A/N: And here is part 2. Thanks to everyone reading, alerting favorite-ing, and especially to those of you who take the time to review. Much love to M&M for their endless support, whether it be hand-holding or ass-kicking :)

Disclaimer: Not my show, not my songs, not my idea (See Prologue).

Chapter Six (AKA "Bad Reputation, Part 2")

"Who did it?"

Finn turned slightly in his seat and chanced a glance sideways down his row. (He was sitting in the front corner for once – Rachel had saved him the seat next to hers, which luckily meant that he could try to pretend Quinn and Puck weren't somewhere up on the risers, if he never saw them.) The rest of the club stared blankly, unconcerned, at the paper – the Glist – in Mr. Schue's hand.

"This is serious. Principal Figgins is threatening to disband the club."

Finn thought Mr. Schue was wasting his time trying to scare them all into admitting something. For one thing, only one of them actually had something to admit and – as Santana pointed out – they all knew it was Puck, though it wasn't like him to not want to take credit for his own stupid stunts. But whatever. If they could prove he did it, Puck would already be in Figgins' office and Mr. Schue wouldn't be trying to make this a glee-wide issue.

Disbanding the club seemed like kind of an overreaction, but Finn hoped Principal Figgins and especially Mr. Schue knew better than to expect the club to go on some mole hunt to rat out one of their own (even if it did turn out to be stupid Puck). Another glance around the room confirmed everyone was bored by this news. Even Rachel (who, he'd noticed in their Spanish class, was eager-to-please almost to a teacher's-pet level) looked like she was waiting for the punch line.

Mr. Schue seemed to realize the same thing, and no one was too surprised when he told them he was making this whole "bad reputation" idea their assignment for the week. What did seem to get a few reactions around the room was the sheet music he started handing out. Finn didn't know the song all that well, even if he recognized the title (hip hop and rap tended to stay pretty basic with their percussion, so he usually flipped past those stations when he wanted to practice to something), but he had to snort a little at the performing credits in the top corner. Vanilla Ice? Really?

Rachel shot him a smile and a playful eye-roll, and he thought she probably agreed with Mercedes about this song being "wack."

The next thing he knew, the sound of smacking drumsticks grabbed his attention, and he shook his head. Of course Mr. Schue wouldn't pass up a chance to rap. Rachel was already leading the choral backup from her chair, her clapping and smile contagious. Finn's own feet tapped out the beat on the floor, in spite of his mood.

When the verses hit and Mr. Schue tried to lead a spontaneous dance round-thing, Finn let Rachel pull him out of his seat, just trying to stay upright as he followed the steps as best he could. He probably could've followed them better if he was actually paying attention to Mr. Schue, but it was only when he watched Rachel really get into it, stomping her feet and tossing her head to the beat in what he was sure she thought passed for tough swagger, that the heavy gnawing in his stomach let up. She was just adorable.

The bell rang just as the song ended, and only then did he notice that the whole room seemed kind of cheerier than just a few minutes ago. Everyone was laughing and clapping at their impromptu performance, and Finn found room to be glad the club's funk from before was just a case of the Mondays – not something he had to fix. But a small part of him had thought, maybe even hoped, that everyone was upset over his whole mess with Quinn and Puck. That they cared enough to be upset for him. It was probably better this way, though. Now he didn't have to feel responsible for making everyone else miserable. And he didn't have to feel conflicted about fighting to keep Quinn and Puck in the club if they suddenly felt unwanted – they really couldn't afford to lose them so close to Regionals, no matter how much easier it might be not to have to see them everyday in here. But that was an emotional minefield he didn't even want to think about crossing right now.

His eyes swam back into focus when he felt a hand on his arm. Rachel was holding his backpack out to him, a softness in her steady gaze that told him she knew why he'd checked out for a minute. He tried to smile in a (pretty weak) thank you and took the bag, falling into step with her as she adjusted the giant binder in her arms and walked to the hall.

"I must say, Mr. Schue seems surprisingly eager to demonstrate, though he's very talented."

Finn nodded. "Yeah. I think it's as much for him as it is for us. He was in glee club when he went to school here. Even won Nationals." He shrugged. "I think he misses it."

"I think you're right. But does he always base his assignments on team issues like that?" Her voice stayed light, and he knew she was asking because she was amused, and maybe a little curious, but not judging. He decided he liked that she always came to him as the expert on all things New Directions.

"Basically. I think it's his way of trying to get us to relate to the music, even if it made things kind of uncomfortable in the beginning when none of us really knew each other and didn't want to sing about personal stuff even if we did." He thought of Kurt, singing about their "new little family," as he liked to call it, and scowled. "It's still kind of uncomfortable sometimes, not that Mr. Schue can tell."

She raised her head, eying him curiously. "You mean you don't like when he demonstrates?"

