Jesse Swanson had many, many ideas about college. Glorified film sequences, dancing within his head. Sequences involving rad parties, and awesome roommates, and pumping music, and meeting the girl of his dreams. There was a whole script running through his brain, penned unconsciously sometime around the eighth grade, for how The Optimum College Experience should play out.
Barden University, from the very beginning is—
Not exactly cooperating.
It starts with a girl. Most of the greatest stories of all time do; girls, and boys, and romance that builds and skids across the stars. Roll film, cue score, watch the audience weep with delight. He loves every second of that dream.
It starts with a girl, the way these things generally do, and from the very first moment he sees her, Jesse knows she's perfect for him. Okay, maybe not in that "meet across a crowded room, eyes lock, smiles are exchanged" sort of way he's always expected; she actually sort of glares at him. Sort of looks like she wants to punch him in the nuts, in fact. But sometimes these things don't play out the way you write them in your head, and that's completely fine. At least there are sparks--damn near an explosion's worth, as he grins shamelessly at her from the backseat of his parents' car, singing his heart out and air guitaring like his life depends upon it. She rolls her eyes. They're very pretty eyes.
He's always had a thing for baby blues.
He decides there and then, watching the girl with the blue eyes and the scraggly hair and the black nail polish, that she is the girl of his dreams. His somewhat more alarming dreams, the ones inspired by The Craft, maybe, but still--he'll take it. He just has to get to know her.
How hard can it be? He's, like, totally adorable. Patrick Fugit ain't got nothing on his bravest smile.
Which is the exact one he turns on Scary Spice of his Dreams when he runs into her at the radio station. It's a surprise for only a second, to find her shifting uncomfortably under the weight of a backpack, and then he puts all the pieces of her physical appearance together—the ear spike, the wristbands, the ironic smirk twitching across her lips—and he figures it isn't all that surprising after all. Sure, when she shook her head at his serenade, he had no choice but to assume she was thoroughly lacking in an ear for great music, but the way she's looking around this place—her eyes awestruck despite the carefully-arranged disdain of her features—sells him on the opposite wavelength. This girl was designed for music.
He wants to introduce himself properly, to get the ball rolling on having her very beautiful, rather scary children, but Britain's answer to fratboy douchebaggery is giving him a displeased once-over. He sets them to work immediately, stacking the mountains of CDs sprawling around the station, and the girl’s mouth goes drooping in the direction of disappointment. Jesse gets that. He certainly didn’t sign on for this gig for stacking privileges.
(He didn’t sign on for this gig for much, actually, other than to escape his mother’s well-meaning suggestion that he get a job at the nearest cafeteria. But this girl being his co-worker—well, that kind of gives a whole new meaning to “worthwhile.”)
Talking to her proves to be even harder than getting her to smile at his epic song stylings, but at least he manages to draw out of her a name—Beca—and the fact that she neither enjoys being set to work like a common Best Buy employee, nor does she wear glasses. It’s not much, but hey.
Every fairy tale has to start somewhere.
Beca, it turns out, is actually pretty quick on the draw when you get her going; it’s the getting her going part that doesn’t come easily. Jesse’s been trying for over a month now, scrambling to bring her candy—which she never eats—and loan her CDs—which she always seems to already have—in order to creep over the line onto her good side. If Beca even has a good side. It’s getting dauntingly hard to tell.
It takes him over four weeks to get her to crack a real smile, and even then, it’s only because he trips on the stairs and nearly goes tumbling face-first into a rack of classic rock albums. On the one hand, it’s reassuring to see that her face does stretch in the smiling direction. On the other, it’s maybe a little distressing that she only smiles at his pain.
But when it comes to a girl as pretty as her and to “true love,” Jesse will do whatever it takes.
Eventually—after seemingly endless days spent alphabetizing and watching her cast longing looks toward Luke’s station in the booth—he manages to convince her to use her words for more than just pass me Abbey Road, please. She glares at him, but grudgingly says, “Connecticut,” when he asks where she’s from.
“Really?” He beams, jabbing a finger into his chest. “Jersey!”
She looks at him like he’s stupid, like stringing together every state on the eastern seaboard isn’t perfectly normal.
“Great,” she drawls, in the voice he’s starting to dub her You’re A Moron and I Sort Of Hate You tone. Not the most productive lead-in to marriage, but at least they’re whole syllables instead of grunts.
He just never falls for the easy ones.
