Title: Dust Her Off, Let Her Shine
Author's Note: So here begins my first real multi-chapter Glee fic. *makes nervous face*
It picks up after the Christmas episode, and is (I think) true to everything that has aired thus far on the show. I'm just playing with them for the duration of the hiatus, so it'll probably in no way line up with what happens on the show come February. It's a Finchel at its core (but with probable Puckleberry romantic glimpses, and definite Rachel/Puck friendship. So if you can't handle any love for Puck, you may want to skip this.) However, it is also very much just about Rachel being okay with being Rachel, and finding genuine friendship and joy beyond Finn. She's my favorite, and sometimes it's hard for me to watch how they treat her, and how she lets herself get so far from who I believe she really is (*cough* crackhouse *cough*). So I'm working out my frustrations for her and with her here.
Disclaimer: I own nada (that splash of Spanish is dedicated to one Will Schuester.)
Rachel woke up at 8:00 am the day after Christmas in a cold sweat of unexpected anxiety.
Being Jewish, the day before had been relatively quiet for the Berry family. But just because she didn't personally celebrate the birth of Jesus didn't mean the day held no weight or specialness for her.
Finn loved Christmas.
And she loved Finn.
So she had wanted to celebrate it with him, just be with him, to see his eyes light and his smile brighten with the childlike enthusiasm she'd always adored in him.
But now Christmas was over, and the possibility for sharing in the special occasion had passed. Possibly forever.
She'd gone to sleep grieving the loss of something she'd only ever hoped for.
Yet, on this chilly December the 26th morning, that regret wasn't what had her shooting upright in bed, an odd but growing sense of panic nesting in the pit of her stomach.
The sensation was dreadful, the effects maddening. She woke feeling like her life was…dizzying?
She glanced around her room, and everything was in perfect order. Chair pushed neatly to desk, books straight and alphabetically ordered upon her shelves, shoes lined up tidily on the closet floor.
But it was like, inside, her existence was a mess. Wreckage everywhere. Her handle on everything slipping.
She was sitting completely motionless, but still spinning out of control.
Her dreams had faded, her relationships crumpled, her sense of self and assurance in her own integrity totally forsaken. She'd let Finn down, and that in and of itself was heartbreakingly awful. But she'd really let herself down, too, and that seemed as if it was going to be even harder to overcome.
Santana had said everyone in glee club only pretended to like her. And while that stung, it certainly wasn't shocking. Most of them, Santana especially, didn't even pretend well.
But they were still all she had. The closest she'd ever come to friends, and she honestly thought it'd still be easier to salvage what she shared with them than to start all over.
It had hit her with her waking, fast like a lightening strike, that her junior year was almost over and despite her tireless efforts and her impressive talent, despite having truly loved (loving) an amazing man, she wasn't any better off than she'd been pre-Finn, pre-glee. She hadn't been lying to Mr. Schue all those months ago. She didn't want to leave high school with nothing to show for it, but she was getting dangerously close to that being the case.
And it wasn't popularity, or even a Nationals' trophy, that she was truthfully desperate for. All Rachel Berry wanted was to wake up in the morning and like who she was, and like the life she was living. She didn't feel that was too much to ask.
Clad in her warmest pink flannel pajamas she told herself there was no time like the present to make changes, to try and alter the course of her story. So after rushing through her morning routine as best she could, by 10:00 am she was out the door and on her way to a brighter future. She hoped.
Rachel sat in her pale blue Prius, just outside the Fabray home, as the sun slipped behind another grey cloud. The air surrounding her seemed colder even than the wintery temperature outside the car, as the last trace of heat had long since vanished. She'd been searching for her courage for nearly 30 minutes after all.
She looked at the box in her hands, plain white but with a small silver bow, and decided she was being silly. How could she fix her life if she wouldn't even move? Heaving a deep breathy sigh, she pushed her door open and climbed out, marching to the Fabray's front door like the confident young woman she had always wanted to be.
Her knock was light, her hand shaking.
The blonde woman Rachel recognized as Quinn's mother opened the door after a few moments. Straightening her posture, Rachel cleared her voice quietly.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Fabray. I'm Rachel Berry. I'm in glee with your daughter and I was hoping to speak to her, for just a moment. If she is home and it wouldn't be too much of an intrusion, of course?"
Mrs. Fabray's voice was soft, but not unpleasant, as she smiled and invited Rachel inside. Leaving the petite brunette in the front hall, the older woman left to get Quinn and Rachel couldn't stop herself from vibrating with nerves.
When Quinn entered a moment later, Rachel was relieved to see that while her expression was confused, it wasn't entirely unkind. She was also a little relieved to see the girl not in a Cheerios uniform.
"Rachel? What are you doing here?"
"Hello, Quinn. I hope you had a nice Christmas. I just wanted to give you this."
