Someone to Love You – Chapter 90
A/N: Obviously, since I repurposed it as Rachel's audition song for LGA, Get It Right will not be heard at this version of Regionals. And, with this story having gone completely AU, Sue won't stop New Directions from using Sing.
FYI: In terms of timeline, two months have gone by, meaning this chapter begins in early March.
Standing in the alley that ran behind the Elsie Janis Theater, Rachel waved at her dads as the latter headed in search of parking, having just dropped their daughter off at the stage door. Once inside the historic building, the lead vocalist for Harmonic Thrill hummed joyfully, eagerly anticipating both the upcoming competition and the opportunity to get together with Jesse and their friends at the evening's end. Focused as she was on making her way down the corridor towards the room where the rest of her team was currently assembling, she was taken by surprise when a familiar voice rang out behind her.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Pivoting slowly, she found herself face to face with a visibly irate Mercedes, hands on hips and eyes blazing.
"This area's for performers only," the darker skinned girl maintained. "You have no right to be backstage."
"I'm looking for Kurt and Blaine," Rachel lied smoothly, unwilling to enlighten her former rival as to the actual reason for her presence. "I want to wish them luck."
"Of course you do. You're the same entitled bitch you always were, thinking that the rules don't apply to you because you're better than everyone else. Your little reunion with the friend you stole from me can wait. You need to leave, now."
Rachel was about to ignore this directive and simply keep walking when she spotted Becca and Jen a few feet away. From their horror-struck expressions, she assumed that they'd overheard every word of the previous exchange. As surreptitiously as possible, she shook her head in an unspoken plea that they not come any closer. Much to her relief, the duo immediately retreated into the shadows of a small alcove, leaving the New Directions diva unaware of her invisible audience.
"And you need to take a few deep breaths and relax. Getting this stressed right before a competition isn't good for you," Rachel offered, her tone oozing sincerity.
"Don't pretend you care! I know you're just here because you think we'll fail and you want to gloat. But, since we've been doing fabulously well without you and we're much tighter as a team now, I can't wait to see the look on your face when we win this whole thing tonight and you will have played no part in our victory," Mercedes spat.
"Jesse always reminds me that confidence enhances performance, but overconfidence can lead to sloppiness. Pride goes before a fall, and all that," Rachel responded sweetly.
"You can't imagine I'd ever take advice from you – or from that egotistical asshole you're dating."
"No, probably not. You never did believe that either of us had anything worthwhile to contribute."
"You got that right. And, now that that's settled, you're interfering with my pre-show routine, so get out of my face. Shut up, take your seat and prepare to witness our triumph."
"Oh, I wouldn't miss this for the world. I'm looking forward to seeing you get the result you deserve."
Oblivious to Rachel's true meaning and convinced that she'd made her point, Mercedes hurried off to rejoin New Directions. After staring at her opponent's retreating back for a moment, Rachel strode purposefully towards her own team's dressing room, a satisfied smirk on her lips as she contemplated the bombshell that was about to be unleashed on the unsuspecting crew from McKinley High.
The air seemed unnaturally still, the members of Harmonic Thrill holding their collective breath as Becca and Jen described, in vivid detail, the encounter they'd just observed between Rachel and the complete stranger they'd quickly come to realize was one of her former teammates. The recounting over, the petite brunette was peppered with questions.
"Did she mean it?"
"Was it normal for people at your old school to be that nasty?"
"How could you stand it?"
"Who does she think she is?"
"Yes. Pretty much. I had a really tough time. A better singer than me," Rachel replied, matching the rapid-fire delivery with her own.
Becca, who'd already developed a strong bond with the girl who'd supplanted her as lead, studied her new friend with concern.
"Has this thrown you off your game? Or are you still good to go?"
'If anything, it's made me even more determined to win."
Submitting Rachel to his own scrutiny, the corners of Mitchell's mouth quirked into a wicked grin.
"She doesn't know you're with us, does she?" At Rachel's shake of the head, he followed his train of thought to its logical conclusion. "Do any of them?"
"No. I figured it couldn't hurt to have the element of surprise on our side," she admitted.
"I like the way you think," her duet partner declared, extending his arm out to give her a high five. Turning to the only adult in the room, Mitchell pointed to the girl at the centre of the group. "She's the one, Mr. A. She's the piece we've been missing. And she's the reason we're about to snag our first Regionals trophy."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. The die is not yet cast, my young padawan," Brian warned.
"Okay, sure. But you've gotta admit, coach, that Rachel's a super powerful secret weapon. With her on our team, we're gonna crush it."
"I agree, she takes us to a whole new level. I like our chances," the teacher conceded.
"So do I. And, with the added motivation of wanting to knock that insufferable prima donna down a peg or two, I say we go out there and kick some ass," Jen urged. "No offense, Mr. A."
