Chapter 5: Red Dye No. 5
Rachel wiped her face off with a paper towel and cringed at having to use such a rough material on her sensitive skin. She was glad that the bathroom was empty.
The cold from the slushy had subsided enough for the shivering to stop, but the ice still melting and dripping down her back left her whole torso aching.
She patted a tear from her cheek and hated herself for letting it get to her. If she was honest, which she always tried to be, she was only aware that she had started crying because the tears were hot where the drink covering her face was cold.
Her heart had been cracked open the day before, and she supposed the split hadn't quite re-sealed yet. Yesterday had been the day she had gotten her first slushy. She knew she shouldn't have been as surprised as she was. It was practically a miracle that she had lasted as long as she had without having frozen food coloring dumped over her head. Being in the glee club combined with her tendency to speak too much or out of turn should have put a big target on her back. She wasn't complaining, of course; her reason simply told her that the odds of her being among the first to be slushied that year were very high.
So because of that pre-existing logic and her grudging acceptance of her place on the school's food chain, it wasn't the act of being slushied itself that had caused the pain in Rachel's heart. It wasn't the knowledge that half of the student body had looked on and done nothing. It wasn't even that nearly all of them had had a good laugh at her expense. No, if she was to become a successful Broadway star, then public humiliation was probably something she would need to be able to handle. It wasn't any of that. It was the person on the other end of the cup.
Quinn Fabray had never thrown a slushy at anyone before. Rachel had seen her – always on the sidelines, never taking part in the action. She'd been intrigued with the blonde; someone in Quinn's position at the school would usually be the one leading the army of jocks and cheerleaders in tossing artificially flavored ice on the weakest links of McKinley.
But not Quinn. She actually seemed to go out of her way to avoid being the one to slushy her fellow classmates. She never made any attempts to stop anyone else, but that was understandable. The point was, Quinn had never been behind any of the slushying.
That was why it hurt so much.
The thought that there must have been something about Rachel specifically that made Quinn hate her so much she would give up on her refusal to take part in the harassment-esque activities that her friends so enjoyed; the knowledge that there was something about herself that made Quinn Fabray, pacifist among the group of cheerleaders and their football player counterparts, feel strongly enough to single her out in a most harsh manner; the notion that, yes, it was personal - if it weren't, the blonde would have been handing out slushy facials like free samples at the grocery store from the beginning - there wouldn't have been that foreign look in her eye when she overturned the plastic cup onto Rachel's hair and face, where there was usually quiet sympathy and steely defeat.
It felt like a black hole in Rachel's chest. A miniscule part of her had let itself begin to hope that she might be able to talk to Quinn, convince her to take a stand within the Cheerios. Of course, Rachel knew how ridiculous that idea was, and did her best to smother it before it could take root, but as it always goes, the moment she tried to shoo it away, it latched on for dear life and refused to let go.
She let herself even grown fond of the idea of befriending Quinn. It really was a lovely fantasy. Then, it did also include Barbra Streisand and school bathrooms with stalls that actually locked and didn't smell, but a girl can dream…
Regardless, Rachel managed to dab most of the cherry slushy out of her shirt and praised the universe for letting her choose to wear a red sweater instead of the yellow shirt she almost wore. She looked herself over one last time in the lightly smudged mirror before she exited the girls' bathroom and narrowly avoided a head-on collision with Noah Puckerman.
He smirked at the sound of her startled gasp and allowed it to fade into a real smile; even when her hair was somewhat sticky and plastered to her head, Rachel Berry always managed to look presentable and put-together. Her façade crumbled a bit when she sniffled due to the fact that her nose was still running from the cold, but he was proud of her anyway.
"Hey Rach. I saw what happened. You okay?" He bowed his head to look her in the eye. "I would've stopped them, but I couldn't get there in time." His concern was evident, and Rachel knew how rare it was for him to willingly show any form of outward emotion; she couldn't stop herself from jumping at him and throwing her arms around him before he could move to stop her. She was pleasantly surprised when he brought his arms up to engulf her shoulders. She didn't know why, but his empathy caused the crack in her heart to splinter. She tried not to choke on her own sobs.
