Jade West never wins.

She never brought home the gold trophy or the blue ribbon or had her picture in the yearbook under anything but her name and activities - no "Best Dressed" for Jade West. Not even "Most Scary" which shocked Cat. Sometimes she is allowed the silver, the yellow, the honorable mention. Sometimes.

Her father's personal assistant, a shy gay man with a smile that still knocks her dead, used to say that she won Beck - only being with Beck didn't feel like winning. It felt like lazy Sundays and bed-hair and a txt before bed, a kiss before class. Being with Beck didn't feel like winning because she hadn't really won anything - she just was and he just was and somehow it was easier to be together than to be apart … that never felt like winning. It felt like Reality. Like a state of Being.

Somehow, maybe - at some point in time, she had realized how fragile and unsubstantial the gold trophies of the world actually were. That winning meant competition and maybe that was just a space that Jade would never know. She got what she earned, what she worked for. And she worked hard - harder than anyone knew. Sometimes crawling onto the tiny mattress in Beck's camper after 2 in the morning, her voice hoarse and raw from scales, from reciting lines; her eyes blurry from the computer screen; her shoulders and back aching from the sheer hours she put into her editing. (And he'd blink at her, drawing her close, whispering to her hair how she worked too hard - how she needed a break - how he-) Somehow, maybe, Jade West had convinced herself that winning didn't matter - as long as you didn't lose.

And Jade West never lost.

It's hard to lose, really, when you never compete. Jade West didn't believe in competition - she worked hard and got what she deserved. Competition made her feel like she was floating, and it was already too hard stay attached to her body, so she avoided the concept. The lead in the school play, the chance to choreograph for the musical, the solo at graduation, the slot at Hollywood Arts - these were things that she earned. What did she care for winning, when she got what she needed? If she worked harder, if she practiced longer, if she fought her own body, there was no reward to lord over others. There was just Jade.

And Jade West has always been pretty okay with that - mostly.

Until Tori Vega arrived.

And everything was so easy for her, it frighted Jade. Made her see the things she didn't work hard enough at, made her work harder, not to win - just to prove to everyone that she deserved the life she had.

(She worked hard to keep the things she had - so no one would take them away - so no one would realize she didn't deserve them - so no one would realize that they so easily could just wipe her life away , that it would be simple to tear down her walls and strip her bare... She worked hard to make people believe she cared about winning.)

Just transferring to Hollywood Arts hadn't felt this way - the hallways were littered with girls like Tori Vega, but they didn't matter to Jade. She didn't like any of them. She didn't see raw earnestness in their eyes, didn't see a scrawny girl with glasses who somehow managed to be brilliantly talented behind their makeup and boots, didn't see a genuine love for the act of being on stage in their performance. Jade didn't have an urge to keep any of these girls as close as possible, to sink into their ease and just be there for a little while.

So many students she encountered cared more for the applause than the action - she could dismiss them. But Tori understood that love - Jade could see it in her performance, in the way her body moved. She couldn't even think of what that might mean, she just threw herself into working even harder.

She began to feel desperate.

One lazy Saturday afternoon at Tori's she almost snapped. She almost lost her resolve.

Jade was exhausted, slap-happy tired from lack of sleep all week, but she didn't let it show. She never let it show. It was a normal Saturday, really. Only Tori hadn't dragged them into a project, Cat hadn't demanded an adventure of some kind. The boys were in the kitchen fixing up a snack, Robbie was painting Trina's toenails, and she, Cat, and Tori were sprawled across the couches watching television - Cat's head in Tori's lap. It was something about magic and sandwiches, Jade wasn't paying too much attention; it was the only thing airing at that time of day. The lead was a teeny brunette, full of snark and brilliant as hell - Jade was mildly impressed with her - but also lazy, convenient, lucky. She had a natural talent Jade would have killed for.

And everyone said she was just like Jade.

It was one of those rare moments when Jade was confronted with the front she performed every day - thrown in her face like a compliment, like an insight only those closest to her could know.

And no one noticed how quiet she got, how Beck somehow arrived at her side and never left it again the rest of the day, how her zingers had a lot less zing. How she escaped as quickly as she could. (Jade doesn't really like being here anyway - it was easier if they felt that way sometimes... when her heart was ready to expose itself, when it wouldn't stay inside and she wasn't sure what else to do but escape.)

