One thing Blaine will never tell Kurt is that he actually first meets Rachel Berry at Barnes and Noble when they both reach for the same motivational poster (SUCCESS: You are already a legend) after which they apologize using the same tactic from the Toastmasters' manual(forty-two, "Apologies: A Functional Approach") and part ways only to end up facing each other in the same section (Self-Improvement and Motivational Psychology, cross-referenced with New-Age Religions and Business Management Skills).
"I believe this is our cue to introduce ourselves," she says, briskly and breathlessly. She's got on a pale rabbit-print sweater that's shedding so profusely it makes her look a bit like a girl-shaped peach, but her hair is precisely Zooey Deschanel circa Five Hundred Days of Summer and she's showing just the right amount of teeth to straddle the boundary between "endearing" and "psychotic," so he offers a hand, sets phasers to stunning, and levels her his best hundred-watt smile.
"Blaine Anderson," he says. "Care to find out if we share the same taste in coffee?"
"Rachel Berry," she says, rebounding the smile right back, slightly insane but clearly calibrated to charm, and, not surprisingly, it works. "I'd love to."
Rachel Berry turns out to be a McKinley student ("You're that Rachel Berry?" "I'm not surprised you've heard of me, but I feel the need to remind you that there's only one") and absentmindedly arrogant in absolutely the best way possible. He likes her wretched clothing sense and laser-focus perceptiveness, which would probably earn her a place as her neighborhood Miss Congeniality if not for the fact that it seems to be coupled with a truly appalling lack of tact. He likes her correct, grandiose way of speaking and the fact that she wears Mary Janes, which he secretly finds sort of girls'-boarding-school chic although he knows they're objectively hideous. He likes the fact that when he takes out his pocketwatch she knows the make and model and tells him if she were male she'd own the corresponding pipe and snuff box, although she thinks tobacco is repulsive and unhygienic. He likes the fact that she knows what a snuff box is. But most of all he likes that he can see her carefully adjusting her social veneer the way he did after leaving his first school, clueless and shy and still raw all over but straining to polish himself into the quintessential Dalton gentleman. Within twenty minutes of conversation he's got an idea of the relationship between himself and Rachel Berry: they're both the sort of people who've probably highlighted the same passages in How to Win Friends and Influence People, the difference being that for him they've worked.
"My philosophy is simply that one should be the best at whatever one attempts," she says imperiously, eyeing Blaine's latte and shoving hers back across the counter for more caramel syrup to match it. "I believe nothing should be undertaken without rigorous planning and preparation."
"I couldn't agree more," says Blaine.
"I'm thrilled to see that Kurt's found a kindred spirit at Dalton," she continues. "And of course, your a-cappella group is superb, if somewhat derivative. We should all have dinner. And strike up an unlikely friendship, because first meetings like this are too fortituous to waste."
"Absolutely," Blaine agrees, because this is the kind of first meeting he spends weeks trying to engineer whenever he needs to artfully stumble upon someone, and clearly Kurt's Rachel Berry isn't as bad as he's been led to believe if she understands this phenomenon.
"I'll suggest it to Kurt," she chirps, then shakes his hand again with the kind of outdated courtesy he usually doesn't find on anyone save himself. "Blaine, correct? I'll remember. Among other things, I'm particularly good with names."
"Please don't adopt Rachel as your hag or something," says Kurt on the drive back from Breadsticks that week, sounding faintly shell-shocked and more than a little nauseated. Blaine blithely assumes that it must be the linguine with clam sauce Kurt had; shellfish is never a reliable option at restaurant chains. "I think I might throw myself off the terrace of Houghton Hall, and that would be a travesty because I think the admissions office is right below that and it might alarm prospectives."
"Hark who's talking—you seem to be pretty good friends," says Blaine. "She can name every CD in your collection. In alphabetical order."
"She's never been near my collection," says Kurt, switching on his indicator and smoothly cutting off a Volvo, probably on the grounds of its being a Volvo. One of the things it took Blaine a few weeks to wrap his head around is the fact that Kurt is far, far more elitist about cars than he is about labels, something that's gone a long way towards establishing him as kind of a minor god among freshmen at Dalton. "It's probably because she has the same CDs herself. In fact, I have this residual memory of being six years old and throwing a temper tantrum at Best Buy because the last copy of the Hairspray two-disc set had been reserved by someone named Berry, Theodore. Rachel is a public menace. She just has impeccable taste in music. And men."
"I beg your pardon?"
Kurt's smile slips lopsided in that way he has of blatantly giving away his emotions while pretending he's doing a skillful job of hiding them. The strange thing about that smile is that when it tips that way Blaine's world seems to tip with it, the car and the highway and the plane of the blue-black sky all slick as if he could slip off any moment, into what he doesn't know. Something unreal. Something unknown. He folds his hands in his lap and looks away.
"Never mind, that much is obvious," he says, backpedaling to turn the conversation and that smile right again. "She likes you, doesn't she?"
"That—that's still open to debate, but you! I'll never doubt the power of that Casanova smolder—" ("I don't have a Casanova smolder") "—again. What did you do, bond over your shared love for motivational assemblies and Hallmark slogans?"
"No," Blaine lies. "Anyway, I found her sort of...refreshing. I've never really had a, ah—a female friend before."
Blaine holds up his hands, blushing, and then blushing more because he blushed in the first place, which leads to further embarassment and catalyzes this whole unproductive cycle of arterial flooding. "Defying stereotypes," he quips. "Apparently I'm good with that."
There's a pause, and then Kurt bursts out laughing. Blaine listens to it, the confetti-bright pop and crackle of his laughter like a streamer tossed behind him, and then he hears his own voice joining in. Kurt is exactly the type of person Blaine was half-terrified and half-envious of in his own closeted days, fiercely bright and beautiful and so unabashedly open that even his vulnerability seems, somehow, like an act of bravery. It's still startling to him that someone like this wants to be around milquetoast Blaine Anderson who has to craft his every phrase before he says it, whose mind blanks when a situation doesn't pan out like its silver-screen counterpart.
This is what he doesn't say: that he likes Rachel in part for the brief quick flashes in which she chatters over him and still manages to get exactly what he's saying, like Kurt does himself—and the way the expression that glazes her face when she says words like New York and Great White Way is identical to the expression that Kurt has right now, lighting up as he realizes it's Celine Dion on the radio. He launches into a flawless descant over That's the Way it Is and then Blaine goes completely silent, because when Kurt sings that's what happens, and he can tell himself it's just because he's so talented he lights the air around him on fire and you just can't breathe, can't take it in.
"Excuse me," says Kurt, and he's looking over at Blaine archly, waggling his eyebrows. "Don't even try to play disdainful song connoisseur in front of me, I know you know the lyrics. Come on, when you want it the most—"
"Mm, fine—there's no easy way out—"
When he sings it's easy to believe that someone like him is meant to be sitting in the passenger seat to someone like Kurt, that they can fit together and have that flawless and fabulous friendship Kurt hoped—and deserves—to find at Dalton. Blaine macarenas exaggeratedly at the sideview mirror while Kurt howls with helpless laughter, still managing to sound better than Ms. Dion herself, and when they pull into the Dalton parking lot they're both breathless and red-faced. The cold on his cheeks feels like the sharp tang of applause. Kurt's face is blotchy and his nose is red and he looks like winter, the best of it, what you think the entire season's going to be when you're a kid; looking at him Blaine keeps seeing hot chocolate and fireside rugs and that spine-tinglingly glorious sensation of absolute warmth, even though his hands are shoved so deep into his pockets he's probably worn holes in the bottoms and the smile on his face feels like a smashed icicle. Kurt's eyelashes are heartbreakingly thin and defined in the light slanting from the sophomore boys' dormitories.
"Well," he says, still simmering with the hum of residual laughter in his throat, "goodnight. I had a lovely time, your friends are—"
"Lovely?" There's that smile again—the slip of it—but Kurt catches it as if it's something falling and all is smooth and alert on his face again. Blaine wonders if he imagined the crack.
"I was going to say 'entertaining,' but—"
"Goodnight, Blaine," Kurt says, and then he turns to walk back towards their dorm, twirling the tassel of his leather driving glove like an invitation or a dismissal; Blaine can't make out which.
After the Valentine incident Kurt and Blaine had talked, sort of. All he really remembers of the conversation is the word ready, which had appeared and disappeared at random times surfacing in Kurt's voice more often than not. The important thing was that they'd done it and afterwards they'd smiled at each other and bickered good-naturedly over Colin Firth: Wet Shirt Wet Dream or Absolute Skeeze and sung at Breadsticks like the perfectly matched pair that they were. the hypothetical feelings, whatever theyhappened to be, were like physical objects in the room—like something he could walk in and touch—but nothing that hurt. He'd been proud of them then, their maturity. What he chooses to ignore is that it hadn't been easy at first: laying their cards out, even to one another, was mildly uncomfortable and afterwards his skin had prickled for hours, staticky under replayed phrases. The only thing that kept it simple was that it was Kurt. Somehow they'd gotten to the place where words like friend and best friend and boyfriend and mentor all seemed overrwrought and silly in the face of the fact that it was just Kurt, and with that the unease had dissipated.
