Caught In Your Bad Romance
Rachel breathed out slowly as she pointed her feet and twisted her body in a smooth, graceful spin; executing a series of perfectly controlled turns across the polished floor of the small studio. Concentration burned in her eyes yet her face remained professionally serene, betraying nothing of the effort and strain in every part of her body. She had always found a sense of comfort in the discipline and silent beauty of ballet; giving her physical form a turn of expressing what she so often relied upon her exceptional voice to do for her. It was a relief, in some ways: just to move, and breathe, and be. Performing for no-one but herself. She was her own harshest critic anyway: the one she would forever be striving to impress.
Slowly, she became aware of another presence intruding on her inward focus. A warm tingle ran down her neck as the sense of another set of eyes on her body intensified. She sighed mentally. She had told him she would be hanging back after ballet class tonight to practice. The increased Glee rehearsals Mr Schue had introduced, while reassuring, had severely cut into the time she dedicated to her other future-star-making commitments, and she refused to let her standards slip. It had become quite a struggle to balance everything in her life, but Rachel considered it good practice for the high-pressure and demanding career in front of her. The starlight would be intense and she was determined to shine – not burn out.
Pushing back the disappointment that her preciously rare alone time had been interrupted, she dutifully composed her features into a painfully bright smile of welcome. She lifted her head as she spun around one final time – and the sight that greeted her nearly made her fumble her final position.
Her unannounced visitor was leaning back on the wooden barre, slender body angled with an easy casualness that suggested he somehow belonged there, simmering with the same authority he had always claimed over his surroundings. Arms crossed loosely over his chest, which was dressed in a familiar leather jacket, pushed up to the elbows, and complimenting his smart black jeans. His sense of style hadn't changed then. She ignored the tightening of her stomach that silently confirmed it was also just as effective as ever. His eyes that had been pinned on her dancing body, lifted to meet her face at the same moment hers did. A faint smile touched his lips as he saw her finally register him watching her.
Rachel suddenly felt dizzy with déjà vu. For a moment, the passing months dropped away into nothing and she was staring into a mirror of her past. And he was staring back. She quickly wiped the surprise from her face, adopting a mask of cool disdain. She crossed her arms tightly, barricading herself off.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded quietly, skipping any pleasantries or uncertainty, in no mood to prolong this abrupt encounter. "Lima is a long way from L.A." She met his eye unflinchingly, back stiff and straight. "That was the whole point, if I recall."
If her words hit any nerve, he hid it perfectly. Not that she'd expect anything less from him. He shrugged. "Spring break," he said calmly, though his lips twitched up in mutual appreciation of the irony of the situation.
She nodded and looked down at her feet, at the pointed toe that was tracing soft circles on the floor in front of her. "So, what, instead of heading for the beach or the city, you figured you'd just swing by McKinley for old time's sake? Nostalgia value?" She was proud of how unconcerned she sounded. She never knew she could be this civil to such a sly bastard.
"Something like that."
Rachel said nothing, still tracing out her anxiety in gentle loops over the shiny wood. Her fingers dug in a little tighter to the elastic of her leotard.
"Heard you guys made Regionals."
She looked up at that. There was a curious half-smile of his face, as if he found something amusing about the achievement. Rachel bristled defensively. "Then I'm sure you also heard that it's your alma mater we're competing against again." She smiled disarmingly. "Just like old times isn't it?"
He shook his head slowly. "They're not my team. Not anymore."
Rachel quirked an eyebrow, her smile tightening. "You can take the boy out of Carmel, but you can never take Vocal Adrenaline out of the boy. Isn't that what you taught me?"
He didn't respond, only returned her stare just as hard, until at last she shrugged. "If you're here to try and spy for them or something, don't even waste your time."
"Doesn't matter anyway." Rachel brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear as she turned away. "We've only gotten better since last year, while their quality has dipped. Everyone says their act has gotten stale; that they've lost their edge. Though of course, they only ever did ride on soulless momentum and intimidation in the first place."
