Sigh. Glee, you do things to my brain. Rachel/Jesse, you do things to my soul. And Mike Chang, you need lines next season, because right now you're my third favorite character, I don't even care.
Point being: fic.
feeling lit, feeling light. glee. pg. starring rachel berry, mike chang, jesse st. james, and some of the vocal adrenaline crew (shoshandra!). set between "hell-o" and "the power of madonna".
The neon designs on his t-shirt stand out in the crowd of Carmel sweatshirts and leotards, but somehow he’s already seamless. The Mike Chang miracle.
(In which Mike gives Rachel a ride to crash Vocal Adrenaline rehearsal one afternoon. Everyone wins.)
This is weird, thinks Rachel, in the metronomic loop that her thoughts sometimes get stuck in: this is weird, this is definitely and incontrovertibly weird.
This is the inside of Mike Chang’s car: wrappers underfoot, CDs on the seat, half-full cola slushie in the cup-holder. It smells like boys’ cars always seem to smell—well, jock boys; Jesse’s car is very clean and smells a little like aftershave and (Rachel thinks, romantically) sheet music—which functions on a base of fries and sweat and works up or down from there. Not as bad as Noah’s was, which she had forced him to clean immediately at the beginning of their whirlwind fling, and no worse than Finn’s, which she had been so used at one point to that it had almost stopped smelling like anything to her, and “Sit down,” Mike says, pushing the CDs onto the floor.
Rachel forces herself to stop thinking.
“Thanks,” she says, smiling her brightest and nodding once too many times before she catches herself. “I’m sorry I had to ask you to do this for me, it’s just—”
“Nah,” Mike cuts her off, “it’s cool.”
Without acting like he just interrupted Rachel Berry midsentence—which is a little like jumping in front of a speeding truck, generally counted hazardous (she’s polysyllabically paraphrasing Finn; well, Finn and 75% of everyone else she’s ever met)—Mike flicks the key and the car starts up. She jumps in her seat, feeling the engine come to life.
“I’m fine,” she says, and she’s apologizing already, it feels like she’s always apologizing these days, “I’m sorry, I’m—”
“You want to close the door?”
She closes it. The car peels out of the parking lot. She tries another smile his way, not quite so bright, not quite so sure. The weird thing is: he’s smiling back.
(That part gets less weird later. Once she figures out what he looks like when he’s trying not to laugh.)
So she’d called an emergency glee rehearsal over break—their assignment that week had been an a capella number, and the group simply refused to get the harmonies right—but Jesse had been texting her and her phone had been vibrating in her pocket the whole time and it was very distracting: Rachel Berry might be a performer, but she’ll be the first to admit that she finds the whole notion of a poker face very difficult. How in the world is she supposed to do anything except smile and blush when in her pocket, there on the screen, for her, for her eyes only, her phone is reading: i dreamed a dream when you’d come by. listening to b-way’s greatest on shuffle just for you. ;)
It’s hard enough to talk like a reasonable person and not scream with joy—well, belt high Cs of joy—at the top of her lungs all the time when things like that happen (EXCUSE ME, NEW DIRECTIONS, she thinks like a neon sign, BUT I AM DATING A BOY), never mind sing (HIS NAME IS JESSE ST. JAMES AND HE LIKES ME) and be serious (HE REALLY LIKES ME) and keep a straight face (CAN WE PLEASE HAVE A MOMENT OF SILENCE OR PERHAPS SOME APPROPRIATE HARMONIZING FOR THE OCCASION). She fancies herself a better-than-average team player, but at this moment in time, her life is worth singing solos about. Except now, more than ever, she needs to shut herself up.
So her cheeks are red and her hand is in her pocket for the entire time, which throws off her balance because she is a performer and needs space to move and besides which, she’s a passionate person and needs her hands to talk, and it’s not like she can count on Finn to keep the rehearsal together, so of course it falls apart. Santana and Brittany bail—Santana claims Cheerios practice, and when Rachel asks very politely what they’re practicing, Santana flips her ponytail and snaps, “It’s called going someplace where I don’t have to listen to Rachel Berry talk. Because we all know you’re not going to stop anytime soon.” And for two seconds there, Rachel almost wants to cry, but then her pocket buzzes and she claps her fingers around it tightly, glancing from side to side in mortal fear that someone has noticed.
