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Keep on Chasing a Dream

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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."

"Right."

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.

Chapter Text

The copier jams on the last page of the libretto, of course. Emma glances at the clock and presses her knuckles to her mouth to keep from screaming in frustration. She arrived at McKinley at six on a Monday morning to make copies of West Side Story at a time where she wouldn't have to fight a pitched battle for the copier. She's probably just killed an entire tree, but at least it's in the name of art and not yet another redundant office form. (It's possible that Emma has been working up the courage to suggest consolidating some of the student file forms for the past five years.)

"Come on, come on, come on," Emma chants, opening up the side of the copier. It whirs sadly at her as the offending sheet of paper flutters, caught in the middle of the machine. "Well, I'm glad I brought my gloves." She pulls on sterile gloves and reaches in, tugging the ink-sodden mess free. "Oh, dear. That definitely shouldn't happen."

Still, after she deposits gloves and the offending piece of paper into the trash, the copier resumes copying when she shuts the side door. Once it spits out the last few sheets, Emma clips the final copy together and deposits it in the enormous cardboard box she brought. She has fifteen minutes before the first bell, meaning that the English teachers will be in any minute to make copies of their vocabulary worksheets.

"Go, go, go, in the name of the Les Miserables soundtrack in your car," Emma chants, hauling the box out of the copy room and through the first hallway in record time. She has to slow down after, though, since the box weighs what feels like fifty pounds.

"Going somewhere with six months of our paper supply, Irma?"

Emma breathes, "Oh no," before she can stop herself. Sue Sylvester is stalking down the hallway, and Emma has never felt more like a gazelle since the last time she talked to her. "Guidance officer work, you know, very busy, have to go change lives."

"I can smell the music on you. It reeks of staccato beats and dashed dreams."

"Don't you have a practice to run? I think it would be nice if New Directions and the Cheerios both managed to make it to Nationals this year," Emma says, and flees before Sue can charge. That's the nice thing about Sue: once you can get past the fear and listen to what she's actually saying, the nonsensical things that come out of her mouth are too ridiculous to intimidate. Flushed with triumph, Emma opens the door to the auditorium with her hip and finally deposits the box on the table in the front, where Shannon is waiting for her.

"We have a musical budget as of yesterday afternoon!" Shannon announces. "It's not much of one, but it should be enough, especially knowing that Figgins originally wanted to give me a twenty dollar bill. I'm not sure that man knows much about the arts."

"You might say that," Emma says with a delicate cough. "I've got copies of everything that we could possibly need, and the sides for the auditions are on top. What's the good word from the AV club?"

"Have no fear, the AV club is here!" Artie says, wheeling down the aisle, Lauren at his side. "Sorry, the set-up for that line was too perfect to ignore."

"We've been here for the past five minutes," Lauren adds. "You're looking at your lighting designer, your set designer, and your sound designer right here."

"But there are only two of you," Emma says, brow wrinkling.

"Oh, I was just talking about me. Wrestling season doesn't start for another two months and I get bored during off-season training. Artie has a different proposition for you."

"Word, Z," Artie says, high-fiving Lauren. "My girl here has got all your tech stuff covered. I want to get in on this gig as your official student director. A little experience for this future Hollywood superstar, you feel me? Also, Jacob is the only other kid in this school who could possibly ask, and Rachel Berry is probably going to murder him before the year is out."

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," Emma says. "I'm fine with having a student director. We have our work cut out for us as it is. What do you think, Shannon?"

"I think the more, the merrier." Shannon shakes Artie's hand, then looks Lauren up and down. "What's your name again?"

"Zizes, Coach Beiste. Lauren Zizes."

"Stop by my office sometime. If your off-season training is boring, you should switch things up a little. Don't take any of my tips without talking to your coach first, though."

At those words, Lauren starts smiling so hard it looks like it hurts, and Emma kicks herself for not thinking to introduce them earlier. "Auditions are this Thursday," she says to Artie, who nods and scrawls the date on the inside of his wrist. "I'll put you in charge of posting the sign-up forms today."

"Tell everybody to bring their A game," Shannon adds. "The competition this year is gonna be fierce."

*

"I'd like to talk to you about our plans for this year."

Mercedes yelps and drops her lip gloss in the bathroom sink. "Girl, you have got to stop creeping on people in bathrooms."

"How did you--never mind. The point is that you're here and I'm here and we have a lot to discuss," Rachel says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear with one hand and clutching her ridiculous stack of planners with the other.

Retrieving her lip gloss from the sink and screwing the cap back on gives Mercedes enough time to think of a tactful response. "My first piece of advice, and I know I've said this before, is slow down. You're going to run yourself to death this year."

"I admit that I've been something of a caricature of myself in the past few weeks, but--"

"--but you shouldn't confuse over-thinking with planning ahead." Mercedes holds out a hand and wriggles her fingers in expectation. After a moment, Rachel hands over one of her planners, this one decorated in pink rhinestone music notes. "You've seriously already written songs down in the glee club rehearsal schedule? Has that ever worked out for you?"

Rachel mumbles something that sounds like, "A little."

Mercedes takes another look at the neat song titles entered on different dates, some annotated with choreography suggestions and arrangements including back-up singers. Seeing her name repeated in that category makes her fingers tighten on the planner. "You know, it's pretty bad etiquette to give your co-president a list of songs that all star you."

"Oh, no, if you look on the setlist for Regionals, you'll see that I've selected a number--"

"Rachel, if you want things to be different this year, you have to mean it." Mercedes hands the planner back, willing herself not to throw it to the ground to emphasize her point. She'd never do anything like that, but there's a satisfying heat to thinking about it. She likes Rachel, even admires a lot of what makes her so annoying, but then she goes and forgets that other people exist in the world. "It sounds like Ms. P is letting us vote on what we're doing for each competition and then rehearse those numbers instead of having theme weeks. I'm thinking that we'll vote on the songs, too."

Rachel bites her lip and looks away at that. "It's already been firmly established that I'll lose any popularity contest in glee club."

"We're the co-presidents. We'll keep it from being a popularity contest. You saw Ms. P calling Santana on her Mean Girl crap. The club is changing, you've just gotta be willing to change with it. That includes no more New Rachel Berry Directions." Mercedes half-expects Rachel to storm out of the bathroom at that, but that would be the girl who didn't know how to have friends. This girl, the girl who wears ridiculous pink pajamas to sleepovers, just lets out a rueful laugh.

"What if we made it the New Berry Jones Directions?"

"Oh, you know Kurt would never forgive us."

"Mm, the New Hummelberry Jones Directions does have a certain ring to it."

"See, we're improving on the old model already." Mercedes picks up her bag and slings it over her shoulder, sliding the lip gloss back inside. "I gotta meet Sam, but walk with me. Do you have any ideas that don't make you look like a dictator with perfect pitch?"

Rachel perks up instantly, though it's anyone's guess as to whether it's because of her enthusiasm over her ideas or the mention of her singing abilities. "I do! I was thinking that we should target our dancing as early as possible, since it's our weakest point. We'll have to ask Mike and Brittany if they have time to run a little dance drill camp. Also, the eighties are definitely our decade for Sectionals. Big hair, big voices, big opportunities to sing Phantom of the Opera--the perfect decade."

"Yeah, how about no? We can totally rock the forties. Puck and I made a fine-ass Frank and Ella, and swing dancing looks amazing onstage." Mercedes laughs at Rachel's open-mouthed staring. "I agree about the dancing thing, though. Mike and Brittany will always be able to dance circles around us, but I'd like to make those circles a little smaller, you know? Plus you and me should give a demonstration on proper singing technique. Don't you ever tell Quinn I said this, but she sings through her nose."

That earns a real laugh, one that causes Rachel to cover her mouth. "Oh no, I'm sorry! It's just that I appreciate a reasoned assessment of the group's strengths and weaknesses from a peer. Quinn is a wonderful dancer and she has lovely tone on the rare occasions when she breathes from her diaphragm. Should we conduct these lessons on an individual level or as a group? I defer to your people skills."

"As a group, definitely. We don't have any major problems, and we don't want to single anybody out. That's a surefire way to knock out our confidence before our first competition." Mercedes, seeing Sam waiting up ahead, nods and flashes him a smile. "You know, I think we have the perfect good cop/bad cop thing going on."

"Yeah," Rachel says softly. They fall silent as they approach Sam, who lifts a hand in greeting. Rachel waves back and explains, "We were just discussing presidential matters."

"Does this make me the First Man?"

"You're the first something," Mercedes says, tilting her face up for a kiss. "Isn't your next class in the other direction?"

"Yeah, but I'm not gonna see you again until rehearsal." Sam kisses her and she feels it all the way in her toes, for all it's a chaste peck in the hallways. "Later, ladies."

Mercedes watches him go, and if she hugs herself a little bit, well, there's no shame in being head over heels for your boyfriend. When she turns back to Rachel, Rachel is watching her with this funny little half-smile. "You're doing it all this year," Rachel says. "I saw that you signed up to audition for West Side Story, too."

That's the thing about high school: even conversations with your friends can feel like walking through a minefield blindfolded. Mercedes weighs two years of holding back against all that this year has been so far and all that it could be still in the time it takes her to take a deep breath. "I want to be a singer, too. Not on Broadway, but there's a recording contract out there with my name on it."

Instead of drawing out the tension, her words break it. Rachel sticks out a hand and says, "Having a rival of your caliber is both a necessary life experience and an honor." As Mercedes shakes her hand, amused, Rachel adds, "I'm really glad that we're friends."

"Friends don't shake hands, they hug," Mercedes says. "C'mere."

It doesn't feel strange at all to be hugging Rachel Berry in the middle of the hallway, even though two years ago all Mercedes wanted was to put duct tape over her mouth. They've grown up since then, and the spotlight has widened to match, shining down on them both.

*

"--followed by a vigorous round of drills in vocal techniques!" Rachel says, concluding her five-minute outline of their new rehearsal schedule for the year. It's only the second day of the school week and Santana's already done with this whole stupid shebang. She rolls her eyes but refrains from saying anything about Berry's lack of life, since getting dumped made Ms. P grow a backbone and now she's forcing them all to be nice to each other. Ms. P might work at McKinley, but she has no idea how McKinley works.

Puck raises his hand. "You know I'd be happy to let you and Mercedes drill me any way you like, but can we vote on our decade now? I have some badass ideas."

"More badass than 'Fat Bottomed Girls,' even?" Mercedes teases.

"It worked eventually!"

"In spite of the guy singing," Lauren says, pushing Puck away when he makes a ridiculous kissy face at her. Santana makes a face of her own, this one disgusted. God, all the happy couples in here make her want to heave, especially Teen Vogue and his Tiger Beat boyfriend.

"Rachel, would you pass out the pieces of paper?" Ms. Pillsbury asks. "When all of you have voted, I'll tally the votes on the board, and then we'll be able to get started on our Sectionals songs! My goal is to have our setlist solidified for next week and then rehearse like all get-out until the competition. I know you're used to playing things a bit more fast and loose, but I think that sounds like a reasonable time table. Agreed?"

"Oh man, no more speed choreographing ever again," Mike says, high fiving Brittany.

"Alternate universe," she agrees.

Santana accepts her piece of paper, taking out a pen to write her answer. She spent hours on Wikipedia and YouTube last night trying to find a decade that complements her voice and leaves room for some sick dance solos for Brittany. "I Got Rhythm" was written in 1930, so the thirties it is. She and Mercedes will rock everyone's faces off with some jazz, and she'll sing the I got my gal, who could ask for anything more lyric to win Brittany back.

"The thirties," she mutters to Brittany, like this is their ninth grade earth science final all over again. Brittany shoots her a half-smile and shakes her head, which is Brittany for I'm disappointed in you. Ugh, what the fuck ever, like everyone else didn't recruit their friends to vote for their decade of choice.

Brittany counters her scowl with a nudge at her foot, which means, You should have asked me first.

Santana doesn't have anything to say to that, so she walks up to Ms. P and practically throws her paper into her hand. Ms. P gives her Bambi eyes of worry. Santana's kind of tempted to pull a Hudson and kick over a chair, except that would definitely get her locked into some kind of touchy feely anger management class. She slouches back into her seat and watches Brittany hand off her own vote. She's wearing one of her vests with faux fur lining again, the kind that tickled whenever Santana climbed on top of her last year.

Because Santana Lopez is great at a lot of things but especially at shooting herself in the foot, Santana says, "I'm not sorry."

"I am," Brittany says, voice and gaze so level that Santana has to look down at her hands. Her nails are ragged again from Coach Sylvester making them walk a lap on their hands as punishment for Meghan Leary asking if they could get out fifteen minutes early. Rookie mistake, and they all had to suffer. Meghan is stuck with the BreadstiX bill for every post-game celebration, though, so there's still some justice in the world.

Or, Santana thinks, her stupid eyes going right back to Brittany, maybe there's no justice after all.

"One vote for 1930," Ms. P says, writing it on the board. "Let's see. Two for 1940, one for 1980, and one for... 2010?"

"History will remember Ke$ha as the greatest artist of our decade," Brittany says, bobbing her head in time to whatever music she's playing in her head. A bunch of people give her strange looks, which okay, Santana can understand, but they've never seen Brittany get busy to "We R Who We R." If a girl swinging her leg behind her own head isn't great art, Santana doesn't know what is.

"One for 1960, two for 1970, and four for 1990." Ms. P circles the three tally marks under 1990 with a flourish. "Looks like we have our decade for Sectionals! I have some wonderful high school memories of doing the Macarena."

"I was thinking of doing something a little less, ya know, horrible," Puck says once he's done fistbumping Lauren, Tina, and Mike. Okay, what is with glee club and forging weird friendships? The next thing you know, Rachel Berry's wet dream will actually come true and she and Quinn will be best friends for life. "I brought in some inspiration."

"Your boner for Green Day still won't make their music fly at Sectionals, Puckerman," Santana says.

"Like I said, some inspiration for the songs we actually do pick," Puck says, shooting her a dirty look. "We didn't pick the nineties just for the sh--stuff we won't be allowed to sing."

"It's the nostalgia factor," Tina says to Ms. P, who nods. When the fuck did Goth chick learn how to talk? "We have a ton of genres to choose from because there are so many well-known songs from each."

"Show off our versatility, I'm feeling that," Mercedes says, grinning at the nineties foursome. Traitor. Santana curses herself for not asking her to get in on her thirties idea, because then she could at least force a 1930 vs. 1990 vote, since Sam undoubtedly voted with his girlfriend. It's not like he has enough of a personality to do anything else.

"What song are you using to inspire us?" Ms. P asks, sounding wary.

Puck stands up, slinging his guitar strap around his neck. "It's a positive song, don't worry. This one goes out to everybody, whether you have your plans set for the next ten years or have no idea where you'll be next year. We've still got a lot going for us."

"Oh my God, I know what's coming," Santana says, rolling her eyes at Quinn, who rolls them right back, bless her.

Sure enough, Puck launches into "What I Got." It's not as annoying as the eight hundred times Santana had to listen to that song back when they used to make out in his truck, though. Puck's got enough charm to pull off a cheesy song dedication to the whole club--she might be done with the whole hetero gig, but Puck's still her boy.

Then Brittany, who can never listen to a song and sit still, quits chair dancing and gets up to move. Santana stays in her seat like she's goddamn glued there and watches Brittany get her groove on. Mike is also laying down some sick moves on the other side of Puck, but she can only see him in her peripheral vision. God, Brittany belongs on a giant stage. The way she becomes a moving piece of music is so incredible that Santana feels the prickle of incipient tears. Over a Sublime song, for Christ's sake.

"Get up, you idiot," Quinn says, dragging Santana to her feet.

Santana would complain about rehearsal yet again dissolving into one big stupid club singalong, except these few minutes every week are just about the only times she feels happy anymore. By the end of the song, she's got one arm around Mercedes and one arm around Brittany, and for a little bit, lovin' is what I've got is true.

*

Arriving home from a surprisingly nineties-tastic rehearsal, Kurt toes off his shoes in the doorway and then drops his bag on the sofa. Something in the kitchen smells amazing, so he heads in that direction. The instant he sets foot in the kitchen, Carole drops a kiss on his cheek and says, "Sweetie, could you finish slicing the vegetables for the salad? I have to run out and get more olive oil."

"Didn't we just buy some on Sunday?" Kurt asks, but she's already off, purse and car keys in hand. The front door shuts a second later.

"Hey," Finn says, waving. "Mom says the salmon is due out of the oven in fifteen minutes, and also that you have to make sure I don't eat it all." He looks at the half-eaten apple in his hand mournfully. "I'm pretty sure I have a black hole inside of me."

"We're all certain," Kurt agrees, picking up a knife and a pepper. The latter feels wet, so Carole must have already washed them. He starts chopping. "Would you mind taking the spinach out of the bag and washing it?"

"Sure," Finn says, opening the fridge. "Don't ask me to eat it, though."

"I'm going to mix it in with the salad. You and Dad will hardly notice a thing besides your salad actually having flavor," Kurt says. "Oh, shoot, I forgot to ask Carole whether it's okay for Blaine to come over for dinner. We're going to watch Hoarders and work on my campaign speech for tomorrow's meeting. You're welcome to join."

"Won't I get in the way of, uh, you know?" Finn asks, ears reddening as he pours the spinach into a colander and turns the tap on.

Kurt feels himself flushing and chops faster. "I know that you walked in on some, er, things this summer, but I have a lot on my plate right now, no pun intended. I really do need to work on my presidential campaign speech. I doubt any of my rivals are of my intellectual caliber, especially considering Rick the Stick is the incumbent, but things at McKinley have a way of going spectacularly wrong."

"Mom and Burt are really proud of you for all your plans," Finn says, bringing the bowl of rinsed spinach over and sighing.

"Thanks," Kurt says, smiling. When Finn doesn't return the smile, just slumps against the counter, not even taking a bite of his apple, he adds, "I know it doesn't feel all that great to you, but I'm really proud of you for the maturity you're demonstrating."

Finn lets out another sigh, this one longer and louder. "You'd think after all those times I quit glee, I wouldn't miss it so much. I wish the whole choir room didn't shout Rachel at me, 'cause then I'd come back in a heartbeat."

"You can still come back," Kurt says, putting down the knife to put handfuls of the different vegetables into the salad bowl. "Just maybe after the dust is a little more settled. Dressing and tongs, please."

Kurt dresses the salad and then tosses it as Finn resumes eating his apple. They stand together in companionable silence for a few minutes, early autumn sunshine pouring in the kitchen windows. The kitchen has always been one of Kurt's favorite rooms, but it's even better with Carole's cow print dish towels hanging from the cabinet handles. The oven dings and Finn slips on some oven mitts, retrieving the salmon from the oven.

"Are you ready to talk about what happened?" Kurt asks. Finn still hasn't told him the details of the last break-up with Rachel. The day after it happened, Finn just said that it was over and that he wasn't going back to glee until he and Rachel were ready to be around each other again. Kurt's pretty sure that Carole knows the whole story, but all she does is shake her head when Kurt hints around for what he's missing.

Finn takes off the oven mitts, but keeps them clenched in his hands. Looking at the still-sizzling salmon instead of Kurt, he says, "She just got more unhappy each day. I felt bad about what happened at Nationals, but she--that last fight, she told me that every day she checked the YouTube comments on that video. We were happy about getting back together, but the way it happened just made her sadder and sadder. I felt bad because I didn't feel bad the way she did, and then I felt like I wasn't a good enough boyfriend because of it, except a good boyfriend would be happier to get her back than win a competition, so it got all mixed up. We were so angry and one day it just... came out, and then it was over. For good."

"Finn," Kurt says softly.

"I didn't want to talk to you about it at first because I was so mad and I know that you and Rachel are friends. You'd feel like you had to take my side. I kind of wanted to do it anyway, but Mom said that it'd make things worse in the end. She was the one who said I should take some time off glee."

"Well, make sure it doesn't last too long," Kurt says, hugging Finn around the waist with one arm. How could he ever have had a crush on him? This feels like hugging his dad. "We're down our best dancer."

Finn laughs. "The minute I stop feeling like a horse kicked me in the chest every time I look at Rachel, I'll be back."

"Speaking of back, here I am!" Carole announces. "And look who I found!" Blaine walks over to Kurt, eyebrows raising in inquiry at Kurt and Finn, still in hugging position.

"Blaine! I'm so sorry I forgot to mention him coming over," Kurt says, mortified. He detaches himself from his stepbrother to greet his boyfriend, who is after all a much more appealing person to wrap his arms around.

"We just automatically cook for three boys," Carole says, waving a hand. "Don't worry about it. He dries dishes."

"Where's the olive oil? I'll put it away," Finn says.

"Hmm? Oh, I must have forgotten it," Carole says, winking at her son. "Did you two have a good talk?"

"So good that I'm hungry again," he replies, and engulfs her in a bear hug.

"You have the world's most adorable family," Blaine informs Kurt.

"And the world's most adorable boyfriend."

"Well, that goes without saying. Can the world's most adorable boyfriend help set the table for dinner, since he is yet again mooching off the world's most adorable family?"

"As long as he stops talking in the third person," Carole says. Laughing, Kurt leads Blaine into the dining room.

*

When Mike walks into English class on Wednesday, he shows his teacher his little yellow ticket to freedom and walks right back out. He takes the long route to the guidance office, ducking into the bathroom to read a text from Tina, which says u r my sunshine, my only sunshine. It's hard to miss the worried edge to the way she smiles at him and the way her kisses feel like distractions. The longer he works on college applications, the more it feels like he's drifting away from everyone and everything that he cares about.

He texts u make me happy when skies r gray back to Tina and slips his phone in his pocket. He passes the same hall monitor on his second loop through one hallway, but she doesn't say anything. Funny how being known as a "good kid" means that you can pretty much do whatever you want.

"Hello, Mike," Ms. Pillsbury says when he pushes open the door to her office. "Still having trouble deciding between Harvard and Stanford?" Her expression is as welcoming as always, but something about the way she's looking at him makes Mike nervous.

"I'm checking in to make sure that all my stuff is in order. And stuff," Mike says, then winces. Rather than embarrass himself further by opening his mouth again, he sits down and focuses on the pamphlets Ms. Pillsbury has on display today. In order, they read, Hey! You're Gay!, Hulk Smash: Anger Management for Nerds, and Waiting Tables: Pursuing a Career in the Arts.

"I'll pull up your records," Ms. Pillsbury says, typing something into her computer. "Well, it looks like your grades are fantastic. You have solid after-school activities, I know that. Colleges will appreciate a scholar-athlete-artist. How did the SAT go last year?"

"Fine," Mike says, shuddering at the memory of endless prep classes. "Sorry, they really did go well after all the studying I did. I don't think it's really my grades and my test scores that need work. It's my essay. Whenever I try to write about myself, nothing comes out." Now that he's said it out loud, he feels like the world's biggest idiot. What kind of shape is his head in if he can't even write about a subject he should know better than anyone else?

Ms. Pillsbury turns away from her computer, fixing him with that look again. "That seems more like a job for English class. If I'm not mistaken, that's where you're supposed to be right now."

Mike shifts from side to side in his seat, staring at the pamphlets again. "Aren't guidance counselors supposed to be good at getting you to talk about yourself?"

"Okay. You mentioned that Stanford and Harvard are your top two choices. What about them interested you?"

"They're the best schools. They'll get me into the best medical schools, which will get me into a great residency program," Mike recites. "My whole future depends on this one essay, pretty much."

"Mm-hmm. And how long have you wanted to be a doctor?"

"When I was really little, like preschool little, the only thing I would sit and play quietly was Operation. You know, the game where the guy is sick and you have to pick out the little pieces without touching the rest of his body? His nose lights up? I'd play it all the time and my mom called me her little doctor. My dad liked that."

"What else did you do when you were little?"

"Climbed on everything. Scared my mother to death. The radio was always on, I remember that. My mom taught me how to tango." Mike smiles at the memory of his mother's hands in his, her laughter as she showed him the steps and then had him try to lead her around the kitchen.

"Does your mother dance as well? You're such a pleasure to watch in New Directions."

"Not a lot, I guess? We don't spend a whole lot of time together anymore. I have all my after school stuff and my friends and Tina, and she went back to work after I started first grade. Sometimes I would show her dances I copied from TV." He could add that in third grade he tried to show his father a new move and all he said was That's nice without looking up from his crossword. His father never had to voice his disapproval; it was in every move he made.

"So what is your dancing style, anyway?" Ms. P asks, leaning forward in her chair. "You said that you first learned to tango, but it seems very different now, to my untrained eye."

"Pop-and-locking and breakdancing," Mike says, breaking into a smile. It's weird to talk this much in one sitting, but no one ever asks him questions about dancing except Tina. "It's like, there are all these rules about where beats fall in the music and what your body can do, but you can bend them whatever way you want. You fit yourself into what's already there and you make it your own. Tina says that I tell a story with my dancing, but I don't write one out or anything. That's probably why my college essay is taking forever." Where does she order these pamphlets from, anyway?

"Or it's taking forever because becoming a doctor isn't where your passion lies," Ms. Pillsbury says gently. "Contrary to popular wisdom, you don't have to map your entire life out at seventeen. It's important to have a plan, but plans have to be flexible or they won't do you any good in the long run. Medical school requires a major amount of money and commitment. It should be something you're sure about. Apply to those schools, absolutely, but you shouldn't limit yourself, especially when there's something else that you truly love."

Mike knots his fingers together. "My parents--they'd never want me to be a dancer. They've made a lot of sacrifices for my education. They'd think that I'm throwing it all away to do something that doesn't--that doesn't really mean that much."

"It means a lot to you, though. I think you'd have no trouble writing an essay for an arts school."

"Ms. P, I just--I can't." The admission falls between them like a curtain. End of show.

Ms. Pillsbury picks up a pen and crosses something out in her planner. "There are other options, of course. Harvard and Stanford probably have dance minors, though I'd have to double check. If you end up keeping dancing even as a hobby, though, why not audition for West Side Story? It would be an opportunity for you to really shine, maybe show your parents what you can do."

Like he hasn't been staring at the sign-up sheet ever since he noticed it on the arts department bulletin board. Mike drums his fingers against his thighs, then looks up. Ms. Pillsbury is watching him with a kind smile, waiting for him to make some kind of decision, even if it's just to brush her suggestion aside and forget about it. "I'll do it," he says, and her smile widens. "There are some days when dancing is the only thing that makes sense."

"I know," she says. "And for the record, Mike? Dancer or doctor or both, I think that you'll make something good of your life. Now get back to class and write that essay."

"Yes, ma'am," Mike says, rising. He's going to take the long way back to class, though--the sign-up sheet is on the other side of the building.

*

Step, step, step, turn the corner, step, stop for the PDA happening in the only free space in the hallway. Getting from one place to another in school makes no sense at all, in Brittany's opinion. She's about to use her height to her advantage and elbow her way through the crowd when the girl next to the bulletin board at the opposite end of the hallway catches her eye.

Santana is signing up for West Side Story auditions, probably printing in all capital letters the way she does when it's important. Brittany isn't sorry that Mr. Schue is gone, but sometimes she still wants to send him a thank you card for making a place for the New Directions family to come together. Her dad likes to say that whatever's meant to happen will come to pass, usually right before trying to fix the plumbing with a hammer and some duct tape. Brittany thinks that fate has plenty to do with it, but that it doesn't hurt to lend a helping hand. That's the whole reason she's headed to this student council meeting.

"This whole thing is sadder than sophomore year, when I couldn't get enough of Noah Puckerman," Quinn says, walking through the crowd as if there's no one around at all. Brittany used to think Quinn's powers came from her hair, but she still had hair when she was pregnant and people thought it was okay to get in her way then. Maybe she secretes pheromones.

"I think the hardest thing to do is miss someone standing right next to you," Brittany says, turning away. "I want to be with her, but dancing onstage, not hiding in a corner. I don't think it makes sense to have two partners who don't want the same things. Like, how would we ever learn the steps?"

Quinn's eyebrows arch, like it's still a big surprise that Brittany knows how people work. Quinn's one of her oldest friends, but she likes to measure everyone by the giant measuring stick that her mother passed down to her. "She better appreciate everything you're doing for her, that's all I'm saying. Here, I drafted an opening statement for you with the ideas you mentioned earlier. Just smile and nod and don't make waves, and you'll be senior class president like that."

"Thanks, Quinn. I don't think there are any pools around here anyway."

"...yeah. See you at practice. I'll tell Santana you were looking for her, okay?"

Brittany takes the sheet of paper from Quinn and reads it over on the rest of the walk to the meeting. The speech is short, just a paragraph, and full of vague statements about making the school a cleaner and safer environment, capped off with a definitive promise that this year's senior prom will be way better than last year's A Knight to Remember armor disaster. It's a speech that, with a few more big words, would get Quinn elected anywhere. She's still mulling it over when she spots Kurt Hummel outside the designated classroom door, staring at the doorknob.

"It works better if you open it, unless you're Juno in that X-Men movie," Brittany says.

Kurt rolls his eyes. "Somewhere Sam Evans is smiling and he doesn't know why. What are you doing here?"

"I'm running for student body president. It's the real power behind the prom king and prom queen's throne. Is that why you're here?"

"Something like that." Kurt does the same eyebrow raise as Quinn, only without the smile to go with it. Brittany frowns at him as she opens the door.

It turns out they're the last ones to arrive. Inside is the usual crowd on student council: mostly nerds and the occasional popular kid, all wanting to look good for college. The nervous-looking ones have to be freshmen. Brittany waves at Leah, a tiny sophomore in training to become a Cheerios flyer. She waves back, a delighted grin on her face. The grin fades when Mr. Sullivan, world's scariest history teacher, slams his hand on his desk for order.

"Welcome, those of you with idealistic if misguided faith in the democratic process," Mr. Sullivan says, nodding in the direction of Kurt and some of the nerds. "Welcome to the rest of you, who are probably lost."

"Rick the Stick is never lost," Rick says, pumping his fist.

"Son, you are a disgrace to the intellectual beauty of hockey," Mr. Sullivan replies, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his index finger. "Now, the purpose of this meeting is for a test run of your opening statements, which I am told you will read during tomorrow morning's announcements, where of course all of your peers will hear them. While we are forbidden to prevent any student in good--or at least reasonable--academic standing from running, I am allowed to strongly recommend that those of you with underwhelming statements seek a different and less desperate way to salvage your resumes. Seniors, you get to go first. Kurt Hummel!"

"Sir," Kurt says, paling but drawing himself upright. He unfolds a perfectly creased piece of paper and spreads it out on the desk. "Fellow students of McKinley, my name is Kurt Hummel. I'm sure you've noticed in the past few years, or even the past few weeks if you're just starting out, that McKinley High School is sort of a diamond in the rough. The diamond is, of course, the friends and mentors you will meet here. The rough is the constant threat of bullying, where any student who steps out of line gets tormented. Those of you who are different already know this pain, whether you cover it up or let your freak flag fly. I know it seems like nobody cares about you. I'm here to pledge that I do. As senior class president I, Kurt Hummel, vow to end bullying at McKinley High School. A vote for me is a vote to make a difference at our school."

Kurt sits back down, head held high despite the whispers breaking out amongst the underclassmen. Mr. Sullivan is the only one who applauds. Brittany's heart is pounding in her ears, so hard that she forgets to clap and so loudly that she can barely hear Rick's speech, even though it's basically thirty seconds of grunting noises. Those of you who are different already know this pain, whether you cover it up... It's like he wrote the speech for himself, but also Santana.

"Brittany Pierce," Mr. Sullivan says, cutting off Rick in mid-whoop. "Impress me."

And that's the thing. Quinn's speech would impress Mr. Sullivan--if it were Quinn reading it. Brittany knows that she's going to mess it up and mumble half of it. It's what Kurt and Mr. Sullivan expect of her, even though it's not her. She crumples up her piece of paper and stands instead, because she always thinks better with both feet on the ground. Too bad she can't turn a cartwheel for good luck. "My fellow Americans, I know I'm supposed to run this campaign by talking about giving peace a chance and an awesome prom. Well, I can talk about prom, but I want to make it clear that prom is not awesome if there are kids who don't feel safe going." Kurt gives her a startled look and Brittany smiles in response. "We go to school because in our hearts, we want to learn stuff, even if it feels like it's just because our parents make us. If I, Brittany Susan Pierce, am elected president, I promise to help you guys learn how to accept each other. We can be better than slushies and dumpster tossing. McKinley is cooler than that."

When she sits down, it's to everyone, including Kurt and Mr. Sullivan, breaking out into applause.

The rest of the meeting is so boring that Brittany kind of drifts off for the rest of it. She had double Cheerios practice yesterday, followed by a homework session with Quinn and Santana. Trying to understand Spanish is hard enough, but when it's coming from someone you haven't kissed in two months and miss more than Justin Timberlake's solo career, it's impossible. She's woken by Kurt shaking her shoulder gently.

"They're all gone," Kurt says, smiling. "And I have a proposition for you."

"Is Blaine okay with that?"

"Not that kind of proposition." Kurt leans forward, eyes all intense and hazel, like Quinn's on the last day of practice before a huge competition. "I think that we should team up and run on the same ticket, student body president and vice president. We have the same platform. You have the popularity to get us into power, and I have a certain je ne sais quoi, not to mention political savvy."

"That's smart," Brittany says. "I agree, but..."

"I know that I have to take the VP title," Kurt says smoothly, polishing one of his shiny buttons with his thumb. He looks exactly like Santana in one of her moods. "In a perfect world, my superior speech-writing would give me the presidential bid, but we need to make some changes before McKinley is anything close to perfect."

"We'll be co-presidents, like Mercedes and Rachel," Brittany says immediately, sticking out her hand. "I don't care what it says on the ballot. If we can help S--if we can make McKinley a more awesome place, we're equal."

Kurt shakes her hand, satisfied. "Consider our alliance sealed. We'll crush Rick before it's even time for a debate."

"I'm so glad we made out that one time," Brittany says. "With that out of the way, now we can be friends."

*

Next to glee, art is by far Tina's favorite part of the school day. She has no special passion for the visual arts, but back when she was a freshman and her guidance counselor still worked at McKinley, he took one look at her punked out wardrobe and said, "So I assume you'll be taking Intro to Art." Correcting him would have required speaking, so Tina just sat in her chair and let him switch around her courses. Intro to Art also introduced her to Ms. Lombardi, the gray-haired hippie art teacher who manages to be laid back without letting her students walk all over her. Tina, Lauren, Sam, and a couple other seniors talked Ms. Lombardi into letting them do sculpture as an elective, which means they get to hang out in the back of the art room and listen to the radio.

"I put it on 107.5 for inspiration," Sam says. He's already seated at their table, carefully twisting wires into what's supposed to be the figure of a man. Sam, to everyone's lack of surprise, is sculpting his oldest and favorite Dungeons and Dragons character as his big project. "Like, I'm pretty sure Kurt Cobain would come back from the dead if we tried to make 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' work as a group number, but there's gotta be something."

Tina retrieves her frame-in-progress from the shelf at the back of the room and sits next to him. "I like the way you think." 107.5 is a little heavy on the alt rock boy angst for her taste as far as setlists, but it makes for good background music. "What did you think of Brittany's speech this morning? I can't believe that she and Kurt are running together. Remember when they tried to date last year?"

"Kind of glad I missed that," Lauren says, shuddering. "I don't know who would have the worse deal in that situation."

"I couldn't hear her speech over the kid playing Angry Birds in front of me," Sam says. "Why do they put those in the morning announcements, anyway?"

"Because the Man wants the sound of democracy gets lost in the din of stupidity," Tina says, grinning when Sam and Lauren nod. It feels good to get her feminist on. She just has to work on doing so in audiences consisting of more than two.

Their table falls quiet for a bit. Tina sneaks a look at Lauren's sculpture frame, which is spiraling and abstract and still manages to make complete sense. It's very Lauren, all muscular twists surrounding a complex, almost delicate core. Tina went abstract with her frame as well, but more because she has no idea what she wants to do than because she has an artistic vision.

"Hey, you want to hang out after school today?" Tina asks, poking Lauren in the arm.

"Can't, it's Thursday. I gotta to hook up the mics for West Side Story auditions. I'm surprised you're not auditioning," Lauren says, clipping a bit of wire. "Your boy finally got his act together and signed up."

"Which was hard for him," Tina says with more irritation than she really feels, all the better to avoid Lauren's unspoken question. "You remember what his dad was like the one time we were late dropping him off. That wasn't him annoyed at Mike for being late, that was him annoyed at Mike for wasting time having a life."

Lauren whistles. "My parents take no shit from my brother and me, but damn."

"Wire cutters, please," Sam says, holding out a hand. "My parents are still out on the job hunt." Lauren ruffles his hair at that, which is code for sorry, dude.

Tina has no badass reputation to uphold, so she says, "That sucks. Much like this frame." She pokes at her frame, which has become a snarl of wires in the last five minutes.

"Just say that it's a statement of teenage angst," Lauren says. "Lombardi won't believe you, but she'll pass you." Eying Tina, she adds, "You could totally show up at auditions, you know. Lopez, Berry, and Mercedes are the only other chicks auditioning who can really sing."

"I want to," slips out before Tina can stop it. Sam and Lauren both look at her for such a long time that she has no choice but to fill the silence with an explanation. "In sophomore year, Mr. Schue gave me a solo on 'Tonight.' I sounded okay in rehearsal, but I knew I wasn't as good as Rachel or Mercedes would have been. I practiced that song over and over for a week straight, but Mr. Schue never asked to hear me again and we didn't end up using the song for anything. Glee club was the first and last thing I auditioned for."

"Mr. Schue played favorites," Lauren says. "Don't let it keep getting to you after he ditched you guys. You rocked everyone's socks last week with that Florence song, including Ms. P's."

"You spent all summer rocking our socks even when we were barefoot," Sam adds.

Tina pulls out one of the wires from her frame, straightening it back into its original form. "I'm getting to be okay with singing when it's in a group or for a good cause. I'm still not a leading lady."

"You could be," Lauren insists. She jabs a finger in the direction of the radio, which is playing a commercial for car insurance at the moment. "I dare you to prove me wrong. Next song that you know that comes on, I want you to sing your heart out."

"Won't the other people in here get annoyed?"

Lauren shrugs. "They never seem to notice when we sing in the hallways."

Tina walks over to the radio. There is no freaking way she's going to burst into song in front of a bunch of strangers, especially when she's not even onstage. She means to switch the radio off, she really does, but then the opening riff of "Just a Girl" starts, like the DJ has a direct link to everything that's boiling inside Tina right now.

"Take this pink ribbon off my eyes," Tina starts, singing low enough that Gwen Stefani's voice rises above her, but Lauren cocks an eyebrow in challenge and she starts singing louder, losing herself in the song as she unravels her stupid wire frame. Sam throws up the horns when she hits the chorus and then Tina is gone, pouring seventeen years of frustration into three minutes of song. As she hisses out the last "here," she shoves the last of her frame into the trash can.

"Excellent emotion," Ms. Lombardi says, looking up from her grading. The corners of her mouth turn upright. "I expect to see that reflected in your later work. I also expect a finished product."

"You gotta audition now," Sam says. "I think anger is your muse."

"It's always been mine," Lauren agrees.

Tina stands up from the table and tears a piece of paper out of one of the many sketch pads on the supplies table. It's back to the literal drawing board for her. "Fine, fine, I'll do it," she says, getting out her pencil. The paper, much like her future, is one big question mark.

Senior year is as good a time as any to start answering.

*

Settling into William McKinley High School has been... interesting so far. The slushie to the face on the first day was the major difference, of course. The little differences keep niggling at Blaine, whether those differences are good or bad. The fast food places right around the corner are a plus, though he's going to have to ask Kurt how he stays so in shape. Rachel and Mercedes are glee club leaders both more approachable and more terrifying than Wes, which Blaine has tentatively labeled a good thing. Then there's a whole lot of bad: the smell in the science wing, the state of the health curriculum (and the math curriculum, and pretty much every curriculum), and the occasional nasty comment in the hallway.

And yet, all it takes is one look at Kurt to chase the doubts away. Blaine meets Kurt halfway down the aisle in the auditorium, a side for West Side Story held out for him. Maybe someday he'll have the words to tell Kurt that he inspires him every day just by showing up at McKinley, head and heels high.

Actually, that sounds pretty good. Maybe he'll put it in an e-card.

"Are you nervous?" Blaine asks. "We're actually doing the dance auditions first, but I figured that we could read lines together. I think that we've got Tony and Riff in the bag. Possibly Bernardo, although all those football players look the part more."

Kurt takes the side from Blaine, then fidgets with a crease on one of the corners. "Did I mention that I'm auditioning for the part of Action?"

"What? No! Kurt, please tell me that this isn't because of me," Blaine says, taking a step back. "Your 'Maria' is literally perfect, and--"

"--and that means that I'll impress at every college audition," Kurt says, slipping his hand into Blaine's and tugging him forward again. "I don't know if I can handle running a campaign, playing the lead role in the school musical, New Directions, and college auditions at the same time. Right now the two main questions in my life are whether Brittany and I are enough to force some change into McKinley and if my 'Marry Me a Little' makes Dad and Carole cry because I'm a genius or Sondheim is."

"Kurt--"

"I have an entire month of auditions scheduled from late October to mid-November. You've seen my calendar: no weekends for me," Kurt says, squeezing his hand. "You're lucky that the colleges you picked are more easygoing about sending in recordings."

Blaine allows himself a reluctant smile. "That's because you picked the best of the best." Earlier this summer, his parents sat him down and told him point-blank that they didn't mind him majoring in music as long as he had another "more realistic" major. It means he's not applying to any strictly performing arts colleges, but at least he doesn't have to worry about taking a spot from Kurt or vice versa.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you before now. I meant to at dinner the other night." Kurt leans down and rests his forehead against Blaine's--carefully, so their hair doesn't get messed up pre-audition. "A big part of me wants to audition anyway so that I can magnanimously turn down whatever major role I get."

"A big part of me wants to kiss you," Blaine says, so he does. He still wants to argue, if only to appease his conscience after the tiny, petty part of him tells him that now he's a shoo-in for Tony. Kurt is freaking gifted, and all of his gifts deserve to shine, even if right now he's more about saving the world, or at least the outsiders of McKinley High School. He has to respect Kurt's judgment, though.

"Hot shit coming through," Santana Lopez says, barreling down the aisle a minute later. "Watch it, Marthas."

"Marthas?" Blaine mouths to Kurt.

Somehow Santana senses his amusement and whips around. "Martha Stewart for obvious reasons," she says, pointing to Kurt. She turns to Blaine. "Martha Washington because you dress like someone from ancient times."

"All right, people!" Coach Beiste says, clapping her hands from where she's been conversing with Ms. Pillsbury and Artie in the front of the auditorium. The murmuring students in the audience snap to attention, including the jocks. "Dance auditions first. Girls, get onstage. Boys, get warmed up. I'll be demonstrating the steps and then calling them. Break a leg, folks!"

Blaine finds himself stretching alongside Mike as well as Kurt. Mike flashes him a friendly grin and then touches his toes--by lifting his leg up while in a standing position. Blaine knows that he's living proof that looking nerdy while dancing is not just a white boy thing, but at least everyone will look like idiots next to Mike. There's the entire JV football team to consider.

"Here we go," Blaine says when Coach Beiste claps her hands once more.

"Ready?" she bellows. "Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch... Again!"

Nerves make the rest of auditions blur together. From what Blaine can see of the girls' dance audition, they all look good, although Quinn, Santana, and Tina are the standouts, along with a junior wearing bright pink--she goes by Candy or Sweetie or something equally Barbie-esque. As predicted, Mike makes the rest of the guys look like flailing fools, but Blaine and Kurt are better than Puck, who is better than the JV team, who--well, they try.

Line readings go fine--Blaine is pretty sure that Ms. Pillsbury smiles at him after his, though it's hard to tell under the stage lights and he's possibly hallucinating by that point. When they start getting called into the auditorium one by one for singing auditions, Blaine tries to make a beeline for the vending machines, but Kurt drags him to the side door to the auditorium.

"We have to scope out your future Maria and your rivals," Kurt insists. "Fine, you can have some of my water."

The pink-clad junior goes first, and she's possibly the worst singer Blaine has ever heard. Then Santana, Rachel, Mercedes, and Tina all sing "Tonight," and it's like getting punched in the face four times with sheer gorgeousness. There are actual tears in Blaine's eyes by the time Tina hits her last note in a crystal clear head voice. Puck and Mike opt out of auditioning for a bigger role with "Maria" and do two different takes on "Cool" that have Blaine tapping his foot.

"Your friends are amazing," he tells Kurt, who smiles.

Then Ms. Pillsbury calls Kurt's name, and at that point Blaine has no choice but to eavesdrop. He wedges his foot in the door he has cracked open, sticking his head in and praying the light doesn't give him away.

"Kurt, it says here that you're only interested in a secondary role, Action especially," Ms. Pillsbury says.

"That's correct. I'd still like to sing my sixteen bars of 'Maria,' if you don't mind." Then Kurt makes a sweeping gesture in Blaine's direction and delivers what's possibly the most breathtaking "Maria" that Blaine has ever heard, just because he can. Just because he's that amazing and he knows it, even if McKinley's West Side Story isn't going to get all of it.

