"So what was the risk you were taking, dating me? What would have happened if you'd been caught?" Blaine asks casually when they sit in the theater lobby a few days later, way too early for the movie because of Rachel’s impatience to go.
Kurt is suddenly very interested in the popcorn bucket balanced on his knees. He winces when Rachel immediately takes it upon herself to answer.
"Oh, you know, just public humiliation in front of the whole Harbor in LA,” she says brightly. “They would have made us confess to our mistakes and promise to fix our ways. Again. There might have been whipping, too, since we were repeat offenders."
Kurt dares a glance at Blaine's face, which is pale, his eyes wide. Rachel adds, as if she honestly forgot. "And of course, reparative therapy if they knew about you and Kurt. That was actually one of the reasons I was involved from the beginning, as a cover-up in case anyone found out. They would have shamed and alienated me if anyone thought I was with you, but at least I wouldn't have been drugged and brain-washed." She shrugs.
Blaine looks between them both, flabbergasted. "Why did you do it then? How could anything have been worth such a risk?"
Kurt chews his lip for a moment. When he answers, his voice comes out quiet.
"Imagine you were never allowed to feel what you felt or like the person that gave you butterflies in your stomach when you first saw them. Imagine being aware that you were going to die not knowing what it was like to hold this person's hand, or kiss them, or be in love." He doesn't miss the soft little gasp Blaine lets out, but he speaks on. "Believe me, it was worth the risk." Blaine looks like he's about to tear up, so Kurt adds, to lighten the mood. "At least to me. Rachel was just crazy enough to indulge me."
"Yes," Rachel pipes in. "And I didn't even get in on the best parts," she teases, and then jumps up, excited, because they just started letting people in. She's halfway to the door before Blaine manages to find his voice, and that's the end of the topic for the night.
Blaine comes back to it on Saturday, when he drops by the coffeeshop after his piano tutoring. Kurt has just finished his shift, so they decide to sit down with the coffee Blaine bought rather than take a walk in the November rain. Blaine doesn’t even bother with small-talk.
“So you’re eighteen now.”
“Mhm?” Kurt keeps stirring his coffee, the headache he can’t quite shake today making his brain feel woozy and slow. He’s not quite sure where Blaine is going with this.
“So why are you still hiding?” Blaine asks, and oh, okay. That’s what this is about. “I mean, you’re legally adult. You could let your parents know you’re alive. You could get your records and finish school like you want to. So why don’t you? They can’t do anything to you anymore, can they?”
Kurt sighs. “I don’t know.” He takes a sip of his coffee, delightfully hot in the room that feels strangely chilly tonight. There must be something wrong with the thermostat. “I’d like to think that we’re safe now, but I honestly don’t know. The Harbor has outposts in several other big cities – I don’t know which exactly, but my first guess would be New York. That’s why we didn’t come here until we were both eighteen. If there's one thing we've learned from our mistakes back in LA, it's that they have their ways to find out things their members are trying to hide. And when they do, they make sure to express their disapproval.”
Blaine shakes his head, confused. “But you’re not members anymore. You got out. Why would they care?”
Kurt shrugs and winces at the dull ache in his shoulders. "Because we are their failures, and they don't have many of these. We've been groomed and taught perfectly, and still we rebelled. We slipped away right under their noses, and they hadn't suspected anything. Dead or alive, we made them seem weak, and they don't forgive that easily. They will not miss the opportunity to make us an example for the others to see if they find us. They can't force us into marriage anymore, but they will find us, and I'm terrified of what they will do then. Just because they can."
Blaine doesn't look convinced, so Kurt rolls his eyes. “Come on. They have a punisher on the council, Blaine. These people love their rules and punishments.”
Blaine stills with the cup halfway to his lips. “They have a what?”
“A punisher. He’s like… the community’s judge, jury, psychologist and the strict father in one. We used to call him the Haunt, just between us, because he’s, well, haunting.” Kurt shudders at the memory of the thin, pale man that scared the life out of him for years. “He’s really soft spoken, very polite, and when he talks to you, he has a way of making you trust him so that you tell him all your troubles, including any and all the little crimes you may have committed. He makes you believe he'll help you, that everything will be alright. And then he goes and finds the most fitting punishment for you, leaving you convinced that it’s for your own good."
