Emma knew where the boundary lay as far as friendships with students was concerned. She was friendly and warm, yet professional and prudent in her interactions with the children that attended McKinley High. Through her years as a guidance counselor, it had been her privilege to guide a multitude of students through their academic careers, aid them with their development as students and individuals, and help them become fully functional members of society.
Despite this, Emma found herself occasionally forming true friendships with students. There had been a very few of them: Abby Campbell, who left McKinley high to attend Harvard with Emma’s full support and guidance; Natalie Hilson, who moved to California with her family at the end of her junior year; and then Rachel Berry, the precocious lead of Will’s glee club.
Their friendship formed easily, through regular meetings to discuss Rachel’s future, (“And of course, I’ll look to you to help me choose the best school to help attain my goals of future stardom, Ms. Pillsbury!”), class work ( “I think I’m doing really well in Mr. Schue’s Spanish class, Ms. Pillsbury, and wow, didn’t you notice how dashing he looked in his sweater vest today?” ) and her Broadway dreams ( “When I make it big, I’m going to make sure you get a front row ticket to my opening night on Broadway!” ).
After months of regular meetings, their discussions took a more personal tone as Rachel opened up about her tumultuous relationship with Finn Hudson and, more tellingly, her home life. Emma’s heart ached for her, because the poor girl’s parents were never home, and she had been something of a latchkey kid from an early age. Emma’s parents weren’t absentee parents, but they were certainly far from perfect, so she understood. She listened, and then she shared her own stories with Rachel, in discussions of her life and upbringing that became so personal and intimate that they were moved from the sanctity of her office to the warmth of the squishy chairs in the back of a local café after school hours.
So yes, Emma knew where the boundaries lay, but sometimes in the name of friendship and connecting with another person, she allowed herself to creep over them so she could assuage her loneliness.
It wasn’t like she had many friends of her own outside of work. And so, when Rachel started coming by her office less frequently, Emma couldn’t help but be disappointed when the loneliness settled over her once more.
In early September, Emma tidied the papers on her desk into a neat, perfectly aligned pile before smiling up at the father and daughter who appeared in the doorway to her office.
“Come on in,” she said brightly. She stood, and extended her hand for the tall man and his teenage daughter to shake. “You must be Al and Sugar Motta.”
“So nice to meet you, Mss Pillsbury,” Al said with a toothy grin. He settled down in her office chair with his daughter perched on the armrest, arm slung casually around her father’s shoulders.
“What can I do for you?” Emma inquired.
“Well, as I understand it, my Sugar applied for the AP program here at McKinley, but was instead placed in the general stream for a number of her courses.” Al said, leveling a purposeful glare at Emma.
“I see,” Emma said, looking him in the eye, refusing to be intimidated. ”Well, I’m sure you understand, Mr. Motta, that Sugar was in the general stream at her previous school, and while her grades were average, they aren’t close to the threshold at which we consider moving students up to the AP stream.”
Sugar frowned and then said, “well, I don’t think that grades are a good indicator of how smart a person is,” She flipped her hair and then turned to her father. “I know I’m brilliant, and you do too, right, Daddy?”
“You know it, Sugar,” Al said, patting his daughter on the knee before turning back to Emma. “And it is my responsibility to make sure that Sugar gets the best education that she can.”
“That’s right!” Sugar declared. “I think that the teachers at the old school just didn’t get me, because clearly they weren’t as smart as me and just didn’t appreciate my brilliance. I mean, really, they were just a bunch of dummies with college diplomas.” She paused, and smiled sweetly at Emma for first time. “That was probably rude, wasn’t it? I have Asperger’s – self-diagnosed – so I can say whatever I want, you know? You probably work with all sorts of people who are extra-special like me here, right? So you should be used to it.”
“Oh!” Emma exclaimed in surprise. “Yes, right. Well that is part of my job, but –”Emma paused and looked from father to daughter. “Sugar,” Emma continued, gesturing. “Can I ask you to wait outside for a moment while I have a discussion with your dad?”
“It’s okay, honey,” Al said, patting Sugar’s hand. “I’ll get this all straightened out for you.”
Sugar walked to the door, and shot Emma a baleful glance before she exited, closing the door behind her.
“Mr. Motta,” Emma started. “As I am sure you are aware, there are no records of Asperger’s in Sugar’s file.”