Rachel's voice didn't betray her discomfort, but Quinn seemed to pick up on it anyway as she quirked an eyebrow at the box that was practically shoved into her hands.
"I thought about what you said, a few weeks ago, about always wanting to punch me? And I'm sorry that you feel that way. That I've made you feel that way. It's always bothered me that my entire life everyone could see my flaws so clearly, but never any of my good points. But you made me think, and maybe I make them too difficult to find. So I'm trying to work on that. "
Rachel paused just a moment to take in Quinn's reaction. Which didn't seem to exist, as the pretty face of the head cheerleader was still curiously blank. But she hadn't rolled her eyes or kicked Rachel out, so the shorter girl chose to continue. "I love glee. And while the rest of the club may never like me much, while we may never be good friends, I'd like it if we could, I don't know, not be not-friends? So, I'm hoping we can start over. The club and me. And I wanted to begin with you. It is not much, but it's sincere. I hope you have a nice rest of your break, Quinn."
Rachel, satisfied that she'd made it through all she'd planned to say without Quinn laughing her off or calling her nasty names, only offered a little smile and a nod, before turning abruptly and letting herself out the front door.
To say that Quinn was surprised that Rachel Berry had stopped by for a visit, on Christmas break no less, would be accurate, perhaps even an underselling of the shock she felt.
But that Rachel had brought her a gift? Well, that was far beyond anything she could have ever imagined. Considering she'd always kind of hated Rachel. Since way before boyfriends and solos brought the tension between them any kind of credibility. And, she never felt too bad about it because she always thought Rachel kind of hated her back.
So the fact that sometimes Rachel forgot to play along as her nemesis always really threw her.
Objectively, she knew that they were all harder on Rachel than the girl deserved. She was selfish and annoying, but what teenager wasn't? But they all did it, even Mr. Schue, and Rachel always just took it, so Quinn didn't let it bother her. She had too many other things to feel guilty about, anyway. But something about the girl's speech just moments before had really struck Quinn. Apparently Rachel did care that they all didn't like her. Apparently Rachel did want to be friends. Apparently the girl did care about something other than fame. And Finn. Maybe these revelations shouldn't have caught Quinn off guard, but they did. And suddenly the curiosity as to what was in the box in her hands was overwhelming.
Swiftly untying the sparkling silver ribbon, Quinn sat on her bed as she lifted the lid off the box. Inside was a CD, labeled with her name in Rachel's bubbly script, and a note.
First, I believe I owe you an apology. Maybe even several. In all the drama that happened last year, a lot of blame got passed around. And while I accepted mine for telling Finn about your and Noah's secret, I never took the responsibility I should have for my earlier actions. I'd like to do that now.
When I met Finn (in the real sense, not in the "we go to the same school, and I know your name because you play football and sometimes help your friends throw things at me" way), I was instantly enamored. I know you know how charming he can be, without ever trying. He made me feel not alone, for the first time really, and it surprised and delighted and intoxicated me. And so I did not care that he'd already given his heart to someone else. Or at least, I didn't care enough not to try everything I could to pull him into my life as much as possible. I'm sorry now that I was so blinded then. That all I really saw was the Finn and Rachel of the equation, without giving due thought to the girl on the other side.
Recently feeling so much hurt and jealousy over him and Santana's tryst, and then (stupidly) taking comfort in Noah, and now losing him completely - I think I have a better idea of how you must have felt last year, when Finn joined glee and became my friend. I'm so sorry for the part I played in any of your hurting. It doesn't make it better, I know. It's awfully long after the fact and, obviously, not a single one of us is blameless anyway. But I still want you to know that I am very sorry for all of it. I really wish so many things could have been different. Between me and Finn, and you and Finn. And me and you.
Secondly, I want to tell you how superbly you did at Sectionals. I know I'm often abrasive, overly critical, and competitive to an intolerable degree at glee. For a long time, singing was the only thing I had besides my dads, and I've literally worked at it my entire life. So it's hard not to feel possessive of the music sometimes, or entitled to it when I think of all the time and effort I've put in. I often rationalized my attitude because the rest of you all had things beyond those songs, beyond those moments on stage. But I can see now how wrong that is, how unfair, when we are all there for the same reasons: We love to sing, and we want to belong somewhere where we can win for just being ourselves. I don't want to stand in the way of that anymore.
I want you to know that I'm aware of how talented you are. You're voice is lovely, Quinn, and also incredibly distinctive…which is such an advantage in performing. Your rendition of 'Time of My Life' with Sam was beautiful. And it's not the first time I noticed your skill. The CD enclosed has some songs recorded from glee. I thought you might want to hear for yourself how well you've done. Also, there are some songs on there that I thought might be particularly suited for you vocally. Some ideas you may want to consider in preparation for Regionals and Nationals.
