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Rachel and Finn had finally left, and Quinn stopped pretending to be asleep. She felt bad about it, but she’d only come out of her coma yesterday, and every time they came to visit, she could smell their guilt from halfway down the hall before they got here. It just made everything worse. And she hated to be selfish about just one more thing in her life, but she could only take so much of the guilt.

Looking over to the side, Quinn saw her mother asleep in her chair next to the hospital bed. When she wasn’t asleep, Judy Fabray was updating their church members on her daughter’s condition, spreading moisturizer on Quinn’s face and arms (“this hospital air is terrible for your skin”), or checking with the nurses to see if there was anything else they could do, any more tests that could be run.

But Quinn knew.

She knew she wasn’t ever going to walk again. Wasn’t ever going to walk down the halls of McKinley again in the black and red Cheerios uniform she’d only just won back. Wasn’t ever going to really fall in love with a boy and be loved in return.

She thought about that ridiculous Yale Admissions essay about overcoming adversity. She’d gone on and on about how hard it was to be a pregnant teen and maintain a 4.0 grade point average, and juggle boyfriends, and figure out what was best for Beth, and where she fit in.

None of that mattered anymore. Well, Beth mattered, she would always matter. But Beth had Shelby, and whether Quinn liked to admit it or not, Shelby was an amazing mother.

Almost as amazing as Quinn’s mother, who had somehow managed to save the dress Quinn had been wearing on the way to Finn and Rachel’s wedding. Surely the paramedics or someone had wanted to cut it off, whatever it took to get to Quinn and perform the necessary maneuvers to bring her back, and to keep her alive. But there it was, hanging on a padded hanger, wrapped in plastic. Glaring at her.

I’ll never wear a dress again. Never show the scars on my twisted legs.

Noticing her mother stirring, she made her face into a mask, removing the fear and especially the disgust.

“You awake, Baby?” Quinn’s mother stretched and moved to stand by the bed.

“Yeah, sort of,” she answered, clearing her throat, still scratchy from where they’d had to intubate. “In and out. Rachel and Finn left a while ago. They said to say they were sorry they missed you.”

Her mother just kept brushing the hair away from Quinn’s temple with her soft, ringless hands, not showing on her face what she was thinking. Her mother was pretty good at the mask herself.

“You need to rest, Quinnie. Get you better.”

Quinn turned her head away from her mother. Away from the balloons and the cards and the flowers, and the dress.

“Okay, Mom.”

Sometimes it was easier to just pretend she was trying to get better. That she didn’t believe it was hopeless.

What really haunted her wasn’t even the dress or her mother’s crumpled lists of all the things she needed to do for Quinn: questions she wanted to ask, procedures she’d read about that surgeons were trying in Europe. It wasn’t Rachel’s guilt either. It wasn’t the sickeningly sweet smell of the flowers. It wasn’t calls from her church saying they were praying. It wasn’t Coach Sylvester standing quietly in the doorway yesterday, leaving after a moment mumbling about hormones, with tears on her face.

It wasn’t even that Quinn couldn’t feel her own legs anymore. Even though every time she woke up again, she’d reach down and touch them with the tips of her fingers over her blankets, or lift the coarse hospital sheets to look at them, covered in her favorite old Strawberry Shortcake pajama pants from when she was pregnant, before she started wearing her cheeky shorts again, the tiniest sleep shorts imaginable, rows of them in the third drawer of her dresser, different colors, all with something printed across the back to bring even more attention to her body. Shorts she’d never want to wear again either.

Sometimes she even pinched her legs hard, through the pale pink pants, just to see if she could feel it. A few more bruises wouldn’t matter anyway.

But what really bothered her, what she couldn’t say to her mother or Frannie, or to anyone else, was how judgmental she’d been about Dave Karofsky. Part of her problem with Dave went way back, but that’s no excuse really. She remembered she’d told Kurt, of all people, that Dave was selfish to have tried to take his own life. She hadn’t understood that just because she thought the things she’d overcome had been tougher than being gay, it didn’t mean that it wasn’t the worst thing to ever happen to Dave. After Mr. Schue told everyone about wanting to jump off the roof after getting caught cheating on a test, Quinn had finally understood. The worst thing to ever happen to you isn’t always something that would make someone else even blink.

