Disclaimer: I own nothing. All belongs to Glee writers and creators.
Beauty and Coach Beiste
Shannon was used to relative silence in McKinley's rarely used laundry room. Rarely used either because the machines were broken or Figgins was forbidding use, as a way to cut costs. Relative silence because when they were working and there was no ban, the clunky, ancient machines were working away, their bangs and clanks echoing off the dingy walls and pounding out an irregular, odd rhythm.
She didn't mind the sound, if only because she preferred using McKinley's laundry room to taking the boys' uniforms to the dry cleaners herself. She'd received enough disturbed looks bringing in a pile of jock straps to last her a lifetime. It would've been nice if she could count on the mothers to take care of the uniforms, but after Finn's ended up fitting Artie instead, the coach had to rely on herself to get it done. She didn't really mind. It just would've been more convenient if she hadn't had to.
Today, as she brought down the basket of dirty jerseys, however, it wasn't silent in the laundry room. Nor were there the usual clinks and clanks coming from the broken down machines. Instead, there was crying.
Shannon hated to see anyone cry. Despite what the tough exterior she put on for show (and to strike fear and discipline into her team) would suggest, she was a softie, and when someone was crying, she felt their sorrow deeply, as if it was her own. Usually she ended up sobbing along with them, and feeling even more horrible because she knew they were the ones in need of comfort, not her.
So when she heard the soft, desperate cries of someone in the laundry room, the first thing she did was steel her grip on the hefty laundry basket and clench her jaw, trying to stem the flow of her own tears before she ventured onward. Upon rounding the corner, the coach immediately found the source of the cries standing beneath the naked light bulb over the machines.
It was a girl, clad in a white tank top, a red polka-dotted skirt, and knee-highs. The tank top went against the school dress code, Shannon noted, but her disapproval of that melted away hastily when she saw that the girl was scrubbing soap vigorously into a yellow cardigan.
Shannon's heart broke for the poor girl, who was rubbing as hard as she could, as though she could wipe away the tears streaming freely down her cheeks. Her shoulders shook with the effort of her sobs, though the coach could see her trying to restrain the physical evidence of the strain her tears were putting on her. It was only when the distraught little creature lifted a hand away from the cloth she was using to scrub the cardigan and tucked a strand of brilliant brunette hair behind her ear that Shannon realized she was one of Will's glee kids.
Rachel, she thought her name might be. Finn was dating her—or used to, she wasn't quite sure anymore. She shook the information from her head, since it was useless to her current dilemma. And if it wasn't, Shannon was sure she would find out soon enough. She braced herself once more, forcing herself not to cry as she took a few brave steps closer.
"Rachel?" she tried.
It was a gamble, seeing as she wasn't sure it was her name, but she hoped the girl wouldn't take it personally if it wasn't. She hadn't interacted much with the girls of glee club, after all, and that made it easy to mix their names up, at least for Shannon.
The girl gasped exaggeratedly, eyes wide and hand going to her chest immediately, as though to slow a racing heart. Shannon offered a gentle smile to her, and the petite girl sighed her relief but didn't take back the steps she'd retreated.
"Coach Beiste," she said in a strong, clear voice that tickled Shannon's mind with familiarity. She was definitely Rachel. "I apologize. I know students are discouraged from using the school laundry room, but I'm afraid the bathroom sink simply wasn't going to do it this time and it's been such a long time since this has happened that I, stupidly enough, hadn't taken the proper precautions to take care of the cleanup as I usually do. Nonetheless, I'll be out of your way as fast as I can if you'll just give me a moment or two."
The coach couldn't help but smile wider. Most teenagers would've said something along the lines of, 'Dude, you can't just sneak up on people like that. Freakin' rude.' The eloquent, polite, roundabout, and rather rapid-fire way this one spoke was just plain…endearing, Shannon thought.
"Take your time, Rachel," she encouraged gently, and the girl relaxed a little, returning to her cardigan as Shannon drifted closer, setting the basket on top of the unoccupied dryer for the moment. "I'm in no hurry."
The coach's curiosity was piqued, however, and though the tears had stopped—clearly a side effect of another person's presence—the girl continued to sniffle. Quietly, though, as if she didn't want to bother anyone with the noise. She scrubbed hastily at a large red stain on the cardigan, and Shannon couldn't help but try and peer a little closer. It was far too large a stain to be ketchup, she was sure, and the shade was too light for that anyway.
Rachel must've felt her leaning closer, because within moments the coach found herself faced with the most sorrowful pair of brown eyes she'd ever seen. She wanted to cry all over again.