I know you've never liked me, Quinn. Even before I remember ever giving you a reason not to. But I have never disliked you. I have a lot of respect for your drive and self-discipline, for your talents and your strength. And I believe, at the risk of offending you with this, we may not be as different as you think.
See you in January,
Rachel Berry *
Quinn read the letter twice all the way through, then the last paragraph once more. She let out a shaky breath as she tried to process it all. Nothing concrete was different. Her and Rachel were the same people, with the same history between them, as they were before her mother opened the door 40 minutes earlier. But this had given her a different view into Rachel Berry, and, well, the girl was still mind-boggling. And wordy. But maybe she really wasn't so bad?
New Year's Eve was typically one of Rachel Berry's loneliest nights. Her fathers had a long standing tradition of attending an old college friend's annual party down in Cincinnati, and once Rachel was old enough to be left alone rather than with her aunt in Dayton, they usually took off early in the afternoon with a kiss, a hug, and a "see you next year." Her dads were amazing and when it became clear that their daughter wasn't being invited to parties or sleepovers like they'd thought, they always offered not to go and she knew they meant it. But it was something they enjoyed, with people they loved but rarely saw, and she couldn't let them sacrifice rare quality time with their friends merely because she herself didn't have any. So she'd tell them she liked having that little bit of time, and the house, all to herself, and she'd put on a brave face until their car disappeared from her sight. She got used to saying a quiet goodbye to another difficult year, all alone, in an empty house.
Despite earlier hopes for an evening with Finn, she now had the reasonable expectation that her farewell to 2010 would look very much the same as always.
But then Kurt Hummel called.
Of all the reasons she had to be miserable since her break up with Finn, the one that surprised her most was that the tiny taste of potential friendship she'd shared with Kurt at Sectionals would never be able to go anywhere. It seemed obvious that Kurt would side with his betrayed stepbrother, and the chance for her and Kurt to put their shared love of Judy Garland to good use was lost forever. Or so she'd thought.
She was cleaning up her lunch dishes the day before New Year's Eve when her phone began to vibrate loudly on the counter beside her and Kurt's name flashed onto the screen.
"Hi, Rachel. I need you to do me a favor." Kurt began speaking immediately and his words were clipped, but not unfriendly sounding.
"Okay? Um, what do you need me to do?" Rachel was assuredly surprised and confused by his call, but definitely pleasantly so. And she wasn't unwilling to help him. Depending, of course, on what he asked for.
"Accompany me to a fellow Warbler's party tomorrow night."
"Kurt, you do no know you called Rachel Berry…right?"
There was a snort of amusement that somehow still managed to sound sophisticated from Kurt's end of the line. "Yes, Rachel, I know exactly who I called."
"Alright." She was relieved that it hadn't been a misdial, but the request was still disconcertingly unusual. "But why do you need me to come with you?"
"I think this party could be a lot of fun. There will probably be some singing, and the Dalton boys are all very nice. But, I'm still the new guy, and I'm not 100% comfortable with them yet. Not like I was with New Directions. It's my first party, well, ever, so when Gregory said I could bring a few friends along, I decided to take him up on it. Mercedes has already agreed to go, and I thought maybe you would enjoy some different scenery."
"Look, Rachel, I know we've had a rocky past. We have never been friends. Especially not the kind that spend time together socially. But I think, maybe, we could be. Now that we aren't, as you pointed out, in constant competition. Besides, while I would never condone cheating…especially with the likes of Noah Puckerman, my understanding of the situation between you and Finn is that everybody made mistakes. I felt compelled to let you know I wasn't taking a side."
"Will Mercedes mind?"
"Probably. But if you let her see what I now know exists – the not crazy Rachel – then she'll get over it."
That wasn't exactly the answer she'd hoped for, but she was too realistic to be disappointed. And she always had appreciated Kurt's honesty, even when the truth was hard to hear. Still, she had another question.
"Are you going to want to have a say in what I wear?"
"Of course. I intend for us to go shopping in approximately 25 minutes. I'm already on my way to pick you up."
She felt herself laugh. Maybe this would end up being a horrible mistake, but in the spirit of starting over with the glee club, with her whole life in a way, she felt like this was something she needed to try.
"Fine. I'll be ready. But I do not want to spend all of my Hanukah money on one outfit, Kurt. Please keep that in mind."
"I'll consider it. See you in a few."
Rachel heard the dial tone and wondered what she'd gotten herself into.
Shopping with Kurt had been a much better time than the sad-clown-hooker make-over might have suggested. While unapologetically derisive when any animal sweaters came into play, Kurt understood that Rachel had a style she felt comfortable with (bows, short skirts, knee socks, loafers) and that while he wanted her to look good, he could only push her so far.
They compromised on a dress that appealed to Rachel in both length and the inclusion of ruffles, but managed it all in a cut and color that passed Kurt's inspection.
