Chapter Twenty-Four: A Thousand What-Ifs

Shockingly enough, I woke up nowhere near as hung over as I thought I would be, which was pretty awesome considering I really hadn't been looking forward to spending the first half of my day with my head jammed in the toilet. To make up for the nausea, though, my neck and back were sore as hell as I blinked open my eyes and realized that I was still on the couch. What was worse was that I was practically inside the damn thing, tucked into the crack at the back of the couch where the cushions began. My legs were hanging out, though, and were wrapped around Quinn's upper body, which was the only part of her that was actually on the couch as her lower half was spread across the coffee table. I had to put a hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud as I realized that while my legs were wrapped around Quinn, Rachel's feet were practically rubbing her face. I also realized in that moment that my face was basically pressed into Rachel's right tit and my right arm was slung possessively across her waist. She was the only one of us in a comfortable position, which was fine because she was the only one who actually needed to be. Still, the entire picture was hilarious and made me wish that I had one of those remote-controlled cameras set up so I could take a quick shot of us.

I tried not to jostle Rachel around much as I fought to push myself up out of couch crack, grunting as I did so. Fuck, my whole body felt like somebody had stuck it inside a trash compactor and squashed the hell out of it. I didn't even remember falling asleep let alone how we'd all gotten into these whack positions. I slowly and carefully slipped my legs out of Quinn's grip and from around her head before crawling over both of them and darting silently into the kitchen to make some coffee.

As it was brewing, I popped some Tylenol into my mouth and downed it with some water to knock out the throbbing in my head. Just as I was about to put the bottle back in the fridge, I heard a grunt and groan that were unmistakably Quinn's before the blonde practically crawled into the kitchen with a scowl on her face and whined as she held her hand out for my bottle of water. I laughed quietly as I passed the bottle over to her and dropped a couple Tylenol into her hand as well.

"Oh god, thank you," Quinn groaned raggedly as she greedily chugged the water and downed the pills. "My head feels like it might explode."

I nodded in understanding before asking, "How's your body? Sore? Did you see that you were sleeping with your ass on the coffee table and your face in Rachel's feet?"

She rolled her eyes as she laughed a bit and took the coffee mug I'd only just filled and held out to her. "Thanks. Yeah, I'm surprised my joints aren't creaking. At least Rachel's feet are tiny and don't smell bad."

I laughed out loud at that and quickly had to clamp a hand over my mouth so that I wouldn't wake the sleeping dwarf in the living room. "Could've been worse," I told her, my voice gravelly from all the laughing and drinking the night before. I sipped at my searing hot coffee and hummed in approval before saying, "I woke up literally inside the damn couch, like actually stuffed down into the crack. I mean, how the hell does that even happen?"

Quinn burst into laughter at that before groaning and clutching her head. "Don't make me laugh. It hurts. Everything hurts, Santana," she whined and I only rolled my eyes at her before pressing a finger to my lips to signal that she needed to be quiet before pointing toward Rachel's bedroom. I signaled for her to follow me before grabbing my coffee and darting quickly into the room with Quinn behind me.

As soon as the door clicked closed behind her, we both crawled onto Rachel's bed with our coffee mugs and sighed at the comfort of a soft mattress versus a couch and coffee table. "Sorry, I didn't want to wake her and the kitchen is really close to the living room," I told her as we both leaned against the wall, our shoulders pressed together.

She nodded and said, "Sooo…." I could only groan as Quinn drew out the word and bumped my shoulder, because I knew the conversation she wanted to have, and I really didn't want to go there when my head felt like someone had taken a jackhammer to it. This was Quinn, though, so it wasn't like I really had a choice. Still, I tried to play dumb, which worked for about 2.5 seconds.

"So…" I sighed in return, avoiding her gaze because I knew that her head was turned and those hazel eyes were boring into the side of my face.

She waited a second or two to see if I would actually start talking, but when I didn't, she huffed dramatically and said, "Don't play stupid, Santana. We didn't get to have our talk yesterday because Rachel decided she would rather drink a gallon of wine than take a nap. So, we're going to have it now."

