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these strange steps

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Patience has never been her strongest suit.

It surprises her that she lasts until her dinner break on Friday to dig out the note with Quinn's number on it—her print still fine and girly, as an almost morbid contrast to the rest of her these days—and shakily dials it. She doesn't let herself get nervous, because if she starts to think about it, she'll just—

"Hello?" Quinn asks, sounding distracted. Rachel can hear traffic in the background, which is good, because it means that Quinn's not—on her way to work. Or at work. God, that thought smarts. She pushes it to the side and clears her throat.

"It's me."

"Oh," Quinn exhales. There's another loud honk in the background, and Rachel waits patiently. "I thought I made it clear that—"

"I can't stop thinking about you," Rachel says, because it's a little bit better than we only have two months, Quinn, stop wasting our time. Not much, but a little.

The line is silent, background noise notwithstanding, until that suddenly dims and Rachel hears a door slam. She closes her eyes and tries to visualize Quinn's place; is it an apartment or a house? Is it homey or distant? Sleek lines or the same kind of archaic, Napoleonic print that Finn once told her lined the Fabray house?

"Is this how this is going to be?" Quinn finally asks.

Rachel feels her entire frame tense, almost immediately. There's no warmth in Quinn's voice; if anything, she sounds distantly annoyed, like Rachel is some fly buzzing in her ear.

"I don't know what—" she starts saying, just to say something.

"Is following my … requests only an option for you when I'm fucking you?" Quinn asks, more harshly now.

Rachel closes her eyes and pinches the bridge of her nose. "No. I'm … I'm sorry. I said I would wait and I was going to but—"

"Yeah, but. But, nobody says no to Rachel Berry these days, do they? Or hell—I don't even think I mean these days. Has anyone ever told you no? Have you ever even cared?"

This isn't how this is supposed to go. They fucked, and that's supposed to be the first step towards... she doesn't know what she was thinking.

"I haven't thought of you … in forever," Quinn adds, with a little more composure, when Rachel doesn't have the nerve to interject again. "You come waltzing into … my place of employment, with your platinum card and your hero complex, and you expect me to just be okay with that because the sex could be really good."

"It's not just about—"

"Of course it is, Rachel. It's about wanting to fuck me and wanting to save me. It can't be about anything else because you don't even know me. And you know what? As much as I didn't want to associate with you in high school, at least back then you weren't constantly being followed by people with cameras who are a little too interested in your dating life for me to be comfortable with any of this."

Rachel rubs at her eyes and says, "Technically, I think I'm the one who's supposed to be worried about things like that."

"Oh, yeah. Of course. It's primarily a concern for you that you're all chummy with an exotic dancer. It's not like I have a career to be conscious of here, or people who don't know about that part of my life for very good reasons," Quinn bites out.

Rachel tugs her lip between her teeth and then says, "So what are you saying?"

"I'm saying that I wanted a week to figure out how I can do this."

"And that's just your decision, now?" Rachel asks, before sighing. "No, never mind. Of course it is. God forbid we act like the adults we are and talk about what this means for both of us. Jesus, Quinn, I don't even know what you do, aside from … the dancing. So how exactly am I supposed to help you keep that safe?"

Quinn doesn't say anything for a long moment and then asks, "Why did you call?"

"Because I can't stop thinking about you," Rachel repeats, more emphatically.

"Thinking about the way I fucked you, you mean," Quinn presses.

Rachel gnaws on her lip hard enough for a little blood to swell to the surface, and her palms start to itch in that way that normally means, I need a drink, or more than that. Maybe she needs a pill. Maybe she needs, God, better ideas than to push Quinn Fabray because when has that ever worked out in her favor?

The blood is tangy, but real, and it settles her in an unexpected way. It settles what's at the surface of her mind, anyway, which is the memory of Quinn's fingers inside of her, Quinn's mouth moving against her, and...

Rachel Berry, the singing enfant terrible, is nobody's hero.

"Yes," she admits, and can almost feel the satisfaction trickle through the phone line; because Quinn has her where she wants her, now. Backed into another corner of Quinn's choosing.

