The broken gasp from the library stack freezes Santana's hand, the Sharpie mustache on one of Rachel's many yearbook photos only half-finished. In the split second before Santana turns around, Rachel's face composes itself instinctively, and she offers Santana a smile that wobbles only slightly.
"I just came over to say hello," Rachel says, the forced perkiness in her voice almost outweighing the sadness. "I'll let you get back to your work."
As Rachel walks away, Santana opens her mouth to call her back, the other Cheerios are already laughing, adding acne spots to Rachel's beaming face. Santana does not get up, does not leave, but she drops her Sharpie under the table, and kicks it away as far as she can.
At Glee club that afternoon, Rachel huddles in a chair in the corner. She puts her backpack on the chair next o her, and never moves it, not even when Finn walks in. They're learning a ballad today, "Calling You" by Celine Dion, but before the sheet music is even in their hands, Rachel stands up and gathers her things. "Mr. Schu, I'm not feeling well," Rachel says softly. "I'm sorry.:
"That's ok, Rachel," Mr. Schu says, face full of concern. "Just focus on getting better." But his words fall on empty air; Rachel has already disappeared.
There is silence for a moment, then Mr. Schu puts the sheet music down on the piano, and draws a chair up to the kids. Spinning the chair around, he perches on it backwards, arms crossed over the back. "What's going on?" he asks, and is met with more silence, so he asks again. "What's going on? Rachel's clearly not sick, she's upset."
Santana sinks into her chair, and into her brain passes the thought that this is the first time she has ever tried to avoid attention. But her plan backfires, and her movement catches Mr. Schu's eye, and she cannot lie, not in this room, so she says, "She saw me draw on her picture in the yearbook."
The light goes out of Mr. Schu's eyes, and the breath goes out of Santana's lungs. She can tell, without looking, who wears her expression, knows Puck and Finn, Brittney and Mike, and Matt and Quinn are retreating as far back as they can go.
"I'm still getting my morning toss in the trash," Kurt says softly, studying his nails. "None of you are doing it, but none of you are stopping it."
"My favorite shirt got ruined by a slushie," Mercedes adds, arms crossing over her chest.
Santana feels the different kinds of pain in her room, like she feels her breath catch in her chest, and she cannot meet a single person's eyes. In that moment a decision is made, without a single other word being uttered.
It starts small, things that could be accidents, a build-up of courage. Santana walks in front of Rachel in the hallway on the way to Spanish class, Brittney on the way to Math. Mercedes and Tina find themselves joined by Mike and Matt. Quinn pushes Artie's wheelchair. Puck and Finn just happen to pull into the school's parking lot at the same time as Kurt.
Santana slips notes into lockers, coordinates schedules and positions, tackles the mission with the same precision and dedication she puts into Cheerios. It becomes practically a choreographed dance. Santana knows the exact moment to hook her arm into Rachel's and spin her away from an incoming slushie.
Avoidance and protection are all well and good, but Santana does not play nice, not here, not now. So on Monday the head cheerleader finds her yearbook photo taped to her locker, Sharpie acne spots, mustache, and all. Copies somehow end up taped all over the school, and Santana, when accused, simply smirks and hums and dumps slushies all over the other Cheerios' uniforms when they exit the locker room.
The big Spring dance is coming up, and Santana is done hiding. She sings as she writes personalized invitations, decorates them with music notes, and slips them into each Glee Club members' locker. She is on her way to grab Rachel for Spanish class when Rachel finds her invitation, and something flutters in Santana's chest when she sees the sheer joy on Rachel's face. Rachel looks up, and they meet eyes, smile, then giggle, and Rachel links her arm through Santana's.
The hours before the dance, Santana's house is loud and boisterous, full of harmonizing and improvised dance moves, suits and glittery gowns. Santana carefully curls up the ends of Rachel's hair, while Brittney traces the edges of Rachel's singing lips with lip liner. Everyone crowds around the mirrors, bodies playfully colliding.
When the group walks into the dance, arms linked together, nothing dramatic happens. The music doesn't screech to a halt, no fingers are pointed, no one even gasps. But Santana feels the shift. It's in the normalcy, how no one screams "Loser" or reaches for a slushie. The Cheerios may glare, and a few people may stare, but Santana sails right past them, arm linked with Rachel's.
Santana catches Mr. Schu's eye. He is grinning wildly, and she reaches out her hand, meeting his for a high five. Then she is on the dance floor, twirling Rachel around, singing along, and smiling. And she realizes the last time she smiled like this was in Glee club the day before.
"Bust a Move" suddenly comes blaring over the speakers, and as one, the group starts into the moves Mr. Schu taught them. Mike is breakdancing, and Matt is beatboxing to Rachel's harmonies, and Brittney is twirling her hair around, and Finn is laughing as he and Puck try to rap, and Mr. Schu cannot stop smiling, and neither can Santana. She catches Rachel's eye, and Santana's grin only gets bigger.
The next year's yearbook has a picture of Santana and Rachel, arms around each other, grins wide. The only Sharpie marks on it are in the note Santana writes to Rachel.