"Thank you, Noah." Her voice was muffled, as she was essentially speaking into his chest, but she knew he heard her when his body quaked slightly around her in a soft chuckle.
"For what, Shorty?" He released her from the hug and stepped back just enough to be able to look at her face again, but kept his hand on her shoulder where it rubbed in soothing circles.
She sniffed noisily and swiped at her nose. She rolled her eyes lightheartedly at the nickname, but made no comment on it. "For being my best friend. I love you, you know." Sincerity radiated off of her, and Puck let the words sit for a moment before he replied.
"Same here, babe. Besties for life, right?" Rachel gave a tiny snort before breaking out into true laughter. He would have been offended, but he knew she was laughing only at his choice of words, not the sentiment. "Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. The Puckasaurus has one heartfelt moment and you think it's funny. I see how it is."
She nudged him in the gut but kept laughing. He fake sighed and fell against the wall to lean next to where she was standing.
"Rachel, there you are!"
The two turned to look down the hall to see Mercedes marching toward them with Kurt, Artie, and Tina in tow. "Hey girl. We saw those jerks slushy you again." She put a comforting hand on Rachel's arm. "But we've all started bringing extra clothes in, just to be safe, and I can see your sweater still has a nice big stain on it, so we've got a couple different shirts for you to choose from." They each held up a shirt, showing them off. She looked around the semi-circle of people she considered close friends. Artie and Tina looked at her with mild concern, while Kurt started making faces in an attempt to make her smile again.
Rachel laughed again and snagged the shirt Tina held up. It was a purple t-shirt that had a picture of a chocolate chip cookie and a carton of milk and said, "Together Forever."
She didn't think she could ever express how grateful she was to be friends with these people. "Thanks for looking out for me guys. I really appreciate it." They all shared one of those aw, honey looks and smiled at her through their partially melted hearts.
Once the moment passed, Artie jokingly waved her off. "Psh, you know we only brought this stuff in because we were afraid of getting slushied ourselves." They all giggled again and slipped into their usual chatter and easy banter while Rachel stepped back into the bathroom to change her shirt.
By the time Rachel got home, her mood was significantly lighter than it had been at the start of her day.
Throughout the eight hours she spent in school, her friends had put an incredible amount of energy into making sure she was properly cheered up. She suspected Puck had something to do with it. He was the best friend she ever could have wound up with.
In glee club, Finn had told her that her hair smelled good. He proceeded to smile in that goofish way of his, and Rachel couldn't help but think that, while the reason for her hair smelling like cherry flavoring stung like that god awful anti-bacterial ointment parents always put on cuts when you get hurt as a kid, it was sort of nice for him to notice and compliment her on it. Rachel wasn't used to anyone noticing things about her, her dads, and maybe Puck, aside. She'd once gotten her hair cut seven inches shorter and no one even realized until a week later. Yes, it certainly was a welcome change having a boy who wasn't her parent or one-and-only-best-friend notice things about her.
She entered her house through the front door, kicking her shoes off onto the mat that lay just inside, and called out to her dads, "Hey! I'm home!" She dropped her bag by the stairs and resolved to get her homework done after dinner.
As she plopped herself down onto the couch and flicked on the television, the sounds of her fathers cooking accompanying their voices drifted toward her as they replied. "Hey baby! Good day at school? Dinner won't be ready for a little while. Your dad here managed to turn my beautiful lasagna into a giant charcoal brick, so I have to start all over from scratch."
"Hey, it's not my fault. You're the one who was distracting me when I was supposed to be watching the oven…"
Rachel stifled a giggle and pretended to gag loudly. "Gross, I'm still here you know." She heard her parents chuckle before the sound of a pan clattering to the floor reached her ears.
