A/N: So here is an updated version of the first chapter of the joint project androgenius and I have been working on! Yes, that means more is forthcoming, and it also means that CHANGES HAVE BEEN MADE, so you'll want to re-read this chapter. Not many changes, but at least one is pretty key.
Once again, I've chosen not to post this as a crossover, though there are "shades of Spring Awakening," as I said in the summary.
Content warnings for the story: physical and psychological child abuse, dark themes, foul language from Jesse, and smut in later chapters. There WILL be a happy ending, because neither of us want an angry mob coming after us (although since androgenius is in the middle of posting a Jesse death!fic right now, she might not be too averse to the angry mob thing.)
All standard disclaimers apply.
"Mother, mother, make my bed
Make for me a winding sheet.
Wrap me up in a cloak of gold
See if I can sleep." - Child Ballad 155C
See If I Can Sleep
It's a performance night.
Rachel loves performance nights.
She loves the stage—loves the lights and the hot smell of the colored gels as they bake under the intense glare of the spots. She loves the smooth, almost shiny surface of the actual stage under her feet, and how it sounds when she runs across in either her soft dance flats or something more exciting from Costuming. She is enamored of all the stagehands—even though they are instructed not to speak to her—and how they know their craft so well. She puts herself squarely in their unknown but capable hands during every performance, trusting that the lights will follow her correctly, that they will brighten and dim on cue, that the music and sound effects will go off without a hitch. She knows there's always the possibility of a mistake, but she has never encountered one. Not during a performance, anyway.
But most of all—more than maybe anything else in the world—Rachel loves the crowds. When the spots are directed at her, so bright and hot, she can't see the people watching but she can feel their eyes. Just knowing that they're there is enough to make her heart pound hard against her ribs. So many people—faces she will probably never see again, and if she did, she wouldn't recognize them anyway. But it doesn't matter. They recognize her. They come to watch her and, in return, she watches them. There is a little antechamber attached to the backstage maze, and often before a performance Rachel will slip inside. This was a security room before the installation of video cameras; there is a two-way mirror, and Rachel stares at the gathering crowd from the safety of its anonymity. She is wistful when she watches them. She knows she is lucky—Shelby tells her every day. But sometimes she wishes she could be out there, too.
Rachel has never been part of a crowd.
The other girls like to perform, too, but Rachel feels that it isn't the same for them. She can't put her finger on the difference—more a frame of mind than anything they've ever said, she thinks. They see it as work. Rachel sees it as life. Something inside her refuses to believe that rehearsal and tutoring and all of the other things she's forced to do are actually living. Only when she gets on stage is she ever permitted to truly live.
That's how it feels, anyway.
Maybe it's different for the other girls, she thinks, because none of them are the triple-threat that she is. Maybe the fact that they all know their places in the troupe has caused them to feel differently about their lot in life? Rachel is the star, and everyone knows this. They don't always like it, but they accept it because Shelby doesn't give them a choice.
Mercedes is a singer, like Rachel. Not as good, but her only real competition—if Shelby stood for competition among her girls, which she doesn't. Mercedes can't act and her body type isn't right to master the classical discipline of true dancing, but she can wiggle suggestively to R&B music and there have been times that that knack has been useful. Quinn's voice isn't good enough to ever solo, but she can at least hold a note as long as it doesn't stray too far into Rachel's soprano register. She is a pretty face and a decent actress, though again, she isn't much when it comes to dancing.
Santana and Brittany go everywhere together—a low alto with an overemotional tie to method acting and their star dancer who can't remember lines longer than three words at a time. Tina can dance, too, and she rounds out the troupe as one of their token minorities. Rachel isn't entirely sure what that phrase means; she understands that Tina is Asian, Mercedes is African-American, Santana is Latina, and she herself is Jewish, but the labels don't explain this term Shelby drops every now and then. She doesn't understand how they can all be in the minority, let alone "token," when the four of them could easily overpower their two blond comrades if they wanted to.
