Chapter 17: Center Stage
Rachel's leg bounced furiously as she sat perched at the very edge of her seat in the green room. Despite having experienced pre-show jitters before, and knowing that they were perfectly normal, and understanding that feeling them in no way meant that she lacked confidence in herself and her abilities, she couldn't help but roll her eyes at herself for letting the anticipation-induced adrenaline get to her.
Her teammates milled about, each displaying their own subtle ticks of nervousness:
Tina, who had admitted to faking her stutter long ago, seemed to genuinely trip over every word that came out of her mouth as she babbled about nothing to anyone who so much as glanced in her direction.
Kurt kept running over to the mirrors, checking his hair, combing his fingers through it, nodding in satisfaction, turning away, and repeating the process every thirty seconds or so.
Artie rolled his wheelchair in endless, nervous circles around one of the couches.
Santana, whose temper seemed on an even shorter fuse than usual, switched intermittently between shouting at her teammates in Spanish for everything that wasn't exactly to her liking and fuming in the corner with Brittany attempting to calm her down.
Even Mr. Schuester, who gave the group a whole speech about remaining calm and remembering how many times they had rehearsed and you guys have nothing to worry about, you're going to do great was pacing incessantly off to one side of the room and muttering to himself.
When, at last, the lights above them flickered to indicate that it was their turn to take the stage, Mr. Schuester gathered the rag-tag group of teenagers for their usual show circle for one last jolt of hype.
"Alright guys, I know I made a big speech before we got on the bus to get here, so I'll keep this one short." Several of his students let out sighs of relief. "Yeah, yeah, you're welcome. Anyway, you guys are amazing, and I'm so proud of all the hard work you've put into this set. Now get out there and rock it! Hands in."
Each member of the New Directions put a hand in the middle of the circle, and after a count to three, threw them over their heads with a cheer.
Rachel approached the edge of the stage in the wings alone. A short debate among the glee club had yielded the agreement that she would begin their opening number herself, and the rest of the group would join her onstage starting at the second chorus.
Over the speakers, the announcer's booming voice reverberated throughout the auditorium. "And now, ladies and gentlemen, from William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio… The New Directions!"
Rachel grasped the smooth velvet of the curtain in a tight fist as she forced herself to take a deep breath. She exhaled long and slow, then released her grip on the curtain and walked, head high, to the center of the still-dark stage where a microphone stand awaited her.
A soft spotlight lowered on her as she sang the opening lines to Chasing Pavements. She started softly, emulating Adele to the best of her abilities before her voice swelled into the chorus, and as the spotlight brightened into a blaze, Rachel couldn't help but contemplate the lyrics that poured from her lips in terms of her own life.
Rachel always knew that her dreams of stardom were bigger than most people considered realistic. She was talented, there was no denying that, but every so often, she wondered if her self-assurance might be undeserved.
Was she chasing a fantasy? A delusion?
Sure, she was impressive for Lima. But what passed for stardom in a little place like Lima, Ohio was hardly a rubric as to whether or not she would be successful in a cultural hub brimming with other ultra-talented people holding onto big dreams such as New York City.
She burst into the second chorus with gusto. The other members of the New Directions breezed in from either side and shuffled efficiently into formation behind her.
Deep in her gut, Rachel knew she had the talent to get her at least part of the way there. The question that really plagued her was whether or not she could maintain the drive, the tenacity to persevere when the world inevitably tried to tear her down.
The time would come one day for her to fully embrace her star power and eventual celebrity. But when it did, would she have the support of people who loved her?
When she achieved her career goals and fulfilled her professional dreams, would she have anyone in her personal life to celebrate with? Would there be anyone waiting for her when she came home after a show?
Would she find someone to love, and be loved by, to the same degree she loved music and performing?
Would her ambition continue to drive people away?
Was she doomed to spend her life alone?
Behind her, the other New Directions stepped and swayed in an ebb and flow motion.
Rachel had been raised to be self-sufficient, to stand on her own two feet. Part of her was ashamed for feeling the doubts that were creeping up inside of her. But she couldn't deny that she craved affection and intimacy.
Clearly her pursuit of Finn had been misguided. That had been out of a desire for the kind of romance she was so enamored with on screens and stage, in which the plucky dreamer was courted by the stud-type in a feat of overcoming differences of class or social standing. In reality, she was a plucky dreamer, and he was what counted as a stud-type at McKinley, but rather than being obstacles that were to be overcome with the promise of true love, the differences that separated them were simply evidence of incompatibility.
She just wanted to feel what she had always been told young love would feel like.
Yet, somehow, Rachel knew that she was happier with the way things were now than she could remember being in a long time.
As the song ended, she turned her back to the audience for a moment and faced the group of people that she considered her closest friends. And they were. She had formed real, significant friendships with each of them. Some were closer than others, of course, but there wasn't a single member of her team that she wouldn't unquestioningly go to bat for.
After a moment in which the crowd's applause rose and then settled, Rachel rejoined the group, delayed for half a moment by a quick side hug from Puck, whose face glowed with pride on her behalf.
Quinn brushed past them toward the front of the stage, a hot, almost angry, intensity burning in her eyes. Rachel felt an instantaneous urge to take her hand and squeeze it for reassurance, but the scant time between their group's songs would not allow for it.
Rachel let herself watch Quinn step to the forefront and take one deep breath, before she stepped into formation with the team.
A few seconds later, Quinn's mouth opened, and the Fleetwood Mac lyrics fell from her lips with more feeling than Rachel had heard from any member of the glee club other than herself.
