Author: ellydash / magnicifent
Pairing/Characters: Emma Pillsbury/Sue Sylvester, Shannon Beiste, Rachel Berry, Kurt Hummel, Mercedes Jones, Noah Puckerman, Quinn Fabray, Becky Jackson, Rose Pillsbury
Length: 25,000 words
Notes: If you've read Don’t Need You To Say We’re All Right, this fic is in the same universe (but is written as a standalone, so it isn’t necessary to have read the other first). Thanks to merkintosh for the title of Emma’s post-high school seminar, and to themillersson, whose enthusiasm encouraged me to keep writing. I am immensely grateful to abluegirl for applying her awesome beta skills to this behemoth, and for giving me so much useful information about childbirth. You are wonderful. <3
Summary: During the first weeks of summer, a newly single Emma shows up on Sue’s doorstep needing a place to stay. Moving in with Sue and Shannon, however, results in some unexpected changes Emma isn’t sure she’s ready to accept.
When Sue throws her front door open, Emma feels belated panic billow in her stomach and chest, because she realizes, for the first time, that Sue could say no. She could say no. Emma would have to go to her parents for help. Slink home, admit defeat, and listen to her mother’s barely-concealed pleasure. You’ve really blown it this time, freaky-deaky. That man isn’t anything great on his own, but he’s a wonderful catch for our little crazy-cakes.
“Dear god, Etta, what’s wrong?” Sue asks, her forehead furrowing into what looks like real concern. “Don’t tell me Clorox filed for bankruptcy?”
For some reason, Sue’s expression is the first thing today that’s made Emma want to cry. She presses her lips together to head off an outburst. Crying isn’t an option right now, she reminds herself. There’ll be plenty of time for that later, when she’s behind a closed bathroom or car door, or maybe underneath her office desk, after she’s given the floor a really good scrubbing.
“I, uh,” Emma manages, gripping the suitcase handles tighter in her closed fists. “I left him. I didn’t know where else to go.”
“You left him,” Sue repeats, flatly.
“Yes. I left Will.”
“Well, thank you for clarifying, Elsie, I thought you were talking about Mr. Clean. Did he hurt you?”
“Did he – hurt – no. No, he didn’t hurt me. Will would never hurt me –”
“That,” Sue says, “is not an assumption I feel comfortable making about anyone, in light of recent events. I’m glad to hear it. Did the stink of self-righteousness leeching from his oversized pores finally prove too much for the integrity of your delicate, avian nostrils? Because, quite frankly, I can’t blame you if that’s the case. I’ve been thinking about investing in an oxygen mask myself.”
Emma’s starting to feel the weight of her suitcases straining her biceps and forearms, but she can’t put them down. Not until she knows if she can stay. It’d be too humiliating to have to pick them back up after being rejected.
“He wanted to –” She flushes with embarrassment and looks away, unable to meet Sue’s eyes or clarify further. “And I didn’t. For the millionth time. I can’t do it anymore, Sue. I’m just, I’m tired. I can’t keep trying so hard to – We aren’t working. He deserves better.”
“You do too,” Sue says, evenly. “Don’t you forget it.”
Tears threaten her again at this unexpected kindness. Emma takes a deep breath. “Can I stay with you? Only for a little while. Until I get on my feet. I know Shannon’s been staying here since she left Cooter, and I understand if you don’t want another house guest, but I have money, I’m more than happy to pay you whatever rent you think is appropriate, I just don’t know how I can find a place on such short notice and I really can’t live with my parents, Will said he’d never ask me to leave but I can’t stand the idea of –”
“Emma,” Sue interrupts. “I’m going to stop you right there before your larynx collapses from the effort of all that chirping.” She places a protective hand on top of her belly. “Of course you can stay. As long as you want.”
The sudden relief that floods her makes Emma tremble.
“Thank you,” she says, meaning it more than she’s meant anything in a very long time. “Oh, thank you so much.”
Sue waves a hand. “Don’t mention it. Now get inside, you’re letting in more hot air than a Mitt Romney campaign rally.”
The house is a refrigerator, a welcome change from the oppressive heat of an Ohio afternoon in early June, but Emma shivers nonetheless as she walks down the hallway, wishing she’d thought to bring more cardigans with her. One of the trophy shelves is empty, she notices, layered with dust Emma can see a mile away, and Sue says without looking back, “Cleared some space for Little Susie’s trophies.”
“Don’t you – isn’t that a while away?”
“You know, Ida, for someone with eyes the size of small dinner plates, you have an astonishing lack of vision. My daughter doesn’t have to cheer to be exceptional. She’s gonna be the first baby in the nation to score an eleven on her five minute APGAR.”
That seems slightly impossible. “And there’s – you have a trophy for that?”
