A/N: Hi guys! So, just a few notes:

First, for my non-U.S. readers, the legal drinking age in the United States is 21. People under the age of 21 cannot buy or consume alcohol, and in most instances are not permitted in clubs/bars, so Rachel not knowing what to do in one is fairly accurate. Yes, fake I.D.'s abound, but she doesn't strike me as the type to use one, or even know how to obtain one.

Second, I've mentioned before that I would love to write Jesse's parents as more complex characters, but in this particular story it's too fun just to make them big meanies. Maybe in another fic down the line we'll see something different from me. Just a warning: Mr. St. James says some pretty vile stuff in this chapter. I by no means condone any of it; he's just a jerk.

Speaking of parents, is anyone else unsure about the casting of the Misters Berry? I have a feeling I'm always going to consider those pics in Rachel's locker the "real" Hiram and Leroy.

Also, I have not yet seen the new episode ("Yes/No"), but boy have you told me in no uncertain terms how appalled you are! Don't lose hope in the St. Berry fandom, guys, just because stupid Ryan Murphy (et al) insists on giving us crap on our screens. We know better, don't we? ;-) To make you feel better, here's the CORRECT way to write a young proposal. (Ryan, be a dear and go make us a sandwich while we fix the mess you made.)

Proving Grounds (Part 4)

Jesse froze. He knew that voice. It was a voice that haunted his dreams sometimes—a voice that had been a constant echoing, harping refrain for four very long years during his youth. He honestly had never expected to hear it again.

Turning his head, he found Shelby Corcoran standing, tall and proud, in the doorway of his dressing room.

She was dressed immaculately, as always—deep purple that set off the lovely dark undertones in her skin and teased bits of color from her hair. She wasn't a traditionally pretty woman, her mouth wide and crooked, and her face made sharp and keen by both time and circumstance. But she was strong and confident and powerful, and those things made her stand out amid any crowd, overpowering all the more conventional beauties. Her daughter had inherited much of that unusual beauty and brash confidence, though there was a softer core to her, too, that Jesse attributed to Hiram and Leroy's calm, loving influence. Rachel was everything Shelby might once have been, and more.

"Hello again, Mr. and Mrs. St. James," Rachel's mother said now, though there was no real warmth to the words. "Nice to see you again." It was clear she didn't mean it, but Jesse didn't dare call her on the lie.

"Ms. Corcoran," Martin said warmly, "come in! Didn't expect to see you here. Did you come to see Jesse's debut?"

"Partially," Shelby said coolly.

Jesse didn't know whether to be amused or irritated that Shelby had butted into a very private family discussion, and since he wasn't sure, he let her continue. He was perfectly capable of dealing with his parents on his own, but he didn't want to suddenly start arguing with his old coach when it looked like she might be planning to do the same thing he was—protect Rachel.

"This is the hot ticket in town, we hear," Hannah added, clearly quite blissfully unaware that the woman standing in the doorway to Jesse's dressing room—the woman she had entrusted her son's talent to for four long years—was actually the mother of the girl she had just been disparaging. "What did you think of the performance, Shelby? I'd love to hear your professional opinion."

"Of course, our own little musings aren't nearly as learned," Martin said with a chuckle, not giving Shelby a chance to respond, "but we thought Jesse did quite well. Though we are slightly biased, aren't we, dear?" He smiled at his wife, which only made Jesse grimace in distaste. "That little girl up there with him had quite the voice—Jesse here tells us she's only seventeen. Makes me wonder what sort of parents would let their underage daughter play a role like that." He leaned back against the wall, seemingly oblivious to the smiling photos of Jesse and Rachel that littered the tiny room. "Now, tell me. If that was your teenage daughter, you wouldn't let her parade around topless on stage, would you?"

Shelby shared an ironic glance with Jesse, but he remained silent. If his parents wanted to dig their own graves, that was their problem. While part of him still very much ached for their approval, he had long since ceased to feel any real affection for them. Certainly if they were in trouble he'd be there in an instant, because that was what one did in a family. But the way they insisted on talking about Rachel really made him see red, despite the fact that he'd been expecting it. If they were now going to piss off Shelby, one of the most mercurial people he'd ever known, he wasn't going to stop them.

"It would depend on the context, to be honest," Shelby said now, and Jesse could hear the malice in her deceptively-pleasant tone. "Many people in the entertainment industry want to exploit women, particularly young ones, and they use the female body as a way to sell tickets. I don't get that sort of vibe from Mr. Mayer or his production; it's a very honest sort of scene, in my opinion, which makes all the difference. Rachel is a very astute individual, as well, with two very loving and protective fathers, and I trust that she made her decision of her own free will, fully aware of what it meant."

"You know the girl, then?" Hannah said with a flash of surprise. "Oh! Jesse did say they went to school together—is she another of your creations, Shelby?"

"In a manner of speaking," Shelby said, not bothering to hide her smile. "Rachel is my biological daughter."

Silence. Jesse honestly didn't think he'd ever seen his parents look quite so nonplussed before, and he had to admit that he was enjoying it immensely.

"Of course," Shelby said, her smile growing broader, "I didn't have a hand in raising her. All the credit for that goes to her fathers."

"She...you..." Hannah frowned. "How did you..."

"I was merely the surrogate," Shelby said. "After she was born, I didn't see her again until she was a sophomore in high school. I didn't stop thinking about her, though. As parents, of course you understand."

Jesse was willing to bet that they didn't, in fact, understand. He didn't know, but he doubted they thought of him very much at all, and his siblings even less.