"So this is a booty call," Quinn muses. Her voice has changed, though. She's definitely not not interested, and Rachel slides down a little further on the couch, putting her plate on the coffee table, and running the back of her hand past her bleeding lip.

"Something like that," she says, after a second. "I thought it could be... a preview. Of what happens next. If you want."

"If I want? I'm not the one who called, Rachel," Quinn says, now sounding slightly amused.

It's weird, because this is exactly the same kind of fractured conversation they've been having ever since they encountered each other again; but rather than it feeling unsettling, Rachel just sinks further into the fabric of the sofa and starts toying with the first button on her shirt.

"I know. But you're right, you know. We don't know each other. Maybe we can learn to talk, but..."

"What are you wearing?" Quinn says. The crinkling of a bag sounds in the background, and Rachel frowns abruptly.

"Hang on. Are you... have you been putting away groceries all this time?"

Quinn hesitates for just a second. "My life doesn't stop just because you call. Especially given that I asked you not to."

"What did you buy?" Rachel asks, settling into this role now; Quinn, brusque and dismissive? Yeah, that she can handle; her hand automatically plucks at the first button on her shirt. "Tell me, and I'll tell you what I'm wearing."

Quinn laughs softly. "I don't even know where to start with you right now."

"I very much doubt that," Rachel says, her finger brushing against her sternum just about under her shirt.

"Spaghetti," Quinn says. "Tomatoes, some crusty bread for bruschetta. Olive oil. Um."

Rachel chuckles unexpectedly and says, "My God, that's pedestrian."

"I live a surprisingly boring life, when I'm not busy giving Broadway starlets lap dances," Quinn says, a little mockingly. "What are you wearing?"

"A pink dress shirt; I think it's Puck's," Rachel says, her finger slipping underneath the fabric again, toying with the second button. "Um, cotton work-out shorts. And... that's pretty much it."

She can picture the look on Quinn's face at the image she's painted; her nostrils, flaring for a second, the only thing to give her interest away.

"No underwear?" Quinn asks, voice even lower now.

"I'll answer that if you tell me what your plans for the night are."

Quinn snorts. "Jesus Christ, Rachel."

"Just go along with it," Rachel says. "Or I'll stop unbuttoning this shirt, and then what will we do?"

Quinn's sigh in response sends a shiver down her spine. "I was going to watch a Buffy rerun and eat some pasta. Maybe do some work on my thesis."

"Your thesis?" Rachel asks.

"Pop another button," Quinn says, in kind. Rachel feels herself twitch, at this first indication that Quinn is willing to … play. Even if she did break the rules. "Slowly, and then tell me where your hands are."

The button snaps loud enough for Quinn to hear it, and Rachel says, "There. Right by my breasts, and the other one is, um, holding the phone, obviously."

Quinn makes a small noise that sounds a little like give me a break, Rachel, but then says, "Ritualistic marking of female victims in murder cases involving sexual assault."

Rachel's thinking about Quinn's mouth, moving—making words, shapes against her, which is why it takes her a second to react to those words. "Wait, I'm sorry—what?"

Quinn's laughter is sincere, this time; it sounds different. Better. "You did ask."

"Yeah, but—"

"You know what they say about curiosity, Rachel. Another button."

The increasing urgency in her voice makes Rachel drops the pretense, and she quickly fingers the remaining buttons on the shirt open. "They're all done, now. What next?"

"Spread your legs," Quinn says, much more softly.

"What are you doing?"

"Looking up a recipe for tomato and herb pasta," Quinn says, dryly.

Rachel laughs unwillingly, and then gasps when her spare hand trails down her stomach, goosebumps following in its trail. "What are you actually doing?"

"Thinking about my hands, on you. Inside of you," Quinn says, her voice incredibly neutral. It somehow only makes it hotter, that she's being so explicit. Clinical. Maybe that has something to do with that thesis, or whatever Quinn is studying. She'd ask, but...

Her eyes slip shut, at the idea of Quinn, inside, and all she can manage is, "Oh."

"I'm putting you down for a second, because I don't think I can get myself off with these jeans on," Quinn says, abruptly.

Rachel's hips jerk upwards against nothing, hard. She focuses on breathing evenly as she hears the phone being put down, and then sighs when her knuckles brush down further, stilling near the top of her shorts.