"The thing is," Kurt had said, setting out like a skater over the tense sheen of their silence, "I don't think we should have to decide if what we are is more important than what we could be, but I want you to know I—I'd wait for you to be ready."
It was I'd and not I'll because the latter was too much of a promise and after what had just happened it seemed like a mutual agreement not to make promises yet—promises meant anniversaries and next Valentine's Day blocked in and oh, god—but it was something. Ice shattered, unknown water expansive under his feet. Probably more than something, but Blaine had felt tender with embarassment after the entire Jeremiah incident and all he really felt like doing was drowning himself in the mall fountain; he couldn't tease out the nuance.
"I'd tell you. If I was—ready," he'd said.
And already Kurt was changing, no longer the glass figurine who had come to Dalton breakable and letting Blaine see right through him. He'd stood, a real smile smoothed in place like so much fine makeup, and wrapped his scarf in the flattering square knot he'd rhapsodized about seeing in Vogue only a week before. Watching him go then Blaine had thought that he, more than Kurt's friends in Lima, was the one who'd gotten to watch Kurt grow up.
In middle school Blaine was afflicted with unruly hair, tortoiseshell glasses, and a near-pathological shyness that made him terrified of the female presence. The hot-bubble quick-burn freight-train discovery of his sexuality did absolutely nothing to change this state of affairs. His own elder sister's constant presence should have insulated him; it appalled him instead, imagining the same polished girls he met in the linoleum hallways sprawled on couches in the privacy of their homes, consuming ice cream by the serving spoon and painting their toenails leaving open containers of nail polish scattered about. Filling the air with an acetone-scented tang. Later still there was the dry heat of straighteners, the burning smell, insubstantial black tights that ripped so easily and Blaine, would you run to the store for some Midol, I think my uterus just fell out?
In a fit of classic twelve-year-old behavior he'd reacted by coccooning himself in sexist and largely uninformed generalizations about the female of the species at large. By high school he'd realized that he was an idiot but the damage was done, and it became impossible to talk to girls unless he could either channel Cary Grant hard enough to earn a living as an impersonator or set conversations to music. In a way—and he would rather somersault across the Dalton campus than say this to another living soul—the first female friend he's ever had, in a manner of speaking, is Kurt, who is dazzling in part for the way he knows all about straighteners and nail polish and how to keep runs out of tights and still dips in and out of the so-called male world in ways that Blaine can't ignore.
"I find you very sweet and old-fashioned," is what Rachel has to say about all of this. She pets soothingly at his hand. "And I just want you to know that I'd be flattered to accept the role of your hag. Kurt always denied the poignancy of our connection."
"It's not exactly as if there's a formal arrangement," says Blaine, cringing inwardly. The hardest thing to get used to with Rachel is that she thinks of the same things he does, self-conscious embarassing things that he's always considering too but knows not to say out loud.
"My dads would like to invite you to speak at this PFLAG group they run," she says, already moving on, and he smiles and reflects that he seems to have a kind of pathology for hyperactive megalomaniacs who talk too much and understand so, so much more than they let on.
It's the sort of relationship that would be frightfully loaded if he were straight, the old-world veneer of it, pulling her chairs out before she sits down and opening doors for her and gesturing because he's always entertained by the way she sweeps in imperious and glamorous before him, a pygmy Marlene Dietrich in fuzzy sweaters and peacoats from the juniors' section. They earn approving looks when they're anywhere together and he senses, although she never says this, that this is something she needs at the moment more than he does.
They play at being adult like the consummate professionals they are, at seventeen; they order the correct drinks at bistros and page through books that earn them impressed glances. From time to time he gets the sense she's shoehorned him into a vague impression of silk and expensive mahogany and gold-and-crystal possibilities all hanging as collected and composed as a chandelier, probably because her own immediate future at McKinley seems devoid of any of these things. He doesn't begrudge her the luxury. He's never closeted himself in public and doesn't plan to start, but together he and Rachel are a tableau of the sort he's spent his years at Dalton trying to cultivate: the elegance of things people expect to see, the ease of blending in while appearing unique in the safest way possible.
One thing Blaine will never tell Kurt is that the day after Kurt's failed solo audition Blaine had been seventeen minutes late to calculus so that he could double back to the empty music room and stand there in front of the piano bench, filling his head with the sound of nothing at all. The morning sprinklers had just gone off and through the palladial windows a fine mist rose above the grass. Constellations of water all over the lawn. At that time Dalton had seemed like Camelot, a place of such heightened beauty that anything could happen, low-lying clouds catching on the cornice moldings of the chapel dome and the marzipan glow of the stained glass windows in the bell tower. Blaine had felt the cool crimson shadow of that glass on his cheek as reassuring as a hand cupped there. When he'd begun (it won't be easy—you'll think it strange—) the striations of light had seemed to melt into the late morning sunlight until everything was a lazy coalescence of gold.
As he closed his eyes the light had filigreed itself; red fractals behind his lids and the warm, supportive give of the velvet piano bench under his fingers. When he'd raised his own palms he'd felt for a moment as though he was holding the entire glorious morning in them.
And he knew—oh, how he knew!—it wasn't a song he particularly even liked, and his voice didn't do that well on the high notes, but ratcheting his shoulders back then he'd sung it anyway, reveling the paradox of the way that real showmanship could turn you inside out and make you the only person you wanted to perform for. He didn't move, didn't smile at strategic people in his audience, didn't dance, didn't ingratiate himself, just opened his mouth as though he were perforating himself down his spine nerves all sparkling with it, the pure wonder at what his voice could do.
Afterwards his entire body was covered in a light sheen of sweat. He'd leaned on the piano bench and thought about a soprano voice singing that song with effortless precision. The incredulous looks and lukewarm reception afterthoughts, and even then completely negligible in the face of the way that voice rose and rose, the full-bodied strength of it like silken ropes stretching across the music room. It was silent and somnolent now but he kept hearing whatever it was, the echo—the knowledge of the song, curled under the shelves and in the furniture smokelike the way cigars must have been smoked in that room long long ago, before there were students there.
The sound of feet pounding from the stairwell overhead had dissipated the aura in the room as if a light had flicked on somewhere. Boarding school was a morass of bodies. So many of them, the broad shouldered boys he would touch fists with when he left the room—walk with, smile at, sing for. Friends. Everyone he'd met at Dalton was unquestioningly his friend. It was the attitude of an English day school—Dalton men, the Dalton men—Blaine was a Dalton man. He'd wished then that Kurt could see the generosity of it: that anyone could become a Dalton man. That once you were one, it was for life.
By then he was twelve minutes late to calculus. He'd checked his hair in the mahogany-paneled trophy case. Dusted his lapels and jerked his tie to the right straightening it, a gesture like tightening a leash. By the time he stepped out into the hallway his smile was tuned to a warm, loving brightness; he was ready to find Kurt later, to treat him to panini at the sandwich station, and to tell him not to try so hard next time.
"Is that him?" Rachel demands, leaning over the railing. A glop of her smoothie falls two entire stories to splatter on the ground, and Blaine doesn't have the heart to see how bad the landing was or what unlucky pedestrian just received a complimentary Raspberry Dream facial. He steers her back from the edge.
"—not even proper plastic, it's practically cellophane," she's ranting. "Did you see that? It's going to start leaking all over my hands, and then I'll be sticky and revolting. I need another cup."
"Would you like me to get you one?"
She coos and pets his cheek, the way she always does when he does anything she considers charming. "No, thank you. I'll get one myself. You pick him out for me." (The nonverbalized deal is that he smiles at her when she says this, and then he pretends to ignore how she turns to Kurt and calls "Kurt! I require another smoothie cup!")
"This entire situation is suffused with so much masochism someone is going to start flagellating themselves any second," Kurt mutters, having successfully ignored her admonitions despite the fact that an entire corridor of post-holiday shoppers are now visually flaying him alive for having subjected them to the secondhand shrieking match. Rachel has stomped off, having announced to anyone within a fifty-foot radius that Kurt probably wouldn't be able to meet her discerning requirements for plastic drinkware anyway. "Honestly, my opinion of your judgment is so low at this point. We're talking subterranean levels here. Subterranean. When Rachel Berry tries to get involved with your love life, you just say no. You're not even supposed to think about it. It's like drugs. Unprotected sex."
"Mazda safety brakes?" Blaine queries, and Kurt laughs and says mmmm in this way that makes Blaine's stomach flip once, twice, maybe two and a half times because even he recognizes that once he gets to three he's a dead man.
"Kate Winslet, blonde."
"I actually liked her look in Revolutionary Road. I found the movie romantic."
"Um, it was suburban ennui in the coven of a dysfunctional, egomaniacal nineteen-fifties nutcase."
"Who happens to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Hence, automatically romantic."
"Fine. Sort of romantic. Only inasmuch as you get to live vicariously through Ms. Winslet and her brood."
"I can't believe you just said inasmuch."
"I can't believe it's an event in your life that someone says inasmuch. What would you do if I used hithertofore?"
"...probably laugh at you, actually. Hithertofore isn't quite as hot as inasmuch."
