Fic: (Def)inition (Part 17/22)
Title: (Def)inition (part 17/22; WiP)
Pairings: Eventual Kurt/Blaine, platonic Kurt/Quinn, past Quinn/Puck, past Blaine/other, one-sided Sebastian/Blaine
Spoilers: Spoilers through all aired episodes, but this is a fairly radical AU.
Warnings: For the story as a whole: non-con, consent issues, explicit discussion of suicide, slavery, disordered eating. For this chapter: discussing of the above, mild harassment.
Betas: idoltina, Su, and penguinutopia
Word Count: 8,317
Summary: Shouldn't he be good by now?
* * *
January has its own peculiar kind of bitter cold; it’s one of the coldest winters on record and the city braces for ice and snow, icicles growing from the eaves and wind cutting through even the warmest coats.
The new apartment has central heating that reaches every room, but Blaine can’t seem to stay warm-- it’s like he took the chill of their last address with him, and instead of the sun burning out the grey, it feels like the winter is seeping into his bones, making them heavy and sluggish. He grits his teeth and pushes through it, using every trick he’s learned to make himself better. And he thinks he really should be better by now. They’ve moved, he’s come so far from where he started-- shouldn’t he be good by now? Shouldn’t the good parts last longer than a week, longer than a month?
He wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes, aching with something he doesn’t want to define, and it takes him too long to recognize the walls of his room; he can’t see the sky the same way he’d been able to from the living room. He doesn’t get too cold when he sleeps, but he doesn’t sleep as well, either. It’s like he’s learned to live with discomfort for so long that now, in this warmth, in this comfort, he is off his footing.
What is worse are the times when he gets suddenly, irrationally angry at nothing, at things that have never bothered him before-- everything from Beth forgetting to grab her backpack when they rush out the door to Kurt changing his dinner plans at the last minute. Blaine presses his lips together and doesn’t say anything, but there are words waiting behind his teeth, and even though he can’t bring himself to say them, he thinks them, every time. (And a few minutes later, the anger is gone like it never existed, leaving him like ash, quiet in its wake; it feels like that time in the kitchen, when he’d yelled at Kurt and not been punished for it. Kurt is patient and Kurt is so, so breathtakingly kind towards Blaine, but Blaine doesn’t want to push him, even after all these months.)
He's tired, every inch of him. He pushes himself until he can't any more, until all he can do is run piano scales and nap in the middle of the morning, too exhausted for anything else. One morning he gives himself a haircut with a pair of Beth's scissors, glancing at the bathroom mirror to make sure he doesn't look too terrible; Kurt laughs when he gets home and fixes it, hands warm and gentle in Blaine's hair. It's the first time he's felt warm in weeks, and he relaxes into it, sighing and letting his shoulders go slack. Kurt smiles at him as their eyes meet in the mirror, and Blaine lets himself think that maybe things will end up okay after all.
But he can't fight timing, and he can't delay things he's not even sure he wants to put off, because the papers come three weeks after Christmas.
They arrive in a heavy envelope that Blaine picks up with the rest of the mail; he’s not positive about what’s in it but he can guess from the DoL seal. There is a moment when he gets the urge to tip the whole thing into the garbage chute before he even reaches the apartment, but he doesn’t-- it’s not just that they're addressed to Kurt, it’s not that it wouldn’t do any good in the long run: he wants to be free. He does, he does so much.
It’s just that the free world is so huge. He hasn’t thought about what he wants to do if (when, it seems) he is freed-- the question of what do you want to do when you grow up had been taken away from him when he was fifteen, and he’s not sure where to even begin. He has the vague memory of filling out a questionnaire during his sophomore year for Dalton’s guidance office, but he can’t see himself on stage, not any more, and for a lot of other careers-- he’s too old. He’s too old for so many things, and too broken, and yes, he wants to be free...
But he doesn’t know what he’s going to do once he is. He's lived so long in this narrow, cramped box of Def, and trying to move outside of that is intimidating. He leaves the envelope on Kurt’s desk and waits for Kurt to speak with him about them, feeling full of nervous anticipation.
He doesn’t trust himself with his own freedom, not really. Being here is safe, and he feels like he’s tottering out of his nest, unsure whether he’s ready to fall or fly. Sometimes he feels absolutely sure, absolutely ready for something beyond the walls of Kurt's apartment, outside of Beth and Quinn and Kurt; other times he wants to beg Kurt to let him stay, let him be kept safe.
Blaine may be cold, here, but there is comfort in it. It's familiar and he knows where the boundaries are, even when it seems like there aren't any. He has routine and a path to follow; he has work to do for Kurt and meals to prep for all of them.
He starts baking bread in the mornings as soon as they're settled in: cinnamon swirl, loaves of heavy dark rye, brioche, challah for the Fridays that Rachel comes for dinner. For a week he sends Beth to school each day with a different kind of cookie in her lunch (plus a few extra for Ms. Kendricks) and pretends the extras don't disappear as soon as Kurt and Quinn get home in the evenings.
