Hi everyone! I know it's been a while and I hated being apart from you. But as promised I've been working on a one-shot to follow up my series (This Hell I'm Living, So Different Now from What It Seemed, The Joke's on You and most recently, The Dream I Dreamed), and I have ideas for more, some of them inspired by suggestions a couple of you gave me in reviews to my last story! I want to drop a thanks to Cissy Black Malfoy for helping me talk through this chapter to work out the kinks. This is going to be a two-parter, because apparently I suck at one-shots.
I know you didn't come here to come here to listen to me blather, but since I have your attention I wanted to say that I saw Idina Menzel in concert and it was AMAZING! By far the best concert I've ever been to in my life. Now that that's out of my system, here you go. I hope you like it.
An Unexpected Twister of Fate
"You know Rachel, I really wanted us to become closer to one another tonight, but this is too much too fast and I'm really uncomfortable right now."
"Does that mean you're giving up on this?"
Shelby's gaze met her daughter's big brown eyes and she gritted her teeth as she tried to retain her composure. This had not been part of the plan. When Rachel had invited her and Beth over to dinner at the Berrys' the week before, she never anticipated the position she would end up in or how much she would be straining, doing everything in her power just to stay upright.
"Never," Shelby told her seriously, her eyebrows raising just enough to powerfully emphasize her commitment. She would not give up.
"Right hand red!"
Shelby groaned loudly. Sliding her hand as carefully as she could to one of the red, plastic circles, she shook some the hair that fell out of her clip away from her eyes and looked over at the grinning face mere inches away from her own. She and Rachel had been battling it out on the Twister mat for almost ten minutes at this point and for another three minutes before that when Thomas Berry had attempted to play as well. Considering that the man was over six feet tall, Shelby had been impressed that he had survived as long as he had before his huge, gangly form toppled out of the game, but the real game only truly began when it was just the two perfectionists left on the mat. Ephraim was in charge of the spinner and had been alternating between gleefully calling out each spin's result and cooing at tiny baby Beth on the couch. (Though at this point, Shelby was certain his focus on the baby was only a ruse, for he had to have been purposely making this as difficult for her as possible.)
When Rachel walked into the room coyly clutching the Twister box a quarter hour before, Shelby foolishly agreed, remembering her love of the game from her youth and having adopted a "go with the flow" attitude much earlier that afternoon. Rachel's too wide smile at her easy-going "Sure" and the heavy, dramatic sighs by the Berry men should have been a big hint of what she was about to get into. The thing was, she forgot Rachel was a trained dancer. Occasionally doing yoga did not give her enough game to compete with the incredibly flexible teenager, but Shelby was too stubborn to admit this.
"Right foot yellow!"
"Ah, shit," Shelby grumbled, curling herself over her daughter in order to reach the yellow circle. Shelby was annoyed; Rachel hardly seemed to be struggling from where she was stretched out crab-like below her, while the older woman's limbs were starting to visibly shake from exertion.
"I won't think anything less of you if you find that you can't continue," Rachel said easily from somewhere near her shoulder. Heat was filling her face and her pulse was pounding in her ears, but Shelby was positive it wasn't because of Rachel's jibe. She wasn't so easily intimidated.
"I'm not—" Shelby grunted, tossing her head back to glare at a distracted Ephraim, who was preventing her from potentially moving to a more comfortable position. "—going to let you win that easily."
"Clearly," Thomas interjected amusedly between bites of popcorn from his seat next to Ephraim, who had apparently totally forgotten about his job as spinner and was now preoccupied with playing with Beth's tiny feet. "I have to say Shelby, no one's given Rachel a run like this before. You play this game often?"
"Not since college," Shelby said, trying not to think too much about her jean-clad ass sticking up in the air in the African-American's direction. "But back then it was Strip Twister, and if I don't remember right, alcohol was involved."
Then it was horribly quiet. Rachel, who had a better view of her fathers' faces, seemed to be holding back a laugh. Shelby just closed her eyes and sighed, wondering why she kept sticking her foot in her mouth that evening.