"I'm going to go try to talk to Rachel," Shelby said, and she touched Jesse on the shoulder. "It was a wonderful performance, Jesse. I always knew that, out of all my students, you would be the one to do me proud." Her smile was genuine as she looked at him, and Jesse felt something inside him tug tenderly. Shelby had been his mentor for years, and though they had not parted on particularly good terms, that didn't negate the fact that she'd literally been the most important person in his life for a long time. He offered her a smile in return—a little unsure, but genuine.

When Shelby had gone, Martin took a breath. "Well, that was humiliating," he grumbled. "You might have warned us."

"They look a lot alike," Jesse said, making up an excuse since he certainly wasn't going to offer the truth: that he'd enjoyed watching his parents squirm. "I assumed you would have guessed."

"Regardless of whose child she is," Hannah said, pushing the entire encounter with Shelby aside as if it had never happened, "the reality hasn't changed. She's not St. James material, son."

"Neither are Jenny and Justin," Jesse said with a shrug. "Even I'm on shaky ground."

"You wouldn't be if you found a better girl to date."

"There is no better girl," Jesse ground out tightly. Now that the pressure of opening night was gone and he was thinking better, one thing was abundantly clear: his parents did not run his life. If they decided that they wanted to be part of his life on his terms that was fine, but he wasn't going to twist and shape and mold things to fit into their neat little idea of what he—and his love—needed to be. With a slow, unpleasant smirk dawning over his face, he looked up at his parents. "I want Rachel. What's more, I love her."

"You're nineteen. Didn't you just tell us you were nineteen? You don't know what love is."

"Age has nothing to do with it. Rachel is mine, and I'm not giving her up. I'm sorry you don't like it, but that's the way it is. Yes, she's Jewish, and yes, she's a few years younger than me. She was raised by two gay men in a normal middle-class house without hired help, and her best friend in the world is a little gay boy who looks like a twelve-year-old milkmaid. But that's only part of what she is. She's also frighteningly intelligent, and she has a wicked sense of humor. She has lingering self-esteem issues from being bullied in high school, but we're working through them. I've promised her that it will never happen again, and I'm going to be around to keep that promise. She's so talented that she brings me to tears when she sings, and she's the most beautiful girl I've ever seen in my life."

"She's cute, certainly, but that's hardly a reason to ruin your life at nineteen, Jesse!" His father stood, color flooding his jowly face.

"I'm sorry you feel that way, but my mind is made up." Jesse stared at them dispassionately. After everything that had happened tonight, he just wanted this to end so he could get back to Rachel. She made him feel better—made all of the questions go away. With her, things were easy. She didn't expect anything from him that he wasn't prepared to give, didn't want him to be something he wasn't and could never be.

"Son, I know it seems like nothing matters now, but think about later—think about your future children! What about them?"

"What about them?" Jesse said with a shrug. "I'm not even sure either Rachel or I want any, frankly, and if we decide we do, what of it? We'd make horrendously beautiful, talented kids if we chose to."

"But how will they be raised, Jesse?" his mother broke in.

"Jewish, if that's what Rachel wants. I see no reason not to. I'm sure she'd excel at motherhood just as she does at everything else." He crossed his arms and offered his parents a droll smile. "We celebrated Hanukkah together this past season. Or didn't you know that?"

"Jesse, that's hardly—"

He held up his hand. "No. You're going to listen to me for once. You may not like what I do, but I'm fucking good at it, and I'm not going to stop just because you'd rather I turned into a ruthless executive of some big company. Same goes for Rachel. She's perfect—any bastard would be lucky to have her, but she's mine and I'm not letting her go. She might not be exactly what you wanted in a daughter-in-law, but it's not your choice; it's mine."

"Jesse, this will not stand," Martin said dangerously.

"But it will," Jesse snapped, "because you need me. I may not be the golden child to you anymore, but I'm a damn sight better than my siblings. Face it—you're going to have to accept this, or admit to all those important friends whose opinions you care about that you failed with all three of your children. Is that really what you want?"

Their silence said what they refused to admit in words.

"I thought so. Now, please. I have to change and get to the afterparty—there will be press there, and I need to put in an appearance. I'm sure you have somewhere impressive to be."

The dismissal was curt, and Jesse knew he hadn't heard the last of this. But he honestly didn't care. As he shut the door and locked it behind his parents, he breathed a deep sigh. Fighting was never fun, especially with people he knew he was supposed to love—to feel more for than he actually did. Gritting his teeth, he stripped off his costume and let it drop in a crumpled heap. Jamming his legs into his boxers and then a pair of expensive black jeans, he felt like he couldn't find his clothes fast enough. All he wanted was to get to Rachel. Her sweet dark eyes, soft and shining, could cure anything; he was positive. As he slipped on a light blue shirt that matched his pale eyes, he heard the squeak of his door.

The angry rant for his parents to just leave him alone already died on his lips when a lithe little dark-haired figure entered his vision.

"Rachel," he whispered.

In an instant she was in his arms, scooped up and held tightly against him. She squeezed him back, and that was all the reassurance he needed—she was here with him, and everything was okay again.

"I didn't want to leave you to face the wolves alone," she whispered, her hands unerringly finding his hair and stroking just the way he liked. It was perfect; just what he needed.

"You didn't want to be here for that conversation," Jesse said, "trust me."

"They don't like me." Her voice was dejected, but she didn't let go and that was the important part in this moment, Jesse felt. He needed the surety of her touch right now.

"They don't know you," he corrected gently. "It's okay. I took care of it."

"Jesse, I didn't even think to tell you before, but—"

"I already know Shelby's here," he said, burying his face in her soft hair. Normally when she had it perfectly coiffed she scolded him for messing with it, but today she said nothing. Maybe she could feel how badly he needed this, just as he could feel her emotions oftentimes. Just as he knew what she was going to say without hearing her finish the sentence. "She walked in on the middle of our discussion." He paused. "How did you get in, anyway? I swear I locked the door so my parents couldn't change their minds and come back."