"Okay, that's it. You are officially kicked out of my kitchen. Get out of here." Her daddy's facetious voice had her smirking and rolling her eyes. She tried not to notice the playful smacking sound that ensued before her dad practically jumped around the corner with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
Hiram flopped onto the sofa next to his daughter, clearly having forgotten the giant flour handprint that adorned his backside. "So. School was good today?" he asked as he brought his feet up to rest on the coffee table.
Rachel's gaze dropped to her hands, which busily picked at the hem of her skirt. "Yeah. It was fine." Her voice wasn't nearly as convincing as she'd hoped it would be.
Her dad turned to really look at her. "That's not the shirt you were wearing this morning, is it? No, I remember you were wearing that adorable red sweater we got you for your birthday." Rachel looked anywhere but at him. "Rachel. Honey, look at me." She breathed in deeply through her nose before she met her dad's eyes again. "This is the second day in a row you've come home wearing something different from what you left the house in. What's going on, do you not like the clothes you have?"
"No! No, Dad, I love my clothes. That's not it at all."
"Okay. So what is it, then?" Hiram did his best to be patient with his daughter.
"It's nothing. It's just… some of the kids at my school have taken up this strange habit of throwing slushies at people they don't like. It isn't a big deal; it's practically an initiation, albeit a strange and barbaric one."
Rachel could have sworn her dad's eyes flashed red. "What?! You're saying the reason you've been coming home with hair that smells like cherry cough syrup is because some punk-ass kids have been dumping their drinks on you? That's - that's harassment! That's assault! They… I… I'm calling the school."
Rachel's eyes widened. "No! Dad, you can't do that."
"Baby, you can't expect me to just sit back and let those kids get away with something like that."
"Dad, please. If you go and make a scene about it, they'll only make it worse. Please, I can fight my own battles."
"Please, Dad, just let me deal with this my own way. I'm fine. I promise."
Her eyes pleaded with him, and eventually he conceded. He sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Alright. Fine. But I don't like it."
She leaned over and hugged him tightly around the middle. "Thanks for understanding."
He draped his arm over her shoulder, most likely in a subconscious attempt to protect her from the evils he knew awaited her. He placed a light kiss on the top of her head. "I just hate thinking that anyone might be hurting you, that's all." Rachel's thought immediately flew to one Quinn Fabray, and she hated that she was falling victim to the classic popular girl vs. unpopular girl contention. But the unpopular girl usually ended up with the happy ending in the movies, right?
They sat in silence for several moments before Leroy's bald head poked around the corner. "Alright, fam. We don't have enough noodles to make a new lasagna. Who's up for take out?"
The family of three argued for a few minutes before deciding on Thai food. They each picked out an item or two from the menu and Hiram called their order in from the phone in the hallway.
Rachel opted to stay at home while the Berry men went to pick up their dinner. She thought she might try to get some homework done after all.
As her fathers left the house, she caught a quick glimpse of them linking hands, and it warmed her heart. The love her dads had for each other flowed off them in waves.
Rachel hoped she'd find a love like theirs someday. She hoped she'd be able to find a person with whom she could share anything; someone who she could laugh with and cry to and fight with and still happily fall asleep next to every night.
She knew that there were people out there who probably already hated her without knowing her because of the fact that her parents, who loved her and each other more than she thought could be possible, were who they were. She saw the disapproving, and sometimes even disgusted looks people sent in her family's direction when her dads held hands or kissed in public. She couldn't care less about their judgments, though. In fact, she felt sorry for them for being so ignorant. Once, when she was little, she had asked her fathers why a man on the other side of the street looked so angry with them. They had both squatted down next to her and explained that the man just didn't understand. They told her that he was probably told by other people that certain types of love were wrong, and that someday they hoped she might see a world in which love was celebrated, and in which people passed judgment based solely on character, and not the parts of a person that were out of anyone's control.
She listened. She lived every day hoping that she and everyone else would love themselves for themselves and love others for all they were. Rachel hoped that one day she would find a person who would look at her the way her dads looked at each other.
She blinked, snapping herself out of her thoughts. She had homework to do.