Sooner or Later, Everybody Comes To New York City


It was so much bigger…in every way: surreal and thrilling and endless, so much more than she had ever expected. Like stepping into a dream and waking up at the same time. A city of contradictions, steeped in history yet always reinventing itself: the brightly painted streets and hum of traffic heavy with a sense of timeless familiarity, as if you were wandering the film set to a hundred different movies; a place where you could be famous down one street and anonymous on the next.

The city had a unique siren call of its own, one she had been following all her life, and now that she was finally standing upon its ground, she found it still evolving before her eyes: reshaping her years of anticipation anew, adapting and inspiring like a breathing entity.

New York: the home of Broadway legends and wide-eyed dreams, bitter cynics and hidden genius; a gruelling environment that could reward as unexpectedly as it could take away; where stars were made and free to shine their brightest; the end of the yellow brick road and the start of a whole other adventure. The city immortalised through time; its iconic status paid tribute to across all spheres of culture. For better or for worse – everyone who'd ever stepped there had an opinion. It was that kind of place. It was also dangerous, harsh and pretentious depending on where you went and how you fared, but there was no denying there was something in the air. A touch of stage glitter and raw spark amongst the cab fumes and fast food aromas; a nervous excitement that hung in the crisp night, a promise of things to come – something that was unlike anywhere else in the world.

It was almost larger than life: the true heartbeat of the city sometimes lost under the glitz and glam and grime and toil of such a place, weighed down by the burden of its own reputation. But it was always there, if you looked: pounding away in a living pulse of energy and fevered hope, quietly working its magic and waiting to be discovered again and again by each new explorer she drew to her bright lights. It wasn't perfect, not by a long shot, but it was just…right. It was inevitable really: New York City and Rachel Berry was an illustrious partnership that was simply written in the stars.

It was also the home of the National Show Choir Championships this year.

A frown slowly crossed her brow like a gathering storm, invisible in the darkness but heavy over her thoughts. Sirens wailed distantly somewhere in the night beyond the windows, the noisy echoes of a foreign city, but that wasn't what was keeping her awake. She worried her bottom lip softly as the events of that day continued to play through her busy mind.

[o]

Rachel had been on a charm offensive for the last forty-five minutes and she was starting to get a little impatient. She knew Finn had lost interest about twenty minutes ago and was merely nodding through the motions beside her. Every so often she subtly elbowed him in the ribs to focus his attention and to stop his boredom becoming too noticeable. But yet again, it seemed the job of public relations fell to her in their 'joint' roles of team captains. It wasn't that she normally minded, but right now she had so many others things she could be doing.

As they trailed after Mr Schue and their guide on the continuing tour of the complex, she snuck a glance at her watch. The corners of her lips turned down briefly in annoyance: she had planned to do some more sightseeing with Finn this afternoon and they were now well behind schedule. Lifting her head, she shelved her frustration and returned her attention to their co-ordinator as he went over the terms of competition and tomorrow's timetable of events, for the umpteenth time.

So far, they had met three members of the judging panel and Rachel had dutifully smiled and gushed and done everything in her power to make a dazzling first impression at the introductions. Her show face was impeccable, her overbearing personality suitably toned down to just the right side of irritating, thanks to a series of stern pleads and warnings from her teammates. Of course, she didn't notice any of them offering to take up the mantle of official meet-and-greeter today. No, they were all off enjoying the city…

Rachel's inner rant was cut short as they caught up to Mr Schue just in time to see their administrator adjust his clipboard and stretch out an arm, gesturing across the crowded room as he called someone over. She set her expression to mild curiosity once more and tuned back in to the conversation.

"Oh, and we also have a guest judge this year," he said pleasantly as he signalled to the young man who had just lithely weaved his way through the crush, before standing aside to let him join them. "A four time National Champion himself actually. Can I introduce-"

Rachel was sure her heart seized up for a moment as a damn of memories broke across her mind. She felt Finn tense and release her hand, immediately moving to coil his arm firmly around her waist, pulling her into his side with a tight grip that was half a defensive reflex and half silent challenge. Rachel found herself too shocked to react to the sudden embrace, her boyfriend's touch almost sore around her but strangely numb at the same time.

