A/N: I'm apparently not permitted to apologize for short chapters anymore, but this felt kind of like an awkwardly necessary one before we start jumping into the real meat of rehearsals and a deepening St. Berry relationship. This is probably the lowest of the angsty bits before we start climbing the other side, if that metaphor makes any sense, lol! For those who don't like how Rachel's acting - yes, she's acting like a child. Because she is one. We'll get some more maturity as both she and Jesse grow into themselves a little more, I promise!
Scale the Glass Mountain
It should have been a dream come true.
Rachel had enough objectivity to understand this. She'd taken public transit from the early-morning quiet of Brooklyn into the cacophony of Manhattan, and everything seemed to rush at her at once. Adrenaline—the good kind—surged through her veins at the smell of steam coming up through the sidewalk grates and manholes, and the sound of traffic and construction accosting her all at once. She was on her way to a theater to begin her first day of work—true, it was just a teaching theater, but that hardly should matter at this stage in her life.
It should have been magnificent. The achievement of everything she'd ever wanted, ever dreamed of.
But it wasn't.
Because, for every moment of it, she had a dark, stoic shadow, and she couldn't stand it.
Jesse seemed either concerned for her safety in the city or to have taken Becca and Shelby's edict about staying with each other to heart. The angry part of her, still hurting from the vicious things he'd said the past two days, wanted to believe he was doing it to keep in Shelby's good graces and for no other reason. But the other part of her—the part that wasn't vindictive, the part that always wanted to forgive and see the best in people—wasn't so sure. He hadn't said a word to her all morning, but he kept by her side and never moved more than an arm's reach away. Though his legs were longer than hers, he held himself to her stride as they walked to their first bus stop. He let her get on the bus first and choose her seat, but then he sat next to her, which she had not expected and didn't particularly welcome. She was too angry with him to want to feel his body heat, the pressure of his leg against hers.
"Do you mind?" she asked finally, as he took a seat next to her again for the last leg of their commute. The subway smelled like stale urine and unwashed bodies—something she was slowly becoming used to—and, objectively, Jesse definitely smelled better than the general subway odor, but it was too fraught with meaning to be comfortable. Boy and spearmint, the unique amalgam of smells that was Jesse, brought back too many memories in her mind, some precious and others bitter, wounds still too tender to touch. She held her breath, concentrating on the smell of coffee from the paper cup he gripped in his hands.
"This city is dangerous," he said tightly, refusing to look at her.
"And I've been walking around it for a week now by myself," she snapped. "Give me a little credit."
"Yeah, we all know where that got you. I have no wish to talk you down from any more fire escapes, okay?"
It was a low blow, but Rachel didn't think she really had any reasonable retort. He had a point. The first few days here had been terrifying. Most of the time, she'd wanted nothing more than to hide in her hotel room, though she knew she couldn't. She hadn't come to the city to hide, and besides, soon enough her money would run out. So she'd forced herself into the bustling streets, learning by trial and error at least some of the unspoken rules of the city. She'd never been shy before, but this place was just so…so much. She learned quickly not to accept directions from shabbily-dressed men with the air of the streets about them. Not because their directions were faulty, but because they wanted to be paid for the information. She'd learned to avoid eye contact with New Yorkers; it made them nervous, and it made her stand out like a tourist—someone who did not belong. To Rachel, who had a naturally open and friendly personality, this was difficult to accept. But she had felt sure, for a while at least, that she could crack the code of New York City if she only tried hard enough, and then she would be just like any other local. Here, she could find a place to belong.
And that hope had remained with her up until the panicky moment she found herself locked in a seedy office room, her purse and coat stolen by a man she'd hoped might give her a job.
As much as she hated to admit it, Jesse was right. She didn't know the rules of this city, and her naturally rash nature made it perhaps a little dangerous for her to be attempting to learn all on her own. She didn't need a babysitter, but maybe a mentor? Or at least a friend. A friend would definitely be nice right about now.
Except the only person she was apparently allowed contact with was Jesse St. James, and she was categorically not ready to contemplate any sort of relationship with him yet. Not even friendship.
Not that he had offered. From the tone of his voice and the tightness of his body, he didn't want to be around her any more than she wanted to be around him. They were both forced into something they didn't want, but they had no choice. Everything had been decided for them already.
