Disclaimer: Glee is definitely not mine, more's the pity.
Notes: For underhandycat0, who is the world's best beta, more fabulous than words can possibly describe, and never fails to make me gleeful =)
Summary: For her birthday, Will uses McKinley's reprographics lab to laminate a copy of Jane Austen's 'Emma'. It's the first book she's been able to read in twenty years without gloves on, and she laughs until it hurts to smile. Oh, but she is hopelessly in love with him.
"There you go, Cinderella," Will smiles as he scrapes the gum from Emma's shoe, and oh but she wishes he could be her Prince Charming.
It wouldn't be a perfect fit, she knows that. And the thought terrifies her just a little bit, because loose ends and frayed edges - they're kind of her Kryptonite. The problem is, Emma doesn't cope so well with the messy things. She walks the long way round from her office to the faculty lounge, because the shorter route passes the boys locker room. Sometimes, she sort of thinks maybe she'd rather die than be confronted with gym shorts and sports socks.
Maybe not die.
She'd take a coma, though. A long, languorous state of suspension, until all the kinks in life are ironed out and she can be Sleeping Beauty, wakened by true love's first kiss.
Emma accepts it's far more likely she'd come round to find Ken Tanaka giving her clumsy, sweaty CPR, and thinks maybe she'd just rather walk the longer route instead.
Emma likes lists. Lists help her to deal with life's nasty surprises, and sometimes they're just oh so helpful. As a guidance counsellor, she's all about coping mechanisms. It would be wrong to give the kids false hope - she can never promise Rachel that she'll be Homecoming Queen, or Kurt that the jocks will stop hurling him in dumpsters. But she can help them to cope. She can suggest Rachel make lists of auditions to attend, taking a pro-active approach to her dreams of starring centre stage. And as for Kurt, well, Emma already has a carefully pre-made list for him, of Substances That Remove The Top One Hundred And Twenty Stubborn Stains.
Will learns pretty quickly how to tell when Emma's listing. Her eyes widen just a flicker more than usual, and she does this scary stock still thing, like she's trying to win an imaginary game of musical statues.
The most recent time, he's heading to his car at the end of the school day and she's staring at her own like it just insulted her mother.
"Everything okay?" he asks, and as he moves a little closer he notices that some of the kids have paint bombed her driver's side door.
"Just thinking of all the things I'd rather do than drive home," she replies, voice exactly the soprano pitch he's been trying to coax out of Tina all week.
"Walk the five miles back to your apartment?" he suggests.
"Yes," she nods without so much as missing a beat, firm in her conviction.
"Walk the five miles back to your apartment in heels?" he adds, and she nods again just as quickly. "…Through the industrial district?"
Emma falters, uncertain, evidently imagining walking through the smog and debris of the town's factory quarter. To be honest, Will's pretty impressed that she manages to drive through it at all.
"…I could get the bus," she suggests, still staring at her vandalised car, but even as she's speaking he knows she's already compiling a new list. Things Emma Would Rather Do Than Ride Public Transport.
"Your carriage awaits," he tells her, gesturing towards his own car. "Hop in."
Her shoulders sag with visible relief, and even though she swipes the passenger seat three times with a wet wipe before climbing in, Will doesn't take it personally.
Guys like the whole Damsel in Distress thing, Emma knows. The problem is, that's not really her. She has enough coping mechanisms and Tupperware boxes and un-fragranced wet wipes that eighty percent of the time, day-to-day life is not a problem for her. She doesn't need rescuing, and she suspects that when men realise this after the first date - when they consider the full ramifications of taking their shoes off outside the door, having chocolates and flowers treated as suspiciously as packages of anthrax, and washing before and after eating - well, she can't say she's surprised there are rarely second dates.
For her birthday, Will uses McKinley's reprographics lab to laminate a copy of Jane Austen's Emma. It's the first book she's been able to read in twenty years without gloves on, and she laughs until it hurts to smile.
Oh, but she is hopelessly in love with him.
The thing is, it would be a whole lot easier to daydream through this Prince Charming scenario if only Terri could be the Wicked Witch.
But she's not. She's really not. She's kind of… manic, sure, but she's Will's wife and he loves her. And she's nice to Emma at socials and mixers, which is a confusing, conflicting feeling.
Will knows Terri thinks he's trying to recapture his youth through Glee. She's wrong. High school is a long way behind him, and to be honest, the Cheerios scare the hell out of him these days. She's more than enough cheerleader for him.
