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these strange steps

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Celine Dion has performed on the stage she's looking at right now.

Somehow, Rachel always thought this moment would mean more to her, but the stage in the Colosseum isn't that much bigger or brighter than any other stage she's been on, and honestly, when she'd told Kurt that she wanted the summer off, she didn't mean I just want to go to a different city and do the same thing I've been breaking my back doing for the past three years.

She's more or less a household name now.

She's also pretty sure that if Time ever ran an expose on the 100 loneliest people in America, she'd be at the very top.

The only highlight of her career, which on paper is everything she's ever wanted, is that somehow she's surrounded herself with people that she knows and loves, albeit not in the way that she wishes she could. Puck has gone everywhere with her, starting out as just a roadie on some of her solo tours after the Les Mis revival she headlined shortly after graduating from NYU, and Kurt became her manager not long after that, when he finally felt like he had enough experience to deal with someone with actual star potential.

When she's busy doing bit parts in LA, she crashes with Brittany and Santana, and when she's in New York, she hangs out with Tina and Mike and discovers hidden and mysterious Chinese take-aways with illegible menus. Back in Lima, Sam and Mercedes are happy with their first kid underway, and Finn will always be there, holding on to his glory moment of winning conference and wondering how it is that none of the girls in his life stuck around for the end.

Glee club had started out tenuously enough, with nearly everyone in it obviously hating her, but by the time they'd graduated, they'd all been friends. At least, she thought they had been, and they now are the only people who remember the Rachel Berry who occasionally had moments of weakness, and occasionally gave up a solo in exchange for a hug.

There's only one person they've all lost touch with, and when Rachel starts wondering about what ever happened to Quinn Fabray, she knows she's had way too much to drink.

Puck wraps an arm around her waist and says, "Rach, you're killing yourself. You don't need to do three dress rehearsals. You're going to kick ass either way, you know that. You could sing a bum note and nobody would even notice. They're here for the image, babe. They're not here for you giving them everything you've got."

She knows he's right, but he should know by now that the only way she knows how to do her job is by putting everything in. It's the only way that she can stop thinking about the things that are missing from her life, and the delicious irony that Kurt Hummel, possibly the gayest man on Earth, has to keep reminding her that it would be prospect-destroying for her to come out at this point in her career.

She's about to break into Hollywood, he keeps saying. And the money in Hollywood is conservative. You're not seeing anyone anyway, Rachel, so while I appreciate that it matters to you to be true to yourself, you can be true to yourself when you've made enough money to retire.

The worst part is that he's probably right.

"I'm so... how did I get here?" she whispers into Puck's neck, and he lifts her out of her seat and hugs her tightly.

"I don't know, babe," he says, pressing a kiss to her head and tucking her under his arm. "We'll figure something out."

...

The next day, she feels moderately better emotionally, and so much worse physically; she throws up once, and then a second time after attempting some Pilates on the floor by her bed.

They rented the house, because it's a three month gig at Caesar's, and she spends enough of her time in hotels as it is. Sometimes, she thinks about getting a dog or something, just to keep her company, but pets aren't suitable for her way of life. She can't even remember the last time she spent eight hours a day at home, let alone with the energy to take a Golden Retriever jogging through Central Park.

She also can't remember the last time she's set foot in Central Park, but that's a different story.

There are two messages from set managers on her phone, and she forwards them to Kurt without listening, because honestly: she's just there to sing. Everyone else can take care of the issues surrounding that, because the only thing she herself has left to offer these days is her voice.

...

She worries the show will fall flat. She's seen Celine's Las Vegas show live and on DVD, several times, and so much of what works about it is related to Celine's relentless energy and audience interaction, and the latter is the part of her job that Rachel likes the least.

"I don't even know why they asked me," she tells Kurt, picking aimlessly at the watercress and radicchio salad she's having for lunch. "I'm not exactly known for being a crowd darling."

"You're known for being kind of a bitch, you're right," Kurt says, batting at his lips with a napkin. "This is a chance for you to undo some of that damage you did when you refused to sign that fourteen year old girl's playbill two years ago."