When they reached the nondescript building bearing the correct address—no marquee out front, Rachel noted—she followed Shelby's directions and entered a side door, then climbed a flight of carpeted stairs, Jesse close behind her. At the top, a hallway led to a set of heavy double doors. Opening these, she slipped through and waited for a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.
It was a small theater, but it was a theater. She hadn't really known what to expect—the place was smaller than McKinley's auditorium, and that disappointed her a little. But no one could say it wasn't a theater. The house lights were down, and Rachel made her way toward the stage slowly. She could hear voices faintly, but she couldn't see anyone. "Hello?" she called as she mounted the stairs stage right.
"Rachel." Shelby's voice was unmistakable, and a moment later the woman who called herself her mother stepped out of the wings. "And Jesse." She smiled, and Rachel couldn't quite tell if the warmth on her face was real or not. With Shelby, it could go either way. She didn't have any particularly happy feelings toward her mother, but she was able to admit that the woman was a wonderful actor. "I'm glad to see you both on time and following the rules."
Jesse looked pained for an instant, and Shelby caught the expression. "I know, I know—I drummed punctuality into you years ago. But some habits are easier than others to break, and UCLA had plenty of distractions, I'm sure."
"Has," Jesse corrected, stressing the present tense. "I'm going back. You can't stop me."
"When this project is over, you're free to do whatever you like," Shelby said coolly. "Let's not make any rash decisions before then, hm?" She smiled at Rachel and reached forward to touch her shoulder, but Rachel flinched away. Maybe it wasn't very nice, but she didn't want Shelby touching her. She didn't want anybody touching her.
"Isn't this a school of some sort?" she asked, rubbing her palms on her skirt and ordering herself to stop being nervous. "Where's everyone else?"
Shelby nodded slightly to herself, as if accepting that this was how things were going to be for now. Rachel hoped that was true. She didn't want the woman to suddenly try to be her mother or her friend. She needed nothing from Shelby except permission to go home. "This isn't a school," Shelby said, taking a step back, her heels loud on the floor of the stage. "You've heard of performing arts schools like Juilliard. Well, the concept of a teaching theater turns that on its head. This isn't a school where you learn about the arts via a classroom. This is a theater where you learn how to put on productions by doing so. My students—if you can call them that—are of all ages, from every demographic group you could imagine. They pay to learn what I can teach them, but this isn't a vanity theater. You can't just pay your way to a lead role. Those that don't make the cut talent-wise have to stay behind the scenes, or in the background."
"Are my dads paying for this?" Rachel demanded, cutting her off. "Because if they are – "
"They're not, and neither are Jesse's." Shelby shared a long look with her former student. A muscle flickered in his jaw, but he otherwise remained stoic. "I've accepted the two of you on scholarship, because you need this."
"What I need," Rachel muttered, "is to go home."
"In time." Shelby's voice was gentler than Rachel had expected. "But not before you're ready."
Rachel wanted to argue that she was ready now—that nothing Shelby could possibly have to teach her would matter in the long run. She wanted her dads. She wanted the familiarity of Ohio. She wanted everything back that she had given up, and nobody was taking her seriously.
"We're starting a new production now, so you had perfect timing," Shelby said. She looked a little nervous, and Rachel wondered why. Much like Jesse, his former mentor wasn't a nervous person. She made decisions and followed through—she was not one to waffle or second-guess. "You actually did me a little bit of a favor, however inadvertent. I was having some trouble matching characters with my current batch of students and, with the addition of you two, things worked out rather better."
"I have no interest in carrying your sad group of rejects," Rachel said, wrinkling her nose.
"They're not rejects, honey. Some of them are quite talented, and they're here to learn. Don't mock them because they pay for the experience. If you're ever accepted at a performing arts program like Jesse here, make no mistake—you'll be paying for the privilege. My students might not receive financial aid from the government, but that doesn't make this learning experience any less valid. Be careful how you use your words, and around whom."
