Author's Note: So...home stretch. We're in the final few chapters, and sections of this and the next one were actually written prior to the first chapter (like, the entire preceding story was written to get to these scenes, and I'm so excited to finally unleash them. I'm also excited to be updating in a pretty timely manner...yay holiday weekends). Thanks to all those who read and reviewed the last chapter. Hope you enjoy this one!
Disclaimer: Just playing. I'll put 'em all back.
"Rachel, princess, we don't leave for another two days. I understand your type-A preparedness better than most, but you are making me dizzy with this hyperactive speed-packing."
Rachel froze, mid-rush, blushing slightly as she looked down at the several semi-folded blouses stuffed in her arms, the precarious bottles of shampoo and conditioner resting on top of them, the pair of high heels dangling off her right pointer finger.
She heaved a sigh and glanced apologetically at her best friend, lounging regally on the bed next to her half-filled luggage.
"You're right, Kurt. I'm taking my nerves out on my suitcase…and you, by association. I'm sorry."
He smiled away her apology as he sat up a little straighter, placing his quarter-read copy of A Brave New World on her nightstand. "It's okay, dear, I'm just a little concerned as to why you are so frantic. I mean, we've really got this, Rachel."
"I know. And I'm not even sure it is Nationals, entirely. ...I just feel worked up and on edge lately. I haven't been sleeping well these last few nights; I'm probably just worried about exams or something. I haven't been readying myself like I normally do, with all our rehearsals and everything."
Expecting him to reassure her by dismissing her academic fears, she began refolding her shirts, only to look back up to Kurt as she noticed his lack of response. And the appraising gaze she then found on his face was unsettling.
"Yes, well, we both know that is total bullshit."
"Please, with the language you hear from Puckerman on a daily basis I doubt your ears can claim delicate sensibilities any longer."
She looked down to smooth non-existent wrinkles from her now neat pile of clothing while avoiding his stare, but she should have known Kurt could read her anyway.
"Rachel. What's really bothering you? I'm certain it has to do with the aforementioned Puck and, likely, also my lovable-idiot of a step-brother somehow, but I need more details if you want me to help. And you do want me to help, whether you'll admit it or not."
She rolled her eyes at his over-confident assertion but nodded slightly.
"Finn's not an idiot, but otherwise you are right. They've both been acting…strange."
"Oh, honey, they are both always strange."
She leveled him with a moderate glare and he looked mildly contrite as he motioned for her to continue.
"Well, it's mostly Noah. He's not talking to me…but not really not-talking to me?" She sighed again at how ridiculous she sounded. "He's still talking, technically, but he's not saying anything. And he's been mysteriously too busy for the last few days…though I don't know with what, as he rarely studies without my nagging and the baseball season is over. He seems angry with me, but I don't know what I could have done to cause it, and it makes my stomach hurt and my chest ache and… I miss him, Kurt. It's only been three days, but I miss my friend."
She hated the way her voice had gotten low and quivering, but the truth was she was hurt and sad and was throwing herself into a hectic frenzy as an attemped distraction. Since he disappeared without a word from her duet rehearsal with Finn the other night, Noah had barely spoken to her, and when he had it was gruff and overly-formal (for him). And she knew she knew why, but she couldn't say it. She didn't want it to be true. She could feel things shifting, getting to a point where neither one of them could ignore it any longer. And it just hurt.
And, to make matters worse, there was the Finn of it all. He'd been nothing short of amazing. Through every step of preparations for Nationals, he'd been the perfect co-captain, the perfect partner, the perfect friend. The perfect more-than-friend. The way he looked at her, and sang with her? When she let herself forget the competition and the friends and the Noah around them, she thought she was finally ready to dive back in, to answer that soft and adoring gaze with one of her own. But every time she almost relented, almost let him know that she was game, the rest of the world would come rushing back at her again, and she found she couldn't say a word.
It was all so confusing, so horribly murky and messy, and she looked at Kurt now with tears in her eyes, and willed him to understand the rest so she didn't have to explain it. Willed him to understand that there were more than just her own feelings to consider and that she knew, now, beyond any doubt, that someone she loved was going to get hurt.
Kurt's face was softened with sympathy and he opened his arms wide for her to come in for a hug, and she ended up curling into his side, relishing the comfort of his gently stroking her hair.
He was quiet a long time while she cried, just a little, before his voice, a little hoarse, captured her attention.
