A/N: I know it's been done before, but this is my St. Berry "fix" to the Nationals episode. I think I've been original enough, but if this is similar to anything else already up here I apologize. I don't have a lot of time to read fanfiction, and I'm sure I've missed things.

Content warning: coarse language and sex. You've been warned!

All standard disclaimers apply.


Inevitability

Jesse was speechless.

For the first time in his life, perhaps, Jesse St.-fucking-James had nothing to say. He watched New Directions perform their upbeat second number with a numb heart. What had just happened? One second he was watching with thinly-veiled disgust as Finn Hudson serenaded his girl, and the next that Neanderthal's mouth was on hers.

The audience was shocked and didn't know how to respond, and rightly so, Jesse felt. Schuester had managed to wrest polite applause out of the crowd by standing up and pointedly clapping when the song ended, but the reaction wasn't genuine. The acclaim wasn't from the heart. Jesse had been in front of plenty of crowds before, and he knew enough to know that.

What had they all been thinking? Why had Schuester ignored his firm directive not to allow a duet between Hudson and Rachel? And why, then, had the knuckle-dragging football player felt he had to one-up the competition (meaning Jesse) even more by kissing her onstage in front of everyone?

Jesse had asked whether the kiss was scripted, but in his heart he knew it wasn't. He knew Rachel so well - knew her down to the bone. Every nuance of her body language spoke to him, and he saw what most people in the audience would have missed. She was just as surprised as Jesse. The faint pulse of a single tremor whispered through her black-clad frame when she realized Hudson was about to kiss her on stage, and that tremor spoke volumes to Jesse. She hadn't known. This had been all Finn's idea.

Fucking hell. Jesse wanted to tug on his hair, to pace, to punch something - preferably Hudson, but a wall would do nicely. And yet he could do none of that. He had to sit next to Schuester, a show face plastered across his emotions, and watch the end of the performance. Inside, he was dying.

He wasn't stupid. He knew how badly Rachel had pined after Hudson, and the territorial way the football player was now acting around her pissed him the hell off. Yes, Jesse admitted that he'd hurt Rachel in the past. But so had Finn. Neither was blameless in that department. Rachel had freely forgiven him, and he thought they had moved on. But now he wasn't so sure. He knew for a fact that Rachel had not expected the onstage kiss...but had she wanted it? Jesse didn't know, and it was killing him. She'd looked...peaceful, he thought. It was hard to see her expression from his seat in the middle of the theater. But the thought that she might have enjoyed that kiss - might have wanted it - was like a fist in Jesse's gut.

He'd told the truth about flunking out of UCLA...sort of. It was true that he'd been kicked out primarily for not attending classes. But they'd warned him. After two weeks of being a no-show in anything not pertaining to the performing arts, he'd been called in to talk to an assistant dean of students. She'd set him straight and explained that no, in fact, no one would be attending his classes and doing his homework for him. He was a big boy now and he had to play by the rules. College wasn't a game like high school. It was serious.

So Jesse had known early on that his behavior wasn't going to win him any awards. But like the spoiled child he was, he'd continued to slack off. He threw an epic tantrum about having to take core classes like a normal student. Hell, he hadn't actually sat through a math class ever at Carmel. He was always the special one, always getting excused and exempted because of his pretty smile and his charm, not to mention god-given talent.

But at college that just wasn't good enough anymore. Around midterms was when it finally began to sink in. He tried doing homework, but he was so hopelessly far behind that there was no way he'd ever catch up. In frustration, he let himself be dragged to a frat party to try to forget the whole fucking mess. He drank himself into a stupor, and he did, in fact, succeed in forgetting his school troubles for a while. What he hadn't planned on were the dreams.

He'd felt somewhat guilty about the way he'd left Rachel in her school's parking lot ever since it happened, but he tried to explain and excuse away the uncomfortable feeling that churned in his stomach whenever memories of her crossed his mind. She was his equal, his match, his perfect foil. He'd told her the truth in that parking lot - he had loved her, as much as Jesse St. James was capable of love. He'd adored her almost as much as he adored himself. That was the one thing Shelby Corcoran never counted on, the one factor neither of them ever expected. In the end, it hadn't mattered anyway. Rachel had hurt him deeply with her childish "Run Joey Run" video, and in retaliation he'd hardened himself, refusing to feel sorry for her as he carried out the endgame of Shelby's plan. He felt grimly vindicated upon his return to Vocal Adrenaline. Rachel had embarrassed him. She'd hurt him In Jesse's mind, she deserved everything he'd done in return.

But that was before the dreams.

In his alcohol-laced sleep, Jesse had seen her again just as she was the first day he met her in a little music store in Ohio. So sweetly innocent, her dark eyes aflame with nerves and excitement as she realized just who he was. He'd seen her at Sectionals, yes, but not up close. Face to face, she was an entirely different creature. She was pretty in an understated kind of way, a hint of dusky rose to her skin, and full lips that he couldn't keep his eyes off of. And so tiny. Her diminutive height and slim build made her seem younger than her sixteen years, and when she'd opened her mouth to sing Jesse wondered where she put that voice when she wasn't using it. It was too big and too mature; it didn't belong in her little schoolgirl self.

Seeing those eyes and hearing her sing with him once again in his mind, Jesse had felt the first stirrings of real, honest remorse. She'd loved him. She'd given him her trust even when all her friends were telling her not to. She'd risked their displeasure for him. And then he'd thrown it back in her face.

The dreams wouldn't leave him alone, either. Alcohol had fueled them, but they refused to stop after that night. Over and over again they came - images of him with Rachel, of her warmth and sweetness, her innocent trust and her brash confidence.

The night he relived the egging incident was the final straw. In the morning, he'd returned to the dean and explained that he couldn't continue like this. He had unfinished business back home, he told the administrator, and he couldn't commit himself fully to his education until he settled this one way or another.

The dean had agreed with his assessment and made Jesse a compassionate offer. His failed classes would remain on his record until such time as he re-took them and passed, but he was given a leave of absence in which to settle his affairs before trying again. His scholarship would still be waiting if he wanted a second chance. But even as he shook her hand, Jesse had grave doubts about ever returning to school in California. School wasn't for him, even an arts degree. He needed to stretch his performance muscles on a real stage, get the chance to see what the world was really like. He'd never really had to stand on his own before, and he didn't know if he could do it.

But most importantly, he had to make things right with Rachel.

As the uptempo second song from New Directions drew toward its finale, Jesse sucked the corner of his lip into his mouth. It was the only outward sign of his inner turmoil. He knew perfectly well who he was. He was a spoiled rich kid with an amazing amount of talent, and he knew nothing - absolutely nothing - about the world. But his years of acting taught him plenty about people, and he knew that something had happened between Rachel and Finn in his absence. She had been honest with him about it when he asked - her relationship with the ridiculously tall boy and how he'd broken things off. Jesse felt he could accept it and move forward. He'd known the moment he saw her again in her school auditorium singing the opening lines to "Rolling in the Deep" that he wasn't going to be able to walk away from her again. He hadn't returned to make amends, he realized as he joined his voice to hers once again in song. He had returned to win her back.

And he thought he'd done so. They'd discussed and apologized to each other until they were blue in the face, practically. She'd gone to prom with him - technically as part of a group, yes, but everyone knew the truth. Later that night they'd nursed each other's wounds, his from Finn and hers from Quinn, and she'd cuddled up close in his lap, so cute in her secondhand prom dress. He thought then that everything would be okay again, and that whatever happened they'd figure it out together.

