kurt wrote, "but IDK if that means I merely have higher expectations to disappoint."

"There you go," Blaine sent back. "Always looking on the bright side of life."

Kurt covered his mouth to quiet his sudden bark of laughter. Blaine's text brought a warm upsurge of nostalgia: a Monty Python movie marathon over the summer accompanied by homemade peach ice cream and vanilla cookies. Kurt bit into his smile as he typed back, "? 'Life's a piece of shit / When you look at it.' ? "

"That's the spirit!"

"Honestly, I do feel like I am about to be crucified. Figuratively, anyway."

"You'll be fine so long as that isn't the song you've prepared to perform today."

"I'm doing my solo arrangement of 'Alone in the Universe'" Kurt sent. "It's both whimsical and poignant."

"Good choice. You know I love it when you sing that one." Another text follows immediately. "I'm sorry I'm not there to make it a duet."

That brought a melancholy pang to diminish his smile. He missed Blaine as much as ever, but he'd gotten better at avoiding the feeling. Most of the time anyway. "Maybe in the spring," he typed, and then he changed the subject to something less emotionally fraught. "How's your week going?"

"Busy," he got immediately. He waited for a follow up. "Glee club is still having a tough time with rehearsal space, and Tina's organizing a Sadie Hawkins dance."

"Oh," Kurt said out loud, wrote back to Blaine, "Well, that's awkward."

"Yeah," Blaine replied, and Kurt waited for more again, but that was all he got. He frowned and tried to imagine Blaine, sitting in his art class, how he must be feeling.

"Are you going to ask anyone?" Kurt typed, hoping to give any permission that Blaine may feel he required. He didn't, but Kurt knew how Blaine could sometimes feel obliged to others.

"No." And then nothing more.

Kurt sighed. "I hope I'm not the reason?"

It was a few minutes before he received Blaine's response. He told himself it was because the teacher interrupted, and not because Blaine was having trouble with words. "If you were here, I would ask you," Blaine sent.

"No other out and eligible gay or bi guys at school?"

"You know that's not the reason.""

This was turning more serious than Kurt was prepared for this morning. He checked the time and glanced around the space. Still no sign of Rachel, and class was in just fifteen minutes.

"Blaine," he typed back, "I'm really sorry to end this here, but I have to get going and find Rachel before class. Later?"

"Of course."

Kurt heard his name then, in Rachel's familiar call. A glance up, showed her walking along the second level toward the open staircase, Brody at her side. Kurt sent a final quick wish for Blaine to have a good day, swallowed his regret, and pocketed his phone.

"Sorry," Rachel said, jogging down the last few steps as he approached her, She gave him a quick one armed hug. "Brody's decided to audition for the stage version of Magic Mike, and he needed me to run lines with him, and—"

"It's fine," Kurt said.

"Hey, Kurt," said Brody.

"It's best to get to Vocal early," Rachel said, "To make sure we get seats in the front."

Front and center was not, strictly speaking, Kurt's seating preference in the class room, but he knew it was Rachel's and since it would seem strange to sit apart from her, he nodded and followed along.

Despite their being ten minutes early, Mme Tibideaux was already there, appearing much the same as every other time Kurt had seen her. Something about her presence, the way she took up more more volume of a space than her physical self alone, made her seem a fixture or feature of the room itself. She sat in her leather upholstered armchair with a tablet in her lap, and greeted them with a silent nod and an evaluatory glance over the top of her glasses. There was no trace of familiarity in her gaze as it slid over Kurt.

Rachel tried—and failed—to initiate small talk with Mme Tibideaux, while Brody and Kurt sat, leaving a seat vacant between them for Rachel. Kurt removed a pen and slim notebook from his bag before tucking it beneath his chair.

"Nervous?" Brody asked quietly.

With a tight smile, Kurt said, "Yes."

"That's healthy," Brody said, "But you're good, so try to relax. Breathe."

"Thanks," Kurt said, and turned his attention from Brody to where the pianist had come in and was seating himself. Kurt had emailed his song selection last week. Felt a pang at the lack of a good luck wish from Blaine. He knew the sentiment was there though, he just hadn't heard it. His Dad had given him a pep talk last night over the phone. Told Kurt he'd kick ass.

Kurt took a moment to close his eyes and take Brody's advice. There was a puff of air and a waft of Rachel's floral perfume beside him. Kurt breathed and tried to relax himself piece by piece, from his toes to his scalp. The rustle of arriving students, the textured whine of the stringed instruments tuning, Brody and Rachel murmuring to each other, it all dissolved into soothing meaninglessness in the acoustics of The Round Room.