When he finds out she can sing, it blows him away. Mostly because he’s never heard her so much as hum in the radio station, no matter how many private concerts he bestows upon her. (He’s particularly proud of last Tuesday’s Justin Timberlake extravaganza. She, stunningly, was not.) He was starting to think she was one of those tone-deaf people who are drawn to music for the lyrics instead of the sound, and then wham—there came the voice of a friggin’ folk-rock goddess.
He’s so totally in love.
The captains of the Barden Bellas seem similarly smitten as she tap-claps away on a yellow plastic cup. Or, at least, the one with the red hair and the warm smile does. The other one, the beautiful blonde with permanently furrowed eyebrows, seems less pleased. Which doesn’t make any sense to him; even the Treblemakers, who were so bitchy to Benji at the activities fair, are temporarily charmed by her performance.
(He only guesses this much because they don’t catcall even once, which is a first for this afternoon. They even had commentary while he was onstage.)
Beca doesn’t glance at him in the wings, even when he sticks his fingers into his mouth after her solo and whistles loudly. She keeps eye contact solely with the redheaded girl, almost as if daring her to speak up. The girl claps her hands together.
“That was amazing. Told you!”
Told you what? Jesse wonders, but Beca is already unfolding herself and standing up, working her way off the opposite side of the stage. He bites his lip.
Apparently, they’ve met.
He gets the invite to join the Trebles a few days later. Benji, he guiltily notes, does not. On some dark, cruel level, he isn’t surprised; his roommate isn’t at all what you’d call a social prodigy, and these guys took to insulting him from the second he opened his mouth. Jesse sort of feels like the world’s biggest traitor, therefore, for accepting this position on the aca-jerk squad, but a bigger part of him wants to feel like he’s a real part of something. Benji is a sweet guy; he’ll understand. He’ll probably even be proud.
(Jesse wonders if he would be half that gracious, in Benji’s place. He’s disheartened to admit he probably wouldn’t.)
He finds Beca at the initiation party, standing awkwardly by herself in a crowd of hooting, singing a capellians. Her hands are stuffed into her pockets, her gaze tracking someone as they dance past him.
The redhead. She’s watching the redhead, who nudges him lightly on the way and giggles. He grins dumbly back, already accepting the inevitable state of drunkenness this night will bring.
Beca takes a minute to notice him, but when she does, her face relaxes from utter discomfort to a smirk he’s starting to label his very own. She doesn’t give this look to just anyone, he’s realized; only to people she feels comfortable poking fun at. She’s comfortable with him.
They’re friends now—or near enough—whether she’s ready to admit it yet or not. Friends, he can work with. Friends are a hell of a lot better than mute stack-buddies.
She teases him, pushing at his chest, and he teases right back. He’s too drunk to ignore the flash of electricity her hand sends zipping through his shirt, and too drunk to care about hiding it. When he boldly informs her of the inevitability of their aca-children, he’s almost too drunk to notice the way her nose crinkles, the light in her eyes dimming for a second.
But it’s a good night, a night for song and punch and friendship. He’s a Treble now, and she’s a Bella, and they’re a part of something. It’s awesome. Too awesome to be ruined by something dumb like the girl of his dreams looking totally freaked out by his interest.
He clambers over seats to fetch her a drink, catching the redhead’s eye as he goes. She waves, her arm moving in big, clumsy strokes through the air. He goofily flails both arms in return, and nearly pays for it big-time when he misses a step and narrowly avoids smashing his face in.
It’s a good night. A night for luck. Maybe even a night for miracles.
He’s going to ask the redhead if she wants to dance with him and Beca.
The redhead, it turns out, did want to dance with them—which made Jesse’s heart swell with pride, because the look of surprise on Beca’s face when the other girl grabbed her around the middle and swung her around was classic. He didn’t even mind how they seemed to edge him out on every other song, twisting and dipping one another (the redhead—Chloe—much more fervently than Beca, who seemed to be keeping up only for the sake of holding Chloe upright). It was adorable, watching Beca behave like a normal teenage girl for the first time since they met.
The next morning, he wakes with a driving headache and a distant memory he can’t quite put together correctly. The pieces are all there—a Savage Garden song, a flash of red hair, a shy smile—but they’re jumbled clumsily in his head, trapped beneath the thrum of his hangover.
He swallows hard against the sticky taste of last night’s liquor on his tongue and pries his eyes open to find Benji hovering worriedly over his pillow, a pair of aspirin and a glass of orange juice in his hands.
