Title: Amber and Linen
Rating: Currently PG-13, Eventual NC-17
Summary: Memory is recalled more through smell than any of our other senses. Blaine Anderson knows this better than most - he’s a soapmaker with a psychology degree, after all. It isn’t until Kurt Hummel, fashion-designer-in-training, walks into his shop that Blaine realizes just how important scent can be. (A new love told through scents. New York future AU.)
A/N:I want to thank everyone who has made this fic possible (/legible), particularly facethefall, aubreyli, dftreaper, and my LOVELY LOVELY LOVELY beta, dahlstrom. This is technically my first ever multichap AU (well, the first one that doesn’t entirely consist of porn, that is,) so I’m rather excited and anxious to get it started. It’s currently planned as 13 chapters and an epilogue, each spanning about a month in the AU’s world. I have the first three chapters mostly written; I’m planning on putting out a chapter every week and a half. Happy Reading!!!
Kurt ran out of his apartment that morning like a man possessed, silk tie streaming behind him like the lagging tail of a kite.
He had spent an additional ten minutes after breakfast crafting the perfect lunch for himself; crunchy foccacia which had been purchased at a discount on the second day from a bakery nearby, ripe tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil from the local farmers’ market, and a small cup of balsamic vinegar to steep into the bread once he got to his lunch break.
He had spent so long enough on perfection, however, that there was very little chance he was going to get to work, let alone his lunch break.
“Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit,” he muttered as he bolted down his stairs, timing his mantra to the slap of his loafers against the cement. Slinging on his jacket as he went, President Bartlet-style, he pivoted around the bottom of the stairs and out the door, his leather bag bluntly thumping against his side as he went.
His subway stop was typically an eleven minute walk away, but today he completed it in seven, wholly ignoring the defiantly uninterested stares of his fellow New Yorkers. He adjusted his outfit the entire time – tightening his tie, straightening his cuffs, his cufflinks, his brooch, the laces on his shoes. He swung into the train car with a sigh of relief, his hair mostly windblown, but the rest of his outfit no worse for the wear.
Thankfully, he had twenty-five minutes until his stop.
Fishing his makeup kit out of his bag, Kurt began The Process.
From start to finish, The Process took precisely twenty minutes, leaving two on either side for clean-up and thirty seconds apiece for transit. Starting with primer and concealer, The Process made its way through a veritable army of products, and enough hair spray to set anyone else in his vicinity off coughing (and possibly set them at risk of spontaneous combustion.)
When he emerged from the J train in Manhattan, he was flawless.
When he arrived at work, however –
“You’re late!” Bettinello barked gruffly, his mustache twitching in frustration. “And fix your tie, you look like a broken-necked pink bird.” He gestured to Kurt’s neck in a strange stretching motion, up and down with an open palm.
“Flamingo, Dad,” Evelina quipped as she emerged from the back room, holding several yards of grey linen. She was graceful as ever, her dark hair draped over her slight shoulders. “And good morning, Kurt. Don’t listen to him on this one – I love that tie.”
Kurt stroked over his tie, straightening the knot at the base of his neck to lie flat. It was hot pink with a light inner lining, the colors perfectly complementing, in his opinion, with the dark grey of his suit and the crisp white of his shirt. “Thanks, Evelina,” he said, preening over the compliment.
“Too skinny,” Bettinello snorted. “A tie should be firm, a column the head may rest on.” He touched the sides of his own wide jaw, his hands moving to show Kurt the width of his chest, parallel to the lines of his tie. “Your head would topple as if on a stick!” And with that, he retreated to the back room, a string of lowly mumbled Italian following him.
Kurt just gave a little huffing sigh, trying to ignore the curl of disappointment in the bottom of his chest.
“Ignore Papa,” Evelina said, gesturing Kurt over to her work table. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, now. Come, I’ll show you how to hem a tie so it falls a little higher on your chest; it won’t crease your suit that way.”
Thrusting away his frustration, Kurt instead focused on learning – Evelina was the reason he was here, after all. The younger Bettinello had been the talk of the mens’ design world for years. Armond would see how wrong he was about Kurt, some day.
