The linoleum is just as faded as it was in June on the late August morning that Rachel Berry sits down at the piano, fingers brushing the keys once. Then, without her characteristic warm-up routine, she launches into song: "Without you, the ground thaws, the rain falls, the grass grows..." She closes her eyes and she's under hot stage lights, blood pounding in her ears, her body caught in the rhythm of rebellion while her mind races to find a direction, any direction.
"I thought we agreed that your Broadway stages of grief had progressed to My Fair Lady's 'Without You,'" Kurt says from the doorway, one hand on his hip and the other hand in Blaine's.
Rachel swallows once, then summons a smile and rushes over to the boys, throwing her arms around them both. "I'm so happy that the transfer went through! Blaine, not only will your versatile tenor and boyish good looks provide a welcome addition to the club, your true love will inspire us all to greater nuances of emotion."
"I can't tell if this is more or less scary than how Puck reacted," Blaine stage whispers over Rachel's head.
Kurt rolls his eyes, gently prying himself out of Rachel's embrace. "While I share your excitement, if not for precisely the same reasons, I'd like to remind you that Mr. Schue is gone and Ms. Pillsbury still hasn't accepted the position of our faculty advisor. Without one, we're just a bunch of high school seniors who love to sing and dance."
"Which is precisely why I called this meeting," Rachel says, pointing to the white board with a dramatic flourish.
"Is that Barbra shouting, 'We want you!' while dressed as Uncle Sam?" Kurt asks, squinting. "I'm rethinking my decision to rehearse for college auditions with you, just so you know."
"I don't know, I think the star spangled feather boa is a nice touch," Blaine says.
"You would," Santana says, elbowing her way past, Brittany not far behind. "Somebody wanna tell me why we're up at the ass crack of dawn on the first day we can exercise our senior privileges?" She flops down on a chair and pulls an Egg McMuffin from a paper bag, shoving it in her mouth with a grunt. Rachel and Blaine have identical expressions of distress at the carnage, while Kurt looks envious and Brittany just smiles.
"Like you don't have first period with me," Quinn says as she walks in with Mercedes and Sam.
"You talk a good game, Lopez, but really you're just as much of a slacker as m--hey! Woman!"
"You went to class every day for the last three weeks of school," Lauren says, unperturbed by Puck's strangled noises of protest. "I'm not going to date a loser who's flunking everything. End of discussion." They sit down as well, with Artie not far behind.
"Tina just texted. She and Mike had to wait forever in line at McDonald's because--" here Mercedes forms air quotes--"'some chick made every available cashier cry.'"
"What?" Santana demands. "Why is everyone looking at me?"
"You know what they say. The proof is in the bacon or whatever," Brittany says. "Is this another intervention?"
"It's an intervention for the limbo status of New Directions, not Santana's obsession with fast food," Rachel says. "As club president, I have taken it upon myself to generate a list of potential faculty advisors should Ms. Pillsbury not pan out, ranked in order of least to most expensive bribes."
"Bless your commitment to sparkle motion," Kurt says. Rachel beams, but it turns out he's addressing Mike, who has arrived with a box of coffee in one hand and a stack of paper cups in the other. Tina sets two boxes of Munchkins on top of the piano.
"There was a long line and this one cashier kept saying she was a disgrace to the food service industry," Tina says. "So we went next door."
After the flurry of coffee pouring and breakfast serving ends, Rachel claps her hands together over the buzz of conversation, which alternates between an array of "whipped" jokes in Blaine's general direction and ribbing Sam and Mercedes for trying to keep their relationship a secret. Everyone aside from Kurt and Blaine, who are used to some semblance of order judging from their description of the Warblers, keeps talking.
"They came to me like they were sharing a big secret and I laughed until I cried," Quinn says, shooting Mercedes a fond smile. "I've only been baby-sitting Sam's brother and sister for three months. Stevie has big plans for their wedding."
"They involve Transformers, don't they?" Sam asks around his mouthful of donut. "We're bringing up that kid right."
"If I may," Rachel says after a deep breath, making sure to project her voice all the way to the back of the room. "As I was saying, I've come up with some contingency plans should our talks with Ms. Pillsbury fall through."
"What talks?" Santana asks. "And why the hell are you still in charge after you cost us a place at Nationals? Where's the Jowls-y Green Giant, screwing us over in Ms. Pillsbury's office?"
Rachel's fists clench, but her smile doesn't waver. Middle school and her first two years of high school were training enough for that, at least. "I don't know where Finn is. He's still considering whether he wants to be part of New Directions. We--we still need some time apart. To answer your second question, I've been corresponding with Ms. Pillsbury via e-mail ever since Mr. Schue told us about his impending departure. She had to petition the national organization because of some technicality that doesn't recognize guidance counselors as members of the teaching faculty. With Sue Sylvester around, we can't afford to bend any rules, but neither can we wait for bureaucracy. I am now the sole president of New Directions, and I would like to use this year to prove myself to all of you after my performance at Nationals." Her smile trembles into a new shape, but this one is real. "I intend to prove myself to the world as well, but I have no intention of standing alone."