"The things you say," she sighs, when Quinn appears to be back; Rachel can hear her breathing now, and it's making her uncomfortably hot and antsy.

"The things you make me want to say," Quinn responds, almost in hazily, until her voice finds focus again. "Where are you?"

"Sofa, in my living room," Rachel says. "I'm—can I touch myself?"

"No. I'll tell you when you can."

Rachel's eyes shutter, and she knows that she just whimpered loud enough for Quinn to hear it, but God, does Quinn ever know how to press her buttons. "We have to hurry up, though; I'm meant to be on stage in about half an hour," she says, shakily.

Quinn laughs low and says, "You know, prior to three weeks ago, the only thing I thought when I thought of you was that I really fucking hated how successful you'd become."

Rachel snorts almost despite herself. "Am I supposed to be disappointed by that? After what you did to me, you think I care about whether this is old or new?"

"I don't know, Rachel. What do you care about?" Quinn asks, a little sarcastically.

"Feeling like this," Rachel says. "Like—if you don't touch me, or if I don't touch myself, I'm actually going to die."

"I can't believe how fucking … easy you are," Quinn says, before moaning quietly. It's the first noise she's heard Quinn make, and her hand slips underneath the waist band of her shorts immediately. God, she's hearing Quinn touch herself.

"I have thought about this so often," Rachel says, knowing her heavy breathing is going to give her away if she moves her hand, and so she has to ask. "Please, Quinn, can I—"

"Two fingers, inside," Quinn says, almost immediately. "Slowly; the way I'd do it. I'd make you feel it, Rachel, and I wouldn't give you what you want. Not immediately. You know that, don't you?"

Rachel swallows a moan with relative success. "Tell me what you're doing? Please?"

"I don't think so," Quinn says, with a soft gasp. "You don't get to make demands right now."

Her fingers are picking up in pace even though Quinn told her to go slow, but with the soft little whimpers on the other end of the line getting louder, she just can't help herself. "What—just tell me what to picture. God, please. I've thought about this for so long, and you—"

"I like drawing it out. Even when I'm by myself," Quinn says, before swallowing audibly. "My fingers move around my clit, but never directly on it. Not until I can't stand it anymore."

"I—oh my God," Rachel says, her hips arching off the couch, heels digging into it for a better angle. She's almost shaking with frustration at this point, because the fullness inside feels fucking amazing but it's never going to make her come.

"I'm not going to go inside, because—fuck, Rachel, I want your fingers there, not mine," Quinn says, shakily.

"I need—can I please—" She can't even formulate whole thoughts anymore, let alone words.

"Yeah," Quinn exhales, gasping again almost immediately. "Go fast, I'm—"

Rachel doesn't need to be told much more than that; her fingers slip out, slick and sticky, and start rubbing her clit almost immediately. "I'm—oh, God, I can't stop thinking about your mouth, Quinn—" she says, because it's true—there might be fingers circling and stroking right now, but all she can think of is Quinn's tongue, tasting her with soft mewling noises.

"So don't," Quinn says, voice pitching precariously. "Think about it, because I want to do that again, but next time I'm going to tie you up and—"


"Yeah, you like that," Quinn says, with a small laugh that trails off into a moan. "Jesus, Rachel, I always thought you were square as hell in high school."

"You thought was square?" Rachel asks, breathlessly. "You were—oh my God, I can't have a conversation with you right now—"

For a few seconds there's nothing but Quinn's patchy breathing on the other end of the line, until she trails off into a whimper. "If I told you to stop, right now, could you do it?" she then asks.

Rachel's fingers lift almost immediately, and her hips follow her hand, but she doesn't let them connect again. Tears well up into her eyes without warning. "Oh God, why would you do that—I—"

"I'm not. I just wanted to see if—oh, fuck, Rachel, now," Quinn says, gasping loudly.

Rachel stops breathing, because she wants to hear everything; every little sound that comes out of Quinn, and if she concentrates hard enough she can actually hear how wet Quinn is. God. With that thought, it only takes about three more aimless strokes until she's done, just about hearing Quinn say, "Damn it, Rachel, come for me" before also crying out softly.