Rachel pulled away slightly—not enough to lose contact, but enough so he could see her. Her brilliant smile lit up her face, and she held up a spare key in her fingers. "I can be very persuasive when I want to be."

"No doubt." Jesse was positive his own smile matched hers. "God, Rach, you have no idea. No idea."

"I think I do." She touched the side of his face, stroking his cheek gently with her fingers. "It's okay. They're gone—for now, anyway—and everything else is fine."

"I am so, so sorry for everything they said," he murmured, pulling her close again. Now that she was here, back in his arms where she belonged, he didn't feel such a need to squeeze so tightly. Instead, he held her close without crushing her, reveling in the warmth of her body against his. She smelled like light, fruity body spray and warm skin, and he loved it. The only thing that made the combination any better was the addition of her arousal—so utterly inappropriate for this moment. Later, he told himself firmly. Joint pleasure was imminent now, after everything they'd experienced together today. He honestly couldn't say just why he'd chosen to touch her like that during intermission, but he hadn't been able to help himself, and she hadn't said no. Far from it, in fact. And then her innocent-seeming request to watch him...that had been entirely unexpected. Maybe she wasn't quite ready for sex yet, but they were getting there. And it would be delicious when it happened; he had no doubt. Just the memory of slipping his hand up under her dress and finding her wet and willing and waiting for him...it was making him hard again, and that wasn't a good idea right now.

"You're mine," he said softly, "and I'm not giving you up. Not for them. Not for anything."

"Do they want you to?" Rachel asked, and her voice was so small and hesitant that it broke his heart.

"It doesn't matter what they want," he said quietly. "I'm the one in this relationship. It's my life, not theirs."

"But, Jesse, they're your parents."

"And you're my life." Jesse squeezed her again. "I don't need their approval, sweetheart. All I need is you."

"Don't go getting too cheesy on me," she teased, smiling up at him. He couldn't help it—he leaned down and kissed her firmly, loving the feel of her soft mouth as it opened for him, her willingness to give him exactly the reassurance he needed. She was his, and she was always going to be his. He'd fought a long battle for her, setting everything up perfectly to lead them right to this moment. Meeting Michael and being offered the role of Melchior was only the first bit of luck; after that, it was all a carefully crafted strategy to bring Rachel back into his arms. She couldn't resist the call of Broadway—nor should she, not with her talent. And yes, he'd known that he would have to be patient and crafty, playing the part of the dutiful friend, stepping in more and more to be what she most needed as Hudson grew farther and farther from her thoughts.

Though, Jesse had to admit, the lanky jock had sort of dug his own grave. Rachel's success on Broadway was assured one way or another; Jesse had hastened it by talking Michael into giving her an audition, but he had by no means changed an inevitable outcome. And Hudson would have been miserable if he'd decided to follow Rachel to New York even temporarily. That was more than clear. Rachel belonged amid the bright lights and the fast pace of the city that never sleeps. Her high school boyfriend did not.

But all the waiting and all the worry was worth it, so very worth it, he thought now as he held her close, kissing her willing mouth and resolutely shoving all other thoughts aside. She was so beautiful, and so talented, and she had a heart big enough to forgive him his childish trespasses. Just as he'd forgiven her, and now they could move on together, as they were meant to.

"Rachel," he murmured against her lips, closing his to kiss the very corner of her mouth softly. "Rachel."

"I'm here," she promised, her hands finding his hair and stroking soothingly through it, just the way he liked best. She had long, talented fingers, and he couldn't wait to see what else she could do with them. "I'm right here, Jesse."

He exhaled a long breath into the curve of her throat, breathing in the smell of skin and body spray, loving the combination. His parents would never understand the incredible draw he felt to this girl, because it was impossible to put into words. No, she was no Quinn Fabray—a girl he felt sure his parents would jump at the chance to call a daughter-in-law. Quinn was pale as death, blond as a Barbie, and she had the cold ruthlessness necessary for a society wife. Rachel was none of those things—she was warm where Quinn was cold, both in coloring and in personality. There was a softness to her that the other girl lacked, a kind of gentle sweetness that Jesse knew had to come from the dedicated upbringing of her loving fathers. Oh, there was plenty of Shelby in her, too: a desperate desire for art, and the spotlight, and perfection. She certainly wasn't all sweetness and light, nor was she a tractable little kitten. But she was perfect in her own adorably bossy, talented, brash way, and they complemented each other so well. She didn't try to curb his perfectionist urges, instead helping him when he declared he needed just one more run-through of this or that scene to really reach his own personal goal. She never complained, just as he didn't complain when she jumped on him at three in the morning, having snuck down the hall from her room because she had another nightmare about forgetting all her lines on stage. Instead, he'd wrap her up in his arms and blankets—his aunt snoring obliviously on the floor below—and they'd whisper their lines to each other in the darkness until one or both of them fell asleep again, surrounded by warm breath and hands, and the reassurance of the only other person who could possibly understand.

No, Jesse thought, kissing her again, relishing the moist softness of her mouth, the way her lips lingered against his every time they parted, as if loath to break such perfect contact. No, his parents couldn't possibly understand. They loved each other in their own way, he supposed, but they would never be able to fathom the way Rachel had absolutely stolen his heart. Knowing a little Jewish girl with two gay dads was an inappropriate choice, his father would have passed her by without a second glance. But Jesse wasn't his father, and Rachel grabbed his attention and held it without even trying, just by being the incredible person she was. When she laughed, that brilliant smile breaking like dawn over her expressive face, it was like the world began anew. When she cried—which, being a drama queen, she unfortunately did quite often—Jesse didn't know how to do anything but comfort her. The heartbreakingly real way she lived, feeling everything so deeply and so fervently, was part of what made her a great actress. She had naturally thin skin, every part of her laid bare, and it was what had made high school such a trying time for her.