Finn notices. That’s when she officially calls it a day.
“All right!” she calls out, “everyone out!”
They move toward the door much faster than they have moved their feet all period. (And they think she can’t hear them when they’re right outside the door, as Quinn asks “Is she off her meds?” and Kurt sighs, “If only we were lucky enough to get Rachel on meds.” Again, that moment right before tears, right before it’s possible to lose control and break down entirely—but this one ends early; she has a text message to read.)
She sits down. miss you, it says. my dance partner sprained her ankle. wish you were here to dance with me instead.
I’m so sorry about your dance partner!! she replies. I miss you SO MUCH already! I want to see you!! *xo* <3 <3
Quick in her hand: come by carmel after school. rehearsal til 5. i’ll drive you home.
She’s texted YES and sent it before she remembers: she has no car, she cannot drive, and she can in no way, in no feasible universe, ask Finn to drive out to Carmel so she can see the boyfriend she isn’t supposed to have. Oh. Right.
Rachel Berry is, at this point, kind of screwed.
Usually when she’s this frustrated and fed up with the world, she can find something to sing about it, something with a high F or, on really bad days, something that stretches the alto end of her mezzo range. But now she has no time to sing, she has to go to geometry, and the walls are too thin between her and the tone-deaf students prowling the hall. For a moment, she considers skipping class to go to the auditorium, but Rachel Berry has a perfect attendance record. She settles for kicking a chair.
It’s at that point that Mike Chang walks into the room.
“Hey,” he says, and she snaps, “What are you doing in here?”
“I came back to get my hat.” He swoops under a chair, all six foot thin of him bending in half to pick up a slightly crumpled cap. “Can’t have the Changster without a handy-dandy hat, huh?”
He dusts off the hat and he’s leaving when he looks back over his shoulder. “You okay?”
“Yes.” She reconsiders. “No.” They’re both true. “I’ve just got a lot of feelings.”
Mike digests this. “Okay,” he says.
It’s the fact that he doesn’t ask that gets her. Like he doesn’t open it up to judgment and undermining the way that other—small-minded—people do all the time. Mike Chang, she is suddenly sure, is not judging her; she knows it with a clarity that comes on in a huge eureka rush. Later, she’ll chalk this whole dialogue up to endorphins. Certainly not normal, sane, thought-sponsored impulses. But she knows she likes him better than just about anyone else in glee club right then, and she knows what she wants.
“Mike,” she says to him, “do you have a car?”
So. Here she is.
Thing is: that was the first conversation she’s ever had with Mike Chang. Outside of glee, at least, which is almost the same of never having had any. During glee, she’s critiqued his footwork and encouraged him to harmonize louder. And she’s danced with him, which she will admit was an experience she’s eager to repeat—she’s gotten used to dancing with Finn, but she didn’t even have to get used to Matt, he’s so not Finn. He might, with a little bit of polish, be as good as she is, even. Someday, at least. She’s not sure whether or not to tell him that. She’s not even sure if she should talk about the whole glee thing, not that she knows what else to go into: he’s a football player, a good dancer, a good smiler, she thinks before she blushes and looks down. Although it’s true, he smiles like he shrugs like he dances: like it’s easy.
That’s what she ends up saying: “Has it always been easy for you?”
“Huh?” He’s tapping his fingers against the wheel as they drive, tapping with a clear rhythm that even reaches his shoulders, a whole musical medley that only he can hear. He never stops moving, she realizes. She’s noticed this in rehearsals, catalogued it like she catalogues everything: Mike Chang is never not in motion. “Is what easy?”
“Dancing,” she means (it’s clearer that way). “You dance very well, but I know you don’t go to the studio. Well, not my studio, but Ohio only has so many studios, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t go to the same one I attend. It’s just basic logic. I admit, I’ve been taught in a more classical style than you have, but they have all sorts of classes. Plus, I can spot training. I have a very good eye for formative techniques. So does it just come naturally or—what?”