It should be intimidating, should throw him off his game, but as Blaine walks into the auditorium, Kurt squeezes his shoulder in passing and says, "Win Tony for me."

After that, nailing those high notes in "Maria" is the easiest thing that Blaine has ever done, easy as falling in love with a boy who wants to change the world.

*

Rachel takes the precaution of forging herself and Mercedes a hall pass should anyone catch her sneaking out of class fifteen minutes before the last bell, but the hallway monitors are nowhere to be found. They do tend to skip out on Friday afternoons. She should mention that to Kurt as evidence of corruption in the halls of McKinley High School.

"Whatever happens, I want you to know that our partnership in glee club will not suffer," Rachel says, trying not to skip down the hallway and make it too obvious how things are going to go. Mercedes is a phenomenal singer, but Rachel has performed in numerous community theater productions, and she knows the feeling of nailing an audition down to her very bones. Okay, so she's never been the star of the show, and Maria is written for a classical soprano rather than her mezzo soprano belting, but she's still sure. She did it. She was the perfect Maria. She's going to be the perfect Maria under the bright and occasionally unsafe lights of this school's stage, and she's going to lead the club to victory at Nationals and get into Tisch and win her first Tony before the age of 25.

"You know that saying about counting chickens before they hatch," Mercedes says. "What's the vegan version? Don't count your carrots before you pull them out of the ground?"

"Well, as the two most talented members of New Directions, the female leads are undoubtedly ours."

"Amen."

Their teasing dies off once they get to the bulletin board. The cast list is posted on a cheerful yellow pastel, the work of Ms. Pillsbury, no doubt. Rachel gulps and reaches for Mercedes's hand. "Okay. Logic states that Maria and Tony are the two top names. Let's read the list starting at the bottom. Agreed?"

"Yeah," Mercedes breathes. Her hand is shaking in Rachel's, or maybe vice versa. "Looks like the JV team is covering most of the small parts. Mike is Riff and Quinn is his girlfriend, ooh, that'll be awkward. Kurt is Action. Who the heck is Action?"

"What?" Rachel asks. "There must be some mistake--"

And then her blood runs cold, because her name is listed under "Shark Girls/I Feel Pretty Quintet."

"This whole cast list is wrong," Rachel says, blinking to chase away the tears in her eyes. They keep forming regardless. "I nailed that audition! Nailed it!"

"I'm on the quintet too," Mercedes says, tracing under her name with one finger before she lets her hand fall. "This isn't... I don't understand." She sounds numb.

"Who are Anita and Maria?" Rachel asks, closing her eyes. She's crying. She's crying in front of the cast list and she can't stop herself, can't do anything but swallow the sobs and let go of Mercedes so she can clench her fists until her nails bite into her skin. "I can't look."

"Santana is Anita. Well, that makes sense. Maria... Tina is Maria."

Rachel hasn't even processed her words before she's taking off down the hallway, turning left into a short dead end that houses the drama department costumes and a custodial closet. She huddles against a corner, arms wrapped around herself, barely able to hear the approaching footsteps over her labored breathing.

"I don't want to be this person," Mercedes says, voice wavering. "This is what I was afraid of turning into when I promised myself a chance at the spotlight."

"I'm trying not to be this person," Rachel says, pulling a tissue from her bag to wipe her eyes. "But all I can think of is that Tina doesn't even want to be a performer. It's all I can think of. I should be ashamed, but I'm so sad." Mercedes leans against the wall next to her and Rachel tilts her head onto her shoulder. "What are we going to do?"

"I thought I might find you here."

Coach Beiste is studying them with her arms folded, but she doesn't look angry. Rachel starts to make up some kind of an excuse for their condition (mostly her condition), but she trails off when Coach Beiste just keeps looking at her, projecting neutrality. Rachel remembers how to breathe.

"We're a little disappointed over the cast list," Mercedes admits. "I'm sorry. I know that it's unkind."

"I," Rachel starts. Takes another breath. Tries again. "I just thought that I had it."

"Let me tell you girls something," Coach Beiste says, coming over to lean against their wall as well. "I have never seen four girls sing their hearts out like that before. Emma and Artie and I had no idea how to choose between you all at first. We made a pros and cons list. Didn't help. It wasn't until Artie started playing the voice parts on piano that we could even get started. We picked the voices that were right for the part. Now, there isn't a doubting bone in my body that someday I'll see you two girls accepting awards, but this is a part of show business, too. You understand?"

Mercedes nods. Rachel blows her nose and manages a tiny nod as well. Tonight, just before she goes to sleep, she'll still probably cry over the unfairness of the world, but she'll keep it to herself. Real divas are reputed for their talent, not their tantrums--she's learned that in two years, at least.

"Good. When you auditioned, you agreed to become part of a team," Coach Beiste says, folding her arms. "Your teammates will be expecting your congratulations and support in about two minutes, according to my watch."

"We'll be there," Mercedes says, and Rachel nods again. It's still difficult to speak, or rather, it's difficult to speak the right words when the wrong ones are lodged in her throat. Just breathe, she tells herself, just listen.

Coach Beiste's face softens into a smile. "Good to know that you have superstar hearts to match the voices. I'm looking forward to hearing your voices on that quintet. The harmonies are so hard that we might have to make it a quartet, unless two co-captains I know are willing to give Sugar Motta some tips."

"Yeah," Mercedes says, the beginnings of a smile appearing. "C'mon, Rachel."

"Just a minute," Rachel says, dabbing at her eyes. Dramatic mentor monologues always make her cry in the movies, and apparently real life is no exception. "I just need to find my show face." When she pulls out her best Rachel Berry smile (patent pending), she feels almost like herself again, just shifted around after the emotional earthquake.

There's pandemonium in the hallway when Rachel, Mercedes, and Coach Beiste emerge. Quinn, Brittany, and Santana are jumping up and down, cool girl exteriors laid aside for the moment. Kurt and Blaine are holding each other so close that Rachel has a moment of honest worry that they're merging into one being. Puck and Lauren are kissing, and Sam pulls Mercedes away to give her a congratulatory kiss as well. No one looks happier than Mike and Tina, though: Mike keeps lifting Tina up to spin her around, and Tina keeps repeating, "I can't believe it! I can't believe it!"

"You better believe it, girl," Mercedes says.

Lauren breaks off making out with Puck long enough to say, "Totally called it."

This is it. This is the team that Coach Beiste was talking about, the team that New Directions is on the verge of becoming. Rachel lunges forward, arms outstretched, and sandwiches Tina in between herself and Mike. "Congratulations!" she squeals, and means every syllable.

Tina twists in Mike's arms, beaming down at her. "When do you want to start rehearsing the quintet?"

"Now," Rachel says in all honesty, and laughs when everyone else does.

Chapter Text

"I could get used to this kind of service," Mercedes says as Sam takes the condiments out of the refrigerator. "My man making me a sandwich, right in my own home!"

"There's still a lady on lemonade duty," Sam replies, making a ridiculous face. "Tradition isn't all the way dead."

"Good food is good food no matter who makes it," Quinn says primly. She finishes measuring out the sugar, then hands the cup over to Stevie to dump into the pitcher. Stacy, wooden spoon gripped between both hands, begins to stir the lemonade with such vigor that Quinn lays a gentling hand on top of her head.

Mercedes steals a piece of tomato on her way to the dryer. "Let's hope the picnic blanket finally dried," she says, pulling the dryer door open and sticking her hand inside. After an extra twenty minutes, the checkered blanket is fluffy and warm. "Perfect. I'm ready to go when the food is. Let's not be late."

"Like we would ever be late for a gig," Sam says, and slides the last sandwich into a plastic baggie. "Sandwiches are go. Lemonade looks pink. Chips? Dips?"

"Carrot sticks," Quinn says. "And yes, they're all in the basket."

The past few days have been a blaze of Indian summer heat. They finish packing the picnic basket and load everything into Quinn's mother's car. It's a nice long walk to the park where the Sunny Side Up Lima Retirement Home is hosting its annual end-of-summer picnic, but Sam has protective feelings about his guitar that border on alarming.

Mercedes rolls down the window as Stevie and Stacy launch into a stirring rendition of "Down By the Bay." Stacy is just getting the hang of rhyming and makes up a few of her own verses. The general consensus is Did you ever see a fairy eating a cherry? is her best original contribution.

Quinn parks across the street from the park and they pile out, food, drink, and guitar case in hand. Mercedes accepts a kiss on the cheek from Mrs. Parker, the director of the retirement home, who says, "Thanks for coming, sweetheart. Beulah is running the show, as usual. I'd say ask her where and when she wants you. I'm just the money!"

Stevie and Stacy have clammed up in the presence of so many adults, both reaching for Sam's hands at the same time. Quinn fusses a little with the hem of her sweater, which she insisted was necessary despite the heat. Mercedes takes Mrs. Parker's advice, standing on her tiptoes to locate Mrs. Clark. Sure enough, Mrs. Clark is in the thick of things, moving from group to group of picnickers with surprising agility for an eighty-year-old. As soon as she catches sight of them, she makes a beeline.

"If it isn't Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley," Mrs. Clark says, wrapping Mercedes and Sam up in a hug. "I've met your friend before, haven't I? Love your work, Grace Kelly."

"You're very kind," Quinn says, words all formality but tone warmed by the sheer friendliness Mrs. Clark radiates from every pore. "I think we met the first time Mercedes sang for you. I picked her up."

"Well, feel free to settle in and enjoy yourself. Your music will serve as our dessert, so I'd say set up when the ice cream comes out. And who are these two angels?"

"That's Stevie," Sam says, patting his head, "and that's Stacy. We found them one day in the grocery store, right next to the brussel sprouts."

Stacy stops chewing on a fingernail long enough to protest, "I'm your sister!"

"I knew it. Surely no one would store such sweet things with the vegetables," Mrs. Clark says, tweaking their noses. "Come on, would you like to meet some of my family now that I've met some of yours?"

"I told you that she'd have them within five minutes," Mercedes says, laughing at Quinn's stunned expression. "Let's set up before all the shady spots are taken."

As soon as they've finished spreading the picnic blanket, Sam gets drafted into setting up tables. Mrs. Clark still has Stevie and Stacy in her benign clutches, so Mercedes and Quinn start in on the sandwiches. After running through the basics (what nineties songs will end up on their setlist, the upcoming West Side Story read-through, the New Directions couple most likely to get married), they get down to business.

"I sent in the application," Quinn says, back to playing with her sweater.

"Good, 'cause I'd hate to have to stand over your shoulder and make you hit the submit button. Did you use the essay you showed me?"

"Yeah." Quinn wipes at her eyes with her sleeve. "Stupid allergies. I wonder if an essay about getting knocked up at sixteen will get my application laughed out of Yale."

"More like getting straight A's and being on award-winning teams during and after getting knocked up," Mercedes reminds her, nudging her with her foot. "You're not gonna get away with talking about yourself like that. The rules haven't changed just because you're back with your mom."

"I can't believe I was dumb enough to stop talking to you," Quinn sighs, lying down on the blanket. "We owe Sam for getting us to talk again."

"We would have figured it out eventually." Mercedes smiles. "But I guess he's good for some things."

Quinn grins up at her. "Oh? So can you tell me whether your voice actually changes after you've been in love?"

"Maybe," Mercedes says, feeling her face grow hot. "I'll let you know after I sing today. He's being pretty sweet with the old people again."

"Mm-hmm. I think it does change," Quinn says, and one of her hands strays to her abdomen. "Your voice, I mean." Mercedes's heart constricts in her chest and she changes the topic to something lighter until Sam comes back with his siblings, having finally won them back from Mrs. Clark.

When they've finished eating, the tubs of ice cream start coming out and Mrs. Clark nods to Mercedes. She and Sam set up near the dessert table, meaning that Sam takes his guitar out of the and tunes it while she hums a little to warm herself up. She feels a little silly singing while people are getting their ice cream, but the retirees are already smiling at them both. An audience is an audience, no matter the venue, which is definitely something Rachel would say.

"You'll probably know this first one," Mercedes says, and winks at Quinn. "It's called 'Something's Got a Hold on Me.'"

There's nothing like the silence that happens in between your first perfect note and your pause for breath. Mercedes waves to Mrs. Clark, then Sam comes in with her accompaniment and she gets her hips into the rhythm. She's never sounded better than with Sam. Maybe being in like-maybe-love is part of that, but most of it is the sun on her skin and the grass under her feet, the crooked smile on Sam's face and the way Quinn is swaying to their music. Singing is like coming home and keeping a promise rolled up into one.

After about an hour of playing, Mercedes and Sam decide through a series of eyebrow raises that it's time for ice cream. They take their bows to enthusiastic applause and Mrs. Clark hands them heaping bowls of ice cream in their favorite flavors, because apparently being a grandmother gives you magical powers.

"My granddaughter is getting married soon," Mrs. Clark says with deliberate innocence. "Now, supposing an old woman wanted to book you as entertainment, where would she be able to reach you?"

Mercedes is pretty sure her jaw is hanging open. "You want us to perform at your granddaughter's wedding?"

"We've done weddings!" Sam says. "Well, a wedding. I can give you my phone number, hold on, I have a napkin."

"But no pen," Mercedes says. Mrs. Clark, of course, pulls both a pen and a notepad out from the depths of her enormous handbag. "Here's my cell phone number and here's Sam's. We'd be happy to play for you and we're so honored to be invited."

Whitney couldn't have said it better herself.

*

Kurt heaves a sigh of relief as he enters the air-conditioned bliss of his home. He is a creature made for cooler temperatures and their scarf accessories and even the walk from his car to his door was torturous. He motions Brittany inside and shuts the door quickly to prevent air loss. "I'm home and I brought a guest."

"In the living room!" his dad calls. "Carole's still on a tag sale mission. I bailed on account of it being too damn hot."

"When she brings back more cat figurines, don't say I never warned you," Kurt says, leading Brittany into the living room so he can peck his dad on the cheek. Affectionate gestures like that used to embarrass him until last year, when saying I love you in some way every day became much more important. "I'm sure you remember Brittany."

His dad eyes her. "You're not gonna kiss each other again, are you?"

"We're running for student council," Brittany says, unperturbed. "I think this relationship will last longer."

"Thank you for those horrifying flashbacks to my experimentations with sexuality," Kurt says. "Let's go to my room forever."

"No funny business!" his dad calls after them, because he thinks he's hilarious.

Once safely ensconced in his room, Kurt unplugs his laptop and brings it over to his bed. Brittany takes a seat in his desk chair and spins around in it slowly as he pulls up Photoshop. After a moment's thought, he opens Word as well. He's a visual thinker, but most of his greatest outfits start as word combinations in various colored fonts. "You have your laptop, right? Do you need me to send you any image editing software?"

"Lord Tubbington would just eat it when I get home."

"Uh-huh. So. Ideas. We need posters that will capture the essence of Brittany Pierce and Kurt Hummel."

Brittany looks down at her laptop and says, "We're going to need more glitter."

"I like the way you think." Kurt props his own laptop up on his knees and types GLITTER on the top of a Word document. He adds Pierce-Hummel 2011 underneath and heaves a mental sigh for the inevitable "pierce Hummel" jokes that will follow. Brittany probably won't go for a last name change. "It's too bad we can't pull an Obama and use a red, white, and blue O. That was unique, that was stylized, and that got him elected. Well, it was one of the reasons, anyway. Never underestimate personal style."

"My personal style is mostly contemporary, but I can do jazz and tap," Brittany says, nodding. "We're pretty contemporary, but I don't know how to put that in a picture. What if we stapled some peacock feathers to a Lisa Frank folder and wrote our names in cursive?"

"Again, I'm loving the creative place you're in right now, but we should have a unifying theme before we commit to anything. Our speeches were about creating a kinder, gentler McKinley. This whole campaign rests on a single premise: changing the status quo. Our poster will scream, 'Revolution!' I'm thinking two rifles firing to reveal our names written on banners and a dove for each color of the rainbow."

"Guns scare me," Brittany says. "There's a whole lot of awful stuff at McKinley right now, but what if we made a picture that made people feel good? Your speech last week made me feel really good because you said you cared about everybody."

"Brittany, we can't run on good feelings alone. While we're quoting candidacy speeches, you said that there are kids who don't feel safe at school functions. That's hardly something we can fail to mention."

"But like, in the debate, right? You'll talk about why you left and why you came back and why you're fighting so hard." Kurt tabs to a new window to type DEBATE SPEECH IDEAS at the top and then Brittany's suggestions underneath. When he looks back up, Brittany has her head tilted back and a pencil balanced on the end of her nose. "We don't have any pictures yet," she says. "There's only one way to solve this."

"Which would be?"

Brittany jerks her head to the side and then catches her pencil as it flies off her nose. "Dancing. I guess singing for you too, but for me, it's dancing. You know how Cheerios get really good at spelling 'cause they do it all the time? Quinn and Santana and me make up routines for school stuff we really have to memorize. I know the whole periodic table and I really hope that hydrogen wins since it's number one."

"...I'm sure that it will."

"I also dance when I'm stuck, which happens a lot."

"What are we going to do, kick step our way to a better tomorrow?"

"There's a song about good feelings and being the president one day. We'll improvise."

"I'm impressed that someone has a song for every occasion besides Rachel and me, but I hope that you're not about to play what I think you are."

"Probably," Brittany says, typing something into iTunes. "C'mon, get up. I know you can keep up with me when you try."

"You say the sweetest things," Kurt says, rising. "Remember when I asked you to teach me the 'Single Ladies' dance?"

"I told you that we could do it in your closet since it was probably big enough for three people."

Brittany hits her spacebar and "Good Feeling" starts, a song Kurt has endured for the past few weeks whenever it's Blaine's turn to pick a radio station while driving. (His boyfriend's addiction to Top 40 is mostly charming but sometimes annoying at seven in the morning. Coffee has saved Blaine from unceremonious ejection more times than Kurt likes to admit, and he likes pop music.) At three on a Sunday afternoon and with a girl who's possibly made of rubber dancing to it, though, the song is much better. What the hell, he knows the Etta James parts by heart.

"That's right!" Brittany says, fist pumping when Kurt stands up for better belting posture. He does his shimmy (patent pending) while Brittany breaks it down, a confident grin on her face as she snaps her arms and legs through the air, revving up an imaginary crowd. She throws in a back handspring that makes Kurt clutch his chest in fear for his ceiling lamp, but her feet end up a few inches to the left, which he'll bet his Marc Jacobs collection was on purpose. Brittany circles around him, incorporating all his movements into hers, her energy contagious after she slaps him five on Yeah, I've got a brand new spirit. When the instrumental part in the middle starts, Kurt nods at Brittany and then struts down a pretend catwalk, posing before heading back around. Brittany follows him down on her hands, dropping her legs into a split to finish. As the song wraps up, they take their last turn down the catwalk together, hips swinging and eyes fixed on the future. (It's really a wall hanging in a tasteful and soothing shade of cerulean, but he and Brittany are the future and it's fabulous.)

"We could just do flash mobs in the hallways," Brittany says, stretching her arms. "I thought of a good cheer, though. Think fierce; vote Hummel-Pierce."

"They're going to think that I'm running for president since my name is first."

"Well, you are. They just don't know about the co-presidents thing yet. Besides, what even rhymes with Hummel?"

"Not much that's actually flattering," Kurt says. "So here's what I'm thinking: monochrome, McKinley school colors but with more of a wine red, our faces superimposed over a stage, and a lone figure raising its hands in triumph onstage. Something like this." After a few more clicks in Photoshop, he turns his laptop around.

"Cool," Brittany says. "We should name the stick figure Clarence."

"The stick figure will be replaced by an actual humanoid figure once Google Image coughs up the perfect stock photo. I can have these printed and ready to post by Wednesday." Kurt turns his laptop back towards himself and starts cutting and pasting from Facebook. Brittany doesn't have any professional headshots, but she's tagged in some Cheerio close-ups taken by professional photographers. "I'll let you pick the font, since I sort of took your inspiration and ran with it."

"It's cool. Designing stuff is more your thing." Brittany peers over his shoulder. "I have a shirt that color red. Should I wear it to the debate?"

Kurt turns a critical eye on her. "I think it would suit you, though I'd advise a neutral lip."

"My lips are always neutral. Why, are yours made of metal?"

*

"Okay, people!" Emma says, clapping her hands. Leading two groups at once is starting to make her feel like a trained seal. "We should all be seated with our scripts out, ready to make any notes. There's a box of sharpened pencils going around. Dan, those pencils are for writing, not poking your friends. As is this our first read-through, I'd like to give a quick rundown of the show's plot."

Rachel's hand shoots in the air so fast that she narrowly misses Sugar's nose, and she's speaking before Emma can blink, much less call on her. "West Side Story is a stirring Broadway update on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It takes place in New York City's Upper West Side in the 1950s, where racial tensions escalate into gang warfare. The white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks are at each other's throats. Enter Tony, former member of the Jets, and Maria, ingenue and little sister to the leader of the Sharks. They fall in love, but they can only dream of a world free of violence and cruelty."

"Tony dies at the end," Artie contributes. Sugar gasps.

"I share that dream," Rachel says, shooting Artie a glare.

"Thank you for that succinct yet thorough summary, Rachel. As you might have guessed, this is a rather heavy musical for a high school production. People were terrified when they first saw the show on Broadway because those scenarios were all over the papers, teenagers killing each other in an endless cycle of violence. The slang in the script might be a little outdated, but the overall story is still relevant. We don't exactly have urban gangs in Lima, but there are certainly some rival groups represented here."

The football players not on New Directions shift a little in their seats. Kurt and Blaine exchange glances. Santana rolls her eyes and says, "Yeah, 'cause being a geek or a Cheerio is just like being a broke-ass kid in the ghetto. Mr. Schue tried that shit and it didn't work. Take it from a real minority, Lima Heights authentic."

"Is it racist that our Maria is Asian?" Puck whispers to Lauren, who responds with a look of silent judgment.

Emma knots her fingers together. "I apologize for that, Santana. I'm hoping that all of you will be able to use the passion and energy and impetuosity of being a teenager to bring your characters to life. How would you feel if your boyfriend or your best friend were murdered? Would you be able to stop yourself from reciprocating with more violence? Would the ends justify the means? These are questions that remain with us still. That's why Romeo and Juliet is still around as well. Shannon?"

"That's my cue," Shannon says, rising as Emma takes a seat. "There's also the love story to consider. Personally, I have no idea why couples gettin' compared to Romeo and Juliet is a positive thing, but this show gets it right and it's the worst thing to happen to Tony and Maria. Falling in love makes them think they can escape their history, but history cuts them down. This is a tragedy, people. Every move you make onstage is towards your downfall, whether you're a tough guy or the sweetest girl in town. Get ready to make your audience cry."

"Just please don't make your directors cry," says Artie, which earns him a few laughs. "Lauren and I have a vision for the whole feel of the show, except we had to cut the lasers due to budget constraints. Think dirty, think gritty, think all those random Discovery Channel specials. Lauren's gonna coat the stage with mud."

"I'm not going to coat the stage with mud."

"But there will be definite dirt. The beauty of the music is this big contrast to your characters' circumstances. You're singing about how much you hate each other and killing each other through dance. That's freakin' weird. Except Tony and Maria, you get to spin around and be in love for the most part. But you're still dirty."

"Ix-nay on the irt-day," Shannon mutters.

"I'm all right, thank you," Emma says. She's sure that Lauren will use paint instead of actual dirt on the set. Mostly. Repressing a shudder, she continues, "If this all sounds like artsy mumbo jumbo to you now, it will all make sense once we start the dance and music rehearsals."

"I don't get how I'm supposed to be a gang member when I'm doing freaking ballet," says Justin, one of the sophomores on the JV team.

Mike sighs and stands up. "Quinn, c'mere." Quinn walks over, an expectant smile on her face, and curves her arms into a graceful arc when Mike lifts her up over his head without any apparent effort. "Remember how I can hit harder than anybody else on the team?"

Puck mumbles something that sounds a lot like, "No one hits harder than the Incredible Puck."

"I hate to say I told you so, but I definitely told you so," Shannon says. "Thanks for the demonstration, guys. You already know how to look tough, how to intimidate the other guy's team. You got the acting down. If you want to get stronger than you've ever been in your lives, you will show up every day to my dance rehearsals. I started taking dance lessons when I was five and I kept it up because knowing how your body moves is some of the best training you can have for sports. The only reason I never turned pro dancer is because the pro rugby recruiters got me first. You think about that."

Emma checks her watch against her itinerary. "In the interest of getting out by dinnertime, let's start the read-through. Artie, you'll read the stage directions. Act I, scene i is a go!"

Everyone stumbles a little over the old-fashioned slang, even Kurt and Rachel, who Emma is willing to bet have seen West Side Story more than few times before. Fortunately, the JV football team doesn't have many lines and Puck drops his attempt at a Puerto Rican accent when Santana takes a bobby pin out of her hair and threatens to eviscerate him with it. Santana, of course, has no real trouble getting into character as Anita. Tina and Blaine keep making each other laugh nervously until they reach the more serious scenes, and then the room goes dead silent as the other students stop tapping pencils and shifting in their chairs.

"But it's not us! It's everything around us," Tina whispers, sounding on the verge of tears.

"Then we'll find some place where nothing can get to us; not one of them, not anything," Blaine replies with a catch in his voice, eyes pleading. Kurt makes a small sound and Mercedes and Rachel each take one of his hands.

As the last two scenes unfold, Emma dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief and catches Shannon doing the same. It's just the first read-through, of course, and Tina will need to work on projecting her rage at the end and her lines in general, and half of the kids here wouldn't know stage left from a stage door. The chemistry is here, though, and that's the most important part, the thing no director can force.

"That was beautiful," Shannon says. "Thank you all for a wonderful first rehearsal. Next one starts tomorrow at 3 P.M. sharp."

"I have your scene calls here," Emma says. "If your character is in one of these scenes, you must come to that rehearsal. Please take one before you leave."

Teenage appetites being what they are, everyone clears out fast. Emma winces as a number of schedules get shoved into bags or even back pockets. Rachel and Kurt, on the other hand, take three copies apiece in case of emergency. "That was really something," Emma says to Shannon and Artie.

"My peeps have mad skills."

"I want you to think about what you just said the next time you complain about the script," Shannon says. "Well, I better go brush up on my arabesque. Been a little while since I've had to stretch that far."

"Better you than me," Emma says. "See you tomorrow."

*

Saying that she's a little nervous about the first lead character rehearsal for West Side Story is like calling the Mariana Trench a little deep. Tina has been running on an adrenaline high since last week, when winning Maria was more of a fever dream than reality. Nothing really sank in until after the first read-through, when Sugar said, "My daddy says that I can hire a publicist for the show to make sure every seat in the house is full."

McKinley isn't that big a school, but the auditorium still has way too many seats.

Tina has just gotten out her script when Ms. Pillsbury walks in, engaged in animated conversation with Blaine. "Tina!" Ms. Pillsbury says, beaming. "Are you ready to become the innocent young girl who falls in love at first sight and then threatens to commit murder over her lover's dead body?"

"...yes?"

"Wonderful! Now, I've been reading up on different acting schools of thought, but I think that there's no place better to begin than the beginning. If both of you could open up to the scene at the gym?"

"Why aren't we starting with our scenes beforehand?" Tina asks, flipping to the appropriate page in her script. "I mean, when we're with our families and friends, isn't that the beginning?"

Blaine raises a hand before Ms. Pillsbury can answer. "Is it because the love story is our characters' main motivation?" Blaine asks. "Tony and Maria leave behind everything they ever knew because of how they feel about each other."

"That was the reasoning, yes," Ms. Pillsbury says, bouncing a little on her heels. Tina hunches forward around her script as she continues, "This moment is one of the most essential moments in the play. You have to fall in love across racial lines, across the wishes of everyone you hold dear, and all without saying a single word. Pulling it off will take a lot of hard work."

"Cool," Blaine says. Tina can tell he's looking at her without taking her eyes off her script, a skill honed through years of refusing to look her teachers in the eye. "Um, would you like to get started?"

"Fire away," she says, risking a glance up. She barely knows Blaine, but he seems nice enough, and he makes Kurt happy. He's probably not going to campaign to get her kicked off Maria and replaced by Rachel Berry.

"Okay," Ms. Pillsbury said. "You've been staring at each other from across the dance floor and now you've reached each other at last. The stars have aligned. You've found the other half of your soul. All of that has to come across in your bodies, so I want you to move a little in whatever way feels natural."

Tina has never felt more unnatural than standing in front of the school guidance counselor and her friend's boyfriend, script clutched in her hand like a life preserver. Blaine has the first line, but she stops being thankful when he breathes it out like he's just seen a miracle passing through. It's their first rehearsal.

"I--I know you are not," Tina says, and blushes for no reason. Maybe Ms. Pillsbury will mistake it for acting.

Blaine has these huge puppy dog eyes, the kind that will have half the freshmen girls of McKinley in love with him before they hear that he's very much uninterested and very much taken. "Or that we have met before?" he says, and takes a step closer.

She takes a step back and almost backs into a desk. "I know we have not," she mumbles, turning a deeper red. This is a disaster.

"Could you speak up a little?" Ms. Pillsbury asks, making a note on her script.

"I," Tina starts, and the words on the script are starting to swim in front her her. "I know you are--I mean, I know we--I know--"

"You're doing great," Blaine whispers, and Tina just catches the reassuring smile before she turns away.

"I'll be right back," Tina blurts, so fast that it all turns into one word, and flees to the hallway, where she wraps her arms around herself and wills her body to stop shaking. Too much. This is way too much for her. What was she thinking, listening to Lauren? Listening to whatever demonic voice inside her head insisted that she could do this and she owed it to herself to try? Put her in front of a microphone and she can sing a song, but ask her to interact with strangers and she's a total disaster. Tina wipes at her eyes and her fingers come back streaked with eyeliner.

"Hey."

Tina turns around at the sound of Ms. Pillsbury's voice and tries to project an aura of calm competence. No crying here, Ms. P. "I was just, um, getting a drink of water."

Ms. Pillsbury raises an eloquent eyebrow at the full water bottle clipped to Tina's messenger bag. "Do you know what was so surprising about your audition for Maria?"

"Me being able to sing?" she asks, twisting half of her mouth into a smile. During all those years she didn't say much, she still watched what everyone else did in uncomfortable situations. Mike and Artie, the two people she's watched most in her high school career, like to make self-deprecating jokes, because anything that's funny can't hurt you too badly.

"For a few minutes, you let yourself believe that you could succeed."

Aren't guidance counselors supposed to be sweet and helpful? Sweat beads Tina's forehead as her palms go clammy. She can still remember that afternoon, Mike kissing her for good luck before she opened the doors and forced herself down the aisle. Being onstage under the lights, the same lights that have been shining down on her friends for the past two years, blurred out Tina and there was just Maria there, a lost girl who wished for the moon and knew little of the world.

"It was a fluke," Tina says to the floor.

"You're scared. It's okay. In your shoes, I'd be terrified."

"Ms. P, that's not much of a pep talk."

"It's not meant to be one. I'm just telling you that it's normal to want to go back to the familiar after stretching yourself a bit. People are like rubber bands that way."

"And if stretching myself got me the lead in the school play? How can I go back to the way things were after that?"

"You can't." Ms. Pillsbury's smile is soft, touched with sadness. "But you already knew that, so come on. The world is waiting to hear what you can do, but the world doesn't mind if you rehearse it first." When Tina takes a step in her direction but then hesitates, she adds, "Take it from one shy girl to another: it's hard, but it's possible. It's terrifying, but it's worth it."

It comes so easily to other people, speaking up. Tina doesn't feel comfortable with the sound of her own voice except in the rare instances she steps outside herself, sometimes standing up for herself but always advocating for others, putting herself in context. Going off on a feminist rant works because even if she's at the center, so are millions of others. Here in the hallway, it's just Tina Cohen-Chang, the weird half-Korean, half-Jewish girl who loves combat boots and indie rock and hiding behind her hair.

But Ms. Pillsbury looks like she knows what's going on in Tina's head right now, like she has a million arguments with herself before she even tries to participate in a conversation, and by that time her friends have already moved on. Everyone at McKinley knows that Ms. Pillsbury is a little strange; everyone knows that she's a pushover.

Everyone knows jack, which doesn't surprise Tina, deep down.

"I hope you're right," Tina says. "Okay. I promise that I'll stick the rehearsals out."

One night when Mike was feeling deep, he started rambling about how life was like a maze. Tina countered by saying that life is like a game of Chutes and Ladders. It's still holding true for her: every time she slides back, she finds a ladder and climbs twice as high.

*

Now that the school year is truly in swing, it's almost like being back at Dalton. Today was their short rehearsal for West Side Story in deference to football practice, so Blaine rushes off to the AV room afterward just to sing "Maria" again, this time into a microphone for his college audition recording. He declines doing another take for fear that his voice will crack on the high notes like it already did twice today and launches straight into "One Song Glory," where at least sounding exhausted will be in character. Kurt takes one look at him and starts massaging his shoulders while Rachel prepares for her recording.

"I could die right here," Blaine sighs, relaxing into his touch. "How am I so tired already?"

"Perhaps it's all the homework on top of glee club, playing the lead role in the school musical, and college applications?" Kurt suggests, digging his thumb into a knot Blaine didn't even realize he had.

"Yeah, but you're running a presidential campaign and you don't look tired at all."

"That's because I moisturize three times a day. I can send you my regimen if you like."

Rachel looks over and gasps. "Kurt! You told me that was a state secret!"

"Am I dating you?"

"I would make an excellent beard! Don't burn that bridge!"

"Consider it on fire."

"Here, sit down," Blaine says, sitting Kurt down so he can return the favor. "Geez, how many knots can one person have?"

"Just because I look good doesn't mean I get more than four hours of sleep," Kurt says, leaning back and closing his eyes. "Rachel, I don't know how you expected to survive being Maria on top of everything else we have to do. Is it June yet?"

"At least I'm not running for student president," Rachel says pointedly.

"I'm technically running for vice-president," Kurt corrects her. "Brittany's making me co-president after the election."

"Time is your money," Lauren says with a shrug from her position in front of the computer. She slides her headphones around her neck and adds, "But I'm meeting Puck for dinner and the last time I was late I caught him singing 'Teardrops On My Guitar' in public. So let's roll."

"Of course." Rachel shakes out her hands and closes her eyes. First up is "Don't Rain On My Parade," which he remembers is one of her standbys from Kurt's stories of New Directions and its propensity for last-minute numbers. Her voice gives him goosebumps up and down his arms, but it's a good thing that this is just an audio recording, because she looks dead behind the eyes. For how short a time Blaine has known her, he can still tell there's something wrong when she goes through only five takes before she deems the song satisfactory and moves onto her next number, a bouncy little number that has Kurt nodding in recognition. It's kind of creepy how well Rachel can fake happiness.

"Last but not least," Kurt says when Rachel finishes. He pulls Rachel into a hug before she can sit down, murmuring something to her. Whatever he says works: she cracks a smile and shakes her head.

"Your boyfriend is insufferable," Rachel informs Blaine, and then they lean back to take Kurt in. He sounds perfect on his first song, in Blaine's extremely biased opinion. He leaves advice on which take to use to Rachel, who has an uncanny ear for slight imperfections in pitch. Not even she can find fault in his second song, though.

"That was wonderful, Kurt!" Rachel cheers when Lauren gives the thumbs up for clapping. Blaine adds his own enthusiastic applause to the mix, wondering what he'll have to do to get his own copy. Will Kurt think it's creepy if Blaine has him on his iPod?

"I feel a deep spiritual connection to 'Too Darn Hot,'" Kurt says, fanning himself with his sheet music. "Isn't it illegal for McKinley's air conditioning to be in such a state of disrepair?"

Blaine hands Kurt his water bottle and says, "From the things everyone has told me, McKinley gets away with a lot of illegal things. Like Cheerio practice. Did they really have to walk a lap on their hands last week, or was Quinn kidding?"

"Quinn never kids about the Cheerios," Kurt replies. "Would you mind playing back that last take?"

Lauren makes a show of checking her watch, even though the time is right there on her computer screen. "We're fifteen over. It'll cost you."

"I'll throw in a pair of shoes on your shopping trip. Has anyone ever told you that you should go into business? You drive a hard bargain."

"Done."

Lauren gets about thirty seconds into the song before Kurt waves a hand and says, "That's the one. Thank you for your time. You have our e-mail addresses for the songs, yes?"

"I'm a professional," Lauren says, glaring. "My people will contact your people."

"If your person is Noah, I'm concerned about this occurring in a timely fashion," Rachel says. "Application deadlines are closing in and I only have so much time before everyone else is sending in their recordings. Plus there are the necessary videos which I think will have to wait for another day since my voice should only see so much heavy exercise per day."

"Are you wringing your hands, Rachel? Stop it. Lauren, have fun on your date with Puck, though I can only imagine what you two think of as 'fun.'" Kurt shoos Lauren out the door, then turns back to Blaine and Rachel, hands on his hips. "I've had enough work for the day. I'd say let's take a turn around the school to admire my newly hung campaign posters, but I'm loath to witness the inevitable vandalism before I have to."

"We could get pizza," Blaine suggests.

"Vegan," Rachel sighs.

"I prefer my steaming lumps of cheese to be of slightly higher quality than the local pizza place. My frozen pizza is imported."

"We could give Rachel our suggestion for the Sectionals setlist," Blaine says, grinning.

"What suggest--Blaine. No."

"You get to show the deeper side of your range!"

"What suggestion?" Rachel asks, perking up. "Is it Spice Girls? Please let it be Spice Girls!"

"To my endless sorrow, it is not Spice Girls," Kurt says, reddening. "It is possibly a song I was coerced into singing over the phone this summer. Missing someone can drive you to great depths."

"It's not anything that would really make the setlist," Blaine says, standing next to Kurt and slinging his arm around his shoulders. "We just used it as comfort on all those cold, lonely nights when I was stuck at Six Flags."

"More like hot, sticky days," Kurt says, shuddering. "I remember the scent of the polyester."

"Not my best look, but you know you still loved me."

"I loved you from a distance. I swear that I could smell you over the phone sometimes."

"Anyway, the point is that we sang a lot of duets over the phone and all of us have been working way too hard already, so now Kurt and I would like to share a nineties classic with you," Blaine says. Kurt looks like he's on the verge of murder, but affectionate murder, and Rachel already looks happier than she has all week. For as long as he can remember, Blaine has been good at making other people happy, and it feels good to exercise this talent with his friends instead of his family.

Kurt sighs. "If we're going to do this, get out your phone for maximum realism."

Blaine is already on it. "Sometimes the feeling is right, you fall in love for the first time," he sings into his phone. Rachel already has her hands over her mouth as he segues into the second verse; evidently she's heard Aqua's "Doctor Jones" before. At the line Please come and see me again, I never felt more alone he presses the back of his hand to his forehead and pretends to swoon.

"Baby, I am missing you," Kurt growls into his phone, sending a shiver down Blaine's spine.

"I want you by my side," Blaine croons, and flutters his eyelashes. Kurt fights to keep a straight face while singing his parts in the rest of the exchange.

He can see Rachel cracking up in his peripheral vision, but Blaine really has eyes for only Kurt. They've been so busy ever since school started that reality hasn't quite sunk in, despite eating lunch together every day and passing each other in the halls. They never have to sing duets over the phone again, because now they're both at McKinley, and a year from now they'll be living in New York City. He's going to be with this boy, this beautiful, brilliant boy, forever. Kurt might think this song is the cheesiest thing in the world, but Blaine can feel that he means every word when he sings, You swept my feet right off the ground, you're the love I found.

They finish with a big flourish, naturally. Rachel has tears rolling down her cheeks, she's laughing so hard. Blaine kisses Kurt and says, "Me, too."

"My revenge will be swift and unexpected," Kurt says. "I love you, you idiot. Let's go eat frozen pizza."

*

"Will you be home in time for dinner, or are you and Tina having one of your study dates again?" Mike's mother asks, sounding amused even over the phone. When his parents asked why he was staying at school for such long hours, Mike panicked and told them that he and Tina were having weekly study dates. After offering the flimsiest excuse in the world, he had to sit through a horrifying lecture on being a boy in the prime of his youth and the accompanying urges.

If his parents ever find out that he and Tina swiped each other's V-cards over two months ago in a truly glorious Independence Day celebration, Mike is so, so screwed.

"Extra Glee rehearsal," Mike lies. Thank God that this conversation is happening over the phone; he has a terrible poker face.

"I'll tell your father it's another study date."

"Extra AP chem tutoring session."

"Both."

"Deal. Thanks, Mom."

"I love you. Dinner will be in the fridge when you get home, okay?"

"Love you, too. Bye."

"Chang-a-lang, you mama's boy," one of the JV boys says, thumping him on the shoulder. "Ready to get this crap over with?"

"I'm ready to rehearse," Mike says, shrugging off the kid's hand. He should probably tell the kid to get over himself and stop ruining it for everybody else, but confrontation's not really his style.

It's a Jets rehearsal today. Coach Beiste has them all warm up first, which isn't that different from football practice, except they're on a stage and barefoot. Mike finishes limbering up his legs and then starts on some jumping jacks, slapping his hands together when he brings his arms up. It takes three jumping jacks before he's breathing in time to the clapping, eyes closed. When you're a Jet, you're a Jet starts playing in his head and he stops to find his feet, rolling his shoulders forward, tilting his chin to a more arrogant angle. He draws an imaginary knife out of an imaginary jacket and flips it through the air, spinning around to catch it.

"Your process is so different from mine," Kurt says, breaking into his train of thought. "I'm more of a method actor myself."

"Can't be a gang member if I don't dance like one," Mike says, throwing in a touch of moonwalk just for fun. "This is some tough ballet."

"I fear for my tendons," Kurt says. "I had no idea that Coach Beiste used to dance. Who would have thought?"

"Maybe she'll have some tips on you turning yourself into 'a catlike ball of fury,'" Mike says, grinning as he makes the air quotes. The script has the most awesome character descriptions for the Jets. His character, Riff, is supposed to be "glowing, driving, intelligent, slightly wacky." Basically, he's playing himself, except white and in the 1950s. Maybe not so much with the glowing, though.

"He was a catlike ball of fury when he found out that Finn accidentally deleted The Bachelorette off the DVR," Blaine says, making his way over.

"You were mad, too!"

"Yes, but I didn't threaten to sell my stepbrother's gonads on eBay. Which is weird, by the way."

"Weird, but almost Santana levels of terrifying," Mike says, whistling. "Just think of that whenever you need to channel Action."

"Fifteen is up! Places, people!" Coach Beiste's voice booms more than usual in the auditorium's acoustics. "First up is 'When You're a Jet.' If you're still learning the steps, you do not have to be on book yet. Mike, I expect some singing coming out of that throat. Kurt, I expect to hear you as well. Blaine, you run through your 'Something's Coming' choreography while you wait. Let's move, move, move!"

Mike can hear most of the other guys grumbling, but practice at breakneck speed suits him fine. He snaps the collar of a jacket that doesn't exist yet as he moves into place. He senses the beat before the recording starts and gets the first lines out at the proper time. After that it's easier. He's talked the members of New Directions through a hundred different routines while demonstrating them at the same time. This isn't that much different. Some of the ballet moves that Coach Beiste threw in are stretching his limits, which is awesome. All that he knows about ballet comes from YouTube and his determination to know some moves from every style.

Kurt comes in at the proper time as well, though he sounds somewhat breathless after all the spinning and high kicking. He makes it halfway through, prowling around the stage like a young alley cat, when a frown of concentration draws his eyebrows together. Kurt's voice drops out and his face smooths back into character. It only takes a few beats for him to get back in the dance. Kurt's one of the best dancers in New Directions, but damn, Jerome Robbins did not mess around with choreography.

Almost all of the other guys are painful to watch, but it would be more painful not to watch a bunch of teenage football players lumber around the stage. Mike has to alter some choreography to avoid their missteps and actually has to jump over Justin, who trips over his own feet and ends up sprawled on the floor. At least they all make it to the end of the song alive.

"You boys warmed up now?" Coach Beiste asks. "We're gonna run the last part again. Justin, you go to the left and then the right. Nick, I don't know what you're doing there; you belong on the other side of the stage. Stephen, you've got the basic beats down, now I want you to start thinking swagger. Kurt, that attitude needs work, and I don't mean your bad boy demeanor. Bend your leg and hold it there. Mike, I've seen you jump higher in practice. You got dancing feet, now use 'em. Everyone else, keep it up, step it up, make it stronger. You know what to do. Places!"

The rest of practice continues in this vein. By the last run-through, Mike can tell that tomorrow he'll be sore in places he usually doesn't even think about, but now all he can feel is the adrenaline pumping through his bloodstream. He hits the grand jeté and the last lines of his solo at the same time, reeling it back for Kurt to take center stage, pushing it forward when the gang's all together again. The gang is still off on some beats, but there's a moment when everything is in synch, and the devil may care grin that spreads across his face is pure Riff.

Of course, Mike isn't exempt from Coach Beiste's notes, but he gets her nod of approval at the end of her suggestions for improvement. He thanks her and then jumps offstage to grab his water bottle from his backpack.