It was silent otherwise inside his head, no trace of the tension or disorientation he'd been having on and off for these past weeks. The pendant was unusually cool against his chest. He hummed softly the first bars of his song, and felt calm. This was nothing after the shock of the Winter Showcase.

Mme Tibideaux didn't call on him first. After her brief introduction to the class, and the acknowledgment of two new students joining them this semester, she called on a round faced girl with curly blonde hair. The girl skittered nervously to the stage, her fair skin flushed and her eyes unblinking wide.

She announced she'd be performing "Think of Me" from Phantom.

Rachel leaned in to tell Kurt this girl was cut last year, and had to reapply for the spring. Kurt glanced toward Mme Tibideaux and recalled her talk of granting rare second chances. This girl, Rachel, himself. The evidence contradicted her words.

The girl's performance was solid if constrained. When she finished, she smiled tentatively and looked to Mme Tibideaux.

Impassively, Mme Tibideaux regarded the girl in a silence that must've lasted mere seconds, but Kurt could feel the way it stretched into interminability for the girl as she waited, her fingertips twitching against her corduroy skirt.

Finally, an inclination of Mme Tibideaux's head and the words, "Much improved, Miss McClaine. You still have a lot of work ahead of you this semester. Your technique is better, but your expression is lacking."

Quietly, Kurt reassured himself that he could do better. Not that this was a competition, but if this standard were acceptable, then he was confident he could exceed it. He'd been practicing for weeks. Had been singing this song as part of his regular morning shower rotation for years. His arrangement infused the song with tenderness and longing, and given the recent weeks, it was emotion close to the surface, easy to tap.

Two upperclassmen were called to perform before him, and Kurt began to wonder if he would be asked to perform today. He shifted in his seat restlessly, and Rachel reached over and squeezed his hand once to reassure.

The seniors received smiles in response to their performances. Mme Tibideaux spoke to the class after each, drawing attention to their performance strengths. Kurt jotted down a few notes.

And then, "Kurt Hummel," Mme Tibideaux called.

He stood quickly, smoothing the front of his trousers and turning to face her before going to the stage, expecting something more than his name for some reason, a mention of his Winter Showcase performance, or something. But she merely raised an expectant eyebrow, said nothing, and so he went to the stage and turned to face the class. A glance at the accompanying musicians, a nod from the pianist, and Kurt announced his song choice, "I'll be performing my own solo arrangement of 'Alone in the Universe' from Seussical the Musical."

The piano started, Kurt took a breath, and he sang. He slipped easily into the feeling of the song, added some embellishment with gesture and movement, but aimed to keep the performance focused in his voice. No distracting bells or whistles, but he must be himself. He felt still that he had something more to prove to Mme Tibideaux about himself as an artist. Whimsy could be sincere, it could blend with and reveal deep emotion and truth.

"I've been guarding this clover

For over a week,

Getting laughed at

For thinking a dust speck can speak."

Some of the students were smiling already, but not actually laughing, and Kurt let himself be fortified by that. He remembered his childhood years, living with the laughter of others. Feeling like an outsider because he saw things differently, felt them differently, loved and desired different things. He remembered his mother smoothing his hair and wiping his tears, and telling him he had a sensitive soul, and there was nothing wrong with him for that.

"Well, let them all laugh

I'll try not to mind,

For I have found something

That they'll never find!"

And he never would apologize for his passions or his pursuits. Not in kindergarten or ballet class, not at McKinley, and not here at NYADA either. He was here to become the best possible version of himself, and so himself he would unflinchingly be. He closed his eyes and sang, remembering a day when another boy had turned to look at him, had seen him and smiled, and then took his hand.

"And one day soon

I know there you'll be

One small voice in the universe

One true friend in the universe

Who believes in me... "

Kurt had sung this song to himself in the car driving back from having coffee with Blaine at Dalton that first time. He had even more recent memories of singing this with Blaine in the car together. It was a way to remind each other that they had, after all their separate loneliness, found each other. He blinked back the blur of unshed tears from his gaze as he finished up the song.

Rachel beamed at him as she clapped. Mme Tibideaux tapped at her tablet. Kurt waited for her to turn her attention to him, hoped for a smile, some kind of acknowledgment, perhaps some praise.

"An interesting choice, Mr. Hummel," she said. "Thank you." And then she called the next student.

His eyes widened and his stomach sank in disappointment. Kurt moved back to his seat and sat numbly. "That's it?" he whispered to Rachel. "I was good though, right?"