Blaine looks spooked. "Have you ever experienced it first hand?"
Kurt shakes his head. "No. But Rachel did."
"What did she do?"
"She loved her hair too much."
This gets a disbelieving stare out of Blaine. "What?"
Kurt nods, and then immediately regrets it when the pain in his head flares with the movement.
"She had a sleepover at her school friend's house once, I think we were eleven. She came home with her nails painted pink and her hair curly, and spent all day begging our parents to buy her a curler because she looked so pretty like that. She had really long hair, halfway down her back, beautiful.” He smiles at the memory, her little face alight with happiness that morning. “Two days later she got invited for a little chat with the Haunt. And the day after her father took her to a hair salon and had her hair cut into a short bob." Blaine gasps. "She cried for a week. They never actually said it was a punishment, but the theme of vanity and being too consumed with your looks was lectured upon in our house for a few weeks then."
"But she was just a little girl!" Blaine shakes his head, incredulous.
"I know. And yet, it didn't matter." Kurt nods, serious. "Like I said. They love their punishments.”
They finish their coffee in silence.
When Kurt wakes up the next morning, his teeth chattering and his whole body aching, it’s quite clear he’s no longer just feeling under the weather. Between the fever, the coughing that seems to skin his throat raw every time, and feeling dizzy when he does as much as sit up, there's no way he can go to work.
The little bakery owner, who knows them both, agrees to let Rachel take Kurt's shifts for the week, but the Starbucks hours are lost, and the thought of what this will do to their budget really isn’t conducive to resting and recovering. Kurt lies curled in bed, freezing even though he’s covered with every blanket and throw they own, and tries to will the sickness away. He really has no time for this, dammit.
Calling Blaine to tell him not to come over like he planned – and to ramble about stupid germs from stupid sniffly customers – doesn’t help either. As soon as Blaine hears his croaking, feverish explanation, he tells Kurt to put Rachel on the phone, so all Kurt can do is lie there pouting into his pillow and feeling more miserable than ever as he listens to Rachel chatting animatedly in the kitchen.
Of course she gets all the fun. Maybe Blaine likes her more than him. Maybe they will go out and enjoy themselves without him. Maybe they will kiss and fall in love and have beautiful babies, and Kurt will lie here in the mess of stupid cold blankets and cough his lungs out. Or something.
He falls into a restless sleep eventually, and when he wakes up, he's surprised to feel warm.
The heap of blankets is gone and there's a fluffy blue comforter tucked around him instead, a wonderful cocoon of warmth that Kurt never wants to leave ever again, no matter how it came to be here. Maybe it was magic. Maybe it's just a hallucination, but if it is, he doesn't want it to stop. He hasn't felt this toasty in his bed since the last warm spell in mid-October.
He thinks he can hear Rachel talking with someone – is she still on the phone with Blaine? Doesn't she know they can't afford long calls, now more than ever? He tries to call out to tell her that, but only makes himself cough terribly, a long, resonating hack that hurts deep in his chest and leaves him winded, curled in a fetal position.
A cool hand touches his burning forehead and Kurt leans into the touch, his eyes still closed.
At least until he hears a voice next to him.
"Hey. How are you feeling?" It startles him, his eyes snapping open – and hey, apparently the comforter isn't the only thing he hallucinated.
"Warm," he manages, and the vision smiles. Kurt has to congratulate himself – his subconscious managed to make its smile just as beautiful as the real Blaine's.
"Good," the not-Blaine says. "That's what I hoped for. Do you think you can sit up a little? I brought chicken soup. You should eat some before you take the meds."
Moving hurts. Every muscle in Kurt's body is achy and weak despite not doing anything besides lying in bed, but with some help, he's soon propped up comfortably against the pillow, still swaddled in the comforter.
The new position seems to bring some clarity to Kurt's head and by the time Blaine returns from his short foray to the kitchen, carrying a bowl of steaming soup and a spoon, he's pretty sure he can tell reality from the creations of his overheated brain. He has to make sure, though.
"You're real, aren't you?"
Even through the shadow of worry, Blaine seems amused. "I think I am." He sits on the edge of Kurt's bed and stirs the soup, blowing on it a little.