And the thing is, Emma knows that if this were high school, Terri would never have so much as glanced in her direction. But Will introduces them, and Terri is just brimming over with niceness, and even though the confusion makes Emma's stomach hurt, she realises she's important enough to Will that he wants them to get along, which makes her kind of light headed. And so she lets Terri simper and smile and pretend that they have oh so much in common, even though Emma spent high school on a first name basis with the school nurse and few people else. Will's wife touches her hair and tells her she always wanted to be a red head, and Emma knows she's going to have to condition twice tonight, but the grateful smile Will shoots her is worth it.
Will feels lousy about the hysterical pregnancy. For a long time, he feels lousy. Terri cries a lot about his fake sperm and her fake ovaries, and even though he's fairly sure that's not how biology works, there's no doubting the fact she's hysterical.
But the thing is, Will works in a high school, and he's married to Terri. Hysterical is kind of what he signed up for. He's used to dealing with it by now. He has the placatory gestures down pat, and he usually knows how to restore normalcy at the flick of a wrist. Only this time, it doesn't seem to be going away.
And he watches Emma, with her disinfectant and her endless lists, and even though she's kind of crazy, he thinks maybe she has all the answers. Because she deals with things and she moves on, and she helps the kids do the same, while this whole time he's just floundering out of his depth and Terri is still hysterical.
Terri has always been hysterical, truth be told. She's been popping Valium since she was fifteen and her step-daddy started to get a little too friendly, and Will is the only person in the whole world who knows this. God only knows how much she loveshimwantshimneedshim, but their marriage is starting unravel at the seams and she knows they both feel it.
Emma feels just awful when she watches them together at the staff summer social. Lately she's been feeling as though maybe she could be Will's Fairy Godmother, and if it means that he keeps coming to her for advice, then perhaps she can even live with that. But she sees how tense Will and Terri are around one another, and she wonders if her subconscious caused this. Maybe her guidance sucks because goodness only knows she loves him so much she can feel it in her ribs, and deep down isn't this what she always wanted? No. Nonono. She never wanted Will to be unhappy. She knows that. She anchors herself to that, and fixates on the last few weeks. Buy her flowers, take her to lunch. Good advice. Normal advice. Advice perfectly tailored for a man in love with a woman whose idea of romance isn't laminated books and dinner from Tupperware boxes.
Ken hates the way Emma stares at Will all the damn time. He makes sure she's looking when he dips his pinkie finger in the punch bowl.
Terri is laughing so vicariously at jokes Principal Figgins isn't even aware he's making that Will needs five minutes just to clear his head. Emma is sitting on the steps up to the science block, staring at the drinking fountain opposite like it holds the key to eternal life. He takes a seat next to her and stares it down too, solidarity in numbers. He's not sure what she's listing. Things Emma Would Rather Do Than Go Back To The Party. Things Emma Would Rather Do Than Go Home Early From The Party. "You shouldn't drink the punch," she tells him quietly, and he sets his Dixie cup down dutifully, amending Things Emma Would Rather Do Than Drink From The Communal Water Fountain.
"Rather dehydrate?" he asks casually, glancing at her as she bites her bottom lip just so and nods. "I hear that's kinda painful," he tells her, but she just keeps on nodding. "Rather get a migraine?"
She glances down at the hallway floor, and he can see her visualising the hundreds of pairs of sneakers that traverse it daily.
"Would you catch me?"
"I'd try. But I'm kinda clumsy these days."
"No." There. Emma would not rather pass out than drink from the communal water fountain. Will thinks it's probably unlikely she'll dehydrate in the next hour anyway, but he's willing to take her word for it that the punch is contaminated, and so they share a bottle of warm, flat water he had left in the glove box of his car. Twenty years ago he might have slunk behind the science block for a contraband cigarette. Now he's sharing Evian with a woman who carries a packet of straws in her clutch just in case, and he knows more than ever how wrong Terri is. None of this is about recapturing his youth. It's about shaping his future.
Terri's immediate future involves going to stay with her sister. At first Will's inclined to agree that they need a little time apart, because Terri has it in her head that their relationship is stagnating through his refusal to change. She wants him to be the man she always imagined him growing into back in high school. The protector and the provider, and God knows Will's tried. He wants so badly to be able to give Terri everything she needs and deserves, but he thinks maybe there's a breach between the man she wants him to be and the man he is. He'd jump the gap for her in a second if he could - close his eyes and leap into the abyss if it would make her happy. But it's just too much. It's too far.