Rachel shrugged. "I thought so."

Interesting? He wasn't sure if that were good or bad.

##

Neither Rachel nor Brody wanted to join him for lunch after class. Rachel said she had to practice her monologue for acting class, and Brody had to get ready for work. So Kurt grabbed a sandwich to go, and headed for the Vogue offices. If he started early, then he could either go home early, or bank a few hours for another day when he might need the time for something else.

It was after nine when he made it home, and there was no sign of Rachel. Kurt made himself a pot of green tea, reheated some leftover Chinese takeout, grabbed the box of bakery doughnuts from the cupboard, and took it all to the living room to eat in front of the television. While he ate, he caught up on the backlog of Chopped episodes on the DVR. Between episodes, he texted his Dad, Blaine, and Mercedes; and replied to an old text from Tina.

Then he went for his evening shower, pleased that without Rachel home, he could take his time. In the bathroom, he undressed, glanced into the mirror, and hesitated when the glint of locket caught his attention. He considered it, lying cool against his skin. Today, he'd ended up feeling all right after everything, even with the poor night's sleep and too early morning. He fingered the heavy gold pendant between his fingertips. The last thing he needed was to develop some crazy new superstition for when he got anxious. Better to stick with his usual rituals and colored socks than branch out into believing he owned magical jewelry.

With determination, Kurt met his own gaze in the mirror, took a deep breath, and carefully pulled the locket off. He curled his fingers around it for one long moment and then set it down on the porcelain edge of the sink. He waited, didn't exhale as he counted to sixty. Exhaled, inhaled, and then counted to one-hundred-twenty, and then to one-hundred-eighty. Nothing disturbed his hearing or his mind. No prickle on the back of his neck or squirming discomfort in his belly.

Cautiously, Kurt turned his head. All remained silent but for the muted rattle of the exhaust fan. His heart sped in relieved excitement, and he let his shoulders relax. His shower was leisurely and undisturbed, and Kurt went to bed warm and relaxed. His first day of classes was done, he did well enough, maybe not as well as he'd hoped, but it was going to be fine.

##

All Kurt had Friday was dance class in the morning, so he and Daphne planned to meet at the museum after that. The week had sped past, but he felt he was regaining his balance back in the new year, finding a rhythm of work and school and home responsibilities. He'd been making sure to text his Dad every day and Blaine every morning and evening. They hadn't tried to resume any regular phone or Skype schedule yet. Kurt didn't want to overcommit, because that could only lead to disappointment, no matter how good his intentions were. So it was a careful balance, keeping the future possibilities with Blaine alive while not overburdening the present. Blaine seemed to be okay with things as they were, and Kurt hoped he truly was.

The locket remained in a wooden box on his nightstand, wrapped in a handkerchief. Kurt had taken it out every night before bed and looked at it, opened it to trace the curl of his great grandmother's hair behind the time dimmed glass. Wondered at the hand that had made it, for it looked so very much handmade, almost as if he looked closely enough he'd be able to discern the shapes of its maker's fingerprints pressed into the soft gold. He didn't put it back on, for he didn't have cause to.

On his way to the museum, Kurt was grateful for the long walk. It was a relief to stretch the ache of his legs after dance class to keep the muscles from stiffening. The day shone clear and bright, and the sunlight glared across his vision with every blinding slash across the bumpers and windscreens of the cars that surged endlessly up and down the avenues. Kurt squinted behind his sunglasses, and walked briskly with the pulse of the city.

The Museum of Design and Fashion Arts sat squeezed into the middle of a city block: a relatively compact facade of polished black granite between two sky scraping towers of glass and steel. He'd expected something grander, with wide marble steps and multistory columns. He took off his sunglasses and entered.

Inside was dim light and pale walls. Kurt blinked away the hazy afterimages of the street as his eyes adjusted, and he slipped his glasses into his inner breast pocket. Thickly varnished wood floors softened the echo of his boot heels. Daphne stood by a reception desk next to an older woman in a black pencil shirt and dove gray twinset. Her red lipstick was as bright as Daphne's, and her white hair was twisted up in an intricate braided knot. She must be Isabelle's director friend.

"Kurt Hummel," he introduced himself, stretching a hand out to shake.

"Isabelle speaks highly of you," the woman said and reached back with a firm grip. "I'm Lenore." She glanced between them and then simply said, "Let's go back."