Cool, dark eyes locked into hers without skipping a beat, catching her off guard. Rachel faltered before hastily attempting to calm the irregular rhythm that raced through her heart, a painful jump that she hadn't felt in so long. How could he do that? How could he still look at her, without even a single word, and somehow reduce the world to only the two of them all over again. His expression remained neutral, a perfectly composed mask, except for the slight smile that curled the edge of his lips.

She felt a nervous beat join the pounding tap dance in her chest, the pressure increasing inside her ribs until she suddenly realised she hadn't been breathing properly. She instantly closed her expression but couldn't quite bring herself to look away; to break the silent pull of his gaze, one that was heavy with the same enduring memories, unresolved pain and unanswered questions.

The arrogant and obnoxious bane of her existence. Her jerk of an ex-boyfriend. Otherwise known as –

"Jesse St. James," finished their guide cheerily; seemingly unaware of the icy atmosphere that had instantly sprung up, or else tactfully choosing to ignore it.

She didn't need to look up to know Finn was scowling. She could easily imagine the anger and irritation he was feeling; the shadow of old insecurities and uneasy jealousy that covered his expression. It was more than understandable, she was hardly overjoyed at this unexpected turn of events either, but she still mentally sighed at her boyfriend's reaction; knowing all too well how easily he was playing into Jesse's hands. Finn had never been one to conceal or control his emotions that well, let alone with the subtle skill that Jesse possessed; nor had he ever learnt the value of hiding behind a false bravado like she had. He was pretty much a heart on his sleeve type. It was one of the things she loved about him.

Finn narrowed his eyes in a belligerent glare, as if he could draw the other boy into a silent confrontation without having to actually speak to him. But Rachel knew better – and she knew there was no hope of him provoking that kind of satisfaction from Jesse. It was a dare he was never going to win; Jesse was too good at this game.

Mr Schue coughed in an attempt to break the hostile tension. Heads turned towards him and he cast a nervous glance at his team captains before slowly offering out a polite hand to their old rival. Jesse picked up his cue instantly, a mild and affable smile on his lips as he shook hands with McKinley's coach.

"Actually, we've already met," Will explained awkwardly.

Jesse's smile tightened but neither offered any further comment, despite the look of expectant curiosity from the competition official beside them. Rachel could almost hear the edgy frustration bubbling through Finn's chest next to her as Jesse smoothly turned his gaze back to them, sparing the smallest nod in his direction, before settling on her face once more.

The dismissive acknowledgement only seemed to annoy Finn further, which no doubt had been Jesse's intention. A smug smile passed over his lips, too quick for anyone to notice except Rachel. Still a master manipulator, she thought wryly. Well, she wouldn't let him rile her. She straightened her shoulders and quickly composed herself; shifting only slightly inside the confines of Finn's embrace, which was becoming a little uncomfortable. Normally she would have given her boyfriend a pointed look to let him know her feelings on the matter, but she refused to give Jesse the advantage by doing so in front of him.

"Mr St. James," she greeted coolly.

He looked amused at that. "So formal," he remarked.

Rachel gave a small shrug, the polite indifference in her tone pitch perfect. "Just being professional."

She thought she glimpsed a warm spark in his gaze, a softening that was so subtle she wasn't sure if she just imagined it. The corner of his lips turned up in a knowing smile, an arrogant smirk that she knew was just for her; those familiar, penetrating eyes holding onto hers in a way that was deceptively intimate. She wondered what he was thinking, but it was a lost cause. Jesse always played his cards very close to his chest.

"I'd expect nothing less, Miss Berry," he replied with a cordial dip of his head, the amused tilt to his mouth still taunting her.

[o]

Rachel squeezed her eyes shut against the memory, taking a deep breath as she willed his face out of her mind. Her fingers twisted the bed sheets into tangled knots as she lay quiet and listened to the sounds of her sleeping teammates, reluctantly remembering the heated reactions that had followed later that afternoon as the news had spread. She pursed her lips angrily: of all the crummy luck in the whole rotten world. Why him? Why did he keep coming out of the woodwork to screw up her life at the most pivotal times? This was their year; their shot at Nationals; everything they had been working for – and she wasn't going to let him steal that chance from them again.