Al nodded and for the first time since the meeting began, his tough-guy façade broke as a self-depreciating grin appeared on his face. “She just likes to say that. I think it’s just a silly teenaged phase that I’m sure she’ll get over soon.”
“Okay,” Emma said gently. “Well. While that is good to know, you may want to caution your daughter that attempting to use a such a disorder for her own benefit like that not only affects how other people see her, but it devalues experience of those who really have Asperger’s Syndrome.”
Al simply waved his hand. “She’ll get over it, just like she got over her Princess phase.”
“Okay, well then,” Emma said, momentarily directing her attention to her computer to make some notes. “Let’s talk about her classes. I don’t think she’ll be able to move into the AP classes this term, but if she works hard enough, perhaps we can meet again at the beginning of the next term to look at her options. What do you think about that?”
Al nodded. “I’ll hold you to that, Ms. Pillsbury. I want nothing but the best education for my Sugar.”
“As do we here at McKinley,” Emma said, smiling sweetly.
Emma jumped as the door to her office flew open and bounced back on its hinges.
“I told you I should be in AP classes!”
Emma squared her shoulders, and smiled as sweetly as possible at the irate teenager on the other side of her desk.
“Sugar,” Emma began gently. “Your father and I agreed that we would re-evaluate your courses at the end of this term. Until then I am afraid that you will need to stick with your current schedule.”
“But,” Sugar said, stamping her foot. “This teacher doesn’t even know what she’s talking about! She keeps trying to get us to read some play by a dead guy who didn’t even write in real English!”
Emma suppressed the urge to giggle even as the corners of her mouth turned helplessly up in a smile. “Well, I know that some students find it difficult to get used to the language that Shakespeare used -”
“Yes, because it isn’t real words!”
“- but I’d be happy to help you find a tutor if you need extra help.”
“Geniuses don’t need tutors!” Sugar yelled. Emma watched as she rose from her chair to storm from the office.
“Asperger’s!” Sugar yelled before she turned into the hallway.
“Alright then,” Emma said, turning to her computer to update Sugar’s file.
“And then, and then, he said that I can’t sing!” Sugar’s nostrils flared with rage as she shouted the last words. “Can you believe that? That wanna-be Broadway star hack of a teacher told me that I can’t sing. I have a voice of an angel, just like Adele. My dad told me so.”
Sugar settled back into her chair and folded her arms across her chest, her narrowed eyes boring holes into Emma as Emma struggled to find a response.
“I’m sure that Mr. Schuester had a very good reason for his decision,” Emma said in a measured tone.
“I just wanted to belong, you know? They seem to have a lot of fun together, and like they are all friends. I want to be a part of that,” Sugar pouted, looking down at her hands, before looking up at Emma with a sly grin. “Plus that guy Puck is a real hottie, you know?”
“Well,” Emma said warily, “he certainly is a strapping young man.”
“Strapping?” Sugar declared, flapping her arms in the air as she gestured wildly. “I’d like to strap something on with him, you know? He’s like, totally hot. He did some push-ups in front of me in the cafeteria the other day when they did that crazy 80s performance before the epic food fight, and I just wanted to bite into his muscles, or flip him over and -”
“Woah, stop right there, Sugar,” Emma said, waving her hands in front of her face like a white flag. “That’s ah - a bit more information than I think is appropriate.
“Oh,” Sugar said, sitting back in her chair, seemingly contrite. “Sorry. I just don’t know how you can work here with day after day with all these hot guys around you and not, you know, look-“
“I don’t -”Emma closed her eyes and shook her head before continuing. “Tell you what, Sugar. Why don’t you let me talk to Mr. Schuester and I’ll see if we can figure something out, okay? “
“Would you really?” Sugar leaned forward in her chair, hopeful.
Emma nodded. “Uh-huh,” she said. “Will, I mean, Mr. Schuester and I, have a special rapport, so it isn’t a bother.”
Sugar’s eyebrows drew together and she regarded Emma with her finger pressed to her lips for several seconds. “Oh I get it. You’re having sex with him, aren’t you? I can totally ask you that, because of, you know, the Asperger’s.”
“What? No! I never- I wouldn’t- Sugar, my personal life is my business and it would be unprofessional of me to discuss that with a student. Even if he and I were doing. That.”
“It’s okay. I get it, you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. We can talk about something else. Like me.” A smile crept across Sugar’s face. “Hey, you want to hear me sing? Then you can tell him just how amazing you think I am!”
