Practice was over, and about half of the Bellas were collapsed in chairs, sweating, panting, sucking down water, and listening to Amy say Amy things. The Amy things were just on the verge of becoming interesting when Beca felt a tug on her elbow and before she could fully process what was happening, she was dragged off to the corner by Chloe and Aubrey. "Beca, we need to talk."
Beca had felt this coming, feared this coming, for awhile now, ever since Aubrey had tossed her the pitch pipe. They could want to yell at her for any number of things. She decided to deflect it as best she could, and offered up as sacrifice the one insult it would hurt the least to hear. "Is it the dancing? Guys, I'm sorry, I'm not a good dancer. You knew this. I'm trying, though. Just pull a Lance Bass and stick me in the back."
"It's not the dancing," said Chloe.
"It's a little bit the dancing--" started Aubrey in a softer voice, but Chloe impressively cut her off with a hand gesture, not even looking at her. Things had clearly changed a lot in the past few weeks, because the gesture worked.
"It's the mix. Something's...” Chloe frowned, as if trying to put her words in the right order. “It's good, Beca, it really is, but something's not quite right. Something's missing. It feels off.”
Honestly, Beca had seen this particular accusation coming, as well. They weren’t the only ones who felt off. The mix they were using for rehearsal was not up to Beca’s usual standards, and weirdly, she didn’t think the new difficulty of turning it into a vocal arrangement was the problem. "So what do you want me to do?"
"We want you to focus,” said Aubrey.
“Hey! I am focusing. I am focused.”
Aubrey shook her head, in a state of clear disbelief. “You need to get your head in the game. You're distracted."
Chloe decided to play Good Cop, for which Beca was relieved. "We want to help, Beca. What's wrong? What's really wrong?"
Chloe’s gaze was too understanding, too sympathetic. Oh, god, they knew. Beca had spent the majority of her life up until this moment hiding anything resembling feelings behind thick eyeliner and a bottomless bag of sarcastic quips. Giant headphones helped, too. But now she had friends and problems and friends who could tell she had problems. "No, it's nothing," she insisted.
Aubrey and Chloe shared a knowing look. "So it is that Treble boy," said Aubrey, with only a small tinge of disdain.
"Jesse? No. Definitely no."
Something must have changed in her face, though. Chloe put her hand on Beca‘s arm. "What happened?"
“I’m not being evasive,” she said. “Nothing happened. Nothing is happening.”
"What’s this? Are you having a private meeting?" Amy yelled across the room. "Are you going to change the choreography again?"
"No," called Beca.
"Maybe," said Chloe. To Aubrey and Beca, she clarified, “Well, if Beca changes the mix, we’ll have to, won’t we?”
"We're going to have a group meeting," said Aubrey, definitively, to everyone.
"Beca has a boy problem." At this statement, the group started shifting in their seats and murmuring excitedly amongst themselves. They'd been doing nothing but Bella business for so long, it probably thrilling to have any flimsy excuse for something non-Bella-related. Boy problems were probably especially exciting.
"I have neither a boy nor a problem," Beca defended hotly. She found herself stalking over to her chair and sitting down again, even though it meant she was throwing herself into the lion's den. She should probably just leave and save herself the trouble, she knew. So why was she still there?
She needed the nerds. That was the truth of it. No matter how reluctant she was, no matter how much she wanted to deny it or tried to deny it, she knew she needed these girls because she couldn’t figure out how to get through the Jesse thing alone.
"Oh, that hot piece of ass in the Treblemakers?" said Stacie.
Beca didn't mean to shoot her a death glare, she really didn't.
Stacie shrugged, nonplussed. "What? He's hot. You know, in that singing-dancing-probably-really-likes-Star-Trek way. Besides, it’s not like I would actually do anything; he's obviously Beca's."
"He's not mine.” She had a definite pang in her chest every time she said something along those lines. “Anyway, it doesn't even matter, he's a Treble, so he's off-limits, right? We took an oath. Something about wolves."
"You knew him before auditions, though, right?" said Chloe. She pulled her chair closer to Beca's, as though attempting to protect her from the horde of nosy girls. Beca looked at her in surprise. Had she been talking about Jesse? Had someone actually been listening and paying attention?
