ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE

Chapter 22

DECEMBER, SOPHOMORE YEAR

...

Her dads don't actually kill them, but they aren't exactly impressed.

They mutually decide to keep the engagement a secret until Thanksgiving, and doing so is a lot harder than Rachel imagined. That's less than two weeks of secrecy, but it's really difficult to keep something like that to herself. Her roommates find out, of course, and the people she knows in New York can obviously see the ring on her finger. But she doesn't tell anyone else, and neither does Noah. Or at least he's not supposed to, but one day Finn calls her and says congratulations, and she demands to know why Noah gets to tell somebody if she doesn't. Finn then says he knew before she did, and she doesn't know whether to find that cute or infuriating. She should probably just find it weird.

Either way, she calls Santana later and tells her.

So then there are four of them who know- four in their immediate circle of friends and family anyway. Finn won't tell anyone, and she's pretty sure Santana won't. If she does, she'll tell Brittany who's still in California and doesn't really talk to anyone else. So the chances of it getting back to her parents before she has a chance to tell them herself aren't really all that high. She can hear the eye-rolling when she tells Santana, and then she hears a lecture on how Santana will kill her if this "childhood marriage" ends with Rachel being knocked up before she's legally able to drink. Rachel rolls her own eyes and tells her to just be happy for them, and Santana begrudgingly admits that she is. A little. Then she tells her to keep her own last name because Rachel Puckerman sounds like a dental assistant, not a singer.

Noah picks her up from the airport the day before Thanksgiving, and she's kind of more nervous than she ever remembers being. He doesn't look all that thrilled himself, and she wonders if he sees the irony here. Last Thanksgiving, he dumped her. This Thanksgiving, they're announcing an engagement. She wants to ask him, but he kind of looks like he might throw up at any second, so maybe it's not the best time.

He tries to talk her into stopping before they go to her house. He tells her that she hasn't seen the new apartment and that Bekah's been dying to see her and a bunch of other stuff that's meant to delay the process. But she knows better. She knows that it's now or never and that putting off the inevitable isn't going to do much good. Besides, her parents are both home and catching them together is sometimes a difficult enough task in itself. So they go home.

He continues to stall once they actually pull into her driveway. He looks downright terrified now, maybe even more than he was when he actually asked her. She's nervous, too, but not as bad off as Noah is obviously. A tiny part of her finds it amusing, but she knows better than to say this. Instead, she just reaches over and slides a hand over his head. She lets her ring scrape against him on purpose. "It's fine," she promises, even if she's actually sort of dreading it. "They knew it was coming, they'll just have to accept it."

Noah looks less than convinced, but he still gets out of the car and goes up the stairs to the house with her. She lets herself in and actually has to call for her parents because no one is waiting to welcome her home like she imagined they might be. Both her dads show up, from opposite ends of the house. They're both dressed for a day off, but she has no doubt in her head that they've both been in their offices doing work anyway. They've never really been good with the whole taking time off concept.

She does her best to hide her ring as she hugs them, and she immediately stuffs her hand into the pocket of her jacket afterward. Noah still looks like he might puke, so she uses her right hand and grabs his to pull him down with her into her favorite armchair.

"Do you guys want lunch?" Her dad has his cell phone out checking the time. "We weren't sure what time you'd get in. We were just about to order, but we can get ready and go out if you want."

"That'd be great." Rachel smiles, and she feels Noah tense beside her. The armchair isn't very big, and she's able to move inconspicuously enough to press her elbow into his ribs. "But we wanted to talk to you first."

Both of her dads immediately freeze and stare at her. She has a feeling that they already know what's coming, and the looks on their faces aren't exactly encouraging. Noah's still completely silent and tense, and she knows it's basically up to her to break the nerves brought on by the three men in the room with her.

So she inhales a little breath, takes her hand out of her pocket, and straightens her ring.

"We're engaged."

"I told you!" Rachel's a little shocked that her father's initial outburst is not directed at her but at her other dad instead. He sounds pissed, and they're staring at each other with a mutual look of frustration and maybe anger.

"Rachel, are you pregnant?"

"No!" She's horrified that they would just jump to that accusation, and she doesn't miss the fact that Noah still hasn't said a word and is still paler than he should be.

"I told you," her father repeats again, this time lower and more pointedly. "I told you this would happen."