"Oh, no. Not that. Though the rapping takes some getting used to." He shrugged. "I'm just – it's a grumpy week, you know? I'll just be happy if I can avoid punching Puck and getting suspended, so I'm kinda hoping Mr. Schue will cut me some slack with this assignment. The last thing I need is to worry about what my pathetic rating on that stupid Glist means for my reputation."

If Rachel noticed how bitter he sounded, she didn't show it. "Well, what if we worked on it together? I mean, we're kind of in the same boat with the Glist. And we never did get to perform our Madonna duet for the team."

Oh right. "I don't know," he started to say. Weren't they trying to avoid what happened the last time it was just them and the music? "I mean…" He rubbed his neck, glancing down when Rachel didn't immediately jump in. She had her bottom lip pulled between her teeth again, and the way she'd ducked her chin just a little made her eyes look extra big. He swallowed. Fuck. "Yeah, okay. That might be fun." Why the hell not? He knew he'd just be along for another Rachel ride anyway.

She beamed and nudged his elbow with her shoulder to get them moving again. He hadn't even noticed they'd stopped.

As they walked to class, he realized how familiar all this felt already. Rachel hadn't directly mentioned Quinn or Puck since they talked in the choir room, and so he didn't know if it was because he was still the person she knew best at McKinley (he probably was), or if she was trying to help him stay distracted (it was working), or if she'd just gone full throttle on their 'friends' promise (which he probably should have expected because he already knew she was that way about practically everything), but she was always around now. Saving him strategically placed seats in the choir room. Finding out-of-the-way hidey holes where they could eat lunch without the heavy stares of the whole school on them. Going out of her way to walk with him between classes even when they weren't headed the same way. Chattering away in the halls so that he couldn't hear the whispers as they passed.

It was a new routine, going about his day to day with Rachel. But in a good way. Maybe it was because she was new, or because she never seemed to notice the high school hierarchy all around her – like it didn't apply to her or something – but it helped him feel like he was moving on somehow, like he was changing direction instead of going back.

Of course, he had no clue where all this was heading, but he was glad Rachel hadn't brought up that kiss again because, as much as he still thought about it (and tried to forget it when they were together), he still didn't have any answers for her. She didn't make it easy, though. Like when he'd say something and catch her staring him like he was saving drowning kittens. Or when she'd try to (sort of) playfully force-feed him pieces of her weird-looking fruit (she called them exotic) and he'd realize she was nearly in his lap. He could read her pretty well by now, and she never seemed as surprised or weirded out by those moments as he felt, and even seemed reluctant to let them go. She didn't have to spell it out. She was waiting for him.

What really scared him were the times he wanted to hang on to those moments too. But he couldn't. Not yet.

There was no rush, right?

Rachel found him when she went to the library for her study hall, and she probably shouldn't have been surprised that he was holding a color palette wheel up to the metal book cases.

"Hello, Kurt."

"Miss Rachel Berry." He marked a particular shade with a thumb before he turned towards her, eyes still on the color wheel in his grip. "There are three separate shades of grey in this room, and each more lifeless than the last."

"And why are you studying the wall color?"

"To make sure the costumes I'm making don't clash with the decor," he answered matter-of-factly. "It's not like there are many better things to do here. The collection is pretty dismal, unless you're looking for an encyclopedia."

She'd have to take his word on that. "I'm here for study hall."

"So am I – technically." He gave a sly grin as he moved past her, and she followed him towards the open section of the library with the long study tables. "But my homework takes maybe twenty minutes on a heavy day. This," he flourished the color wheel, "This is more mentally challenging. And fun." He stopped at a table which was empty but for a brown leather messenger bag, and set the wheel down next to it before taking a seat himself.

She sat across from him, delighted to put her textbooks aside in favor of conversation, just this once. "I take it these costumes would be for your bad reputation project."

Kurt nodded. "Yes, those of us invisibles who were left off of the Glist entirely are taking drastic measures to put ourselves back on the social map. Unflattering though it may be, at least your negative five rating means whoever made it knows you exist."

She felt the flush bloom under her skin, though she wasn't sure if it was from embarrassment or irritation. "Sadly, that narrows the list of possible suspects down considerably. I haven't quite made the splash onto this school's scene that I'd hoped, aside from glee. And even within the choir room, I've only had reason to encounter a few members of the team personally so far."

He eyed her appraisingly, grimacing. "I'm guessing whatever air of mystery you might have held over the student body was somewhat diminished by your less-than-alluring image."

"What's wrong with it? My clothes are cute, comfortable, and they ensure a lasting impression even after a fleeting encounter."

"Trust me, you don't want the impression you're making now to last." She gawked at him, speechless, but he relentlessly plowed ahead. "I don't read Jacob Ben Israel's blog on principle, but I know several people who do, and I'm not above soaking up the gossip through the grapevine. He took a poll, and evidently your look is not as universally appealing as you think."