She's rehearsed this speech in front of Kurt and Mercedes enough times in the past four days that they threw popcorn at her the last time she asked for a critique. They're honest with her, but they still like her: it's some of the others she's worried about, like Santana, who doesn't seem any less angry after a summer off, and Quinn, because there will always be a part of Rachel that is afraid of what Quinn Fabray thinks of her. But everyone seems more interested in breakfast, though Mercedes has a thoughtful look on her face, like she's considering saying something.
"Ms. Pillsbury is coming to rehearsal this afternoon to tell us one way or another. Okay?" Rachel asks, shifting her weight to her other foot and making a note to herself to limit her coffee intake before giving any more stirring speeches. It would be undignified to run off to the bathroom before receiving a satisfactory answer.
"We're not gonna eat you if that's what you're worried about, not when there are donuts," Puck says, licking powdered sugar off his fingers, though that doesn't help his face, which is also covered. "The guys and me brought our guitars, too, because I told them there was no way Rachel Berry would end a club meeting without a song."
"Thank you, Noah," Rachel says, touched. "What song did you have in mind? I'm not entirely sure you're familiar with my repertoire--"
"Yeah, thank us after you hear what song we picked. It should be in everyone's repertoire if they ever turned on the radio this summer," Sam says, taking his guitar out of its case.
When Puck, Sam, Lauren, and Mercedes start singing Pitbull's "Give Me Everything," it takes about thirty seconds before Artie, Brittany, Santana, Quinn, and Blaine are singing along. (Kurt elects to shoot his boyfriend judgmental looks until Blaine drags him out of his chair.) When they sing the line Grab somebody sexy, tell 'em hey! Mike twirls Tina around, despite the half-finished cup of coffee in her hand. Rachel covers her mouth with her hand, laughing despite the mess of her personal life and the uncertainty of the future. She's not sure what she's done to deserve a group of people that will meet at seven in the morning to sing a Top 40 hit from the summer, but she's decided that this year will be their year.
This year, Rachel Berry isn't going to sing about getting it right, she's going to do it.
When the bell rings, Mercedes takes a minute to gather her things. She'll talk on the phone in the halls or text in class, but something about packing up everything while the teacher is still talking rubs her the wrong way. Maybe it's just that she actually likes Mrs. Johanson, who gets weirdly excited about statistics. Between her exclamations and the coffee, Mercedes managed to keep her eyes open for all of first period. Seriously, why on earth didn't she take the study hall first period and coast for the rest of senior year?
Her mother and father. Right.
She spins the dial on her locker, shoving her stats book in with extreme prejudice. She's always been a good student, but she's never had a class that's interested her half as much as singing. Her senior year is like an itch under her skin, one big distraction from her future. Maybe Kurt and Rachel will be up for a jam session during lunch--Rachel definitely, because girlfriend hasn't stopped rehearsing for college auditions since her last fight with Finn. She hasn't seen as much of them over the summer as she would have liked.
"Got something on your mind, Miss Pretty?"
Mercedes lets out a laugh and shakes her head. "Only you could make such a dumb nickname sound cute."
"It's just one of the many services I provide," Sam says, holding out an arm. She loops hers through his, shifting her books to her other hip. "Senioritis striking you down already?"
"Something like that," Mercedes says, sighing. "It's hard to keep going through the motions when I've already figured out what I want to do. I think I know, anyway. I don't know. Sorry, my head's not really in the back to school game yet."
"I dig that," Sam says, because apparently trying to learn Hendrix solos for all of August means you have to talk like a beatnik. Mercedes isn't really clear on the subject, she just finds it funny. "You sure it's not anything else? You didn't say anything this morning about our next gig, and I swear that I will totally have 'Foxy Lady' ready to go by then."
"It didn't seem like the right time."
"Are you kidding? I'm the rhythm, you're the blues. Actually, you're the rhythm and the blues, and I strum a little." Sam's grinning at his own stupid jokes like usual, but his words have a serious undertone, and he keeps his eyes on her as they stop at his locker. "Are you worried that they'll be jealous of our sick beats?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure that they'll turn green with envy when they find out we spent our summer playing senior centers," Mercedes replies, laughing. That started out as a church thing and sort of morphed into Sam and her putting on a little concert once a week, him with his guitar and her with a mic. "No, it's more like when I wanted to keep you and me a secret. There's so much drama in the club already."
"I kinda think Santana will forgive you for stealing me away."
That's another elephant in the choir room. Mercedes won't pretend to know the details about whatever Brittany and Santana have going on, but Quinn spent most of the summer asking not very subtle questions about how to support your gay best friend. "The rest of the world doesn't always have to know my business," Mercedes says, defensive without quite knowing why.
"Yeah, but since when does the rest of the world not include Kurt? I thought he and Quinn were your BFFs."
As far as boys go, Sam's definitely not the brightest, but he gets her in a way that few others ever have. Mercedes pecks him on the cheek. "This summer was great. It made me think a lot about how much I love to sing, and it made me realize that I haven't been doing myself any favors in glee club." Sam shuts his locker door and leans against it, listening. "With Schue gone, and now Finn too from the sound of it, it's the perfect time to step it up. We're down a co-president."