"None taken," Brian assured her with an indulgent smile, too irritated with Mercedes himself to reprimand his own student for her language. "You all know how I feel about bullies."
"They should never be allowed to get away with treating others unkindly," the team parroted in unison, clearly having been reminded of their teacher's view on the subject more than once.
"Exactly! And, while our winning this competition would certainly teach this girl a lesson, you also all need to keep this in perspective and remember the motto we live by."
As if Brian's exhortation was a pre-arranged signal, the teens formed a tight circle and, palm over palm, repeated the deeply ingrained mantra.
"Win or lose, don't ever forget, doing your best means no regrets!"
With the program committed to memory, Jesse's fingers drummed a rhythmic tattoo on the armrest that separated him from Nate as he waited for the next competitors to take their places. Having sat through the decidedly mediocre performance of Jesus Is My Friend by Aural Intensity as well as the far superior renditions of Candles and Raise Your Glass by Kurt, Blaine and the rest of the Warblers, he was keen to witness the final two groups' performances, and for his opportunity to exchange critiques on them with his friends. He was also admittedly curious to find out who Will Schuester had managed to coerce into joining his squad, given that Rachel's quitting the team had left it one shy of the numbers required to qualify for Regionals, and they'd only succeeded in filling their previous void by bribing Lauren with candy and seven minutes with Puckerman – neither of which were options this time around. A light nudge from his best friend snapped him out of his silent contemplation.
Lifting his gaze, Jesse watched with growing amusement as the current members of New Directions filed onto the stage.
"Coach Beiste obviously bailed her buddy out," he sneered softly to Nate as he observed two hulking football players moving into the third row beside Lauren, their discomfort evident as they attempted to fade into the background.
"This oughta be good for a laugh," Stefan, seated on Jesse's other side, opined.
"I wonder how well they've picked up the choreography," Amy mused quietly, before raising her voice so that her next words would carry above the surrounding chatter. "Knock 'em dead, Brittany!"
After some lively debate, Rachel's supporters had settled on what they considered a fool-proof strategy – to aim a greeting at New Directions' generally even-tempered blonde, in order to psych the rest of the team out by drawing their attention to Jesse's presence. To no one's surprise, the cheerleader was reacting predictably, scanning the crowd as she tried to locate the source of the unexpected encouragement. When her eyes fell upon Amy, the latter offered a smile and a friendly wave, which Brittany somewhat bemusedly returned. Beside her, Santana bristled.
"Don't let her distract you. You need to focus."
"I was just being polite, which took all of two seconds. I'm completely focused and ready. It sounds like you're the one who's distracted."
"I'm not. I just-"
The Latina was interrupted when, sensing the tension rising between the duo beside him, Puck moved swiftly to diffuse it.
"Hey, you two, knock it off. It's showtime."
"Fine," they muttered, immediately falling silent and assuming their positions.
As the MC introduced New Directions, Finn and Mercedes shot daggers at Jesse, who smirked mockingly in response. The sight so unnerved McKinley's male lead that he missed his initial cue, leaving his partner to sing the first two bars on her own. From their vantage point sitting third row centre, seven teenagers snickered at the obvious mistake. Finn flushed angrily, but managed to regain his composure enough not to stumble over the remaining words. As the group struggled through their opening number, Jesse's scornful grin widened. Nate leaned towards him, whispering this time so as not to be overhead.
"Those football players look like deer caught in the headlights. They're practically hyperventilating."
"They're also lip synching," Jesse noted with authority. "I wish everyone else's mics would cut out for just a few seconds so that it would be obvious to the judges, too."
"Shame someone with your connections can't get a plug pulled somewhere to make that happen," Nate winked.
"I'm good, but I'm not that good," Jesse shrugged regretfully.
Subsiding into silence, Jesse and his friends clapped politely as Sing reached its welcome conclusion. Their collective brows furrowed with the introductory notes of the next number when, despite their combined encyclopedic musical knowledge, none of them recognized the tune. Their confusion morphed to derision, however, as they absorbed the unfamiliar lyrics.
"Zeroes and losers. Gotta give 'em props for self-awareness," Nate chuckled.
Jesse, who'd snuck another peek at the program to verify that this was an original composition, nodded in agreement.
"Looks like they took that old 'write what you know' adage to heart."
"Yup. But I completely disagree with their premise. There's no way I'd ever want to follow them to loserville."
"It actually sounds like they're trying to convince themselves with all that repetition. Can't say it's working."
"They're seriously delusional if they think anyone envies them their spot at the bottom of the social ladder," Stefan chimed in.
"And I honestly can't picture any of them ever being my boss, or being a star for that matter," Amy added, "even if a few of them aren't totally useless."
"Well, some of them might have a modicum of talent, but based on the way they've treated Rachel, most of them suck as human beings," Grace piped in, surprising those around her with her vehemence.