Emma thinks back to that horrible day two months ago in the doctor’s office. The blank, unholy look on Sue’s face when they’d heard the words “chromosomal abnormalities.” Will’s clumsy attempt at reassuring Sue, his hand on her arm, a soft “Sue, I’m so sorry –” and the way Sue had thrown him off with a snarl, shoulders curled forward. She’d said, low and steady, “William, the next time you apologize to me for my child will be the last time we ever have a conversation. Do you understand?”
Yes, Will understood. So had Emma. The calm equanimity of the threat had been, in its own way, more terrifying than any tantrum.
She wonders now, not for the first time, what life for the new Sylvester will be like with a mother who won’t settle for anything other than the best.
“Emma! What’re you doing here?”
Shannon’s rushing out of the kitchen to meet them, clutching what looks like a protein shake in one hand. She’s grinning, obviously surprised and pleased by this unexpected visit. The lines on Shannon’s face are all creases from smiling. Emma, on the other hand, has two faint little wrinkles between her eyes, the grooves of a lifelong worrier.
“Hi, Shannon,” she says, placing the suitcases on the floor and trying to match her smile. It’s a terrible attempt. “That looks good, whatever it is. Could I get you to make me one?”
The distraction tactic doesn’t work. “What’s with the luggage? Going on vacation?”
“Well, Skipper, it seems as though Gilligan here will be staying with us for a while,” Sue interrupts. “I decided I wasn’t nauseated enough by the pungent stench of roast chicken and cheap polyester you’ve contributed to this household. Febreze and floral perfume should be just the thing to catapult me straight from mild queasiness into full-blown projectile vomiting.”
Shannon looks confused. “Staying with us? Is everything okay with you and Will?”
A rush of hot shame rockets up Emma’s neck and into her face. She’d had to tell her news once, wasn’t that enough? The thought of admitting it again, even to a friend, makes her feel exposed, nearly pornographic.
She shakes her head, swallowing, even though her mouth is completely dry. “No,” she says, and this time, she can’t hold back the tears. “No, it’s most definitely not okay. It hasn’t been for a long time, I think. I haven’t been okay. There’s something really wrong with me.”
“Hold this, Sue,” Shannon orders, pushing the protein shake in Sue’s direction, and Sue, clearly too surprised at the command to counter with a retort, takes it from her without protest. “Come here, punkin. You come right here. I’ve got you.”
Inside the tight circle of Shannon’s arms, Emma begins to weep, sick with embarrassment but unable to stop herself. Shannon hugs her closely, rocking her back and forth a little, one hand stroking her hair. Emma presses her face against the curve between Shannon’s neck and shoulder, the scratch of Shannon’s polo shirt collar rubbing into her nose. As humiliating as this is, it’s better than having to see the pity in Shannon’s eyes. Emma doesn’t know if she could stand that.
“Nothing’s gonna happen to you,” Shannon murmurs against Emma’s hairline. This is meant to be kind, of course, but it sounds to Emma like a terrible threat. She’s had a lifetime of nothing happening to her. Will was – had been – something, or at least the promise of something. “You’ve got me, and you’ve got Sue here. Between the two of us, we’ll get you whistling Howdy Doody to the hedgehogs in no time.”
Emma has no idea what Shannon means, but she says, in a small, muffled voice, “That sounds nice.”
“You did the right thing, Ems. You’re real brave, and I’m proud of you.”
She isn’t brave. Shannon’s the brave one, finding the strength to leave Cooter. Even Sue’s braver than she is, facing the uncertainty and challenge of raising a disabled child on her own. Nothing’s brave about being thirty-three and so broken Emma can’t let the best man she’s ever known touch her without screwing her eyes shut and reminding herself that this is Will, and she loves him.
Sue’s watching them from behind Shannon, arms crossed, looking as though she isn’t exactly sure how to contribute.
“The cleaning products are under the kitchen sink,” she says, finally, and clears her throat. “If you get the impulse to bleach anything, I suggest you start with Beiste’s upper lip.”
After the hallway bathroom’s been properly cried in and subsequently scrubbed down, Emma realizes she isn’t exactly sure where to put her suitcases. Sue’s house only has two bedrooms, the master bedroom/trophy suite, and the guest bedroom/future nursery, where Shannon’s taken up residence.
“You’re more than welcome to bunk with me,” Shannon offers, rummaging through the refrigerator while Emma peels off the soiled rubber gloves and tosses them into the oversized garbage can. “But I gotta warn you, I’m a cover hog. And I talk in my sleep. Cooter always said –“ She stops, and even though Emma can’t see her face, she’s willing to bet Shannon’s wincing. “Never mind him. Point is, there’s a fair to middling chance I’ll wake you up in the middle of the night with a lot of hootin’ about that chef on Restaurant Impossible. You okay with that?”
“Um,” Emma says, wanting to be polite. She’s a light sleeper, always has been since childhood, when sleeping was that thing she did between waking fears of monsters coming after her in the night. “I could sleep on the couch? I don’t mind.”
