Written For: dapplefur
Prompt: all's fair in love and war
Spoilers: Takes place between 2x12 (Silly Love Songs) and 2x17 (A Night of Neglect).
Summary: No one ever said being friends with Rachel Berry would be easy.
She's chasing down sleep, catching up, and then Rachel's voice grabs her ear, pulling her back.
"Mercedes, are you awake?"
There's a little push on her shoulder, through the sleeping bag.
"I am now," she grumbles, turning over. The carpet's not doing much to cushion her spine. "What's up?"
A short silence. "Nothing."
"No way. Uh-uh. You woke me up, you need to have a reason, otherwise I'm getting mad."
"It's not important."
"This probably isn't the best time to have a conversation. I don't want to wake up Kurt."
"Look," Mercedes says, opening her eyes. She can't see much of anything in the dark except the vague shape of Rachel's face, the point of her chin abruptly cut off by the sleeping bag. "Go ahead and say what you want to say. Don't worry about Kurt. He's all the way up there on the bed, and anyway, it takes a natural disaster to shake that boy out of a sound sleep."
"Well, I just wanted you to know," Rachel tells her, in a rush, "that I'm extremely honored you and Kurt came over tonight as my guests. And - there's one other thing."
Rachel's better at making the spotlight last longer than anyone Mercedes knows, even when the only thing she's got rivaling her is sleep. "Yeah?"
"It's just that this was the first slumber party I've ever hosted."
Well, that explains the long, weird checklist she'd kept looking at throughout the night. Mercedes hadn't been able to read the whole thing, but she'd stolen glances here and there when Rachel wasn't paying attention. Make popcorn (remember to give them options! Kurt might want the low-calorie version). Fun with hair (braiding, brushing). Watch Singin' in the Rain ("Good Mornin'" is the perfect opportunity to suggest a trio sing-a-long!). Play Pin the Tony on Bernadette.
"I'm shocked," she mutters, with a little more attitude then she'd meant to give it, and then, because she feels guilty, "It was really good, Rachel. I had a good time."
"I've only been to one other slumber party before. Well, half a slumber party, actually. Missy Denton's birthday, in sixth grade. Her mother made her invite me, but I didn't know about that until later." She pauses. "You were there. Remember?"
Yes, Mercedes remembers, or at least she remembers some of it. Rachel singing too loudly when the music wasn't on, some crazy song none of them had ever heard. The PFLAG rainbow pin on Rachel's backpack. Her pigtails, wrapped with bright ponytail holders, shouting her age when everyone else was working so damn hard to pretend they were almost grown up. She remembers the way Missy had smirked, looking at those pigtails. She'd wanted to yell at Rachel, ask her why she couldn't figure out she was making it worse for herself.
"Yeah," she says, and the Rachel in her head is smiling at Missy, oblivious. "You called your dads to come get you before the movie."
"It was after 'Never Have I Ever.'" Rachel rolls onto her back, and Mercedes can't see her face anymore. "After Libby Clark said 'never have I ever been a fugly hairy dwarf' and then she said that everyone except me had to keep their fingers raised. That was when I decided to call my dads."
"Oh." She doesn't know what else to say to that. It seems dumb to apologize for something that happened five whole years ago, even if her stomach's knotted, suddenly, with regret. Calling out Missy and her crew back then wasn't an option, not when she'd been working to stay target-free with every bit of savvy she'd had.
"What I really wanted to say is that I'm glad you're my friend, Mercedes," Rachel blurts. "You and Kurt. I feel extremely lucky to have the two of you supporting me and encouraging me. You're the kind of friends that get contacted years later for interviews by celebrity biographers. I wouldn't be surprised if you were quoted at least five or six times."
"Thanks," Mercedes says, dryly. She's weirdly touched, despite the bizarreness of the compliment. It's real praise, filtered through the filtered Rachel Berry worldview. "We divas have to stick together, after all."
"Exactly." The sleeping bag next to her rustles. "Through thick and thin. Good times and bad. It's like that Cole Porter song."
"If you're ever in a jam, here I am," Rachel sings, under her breath. "Go on, Mercedes, take the next line."
"I am not doing a duet in a sleeping bag."
"If you ever need a pal, I'm your gal."
"Rachel, it's after two in the damn morning, and I have no idea what the hell you're singing right now, anyway, so let's just go to sleep, okay?"
"How can you not know Cole Porter?" Rachel says, astonished. "He's one of the top three greatest composers in the history of American musical theater. Ella Fitzgerald sang a lot of his music."
"She did?" Okay, maybe that's a little interesting. Ella's her girl.
"I can loan you my Ella Sings the Cole Porter Songbook CD collection. It's really the perfect merging of both our interests, even though the genre's probably better suited to me."
It's like her volume's permanently turned up high. Rachel lives her life like every minute's opening night and the New York Times' theater critic is hiding somewhere just out of view, taking careful notes. The more time she spends with her, though, the more Mercedes understands that Rachel can't help herself. It's just the way she's wired.