"That was righteous, my man," Artie says. "Taking notes was hard with so much to watch."

"When you're a Jet, you're a Jet."

"No, anything but that! That song will be in my head forever as it is."

"Get ready to get my song stuck in your head," Blaine says, walking down the auditorium aisle with Kurt. They're both disheveled, a clear sign of having put their ten-minute break to good use.

"Why did you have to be here, anyway? You're not even in 'When You're a Jet,'" Mike says.

"We're trying to build camaraderie," Artie says. "I guess Tony has a lot of camaraderie with Action."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Kurt sniffs, the picture of wounded innocence. Once Blaine is up onstage and Artie's attention is elsewhere, however, he accepts a high five from Mike.

The rehearsal high lasts Mike all the way through the drive home. When he walks in the door, his father congratulates him on applying himself so thoroughly to his studies. The guilt is like lead in his shoes.

*

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Rachel Berry always has a plan. Or it's a truth that Rachel Berry knows in the depths of her very being, at least. Something about being sung a terrible pop song that came out while she was in preschool has rekindled her indomitable will to succeed, possibly because that sort of stunt is something her fathers have done in the past and will probably do again.

Tisch and Nationals are the two most important things in her life right now. School musicals and ex-boyfriends cannot interfere. Rachel Berry will persevere through the crushing pain of rejection and emerge resplendent in the butterfly wings of superstardom.

"That was a mixed metaphor," she says aloud in the hallway. The girl walking next to her makes a disturbed face and picks up the pace. Plebeian.

The former goal is achievable through hard work and a staggering amount of talent. The second goal, however, requires a more delicate touch. Rachel's plan for ensuring the latter's success is all set to debut at today's glee rehearsal, even if the thought of it makes her mouth go dry. This plan requires relying on other people to play their parts. In Rachel's experience, people let you down.

But she let her club down last year, and she's promised all of them, including herself, to do better. Besides, she texted her entire plan to Kurt and Mercedes in a moment of 3:30 AM doubt and they told her that it might just work, coming from her. Well, after they told her that human beings need sleep.

"The time to decide is now!" Rachel shouts, bursting through the doors.

Brittany looks up from her magazine. "I'm pretty sure that's in a couple weeks from now."

"I think she means our Sectionals setlist, not the student council elections," Kurt says, then cranes his neck to see past Brittany's shoulder. "Does that girl have fur lining on the top of her bodice or two very small dogs stuffed down her shirt?"

"I vote dogs," Blaine says, squinting. When Brittany shoves the magazine aside, horrified, Santana and Quinn give him the evil eye.

"Let's put aside the animal cruelty, kids, and talk Sectionals!" Ms. Pillsbury says. "Your co-captains and I have discussed the nomination process. Anyone is free to nominate a song, though you may nominate only one. You can also nominate the person you would like to sing it, though I'm assuming that most of you will want to sing it yourselves. If a majority of club members are in favor, it goes on the setlist. The first three songs to receive majority approval are our songs, so vote wisely."

"Anyone is free to audition for a solo on one of the three songs," Mercedes adds. "Just remember that we want to show off how good we all are."

Emma nods and continues, "We'll be rehearsing them up until Sectionals in December, but I want to keep us fresh, so the last fifteen minutes of every rehearsal will be a jam session. I'm told that some of our members already excel at these. Everybody clear on the rules?"

"Let's hear some suggestions!" Rachel says, thrusting her dry erase marker in the air in what she hopes is a triumphant and inspiring pose.

"Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," Santana says immediately.

"Rachel, do not write that down," Mercedes hisses before Rachel's marker can hit the board. In a louder voice she says, "I think that would get us kicked out of Sectionals, but we would slay on some TLC. How do we feel about 'Creep?'"

"I'll sound smokin', which is all I really care about," Santana says, shrugging. "Put me down for it."

"All in favor?" Ms. Pillsbury asks. Santana, Brittany, Mercedes, Quinn, Tina, Mike, Lauren, Kurt, Blaine, and Artie raise their hands. Rachel closes her eyes and raises her hand as well, biting her lip when Ms. Pillsbury announces, "Well, that's quite a majority! Santana will be our featured soloist unless someone else would like to audition."

Santana somehow manages to glare even at the people who are behind her, daring them to attempt the solo she's claimed. Rachel, standing in the front, tries not to quail under the full force of that stare. If she gets beaten up, her nose could get broken, and then her Tisch audition will go to ruin and seventeen years of her life will have been for naught. "Looks like it's decided!" Rachel says, writing "Santana" next to the song title.

"If we're gonna have a girl number, we need a guy number," Artie says. "I'd like to suggest 'Tearin' Up My Heart' and myself for my man Justin's solo part. I don't care who takes JC."

"Justin is the best," Brittany says, fistbumping Artie. The disgusted look on Santana's face turns into one of pain when she kicks the back of Artie's wheelchair and stubs her toe. Rachel, turning back from writing the song on the board, manages to catch the whole thing. She once mentioned her idea of singing coming out songs to Santana to help her through her obvious sexuality crisis, but Kurt and Blaine shot her down before she even finished naming the second song.

Kurt raises a hand. "If I may, I'd like to suggest Blaine for the JC solo. His voice would suit the part admirably, and we've all seen and heard his ability to bring pop hits to life."

"Seconded," Rachel says. "Wait, are we seconding things, Mercedes? Am I demonstrating bias?"

"You're demonstrating good taste," Mercedes says. "I was always an *NSYNC girl."

"Our friendship is over," Quinn says, looking wounded. "I love the Backstreet Boys."

Tina pokes Mike in the side until he yelps and admits, "Fine! I know all the choreography. I've got you covered."

"Excellent," Ms. Pillsbury says. "It sounds like we have the majority vote, but let's raise our hands for the sake of accuracy. Eleven votes! We're doing well so far."

"Last one," Rachel says, putting the cap back on her marker before she manages to mark up her dress with her trembling hands. The moment of silence that follows is her cue to enact her plan, but she can't move her lips. Mercedes gives her a concerned look and Kurt makes a frantic little beckoning motion.

Puck says, "I think we should do 'Californication' and finish off with a bang."

"You do know the lyrics, right?" Sam asks. "Dude, I know we've sung some risky stuff before, but nothing that directly mentions porn."

"I'm trying to save us from Celine Dion," Puck says, pointing at Rachel. "You did not have to hear her bust out 'That's the Way It Is' every day of preschool. I still know all the words to that freaking song."

"I'm sorry, but I don't think we'll be able to do the song, Noah," Ms. Pillsbury says. "Anyone else?"

Over the rush of blood in her ears, Rachel can hear herself say, "I have an idea."

"No freaking way," Santana says. Ms. Pillsbury makes a shushing motion at her, frowning.

"It's not Celine Dion," Rachel says, and licks her lips. "The whole point of picking the nineties as our decade was to showcase our range as a show choir. We have bubblegum pop and R&B covered. We shouldn't forget that the nineties saw the birth of a seminal Broadway classic. I would like to nominate 'Seasons of Love' as our third song--and I would like to nominate Kurt and Mercedes as the male and female soloists."

Despite her jackhammering heart, Rachel still manages some pride in the silence her words create. She knows drama.

"Well, I'm not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth," Mercedes says. "I vote yes."

"I vote for no Celine, ever," Puck says, lifting his hands up to the sky in gratitude. Rachel rolls her eyes, managing to brush some of her nerves aside at the ostentatious display of thanks. She knows the truth: little Noah Puckerman loved Celine Dion and used to follow her around asking her to sing again. Oh, for those halcyon days.

"You know my feelings on RENT," Kurt says, raising his hand with a smile. He mouths good job as well. Blaine raises his hand. Sam, Mike, Tina, Lauren, Quinn, Artie, Brittany, and Santana follow.

"That's everyone," Ms. Pillsbury says, squeezing Rachel's shoulder. "Looks like the whole club is united."

"Over music, at least," Rachel says, but the last of her nerves fade as she finishes writing their third set of soloists. She draws a large circle around the list and says, "I think we have a winner. How's everyone feel?"

However cliche the expression, the round of applause that follows is truly music to her ears.

*

"Why are you limping?" Brittany asks as they leave glee rehearsal.

"Stubbed my toe on the door on the way out," Santana lies easily. Fucking Artie having the nerve to still show his face around McKinley after Britt dumped his ass.

Brittany shrugs. "That's funny, I thought it might be because you kicked Artie's wheelchair."

"All right, so I've got some anger management issues," Santana says. "How is this news?"

"It was really mean."

"Babe, I invented mean. It's not like you ever had a problem with it before."

"Yeah, but that was before we joined glee club and made friends with losers who were a lot nicer than our other friends," Brittany says. "Kurt's been telling me a lot of stuff he went through so that I can read our presidential debate statements with all the right feelings. I'd like to say that things here are so scary that my best friend can't even date me, but I know that wouldn't be okay with you."

"Oh my God, we are in public," Santana hisses, dragging Brittany into an empty classroom. It's after school, so McKinley is pretty much deserted, but the hallways are still way too quiet. The school custodian could be a gossip or something. "Damn freaking straight that your best friend is scared! Besides, you're the one who keeps telling me that we can't be together until I accept myself or some shit. Who the hell are you to tell me how to live my life?"

The instant the question leaves Santana's lips, she knows it's a stupid one. It's a stupid one because it's true and because now she's not just pissed at Brittany, she's actually angry. She's not anyone's project.

Brittany has her arms crossed, which is a definite warning sign. "I don't think it would be good for us to be together when I want to hold your hand in the hallways and you want to kiss in closets. If we were girlfriends for real right now, I would tell my family and I would tell our friends and I would never let anybody say anything bad about you, ever. Kurt and I are changing the school so that bullies get zeroes."

"Nothing is going to change the way things are," Santana says, and fuck it all, she's starting to cry. "Those assholes drove Kurt out last year. Even after me and Dave bearding the fuck out of each other, you know what they did to welcome Kurt back? They voted him prom queen. They're animals and they'll tear us apart."

"Don't cry," Brittany says, lower lip trembling. "Please don't cry." She strokes Santana's cheek and then Santana really does have to cry, because her touch is soft and gentle and everything she's ever wanted. She still wants to scream at Brittany, but she also wants to curl up on her bed with her and cuddle behind locked doors. As long as they keep things private, they're safe.

"You're terrible for me," Santana chokes out. Brittany lets her hand fall immediately, so Santana reaches out and grabs it. "You make me hope. Do you know what it's like to pretend for five minutes that your family will still love you after they find out that you're in love with a girl?" Brittany shakes her head. "I close my eyes and I see myself slow dancing with you at our wedding with everyone we love cheering us on. You know what I see when I wake up? I see a world that hates me. You have no right to say I should come out to that."

"I don't," Brittany says, using her free hand to wipe at her own face. "I just can't be with you when I can't tell anybody about it. I would be so, so proud to call you my girlfriend. Do you understand that?"

That's the question she's asked Brittany ten thousand times in the course of her friendship. Blue and red make purple. Do you understand that? The capital of Ohio is Columbus. Do you understand that? Y equals two. Do you understand that? It's not cheating if the plumbing is different. Do you understand that? Hearing it from Brittany, hearing her own words twisted around and used against her, brings her anger right back to the forefront.

"I understand that you're a fucking tease," Santana spits out. "Do you think it's funny to keep me hanging on, waiting for you to drink enough beer to ever kiss me again? What happened to the girl who used to spread her legs for every--"

"Stop it," Brittany says, so coldly that she sounds like someone else. She's staring at Santana like she's a stranger. "I stuck up for you when people called you mean. I said that you were different on the inside. Right now you're sad on the inside, but it doesn't make it okay to be a bully. I don't want bullies at my school, and I don't want a bully as a friend."

"Fine!" Santana screams. "Fine! Who the hell cares about you? Just get out of my life!"

Rage gets her all the way to her car. She fumbles with her car keys, cursing as she retrieves them from the ground only to set off the theft alarm. She finally hits the right button and flings the door open, pulling the door shut.

"Bitch," Santana says, and then curls up in the driver's seat and starts to sob. That's the thing she's discovered about being angry: it's never enough to keep the sadness at bay. It's just a temporary rush, a quick fix for a girl who's so fucked up that all she knows how to do is push away everyone who loves her.

Her phone vibrates and she scrambles for it, hoping against hope that it's a text from Brittany apologizing for everything she said. It's a text from her abuela, telling her not to be late for dinner. Santana wipes her face clean of most of the tears and snot and replies, Sorry, I can't.

It's all she can say now.

Chapter Text

Working around morning football/Cheerio practice makes for an odd Saturday rehearsal schedule for West Side Story. Emma apologizes to Tina and Blaine for making them get up earlier than everyone else, but bless their hearts, they get right down to rehearsing without any grumbling. They're beginning to play off each other nicely, and Tina high fives Blaine after they manage a note-perfect "Tonight."

Everything starts heading south when the Shark players arrive and Blaine leaves. The football players are still struggling with the intricate choreography for "America." Even Puck keeps missing steps; despite his glee experience, Bernardo is a dance-heavy role, second only to Riff. Santana has her moves memorized, but keeps swinging her arms wide enough to hit the nearest dancer, usually Puck. Shannon has a dark frown on her face as Santana makes her second sarcastic apology.

"Is she always like this?" Emma asks Artie in a low murmur. They're sitting a few rows back from the stage, but she whispers just in case.

"She's a piece of work, but she's not usually this bad," Artie whispers back. He shakes his head, mouth twisting. "Guess there's trouble in paradise."

"What?"

"Listen, you didn't hear this from me, but Santana and Brittany are a little more than friends. Or used to be. I don't know. This isn't gossip, either; Brittany told me herself."

Emma mulls this new information over as rehearsal continues. Santana steps on Puck's foot three more times and hip checks an unsuspecting football player into a stack of chairs, all while claiming that she can't see people in her way "because my eye doctor diagnosed me with selective blindness to uglies."

"More like you're a huge bitch," Puck mutters a little too loudly.

"Can't be any bigger than your girlfriend's ass."

"You know you love it."

When Santana's face flushes a dull shade of red at the accusation, Emma thinks, I see where the rumors are coming from. Santana Lopez isn't quite the classic closet case, since as far as Emma has heard, she's an equal opportunity bully. Not all bullies are hiding painful secrets, but all of Santana's lashing out screams "defense mechanism." Guilt flares within Emma when she thinks of all the times she noticed how close Brittany and Santana were, how they looked at each other, and then promptly dismissed the thought from her mind because it made her uncomfortable. Sexual feelings of any kind still make her a little nervous, but Emma thinks she can make it through discussing a broken heart.

As Artie rolls down the aisle to give his notes to the cast, Shannon shouts, "Can it, you two! We're already over our rehearsal time, otherwise I'd have you run through that number yet again. I'll see you all on Monday, and when I do, you better be ready to work together." In a quieter tone, Shannon adds, "Someone really needs to talk to that girl. I'll stick around for the Anita and Maria scene."

"Let's hope that we can get through to her," Emma says. "I don't know how else we'll deal with this other than kicking her out of the show. All the glee club kids need this. It must be a relief to be somebody else."

"Or find out who you really are," Shannon says.

After Artie finishes giving his notes (which include "act more ghetto." Emma pretends not to see the ball of paper Santana hurls at his head), most of the cast shuffles out of the auditorium under the baleful gaze of Shannon, who has no qualms about making her disappointment known. As he walks past, Puck says, "Sorry, ladies. Artie."

Santana, the biggest culprit of all, is standing onstage, arms crossed and an entirely unrepentant scowl on her face. Tina takes a chair off the rack and sets it down as far from Santana as possible. "I'm ready," Tina says. Santana rolls her eyes.

"'A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,' from the top," Emma says, and braces herself.

It goes well at first. Santana injects Anita's lines with real bitterness, stalking around "Maria" and castigating her for taking up with the boy who killed her brother. When she sings Just wait and see, Maria, just wait and see! she stamps her foot so hard that Tina flinches. Tina rallies and stands up to begin her objections, reaching out to "Anita" without ever quite touching her in her grief. Santana backs away, her face a mask of anger, and repeats her lines so loudly her voice cracks on A boy who kills has no heart. Tina's high notes are the only reason her lines are audible. When Tina launches into the "I Have a Love" portion of the song, rather than convey Anita's slow change of opinion, she just shakes her head, looking more disgusted with every word. She doesn't come in when she's supposed to and Tina trails off.

"Your words are the same as mine," Tina tries.

"These words are crap," Santana says. "Why the hell would I help the guy who killed my boyfriend and seduced his little sister?"

"That's something that you have to decide," Emma says. "If it helps, I don't think Maria's words are all that convincing, either. It all depends on the beauty of the music and the feeling behind it."

"What feeling?" Santana laughs. "Tina's giving me nothing to go on. Maria is a spineless little twit who gave it up to the first boy to tell her she was pretty. This whole play sucks."

Tina physically recoils from Santana.

Emma and Shannon rise in the same motion, but it's Emma who speaks. "Tina, you may go. I'm sorry that you had to hear such things. Artie, thank you for your help today. You may leave as well. Santana, we're going to have discussion. Come down here, please."

Tina and Artie gather their things and book it out of the auditorium. Emma and Shannon move to stand next to the stage, facing Santana as she walks down the stairs as if she begrudges every footstep, her arms crossed again. This time, she directs her glare at the floor.

"Your attitude is becoming a problem for this play," Shannon says, voice quiet. "Everyone else is working hard and the way you're acting is dragging them down. We are having a shape up or ship up conversation right now, just so we're clear."

"My attitude is Anita," Santana says sullenly, gaze still boring holes in the carpet. "You cast a bitch to play a bitch. I don't see the problem."

"You're hurting your fellow cast members," Emma says. "Literally, in some cases. That's not okay." Santana's gaze flickers up to meet Emma's for a moment, then back to the floor. Her arms are still crossed, but the set of her shoulders loosens a bit. Emma takes a deep breath and goes for broke: "Do you want to talk about what happened with Brittany?"

Santana's head snaps up and her face is white with horror. "What? Who told you? Who told you, I'll kill them, who told you?!" She's breathing so hard that Emma is afraid she's going to start hyperventilating.

"I figured it out," Emma says, because giving up Artie would mean certain death for him. "Take it easy--"

Santana backs up so fast that she hits the auditorium seats and stumbles, catching herself on the back of one. "Who else knows? Who else did you tell? Did you call my parents? What did you say?!" Her last question is half-scream, half-sob.

"No, no, no one knows except us--"

"Except everybody can just figure it out," Santana chokes out, and then she turns and runs out of the auditorium.

Emma closes her eyes and presses her shaking hands to her face. She has her master's in school counseling, which apparently means nothing when it counts the most. She wipes her eyes and then forces herself to look at Shannon. "She wasn't ready to talk about it."

"I'd say not," Shannon says, looking at the auditorium doors. "Should we call her parents? Just to make sure she gets home all right?"

"I'd appreciate it very much if you would," Emma says. "Tell them that we had an emotional rehearsal and Santana was upset at the end of it." She failed. She failed, and one of her kids thinks that she's alone in her own private hell. "Damn it," she says, because that sums it up.

Shannon hesitates, then pats her on the shoulder. "I'll go make that phone call."

*

"I'm just saying that if we nominated her for What Not to Wear, it would be hilarious," Kurt says, setting down his coffee and danish.

"And I'm just saying that I like Stacy and Clinton. I don't know much about Coach Sylvester, but I do know that we would never find their bodies," Blaine replies.

"Mm, true. How else will we learn how to make fun of people while encouraging them to dress their best?"

"What would they say about that hat that guy is wearing?"

"That items of sentimental value may remain in your closet, but when your grandmother manages to combine army green and neon orange in her knitting, it must never see the light of day."

Blaine laughs and they tuck into their food. This is more of a mid-afternoon snack than a lunch, since both of them have been up since the truly heinous hour of nine in the morning. Blaine had West Side Story rehearsal all Saturday morning and Kurt got to enjoy some truly thrilling ear training drills with Rachel. Music theory is not going to be his favorite part of college.

"How's being Tony?" Kurt asks, keeping his voice light. It still smarts a little, knowing he took himself out of the running for the lead role of West Side Story, but cramming for college auditions is consuming his life. Carole keeps trying to feed him casseroles and last night his dad made up a story about needing help at the garage just to give them some time to hang out.

"It's a lot of fun. I missed getting some Action today, though," Blaine says with an exaggerated wink.

"Hussy."

"So, have you mastered your intervals yet?" Blaine asks. He had a semester of music theory at Dalton, damn him, and he can really play the piano as opposed to Kurt's chicken pecking. "An ascending major fifth is--"

"The beginning of Star Wars, I know," Kurt sighs. "This is the kind of thing I'd like to learn in college, not try to teach myself so that I can get into college. Rachel and I did realize that there's an ascending major seventh in 'On the Street Where You Live,' though, so that's something."

"Huh," Blaine says, then hums the first few lines to himself. "'All at once am I,' yeah, you're right. Awesome! See, you're getting good at this already. You have nothing to worry about."

"I hope so," Kurt says. "I'm still annoyed that all these schools require that I audition with monologues for parts that I could conceivably play now. There are some boys who would make an amazing Blanche DuBois, for example."

"Since when does Kurt Hummel depend on the kindness of strangers?" Blaine asks, raising his coffee cup in a toast. After taking a sip, he continues, "You'll just have to reform your college after you're done reforming high school."

"Speaking of reforming high school, Brittany is due here any minute. We're going to go over our talking points for the debate. You're welcome to stay, but I understand if you leave for less political pastures."

"Nah, I'll stick around. I have homework to do and we probably won't get to have a real date until Christmas." Blaine makes a face. "I just keep telling myself that we'll have all the time in the world in New York."

"What a nice thought," Kurt says. He and Blaine reach for each other's hands across the table at the same moment. He's so preoccupied with smiling at his boyfriend smiling at him that he almost misses Brittany's arrival. When her appearance finally registers, his eyes go wide.

"What is it?" Blaine asks, turning. "...oh."

Brittany looks vacant in a different kind of way today, like she's been hollowed out from the inside. She's wearing an oversized gray sweatshirt emblazoned with Cheerios lettering, black leggings, and white sneakers. Her face is devoid of makeup and even her ever-present ponytail is drooping. Worst of all is the way she's moving, like she can't even see where she's going. The only time Kurt has ever seen Brittany stumble was when she was doped to the gills on cold medication.

"Broken heart," Kurt diagnoses as she makes her way slowly to their table.

"Who's the heartbreaker?" Blaine asks. Kurt just looks at him. "Oh."

"Hey, Kurt. Blaine Warbler. Cheerios practice was long today," Brittany says, then opens and closes one of her hands. "I think I left all my stuff in Quinn's locker again."

"Don't worry about it," Kurt says. Brittany tends to come up with three outlandish talking points for every good one she suggests, though the one about machines that dispense skin care products is worth consideration after their election. He has her more useful suggestions saved on his phone. "I've compressed all our discussions down to three key points. Do you want to hear them now, or do you want to get a coffee or something?"

"I'm not hungry." Brittany folds herself into a chair and then rests her chin on her hands. "Tell me about the keys."

Kurt exchanges a look with Blaine. Kurt shrugs to convey, I'm not sure if I should ask about it. "Our first major talking point is, of course, the bullying issue. Our attack is two-pronged: not only do we need a zero tolerance bullying policy at McKinley, we also need a program that will teach tolerance to the student body. I did a little Internet research and I'll talk to Ms. Pillsbury about it on Monday. It can be part of the health curriculum or something."

"Cool," Brittany says. Her smile looks forced. "Last year didn't change a whole lot because people like to just stay the same."

Blaine clears his throat. Kurt shrugs again and continues, "Our second talking point has to be prom, of course, since prom is what most of the senior class cares about. Never mind that the student body has either lived in fear or incited fear for the past three years, never mind the constant harassment in the form of icy cold drinks--"

"You seem kinda sad, Brittany," Blaine interrupts. "Is there anything you want to talk about?"

"It's your choice, of course," Kurt says. Blaine arches his eyebrows as if to say, Sorry, couldn't hold it in anymore. That's his boyfriend, wanting to help everyone he meets.

"I told Santana that we couldn't be friends anymore until she stops being mean," Brittany says, eyes welling with tears. "I told her some other stuff, too, but she got mad the last time I said anything to anyone else about it."

"Let's pretend that I have two lady friends," Kurt suggests. "We'll call them Bethany and Samantha. They're in love with each other, but they keep fighting, so Bethany breaks up with Samantha. Now, if Bethany happened to be sitting right in front of me, I'd tell her that things might seem awful now, but true love will always work out in the end. It's very romantic that she's working so hard to make Samantha feel safe in school."

That earns him a real smile, though a tear escapes to trickle down Brittany's cheek. Blaine hands her a napkin. "Your friend, Bethany I mean, is scared that trying is just messing things up more."

"Trying means everything," Kurt says, a lump in his throat at the memory of Blaine sitting down beside him to gamble their entire friendship on one declaration. "Samantha loves y--Bethany. She'll come around."

"So we all have to keep trying. I get it," Brittany says, wiping her eyes with the napkin. "I guess we can get back to the debate stuff now."

"Sure," Kurt says, looking back down at his notes. "Where were we?"

"I remember that we need to get the bullies out of McKinley and get some lessons on how to be nicer people. We also need a super awesome prom. If I ask Quinn, she'll have the Cheerios do another car wash, except it won't be an official one 'cause Coach Sylvester will get mad."

"Bikinis for Boogying," Blaine says. Kurt lifts an eyebrow. "What, it was just a suggestion."

"I like it," Brittany says, sounding halfway to her old self. "What's our third key?"

"A school assembly entitled 'Your Leggings and You,'" Kurt says. "Attendance will be mandatory."

*

In conclusion, you should accept me because I would rock your faces so hard, Mike types. He grins at his last paragraph, then backspaces on the last sentence. He thinks that college application essays could use a little more candor, but he doubts that his English teacher feels the same. He finally has a serviceable college application essay, anyway, so he hits the print button and walks over to the printer to collect it.

There are still fifteen minutes left in the period when Mike sits back down at his computer. All of his other friends look hard at work on their essays, except for Artie, who is hard at work concealing a game of Snood from Mrs. Moore. He's on the other side of the room, so Mike checks his phone to see a text from Tina saying that she'll be working on her art project during lunch. He texts a quick k, c u later, opens up Internet Explorer (because McKinley is woefully behind the times), and loads Google.

After a quick look around, he types "Juilliard dance" and hits enter.

It doesn't hurt anyone to just look, he reasons. So he reads about the Juilliard curriculum, which promises to train dancers that are equally talented in modern styles and ballet, then moves onto the truly intimidating list of audition requirements. Only 24 dancers are accepted each year. Written applications are due by the first of December. One of two letters of recommendation must come from a dance teacher. All applicants must have studied dance for at least three years. All auditions must be in person. There are five parts of the audition process: a ballet class, a modern class, a solo, a coaching session, and an interview. Mike is looking at a completely hopeless dream, but for fifteen minutes, he gets to dream at all.

"The bell rang two minutes ago."

Mike closes the window and turns around in his chair, hoping his guilty flush doesn't give him away. Quinn raises an eyebrow and says, "That didn't look like pornography, but you're acting like it was."

"I'm not that stupid," Mike says, running a hand through his hair. "Um, thanks for the tip. About the bell."

"Do you have any time right now? I was wondering if you'd be willing to work on our partnering in West Side Story."

"Sure, just let me grab my lunch from my locker. What did you want to work on? You're a great Velma."

Quinn hugs her notebooks to her chest and shrugs. "You're a better dancer than me. I don't like to be anything other than perfect. Meet me in the auditorium after you get your lunch."

Mike waves to Puck and Lauren as he spins the dial on his locker and retrieves his lunch. He starts eating his sandwich on the walk to the auditorium, figuring that Quinn will have an exacting schedule for the 25 minutes of lunch they get. She's never been anything but excruciatingly cool and put together except for the few times she's cried in the choir room, and anyone who can survive years of exposure to Coach Sylvester has to have scary levels of work ethic. Using the powers bequeathed to teenage boys everywhere, Mike devours the sandwich, a mini bag of Doritos, and an apple by the time he pushes open the auditorium doors.

"You've eaten, right?" Mike asks as he pulls himself onto the stage, where Quinn is waiting with a CD player. "I have another apple in my backpack if you need it."

"I'm good," Quinn says. "Here's what I have in mind: we improvise together for a little bit."

Mike blinks. "Improvise?" Not that he has any objections, but Quinn cares about following choreography to the letter. Even when she was pregnant, she insisted on repeating steps until she had them down. She actually picks up the ballet parts of the West Side Story choreography a hair faster than he does, and every inch of her screams my parents put me in ballet class when I was four.

Quinn smiles a little. "This is going to sound really dumb, but I think we just need to learn each other a little more. It's not any specific moves that I'm worried about."

"That sounds really smart, actually. I told you that you were a great Velma."

She leans over and hits play on the CD player, then stands up to face him. When a familiar bass riff starts, Mike smiles and executes a quick spin, reaching his hand up to meet her outstretched hand in the middle. "Queen and Bowie. Nice."

"I thought that 'Under Pressure' just fit," Quinn replies, letting him lead her around the floor as the scat singing begins. "I applied to Yale. Early decision."

"Good for you," Mike says, dipping her. She hesitates just a second before arching her back. "What are you planning on majoring in?"

"Biochem. What do you want to major in?"

Mike is in the middle of twirling her away from him when she asks the question. He means to stop her on splits a family in two but has to move it to the end of puts people on the streets instead. "Uh, the same, actually. My parents want me to be a doctor."

"I don't think Juilliard offers a lot of science classes."

He misses a beat and then throws in a quadruple step on that's okay to match the slow arms/quick feet combination that Quinn has going. Her gaze zeroes in on his feet and she bites her lip in concentration, focusing on reading his movements. That shift lets Mike answer, "I want to be a dancer. As long as I'm daydreaming, I might as well look at the best of the best."

She pulls him in for watching some good friends screaming let me out. "That was my reasoning, except I actually want to be a doctor. For the first few days after I had B--had the baby, I didn't want to eat anything. This doctor who wasn't even assigned to my case came in, sat on my bed, and told me that postpartum depression was normal and she was here if I needed to talk."

Mike places a hand on her waist on these are the days it never rains but it pours and laces the fingers of his other hand through hers. "Why are you telling me all of this?"

Quinn's eyes shine with unshed tears. "My best friend already knows and my other best friend is in the middle of a crisis. And Coach Sylvester told me that people can't coordinate their movements if they don't trust each other on some level. I almost missed my shot at being a flyer on the Cheerios until I accepted that just because Santana leaped at every opportunity to put me down didn't mean that she would ever let me fall."

The CD player is singing turned away from it all like a blind man by the time Mike has himself collected enough to reply. "So this is like one big trust fall."

"More or less."

"Then get ready!" As the last why builds and builds to a crescendo, Mike lifts her up by the waist so fast that it's more of a throw, though his hands steady her to balance in the air. Quinn throws her head back and points her toes, stretching her arms out as if in mid-flight. When love love love love love echoes through the song, Quinn twists under his hands, dropping into his arms with her eyes closed.

"I want to audition," Mike says, just loud enough for her to hear him over the music.

She opens her eyes. "I think that you should do it."

"My parents--my dad especially--would never agree."

"My dad wanted me to go to college to meet my future husband," Quinn says, mouth twisting as though she's tasted something sour. "At some point you have to do what's right for yourself. I learned that the hard way."

They're box stepping in perfect sync on love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night. "So what, I get into the world's most difficult school and then my parents change their mind? I don't even have a dance teacher who's known me for three years to recommend me."

"Coach Beiste has known you for two years, right? She can say that Mr. Schue was your teacher before that." Quinn smiles, expression so sad that it cuts his heart. "What you're doing right now is who you are. Don't fight it."

They stop by unspoken agreement at this is ourselves under pressure, hands dropping to their sides. Mike studies Quinn's face as they circle each other, fingers snapping for the last twenty seconds or so of the song. She's not looking at his feet anymore. The song ends and they stop at the same moment, their poses mirroring each other.

"It's a crazy idea," Mike says slowly. "But I think I'm going to do it."

Quinn breaks out into a real smile. "This year will be our year. You'll see."

Mike pulls her into a hug, because he's pretty sure that no one hugs her besides Mercedes. She goes stiff for a minute, then relaxes. "I take it back. Now you're a great Velma."

"Thanks," she says, pulling away. "For listening to me talk about myself."

"Thanks for being a good friend," Mike says. "Now seriously, you should eat an apple. We just worked out."

*

Rachel bounces into the auditorium, ten minutes early for rehearsal. Tina is already here, she notes approvingly. She heard about the drama of last Saturday's rehearsal from Kurt, who heard it from Mercedes, who heard it from Tina. Santana has missed both days of school so far this week, and no one knows what's going on with her. She asked Ms. Pillsbury earlier today, who just shook her head and said, "She's sick, Rachel. Let this one go."

"I applaud your commitment against such odds," Rachel says to Tina, who gives her a bewildered look. "Feel free to ask for any of my insights regarding Maria's character. I've prepared several essays in anticipation of any thematic concepts that might cause you to struggle."

"I think I've got it, Rachel, thanks."

"Anytime!" Rachel beams. "I see the rest of our compatriots have arrived."

The five girls on the "I Feel Pretty" quintet take the stage to warm up with the piano. Rachel does the warm-ups on autopilot, evaluating the others. Mercedes and Tina will learn their parts in no time, Rachel knows. The sophomore girl will do fine once she gets over her sharp tendencies and looking terrified of being surrounded by such talent. Sugar Motta is... well, she's going to be a unique case.

"Let's get it started in here," Artie half-sings. "From the top, ladies."

After their first run-through, Rachel thinks, Leonard Bernstein is weeping somewhere. Sugar is the only one onstage still smiling. Tina has her eyes closed, face screwed up in pain. The sophomore girl, whose name Rachel really needs to find out, looks ready to dive off the stage. Mercedes shakes her head at Rachel with an incredulous expression.

"That was, um, an impressive start," Artie says weakly. "Can we run it again? Gently?"

Halfway through Sugar's second disastrous attempt at harmony, Rachel waves her arms. "Stop! Stop!" When the piano and her fellow singers stumble to a halt, she whirls, pointing a finger at Sugar. "Can't you hear yourself singing?"

"Yeah, and I sound way better than anybody else," Sugar replies. "Do you want a lesson? Normally I'd charge, but we'll call this an act of charity."

Rachel just stares as everybody else backs away without trying to look like they're preparing to run for the hills. She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths, then massages her temples for good measure. "I fear that I have met my Waterloo," Rachel says, opening her eyes and addressing Mercedes in her best stage whisper. They're the ones tasked by Coach Beiste to reform Sugar, after all. "Please, no jokes about my height and any resulting complexes."

"Short girls gotta stick together," Mercedes whispers back. "Okay, let's focus. How can we explain carrying a tune to Sugar? She's not hearing what she's doing to music."

Rachel taps her finger against her lips in thought. Her normal approach, which is to steamroll over any paltry objections until she achieves her goals, is useless here. Not only is Sugar tone deaf, her head is made of impenetrable rock. That might account for her tone deafness, come to think of it.

"Is rehearsal over?" Sugar asks, looking at her oversize pink watch. "All of this--" here she sweeps her hand in front of her, indicating her entire body-- "takes a lot of maintenance, and I don't want to miss my mani-pedi appointment."

"Of course," Rachel says, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. She will remain professional in front of their directors. It's good practice for the future and it's a good reminder that she is more than willing to step in as Anita if Santana misses an entire week of rehearsal due to sickness. "Let's forget about the quintet entirely for a minute. I want you to pick a song that you know by heart and sound absolutely flawless on, and sing it for us right now. Nothing by Adele," she adds quickly when Sugar begins to open her mouth. "Mercedes and I will sing along so that you can hear any slight corrections you might need to make."

"I'm also the reincarnation of Nicki Minaj," Sugar says, bobbing her head to an imaginary beat.

"She's still alive," Mercedes says.

Sugar ignores that comment in favor of taking center stage. She waves on imperious hand, cuing the the guitar and keyboard for the beginning of "Super Bass." She launches into the first line in perfect time, her rapping as fast as the original but each word clearly discernible. She winks at Artie on I mean my, my, my, my you're like pelican fly, who responds by pumping his fist. She parades around the stage, improvising a dance to go along with the music. Rachel and Mercedes exchange impressed looks that morph into ones of pain when Sugar starts caterwauling on the chorus.

Mercedes mouths too good to last and comes in to help Sugar out on the more melodic parts. Rachel adds her own voice, nodding encouragingly at Sugar. Sugar grins and continues her gleeful slaughter of any attempts at harmony until she's back to rapping like a professional. Rachel listens to her, swaying along with the words as she waits for the next chorus. It kind of makes sense that Sugar can hear the beats--she is a talented dancer. She even sounds more or less in key when she raps. They just have to capitalize on her sense of rhythm somehow.

"I am Sugar Motta, I mack them dudes up, back coupes up, and chuck the deuce up," Sugar declares, blowing a kiss to the hordes of adoring fans she's undoubtedly imagining. Huh. She reminds Rachel of someone.

It all clicks as they make their way through yet another wince-worthy chorus. Sugar Motta is Rachel Berry without the singing talent, at least when it comes to performing. Rachel nods to Mercedes during the few seconds between the end of the chorus and the next few lines. On See, I need you in my life for me to stay, they sing as loudly as they can without drowning out the piano. A wrinkle appears in between Sugar's eyebrows as she notices and frowns. She takes a deep breath to sing louder. All of a sudden, Sugar is in the proper key, albeit flat on half of her notes. Rachel grins and sings louder.

Now it's really on. Sugar squares her shoulders and stalks over to Rachel, drawing in such a deep breath that Rachel can see her diaphragm expanding. She softens her voice just in time for Sugar to sing, "Beatin' like a drum and it's coming your way." It comes out clear and strong. Sugar's face breaks out in a giant smile as she finishes the song solo on the melody line, with Rachel and Mercedes harmonizing underneath.

Mercedes claps her hands after they finish. "That's what we were talking about, girl. I knew you had it in you."

"Nice work," Rachel allows. "We still have to work on your actual part in the quintet, since Tina has the melody, but I promise that harmony offers many exciting opportunities."

"I'll totally get it. I'm awesome," Sugar says, shrugging. "You guys are really good teachers, though."

That's something for Rachel to add to her resume. Used innovative modern techniques to instruct cast member on a variety of vocalization styles. Maybe Sugar will consent to recording a before and after session. Her normal approach to singing really has to be heard to be believed.

*

"I'm so glad West Side Story was a short rehearsal today," Mercedes sighs as she and Sam walk through the school parking lot. "Sugar's getting better, but she still murders eardrums most of the time."

"Hey, at least she's getting better, right?"

"Yeah, kind of like how you're getting better on your third day of the flu."

Sam laughs. "Are we still on for Puck's house today? 'Cause there are like no cars in the parking lot and I'm feeling kind of romantic."

"Don't tease me, boy." Mercedes tugs him down for a kiss outside her car and doesn't let go of the front of his shirt until he's wrapped his arms around her. "Mm. I have to ask the others if they want to play at the wedding, though."

Sam affects a ridiculous pout. "I liked our little duo."

"Hey, we'll always be a duo."

They end up making out in the school parking lot for a good fifteen minutes, but hey, the drive to Puck's house is a short one. Mercedes parks the car and rings the doorbell, where Mrs. Puckerman gives them her usual warm greeting and insists that they have a cookie the minute they walk in the door. "Puck says you're in the basement today. Something about needing more space for the drum kit," Mrs. Puckerman says while they dutifully eat their (delicious) cookies.

"Drum kit?" Mercedes asks as they walk downstairs to the basement. Everyone else is either draped across the couch (Mike and Tina), finger-picking on an acoustic guitar (Puck), or tuning an electric guitar (Lauren). Sam sets his guitar case down, opens it, and sits right there on the floor to start tuning as well. He gets a little single-minded about jam sessions. Mercedes, meanwhile, is the only one who seems to notice Finn sitting behind a drum kit. He hesitates for a second, then waves.

"We needed a drummer," Puck says, almost challengingly. "Berry is like a really hot cousin to me, but this isn't glee club."

"I'm fine with it, I'm just surprised," Mercedes says. She makes a face at Tina, who rolls her eyes back. They're perfectly happy staying out of whatever drama Finn, Rachel, and Quinn get themselves wrapped up in. Besides, Puck's right: this isn't glee club.

"I can honestly say I don't suck," Finn says, then throws in a rim shot.

"Weak," Puck says, shaking his head.

Sam, finished with his tuning, stands back up and nudges Mercedes with his shoulder. Mercedes squeezes his bicep and says, "So, um, I was wondering if any of you wanted to turn pro with me."

The reaction to her words is instantaneous. Finn, for all the thirty seconds he's been playing with the group, thrusts his drumsticks in the air. Puck and Lauren reach for their water bottles at the same time and clink them together. Tina jumps up and down in place and Mike gives her a slow clap. Sam, who already knows the whole deal, just leans against the wall, hands thrust in his pockets and a huge smile on his face.

"What's the gig?" Puck asks.

"I've been doing a lot of singing at the retirement home for church. One of the ladies there asked me if I would sing at her granddaughter's wedding in two months. It would be nice if I had my own band instead of having to find a couple of other people to back Sam and me. We'd have to play for the bride and groom to get the job, but Mrs. Clark kinda runs every show she gets her hands on, so I think we'll be fine," Mercedes says.

"Well, I don't really play an instrument," Mike says, exchanging a look with Tina. "Let me know if you need a really, really enthusiastic wedding dancer."

Mercedes shoots Mike a grateful smile for having the grace to decline her offer. Playing weddings is much more about the band than the choreography, but he's still part of their group, so it wouldn't have been right to not extend the invitation. "I don't really play an instrument either, except my voice. Instrumentalists, how do you feel?"

Tina pushes her hair out of her face and says, "I'll cover keyboard." She'll also be doing some vocals if Mercedes has anything to do with it.

"Sounds awesome to me," Finn says, twirling his drumsticks. The effect is somewhat diminished when he narrowly avoids poking himself in the eye. "I miss drumming and it means I don't have to dance. No offense, Mike."

"None taken."

"Okay, so we've got three guitar players," Puck says. "I think I'm the only one who knows bass, though. James Jamerson did a bunch of stuff that'll be good for weddings, and maybe later we can do some Who."

Finn goes a little pale. "Uh, will there be a lot of practice time between now and then?"

"Dude, I said maybe. Relax, Keith."

"Anyway, back to picking parts," Mercedes says. Mrs. Clark gave her this gig, and she has to run it, even if Puck has a surprisingly good head for the music business. Well, everybody's head has got to be good for something.

Sam scratches his head as Lauren studies him, arms crossed. "I've got the most experience backing Mercedes?" he starts. He squares his shoulders and continues, "I'll take lead guitar."

"Rhythm guitar it is," Lauren says, nodding in satisfaction. "How's that sound, boss?"

"I think we have a band," Mercedes says, grinning.

"Let's hear it for Mercedes and the Benzes!"

"...no, Puck."

*

From the sound of it, the teachers actually managed to corral most of the student body in the gym for the presidential debates. Kurt sneaks a peek through the doors and grins. New Directions has commandeered an entire row of bleachers in the front. Rachel, Blaine, and Mercedes are holding an enormous glittery banner that says TEAM HUMMEL-PIERCE on it. Even Santana appears to have recovered from her mysterious illness, though she's buried in a sea of Cheerios uniforms rather than sitting with the club.

"Santana is here," Kurt says to Brittany, who promptly turns away and wipes her eyes. "Way to go," he mutters to himself.

"We start the debate in five," Mr. Sullivan says. "God help us all." He looks a little harried after proofreading Rick's prepared statements--or trying to, before finding out that Rick was still writing them as of two minutes ago.

"I'm pretty sure that I'm going to die," Brittany says, twisting her ponytail in one of her hands.

"Stop that. I just did your hair." Kurt steps back to take Brittany in. This outfit is a personal best, and he makes a note to do something nice for Blaine and Mercedes, his style consultants. After an extensive survey of Brittany's admirably bizarre wardrobe and a debate about whether a Cheerio uniform would be more likely to get them elected, Kurt discovered a cap sleeve lace dress in Cheerio red and proceeded from there. She has on a cropped blue and white striped denim jacket because flaunting red, white, and blue is always good political strategy, no matter how small the election. Kurt added a black and gold studded pyramid bracelet for visual interest; the music routine they have planned for the end precluded dangling jewelry.

"I don't have to change my shoes, do I?" Brittany asks, having moved on to playing with her earrings. She insisted on two articles of clothing: the gold earrings that say LOVE in all capital letters, and dark red Doc Martens. Kurt appreciates a good shoe, but the red is an entirely different shade than the dress.

"No," Kurt concedes. Brittany has a way of pulling off clashing colors. "And you're not going to die. I know that you think that you're not good at public speaking, but that speech you gave in Mr. Sullivan's was real. We wrote the words together. We believe in our message. We have this debate in the bag."

Brittany gives her bracelet a twist, then tries out a smile. "I guess it can fit in there since I let the cat out."

"Right," Kurt says, then spares a brief moment to pray for his sense of reality. That comment actually made sense to him.