Rachel huffed in indignation. That unscrupulous gossipmonger!

"But I can help with that," Kurt added, a mischievous lift to his brow.

"What exactly are you proposing?"

He smiled. "A makeover, my dear. I'm in desperate need of a new project and you're in desperate need of my help."

She bit her lip thoughtfully. Years of teasing made her automatically defensive of her signature look, but Kurt's offer seemed to come from a sort-of friendly place, unlike everyone else who'd ever commented on her clothes. And it simply wouldn't do for her image to detract from her boundless talent and exciting personality, at least up until she became famous enough to put eco-friendly-yet-classy stylists in charge of her public appearances. Maybe people might find her more alluring in the meantime with an updated look.

She extended her hand across the table. "Deal."

He shook it with a slight grin. "Speaking of encounters, I saw you talking to Puckerman after glee the other day. You interested? Because I feel I should warn you that Quinn is hardly an isolated incident. He's McKinley's most infamous playboy. And a particularly classless breed of Neanderthal."

Rachel nodded sheepishly, recalling his colorful proposition. "Don't worry. His reputation precedes him. But he did join glee. I mean, he can't be completely irredeemable."

Kurt shrugged. "We assumed Finn got him to join as a favor. He is surprisingly talented, but he's stuck with it a lot longer than we expected. Maybe he just thought it'd help serenade more girls into bed with him."

"Yeah. Maybe. But – what if he really likes Quinn? What if he stayed for her?"

"Well if anyone would make Puckerman work for it…" Kurt gave a short chuckle, and when he next met her gaze she was surprised at the gravity that had settled there. "I'm not trying to shatter your romantic notions, Rachel. If it were anyone else, I'd be leading the gossip parade with a Burberry-patterned baton. But Noah Puckerman used to be the person who gave me my daily dumpster toss, who showered us losers in slushie like it was his job. He's never fully reformed, even if he's stopped targeting us 'gleeks' since he joined. But for all I know, that's all Finn's doing, too."

Even as she filed away this new side of Noah, Rachel couldn't hold back a smirk of her own at hearing still more reasons to admire Finn's leadership.

"I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case," Kurt continued, staring elsewhere wistfully. "Finn's been my savior on several occasions. At any rate, I don't hold a grudge – I doubt Puckerman's attitude was ever personal – but I can't forget it either. And I haven't seen anything to make me believe he wouldn't go right back to harassing us if glee does go south after this year."

She wanted to be able to defend her new teammate – to what end, she couldn't say – but she couldn't dispute anything Kurt had said, either. Noah Puckerman was a shameless teenage Lothario (hadn't he tried the same with her?), and he seemed to enjoy making weaker students the butt of his jokes, either to boost his already-infamous reputation or to show off for his similarly compassionate jock friends.

But she'd watched him perform – she'd tried to observe them all by now – and he wanted to be in glee. Maybe, as Kurt said, it was all a means to an end, but something didn't fit. He was unapologetic about his delinquent behavior, but unlike all that grandstanding, glee couldn't do anything for him, except maybe make him happy.

"If you feel that way, how can you be comfortable being in glee with him? And now after what he's done to Finn – both he and Quinn…?"

Kurt smiled, but it was even thinner than usual. "You think we should vote them off the island? Not trying to divide and conquer after all, are you?"

She flinched, even though she was pretty sure he was teasing. "Absolutely not! I firmly believe a successful team should put all personal problems aside for the good of their performance, but frankly I didn't expect New Directions to be so rational."

"We have our problems," Kurt agreed. "We're a new team, and most of us despised each other before this. Most of us still do, actually. But we'd have no team at all without each other. So we're stuck. Much as I wish I could be a solo act sometimes, I won't be the one to ruin it for the rest of them." He sighed, then lightly slapped the tabletop in front of him. "But enough dwelling on our tumultuous team spirit. This afternoon is going to be one very long frumpy-to-fabulous montage, and I won't let you waste another minute in those penny loafers."

Rachel rolled her eyes good-naturedly, but as Kurt tore through magazine after magazine, clipping and circling, Rachel began to wonder just what she'd gotten herself into.

Shelby returned home early, fully intending to indulge in a pan full of brownies. She deserved it after taking it laughably easy on Vocal Adrenaline today. Her anger at them had subsided a little after she and Rachel reconnected, though things were still not back to "normal," but she had always known she couldn't keep her team working that hard right up until Regionals or she'd only be inviting injury in one form or another. Plus, she could use the extra time hammering out the details of their set list.

Unfortunately, an impending but important step in that process was a very lengthy meeting with Dakota Stanley to compare notes on choreography. He didn't enjoy it any more than she did, but she'd had to insist after seeing what he'd do when left to his own devices. No one wanted a repeat of the flipper incident.

