Prologue: sometimes I think I'm not that strong (but there's a force that carries me on)
She remembers learning about Glee club after her eighth-grade research project on Elvis; apparently he got his start performing in high school. To her, Glee sounds like someplace someone could find a life passion in, could learn to be themselves.
Plus, music. She's grown up listening to her mom singing in the kitchen, so she has nothing but positive associations with music and performing.
And so Glee club made sense when her mother lost her job, and they had to move to Lima when she was starting high school. She'd actually wanted to join the school's Glee club her freshman year (a decision that had nothing to do with the fact that they later won Nationals) but lacked the confidence. Even now, Marley still feels like she's over her head; she loves singing, and although she's still a little shy when it comes to performing, she's made some real friends.
Right now, though, she's wishing she hadn't added her name to the sign-up sheet all those months ago. She's starving and tired (but still too fat), feet twitching as she goes through their Regionals performance in her head because she's terrified she'll mess it up, and she has to help her mother with a catering job when she gets home from school today. Special guests or no special guests, she's this close to just skipping today –
– except the guests are already here. Brittany, happier than she's seen her in months, sits on the risers, talking to two other girls.
"Marley!" Brittany bounces over to her with her usual enthusiasm, giving her a quick hug. "Have you met Quinn and Santana?"
"Not really, no." Seeing them in the hallways briefly as she ducked in and out of classrooms last year certainly doesn't count. Marley just knows Santana can see the fear on her face, knows that Santana is aware of the effect her reputation has on her.
"Oh, relax, sweetheart; I don't bite. Not you, anyway," smirks Santana, earning herself a smile from Brittany and an eyeroll from Quinn. Marley isn't sure if Santana's kidding or not.
Some of her trepidation must have shown, because Quinn says, "Shut up, S," and directs a friendly smile in her direction. "Ignore her – she's all bark and no bite these days actually."
Marley smiles back, though it's a little hesitant.
"San, be nice." Brittany slips an arm around Marley's, giving her elbow a squeeze. "Marley's my friend, and she's a great person." Suddenly, she frowns, and her grip briefly tightens around Marley's arm; Marley sucks a breath into suddenly-empty lungs. "Even if she thinks she isn't," adds Brittany in an undertone.
Before Marley can respond, Brittany's slipped away to Santana's side, and Quinn is staring at the both of them.
"I, uh, I need to go to the bathroom." She doesn't wait for them to respond before she's out of the choir room, feet taking her down the corridor to her preferred bathroom – the one in the science wing that nobody goes because it always stinks of whatever chemicals the labs were using that day. Glee was a bad idea, but now she can spend her afternoon getting rid of the grease she had to eat at lunch under her mom's eye, and maybe work out a bit before she has to help with the food prep…
She skids to a halt, surprised. "Yeah?"
All the friendliness is gone from Quinn's face, replaced by a keen intensity. "Is everything okay?"
The smile that stumbles onto her face is mostly surprise, though she tempers it with a self-conscious laugh. "Y-yeah. I'm fine, I just need to pee."
"No, you don't."
Her mouth opens and closes soundlessly.
Quinn sighs. "Look – I know you don't know me at all, but I also know what hiding a secret feels like. There's something you're not saying."
Her words put Marley on edge. "You're right. You don't know me, I don't know you, and I definitely don't know what you're talking about."
"I don't have time for this bullshit," snaps Quinn suddenly; her tense expression relaxes instantly when Marley flinches. "... I'm sorry. I didn't mean…" She frowns, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. "I'm still not very good at talking to people about these sort of thing."
Marley stays dumb.
"Brittany said something earlier, about you… I've known her for years, and I know a lot of people think that Brittany's just an airhead blonde, but she's a lot more perceptive than that." Quinn's eyes trail up Marley's body. "She knows something's not right, but it's not her place to say anything."
"Then what makes it your place?"
Quinn smiles ruefully. "A lifetime of mistakes."
Marley relents – but by just a fraction. "That's impossible. You're only, like, a couple years older than me."
"Getting drunk and pregnant by my then-boyfriend's best friend, then giving up the baby to my friend's biological mother; going through a punk phase, then finally this half-assed plan to get my daughter back," she recites, "cheating on my next boyfriend with the same guy I cheated on before. All before graduating high school." Quinn gives her a tired look that Marley recognizes; it's the look her mom wears when she balances the checkbook at the end of each month. "I think that counts as an entire lifetime of mistakes."
"... I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I've done some fucked-up things, and gotten what I deserved for them. I've learned my lessons." The swear sounds incongruous, something too coarse to have come from Quinn's mouth. "Anyway, that wasn't the point of me telling you. I just wanted you to know that I've been there."
"Okay, but that still doesn't have anything to do with me."
"You don't want to talk. That's fine," Quinn persisted, "but I know there's something seriously wrong; Brittany wouldn't have said anything if there wasn't."
"No offence, but Brittany should mind her own business. And so should you." Marley feels her cheeks flush – she's never been this rude to anyone before, and her heart pounds in her chest.
Quinn presses her lips into a thin line. "I'll let that go just this once, but you shouldn't say anything about Brittany. She's a good person, and I know you are too."
"No, I'm not." Marley takes a deep breath. "... I'm fat."
"No, you're not," is the automatic, incredulous response that comes from Quinn. "Have you seen yourself? I used to wish I was as thin as you are now."