The papers he'd left for Kurt don't get mentioned until they show back up on Blaine's desk, filled out in Kurt's neat handwriting. Blaine feels like he's free-falling with those papers in his hand, and he closes his eyes against the vertigo. But he can do this-- he has to-- so he stands, waits for the dizziness to pass, breathes slowly until he's centered again.
He sits down at his desk and signs each of them, hands steady, eyes clear.
* * *
Blaine brings Kurt the signed papers faster than he’d expected. He looks calm enough but he’s swaying on his feet, so Kurt takes the papers from him and leads him to the chair next to his desk.
"You signed them," he states, sitting down in his own chair and flipping through the first few, noting Blaine’s neat initial at the bottom of each sheet.
"I did," Blaine replies, looking down at his hands like they’re brand new. "I signed them."
Kurt can’t help but smile a little at that, even though Blaine almost looks like he’s in shock. "I’m happy for you," he says. "I know I’ve said it before, Blaine, but I’m so proud of you, what you’ve been able to accomplish."
"Thank you," Blaine says. "I-- thank you, Kurt. You know I wouldn’t have been able to-- not without you."
"I just have a good PR department," Kurt says, trying to be dismissive of his own role, because it’s something that should have happened a long time ago, and really, he didn’t do that much. It was never a personal risk to anything but his finances-- he wasn’t made nearly as vulnerable by the ad campaign as Quinn and Blaine were. "Are you okay?" he asks, because Blaine still looks overwhelmed.
"I’m fine," Blaine says. "It’s just-- a lot. I haven’t-- I don’t even know where to start, and I’m not even free yet."
"But you will be," Kurt says. He smiles at Blaine, because this is further than either of them thought they’d get-- Kurt had been so sure that the bill wouldn’t pass, that they’d never get around to moving, that Blaine--
Blaine is here, and he’s healthy, and that’s more than Kurt thinks he could have asked for, last April. It’s been nine months, and Blaine’s barely recognizable as the same man who arrived on his doorstep and knelt-- fell-- lowered himself in front of Kurt. There’s life in him, there’s strength and vitality and an adorable mop of soft curls that hang just above Blaine’s eyes (Kurt’s glad that Blaine accepted his help in fixing that haircut, because it looked like Blaine had attacked his hair with nail clippers. Not a good look).
The smile that breaks across Blaine’s face is breathtaking. "I’m going to be free," he says.
"As soon as I mail the papers in, and you finish-- whichever way you want to get out," Kurt reminds him.
"I know," Blaine says. He looks over at Kurt. "It’s just finally feeling real, you know?"
Kurt nods. And that’s when it hits him: Blaine is going to be free. He’s not going to have any more reason to stay than Quinn does, and when he’s gone... Kurt’s going to be by himself, again. It’s not new, it’s not any different-- it’s just now, like Blaine’s freedom, it’s real.
"I-- have you thought about what you’re going to do?" he asks awkwardly, suddenly off-balance.
Blaine shakes his head. "I haven’t even started. There are just so many things I used to want that I don’t-- I don’t know what I want to do, now. I know that I want to be free, I know that I want-- something-- I just don’t know what it is. I don’t even know where to start, and that’s why-- that’s a lot of why I’m so-- off."
"You know that you can stay as long as you need to, to figure it out," Kurt offers. "Not that you should feel obligated, or anything-- I’d like you to stay, if you want to, but you don’t have to, not at all." He’s still reeling from his own realization that Blaine has no reason to stay, once he’s passed the final evaluation.
Blaine smiles, and his shoulders relax. "I hadn’t even thought about that," he says. "I mean, our current contract runs through October, and I was just-- I was assuming, which I shouldn’t-- and you shouldn’t feel obligated to give me a place to stay, either," he says hurriedly. "The DoL has housing set up for Defs who are transitioning, and I could-- if you’re offering because you feel--"
"I’m offering because I want you to stay, if you want to. At least until everything’s set," Kurt says. "I mean, we’ve only just gotten you a real bed."
"The couch honestly wasn’t that bad," Blaine protests.
"I slept on it once and I swear I can still feel that spring digging into my lower back," Kurt jokes.
Blaine smiles. "I should really go start dinner," he says. He’s a lot calmer than he had been when he’d first walked in, and Kurt can tell that he’s more settled.
"Don’t let me keep you," he says, and Blaine nods briefly, stands, and walks out, leaving Kurt with his papers.
It’s not that he didn’t expect Blaine to sign them-- it’s just that he thought they’d have more time. He knows that he’s being selfish, wanting Blaine and Quinn to stay even though they’re free, but he’s not used to being lonely any more. He’d done a lot of his growing up in a quiet house, and even after Finn and Carole had moved in, the home he’s built here is louder, warmer, more full for him. It’s not fair to ask Quinn to stay; it’s not fair to ask Blaine the same thing. That doesn’t stop Kurt from wanting to, because if he could he’d keep them, jealous of the world’s attention. Neither of them are his (except legally, and all that’s changing) but Kurt thinks that maybe he’d like someone who is-- he wants someone to hold him, he wants someone to be sitting at the other side of the dinner table, someone to snore just too loudly in bed, someone to complete him, because as much as he’s wanted to, Kurt can’t exist as an island.
