A/N: This is the first story in what people call my AU "Bohemian Finchel" series. The others so far are "Your Witness My Own Hand" and "A Symphony of Dreams", which should be read in that order. There may be more.
The title is paraphrased from the Joni Mitchel song "For Free". The song in the story is my own. I own none of the characters except that of Fred.
Mercedes Jones was late for the producer's meeting. Not that she cared. As if the producer was going to pull a Mr. Schuester and berate her in front of everybody. This wasn't high school. No, he would just consider himself lucky to get the hottest soul singer in a generation to perform on his Aretha Franklin tribute album and keep his fool mouth shut. That's the kind of respect a Grammy at the age of twenty-two buys you, she knew.
She sat back in the town car the producer had rented for her as it weaved itself through Manhattan traffic. It was a perfect July Saturday afternoon in New York City, cloudless and breezy, warm but not humid, and Mercedes watched the crowds of people on the sidewalks, thinking how much better she liked living in Los Angeles, where weather like this was so common it didn't even warrant comment.
As the car passed a large park on the left, Mercedes saw a Starbucks on the corner, and a parking spot. She could use a frappucino before the meeting, she thought, and told the driver to pull over and order her one. While he was gone, she read some funny texts from the producer asking where she was. Across the street, a substantial crowd gathered around two street musicians, and Mercedes wondered what they could be playing to attract so much attention, so she rolled down her window to hear. A pair of bongos was laying down a strong syncopated beat, with an acoustic guitar precisely biting down on that beat, making the tune irresistibly danceable, and Mercedes found herself moving to it just like many in the crowd.
Then she heard the voices.
First a woman's voice, pure, clear and strong, caressing the rhythm:
Go fetch the water pails, Jack
Come on and show me your love
'Cause there's nothin' else left in this old shantytown
You could do that could prove it as much.
Next a man's voice, warm and soulful, answered back:
I fetched those water pails, Jill
Brought 'em both down on my back
To keep us alive in this old shantytown
'Til we both can get out of this shack.
Then the two voices blended together seamlessly:
They promise us wells and they promise us peace
But our babies still die and the vultures still feast
And sometimes our love's all we have to survive
Doesn't anyone care if we get out alive?
Mercedes didn't recognize the song, but she'd know those voices anywhere. She peered through the applauding crowd, and sure enough, there they were: Rachel Berry and Finn Hudson, playing on the streets for money.
She laughed at the irony. In high school back in Lima, Ohio, that diva wannabe Berry told everyone how she was better than them and destined for Broadway. She even snowed that idiot Scheuster into giving her all the solos in Glee club until she, Mercedes Jones, put her foot down. And now, five years later, she's on the street with her goofy boyfriend Finn, begging for loose change. Rachel didn't even get into that fancy academy she talked about. All Mercedes knew was, right after graduation, she and Finn packed up, headed to New York, and were swallowed up. None of the Glee kids except Kurt had heard from them, and Kurt wasn't telling. Probably covering for their failure. One thing was for certain: Rachel Berry hadn't made it on Broadway. For three years, Mercedes had googled her name and obsessively scoured the trades, without ever seeing her mentioned even once. So much for all those voice lessons and dance competitions since you were three months old, bitch.
The song ended to enthusiastic applause. Rachel took a couple of seconds to thank the audience for listening, and said they had one more song. Then she re-tuned her guitar, gave Finn a nod, barked "Hit it!", and they were off. Another song nobody ever heard of, Mercedes sniffed.
They certainly looked the part of street musicians. Rachel had chucked the animal sweaters and sundresses of high school for a tight white tank top, faded denim miniskirt and sandals. The bangs were gone, and her dark hair was longer than Mercedes remembered. She was thinner, too, but otherwise looked healthy enough. And when did she learn to play guitar like that? Finn was slimmer as well, with shaggy long hair, dressed in a black Pantera t-shirt and raggedy jeans.
One thing that hadn't changed, Mercedes noted, was how they were still crazy for one another. Finn never took his eyes off Rachel the entire song, that same adoring smile he always gave her when she was singing. Rachel sure knew that boy was the one from the very beginning; Mercedes had to give her that. Even the Grammy didn't get Mercedes that look from any man. Rachel gracefully worked the crowd as she sang with an infectious grin, but whenever Finn was singing she'd turn to lock eyes with him, still managing her chord changes meticulously. It was mesmerizing: the growing crowd gave the couple rapt attention, and burst into applause when they finished, tossing coins and bills into Rachel's open guitar case.
As they bowed, hand in hand, the ridiculous height difference between them was accentuated, especially when Rachel turned and stood on her tiptoes, wrapping her arms around Finn's neck for a kiss, which was long enough to bring even more applause. At that Rachel dropped her head back and beamed at them. She looked happy. So did Finn. Mercedes wondered how much of that was an act.
The crowd dispersed, and while Rachel put her guitar into its case, Finn walked over to the nearby snow-cone vendor and ordered two. Rachel then skipped over to the vendor, giving him a big hug, then took her cone— grape, Mercedes noted with a smile—and the three of them talked and laughed. Finally the vendor gave Rachel a hug, Finn slapped him on the back, and the two of them slung their instruments on their backs and walked off, arm-in arm, Rachel leaning into Finn's shoulder. Mercedes secretly envied how they always walked together like that. It seemed old-fashioned, yet so intimate. Maybe it wasn't an act after all.