At 3am that night, she knew everyone else was asleep - Rex's 24hr webcam was pitch black; Cat had crashed at Tori's and Jade's phone had stopped buzzing with her constant recaps of everything anyone said a couple hours ago - which could only mean Tori had fallen asleep and out of sheer boredom so had Cat; Andre had gone to bed early in a funk after a bad date; and it was getting surprisingly easy to slip out of the camper without waking Beck.

At 3am when she knew everyone else was asleep, Jade stood in an empty, half-lit rehearsal room at Hollywood Arts and stared at herself in the large wall-length mirror as she stretched her body along the ballet barre. She watched herself walk through steps over and over and over. Watched herself fall down in desperation after a failed movement. Heard her voice echoing into the dark as she breathlessly sang, danced, rehearsed - put her body through hell.

"You're never gonna fade - Ow!" Jade stretched out her right shoulder, holding her arm across her body and pulling at the elbow, tugging the sore muscle back into place.

"You'll be the main attraction," a groggy tenor echoed from the open door.

Beck stood there in black sweats and unlaced boots under his large jacket. Jade raised her eyebrows but made no comment at her boyfriend's complete lack of shirt - who was she to complain? - and then looked back to the mirror, concentrated, tightened her arms and lifted herself into a perfect pirouette.

"I thought I took those keys away from you," his voice was restrained, verging on that thick sound people make with their mouths when they are asleep (but she knew he was wide awake, felt guilty for a brief moment thinking of him waking and finding her not there, of that moment of panic that brought him fully into consciousness). His eyes were clear, she avoided them in the mirror, boring into her as she pushed herself to finish the routine under his gaze. He had watched her before, in the studio, work out - practice complicated dance steps and routines she knew only a professional dancer could reproduce perfectly - tire herself out with Pilates until she finally felt weighed down.

He usually came with her, ending up asleep on the floor in the corner until she woke him, dragged him to the car, or until he hobbled over to her - took her sweaty body in his arms and pressed his length to hers, his skin the only thing that could make her mind from spinning, could stop her mind from buzzing.

Her bare feet pounded into the floor, echoing through her mind, drowning out the sound of his words. Beck was the only one who knew that she did this - that she even cared about dancing. It wasn't exactly that she cared, but she knew any college with a decent theatre program would require her to have three audition pieces prepared: acting, singing, dancing. The triple threat. And there were always a hundred other girls looking to fill the handful of slots open. Girls who had been in beauty pageants as kids. Girls who had parents to pay for expensive vocal instruction from before puberty. Girls who had been in tumbling, gymnastics, ballet, on the cheerleading squad their whole lives. Girls who had trained every day of their lives to take what Jade knew she deserved.

Girls who never had any training, but who had a natural gift that would give them an upper hand she didn't have - girls who were naturally beautiful and charismatic, who wore their personality easily and made others feel easy. Girls who were nothing like Jade - who spent her time off the stage feeling slightly uncomfortable in her own skin, who rubbed people the wrong way, who always seemed to say the wrong thing, who didn't know how to be earnest and easy - who never wanted to be easy.

Girls who knew the rules to a game Jade was always unsure what the point was - she read the rules more easily than they, maybe. Wasn't disillusioned by what she was supposed to do, never got caught up in any need to follow the rules. That made it harder on her, she would someday realize. Teens really ought to be enveloped in their own world - it's the only way most survive.

And so she spent her nights teaching herself to dance; giving herself vocal drills; writing and editing short videos and plays; memorizing the great monologues. She spent her every waking moment working.

Hard.

She breathed hard into her last spin and found herself flung into Beck's bare chest. He wrapped his arms tightly around her and held her to him with a force she sometimes forgot he was capable of. Pressed up against his bare chest, his body's presence making her more aware of her own - the sweat that caked her body now cold and damp against her skin where he touched her.

Jade West never won anything.

But she never lost, either. Because she fought too hard to keep what she had. Because she held onto the things and people that she loved with a ferocity that was inconceivable to most. Because she didn't compete or wrangle away things from others, because she was so hurt by a lifetime of having nothing to lose. Because she was Jade West, damnit. (Because if something was taken from her, if she lost something, she'd insist she never wanted it, anyway. It was so much easier to let go of something she knew she couldn't keep then lose.)