He’s already transferred Blaine’s case to New York, so Blaine’s staying at least until he’s free, and Quinn’s not leaving immediately-- but still, at some point they’re going to be gone-- they’ll be friends, hopefully, see each other for dinner parties and holidays, New Years and birthdays, but they won’t be this little found family, something that Kurt can call his own.
Because islands don't own people -- people own islands, and maybe Kurt is really the one who's been held.
* * *
Kurt starts staying at work longer than he needs to. It's not just that they have a new line coming out-- it's a thousand little things he used to have Quinn do, before he knew she was leaving. She’s still there, most days-- he hasn't hired anyone to replace her, even though he knows he should, and quickly, but right now he'd rather not think about how soon she's leaving. He’s taking over her responsibilities one by one so that when she does go, he’s ready for it. He knows that he could ask Blaine to fill in for her, at least for the short-term, and he's sure that Blaine would be good at most of the things Quinn does, but there's something awkward about that, somehow.
So he stays at his desk until his hands start to cramp and he's on his fifth cup of coffee of the day. He drops his pencil and rubs his eyes until his vision blurs; when it's clear, the designs in front of him don't change.
The dresses are patterned in tiny interlocking silver circles that don't quite close; the handbags have rows of open o's.
He's always tried to keep his politics and his work separate, because while fashion does-- and should-- inspire, hold meaning, push the limits, he’s never wanted his designs to be overtly political. But this is different-- these designs show his politics clear as anything. "At least I didn't design jewelry to go along with them," he mutters, and shoves the drawings into his portfolio.
The office is mostly dark, although one of the interns is still there, photocopying like there's no tomorrow, and he nods at the kid on his way out. The kid smiles at him, clearly a little intimidated, and Kurt wants to stop and reassure him that he was in just that spot ten years ago, an intimidated intern in the hallways of Vogue. Instead, he just calls a soft goodnight and reminds the kid not to stay too late.
He should go home-- he knows he should, but instead he walks down to the sample room, drops his bag, and slides down to the floor, back against the wall. He doesn't bother to turn the lights on, so the room is in shadow, just the bare outlines of things in front of him.
The clothes in front of him are what he does. This is what he's good at, what he's loved since he was three and playing dress-up with his mom. The first time he'd designed something and tried to make it, it'd turned out too small, tight in all the wrong places, but his mom had shown him how to pick out the stitches and ease the fabric into the right shape. It's one of the best memories he has of her, and he keeps it close and tight to himself. He hardly ever talks about his mom, because it's been so long since she'd died and his dad hadn't-- he loves Carole. They both do. But by the time he'd met her he'd already known needle and thread, been able to cut up freezer paper to make patterns, known the history of fashion more intimately than anyone else he knew. Fashion has been his life since he’d been able to look at and understand his first copy of Vogue, but he doesn't know if it's going to be enough any more.
Quinn's the first person who really taught him not to be alone any more. She'd slept in the room above his and showed up in his basement when her feet hurt, when she wanted to talk, when none of her clothes fit. She’d cried into his shoulder when the rest of glee club found out about Puck, and she'd been his gracious partner to the senior prom, years later. They weren't always the closest of friends-- there'd been Mercedes before her, and Quinn had always been friends with Santana and Brittany-- but she'd pushed her way into Kurt's life until he couldn't imagine being without her.
And now he has to, because she's leaving. She's not going to be there in the mornings with a smoothie and a warm smile, she's not going to be in the office fixing everything that goes wrong and booking new models. She's not going to be down the hall when he needs her (or when she needs him), she's not going to be there. She's taking Beth with her, and it hurts, because Kurt has learned not to be alone. He hasn't been alone since they were both sixteen, and now that he is...
For Kurt, fashion is a solace, fashion is safety. Fashion was there for him before Quinn ever was, and it will still be there after she's gone. He just needs to remember that, needs to figure out what it was that made him pick up that first pair of scissors and thread a needle to help his mom. Maybe the new collection is the way to do that-- reclaim himself as his own person, even if that person is alone.
He's been alone before; he can learn to be alone again.
* * *
In late January, Blaine is standing outside Beth’s school at the end of the day, blowing on his hands to warm them and chafing his fingers in the cold (he is never forgetting his gloves again, he swears). He curses his childhood dream of moving to New York, because if he’d known that it would be almost as cold as Columbus, he’d almost rather have stayed in Ohio. He’s seen most of the other students in her class stream by on their way to warm cars and after-school lessons, but Beth still hasn’t emerged from the building.
Blaine smiles at some of the other parents, and they smile nervously (Hanna’s mom, Jemma’s dad, Suzy’s parents) or they wave, friendly (and there’s Paige; he needs to schedule coffee or something with her, because now that she’s back at work, he hardly sees her).
