The days marking the start of the school year melted into one another, blurring together like a smeared watercolor until suddenly Quinn found herself next to Rachel in the backseat of Kurt's SUV as they caravanned the eight hours to an invitational in Indiana a week after Sectionals. After the chaotic year they were all still recovering from, the semester was passing quietly for all of them. Even with the balancing of glee, the Cheerios, studying, and being the girlfriend of possibly the most high maintenance person on the planet, Quinn found herself basking in the relative simplicity of a year that lacked unexpected pregnancies, mountains of lies, enraged parents, and Slushies to the face—which by then, unsurprisingly, were banned from the high school campus. Even Rachel seemed less frantic than she had just a year earlier, though she was still prone to launching into lectures and rambles at any given point of the day.

Their relationship had quieted, just as much as the live of the entire glee club had, in the past months. Though Quinn still had nightmares on occasion, and had needed to be talked through a handful of panic attacks, she no longer flinched when someone touched her unexpectedly, and paused only sparingly with her hands hovering over her empty stomach. Rachel, too, had started to forge her way past her own insecurities and concerns, her trust in Quinn's dedication to their relationship growing visibly every time Quinn used her head cheerleader power to cut down someone who insulted anyone in the glee club, or passed up an invitation to a party after a football game so she could go out with Rachel, or stood up for Rachel in the face of even the mildest of insults.

More times than Quinn could count, she had rolled her eyes when Puck complained that she and Rachel had become the dullest couple he'd ever met, and each time, she had sent up a silent prayer that their now-boring relationship never changed; they had dealt with enough excitement to manage the rest of their lives, and now that they had reached a level of comfort between them with the worst of their issues out in the open and already argued over, she had no desire to do anything to stir up some excitement. As it was, their only disagreements then were over Quinn's college plans, what with Rachel getting into both NYU and Julliard, and Quinn torn between a full ride to Georgetown and an almost-full ride to Columbia; if that was all that they had to fight over, Quinn reasoned that they were doing astoundingly well, considering how tumultuously their relationship had been initially.

In the front seat, Kurt and Mercedes were chattering away about something to do with Lindsay Lohan. Rachel had her headphones in, her brow furrowed as she stared intently at the binder full of sheet music in her lap as she softly sang along to recordings she'd made of their set list; her left hand rested atop Quinn's leg, fingers tangled loosely with Quinn's as the blond leaned sleepily against her, supposedly working her way through Crime and Punishment for her English class.

When Rachel finished her run-through of the entire set list, she set her iPod and binder aside and glanced over at Quinn. Quinn yawned, the deceptive warmth of the sun drifting through the windows making her contentedly sleepy, and stretched out across the wide backseat, bare feet propped against the door and her head pillowed comfortably in Rachel's lap. Dostoevsky could only hold her attention for so long, and sleep seemed far more appealing for the last half hour of the drive.

"Hi," Rachel said softly. "Tired?"

"Mhm," Quinn mumbled, her eyes shut as Rachel's fingers unthinkingly slid through her hair. "Sleepy time."

"You went running again before we left, didn't you?"

Quinn could hear the vague disapproval without even opening her eyes. "Maybe," she drawled. She opened one eye and looked up at Rachel. "You were on the elliptical this morning, so I'm pretty sure you don't get to lecture me about exercising."

"Exercise is good," Rachel said. "But running, especially on pavement, has proven detrimental effects on the body."

"Yeah, but it makes me pretty," Quinn said with a winning smile. "Not all of us can get such rocking legs just from using an elliptical, you know." One arm dropped down off the seat, her fingers curling teasingly around Rachel's ankle, and her smile widened when Rachel flushed brightly, her head ducking down instinctively.

"Flattery, while appreciated, will hardly negate my point," Rachel said stubbornly. Quinn wasn't sure how or when she had reached the point where Rachel's obstinacy became intriguing and adorable instead of frustrating and dangerous—though, she thought wryly, if she had to pinpoint it, she might say that it was sometime around the time when she realized that the progressive changes in her relationship with Rachel had changed Quinn herself into an almost entirely different person than she'd been just a year ago— but she felt like she had to constantly restrain herself from reaching out and pinching Rachel's cheek whenever the brunette set her jaw and crossed her arms stubbornly to make a point.

"The fact remains that the impact on your joints from running can lead to any number of health issues, from shin splints to cartilage damage. Not to mention the fact that you run a far higher risk of acute injury by running on the road than you do utilizing an elliptical."

"Pun!" Quinn said quickly. "You just made a pun." She reached up and blindly pinched at Rachel's arm. "I thought you hated puns."

"Ow!" Rachel said. "And I do hate puns. They're the lowest form of humor and—"

"But humor regardless," Quinn interrupted. She smiled cheekily. "Don't hate."