But it didn't matter now. She was out of that place, and she would never have to go back. After this year, she'd be done with tutoring and she wouldn't have to set foot in a classroom ever again unless she wanted to. If she did choose to pursue higher education somewhere down the line, he had no doubt it would be a performing arts school or conservatory, someplace where her talent would be appreciated and nurtured instead of hemmed in on all sides by petty jealousy.

And, most importantly in this moment, she was his. He'd won her, free and clear, and nobody except Rachel herself could take that away. If he treated her well, he might be lucky enough to keep her for the rest of their lives. That was his goal, anyway, his parents be damned. This was his life, and therefore he was pretty sure his happiness counted for more than theirs.

"How long before we can knock you up?" he asked against her hair, stroking his hands down her back to find the tempting curve of her hips.

"What?" Rachel pulled away, her eyebrows sky-high as she regarded him carefully. "Come again?"

"I want to have gorgeous little ankle-biters with you," Jesse said, trying to keep a straight face, but it was nearly impossible as he watched the emotions flit across her expressive features. Aghast...confused...skeptically wary...it was all quite amusing.

"I have no idea what your parents must have said to elicit that," Rachel said, quirking an eyebrow at him, "but ask me again after I've won a Tony. And do it with a little more finesse next time, huh? I know you have a better vocabulary than that."

He couldn't help the grin that spread across his face. No, Rachel had no idea what his parents had said, and he definitely wasn't going to enlighten her. But he'd get a double-dose of satisfaction in raising a gorgeous little brown-eyed kid or two, especially if they happened to look just like Rachel. "You do know that might be next season, right? Since we missed the cut-off date for eligibility this season?"

"Nobody wins a Tony right out of the gate, Jesse," Rachel said, and one of her thumbs circled enticingly on the warm skin at the back of his neck. "I'd be elated to be nominated, though."

"What about a Drama Desk Award? Can we get you pregnant if you win a Drama Desk?"

"Nope—I'm not ruining this body for anything less than a Tony," Rachel said with a teasing smirk.

"Can't blame a guy for trying." Jesse heaved a playful sigh before gathering her up in his arms, squeezing her tightly against him.

"You know," Rachel said, nuzzling his throat gently before slipping out of his grasp so he could pull on a jacket, "most guys your age would be flat-out running in the opposite direction from commitment like that."

"I thought we'd already established that I'm not most guys." He tugged the sport coat into place before offering his hand, which Rachel gladly accepted.

"Oh, we have," she said with a smile. "We have."

"Well, then there's no more to be said, except that I love you, and that's not going to change." He kissed the top of her head. "Ready for the party?"

The afterparty was only a few blocks away, so they opted to walk. There were a few stubborn fans still waiting outside the stage door despite how long they'd taken inside, and Jesse's good mood—well on its way to being restored once Rachel was back in his arms—was completely fixed by the excitement of their well-wishers. They signed autographs and posed for pictures, and though he knew Rachel had to be nervous, she acted as if she'd been doing this her whole life. She ate up the attention without being the slightest bit snobby toward the gushing fans, and when they finally headed down the block her eyes were alight with excitement.

"How does it feel to be a smashing success right out of the gate?" he asked, murmuring the words into her ear as they strolled slowly along what he knew would always be their favorite street in the world.

"I predict that this feeling is never going to get old," Rachel said with a little giggle, bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet as they waited for the light to change.

"I suspect that you're right."

They talked a little more as they headed for the club that had been rented out for the afterparty. Rachel confirmed that Shelby had stopped by to wish her well, but hadn't stayed long. She was still unsure about Shelby's intentions and motivations, which Jesse thought was probably fitting. While his former choir director had stuck up for her daughter unflinchingly in the face of his parents' disapproval, that didn't mean things between the two of them were miraculously fixed. But Rachel was strong, and he had faith that she could find a way to deal with the disappointments of the past, Shelby included. She said that her dads, Kurt, and Blaine would be at the afterparty, but Shelby had not been invited. Shelby did not often pay attention to things like that, but in this case Jesse rather suspected she'd take a hint and not press her luck. Not if she wanted to keep in her daughter's good graces.

Inside, the lights were low and the press of bodies in some places was thick. There was plenty of press around, and family and friends of the cast and crew, and some people who were clearly high-paying schmoozers who had shelled out quite a bit in order to rub elbows with working actors. Jesse wasn't interested in people like that, especially since his parents had been known to do the same from time to time. It was one thing to mingle with artists, but quite another to be one, apparently. He grimaced, but shoved all thoughts of Martin and Hannah firmly from his mind. They weren't important right now. This was his night, his and Rachel's, and he was going to have a good time if it killed him.

Rachel was taking in the ambiance—the lights, music, and crowd—with big, wide eyes, and Jesse smiled as he watched her. "Never been to a club before?" he asked, murmuring the words directly into her ear. She shook her head slowly, but he'd known the answer already. Of course she hadn't. She was seventeen years old, and had lived most of her life in a small town where the bingo hall was the height of excitement. While they'd been in New York for months now, their schedules were so full that they rarely had time to go out, and she vastly preferred seeing shows both on and off Broadway to any other form of entertainment even when they had free time.

Jesse squeezed her hand, smiling reassuringly at her as they stepped down into the crowd. She followed a half-step behind him, and he could feel her sharp eyes on him, watching and learning how he ducked and wove through the press of people.

"Jesse! Rachel! There you are!"