"I don't envy you your predicament, princess, as attractive as having two boys totally crazy about you sounds. I know that heart of yours is going to break a little no matter how this thing works out. But I want you to remember, you won't have to go through that pain alone this time. And no one, especially neither one of them, can fault you in the end. No one can control their heart, Rachel. Not even you."
She felt him press a gentle kiss to the crown of her head, and she squeezed her arms around him a little to offer her thanks. It wasn't a promise that things were going to be easy, and it wasn't an answer for helping to sort it all out, but it was as much comfort as she could really expect in this situation. And she appreciated that no matter what happened, at least the loss of Kurt wasn't something she would have to endure.
Lauren was panting, and sweating, and glaring…at herself. She was positioned in front of the mirror wall in the studio, looking as worn out as she'd ever been, but there was also a gleam in her eye of pure determination. "Let's go through it again," she growled, and somewhere in the nearly-passed-out-from-exhaustion recesses of mind she hoped Mike realized she wasn't growling at him.
She tensed, keying up for the cue of the music, but when it didn't come she broke her stare from her reflection to find her teammate approaching her with a water bottle extended and a look of concern.
"Zeezy, you have been pushing like mad. I think we can call it a night. You looked really good this last run-through, and we both have to be back here in," the slender boy grimaced as he checked his watch, "less than seven hours. Drink up and let's just go home."
She hesitated before grabbing the water from his hands, and while she gave him a smirk of thanks before sucking down half the bottle, she still shook her head.
"I still don't have that middle sequence down, and I keep falling a count behind at the finale. I can't quit until I get it right, Chang. I have to keep practicing."
She could feel Mike's eyes appraising her warily as she set the water bottle down, but without allowing him to argue, she walked over to the stereo. The sounds of the thirteen voices she knew best in the world at this point, including her own, erupted in the space, as she mimed the first few counts' arm motions and rushed to get to her mark by the eighth. She moved through the choreography with every ounce of her concentration directed at the footwork, and as the music transitioned for the most complicated part at the middle of the mash-up, she felt a sense of euphoria as she knew she'd finally nailed every step and change.
The last minute of the song flew by and she was keeping perfect time with her counts, quickly moving around the room, until, after she'd confidently passed the point that had previously been giving her so much grief, she felt the sole of her sneaker catch on the worn hardwood. She was hit with several waves of panic in a single instant as she felt herself fall forward at an angle she couldn't stop. There was the rush of frustration at falling NOW, when she was just getting it all right, as well as annoyance at doing so in front of the ever-light-on-his-feet Mr. Chang. But mostly she had a brief but true taste of terror that she'd twist or bruise something, an unacceptable hit this close to competition…what if she got black eye, what if she couldn't perform?
By the time stock of her physical position caught up to her mental journey, she found she WOULD have fallen flat on her face…save for the supporting arms of Mike that came seemingly out of nowhere.
"Are you okay?"
After a pause to catch her breath and right herself, she found Mike's eyes wide and earnest. She felt a rare flush of humiliation at his sincere worry, but nodded. "Yeah, yeah. I'm fine."
She made to turn away and head to restart the music when she felt his hand grab her forearm.
"Lauren." An unprecedented sternness marked his tone. "You ARE stopping now and going home and getting sleep. Seriously. Your steps were perfect that time, I promise."
"Yeah, until I tripped, Lo-."
"You only tripped because this floor has not been waxed properly since Figgins became principle. And because your reflexes are too tired to catch yourself. Come on. And what's with this manic urge to practice anyway? It's 11:30…even Rachel is sleeping by now."
She heaved a weighty exhale, rolling her eyes as her head fell back in exasperation at herself. The only thing worse than fear was admitting it.
Groaning as he continued to look at her with an eyebrow raised, waiting, she relented. "I just don't want to let everyone down, okay? Everyone has worked so hard, and they all have this dance down. Except me. Hell, even Hudson has it." She shook her head with a spike of annoyance. "We need to be perfect at Nationals, and I don't want to be what holds us back."
Mike's face softened into an expression so sweet she found herself wanting to both puke and punch him, while still being really jealous of Tina at the same time.
"You have worked so hard, too, Lauren. And you are doing so well. You sound great on all the songs, and you just proved you can get through the hardest part of hardest routine. I believe in you, the whole team believes in you, and YOU are going to be great."
