She's nursing her third plastic glass of cheap chardonnay when she sees him from across the room, towering above the rest of the crowd. (Upon reflection, Rachel decides it must be her fourth glass; her tongue has begun to feel heavy, unwieldy in her mouth).
She shouldn't be surprised to see him, not really – not loyal, dutiful, obedient Finn Hudson. He'd never miss an occasion at which he's expected; it is McKinley's ten year reunion, after all. And besides, Rachel likes to fantasize that he's become nostalgic with age; the sort of man who looks back on his high school years as the best ones o f his life, the pinnacle of his glory.
(You're projecting, Quinn had told her once, when she'd confessed this theory over too-large martinis in the dim heat of their favorite SoHo bar.)
On the opposite side of the banquet hall, Finn stands with his hands in the pocket of his dress pants – feet planted firmly apart, shoulders squared, chin raised defiantly. He doesn't pretend not to stare, doesn't shrink away when she notices him noticing her. He even has the gall to nod. Just once. An acknowledgement.
She hasn't seen him in nearly three years and he nods at her.
It seems that even at the age of twenty-eight, Rachel still hasn't shaken every vestige of melodrama from her bones – she whirls around to face the bartender and brandishes her empty cup in his face. Wordlessly, he hands her the refill; she doesn't even need to ask, not when she's been drinking here, alone, for the better of an hour, her bony hip pressed against the counter.
Rachel's lifting the fourth-fifth glass of wine to her lips when she hears the sudden clack of shoe against parquet floor and starts, sloshing a few drops of chardonnay onto her black suede pumps.
She sees him only in her peripheral vision. She won't deign to look into his face, to give him the fullness of her sight, the privilege of her vulnerability.
"Vodka tonic," Finn tells the bartender, and the words are unselfconscious on his tongue – like this is a habit of his, ordering strong drinks in strange places.
Rachel can feel his gaze like a tangible thing, latent heat in the hollow of her cheekbone.
"My, my," he says, "Miss Rachel Berry. It's good to see you again."
She studies her drink, smears her thumb against its beaded condensation.
"Is it, though?" she asks, and wonders when she became so jaded – (she has a hunch that sprung upon her, unwares, somewhere between that second Tony and fourth failed relationship.)
"It is as long as you're wearing that dress," Finn tells her with a grin.
"You mean, you don't think I look like sad clown hooker?"
He lets out a nervous, barking laugh.
"No, I certainly don't."
"You've learned then," she says, offering him the wisp of the smile.
"Indeed I have. Though I still maintain I liked those sequined leg warmers."
"You and no one else."
"Perhaps," he says. "But it was their loss."
Rachel can't help but marvel at the nonchalance, the intimacy of their banter. It is illogical; it doesn't make sense that this should still exist between them, this private space that that only they inhabit.
"You're doing well, then, yeah?" Finn asks, though it comes out as rather more a statement than a question. "I heard about the awards."
"I wasn't aware that the world of Broadway was even on your radar anymore."
"It isn't really," Finn admits. "But you are."
"I'm afraid I haven't kept tabs on you as well," Rachel tells him, wearing her false indifference like an armor. "What is it, exactly, that you do these days?"
"I'm teaching computer classes at a middle school on Staten Island, but I give drum lessons and coach little league in my spare time."
She feels her mouth fall open in surprise. "You're in New York, then? I had no idea."
"Well, I don't exactly travel in the same glamorous circles as you do," he says, sounding bemused. "You must think my life's so – what's the word? Pedestrian?"
"I don't!" Rachel says, with more firmness than she anticipates, feeling her cool exterior slip by degrees. "I mean – it sounds nice. Quaint."
Finn chuckles darkly. "Well that's a glowing assessment if I ever heard one."
Her eyes linger for a moment on the bareness of his ring finger. "You're not married, then?" she asks, hastening to change the subject, though she regrets her words before they're even out of her mouth, the implication of her question hanging heavily between them.
"Funny," Rachel says, "I'd always imagined you'd be bringing up a whole brood by this time."
Finn shrugs. "Apparently being unable to let go of feelings for your high school sweetheart isn't an attractive quality in a man."
For a moment, she is breathless; his words constrict her lungs like a vice.
"You don't have to do this, you know."
"Pretend that you still care about me. I've already decided that I'm going to let you take me home."
Finn recoils. "I do still care about you," he says, so earnestly it sounds like anger.
"I care very much."
"Do I what?" Rachel asks, deliberately obtuse.
"Still care," Finn says. "About me."
She pauses. "I try not to."
"And are you successful?"