"Thank you," the girl said belatedly, tucking her lower lip beneath her teeth briefly. "And I apologize again for my rudeness. I'm not myself today." She went back to scrubbing extra hard.
Shannon smiled weakly, peering at the shirt again. "What happened?"
Rachel shrugged casually. "Slushie. Cherry is the flavor of the day. My least favorite, next to lime."
Her brow crinkled in confusion, and the petite brunette didn't miss it. Her expression shifted from hopelessly morose to almost…pitying. A sympathetic sort of pity, however, not the insulting kind, Shannon thought.
"You haven't seen anyone slushied yet, have you?" she asked knowingly.
The coach shook her head and, with a self-deprecating chuckle, asked, "What is that?"
The girl chuckled humorlessly. "Well, surely you know of the entirely unnecessary and money-eating slushie machines permanently stationed near the vending area and in the cafeteria." At her nod, Rachel went on, "It's a longstanding tradition here at McKinley for the jocks and preps, if you will, to buy extra large cups and throw them on the losers of the school. It's referred to as being 'slushied.'" An eye-roll accompanied the phrase.
Shannon could only stare at the girl. In all her time here, she hadn't once seen evidence of this, but then if it had been going on for so long, the popular kids must've gotten incredibly adept at avoiding authority figures when it happened. Which was horrible, because if she'd caught any of her boys doing something so sick to another human being, they'd have been off her team and hopefully suspended from school for a good, long time. She couldn't believe anyone—even teenagers, whose hormones and narcissism ran wild while their empathy sat rocking itself in a corner—would ever think of doing something so vicious.
It hit upon all levels of torture. Not only was there the emotional damage—the humiliation, the self-esteem drag—but the physical, as well. The clothes were effectively ruined, if it got on any skin or hair, it would be stained and caked with the syrupy mixture. And there was another drawback. Cleaning up might take so long that students could be late to class, with a perfectly good reason, and be punished because the teacher has no idea why this apparently troubled child can't seem to get into class on time.
It was despicable, and Shannon had seen her fair share of sick pranks. Had them done to her, too.
As she looked upon the damaged girl before her, who had gone back to scrubbing while the coach processed this new, disturbing information, a surge of protectiveness rose up within her—for all the 'losers' who had had to go through this. She frowned determinedly at Rachel, folding her arms.
"Who did this?" she demanded, readying to memorize their names and have them sent to Figgins' office ASAP.
"A couple of Cheerios," the girl answered absently.
Rachel's brown eyes shot from their narrowed concentration on the cardigan to meet the coach's steely gaze. They widened briefly before a new emotion entered them—mirth. She started giggling. Shannon's frown deepened, both with confusion and displeasure. She certainly hoped she wasn't getting jerked around by one of Will's kids again. She'd hate to have to deal with that again, and she'd thought more of Rachel.
"What will you do if I tell you?" she inquired suddenly, voice filled with an almost hysterical amount of laughter. "Report them to Figgins, have them rapped on the hand with a ruler?"
Her humor was rapidly fading into something else, something much darker. Something that made Shannon want to reach out and hug the girl, whose expressive eyes faded with her laughter, leaving them dull and empty. It was such a sad sight to see that the coach almost—almost—wished she hadn't found Rachel.
"And then tomorrow," she continued breathlessly, staring at the cardigan intently, "what do you think will happen? They'll have learned their lesson and never do it again. They'll apologize to me. In fact, I'll have friends aplenty from then on, be popular and loved and I won't be alone."
The last words were spoken in a whisper, and the silence they left behind was uncomfortable at best. Rachel's gaze never wavered from some invisible point on the ruined cardigan, and Shannon found herself unable to do anything but wait while the girl explored an alternate life in her mind, wait until she woke up. When she did, it was with a start and a sniffle, and the girl wiped her eyes furiously before shaking her head and renewing her scrubbing on the yellow fabric.
"No. My fate is already set at McKinley, Coach Beiste," she said, voice harsh with tears. "If you protect me, they'll just find an even more humiliating way to wreak their vengeance on me. It'll only be worse."
Shannon's anger was effectively deflated at these words, as she realized the girl was right. Just as when she was in school, being made fun of for her size, her lack of femininity, telling authority figures just isolated her more. She'd had it figured out then, too, just like Rachel. But she'd forgotten. In all these years of being an authority figure herself, being feared, she'd forgotten what it was like to be the student, powerless against wicked peers intent on wrecking you for no other reason than that they want to feel good.
The coach felt a sudden sense of connection with the girl, who hadn't given up on that stubborn stain yet. She saw herself in her—a thinner, prettier, much younger version of herself of course, but she saw it nonetheless. The emotional vulnerability tucked under a mask of strength and invincibility, that simply had to leak out sometimes because no one could take so much torment and never have a moment of weakness.
