It started with a referral from the freshman home room teacher, Mrs. Anjey. "Rachel Berry – having trouble adjusting to high school. Recommend one guidance appointment; will be sending her down this morning."
Emma Pillsbury pushes a hand through her soft red hair and purses her lips. She knows the student; she's seen her once before, talking to the other guidance counsellor, Mr. Henry. She was sobbing into her fists, her long dark hair bobbing on her shaking shoulders, her bare legs crossed under her short skirt. Emma had had to listen to a long tirade by the long-suffering older counsellor over a cup of tea at the career centre table.
"She's just not adjusting, but she thinks she's fine. I mean, I know teenage girls are typically emotional, but this one bounds from happy to sobbing in a minute. I literally feel like I've been wrung out emotionally," he'd complained, cupping his tea in his large hands, and Emma had nodded sympathetically. In her three weeks at McKinley High, she'd noticed that the students here were either really dramatic or very stereotypical. The groups were clearly defined here; everyone had money, and the football team's uniforms were sponsored by Nike. There didn't seem to be a whole lot to do compared to the school she'd subbed at in Buchanan County, Virginia.
Feeling back country herself, Emma had put away her sensible jumpers and crisp white blouses and went for a little bit more of a designer teacher look. It worked – the secretaries in Figgins' office ask her constantly where she gets her clothes – but she understands what it is to not fit in. With her stammering Appalachian accent and shy, hand-twisting demeanour, most people find her hard to approach, since all she would do was give them a startled look out of her chestnut-brown eyes. It's taken her this long to really even get up the courage to sit in the teacher's lounge, and she tends to eat her lunch long after everyone's pretty much filed out.
Mysophobia: it was a diagnosis given to her by the psychiatrist in Richmond, who had looked her up and down, watched her compulsively rub her hands with hand sanitizer, and asked her if she ever touched railings or bathroom doors. Since then, Emma's done her best to hide it from the people she sees every day, but she knows she's getting talked about behind her back.
Rachel, though. Though Emma's never really met with the girl, she's heard the rumours. And she keeps glancing at the door, waiting for the tiny whirlwind with the dark hair and big voice to come blowing through her door at any moment.
Sure enough, at ten o'clock exactly, a slight girl wearing an old-looking sweater and a short, flared pink skirt stands confidently in Emma's doorway, putting a hand on the freshly-cleaned glass panes and staring purposefully at the startled guidance counsellor.
Emma stares at Rachel, momentarily frozen. She takes in the carefully brushed shining brown hair, the sparkling dark eyes, and the admittedly Jewish features that have gotten Rachel dubbed "little Barbara" by the music teacher. Closing her mouth and trying to ignore the hand prints on her formerly-spotless office door, she clears her throat in a business-like manner.
"Hi, Rachel. I'm Emma Pillsbury; I'm the new guidance counsellor." Though Emma normally stammers and stutters in front of people her own age, she manages to keep a very soothing demeanour with the high school children she counsels. Emma has always been more comfortable with people younger than herself; maybe because she feels like she has some semblance of control.
Rachel sticks out a hand happily. "I know, hi. I'm Rachel Berry. Mrs. Anjey sent me here this morning; I'm not really sure why. I told her I'd be fine with an appointment with my own therapist, but she didn't want to wait until after school." Rachel shrugs, and turns her smile on Emma, who shakily extends a hand, touching Rachel's fingers, barely.
Rachel blinks, and for a moment, she looks slightly hurt. Emma cringes inwardly, but pumps some hand sanitizer into her hands, offering it solicitously to Rachel, who looks at it oddly. Emma clears her throat, puts the bottle back on her desk, and folds her hands.
"So, um, Rachel, Mrs. Anjey was concerned because you seemed, uh, upset in class today?" Emma's social work training kicks in, and her voice grows stronger. "Any particular reason why?"
"I wasn't upset," says Rachel, displaying the first instance of what Emma will call "the Rachel pout". "I was emotional, fine, but it's far from upset."
"Well, why were you emotional?"
"I got a nasty note." Rachel reaches into her backpack and pulls out a crumpled piece of foolscap, offering it to Emma, who makes a face as she picks it up and unfolds it.
"RACHEL BARRIE IS A FREAKISH WHORE" is written in scrawled caps across the ripped paper, and Rachel's eyes are on the floor when Emma looks up.
"Rachel, do you know who sent this to you?"
"Not for sure, but I have an idea." The strident tone is out of Rachel's voice now, and Emma suddenly flashes back to third grade and the pictures of cows that were pinned to the back of her dress after the story about the dairy farm got out at school.