Everyone’s experiences are different and the ways they’re able to handle them are different. There were girls her age or younger on those tacky MTV shows every day who were pregnant and it never seemed to phase some of them.

She finally saw that being gay wasn’t what was so hard for Dave. It was being hated for who he was.

So she’d scrolled through the posts on Karofsky’s facebook page that night and seen the horrible things the kids from his high school were saying. Some of them were still saying these things even after he’d tried to kill himself. And she’d wanted to believe the kids at McKinley wouldn’t do something like that, but they have, they did. She’d been a part of some of the terrible things the elite at McKinley did to stay on top, needing to feel important, thinking the way to stay popular was to put down everyone else, throw slushies in their faces, paint slurs on their lockers. And she’d been on the receiving end, too. It was awful. But nothing compared to the things on Dave’s facebook wall, and the things those kids must have said to him that day.

She looked up, hearing her mother say she was going home to shower but that Frannie would be there after she got off work in a couple hours. And would Quinn be okay by herself for a little bit?

“Sure,” She even forced a smile. Weak, but still there.

It’s not like I’m going anywhere.

She didn’t say the last part out loud, knowing it would crush her mother. And she didn’t mind it when her sister was here. Frannie talked about normal things and read to Quinn from her Kindle, but Quinn had to pretend with her, too.

There was a knock at the door, and Quinn croaked out, “Come in,” expecting a nurse. It was too early for her sister.

It was Joe Hart.

She was sure he had only come by yesterday to be nice. She was so used to hearing about The Christian Thing to Do from her church family over the years, she’d assumed he’d shown up out of a sense of duty. That he’d add her to his prayer list, and in between cleaning the dirt out of his toes from wearing those fugly sandals all over Lima, he would say a prayer for her, and that would be it.

But here he was again.

“Quinn? Can I come in?” His hair was pulled back with what looked like an actual rubber band, as if office supplies qualified as hair accessories in his world, and he was carrying his guitar.

She nodded to her mother’s empty chair and began readjusting her body so she could face that way once he’d sat down.

“Will your mother be back soon? If she’s just down the hall, I can get another chair or just stand.”

Quinn wanted to roll her eyes, and it made her feel more like herself than she had since she’d woken up. “She went home to make more calls and look up more experimental procedures on the internet to help me, in her neverending quest to find a miracle.” She didn’t know why she told him that. “My sister’s coming, but not for a while. So, sit. Please.”

He sat, and Quinn thought, This should be uncomfortable, awkward, but it wasn’t.

Joe had sort of a calming presence that way.

“What do the doctors say?” He asked quietly, directly. Not asking how she felt, not darting his eyes away as he asked. Not telling her everything would be okay.

Which is why she could answer him truthfully.

“It’s not good. I’ll have scars on my hip and on my legs. There’ll be one on my shoulder,” she grimaced just thinking about the pain when the drugs weren’t there to mute it. “But scars can fade. There isn’t anything they can do about my spinal cord, no matter what my mom believes. Even if she flies me to specialists all over the world like she wants to. The doctors said the damage is too severe. I may be able to have another baby one day, but I’ll never walk again.”

He was still watching her face, not speaking, and she realized she’d said kind of a lot to this guy who she barely even knew, if she’d thought about it. Which obviously she hadn’t.

“But hey, it could've been worse. I’m still alive, right?”

“Do you believe that? That it could be worse?”

“I don’t know.” Finally she couldn’t look at his face anymore, so she turned hers to the ceiling, wishing her hips would turn on their own. But they wouldn’t, and she didn’t feel like turning them, so she just lay there, twisted.