Oh yeah. Brownies with a side of ice cream was definitely on the order of the day. If she hurried she could get them in the oven before Rachel realized what she was up to and tried to force the vegan equivalent on her.

She moved quietly, but took the time to carry her briefcase into her home office before looping back to the kitchen. She got the brownie mix from the top cabinet and had just pulled the right pan from under the stove when she heard the heavy thud of multiple feet coming down the stairs, split by her daughter's sudden peal of laughter.

Did Rachel have company?

She moved back into the living room for a clearer view. Rachel was standing near the front door, while her guest, a boy who was only a couple inches taller than Rachel, pulled on his coat. Shelby fought down a flash of momentary panic, realizing she'd never had a reason to set rules with Rachel about having boys over.

"Mom!" Rachel called, spotting her. "When did you get home?"

"Just now." She crossed the room. "Who's your friend?"

"Oh. This is Kurt Hummel. He goes to McKinley with me. Kurt, this is my mom, Shelby Corcoran."

"N-Nice to meet you, Coach Corcoran."

She shook his proffered hand, trying not to show too much surprise at the pitch of his voice. She took note of one accessory after another and slowly relaxed. If her gaydar hadn't been naturally reliable, years in the world of show choir had perfected it.

"You as well. Would you like to stay for dinner?"

"Oh, thanks but I actually have to get going." He reached for the doorknob. "I'm planning a murder-mystery theme dinner with my dad for tomorrow and I still have to track down pheasant feathers."

Shelby glanced at Rachel, who nodded as though this was a dire predicament. "Well, good luck. And thanks for all the advice."

"Oh, we're not done yet. We'll have you turning heads in no time, never you fear. I'll see you tomorrow," he said, slipping through the door.

"Bye, Kurt." Rachel closed the door behind him and turned towards Shelby with an almost sheepish smile.

Shelby raised an eyebrow. "So you're bringing my competition into the house now."

Her daughter's expression instantly turned to panic. "What – no. I mean I didn't –"

"Rachel. Relax. I was kidding." Clearly too soon for that.

The girl laughed unsteadily. "Oh."

Shelby wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her back towards the kitchen. "I'm glad to see you're making friends. He's in glee with you?" Rachel nodded. "Counter tenor?" Jerking her chin up with wide eyes, Rachel nodded again. "You don't see very many of those in a high school glee club," Shelby continued thoughtfully. He'd be a veritable ace-in-the-hole if New Directions used him effectively.

"You got that out of two sentences of hearing him speak?"

"Would it be bragging if I bet he has trouble with his high 'F'?" Shelby smirked at Rachel's answering giggle, then frowned as a bit of the conversation came back to her. "What did he mean about turning heads?"

Rachel sighed. "He's giving me a makeover. That's why he was here. He insisted on full access to my closet."

Shelby pulled a stool from under the counter and perched on it, leaning into her palm. "You know, if you wanted some new clothes, I would've gone shopping with you."

"I know. I guess I was just curious what Kurt's vision of the new me would look like."


Rachel sat opposite Shelby before answering. "I don't know. Kurt's very matter-of-fact about his ideas, and he obviously knows more about fashion and stuff than I do. I think maybe I do need a new look, but I feel a bit like a doll he wants to dress up."

Shelby nodded gravely. "Well, you shouldn't blindly follow his advice if you don't feel comfortable. But experimenting can be fun. Just stay away from piercings and tattoos. And don't let him cut your hair."

She smiled. "Okay, I promise. I'll get to try something new for a costume soon anyway." Rachel's gaze suddenly landed somewhere behind her, and Shelby realized why a second too late. Her daughter's face lit up. "Were you making brownies? Oh, you have to try this vegan recipe. They're so delicious, and you can't even taste the applesauce!"

Shelby opened her mouth to at least try talking her out of it, but one look at Rachel's excited grin and she caved. But there would be no talking her out of the ice cream, "life's blood of cows" or not. Not today.

Finn arrived at the auditorium kind of on the early side for once, so he wasn't totally surprised when he didn't see Rachel out on the stage yet (even if she seemed like the type to always be freakishly early for everything).

He'd been stretched out on the floor for a few minutes when he heard Rachel's voice carrying from somewhere backstage. He smiled, recognizing the same vocal scales she'd been teaching him. He followed the sound to one of the dressing rooms, where light shined around the cracked door, and knocked.

The scales immediately cut off. "Finn?" There was a shrill, almost nervous, edge to her voice – he must've surprised her.

He didn't open the door in case she was changing… but then the thought that she might be even a little naked behind that door distracted him for a second before he could answer. "Yeah, it's me. Just wanted to let you know I was here."