Kurt let Daphne precede him, lagged back to survey the exhibits they passed. Behind wide panes of glass, elaborate gowns sparkled and gleamed on their matte black mannequins. There was one with a skirt of bead-scattered gauze draped over hoops of thorned vines with densely packed white flowers spiraling about the bodice. Another sinuous sheath of blue and green feathers with a sequined skull cap to match. And another, lace dyed in a gradient from saturated deep red at the bottom to bone white at the top. No unexpected leather to be found, all sumptuous, formal gowns.

He began to sketch out something in his mind about the raw imitation of the forms and textures of nature in formal wear. The way the lace dress looked like draining blood, the feathered dress was reminiscent of the supple flash of fish scales, and the thorned dress, a hedge for the modern witch to wear. If the leather project didn't work out, he wanted to have some other theme to pitch to Isabelle. They could still incorporate some animal hide elements to satisfy Amanda.

He was so absorbed in his thoughts as he trailed along behind Daphne that he missed it. It came tissue soft at the edge of his mind, little more than a mental breeze, a sigh that brushed cool up the back of his neck and cascaded forward beneath the skin of his scalp. The skin pimpled up the length of his spine. He mistook it for the rush of air conditioning.

Lenore swiped a key card and let them through a wide steel fire door into a brightly lit, door-lined corridor.

Back in the store rooms, she showed them to a wide table upon which there rested a black brick of an old IBM laptop with pixelated angelfish swimming across its screen. Lenore woke the machine and logged in.

"Isabelle said you were looking for unusual, historical pieces. The collection database is here," she said, and went on to explain how to use its search features, and the way the accession numbers worked. It wasn't too dissimilar to a library. Kurt nodded along.

"If you need to look at anything in cool storage," she pointed to a door and laid a key-card on the table, "Make sure you keep the door closed, it's temperature and humidity controlled, and wear gloves if you touch anything. Make note of any objects you want photographed, so we can set that up." She moved a basket of white cotton gloves from the counter along the wall to the table. "Text me if you need anything further. I'll be upstairs in my office."

Then she left them to it. Kurt smiled at Daphne, "So I guess now we look for the leather undergarments."

She looked at him with little expression, and he wondered if she were as disappointed at the prospects of working with him as he was with her. Being tasked with the intern had to be the short straw. He watched her slide her tablet from her handbag and unfold its stand. Then Daphne sat with barely a rustle at the head of the table, leaving the laptop for Kurt to use.

"Right," Kurt said and he sat in front of the computer.

Most of the items in the database had photographs accompanying them, so it was easy to get an idea of items to mark for a closer look. Daphne kept a list of what they agreed might be relevant. They focused on finding items with interesting embellishments, beading and mixed materials, or that made compelling use of color and shape. They sought common themes in design, patterns which resonated with modern collections, and common themes across cultures. Many pieces were marked as replicas, rather than originals, which made sense, given how perishable leather and other textiles were. There were a few items with only written descriptions. And then, as Kurt was scrolling through the search results for 'leather trousers' he came upon an odd entry.

"Necropants?" he queried aloud, half-laughing at the bizarre name. Daphne just looked at him and said nothing.

He clicked to open the full entry, found no photographs and little by way of written description. Someone had typed, 'unusual grisly artifact', and nothing more. He read it to Daphne. "Unusual sounds promising?" Kurt said. He was less optimistic about grisly, but he was curious. "Shall we take a look?"

Daphne shrugged and reached for the basket of cotton gloves. She passed Kurt a pair, and he scribbled the accession number on a post-it before picking up the key card.

The store room was cool and narrow, lined with deep gray metal cabinets. Daphne found the number first, on a drawer in a bank labeled 'unclassified leather garments'. "Kurt," she said, drawing his attention. "Here."

Kurt stood next to her, and she pulled the drawer out. A foam form wore the trousers, and they were draped in thin, translucent protective material. Daphne carefully pulled it back, so they could get a better look.

There was definitely a smell: pungent, old leather and an unpleasant chemical waft of whatever had been used to preserve them. Kurt wrinkled his nose, breathed through his mouth, and tried to understand what he was looking at.

The realization came slowly and reluctantly: the necropants were not exactly pants. A sickening swell of revulsion billowed up in Kurt's stomach. He glanced at Daphne to seek some companionable sympathy, but she appeared unfazed.

Gently, she touched one of the legs and commented, "These are human skin."