And then Joe was standing over her, no longer watching her face, and gently --so gently it made her want to cry, as nothing else had done since before her accident, even finding out about her legs-- he turned her hips, so she could lie flat on her back. She couldn’t feel him, could feel nothing below her waist, but she knew his touch wasn’t sexual, it wasn’t inappropriate. It was kind, and it was exactly what she needed but couldn’t ask for. Anyone else, other than her mother or a nurse, would have felt embarrassed for her, and would probably have left her there, rather than acknowledge what she could no longer do for herself. It was refreshing that Joe didn’t seem to know how he was supposed to be acting.

Still standing next to the bed, he asked, “Can I pray for you? I mean, later.”

“Yes,” she whispered back, knowing she couldn’t talk to God right now, when she was still so angry at him for what happened.

Joe smiled and said, “Excellent.” Then he sat back down and picked up his guitar.

***

Before he’d known it, Joe was either stopping by Quinn’s house or calling every day to check on her.

When he’d first visited her in the hospital, it was because she was a classmate (and fellow God Squad member) who’d been in a car accident, and what kind of asshole didn’t visit someone they knew who was in the hospital? He’d gone with the others to visit Dave Karofsky, and he’d barely even heard of him before then. He could have sent Quinn a card or flowers like his mom had suggested, but somehow after she’d woken up from her coma, he’d wanted to see for himself how Quinn was doing. To figure out the best way he could help her in his own small way. Praying for her was just the start. Making friends was the whole reason he’d started going to McKinley after all.

He’d always been homeschooled until this semester, but he had volunteered at a nearby nursing home last summer, so it was almost second nature to help Quinn turn over in her hospital bed, or to bring her a cup of water. Joe didn’t have very much experience with women, outside of his family and the patients he’d worked with, but he remembered very clearly the day he started thinking about Quinn differently.

He knew she couldn’t feel anything in her legs, so he never thought too much about how often he was touching her.

Until one day when he was helping her sit up in the chair next to her bed while her sister was getting a coffee, and his hand slid up her waist to her ribcage. She gasped and turned her face to his, which was so close he could see every color in the irises of her eyes. He’d thought they were brown, but that close up he could see they had green and gold in them, too.

Before her accident, Quinn Fabray was the kind of girl a guy like Joe never had a prayer of dating, and if he hadn’t known she was in the Glee Club and the God Squad, he wouldn’t even have thought she’d talk to him: a year or two younger, with his hippie clothes and hair and his ‘teen Jesus’ sandals.

But he knew she was the one on the fringe of the group, loving them all, despite feeling so different. When she first came home, a few weeks after she’d told him in the hospital that she might be able to have ‘another baby someday’ he’d asked about the picture in the frame on her dresser. He hadn’t known what to think about the expression on her face, but after a pause, she’d told him the little girl was her daughter, Beth. She’d explained how she’d gotten pregnant her sophomore year, that the baby was Noah Puckerman’s, and that they’d given her up for adoption.

She’d said all of it without emotion, but she hadn’t taken her eyes off the photo, and Joe knew giving up Beth must have been the hardest thing Quinn had ever done, harder even than learning to navigate her own home in a wheelchair, or relearning how to care for herself without the use of her legs.

He started driving her to and from her therapy sessions whenever her mother or Fran couldn’t go. Somewhere along the way, she’d stopped being angry at God and started going back to church.

And after all that, she was going to Yale, wheelchair and all, if Joe had anything to say about it. Knowing Quinn the way he did now, it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. But there wasn’t anyone stronger or more capable than she was, and he knew she’d make it. He prayed every night that she wouldn’t give up on her dreams. Yesterday he’d gone over to her house and brought her a gift. Her face had lit up at the sight of it, and she laughed when she opened the flat rectangular box and found the soft grey fingerless driving gloves he’d picked out for her.

Now Joe walked down the hall, looking for her dark blonde head in between all the other bodies. This was gonna be her first day back after weeks of physical therapy --including meeting up with Artie to practice maneuvering her new wheelchair through an obstacle course Puck and Joe helped them create with empty Bible boxes and music equipment.