Her hand lies limply on her thigh, afterwards, sticking to her shorts. She flexes her fingers for a long moment, working on slowing her breathing, and listening for any cues from Quinn that this was—okay, maybe. Or at least not not okay.

"Well," Quinn finally says, long after Rachel's started biting her lip not to blurt out something stupid. "I suppose I can forgive you for calling early."


"Don't ignore me like that again, Rachel. When I tell you to leave me alone for a week, it's because I need that much time to think. Not because I'm playing some silly, adolescent game of hard to get."

It's not quite as big a cold shower as most of the things Quinn has said to her after their … time together, but it's also hardly the warm hug she was hoping for, and Rachel squeezes her eyes shut and digs her nails into her leg.

"Can I still call on Tuesday?" she finally asks, not liking how thick her voice is, or how deeply Quinn sighs at it.

"How about I'll call you, this time? And you can just work on actually listening to me when I ask you to do something," she finally proposes, sounding bone-tired.

It feels like a massive concession, but Rachel has no idea if it's a good thing or not.


The concert is a mess. She can't stop thinking about having Quinn in the audience, looking at her knowingly, and while being incredibly horny does add a certain warmth to her voice, it's also incredibly distracting.

She splashes cold water in her face at the intermission and then jolts hard when Puck puts a hand on her shoulder, popping up behind her from out of nowhere.

"What is up with you, Rach?" he asks, frowning at her darkly. "I mean, I know your heart's not in it and shit but come on, you're better than this. What—"

"I know," she says, wiping her hands under her eyes, bringing away streaks of apparently not-so-waterproof mascara. "I'm just going through something."

"Is this about—that strip club?" Puck asks, tentatively.

Rachel glances at him in the mirror and then takes a deep breath and a risk; she's sort of lucked out with all the other ones she's taken lately, so why not this one?

"I'm—I met someone. There."

Puck blinks. "What, like, a dancer?"

"Sort of. She's... a student," Rachel then says, because it only occurs to her once she's started talking that she has no idea what Quinn is actually studying, or how the hell she's still in college even though she moved to Vegas immediately out of high school.

"A student who strips for a living," Puck asks. His face goes through a variety of expressions, until he finally says, "Look, I obviously know they're people just like you and me, but not all dancers are good people, okay? Are you—does she know who you are?"

Rachel almost laughs; it's painful. "Yeah, she does."

"So—is there any chance that you're just being dicked around for your millions?"

Rachel does laugh at that. "What millions, Noah? You know as well as I do that I'm nowhere near being a millionaire."

"Yeah, but does your stripper know that?" He gives her a pointed look and then sighs. "Look, Rach, not that I'm not all about you finally moving on from that bullshit crush you've had on Quinn basically your entire life, but—a stripper? Really?"

It rubs her the wrong way, unexpectedly. "You know, as much as you like to talk a big game about how you respect that it's just a job, you're being awfully quick to jump to conclusions here."

"Rachel, you're my best friend and let's face it, you're—" He trails off.

"A mess?" she asks, pointedly.

"Your words, babe, not mine."

"Yeah, well," she says, before blotting at her face with a paper towel and taking a deep breath. "Maybe I wouldn't be such a mess if the people in my life actually for once approved of the few choices I still get to make for myself."

Puck says nothing else, but squeezes her shoulder in a silent apology.


She spends the rest of the week making up for that awful, awful Thursday show. She doesn't call Quinn again, and instead works on self-improvement, in little ways: having a real breakfast that isn't just some stale coffee she's reheated from the night before; actually spending her requisite half an hour on the elliptical; working through her vocal exercises even though her coach is halfway across the country.

By the time Monday rolls around, she almost feels like herself again—whichever version, really—and thinks that the show is getting better.

Kurt confirms as much for her. "You sound more—involved," he says, with a small smile. "I don't know what brought this on, but can we please focus on making it last? I know you sometimes think I'm just out to make your life miserable, Rachel, but—"

"I know what your job is, and I know I'm not grateful enough for how well you do it," she says, legs curled up under her on the sofa. "I'm working on it, okay? It's just a lot to—I still distinctly remember being able to go and buy my own groceries without being mobbed, and without having severe panic attacks, and now my entire life has been reduced to my apartment, carefully emptied locations, and the stage."