The then hour-and-a-half spent finding Kurt's ensemble left Rachel both exhausted and sore from laughing. His way with words was incredibly amusing when it wasn't being employed to hurt her feelings.
They'd pulled up to the Berry home just as her fathers were returning from work and the shock on her daddy's face when she exited the car of a peer, smiling, reminded her to be appreciative of what was starting to feel like an incredible second chance.
She paused before shutting the door, turning to the fashionable boy with a grin. "Thanks for everything, Kurt. What time are you picking me up tomorrow?"
She felt her smile slip when Kurt's face turned guilty. "Actually, is there anyway you can meet me and Mercedes at my house? Around 8? My dad's borrowing my car to take Carole out since his truck has been making some concerning noises and Mercedes doesn't mind driving to the party, but she's coming straight from church and to keep from being too late…"
She could tell Kurt was actually sorry for asking this, and knew it should be no problem to just say yes. She had been in school with Finn for weeks after the break up, even with him at Mr. Schue's on Christmas Eve, but his house? Even if it was Kurt's too, that seemed like a far bigger deal.
"Um, will he be home?"
Kurt's expression softened further at the avoidance of his name. "I don't know what his plans are. But I promise, now that we have separate rooms, I'll let you in and we can wait in my room until Mercedes arrives and then we're out of there. You may not have to see him at all, even if he is home. I rarely do."
She slowly began to nod. To be friends with Kurt was something she'd wanted, right? Then this situation was probably inevitable. May as well get it over with.
"I'll see you at 8 then. Thanks again, Kurt."
He offered a sad smile and a wave as she closed the door.
Kurt Hummel tried to be up front as often as possible. Before he came out to his dad, he'd spent so many hours worrying about it, and so many more hours wishing he was different just so that he wouldn't have to worry so much, that when he finally did it and his father, his amazing father, just said he knew, and that he loved him? Well, it totally blew his mind. Since, he'd continuously marveled at all the self-torture he might have saved himself if he'd have been a little braver a little sooner.
Every other awkward conversation since had seemed tame by comparison to the fear he'd felt on that particular occasion, so as a rule he pushed himself to always just get things out in the open now. Worrying solved nothing.
While he knew this particular conversation was going to be a little uncomfortable, he fully believed wasting time fretting over it wasn't going to change that. So he knocked on the door frame to Finn's new room.
The door itself was open, but Finn was sitting at his computer, looking deep in thought, so Kurt opted to respect his space and wait to be invited in.
"Oh, hey, Kurt." Finn's voice sounded thin, and to be honest, he looked a little tired. But he gave a small smile, and Kurt took that as a favorable sign.
"Are you busy?"
"Not really. What's up?"
"Well, I just thought it'd be polite to give you a head's up. Rachel's going to be attending a party with Mercedes and I tomorrow evening, and we're meeting here. I wasn't sure if you'd even be home, but I didn't want you to be caught off guard."
Kurt tried to keep himself from wincing as something dark passed over Finn's features, but he waited quietly for a response and when his stepbrother finally spoke, he felt relieved at the lightness, however obviously forced, in his tone.
"Okay. Thanks for letting me know."
Kurt nodded awkwardly, about to turn to leave when Finn spoke again to stop him.
"So, are you and Rachel, like, friends now?"
Kurt gave a half-smile and shrugged. "We're trying it out."
"I've seen another side of her, and I like it. I think I always knew we had a lot in common, but there's been so much other stuff in the way that it never mattered. Stuff like me wishing she wasn't so talented. Or at least that she wasn't so horrendously aware that she was. But she's not all bad. Maybe not even mostly bad. And no one deserves to not have anyone, Finn."
Kurt felt bad when the other boy flinched a little at his words, but it wasn't like they weren't true.
"Yeah. Um, well, I hope you have good time."
"Thank you, I'm sure we will. Are you doing anything fun?"
Kurt's eyes narrowed as a tinge of red colored Finn's freckled cheeks. "Actually, there's a party. At Santana's. I was going to go to that."
Kurt couldn't believe the powerful urge he felt to roll his eyes at that. He and Rachel weren't even really friends yet. Wasn't it a little early to be so annoyed on her behalf?
Still he tried to sound sincere. "Then I hope you have a nice time, too."
Leaving the room quickly, as soon as he was out of earshot Kurt let out a groan. He was starting to fear 2011 was doomed to be as dramatic as 2010, since apparently some people never learned. But he refused to think about it too much. Finn was a big boy, entitled to keep making the same mistakes if he so chose. And Blaine had mentioned he was going to Gregory's party and that meant a good night's worth of beauty rest was a must for Kurt. Still, he walked towards his room, shaking his head sadly the whole way.
The skirt was a little shorter than she remembered, the heels a little higher. But she didn't feel uncomfortable, just different, and she thought that was as good as she was going to get in a Kurt-approved wardrobe.
