"What did you think was going to happen, Stubbles?"
Rachel looked around as the entire student body stood on the cafeteria tables for a better view; their laughter filled the large room, echoing eerily off of the walls.
"I fully understand why you told everyone, but why did you do have to do it when I was naked?"
"It's not my fault you want to get naked every time you see me."
"It's not every time."
"So you just thought the lunch line would be a nice safe space to express yourself?"
"No, I don't think I did think." She looked around anxiously. There were even more people, she was sure her entire ballet class had just joined the hecklers. "But I think I would like to leave now."
"That's right, run away and hide." Quinn shook her head derisively. "You're such a freak, Rachel. Seriously, what are you so scared of?"
The laughter around her was reaching a crescendo, hands slapping the lunch tables like a slow, torturous drumroll and she couldn't make her arms work to cover her body the way she desperately wanted to as Quinn mocked her, leading the jeering crowd.
The drumming became knocking and she jolted fully away at the sound of her door opening.
"Honey, are you okay?" Her Dad called over the music. "You're going to be late for school if you don't get up now."
"What?" She tried to push herself up in alarm but she'd been sleeping on her tummy, arms tucked beneath her and they were numb. They were as useless now as they had been in her dream and caused her to gracelessly slam face first back into her pillow. "Arrgh!"
She couldn't be late again. And she still had a towel to wash. She'd left it until this morning so that it would retain as much of the fresh scent as possible, but now she'd overslept and it was going to smell exactly as it had yesterday when she'd fished it out of the laundry bin – only the unpleasant musty smell would be a day older and therefore worse!
It hadn't even been twenty four hours and she was already messing this up.
Quinn noticed her parents were watching her and instantly felt dread as she stood from the breakfast table and walked to the fridge for a second glass of juice. What had they noticed? Her Cheerios top held her slightly (disgustingly) bloated stomach in nicely. She'd thrown up twice already since waking but the morning sickness seemed to have passed quickly today and she was actually feeling quite refreshed for once. So what was with the scrutiny?
She hadn't accidentally said, "I'm pregnant!" over her toast and jam, had she?
She looked down at her top. "Did I spill something?"
Her Mom gave a loud fluttery titter and Quinn had to curb the impulse to taste-test her breakfast juice. "Not that I can see."
"You just seem awfully chipper today," her Dad said, sounding upbeat despite only being on his second black coffee of the day.
"You're bouncing," her Mom added.
"I am?" She looked down at herself again dubiously.
"You could hardly keep still in your seat." Her Dad turned the page of The Lima Daily he was reading. "Something good happening at school today?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
Seriously, they were freaking her out.
"I bet she just can't wait to see Finn," her Mom said with a knowing smile.
Her Dad looked up. "I take it things are getting serious between you two then."
Quinn choked on her orange juice. "No, why would you think that?"
"Relax, Sweetheart, I'm teasing. Although it would be nice if you brought the boy around more often. We see so little of him it's hard not to think that you're trying to hide something."
She set the juice aside before she accidentally killed herself with it. "No, we have nothing to hide."
"So does he have something special planned for today?" Her Mom asked.
"I shouldn't think so."
Her Mom didn't let up, apparently eager to live vicariously through her. "Then how come you're so excited to get to school?"
"I . . . don't know." And she hadn't realized she was until it had been pointed out to her, but now just getting away from this conversation was reason enough. "But I should go."
She kissed both parents swiftly on the cheek before bouncing . . . no, walking out of the house.
Rachel made it to school with one minute on the clock and ran through the doors. The white bag bounced against her thigh, its contents still had that fresh-from-the-dryer warmth evident through the plastic every time it met her skin.
She'd really wanted to give it to Quinn before school but she just didn't arrive early enough to catch her by her locker, and in the classes they shared that morning Quinn was always seated far away from her and accompanied by either Santana or Finn.
So she carried the bag around with her, waiting for an opportunity, but she couldn't very well go up to Quinn in front of everyone and hand over, when it came right down to it, a stolen towel. A towel stolen in a very stalker-like way, although without any stalkery intent obviously, but that might not come across right away, which was why Rachel also dismissed the idea of following Quinn into the bathroom between third and fourth period to hand it over.
By lunch she was desperate – partly to discover Quinn's reaction to her good deed but mostly just to get rid of the offending item before anyone asked her why she was carrying a towel around with her all day! She had already received curious looks (to put it politely) from Mercedes, Artie and Santana when they'd passed her in the halls.