“Kurt, we’re off to lunch,” Evelina called to him from the front of the store. He was in the back, taking stock of their fabrics on hand, running his fingers over wool, silk, linen, poplin to examine the differences in texture.
“Sounds good!” he shouted back, checking his watch. Twelve forty-five. “I brought lunch with me, so I’ll just eat here and then walk around a little. Be back in sixty?”
“Yes, of course darling! Lock up behind you!” Evelina finished, and Kurt heard the door close dully behind the father and daughter pair.
He sighed in relief.
Kurt ate his sandwich slowly, enjoying the tart of the balsamic alongside the creamy cool of the mozzarella. It was simply perfect.
The backroom of Bettinello’s was still and quiet but for the light chirping of Armond’s bird from the next room, an exemplar of brilliant organization on pause. He licked over his fingers, dyed slightly brown from the remnants of the vinegar.
Kurt resituated himself, washed his hands and his Tupperware in the bathroom sink. Grabbing his bag from behind his own work table, shunted in the back corner of the stock room, he left and locked the store, ready for thirty minutes of freedom.
On the rare occasion he got a break during the day, Kurt usually chose to walk down towards Broadway, trying to bask in the variety of stores there as quickly as possible before his break was over. Today, though, he stayed close, looking through the little expensive Spring Street boutiques immediately around Bettinello’s. The sky looked like it could open up at any moment, and with his suit, he wasn’t about to take that chance.
There was a store one block up he had been meaning to go in for weeks – Token Soap. With its faux-wood exterior and metal accents, it stood out like a sore thumb among the smooth minimalist exteriors of the rest of the block – though admittedly a very well-designed one.
A bell tinkled gently as he entered the shop, and cool air full of citrus and jasmine washed over him. The store was just full of aroma, not overpowering, but layer after layer of scent accumulated over time, complex and indecipherable. Kurt closed his eyes for a moment, taking it all in.
When he opened them again, a small black mass of fur was bolting at him from under the nearest soap-laden table.
“Oh, helloooo!” he cooed to the tiny Scottish terrier, whose entire body wiggling with the force of its excitement. “Who’re you, huh?” He knelt down to the small dog, scratching behind its dark ears and investigating its bright yellow collar, which only read Lemon. “You’re a real cutie, aren’t you?”
It was then, finally, that Kurt heard the faint strains of music coming from the other room.
“You think I’m pretty, without any makeup on…
bahda ba da da, mhmm hah-m-h-m,
I know you get me, so I let my walls come down, DO-O-OWN,”
The store was split into two segments by a slight inset, the height of the tables partially blocking the front door from view. Kurt moved towards the back of the shop, past colorful bars of soap set in patterns, towards the alluring voice singing along to Katy Perry.
Behind a long slate blue countertop was a tanned man in a tight black shirt and a mustard yellow beanie, preoccupied with a long row of glass bottles against the back wall. He danced from one end of the cabinets to the other, shaking his admittedly fine ass to the beat of the song as he went.
“Let’s go all the way tonight,
He twisted his hips at that, shifting along to the tune. He reached up on his tip-toes and grabbed a nearly-full bottle labeled Cosmo from the top shelf.
“We can dance, until we die,
you and I, can be young,”
He turned, hoisting the bottle at an angle as if it was a microphone,
And at that point he nearly dropped the bottle, having finally caught sight of Kurt.
“Oh,” the man said, embarrassed. The song kept going without him. “Hi. Ah, sorry,” he rubbed the back of his beanie, suddenly abashed. “I get kind of into it.”
“I don’t mind; you’re…you’re really good,” Kurt cleared his throat, trying not to lose his train of thought. “It’s a good thing you didn’t drop that. You would have smelled like cranberry for days,” Kurt said, hoping he wouldn’t blush.
This boy’s face was warm, golden tan with honey eyes and the slightest hint of stubble.
Kurt couldn’t help but smile at him.
