Author's Note: The one good thing about self-quarantine is that it gives me all the free time in the world to work on writing this thing. Happy social distancing, everyone!
Chapter 21: Fight and Fury
Rachel marched past the flood of students exiting the school as she made her way toward the choir room for glee with a smile firmly in place across her cheeks. It had been a few days, but she was still reveling in the overall positivity she'd experienced over the weekend. Her fellow glee clubbers were still buzzing about how much fun Puck's party had been, and the relaxed, pleasant afternoon she'd spent with Quinn at The Annex was replaying in her mind on a loop.
It was a good mood not even the knocking shoulders of nearly every person in the crowded hallways heading in the opposite direction could damper.
She had almost reached the choir room when a heavy hand dropped onto her shoulder and she was faced with a modest-faced Finn. He pulled her off to the side of the hallway and hunched down a bit in an effort to be at eye level with her. A few lingering students milled about in the hall behind them. She raised her eyebrows curiously when he didn't speak right away.
"Is there something I can help you with, Finn?"
He grinned sheepishly. "I guess I just wanted to, like, thank you or whatever."
Her eyebrows shifted into a slightly scrunched position and she tilted her head in confusion, entirely unclear on what he was referring to. "Thank me for what?"
Finn gave her one of his signature half-smiles and lowered his voice conspiratorially. "You know, a few weeks ago, when I asked you to talk to Quinn for me. Put in a good word."
It took Rachel a moment, then her face lighted with recognition, and then her smile faltered. "Oh, that-"
"I know I never down falled with you about that."
"You… you mean followed up?" Rachel looked up at him in slight disbelief.
"Yeah, that. And I don't know what you said to Quinn," he plowed on, "but whatever it was, I think it's been working."
Rachel blinked. From what she recalled of that conversation she'd had with Quinn, it didn't seem like she was even a little bit interested in rekindling what she'd had with the mountainous boy before her. Like, at all. Unless something had changed between now and then, but Rachel hadn't seen any evidence that would indicate it.
"I, uh… what makes you say that?"
She let out a silent breath of relief when he leaned back out of her personal space.
Finn shrugged, self-satisfied. "I dunno. She's just seemed, you know, nice recently. She hasn't looked at me with her scary face in weeks. I feel like she might be ready to give me a second chance!"
Rachel gaped at the delighted, severely misguided boy in front of her. "Oh, Finn, I don't-"
"Finn, Rachel!" Mr. Schuester jogged up and steered them into the choir room. In a chipper voice, he asked rhetorically, "Ready to get started?"
As they crossed the room to the risers, Finn gave Rachel a dopey thumbs up before taking a seat in the front beside Artie. She averted her gaze, completely dumbstruck by their interaction, and situated herself in the back row between Kurt and Quinn, adjusting her skirt as she crossed her legs.
She glanced to her left as Mr. Schuester organized his things and noticed Quinn wincing and stretching her neck. Rachel's brow depressed in concern. In a slightly hushed tone, she asked, "Are you okay? Did Sue work you too hard at your morning Cheerios practice?"
Quinn waved her off with a small quirk of the lips that Rachel could only interpret as a smile of gratitude. "No, I must've just slept on it weird. I've been having these… weird dreams lately. No big deal."
Before Rachel could inquire further, Mr. Schuester's voice boomed from the front of the room, "New Directions! First of all, welcome to our newest member, Sam Evans! You all seem pretty friendly already."
Sam gave a shy wave from Kurt's other side, to the tune of various greetings.
Mr. Schuester moved on to the next order of business. "Secondly, congratulations! Fresh off a first place victory at Regionals!" He paused as the group gave themselves a thundering round of applause. "You guys were amazing, but now it's time to look forward." He pointed at the whiteboard, where he had written the word Nationals! "So! Who's got any ideas, right off the bat?" He spread his arms, opening the floor.
Everyone instinctively turned to Rachel.
For once, she was caught off guard at being the center of attention. She did her best to collect her thoughts quickly.
"Well, um, I for one think it goes without saying that we've had a great deal of success with our subverting of expectations." She remorsefully noted her peers' looks of anticipation, and she shocked even herself at having nothing substantial to end with. "Though, to be honest, I haven't actually thought any further than that as of yet."
The rest of the club murmured in surprise. They were more than used to following Rachel's lead at this point.
After a couple moments of quiet contemplation, Kurt's hand went up to her right. Mr. Schuester, who had appeared equally dumbfounded by Rachel's lack of ideas, heaved a sigh of relief and relinquished speaking rights to him.
"I agree with Rachel," he started, straightening in his chair. "Doing things differently is what we do best. I think we should double down on that concept."