She snakes a hand across the desk; rests it lightly on Rachel's sleeve, causing the girl to look up at her. Immediately, Emma knows that this act is not overconfidence; it's a desperate attempt to cover up the fact that this girl probably hasn't had a real friend ever.
"This is wrong," says Emma, forgetting to wince at her overpronounciation of the "G" at the end of the word. "This is wrong and you don't have to take it, Rachel."
Rachel shrugs, refusing to look Emma in the eyes. "I know Mrs. Anjey thinks I'm not ready for high school, but that's not true. I was hoping high school would be a different place for me. One where I could actually make some friends." She laughs a little, her hands twisting on the desk.
"Little did I know that most of the people from my middle school would choose to attend William McKinley."
"It is a feeder school for –" and Emma checks Rachel's file on her desk " – Lima Middle School."
Rachel looks up at Emma, and for the first time, Emma sees the girl as she really must be – sad, alone, small, and lonely. "It'll get better, right?"
Emma takes Rachel's hand, squeezes it, forgets that there might be germs lurking between the folds of her fingers, and looks her straight in the eyes. When she speaks, her voice doesn't wobble at all.
"It's only going to be better if you try to make it better. It won't get any better if you don't do your best to be yourself."
Rachel smiles, squeezes Emma's hand back, and lets go, packing the note away in her bag. When she looks up, the mask is back on her face; her eyes are sparkling, and her head is up.
"Thanks, Ms. Pillsbury. I'll see you around."
Emma smiles as Rachel leaves, and watches her check in with the secretary at the guidance desk while she cleans her desk and her hands with antibacterial wipes.
Later, the secretary brings Emma's schedule in for the next week, and Emma sees that Rachel has scheduled herself in for next Tuesday.
Little did Emma know, the Tuesday appointments were to take place regularly for the next year and a half.
Rachel is a pill to counsel. Emma finds herself gradually exhausted with the girl and eventually peevish.
"Rachel, you can't take all music courses. I'm sorry, but scholarships to music schools are rare."
"Clearly, Ms. Pillsbury, you don't recognize my talent!" Rachel's eyes are blazing and she grips the edge of the desk angrily. "I always have to explain myself to everyone who isn't musical and it's starting to get old. I don't need math and science, okay?"
Emma finally stands, shutting the door to her office. She takes a deep breath, comes behind Rachel, and rests a hand on her shoulder.
"Listen, Rachel. While you are talented, no question, you absolutely do need a well-rounded education. Music may only take you so far; it's extremely rare for anyone to actually make it to Broadway, okay? I'm sorry if this hurts, but you need to have something to fall back on. I've seen a lot of kids your age, coming from small towns, thinking they can make it, and then they end up without skill, waitressing somewhere. They never get their big break!"
Emma takes another breath; sighs, removes her hand and sits down at her desk, keeping her eyes locked on Rachel's. "I don't want to hurt your feelings or crush any dreams. I want you to know you can do anything you want. But I am here to help you keep your feet on the ground, okay?"
Rachel stares at Emma, stricken, and then bursts into tears.
Emma rolls her eyes inwardly, but pushes the Kleenex box across the desk. This is more than just course selection. It always is with Rachel.
"I thought you would be behind me on this," sniffles Rachel, rubbing her hands across her eyes and nose, ignoring the Kleenex. Emma sighs in exasperation.
"Rachel, if you're going to be in this office crying, please use a Kleenex. That's disgusting." Her voice is sharper than intended; sharper than she would be with any other student, but it works with Rachel. The girl scowls, but reaches for the Kleenex and sanitizes her hands for good measure as well.
"Why are you being so cold today?" Rachel's voice is small, but Emma feels bad, anyway.
"I'm not trying to be cold; I'm trying to be realistic. I want to see you succeed, Rachel; you have almost a 4.0 grade average! You could do anything with those marks; get into whatever school you want. You don't have to focus on one talent. You need to think about the big picture."
Rachel sniffles into her Kleenex, careful to wrap it in another one before she throws it out. After almost a year coming for weekly appointments in Emma's office, she knows the rules. Emma smiles inwardly.
"Rach, come on. You know I'm right." Emma finds herself falling into more of an affectionate tone with this fucked-up little girl, more than she should. She knows it's dangerous to get close to the students, but she can't help but want to be on Rachel's side.
Rachel pouts. "Fine. Put me down for sophomore advanced math and both of the chemistry courses."
"I think you'd benefit from another English course, too."
Emma cocks her head at Rachel. "Rachel."
"Can't I do this and still have all the music classes?"