"Now?!" I whined as I scrunched up my face to show my complete abhorrence of the idea. "But my head hurts, and you're even more hung over that I am."

"So?" Quinn asked, looking at me as if my excuses were the lamest ones she'd ever heard, which I knew wasn't true, because she had dated Finn Hudson, and I'd personally never met anyone dumber than that oaf. I'm sure he'd had a ton of idiotic excuses for why he always looked constipated or why he incessantly raged against chairs or why he got a boner every time someone with a vagina walked into the room. "You can still talk to me, S, preferably while holding my hair back."

"Ew," I grumbled as I watched her face suddenly turn even paler than usual, which meant she looked practically albino. "Are you gonna hurl?"

She nodded frantically before shoving her empty coffee mug in my lap, jumping off the bed, and sprinting for the bathroom. I ran a hand through my tangled hair, wincing as my fingers snagged against the knots, before sighing heavily and forcing myself out of the bed. I sat the coffee mugs on Rachel's dresser and made my way into the bathroom where Quinn was already leaning over the toilet, clutching at the sides as her back arched and she gagged over and over. I hated the sound. It almost always made my own gag reflex kick in, but I choked down my own bile, dropped down to the floor, and sat with my back up against the bathtub. I leaned forward and wrapped one hand in her soft, blonde hair to hold it back from her face, and I used the other hand to rub comforting circles into her back as she spilled the contents of the previous night into the toilet.

"I don't hear you talking," she choked out between spew sessions as she rested her forehead against the toilet seat and her groan echoed around the bowl.

"You seriously want me to talk about my romantic feelings for Rachel Berry while you literally vomit right next to me?" I deadpanned, still holding her hair and rubbing her back. It was really kind of amazing how comforting a back rub could be when you were throwing up; totally weird, but amazing all the same.

I had to wait another minute or so while she heaved into the toilet again before she let out a ragged sigh of relief and leaned back and away from the toilet. She lay back against me, her back nested against my chest and her head leaning back on my shoulder as she wiped at her forehead, which was sweating from the exertion of vomiting, and she nodded without saying anything. Shit.

I didn't even know where to begin or what to even say. I wanted to get my feelings out, honestly, and talk about them. I was hoping that doing so would help me with the whole I'm-about-to-explode-because-I-want-to-tell-you-th at-I'm-in-love-with-you ordeal that I was faced with almost every single time Rachel Berry smiled at me, or said something impossibly sweet or nerdy, or touched me, or hummed a song, or laughed, or snored, or you know…breathed. Whatever. The trouble wasn't that I didn't want to talk to Quinn about it. The trouble was that I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to express how I felt, because I just felt so fucking much.

That was the thing about me. In high school, people always thought I was this shallow bitch that never felt anything, that I was just this cold-hearted slut with nothing going on beneath the surface. They were wrong. Of course, they were really only seeing what I wanted them to see, but regardless, it was a farce. The whole thing was an act, because the truth would have made me too open, too exposed, and too vulnerable. I didn't want to be open with people, because I couldn't even be open with myself. I was afraid of the real me, afraid that no one would accept me, or that people would make fun of me or use my vulnerabilities against me. I was just…afraid. It was pretty much as simple as that, though I definitely wasn't about to go telling anyone that.

The truth is that I feel everything, and sometimes my experiences are so overwhelming that I can't even string my thoughts together properly. It's like I'm always just trying to push down all the crap constantly swirling around inside my head and inside my heart, just trying to get everything further down and further away so that I never really have to deal with any of it, or so that I never have to show it to anyone. But I do feel it. I feel it all—every ache and every sorrow, every glare and every threat, every smile and every hug, every laugh and every tear, every touch and every denial…everything. And not a single experience has ever left me unaffected. Sometimes, I'm so affected that I can't even breathe.