Benji doesn’t even look jealous when he explains where he was last night; not jealous so much as a little bit sad, but also a little bit excited, and that’s exactly why Jesse is learning to love his roommate. Most of the guys he went to high school with would kick the crap out of him for snaking their dream out from under them. Benji just watches him cautiously sip the juice and asks all sorts of questions about Bumper and this year’s setlists.
Benji’s kind of awesome.
What isn’t so awesome is the way the memories are starting to clear up as the headache goes down. He remembers the song—“Truly, Madly, Deeply”—and the way the moonlight reflected off of Chloe’s hair, and the way Beca’s head looked, tucked against Chloe’s shoulder. He remembers the anxiety in her eyes, and the way she kept darting her gaze away from him, and the way her cheeks flushed when Chloe wound their fingers together and brought them unsteadily to her lips.
Beca, for all the money in his Jaws piggybank, looked an awful lot like a girl with a massive crush. He hadn’t even known she could look like that—wary, and hopeful, and kind of awestruck by the night’s events—but she wore it well. She wore it exactly like his ninth grade girlfriend the night he kissed her for the first time.
But this time, that look had absolutely nothing to do with one Jesse Swanson.
His headache swells again, but he’s pretty sure it has nothing to do with dehydration. Flopping back on the bed, he groans.
“More juice?” Benji’s concerned voice asks from the foot of his bed.
The best defense, in Jesse’s book, has always been a firm offense, so the first thing he does when he’s feeling human enough for social interaction again is to call Beca up and ask her to meet him at the station. He takes her irritable grunt into the receiver as an affirmative, and launches himself out of bed to locate a clean t-shirt and his sneakers.
Benji is looking at him with such eagerness that Jesse very nearly asks him along—particularly since he wouldn’t mind having a bodyguard in case this all goes south—but something tells him this is a conversation best structured for the one-on-one.
Not that he wants to attack her, or anything, but he’s pretty sure a conversation that starts with, “So, do you like other girls, or…?” isn’t bound to read well in her eyes.
(He’s right. On top of being a champion for a capella kickassery and the scoring of heart-rending film scenes, Jesse Swanson is really excellent at being right about all the wrong things.)
“Do I what?” Beca sputters. She looks as much a wreck as he feels, with her hair all scraggly around her face and her makeup smudged around her eyes. He thinks she wore that same shirt yesterday, and there’s a stain on the thigh of her jeans. Not that he’s dumb enough to point any of this out.
“Just a question,” he replies, hands in the air. “Totally innocent. No big thing. You look lovely today, by the way, have I mentioned that?”
She really does, despite looking like a train hit her. Her cheeks have gone pink and nervous, her lips parted in surprise. He’s got a weakness for pretty girls in moments of unease; it’s the moment in the movie where the hero sees for the first time what kind of person his crush really is.
“I don’t—I’m not—I haven’t—“
His crush, apparently, is a stammerer.
“It’s cool either way,” he assures her, patting her shoulder. Her eyes flick to his hand warningly, and he draws it back, assuming—probably correctly—that it’s the only thing to do if he’s planning on keeping it attached to his wrist. She sighs loudly, tangling her fingers in her messy hair.
“I don’t know,” she tells him at last, her voice low like she’s trying to hold in some massive secret. He bends his head toward hers, but she closes her mouth hard—he can hear the clack of her teeth as they meet behind her lips—and looks away. He shrugs, feeling the thudding in his chest turn to something a little like cracking in half.
“If it makes you feel any better, I think she likes you, too.”
She blows out another breath, shakier than the last, and accepts the arm he carefully loops around her shoulders. Jesse turns his face skyward, reading the highest CD spines he eyes can make out, and tries his hardest to pretend he is Benji: kind, giving, uninclined toward bouts of painful envy.
It’s a lot harder than it looks.
Beca doesn’t open up after that the way he expects her to. It’s what would happen in the film version of their life; that moment in the radio station, with his arm around her and her head hung in contemplation, would have been the epic turning point. Swelling violins, soft lighting, lingering camera B on the backs of their heads. After that, everything would fall into place.
Except this is real life, and Jesse is starting to get that real life is a lot more complicated than anything John Hughes could have whipped up.
Beca doesn’t start texting him at all hours, or calling him at midnight to pour out her soul, or drawing up blueprints with him on the How To Get The Girl plan. Beca doesn’t say anything at all about it for a couple of weeks, in fact. When they talk at work, it’s about how annoying Luke’s CD organizing expectations have grown (only when Luke is out, because, for an English dude, Luke is built, and Jesse’s not all that sure he could take him in a fight). Or about classwork. Or about a capella.