Rachel is the star. She doesn't think she is as pretty as Quinn, but Shelby tells her she is pretty enough. She has long dark hair and big brown eyes with naturally long lashes. The professional photographers Shelby hires always go ga-ga over Rachel's eyes. They like to shoot her very close-up, and they tell her to open her eyes as wide as she can, despite the lights they shine at her so brightly that she wants to squeeze them shut. Sometimes she sees green and pink afterburn for hours after a photoshoot.
She dislikes her nose and thinks her mouth is too big, but Shelby says a woman's lips can never be too full and Rachel is turning into a woman now. She likes the color of her skin—a little lighter than Santana's, but not as pale as Brittany's or Quinn's—and the shape of her body. She's still short and delicate, like she's always been, but her waist has grown smaller and her hips have rounded slightly in the past few years as puberty takes its toll on the little girl she used to be. Her breasts are small, especially compared to some of the other girls, but Shelby says not to fret and so Rachel doesn't. Shelby is all she has. She doesn't know how not to believe her.
And Shelby believes in Rachel. Rachel is her shining star, she says. Rachel has a voice that makes old people and gay men cry the moment she opens her mouth. She has the discipline and grace necessary for the most demanding technical dances, though she's still working on the more contemporary moves that Brittany and Mercedes pull off without a hitch. She acts so well that sometimes she convinces her own self of the truth of her words, though that isn't necessarily saying much. If a dictionary were full of photos like a police lineup, Shelby often says, both Rachel and Brittany could be found under the word "gullible." Rachel thinks Tina sometimes falls under that definition, too, but she never says so around Shelby. Shelby doesn't like it when her girls talk back.
Rachel likes it best when they do plays and musicals with real plots, but for the past month they have been performing a musical revue. She doesn't think she minds—she doesn't know how to mind—but Quinn and Santana are tired of revues. They don't like the constant costume changes, the incessant shifts from one genre to another.
"Don't touch me," Quinn hisses when Mercedes accidentally jostles her in the wings. There is not enough time between numbers to return to their dressing rooms and they are all shedding costumes left and right, dropping the sweaty, creased clothes to the floor. Someone will pick them up later—one of the many stagehands Rachel and the others are not allowed to talk to.
"Don't bitch at me," Mercedes hisses back, and she shoves Quinn on purpose this time. That would be an instant punishment if Shelby saw it. Rachel files the information away in her mind, but she has no immediate plans to tattle. Not unless Mercedes forces her to. No one likes punishment from Shelby. She has a way of fitting the consequences to each girl so precisely, ensuring the most unpleasant results. For Mercedes, who is and always has been chubby, Shelby usually takes away food. Their meals are carefully monitored anyway, but often the workers at the concession stand in the lobby will give them treats if they poke their heads in the kitchen door. They are not permitted to talk to the staff any more than they are the stagehands, but sometimes eyes say more than mouths.
Rachel shrugs into a soft pink calico print dress with long sleeves and a white collar. She turns, and Tina zips up the back for her. She likes how the material swishes against her legs; it's not restrictive or itchy like so many of their costumes. She puts on soft Capezio dance flats and swirls her dress again, just because she likes it so much. The skirt hits her lower calves softly.
Mercedes is also in pink, a shade darker than Rachel, and the rest of the girls hustle into identical dresses in blue. They are supposed to look vaguely like pioneers—like Little House on the Prairie, which Shelby let them read when they were younger. There isn't time to plait their long hair into appropriate braids, and Rachel runs her hands through the silky strands, easing any snarls as she waits to return to the stage. Her hair is pretty curled or straightened, she thinks, but she likes it best like this—a gentle natural wave spilling over her shoulders, so dark brown that it almost looks black until she steps into the spotlights and the bright beams tease hidden glints of color from the locks.