The city swallowed them up again, as her driver returned with the drink. "Wait here a few more minutes", she said, left the car, and walked over to the snow-cone vendor. He was middle-aged, maybe 50, and asked her what flavor she wanted. His name was Fred.
"Make it grape, Fred", Mercedes said, and then asked, "Those street musicians, do you know them?"
"Rachel and Finn? Yeah, I know them. They've been a fixture here on weekends when the weather is good for about two years". He smiled. "The people like them—they're good for business."
Mercedes smiled. "Yeah, I noticed. So they come here only on weekends?"
Fred nodded. "They live in Brooklyn, and have jobs there. Rachel is a waitress and Finn works at a garage. They only come here to try out new material."
"Material? They write their own songs?"
"Yeah, when they aren't working, going to school or playing clubs." He sighed. "Oh to be young again".
He went on, telling her what Rachel had revealed to him. About her dreams of attending New York Academy of Dramatic Arts and Broadway, and how neither worked out, and how she and Finn decided to get an education, even if it meant dialing back the ambition for awhile. They were putting themselves through school as music and theatre majors at Queens College.
"She said she and her school counselor were morons for not knowing about the arts programs at Queens College."
"Do you know how they started writing songs?" Mercedes asked. Fred shrugged. "All she said was that she and Finn had both written and performed songs before, and figured they could try writing together. They have a band they perform in called Finchel, with classmates on lead guitar and bass, Rachel on vocals, keyboards, and acoustic guitar, and Finn on vocals and percussion. She came to me all excited a few weeks ago, waving a good review from the Village Voice about one of their gigs." Mercedes laughed, the name was perfect.
"They sure look happy."
Fred nodded. "Finn once told me Rachel was the only person he knew that ever believed he had it in him to be an artist, and that she constantly let him know that, even when he doubted it himself. Even his mom never had that confidence in him. Rachel said she knew it the day that they met." Mercedes grinned at the memory of Finn's first Glee club rehearsal. "And Finn worships the ground that little girl walks on, especially when she sings," the man continued. "That kind of mutual admiration and devotion is rare."
"You sound fond of them," Mercedes said.
"I am," he replied. "I've become their New York godfather of sorts, which was good for me after my son died. Rachel says her dads are glad she has a father figure here in the big bad city." He paused. "You know, I haven't met any couple that works harder or complains less than those two."
Mercedes thanked him and walked back to the car. Skipping the ever more frantic texts from the producer, she Googled "Finchel" on her phone and found a link to the Village Voice review:
The quartet Finchel appeared before an enthusiastic crowd at the Brooklyn Pool Friday, delivering a solid, eclectic set. The core songwriting team of Rachel Berry and Finn Hudson has produced a small but high-quality body of work over the past couple of years, with relentlessly catchy songs of love, redemption and social justice. Most memorable was one of their latest, "Jack and Jill", an upbeat number that ingeniously superimposes the nursery rhyme over the water politics of Sub-Saharan Africa. Vocalist Berry, a self-professed "Broadway geek", filled out the set with rousing versions of a couple of standards, and Berry and Hudson ended the show with their trademark duet, a heartfelt cover of Journey's "Faithfully." Worth catching at Arlene's Grocery next Saturday.
There was a link to the band's website. She laughed—their logo was a slushee cup spilling out tiny gold stars spelling "Finchel". There was a bio tab, and pictures of gigs (sent in by fans, apparently), and one for news items. Scrolling through the news entries, most punctuated with lots of exclamation points (no mystery who wrote these), Mercedes suddenly felt a catch in her throat at one, posted a year ago:
Go check out our Grammy-Winning girl Mercedes Jones!
There was a gold star after her name, and a link to her website.
We always knew she'd be a star!
"Shall we leave, Ms. Jones?" the driver asked, interrupting her thoughts.
"Not quite yet," she choked out.
She wanted to just drive away, and leave everything the way it been for five years. Their falling out senior year had been epic, after all. Looking back though, Mercedes realized it also had been almost completely one-sided: after her initial overtures of friendship had been rebuffed brutally, Rachel just absorbed the abuse and, with the exception of competition, never interacted with Mercedes again. She didn't openly badmouth her, though. The ball was in Mercedes's court, and Rachel was content to leave it there, it seemed. But if this little news item was any indication, she obviously respected Mercedes's talent and didn't resent her success. It put her old rival in an entirely different light. Rachel Berry may have been arrogant and selfish, but she was no phony, unlike the parasites she'd met in the music business already.
Rachel once said, long ago, that she only wanted to feel special and chosen. Having a Broadway career isn't the only way to feel special; maybe a good review in the Village Voice and having fans that take pictures at gigs was good enough for her right now. Maybe being chosen by a good man was enough, too. Maybe, just maybe, Rachel Berry didn't have to want everything too much anymore.
Mercedes suddenly rummaged through her purse for a pen. She scribbled something on the back of a business card and got out of the car.
"I'll be right back, "she told the driver, and went back to Fred's cart.
"Say Fred", she said, "When you see Rachel and Finn again, could you please give them this? " She handed him the business card, and as Fred recognized the name he excitedly told her how much he loved her work. Mercedes thanked him and said, "And could you please ask them to consider making some music together with me sometime?"
"Sure will, Ms. Jones!" Fred said, and watched her make her way back across the street. He turned the card over and read the note.
"They miss you, too," he said softly.