In a way, it was freeing. Emma was able to get up in the morning and shower leisurely without looking at her phone, waiting for Rachel's morning text; she was able to go through her day without having to worry about finding a crying teenager in the bathroom or listen to Rachel's occasionally inane chatter over lunch. She was enjoying her freedom, sure; but one thing marred it.

Emma couldn't stop thinking about Rachel.

She found out from Will that Rachel had left Glee. Though Will thought it was another classic storm out, this time Rachel was apparently serious. She hadn't spoken to any of the Glee club since last week, and rumour had it that she had the lead in Sandy Ryerson's dubious version of Cabaret.

Emma was happy, sort of; she knew Rachel didn't always feel challenged with Will's group. But thinking about it now, cupping her silver and white cup of morning coffee and waiting, as usual, for her Tuesday appointment with Rachel, she feels sort of sick inside. The Glee club is the closest Rachel has to actual friends. The fact that she's rejecting everyone in her life right now worries Emma more than she's let on to Will, or to herself.

Truth be told, Emma misses Rachel. And despite her outward professionalism, her careful adjusting of the papers on her desk and the gentle nudging of things into place, she has one eye trained on the clock – she's waiting for the bouncy sophomore to come through the door.

The seconds tick on; Emma busies herself with her computer, checking emails, even smiling wryly at a strange forward from Figgins (for a guy who's so obsessed with propriety, he certainly does send the oddest and not exactly work-safe forwards). But ten o'clock comes, and goes, and at 10:05 Emma puts down her pen and peers out the door, looking both ways in concern for the brown-haired girl with the big voice.

But she's nowhere in sight. Emma's secretary stares at her in confusion, and Emma manages a smile and ducks back into her office, busying herself with a Word document and notes, figuring Rachel's just late.

However, at the end of the period, the bell sounds and Rachel still hasn't shown up.

When Emma leaves her office for a quick bathroom break, she sees Rachel walking purposefully down the hall. She meets Emma's eyes, and then turns away.

Emma hurries into the bathroom, sits on the toilet, and buries her face in her hands.

Yeah, it might be freeing, but it's not easy.

//~//

"So she just didn't show up?" Will is talking with his mouth full and Emma's trying not to gag. She averts her eyes and takes a cautious sip of her water, willing her gag reflex to behave itself. When she looks up again, Will has swallowed his food and is looking at her expectantly.

"No, she didn't." Emma's voice is marred by a heavy sigh, and Will looks concerned. She shrugs. "I suppose it doesn't matter, really."

"No, I guess kids blow off appointments." His hand snakes across the table, touches her sleeve. "I'm sorry, anyway. I know you were making progress."

Emma shrugs it off. "What about Glee? Has she shown up there?"

Will shakes his head, his mouth full of sandwich again. This time, Emma very purposefully and obviously averts her eyes, and he smiles sheepishly as he swallows. "Sorry. No, she hasn't. I think she's really quit for good."

"I heard Sandy's over the moon about her. Says she's the best voice he's heard in ten years."

"Well, he's right." Will takes a sip of his soda and sighs. "Rachel is amazing. And I'm not going to deny that I'm having trouble with the club without her. Between Quinn Fabray running out between measures to throw up and the fact that I can barely hear Tina most days over Mercedes, the whole dynamic is off."

"Well, have you talked to her about coming back?"

"Yeah, but she's not interested. She was pretty rude. And really, sometimes I get too frustrated to care. She's so hard to deal with, Em."

"I'm inclined to agree, but I still . . . I don't know, Will. Behind all that prickliness is a very hurt, lonely girl. And I know what that's like," she murmurs, averting her eyes from his concerned gaze.

"I'm going to give her one last chance. But honestly, Em, I think she's made her choice."

"Did you ever get ahold of that April person?"

Will looks cagey. "Yes, actually. She's due to come into the school today, show the kids what she's got. I'm really hoping she'll be able to pull the club back together."

He wipes his hands with his napkin and she passes him her pocket antibacterial gel. As he takes it, his hazel eyes find hers again and she feels a small flutter in her stomach.

"How are things going with Ken?"