"Go for it," Sam says instantly, worried expression replaced by his familiar smile. "Your arrangement ideas are awesome and everybody loves you. I'm pretty sure we wouldn't even need to put it to a vote."
"Yeah, as long as Rachel doesn't freak out. I don't think she will, but you weren't there for sophomore year, when she spent the first few weeks of school quitting the club more often than she was in it. Glee club is kind of the only thing she has right now."
"'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,'" Sam says, tapping her nose. "Bilbo Baggins was pretty into a conflict-free existence, but he still had to slay the dragon, I'm just saying."
"How do I have better grades in English than you? Those were some choice metaphors right there. I'm telling Rachel that you compared her to a dragon," Mercedes says. "But thank you for that. She is a dragon about the club sometimes. Now that Schue isn't around to give her and Finn every lead part, it could get ugly."
"Not with such a pretty leading lady talking sense into everybody," Sam says. Mercedes punches him on the shoulder. "Ow! It's true that everybody likes you. Rachel too. Does Batman get pissed at Superman for being able to fly? No, 'cause the Justice League needs superheroes with different skills. That was another metaphor, in case you're into nerds."
"Maybe a little bit," Mercedes says, slipping her hand in his. "What would I do without you?"
"I dunno, not have serious opinions about the Star Wars prequels?"
"Sam, everybody hates the Star Wars prequels."
"Well, I have no idea, then."
Maybe the itch under her skin is a good thing: it's keeping her sharp, keeping her from standing still in the dark next to the spotlight. After three years of obscurity, Mercedes Jones is ready to shine.
"I'm dividing all my syllabi into two categories: screwed and totally screwed," Mike sighs, placing his AP World syllabus in the "totally screwed" pile along with his AP Chemistry one. "I don't think I'll ever see the sun again except at football practice."
"I'll be bathing in the warm glow of my computer screen even more than usual," Artie agrees. "But hey, we stand a chance of finding out whether anything actually happened after World War II."
"Nah, total myth. Let's stop by the soda fountain after school."
"I don't think they'll serve our kind. Time travel sucks, man."
"I wasn't aware your personal histories included time travel," Mr. Sullivan says, materializing behind Artie, which shouldn't even be possible, because Artie isn't exactly tall. "Let's finish the assignment, shall we, gentlemen?"
"Sorry," Mike mumbles. Mr. Sullivan is second only to Sue Sylvester in the scary department, but he's much more in tune with reality unless someone gets him started on hockey. Satisfied, Mr. Sullivan moves to lurk behind Derek and Lisa, who are holding hands under their desks. It's kind of weird that such a sadistic person would start class off with a touchy-feely assignment like a personal history questionnaire, but maybe he's just luring them into a false sense of security.
"All right, I'mma go first," Artie says, uncapping his pen. "First question is, and I want you to answer this honestly, what's your name?"
"Mike Chang," Mike says, rolling his eyes, and rattles off some more rote answers to the rote interview questions. Extracurriculars: football and glee club. Favorite food: tacos. Hobbies: studying, video games, and dancing. ("Seriously, studying is one of your hobbies?" "Hey, some of us can't get straight A's in our sleep.") Favorite book: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
"Man, could this get any more boring?" Artie asks. "I doubt this will turn us into historians. Um, where do you see yourself in five years?"
And Mike Chang's brain stutters to a stop, like it's just tripped over a mental shoelace. It's a stupid analogy, but it's a stupid question to get freaked out about, and both include the same sinking stomach sensation combined with I should know better. He clears his throat, but nothing comes out, and Artie shoots him a quizzical look.
"Starting med school, I guess," Mike makes himself force out. He even manages a weak smile. "Hence the video games. I could be a surgeon with these hands."
"Uh-huh, and I'm going to audition for Dancing With the Stars any day now," Artie says. "Also, I am resisting making an innuendo right now, and I hope you appreciate the sacrifice. But seriously, answering that question made you look like one of those creepy dolls that has to keep smiling even though you know it's either dying inside or plotting the death of everyone around it."
"That's weirdly specific. Are you a serial killer in your spare time?"
"I watch a lot of horror movies, it's a directing thing," Artie says, only he pronounces "thing" as thang and includes a complicated hand gesture. "See, I can say that in five years from now, I'll be a YouTube sensation and interning at a big Hollywood studio. I already applied to Emerson early decision. Once they see my 'Vogue,' they'll be swept away, just as long as they never, ever find 'Run Joey Run.' I'm pretty sure I've taken my name off all versions."
"That's awesome," Mike says, with a genuine smile this time. Sometime around January last year it stopped being so awkward with Artie, which is great, since he sees him in pretty much every class along with Quinn, Rachel, Kurt, and Lauren. "Didn't Rachel literally wrestle the computer out of your hands while shouting about fade effects and her artistic vision, anyway? That was like the best glee bus story ever."
"Maybe we'll have to do another glee music video," Artie muses, resting his chin on his hand. Then he glances down at the paper still on his lap desk and frowns. "You're really good at deflection, you know that? It's like your ninja power."
