A/N: A shout-out and thanks to 1booklover11 for providing the inspiration for the main part of this chapter.
Someone to Love You – Chapter 86
In the days immediately following Christmas, the majority of Columbus hotels were quiet. The customary lull between holidays was evident, with family visits over and New Year's Eve parties not yet begun. The Dewberry Inn, on the other hand, was bustling, having won the bid to host the Midwest Show Choir Association's winter conference. Coaches and administrators from several states had checked in over the course of the last few hours, and most of them were scattered throughout the hotel in groups both large and small, renewing old friendships and forging new ones.
Several floors above the packed lobby, Will Schuester was waging an internal debate over whether to raid his room's well-stocked mini bar and drown his sorrows privately, or head to the hotel lounge in an effort to shake off his persistent funk.
This had definitely been his most miserable December on record. Not only had he been subjected to Emma's endless chatter about her wedding reception in the weeks prior to the big day, but now the staff area of McKinley's website was flooded with photos of the happy occasion, with those who had attended gushing about how wonderful and fabulous and romantic it had been. And Will had found himself behaving like a bystander at a particularly devastating car crash – desperate to avert his gaze, but unable to look away.
To hear Emma talk, Carl was a saint and a giant among men. No doubt, once they'd been married for a couple of months, she'd be putting his name forward as a candidate for husband of the year – a position Will himself had one day expected to fill.
Fat chance of that.
Shortly after she'd eloped with Carl, but before it had become general knowledge, Emma had invited Will into her office. She'd broken the news to him as gently as possible. She'd kept her tone neutral, doing her level best to put a damper on her joy and trying valiantly to spare his feelings. She'd told him that she hoped they could remain friends, but he wasn't sure she'd really meant it. Yes, she'd been sociable since then. She hadn't avoided him in the halls or in the staff room, and she'd been willing to dole out advice or lend a listening ear, but it wasn't the same. The ease that used to exist between them had been lost. She no longer gazed at him adoringly when he spoke, and the smiles she directed his way were cordial rather than loving. Those were clearly reserved for her husband now.
Dropping his head into his hands, Will muttered a string of bitter curses. He had to get away from his thoughts, and although the oblivion that the contents of the mini bar could provide was incredibly tempting, he knew full well that he'd feel like even more of a failure than he already did if he gave in to the urge. Grabbing his key card from the bedside table and his sweater from the back of the chair, he strode purposefully from the room. What he desperately needed at that very moment was a distraction, and he knew just where to find one.
Up in the Dewberry's penthouse suite, Dustin Goolsby was settling in, carefully unpacking the last of his clothing and checking to ensure it was all wrinkle-free. While most of his colleagues tended to wear sweatshirts and jeans at conventions such as these, he saw no reason to lower his usual sartorial standards. After all, dressing sharply was a deceptively simple way of asserting his superiority over his fellow coaches.
Pulling out his phone, he hummed softly to himself as he checked his messages. A wide grin spread across his face at the sound of Patsi's voice, confirming that she'd be arriving in Columbus the following day. Although LaGuardia's show choir would only ever face the cream of the crop from the Midwest, his lover made a point of scoping out her school's potential rivals, just as he did. That identical killer instinct was one of the things that had drawn them to each other in the first place.
Once he'd assured himself that none of the voicemails required his immediate attention, he rose from his chair, stepped around the bed, and unlocked the door to the connecting suite. While every conference attendee knew Patricia Grantfeld and the school she represented, none of them were aware of the highly personal nature of her relationship with the coach of Vocal Adrenaline – and both Dustin and Patsi aimed to keep it that way. Slipping inside the room, he made a careful circuit of the space, ensuring that all was in readiness. Satisfied, he retraced his steps, ran a brush through his hair, shrugged into his sports jacket, plucked a barely visible piece of lint off its lapel, and pocketed his key card. There would be a crowd assembled at the bar by now, and Dustin was eager to join the throng. Psyching out the competition was at the very top of his agenda for the evening, and he couldn't wait for the fun to begin.
The change of scenery hadn't helped at all. Will's mood had worsened at the realization that he was surrounded by strangers, with nary a familiar face in sight. For whatever reason, the bulk of the northwestern Ohio contingent had not yet made an appearance, leaving the New Directions' coach sitting at the bar alone, nursing his gin and tonic as he sank ever deeper into the blackness of his thoughts.