“Oh, for god’s sake,” Sue calls from the dining room. For the last two hours, she’s been busy assembling something electronic on the table that Emma doesn’t want to look at too closely, in case the FBI ever gets involved. “You can share my bed. Just make sure to lie on your back. I don’t want to have to patch up mattress punctures from those pelvic bones of yours.”
Dinner is surprisingly delicious, roast beef with a tangy glaze Emma’s never had before, and she makes sure to compliment Shannon effusively between bites. It’s good to feel hungry.
Shannon beams with pride. “I’ve been thinking about taking a cooking class this summer,” she says. “Before football training starts. I’ve always loved goofing off in the kitchen, and now –“ She looks shyly between Emma and Sue. “Well, now there’s people to cook for. I’ve never really had that before. Cooter doesn’t like home-cooked meals.”
Pointing her fork in Shannon’s direction, Sue says around a mouthful of green beans, “What that man likes and doesn’t like is none of your concern anymore, Shannon. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bring him up at the dinner table. Or in this house, for that matter.”
“Maybe,” Emma volunteers, after an awkward silence, “Shannon needs to talk about Cooter. It’s good to talk about things, traumatic things, to let your feelings –”
“Emma,” Shannon says, quietly, just as Sue stabs a piece of meat. “It’s okay. Sue’s got a point. We’ll talk about something else. Bringing him up doesn’t help anyone.”
“But I don’t think that’s true. You went through such an awful –”
Sue’s fork clatters down onto the plate, and Emma jumps at the loud sound. Without a word, Sue stands up from her chair, face fixed in a furious grimace, and marches out of the dining room.
“I don’t understand,” Emma whispers, keeping quiet just in case Sue’s still in hearing distance. “What was that?”
Shannon presses her own fork down into the rice pilaf, turning it slightly. “Between you and me, punkin,” she says, “I guess Sue feels guilty about what happened with me and Coot, even though she’d rather tie herself to a duck’s belly in winter than admit it. I told her straight up Cooter hitting me wasn’t anyone’s fault except his, but she won’t hear it. Or can’t.”
In bed that night, Sue facing the wall, a sleeping, rigid column on the other side of the mattress, Emma mulls over this information. Something about it bothers her. Sue and Cooter had dated before he’d started seeing Shannon. She’d never stopped to consider that Sue might’ve been with him long enough to see at least a flash of Cooter’s true colors. Was that why Sue had been so uncharacteristically kind to Shannon? Had she realized how very near she’d come to needing the same kind of help?
It’s a dark question without an easy answer. She doesn’t want to ask it, even silently.
Next to Emma, Sue shifts, suddenly, turning over. Even in the dim room, Emma can see the shape of her belly as Sue twists to face her, curving out underneath the tank top she’s worn to bed. She’s gotten noticeably bigger since Emma’s last seen her. In sleep her face is surprisingly smooth, free from the strain of being Sue Sylvester. She looks younger, less like herself, and for a brief, disorienting second Emma has the sense that she’s lying here in bed with someone she’s never met.
When she sleeps, it’s fitful. She dreams about small birds, and wedding rings, and even though she doesn’t know how they go together, it seems so important that she figure it out.
Over the next three days, Will calls again and again. Each time, Emma looks at her phone and weighs the pros and cons of answering. When his name pops up on her screen during a particularly intense moment in Rambo II, an exasperated Sue grabs Emma’s phone out of her hands and informs Will that if he bothers them one more time, she’ll enlist several Cheerios to restrain him in his office, force-funnel a vat of Activia down his throat, and then lock all the McKinley bathrooms.
“Jamie Lee Curtis is many things, William,” Sue says, “but she is not a liar. That stuff goes through you like greasy children down a water park flume.”
Will doesn’t call again.
Emma is surprised at how little she’s cried since she left Will.She’s had only one fleeting sobfest, triggered by last night’s impromptu viewing of Terms of Endearment. (Which, in Emma’s opinion, doesn’t seem at all like it should count, because Shannon had cried too, making loud honking sounds all through the hospital scenes, and even Sue had wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and grumbled about pregnancy hormones.) Instead, she’s spending her free time rearranging Sue’s kitchen, which is hopelessly cluttered and in need of a good cleaning, and although Sue makes a lot of spluttering noises in protest, Emma can tell she’s secretly pleased. After all, everybody knows you can’t be properly ready for a baby unless the items in your kitchen cabinets are neatly arranged according to size, color, and rate of use.
In between label making and zealous spraying, Emma begins putting materials together for the weekly summer course she’ll be offering, “Almost Homeless! Adulthood and You.” Encouraged by Will’s intense enthusiasm for the idea, she’d gone to Figgins a few months before the end of the school year with a proposal for a seminar intended to help recently graduated seniors transition into post-high school life. “Nothing serious,” she’d explained, “just an informal group kicking it real style. I think that’s what the kids call it today. We can chat about the issues facing today’s modern youth, like peer pressure to invest in mutual funds, and how to say no to kegs.”