He finally sees Beth, carrying her books in her arms and carefully rolling her backpack behind her. Once she catches up to him, she says "Here!" and promptly dumps all of her textbooks and Ella Enchanted into his arms.
"Beth," he says, because he knows that Kurt had bought her the rolling backpack in December so that she wouldn’t have to carry her books (and for some reason her school refuses to switch to digital texts), "why aren’t your books in your backpack?"
She shrugs. "Got a surprise for Kurt in there, and my books won’t fit."
"And what sort of a surprise is it?" he asks. Beth isn’t usually like this-- she’s one of the most responsible kids he’s known, so for her to be this blasé-yet-giggly is worrisome. He just hopes she doesn’t have something like a fishtank full of piranhas in her bag.
Beth grins cheekily up at him. "It’s a surprise for you too, Blaine," she says, and then she flat-out giggles, like the eleven-year-old that she is but doesn’t usually act like.
He sighs, because she clearly isn’t going to tell him. "Is it poisonous?" he asks, because he at least needs to know that before he lets her get in the car. Their lease does allow pets, if it’s something living, and if it’s some spun sugar creation or intricate diorama instead, then it’s better safe than sorry.
"It’satankfulloftarantulas," Beth says all in a rush, and she laughs too loudly when he jerks back. "Oh my god Uncle Blaine your face," she crows. "No, it’s not poisonous. Come on, it’s too cold out here."
They pile into the car (Beth’s bag makes a disgruntled noise, and Blaine resolutely does not ask) and take the over-full streets home. The subway would be faster to get to their new place (really, the subway is faster to get almost anywhere), but the car and driver are such a part of their lives that it no longer seems strange. Blaine could swear he hears Beth’s bag purring at least once, but he waits for her to make the reveal when they get home.
The elevator ride seems twice as long as it usually does, holding all of Beth’s books (which weigh a surprising amount; no wonder she’d asked for the rolling backpack). Beth pulls the backpack behind her carefully, once they reach their floor, and calls for Kurt as soon as they’re inside.
"I have a surprise!" she all but yells, after making sure the front door is closed behind her.
Kurt sticks his head out of his bedroom-cum-studio. "Can it wait five minutes?" he asks, a pencil stuck behind his ear and graphite marks on the outside of his hand.
"Nope," Beth says gleefully, unzipping her backpack. "This is Oscar! We found him in a trash can at school!"
For a long moment, nothing moves inside the backpack. Then, a ratty grey pair of ears pokes their way outside, followed quickly by a head and four paws and a tail. Oscar is, apparently, a cat-- and a freaked out cat at that, judging by the way he shoots under the couch as soon as he emerges from Beth’s backpack.
"...Oscar is a cat?" Kurt says faintly, staring at the couch.
"Yep," Beth says, crouching down on her knees and peering under the couch.
Kurt turns to Blaine, eyes a little bit wider than they usually are. "Does the lease cover pets?"
* * *
"Looking for a new place?"
Quinn brushes her hair behind her ears and looks up from her tablet. "Trying to find something in budget that doesn't leave Beth with an insane commute to school every morning."
"You could stay," he offers, knowing she won't take him up on it.
She sighs and shakes her head. "I need my own space. Now, more than ever, when I just feel like I'm itching to get out. I just want to pass the evaluation and move on with my life."
Kurt sits down across the table from her, takes one of her hands in his. "You will, okay? I know you, Quinn, and you're not going to let an evaluation stop you." He smiles. "If Coach Sylvester and the school board and the DoL couldn't stop you, nothing can."
"I appreciate your confidence," she says, smiling back at him. "But if I don't find a place, I won't pass the eval and I'll be stuck in those idiotic classes with Blaine." She pauses. "Not that I think-- they'll be good for him."
Kurt knows this, but he wishes they weren't-- he wishes that Blaine could be as confident as Quinn is, as sure of himself and as ready to leave. Not that he wants Blaine to leave-- not at all. He just wishes that Blaine could, if it's what he wanted. "I know," he says. "I hope finding a new place doesn't take as long for you as it did for him."
Quinn snorts inelegantly with laughter. "That's just because you're insanely picky, Kurt. Anyone else would have found something to be happy with months before we moved."
"And now you're moving again," Kurt says. "Good thing you never really unpacked."
She looks a little guilty at that. "It's not that I don't love this place, it's just--"
"You knew it wasn't going to be your home for long," Kurt interrupts, finishing the sentence for her.
"Exactly," she replies. "I didn't want to get too attached to a place I'd be leaving, and I-- it's not that I don't want a place here. It's not that I don't want Beth to have a place here-- and we still have to figure out her schedule-- it's just--"
"Quinn, it's fine," Kurt says, interrupting again. "We've been over this, and it really is. I get it, I understand-- I left home at eighteen and I only come back for holidays. I know what it's like to want to feel like an actual adult, and being in the place you are here isn't that."