"You could try being happy for us," Rachel snaps defensively. She's pissed because even though she knew they weren't going to be thrilled, she didn't expect them to basically be talking to each other instead of to her. She's also mad that they've been talking about her behind her back and that they apparently think the only logical reason she'd have for getting engaged would be an unplanned pregnancy. Yes, she's dramatic, but damn.

She hears Noah suck in a little breath and sees both of her parents stop and stare at her like she's honestly lost her mind. She should be nervous, but right now she's just kind of mad. And she's too stubborn to let any kind of nerves show. She shouldn't have to be anyway. She's not a child. She's in love, and no one else should have any say in how she chooses to handle that. She has all of this onhand to shoot off if they protest, but her dad just shakes his head.

"Let's go."

No one says a word on the way to the restaurant. She sits with Noah in the back of her dad's car, and the only noise is the low hum of the engine and the occasional pothole. The radio's not even on, so it's especially tortuous. She tries to keep the stubborn attitude because it makes it easier to deal with this whole thing if she feels she has a reason to be defensive and angry on her own.

They get to the restaurant, and they're still silent until after the server comes and takes their orders. Rachel crosses her arms and glares at no one in particular. She knows she probably looks like a spoiled little girl, but she doesn't care. She's just announced her engagement, and her parents are supposed to be fucking happy for her. They just are. Unconditional love and a bunch of other bullshit she doesn't care about at the moment.

Finally, someone speaks.

"I'm just curious," her father's tone is far too casual, and Rachel hates this question already, "how you," he nods at Noah, "working at a restaurant, and you," he looks at Rachel, "with no job, expect to take care of yourselves and support a child."

"I'm not pregnant," Rachel hisses, and she doesn't care if it sounds hateful because now she's just pissed.

"He's talking about Bekah," Noah says quietly.

And Rachel feels really stupid when her dad nods and then snidely says, "Yes, I was. But nice to see that you have a good sense of logic still in place."

She feels stupid, yes, but she's too stubborn to let that show. Instead, she goes right back on the defensive. "Why don't you want me to be happy?"

This causes at least two eye rolls. Noah might roll his as well, but she doesn't look over to see. Her dad obviously isn't in the mood for her, though, because he goes right back to speaking down to her. "Rachel, I understand that your dramatics sometimes take on a life of their own, but you know perfectly well that you don't have a leg to stand on with that and that it's, quite frankly, bullshit."

"Honey, of course we want you to be happy." Her other father is much calmer and soothing. He's always been the one most likely to coddle her. "We just want you to be realistic and think about these things. Because your father's right, you really aren't in a place financially to do this."

"I can get a job." She hasn't considered this, but she says it without thinking. "We'll be fine. They're moving to New York."

She's not sure that last part is really supposed to be common knowledge, but if they're getting married or plan to get married any time in the near future, no one can really be surprised that they want to be in the same city. Her dad, though, actually laughs.

"Oh, thank god," he says sarcastically. "Because New York City is so much more affordable than Lima."

Logically, Rachel knows he is right. New York isn't cheap by any stretch of the imagination. They don't have any money, not really. So yes, it will be difficult. That doesn't mean they can't do it.

She opens her mouth to say just that, but her dad has moved onto Noah now, which can only lead to good things... "And besides the fact that neither of you can afford to live in New York City without our help," he starts strongly, "you do realize that you can't just up and move your sister when she is still in state custody, don't you?"

"Yes."

"So what exactly do you plan to do now that you're making plans to get married and move? Where does that leave Bekah?"

"We're not doing it right away." Noah's uncharacteristically quiet. She can't tell if he's still scared or if it's something else. "And I already know all that shit."

Her dad's shaking his head. Almost in disbelief. "You two... You don't think. Neither one of you. This isn't just about you. There's a whole other person involved in this."

"I know that." Noah's starting to get defensive, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. It's a bad thing because his temper gets the best of him pretty easily, and sometimes that ends up in a volatile mess. It's a good thing because it's the first time she's really ever heard him stand up to her father, and she won't lie and say it isn't a little sexy.

"Then just tell me how you imagine any of this is going to work out. You are responsible for your sister now. That is what you wanted."

Her dad's trying to prove a point, but it's obviously the wrong point because Noah actually gets mad. "I didn't want this! Are you serious?" It's obvious that her dad's a little taken aback by the fact that Noah's actually suddenly being vocal. He actually looks slightly impressed, but Noah's speaking again before he has a chance to comment. He looks frustrated, and shakes his head for a second. "I didn't want any of this to happen, but shit... I'm trying, okay?"