“Sure,” Emma said, glad for a change of topic. “Why not.”
Sugar rose from her chair, standing tall with her hands clasped in front of her. “I don’t have Tinkles to back me up, so I’m going to have to wing it.”
“I’m sure you’ll be lovely,” Emma said, leaning forward on her elbows.
“Okay, here goes,” Sugar declared.
“The sun will come out taaaaaaaaaaah-morrooooooooooooooooooooh!” Sugar sang, raising her hands into the air as her discordant tones filled the room, drawing glares from the students passing by the office.
Emma bit her lip, and prayed for it to end quickly.
“She sang for you? Seriously? What did you think?”
“Well, she could use a bit of work,” Emma stated, aiming for some tact. She knew she had failed when the corners of her mouth quirked upward in a smile she was unable to keep off her face.
Will finished a mouthful of the stir-fry that they’d prepared together for dinner before replying. “That’s an understatement. She’s terrible. I don’t think I’ve heard a worse singer in my life, and I’ve heard Mike Chang sing.”
Emma laughed and swatted at Will’s arm. “Don’t be mean, Will,” she said gently. “I think that this girl just wants to fit in, is all. She seems lonely.”
“Emma,” Will said, leaning forward to take her hand in his. “If I let every lonely kid in - well, then I guess I’d have a full complement of kids in the choir, which would actually be pretty good,” Will nodded thoughtfully. “But that’s beside the point. This is our year, I can feel it! And I hate to say it, but we can’t spend all of our sessions teaching Sugar how to sing.”
Emma frowned and looked down at her plate. “You’re right Will,” she said, knowing that he was. The truth of the matter was that Sugar simply could not sing, or, based on her impromptu performance, dance. It hurt Emma to know that she would have to tell Sugar ‘no’ once again, when all the girl wanted was to belong. “I’ll see if I can come up with some alternative ideas for her tomorrow.”
She lifted her head to see Will looking at her with concern. “You alright, Em?”
“Yeah, sure. I’m fine. I just really understand how she must feel, being new at school and not having many friends. It can’t be easy, you know?”
“See, this is what I love about you,” Will said, leaning over the table to press a kiss to Emma’s forehead. “You just care so much about everybody.”
Emma leaned into the warm lips against her forehead. “Thank you. I just want to help, you know? And she really seems like she needs it.”
Sugar marched into Emma’s office early the next morning and took a seat immediately.
“Sugar,” Emma said. “How are you this morning?”
“Oh, I’m doing okay. I was up all night waiting for the kid I paid to do my homework to send it to me so that I could go to sleep, but other than that things are peachy,” Sugar stated nonchalantly. “Did you get a chance to talk to the choir teacher for me?”
“Wait, you paid a kid to do your homework?”
“Oh! No, I mean I was waiting on his part in our group project!” Sugar said with wide eyes.
“Right,” Emma said, making a mental note to investigate the issue of Sugar’s homework at a later date.
“So how about that Glee club?” Sugar leaned forward, placing her palms on Emma’s desk. “Did you talk to him?”
“I did,” Emma said in measured, cautious tones.
“Oh!” Sugar said, rubbing her hands together excitedly. “So tell me, when did he say rehearsals are?”
“Sugar,” Emma said, trying to infuse as much kindness into her voice as possible. “I had a long discussion with Will about this last night. And we both feel that perhaps Glee isn’t the best extra-curricular for you right now.”
“Oh,” Sugar said, drawing back and folding her arms over her chest.
“I did some research for you, and there are a number of other clubs that you may be interested in joining, as they have the same group cohesiveness that Glee does. There’s the Model United Nations, the Renaissance Club, the Nessie Club…”
“I don’t want to be in any of those clubs!” Sugar’s hands landed heavily on Emma’s desk as she pushed herself up to lean on it so that her small frame loomed over Emma. “I want to be part of Glee Club! I’m a star, anybody can see that! I just want what I deserve!”
“Sugar,” Emma said kindly. “Perhaps some vocal coaching might be a good idea then? I’m sure we can get a referral for you -”
“No!” Sugar said sharply, gathering her belongings. “If that club won’t let me in, then I’ll just make my own! I don’t need you and your stupid clubs, they all suck! Not Asperger’s!”
Emma was surprised when she found Sugar waiting for her in her office after lunch the next Wednesday. Sugar beamed at Emma as she took a seat on the opposite side of the desk.