The moment still haunts her. The thing the media had reported on was that she'd snubbed a small girl, who had been her 'biggest fan' ever—like that's measurable somehow—without so much as batting an eye. The thing the media had not reported on was that she'd been running a 102 degree fever and her understudy had sprained her ankle and she'd barely been able to keep standing throughout the performance, let alone muster up the energy to make some fourteen year old's dreams come true.

"I don't care about my reputation," she tells Kurt, because she doesn't. She's had it for so long now that honestly, if she could do it all again, all she'd do is add an, "I'm sorry, I'm really not feeling well" to her previous dismissal.

The public, especially in New York, thinks they own her.

The absolute best thing about Vegas so far has been the fact that with just a pair of sunglasses, she's a complete nobody, surrounded by hundreds of other famous people looking to get away.

...

On opening night, her dads call and tell her to break a leg.

She remembers clearly when they used to come to all of her performances, but the travel is too extensive these days and they both have jobs. She understands; it's not that she doesn't.

Just, sometimes, it would be really nice to have someone in particular to sing to. It would tip her performance from being what it is now into what all her performances used to be: tortured love songs to Finn Hudson that melted the hearts of everyone who watched them take Nationals in 2011 and 2012.

The most painful thing of all is the realization that the only time she's ever thought she was in love, it was with a guy.

She spends all of her time singing and acting out emotions that she has basically never fully felt for herself, except in those fleeting moments when Quinn Fabray used to let her guard down.

Not that she'd known it at the time. Hell, she hardly knows it now, except that the only half-relationship she's ever been in was with a dancer from the Les Mis troupe who had blonde hair, graceful legs (if there even is such a thing) and the ability to keep things strictly professional.

They were all traits that remind her, now that she's working on being a little more honest with herself, of a girl that she never had the chance to get to know in high school.

Maybe she got out, Rachel sometimes thinks, going through old McKinley yearbooks and seeing Quinn's face on every single page, beaming with contempt, the way she'd smiled in every picture that she'd known was going to be taken of her.

Somewhere, in a box full of things that she knows she shouldn't let herself look at, Rachel has a picture of Quinn and Santana, captured by Brittany at some moment during the run-up to senior year Nationals, when they'd been goofing off in their hotel rooms and Quinn had, just for two precious seconds, forgotten that she hated absolutely everything in this world.

But: maybe Quinn got out. And just maybe, she found something out that she didn't hate, out there.

Rachel's never known how to not be hopeful about these kinds of things.

...

Her melancholia is particularly noxious after the third show, somehow, and Puck and Kurt exchange worried looks while she's taking off her make-up—Swan Lake inspired, for reasons she's never bothered asking the choreographer, because they could dress her up like a sad clown hooker and it would still just be part of the job.

"You need a night off," Puck finally says, but to Kurt, not to her.

"We all have one on Tuesday," Kurt says, without even glancing at the schedule. "Though I would advise you to not suggest anything particularly stupid. I mean, this is Las Vegas. She has a certain image to uphold."

"Yeah, people think she's some child-hating bitch. Please, what can we possibly do to shred her rep even more?" Puck says, with a loud scoff.

"I'm right here, guys," she reminds them, quietly, and watches as they both lower their eyes with something akin to guilt. "And while I agree that I do need a night off, I also agree that I'm not particularly in the mood to be in the public eye."

"Yeah, well, I'm not giving up my first free night in Vegas to fucking play board games with you in that empty-ass mansion you're calling home, Rach," Puck says.

She looks at herself in the mirror and absolutely hates what she sees, which is the only reason she says, "Come up with a plan that assures us relative anonymity, and I'll come out with you."

"I can do that," Puck says, exchanging a small and rather effeminate low-five with Kurt that they think she can't see.

It just about makes her smile, a little.

...

Here's the thing that nobody knows about Rachel Berry, Tony winner and two-time guest star Emmy nominee:

She's seriously, cripplingly agoraphobic.

… okay, so some people know. Puck knows, Kurt knows, Tina and Mike and Brittany and Santana sort of know, and her dads know, but everyone else just assumes that she stays inside most of the time because it's a pain in the ass to go places when you're so recognizable.