Now he wasn't so sure. And Jesse St. James hated being unsure of anything, especially something this important. Rachel was his. His. Hudson didn't appreciate her the way she deserved. He liked her in spite of herself, not because of it. Her differences were what made her special, and Jesse loved her for all of them. He loved how worked-up she became over things that other people would call no big deal. To Rachel they were huge, and Jesse understood that completely. Her flair for the dramatic complimented his exactly. Their top-ten lists of favorite songs and movies might not match, but they could bicker pleasantly for hours about the relative merits of Minnelli versus Streisand and other similar issues. Finn didn't have the right vocabulary to even begin to do that with her. He rolled his eyes at the way she dressed and tried to hide when she started arguments in glee club practice; Jesse saw that with his own eyes during the short time he'd spent at McKinley last year. But Jesse didn't. He thought her short skirts were cute, and he'd back her in any argument she chose to take up. She was special because of her originality, not in spite of it.

And Jesse didn't know what he'd do if he had to let her go again.

This time, he thought they'd done it right. They'd been honest with each other from the beginning. She forgave him. He forgave her. When she stepped back into his arms for the first time, it felt like...like he was home. Like there wasn't anywhere else he'd rather be. She was too short for Finn anyway, but she nestled just perfectly in the crook of Jesse's arm, like she was born just for that purpose. And when they sang - lord, when they sang! She had to prop up Finn's vocals during a duet, weaving her voice around his and supporting what would have fallen without her. Jesse knew that feeling. But they didn't have to do that with each other. Their voices blended perfectly as they pushed each other to their absolute limits, daring the other to keep up. Sharing a stage with her was heaven.

The applause drew Jesse back to his senses as New Directions took their final bows and left the stage. There was another group on after them, but Schuester was rising from his seat, heading into the lobby, and Jesse followed numbly. The worry was almost crushing him. Rachel didn't even know he was here.

He expected that they would have to wait a while before any members of New Directions emerged from backstage, but he was wrong. Almost immediately after locating the correct hallway, a door burst open and Rachel ran out.

Holy hell, she was crying.

Jesse had seen her cry before, once or twice, but the distress on her face was too much for him. He sped up his steps, eager to reach her, but Schuester had spotted her too and was doing the same.

"Mr. Schuester!" she called, and she shoved herself into her teacher's arms. "I didn't - you didn't tell him to do that, did you? Please - "

Schuester froze, his arms hovering over Rachel's back, and though he was behind them Jesse could see by the tension in the man's shoulders that he was not prepared to comfort a hysterical Rachel. He carefully turned, Rachel held lightly in his grip as if he were afraid to touch her - and with all the lawsuits about inappropriate teachers, Jesse thought he likely was. His eyes met Schuester's and he raised an eyebrow, not knowing what else to do.

"I think...I think there's someone else here who can handle this better than I can, Rachel," her teacher said stiffly. He urged her to turn her head, and her dark eyes went wide when she saw Jesse.

Half a second passed in silence before Rachel pulled away from Schuester. "I..." She swallowed audibly, pale as death below her stage makeup. "Jesse, I didn't..." She shook her head a little, cutting off her words, and another tear tracked its way down her cheek.

"Rachel," he said quietly. Just one word: just her name. Her eyes met his again, and she stepped into his arms.

"I didn't know," she whispered, her arms around his waist clutching him tightly. "I swear I didn't know, and then he was there and I saw it in his eyes." Her breath caught in her chest and she pushed at him as if she wanted to get closer, though that was physically impossible. Jesse held her tightly. This was it: her words now would decide everything. "It was the middle of the performance!" she said, almost wailing with distress. "I couldn't push him away, not with all those people watching! I had to make it look scripted, but..." She hiccuped once, a catch of air in her throat that jerked her body slightly against Jesse's. "I don't think I managed it. I didn't kiss him on purpose, Jesse; you have to believe that."

Instantly all the anxiety lifted. Jesse squeezed her tighter against him, relishing her warmth. She was sweaty from the performance, but he didn't care. Finn had unwittingly given her the ultimate test, and she'd chosen Jesse. He smiled into her damp hair, stroking his fingers through the tousled strands. "It's okay, drama queen," he said, "it's okay. I believe you."

She sighed in relief and he felt her tense body relax in his arms. "All I could think was that I was so glad I made you stay home," she murmured. "I didn't want you to have to see that."

"Are you glad I'm here now?"

He felt her smile against his shirt, the faint pressure of her cheek as it rose with the gesture. "Very."

"Good." Jesse kissed her hair softly.

"You know I only asked you to stay away so I wouldn't be distracted," she said, mumbling into his shoulder.

"I figured if you didn't know I was here, it didn't count."

That got a watery laugh from her, which was what Jesse had been hoping for. He squeezed her tight again for a moment, the warm weight of her firm and steady in his arms, and the feeling melted away any lingering doubts or resentment in his mind about Rachel's allegiances. While he was furious at Finn for imposing as he had, he almost couldn't focus on the anger. He was too happy, too content, with Rachel in his arms. This was what he'd come back to Ohio for - what he'd traveled to New York for - and he refused to let the feeling go. She was perfect, and finally, for sure, he knew she was his.

"You okay, Rachel?" Schuester asked hesitantly, glancing up at Jesse.

"I am now," she said, reluctantly loosening her grip on Jesse and putting a little space between their bodies.

"I'm sorry that happened," Schuester said, and to Jesse's ears he still sounded a little wary. "What made you and Finn decide to go off script?"

"It wasn't me!" Rachel contested hotly, turning to face her teacher. Jesse opened his mouth to support her, but before the words could come Finn slammed out of the dressing room and almost ran directly into them.

Immediately the anger returned full force. Jesse clamped down on it, glad of his years of training as an actor. He needed that control now, needed not to tip his hand and show the full force of his fury. Normally he didn't mind making a scene, but this was supposed to be Rachel's special day, her moment. Finn had ruined that for her. Jesse wasn't about to do the same. Instead he tried to reason with Finn, to make him see that what he'd done was detrimental to the performance. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Rachel pale beside him, but he wasn't sure why. Surely she knew how that unprofessional moment would affect the judges? Surely that was why she'd been crying; it had to be.

Hudson started rambling heatedly about that kiss having a cape or some other nonsense shit. Jesse wasn't listening much, more intent on watching Rachel's reaction.

"Right, Rachel?"

That got Jesse's attention. He narrowed his eyes slightly at the taller boy, just barely keeping his calmly displeased facade from breaking. Yes, Rachel was in the middle of this simply because they were fighting over her, but that didn't mean he liked Finn forcing the issue. Hudson was still her teammate, and they would have to work together for another full year until Rachel graduated high school. He was secure in his knowledge that Rachel would choose him over Hudson, but he didn't want her forced to spell it out for the Neanderthal. For whatever reason, she liked him. Refusing him again would hurt her, and he never wanted to see her hurt again.

But there was nothing Jesse could do about it, and he knew that. Rachel had made her choice, but Hudson wouldn't let it go. It was up to her to tell him. Jesse couldn't do this for her.

"I'm sorry, Finn," she said, shaking her head a little. "Jesse's right. It was unprofessional." Another tear traced its way down her cheek. Jesse hated seeing her pain, but he forced himself to keep still. This was all her. "I told you last night, and again before we went on today, that we could never be anything."

"Because of him," Hudson said flatly. Jesse wanted to make a snide remark about the fact that he was standing right there, but he squashed it back down.

"Because we're not right for each other," Rachel said. Her voice was thick with tears but firm in its resolve and Jesse took heart in that. "I'm sorry things didn't work out for you and Quinn, but that doesn't mean you can come running back to me and expect me to pretend the last few months never happened. We both hurt each other, and in the end you couldn't forgive me enough to stay with me. You only want me now because you're jealous."

"That's not true!" Hudson's fists clenched at his sides. Jesse knew the feeling. He was above punching this guy in the middle of Nationals, but if Finn wanted to take things outside he'd gladly oblige.

"Yes," Rachel insisted, "it is! You were perfectly happy with Quinn until you heard Jesse was back in town and I was going to prom with him." She paused, and her voice softened. "I want to be your friend, Finn, really I do. I just can't be more than that."

"He'll hurt you again! Just like he did before!"