From his position in the doorway to the bar, Dustin scanned the crowd. Like a hawk searching for prey, his gaze unerringly zeroed in on Will and, with his keenly honed sense of observation, Dustin immediately noted the other man's depressed state. Dustin had heard the whispers, of course, along with scores of juicy details through the grapevine. The coaching community was cliquish and insular, a regular hotbed of rumour and innuendo, and Will's imploding love life had been the source of endless chatter. The latter was clearly still licking his wounds, which played into Dustin's hands perfectly. After all, he'd never been averse to kicking someone when they were down – and this was a golden opportunity. Now, he just had to choose his line of attack.
He could approach this directly. Simply settle himself down on the empty stool beside Will and make short work of destroying his rival's already shaky self-esteem. But that was far too overt a move. It lacked finesse, or any semblance of subtlety, and Dustin was nothing if not subtle. To derive the most satisfaction from his twisted little plot, he needed to appear innocent. Blameless. Devoid of any ulterior motive.
Glancing around the room once more, a slow grin spread across his face as the perfect solution materialized right in front of him. Spying a trio of coaches that he knew were all very familiar with New Directions, he strode towards them, inviting each one to join him for a drink. The empty table that was well within earshot of the bar must surely have been fated and, once the quartet reached it, Dustin deliberately staked his claim to the chair facing Will. Although no member of the group had ever been shy about expressing a blisteringly negative opinion – even in the presence of the person they were critiquing – there was no sense in tipping his hand. After all, one of his colleagues might experience a sudden attack of conscience at the sight of the man they all knew was going through a particularly difficult time emotionally. He would have to handle this delicately.
Having summoned their server with a wave of his hand, Dustin quickly placed his order and the others followed suit. As they waited for their drinks, the coaches engaged in small talk, sharing details of their individual journeys to Columbus and complaining about the bitterly cold weather that showed no signs of abating. Minutes later, with glasses in hand and without any prompting on Dustin's part, they'd begun handicapping their respective teams' chances, as well as those of all the other competitors.
"Well, Dustin here will be adding another piece of hardware to Carmel's trophy case," Nicole, a tall, dark-skinned brunette with a warm smile declared matter-of-factly.
"Of course, he will. There's nothing quite as predictable as a Vocal Adrenaline win at Regionals."
The voice that spoke betrayed not even a trace of rancour. Its owner, Lisa, a petite woman of Asian descent, winked at Dustin in a clear indication that she bore no resentment towards him for his presumptive triumph. It was a universally accepted fact that, short of a sudden bout of laryngitis silencing the lion's share of Carmel's team, its members were destined to emerge victorious. The fight at Regionals would be for second and third place, and anyone who thought otherwise was either new to the show choir scene or seriously deluded.
"Runner-up is harder to call, but I'd say your crew's got a good shot at it this year, Lisa."
Lisa beamed at this unexpected praise from Nicole, her long-standing rival. Her choir had really upped their game over the course of the past semester, notching wins at the local level, as well as at their most recent Sectionals.
"It's a miracle we made it to Sectionals at all," Lisa admitted, "considering that the administration cut the music program's funding back in September."
"Just be thankful you're not at McKinley," Brian – long-haired and bearded – counselled, speaking up for the first time.
"Agreed. Figgins was no prize, but once Sue Sylvester got her hands on the levers of power…" Nicole's voice trailed off as a collective shiver rippled through the foursome.
"It's hard to imagine that place could get any worse. I mean, we've had a few transfer students from there, and they tell these crazy stories about students getting tossed into dumpsters and having icy drinks thrown at them on a daily basis," Lisa related.
"I've heard those stories, too, but I figured they were blown out of proportion." Brian shook his head, his disbelief evident. "After all, there's no way any teacher worthy of the name would let that sort of behaviour continue unchecked. The staff can't possibly all be that incompetent."
"Or gutless," Lisa added pointedly.
"Trust me, they are," Dustin confirmed, emitting a bark of mirthless laughter. "Jesse St. James witnessed it first-hand – the mistreatment, the insults, the blatant intimidation. I wasn't around when he came back to Carmel, but my team members still talk about it."
"Why the hell doesn't somebody do something?"
The normally easy-going Brian was becoming visibly irate, his eyes flashing as colour rose to his cheeks. Dustin shrugged in response.
"Like what? Call the cops? Try to get the kids to press charges? This is high school, my friend. Shit happens."
"I'm not naïve, man. I realize that high school isn't all hearts and flowers. But these students are literally being assaulted while the adults who should be protecting them stand around and ignore what's going on right under their noses. Teenagers are vulnerable, and they're being left to fend for themselves. It's unconscionable."
"It's McKinley," Dustin countered impassively. "The jocks rule the place. The football players are the worst offenders, yet they're treated like rock stars. Most of the staff worship the ground those guys walk on, and as for the administration… Let's just say that the players and their parents wield a lot of influence at the board level, and Figgins has always been a first rate ass-kisser."
