A/N: This is the end, for real this time. Thank you all so, so much for all of the lovely reviews. They mean the world to me. Thank you.
Rachel's heels clicked on the tile of McKinley's hallway, the sound echoing around her in the empty space. Rows of lockers surrounded her on either side, and she pulled the blue fabric tight around her as she shivered.
It wasn't dark out, yet, but the sun was beginning to set, people dispersing to parties and family events and summer farewells. The school grounds were almost empty, most seniors more than ready to leave the school, but she couldn't, not yet.
Her phone buzzed at her hip and she reached under the graduation gown for her pocket as she rounded the corner. With a pause she opened the text message.
It was simple, the message from her mother, and she smiled. She'd invited Shelby, of course, asked her to bring Beth, but her invitation had met with a firm no, and Rachel hadn't fought her on this point. Their relationship was still fresh and raw and mostly done over curt e-mails and text messages and, if Shelby was feeling especially generous, a phone call.
Still, having her mother acknowledge her, in such solid terms of her adulthood meant the world to the graduate, and Rachel replied quickly, before slipping her phone back in her pocket and looking up.
The hall lights were off, the sun shining through the windows, and it left Will's office bathed in a soft light through the glass walls. The small room was almost empty, just a few boxes resting on his desk, and the sight made her pause.
"Mr. Schuester?" His formal name cut just as much as the first time back in this very building, and when he looked over she thought it did for him, too, judging by the way he stood, stiffly.
"Rachel, I thought you'd left already." He smiled at her and leaned against the corner of his desk. Rachel took it as an invitation and stepped forward, through the door until she was just a foot in front of him.
"That was a beautiful speech, Rachel." She smiled but it didn't reach her eyes, not fully. She'd been "Rachel" for the past several months—they'd gotten more and more careful about blurring the lines after their near-relapse in late November, and he had stopped calling her anything else, even "Rach." She knew he did it partly for himself, but mostly for her, to keep her from calling him "Will" out loud. Sometimes it irked her that he assumed she needed the reminder, but most days she was grateful because she did.
She shifted in front of him, pulling on the gold stole around her shoulders. "Thank you," she whispered. It had been beautiful—she'd spent months fine-tuning and making it perfect, and she was pleased, now, with the way it turned out.
Rachel's speech hadn't been about high school or college or clubs or friends or any of the drivel she'd written in her first draft of her valedictorian speech back in the summer before her sophomore year.
In fact, she'd caught the confused looks on most of the populations' faces as she spoke about pain and struggle and wanting.
Her speech had been meant for everyone, when it came down to it, but she wrote it for herself, for Will, for their relationship. She could only hope he understood the message, understood that she hadn't stopped forgetting about them all summer, all year, despite the attempts from both to remain appropriate.
That wasn't to say they'd succeeded in staying appropriate. The first day back had been deceptively easy, their adrenaline keeping them from touching or kissing or holding each other in the middle of the choir room. But after a few days of no contact, of not touching or kissing or holding the fear had started to creep back in, the confusion of what exactly they wanted to be for each other and if they could make it work.
After that they'd discovered the key to staying appropriate was to never be alone with each other. Never. They'd learned that the last week of her junior year, when Rachel had handed him some sheet music in his office and looked him in the eye as their fingers brushed.
That softness, that longing look from Shelby's apartment broke across his face and she'd leaned in to kiss him, to remind herself that yes, he wanted this as much as she did. They'd been stopped (saved, she realized) by a breeze slamming the choir room door shut, and she'd murmured an excuse as she left.
The summer had only served to make her doubt his feelings, question if he'd been caught up in the weekend with Beth. The frenzied make-out session in his office the first day of her senior year had reassured her.
Rachel's phone buzzed again as she felt her cheeks warm from the memory, and she took it from the pocket of her dress. With a big grin she felt her eyes tear at the picture that came through, and she turned to show Will. His own expression matched hers and he laughed, his lips settling into the soft smile he'd tried to keep from her all year.
"She's so big," he murmured, and reluctantly handed the phone back, the screen still showing the now two and a half-year-old Beth, wearing a very small graduation cap. Rachel reached for the phone, her fingers closing around his and she froze.
This, she thought, her eyes widening, this was why she hadn't touched him since November. Her eyes were open but she saw faint fireworks before she dropped her hand from his and slipped the phone back in her pocket.
"Mr. Schue, have you seen—" Quinn rounded the corner of his office door and smiled. "There you are. Rachel, are you coming?" Rachel smiled back at the blonde and shook her head. It was strange, how their relationship had progressed fairly naturally over the past year. Progressed to the point of Quinn offering her a ride to Santana's party.
"No, thank you, Quinn. I'll be fine." She thought about the picture of Beth on her phone and wanted to show her, knew Quinn would want to see it, but she had things to say to Will, and she couldn't until Quinn left.
"OK, I'll see you later, then?" Rachel nodded and Quinn offered her an easy smile before stepping into the office. Quinn looked hesitant but reached her arms out to hug Will. Rachel felt uncomfortable, watching her friend hug her teacher, but also watching Will hug another woman.
It was a feeling she hadn't really had to experience since Ms. Pillsbury had stopped visiting Will or the glee club in mid-November, except for the occasions she'd catch him patting Tina on the shoulder or speaking close to Brittany, all the things he had to be so vigilant about not doing with her.