"If you're done prepping for the debate," Mr. Sullivan says, walking over to them, "I believe that your esteemed opponent has finished scrawling the last of his notes on his cave wall."

"Go," Kurt says softly. "I'll be right out on my cue."

Brittany, Rick, and Mr. Sullivan walk into the gym, where the stage is set with two microphones in the middle of the basketball court. "Announcing your 2011 senior class president nominees, who I'm sure you'll all vote for," Mr. Sullivan says into a megaphone. "On my left, Rick Nelson! On my right, Brittany Pierce! First question: what do you plan to do for McKinley High School during your term?"

"We're gonna have the best prom ever!" Rick shouts, waving the hockey stick that he has for some reason been permitted to carry with him. "Prom! Prom! Prom! Prom!" Much to Kurt's satisfaction, the hockey team is the only group to join the cheer. Without the Cheerios on their side, the jocks have no real power at McKinley.

"My fellow Americans," Brittany starts, because she insisted that every speech of hers should start "like a real president's." She clears her throat. "My fellow Americans, I promise to end bullying at McKinley High School. No more slushies, no more stolen lunch money, no more throwing kids into lockers. We can rewrite the rules so that anybody who does that stuff gets suspended, like actually suspended. This school belongs to all of us and we can make it better if you vote Hummel-Pierce."

Kurt lets out the breath he'd been holding. Brittany fields the next few questions with ease, since all of them are about prom. She's warmed up now, using graceful hand gestures to emphasize her points regarding the merits of a dinosaur-themed prom. That's something that they'll have to discuss later in more detail, but for now, their audience seems to be eating it up. Rick doesn't appear to notice the relative silence from most of the crowd whenever he finishes waving his hockey stick. Mr. Sullivan is the only one who looks unhappy onstage. After he reads the fourth question about prom, this one regarding how soon in advance one should buy "those flower bracelet thingies," a vein in his temple starts to throb.

"To my eternal regret, this concludes our debate," Mr. Sullivan says through clenched teeth. "What hard-hitting questions your peers submitted! Candidates, you may make your final statements, however unorthodox." At that last comment, he directs a glare at the gym doors, where Kurt is waiting.

Rick is up first, naturally. "Vote Rick the Stick! McKinley's number ONE!" He continues in this vein for a few minutes and concludes his speech by throwing a hockey puck on the ground and hitting it all the way to the other end of the gym, where it embeds itself in the wall.

"That was awesome," Brittany says, clapping. "I'm pretty sure that we're all tired of talking by now, so my running mate and I are going to perform for you. Think fierce; vote Hummel-Pierce."

That's Kurt's cue. He struts onstage as Finn and Puck clear the microphone stands out of the way. He selected his own outfit for this occasion with equal care: it's patriotic, complements Brittany's outfit, and leaves him room for dancing. He topped off a neutral fine-jersey T-shirt with a blue elbow patch cardigan and a red Alexander McQueen printed scarf that he won after an intense eBay bidding war. He's wearing black leather ankle boots, but the real kicker is the jeans: Ralph Lauren and covered with different iterations of American flags. Blaine had asked if a nice suit would fit the occasion better, but Kurt's response was, "There is a time and a place for subtlety, and anything involving McKinley's student body is neither one."

Facing the entire senior class of McKinley High, half of whom have insulted him for his cutting-edge fashion, Kurt feels a sliver of doubt. It's Brittany's turn to give him a reassuring smile as she hands him his headset he last wore during "4 Minutes." Then the music starts and it's time for them to sing.

"We can be strong, we can be strong," Kurt and Brittany sing together. Picking Gaga for their campaign song wasn't even really a question: she's a fashionista outsider like Kurt and an amazing dancer like Brittany. They both belt out the song's introduction. When the thumping bass beat starts, Kurt takes over vocals. They couldn't get a smoke machine for the occasion, but Brittany conveys mystery and allure all on her own, throwing off her jacket on run, run with the top down baby, she flies so she can execute a series of cartwheels. Kurt does a cartwheel of his own on the next verse. They rejoin to belt the chorus again, arms spread wide. All of New Directions responds by putting their paws up and Blaine is outright dancing in his seat.

Kurt sings the I'm on the road, I'm on the road to love part entirely to Blaine. He doesn't care. Most of the audience is distracted by the tall blonde in the short dress, so distracted that they don't even realize that she's singing those lines to Santana.

They finish the song with their hands joined together and raised in the air, breathing hard from exertion. The silence after the music stops rings in Kurt's ears for just a second before New Directions rises to its collective feet, stomping and cheering. The Cheerios aren't far behind, chanting Brittany's name. Santana has a scowl on her face, but she's still on her feet and clapping. In the space of a minute, the entire audience is giving them a standing ovation.

Kurt rips off his headset so that he can hug Brittany. "They don't even have to bother with the ballots," he tells her. "We've already won."

"I hope so," Brittany says, but she's looking at Santana.

*

The presidential debate leaves Santana with a bad taste in her mouth for the rest of the day. It was a stupid idea to come back to school when she could have milked that phone call to stay home for a few more days. Apparently when a teacher calls home and says that you're distraught, your parents will insist that you rest and your mom will sit on the edge of the bed as she says, It's hard to see you so unhappy and not know why.

Whatever.

When Santana finds the note in her locker saying that she's called for an extra West Side Story rehearsal this afternoon, she crumples it in her fist and considers throwing it away. She loves the limelight, but she's not loving stupid people trying to pry into her business. Ms. Pillsbury gave her huge doe eyes when she saw Santana in this morning, but she didn't even try to say anything as Santana stormed past her. Tina did try to say something, but Santana snarled and brushed her off, leaving her standing with Kurt and Blaine. Good riddance to all of them.

On the other hand, the prospect of using her newfound power to terrorize rehearsals some more warms her cold, black heart. West Side Story and glee club are about to get real interesting if Ms. Pillsbury can't even look her in the eye. Santana smirks as she picks up her script and heads to the auditorium. Singing, dancing, and striking fear into the hearts of man are her three favorite activities, and now she can combine all of them.

The auditorium is dark except for a spotlight illuminating a piece of the stage. It's a little creepy, actually, and Santana represses a start of surprise when Frodo Warbler and Asian Maria walk onstage and sit cross-legged in the spotlight. ("Asian Maria?" Jesus, she's losing her touch.) "What's up, losers?" she asks, using her arms to vault herself onstage. "Where are our fearful leaders?"

"They're not coming," Tina says tightly. "Sit down."

"What is this, some kind of freaky intervention?" Santana asks, settling down. When Blaine carefully avoids looking at her, she says, "No way. Did you seriously bring me here to sing kumbaya and talk about how we all have to work together? I hope both of you die of foot-and-mouth disease. I'm out."

"I don't think you are, Santana."

That stops her before she can get back up. It feels like her entire ribcage is made of ice and her heart is beating against it frantically enough to break it. Santana opens her mouth to ask when Tina stole Ms. Pillsbury's new backbone, but nothing comes out. She's sitting in the middle of a spotlight with her mouth gaping open like a teenage boy about to inhale five hundred hot dogs in a row. The light is so blinding that every seat could be full and she wouldn't know. Her hands start to shake.

"We're not here to scare you," Blaine says. He has huge eyes for a dude. He and Ms. Pillsbury should form a club. "We're trying to help you, partly because we're your costars and partly because we know what you're going through."

Santana just shakes her head, too numb to call him a sanctimonious asshole like he deserves.

"When I came out to my friends, I was terrified, but they were fine with it," Blaine continues, oblivious. "My parents still aren't thrilled about who I am and I faced my share of abuse before I went to Dalton. I'm not stupid. I know what being gay in Ohio means. I'm still grateful that I came out. Hiding my real self hurt so much. Like it's hurting you now."

She can't speak. She's Santana Lopez and she can't speak.

"Most people assume that I'm straight because I'm dating Mike," Tina says, her voice gentler than before. "I correct them if they say what they're assuming out loud, but most of them never do. Coming out doesn't have to be big and flashy, especially if you're scared."

Finally, finally, Santana takes a shaky breath and says, "I can't believe that a freaking play means so much to you that you dragged me in here to start making shit up." There. That wasn't so hard. She bares her teeth in a smile. "You know, I feel so much closer to both of you. Pretty stupid of you to give me such good dirt, but hey, if that's how it's gotta go down, whatever."

"I'm not ashamed of being gay," Blaine says, leaning forward. The lighting hits his earnest expression so hard that it makes Santana nauseous. "I'd be angry with you if you told the school that I used to get beaten up, but you know what? Someone has to stand up to you long enough to help you get through this."

"We just thought you'd take it better from people who have been there," Tina says.

The ice in her chest creaks. It's melting, and it feels like she's just done four tequila shots in a row, a warm rush of tears that she can't stop once they start. She closes her eyes, biting her lip so hard that the taste of blood bursts in her mouth, but the tears slide out anyway. She slumps over from her cross-legged position in a grotesque parody of a stretch, pressing her forehead against her shoes as she lets out a small, choked sound.

Everything is quiet except for the sound of their breathing.

"You've never been there," Santana says at last, lifting her head. Tina and Blaine are staring at her, their expressions bearing the same identical sadness, and it's too much. It's too fucking much to keep the words inside anymore. "I don't know what my parents will think, but my abuela raised my dad and I know she'll hate me," Santana says. "I don't want to get beaten up. I don't want the world to label me and I don't want to label myself. I just want everyone to leave me alone and let me be with--let me be with--"

Tina pushes a little box of tissues towards her and Santana snatches one out of the box, wiping off her cheeks. The name burns on her tongue, but with it comes a slew of other names, each one more frightening than the last. She can't even whisper them to herself, much less the gay-bisexual alliance sitting in front of her. "My best friend won't even talk to me," she sobs instead. "I'm always fighting with myself and everyone else and I'm tired of singing songs about boys and I'm so tired, I'm so tired, I'm so tired, I'm so tired..."

She trails off into incoherent crying after that. Blaine hesitates for a second, then scoots over to her and wraps an arm around her shoulders. Tina moves over to press against her other side, handing her tissue after tissue as Santana empties half the box drying her tears. It's true. She's too tired to even care that Santana Lopez is having a sexuality crisis in front of two of the biggest losers that she's ever met. She's too tired to do anything other than cry herself out until her tear ducts are as empty as her heart.

"Shh," Tina says, rubbing her back. "You don't have to do anything. You don't have to hurt people anymore."

"You're not alone," Blaine says, and that sets Santana off crying again. This time it feels good, though, like something ugly is draining out of her at last.

"Thanks," Santana says thickly. "For the gayvention or whatever. Make it less spooky next time."

"Let us know if we can do anything more," Blaine says. Ugh, is she actually going to have to like him now? His niceness makes her want to punch things.

"Can you wave your hand and make hate go away with your fairy dust?"

"We can at least do something about you having to sing songs about boys," Tina says, breaking out into a smile. "Let me text a few people. I have an idea."

*

Everything is so blurry when your heart is broken, like everyone else is running and you're standing still.

Sometimes moving helps, like when she did the duet with Kurt. Brittany knows that they were both amazing, that they were on fire (except not literally, because then they would be dead). The air changes when people are really listening to you, when they're giving all the energy and the feelings inside of you right back to you. She asked Kurt to pull her hair back so that Santana could see that she was wearing the earrings she got for her three Christmases ago, back when they were still pretending that they loved each other like Bert and Ernie instead of like Mischa Barton and that blonde girl in three episodes of The O.C.

It didn't seem to make a difference, but at least Santana came at all.

Brittany skips her last class to spend forty minutes sitting in the choir room picking the squiggly frosting off a pack of Hostess cupcakes. She's not that hungry, either. She and Santana liked to get desserts that came in twos because then they could split halfway and only worry half as much about the weekly Cheerio weigh-ins. She can't decide which one to eat first, so she finally shoves them both in her mouth.

"Hey, Brittany," Mercedes says, walking in with Sam, who waves.

"Mmph," she says through all the sugary goodness.

By the time she's managed to chew and swallow the cupcakes, the rest of the club is there, including Santana, who's sitting next to Tina today. She has on a tight black dress and peep toe black heels and she looks so good, like a really mean piece of candy. Brittany just ate. Why is she hungry?

Oh, right. Sometimes she gets hungry confused with lonely. They're both empty feelings.

"'Seasons of Love' will be the entire group," Ms. Pillsbury is saying. "We need to decide who else will be on the other two songs. We already have Blaine and Artie on 'Tearin' Up My Heart.' I think it's safe to say that we'll want Mike on such a dance-heavy number, yes?" Brittany nods along with everyone else. Mike will look so, so awesome dancing to that song.

"I want in on the boy band," Sam says. "Gotta impress my lady."

"Ditto," Puck says for some reason. No one is even talking about Pokemon right now.

Kurt says, "Put me down as well. Let's do an all-boys number."

Ms. Pillsbury writes all of their names on the white board next to the song. It's weird, seeing plans up there instead of Mr. Schue's word of the week. Ms. Pillsbury turns back around and her smile falters a little. "Santana has the solo for 'Creep.' Who would like to back her up?"

Rachel's hand shoots up in the air so fast that Brittany checks the ceiling to make sure it didn't fly all the way up there and gets stuck. When she looks back down, both of Rachel's hands are in her lap and she's glaring at Kurt's boyfriend, who is not actually a Keebler elf. Brittany wonders if he can still bake delicious cookies.

Santana raises her hand.

"You want to back yourself up?" Ms. Pillsbury asks, looking from her dry erase marker to Santana like she's not sure what to write.

"I actually want to change the TLC song," Santana says, shrugging. She gets up and turns around to face the club. Her face is the tiniest bit puffy, like she's been doing a lot of crying, Brittany realizes. "I also recruited New Directions a new member because of my love for the club or whatever. She's gonna back me up along with Tina."

"Correction, I'm going to solo," Sugar Motta says, flinging the door open.

"Oh my God," Rachel says, burying her face in her hands. Kurt pats her on the shoulder.

"I thought we'd settled on a setlist," Ms. Pillsbury says faintly.

"We change it all the time. You'll get used to it," Quinn tells her. She smiles at Santana. "I don't really have a problem with this change."

"Just listen," Santana says, rolling her eyes. "If you don't like it--never mind. All of you will."

Brittany knows the song as soon as it starts. "Waterfalls" used to be one of the only TLC songs she and Santana knew before Santana bought Fanmail at random out of the bargain bin when they were in fifth grade. Santana sounds gorgeous on lead, like she was born to sing the song, and Sugar and Tina harmonize behind her. Brittany's foot starts tapping and then they hit the chorus.

"Don't go chasing waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to," Santana sings, and her eyes lock on Brittany's for a moment. Did she just imagine it? Brittany's foot stills in her confusion. All she can do is watch Santana sing her way through the next few verses, waiting for some kind of clue.

No. It's not her imagination. The chorus comes back and Santana sings, "I know that you're gonna have it your way or nothing at all, but I think you're moving too fast," like her heart is breaking all over again. Brittany covers her mouth and tries not to cry. It helps when Sugar jumps in to do the rap. She has the whole feeling of the words in her body and Brittany focuses on that, because it's easier than hearing what Santana is trying to tell her.

Sugar's rap ends, though, and the chorus comes back in. Santana still can't look at her except in little glimpses. Each one feels like stepping on a thumbtack. By the end, Brittany has her head bowed.

"That was wonderful," Ms. Pillsbury says, clapping. "What prompted the change?"

Santana shrugs. "This song was even bigger than 'Creep' and none of the other clubs at Sectionals have rappers."

"They're about to get hit by the loco-Motta," Sugar says.

"Is there anyone who objects to the song change? This is the only one I'm going to give you, guys."

Brittany registers that the hand on her shoulder is Quinn's. "She said that you're moving too fast," Quinn whispers. "She didn't say to stop moving at all." She reaches up and clings to Quinn's hand, to Quinn's words.

Is waiting standing still? Brittany wants to know, but she knows that Santana is the only one with the answer.

Chapter Text

The nice thing about change is that eventually, no matter how much things get shaken up, it becomes the new normal. Rachel has a new routine for the average weekday: wake up, work out, get ready for school, attend school, have some sort of rehearsal, go home, eat dinner, do homework, rehearse for auditions, brush her teeth, and go to bed. Her dads keep asking her to play Monopoly: The Wizard of Oz and she keeps having to decline, lest her grade point average dip even lower after that disastrous year of struggling with trigonometry.

"Anyway," she keeps saying, "you're helping my with my Philadelphia Story monologue! We're still spending time together as a family."

Still, it's nice to have some time to herself, an entire Sunday reserved for an activity pertaining to her upcoming auditions but nevertheless a change of pace.

"Ready for the shopping trip, Cinderella?" Blaine asks as she nears Kurt's car. He pulls the door open with an elaborate bow. Mercedes waves from the back seat.

"I for one cannot wait to spend a day more focused on appearance than developing my considerable talents. Mark this day on your calendars," Rachel says, climbing into the back seat and buckling her seatbelt.

"I know. I'm sick of playing Algernon, and that's a sentence I thought I'd never utter in my life," Kurt sighs. "Someday we'll be paid to be fabulous."

"Speak for yourself. I'm gonna get paid to be fabulous," Mercedes laughs. "As long as we get this audition, that is."

"Are you guys still looking for a band name? Because I think 'Mercedes and the Benzes' is pretty much the greatest thing ever," says Blaine.

"It's our working title for now."

"I'm excited for your inevitable solo career," Rachel says. "Ten years from now, Kurt and I will be Broadway icons and you'll be the next Adele, and our managers will decide to cement our status as legends by having us all star in a movie together." If Rachel closes her eyes, she can picture it: the red carpet, the flashing lights, and all three of them resplendent in designer outfits. Part of her feels a pang that she no longer sees herself attending premieres on Finn's arm, but today that part of her feels a little smaller, a little less sore. Her trajectory toward stardom feels like an inevitability again, and she laughs aloud when Kurt suggests that they all practice their celebrity waves with the windows rolled down.

They pull into a cramped parking lot in front of possibly the most hideous-looking building Rachel has ever seen in her life. It's made of faded and chipped brick. Over the peeling white door is an equally peeling blue sign that proclaims L ST CHANCE CLOTH S. An OPEN sign hangs crookedly from a rusty nail in the door.

"What's a clothing shop doing down a dead end? Furthermore, am I going to catch any diseases from touching the doorknob?" Rachel asks as they step out of the car.

"This is that place you kept talking about?" Blaine asks a second after her.

Kurt surveys the building with his hands on his hips and an air of satisfaction. Turning to both of them, he proclaims, "Lady, gentleman, welcome to the circle of trust."

"This is where Kurt gets half of his wardrobe," Mercedes says, linking her arm through Kurt's. Rachel raises a skeptical eyebrow. "The outside doesn't look like much, but there's some amazing stuff inside. Once I found four hundred dollar shoes for thirty bucks."

"They were knockoffs of four hundred dollar shoes," Kurt corrects her gently. "Your eye for fashion is nevertheless impeccable."

Mercedes shakes her head. "You and your brand names. Don't you have something designer put together already? Like you'd be caught dead in knockoffs in New York."

"I've purchased most of the pieces of my outfit on eBay, but I want everyone to keep their eyes peeled for intriguing accessories," Kurt says, beckoning them forward as he strides towards the door. "Do you have any idea how difficult it is to convey two different monologues and two different songs in a single outfit?"

"You've told me a few times," Blaine says, wrapping an arm around Kurt's waist. Seeing that doesn't hurt as much, either, for which Rachel is grateful. She skipped a trip to the pool last month because Sam and Mercedes had just revealed they were dating and she couldn't stand the thought of swimming with two happy couples. Kurt and Mercedes have been nothing but understanding whenever she ends up crying into her pillow at their sleepovers, but sometimes Rachel wonders why they put up with her broken heart.

As promised, the secondhand store looks much better inside. The layout is a bit haphazard, with dresses next to men's shirts, but everything is clean and softly lit. The middle-aged woman behind the counter nods at Kurt as they all walk in, then goes back to reading her romance novel. Rachel tilts her head, trying to see if the entwined couple on the cover is wearing actual clothing or a single sheet between them. The title, The Jovial Rogue's Supine Duchess, doesn't really clarify matters.

"How does her dress stay up?" Blaine is as fascinated as she is, evidently.

"I'm more interested in the dresses on the racks. Let's go." Mercedes tugs Rachel over to a clothing rack as Kurt and Blaine head towards a corner that looks like it's mostly accessories. "The clothes here are sorted any which way, so let me know if you see something super classy in my size."

"Right. Let me know if you see anything that is simultaneously understated yet eye-catching." Rachel surveys the array of colorful cloth, takes a deep breath, then plunges in.

Some time later, they converge on the single dressing room. Blaine claims to have only been along for the company, but has found a rainbow striped bowtie. Kurt has a pair of boots that look like pretty much every other pair of black boots out there to Rachel's untrained eye, but he's quite excited about them. He's also acquired a sequined scarf that leaves Rachel and Mercedes ooh-ing and ahh-ing. Rachel Berry knows how to appreciate sparkle.

"Into the dressing room with one of you," Kurt proclaims.

"I'll go first," Mercedes says. She emerges a few minutes later in a deep blue-purple dress with an empire waistline and a skirt with a pleated chiffon overlay. She spins around, laughing as Rachel and Kurt break out in applause and Blaine whistles. "I knew this was the one the minute I saw it. Can you believe it's only sixty bucks?"

"Sam's eyes are going to fall out of his head tomorrow," Kurt says. "Good thing he won't need them to play guitar."

After Mercedes puts her clothes back on, Rachel steps into the dressing room. She hadn't been having much luck, pushing aside dress after dress for being too long or too severe or too dull, but then she finally found the dress, the epitome of everything Rachel Berry. After tying the sash into a neat bow, Rachel throws the curtains open and poses.

There is a pregnant pause.

"I'm not sure that animal print and ruched sleeves will create the type of impression you want judges to remember," Kurt says, slowly and with visible effort. Blaine pats him on the shoulder. "Perhaps something a bit... less."

"I think this is more what you're going for," Mercedes says, handing over something black and patterned. "Try it on."

Rachel pouts, but takes the dress and disappears behind the curtains once more. All right, so perhaps the color combination on her selection is a bit clashing, but Kurt usually disdains her fashion choices for being "matchy matchy." The instant she puts on the dress Mercedes found, though, she's in love. It's a sleeveless navy blue dress dotted with white hearts. If the previous dress was Rachel Berry: High Schooler, this one is Rachel Berry: Future Star.

"Please say this one looks good, because I'm going to buy it regardless," Rachel says, emerging from behind the curtains once more.

"It dresses you up without distracting from your voice," Kurt says, indicating with one finger that she should twirl. After she does so, he nods. "I would recommend a nice belt to go with it. You have my seal of approval."

"Mine too," Blaine says. "Both of you look awesome."

Mercedes doesn't say anything, just beams in satisfaction. Rachel beams back at her. It's entirely cliche, but all she can think of right now is how lucky she is to have friends like these. Besides, when has cliche ever stopped Rachel Berry?

*

The package finally arrives in her mailbox a day late. Emma wipes the box down with a moist towelette, three swipes of the cloth on each side with special attention to corners, before picking it up and knocking on Principal Figgins' door.

"I've just ordered some school decorations to promote mental health in McKinley," Emma says, poking her head in. Figgins doesn't even look up from the little house he's constructing from index cards. "They won't be ostentatious and I paid for them myself. Would you mind if I posted them?"

"Go ahead," Figgins says, balancing another card to form a section of roof. "By the way, I've been meaning to revise the arts budget for the school year--"

Emma shuts his door with more force than necessary, but it's for a good cause. Figgins, distracted by his house's sudden collapse, says nothing more as she hurries away to her own office. A few slices of her letter opener cut through the box's tape, and there they are, stacked neatly inside the box. She can only hope that her instincts are right this time.

It's probably an abuse of power to look up a student's schedule to arrange a run-in, but Santana Lopez is surprisingly talented at avoiding people she doesn't want to see, perhaps as talented as Emma herself. Three minutes before the sixth period bell rings, Emma leaves her office and heads for the science and math wing. As the bell rings, she walks down to the end of the hallway, where Santana and Quinn are just leaving calculus. Santana's a smart girl, though she tries to hide it, and Emma spares a moment to wonder if her reluctance to enroll in more honors classes has to do with Brittany. So many tiny things are adding up.

"I was wondering if you would help me with something for glee club," Emma says before Santana can melt into the crowd. "I'll write you a pass for your next class."

Santana bristles and Quinn shifts closer to her, laying a warning hand on Santana's arm but reserving her frown for Emma. Emma forces a smile as Santana snaps, "My next class is freaking Intro to Word Processing, so whatever." Quinn nods and lets the hand on Santana's arm drop.

Emma entertains the thought of writing a doctoral thesis on power dynamics in the Cheerios; it manages to keep her smile from wavering. "I appreciate it," Emma says, handing over the box.

"This isn't even heavy," Santana sneers, but follows her back to the choir room without further comment. That's a little unnerving, like having an angry and occasionally violent mime behind her.

The music hallway is deserted at this time of day. Santana pauses at the locked choir room door, stepping back to make room for Emma to unlock it. Emma knows for a fact that every single member of New Directions knows the trick to opening the door when it's locked, but allows the gesture to pass unremarked. Her heart clenches when Santana, face still screwed up in a scowl, checks the hallway for signs of student life.

"Put the box on the floor. We'll deal with that in a minute," Emma says. She clenches her hands together three times on each side. Three is a good number, better than seventeen. "I want to apologize to you for last week. I frightened you when I should have been trying to help you."

"I don't want your help," Santana says, folding her arms.

"It was presumptuous of me to offer, since you didn't ask," Emma says. "It's not just my job to be there for any student who needs to talk. I do it because I want to support others. Sometimes I forget that support can only go where it's welcome, and pretending otherwise does more harm than good. Would you mind opening the box and handing me a sticker?"

Santana squats to open the box, pulling up the cardboard flaps. Emma keeps clenching her fists in a soothing pattern. Whatever Santana's reaction, Emma won't remain silent or say the wrong words again.

Santana picks up a single sticker from the dozens inside and crumples it in her fist. She doesn't say a word. When she lets the sticker fall, hopelessly wrinkled, to the floor, Emma notices that her hand is shaking. Santana lifts her head. Her scowl is gone. She still looks angry, but the anger is muted by exhaustion, by the dark circles under her eye makeup.

"Putting up a GLBT safe zone sticker doesn't do a freaking thing," Santana says, and throws a new sticker at Emma, who manages to catch it.

"Not by itself," Emma agrees, peeling off the sticker's backing. "But Kurt and Brittany are working so hard to make some changes at McKinley. I think it's about time that some adults took a stand." She presses the sticker against the door and sweeps her finger along the edges, preventing creases. "I'm putting up stickers on my office and the auditorium, too. I'm sure Coach Beiste and Coach Sylvester would like some for the locker rooms. I'll ask the other teachers as well. You don't have to talk to me about what's going on with you, but you should at least know that there are lots of people you can talk to."

"Some of 'em already talked to me," Santana retorts. Then, perhaps realizing what she's admitted, she looks back down at the box. Emma lets her arms fall and waits. She's apologized, both in words and gesture. It's up to Santana to decide where they go from here.

Then Santana asks, "Can we go inside for a minute?"

"Sure," Emma says, unlocking the door. She holds it open for Santana and follows her into the choir room, pulling the door shut behind her.

"I really did talk about it with a teacher once before," Santana says to the wall, her back to Emma. "Britt wanted to figure it out and Ms. Holliday was leaving anyway, so." She shrugs. "Now they're both gone and I feel--trapped." Her shoulders start to shake. Emma can hear her breathing growing ragged and her heart aches again. It must be killing Santana to appear so vulnerable in front of others.

"Tissue?" Emma asks, pulling her emergency tissue packet out of her pocket. Santana turns to accept one. "Sometimes it helps to tell the whole story, okay? What happened between you and Brittany?"

"We--we've always been best friends. Since the first day of kindergarten. We did the whole blood sisters thing and said we'd be together forever." Santana laughs, or maybe it's just a hiccup. "Last year, I finally told her that I love her, and she blew me off for fu--for Artie. Even after she dumped him, she kept talking about how we should just be friends until I'm ready to call her my girlfriend. Now we're not even friends! She left me, she left me to cry on the shoulders of musical losers and bug-eyed teachers. I can't breathe in this stupid school and the only person that made it seem okay just--left me." Santana wipes her face with the tissue and wrinkles her nose at the streaks of makeup that result. Quieter, she adds, "I said some terrible things."

"Did you mean them?" Emma asks. Santana shakes her head, pauses, then shrugs. "Which ones did you mean?"

"That she can't force me to come out. It's like, tell the world you want to kiss girls and your reward is me! But I don't want to lose everything else. It's Brittany or my old life and I hate it."

"Did you like your old life?"

"Yeah, the parts where my family talks to me," Santana snaps. "I like cheerleading and I like glee club. I like the way Brittany makes--made--makes me feel." Santana wads the tissue up between her hands. "I didn't like all the lying and the sneaking around and dating guys, okay? I admit it; it sucked. It was just better than the alternative."

"You said it was," Emma points out, and Santana's face crumples like the tissue.

"I just want her back," she whispers. "I know that--I know that no one in here will care. Your stupid sticker might be a lie everywhere else, but not here."

Emma doesn't hug people, and it would be inappropriate anyway. She offers Santana a replacement tissue. "Have you thought about being open just in here?"

"I guess," Santana says. The last of her makeup comes off with one more swipe of tissue. She doesn't look older, Emma realizes. She's just so tired, and so young.

"You should talk to Kurt and Blaine if you're comfortable doing so. They've been there. Whatever you decide to do, please know that you can always talk to me." Emma reaches out, but just to shake Santana's hand. Santana hesitates for a long second, but lets her do it. "Thank you for trusting me after I messed things up."

"Not like I had a lot of options," Santana mutters, but a corner of her mouth raises in a slight half-smile. "Can I be excused from class until glee club?"

"Nice try, but glee club doesn't meet until tomorrow," Emma says, smiling in spite of herself. Sexuality crisis or no sexuality crisis, she's still dealing with Santana Lopez.

*

West Side Story rehearsal launches Mike into the "most over-scheduled people on the planet" category along with Kurt and Rachel and Quinn, but so far, it's shaping up to be one of the coolest experiences of his life. At this rehearsal, they're trying to combine fight choreography with dance choreography, and people are getting knifed onstage, and Mike has to figure out how to convey death by stab wound through dance. He's never been so tired and felt so awake at the same time.

"Wouldn't it be easier if I just actually got stabbed?" Puck wheezes from the floor.

Blaine groans and runs a hand through his hair. "I don't really want to murder anyone, but I'm starting to agree."

"Guys, you're doing great," Mike says, offering Puck a hand.

"Not all of us can be made of rubber," Puck grumbles, but he accepts the help anyway. "How can you not be tired yet? I think I'm gonna die."

"Years of practice, my friend." Mike grins, but the grin fades when Coach Beiste claps her hands and declares rehearsal over for the night. Telling Quinn that he would apply to Juilliard was hard enough, and now he actually has to do it. Coming up with some killer solo routines won't be a problem, but there's still the little matter of a recommendation from a dance teacher. He has no idea if Coach Beiste will go for it, but she's literally his only shot, since Ms. Pillsbury's approach to choreographing in glee club is to sit back and nod approvingly at whatever he and Brittany present.

He'd still rather ask Coach Beiste to be his semi-legal reference than talk to his parents about his future, though, so conversation with Coach Beiste it is.

Everyone else is laughing and talking as they file out of rehearsal. Some of the football players are even joking with Kurt and Blaine, which is nice to see. Mike and the rest of the glee guys are getting pretty tired of setting the JV players straight whenever they start up with the homophobic comments. Ms. Pillsbury had to leave early for an appointment today, so Mike's just left waiting for Artie to clear out of the auditorium, which he does at a surprisingly rapid pace. Things make more sense when Mike sees Sugar waiting in the doorway.

"Coach Beiste?" Mike asks, once he's sure that everyone else is gone.

She shoulders her messenger bag and turns toward him. "What's up, punkin?"

"I have kind of a weird request."

"Shoot." Coach Beiste smiles at him with her usual warmth, which makes Mike want to crawl under the stage and die. What is he doing?

"I'm applying to Juilliard," Mike says in a rush, his words tripping over each other.

"That's wonderful news! How come you're not telling it to me like it's wonderful?"

"My parents want me to be a doctor. I've just been going along with it, but I really want to be a dancer." Somehow the words sound more real when they're said to an adult. Mike lifts his chin, daring Coach Beiste to echo what he imagines his parents will say: Waste of potential. Waste of money. Waste of all our hard work.

He really should know better, though. Coach Beiste sets her bag back down and motions for him to sit next to her in one of the auditorium seats, which he does. "You don't have to go to a dance school to keep dancing," she says.

"I know," Mike replies. "I just feel like... like if I go to the best school, then they'll accept me."

"So a double major isn't really on the table."

"Not if I ever want my parents to be proud of what I do." Mike would laugh at himself if the situation weren't so sad. It's not enough for him to defy all his parents' expectations, no; he wants them to love his choice of career.

Coach Beiste takes a deep breath. "What are you going to do if you get in and they still don't want you to go? Pay for college yourself? Never talk to them again? Dancers don't make very much money, even when they're good dancers, and getting work is hard. I don't want to discourage you, but I want you to know what you're getting into."

I know, Mike wants to shout, but he quells the impulse by rising to his feet to face the stage. Ms. Pillsbury was the one who got him started on this in the first place. Now the idea is in his head and his feet and it won't let go. "I just want to give myself a chance."

"Well, I can't argue with that, even if I think that your mom and dad deserve to know. Did you just want to talk about this, or do you want some tips? It's been years since I thought about professional ballet, but I still know a thing or two."

"Um, that would be great," Mike says, irritation fading. He swallows and adds, "I also need a recommendation from a dance teacher to prove that I've had three years of instruction. I'd ask Mr. Schue, but Rachel says that he doesn't check the e-mail address he left us." Or maybe he's just been ignoring the no doubt six hundred e-mails Rachel sent him.

"You haven't had three years of formal dance lessons, though, have you?" Coach Beiste studies him with a thoughtful frown. "You want to apply to the best of the best with a letter of recommendation that's half made up? Mike, I don't know how I feel about this, other than surprised."

Mike stops himself from actually dropping to his knees. "I've been teaching myself moves since I was little. I've been one of the lead dancers and choreographers for glee club for three years. You've known me for three years and you know dance, you know what I can do. Please, just think about it."

"I am thinking about it," Coach Beiste says softly. "I'm thinking about what it means to apply to a school based on a lie, even if it's a white lie. I'm thinking about what your parents will say when they find out about this. But I'm also thinking about how damn good you are, and how you light up like a whole package of birthday candles when you're dancing."

Mike bows his head. "I'm going to invite them to West Side Story. I'm working my way up to telling them everything else, I promise."

"If I write you this recommendation, it means actually taking dance lessons from me." Mike straightens up, a jolt of hope coursing through him. Coach Beiste continues, "Your ballet technique is real good for someone without any training, but it won't get you into Juilliard. Lucky for you that you're in a show that's been giving you more ballet experience. I want more of your time, Mike Chang. I know you have the dedication, and I sure as hell know you have the talent. Do you have the time to become the best of the best?"

"I do," Mike says, and forces himself to stand even straighter. "Whenever you want me, I'm there. This is the only way to get my parents to listen."

Coach Beiste shakes her head. "I doubt it's the only way, honey, but it's the only way you've been able to figure out. I'll write you that recommendation."

"Thank you, Coach! Thank you so much!" Mike pumps his fist in the air, his whole body getting into the motion so that one of his knees goes up as well.

"Don't thank me yet. We'll start our lessons after football practice on Friday."

"And it'll be the hardest practice of my life. I know, I've seen the movies," Mike says, grinning. Finally, finally, he has even the possibility of a way out. Whatever work it takes will still feel like freedom.

*

It's just a stupid sticker. It shouldn't make a difference. Santana passes Ms. Pillsbury's office on the way to the choir room and there's one stuck to her door, a cheerful rainbow triangle with black lettering underneath. She listened to "Landslide" over and over last night because it really does feel like the old pieces of her are falling away, leaving the parts underneath exposed to the rest of the world. Somewhere around the eighth song repetition, she looked down at the box of tissues and decided it was time to take control of her life.

"Hey, Teen Gay Squad!" Santana calls, catching up with Kurt and Blaine. "I've got a question."

Kurt sighs and asks, "Yes, Satan?"

"I'm planning on winning back a certain girl and I need a few pointers on bringing the romance in a serenade." When Blaine's whole face lights up, Santana adds, "Not that I have a problem bringing the romance anywhere else."

"Thank you for that delightful information," Kurt says. "Shouldn't you be asking Rachel? We've witnessed her odes to Finn enough times, and they appeared to be effective."

"When I want help looking like one of the seven dwarves trying to lure in a jiggly gorilla with my total lack of boobs, I'll ask her. I figure that you losers got together when one of you sang a love ballad over a white bed filled with sequined rose petals, so cough up the details afores I get my She-Hulk on."

Kurt starts cracking up like she just delivered the sickest puckhead takedown ever. Blaine goes redder than her favorite dress and says, "I've learned to save the romantic serenades until after you get together."

"Oh, you better tell Auntie Tana this story." Santana checks her watch. "Except after I sing to my lady, 'cause rehearsal starts in five. Thanks for the total lack of help, dorks."

"I'm proud of you, Santana," Blaine says, giving her big eyes that point to some serious puppy and Bambi ancestry. "I know you can do this."

"Yeah, well," Santana says, then flees into the choir room alone.

For all her bitch being back after a brief stint as the Lonely Hearts Club's lounge singer, Santana can feel her knees shaking as she takes a seat next to Quinn. After she does this, she can never go back. She's saying goodbye to Santana Lopez, hottest piece of ass at McKinley High and definitely one of the top five in America, right up there with Beyonce. Sure, today she's only confirming what pretty much everyone in glee club with two brain cells already knows, but Santana isn't stupid. If this works, it's the first step in a long fucking road.

If she pulls this off, though, she never has to kiss anyone besides Brittany ever again.

The first half of glee rehearsal sees the club split in two: the boys on the *NSYNC number and the girls on the TLC one. Sugar Motta is so annoying that Santana wants to murder her, so it's only fitting that Berry, former number one candidate for death by stiletto, pulls Sugar aside for a ten-minute lecture on "head voice versus chest voice," whatever that means. Santana slaps Tina five for not sucking as Mercedes gives them notes on their vocals. She can't help but look over every five minutes to where Brittany is running through potential choreography, using Quinn as her guinea pig and Lauren as her second pair of eyes (and third, considering the glasses). She's still wearing the earrings Santana bought her right after they had sex for the first time and Santana started listening to Fleetwood Mac whenever she couldn't sleep. Christ, how did she not realize she was gay years ago?

"I see liquid, but not waterfalls," Brittany says to Quinn. "It's like you're dripping, not flowing."

"Definite drippage," says Lauren, who is probably agreeing just to mess with Quinn. It's what Santana would do.

Quinn bites her lip and says, "Show me." Coach Sylvester, Brittany, and herself are the only three people Santana has ever seen her take criticism from. It's the world's strangest badge of honor, knowing that the uptight bitch in charge of the Cheerios respects your opinion.

Santana averts her eyes from the demonstration. "Horny" and "sad" are two feelings that shouldn't go together.

Getting through the first run-through of "Seasons of Love" is excruciating. First, the dude parts are hard, meaning Puck and Sam have no freaking clue, and second, Kurt and Blaine keep giving each other dippy looks that make them look like Furbies in heat. Mercedes and Kurt sound awesome on their solos, she'll give them that. Berry keeps smiling like she's singing all the parts herself. Freak.

"In keeping with our new custom, I'd like to open the floor for a jam session," Ms. Pillsbury says. Santana hasn't quite made up her mind about forgiving her, even after their conversation yesterday, but she's definitely better at running a club than Mr. Schue.

Santana stands up again. As much as she loves the spotlight, getting up every week to sing about her feelings is--okay, it's kind of liberating. No wonder Berry's such an addict. However, it's also terrifying, and it's just her this week, no Tina and Sugar to back her up. She faces the club and there they are: the freaks and geeks she's about to trust with her biggest secret. Most of them have smiles on their faces, either friendly or curious or some combination of both. Kurt has a hand pressed over his heart and Blaine is holding his other hand. Quinn and Tina are wide-eyed like they know what's about to go down. Brittany-- Brittany--

"This song is for you," Santana says, and cues the music.

"I don't know if I can yell any louder. How many times have I kicked you outta here, or said something insulting?" She makes herself look at Brittany right from the first lines, though her knees are shaking so hard that her bones must be rattling in time to the music.

"I can be so mean when I wanna be, I am capable of really anything, I can cut you into pieces," Santana sings, and Brittany's eyes fill with tears. Her voice cracks on, "But my heart is broken."

"Please don't leave me," she pleads into the chorus, and all she can see is Brittany through the rush of tears in her eyes. Brittany isn't moving in her chair at all, which is either a great sign or a terrible one. This is worse than last year at Brittany's locker, worse than anything Santana has ever done in her life.

"Can't you tell that this is all just a contest? The one that wins will be the one that hits the hardest, but baby, I don't mean it," Santana sings, pouring the weeks of separation, the months of lying, and the years of love into her voice, more desperate with every repetition of the chorus.

When she hits the bridge before the last set of choruses, something inside Santana loosens up enough that her shoulders straighten. Part of it is proper singing posture, gearing up for the big dramatic finish. Most of it is a sense of relief so great that it generates its own power, like the ground has dropped out from underneath her but she's still left standing. "Please don't leave me," she sings, and there's more than heartbreak to it now. It's Brittany who steadies her when her world shifts, Brittany who lifts her up when she's forgotten how to fly. How she feels about Brittany is the only true thing in her entire miserable life, and Santana will not trade it, trade Brittany, for a lie. She just has to pray that Brittany believes her.

The song ends with one last "please don't leave me." Santana looks Brittany in the eye the whole time, not caring that they're both crying, that the last piece of their secret is out: how much they love each other. It's the only part of all of this that has never made Santana feel ashamed.

Brittany gets up to hug her and Santana buries her face in her shoulder, trembling from adrenaline. "That's how you really feel," Brittany says, because it isn't a question anymore.

"Uh-huh," Santana says into her neck. She has Brittany back. She has Brittany back.

"Rehearsal's over, kids," she can hear Ms. Pillsbury saying softly. "Let's all go home."

Brittany's arms tighten around her and Santana smiles through the tears. She made it. She's already home.

*

They go to BreadstiX after glee rehearsal. It's not even a question.

"Feelings always make me hungry, too," Brittany says after Santana puts away her third basket of breadsticks by herself. They haven't talked much since Santana's song, but Brittany has her ankle hooked around Santana's, like holding hands except better because Santana likes to double fist breadsticks. It's kind of like watching a snake devour its prey, if snakes really loved carbs.

Santana nods and holds up a finger as she chews her last bite. Swallowing, she says, "Yeah. I think that we can probably talk now. But quietly, okay? The world doesn't need to know our business."

"I'll buy you more food if you need it," Brittany says.

"What? No, I'm paying," Santana says. She lowers her eyes and slides the ring of paper off her bundled silverware, toying with the napkin. "I owe you. I'm sorry about all the crap I said about you. I was pissed off."

"I'm sorry for making you feel like you had to come out before you were ready," Brittany says, squeezing Santana's ankles between both of hers. Santana isn't looking around like she's being hunted, so this must be okay. Someday they'll hold hands above the table. "I can't believe that you sang a song in front of everyone for me. You'd be like the most awesome girlfriend in the world if you'll have me."

Santana tears up again, but thankfully she smiles as well. Her smile is way too pretty to be hidden behind tears all the time. "Of course. I--Is it enough? For me to do that, I mean? I don't know if I can do anything more right now, but I do love you. I love you so much and I want to be with you."

Brittany bites her lip, because if she starts crying again, Santana will definitely start crying again and she's pretty sure that human beings only have so many tears inside of them on a given day. "You told me that you needed me in front of all of our friends. That was one of the bravest things I've ever seen."

"I'm not brave like you," Santana says. She pauses to take another breadstick after the waitress drops off a new basket, but she opts to break it into little pieces rather than eat it. "All I've done is cry as much as Puck at a concert. You and Kurt--you're really going to change McKinley. Starting tomorrow."

"Remember to vote!" Brittany says automatically. She's been ending pretty much every sentence she says in class with the phrase. Her teachers are all impressed by her increased class participation. "You're changing yourself. That's, like, a huge thing." Then, because she hasn't said it enough or at all lately: "I love you."

Brittany loves Santana's soft look, the way she smiles with such tenderness. She loves even more that she's the only one who gets to see that side of her. "I love you, too," Santana says, and dumps the remaining breadsticks in her purse. "I don't really want my entree, anyway. Let's get out of here."

"Okay," Brittany says.

They hold hands on the drive to Santana's house, except for a few seconds when Brittany has to cover her eyes as Santana runs a stop sign in a four-way intersection right by an elementary school. Brittany is a much better driver than Santana when she doesn't have to read highway signs super fast, but Santana is the one with the car. Also the parents that are never home.