Michael waved them over to an empty spot near the bar, and Jesse angled them toward it. He doubted their director had even seen Rachel's smaller form in the thick of the crowd, but had assumed that she would be with him. Her eyes were bright as they slipped into the sparser crowd near the bar, and Jesse helped her up onto a chrome bar stool with a black sparkly vinyl cushion. "You okay?" he asked, and she nodded confidently at him, though it didn't escape Jesse's notice that her hand remained locked with his.

"Here they are," Michael said, "the stars of the hour." He motioned forward two men wearing press passes. One was holding a camera with a giant lens—overkill, Jesse thought, for the kind of work he'd be doing tonight—and the other had a small audio recorder. "Well, two out of three. You look good, kid." Michael sent Rachel an encouraging wink, then melted away with a quick mutter about finding Jonathan.

"What are your thoughts on tonight's performance?" the reporter asked, settling next to them at the bar. "Tell us your perspective."

As Rachel talked, praising her director and the rest of the cast and crew, Jesse stood close beside her, watching her with half his attention and the crowd with the other. The bartender slid a lowball glass of something pink toward her, and Rachel took a sip without questioning it. At an afterparty that Michael was carefully monitoring she was probably safe, but Jesse made a mental note to talk to her about that before they went out to any other bars or clubs. She was far too trusting, and he didn't even want to imagine the kind of trouble she could wind up in if she wasn't careful.

The questions from the reporter eventually steered toward the hayloft scene, which Michael had warned them would be what most people wanted to talk about.

"Rachel is the perfect Wendla," Jesse said, taking a sip from his own drink—a Tom Collins, passed to him without a question of ID—and touching the back of her hand gently. "Sweet, yet conflicted. Trusting, wanting, curious—all of it put together. Working with someone who takes her work so seriously is a real pleasure, and I couldn't have asked for a better partner."

"Do either of you have significant others?" the reporter pressed. "What is that process like, having to tell them what it is you do all day when you're rehearsing that scene?"

"Well," Rachel said, and though the room was dim, Jesse could tell just by the sound of her voice that she was blushing, "I did have a long-distance boyfriend when I moved here to start work on the show. I ended up breaking up with him after he came to see a workshop, because he just couldn't handle the fact that I do this for a living."

"He doesn't like me," Jesse added helpfully, never one to pass up an opportunity to stick one to Finn, even though the other guy would never know. "That didn't help."

"I'd guess not," the reporter said with a chuckle. He looked to be in his mid-twenties—young enough to still be in touch with how it felt to be youthful and impulsive. "And you, Jesse? Anyone waiting at home for you tonight?"

"My aunt," Jesse said with a grin, sharing a glance with Rachel. Michael hadn't forbidden them from talking about their personal relationship—not that it would have done much good. Everyone in the cast knew better by now, so trying to hide it was pointless.

"An aunt, huh?" the reporter said. "Well, that's boring."

"What can I say?" Jesse smiled and rubbed his chin on the top of Rachel's head, slipping his arms around her and squeezing gently. "This one keeps me pretty busy."

"Oh, I see how it is," the man said with a knowing grin. "Plenty of fans of the show are going to be heartbroken, you know. Can we expect to hear wedding bells in the near future?"

"Let's get Rachel out of high school first," Jesse said, feeling and hearing her giggle at his answer. "Then we'll see. One thing at a time."

This led to the natural next questions about their respective ages and experience levels, Rachel admitting to the fact that she was only seventeen with a demure little nod.

"She's always been wildly mature for her age," Jesse said with a shrug when the reporter asked what it was like to date a younger girl. "It really doesn't make any difference to me."

"How does it feel to be on your own in New York, coming from a small-town milieu like you do?"

Rachel's smile was devastating—she'd been charming the reporter for the entire conversation, but after that grin he was completely hers. "I was born for this," she said confidently, tossing her hair over her shoulder with a sassy little twist of her head.

The same thing happened again and again as they made the rounds, Michael and his assistant tossing members of the press their way. Jesse caught sight of Blaine and Kurt dancing now and then and he wished he and Rachel could join them, but they were technically still working. Rachel was positively in her element—she flirted lightly with the reporters, eating up not only the attention but the opportunity to talk about the show and her work to her heart's content. She didn't seem to mind answering the same questions over and over again, and Jesse let her dominate the interviews, taking a back seat and watching as she shone. Everyone was enchanted with her—and rightly so. She glittered, she glowed, and she cast a friendly warmth around her that drew people in and made them want to linger. When she laughed, people in the crowd turned their heads and smiled. When the photographers asked them to pose for a picture or two, personal phones came out as well to capture the moment. Jesse loved the way she cuddled into his arms for photos, nestling against him and letting him hold her close. Once he picked her up in his arms, whirling her around as she clung to his neck, giggling madly in his ear. Flashes from cameras and phones lit the dim room like fireworks, and Jesse knew their first opening night had been memorialized for the world to see. If he remembered, he'd try Googling their names tomorrow to see which of tonight's photos had been uploaded the most.

As the night lengthened and the crowd started to thin slightly, Jesse felt Rachel tug his arm. She whispered that she was going to find the restroom, pecking his cheek with a soft kiss.

"Should I go with you?" he asked, but she smiled and shook her head.

"I'm a big girl," she teased, "I can go on my own. And when I get back, I want to dance with you."

Jesse chuckled as he let her go—they were so well matched that it wasn't even funny. They'd done their due diligence as Michael's little stars, and now they were going to relax as just Jesse and Rachel, dancing and having fun on a night that was, in many respects, the first night of the rest of their lives.

There was no line for the bathroom, which Rachel found a little strange—the party hadn't cleared out that much. She was on top of the world at the moment. While she vastly preferred the actual serious theatrical process, she had to admit that all this attention was definitely fun. Reporters wanted to talk to her and take her picture. They egged Jesse on, asking him to kiss her, or touch her just a little provocatively, where no one back home in Lima had been able to stand them together. This was such a different world; such a different atmosphere.