Rachel rolled her eyes, her head falling back against the seat exasperatedly. "I think I liked you more when you were calling me man-hands," she muttered. "You were far more predictable then. I don't know how to manage you when you're acting like you're high."

Quinn smirked. "Too late," she said. "You're totally stuck with me now."

"Am I?"

"For good," Quinn said automatically, the words leaping past her lips before she had even considered them. Her eyes widened as soon as she spoke them, and one hand twitched instinctively, as if to cover her mouth in an attempt to lasso the words. She watched as the amusement in Rachel's eyes faded into surprise and solemnity as she stared down at Quinn.

"Really?" she asked in a small voice.

Quinn stared up at her, her eyes still wide, and wondered when something that had been born of pain and security and a desperate need for something to feel right again had melted into something comfortable and easy, something that she could barely bring herself to imagine giving up. Since their argument when Rachel returned from Chicago, neither of them had found the nerve to broach the topic of the quantity or quality of their feelings for one another. Quinn remained stubbornly convinced that, for all that she loved Rachel, she was going to hurt the smaller girl, and Rachel obstinately insisted that everything would work out for the best if they just tried.

Fears aside, though, Quinn could hardly deny that the highlight of her time at school was the free period when she met Rachel in the rehearsal room, or the Cheerios locker room, or Mr. Scheu's office that was perpetually empty because he spent third period flirting with Miss Pillsbury; or that the worst thing about the semester thus far had been when Quinn had to spend nights out of town for cheerleading competitions.

Similarly, there was no doubt that the feelings of security and companionship she had with Rachel was the only thing that could calm her down when she was teetering on the edge of the increasingly-rare panic attacks—about the miscarriage, about the phantom bruise she still felt from her father's fist, about the resigned look in Puck's eyes every time she caught him staring at her and Rachel together. Even though Quinn was on a slow and steady recovery from her miscarriage and the disappearance of her father from her life, slowly sorting through the tangled web of her own emotions and coming to terms with what had happened, she could barely imagine having to fight her way through one of those moments alone, without knowing somewhere in her mind that Rachel would be there to grab her hand and stroke her hair and talk her through it.

"Quinn?" Rachel's soft voice pulled Quinn out of her myriad of parading thoughts, and she shook her head slightly, blinking and looking up to where Rachel was staring down at her apprehensively. Quinn felt a twinge in her stomach at the nervous look in Rachel's eyes—it had only taken a few weeks of development in their relationship for her to realize that she loathed it when Rachel looked scared, that she felt inclined to do anything in the world to prevent Rachel ever having to be worried about anything— and wondered if there was a subtle and not-ridiculous way to declare that she wanted nothing more out of the world than to be the kind of person who deserved to be loved by Rachel Berry.

"Sorry," she mumbled. "I kinda zoned out."

"You did," Rachel said. Her fingers moved tentatively in Quinn's hair as she waited with impatience brimming in her eyes, poorly masked behind anxiety and the obvious need to ply Quinn with questions. Losing herself in her considerations for a moment once more, Quinn marveled at how drastically different Rachel had become around her since their relationship had found some semblance of solid footing after their last argument when Rachel returned from Chicago so many months ago. The brunette was far quieter at times, her sharp edges dulled slightly and her patience extended; she was less likely to ramble and prone to looking thoughtfully at Quinn for long periods of time before responding to a question or suggestion. It was almost disconcerting how significantly she had changed since she first kissed Quinn.

Then again, Quinn thought wryly, it was just as disconcerting to think how much the past year had changed Quinn herself. It sometimes seemed like their entire world had been tossed into a blender and irrevocably turned inside-out, and the thought that anything could return to how it had been was, frankly, far more disconcerting.

"Did you mean it?" Rachel prodded.

"What?" Quinn asked distractedly.

"Quinn," Rachel said exasperatedly. The nervous look faded into impatience. "What you said a minute ago. 'For good.'"

"Oh, that," Quinn muttered.

"Yes, that."

"I…" Quinn paused, biting her lip. "Yeah, I think I did." She stared boldly up at Rachel. "I did."

"Oh," Rachel said faintly. Long seconds ticked past as she met Quinn's stare with wide eyes, her cheeks flushed, before she smiled widely and leaned down to press a kiss to Quinn's forehead. "Good," she whispered.

Quinn matched her smile, one hand snaking up to wrap around Rachel's neck and pull her closer for a kiss. She made a frustrated noise when the car jostled as Kurt slammed it to a stop in the parking lot at the hotel they would be staying at. She glared sideways at the front seat, where Kurt was unbuckling his seatbelt and hopping delicately out of the car.

"Stop that immediately," he scolded. "Both of you. Cut the googly-eyes and the secret smiles. There will be no making out in my backseat. Unless I'm a party."

"Well, you know, you—" Rachel started. Quinn, eyes wide and jaw dropping, immediately clapped her hands over Rachel's mouth.