Another sniffle distracted her from her thoughts, and Rachel wiped furiously at her nose before returning to her scrubbing as tears flowed down her cheeks. She was trying her hardest not to let it happen, but she was breaking down again, and Shannon was glad she was there so the girl wouldn't be alone—no matter how much she wanted to be.
"I'm used to it by now anyway," Rachel said insistently, as though she was trying to convince herself more than the coach at her side. She sniffled again and rolled her eyes. "Or at least I should be. This has happened a hundred times before, it'll happen again now that I'm not with Finn. I should be used to it," she repeated firmly.
Shannon smiled sadly, offering what she knew weren't words of comfort, but just truth.
"No one should have to be used to this, Rachel," she said quietly.
The girl sobbed and clapped her hand over her mouth, shaking her head furiously as she tried to compose herself. She hiccupped twice before wiping her puffy eyes dry and smoothing out the material of her skirt. The hands returned to her eyes as she felt more hot tears coming.
"This is ridiculous. I don't know why it's hitting me so hard this time," she said angrily, and Shannon's heart clenched for her, wishing she could say something—anything, really—to make it better. But Rachel was already going on. "It's not as though it was any different than the other times. Except for the fact that they threw it directly on my shirt this time, rather than my face." The coach gasped, but couldn't interject because the girl was talking far too quickly. "I can only assume they were more offended by my choice in clothing than usual, but that shouldn't make it any worse. It's actually a relief. And it's not as though they haven't called me 'Man Hands' before," she hissed, eyes flashing as she spat the nickname as though she had something nasty on her tongue.
This time Shannon couldn't stop herself, "They call you 'Man Hands'?"
She was incredulous. Rachel was easily half Shannon's size. Probably even less. The coach could practically fit her in a pocket. There was nothing manly about the skirt-clad girl that Shannon could see, least of all those reddened, slim little fingers she'd been watching scrub the life out of that cardigan for most of this conversation. And yet, these students were using nicknames the coach herself hadn't heard for almost twenty-five years to describe the petite, feminine, pretty girl in front of her.
The sense of connection grew stronger with this information.
Rachel swallowed, silent tears still rolling down her cheeks. For once, she seemed to have no words, and she simply nodded weakly, a sort of sympathy in her eyes that told Shannon the connection wasn't one-sided. They understood each other, and though it was an odd feeling for both, it was welcome. They weren't alone, for once.
A comfortable silence settled between them for a few moments while Rachel fiddled with the sleeve of her cardigan and Shannon flipped a jersey into the basket from where it had been hanging over the edge. A few more sniffles escaped from the girl, but she wasn't on the verge of an emotional breakdown anymore, at least. The walls were coming back up and she was gluing the pieces together, a temporary fix until the next time she was tormented past her breaking point.
"You know Quinn?" Rachel said suddenly, startling Shannon out of her thoughts again.
The name was spoken softly, with a sort of reverence to it. The coach certainly knew who she was. At McKinley, not knowing who the head cheerleader was, was akin to not knowing who the president was. So it was quite obvious where that reverent tone came from. From the fact that all Quinn had to do was take a step and a path would be cleared for her. From how she could walk up to a taken seat and the person in it would move without a word. From how she could be in glee club, the least popular group in the school, and never have one snide remark thrown her way.
Shannon merely nodded when Rachel glanced at her. Her brown eyes went back to the shirtsleeve, which she was still fiddling with idly.
"She came up with it," she said quietly, and though she didn't look up, she must've sensed the coach's confusion, because she added, "The nickname. The first week of high school. She joined the Cheerios; I was in some other clubs, but we had a few classes together so sometimes we would walk with each other. Her locker was jammed one day, so I tried to help her, and…I ended up elbowing her in the stomach and spilling her books all over the floor when I got it open." She smiled a little, lost in the memory. "I apologized over and over, but all she said was, 'Geez, Man Hands. Look what you did.'"
Rachel paused, jaw clenching tight—painfully tight, from the looks of it. Shannon could only guess it was to quell some other deeper pain that the memory aroused in her. She stayed respectfully silent, honoring the fact that the girl was sharing something personal with her, despite wanting to burst out with her disapproval of Quinn's actions—of all of these popular kids's actions.