Rachel moved her body in synchronization with the rest of the group to the number's choreography. Every time she looked out to the audience, she could see, in the few faces that were visible beyond the blinding stage lights, how impressed and moved they were by Quinn's performance.
And Rachel was right there with them.
Her chest swelled with respect and fondness as Quinn embodied the persona of Stevie Nicks before her. Her voice was rich, melodic, sonorous… sexy.
Rachel's eyebrows shot up at herself when she realized she'd thought that last word. After a few hard blinks, keeping to the tempo of course, she shook her head at herself. Clearly acknowledging that Quinn and her voice were attractive was a mere statement of objective fact. Obviously.
The trailing of Quinn's last note was lost to a surge of applause. Rachel was tempted to join in.
In the transition to their next song, Rachel siezed the opportunity to reach out for the hand squeeze she had missed earlier. She flashed Quinn a beaming smile before they separated to take their places for their Whitney Houston number, the feeling of Quinn's hand in her own lingering on her skin.
Her eyes followed Quinn as they all swung through the steps they'd practiced so many times. The stage lights were hot, but it wasn't until then that Rachel began to feel really warm. Even her palms were beginning to feel a bit sweaty.
Though Mike and Brittany were the clear frontrunners when it came to the dancers of the New Directions, Quinn certainly held her own. She moved naturally to the music, graceful and sensuous.
Rachel's own body was moving on autopilot while her eyes were glued to Quinn. Even as she became aware of the fact that she was doing it, she couldn't stop herself from staring at Quinn. Her teammate. Her friend. It must have been some kind of vivid admiration. Something like that.
During the final chorus, the choreography called for half of the group to spin out in front of the other half, placing Rachel directly beside Quinn. When the time came, Rachel spun zealously, a mighty gravitational pull drawing her close to Quinn, perhaps closer than she had intended.
As they danced across each other's paths, their fronts grazed together. Simultaneously, their eyes blew wide and they sucked in heaving gasps. Quinn's gaze flashed with something unfamiliar, and Rachel felt herself almost falter. Which was unheard of, thank you very much, she was a professional.
There was no doubt about it now, her palms were definitely slick with an inexplicable nervous sweat.
A few notes and dance steps later, Mercedes finished the song with an incredible, jaw-dropping lilt.
The audience applauded thunderously and rose to its feat.
Rachel and Quinn wound up next to each other again as the New Directions got in a line to take a bow. They all joined hands, and for a second Rachel worried about the moisture on her palms, but when she searched Quinn's face and their eyes locked, she was met with nothing but tenderness. Quinn raised their joined hands over their heads, their fingers interlocked, and Rachel mentally noted with off-handed interest how perfectly they fit together.
They bent at the waist in a sweeping bow, beaming smiles shared by each member of their team, then exited the stage with, fittingly enough, glee.
In the hallway back that led out from the wings of the stage, Rachel felt compelled to stop Quinn so that they could have a moment to celebrate together.
Before she could reach out and grab her wrist, a body appeared in front of her, cutting her off entirely. Before she knew what was happening, Puck had wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground in a twirling hug.
"That was unreal!" he exclaimed as he set her back on her feet. "You…" he put his hands on her shoulders and gazed into her eyes. "You were amazing. You are amazing."
Rachel let out a soft chuckle of appreciation at his uncharacteristic verbal expression of praise. "That's very sweet of you to say, Noah."
"I mean every word." Rachel felt his hands, still placed gently on the crest between her shoulders and the base of her neck, tremble slightly as he continued to watch her. The other glee club members shuffled past, seeming not to notice the two of them stopped in the middle of the corridor.
Rachel's brow creased. "Are you alright? You're looking a little pale all of a sudden."
He cleared his throat, "What? Yeah, no, I'm totally good." He puffed out his chest. "I just, uh, have something I've been wanting to tell you."
"Oh." Rachel regarded him thoughtfully, an knot forming in her stomach for a reason she couldn't identify. "Well, you can tell me anything, Noah, you know that. I'm your best friend, after all."
"Well, um, that's kind of the thing, Rach." He took a deep breath, evidently steeling himself for something. "I like you. Like, not as my best friend. I mean, you're totally still my best friend, and I love being your best friend, but I like you as like, more than that."
In what seemed almost like an effort to stop himself from talking, Puck swooped down and planted a chaste but commanding kiss on Rachel's lips.
When he pulled away, he shoved his hands in his pockets, dropped his eyes to his shoes, and said, "Just, you know, thought you should know."
Rachel was frozen as he took his leave, struggling to comprehend what had just occurred. "Shock" didn't begin to encapsulate what she was experiencing.
She and Puck had known each other forever. They'd been friends what felt like their whole lives at this point. Always friends. Each other's confidants. They even served as one another's security blankets every now and then.
The thought of changing that, of becoming something else to Puck, and he to her, had never been a possibility that Rachel had considered. Their relationship had always, always been platonic. Even when they hit puberty, and Puck adopted his own version of machismo, he had always been like a brother to her.
Had she been blind to this side of his feelings all along? What kind of friend was she not to notice that he'd been hiding these intentions? More importantly, what would this mean for them going forward?
Rachel's head spun as she struggled to make sense of everything that had just happened.
When, after several moments, she turned to catch up to the group, her gaze was met with a disappointed looking Quinn, whose jaw was clenched so tight Rachel feared her teeth might just crack and shatter inside her mouth.
Rachel opened her mouth, but couldn't find any words to call out as Quinn turned and walked slowly away.