He couldn't help the smile on his lips. There was a backhanded compliment in there somewhere, whether she intended it or not. He found himself flashing back to their first meeting; 'Hellos' exchanged and worlds colliding in the middle of a small music store what seemed like so long ago.
Lionel Richie had a lot to answer for.
He brought his attention back to the room only to find Rachel was still talking over her shoulder as she moved around the studio, gathering her things. She was always the master of the one-way conversation. Once she got into her full stride, participation requirement was minimal really.
"Mr Schue has us working on a really ambitious set list. Though I don't agree with all his choices, I admire his innovation, and he seems to taking on more of my ideas which is a welcome, if overdue, improvement. We've still work to do, but everyone's feeling very confident. We've learnt from our mistakes."
She kept her back turned to him but the pointed message under her words was clear. She wasn't going to let another victory be stolen from them. If he hadn't been watching her so closely, he might have missed the tensing in her shoulders. "You'll be proud to hear your teammates are still employing the same juvenile tactics in the feuding tradition you left behind." Her tone dropped about four degrees to a cool chill that made the hairs on his arms rise; but she only resumed tidying up, never letting her eyes stray to his corner of the room. "Kurt got his car foamed last week. Still, we've faced worse."
Rachel bit her lip and suppressed the tremble that was threatening to shake her voice. She blinked quickly, angry at how much that wound still smarted. The taught silence behind her was like a physical presence in the room, hardening into a barrier between them. Straightening up, she chanced a glance back at him, and saw his jaw clench and unclench in his otherwise unmoved posture; something dark flickering in his eyes that she might have once thought was guilt, shame or even remorse. But she knew now that Jesse St. James was incapable of such emotions.
"That was never my idea."
Rachel scoffed quietly. "How magnanimous."
Jesse narrowed his eyes but she had already looked away, suddenly more interested in the piano at the other side of the room. He watched the way her petite body turned away from him, arms wrapped around her stomach protectively.
'I loved you.'
He wondered if those words had hurt her the way they had haunted him.
He hadn't meant to say it. That was never a part of the dirty charade his team had cooked up, even as they had congratulated him on his suburb improvisation afterwards. No, those words had slipped from his mouth without warning or permission.
Slowly walking up to her, caught in those big, painfully expressive eyes as they bravely held his cool gaze, defying his humiliation. She didn't even look at his teammates that surrounded her, she spoke only to him: the one who had tricked her here and broken her heart, as she had gone on to declare in her typically dramatic turn of phrase.
That was his girl: always commanding, even to the point of her own undoing. Playing a dangerous game of dare that she should have known she couldn't win. He looked into her eyes and saw his reflection mirrored back at him, and for a moment he didn't even recognise it. He stood in front of her, acutely aware of his team's eyes on him, waiting for his choice. Egg yolk dripped down her hair, shell fragments clinging to her shirt. Yet still she stood her ground. He frowned; how could someone be so vulnerable yet shatteringly strong at the same time? He could see every emotion as it crossed her face: she was always so easy to read, so easy to break with her open heart. It was time for her to learn better.
She never glanced away; forcing him to look her in the eye, to confront the truth of his actions. It would be him, his final betrayal that would count, the one she would hold forever, and she was making sure he knew that there was no going back. He steeled himself. But then he saw it: a flicker in those soulful depths. A glimmer of doubt, a naïve trust she hadn't yet lost; a futile hope that he could still chose them; still prove that even a little bit of their relationship had meant something. That spark of faith in him had nearly broken his façade and his show face slipped for one second, too fast to see.
And suddenly the bitter declaration was out there, never to be taken back. Not exactly the way he had ever envisaged saying those words for the first time. Not to her. And certainly not in the past tense. He had flung the words in her face like an angry accusation: like it was all her fault he had somehow succumbed to genuine feelings for the only girl who could potentially be his equal.