"I'd argue he's just a first rate ass," Nicole quipped, eliciting chuckles from her colleagues.
"Seriously though," Brian mused aloud when the laughter had subsided, "why do the talented ones put up with it? School boundaries aren't etched in stone. We accept transfers all the time. They could leave, go someplace where they're appreciated – or, at the very least, where they're treated like human beings."
"I've often wondered that myself," Lisa chimed in. "A couple of those New Directions kids could write their own ticket. Especially their lead, Rachel Berry."
Ducking his head to hide the smile that had sprung to his lips, Dustin gave an inward whoop of delight at Lisa's words. He couldn't have planned this better if he'd tried. She'd just unintentionally presented him with the very opening he'd been waiting for, and he intended to take full advantage.
"Ah, Rachel Berry… I'd sell my soul to have someone of that caliber on my team," Nicole declared fervently.
"Speaking of Ms. Berry, does anyone know if she's been sick recently?"
"Not that I'm aware of, Brian. Why do you ask?"
"Don't you remember, Lisa? She was barely visible at Sectionals. I just assumed she wasn't well, since obviously no coach who had a performer like her in their lineup would be stupid enough to waste her talent by having her sing background vocals."
"You'd think so, Brian, but you'd be wrong."
"Seriously, Dustin? You're telling me Will Schuester voluntarily sidelined the best singer he's got?
Dustin scoffed openly – and loudly – at Brian's incredulity.
"Well of course he did. That's just Will being Will."
Immersed in his own misery, Will had so far remained oblivious to the nearby group, but the sound of his name being uttered pierced through the fog that surrounded him and instantly captured his attention. In an effort to identify the speaker and to discover exactly why he was the topic of conversation, Will swivelled on his bar stool – only to be met by the mocking gaze of Dustin Goolsby.
"We were just talking about you, Schuester. Why don't you pull up a chair and join us?"
Will momentarily debated the wisdom of complying with Dustin's suggestion. They weren't friends. He'd likely regret it. But he was tired of his own company, his curiosity was piqued and, with the northwestern contingent still nowhere in sight, he highly doubted that he'd get a better offer any time soon. Borrowing a chair from a nearby table, he wedged himself between Lisa and Brian, took a sip of his drink, and concluded there was no point delaying the inevitable.
"I heard you mention my name. What was that all about?"
"I was trying to figure out if you're simply misguided, or if you really are as idiotic as your actions would imply." Brian's words, while provocative, were delivered calmly.
"Excuse me?! I barely know you. There's no need to be rude," Will spluttered.
"Uh, Will? You might be from Nowhereseville, Ohio, but you've got a reputation – and it's not a good one."
"Dustin's right. Your reputation definitely precedes you. And you can hardly call me rude for merely stating facts. Which, by the way, are that your coaching methods suck. In case you missed the point," Brian explained, still in a rational tone.
"Why the hell do so many people think they have the right to question the way I run my Glee club? What business is it of yours?" Will sniped at Brian.
"It's none of my business. I'm not here to try to change you. Quite frankly, the more incompetent you are, the better my chances of beating you and your merry band of misfits."
"How dare you insult my team? They're brilliant, each and every one of them."
"That's where you're mistaken," Dustin interjected. "Only one or two of them demonstrate any real talent."
"And you squander that little bit of potential by deliberately benching your star at a major competition," Nicole snorted.
"Now, hold on a minute," Will huffed, his voice rising. "If you're talking about Rachel-"
"Who else would we be talking about?" Dustin made no effort to hide his sarcasm.
"As I was trying to say," Will resumed through gritted teeth, his patience notably waning, "I didn't bench Rachel. She was on stage at Sectionals with the rest of the team."
"You've just proven my point. You have this jewel of a performer that each one of us would practically kill for…" Nicole paused briefly as the other three nodded and murmured their assent, "and you treat her as if she's no better than the others."
"For crying out loud, how many times do I have to repeat myself? She isn't better than the others. They're all superb singers, and they all deserve to be showcased," Will insisted stubbornly.
"If that's what you think, you really are dumber than a post," Brian opined.
"Either that, or you're crazy," Lisa concurred.
"It's not crazy or dumb to want to give each of my kids a chance to shine. They'll never pull together without it."
"So stay home, Will. If their jealousy and self-focus keep them from putting the team first, then they shouldn't be competing. Let them sing their little hearts out at McKinley. But don't lead them to believe that they'll achieve greatness, or that they have what it takes to win anything more challenging than a local karaoke contest. Without Rachel Berry front and centre, they're mediocre."