"Rachel, there are only five periods in a day."
Rachel shrugs. "A lot of them have practices after school."
Emma puts her pen down and takes a sip of her tea. "Rachel, don't you have things you want to do after school?"
"Yes. I want to sing."
"I mean, with kids your own age."
"Ms. Pillsbury, don't."
"Rachel, I'm getting concerned. We talk every week and you don't tell me about any of your friends."
Rachel looks down at her hands, and Emma ducks her head to try to catch the petite brunette's gaze. "Rachel?"
"Maybe because I just don't have any, okay?" Rachel's eyes are teary again, but these are angry, defensive tears, and Emma finally gives up trying to get anywhere with this course selection appointment and comes to sit in the chair next to Rachel's.
"Hey, shh," she murmurs, rubbing Rachel's back, smoothing her flyaway hair down over her sweater. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"My dads are away this week," blurts Rachel. "I've been at home by myself."
Emma raises her eyebrows; Rachel is barely fifteen. "Oh, really?"
"Well, my aunt comes in and looks in on me every day, but I'm responsible for myself." She sniffles, and Emma rubs her back again.
"I'm sorry I asked, then. You must be lonely."
Rachel looks down at her skirt, then back up, blinking the tears away. "Anyway, Ms. Pillsbury, I have to go to class." She stands and clears her throat. "When do these have to be in by?"
"Not for another few weeks. We can talk again next week."
Emma watches Rachel go, feeling her heartstrings tug. What must it be like to be as lonely as the talented young freshman must be?
The rain is pouring tonight; it's April and the trees are dripping with the latest in a long line of April showers. Emma, who normally doesn't mind the rain, is curled up on her couch cushions with a big mug of tea, flipping through a novel and thinking about bed. Thinking, that is, until she hears a knock on the door downstairs.
Emma's condo is not really a condo; it's a townhouse by the park. It cost her a pretty penny, but she likes having both an upstairs and a downstairs, and she doesn't have to take care of her own lawn, so she's happy most of the time. However, she rarely gets midnight callers, and she wishes that she didn't have to creep down in her pajamas to look out the peephole, especially when it's nearing ten PM and she's tired.
When she looks through the hole, she doesn't see anyone, until the person knocks half-heartedly on the door again, and she sees the figure pull back. Her mouth drops open when she realizes it's Rachel Berry.
Now, it's not entirely hard to find out where teachers live in Lima; it's not a big town. But Emma's more than a little disturbed that Rachel took the time to look up her address and come to her door on a rainy Thursday night, especially when she has a home of her own, probably much bigger and nicer than Emma's.
Nevertheless, Emma opens the door. She can't leave the waif in the rain, especially since the girl looks like she's soaked through in the porch light.
"Rachel?" Emma squints against the blowing rain and quickly hurries the girl inside, closing the door securely behind her. In the hall light, Rachel looks smaller and more pathetic than Emma's ever seen her. Her coat and clothing are soaked; her hair is sticking to her forehead wetly under her hood, and her shoes are squelching on Emma's clean rug. She clutches a messenger bag to her chest, and she's crying, open-mouthed, mucousy sobs.
Emma's first reaction is to vomit. She quickly gets over that.
"Rachel, honey, what are you doing here?" She immediately snaps to attention, her accent strong in her surprise, and runs into the ensuite bathroom off the hallway to grab some towels out of the linen closet.
"How do you know where I live?"
Rachel is crying too hard to answer, so Emma shuts up and tosses Rachel a towel after helping her off with her dripping coat. Emma doesn't even want to touch it, but she manages to hang it up over the mud mat inside the closet (after shoving her own coats far away from Rachel's and vowing to dry clean everything in the morning).
Rachel stands there, holding the towel, her hands shaking, until Emma finally takes it from her and begins to wipe Rachel's face and hair briskly. "Come on, Rachel, get dried off. Take off your shoes, there," she directs, finally getting Rachel to move off the mat, which Emma promptly tosses into the washer in the adjoining laundry room.
Rachel is directed into the ensuite bathroom. "Wash your face and hands, and I'll get you some dry clothes," Emma tells Rachel, wondering what the heck she's going to put the girl in. Certainly none of her pajamas. Her gaze lights on an old shopping bag at the back of the laundry room door – it has a too-small jade-green velour exercise suit that her aunt pressed on her at Christmas and that Emma never got around to taking back. Perfect.
Clipping the tags off quickly with her pinking shears, she passes the clothes through the door, still slightly ajar. "Put those on, and then come upstairs."