"You mean..." Kurt trailed off, because it was difficult to deny her assertion. They weren't even sewn trousers, but—at least appeared to be—the wholly intact skin from the bottom half of a man. Disturbingly, clearly a man, for the scrotum and penis were present, hollowed out but intact. There was a collection of foreign black marks, some kind of runes or sigils, on the shriveled balls. One of which was not that different from the five pointed star with the eye on Kurt's locket, and he cursed himself for leaving it at home this morning. "Oh my god," Kurt said, and he covered his face with one gloved hand. "What on earth are these?" he asked. He didn't expect an answer.

"That mark," Daphne said, pointing to the familiar star, "is for protection." then she pointed to the one next to it. "And that one is for wealth. I'm not sure about the others, but I think that one below might be friendship or family. Some kind of bond of affection." It was the most Daphne had said all morning. Her brow creased in thought and her lips pursed, and that was more expression than Kurt had ever seen on her face.

"How do you know that, Daphne?"

She shrugged and her face relaxed back into placidity. "I know things," she stated simply.

Nausea ground deep in Kurt's stomach. It made him grateful for having skipped lunch. He opened his mouth to suggest they put these away, there was such a thing as too much unexpected leather. They couldn't use these. And he really wanted to get out of the room, away from the smell, away from the idea of these 'pants'.

But, before he could speak, he felt it, the cold trickle clawing under his skull and a curious, distant whisper. Swiftly, it turned blisteringly hot, and somehow, bizarrely loud, rushing and roaring in his ears. "Fuck," is what fell from his lips, and he clutched at his head, the pain seared behind his eyes, serrated barbs of agony. Static zigzagged across his vision and his knees trembled. He had to reach for the side of the drawer to remain standing.

"Are you all right?" came Daphne's voice, weirdly distorted, as if she were at the end of a long, echoing tunnel.

"Need air," Kurt mumbled, and he pushed himself away from the grotesque artifact and stumbled toward the door.

"Kurt?" Daphne said, and she almost sounded concerned.

He made it out of the storage room, back through the room where they'd been working, and into the corridor. He had the irrational sense that there was something right behind him, right over his shoulder, panting down his neck with hot breath and ill intention. He fled down the passageway, toward the illuminated EXIT sign above heavy double doors at the end.

With as hard a push as he could give, Kurt tripped out the doors into an alleyway, swearing under his breath and sweating with pain. He went down on his knees, heedless of marring the tweed of his trousers, and retched up an acidic mouthful of thick bile. Gritty asphalt pressed sharp beneath his palms.

It all stopped. Silence expanded in his head, clear and fresh. All the tension, pain, and nausea drained away. Kurt straightened, sat back on his heels, and blinked in the shaded sunlight. "I'm going crazy," he said to the dumpster across the alley.

There was little to be done to clean up his mess. Kurt quashed his pride, and spat a bitter wad of tainted saliva to the ground, winced at the clinging taste of vomit in his mouth, the slime of it on his teeth, and the stench of it in his nose. He had both a water bottle and breath mints in his satchel, along with a travel toothbrush and toothpaste. But that was all inside, on the table. He was reluctant to go back, in case—

No. He shook his head and scrambled to his feet. Brushed the grit from his hands and then from his trousers. If he were losing his mind, he wasn't going to make it easy and give in to paranoia and delusion that easily. He turned back to the door and grabbed the handle. The door didn't budge, didn't even rattle.

Locked. Of course it was. His phone was in his pocket at least. He sent Daphne a text, briefly explaining his situation and asking if she could please come let him in.

He waited several long minutes before the door clicked, and Daphne stepped out. She was wearing her coat with her handbag looped over her arm. She passed Kurt his jacket and his messenger bag.

"Thank you," Kurt said. "Are we leaving the back way?" he smiled to try make it lighthearted and easy (hoped she wouldn't notice that he had just thrown up). "How clandestine."

"I told Lenore we had enough to work with for today and that you'd come out this way to have a cigarette."

Surprised that Daphne would have covered for his strange spell of illness, Kurt slipped his jacket on. "I don't smoke."

"I know," she said, and he caught her glance down at the ground. "Do you need something? I have Advil and gum."

He shook his head and pulled his water bottle from his bag, took a mouthful. Swished it around to clear the bad taste, and then he turned away, took a few steps before he spat it out with as much grace and discretion as could be managed given the circumstance. Then he dug out his roll of Lifesavers, popped two into his mouth and replied around them, "I'll be okay. I think I just need something to eat, I missed lunch."

Daphne nodded, and proceeded to pick her way carefully down the alley toward the street. Kurt followed.