So, no, I didn't have a clue what to say about how I felt about Rachel Berry, but I knew that I needed to try to say something. I needed to try to get all of it out to someone, someone I could trust…Quinn. So, I just told her the first words that came to mind when I thought of Rachel, and I went from there.

"She's beautiful," I whispered raggedly as I closed my eyes and leaned my head down against Quinn's, where it was still resting against my shoulder. I kept my eyes closed because I didn't want to see her reaction, which most likely was a teasing smile, and she kept her silence because she knew it was the only way to keep me talking.

"She…" Images of Rachel flashed through my mind as I kept my eyes clenched tightly closed and let my thoughts be devoured by the tiny brunette, my heart racing in answer. She became like a movie inside my head, images of her singing, close-ups of her smile as well as her tears, her animal sweaters, her soft thank-you kisses, her quiet confessions and insecurities…and every single image made my chest clench tightly or my breath stutter in my lungs. "She's so much more than I ever thought," I admitted quietly, tears springing into my closed eyes as my heart swelled and my entire body was alive with the way I felt about Rachel.

"She's strong, so strong, but she's weak too, you know? Not in a bad way, just in that way where she doesn't always see how special she is, like she needs reassurance sometimes. We always thought she was so full of herself in high school, but she's not like that. She's confident in her talent, but that's about as far as it goes, Q. She doesn't think she's beautiful. She doesn't see how incredible she is. And I hate…I hate that we did that to her, Quinn. I hate that we made her that way." My voice cracked as I said those last words.

I felt Quinn's body shutter against mine and when I leaned my head around to look at her, there were tears running down her fair cheeks. "Me too," she whispered, not even bothering to wipe the tears away.

I sighed as I slipped one of my hands into hers and squeezed it tightly before saying, "And she's funny, Q." Quinn laughed a bit at that, her voice ragged and thick with her tears. "She's so much funnier than I ever knew."

"And she's quiet," I told her, smiling as I thought of all the times I'd lain in bed with Rachel in total silence, both of us wide awake and just staring at each other or just holding hands. Those moments had meant so much to me.

Quinn snorted in response as if she found that incredibly hard to believe, and I couldn't help but laugh as I said, "No, really, she is. Or she can be. She likes to talk, duh. No one is denying that, but she's not always like that; at least, not with me. Sometimes, she'll just lay with me in silence and hold my hand. And she listens, Q…she listens to me."

I saw Q's smile that time. It was simple, small, and sweet, but it was definitely there, and I knew it was because she was happy for me. I couldn't help but echo the smile, too. Rachel just did that to me…made me smile; obviously, she was even capable of it when she wasn't in the room. Who would've ever thought? Me and Rachel Berry…it was almost laughable, but damn if I didn't think it was the best thing to have ever happened to me.

I took a deep breath, new tears springing into my eyes as I squeezed Q's hand again and whispered, "My whole life, Q…my whole life I've just felt so invisible. I mean, I know I was popular in high school and a cheerio and all of that, but that wasn't the real me. I kept so much of myself hidden, because I didn't think anyone could like me, let alone love me, if they knew who I really was, what I really was. Even now, I just have so many days when I feel like I'm hiding who I am, when I feel like no one really sees me, you know? But Rachel…she sees me. I think she really sees me."

Tears were fully streaming down my cheeks now as my heart swelled even larger in my chest. "When she looks at me, Q, I feel so…I don't know…so special. Don't laugh because I know that that sounds freaking cliché as hell, but it's true. She makes me feel like I can just be myself and still be beautiful, still be important."

"I'm not laughing," Quinn said softly as she smiled at me through her own tears. "I think it's beautiful, Santana, that she makes you feel that way."