Flirting is the dangerous thing to do because Blaine's only ever played with it like children play with matches, taking his hand closer closer closer to the flame until it kisses his palm and then jerking it back terrified at the fact that the heat lingers, stays in your skin whether you want it or not. He's years behind on the mechanics of it—the natural adolescent sense of where to stop and where to push. Sometimes the knot of rage he's kept balled up about why this is gets cold and tight, but mostly it just makes him tired; he views it with sympathy as if it happened to someone else: his self twelve or thirteen years old brimming all over with what he'd thought then was an absolutely lionhearted ability to love, if only someone—anyone—would give him the chance.
And there's Kurt, leaning on the railing with an insouciance as carefully orchestrated as his elaborate outfits, and in the way he throws out his loaded witticisms never once faltering in his rhythm Blaine can tell that he knows too—that he's testing those boundaries himself, and that's why they both have reason to be afraid.
Rachel comes back. She has another smoothie, which she gives to him.
"It's not for you," she tells Kurt. "It will ruin your vocal cords."
"And it won't ruin Blaine's vocal cords?"
"Did you find him?" she asks Blaine, switching tracks so quickly she gives the entire conversation whiplash. She's putting the straw in his drink, situating a napkin in his shirt cuff; he realizes with the sudden adrenaline of longing that he misses his sister.
"He's at Express now—" ("Props for moving up in the world," says Kurt) "—I can see him puttering around by the dress pants, but we're not actually going to go down there. He'd probably take out a restraining order if he saw me."
"I just want to see," she says, and leans over the railing. Kurt snatches the smoothie out of her hand. Her eyes focus like a megawatt spotlight; he can nearly see the trajectory of her gaze as it lands somewhere in Jeremiah's hair. She's silent. Then she turns, hair fanning out behind her like an Elizabethan collar; the image works surprisingly well, Rachel's always seemed to him like either displaced or deluded royalty.
"Okay," she says brightly.
"That's it. Let's go to Things Remembered, Blaine. I'm upgrading my room, I think I need a more adult image and I saw something I need."
He knows what it is instantly. "Is it the bronze nameplate, by chance? Excellent choice. I recommend honey and oak paneling, so professional—"
She keeps up a constant stream of chatter like bubbles in soda, talking mostly to him, but when he excuses himself to replace a belt buckle at Brooks Brothers he sees her pause with Kurt immediately outside the store. Behind them a cart sells hats and feather boas; almost unconsciously both of them reach out to run fingers along the softness. They don't touch each other. Despite the fact that Blaine's heard Kurt describe Mercedes as his best friend multiple times, it's always seemed to him that Kurt and Rachel share a tacit businesslike acknowledgment more intimate than anything couched in hugs and loud discussions. They lean towards one another unconsciously, two halves of a bridge, and when Rachel reaches up to place a hand on Kurt's cheek the action has all the gravity of ritual. Both of them fist their fingers in the feather boas. Around them the press of shoppers ebbs and flows. The fact of so many bodies makes individual features indistinct. Although it's not the case, Blaine suddenly has the strange sensation that aside from the two of them, encased in pastels and neons as always, everyone in the mall is wearing grey.
One thing Blaine will never tell Kurt is that in a fit of insanity and the creeping two-AM loneliness that came so often on caffeinated all-nighters he tried to pick the Serenade Song. The Serenade Song despite the artificiality of its construction would be the song that transitioned them effortlessly into whatever they were meant to be next; he could sing it to Kurt and his smile would tip up up up balloons lifting off firecrackers blossoming in their stomachs and it would be easy, the distance between them ignited with a few chord changes.
He'd tried to find one. The desk lamp had flickered over his unfinished French sentence diagrams. A mug of tea he'd set on the windowsill to cool had gone the exact temperature and consistency of refrigerated milk and he could taste the distilled wind outside when he sipped anyway, sorting through his CD covers. The lists of songs offered up like medical records on his computer screen.
He'd searched for the sweeping romantics and found them but strangely, what kept coming to him again and again was a quotidian image: Kurt driving them back after yet another Breadsticks dinner, the interplay of headlights on his face spotlights in miniature. Unselfconscious tenderness at the corners of his mouth softening the skin there. The word epic could have been used then for nothing except the way the road stretched up and away around them like the wings of some huge unimaginable creature, the endlessness of a runway. It had seemed then that the potential and the journey were united in that instant: the sweep of concrete coiling in front of them for thousands and thousands of miles unseen. Kurt's hand, rough knuckles and smooth nails, resting on the wheel with a surety so devastating Blaine had felt certain, at that moment, that the ending of their story could come, it could come and go, and he would still be driven wherever there was left to go by the motion of that hand and its owner.
The conversation, as he knows it will, goes something like this:
"He's a lot older than you. I was expecting a negligible difference, but he's a lot older."
"I know that."
"How did you even know him? Do you know him?"
"I was buying khakis. He checked me out—not, no, not like that, I mean he was manning the counter."
"And you talked after that, of course?"
"I may have—asked him if the thirty percent off applied to—"
"Blaine! You couldn't possibly have thought it would work—you didn't, did you? Even with that Valentine's Day escapade. Kurt told me about that, you know. He told me he was horrified. You're not stupid. Why did you do it?"
"I'd rather not—I'm not comfortable talking about this with you."
"One could say we've been almost consciously avoiding this subject. But Kurt—"
"Please don't, Rachel."
"I think we should at least—"
"I'm trying to be polite about this."
"Oh, you're being polite. You're always polite, Blaine. I'm going to stand up and walk out right now, and you're going to come after me for no more than twenty feet, just to the edge of the parking lot, because that's the acceptable boundary line drawn by—by your old-world films and the acceptable friendship rituals of the esteemed Dalton Warblers. I dare you to prove me wrong. You won't, will you? I know that. You shouldn't have let me become friends with you, because Kurt and I have this in common: by the time we're done, I'm going to know things about you that you don't want to know about yourself."
One thing Blaine will never tell Kurt is that in the days after leaving his old high school his sister had put her little TV up in his room and they'd coccooned themselves in blankets with what she called the Carb-n'-Calorie Smorgasbord and watched their parents' entire collection of black-and-white movies. They had no real reason for choosing these movies except for the fact that they weren't allowed to touch their parents' collection otherwise, and at thirteen this seemed like an excellent reason for doing anything.
At Singing in the Rain he'd been stunned not by Gene Kelly's gymnastics both vocal and otherwise but the omnipresent, loving warmth that radiated from him whenever he was onscreen, the first time Blaine had been able to quantifiably match a face and a demeanor to the quality of charm. The hair, the voice, the grace. He would hear later that this was all a veneer of sorts, but lying there in the itchy blanket, still wincing when Valerie inadvertently brushed one of the bruises on his arms, Blaine had thought that it was less a veneer and more a mastery of a certain kind of art: the art of projecting yourself forward through the ugliness and misery around you, of taking others with you by convincing them so fiercely that everything was all right that at some point, it was.
The change occurs when he and Kurt are using the lounge kitchenette to bag lunches for the Warblers; they're singing at an alumni event and Wes doesn't feel like blowing budget money on Burger King. Later in the day, they've got a party at Santana Lopez's, so Kurt's making a few extra sandwiches to take along for the drive back. The simple logistics of planning (Blaine's driving to Lima later in the night; Kurt's going early; they'll meet at Santana's, here's her address, careful with the right turn going in) are cheerful and sort of optimistic, in a way. The same place to be. The same air to breathe.
Kurt's pressing onions into thick, cilantro-laced bread ("Do you have any idea how awful it's going to be to sing in a cloud of—" "That's why we take mints, and you won't think that when you taste this") and Blaine's just kind of standing there, unable to wing the concept of cooking for fear that something might catch fire or explode or end up with more garlic than it needs. Kurt, naturally, is the kind of person who hears make sandwiches and thinks ciabatta panini presses and Parisian-style finger melts, but on short notice he's made do with the best chicken salad sandwiches Blaine has ever tasted.
"You could sell these outside the dining hall," he says, dead serious. "You'd put our caterers out of business."
"I was actually thinking of starting a literal underground," Kurt returns. "In particular, those art studios under the auditorium? Creepy, but prime real estate for a bohemian sandwich entrepreneur. Stop eating that. I can see your fingers in the bowl, all right, that's completely—and go check on that lemonade, please, the raspberries should have colored it a nice mauve by this point."
"It's April. Why are we taking lemonade again?"
"Picnic aesthetic. Do you even have to question it?"
They grin at each other. He has to admit he doesn't, and he also has to admit despite the steel-grey outside the window it's pretty much a perfect morning; they're good at this, coordinating the way they hand utensils off to one another and nudge each other's shoulders when something or another is done. Kurt's smirking in the general direction of his chicken salad as if it's an actual third person in this room. There's a sweet, heady rush to the thought that Blaine knows him by now well enough to say with all certainty that this is just something he does, personifies his projects. Kurt shoves a bowl of grapes towards him to halve and picks up an avocado, saying something inane and yet strangely appropriate about composing a sandwich like a runway outfit with pops of color and a single ingredient that works as an accent piece. And if Blaine's ever needed to choreograph a movie moment, this is the time—but before he can conceptualize it it just happens. He drops the knife and jumps away from the grapes, finger bleeding.