She smiles crookedly and squeezes his hand. "I get weekdays and we alternate major holidays?"
"If you think there's any way I'm not inviting you and Beth to Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, you're crazy," Kurt says, and Quinn laughs.
"We'll figure something out," she says. "As soon as I figure out where I'll be inviting you to come for birthdays and baptisms." Kurt can feel his jaw drop at that, and Quinn laughs even harder. "What, now that I'll be her legal parent-- there are certain religious things that I've skipped out on--"
"You're joking," he says, because she must be-- she doesn't even go to church any more.
She nods. "I am," she says, sobering. "Mostly. I know that you don't believe in God, Kurt, and I don't want to push Beth into anything-- but I miss that kind of community. If I'm going to live my life, it has to be mine."
He can't think of anything to say, so he just takes her hand and squeezes it. "I am sure that whatever you do, it's going to be amazing," he says.
Quinn has this smile that Kurt's only seen half a dozen times-- it's the one that means she's secretly proud, that she can't believe something good is actually happening, and she's wearing it now. "It will," she says, and grips his hand tight.
Oscar doesn’t trust any of them, not really.
They’d called shelters and checked the neighborhood around Beth’s school, but no one is missing a cat. Beth and Blaine spent a memorable afternoon in the bathroom, coming out with a few scratches but a significantly cleaner cat. Quinn finds a vet, and Oscar comes back even grumpier but with all his shots. Oscar spends the next few days hiding under the living room couch, only coming out in the middle of the night to eat and use the litter box that is absolutely Beth’s responsibility to clean.
Sometimes he will deign to let Beth pet him, and it’s during one of those rare afternoons when it’s just him and Beth that Oscar jumps up on the couch and, oddly, starts purring. "Hi," Beth says, quietly, stroking Oscar’s fur tentatively. He purrs a little louder, so she keeps going. Blaine closes the book that they’re in the middle of and stays silent. Oscar starts kneading at the couch cushions while Beth pets him. "He’s for you," she says. "He’ll keep you company when I’m gone."
"Beth--" he starts, but she talks over him.
"It’s just going to be you and Da-Kurt. And mom already said that I can get a puppy next year, if I want to-- and Kurt doesn’t get home until late, and I think--" She stops talking, and Blaine can see her biting her lip. "I don’t want to leave."
He doesn’t want her to leave either, and his glued-together heart breaks a little, right then. "Your mom and Kurt are-- they’re close, Beth," Blaine says. "They’ll make sure we see each other, yeah?"
She sighs. "But it’s not going to be the same," Beth says. "This is dumb-- why can’t we just stay?"
"Your mom wants her own space," Blaine says, trying to explain. He and Quinn haven’t talked about it a lot, but it’s evident in the way she hasn’t fully unpacked from the move, even though it’s been almost a month. Her room is neat and tidy, but there are two stacks of boxes in the back, packing tape still on. "She’s missed out on a lot, and she knows what she wants to do."
"So why are you staying?" Beth asks. It’s curiosity, not mean-ness, but Blaine is still taken a little aback, because it’s not that he doesn’t know the answer-- he just doesn’t quite know how to respond.
"Beth-- your mom is really strong," he starts. "And I-- we’re really different, she and I."
"I know," she says impatiently.
"I just-- I need a little more help than your mom does," he says, trying to put it in terms an eleven-year-old will understand. "I’m not ready to leave, not yet."
"Neither am I," Beth says. "We just moved, and I don’t want to leave again, and I know that Kurt isn’t really my dad, but it still feels like he is, you know?" Blaine nods, and Beth continues. "I don’t want to just spend every other weekend with him, like Jeremy does with his dad."
"Have you talked with your mom about this?" Blaine asks, as gently as he can.
Beth shakes her head. "I don’t want to make her feel like she should stay. But she should, Uncle Blaine, because we’re a family."
There are families in all of Beth’s books-- odd ones, most of the time, ones built out of cast-off pieces, but Beth doesn’t really have a traditional family, either. Blaine remembers Beth talking about Ms. Honey and Matilda, about Tendai or Meg and their siblings-- so many of those books have parents who aren’t really there, and Beth’s worries are familiar and alien all at once. Blaine knows that Beth thinks of him as part of her own strange family, even though he doesn’t feel like it, most of the time.
Beth’s parents love her and care for her and aren’t staying together; Blaine’s parents didn’t love him or care for him, apparently, and they had stayed together, as far as he knows. "I’m never going to say goodbye to you, Beth," Blaine says honestly. "Even if we’re on opposite sides of the world, as long as you want me to pick up the phone or write you a letter, I will. And I’m sure that Kurt feels the same way-- he’s your dad, and he loves you."
Beth buries herself in Blaine’s side, Oscar all but forgotten next to her. The cat keeps purring, and Blaine holds on to Beth as tightly as he dares.