This was just one of the many uncomfortable moments of this day spent with the Berrys, so by now Shelby was becoming more or less immune. It had started the moment Rachel had answered the door to her and two-week-old baby Beth. But that instance of tension when Rachel's eyes focused on the child was interrupted when Ephraim rushed between them with an enthusiastic, "Hi Shelby baby! Come on in!" and took Beth from her mother's arms, leaving a stunned Shelby alone with Rachel while he ran off to fuss over the baby with his partner.
It was then that she knew that despite only having spent a week with her new daughter, her heart was already becoming attached to the little girl. She really did not like not having her baby taken from her.
"You might not get her back for a while," Rachel told her factually, her voice subdued, and moved aside to allow Shelby to come in. There had always been an invisible boundary that had existed only for her which kept her from her daughter for so many years, but she was too anxious about the loss of her baby from her arms to comprehend the significance of that first step inside of the house. When it finally did hit her, she was so pleased that she boldly pulled Rachel into her side for a hug, who gasped in surprise.
Considering their history, Shelby held her daughter for as long as she dared, which was only a few seconds. When she let go she caught Rachel's eye and said with only a hint of embarrassment, "Sorry. I just really wanted to do that."
Rachel smiled slowly and prettily. "It's okay."
She looked beautiful in a yellow and white sun dress, and for the umpteenth time that day Shelby wondered if her choice of dark designer jeans, form-fitting black tee, a belted black jacket and a set of heels was appropriate, not knowing whether she ought to have dressed formally or casually. She would quickly forget about her outfit.
"Oh dear god."
She had just noticed that the entire foyer was covered in various pink and yellow baby decorations, from the large banner above the staircase that read, "CONGRATULATIONS!" with cartoon images of pacifiers and rattles surrounding it to the streamers and "It's a girl!" balloons that were strung everywhere. Looking down, the hardwood floor was coated in a layer of pastel-colored confetti in the shape of rocking horses and safety pins. It looked like some baby-shower decorator had spontaneously combusted or something equally appalling.
"Daddy has the tendency to get a little carried away."
Shelby was surprised that the confetti that continued down the hall to the kitchen didn't muffle the approaching footsteps of the two Berry men. She froze a bit in place as she looked up at Thomas Berry for the first time in years and remembered a time from long ago: When she was just 22 years of age, she stood in the entryway of a smaller house than this and greeted the interracial gay couple for the first time and felt just as nervous upon the dark, scrutinizing glare of an overprotective man wanting to safeguard his home and family.
She took him in. At a little over 6 feet, Thomas Berry wasn't overly tall by most standards, but considering that the next tallest person in the group was Ephraim Berry at about 5' 7", he towered over everyone. While he used to be clean-shaven, he now had a trimmed mustache and a soul patch, and his short hairstyle differed greatly from the inch-tall fade he sported back when The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a weekly tradition. His pale orange polo shirt matched the plaid orange and pink pattern on his white shorts which matched his white slip-on shoes, all of which at a glance reminded Shelby of yachting or mini-golfing.
Sixteen years ago, she would have cracked a joke about it all, but a great deal of time had passed and there was a certain amount of tension that made such comments inappropriate. And she would have been dishonest if she said that she wasn't at all bitter towards the man who was most resolute in the surrogacy arrangement. If it wasn't for him, she might have been able to see her daughter years before, for Ephraim's sensitivity and kindness had always meant that he was malleable as putty in Shelby's shrewd grip.
"Hello Shelby," Thomas said, his deep voice aurally pleasant to her well-trained ears but his tone heavy in an indecipherable subtext. The tension was palpable and Shelby was certain that Rachel and Ephraim, whose gaze moved from the baby in his arms over his glasses to his partner, noticed it too.
She was far too old and, thanks mostly to Beth's still-irregular sleep schedule, too tired to put up with any latent hostility or distrust from him or anyone else that day. She was invited to be in this home and she wasn't going to put up with any of this passive-aggressive, gay-man-drama bullshit while she was there.