"She'll have the last laugh," Jesse predicted confidently.
Their hushed conversation over, the group listened without further comment, once again applauding with minimal enthusiasm as the performance came to a close. As the members of New Directions exited the stage, Jesse turned to Nate, eager to share his theory about the team's new recruits.
"Beiste must've threatened to bench them."
Before Nate could comment, an unexpected voice intruded on their discussion.
"College scouts are slated to show up in a couple of weeks. Fear that they might miss their shot at a scholarship was incredibly motivating," the woman directly behind them confirmed.
Jesse rose and faced Shannon, his lips curved into a smile of genuine delight.
"Coach! It's nice to see you again."
"Good to see you too, Jesse. Although I must admit I'm rather puzzled as to why you're here. It's a long way to come to watch a team that your girlfriend's no longer a part of."
"Would you believe I'm addicted to show choir competitions, and that I can't resist the chance to relive my glory days?"
"Possibly. But I'm guessing there's more to it than that."
"Amazingly perceptive, as always."
"Enough with the flattery, kid. Unless you're about to tell me that you did something to sabotage Will's crew, that it blew up in your face, and you need my help again."
"Nope. I'm innocent this time, Coach, I swear," Jesse grinned.
"Not a trait I'd normally associate with you." The obvious affection in Shannon's tone ensured that her words carried no sting. "So what's the deal?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you. It's a surprise."
"The good kind, or the bad kind?"
"Depends entirely on your perspective."
"Which is it for you?"
"It's an awesome one," Jesse replied, the gleam in his eye revealing far more than his simple declaration had.
"Will's gonna hate it, isn't he?"
"But you haven't deliberately set out to harm his team?"
"No. They're about to become victims of circumstance, but they have no one to blame but themselves."
"Fair enough. Guess I'll just sit back and see how things play out."
"Sounds like a plan, Coach. Enjoy the rest of the show!"
The group from McKinley had scarcely left the stage when Mercedes and Finn began to vent their anger to anyone who would listen.
"Damn St. Jerk, that conceited bastard! Thinks he's so important that he's got to travel with a posse. They were a pain in the ass at Sectionals. I don't know why they're here again," Finn spluttered.
"Me either. I mean, I get why Rachel came. She thinks we'll crash and burn without her, and she wants to gloat," Mercedes asserted. "But that doesn't explain her idiot boyfriend and his entourage. Unless…"
"Unless what?" Sam queried, curious as to what explanation his teammate might put forward.
"She hates us so much that she invited those people here on purpose, to sabotage us."
"Because her leaving us one short of the numbers to qualify wasn't enough and she needed reinforcements to send us off the rails? Sounds pretty extreme, if you ask me," Sam persisted.
"You haven't been around since the beginning, so you don't know her as well as we do. She's an extreme kind of person. A diva. Prone to dramatic gestures. I wouldn't put it past her," Mercedes proclaimed.
"I honestly don't believe she'd do that," Mike argued. "Sure, she quit, and that left us in a jam, but she's not malicious. She put her heart and soul into this glee club. She's still invested. That's why she came tonight. As for Jesse? Well, he shows up wherever she does these days. There's nothing sinister about it."
"Wait a second," Finn interjected, his features marred by a puzzled frown as he belatedly absorbed one critical piece of information. "Rachel's here? Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I ran into her backstage earlier," Mercedes disclosed.
"But that makes no sense. We saw that douchebag she's dating in the audience. If she was still here, why wasn't she sitting with him?"
"Uh, maybe she was with Kurt? She did claim she'd come to see him and Blaine."
Their debate came to an abrupt halt as a slightly out of breath Will Schuester rounded the corner, the set of his jaw betraying his annoyance.
"Guys, why are you still here? The last team's about to go on, and it would be the height of rudeness to be disrupting their performance as you fumble your way to your seats in the dark."
"Sorry, Mr. Schue," twelve voices mumbled in unison.
The students and their teacher had barely settled in when the MC announced the final competitors. As twenty-four teenagers took their places, the girls resplendent in deep purple dresses with black accents and the boys striking in contrasting black suits with purple accessories, two of them stepped confidently to the front of the group. Gasps could be heard and the jaws of eleven spectators fell open simultaneously as they discovered the identity of the female lead. The penny dropped a moment too late for the members of New Directions, who finally grasped the horrible truth. Rachel hadn't come to watch their performance, or to cheer them on in one last display of unwavering loyalty. Not even close. Instead, she'd joined a rival show choir, and she'd arrived at Regionals with one specific goal top of mind – to prove them all wrong by leading her new team to victory.