Organized nerd singing has become the crux of both of their lives. He can’t decide if that’s sad or hilarious; either way, he hasn’t been so happy in a long time as when he’s singing with Bumper and those other guys. They’re sort of jerky still, but they tell decent jokes, and sometimes they make him think about stuff he wouldn’t ever come up with on his own.
(Like that shark vs. Captain America thing. He still hasn’t come to a satisfying conclusion on that one.)
If there’s one thing Beca does open up about, it’s the Bellas. She can’t seem to make sense of them, especially Aubrey—the stern-looking blonde from auditions—and, unlike Jesse, she isn’t especially thrilled about learning to cope with their oddities. Jesse finds the quirks of Bumper and Donald and the rest of the crew funny; Beca finds the quirks of Aubrey and her Laws for Living With the Scarf intolerable at best.
Jesse hasn’t actually paid much attention to Aubrey since his very hazy memories of initiation night. She stood far from the Treblemakers and spent a lot of time glaring at any Bella who strayed too close to one of Jesse’s new brothers-in-a-capella-arms. She was, to say the least, intimidating.
“She doesn’t like us too much, huh?” he says now, flipping over a Green Day album and wrinkling his nose. Beca swipes it out of his hand, tucking it neatly behind a Foo Fighters CD.
“That’s putting it mildly.”
He wants to ask why, but Beca’s got that distant tone in her voice that lets him know she isn’t entirely present for this conversation. Which only makes him want to ask what she’s really thinking about, except he’s positive he already knows the answer, and even though his head keeps telling him that friendship is better than nothing, his heart gives an unpleasant lurch whenever he thinks about Beca’s hand knitted together with Chloe’s long fingers.
When Harry Met Sally was wrong; it isn’t hard for men to be friends with women. It’s just hard to be friends with a woman you could see yourself settling into a home and a life with.
But that’s not an option now, not with the way Beca goes conspicuously quiet whenever Chloe’s name accidentally pours from her lips, and Jesse’s just going to have to square away with that.
Or, hey; maybe a miracle will happen, and that night will have just been a fluke of dancing and alcohol. Maybe things could still go his way. Who knows?
It’s not a fluke.
He knows it the minute he sees her face the following Monday. He knew it, probably, when she didn’t respond to any of his playful texts with her usual grammatically-correct sarcasm over the weekend. He knew it when he woke up in the middle of the night on Saturday with the pit of his stomach squirming, and it had nothing to do with Benji quietly sitting through another solo Star Wars marathon across the room.
He sees it coming a mile away, but still, when she leans uncharacteristically close over the table and whispers, “I talked to her,” his chest goes taut.
“Yeah?” He busies his hands with the tattered corners of a Pink Floyd case, smoothing them out, making them as neat as he’s able. She shifts her weight against the table, smiling at him, and for the first time, he realizes that smile actually reaches her eyes. Reaches them, and extends past them, brightening every last millimeter of her face. She looks so proud and delighted, and he can’t bring himself to be selfish in the face of that. “How’d it go?”
He asks because that’s the friend thing to do, the only fair thing. He asks because that’s what you do when you love someone, even if it splits your heart clean down the middle to put the question you least want an answer to into words. He asks, and her eyes glimmer with excitement.
“You were right. Jesse, you were so right.”
He knows. He’s great at being right. Usually when it hurts the most.
This was not the way his movie was supposed to play out.
But if Beca’s happy—even if she isn’t happy with him, with their picket fence, and their big-screen TV, and their shelter-rescued puppy—that’s good enough for him. He tells himself. Repeatedly.
“We’re going out again Friday night,” she tells him in that hushed, shivering voice, the one he’s never heard her use before today. “She wants to see a movie, so I thought, hey, you could help me out. You like movies, right?”
She says it like it’s just a simple thing, like it doesn’t construct the whole of his being. She says it like it isn’t the reason he fell for her in the first place, the movie reel playing at full speed inside his head. He forces a smile that sits wrong on his face, all hard and plastic and finely edged. She doesn’t notice.
Beca never does.
It takes a few weeks for the sting to wear off, but he makes do. Benji is a huge help, with the magic tricks Jesse can’t figure out and his willingness to watch anything Jesse puts in front of him. The Trebles, too, make him feel better—not with their personalities so much as the sense of throwing himself into something bigger than himself, into steps and notes and finding the perfect maroon hoodie for regionals.