He passed Kurt heading the other way and returned his wave. Sam and Mercedes walked by holding hands, and Sam tilted back his head at Joe in that way only guys like Sam could, and Mercedes called out ‘hey there, Joseph Hart.’ She’d told him once how cute she thought it was that he called everyone by their full names.

He was glad Quinn had stellar friends like them, and Rachel and Finn, Artie and the rest of the Glee Club. One or another of them stopped by after school nearly every day, and more often than not, there was singing or telling stories about Mr. Schuester and Miss Pillsbury’s upcoming wedding, or acting out some silly thing that happened at practice or in Spanish class with the new teacher who apparently had perfect teeth. Joe didn’t know; he took French, but he loved it when Quinn retold their stories to him, or when he was there and got to see her face, so happy, surrounded by her friends.

“Hey, Joe!” Quinn called out from behind him, so he turned and caught his breath at her smile. Thought about that day in the hospital, with his hand over her ribs just beneath her breast, feeling the heat of her skin through the tee shirt she’d been wearing over plain grey sweatpants, his face on fire. Her body had lost so much muscle tone then, she’d felt lighter than his guitar case when he lifted her, but from that day on, he thought about every touch.

Now, having gotten her strength back, she easily wheeled herself over to her locker, and Joe helped her sort the textbooks she’d need for her first classes into the bag slung around the back of her wheelchair. She looked so excited to be back, but nervous too, and Joe wanted it to be great for her, never wanted to see the hope he could read in her eyes crushed again.

Over the next few weeks, Joe started spending more and more time with Quinn. She told him about her father, how he’d kicked her out of his house when she’d been pregnant and how she’d stayed with Mercedes. How her mother had taken her back in after she’d divorced Quinn’s dad, who hadn’t ever called or visited in the two years since. He never even sent flowers when she was in the coma or recovering from her near-fatal accident. She told Joe about it in that same emotionless voice she always used when she pretended not to care.

Joe’s first kiss was the weekend before Quinn’s senior Prom. Her plan was to go alone, because she wanted to enjoy this last big high school experience without worrying about boys or dresses or matching cumberbunds.

She said she wanted Tina or Mercedes or Santana to be crowned Prom Queen, because she loved her girls and she didn’t want some horrible cow like she used to be to win.

But when Joe came over after Quinn had been shopping all morning with her sister for a gown to wear, and he found her sitting in her wheelchair next to the bed with her head in her hands and a fluffy purple dress bunched on her lap, he had no idea what to do.

She looked up at his light knock on the open door, and he could see her face was red and swollen from crying.

“What happened?” he asked in the only way he knew how.

“I don’t think I can do it, Joe.”

“Do what?” But he wasn’t slow. He figured he knew what was coming.

“This. Wear a dress. Perform on stage again in this thing,” she gestured angrily at her wheelchair. “My legs will be front and center for everyone to gawk at. I know I seem like I have it all together, and I really couldn’t give a shit what most of them think, but for my Prom I just want to be pretty again. And I know that sounds awful, but it’s the truth.”

Joe kneeled in front of her and gently tugged the dress out of her hands. He laid it across the bed, putting one hand on her knee to steady himself. He saw her eyes go to his hand, and for just a second he wished she could feel it there.

“How can you think you’re not pretty right now?”

She laughed, not mocking him, but herself. “I know I’m not. For one thing, I’ve been crying for a half-hour, and I know what I look like when I cry.”

“So do I, and I see a girl-- a woman, with gold in her eyes. With a smile brighter than any light I’ve ever seen. A righteous woman who cares about her friends and her family, who chose to give birth to a beautiful daughter made by God, and then give her to someone who could be a better mother for her. Quinn Fabray, your soul is prettier than your face could ever be, and that’s saying something.”

Surprised he’d said so much, to the one person he shouldn’t say those things to, he lowered his head. So he saw as well as felt it when she laid her hand over his on her jeans-covered knee.