"Ninjas are Japanese," Mike says automatically.
"See? You just did it again!"
"Maybe I don't want to talk about it," Mike says quietly, jogging his foot up and down. He tries not to tap his foot or his pencil in class, because that inevitably leads to choreographing routines for the club and not taking notes. "Not everyone likes to sing their feelings to a room full of people." Which isn't fair, because Artie hasn't done anything like that nearly as often as Rachel and Finn.
"You could dance about it," Artie suggests, shrugging. "Might clear things up."
It's at that point that Mr. Sullivan breaks off his staring contest with Lauren Zizes to announce, "Five more minutes, people. Let's wrap it up so you can get started on your readings for tomorrow." His smile gleams amidst a sea of groans.
"Okay, you've already given me like half of your answers," Mike says, scribbling frantically. "What's your favorite food?"
"Chocolate cake, man. It is a gift from the gods."
He doesn't move around much in class anymore, but Artie's advice drums through his head. It's pounding so hard against all Mike expects himself to be that when he sees Tina in the hall, he kisses her with enough tongue to get him detention if Sue Sylvester happens along.
Tina pulls away, smiling. "What was that for?"
"For being someone who loves me," he says, kissing her forehead. "Meet me in the choir room at lunch?"
"We almost got caught last time..."
"I just want to try out a new routine."
"Like I said, we almost got caught last time, Michael Robert Chang."
"Promise," Mike says. "Bring your iPod, I need that song you keep playing in your car." He kisses her one last time and heads off to anatomy, feet moving in perfect time to the restless tapping of his fingers against his textbooks. His body is one long plea for motion, and for once, his mind is right there with it.
"I'm not saying that we have to abandon the conga line of British royalty in the second act, only that it might detract from the overall theme of the play," Blaine says, taking a quivering cup of Jell-O off the counter.
"Your private school education is showing," Kurt says, smiling. "Tell me more about my themes."
"Pip Pip Hooray is about finding your place in the world, right? But Pippa's not looking for a place in the royal family, she wants to make her own way. I think that's what she's singing about in 'The Moon Over the Mannequin,' anyway. The line about designer cupcakes is confusing."
"My rhymes need a little work," Kurt admits, leading Blaine to the unofficial glee table in the cafeteria. It's against two walls, one with a window the provides the hall monitor with a direct view of their table. It doesn't make all that much difference in McKinley, where teachers always seem to miss students getting slushied in the middle of the hallway, but marginal protection is better than none at all. "I can't believe you're actually attempting the mystery meat."
"If I die, remember me as a hero," Blaine says. He sets his tray down, picking up his knife and fork to slice everything into his usual perfect bite-sized pieces. Kurt watches him, resisting the urge to do anything as ridiculous as press a hand over his heart. Blaine's transfer started off as a half-wistful joke on his part and turned into a plan they outlined during the few days they were able to spend together this summer between Blaine's Six Flags job and the stupid amount of distance between their houses.
"I'm so glad we can see each other every day," Kurt says. "Just don't try to kiss me until you've brushed your teeth."
"Who says I was planning on kissing you?" Blaine asks, nudging his foot under the table.
"A little bird told me." Kurt hooks his foot around Blaine's.
"I hope you're as devoted to our future stardom as you are to each other, because I have several color-coded timelines for you to review," Rachel says, choosing that moment to sit down with a stack of planners and a brown bag lunch. "I thought we might coordinate our audition schedule for additional rehearsal time and moral support. I've already commissioned recording sessions with the AV club. We owe Lauren three dinners for two at BreadstiX and a shoe shopping trip."
"Your negotiation skills have improved," Kurt says. "I think we have the college application process well in hand, but according to Blaine's expert opinion, our resumes look a little sparse."
"Dalton was all about college prep. College admissions people say they want well-rounded people, even if you're going to school for something specific. The Warblers was my main thing, but I was also in a community service club and the Asian-American Alliance." Blaine holds up a flier that reads So you've waited this long to think about college and now your future is doomed. "I think that's what the school assembly today is going to be about, though, so don't listen to me."
Kurt flips through one of Rachel's planners, frowning in thought. "I was an instrumental part of the Cheerios winning Nationals back in sophomore year. New Directions is going to take Nationals this year--don't look at me like that, Rachel Berry, you know we have what it takes. I want this year to be bigger than us, though."
"Bigger than single-handedly restarting McKinley's musical theater program after we revived glee club?" Rachel asks, reaching into her bag for a pen and a carnation pink notebook. "I think you would make an ideal Tony to my Maria, but I'm willing to hear alternative suggestions."
"Oh, man, I grew up listening to that show," Blaine says. "You have the range for it."
"I've heard your Tony in the car," Kurt says. "So do you."
Blaine opens his mouth to reply, but gets a face full of slushie instead.
It happens too fast for Kurt to process. He just stares at Blaine in disbelief, watching the frozen blue raspberry drip down Blaine's face and stain his salmon-colored polo shirt. The electric blue clashes horribly, Kurt notes, as though this is something happening on television, something safe behind a screen. They've all been slushied before, but it looks different now, like the precursor to being slammed into yet another locker.