"But how can you be here?” Kurt muses. “I told you not to come."
"And I didn't listen. You are sick and you need someone to take care of you." Blaine answers as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
"But I have Rachel."
Blaine holds a spoonful of soup to Kurt’s mouth. "True. But you have no meds, barely any heat and no decent food. Open up."
Kurt shakes his head, indignant. "I can feed myself."
"You could try, but you'd have to take your arms out from beneath the covers, and it's still cold in here. Even if you did, I bet you're all shaky. You're burning up. Come on, let me help." Blaine still holds the spoon in front of Kurt's face, steady and full of soup that smells heavenly and makes Kurt remember he hadn't eaten since last night. Giving up the fight, he opens his mouth.
The soup is warm and delicious, but it only takes a dozen spoonfuls before he can eat no more, suddenly full and a little queasy. He weakly pushes Blaine's hand away and slumps lower against the pillow, sweat gathering on his forehead. Without a word of protest Blaine puts the bowl away on the crate that serves as Kurt's bedside table and takes a glass of water and three pills from it.
"What are these?" Kurt is suddenly exhausted after the simple effort of eating.
"Something to get the fever down and a decongestant." Blaine says. "My parents are doctors, remember? They told me what to get you and what to watch for. Trust me, okay?"
Trusting Blaine is the easiest thing in the world. It only takes one step, letting go of the shaky remnants of control, and Kurt is there. Blaine could probably tell him to step into the fire and at this point, Kurt wouldn't question it at all. He lets Blaine feed him the pills one by one – soft touches of his fingertips to Kurt's lips followed by sips of water, and the cool hand on his forehead again, smoothing away his sweaty hair. It feels like heaven, safe and caring, and Kurt wants to stay like this forever, or at least until he stops feeling like he's been hit with a germ-ridden truck.
Except he really needs to pee.
It should be more embarrassing to accept Blaine's supporting arm when Kurt's legs give out as soon as he takes two steps. With all of their history and Kurt's feelings still alive and strong as ever, it should be mortifying to have to be led to the bathroom, sweaty and disheveled, and not at all presentable.
But it isn't. He's let go. And it's really hard to find energy for embarrassment when he's shaking like a leaf anyway. Blaine deposits him in their tiny bathroom, makes sure Kurt can stand steadily enough when supporting himself on the counter, and then leaves to grant him privacy.
He comes back from the bedroom when Kurt opens the door a few minutes later.
By the time Kurt is safely back in his bed and curled into his warm coccoon, he's utterly spent. When he realizes his pillow and comforter have been turned to their fresh, non-sweaty sides, and there's a hot water bottle by his feet, Kurt moans in delight.
Blaine smiles. "Good?"
"Perfect." He's already losing to sleep, his eyes drooping heavily and his voice slurry. "I love you." He mumbles. Or at least tries.
He's not sure if the soft kiss to his forehead is reality or if he's imagining it, but before he can ponder this difficult issue, he's pulled into a deep, dreamless sleep.
"Where's Blaine?" is the first thing out of Kurt's mouth after his violent coughing fit brings Rachel into his bedroom some time later.
It's dark outside and the whole experience from before feels like a very vivid dream, but the comforter is still nice and warm around him and the cool water bottle lying by his feet serves as proof. Kurt’s throat feels dry and scratchy after his nap, his breathing labored, but at least the fever broke. His clothes are sticking unpleasantly to his skin, glued with a generous layer of sweat. Yuck.
Rachel perches on the edge of his bed and touches his forehead, her hand warmer than Blaine's and less comforting somehow, nice as it is. "He went home for the night. He gave me about a million pieces of advice, as if I'd never cared for a sick person–"
"Rach, let's be honest, you haven't."
"Okay, but I mean, how hard can it be? Anyway, he told me he'll be back tomorrow after his classes. Do you want some more soup or something? Tea? Crackers? I'm supposed to feed you and water you and give you meds in an hour, and–"
"I just want a shower and something dry to wear." Kurt rasps and shudders at the thought of leaving the warm bed.