Even Terri isn't sure that's what she wants. Dr. Phil promised people can change, but she loves Will just as much now as she did the first time he ever held her hand in home room, and even though there are things that Terri Wants and that Terri Needs, tearing her husband apart isn't one of them. So she goes to her sister's for a while. Just to see.
By the second night, Will's stopped agreeing this was a good idea. He wants her to come home, wants to talk without her having to yell over her nephews and nieces in the background. But she stands firm, and even though the fact she's able to is good news because she isn't hysterical anymore, she's his wife goddammit, and all she wants is Space and Time. Will's a Spanish teacher. Terri's dealing in physics.
Emma knows it's unwise to believe in Happily Ever Afters. If the kids can at least be Happy Enough then she's doing her job right, but there's something about Will that makes her want to tell white lies, even if they tear her heart in two. She wants to tell him Terri will come home, that things will work out, that they'll have the family he always wanted. And she wants to be convincing, which means she has to convince herself of what she's saying, no matter how much it hurts. Only it occurs to her that the heroine isn't supposed to lie, even if it's for the Prince's own good, and so she starts to wonder if maybe she's been the Wicked Witch all along.
The only thing she knows for certain is that she's got to stop thinking such hyperbole. She reminds Rachel on a weekly basis that if her heart had broken into a million little pieces she'd be some sort of cardiothoracic miracle, and there is nothing, nothing miraculous about this mess.
Things get better before they get worse. Which is what people usually say about the stock market and tuberculosis, but despite her misophobia, Emma's not worried about a little thing like consumption when this is already consuming her completely.
With his wife in another state, Will has to be pretty open with his schedule in order to take her three hour phone calls whenever Terri can make them. It's not so bad when she calls from 11pm to 2am every night for a week, because even though Will is exhausted, Emma already has a list of Camomile And Lavender Products That Induce Deep Sleep. She brews him a herbal tea in the faculty lounge, and Sue takes one swig of it before spitting it out in disgust, but Will's already fallen asleep on her shoulder and so Emma? Thinks Sue can suck it.
It's worse when Terri starts calling straight after school. As much as this separation is clearly tearing him apart, Emma knows that Will hates bailing on Glee rehearsals too. Technically the kids aren't supposed to use the auditorium alone, but at first that's not really a problem, because they're certainly not going to rat him out. There are some spiteful people on the staff though, and Emma doesn't know whether it was Sue or Ken, but one Thursday she catches word that Figgins knows and is on his way to shut things down.
There are a lot of things that Emma doesn't do, and a lot of very good reasons she doesn't do them, but that Thursday she runs across the school building, even if she's grabbing out to steady herself on corners already smeared with a hundred thousand fingerprints, and even if her route takes her straight past the boys locker room. She spills out onto the auditorium stage all of half a second before the top door opens and Principal Figgins steps in with a scowl, flanked by his smirking henchmen. Judases.
"What is going on here?" the principal wants to know, and even though Emma would like nothing more than to shrink back from the spotlight and flee from centre stage, she forces a wide, bright smile and trills:
The kids have no idea what's going on, but they haven't survived at McKinley for this long without becoming pretty astute, so Finn slips the principal a casual shrug and agrees: "Yeah, Miss Pillsbury's helping with choreography."
Sue pulls a disgruntled face like this is news to her, but then it's news to Emma as well. She'd be quite happy to leave the lie there, except the three figures in the doorway have yet to move through their incredulity, and so Arty hits the music back on and before she has chance to protest, Finn has one of her hands, Kurt has the other, and for the first time in her life Emma's hips are moving in something approaching a shimmy. Her mind is rushing with a thousand different lists, all revolving around the theme of Things Emma Would Rather Do Than Pretend To Know How To Dance, Sandwiched Between Two Perspiring Teenage Boys And Watched By The School's Principal, Football and Cheer Coaches. But the music is loud, the beat is persistent, and being flung about the stage so wildly doesn't leave much room for breath, let alone thought.
By the time the song dies down and they have the auditorium to themselves once more, Emma knows she's going to have to exfoliate for at least two hours tonight, but doesn't think she's had this much fun since Will found that strange little artificial nursery just outside of town, where all of the plants are made from rubber.
It's pretty amazing.
