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these strange steps

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The call comes, as these things tend to, without warning.

One minute, she's listening to the news on the kitchen radio and buttering some toast while an orange is being pressed in some gadget that Quinn showed her how to work, two weeks ago, and the next, her phone is ringing.

It's pre-coffee, and anyone who knows her would know that, so she lets it go to voicemail and changes the station to something else. 80s classic rock, 2000s R&B, hits from the 70s... she keeps going, until suddenly she's found some motown.

Not a genre she ever got to sing in Glee; it had been Mercedes and Santana, usually, except for those rare moments when Quinn had bothered with a solo-and those had been sparing, but this is a gentle, pleasant reminder of the girl she'd once known.

It's also not music that reminds her of her life, and that's-

The phone rings again, almost as soon as it's quieted down the first time, and she puts down her knife and heads over to it.

"Kurt, what-"

"Rachel, I am going to be as calm about this as possible, okay, so bear with me-"

She pauses, literally stills her entire body, and then says, "Calm about what, Kurt?"

"TMZ. Front page, third article down. I have no idea why this wasn't cleared with us although the official response I just got was that since they blurbed it with Rachel Berry plays miniature golf with a friend, they-"

She lowers the phone, and in a daze flips open her MacBook and opens up Safari. She … what the hell is the TMZ website address, anyway? Is it just a dot com?

These are things she knows, when Kurt isn't saying things like Rachel Berry plays miniature golf with a friend, but it doesn't matter, that she's blanking on them now. Google exists for this reason, and so she types in the three letters, while Kurt is still warbling on about something in the background, hits search, and then clicks the top result.

A few taps of the down arrow later and-

It's not even really a gasp, the noise that escapes her. It's just sort of a brush of air that wobbles out from her lips, at the first picture, which is her pointing a golf club at Quinn, who is laughing at something she's saying. And it's innocent. So that's-

It's containable. And so she clicks on the more, and sees the next picture, and now they're walking side by side towards-the seventh hole? She doesn't know.

And the next picture. Quinn is bending over for her ball and she's grinning at something.

And the next picture. They are looking at each other, and-

She slowly raises the phone to her ear again, and then says, "I... we were just playing miniature golf."

"Rachel, I'm not here to … chastize you, for … okay, no, I'm sorry, I promised myself I wouldn't turn this into an epic match of how the fuck could you do this, because frankly, you're right. You went to play some idiotic children's game together, which isn't on par with attending naked lesbian mud-wrestling or a Tegan and Sara concert, so..." Kurt sighs in frustration and then says, "They should've been pre-cleared. We're exceptionally lucky that the editors actually used common sense in terms of what would invite my eternal wrath and the holiest of all legal smack-downs, because, Rachel, I have the rest of the pictures here and in one of them, I swear to God she's attempting to hump your behind-"

She squeezes her eyes shut and pinches the bridge of her nose. "The lady manning the booth. She recognized me. She...there was a look on her face when I was getting the club, and I should have known. We were in public, and I should have known better."

"I agree, but even so, there is nothing here we can't handle," Kurt tells her, after a pause, and then adds, "We just have to decide on a strategy soon, okay?"

She looks at the pictures again, and... there is a look on Quinn's face that somehow, in print, is clear to her, when in person she's either missed it all the time, or she's just been denying it's there because-they're not ready.

God, they're not ready for that look, just like they're not ready for all of her stupid, blurted out words. The only way they can deal with any of that is by pretending they don't slip up, and …

Well.

They're done pretending, now.

"We can ignore it," Kurt says, tentatively. "I think... there are risks inherent to that, but as Quinn's background check came back clean-"

"No," Rachel says, sitting down weakly on one of the stools and then dropping her face to her hand. "We can't."

Kurt stays silent for a few seconds. "Is there something you're not telling me?"

"Yes," she says, plainly, after a moment of contemplating-what, an escape?

There is no escaping this.

"Are you going to tell me?"

"Not if I can't help it. What is-how do we make it go away, Kurt? I need an option to distance myself from those pictures altogether, and I don't care what it is. She needs to be completely uninteresting to anyone who might start digging deeper. She needs to be-nothing to me."