"Um, yeah. From the station."
"Then he doesn't count," said Chloe dismissively.
"But..." Beca felt like she was grasping at straws. "There was an oath!"
"He doesn't count, right, Aubrey?"
"Wait, how come Beca gets to break the rules?" said Amy. "Maybe the rest of us want to have a little something on the side."
Cynthia Rose gave her the side-eye. “I thought you and Bumper already did.”
Amy straightened in her chair. “That is neither here nor there,” she said primly. “We were discussing Beca’s illicit hanky-panky.”
"Jesse and I have never hankied or pankied!" Beca said in a panic.
Amy gave her a dead stare. "No wonder you're so grumpy." She raised her hand. "I'd like to change my vote so Beca gets laid."
"This is not something to vote about," said Beca.
"It's an a ca-democracy," said Chloe.
"Not when Aubrey was going on about penetration and made us take an oath! And can we stop using 'a ca' as a prefix like it even makes sense? It’s not as cool as you think.”
"Beca!" said Chloe. Her tone made Beca snap to attention. The older girl was unbelievably kind most of the time, but she was so intense in everything that she did that she could also scare the crap out of Beca. "Do you or don't you like Jesse?"
"I like him," she said, in a tiny, Lilly-esque voice. "But, Aubrey made us promise--"
"Screw Aubrey's promise," said Chloe. Aubrey gasped. They all turned to look, startled by the sound, and Aubrey struggled, but succeeded, in composing herself. "You didn't give a damn about Aubrey when you started freestyling at the semi-finals."
"Hey, I apologized for that."
"It's not relevant," said Chloe. "The point is, everyone here knows you think the oath is stupid. You didn’t exactly try to hide it. But now you're trying to hide behind it." She sat back, looking very smug.
"Jesse is... not as bad as the others," Aubrey said, and it very obviously took her a lot to get the words out. Beca was impressed at the effort, in spite of herself. "And you knew him before. So you have my permission."
"But..." And yet Beca couldn't come up with anything else. She’d hit her limit on flimsy excuses for why she couldn’t or wouldn’t pursue anything with Jesse. Feeling heavy, she sank back into her chair. She had nothing but the cold truth now. "But he doesn't want me."
"Of course he wants you," said Cynthia Rose. "Have you seen the way he looks at you?"
She had. She’d tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away and she wouldn’t have to deal with this very problem. Then it had gone away, and she missed it. She was an idiot. "Not after the semi-finals. After break was over, I went to apologize for yelling at him and he slammed the door in my face." The girls clucked sympathetically.
Well, except for Stacie. "A ca-scuse me?"
"What did I just say," groaned Beca, rolling her eyes.
Stacie wisely ignored the outburst. "That boy wants to sing you ooey-gooey love ballads. He bailed you out of jail. He doesn't give a solid damn about you raising your voice. He's upset because you said, in front of everyone, that you didn't want him."
Beca sank further into the unforgiving folding chair. "That's basically what he said when I tried to apologize," said Beca. "Minus the ooey-gooey feelings part."
"That's because the ooey-gooey feelings part is blindingly obvious to everyone ever," said Chloe. "What is still in question here, what that poor boy is waiting for, is whether or not you have feelings back."
"If you even have feelings," said Lilly.
"I’m not a robot!” Beca said sharply, frustrated. “Why does everyone think I don’t have feelings? I have feelings. I'm just not good at having feelings. I never have been. When you have feelings, people leave. So I try not to let that happen.” She felt like someone having a dramatic breakthrough on a therapist’s leather couch. She felt cliche. She felt lonely. “I've been pushing him away all year and I don't know why he comes back,” she said, her voice getting smaller with defeat. “Except this time, I don't think he will."
"He'll take you back," said Aubrey.
Beca looked at her with a disproportionate rush of hope, wondering if Aubrey had some insider info or maybe just some cosmic wisdom. She’d take anything at this point.
Aubrey shrugged. "We did."
They all smiled at her in turn. It was a truly dopey moment, Beca’s cynical mind knew, but by god, the rest of her was clinging to it. She had a group of cool lady friends who were willing to do things like listen to her music ideas and help her with boy troubles. And to think all this time she’d been trying to avoid things like this.