And that seems to break her fathers' resolve a little bit. They both look sympathetic, and the subject changes to the ridiculously cold weather. Rachel goes home with Noah later and sees the new apartment. It's even smaller than she envisioned, and most of their belongings are in storage. But it's nice enough and surprisingly clean. Bekah's on the phone and can hardly be bothered to even say hello, but she puts the call on hold long enough to hug Rachel ask Noah if she can go to the movies later. And the next day, they all sit down to Thanksgiving lunch at Rachel's house, and nobody launches into attacks of any sort.

She goes back to school feeling better than she's felt in a really long time. Her parents stop being so against the idea and seem at least a little more accepting of the engagement. She knows a lot of that has to do with the fact that they already expected it to some degree. She also knows that her father threatened Noah against proposing a year ago when the question was first raised. It doesn't matter, though. They won't disown her or anything. They might not be thrilled with the fact that she's nineteen (almost twenty) and engaged, but they both already knew it was inevitable. And they love Noah, they really do. They might have their issues, but they both care about him, and it's not like they didn't know this was going to happen.

It's easier now that she doesn't feel like she's hiding something. She wasn't exactly hiding her engagement in New York before, but now she just feels like she wants to tell everyone. Apparently word starts spreading to her friends from home as well because she receives lots of congratulations, even though she's sure at least half of them are either sarcastic or will be followed up with behind her back gossip. It doesn't matter. She's happy, that's all that matters.

December is somehow warmer than November, and it's just one of the many strange things Rachel notices as she attends her last few classes of the semester. She starts studying every single night, knowing she's got a lot to make up for in a very short amount of time. She's not actually willing to fail her classes. Not only would her parents actually kill her for that, but she would be extremely disappointed in herself as well. She's never had any problems in school, and she doesn't really have an excuse to start now. Besides, she can't exactly lecture Bekah on trying harder in school if she's pulling Ds and Fs herself. So she studies.

A lot.

She also sets up a meeting with her adviser and talks to him about her chances in the department. She's never actually had Dr. Miller as a professor, but he was one of the judges at her audition, and he regularly attends the mini-showcases. She's only talked to him a handful of times, but she feels strangely comfortable in her office.

When he asks her what she scheduled this meeting for, she tells the truth. "I'm not sure I'm cut out for this program."

"You wouldn't have gotten into this program if you weren't talented."

Rachel shifts a little in her seat. "I know I'm talented." It's conceited, she's well-aware, but modesty has never really been her strong suit. "I've known that my entire life."

If Dr. Miller is off-put by her forwardness, he doesn't show it. She thinks that must mean he deals with people like her a lot- another reason, of course, why she's even here. "Then what is the problem?"

"I'm from a very small town, and I was raised by two men in a same sex relationship. Needless to say, my life was not free of insult and injury." Dr. Miller remains unaffected, so she continues. "My fathers always pushed me to pursue artistic avenues because I excelled in them, and giving me somewhere to focus my attention left me less vulnerable to the negative reactions that my family sometimes garnered throughout my childhood."

In the back of her head, she hears a voice that sounds distinctly like Santana telling her to talk like a normal fucking person. She ignores it because she's speaking a man in a high position of authority who deserves respect. Besides, it feels sort of nice to hear what sounds like her old self peeking through. It's been awhile.

"I have always been leaps and bounds ahead of my peers musically. I have perfect pitch, and I began winning singing competitions before my first birthday. My talent is not what is in question here."

Dr. Miller appears slightly amused. Still, he clasps his fingers together and studies her. "Then what is in question, Miss Berry? If you are comfortable with your level of talent, then what exactly has got you questioning your place in this program?"

It's hard to say out loud. It was difficult enough confessing to Noah, but the prospect of telling a virtual stranger has her throat constricting. "I'm not sure if my talent is anything special here," she finally admits. "I'm used to being the powerhouse, and here, I just feel... average." It almost hurts to say that out loud.

Dr. Miller, though, doesn't seem to care either way. He just raises his eyebrows and shakes his head slowly. "You've been here for more than a year. Are you just coming to this realization?"

"I feel differently than I did a year ago. A year ago, I was still blind to other people's talent."

