The first time Rachel sees Jesse St James on stage, it is hard not to be in awe. For someone who has dedicated her life to perfecting the art of singing, dancing and acting, seeing this boy so in control of all three facets was almost like finding water in the desert. She remembers looking up as he twirled the lead female singer of Vocal Adrenaline effortlessly in the air before setting her down, hands trailing over her hips. His fingers had looked strong and sure and Rachel wasn't ashamed to admit that she was completely mesmerized by his spell.
Perhaps that was why she had fallen so easily for his charms, she wonders. Her infatuation with Finn had been…extreme, and was largely the reason behind her revealing that Puck was the father of Quinn's baby but what she felt for Finn and what she thinks she feels for Jesse are two entirely different things. When she looks at Finn all Rachel can see his half-hopes and regret, embarrassment and desperation. With Jesse, there is caution but also just normalcy. Because in the end who better to put up with a high-maintenance girl such as herself but a boy who was just the same? She doesn't have to dim her personality or pretend to be something she isn't. Jesse, for some reason, seems to relish her over the top antics.
But she wasn't naïve.
Rachel had worked too long and too hard on New Directions to let it fall by the wayside for some schoolgirl crush and over a boy who harboured just as much ambition as she did. Jesse might pretend that winning Nationals for a fourth consecutive year had no bearing on his last year of high school, but Rachel knew better. If there was one thing she was sure of when she looked into his eyes, it was that he wanted everything just a little bit too much. To quote Lionel Richie, he knows just what to say and he knows just what to do.
So did she.
Clearly the rest of the Gleeks hadn't known this. Their empty (albeit partly successful) threat of kicking her off the team had been a glancing blow. Mercedes had claimed that they were merely looking out for her best interests. But Rachel knew better.
'Everyone is replaceable. Even you,' Kurt had said.
Sometimes she wondered why she even wanted these people to be her friends. It seemed that no matter how hard she tried, the more difficult they were towards her. Offering her up as the sacrificial lamb for the Glee photoshoot (Please. Could they have been anymore transparent with their patently superficial enthusiasm for nominating her captain?), criticizing her personality and her wardrobe at every possible chance, lamenting that she was a solo hog when Mercedes and Artie had had their fair share (Lean On Me, Proud Mary, Hair/Crazy in Love…she believes she's made her point). So she had gone along with their pretense of caring and given up Jesse. Everyone had seemed satisfied to see her forfeit her chance at true love for their own desires. Rachel didn't care what they said – the original Gleeks were just as selfish as her. But they were selfish collectively as a group and so she decides they are completely ignorant of this fault. But because she is Rachel Berry, and because she's too different from them, her wanting is equated with narcissism.
So when Coach Sylvester had hustled her into that creepy Old Maid's Club, she had been right to say that she should become more narcissistic than she already was. It was clear to see that no one at McKinley would ever have her best interests at heart after all.
And then Finn had taken her sojourn with Jesse as some kind of epiphany. Rachel sincerely thought it was too little too late. Referring to the calendar she had lovingly prepared as her "crazy calendar" hadn't scored Finn a lot of points either.
'I'm not some guy you met at a music store and can just forget,' Finn had told her. He was right because he would also be the boy that had disappointed her.
'I don't give up that easily,' he'd continued. Rachel remembers thinking that Finn has always given up too easily. He'd broken up with her because being with her was too hard, too detrimental. And Rachel was tired of being the girl who was always around in the periphery, a stalwart that he knew would never abandon him. She'd heard about his outing with Santana and Brittany. To be tossed aside for two people who had never had a nice thing to say about her…well, Rachel thinks there is something wrong when she doesn't feel as shocked as she does when she hears about his little outing.
Does that means she has always settled for second-best so willingly?
Which is why Rachel thinks Jesse is perfect. It is obvious that he is using her. As she's said before, he is the male lead of Vocal Adrenaline. It's lonely at the top and those who do make it don't have to make any effort to be nice to the plebeians located down below. Jesse had clearly been waiting around for her at the music store because how else could she explain his appearance there? Carmel was in another district and she was sure there were similar establishments closer to home. It might be conceited to think that the top show choir in America viewed her as competition but Rachel decides that perhaps they are simply acknowledging what Jesse says to her when she first meets him.
'You're very talented.'
Because she is. But perhaps it is a mistake to show him how unconfident she is of that talent. New Directions hasn't helped foster that same self-assurance that resides inside Jesse. He doesn't force her to sing Hello with him but there is something in the slant of his shoulders and the tilt of his head that has her joining him in song.
There is a moment of magic, of something, when their voices meld together at the climax and Rachel doesn't know what to do with the butterflies in her stomach.
Because this was her competition, her enemy. And then she thinks of how Mercedes and Kurt had been quick to denounce her, to question her dedication to their cause and Rachel wonders whether they often think she is something like a Trojan horse. It strikes her that perhaps the Gleeks see her as an enemy and Rachel bites her lip as she looks at Jesse, who is staring at her with what she thinks is genuine surprise. When he mentions picking her up on Friday and doing this again, she accepts.
Rachel is just tired of being second-best, of being considered an adversary by people who pretend to like her, who tolerate her because they think they can exploit her talent for their gain. Maybe it's harsh, this way of thinking, but Rachel can't find it within herself to correct these assumptions. There are all grounded in fact, she maintains, and that in itself is damaging enough.
So when Jesse arrives on her front porch in his dress pants and black button down, compliments her on the gauzy white summer dress she has on, and seems perfectly content to not discuss show choir, Rachel is sure that whatever is happening between them won't just be smoke and mirrors.
She will pretend that he isn't doing this for his team. She will eventually succumb to his sweet nature and affection because she's never had a boy focus on her this much before. It is thrilling and entertaining and it makes her heart flutters sometimes when she forgets that he isn't the lead of Vocal Adrenaline and he's just Jesse, the boy who likes to see her smile and likes to run his fingers through her hair when they watch Rent.
And Rachel will imagine that she isn't using him too, that he isn't here to bolster her self-esteem and prove to herself that if this talented boy who is going places can take an interest in her, then there isn't any reason why she can't fulfill her dreams either. Jesse is almost like her own self-help book, a study in how to be at the top and act as if you deserve to be there too. It doesn't help that she sees his vulnerability at times and stores it away in her head for later (though when she does mention it out loud she wonders why it feels like a betrayal). Because Sun Tzu had said to know your enemy and Rachel was simply returning the favour.
'What are you thinking about?' Jesse whispers into her ear and Rachel blinks, finding him giving her an inquisitive look across the table.
'Nothing,' she murmurs and tucks a stray piece of hair behind her ear. Jesse places his warm hand over hers and Rachel watches in mild fascination as their fingers twine together as if they belong with each other.
'Let's go then.'
She follows his lead and keeps a careful eye on his back; while Jesse glances over her shoulder to make sure she's still there.
It's a perfect encapsulation of their relationship – her watching and learning, him waiting and biding his time.
But Jesse isn't a saint. And Rachel isn't either.
For now though, as they walk hand in hand, Rachel wants to think there are just two people who have said hello.