"Okay, guys," Schuester cut in, "this is really not the most appropriate location for this conversation. Why don't we - "

"Wait," Jesse said finally. He couldn't sit by anymore and just watch this happen. "Hudson, Rachel's made her choice. She's hurt both of us, and both of us have hurt her. But she and I have moved past that, and it sounds like you haven't. I can't prove to you that I'm not out to sabotage you, and frankly, I don't need to. I don't need to prove anything to you."

"Not right now," Schuester said, firmer this time, as the rest of New Directions filed hesitantly out into the lobby. "I'm the chaperone, and I'm ending this argument now. Any more you need to say to each other can be done later at the hotel."

Rachel slipped her hand into Jesse's as they moved further into the lobby. Jesse could feel Hudson's angry eyes behind him, but he didn't turn around. Finn was the past. All that mattered now was the future. He knew without a doubt that Rachel's team had not made the final cut, and he felt sorry for them. He didn't know if they were good enough to win the final prize, but without Finn's sudden kiss they were certainly good enough to make the top ten.

But there was always next year, he reminded himself. Rachel's team had one more year to nail this, and he was adamant that he would do everything he could to make her dream come true.


Hours later they were back at the hotel. Rachel had cried a little when the inevitable results were announced, but it hadn't been the epic waterfall of tears Jesse half expected. For once, he kept his thoughts to himself. Questioning her lack of tears would only lead to an argument, and he wanted to prevent those tonight. He smiled a little to himself as he watched her compose an email on her laptop. He'd booked a room at the same hotel as all the show choirs, and she was currently sprawled out across his bed in a pair of very short sleep shorts and a tank top. Her red-painted toes flashed in the warm lamplight as she kicked her legs idly and typed.

A knock on the door made Jesse sigh. He wanted Rachel's company and no one else's. She raised her head inquiringly when he didn't immediately jump for the door, and he flashed her a winning smile. "I wasn't expecting company," he said.

"Maybe someone ordered pizza to the wrong room," she said, smiling back. "I'd go for some."

"Somehow," Jesse said, his smile only growing wider, "I doubt that's the case." He couldn't help the grin that was plastered across his face. She was perfect, and she was his. Yes, they had lost Nationals, but he'd won a better prize.

The knock returned, and Jesse stifled an irritated curse. He flung the door open impatiently only to be met by the wide eyes of Schuester. The older man peered into the room, his eyes finding Rachel.

"Hey, Mr. Schue," she said easily before going back to her typing.

"Rachel," Schuester greeted her, his voice carefully neutral. Jesse was instantly on the alert. "Jesse, can I talk to you privately for a minute?"

Jesse checked to make sure he had his room key before following Schuester out into the hallway. He could hear music from a room down the hall and suspected it was a show choir.

"Don't sleep with her."

Jesse managed to keep his face blandly polite, though he did blink in surprise. What was Schuester on about now? "Come again?" he asked carefully.

"You heard me. Not here, not now. I understand that you won your pissing contest with Finn, and that's fine. It's none of my business who Rachel chooses to date. But you can't have sex with her."

Jesse raised an eyebrow. He hadn't actually thought about sleeping with Rachel tonight; not really. She'd turned him down multiple times before, on their first time around, and he had no reason to think she'd be any more willing now. Yes, she'd chosen him over Hudson. That didn't mean she was ready tonight to give herself away completely. But Schuester's conviction made Jesse suspicious. What had motivated this?

"Look, it's nothing personal against you. You're a great performer and you have a lot of experience to give the world, whether you stick with consulting or not. I realize too that Rachel is over the age of consent, but you have to understand the position you're putting me in here. I'm the chaperone. It's my job to make sure the kids behave responsibly on this trip. You're not my student and I have no control over your actions, but I do have control over Rachel's." He paused to let the words sink in. "Don't make me punish her."

Jesse smiled like an angel. It was a tactic that threw many people off when they tried to argue with him. "With all due respect," he said, "how would you know, one way or the other? I could give you my word right now, but you'd never know for sure."

Schuester pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers as if he had a headache. "Jesse," he started, "this whole situation is verging on highly inappropriate. You are a paid consultant working for McKinley High. You're not an employee, but it's close. You're treading a very fine gray line between what is acceptable and what is illegal."

"Because Rachel is a student," Jesse said. It wasn't phrased as a question but the assumption hung heavy in the air.

"Because Rachel is a student," Schuester confirmed. "I'm glad you see the problem. Look, I know this whole competition has been awkward and difficult. I won't make her go back to the girls' room right now because I think she could use some time to de-stress."

"And because you know she'd just sneak out again the minute your back was turned," Jesse said smugly.

"That too."

The two men eyed each other for several long moments. Jesse knew he felt more at ease than Schuester did. He could easily outwait him. But Schuester cracked before Jesse expected.

"Rachel's a very special girl," he said, dropping his voice to be sure it couldn't be heard through the heavy hotel door. "What you did to her last year, you and Shelby both, was despicable. I want you to understand that."

"I do."

"When you hurt a member of our team, you hurt all of us. I realize Vocal Adrenaline never had that kind of connection, but New Directions does. I won't see it happen again, Jesse. Not because of you."

Jesse returned to his bland expression. Part of him understood that Schuester only had Rachel's best interests at heart, but another part of him rebelled at the accusation that he would hurt her again. Never. Not like before. One thing California had taught him was that he couldn't run and hide from his mistakes. Leaving Rachel had been his biggest regret, and she was kind and loving enough to give him a second chance. Schuester was only her teacher. He had no business getting involved in her love life.

"You've made your point," he managed to say calmly. He was well aware of the fact that he'd made no promises to Schuester about Rachel, and he intended to keep it that way if at all possible. He wasn't answerable to her choir director. He was answerable only to Rachel herself.

"I hope I have." Schuester shook his head a little before backing off. "Her plane leaves - "

"I know when it leaves; she gave me a calendar a while back with her schedule written out in minute detail."

"Yeah, that sounds like Rachel." Schuester paused. "I told her last year that she would someday meet a boy who loves her for what she is, faults included. Are you that boy, Jesse?"

Jesse snorted. "She has no faults."

The corner of Schuester's mouth curved up slightly in an amused arc. "I see," he said. "May I offer my congratulations, then? She's been waiting for you for a long time."

Jesse flashed a smile at Schuester as he stepped back into his room, and there was some real warmth to it this time. Maybe Rachel had been waiting for a while, but not nearly as long as he'd been waiting for her.

"Who was that?" Rachel asked as Jesse locked the door behind him. She closed her laptop and pushed herself off of her stomach, sliding from the bed and placing the computer on the desk.

"Mr. Schuester." Jesse held out a hand and Rachel took it without hesitation, stepping easily into his arms when he tugged gently at her fingers.

"Was he looking for me?"

"You know he already knew where you were."

Her cheeks turned pink, which Jesse found too adorable. "We weren't doing anything."

"He knows that, but it doesn't change the fact that you're here with me."

She smiled and tipped her chin up, asking for a kiss. Jesse couldn't refuse her - not when she looked like that. His palms slid along the thin material of her tank top, coming to rest at the sensuous dip of her lower back. Pressing her firmly against him, he lowered his head and kissed her.

She tasted like fruity lip gloss and mint toothpaste, and she was warm and pliable in his arms. Jesse smiled against her mouth as she licked his lower lip, her tongue velvet against his skin. He caught her lip carefully between his teeth, sucking it into his mouth. She made a soft noise he couldn't quite place, and her arms came up to circle his shoulders, one hand lacing its way firmly into the soft hair at the back of his neck. He loved how she responded to him every time he kissed her, almost as if each kiss were their first. She was sweet without being cloying, and the way she felt in his arms was beyond anything Jesse had ever experienced before.

It was ten times better now, he thought as he deepened the kiss. Now that everything between Rachel and Hudson was out in the open. Finn had thrown down the gauntlet and she had chosen Jesse. He couldn't help but feel smug as he settled her more firmly in his arms. Finn was the safer choice for Rachel, and Jesse knew that. But he wasn't the better one. If she stayed with Hudson, she'd always have to be propping him up and supporting him. He would bring her down; she'd never obtain her dreams of stardom. She wouldn't have to do that with Jesse, though. He was her equal in every way Hudson was not. He didn't need her help to obtain his life goals, nor did she need his. They would be each other's support system in many ways, but not like she'd have to be for Finn.