"So, how are you going to get the guy?" said Chloe.
The sad thing was, she'd had a plan in the back of her mind, even when she'd deemed the whole thing impossible. Well, she still kind of did. It was the sort of thing Jesse’d love. He likes movie endings," she said. "Big, sweeping, romantic, epic gestures. And Simple Minds."
"What," said Stacie, "he likes stupid girls?"
"I finished a final remix for the finals," she said, looking at her hands. This was not a small deal, in many ways. "Something I was working on, to apologize to Jesse. It’s not that different from what we’re doing now. I just added a song and tweaked a few things, but...” She looked up, and without really meaning to, met Aubrey’s eyes first. “It’s better. Like, not only will we win, but I’m pretty sure we’ll change a capella. The Bellas will definitely be remembered, and not for puking.” Aubrey, in a gesture that made Beca respect her immensely, ignored the vomit comment and only nodded in consideration.
“How much will we have to dance?” Amy asked. Cynthia Rose elbowed her.
“Then let’s do it,” said Chloe.
“We’re going to have to dance a lot, aren’t we?” said Amy.
“Will you be quiet?” said Cynthia Rose.
“Are you sure?” said Beca. “I thought you said Jesse was a distraction.”
Chloe and Aubrey shared a look. “Honestly, we think you’re distracted without him.”
“Beca feels guilty,” Amy narrated helpfully.
“Pretty much,” said Chloe. Amy leaned back, looking pleased at being acknowledged. “Anyway, I think you need him creatively. The Riff-Off was the best we’ve ever been, and that only happened because you wanted to challenge Jesse.”
“Can you make us that good again?” said Aubrey.
“You guys are good,” she reminded them. “I just remix tracks.”
“So remix the Bellas from just good into the best. Remix us into winners.”
Beca took a deep breath to compose herself as Jesse worked his way closer to the stage. He’d been civil. It was a good thing: he could have been rude or ignored her completely. But it was a bad thing: he hadn’t been friendly, he’d been civil. The polite well-wishes between two competitors. She could’ve gotten the same reaction from one of the Sockapellas’ puppets.
Then Jesse hit the stage and Beca couldn’t do anything but watch. She wasn’t even doing it clinically, to size up the competition. She just drank in the performance with the same breathless awe as all of the girls in the front row. He wasn't a great dancer, exactly. (Well, neither was she.) But he had stage presence.
“Damn,” said Stacie.
“Shh,” said Beca.
“I can’t believe we thought Bec didn’t have feelings,” said Cynthia Rose. “She’s looking at him like he’s a dessert tray.”
“That sounds more like lust,” said Denise.
Chloe got too close to Beca’s face, peering at her intently with a goofy face. “Aw, you guys, I think she looooves him.”
“What are you, eight?” Beca swatted her away, but she was blushing. “All right, you win, I’m a mushy girl, will you just let me watch?”
“It’ll be okay,” Chloe said, quieter, so the others couldn’t hear.
Beca couldn’t take her eyes off Jesse, flirting so shamelessly with everyone in the first row. She was sure it was just the routine. Pretty sure. Had he moved on? Had she waited too long? “How can you be so sure?” she whispered.
Chloe squeezed her hand. “Faith.”
Beca squeezed back and hoped Chloe was right.
Beca managed to have a hot thirty seconds alone with the trophy before Aubrey claimed it. It was shiny and sturdy, not something that would easily come apart. Now that she knew from experience.
Aubrey’s eyes gleamed and Beca suspected she wouldn’t be seeing that trophy again until next year.
The backstage area was crammed with all of the medaling teams and assorted family members, significant others, and other such supporters. Beca wondered if her father had dared to make it back there. She would've liked to see him, share her moment of triumph, but maybe later. There was only one person she wanted to talk to, now that they had time to talk. Beca wove her way through the crowd, trying to keep a low profile, because every time she looked up, someone recognized her and descended on her to tell her how revolutionary the performance was. “Tell Aubrey,” she said, pointing over to where Aubrey was all but caressing the trophy. “It’s her team. She’s the one that led us here.”