A Cheerio-colored blur races past: Santana sprinting from her position at the Cheerios table after a group of laughing hockey players. It takes Brittany approximately five strides to catch up with her, dragging her out of the hallway and back into the cafeteria. She looks like she's saying something, but Kurt can finally move, so he pulls out his emergency towelettes.
"Here," Kurt says, at a loss for any other words. As Blaine takes a towelette, Kurt uses the other to attempt to salvage the shirt, which admittedly is a hideous affront to nature, but he's not going to let them have anything of Blaine's. The boy who slow danced with him in front of McKinley's whole stupid, bigoted population in spite of his own terrifying school dance experience deserves that much.
"We took out your leader!" Santana shouts after the hockey players. "Don't you believe any rumors about a transfer, puckheads! I tied that motherfucker up and made him listen to Berry and Hummel wail glory notes until his eardrums shattered!"
"This is the grossest feeling," Blaine mutters, wiping off his face. "I think my eyelashes are stuck together."
"We're an expert in slushie clean-up," Kurt says, pressing a kiss to his boyfriend's cold cheek. Screw McKinley. Blaine leans against him, but it only makes the hollow in the pit of Kurt's stomach grow deeper. This is their senior year. This their school.
Rachel shakes her head. "Welcome to McKinley High, where all of New Directions brings an emergency change of clothes to school. I'm sorry that you had to experience this on your first day."
"Yeah, you look like a really sad Smurf," Brittany says, releasing Santana as the hockey players walk out of sight. "I always thought they would turn people-colored whenever they were feeling blue."
"I ended this shit with the Bullywhips," Santana snarls. "What the hell is going on?"
"You declared bullying over right before this school elected me prom queen and nobody did a thing about it," Kurt says, voice going sharp. "Anti-bullying programs have to change people's hearts and minds before they're effective. Walking 'teen gays' to class doesn't cut it."
"Whatever. Go change your shirt, Blaine Warbler, you look like a spray-painted golf caddy," Santana says, stomping back to her table. Brittany shrugs and follows.
"In a year, we'll have left all this behind," Rachel says into the silence following their departure. "We won't have to worry about this ever again."
"A year is enough time to make sure that no one has to worry about this ever again," Kurt says, rising to his feet. His hands are shaking with anger, so he clenches them around a blue-streaked towelette. "I'm going to run for student body president. And I'm going to win."
"--and then I'll strap used jockstraps to their faces," Santana finishes, capping off a truly excellent rant, if she says so herself. She draws in a breath. She's loath to admit it, but ever since joining glee club, she's been able to add at least five insults and/or threats to every statement. Hell, she even managed to keep it up in gym during the dodgeball game that would not end.
"You're like a fist of justice with L-O-S-E-R written across the fingers," Brittany says. Quinn gives Brittany a weird look as she pulls her gym T-shirt over her head and reaches for her sundress.
"Thanks, Britt," Santana says, because duh, it's obvious that Brittany means that she's the defender of losers everywhere, not a loser herself. "If those puckheads still haven't learned their lesson, I'mma have to go all Lima Heights. A world of hurt is headed toward their gorilla asses."
"Why do you care so much, Santana?" Quinn asks, sliding on her flats. She and Coach Sylvester had some kind of balls out, come to Jesus, you lost Regionals without us, so don't even front meeting this summer, resulting in Coach telling everyone that they could wear street clothes to class and take water breaks once an hour during practice.
Santana wore her uniform to class today, but definitely to show everybody who made co-captain and not because Coach Sylvester looks like she wants to eat Quinn's fertile ovaries for breakfast.
"When Santana Lopez takes down an enemy, they stays down," Santana replies, avoiding Quinn's gaze. "It's like the rules of gang warfare. You wouldn't understand."
Quinn mutters about how not forcing somebody to talk about it is the stupidest rule she's ever heard and slams her gym locker hard enough that every girl in the room jumps and rushes to get out as fast as possible. Two years ago, that sound signaled that someone was about to die or Rachel Berry was about to get pranked in a new and special way. Two years later, the locker room still empties faster than liquor store shelves on a Friday night.
"Mercedes is right," Brittany says to Quinn, which is even worse, because she and Mercedes aren't even friends. Brittany's been talking to Quinn behind her back, and not because she's been conned into revealing something she shouldn't, but because she's fucking worried about Santana. She'd have a hell of a lot less to worry about if she'd meant "friends the way we used to be, with a hell of a lot of benefits" when she told Santana that they should go back to being friends. Instead, Santana got a summer of bad reality TV (admittedly awesome), poolside hangouts (bikinis always a plus), and tequila shots (fun for everyone except the morning after). Put together like that, it sounds like her summer kicked ass, but it all featured Brittany being maddeningly close but just far enough away. They had one drunk make-out session on the Fourth of July and then didn't hang out without Quinn to act as a buffer for the rest of the freaking month.
"This is our last year to rule the school. Our reign is mighty and we must be feared," Santana says, shaking off the hand Brittany tries to put on her shoulder.