Then all thoughts of Hudson went out the door as she shifted her arms, planting her palms firmly on his shoulders. Jesse knew exactly what that meant, and he was ready for it when she jumped. He dropped his arms from her waist and caught her just at the tender spot where thighs met ass. His hands cupped her firmly, holding her against him as she settled her legs tightly around his hips. He groaned into her kiss, feeling her skin instantly heat beneath his hands. She had absolutely no idea what she did to him, which only made her that much more enticing. Quinn might be more conventionally pretty, but she was too saccharine sweet for Jesse's taste and there was a coldly calculating core to her that he didn't like. He was devious, but he wasn't cruel. Quinn tortured the less-popular simply for the fun of it; Jesse only hurt people when there was something substantial in it for him. They were a world apart, and he hoped Rachel never compared his actions to Quinn's in her head. He was nothing like her.

Pushing thoughts of the bitchy cheerleader out of his head, Jesse squeezed Rachel's ass and threw himself wholeheartedly into the kiss. This was what he'd come back to Ohio for. This was what he'd been missing, what he'd been craving. Not just the physicality, but the raw emotional power that went along with it. If all he wanted was a quick fuck, he could have had that hundreds of times over in California. But that wasn't ultimately what he wanted. That wasn't it at all. He wanted Rachel's sweet scent, her arms holding him close, the taste of her filling his lungs because she was so close that he couldn't tell where one sense began and another ended.

Finally, when his calves were telling him it was time to stop holding up the extra weight, he carefully took the few steps to his hotel bed and laid them across it. Rachel didn't pause as he pressed close upon her, her knees bending and her thighs coming up to hold him close. Jesse was throbbing with need, and he didn't know how much longer he could play this game Rachel so liked - the game of heavy foreplay without guarantee of anything more. It was the sweetest torture, knowing she was his and yet waiting for that final acceptance. He pulled his mouth from hers only to slide his lips along the delicate line of her jaw, nuzzling quickly into the sweet spot behind her earlobe. He licked at the warm velvet skin, feeling her body tense and relax alternately at each new sensation. She was breathing hard, her body hot with exertion and excitement. When he tore himself away from her tempting throat long enough to look at her, it nearly took his breath away. Her eyes were fully open, and she was watching him with an easy, calm expression. They were so dark that he could barely tell the soft brown of her irises from the pupils, and he'd never seen her look quite this way before. She untangled one hand from his hair to lightly touch her fingertips to her lips, dark and swollen from the intensity of their kisses.

"You make me tingle," she whispered, her voice soft in the silent room.

The sweet promise of those words cut through Jesse's pleasure-fogged brain almost instantly. He kissed her lightly again before forcing himself away from her tempting body, sitting up between her legs. She moved with him, coming to rest in his lap, her legs wound around his hips. Her eyes were curious but not anxious.

"I'll make you feel so much more than tingles," Jesse promised, winding his arms around her waist. "But we need to talk about a few things first."

Rachel's face flushed, but she said nothing.

"First, Mr. Schuester came to talk to me about you."

"What did he say?" Rachel's brows furrowed with worry, and Jesse smiled as he traced his thumb across the wrinkle between her eyes, smoothing it over.

"He told me not to sleep with you tonight."

She blushed slightly, dropping her eyes. "He had no right - "

"He had every right, Rach." He smiled at her, tipping her chin up so she would look at him again. "It's okay. I get it."

"I don't."

"Don't you?" Jesse raised his hand again, tucking her hair gently behind her ear. He traced the delicate whorls of the shell of her ear with his fingertips, entranced by every inch of her. "He explained it quite succinctly. He's the chaperone and you're in his care while you're away from home. He has a right to ask this of you." He chuckled lightly as she buried her head against his throat, feeling the flaming heat of her face. Not any things embarrassed Rachel Berry, but apparently her choir director dictating her sex life was one of them. "Besides, I promised you epic romance."

"I remember," she said quietly, not raising her head from his shoulder. "But what could possibly be more epic than New York? More epic than Nationals?"

"You didn't win," Jesse reminded her gently, stroking through the sleek waterfall of her dark hair with one hand.

"We came in twelfth. Twelfth in the country isn't so bad when you really think about it. And who knows what might have happened without Finn messing it up?"

"Regrets?"

She shifted in his arms, coming to rest so she could see him clearly, and she chewed absently on her lower lip as she thought about her answer. Jesse let her think. The mood had been effectively broken, and he couldn't say that he completely minded. While Schuester's admonishment meant little to him, he needed to make sure he and Rachel were on the same page before they attempted to move forward with any sort of physical relationship. This was new for the both of them and they needed to understand each other to reduce the risk of any misunderstandings, because Jesse didn't think he could handle losing her again.

"We'll never know what might have happened," she said finally. "I guess in that respect I do regret it. But..."

"But?" Jesse prompted.

"I told Finn before we went on stage that I couldn't be his girlfriend."

"Because of me?"

"Yes," Rachel agreed, "but only partially. He and I are such different people, and I just don't think it would ultimately have worked out even if you weren't in the picture. I spent so much time mooning over him, though, that it was hard to tell if I really wanted him or I was just trailing after him out of habit. It took coming to New York and seeing this place to really show me the truth."

"Which is?"

She leaned back a little to fully meet his eyes, and her gaze was solemn. "I'm moving to New York after high school, Jesse. I'm coming here, and I'm not going back. I don't know yet if I want to attend an arts school like Juilliard or just try my luck with auditions for a little while first, but I do know my future is here, in this city." She was firm in her resolve, and Jesse felt the absolute truth to her conviction. This was the place for her - the only place. She wasn't meant to be stuck in small-town Ohio for the rest of her life, and that's what would happen if she ended up with Hudson. He didn't have the ambition she did. He might get out of Lima, but his dreams weren't big enough for New York.

But Jesse's were. Together, they'd be unstoppable. An inevitability.

"I understand," he said, touching her cheek and smiling. "Believe me, I do."

"I want to be with you, Jesse," she said, turning her face into his fingers. "I just don't know what the future holds for us."

"I don't know, either, but some things are written in the stars. You and I are one of those things."

A flicker of a smile crossed Rachel's face at his arrogant tone. "You're so full of yourself."

"Not without reason." He smirked.

"I'll have to agree with you there." Her smile held, but her teasing tone morphed into something more serious as she continued. "I want to, Jesse. With you."

He didn't have to ask what she was talking about. "That's pretty sudden, babe. You only just told Hudson you weren't going to take him back."

"I know," she said, "and I don't care." She paused. "I haven't slept with him, Jesse."

He hadn't been sure before, but once she said the words he knew she was telling the truth. It made sense, too. No one else knew her the way he did. No one else could touch her the way he could. She might have thought she wanted Finn, but in reality he would never be what she needed.

"Hudson will kill me if he finds out," Jesse said, his cocky smile playing over his mouth.

"Who says he needs to find out?" Rachel pressed a light kiss to the corner of his mouth. "I don't kiss and tell."

Jesse's smile broadened. "You don't?" That didn't sound at all like Rachel.

"I kept our relationship a secret until you transferred to McKinley, didn't I?"

Jesse had to chuckle. Her innocence about people was too adorable. "No, my little drama queen, you didn't."

Rachel frowned at him. "What do you mean?"

Jesse's laugh grew bigger, and he shook his head fondly at the girl in his arms. "What am I going to do with you?" He bumped his forehead gently against hers, holding her close to him. "I've no doubt you tried, Rach, but you're not a very good liar. I'm positive everyone in your glee club knew about us from the moment you met me."

"I resent that accusation!" she protested, trying to pull away. But Jesse was having none of it. He held her until she stopped wiggling, still smiling.