Emma can hear Rachel's sobs, turning into shuddering hiccups, as after five or so minutes, she hears light footsteps on the stairs. Rachel's hair is still relatively pristine, but her bangs are frizzed to the side and her face is swollen and tearstained. She sits where Emma points her, in the chair beside the kitchen, and sniffles appallingly.
"Rachel, that's disgusting," says Emma, a constant refrain with this girl, and gets up to find the Kleenex box. She brings it and a wastebasket, putting them beside the sniffling girl, when Rachel bursts into tears afresh and Emma finally drops to her knees beside Rachel's chair.
"Shh, shh," Emma breathes into Rachel's hair, putting her arms around the shaking girl, trying not to think about any rain getting on her pajamas. Rachel curls herself into Emma's arms and sobs.
"Oh, my. Rachel, what happened? Hmm?" Emma strokes back Rachel's bangs, trying to smooth them down, when Rachel finally speaks.
"I had an audition at the community theatre," she hiccups, rubbing a Kleenex across her nose and depositing it into the wastebasket. Emma gives up on kneeling beside the girl's chair and moves them both to the couch, bringing the wastebasket with them.
Rachel curls up against Emma's shoulder and Emma begins to rock her, trying to figure out what could possibly be the matter. "I didn't get it, but when I tried to get home, I locked myself out. And then Noah Puckerman and his friends came by and splashed me with their car, and I was already soaking wet, and I didn't get the part, and my aunt isn't going to be home till late tonight, and I just didn't know where else to go!"
Rachel's voice gets louder at the end, and Emma winces, rubbing the girl's back soothingly until she calms back down.
"I just don't know how you got here," says Emma bemusedly. "I don't exactly give out my address to students."
Rachel sits up a little, her lips pushed into a trembling pout. "I know where you live. I saw you last summer, moving in. I only live two streets over from you." She wipes her eyes and tries to smile. "I saw your moving truck, and I saw you dusting the furniture outside on the lawn."
Emma blinks, and shakes her head. "Anyway, Rachel, come on. I'll give you a ride home. I'm so sorry that you had a bad night, sweetie." She strokes Rachel's hair for a moment, then extends a hand to help the girl up.
But Rachel's face has fallen again, and Emma sighs. Rachel Berry looks like a lost puppy and Emma has never been able to resist lost puppies, especially in the guise of children.
"You can't stay here, Rach," says Emma, shaking her head. "It's breaking about a million school rules, not to mention I don't have another bed."
Rachel's chin begins to quiver, and Emma sighs. "I have to drive you home."
But she looks down at Rachel, and knows that the freshman isn't going anywhere fast. She really is just a little girl.
Emma leaves Rachel in the living room for a moment and brings her cup to the kitchen, scrubbing it thoughtfully under the hot water. If she drops the girl off an hour or so before school, Rachel can still get to school herself and have time to change her clothes. Emma blinks when she realizes that she's actually considering letting Rachel stay.
The problem is, though she can think of about a million reasons why she shouldn't let the girl stay, she can't think of any compelling ones.
Emma dries her cup, puts it away, and then comes back into the living room, ready to tell Rachel that she can stay, just for tonight.
However, Rachel isn't listening. She's curled up on Emma's couch, asleep.
Emma drops a blanket over Rachel and strokes the girl's hair for a moment, wondering if she's just lost her senses completely. She probably has.
She doesn't care.
Emma pads into her bedroom and switches on the light to read quietly for half an hour or so before she turns off the lights. But just as she's about to fall asleep, she hears footsteps in the room.
The girl's big brown eyes catch the light from the streetlight outside the window and she twists her hands in the slightly too long velour sweat suit.
"I just wanted to say goodnight," comes the small voice in the darkness, and Emma nods.
"Good night, Rachel. I'll wake you up at six tomorrow – we've got to get you back to your house by seven."
Rachel nods, but then her lower lip trembles, and Emma sighs. "Rachel. Go to sleep. We're already doing about a thousand things wrong."
Rachel continues to stand beside Emma's bed, and then Emma finally gives up and pats the covers. "I don't know why the couch isn't good enough for you," she grumbles, turning onto her side away from Rachel, and trying not to think about how awkward this is. But really, she feels like a big sister, and that's not something Emma's ever gotten to feel, being the youngest in her family.
Rachel is warm against Emma's back, and falls asleep quickly. Just before Emma drops off to sleep herself, she feels Rachel move towards her in her sleep, clinging onto her warmth and sighing deeply.
Emma doesn't foresee much sleep tonight. She smiles, anyway.
Abrasive, hard-to-love Rachel Berry certainly does manage to worm her way into people's hearts.