“Oh.” He considers, with that funny twist to his mouth. “I guess. I mean, I took some classes early on, and then I kept taking them because I liked them. And I put my time in, don’t get me wrong, but it’s never felt like work. Is that what you meant?”
Rachel nods. “That’s what I was asking about—because you are good. Very good,” she admits.
“Thanks. Is singing like that for you?”
“No,” she snaps before she can help herself. It’s like a reflex: people think being Rachel Berry is something easy, like she can keep her voice like a pet and pull it out when she needs something to show off. People call it a gift, and yes, she’s gifted, she’s never denied that—but it’s a gift she has to constantly keep making for herself before she can give it to herself. It’s not easy. She doesn’t know what easy is supposed to be like, even before you throw in the rest (her lipstick in the toilet, Quinn’s drawings and Kurt’s side-eyes and Finn’s shrugs and Mr. Schuester’s “I think we should hear someone else today, Rachel”s, there’s always something between her and the spotlight and, she’s learning, it’s called high school). “I was born to sing and to perform, and that means that I have to work on it every day of my life. I have a gift, but that means that it’s my duty to the world to polish that gift to shine. I will admit that I have a natural advantage, but when I become a star someday, it’ll be because I’ve worked for it. People take me for granted, you know, but that’s a luxury I can’t afford. The minute I take myself for granted is the minute that the balance in the universe shifts so that someday in the future my voice cracks at an audition and someone else gets the part that is rightfully mine, and I never get my big break. I put the whole of my being into it. Every single day. Every single song.”
“Okay,” he says, raising a hand, “okay.”
She probably should have stopped at “no.” She gets it. But she can’t help it: she opens her mouth and the future unfurls. She can see it, how it’s supposed to be, and how it might be if she leaves it up to the rest of the world. Nothing scares her worse—nothing in the world is more frightening than the idea of the future determined by someone who is not Rachel Berry.
She sighs, and puts her head down against the windowsill. “Sorry.”
He looks over. “Did you know that sometimes you’re a little hard to talk to?”
“I have heard that.” She turns her head, looking out the window at Lima’s less-than-scenic vistas. So that’s how it’s going to be, then. “Well, that’s the price of foresight and dedication. People resent you.”
“Nah, it’s not that.”
“What is it, then?”
“You’re just—hardcore. Like really hardcore.” She doesn’t know what to say to that. It’s something between a compliment and an insult, and all things considered, she’d prefer one or the other. She turns her head back toward him, waiting for him to clarify the spectrum. “You know, say you were a dude and you played football? If you were like you were with football the way you are about singing? I bet you’d be really good, but Coach Tanaka’d probably have to bench you before you killed someone out there.”
She laughs before she knows what she’s doing. That’s an image: Rachel Berry, dude. It’s hard enough trying to imagine not being able to wear skirts or hit any of the notes in “Think of Me”. What a life. “I’ve never thought about being a guy before.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think you’d be on the team. You’d still be you, right? Like if I was a chick, I’d still be the Changster. And you could be a dude, but you’d still be singing.” He cocks his head at her. “Speaking of which, we need some grooves. Pick something. I’ve got a ton of music, and it’s kind of a long drive.”
That’s the second conversation she’s ever had with Mike Chang.
She turns on the car stereo and puts in a blank CD, because all the CDs in the car are mixes with indecipherable titles or no names at all. She presses play and then squeals out loud, reflexively flattening herself against the back of the seat: the volume is all the way up and the speakers are bellowing EVERYBODY LOOK AT ME ‘CAUSE I’M SAILING ON A BOAT into her ears. All he does is laugh, cranking it somehow, unimaginably higher. “Come on! This is awesome!”
Well. As her fathers would say, when they’ve had more than one glass of wine and start reminiscing about honeymooning in French Canada, chacun a son goût.
His head bobs to the beat. T-Pain autotunes melodiously in the background, and then Mike looks at her and encourages her to sing along. Well—he doesn’t encourage out loud, per se, but his eyebrows leap like fish in a pond and the music almost resembles melody and, look, she’s Rachel Berry. This is what she does: she opens her mouth, she sings. Every time.