"Don't throw a tantrum. You are a marvelous actor. But that doesn't make you a good liar."

Rachel stilled, but her frown remained. "That doesn't make any sense."

"You're right, but that's the way it is." He chuckled again, unable to help himself. "Don't mope; it doesn't become you."

She wrinkled her nose at him, but he could see the smile lurking behind the teasing face. "What does become me, then?"

Jesse's grin turned into a broad smile. "The limelight," he said easily. He pushed forward, pressing her onto her back and leaning over her.

"Yeah?" She laughed, her eyes sparkling with happiness as she slid an arm around his waist and pulled him closer. "What else?"

"White sheets," he decided, nipping her lower lip gently before kissing her mouth. "Against your bare skin."

She laughed again as he moved his hands, grasping the bedding and pulling it down in one hard tug. The heavy hotel bedspread and crisp white upper sheet fell from behind her when Jesse yanked, and she bit her lip as his attention returned to her. The calm innocence of her big dark eyes and the intention in that bitten lip made desire heat low in his body, spreading quickly into a slow burn.

"How would you know?" she teased, and Jesse stared at her as she lay quietly against the fitted sheet, the rest of the bedding bunched under her knees.

"Trust me," he said, leaning down to press a slow, heated kiss to her clothed belly button. She shivered under his touch and her hand moved to weave into his hair. "I've seen it in my dreams often enough to know."

"I'll take your word for it," she murmured, pulling his head back up toward hers.

Yes, Jesse thought, she'd have to take his word for it. There was no way she could possibly understand what she did to him; how the sight of her barely-clad body against the sheets of his bed made him feel. For a moment he thought about stopping this, about following Schuester's advice and sending her back to her proper hotel room. But he didn't want to. After so long away from her and everything they'd been through that afternoon, he didn't think he could stand to just get up and watch her leave. Instead, knowing full well what a compromising position they were in, he lowered himself to her and kissed her mouth.

Her reaction was instantaneous, and Jesse suddenly found himself drowning once again in the sensation of it all. She was warm and soft against him, and she made no protest when his hands found the hem of her thin tank top and pulled it up. He moved his mouth from hers, trailing his nose down her throat, bumping his lips over her collarbone. His hands held her waist, his thumbs stroking across her ribs. She shivered with each brush against her soft skin, and Jesse smiled against her body. He moved down the valley between her breasts until he found bare skin. Licking sensuously at the line of her lowest rib, he heard the breathy exhalation of a near-whine from Rachel's throat. It was the sexiest noise he'd ever heard and he repeated the action just so he could hear it again.

She moved her hands slowly up his back, taking his shirt with them, and Jesse ducked out of it at the same time that he pulled her tank top over her head. He already knew from pressing against her that she wasn't wearing a bra, but to see her topless for the first time was breathtaking. Her skin was perfect; flawless cream with an olive undertone that lent a dark rose warmth to her curves. She was leanly muscular from workouts and dance practice, and the soft rise of her small breasts seemed made just for his hands. He drew his knuckles softly down her side, eliciting another shiver from her.

"You're perfect, Rach," he said softly.

She flushed slightly and opened her mouth, hesitating a little. Jesse was instantly alert to her change in mood and he began the difficult process of clamping down on his desire. If she'd decided again that she wasn't ready, he wasn't going to push her.

"It's okay," he told her gently. "It's okay. I get it."

"It's not that," she said quickly. She reached up with one hand and touched his cheek. "Would you...could you..."

"What?" he prompted.

Her cheeks grew redder, and she dropped her eyes. "It's just...it's awfully bright in here."

Tension fled, and Jesse chuckled. "I can do something about that," he said. He turned his head and kissed her fingertips before climbing off the bed. "Hold that thought." Quickly he shut off the overhead light and the bedside lamp, flipped on the bathroom light, and propped open the adjoining door. In the dimly-lit room she looked even more tempting, and Jesse swallowed hard. She was propped up on her elbows, watching him with her big dark eyes, and for the first time it really hit him. They were really going to do this. The look in her eyes took his breath away; she was too tempting by far.

He quickly moved the few paces back to the bed, discarding his jeans as he went, and lay down next to her. She reached out to smooth a hand across his chest, feeling the firm, compact muscle borne of years of dancing. He wasn't built big like Puck, but his strength was undeniable. He gathered her close against him, finding her mouth with his once again. "And here I thought you'd enjoy the spotlight," he murmured between teasing kisses.

She hitched a leg over his hip, bringing her pelvis into contact with his, and Jesse shuddered at the heat between her legs. "Give me some rehearsal time first," she said, rocking her core against him.

He groaned, matching her movements and running a hand down her bare back to grab her ass and hold her harder against him. "Only if it can be dress rehearsal," he managed to say, clenching his teeth against the sensation of being so close to her. "Full costume."

"Sounds reasonable," she said, using her teeth to nip softly down his neck. Her short nails bit into the muscle on his back when he rocked into the heat between her legs again, and her breath caught in her throat. "Best to get used to costumes ahead of time, especially if they're unfamiliar."

Jesse grinned against her mouth and rolled her gently onto her back again, his hands finding the waistband of her sleep shorts and easing them down. He half expected that she wasn't wearing any underwear, and that suspicion was confirmed when the baby blue plaid shorts fell from his hand and he saw his girl fully naked for the first time. Her legs seemed to go on forever, long and sleek and delicately muscled, and they were topped by a small, neat patch of dark curls. He traced his eyes up her abdomen, roaming over her breasts again before finally finding her face. "I don't know how unfamiliar this costume is to you," he said, his body now following the path his eyes had previously taken, "but we're definitely going to have to make it a very, very common one from now on."

Her eyes were bright with laughter as she felt him kiss his way back up her throat. "Who suddenly made you the boss?"

Jesse pressed his mouth to hers, one hand reaching between them to cup a small, firm breast in his hand. She sucked in a deep breath at the first touch of his fingers, and her body tensed and then relaxed into the sensation. He stroked a thumb over the hardened berry-colored nipple, his mouth aching to follow where his hands now were. "Didn't anyone tell you?" he managed to say. "I'm the director."

She snorted lightly, twisting out of his grip and rolling them over so that she was on top. She placed her small hands at the waist of his boxers and tugged. "Oh yeah, St. James? Well, if you're the director, then I'm the producer."

He raised an eyebrow and refused to move his hips so she could draw the material from his body. "The producer, huh?"

"Uh-huh." She nodded, a mischievous smile breaking over her full, swollen lips. "I bring the goods."

Jesse threw his head back and laughed. "You certainly do, love. You certainly do."

The mood became more serious as Jesse allowed her to finally pull his boxers down and his erection sprang free. He breathed a sigh of relief at being free of the restrictive clothing, but he watched Rachel's face carefully as she dropped the fabric to the floor and got her first look at him fully naked. He waited, letting her eyes roam across his body. He remembered well the first time he'd seen a naked woman and thought it must be similar for her now.

"I don't know how to do this," she said quietly, her teasing confidence gone, and she met Jesse's eyes with an anxious expression.

"Together," he said. "That's all you need to know for now." He reached up and pulled her down beside him, rolling onto his side and propping himself up onto one elbow. "Let me love you, Rachel."

She nodded, her eyes fixed on his. Jesse flashed her a reassuring smile as he placed his hand on her stomach. It was fluttering with her breaths, the smooth concavity velvet-soft with just the very slightest hint of peach fuzz. He drew his palm up her ribs slowly, pausing to brush the back of his fingers across the underside of her breast. "Gorgeous," he murmured, before lowering his head and taking a nipple in his mouth.