"I'm kind of over the whole prom queen thing," Quinn says, which makes Santana drop her water bottle on her foot. "I'm serious. Being prom queen was all about everybody else wishing they were me, but what's the point if I don't even want to be myself?" Her last question is so soft Santana can barely hear her.
"Maybe you'll want to be you more at college," Brittany says, hugging Quinn around the shoulders with one arm. "It sucks that both of you are waiting to be yourselves, though. I wish I could do something to help."
"It's not that easy," Quinn says, shaking her head with a laugh she probably doesn't even realize is condescending. Santana grits her teeth. "People never forget where you come from, especially in high school."
"Not unless you smack them so hard they get amnesia," Santana says, because that much is true, at least. "If you start acting like your nice girl preggo clone again, there's gonna be a Cheerio coup. You sure you didn't let Puckerman stick it to you again?"
"I've been as celibate as you," Quinn says sweetly, which just proves that all the soul-searching in the world doesn't make you any less of a bitch.
"You're getting ready for college, I'm getting ready for college boys," Santana says, ignoring Brittany's wince and Quinn's head shake. "You should get in your Kegels while you can. I'm not the one who squeezed a watermelon out of my vag."
"Shh," Brittany says, and starts rubbing Santana's shoulders. Santana is about to tell her to piss off, she really is, but Brittany digs her thumb into a knot and it feels too good for her to move. "Our school has a government, right? Otherwise why would we vote for prom king and queen?"
"That's not quite how it works, but yes," Quinn says. "Wait, are you going to try to get on the student council? Britt--"
"I think it's a great idea" is what Santana means to say, but it comes out, "Muhhhh." If dancing doesn't work out, Brittany has a promising career as a masseuse, okay?
"I learned from the TV that we should all be free to be you and me," Brittany says, and Santana can tell from the tone of her voice that she's smiling. "My first message to my subjects will be that slushies are for drinking, not throwing. My second message will be that the science teachers are never allowed to have a fish tank again because they don't change the tank often enough and then the fish get gross diseases. It brings down school morale."
"That's not a bad platform, considering the source." Quinn puts her hands on her hips and looks Brittany up and down. "You definitely have the popularity and the looks. As long as you don't get anybody mad, you're a shoo-in for office."
"What happened to not ruling the school?" Santana asks with a smirk, reaching up and tangling her hands with Brittany's out of habit. She realizes her mistake a second later, but Brittany is standing so close that she can smell her shampoo, and she's fucking human.
"What happened to getting ready for college boys?" Quinn asks, arching an eyebrow. "You need to drop the act, Santana. I'll see you at glee club." With that, she picks up her messenger back and saunters off.
"I miss you," Brittany says as soon as the door swings shut, and Santana has to close her eyes.
"I just can't, okay?" she whispers. How fitting that they're having this conversation back to back, since she can't seem to look anyone in the eye anymore. Hell, she can't even look her reflection in the eye.
"Someday you will," Brittany says, like it's the most obvious thing in the world, and it's times like these when Santana can't ignore that she loves her. It's only a question of whether she hates herself more.
The senior class assembly turns out to be Ms. Pillsbury telling them that she's only available by appointment for the next six months because all of the other guidance counselors are on leave, Sue Sylvester screaming something about how champions are not born but made through hard work and the judicious application of steroids, and Figgins announcing that there will not be a senior prom unless everyone donates ten dollars.
"Definitely not worth missing sculpture class," Tina grumbles.
"I hear ya," Lauren says, giving her a fistbump. "I hope Lombardi lets us do some welding this year. Just because some idiot burned himself three years ago is no reason to hold us back."
"At least it didn't run into rehearsal time," Tina says, rediscovering the spring in her step.
"That's the Mike walk," Lauren says with one of her rare smiles. "Didn't you just see him during lunch?"
"He put together this sick dance to one of my favorite songs. Um, and he asked me to sing it for him today. For everybody."
"You're singing in front of the club by yourself? You're stepping it up this year, man."
"I've just really loved jamming with you and Puck and Mike all summer," Tina says, blushing. "I don't want that to be over just because we're back at school."
The jam sessions started back in June, when the four of them were playing Mario Kart and a thunderstorm knocked the power out. Puck's little sister Sarah was scared, so he retrieved his guitar and played her some Beatles tunes while the rest of them lit candles. When he started on some Neil Young, Lauren said, "My dad loves that one" at the same time Tina said, "My mom loves his music." After exchanging grins, they both started singing along while Mike twirled Sarah around until she forgot to be scared.
Puck is still insisting that they call their group Thunder Road, but yeah, jam sessions at the Puckerman house are a thing now. Lately Sam and Mercedes have been tagging along too, once they stopped pretending that they weren't dating. Puck's mom is thrilled that her son is involved in such a wholesome activity outside of school. None of them have the heart to tell her that he likes to end things with a rousing rendition of "Smoke Two Joints."
"Don't mind me giving you shit. I think it's awesome that you're going to sing after the B.S. that happened during your last performance," Lauren says. "Ms. Pillsbury will love it."