It had taken every ounce of her positive leadership skills to stop her whole team from spiralling into a funk at the disheartening revelation. It had drained a lot of her energy, persistently buoying their spirits with the help of Mr Schue and re-focusing that determination back into their hearts, but they had managed to pull through in the end. They were back on track…hopefully. Rachel blinked up at the ceiling, knowing she was tired but unable to convince her mind to shut down or her body to stop humming with anxious energy. It had been a long day: the emotional pep talks had been intense enough, not to mention having to contend with Finn's silent brooding, which had carried on all afternoon.

She groaned quietly. How could one boy cause so much friction in her life? Why couldn't he just leave them alone? It was the least he could do after everything he'd put her through. But since when had Jesse ever done the decent thing, she thought bitterly. And now he was here – potentially holding their victory or defeat in his hands. Fate had a sick sense of humour sometimes. It just wasn't fair.

With a sigh, she drew herself up and shuffled her legs out from under the covers until the soles of her feet touched the carpet. Hunching her shoulders, she combed her fingers through her messy hair and resigned herself to the fact that sleep was unlikely to come any time soon. Making up her mind, she slipped out of bed and fumbled to locate her clothes in the dark. Pulling a jumper over her vest top and exchanging her shorts for cotton trousers, she dressed as quietly as she could. Shoving her bare feet into a pair of pumps, she tiptoed out of the dark hotel room, careful not to disturb the other girls.

The competition was being held in a huge conference complex with an attached hotel, all designed with easy convenience in mind, even if it made it feel a bit impersonal. She took the elevator down to the lobby and wandered through to the auditorium at the back of the centre.

The peaceful quiet was bliss, and just what she needed right now. Rachel smiled softly, stretching out a lazy hand to brush the rows of seats as she ambled down the aisle and up to the imposing stage. She knew this area would be teeming with activity come morning, the bustle and organised chaos of event management; the buzz of nervous excitement and anticipation that came with impending competition. It was an atmosphere she thrived on; the life she was made for. This night; this city; this world of music and imagination – it was everything she had been waiting for.

Her feet padded quietly across the smooth platform in a musing rhythm as she cast her gaze out into the empty theatre. It was a little overwhelming to actually be here. To be standing on the very stage she would be singing on tomorrow, in one of the most important performances of her life. Of course, she'd always known that they would get here (and been more than vocal about it) but it hadn't truly sunk in yet. She was sure it would tomorrow; tomorrow it would feel real and tangible and all the more achievable, but tonight it felt almost like a dream: the calm before the storm.

As she stood there, soaking it all in, she found herself reflecting back on the rollercoaster of the last two years. They had all come such a long way; relationships had evolved and broken and come back stronger. By the laws of high school, it should have never worked: they were losers, rebels and freaks, cheerleaders and jocks, but somehow they had stuck at it together. It was a triumph of hope over common sense really. And now here they were, at the end of their bumpy and inspiring journey – the path they had set out on what felt like so long ago.

Rachel smiled and lowered her gaze with a deep exhale. Slowly, she began to slide across the stage, pointing her feet and twirling her body in calming patterns she knew by heart. Stretching her limbs, she let herself fall into the soothing steps, finding comfort in the inner focus of movement as she softly spun around. She concentrated on channelling away the restless thoughts in her mind; the ache of old wounds that had been unexpectedly re-opened. Maybe they had never really healed in the first place. She grimaced at the unwanted voice and quickly closed her eyes, letting her body find its ease on the stage, her arms curving gracefully through the air to the slow, dreamy music in her head.

As she opened her eyes again, she glimpsed the unmistakable outline of another figure in the shadows of the wings. He stood perfectly still, head tilted slightly in thought or possibly déjà vu, as he watched her, his expression unreadable. She stopped in place, their gazes locking across the stage in expectant silence for a long moment.

"Laurey's dream ballet with Curly," he commented quietly. There was a strange line to his mouth, something that could almost pass for a nostalgic smile. "Feeling a little stressed, huh?"

Rachel felt surprisingly touched somewhere inside that he could recall something so fleeting that they had shared so long ago. A bittersweet warmth echoed through the memory, but it didn't register anywhere on her face.