Harmonizing “motherfucker” is kind of hard. But she’s Rachel Berry, and she manages.
“I don’t listen to much rap,” she confesses afterward, and Mike doesn’t fully stop laughing until they’ve reached Carmel. By then, she’s already starting to confess that if she could trust New Directions to get a five-part harmony going properly, that they could do an excellent choral rendition of any one of the amazing autotuned monstrosities in his CD deck. It almost enough to make her want to listen to them again—just so she can pick apart the instrumentation, of course. “Look, why don’t I give you recs?” he says. “What’s your email?”
“It’s on my Myspace—”
“You still have a Myspace? Berry, you are old school.”
“It’s professional, thank you very much.”
Mike Chang laughs like he moves, which is to say: all the time. It’s infectious. Like colds and his stupid comedy rap.
(“No,” he says as they pass the interstate, “Rachel, come on, it’s not about melody—just tell the vocal police in your head to shut up for two seconds and then tell me that Childish Gambino is not a lyrical genius.”
“You’re a musical imbecile.”
“I’m a funkmaster.”
She makes a mental note, at that point, to never let him in charge of music selection: everyone who knows anything about show choir knows that funk numbers are déclassé.)
Stepping out into the Carmel High parking lot, she feels so light on her feet she almost feels clumsy with it: she’s laughing like she could drown out the ringing in her ears, the ghosts of barely musical music still resonating in her eardrums. Mike Chang bebops over to her side of the car. “You good?” She nods. She is. She couldn’t say why, but she smiles and so does he. “You lead. I’ve never been here.”
They walk into the school lobby. She’s been here before, but it never fails to astonish her: the school is so polished, too bright and too large all around her. Right outside of the auditorium, the trophy case stands in full view, gleaming brightest of all. She sees her face in their gilt, her eyes magnified in the curve of the Nationals cup. Dazzled eyes, paralyzed for a moment in the gold.
“Someday,” Mike booms into her ear in an imposing megaphone of a voice, “all this will be yours.”
He reconsiders. “Ours. The club’s. Yours. Whatever. We’re going to win something, some time.”
You think? She doesn't ask it. It's enough that he doesn't bother to doubt.
“Yeah,” she says, voice strong. “We are.”
They slip into the auditorium and sit in the back row. On stage, New Directions is performing “Highway to Hell”: Jesse has his hands on a redheaded girl’s waist, is closing his eyes and belting to the sky. She can practically see the music thrumming in his throat. His voice reaches out into the room, the ceiling, the back row—the necessary holy grail of any belter, her seat of the moment. He hasn’t seen her yet, but it’s easy enough to imagine that he’s singing for her: his gorgeous voice, his gorgeous hair, the perfect lines his arms make in the air. She gulps and has to remind herself to breathe.
“Stop it!” their coach calls from her seat in the front row—Ms. Corcoran, Rachel remembers from the programs; she hasn’t met her, but from the few rehearsals she’s attended, she already admires her steely resolve and willingness to acknowledge clearly superior talent. “You sound excellent, Jesse—” Rachel beams from the back row: point proven, of course— “so excellent that I can’t hear anyone else. Which is everyone else’s fault! We’re on a highway to hell, people! I need to hear you scream in perfect melody!”
Jesse stands in the front, breathing hard in a way that makes it hard for Rachel to remember to close her mouth. That’s been happening a lot, lately: she looks at Jesse, or thinks about Jesse, or listens to Jesse murmuring lyrical allusions into her ear and she forgets what to do with her hands, she doesn’t remember how the muscles of her face normally function. Losing motor skills is a sign of true love, she believes.
“That’s my boyfriend,” she says out loud.
“Yeah, I know,” Mike says.
“Of course you do.” She bites her lip. "The whole glee club knows. Or knew. I can barely tell any more. No one's saying anything."
She looks at him plaintively, but his silence is impeccable. He only leans back, eyes still on the dancers under the lights, the girls swirling in eddies around Jesse onstage. “He’s good.”