At a narrow cafe, Daphne urged Kurt to sit while she ordered for them. She returned with ginger tea for him, to help settle his stomach, she said, and a cup of Oolong tea with a jasmine blossom floating in it for herself. "Food is coming," she said. "I ordered soup and bread for us both."

"Thank you," Kurt said. He regarded Daphne with curiosity. At the office she didn't talk much, had little affect, never seemed particularly engaged with or interested in anything. And yet, here she was, showing both insight and care for him. And she knew what some of those symbols on the pants had been, including the one that matched Kurt's locket.

"May I ask you something?" he ventured into the silence between them.

She indicated yes. Or, rather, she didn't indicate no, so Kurt pressed ahead with a question: "Um, I was wondering, how do you... know things?"

The smallest frown wrinkled Daphne's brow and she glanced down at her tea. She replied quietly and carefully, as if afraid of being either overheard or misunderstood. "I used to belong to a... club, I guess you'd call it."

"What sort of club?"

She avoided meeting his gaze, looked out the window at the passersby and said, "I really can't talk about it. I'm sorry."

Kurt wanted to press her for more information, but the thin line of her red lips didn't encourage him. He sipped his tea and tried to summon up some inspiration for small talk that wouldn't seem too forced. But then Daphne looked at him and asked, "Have you seen something like that before?"

"Like the, uh, pants?" Kurt asked. "No. Just, one of those symbols looked familiar, like something my, um, grandmother had on a necklace."

That seemed to satisfy Daphne. She didn't mention anything else about either the necropants or Kurt's odd episode. The waitress brought the soup and Daphne got her tablet out so they could discuss how to best organize the garments they'd highlighted into a narrative to please Isabelle.

##

At home that evening, the creeping whisper returned. Less immediately awful than at the museum, but much like it had been in the past weeks, lurking right at the edge of acuity and comprehension, a burr at the edge of his consciousness. Kurt took the locket out and just the weight of it cupped in his hand soothed the noise and irritation. He let go of the locket and the murmur returned. Protection. But from what? His own mind? And, he resolved, as long as he could function well enough, he wouldn't give into this insanity. The locket went back in its box, and Kurt cranked up his white noise machine so he could pretend to focus on that.

He dreamed of the bird again, but differently. She was alive and inside the loft and he was himself as he was now. The bird was terrified and battering herself against the walls and beams and the high skylight ceiling. Kurt climbed the ladder with a broom in hand to try to coax the bird toward the open window of the fire escape.

When the bird fell to the floor, Kurt scrambled down the ladder, fearing the worst. Only to find her exhausted and stunned, not dead. He carried her carefully, cradled protectively in his hands, to the open window, climbed out onto the fire escape and sat on the cold metal step with her slight weight resting in his open palms. He wished desperately for the bird not to die, and he felt warmth tingling down his arms and into hands, drawing, it seemed, straight from his heart. The bird stirred and stood up. Cocked her head and looks up at him with one bright brown eye, and then she leaped up and spread her wings. Flew away.

##

Over the weekend, the murmuring came and went, like there was a knob on a distant radio randomly cycling back and forth between staticky reception and dead air. Kurt ignored it and got on with living, broke his days down into the things that needed to be done, and he did them with singular focus on anything not related to the fear of losing his mind. He reorganized all of his drawers and clothing. Cleaned the kitchen and bathroom from top to bottom, swept, vacuumed, dusted. Did his reading for the week. Sang, and practiced dance basics. Called his Dad on Saturday and Blaine on Sunday. Emailed Daphne with a few ideas he had while cleaning the shower. Updated his Facebook status. Made an appointment for a haircut, gave himself a manicure. Filled the cookie tin with cocoa brownies and peanut butter cookies. Rachel spent most of her weekend with Brody, and Kurt was grateful for the solitude.

##

Tuesday, in Vocal Performance class, Mme Tibideaux barely even looked at him. Admittedly, she treated all of her students with an air of distance, but he had hoped for something more. They had a history of sorts, brief and small though it was. He wondered if he'd disappointed her already, if she were regretting his admission. Perhaps the number from Seussical was a bad choice after all. Rachel had chided him over it when he expressed his concerns to her over breakfast.

After class, Kurt waited, hoping to take a moment to speak to Mme Tibideaux. But there were other students lining up for her attention, and Kurt saw in their nervous fidgets and too-wide smiles how hungry they all were for her feedback and praise; he didn't want to be among the desperate, so he turned and left.

At work, Isabelle was unsure of what he and Daphne had put together so far on the history of leather. She asked them to go back and rework it, make it more dynamic, try to incorporate some multimedia ideas, because right now it was too dry and static.

