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Ricochet of Fate

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Title: Ricochet of Fate
Author: Sulkygeek
Rating: NC17 at some parts, R for most.
Length: 78, 700
Spoilers: Through the current season
Summary: Ups and downs in Quinn and Rachel’s relationship. Mostly a relationship story. This has an ambiguously happy ending, but it’s happy. Really.


 

Rachel could not believe she was willingly in an elementary school again, but at least she was getting paid this time around. NYU was expensive, and she was glad for a Work Study job that did not involve serving her fellow students in some capacity. Granted, she liked her fellow students well enough, but she didn’t want to be forced to be polite to them though polite was her default setting. It was kind of like community service-- once it was compulsory, like as a high school graduation requirement or whatever, she found it burdensome, even as she liked donating her time.

She was glad she’d managed to secure this job for herself in which she tutored kids in reading during class time and helped the teacher during the once-a-week music class. She didn’t like kids much-- they tended to be dirty, frequently smelly and often seemed confused by her. Also, they had a high probability of spraying some type of disgusting bodily fluid on her and while she knew children were supposed to be small, she was still disturbed by people who were smaller than her. But she was glad for the job because she really needed the money. Financial aid from school and the occasional handout from a parent kept her from starving--but New York City had a very high cost of living and she was glad she found a legal way to make some money.

She smiled when the teacher she was assigned to introduced her as ‘Miss Rachel’ which caused the entire class to chorus ‘Hello, Miss Rachel!’ Rachel wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or roll her eyes. She was not one of those people who found kids cute-- she had to be careful about what she said in front of kids, young ears and all, and she was not a person known for having much of a filter between her brain and her mouth. Somehow she’d been assigned to first graders-- practically the youngest ones. She was completely freaked out and felt wholly unprepared because they were just beginning to learn to read in first grade. She cursed that 21 hour training-- it was clearly not enough.

School only recently come back into session and she was to work with each of the children individually for ten-to-fifteen minutes to give some individualized attention to keep the kids from falling behind. She and the teacher, Ms. McCormick arranged a schedule that revolved around her class schedule and though she wanted to try to come in for longer blocks of time, two or three days a week, it worked out that she’d come in five days a week for shorter periods.

The first round of kids she tutored were cute and all, but mostly uninteresting. Still, she tried to be as diligent as possible, emphasizing the stuff she learned in the training. It wasn’t feasible to expect her to get to all the kids in each session-- she was only in the classroom anywhere from one to three hours depending on the day, so once she was done for her first day, she waved at the teacher and quietly slipped out.

She went the next day and her entire session revolved around the music lesson. There wasn’t much one could teach a bunch of first graders about music in a New York City public school, so mostly she just sang songs with them and she had to admit their adulation over her voice felt pretty good. The hour finished up, and she made her discreet exit. She went back the next day and was mostly bored through her first four kids-- though she tried not to be. They were all really sweet and clearly wanted to do well in school. She wanted to encourage that, but it was hard to explain to a kid why English was such a funny language with so many words that just did not follow the rules.

Her fifth kid was a blond girl with hazel eyes who walked to the back table which served as Rachel’s work station and took a seat.

Rachel glanced at her list of kids Ms. McCormick wanted her to work with that day. Beth C.

“Hi Beth,” Rachel said. “I’m Rachel.”

Beth smiled. She had a couple teeth missing. She was adorable.

“Hi Miss Rachel. I’m Beth.” She stuck out her hand and gave Rachel a gap-toothed grin.

Rachel was so charmed she forgot to check if Beth’s hand was clean before she shook it. Luckily it was.

It was only her third day in the class and so she spent a little time each session getting to know the kids to establish some rapport before jumping in.

“You have a pretty voice,” Beth said.

Rachel grinned. “Thank you, so do you, Beth.” She smiled again. “Do you have a favorite book?”

Beth scowled. “No, I like singing more better.”

“Just better,” Rachel corrected automatically.

Beth looked at her blankly. “I like singing just better?”

“No, I--” Rachel trailed off. She had no idea how to explain it. “You don’t have to say ‘more better,’ say ‘better,’ okay?”

“But I do like singing more better than reading.”

Rachel smiled. “I know, but it’s like a rule, okay?”

Beth shrugged. “Okay. Can we sing instead of read?”

Rachel looked at her sympathetically. She wished they could sing instead of read, too, frankly. “Not today, Beth.”

Beth sighed. “Okay,” she said, sounding extremely resigned for a first grader.

Rachel suppressed a laugh because the kid definitely had a sense of theatricality. For a kid so reluctant to read, Beth was pretty good at it-- almost flawless with the Imagine It! reading materials Ms. McCormick gave her. She didn’t think Beth needed the extra attention considering some of the others students she’d seen who were really struggling, but Rachel didn’t want to address it with Ms. McCormick because Rachel didn’t want to risk a smart kid like Beth not getting enough attention and then falling behind because of it.

The rest of the kids she worked with that day were pretty average from what she’d seen.

By the end of the first week, Rachel had worked with each of the thirty five students and knew each of them by first name and first initial of their last name. There were three Rachels (Rachel G, Rachel K and Rachel W) and she’d bonded with each of them over it. There were a surprising number of Destinys-- four of them (Destiny C, Destiny Z, Destiny O, Destiny T) and two Amys. There was a shocking lack of Jennifers (zero!). There was a boy Sam and a girl Sam and all the kids were cute as hell and Rachel was much less intimidated by the whole thing when she left the school on Friday than when she walked into on Monday.

--

“Are you stupid or something?” her roommate Crystal asked her when Rachel announced the job she found for herself. “Working with kids is terrible. I used to babysit and I think I still have PTSD from it. When I wake up wailing in my sleep after dreaming about reading ‘Hurry Harry Hurry’ for the hundredth time and I have flashbacks to being shit on, that’s PTSD right?”