"O-okay," she called back. "I'll be out in a minute."

Trying to shake some of the nerves from his shoulders, he retraced his steps back towards the stage and perched on the end of the piano bench, deciding to follow Rachel's example and warm-up his voice.

"Okay, are we ready?"

He turned toward her voice and nearly fell off the piano bench. That was definitely the shortest skirt he'd ever seen. Which, considering how much time he spent around the Cheerios, was saying a lot. Her white shirt was unbuttoned, the ends tied into a knot under her boobs. And she was wearing knee socks, not her usual glittery fluffy pink ones but sort-of-see-through grey ones climbing up from underneath her heels.

"What –?" He almost choked on his own tongue.

She smiled, biting her lip as she glanced down. "It's my idea for our Bad Reputation duet. It's a mash-up actually, or it will be once I finish layering the songs together. The half I'm leading is an homage to Britney Spears. She defined an entire generation of promiscuous Catholic schoolgirls, but with the downward spiral of shaving her head and attacking paparazzi, her entire record-breaking legacy has been tainted. She was the pop culture icon of our childhood, and she's the perfect artist for this assignment."

"Uhhh." He tried to focus on her words, but she kept lightly tugging on a free end of her shirt-knot and it was super distracting, even if he was pretty sure she didn't even realize she was doing it.

She kept going. "I'd actually like your input before we finalize your half of the mash-up, so only the first part of the choreography is worked out. But since repeated learning is the best way to internalize anything, I thought we could go ahead and learn this first section."

And unless he was imagining it, she was talking faster than usual too.

She didn't wait for a response before she grabbed both his hands, pulling him to his feet and into the open space in front of the piano. She settled a few feet away. "I kept the choreography loose until the first chorus, so let's start blocking it from there. We'll take the counts at half-tempo for now."

He just nodded, still trying to bring moisture back into his mouth.

"Okay. I thought we might try to throw a lift in at the end of this song – nothing too elaborate, I promise – so for this first part we're just building tension up to it. We have mirrored but separate choreography. Watch me."

His mouth had gone back to being desert-dry at the word "lift" – He had to lift her? He had to lift her in that? – but she started bending and twirling and waving (he didn't know dance terms…) so he tried to pay attention. But that turned out to be a bad idea because at half-speed every move was exaggerated. And in that costume, that meant he could see every inch of her thighs flexing, the way her stomach pulled as she twisted. And he was trying really, really hard not to see whatever her skirt did when she twirled, but it was waving at him like a fucking flag and she kept watching him watch her and just – "No, wait. Stop."

She stopped, frowning. "Is something wrong?"

He swallowed. "Look I'm – I'm really uncomfortable right now and you just – why are you doing this?"

She brought her arms crossed in front of her stomach. "Doing what? It's a performance, Finn –"

"No, I mean – why perform this at all? What's the point?"

"Because we agreed to help each other give our reputations a boost!" she said, like it should've been obvious. And, well, duh, but –

"Then why didn't we just Ceran wrap Figgins' car or something? We don't need to act like this just for a glee assignment."

"Because people don't respect delinquents! The only girls in this school with enviably notable reputations are skanks or cheerleaders or both. Promiscuity equals desirability, and that's something I've never had. I've realized that my image needs major revamping if I hope to make a name for myself at this school and beyond. I know you must understand that on some level – I mean, you were upset by your Glist ranking, too."

He sighed. "Look, I know that's what I said, and it did really piss me off that it made me look like an even bigger wuss this week, but – I just – I don't want to have to worry about my reputation anymore. That's all Quinn ever did, and it wasn't fun."

Rachel shook her head a little, her foot tapping restlessly against the stage. "I'm sorry she did that to you, but you don't know what it's been like for me. What it's always been like for me. People avoid me like I'm carrying the social plague, and I'd rather be hated than ignored so I refuse to disappear. And they punish me for it." She swallowed so hard that he heard it. "You can't blame me for wanting to change that."

He shook his head, stepping a little closer. "I don't. But, come on. You don't want to be like those girls. I didn't know anything about you before I met you, but if this sexy-schoolgirl thing had been your reputation, it would've scared the crap out of me."

Rachel nodded, and he could see the grooves her fingers were making around her arms. She finally looked up at him, though. "What do you think I should do, then?"

He smiled and went with his gut. "Come bowling with me."

Rachel sputtered around a real laugh, unwinding one of her arms to wipe under her eyes, and he smiled.

"I'm serious. You need to relax and have some fun just being yourself."

"Bowling? I've never been before."

"What? Oh, you have to go. It's awesome."

She grinned up at him, and she seemed more relaxed by the second. "Okay. I'd like that. Let me just change out of this." She turned to go backstage.

He nodded, and more words jumped insistently into his mouth. "And just – um, I like you because you're different. Just – remember that, okay? You don't have to pretend."