In the end, it isn't too bad – the apartment seems a lot warmer than before, and the hot water, while making Kurt cough in the steamy air, feels wonderful on his aching muscles. By the time he is clean, dressed in fresh warm clothes and has eaten some more soup, Kurt is tired again and his temperature is rising fast. He welcomes the perfect asylum of his bed with a happy sigh. It feels weird to need so much sleep when he's been getting by on five hours a night or less for months, but he honestly can't keep his eyes open.
He's teetering on the edge of consciousness for some time as Rachel sits by his bed, telling him how Blaine brought the comforters for them and gave them a small heater from his dorm room, and how he insulated their windows with some self-stick rubber weather sealing and installed a few small table lamps in their bedrooms and kitchen. Kurt’s barely awake by the time she declares it’s time for his meds, and the NyQuil knocks him out cold within minutes.
The apartment is empty and quiet when Kurt wakes up the next morning. Rachel must be at the bakery to work Kurt's shift, which means she won't be back until noon at least, but there's orange juice and a banana on his makeshift bedside table, and a few pills beside them.
Kurt's throat feels as if it's been scrubbed with a wire brush and he starts coughing again as soon as he sits up, which only exacerbates the pounding in his head. It takes minutes until the initial bout passes and by then Kurt is curled up, feeling utterly miserable and a little sorry for himself – a feeling he'd never admit to anyone. The thought that he's alone and helpless against the rebellion of his own body makes the longing for his mom flare painfully.
He's usually really good at suppressing any thoughts and feelings concerning their home and family. He said his goodbyes. Leaving the house that last night, he knew he would never see it, or his mom, again. He's even learned to live with the knowledge that she thinks she lost him, too. But every now and then the feelings overflow and spike in a storm of regret, longing and guilt that leaves him breathless for a moment.
How much he would give to have his mom with him here, now.
Kurt allows himself to wallow in self-pity for a little longer before telling himself he needs to behave like the adult he is, and dragging himself out of bed. The plan is to do something useful, maybe sew for a few hours since he's home with time on his hands for once, but soon it becomes clear that going to the bathroom and making tea is just about all he can handle. Resigned, he crawls into bed again and spends the morning coughing, tossing and turning, frustrated because he feels so useless.
By the time he hears the key in the lock, he's ready to scream – or would be, if he didn't know what it would do to his throat. As it is, he really hopes Rachel is in a patient mood today because holding back whining is quickly ceasing to be an option.
Except it's not Rachel that appears in the opening of the curtains separating his bedroom from hers.
There are raindrops in Blaine's hair and on the shoulders of his black coat, but his smile is warm and genuine.
"Hey. How are you feeling? I brought you lunch." He raises the bag he's holding in his hand. "Do you prefer soup, risotto or some of this baguette with butter and honey?"
Kurt goes through the effort of raising his eyebrows at him. "At some point, we'll need to talk about you spending a fortune and buying all these things for us. But for now, can I have some soup? I don't think I can swallow anything solid."
Blaine grins. "Of course."
Rachel comes back hours later, when it's already dark outside and Kurt has had time to eat, talk to Blaine a little, and nap again. He's sitting under the covers in his bed, with Blaine on a chair nearby, when she comes in humming happily and dancing though the loft, dropping kisses on both of their cheeks.
"Sorry I'm late, I knew Blaine would come so I went to see if there are any new auditions available and I found the best thing instead."
Kurt lets out a questioning sound, his throat too sore to do much more, even with as little conversation as he's had with Blaine.
Rachel bounces on the balls of her feet. "Wait for it: a Broadway-hopefuls' club. It's a little like a training camp, a group of beginning actors who try to get their big break. They get together a few times a week to practice and read lines and learn things from one another and from more experienced guest lecturers. They keep track of all the interesting auditions on and off-Broadway, and they support one another through the struggle and doubts. It's amazing! And the best thing is, it's completely free – one guy there has access to an empty old theater. It's not very glamorous, but the acoustics are amazing, and they let you come to practice alone before auditions after you've been a member for a few months and–"
She's practically vibrating with excitement and Kurt frowns. His fever is rising again and the dull ache in his head hasn't quite stopped all day, so he can't think clearly, but something is bothering him about what she's saying. Fortunately Blaine spells it out for him.
"Wait, where did they find an empty theater space to use for free in Manhattan?"