Kurt joined her in the lunch line and she smiled at him automatically. He nodded back but no words were exchanged. Normally she'd think he was rude but today she was happy to shuffle along in silence.
And then he had to go and ruin it, "Rachel, I really have to ask . . ."
"I'm going swimming at the community center after school," she blurted.
"Well, I hope you enjoy your rampant case of athlete's foot, but I was going to say, do you honestly think the pink and blue argyle sweater vest, quaint as it is, goes with the burnt umber cardigan?"
"I, ah . . ." Rachel looked down at herself. ". . . dressed in a hurry this morning."
"This is burnt umber?"
"Well, you probably know it as brown."
Quinn had just sat down at a lunch table alone and Rachel wasn't going to get another opportunity like this.
"Thank you, Kurt. I'll take your criticism of my dress sense under advisement."
"If only." He continued to speak but Rachel was already walking away. "Well, that was rude."
She grinned nervously, his comment not really registering; in fact she didn't even notice she was carrying an empty tray as she approached Quinn. The towel-filled bag felt heavier with every step she took.
Quinn had chosen to eat alone because she had some reading to do for fifth period. She'd meant to do it the night before but had been curiously on edge, going to bed ridiculously early as a result. Not that she'd slept much and when she had drifted off she'd been plagued with weird dreams, which probably accounted for the twitchy behavior her parents had noticed.
She was just turning to the second page of the chapter when a tray clattered down next to her own, making her jump slightly. She looked over to see Santana poking at a cucumber and carrot salad. Brittany was sitting the other side of her, stealthily pouring some salt on her own salad – that would be ten laps if Coach caught her.
"So what are you doing at the loser table?" Santana asked.
Quinn didn't look up from her book. "Excuse me, I was the only one sitting here until you nearly knocked me out of my seat."
Santana smirked, "Exactly."
"Oh no," Brittany said quietly. "Make it stop."
Quinn didn't take her eyes off of her page but Santana looked up. "What's . . .? Oh, for Christ's sake."
Now she looked, saw what was coming towards them and, with a roll of her eyes, stared back down at her book.
"I'm sorry to disturb you . . ."
"And yet you're doing it anyway," Santana interrupted, "Don't you think that's a little impolite?"
Quinn smirked but kept her head down.
"I was hoping to speak to Quinn alone, which she was when I started to come over, but obviously . . ."
"Now she's not."
"True, but, perhaps . . ."
"You should go away," Brittany said quietly. "No offense, I'm only saying it because I like you. Well, actually, I don't really, much, but if I did like you I'd tell you to go away."
"Because we're going to be mean to you and I wouldn't want anyone I liked to have to go through that."
As Brittany finished speaking Santana used her fork to flick a chunk of cucumber. It bounced off of Rachel's chin and landed by Quinn's book. Without looking up she flicked it to the floor.
To her credit, Rachel didn't react to the direct hit. "Well, while I appreciate your concern Brittany, I really need to speak to Quinn alone."
"You really don't," she said, head still down.
"Actually, it's of some . . ." Another piece of cucumber hit her face. ". . . importance."
"Then if it's that important tell me here."
"Yeah, come on, Stubbles, share with the group," Santana said wickedly.
"It's not really . . ."
Santana didn't let her finish. "You got a secret, Berry? Something dirty you wanna whisper in Q's ear?"
Quinn flicked narrowed eyes Santana's way, wondering just what she'd figured out and whether or not she had a reason to be worried about it, but it was clear from her friend's expression she was just trying to score a random hit. She glanced up at Rachel just long enough to see her go red and start stammering before setting her eyes back on her book with a hidden smile.
"No, no, of course it's not a secret and . . . and why would it be dirty? I just . . . there was something . . . It wasn't important."
Rachel left quickly, leaving an empty tray on the table.
Laughing, Santana chewed a carrot and asked, "What's her deal?"
Quinn shrugged, finally relaxing again now that Rachel had left. She was more concerned with what her own deal was right now.
After fifth period Quinn was feeling a little queasy again so she detoured into the bathroom on the way to sixth.
Leaning over the sink, she splashed cool water on her cheeks, hoping the sickness wouldn't come if she just took a few deep breaths.