Her smile was bittersweet, almost sad, as she tilted her head a little. "Thank you, Finn." She kept walking, and he could tell she was wringing her hands together even from the back – and yeah, he was a guy, so maybe he wasn't totally trying to ignore the way her skirt flapped when he walked. He still had to drive to the bowling alley, and nothing cooled him down faster than driving these days.

Kurt held one of Mercedes' hands in both of his over his kitchen table, in the process of replacing her glittery-gold costume manicure with something a little more everyday-fabulous. Tradition demanded that they accompany the beautification with gossip.

"I still can't believe about Quinn and Puck," Mercedes was saying. "Do you think they're gonna get together?"

"I doubt it. They haven't even made eye contact at all this week. At least not in glee. They sit at opposite back corners and act like the other doesn't exist."

"Exactly! The sexual tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And you must be watching the wrong side of the room because only one of them is pretending. Puck spends half of rehearsal watching Quinn."

Kurt raised an eyebrow at this news, making a mental note to confirm it for himself at the next glee meeting. "Well, Quinn has more than one reason to play invisible this week. Accused of having a reputation more scandalous than Puck or Santana? Whoever made that Glist wasn't doing her any favors if she's trying to get her good name back."

"But that's what this 'bad reputation' assignment is supposed to be teaching us, isn't it?" Mercedes asked rhetorically, her voice laced liberally with false enthusiasm. "Quinn wouldn't sing about this mess, anyway. She's shutting everyone out, even her friends. Be glad Sue keeps pulling us out of cheer drills to work on vocals because Brittany said Quinn's power trips have been even worse than Sue's the last couple days."

Kurt smirked and shook his head. "What do you think Finn is doing for his assignment?"

She tossed her free hand. "Probably another one of his Roadrunner ideas. Two guesses what this one's for."

He paused to raise an eyebrow at her. "Wait. Back up. Roadrunner?"

"He gets an idea and books his ass in that direction, then gets another idea and takes off on that one. He means well, and I know he's gotta be taking distractions anywhere he can get 'em this week, but he's working my last nerve trying to push Rachel Berry on us."

Kurt squashed down a flash of annoyance on Finn's behalf, but rather than re-visit that well-worn argument between the two of them, he went with a different comeback approach. "You almost sound threatened."

"Oh, I'm not scared of her." The bite in her too-fast reply made Kurt smile. "But Mr. Schue's been acting like we just stole their secret weapon. You'd think Rachel transferring was his idea."

He grimaced, eyes on her nails. "I think we kind of did. Her personality leaves a lot to be desired, but you can't deny that she's talented. I don't relish the idea of giving up what few solos I have to my name either, but if it helps us win? I'd rather share solos next year than have no glee at all."

"Don't tell me you've joined the Rachel Berry Fan Club too." He suspected that Mercedes would be wagging her finger at him if her good hand wasn't trapped in his.

He shrugged. "Despite what her wardrobe may suggest, her borderline-manic obsession with Broadway speaks to some taste. Somewhere."

Mercedes turned her head with a scoff. "You just want Finn to think you have his back. Your little crush is getting pathetic."

He winced, and the sudden guilt in her eyes let him know that she caught it. "God. I'm sorry, Kurt. I was mostly joking. You don't really still –"

Kurt dropped his gaze to the finger he was meticulously polishing, hoping maybe this one time he wouldn't be so quick to blush.


No such luck. "Let it go, Mercedes." His tone left no room for argument, but of course his sassy-fabulous bestie would ignore it.

She turned the hand in his grasp to squeeze one of his, smearing three wet nails in the process. "You dropped some tough love on me once when I needed to hear it. So now I'm gonna return the favor. I'll even let you bust my window after, if you want."

Kurt couldn't even smile at the memory. He didn't want to be having this conversation at all.

"Finn is straight as my weave. I know he cares about you as a friend, but it won't ever be more than that. You need to accept that and move on before you get hurt."

He exhaled around gritted teeth. "I know Finn has never seen me that way, but… things change. I mean, he and Quinn are over. You used to say Will and Jada would break up before those two –"

"So what?"

"So…" He sighed. How was she getting impatient with him right now? "Finn's just had his faith in people shaken. I want him to know that the world isn't all Quinns and Pucks. He doesn't have to give up and join them." Kurt shook his head. "He needs friends who accept him for who he is, and – and I like being around him. He and I haven't spent any real time together since we were paired up for Ballads and –"

"Wait a minute. You're – Kurt…" There was an accusing edge to her voice – the last thing he'd expected – that made him look up. "Is that why you set up your parents?"

He looked away, caught off guard.

"Kurt, you can't turn him!"