“Ah-well, I normally spill enough on myself that I smell like a walking fruit basket by the end of my shift anyway. You can never really wash it all off.” The little dog – Lemon – ran back behind the counter and pawed up the side of the man’s leg, asking for a lift. He patted it on its head instead, moving to dry off his hands and shifting into the store proper. “Now. What can I help you with?”
“Oh, I’m just browsing,” Kurt said. “I’ve never been in here before – I work around the corner, at Bettinello’s.”
“Oh! I’ve been there before,” the man said, laughing a little when Kurt raised his eyebrows. “I love all of your shop window displays, even though I can’t afford any of it. Your boss,” he gestured to his upper lip in what was surely a mockery of Armond’s mustache, “doesn’t like me very much.”
“He doesn’t like anyone very much,” Kurt held out his hand. “I’m Kurt.”
His grip was sure, if a little slick from the damp rag.
Kurt had met plenty of attractive men while in New York; he had even dated some of them. Nevertheless, he felt himself blushing a little, and he cleared his throat. He turned to the long wooden tables throughout the store, running his fingers over the yellow loaf of soap immediately in front of him. Blaine bent over to grab something from the lowest drawer of a cabinet, and Kurt looked away quickly.
“So, you make all of your soaps in the store?” Kurt asked, trying to get his mind off of Blaine’s ass and back on topic.
“Soaps, lotions, sugar scrubs, and bath oils, yessir,” Blaine straightened up with three long bottles in each hand. “All natural, great for your skin, and we can make custom products for you as well, if you want.”
“No animal testing, I assume?”
Blaine laughed, and bent down on one knee to ruffle the Terrier’s ears. “Nope, Lemon here gets all her own products, specially made. She’s got a skin condition, so she’s a picky little girl.”
“Is she yours?”
“No, she’s Stanley’s – the owner’s. Go on girl, go get your hedgehog –“
And as if he’d said a magic word, Lemon went dashing off to the back of the shop, her tags jingling as she went.
“So, Kurt,” Blaine stood and dusted his hands off on his knees, nonchalant. Kurt could see the slightest hints of black ink, peeking out from beneath the sleeves of his left sleeve. He tried to get a better glimpse, but stopped as soon as Blaine looked at him again. “Do you like anything you’ve smelled so far?”
Kurt had been absentmindedly moving from loaf to loaf of soap, smelling at the sample bars – or at least pretending to – while he talked to Blaine. He honestly could not remember a single one.
“Uh,” he said, trying to not get caught in the act, “I rather liked the clear one, the,” he glanced at the little chalkboard sign, “the white tea?”
“We have that in a body lotion as well, if you’re interested.”
“I like it, but I’m not certain I’d wear it, you know?”
“Well then. What’s your favorite scent?”
“To wear, or just in general?”
“Both.” Blaine grinned, and leaned against the wooden table casually. “Often they go hand in hand; scents that have good memories attached to them can be nice and comfortable to wear, either everyday or just as an occasional scent. I want to smell like oatmeal and honey every day, but it’s a good soap for when I need to relax, since it smells like the bubble bath my mom used when I was a kid. Just like how I don’t want to smell like coffee or cake every day, but I still have a bar of Café Ole for when I need a pick-me-up.”
Lemon reappeared with a worn stuffed hedgehog the size of her head. Blaine knelt down to wrestle it from her mouth, before throwing it towards the back again. She hurtled after it, tail whipping back and forth in excitement.
"Cheesecake," Kurt said bluntly. He chuckled and leaned back on one arm against the nearest table. "Or, ah, fresh laundry. Motor oil…. Stage lights. That clean, earthy smell after rain."
"Petrichor," Blaine said, grinning. "Doctor Who? No? Sorry, go on."
Kurt raised an eyebrow in confusion and pitched his head back, thinking. “My mother’s perfume.”
“What does she wear?”
“She wore some off-brand; a local perfumery used to make it, but they discontinued it. Do you guys do perfumes?”
Blaine winced, apologetic. “No, sorry. We handmake our own scents for our soap, but perfumes are usually a lot more complicated.”