“You needn’t be so dramatic,” Rachel said mildly.

Crystal actually gaped at her. “You’re telling me not to…” she trailed off. “Never mind. Anyway, children are gross little sociopaths.”

“It’s one of the higher paying Work Study jobs,” Rachel pointed out. “And children are not sociopaths.” She had to grant Crystal the ‘gross’ part though.

“Children generally don’t have much of a sense of morality which is practically the very definition of a sociopath. And working with kids is thankless. Believe me. You should just get some non-work study job like me and spare yourself the headache.”

“Work Study is the more logical route, Crystal. Not only do I get a paycheck for the hours I work, but Work Study pays into my tuition as well. It’s like getting two checks.”

“It’s going to suck, just you watch.”

Rachel rolled her eyes. “My roommate, the human Magic ball. What else is in store for me, oh all-knowing roommate?”

“Ask again later.”

Rachel had to laugh.

Rachel was very glad Crystal seemed to be wrong-- at least, a week into it anyway. It still had time to suck, but she was optimistic it wouldn’t.

She’d lived with Crystal for the past three years, and they were good friends, but not so good that it would devastate her if their friendship blew up over their living arrangement. Crystal was trustworthy, respectful and easy-going and Rachel appreciated her deeply. But the girl could be a real negative Nelly sometimes, though Rachel thought having a great roommate was well worth the occasional bouts of cynicism. Still, she wondered if maybe Crystal jinxed her somehow-- the most rational parts of her mind told her not to put any stock into that kind of crap. But the other parts of her mind (which frankly outnumbered the rational bits) caused her to refer to Macbeth as “the Scottish play” when she played Lady Macbeth during her junior year and press her forehead against a wall or door jam before every performance for at least a minute for good luck. If Crystal ended up jinxing her, Rachel would kill her. Or at least, freeze Crystal’s favorite bra-and-underwear set.
--

Rachel did not discover a love for teaching or anything, but she had to admit to herself it wasn’t as bad as she thought it was going to be and the kids were nowhere near as filthy or gross as she predicted. The highlight of her week was the music hour-- granted most of the kids could not carry a tune although a few of them like Beth C. were surprisingly really good, but they all seemed so joyful and unabashed in the glee they took in singing. Sure they were off-key, but she liked that they sang for the pure joy of it.

Camille P., David S. and Beth C. were her favorite kids. She liked Camille P. and David S. because they tried so hard. She wasn’t quite sure why she liked Beth C. so much because she was a pretty typical first grader, but she was such a good kid and she loved music. Sometimes it was hard to get Beth to focus for even a few minutes because the little girl would be bouncing in her seat softly humming some tune Rachel didn’t recognize so she just kind of assumed Beth was making up (she had the same ability when she was younger, but it seemed to have slipped away from her as she grew older). There was something in Beth that made Rachel a little sore because she knew Beth would unlikely hold onto that joy forever-- no one ever did. Beth would go on to be hurt and to hurt others, would have her heart broken and break the hearts of others, may be bullied or be the bully. Whatever. But Beth wouldn’t stay a sweet little kid forever, probably not even for much longer. But God that kid was a sweetheart.

It was about eight weeks into the school year when Rachel showed up at the elementary school one day while the kids were still at recess. Rachel helped Ms. McCormick stuff letters to the parents into envelopes inviting them to Open House whilst rambling on about her latest audition. Ms. McCormick listened with a half smile and Rachel knew the other woman really wasn’t all that interested, but Ms. McCormick often told her things she had no interest in, so Rachel thought it was okay.

She sat at her table in the back of the room while Ms. McCormick sat at her desk a few feet away. Rachel grabbed a letter, stuffed it into an envelope, looked at the list Ms. McCormick gave her and wrote: ‘To the parent(s) of Beth Corcoran’ on the front of the envelope.

She was already writing ‘To the parent(s) of Destiny Cudney,’ when the name ‘Beth Corcoran’ hit her. She grabbed the envelope again and stared at her own writing, as if it could give her some answers. She thought about little Beth Corcoran with her blond hair and hazel eyes and when Rachel thought about it, she could see both Noah and Quinn in that child. The fact she could carry a tune did not surprise her considering both Noah and Quinn displayed talent in that area and she was being raised by Shelby. Rachel swallowed hard. Maybe it was a mistake. Beth Corcoran was probably a more common name than one would think, although she was the right age to be that baby Quinn gave birth to and Shelby Corcoran adopted.

Rachel prided herself on her acting ability, so she continued on with her task despite the fact her heart was racing.

The bell announcing the end of recess rang and Ms. McCormick left to collect her class. They were back a few moments later and thirty five tiny voices greeted her as they walked back into the room.

“Hello, Miss Rachel!”

Despite the fact her world was off-kilter, she had to admit the genuine excitement in their voices upon seeing her was thrilling. But adulation was supposed to feel good, especially when it was so pure.

Ms. McCormick smiled at her. “It’s kind of like being a rock star, isn’t it?” she asked wryly as she tried in vain to quell the excited voices of the children still calling out to Rachel.

Rachel chuckled. “I can’t deny enjoying the adulation.”

Ms. McCormick laughed and Rachel pushed her feelings aside and got to work, calling David S. to work with her.

--

“Are you coming to the Open House?” Ms. McCormick asked her before Rachel left that day.

Rachel was invited, but not required to attend the Open House since the parents probably wanted to meet the college student who was working with their precious little darlings. Rachel originally intended to go, but once she found out Beth C. was Beth Corcoran and likely her…what was that relationship? There was none, really. In any case, Rachel did not want to risk running into Shelby.