She'd heeded Kurt's advice and wore a little make up. As he had pointed out, this was an opportunity to practice for the glamorous events sure to be part of her Broadway future. He suggested she work now to find the right way to still feel like Rachel, but just "fancy" Rachel, and after some experimentation she thought the end result looked quite nice.
She parked her car on the street and searched her bag for her phone as she headed towards the Hudson-Hummel door. She was about to call Kurt to let her in, for she feared ringing the doorbell could put her in contact with someone she'd rather not see, when that exact someone himself came rushing out.
Immediately their eyes met and Finn stopped abruptly.
Rachel felt like she'd been punched. How had he gotten even more attractive in a week's time?
She stood still, staring at him in surprise (and a whole lot of other emotions), her mouth slightly open as a sudden panic coursed through her.
Shoving his hands into his pockets in an unbearably familiar gesture of unease, his eyes raked over the length of her before quickly tearing away. Finally he spoke, "Hey."
It took a moment to find her voice. "Hello, Finn."
"So, you're heading to a Dalton party with Kurt?"
"Yes. I'm quite nervous, actually; it'll be my first real party. But I think it should be fun." She knew he could tell she was rambling from discomfort and she thought it was probably rude to not ask about his plans in return, but from the way he was dressed (his 'good' jeans on and the collar of his nicest flannel visible over the top of his coat – the very definition of Finn Hudson date-wear) she suspected she didn't want to know.
He nodded, still looking more to the side of her than anything, but he didn't move to pass her and leave.
Still somehow stricken and unable to take a step, she struggled with faux-pleasant small talk to fill the silence. "Did you have a nice Christmas?"
His eyes flashed to her then, and his expression was slightly incredulous. And pained. He didn't say a word, but everything about the way he was looking at her seemed to scream, "Of course not," and, "It's your fault," and something she chose to interpret as, "I miss you."
The sound of the door opening behind Finn made her jump, finally breaking their debilitating stare.
"Rachel, you must be freezing. Come on inside. I need your help selecting the appropriate scarf for my overall look. Outerwear can be tricky."
As she nodded and went around Finn, she shot Kurt a grateful look. He smiled apologetically and motioned for her to enter.
"Rach- el." Finn forced the second syllable out a second too late.
She turned back towards him, trying to keep her face as neutral as possible.
"Happy New Year."
Her smile was dim as she replied, "Happy New Year, Finn."
The first hour had been rough. Mercedes was a little chilly towards her initially, and Kurt was so nervous that his usual near-constant chatter, which she was starting to get used to (and enjoy), was absent. But now, two and a half hours in? Rachel couldn't ever remember laughing so much.
She was wedged tightly between Kurt and Mercedes on a plush but tiny sofa, watching three guys she did not know perform a rather accurate recreation of an old Destiny's Child video. Complete with wigs, costumes, and choreography.
Apparently they'd lost a bet?
Rachel wasn't entirely sure what was happening, just that she was thoroughly amused. Especially when the tall senior who was meant to be Beyonce-like really started to get into it.
Mercedes had tears in her eyes, her one hand gripping Rachel's arm tightly as she laughed herself breathless. Which would have made Rachel quite pleased with its implication of friendship, had she not been so distracted by her own giggles.
Finally, as the song came to an end, she smiled widely as she commented, "Their "Kelly" made for a very pretty girl, didn't you think?"
Mercedes laughed again, "Yeah. But the "Michelle" needs to never wear that wig again. Ever."
Kurt nodded emphatically. "Agreed. Do either of you need a drink?"
Rachel's eyes wandered to the table in the corner where the beverages were lined up and noticed Blaine looking over the selection.
"I do! Please. I mean, a ginger ale, please." Rachel looked expectantly at Mercedes, nodding her head not-so-subtly towards the drinks and the object of Kurt's affection.
Mercedes smirked knowingly. "Yeah, I'll have something too. Make mine a sprite?"
As Kurt rushed off, Rachel scooted down a little on the couch to try and save his spot and give her and Mercedes more space. It was quiet a moment between them, but unlike on the ride over, not an uncomfortable one. Still, Rachel was relieved when Mercedes turned to speak to her, though what she said came as a total surprise.
"Quinn told me about the CD. And the note."
Rachel felt herself blushing. While she had never expected any response from Quinn, as the days had passed she'd found herself wondering if the blonde had even opened the small gift. And whether, if she had, it would really make any difference. But to mention it to someone else had to mean something, right?
"We're not as close as we used to be. At the end of last year. She moved out right after having the baby, and we've both sorta fallen back into our old lives. But I still consider her a good friend, and it was really nice that you did that. No one could ever deny that your talented, Rachel, so a compliment from you can mean a lot. "
Rachel didn't know what to say, so she just smiled a little. She wondered if all Quinn had mentioned was the praise for her voice, not the heartfelt apology that accompanied it.