It is a pain in the ass. It's also something that basically locks her heart in her throat these days, and makes her entire body shake until it just stops working for her and all she can do is lie down on the ground and close her eyes, willing the crowds of people around her to go away.

Her therapist is convinced there's a clear trigger to when this started, and it's linked somehow to a really unfortunate karaoke experience in her sophomore year of college when some of her classmates decided it would be fun to toss her into a crowd of drunken onlookers and it took her almost five minutes to stop screaming.

All she knows is that she didn't have it when they took Nationals in 2012, but even now, the only way she can do Vegas comfortably is from behind a car door and with two Xanax in her system. A great combination with the amount of alcohol she's already working on consuming.

Really, her entire world is a fog right now. It's exactly how she likes it.

"We're going someplace small and discreet," Puck says next to her, driving them out of the hotel parking garage and heading onto the Strip.

Some part of Rachel thinks she could grow to like Vegas, because it's nowhere near as claustrophobic as New York and, after some heavy testing of her condition, it's become clear to her that she's afraid of crowds, not of open spaces. Vegas is nothing but open space; exit the city proper, and there is nothing but sand around them.

She briefly thinks that an ideal vacation could be spent in the desert, in a hut or something, learning how to crochet.

She laughs, and Puck looks at her in surprise.

"Sorry. I'm just a little—" she says, and she doesn't need to say more, because Puck knows how she self-medicates.

"Hey, if you feel a panic attack come on—just tell me, okay?" he says, reaching over and squeezing her knee.

She tilts her head against the window and closes her eyes, not opening them again until he lets on that they've arrived at their destination.

...

"What the fuck," she hisses at Puck when the bouncer waves them through.

"Okay, here we go. Look, Rach, I'm all for you getting pissed at me for bringing you here, but come on. You're twenty five. You're hot. And you live like you're some fucking eighty year old woman who's one foot in the grave, and let's be honest, only some of that is because of your condition," Puck says, reaching for her coat.

She shakes her head, disbelieving, and stares at him.

"I want you to be happy. Okay? Now, I know you probably don't think that a strip club is going to make you happy, but we'll get really drunk and watch some hot chicks straddle poles and I don't know. Maybe you'll forget about—whatever it is you need to forget about right now, okay?"

He means well.

The only reason she doesn't immediately turn on her heels is because she knows he means well.

"You brought me to a strip club," she just flatly says, instead.

He shrugs, a small smile playing around his lips. "Kurt may think you need to like, stay in the fucking closet forever, but what Kurt doesn't know won't kill him."

She sort of laughs and sighs at the same time and then says, "Okay, but I have no idea what the protocol for these places is, so I'm relying on you to make sure I don't embarrass myself."

"'course."

Maybe it's not the worst idea after all, she thinks, before looking at him and tentatively asking, "You brought a stack of dollar bills, right? Because if I'm going to be in a strip club, I want to do it right."

"Please—I got this," Puck says, grinning and wrapping an arm around her lower back before ushering her into the club.

...

Not that she has much of a concept of what a high class strip club looks like, but it's not a dive, thank God.

She looks around questioningly, trying not to flush at the sight of a good dozen or so topless girls, and then blinks at Puck. "This—how did you find this place?"

Puck picks a toothpick from a tray by the bar and says, "Brittany. Her dance partner used to work here or something. She said it'd be cool; they're into like, privacy and safety and shit."

"Safety?" Rachel asks, raising her eyebrows. "As in what, the strippers here don't carry guns?"

"No, more like, they get tested for shit," Puck says, before leaning over towards the bartender with a wink and ordering himself a Jack and coke and Rachel a vodka tonic.

"Um. Perhaps I'm missing the point of stripping, but I was under the impression it's a hands-off activity," Rachel says, feeling a bit of a blush run on her cheeks.

"Sure. Unless the stripper is hoping to make an extra buck." Puck leans back against the bar and nods towards the stage. "Thing about this job is that the girls are in charge. Security is air tight in places like this; any dude who tries to grab without permission, they've got panic buttons and bouncers all over the fucking place."