"Look," Shelby said brashly, holding out a hand between them. "Let's get something straight: I'm not here with some underhanded, manipulative scheme to steal your daughter or anything just as outrageous. But I won't lie: I still feel the same way. I want to know Rachel and I want her to know me. If you have a problem with that, say it now so I don't have to fake nice all day because right now I'm basically only running on too much coffee and Red Bull and I really don't have it in me."
Rachel gasped dramatically at her side, but Shelby didn't remove her eyes from Thomas's dark ones. She could swear his upper lip was curling with disdain and in moments all hell would break loose, but to her eternal surprise that lip continued upward and she was dazzled with his bright smile and a big, deep laugh. "You haven't changed at all, have you?" he asked delightfully, clapping her on the shoulder.
Shelby gaped, Ephraim grinned, and Rachel giggled.
"Can I give you a hug?" Thomas asked. He didn't wait for her permission. She was suddenly yanked against his chest and a loud "Oof!" escaped from her. She remained limp while he squeezed enthusiastically, watching Rachel bounce and clap giddily out of her peripheral vision.
Shelby wasn't sure what it was about her that made the Berry men want to hug her unexpectedly, but she was inexplicably hopeful that she'd get used to it.
But she wasn't to that point yet. She eventually worked up the nerve to gently push the man away from her and give him a bewildered expression. She wasn't crazy to believe that things were too complicated for such a simple, pleasant reunion. The only times she had talked to Thomas Berry in the last 16 years, he had told her to respect their contract and stay away from her own child.
"What was that for?" Shelby asked guardedly, her brows pulling together over her unwavering gaze.
"Come on, Shelby…" Ephraim said, clearly disappointed she wasn't willing to play along, but Thomas held up a hand to silence his partner and he looked back at the woman in front of him.
"No E, it's deserved," Thomas told her with a small shrug of his wide shoulders. He stared intently at her. "Be honest with us Shelby, have you ever wondered how I've been able to sleep at night since we cut you out of our lives?"
"The thought crossed my mind more than once," Shelby responded, her resentment leaking out in her tone. Why not? He admitted it was deserved.
"It was quite simple, actually. I had to stop regarding you as a friend and remind myself it was all just business."
Shelby felt horribly uncomfortable hearing what she knew to be true, if only because it was being told to her while she was standing in the Berry's foyer while one of the helium-filled balloons kept bumping into the back of her head. She threw a hand back to knock it away and she asked, "Why are you telling me this?"
"Just because it was simple doesn't mean it was easy," Thomas said meaningfully. "Do you remember what we were doing the night you started going into labor with Rachel? We were watching the Newsies on VHS, and you insisted that we try out the fondue pot you got us for Hanukkah that year. Remember? We used to always have so much fun together, but I had moved on from those memories. That is, until you had some talk with Ephraim a few weeks back. He hasn't been able to shut up about you ever since."
"It's true," Ephraim admitted, completely unabashed.
"Now that you and Rachel know one another, it isn't fair to keep asking you to stay away any longer. Things will always be complicated between us, Shelby, I understand that, and I'd understand if you don't forgive us. But I don't regret hugging you. Despite my long-lived denial, you've had a special place in our hearts both as the mother of our child as well as our friend."
Thomas, Ephraim and Rachel continued to look at her expectantly for quite a few long moments, perhaps awaiting some sort of touching display of sentiment or any emotion at all, but Shelby just stood still, impassive. This moment was sixteen years in the making, but just as she and Rachel didn't have their slow-motion, joyous reunion as she expected, Thomas's heart-felt admission of guilt didn't cause the sort of satisfaction she figured she would feel. But then she looked over at Beth and Rachel, who were less than a foot away from one another, and Shelby realized that even after 16 years of tears and frustration she was ready to let go of any lingering ill will.