As if the thunderous applause that had greeted Harmonic Thrill at the end of their set hadn't provided enough of a clue, the look of utter defeat on Will Schuester's face sealed it for his squad. They'd lost. He knew it, and they knew it. All that remained was to find out if they'd managed to place, or if they were to be denied even that small measure of accomplishment.
In their own section of the auditorium, Rachel and her teammates rejoiced quietly, certain that they'd delivered an impressive performance which, barring some unexpected judging scandal, would result in Lima Prep's first ever Regionals win. As they awaited the official results, Mitchell and Becca started tossing out song titles, brainstorming hypothetical set lists for Nationals, careful to preface their choices with 'ifs' and 'maybes' so as not to jinx their chances in the here and now. Rachel was about to join in when she felt a tap on her shoulder. Glancing up, she found herself confronted by her former coach, his expression pained, and his anguish palpable.
"How could you do this to us, Rachel? You betrayed us! Stabbed us in the back! You should be ashamed of yourself."
Before Rachel could formulate a response, Brian was at her side, exuding the steady calm that she'd already come to expect from him.
"Back off, Will. Rachel's one of my students now, and I won't have you speaking to her that way."
"She had no right-"
"She had every right," Brian insisted evenly. "She transferred. She loves to sing. Why shouldn't she join her new school's glee club?"
"Because she knew we'd both be at Regionals. It meant she'd be competing against us!"
"And why would that be a problem? She told me herself that her teammates felt she was replaceable. She just gave them a golden opportunity to prove they didn't need her." Spying the Lieutenant Governor's wife making her way down the aisle, Brian gently aimed Will in the direction of his own students. "Looks like we're about to find out how well that worked for them."
All eyes turned to the stage as Carla Turlington-Stevens cleared her throat.
"I'm sure you're as anxious for this to be over as I am, so I'll make it quick. In third place – Westvale High School's Aural Intensity. In second place – the Dalton Academy Warblers. And in first place…" She paused dramatically, glancing down at the card in her hand as if to ensure she'd announce the right name. "The winners are Lima Prep's Harmonic Thrill. Congratulations, kids. You're going to Nationals in New York!"
With the competition having reached its conclusion, students from the various teams trickled into the lobby alone or in pairs, either waiting for the rest of their teammates to join them for the bus ride home, or reuniting with family and friends who had come to support them. Just as she had at Sectionals, Shelby lingered unobtrusively in a corner, hoping for an opening in which to speak to her daughter. Their relationship had been improving, little by little, over the course of the past couple of months, to the point where they were exchanging texts a few times a week and meeting occasionally for coffee. She'd been overjoyed when Rachel had divulged that she was leaving McKinley, and had been equally thrilled to hear that she'd successfully auditioned for Harmonic Thrill. Now, in the aftermath of the Lima Prep group's well-deserved victory, Shelby was eager to share, if only briefly, in the celebration.
Suddenly noting a heightened sense of exhilaration in the air, Shelby scanned the faces in the ever-growing crowd. It only took a moment for her to zero in on her radiantly happy daughter's dark eyes. After a quick exchange of words with her dads, Kurt, Blaine, Puck and Lauren, the younger brunette interlaced her fingers with Jesse's, and the duo made their way across the room.
The former coach was struck by how well their voices blended, the tones complementary even for something as mundane as an everyday greeting.
"Hello, Jesse. Hello, Rachel." Conscious that she'd likely only be granted a minute or two, Shelby opted to skip further pleasantries. "Congratulations on the win. You were pitch perfect on Hallelujah, and I can't wait to see what Brian has in store for you for Nationals."
A look of genuine gratitude lit up Rachel's features and, in a move that surprised them both, she stepped forward, tentatively extending her arms. Given this tacit permission, Shelby reached out and embraced her daughter lightly, careful not to hug too hard or hold on too long, lest she damage this fragile peace. When they let go, both women's eyes were suspiciously bright.
"I'll call you next week," Rachel confirmed. "Maybe we could do lunch."
"I'd like that."
As she watched her daughter walk away, Shelby vowed to continue making amends for her past mistakes, while holding on to the promise of better days to come.
- Six weeks later -
The trip had been scheduled for mid-April, in the lull between Jesse and Nate's final exams and Rachel's increased workload as Harmonic Thrill ramped up their preparations for Nationals. The private jet that the trio currently occupied was on the tarmac at Allen Regional Airport, fueled and ready to go. As the intercom crackled to life and the pilot informed them that they'd been cleared for takeoff, the three teens, along with their assembled relatives and Stefan, fastened their seatbelts and settled in for the short flight to New York.
"This is too much, Martin. You're spoiling us."
"Speak for yourself, Cat. If my brother wants to flaunt his wealth and transport me in luxury, who am I to complain?"
"Drew's got the right idea, Cat. If I can put my money to good use making your lives more comfortable, please let me. Just relax and enjoy it."