The words snake around her heart like a vise, squeezing tightly, but she promised. She promised Quinn that she would not let this happen, and God, she needs to keep that promise, or she'll lose Quinn's trust and without Quinn's trust...

Kurt breathes slowly for a moment, and then says, "Okay. Here is my preferred approach. You are welcome to edit it, but our first step is to acknowledge Quinn and then dismiss her as anything other than a friend. I can get Kirsten to write-"

"No. I'll write it myself," Rachel says, rubbing at her throat, because it hurts to say any of this out loud. "A statement about reconnecting with old friends, right? Admitting that we knew each other in high school?"

"Yes," Kurt says, softly. "With as much realism as is possible. We hated each other back then, but she came to see a show in Vegas and we found that we had a lot in common. Don't turn your back on anyone, people. It is never too late to start over."

He punctuates each of those statements with a dramatic upswing, as if to mock the way she uses Twitter-copious exclamation marks, and every tweet starting with dear fans, which has sort of become a trademark now-and she nods silently.

"I'll sell it," she then says, firmly, and then takes a deep breath. "What else?"

"I..." Kurt starts to say, and then shuts up, and then... sighs. "I have... a ring."

"You have a ring," she says, flatly, and then laughs so dryly that it chafes her throat. "Of course you do. And you'd like me to start wearing it, right?"

"It saves us from having to make any public statements about you and Puckerman, but it's-good lord, Rachel, it's the gaudiest piece Tiffany has made in years, and there isn't a single person in Vegas who won't notice it on your finger. In which case, they can come up with an explanation. You won't have to give one. Speculation keeps everyone busy, after all."

She doesn't know whether she wants to thank him or slug him.

"Do you-are you okay with that?" he asks.

It's the first time in years that he hasn't just told her how she's going to be managed, and it's what finally makes her say, "I don't see what other choice we have."

There's another pause on the line, and then Kurt exhales slowly. "This-whatever secret you're keeping for her, Rachel-I will help you if you just-"

"It's not my decision to make. I'll talk to her, and ask her if she'd like you to take steps, okay? That's... Kurt, please. It's the best I can do, for now."

Kurt swallows audibly, and then very softly says, "I'm really sorry, Rachel. I had no compunctions about giving you the pointed and forceful advice to not come out back when it would've made no difference to your personal life anyway, but..."

She says, "It's okay", because it is.

It would be great, if this was just about her own sexual identity and what these pictures may or may not do to her career.

But it's not.

She showers, with rote, perfunctory movements, and towels off with the same, and then looks at her phone. Missed calls from Santana and Brittany, separately and from the house phone, and she...

She can't. She doesn't know what they'll say, but she knows what they're calling about, and she can't handle anyone else's input on it, right now. Kurt was business-like. Without Kurt, this becomes personal.

As she gets dressed, the number of texts and voicemails start climbing, and it's only a question of time until Quinn herself gets a Google Alert to these pictures, and so she sits down heavily on the edge of the bed and stares at her phone and-

It's only six thirty. Quinn won't be getting up for another hour, and that gives her some time. To get ready, or prepare a speech, or...

She doesn't know. She doesn't know what comes next.

When the next call comes, it's from Tina, and she's too tired to not take it.

"Hey," she says, and rubs at her forehead; and her eyes; and her cheeks. She has a tumblr post to be writing, but-not just yet.

"Hey," Tina says, and then falls silent; Rachel can hear one of the boys in the background, laughing at some cartoon. Mike and Bobby are probably at work and in school, and that means Tina is currently behind her laptop, working on some design project while Aaron behaves better than any two year old reasonably should.

They're both silent after that, for a moment, and then finally, Tina says, "You and Quinn Fabray, huh?"

"We're not together," Rachel corrects her, automatically.

Tina just sort of clacks her tongue and then says, "But..."

"But, a lot of things," Rachel admits, and then listens to Tina softly laugh.

"You always did love a challenge. Remember when we attempted to teach Puck how to tap that one summer?" she says.

Rachel smiles on instinct. "We almost got kicked out of the JCC because of him."

"But you didn't give up, and I bet he still knows how to Maxi Ford and pull back now," Tina says, and then follows that up with, "Aaron-the remote is not a chew toy, put it down."

Suddenly, she misses New York.