Kurt hummed, glancing left and right along the row of soaps in front of him.
“If you want, though, we do have a Petrichor soap -” he walked over to a side table, lifting a pretty white-and-blue patterned bar for Kurt to smell, “it’s technically called Rain, but it’s really Petrichor.”
“What is petrichor, exactly?”
“You know when it hasn’t rained for a long time, and it’s really dry out, and when it finally does, it’s just a little musky outside, but really earthy and clean, like everything’s been washed away?” Blaine held the loaf of soap to his nose, inhaling gently. “Petrichor. Coincidentally, it’s one of only three nouns in the English language that only describes a smell, rather than an object.”
Kurt hummed, amused. “So that would be petrichor…?”
“Petrichor, nidor, and musk.”
"Hm.” Kurt glanced at him, wry. “You sure know a lot about this stuff."
Blaine laughed, almost self-consciously. “Well, it is what I study. Scent memories, that is. In relation to psychology.”
“That sounds…really interesting, actually. Are you still in school?”
“No, just graduated a year ago in May. NYU.”
“Same here, but Parsons.”
“Oh man, you must be really good then - I go to y’all’s fashion design show every year! Everything is amazing - that one last year, with the gold leaf -”
“Amanda,” Kurt sighed, “Such a bitch, but such a designer. Mine was the one with the french wallpaper -”
“The reversible patterns? You did those? They were amazing!” Blaine raved, his hands rising up in excitement. “The way you did that double-sided drape -”
“Oh, well,” Kurt ran a hand through the back of his hair, flustered. “Thank you. I -”
Both of them jumped at the sudden outburst of noise from Kurt’s cell phone as the alarm went off, warning him that his break was almost over.
“Shoot, I’d better go,” Kurt said, regretful. “But I’ll be back sometime soon - if only to hear about how great my designs are again.” He winked, then thought better of it, looking at the floor in slight embarrassment.
“Anytime,” Blaine said, and winked back. “Well, as long as it’s not Thursdays - I’m off then.” He gestured to the empty store, arms wide. “As you can see, I could use the company.”
Kurt was definitely coming back here.
“I’ll see you then,” Kurt said, and opened the door, only to close it again quickly.
“Shit.” he said, his mood ruined. “It is pouring out there.”
“Wait, really?” Blaine quickly moved towards the back. “Hold on one sec.”
He came back with a long grey umbrella with what appeared to be half a black snorkel at the top. “Here,” he said, holding it out to Kurt from the tip, “Take this. I would hate to see your linen get soaked.”
“I can’t…” Kurt said, hesitating. Blaine thrust it out again and he took the handle, uncertain. “But don’t you need it to get home?”
“I’ve got this,” Blaine said, ruffling his yellow beanie and the dark mass of curls beneath it. “And besides, it’s not like any of my clothes will get ruined by the rain. Take it.”
“Thank you,” Kurt gripped the umbrella’s handle, touched. “I quite like that, by the way,” he said, nodding at Blaine’s beanie.
“Oh, well, you know - Hufflepuff pride and all!” Blaine gestured to his black shirt, and the yellow-laced black high-tops Kurt could not believe he didn’t notice before.
“I don’t know if I can talk to you now,” Kurt scoffed, affecting a posh British accent. He waved his free hand in a small flourish, showing off his outfit. “Ravenclaw.”
Blaine laughed, and god, how was someone this adorable working down the street? “I hope you can get over your prejudices enough to come visit me again,” he smiled wide. “At least long enough to return that umbrella.”
“I’ll bring it back tomorrow,” Kurt shot back quickly, and probably a little too eagerly.
“I’ll see you then,” Blaine said, and waved him out.
Kurt opened the umbrella under the small overhang of Token Soap, chuckling at the goggle design sewn into the side of it.
He inhaled, taking in the sweet smell of the rain and the earth beneath it, overpowering the usual city-smog-stench the street usually possessed.
“Petrichor,” he whispered to himself, smiling, and went on his way.