"But first Los Angeles, and now New York? How will I ever go back to flying commercial after this?" Cat fretted.
"That's the beauty of it. You won't have to. Thanks to old man Palmer convincing Hannah not to fight me on the divorce, I have more money than I know what to do with. And," he raised a hand before she could object, "that's after setting up several scholarships and donating a boatload to charity."
"I still think it's excessive," Martin's sister-in-law opined.
"Of course it is. But think of the joy it's bringing me. Hannah always wanted her own plane. I always insisted on flying commercial – first class, of course, but still – because I needed those strangers around to serve as deterrents, to keep her from causing a scene."
"Bet you paid a steep price for that when you reached your destination," Leroy quipped.
"I usually did," Martin agreed, not appearing the least bit chagrined. "Which is why it's such a treat to permit myself this indulgence, now that I don't have to share it with someone I can't stand."
"Well, no matter why it came about, we're incredibly lucky to be reaping the benefits of your post-divorce spending spree yet again," Hiram remarked with a smile.
"Hey, since there were five of us going, it seemed like a no-brainer to use the jet to fly to LA to see Jesse and Nate in Beauty and the Beast. And, given how much fun I had then, and how well we all got along, I was eager to repeat the experience. What better excuse than this trip to New York to look for a condo for the boys and to check out Rachel's potential new digs?"
"With a posh hotel as our home base and a chauffeur-driven SUV at our disposal. You don't need to buy our affections, Martin."
"But I do need to atone for a multitude of sins, Cat," Martin countered, his expression unexpectedly solemn as all traces of flippancy disappeared. "And I want to reconnect with my family and spend time with new friends, people that I like and respect. So maybe the way I'm going about that is a little over the top, but I'm trying."
"We know you are, Marty. And you're succeeding, too. Relocating to Lima, renting that house a couple of blocks from us, creating a welcoming environment there for Jesse when he's in town, rescuing his grand piano from Hannah's clutches, working from home as much as you can – it's made such a difference. I have my brother back. Jesse has his father back. And Cat's got a new Scrabble victim," Drew added, interjecting a note of levity into a speech that had been veering dangerously close to the maudlin.
Cat's eyes lit up at the mention of one of her much-loved hobbies.
"Any chance you've got a board lying around somewhere on this fancy flying machine?"
"I certainly do," her brother-in-law affirmed, reaching into an overhead cupboard to retrieve a deluxe edition of the classic game.
The adults split instantly into the pairings that had become second nature to them during the frequent winter evenings they'd whiled away in each other's company. Cat and Drew took their seats on one side of the table, their longstanding union making them a formidable team, while Martin and Hiram, who'd developed a surprisingly deep friendship as they'd bonded over the vagaries of their profession, sat across from them. Leroy, as was his custom, arbitrated all disputes and challenges, and kept score.
"I seem to recall the two of you eked out a victory last time." Drew made his pronouncement hesitantly, as if such an outcome was almost unthinkable.
"What do you mean, 'eked out'? We crushed you," Martin objected. "And we're about to do it again."
"Oh yeah? We'll see about that," Cat retorted with a laugh.
Within moments, the quintet became completely absorbed in the game. From their position at the other end of the aircraft, Jesse and Rachel looked on contentedly, both beyond thrilled at the sight of their families getting along so well. The weekend – which they were positive would be nothing short of amazing, since they'd be in their favourite city, after all – was off to a terrific start.
Once the travelers had deposited their suitcases at the hotel and grabbed a quick lunch, their first order of business had been to make their way to the Upper West Side so that Rachel and her dads could meet Stefan's aunt and tour the apartment she had available for rent on the third floor of her brownstone.
If Cristianne Dalberg was put out, upon opening her front door, to find eight complete strangers standing next to her nephew – rather than the three she'd been expecting – she hid it well. With impeccable graciousness, she ushered them all in to her living room, had Stefan bring a few extra chairs in from the adjacent dining room to accommodate the extra visitors, and headed to the kitchen to make a second pot of tea. Once everybody had a drink in hand, Leroy wasted no time getting straight to the heart of the matter.
"Our daughter's a fair bit younger than any of your previous tenants have been. How can you assure us she'll be safe here?"
"Well, for starters, this is a very safe area. I've lived here for twenty years, and I can count on one hand the number of times the police have been on this street for any reason. Most of my neighbours have been around for ages as well, and we look out for each other. It's a short walk to the bus or the subway, and they're busy lines, so there's strength in numbers. Rachel won't be left to fend for herself on half empty transit late at night."
"As if I'd ever let that happen," Jesse stated, his pledge ringing with the strength of his conviction.
"We know you'll do your best to take care of her, son," Leroy acknowledged, "but you won't be living with her," he added pointedly. "There will be times she'll be on her own. We have to put in place all the checks and balances we can to minimize any potential threats to her wellbeing."