“I just wanted to share the news with you!” Sugar gushed, her feet tapping on the floor with excitement.
“Oh? What news?” Emma asked, applying Purell to her hands.
“My dad hired this really amazing vocal coach to start a new Glee club for me here at McKinley! So I get to sing after all! We just need to get some more people to join and we’re all set!”
Emma’s eyes widened. “Really,” she said, incredulous. “Well, I think that’s great, Sugar! I really hope that your new club will be successful.”
“Me too! I just had to come and tell you about it first because you tried to help me with that other club and that didn’t work out, clearly, but still I thought you’d want to know.” Sugar said, bouncing in her chair.
Emma smiled, touched by the girl’s verve. Sugar wasn’t the nicest student she’d ever had the privilege of working with, but she certainly was one of the most enthusiastic. “That’s really sweet, Sugar.”
“Well, that’s me, sweet is another word for Sugar, you know!” Sugar paused, and visibly tried to school her features into a more collected expression. “You’ve just been so nice to me since I started here that I wanted you to be the first person I shared this with.”
Emma felt a swell of gratitude, the kind that she got when she knew she’d done her job well, and she couldn’t help but gush back at Sugar, “that means a lot to me, thank you!”
Sugar grinned back at her widely before slinging her book bag over her shoulder and heading to the doorway.
“Anyway, I’ll expect you to be in the front row at our performances!” Sugar called. “I’ll save a seat for you right beside Ms. Corcoran!”
“Ms. Corcoran? Oh my goodness, really?” Emma called, but Sugar was already halfway down the hallway. She stared at the empty doorway before flipping open her phone to call Will.
“So, I thought you’d want to know that things are going really good for me now, Ms. P.” Sugar grinned, self-satisfied, from where she sprawled in the chair across from Emma, her feet propped up on the desk.
“That’s great, Sugar,” Emma said brightly. “Now what can I do for you today? Did you want to talk about your grades, or plans for next year, or -”
“I was wondering about some of the other extra-curricular activities you mentioned.”
“Oh?” Emma asked.
“Uh-huh. Most staff here need to moderate at least one student club, right?”
“That’s right,” Emma said, twisting her fingers to keep herself from reaching out to push Sugar’s offending ballet flats from their perch.
“Which ones do you moderate?” Sugar slid her feet off Emma’s desk and sat up in her chair, looking attentive.
“Well, I, um,” Emma said, taking a deep breath. “Well, I moderate the Celibacy Club.”
“Get out!” Sugar exclaimed, her eyes wide.
“Really,” Emma said sincerely. “That’s the club that I moderate. We’re at five members now, but we were up to nine last year.”
Sugar’s mouth dropped. “So are you - you know - celibate?”
Emma sat up straight in her chair. “I wouldn’t be much of a club moderator if I didn’t espouse the philosophies that we embrace, would I?”
“But, I thought you were dating the failed Broadway star. Really Ms. P, he seems like a bit of a douche but he has a seriously hot body under those stupid sweater vests he wears. I figured you were hitting that, and hard!”
“Sugar,” Emma gently chided. “Please watch your -”
“Well, I mean if it were me,” Sugar barreled on, “I would be macking on that night and day, right?” Sugar stopped and cocked her head to the side. “Are you, like, asexual?”
“I don’t know if -” Emma said, flushing and becoming uncomfortable.
“Because if you are, you know, it’s totally okay. There’s like, millions of people out there who don’t care about sex at all. I mean, I’m totally not one of them and I don’t get it at all, but apparently it’s trufax okay to be like that, you know?”
“It is?” Emma said, eyes wide. “I’ve never, I mean, it’s not something I’ve ever considered before.”
Sugar nodded sagely, sitting back in her chair. “For real, Ms. P. You should look it up some time.”
“Maybe I will some time, Sugar.” Emma said, and was surprised to find that she meant it.
“I don’t think I’ll be joining it though. It’s not really for me, you know what I mean?” Sugar gave an over-exaggerated wink and Emma couldn’t help but giggle at her before recovering her decorum.
“Right,” Emma declared, reaching for some safe-sex pamphlets. “Perhaps I can interest you in some of these?”
“I got that covered already, Ms. P,” Sugar said, reaching out to take a pamphlet. “But I’ll take one just to make you happy.”
“Alright then,” Emma said, folding her hands primly in her lap. “Anything else I can help you with today?”
“Nope! See you later, Ms P!” Sugar said, waving as she left the office.