She rolled her eyes again. "But-"
"No "but"s. You don't think I'm petrified of messing up, too? You guys are trusting me to sing, by myself, at a competition. I am a dancer by nature, but I am certainly not a singer by it. But I'm putting in my all, and you guys believe in me. So I'm going to do my best in New York on Friday and I will have to trust your faith is justified. And no matter what happens at Nationals, you'll still have my back, right?"
She shook her head at his turning her fears around on her, but answered honestly all the same. "Right."
"Well, we'll all still have yours. …But, if you pass out from fatigue because you wouldn't take breaks when you needed them, we will have to kick your ass." He tried to intimidate her with his partly honest warning but Lauren found his accompanying expression more humorous than threatening.
"Whatever. It'd take all twelve of you at once to bring me down."
He laughed then and gave a little shrug. "Well, yeah, that's probably true."
She rolled her eyes again, but was surprised to feel a little of her previous anxiety lifted. "Fine, Chang. We'll head out." She moved to pick up her towel and last bottle of water before turning back to him. "But if you tell anyone I almost fell, Tina will be doing a solo at Nationals."
"I swear to God, Puckerman. If you don't quit your moping, right this second, I will set your sorry ass on fire and dance maniacally around the flames as I watch your pathetic loser bones burn."
Santana Lopez' eyes narrowed as her ex-lover gave her a dismissive wave of his middle finger, before closing his eyes again, his right forearm falling over his face to further block the light.
He was laying lamely on the worn sofa of the Puckerman family room and the sight of it pissed her off. So throwing the baseball she'd nearly tripped over on her way in at him, she hoped she'd finally get his attention.
"The fuck, Tana?" came his hostile reply just after impact, as he turned to glare at her and rub his now presumably sore left shoulder.
"I said…. Stop. Fucking. Moping!"
Turning on the couch to face her fully, she had to admit his angry stare would have intimated anyone other than her. And maybe Zizes. "I am NOT moping."
"The hell you aren't. I mean, look at yourself. Stubble and sweat pants, surrounded by take-out cartons. You're like a half-eaten pint of ice cream away from scoring a permanent vagina of your own, you are so epically moping right now. And we have shit to take care of in New York in two days. So get it together, or I WILL cut you." She stepped further into the room to tower over him, her impeccably manicured hands finding her hips, but even under the frustration and attitude she was genuinely assessing his state out of friendly concern. He truly did look a mess.
Of course, the friendly part of it all lessened as he opened his mouth. "Despite being 100% Bitch, you are still, like, 90% talk… you know that, right?"
"That still leaves 10% able to teach you a lesson, asshole… and that's way more badassery than you've got left at this point. Jesus, Puck. Schue gave us the night off to pack, not to fester in your own grody, being disgusting."
"What the fuck do you even care…as long as I show up ready to dance and sing tomorrow like a good little boy, what I do in my free time shouldn't matter to anyone."
"You know why I care…why all of us care...that you have barely been responsive at rehearsal, that you looked like an honest-to-God hobo at school today, that Berry is flipping her last shred of shit that you haven't returned her calls. We're your friends, Puck. And I have an educated guess as to why you are sitting there like some dejected Rom-Com Meg Ryan wannabe, but I'm telling you, for your actual sake, to man up and get the fuck over it."
Something seemed to snap in him at her final words, and she was startled enough to take a small step back when he stood suddenly in fury. "You think I don't know that? Do you think I want to be feeling like shit? Knowing that it's my own fault for letting it go on this long, knowing I'm going to have to suck it up and go to New York and smile through goddamn song after goddamn song, and act like seeing her all sad and hurt while I try to preserve just a little bit of my self-dignity isn't actually kill me? I wish to God that I could just get the fuck over it, San. I do. But my heart is fucking obliterated right now, alright, and having acted like I didn't even have one for the better part of my life, I don't know exactly how to deal with that. I'm doing the best I can, so if your only advice is for me to just man up, then allow me to show my appreciation by saying, 'Fuck you, and get the hell out.'"
Having recovered her cool during his outburst she stood completely still and waited as the flush faded from his cheeks and his breathing slowed. She stared at him and he stared at her and the truth was, she did feel for him, way more compassion and empathy than she was used to. Romantic feelings aside, Rachel had become the best friend he'd ever had, and after experiencing the strain and distance on her friendship with Brittany earlier in the year, she could relate to some of the awful he was feeling.