"This won't be like sending her off to residence," Hiram added, "where she'd be surrounded by other students and resident assistants. Here, she'll have to navigate the mean streets of this massive city on a daily basis."
"A city I've wanted to live in for as long as I can remember. A city I planned to move to in just over a year from now anyway. A city I feel at home in, Daddy."
"We realize that, sweetie. But you can't blame us for worrying. This isn't Lima, after all."
"You've got that right, Hiram," Martin agreed. "But you saw the group of them today, dismissing my car and driver and insisting we ride the subway like real New Yorkers. And our two, especially. Not a moment's hesitation. Stepping onto the sidewalk outside the hotel and instinctively heading in the right direction. They look like natives already."
Hiram expelled a lengthy sigh, but made no further argument. Sensing an opening, Cristianne took charge of the conversation once more.
"Obviously, you'd be taking a leap of faith by allowing Rachel to rent my apartment. You don't know me very well. We've exchanged some e-mails and spoken on the phone a few times, and now we're meeting face to face, but that's it. You have no real reason to trust me. But, please, let me assure you of one thing – your daughter will be safe here. I'll check up on her, as often as you like. I have an open door policy at home, just like I do at work, so she's free to come talk to me any time. And, even though the last of my children moved out a couple of years ago, I still have a tendency to cook way too much, so she'd be welcome to some healthy leftovers, should she want them. This would be a positive space for her, I guarantee it."
"You've put forward a compelling case, Cristianne," Leroy observed. "Maybe if you show us the apartment, we could see if Rachel likes it, and if it meets with our approval."
"Certainly." The tall blonde rose from her seat and gestured for the others to follow. "Right this way."
Linking his fingers through Rachel's, Jesse could detect the faint tremors of excitement, mixed with the barest hint of nerves, that were coursing through the girl at his side. He leaned closer to whisper in her ear.
"I think your dads are sold. As long as you're okay with the space, it should be a done deal."
"I hope you're right," she whispered back, "because even though I haven't seen the actual apartment yet, I have a really good feeling about this place."
After exchanging a chaste kiss, the duo turned their attention back to the rest of the group, who found themselves in the brownstone's vestibule once more. Retrieving a set of keys from her pocket, Stefan's aunt unlocked a door to the right of the main entrance, then led her eager audience up two flights of stairs.
"If nothing else, this'll keep Rachel in shape," Drew quipped, his breathing having become somewhat labored as they climbed.
"Looks like someone needs to join me on the squash court more often," Martin countered, as he made his ascent with ease.
Cristianne entered the apartment while the brothers, still exchanging gibes, came to a halt on the landing. Hiram, Leroy, Cat, Stefan and Nate crowded around them, leaving Jesse and Rachel to have the first glimpse of her possible new home. The pair stepped softly across the threshold, allowing their gazes to wander as they took in their surroundings. The efficiently laid-out kitchen, visible from the entrance, was immaculate. Its stainless steel appliances gleamed, its countertops shone, and its single window flooded the space with radiant sunlight. Two wooden bar stools were tucked in under the breakfast bar, which formed the outer edge of the living room. There, a cozy loveseat took pride of place alongside a coffee table and a small bookcase.
"This is a hell of a lot nicer than my dorm room in LA," Nate whispered to Stefan, more than a hint of envy in his voice.
"My aunt believes students shouldn't have to live in a dump just because they don't have much money," Stefan explained. "She insisted that her contractor use quality materials up here, the same as he would if he was building something for her. She's also been really selective about who she rents to. She won't let anyone in that she thinks might trash the place."
"Rachel would be an ideal tenant, then."
"You'll get no argument from me on that score."
The teens fell silent, watching with calm interest as Jesse and Rachel continued their exploration of the apartment. After glancing in at the spotless bathroom, the duo opened the door to the bedroom, murmuring their approval of the queen-sized bed, along with the ergonomic desk and chair. When their focus shifted to the far wall, however, they stopped dead in their tracks.
"Oh my God, Jesse, look! I'd swear this was designed especially for me," Rachel breathed out, her tone bordering on the reverent.
Slipping his arm around her waist and pulling her closer, Jesse couldn't help but agree with his girlfriend's assessment. The wall was covered in black chalkboard paint, with hand-drawn gold stars decorating its edges. An inspirational quote, transcribed in a beautifully flowing script, ran across the top.
"Look for the dream that keeps coming back. It is your destiny," Jesse read aloud.
A glass jar filled with multi-coloured chalk beckoned from its position on the corner of the desk. A slip of paper propped against it caught Rachel's eye, and she moved to pick it up. After scanning it quickly, she passed it wordlessly to Jesse.