"No," Rachel admits, lips curling into the ghost of a smile. "Not very."
Finn has one hand on the bar now, planted like a fulcrum, but he's off balance anyway, tilting towards her slowly.
"Does that answer disappoint you?" she asks.
"Quite the opposite, actually," he tells her, voice husky in its sudden roughness.
"How do you know I'm not lying just to seduce you?"
He's only inches away now, so close that his shoulders hunch with the effort. "Because you've always been a terrible liar, Rach," Finn says, "and you know well enough that I don't need to be seduced."
His nose brushes against her; his breath is hot against her air. "I've said as much, haven't I?"
"Perhaps you've given me some slight indication," Rachel concedes, voice high and tight with a desire she wants desperately to repress.
"I'm going to kiss you now, if that's okay."
It's okay, she tries to say, but the words stick in her throat so she settles for nodding, eyes wide.
In hurried desperation they knock teeth and snag lips – clumsier than they used to be, unfamiliar around contours they once knew by heart.
She threads a hand through his hair and he pins her against the bar, fingers tight against her waist. The sensible part of Rachel's brain shudders at the spectacle they're making of themselves, reduced to a laughable stereotype – two old flames at their high school reunion, wearing their drunkenness like a preemptive apology, a justification, a way to cast off their shame when the headiness subsides.
You'll regret this in the morning, her conscience says. You'll forget this in the morning.
For a moment, this thought is enough to jar her back to reality, and Rachel lays her sweaty palms flush against his chest, pushing him away.
"Is something wrong?"
"Yes," she says. "I mean – no. Just, we should get out of here."
"Fine by me," Finn tells her, and he leads her toward the exit, hand pressed gingerly against her lower back.
"What about your car?" he asks when they make it to the parking lot, and she is struck by his considerate practicality.
"My dads dropped me off," Rachel explains matter-of-factly. "Apparently they fear that being in Ohio is not conducive to my sobriety."
Finn laughs loudly, bending to kiss her once, twice, three times on the mouth.
"Where's your car?" she asks, pulling away.
"Impatient, are we?"
"I've been celibate for much too long, if you must know. It has nothing to do with you."
"Sure it doesn't," he says. "And I'm right over there."
They nearly trip over each other in their eagerness to reach his truck, stealing kisses every several paces. Finn palms her breasts over her dress, feels the stiffness of her nipples through its thin, black silk.
He lifts into Rachel the car like she weighs nothing more than a rag doll, handles her with delicate impatience.
It shouldn't be this easy, she thinks to herself in the passenger seat, his hand warm on her thigh. But isn't this how they've always been: like two planets in orbit? She could never help falling into his gravity.
"My place or yours?" Rachel asks.
"Yours. Burt and my mom have been keeping late hours recently. They've taken up jigsaw puzzles."
"Alright then, you just go left at the – "
She presses her hand against the hard line between his legs when they're stopped at a red light and Finn hisses against his teeth, fingers tightening around the steering wheel.
The five miles to Rachel's house stretch before them like an insurmountable eternity.
She has her dress half unzipped before Finn even pulls into her driveway. He opens the door for her and she kicks off the burden of her heels, leaving them discarded in the yard alongside her inhibition.
Finn kisses her all the way to the doorstep – mouth imprecise, lips grazing forehead, eyelids, chin.
Rachel throws a hand behind her back, wrestling with the lock, head tilted skyward. She feels his hand close around her wrist, turning it, and suddenly they are inside, they are on the stair case, they are opening her bedroom door.
The walls are still painted an infantile pink – Leroy and Hiram have left the room as it was, a fossil of her adolescence – and for a moment she is transported, she is seventeen, she is letting Finn undress her for the first time with his careful, clumsy hands.
He is not so careful this time around, nor so clumsy, and Rachel tries not to think about the other women he has touched this way, about the other men she's moved against in the dark.
She tries to convince herself that all of this means nothing to her, even as he pushes inside her with a look that's almost reverence, even as she bucks wildly beneath him, even as her own pulse throbs erratically in her like hummingbird wings.
But Finn looks into her eyes when he comes inside of her, like he wants to remember, like he is cataloguing the moment – and Rachel can longer pretend that this doesn't matter, that it's a one night stand as inconsequential as any other – (not with her fingernails digging into his shoulder, with the burden of I love you curled silently beneath her tongue).
And it's okay, she thinks, it's okay for it to matter.
And maybe in the morning Finn will stay for a cup of coffee (or two or three), and he will say something that makes her laugh, and she will kiss him under the sterile kitchen lights, and the world will go on spinning.