Of course there’s no money in the budget to support an extra summer class, particularly one designed for former students, but Figgins had graciously granted Emma the use of a classroom on Wednesday evenings, provided she toss in an occasional plug for his church’s low-cost exorcism services. Emma’s happy to pay out of her pocket for materials, because she cares so deeply about preparing these kids for one of the most important transitions of their lives. College had been a shocking experience for Emma, featuring four years of intimidating roommates and disturbingly irregular eating hours at the dining halls. No one had ever warned her that nine o’clock was an acceptable hour for dinner. If just one of her former students goes off to school forearmed with that information, she knows it’ll all be worth the effort.
Each night, she curls up on her side of Sue’s bed, often restless from the hum of the air conditioner and Sue’s frequent trips to the bathroom. It’s odd, sharing a bed with someone you’re not supposed to touch, someone who, in fact, has declared that any encroachment on her sixty-three percent share of the mattress will result in bed rights being completely withdrawn. It’s odd, but it’s nice, too. The lack of pressure relaxes Emma, makes her breathe more easily.
The evening before her first class, she lies predictably sleepless, thinking over the discussion topics she’s selected. Emma has five students who have indicated they’re coming, all Will’s former kids, and she can’t help but believe that’s not a coincidence. He’s probably encouraged them behind her back to take the seminar. The thought curdles inside her, and it keeps her eyes open. She doesn’t want his sympathy or his help. Emma’s an excellent educator all on her own, or at least she’s trying to be.
“I can’t sleep when you’re thinking so loudly,” Sue snaps, from the other side of the bed, and Emma jumps. She hadn’t known Sue was awake.
“Sorry,” she says, turning over, before realizing how ridiculous an apology sounds in this situation. “I’m just – anxious about tomorrow, that’s all. First day jitters, you know how it is.”
“I resent that insinuation, Irma, as someone with nerves of steel and a cult classic exercise VHS entitled Sue Sylvester: Nerves of Steel. It’s huge in Estonia.”
The best way to have a conversation with Sue, Emma knows from experience, is to never respond directly to anything that comes out of Sue’s mouth, and so she says, into the dark room, “I get terrible first day jitters. I always have, ever since the night before I started kindergarten. You know, I remember that my mother took me straight to the teacher that first morning and told her she should encourage the other students to tease me until I developed a thicker skin, because I was too sensitive for my own good.” She gives a little laugh, as if to imply that the story isn’t as bad as it seems. At the time, Emma hadn’t understood the look Mrs. Seward had given her, but she’d felt the shame of it just the same. Looking back, she supposes it was pity.
“When I was nine years old,” Sue says, pushing down the sheets and wriggling a little, “my mother left Jean and me by ourselves for three weeks. She gave us a wad of cash for groceries and told me to take good care of my sister. I had no idea where she was. Jean wouldn’t stop asking me when she was coming back. And then she stopped asking. That was harder.”
Emma swallows, trying to imagine being left all alone. “I’m sorry,” she repeats. “That’s a terrible story.”
“Sounds like your childhood wasn’t exactly a picnic either. Not that I’m surprised, seeing as how you’ve got more problems than Jay-Z. She still in your life?”
“My mother? Yes. Well, no, not really. I don’t talk to her. Unless I have to.”
“Things are gonna be different,” Sue declares, turning on her side to face Emma, and Emma, startled, thinks she’s talking about her own mother until she sees Sue’s hand over her belly, rubbing slightly. “I will never, ever do to my child what our mother did to me and to Jean. Susie’s going to get everything we never had. She’s going to know from the second she’s born that she’s wanted and loved more than anything in the world. Don’t you doubt that for a second.”
“I don’t. I won’t. I think it’s really wonderful, what you’re doing. Your daughter will be lucky to have you.” She doesn’t know if she really means that, not on all levels – Emma’s seen Sue Sylvester assault enough minors in the hallways over the years to harbor some severe reservations over her fitness as a parent – but Sue’s vehemence and sincerity are surprisingly moving. “And Shannon and I are here to, um, help, in any way you need, with the baby. You’re not in this by yourself. You have friends.”
The second the word’s out, she feels vulnerable, like she should take it back, but a smile spreads visibly on Sue’s face, a real one that makes Emma want to smile back. She does.
“Junior’s kicking,” Sue says, suddenly, her palm still pressing into her belly. “Getting a head start on those split jumps.”
Emma, emboldened by their conversation, moves closer, undeniably encroaching on the sixty-three percent of the bed reserved for Sue and the baby. “Can I feel?” she asks, and then adds, immediately, “I mean, if you aren’t comfortable, that’s perfectly –“
“Oh, for god’s sake, Elsa, just give me your freakishly bony hand,” Sue orders, and when Emma meekly holds her hand out in Sue’s direction, Sue grabs it and places it on the swell of her stomach.
The kick flutters against her fingers, once, then again, harder.
“Oh,” Emma manages, stunned. “Oh. That’s her foot. Oh, my goodness. What does it feel like? Does it hurt?”