But Rachel wasn't in the mood to be cowed, and she crossed her arms over her chest as she waited to hear what Shelby would say next. She was tired of being bossed around—tired of always being told what to do. It wouldn't be so galling if she actually found an authority figure other than her dads whom she could respect. But Mr. Schuester so often didn't seem to know what he was doing, Shelby was both duplicitous and cruel, and she was tired of it. Even the bullies at McKinley were like authority figures, in a way, because she and her friends had to either do as they said or pay the consequences. But she respected none of them, and she really did not want to listen anymore. When was it her turn to say what she wanted? To be listened to and taken seriously?
"The rest of your fellow cast members are in the black box down the hall with their scripts. I wanted to give you your roles separately before you meet them."
"You think we're going to throw tantrums." Jesse's bald statement fell into the dim space between them, and Shelby looked at him again with a glance Rachel could not interpret. She hated when they did that. Shelby was supposed to be her mother, and Jesse was her ex-boyfriend—the one boy she could say with certainty that she had ever truly loved. It wasn't fair that they could exclude her from everything so easily, with just a glance. Yes, she knew they had a past together, but still. It wasn't fair.
Shelby chose not to respond verbally to Jesse's declaration. Instead, she crossed her arms lightly and, with an ironic twist of her sharp mouth, she moved on. "You, Jesse, will be playing a character older than yourself. Rachel, you'll be playing younger. I don't have as many adults in this group as I usually do—most of the cast is in the college-age range."
"I'm playing a kid?" Rachel stared at her mother, appalled. "No way!"
"You've got the five-year-old attitude down," Jesse muttered.
Rachel whirled, ready to give him a piece of her mind, but Shelby's hand on her arm stalled the furious words. "Easy," Shelby said, and the word was an order rather than a request. "Yes, you're playing a child. We only have the rights to two musicals at the moment, the other being The Music Man, and our prop department can't handle the needs of that show on such short notice. I need someone who can play a little girl, and you're it."
"No." Rachel felt like stomping her foot, but she refrained. Something told her it wouldn't help her argument any.
"Yes," Shelby said firmly. "I'm the director, and the first thing you're going to learn is that my word is law in here. You're small, you have a young face, and if we put you in a little dress it should work out just fine."
That tone of voice coming from anyone other than Shelby would have shut even Rachel up in an instant, but she wasn't going to be cowed by the woman who had abandoned her twice. Not now. Not ever. "Be avant-garde and cross-cast the role," she said. "Make him play a kid!" She pointed imperiously, but Jesse shoved her hand away from him. "You just want me to play younger because you can't handle the thought of having a daughter as old as I am. I make you feel ancient."
"Quit with the dramatics, kid." Shelby sounded utterly unimpressed. "We can do this the easy way or the hard way, but we're doing it whether you like it or not."
"You can't make me perform! Do you know how utterly ridiculous that idea is? You can make me come here every day, but you can't make me sing!"
"That's funny," Shelby said, "because I was under the impression you liked to sing."
"Not for you." Rachel had never been afraid of saying what she thought no matter how it sounded, and today was no exception. She'd never had a strong verbal filter, and today was no exception. If Shelby expected to work with her, she had to know what she was getting into. Mr. Schuester might be able to lecture her into playing nice, but Shelby didn't have that kind of pull. Rachel wasn't afraid of Vocal Adrenaline's ex-coach. Shelby had lost her allure in Rachel's eyes the minute she took Beth and left Rachel alone.
"You do want to go home, though, and the only way there is through me, I'm afraid. I'm sorry, Rachel, but this is out of your hands. You made a choice, and these are the consequences. You are required to put in a good faith effort. I need to see you try. I know you see this as a punishment, but if you looked at it as an opportunity you really might feel better about the whole thing. I'm a damn good teacher. As much as you don't want to admit it, you're not ready to take on the professional world just yet. You have amazing potential, but that's not going to win you any callbacks on its own."
Rachel dropped her head into her hands. It was all too much. Shelby was right, and she hated it. Loathed it. She wanted nothing more than to throw this whole stupid scheme back in their faces and march away.
But that wasn't an option. She couldn't just run back to her dads, no matter how much she wanted to. She had to stay and take abuse here just like she took it at McKinley. No one was giving her a choice. And yes, Shelby was right that she still had a lot to learn. But she wasn't ready to look at this the way her mother wanted her to. Maybe she never would be. It hurt too much, and she was too angry.
"I don't want to do this," she whispered through her fingers.
"I know it."