"Oh, honestly—at least you saved the grapes, I suppose. Let me help you with that."
"Don't lick it. I don't think that actually works," Blaine blurts, like a huge idiot, and this is why he needs to plan these things out in advance, this is the reason he prepares mental scripts vetted and advised by motivational sources he trusts.
Kurt looks unimpressed. "I have never seen anything I want to lick less than your disgusting finger which is bleeding within feet of my glorious Waldorf chicken salad. I'm not going to lick it."
"Or...suck on it. Whatever."
"Blaine, if anyone walks past that kitchen door, do you have any idea how this conversation is going to sound? Shut up and let me get a band-aid."
And if asked, he could say later—that's when it happens, the precise moment of the change. Kurt's pressing the band-aid onto his finger and surrepititiously sneaking glances at the bread slices toasting in the oven, poking his tongue out slightly as he cleans Blaine's finger off taking supreme care not to get soap in the cut—and that's it. That's it. It's the focus of that brilliant, buoyant person trained so specifically on Blaine Anderson's finger that tips him over the edge. At that moment it's absolutely mandatory that he can inspire that look for the rest of his life, the narrowing of the world and the widening of every boundary he's imposed upon himself, everything, the grey April morning suddenly silver and luminescent. Kurt's eyes, lit from underneath, a window through which he can see the way that the sky, in the coming months, will turn a perfect, peerless blue.
"Is that—" Kurt asks, not looking at him, and Blaine will never know what the end of that sentence is. He wishes he could say there was gentleness or even premeditation but in fact all there is is turning his hand so he's holding Kurt's palm where Kurt held his, bending his head and laying a kiss that's almost a bite into the exposed wrist. And more, the doll-like joint where Kurt's forearm becomes his hand, the slender web between his fingers, the silken translucency. He fits his mouth to Kurt's knuckles and gasps as Kurt pulls his hand back, quick as if he's been burned, then drives his hands forward to Blaine's collar. They slam against the kitchen cabinet and Blaine's vision goes white for a second as he knocks his head against the wood. And then—and then—
—logistics, always; fingers snagging and shaking on shirt buttons (he'll remember, forever, the exact shape and weight of the mother-of-pearl buttons Kurt wears) Kurt's questing mouth making up for technique with the kind of coltish enthusiasm that literally only comes once. The ridges of his skull under the hairspray, which seem jarringly intimate, the freedom, weighty and delicious, to put his hands in Kurt's flawless flawless hair and muss it beyond all recognition; he doesn't know whether to keep his eyes open or closed and eventually wrenches them open to draw back and just—look—at—him—
Kurt shunts aside the blazer so easily it's almost criminal and then begins to run his hands all over Blaine's chest until it feels like the thin linen shirt has no bearing at all on anything, no business existing, impeding the sensation of those tiny hands and the poker-hot crescents of his nails. Kurt's hands are everywhere, restlessly manically exploring, years of pent-up desires and longings and at the thought Blaine's own hands slide to Kurt's hips, pull him in. He's making marks all down the column of Kurt's neck, not using his teeth at all, his tongue wet and sliding, and then Kurt makes a terrified, delighted whimper as their hips brush and push together—
—and Blaine puts his hands flat on Kurt's chest and draws back, eyes wide. Kurt's lips are open and glimmering and his pupils are huge and Blaine can't hear anything over the scream in his head going SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT. But in his entire seventeen years of living the thing he's always been best at is the art of the superlative facade, so he smiles. Elegant, debonair, the boy Kurt fell for at that first performance. He tilts Kurt's chin up, smudges a bit of wetness away with his thumb. And Kurt doesn't seem to notice anything's wrong—he's probably happy, god knows Blaine was so happy he forgot to breathe and that's why he's breathing so heavily now and he just made out with his best friend, oh god, oh god, oh god.
Kurt pulls back, his hand on Blaine's cheek. When he speaks it breaks Blaine's heart a little, the peace of it, and whatever ocean's just been let loose inside him roaring so loudly he can only see Kurt's lips move, no sound.
"I know you like to do things a certain way," Kurt's murmuring. "So let's not talk about this just yet—I—I'm sending David up to help you get things together here, and we'll talk at the party tonight, okay?"
Coy, flirtatious. Something he's probably been waiting all his life to do, make a casual date to rendezvous at a party with someone who wants to see him. The opportunity—and how much Blaine wants to give him that opportunity—to introduce him anew to everyone as—
He presses a kiss to Blaine's mouth like a signature—the promise made, finally, and instead of swelling violins in his ribcage Blaine hears the window rattling in a gust of wind, the thwack! of racquets from the outdoor courts. Suddenly he realizes there will never be music and fireworks; they're just teenagers, this is all there is. They're standing in a dirty kitchenette, slices of avocado wilting on the cutting board behind them. His knife is still on the floor. And rightnow it seems like he could never want to be anywhere other than here, but the pressure of what's going to happen next keeps compressing his lungs until he's gasping with it. The silvery specter of the relationship Kurt's got sketched out in his mind can be destroyed so easily—the wrong look at the wrong time, maybe, a disagreement, a fuck-up on the level of the Valentine thing, and the thing is, it's easy to believe that if Kurt turns that haughty, enraged look on him that says I'm so disappointed in you something inside him might actually die, not a melodramatic death but a slow and wounded expiry. He can't—he can't. The essential principle of staying in control is never to put yourself in a situation with too many possibilities, and he's just betrayed that principle; all he can see is the endless, endless ways whatever they've got can go wrong from here on out.
And before he can say any of this Kurt's sighing, combing a hand careless through his hair (he's never seemed quite as artlessly boyish as he does just now) and looking beautiful, beautiful, beautiful in anticipation of tonight. Blaine hears his footsteps on the stairs, a thumpa-thump punctuated by intakes of breath. It's only after he's been frozen there for a few moments that he realizes it's the sound of his own heartbeat.
The party is ostensibly a celebration of the Cheerios' victory at their Regionals, which even Blaine knows is complete nonsense given that the Cheerios win Regionals every year and it's just beyond obsolete at this point. He'd heard of Lima's Cheerios when he was still living in California, even though he privately finds cheerleading distasteful and a relic of a bygone era when women would parade before knight-errants as so-called rewards for their triumphs on the field. He rarely mentions this theory to actual cheerleaders, less out of fear of retribution than the nagging, somewhat elitist sense that they wouldn't necessarily know the phrase knight-errant.
"Knight-errant," says Quinn Fabray, gaze strobe-lighting the room briefly in an expansive flash before narrowing to a thin laserlike point, dissecting him collarbones to cuticles, and mellowing to a dim glare. "A knight on hiatus from his regular course of service, traveling the country in pursuit of some specific quest rather than participating in the normal medieval regimen of ad-hoc social policing."
"They did groceries and dry-cleaning for kings," adds Brittany. "Also bought queens Tampax."
"Are we talking about that King Arthur movie where Keira Knightley played, like, catwoman or something? I stopped watching when I found out she didn't hook up with Lancelot, because first of all, Lancelot? Was a sex god. And second of all, I've totally read Malory, and Dark Ages adultery? Is hot, plus historically authentic," is Santana's contribution.
Most of Blaine's cognitive functions shut down out of self-preservation the moment he walked through the door, but he tells himself bracing bouts of terror are good for the constitution and plows on with the correct responses, which are of course, "I bet you were a natural at AP Euro" and "Definitely dry-cleaning, all those tapestries?" and "I don't know about Keira Knightley, but who wouldn't turn a little adulterous for Ioan Griffudd?"
The art of being charming, he thinks, is to know your audience and to apply that knowledge like liquid makeup, dabbing compliments here and there to encase the flaws until the other person feels smoother and lovelier than they were when you started the conversation. He loves the fact of exchanging that peculiar warmth with someone in perfect reciprocity. This was what had seduced him in old films: the effortless charm of the men and the obvious pleasure they took in others' happiness. He's seen it interpreted many different ways since then but for him it remains the crux of congeniality. Years of middle-school reticence have given him an edge over his peers; he knows how to observe these girls—dressed up for today like jewel-bright birds, plumed, studded camisoles and flashing earrings—like no one else in the room can. He's able to see that Quinn Fabray moves close to her nondescript blond boyfriend the way a housewife stays close to her purse, keeping a tired eye on the fashionable accessory weighing her down. He can map Santana's lazy orbit across the room. The way her feet and eyes don't stop moving, giving the trajectory an appearance of purpose even though it keeps circling back to the spaces traditionally occupied by the lost partygoers: doorjambs, the bathroom, the thankless kitchen sink rinsing out a shot glass. Despite their moniker the cheerleaders are an oddly cheerless group and he moves on quickly enough, to where Rachel is waiting for him with one of the eponymous red cups.
"Apple juice," she says in a low voice. "I have enough Juicy Juice in my purse to supply an elementary-school classroom."
"I beg your pardon?"
"There are some places where a lack of inhibition is advisable, within ten feet of Santana Lopez is not one of them," she dismisses, and makes a bottoms-up gesture. "Kurt's not here yet. I think he's coming with Mercedes. The rest of the Warblers didn't want to join you?"