And the one thing she'd never lose was her dignity. So she waited to cry until her face was buried in her boyfriend's bare chest, the lights were off, and no one else was around. So she waited to cry until there was nothing left in her to give, until her whole body was so exhausted it had to expel tears in order to keep moving.

Something about Tori Vega made her feel the need to fight a little harder, to prove her worth - to who, she wasn't sure. It wasn't to Beck, to men, to Tori even … it was something she was fighting with herself. She found herself in a singing brawl in public - WHAT? - even afterwards she wasn't sure what had happened. And then when Tori won for her, she spent the next 48 hours in the gym. An actual gym. With machines. Where Beck wouldn't find her. Where Beck wouldn't appear at 3am and rip her off the elliptical and tuck her into bed. Where people gave her funny looks, but she had "daddy hates me" written all over her face and clothes so mostly she got sympathetic grimaces and older men weren't afraid to watch her for a little too long. And no one came looking for her - because who could know she was even there?

(It was easy - so easy - to appear angry and damaged than sad and damaged... just like for Cat is was easier to appear obliviously happy than sad and damaged. Everyone has their coping mechanisms. Cat had cupcake hair, a giggle that could slay any mood, a penchant for serial dating, a childlike wonder about everything, an infantilizing style of dress so no one would take her seriously. Jade had Goth-kid clothing, a penchant for scissors and blood, green streaks in her black hair, a snarky attitude, a really good Bitch-face. It was too easy to convince everyone that the problems they were seeing were real. Everyone in Hollywood had a therapist, everyone thought they could diagnose anyone else after taking one Psych class - Jade used that to her advantage. It helped that she genuinely thought scissors were totally sexy... if used correctly.)

And then things went back to normal.

Only things weren't normal.

She couldn't handle watching all her dreams that she worked so hard for get trampled on anymore - couldn't stand watching someone she loved get handed things she was fighting to have.

She felt everything. All the time. It was like she couldn't shut it off anymore, for anything. And none of it made sense. Like she was angry at existence. Like she was angry at Tori. And that didn't sit right - made her want a Tori-squeeze - made her want to rewrite everything she'd ever said. She'd never felt so restless and at odds with being as she did now.

Like she was the sidekick in a movie about someone wonderful.

Like her life had already been written for her - and her part in the story was to be unseen.

Like Reality was slipping away from her at every step.

(Maybe when she was older she would realize it was normal growing pains. Maybe when she watched her own daughter go through the same transition, she'd know how to comfort a girl learning how to grow into her own skin. Maybe after getting away from Hollywood and seeing the world, maybe after a few semesters at a college far from what she knew, she'd understand how silly and selfish she was as a child. Maybe years later it wouldn't seem so difficult. Maybe. But that was no comfort now. Because Jade had never had anything to lose; because being a child was about being selfish; because there was so little to be selfish about - couldn't she just have one thing?)

Jade felt an itch under her skin everywhere she went. She grew moody, more irritable. Even when they were alone, she snapped at Beck uncontrollably. She wanted to say something to him - but she wasn't sure what. And not knowing - not knowing what to say, how to say it, how to make her best friend understand why she felt so at odds with everything - drove her crazy.

She didn't want to be angry with him - more than ever she wanted to collapse into him and let the tears just flow and flow and flow and she didn't care if they drowned in salt and she sometimes felt exactly like the girl everyone saw... and that made her more frantic.

She got less sleep than ever before, Beck's arm on her waist in bed made her feel trapped - being alone in her own bed made her feel too exposed.

There was no in between anymore.

How do you explain that to someone?

Hi hunny, want pizza or noodles for dinner?

Hi darling, noodles sound good. Also - I feel like I'm drowning in my own unshed tears. How was your day?

So she pulled away - started telling him all the reasons why they shouldn't be together. Noted even more than before how other girls watched him as he walked down the hallways. Saw herself in the mirror in the bathroom reflected back, next to so many faces that told her that hers didn't belong. Accused him - her best friend - of thinking all the nasty things she had never let him know she felt about herself. Spouted accusations off out of context.