He saw the confusion widen in her eyes as she struggled to understand; felt his fist tighten as the egg broke over her forehead, ignoring the cold flinch inside his chest. She'd told him he held the power to break her, that day she sought him out in Carmel's auditorium. He'd just laughed, unconcerned and as yet unaware of just how far down the rabbit-hole this game would take him.
And so it was done. Play complete and role fulfilled, he walked away. He'd regained his place back with his true team, and in doing so had treated her no better than the jocks who had bullied her for years; the ones she had confided in him about. He brushed aside the sick feeling in his stomach. Why should this time be any different? Eggs or slushies – public humiliation was nothing she wasn't used to. Cars doors slammed and it was only then he realised that she had taken this fresh abuse with the same reserved dignity that he had admired about her before.
Rachel Berry was always surprising. Jesse St. James, star of Vocal Adrenaline, only ever lived up to expectations.
She shifted and his eyes accidently met hers in the mirrored wall beyond the piano. The memory passed between them, sharp with a pain neither would ever admit to. Quickly averting his gaze, Jesse stretched his arms along the barre behind him.
"How did you keep the club going? Thought they threatened to cut it."
She looked down and shrugged. "Strategic campaigning, a resurge of interest and a little blackmail bought us a stay of execution."
He raised his eyebrows with something almost like pride. Sounded like tactics worthy of the glory days of Vocal Adrenaline. Looked as if they had finally wised up to the way the game was played. From what he remembered about his brief sojourn behind enemy lines, he should have known New Directions wouldn't let go of something they loved without a fight, and he could easily picture Rachel confidently leading the charge to protect their little group. For a rag-tag glee club, their loyalty was surprisingly intense.
"This is our last chance. We have to make Nationals this time."
Both heard the edge of accusation in her voice but neither acknowledged it. He only nodded silently and watched as she took a deep drink of water. Nationals had been a bit of a rollercoaster last year, and for the first time Jesse had thought he might have understood the term: 'hollow victory'. Sure, the result had been predictable and it had bought him a ticket out of Ohio, but he couldn't help feeling he had over-looked the true cost of such a price. He certainly never thought he would be standing back here in this dead-end town, almost a year later, by choice.
Rachel peered at him over the top of her water bottle, taking the chance to examine him more closely. It had been so long since they had actually been alone together, and she couldn't deny the electric atmosphere that was almost singeing her skin. She'd gone and seen them perform at Nationals of course, strictly out of professional interest. Watched from the safe anonymity of the audience as he worked that familiar spell over the crowd and claimed his prize, the one that would take him out of her orbit forever.
Or so she'd hoped.
He was still beautiful. His defined features had matured into the growing young man he was, and even through his layers, she could tell his body was just as finely toned as it had been when they had taken this ballet class together. This was an older, more experienced Jesse. One who was out in the big, wide world outside of Ohio and on his way to making his dreams come true. But Rachel had learned that older didn't necessarily mean wiser. It didn't mean he had changed. And it didn't change anything between them.
She lowered the drink and stood awkwardly for a moment, avoiding his eyes, before she quickly turned and stuffed the bottle back into her bag. "I should go. I'm meeting someone. And my dads worry when I don't call to let them know if I'm going to be late-"
Rachel stilled as his cool voice spoke up behind her, more of a statement than a question.
"It's him you're meeting, right?"
"So what if it is?" she replied, in a tone just as frosty as his.
Lofty derision filled his words, barely masking the resentment behind it. "So you're finally with Hudson now?"
Rachel stiffened, before turning around to face him defiantly. "Yes. Not that it's any business of yours."
A scowl touched his face before he quickly lifted it with a short, mocking laugh. "You guys are so predictable. McKinley Glee Club's 'golden couple'. Hope it was worth all the pining."