“I’m sorry,” Rachel said, making her tone apologetic. “I have a show opening that night,” she lied.

She did have a show opening, but it was the night after.

Ms. McCormick smiled. “That’s okay, I know you’re busy. Maybe some other time. I know the kids have really taken to you and I’m sure they’re talking about you to their parents.”

Rachel smiled weakly. She hoped not, at least with one particular student. “Maybe some other time.”

--

After leaving the elementary school, she went to a few classes, grabbed a coffee with her friends Calvin and Monique and spent some time good-naturedly complaining about her boyfriend while her friends commiserated with the disgusting false sympathy of two people happily ensconced with each other.

“He’s a twat,” Calvin said, painfully uncharitable about his former best friend. “You tell that fucker if he ever hurts you, I’ll punch his heart out.”

Rachel exchanged a look with Monique and they each rolled their eyes because Calvin was the sort of guy who captured insects in the apartment he shared with Monique and released them outside.

“Stop embarrassing yourself,” Monique said, affectionately mussing her boyfriend’s hair.

“I’m not embarrassed,” he said peevishly, though he grinned.

“Okay, then. Stop embarrassing me,” Monique said.

He grinned at her and laughed.

“Seriously though,” Monique said, reaching across the table to squeeze Rachel’s hand. “You tell that twat if he ever hurts you, I’ll punch his heart out.”

“Aren’t you embarrassed for yourself?” Calvin cut in nasally.

“It’s believably murderous coming from me,” Monique grinned.

Rachel laughed. She hung out for a while and then went home. She’d managed to quell how perturbed she was through her day, but by the time she went back to the privacy of her apartment, she was completely freaked out about Shelby and Beth.

Crystal was already home with the guy she was dating that week.

“Hey!” Crystal greeted.

Rachel gave her a small smile. “Hi.”

“This is Gabe Tsai. Gabe, this is my roommate, Rachel Linton.”

Rachel smiled. “Hi,” she said, shaking his hand. He was cute enough and seemed nice, but history predicted she wouldn’t have to get to know him, so she excused herself to her room as quickly as she could.

It was funny, but it was only after Crystal introduced her that Rachel realized how grateful she was for her parents’ petty divorce during her senior year in high school in which Daddy demonstrated he was her biological father and then insisted she change her last name to his. She’d refused at first because she was pretty attached to Rachel Berry-- she’d practiced her ‘autograph signature’ for years and had it perfected. But he was petty and since he was the more reliable, functional parent, she really didn’t have a choice. It was highly likely he wouldn’t have helped her pay for college otherwise. It seemed like a small concession for getting out of Lima.

Beth was the only kid in the class to ask her last name, and Rachel was accustomed to saying “Rachel Linton” by then. When she got famous, she thought she would just change it to “Rachel Linton-Berry” or “Rachel Berry-Linton” so that neither of her fathers got insulted. (Crystal pointed out to her ‘Linton-Berry sounded like some very small and tart immune-system building fruit which Crystal also liked to point out was an apt descriptor of Rachel herself). As it was, she was still fielding guilt from Dad about letting Daddy talk her into changing her name. Now Rachel was very glad for the name change-- things really did happen for a reason, because if Beth ever mentioned her first and last name to Shelby, it would be Rachel Linton, not Rachel Berry.

It took four years for her to see any pay off in her parents’ very bitter divorce, but there it was.

--

She’d convinced herself she was freaked out over nothing and the Beth Corcoran in that classroom was not the Beth Corcoran who was the adopted daughter of her biological mother. Why would Shelby and Beth be in New York City rather than in Lima? Maybe it was just a case of a child with the same name. After all, plenty of children were blond with hazel eyes-- that in and of itself wasn’t so unusual and if this child’s last name was Corcoran and bore more than a passing resemblance to Quinn and Noah…well, then, that was coincidence, right?

But the possibility still nagged at her and she was still perturbed that evening when Ryan came over.

Rachel kissed him and then pulled him into her bedroom.

“What’s up, babe?” he asked. “You seem…weird.”

He always tried to be diplomatic, but he wasn’t very articulate. Crystal thought the pairing was hilarious-- Rachel was excessively verbose and Ryan was not only laconic by nature but tended to be inarticulate when he did choose to speak.

Rachel chuckled. “I think a kid in my class is my sort-of sister.”

He raised an eyebrow.
--

It’s not like he didn’t know. They’d been dating for three years, and so he knew all about her fathers and the bitter dispute that forced her to change her last name. But when she told Ryan about her parents, she emphasized the early stuff-- the things she never witnessed, but was told about. The love that made them want to bring a child into the world and hire a surrogate.

The surrogate was a sore subject and Rachel fast forwarded through that part, and only told the story one time after they’d dated about six months. She just gave the bare bones-- that she’d met her biological mother who would go on to adopt the baby of a classmate and then fall out of touch. He seemed to sense there was more to it, but Rachel was glad he never pushed for more details because she still wasn’t ready to talk about it-- rejection tended to stay pretty raw.

“Well,” he said. “Maybe you can start wearing a disguise when you work at the school so that your mother won’t recognize you.”

She rolled her eyes. “A disguise?”

“You might be able to get away with it. She doesn’t sound very smart.”

She raised an eyebrow. “My dads said she’s brilliant. That’s one of the reasons they chose her.”

“Well, I wouldn’t willingly walk away from you,” he told her gruffly. “Now get me a beer, woman.”

She gave him a wry smile. “I’ll accommodate your boorish request,” she told him, getting up from the bed. “But only because you were being so sweet to me.”

He was sweet, but one of those types who had a hard time with communication. Sometimes it was annoying, but she just accepted that about him-- otherwise she’d just be with someone else.