The predictability of it all, really, where one gray day blends into the next, and she's forever in the same places with the same people, and nothing ever lifts her world upside down.

It sounds really nice, given what the rest of her day is going to be like in Las Vegas.

"If you want to talk about her, I'm here, okay?" Tina finally says.

She, too, has known about Rachel's crush for years, but has never brought it up like this before; Rachel's original coming out party had just been a drunken mess that ended up in a lot of sobbing about Quinn, and that is where nearly everyone in her life except Puck has left it since then.

But now, her feelings for Quinn are... a public commodity. They've become fair game, and honestly, she's tired. Tired of ignoring them, and tired of pushing people away because there aren't enough warning labels in the world to describe the extent of her baggage. Maybe it's not fair, on them, but what about what's fair on her?

And Tina's been there, all along, and is offering.

Rachel closes her eyes, and forces herself to give, just a little, for now. "I will. But … after I get back from rehab."

"Rehab?" Tina asks, sounding a lot more alert, immediately. "Rachel, why are you-"

"Because... I need to get my life back in order," she says, as calmly as she can. "I don't have a substance abuse problem, but I have … unhealthy habits, and dependencies, and … Tina, some days I don't even know why I get out of bed."

The line is silent for a moment, and then Tina confesses, "I... Mike and I talk about you sometimes, and we've both been worried, but-you're not as open, as you used to be. You've kept us shut out, and Mike thought that pushing..."

"Mike is right," Rachel says, and rubs at her lips. "It's-Tee, you're not a bad friend, okay? If anything, am. Because I'm about to ask you if you can watch my cats for another month, after I'm done here, and-"

"Oh, Rachel, I don't care about the cats," Tina says, almost reproachfully. "I'll keep them forever if it means that..."

"Thank you," Rachel says, and rubs at her forehead. "I have to go. I need to-go talk to Quinn. Before this gets to her and..."

"Rachel?"

"What?"

"You two look really good together. Even if you're not."

That simple statement—and she takes it as fact, just because Tina doesn't embellish much of anything-is what finally makes all of this feel real, and she squeezes out a, "Thank you" before hanging up and gripping the phone tight enough for the plastic to squeak.

The drive over to Quinn's takes forever.

She doesn't know how she's missed that Vegas traffic, in the morning, is just as shitty as LA traffic in the morning, but she's also not been out much at this time of day.

She ignores Puck's calls, finally sending back an I'm dealing with it that stops his messages, because he's great like that. He'd never baby her, not even with the state she's currently in, and that's a giant relief with how many other people are calling. Her fathers—God, she just can't.

She hits the gas again, just about running a red, and stares at her phone as she idles just three feet on the other side of the intersection.

Kurt sends her updates, not questions, on his side of things. It's mostly radio silence, so far.

He doesn't mention a thing about what those people on the forums are saying, but she's sure they're abuzz. This wasn't just them leaving a restaurant together. Eating? Yeah, that's something adult friends do together. Putt putt, on the other hand...

The magnitude of the fairytale she has to craft to make this explicable, somehow, is suddenly overwhelming. The script-writing part of her degree has not prepared her for anything like this, and she's suddenly exactly as insecure and hopeless as the seventeen year old girl who had penned My Headband and Only Child.

What had gotten her to write a real song back then—

And there it is, again. She takes a deep breath, parks her car outside of Quinn's complex, and takes five or so additional deep breaths.

They're the last ones she'll be taking here. Maybe ever. She makes them count, and then finally feels steady enough to walk over to the building.

She rings the buzzer to her apartment-once, and then again, and finally she just thumbs down the button until Quinn answers.

The "Hello?" is sleepy and wary, and Rachel leans her head against the side of the building and says, "It's me-let me in, please."

"What are you doing here?" Quinn asks, sounding surprised, but not in the defensive way she would if she'd already seen the pictures, and Rachel squeezes her eyes shut.

"Quinn, it is seven thirty in the morning, do you really think I'd be here if not for the fact that I had something important to tell you?"

The buzzer sounds, a second later, and she pushes through the door and trudges up the steps to the second floor.

Quinn's in sleep shorts and a tank-top, with the door barely open.

She's...

She's everything Rachel has ever wanted, and Rachel stares at the floor instead of at her when they're face to face.