But just as he didn't know how to deal with his own hurting, she didn't know how to show her concern any other way than this. And even if all she could offer him was showing up to scream and be screamed at, the subtext was: at least he wasn't alone.
"Look, I'm not going to leave, okay? I'm going to sit down and drink a beer with you, because I know you need one and you shouldn't be drinking alone. We're going to watch two episodes of Family Guy, and we are going to laugh because Peter Griffin is fucking hysterical. Then we are going to sleep, because we have to be at school by 6:00 am to do one last monster of a rehearsal. Tomorrow, you will talk to Rachel. Partly because I cannot take one more near-teary phone call, asking if I know why you're angry with her. What you say, that's up to you, but I think we both know it's just fucking time to rip the band-aid off already. It's going to suck…but, doesn't it kind of suck already?"
She stared at him hard another second, one perfectly groomed eyebrow raised to emphasize her pointed rhetorical question. Then, grabbing two beers from the cooler she knew was hidden behind the recliner, she sat down beside him, immediately kicking off her shoes and setting her feet in his lap.
And she knew his mumbled "thank you" wasn't just for handing him the beer.
The fullness of their voices lingered powerfully for a moment, then vanished entirely into a long moment of silence, before Artie was able to shake free of the frozen stillness.
And the first move he made was to wipe two tears from beneath his glasses.
Performing had always been a rush, and as the team had continued to grow together since "Sit Down Your Rocking the Boat" he'd felt an increasing high at what New Directions was capable of delivering when they all worked together. "Don't Stop Believing," "Somebody to Love," "Imagine," "Like A Prayer," "To Sir With Love," their entire set at Regionals just a few weeks back - he'd definitely been moved by what and how they'd combined their talents and passion before… but he had never felt anything quite like this. While singing, or otherwise.
And it was like every single one of them was afraid to speak just now, for fear of losing that magic.
They'd been here in the auditorium for the last hour and a half, finalizing travel details, doing warm-ups and stretches and, finally, practicing their three group numbers.
Despite the early call time, and the yawns and baggy-eyes they'd all arrived with, they'd been ON from the moment the jazz band started. And consequently had made it through without a hitch.
The first two sets included mash-ups that were complicated and dance-heavy, but the last few weeks' rehearsals had been spent largely dedicated to smoothing them out and getting them running like a well-oiled machine. He wasn't surprised they'd gone so well.
But the last number? There was no real choreography so there'd been very little practice after its original selection. Maybe if it was any other song such a simple approach may have done it a disservice. But Artie could see, now, with the emotion of it still reverberating in his bones – this was what was going to win them Nationals.
Finally, Mr. Schue broke the silence. "I keep telling myself, each time you make cry, that it's going to be the last time. But it never is." There was a ripple of chuckles and small smiles. "I had this whole big speech planned, a pep talk before the chaos starts when we all get on that plane tomorrow, and try to squeeze in last minute preparation, and struggle to make sure we're all where we're supposed to be at all times…but, you know what? I think you all already know everything you need to know. If you didn't, what I just heard, witnessed, felt, would not have been possible. So I'm going to end our last homecourt rehearsal by just saying I'm so proud of all of you. Now, have a great day, and I will see you tomorrow, out front at 7:15 am, to leave for New York City!"
Their teacher gave a big smile and made to move away as a dismissal when, suddenly, Artie couldn't stop himself from speaking. "Actually, uh, Mr. Schue? Can I say something?"
He saw everyone's heads turn to him out of his peripheral vision as Mr. Schuester responded, "Of course."
He cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses.
"Rachel once told Mr. Schue that being a part of something special makes you special…and, while we've reminded of each other of that numerous times over the last two years, I don't think I've ever understood it as much as I do right now." He felt Brittany reach over from her stool beside him to take his hand and give it a gentle squeeze, while he saw Sam and Tina and Kurt all nodding in agreement. "The truth is, we actually might not win this weekend. I'd like to think our chances are good, amazing even, but there's just no way of knowing, and as confident as we are right now, I think we have to be prepared for that. But I have never enjoyed anything so much as being a part of this, with all of you, and the thing is, that will still be true no matter what happens in New York. Trophy or no trophy. This has already been more than I ever could have hoped for, and I just wanted to thank you guys for making me part of something special."