It helps even more that Chloe is so…Chloe. If it had been a guy, just some guy off the street—or, God help him, someone like Luke—things might have been different. He might not have been able to manage his emotions in a mature, respectful fashion if it was just some guy. But the fact that it’s Chloe who sweeps Beca off her feet, Chloe who gets her to go to the movies, Chloe who holds her hand and kisses her knuckles and runs her fingers through Beca’s hair—
He’s okay with that. He’s not, technically, because he’s not okay with anything about it for a good long while, but for what it is? He’s okay. Because Chloe is so pretty, and so sweet, and doesn’t make fun of Benji’s side of the room, or insist that he’s some kind of killer-mutant type for being part of Bumper’s crew. Chloe doesn’t glare at him whenever he walks through the room like Aubrey does.
(He has two classes with Aubrey, and she spends both of them boring holes through the back of his head. Four times a week, he sits with his shoulders hunched and his head down, fully expecting her to start pelting him with stones at any minute. Aubrey is really beautiful, and equally terrifying.)
It takes him a while to get used to seeing Beca so happy—honestly, he was starting to think the grimace suited her, highlighted the angles of her face in a pleasant way, somehow—but he’s glad for it. He’s glad someone could get under her skin the way everyone deserves at least once in their life. He’s glad someone could be her happily ever after.
(He’s okay with it not being him. Really, he is. It’s taken some time, and maybe he still feels the itch of it, the burn of it, the crawling frustration on really bad nights, but overall? He’s good. He’s fine. Chloe is too great to be pissed at for long.)
It sort of sucks that Beca is in such a teasing mood about the whole of it, though. On the one hand, he’s glad she feels so comfortable messing with him, but on the other…
There’s just not much you can say when the girl of your dreams (former) plops down next to you and makes a crack about your nonexistent girlfriend.
He could go into mope-mode, snap at her that he would have a girlfriend if she didn’t have to go falling for her lady-friends—but what purpose would that serve? The last thing he wants is to be that jerk, self-righteous and entitled, and push her back into her thick shell.
He settles for pushing a hand through his hair and scanning the DVDs he’s just tossed on the ground. Beca sips at her juice box, grinning at him around the straw in a way that’s just too charming for words. Beca’s like that: at once totally soul-crushing and impossibly endearing. It’s the main reason he’s able to remain friends with her despite everything.
Even when she widens her eyes comically and announces, “No girlfriend? What? You have juice boxes and Rocky!”
(It’s such a Beca thing to say, but he would never have called that at the start of the semester. That Beca, the grouchy, scowl-faced girl who refused to say three words to him at a time, wouldn’t be this snarky. That Beca was mysterious, but this Beca is the one he loves—for better or for worse.)
“Hey, I’ll have you know, juice boxes have won me many a woman,” he tells her at last, just a beat too late to salvage his pride.
She nods solemnly, straw clamped between her teeth. “Oh, I believe it. I believe it. Hey, you know who does have a girlfriend?”
It’s a low blow. It’s such a low blow. He’s tempted to frisbee his copy of Jaws at her, but knowing Beca, she’d probably bust out some inspiring ex-softball-goddess moves on his ass or something and snag it out of the air.
He settles for pouting when she leans in close (close enough to let him smell her shampoo, which smells concerningly like the stuff Chloe uses, which makes him wonder when the last time was she swung by her own dorm room) and mock-whispers, “I’ve got one.”
It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt at all. Because Beca is the star of her own movie, and he’s just playing the buddy role. Because Beca’s movie is sweet and uplifting, where she gets the girl and sings the songs, where she has a best friend who loves and supports her for who she is. It doesn’t hurt.
He just has a little heartburn, that’s all.
“I know,” he replies, flat and sarcastic. “I’ve seen the hickeys.”
Her eyebrows lift, her mouth twisting in a smirk. “Jealous?”
He pastes on a grin, big and dopey and fully expected. “Nope.”
This is just not at all like he planned.
She’s cute about Chloe, he’s forced to admit, and actually pretty proud of herself for going for it, but he realizes early on that not everyone gets to see that pride. She saves it for closed doors, for the security of rooms where she knows she’s safe—rooms like the radio station, and Chloe’s bedroom, and his place. Rooms where she’s among friends who won’t jab and snicker.