She'd started dating Ken Tanaka two weeks ago. So far, it's been nothing short of absolutely awful, but she isn't about to tell Will that. Telling Will how she wants to cry every time she looks at Ken's sweaty face is not going to help anything. But she finds herself babbling, trying to overcompensate, and she's not sure that's any better.

"Fine, fine, it's great, it's wonderful. Ken's a great man, he's very sweet. We went to the flower show at the convention centre and he bought me a lovely orchid."

Will actually looks pleased. "That's great, Em!"

"You know, he has flaws; he has seventy-four flaws since yesterday that I've counted, but I'm happy, I am. I'm happy with it." She tries to stop herself from cringing at this; his gaze doesn't waver, but something deep down in his eyes shines tellingly at her and she knows without a doubt that he's aware she's lying.

So instead of coming clean, she stands up. "I've gotta go. Appointments this afternoon. Good luck with April!"

If he's surprised at her cheery tone, he doesn't show it. "Thanks, Emma. I'll let you know how things go."

She clacks quickly out of the teacher's lounge and closes the door behind her, breathing out in relief, when she turns smack into a small, bleach-blonde woman with orange skin and a distinctive odour of ten-year-old Chablis that's been left out in the sun too long.

"Excuse-excuse me," Emma stutters, automatically reaching for her hand sanitizer, but the woman is too busy giving her the once over to notice the apology.

"Don't got much on top, do ya?" Her strident voice is brassy, overconfident, and has a grating note in it that makes Emma want to cover her ears.

"If I'da been a little taller, maybe these would have balanced out." She squeezes her ample chest together, increasing the amount of cleavage showing tenfold. Emma's face is frozen in a mask of embarrassment when the woman brushes by her again, almost knocking her off her feet.

"I've gotta find the choir room or something. Do you know a Will Schuester? I'm looking for the show choir practice."

April Rhodes (because this is who this obviously is, Emma has guessed by now), turns back, her sharp profile illuminated against the fluorescent lights of the school. "On second thought, I'll find it myself. You look like you're gonna pee your pants or something."

Emma finds her voice. "It's down the hall, to the left. And April?"

April looks surprised, but stops and looks at Emma curiously.

"We've got a dress code in this school. If you like, I'd be happy to take you through our orientation package later this afternoon."

"No, sweetie, that's okay." April's braying laugh echoes off the cinderblock walls of the school and Emma once again has to suppress the desire to cover her ears. "I think I'm doing just fine."

Emma watches April totter down the hallway and feels an overwhelming sense of foreboding. If this is what the Glee club is coming to, maybe Rachel is better out of it.

//~//

Later that afternoon, Emma is locking up her office when she hears a swelling, sweet, high voice coming from the direction of the music room. The voice is strong and measured; it's the trained voice of a coloratura soprano and despite her will to stay away from Glee while April is a part of it, she finds herself wandering down the music corridor to listen outside the door.

April's performing a fine rendition of "Maybe This Time" and Emma's enthralled; in fact, she's so engaged that she doesn't notice the slight, dark-haired girl standing on the other side of the door, her back against the lockers and her hands shoved deep into her skirt pockets.

It takes Emma a moment, but she registers Rachel's direct gaze and despite herself, she swallows nervously.

"Hi, Rach."

Rachel doesn't reply for a moment; she cocks her head inquisitively, as if measuring the purity of April's notes on the air. When April finishes the song, Rachel focuses on Emma.

"I sang this yesterday, in the auditorium. She's got a nice technique but her high notes are too airy."

"How are you enjoying Cabaret?"

Rachel tosses her hair. "It's a nice challenge. I feel like I'm actually being appreciated there; did you know Mr. Ryerson offered me the lead immediately on hearing me sing the Celine Dion ballad that I've been practicing for the last five years?"

Emma is at a loss for words. Rachel's voice is cold; her body language forbidding. "I did hear you were his first choice to play Sally Bowles."

"Yes, well. I suppose he'd heard me outside this music room, the same as you and I are doing now." Rachel turns, but not before Emma catches the hurt look on her face. "I see Mr. Schuester's found a new lead soprano."