And then it became habit, fighting. It felt good. It felt better than fighting with her own body, with herself all the time. She was so tired of trying to be perfect - so she made herself (and them) into a mess. She let it out and put it on him. She started sleeping more, eating more, working out less. She started using that energy into fighting with him, into exploring the damage of words turned toward someone else. She gave him the voice from inside that she tried to keep hidden. She painted her battlefield on their relationship, she named him her opposition. He was so much stronger, he could take it.

And maybe - maybe he'd understand! Maybe he'd stop fighting her off. Maybe he'd hold her closer and whisper magic words in her ear so that the pain would stop, so that her mind would stop whirring, so that she could relax. Maybe there was a magical cure for this, maybe he knew it, maybe he could fix her - if she just kept fighting him, maybe he'd see what she wanted and could explain it to her.

Only he couldn't take it.

She hurt him.

He let her go.

And the stupid thing was that she would have done the same thing. The stupid thing was that she was almost relieved when he didn't open the door and follow her back into her self-created hell.

Because, Jade told herself in the dance room mirror at 2am that night, Hell is where you go when you want to be alone.

It was months later when she knew she had reached a new level of normal. It was because of sushi.

It wasn't when she saw him try to kiss her best friend on the couch, it wasn't when she gave back something she desperately wanted, it wasn't when she saw him with her again and felt okay and he smiled that sweet, soft, slow smile... it wasn't because of Him in the end, though she always presumed it would be.

It felt so natural and real to want sushi. It felt so normal to side with her girls against her boys. It felt so normal to dismiss them, to latch onto two friends that she suddenly felt so at home with. She wasn't fighting for a connection, she wasn't fighting her body, she felt relaxed. She felt at home in her own skin. It was the briefest moment, a split second of being in the hallway with her friends. And she didn't feel like she didn't deserve it - or that they would turn her away - or that she had said the wrong thing.

It was just a moment.

It was a moment when Jade didn't feel quite so alone, like her hell was dimming just slightly around her.

And then maybe she went too far. Because with Tori and Cat behind her and Moose in front of her and Beck so close beside her she could smell his laundry detergent, she threw herself into the part. And maybe that's when it wasn't real anymore, but it felt so good, she didn't care. It felt like something she was supposed to do. It felt like maybe this time winning - would keep her hell at bay.

There was also the uncomfortable fact that Jade had a very basic itch no one could scratch... it had been months since she and Beck had broken up, it felt like eons. And then there was Moose - oh yes, they had spoken about Moose. Mostly about the things they'd both love to do with him if he ever came to visit. Things they could never get Cat to do (it was an unspoken rule that Cat needed them to be gentle and so they were - painfully, deliberately gentle - so gentle it was almost painful)... things that Beck wanted but never spoke aloud to anyone but her. And seeing him standing there, right next to Moose, looking so small. Feeling him standing there next to her with Moose so close (he had an unnerving tendency to stand so close to her) - well, they were all lucky she had showed some semblance of decorum. They were lucky she decided to be subtle, after all. With her blood pumping in her ears and conversations from long past filling her mind with thoughts she really shouldn't be having in the middle of a High School hallway.

But mostly it was that she suddenly felt a strange camaraderie with Cat and Tori in a way she never had before. And the whole thing was so silly, really - but they were communicating in this brand new way and she had to see it through. With Cat in the car beside her and Tori fighting with her over who can close a door more efficiently. And that suddenly seemed so normal.

And she so desperately wanted to feel normal. Wanted to feel like she inhabited her own skin. Wanted that moment back - that light perk in her step that had only lasted two paces.

And later, when she pulls Moose in for a kiss - it isn't about winning. It isn't about Tori and Cat losing.

It's about taking what she wants, about getting back on her feet and demanding the world give her what she demands.

It feels awkward and isn't satisfying in the way she wanted it to - his lips on hers don't make her feel any less antsy, any calmer, any less... she was still bursting with energy - but she took it. And he gave it.

And it doesn't mean the voice in her head is going to dim. It doesn't mean she's all sparkly and new. It doesn't mean she's not right back in the dance room singing her throat raw mere hours afterwards. It doesn't mean much of anything at all.

It's just a moment. A demand. A satisfaction. Getting what she wants. A small battle, really. Just a moment.

(And maybe, just maybe, she's starting to dig her way out of hell.)