Rachel's still talking. "'Friendship' is a song about true friends, and I think it's very fitting for what we're becoming, Mercedes. I've always wanted to find someone who would be able to keep up with me on that number."
"I can keep up with you on any number," Mercedes counters, but she understands what Rachel's saying, and on an impulse she reaches out her hand between them, wondering if there's enough light in the room for Rachel to know it's there.
After a moment the sleeping bag rustles again, and Rachel's hand answers her own. Her grip's surprisingly strong, a little too much, but Mercedes can take it. She squeezes back, smiling before she remembers Rachel probably can't see her.
Mercedes should've seen right through Coach Sylvester's crazy scheming.
There's no good excuse for getting fooled. It's not like the woman doesn't telegraph every move she makes a mile away. Sue hasn't done a damn thing that isn't directly aimed at making all of their lives miserable, and Mercedes never should've let her guard down around her in the first place. But Sue hits Mercedes right in her soft spot, and like all soft spots it's a blind one, too.
Not that talented, she'd quoted, Rachel's dismissive hand-wave audible even through Sue's light tone. That's what she said.
The words stick, making Mercedes a little sick even when she's distracted by other things and forgets, for a second, what she's got to be sick about. If she'd said not talented, Mercedes could toss that away without a second thought. She knows she's got it going on, in a million different ways, and she knows she's good. The middle word, though, that makes it hurt worse, even if she can't figure out why. And it's hard to push things like that away when there's no one else lining up to push with you.
Mercedes doesn't like to admit it, but it's rough, sometimes, being the only one to carry your own banner, even if you've got thick skin and self-pride. Even rougher when you think someone you've started to trust is trying to pull your banner down. She's got her ears filled with those three words, her eyes seeing Rachel's back, in front of her for every competition solo. She's deaf enough to miss Rachel snapping I heard what you said about me when they're shouting at each other in the hallway. She's blind enough not to see Sue, standing just a few feet away during the callout with satisfaction etched in the lines of her face.
Mercedes plans on shaking Rachel Berry with vibrato. Run her over with runs. Knock her flat with attitude. Fine, let Rachel pick a Broadway number. She'll take care of it; she'll tear up her turf with cleats. Doesn't matter if it's Broadway or soul or Disney or one of those monk chants, whatever, Mercedes'll bring down the house.
She comes into the choir room ready for war.
But then they're singing the number together, and somewhere in the middle of it she stops trying to get on top of Rachel and starts listening to what they're giving together, voices so strong it's like they're swelling out the walls. There's one transition at the end where Rachel hits her phrasing just right, so damn on that Mercedes grins at her in amazement and pleasure, those three words forgotten for the first time since she's heard them. Rachel grins back, face flush with pride, and Mercedes asks herself girl, what made you think for half a second that Sue was telling the truth? and she thinks, needing to make her joy last, don't answer that.
They ride the rest of the song together, the loud applause, too. When she embraces Rachel she hugs her as hard as she can, just so Rachel knows for sure she's sorry.
In the corner of Mercedes's vision, Coach Sylvester glowers. Her expression just makes the whole thing that much better.
"Okay, hold up a minute," Santana says, firmly, as the two of them take their seats in the front row, Mr. Schue high-fiving them, Mercedes still a little breathless. "I can't be the only one who's weirded out right now. I mean, we just watched Queen Latifah and Short Round get their musical foreplay on all up in our grills."
There's a brief, uncomfortable silence, and Mercedes's cheeks heat from what's being implied. She glares down the row at Santana, angry she's getting yanked off her happy high. "Don't you start with me, Santana. I don't want to hear it."
"Whatever, you pretty much voice-fucked Berry right in front of us." She turns around, appealing to the rest of the room. "Look, were any of you in the room two minutes ago, or am I the only one who actually pays attention around here?"
Mr. Schue stands up, looking a little pale. "Hey –"
"I didn't –" Mercedes can't repeat it. "I didn't do that. Why do you always have to make everything into something it isn't?"
Sue snorts, lifting one leg over the other, and jerks her thumb in Santana's direction. "Well, Mercedes, it sounds to me like Twin Peaks here is mad she and her plastic pointer sisters didn't get an invite to join your gay/awful alliance." Her gaze drops, deliberately. "Hey, S, nice sensible shoes."
Santana scowls, not answering.
"Sue!" Mr. Schue exclaims. "You're not being helpful."
"Never a part of my agenda, Will."
"I'd like to say something about that, Santana, Ms. Sylvester," Rachel begins, sitting up straight in her chair. There's an audible groan behind them that sounds a lot like Quinn. "I'm fully aware that we've just performed what several internet polls have deemed one of the greatest sapphic anthems of all time –"
"William, care to tell me why absolutely none of your kids understand the meaning of the word 'anthem'? I mean, look, we all know your teaching 'skills' basically amount to mining vague thematic concepts out of your rotting sebaceous glands and offering up sappy life lessons so nauseating I could bottle and sell them to bulimics for a tidy profit, but wow, buddy, I would've at least given you enough credit not to botch something as simple as a definition."