She'd consumed several of the sweet pink drinks the bartender kept handing her before thinking to ask what was in them. Jesse had smirked at her, informing her that it was mostly club soda, grenadine, and fruit juice, with just the tiniest bit of alcohol—not even half a shot per drink—to sharpen the taste. "It's just a little kitten drink," he'd said, "like those baby heels you're wearing."

She'd made a face at him, but even though she wanted to be seen as more than just the baby of the group, she had to agree that the diluted drinks were probably a good idea. She felt flushed and loose enough already—high on the excitement of the evening, just as Jesse had said.

Washing her hands in the bathroom sink, Rachel raised her eyes to her reflection and gave herself a smile. Her cheeks were pink, her skin even warmer than normal with the heat of the club and press of the bodies. Her eyes snapped and sparkled, and she hoped the night's photos could capture this look—the life, the excitement—so she could remember it always. Nothing, not even the unwelcome surprise of Jesse's parents, could ruin this night for her.


Rachel's head snapped around as she exited the bathroom, frowning slightly as she searched for the owner of the angry male voice.

He was standing off to the side near a potted palm, and though the overcoat was gone she knew him immediately. "Mr. St. James?"

He had a glass in his hand, and she could smell the sour tang of alcohol as he stepped closer to her. Jesse's father had a blunt, jowly face—he looked a little like his daughter, maybe, though Jesse's pretty features had definitely come from his mother. Rachel stepped back hesitantly as he moved forward, not at all sure she liked the glint in his eye or the strong sour smell of his breath.

"Have you read the book Lolita?"

Rachel remained still. She'd heard of it, though Nabokov wasn't on her list of favorite authors. Nor was that particular book considered appropriate high school reading material.

"It's about a little girl—a bratty, perverted little girl who seduces an older man and ruins his life."

"I don't understand," Rachel whispered. "Jesse's waiting for me, and—"

"Let him wait," his father snapped. "Listen to me, little girl. You're no better than that baby slut in the book. Look at you—high and mighty, pretending to be seventeen, all sweet and barely legal. Fuck that; I know better. My wife knew better the moment she looked at you. Those giant baby-doll eyes and tiny little tits—you can't be more than thirteen or fourteen at most."

Tears, both astounded and furious, pricked Rachel's eyes suddenly. No one—no one—had ever said a word like that to her before. She crossed her arms over her chest, feeling suddenly exposed and vulnerable despite the fact that plenty of other girls at this party were dressed much more scandalously than she was.

"In an outfit like that," Martin St. James rambled, "flaunting what you don't even have."

"Stop it," she whispered, trying to step back again. Where was Jesse? He hadn't left her side all night. Now, when she needed him, he was nowhere to be found. Why hadn't she agreed to let him wait outside the bathroom like he offered?

Because, her mind told her, she'd felt perfectly safe at a party full of friends and co-workers. Never had she dreamed that this would happen.

"You will not turn my son into a pedophilic pervert!" Jesse's father snapped. "Do you hear me? No doubt it's how those filthy men trained you. Everyone knows gay men are predators. I'll bet you learned all kinds of tricks young, didn't you, little girl? How old were you when you learned to suck cock, huh? Six? Seven?"

"Shut up!"

"And that mother of yours—she's not a mother, she's a pimp. That's all. How much did she ask for you? Huh? How much did she sell you for?"

"I—I don't know," Rachel whispered. Truthfully, she didn't know how much her dads had paid Shelby. But surrogacy was a beautiful gift; it wasn't like that, no matter what Mr. St. James said.

"Now, you listen here, little girl. If you want to strut around topless, fucking older boys in front of all of New York, that's none of my business. But you leave my son out of it! Hell, for all I know, those sick bastards you call fathers probably had this planned from the beginning—find some stupid sap to foist you off on when they didn't want you anymore. Well, it won't be Jesse; not my boy. He's better than this—better than you."

"He loves me," Rachel whimpered through the tightness in her chest. Her initial fury at Mr. St. James' gall had quickly drowned in a sea of uncertainty and utter disbelief at the filth that spilled out of the elegant man's mouth. He was immaculately dressed in expensive, fine-tailored clothes, but inside he was unrelentingly ugly.

"He's nineteen. Nineteen-year-olds will say anything to get a piece of ass. That's all love is, you know. It's a word men use to get their dicks buried in something hot and wet—nothing more. The sooner you learn that, the better. Jesse isn't any different than other boys in that respect, nor should he be. He'll tire of you soon enough; they always do. A girl like you isn't meant to bear the St. James name, or St. James children. So I repeat—keep your filthy hands off my son."

"That's enough."

Rachel whirled, relief mixed with surprise as she saw her taller father, Leroy, stride quickly to her side. He held out his arm stiffly, Rachel gladly slipping into the comforting embrace she'd known since she was a baby as he stared resolutely at Jesse's father.

"I don't care how much money you have," he said, each word dropping slowly into the space between them, "or how many friends in Congress, or how many houses all over the globe. This is my daughter, and you can't talk to her like that."

"Daddy," Rachel whispered into the lapel of his jacket. The tears were falling in earnest now, and she sniffed lightly as she pressed closer to him. "Daddy, please." If he hadn't heard the horrible things Mr. St. James had accused him and Hiram of, she didn't want him to find out. It was too terrible, and she didn't want either of her fathers to have to hear it—or to potentially go to jail for murdering Jesse's dad.

"Daddy please," Martin St. James mocked. "Do you call Jesse that, too? Have a daddy fetish, dirty girl? Lolita did."