Mercedes' look then turned almost sheepish. "I don't know if you'd want to, but I actually told her I'd go watch the regional cheer competition in a few weeks. It seems weird to think about cheering on cheerleaders, but having missed last year, I think it's really important to her to win. It'd be nice not to have to go alone?"
Taking in the implied question, Rachel felt a surge of excitement. All her life, no one had ever thought to include her in plans. No one had ever suggested they wanted her company. Before Finn, she'd never really gone anywhere without her fathers or not just on her own. She didn't want to assume this meant anything life-changing yet, but she couldn't deny it felt like a sign that maybe they didn't want to hate her. A sign that true friendship might be possible.
"Oh. I…you don't think she'd mind if I came?"
"Ya know, I really don't." Mercedes gave a slight shake of her head.
Rachel beamed. "Then I'd love to join you."
"Good. Now…." Mercedes looked around subtly, "hottest guy in the room – go."
Rachel felt herself smile. This was such a girl-friend thing to do. Scanning the mingling teenagers, her appraising gaze dodging the other girls scattered around, her eyes landed on a tall guy across the room. She could only see his profile, but she was struck by the way his hair fell adorably mussed across his forehead, and how his smile caused the slightest dimple in his cheek.
Mercedes followed her line of sight and let out a little huff of amusement. "A little to Nick-at-Nite for my taste, but definitely not bad."
Rachel was glad she didn't point out he looked a little like another tall boy they both knew.
"By the fireplace. In teal."
Rachel glanced casually over and felt her own eyebrows rise. The guy was extremely attractive. "Nice!"
"Maybe Kurt can introduce you?"
"Maybe Kurt can do what?"
The girls looked up as their wayward friend came back with Blaine in tow. Neither girl really cared that he didn't have a drink for either of them, but they shared a look of amusement.
"Oh, nothing. Hey, Blaine."
Kurt's new friend smiled warmly. "Hi, Mercedes, and Rachel, is it?"
"Yes, very nice to meet you," Rachel replied brightly.
"So, ladies, I was just telling Blaine how, with me now gone, you two are the best singers at McKinley. He seemed doubtful, since neither of you really got the chance to shine at Sectionals. I think I persuaded him to give you a listen though. Seems only fair."
Rachel noticed Mercedes roll her eyes, but her smile made Rachel think she liked the compliment and attention. Seeing this as an opportunity to really reach out for the friendships she desperately wanted, she spoke up.
"Mercedes is really exceptional, Blaine. Last year she had a breathtaking version of "And I'm Telling You" prepared, but unfortunately she was unable to perform it due to some unsportsmanlike conduct from our competition. It literally reduced our entire club to tears."
Kurt nudged Rachel playfully as he sat beside her, offering a quick wink as Blaine asked Mercedes if she'd be willing to sing a little.
Attention was called and Mercedes looked a little nervous, but pleased, when she was encouraged to stand and sing for the group who had gathered. She started and Kurt grabbed Rachel's hand to squeeze it knowingly, and Rachel squeezed back, surprisingly completely content in that moment to let someone else shine.
Preparing for her first day back at school, Rachel was incredibly nervous.
In the days since New Year's, Rachel had seen a movie with Mercedes and an unexpectedly friendly Tina, plus spent a lot of time with Kurt. (Apparently, now that he was wearing a uniform every day, he was hoping she'd allow herself to be an outlet for his fashion creativity. He kept showing up unannounced to further investigate her closet.) It was amazing really, how much of a difference a few days and some concentrated effort could make.
But, it had all been outside of school.
This morning she feared that going back to those hallways, to that auditorium and that choir room, would change everything back to the way it'd always been. And she'd find herself once again hated and alone.
She was scared, but still determined. She loved to sing, she wanted to shine, but not at the expense of her own happiness. And she was starting to find she needed other people, to care about and to care about her in return, to be happy.
Once upon a time she'd been lucky enough to find that in Finn, without having to sacrifice much. But she'd lost him, and while she missed him like crazy, she had to find a way to carry on. Making new friends may cost her some solos, it may require some compromise, but she was willing now, unlike ever before.
She just needed to remember that when she got to glee rehearsal.
Packing up her book bag she took one last look in the mirror and tried on a smile. She didn't look any different (aside from the new boots Kurt made her buy) but she certainly felt it. Taking a calming breath, she grabbed her things and headed out.
She could do this.
Somehow, she'd made it through the day without a single slushie thrown her way. She skipped lunch in the cafeteria (which may or may not have had anything to do with a certain ex-boyfriend) to drop off a few things at Mr. Schue's office and to discuss with Ms. Pillsbury-Howell an idea she and Kurt had for bringing a No-Bullying policy similar to Dalton's to McKinley High. But she'd had a short but pleasant conversation with Tina before their art class fourth period, and Quinn had offered her a smile in English, so she felt like the day was going pretty well as she stepped into their rehearsal space just before 3 o'clock.