She let out a low, surprised sound when his lips enveloped the small bud, his tongue laving and flicking across it. Her hands came up, one to weave into his hair and the other to grasp his arm. She did not try to move or maneuver him, simply held him close as he traveled the tantalizing pathways of her body. This was what he'd craved, what he'd dreamed about since their first kiss so many months ago, and now it was finally here. He sucked at her skin, hearing her breath begin to speed up and her body shudder under these new sensations. She used one hand to stroke down his back with the concentration of someone learning Braille, as if memorizing each slope of muscle, each sweep of skin. In their current position she couldn't reach very far, but Jesse wasn't about to move now. He ran a palm down her side, cupping her ass in his hand and settling one leg between hers. He urged her to rock against his thigh and she complied, her breath catching loudly in her throat as he pressed back against her.

"just like that," he urged as his mouth continued its trek across her skin. "Just like that, babe."

Sweat began to prick at his skin, making it easier to slide against her, and a shudder of intense desire shot through him when he felt the first touch of her moisture against his leg. He wanted her - needed her - had to take her now. But the rational part of his brain held him back. This was her first time and he couldn't be rough and needy. It had to be perfect, just like she was.

"Jesse..." she breathed, and he felt a rush of male pride at the moan in the back of her voice.

"I'm here with you," he promised, raising his head and sucking her earlobe into his mouth. He scraped his teeth carefully against the flesh before releasing it. "It's just you and me, Rach, and I'm going to make you feel so good."

"You already are," she murmured, and he couldn't hold back the satisfied smirk that crossed his face. "Jesse, that feels..."

"I know." He kissed her deeply again, his tongue licking across the smooth enamel of her teeth before dipping deeper into her mouth. When he finally broke away again they were both panting. Her chest heaved against his, and her eyes were dark and needy when she opened them and looked at him. Watching the emotions flit across her expressive face, Jesse had to ask. "Rach, have you ever touched yourself?"

Instantly her face flamed beet red and her body tensed, stopping its delicious rocking motions. Jesse almost groaned with the loss of that glorious friction but he steeled himself, waiting for her to answer. Slowly, not meeting his eyes, she shook her head.

"Ever had an orgasm?"

She shook her head again, biting her lip, and her body tensed under him. Jesse lowered his head and kissed her, willing the tension away. "It's okay," he soothed, running his hands down her arms and over the achingly soft plane of her stomach. "Rach, it's okay." He kissed her again, stilling his lower body and doing nothing more until her body slowly relaxed against him. Then he shifted slightly, moving his leg away from its spot nestled between hers, and he brought his hand slowly down her body. "I like knowing I'm the lucky bastard who gets to experience that with you," he said, flashing her a smile with only a hint of his usual arrogance. "Hold on for the ride of your life, sweetheart."

Slowly he eased his fingers down toward the promised land, stroking softly through the small patch of curls before pausing. "Open for me, babe," he said softly, pressing against her thigh until she shifted, opening her legs slightly and allowing his hand to dip between them. "Let me do this for you. Just relax and feel."

She closed her eyes, which was fine with him for now, and he returned his attention to what he was doing. His fingers slipped easily between her soft folds, stroking slowly, just letting her get used to the foreign feeling of someone else's touch on this most private part of her body. If he thought she was hot before, it was nothing compared to the slick, liquid heat he found between her legs. She was so smooth, so soft, and he stroked her slowly but thoroughly, letting her experience every sensation to its fullest. She was breathing hard, her head tipped slightly back and her chin raised, her mouth open a little. The rippling tension in her naked body was temptation itself and Jesse had to steel himself not to give in. Not yet. Not until he was sure she was ready.

Pressing further slightly, Jesse moved his fingers, seeking...seeking...

A small yelp escaped her lips, and she jumped. Yes, just there. He smirked a little as he found her clit again and circled his thumb slowly over the small knot of nerves. If she was new to this he had to be gentle - sex was pleasure and pain twined so closely together that it wasn't entirely clear where one began and the other ended. But it was a fine line to walk and could so easily slide into true discomfort, and he really didn't want that to happen. So he kept his motions slow and steady, his touch gentle, as he shifted his hand.

"That's it," he coaxed, continuing to draw tantalizingly slow circles around her clit with his thumb as his fore and middle fingers slipped lower. He found her entrance and rubbed carefully against it before easing just one fingertip inside.

Rachel sucked in a sudden breath, but he soothed the surprise with the gentle ministrations of his thumb and he murmured reassurances in her ear. "It's okay," he whispered. "Just relax. I promise I won't hurt you."

She turned her cheek into his shoulder but did not push him away. Jesse eased his finger slightly deeper, feeling her hot, wet inner walls clench against the foreign invasion. He pulled back and then pressed forward again, easing his fingertip in and out slowly, reaching just a little deeper each time. As he'd suspected, years of dance and other activities had ensured there was no hymen to tear, but her body still wasn't used to this and he knew he had to move slowly. Her inner muscles began to relax around him finally, and he added a second finger.

She moaned a little as he pressed deeper, and he hooked his fingers forward, pressing, seeking the spot inside her that would drive her wild. She gasped suddenly, her body tensing, and he sped up his strokes against her clit slightly. "That's it," he said as her body slowly began rocking against his hand, finding his rhythm and moving with it. "Good, that's it."

"Jesse," she whimpered, and the hand grasping his arm clenched tightly. "Jesse, something's going to..."

"I know." He sped up a little more, working her gently but not letting up the rhythm or the pressure. "Let it happen, Rach. Just let go."

"Jesse!"

"Open your eyes. Open your eyes and look at me."

She did, and it took his breath away. The expression on her face was unbelievable. Excitement and fear drowned in a pool of desire as she rocked against his hand again and then suddenly went still, her entire body tensing and her back arching off the bed. Her mouth opened in a breathy moan, and her eyes clamped shut as ecstasy rolled through her. Jesse continued to stroke as the waves of pleasure took her, her body convulsing with previously unknown sensation. He didn't stop until she pulled slightly away from his hand, whimpering a little.

"Jesse," she said, her eyes opening languidly as she came slowly down from her high. "That was..."

"I know." He smiled and kissed her gently before he moved, kneeling between her legs. "You're exquisite, Rachel. And I think you're ready for the big leagues now."

She nodded her permission, spreading her legs a little wider for him. "Will this hurt?" she asked hesitantly.

"Maybe a little at first," he said, running his mouth across the sleek line of her throat. She was slightly salty from their combined sweat, and the smell of her was too tempting. "Whatever horror stories you've heard are vastly overblown. Besides, you're with me, and I'm good at this."

"Trust you to be an arrogant ass even in bed." She reached up and tangled a hand in his sweaty curls, bringing his mouth to hers.

"It's warranted," he mumbled through the kiss before dropping the teasing act. "It's okay. I won't hurt you, I promise. And if you get too uncomfortable, we can stop."

She nodded, taking a deep breath and clenching her eyes shut.

"Uh-uh," Jesse said, tipping her chin up slightly and kissing her again. "Don't tense, babe. Relax for me. That will make it easier."

He kissed her until she was boneless against him, her body pliable as putty, before he took his erection in his hand and placed it at her entrance.

"Slowly, please," she whispered, and Jesse nodded. Whatever she needed. He was hers to command. Slowly he pushed forward.

She tensed as the tip entered her body; his cock was much bigger than his fingers and the stretching ache was surprising and a little uncomfortable. But as he'd promised, there was no real pain. He pressed deeper into her, working his length inside her little by little, until he was sheathed fully in her warmth. She breathed deeply through the stretching sensation, relaxing her muscles to take him in ever deeper.

"You good?" he asked breathlessly, stilling himself when he was fully inside her.

She nodded, her arms coming up to hold him. His body was tense with the exertion of keeping him up above her as well as holding back when all he really wanted to do was thrust.

"Good," he said, his voice deeper than she'd ever heard it before. "Now we move."

She was a quick learner, her body responding to the rocking motion of his and slowly falling into a steady rhythm. Sweat dripped from Jesse's brow as he thrust deeply, speeding the rhythm up slowly, building the tension and the anticipation. Nothing, he swore, absolutely nothing, would ever feel as good as having Rachel wrapped around him, her body molding to his, accepting as he gave, pressing back when he pushed. They moved together just as easily as they sang. Clearly this was meant to be.