* * *
Blaine meets his new Foster a few days after he signs the papers. She's half a foot taller than he is, and much broader-- quite a change from Emma. She looks like she could crush him without thinking about it, but she has a smile that's as warm as Emma's, and her eyes are kind, so Blaine takes her hand when she offers it.
"I'm Shannon Beiste," she says, shaking his hand firmly. "I'll be taking care of you until you're all the way out."
The way she says it makes him smile back at her. "I'm Blaine," he replies, maybe unnecessarily, because she clearly already knows who he is. She gestures for him to sit in the chair opposite her desk, and picks up a familiar stack of papers.
"Just so you know, I read up on all my kids before we start," she says, and he's immediately nervous, for all that she's been kind so far. "Emma had real good things to say about you."
Maybe Emma hadn't included his breakdown in any official report-- it's not like it's the worst thing that's happened to him on assignment, and it's something that would seriously damage his chances of getting good Holder, next time--
--and he stops, takes a deep breath. There isn't going to be a next time, because he's going to be free. He is, if he can just get over himself, if he can force himself to be okay, be normal, to just-- push past his issues and be the person he should have been.
"You okay?" Shannon asks, and Blaine realizes that he's been silent for too long.
"I'm fine," he says. "Just-- had a moment. I'm sorry, ma'am."
"Please, call me Shannon," she says. "How's everything else? Emma said you had some trouble with a few things, but it's been a while since you've seen anyone."
"I'm doing much better," he says, and it's so hard to remember that he doesn't have to lie about it, not any more. The words feel like they should be false because before Emma (and even sometimes with her), lying to his Foster had been a matter of course. And even if he's not all the way to good, he's eating better and he's sleeping okay. "I haven't-- there have been a few--" He stops, rubs his hands across the top of his thighs. His palms are damp with nervousness, even though right now, he doesn't have anything to be worried about, not really. "There are things I'm working on, but I will be fine."
"That's great to hear," she says. "If it's okay with you, I'd like you to have a physical at some point within the next few weeks-- if I'm looking at you right, it seems like the one we have on file is out of date."
Six months ago, the thought of being (literally) weighed and measured would have terrified him, would have sent him spiraling down and away from everything else, peanut butter thick in his mouth and the grey heavy on his mind. Today, he just nods, understanding that even if he's not going to be a Def for very much longer, the DoL still wants measurements.
"So, Mr. Hummel sent in your papers, and it looks like everything's in order," she says, shuffling the papers she's still holding. "Now, were you wanting to try for the evaluation, or for exit coaching?"
"Exit coaching," Blaine replies, and Shannon nods approvingly.
"Makes sense," she says. "No use trying to win a triathlon without learning to bungee jump, right?"
Blaine's fairly sure that bungee jumping isn't one of the triathlon events, but he agrees with her. "Some people are ready to just walk out," he says, "but I'm not one of them."
"I'm hearing that from a lot of my kids," Shannon says. "Even the ones who aren't eligible or whose Holders are hanging on to 'em are thinking about what they would do, at least."
"That's what I'm having a hard time figuring out," Blaine says. "I don't-- I know that I want to be free, and I am so grateful to Kurt for making that a possibility for me. But I don't know what I'll do, if I am."
She smiles at him. "Well, that's part of what the exit coaching's for-- helping you figure out where you want to take your life. And it's not like you don't have skills, Blaine-- Mr. Hummel took you on on the basis of your work history, so it's not like you'd have a lot of trouble finding a job, based on that."
"But I'll have been a Def," he argues. "It's not like--" He pauses, again, and she waits for him patiently, not pushing, as he thinks over his words. "When I was a kid, before I was marked, I wanted to be a singer or an actor-- I wanted to be on stage, I loved having everyone's attention. And now that terrifies me; I don't know if you saw that press conference that Kurt set up, but I could barely make it through that. Nothing that I wanted is something I still want, and I don't even know where to start." It all comes pouring out of him in a rush, and he's embarrassed by the end of it, to have put so much in front of a woman he's only known for a matter of minutes.
"Hey," she says, "you've got time. No one's expecting you to make a decision tomorrow. Maybe you'll figure out that singing really is your thing, even if you only do it in a studio-- hell, maybe you'll end up playing pro ball or guerrilla knitting. You're only twenty-seven, Blaine-- don't rush it."
Her words are calming, to an extent, but Blaine still feels that pressure, that push. "But I--" She raises her eyebrows and waits him out, lets him put his thoughts together. She's a good Foster, from what he's seen in the past ten minutes, and he hopes that he hasn't read her wrong. "If I'm free but I don't have anything I want to do, then what's the point?" he asks, finally. It's what he's been thinking for a while now, but it's the first time he's put it in words. If he's just going to flail around and not do anything special, does he really deserve to be free?
"Do you want to be free?" Shannon asks. Her face is blank, devoid of judgement or anything that could give him a clue of how she wants him to answer. Joseph would do the same thing sometimes, and Blaine feels an echo of remembered panic at trying to figure out what Joseph wanted him to say, because even with an open-ended question, there was always a right answer.