He ignores the fact that she just said the word Kurt, which has been inducing a sick gluey feeling in his stomach all day whenever he hears anything that sounds even vaguely like it, such as car or hurt. "They were kind of bushed after our performance today. Even the prospect of ah, cheerleaders wasn't quite enough to force Wes' hand."
"I see. Drink your juice."
He drinks obediently, eyes working the room. Rachel's searchlight gaze is as noteworthy for what it pointedly doesn't see as what it does, so it's easy for him to make out Finn Hudson in the wide crush of bodies she keeps avoiding. He knows, objectively speaking, that she's one of the most viciously manipulative women he'll ever have the pleasure of meeting in his life, but there's a tangible sense of betrayal to that gaze that screams high school. She does a downturned face like nobody's business. A true star of the silent movies, conveying her pain the only way she can. He sets his cup down.
"I didn't peg you for a wallflower," he says, gently. "Come on. May I have this dance?"
"I'm not pining or anything similarly crass," she retorts.
"I didn't say anything."
"I don't dance at these parties. Hands tend to wander, and my rape whistle is not immediately accessible from the dance floor."
"It's kind of painful to watch all those philistines while the real talent sits in a corner."
That does it, as he knew it would. He takes her hands and glides her around the perimeter of the room; they're just meandering, sidling fish in a slipstream. Aside from Santana's coiffed, manicured elder sister and her coiffed, manicured fiance they're the only people doing anything that could really be called dancing. There seems to be a lot of gyrating going on. The heat and the sweat and the unsolicited groping is something Blaine neither likes nor is used to and after today it makes him think of things he absolutely does not want to think about, so he tightens his grip on Rachel's hand and dips her on autopilot. Some girls who don't know either of them go awwwww.
"Where did you learn to dance?" she's asking, humming along to the music. He can feel the vibration at his collarbone more than he can hear it. Even in his state of general misery he's able to appreciate her sterling sense of pitch.
"My sister thought it would come in useful. After I came out she wondered if she should teach me to do it backward, too, just in case."
"Of course. The question is, do you know how to lead?"
"That," Rachel says frostily, "is a question you should know better than to ask."
Predictably, she's better at leading than she is at following. They adjust for tempo ("There are only two Ludacris songs which are actually performed in three-four time, and this is not one of them") and perform several textbook twirls around the room. She's light and easy to spin and dancing with her is safely reassuring, like dancing with Valerie when he was ten and she was fourteen and she kept saying things like, "People think the problem is stepping on your partner's foot, but there's so much more that can go wrong, so kiddo, if her necklace gets caught in your tie, here's what you—"
It's like a floodgate left open and it's inevitable, she's quick and chattery and monstrously talented on her feet: she makes him wonder if Kurt would lead or follow, and if, during some point in the dancing, Blaine could slip his fingers and his tongue into the secret pockets of him exposed in plain sight but still that only he knows are quite that sweet, collarbones, jawline. The familiarity of it. He doesn't realize he's digging himself deeper into a truly maudlin pile of shit until he faintly registers that Rachel's got her arms wrapped all the way around him, stroking his back. She looks for all the world like a paragon of reassurance and comfort, but in actuality she's just being her maladjusted self.
"This is mortifying," she mutters, standing on tiptoe to fill his ear with a faintly malevolent buzz. "You look like you're about to die. Get your juice. Pick up my purse. Follow me to that couch over there. Behind the trail of discarded clothi—are those Noah's boxers—oh, honestly, never mind. The couch near the back wall. You're going to tell me what's wrong."
"And then you plan to do what, exactly?" says Blaine, feeling like a five-year-old, but really, it's not so bad, because he just kind of wants someone to put her hand on his burning-up forehead and tell him he's been a trooper and it'll all be okay, they'll watch Roman Holiday in the morning and he'll fantasize about Vespas and scarves fluttering behind him as he rides to somewhere beautiful.
"And then I plan to fix everything," says Rachel, in basically the vocal equivalent of a Panser tank.
He grabs his cup and takes a huge swill of the apple juice only to realize that it's been refilled.
"I'm sorry, but this isn't apple juice," he says to a passing Santana, who stares at him as if he's just suggested it's actually snail lymph.
"Why the ever-loving fuck would it be apple juice, Holden Caufield?" she hisses at him, and it takes him a second to register that when Santana Lopez gets drunk she apparently makes nonsensical literary references, and, okay, it's weird, but Kurt will be glad for the blackmail material and Kurt, oh god. That SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT feeling starts up in his head again. Blaine wonders if it's because the music is so loud or what, exactly, and in some lame move intended to counteract this he throws his head back and downs the entire huge cup of not-apple-juice. The general ill-advisedness of the entire idea now seems like some abstract disaster warning on the news. He's going to lose his mind and possibly lunch. What did he have for lunch? Those sandwiches—
"I need apple juice," he declares, shoving his cup in someone's face near the so-called bar area. The part of his brain that hasn't been cauterized by his entire situation recoils in disgust; bars aren't exactly apexes of glamour but he likes the associations. Honey-colored liquid in square-cut Wedgewood crystal. Silver flasks embossed with lines of haunting poetry and people saying witty, uninhibited things worthy of retelling years later, with lost looks in one's eyes—he has no memory of ever seeing a bar like this, but he likes to think they exist. There's nothing even vaguely similar about this. The drink station is a bewildering metropolis of bottles and two huge water coolers and a grimy tray of ice with a girl's fake eyelashes floating in it. He rattles his cup and a guy waves him over.
"Hey—hey, Blaine! Remember me?"
Finn Hudson, for some reason Blaine can't put his finger on, seems marinated in an aura of subtle douchebaggery. He's not sure but he's willing to bet this has something to do with the two scantily-dressed Cheerios perched on either side of his lap like chess towers on a board. "Hello, Finn," says Blaine. "Ah—ladies. Can I offer you something to drink?"
"Dude, you don't have anything to drink," says Finn, giving him an odd look.
"But I have manners," Blaine retorts blearily; this seems mind-bogglingly clever for whatever reason. The Cheerios, at least, seem to find it hilarious, which probably establishes it as Sartre-level wit. Finn just rolls his eyes and gently prises the cup from Blaine's hand; he seems to be holding it hard enough to crack the plastic.
"Heard you going on about apple juice. Doesn't look like we've got any here, but I could get you a screwdriver? Hang on—"
"I have...something," Blaine says when he finally gets to Rachel, who's saved his seat on the couch next to her by draping a Twister mat over it. This too seems like comedy gold, so he laughs for several hours or minutes or something before asking,"Do you know why it's called a screwdriver?"
She looks scandalized. "Tell me you didn't take that from someone. Some football players are here and might have found it amusing to—"
"FINN MADE IT FOR ME, IT HAS ORANGE JUICE IN IT," Blaine says, somewhat louder than he intended, and various people in various states of undress turn to stare at him. He raises his cup to them and then swivels around to scrutinize Rachel. This close he can see all kinds of things about her, but all he can really pay attention to is the faint fuzz at her upper lip and the thickness of her wrists. He doesn't understand how anyone could find her attractive when she is basically just one giant wrist.
"I'm sorry you feel that way, but I assure you there are parts of my anatomy, such as my brain, that others find more interesting than my wrists," she says, somewhat snippily, and he realizes he's been saying this out loud and pawing miserably at her wrists as he does so. "Do you want to tell me what happened? You're being, quite frankly, embarassing."
He doesn't, so he leans his head on her shoulder and thinks wretchedly that if Cary Grant were to see him now he'd be appalled, and then he wonders if Cary Grant ever had this mind-blowing heart-pounding makeout session with his best friend and realized he was going to blow the entire thing at some point, was going to do something to make his look of unadulterated joy turn cynical and bitter again and— "Oh, Blaine. That's what you're being like this about? What did Kurt do? Are you going to sing to him when he walks in? Because Mercedes just texted me, they're on their way and I think Some Enchanted Evening would be so appropriate for this situation—"
She's singing it already, her bellows of a voice thinned to a sweet, tinny soprano that legitimately brings tears to his eyes, because the evening isn't enchanted at all, the dirty ice, Santana's eyes narrowed to slits watching them as she grinds against some meathead—and Kurt, the possibility of Kurt's hands and that delighted terrified noise for even a few moments before Blaine does the inevitable idiotic thing, five years down the line or fifty, that will break his heart.
And then suddenly it's like an egg cracking over his forehead—the way to make the clean break before things get out of hand. He closes his eyes and navigates via sense memory: Rachel's heady soprano, her mouth, the smallness of her.
Everything moves slower under the alcohol but it lasts less than a second; her lips feel anatomical and meatlike under his. By the time he's realized what he's done she's pushing him away gently, her hand on his forehead maternal and her eyes so, so disappointed like Hepburn's or Kelly's would be, he's sure. It was so fast. She's muttering away something about complexes and fear of the unknown and stroking his hair; she's not doing it for comfort, she's trying to help him look composed and the thought just sends his stomach plummeting further. How well she understands him, in her strange clueless way. It was so fast. Mercedes in the doorway with hands over her mouth, light flashing refracted from her keychain. Santana talking to the boy next to her too quietly to hear. Finn hovering anxiously from the other side.