As he felt the familiar, building tension of imminent release, Jesse sped up a little more. He dropped a hand between them, finding her clit and rubbing it in a circular motion. He wanted this to be good for her, wanted to feel her come undone around him.

"Come for me," he urged, his voice grating against her skin as he buried his head in the crook of her neck. He was surrounded by the scent of her hair and skin, by the absolute perfection of her body. "Come for me, Rach."

Her low whimper at his words only sped him faster toward his own release. He tried to slow his strokes slightly, but she was grasping and urging him on, a full partner now in this. With a quiet moan she came, her tight inner walls contracting around him, milking his own orgasm from his body. He couldn't hold back and he came quickly, hearing her soft cries of both pleasure and wonder at this new plethora of sensation. He clenched his eyes tightly closed as he thrust deep inside her and then held still, letting the intense feeling just on the knife's edge of pain wash over him.

Finally spent, he slumped to the side, careful not to land on Rachel with the full weight of his larger body. He rolled, bringing her with him, until he was on his back and she was sprawled across his torso, her legs falling to either side of him. They did nothing but breathe together for several minutes, chests heaving as they worked to replenish their bodies' oxygen levels. Jesse could feel her heart thrumming against his chest, faster and lighter than his own pulse beating heavily in his ears. Even that simple sound took his breath away. She was perfect.

"Rachel?" he asked finally. His voice was weaker than he intended, and he felt himself melting bonelessly into the mattress. Now that he was sated he felt sleep dragging him down, but he didn't want to leave things like this. He needed to know that she was okay.

"So that's what all the fuss is about," she murmured, raising her head. She rested her chin on his chest, watching him with wide, content eyes.

Jesse chuckled, his arms coming up to wrap around her slippery body. "That's just the beginning, babe," he assured her.

She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You're saying it gets better?"

He couldn't help it. He threw back his head and laughed loudly. "Oh, yes. With me it does." He kissed her bare shoulder, then moved his mouth leisurely toward her ear. She shivered deliciously against him. "Are you saying it met with your approval?"

"Exceeded expectations," she assured him, her blush returning slightly.

Jesse pressed his forehead against hers, weaving one hand through her tousled hair. "Don't be embarrassed. There's no need to be - not with me." He touched his mouth against hers, a whisper of a kiss. "You're breathtaking, and desirable, and you have nothing to be ashamed of."

She only reddened further. "So I was okay?" she asked hesitantly.

"Okay?" Jesse snorted. "You brought the house down, babe. No one could possibly follow you."

Satisfied, she flashed him a brilliant smile and settled back into his arms. Jesse pulled the sheet over their rapidly-cooling bodies, snaking his hand underneath the cover so he could press his palm against her sleek skin. It was the answer she wanted, but it was the complete truth, too. A good fuck had always been thoroughly enjoyable, but nothing compared to the feeling of having Rachel as his partner. After all they'd been through - the fights, the pain, the breakups - it was like the final triumph that made everything else worth it. He'd fought Hudson for this girl, and he'd won. He'd fought his own pigheaded selfishness, too, and while that would always be a struggle, for now his good side had won out. He had Rachel; she was his. Case closed.

"Thank you," Rachel murmured into the quiet room. She shifted, moving half to the side of him, and tucked herself into the curve of his side. Her head settled on his shoulder, his arm snaking around her and holding her firm against him.

"For what?" With his free hand he played with her fingers, twining his around hers. He pressed their hands together, palm to palm. He didn't have huge paws like Hudson, but they still engulfed Rachel's small ones.

"For being gentle, and for being patient. Waiting for me."

"You weren't ready last year," he said, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "It worked out for the best, anyway. How would you have felt if I was your first, and I still did what I did when I left you?"

She shuddered, and he didn't know if it was from her thoughts or the chill in the air. "Would you have?"

"I...don't know," Jesse had to admit. "It certainly would have made the decision harder."

Rachel nodded. He wished he could give her a more reassuring answer, but they'd had enough lies between them. They needed to work on being honest. "My plane leaves at ten tomorrow morning," she said idly. He could hear the languid sound of sleep begin to steal into her voice, and he smiled into her hair. Such a precious thing. He wanted nothing more than to curl up with her, just like this, and keep her with him all night long.

"I already set the alarm on my phone," he assured her. "We'll be ready in the lobby with the rest of New Directions promptly at seven-thirty."

"Yeah?" He felt her smile against his shoulder.

"Of course. You gave me a calendar, remember?"

"I didn't know if you'd actually look at it. I tried giving Finn one, once, and it didn't go over well."

Jesse snorted. "I'm not surprised. But people like us need to keep organized. How else do you know what you need to accomplish every day?"

She smiled again, and Jesse knew why. They were perfect for each other. He held her close for a while, relaxed but not asleep, listening to the sounds of New York below them. If Rachel belonged in this city, he'd follow her. He knew that now. Alone, he could be just as happy in Los Angeles. Alone, UCLA might still be a viable option. But Rachel wanted New York, and he wanted Rachel, which only left him one real choice. Not that it was a sacrifice at all. This was a city of dreamers, a city where people like him could come and fight their way to the top if they were good enough. If they had what it takes.

Jesse knew he had it, and so did she. They would be unstoppable. Maybe the life of a stage actor wasn't as shiny as that of a movie star, but it didn't really matter. Nothing compared to a live audience and a live performance, the thrilling anxiety of knowing that one misstep could throw an entire show. Cameras were forgiving. Cameras gave you breaks, let you set take after take. On the stage you only had one chance to win over an audience. The rushing intensity of that kind of life was an even bigger draw than fame.

"Jesse?"

He started a little when he heard Rachel's soft voice. He'd thought she was asleep. "I'm here, Rach."

"I have something to confess."

Her voice wasn't too troubled, so Jesse tried not to panic. It wasn't easy, though, when the girl of his dreams was admitting she had a confession to make. "What is it?" he asked cautiously.

"It...wasn't just Finn's fault that we lost Nationals."

Jesse clenched his teeth. He knew she was still friends and teammates with Hudson, but that didn't mean he wanted to hear the guy's name when they were naked together in bed. "How so?" he asked, trying to keep calm.

Rachel took a deep breath; he felt the brush of her belly as she exhaled slowly. "Before Vocal Adrenaline went on," she said quietly, "I ran across their new lead singer in the girls' bathroom."

That wasn't what Jesse had expected her to say. He tightened his arm around her but remained quiet.

"We've...had words before," Rachel continued, her words falling softly into the dark room. "Not very pleasant ones, either. She was so nervous when I found her. She was planning to go to the Philippine embassy to get her visa revoked. Said it was the only way she'd be able to get out of singing."

Jesse frowned. "I didn't arrive in time to see Vocal Adrenaline perform, but their name was on the finalist sheet. Obviously she didn't end up running off."

"No, she didn't," Rachel agreed. "I kind of...talked her out of it."

The way her voice rose at the end of the sentence told Jesse everything he needed to know. She thought he'd be mad or disappointed in her. Instead, he laughed. "You ridiculous girl," he said fondly, hugging her tightly against his side. "You're a hybrid, you know."

"A hybrid? Of what?"

"Of Vocal Adrenaline and New Directions." Jesse dropped a kiss in her hair before tipping her chin up so he could reach her mouth. "You have the drive to win that Shelby did, that she infused into the rest of us. But it's tempered in you; it isn't as hard or as ruthless. You have the heart of New Directions always pulling you the other way, toward compassion."

"I couldn't have forgiven you if I didn't," Rachel said. "But...I guess I understand why you did what you did."

"And you understand my actions, no matter how wrong they were, because of that spark of Shelby in you." He smiled as he gazed at her, her features softened by the dim light spilling through the bathroom door.

"If I hadn't encouraged her, we might have still had a shot at the top ten," Rachel said quietly.

"You'll never know for sure," Jesse agreed. "Best not to dwell." He ran his hand along the impossibly soft skin of her back. "It will be difficult, Rach, balancing the two extremes within you. I won't lie to you about that."