Eventually, she figured, it’d come out that she’d done the arrangement, and people were going to want to talk to her about... something. She wasn’t really sure how these things were supposed to go. But that was eventually, and this was tonight, and tonight she just wanted to be with Jesse. She finally found him surrounded by Treblemakers, scribbling something down on paper for a starry-eyed looking girl that was sixteen at max. She waited for the girl to skip off and raised an eyebrow. “I hope that wasn’t your number.”
“And what if it was?”
“I could get physical.”
“That doesn’t sound particularly threatening. Mostly just inviting. And anyway, she wanted my autograph.”
“Of course she did.”
Jesse shrugged, apparently unconcerned. “She’s an a ca-groupie. I don’t think my raw sexuality comes into it. If she realized who you were, she would’ve wanted your autograph, too.”
“Has that been happening all year?” she asked, unable to stop herself.
Jesse shrugged, looking slightly cagey. “Maybe a little.” He stepped in closer. “But it’s not a thing. You’re a thing.”
“I’m a thing,” she echoed flatly. “You sweet-talker, you.”
“Okay, that sounded bad. I just meant that I’ve been thinking about you all year.” Jesse grabbed Beca’s hands in his. “Only you.”
Beca actually couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so she just squeezed his hands tightly. She hoped he’d understand. Jesse gave the slightest nod, kept smiling, squeezed back. He had somewhat picked up what she meant by the gesture: she knew what he meant, she kind of understood how he felt, but she wasn’t ready for all of that yet.
“You should’ve won,” she changed tactics politely. Credit where credit was due. “You were pretty damn good.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“I meant it about you,” she said, then grinned. “You were good. But we absolutely should’ve won.”
“No arguments here. It was hard to compete with that. You were pretty freaking amazing out there," said Jesse.
Beca laughed. “I know.”
“Don’t get an ego or anything.”
"Wouldn't dream of it."
"But come on, that ending? So predictable," he said.
She looked up at him. "Seriously?"
"Seriously?" he echoed. "You perform a grand gesture, win the competition and get the guy? It was telegraphed a mile away."
"You still watched, didn't you?"
"Well, it had a great score."
There was something about Jesse, his dimples maybe, or his goofy dancing, or his singing, or his... well, all right, his everything, that made her feel like she was thirteen again and developing her first serious crush. It made her go all wobbly inside, and the fact that she had held off for so long ought to have earned her an international award for stubbornness, because staring at him right then, she thought she'd quite literally melt into a puddle of Beca. Where was her trademark steely demeanor? Lost in the post-victory adrenaline rush, probably. She mentally pinched herself, because adrenaline rushes didn’t last forever. This wasn't a movie, after all, no matter what Jesse said. It didn't just end with a big kiss and a big trophy, the rest of her life still had to happen after that.
"I'm sorry," she said, when she realized she’d spent too much time in her head.
Jesse was bemused. “For?”
He raised an eyebrow and the wattage his smile dimmed a bit. “You’re killing the moment, here.”
“I know, I know. But this is our first real conversation since… Well, anyway, it has to be said, because with my track record, I’m going to screw this up pretty soon.”
“You could surprise yourself,” he said, squeezing her hand.
"I can try. I can try really hard. I can't promise anything beyond that."
“You can reference more of my favorite soundtracks in a large-scale production every time you screw up.”
“That sounds exhausting.”
“So try not to screw up,” he grinned. Jesse’s smile was so stupidly infectious.
"I'm an idiot, you know. For letting it go this long, I mean."
"The thought had crossed my mind. At least you’re an idiot savant. That was a pretty serious remix back there.”
Beca was so relieved at this conversational turn, this implicit forgiveness. “What makes you think I had anything to do with it?”
“It had your stamp all over it, unless Aubrey's got some secret talents I don't know about."
"She has a lot of secret talents. Have you seen the Youtube video?"
"Our first real date, and there you are going on about projectile vomiting."
"What date? This isn't a date."
“It’s not? It has all the trappings of a first date. We’re in a theater. There was a show. Not to mention that you serenaded me.”