She loved him and cared for him because he was fiercely protective of her, which, in turn, made her ferociously protective of him. Until Ryan, she never had anyone in her life who was willing to stand up for her (and to her when it was necessary). She had other people in her life now who she believed genuinely cared about her, which she never really believed she would have, and she was thankful for that-- but she loved Ryan most because he was the first.
When she made her lifeplan back in high school, she thought she would have a series of tumultuous, fiery romances and then ultimately settle down with a man she loved, but didn’t make her crazy. Or maybe end up with someone who used to make her crazy before they both grew out of it. She thought everyone’s life went like that-- a series of relationships that damaged until one found the relationship that didn’t.

Somehow she thought relationships in her 20’s would be wilder or more dysfunctional or whatever, but it really wasn’t like that with Ryan. Granted she had a lot to complain about with Ryan, but he had a lot to complain about her, too. They had their volatile moments, but he didn’t make her crazy and she liked that.

She wasn’t married to Ryan, but sometimes it felt that way. Sometimes, she was certain this was the relationship that was going to last, because while she loved and adored him with ferocity, she mostly felt like she was at the end of a marathon with him-- like the best and hard parts were over, and now she can just cool down and get some rest. It wasn’t exactly romantic or passionate, but it was real, steadfast and dependable.
--

Overall, Rachel was happy with her life. Granted she wasn’t taking the world by storm yet the way she fantasized, but she’d always known that was unlikely. She was only twenty, after all, even if she was on the verge of twenty one. She had time. But her reality was still very good-- she was doing well in school, learning a lot in her classes from professors who genuinely wanted to teach her. She felt she was becoming a better singer and better actress. The play she was in for school was pretty successful and got good reviews in the school paper and actually had good ticket sales from outside the university community.

She knew her voice was good-- it was the acting she needed to work on, and she was glad for every opportunity to learn and practice. She had a decent apartment, a nice roommate and an attentive boyfriend. She had a pretty good job and had some good auditions. She was getting by financially-- on top of working at the elementary school, she’d picked up a job waitressing which was totally cliché, but it brought in money, so she didn’t mind. A girl could dream, but she still needed to eat her gluten-and-soy-free egg substitute.

She talked to each of her fathers at least once a month and got along fairly well with both of them. Every a few months, one of them deposited a few hundred dollars into her checking account as a surprise and when she’d call up the appropriate parent to thank him, he’d always laugh and remind her she was far away, but not so out of reach. When she had each of her fathers, alone, she remembered why she loved them so much. Until, that is, each of them would inevitably bring up the other parent. Her daddy thought her dad had Borderline Personality Disorder and her dad thought her daddy had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The two of them were always going on about some ridiculous website, lovefraud dot com. She indulged them both but she thought they would both be better off if they just cut the charade and got back together-- though they’d both found new relationships and actually started new families. Daddy actually turned out to have had a family before she was born that she never knew about and he’d gone back to his first wife. It was still a sore subject, but one she was trying to get over.

So her life was good, but she had to admit Beth C’s last name being Corcoran stressed her out. She tried not to let it show and she was certain she didn’t treat Beth any differently, but she made sure never to be at the elementary school around morning drop-off or school dismissal, because being on the campus around those times would increase the chances of running into Shelby.

Then it was December and getting close to Winter Break and it just so happened the elementary school’s break coincided with NYU’s. She took the week before final exams off from work to study and prepare her Winter recital. Most of her classes were now voice or acting related, but she still had a couple General Education requirement classes.

She did well on her finals, her play had a successful run and actually sold out on the last few nights and she did well at her Winter voice recital. Everything also coincided with her twenty-first birthday which was pretty nice. She went back to work on the elementary school’s last day of school feeling utterly elated. She worked with Beth first and the little blonde shyly presented a small Winnie the Pooh doll with a red bow around his neck.

“Happy Holidays,” Beth said shyly but with a big people-pleaser smile.

Rachel felt her heart melt. Given half a chance, God, how she would have loved this kid. “Happy holidays, Beth.”

Most of the kids in the class had brought her something-- cookies or a stuffed animal or even just a thank-you card with a candy cane on it. Rachel had to admit the attention made her delirious -- it really was kind of like being a rock star.

She’d spent three hours the night before putting together little holiday bags for each of the kids. It was nothing big-- clear cellophane bags containing some cookies she’d baked, candy and those little party favor toys that came in bulk. She got little plastic rings for the girls and toy cars for the boys despite the fact she knew she shouldn’t be giving into such gender biases. But she really didn’t see the harm because the girls instantly put on their rings and the boys instantly began bashing their cars into one another. And anyway, she brought extras of each, so that anyone who something extra could get one. Each of the bags were otherwise the same and she’d passed them out to the class when she arrived. Beth brought hers with her and she peered up at Rachel.

“Thank you very much for our treats,” Beth said politely with a big grin. She held up her bag to illustrate. She had a purple plastic ring on her ring finger. Rachel noticed Beth wore a lot of purple and she just assumed it was Beth’s favorite color, so she put the purple ring in the holiday bag on purpose.

Rachel smiled. “You’re welcome, Beth.”

“I wish you’d come earlier, Miss Rachel. My mommy wanted to meet you.”

Rachel forced a smile. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet her, Beth. Maybe another time.”

Beth gave her a gap-toothed smile. “Okay.”

Beth had a difficult time focusing and that was really the trend of the day. Most of the kids were way too excited to really focus, which Ms. McCormick warned her about so she spent most of her time just talking with the kids about their vacation plans and writing out four sentences about what they hoped to do. She made sure to work with each child that day, so she was there longer than she usually was. She was still at the school when it was very close to dismissal and Rachel made a hasty exit after waving to all the children to tell them to have a wonderful break.