"Right," Rachel says, staring at the stage. The lights are as bright as they are on Broadway, and she knows from experience that it's basically impossible to see anything in the audience.

It makes her feel strangely better; like the dancers get to keep some of their dignity.

"So, the menu's like this; the dancers in the room are a free for all," Puck says, around the tooth pick. "You can look, and you can tip, but you can't grab. Okay?"

Rachel makes a small noise and then picks up and drinks half of her drink; she's going to need it if she's going to actually participate in Noah Puckerman's idea of a relaxing evening.

"Then, on top of that, there's other girls who don't dance on stage."

"Why?"

"They're better," Puck says, with a small smile. "This place is high-end, obviously, but even then there's rankings. You see that brunette on stage? Bad boob job, almost thirty. She's not the same kind of bet as whatever it is they've got out back."

"How do you know?"

Puck ignores her question, and instead points towards the back of the room. "You place your order there. You can take something on the stage, something random, or ask for something in particular."

"Like..." Rachel says. Her drink's almost gone, and the haziness in her mind is comfortable, dulling her surroundings just enough for her to relax.

"Like—say you wanted to act out some fantasies about a certain... blonde cheerleader that—"

"Don't," she tells him, shortly.

He smiles faintly, but lets it go. "Well, whatever. If you're in the mood for something in particular, or a particular outfit—you let them know, and they'll accommodate, if they can."

Rachel chews on her lip for a moment. "How many of these places have you been to in your life?"

His expression darkens briefly, and then he sighs. "It's not easy being a single mom in Lima."

Shit, Rachel thinks, and the apology is already on her lips when he continues with, "They're people, Rachel. Okay? So—we're here because maybe all you need is a little bit of consequence-free attention. No muss, no fuss; not for you, and not for whatever girl is going to be riding your lap later."

She takes a deep breath and says, "I'm not sure I can handle this, Noah."

He smiles at her crookedly. "C'mon, baby. You're Rachel Berry. You can handle anything."

...

Six drinks later, she's forgotten about that thing where she doesn't want to talk about blonde cheerleaders to anyone, ever, let alone the guy who knocked Quinn up and put the first dent in her golden future.

Puck winks as he slides another dollar into their waitress' g-string, and Rachel smiles when she notices—not for the first time—that he does it in what looks like the least sexual way possible. His hand doesn't even touch skin, for God's sake.

Noah Puckerman: resident good guy. She never would've thought he'd be one of her best friends, but honestly, without him...

A flash of blonde hair in the background distracts her from the thought, and for one second she thinks that—

But it's obviously just wishful thinking.

Still. Isn't that what this night is supposed to be about?

She's feeling wishful now. There is a lot of wishing and hoping, and long list of things that are never going to happen for her.

Seven years of the occasional one night stand, usually with guys whose names she doesn't even know, just because the alternative of seeking out someone who looks like her is too humiliating. Seven years of wishing she could've done something different, back then.

Maybe it's time. Maybe, she's feeling just about wishful enough to put her drink down and say, "I—yeah. I'm going to do it. I'm—"

"Go get 'em, tiger," Puck says, with an encouraging smile, and then whispers something at the waitress, who beckons gently with her head.

Rachel follows without tripping, which is pretty much already an accomplishment, but then has to somehow vocalize some sort of request.

"What's your type, beautiful?" the waitress asks, in a way that sounds more soothing than sexual, and Rachel exhales shakily and says, "Blonde. About five foot six. … small breasts, great ass."

The waitress blinks at her a few times and then says, "You know, you're not the first person who's had a really specific type, by some distance... but you're the first one that I'm actually going to promise that we have exactly what you're looking for."

Rachel swallows hard and watches as the waitress disappears behind a curtain; she almost changes her mind in the minute or so that it takes for the girl to come back and say, "C'mon. We'll get you settled, and your dream girl will be with you in a minute or so."

I doubt it, Rachel thinks, but she's had enough to drink for thinking hard about what she's doing to not really an option anymore.

...