Will begs and pleads for a repeat performance when the kids tell him about it the next day, but Emma is not getting up on that stage again, no way no how. It's okay though, because Kurt does a totally fair impression, flailing about like a fawn learning to use its legs for the first time, and Will laughs until there are tears in his eyes.
If she was Cinderella, she'd have made a lousy dance partner at the ball, but something tells Emma this might be even better.
So then Terri comes home, and Will thinks this is supposed to be the part where they bounce back stronger than ever.
Only it isn't.
There's this distance between them, one that seems more pronounced than it ever did when they were living in different states. And Will doesn't know what to do or say anymore. He could use some guidance, but Emma hasn't turned up at school, which is odd because her litany of precautionary measures usually mean she's healthier than all of them.
It doesn't take him long to realise she's not sick at all. The pipes in her building have been wreaking havoc all semester, so he understands when he calls her and she says another one has burst so she can't make it in.
"Waiting on a plumber?" he asks, and she hits at least a mezzo-soprano when she tells him frantically:
"There's sewage outside my door, Will."
Emma doesn't like being rendered helpless. She has a snug pair of Wellington boots she could slip on, and she knows they're completely and utterly waterproof, otherwise she'd never leave the house through Ohio winters when the streets turn to slush underfoot. Only 'wade through sewage' most definitely does not make an appearance on the list of Things Emma Would Rather Do Than Be Trapped In Her Apartment Indefinitely. So she sits and waits and tries not to think about it, even though she knows Will thinks she's an idiot.
Will doesn't think she's an idiot. He's not particularly fond of wading through sewage himself, but he does it, and when she scrapes back a row of sandbags to open her front door to him, he thinks that unlikely as it may seem, Emma might actually be Lima's only survivor in the event of an apocalypse.
He picks her up to carry her to freedom, and he has some half formed quip about carrying her over the threshold on the tip of his tongue when he realizes she's intensely embarrassed. And that's just ridiculous.
Emma doesn't think being embarrassed is ridiculous. She thinks her whole life is ridiculous.
The thing is, sewage is gross. Will can't imagine that anyone would want to walk through it, although he thinks maybe Sue would use the opportunity to strengthen Cheerio nerves with some kind of impromptu assault course. No, the only embarrassing thing here is that he's thirty years old, and has so little idea what to say to his own wife that he desperately needs the advice of a high school guidance counsellor. And even though Emma's eyes are closed so she doesn't have to look, and her death grip around his neck is kind of bone crushing, she still knows exactly what she's talking about.
Therapy and compromise and working at it, reasonable expectations and predicted outcomes. Mutual investment and personal growth. Yeah, Emma might not do so well with the messy things, but Will thinks she might be kind of a genius.
"I'm sorry," she tells him, when he sets her down safely on the street outside and she can feel herself flushing fuchsia. "The damsel in distress thing. I don't - I shouldn't need rescuing."
"Emma," Will waves his hand dismissively. "You know you're rescuing me on a weekly basis right now, right? You're my Girl Friday."
Emma knows Robinson Crusoe wasn't a fairytale, but it's new and she thinks maybe she kind of likes it.
A while after that is when things really start to fall apart. Emma recommends a highly acclaimed relationship therapist, but Will realises too late that all their sessions have done for Terri is distort Dr. Phil's message into something unsalvageable. If people can change, then she tells him now that they have changed. They'll always be high school sweethearts, but as adults, living in the real world, they're just not the same people anymore. And Will wants to believe this is just Terri being hysterical again, but it isn't. She's calm and composed and more than anything, that frightens him. Because this is what she truly believes. That she loves him and will always love him, but that they're opening a Sheets 'N' Things franchise near her sister in Kentucky, and that's where she should go.
Will feels so frustrated and angry and helpless that once she's packed her overnight bag and checked into a hotel, he dashes the matchstick dreamhouse she's spent six months building against the table, and tries to enjoy the symbolism as it fragments into a thousand tiny pieces.
He doesn't enjoy it. He just feels like a jerk.
Emma has a secret. It's not an exciting, clandestine sort of secret that would be worth cover time in anyone's MySpace bulletin, but it's a secret and it's hers and so she keeps it close to her heart.
Her secret is that she is passionately in love with the shopping channel.
Will used to poke fun of Terri's Pottery Barn credit card, and so Emma has never told him about this, even though he's the one person she would tell all her secrets to in an instant. But the thing is, big stores make her anxious. Anxiety is not a fun mindset to carry around when shopping for new appliances, and so Emma enjoys the no-nonsense approach of the shopping channel. There's no deception or duplicity or any of those other messy human fallacies involved, because she knows straight up that they only want her for her money, and in exchange they have a whole range of products that are, well, kind of amazing.