"Come on, girlfriend," Santana says, soft and shy, and pulls Brittany up to her room.

It's different, kissing your girlfriend instead of your best friend. Santana feels closer, like before she was wrapped in some kind of invisible force field that went right over her skin. Now Brittany gets to kiss Santana, touch the parts of her that were always shut away even when her mouth was right there underneath Brittany's. She's warm, so warm, and she tastes like bread and salt.

Brittany isn't really surprised when Santana pulls back without quite pulling out of her arms and bursts into tears.

"Oh my God," Santana says. "I'm gay. I'm super, super gay. Brittany, I'm a lesbian."

"I love you," Brittany says again, stroking her hair. When she rests her cheek against Santana's, it feels damp. "I'm here. We're okay."

"I'm a lesbian," Santana repeats, but in a calmer voice, her breathing evening out to the rhythm of Brittany's hand on her head. "I can't believe that I said it."

"I told you that you were brave," Brittany says, and presses a kiss to her cheek.

They don't talk much after that, and they don't have sex, just cuddle each other on the bed. Eventually, Santana takes out a Sweet Valley High DVD and pops it in, then settles back into Brittany's arms. Brittany closes her eyes when Santana starts humming one of those Fleetwood Mac songs she loves so much, rocked to sleep by the girl she loves breathing next to her, breathing with her at last.

*

"Don't you dare worry. You got this," Mercedes says to Kurt the morning of election day. He reaches for the coffee cup in her hand and she pulls it back. "Uh-uh, not until I see some proof that this won't turn you into a twitching mess."

"Mercedes, I'll be a twitching mess regardless," he sighs, but gives her a smile anyway. "Vote Hummel-Pierce. Would you like a campaign button?"

"I'm already wearing one," she says, kissing him on the cheek and handing over the coffee. "See you later."

She feels like a hypocrite for the advice, though. Mrs. Clark called yesterday with the exact time and place her band will audition for the bride and groom, and all Mercedes can think about is the possibility of blowing it. What if someone misses a note? What if she forgets the words? They've had only one rehearsal since deciding they were a band, and they have just one more before the big day. Mercedes has the dress, but are Mercedes and the Benzes really ready to turn pro? It's an investment, she told her parents when she asked them for the money for the dress. But an investment in what?

She barely hears a word during her morning classes, though she does notice Rick frowning in confusion at all the VOTE HUMMEL-PIERCE buttons he sees in health class. She can't say she has any sympathy.

"I have a pass out of study hall for you," Sam says, handing her a slip of paper. "I know a guy who knows a guy, and by that I mean that I asked Ms. Pillsbury if we could use the choir room."

"If you're thinking of pulling a Mike and Tina, you should remember that they were caught," Mercedes says.

"Just meet me there, okay?"

Mercedes is a little mystified, but she didn't plan on doing any homework in study hall, and Sam's company sounds much more appealing than sitting near three girls whispering nasty things about Kurt and Brittany's campaign. She hightails it to the choir room, where she discovers the whole band waiting for her.

"Hey!" Sam says, grinning. "I know we need to rehearse some more, so, uh, here's a rehearsal."

"You're amazing," Mercedes says, and pulls him down into a kiss. She ignores Puck and Lauren's catcalls. Releasing Sam, she adds, "We don't have a lot of time, so let's get down to business."

"To defeat the Huns," Tina sings automatically. She blushes when everyone turns to look at her. "You know you love Mulan."

"Mister, I'll make a man out of you," Mercedes sings back, gesturing to include everyone in the room. Feeling more at ease, she continues, "Okay, so we don't know how many songs they'll ask us to do. I'd say our three best ones are 'Eight Days a Week,' 'My Girl,' and 'Angel of Mine.' Does anybody have another song they really want to do?"

"You're the boss," Puck says. "If anybody else needs the chords for tI heir parts, I can kinda figure them out."

"We need to make a part for me in 'My Girl,'" Lauren says. "Same deal in 'Angel of Mine.' Tina and I can cover the orchestra parts between us. What about doing song requests?"

Mercedes closes her eyes for a minute. Great. She hasn't even considered song requests. "I don't think we need to worry about them for the audition. Let's get the audition songs perfect and then we'll build our repertoire. If we use the songs we've done in glee, we have a pretty good catalogue."

"About the chimes," Finn says, and everyone groans. Puck's mother is still upset about the death of her wind chimes, since they didn't have any percussion ones on hand when they first tried "Angel of Mine." "If we borrow some from the school, someone else can be on them. I knocked Puck's mom's over trying to drum and cover them at the same time."

"I know all the guitar parts in all the songs," Sam says. "The only thing I can think of is that we'll need people in charge of the hand claps on 'Eight Days a Week.' Mercedes and Tina, I think you win by default."

Mercedes bites her lower lip and tries not to panic. It was so fun figuring out songs in the basement that it never sank in until now: they don't even have official arrangements of the songs worked out yet. How are they going to be ready in time? What if she embarrasses Mrs. Clark? What if they somehow pass the audition and then she ruins Mrs. Clark's granddaughter's wedding? Buying that dress seems like more and more of a mistake.

"We'll practice until we get it right," Sam says, interpreting her expression correctly. When did that boy get to know her so well? "We'll be ready for our audition."

"Even if we have to skip our next three classes," Puck says, pressing a fist over his heart. Lauren coughs as she tunes her guitar and he sighs. "Never mind."

"Even if we have to stay after school and work around West Side Story and glee club and sports," Lauren says. "My parents really want me to get a part-time job and this is way better than flipping burgers."

Sam's expression turns wistful. "Think of being able to collect all those Happy Meal prizes, though."

They're all pledging their support to her, which means that they're still going to look to her for guidance. Mercedes squares her shoulders. This is just like leading glee club, except she doesn't have a co-president around to annoy people into submission. The band is named after her. It's up to her to make sure they succeed.

"Let's use the half hour we have to get 'My Girl' exactly right," Mercedes says. "Guitars and Tina, I want you guys to work out an arrangement that gives everybody something to do and sounds good backing me up. Finn, we can work on our parts together. Sometimes I lose the beat a little bit when I sing and I'd like to work on that. In twenty minutes, we'll run it for the rest of the period. Everybody knows this song and everybody loves this song, so it better be perfect by the time we're done."

"Cool," Finn says, nodding. The rest of the band immediately huddles together, discussing different ways to split up the parts. Puck sounds oddly intellectual when he talks about pentatonic major scales. Blinking, Mercedes turns back to Finn.

"Count me off," she says, and lets herself go.

*

It's chicken nugget day as well as election day, so Tina makes sure to book it early to the cafeteria. Unfortunately, her math class is on the opposite end of the school from the cafeteria, so even jogging through the halls gets her a place right in the middle of the lunch line. Wonderful.

Tina shifts her weight from one foot to another, unable to summon the Lunch Line Minus Your Friends Zone, where you stare at the clock on the wall and count how many seconds you'll have to scarf down your food before the bell rings. Last night her parents asked her how rehearsals were going and she said Fine and left out the now that one of my costars has come down a little from her sexuality crisis part. Then they asked if she wanted to pursue the arts in college and her mother started reminiscing about dating a folk musician in college and her father offered to grow a rebellious mustache. Tina sat and picked at her food and said nothing.

She wants to go to college, she does. She just doesn't want to go to any particular college, and feels more or less indifferent to the handfuls of pamphlets she pulls out of the mailbox every day. She spent four years of her life faking a stutter and pretty much every year of her life terrified to express herself beyond dressing in dark clothing. How stupid that now that she's finding her voice, she has no clue what to do with it.

Feeling morose about her future gets Tina almost to the doors, where the lunch line pauses again as what looks like half the hockey team loads up on chicken nuggets and pudding cups. They're laughing about something every so often. One of them glances over and points to Tina's shoulder. She looks behind her, but it's just a sea of unenthused high schoolers who really want some fake lumps of chicken.

"They're plotting something," Santana says, cutting in line to stand next to Tina. "I can smell a drop of fear the way sharks can smell blood in the water. They're scared, which means they can count high enough to see how many people are wearing Britt and Kurt's buttons." She taps the button Tina pinned on the strap of her messenger bag.

Tina shivers. Santana might not sound worried, but she's had much less experience on the receiving end of whatever ugliness is brewing. "We should warn them. I don't like this."

"We're on security detail," says Quinn, smiling as she joins them just in time to take a tray. Apparently no Cheerio waits in line, even if she's in a floaty pink dress today instead of the uniform. "Brittany and Kurt are covered. Santana, make sure everyone is ready when the time comes."

"Jesus, Hitler, let Mussolini get her some meat." Santana rolls her eyes and elbows aside a kid reaching for the last chocolate pudding cup. She holds out her tray to one of the cafeteria ladies manning the chicken nuggets. "Pile 'em on!"

"Is it true that Coach Sylvester got you special ops training?" Tina asks, fascinated. She's seen both of these girls cry as much as she has in the choir room, and they're still capable of striking fear into the hearts of man.

"Coach Sylvester used to be special ops until they kicked her off for being too good at the assassinations."

Quinn shakes her head, accepting a smaller portion of chicken nuggets on her tray. "Don't listen to her. Live at the top of the pyramid long enough and you just acquire certain... skills."

"Good to know," Tina says, and holds out her own tray.

Once Tina has her lunch line victory securely in hand (literally, since she pops a chicken nugget in her mouth as she waits to pay), Quinn's presence registers beyond, Oh my God, the most popular girl in school is having a friendly conversation with me. "Is Mike working on his dance solos in West Side Story today? I thought he texted me something about more Riff and Velma."

"I thought he was doing audition work today," Quinn replies. "That's what he said when I asked about another lunchtime rehearsal."

Tina grips her tray in suddenly sweaty palms. "Audition work?"

That gets her a puzzled smile. "Didn't you know?"

"Obviously not, you dick," Santana hisses as Tina hands over a five dollar bill to the cashier. Auditions? For what? What has Mike been doing all this time, and why is Quinn the one telling her about it? "I can totally make dead bodies happen if you need it, T," Santana adds. The sad thing is that she really thinks she's being comforting.

"I'll handle the bodies," Tina says, and storms out of the cafeteria, tray and all.

She's marching so hard that her hair is streaming behind her, but she doesn't spill a drop from her milk carton. Tina pushes open the door to the auditorium with her foot and continues her headlong rush down the aisle. Mike is on the stage, his back and one of his legs arched in a pose as complicated as it is graceful. He looks over her way and drops the pose, smiling in recognition. Normally that's enough to stop her heart, knowing that she can distract him when he's like this.

"You are the world's greatest," Mike says, misinterpreting the tray of food in her hands. His smile fades when the expression on her face registers as she marches up to the edge of the stage and slams down the tray. "What's wrong?"

The temptation to burst into tears is strong. Tina doesn't like being angry, and mixed in with all the anger is hurt and confusion and a stray trace of jealousy. Blinking furiously, jaw clenched to prevent her lip from trembling, she asks, "What audition is Quinn talking about?"

Mike Chang guilty is Mike Chang slumped everywhere, not just in his shoulders. He drops into a sitting position next to the tray, legs dangling over the edge of the stage like sad balloon strings. "I'm thinking about auditioning for Juilliard," he says to his thighs.

"And why does Quinn know about this when I don't? Aren't I your girlfriend?" Tina asks, and has to swallow in the aftermath of the question.

"'Course you are! You know that I'd never cheat on you." Now Mike sounds hurt as well.

Tina chokes on a laugh. "I know that. I just don't know why someone you're not that close to knows something that's such a big deal! When were you going to tell me?"

He runs a hand through his hair, letting out a sigh of frustration. "I don't know. I just got Coach Beiste to write me a letter of recommendation. Quinn found out by accident. My head is a mess right now, okay?"

"So's mine," Tina says, wiping angrily at her cheeks. "You know how hard I've been trying to figure out my life--"

"I guess I don't." Mike doesn't shout, but he turns his head away from her, color rising in his face.

"Fine," Tina says, and marches right back up the aisle. Halfway to the door, she turns to add, "Keep the stupid food!"

When the door slams behind her, she realizes why the rest of the glee club girls gave up storming out of places: it just leaves you feeling hollow.

*

Election day is going pretty much like any other school day, except for the rampaging herd of grasshoppers bouncing around Kurt's stomach. He regrets decorating an entire vest in VOTE HUMMEL-PIERCE pins, since he's now at a significantly greater risk of needing a tetanus shot before the day is out.

Students are to report to their last class and then walk down to the gym to vote, a change from last year, when all voting took place during lunch. Kurt suspects the last year's turnout of five voters has something to do with it. Unfortunately, this means that he has to spend the entire day with his nerves on red alert, evaluating the voting opinions (or lack thereof) of everyone he sees. He skips lunch for the quiet of the library, but it doesn't help. By the time he heads down the gym with his class (late, because his teacher is incapable of doing anything in a timely manner), he wants to scream.

Then Jacob Ben-Israel plows into him, knocking them both over.

"I know it's against the rules, but I have to change my vote!" Jacob babbles, then claps a hand over his mouth once he sees who he's knocked to the ground.

"You have to what?" Kurt asks. The rest of his science class shuffles on.

"It's not my fault! Rick and his friends are standing outside the gym, and they're saying they'll beat up anyone who votes for you guys! I just wanted to cover the election and instead I get death threats!"

Kurt resists the urge to roll his eyes. "How are they getting away with this? There are teachers right there."

"Oh, the threats came during lunchtime. They're just standing around looking angry. Not a lot of people have voted yet, but I'd say there's a definite atmosphere of fear."

"And there's no proof for the reason why," Kurt says through gritted teeth. Wonderful. His idiot opponent took this long to realize that Kurt and Brittany represent a serious threat to his candidacy, and it still might be enough to destroy their chances of winning. He pulls out his phone and calls Brittany.

"Hey!" she says. "I just voted for us! It was awesome!"

"Can you get the reinforcements we discussed?" Kurt asks.

"Yeah, why? Is this because Rick looked so mad when he went to vote?"

"You could say that. Meet me outside the gym ASAP."

At some point in this conversation, Jacob scurried off. Kurt hangs up and runs almost the rest of the way to the gym, slowing so that he can catch his breath before Rick and his friends spot him. Rick and five other meaty guys, most of them hockey players but one from Kurt's distant memories of football, are leaning on one of two sets of lockers in the hallway. One has a locker open, but they're all more intent on staring down people on their way to the gym.

They turn to look at him almost as one.

"Hello," Kurt says. "I hear that you've been spreading rumors."

"Whatever," Rick says, cracking his knuckles.

"That's not cool," Brittany says, emerging from the gym. She's propped the door open, Kurt notes approvingly. A few students poke their heads out, sensing potential for drama.

"Whatever." Rick is as eloquent as he is brilliant, apparently.

"We want the right person to win," one of his buddies says. "We're showing our support."

Now there's definitely a crowd gathering, though as of yet, it contains no teachers. No matter. They have things wrapped up regardless. Kurt smirks; it's a tight, ugly expression to match how he's feeling. He's tempted to quip Nobody puts Baby in the corner but the reference would be lost on these philistines. "You have no idea who you're dealing with."

"A chick and a fag, am I right?" Rick asks. His friends grunt in agreement.

Brittany shakes her head, expression disappointed. "You guys have totally forgotten who's on our side, haven't you?"

"Oh yeah? Who would that be?"

"Me."

"And me."

The newly gathered crowd parts for Quinn and Santana as they strut down the hallway to flank Kurt and Brittany. They're in full Cheerios regalia: skirts short, ponytails high, and expressions deadly. Quinn casts a disdainful look over Rick and his primarily hockey-playing buddies, raising one imperious finger in a hushing motion when Rick opens his mouth to speak. "I think you're forgetting where the real power in this school lies. Who the real champions are." She pulls at the chain around her neck, revealing that she's wearing a whistle instead of her normal cross.

"Anyone who brings up last year's competition loss or certain teen pregnancies will meet the business end of my knives," Santana sneers. "The top bitches are back and they're here to put you in your place."

Comprehension slowly dawns on Rick's face, if the color draining out of his cheeks is any indication. Kurt smiles as Quinn tosses her hair and declares, "The Cheerios will now perform a routine for their candidates."

When she blows her whistle, the rest of the Cheerios file in behind the four of them, forming straight lines across the hallway. Kurt nods to Quinn and she blows her whistle a second time. The Cheerios begin stomping their feet and clapping their hands to a familiar beat, Brittany included.

Kurt looks directly at Rick as he sings, "Buddy, you're a big boy, make a big noise, playin' in the street, gonna be a big man someday." Every word that he spits out is his answer to every ruined article of clothing from the past five years, every bruise he's ever tried to ignore, every slur that he and his family and friends have had to endure. It's time for some payback.

His heart swells as the Cheerios squad joins him on the chorus, chanting, "We will, we will rock you." Kurt waves a hand in greeting as he starts the next part of the song, as Puck, Finn, Sam, Mike, and Lauren break through to the front of the crowd, leaning casually against the lockers opposite Rick's little group.

It is a little group, and it looks progressively smaller with every student who starts clapping along to the Cheerios. A little group is how it all starts, isn't it? A little group of little-minded people, and a big group of people who won't stand up to it. Kurt strides right over to Rick, who takes a step back as Kurt sings, "Buddy, you're an old man, poor man, pleadin' with your eyes, gonna make you some peace someday."

Brittany draws him back in a move that looks like part of the dance routine, her expression as warning as it is sympathetic. She still joins in on, "You got mud on your face, you big disgrace, somebody better put you back in your place." Santana even flips Rick's group off until Quinn looks over to see what Brittany is grinning about.

The last few choruses are loud enough to rattle windows. Kurt won't spoil the performance by looking behind him, but he can hear some familiar voices joining the Cheerios. The Misses Berry and Jones are not easily lost in a crowd.

After the song ends and the gathered students erupt in cheers, Kurt waves to his people, beaming. Brittany slings an arm around his shoulder and starts chanting, "Hummel-Pierce! Hummel-Pierce! Hummel-Pierce!" The rest of the Cheerios take up the rallying cry.

"Thank you," Kurt says to Quinn over the din.

She smiles. "Once a Cheerio, always a Cheerio. Unless you betray us, of course."

"You're terrifying, you know that?"

"All right, people, break it up, break it up," Mr. Sullivan says. The crowd parts for him almost as easily as it did for Quinn and Santana, a testimonial to the powers of his glare. "While whatever is going on here is no doubt an authentic part of the democratic process in the United States, the show is over. Last call for voters!"

Kurt loses count around the twentieth student who walks past Mr. Sullivan on the way to the gym. He feels a hand slide into his and he squeezes it, knowing that it's Blaine's without having to look. "Whatever happens, we still showed the bullies of McKinley," Kurt says, and is surprised to find that he's blinking back tears.

"You guys are gonna win," Blaine says.

"By a landslide," Santana adds. She and Brittany exchange meltingly sweet smiles. They've really worked things out, then.

"Well then, madame co-president," Kurt says, and takes Brittany's hand in his free one. "I'm going to go vote for the winners."

Chapter Text

"The next person to ask how I think the election went is getting my extremely personal opinion of their sartorial choices," Kurt mutters, putting away his cell phone. Serves him right for checking it in the middle of class.

"I'd like to see that," Blaine laughs, though he has to hide his smile behind his hand when Mrs. Hill pauses watching a student fail to solve a physics problem on the board to glance in their direction.

"You're terrible," Kurt says when Mrs. Hill turns her back again. Election results will be announced at the end of the period, whereupon the winners will be asked to report to the first student body council meeting of the year. He's been telling family and friends and boyfriend the same thing over and over: Yes, I think that we have a fair shot; no, I wouldn't put it past the McKinley student body to mess this up, do you remember prom. He picks up his pencil and starts scribbling notes when Mrs. Hill, with a sigh, calls on Quinn to come up and fix the disaster on the board. At least she didn't ask Kurt; his brain feels like anxious soup, not at all up to the challenge of honors physics. The sciences aren't his forte, but being friends with Quinn, Mike, and Artie has significant benefits.

"Kurt. You guys are going to win. That thing in the hallway could never have happened at my first high school. You and our favorite Cheerios did all that."

Mrs. Hill casts a sharp eye in their direction again, so all Kurt can do is smile and mouth, I love you. It gets better every time he says it. Then Mrs. Hill calls on Kurt to do the next problem, forcing him to leave the sanctuary of his desk. At least he's wearing one of his favorite sweaters, neutral enough to carry him through either victory or defeat, but original enough to convey who should win the election.

Kurt escapes his trial by physics fire with Mrs. Hill's nod of approval and sits back down. Not a minute later, Brittany walks in. "You're not even in this class," Kurt says in surprise when she approaches.

"They're going to announce election results and I need to show solidarity," Brittany says. "Physics has a lot of solids, so I met you instead of making you walk all the way to my English class."

"How thoughtful of you."

No one does more than raise their eyebrows as Brittany sets down her binder on top of the desk next to Kurt and sits. Ever since the Cheerios' last display of power on election day, his fellow students have given Kurt either a wide berth or a thumbs up from a safe distance. When he walks down the hall with Blaine, he still expects a Slushie or a rude comment at the least, but instead, everyone backs off. He'd prefer fame over notoriety, but the change has been pleasant.

Things might change again five minutes from now.

Kurt clings to both sides of his desk when the speaker crackles to life. "Students of McKinley High School, election results are in," Mr. Sullivan says, sounding tired. "No doubt everyone is awaiting this announcement with bated breath. Your freshmen electees include..."

The list of names is difficult to hear over the blood rushing to his head. Somehow, Kurt ends up with a death grip on Blaine and Brittany's hands, though he doesn't remember letting go of his desk or reaching out. Brittany's lips are moving, repeating the names as they're said. Blaine's hands are warm, a point of earthly contact when the rest of him feels on the verge of floating away. This is the moment that will define his senior year, that will show him how far Kurt Hummel has to go to make a change.

"...and in an unprecedented double ticket that is technically not against the rules only I cared enough to check, your new senior student body president and vice president are Brittany Pierce and Kurt Hummel."

"Oh my God," is all Kurt has time to say before he's smothered in hugs from both sides. Then he's laughing, floundering in his attempts to extract his arms enough to hug them back. He accidentally gropes Brittany in the process, reminding him of his disastrous attempt to be straight sophomore year, and he can only laugh harder over the sound of Brittany's delighted squeals and Blaine's triumphant repetition of, "I knew it, I knew it!" and the applause.

Kurt looks around the classroom. Every student is applauding. Quinn has risen from her desk to do so, the fingertips of one hand striking her open palm as delicately as a queen's. She gives him a wink at odds with her dignified exterior and Kurt has to swallow around a lump in his throat. He and Brittany were the ones to start this, but Quinn and Santana and Blaine and everyone else helped them build it. Their friends all believed in them that much.

"We should get to the student council meeting," Brittany says softly, and waves to Quinn.

Before Kurt leaves, he kisses Blaine. Kurt hates hallway PDA that's more tonsil hockey than romance, but this kiss is more than a mere peck. He's vice president of the student body (co-president when he and Brittany are through). Everyone's going to have to learn to tolerate the sight of him "laying one on my man," as Carole would say. He can feel Blaine smiling into the kiss, like he knows exactly what Kurt is thinking, and that smile stays with Kurt on the walk to the student council meeting.

Mr. Sullivan offers them an approving nod when they walk in and take a seat, but waits until everyone has arrived to start his speech. "Congratulations, student council members. I look forward to being your faculty advisor in the 2011-2012 school year and leading you through the democratic process that makes our country such an exceptional place for all of its citizens." One day Mr. Sullivan is going to collapse under the force of his own sarcasm. "Your fellow students have entrusted you to speak for them, to plan for them, and to try not to bankrupt them--in short, to govern them. I wish you a fruitful year. Should you prove overwhelmed with this awesome responsibility, feel free to turn to me. I will now cede the floor to Ms. Pierce and Mr. Hummel, your new leaders."

Brittany frowns and looks at the floor, undoubtedly searching for seeds. It's a little frightening that Kurt knows that, but it speaks well for their ability to work together. Smoothly, he says, "Thank you. With the new school year begins a new McKinley High School, one where all students are safe to walk to the halls--"

"Excuse me," the new sophomore representative says, "but aren't you the vice president? People voted for Brittany, not you."

A thousand insults flash through Kurt's mind in the time it takes for Michelle to conclude her comment with an ugly little smile. Her pale peach sweater makes her look like a watercolor painting left out in the rain. Her knowledge of politics rivals that of a newborn koala's. It takes another moment for him to think better of making that kind of remark in a student council meeting, but in the third moment he seethes, furious at himself for taking the high road, for always having to take the high road because the losses outweigh the gains. His mind is blank save for the words he can't and won't say.

"People voted for both of us," Brittany says with a quick, almost imperceptible glance at Kurt. He gives her a tiny nod, letting her fill the silence. All his cynicism hadn't managed to quash the faint hope that the student council would be a little better than the average McKinley student. "We're equal partners. Like, yesterday I asked how much money it cost to buy Slushies and then clean them off lockers and Kurt did the math. That's at least three hundred dollars we could be spending on prom, guys. Principal Figgins told us on the first day of school that there wouldn't be a prom unless everyone from the senior class donated ten dollars. Do you want a school that cancels prom? Disaster!"

"It's a dangerous precedent to set," Kurt adds, uncrossing his arms because he read in a magazine that an open posture made people relate to you better. "To those of you underclassmen who scoff at the notion that this senior prom means anything to you, ask yourself whether you're willing to risk losing your own magical night. Or worse, what if you scrape together the funds only to have to scrape crusted sugar off your best gown or a rental tux? Can you guarantee that the bullying will stop before it reaches you?"

That one hits. Kurt represses a bitter laugh when the room falls quiet, several people wincing as they picture their prom finery ruined. It's come to doomsday prophesying and fudged statistics, but now his fellow student council members are thinking next time, it could be me. Discussion then devolves into fundraising ideas for prom and Rice Krispies Treats versus Twinkies at the football concession stand. When the latter debate makes their first student council meeting run five minutes over despite Mr. Sullivan's increasingly caustic remarks, Brittany shoots Kurt an apologetic look. Kurt rolls his eyes and vetoes Twinkies for the sake of marshmallowy goodness.

"It's good to know that the people listen to me on the important issues," Kurt says after the rest of the students file out, leaving him with Brittany.

"You take your snack foods super seriously," Brittany says. "But I know what you mean."

Mr. Sullivan, who had been in the doorway glaring after the lanky freshman representative who said "dude" to a degree he appeared to find truly offensive, turns in their direction. "You'll find that most political engagements are nothing more than silly arguments. Both of you did well, though."

"Yes, we managed to talk about our chief campaign issue for a grand total of thirty seconds," Kurt says.

Brittany sighs and adds, "Dancing is totally my thing, but Kurt's right. I'd rather talk about how we're going to make McKinley a great place for everybody."

Mr. Sullivan clears his throat. "Give it time. You've already inspired one old cynic to stop looking the other way and do the right thing for a change."

At first, Kurt can't make sense of what he means, and then Brittany pokes him in the side, pointing. Mr. Sullivan has one of Ms. Pillsbury's GLBT Safe Zone stickers on his door. It's a sticker. It's just a sticker, not a guarantee that a teacher is actually going to do something when he sees someone walk in with a Slushie. It's just a sticker, but for the first time, Kurt feels as though he matters somewhere outside his circle of family and friends.

"Nice," Brittany says, nodding in approval. Kurt can only manage a quiet thanks.

"Thank you," Mr. Sullivan says, motioning them out the door.

*

"Can you sing the last bit again? I'm not sure I recorded the last three bars correctly."

"Rachel, it doesn't have to be perfect. That's what improvisation is for." Mercedes is not at all surprised when Rachel scrunches up her face and remains huddled at the piano over her scribbled sheet music. For someone with her own singing style, that girl is way too devoted to writing arrangements perfectly.

"Yes, but how can I be certain that the boys will come up with an arrangement as perfect as ours? Better to work things out now."

Mercedes should've guessed. She hums a little, getting the melody back in her head, then sings out her version of the chorus harmony in "Tearin' Up My Heart." Rachel erases a few notes and writes in new ones, then sings them back to her. "You got it, Rach."

"Then we're done!" Rachel says. "That took a mere hour, not counting the half hour false start before we realized that a six-part harmony would likely result in disaster when combined with dance moves."

"Uh, yeah, that didn't take a whole lot of realizing," Mercedes says, laughing. "Can you believe how far we are, though? It's nice to be this prepared for Sectionals."

"It's a credit to the both of us that we've extensively prepared for our auditions while still managing New Directions," Rachel agrees. She starts gathering up her things, putting the handwritten sheet music in a bright pink folder.

Auditions. Right. Now that she's out of the singing zone, all her nerves have come rushing back. Mercedes clears her throat.

"Mercedes, that's terrible for your vocal cords."

"I wanted to talk to you about something," Mercedes says in a rush.

Rachel sets her purse back on the piano bench, waiting for Mercedes to gather herself. It feels strange opening up about this to Rachel, but her other girl friends aren't planning on making singing their career, Sam is involved in the band, and Kurt--Kurt feels like her family, in the sense that he'll tell her that she'll be perfect because that's how he sees her. She needs that kind of love, absolutely, but she also needs a little objectivity.

"I'm really nervous about my audition this weekend. Not for any of the normal reasons, like thinking that I'll mess up the words or get lost and show up late. It's--I'm the one in charge." Mercedes looks at the wall on the far side of the room, then back to Rachel, who remains uncharacteristically quiet. "I'm calling the shots. If I call the wrong ones, even though the band is really good, we still won't make it. I've always wanted to be a star, and now I'm terrified."

That disdainful look, the one Rachel used on "crunk club," the one that hurts as much as it chafes, doesn't come out. Instead she gets wide eyes and a sympathetic smile. "Having the lead is difficult," Rachel agrees. "If it helps, I think you're both an amazing singer and an amazing co-captain."

"You know it, but that's not the same as being in charge all by yourself." There's a tiny corner of Mercedes still telling her to hold back, telling her that Rachel Berry has never met a project she couldn't resist taking over. The memory of sleepovers and shared popcorn bowls keeps her talking. "What's your spotlight secret?"

Rachel shakes her head. "My secret is always thinking I'm right, even when I'm not. I led us to Nationals and then lost them for us." Her hands curl into fists on her lap. "It took letting everyone I knew down for me to realize that no woman is an island, even if that island is Manhattan. That's something I always admired about you. You know how to reach people. I know how to browbeat them."

Mercedes swallows both the urge to agree and the urge to protest, the former borne of experience and the latter of the delicate power balance they've achieved this year. Neither phrase feels quite right for the situation. She settles on, "Then let's beat my nerves into submission."

"In my experience, I've found it best to sing my way through my anxieties, particularly when they concern show business," Rachel says instantly. "While there are numerous Broadway numbers to draw upon, I remember how much you liked that song I found while searching for Jewish singer-songwriters on YouTube."

"I'm pretty sure that I liked more than one."

"It was the one that was dancing with stars, not dancing with the stars. As a future star, the metaphor regarding the difficulties of stardom spoke to me on a personal level. We are both of us prepared for sacrifice, but at what cost?" As Mercedes turns a laugh into a cough, Rachel hops off the piano bench and roots through her purse, pulling out a Bedazzled compact mirror. "Look at the pair of us. We were made for bright lights. We're prepared to pay any price."

"I don't know about any," Mercedes says. Rachel hands her the compact mirror and assumes what she always refers to as Singing Posture Number Seventeen.

"Do you wanna be a big star? Well, it's okay to say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!" Rachel sings, bouncing with each "yes." Mercedes grins, remembering the song. Rachel claps her hands to the beat and continues, "Do you wanna be a rock 'n' roll beauty queen? Get ready for the test, test, test."

"'Cause you gotta stay skinny, you gotta grow tall," Mercedes interjects, holding up the compact mirror again. Rachel makes a show out of preening in front of the mirror, playing up one of the downsides of divahood. "You gotta make magic outta nothin' at all." Mercedes snaps the mirror shut as she and Rachel sing, "Ooh yeah, ooh yeah, who you gonna run to when you can't think straight? Everybody's pushin' you the same wrong way and everyone's your lover on your birthday."

Mercedes tosses Rachel the mirror and spins out in time to the song, finishing the motion with her arms spread wide. Now it's her turn to proclaim the merits of stardom: "Do you wanna be a big star? Well, it's okay to say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Do you wanna be a rock 'n' roll beauty queen? You're never gonna get your rest, rest, rest."

"'Cause you gotta fight your enemies; you gotta fight friends," Rachel sings back, circling her like an especially determined shark. "You gotta fight depression when the whole shit ends, yeah."

This time when they come in together, they mug over their shoulders for pretend cameras. "Ooh yeah, ooh yeah, who you gonna run to when you can't think straight? Everybody's pushin' you the same wrong way and everyone's your lover on your birthday."

"Ooooh, you can come to me, ain't gonna let them know," Mercedes croons to Rachel, spinning her around.

"Ooooh, never let them see any weakness show," Rachel replies, spinning Mercedes in kind. Upon completing her spin, Mercedes steals the compact mirror out of Rachel's other hand, primping in the mirror. Rachel lets out a squeal of fake indignation and chases her around the piano. Finally, in a bid for the mirror, Rachel climbs on top of the piano. Laughing, Mercedes meets her halfway.

"Do you wanna be a big star? Well, it's okay to say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!" they sing to an imaginary audience. Mercedes pictures something like the Nationals stage, both of them in red dresses. "Do you wanna do the rock 'n' roll beauty scene? You're gonna have to learn to guess, guess, guess."

"'Cause you gotta know the answers, you gotta know 'em quick," Mercedes says, poking Rachel in the arm with her mirror.

Rachel shoves it away playfully. "You gotta make it better when they all feel sick, yeah!"

Mercedes sets the mirror between them. She and Rachel turn, mirroring each other instead as they sing, "Ooh yeah, ooh yeah, who you gonna run to when you can't think straight? Everybody's pushin' you the same wrong way and everyone's your lover on your birthday." They repeat the last line a few times, quieter each time, the song winding down to a soft stop.

The imaginary stage lights go out. Mercedes Jones come back to herself, in her un-glamorous (but still stylish, thank you very much) clothes, in her definitely un-glamorous high school. "This is really our last year here," Mercedes says. "Not just at McKinley, but in Lima. In Ohio."

"In the Midwest," Rachel expounds. She leans and grabs her purse off the piano bench, sliding her compact mirror back inside. "Sometimes I worry about getting lost. Not in obscurity, of course, but in my inevitable limelight."

"Let me see your purse for a minute," Mercedes says. After Rachel hands it over, she rummages around inside, taking out a pen. "Now give me your hand."

"What are you--hey!"

Mercedes finishes writing Miss Mercedes Jones on the palm of Rachel's hand with a flourish. She grins. "That's my first autograph. You should get it tattooed. That way you can look down and remember where you come from. Also, bragging rights that you know me."

Rachel stares down at her hand with a funny little smile. When she looks up, her eyes are bright. "Now I have to do your hand, you realize." Mercedes holds hers out, keeping it still despite how the pen tickles. Rachel draws a star after her name, of course.

This is some kind of big moment, even though right now it's just two girls on a piano making big promises about their big dreams. Mercedes swallows past the sudden lump in her throat. "We're gonna make it. We're on our way."

*

There's nothing like a little third wave feminism when your life is in shambles. Tina spreads her sketches around her in sculpture class and takes out her book, a notepad, and a pencil. "Research," she explains to Ms. Lombardi, who nods.

It doesn't feel like research when it's for fun, though. Tina's feminist education started in sophomore year when Pandora Radio pulled up an Ani DiFranco song one afternoon. She still remembers the shiver that ran through her at the opening lines: I am not a pretty girl / That is not what I do / I ain't no damsel in distress / And I don't need to be rescued. She started reading feminist blogs; now she's branching out into feminist books.

Her first research book is Feminism Is for Everybody by bell hooks. Tina's already copied down the line about how most people's image of a feminist is a white woman who wants equal pay for equal work. After a moment of consideration, she adds, sculpt a better feminist image? abstract?

She reads and scribbles and doodles ideas until Lauren nudges her. "Class is over, Cohen-Chang. You okay?"

Tina smiles, still flush with the joy of new ideas. Lauren likes to act like she's made of titanium, but she's being really sweet about Tina's fight with Mike, in a way that involves frequent check-ins and offers to beat some sense into his head without damaging the pretty face. The fight is like 24-hour pins and needles in her body, halfway between painful and numb. Research lifted her spirits, though, and hopefully it will be enough to see her through rehearsal, where she and Mike will spend three hours avoiding each other's eyes. Her smile falters. "I'll be all right."

"Yeah, you will," Lauren says and gives her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "I'll walk you to rehearsal. I'll even carry your books if you ask nice." She eyes the cover of Tina's book with interest. "What is that, anyway?"

"I'm sharpening my righteous blade of feminist equality." Tina hands Lauren the book to examine. "Also trying to find an idea for my sculpture. Ms. Lombardi said to go with something I was passionate about, and it was this or Fluevogs."

"Your shoe collection is pretty kickass."

Lauren makes good on her offer to walk Tina to rehearsal. She even listens to Tina's rambling recommendations of feminist blogs. (Talking for long periods of time still makes Tina nervous, which makes her lose track of her point and veer off on tangents.)

By the time they reach the auditorium doors, Tina's moved from blog recommendations to popular debate topics to the latest hijab controversy: "It was confusing because people online said that women shouldn't be forced to dress according to their religion, but then they made a law to force them to dress a certain way, so I was like, isn't this the same thing only in reverse? And then I got what the other bloggers were saying. Do you remember when half the glee club was in Gaga outfits two years ago? That was partly because people were telling me how to dress."

"You made one hell of a statement. The jerk jocks were afraid to mess with you guys for a little while. Rock on," Lauren replies, giving her a fistbump before she heads off to greet Puck.

They spend the first two hours of West Side Story rehearsal going over the big dance numbers. Pros: dancing is fun and Tina is too busy dancing with Blaine for most numbers to focus on Mike. Cons: when she's onstage she can still see him, and when she's offstage during the big fight between Riff and Bernardo, she can't look at anyone but Mike. Watching him dance has always been such a joy because his motions are so fluid and he always looks so happy. The extra rehearsals with Coach Beiste are making him even better, but every beautiful move reminds her that Mike decided to keep a major life decision secret from her, like she didn't even matter.

Halfway through the second runthrough of the fight, Tina slips off to the bathroom. She braces herself against the sink, letting a few tears roll down her cheeks before she splashes water on her face and dries it on a paper towel. "I am an all-powerful Amazon warrior," she tells her red-eyed reflection.

"Tina?" The door swings open and Quinn steps part of the way into the bathroom, pausing with one hand on the door and the other on the doorframe when she sees Tina. "We're taking a fifteen minute break. I can--I can tell people to use another bathroom, if you want."

"I was just leaving." Tina crumples up her paper towel and tosses it into the trash, or tries to. It hits the rim and rolls off, forcing her to stoop to retrieve it. Quinn has a way of making every girl seem tongue-tied and clumsy by comparison. Tina's not jealous of her, it's not like Mike was cheating, but the question why you sits on her tongue like a stone. Before Quinn can leave, taking her guilty expression with her, Tina sighs and adds, "I'm not mad at you."

"I would understand if you were."

"It's not your fault my boyfriend is stupid sometimes." Tina's eyes water at the admission and she wipes her eyes. Quinn bites her lower lip; her sympathy hurts. "Has he said anything to you?"

"No. He's farther away during our duets, though. He feels terrible." Quinn heaves a sigh of her own and steps the rest of the way into the bathroom, letting the door swing shut behind her. She runs a hand through her hair without mussing it. "I'm sorry; it sounds like I'm making excuses. I just wanted to check on you."

"Thanks." Tina drags up a wan smile. "Like I said: I'm an all-powerful Amazon warrior."

"That's a nice thing to say to yourself in the mirror," Quinn says, crossing her arms across her abdomen. "I'll have to try it sometime."

"Why not now?"

They both just stare at each other for a moment, equally surprised. Tina stops herself halfway through covering her own mouth. Where did that come from? She's just barely fighting down misplaced anger, but Quinn looked so sad just now, and the whole club knows what it means when she touches her stomach. "There are two mirrors. We'll do it at the same time," Tina says, and waits for Quinn Fabray, co-captain of the Cheerios, to tell her to get a life.

"Okay." Quinn steps over to the mirror and automatically straightens her clothes, then dabs at her lower eyelid with her pinkie where her eyeliner has just started to smudge from the dancing. "Ready."

"On the count of three," Tina says, swallowing as she faces herself in the mirror. "One, two, three."

"I am an all-powerful Amazon warrior," they repeat more or less together. Quinn's voice follows a little after Tina's and she lets out a quick huff of laughter at herself. "That was great," Quinn adds.

"It kind of was," Tina agrees, her smile entirely unforced this time. She can't say that was the most surreal experience of her life--she's in glee club, after all--but it's definitely one of the nicer ones. "I think our time's up."

"We're going to devote the last half of rehearsal to the final scene," Ms. Pillsbury says after they arrive back in the auditorium. "It's extremely difficult on all levels: dancing, music, and drama. Blaine and Tina, you'll be doing the heavy lifting, but you've also rehearsed this before in a smaller setting. It's just a matter of putting it together." She nods at both of them but looks at Tina.

"I've got this," Tina says, and her second surprise of the day is that she does.

In previous rehearsals, Tina has never been in Maria's head for her final monologue. If asked, she could recite the sequence of events and even the underlying emotions: Maria cries over Tony's body, Maria takes Chino's gun, Maria threatens them all and wishes for death, Maria throws away the gun, Maria says goodbye to Tony, and then Maria is alone with both her love and grief. Putting all that onstage, making herself that vulnerable, is another matter. Plus, Ms. Pillsbury tried to explain why the stage directions call Maria's face "triumphant" at the very end, but Tina still didn't understand--her boyfriend just died in her arms.

"They keep their promise to each other. Maria and Tony," Tina says to Blaine as they take their places.

"Hmm?"

"They make a place for them. Maria chooses love over hatred at the end. She gets to choose."

"Huh." Blaine's face breaks out in a grin. "I like that way of looking at it."

After Tina delivers her final line and Maria shares a final kiss with Tony, she lifts her head to see Coach Beiste and Ms. Pillsbury wiping their eyes in the audience. Some of the triumph on Maria's face is her own as she turns backstage, making her exit.

*

"I just won the election. The other shoe is going to drop directly on my vocal cords."

"Don't jinx us! You just jinxed us!"

"Being fatalistic convinces Lady Luck that you're humble enough to deserve to win. ...Oh no, I just spoke my strategy aloud. I'm going to die."

"Just choose a diva and speak her name aloud three times. It counteracts anything but naming the Scottish play. Hurry, do it before we get a flat!"

In retrospect, perhaps Rachel should have accepted her dads' offer to drive her and Kurt to Ohio State University's open practice auditions. She and Kurt solemnly promised each other that these auditions were practice, that they were meant to be taken seriously but not stressfully, and then they both started freaking out about fifteen minutes into the car ride. Kurt is incredibly irritable without his morning caffeine and probably shouldn't be driving. Rachel let him drive because she really should focus on channeling all her energy into her talent. Or was it all her talent into her energy?

Rachel Berry is not freaking out about an audition in Ohio. She has zero plans to go to OSU, and it's the same for Kurt.

"Barbra Streisand, Barbra Streisand, Barbra Streisand," she chants, but quietly, to preserve her voice. She takes a sip of her water and then clutches the pink bottle to her chest like a life preserver. That's a poetic image, a life preserver full of water; maybe she should write a song. It could be called "The Curious Constancy of My Water Bottle," since her dads told her she ought to incorporate more of her prodigious vocabulary in her creative works.

Kurt gives her a glance so sharp she can feel it and Rachel resists the urge to tell him to keep his eyes on the road. "What head space are we meant to be in, Miss Berry?"

"Musical performance head space, Mister Hummel," she answers, wrinkling her nose. "Not songwriting head space. I can't help it, the ideas just come to me."

"Try to ignore the muse until after 11 AM. Then I promise you can compose to your heart's content."

"Kurt."

"Fine, I promise you thirty uninterrupted minutes of editorial commentary on the drive back."

Rachel presses her index fingers and thumbs together to make a heart. "You're the best!"

"No problem. Be a peach and hand me my Gatorade?"

She lets out a scandalized gasp, almost drops her water bottle, and then cradles it like an infant or small dog. "Kurt! You know how I feel about being near liquids other than water, honey, and lemon juice on audition days!"

"Keeping track of all your neuroses is a full-time job. I need the electrolytes. You know how I feel about eating before auditions."

"When you faint in the middle of your solo, don't blame me."

"When? Rachel Berry, did you just wish misfortune on me?"

"It's not wishing! There are some certainties in life when you refuse vegan blueberry muffins and insist on poisoning your voice!"

"Some of us like to be more than merely hydrated prior to important vocal engagements!"

They're so busy bickering that they miss their exit. Kurt goes paler than usual when he realizes, both hands clenched around the steering wheel. Rachel is about to tell him that stress will damage his voice when she realizes that the stress is partly her fault, and sinks guiltily into her seat instead. She closes her eyes as tight as she can, because crying also damages the voice and she trusts Kurt to get them back to the right exit. Several minutes pass.