He doesn't recognize the boy, a tall pale boy in a Dalton blazer, because that look—really, he's never seen that look directed at him before. Huge, huge eyes blue enough to inspire reams of poetry, the pink rims at the edges of open mouth and hand fisted in his shirt (ten mother-of-pearl-buttons) as if trying to keep something in his chest from falling to pieces. Blaine thinks: what a wonderful boy, so open. Clear-hearted.
It's too much. Before passing out he considers fleetingly that he'd like to meet that boy, offer him one of Rachel's apple juices. Ask him not to look so sad.
One of the things Blaine will never tell Kurt is that leaving his old high school he'd stopped at his locker on the way out and twisted the dial. All of his things in a satchel at his side: an art project smearing graphite all over everything else, a math notebook with a sticker from his teacher on it, a sheaf of notebook paper where two or three students had signed Good Luck Blaine and We'll Miss You. There were windows above the lockers and the tired light, filtered with dust motes, had made exact parallelograms on the floor at his feet. He'd twisted the dial, entering the combination to his old life—thirty-one fifteen twenty-seven—and the lock had jammed, the dial spinning impersonally telling him he had the wrong numbers. Now he knows that someone—a janitor? A vice principal?-must have reset it, but at the time he remembers standing there with his things next to him like a hitchhiker, pushing ineffectually at the locker door and trying to make the combination work again. Disbelief and a bewildered hurt, even then, that although he was the one who'd left that world had continued to spin like a carousel ride, closed up behind him so smoothly it was as if he'd never existed at all.
"This is Rachel Berry speaking. Blaine, it's been a week, and I'd like you to pick up your phone so that we can discuss this like mature adults we are, probably the only two in our immediate social network. I've spoken to Kurt, and although he's understandably upset he bears me no grudge and came over yesterday to perform alterations on my prom dress. For my part, I'd like to inform you that I consider you a valuable acquaintance and am not expecting to lose you to a drunken escapade for several years yet. Call me. Immediately."
He manages to avoid both of them for another week before she finally gets him with "This is Rachel Berry speaking. Cary Grant wouldn't allow himself to kiss a young lady without her consent and hide from the repercussions. Call me."
"He drove you back; you really don't remember?"
"I was inebriated. I woke up in my own bed the next morning, and my roommate was sitting in my desk chair reading Proust and drinking my Tazo tea. I thought I was in the hospital. Then I remembered what had happened and I wished I were."
"You're a Spencer Tracy type, melodrama doesn't suit you at all," she chides. Then, as an apology of sorts she snatches his latte, stalks up to the counter, and psychologically intimidates the barista into refilling the cup. Watching her sprinkle extra cinnamon on it he allows himself to confront the depressing and exceedingly pathetic truth that until Kurt he never really had friends who did things like this, chased him down until he left the house and indulged his unhealthy penchant for extra cinnamon in drinks. Kurt's friends have a lot of failings, and in an effort to clamp down the unbelievable jealousy he'd felt when Kurt first came to Dalton he'd listed all those failings in an actual Excel spreadsheet—but he's never met anyone quite like them, the way they stomp through other people's lives upending carefully constructed edifices and leaving everyone's hair a mess afterward. It's alarming and occasionally offends his sense of personal boundaries, but luckily, that's not a sense he's ever had much of anyway.
Rachel pets his hand while he drinks. "There's one thing I don't understand, which is really quite remarkable considering this situation is just a coalescence of every type of stupidity imaginable—"
"—maybe not every type—"
She holds up a hand and counts off. "Poor communication. Insecurity. Self-loathing. Unrealistic expectations. Infidelity. Residual—"
He winces. "All right, all right, I'll concede your point. You were saying there was something you didn't understand?"
"That night—" he winces again "—you kept saying something about fucking it up. And I remember this clearly because you said fuck it up at least eleven times and in the time I've known you, I've never heard you use profanity. Dale Carnegie says profanity is the last resort of the simple-minded."
"Actually, I believe you're misattributing that; it's violence is the last resort of the simple-minded, and it wasn't Dale Carnegie—"
"It sounds like something Dale Carnegie would have said. You're not going to argue with that." (He isn't.) "What isn't computing in this situation is the fact that you're so adamant you will...botch it in some fashion. Although I myself have never been afflicted by the condition, I do understand insecurity, but this is openly neurotic."
He thinks uncharitably that coming from Rachel—and then he feels terrible, because this isn't really even related to Rachel; all she did was be in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Rachel—"
She interrupts him to tell him she's listening, which is just the sort of bizarre thing she finds socially acceptable. The thought is weirdly reassuring; she either is or acts so clueless at times that she makes his own cluelessness seem negligible by contrast. There are things about her that resonate so painfully with him he pointedly ignores them most of the time: the inadvertent condescension with the best of intentions, the occasional need to be liked so achingly it drives her to do incredibly stupid things. Her own loneliness is a thing evident at all times like a banner hung somewhere in his peripheral vision. It makes him braver, for whatever reason. Here is someone he can warm with his presence, like Gene Kelly and Cary Grant and the rest of them. It's an old song by this point, well-rehearsed.
"I—I spend an hour on my hair every morning," he says, not quite sure where he's going, but knowing he's going there. "It takes a long time to get the curls out; I never go swimming. Before buying Kurt coffee I stood behind this ornamental pillar and said it at least six times, coffee? Want to get coffee? Can I buy you a coffee? Can I get you something to drink? I practiced, Rachel, and when Wes and David and I walked up to him I know he noticed me first, but they were the ones with the edge, because they didn't need to think about it. I did. I—I wanted to laugh when Kurt made this stupid, stupid joke in front of the Warblers, and I clamped my mouth shut and smiled, which at this point is a reflex I've got down better than actual laughter. There are drafts and drafts of texts saved on my phone before I actually managed to send courage. And right now, Kurt doesn't need to know any of those things because we're friends, but if we start—waking up together, or whatever, there's no way I can keep it up. No way."
He notices she's taken to stirring his whipped cream until it melts. He reaches out and grabs her wrist, holds on ostensibly to make her stop; in reality he wants her to anchor him in place.
"It's not a question of will I mess up, Rachel, the question is how. What happened with Jeremiah, and—the Karofsky situation—you can forgive your friends almost anything, but your—" he can't even say it "—boyfriend is a different story, you know that. Kurt told me what happened with you. You kept your friends after the incident with Noah Puckerman, but you didn't keep Finn. To do something like that to Kurt right now would be..."
He trails off. She's staring at him with an odd expression.
"When you're in love," she says, very slowly as if talking to a particularly confused student, "that's the only thing that doesn't come with powerpoints, or motivational manuals, or—or flowcharts. I should know. If there were any, I would have found them. There's no rule except that you will mess up. You have to."
"I can't allow that to happen. This is too important."
"So your solution was to kiss me and make him hate you preemptively?"
When she puts it like that, it— "It wasn't a conscious decision. I was drunk."
She sighs. "You shouldn't be saying that for a few years yet," she scolds almost absentmindedly, and then to his relief she turns her hand palm up and clasps his hand briefly, squeezing. Something occurs to him, something so basic, so—
"Rachel? I'm...sorry for doing that."
Really, it's an example of exactly what he was saying that it didn't occur to him to say this immediately after the incident actually occurred. She smiles as if she understands this. He remembers Kurt saying something in passing about how the most continually baffling thing about Rachel is that she consistently manages to see the whole without ever comprehending a single one of the parts.
"Although I understand this is the inappropriate thing to say in this situation, if you were anyone else, it might have gone rather differently. I'm not averse to drunken debauchery. Anyway, since our lives seem to follow the trajectory of John Hughes movies, I considered it inevitable at some point, although admittedly without the dimension of added sexuality crises. "
"What do you mean."
She sighs. "I'm the sort-of-friend-slash-mortal-enemy-slash-
He doesn't answer this.
His tie straightened, she whisks a lock of hair into place and smiles at him, sweetly psychotic. "I'm willing to bestow my forgiveness on one condition."
"What can I do for you?"
He guesses she's going to say something about Kurt and the refusal bubbles up in his throat preemptively; he's got too much growing up to do before he can make that right and at the moment he doesn't know how to do it, only that it needs to be done, something as unavoidable as the task lists he makes and color-codes during the school year. Tacked up on his corkboard constant reminders of how to go through the day, like navigating an obstacle course.
What she actually says is nothing he expects. "McKinley's junior prom is immediately before Regionals. Although ordinarily I would be in high demand for such an occasion, I will not be able to procure a date to the festivities this year due to...circumstances beyond my control. As friends, if you would consider—"
"It would be my pleasure to escort you," he says on autopilot, and the strange thing is, he means it.
She preens. "Of course it would."
It's easy for Kurt to avoid him, which is unsurprising given Kurt's uncanny ability to time his after-curfew trips to the vending machine so they would maybe coincide with Blaine's trips to the communal bathroom; avoiding someone is really just a mirror-image of seeking them out, so Kurt, understandably, is infuriatingly brilliant at this. Around this time Blaine takes to acting like a freshman and skulking miserably around school grounds breathing into his scarf and trying very hard not to kick at clods of dirt (he fails, mostly).