Beca made a face. “That’s normal? What kind of girls do you usually date?” It was rhetorical, of course. She did not want to know the answer to that. Ever, if possible.
“Only the ones I have to work really hard for,” he said.
“You must be very persistent.”
“Extremely.” Slowly he’d been moving closer to her and her body was pulsating with pent-up energy. She felt like every Rihanna song ever. Beca’s heart thudded a beat. She thought the anticipation might actually kill her.
The best part of this was, she didn’t have to hold herself back anymore. She was allowed to kiss him now, right? Big, dramatic gestures meant that she’d given up whatever sense of modesty or propriety she’d been clinging to. She didn’t have to hold herself back from Jesse anymore. It wasn’t exactly a switch she could flip, being all Affectionate Girlfriend, but a girl had needs.
Beca grabbed Jesse to her and kissed him again, for a long time. She had completely forgotten there were other people around them when she heard a loud whooping and realized they had a sizeable audience. She blushed, but Jesse was laughing it off, so she did, too. “Encore!” a Treble yelled.
“Well. That was embarrassing.”
“Being kissed by a hot girl in front of everyone I know? Yeah, totally humiliating.”
“Can we do this elsewhere?” she asked quietly. “I feel like I’ve hit my limit on public performances for the day.”
“That’s an invitation to make out in a closet if ever I heard one,” he said. “Yes, please.”
The closest they could get to a closet was an empty hallway leading to a back bathroom on one of the balconies. Jesse had her pressed gently against the cool wall, shielding her from prying eyes (not that there were any), a gesture she appreciated. She also appreciated his hands on her waist, first lightly, then his arms wrapped around her waist as he held her to him, then loose hands again, roaming, fingers dancing over her hips. She tried not to groan. She wanted him, but this was verging on too much, too soon.
Beca pulled back a little, sucking in some air. “I need a breather,” she said, apologetically brushing the back of her hand across her swollen lips.
Jesse nodded, looking as wiped as she felt. “Okay, yes, great.” He leaned his head back against the wall next to hers, their arms touching. “This may be too soon, and it’s absolutely going to sound lame, but I just wanted you to know, I’m not gonna, like, try anything. I kinda wanna... you know, wait.”
Beca gave him a sideways glance. “You do?”
“Not for forever,” he amended. “But this is important to me, you’re important to me, and I don’t want to rush it. We haven’t even been on a date yet.”
Beca found she was relieved. Not because she didn’t want to - she did - but because she found this whole relationship thing to be scary and she needed time to adjust. To hide her gratefulness, she gave him a crooked smile. “So you’re not counting this as a first date, then.”
“I think for it to count as a date, we’d actually have to go somewhere and not suck face in a hallway.”
“Yeah, but it’s a hallway at Lincoln Center,” she teased. “The creme de la creme of all face-sucking locations. You know, next to the Vatican.”
Jesse gave her a once-over with a grin that made her insides go liquid. “Nope, definitely not forever.”
Beca had to will herself calm, pray her face was only semi-ripe tomato red and not brick red. What kind of magical hold did he have over her? Jeez. Unresolved sexual tension was a bitch.
Unresolved sexual tension also led to insults, par for the course for them. “You know, you have this weird habit of touching yourself when you sing,” she blurted.
“What, do I grab my junk like Michael Jackson?” Surprising and also slightly scaring her, Jesse did a Jackson impression, complete with falsetto.
She laughed in shock (although she found she’d secretly enjoyed it). “You’re never going to do that again, are you?”
“What? Jesus, no. Did anyone see that?” He looked frantically up and down the empty hallway.
“I think you’re good. And no, I meant that you’re very big on opening your jacket. Stroking your chest. Things like that.”
“All part of my performer’s instinct,” said Jesse. “Or I’m trying to get you think about me naked.” He leaned his face close to hers, twisting it into a weird, bug-eyed expression. “Is it working?”
Beca shoved him away slightly. “Not right now.”
“Ah, but that only means that it has in the past. Besides, who are you to judge my sexy dancing, Miss Boob Honk?”
“I did not honk my boob.”
“Yes, you did. You did this,” and he imitated the choreography, complete with semi-sexual grunt.