"I think she was joking," the girl said, again startling the coach. She squinted, as though trying to see something in the memory that Shannon could only get a vague silhouette of. "I'm not sure, but I think she was smiling when she said it. Teasing me." She smiled a little again, though it faltered hastily. "But we weren't alone, and when people heard, it made them simply roar with laughter. It caught on, and I became more and more unpopular by the day. I wasn't popular before that, mind you. Mostly just invisible. I was a pariah after that nickname. Quinn stopped our friendship before it even got started. Same with a few other kids. And the first time I was slushied…they all stood around me and chanted it at me. 'Man Hands.' I think that's the only time I ever let them see me cry after a slushie." A humorless chuckle breezed past her lips. "I just remember standing there and thinking, 'What did I do?'"
"Nothing," Shannon interjected, unable to hold herself back any longer. She shook her head when Rachel looked over at her, startled out of her reverie. "You didn't do anything but be yourself, and sometimes that's just enough for people to resent you. Like that poor Kurt boy." Melancholy immediately flooded the girl's features at the mention of that name, so the coach hurried on, hoping her point would ease her pain. "He didn't do a thing wrong. In fact, he did everything right."
Rachel's sorrow slowly turned into a calculating frown as she absorbed those words and the meaningful way they were delivered.
"You're saying I should leave McKinley?" she asked, sounding surprised and skeptical and incredulous all at once.
"No. I'm saying you do what he did: stay true to yourself. No matter what," the coach replied gently, smiling lightly at her. "You'll make it through."
Rather than being uplifted by these words, the girl only seemed to deflate more, and Shannon panicked, wondering what she had said wrong. She'd meant to help her, not make her feel worse. Just as she was about to prod her and ask what was wrong, Rachel heaved a sigh, preparing to speak again.
"The thing is, I think I've already lost myself," she said slowly. "I've always been a selfish girl. I want things too much and it makes me blind to everyone and everything else in my quest to achieve whatever it is. But lately…I feel like the more they taunt and slushie me, the less me I become. I've…lost that generous part of my nature that used to be there. That part that put other people first when it most mattered. It was there. I know it was. And now…now I'm calling people names, too. I never would've done that before. Ever." She shook her head, nose wrinkling with her own self-loathing.
Shannon frowned in sympathy for the girl, the connection growing stronger with that self-loathing, even though they'd reached it through different paths. Rachel was hardening herself, turning into the people she hated the most—her tormentors. It was a protective measure, but it wasn't any less damaging than what Shannon had done. She'd given in, accepted that she was disgusting and fat and that no one would ever want her. Two very different tactics that led to the same result: self-hatred and the nasty depths of depression.
It was something the coach still struggled with. Every single day when she crawled out of bed and looked in the mirror, she had to shove away the negative thoughts plaguing her mind, convincing her she was worthless. She hated the thought of this poor girl having to do the same.
"You know, the thing about losing yourself is that you can always be found again," she said cautiously, considering her words carefully.
Rachel's intense gaze was on her again, this time with a sort of focus Shannon was only used to seeing on her team when she was running them through a play during halftime, like whatever came through her lips needed to be internalized, burned into their memory forever. During the game, it was a good thing that she was proud and happy to see. In the case of this petite girl with so much soul in her big brown eyes, it was a little intimidating. Not to mention, nerve-wracking. She didn't want to steer her wrong, and even the slightest shift in wording could be taken the wrong way.
"No one ever really changes, Rachel. At the core of us, we're still the same person we've always been. A little worse for wear, maybe." She smiled, and the girl echoed it with a smaller version on her lips. "But if you look hard enough, and you find yourself, and you really work to stay true to it? It won't matter how banged up you get. You'll still be shining through."
Rachel's lower lip trembled and tears were making their silent tracks down her cheeks once more, but she was smiling—even if it was only the tiniest bit—and it brought the biggest smile to Shannon's face that she'd felt since she first heard the girl crying.
"Thank you," Rachel said softly, sincerely, and the coach just grinned and rifled through some of the dirty jerseys that still needed to be cleaned.
"Anytime, sweetheart. Now, I think that shirt is beyond all hope," she commented, glancing at the now soap-caked cardigan. The girl snorted a little, lifting it up. "I can get you a spare t-shirt from the storage room—Coach Sylvester won't notice if one goes missing—" that earned her a grin "—but before I do that, care to help me with this laundry?"
Rachel's beam practically lit up the dank room. "Of course. I'd love to."
Shannon smiled back at her and the girl tossed her cardigan to the stool sitting by the washing machine as she popped open the lid, obeying the coach's instructions on what temperature to set it at before catching the jerseys as they were tossed to her one by one.
When Rachel and Shannon left the girl's locker room a little later, both had a smile on their face and a spring in their step. Because, for once, someone understood. For once, they weren't completely alone.