Kurt is having some trouble adjusting. He’s trying, really , but it’s not easy when his brain feels like it’s made of swiss cheese and every time he tries to do something the holes seem to expand and consume it until there is nothing left but fear, and cold and wet gelatinous fluids covering his arms and legs and mouth and no matter how many times he tries to rub them away they just won’t let him go.
It’s easier for everyone else, Kurt thinks. They aren’t left with permanent reminders, they can approach with sympathetic words or hugs or tears but they can forget about it. And to Kurt, forgetting is rather the problem. The teachers can breathe a sigh of relief that their students are all back home safe and sound, his classmates can go back to focusing on exams but Kurt is stuck because he knows he put his crystal screwdriver somewhere and he needs it now but he can’t remember.
Kurt always used to remember.
Everyone from his parents to his friends and roommate complained that he lived in an unorganized mess but Kurt knew exactly where everything was and that was all that mattered. Except now his brain is swiss cheese and he can’t find his screwdriver and his hands are shaking as he tears through piles of paper and scrap metal and slams drawers open and shut because he always used to remember and now he can’t.
Winsler opens the door and helps him look for it without a word.
They find it neatly placed on the high shelf above Winsler’s bed, the one with the action figurines and the crown. Kurt sags with relief and holds it as Winsler holds his hand and chants something and the cut Kurt hadn’t even realized he had heals itself under the power of magic.
Winsler smiles and asks how his day was. It’s nice.
It gets harder when Winsler leaves for his trip. Their dorm doesn’t feel right without the ever presence of his best friend and his familiar and whatever stories Winsler brings with him every day. It’s disquieting, feels too much like dark, empty tunnels and wet floors and gelatinous ooze and. Alright. Kurt isn’t handling it that well. Or at all, really.
At least the situation with school is better. There’s non-mandatory study hall sessions now, where Kurt can sit with Veldon and Allena and everyone and they can all help each other remember. They go through textbooks and readings and nobody mentions it if one of them trails off and stares at nothing for a few seconds. Teachers join in too and it’s nice to finally get some of the damnable swiss cheese holes filled.
But yes. Kurt isn’t handling the quiet that well. Or at all, really.
He starts hanging out with Veldon. Not all at once, not like Winsler or Mira or Allena would, but something seems to shift after a meeting and suddenly he is following Veldon out into the courtyard and they’re talking and it’s nice . Veldon’s roommate Murundeen joins them after a bit, and Kurt sees on him that he’s been worried, in the way he sits just a bit closer and laughs just a bit too sharply at first. He supposes it’s only fair.
The change is evident on Winsler as well, when he comes back.
Kurt can’t seem to escape him, not that he’s trying but somehow the gnome seems to always catch up with him wherever he goes. Winsler walks him to dining hall, to lectures and always seems to be close by on the rare occasion that Kurt has a break. It’s not overbearing, not unwelcome because the gnome brings with him a whole array of sound and animation and it’s far more pleasant to listen to his friend than it is to swallow down fear when the only sounds are his own steps on the stone floors. Kurt finds himself anticipating the company, scanning hallways and doors for any sign of his friend, and it’s a far more pleasant activity than being locked in his own swiss cheese brain.
Winsler reminds him of the cornflower bird he tried to perfect what seems like years ago. Something flashes in Kurt’s mind and he smiles as he realizes he had forgotten about it on his own. It was a dumb idea for an invention anyway, he says.
It becomes a habit to ask Winsler whenever the swiss cheese labyrinth that Kurt traverses every day gets just a bit too high and too imposing. The gnome is always close by, and though Winsler’s default state seems to be to stare dreamily at nothing, he remembers a staggering amount of details. And he’s always eager to help, reminding Kurt about assignments and incidents and times they’ve hung out, and Kurt finds it just a little bit easier to leave dark tunnels and wet floors and red ooze -clogging his nose and mouth and choking him- behind.
It’s been a long day of worrying and fear despite Winsler’s best efforts when Kurt runs into Allena. They’re alone in the library and Kurt has a pile of books in his arms but he can tell even before he rounds the corner and spots her that it’s too quiet and so he’s not at all surprised when he sees her curled up into a ball behind a chair, sobbing quietly into her arms. Or well. He’s a little bit surprised because he’d never really thought it affected the others too.
Technically, Kurt was the first of the first-years. The professors told him he was taken first because of his exam scores, his tendency not to lock his doors when he worked and the fact that he never leaves his damn dorm room. So, technically, on a purely scientific basis, he should have the most holes. He should have the most experience because he was there longest.
Technicalities don’t help when you’re standing frozen, watching your friend sob on the floor of the too quiet library. Don’t help when the books fall from your arms and she startles and looks up and her eyes are red and puffy and your heart aches with sympathy because you’ve never really thought it affected the others too.
He blinks and suddenly his eyes are teary too.
They stay on the library floor, in the quiet, until a golem ushers them out for closing time. Allena gives him a hug before they part and Kurt feels something warm and protective inside his chest. He wipes his eyes and turns to walk back to his dorm. Winsler meets him halfway. Apparently his detention just ended for the day.
It becomes kind of a routine to meet up with Veldon and sometimes Allena. Their roommates always meet them after meetings and Murundeen walks just a bit closer to Veldon as Winsler does to Kurt. Nobody says anything about it. Probably everyone thinks it’s only fair.
