She would think, afterwards, that it did actually make sense. Everything else in her life was going to shit – why on earth would her relationship be any different? But all the rational thinking and self-belief in the world couldn't keep her stomach from twisting and her chest from aching when she thought back to it.

"Rachel! You're…early…well, earlier than usual. Hey, we were going to grab some chips before practice, do you want to come?"

If the semi-hysterical note to Finn's voice hadn't tipped her off that something was wrong, then the sympathetic look on Quinn's face and the fact that she had never been invited for chips with anyone, let alone the new golden couple, did.

"Thank you for the invite, Finn", she said brightly, ignoring the gnawing anxiety in the pit of her stomach, "I was going to go and set up the chairs."

The panicked looks didn't escape her and she frowned.

"What's going on?"

"Nothing" said Finn too quickly, "Uh, there's a class in there still. Late finishing I guess."

Dear, sweet Finn. Sometimes (always) it'd be better if he shut up and let his smarter half do the talking, but on this occasion she had nothing to say, eyes fixed on a spot just above Rachel's head.

Squaring her shoulders, she rounded Finn, ignoring his helpless groan, and pushed open the doors to the practice room.

Jesse sat there, his back to her, but it was him. No mistaking that hair. No mistaking the legs wrapped around his hips either, even if she hadn't been facing her. What was it with Santana, she wondered. On and off with Puck, relieving Finn of his virginity, and now sharing a deep kiss with Jesse. Either the girl, or the world, or both hated her.

She felt Quinn move behind her and rest a hand on her shoulder.

"I'm sorry" she whispered, and left. And Rachel Berry's world, again, crashed down around her shoulders.

If there was one thing Rachel had prided herself on, it was her indomitable spirit. She knew that it was poorly understood amongst her peers, but it set her in good stead for her future career and cultivating a thick skin had never been an issue for her. But this ignominy was just too much. Santana and Jesse were flaunting their relationship far more than was really appropriate, to the extent that even Mr Schue had looked baffled at their choice of duet in Glee (Whitney Houston, Santana, really? Just didn't have the voice for it)

The worst part was though, that she didn't even want to sing any more. She was happy to palm off solos to Mercedes, Tina, even Quinn. And the worst part? Nobody seemed to care, nobody missed her singing. She'd complained to Finn not so long ago that she was nothing without her voice. Now, even with it, she was still nothing.

So she gave up, and for the first time in her life acted like a normal teenager. It felt…surprisingly good. She lay in bed, glaring at the elliptical, until her father shouted that she would be late for school, and then slouched down the stairs in loose jeans and a black shirt, ignoring their pointed looks. She cut geography (GPA was important, but the subject? Sucked) and ate lunch on her own in the car park. And through it all, nobody noticed. Nobody commented. And despite the Glee club having her number, when she skipped her first ever rehearsal that evening, nobody contacted her.

They weren't better off without her – she would never fall so low as to think that. Her voice was phenomenal, after all. But her voice hadn't won her friends or popularity, hadn't allowed her to cling on to any of the guys she'd dated. So no, they weren't better off without her. But happier without her? Undoubtedly. She didn't torment herself by standing outside the doors and listening but she knew that she would have to face it soon. Soon she would have to explain her decision to Schue, and eventually she would have to watch the club performing in school assemblies and Regionals. Soon she would have to face her failure.

With this mindset, she almost jumped out of her skin when someone cleared their throat behind her one morning as she got her books out of her locker. It had been weeks since the last slushy but she didn't care. The patterns followed by the McKinley crowd were rarely foreseeable, predictable only in their viciousness. The thought that she would somehow escape the constant bullying just because she was keeping a lower profile was preposterous.

She turned, slowly, waiting for the familiar sting of ice and corn syrup but was met with neither, and inched her eyes open.

"I didn't mean to scare you" said Mike, chewing his lip awkwardly, "I just wondered if everything's okay. Haven't seen you in Glee for a while and it's not the same without you."

She blinked dumbly at him and he shrugged.

"Look, I know we've never really been friends. But what that jerk did was horrible and you didn't deserve it. So, I just wanted to say hi and that you should come back. Dancing with you to 'Give you hell' the other day rocked."

She blinked again, and tried to force her face into a smile.

"Uh, thanks Mike. That means a lot. But…I'm not coming back."

He frowned, looking like he was going to press the subject, but something on her face stopped him and he forced a smile.

"That sucks, but I guess I can understand. You know we want you back anytime you feel up to it though, right?"