“I’m still not used to it yet.” She leans forward, as if she could reach the spotlight around him just by wanting it. “I’m dating him. I’m dating him. I’m dating him.”
Mike’s hand knocks into her shoulder, shaking her off balance and out of her reverie loop. Looking back at him, she sees him leaning back in the seat and watching her like he’s waiting for something. “Just go up there.”
“And disrupt rehearsal? I would never!”
“Get a front-row seat. Come on, I’ll be back here, but you should go up. Otherwise you’re going to clothesline yourself against the next row.”
Admittedly, her chin is already on top of the second row of seats. If he’s really concerned about her personal security, she thinks, it won’t be a breach of etiquette to leave him back here. “Thank you for your concern,” she says. “I think I will.”
She’s barely into the aisles when she sees Jesse look up and the flash of awareness like a spotlight in his eyes. A slow grin stretches across his face, and she stops in her tracks halfway down the rows. It doesn’t matter that the girl next to him smirks and slides up next to him: she puts her hand on his shoulder and he flicks it off, his eyes never leaving Rachel’s. He cocks his head: a beckoning, a welcome.
He’s my boyfriend. It’s all she can do not to stick her tongue out at the nearest girl onstage: you might belong here, she thinks, but—and with Jesse looking at her, it finally feels true—so do I.
It’s impossible for Rachel to feel insecure for long in any place with a stage.
She sits down in the front row, next to the aisle, and watches the rehearsal. The chorus harmonizes and dances, repeating and repeating and perfecting practiced steps. At the center of everything, there is Jesse, singing just a little louder and dancing just a little harder every time they run the piece. He steps and reaches and it feels like he’s reaching for her, her heart just another piece of musical accompaniment. They run it and run it and end it with mile-wide smiles and sweaty limbs, gloriously exhausted. God, she wishes she was up there. It’s never enough to wait in the audience.
But it ends, and Jesse is the first off the stage, jumping down next to her as the rest of the group filters out into the wings. “Hey you,” he says, hand reaching out toward the curve of her face, curling into her hair. As if he knows exactly how she will lean in, how she is constantly learning his hands and his face and the whole fact of him. Let me introduce you to Jesse, he said to her the first time he brought her to this place, the first time he kissed her, and he has never stopped introducing himself since. “I hoped you’d show up.”
She kisses him.
He kisses back. Impeccably.
“Perfect,” he says, grazing her lower lip with his thumb. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a quick study?”
“Every voice teacher I’ve ever had.” She blushes. It’s not the same. His arm wraps around her waist, pulling her close enough that she feels his words as much as hears them: “They were right.”
Too soon, he’s gone to change out of practice clothes; be back in two, kissing her cheek so next to her mouth. Ms. Corcoran walks by her and looks down almost as if she’s about to say something—Rachel’s trying to figure out the protocol of her being there, whether she should apologize or what, when Ms. Corcoran shakes her head, smiling in a way that Rachel doesn’t know how to read, and leaves without comment. She heads back up the aisle, only to be met by giggles in the back row: a girl with her leg in a cast sitting next to Mike and trying ineffectually to smother laughter. “I hate you for being so right,” Rachel hears, “everything is better with popping and locking. I need to take you out dancing with me when I get this thing off me. Write your number on my cast?”
Feeling like she’s interrupting something, Rachel waves with the tips of her fingers. Mike points to her with a Sharpie in his hand. “Hey, Rach! This is Shoshandra.”
“I know you!” the girl says. “I mean, no, I don’t, but I totally do. We saw you at Sectionals—plus, Jesse, duh. Hi, Rachel Berry. You’re sort of famous.”
“Dude,” Mike says, “be impressed, right?”
Rachel doesn’t know who he’s talking to, her or Shoshandra.
“Hi,” she says. “Nice to meet you?”