Rachel narrowed her eyes at his audacity, her famous drama-queen temper flaring. Two hot glares burned across the room and clashed together in a shower of sparks. "Grow up, Jesse. What's it to you anyway? And just where do you get off acting like the wronged party in all this? Exactly how many girls do you have waiting for you back at UCLA?" She gestured pointedly in what she hoped was the right geographical direction. "I mean, what is this little visit meant to prove anyway? Stuck home on vacation so you figured you'd try to re-ignite some old flames to kill some time?"
She saw his jaw tighten and felt a twinge of satisfaction. "Because, rest assured, that flame was pretty well extinguished when you stomped on my heart the first time."
She let her words sink in dramatically for a moment, finding she needed to take a deep breath after her little outburst. Jesse had a soft frown on his face and she wondered what he was thinking. Rachel knew she wasn't the same girl she had been the last time he was in her life. A year was a long time. She had changed, become more self assured. Harder. Like mother, like daughter, Rachel thought with a fresh stab of bitterness.
Jesse shook his head to himself, the anger leaving his body. "It was always him, wasn't it?"
Jesse may have been a manipulative jerk, but he wasn't blind. He knew they had a history and that the idiot had broken up with her just before he made his first move, which was fortunate for him. Not that Jesse had any doubts in his skills to have seduced her away regardless; it had just made his job easier. He had still considered it only a mild irritation when the jock had abruptly changed his mind and made blundery attempts to win her back. Then that stupid video happened. He had tried to convince himself it had only hurt his pride; but a simple wounded ego didn't take a week in San Diego and a drunken hook-up with an old Vocal Adrenaline fling to heal. Having his girlfriend still torn over her ex was a bigger complication.
He had known it was dangerous to go back to her, to get in even deeper, but he still had a promise to keep.
When he had seen her and Finn perform a soulful rendition of 'Faithfully' at Regionals, it had felt like a slap in the face. He watched the looks that passed between them at every opportunity, the soft smiles and shy touches – and he had known then that his little act had been nothing but an interlude in the long-game, mediocre drama of 'Rachel and Finn'.
And he felt cheated, somehow. He was the player – not the played. Jesse St. James wasn't used to playing second fiddle to anyone.
The critical, assessing side of his mind had taken pleasure in noting that their voices didn't meld and smoulder together the way theirs had. He had brought the best out of her singing, and that wasn't just arrogance. They were both fiercely ambitious and competitive, and he was the established champion. So she had worked extra hard when they sang together, constantly challenged herself to learn from his experience, and she had improved every time as they took turns to spur each other on.
Yet when he was singing with her, part of it had just felt so…effortless. Sometimes he'd simply let himself relax and enjoy the music they were creating; the evolving emotions of their duetting voices. It wasn't just pleasure in the technical either, for once. There was something else there, some extra magic to their songs, absorbing them both in a single moment. And for the first time, when he closed his eyes, he could imagine someone else sharing that Broadway stage with him.
Trapped in that theatre, he had stood and watched as she twirled herself into his arms, the girl he had had thrown aside only a few weeks ago; watched as Finn caught her just like he always did, matching smiles on their faces as they belted out their song. For a moment, Jesse had wished for nothing more than to stride onto stage and wrench her from his arms; a possessive jealously stirring up inside him that took him aback. Jesse wasn't jealous of any of his 'peers'. He didn't look back: he was always moving on, moving to the top. He never thought of the ones he passed on the way up and left behind. But he had cast her off and she had gone running back to Finn, and it hurt him much more than it had any right to.
At that moment, Jesse had wondered if Rachel Berry would be the one mistake he would always regret.
He remembered barging past Giselle in his bad mood, his fellow lead's indignant whisper behind him as he turned away into backstage. They were on next and he had to clear his head. New Directions had once accused Vocal Adrenaline of performing without any emotion. Looking back, maybe it was a good thing McKinley had gone first. Whatever the reason, Jesse had never sung quite like that in any performance before – anger, frustration and conflict burning in every note, infusing their whole performance to a new standard that saw them easily swipe the trophy for the fourth time, winning streak unbroken. Jesse's heart was another matter.