Quinn pulled back, and in the quiet room she heard a small sniffle before, "We're all going to really miss you, Mr. Schue." The kids had all sung their goodbyes the previous week, but Rachel knew each had also said their own, private goodbye over the course of the day. "McKinley's really losing something, you know. But we all know you're going to do so well working with April. We'll be keeping tabs."
Will smiled softly at Quinn, but Rachel noticed it was different, more like the way he looked at Beth, and her chest eased a little at the thought. "I know, Quinn. I will be, too." When the blonde stepped back she squeezed Rachel's arm quickly on her way out.
"Rachel?" She stopped and glanced at Will before meeting Rachel's eyes. "If you don't come over to Santana's tonight, be sure to call me later, OK? We'll hang out before you leave." Rachel felt her eyes widen a little as she smiled.
"If I don't come over?"
Quinn just looked back at Will before pulling her own gown tighter and murmuring, "It was a great speech, Rachel. Good advice, what the heart wants. I'll keep it in mind," she left, then, and Rachel felt her cheeks flush.
Turning back to Will she smiled, glad to be alone with him. He smiled back at her and she wondered why he looked so calm when she felt so, so nervous.
"I have something for you, Rachel." He turned suddenly, leaned over to dig in his desk drawer and she was back in Shelby's apartment that first night, him fumbling for a dropped sippy cup lid.
Before she could move he was back in front of her, holding out a small box with a bow. A flicker of nerves broke his calm air and she felt herself relax a little, knowing this was as tough for him as it was for her, this next step, whatever it would be.
"You didn't have to do that, Mr. Schue," she trailed off at the end, not sure if she should still be calling him that, if she still had to. But there'd been no formal acknowledgement of their promise to each other, their plan to give things a try again.
Still, she opened the paper and smiled at the box underneath, clearly opened at the top. "Camel free, Rach," and it was a question as much of a statement when she looked up to his face. He was swallowing hard, his shoulders hunched forward as he searched her eyes.
She set the wrapping on the corner of his desk and her brows furrowed as she reopened the animal cracker box, pulled out two cookies and set the box down next to the gift wrap. It had been what she was waiting for, an invitation, permission, acknowledgement, and she looked up at him with damp eyes as she extended one hand with a polar bear cookie.
"Thank you, Will," she spoke softly, and he took the cookie, but set it down next to the box, and took her hand in his instead. Her own cookie hung limp in her hand and she dropped it on top of his as she stepped closer to him.
It was over, this state of limbo they'd had to be in, and she was ready for her future, a possibility of being with him. Looking up into his eyes, she leaned in, held her breath as he did the same.
His lips were as soft as she'd remembered, passionate but gentle, and she sighed into his open mouth as his fingers pressed gently into their spot on her lower back. Her own palms pressed into his chest, and when he finally let go of her he brushed her hair away from her neck, trailed his fingers over the spot on her neck where she'd been left with a bruise for days after they'd had to stop being together.
"God, I missed being able to touch you, honey," it was simple and easy to fall back into, something she'd never had with anyone else, and she smiled, contented.
She kissed him again, softly, and when she pulled back, she asked, "What was this year for you, Will?"
He chuckled, low, and pressed a kiss to her temple. "A struggle." She looked up at him, then, and kissed him once more, just because she could, the memory of being at that podium, seeing him sitting in the front row playing with fireworks behind her eyes.
My fellow Class of 2012:
For a lot of us these past four years have been hard, a lot of work. We've struggled with classes and exams, we've struggled to make friends, to fit in, and we've struggled with relationships. And for most of us it hasn't gotten better. That A+, that lunch table, that prom crown we pushed so hard for. These things helped but they didn't heal.
Because most of us were only fighting ourselves over the years. We were fighting those feelings, those urges and desires we had. We fought our individualism to fit in so we could have friends, and we fought our feelings because other people told us we shouldn't have them.
We fought, and argued, and warred with ourselves for four years. It hurt, and drained us, and it was uphill the whole way, but if we ever wavered there was someone or something there to stop us from giving up.
And this struggle, this uphill battle made us all who we are today. People come and go in your lives, events pass and things happen, but what really changes us is ourselves. It's when we look inside, look at what and why we're fighting that we learn the most about ourselves. It's when we look inside that we discover we don't want to fight anymore.
There is one truth, one unchangeable realization that we'll all come to, when we're wearied from fighting ourselves, exhausted from trying to change: The heart wants what the heart wants.
When we realize this, this unchangeable fact about ourselves, all the struggling, all the fighting and crying and hurting we've spent years on will seem like a waste. We'll think back to the first inkling we had that we wanted something and wonder, "What if I had been brave enough, what if I had accepted what I instantly knew?"
We'll think back over the years of pain and curse it, wish it away, pray for a second chance to do it all differently.
But, that's the thing about the struggle. Sometimes it's necessary to climb that mountain, to go up that hill. Sometimes that fight is all you need to get perspective and to realize what it was you wanted all along.
And when you reach that point, when you step foot on the top of that hill, tired and broken and in pain, the struggle will seem so unnecessary, such a waste of time.
Remember, then, that the struggle was what got you there. That the time wasn't wasted, that the effort needed to be exerted. Because the things that are worth it, the people that you really want, they're all worth the struggle, the fighting.
Remember that the fighting only makes you who you are, only reinforces things you already knew. Remember that once you reach that thing, that person you are fighting for, it'll all be worth it. Remember that the heart wants what the heart wants, even if it takes a little while to get there.