"Yes," he says, because there isn't another answer, so this has to be the right one. "Yes, I do."
"Good," she says, and she smiles at him. "Then we'll start from there."
"Well," drawls a voice much too close to Blaine’s ears, "aren’t you a sight for sore eyes."
Blaine starts and turns in his seat. The man standing behind him is tall and sharp-faced, probably around Blaine’s age, with well-styled brown hair. He’s wearing a suit that fits the lines of his body perfectly, tie knotted neatly at his throat. His voice is confident and in control, and Blaine doesn’t meet his eyes; he ducks his head automatically, and catches sight of the suit’s sleeves, cut shorter than is fashionable, just above the man’s wrists.
The silver bracelet that hangs there looks startlingly out of place, for a man who holds himself as self-assuredly as this one does. Blaine is reminded of the other Defs he’s seen out and about-- New York Defs, sharp and sleek and polished, just like this man is. He makes Blaine feel messy, out of place in his cardigan and jeans. Still, he’s a Def, and Blaine relaxes just a bit.
"Thanks," he says. "I’m Blaine."
"Oh, I know who you are," the other man says, tapping the underside of Blaine’s chin so that he looks up. It’s startling and, honestly, a bit invasive; Blaine isn’t used to strangers touching him any more, but he stops himself from jerking back. "I could never forget a pair of eyes like yours."
"I--" Blaine starts, but the other man interrupts him.
"I’m Sebastian," he says, and he offers Blaine his hand. "I heard you’d be here, and I had to come and see the great Blaine Anderson for myself. You’re the reason all of us are here, after all."
Sometimes Blaine forgets that he’s put himself out in the public eye, that people he’s never met know who he is by face and name. He can feel his cheeks heat in embarrassment, and he takes Sebastian’s hand tentatively, unsurprised when Sebastian’s grip is almost too strong.
"The session will be starting in a few minutes," Blaine says, taking his hand back as gently as he can.
Sebastian’s lips twist up in a smile. "Polite," he says, and Blaine drops his eyes and raises his shoulders in anticipation of--
He expects to be hit, honestly, because Sebastian may be a Def but he doesn’t speak like one, he doesn’t act like one-- he reads like a Holder, and that makes him dangerous. Blaine waits for a blow that doesn’t come, and hears Sebastian’s chuckle instead. "It’s fine, Blaine," he says. "We’re all Defs here."
"Sorry," Blaine says. It’s been months since he’s had a reaction like that-- he thought he’d learned by now to trust other people just a little. But then, he’s only been with Kurt for nine months, and before that, he’d had ten years of missteps met with harsh words and heavy hands.
"You’re a legend for us," Sebastian says, and Blaine tries to demur, because he’s-- he can’t be. He’s no kind of role model, not for anyone. "Don’t be modest-- you’re the most famous one here."
Blaine can feel his face heating, his mouth turning dry. "Thanks," he says.
"I can’t believe your Holder is letting you go," Sebastian says. "You’re really a catch-- I, for one, would never let you out of bed."
"It’s not like that," Blaine says quietly, thinking of how careful Kurt is with him, like he’s still so fragile. Kurt had made it exceptionally clear from the beginning that sex was not on the table, was never a thing he wanted from Blaine, and even though he knows that's not standard, he's annoyed that Sebastian makes that assumption.
"Oh really?" Sebastian asks, raising an eyebrow. He sits, finally, across the small table from Blaine. "Are you all pure and untouched?" His eyes travel up and down Blaine's body, and that shouldn't make Blaine uncomfortable, he should be used to it, being looked at like something to be devoured-- but it does, and his skin crawls.
"I--" he starts, but he doesn't know where to go from there. He doesn't want to admit to this stranger that his Holder hasn't been using him fully, even though that fact makes Blaine happier than he'd thought possible. What he and Kurt do or don't do is their business, and it's no one else's. He nods, uncomfortable and too aware of his skin. "Not by-- I've done one-on-one for years," he says. "But Kurt--"
"He's different, yeah," Sebastian finishes for him. "You've said. But come on, Blaine, he's gotta be giving you something-- and if he's not, I'd be more than happy to."
"Your Holder--" Blaine tries, but he knows it's a dead end, given where they are.
And sure enough, Sebastian shakes his head. "He doesn't want me anymore. And even if he did-- you'd stop me, for sure. That bashful schoolboy thing really works for you."
Blaine thinks that it hardly can-- he's almost thirty, and even though he looks younger than his age, schoolboy is more than pushing it. "Thanks, but no," he says.
"We could do such things together," Sebastian says, and he draws his hand, whisper-light, over Blaine's.
"No," Blaine says sharply, drawing his hand back. "I should-- we're starting in a minute. I need to find my group."
Sebastian smiles at him, teeth razor-sharp. "I'll help."