She wanders around in the little room she's left in, which is somehow tastefully done up in creams and reds, rather than the black she always figured that back rooms at strips clubs were.

Not that she's spent a lot of time thinking about that.

She's drunk, but not drunk enough to not be a little bit nervous and gun-shy. Her hands fly to the buttons on her coat but then drop again, because—maybe she needs to wait for the certainty of instruction. Is it okay to take her coat off? Will she keep it on? Does it even matter?

The door opens behind her, just when she thinks that she's going to bail—again, and some part of her bitterly reminds her that the Rachel Berry she used to be wasn't a quitter—and she sort of freezes on the spot.

"Okay," a quiet and sure voice says, behind her. "There are a few ground rules that we need to go over."

This isn't real, Rachel thinks. Xanax and the alcohol—I'm hallucinating.

But it's undeniable. It's the voice. Even though she hasn't heard it sneer at her in years, and the last time she did hear it, it definitely wasn't saying, "You keep your hands on the sides of the chair at all times" or anything even remotely like that, Rachel knows Quinn Fabray's voice like the back of her hand.

"Oh, my God," she says, sitting down on the chair just because it's there, and that brings her lap dancer of choice—the girl of her dreams, her hazy brain reminds her—in full sight.

At the sound of her voice, Quinn turns around from where she's doing something to the stereo on the table by the door, and their eyes lock.

Rachel can't breathe. She tries, but all she can do is sit and watch as Quinn's eyes widen, just for a second.

Then, Quinn straightens abruptly, and that impeccable mask slides back over her expression.

Rachel was the one who was going to make money acting, but Quinn was the one who actually played all the roles. It's how it's always been between them, and somehow, even with Quinn in six inch heels and a loosely-fitted charcoal gray suit—with a matching fedora, and God, if that isn't a throwback to Glee club Rachel doesn't honestly know what would be—that hasn't changed one bit in the last seven years.

"My second rule is that you keep your mouth shut," she says, after a moment, with a bit more bite than before. It's the only sign that any of this is getting to her. "Think you can manage that, Rachel? Or has absolutely nothing about you changed?"

Rachel looks down at the floor and presses a hand to her lips, wondering how she can make herself wake up. Wondering if, if she closes her eyes tightly enough, she can conjure up a time machine, or something, so that she can go back in time and slap Puck for his idiotic suggestion and slap Brittany for giving Puck this address, of all the places she could've gone in Vegas.

"Take off your coat," Quinn says, a little more calmly.

It's not a question, and it's definitely not going to happen.

Rachel wills her legs to move and she shakily gets up on them, jittering like Bambi on ice, but unable to look away from Quinn's… everything.

The words spill out, a drunken and garbled mess. "I can't do this. I'm sorry, this is … well, no, I'm sure it's worse for you than it is for me, but it's pretty bad for both of us, but either way, I assure you that nobody will ever know about this, because there isn't really any earthly way for me to explain how I ended up almost getting a lap dance from Quinn Fabray anyway so—"

Quinn exhales slowly through her nose and leans back against the table, crossing one leg slowly in front of the other and then crossing her arms. It's so reminiscent of who they were years ago that Rachel almost cowers instinctively, and then just lowers her eyes again.

"The door's open," Quinn finally says. "Your money's right here, next to me."

Rachel's legs move her towards the table automatically, but when she reaches for the bills her hand freezes above them. It's that stupid impulse she's always had: to show Quinn kindness, when Quinn wants none.

"Keep it," she says, softly.

Quinn is at her side in a flash, harshly hissing into her ear. "I don't need your charity, Rachel. I didn't dance for you, so you need take your fucking money and go."

Rachel's fingers close around the bills, squeezing hard, but then she glances to her right, at Quinn's face—almost blank, but there's barely suppressed anger there—and says, "No."

"No?" Quinn repeats, incredulous.

"No. I'm—oh, God, I'm drunk, and I'm fairly sure I'm sixteen seconds away from either waking up or realizing I'm dead and this is what the afterlife is like, but the Quinn Fabray I knew in high school would not be a stripper unless she desperately needed the money. So—no. I'm not taking the money, and you don't have to dance for me."