She was on her third when the door inched open. A look in the mirror showed Berry standing just inside it, looking nervous. Quinn groaned and splashed more water on her face.
"Why are you bothering me like this?"
Rachel didn't seem to realize she was speaking to herself and stepped forward. "I don't mean to bother you and I'll go in just a moment. It's just . . . I have something for you." Quinn could see in the mirror she was carrying a full plastic bag. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she snapped and reached for some paper towels. There weren't any. Damn! She stared angrily into the mirror, watching the water drip off of her chin. This was just great. "So what did you want to give me? And if it's what I think it is, I'm really not interested."
In the mirror, Rachel looked affronted but she didn't say anything, just took another step closer and held out the bag. Turning, Quinn took it from her and opened it. Seeing the contents, her eyes widened with confusion but she couldn't help smiling too.
She got it under control fast and, with a raised eyebrow, asked, "Seriously?" as she took the towel out of the bag. "Did you sneak back into the locker room after we left yesterday or something?"
"Or something." Rachel ducked her head. "Or, you know, exactly that."
"Berry, you really are a . . ." Quinn lifted the towel, only intending to dry her dripping face, but then the fresh scent of it washed over her and for the first time in an hour her nausea completely faded.
"A freak, I know," Rachel finished for her quietly. "I'm sorry; I shouldn't have taken it without permission, although you did sort of give me permission in a roundabout way and . . ."
There was silence for a minute before, "Are you sure you're okay?"
Quinn was still holding the towel draped over her face, taking deep, even breaths. She was scared to take it away in case the feeling of sickness came back.
"Okay. If . . . if you want some alone time with the towel, I could leave."
Quinn had to laugh at that, a real laugh that surprised her. She flipped the towel so it was still over her nose and mouth but she could see the other girl.
"Like you don't want to watch me have alone time with your towel."
Rachel blushed but smiled, "Well, it's actually your towel; it's just my fabric softener."
"It's a miracle potion." Okay, from the look in Berry's eyes she was starting to freak her out. She pulled the towel away from her face but held it close in case she needed it again. "So was there anything else?"
"Well, actually, while we are here." Rachel hesitated before saying in a rush, "I'd like to know what you have said to Santana and Brittany about me."
Quinn played it cool, "Today? I may have mentioned your hideous fashion sense once or twice."
She hadn't, because she'd only just noticed what she was wearing. That cardigan with that sweater sort of made her eyes want to bleed. Quinn really had to take her shopping and sort that disaster out once and for all . . .
Wait, what? That was never happening.
"Why?" she asked, breathing in the towel again.
"Oh, no reason. Is that all, really?"
"What else would I say?"
Rachel looked at her feet. "Nothing, I guess."
It was getting awkward and because Quinn didn't do awkward she thought about telling her to beat it, but then she remembered the towel – the wonderful, sickness-stopping towel.
"I haven't said anything."
Rachel looked up fast. "Really? But what Santana said at lunch . . .?"
"She was just messing with you. I was as surprised as you that she went there, but seriously, if you continue to behave as you have been the last couple of days – waiting for me on the bleachers and coming to talk to me at lunch – she's going to figure out you have a crush on me."
"I do not have a crush!"
"If you say so."
Quinn nodded and was going to leave it at that. What did she care anyway, right? She should get going. It meant putting the towel in her bag because she couldn't exactly walk around with it in her hands like a comfort blanket. She took one more lungful of its scent first to see her through.
As she pulled it away from her nose she found herself saying, "You can be honest with me, you know."
And then she panicked, because what the hell? She didn't want to talk about this! It was insane to encourage her. Her meltdown was internal however; the only external show of it the way she was gripping the towel a little tighter and pulling it up to her face again.
"I find that hard to believe."
"For two minutes consider this a safe space. You can tell me whatever's on your mind and I promise no laughter, no mocking, no retribution."
'Stop talking! Stop talking and walk away before she says something that forces me to . . . to what? Beat her up? Run away screaming? Actually engage in an honest and mature discussion with her about . . . curiosity?'
Rachel eyed her warily and perhaps a little hopefully, and Quinn knew she had exactly the same expression on her own face, only she was lucky enough to have a towel covering most of it. Rachel's mouth opened once, twice with no words coming out and Quinn was holding her breath, waiting for the confession.
"I have nothing to tell you."