I swallowed thickly as I nodded and said, "She touches me sometimes, just little touches, like holding my hand or cupping my cheek or something, and I swear, Q, it's like the entire fucking world just disappears and it's just me and her. My heart races and I can't breathe and my head starts spinning like it's gonna pop off my neck and fly away. And I want to tell her, you know? I want to tell her that I love her, that I'm pretty sure I'm in love with her, but how can I do that, Quinn? I mean, look at what she's been through. Romance and relationships and all that shit are just...it's probably the last thing she needs in her life right now, because she needs time to like heal and everything, and get back on her feet, and feel strong and independent, and whatever the hell else she needs…but I can't help how I feel. I've tried, you know. I've tried to push it all down and away and not think about it, but then she kisses me, and I just—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Quinn interjected, jolting up and away so that she could turn to look at me fully, that famous Fabray eyebrow arched and practically disappearing into her hairline. "What do you mean she kisses you?"

I could literally feel my face turning red in that moment as my eyes widened and I stuttered out, "Uh…y-yeah."

Quinn looked shocked for a moment before her features shifted into a teasing smirk. She poked at my side and asked, "If she's kissing you then why are you so afraid to tell her how you feel, S?"

"Because what if she doesn't feel the same way?!" I blew out in one panicked, frustrated breath, finally letting my fear show to my best friend as I cried and clutched tightly to Quinn's hands. "What if she's just looking for comfort and it's easy with me because I'm always with her? What if she just thinks she wants me because I saved her life, but a few months from now or a year from now when she's feeling better and has started to put all of this shit behind her, she realizes that she was just idolizing me or whatever? I mean…fuck, Q. This is my heart, okay? It's my heart on the damn line here, and it still has a giant fucking shoe-print in it from when Brittany walked away from me, and I'm fucking SCARED, Quinn. I'm terrified of putting it all out there, because if she doesn't feel the same way, then I can't put it all back. I can't hide it again. It'll be out there, and it will change everything."

"But Santana," Quinn said as she squeezed my hands in return, a smile blooming across her lips that somehow just set me at ease, "what if she does feel the same way?"

Those words blasted through me like a fucking tidal wave, and I stared at Quinn as if she'd just told me the meaning of life or something equally epic, because somehow, I hadn't ever even thought about it that way. It was in my nature, a habit formed in my youth, to focus only on the negative and to assume that the negative was the only plausible result. I'd just grown so accustomed to having things turn to shit that I'd forgotten what it was like to really hope for the best and to believe that it was actually possible. As soon as Quinn's words hit my ears, though, it was like my heart just cracked wide open and all the hope I'd denied myself for years poured right in and glued it back together.

I couldn't even begin to stop the smile that blasted across my face in that moment, and I didn't try. I launched across the few inches of space separating me from my best friend and tackled Quinn to the floor in a crushing embrace. She laughed as she squeezed me tightly and I choked out, "Thank you."

We hugged for a few minutes longer before I pinched her sides and said, "Now brush your teeth. You smell like coffee, vomit, and leftover wine. It ain't cute, Q." She snorted as she rolled her eyes and we pushed ourselves up off the cold-ass bathroom floor.

I took the opportunity to pee while she was brushing her teeth, because well…it wasn't like Q and I hadn't see each other naked before. No shame. I laughed at her because she nearly threw up again after gagging on her toothbrush, and she flung toothpaste at me to get me to shut up. And that was when we heard it…a soft whimper that grew into a heart-wrenching moan of pain and terror.

It was Rachel, and the sound was coming from the living room where we'd left her sleeping. Quinn's head snapped up and her hazel eyes locked with mine, her eyebrow shooting up, and all I could do was sigh and shake my head as I flushed the toilet and she quickly rinsed her mouth out. We moved quietly into the living room where I instantly saw Rachel thrashing about on the couch, and I knew that she was trapped in one of her nightmares again. It made my heart clench painfully in my chest, and tears were swimming in Q's eyes almost instantly.

"No, please," Rachel moaned, and I could see tears on her cheeks as well. She was crying in her sleep. "Please don't. Don't." I knew what was coming, and sure enough, only seconds later, Rachel let out a bone-chilling scream as she clamped her legs tightly together and pushed her hands down toward the apex of her thighs as if to cover herself. It made me sick, made my stomach fucking churn and lurch and threaten to rip right up my throat, out of my mouth, and onto the floor. I fucking hated it…seeing her that way, knowing what she was dreaming about.