It’s moments like this that he loves Benji wholeheartedly, because the first time they—Beca-and-Chloe, the single adorably painful entity that they are these days—swing by for a grudging movie night, there’s anxiety in his favorite pair of blue eyes. Chloe looks calm and cheerful, the way Chloe always does, but Beca’s head is bent a little further than usual, her brow taut, her jaw twitching. Her hand lingers at her side, reflexively near to Chloe’s, but not holding. She’s nervous. She’s waiting for judgment.
And Benji—bless his socially awkward little heart—just puts up a hand in some Vulcan version of hello, and says happily, “Greetings! You like magic tricks?”
She smooths out after that, goes all casual in the shoulder region, and lets Chloe’s fingers join with hers. Jesse stands with his knees backed against the frame of his bed, arms crossed over his chest, and smiles that familiar false smile. It’s near enough to his real one that she doesn’t catch on, but he sees Benji shoot a furtive glance or two his way even as he makes a dove vanish into a hat. Chloe applauds. Jesse shrugs, trying his best to communicate I’m dealing without moving his face too much.
Beca is cute about Chloe in safe places like this one, where she knows her friends will love and protect her—and how impressive is that? He may have done a really terrible job of Getting The Girl, but he did Get The Girl To Feel Comfy around him, and that’s a miracle all its own. Beca leans against the pillows on Benji’s bed, letting Chloe tuck her head against her chest, and it seems funny to him, almost. Someone so small as Beca playing Big Spoon is fascinatingly sweet.
It’s things like that that make it impossible to hate them for hurting him.
Beca is cute in private, but he’s seen them out on campus, and that’s different. Chloe still makes her laugh, still reaches for her, messes up her hair and hooks an arm through her elbow, but that’s Chloe. That’s the way Chloe has been since he met her, all physical gestures of adoration. Beca, in public, does none of those things, save for maybe a playful jab every now and again when she’s feeling particularly sardonic.
He’d think nothing of it, except Beca with him is different. Beca prods at him, pokes a finger into his chest, screws up his carefully-styled hair, and—on one memorable occasion—even lets him piggyback her around in the autumn air. It’s a weird day, and he thinks she may have been on allergy medication for its duration, but still; it’s not something she’d let Chloe do in public.
For a few days, he lets himself believe. For a few days, it’s easy to delude himself into thinking maybe it means something, maybe she really does love him, in her secret heart of hearts. Maybe she wants his attention the way he wants hers, and Chloe is just that momentary plot device in the middle of the movie, the snag meant to keep them apart until the big climax. Maybe.
But then he sees them in private, the way Beca presses her mouth earnestly to Chloe’s cheek, the way she glows bright red when Chloe drifts lazy, secret kisses across her neck, and it’s obvious. It’s so obvious, heart-shatteringly so. This is who she wants. This is who she is. He feels so intrusive, watching their foreheads nestle together as they whisper private little jokes, and he knows he had it right the first time. This is the way the movie’s going to play out, no matter how many rewrites and cuts he tries to make along the way. Chloe is Beca’s white knight, her prince, her boom box-holding hero.
He’s grateful for Benji in this, too, because when they doze off in the middle of Love Actually, Chloe softly breathing into the cotton of Beca’s t-shirt, Beca’s cheek mashed against vibrant ginger hair, it’s Benji who silently claps a hand on his shoulder and smiles. Benji squeezes once, man-to-man in the most gentle way, and doesn’t say a word. A best friend doesn’t need to.
Maybe Benji wasn’t what he wrote in his head, either, when he was dreaming up the perfect college roommate—but maybe Benji is the sweetest kind of surprise, that way. He’s grateful, at least.
Benji is amazing.
The year goes on this way, with Jesse trying to convince himself at the dawn of each day to change the way his heart thuds and patters. It goes on, with Benji spouting quiet reassurances, with the Trebles giving him that sense of importance deep in his chest, and with Beca. Beca’s sly smile, Beca’s nimble fingers, Beca’s heart belonging wholly and solely to Chloe Beale.
The year goes on, and by second semester, Jesse has stopped believing in the fairy tale of film endings. Jesse has stopping relying on the script in his head and the faith that things will eventually work themselves out, because that just isn’t happening. Not the way he dreamed it. Not the way he wanted.