Her dark gaze stayed on Rachel, even as she further pondered how she should respond to Thomas. She didn't want to pretend that forgiving her fathers was an easy thing to do, but she was going to anyway. All that she wanted in coming over here this day was to be with Rachel, and just as her dads had always prevented them from being together before, now they were necessary in allowing Shelby to have a relationship with her own daughter. Out of everything Thomas said, Shelby cared most about the fact that he admitted it wasn't fair to keep her away from Rachel any longer. It gave her hope.
So Shelby decided that she would put her pride aside and play along with the Berry's festivities and pleasantries. She could do that for a day. This particular one felt like a tryout, and despite her lackluster career Shelby knew how to nail an audition. And she was about to smile genially to Thomas, knowing that if she did they could put this difficult moment behind them, but before she did Ephraim had to say the one thing that she had wanted to hear Rachel's entire life:
"We want you to know that you are welcome in this house."
In the midst of this nothing she was feeling, at Ephraim's words she felt a twinge within her. Ephraim's statement made her realize that today wasn't an audition like she thought, for if there was any test she had already passed it as far as they were concerned. And she felt an overwhelming wave of relief, for the months of hell had worn her down so much and she had been alone for so long.
It was then she felt moisture in her eyes, which she tried to blink away before any of them noticed. Such a moment of vulnerability was not something she would accept from herself, especially since Ephraim had already seen her cry once not too long ago.
For the most part, Shelby wasn't very good at emotions, at least not the real ones. She always thought she was really adept at portraying them in her acting or through song, but she spent a few years trying to make it on Broadway and she never could relate to the expressive bohemians surrounding her. Perhaps Will Schuester was exactly right when he called her "hard", but she had been numb for so long she wasn't sure if she had been born like that or if it was something she picked up, perhaps from losing the daughter she carried within her so many years ago. She was usually good at containing what she did feel – after all, what good did it do her to weep and whine like a child? – but before the last few weeks she hadn't been so challenged. Ever since she cried uncontrollably in her car following her depressing meeting with Rachel on McKinley's stage, she had been less capable of restraining her feelings. And that showed when Ephraim gestured cordially to his absurdly decorated home with his empty arm.
"Shelby?" Rachel asked quietly, and the older woman felt small fingers wrap around her elbow. But when Shelby placed her own hand on top of her teenage daughter's, she had nothing available to wipe the rebellious tear away as it cascaded over her eyelid and clung to her skin.
"Oh sweetie, don't cry," Ephraim said, taking a step forwards sympathetically.
"I'm fine," she said to him dismissively, and her locked gaze with Ephraim was surprisingly evocative. It seemed that even though they had only seen each other once in the last a decade or so, their reunion after Rachel's egging impacted Shelby more than she realized. It was almost like he was her friend again, and he clearly thought of her the same way—truthfully, it left her a little uneasy. But he was smiling, and despite her trepidation, she reciprocated.
Thomas laughed kindly at her, and this time, when he reached out for another hug, Shelby rolled her eyes and went along with it. Well, as best as she could; people don't change that quickly. It only became that much harder for Shelby to withstand the affectionate gesture when Rachel happily collided into them from the side and Ephraim joined in as much as he dared due to the slumbering baby in his arm.
Just another uncomfortable moment to add to the list.
"Okay, okay, get off of me," she said to them irritably, but the effect was ruined by the fact that it was mumbled as she was stuck talking into Thomas's polo shirt. But she wasn't angry; in fact, she felt good enough in their embrace that she waited a few beats before loudly uttering the cliché, "Do I smell something burning?", sending Thomas and Rachel scurrying frantically to the kitchen to check on food they were preparing. The Jewish man lingered with Shelby in the foyer, probably just so he could send an astute and cheerful smile her way.
She resisted the urge to glare at his unsettling positivity. Instead, she smiled sweetly in return – well, in the way antifreeze was sweet. "Ephraim?"
She decided that if this was what it would be like to be friends with her daughter's parents, she could get used to it.
"Give me back my baby."