"Well, perhaps what you're experiencing is simply a reality check, not necessarily a sign that you don't deserve to be here."

It's not that she doesn't think she deserves to be there. Obviously she knows he's right- she wouldn't have even gotten into the program if she wasn't talented. What she's questioning is whether there's a point to her being here. Just because she's talented doesn't mean anything will come from it. She's not stupid. There are hundreds of people in her program who are talented, but there are not hundreds of starring roles on Broadway just waiting to be filled by the latest round of NYU graduates. She's already had her reality check- ninety percent of them are going to end up working entry-level jobs in offices because their musical theatre degrees are going to be useless.

"Do you feel differently than you did a year ago, Miss Berry?" Dr. Miller takes off his glasses and levels her with a serious look. "Not necessarily in regards to your talent, but moreso about your life in general?"

This sounds like the beginning of a counseling session. Not really a therapy session because her therapist would never ask such straight-forward questions- he's much more in the business of letting her do the talking. No, she's sort of having flashbacks to being in Ms. Pillsbury's office. She was never the most effective guidance counselor, but she was at least sympathetic and willing to listen.

"A lot has changed in my life over the past year," Rachel finally supplies. She's not sure this is a relevant conversation, but she still goes with it. "Obviously I feel different."

"What has changed? If you don't mind me asking."

She does, actually, but she tells him anyway. "My boyfriend's mother died unexpectedly. He had to leave school to take care of his little sister. I've spent a lot of time focusing on them and less time focusing on my education. My grades reflect this."

"You feel a responsibility toward them? More than you feel toward your education and career?"

This is seriously turning into a borderline counseling session. Rachel might feel uneasy if she weren't so used to these things. As it is, she feels strangely comfortable and at ease.

"They're my family," she answers back without hesitation. "Of course I feel responsibility toward them. I love them."

"Then perhaps you should focus your attention on why you feel that your responsibility toward them is more important than your responsibility toward your own future." Rachel opens her mouth to respond, but Dr. Miller cuts her off. "Maybe it's not just your confidence in your talent that's changed, maybe you are an entirely different person."

It's true, of course. Rachel knows it's true. She is a different person than she was even just a year ago. She's older and more mature and not nearly as idealistic. She's had far too much reality in much too short a time to still live in the fantasy world she spent her whole life constructing and perfecting. Part of her misses it.

"You may have heard the saying that the road to stardom is lonely or that it's lonely at the top... but it doesn't have to be." She wonders if Dr. Miller knows that he's practically prolific. "You are talented," he assures her. "You owe it to yourself to remember that."

Rachel wakes up the next Tuesday and immediately feels sick to her stomach.

It should just be a normal day, but it's not. A year ago today, she woke up to the worst news of her life. It's hard not to remember that the second she opens her eyes. It's still mostly dark in her room, which is far too reminiscent of the same morning a year ago, but her phone isn't ringing and there's no indication that anything tragic and life-changing has taken place during the night. Still, she glances at the clock and sees that it's 6:43, and she wonders if it's too early to call.

She waits until 7:30. She knows they'll be up because Bekah has to be at school by 8:15. She's not sure if Noah has to work today, but she knows he'll be up to drive his sister at least. So she's a little surprised when he still sounds half-asleep.

It turns out, Bekah's not going to school today. She apparently informed him last night of her plans, and he didn't bother fighting her on it. Rachel's not sure how healthy that is, but she doesn't say anything. She figures if Bekah needs a day off, then maybe she should have it. If it's going to help, then she should be allowed to stay home. Really, Rachel just hopes the entire thing doesn't backfire. She hopes that the day off from school is more therapeutic and less of simply a way for Bekah to dwell on the situation and find herself even more depressed than she would be otherwise.

She tells Noah to go back to bed and that she'll call him later, but he stops her.

"No, talk to me," he mumbles quietly, and she knows his face is mostly in his pillow.

She asks him what he wants to talk about and tries to keep her voice quiet enough to not wake up her roommate. He just mumbles a little bit, and she can tell he's already halfway back to asleep.

"I don't care," he finally manages a coherent sentence. "I just like your voice."

Later that day, he leaves her a Facebook message that says I love you, and I can't wait to wake up beside you. He rarely says things that sappy, and he never says them in public. Since Facebook is about as public as it's possible to get, she can really only assume he's drunk. That fact doesn't really bother her that much. Santana's the only one who comments, and it's only to say that they owe her money for a new Macbook because hers now has vomit in the keyboard.