"I'm not trying to turn him. He's just – he's different than other guys, okay? He's genuine, and he cares. Maybe he's different in other ways, too, and he just doesn't know it yet."

Mercedes only stared in response, some mixture of disbelief and pity on her face, and Kurt knew she just didn't get it. Couldn't get it. Would anyone ever understand what it was like for him?

He re-focused on Mercedes' nails, tired of explaining himself. No matter how many times he re-worded his feelings, the most he could hope for was her sympathy, and he'd had his fill of that a year ago. He wanted more. He wanted real understanding. Genuine solidarity. Just one person who could make him feel normal.

"This top-coat's dried out. I'm going to get another." He turned the corner before Mercedes sharp wit could hurl another comeback at him. He could handle the constant alienation from the closed-minded masses in this town, but not from his nearest and dearest. Not anymore.

Since the bowling alley was in West Lima, just slightly closer to his house than hers, Rachel met him there. She spotted him immediately in the mostly-empty alley, even without the advantage of his towering height. He was sitting at a lane practically in front of the door, lacing up the rental shoe in his lap, his smile visible even at this angle.

Ever protective of her vocal chords, she didn't even attempt yelling over the din and the poorly amplified 80s music, but laid a hand on his shoulder in a unusually silent "hello" when she reached him.

"Hey!" He let his foot drop to the floor as he turned his head to see her, and if it were possible his smile grew even bigger. He sat straighter, bringing their eyes almost level, and jerked a thumb up at the scoreboard. "I already entered our names."

She looked where he pointed, and, sure enough, her name sat in the top right slot, opposite his. After only a moment, the display changed with the sound of a cartoon explosion, and "FINN vs. RACHEL" glared down from the screen above a pair of crossed bowling pins. It felt like more than a metaphor, maybe even an omen, and she slammed her eyes closed against the sight.

"What?" came his voice, suddenly laced with worry instead of enthusiasm. "Crap. I didn't spell it wrong, did I?" He leaned over the console next to his seat, peering at it.

She composed herself with a deep breath and squeezed his shoulder to get his attention. "It's perfect," she promised him, and she didn't have to call up a smile at his comically visible relief.

"Good. I, uh, I wanted to get your shoes but I wasn't sure what size to get you. Can I – is that one of those things you're not supposed to ask a girl? Like, I don't want to –"

She smiled and tried to stifle the laugh that threatened to explode from her chest. Could he be more adorable? "I'm a size six – narrow."

"Cool." He smiled and stood. "Be right back then."

She stayed where he'd left her as she watched him half-jog over to the counter, suddenly full of jitters. They'd agreed to be friends (not that she'd given him a choice, really), but this whole thing – the bashfully eager way he'd invited her, his borderline-giddiness tonight, his insistence to be the gentleman and pay for her – this also felt like a date. Not that she had much to compare it to, but still. Did he think this was a date? Did he want it to be?

He returned at the same loping pace, cradling her rental shoes in both hands. "Here you go. I think my hand size is the same as your shoe size."

Giggling, she realized she was still standing with her jacket and purse on, so she took the shoes from him and moved to take off her things, claiming the chair next to his, determined to enjoy herself no matter what craziness plagued their lives outside of this alley.

"You're up first."

This wasn't anything like what she'd expected, if there could be expectations for something so vaguely-defined. It was a constant see-saw of emotion: completely relaxed, pressure-less ease one moment and then slow, heart-pounding, chemistry-wrought tension the next. It was enough to make her certain that her vanishing willpower around him was a bigger potential hazard than she'd ever thought. A shrug and a grin, and he could convince her that the diseases she was sure lived inside those finger-holes were all part of the charm. Barely a squeeze of his warm, guiding hand on her shoulder, and she didn't give even the base of a Tony about whether she won or lost this game.

Where was her mile-wide competitive streak? Where was the cutthroat, do-or-die, soon-to-be captain of Vocal Adrenaline? She was half-hoping for gutter-balls if it meant he'd stay right by her side, talking her patiently through her next roll, and the other half was only hoping to get a strike just so he would know he was a good teacher.

She looked up at the scoreboard, and besides seeing just how badly she was losing – and barely feeling a twinge at the thought – she realized there was only one frame left. Just two more rolls. She wasn't ready for this… whatever-it-was to end.

"You hungry? We could break for some food, and their pizza's actually really awesome."

She grinned, relieved (and hoping he'd brought it up to spend more time with her, and not because his seemingly bottomless hunger couldn't wait any longer). "Do they have fries too?"

He insisted on paying for the food, too, and he came back to join her at the table in front of their lane while their order was prepared.

"So, have you given any thought to a strategy for New Directions at Regionals?" she asked him warily. On the one hand, glee was the biggest shared part of their lives, but it wasn't exactly a safe topic anymore, either.