"I'm sorry for starting such a silly fight."

"I'm sorry for letting you start such a silly fight," Kurt replies, wry. Rachel cracks an eye open and relief flutters through her; his posture is looser. "We'll be at the parking lot in two minutes. Are you ready for this?"

"We're going to make Ohio weep that we're leaving."

Parking and walking to the music building. They don't even get lost on the way because they both printed campus maps and drew different routes in varying shades of highlighter. Rachel even has a contingency plan for street parking after a disastrous community theater audition day five years ago. When she checks in at the desk, sheet music clutched to her chest, the man sitting behind it smiles kindly and tells her that she and Kurt will be going first.

"Oh my God." Rachel clutches Kurt's hands instinctively. There's still no reason to be nervous. This is practice, just like the hours she's spent with her dads going over her technique. It just looks so official here, grown-up if not glamorous. "Our registration papers say we're next door to each other. I'll strive to project my aura if you promise the same."

"We'll see each other through." Kurt is beaming despite the green cast to his skin. "Do you realize that this is our first major step to New York?"

His first step, my first stumble, Rachel amends not five minutes later. She walked into her room, head held high as she announced, "I'm Rachel Berry, and I'll be si--" only to get cut off by the woman, wearing a nametag that reads DR WALSH, holding up a hand.

"We generally start with sight singing and then move to the solo. It's nice to meet you, Rachel. I'm Dr. Walsh, one of the voice professors."

"Nice to meet you," Rachel whispers, mortified, then tries to banish all thoughts of stumbling. She picks up the paper already on the music stand and licks her lips. "This one?"

"Start from the top and sing the first eight bars."

"Right." Sight reading music is actually one of her strong points, and she's been coaching Kurt for months. Rachel scans the sheet, making note of the key and time signatures, and hums the first note in her head. It's not a tricky piece, especially if she takes it slow, though there's an eighth note run with an accidental that could get tricky at the end. Rachel sings her way through the passage, smile growing with each note--and then misses the accidental in the seventh bar. Even though she was looking at it two minutes ago. Rachel's voice doesn't falter, but her smile does.

"Thank you," Dr. Walsh says, writing something down in her notebook. "And your solo?"

It's all so fast. It's too fast for her to recover, to choke down the encroaching tears. Rachel gives herself a vicious pinch on the crook of her elbow and thinks of every horrid comment ever posted on her MySpace. She didn't cry then and she's certainly not going to cry now.

"My solo is 'Not for the Life of Me' from Thoroughly Modern Millie," Rachel says, handing her sheet music to the pianist. She hadn't noticed her until now; she blends in as well as Brad. Maybe they're related.

"I studied all the pictures in magazines and books," Rachel begins. Her voice quivers just a little, but this is her character taking in New York City for the first time. This is good, she can use it, if she can just get into the song. "I memorized the subway map, too. It's one block north to Macy's and two to Brothers Brooks. Manhattan, I prepared for you."

Oh, God, the tears from earlier are rising again. She's not Millie, newly arrived to the city and destined for love and adventure. She's just Rachel Berry, still in Ohio, like she will be forever if she blows a practice audition. "You certainly are different than what they have back home, where nothing's over three stories high," she perseveres. "And no one's in a hurry or wants to roam, but I do, though they wonder why."

If she closes her eyes, she can picture the skyscrapers illuminated in last May's bright sunshine. If she closes her eyes, she can taste the bagel she ate outside Tiffany's. If she closes her eyes, she can--she can feel Kurt beside her, equally determined to conquer the most important city in the world.

"They said I would soon be good and lonely," Kurt sings to her, shaking his head. "They said I would sing the homesick blues." He tosses his empty coffee cup in the trash, reaching into his cape. "So I always have this ticket in my pocket. A ticket home in my pocket to do with as I choose."

Rachel opens her eyes, but the images of skyscrapers linger. She has her prop in her hands, an old AmTrak ticket her daddy found in a scrapbook. In one decisive moment, she tears it in half. "Burn the bridge, bet the store, baby's coming home no more. Not for the life of me!"

In her imagination, Kurt throws his own ticket up in the air like confetti at a parade. "Break the lock, post my bail! Done my time, I'm out of jail," he sings. "Not for the life of me!"

Dr. Walsh is tapping her pen to the beat. For the next verse, Rachel gestures toward her with one arm, fingers spread wide. "A life that's gotta be more than a one-light town where the light is always red. Gotta be more than an old ghost town where the ghosts ain't even dead!" She raises her hand with the crescendo on the last word, closing her fist as she closes the last syllable.

Kurt is here in this room with her, just as he'll be with her in New York. She can hear him joining her on the last lines of the song: "Clap-a-your hands just a-because don't you know that where I am ain't where I was! Not for the life of me, boh-doh-dee-oh. Not for the life of, not for the life of, not for the life of me!"

The impression of her last triumphant note rings in the audition room. Rachel has tears in her eyes again, but for a good reason this time: this song always leaves her choked up because it's a promise, it's always been her promise to herself, and now she has someone else to share it with. She and Kurt are going to own the city before they're twenty-five.

*

Blaine ticks off items on his mental to do list on the way out from Saturday rehearsal. He has all the notebooks and textbooks he needs for his homework, approximately one pound of sheet music to stare at over the weekend, and The Eyre Affair, which Wes lent to him with the solemn proclamation that it was a postmodern tribute to the classics. Blaine likes mysteries and jokes about books, and he's looking forward to getting past the first chapter whenever West Side Story wraps.

Right now, though, he has to focus on the most important item on his to do list: clean up the house before Kurt gets back from OSU. His parents keep the house pretty clean, but he's had etiquette drilled into his head since infancy and the last thing he wants to worry about is clutter during three consecutive hours alone with his boyfriend. He and Kurt have been dancing on the edges of more serious physical intimacy for the past few weeks, partially because of summer and several post-pool makeouts. Blaine has maybe been rehearsing how to broach the "How far do you want to take this?" conversation in front of the bathroom mirror in the mornings.

"I respect you as a person and I don't want you to feel pressured," Blaine mutters as he unlocks the front door. "No, that definitely sounds like a pamphlet. I love you and I want to express it in an additional way..."

He continues trying out different lines as he empties the dishwasher and then refills it with this morning's dishes. Except he doesn't want them to be lines, because lines are what you use on people you don't care about, but he also doesn't want to say something stupid or insensitive. Blaine flips on the kitchen radio and hums along as he tidies the enormous pile of mail on the kitchen counter. His father, normally in charge of sorting the mail, is on a nine-day business trip. What if he sang to Kurt? What if he picked another vastly inappropriate song?

Then he sees a familiar-looking envelope at the bottom of the pile.

"No," he says aloud, because maybe the manila envelope will turn into something else if he wishes hard enough. Maybe his careful print will turn into his mother's elegant handwriting. Maybe the address will be for his safety school instead of his perfect school, the New York City one that's on all the right lists in Princeton Review (for his parents) and offers both a business and a music major (for himself). But you still have to audition for the school of music, and audition CDs are supposed to be postmarked by today.

Blaine grabs the envelope, bolting out the door with his car keys shaking in his other hand. There's a brief, bright flare of anger at his parents: they always put out the mail, but evidently his attempt at an impractical second major isn't important. He chases away the anger at them with anger at himself for not being responsible enough to check, for not walking the damn envelope out himself on the way to school. It's just the system at his house: his mother puts the mail out and his father takes it in.

"Come on, come on," Blaine says at the third red light, fighting sick panic. The post office is due to close in ten minutes and he's five minutes away and there's not always parking and this is his perfect school, the one school that will make everyone happy.

He almost drives past the post office in his focus on just getting there, parking in front at the last second. Blaine rushes to the door without feeding the meter, arriving inside out of breath and wild-eyed, much to the surprise of the clerk behind the desk. "Need a stamp?" she asks.

"I'm all set, thank you," Blaine says, handing her the envelope. "This will go out today?"

"Don't worry, honey," she assures him. "Good thing you got here in time."

Blaine does worry as he drives back. What if his package gets put in the wrong place again? What if the mail truck gets a flat tire? What if his package gets destroyed between here and New York City? His hands are still shaking when he gets back home, so he makes himself some tea, and then the doorbell rings.

"I am the audition champion," Kurt says, and then the smile falls off his face at the sight of Blaine. "What's wrong?"

"It's stupid," Blaine says, embarrassed, and takes a sip of his tea as a delaying tactic. "Come sit down. Did you want to watch a movie or...?"

"There's always The Real Housewives of Atlanta." Kurt shrugs off his coat and toes off his shoes in the same graceful motion, hanging up his coat but leaving his scarf wound around his neck. Blaine entertains a few distractingly happy thoughts about taking it off him later when Kurt adds, "What kind of tea is that?"

"What? Oh, I'm sorry, do you want anything to drink?" Blaine opens the refrigerator on autopilot. "We have milk, water, orange juice, and the tea I'm drinking is peppermint..."

"Blaine." All of a sudden Kurt is right in front of him, hands gentle on Blaine's waist and eyes full of worry. "What's wrong?"

"I found my audition CD on the counter today." When Kurt sucks in a breath, Blaine follows quickly with, "I got it to the post office in time. Just, you know, five minutes before it closed."

"How awful," Kurt breathes, drawing him into an actual hug. Blaine sets down his tea so he can wrap his arms around him. "That must have been so scary."

"It was such a kid thing to do," Blaine says, resting his head on Kurt's shoulder. Maybe he should take the scarf off now.

"I hate to break it to you, but we are kids."

"Not like this, though." Blaine closes his eyes as Kurt starts rubbing his back in small circles. "You just told me you were the audition champion, anyway."

"I am the greatest star. Just don't tell Rachel. Actually, she claims that my spirit and New York's were with her for her audition, which is sweet, if bizarre. I think we're ready to return to the Big Apple next weekend and take a huge bite, as the cliche goes."

And because his boyfriend is tender and brilliant and sexy and so full of hope for the future, Blaine blurts out, "We should have sex."

Kurt goes still. "What?"

"Um," Blaine says, floundering. Is anything going to go right, or should he just stop planning his life entirely? "I meant soon? We could now, if you want, since my mom is definitely going to be another two hours at least--" Kurt's face right now, like he doesn't know whether to be flattered or upset-- "or we could forget I ever opened my mouth. Whatever you want."

Kurt detaches from him, mouth pressed into a firm line. He doesn't look angry, exactly, but Blaine doubts the scarf is coming off today. "I'll turn the TV on if you make me some tea. I think we should talk about this later."

"Sure," Blaine says softly. Kurt walks into the living room, leaving Blaine to boil water and pray for the ground to stop shifting under his feet.

*

Despite the forecast, Saturday afternoon is cloudy but still warm, which Mercedes takes as a good sign for the band's audition.

"I should not have had that second sandwich," Sam groans, clutching his stomach and killing her optimism in the process.

Puck glares at them from the driver's seat. "Dude, you hurl in my truck and I will kill you." He might actually follow through on the threat; Finn is sitting next to him up front instead of Lauren, since her house isn't on the way for him and he's the only one with a vehicle that can transport a drum kit.

"I'm not sick. It's just, like, do you know how many carbs are in bread?" Sam is frowning down at himself in a way that makes Mercedes want to serenade him with a Christina Aguilera song.

She's just about to say something reassuring when a car goes speeding past in the opposite direction. What comes out instead is: "Hey, was that Blaine?"

"Maybe," Sam says, turning to look, which successfully distracts him from his stomach.

They pull up to the retirement home. Mercedes opens the car door and blinks to see Sam awaiting her, hand outstretched. "Weren't you just in the car with me?"

"I was trying to open the door for you," Sam says with one of his ridiculous lopsided smiles. "I didn't make it, but if I may, can I help you out of this vehicle, Miss Jones?"

"Really?" Mercedes conceals a grin by brushing aside a strand of hair and then takes his proffered hand. "You're too much." Now she sounds like her mother after her dad teases her about a pretty new outfit or hairstyle.

Sam squeezes her hand as she hops out of the car. "The urchins and I watched Aladdin last night, and I figured a little Disney princess treatment would help with the audition and everything. Um, if that's okay with you."

She giggles. "Of course that's okay with me. Just don't trust anyone named Jafar."

"Whenever you guys are finished," Puck says, rolling his eyes heavenward. Finn just smiles at them a little sadly. Mercedes smiles back. She's glad the Finn and Rachel drama is over, and Rachel is far more her friend than Finn, but it's been long enough that her heart goes out to him.

By the time they're done unloading the instruments, the rest of the band has arrived. Mrs. Clark comes out to direct them to the first floor common room like this is their first visit, cheerily finding celebrity nicknames for the rest of the Benzes and promising that her granddaughter will be arriving soon.

"Let's do this," Mercedes says when they finally get all the instruments inside. After various thumbs up and fist pumps in response, the group begins setting up. Tina plays different pitches on the keyboard so Lauren and Sam can tune their guitars. Finn does a series of finger flexes, limbering up his hands for holding drumsticks. Puck gets drawn into a serious conversation with Mr. Banks, one of the retirees, about the blues and rock and roll in the 1950s. Mercedes takes them all in, along with the growing crowd of retirees, excited to hear their audition, and lets her nerves dissipate for the time being. She made this. She has her own band.

"They're here!" Mrs. Clark calls. "Come in, dears. You look pretty as a picture."

"Hello! I'm Maya Clark," the woman says. She's a tall black woman, casually dressed in jeans and a sweater, and she has her grandmother's wide smile. "This is Kevin Pierce, my fiance. Don't let him make you nervous."

Kevin doesn't look intimidating; though he's even taller than Maya, he keeps fidgeting with the cuffs of his button down shirt. "That's just gonna make them nervous," he says. "Nice to meet you guys. Sorry, we're up to our ears in wedding planning. Our guest book just came and it's cream when I specifically ordered alabaster--"

"--and somehow we will all make it through," Maya interjects. "Come on, some nice music will put you in a better mood."

"I'm Mercedes Jones of Mercedes and the Benzes," Mercedes says, shaking both of their hands and praying that her palm isn't too sweaty. She introduces the rest of the bandmates, then adds, "Sam and I sang at my cousin's wedding this summer. Not professionally, but the actual band invited us onstage. Mercedes and the Benzes is an up and coming band and we're looking forward to playing for you today. So I guess let's do that! Our first song is 'My Girl.'"

Mercedes cringes inwardly at her own words. So I guess let's do that? She might as well be wearing a sign that says insecure. The bride- and groom-to-be settle into their chairs, sitting upright with expressions of polite interest. They even fold their hands in their lap in eerie sync. Mercedes swallows the urge to make a comment about robots (Sam's influence) or throw up (her nerves). She focuses instead on the microphone, which Rachel insisted on Bedazzling for her audition, and nods at Puck.

Puck nods back and out thrum the first notes of the bass line. Sam comes in next, quickly followed by Lauren and Tina on finger snaps, and then Finn on drums. Mercedes licks her lips and begins: "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day." Her voice slides into the instrumentation and back-up vocals, smooth and sweet as the lyrics, and she can hear her smile in her voice. Most of the retirees are nodding along to the beat and Maya and Mrs. Clark have brought out their identical smiles again.

Mercedes picked this song as their main audition song for more than one reason. The band is good at it and it's widely known as one of the great love songs. It's also a song Mercedes grew up with every Sunday, her father singing to her mother as they made breakfast before church, sometimes making up lyrics to include Mercedes and her brother. This song is the warmth of the kitchen; the smell of pancakes; the sound of bacon frying. It's the song that made her pause one morning in the middle of drinking her orange juice and think, This is what love looks like.

She knows they've nailed it before the first chorus is even over. Kevin actually looks like he's started to relax, and Maya leans over to rest her head on his shoulder. "I've got so much honey the bees envy me," Mercedes sings with a little sashay. "I've got a sweeter song than the birds in the trees."

Tina sidles up alongside her, still on percussive finger snap duty while Lauren has taken up the rhythm guitar line she and Sam worked out. Mercedes grins and points to her as she sings, "I guess you'd say what can make me feel this way? My girl..."

"My girl," Tina echoes, winking in lieu of pointing. Sam beams at them as he chimes in with the third, "My girl."

"Talkin' 'bout my girl," Mercedes adds, and the rest of the band comes in for the last my girl. She sings some oohs over the instrumental break, dancing in place with Tina. Puck is hamming it up with the old lady population, Lauren is playing and clearly trying not to crack up at Puck, Finn is happily drumming away, and Sam--Sam is doing a ridiculous thing with his hips that's probably supposed to be dancing. He catches her looking and mouths my girl at her despite being in the middle of a small guitar solo.

Mercedes remembers Quinn asking her if it's true that your voice changes when you're in love.

"I don't need no money, fortune, or fame," she sings, and she hears it. She hears Sunday mornings and maple syrup in her voice, a new richness to her sound. She's in love. Mercedes Jones is in love with Sam Evans, the boy who adores music and science fiction and football, who finds time to take care of her while he takes care of his entire family, who has her back every time she dreams big. "I've got all the riches, baby, one man can claim."

Mercedes and Tina decide via a few smiles and eyebrow raises to direct the last chorus at the bride and groom. Mercedes's heart is still beating faster from her revelation and she channels it into the song. By this point, Kevin and Maya are holding hands, looking every inch the happy couple.

When the song ends with one last vocal flourish, the entire audience bursts into applause.

"We'd love to hear more, but I think we're agreed that we want you guys for the wedding," Maya says. Kevin gives an emphatic nod at her words, clapping harder.

"Thank you!" Mercedes manages, pressing her hands together in delight. She has a job as a singer, she has a band with some of the best people she knows, and after they're done playing, she's going to figure out how to tell her boyfriend she loves him. Maybe she'll start by telling Quinn that the answer to her question is yes, it does.

*

"I want to die," Mike groans, sliding into a heap onstage.

"Good. That's how you're supposed to feel at this stage in the game." Coach Beiste hands him his water bottle and he straightens up to take a long gulp. His whole body aches, but in a good way. Mike knew going in that these rehearsals would be brutal, that they'd be difficult even if they weren't stacked on top of three other physically demanding extracurriculars. The only thing he wasn't prepared for is how good Coach Beiste is at teaching dance. In two weeks, she's helped him push through limitations he didn't even know he had.

Which is why Mike says, "Coach, can I ask you something?"

"Shoot," Coach Beiste says, taking a swig from her own water bottle.

"Tina and I are fighting and it's mostly my fault." Mike sighs. "Okay, it's all my fault. I told you about my college plans because I needed your help. Quinn figured most of it out, so I told her the rest. Tina found out from Quinn by accident, yelled at me, and then stopped talking to me." Mike flops back down, staring up at the stage lights. His brain is too tired for feelings. "I was going to tell her! It's just like, if I tell her, then it's not something I'm doing my own. It's this whole big... thing."

"It's a whole big thing to all the people who love you, you mean," Coach Beiste says. "What would Tina have said if you'd told her?"

Mike shuts his eyes. Coach sounds gentle, which is even worse than angry or disappointed. "That I should go after my dreams. Tina looks out for people."

"Then it was a damn foolish thing not to tell her." He can feel a finger prodding his shoulder. "You already know what you need to do: get off your butt and apologize. Any time spent moping around like a basset hound outside a pet store is time wasted."

"...thanks, Coach," Mike says. Coach Beiste has a way of speaking the truth, albeit a way that includes deeply weird metaphors. Maybe he just needed someone to tell him to say that he's sorry, to move him in the right direction. He reaches into his pocket, ignoring his protesting body. "I'll text her right now."

Five seconds after he sends Can we talk? Lima Bean? he receives a response: Sure. 20 minutes?

"Here goes nothing," Mike says, and tries to climb to his feet moving as few muscles as possible.

"Good." Coach Beiste claps him on the shoulder. "Maybe shower first, though. I hear the girls go for that."

Twenty minutes and one shower later, Mike is at a table in the Lima Bean, Tina's usual coffee order and an eclair in front of him. (It's totally not bribery so that she'll stick around long enough for him to get his apology out. He is above such machinations.)

Every time the door swings open, Mike's heart skips a beat. He drums his fingers on the table, which turns into the beat of "Tearin' Up My Heart." He's working on a choreography variation in the third verse, using his index finger and his middle finger as a pair of legs, when he hears a quiet laugh.

Mike looks up and there's Tina, cheeks and nose red from the cold. She's wearing a fuzzy pink hat that looks like a pig and her hair is braided into two pigtails like she does for dance rehearsals. All he wants to do is wrap his arms around her and kiss her until they're both breathless.

"Hey," she says.

"Hi," he answers, pushing the coffee and eclair across the table toward her as she takes a seat.

"Thanks."

He watches her take a bite of the eclair. Despite having drunk half of his own coffee, his brain is still lurching from one simple thought to the next: Coffee good. Tina pretty. I miss Tina. She looks at him expectantly, chewing. Mike clears his throat and says, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you."

Tina swallows and says, "I'm sorry I freaked out about it."

"I still should have told you." There's a strand of hair escaping from one of her braids. Mike reaches out and tucks it behind her ear. It's soft under his fingers. "If you'll still have me, I'll work on not being the world's dumbest boyfriend."

Her expression softens and she reaches up, catching his hand before he can draw it back and pressing it against her cheek. "You can be dumb, but you're my favorite boyfriend." Tina breaks out into a grin. "I have many, you see."

When Tina smiles, really smiles until the corners of her eyes crinkle and her dimples deepen, it's like the sun coming out. Mike's seen her smile coming out more and more ever since she destroyed that West Side Story rehearsal and made everyone cry. It made him ache, not sharing those smiles, not telling her how amazing she's becoming and how amazing she's always been. "I love you," Mike says, brushing his thumb across her cheek. "I just wanted to say that."

"Love you too, Michael Robert Chang." Tina breaks off a piece of the eclair and hands it to him. "I've decided to make a feminist sculpture for art class. I think I have calluses from snapping my fingers, but Mercedes and the Benzes are definitely singing at the Clark-Pierce wedding. Oh, and Mercedes realized that she's in love with Sam, so don't you dare say anything to him, but we were up half the night thinking of how to tell him. That's pretty much what's going on with me. You?"

Mike scoots his chair over so he can cuddle up to his girlfriend. He is so, so freaking lucky that they both hate fighting. "Coach Beiste is the best dance teacher ever. I... still haven't invited my parents to West Side Story."

"Mike."

"I know. Words are hard." Mike sighs and Tina kisses his cheek in sympathy. "Yeah, yeah, which is why I have to get them to see me dance. Maybe you could write me a speech?"

"I can help you work out what you want to say," Tina says. "Oh, Brittany wants you to text her, by the way. Something about asking a favor."

"I'll text her when I get home. Right now I have something very important to take care of."

"Oh?"

"Kissing you forever," Mike informs her, matter-of-fact. "Then we can talk about what I'm going to tell my parents."

"Sounds like a plan."

Luckily, the Lima Bean is more tolerant of teenage makeouts than the 7-11 down the street from Mike's house.

*

So. Life as a lesbian is pretty much like normal life.

Ever since her big gay meltdown, Santana's still gone to class and rehearsal. She still has college essays to finish and tight dresses to wear. She still hip checks people who say dumbass things in the hallway. The only real difference, as far as she can tell, is that after Brittany and Kurt won the election, she and Brittany did it for hours and afterward she said, "I love you" and didn't feel afraid.

(Brittany went down on her again after that. That girl is a machine. A tall, sexy machine with a huge heart.)

The week after the election, her fellow members of glee club start acting weird. All the signs of gossip are there: hushed conversations that die as soon as she walks into the room, meaningful glances that don't include her. Santana doesn't panic, exactly, but she does tear through her closet and throw out the only flannel shirt she owns. She can't bring herself to throw out the overalls, so she buries them in the back of her closet and tries not to choke laughing at the irony. Fine. Brittany still treats her the same, so screw the rest of them if they can't handle her scary gay vagina or whatever.

Santana takes out her rage on a smirking football player with a Slushie cup in his hand, some gangly beanpole who should either be on the basketball team or functioning as a foam noodle in a pool somewhere. He dumps his own Slushie on himself while sobbing, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

"If I see you with one of those in your hand ever again, next time you'll be pouring it directly onto your junk," Santana sneers, jabbing her finger at him.

She sweeps off to her locker. Even though she knows "Waterfalls" and her part in "Seasons of Love" by heart, Rachel "My Middle Name Is Actually Anal Retention" Berry still insists that everyone bring their sheet music to glee club. Santana taped pictures of cheeseburgers and steak all over her music folder in revenge. There's also a picture of a duck on it, since Brittany gets super into arts and crafts without necessarily following plans for bloody revenge.

Slaughtered animal folder in hand, Santana heads off to rehearsal. Brittany has a student council meeting, which sucks, because usually she cuts the last 15 minutes of class and they make out in an unused custodial closet before glee. Brittany sounds so happy whenever she talks about the plans she and Kurt made for McKinley, though. Santana thinks there's no point in trying to convert a Wal-Mart into a Barney's, but three years ago she thought Quinn Fabray was incapable of shedding human tears, so.

Then she sees Brittany in the hallway, engrossed in what looks to be an intense conversation with Mike and Kurt. Weird. Brittany was sure the meeting was going to run over, but maybe it got out early. Santana's heartbeat thuds in her ears as she approaches. Brittany actually shushes the boys when she sees her.

"Hey!" Brittany says, cheerful as always, except she's twisting her bracelets. Brittany doesn't like metal rubbing against her skin, so she only does that when she's uncomfortable.

"Were you just... talking about me?" It comes out as a whisper. Santana's just thankful it comes out at all.

"Honey, not the way you think. You guys go on ahead. I'll be a minute." Brittany offers Santana her pinkie, which Santana takes after a moment's hesitation. "Is that why you've been extra mad at school?"

"A little," Santana admits. "But come on, what's going on is a little suspicious."

That gets her a smile, a real one this time. "Come with me. There's something that you need to see."

Brittany leads her to the choir room. The walk takes all of two minutes, but that's plenty of time for Santana to spin a thousand different scenarios in her head. She trusts Brittany, she does, but--she still has nightmares about people at school finding out, about getting kicked out of her house. She's seen what that does to a person and she'd rather fight the entire world before it has the chance to hurt her where it counts.

"No! We're still unpacking the cutlery!" Rachel shrieks when Brittany opens the door.

"Please tell me I'm hallucinating," Santana says.

Someone moved the piano over to make room for a table, adorned with a bright yellow tablecloth and piled high with food. Each chair has what looks like a party favor bag in varying shades of neon on it. The piece de resistance, though, is the giant banner hung across the windows, which spells out CONGRATULATIONS in giant rainbow letters. Every member of glee club, Ms. Pillsbury included, is putting the finishing touches on the plastic spoons and the freaking vegetable platter.

"Welcome!" Rachel says, spreading her arms wide, displaying her perpetual lack of boobs and the most hideous sweater Santana has ever seen. There is a freaking cat in glasses on it. Does this girl go shopping in the dark?

"We have a lot to celebrate," Mercedes interjects. "My band got the gig we auditioned for, Kurt and Brittany won the election..."

"And you came out, which is huge." Great, now her self-appointed gay savior Blaine is chiming in.

"Artie and I rigged up an elaborate system of pulleys to pull down the banner if it's too much," Rachel says. "There's a gold banner underneath. We can also cancel the musical number."

Santana opens her mouth, then closes it again.

"Before you eat Rachel alive except for her really ugly sweater, I want you to know that she asked me first and then I picked the song we're gonna do," Brittany says. She squeezes Santana's hands before she motions the rest of New Directions forward and into some kind of dance formation. "I picked it 'cause this is how the people who love you feel about you. And also it always makes you feel better when I lift my leg over my head."

"That is too much information," Kurt hisses in a scandalized tone. In a more normal voice, he says, "If anyone walks by and asks, the banner is for Brittany and me. She likes rainbows and I'm, well, me."

"I baked the cake," Quinn says, studying her nails. "It has homemade buttercream frosting."

"Oh, well, if Suzy Homemaker made me an 'It's Okay to Be Gay' cake," Santana says, throwing up her hands. "You guys realize that you are way gayer than I am, right? That is half-naked, covered in glitter, and marching in a pride parade right there." She gestures toward the bedecked choir room.

"I'm going to get something from my office. By the time I return, I'm sure the no doubt completely appropriate gesture of support will be over," Ms. Pillsbury says, and books it.

"Aww, I look totally awesome in this dance," Brittany says. "Oh well. It's for you and you're here. We're here for you. Like, not just right now, but always." She grabs a silver boom box from on top of the piano and walks to the center of the dance formation, setting it down in front of her.

Brittany hits play and a thumping bass dance beat starts. Everyone in New Directions swivels their hips as they clap their hands to the beat. Brittany's singing something that gradually gets louder as the rest of the synths kick in, beaming the entire time.

She's singing call on me over and over, Santana realizes, and swallows, throat suddenly tight.

Blaine shimmies past Brittany with something like jazz hands, singing I'm the same boy I used to be. Brittany comes back in and the entire club assumes the same posture: right hand on hip, left hand raised to mouth in a "call me" gesture, hips still keeping time. Santana shakes her head, unable to hide her smile, and starts clapping to the beat.

Mike sings the second I'm the same boy I used to be as he drops to the ground and freaking turns his body in a circle by lifting himself up with his hands. He bounces back up, then runs to sit on the sidelines with the rest of the boys. All the girls lunge into what looks like a warrior pose in yoga: one leg stretched out behind them, the other bent in front of them, and their arms raised over their heads. Brittany stays in the pose for all of two seconds before she straightens one leg, lifts the other one in the air, and reaches behind herself to grab her foot.

Before Santana's hormones have time to kick into overdrive, the girls spin and run off to the sidelines. Kurt does a freaking ballet twirl straight out of West Side Story rehearsal singing, "I'm the same boy I used to be." All the boys form a line and start dance marching in place, Breakfast Club on top of the table style, as they take up the call on me vocal. Santana tries not to die laughing.

All the girls run back to the floor, singing I'm the same girl I used to be as the boys split up. Everyone drops to the floor for the instrumental break, lifting their legs in the air. Brittany, Mike, Quinn, and Kurt are the only ones to get their legs all the way behind their heads, so they stay in that position as everyone else turns themselves around to do push-ups to the beat. Puck keeps making ridiculous "stud" faces at her, so Santana lovingly flips him off.

Brittany starts singing call on me again, cueing the entire club to rise to their feet, whipping their hair in sync to the beat. Brittany points at Santana and sings you're the same girl you used to be. The group splits up into couples: Puck and Lauren, Kurt and Blaine, Sam and Mercedes, Mike and Tina, Rachel and Artie. Brittany spins a laughing Quinn over to Mike and Tina and then tugs Santana into her arms.

The choreography breaks down into freestyle as the couples whirl each other around. Santana sings I'm the same girl I used to be at the appropriate time, lips pressed against Brittany's ear before she leans back, still a little afraid that someone might walk past the choir room and see. Still. Dancing with Brittany is always amazing, but this--this is sweet and weird and sexy all at once. This is Brittany, distilled in purest dance form, and Santana lets herself go in the dizzy rush of it.

The song ends and Santana throws her arms around Brittany, hugging her as hard as she can. "Thank you," she whispers, loud enough to carry through the abruptly quiet choir room. She clears her throat. "The rest of you losers better cut the freaking cake. Princess Martha Stewart slaved over a hot oven for me and I's worked up quites the appetite."

Ms. Pillsbury comes back a few minutes later, looking grateful to have missed teenage hip thrusting. Santana has a giant piece of chocolate cake by then, one arm still wrapped around her girlfriend. Her girlfriend, who put together a whole dance routine just to say I love you with their friends. Their friends, who are absolute and complete losers, but put together this whole dumbass shindig.

"Congratulations to the band, Kurt, Brittany, and Santana!" Ms. Pillsbury calls, raising her glass of sparkling grape juice in toast. "May this be a prelude to our success at Sectionals!"

"Hell yeah," Santana agrees, kissing Brittany on the cheek.

Chapter Text

Few people aside from the custodial staff have seen the sunrise from the choir room. Rachel has seen it several times over the past few years ever since she made a copy of Puck's stolen keys to the school. If she stands on her tiptoes on a chair, she can just make out the sun washing the sky in pinks and oranges. Kurt's right: the view from here is oddly lovely.

Rachel used to go to the choir room for the sense of solitude, just her voice and a piano. In the past three years, though, the choir room has come to feel like less of a private sanctuary and more like a communal space. She's made music here, delivered it straight from heart to voice to ensemble. Memories of people echo from the walls, songs they have sung together. Even when she stands alone, she's in the presence of friends.

"Hey."

She takes a deep breath before turning around and hopping onto the floor, needlessly smoothing her skirt back down and adjusting her headband. "Hello."

Finn yawns hugely, rubbing his eyes. His hair is sticking up in places. As soon as he sees the tray of bagels Rachel set on top of the piano, he grabs one with a mumbled noise of appreciation. Between his third mouthful and his fourth, he asks, "So, um, you wanted to talk to me?"

"At this critical juncture in my life, I feel that I ought to be mending bridges rather than burning them," Rachel says. She has no appetite for her own bagel, but she takes a sip from her soy latte. Finn doesn't drink coffee. Between the two of them, they have a complete breakfast. "What I mean is that my Tisch audition is this weekend, so it's time to start acting like a grown-up. I'm sorry for everything. And you can come back to glee club if you want."

Finn keeps eating and Rachel's shoulders sag in relief. If he's still eating, that means he's considering what she just said. Few things make Finn lose his appetite; extreme emotional upset is one. He finishes the bagel and glances around the choir room, finally settling on her face. "I do miss this. I miss you. I--I'm sorry, too, Rach. Some of the things I said weren't fair."

Tears prick her eyes. She blinks them back, resolute. This is not the kind of story where the hero and the heroine pick things up again, carrying on regardless. This is the kind of story that rarely makes it to Broadway, a story where the young lovers meet a bittersweet end. "Some of them were fair, though. Like when you said that I loved being a star more than I loved you."

His hand, reaching for a second bagel, falls back down to his side. Finn stares at the floor and takes a shuddery breath. Once, a small part of Rachel would have found reassurance in this, knowing that she could hurt him as much as he hurt her. Now she lets a few tears fall as he says, "Then it's right that we're not together."

"But I think--I think I'm ready to be friends, if you are. If we go slow." Rachel takes a tissue from the box on the piano and then pushes it toward him. She's glad that she came prepared. She hates the kind of preparations she had to make. "Quitting glee club was the gesture of a true gentleman. I know how much it means to you."

"That's another thing you love more," Finn says, soft. He takes a tissue, but instead of wiping his eyes, starts worrying it into progressively smaller pieces. When he has a small pile of shredded tissue in one palm, he closes his fingers over it. "I'm not trying to call you a bad person. Just different."

"We're incredibly different people, but you'll always be my first love. Just think about coming back to the club." Rachel hugs him without warning, pressing her cheek against his chest. She's held him enough times that she doesn't feel the need to say anything beforehand. His sheer size is still comforting, his arms still warm, but when she closes her eyes, she doesn't tilt her face up for a kiss. She stays there for a few minutes and steps back. "Promise."

"You know I'm coming back. All my friends are there," Finn says. He turns and walks out, stuffing the second bagel in his pocket. Just before he turns to head down the hall, Rachel sees him drag the back of his sleeve over his eyes.

"That's that," she says to the empty room. Her mind is pulsing with emotion she can't make sense of, her throat tight. She moves to stand behind the piano, walking as if in a daze, and rests her fingers on the keys. She's Rachel Berry. She'll make sense of this through song, even if she's not certain anymore what kind of role she's playing.

"All good things," she begins. "All good things." Her voice quavers. Then, stronger: "All good things."

When Rachel finds her voice, the tightness in her throat turns to tears. "Not sure where to go; everybody I know says I'm too forgiving. And now that I'm gone, I don't want to move on; I just keep reliving all good things." She wraps her arms around herself and continues, "I wish you all good things, come to an end, all good things, I wish you well."

Rachel moves away from the piano, letting her hands slide from her upper arms to her wrists, loosening her protective embrace. It's like cradling her own heart, absurd though the gesture may be. "Lost inside of my head, empty side of the bed, I fill this place without you. I keep pushing the blues 'cause I don't want to lose what I loved about you."

That's the reason for her tears. Her love for Finn is permanently affixed to her past, a few paragraphs in her inevitable autobiography. She looks at him and doesn't want to kiss him; she hasn't thought of him in weeks save for the occasional nod in the hallways. It hurts that it doesn't hurt, she realizes as she repeats the chorus, and yet--and yet--

"I can think of a million ways you proved you weren't the one for me," Rachel sings, balling her hands into fists at her sides. "To live inside of your shades of gray and never mind the sunshine that I'll find."

The reasons for their breakup are as much a part of their characters as they were months ago. Finn loves Rachel Berry of Lima; Rachel is on her way out of Lima. He loved her within city limits, but he still loved her, and that's worth something to the girl who never had a friend to her name until sophomore year of high school.

"I got so much space now, I got a whole house with the wind blowin' through," Rachel sings, pulling a smile from the good memories. Bitterness does not become a future Broadway star. "I don't need someone to hide; I got this whole world inside I was accustomed to showing you."

Rachel repeats the chorus a final time, lingering over the phrase "all good things" as it recurs. She can wish Finn well now because she doesn't love him anymore; she can invite him back into her life because she never will again. Her future is calling her in the form of her Tisch audition, in the new and fragile part of herself telling her that she can wish herself well, too.

*

When Blaine asks them about sex after rehearsal wraps, Santana figures it's the universe's way of balancing out Tina and Blaine counseling her out of the closet. She laughs so loudly that she drowns out whatever Tina starts to say, and then she waves a hand, cutting Tina off.

"Leave this advice to Auntie Tana, resident sexpert," Santana says. Tina raises an eyebrow full of sarcasm and Santana basks in the warm glow of being a bad influence. Blaine just looks like Bambi in the headlights. "I've switched to a strict diet of boxed lunch at the Y, but I still know what to do with--"

"Can we maybe talk about this in a more private place?" Blaine asks in a strangled whisper. Luckily, Ms. Pillsbury, champion of celibacy, is deep in conversation with Artie, whose genitals have been places Santana doesn't even want to think about.

"Then why bring it up right here, dumbass?"

"Sometimes I don't always think before I speak. That's actually part of the problem."

Tina squeezes Blaine's shoulder and says, "I heard. It was just a bad day and bad timing. You guys will be fine."

Santana is halfway through asking if Blaine suffers from premature ejaculation a la Finn Hudson when Tina and Blaine drag her into a dressing room. Blaine is mumbling something about how he sprang sex on Kurt out of nowhere and now their relationship might be irrevocably damaged because they didn't go at it on a waterbed while dressed as schoolboy sailors or whatever Kurt Hummel's weird gay fantasies desire. Santana tunes him out while searching for a suitable--there!

"So it's true what they tell you: it's all in the wrist," Santana says, demonstrating the proper grip on an unplugged curling iron. "I guess you would know that, since you actually have a dick. Turns out even dudes will whine if it's just wham bam thank you for the popularity boost ma'am, so gets your foreplay on for at least ten minutes. I'm guessing more, since you're bringing the romance."

"One of us plans to bring the romance, anyway," Blaine says, looking from her face to the curling iron and back again. "Not that I don't appreciate the, um, practical advice, but Kurt and I should really talk about this first."

Santana blinks. "What's there to talk about? You watch some porn for research, you make out until you have to rip each other's clothes off, and then you go at it. That's how me and Britt first hooked up. Like, the only conversation we ever had the first time we had sex-sex was, 'How many fingers?'"

There's this weird pause after Santana finishes speaking. Santana's memory-induced smirk fades when Blaine and Tina's expressions register: they look pitying.

"She means well, Blaine," Tina says, and then she fucking busts out the same hand gesture Santana uses to tell people to shut up. It works; pride gets all mixed up in Santana's annoyance. "Just try to filter, okay? There doesn't have to be any penetration involved in your first time to make it 'sex-sex,' and you should definitely talk about it first if you're feeling confused. My mom gave me a piece of really good advice when I started dating: if you're too embarrassed or freaked out to talk about it, you're definitely not ready to do it."

Because with feelings it's better, says a voice in the back of Santana's head, and wow, it isn't fair that her brain is betraying her in Brittany's voice. Talking and feelings and all that crap--they're just way more, well, gay than having sex with another girl.

"Not that I'm judging," Tina adds with a glance her way. Santana replaces whatever thoughts were showing on her face with a scowl.

"I just want to make it up to him," Blaine says, rubbing the back of his neck. "You know how he is about romance, and honestly, I feel the same. This is what happens when I say things without preparing."

There's a joke in there about condoms, but Santana lets it go. He looks especially pathetic with half of his gel sweated away from dance rehearsal. What the hell is he so concerned about, anyway? Kurt was still talking to him at rehearsal, even if they looked a little less like the gay Monica and Chandler. "Since Mike will be proposing any day now, I say listen to Cohen-Chang tell the magical story of her first time," Santana says, pulling a small flip notepad and a pen out of her purse. "I'll draw you some inspirational diagrams."

Tina makes herself comfortable sitting on the edge of the table, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "The first time Mike and I had sex was this summer. We didn't, like, sit down and have a conference, but I told him I was ready and he said he wanted to think about it. I was a little worried, but it turned out all he wanted to do was sleep on it. And buy a better picnic blanket. Mike sent me a text--wait, I still have it saved. Give me a second."

Buy a better picnic blanket, Santana scribbles on the notepad, instead of the smiley-faced penis she'd intended to draw. Maturity has never been one of her strong suits.

"This just says, 'Tonight's the night for fireworks, y/n,'" Blaine says, leaning over Tina's phone.

"Mike's a body language kinda guy." Tina giggles. "I told him yes and we talked about what we wanted our first time to be like, then we went to this deserted place we know about--"

"The McKinley High soccer field," interrupts Santana, writing down Discuss new sex positions. Tina flushes a little. "The Fourth of July fireworks are at the middle school. You can't see shit from the soccer field. No one would be there."

"Can you make me a list of places in McKinley you've defiled?" Blaine asks with a sudden grin. "I plan on starting with a bed, but you know, options."

"In this deserted place," Tina continues, despite the guilty red tinge to her cheeks, "we had really great sex. The rumor that it has to hurt the first time: not true. Then we had sex again, then we looked at the stars and made up our own constellations. We were home by curfew. In conclusion, use lubricant. Also bug spray if you're going to do it outside, not that I think you would in November."

Make up your own constellations, Santana adds to her list, then underlines it. Brittany would love that; she's always been good at seeing what nobody else does.

Blaine tugs Tina gently off the table and kisses her cheek. "So to make a long story short, I have to get over myself and just be the guy who's in love with his boyfriend."

"I knew you prep school kids were smart," Tina says.

"Thanks to you." Blaine turns to Santana. "I'm almost afraid to ask, but if you have any diagrams..."

"Nah," Santana says, tearing off the list and shoving it in her pocket. "Everyone knows you two are on your way to marrying your high school sweethearts. Let's cross our fingers for Brittany and me."

"I'm oddly touched," Blaine says, drawing her into a one-armed hug.

"Ugh," Santana says, but doesn't pull away.

*

Mercedes emerges from the bathroom, her flip-flops making soft slapping noises against Kurt's floor. "I think that face wash actually just changed my life."

"Lush products will do that," Kurt agrees, handing her the jar of moisturizer as she settles next to him at his vanity table. "It's one of my more recent skin care secrets. Why put chemicals all over your face when you can avoid it?"

"Amen."

There aren't any spas within a hundred miles that meet Kurt's exacting standards. There aren't any spas anywhere that fit those standards on a high schooler's budget. Instead, Mercedes and Kurt do a "spa day" at least once a month in Kurt's basement, where they slather different kinds of glop on their faces and gossip. Sometimes Tina or Brittany or Rachel joins them, but more often it's just the two of them. It's their thing. Mercedes knew that the weird distance between them last year was over when Kurt, eyes lowered, mentioned that he had three new kinds of body lotion if she wanted to try some.

Something is up with Kurt. Mercedes can tell, even as distracted as she is by her current Sam situation. Who knew that a relationship going well could still keep you up at night? (She should tell him. Should she tell him? She should tell Kurt, at least.) For now, the silence is too comfortable to break, so she massages lotion into her elbows and hums along to the soft strains of Mariah Carey.

"If I had a voice like yours, I wouldn't be so worried about my Tisch audition," Kurt says at last, putting on the finishing touches to his mud mask. Mercedes has a brief flashback to their zombie halftime show. "I'm hoping to distract them with the translucency of my skin."

"You've rehearsed in front of me a million times. You're gonna kill it, and don't you dare start worrying about sight-singing. That's the least important part of being a great musician," Mercedes says, starting on her own face mask. According to the label, French sea clay is the main ingredient. Not that she's complaining, but who first sees this stuff and decides to rub it on their face?

"So," she says, at the same time that Kurt says, "Hey."

"You first. You're the guest."

"I'm your best friend, not a guest. We're already talking about you, so you go first."

"I had the weirdest date ever with Blaine," Kurt says. He stands and walks over to his bed, settling on it cross-legged. Mercedes turns in her seat; whatever this is, it's bothering Kurt enough to retreat from his mirror. "I went over to his house last weekend. He was all upset because one of his college audition CDs almost didn't get mailed, and his reaction to that was to say we should have sex."