Rachel calls him, gets his voicemail, and leaves a two minute long message full of whispered things she won't really remember after she hangs up.

She does pretty well on her finals- at least as far as she can tell.

She doesn't really think she bombs anything, and she's willing to bet that she actually aces quite a few of her tests. She also manages to pull together a very good performance of "The Light in the Piazza" for her last workshop. Her professor says she is "very impressed" and gives her some constructive criticism about a few places in the song. She knows she's showing personal growth because she actually listens and takes notes. No more wasting her time here. If she's sticking around, she plans to get everything out of these years that she can.

She gets drunk on red wine her first night back in Lima and ends up falling asleep with her head on the coffee table while a rerun of Grey's Anatomy plays on Lifetime.

She gets back mid-afternoon, spends most of the evening with her parents, and then uses the extra key Noah gave her last month to let herself into the apartment. He's at work, and Bekah's at a friend's, so she grabs a bottle of wine out of the cabinet (and really, she's not sure why there's wine in the house because Noah hates it), and she drinks four glasses.

That's the last thing she remembers until she's wakes up because she's literally being carried to bed.

"Couldn't wait for me?" Maybe he doesn't hate it that much because he takes a long pull straight from the bottle.

"What time is it?" She's drunk and fuzzy, and she can't do much of anything but force her eyes open.

"Late. Like 1:30." He sits the wine down on his dresser and then carefully drops her onto the bed.

"You're just getting home?"

She sees him shrug as he starts tugging at his tie and the rest of his work clothes. "Christmas parties," he says simply.

"I'm drunk."

"I can tell." He smiles at her and then falls down beside her and kisses her quickly.

"You're warm." She just mumbles the word and rolls into him so that she can press her face into his bare chest. She's still fully clothed, and part of her thinks she should probably go ahead and take care of that because she's about to fall back asleep, but the other part is too tired to care that much.

When she wakes up, it's light outside, and her clothes are mysteriously absent. She's still got her panties on and her undershirt, so she probably didn't wake up for random middle of the night sex. She was probably just helped out of her sweater and jeans because she was too hot and/or uncomfortable. Noah's nowhere to be seen, and when she looks around for the time, she sees that it's almost noon.

She's not used to this little one bathroom apartment, but she manages a shower and clean clothes anyway, and when she finally makes it into the kitchen, she's not surprised to see a pizza box for lunch and two Puckermans who look less than thrilled to even be awake on a Saturday.

"Finally decide to wake up?" Noah's got a mouthful of pepperoni, and Bekah's too busy texting to do much of anything besides glance up.

"I was tired." Rachel ignores them after that and starts digging through the cabinets for something that she can eat. The closest thing she finds is oatmeal so she dumps some water into a pot and sets it on the stove to boil. She really shouldn't have had that much wine the night before because her head is starting to pay for it.

Noah leans back in his chair and grabs a bottle of water out of the fridge. He tosses it to her without ever standing up. She's sort of impressed that he's capable of that much laziness.

"So guess what," Bekah breaks into her own conversation and looks up at both of them. Neither of them have anything to guess, so she just tells them. "Hannah Belkin is getting a limo for her birthday, and they're renting out a whole restaurant for her party."

Rachel has no idea who Hannah Belkin is, and obviously she's not alone because Noah just says, "So?"

Bekah rolls her eyes and looks kind of pissed off. "I've never had a whole restaurant for my birthday."

"Yeah, and you never will. So you might wanna hang that one up."

"I'm just saying," Bekah snaps back, grabbing another slice of pizza. "It's cool. That's all."

"Well, maybe she'll invite you and you can live vicariously through."

Bekah looks confused. "Live what?"

Rachel's mostly impressed that Noah knows a word like vicariously and can use it in context. He must notice because he shoots her a little smirk and then turns his attention back to his sister. Rachel stirs some oats into the water and just shakes her head as she listens to them bicker. She realizes that this is her life now. This is what her life will be for the next several years. She doesn't think she hates it.

In fact, she's pretty sure she could learn to love it.

They made it through the worst year, so she's fairly confident they can make it through the rest.

...

A/N: Annnnnd that's the end. Thanks to everyone who has stuck through this story and through the one before it. I think a threequel should be in the works...