Sue shakes her head. “Like pressure,” she says. “It’s strange. But it’s nice, too. Makes me feel less alone.”
They’re silent after that, Emma not knowing how to respond. She doesn’t move away, and neither does Sue, and so they stay like that, together, Emma’s hand resting on Sue’s belly. It isn’t until Emma wakes up several hours later that she realizes they’d actually fallen asleep in that position. Sue’s fingers are still over hers, steady and warm, holding her there, and Emma’s head is nestled on the edge of Sue’s pillow.
Emma withdraws back to her side of the bed as quietly as she can. Sue doesn’t wake up.
Her heart is racing, and she doesn’t think about why.
Any concerns Emma’s harbored over potential awkwardness between Will’s former students and herself are immediately validated when Rachel Berry, eyes misting with empathetic commiseration, hands her a CD case studded with rhinestones and a coupon for 50% off at the local ice-cream parlor, Coneheads.
“We heard,” she says, unnecessarily. Kurt, standing next to her, looks about as uncomfortable as Emma feels. “Ms. Pillsbury, I want you to know that I am so very sorry. You and Mr. Schue were a love story for the ages. Like a much, much less glamorous Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.”
“Um,” Emma manages, taking the offered items. “Thank you, Rachel. I think.”
“I know exactly what you’re going through, as someone who has also recently suffered incredible heartbreak. This CD helped me through the worst of my own post-breakup angst. It contains twenty-two timeless songs about lost love.”
“I don’t know why it’s necessary to give her music that’ll make her feel worse,” Kurt mutters, under his breath.
“Well, sometimes, Kurt, you just need to hide under the covers and express your deeply felt emotions into the fur of a large teddy bear while listening to Bette Midler’s classic ‘The Rose.’ It’s therapeutic.”
“Okay,” Emma says, quickly. “All right, that’s great. Again, Rachel, thank you, it was very sweet of you to think of me. I’ll be sure to listen to the CD later.” Something occurs to her. “How did you find out? Did Mr. Schuester, Will, did he tell you?”
Kurt looks at her, face softening a little in what might be sympathy. “Facebook relationship status. He changed it to ‘single’ a few weeks ago. Things seems pretty bad, to be honest. He’s posting a lot of lyrics from Carousel.”
Rachel nods, a pinched move of her chin that suggests she agrees this is a dire sign.
Emma doesn’t have a Facebook account herself – she doesn’t exactly feel the need to track down her three friends from college or post pictures of her file cabinets – but Will does. He’d explained to her once that he thought it was important to keep up with the times, speak the kids’ language. “It’s a great way to stay in touch with them after they graduate, too,” he’d said, and the note of eagerness in his voice had made her unexpectedly sad for him.
“Well,” she says, awkwardly, and claps her hands together. It’s probably better not to comment on this new information. “I’m glad you’re here. There’s organic punch and oatmeal raisin cookies over on the table by the wall, but please don’t forget the napkins. You can have a seat whenever you’d like.” She gestures to the small circle of chairs she’s assembled in the middle of the classroom. “We’re just going to wait for the others to get here, and then we’ll start.”
“Yo, Ms. P,” Noah Puckerman calls from the doorway, and she spins to face him, taking in his appreciative grin and eyebrow-waggle. “It sucks about Mr. Schue and all, but the good news is, now you’re free to ride the Puckcoaster. I’ll even let you cut in line. Don’t worry, I just had my tetanus shot.”
Emma, with a small shudder, is about to politely decline this invitation when Mercedes, emerging from behind Puck, socks him hard in the shoulder.
“Ouch,” Puck yells, rubbing the sore spot, and Mercedes tells him, “Show some respect, Puckerman. That kind of talk isn’t cute, and it never was. You’re a grown-ass man. Get your mouth under control.” She turns to Emma, softening. “Hey, Ms. Pillsbury. I apologize on Puck’s behalf. And I feel bad about you and Mr. Schue, too. Hope you’re doing all right.”
“Hi, Mercedes,” she says, and gives her a warm, grateful smile. Emma’s always liked Mercedes, even if the girl intimidates her a little bit. She’s just so confident. “Please, come on in.”
Quinn Fabray is the last to arrive, opening the door just as Emma’s thinking she might as well get things started.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Quinn announces, smiling apologetically as she joins the circle, sitting between Rachel and Mercedes. “There was traffic on Washington.” She stops, biting her lower lip briefly. “Actually, I don’t know why I said that. It isn’t true. I’m late because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come. We’ve said goodbye already, when we left Rachel at the train station. This feels a lot like we’re just dragging it out through summer.”
“Our seminar isn’t about saying goodbyes, Quinn. It’s about saying hello to the rest of your life. Together, in a safe space, where you can all be honest with each other about how you’re feeling about your futures.”
“I agree with Ms. Pillsbury,” Rachel chimes in. “In fact, I have a song that would be –“
“No way,” Kurt interrupts. “Absolutely not.”