She shrugged, closing her arms around her stomach. "It's a big day tomorrow."

Jesse gave a barely perceptible nod of agreement. Rachel shifted awkwardly on the balls of her feet.

"So, what, do you just hang around here all the time?" she asked dryly, making an effort to bring the cool distain back into her voice. "Don't you have anything better to do?"

It was his turn to shrug. "Couldn't sleep."

There was a pause before she slowly nodded in reluctant understanding. "Ditto." She looked away, a quirk of nervous humour on her lips. "Guess that's why they call it the 'city that never sleeps'. What did we expect?"

That drew a smile from him. "True. Looks like some reputations are well deserved."

She stiffened but didn't glance over as she felt him walk out to join her in the open space. Jesse stuck his hands in his pockets, stance relaxed and thoughtful as he let his gaze roam out over the dark seats and balconies before them. They stayed like that, standing at opposing ends of the expansive stage, looking out into their audience and lost in silence, for what felt like a very long time. Rachel could almost hear the fluttering of ripped paper, the ghosts of abandoned scripts drifting around their feet like gutter trash, useless to them now.

"It's been a while."

Her voice sounded strange to her ears, like a stray thought that had escaped her mind without passing through her lips. As the quiet stretched on, she suddenly wasn't sure she had even spoken it aloud at all.

"Yeah."

The word was soft, almost sombre. The weight of the past seemed to press down on them for a moment, looming out from the back of their minds, taunting them both with memories they couldn't seem to outrun. But so much had happened since then; their lives had changed and taken different paths. What was done was done. It wasn't like either of them could take it back.

"So you're with Finn now."

It wasn't quite a question, but his tone was hard to gauge. He could've only been making conversation for all she could tell.

"Yes," she replied after a pause, somehow feeling the need to confirm the obvious. After all, he'd already seen it for himself. She folded her arms a little firmer over her chest, winding her fingers deeper into the fabric of her jumper. "Just over a year actually."

Jesse gave a tight nod. "Congratulations."

She chanced a glance over at him. His body had tensed slightly, the line of his jaw harder and eyes still unflinchingly avoiding hers. Yet there was something in his voice that defied easy definition; something that could've equally been sarcasm, bitter amusement or simply bored disinterest.

"Looks like you finally got what you wanted."

Rachel frowned, feeling suddenly defensive. Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she turned her gaze back out to the darkness. "And you got what you wanted."

"And what's that?"

She bit back her rising frustration, determined not to give him the satisfaction. "Your precious win. Another empty victory and meaningless trophy."

Jesse shook his head softly, a touch of irony on his lips. "I must say, it's rather disappointing to hear you express such a low opinion of this competition, the night before you're attempting to win it."

"It's not the competition I have a low opinion of," she corrected frostily. "Though, it does seem as though they've let their standards slip with the judging panel this year." She fixed him with a suspicious glare, giving up their game to confront him directly. "Don't they see it as a conflict of interests?"

He allowed himself a small smile. "Vocal Adrenaline didn't place this year. Otherwise neither of us would be here. The opportunity came up and I took it. It's quite an honour actually. Plus just good experience."

"Yes, but-"

"If you're talking about us," he interrupted smoothly, turning to finally look at her, "don't worry. There's no point in them knowing about any of that past unpleasantness." Something darkened in his eyes, too fast to observe, though his tone remained cool and dismissive. "Trust me; it's all irrelevant now anyway."

Rachel threw him a withering glare. "There is no us."

"Of course not," he agreed, a hint of smug satisfaction crossing his lips. "But I was actually referring to New Directions."

Taking a steady breath, Rachel forced herself to keep her composure. It was always about the upper hand with him. It was so childish. Carefully, she drew her voice level and brought herself back to her point of concern.

"Okay, I get that you're hardly keen to jeopardise your opportunity by revealing your remarkable flair for sabotage and admitting how you screwed over New Directions last year – and I don't even know if it would be enough to get you kicked off the panel – but didn't it ever occur to you that the honourable thing to do would be to bow out?" she demanded pointedly.