"Ignore her!" She half-shouted out towards Kurt. "She's sleep deprived from practicing so much for the competition, she has no clue what she's saying."

She glared up at Rachel, who was blinking at her curiously. "Not funny!" she hissed.

Rachel shrugged, pulling Quinn's hands away easily. "If you say so," she said. "I thought it was funny."

"Of course you did," Quinn grumbled as she sat up. "You have a ridiculous sense of humor."

"You do realize that you all but danced a victory jig when you caught me making a pun, correct?" Rachel followed Quinn out of the car. "I'm fairly certain that such a reaction qualifies your sense of humor as ridiculous as well."

Finn called out to Rachel, waving her over from where he stood with Mr. Scheu, sheet music in one hand and choreography notes in the other and a panicked look across his face. Rachel sighed, smiling nonetheless, and stretched up to kiss Quinn briefly before making her way over to Finn.

Quinn leaned against the car behind her, arms folded over her chest, staring blankly. She jumped slightly in surprise when Santana suddenly thunked back against the car next to her, mirroring her position and staring at Rachel with a bored look in her eyes. Brittany bounced over as well, worming her way between Santana and the car, chin on her shoulder.

"What are we looking at?" she whispered loudly. Quinn smiled, shaking her head.

"Quinn," Santana answered. "Being totally whipped."

"I'm not," Quinn said automatically, even if she knew it was a terrible and bald-faced lie.

"You kinda are," Brittany said sympathetically. "But it's not a bad thing, is it?" She tightened her arms around Santana's waist, and Santana begrudgingly shook her head.

"No," she said, still looking at Quinn with an unreadable expression on her face. "I guess it's not."

Quinn flushed lightly, looking down at her shoes. She glanced over to where Rachel was trying to lead Finn through some of their dance steps, rattling out an eight count while he tried haplessly to follow Mike's and Mr. Scheu's examples; she smiled a little wider and shrugged.

A long silence hovered between the three of them, and despite the bite of cold in the air and the cool metal at her back, Quinn felt a comfortable warmth, as much from the presence of her two best friends at her side as from catching Rachel's eye and trading soft smiles before the brunette turned her attention back to their helpless friend.

"I'm going to go to Columbia," Quinn said softly, not taking her eyes away from Rachel.

"Well, duh," Santana said. Quinn marveled at her friend's ability to make an eye roll audible in her voice. "Everybody knew that the minute you got in."

Brittany slipped out from behind Santana, throwing her arms around Quinn and ignoring a disgruntled "Hey!" from Santana as she fell back against the car.

"Took you long enough to figure it out," Brittany whispered in Quinn's ear. Just as quickly as she had leapt from Santana to Quinn, she pressed a kiss to Quinn's cheek and half-skipped, half-danced across the parking lot and launched herself at Finn with a laugh before grabbing his wrists and walking him through the dance steps.

"She's right," Santana said lowly. She elbowed Quinn in the side.

"Yeah," Quinn said, voice soft. "She really is."

"And I'm right, too," Santana added. "You're totally whipped." She elbowed Quinn again. "Like, totally, completely, dopey grin, midnight ice cream run, cuddle-whore whipped."

Quinn rolled her eyes, pushing away from the car and turning to face Santana with a shrug. "Probably," she said airily. "But you know, I'm really kind of okay with that." She glanced over her shoulder at Rachel once more. Looking back to Santana, she shrugged again. "I don't want to think about not being with her, not anymore."

Santana sighed, somehow looking simultaneously disgusted at Quinn's sappy words and wholly empathetic. "You're a total sap," she muttered. "But, you know… whatever. If she makes you all happy like that, then I guess you should go to New York and all. Even if it makes you totally lame."

Quinn smirked. "Gee, thanks," she said drily. "Besides, it's not like you're following Brittany to LA or anything, right?"

Santana flushed darkly, glaring at Quinn, and Quinn laughed brightly. Spontaneously, she leaned over and kissed her best friend on the cheek. "Don't worry, S," she said conspiratorially. "I won't tell anyone you're whipped if you don't tell anyone I am."

With a wink, she jogged across the parking lot to join the others. Rachel and Mike had given up on the dance lesson, instead almost falling into one another with laughter as Brittany tried to explain the dance steps and Finn stared at her with a completely blank expression on his face. Quinn slid her arms around Rachel's waist from behind her, tugging the smaller girl back into her.

"Hi," she whispered.

"Hey," Rachel said softly, body still shaking with giggles. Quinn tightened her grip, her chin resting on Rachel's shoulder, and, as they both stared at Brittany and Finn, considered how much a year had changed them all.

A full thirty seconds of pondering left her lost in thought, only to be jerked out by a bright peal of laughter from Brittany, and Quinn slipped back to reality in time to see Finn topple to the asphalt, his feet tangled up with one another. Rachel shook with laughter in her arms, and Quinn smiled softly.