Rachel clutched at her father, her immediate reaction only to keep him from responding physically to the taunt. Her father tensed against her, ready to move, but before he could, a sharp grunting sound made her turn in his arms. Two bouncers had grabbed Jesse's dad by his arms and were pulling him firmly toward the exit while he spluttered loudly about disgraceful treatment. Rachel had never seen anyone thrown out of a bar before, and she could do nothing but watch with wide, wet eyes.

"I thought you might appreciate some help taking out the trash."

Both father and daughter turned to see Michael standing off to the side. He flashed a small smile before stepping forward. "One of life's injustices," he said, touching Rachel's wet cheek gently and sharing a long look with Leroy. "You don't get to choose your own relatives. Let's find Jesse for you, shall we?"

"Please," Rachel whispered. She was more than grateful to her father and Michael for stepping in, but she needed Jesse. His father's words were like poison, seeping below the skin and festering slowly, and she needed the antidote. She followed Michael almost blindly, sight blurred by tears, moving swiftly through the crowd, panic ratcheting higher and higher the longer it took to locate Jesse. Where was he? Had his father dragged him off? Or had his parents decided to divide and conquer, Martin providing a distraction while Hannah whispered devious words in her son's ear and stole him away? Or was his father telling the truth, after all, and Jesse had left of his own free will?

No, she told herself resolutely. That last one couldn't possibly be true. Jesse loved her. He told her so and, more than that, he showed her. Every word he uttered, every action he took told her in no uncertain terms that he loved her. Whether his father truly believed the filth he'd spat at her or was just trying to make her afraid, it didn't matter. Jesse was hers, his parents be damned.

But her inner monologue didn't stop her, when they finally found him, from slamming full-tilt into his arms.

Her arms went around his neck, her legs around his waist—thank god for dim lighting and black underwear—and she inhaled deeply, breathing him in, willing herself to stop shaking and relax. Jesse had her. Everything would be fine now.

He held her tightly, questioning neither her sudden attack nor her tears, and walked them to a booth in a dark corner where they could sit quietly, out of the crowd. Leroy followed and Hiram joined them, though Rachel didn't notice. Her head was buried in the curve of Jesse's neck, and she didn't think she was moving anytime soon.

"Whatever it is," he said softly, rubbing his hands down her back, caressing her bare shoulders, "it's okay. I've got you now. It's fine."

She pressed closer as he worked them into the back corner of the booth, deeper into the shadows. Her back was to the crowd, and she shuddered lightly as Jesse's hands covered the bare skin above her shoulder blades, warm and gentle, just like he always was. "Tell me it's not true," she murmured, feeling the fat tears spill down her cheeks. "Please, just tell me it isn't true."

"If you don't want it to be true, then it isn't." He turned his head and kissed her temple softly. "I'd feel a little more comfortable committing if I knew the particulars, though."

"Your dad," Rachel whispered, clutching him tightly. "What he said—tell me it's not true."

Jesse's brow furrowed, and he chanced a glance up at Rachel's worried fathers. "Who told you what he said?" he demanded.

"Just now," Leroy said, and the barely-restrained anger in his voice told Jesse that he'd heard at least part of it. "I caught him berating her near the bathrooms."

"He's here?" Jesse's eyes flashed and he made to move before remembering the girl in his arms. The warm little ball of her body prevented him from rising and he settled back, tightening his grip on her. "I'm so, so sorry, Rachel," he murmured. "I told them to leave us alone at the theater, I promise."

Rachel nodded into his shoulder, and Jesse breathed a sigh of relief. At least she trusted him, and hopefully she knew that he'd never do anything to deliberately cause her pain. Never again.

"Where is he?" he asked in a low voice. This time his parents weren't getting away with it. This time, he was going to let them know exactly what he thought in no uncertain terms.

"I helped him find the door," Michael said blandly. "Family feuds have no business at my party."

"Yes, well, much as I appreciate the gesture, now he could be anywhere," Jesse said, hearing the impatience in his own voice.

"Let him go, kid," Michael said, pacing forward a single step. Rachel was still wrapped around Jesse, her head buried firmly in the crook of his neck as she cried, and Michael set his hand on her trembling shoulder. "Causing a scene here and now isn't the way to get revenge. Your old man's upset because he has a fine young man where he wants a puppet. Let him throw his temper tantrum. It won't change the end result."

Jesse shared a long look with his director, both men measuring each other with their eyes, as they'd done several times before in a silent battle of will. Michael wasn't cowed by Jesse's ferocity, and there was a quiet certainty to him that belied his usual manic exterior. He stood still under the onslaught of that piercing blue gaze, and Jesse had to admit that the man was right. Stooping to Martin St. James' level and hurling insults wasn't going to change anything, or prove anything. Actions were what made the man.

And Jesse knew exactly the action he wanted to take.

It had been a foregone conclusion—the purchase, the permission, the question—but he hadn't expected the moment to be thrust upon him so suddenly. Still, as he felt Rachel shudder in his arms, slow tears wetting the crisp collar of his shirt, he knew. He was young and she was younger, but there would never be a more perfect moment for the two of them. Opening night. Their first opening night. The beginning of the rest of their lives.

"Rachel," he said softly, breaking eye contact with his director and slowly slipping his hand into the pocket of his jeans. He carried it around with him not because he'd planned to do this anytime soon, but because it was a comforting little object, like a talisman, that reminded him of her. "Rachel, sweetheart, will you pay attention for a minute?"

It wasn't in a little velvet box—the bulge in his pocket would have been impossible to hide. Instead, he pulled her right arm away from his neck, holding her hand between their bodies, and slipped the ring into her grasp.