“I was dancing with Jesse,” Shoshandra continues, “and I was always off a count when the time signature switch, and he’d be like, you know who could do this? and I’d be like who? and he’d sigh—like, dramatize—and go never mind but he’d whip out his phone and start texting. And then I fucked up my ankle and now everyone knows Liz is a better dancer than me, but the point is, way to get Jesse obsessed with you. He totally is and we all know it. We sort of hate you!” Her smile flashes, huge and bright, but it’s barely even barbed. Rachel gets it—she’s understood the talent/talent barrier since she was put in advanced ballet class at age five and her preschool best friend, stuck in intermediate, promptly aborted their sandbox friendship. It is completely possible to hate someone and like them at the same time, for the same things. It’s in the air here: talent, the workings of talent, shaping everyone around it. And, here, there is Jesse at the center. And now, next to Jesse, there is her. Part of the center of this burnished world. “You should come to one of our parties on the weekend,” Shoshandra says. And then she turns to Mike and says, “You should come to one of our parties. It would be fun. Gimme a call, okay?”
She’d say it was a boy thing, but she doesn’t think so, not when she’s spent this much time around Finn and seen him fumble for words, not when she’s dealt with Noah’s amalgamation of real charm and false sleaze and seen every girl in glee develop a different cutoff point for listening to him talk, not when Artie still starts talking like Vanilla Ice when he’s nervous even though everyone tells him it’s passé, not when she’s seen Matt look like a deer in the headlights just because she talked to him even though all she was saying was that he had the potential to be a fine bass if he would just project. It’s a Mike thing. It’s easy.
When Shoshandra leaves, she asks, “Did you know her?” already knowing that he’ll shake his head—which he does.
“Nah.” He shrugs. “She was just sitting alone and watching, so I said hi.”
“That’s what you do with everyone, isn’t it?”
“What, say hi if no one else is there with them?” He thinks it over, with the Mike-thinking-things-over face, or the Mike-thinking-things-she’s-said-over face (she doesn’t know if the face is a constant; he always seems extra bemused when he’s listening to her), features mobile with consideration, feet in big yellow sneakers stretching into the space Shoshandra’s left behind. “Yeah, I guess that’s pretty much a thing that I do. Just call me Mike Chang: defender of friendliness.”
“As opposed to Mike Chang: funkmaster?”
“Oh, right. Um—nope. Both.”
“You're nothing if not a man of many talents,” she says, and he tips his hat towards her.
When he stands up to leave, she hugs him. Kind of attacks him with a hug, actually. He feels like a stretched-out version of a normal human in her arms; even his confused hands patting her back seem absurdly long. “Thank you, Mike,” she says. Straightening up and stepping back, clearing her throat and making her face into something less spongily grateful, even though that’s how she feels: stupidly grateful for him, for knowing him. She has not asked him why are you doing this, why are you being nice to me, and he’s answered it all the same. It’s not about her, and she thinks he’s kind of wonderful for it: she’s used to being an exception, but in this case, it’s more than nice to be the rule. You’re a good person, she wants to tell him (for she’s decided that as much as she’s decided that she will finagle him as her dance partner again next time they choreograph a routine) but she’s figured out by now that people get scared when she gives them pronouncements, even good ones, even nice ones. Instead, she straightens up and clarifies: “For the ride, I mean.”
“Hey, no big deal.” He shrugs with one hand. “Any time.” He’s almost at the door when he turns around. “Seriously, next time you’re coming down here, let me know. This—” he nods affirmatively— “was cool.”
It’s not about her, she’s sure. It could be about Shoshandra, or about the randomness of all this, about the way that when she’s out in the hallway, waiting for Jesse, she sees him get enveloped by the Vocal Adrenaline crowd and doesn’t see him come out. But it’s somewhere the two of them have in common, and that’s enough.
The neon designs on his t-shirt stand out in the crowd of Carmel sweatshirts and leotards, but somehow he’s already seamless. The Mike Chang miracle.
“Who was that kid?” Jesse asks, sliding up behind her with his hands wrapping around her waist, cheek to her hair, her body already leaning back in against him even as her skin shivers with delight over her bones: this is another place where you belong.
Another, though. She’s three for three, today.
She turns her head until their mouths are neighbors. “A friend from glee,” she says before they meet.