And maybe that’s okay, he thinks. They’re at their favorite table in the cafeteria, his feet jumping and jangling to the old Journey song pouring from the overhead speakers, his thigh bumping Benji’s in their booth. He’s watching the furrow in Beca’s brow as Chloe attempts dutifully to explain to her the allure of the common garden tomato, and it feels weirdly close to a perfect moment. Beca keeps shaking her head, and Chloe keeps inching her own plate of salad closer to Beca’s side of the table, and Benji is giggling helplessly at his side. It’s silly, and it’s dumb, and it’s mundane—and Jesse loves it more than a little bit.
It isn’t the way he wrote it out, in blacks and whites and soaring musical moments, but it’s normal. It’s friends, and a different kind of love, and maybe it isn’t romance, but that doesn’t make it any less true. He’s cool with it. His heart even feels a little less like caving in than usual.
It’s only when he sees her across the way, a few tables over, sitting by herself, that the old uncertainty trickles back in. She’s got her head propped on her elbow, blonde hair cascading over half her face, and she looks like she’s more interested in scribbling in a notebook than in her barely-touched sandwich.
He might have missed her staring at them entirely, if not for his powerful belief that no one should have to eat dinner alone. It’s this belief that has him watching her out of the corner of his eye, and it’s this belief that lets him see the way her face goes vulnerable and shocked the next time she glances their way.
He turns his attention instantly back to his own table, and finds Beca reluctantly accepting the chunk of tomato Chloe is trying to push past her lips. She screws up her face unpleasantly, chews, forces herself to swallow; Chloe and Benji burst into applause, Chloe announcing, “I love you” before planting an excited kiss right on her mouth.
Jesse swallows hard, eyes flicking back to their audience, whose mouth is hanging wide open, her pencil dropping from her hand.
Beca, he remembers, is private. Beca, he remembers, does not play well with others. Beca, he recognizes, has probably not shared this little matter of her relationship with, well—anyone.
He slides out of the booth, tossing a hurried, “I’ll be right back” over his shoulder when Benji makes a noise of protest. His feet carry him to her table, stubbornly reckless, ignoring the way her eyes narrow when she sees him coming. He plants his palms on either side of her sandwich plate, leans down, and grins.
“You’re Aubrey Posen.”
“I am,” she replies stiffly, gaze shuffling this way and that like she expects the Aca-Police to come swinging down to arrest them both for even speaking. He raises one hand from the table and sticks it under her nose.
“Jesse,” he says, and the way she wrinkles her nose lets him know she is fully aware of who he is. It doesn’t matter. Beca didn’t like him much at the beginning, either, and look where they are now.
If he could win over the (former) girl of his dreams, he can win over a stickler like Aubrey Posen.
“Come sit with us,” he invites, pumping her hand up and down when she delicately takes his. She makes a face, but before she can say no in some wildly intellectual-and-slightly-insane sort of way, he leans in close.
“Come on. Chloe’s your best friend. You should get to know the thing she cares about most. Trust me.”
She glares up at him, but something about that sentiment must ring true, because she slowly begins gathering up her notebook and pencils. Beaming, he sweeps her plate and glass of juice up and leads her, dancing a little along the way, back to the table where Benji and Beca are gaping at him.
Chloe is already on her feet, scrounging around for a spare chair, her face welcoming as ever. Jesse appreciates her, too, sometimes, for more than just making Beca happy. For being her. Chloe Beale is a pretty excellent human being.
Aubrey sinks down slowly, guarded, as though she expects this all to be some elaborate instance of Carrie-at-the-Prom. He plunks her food back in front of her and makes a clumsy dive back into his place in the booth.
“Aubrey,” he says cheerfully, “meet Beca.”
“We’ve met,” Beca drawls, so sarcastic that he knows she knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t care. She isn’t his girl, or his plot point; she’s his best friend. And this is what best friends do for one another.
“Aubrey,” he continues, ignoring the anxious patter of Benji’s fingertips against his elbow, “is a lovely senior with a penchant for puppies, the song stylings of Celine Dion, and long walks on the quad. Her hobbies include yoga, glaring at the backs of people’s heads in Psych 200, and not punching well-meaning citizens in the ballsack for trying to help.”
He’s beaming. Aubrey is regarding him with a sort of bemused expression, the kind that says she has absolutely no idea what to do with him. Beca is wearing a similar expression across the table, her fork twisting between her fingers.
This is super-mega awkward. He loves it.
“You’re with her?” Aubrey asks, apparently deciding ignoring him is her best course of action given the circumstances. She’s fixed on Chloe, who, though still smiling, is starting to look a little uncomfortable. “Her?”
“Hey,” Beca replies, nearly monotone. Aubrey ignores her, too.