Rachel pauses and bites her lip before answering. "Well... it's not quite in Manhattan."
"Where is it then?" Blaine asks, confused.
Rachel glances at them guiltily. "I went to the theater district and walked around for a bit, just, you know, enjoying the atmosphere... And I found their leaflet. So I called. And it turned out they were having a meeting just an hour later, so I went. I couldn't miss such a chance, could I?"
"Where was it?" Blaine asks.
"In the Bronx." She tries very hard to say it lightly.
Kurt forgets all about his raw throat immediately, all the stories he’s heard about the dangers of life in New York flashing through his head. "You went to an abandoned theater in the Bronx to meet people you didn't know, alone? Based only on a random leaflet and a phone call? And you didn't even let me know where you were going?"
Rachel winces. "You wouldn't have let me go if I told you, and it felt like fate that they were having the meeting–"
"More like a setup! God, Rachel, it could have been anyone, you could have been robbed, kidnapped, or raped for god's sake. What were you thinking?"
Her face falls, lower lip trembling as she tries to hold in tears at Kurt's raised voice. "But I wasn't! I'm fine, and it really was an acting group. And I'm an adult, Kurt, I don't need your permission to go anywhere!"
"Well you surely don't behave like an adult!" Kurt's voice breaks on the yell before a violent fit of coughing rips through him, and she turns her back without a word and storms out. "You're not going there again," he calls out after her once he stops wheezing for breath, not sure if she can hear him at all with how rough his voice is.
"Yes I will," comes the haughty answer from the direction of the kitchen. "I already told them I'm joining. I'm going there on Friday and you can't stop me."
She's clearly crying and the anger at her thoughtless actions suddenly melts away, leaving Kurt exhausted and a little ashamed of his harsh comments.
Blaine touches his hand, understanding clear on his face. "I'll go talk to her."
Kurt can only nod wordlessly and hide his face in the comforter.
A long hushed conversation later, there's a sound of the door rolling open and closed, and then Blaine returns to sit on the edge of Kurt's bed.
"I’m going with her this Friday," he says. "To see if it's really a legit acting group or if she's just that naive. I managed to convince her and she even got excited about me potentially joining. I'll keep an eye on her, Kurt."
"So why did she leave?" Kurt is still feeling a little guilty and a lot concerned.
"I asked her to get take-out for dinner. It will give her time to calm down. She knows you're just worried, you know. But she seems to be struggling with the new life here."
Kurt sighs. "I know," he whispers, unable to speak at a normal volume after his earlier explosion. "She never planned for this. For living to be eighteen and beyond."
"Have you?" Blaine looks at him intently.
Kurt shrugs. "Not really. But I had dreams at least. Hers ended with a romantic death and a beautiful funeral. Mine started with 'If I had more time...' It makes a world of difference."
By the time Rachel returns with Chinese – there's soup and vegetarian noodles for Kurt, thank god, his throat can’t handle anything remotely spicy – everything seems to be back to normal. They eat in Kurt's bedroom and Rachel entertains Blaine, going through the good memories from their Harbor past: the afternoons spent on their bikes, discovering new paths and hiding places and always, always talking. The singing performances they used to give for their parents and a few times, the whole community. The warm and crowded community holidays. The nights spent in bed together as they were growing up, sharing secrets and questions and doubts. The strength of their friendship, together against everything the world threw at them.
Eventually, Blaine has to go back to his dorm. He makes sure Kurt takes his meds and hugs them both before leaving. Rachel comes back after locking the door behind him and hovers uncertainly a few feet from the bed.
"Kurt, I'm sorry. I'll be more careful, I promise."
Kurt reaches for her hand and she quickly moves towards the bed. "I'm sorry I yelled at you," he rasps. "I just can't stand the thought of something bad happening to you. You’re the only family I have left."
He pulls at her hand and she goes easily, sitting next to him, then lying down with her head on his shoulder, not caring about the germs. She's still there when he falls asleep, and when he wakes up early in the morning, his teeth chattering feverishly again, despite his warm cocoon, she's there under the covers with him, spooning him and sharing her body warmth.
Chapter art: Failure
Let me take care of you
The next chapter will be posted on Monday 30 September.