Quinn crosses one leg over the other, leaning back in her chair. “A safe space,” she says. “Honesty. Okay. So tell us, Ms. P. How exactly are we supposed to do this?”
“It’s informal. I want all of you to be able to ask me whatever questions –“
“No, not that. I mean college. I mean adulthood. The last four years have been all about preparing for our lives after high school, and now they’re here, and we’re just – expected to know what we’re doing. How to choose the right classes, the right major, the right profession, the right partner.”
Hurt shines briefly on Rachel’s face.
“That’s why we’re here, right? You’re going to tell us how to make choices. So tell us, how are we supposed to get through the next part of our lives without messing everything up?”
Emma opens her mouth, closes it. She hadn’t prepared for this, for Quinn’s direct questioning and strangely defiant uncertainties. Her notes are all about signing up for a credit card and how to cook fish without burning it.
“I came here because I’m scared, too,” Mercedes admits, looking around the circle. She reaches over into Quinn’s lap and takes her hand, squeezing it. “I’m moving to a new city by myself, and I’m trying to break into an industry that doesn’t exactly love people like me. It’s exciting, but I’m terrified I’m going to fail.”
“At least you have a chance to go for it,” Kurt mutters. “At least you have a goal. Somebody wants you.”
“Just because you have a goal doesn’t mean you can’t be scared, Kurt,” Rachel interrupts. “And I’m sure Ms. Pillsbury has excellent advice for all of us. After all, that’s why she’s holding this class.” She turns to Emma expectantly, and the others follow, five pairs of eyes watching her. “Isn’t it?”
“Well,” Emma begins, wanting to choose her words carefully, “being an adult isn’t what you might think it is when you’re younger. You think when you reach a certain age you’ll suddenly know all the answers, but then you get there and you don’t. You end up just making things up as you go along. That’s what adulthood is. Improvising. Pretending you know what you’re doing. And then suddenly you’re in your thirties, and you’re in a relationship you don’t know how to want, and you realize you’ve been pretending for so long that you just can’t seem to do anything else.”
Silence. The others stare at her. Emma’s cheeks burn as she realizes she’s just told them far more than she’d meant to admit.
“Mercedes, Quinn, all of you,” she continues, trying to stay composed. “You have some really big questions. They’re not the kind of questions I know how to answer, because, to be honest, I’m still trying to figure them out for myself.”
“Then what the hell are we doing here?” Puck asks. “You’re the guidance counselor. If you don’t know the answers, how are we supposed to know what to do?”
She’s attempting to come up with a good response that won’t humiliate her further when Mercedes says, “Maybe we can help each other. Not like a class, but like a support group. And Ms. Pillsbury, maybe we can help you. I know you’ve got all this experience, but it might be good for you to talk to us. Hey, we’re adults now too.”
There are a million things she could say to this. That despite the fact they’ve all ticked over into legal adulthood, there’s still a divide the size of the Grand Canyon between eighteen and thirty-three. That her problems aren’t something she should be sharing with former students. That all Emma knows how to do is to stuff their expansive lives into her narrow, comfortable range of knowledge. Until now, it’s been enough for her.
What comes out, instead, is a shaky, “Okay.” She coughs, to mask her nervousness. “All right. Yes. That might be good.”
“Might be good?” Sue asks, incredulously, over dinner. “Might be good? Elsie, I literally can’t think of a worse idea, and you’re talking to the inventor of the 1x1 Rubik’s Cube.”
Shannon rests her silverware on her now-empty plate, no vestiges of chicken parmesan or baked potato remaining. “I don’t know about that. It might be a good strategy to get ‘em chatty. Sure as heck works for Will. Those kids really love sharing their feelings with him.”
Nodding her head vigorously at Shannon, Emma turns back to Sue. “Yes, exactly. That’s why I thought it might not be so bad, they’re already used to –“
“No, William loves sharing his feelings,” Sue corrects. “It’s bad enough, Amy Pond, that you’ve remain bizarrely devoted to the misguided theory that talking makes students less sad or repulsive or whatever, but let me break this down for you. Our job, as educators, is to prepare these kids for the real world out there. And despite what Will Schuester deludes himself into believing on a daily basis, our personal lives are not their concern. Have you actually thought about how this will play out? Are you, for example, planning on telling Kurt Hummel that you left his glee club teacher because the mere touch of Will’s hand on your naked body made you physically ill?”
“Come on, Sue,” Shannon says, uncomfortably.
“Well, are you?”
“I –” Emma can’t hold Sue’s gaze. She lowers her eyes. This isn’t fair. “I wasn’t exactly going to –”
“Blubbering about your considerable list of issues to a bunch of kids who aren’t even old enough to remember the Clinton presidency helps precisely no one. I expected better out of you.”
It’s that last remark that stings Emma, unexpectedly, and she fires back, suddenly angry, “Oh, so I suppose soliciting sperm donations from barely-legal students is appropriate, then?”