When Mercedes is ready, Rachel takes her hand and they step back onto the stage together. Rachel has always moved faster than Mercedes, but she feels the other girl dig nails into her hand in warning when she inches in front just slightly. Hiding a wince—they're on stage, after all, and they can't look anything but happy—Rachel takes her spot stage left, at the front of the stage, Mercedes beside her. They are using two different microphones—thankfully. Rachel does not like having to share her mics. She doesn't like being breathed on either, even though Mercedes doesn't smell bad. Brittany has horrible breath because she refuses to brush her teeth, but Shelby never makes Rachel duet with her, especially not with the same microphone.
Mercedes' hand is sweaty and Rachel doesn't like it, but she doesn't let go. It's only the tiniest part of the choreography for this song, but Shelby is in the audience and Shelby will know. Shelby doesn't permit mistakes or deliberate changes to her directions, even over something so minor. Even though Mercedes isn't happy that she's closer to the edge of the stage and Rachel is closer to the center, and she's digging her nails into Rachel's hand because of it. Even then. Rachel would rather smile through the sting than risk a punishment from Shelby later.
The other girls slip onto the stage as the music starts, holding small sheaves of wheat. The dance is ballet, though far from technically advanced. They twirl with their bundles of wheat as Rachel begins her verse of the song—"O Shenandoah," an old folk song from the pioneer days. It is wistful and sad, and Rachel loves it. The violins and violas in the orchestra sing with her, and she projects her voice through the microphone just as Shelby has taught her, pushing to make sure she is heard over the instruments. There are techs at the sound board whose job it is to help her, but Shelby always says never to rely on technology to do for her what she should do for herself.
Rachel pushes her voice, strong and loud, yet tender, too. This is a love song. She has never known love—it is a word she reads in books and scripts, a word she sings often enough, but it has little meaning for her. Shelby coaches her on this; how to sound in-love when she doesn't know what it means. Rachel understands happy and sad. She understands wistfulness, and longing, though she could not explain for what. For…something. Something else, something more, though she also believes that there is nothing more. The stage is everything. Her whole life swirls around her, like the long skirt of her costume. It swallows her in this moment, as she sings and the eyes of everyone in the audience are trained on her. She might not understand love, but she can make the audience feel it. When she pitches her voice just right, she knows they feel the things she can't express any other way. For a moment, just a moment as she sings, they are her and she is them. You know me, she thinks, even though you have never seen me up close. I can give you that gift—give you all of me. It's all there in the song.
But soon enough she has to give way to Mercedes' verse, and it's both heartbreaking and a relief when she knows the intense attention is off of her for a moment. She cannot relax, still in the spotlight, but she can breathe slow and deep, staring into the darkness that she knows is filled with people despite the fact that she cannot see them. The lights are too bright, but she doesn't need her eyes to make that connection. All it takes is her voice.
She has tried to explain this connection to the others, but they don't seem to understand. Shelby does, she is certain. Shelby pets her hair and tells her to keep doing it, keep giving everything she can, every time she opens her mouth. When Shelby is proud of Rachel, she touches her cheek and tells her she is beautiful. It's all the affirmation Rachel has ever had. It's the only reward she longs for, not knowing she could want anything else.
As she joins her voice to Mercedes' for the third verse, Rachel has to hide another wince. Mercedes doesn't like sharing the spotlight, and she isn't afraid to let Rachel know it, though she is afraid of Shelby. None of them like sharing the spotlight, really, but they don't dare squabble about it—not where Shelby can hear, anyway. Rachel gets her revenge the only way she knows how. She can't possibly overpower Mercedes' grip with her own smaller hand, so instead she turns on the star power just a little brighter—that little bit Mercedes can't match. She knows she might get in trouble for it later, but she decides she doesn't care. Shelby knows she has trouble dimming the "glow," as she calls it. They've spoken at length about this. Rachel doesn't do well in group numbers because she shines so brightly she eclipses the others. Shelby usually sighs and tugs at Rachel's hair, telling her that she just wasn't meant to be part of a chorus line. But Shelby doesn't accept limitations, and Rachel always has to work on dimming her glow when she performs with the others. This isn't a chorus line situation, though, and Rachel hopes she can get away with pushing herself. It's a good excuse, though she admits that very little gets past Shelby.