Mr. Schuester bobbed his head inquisitively. "Anything specific in mind?"
Kurt ran a hand through his hair with just a touch of smugness. "As a matter of fact, yes. We thrive on the unexpected. And what is more unexpected," he paused for dramatic effect, "than a set made up entirely of same-gender duets?"
Rachel stiffened, suddenly overly aware of the same-gender person to her other side. Her mind instantly flashed with images of herself and Quinn on the stage together, just the two of them, singing their hearts out side-by-side. Singing with each other, to each other.
Some sounds of protest came from the boys in the front row, but Mr. Schuester leaned his head back and forth as he thought it over.
"Seriously, Mr. Schue?" Finn asked, disquieted.
Mr. Schuester looked like he wanted to side with Finn, but the need to be diplomatic as an educator won out. "Okay, we aren't necessarily committing to anything yet. There's no arguing that Rachel and Kurt have a point about our making waves being a solid strategy so far. Let's just… give this idea a shot and see what we come up with." He looked around at the club members. "Why don't you all pair up and we'll reconvene in a bit, okay?"
Without another word, Kurt turned in his seat to fully face Sam, who seemed flattered and excited about the project, if a little lost still trying to figure out what his place was in the group dynamic.
Rachel glanced briefly at Mercedes, who immediately jumped up and approached Santana, "R&B" bursting from both their lips at the same time.
She slowly turned to Quinn, not wanting to appear too eager.
Quinn was already looking at her with a twinkle in her eye and a tiny scrunch in her nose, which Rachel couldn't help but find endearing.
It took them approximately two seconds of eye contact to silently agree to partner up. Rachel opened her mouth to start the negotiations, but Quinn beat her to it.
"Okay, before you start, I know your usual genres, and I'm fine with doing Broadway if it comes down to it, but," she gave Rachel a halting tip of the head, "if we want to really subvert expectations, as you said, I'd like to put forth the suggestion of something along the indie or alternative spectrum."
Rachel closed her mouth again. She shouldn't have been as impressed as she was with Quinn's ability to present her case so concisely and still be convincing.
With a simple nod and suppressed grin, they got to work on discussing song options.
When the group came back together to discuss their progress, three pairs proved superior.
Brittany and Tina had attempted to team up, but for the life of them couldn't agree on something that worked for both of them.
Mike and Matt had locked eyes nervously and then simultaneously removed themselves from the bid, neither one feeling comfortable enough with their vocals to be so fully in the spotlight.
Puck and Finn naturally teamed up and went their usual classic rock route. When they suggested a song by Journey, Mr. Schuester looked like he might faint from joy, but the rest of the club shot them down before he could approve it.
And poor Artie, with everyone else paired up or voluntarily out of the running, just looked around dejectedly.
Mercedes and Santana were spot on from the get-go; their voices were more than perfectly suited for a 90's R&B number, though they hadn't yet decided between Say My Name by Destiny's Child and Doo Wop by Lauryn Hill.
Kurt had to talk Sam out of doing a Justin Beiber song, but agreed that pop was most definitely in both of their wheel houses. Eventually they settled on Fireflies by Owl City.
When Rachel announced that she and Quinn had settled on I'll Be Back Someday by Tegan and Sara, both Kurt and Santana nearly choked, drawing attention from all of their classmates. Rachel watched them recompose themselves, bewildered by the reaction. Having overheard the other groups discuss their own high energy options, she and Quinn had agreed that their chosen song would blend easily into the set.
Quinn had originally suggested something by Fleet Foxes, but she'd soon conceded that the pacing of most of their songs were probably not suited to the showmanship required of the performance they'd have to put on in order to stand a chance in competition.
Mr. Schuester said he looked forward to hearing it.
They all hopped up to work on some preliminary choreography. Brittany, Mike, Matt, and Mr. Schue walked them through some basic steps that could be applied to whichever number they deemed fit later.
The group jostled each other playfully as they half-heartedly tried to move in sync. Rachel and Quinn, from their place toward the back of the group, shot each other the same look when Finn stumbled horribly over his feet in the front. Rachel challenged herself not to look over at her anymore for fear of bursting out in inappropriate laughter. Quinn had a knack for meeting her eye at the exact second an embarrassing snort was primed to be expelled through Rachel's otherwise composed demeanor.
Quinn had no such reservations, bounding across Rachel's path in a small, lighthearted mimic of Finn's sad excuse for dance moves. The moment she met Quinn's gaze, her will power bottomed out and the giggles poured from her mouth. She rested her forehead on Quinn's shoulder until her episode subsided. She consciously took note of how natural the impulse to laugh it out with Quinn had felt.