"If she agrees to be our faculty advisor." If, if, if. Tina can still remember the teary voicemail Rachel left her about Mr. Schue's e-mail saying that he had decided to go off to Broadway after all. He didn't even tell any of them to their faces.
"Maybe she'll say yes just to stick it to Schue."
That's a cheering thought. "Has Puck heard from Finn?" Tina asks. "I haven't had the chance to ask Kurt about it." She's as tired of the love triangle drama as everyone else, but Finn has been with them for a long time, and it would be sad to lose him their senior year.
"They had a boy date last week. Puck says they played Call of Duty and bonded over deadbeat dad figures."
One of their questions is answered when they get to the choir room: Finn is walking away from the door and Kurt and Blaine are inside, the latter wearing a comically overlarge T-shirt. Rachel is pacing in the center of the room, looking pale but resolute. Mercedes is showing the Cheerio girls something on her phone. Tina and Lauren take a seat near the girls. The rest of the boys are the last to arrive, Mike trailing behind the others, looking just as frustrated as he did during their lunchtime rehearsal. Tina wants to talk to him, wants to make everything okay, but when Mike is working something out, it's better to let him be.
It hurt, watching him dance like he was on the run.
He finds a smile for her, though, and drapes himself on her lap before she laughingly shoves him onto the next seat over. "We're go for the song and dance," Mike says. "Have I told you today that you're the best?"
"Have I told you today that you make me want to throw up?" Lauren asks.
A hush falls over the room. Ms. Pillsbury is standing in the doorway.
"Don't everybody say hello at once," she says, walking up to the piano. She directs an uncomfortable look at Rachel, who actually has both hands clasped together in front of her. "I want to apologize for keeping all of you in suspense for so long. I have confirmed that the national organization of show choirs recognizes me as a member of the faculty after a long phone call. A very, very long phone call." Ms. Pillsbury clears her throat. "Anyway, I know how hard you kids have worked to keep this club afloat, and such steadfast dedication is a quality that schools can only hope to instill in their students. I can't promise that I know as much about music as Mr. Schuester, but I would be honored to call myself your faculty advisor."
Puck lets out a deafening whoop as Rachel bursts into tears. Tina is on her feet with the rest of the club before she has time to think, caught in the world's biggest group hug as she laughs and cries at the same time. Ms. Pillsbury is at the center, eyes so wide Tina can see the whites all the way around, but she's smiling, too.
It takes a little while for the love fest to die down. Tina ends up passing her tissues to Kurt and Mercedes as well as Rachel before they head back to their seats. Ms. Pillsbury smooths down the front of her blouse, which has to be wrinkled everywhere from all the hugging, and adds, "Now that that's settled, I'd like to set some group goals for this year. Santana, if you have something to say, please raise your hand. Yes, Rachel?"
"We're going back to Nationals this year," Rachel says with that absolute conviction Tina envies. "If we make proper use of the sheer amount of talent in this room, we will be unstoppable."
Mercedes raises a hand and Ms. Pillsbury nods. "Speaking of making proper use of talent, there's a co-president vacancy. I'd like to nominate myself."
"Seconded," Tina says, along with Quinn, Sam, and Lauren.
"Oh!" Ms. Pillsbury says, all but wringing her hands. "I wasn't expecting to run an election during the first meeting. We'll all write down yes or no on a piece of paper."
"I think I'm the only one who would possibly say no," Rachel says, voice thick with tears. "And I'm saying yes. Mercedes is amazing and Finn's not--he's really not coming back."
"Rach," Mercedes says, and reaches across Tina to squeeze her hand. "We got this."
"Can we get rid of Berry next?" Santana asks, looking up from filing her nails. "'Cause if she's about to bust out a drippy ballad about the loser love of her life ditching her for the millionth time, I will cram that kid's drum kit down her enormous throat."
"That's enough of that," Ms. Pillsbury says, quietly but firmly. "You know, I just made a big speech about how hard you've worked to stay together and how much that impressed me, and this is how you're going to treat each other?"
Santana is glaring at the floor, but she still mutters, "Sorry, Ms. P."
"Thank you. All right, show of hands for Mercedes as co-president?" Ms. Pillsbury counts their raised hands. "Looks like it's unanimous. Just like that, we're united again. Isn't that wonderful? Now, I know we have Nationals to focus on, but if I recall, Sectionals is the first step. I've already looked it up and this year's theme is a bit more open-ended. Each choir is to choose three songs from one decade. I'd like all of you to brainstorm some iconic songs from different decades for this time next week. That's really all I have to announce. Does anyone else have anything to say?"
"We were hoping we could also do West Side Story as our fall production," Kurt says. Rachel dabs at her eyes and then nods, her whole aspect brightening.
"I don't see why not," Ms. Pillsbury says, though she's getting that wild-eyed look again. "Schedules. There will be a lot of schedules."
"Already on it," Rachel says, holding up a truly terrifying collection of planners.
"I want to sing," Tina blurts out. Everyone turns to look at her and for a moment, she considers diving under her chair. She stands up instead. Maybe it's the memory of practicing "Tonight" over and over again that drives her to her feet; maybe it's the feeling of Mike's hand in hers. Maybe it's a combination of the two. "New year, new start, new people carrying out old traditions. We always end with a song, Ms. P."