“Thank you, Joe. I know you mean it.”

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.” He peeked up at her face. “And if you don’t want to wear the dress, don’t wear it. Go naked, it’ll cause a sensation.” He blushed, looking down at their hands again.

“Or wear pants. You know, with a shirt. Wear your old sweats or those sweet Strawberry Shortcake jammies. Be comfortable, be you.”

“Come here.”

He looked up, and Quinn brought her other hand to the back of his neck, under his hair. Her mouth was parted, but he couldn’t look away from her eyes.

She leaned forward, and he automatically moved the hand that wasn’t still under hers on her knee to rest on her shoulder.

He felt a puff of her breath on his lips as he watched her eyes close, and in the fraction of a second before he closed his, he realized this was actually happening. He moved his lips to meet hers, thanking God for days like this.

***

It was graduation at William McKinley High, and Quinn couldn’t help but smile as Joe wheeled her out onto the football field in the gorgeous May sunshine. He parked her next to Artie in the area designated for their wheelchairs and, locking the brakes on the sides, she tilted her cheek up for a kiss from her boyfriend.

Joe leaned down and brushed his lips right on the edge of her mouth, before straightening and saying he’d find her after.

“That’s it?”

Artie coughed, covering a laugh, and Quinn could barely hide her own grin.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t get a bigger kiss for graduating, for overcoming all this adversity,” she said, waving her hands around, “and for loving you despite that crazy hairstyle and your incredible dislike for actual shoes?”

He seemed to be picking up what she was putting down, because he leaned in again.

Quinn’s eyes shuttered closed as she felt Joe’s hands cupping either side of her face, the tips of his long fingers feathering into the hair behind her ears. She felt the warmth of the sun on her eyelids as his mouth pressed to hers again, her lips parting for him. She heard Artie start humming loudly, and she pictured him covering his eyes with his gloved hands. Someone who sounded an awful lot like Rachel Berry let out a 'woohoo' from the section to their right, and Quinn grinned against Joe’s lips.

Letting him go, she said, “Make sure you do find me after.” She watched a smile spread over Joe’s face as he started walking backwards and then turned to find his seat with her family.

She couldn’t hide her grin now if she gave it everything she had, so she didn’t bother. She looked over at Artie, who was making a point of studying the commencement program. “When’s your speech?”

“It’s after Jacob’s,” she replied, and leaned over to put her finger on the line listing the Salutatory address in the middle of the thick folded paper, “before we sing the first time, and before Britt’s speech.”

“Nervous?” Artie looked at her sideways.

Still smiling, she answered, “Nope. This is everything I worked so hard for. What we all worked for. I rewrote my speech again last night. Now it’s a letter to you guys, and Mr. Schue, Coach Sylvester, Mr. Figgins, and Miss Pillsbury. Our parents. Our brothers and sisters. To everyone who believed we could get here.” She leaned over again and whispered, “It’s a love letter.”

Artie closed his eyes, bowed his head, and raised a hand. “Mmm mm, praise.”

Quinn giggled as Figgins made his way across the makeshift stage to the podium.

After letting the mic’s feedback die down, Figgins welcomed the guests, school officials, students, and the graduating seniors.

Puck stood up and ‘raised the roof,’ and to everyone’s amusement, Figgins joined in.

“Okay, okay, that’s enough, Mr. Puckerman. Yes, yes. Enough. And now for our first speaker, your class of 2012 Valedictorian, Mr. Jacob Israel.”

Jacob’s speech was actually really good. Poignant and funny and clever. Finn gave him a standing ovation, and then motioned for everyone else to join him. Quinn and Artie raised their arms and cheered with their classmates.

And then Figgins was calling Quinn to the front.

“Break a leg, sister,” Artie called after her as she began wheeling toward the ramp on the side of the stage.