“I love her,” Chloe says, and from anyone else’s lips, the words would sound hokey and overused. It’s not the way he would have scripted it at all, but for Chloe, it works in its casual simplicity. She does love Beca, in a way even Jesse might not have managed.
“She’s—“ Aubrey shakes her head. “She’s—“
“Sitting right here,” Beca drawls. Benji is starting to look panicked, jammed between the wall and Jesse, like he’s plotted out every possible escape route and found none that work well. Jesse pats his knee beneath the table.
“She’s cool, Aubrey,” he says, willing himself not to wilt beneath her glare. “She’s really cool. Kind of scary at first, totally—you are, shut up,” he adds when Beca pins him with a gee, thanks, asshole stare. “Totally scary. But awesome. She’s really great with music, and really great with Chloe, and I think you could get along if you’d just try.”
It’s more of a piece than he’s got a right to saying, but Chloe is nodding fervently and the tension is leaking from Beca’s shoulders bit by bit. Aubrey blows out a breath.
“You really like her?” she asks, and this time, her gaze is on Beca instead of Chloe. Beca chews the inside of her cheek rhythmically for a second. Nods once. Aubrey sighs.
“This is gross,” she mumbles, and for a second, Jesse wonders how he’s going to hold back Beca and himself at the same time. Then she goes on with, “Eating with a Treble is cross-aca-pollution, you know. It’s filthy.”
He snakes a hand across the table, rips off a bit of ham from her sandwich, and pops it into his mouth. “You’ll learn to love me. Beca has.”
Beca sticks her tongue out at him, and that pang in his heart rings out, but lighter than before. It’s not easy, being friends with the girl you wanted to sweep off her feet. It’s not easy, doing any of the things he’s pulled together since coming to college. None of this fits the Animal Party mold of what he wanted.
But Aubrey heaves another sigh, right in his face, and he catches himself thinking that she really is beautiful, under all of that frustration. And Chloe’s hand has wrapped around Beca’s, resting between a glass of grape juice and a salad. And Benji is looking less terrified now, wrangling a deck of cards from his pocket and flipping through them hopefully. It doesn’t fit, no; none of it, none of them. It wasn’t the goal.
But the goal was maybe kind of overrated. The goal was all bright colors and swelling music, Getting The Girl and changing lives. He hasn’t managed that, exactly. He hasn’t gotten the girl at all.
But maybe he got it all wrong in his rush to succeed, to score the hero trophy and the perfect ending. Maybe Getting The Girl wasn’t the point at all; or maybe it was, but he had the wrong Girl. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be Beca at any point, because Beca is not the kind of girl that can be won with the usual wooing measures of classic 80s films. Beca doesn’t get wooed at all. Beca, he thinks, watching Chloe grin and kiss her cheek, is the wooing, charming and clumsy and beautiful in her own way.
It wasn’t supposed to be Beca. Maybe it’s not supposed to be anyone. He knows Beca didn’t plan to fall in love with a girl, and he guesses Chloe probably didn’t either. You don’t plan a thing like that. He’s probably known that all along, somewhere in the corner of his mind. A thing like falling in love is too expansive, too enormous to be plotted out like so many dots on a graph. It isn’t about the writing of the script. It’s about the playing it out, blindfolded, with no comprehension of what the words on the page even mean.
It wasn’t supposed to be Beca, and he gets that now. It still hurts, the way an old scar twinges when the rain gets bad. It still aches in the very center of his stomach sometimes, and maybe that’s a pain that never entirely goes away. But it wasn’t supposed to be Beca he fell in love with, plays white knight to, sweeps away into the sunset.
Beca is his best friend. Beca and Benji, the unlikely misfit souls he probably shouldn’t have clicked with at all. They’re the best people he’s ever known, and he loves them. Maybe that was the goal, in some twisty, unaware sort of sense.
He catches Aubrey’s eye, steals a corner of her crust, and grins again. She’s watching him with that look that says she’s not sure if she should laugh or punch him in the chest. Before it’s all over, he’s pretty sure she’ll do both.
Aubrey is beautiful, and difficult, and alarming. Aubrey has her own version of the scary ear spike and the glasses. Aubrey will probably fight tooth and nail against being his friend at all.
But nobody should be alone in a place as wonderful as college. He doesn’t get much about this whole thing, but he definitely, definitely gets that much.
None of this has worked out the way he planned it, The Optimum College Experience. Freshman year is, technically speaking, something of a hot mess.