"Can we take this inside, please," she then asks. It comes out weakly. She has never felt like she has less control over her voice than she does in this moment.

It's terrifying.

Quinn's hand tightens around the door, her knuckles whitening, and she says, "What is going on?"

"I need to talk to you, and preferably not somewhere where literally anyone can overhear us, so please let me into-the hallway, at least, and close the door so that-"

It's shaky, the step backwards that Quinn takes, but then they're in the hallway and Quinn nudges on a light there. It's dimmed, the light, and Rachel would normally be scanning the place for decorative tips or just knowing what Quinn's hallway looks like, but she can't. She can't, because it's still mostly dark, and she can't because-

She just can't, and the words that are threatening to burst out from her chest don't have a single fucking thing to do with those pictures, either.

Her phone vibrates in her pocket again, and she fishes it out and silences it, slipping it back inside and then looking at Quinn for a long moment.

"Rachel, you are really starting to freak me out," Quinn says, with a level of patience that is admirable at this point, and that's when she can't hold back any longer—not on her initial emotion, which is grief, and not on any of the other ones either.

The tears are slow, and steady, down her face, and they're not going to stop. Not when the next thing out of her mouth is, "I'm ending this."

The words hang, deadly.

And then they seem to sink in, and Quinn's face-oh, God, she can't look at it. For a girl who is so good at wearing all the masks in the world, Rachel has caught her completely off guard, and it hurts.

It hurts, because for all the levels on which they're not together, she is still breaking them apart.

"What-" Quinn starts to say, and then remembers who she is, at long last, and just clamps her lips together and leans back against the wall behind her.

The foot of space between them is insurmountable, and Rachel wrings her hands together and says, "I-the last... the last few weeks with you have been... They have surpassed any expectation I had of this summer, and of my life. I wasn't looking for anything other than an escape, that first night in Rapture, but... this last weekend, I realized that in one way or another, I have been living out the fantasy I always wanted. Quinn Fabray, paying attention to me. Desiring me."

Quinn shifts against the wallpaper, and the sound is unexpectedly coarse in the silence between them; it's that small sound that has Rachel looking up, and admitting, "But it's not enough."

She doesn't expect Quinn to say to that, and in some ways it is awful, really, that Quinn lets her mouth fall open, and then says, "I never promised you anything-"

"No. You didn't. You offered me scraps, and I took them. And... that is something for me to deal with, but it doesn't change that..." Rachel sighs deeply and then steps back, until she too has a wall for support. "You said, a few weeks ago, that you're glad. That I'm not the kind of girl who needs cuddles, or to be told that I'm beautiful."

"The context for that comment-" Quinn starts to say, a little sharply, and Rachel holds up her hand until she falls silent.

"I have been telling myself, all summer, that you're right. That I'm not that kind of girl, but then we had this weekend, and … it was supposed to be about your fantasy, but it reminded me of mine. Of what it used to be, and what it still is, if I'm being honest with myself. And Quinn, you're a great friend, and you're a fantastic lover, but... I need someone who can be both of those things for me, at the same time."

Quinn closes her eyes and rubs at her face, and then says, "If you don't see that-with every passing day..."

"The lines are blurring, I know," Rachel says, and watches as Quinn's hand falls away and they look at each other again. They've never looked at each other like this; so desperately, but there isn't anything they can say to fix this. "They are. And-it makes me hopeful that, maybe, someday, I can tell you that I love you and you won't play it off as a joke about how good you are in bed, and that you'll actually believe it. But you just... you're not ready to let anyone in, and frankly, if you were to let someone in, it probably shouldn't be me, at this point."

Quinn swallows, heavily, and then says, "Is there any particular reason you couldn't just wait to tell me all of this until your last day in Vegas? Because it's not like we don't have a set end point anyway, Rachel. You're saying things out loud that we've both already known, and-"

"Maybe we do both know, but I'm saying this, because-I want you to understand that..." Rachel says, squeezing her lips together and pausing for just a second, because these words have to be perfect. "I want you in my life. But I want you in a life that's better than the one I currently have. And I want you in it all the way, Quinn. Not just on your terms. Not as a vacation fuck buddy. And if I can't have that..."