She really should have known better than to think she could ever have it so easy.
The entire room fell silent as soon as she walked in, and the facial expressions of her peers indicated she'd been a topic of discussion right up until that moment.
She glanced around and saw that almost everyone was there already. Everyone, except Mr. Schue and Finn and Santana.
She straightened her posture and lifted her chin and continued towards a seat at the front. She smiled at them as sweetly as she could, but it was difficult as she fought off the tears prickling at the corners of her eyes.
What had they all been saying? Had Quinn read her note out loud to embarrass her? Had Mercedes complained about how Kurt had forced them to hang out? She'd thought she'd been making progress, but she could suddenly feel the worst kind of tension surrounding her.
She didn't think she'd ever wanted to disappear more than she did in that moment, sitting in an awkward silence with people she was devastated to find still refused to be her friends.
That was, until Finn Hudson and Santana Lopez walked through the choir room door, hand in hand.
She felt her eyes widen, and she immediately gulped down a sob as her entire body began to shake. Finn stopped short, his gaze meeting hers briefly as his face flushed and his shoulders slumped. Santana looked back at him, then at Rachel, before just rolling her eyes and tugging not-so-gently on his hand, leading him to the back row of seats.
Rachel felt a hand gently squeeze her shoulder and looked over to see sympathy evident in Mercedes' eyes.
At least now she knew they hadn't been talking about how they all still hated her. But she wasn't sure this situation was any better.
The silence was finally broken as Mr. Schue strode in, an enormous and oblivious grin on his face.
"Okay, everyone, welcome back. I hope you all had a nice break, but it's time to start working on Regionals. Now, Rachel, in a very captain-like fashion, has put together a list of songs I'd like everyone to look over. Rach, do you want to explain what you've done?"
Rachel had been working on just keeping her breathing steady, on not letting herself fall to pieces right there in the middle of rehearsal. And this was the time Mr. Schue expected her to speak?
His timing could be truly atrocious on occasion.
Shaking her head to clear it and focus, she stood and stepped beside Mr. Schuester.
"Thinking about our success at Sectionals, I believe that one of our strongest competitive assets is our internal variety. We have a lot of talent, but more importantly we have diverse talent. It showed in our selections. Pairing something old with something new, matching the straight up romantic pop of "Time of My Life" with the sultrier, more R&B "Valerie," demonstrated stylistic range and flexibility, as well undeniable skill. So, over break, I started brainstorming songs that haven't been performed at Regionals in at least the last 10 years that catered to each club member's particular vocal approach. I thought it might be a good jumping off point for finding something incredible and unexpected to work for us at Regionals."
She nervously looked over the faces before her. Quinn and Mercedes were smiling at her, Tina and Artie looked pleasantly surprised. Brittany looked confused. Santana, suspicious.
Finn was just staring at his hands.
She turned towards Mr. Schue a little as the teacher spoke up again. "Rachel left the list with me earlier today, and having looked it over I think there's some great material here for getting started. Everyone take a copy and pass the stack on. The assignment for the week is for each of you to plan a solo. It doesn't have to be one of the song suggestions from Rachel, but it does have to be in line with this point. I want you each to consider what it is about your voice that is different or special. What is the style that you feel you can really own, your musical niche? Pick a song that reflects what you bring to New Directions that you think is unique. "
Mr. Schue gave her a smile before stopping her as she moved to sit back down. "And, to start off the semester, I thought you might like to sing something today, Rachel? As I doubt anyone else took the time to prepare something new over the holidays, and I happen to know you had Brad and the jazz band in the auditorium during your study hall."
Rachel froze. By the warm and expectant look on her teacher's face she knew he thought this was a Thank You, a way to reward her for trying a more selfless approach to being captain. And, had she been working on a song for glee this morning, she'd be singing already. But that hadn't been the case.
What she'd been preparing with the band was personal, something for her alone, concerning her recent heartbreak. But seeing as the breaker of her heart was sitting mere feet from her, and in light of the sucker punch she'd received not even 15 minutes ago in the form of the newest glee couple, she really, really didn't feel like slapping her heart onto her sleeve and belting it all out right now.
"Actually, that's alright. I think I'll pass this time."
Schue's face fell in confusion as a few surprised murmurs filled the room.
"Come on, Rach," Mercedes encouraged, "You made me sing in front of those Dalton guys. It's been a while since you've done something, why don't you sing it."
"Yeah, Rachel. I'm sure what ever your working on is great," Tina added.
A scathing sniff came from the back row. "Please, it's probably some sad sappy love song for Finn. If she doesn't want to embarrass herself further, don't make her."
Rachel's eyes flew to Santana, narrowing in hurt and anger.