Mercedes lets out a snort of laughter at that, unable to help herself. "Sorry. That was just--wow, boy is not smooth."

"We didn't fight, but I've been putting off talking about it. We just watched TV the whole time, we didn't even--I just kissed him goodbye." Kurt laces his fingers together in his lap, flexing them up and down. "I've thought about taking our relationship to the next level, of course, but I was waiting for the right time, and Blaine's natural reaction to stress is apparently that we should climb each other like trees. This is really the last thing I needed right before the biggest audition of my life. Am I reading into this too much?"

Mercedes mirrors Kurt's pose as she absorbs his words. "I think the guy who transferred schools to be with you is just as worried about screwing it up as you are," she says slowly, thinking out loud. "I think that anyone who knows you two knows how much you care about each other. Maybe it wasn't the best time to bring up sex, but that doesn't mean it was the wrong time, either. Know what I mean?"

"I do," Kurt says, serious as he can be with mud all over his face. He lets out a gusty sigh. "It's the audition making me crazy about everything else. I gave up a lot to make sure it goes perfectly. Not that I would have enjoyed competing against Blaine, but I would have made an amazing Tony." After a brief, wistful smile, Kurt directs his attention straight at her. "So what's going on with you?"

Feeling her face grow hot, Mercedes says, "Aside from being the lead singer in my own band, you mean?"

"God, tell me about it. I am going to murder most of the student council before the year is over. Who knew that people could care so much about trivialities?"

"Says the boy with weirdly strong feelings about other people's handwriting on his schoolwork."

"Just because it's a group assignment doesn't mean that the writing should fall to someone other than the person with the neatest handwriting," Kurt sniffs. "Is it just the growing pains of a new group that's on your mind, or is it something else?"

"I'm in love with my lead guitarist," Mercedes admits.

Kurt's eyes go comically huge. "Really? I'm so happy for you! Have you said anything? I'm going to kill him if he hurts you. More than I was already. But I'm so happy! Tell me everything."

"I realized at the wedding audition," Mercedes says. "I was singing, and I looked over, and I just knew."

"Sometimes it happens over the course of a song, sometimes it happens over coffee," Kurt agrees. "Blaine told me 'I love you' for the first time and I almost burned the roof off my mouth. That should probably have given me a hint regarding his style of sexual propositioning." He slides off the bed to give her a hug. "If you want to set anything up for when you tell Sam, I have many, many candles."

She hugs him back so hard that mud smudges on her cheek. "Thanks but no thanks. I think--I think that I'll tell him at the West Side Story cast party. You know, give me a little more time to adjust to the whole 'I love you' thing. Just saying it right now to you is like--" she waves a hand and laughs at herself-- "wow, I don't even know."

Kurt settles next to her at the vanity once more, head tilted against hers. "Look at us. We're brilliant and successful and beloved. Did you think that we'd be this happy three years ago?"

"I was hoping the world would catch up with us eventually," Mercedes replies. "Since I have some of your mud on my face already, how about I start my mask now?"

*

It's Wednesday night, Tina just wolfed down an entire sandwich in thirty seconds, and she's supposed to be starting Act II right now.

"Where is she? This is extraordinarily unprofessional!" Rachel says, voice climbing the scale from irritated straight up to shrill.

"She's probably still eating. Dinner break started late because of that whole power outage thing," Tina says. She's not entirely sure what happened, but Lauren flipped a switch during "America" and the entire stage plunged into darkness. Lauren and Artie spent twenty minutes coaching the auditorium's ancient but stalwart lighting system back to life while Coach Beiste and Ms. Pillsbury had the cast run lines.

The missing girl is the last member of the "I Feel Pretty" quintet, a sophomore named Molly. She's so quiet that Tina thinks she's heard her say about three words beyond her lines in the show. That's familiar in ways that scrape across still-raw nerves, which is maybe why Tina obeys the twinge of guilt and says, "Let me go find her."

"Thank you, Tina," Ms. Pillsbury says distractedly. She and Kurt are hovering around a long-suffering Mike, who tore a hole in his pants after an enthusiastic whirl around their still-in-progress set. She can't believe opening night is in nine days.

They'll make it. Probably.

Tina heads backstage, past Coach Beiste forbidding Puck from using a Super Soaker as a prop gun because it looks "way awesomer." She shoves a curtain aside, sneezing at the dust it still raises despite the efforts of Ms. Pillsbury. As expected, Molly is wedged between the props table and the wall, picking her way through a bag of trail mix.

"I used to do that until I decided to just buy M&Ms," Tina says with a smile. "I do like the cashews, though."

Molly starts, scattering a handful of trail mix over the floor. "Oh, crap! Sorry! Sorry! How long have you guys been waiting?" She clambers to her feet and more trail mix skitters across the floor. "Sorry," she says again, sounding like she might cry.

The girl's embarrassment is so acute that Tina ends up blushing for her. "Don't worry about it," Tina manages, wishing she could say something better. Santana would crack a joke to make Molly laugh; Blaine would say something reassuring to make her feel better. Tina has neither jokes nor reassurances, just intense sympathy for a girl who is, despite all their hours of rehearsal, still a stranger.

I'm not good with strangers, Tina wants to say in apology, but instead she leads Molly to the stage, where the rest of the group awaits them.

"Oh, thank goodness," Ms. Pillsbury says when she sees them, smile pleasant as ever but strained at the edges. "Rachel has convinced herself that she needs to dye her hair blonde in order to feel Consuelo's true character. Mercedes and Blaine are talking her down, but they might need your assistance. I'd offer mine, but I fear my status as an adult would only encourage some sort of teenage rebellion."

"I'll see what I can do, Ms. P," Tina replies, grabbing her scene props and heading over to the onstage mirror.

"I just want to understand Consuelo's original motivation for dyeing her hair," Rachel says, adjusting her wig with a frown. "How can I convey the magnitude of her choice to go brunette otherwise?"

"I think she dyed her hair because her boyfriend liked it," Blaine offers.

"Consuelo's character refuses to be constrained by strict textual interpretation," Rachel sniffs and continues primping in the mirror. Tina rolls her eyes. Last week, Artie read Rachel the riot act over outright making things up about her character. There was almost bloodshed.

Sugar, ever oblivious, adds, "I think you'd look super cute as a blonde! Not as cute as me, of course, but we can't all have the Motta mojo."

Mercedes, seeing Tina, mouths help me before saying, "Girl, there are two people in glee club who can pull off the bottle blonde look, and trust me, you are not one of them."

From the front row of the audience, Artie opens his mouth, undoubtedly to start another epic argument with Rachel. Tina draws a line across her throat with her index finger in one sharp motion, giving him her most severe frown. "I dye my hair all the time," Tina says, putting a companionable hand on Rachel's shoulder. "I do it to express who I am. If you dye your hair a couple days before your audition, you won't be expressing Rachel Berry to those college professors."

Rachel's mouth forms an O of horror. "Perhaps sleeping in this wig next week will be sufficient."

"Well, if that's settled," Artie says, coughing deliberately into his fist. "Ladies, let's get moving. We have yet to run through this number a hundred percent on our acting and our singing and our dancing and opening night is less than two weeks away! Now where is Molly?"

Waiting in the wings for her cue, Tina smiles at Rachel and Mercedes exchanging their lines of dialogue, their characters as affectionately combative as their actual relationship. Sugar ties ribbons into Molly's hair, her own bit of character invention that Artie approved with suspicious alacrity.

"So that's why you're not going to the rumble!" Mercedes says, and Tina steps forward to declare that there won't be a rumble. Her heart aches for Maria in this scene, so blissfully unaware that the love of her life has just murdered her brother. All the acting notes are usually about her inability to keep the knowledge from registering on her face.

This time, though, Tina lets Maria fall into the easy rhythm of friendship, taking her place among the laughing girls, all in love. Mercedes switched to using real nail polish onstage, and the smell recalls every sleepover Tina has ever had. (That was Ms. Pillsbury's idea, something about the senses and memory.)

"And I think she is up to something tonight," Mercedes says, winking at Tina.

Tina beams, the picture of innocence. "I am?"

"I do? I am?" Rachel mimics, circling Tina with her hands clasped behind her back, eyes alight. "What is going on with you?"

Tina, admiring herself in front of the mirror, spins around exactly on time to sing out the opening lines of "I Feel Pretty." The first few stanzas of the song are easy enough, since it's just her singing as the other girls dance around. Rachel and Mercedes are more than capable of harmonizing on their duet sections, but when it's all five of them singing, well--the only times they get it right are when all of them are completely focused on the music.

Of course, by this point, Coach Beiste has drilled the dance moves into them so thoroughly that it's just muscle memory, no conscious thought required. "I feel stunning, and entrancing," Tina sings with the rest of the girls, and she can hear the harmonies, her own voice soaring on top. "I feel like running and dancing for joy, for I'm loved by a pretty wonderful boy!"

All five of them hit their final positions in perfect sync, holding their final note until cutting off at the same point without even looking at one another. The instant the music stops, Coach Beiste lets out a whoop from the front row, Artie gives them a fist pump, and Ms. Pillsbury leaps to her feet as she applauds. Tina breaks character to burst into elated laughter, but that's all right, because the rest of the girls are there with her, and then they're a pile of hugging arms onstage.

"Ladies, we did it!" Mercedes says. Tina is fairly certain that Mercedes is the one with the arm around her waist. Rachel, who is actually in tears of happiness, says something incomprehensible about the stage.

"We rock!" crows Sugar.

"Yay us," Molly murmurs, almost too quiet to hear.

Tina worms her arm out from between Sugar and Rachel to pull Molly closer. "All five of us should eat together during breaks," Tina declares. "We're all friends in the show, so we should get to know each other better in real life. No more being lonely in dark corners."

Artie starts shouting for everyone to get into their places for the next part of the scene. As they split up, Tina sees the huge grin on Molly's face, and feels her own stretch wider.

*

Googling "delicious easy recipes" goes better than anticipated. Blaine settles on a macaroni and cheese recipe that includes a crushed cracker topping. Switching out Goldfish for Ritz crackers sounds awesome, and more importantly, it adds even more cheesy goodness. Blaine is maybe pulling out all the stops to make Kurt the kind of artery-clogging extravaganza he knows is no longer part of the Hummel-Hudson household. It's the least he can do.

The week improved as it went on, even though now Santana won't stop making obscene hand gestures when she catches Blaine looking at Kurt in rehearsal. Kurt's spa date with Mercedes eased some of the strain underneath Kurt's interactions with Blaine, and just knowing that a girl as sweet as Tina has Blaine's back is a huge relief. Still, Blaine's hands shook when he texted Kurt to invite him over for dinner the night before the big audition plane trip. He left out the little fact that his parents are out of town yet again.

Blaine stops at the grocery store after rehearsal, thankful that Kurt still insists on changing outfits for dinner dates. He can hear Occasionally seeing each other in sweatpants is no reason to stop dressing up for special occasions in his head as he lingers in the dessert aisle, trying to decide on dessert. Store-bought pie crust is gross, so he goes with pumpkin bread.

He's running late by the time he gets home, though. Blaine puts a pot of water on to boil as he dumps the cheese sauce ingredients into a pan to melt. Freaking out over things not going perfectly is what got him into having to make an apology dinner in the first place. There will be no panic tonight, he promises himself as he sucks on his index finger, slightly burned from the splash of pouring in the elbow macaroni. Once he starts humming his part in "Tearin' Up My Heart," some of the tightness in his chest dissipates, and by the time he's moved on to "Sexyback," the macaroni and cheese is in the oven and he's dancing around the kitchen.

"I wasn't aware that sexy had left," says a light voice.

Blaine spins around. He didn't even hear the door open, but he showed Kurt where they hide the spare key months ago, and of course Kurt is leaning against the doorway for dramatic effect. He's wearing a dove gray sweater that brings out the brilliance of his eyes, and jeans that--jeans that leave nothing to the imagination. Were it not for the jeans, the outfit would be rather conservative by Kurt standards.

"Hi," Blaine manages, and then thankfully the timer goes off.

"Macaroni and cheese with Goldfish? You know how to spoil your boyfriend," Kurt says, heading over to the cabinets to get out plates.

"I already set the table in the dining room," Blaine says as he pulls the casserole dish out of the oven, flashing a winsome smile. "It's just us eating here tonight, so I thought I'd pull out all the stops for your break a leg dinner."

"All the stops" is really just candles, cloth napkins, and silverware lined up in the right place, but it makes Kurt's eyes light up and his smile take on a sweetness that verges on shy. "Blaine Anderson," he says softly.

"Kurt Hummel," Blaine replies, knowing he must look like a grinning fool and not caring.

Once the macaroni and cheese has cooled, they stop staring into one another's eyes long enough to grab their plates and load them up in the kitchen. Blaine pours them both some sparkling water and promises champagne after they get accepted to school in New York City; Kurt lifts his glass in toast and ends up kissing Blaine over the table instead. The whole dinner is like that, warm and perfect even when Blaine knocks over his glass with his elbow, made clumsy by happiness. Kurt helps him mop up the water with his napkin.

When they finish dinner and dessert, they clear the table and start washing dishes in unspoken agreement. There's a dishwasher, but cheese has a way of sticking to plates and Blaine's parents are particular about--everything, really, but especially appearances. Then Kurt says, "I could do this forever," and Blaine wonders if his blood is rushing through his veins as fast as the water from the tap.

"I have a surprise for you," Blaine says after they finish, and leads Kurt by the hand to the living room, where his guitar case rests on the couch. He thought about doing this in his bedroom, but this isn't a seduction attempt.

Kurt takes a seat, tilting his head in interest as Blaine takes out his guitar. "Dinner and a concert sounds even better than dinner and a movie." His voice has the same light, playful quality to it of earlier; it's the voice he uses to tell Blaine where to kiss him next.

Blaine fumbles a little in the process of tuning and takes a minute to realign his brain. "So, um, I wanted to apologize for the stupid way I brought up us sleeping together. I do want it to happen, but not when I'm freaking out about almost screwing up our entire future."

"If I don't get into Tisch, I'm still moving to New York City." Kurt leans back, sounding startlingly casual about the possibility of not going to college. "The stage, New York, and you. Those are the only non-negotiable parts of my plans."

"You're getting into Tisch," Blaine says, shaking his head.

"Well, of course I am. What I'm saying is that you shouldn't worry so much about losing me. While I would have preferred to initiate the sex conversation at a time when you didn't look like you were on the verge of throwing yourself into a river, I'm still here. I'm not going anywhere without taking you with me." The way Kurt looks at Blaine after that--his eyes are like something out of an old-fashioned movie, so large and clear--makes all of Blaine's carefully prepared words fall out of his mind.

"Anyway, this is your song," Blaine says, and trusts the music to say the rest.

"Nothing's so loud as hearing when we lie," Blaine begins. "The truth is not kind, and you say neither am I. But the air outside so soft is saying everything, everything..."

It took forever to find the perfect song. Blaine almost skipped over this song as he scrolled through his iTunes playlist. Cooper was the one who played the band's greatest hits album for three months straight back when Blaine was in kindergarten. "All I want is to feel this way, to be this close, to feel the same," Blaine sings to Kurt. "All I want is to feel this way, the evening speaks, I feel it say..."

Kurt is still smiling, which is good; he's hearing what Blaine means by the song. Blaine's not great at setting his life to lyrics; that's more Kurt and Rachel's thing. "Nothing's so cold as closing the heart when all we need is to free the soul, but we wouldn't be that brave, I know," Blaine sings, every word an apology for shutting himself away from Kurt, however temporarily. "And the air outside's so soft, confessing everything, everything."

He launches himself back into the chorus, returning the smile because Kurt really is all he wants, the boy who loves Blaine Anderson in all his flaws, and then he launches into the next part, the whole point of choosing the song: "And it won't matter now, whatever happens will be--though the air speaks of all we'll never be, it won't trouble me."

Even if they don't make it to New York right away, even if they have to spend a year washing dishes and reapplying to colleges, Blaine knows Kurt is right--they're going to make it; their relationship can weather whatever life throws their way.

"All I want is to feel this way, to be this close, to feel the same," Blaine sings, softer now, winding down the song. "All I want is to feel this way, the evening speaks, I feel it say..." He finishes the song, gaze locked with Kurt's, heartbeat going at twice the tempo of the song.

After a moment, Kurt says, voice a half-step higher than usual, "Blaine."

"Yeah?"

"Put your guitar down and take me upstairs."

"What? I mean, okay, yeah," Blaine says, all but throwing his guitar back into the case. "Are you sure?"

"Is the Pope Catholic?" Kurt asks in a strange combination of affection and waspishness. It suits him.

They go up the stairs hand in hand. At the top, Blaine says, "Hang on, wait, just let me--" He frames Kurt's face with his hands, kissing him with all he has, and that's a song all on its own.

*

Kurt wakes up before his alarm. Early morning light streams through his window, puddling on the floor in a patch of bright white. He reaches over and shuts off his alarm before it can greet him with the cheerful strains of "I Have Confidence." He slips out of bed and into his slippers in one practiced motion, tugging on his bathrobe against the late autumn chill. He pauses on the edge of the bed, running a finger over his lips as he smiles.

After a quick shower, Kurt does a cursory job on his hair. He's about to subject it to air travel and all of his product is packed for tomorrow's audition, anyway. He still ends up lingering in the bathroom, staring at his own reflection. He thought he'd look different, somehow, after losing his virginity. He looks happy, certainly, but the smile is still the same.

Of course, when he checks his phone, he finds several texts from Blaine about his amazing plans for maximizing their closet space in New York. Blaine gets both rambling and oddly specific on the phone late at night. It's one of his many endearing qualities.

I love you, Kurt replies. Blaine won't see the message for at least another two hours, but that's all right.

Breakfast is a hasty affair, accomplished in between finding last-minute accessories and supervising Finn sleepily loading the luggage into the car. The drive to the airport passes in a sunny blur, Kurt humming ascending and then descending intervals to himself throughout. Checking their bags takes a surprisingly short amount of time, in part because Carole forbids Kurt from attempting to persuade them to let him take his hair care products on board.

"Kurt!" Rachel squeals, bouncing over from where she's been sitting with her dads.

"I love your hat," Kurt says, indicating her bright pink beret. It matches his mood. "I have something to tell you, but we can't talk about it in front of them." He inclines his head toward their families, where the Berries are discussing the hotel with his dad and Carole is extracting a final promise from Finn not to burn the house down in their absence.

Rachel balls up her hands under her chin. "Does it have to do with your date last night?"

"Yes," Kurt replies, then lets out an undignified squawk when Rachel throws her arms around him, hugging him so hard that he swears he hears bone creak. "Stop that! What happened to subtlety?"

"You need to stop whispering so close to your audition. It's bad for your voice," Rachel lectures. "We'll just have to discuss this in code."

"Can't I just forward you the e-mail I'm writing Mercedes?"

"No!"

Kurt manages to fend her off by joining in the conversation about the hotel, but he's fairly bursting at the seams with the story as they board the plane, especially when Blaine texts him I love you, have a good flight, I love you, I love you :) just before the captain asks them to shut off all electronics.

"You're in a good mood," his dad says as they settle into their seats. Naturally, the seats are three across and his dad is the one sitting next to him and Rachel. Does he look disgruntled because the airport coffee is terrible, or has he figured it out?

"What? No reason," Kurt says, realizing the silence has stretched on for too long.

His dad raises an eyebrow. "Uh-huh."

Rachel, for all her self-absorption, isn't entirely without tact, so she keeps up a steady stream of New York-related chatter throughout the flight. All Kurt has to do is nod and examine the frankly impressive chart she's created detailing the statistical likeliness of her running into each of her Broadway heroes after meeting Patti LuPone last year. She draws her dads and Carole into the conversation "for the sake of saving her voice," Kurt's dad falls asleep, and Kurt is free to continue contemplating how perfect his life is right at this moment.

Sex doesn't change anything but it changes everything, he types, because he figures things out by composing letters, whether to his mother or Mercedes or Rachel. This one in particular is for Mercedes, since Rachel is right there and Kurt's fairly certain his mother would just want to know that he's happy. I've known for a while that we love each other, but I think the trust... He trails off into thought, feelings still a giddy but confused swirl.

"The trust involved is a significant step in your relationship," Rachel says, resting her chin on his shoulder. She flashes him a smile. "Forgive my intrusion, but I think this is a lovely thing to happen prior to your audition. It will lend such warmth to both of your songs."

"Rachel." Kurt rolls his eyes, but his tone lacks rancor. "It was amazing. It was wonderful, and we laughed, especially after I fell off the--" remembering that there are parents nearby-- "chair I was sitting on. By myself. But I didn't care at all that I looked like a fool."

"Oh," is all Rachel says, eyes going bright with tears. After a moment, she adds, "I know it doesn't compare with your news, and I'm sure Finn has told you by now, but I invited him back to glee club. Making up for last year's Nationals includes making it up to everyone."

There's still a questioning note to her voice, so Kurt shuts his laptop and kisses her forehead and forgives her for turning the conversation back to her. "He's still thinking it over, but I think he'll come back."

She mumbles a thank you and sniffles. Rather than risk tear stains on his favorite travel jacket, Kurt croons the opening lines of "You're the Top" in her ear. They trade lines back and forth until they're both grinning.

"Was it scary?" Rachel asks as the plane begins its final descent.

"The scariest happy thing until Blaine and I get married," Kurt replies, and he can't help the grin that spreads across his face, so enormous it will probably give him crow's feet.

Rachel hugs him as the plane touches down in La Guardia. Over her shoulder, Kurt notices that his dad is awake, and that he has a funny kind of smile on his face, like he's seeing Kurt for the first time.

Kurt looks away when his phone vibrates in his pocket with another message full of "I love yous" from Blaine. A lump in his throat rises and he shakes his head, telling himself that crying would be silly. It's just that he's happy, so genuinely happy despite the stress of auditions and school committees looming ahead. His dreams have broadened beyond mere escape to New York City, and part of the reason, simple as it is, is the loved that's carried him here.

*

The pen feels clumsy in his hand, so Mike takes his time with every word, making sure that each letter is perfectly formed. He's just copying the speech he spent hours piecing together in a notebook, crossing out every third word for being stupid or unconvincing or not enough. By the time he's done, an hour has passed and he has five index cards (numbered, in case he drops them).

There's still a half hour to kill until dinner, so Mike starts the pre-calc homework due Tuesday even though it's only Saturday. Opening night is next Friday. When Kurt and Rachel get back from college auditions, tech week for West Side Story, also known as hell week, will begin.

"Michael!"

Mike grabs his index cards, two West Side Story tickets, and his grades statement (a field trip permission form he modified to say he has an A in all his classes, signed by his teachers), then heads downstairs. His mother smiles when he starts setting the table without being asked. She was thrilled when he asked if they could have a family dinner since he's been so busy with schoolwork and everything else.

She'll probably be less happy once she finds out what "everything else" means.

Dinner (salad and an amazing-smelling stir fry) comes off the stove and onto serving plates. The front door opens right on time for dinner and his father presents his mother with flowers. She murmurs in delight and gets a vase, setting it at the center of the table. Michael feels a brief, bright stab of hope. His father isn't a monster; a monster wouldn't kiss his wife hello and ask his son how his girlfriend is doing.

All his documents weigh heavy in his pocket nevertheless. Mike waits until everyone has finished eating before he takes a deep breath, pulls out his speech, and says, "I want to tell you something."

His parents must hear the seriousness in his tone (or maybe the way his voice cracks at the beginning of his sentence), because his mother bites her lip and his father says, carefully, "Yes, Michael?"

"The reason I've been so busy lately is," Mike starts, and pauses to swallow, "I'm part of McKinley's production of West Side Story. I--I'm Riff, one of the leads. It's the role that goes to the best dancer."

His parents don't say anything, don't react in any way, but one of his father's chopsticks rolls into the center of his plate, and the non-reaction says more than anything ever will.

"I wanted to apologize for keeping this secret and invite you. Um, opening night is this coming Friday. I have tickets." Mike fumbles with his documents, finally setting down his index cards so he can unfold his grades statement and hand it over to his father. His father doesn't look at it, so he passes it to his mother, explaining, "This says I have an A in all my classes. All my teachers signed it."

It's still so quiet that Mike's ears are ringing, but all he can do is shuffle his index cards again while his mother stares at the list of teacher signatures and his father--his father closes up, all signs of quiet contentment pulling back until his face is just angles, angles and emptiness.

"You lied to us, Michael?" his mother asks.

Mike stares down at the remains of his speech, which turned out to be useless after all, and it's his turn to be silent.

His father pushes his chair back to rise from the table. The legs scrape against the floor just enough to make Mike flinch "I thought we agreed to one performing arts extracurricular," his father says, voice flat. "I won't pull you out because the performance is next week, but you can give your tickets to someone else."

Over the sound of his father's receding footsteps, his mother says, "I'll take care of the dishes."

The dismissal is soft as it is clear. Once Mike goes upstairs and shuts his bedroom door, he whispers, "Fuck," just for the sound of it, solid as a foot striking the ground. The tickets are still in his pocket; his phone is in the other. He pulls up Tina from his contacts on autopilot, pressing the phone to his ear as it rings.

"What's up?" Tina asks from the other end, and he closes his eyes. "Did you ask them?"

"They're not coming," Mike says. It hurts to swallow, but he can't stop. If he does, he'll cry, and then Tina will insist on coming over.

"I'm so sorry, babe. What did they say other than no?"

Mike tells her the entire story, and thankfully Tina has met his parents before, because he has a hard time putting what they do into words. His parents aren't ones for yelling, and they do love him, but their expectations are so high and so well-meaning that he can hardly move within them.

"So what are you going to do?" Tina asks.

"I don't know." Mike rubs at his eyes and is unsurprised when his hand comes away damp. "It's not like I can pay my own way through Juilliard. Not that they'd pay for even a little of it anyway. I don't know what I was thinking, this whole thing--"

"Don't you dare call the whole thing stupid. It's your dream. Wanting to learn about what you love at the best school for it in the country could never be stupid."

The perfect ferocity in Tina's voice lets Mike smile for the first time in what feels like days. "It was stupid to lie to everyone about all of it, as a certain girlfriend of mine pointed out a few weeks ago."

"Yeah, well." She laughs a little. "Only a certain girlfriend of yours is allowed to call you stupid. She only does it when she has good reason."

Their conversation wraps up shortly after that; Mike doesn't have the energy for much conversation at all. The sound of Tina's voice lessens the dread coiled in his stomach. Of course, when he's lying on his back just staring at the ceiling, he hears a quiet knock on the door and it all comes rushing back again.

"Come in," he says, sitting up, and his mother opens the door.

"I wanted to be a dancer when I was younger," she says, which is so completely unexpected that Mike's jaw drops. "It wasn't practical, so I was persuaded into another pursuit I enjoyed almost as much. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have gone if I had protested."

She sits down next to him, the springs of his bed letting out the tiniest squeak at the extra weight. Mike can't look at her, not yet. "I realize that living up to your father's expectations is--difficult. I just never thought that you would be willing to lie to us to such an extent."

"I felt like I didn't have a choice," Mike whispers.

When his mother makes a muffled sound, he realizes that she's crying. Mike puts an arm around her shoulders and draws her close, like he's the parent and she's the child. "I want you to be happy," she says, leaning on his shoulder. "Your father and I both do, no matter what you might think. But we've also raised you to have integrity."

Mike stares down at his hands and manages, "I'm sorry."

His mother looks at him for a long moment, studying his face. "Is dancing that important to you?"

"It's--it's all I want to do."

"Then I'd like my ticket, please."

Mike opens his mouth to reply, but he's his father's son, he must be, because everything inside of him is closing up and closing off. Now would be the perfect time to tell his mother the whole truth, every bit of it, but all he can do is press the tickets into her outstretched hand and return her kiss goodnight.

*

By the time Kurt, Rachel, and their family entourage get to the building designated for auditions (twenty minutes early, just as planned), Kurt is muttering to himself, "Something has to go wrong."

It stands to reason. No one woke up late. Kurt's audition outfit (a fitted black long-sleeved shirt, black boots, and elegant plum-colored pants) remains unwrinkled and he does his hair without incident. Everyone managed to eat a little something for breakfast; the hotel even had vegan food. Now they're more than on time, they're early, and no one is missing any sheet music or identification. "Something has to go wrong," he says again, voice even higher than usual.

Kurt just has time to register that the audition judges are going to be Carmen Tibideaux and Adam Aurora, two of Broadway's most ridiculously talented and intimidating alumni, when Rachel shoves a banana in his hand and says, "Eat this."

He stares at her. "Rachel, I realize that I have just had a spring awakening, if you will, but seducing the judges is hardly--"

"You're up first and bananas help with nerves," Rachel says, gesturing toward the clock. "Hurry up and eat so you can drink some water, use the bathroom, and then gather yourself for five minutes."

"Your precision is unnerving," Kurt says, but he follows her advice. Before he knows it, he's hugging his dad and Carole, then pushing open the doors to the auditorium, which is much nicer than McKinley's.

"I'm Kurt Hummel," he introduces himself, and begins.

Carmen Tibideaux and Adam Aurora are perfectly, excruciatingly neutral as they sit at a table during Kurt's monologues. He summons every memory of maintaining dignity in the face of dumpster tossing to keep himself from crying when neither of them laugh at his version of Algernon Moncrieff. Perhaps he hasn't blown them away yet, but if they didn't like him at least a little, they'd have thrown him out by now.

Kurt makes it through "Too Darn Hot" because he's had the Cole Porter canon memorized since approximately age seven. It's absurd, but Rachel is right: thinking of Blaine does give his hips extra shimmy, and he can hear the purr of his voice as he sinks into his lower register. He nails a series of high kicks that Brittany spent weeks drilling into him, and it's then that he spies the smile crossing Ms. Tibideaux's face. He finishes the song with the perfect amount of flourish, smooth and confident, and resists the urge to brush his hair out of his eyes. He knows it's been sprayed into place.

"My final song is 'I'm Alive' from the show Next to Normal," Kurt announces, forcing the words out past the butterflies in his stomach, who are ganging up on him to form a tornado. He hates that his nerves catch up with him halfway through things, hates the tremor in his legs despite the conditioning he's put them through.

"It's been a while since I've seen Tom," Mr. Aurora says, and it isn't fair that one of his judges just casually mentioned Tom Kitt, renowned composer, in the middle of his audition.

Neither the butterflies nor the tornado vanish when the pianist plays the brief introduction, but muscle memory and endless hours of rehearsing take over. Kurt steps forward, head held high, and sings, "I am what you want me to be and I'm your worst fear, you'll find it in me. Come closer, come closer." As he beckons the audience toward him, his fingers curl one by one into a fist, holding his arm so tense that the tendons in his arm stand out.

His brain realigns itself by the next verse: "I am more than memory, I am what might be, I am mystery. You know me, so show me. When I appear it's not so clear if I'm a simple spirit or I'm flesh and blood."

Explaining to Brittany what he wanted took a bit of time, but now Kurt has the most understated yet essential choreography of any song he's ever performed. Within the musical, this is a dead son haunting his mother (and how's that for irony), but Kurt has shaped it into an anthem for himself, the boy who refuses definition, inviting the audience in only on his terms. It's how he's survived Lima, Ohio.

"But I'm alive, I'm alive, I am so alive," he sings, strolling downstage, anger roughening his voice as he imagines McKinley's student body sitting in the auditorium, "and I feed on the fear that's behind your eyes. And I need you to need me, it's no surprise. I'm alive, so alive, I'm alive..." The tension breaks on the last line, his face cooling to something that's almost a smile, an expression he's been practicing since he bought his first issue of Vogue.

Kurt has four seconds--literally, he and Rachel timed it--to transition to the next phase of the song. He sweeps his leg out into a spin big enough to move him back upstage, finishing in a crouch. He lets his face go slightly manic and sings, "I am flame and I am fire; I am destruction, decay, and desire." Rising to his feet, Kurt lets his voice swell with emotion, retaining just enough control to keep it from cracking: "I'll hurt you, I'll heal you."

This is last year's prom all over again; this is this year's campaign speech. The feeling of exposure is the same, except this time it's just Kurt Hummel setting his own terms. "I'm your wish, your dream come true, and I am your darkest nightmare too. I've shown you, I own you. And though you made me, you can't change me. I'm the perfect stranger who knows you too well." He creeps downstage and diagonal throughout, inch by inch, all barely contained energy and destructive potential.

Then Kurt takes a deep breath and looks at the judges, dropping all pretense but none of the passion. "But I'm alive, I'm alive, I am so alive, and I'll tell you the truth if you let me try. You're alive, I'm alive, and I'll show you why I'm alive, so alive. I'm alive, I'm right behind you." They're actually smiling as they watch him, quiet smiles of approbation that Kurt would never see in Lima outside of his home or a New Directions gathering.

"You say forget but I'll remind you," Kurt sings, and lets his smile show on his face. "You can try to hide but you know that I will find you. 'Cause if you can't grieve me, you won't leave me behind." He does more than hit the high note; he lets it soar, filling the room with a sound that is pure Kurt Hummel.

"No, no, no," he sings, punctuating each word with a step back until he's center stage. "I'm alive, I'm alive, I am so alive. If you climb on my back then we both can fly. If you try to deny me, I'll never die. I'm alive, so alive, yeah, yeah! I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive!"

In the space between his final note and the judges' measured but enthusiastic applause, Kurt pulls in a deep breath, his chest rising with the motion even though he knows to breathe from the diaphragm. He likes the feeling of lift, like he's just taken the weight someone else placed on his shoulders and tossed it aside with both hands.

"Thank you," Kurt says when the applause dies, and then he exits stage left.

*

"Maybe I should have brought more bananas," Rachel says, wringing her hands.

"Sweetheart, Kurt did fine. Both of you have been working equally hard, which means you'll meet with equal results," her dad says, massaging one of her shoulders. (He's still massaging one of her daddy's shoulders, because at least Daddy understands how stressful this whole situation is.)

Kurt returns to the waiting room, her water bottle in hand. "I refilled it for you." He's still beaming hours later, giddy from being all but told he just made it into Tisch.

"Thanks," Rachel says, and is glad to feel the surge of jealousy receding in the face of gratitude. He and Burt and Carole didn't have to stay with her--Kurt belongs to the school of "audition early so you make one of the first impressions on the judges" while she prefers to audition last so that others' auditions pale in comparison to hers--but they've been nothing but lovely for the entire day.

Then the auditions coordinator, a bored-looking senior boy in all black, comes out of the auditorium seven minutes early. "Next."

"Break a leg," her dads say at the same time, and they kiss her on the cheek at the same time, as per pre-audition tradition.

"Break the judges' legs if necessary," Kurt says, giving her a much-needed laugh.

Rachel enters the auditorium and steps up to the stage, handing her sheet music to the accompanist before she turns to face the judges. Carmen Tibideaux and Adam Aurora are rumored to be two of the most exacting people in show business, and she's already seen a few auditioners leave in tears today. Luckily, they've never had the pleasure of experiencing Rachel Berry before.

"My name is Rachel Berry," she says, and launches into her monologues. She's bright and funny for the first, devastated for the second, and so caught up in her portrayals that she doesn't notice the judges' faces until she's wiping away the real tears she produced for her second monologue.

They don't look impressed by her ability to cry on cue. Carmen Tibideaux still has a blank piece of paper in front of her. Adam Aurora is slumped forward, cheek resting on his hand. They look bored. Well, perhaps they're merely afraid to look at her after the sheer depth of emotion she just conveyed. Surely "Not for the Life of Me" will perk them up.

It doesn't, and Rachel is stranded onstage, hands held behind her back to conceal their shaking.

"I'm going to give you a tip," Adam Aurora says, but with a smile Rachel knows from countless humiliations in the girls' locker room. "Learn how to stand out. Wide-eyed ingenues from Indiana are a dime a dozen."

"What my colleague is trying to ask," Carmen Tibideaux says, shooting him a look, "is if you have something different to show us."

"Of course," Rachel says. She even sounds steady. This is a performance, and Rachel Berry takes performances seriously, barring one foolish mistake last year. Oh God, what if the judges have seen the YouTube footage? She pushes her fist into her stomach, which looks like an odd limbering up exercise while serving its intended purpose, which is to redirect her pain somewhere physical. She can't cry in front of these people. She can't give Adam the satisfaction.

She wants to spit Not even Quinn Fabray could make me break down in public, except she's cried in hallways over Finn Hudson and in parking lots over Jesse St. James. Rachel lets her hand drop to her side, but doesn't unclench her fist. Adam is still waiting, still smiling, and all she wants to do is sing "Don't Rain On My Parade" directly into his face until his eardrums burst. If she takes it up a few octaves, she might damage her voice but she could do it.

On the other hand, Rachel knows that Barbra would do exactly the opposite in her position, and the opinion of a hero she likely won't meet until after phenomenal success means more to her than the smirking judge in front of her right now. She knows what kind of person her dads would rather she be.

She knows the kind of person she wants to be; the kind of person she is growing up to be.

"I'm tired of dedicating songs to my doubters," Rachel says, and stands up a little taller in the audition dress her friends helped her pick out. "This is for the people who love me." She shakes her head a little, pulling a smile from the memory of her dads kissing her good luck just fifteen minutes ago. "People," she whispers, and something small but essential shifts inside her.

"People," she sings, a capella but perfectly on key, since this is another number she's known since infancy. Carmen Tibideaux leans forward in her seat and Rachel lets her smile grow brighter, because yes, she is going to do Barbra Streisand's signature song, and she is talented enough to pull it off.

"People who need people," Rachel continues. She maintains perfect singing posture--it's too early in the song to let emotion alter her pitch--but in her heart, she raises her chin. "Are the luckiest people in the world."

The accompanist must know the song by heart as well, because she comes in after that verse, rounding out Rachel's sound. Rachel could be back in her living room, her daddy playing alongside her. "We're children needing other children," she sings, and now she's back in the choir room her sophomore year, trying so desperately to impress her peers with her talent when all she needed was to show them her heart. "And yet letting our grown-up pride hide all the need inside, acting more like children than children."

Rachel cups her hands together and raises them slowly, then moves her arms outward to take in the entire room. "Lovers are very special people," she sings, and there's no bitterness to her tone, just the memory of a first kiss and a girl feeling desired for the first time in her life. "They're the luckiest people in the world."

A tiny part of her is worried about the lack of theatrics in her performance, but Rachel has been a method actress since age two. Even Adam's smirk has faded; all she needs is her voice and her face and an aching sincerity to complete the song. "A feeling deep in your soul that said you were half and now you're whole."

Letting Finn go was so difficult in part because of the certainty, her terrible certainty, that he was it, that there were no other boys in the world who would put up with her single-mindedness and her romanticism and everything else that makes up Rachel Berry. It took fifteen years for someone to love her out of something other than familial obligation, and the idea of being alone for another fifteen was enough to keep her up at night, talking herself through all of Finn's good points.

At almost eighteen, Rachel thinks that someday, she'll have another shot. Her chance will come not because of her prodigious talent, but because she is a person capable of being loved, of loving with every atom of her body.

Rachel closes her eyes and sings, "No more hunger and thirst, but first be a person who needs people." The crescendo on the last word matches her conviction. She opens her eyes to share the epiphany, pressing her hands over her heart.

Because that's it, that's the secret. Once upon a time, she thought she had to choose between fame and love, that Broadway would be at the cost of romance or vice versa. But now she has two world-famous performers pinned by the power of her voice, by the strength that comes from wearing her heart on her sleeve. She's replaced the fairytale with truth: Rachel Berry can have it all.

"People who need people," Rachel sings, voice gentling further with every note, "are the luckiest people in the world."

She would know. She's one of them.

Chapter Text

"A musical," a kid says, pronouncing the term like a venereal disease, except with a lot less giggling and a lot more disdain. "Like people just burst into song in everyday life. That shit's for girls."

"Art that exaggerates an aspect of everyday life is still art," Tina says between gritted teeth, because this kid is ringing all of her feminist early warning bells and he's dissing her show, which is more than enough to bring out her inner righteous blade. "Have you ever even been to a musical? You might like it if you try it."

The kid blinks at her a few times, probably surprised that his super insightful insulting just got brushed aside as inconsequential. When his buddy starts snickering, his expression turns mulish. "Whatever," he says, turning to leave.

"You forgot to pay the nice lady for your ticket."

Santana Lopez is not that tall, so it makes sense that she can pop up out of nowhere like the proverbial devil on the shoulder. What does not make sense is how she manages to loom over the kid and his friend, both of whom are tall and gangly in the way that only teenage boys can manage. Her smile is bright and her eyes say murder. The two boys stand rooted to the spot, identical expressions of panic on their faces.

"Tina, I'm sorry that we were running late," Quinn says, sliding into the folding chair next to Tina. She drops Tina a wink, then directs a winning prom queen smile at the unfortunate boys. "Please don't blame her for our ticket shortage. Two for center orchestra, right?"

"Right," the kid's friend squeaks. He elbows his companion. "Pay up, Luke."

Santana eschews a chair in favor of sitting on the edge of the table, crossing her legs to reveal a killer pair of black boots, in Tina's expert opinion. "Remember, no refunds. If your butts aren't in your seats come Friday, that's your problem. Personally, I'd rather see super hot girls dance onstage, since that's the closest I'll ever come to seeing them. That's me putting myself in your loser shoes, in case you were wondering."

The kid's friend, proving that he has actual survival instincts, says, "Really excited for the show." Luke just keeps blinking as he pays for and then pockets the tickets, like he went for a walk in the meadow and found himself faced with a pride of lions rather than a herd of deer.

"Have a nice day!" Tina says brightly, flashing them the peace sign.

After the boys shuffle off, a few others wander over, no doubt lured in by the presence of two of the most popular girls in school. Tina mouths thank you at them both while she makes change, ignoring the tiny, tight thrill that came of going it alone. What if Quinn and Santana hadn't been there? What if she'd showed those boys herself?

Well, if she's being honest with herself, probably some satisfying yelling, but no tickets sold.

Quinn adds to their tally after the first rush of tickets, shaking her head. "I knew that I should have joined the school committee this year," she mutters. "I'll have to take over prom's to prevent this kind of thing from happening again."

"What kind of thing?" Tina asks.

Unscrewing the cap of a bottle of red nail polish, Santana says, "Quinn is the biggest secret geek in the world and worries about things like ticket quotas and sales statistics. She's, like, the Cheerios fundraising champion every fall." With a roll of her hips and a flash of leg, Santana gets off the table and sits in the third chair.

"Thanks for that flattering portrait," Quinn says dryly. "Doesn't your--Brittany usually do your nails?"

"She has student body president stuff to do," Santana says, flushing. "We had to sign up for different shifts."

Since Quinn has just put herself in charge of keeping track of ticket sales, Tina doesn't even have a pen to fiddle with. She contents herself with mentally running lines and, when that becomes impossible as Quinn and Santana engage in more bickering, pulling out her notebook to continue drawing sculpture redesigns. It's not that she dislikes the other girls--far from it, after all they've been through--but the cognitive dissonance gets to her. Those two used to be the biggest bullies the school had to offer, and now she's seen both of them insecure and sobbing their hearts out. It's unreal that on the surface, they look like nothing has changed.

Anyway, whose bright idea was it to do an abstract representation of the changing face of feminism when she doesn't even like abstract sculpture? Oh right, hers.

"That's super vaginal," Santana says, leaning to look over Tina's shoulder. Some of her hair falls forward and brushes her freshly painted nails. "Aw, crap."

"It's not--" Tina begins, then turns her sketch sideways. "It does look kind of like a vagina," she sighs, ripping out the paper and crumpling it in her hand. "I don't think the new face of feminism is gender essentialist."

"I didn't know you were into that," Quinn says, which makes Santana laugh so hard she starts coughing, or maybe she just turns it into a cough when Quinn rolls her eyes.

"I really started getting into it sophomore year," Tina says, making a squiggly line in her notebook for the sake of doing something with her hands. "Feminism, I mean. Artie's not a bad guy, but when we were dating, sometimes he would make these comments and I just... I needed to figure out how I wanted the world to be."

"Instead of accepting the way it is now," Quinn says softly. "My mom started reading a lot of Betty Friedan after I moved back home."

"I carry two pairs of shoes in my purse in case someone needs a stiletto to the face and a boot up the ass at the same time," Santana offers. "Works for me."

Tina opens her mouth to reply, but then another rush of students comes over to their table. She recognizes a few girls on the lacrosse team from her brief stint on it. She liked how the mouth guard made it so she didn't have to fake a stutter; she didn't even have to talk to anyone else.

"Are you nervous about opening night? You're the main character, right?" one of the girls asks. Between the freckles and the smile, she looks the picture of friendliness, but Tina's mouth goes dry all the same.

"A little," she says. Something cool taps her on the arm and she realizes it's Quinn's water bottle. She takes a grateful gulp as Santana chatters brightly with the crowd, convincing half of them to upgrade to better seats "because it's football players trying to dance in tight pants, ladies."

"The stage fright never goes away entirely, but you can use it to hone your performance," Quinn says after Tina hands over her water bottle.