Rachel blinked, caught off guard. She looked like she didn't know what to say, and he took a moment to congratulate himself on pulling off the seemingly impossible feat.
Her expression quickly hardened. "Do you really care?"
At his silence, she shook her head, a calm finality in her tone. "You should go." With that she turned her back to him and returned to her things that were gathered on the piano stool. She had moved on and she was letting him know that.
Freeing her long hair of the tight bun, Rachel quickly pulled on the loose cotton trousers and slipped her feet out of her pumps and back into her school shoes, in a hurry to get out. Picking up her top, she tugged it over her head. She felt the warmth at her back for only a moment, before another set of hands brushed her sides, reaching for the edge of the jumper as she slipped it on. Smooth fingers followed the curve of her ribs as he slowly guided the garment down over her leotard. Rachel closed her eyes against her will, the physical memory taking on a life of its own.
The touch of his hands as they traced her body, palms hot against her bare skin, skilfully coaxing her shirt over her head. Fingertips dancing across her navel in elegant patterns; feeling them burn into her flesh, wishing they would brand her forever. A warm mouth against her neck, whispers she badly wanted to trust…
His hands came to settle on her waist and Rachel forced her eyes open, drawing in a shallow breath. She could almost feel his arrogant smirk behind her as a traitorous shiver ran through her body. This was most definitely a bad idea.
The soft, teasing words sent a forbidden thrill racing down her spine, but Rachel just scowled and arranged her features into a look of indifferent superiority. She turned around but didn't shove off his hold, finding herself face to face with him inside the strong circle of his arms. His hands shifted to lightly grip her hips in a familiar embrace of possession, even though he didn't have her now. Not her body and certainly not her love.
"What makes you think I've even thought twice about you since you left?" she said coldly, even as her body continued to betray her in his presence.
He smiled that smug, cocky grin that still made her stomach flip over. A disorientating exhilaration like the moment you began to tip over at the top of the rollercoaster.
"Because I know you. And you're only human after all."
She rolled her eyes. He so hadn't changed. She jerked back in surprise when she felt him raise a hand to her head. She looked up at him, guarded suspicion in her eyes, as he ran his fingers gently through her hair.
"You guys will kill at Regionals," he said quietly, a soft sincerity in his voice that took her aback.
She quickly regained her composure. "Of course we will," she replied confidently. "Vocal Adrenaline still has a fatal weakness. They never did have any heart."
He took the pointed dig and let it slide. It wasn't like he really had a leg to stand on to contradict her assessment. He had to accept her point of view. For now.
"Anyway," she went on curtly, abruptly disentangling herself from him. "You betrayed us. The club." She shook her head as she stepped away, voice hard and expression closed off. "What do you care if we win or not? We all know where your loyalty lies."
She held his stare as both digested the sharp words. Rachel didn't give an inch in the silent battle. He may have been the masked player in their relationship once, but Rachel had been forced to grow up a lot since she had learnt life lessons the hard way from him. She could act and protect herself with a multitude of façades now, that would make a showman like him proud.
"I – I have to go." Swiftly gathering up the last of her stuff, she skirted around him and made a break for the door.
Still struggling to close up her bag, she crossed the floor and reached for the handle, but found the door resisting. Glancing up she saw a hand pressed against the surface just above her head. Damn he was quick. Fuming, she turned around.
"Open the door," she demanded, shooting him a glare that could freeze water. Of course she could always force him on it but she'd rather stare him out.
Rachel blinked in surprise; she had been expecting a bigger fight. But Jesse didn't move, except to step closer, forcing her to press back against the door until she thought she might fall right through it. Her heart felt like it was on the brink of exploding it was beating so fast. Only an inch of air separated their bodies. Her gaze darted to his lips before meeting his dark eyes again, which were brewing with a dangerous tempest that threatened to swallow them both.