They work well as a group, they find. Winsler is cheerful and Murundeen is boisterous and Veldon knows a lot of things that he’d eager to share. Kurt doesn’t speak much, but he never feels left out and it’s nice. He thinks of some new inventions. Winsler complains about the noise and Murundeen cheers him on and Veldon smiles and it’s nice. He’s not sure he’s ready to go back to building again, fears that it’ll overtake him and he’ll not be able to stop and he’ll spiral right back into fear and worry and red gelatinous ooze, but he’s glad for the inspiration. It’s nice to have his inventions back, even if it’s a slow process.
He writes a letter to his parents. No mention of the kidnapping, of course, Kurt doesn’t want to worry them but he also doesn’t want to risk them deeming Wildcliff unsafe and taking the one chance he would get in life to expand beyond their small village and make something of his inventions away. It’s a bit surprising to realize that he still feels so strongly about his passion, even after everything. Sometimes when you’re lost in dark, echoing tunnels with wet floors and your brain feels like swiss cheese it’s difficult to think that on the other side there’s an entire world of friendships, lessons, and passions that used to be everything.
He tells Winsler about it when he gets back. The gnome laughs and pats his shoulder and says that he’s always been a strange one. Kurt laughs too, softer and less certain, but still. He reaches over to grab a notebook and pen and asks Winsler if he has any suggestions for new projects.
Kurt completes his first creation since the kidnapping, a kind of lantern meant to be charged with a spell and then glow on command.
The glass frame cracks into three pieces when he tries it, but he feels proud of it nonetheless. It feels as though he’s made it back, somehow. He lets his head fall onto the desk and his eyes overflow like mechanical dams and Kurt cries for hours but he’s proud and he’s done it without falling back into the dark tunnels and swiss cheese labyrinth. It’s only been a few minutes when he feels something hot and soft land on his arms and make its way to his lap where it settles. Kurt moves one hand down to pet Mr Wiggles the way Winsler has shown him hundreds of times by now and wipes his eyes with the other. Winsler awwes at them when he gets back, tired and haggard from a long session of detention.
It doesn’t always stay easy. Kurt still loses himself in his work and things that used to bring him mild discomfort, like weakness and hunger pangs from skipping meals or dozing off due to lack of sleep, now bring forth all the terrible memories and leaves Kurt shaking and- cold, wet covered in gelatinous ooze - until Winsler or Allena or Veldon or someone else can get him out of it. But one day Kurt wakes up to a sunny day and realizes that he hasn’t felt the quiet in an entire week. Winsler gives him a hug when he hears.
It’s easier to push it aside now, easier to focus on lessons and school and his friends. Easier for everyone, Kurt thinks. It’s evident in Allena’s grin when she’s exiting the library with a big pile of books in her arms, or when Kurt spots Veldon stargazing in the courtyard long after Winsler has gone to bed. In how Murundeen no longer stutters when he asks if Kurt’s seen Veldon, and how Mira can be seen running from clubhouse to clubhouse without Allena anywhere in sight.
But this assumption only makes the present situation more jarring. Because it’s been months since the kidnappings, since Kurt was trapped in cold and dark and since Winsler threw his arms around him in the infirmary with tears in his eyes.
So why, if it’s been months and it’s easier for everyone, did Kurt have to blast open the unlocked door to their dormitories? Why did he feel wet, dry soil beneath his feet as if Winsler had deliberately held the door shut with a spell (Earthen Grasp, Kurt knows because they studied to learn it together)?
And his heart aches as he steps inside and Winsler looks up at him from the ground where he’s apparently been lying in the darkness because it’s been months and Winsler hasn’t once shown himself victim to the same cold, wet darkness that enveloped Kurt.
Kurt doesn’t know what to do. It’s been months and yet he remembers it as if it were yesterday. It’s been months and he knows without a doubt that he never wants his best friend to hide away again, trembling on the ground with tears in his eyes like he knows he put it somewhere but the memories are jumbled and lost to swiss cheese holes and-
Kurt breathes. He doesn’t know what to do but he knows enough to step inside, close the door and sit down. Winsler is uncharacteristically silent and Kurt thinks he catches his friend rubbing his eyes with one hand and his heart twists and it’s incredibly painful. He swallows thickly. Asks with a broken voice how Winsler’s day was.
He gets a laugh in response and it’s as if a wave of warmth crashes over him, reassuring and calming and invigorating. Winsler doesn’t reply, but Kurt can hear shuffling as he moves a bit closer. Kurt let’s his head fall back onto the wall with a sigh and vocalizes what he’s been thinking this entire time. That he’s sorry and that he wants to help and that he hadn’t realized and Winsler giggles all the while, having moved so close that their arms are touching and eventually Kurt is laughing too because this is ridiculous and it’s been months and somehow- in all this- they’ve come out alright. Better, even. Maybe Winsler wasn’t all wrong when he’d said they had a distant relationship because if this was how it feels to have something more than Kurt never wanted to go back.
Winsler laughs even harder at that. He comes to lean his head against Kurt’s shoulder and Kurt feels the wetness from his cheeks soak into the fabric of his robe. He leans into the touch.
Soon enough they will have to talk. Kurt knows this and he thinks Winsler knows it too. They’ve lived on non-verbal communication for too long, glances and touches and nods that convey only so much of what they’re actually thinking and Kurt doesn’t want to keep doing it if it’ll lead to him having to blast open the door to their dormitories because Winsler had closed it with a spell. If it’ll lead to Winsler looking up at him from where he’d been lying in the darkness.
For now though, they can stay in the cold and the quiet. It’s comfortable together.