An edge of bitter resentment crept into her tone as she pressed on, and she gave up trying to disguise it. "You've not exactly got a history of being objective when it comes to competition. How do we know you won't fail us out of spite? Just because you can?"

Jesse held her stare evenly, a strange look on his face, as if he couldn't decide whether to laugh or frown. "Are you really questioning my ability to use my judging authority fairly?"

"Please," she scoffed. "You've never played fairly in your life."

"Aw, now that hurts," he quipped back, voice dripping with acerbic sarcasm.

"Oh, got a conscience now do you?"

Rachel was distinctly aware they were minutes from descending into full on playground name-calling; a rather unappealing prospect, despite the shallow, immediate gratification it might bring. Jesse seemed to reach the same conclusion as his gaze broke sharply from hers, ending their stubborn stand-off.

"Rachel, I know you don't think much of me, but at least give me the credit of being professional. It's not worth my reputation to mark your team down for the hell of it." He lifted his shoulders in a callous shrug. "Of course, if your performance just doesn't come up to scratch, then it's my obligation to reflect that too."

She narrowed her eyes dangerously. "Is that a challenge?''

"Just fair warning." He glanced out across the auditorium but she didn't miss the superior taunt in his voice. "Let's face it – your team doesn't exactly have the best stage presence or widest range of vocals. There's nowhere to hide when you get to this level." He caught her eyes again. "You have to pull out all the stops now; you have to own every inch of this stage and every heart in that audience."

Rachel clenched her jaw in indignation at his nerve. "You don't know anything about us, Jesse," she retorted hotly. "A lot can change in a year. You don't know anything about who we are or how we work anymore. You have no idea about our talent or vocal skills or what we're capable of. Are you really so arrogant to think we beat your Vocal Adrenaline at Regionals with a sub-standard performance and luck?"

"No," he conceded with a smirk. "But they're hardly at their best anymore."

She rolled her eyes in angry frustration. "You're unbelievable. Let me guess, this is all coming down to the fact that we never beat you."

He merely raised his eyebrows in response, but the answer behind it was more than evident.

"I just want you to be prepared."

Rachel felt her temper flare up and then suddenly condense into a fiery resolve. There was a sly smile on his lips, like he knew he was goading her and enjoying every moment of it.

"Trust me, we're more than ready. It's nothing we haven't done before. It's just another competition at the end of the day, and I don't care if you doubt our chances, we're going to win tomorrow – with or without your vote."

Jesse gave her a look that told her he wasn't buying her nonchalant attitude. "But this isn't just another competition is it? This time it's different, and you know that."

He was right of course. Nationals was the light on the horizon, the undeniable proof that they had finally made it; the victory that would secure the glee club's future and give Rachel her first taste of national stardom. It was the hope and goal they had all been striving for, the mutual passion that had bound their little group together against all the odds. What they had been working towards for so long.

But it was more than that – it was his.

Rachel blinked in surprise as the revelation hit her. Somewhere over the past year, without her even realising, Nationals had somehow become almost synonymous with Jesse; the emotional connections mixing and merging inside her head until they were nearly indistinguishable. After all, it was his title, his championship, his world of success. The prize he had ultimately betrayed her for. Yes, she had always wanted to get here, fiercely wanted that honour and accolade and recognition for herself, but the desire had burned with new fever over the last year, unconsciously mending and strengthening the pieces of her heart he had left behind. The determination had taken on a new urgency, a deeper and more personal value. She had wanted to match him on his ground; finally beat him on equal terms. In a strange way, he was still driving her to new heights, unknowingly spurring her on just by following his own talent and ambition with the same focus she did.

"A stage is a stage," she replied flatly. Crossing her arms, she brushed aside the uncomfortable thoughts and confronted him with a steely glare. "We might not be competing against each other's teams anymore, but I can still beat you in a flat-out sing-off any day."

He gave her an amused smile. "Be my guest."

She hesitated, glancing around the empty theatre, an unsure frown on her face. "Now?"

Jesse shrugged. "You'll never get another chance like this."

She scowled at the arrogant tease in his voice, even though they both knew it was a challenge she wouldn't be able to resist.

"Fine."