"The three of us are going to make life hell for everyone else."
"I know that, too."
"Can you at least make Jesse bald?"
"He's not playing a character that old."
"I better not be," Jesse snapped irritably. "Nobody messes with the hair."
"We'll be salt-and-peppering it for the production."
"Oh no, we won't." Jesse put his hands protectively around his head.
"Don't push me, kid." Shelby sounded tired again, but Rachel really, really didn't care. She was tired, too. This city made her tired. Her adrenaline rush from earlier had burned itself out, and she was left feeling hollow and empty. Though she did not often drink coffee, she found herself wanting to take Jesse's out of his hand. At least it would be something warm to hold.
"Are we done with our respective temper tantrums?" Shelby eyed them both for a moment before stepping back into the wings. She returned with a script in each hand and held them out to her erstwhile students. "Here you go. If you have any questions, ask me now. We're going to sit down and talk about the rules before we meet the rest of your castmates. I want no confusion about how things work here."
Rachel looked at the book in her hand. It was a well-known story, but not the most beloved of musicals.
"Mandy Patinkin's role, huh?" Jesse's voice sounded from nearby. "I could get behind that."
"No way," Rachel said furiously. "If he gets to play an adult, at least make him be the villainous doctor!"
"If I'm the doctor, I get to slap you," Jesse reminded her.
"Like you haven't practically done that already."
His silence was dangerous; Rachel knew her dig had hit home, but she really didn't care. She was hurting and she wanted him to hurt, too. She felt almost positive that this was at least partially his fault. How, she wasn't sure. But she wasn't ready to absolve him of guilt. Not when her heart hurt this badly, her confidence rattled to the core.
"Rachel," Shelby said quietly, "you know comments like that don't help anything."
Yes. She knew. But her arms were sore where his hands had gripped her tight enough to leave marks, and the urge to hurt him back was strong. Nothing ever seemed to hurt him—to get under his skin the way he always got under hers. Knowing that she'd never get an apology didn't help, either.
"You're a wonderful singer," Shelby said, "and I know you can dance. I have no doubt of your acting abilities. What I want to know now is if you're ready to be a professional. I know you're unhappy. I know Jesse and I are two of the last people in the world you want to be around. I know you're homesick and you just bounced back from what must have been a very frightening ordeal. But the show must go on. Actors who make it in this city—they'll die before they miss a performance, or disturb things for the rest of their team. My question to you is—do you have what it takes to do this? You don't have to like us. But you have to work with us."
Rachel dropped her head and stared at the thick script in her hands. Shelby didn't seem to understand that it wasn't about whether she could do it. It was about whether she wanted to do it. And she didn't. Not remotely.
But they weren't letting her go home until she gave a good faith effort—or at least the appearance of one. She wanted her dads so badly, and she was willing to do just about anything to go home to them. Whatever Shelby's plan was, it wasn't going to work. This wasn't a learning experience and she would never treat it as such. It was purgatory, and like the Catholic concept, it was something she had to suffer through. Jesse, his aunt Becca, Shelby—all of it.
And she would. Not because she wanted to, but because she had no other choice. She rubbed a corner of the first page between her thumb and forefinger. Paper, just like any other. Paper and words. Nothing so terribly frightening about that. She took a deep breath.
"Are you going to make us ape British accents?"
It was capitulation, and Rachel knew Shelby knew it. The older woman's mouth curved up in a small smile. "No," she said. "You may sound as American as you please. That's part of the willing suspension of disbelief."
"I'd rather be doing Annie," Rachel muttered. "I feel like an orphan. Plus, we'd get to make Jesse bald."
"Enough with the hair jokes, Mistress Mary." He made an irritated face and shifted away from her. "Are we done here?"
"Are we in agreement?" Shelby flicked her eyes back and forth between the two young people. "I'm the director, and you are two of my actors. You listen, and you play nice, and you don't disturb the others. Got it?"
Rachel didn't answer; she wasn't sure Shelby expected the actual words. They'd made it perfectly clear that she didn't have a choice, anyway. She ran her hand over the title page again, tracing the typed letters. The Secret Garden.
A/N: I know several people have asked to switch back to Jesse's POV, and we'll get more of him next chapter, I promise! Happy St. Berry Week!