"I'm going to go to Columbia," she murmured in Rachel's ear spontaneously.

When Rachel shrieked and somehow spun around and tackled Quinn without ever actually leaving their embrace, kissing her soundly in spite of the wolf whistles and catcalls from their friends, all Quinn could think was that the people they had been a year ago didn't matter anymore—she had been torn down completely, and then been built back up into an entirely different person; Rachel had, in her constant concern for Quinn, softened around the edges and become the charming girl that none of them had known lurked beneath the obnoxious surface; Puck had worked his way through one epiphany after another and was as much of a brother to Quinn as Devon had ever been a sister; Finn had simply grown up, his brain finally catching up to his monstrous figure.

They had changed, all of them, in some way or another, and Quinn couldn't help but think that who they had been was a pointless consideration. They were all who they were now, and for the first time in her life, Quinn felt like she was someone worthwhile.

The future—her constant fears of hurting Rachel, of being hurt by Rachel, of everything blowing up painfully in a mess of broken hearts and disappointments—didn't matter anymore than the past did, because for the first time in eighteen years, she felt like she was finally whoever it was she was supposed to be. And, more importantly, she was with exactly who she was supposed to be with.


Epic Author's Note Is Epic: Well, that's all, folks. Thanks so much to everyone who had the patience to stick with this insanity for the entire story—you've all been fabulous and far too kind in making your way through my muddled, unedited story. I hope I didn't let anyone down too terribly. Thank y'all for all of your support! I probably would've given up on this around chapter ten if it'd been left up to me. I hope everyone's enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed (slash gone completely INSANE) writing it.

One thing, though: I've gotten a few comments, here and on Livejournal, about imbalances in Rachel and Quinn's relationship in this story—double-standards and the like, and that Rachel is giving everything and Quinn offering nothing in return.

The simple response to the first of those is… well, duh, if I may be blunt. Of course there are imbalances and double-standards in their relationship. A perfectly balanced relationship is a fantasy, and as cheerful and lovely as that is to imagine, I'd rather stick to realism. Also, pause for a moment and consider everything that Quinn went through in this story. Her entire world was upended—her family disowned her and left her homeless, she found a home in what was probably the last place and with the last people she expected, she lost her child, she had a sexual awakening of sorts, she fell in love, she was hit by her father and completely lost any possibility of reconciliation with him… frankly, she went through the ringer. Rachel is understandably afraid of upsetting her, and Quinn is understandably gun-shy.

On the flip side of things, Rachel isn't perfect, especially not in the context of Quinn. She's pushy and domineering at times—which is why it was always so surprising, to Quinn and everyone else—when she was patient; she views the world in stark terms when it comes to the right and wrong way to do things, and seems at times completely incapable of compromise; she doesn't trust Quinn or in the possibility that Quinn can or has changed. She's a wondrous friend and partner to Quinn most of the time, because she does love her, and she does do whatever she can to support and prop up and care for Quinn, but her struggles with their relationship are on a deeply personal level stemming from the fact that she's in a relationship with Quinn, whereas the majority of Quinn's struggles stem from her life being tossed into a blender and stumbling out the other side with a wholly different world in front of her.

Regarding the idea that Rachel offers everything and gets nothing in return… I have to be honest and say that I find that to be completely untrue. Granted, I acknowledge my own bias, and know that things may not have come onto the page as they were structured in my head, but regardless of that, I disagree. Yes, Rachel is a stalwart and strong person for Quinn in the aftermath of everything Quinn went through. She was there for Quinn in admirable and commendable ways. In the time after Quinn's miscarriage, there's no denying that Rachel grew as much as a person as Quinn did over the course of the entire story. However, Quinn isn't just sitting around taking and taking without offering anything in return. No, Rachel didn't need as much direct support from Quinn, but Rachel also didn't lose a child. Quinn sticks up for Rachel even when Rachel isn't around—most often against Santana and her own particularly abrasive brand of affection, but also when Mr. Fabray was insulting Rachel so cruelly—and will take on anyone who's rude or unkind to Rachel—like she did with Mercedes and Kurt at Regionals. She stood up to Coach Sylvester, only rejoining the cheerleading squad on the specific condition of Rachel being protected from mistreatment by Sue and everyone under Sue's thumb.

Their relationship isn't perfect, and it was never my intention to create a perfect relationship. Perfect and balanced relationships are a myth, and a relationship involving two obstinate, strong-willed, domineering people—one of which has a significantly traumatic background to work through—is going to be even less perfect than most. That said, though, a lack of balance doesn't—I think, at least—in any way make their relationship less loving, less meaningful, or less solid.

::breathes::

And on that note, I hope y'all enjoyed this, and now I'm going to go sleep for a year.