“What?” Shannon says, clearly shocked. “She what? Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait just a damn minute –”
It’s like Shannon isn’t even in the room, as far as Sue’s concerned. “Excuse me?”
Emma pushes her chair away from the table, her back rod-straight. “Will let me in on that lovely little piece of information. You’re not exactly a paragon of virtue yourself, Sue. If I looked up ‘hypocrite’ in the dictionary, I bet there’d be giant color photographs of you grilling Quinn Fabray for pregnancy tips and sharing intimate heart-to-hearts with Becky Jackson when she’s supposed to be in class.”
Mouth rounding with astonishment, Sue’s jaw drops. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard what I said.” Emma’s enjoying the rush that always comes with standing up to Sue. It happens so infrequently, and Sue looks thoroughly dumbfounded by her comment, still gaping. “Shannon, dinner was lovely as always, thank you. Let me take care of the dishes.”
Sue doesn’t talk to her for the rest of the evening.
At first, Emma convinces herself she doesn’t care, since she’s still simmering a little with her own resentment at being challenged. She busies herself with a new crochet pattern she’s been eager to try, keeping Shannon company on the couch while Shannon yells encouragement at the contestants on Iron Chef. Sue sets up camp in the dining room, various pieces from her advanced security system spread out on the table, and when the doorbell rings, Emma hears her yell, “Come on in, Becky, the door’s open. Did you bring your soldering iron?”
“You bet, Coach,” Becky shouts back, as she walks into the hallway, and then stops. “Hey, Ms. Pillsbury. Hi, Coach Beiste. How’s it hanging?”
Surprised, Emma squeaks out a soft hello.
“Hey there, Becky,” Shannon says, not breaking her gaze at the TV. It’s plantain night. Shannon’s got a huge thing for plantains. “Can’t complain.”
Becky gives them an enthusiastic thumbs-up and shoulders her massive knapsack, walking into the dining room. “Cool beans,” she calls back, and Emma hears Sue say, “Now, Becky, what did I tell you about using that phrase? It’s incredibly dated, and worse, it’s an affront to the pure, unadulterated joy afforded me by a piping hot burrito.”
“I’m bringing it back, Coach.”
“You have exactly eleven more days. If half of Lima isn’t saying ‘cool beans’ by then, I expect you to let it stay dead, like pogs or Courtney Love. That clear?”
“I guess.” Becky’s disappointment is obvious.
“Good. Now put that down and come sit next to me while I show you how to connect a solenoid coil to a sounder.”
Despite her attempts to focus on the stitches she’s making, and the welcome background noise of Shannon’s commentary – “No, man, no, don’t bake that skin! Fry it! Turn it the other way, it’ll cook faster. This guy doesn’t have a brain, he’s got a teacup full of farts sitting between his ears” – Emma keeps straining to hear what’s going on in the dining room. It isn’t particularly interesting, and there’s a lot of shop talk Emma doesn’t understand (who knew Sue knew so much about wiring?), but she can make out the tone of Sue’s voice, surprisingly gentle as she explains to Becky what they’re doing.
“She really asked those boys for sperm donations?”
Emma whips her head from the direction of the dining room to look at Shannon. “I’m sorry?”
“Sue. Asked those – you know, forget it, I don’t really want to know. Hey, Ems, I’ve got your back, always. You know that, right? You’re my little pal.”
Shannon’s become one of the first true friends she’s ever had, and Emma still isn’t quite sure how it’s happened. “I know. Of course I do.”
“What you said to Sue, you weren’t wrong. But you hurt her feelings. Maybe that’s more important than who’s right. Interacting with those kids like a normal human being doesn’t come easy to her. You know that.”
“Sue’s feelings?” She’s incredulous. “I wasn’t the one who – she started it. What about my feelings?”
Leaning in, Shannon says, “Look, punkin, I know you’ve been going through some stuff lately, so I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but ol’ Sue’s facing some pretty big life changes herself. She’s pretty tender right now. Go a little softer on her. Let her talk out of both sides of her mouth if it makes her feel better. No skin off your keister, right?”
In the next room, Becky laughs at something unidentified, a high, delighted giggle. It takes Emma a second to recognize the sound that follows. Sue’s laughing too. Not loudly, and not long, but it’s unmistakable.
Shannon’s arm snakes around Emma, giving her a friendly squeeze, and Emma, a little self-conscious, rests her head on the other woman’s shoulder, wanting to meet Shannon halfway. Well, she guesses it isn’t asking too much to do the same thing for Sue. After all, Sue’s the reason why she isn’t living with her parents right now. She owes her a little extra kindness.
By the time she’s sliding into bed next to Sue that night, Emma’s beginning to sincerely regret her words. Sue might’ve been hypocritical, but she has a real point. Hadn’t Emma had a hundred conversations with Will where she’d more or less taken Sue’s exact position, while Will defended his talks with Rachel and Finn about his alcoholic mother and unstable father? She’d been overly defensive with Sue; lashed back when prodded in a sore place.