Ignoring his smirk, she stepped forward and turned out to face the dark rows of seats; her mind spinning over a hundred different song choices she could use to make her point. She was determined to prove him wrong.

Yet a strange nervousness suddenly touched her mind at the prospect of sharing a stage with him again; a painful echo of sadness and anticipation rising up through her body that made her instantly regret her decision to re-engage in this private game. Something in the back of her head shouted in protest, warning her away from the risk she was taking. But it was too late to back out now.

Fighting to keep the swelling memories at bay, she gathered her concentration and lifted her chin. She refused to be daunted by them, no matter how much they hurt her. The fact was that the emotional core of Rachel's singing had always been one of her greatest, if uncontrollable, strengths. She may as well use it now. Besides, she consoled herself: it would be good practice for tomorrow, even if the songs in question couldn't be more different.

She could feel Jesse watching her from his side of the stage, those perceptive eyes studying her with silent curiosity, waiting. Taking a breath, Rachel steeled her resolve and committed everything in her heart to her performance. She couldn't sing it any other way.

I can take the rain on the roof of this empty house
That don't bother me
I can take a few tears now and then
And just let them out

I'm not afraid to cry
Every once in a while, even though going on
With you gone still upsets me

There are days
Every now and again I pretend I'm okay
But that's not what gets me

The bare beauty of her voice reached out into the huge space, somehow filling every part of it. It was rare for them to sing completely unaccompanied, and he'd almost forgotten how captivating her voice could be in pure solo. There was no denying Rachel could belt them out with the best of them, but when she chose to keep it understated, to draw on only honest emotion and raw talent, she was in a league all of her own. She could convey so much with so little: it was a gift and a courage that few truly possessed and just one of the many contradictions that defined who she was. A frown touched Jesse's face, a soft ache burning through his lungs as he took in her performance: a subtle magic that was inimitable and unparalleled; one that still had the power to entrance him, despite every better judgement.

Rachel pressed her eyes shut, the words escaping her lips with the same vulnerable passion she had sworn she was over long ago. The truth was a dangerous thing to indulge in, no matter how fleeting. Her voice rose as she reached the chorus, deep and rich with an intimate empathy that no-one could ever fake.

What hurts the most
Was being so close
And having so much to say
And watching you walk away

Never knowing
What could have been
And not seeing that loving you
Is what I was trying to do

She let her voice fall away, pausing out of habit for the instrumental interlude that was only in her head. Opening her eyes, she hesitated as she heard the familiar melody of his voice take up the mantle of her wounded song.

It's hard to deal with the pain
Of losing you everywhere I go
But I'm doing it

Turning her head, she watched uncertainly as Jesse took the words she had begun and spun his own story into the gentle rhythm of their music. His eyes caught hers, almost reluctantly, and for a moment Rachel felt like she was standing through that fateful Regionals performance all over again: bound by his voice and trying to understand what she glimpsed in those guarded depths; trying to decode the emotion under his song, not quite sure what she was looking for.

It's hard to force that smile when I
See your old friends and I'm alone
Still harder

Getting up, getting dressed
Living with this regret
But I know if I could do it over

She suppressed a shiver at the lure of his voice, fighting the intoxicating warmth that curled through her stomach but never breaking his gaze, even as she watched him slowly cross the stage. Her breath caught in her throat with something like panic, but she found she couldn't back away. Her feet betrayed her, holding her captive as Jesse easily closed the distance between them, drawing them close enough together that she could reach out and touch her fingers to his chest.

I would trade, give away all the words
That I saved in my heart
That I left unspoken

She swallowed nervously but still raised her voice to join his, as if it were as natural as breathing. Somewhere along the way, their idle competition had turned into a heart-breaking duet, and neither seemed to notice or care. The quiet auditorium fell under the thrall of their mutual music; a secret and ever elusive harmony of regret.

What hurts the most
Was being so close
And having so much to say
And watching you walk away

Jesse raised a hand to the side of her face, and Rachel nearly let her voice slip as she felt the light caress of his fingers slowly skimming through her hair, barely grazing her cheek as he brushed the stray lock away from her face. She tensed but didn't move under his touch, her eyes creased slightly in confusion as they held his; the small gesture so faint yet oddly intense. They breathed in at the same time, their bodies settling in sync at their close proximity, their voices softening instinctively as the final words fell from their lips.