For a brief moment, as no one moved or said anything in response, Artie felt the slightest start of embarrassment at having given such a speech. Most of his outbursts in glee had been more for commentary or, on occasion, frustration. Yet he couldn't hold back just now, and quickly looking at the faces of his gleemates, he knew there was no need for shame at having spoken so freely – every single one of them clearly felt the same way. In an instant, Brittany was on his lap, kissing his cheek, before he felt two more sets of arms wrap around his shoulders, recognizing them as Quinn and Mercedes from the accompanying perfume and squeeze respectively. Soon there was a massive group hug taking place.
And, in that moment, Artie felt the most special he ever had...especially when he heard Mr. Schue's say, in fake exasperation, "And now I'm crying again. Great."
Noah Puckerman sat on the cool bleachers of the McKinley High football field, hunched over, forearms resting on his knees. No one was around at the moment to see him briefly embrace the aura of defeat and sadness. And the person coming to meet him wouldn't judge him for it. She'd never judged him for anything, and that was partly what made this all so hard.
The evening air was chilling rapidly; May was only warm in Ohio until the sun began to set. But he ignored the way the wind whipped at his thin white t-shirt, too lost in his own thoughts.
Finally, the moment he was both waiting for and dreading was here, as he could make out Rachel's form, clad in her pink spring parka, making her way through the gate from the parking lot.
He watched her the entire way until she reached him, sitting primly at his side, before turning his gaze down to study his hands. He swallowed hard as he could sense her apprehension and already felt awful for what was to come. It was going to hurt them both, he knew, but it was also the right thing to do. For her. And, as the somewhat changed man that he now found himself, he really had no choice.
"Noah?" Her voice was soft enough that the wind carried the second syllable away, but he'd heard her say his name so many times in the last few months he could hear it in his mind perfectly.
"Thanks for meeting me here, Berry." He wondered if she was remembering their last serious conversation on these bleachers as vividly as he was right now. "I just…we need to talk, and I couldn't do it at your house."
He left out his thought that he could barely do it at all.
"What's going on, Noah? You're scaring me. …You aren't quitting glee, are you? We need you! I ne-"
"Cool your jets," he interrupted. "This has nothing to do with glee. Not really."
He'd interrupted her to calm her freak out, but noticed she looked more scared after his comment than she had at the thought he was quitting. She was smart enough that she probably saw where he was heading.
"It's about me. And you." He cleared his throat and looked pointedly away from her face, staring at the center of the scoreboard across the field. "And you and Finn."
"There is no me and Finn, you know that. We're just friends."
Her voice sounded unnatural, higher and desperate, totally unlike herself on the word "friends" and he thought that was as telling as everything else he'd seen in the last few weeks.
"Look, I'm…I'm bowing out, Berry. It's him, and we both know it. In fact, I'm pretty sure he's the only one who hasn't known it would be him all along."
Her tone was one of protest but he was at least thankful that she wasn't going to pretend that she didn't know what he meant.
"It's okay, Rachel. I'm not pissed or anything." He gave an awkward laugh. "I'm almost relieved."
Her stare, focused on him so intently, slipped from sad and sympathetic to questioning.
"This wasn't my fault. I didn't do anything wrong. You just want him more." He shrugged. "But if you picked me, I'd have to always be afraid of fucking things up. And if I did, and I only had myself to blame for losing you? That'd be a hell of a lot harder to deal with than this." He recognized the way she was biting her lip as an effort to keep from crying, and when she reached over to take his hands, he clasped at hers tightly. His voice was strong, and his expression neutral, but he knew she could tell from the way he held her warm fingers so tightly that this was hurting him more than he'd ever imagined. "We'd be really great together, though. If it weren't for him."
Her response was totally sincere. "I know."
"Still. This almost feels like a victory, in a way."
"A victory?" She asked, a note of offense in her voice.
He couldn't help but roll his eyes at her.
"My entire life, it seems, he's always beaten me. Despite my superior muscle definition and higher IQ." He chuckled at her frown, but continued when she didn't argue with him. "People just like him better. Parents, teachers, girls. Did you know I even tried out for quarterback originally? I could throw the ball farther too. But he was growing so fast, and had such a better "attitude," that Tanaka was sure he was the right guy for the job. I have always been the consolation prize for Finn Hudson... or worse. But this was different. The way I see it, you could've chosen him all along. You could have just run back to him months ago, after that night at Quinn's. But you didn't. Because you didn't want to lose me. You knew he may not wait forever, you knew you loved him, but you didn't want to hurt me, or give me up, and so you refused to choose. By not picking either of us, you were sorta picking me."