The applause at the end of the number is like Rachel's own heartbeat. The staccato percussion rumbling through the audience isn't why she does this—isn't why she loves it—but it's as natural to her now as the sharp notes of Shelby's voice. She bows an instant before Mercedes, nails digging into her hand again, and is sad to leave the stage, even though it means she can finally let go of Mercedes.
After the performance, the girls spend a little time in their dressing rooms before returning to the loft they share on the single floor above the theater. Half of the ample space on the top floor is their living quarters and the other half is for rehearsals and lessons. There are always rehearsals—sometimes even after a performance if Shelby doesn't think it was good enough. Mostly the lessons are in the performing arts—voice, movement, acting—but they do learn other things as well. Math, reading, history, geography, even a little science. They have a small library of books—textbooks and literature—and they fight over new titles when Shelby occasionally brings them. They are bored, but none of them would ever tell Shelby so. When she gets angry, she yells and hits.
But when she's pleased, sometimes—very seldom, but sometimes—she lets them watch television.
Rachel loves the television. Shelby explains that the people on TV are actors, just like her. Rachel watches them and wonders whether they live at the studio the way she lives at the theater. In books and on TV, people live in houses or apartment buildings. Children have parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins—even friends. Rachel has none of these things. She has Shelby and the other girls in her troupe, who are not her sisters and not her friends.
She's in the bathroom, washing the little crescent-shaped punctures Mercedes has left in her skin, when the heavy industrial door to their living space opens. That door gives the lie to the homey feel of the upper floor, though Rachel doesn't know it. In another hour it will lock, ensuring that Shelby's girls can't leave until the timed lock releases the next morning. Shelby doesn't think they actually would, but it's a precaution. She is a master at taking precautions.
Rachel is the first to greet Shelby, like always. She pops her head around the doorway to their dormitory-style bathroom and smiles big. Shelby likes it when they smile and act nicely. She complains that some of the girls have started getting their teenage attitudes, but she's never scolded Rachel for this. "How'd we do?" Rachel asks, hoping for good news. "I think we did great, except that Mercedes was a half-beat behind during the finale."
"Screw you, skinny bitch," Mercedes snaps, and Shelby closes her eyes. It's an expression they all know well. She's trying to find patience, but if Mercedes pushes much more, there will be consequences. Shelby doesn't like it when they talk like the people who sing modern music. She didn't even let them listen to it until about a year ago, when her male counterpart, Mr. Schuester, convinced her that some more contemporary music and dances would be good for business.
Mr. Schuester is in charge of the boys at the theater. They trade off performance nights with the girls and often come together to perform in a big group because, Shelby says, there are very few scripts for single-sex casts.. But there are always strict rules when Mr. Schuester and the boys are around. They are not really supposed to talk to each other—only to recite lines. They are not supposed to touch, either, except during approved choreography. Shelby says the boys are nearly as off-limits as the stagehands and other staff—nearly as off-limits as the audiences, and the crowds outside the theater that Rachel never sees. Except for trips to the roof for sunshine and exercise, she has never actually been outside.
And, if she is honest with herself, Shelby's rules about the boys are more of a relief than anything. Boys make her nervous. They weren't always bigger and taller than her, but now they are and she doesn't think she likes it. They're almost completely different creatures—broad shoulders and big hands, hair cut short along their necks. Puck, the one with the stripe of hair down the middle of his head, tried to touch her in the darkness of the wings once as she was walking toward her dressing room. She didn't like it, and she told him if he ever tried again, she'd tell Shelby. That stopped him. Even the boys, big as they are, are scared of Shelby.
"Girls," Shelby says now, her voice firm and level, though she's not yet shouting. She tries not to shout; it reduces Brittany and Rachel to tears, and sometimes Tina, too. "Rachel, I've warned you before about tattling. There's no point, anyway; I saw exactly the same performance you did."