"The floor is yours," Ms. Pillsbury says, sitting down in a chair. "Play us out."
It's impossible to be nervous when you know that Mike Chang is about to be dancing next to you, giving it his all. Tina nods to Brad at the piano and he pounds the opening notes to Florence and the Machine's "Drumming Song." Mike snaps to attention, his whole body quivering, waiting for the release of her voice.
When Tina belts out the opening lines, she doesn't know which is more satisfying: her jamming group's looks of pride, or everyone else's looks of surprise. Mike dances around her, drawing her into the dance when the instrumentals take over. He's all darting movements mixed with plaintive restraint, writing the story of the song with his body. It would be distracting if he weren't so familiar.
(It's still a little distracting, but Tina's listened to this song so many times that she could sing it in her sleep.)
As she wails the last note, Mike sinks to his knees in front of her, arching his back as if offering his heart at an altar. Tina places a hand on his chest. He's worked up enough of a sweat that his shirt is sticking to him.
"Is that what you've been trying to say?" she asks as thunderous applause breaks out.
Mike springs back into an upright position and hugs her. She hugs him back, sweaty grossness and all. He says, "I could ask you the same thing. That was incredible."
"It's going to be a spectacular year," Ms. Pillsbury says, beaming. "Meeting adjourned."
Emma opens the door to her office and then barely, just barely, makes it to her chair. The school feels strange with no students in it, but she can appreciate the quiet, especially after a glee club rehearsal. Once the kids went home, they took all that positive energy with them. She sets down the planner Rachel handed her, this one decorated with cheerful pink sequins in the shape of a P. ("For rehearsals," Rachel explained. At Mercedes's look, she added, "It's blank inside, I swear!")
There's another planner on her desk, this one a pale turquoise, and it's already half full of appointments: seniors who are frantic about college admissions, juniors who are frantic about the SATs, and students who just need to talk to someone. Emma places the two planners side by side, pressing them together until their corners line up perfectly. It's such a small thing, but it's comforting. She can move them apart if she likes, but they look better where they are.
She's still staring at them when there's a knock on her door.
"Mind if I come in?" Shannon asks.
"Sure, sure, sit down," Emma asks, sitting up straight and folding her hands in front of her. "How can I help you?"
"Actually, I was coming in here to check on you." When Emma blinks, Shannon adds, "I wish I'd tried to keep in touch with you over the summer. I heard through the grapevine that you've had it tough, and it looks like this year is shaping up the same, if you don't mind me saying."
"Well, I'm now officially the only guidance counselor that works at McKinley. My counterpart is currently working from her vacation home in Honolulu," Emma says, sighing. "Thank you for your kind words, Shannon. They mean a lot to me."
"I gotta respect a lady putting herself out there for my boys," Shannon says. "I've heard stories about what some of them were like before they joined glee club."
"We were all different before glee club," Emma says, and the words don't even hurt that much as they make their way out of her mouth. It's a little ache in the center of her chest, a hole that's closing little by little. She spent a lot of her summer in therapy crying for a man that was never quite hers and another man that was never hers at all. She's gone through boxes of Kleenex searching for affirmation, searched every corner of herself and dredged up feelings she didn't even know she had. Winning Nationals won't bring back Will--for goodness sake, Nationals is in Chicago this year--but it will be something to experience with all those kids. She's doing this for them, for the dysfunctional little family that sprang up in the choir room.
In a way, Emma is doing this for herself, for the sake of taking on a challenge and rising to the occasion.
Now, however, the challenge seems overwhelming.
"I'm a little worried," Emma admits, which makes Shannon, halfway out of her seat, sit back down again. "Some of the kids told me they want to do a musical. I agreed because I didn't have the heart to step on their ambitions, but I don't know how on earth I'm going to balance my job and two separate sets of rehearsals."
"Well hell, Emma, I'll help you run the musical," Shannon says. "I know my way around a dance floor, and some of my guys sure as hell can't say the same. If I want a team that can move worth a damn after the seniors graduate, I gotta train 'em up right."
"I--thank you. Are you sure? It's football season and everything."
"All the more reason to make my boys twirl pretty. I'm serious, you have not seen true horror until you've seen the JV team trying to hump a football down the field. You're the one doing me a favor." Shannon holds out a hand and Emma stares at it for a moment before realizing what it signifies. She reaches out and shakes Shannon's hand, and if a tremor runs down her arm, well, her therapist did tell her she isn't done yet, just every month will be a little better than the last.
"I'll draw up the schedules tonight," Emma says, putting the pink planner in her purse. "I'm assuming that the football practices are held at the same time as last year?"
"Yep." This time Shannon stands up for real. "Can't wait to tell the boys tomorrow. Thanks again, Emma."
"Thanks," Emma echoes, and smiles.
As soon as Will told her he was leaving, she knew in her heart that she would be the one to take over New Directions. It's funny the way music can bring people together, create something so strong that you're still whole even when one of the music makers leaves.
A spectacular year indeed.