"Yes, he has." Emma doesn't mince words. "You refused to come back, Rachel. He needs a strong voice for Sectionals."

"Oh, I'm not offended, not in the least!" Rachel's affected laugh echoes off the metal of the lockers and Emma just feels sad. This cold girl is so removed from the warm, laughing, sweet and funny Rachel she's spent all summer with.

"In fact, I'm glad; let someone else learn to perfect their technique with the easier stuff. I heard this woman's old, anyway. She can probably teach those tone-deaf kids a thing or two, and I can focus on what I really want."

Emma leans up against the lockers, her eyes fixed on Rachel's. "What is it you really want, Rach?"

For the first time, Rachel looks into Emma's eyes, and the sheer desperation there almost makes Emma catch her breath. "You know what I want."

She clears her throat, her face closing. "Anyway, Mr. Ryerson is doing a stellar job; we have our artistic differences of course, but who doesn't with any director?"

Rachel turns, her hair swirling behind her. "See you around, Miss Pillsbury."

Just then, April bursts out of the choir room, face red with effort, eyes glittering with the effects of alcohol and horse tranquilizers. "I need to PEE, woman! Get out of my way!"

Rachel steps back, looking on in unadulterated distaste before she catches Emma's eye and walks away briskly, not looking back.

Emma watches her go, feeling a sheer sort of longing and hurt start up in her chest.

She's not sure why this girl should matter so much, but she does.

//~//

Another week passes and April's behaviour gets no better. Five times, Emma's passed her in the hallway and smelled the disgusting scent of vomit and vodka mixed in with some acidic, astringent perfume that April insists on wearing. After the fourth time of hearing a strange clinking coming from April's bag, Emma pulls Will aside.

"Look, Will, I need to talk to you about April."

"Em, can it wait? I've really got to get to work choreographing this number. Invitationals are in another week and the dancing is so choppy I'm getting seasick just looking at the kids."

Ken wasn't much help, either. "Em, nearly everyone at this school has some kind of weird addiction or mental illness. This woman is legal and she's only here to pick up extra credits anyway. Who cares?"

The final straw comes on a warm Tuesday afternoon. Emma's wearing her new shoes (red T-strap sandals, probably the last time she'll get to wear them this year) and her favourite green cardigan. On her way to her office, she spots Kurt Hummel ambling down the hallway, his normally impeccable outfit rumpled and stained.

She nods politely at him, but his darkly-circled eyes and pale face make her stop to peer at him more closely. "Kurt?"

He doesn't answer, but blinks owlishly at her, trying to focus.

"Kurt, I'm a girl who knows her solvents, and you smell like rubbing alcohol," Emma says, looking intently into his face. "Have you been drinking?"

Kurt tries and fails to focus on Emma's brown eyes. "Oh, Bambi. I cried so hard when those hunters shot your mommy."

"What?"

Kurt opens his mouth to answer her, but pitches forward, vomiting copiously and spectacularly over Emma's grey pencil skirt and new shoes. She feels the disgusting warmth of the boy's stomach liquid washing over the bare parts of her feet and swallows hard (and unsuccessfully) against the wave of vomit threatening to exit her own body.

Instead of throwing up, though, she begins to panic, her chest swelling, her throat closing. She grabs wildly at the lockers, but feels herself blacking out.

The last thing she remembers is someone strong supporting her back as she passes out, and the concerned eyes of Rachel Berry looking down at her before she completely loses consciousness.

//~//

Emma comes to in the nurse's office, her stomach heaving. A basin is quickly placed under her chin and she throws up, her eyes squeezing shut, tears leaking down her face.

When she's finished, she opens her eyes to find Finn Hudson sitting beside her, Rachel standing by the door, and the concerned face of Mrs. Ellesmere two inches from Emma's face.

"It's okay, sweetheart. You should feel better in a few minutes." The craggy voice of the eighty-year-old school nurse reminds Emma of her grandmother and she lays back on the paper-covered pillow, her face pale and sweaty, and her mascara running in black rivulets down her face.

"I need to go to the hospital," she whispers, but the nurse shakes her head reassuringly.