Rachel – If you're reading this, know that you've passed my one and only test. When choosing tenants, I trust my instincts, and after meeting you today I feel comfortable with the prospect of sharing space in my home with you for a time because I've seen a spark in you that moves me. So consider this my formal invitation. If you're equally comfortable with the thought of living here, please feel free to add your dreams to the ones of those who came before you.
"I don't know when she managed to leave this for me."
"Probably while we were distracted by the rest of the place,' Jesse surmised, before returning his attention to the wall in front of him. "This is amazing."
"I know. When Stefan mentioned that his aunt had a place I might be able to rent, I figured it would be decent. Probably quite a bit better than the average student residence. But I never imagined it would be so perfect. That it would already feel like home."
"That's probably because of the creative vibe. It's obvious from what's written up there that the previous tenants were into the arts, too."
"Odette/Odile, Giselle, American Ballet Theater. A dancer."
"Op-Ed, New York Times, Pulitzer.A writer. And both of them truly ambitious. I'd say that clinches it, Rach. You belong here."
Caught up in their discussion, Jesse and Rachel had been completely oblivious to the fact that her dads were now standing behind them. Startled at the sound of Leroy's deep bass tones, and needing to ensure that she'd heard him correctly, his daughter whirled to face her taller father.
"Do you mean what I think you do?" she asked, her hopefulness tempered by the very real possibility that she might have misunderstood his simple statement.
"Yes, sweetie," Hiram replied, nodding for emphasis. "We've spoken to Cristianne some more, and we trust that she'll take good care of you. We're okay with you moving in."
"Well, as okay as we can be, given that you'll be in New York and we'll be in Lima," Leroy amended. "But, yes, if it's what you want, we'll sign the lease today."
"Thank you, Dad, Daddy!" Rachel gushed.
Her delight evident, she threw her arms around both men and hugged them tightly, before walking purposefully over to the desk and selecting a piece of bright pink chalk from the jar. Then, without a moment's hesitation, she added three words to the wall's dark surface.
With the matter of Rachel's future lodging now settled, the group from Lima – minus Stefan, who had stayed behind to visit with his aunt – was currently being escorted into a condo in a building located a mere three blocks from the Dalberg brownstone. The unit was the final of two that Jesse, Nate and their entourage were inspecting, the contenders having been narrowed down from the original six that had been selected based on Martin's research, and the list of very specific requirements that Jesse had submitted to his father to aid in the quest.
Just as he had earlier that afternoon, Nate found himself struggling to keep his jaw from hitting the floor as he took in the opulence of the expansive suite. Under the pretext of examining the view, he led Jesse onto the balcony, sliding the door shut behind them so that they could speak without being overheard.
"Okay, St. James, explain this to me. I'm in New York City, checking out condos that I never, even in my wildest dreams, could have imagined living in as a working adult, let alone as a student. My best friend and I have been accepted at Juilliard, one of the most prestigious schools in the country. And I'll be able to afford it thanks to some insanely generous scholarship that practically fell into my lap. How is this my life?"
"Clean living and purity of heart?" Jesse teased.
"As if," Nate scoffed, his sardonic smirk replaced almost immediately by a sober expression. "Look, I realize I'm not usually known for my thoughtful demeanor, but I'm being serious right now. I don't get how this scholarship happened. I keep wanting to call Juilliard, make sure this isn't some colossal mistake on their part – maybe a computer glitch, or there's another Nate Steadman out there, and this was meant for him…"
"Relax, Steadman. Remember what their letter said. An anonymous donor recently offered them a ton of money to establish a new scholarship. Since it was past the application deadline, they probably took all of the information they'd already collected, used that to put together a short list of the students who qualified, and then narrowed it down to you. So don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Accept your good fortune, and be grateful."
"Oh, I am! But I'm also terrified that, as soon as I let myself believe it's true, it's all going to be yanked away. Then, where will I be?"
Jesse took a moment to school his features into a neutral expression. He'd recently discovered, purely by accident after overhearing his father on the phone discussing terms of the gift, that Martin was the anonymous donor in question. With further probing, several interesting facts had come to light: that Juilliard had been thrilled to accept the money, that they'd had no qualms about the initial payout going to the recipient of Martin's choice, and that they'd allowed him to name the award. When Jesse had scoffed at his father's lack of imagination – The Second-Year Humanities Prize was a rather boring descriptor, after all – his father had explained that, since he was using money that his ex-wife would've dearly loved to get her hands on, he referred to the scholarship privately as the Screw You Hannah Palmer award. After sharing a rather malicious laugh at the woman's expense, the St. James men had agreed that there was no reason for Nate to be enlightened as to the full extent of the help he was receiving. Given how proud Joel Steadman was, and how much effort had been needed for Jesse to persuade him to accept what he'd initially considered charity, neither Martin nor his son wanted Nate to let anything slip that might prompt Joel to renege on his agreement to allow Nate to move to New York. Hence, Jesse's current discretion, and a response that revealed nothing of consequence.