She did not want to risk running into Shelby.
--

Rachel stayed in the city for all her breaks from school. She really hadn’t been back to Lima since the Winter Break of her freshman year in college, four years ago. She’d been seventeen then on the verge of turning eighteen, but her parents insisted she return home because they didn’t want their slightly underage daughter running amok in a major metropolitan city.

She spent that first Winter Break going back and forth between the new apartments of her fathers. They tried to be attentive and good to her, but they each spent most of the time badmouthing the other parent. It was terrible.

After that disastrous trip, she vowed never to return to Lima. She always had some show or something to prepare for which made refusing feasible. After all, her singular devotion to the pursuit of establishing her career was well-documented since she was four years old. She didn’t want to be in the middle of a tug-of-war between her parents and she didn’t even have friends in Lima she could hang out with when things at the separate residences of her fathers got too oppressive. Santana and the other glee kids had made it very clear to her during her junior year they did not like her and they only tolerated her for her talent.

That hurt a lot at first until she got used to it. That was fine by her because she valued her talent more than she valued the potential of their friendship. She stopped bothering to try to make friends with them by Sectionals that year because it’d been depressing and thankless to even try, and she didn’t hate herself enough to keep attempting a fruitless endeavor. She was plucky and optimistic, but she wasn’t some bored crazy person with nothing better to do than prostrate herself at the feet of people who didn’t give a shit about her. When she looked back on it now, she was glad she wasn’t friends with any of them because she understood what real friendship was now. Now that she was happy with her life, she realized she only wanted their friendship so badly the way a starving person wanted a stale bread crumb that fell from the lips of an obese glutton.

And of course there was that disastrous fling with Quinn their senior year, but Rachel tried very hard not to think about that. Ever. It’s not that it was that painful-- it was one of those brief, but intense relationships that ended badly. It hurt then, but mostly she looked back on it with shame and embarrassment. So she tried not to think of it and she rarely had occasion to think of it anyway.

Her life now was fairly close to what she dreamed it would be while she was still in Lima. She didn’t see why she should ever leave New York for Lima even for short periods of time. It didn’t matter how her life in New York went-- she’d never return to Lima because it’d given her nothing and there was nothing left for her there.

--

Her roommate, Crystal’s parents lived in Argentina, and so Crystal never went home for holidays either. Although Rachel and Crystal were friends, they didn’t spend a lot of time outside of their apartment together. They were friends who lived together so spending time outside their apartment was just unnecessary.

But they hung out during every winter break because everyone else always went home. Most people stayed for summer breaks and lots of people went away together for spring breaks, but winter breaks were the ones people seemed to want to spend with their families. Rachel was disinclined to do this, because she thought her relationship with her parents was better when it was via email or telephone, especially now that they both had other families who didn’t seem to want her around to remind them of the other lives of her fathers. And anyway, she liked spending her winter break hanging out with Crystal. It was a good tradition.

She was in the living room on Christmas Eve reading a script for her next school play and listening to ‘Coming in from the Cold’ by the Delgados on repeat when Crystal came home from the grocery store. Crystal lost the rock-paper-scissors battle and therefore had to make the Christmas Eve grocery store trek, which always sucked, but Rachel thought it was fair because she’d made the day-before-Thanksgiving grocery trek that year, which was always worse. Crystal set the bags down in the kitchen without unpacking and plopped on the sofa next to Rachel, half-straddling Rachel as she plucked an ear bud out of Rachel’s ear and inserted it into her own.

Crystal snorted. “This song would make my vagina cry if I had to listen to the whole thing,” she declared, passing the ear bud back to Rachel. She slapped Rachel’s thigh. “Let’s make dinner, you lazy cheating git.”

Rachel held back a snort of laugher, because she did not understand how one could possibly cheat at rock-paper-scissors the way Crystal accused her. She pulled the other ear bud out and set her iPod and script on the coffee table. She stood up, stretched and followed Crystal into the kitchen.

--

They cooked their Annual Sad Friendless Losers Christmas Eve dinner. Neither of them were sad or friendless losers, but that was what Crystal deemed their first Christmas Eve dinner together three years ago and the name stuck.

Rachel was just grateful she found a vegan roommate.

“You think being a vegan in bumblefuck Ohio is hard?” Crystal demanded when Rachel idly commented on how nice it was to have a vegan roommate and how hard it’d been to find vegan alternatives when she was in high school. “Try being vegan in Argentina, that’s hard!”

Sometimes Crystal reminded Rachel a little bit of Sue Sylvester.

--

She and Crystal long ago agreed not to exchange presents during the December holiday season. They both had December birthdays, so they usually just got each other birthday gift cards

“You made out like a bandit,” Crystal commented, chewing on one of the many cookies Rachel brought home from the kids in her classroom the week before. Christmas Eve dinner was finished and they were now lingering at the kitchen table eating the cookies for dessert. “These cookies are so cute. They decorated them and everything.”

The cookies were decidedly non-vegan, but Rachel and Crystal indulged anyway.

“I know,” Rachel said. “But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with so many stuffed animals.” She thought it was sweet of the kids, and she didn’t want to just chuck them because she possessed an extreme sense of sentimentality. But she honestly didn’t know what to do with them.

“Let’s have a tea party tomorrow,” Crystal suggested with a straight face. “We’ll find some fancy hats and you can practice your British accent. I’ll channel my mother’s Argentina by way of China accent. It’ll be hilarious and maybe if we do it long enough, you can add ventriloquism to your resume. ”

Rachel snorted and got up to pour herself a glass of almond milk. “You’re so ridiculous.”

“Get me one, too, okay?”