"No, Emma, it's okay. You're not sick; you just passed out. You're going to feel better as soon as you drink some juice."

"No, Mrs. Ellesmere, she really does need to go to the hospital. She has mysophobia." The quiet voice of Rachel Berry echoes through the room, and Finn looks up at her, confused.

"What does that even mean? Is Miss Pillsbury going to die?"

Rachel opens her mouth, but Emma shakes her head. "No, Finn, it just means I need to . . . clean up. With stronger disinfectants than the ones under your mom's sink." She struggles up, her head spinning, and remembers that her new shoes are ruined by stomach acids. Emma begins to cry then, her head pounding with each sob.

"I need to go. Someone needs to call an ambulance, now!"

Rachel immediately grabs the phone from the nurse's hand and dials. "It's okay, Emma. We'll get you cleaned up."

The ambulance arrives at the back school doors during fourth period and Emma is able to go to the hospital without much drama, but Rachel stays put, framed in the school doors, watching Emma with concern.

As the ambulance drives away, she sees Rachel turn into the school, her back straight, her hair swirling around her, and Emma closes her eyes for the rest of the ride.

//~//

Two days later, after an angry confrontation with Will in the staff room which led to Emma locking herself in a bathroom stall for an hour to cry it out, Emma is once again in the bathroom when she hears an angry banging of the door and the raspy sobs of a very upset young girl start up by the sinks.

She's about to step out, but the door bangs again and the three-inch heels of April Rhodes make their customary clack on the lino floor. The water slams on and April's brassy voice echoes around the bathroom.

"Rough day at the office, cookie?"

Rachel's teary, sniffly voice makes itself heard, the words clipped in indignation. "I know what you are, April. Everyone knows what you are. You're a drunk and an addict and you don't deserve to be in Glee."

"Oh, stop," says April, her voice bored. "You had your chance, sweetheart, and you gave it up. Not to mention, I hear you and Sandy Ryerson are having your own tiff and he's just about ready to kick you out of the show. Then what?"

Her heels make a loud clack on the floor as she draws herself up to her full height. "You haven't got anything, now. You've given up your chance in Glee and now you've stepped in it with Cabaret. Better quit while you're ahead, cookie. Not to mention? The grandma look is doing NOTHING for you."

April's voice fades as she gets closer to the door. "Oh, and you might want to practice your head voice a little more. Those high notes could shred an entire school textbook in one go. Sha-arp," April trills, and the bathroom door bangs shut behind her.

Through the crack in the door, Emma watches Rachel completely fall apart. She sinks to her knees, her hands flying up to cover her face, and Emma finally can't hide anymore. She comes out of the stall, washes her hands, and then kneels down beside Rachel, hugging her tightly.

Rachel stays stiff and cold for a moment, but Emma's warm hands on her back quickly melt her facade. She turns into Emma, sobbing into her shoulder, and Emma draws them both to a standing position, letting Rachel rest her head on Emma's collarbone.

"Shh, sweetheart, it's okay. Don't let her get to you. Don't let her ruin your fun, okay?"

"It's not fun anymore," Rachel hiccups, and scrubs her face angrily with a Kleenex. "I hate Cabaret. Mr. Ryerson is so mean, and now I can't go back to Glee, and I just hate it. I'm just . . . lonely, and sad, and I don't want to be mad at you anymore, Emma."

Rachel's refreshing honesty is like a balm to Emma's emotional scars, and she holds Rachel tighter. "Well, I don't want you to be mad at me anymore, either."

"I want to go back to Glee," Rachel whispers, and Emma rubs her back, nodding against Rachel's dark hair.

"I know, sweetie. I think you should talk to Mr. Schuester."

Rachel shakes her head. "He won't take me back. I was rude to him, and to everyone, and I don't deserve it anyway." She draws herself up to a standing position and tries to smile at Emma. "I did this. And I guess I'll have to live with it. There is always community choir."

She washes her hands and face at the sink, then turns back to Emma. "Thanks, Emma. I'm sorry I was such a snot to you. You've always been so nice to me, and I was so mean to you."

Emma watches Rachel walk out of the bathroom and turns to the mirror, wiping a few tears of her own off her cheeks.