"There was a time when you thought you wanted your entire life to be the stage," Kurt says, in a tone of voice that clearly means that he's open to having a real conversation with her. As friends, not colleagues.

"Yeah, well, I was wrong," she says, lowering her eyes and then smiling faintly. "It was just easier to want the stage than to admit to myself what I really wanted."

Kurt crosses his legs gently and leans forward, touching her knee. "You know, I'm all for moving on; you know that I didn't shed any real tears about Blaine not wanting this kind of life at the end of the day. But—when you've tried as hard as you have, and it's still not happening... Rachel, why don't you just try to look her up?"

She laughs weakly and says, "Because it would be insane."

"You were friends, weren't you? Near the end?" He tilts his head and says, "As much as Quinn had a relentless capacity for petty backstabbing, I'm sure she's done some growing up in the years between. I honestly—" He hesitates and then says, "Do you want me to get a number? Because I can."

"No," Rachel says, sharply, because—what a fucking mess. Of all the times for Kurt to prioritize her personal happiness over her work, this has to be the worst one. If he finds Quinn's number, he'll also find a Vegas area code, and then she'll have a lot of explaining to do. "You and Puck have been right. And—I'm working on it."

"What, moving on? You—"

"I'm seeing someone," Rachel says, curtly.

Kurt's expression shifts from caring to annoyed in seconds. "And you didn't think this was relevant information for your manager to have because..."

"Because it's new, and it's probably not going to last for more than the time we spend in Vegas, and I'm being careful, and—" She knows that some sort of episode is coming on when her breath rushes out of her with a, "Jesus Christ, Kurt, I want something that is just mine. Why the hell is everything I do always for everyone else? Why can't I—"

"Oh, Rachel," he says, and when she looks at him there are honest-to-God tears in his eyes. "You know that we don't—"

"It doesn't make it any less awful," she says, and heads to the bathroom without waiting for his response. One pill, just one, she tells herself. It's just one. But it's so necessary.


She leans heavily on the bathroom counter for a long moment, looking at the small piece of temporary forget in her right hand.

Her phone rings from the other room, and she's still swallowing when she makes a run for it; Kurt hasn't respected her privacy in years and is unlikely to start now.

"Don't," she snaps at him, when she catches him already reaching over and glancing at the caller display. She thanks her lucky stars that she was smart enough to put Quinn in as Rachel, because honestly, the worst he can ask is why she's calling herself.

"Is this—" he asks, when she's reaching for the phone, still ringing.

"You can let yourself out," she says, shortly, and walks into her bedroom without waiting to see what he will do.

Her thumb brushes up against the slider and bites her lip when Quinn says, "For someone so eager to talk to me on Friday, you sure did take your sweet time to answer now."

Rachel rubs at her face. "Sorry, my—manager is in the other room."

Quinn makes a sort of scoffing noise. "Well, we can't have your manager knowing that you're talking to... what would you prefer to call me, Rachel? An exotic dancer? A performer?"

"Whatever you prefer, Quinn. And for the record," Rachel says, trying not to force her annoyance with Kurt onto Quinn,"my manager is Kurt Hummel. I thought you would appreciate the discretion, if our last... conversation was anything to go by."

Quinn says nothing for a moment; then a skeptical, "Really?" follows.

"Why would I make that up, Quinn?" Rachel asks.

She's tired; the pill is slowly dissolving its way through her system, and she can already feel that blissful don't-care set in.

"I don't know," Quinn admits, and then sighs. "God, this is going to get complicated."

"What is?"

Quinn doesn't respond to that, obviously. Rachel's not even really expecting a response.

"What do you want?" she asks, instead. It comes out a bit sharper than she means for it to, and so she adds, "Not Tuesday yet, last I checked. … Is this a booty call?"

Quinn makes a small noise and says, "I—it can be."

"That's my line; try coming up with one of your own," Rachel says, sinking down onto the mattress and closing her eyes. Her heart is hammering away in her chest still, and she takes a deep breath. "What are we doing here, Quinn? Because you know what I want, but—"

"No, I don't," Quinn says, sounding frustrated and exhausted. "There's a big difference between you having had some school girl crush on me back in Lima and whatever is going on with you now."