E-mails and letters are composed and discarded, none of them possessing the right words for what exactly he wants to say. He goes through an entire pad of embossed stationery paper writing notes that succeed in conveying absolutely nothing at all and nearly descends into emotional armageddon when Some Enchanted Evening plays during a commercial one afternoon, at which point he decides his life is so wretched it's bypassed the realm of wretchedness and looped back into relative normalcy.
By the third week of this behavior, Blaine has realized with a sort of eerie, detached certainty that Kurt doesn't plan on giving him the explanatory chance; if this resembles a black-and-white film at all it's Sabrina with the other man shouting her name in the background while she sweeps away, the glint of her chignon so threatening—the helmetlike sheen and complete composure of it.
After this realization the corridors of Dalton, seem, somehow, to change. The halls grow wider and the distances from class to class insurmountable. Blaine learns by sight the detailing of the long carpets with their revisited fleur-de-lis pattern. There are days when he stops in the middle of one hallway unable to understand what he's doing or which way he's going, propulsive motion stopped short. The hiss of radiators and the cool cool glow of windows somehow making Dalton into a gilded aquarium, and people!—so many of them, the endless inescapable press of them as boys shunt sideways glances at the wall clocks signaling three minutes to class. Shouts when the clock tower on the south quad chimes and all at once there's a sense of water flooding out of a compressed space as blue jackets dart into classrooms and flit around corners, carrying their owners like life vests. The water level recedes, but Blaine is still holding his breath.
There's a day—more than one, but there's a day—when he sees Kurt holding court over a gaggle of freshman admirers telling, from the looks of it, his famous story of the day he gave a jump-start to someone who was I swear, a dead ringer for Lindsay Lohan, I mean, if she wasn't, I still get to take credit for the touching discovery of her identical twin; he can supply all of this although he's too far away to hear it. Backlit by the panorama of the dining hall behind him he's a young god, something remote and yet down-to-earth in his excitement, the energy of him. The swirl of fingers, blue eyes that seem to draw their color from every object in the room and the tap-tap-tap of knuckles on his lunch tray to mimic the sound of the sputtering engine. Blaine can tell this story in his sleep with Kurt's inflections and emphases for laughter and the same widening of eyes; he's got stories like this himself he's rehearsed endless times, drawing on Toastmaster tips on when to make eye contact (just a little too long) and when to tell the room isn't responding right (drifters at the edges of the group) but the difference, he knows, is that every time Kurt tells his story, it's unrehearsed.
The heaviness of the weeks without him gains weight, shape. He can feel the chasm between them filling with crumbling architectures, dust on his lips the exact scent and taste of longing; he misses two people, he knows: Kurt, and, as strongly, the reflection of what he himself was beginning to become.
Blaine has been steadfastly ignoring the entire idea of Regionals until Wes strolls into the communal bathroom one day, shower caddy in hand, and greets him with, "Good morning, my avian compatriot;" for reasons undoubtedly sinister beyond comprehension he seems to find Privileged Porcelain Bird-Gate some kind of charming Warblers inside joke. They shave for a few minutes in companionable silence or as close to it as anyone ever gets with Wes, and then Wes goes, "We're considering Owl City for Regionals" like normal people have nothing else to talk about but this.
"Fireflies, I take it?"
"It's a treacly chart-topper, eminently suited to both a-cappella and your voice, and subtly irritating, which means it'll stay entrenched in collective audience memory for days upon end."
"That sounds brilliant," says Blaine without having to think about it, loyally nodding along. Wes takes out a hand mirror and begins checking his shave, which is outrageously frivolous given the huge bank of mirrors two feet away from him, but Blaine doesn't blink at this. His tolerance for pompous-yet-goldhearted individuals is legendary at this point, and he actually finds Wes—in his own words—sort of endearing.
"We'd like to give Kurt a descant," Wes continues, and Blaine nearly slashes his cheek open. To his credit Wes pretends he doesn't notice this, or perhaps he genuinely doesn't. His grasp on general empathy has always been tenuous at best; he has a poster of General Custer in his room and apparently once ousted a baritenor for "failing to comport himself with the dignity of his office," a phrase which, alarmingly, actually appears in the Warblers' handbook (admittedly, penned in handwriting that looks an awful lot like Wes').
"Lesser countertenors have shone in our midst!" booms Wes. "Mr. Hummel has distinguished himself, and you, sir, have our gratitude for recruiting such precocious talent."
"Well, I didn't exactly recruit—"
"Don't be modest, old chum!" Wes does not use phrases like this ironically. "You seem to be a magnet for musical talent. The New Directions coloratura—"
Blaine stares at him. "Rachel?"
"Rachel. I admire her take-no-prisoners attitude towards show choir. She embodies Warbler ideals. Perhaps you might broach the idea of a collaborative performance at some point after Regionals."
"What about the...Spirit of St. Louis?"
Wes scoffs and wraps his brush in a Dalton-crested felt pouch before tucking it away into his shower caddy. Blaine has always admired his shaving kit, a beautiful vintage silver set burnished to a subtle glow. One of the reasons he's able to vouch for Wes' attested gold heart is that as a sophomore Wes had caught him eyeing the shaving kit, and instead of launching the kamikaze That Dude Was Checking Me Out campaign Blaine expected had procured and custom-engraved a similar set for Blaine at the Warblers' Christmas exchange, with a note that said Grooming is the essence of a Dalton man! Fond Regards From Your Colleague, Wes Blake. There's always been a carefully maintained distance in Dalton interactions that prevents them from becoming messy and claustrophobic as with the McKinley group, but for years Blaine had coasted on those fond regards, the benevolent spotlight of fraternal approval so warm after middle school and the locker dial that no longer let him in.
"Perhaps we've been revising the Warbler constitution—but you didn't hear it from me, the amendment process still requires signatures from at least two-thirds of the alumni," says Wes, clapping Blaine on the shoulder as he goes past. "And if I may be so bold—we've noticed your performance has been sub-par lately, and as a representative of the Council I would like to extend my best wishes for a speedy recovery."
He digs something out of his shower caddy, which should be so incredibly creepy but in fact is just sort of tiredly reassuring, familial in the way that boarding school makes so much familial. Wes hands the little package to Blaine and smiles.
"Until practice, then." He slides open the screen to the shower stalls.
Blaine opens the package. He reads the note. Then suddenly his throat aches for no reason he can understand although so many things seem to slot into place, one after another; Kurt's gentle fingers after the slipped knife, Rachel's warm hand on his forehead after the kiss, the mid-song grins of the Warblers after a dance move that fell flat. After the Jeremiah incident David's arm around his neck on the busride back, the startling saccharine warmth of the McDonald's coffee they'd all had on their way back and the way he'd felt then in that parking lot that he would always be forgiven, that Kurt's hand in his squeezing reassuringly was like an endless blank check, everything absolved. Nothing to hide. All his imperfections superficial or deep seen as brightly as if lit from within like glass, seen—seen and acknowledged, with no difference at all.
He grips the little tube of hair gel so tightly the top falls to the tiles with a soft clink.
Everyone can tell, you know.
Fond Regards From Your Colleague,
The sky is Dalton blue and thundering without rain when he gets to Rachel's, ten minutes late and not freaking out, for the first time in what he thinks is years. He allows himself to park a block from her house and walk the remaining distance in his tuxedo for no reason save the ridiculous pleasure of it, the stares from neighbors that turn to grins when he tips them an exaggerated bow and smiles at the thought that he's delighted some old lady on a summer evening, if even for a second. Thunder rolls and rolls in the distance; in the mood he's in he imagines it's something like what the turning of the world might sound like if one could put a sound to it, inexorable, inevitable, in its grandeur something that will engineer the perfect situation for him without him having to do anything at all. Because of this fit of whimsy he is not surprised at all when he skips the trick step to Rachel's porch and sees Kurt fluttering around behind a pillar, casting worried glances at the sky and hugging his tuxedo as if he can protect it with his body, which is so nonsensical Blaine actually laughs out loud. At the sound Kurt yelps and jumps back hard enough to rattle the screen door on its hinges.
At that moment a tremendous gust of wind comes from somewhere unseen bringing the scent of the coming storm as cleanly as a bite, a grand electricity that makes Blaine think of San Francisco and its purple hills. But this is all Ohio, the current slowly building in the flat flat land that hides nothing, and here they are. As if recognizing he can't possibly fight that wind Kurt's expression turns helpless; he puts his hands down and the gale shakes his hair free of its coif.
"You're not here to take Rachel to the prom, are you?" he shouts, and when Blaine nods he scowls. "That deceitful, lying, underhanded—she strong-armed me into this based on pity and general schadenfreude because she told me Finn's actually taking Santana and Quinn at the same time, but I should have known she..." He trails off. The tailored sleeve slips a little as he gestures and Blaine catches a glimpse of his white wrist, so clear in the darkness. The flare of longing that seemed so unbearable a week ago has dulled to a simmer now, but there's enough of it to convert to the energy he needs for this, what he understands he has to do.