“Chloe choreographed it.” Beca hid her face behind her hands. “Oh god, is that what it looked like? Is that what it sounded like?”
“Oh, come on,” laughed Jesse, gently trying to take down her hands. “Don’t worry, it was very hot.”
“All part of my performer’s instinct,” she mumbled.
“Well, I already think about you naked,” he said, then went a little red.
“Oh, do you.” Beca grinned, glad the shoe was on the other foot now.
“I mean...” Jesse coughed. “Anyway, you were the one seducing me onstage.”
“Seducing you? I thought it was a serenade.”
“It can’t be both? I mean, come on: ‘You’re amazing just the way you are,’ ‘give me everything tonight,’ ‘let’s do it tonight,’ ‘grab somebody sexy.’”
“And you think that was all about you?”
“You can’t write only half a song about a person, and have the other half be about something else.”
“I didn’t write the song,” she pointed out. “Any of them.”
“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
“So he not only likes Star Wars, but Shakespeare, too? What a Renaissance man.” Beca’s phone buzzed in her pocket, and she was surprised to discover this incoming text was the fourth she’d received in the past twenty minutes. She couldn’t believe she’d been so distracted to not notice her own phone buzzing.
The newest message was from her dad: Sheila and I would love to take you (and Jesse) out to a celebratory dinner, if you’d like. Beca could only assume her dad, and probably everyone else in the theater, had seen her sucking face with Jesse. She couldn’t even imagine what special kind of hell would be a dinner with her dad, the stepmonster, and a guy she wasn’t even technically dating (yet), who had last seen her father when they’d teamed up to bail her out of jail. She prayed the other texts were better options and less nightmare fuel.
From Chloe: Hey girl! We’re going to after party it up, where did you run off to?
From Aubrey: Where the hell are you?
And from Amy: Lick his face like whipped cream. Well, that was an image.
“What’s up?” asked Jesse.
She waved the phone at him. “My many admirers want me. We should probably get back. They are my ride home, after all.”
“Yeah, we should... do that.” Jesse seemed reluctant. She couldn’t blame him. But they couldn’t stay there forever. Besides, Beca wanted to sit down at some point.
“Chloe says there’s an after-party.”
"Well, why wouldn’t there be? It's New York, and we are the kings and queens of the glamorous world of competitive collegiate a capella. There has to be a buffet table with stale saltines and flat ginger ale out there with our names on it."
“You might actually be the biggest dork I’ve ever known,” Beca marveled.
“Benji does close-up magic.”
“I think you still win.”
“What are your thoughts on dorks? Sexy? A little bit?”
Beca cocked her head to one side, pretending to consider him. She waggled her hand in a so-so gesture. “Eh...”
"If you’re not convinced, there were several ladies in the front row who’d happily disagree." He was smug down to the last dimple.
“And I viciously hated every last one of them,” she said. “Fine, you’re sexy.”
“Now, now. Keep it in your pants. There’s time enough to lust over me later.”
“Have I mentioned that I’m starting to regret this?”
Jesse just grinned. Beca didn’t think she’d ever seen him look quite so happy, and the idea that she was even semi-responsible was flattering and overwhelming. He leaned over and kissed her once, lightly. "Go and celebrate. I ought to counsel Benj through second place. I'll be here later."
“Who’ll counsel you?”
“Who needs it? I have shiny silver medal and a ninety-nine percent chance of a booty call later.”
Beca gave him one of Aubrey’s Looks.
“Ninety-eight?” he guessed. “Just give me a ballpark figure, here.”
“Whatever happened to ‘let’s make this last?’”
“I didn’t specify when ‘later’ was, did I?”
Beca rolled her eyes, and the phone in her hand buzzed again. She knew without looking at the text that this little dalliance was pretty much over. “I have to go glad-hand with the high muckity-mucks of the mouth music world now.”
“Stellar verbiage, there. Go get your kudos. I’ll be around later.”
Jesse grinned, that ‘damn, everything is so good right now’ grin that she had hated once upon a time, because who ever honestly believed that anything was that good? But she kind of understood it now. This was a stellar night.
“Yeah,” he said. “I am absolutely sure I’ll be here.”