Next Shelby turns to Mercedes. "As much as I dislike the tattling, Rachel's right. You need to step up your effort toward the end of the show."
For a moment it looks as if Mercedes is about to argue, and Shelby raises an eyebrow. All of her girls know what that eyebrow means, and they understand the warning. Mercedes heaves a cranky sigh that Shelby almost calls her on, but the girl says nothing more so she lets it slide.
"You all need to work on complacency, too," Shelby warns, just for good measure. This has never been a problem for Rachel or Tina, and Brittany is usually pretty good as well, but Quinn, Santana, and Mercedes all need the reminder. Complacency is the death of show business. If Shelby lets the energy fade, so will the audiences. They come to see her fresh-faced girls dance and sing and act like it's the only thing they ever want to do. Rachel is sure it is the only thing she ever wants to do, but the other girls need to at least look as if they feel the same. She understands Shelby's insistence on this. She understands a lot of what Shelby does, which is why she isn't as afraid of her as some of the others.
"Does that mean another rehearsal tonight?" Mercedes whines and, quick as a flash, before Rachel can brace for the noise, Shelby's hand whips out and connects with the dark cheek, still hot and flushed from being on stage.
"Enough with the whining," Shelby says to the silence. "Or we will have another rehearsal. Is that what you want?"
Nobody speaks. They all know better by now.
"All right, then." Shelby sits in her special armchair, the only padded chair in the room, and she waits for her girls to gather around her. Rachel is the first to approach, alternately nervy and hesitant, like a spooky kitten, and she tucks herself up next to the chair, leaning her head on the armrest, her knees pulled to her chest and her arms holding them close. Shelby drops her hand and strokes the soft, dark hair.
Quinn and Brittany plop to the floor in front of the armchair and Tina and Santana pull up hard chairs. Mercedes slinks closer to the rest of the group but doesn't actually join it—not completely. Shelby lets her sulk, and Rachel knows that if she's still cranky in the morning they will have words, but not right now.
"Tonight's performance was acceptable," Shelby says, continuing to pet Rachel's hair. When Rachel is tractable and sweet—which isn't always—Shelby will often reward her with a tug on her hair or a pat on the cheek. Brittany will also let herself be petted and made much of, but the other girls stopped liking that years ago. Rachel knows that the rest of them fear Shelby's hands, and she understands why. But she is not afraid. She would rather risk being close enough to slap, if it means she might receive a gentler touch, too. "We'll pick up with rehearsal tomorrow."
The girls all look relieved, though they wisely keep quiet. Shelby has been known to change her mind on a whim, especially when her children express an opinion contrary to what she would prefer.
"Tina," Shelby adds, "you're on Mercedes' diet plan for the next two weeks. I've advised the concessions staff not to give you snacks, as well. Don't lie to me—I know they do."
Shelby receives no protest—not that Rachel thought she would. Tina's weight isn't a problem, generally speaking, and Rachel glances at her teammate out of the corner of her eye. Maybe there is a little difference between Tina and the other girls. It's nothing she would have noticed on her own. But Shelby's word is law. Tina does not complain, and no one stands up for her.
It's Shelby's habit to address each of the girls in turn after every performance, and she looks at each pair of eyes watching her, considering who to choose next. Mercedes has already been warned to step up her dancing, and Rachel hopes Shelby has nothing more to say to her. When Shelby gets going, her lists of imperfections can last a long time and it's already nearing eleven o'clock. They all have to be up and ready for rehearsals tomorrow at seven. Between now and then, they have homework to complete and showers to take, tidying to do in their living space, and if they're lucky Shelby will let them into the kitchen for a late-night snack. All but Mercedes, that is—and now Tina.
"Quinn," Shelby says, zeroing in on the blond girl who somehow seems to get more beautiful and more bad-tempered every day. "You have got to get your voice out of the basement. I know you're an alto—I get it. But you've got to work harder on stage to stay in a proper feminine register. You do fine in practice when you know I'm right next to you listening, but on stage you're not trying hard enough. Keep it up and there will be consequences. Brittany and Santana, cool it with the ass-shaking. Don't push me on this one; I know you like the more modern music, but when we're working from the Broadway catalogue it isn't appropriate."