Quinn's lips twist violently, and then she reaches for Rachel's hand, closing it around the money. "You don't know the first thing about me anymore, Rachel. So take your cash, and take your brilliant, successful life, and get the hell out of mine."

Rachel sways dangerously and squeezes her eyes shut, because God, this hurts. Seeing that this is what became of Quinn just hurts. "You could've been so much more than this. I always hoped—"

"I swear to God, I am going to hit you if you don't stop talking, and then I'll lose this job and—" Quinn says, before exhaling sharply, taking two measured steps backwards and balling her fists. "Why the fuck are you even here, Rachel? Surely the great Rachel Berry can get laid any time she wants to and doesn't need to resort to paying for what she wants?"

Somewhere, Puck is laughing at her; who but her would manage to screw up a lap dance so completely? It's a lap dance.

Maybe this is humiliating for Quinn, and maybe that's why she's lashing out, but the reality of their situation is that Quinn has done more degrading things to her than whatever this is. All those pictures, the jokes about how she should get sterilized, the endless reminders that she'd never be good enough for Finn Hudson…

Her hand relaxes, and the bills flutter back onto the table.

"If dancing is the only way you'll take the money—then you'll dance for me," she says, as evenly as she can. "But we abide by your rules. You don't ask me why I'm here, and I don't ask you why you're here. Nobody talks."

Quinn almost smiles at her when she says, "Who knew that we'd finally find something to agree on?"

It's about the least erotic experience of Rachel's life so far—fifty percent nausea and fifty percent horror sums it up—but when she sits back down on the edge of the chair and Quinn takes two quick strides to end up directly in front of her, her breath catches in her throat anyway.

"Last chance," Quinn says, in barely more than a whisper.

God, it's just a dance, Rachel thinks. I make my living doing musical theater. People have mounted me for professional reasons for years, so this is hardly going to be a novel experience.

She shakes her head as a sign that she's not backing down, watching as Quinn's entire body goes from bone-rigid to limber at the snap of a finger, and Quinn's hands slide up her body, from her hips up past her breasts, towards the skinny tie around her neck.

...

Despite messing with the stereo, Quinn doesn't use music.

Rachel watches without wanting to, and wonders why not—if Quinn just never does, or if maybe the no music rule is for those rare occasions when you're giving an old classmate a lap dance.

Maybe it says so in the stripper handbook.

God, stripper. Quinn Fabray is a stripper. It sounds unbelievable, and yet Quinn is right in front of her, staring at her and slowly twisting the tie she's wrapped around her hands, before looping it around Rachel's neck and sliding onto her lap.

It takes every bit of restraint that Rachel has to not panic and to not start babbling like crazy. Babbling is what Rachel Berry, old or new, does in situations where she has no idea what else she can do. Some part of her is dying to compliment Quinn on her style, because she has to be the classiest stripper that Rachel has ever even thought of seeing, and the rest of her just tries to desperately think about things other than the fact that Quinn's thankfully still-clad hips are rocking into her own.

Quinn, true to her word, doesn't say anything; but the no touching rule doesn't apply to her, and when she nudges Rachel's chin up with a pointed finger and arches her eyebrow, the challenge is clear.

You're paying for me to do this, so you're damn well going to watch me do this.

Rachel exhales shakily, even as Quinn's other hand falls away from the tie around Rachel's neck as well, and then reaches for the collar on her suit jacket.

The silence in the room is making the entire experience almost claustrophobic. It's adding to the embarrassment she's feeling, because Rachel knows she's breathing heavily enough for it to be audible. Meanwhile, Quinn's just—untouchable.

She laughs shakily when she thinks it, and Quinn's eyes flash for just a second before she shucks out of her jacket and it crumples to the floor at Rachel's feet.

Nothing about this is too strange so far, Rachel thinks, dimly. The rocking motion, maybe; the way that Quinn's left hand is holding on to her for balance, but other than that, it's not so different from the Push It dance she did with Finn in high school.