She hadn’t practiced this part without anyone pushing her, and there was a moment as she was in the middle of the ramp, when she thought she might topple backwards, but Mr. Schue ran over and grabbed the handles on the back of her wheelchair to help her the rest of the way up. He sat back down beside Miss Pillsbury (soon to be married, but keeping her own name) with the other teachers as Quinn made the rest of the way on her own to the podium. She pulled up next to it, and pulled the mic stand that had been hidden behind it to her side, already adjusted for her height.

It had only been a couple minutes since Figgins had called her name, but she took a few more seconds to gather her thoughts.

Lifting her hands to raise the mic just a tad, she glanced down at the notes in her lap. But she realized she didn’t need them. Smoothing her robe over her dress, the pretty yellow dress she’d decided to wear - finally proud of her scars, over thighs that didn’t feel her hands, she started speaking.

“Thank you, Principal Figgins. First I’d like to welcome our honored guests, faculty,” she smiled over at Mr. Schue, “family and friends, and our fellow students. We’re the class of 2012. Know what that means? We didn’t give up, we overcame any and all obstacles in our paths, we fought battles, and we won championships.”

The hockey guys jumped up and thumped their chests, and Santana sent an air-five to Brittany for the Cheerios, but the one Quinn was thinking of most was the New Directions’ first National Championship. The school’s Glee Club had won before, years ago, but never as the New Directions, and they had come so far. All of them had.

“Some of us haven’t always been friends. Some of us aren’t friends anymore, or we never were friends. Some of us may never see each other again after today. But we’ll always have this moment. I could read you a long list of quotes I found while I was working on this speech. I could tell you so many things other people have said about ‘the future,’ but one thing I’ve learned in the last three years is this: other people’s words can’t tell my story. Each of us has our own unique experience.

Some of us were the geeks, the losers, the ostracized. Some of us were the jocks, the beautiful, the popular. Some of us were both. But all of us are more than that. If this year has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that labels don’t matter. What you were in high school only matters when you’re in high school...”

As Quinn continued to speak from her heart, she looked out at her classmates. So proud of Puck for graduating and for being the man she always thought he could be. Happy for her friends Rachel and Finn, for Mercedes who had found love at last with Sam. Quinn smiled even wider as she noticed Becky Jackson clapping after every other sentence, wearing her tiara and sash like she has every day since Prom, even over her graduation gown.

Yeah, we’ll always have McKinley.

“... You won’t remember everything you were taught, and you won’t remember everything you said or did or the clothes you wore, but no matter what happens to you in life, I hope you’ll always remember the most important thing... who you are, and who you want to be.

Congratulations, Class of 2012! We have so much to be proud of.”

Then it was the New Directions turn. Quinn stayed on stage, watching musicians and the other Glee Club members file up next to her. Three more mic stands are produced as Mike wheels Artie up the ramp and Mercedes leans forward to squeeze Quinn’s shoulder. Artie pulls up next to Quinn to share the lowered Mic and holds up a hand for a high five. Quinn grins as their gloved hands meet above them, and the music starts.

Years later she might not remember what she said in her speech or the songs they sung that day, but she’d remember her friends and their faces and how right then, able or disabled, black or white, red or brown or yellow, fat or thin, gay or straight or everything in between, they were all perfect.

As senior class president, Brittany had wanted to hire the inventor of M&M’s to speak, but they found out he’d been dead for 13 years. So Coach Roz came through at the last minute, getting Michael Phelps to give the commencement address, but Quinn thought Brittany’s own speech was better, the best of the day. Funny, sweet, and very smart. Brittany was always smart about the important things.

They sang one last time together as New Directions. Sam and Mercedes had selected the perfect mash-up of Dionne Warwick’s That’s What Friends Are For and Vitamin C’s Friends Forever. Both cheesy, both overused, but somehow together they worked, and every time they’d practiced it, half the girls and Puck cried.

As she sang between Artie and Tina, feeling more blessed than she ever had in her life, Quinn looked out over the audience again. She found Joe’s eyes again, and thanked God for giving her a second chance.