Once she had left, Emma walked to the door and swung it closed. She scurried back to her desk, and opened a web browser at once, typing “asexual” as her search term into Google.
Thirty minutes later, she pushed herself back from the computer and closed her eyes, smiling peacefully as another piece of the puzzle that was her psyche fell into place.
“So do you ever sing?”
“No,” Emma shook her head and pressed her lips together. “I mean, sometimes I sing by myself, but not really, no.”
“Why not?” Sugar asked, her eyes wide and curious. “I mean, your boyfriend must sing all the time, right? And I heard that he even raps, I mean how loltastic is that?”
“Oh, he raps alright,” Emma said, blushing as the incredibly awkward memory of The Thong Song came to mind. “But we’ve never rapped, or um, sung together. I just don’t do that.”
“Awwww, why not, Ms. P?” Sugar wheedled, reaching toward Emma beseechingly.
“Well, I just don’t think I can sing, that’s all,” Emma stated flatly.
“I don’t believe you. Anybody can sing,” Sugar said, getting up out of her chair. “I mean, look at me! Lots of people tried to tell me I can’t sing. I mean lots. And you know what I do?”
“What?” Emma said, frowning as Sugar took her hand to drag her out of her chair.
“I sing anyway!” Sugar declared, pulling Emma to stand beside her. She turned to look Emma in the eye. “You know why?”
“Why?” Emma asked, wondering if there was a way to extract her hand from Sugar’s without offending her in some way.
“Because I love to, that’s why,” Sugar said, nodding. “And I’m going to do what I want, no matter what anybody thinks of it. You totally should, too. Right now.”
“Right now?” Emma said hesitantly.
“Right now, and I totally mean that. Do you like Gaga?”
“Well, yes, but wasn’t there something you were actually here to talk about today?“
“Nah, I had a free period and just wanted to hang out. Stay right here -” Sugar said, letting go of Emma’s hand before she ran to Emma’s computer. “I’m just going to put ‘Marry the Night’ on YouTube. You’re going to love this, I promise.”
Emma watched as Sugar leaned over the keyboard, typing rapidly before she hastened to close the door. It clicked closed and the opening refrain of the song filled her office in Lady Gaga’s rich voice.
“Sing it with me!” Sugar called out, pointing at Emma and moving her hips from side to side as she danced to the song, “Come on! I’m gonna maaaaaarry the niiaght!” Sugar sang discordantly, tossing her hair from side to side as she lost herself in the music.
Stunned, Emma regarded her for a few moments, amazed at how easily Sugar lost herself in the music completely unselfconsciously, and she wished desperately that she could reach the same kind of abandon. She flicked her eye to the hallways, and in a split second decision closed the blinds.
“I’m gonna marry the night,” she started cautiously, her voice sounding thin and reedy.
“Yeah, that’s right, go Ms. P! Go Ms. P!” Sugar said, clapping her hands joyfully.
“Leave nothing on the street to explore,” Emma declared in song, raising her hands in the air like Sugar had done.
“Ma ma ma marry!” Sugar yelled, bouncing up and down to the music enthusiastically. She grabbed Emma’s hand, and pulled her along with her to dance around her desk. Before long Emma was moving her head in time to the music, her perfectly coiffed hair swinging in front of her face as she danced and sang along with Sugar at the top of her lungs in a wonderful cacophony.
When the song finished, Emma collapsed down in her chair, flushed and giggling. “Oh my goodness, Sugar.”
“I know, right?” Sugar said, grinning widely. “It’s the most fun ever, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is! I’ll have to do that more often.”
“And maybe sing with that man of yours?” Sugar nodded sagely.
“Maybe,” Emma said, smiling. “I think I like your visits, Sugar.”
“Well, I am really the coolest girl here at McKinley you know. It’s just that most of the kids here don’t know that yet.”
“Well, I think you’re pretty cool, Sugar,” Emma said sincerely.
“Thanks, Ms. P!” Sugar said, getting up out of her chair. “Mind if visit tomorrow, too? There’s a couple of Rihanna songs that I think you might like.”
“I’d like that,” Emma said happily. She smiled up at Sugar, marveling at how this capricious and inappropriate teenager had been able to get her to open up and have more fun than she’d allowed herself to have in a long time. When Sugar left, Emma sat at her desk, humming softly to herself as she worked, feeling the glow of a new friendship settle over her like a warm and comforting blanket.