She has a contraption in her kitchen that slices and dices food at the touch of a button. No muss, no fuss. In her closet, there's an automatic shoe shiner, the kind that polishes shoes while eliminating the possibility she might accidentally stain her fingertips. Of course, Emma doesn't really have many shiny shoes anymore, because inevitably they end up scuffed sooner or later, and it really just ruins her whole day when it happens. The point is, if Emma was ever going to fall in love with anyone except Will, it would be the handsome man from the shopping channel, which is why it's really kind of awkward when Will shows up at her door late at night while the Home Shopping Network is playing in the next room. It feels like she's been caught cheating.
When Ken laughs at him because he's trying to piece back together a matchstick dream house with a glue gun that doesn't work, Will realises what he really needs right now is a friend who isn't a jerk. And somewhere along the way, amidst wondering if the best solution mightn't be to try and match his liver against Sue's and drink until he can't remember his own name, Will kind of stumbles on the realisation that with Terri pirouetting out of his life, Emma is kind of his best friend.
Emma wonders why it is that although Will sometimes makes her feel completely insane, he's also the most calming presence in her life. She wonders a lot of things as she consoles him that night, for instance would he like more water? Less water? Would he like her to talk, or just to listen? Where should she slot 'be mauled by bears' on her list of Things Emma Would Rather Do Than Watch Will's Heart Break? Above 'lose a limb to a chainsaw' or below 'trip over in mud'? She doesn't ask him that last one aloud, obviously. Instead she strokes the back of his hand, and reminds him of all the good he does and has done. How much the McKinley kids love him, and how he's a shoe-in for Teacher of the Year for the third session running. How far the Glee kids have come under his tutelage, how amazing it is that they've made the semis for Nationals, and how Rachel didn't even flounce last week when Mercedes tried to kit the team out in matching feather boas. Emma secretly thinks the feather boas were all kinds of awesome. She knows Kurt agrees with her, but she's not really supposed to breach guidance session confidentiality, and so instead she asks Will if he'd like to see the device she has in her closet for self-shining shoes.
Will doesn't know when exactly he passed the point of utterly overwhelmed, but when he wakes up on Emma's couch the next morning and she tells him he can keep the shoe-shine, he thinks it might be the most amazing thing he's seen in his entire life.
And so this is how Will's marriage falls apart. And even though she loves him, and has loved him, and will love him forevermore, Emma knows that she never wanted this to happen. Will deserves to be happy, and if there is any justice in life, or indeed, any format vaguely resembling traditional narrative structure, this long dark night of the soul will be followed by an uplifting ending whereby the Glee kids win Nationals and - who knows. Maybe Rachel will be named Homecoming Queen and the jocks will stop hurling Kurt in dumpsters.
Stranger things have happened.
On Will's part, he has no idea where his life is heading now. It seems oddly conflicting to be expending so much time and energy on New Directions when right now he has no direction. He's still floundering, but at least it's not so terrifying any more. For better or worse, he can't drag Terri down with him. And even if he starts to slip, if some days it's hard to keep his head above the water, then Emma - Emma is pretty buoyant. She won't let him go under.
He doesn't know if the kids are going to win. He hopes like hell that they do, because they deserve it more than he can ever tell them, but that's the way the future works. You just don't know. What he does know is that if they do win - if New Directions can rise out of the ashes of social alienation and be judged to have put on the best damn performance out of every show choir in the entire nation - he's dragging Emma up there on stage with him. Win or lose, they're all victors here, and even if she is kind of crazy, if he could pick his own direction and map out the future his way, maybe he would end up kind of crazy about her.
Maybe he already is.
So this is how it ends. Or how it begins. Or maybe even a little of both. The stadium for finals is packed to the rafters, and there's a list in here somewhere, she knows there is. Things Emma Would Rather Be Doing Than Sitting In A Dirty Old Seat Surrounded By People Who Don't Cover Their Mouths When They Cough. And Will's knuckles are white and he's gripping her hand and she doesn't even have gloves on, but as the curtain pulls back and the judges take the stage to announce the results, Emma can't think of a single thing she would rather be doing than sharing this moment.
"This is it, Cinderella," Will whispers, and maybe it's not perfect. But then maybe it doesn't need to be. Because perfect? Is kind of overrated anyway.