He and Daphne spent the late afternoon and early evening in the conference room, Kurt at the white board and Daphne seated with her ankles crossed and propped up on the table, tossing ideas at him. He made lists and crossed things off, circled promising leads, even entertained the more bizarre notions she offered, though the longer they went at it, the more he began to discern a very dry sense of humor.

Finally, she deadpanned a suggestion of "Shamanic swimwear."

"Seriously?" Kurt rolled his eyes, capped the whiteboard marker, and threw it at her.

She dodged it and began to laugh, while he sank into a chair and dropped his head into his hands. His answering laughter was mostly at the absurdity of it all. Nothing was sparking.

"Come on," she said, and stood up, "We've been cooped up in here too long. Let's go get Thai for dinner."

##

By the time Kurt let himself into the apartment building that night, he was doubly discouraged by his day. It was late, and he'd been looking forward to the pint of Americone Dream in the the freezer for the entire trip home. He'd had a headache nagging all evening, too, and had grown increasingly irritable. It felt like a nest of wasps had taken up residence in his brain as he trudged up the stairs to the loft.

But when he slid open the wide door, instead of the solace of home, he was greeted not by the comfort and quiet, but with cardboard boxes and suitcases—and Brody and Rachel discussing loudly that Brody could have the left third of her wardrobe for his clothes, but she really needed all of the bureau.

"Rachel, what the hell?" Kurt interrupted them.

"Brody's moving in," Rachel said and went back to finding empty hangers for Brody to use.

Anger flared like tinder catching a spark. "Since when?" Kurt demanded evenly.

Brody at least had the decency to look apologetic when he asked Rachel, "You didn't tell him?"

"No, she certainly did not tell me," Kurt snapped, then he took Rachel by the elbow and led her into the kitchen. He let go and faced her. "He can't live here."

"Kurt, come on, splitting the rent three ways—"

"You didn't even ask me! That's my name on the lease."

"It's hard for him to make the trip out here every night, I thought this would be great for all of us."

"I don't care! This is my home too, you can't just—" The pressure was building in his head along with the noise, like the murmuring was trying to drown him out, which only made him raise his voice louder. "This is unacceptable."

Rachel matched his volume with an angry reply, about how he was just jealous because he was alone. Brody, fortunately, stayed out of it, hanging back somewhere in Rachel's room.

Kurt finally cut her off. "No. Rachel, no. Brody can't live here, and that's final. I'm not discussing this with you, I'm telling you: no." He went to his room long enough to grab a warmer coat and a hat; he hesitated a moment and grabbed the locket too, but he didn't wear it, just pocketed it. Then he hefted his satchel back over his shoulder and returned to the door. He needed to walk off the anger and clear his head.

Rachel yelled something at his back, about him being unreasonable and selfish, he ignored her.

It was quiet on the street. Kurt even welcomed the usual verbal harassment by the homeless guy in the park as one of the routine markers in his life. But then the homeless guy said, "It's watching you, so you better be careful, pretty boy," and Kurt paused to look at him. "It's safer out here," the guy said solemnly. "But you already know that, don't you?"

Kurt shook it off and kept walking. The guy didn't know anything about him. He put his hands in his pockets and rubbed his thumb over the engraved shape on the pendant. It shouldn't make him feel better, but it did.

##

Fortunately, when Kurt got home the next evening, Brody was gone. Rachel was sullen and silent, and marching about the loft with the drama of an aggrieved diva. She stopped sitting with Kurt in the classes they shared. She was collecting new friends and admirers, anyway. None of this was helped by Mme Tibideaux, who invited Rachel to demonstrate some vocal techniques for the class. Kurt kept the locket in his trouser pocket all week with his keys.

Worst of all, Kurt knew he was jealous. But he felt, too, that he wasn't been given enough credit of his own. He hadn't come to New York to be sidelined and invisible again. He knew his voice was special.

That week, in the evenings, Kurt spent more time on the phone with Blaine; he needed both the affirmation and the advice—and the distraction, as well as something to look forward to at the end of increasingly frustrating days. Coming home to Blaine, even if only to his voice, became a precious kind of haven.

##

Monday Mme Tibideaux had office hours, so, though he didn't have class, Kurt skipped work and went into NYADA. After listening to Kurt's grumbling about the trials of his week, particularly the lack of any real feedback from Mme Tibideaux, Blaine had suggested to Kurt that if he were truly concerned, he could go speak to her directly and candidly. Then he'd know for certain if there were an issue, and he could address it. And if there weren't a problem, then he'd have one less thing disrupting his sleep. Kurt had confessed his insomnia to Blaine, but had avoided mentioning the cause of it as anything more than stress over his too full days.

