Ryder’s still at Breadstix celebrating Mr. Schuester and Ms. Pillsbury’s wedding with the rest of the glee club when he gets the Facebook message from Unique. It’s short and to the point, only long enough to tell him not to quit glee. She’ll quit instead, since it’s her fault, and Ryder can stay. It’s the only fair thing to do.
Ryder hasn’t thought much about his decision to quit since they were handed the trophy earlier that afternoon, and as he looks around the room at all of the people he’s grown to love in the past few months, the idea seems almost unbearable. Glee club without Unique doesn’t sound like something Ryder would be interested in, either. She’s such a presence in the choir room. No one else in the club can sing like her. She would be missed far more than Ryder, and she’d miss it more than he would, too. No matter how angry he is with her, he knows he’d never feel comfortable letting her quit just so he could stay.
He considers ignoring the message for now, waiting until he’s home at his computer and can concentrate so his spelling won’t be quite so horrible, but that seems silly. Unique has already seen the worst of his writing, anyway, and if he’s going to respond to her message here, he might as well go talk to her. He can see her from where he’s sitting, with Marley and Jake in a booth across the restaurant. Unique has stuck close to them all night, sneaking glances at Ryder so often that it’s been impossible to miss.
It takes Ryder a minute to build up his courage and leave Joe and Artie behind at his own table and cross the restaurant. Unique, still in her Regionals dress and her wig, watches his approach, trying to cover her wide-eyed fear with a look of haughty defiance. It’s a look she wears often in the halls at school, trying to stay strong in the face of her tormentors. Ryder’s stomach twists at the thought that she fears him like she fears them.
“Can I talk to you alone for a second?” he asks when he’s reached the table. His body is pointed in her direction, but his eyes are lowered. Looking her in the eye for too long doesn’t feel possible.
It’s Marley who replies. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” she says. When Ryder turns to her, she’s biting her lip, looking concerned.
“It’s a celebration, dude,” Jake adds. “We won, Mr. Schue got hitched... why don’t you just go back over and hang out with Artie and Joe and we can avoid the drama for tonight?”
A flare of anger shoots up his chest at yet another implication that he might get violent, but before he can reply, Unique speaks up.
“It’s fine, guys,” she says. “Can you excuse us?”
Jake and Marley oblige, but Jake takes his time exiting the booth, making sure he gives Ryder a look of warning before he walks away with a still-worried Marley. It hurts, knowing his friends don’t trust him and probably aren’t on his side. He has a right to be angry, and he is, but he’s not going to hurt anyone. Don’t they know him at all?
With Jake and Marley gone, there’s a whole side of the booth empty for Ryder to slide into, but that feels too intimate, so he remains standing, hovering over the side opposite Unique, feeling more awkward than angry.
“I, um, got your message,” he says, holding up his phone. He’s still avoiding eye contact with her. “Why didn’t you just say this to me in person? I said I wasn’t going to punch you or anything. You don’t believe that?”
“I believe that. But you also said you were never going to talk to me again.” Unique’s voice wavers a little as she speaks. “I didn’t want to come talk to you and just have you ignore me or walk away.”
Ryder swallows hard, remembering their conversation in the hallway. He’d meant the words when he said them, but he’s already screwed it up. They’re talking, and there’s no use walking away now. This is important.
“You can’t quit, okay? If you do, everyone will just hate me more than they already do. You have the best voice out of, like, everybody, and-”
“Nobody hates you,” she interrupts, and he meets her eyes before he can stop himself. She looks genuinely confused by the statement. “I mean, you’re completely right about my voice, but nobody hates you at all. This is my fault, and...” Unique looks down. “You can’t quit, okay? I know how important glee is to you.”
“It’s not that important to me,” Ryder lies.
“Honey, please,” Unique scoffs. “I know you, remember? You can’t lie to me about that.”
It’s true, Ryder knows. He’d told Katie everything, even long after he’d known Katie wasn’t Katie at all, but someone he already knew from glee club. He can’t convince Unique that he doesn’t care whether or not he’s in the glee club, not after spending so much time talking about how much he looks forward to it, how it’s finally helped him make friends after being a loner for so long.
“Well, it’s more important to you,” Ryder replies, finally sitting down on the empty side of the booth. “I know it’s the only place you feel like you can be... you, and feel safe about it. I’m not going to make you give that up just because... well, because of this.”
“I can’t believe I screwed this up so badly,” Unique whispers. When Ryder chances another look at her, there are tears forming in her eyes. His instinct is to comfort her, reach across the table and squeeze her hand. He doesn’t want to sit here and watch her get upset, he can’t. He would comfort Katie, and he would comfort Unique, but offering comfort to Unique-who-is-also-Katie is just too hard, too confusing. Ryder’s already regretting sitting down, because now he wants to remove himself from this situation as soon as possible.
“Just... don’t quit, okay?” he says, getting out of the booth and avoiding her eyes again. “I won’t quit, but you can’t either.”