After Finn's fourth time almost knocking another member of the club to the floor, Mr. Schuester decided to call it a day and swiftly exited the choir room ahead of the students.
Rachel and the rest of the New Directions gathered their things and wandered out into the hall with a more leisurely stride. They meandered together in a group, none of them in a hurry to be anywhere.
Rachel hung out to one side with Kurt and Mercedes, and they all quietly celebrated landing songs to perform at Nationals.
Kurt sighed contentedly. "If I had a glass right now, I would raise it, ladies. Not only has this underdog team actually made it to show choir Nationals, but the three of us - probably the most dramatic and spotlight hungry trio McKinley High has ever seen - are all going to be featured leads when we go."
"Here here!" Rachel and Mercedes both lifted invisible cups and laughed along with him.
"Not only that," Mercedes added on, "but all three of our former loser asses have popular jocks for partners. Never thought I would see the day."
As if on cue, Sam fell into step with them and shot Mercedes a particularly charming grin.
Rachel watched Kurt's eyes flash at the pair and nudged him softly. He looked back at her with a resigned, closed-mouth smile then hooked his arm through hers. He mumbled out of earshot of the rest, "I know he's straight, Rachel. Don't worry about me getting my hopes up."
She put her hand on his arm and gave it a light squeeze. "He'd be lucky to have you if he weren't."
Kurt rolled his eyes, but she could feel the gratitude in the gesture nonetheless. "Fret not, Ms. Berry. I actually got a chance to talk with Sam after you left Puck's party. Turns out he's from just a couple towns over and has a friend from his old garage band he wants to introduce me to."
Rachel's eyes widened in excitement for her friend. She mentally crossed her fingers for it to work out for him.
Just ahead of them, their friends' conversation turned back to fond reminiscing about Puck's party as well, and they rejoined the larger group. While she and Kurt had been having their sidebar, it seemed Sam had launched into full flirt mode with Mercedes, who was clearly enjoying giving him a hard time.
Mercedes made a joke about the fact that he had shared a kiss with Quinn at the party, making it clear that she was well aware that it hadn't meant anything to either party.
"Yeah, well," he said with feigned bravado, "what can I say? I'm a real lady killer."
Mercedes shook her head, entertained by the show he was putting on. He was obviously harmless. Quinn, who was a couple steps behind Rachel, laughed along with the rest of the group.
Hearing her voice, and encouraged by Mercedes' reaction, Sam went on, eyes alight. "See, look at Quinn, I'm a pleaser."
Rachel did glance at Quinn fondly, and her smile grew when she saw Quinn's eyes dance in the way they always did when she was about to deliver a sassy comment.
Before she had a chance to say anything, a pair of hands grabbed Sam by the hood of his sweatshirt and pulled him violently from the center of the small crowd. The club watched with mouths agape as Finn threw the new guy roughly against the lockers on the other side of the hall.
Sam, struggling to refill his lungs with air after the impact had knocked it out of him, held his hands up defensively. "What the hell, man?"
Finn towered over him furiously. "What did you say about Quinn?"
Rachel unconsciously took half a step forward, subtly putting herself between Quinn and her fuming ex.
Sam looked up at Finn with fear in his eyes. "Wha- I- nothing! I was joking around!"
Finn's face only grew redder. "Joking about using her? Like a piece of meat?" He grabbed Sam again, this time shoving him to the floor with a hefty grunt.
"Stop it you guys!"
Finn was deaf to the pleas of his friends.
Rachel gasped and jumped backward when Finn lunged down on top of Sam and threw a brutal punch to the boy's face. Immediately, the hallway was filled with screams and ruckus. Behind her, she felt Quinn grip her shoulder.
Puck rushed forward to try to pull Finn off of Sam, who was making his own attempt to fight him off. Finn's rage only worsened, and he landed a hard elbow in Puck's gut. When Puck was unsuccessful in de-escalating the situation on his own, Matt and Mike joined the effort.
The group was a jumble of flailing limbs, frightened cries, and various blows landing on vulnerable body parts. Rachel howled at her friends to cut it out to no avail. Fists continued to fly, met with huffs, grunts, and spots of blood.
After the tussling had gone on for a few moments, Principal Figgins appeared at the end of the hallway, livid.
The brawl came to an abrupt halt, and everyone turned to peer at their principal with varying expressions of guilt and relief.
Figgins marched up to the group, pointed at all of the boys involved in the fight, and told them harshly to get to his office. When they were out of sight, those remaining in the hall heaved a collective breath of reprieve.