Never knowing
What could have been
And not seeing that loving you
Is what I was trying to do

The song ended on a shared note and they remained completely still until the last echo had faded from the air. Rachel blinked and the spell seemed to break in a heartbeat. Jesse immediately pulled away and the empty space between them felt suddenly cold. As she watched, she saw the arrogant tilt return to his mouth, smothering the touch of tenderness that had softened his eyes just a moment ago…or so she had thought. The whole thing was confusing and disorientating, and suddenly her emotions were exploding.

"You were always good, Rachel." His voice was composed and indifferent once more, expertly disguising the edge of tension that ran just below the surface. "But you can't carry your whole team, not this time."

"Oh, and I suppose you did?" she shot back scathingly.

Jesse only smirked; the unspoken retort hanging heavy in the air between them.

I was better.

It was all too much for Rachel. She could still feel the ghost of his touch on her skin, taunting her with conflicting messages and dangerous memories; raising old heartaches and unfinished business from the graves of her mind and spitefully twisting them into turmoil. Fuming anger, hurt and indignation abruptly crashed over her defences, charging forward in an ill-advised assault, one that would only end in blood and tears. Again.

"You can think what you like, but the difference is that we're a true team. We respect each other's talent, we support each other and ultimately, we win or lose together." She met his gaze levelly, strangely calm in the truth of her words. "You're not better than us, Jesse. You're alone. You'll always be alone because you won't let anyone in; you'll never be a part of something special because you place yourself so far above it. Everything's just a vehicle for you, another step on the ladder; and you can keep on winning and climbing but you'll never really succeed."

His expression hardened so slightly but she refused to back down; this time he was going to hear her out. "You know it too, and eventually you'll be lonely. Eventually that emptiness will catch up to you and there'll be no-one there to pick you up when you stumble. You think you don't need anyone else; that they only hold you back or pull you down, and sometimes that's true, but sometimes it's a risk worth taking." Her voice lowered with her next breath, her eyes softly burning with painful conviction. "It's lonely at the top, we both know that, but it doesn't mean you don't still need others to turn to. It doesn't mean you should shut yourself off."

She shook her head, an almost sad smile on her lips. "I feel sorry for you. You know what Glee Club taught me? What I think you'll never understand? That no matter how good you are, how much you want to make it, how hard you work and how much better you may be than the others – you can't do it alone. You can't be truly happy by yourself, isolated and cold; humans don't work that way. And you are human, Jesse – somewhere in there you have a heart, and it wants something more than what you're giving yourself. You can deny it all you want, but I heard it; it's there in your voice and in your face. You're not that good an actor."

His eyes narrowed in derision. "I fooled you before didn't I?" he snapped cruelly.

Cold silence fell upon the stage as Rachel seemed to physically draw back from the sharp cut of his words. She stepped away from him, cursing the sting of tears that threatened and the hurt that flashed across her expression, even as she fought to control them. She forced herself to look him dead in the eyes, ignoring the dark storm that raged there. She nodded slowly, proud that her voice didn't tremble or break.

"Yeah. I guess you did." She straightened her shoulders, a wry twist to her lips. "Congratulations," she echoed softly.

Neither moved for a long moment, their bodies tense and eyes torn with secrets they refused to give up. The one challenge neither would ever win.

"Goodnight, Jesse."

With a last look, Rachel turned and walked away from their stage before the lurking tears could betray her. She wouldn't let him see; she'd wasted enough on him already.

Jesse watched her go; observing her hurried steps but proud posture as she disappeared into the beckoning wings and out of his reach. He tilted his head up and squeezed his eyes shut. An angry grimace crossed his face, his breath leaving his lungs in a frustrated sigh of defeat.

"Fuck."

Jerking straight, he sprinted into the dark after her, following the echo of her retreating footsteps. He caught up to her in the depths of backstage, where she had broken into a run in her haste to get out of the theatre and away from him. He didn't even stop to think, ruled only by urgent instinct.