Their conversation about a decoy ring had echoed in his head when he went to Cartier, and it had taken nearly two hours to pick something he was absolutely sure of. The diamond was big but not overwhelmingly ostentatious, and while there were little diamond chips set in the delicate gold band, they added just a hint of sparkle without being gaudy. Jesse had insisted on warm yellow gold to compliment her skin tone, despite the fact that white gold and platinum were the current popular metals. He'd refused the advice of the Cartier salesman to follow the trend, knowing exactly what would look best against that flawless cafe au lait skin.

Now he raised his eyes to her fathers, who had not seen what he'd done, and watched them carefully for a moment. Rachel was seventeen. They couldn't legally do this without her parents' consent, and even if it were possible, Jesse balked at the idea. He wasn't an old-fashioned sort of guy, but he felt that this was something he had to do right. If his future kids were only going to have one set of loving grandparents, he wasn't going to do anything to strain that relationship.

"Let me marry her," he said quietly, his voice soft but firm.

This—this was their perfect moment. Michael was right that his actions now would prove whether he was a man like his father or something far better. Jesse hoped for the latter. This was an action that would show his parents how serious he was in no uncertain terms. They didn't think Rachel was St. James material? Well, that was too bad. Jesse was over eighteen and they couldn't tell him what to do anymore. They could throw a tantrum and try to take away his money, but one of his trust funds had come due when he turned eighteen and the other was safely in the hands of a lawyer until he turned twenty-five; he couldn't touch it, but neither could his parents. He was making his own money working, too. They couldn't do anything to him.

Leroy did not look best pleased, but Hiram rolled his eyes and looked at his daughter, who was sitting quietly in Jesse's lap, turning the ring over in her fingers. Her cheeks were streaked with tears, and another slipped slowly from her eye as she stared at the piece of jewelry. "You just gave her a ring," her father said dryly. "We'd be heartless bastards if we said she couldn't keep it."

"You're supposed to do that the other way around, you know," Michael added helpfully.

A slow smile broke, wide and clear, over Jesse's face. Maybe her dads weren't completely ecstatic—not that he'd expected them to dance for joy at the thought of giving up their only daughter—but they weren't saying no. Hiram even looked a little like he understood.

"Rachel," Jesse said softly. He captured her wrist loosely, stilling her movements, and rubbed his thumb slowly against the tender skin. "I love you. I've loved you since you were a sophomore in a little black dress, with the strength of character to capture an entire audience by yourself and hold them captive with nothing but your voice. I've fucked up, yes, and so have you. But we found our way back to each other, and nobody can take that away from us. Not my parents—nobody. And I understand that your career means everything to you. I don't want to take that away from you; I just want to be there alongside you for each new adventure. I want to be the one you poke awake at night when you're worried about forgetting your lines. I want to have a secret code with you, so that when one of us gets up at an awards show, we both know that a tug on the ear or a brush of the hair means I love you."

"Maybe a little overdramatic, kid," Michael murmured, but he was trying to hide a smile and failing.

"We're dramatic people," Jesse said with a shrug, never taking his eyes from Rachel's. Hers, so big and soft, were still brimming with tears, and he could see the shock that was etched across her face. She hadn't been expecting this—well, he hadn't, either. Just because it wasn't planned didn't mean it wasn't perfect. "We do everything big and loud and larger than life. If you tell me no now, I'll just do it on stage the next time I propose."

"Not at my show," Michael muttered.

"Hush!" Leroy snapped. "This is maybe the only time my girl's getting a proposal, and I want to hear it!"

"Where's a reporter when you need one?" Hiram added.

Jesse saw Rachel's mouth twitch; she saw the humor in the situation as much as he did. Very little of their lives would ever be private, apparently including his proposal. Well, that was the curse of living so brightly and so publicly. At least this moment was only being observed by the three men Jesse knew Rachel cared about above all others.

"I'll keep my parents away," he promised. "I'll do whatever it takes to make you feel comfortable. If you don't want my last name, you don't have to take it. Hell—I'll become a Berry if it makes you happy."

At that, Rachel giggled. It was a wet sound, laughter through tears, but her glittering smile was very real. "Jesse Berry sounds absolutely ridiculous," she said, slipping her right hand around him, holding the ring carefully in the palm of her left. "I won't let you do that."

"We'll get married under a chuppah," Jesse murmured, dropping his voice so only she could hear it. She wouldn't hold it against him, but he didn't want her dads hearing if he screwed up the pronunciation. "We'll stomp on a glass, though I really have no idea why, and Kurt and Blaine can cry like little girls when I kiss you in front of everyone. We'll get our own place, and do the show, and everything will be perfect, sweetheart."

Rachel held the ring between them, sparkling faintly in the dim lighting. She offered it to Jesse in her cupped palm, her other hand holding his shoulder tightly. "Do it right," she whispered, and he felt his whole world tangibly snap into place, as if everything had been waiting for just this moment to coalesce into perfection. The soft weight of her in his lap. The faint taste of tears on his tongue, from kissing her cheek. Fatigue from the show, the race of endorphins through his bloodstream...

He took the ring, and Rachel turned her hand over. It was shaking slightly, but her eyes were steady and bright as he slipped it onto her finger—the finger he'd measured while she slept, to ensure a perfect fit.

"I love you, Jesse," she whispered, an instant before he kissed her.

"Mazel Tov," Michael said, smiling with genuine amusement at the Berry men.

"Don't rub it in." Leroy sounded vaguely disgruntled, though the hint of a smile played around the edges of his mouth. "To me, part of her will always be a little kid spilling cereal all over."

"Who's spilling cereal all over?" Kurt asked, pulling Blaine behind him by the wrist as he strode up to the little group in the corner. "What'd we miss?"

A/N: So, I was planning to get through the whole night before ending this little story...are we up for one more chapter?