Quinn sighed, the moment was broken and she felt her intense irritation for all things Rachel Berry rise in her again, magic towel or no magic towel.
"Okay, fine, you don't have a crush. I was trying to be . . . sympathetic or whatever, but if that's truly the case then your pathetic behavior ends now. You don't wait for me after practice ever again. You don't come near the showers when I'm in there. And you don't talk to me at lunch, in fact you don't talk to me at all unless I give you permission, do you understand?"
"Yes." Rachel was looking at her feet again
"Good." She shoved the towel in her bag. "And if you break just one rule even a little bit, Santana will know what we both already know, and about three minutes after that so will the rest of the school."
She didn't know if she was bluffing about that or not, but she wasn't going to hang around and wait to be called on it. She was at the door when Rachel spoke again.
"So Quinn." She looked over her shoulder. Rachel was actually smiling; there was just no repressing that damn perkiness. "Does that mean you didn't mind me seeing you in the shower when you thought I did have a crush on you?"
Quinn honestly didn't know whether she wanted to flush Berry's head down the toilet for her audacity or congratulate her for the quick comeback. She bit her lip until she could stop her traitorous mouth from grinning.
"You just broke rule four." She took her cell phone from her bag. "Guess I'm going to have to give Santana some gossip after all."
Rachel took a step closer, finally looking panicked. "Please, don't."
"What's in it for me?"
"I'll . . . I'll wash your towel for you again tonight! You certainly seemed to appreciate it today, a little too much even, so I think that would be a suitable exchange for your cooperation."
Quinn really couldn't say no to that. "Fine. But I'm keeping this one so you'll have to take another out of the dirty laundry bin." Rachel's nose wrinkled but she nodded. "Now, you've used up your free pass today, don't talk to me again."
The parting shot wasn't quite as cutting as she'd have liked, but Quinn didn't dwell on it. She was going to get plenty more chances to screw with the girl.
The hard part was going to be trying not to look forward to it so much.
Glee club was being surprisingly uneventful. Rachel thought it was probably because she was sitting at the back quietly rather than doing her usual job of trying to jolly everyone else along. Honestly, nobody else put half as much effort in as she did and that was being made clear by the lackluster atmosphere in the room. Mr. Schuester was doing his best, of course, but he really wasn't as good at motivating them as she was.
She listened idly as he tried to rouse some spirit but if it wasn't working on her, the most dedicated member they had, then it certainly wasn't going to work on the rest of them. Of course, she had other, more pressing things on her mind right now and the very fact that it was distracting her from performing was worrying, but that's why she had to think about it so hard, so she could move beyond the distraction and concentrate on what was important once more.
Because . . . because she really did not have a crush on Quinn Fabray. Obviously Quinn was very attractive, that was something she had noticed long ago, and okay Rachel could admit that if she was sexually attracted to girls then Quinn would have been a prime target for her adolescent hormones to focus on, but she had always believed she was straight. She'd felt a deep affection for nearly every leading lady she'd seen in a musical – sometimes to the point of infatuation for months at a time – but that hadn't been physical attraction so much as a deep yearning to be the leading lady's best friend.
She didn't know how to explain that that was all she wanted now – with Quinn – when the girl in question seemed hell-bent on believing it was something more. Why was she so fixated on the idea of Rachel having a crush on her in the first place? Was her ego just that big that she assumed that everyone must be in love with her? Actually that didn't sound so far-fetched; it was Quinn Fabray after all.
She surreptitiously glanced at Quinn, sitting on the bottom row of seats with Santana and Brittany. They were her best friends; everyone knew that, doing everything as a trio since Middle School including climbing to the top of the Cheerios pyramid together. They were the three most popular girls in school. They were, with their respective boyfriends, the pinnacle of McKinley Royalty. They were untouchable, in every sense of the word, and none more so than Quinn and it was making her mouth water right now to even think about getting close to that, to her.
In a purely platonic, non-sexual way of course, she couldn't stress that enough.
"Okay, seeing as no one's jumping forward to make any suggestions," Mr. Schuester seemed to look pointedly at her which had the ice water effect of bringing her out of her head and back to the here and now. "I'll take it upon myself. Groups of three. You can pick the genre but the song has to be about teamwork and friendship. Guys, it's time we start acting like we belong together."