Jesse reached out and snagged her by the waist, spinning her around and capturing her lips in one fierce movement. She stumbled slightly from the disrupted momentum but his arms locked tight around her, holding her upright and pressing her firm against him. He could taste the salt of her tears that had started to run down her face as she returned his embrace just as desperately, forsaking sense for something that ran far deeper through them both; a connection they had barely begun to understand. She crushed herself to him, so close that he could feel every curve of her body with agonizing intensity; one fist clutching into his shirt, the other knotting deep in his hair with a command he was helpless to defy.

His hand slid up to her neck, fingers brushing her jaw and firmly tilting her head as he deepened the kiss. Something in his heart burned and swelled in the warmth of her touch, her scent sweeter than oxygen in his lungs. It was reckless and painful: their forms entwined so tight against each other; mouths locked in a silent battle for dominance and surrender, each giving in to the other. It was over a year of anger and hurt, confusion and regret and longing, all collapsed into a single, devastating burst of fire.

Eventually, they released each other and drew apart just enough to speak; their bodies pressed close and trembling in adrenaline, tense with a cacophony of unspoken emotion. Their hands were still tangled in fabric and hair, still holding fast with demand even as their breath slowed. They didn't open their eyes, as if afraid to wake up and face the reality of whatever this new twist in their troubled story could possibly bring.

Rachel felt bruised, in every way; a handprint on her heart that just wouldn't fade. Why did they keep falling down this road together? Her world just seemed to combust into smoke and ruin whenever their orbits collided. Her head was in pieces, her heart was drowning and in less than twenty-four hours she had a National Competition to win, but she didn't want to pull away, not yet. Here they were safe and concealed amongst the whispering shadows of the theatre, a moment out of reason and space; an illusive glitch in the time continuum.

But it couldn't last. Rachel sighed, lost in her own conflicting thoughts. She never felt so fragile yet so strong than when she was with him. It was a paradox that would destroy her.

"I have to go," she whispered finally, a frown pinching her brow as she breathed the words against his cheek.

There was quiet for a moment.

"I know."

They slowly opened their eyes to each other. Rachel looked up and saw an echo of the same pain that was ripping through her, yet it was eclipsed by a tender warmth that she had never seen so openly before, one that somehow soothed the ache into a dull twinge. She smiled, strangely grateful, though she didn't quite know what for. Maybe just for him, for all the screwed up solace they brought each other. Maybe for being brave enough to show himself for once; for letting her see him, even if it was just for a second.

She didn't know what this was, what they were to each other; couldn't possibly understand or even guess at how what had just happened would change them all over again. There was still so much unresolved. Maybe things would never be truly finished between them; but whatever it was, it wouldn't be settled tonight.

Jesse ran his thumb along her cheek and Rachel drew in a quiet breath, as if the hot touch were invisibly branding this stolen moment into her very skin. He held her eyes, a soft smile on his lips that somehow captured the weight in his gaze.

"Whatever happens."

The sentence felt unfinished; how apt. Rachel frowned, her fingers still toying gently with the curls at his nape. "You mean tomorrow?"

An enigmatic smile was the only answer she got, before he leaned forward and kissed her again. And this time it was slow and gentle and lingering, a tender exploration that stood in bright contrast to the searing demand and fire of their crashed bodies a moment ago. It was a soft brush of their mouths, a whisper and a promise.

And infinitely more terrifying.

As their lips parted, Rachel looked into his face one last time, new questions and tentative understanding in her eyes, before she felt him obediently loosen his arms to let her disentangle herself. She turned and vanished into the shadows without looking back, never knowing that Jesse watched her until she was out of view.

~o~


AN: This little scene started brewing in my head as soon as I heard that JGroff was potentially returning for a few episodes (which just makes me ridiculously happy and will make me insanely depressed if it doesn't happen) And if it's true that he's coming back for only a brief spell, probably for Nationals (which is most likely since Jesse is in California and JGroff is in such popular demand) then they'd better make the most of it! I have to admit, I'm a sucker for the drama of an illicit kiss, and we just know that those two won't be able to keep their hands off each other! This is just my little dramatization of how that loaded meeting might go (in my dreams)

Hope you enjoyed. Reviews are awesome things and always appreciated :)

Thanks for reading.