"Shut it, 'Tana. Look, Berry, we know you. You sing about what you're feeling, and right now you're sad or whatever. That's fine. And it's not like this all ain't awkward as shit already."
"Puck does have a point." Artie agreed.
The way they were all speaking to her, about her, had her head spinning. Any and all humiliation she'd have been spared by not singing was more than made up for by what was happening currently. Talk of her personal pain volleying around the classroom like the buzz about the latest hit reality show. She was now already mortified anyway. So, she may as well not be weak too. She'd sing her song. And she'd nail it. And then she'd go home and cry. It was the first time any of them had wanted to let her sing, and she wasn't going to pass it up because of Finn Hudson and Santana freakin' Lopez. No way.
Mr. Schue was trying to reign them in, "Look, guys, if she doesn't want to perform something today, we can all ju-"
"No, they're right. Things are a little tense, and we all know it. Keeping quiet about my pain doesn't sound like something I'd do anyway." She forced a little smirk out and felt some comfort when Quinn gave an appreciative chuckle. Rolling her eyes a little at the title she explained, "This is "The Man That Got Away" as performed by the incomparable Judy Garland in the 1954 version of A Star is Born. Feel free to make assumptions about my personal relation to the song. But, keep in mind, it remains an incredible vocal piece whether one has recently been broken up with or not."
She nodded at the waiting band. The music started, and she knew this song was perfect; the exact piece for her precise feeling. Yeah it was for Finn, obviously. Wasn't everything she sang for Finn? But she wondered also if, with the recent decisions she'd made about her past attitude and behavior, if the loss, the regret, could also be about something more than her boyfriend.
Something like the friends she'd always unconsciously kept herself from making.
Something like the longing she had for chances she could never get back.
The intro was smooth, and she took a moment to marvel at the talent these instrument-wielders possessed. She'd have to be sure to compliment them when this was over, but for now it was time to sing….
"The night is bitter, the stars have lost their glitter.
The winds grow colder, suddenly you're older.
And all because of the man that got away.
No more his eager call,
the writing's on the wall,
the dreams you've dreamed have all gone astray.
The man that won you, has run off and undone you,
That great beginning has seen a final inning.
Don't know what happened, it's all a crazy game.
No more that all time thrill
For you've been through the mill
And never a new love will be the same.
Good riddance. Goodbye.
Every trick of his, you're on to.
But fools will be fools.
And where's he gone to?
The road gets rougher; it's lonelier and tougher.
With hope you burn up, tomorrow he will turn up.
There's just no let up, the livelong night and day.
Ever since this world began,
There is nothing sadder than,
A one-man woman looking for the man that got away.
The man that got away."
She held her last note out, low but strong, and she could feel the anguish tearing through her body and out with the final words.
There was a moment of silence, as everything faded to a close, but then she let out a quiet sigh and turned a large, even if strained, smile to the band. "Thanks Lucas, Jay, Rita. The horns were amazing. And thanks to you too, Brad. I think that sounded very nice."
She got a few small smiles and a nod from the pianist in return, but found she was unable to look anyone else in the eye now that it was over, and she'd just laid her very soul out before them.
She couldn't even revel in the sound of Mr. Schuester's clapping.
"Rachel, that was outstanding. Possibly the strongest performance I've ever heard you give. And I know you know that's really saying something."
"Alright everyone, remember your assignment and will start hearing everyone else's solos next rehearsal. I'm going to dub Rachel our theatrical performer, but what style will we hear next? You all can break out of here a little early. Have a great rest of your day, guys."
As soon as the dismissal finished falling from their teacher's lips Rachel was out of the room in a flash. Rushing to her locker, she grabbed her coat and bag and was headed to the parking lot in no time. She had to get out of there. She had to get away. She literally had to.
Her phone was ringing near constantly the entire ride home, but she didn't answer. She had no words. She hadn't even noticed when the crying started, but by the time she had parked hot, fat tears had completely dampened her cheeks.
While she'd been focusing on improving her life, improving herself, she'd been distracted enough to forget how much it hurt being without him.There was an ache for him that never went away of course, a whispering of his name in the back of her mind that every one else unknowingly had to talk over. But she'd managed to put enough of her misery on hold to delight in Kurt's attention, and Mercedes' kindness, and the potential Quinn and Tina represented.
But singing that song, while feeling his stare, while knowing he now belonged to someone else? The loss of him was suddenly sharper, more suffocating than ever.
Glancing at her phone through the sad-mist in her eyes, she noted their efforts: Three missed calls from Mercedes; Four and a voicemail from Kurt; A texted sadface signed from Artie and Brittany; Another text of, "He's an idiot," from Quinn.
For any other reason she'd be euphoric at this attention, brought to happy tears that people actually cared.
But, as she dragged herself from her car, into her house and up the stairs to her room, all she could think was, "It's really over."
And all the friends in the world couldn't ease the pain of that fact.