"Then tell me he's what you want. That you're as happy as you thought you ever would be."
He never humiliated me, she wanted to hiss. But as she opened her mouth to retort, she suddenly reassessed the truth of such words. Rachel swallowed the lump in her throat and forced herself to meet his eyes again.
Jesse's voice lowered as he leaned closer, lips brushing her ear. Rachel stiffened, trapped between his arms and the door and desperately trying to suppress the surge of desire that fluttered in her abdomen at his close proximity.
"Tell me that he understands your dreams and wants to be a part of them." A smirk filled his voice as he whispered her own words back to her. "Your 'Broadway lover'." His mouth trailed down the side of her neck to the crook of her shoulder and Rachel could feel every word against her skin as they fell from his lips. "That he makes you feel like I did."
Rachel felt a stab of indignation at his arrogant manipulation break through the molten heat coursing through her from his touch.
"You don't have the right to ask me that."
"No," he admitted slowly. "But maybe you should ask yourself."
His breath was hot against the side of her neck, sending chills up her spine. His body so close to hers that his warmth and smell were quickly becoming the only things she was aware of. He pulled back to look at her, bringing their faces together and locking her in his stare.
Rachel felt the shadow of her younger, naïve, dream-struck self rise up and take possession of her senses. The girl who knew nothing of ulterior motives, beautiful show faces, betrayal and scarring heartbreak. The girl who had only watched as he sang her a beautiful 'Hello' at a music store piano, the first boy who'd possibly matched her in every way, and felt herself falling in love just a bit.
She didn't know when their mouths had met, when their bodies had melded together in a hot tangle; all she knew was that the firestorm that swirled up through every part of her was as terrifying as it was destructive. She was dimly aware of his hands: one at her waist, holding her against him so tightly she was sure she'd have bruises; the other at her neck as his thumb slowly traced her jaw. His teeth nipped her bottom lip and she opened her mouth to him completely, pulling him closer as the kiss deepened fiercely. Rachel tangled her fingers in his hair, gripping the dark locks almost painfully, and gasped softly as the last of the air was stolen from her lungs.
That breath of oxygen was just enough to bring her back to her senses. Her eyes snapped open and she broke the kiss so suddenly, it left them both reeling. She could feel his chest rising and falling against hers as they struggled to ground themselves once more. Her lips tingled and stung, body shaking with unnoticeable trembles in the aftermath of whatever insanity had just seized her. His eyes caught hers, a whirlwind of emotion passing through them, but she recognized that familiar smirk, edging back at the corner of his mouth.
Hastily, Rachel pushed herself free from his embrace. Running a self conscious hand through her hair, she took a deep breath and looked back to his face with a steely glare.
"Get out of my life, Jesse St. James. You're good at that."
His mouth crooked up in a playful smile. "And miss all your drama? Never." He held her gaze for a moment longer before he slowly removed his weight from the door and stepped away.
She didn't know if that was a tease or a promise. Slinging her ballet bag over her shoulder, Rachel quickly hurried out the door, refusing to contemplate the look in his eyes with that last word.
AN: Okay, St. Berry has totally captured my shipper heart. It's a little scary how much I love them. I've watched the show from the start but this is the first time I've actively shipped a couple on it. I have to admit, I was hooked from the first moment Jesse appeared in 'Hell-O'. It was just magic. I love his character (even if I hate some of the things he does) and I adore his relationship with Rachel. Their chemistry is just incredible, and is something I've not felt from any of the other character pairings. They are actually perfect for each other, with similar temperaments, interests and goals, and their singing is so beautiful and powerful together. Alas, I have a habit of falling head over heels for doomed couples, and writing fics is my only therapy. I really hope JGroff comes back next season.
This was meant to be a one-shot but I'm thinking about maybe extending it, as ideas for more scenes keep coming into my head. Let me know what you think?
Thanks for reading.