"That's what I'm afraid of." She flashed him an ironic smile before dropping her head back to his shoulder, snuggling close once again. "Sometimes I think it would be so much easier if I could compartmentalize like Vocal Adrenaline and shut off my emotions around the performance."

"Don't you dare," Jesse said. "Your emotion is what gives you an edge. Your voice is amazing, Rachel, but it's the feeling behind it that makes you shine."

"I'll keep that in mind." She yawned and stretched, settling more comfortably against him. "Can we go to sleep now?"

Jesse smiled. "As long as you don't expect me to let you go."

"Noted." She set her mouth against his shoulder, pressing a kiss to his cool skin before curling her body around his once more. "'Night, Jesse."

"Sweet dreams." He rubbed her arm lightly, relaxing fully as he followed her down into sleep.


Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck! Jesse shot up straight in his hotel bed, instantly awake. "Fuck!" he swore out loud. How could he possibly have been so stupid?

Rachel was curled up next to him on the wide mattress, tucked into a little ball as she slept. She opened a sleepy eye and regarded him calmly as he proceeded to freak the hell out. Last night they'd had sex. Unprotected sex, in fact. For the first time in his life, he'd been too caught up in the moment to prepare properly. The thought hadn't even crossed his mind until just now.

"You - " Jesse stuttered. "We - "

Rachel yawned and stretched slowly. He could see the sensuous movement of her body under the blankets as she readjusted and curled up again. "If it's before six a.m., I'm kicking your ass, St. James."

"Rachel, this is serious!" he snapped. "We didn't use - "

"Relax, Jesse, I'm on the pill."

He froze. This news was both unexpected and very, very welcome. "You are?"

"Since I was fifteen. My dads adore me, but they told me point-blank that they didn't want any mini-Rachels running around until I was at least twenty-five. Preferably thirty." She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and sat up cautiously, her head turning as she sought the alarm clock. "You might have been caught off-guard last night, but I wasn't." She smiled as she reached up to touch his cheek. "I knew what I wanted."

"Yeah?" Jesse relaxed as he slid back to the pillow, willing his heart to return to its normal rhythm. That had been a bad scare, and relief fluttered through him though it didn't erase the adrenaline now pumping through his system. He was definitely awake for the day. He reached for Rachel, and she came willingly into his arms. She turned her back to him, letting him spoon around her, and Jesse smiled into her hair. She was warm and soft with sleep, her movements liquid and slow as she pressed back into his chest. "I've known I wanted you since the first time I saw you, at Sectionals." His smile turned into a teasing smirk. "I'd like you in just about anything, but christ, Rach, you can seriously rock a little black dress."

She laughed, which was the result he'd been hoping for, but then she cringed.

"Rach?" He raised himself up, concern replacing his previous calm. "Rachel, what's wrong?"

She groaned a little, moving her body slowly. "I thought I was in shape," she said, wrinkling her nose.

"You are." He thought he knew what she was getting at, and he relaxed a little bit. Some soreness after sex was inevitable, especially since it was her first time.

"Then tell me why I ache!" she snapped irritably, pulling out of his arms and sitting up with a small wince.

Jesse chuckled. "Football won't condition anyone for ballet. Why do you think sex is any different?"

She threw a pillow at him before stalking to the bathroom, closing the door behind her with a sound just shy of a slam. Jesse collapsed back on the bed, a bright, foolish smile adorning his face. She was a high-maintenance, hot-tempered drama queen, and she was all his.


Later, at the airport, Rachel squeezed his hand and bit her lip at the same time. "I don't want to go," she admitted, staring out the big windows at the tarmac.

"New York will still be here in a year, waiting for you," Jesse soothed her, squeezing back.

Rachel shook her head slightly and turned to meet his eyes. "That's not what I meant."

"Then what?" Jesse thought he had an idea, but he wanted to hear her say it.

"I don't want to leave you," she admitted, which was exactly what he hoped she'd say. "I hate this!"

Oh, yes, Jesse thought, and he had to fight to keep the smile from his face. She was pouting because they were on separate flights back to Ohio. "Just think of it as time to re-connect with the rest of your team."

Rachel glanced at the other members of New Directions scattered throughout the terminal. "I'm not sure we'll be doing much connecting on this flight."

Jesse had to agree with that assessment. Nobody seemed to know how to handle their recent loss. Santana was still furious at both Rachel and Finn, and Quinn seemed only slightly more subdued. Nobody else seemed to want to lay blame outright, but it was clear how they all felt. Everyone looked a little shellshocked, even Schuester, and they were all quietly keeping to themselves as they nursed their wounded pride.

"They think I did this," Rachel said quietly. "Me and Finn. It almost makes me want to tell them what happened in the bathroom with Sunshine. At least then they'd have a reason to be mad at me."

"Don't tell them," Jesse advised. "It won't change anything. And they blame you because you're their leader. Have you ever heard the expression 'the captain always goes down with the ship'?"

Rachel nodded.

"They need someone to blame right now, because this loss is a big one and they're hurting. Not that I have personal experience," he added, flashing her his trademark cocky grin. "But I do know that if Vocal Adrenaline had ever lost while I was at the helm, they would have torn me apart. It's part of the mentality of the group, and part of the burden of being a leader. Yes, you get to make the decisions, but you also get the blame as well as the accolades, no matter which is deserved."

"So you're saying that because I'm the leader, as a co-captain, I need to step up and embrace the responsibility even if it isn't fair."

"I always knew you were smart."

"Thanks." Rachel flashed him a smile

Jesse exhaled slowly, steeling himself. "Rachel, there's something we need to talk about."

"What is it?" She looked at him cautiously, and Jesse hastened to reassure her. He couldn't possibly leave her again, and he hoped she wasn't afraid he might.

"Rachel, it's a moot point this year because school is almost out, but I wanted you to know that I can't be a consultant to your school anymore."

"I know."

Her calm admission surprised him, and Jesse raised an eyebrow. "You know?"

"Of course I do. Look, these past few weeks have been hard enough and we weren't even technically together. Now that we are, you have a clear conflict of interest. I get it." Her gaze softened, and she raised a hand to touch his cheek. "I'm just glad you chose me over consulting."

"There are plenty of show choirs out there, but only one of you," he said, turning his head to kiss her fingertips. "It wasn't even a choice."

"Think you can whip the Warblers or Jane Adams girls into shape next year?"

Jesse made a face. "The Warblers don't need any help, and the Jane Adams girls would eat me alive." He mock-shuddered, earning a giggle that danced through his blood like music. "I'll find something to keep me occupied for next year," he promised. "No worries."

"And after that?" she asked hesitantly, and he saw her nibbling on her lip again. Her nervousness was too cute.

"I thought that was settled," he teased. "We're coming back to New York."

The 'we' warmed his insides just as much as Rachel warmed his outsides as she squeezed him tightly in a giddy hug. He was so used to being on his own, making decisions that only impacted him, and it was a heady new experience to now include someone else in those plans. Especially since it was Rachel. She was his equal, his match, his everything. And while he knew love would always battle with the stage for priority in their lives, they'd be okay. He was sure of it. They understood each other too well for this not to work out.

When New Directions' flight was called, Jesse rose and pulled Rachel into his arms. He was really only leaving several hours later, but he felt the separation as much as she did. They both had a flair for melodrama and they clung tightly to the opportunity to use it.

"It's just a few hours," he reassured her as she leaned up to brush a final kiss against his mouth. "Just a few hours, and I'll be back with you in Ohio." He paused. "And then, in one short year, we'll be back." His eyes twinkled at her. "Maybe we can do some apartment hunting after you win your national title."

Rachel's eyes were bright with tears but her smile was brilliant as she nodded her agreement.


A/N: Now that's a more appropriate chapter length! I think I'm getting back into the swing of things! Tell me what you think, even if it's that I should never attempt to write smut again. ;-) Mwah!