“Sue,” she whispers into the dark.
“Are you awake?”
“I’m sorry for what I said earlier. I didn’t mean it.”
For a long while, there’s no answer, and then, finally, “Deena, that spine of yours is weaker than Christopher Reeve’s, and he’s been decomposing for eight years. If you’re going to openly defy me, you could at least have the decency to mean what you say.”
“All right then,” Emma says, startled into honesty. “I did mean it a little.”
“Well, congratulations. Now stop talking and let me get some sleep.”
But even though Emma obliges by staying quiet, Sue keeps twisting long afterwards, pulling the blankets and stretching her legs, rearranging her support pillows. Emma, nowhere near sleep, can make out the movement of Sue’s hand pressing into her lower back, and the small sound of air hissing through her mouth as she arches, clearly trying to relieve some pressure or pain.
“Does your back hurt?” she asks, when she can’t keep silent any longer. “I can heat up one of those hot water bottles for you.”
“I can’t –“ Sue sounds a little strangled. “No.”
That’s fine by Emma, who doesn’t particularly want to go hunting in the kitchen at this late hour anyway, and so she turns over just as Sue blurts out something, too fast for intelligibility.
She thinks she must’ve heard it wrong. “What?”
“I asked if you would rub my back.” It comes out short and staccato between clenched teeth. “Please.”
Surprised into willingness, Emma obligingly turns towards Sue, whose middle back is curved inwards, her fingers pressing at the top of her tracksuit pajama bottoms. Emma places her hand over Sue’s, a silent notice that it’s all right to let her take over, and when Sue pulls away, Emma begins to massage the spot slowly. She’s never done anything like this before, she realizes. Not even for Will. He’d asked, once, and she’d hidden in the bathroom until he’d tapped on the door and told her, with a sigh, that it was safe to come out.
Anxiety knocks at her nerves, just slightly, and she pushes it away with effort. You’re all right, Emma, she tells herself. This is just you helping out a friend. Everything’s fine. Nothing bad is going to happen.
“Am I doing this right?” she asks, softly, and Sue says, still through her teeth, “Harder.”
She complies, putting more effort into it.
Sue groans. “Like that. Keep going.”
It’s difficult, sustaining pressure when her arm’s this far extended, and so Emma scoots in a little closer to Sue’s body, resting her head on the near side of Sue’s pillow. “I can’t get –” she says, frustrated, “the fabric’s making it difficult, I have to –” and then slides her hand underneath Sue’s cotton tank-top.
Sue’s skin is surprisingly warm, firm from tensed muscles, and she arches again at the renewed pressure from Emma’s fingers, working into the hard knots.
“God, Emma,” Sue manages. “That’s good.” Her voice sounds alien, erratic and tender with the release of pain. She pushes back against Emma’s hand, working for her relief.
Emma moves her hand a little higher, pressing on either side of Sue’s spine. The muscles push back, still taut. “Just tell me what you need,” she murmurs, against the back of Sue’s head, stirring her hair a little. She still feels a little guilty, after all, from her comments earlier, and she certainly doesn’t want Sue to be in pain. If she can do something to help her feel better –
She listens to Sue’s uneven breathing, feels it as she rubs, too, in bigger circles, working Sue up into something like a gasp, and then, abruptly, Sue’s pushing herself into a seated position, sitting up, the pillow between her knees falling to the mattress.
“What’s wrong?” Emma asks, startled, but Sue doesn’t answer her as she stands, making her way in the dark, moving as quickly as she can away from the bed, her heft making speed impossible. After a moment, Emma hears the bathroom door slam shut.
Could it be that simple? She knows pregnancy makes nature calls much more frequent, but Sue had pulled away so suddenly. Emma had been doing everything right, hadn’t she?
It takes Sue nearly twice the usual couple of minutes to make her way back to the bedroom.
“Do you want me to keep going?” Emma volunteers, when Sue lowers herself back into the bed, grabbing for her support pillows, arranging them between her knees and under her stomach as she lies on her side.
Her hand rests on Sue’s shoulder. Immediately, Sue stiffens. “Is everything – ?”
“Take your hand off me and go back to sleep,” Sue says, hoarsely. “Right now.”
Emma removes her hand immediately. “But I don’t –“
“If I have to ask you again, Emma,” Sue interrupts, “I swear, I will get up out of this bed and lick every object in this house that you plan on touching in the next twenty-four hours. This conversation is over.”
It occurs to her, after Emma’s turned over and pulled the blankets up to her chin, that Sue’s been calling her by the wrong name less often. No, that’s not exactly it. She’s been calling her by the wrong name less often in bed.
Sleep dodges her, and she gives up trying to chase it, staring into the corner of the room, acutely aware that on the other side of the bed, Sue’s shifting and rustling, awake too.