Of course, then Quinn starts slowly unbuttoning her crisp, white cotton shirt, and it pretty soon becomes clear she's not wearing a bra underneath it. Rachel's eyes shift down, and then up again, and then down, and then up again. Her hands clutch the sides of the seat, and even though she hasn't moved an inch since this started, they're now almost brushing against Quinn's thighs.

When her gaze flickers back up to Quinn's face, there's a small smile playing around Quinn's lips.

Just for a second, though, and then Quinn gets back up, her shirt loosely hanging around her, and oh, this is a visual that Rachel's never going to forget: Quinn's hips slowly twisting back and forth in a circle, even as her hands slip down to the button on her slacks and pop it, quickly and loudly.

The rule is no talking. Rachel is fairly sure she hasn't violated it with the strangled little noise she just made, but Quinn hesitates for a beat anyway.

She's a professional, though. It's clear from every aspect of what Quinn is doing: the rules, the carefully measured space between the parts of her that aren't on offer and the parts that are; and the way that when she starts slowly working her pants off her hips, she follows them with her hands. All the way down to the floor. All the way.

Rachel's stomach twists uncomfortably at the sight of her bending down, and God, the knowing little smile Quinn gives her as she slowly straightens again makes it worse. Or better. She can't even really tell anymore.

She curses herself for being as drunk as she is, because she has no idea how much of this she's going to remember, and if Quinn's tightly-coiled anger is anything to go by, they're not going to have coffee and laugh about it like old friends afterwards.

They were never really friends.

And they're definitely not friends now, because Quinn's just wearing an unbuttoned shirt and a black thong, and this time, when she slowly approaches Rachel again, straddling her on the chair without lowering her ass all the way, forcing Rachel's face between her breasts, Rachel's composure trips and falls completely.

She moans, because it's all she can do that wouldn't be breaking all the rules; her nails are already digging into the chair hard enough for it to hurt.

The sound that trips from her lips is loud enough for Quinn to sit down fully, lean back and look at her with an inscrutable expression.

"Sorry," Rachel whispers.

Quinn just stares at the wall behind her head, until she sighs. "Are you done now?"

"With—"

"Rubbing it in?" Quinn asks, in a steely tone of voice that really doesn't fit the moment, because Quinn is still sitting on her lap.

"I'm—this isn't—I didn't know," Rachel says, stupidly, even as Quinn pulls the ends of her shirt back together and starts closing it.

She gets up off Rachel a second later, and when she gets dressed, all Rachel can think of is dressing rooms at Nationals, with Brittany helping Santana with her make-up and Quinn carefully curling her own eyelashes.

Quinn's gestures are so reminiscent of those that existed in her old life that Rachel knows she's going to cry if she doesn't get out of there right now. Now.

She grabs her coat, and feels around the pocket for all the cash she has left, and deposits all of it on the table before running out and blindingly looking for the rental car, leaning heavily on the hood when she finds it and squeezing her eyes shut, gasping for breath.

Puck finds her like that a few minutes later. He puts a steadying hand on her lower back, and says, "Shit. Was it the closeness? Do you need a pill?"

She shakes her head and sucks air back into her lungs, but it's a moot point, because she's going to throw up and Puck's ready for it, already reaching for her hair and pulling it back.

It wouldn't be the first time that an innocuous experience has randomly set her off. And it's definitely not the first time that Quinn Fabray has made her cry.

...

She sleeps restlessly, that night.

It's on and off tossing and turning, until she finally gives up and digs around a box full of old Lima crap that travels everywhere with her for reasons she refuses to think about.

Until, there it is; the picture of Quinn that's always at the back of her mind.

God, what happened to you, she thinks, and knows that she'll never be able to let this go—to associate this girl, with her free, uninhibited laugh, with the stoically angry woman that straddled her earlier. They're about as much the same person as Rachel Berry, Gold Star of the New Directions, is the same person as Rachel Berry, seeking out strippers because that's all the human connection she can handle these days.

She only manages to nod off when she decides that this isn't where this ends, between them. Maybe Quinn has rules about not talking to each other during the show, but Rachel's always been good at finding those little exceptions to the rules that make the difference in how things end up.