They're in the same group, it turns out, along with half a dozen other Defs, most of whom look shocked to be there. Blaine feels Sebastian's eyes on him the whole time; he feels naked and exposed, even though all they're talking about is basic getting-to-know-you games. Blaine's not the only one who's been in this long-- Sebastian was marked just under a year after he was, it turns out, and they're the same age; there's an old man who moves like his joints ache who talks about not even remembering his parents. Blaine feels his shoulders move up as the session continues, because none of them really want to share.
They're the Defs who couldn't make it on their own, so they have to have help. He almost feels ashamed, because he's nearly thirty and he should have figured out his life ten years ago. But being in a group helps, too, because he finds out that he's not the only one who can't decide on anything resembling a career path, once he's free.
Afterwards, he feels hollowed-out and achey, unsure on his own feet. He can't quite decide if it's a good hurt or a bad one; the session had been mixed for him. Kurt isn't waiting to take him back, even though he'd walked him through the doors, and Blaine hadn't expected him to be-- Kurt had had some business deal to finalize, designs to send off. He wishes that Kurt were here, though, that he were waiting with lukewarm coffee and an unfinished book, because then maybe he'd know what to do, now.
He's lost, adrift, and he realizes that he's been standing next to the doorway for too long when Sebastian passes him, puts a hand on his shoulder. "You all right?" he asks, and Blaine startles, shoulders jerking.
"I'm fine," he says automatically.
"Sure," Sebastian says, and he smiles again-- his mouth isn't full of shark's teeth this time, but Blaine doesn't imagine for a second that he's harmless. "I'll see you next week."
"Of course," Blaine replies, dragging his manners up from somewhere.
"Oh, and Blaine?" Sebastian says, turning so that Blaine is looking straight at him. "Think about what I said-- I could show you a really good time." With that, he saunters off, moving like the Holder that Blaine had mistaken him for at first. He doesn't understand Sebastian's confidence, not at all.
He needs to leave, he needs to get out of the DoL and back to the safety of Kurt's apartment, so he can just figure this out, sort through everything that's happened and make sense of it. He walks until he hits the subway and makes his way back, walking alone, closed in on himself, like a Def.
* * *
Blaine comes back from his session and waves at Beth, but he walks directly to his room and closes the door behind him. (He has a door that he can close and it shouldn’t mean as much as it does, because he would never deny Kurt entry but the barrier is still there and Kurt respects it. He has a door.)
Blaine toes off his shoes out of habit but leaves his jacket on. He is cold, like he used to be in their old apartment, shivering even though he knows that it’s warm inside.
He'd figured it out on his way home: he isn’t strong enough for this.
He feels sick and off-balance, worse than he had at the DoL, because Sebastian had barely touched him, barely spoken to him, but he'd knocked Blaine off of any stable ground that he'd been able to gain. Kurt has been great-- Kurt has been amazing-- but Blaine knows that there are things waiting that he hasn't even started to think about, not consciously. His body is a minefield, and even though his thoughts might be his again, for the most part, he avoids looking at himself in the mirror if he can help it. Beth is really the only person who touches him, and the brief warmth of Kurt's hands in his hair fixing his haircut had faded too soon.
If he can’t even deal with someone-- a Def-- hitting on him, how is he supposed to handle the real world? If he can’t hear compliments without feeling sick, if he can’t-- if he can’t handle normal human interaction with people outside his tiny family, how can he be free? What business does he have in pretending that he’s normal and functional and okay?
He’s not sure how long he lies there, mind as blank as he can make it-- long enough for the room to start to grow dark, even though the blinds are open. He aches, even though there’s no reason for it, not really.
Because Sebastian was nice. Sebastian complimented him and Sebastian maybe got in his space a little (but isn’t Blaine used to that? Isn’t he supposed to be?), but Sebastian is a Def, just like him. Sebastian is supposed to be safe, but Blaine only barely feels safe here, behind a locked door in the apartment that belongs to the closest thing Blaine has to family.
Kurt knocks softly at Blaine's door and Blaine gathers enough of himself up to respond, tell Kurt that he's fine, that he'll talk about it later but he just needs some time, please.
And because Kurt listens when Blaine asks, because Blaine knows that he can expect at least that much, Blaine has the rest of the night to lie awake and think, turn things over in his mind until he reaches some point of equilibrium. It's not quite the same stable ground that he'd had before, but he can think about everything without wanting things to just stop-- no, he's not okay, but he's known that for a while.
He's not okay. He can't take a compliment and he has no idea what he wants to do, but he's not the only one. He doesn't know how to apply for a job but he doesn't hate his body anymore; he's never going to be tall but he almost has music back. He finds the compromises, the places that fill each other up until he's back in balance. It's not the same as figuring everything out, it's not everything that he could be. But it's a start, it's something to build on, and he unfolds himself, wincing at the movement. He takes off his jacket and hangs it up, unzips his jeans and stretches out his shoulders. The clock tells him that it's just past three a.m. so it's no wonder that he's exhausted; he walks slowly down to the bathroom and brushes his teeth, avoids his own eyes in the mirror.
It's a compromise.
* * *