“Yes.”

Rachel poured two glasses of cold almond milk and came back to the table.

“Thanks.”

“Sure.” Rachel paused for a moment once she sat down again. “You said Carole told you one of the guys at the library quit, right?”

“Yeah. Does this mean you don’t want to have a tea party tomorrow?”

Rachel ignored the question entirely. “Did someone take the job already?”

“I don’t think so. School’s out and the kid quit, like, the last day of school before the break. Why?”

Rachel hesitated before she spoke, pondering the merits of telling Crystal about Beth and Shelby. She knew Crystal would be respectful, and Crystal knew about her fathers and Shelby, but that was really it. They were friends, but they weren’t really all that close-- it’s kind of what made living together so easy.

“I think one of the kids in my class is the adopted daughter of my biological mother,” Rachel said. “I haven’t spoken to my mother since I was fifteen and I’d like to keep it that way and avoid awkwardness. I’m thinking of quitting, but I need to find another job first.”

“Oh,” Crystal said. She paused. “Am I asleep?”

Rachel looked at her strangely. “What?”

“I don’t know, for a second I thought maybe I was dreaming because that sounds like something out of All My Children. Is your mother Erica Kane?”

“My mother isn’t fabulous enough to be Erica Kane,” Rachel said dryly. She didn’t watch the soap opera but she was familiar with who Erica Kane was.

“That’s so weird,” Crystal commented.

“I must confess it was very strange for me as well. What is the statistical likelihood of my mother’s daughter being in the classroom that I was assigned to for a job that I was unlikely to take in the first place except for my financial dire straits?”

“No, not that,” Crystal said. “Weirder things have happened. Who doesn’t have a story about running into someone unexpectedly in an unlikely place? I’m talking about you holding out on me about your mother. I can’t believe you’re so interesting without me knowing about it. I had no idea you were so withholding. I see you in a whole new way and I’m a little attracted to you now. I’m not sure I can go on with this platonic living arrangement any longer. Would you care to make out? I only ask that way because you seem to place a lot of emphasis on propriety and you seem the type who’d want someone to ask for permission.”

Rachel gave her a tiny grin. Crystal was both frustrating and comforting. She ignored the comment about the alleged newfound attraction because she knew Crystal didn’t really mean it. “Tell Carole to keep her eye out to see if anyone takes the position when school gets back in, will you please? I want to quit the tutoring thing and work at the library.”

Crystal grinned at her. “I told you that it would suck.”

“Now’s not the time for I-told-you-so, Crystal. Will you just tell Carole?”

“I’ll tell her.”

--

Ryan came over and the three of them huddled on the sofa to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas again. Ryan didn’t have any family in the state either, and Rachel appreciated he gave her space for her tradition with her roommate before coming over to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas with her. She was Jewish and did not have the same emotional attachment to the holiday the way Ryan or Crystal did, but that didn’t mean she wanted to be alone on it either.

They polished off a bottle of vodka with cranberry juice and had a warm buzz. Rachel was sandwiched in between her boyfriend and her roommate until her roommate stood up and announced she was going to bed.

It was after midnight and therefore officially Christmas.

“Happy Christmas,” Rachel murmured.

Crystal smiled. “Happy Christmas,” she said. She gave a tiny wave and went off to her bedroom.

Rachel snuggled into Ryan and pressed her cheek into his broad chest. He was tall and broad with dark hair and dark eyes. She certainly had a physical type. She always preferred her men like that, though their personalities varied. When she first met him, she’d been physically attracted to him but mostly felt he was unimpressive. She noticed right away that he breathed really loudly and uncharitably thought ‘mouthbreather.’ Now that same loud breathing was comforting and reminded her that as much as he bewildered her sometimes, she could count on him when she really needed him.

“Happy Christmas.”

“Happy Christmas,” Ryan murmured back, stroking her hair.

--

She was mildly hungover when she woke up the next morning, but not incapacitated. She just had a mild headache and wished she’d consumed more water before she went to sleep. She reached for Ryan, but he was already out of the bed and she could smell food cooking in the kitchen. She got up, put on some clothes and padded into the kitchen. She found him in front of the stove and she watched him for a moment, a wave of affection swelling up from low in her belly before she walked to him, wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed her cheek into his back. He leaned back into her and they stood like that for a moment.

“Hey.”

“Hey. Thanks for cooking breakfast.”

“It’s tradition.”

She chuckled and poured herself some coffee. She wasn’t one of those people who needed coffee to live, but she liked the taste. She took a sip and set the mug on the table. She put her hand flat against his back. She could feel the warmth of his skin through his shirt against her palm.

“I’m going to brush my teeth, I’ll be right back.”

“Sure, baby,” he said, a little distracted. He was trying not to burn the Ener-G vegan egg replacer or the fake bacon (facon) and she watched him for a moment before she walked away. She had to admit she appreciated the way he really tried to accommodate her, because he was very committed to his bacon and egg breakfasts, steak and potato lunches and surf-and-turf dinners-- all of which sounded absolutely odious to her.

Crystal was in the bathroom and they brushed their teeth together in front of the mirror at the sink. They walked back into the kitchen together and sat down for breakfast.

They spent the rest of the day together because Rachel didn’t want Crystal to feel alone or left out and then they watched a midnight movie at the theatre around the corner.
--

She spent Winter Break buying books for her classes on Amazon and EBay and trying to find the lowest price for the best condition. She went on a few promising auditions, memorized her script because rehearsals would start up once the new semester began and just stayed optimistic about her prospects. No one said it would be easy.