Glaring at Brian, Will opened his mouth as if to defend himself, before immediately closing it again. Dustin, sensing his opportunity, chose that moment to pounce.
"Shame I can't poach her. I'd have Nationals in the bag for the next two years."
"Even more than you already do? Perish the thought!" Nicole exclaimed.
"But she's stellar, and she's being wasted as part of New Directions. I'd give her every available solo. She'd blossom under my guidance."
"Rachel would never join Vocal Adrenaline. Not after what those kids did to her last year," Will asserted.
"She would if I promised to build the team around her. The girl's ambitious. She's got goals, and I can help her achieve them."
"She wouldn't transfer to Carmel no matter what you offered her. There's no way. She's dedicated to me. To New Directions. To what we're trying to accomplish."
"Which is what, exactly?" Lisa queried, her brow furrowed in genuine puzzlement.
"Win Nationals," Will stated, as if it were the most obvious answer in the world.
"I hate to break it to you, Will, but you'll never accomplish that by sticking Rachel in the back row and having her sing harmony. You just won't. Showcasing her is your only hope of success," Nicole retorted.
"And if you don't use her, you deserve to lose her," Brian proclaimed.
"None of you seem to get it. Rachel isn't going anywhere. She's unfailingly loyal."
"That she is. Shame it's not reciprocated."
Will scowled at Dustin, plainly annoyed at the latter's implication.
"I'm completely loyal to all my kids, and that includes Rachel. What could possibly make you think otherwise?"
"Is that a serious question?" At Will's nod, Dustin leaned forward, a hint of a smirk playing at the corners of his mouth as he prepared to subject his rival to the sting of a few cold, hard truths. "Let me spell it out for you, then. Loyalty's a two way street and, from where I'm sitting, you haven't shown her a great deal of it."
"Because I don't give her every solo? That's hardly a sign of disloyalty," Will protested.
"That's merely the tip of the iceberg. You dismiss her ideas. You ignore her very valid complaints about your lackadaisical rehearsal style. You allow other members of your team to insult her. Apparently, they went so far as to almost vote her out, and you didn't lift a finger to intervene. Shall I go on?"
"Where the hell do you get your information?"
"I have my sources," Dustin replied cryptically, refusing to elaborate further. "Can you deny any of it?"
"Of course I can. I accept input from everyone. And my rehearsals are unstructured so that none of the kids feel boxed in. Unlike you, I don't believe in turning sensitive, artistic teens into robots."
Brian's correction elicited chuckles from Lisa, Nicole and Dustin, but Will remained stone-faced, unmoved by the other coach's humour.
"Whatever. The important thing is, I treat my kids humanely."
"Right. Because standing by and doing nothing when they get slushied and thrown into dumpsters is definitely supportive and does wonders for their self-esteem," Dustin shot back.
"That doesn't happen anymore!"
The denial that sprang to Will's lips was instinctive, a last-ditch but ultimately futile effort to avoid shouldering any part of the blame for the poisonous atmosphere that permeated his school. Judging by the looks being directed at him, it was apparent that no one in his current audience was about to cut him any slack.
"It does, and you know it. McKinley isn't a safe space for kids who are different. They're afraid to walk the halls, and nobody's willing to help. You're one of the adults, Will. As a teacher, you have a responsibility towards the kids in your classroom and in your Glee club. That's your job, and you're failing at it. You're leaving those teens at the mercy of the bullies – which makes you no better than a bully yourself," Dustin concluded.
"If you can't protect your students from the punks who think harassing others is their God-given right, then you shouldn't be teaching. And if you disparage the talent of a girl who's so good that I've used her MySpace videos as examples to motivate my own leads, then you shouldn't be coaching a show choir," Brian added, driving the point home.
A heavy silence fell over the assembled group. Will's mouth was set in a hard line and his hands were balled into fists as he struggled to keep his emotions in check – which quickly proved to be a lost cause.
"I don't have to sit here and listen to this."
Wooden chair legs scraped against the floor as the embattled coach of New Directions stood abruptly and turned to go. He'd only taken a few steps when he was stopped short by the sound of Dustin's voice calling out a warning.
"You should be careful, Will. Rachel is a loyal girl, and she's proven that again and again, but she has more options than you realize. The day may come, sooner rather than later, when she decides that opportunity trumps loyalty, and that's she had enough of mistreatment, icy drinks and pain."
Refusing to rise to the bait, Will ignored Dustin's taunt. After flinging a couple of bills onto the table, he stalked from the bar without a backward glance.
Will wasted no time retreating to the sanctuary of his room. Exhausted from the ordeal he'd just been through, the moment the door clicked safely shut behind him he kicked off his shoes and flung himself onto his bed. Although he would've liked nothing better than to banish the past hour from his mind, he found himself instead replaying the conversation he'd had with the other coaches, their accusations swirling around in his mind without respite.