"Kurt," he says, "I need to talk to you."
Kurt's face twists; this is the look Blaine hoped never to be on the receiving end of, but it's dark outside and there's thunder raging in the distance and porch lights are flickering like fireflies everywhere and he gets it—he's always needed a stage for courage, but people like Kurt and Rachel could have told him months ago how all the world's a stage. His chest expands as if he's singing and he leans into the porch railing, not thinking, just breathing, watching Kurt watching him.
"Now you need to talk to me?" Kurt's saying in disbelief, pupils dilated. "Not when I waited for weeks to get a word out of you?"
"You were avoiding me!"
"You could have called! Sent one of your infamous texts, an email, a note—Blaine, what's wrong with you?"
"I tried—nothing seemed right, somehow, it wasn't—"
"It wasn't perfect?" Kurt is openly sneering, but the sight doesn't make Blaine want to run, he just wants to place his hand against Kurt's cheek. The wind is picking up and now there's a crack of thunder as if the house is coming down around them; the McKinley kids are going to be stuck at their prom until the thunderstorm ends, but Kurt and Blaine stand there about two feet away on Rachel's porch, grasping the pillars, and they don't move. "Because that's how you thought this would go, right, you didn't learn a thing from that Valentine's Day thing, you thought one day it was just going to be the perfect time for us and until then I could hang around and—what is it Meg Ryan does while she waits for Billy Crystal to stop being a moron, get engaged, run out of a party in tears—well, I guess we checked that off our list, so—"
"Oh, god, why did you cry? You couldn't have possibly thought Rachel and I—"
"Of course I didn't, you complete idiot! I was upset that we were supposed to be best friends, okay, non-fat mocha with a medium drip and all that and you apparently thought trying to delude me with some staged drunken crisis was preferable to talking to me about whatever you were thinking or even—" The trees are all chattering leaves full of wind and the dry snap of grass, the kind of weather that will spark fires later in the summer, but right now there's just pressing humidity and the hot-cold damp of their tuxedos blown against their bodies. Kurt raises his voice "—OR EVEN MAYBE TRYING TO BE TOGETHER—"
He's kneeling now, that artless boyishness evident again in the way he shucks his tuxedo out of the way as he gropes under Rachel's doormat for her spare key. The grass flattens under the wind and the sky, its inkiness, seems so vast Blaine feels untethered, as though the wind could literally propel him into the bowl of that sky and above the slightly luminescent houses and Kurt, Kurt a constellation of perfect things in his aristocratic shoes and relentlessly blue eyes almost green in the low pressure. He reaches forward then and grabs Kurt's shoulders, sinks down until they're eye to eye.
"LISTEN TO ME," he shouts, and then leans in until his lips touch the shell of Kurt's ear. Beneath his fingers, the tense wiriness of Kurt's shoulders in his jacket. "We didn't have flowers and inappropriateness on Valentine's day, or anything, but we made lunch and you put my finger in a band-aid, and we drive the entire forty-two minutes from Lima to Westerville and never once in those drives did I wish, for a second, that I was anywhere else—"
Kurt's trembling now, but his hand creeps up, the fingers slim on his wrist, and Blaine's entire face has gone hot but this needs to be said, it's taking every ounce of stage courage he's cultivated; it's harder under the darkness and the thunder than it's ever been under a thousand stage lights, but the humidity makes it private and contained, somehow, and he keeps going. There's a pattern like black lace on the pavement and the cleanest smell in the world, stone under water, he knows he's got seconds until the rain.
"—Kurt, we're going to have issues, I'm going to give you the wrong advice and you're going to be cruel and tactless, the way you are, I'm going to do things that make me want to kill myself and kiss, er, mutual acquaintances—although I won't, I promise, that was a bad plan and I'm never drinking again—and god, even what I'm saying right now—this is so awful, and you can just, you can just see that it's not going to be perfect—"
And then the sky tears open. One hundred thousand gallons of water douse the city of Lima and a colossal crash of it sluices the pavement inches from their tuxedos, the toes of their dress shoes soaked within seconds and Blaine has to pull back and shout again—
"—I CAN'T PROMISE YOU ANYTHING EXCEPT THAT IT WILL NEVER BE PERFECT, AND I—I DON'T CARE, SO IF YOU—"
Kurt will never know how that sentence ends, because then the hand on Blaine's wrist comes up to his cheek, the exact way Blaine wanted to touch his, and then in a way that couldn't be more different than the grey day in the kitchen his lips are on Blaine's jaw, light and intimate as a fragrance. He keeps looking stalled between one thing and another, still searching always for something, and this time Blaine knows exactly what it is. He reaches up and laces their fingers—more intimate, strangely, than anything they've ever done; he hears Kurt's gasp—and then seals his mouth over his with such nonchalance it's as if he does it every day, as if he hasn't spent the past month or so wondering again and again how he'd be able to coordinate it, whether his hair would look all right that day or if Kurt caught him rehearsing pickup lines in a fit of supreme dweebitude, what he would—
There's liquid on Kurt's face, but he's not crying, he's just tipped them backwards into the cascade of mist at the porch's edge. The water crashes just beyond his field of vision; his eyes are closed now, hazy blackness and Kurt's mouth exquisitely fine and slow under his. It occurs to him suddenly, just before the giddy feeling in his stomach rushes forth and overwhelms him, that Cary Grant only wishes he could be as smooth as Blaine Anderson, kissing his sometime-boyfriend-sometime-best-friend on the porch of the girl who just (purposely)stood them both up to a prom that isn't even his, hair going curly, muddied wrecked tuxedo, under a sky that keeps breaking and putting itself together again with a sound that seems, from behind closed eyes, indistinguishable from applause.
The best show choir magazine in Ohio ("Of course they exist, that's enough impertinence from you, Mr. Hummel," says Wes) does a photo spread of the two teams participating in the first ever Regional Tiebreaker, to be held in Cincinnati in one week. The cover is supposed to feature lead singers.
Rachel keeps tugging away at his tie and simultaneously managing to muss his hair out of its neat helmet, but he just kind of lets her, because there are some forces of nature that just can't be fought, and besides, she's happily reciting motivational sayings under her breath before they get the picture taken, so really, he couldn't ask for a better portrait partner. He waits politely for her to finish her soliloquoy before holding up a finger and going to his bag. Kurt, in medias sartorial conference with Mercedes and Tina, catches his eye and smirks.
"Thank you for standing us up on your prom night," he says in an undertone, and her smile turns sweetly psychotic.
"I have," she says, serene, "absolutely no idea what you're talking about."
He grins. "I'm terribly sorry I didn't get to escort you, but as a consolation, perhaps you'll consider wearing these for our portrait."
She flips the top of the little box and beams when she sees the corsages. He shows her the matching boutonniere he's wearing on his lapel, despite how bizarre it looks with the Dalton uniform. "Kurt has one too. The pink corsage is his." Kurt catches them looking at him and gives a long-suffering eye roll, indicating his own boutonniere, which has been accessorized with a ribbon streamer and glares from Wes' general direction.
"These are of somewhat poor quality and I could have been allergic to peonies, for all Kurt knew, but for your sake, I would be honored to make that concession," she says importantly, and takes the corsages.
As they pass Wes he calls, "Ms. Berry, after your portrait, I'd be thrilled to discuss that collaborative performance I mentioned earlier. Do you have any opinions regarding Cobra Starship? Good Girls Go Bad was a mindless chart-topper—"
"—eminently suited to both a-cappella and show choir voices as well as subtly irritating, which means it'll stay entrenched in collective audience memory for days upon end..."
Rachel's head is swiveled around like something out of The Exorcist. Her eyes are so wide Blaine can see her mascara straining. Wes is similarly open-mouthed. This is a situation terrifying on so many levels it transcends belief, so he takes Rachel's arm and steers her away towards the photographer. Behind them he can hear Wes saying, in an awestruck rumble, "That woman is extraordinary!" and hopes Kurt will have the foresight to nip this in the bud before there is any this to begin with.
"You don't want to go there, Rachel," he says, as the photographer situates him carefully behind her, head cocked over one shoulder in a classic vamp. She mirrors the pose without being asked and croons, "Blaine, you should trust my judgment. Everyone else does," which is such a lie, but he's hard-pressed to care at this point. Kurt's drifted over from his huddle and is now making smooch faces in what is apparently an attempt to get them to emulate him, although they both pretend not to notice this. Then the photographer says, "All right!" and Kurt, apparently reacting on instinct, breaks into a huge grin, looking so adorably ridiculous that both Blaine and Rachel simultaneously burst out laughing.
The picture that actually ends up on the cover involves both of them vamping hands on hips, clutching onto one another for support and laughing without any artifice at all at something just out of the frame. They're wildly off-balance and there's a flower stuck in Blaine's hair from Rachel's corsages and their eyes are both squinted at Kurt in the other direction, so heady with the fact of that contagious happiness that they can't bring themselves to engineer their own appearance. The picture is awkwardly angled and woefully impromptu, it's off-script in all the worst ways, a break in the performance veneer. They have, unquestionably and certifiably, messed it up.
According to Kurt, they've never looked better.