Quinn just nods, and then averts her eyes. "Okay."

"I don't mean for that to be an ultimatum. I'm not trying to punish you. I just want... this to end because we're better than this. Not because-our hands are being forced."

Quinn looks back over at that and says, "Forced how?"

Rachel produces her phone again, hits the last bookmark, and hands it over to Quinn. "They broke this morning. Kurt is managing the... the rest of the pictures, and as soon as I'm done talking to you, I'm going to write a long tumblr post about how nice it is to meet up again with people who disappeared from your life a long time ago, only to find out that you have more in common now than you ever thought you did before."

Quinn's expression is unreadable as she scrolls down the page, her thumb swiping the phone every so often, and then she silently hands it back.

"I'm outing us as friends, so that neither of us can be outed as anything more," Rachel says, quietly. "Nobody cares about my friends, so..."

Quinn takes a very slow, deep breath, and then says, "That's fine. It's … it's what we are. Now. ... isn't it?"

Rachel nods, and reaches for the door handle to her left automatically, because she doesn't know how hysteria isn't hitting her all over yet, but it's coming soon; the dense, concentrated pressure in her chest is an indication of what's coming next, and she needs to be-somewhere that isn't this hallway, when it does.

This part, she is going to have to do on her own.

But, before she can turn the door handle, Quinn stops her, with a hand on her wrist, and says, "I can't find you on Facebook. And I don't have your email address, and I … I don't think we should talk on the phone anytime soon, especially not given that you probably won't be allowed to once you reach Hawaii, and-"

"I'll friend you," Rachel says, her hand tightening around the handle a little bit more. "I found a Quinn Fabray with a locked profile, is that-"

"I don't use that one anymore. My real profile's under Lucy," Quinn says, softly, and-somehow, those words are the ones to shatter Rachel completely.

She feels her face crumple, and then Quinn is in her space, holding her, and saying things that she also said in bed, a few weeks ago, but while they might've been exactly what she needed from Quinn then, right now, they are killing her.

Rachel feels her legs give way, and to the chorus of Quinn's, "It's okay, I've got you"s, they sink to the floor together, and Rachel buries her face halfway against the door and halfway against Quinn's shoulder, until Quinn finally stops talking and she can find something inside of herself that makes this fissure hold, for just another few minutes, until she's actually alone again.

"Kurt wants to know if you want any help with containment," she finally says, brokenly, and turns to look at Quinn, whose eyes are red and cheeks are wet, even if she didn't make a single sound during whatever crying spell she's been through. "He can help, or at least take precautions, but you'd have to tell him about Rapture."

"I'll think about it," Quinn says, after a moment, and then looks away. "If I need-"

"I'll text you his number," Rachel says, and then-with legs so heavy they feel like they're not even hers-pulls away and gets to her feet again. "I'm... yeah. I need to go. I have other things to deal with that aren't about..."

"I know," Quinn says, and with a small push, she's also back on her feet-stepping backwards, again, until she's almost gone in the shadows of the hallway; Rachel can just about make out the way she's rubbing at her cheeks, and running a shaky hand through her hair, but she can't see her face, and that is the only thing that makes what comes next possible.

"Take care of yourself," she says, quietly, opening the door and stepping through it.

Quinn's, "You too, Rachel" is almost drowned out by the click of the door behind her.

The tumblr post is a work of art.

She's never written anything that is both so completely true and such a load of shit in her life, and her writing history includes a play about only children who discover a secret ability to read the minds of cats.

This? This is toeing the line, in a way that she doesn't think tight-rope artists even manage; there are vast streams of truth, about how she and Quinn never managed to work through their differences in high school, but how time together as adults has somehow let them find commonalities she never thought they'd find.

There are platitudes, about not giving up on people, and about how time heals most wounds, which is one that makes her roll her eyes so hard it actually hurts, because, time? Time can go fuck itself, as far as she's concerned. She almost replaces the word 'time' with 'wine', and laughs at that a little, but it's not the point.

The point is, the official Rachel Berry tumblr is one full of almost condescending optimism, and she's adding a flavour that's all her own right now.

She steals one of the TMZ pictures-an innocuous one, where they're leaning on their clubs and looking at a pink ball together-and copies it into the post after about five minutes of hopelessly fucking around with the website's various functions, and then decides that she's done.