He was well aware that not everyone agreed with his methods. They didn't understand what motivated him, and he could live with that. What he struggled with was their incessant focus on Rachel. Why did so many people persist in criticizing his treatment of her? She was arrogant. Opinionated. Bordering on obnoxious. A diva in the worst sense of the word. He couldn't reward that sort of behaviour. As a teacher, it was his job – his duty, even – to equip his students for future success. They needed to be presented with a clear picture of the world and their place in it. While he certainly wasn't out to crush anyone's dreams, it was important that he provide the members of his choir with a dose of reality. Which is what he was trying to do for Rachel. No matter what the others thought, he only wanted the best for her, and he was trying to keep her grounded.
But did that mean he was in danger of losing her? Dustin's final words implied as much, and they'd sent a shiver of fear down his spine at the thought. While she'd not been shy about expressing both her displeasure and unhappiness when things didn't go her way, Rachel had never given any indication that she was planning to leave New Directions. Despite her flaws, she was loyal to a fault, meaning Dustin's warning was just a lot of hot air – yet another instance of Vocal Adrenaline's coach trying to psych him out by messing with his head. And it had worked, for a little while. But now that he'd seen it for the ploy it truly was, he could rest easy.
With his doubt assuaged, Will crawled under the covers, closed his eyes, and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
For Rachel, the old year had ended and the new one had begun in a manner to which she was unaccustomed – in the arms of a boy who loved her as much as she loved him, and surrounded by the best group of friends a girl could ask for. The New Year's Eve party her fathers had cheerfully allowed her to host had brought those she cared for the most together, and the five couples had spent the last few hours of 2010 enjoying each other's company in the comfort of the Berry basement. They'd danced and sung, they'd shared confidences and told jokes, they'd played board games, they'd laughed and they'd cried. And, at the stroke of midnight, with images of the ball dropping in Times Square flickering on the television screen behind them, they'd exchanged kisses – from Kurt and Blaine's chaste brushing of lips to Rachel and Jesse's far more passionate mingling of breath and tongues. It had been, by all accounts, an auspicious start to 2011.
Now, two nights later, Rachel and Jesse were hidden away in the tree house, curled up in bed under the faint light of the stars twinkling overhead. Although it was very late, both of them were wide awake, with Rachel consumed with worry over the announcement she was about to make to her New Directions teammates, and Jesse doing his level best to calm her with words of encouragement and vows of unwavering support.
"I should not be this nervous. It's not as if I care what they think anymore, or that I want to stay at McKinley."
"No. But if their past behaviour is anything to judge them by, things could get ugly. And who could blame you for wanting to avoid that?"
She shot him a look of wonderment, her heart swelling at this latest evidence of just how well he understood her.
"They think I pick fights on purpose. That I get some sick pleasure from confrontation."
"You stand up for yourself and for what you believe in. That's not the same as provoking them for kicks. As I reminded Steadman recently, you're not a vengeful person. You're not deliberately out to hurt them, but there's no guarantee they'll return the favour."
"I don't want to spend the next six months in Glee club hell," she admitted softly.
"You don't have to. Remember that you hold all the cards. If they're stupid enough to try to vote you out again, let them. If you lose, go quietly." In response to the shock that registered in her expressive eyes, he grinned and kissed the tip of her nose before cocking a knowing brow. "It won't be long until enough of them come to their senses and beg you to come back. The others will fall into line. When that happens, be gracious."
"And if things don't go according to plan? If they kick me out, don't change their minds, and treat me like crap? What then?"
"And go where?"
"Lima Prep," he answered without hesitation. "Your dads would be on board, Grace and Amy could show you the ropes, Grace's mom could put in a good word for you… The point is, Rach, you have options. The only thing tying you to New Directions and to McKinley is you. The power's in your hands. Your acceptance to LaGuardia means you're free to do as you please, starting right now. And no matter what you choose, I'll be with you every step of the way."
For the first time since they'd begun their discussion, Rachel visibly relaxed. The creases in her forehead disappeared, the tightness in her jaw lessened, and the tension in her shoulders eased. Shifting slightly within Jesse's warm embrace, she gifted him with a brilliant smile.
"It's going to be okay. I can do this."
"It is, and you can."
He pulled her closer, slipping his leg between her thighs as he bent his head to whisper in her ear.
"In case my words weren't quite enough, there's one other stress-relieving technique I've been told I'm pretty good at…"
In memory of Brian, with love. Thanks for never judging.
RIP my friend. MTFBWY