"Still attending an awesome theatre program. Because that scholarship is yours. You earned it, and you're going to be working your ass off to make sure your grades are good enough for it to be renewed every semester."
Jesse's words appeared to have the desired effect. Nate's tension eased slightly – until he took renewed stock of his surroundings, and his doubts returned full force.
"This place, St. James. It'll cost your dad a small fortune."
"He can afford it."
"I know that! And I know you said before that he'd pretty much buy you anything out of guilt, and, since you made him out to be this uncaring jerk, I was fine taking advantage right along with you. But now…" Nate paused, his discomfort clear. "Now, I've spent time with him. Gotten to know him. And, well… I like the guy. I don't want to bleed him dry."
"Won't be a problem," Jesse assured his friend good-naturedly. "To be honest, I like him, too. I never thought we'd get to this point, but since he ditched my mother, he's changed. He's always been smart, but now I can see that he's warm-hearted and he's funny. He cares about his family, and he's actually someone I feel that I can count on."
"Then why are you still okay with him springing for all of this?" Nate wondered, his arm sweeping in a wide arc that encompassed the extravagance both in front of, and behind them.
"Because he's okay with it. Seriously, Steadman. He wants to do this." The taller boy shrugged. "Said it would be a good investment. Oh, and that it would be convenient to have a place in the city once you and I eventually move out."
"Well, if that's the case…" Nate's eyes met Jesse's, who nodded his silent assent as the friends headed back inside. "Let's tell your dad we choose this one."
The St. James and Berry clans, along with Nate, had celebrated their successful day with dinner at a high-end restaurant, following which they had dispersed. The adults were now at a local jazz bar, listening to one of Hiram's favourite trios. Nate had retreated to his hotel room for a Skype date with Julia. Jesse and Rachel, meanwhile, were watching from the terrace of their suite as the city brightened before them, with street lamps coming to life and lights flickering on in apartments to dispel the encroaching gloom. As she nestled into Jesse's embrace, Rachel finally sought an answer to something that had been puzzling her since their arrival.
"This is the same room we stayed in on my birthday. Is that just an incredible coincidence?"
"Uh, not exactly."
"When my dad was making the reservations, I happened to mention that this room was special to us."
Rachel's voice squeaked in embarrassment and colour suffused her cheeks as she awaited Jesse's response.
"Well, he's clever, so he probably figured it out. But what he said was, 'Hmm… So Hannah was actually telling the truth'."
"What does your mother have to do with anything?"
"When he'd seen the hotel charge on his credit card bill, he'd accused her of treating her secret lover to a night in the big city on his dime. He was pleased to know that he'd guessed wrong, but not at all sorry to have accused her unfairly."
They fell silent, each temporarily lost in thought as they gazed at the bustling city below. After several moments spent in quiet contemplation, Jesse broke the silence with a question of his own.
"Why did you include me on your list of dreams? We're together. We're beyond solid. That dream has already come true, so putting my name on your list almost seems like wasting a wish."
"I know that we're solid. But I want to make sure that I never take you for granted, and putting it in writing reminds me that, for dreams to succeed, they require hard work. Our relationship is no exception to that rule."
"We'll do whatever we have to." Jesse suddenly held Rachel at arm's length, ensuring that he had her complete attention. His eyes, those luminous windows into his very soul, practically shone in their intensity. "I'm yours, and you're mine. Forever. When the time is right, I'm going to propose."
"When the time is right, I'll accept your proposal."
Rising onto her toes, she joined her lips to his in a slow, deep kiss. When they broke apart, she noted that an impish grin had replaced his formerly serious expression.
"Do you suppose we'll have to invite Mr. Schue to the wedding?"
"Why would we?"
"Technically, it was one of his ridiculous assignments that led to our first meeting, and that epic duet in the music store."
As if on cue, strains of an oh-so-familiar melody wafted through the night air. In response to his girlfriend's raised eyebrows, Jesse merely shrugged.
"What can I say? We're destined."
"An inevitability," she concurred.
As the music swelled, they stood face to face, their hands tightly clasped. Their voices rising in unison, they serenaded each other with a harmonious rendition of the song that would always hold a special place in their hearts.
I can see it in your eyes
I can see it in your smile
You're all I've ever wanted and my arms are open wide
'Cause you know just what to say and you know just what to do
And I want to tell you so much, I love you.
A/N2: And… that's all she wrote! We've finally reached the end of this exceptionally long journey. Thanks to everyone who came along for the ride, and who followed, favorited and reviewed this story. Your feedback, encouragement and praise have meant the world to me.
For those who were hoping for a glimpse into Rachel and Jesse's future, the one I laid out for them in Those Who Can is – with a few minor tweaks – pretty much how I envision their life going forward.