Swallowing hard, she nodded, unable to muster anything other than a weak grin, and turned back to her locker before she began to cry. When she turned back, he'd gone and the corridor was empty. She shrugged her bag onto her shoulder and headed to her next class wondering if she'd just imagined the whole thing.

Mr Schuester was waiting for her at the end of Spanish. She lingered packing her back, refusing to meet his eye, until he moved to the back of the classroom when the last student had trailed out.

"It's not like you to sit this far back, Rachel" he commented lightly, drawing up a chair next to and swinging onto it backwards. "You haven't really been yourself this week."

She tipped her head forward, allowing her hair to cover her face, but she knew he heard her clearly.

"It turned out that people didn't really like 'myself'"

"Rach…"

"No," she said sharply, "It's okay. I get it. I just don't want to be around them."

"We need you" he said simply, "Regionals is in a week and we've got Jacob filling your space."

The chair scraped harshly as she stood up, pushing her shoulders back.

"You've done nothing but criticise me and my drive, give solos to other members of the group, use me as a teaching point and roll your eyes when I try to sing a fun song for once. I'm sorry, I know this club is a lot to you. But I'm sick of being treated like this and I'm just not enjoying it any more. Maybe you should have considered this when you threw your lot in with Finn, Mr Schue. You've never made a secret of your disdain for me, and that's fine. But you don't get to turn around and play the wholesome educator part, telling me my team needs me. They're not my team, Mr Schue. Find someone else to fill my shoes."

She sort of expected him to argue, roll his eyes or at the very least tell her that it wasn't appropriate to speak to a teacher in that tone (it wasn't, but he'd had it coming for a while), but he didn't. He just sat there, looking at the dusty floor with a lost expression on his face, and when she stood up and left he didn't look up.

The following day, it all began to kick off. She had barely stepped out of her car when strong arms grabbed her and bundled her roughly to the edge of the parking lot. She usually appreciated her petite frame, but on this occasion it left her unable to kick at her attacker (attackers? She was panicking and her hearing blurred). For a moment she thought she was going to be dropped on the floor; she whimpered, disorientated, and then shrieked outright as she sailed through the air and into the garbage.

It had always sounded a little ridiculous when she'd heard about it happening to Kurt, but she suddenly felt a strong wave of sympathy with the boy.

"Not under the protection of the Glee club now, freak" laughed one of the boys, flinging a slushy over the lip of the bin, "you're just trash!"

The sound of their laughing faded into the distance and, unable to motivate herself to move, she lay back in the rubbish, the slushy dripping down her top, and began to cry.

Puck was late for school. Not unusual for him, it had to be admitted; he could count the number of times he'd been on time on one hand. One amputated hand. He'd reflect afterwards that maybe that wasn't such a bad thing; if he'd been earlier he wouldn't have seen Karofsky and a few other goons high-fiving each other and walking away from the dumpster. Sighing, he decided to go and haul Kurt's ass out – it had been an unpleasant experience being on the receiving end and the least he could do was lend a hand.

As he walked closer, he heard soft sobs and winced. Crying girls were bad – crying boys? Not his thing. At all. But still, he was nearly there and…fuck it. He really did need to start making amends.

What he didn't expect as he leaned over the lip was to see Rachel Berry. What he also didn't expect was for her to be lying hopelessly in the trash with the contents of at least one slushy soaking into her hair. What he expected least was the softness with which he spoke.

"Oh shit, Berry. Who did this?"

She'd probably have jumped if she hadn't been lying down; her eyes flicked to him and she sat up at gracefully as anyone lying in a half-full dumpster could.

"I don't know" she said softly with a shrug, "does it matter?"

"Hell yes it matters" he growled, "You're one of us. This-" he gestured at her, "doesn't happen to us."

She was saying something softly under her breath but he ignored her, scooping her midget frame out of the dumpster.

"Lemme give you a lift back to yours, 'k?"

She hesitated, looking at her car, and he nodded encouragingly.

"Are you sure?"

"Wouldn't have asked if I wasn't, Berry. C'mon"

Sure, so he was going to miss Math. Possibility of seeing Berry naked in the shower? Totally worth it.

When Karofsky approached her the next day with a clearly broken nose, a grape slushy and a grovelling apology, things got way more complicated. She didn't know who it had been, but Puck wasn't the only Glee member to tilt his chin at her in the hallway with a hint of a smirk on his face. Sure, she knew they only wanted her back for her voice but…it was kind of nice to be wanted for anything.