He watched as the tears started slipping out, rolling down her cheeks, off the slope of her chin, but she refused to relinquish her hold on him in order to wipe them away. "Even now, if I wasn't giving you permission, you'd keep fighting it. I know you, and you'd wait until I was over it or he just gave up. Finn may be the one you've wanted, but I'm the one you kinda needed. And that means a lot, Berry. I got to beat Finn this time. Even if it's not working out quite like I hoped."
A small sob broke free from her throat, and her head was shaking back and forth. "I hate this, Noah. I wish-"
"I know you do. But I'll be okay, Berry. I'll get over you eventually. And I'm fuckin' hot, so it's not like I'm going to be lonely in the meantime."
He waggled his eyebrows until she giggled through her tears. Though her expression grew more pained at the sound of her own laughter. "God, why are you trying to make me feel better?"
"Because I love you."
He said it without thinking. He stated it simply because it was true. And because this would be his last chance to say it.
He watched as a new wave of regret crashed into her eyes, and her hands squeezed his desperately. He could tell she wanted to say it back. But he knew she wouldn't, and he was grateful. She couldn't mean it the same way, no matter how badly he wished she could, and hearing it out loud would just make him want her to mean it more.
They stared at each other a long time, and he hated that it was an ending. He didn't blame her, he couldn't, but he knew that even while still offering her his friendship, everything about the way things had been between them was now over. Fairness to Finn aside, he didn't think he could get over her if he didn't force himself to let go.
"I'm so sorry, Noah." He knew she wasn't apologizing for anything she'd done, but for what she couldn't do. He was pretty sure she wanted to love him.
But love didn't work that way.
"Me too, Berry. Me fuckin' too."
"Sam, it's me and I'm sorry to call so late but I need you to do me a favor."
Quinn Fabray's request came out in a rushed breath but she couldn't fight the small smile at her boyfriend's immediate reply of, "Anything." After remembering the situation at hand, however, the one that had her whispering on her phone in Rachel's bathroom now that the smaller girl had finally cried herself to sleep, her reaction to his seemingly effortless sweetness was short-lived.
"From what I've gathered in between Rachel's sobs, apparently her and Puck had the talk, and…well… if she's this upset? I just don't think he should have to be by himself right now." The blonde released a heavy sigh, and while most might have interpreted it as a sign of being put-off by other people's emotional needs, she trusted that Sam understood she was just frustrated that neither of them could do much more than be there. "San can't get out of her night with her abuela, and while Finn would have once been the first choice here, for a plethora of obvious reasons that's no longer the case. Do you think you could pull out the forces of Spam or Schmuck or whatever you two call yourselves while video-gaming to literally take one for the team?" Her voice fell to an even quieter register. "He just sacrificed his best friend for her own happiness, and…" She trailed off at a loss for what else to say. "Please?"
While she'd been talking she could hear the thumps of what she believed was Sam shoving his feet into his chucks as well as the clang of him pocketing his keys, readying himself immediately to do as she asked, but now there was only the puffs of his breath on the other side of the line and she wondered at his distraction.
"Yeah, sorry, I just kind of got lost in thought for a moment...I want to help, Quinn. I do. As much for him, and Rachel, as you. But, am I really the right guy for this?" She could hear the concern and the doubt in his pause. "I mean, what do you say to someone who just broke his own heart?"
And, as the question hit her, Quinn suddenly remembered a year ago, standing next to Puck, before a pane of glass, gazing at one special, beautiful, pink-cheeked, blonde-haired, loved baby girl... and knowing, both of them, that was likely as close to her as they may ever be again. For once, she let herself really feel the memory, and the ever lingering part of both her present and her future: the ache of missing Beth, always, and the weight of a connection to Noah Puckerman that would never truly go away.
She blew out a steadying breath.
"Tell him he's done it before and survived it, so he can do it again."
She brushed away a tear on reflex, but then, in the confines of Rachel's bathroom and with only the boy who loved her as an almost-witness, she let the rest of them fall freely, even as she also let out a slight laugh, "And, tell him not to try and steal anything this time."