His smile did fall slightly at the question, but he answered easily enough. "A little, but I haven't come up with like a plan or anything yet." He frowned suddenly. "Why? Should we? Do you think Vocal Adrenaline already has theirs worked out?"

"Probably. My mother always aims to finalize the set list several weeks before the competition. Then comes the vocal arrangements and the choreography…" At his crestfallen expression, she backpedaled guiltily. "Then again, everything takes longer when you have to account for twenty-six performers instead of just twelve."

He swallowed, flopping backwards in his chair, and she realized that pointing out that Vocal Adrenaline had yet another advantage over them in sheer numbers may not have been the most comforting thing she could have said. "God, I'm –"



"With you, we have thirteen performers now." He shrugged in time with his smile, almost shy in its warmth. "We were always long-shots, and yeah, we're half their size. But I'm hoping thirteen will be lucky for us."

She was glad they chose that moment to call their order over the loud speaker because there was no way she could have kept her face impassive enough that Finn, if he were still sitting across from her, wouldn't have noticed. She tried to employ all of her breathing techniques at once, but of course that didn't work. She rubbed her clammy palms against her skirt and tried not to think of her stomach twisting and rolling sickly. She'd been at McKinley for almost a month. She thought she would be used to her role by now, that all of the lying, the pretending she was there to stay, would get easier with practice. But it was just getting harder.

"Here we go," Finn said cheerfully as he returned and slid the tray between them. He gobbled up a fry eagerly before nudging the tray closer to her, unwittingly putting her back at ease with his enthusiasm.

"I can't believe you've never been bowling before," he commented when he'd swallowed. "It's the best stress-relief ever. I thought a couple times about trying to get New Directions to all come out together, but Quinn always talked me out of it. She used to start yelling about rental shoes if I ever even mentioned bowling."

Rachel nodded. "I wish Vocal Adrenaline had tried something like that. Or any kind of team bonding. Maybe they might have seen me differently."

He nodded, sympathetic. "What you said before – about your reputation – I figured you were just talking about the school in general. I thought it would be a little better with Vocal Adrenaline. I mean, right?"

She hesitated for a moment, before unleashing with brutal honesty (anything to take even a little weight off her conscience at this point). "Performing is my passion, and I always wanted everyone to give the best performances possible. I couldn't exactly lead by example during my dues-paying year in the chorus, so sometimes I'd sit through rehearsals and watch a couple imperfect performances and the litany of criticisms would just start building up inside of me like a volcano and I'd keep telling myself to hold it in and then it would just come bursting out. Granted, generally I was right, but it never did much for my reputation." She sighed. "I have a new chance at McKinley not to tarnish new relationships with devastating public critiques, even if they're warranted. Instead I've been cataloguing my exhaustive suggestions for anonymous locker delivery at a future date."

"Wow. Really? 'Cuz I've gotta be honest, I've been kind of hoping you'd keep pushing us like you did with Like a Prayer. I think the club really needs that tough love right now."

She shook her head. "They'd hate me for it."

Finn shrugged, as if conceding her point. "Maybe. But I'm pretty sure they'll change their minds if we win."

She almost repeated the question, hoping he would understand that she wanted to know if offending any of his teammates might make Finn hate her, but his gaze hadn't lost any of its intensity, and, in spite of her warnings, she could tell he was serious. Did he know what he was asking? She was sitting so far forward that she was actually rising off of her chair, but she had to be sure. "Just so we're clear: You want me to scrutinize every performance, every performer, and viciously air each and every flaw I find?"

She watched him for even the slightest hesitation, but Finn's smile widened until it was a full-blown wolfish grin. "Do your worst."

She couldn't have contained her grin if she tried. Finn's faith in her abilities, in her, filled her up with something she'd never felt before. She clasped her tingling fingers together and stood, reaching for her pink bowling ball. She marched up to their lane, lined up her shot, and rolled. It didn't feel as smooth or effortless as Finn made it look, but somehow her ball found the center pin and swept the rest clean, just like she knew it would.

Finn was on his feet, beaming at her, and she didn't think twice before she surged up on her tip-toes, pulling him into a kiss. His arms instantly cradled her back, and she felt the same wonderful surprise as before, like her whole world slowed, mesmerized by the gentle brushing of his lips on hers, the little hypersensitive pricks of heat that followed the light drag of his hands across the back of her shirt.

She pulled away first, breathless and happy and warm in his arms, her hands looping his shoulders to keep him close.

"So. Who do I talk to about bugging the choir room?"

A/N: Yeah, I know the Britney!Rachel thing seems like it's been done from season 2 of canon. But AU!S1!Rachel doesn't know that, and she demanded it. The song in the choir room scene is of course "Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice.

I'm already making good progress with Laryngitis (which will be pretty different than in canon) but, as always, the best way to keep me focused is to review!