--

By the time the new semester started, Rachel was firmly committed to quitting her job at the elementary school but she just had to line up her job at the library first. She felt bad about disappointing the children, but it wasn’t as though they wouldn’t get over it. She wasn’t a cynical person by any means, but she thought everyone had to get used to the occasional disappointment. Besides, she was a college student. She was allowed to be flighty.

She kept her plans to herself for the first couple weeks after the elementary school came back in session. The library gig wasn’t a sure thing because there were bunches of other work study kids who needed jobs and she already had one.

But two weeks into the new semester, Ms. McCormick slipped her a note right before Rachel left at 11:46am on a Friday morning-- right before the kids were about to go to lunch.

“Beth’s mother gave me this note to give to you,” Ms. McCormick said with a smile. “It’s a thank-you note. Beth’s taken a real shine to you.”

Rachel took it shakily. She read the front of the envelope.

She recognized the handwriting.

Miss Rachel Linton.

“Thank you,” Rachel managed to say before she left quickly.

--

She read the note as she walked to her class.

Dear Miss Linton,

Beth tells me you’ve been working very hard with her and I’ve seen how she seems to be more inclined to read ever since you began working with her. She speaks of you constantly (Miss Rachel is a favorite dinner table topic in our home) and I can’t thank you enough for the attention you’ve shown my daughter. Thank you for the kindness and commitment you’ve shown not only to the class, but specifically to Beth.

Sincerely,

Shelby Corcoran

Rachel swallowed hard. There was no way she could delude herself anymore. Beth was Beth.

She crumpled up the note in her hand and was ready to throw it into the nearest receptacle, but she stuck it into her purse instead. She was distracted through the rest of her classes, which was unfortunate because she had classes for the next five hours straight. By the time she got home, she burst in through the door, barely stopping to greet Crystal who was surprisingly still dating Gabe Tsai.

Rachel heard Gabe comment “your roommate always seems like she’s in such a rush.”

Crystal chuckled. “That’s what happens when you give a hummingbird Ritalin.”

Rachel shut her door and read the note from Shelby again. Then she tore it up and threw it away.

--

A week after Rachel received the note, she got the job at the library. She apologized to Ms. McCormick who looked angry and told Rachel the kids deserved better, which they did, but she accepted Rachel’s mind was made up. Rachel felt awful as she had to tell the kids she wasn’t going to come back and deflected their repeated whys.

She felt like a massive disappointment. She wished she were a better person, but she wasn’t.

“Babe, it’s okay,” Ryan told her when she sighed about her feelings of guilt. “The thought you would run into your mother was stressing you out. You don’t deserve that. You didn’t do anything wrong. What’s so bad about you looking out for yourself once in a while?”

“I feel really selfish. I am really selfish. You should have heard how disappointed they were. People aren’t disappointed at the prospect of not seeing me again, you know.”

“I’d be disappointed if I couldn’t see you again,” he offered.

“I know, but we’re sleeping together. And I’m really good at it. I could fathom why you would be disappointed.”

He snorted and shook his head at her bluntness.

“It’s okay for you to be selfish if you’re just looking out for yourself, babe. You are the only person on this planet who would think otherwise. Why should you put yourself through all that stress?”

“Ms. McCormick said the kids deserve better-- and they do.”

“Babe, you deserve better. It’s really okay to be selfish if you’re just looking out for yourself.”

She knew he was right, but she still felt awful. She knew if she were a better person, she’d just stick it out and fulfill her commitment. But she wasn’t a better person.

--

The job at the library was less fulfilling, but she got more study time and it wasn’t as exhausting either. She thought it was a pretty fair trade. She missed the kids, but she wasn’t longing for them or anything. Her friends seemed to think she would have found her calling or whatever as a teacher, but all it did was emphasize how much she did not want to teach.

The semester wore on, and she mostly forgot about the children other than Beth and her guilt diminished, particularly because she ran into one of the other NYU student tutors who informed her that someone else snatched up Rachel’s job pretty quickly and apparently that tutor was an actual Education major or something. She still thought about Beth and Shelby now and then, but she really didn’t think of them that often. Things in her life were pretty good and she really didn’t fixate on things that only served to stress her out anymore.

--

It was cliché, but she got into an argument with her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. It wasn’t during dinner or anything, either. It was a Sunday and they’d finished brunch and browsing in a bookstore. She thought everything was going pretty well as they walked to his car.

She was pretty elated from the day-- she’d been greeted with the sweet scent of flowers and a steaming hot cup of coffee. Then when she looked at her wrist she saw the most gorgeous silver bracelet that she’d definitely did not go to bed wearing. Everything just seemed so perfect when they left her apartment to go to brunch.

“What do you say we just stay in tonight instead of going out?” Rachel suggested as they walked down the street, arm-in-arm. They were only about ten feet from where his car was parked. She only made the suggestion for his sake-- she didn’t mind crowds. She thought she should get accustomed to them for her future stardom. Ryan hated crowds though and she thought they could just stay in and she could cook for him.

He stopped walking and she immediately sensed that he was not happy. Though he was generally very even-tempered (much more so than her) he’d had a few of these very rapid changes in mood over the years. Mostly with other people, and she’d inevitably have to smooth things over, but it’d happened a few times with her, too, and she’d found each experience to be terrifying, but not enough to give him up because it’d been so infrequent. He yanked his arm away from her and stared down at her, glowering hard enough she instinctually drew back.

“I made that reservation a month ago,” he spat out.

She swallowed hard. “It was just a suggestion,” she said mildly, trying to placate him. This was really his only true fault-- the moments of rage he experienced for no reason or were completely out of measure. She could see why he might be irritated, but he’d clearly misinterpreted her intentions.

“You’re so fucking thoughtless, Rachel!” he snapped, his voice rising. “You always expect me to go over the top for Valentine’s and then when I make a fucking reservation a month in fucking advance in a restaurant where we can both eat instead of your vegan crap, you say we should stay in, what’s wrong with you?!”