It's a fair point, and Rachel takes a second to collect her thoughts. "Okay, well, since clearly you're just getting a kick on me putting myself out there without any sort of concessions on your part—"

"Rachel," Quinn says, warningly.

Rachel sighs and says, "I'm attracted to you. Obviously. I saw you in that club, four weeks ago, and I wanted to fuck you as badly as I've ever wanted to fuck you."

Quinn exhales audibly.

"But—I've never just wanted to fuck you. Your body is just what appears to be available to me, right now. I think that.." She trails off stupidly and then amends her thoughts to, "I don't care that you're not eighteen anymore. I'm hardly the same person that graduated McKinley all those years ago myself. And I know that we hardly know each other."

"But?" Quinn asks, in an unreadable tone of voice.

"I want to get to know you. God help me, you are possibly the worst person in the world for me to want any of this from, but I want—I want something real. An actual connection with … another human being," Rachel confesses, and then bites down on her cheek, waiting for the inevitable laughter, or whatever new, cruel ways Quinn has come up with in the last seven years to reject her.

Quinn doesn't react for a long moment, but then says, "This is Vegas, Rachel. Everything about this city, and what you're doing it in it, is just about the opposite of real."

"That's a no, then," Rachel says, already swallowing heavy around the sting of disappointment, but it's muted, of course. Muted by her medication. The way her entire life is usually muted by her medication. It's the only thing that makes this somewhat bearable.

Until Quinn sighs, and carefully says, "We're speaking a different language. All I know right now is that I'd like to see you."

"Naked, you mean," Rachel clarifies, before feeling the remaining fight drain from her. "Because—that's what this is, on your terms. I can either pay for you to be my stripper, or I can sit here and let you turn me into your mute and obedient whore."

There's a sharp intake of breath on the other side of the line. "If you're suggesting that any part of what we've been doing has been non-consensual..."

Rachel closes her eyes and winces. "No. No, I'm not, I'm … shit. I didn't mean it like that, but if you plan on just... calling me for the occasional hook-up, I think it's probably best that you let me know that much now so that I can determine if that will be good or bad for my self-worth in the long run."

Quinn makes a noise that doesn't quite turn into a word, and after a second Rachel feels compelled to laugh weakly.

"It was a joke, Quinn."

"Was it really?" Quinn asks, and—God, for one awful moment, she actually sounds like she cares. Like there's some part of her that isn't just a human calculator, running through her options for maximum personal gain.

What a silly thing to imagine.

"Sure," Rachel says, finally, because any concerns she has are starting to slip away completely, and it's lovely. Everything is just lovely.

They stay silent on the line for a moment, drifting—like Rachel is nothing more than just a tiny little skip on the ocean, and Quinn is the waves. Of course Quinn would be the waves, swallowing her whole.

Then, Quinn clears her throat. "Okay. Meet me for lunch tomorrow, then. There's this place—"

Whatever bliss the pill has brought her—a tangible reminder that there is a way for her to shut all of this shit off, and just be—disappears in an instant.

In its place, there is the complete inability to breathe.

"No," Rachel protests, as forcefully as she can.

Quinn hesitates and then asks, "No, what?"

"I can't—meet you. Not in public. I—" Rachel says, or stammers, really, and she can feel her entire body get clammy almost on the spot. "I just—"

Quinn's voice grows icy almost immediately. "Right. So when you said you wanted something real, what you really mean is some dirty fucking secret because God forbid anyone finds out that Rachel Berry associates with a stripper."

"It's not about—" Rachel starts to say.

To the dial tone.

"Fuck," she snaps, and calls back immediately, but it just goes to voicemail.

Her head falls back onto the mattress, and for one awful moment, she considers taking the easy way out: just a few more pills, until she can fall asleep for the rest of the day without thinking about anything.

Quinn would hate her for doing that, though—and so she forces herself out of bed and calls Puck instead.

"I don't want her number. Get me an address," she says.

To his credit, he doesn't ask a single question and just says, "Okay."

It's really not, though.

Nothing about this is okay.