Unique sniffles. “I didn’t do this as some sort of reverse psychology thing, you know. I wasn’t trying to trick you into saying neither of us should quit. I just-”
“I didn’t think you were trying to trick me,” Ryder says. “But you’re right. We both need glee club, and they need us, too, especially with Brittany leaving and the rest of the seniors graduating in a few months. We don’t have to be friends to be in the club together, we just have to be civil.”
“Okay,” Unique agrees. “Look, Ryder, I-”
“I gotta go,” he interrupts. She sounds too upset, and he’s not willing to hear more apologies, not right now. He’s out of earshot before she has time to argue.
When Ryder gets home that night and excuses himself to his bedroom, he still can’t get Unique off of his mind. The thing is, when he thinks about it, Unique being behind the whole thing makes a lot of sense to Ryder. Unique had more of a reason than anyone else in the glee club to be scared of liking someone. He’s thought a lot about her since their argument during feud week, done a lot of research to help him understand what it means to feel like you were born into the wrong body. He knows he’ll probably never get it, not completely, but he can imagine how hard it must be to walk in her shoes. Ryder had enough trouble when he liked girls, and he was actually allowed to show that attraction with only the fear of rejection from the girls. There was no real fear of disgust or reproach, no worries that people would hate him just for having feelings for someone else. Of all the glee girls it could have been, Unique really should get the most understanding from him, at least. She can’t just tell guys that she likes them. It doesn’t mean she’s blameless, but he can’t stay mad at her forever. What if Marley had never forgiven him for liking her and going after her in ways she didn’t approve of?
Ryder likes Unique. He always has, even before, when her insistence that she was a girl made him a little uncomfortable. She’s funny, brash and unapologetic, but not in an offensive way, like Kitty. It’s become a lot easier for him to think of her as a girl, too, since his post-feud week research. It’s especially easy when she’s all dolled up for performances. She’d looked gorgeous today at Regionals.
Deep down, he knows that no matter how bad this hurts, no matter how betrayed he feels, Unique didn’t do this to be vicious, and that makes a difference. If it had been someone trying to mess with him, if everything Katie ever said had been a lie, Ryder’s not sure he could have handled that. Katie isn’t a fake person, she isn’t a joke. The girl who had made him laugh, made him feel special, the girl who had talked him down from panic attacks before several tests, who shares his love of french fries and Parks and Recreation... she’s real. Unique is real, and she likes him, and that’s really not so bad. He may not like her back, but he doesn’t have to hate her, either, just for having feelings. He’d spent an embarrassing amount of time picturing himself with Katie, both before and after finding out that she wasn’t some blonde he didn’t know but someone in the glee club pretending. His mind had provided him with images of Marley, Kitty, Tina, Sugar, and Brittany, but he’d never thought about Unique that way. He’d always assumed that if the culprit was Unique, it would just be payback from the incident during feud week. He hadn’t considered her feelings might be real. He doesn’t know if he can picture Unique that way, but when he closes his eyes, leans back against his headboard and tries to bring her to mind, she appears easily, right in front of him in her Regionals dress, watching him with expectant eyes as he leans in and presses his lips to hers.
“Oh,” he breathes, his eyes snapping open. He’s not sure how far he’s ready to let his imagination run with this right now.
Of all the ways he’d pictured this Katie thing wrapping up, lying in bed thinking about what it would be like to kiss Unique had never even entered his mind. It’s confusing, and he wants more than anything to talk to someone about it, talk to Katie, because she’ll listen to anything and not judge him. It’s Saturday night, and they had a standing Saturday 10pm chat date each week, so he’s feeling the loss more than ever right now. Part of him wants to take out his laptop, sign on and see if she’s still there, waiting to talk to him just in case, but he knows that’s stupid. Pretending that Katie is just Katie, that he can still talk to her under that name and ignore the truth that he knows, will be impossible. He doesn’t want to hide behind that name, not anymore.
Instead, Ryder pulls his phone from his pocket and opens up his text conversation with Katie. He fights the urge to read through all the texts they’ve shared in the past month and selects her name to bring up her contact info. It’s hard, backspacing through Katie’s name, watching it disappear right in front of his eyes until there’s nothing left, but he doesn’t leave the space blank for very long. He fills the void with Unique’s name, tapping the letters slowly and deliberately, trying his best to spell it right on the first try.
He goes back to the text conversation, looks at Unique’s name above it, and tries to come up with something to say, some way to explain that he could really use someone to talk to right now, and she’s the only one he feels comfortable with. It feels wrong as soon as his fingers start tapping out the letters. All he’d wanted was to talk to this person for real, and he doesn’t want to limit himself to texting anymore, not if he doesn’t have to.
It takes more courage than he thought to hit the call button, but his nerves are soothed a bit when he hears Unique’s voice in his ear, a wary but hopeful ‘hello?’
“Hi,” Ryder says, swallowing hard. “I, um... I was wondering if we could talk? I know things are weird, but we always talk on Saturday nights, and I just... really need someone to talk to right now.”
“Of course,” Unique says. “You can always talk to me.”
Her voice is soft and comforting, like a hand in his or an arm around his shoulders, and Ryder lets himself close his eyes again, wondering what the future might hold for them.