Shelby pauses and tugs on a lock of Rachel's hair. Rachel raises her eyes willingly, her expression guarded. Sometimes—rarely, but sometimes—Shelby will give praise in these debriefings. Usually when that happens, it goes to Rachel. But Shelby can't praise too much; she knows how it ostracizes Rachel from the rest of the group.
"Rachel," Shelby says, and she shakes her head slowly. "I know you don't do it on purpose, child, but we've got to find a way to keep you out of the spotlight on group numbers."
Shelby is talking about how Rachel turned up the glow during her duet with Mercedes, and Rachel knows it. She thinks Shelby doesn't know she did it on purpose, and she's not about to volunteer the information. Because Shelby is right enough. It's a predicament they've mulled over for several years now as Rachel has grown and matured. She shines on stage, and it's difficult to keep that sparkle dimmed enough to let her participate in group numbers at all. Shelby says she attracts they eye even when she isn't speaking—isn't moving—and Shelby just doesn't know what to do. But how to dim a star just enough so it fits neatly into a chorus line?
"I'll try harder," Rachel promises, but the words, while heartfelt, are empty. She'd become a little mouse if she possibly could, just because Shelby asked her to, but it just isn't feasible. She can't dim her sparkle any more than Quinn can hit an A6.
Shelby waves away Rachel's declaration to try harder; the words have no meaning. Try harder at what? At being something other than herself? She settles deeper into her chair and pats Rachel's head again. "Tomorrow we start something new," she says, using her free hand to smooth a paper in her lap. "I was going to tell you about it in the morning, but you did well enough out there tonight that I think you deserve a treat."
A treat for normal girls would be ice cream or a rented movie, not a briefing about more work. But Rachel's eyes light up and everyone—even Mercedes—scoots a little closer. They are bored with the musical revue, and Shelby knows this. Normally she would scold them for looking so eager to ditch their current project, but for tonight she relents. Rachel doesn't know why, but she's glad of it.
"We're going to be working again with Mr. Schuester and his boys," Shelby says, and she narrows her eyes when everyone but Rachel lights up at the mention of their male counterparts. Rachel understands. She knows they're not allowed to socialize; there's no reason for them to get so excited. But the boys are at least something different—faces they don't see every day.
"That means a play!" Rachel squeals. She can't help it. Working with the boys is okay, but what it really means for her is an actual play. Lines—characters—plot—everything she feels is missing when they perform revues. She places her chin on the armrest of Shelby's chair, gazing up at her mentor with her gigantic brown eyes. "Is it a musical? I love when we get to do musicals!"
"It is," Shelby says, and she smiles at Rachel's enthusiasm. It isn't mere relief at the thought of something other than a revue, and the genuine excitement is a welcome change from all the teenage sullenness that has started to run rampant in the theater.
"Tell us the story," Brittany urges. She's never quite outgrown a fondness for being read to, though Shelby never did it often even when they were young.
"It's too complex to explain now," Shelby says instead. "You have work to do tonight. Tomorrow I'll hand out the scripts and we'll go through it with Mr. Schuester and the boys." She pauses. "He has a new member of his team—I know we haven't added anyone to the group since you were all tiny, but his talent is worth it."
"What's his name?" Rachel asks. They aren't allowed to be friends with the boys, but it seems only polite to know their names.
"Jesse," Shelby says, glancing at the paper in her hands. "His name is Jesse St. James."
A/N: Next up, we meet Jesse!
The Child Ballads are a collection of English and Scottish ballads collected by Francis James Child in the late 19th century. Most originated in the 15th - 17th centuries, and the collection is notable because Child recorded many variants of the same songs. The verse at the beginning is about a murdered child calling his mother to prepare his burial shroud (winding sheet). Cheerful, huh?