"I'm not thin. I need to lose weight, but I can't control myself." Her hands are shaking. This is the first time she's tried to verbalise the swirling emotions she feels. "I eat because everybody expects me too, then I have to undo it."
Quinn's face darkens. "Marley, no."
"What you're doing isn't healthy. There are diets and exercise plans…"
"Those aren't good enough!" Marley explodes.
Quinn stares at her.
She's quivering. She's unlocked all those pent-up emotions that had no outlet, and she just wants to inflict all this pain on Quinn, as her punishment for setting them free from her Pandora's box. "I don't… I'm not that pretty, or smart. The guys only talk to me because we're in Glee, and we have to perform together. Given the choice, they'd rather talk to pretty girls like Brittany, or Kitty, or even Tina… Not plain, quiet Marley Rose with the homemade clothes and lunchlady mom." She drops her gaze, ashamed to have admitted what's on her mind, the anger gone from her. Her eyes well up with tears; Marley clenches her jaw, determined not to cry in front of Quinn. "It hurts. That's why I'm doing this. I need to make myself better."
She doesn't respond.
"Hey. Look at me? I need to tell you something important."
Marley's watery gaze remains fixed on Quinn's boots.
"... I'll make you a deal, okay? You look at me and let me say my piece. It's short, and I don't need you to respond if you don't want to. In return, I'll leave you alone, and I'll never talk to you again. This never happened. Is that okay, Marley?"
Quinn's voice is soothing. Marley finds herself wanting to trust that voice. Slowly, she lifts her chin, her mouth set in a defiant line to keep her tears at bay. Quickly, she finds Quinn's hazel eyes.
"Thank you." Quinn smiles briefly. "You're right. I don't know you. But I do know that something like this eats at you, until you're just this hollow shell that just shows people what they want. The perfect daughter, head cheerleader, Christian, girlfriend." Quinn shakes her head. "And you know what you get for being what they want? Nothing. You don't even have yourself, because you lost that along the way."
"You know something's not right. I don't have to know you to know that." A smile quirks Quinn's lips. "But sometimes… you have to accept that some things are too much to handle alone."
Marley's lip twitches.
"It's hard, isn't it? How everyone seems so normal, and you're wondering: Why do they have things so easy?" Quinn continues, merciless. "And you alone struggle with this millstone around your neck, and no one seems to care."
"How do you know that?" The question slips from Marley before she can stop herself.
"I was in a bad place too. Arguably I was worse, because I couldn't even admit to myself what was wrong, and you just opened up to a complete stranger," she smiles wryly, "but I got out. It took a very persistent and annoying someone going out of her way to help," her gaze slides somewhere beyond Marley, "but I managed it." Quinn takes a deep breath. "Yeah. That's… it's all I wanted to say. I need to get back to the choir room now. I prepared a routine with Britt and Santana, they'll be looking for me. Take care of yourself, Marley." She turns to go.
Quinn pauses, head turned to the left.
"I'm coming with you."
Marley quickens her pace, and steels herself; she returns Quinn's smile with a tentative one of her own. No eye contact though; she's not up to that right now.
They get back to the choir room to find everyone else already gathered. Santana makes a snide comment about making use of the facilities which Brittany quickly cuts off, adding a smile for Marley.
She spends the entire session in a daze; too focused on Quinn even for Kitty's veiled jabs. She watches Quinn dance, watches those pretty red lips form the words, and wonders how someone like Quinn Fabray, the hotshot Ivy League freshman, used to be the Quinn Fabray that was described to her. All because she found the courage to seek help.
Marley looks down at her hands in her lap. Maybe... just maybe, she doesn't have to be strong enough to keep her system clean of fat. Maybe she doesn't have to be strong enough to look at the mirror and evaluate herself.
Maybe she can be strong enough to let go of all of it.
Marley feels a little better by the end of practice. Music has always buoyed her spirits – something that has never changed, even on a day like this.
"Alright, guys, we'll call it a day," says Mr Schue, and the room echoes with the scraping of chairs pushed back. Marley shoulders her backpack, already thinking of the work that's waiting for her at home, tuning out whatever the instructor's still saying. She sees Quinn ahead of her, flanked by Santana and Brittany, and Kitty trailing after them all. She can let them go first; the door's small, and the hall's bound to be congested from the other students finishing up their extracurricular clubs and activities.
Quinn catches her eye. The older girl gives her a small nod, and then turns away to answer a question Kitty's asked.
Marley scrapes together what's left of her self-confidence. She might still be shaky and small and uncertain, but she knows something big happened with her and Quinn, and she has to thank her, at least. Her mother raised her right.
"Quinn, wait up."
She turns a little too quickly, like she's been waiting for Marley the entire time. "Yes?"
"I, uh, wanted to thank you. For – earlier." Marley fidgets a bit with the strap of her backpack and does her best to tune out Kitty glaring at her. "I know what you said, but… you don't have to. Yeah."
Quinn absolutely beams at her – as does Brittany, but Marley doesn't notice – and says: "You're welcome. I'll see you around, Marley." And she's gone, with her friends. Kitty shoots a suspicious look at Marley but decides to go after Quinn instead, bustling down the corridor in the wake the three Cheerios have left.
Marley watches them disappear. She's still a nobody in the school, but somehow she feels a little lighter, a little different.