Santana adds, "I mean, we also had the presence of Sue Sylvester, which is way scarier than any crowd, but hey, bright side: you don't have to worry about her. Plus you're super hot and a great singer. Mike is gonna corner you in a dressing room after opening night and then we're gonna have to bleach everything."

"Uh, thanks," Tina says. "I think."

Quinn mutters something. Santana smacks her on the shoulder and says, "The serenity prayer is really not necessary here, your royal prudishness."

What the hell. Both of these girls are making an effort to be nice; Tina can try bravery in return. Lifting her eyes from her notebook, Tina admits, "I've finally gotten used to performing in front of the cast. The idea of performing for an audience is just scary after what happened last year."

"Sandy Ryerson has been banned from the premises," Quinn says. "Besides, there will be a ton of parents there. This is a big school event instead of a last-minute fundraising attempt."

"You should join the Brainiacs," Tina blurts out without thinking. Sure, just invite one of the most popular girls in school to be in the third-least popular club in the entire school.

But Quinn actually seems flattered, judging by the way she shrugs a little and smiles. "It would certainly look good on my resume."

Santana gives her now ruby red nails an experimental tap, then pulls out a bottle of glittery gold top coat. "Britt Britt likes her some shine," she says in response to the questioning arch of Quinn's eyebrow. "I normally likes 'em one color, but whatever."

Tina reaches out and gives Santana a small, teasing poke, so light that she's not sure Santana feels it until she looks up with a scowl that for the first time Tina recognizes as an act. "That's so sweet," Tina says in singsong. Quinn buries her face in the ticket tallies, shoulders shaking with laughter.

"My life is really over if Tina Cohen-Chang is making fun of me," Santana says, giving her the sparkly gold and red finger along with an approving smirk.

"Yeah, well," Tina says, waving at another group of students who seem to be reading their sign from across the hallway. "None of us liked our old lives much anyway."

*

Kurt's phone vibrates in his pocket and he pulls it out, having long since mastered the art of checking his texts while navigating the halls of McKinley. Surprisingly, the new text is from Puck, and all it says is 911 my girl needs 2 c u.

Odd. What would Lauren need from him? Kurt entertains the brief thought of designing a spectacular sweatsuit for her to wear between wrestling matches, the better to impress college recruits, and shudders. The words "spectacular" and "sweatsuit" are simply not meant to go together, however spectacular the lady wearing the sweatsuit.

Maybe if he adorned it with several species of bird feathers... No, no, down that path lay certain madness.

Logic says that Lauren is in the gym or the auditorium's sound booth, and since wrestling season only just started but West Side Story opens in less than a week, Kurt heads to the auditorium. Sure enough, the light is on and several people are crammed into the small booth: Lauren, Artie, Ms. Pillsbury, and for some reason, Brittany. All but Brittany look varying levels of distressed, though distressed on Lauren looks an awful lot like her default state of annoyance.

"Hi!" Brittany says brightly. "They want us to do posters for the show because our campaign posters were awesome. I started doing a preliminary design but they wanted your input." She holds up a crayon drawing that features a prominent figure in a red dress as well as several rainbows.

"Do you actually know what West Side Story is about?" Kurt asks, indicating the rainbows.

"It has the gayest cast ever and Santana already showed me her dress for the show. You know that I had tutoring during the rehearsals."

"You would think that our original posters had more to do with the show than Brittany's design," Lauren says grimly, "but they don't. You let one uppity junior have one responsibility while you're troubleshooting sound and lights at the same time, and you get this." She unfurls the roll of paper in her hand to reveal a monochrome poster of... a set of stairs, plainly the ones outside in the courtyard, badly photoshopped to look like the stairs of a fire escape. To finish the job, the poster designer slapped some kind of grainy texture over the entire image and wrote WEST SIDE STORY dead center in Comic Sans.

Kurt's face has gone numb with horror. "Comic Sans," he says.

Lauren's lip curls. "Those responsible have been sacked."

"Word," Artie says, raising his hand for a fistbump. Lauren just looks at him and he lowers his hand back to his lap. "All of us are wearing too many hats right now to redesign the posters from scratch," Artie continues, "but we can't advertise the show like this. Quinn took over running tickets and she says we'll never make quota with such bad advertisement. We were wondering if you guys could help us."

"Kurt and I own a lot of hats," Brittany says, nodding.

Kurt shields his eyes from the horror that is the current poster and says, "For the sake of our retinas, I'll help. May we take complete creative control?"

"Provided it's school appropriate," Ms. Pillsbury says. "Thank you two so much. How did your auditions go, Kurt? I never got a chance to ask."

"Amazingly," Kurt says, the same glow of contentment rising in his chest. His every instinct tells him not to jinx it, not to be overly proud of himself, but there's hubris and then there's reality. Reality says that he nailed his audition.

Luckily for their hapless producers-slash-directors, Kurt brought his laptop to school today to complete a project. He shoos them away so he and Brittany can get to work. "I'm going to Google Image Search previous West Side Story posters, Britt. I want you to look at them and tell me what you think." During one of their campaign meetings, Kurt discovered that Brittany has a natural flair for designing a palette--she just prefers bright colors whenever she can manage. Also mixing seasonal accessories, but that's a mystery for another day.

"There's a lot of dark but bright orange," Brittany says after a minute of intense focus on Kurt's computer screen. She frowns, her eyes narrowing in concentration. "Like a road sign. Black ladders. Black and white dancers, not pictures of actual people, just their shapes. It's like those signs when you're driving that tell you to slow down and not hurt people."

"Warning signs," Kurt muses, cocking his head at the screen. "I see it. The show is about a boy and a girl falling in love in New York City. They're the children of two rival gangs. A lot of people die."

"So we need 'Warning: Come see our show.'"

"Precisely. My computer, please."

Kurt hums as he fills in an empty Photoshop document with the appropriate shade of deep orange. "You know, if this whole political thing doesn't work out, we should go into graphic design. I'll use it to launch my clothing line."

"Whenever I try to hang my laundry on my computer, Lord Tubbington gets mad at me," Brittany says. "You and me are good at ruling the school even if the school doesn't think so yet. It takes a while for people to notice they've changed their mind."

"Would that there were some way of speeding up the process," Kurt mutters. He turns his laptop so that the screen faces Brittany again. "What do you think?"

It's a product he'll obviously have to refine, since he threw it together in a matter of minutes after the world's shortest brainstorming session, but Kurt's pleased with the design. It features the same color scheme as most other West Side Story posters, but the title, written in a graffiti-esque font, takes up the middle of the poster from top to bottom, separating a male and female silhouette. The T in "WEST" is actually a gun, and the Y in "STORY" is formed by a switchblade knife in the process of opening.

"Scary," Brittany says, shivering. "I wouldn't go see it, but Santana's in it."

"I'll take that as a job well done," Kurt replies, dusting his hands off symbolically. "I'll let our people know that we have a product. Are you sure you're not interested in co-owning a side business?"

Brittany grins. "Needs more rainbows."

*

The fan snaps shut and Santana just snaps, temper as frayed as the latest wire Artie just had to replace. McKinley High must host mutant rats or something, because shit just keeps breaking. This is their freaking dress rehearsal and bits of the set are falling off, people keep forgetting their lines or missing their entrances, and some stupid football player just practically broke her foot by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"No one will care if I take you out, but people will sure as shit care if they don't get to see me dance!" Santana shouts, throwing her fan directly at his head. He catches it because, right, football player, but at least he looks terrified. Her wrath is like that of the gods, and as she starts toward him she thinks that if she can just beat her old record for making dudes cry in public, she'll be able to relax enough to finish this whole stupid rehearsal--

--then a large hand lands on her shoulder, arresting her in mid-step.

"We got no time for divas in my dress rehearsal," Coach Beiste says, with a smile that isn't reassuring at all. Somewhere in the background, Santana can hear Rachel gasp, no doubt appalled that someone else just got called her name. "Think real hard about where you want to be right now: in the hallway or here onstage."

The football player offers her the fan, the unfolding side first like it's made of blades instead of paper. Santana snatches it out of his hand and grinds out, "Onstage."

"Great. From the top! Places, everyone!"

As Santana takes center stage once more, she feels a twinge of shame, though it's still outweighed by the throbbing in her foot. She knows better than to stop in the middle of a dress rehearsal, but she blew an entire line of the song when he crushed her foot, so who can blame her for being a little testy? When the lights come on, she plasters a smile on her face that stays on even when she tries to flex her toes inside her heel. Shit. She's done Cheerio routines on much worse, but she's going to spending a whole night with an ice pack taped to her foot.

At least her main partners on this song are Puck, who's charismatic and can carry a tune, and Mercedes, who's the only duet partner she's ever had who can keep up with her in every aspect of performance. (Much as she loves Brittany, they both know Santana can sing circles around her. The less said about Quinn's annoyingly nasal voice, the better. Thank God they're no longer subjected to her preggo feelings being put into song.)

It's always a struggle for Santana to get through the dialogue leading up to "America" rolling her eyes only when it's in character for Anita. The music for this show is gorgeous, even if the story is dumb, but she's starting to understand why her grandmother never let her watch the movie when it was on TV. I've heard enough of people telling me to go back home, her grandmother would say, and then shake her head when Santana continued to ask questions.

"Puerto Rico," Mercedes sings, and Santana swears the rafters tremble from the force of her voice. Or maybe that's just the pain affecting her judgment. "You lovely island... Island of tropical breezes. Always the pineapples growing, always the coffee blossoms blowing..."

Santana draws her character's requisite disgusted expression from the way her foot throbs when she struts forward with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Puerto Rico... You ugly island...
Island of tropic diseases. Always the hurricanes blowing, always the population growing... And the money owing, and the babies crying, and the bullets flying. I like the island Manhattan--smoke on your pipe and put that in!
"

The other girls except for Mercedes circle around Santana and they lift their hands to clap out the beats. "I like to be in America! OK by me in America! Everything free in America, for a small fee in America!" The choreography is a bright explosion of colored skirts; Santana wishes that Brittany were her partner, not Puck, because Brittany would know how to compensate for her foot.

The music sounds so happy and most of the population in Lima is so stupid that Santana knows how they'll miss the significance of lines like: "An immigrant goes to America, many hellos in America! Nobody knows in America Puerto Rico's in America." The whole song is one big lie about there being some kind of paradise on earth. Santana is so tired.

Somehow they all lurch their way to the finale without killing each other, either accidentally or on purpose. When it's time for notes, Ms. Pillsbury opens with: "You know what they say in show business! Bad dress, good opening..." and it all goes downhill from there. Artie really rips into them, somehow hearing every missed note while keeping an eye on their characterization at the same time. Coach Beiste sounds a little nicer but is no less tough, and she really lets the clumsy football player have it, which gives Santana a tiny burst of satisfaction as she leans on Blaine, eyelids drooping. She kept it together for all of tonight. Coach Sylvester would be proud, even if Blaine took one look at her after they finished the finale and offered her his arm.

"One more outburst like that from you," Coach Beiste says, pointing right at Santana, and she should care that she's getting yelled at in front of everyone but she's used to that kind of thing, damn it, "and I will see to it that your understudy goes on. You are irreplaceable so long as you are capable of working with other people."

On the bright side, she's not one of the people drafted for a last-minute so-called Booty Camp. "I could use some caffeine to get through my homework," Blaine says, steering her in the direction of McKinley High's sole working vending machine. They were all supposed to get removed in some kind of health initiative until Figgins discovered that moving them would be more expensive than letting them all run out of soda. He has yet to notice the cafeteria staff quietly continuing to get one of the machines restocked.

"Anything on your mind?" Blaine asks as he feeds change into the machine, too casually to be casual.

"Your weird obsession with giving Tony a gel helmet," Santana snaps.

He shrugs and pops the lid on the can of Coke. "Tony's supposed to be white."

"You always look white, Blaine Bow Tie Warbler."

"Be that as it may." Blaine leans against the wall opposite from her, drinking his Coke and watching her. Waiting for her to crack and confide him, because now he's her big gay BFF. She liked it better when she was protecting Kurt and Blaine; the only positions she likes to reverse are in the bedroom. Or the supply closet, or wherever Brittany's in the mood.

"When did you decide to come out to your school?" Santana asks at last, because they keep singing about places and all that's beating in the back of her mind is the idea that there's no place for her. A handful of rooms aren't enough to get her through to college. She though getting back with Brittany and coming out to her friends would satisfy her, but all they did was make her want more.

Blaine finishes his swallow of Coke and purses his lips in thought. "In a way, it wasn't a choice. As soon as I was too old to be cute for singing all the time, I got called gay. I took a boy to a dance and we both got beaten up." Santana doesn't quite manage to control her flinch at his words. "Here, everyone knows I'm dating Kurt, so I don't have to say anything. But when I transferred to Dalton, I just... let it be known. I joined the gay-straight alliance. If someone asked me if I thought an actress was hot, I said, 'She's pretty, but I don't like girls that way.'"

Santana lifts herself up on one foot, holding her arms out for balance, and flexes her sore foot. It hurts less than it did earlier, even after all the dancing, which means that a little ice will make it better for tomorrow night. "You make it sound so easy."

There's a long pause, and then Blaine says carefully, "If you feel like Brittany is pressuring you to come out..."

"No!" Santana practically shouts. Then, quieter: "No. She just wanted me to admit it to myself and stop ripping myself apart. I just... I just want to hold hands with my girlfriend when we're out on a date. I don't want to wait until college." She closes her eyes.

There's a rustling noise and then she can feel Blaine's body heat right next to her. Ready to catch her if she falls, that freaking gentleman. "I used to think I had the answers for that kind of thing, but... I think that in the end, you do the best you can."

"Even if it freaking sucks?" Santana asks. She doesn't need to open her eyes to see his nod of affirmation, but she does anyway. "God. Wake me up when it's time for college."

*

It's Friday, opening night, and the school day ticks along like a sick clock, in fits and starts. Mike wants to run five miles around the track by lunchtime, he's so keyed up, but he knows better than to exhaust himself before the biggest night of his life.

His Juilliard audition, well, that will just be before a panel of renowned judges. This is an audition for his parents.

The show goes up at seven o'clock. At three o'clock, Mike is in sweats and limbering up, careful not to overextend himself. Only a few other members of the cast have arrived, meaning the auditorium is still freezing cold. Can't pull a muscle, can't even strain one. Riff has perfect control of his body until the last instant it betrays him, just a shade too slow where Bernardo is a shade too fast.

"Show me the dance at the gym one more time and I'll be ready," a familiar voice says, and Mike turns to see Brittany walking in with Quinn, Coach Beiste not too far behind. Brittany waves to Mike. "I get to be in the show! Coach said I could be a dancer understudy even though tutoring was at the same time as rehearsals, and Mark Espinoza has a stomach virus."

Mike blinks. "You're... playing a guy?"

"I needed somebody strong enough to lift Trish and good enough to learn all the choreography," Coach Beiste says. "Not to mention with enough stamina to dance it all afternoon in Booty Camp and all night in the show."

Well, if there was anyone Mike would want learning last-minute Jet choreography when she couldn't make even one of the rehearsals, it would be Brittany. He can even see the rationale behind such last-minute inclusion: a few of the dances depend so heavily on coupling and parallels that even a layperson could tell something was off unless they cut Trish's part, too. Still, a sick cast member is ominous, especially after last night's dress rehearsal. "Is anyone else sick?"

"We're probably still incubating," Brittany says cheerfully. "Like we're all pregnant with little baby viruses. Oops, sorry, Quinn."

Quinn looks beyond grossed out. "Let's just rehearse."

The Booty Camp draftees show up as Mike finishes his last set of stretches. Coach Beiste has them run trouble spots at half speed, pointing out where they need to adjust here or move there. Then she drills them over and over, and Mike twitches in response to each new command, muscle memory wanting to take him through each move. Brittany makes the rest of them look like amateurs, of course, spinning tiny little Trish around the stage with ease. Watching her manages to make Mike forget about his parents for a few minutes.

Then it's time for dinner break, and it all comes rushing back as Mike tries to choke down a sandwich. Tina presses close to him, picking half-heartedly at a cup of soup, and he kisses her forehead. He's not the only one terrified, but all his selfish brain can do is keep speculating. His father has barely spoken to him since last week. He's probably not coming. His mother hasn't come backstage to see him, which means that maybe she's waiting for his dad to get home from work. Maybe he'll see them both when the curtain rises. Maybe his father will convince his mother to stay home. Maybe Mike will explode before he even makes it onstage.

The clock says quarter of, and their directors are giving them a speech about hard work and dedication. Mike can hear the sincerity, the intention, not the speech itself. Ten of, and they're taking their places. Coach Beiste envelops him in a bear hug and says, "I'm proud of you, kid. Prouder than you know." That he does hear. Then it's five of and he's in place, lifting himself up on his toes and then back down again as Ms. Pillsbury welcomes everyone to the show.

No show ever starts on time, but he's not sure how long he's backstage, caught in the weird limbo between Mike Chang and Riff. He remembers Kurt giving him a nod before Ms. Pillsbury wraps up her welcome speech. He reciprocates, chin jerking down at a sharper angle than usual. They're part of the same gang now.

The curtain rises and Riff steps onto a street in New York City.

During rehearsal, others talked about having to get into character, did various exercises to help them turn into other people. All he ever needs is the music and the movement; the world falls away and he is whoever he is supposed to be. He weaves between the members of the Jets, every lift of arm or leg signifying his relationship with each, his leadership of all. Riff knows every piece of pavement in his turf, though his feet touch the ground for mere seconds before he cavorts off to the next destination. He's quick, exuberant, but there's an edge there, a potential for violence that grows after each encounter with the Sharks. He's cool but he's street, a kid who never got to be a kid. He stabs at the air, a switchblade ready to unfold.

Then--pow!--he does.

Dialogue is the only thing that throws him out of character, that tugs his awareness of being Mike Chang saying lines to the forefront. He'll never be a professional actor, but he's worked out a system: say the line with a director-approved Riff gesture, no matter how minute, and he manages to sound like Riff throughout. Onstage, he's fine.

Offstage, he has to take out his prop knife so he doesn't lose Riff's cool, flicking it open and shut as Blaine sings "Something's Coming." It's hard to make out faces in the audience because of the stage lights, but he made sure to reserve two seats for his parents. The first two rows are completely full, and hope stabs at his heart as Blaine sings, Maybe just by holding still, it'll be there! Did both of them come? Did it work?

Mike leans forward, body still angled so no one in the audience sees him. He can make out his mother in the first row, sure it's her from the shape of her face and the glint of the bird earrings she likes to wear when going out. She's definitely sitting next to a man, and--he has to get in place for the dance at the gym. He tucks the prop knife back into his pocket and saunters off, Riff once more, Riff with an out of place heartbeat.

He can't look away from Tina when she's onstage, and that helps, too. She was so nervous about being onstage, but she is Maria, shining and sweet. Whenever she's Maria, it reminds him of the first time he really saw her. He took the punk clothes and the colored hair and the silence as signs of unfriendliness. Then one day in the choir room, he looked up from studying for a vocab quiz and learned the real meaning of the word radiant when he saw her laugh.

They get through the dance at the gym despite a few football players catching themselves in stumbles so minor that he doubts the audience notices. Quinn is the perfect partner, their extra practice paying off as they contend with Santana and Puck on the dance floor, their gangs circling around them. Brittany nails the choreography, of course, whirling Tricia around onstage without missing a beat.

Now that he knows his mother is out there, Mike can't bring himself to look for his father. He studies his hands, his prop knife, the lapels of his jacket, anything to avoid catching a glimpse beyond the stage lights. His solo is coming up. The soft strains of "Tonight" give way to the brassiness of "America," and he looks up to watch the dancing. Tina is standing in the wings at the opposite end of the stage, the white of her dress luminous in the dark. She presses the tips of three fingers to her lips, then blows him a kiss. Mike reaches up to catch it, fingers closing around air, and returns her smile.

It's time.

Riff is the one telling his boys in song and in action to play it cool, but this is something he does every day. Keep it dialed down, control it until he can't remember what "it" is except in the privacy of his room. Dancing is the difference between a cage and car; dancing is controlled, too, but it's his. Riff knows that he's trapped, but rather than rail at his cage, he revels in it, making what he can of his turf. He'll guide his boys through hell, though he can't bring them to salvation.

They have to pause at the end of the song because the audience is applauding. Mike is center stage, sweat trickling down his back, and he looks again, his mother smiling in the front row, and then he recognizes the man beside her as one of Rachel's dads. All sound drops away and his body relaxes out its pose, arms hanging limp by his sides. His father didn't come. His father isn't here.

"'Sup?" Puck says, sauntering over, and he sounds too much like himself. That wasn't part of the script.

"Set 'em up, Doc," Mike says, recovering. "Diet Cokes all around."

Riff will play it cool until his next big number, where he'll dance off to die.

*

Everything's going too well.

Tina's smile is tight against her teeth as her castmates flash her thumbs up and offer congratulatory shoulder squeezes. Everyone made it through the first act alive and in character, even the football players. Tina hasn't yet missed a line or a step or a note. She's never performed better.

Mike walks over, sweaty from the exertion of his death dance in the act finale. He touches her cheek, careful of her stage makeup, and she leans into the kiss he offers. She wants to ask him what she already knows, to reassure him that his father will come around in time. But at this moment, caught between acts, Tina is left clinging to the role of Maria, no room to play the good girlfriend.

"I love you," Mike says, and shame blooms on Tina's cheeks. She should do something for him.

"I love you, too," she replies. "I'm going to get some water." Maria's high notes can be murder on the vocal cords, even after extensive coaching from Mercedes and Rachel. It's a good enough excuse.

Backstage is its normal chaotic bustle as five different last-minute things go wrong. Ms. Pillsbury, pins in her mouth, is doing some kind of last-minute fix on a Jet girl's dress. Tina catches her eye on the way to the girls' dressing room and feels her face twitch weakly in response to Ms. Pillsbury's warm if harried smile. Through the buzzing of her nerves (and God, her lips are numb, she needs that water), Tina experiences a flash of admiration. Everyone in glee club knew they weren't the only ones dumped when Mr. Schue left for Broadway. Ms. Pillsbury is the living embodiment of "the show must go on." Tina would have quit her job and cried for a week, no, a month if something like that ever happened to her.

Maria is stronger than that. Maria rewrites the ending of Romeo and Juliet. Maybe life will start imitating art.

Luckily, the other girls seem to be on their way out of the dressing room, stage makeup reapplied and hair re-sprayed into place. She picks her water bottle off the dressing table and takes a long gulp followed by a short one. Once upon a time in middle school, back on a day where the ancient air conditioning quit working in her pre-algebra classroom, she drank too much too fast and choked in front of everyone. The teasing was expected, the humiliating incident forgotten by the next week of school, but it was around then that "needs to participate more in class" became a report card perennial instead of an occasional feature.

No matter how much she drinks, she's still thirsty. It's about ten minutes to curtains up. Tina can't let this get the better of her, not when the show is halfway over. She puts the water bottle back and presses her hands to her face, careful not to smudge the elaborate stage makeup more than sweating already has. She should get that fixed. She should review her lines for the "I Feel Pretty" scene. She should--

There's a muffled sob. Tina lowers her hands from her face, pressing a hand to her heart to make sure it wasn't her. Someone sniffles, and it's definitely coming from nearby, but it's not her. Tina peeks around the corner of the long vanity table and there's Molly, sitting on the floor with her knees drawn up against her chest, mascara running down her cheeks.

"Sorry," Molly says as the loudspeaker blares to life, Artie's voice announcing five minutes until curtain. "Sorry, I," she laughs, hiccupping, "I don't think I can go out there."

Tina squats, the hem of Maria's white dress brushing the ground. "Yes, you can," she says, warm and non-threatening. Her mother would say it like that, or Mercedes, or Mike, or Ms. Pillsbury. Even Kurt and Rachel, if they were able to stop freaking out about something going wrong with the show.

"I can't." Molly wipes her cheeks with a firm press of her middle and index fingers, then winces at the smear of makeup. "I... I missed a cue in 'America.' I covered it and I don't think anybody noticed, but I can't. I can't stop." She laughs again, ending on a choked sob. "So I can't. At all."

"It's theater. Things like that happen," Tina says, reaching up to steal Santana's box of tissues off the vanity. This is surreal. She can't shake the sensation that it should be her crying in the bathroom before their first Sectionals, Mercedes counseling her from outside the bathroom stall. It should be her huddled up in tears, Mike's arms around her in a protective embrace.

Molly takes a tissue and starts blotting what remains of her mascara. "But you've been perfect this whole night. That's why you're Maria and I'm me."

Tina lifts the skirt of her dress so it won't get dirty when she settles on her knees. It also gives her time to breathe, time to translate the swirl of her emotions into words. She takes a tissue and, with a wordless murmur, takes Molly's chin firmly in hand as she removes the last of the mascara streaks. "Two minutes to curtain," Artie announces.

"I'm Maria and I'm terrified," Tina says, discarding the tissue and picking up an eyeliner pencil. "Hold still. Don't talk, just listen. I would say I'm scared every time I put a foot on that stage, but it's no different from how I feel every time I walk down the hall or raise my hand in class. After you reach a certain point, you're just tired of doing the things your fear says you can do. You want--" and her voice breaks on the word-- "so much more. So come with me and we'll face our fears."

Molly's eyes are red-rimmed, still teary. "I don't know if I can," she says, voice so small. Tina finishes the last of the eyeliner, no time to replace the mascara, and tugs them both to their feet.

"That's better than 'I can't,'" Tina says, knowing not to push further, her hands tight around Molly's, but to reassure, not to entrap. She starts laughing as they run to take their places, little breathless gasps that make Kurt's eyebrows arch and Rachel frown and Mercedes tilt her head as they rush past. Sugar, bless her heart, just smiles like she knows the joke.

"Oh my God," Molly says, but she hits her mark and stays, waiting for the curtain to rise.

"Breathe," Tina says, and then the curtain rises, transforming her into Maria once more.

Ever since she can remember, she's lived as two people, the Tina who fears and the Tina who wants. Now she's split in two, but this time, she's Maria and Tina all at once, Maria caught in the dizzy grip of new love and Tina rejoicing when Molly's voice joins hers and both sound strong. Tina slips further and further away as Maria sings her way through Act II, grieving for her brother yet certain that love will prove her salvation. Santana blazes as Anita in "A Boy Like That," but Maria answers with the quiet fire of her own conviction, drawing her into "I Have a Love."

When shots ring out, Maria's heart stills within her as Tina takes in the audience's gasp.

This is nothing like that first amazing rehearsal as Maria cradles Tony, feeling the life slip from his body; as Tina cradles Blaine, each responding to the other's expression. Their reprise of "Somewhere" is all naked tenderness, and when Tony fades and Maria takes the gun between trembling fingers, there is horror onstage as well as off. Maria rages, demanding how many bullets it will take to kill them all and still have one left for her, but her rage is ashes compared to the love she feels still. Maria's tears in the end are as real as her triumph.

(They make a place for them, Tina told Blaine weeks ago, and it's still true, though the creation is as painful as any birth.)

The curtain falls.

The next few moments pass in a blur. When Tina comes back to herself, she's taking the stage with Blaine. The stage lights glare overhead but she can see the audience on its feet, hear the roar of the crowd. Someone, and she's sure it's one of her parents, tosses a bouquet of roses. Blaine, ever the gentleman, retrieves it for her and presses it into her arm. The plastic crinkles.

For some reason, that simple sound, or perhaps that she can hear plastic over all the noise onstage and off, sends Tina into another wave of hysterical laughter. Joy bubbles up inside her, spilling and spilling through the auditorium as the curtain drops again. Blaine kisses her temple before they're crushed between boyfriends and friends, and Tina thinks, with a thrill unlike anything she's ever known, We made it.

*

The entire cast and crew of West Side Story heads over to the Berry household after Saturday night's performance. Within half an hour, the party is deafening, though so far nothing has been broken. Mercedes tugs Sam away from a picture frame, which is one too-enthusiastic body roll away from getting knocked off the wall, and distracts him from more dance moves with the buffet table. Why is she planning on confessing her love to this goofball tonight, anyway?

"This place looks weird even without the beer goggles," Sam says, raiding the fruit platter to load up two party plates. "Good company, though. You might even say... grape company." He grins and offers her one of the plates.

Right.

"Vegan bacon-wrapped vegan shrimp?" Rachel asks brightly, pushing her way through the crowd with a tray of limp pink lumps. She throws Mercedes an exaggerated wink as she approaches. Mercedes catches Kurt's eye across the room and mouths, Mayday. They should have known better than to let Rachel come up with the diversion on her own.

"Yeah, I'm gonna pass," Sam says.

"Oh. Um." Rachel's smile falters. "Are you sure?"

"He's sure," Kurt says, then turns to Sam. "How about you accompany Rachel to the kitchen to instruct her on the care and feeding of party guests? I need to discuss something with Mercedes anyway. You know, girl talk."

"Sure," Sam says, and Mercedes brushes her hair out of the way to receive a kiss on the cheek. "Be back later."

"Thank you," Mercedes says as soon as they're out of earshot, which isn't hard, given the volume of the party.

"I'm just impressed there were no musical numbers planned. I guess she didn't want to steal your thunder."

"Our little girl's grown up."

Someone in the distance caterwauls that tonight is gonna be a good, good night. Mercedes and Kurt exchange identical looks of disdain, which last for all of five seconds before they burst out laughing. Where would she be without Kurt to keep her grounded?

"Don't drink anything besides water unless you feel the need for a little liquid courage," Kurt advises her, discreetly dumping his cup onto a potted plant. "I think Puck spiked the punch with turpentine."

"Noted," Mercedes says, making a face. The occasional drink leaves her draped over Tina, both of them breathless with laughter, but she wants her head in the game tonight. With a few minutes to go, her palms are clammy and there's an unpleasant tingling sensation behind her heart, just in front of her spine. This whole love confession plan is too elaborate. She loves Kurt and Rachel, but they live their entire lives like a showstopper in the biggest, splashiest musical on Broadway. Speaking of splashy, half of glee club is currently serenading Tina with a rousing rendition of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria," which accounts for Sam's continued disappearance.

Something in her face must give her away, because Kurt's amusement softens when he looks from the Sound of Music spectacle to her face. "Mercedes," he says, touching her shoulder. "Are you okay?"

Before Mercedes can answer, Rachel breaks away from the crowd around Tina, where Mike and Artie have just created makeshift wimples out of the napkins, issuing a rapidfire burst of words straight out of her brightest smile. "We have exactly two minutes and thirty-three seconds before your song is on! The karaoke version without the backing tracks, as requested. Kurt, we'll need you in position to dim the lights, and Mercedes, I've customized one of my microphones for the considerable power and richness of your voice. I ran out of beads that matched the exact shade of your dress, so I went for a theme based on Vincent Van Gogh's 'Starry Night.' Should you develop stage fright, I am prepared to cover 'Vincent.'"

Rachel beams even wider, brandishing a microphone bedazzled in a psychedelic swirl of blues, whites, yellows, and oranges. It would be pretty if it weren't also blinding.

"Those are my second, third, and fourth thoughts," Mercedes says, covering the microphone with one hand. "I can't do this. It's not me."

"But Mercedes!" Rachel cries, eyes filling with honest to God tears. "Yours is such a beautiful love! What better medium than song to express it?"

"I'm still going to express it, just not in public." Mercedes pushes the microphone gently against Rachel's chest. "This is between Sam and me."

"And the coterie of friends you asked for advice," Kurt adds, but he's smiling. "Whatever you do, it's going to be fabulous. Sam's a lucky man."

"Yeah," Mercedes says, pressing her fist over the dreamy smile undoubtedly forming on her face. She's teased her friends so many times for mooning over a significant other, and now here she is at last, just as giddy. When she looks up, it's to see Quinn leading Sam back over.

"Break a leg," Quinn says, waving as she leaves with Kurt and Rachel.

"I was wondering if we could talk somewhere," Mercedes says.

"I love talking somewhere," Sam replies. "Let's go."

Mercedes takes him to the Berrys' back porch, the only part of the original plan still semi-intact, though they were supposed to go there after her big serenade. It's so cold outside that her breath fogs in the air, but it's a welcome change from claustrophobic party temperatures. Sam kisses her before she's even finished drawing the curtain over the glass door and she has to push him away, laughing.

"I really did want to talk," she says. Sam nods, straightening back up and sticking his hands in his pockets. His hair is slightly disheveled from dancing; it makes her want to mess it up more. In her head, Kurt says, Just do it. Blaine told me he wasn't planning on saying it, it just came out over coffee. "I've been thinking a lot about us. I'm so happy now with you and the band and everything. Before the wedding, I wanted to... well, I'll say it in song first."

Sam, bless his heart, doesn't look put off by her weird, stilted attempt at talking about her feelings. He smiles at the word "happy" and doesn't stop, because he's Sam and he likes making her happy just as much as he likes making music. The music started everything, made their dreams intersect and their hearts belong to each other. Mercedes reciprocates his smile and begins.

"Is this a dream? If it is, please don't wake me from this high," she sings, voice gentle. The original Kelly version is wonderful, of course, but she found an acoustic arrangement for just voice and guitar. It fits her and Sam. "I'd become comfortably numb until you opened up my eyes to what it's like when everything's right. I can't believe..."

In the pause after the line preceding the chorus, Mercedes can see Sam recognize the song, because he takes a step forward, smile growing crooked with sincerity. "You found me when nobody else was lookin'. How did you know just where I would be? Yeah, you broke through all of my confusion, the ups and the downs and you still didn't leave. I guess that you saw what nobody could see; you found me."

Now that he's closer (close enough to kiss, but not yet), Mercedes has to tilt her head up further, but she doesn't mind. This is where she shines, pouring her heart out in song, and everything she's singing Sam is sending right back down to her. He sees her. She takes his hands for the next verse.

"So, here we are. That's pretty far when you think of where we've been," Mercedes sings. Images flit through her mind: her crush on Kurt, years of friendship Valentines but no special someone, her quiet longing for a date to just one school dance. "No going back, I'm fading out all that has faded me within." Then Sam Evans told her she looked beautiful and asked her to dance, and he hasn't stopped doing either of those things since. "You're by my side, now everything right, I can't believe..."

Somehow they end up with their arms around each other, swaying to the music. The rest of the party should be audible, but all Mercedes can hear is her voice and her heartbeat, steady and sure. "You found me when no one else was lookin'. How did you know? How did you know?" Mercedes asks again, letting her voice swell to fill the space, and Sam kisses her forehead.

In her mind's eye, she can see them onstage, somewhere small and comfortable but packed with fans. Sam his guitar and she's singing this song to the audience, but it's still their song, it's still their dream together. "You found me when no one else was lookin'. How did you know just where I would be?" She's been asking herself that question since she and Sam first started dating, not because she can't believe he could love her but because she can't believe she and Sam met, that circumstances fell into place like notes in a piece of music, one right after the other.

"Yeah, you broke through all of my confusion, the ups and the downs and you still didn't leave. I guess that you saw what nobody could see, the good and the bad and the things in between; you found me."

Their faces are so close that it's easy for Mercedes to lean up to kiss Sam the moment she finishes the last note. She really should feel cold by now, but she finished the song, she got it out, and all that's left is giddiness. She pulls back and says, "I love you, Sam Evans."

His mouth goes from an o of surprise to: "I love you, too, Mercedes Jones."

"Let's not go back to the party for a while," Mercedes suggests. Sam seems only too happy to agree.

*

Rachel has been assured by multiple people that pranks on the cast and crew are a traditional part of the final performance of all shows at McKinley. On Sunday, she gets up at six in the morning and makes her kitchen, freshly cleaned by all of New Directions from the cast party the night before, dirty all over again. One cannot make several batches of vegan cookies without breaking a few egg substitutes, or so the saying kind of goes. Just as she runs a dull scissor edge down the last ribbon on the last cookie bag, she hears familiar beeping outside.

"Kurt's here, sweetie!" her daddy calls from the living room. "Leroy, help her carry the cookies, I'm almost done with this."

"What a convenient excuse to make me do all the manual labor," her dad calls back, but helps Rachel load up Kurt's car anyway. "We'll be by later. Wouldn't want to miss your encore performance."

"Thanks," she says, tilting her face up for the requisite goodbye kiss, and hops into the front seat. (Kurt already told her that Blaine's driving himself today, complete with a wry comment about how he sees is audition partner more than his boyfriend.) "Tonight" comes up on shuffle as she buckles her seatbelt; not even being in the musical has dimmed their love for the music.

As usual, they sing along as they pass through the streets of Lima. Rachel takes off her shoes and puts her stockinged feet up on the dash, making her voice as light as she can for today all day I had the feeling a miracle would happen. Months later, the memory of reading the cast list still stings, overlaid with the fresher hurt from her Tisch audition, but her inner perfectionist forces her to admit, at least inwardly, that her voice is wrong for the part. It's hardly her four-year-old self's fault that she grew up to be a mezzo soprano. When Kurt's voice slides up effortlessly for Tony's high notes, Rachel turns to look at him, considering.

"Do you regret giving up the role?" she asks, because they're friends now. He won't make fun of her lack of tact.

"No," Kurt answers, hands tightening around the steering wheel. "Carmen Tibideaux herself liked my audition. I wouldn't trade that for a high school production."

"Okay," Rachel answers, speaking voice gentle in a way her singing voice never quite achieves. "Bet you five dollars that you can't find your bag of cookies."

"Deal," Kurt says, and they seal it with an air five--not quite the Kurt-and-Mercedes secret handshake, but close enough.

Their final performance, a Sunday matinee, lacks the nervous electricity of opening Friday night or the breathless thrill of either of the Saturday performances; they're all too tired for that, ready to collapse into a post-show coma. The pranks are what keep up the energy, from the obscene faces Puck makes onstage whenever his back is to the audience to the mysteriously weighted soda bottle props that cause all of the Jets to nearly break character onstage. In between cues, Rachel hides bags of cookies in unexpected places: in Maria's "bridal" bouquet, in Bernardo's leather jacket, even in an empty (and washed out, of course) bottle of Kurt's hairspray.

Mild backstage anarchy pales in the face of the last few scenes, of course. Rachel gives up fighting tears when she hears the tremor in Tina's voice, in character for Maria but unmistakably Tina before it smooths out to Maria's bitterly-won certainty. Rachel cries because the end of the play is heart-wrenching and beautiful, but also for the end of the show. West Side Story isn't hers the way that New Directions is, but it's full of her people. The curtain falls and Rachel lets out a giggle through her tears as Quinn pulls a cookie bag out of her sweater with a confused expression. Quinn Fabray is one of her people.

After the inevitable standing ovation, Rachel, clutching Mercedes and the bouquet of flowers her dads threw her, does her best to make it through Ms. Pillsbury's speech without ruining her makeup any more than it already is. "Even before our first day of rehearsal, all of you have inspired me. I never would have made it without your dedication and your passion," she's saying, and then has to hide her face in a large handkerchief.

Coach Beiste gets as far as, "You kids," and then the football players, New Directions members included, dump a cooler of ice water over her head. Rachel will never understand sports.

"TV will always be my calling, but y'all realized my vision," Artie says, which is the cast's cue to go around congratulating each other.

"Mr. Schue was crazy for not giving you that solo two years ago," Rachel says to Tina, because it's the highest praise she can offer, and they both know it.

"Thanks for the cookies," Tina says, and hugs her.

"Those cookies were the lamest prank ever," Santana says, overhearing. She gives Blaine a punch on the arm that looks almost affectionate, then holds up her bag of cookies, pinched between two ruby-tipped fingers. "Pranks are supposed to be funny."

"Pranks are better when they make everyone involved smile," Rachel answers primly, and Santana's expression shifts to something resembling guilt. But no, that would be absurd. Santana Lopez is many things, but apologetic is hardly one of them.

"Well, they don't taste too bad," Santana mumbles, then wanders off to find her fellow Cheerios.

"She was almost nice to you," Kurt observes. "She's losing her edge."

"She's really not that bad," Blaine says, though he's still rubbing his arm.

"I suppose she's one of us," Rachel says, and it's that phrase that breaks through the post-show ennui already setting in. Thank heavens she can project her voice even after three days of intense performance, because her height certainly isn't doing her any favors. "Attention, members of New Directions!"

Many heads swivel in her direction.

"Congratulations on a spectacular run! I would like to remind everyone that Sectionals are next week, and it's never too early or too late to prepare!" Rachel flashes everyone a sunny smile and a perky thumbs up. "Our first rehearsal of the week begins in five minutes!"

Dead silence (and gaping mouths) ensue.

"Just kidding!" Rachel says, and shoots a grin at Santana. Who says she doesn't know how to pull a backstage prank?

*

New Directions misses the first part of strike due to a pre-Sectionals Monday afternoon rehearsal (and thank God that Rachel was kidding about the Sunday rehearsal, because Mike is ready to drop dead). That means the set is already halfway to demolished by the time they arrive, and Mike can blame the constriction of his throat on all the dust in the air.

His father never came to any of the performances. Mike got home too late on Friday night to see his parents, spent all of Saturday in the theater, slept over at the Hudson-Hummel household (and tried not to resent the earnest way Mr. Hummel tried to talk to Kurt about the performance), and spent Sunday post-performance hanging out with Tina. He hasn't even discussed the performance with his mother, unwilling to let his feet touch the ground just yet. He's raised avoidance to a new level, spinning just out of reach.

"'Tearin' Up My Heart' makes me want to kiss you for the first time all over again," Tina says, tugging him by the hand toward the stage, where various tools await. "You're not out of the spotlight yet."

Mike picks her up and twirls her, throat loosening enough for a laugh. "You either." Tina might not have a solo in Sectionals, but her room is so full of flowers from her performance as Maria that it makes his eyes water. It's changed the way she walks, straightened her spine to make her half an inch taller and put an extra bounce in her step. They've always fit together, but now she takes up her own space, and they make room for each other. Mike adds, "You inspire me."

Tina looks at him like he's just nailed six power moves in a row, but before she can say anything, Lauren walks over to them, clipboard in hand. "Abs, Puck and me are gonna need you with us for some heavy lifting. Tina, you mind taking on the costumes? Keep the freshmen from shoving them into random boxes."

"Aye aye, captain," Tina says, letting Mike's hand go with a final squeeze.

The heavy things are, as promised, heavy, but Mike lets the burn in his biceps and Puck and Lauren's banter distract him from thoughts of home. Strike will keep him out for another dinner, and maybe he can wing it so that he doesn't have to face his parents until after Sectionals. (He could invite them--it's not like the school hosting them is far from Lima--but he's had enough disappointment for this month.)

Puck starts singing "The Way You Look Tonight" just to piss off Lauren, who hates-it-but-not-really when her boyfriend indulges in public displays of affection. Mike's not wearing his tap shoes, but he does a little improvisational shuffle, retrieving a fedora somehow gone astray in the props pile. They've hit the hour where there's no more work to be done beyond sorting the last few things and sweeping everything of the debris. A dance break is in order.

Mike's feet still when the auditorium doors swing open to reveal his mother. He stays fixed to one spot as she walks down the aisle, her pace revealing a trace of hesitation. He should say hello or wave or something, but his muscles have locked in place. Puck gives him a questioning look but beats a surprisingly tactful retreat with Lauren as Mike gapes like an idiot.

His mother climbs the small staircase onto the stage. She's still in her coat, but she tucks her gloves into her purse. "I haven't seen you in a few days," she says, her tone mild, as though talking about the weather. "I didn't even get to congratulate after the show."

"Did--did you like it?" Mike asks. His throat is tight again, and his voice is little more than a whisper.

"McKinley High School is full of extraordinarily talented people." All at once, the composure leaves her, and Mike registers her tear-brimmed eyes as she reaches up, fixing the collar of his shirt and then brushing off a few spots of sawdust. "You were--you were everything I used to dream of becoming. It was impossible to watch anyone else onstage when you were dancing. I wish your father had seen it."

"Thank you for coming," Mike says, swallowing. "I didn't expect it."

She lets her hands fall and gives him a sad smile. "It must have hurt that we never came to any of your performances. I'm sorry for that. I assumed they weren't important because you never invited us."

There's really nothing Mike can say or do to make that okay, so he pulls his mother close and wonders when she became so small compared to him.

Around him, Mike can hear the distant murmur of his friends finishing the cleanup: a burst of scattered laughter here, a cheerful exchange of insults there. Doors swing shut; backstage lights switch off. He holds onto his mother on the stage he danced across just yesterday, wondering when the last of the set was removed. The place is clear, empty.

"I want to dance," Mike hears himself saying, unplanned. "Not just in high school, in college. For my whole life."

"I know," his mother says, resting her head against his chest. "I knew it the moment I saw your performance."

"Dad," Mike says, because it's the only word he needs to convey the whole conflict of the situation. All the impracticality of his dream, contained in a single word.

"He'll need to see you dance, of course. We'll figure something out."

Mike half-laughs because his friends are still here and he doesn't want them to see him cry, but he still takes the opportunity to hide his face in his mother's shoulder, for all he's grown so much taller. Of course his mother says, like she's been his co-conspirator for the past five years instead of the past five seconds, like it's always been this easy and he was just too afraid to ask. "I love you so much. Thank you."

"What are they going to build here next?" his mother asks him, looking up toward the bare auditorium lights.

"Guess we'll have to find out," Mike says, gesturing for her to take the lead as they exit.