"Oh my god," I heard Quinn cry, and I glanced over to her to see that she was covering her mouth with one hand and her cheeks were wet as her hazel eyes raked over the position of Rachel's hands. It broke her heart just as deeply as it broke mine, both of us entirely aware of the horrible experience Rachel was reliving inside her mind in that very moment.

I quickly moved around the couch and crouched down beside it. I slid one hand under Rachel's head and moved the other to cup around her cheek. "Rachel, wake up," I said calmly, trying to keep my tears from affecting my voice. I never liked for Rachel to see me crying when she woke up. I didn't want her to ever have to feel afraid to open up for fear of upsetting me, and because I knew that she would need me to be strong for her. She was always a complete and total wreck once she woke, unable to stop crying, sometimes for hours.

She continued to thrash about as I patted at her soaked cheek, trying to gently smack her awake. Sometimes, though, I practically had to scream in her face to jerk her out of her nightmares. It was like she was layers deep and no matter how hard she tried to swim up to the surface, she just couldn't get there. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't escape. "Rachel!" I snapped again, increasing the strength with which I was tapping her cheek. "Come on, honey, wake up."

Still, she wouldn't wake, so I shifted up onto the couch and pulled her thrashing and trembling body into my arms, cradling her in my lap. She continued to scream, crying so forcefully that she was choking in her sleep, and the sight and the sounds instantly threw Quinn into a panic. She sprinted over to the couch, shook Rachel with both of her hands, and shouted, "RACHEL! WAKE UP!"

The tiny brunette instantly jerked, chocolate eyes flying open. Her breathing was labored as her gaze nervously darted back and forth between us, her features flitting through a series of expressions—confusion, surprise, relief, anxiety, fear. Quinn let out a sigh of relief, but I knew that the worst was yet to come, and sure enough…as Rachel adjusted to being awake, she whimpered softly, unable to let go of the images still racking her brain. She glanced down to see that her hands were crossed tightly over her thighs, desperately guarding herself, and then her pained gaze shot back to me and she instantly burst into tears again, great gasping sobs ripping up from her throat as her hands moved and her fingers dug into my shirt. She curled into my chest as she cried, and I just held her and rocked her and did my best to calm her down.

I locked eyes with Q over the top of Rachel's head, and her hazel eyes were a stormy mixture of emotions as she cried for her best friend's pain. She silently wiped at her cheeks before moving to slip onto the couch beside me. She wrapped her arms around both me and Rachel, and we all cried together, Quinn and I both holding Rachel to let her know that she wasn't alone, that she would never be alone again; to let her know that she was safe.

As I rested my head against Quinn's and rocked Rachel in my arms, I thought about Q's car wreck and how she'd nearly died; how scared I'd been that I was never going to see her again or talk to her again or hug her again. Then I thought about the night we'd almost lost Rachel…how absolutely terrified I'd been then, too, and how sure I'd been that she was going to die. Then I thought about the words that Q had only just said to me in the bathroom. And that was when it hit me…

Life didn't allow for waiting. Just when you got comfortable, your entire world could be ripped away. The floor could just crumble beneath your feet. There were no guarantees, only possibilities.

Maybe I needed to tell Rachel how I felt after all, because if by some crazy chance I died tomorrow, I'd want her to know that I loved her. I'd want her to know that I died loving her. Yeah…it was in that moment that I realized that it didn't matter how terrifying it was to put yourself on the line, to be vulnerable. It didn't matter how many things could go wrong or how one single choice could cause everything to blow up in your face. None of that shit mattered—because you had to do it, you know? You had to make those choices. You had to tell your secrets. You had to put yourself out there, because in the end, all that really mattered was that you let yourself really live when you had the chance. You let yourself love…even if it hurt, even if it was the worst pain imaginable. You let yourself love, and that had to be worth more than a thousand what-ifs taken regrettably to your grave.

Right?