“Ryan, calm down,” she said lowly, reaching for him.

“Shut up,” he snapped.

And then he slapped her-- just once across the face. She swallowed hard and her face felt very hot, though she wasn’t sure if it was from embarrassment or the sting of being slapped. Some people just passed by like these types of arguments were commonplace, but other people were staring.

He seemed to sense that, too, because he grabbed her by the wrist and yanked her to the car. She thought she heard someone shout her name and she instinctively turned around to look, but she didn’t see anyone she recognized. The thought that maybe she was just hearing things was a relief, because she was embarrassed for herself. It sounded like a child’s voice calling out to her anyway and she didn’t know any kids. She ducked her head and quickly got in the car and they drove away. He drove like a maniac the whole time, cursing at her.

--

He’d calmed down and apologized by the time they got back to her apartment and she said she was okay, but she was still stewing from the shock of it. It was only a slap, so it’s not like there was any damage, though her face still throbbed a bit. But she was completely thrown off by it.

There’d been a few incidents over the past few years, but this was the first time he’d hit her and she didn’t know what it said about him that he did it in public. Weren’t people usually on their best behavior in public?

The other incidents weren’t that major--maybe a year into their relationship, he’d slammed his hand repeatedly on the wall to emphasize a point during an argument. It’d been scary and intimidating, but she dismissed it because he never even came close to hitting her and really, who didn’t become mad enough in an argument he or she wanted to hit something? She took out her anger on a punching bag at the gym, so she never had to resort to hitting a wall, but Ryan didn’t have a similar outlet and she just pushed the incident out of her mind.

It never happened again and for a year, he was sweet and gentle and their arguments never had any kind of physicality, even when they were volatile. Then a year later almost to the day, actually, they had an argument in which she’d been furious enough to try to walk away and he’d grabbed her by her upper arm and just held on. It bruised the next day, but again, she dismissed it because it didn’t seem unreasonable to grab someone to prevent them from walking away in a fight. Then a few months later, another volatile argument and he’d pushed her and pulled her hair. No damage, she was just kind of afraid of him for a while and she wondered if the relationship was worth it. She’d run an inner cost-benefit analysis and determined it was worth it to stay with him because outside of that one incident, she couldn’t say he was violent with her. And she didn’t think it was that violent-- people were worse to her in high school and those were people she’d considered her friends before they made it clear they didn’t think of her as a friend. She didn’t think it was so bad-- just pushing and pulling her hair. It was no worse than a Slushie being thrown in her face with great force as she walked to class or being tripped by a fellow student or being harshly insulted. It was just pushing and hair-pulling-- in some other context, it could be foreplay.

So she stayed with him and nothing bad happened for so long.

But the slapping was a whole other thing. She stewed about it the whole day, and a part of her told herself that it wasn’t so unusual-- one slap in a relationship. If it never happened again, what was the big deal? But she was so mad at herself for just complying with him and getting into the car with him when she should have told him off and just hailed a cab or something. It’d really been the shock of it. She just froze and went along with it when he took her by the arm and pulled her to his car. And he was so apologetic that she was trying to forgive him.

She went to dinner with him and stared at him for a while, contemplating this man and the state of their relationship. It was mostly very good and she was happy with it. She was happy with him.

But she wasn’t about to become some after school special or play the Julia Roberts role in Sleeping with the Enemy in real life. She knew she was being overdramatic about it. In actuality, she was convinced it would never happen again if she stayed with him-- after all, he’d told her he’d never slam his hand into a wall, push her or pull her hair (outside of the bed anyway), and he never did. She thought if she stayed with him, it would be okay. He was never really abusive to her-- never put her down, never tried to control her, never intimidated her or any of that stuff commonly associated with an abusive relationship. But she didn’t want to risk it, and there were some very clear warning signs there.

She wasn’t an idiot. He’d escalated from hitting a wall to hitting her and sure it was only a slap and not a punch in the face or whatever, but did it really have to escalate to that?

She loved him and she was happy with their relationship, but she wasn’t so desperate for love or affection that she’d let him slap her and be okay with it. She didn’t need him…didn’t need anyone that much. She’d been alone and lonely for the first seventeen years of her life before she moved to New York City and she’d realized people actually liked her once she left that narrow-minded bumblefuck town. She wasn’t so pathetic she’d trade in her self-respect for affection. She valued herself way too much. It’d taken her a long time to get to a point where she could value herself at all and she just didn’t think it was worth it to be with someone where she would have to wonder if he’d raise his hand to her again.

“I’m breaking up with you,” she told him softly when he’d walked her to the door after their Valentine’s dinner. He’d been ready to come in, but she stood in front of the door, blocking his entry.

“Rachel, listen. I--”

“No,” she said calmly. “You hit me today. In public,” she added for emphasis. “You’re just lucky I didn’t let you come in tonight and cut off your penis for revenge. I’m breaking up with you.”

“Rachel, just listen for a second--”

“I can entertain the notion of us being friends at some later juncture, but tonight, I’m breaking up with you. And you will not be able to change my mind. I think you know me very well by now to know once I am set on something, I am quite set. You will not change my mind. Goodnight, Ryan. We’ll make an arrangement next week when we’re both more rational to arrange for an exchange of our personal effects that have been left at each other’s apartments.”

And with that, she went inside, shut the door, locked it and walked to her room, ignoring the way he continued to knock on the door and call her name. She shut off her phone just to be safe.

She got under the covers and cried.

She suspected she would be doing that a lot for quite a while. She was strong enough to end it, but she wasn’t so strong she could end it and not cry about it.