At least now she knows where she stands with Rachel – and where she can convince Will to take the girl back.

//~//

Invitationals dawns with a rainy day. Emma puts on her favourite red dress for colour and fun and hopes the rain will stop before it comes time for the kids to sing. She knows the turnout will be small if it's pouring.

Luckily, it's just overcast when the first people start trickling into the auditorium. Emma goes out to the parking lot to help direct people to the right place when she just about gets knocked off her feet by a careening dark-green sedan with more rust than paint on it.

April Rhodes gets out, her bright pink costume a splash of colour against the grey evening. "Hey, Ems! Nice dress!"

Emma can smell the alcohol from ten feet away. "April, are you drunk?"

"Oh, when am I not?" The petite woman waves her hand dismissively. "I got a show to put on. Paying customers and all. Why don't you go and make sure the Kool-Aid's poured out or whatever?" She pushes past Emma, banging into the door jamb, and that's when Emma loses her temper.

Storming up to Will backstage, her voice blows out angrily. "Will, April just about hit me in the parking lot just now. She's drunker than I've ever seen her. You can't let her go on!"

Will looks pained and annoyed. "Emma, I know you're pushing this Rachel thing hard, but we are about to go on in ten minutes. You'd like me to pull the star of the show now?"

"Yes!" Emma's face is becoming as red as her hair and she takes a few breaths to calm herself. "Yes, Will. You would agree with me if it was an athlete, or a drama student. If you're indulging in illegal substances – and I'm pretty sure April's on speed tonight – you're not allowed to go on. You know that's the right thing to do."

"And who's going to take over? Rachel? She hasn't been a part of the club for a month, Emma. Not even she can learn a number in five minutes." He turns his back to her. "April's going on. I don't care what you tell Figgins after this, but the show must go on!"

Emma throws up her hands. "Fine. Fine, Will. Promote your . . . illegality, and I'll turn a blind eye. Again. But after tonight I'm telling Figgins. This is ridiculous."

She storms back into the auditorium, finding a seat near the back, crossing her legs primly under her skirt and trying to calm down. Just as the curtain goes up, she catches the spotlight washing over the small figure of Rachel Berry to the right of the stage, gazing up at the lights and set with wistful eyes.

April performs admirably, but when intermission comes, she's clearly unable to stand up straight. Emma watches her totter offstage, holding onto the strong arm of Noah Puckerman, and wonders if Will can justify sending someone so drunk they could pass out any minute for the second act.

Rachel comes to sit on the edge of the seat beside Emma, and Emma squeezes her hand. "I'm surprised you're here, Rach."

"Well, I wouldn't miss it. I wanted to see how good April was." Rachel smiles, a little ruefully. "She's good."

"Have you talked to Mr. Schue yet?"

"After the show. Maybe he'll let me back in once they're starting to prepare for Sectionals."

Just then, Tina Cohen-Chang runs up, her stutter apparent in every word. "April's puking her guts out in the girls' bathroom. Mr. Schue won't let her go on for the second act. I have no idea what we're going to do, but she's gonna pass out."

Emma starts to get up, her face turning pale, but Rachel stops her with a hand on her knee. "I'll go on. That is, if you'll let me," she mutters to Tina, and Tina grabs her hand, pulling her backstage.

When the curtain rises again, the Glee club is resplendent in blue shirts and black jeans, their eyes shining under the big spotlights. Front and centre is Rachel Berry, her beam enough to light the whole auditorium up.

Will slides into the seat next to Emma. "Thank God for Rachel. I mean, I didn't think I'd say it, but I'm glad she's here tonight."

Emma doesn't say anything, but when Rachel's sweet, strong voice fills the space and enthralls all who listen, she squeezes Will's hand.

"Thanks, Will. For giving her a second chance."

He turns to her, smiles, and kisses her cheek. "I trust your judgement."

The last strains of "Somebody to Love" die away and Emma joins the rest of the auditorium in tumultuous applause, feeling her eyes tear up and run over.

When she blinks away her tears, she finds Rachel's eyes and claps just for her.

This is much more freeing than having her old life back by far.