Rachel watched dolefully as Quinn started to talk about the assignment with the other two cheerleaders. Finn automatically moved over to sit by Puck, and Matt joined them. Mike looked at them for a second, lost, and then turned with a grin to point at Artie and Tina before plopping down onto the bench beside the girl. Kurt and Mercedes teamed up and Rachel ducked her head as she realized she had to go and join them. Neither of them liked her very much - well, she amended, obviously no one did, that's why she hadn't been picked at all.
She perked up a little knowing at least she was grouped with inarguably the two singers with the level of talent closest to her own. She made her way over to them but before she could seat herself, Mr. Schuester spoke again.
"Actually, you know what, that's too easy. I'll assign the groups. Finn, you're with Tina and Brittany. Puck, Artie and Mercedes, you're together."
"How'm I supposed to be friendly with those two geeks?" Puck complained.
And Mercedes snapped back, "Hey, watch who you're calling a geek, brush head."
Mr. Schuester ignored them as he ran a finger over who was left. "Uh, Kurt, Santana and Matt, you guys get together and that just leaves . . ."
Rachel was already looking at her feet and even from all the way across the room she heard Quinn sigh. Mike dropped lightly down in the seat next to her.
He held out his hand, "I'm Mike."
"I know, we've been in Glee together for a few weeks now."
"Oh, right," he looked confused for a moment. "But we've never been formally introduced, right?"
"I'm Rachel Berry."
"Oh, sure, I knew that."
Despite the fact that he didn't seem to know who she was, his smile was genuine and friendly enough that Rachel smiled bashfully back as she shook his hand.
"If you two want to get a room I can wait."
Rachel let go of Mike's hand quickly when she realized Quinn had taken the seat on the other side of her – although she didn't know why; showing interest in a boy could only help her at this point.
"So what song should we sing, and by we sing I mean you two, I'm more of a dancer."
"I've seen you," Rachel nodded, "You're very good. Have you been taking lessons long?"
"No, never. I just like to dance in my room."
"Seriously, that's amazing. You have so much talent. I imagine if you . . ." Rachel paused when Quinn cleared her throat. "Mike, I apologize for being a burden but would you mind asking Quinn if I'm allowed to speak to her?"
He'd been smiling at her compliments but now he looked confused again, his eyes passing from her to Quinn and back. "Uh."
"Thin ice, Berry."
Rachel smiled at Mike, "Could you ask her if that's a yes?"
Beside her Quinn sighed and when she spoke she didn't sound happy, "Yes."
Rachel turned happily to her. "Okay, what song should we sing? I'm thinking something like . . ." She was being glared at. "Did I do something wrong?"
"What do you think?"
Rachel hesitated, "I think I was keeping to the rules."
"What rules?" Mike asked.
Quinn spoke over him. "I meant what song were you thinking of."
"How about Queen's 'You're My Best Friend'?" Mike suggested.
While Rachel considered it, Quinn just glared at him, "How about we dial it down a notch?"
"Okay," Rachel said, "What about 'With A Little Help From My Friends by The Beatles? It's generic enough that it won't feel false but it's still a nice catchy song."
"That will do," Quinn agreed. When Mike just grinned amiably, she added, "Well, go tell Mr. Schuester before anyone else claims it."
As the boy bounced off of his chair to eagerly do Quinn's bidding, Rachel smiled. "I think he likes you."
"And I think he likes you."
Their eyes met and it was sort of uncomfortable but she didn't look away.
Neither did Quinn. "You should go for it."
"Maybe I will."
Another moment of silence passed between them.
"Fifth rule, you don't look at me unless I tell you you can."
"Still looking, Berry."
"Sorry. But so are you."
Mr. Schuester suddenly clapped his hands and Rachel jerked her eyes to the front guiltily. "Okay, we have four excellent song choices. I want you ready to perform them Friday."
"But that's in two days," Rachel protested.
"They don't have to be polished, guys, just heartfelt. Okay, see you tomorrow."
As most of the club left, Rachel grabbed Quinn and Mike's arms. "We only have forty-eight hours! We need to practice our performance."
Quinn pushed the hand off of her arm. "So we'll practice. Auditorium tomorrow, lunch time."
Rachel nodded, and as Mike and Quinn left together she nodded again. She could have sheet music and lyrics ready by then easily. That just left an entire choreography number to come up with in less than twenty-four hours.
It would be a relief to have something only almost impossible to focus on for a while.
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