The calm after the storm was broken when they overheard Figgins shout at the boys from down the corridor, "You are all suspended from any and all extracurricular activities! For the remainder of the year! I do not tolerate violence in my school!"
Artie was the first to shake himself from his stupor. "Um, did he just say they were banned from extracurriculars?"
Santana nodded slowly, still looking shaken. "Which means they can't do glee the rest of the year."
Tina slumped against the wall. "But, that means we…" she trailed off, not wanting to finish her thought.
Rachel chimed in, sorrowful, and finished it for her. "We… can't go to Nationals." Her voice broke as the realization hit her fully in the chest.
Her heart splintered further when Quinn finally released her hold on Rachel's shoulder with a strangled sob and took off at a run in the opposite direction Principal Figgins had taken the guys.
"I can't believe this is happening," Kurt murmured.
Rachel just stared after Quinn, tears pricking at the corner of her eyes. She could only imagine the different feelings that must be overwhelming Quinn right now, confused and humiliated that Finn would act so violently possessive over her, especially when they broke up so long ago, being the tip of the iceberg.
She started to call after her, but a loud sniffle prompted her to turn to Kurt, who had begun to cry as well. She pulled him into a strong hug right away. She clutched him tighter when a fuming Santana started yelling in Spanish.
Mercedes looked about ready to commit murder. "I cannot believe Finn would go and throw away our Nationals chances over something so damn stupid! I would beat his white ass into the ground if it wouldn't get me kicked out of glee along with the rest of them."
Brittany gave Kurt and Rachel a forlorn look before taking both Mercedes and Santana by the hand and leading them out. "Come on, let's go work this off at the batting cage."
Tina and Artie followed suit.
Kurt swiped at the moisture on his cheeks with one hand and continued to hold onto Rachel with the other. His chest shook as he did his best to calm his emotions. His voice was hoarse when he uttered, "I'm so angry I don't even know what to say."
Rachel pulled back from their embrace just enough to be able to meet his eye. Her own voice barely under control, she replied, "You're devastated. Understandably. We were so close to performing on the biggest stage of our careers so far." She blinked rapidly in attempt to clear her vision of the tears that continued to blur it. Her voice cracked again. "We were all really excited. We would have been amazing." Their shared dream, crushed until further notice.
They stood there, crying into each other's arms, for several minutes.
When at last their weeping subsided, Kurt pulled a pack of tissues out of his bag so they could both rid themselves of the snot that had begun to mingle with the tears on their faces.
Kurt's cheeks puffed out as he blew out a long exhale. "You wanna come to my place for dinner? Carol is making veggie chilli."
Rachel gave a watery laugh. "Thanks for the offer, but I'm afraid of what I might do if I were to be in the same room with Finn." She scowled to ensure he knew she was serious.
Kurt pressed his lips together and took her hand. "I can more than understand that." He kissed her knuckles, then waved gently and left.
Rachel turned, intending to go find Quinn, only to find Puck a bit down the hall, hands shamefully in his pockets. He looked like a beaten puppy. A bruise on his left cheekbone was already starting to show.
He approached her slowly, knowing that although her fists were tiny, they could do some damage if Rachel was upset.
He spoke softly, regret evident in his stature. "I'm really sorry, Rach. I know Nationals meant a lot to you. If I could fix this for you, I would."
Rachel regarded him with defeat. She knew it wasn't his fault when all was said and done. Her voice returned to its even tonality when she accepted his statement of remorse. "Thank you Noah. I know you were just trying to help when you got involved. I do wish you all could find a way to deal with your problems in a non-violent manner, though."
Puck ran a hand over his mohawk to the back of his neck. "Yeah, well, what do you expect from a bunch of meathead jocks?"
Rachel allowed herself an amused shake of the head.
Puck leaned closer to her, eyes hopeful. "So, I know us football guys are banned from doing glee for the rest of the year, and we all can't compete, which sucks balls and is totally unfair," he paused for a moment to gather himself, "but I was thinking, if you wanted, the two of us could still get together and sing sometime."
Rachel considered his proposition easily. "I'd like that." He beamed at her response, but it fell a bit when she continued. "You're a good friend, Noah."
He bowed his head. "Just a friend, huh?"
She peered at him warmly and rested a hand on his forearm. "You're one of my favorite people in the world, Noah Puckerman, and I love you." He lifted his eyes to meet her gaze, only to find an apology written all over her face. "But yes, just as a friend."
He backed away with a sad smile and nod of acceptance. Bumping her lightly on the shoulder, he hummed, "See you tomorrow, friend," and walked off.
Rachel watched after him until he was gone, then she set off in search of the friend she thought, just maybe, could be more.