Kurt didn't find Mme Tibideaux in her office, and while he was running later than his intention, there were still fifteen minutes left of the hours posted on her door. But the door was locked and even repeated knocking provided no response.

"Damn it," Kurt muttered under his breath. He turned and sighed, scanning the length of the hall. Since he was missing work for this, he didn't want to leave having accomplished nothing. If she had a class starting at the next hour, then she might be in The Round Room already. He might be able to catch her there and, if nothing else, he could express his concerns and make an appointment to talk later in the week.

Silently, Kurt rehearsed in his mind what he planned to say to her, and headed for The Round Room. He nearly bumped into her coming around a corner into an otherwise empty, window-lined exterior hall. She was exiting the faculty restroom.

"Excuse me," she said and walked briskly right on ahead of him, crossing through the bright morning sunbeams. He didn't even warrant a 'Mr. Hummel' today.

"Mme Tibideaux," he called after her, and regretted immediately the splinter of exasperation he couldn't keep from his voice. "I need to talk to you."

"See me after class tomorrow," she said, without pausing or even turning her head.

He lengthened his stride to catch up. "May I talk to you now, please?" he pressed.

She scowled at him. "This is not a good time, Mr. Hummel."

"It's important."

"I'm sure it is," she said.

He stepped in front of her and turned to face her. She raised her eyebrows in surprise and pulled up short. "Excuse me, please," she said and stepped to the side.

It was a childish impulse, he knew, but he stepped to block her. "Have I done something wrong, Professor? I know the song I chose wasn't—"

"Mr. Hummel," she said, with a firm urgency in her tone. "I said now is not a good—" She broke off and her eyes widened, but she wasn't looking at him.

He smelled it at the same time he felt it. The same awful stomach strangling stench of that night back in December burned in his sinuses just as a horrible voice clawed at his skull, inside and out. There were no words he could make out, but it melded uncomfortable frequencies, high and low, into an evil sounding gibberish that seemed to tear at the tissue of his brain.

Kurt clutched at his head and stared at Mme Tibideaux. Surely she must hear it too. Her attention was fixed over his shoulder, and she held one hand up with her fingers arranged in a sign he didn't recognize from his modest knowledge of ASL.

"What is that?" he gritted out.

Her attention flicked to him briefly, and she spoke calmly. "I need you to come with me, and don't turn around."

"What?" he asked, right as she grabbed his wrist in a firm hand. There was a hissing and crackling coming behind him, clearly audible and not limited to the inside of his head, and, against her advice (because Kurt was always a curious boy), he turned his head as she dragged him to follow her.

He shouldn't have. He pulled his hand from her grip and stared. It was hard to know what he was looking at. Fragments of paint and plaster crumbled from the corner of where the floor of the corridor intersected with a peaked archway. Tendrils of something dense and black—like thick smoke—curled away from the space like live worms, squirming and seeking. And then something began to emerge from the center of the black twisting shapes: it was pale, long, and angular; and it came with an overwhelming impression of hatred. Kurt caught a glimpse of eyes glowing blue, a flash of sharp teeth, and then Mme Tibideaux jerked painfully hard on his arm.

"Mr. Hummel!" she said, an edge of terror marring her voice. "We have to hurry."

It was if all of reality were breaking, the cracks starting at that one corner where some awful thing was crawling through. As if in slow motion, Kurt gave in to the impulse of her hold. Dreamlike, he turned his attention away from it and raced along after her as she moved swiftly for the high wooden doors of The Round Room. Behind them, it moved fast, too; he could feel it, a dreadful pressure in his mind like his brain were about to implode, a terrible psychic scream of hunger, fury, and death. His vision began to fade as the pain came over him; his legs weakened and his stomach rebelled.

And he remembered: protection. He slipped his free hand into his trouser pocket to find his great grandmother's locket. As his fingers curled around it, it quickly warmed in his hand. He jerked it free; the chain tangled around his fingers. The pendant blazed hot in his fist, searing against his palm, and Kurt let it swing free. The acrid odor of burning hair overpowered the horrendous smell of the other terrible thing.

Then, a flash of light, blinding bright like a camera flash, and a weird subsonic popping boom. Kurt lost his footing as a wave of invisible force collided with him, and then nothing.


Kurt and Carmen run from a frightening occurrence! Illustration by Riverance.

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