She's just... done.

Anything else she could say, she can't out loud. Like: how sometimes, within that hard-edged girl who picks on you in high school, there is another girl who just can't believe that anyone could ever really love her. Like: how sometimes, your endless patience is rewarded with a friendship that you could never have imagined yourself in. Like: how sometimes, or maybe always, fucking the onion results in tears.

She doesn't bother reading the entry again, but adds one final paragraph; a quick, Dear fans, I am taking a vacation after Las Vegas but please don't worry if you don't hear from me for a while - I'll be back before you know it!

Kurt might kill her, for that one, or maybe he'll understand why she's doing it.

If she's running the risk of losing everything anyway, at least now it's on her terms.

It's after five, when she finally calls Brittany and Santana back.

She can just about picture them hovering over Santana's iPhone like a set of chipmunks; Santana with a disapproving frown and a set mouth, and Brittany with a soft expression and hopeful eyes.

She can't actually see them, though, and when they answer, she just says, "Yeah. So."

"Miniature golf, Rachel?" Santana asks, and somehow the scathing sarcasm makes her smile; it's such a call-back to high school that … well. It's a distraction. "No, seriously, was there no lesbian cruise for you to go on last weekend? Because I can't think of anything that could've looked gayer than-"

"Oh, hush, they looked fine," Brittany says, and Rachel hears them shift for a moment. "Actually, I'll amend that to super hot. If I was single, or like, not married, I'd totally have a threesome with you both."

Rachel chuckles despite herself. "Thanks, Britt."

"I don't want to be a bitch... okay, no, maybe I do, but what the hell are you both wearing?" Santana asks, after a moment. There's the click of a mouse, and Rachel closes her eyes at the idea of both of them looking at these pictures, over and over again. "I mean, Quinn looks like she's auditioning for the ultra-gay version of West Side Story or something, and Rachel, Rachel, that skirt. I don't even know what to tell you about that skirt, except that if it's still with you next weekend, I am setting it on fire."

"Next weekend?" Rachel asks, when she's able to focus on them a little. Her mind is so-devoid of anything, right now. It's hard to even think of words. "What's happening next weekend?"

"You're coming to LA. Didn't Kurt tell you? He cancelled your last two shows and you're coming up on the weekend and then heading off to Hawaii afterwards."

Rachel rolls her eyes. "I'm fine here. I don't need-"

"No, you do," Brittany interjects, firmly. "Rachel, you've... okay, you're like a turtle on its back right now. You just keep rolling all over the place and because you've always been like, a really amazing turtle, we've been letting you do it, but-sometimes, okay, the turtle just needs someone to pick it up and turn it around."

Rachel sighs, but it's nearly impossible to say no to Brittany, even on a good day. "Okay. The turtle accepts, I guess."

They're quiet for a moment, and then Santana asks, fairly seriously, "Seriously, though-are you okay? Because-"

Rachel sighs even deeper at that question. "I'm completely not okay, but if you're worried I'm going to do something self-destructive, you don't need to be."

"Okay, but … just so we're clear, that TV's warranty doesn't cover you launching a hideous shoe through it," Santana says, gently.

Rachel abruptly feels very lucky, to have them both, and then says, "Noted. Thanks for calling, guys. I'm going to go take a bath now, I think."

She just about hears Brittany ask, "Wait-but if a turtle is on its back, can it swim?" before she hangs up, and smiles tiredly before dragging herself over to the tub.

This is how she used to deal with difficult days: a book, soothing instrumental music, and a really, really hot bath. The book got switched out for alcohol a few years ago, and the music, she's not bothered with for longer than she can remember now, but … maybe it's time to try it again, now.

She's halfway through Chopin's Preludes, and almost asleep, when her phone chimes loudly.

Lucy Q. Fabray has accepted your friend request, her notifications tell her.

She closes her eyes, lowers her phone to the ground, and tries to remind herself that she has no regrets, about anything.

It would be working, if her heart wasn't beating sluggishly inside of her chest. All the preparedness in the world doesn't change the brutally simple message it's broadcasting to her now:

Sorry, sweetheart, but I'm broken anyway.