"Just – please, please be quiet, Sue," Mr. Schue manages.
Rachel barrels forward with her impromptu speech, turning around to look at the rest of them, and Mercedes kind of wants to crawl underneath the piano. "My point is that I chose that song based on its perfect fit for both Mercedes's voice and my own. I would hope that my fellow glee clubbers know me well enough by now to understand that as an equal opportunity performer with a passion for the rights of all minorities, I don't discriminate when it comes to song choices. Besides, I can think of seven songs off the top of my head that are more effective when it comes to expressing newly-discovered same-sex attraction. Maybe eight."
"You have a list somewhere, don't you," Quinn mutters.
"We're in high school, Quinn, and questioning your sexuality is statistically very common in high school. I think it's a good idea to be prepared in case one of you needs to be emotionally supported through song."
"Look," Santana interrupts, "all I'm saying that on a scale of one to Ellen, that was like an eight." The others roll their eyes, and she raises her hands in protest. "I'm just saying. You all know I'm right."
"Can we do something else now?" Mercedes interrupts, facing forward again, smoothing her hands over her thighs once, then a second time. She can't look at Rachel, not right now. She wants to keep what little she's got left of that performance high. "Anything else?"
Mr. Schue pulls the stool towards the risers, clearly relieved. "That's a great idea, Mercedes. Who's got something they'd like to share with the group? The more suggestions we have, the better our chances at finding the perfect anthem for regionals."
"What is this, red China?" Sue says, under her breath. "Sharing."
"It's called being a good teacher, Sue," Mr. Schue snaps, and Mercedes feels Rachel sitting next to her, knows she's straight in her chair, the burn of her energy obvious even when she's briefly silent.
"Hey," Rachel insists. "Hey, Mercedes. Mercedes, look at me. Me."
She's had way too much to drink, too many cups, and it doesn't matter because she doesn't have to stand or do anything, really. No one's paying attention, and the party's emptying, anyway, people staggering out looking for Kurt and Finn's cars. She's still sitting in front of the couch, legs tucked under her, happily mouthing at a chewed straw, and she's thinking about Blaine and Rachel hopping on their homemade stage like a couple of bunnies on caffeine pills. Watching them in her head go up and down, up and down, up and down. It's making her dizzy.
"Nope," she says, and points straight ahead. "I'm looking – this way. Come back later when I'm looking over there."
"Let's do this!" Rachel says, too loudly, and plops herself on the floor in front of Mercedes, legs askew. The dress she's wearing is seriously the ugliest thing Mercedes has ever seen. It's like something out of those reruns on TV Land, except they actually had an excuse back then. Gas shortages made everyone think zippered jumpsuits and plaid pants were cool. (Or something. She sort of faded in and out that day in U.S. History.)
"You look like you're going in time. I mean back in it."
Rachel doesn't seem to hear her. "Did you see me tonight? I did a lot. I kissed Blaine Warbler, and I had friends. It was the best."
"You did both of those things," Mercedes agrees, laughing a little. Seeing Rachel like this, relaxed and happy, makes her own heart smile, even if there's a part of her that's sparking with a jealousy she doesn't care to acknowledge. It's not like she doesn't want people to like Rachel, but being liked, that's Mercedes's thing. That's her trump card. "Kurt is gonna kill you, though."
"All's fair in Blaine and Warbler," Rachel says. Her eyes are wide. "Kissing's my favorite, did I ever tell you about that? Last year before I got my experience, I used to worry I wouldn't figure it out. I didn't know if you just pushed your mouth on someone else or if you kissed one lip at a time and if you did that, whether you start with the top lip or the bottom one. And you know what I thought? I thought, what if I get a cold, how would I breathe? But now I figured it out! And I'm awesome."
"Yeah." Mercedes can't stop staring at the ruffles around the blouse of Rachel's dress. She looks like a celery-flavored potato chip. She could use a few potato chips right now. The barbeque kind, though, not the celery kind. "Now you know what to do. That's great."
"You're just as awesome too, as me," Rachel continues. "You get an A+ for your life, Mercedes Jones. Hold on, I'm going to kiss you."
"You're who in the what now," Mercedes says, startled out of her glaze, and then Rachel puts an awkward hand on Mercedes's shoulder, leaning in quickly.
There's probably been weirder stuff that's happened to Mercedes, but she's having a hard time coming up with candidates to top this one. Rachel tastes like carbonation and something sour Mercedes can't identify, which is awful, but her mouth is soft and it's doing this thing on the corner of Mercedes's lips, moving like she's asking a question. I'm the answer, Mercedes thinks, dizzy, and kisses back. Well, damn, about time somebody realized.
She's trying the lower lip thing, and then the upper lip one. Her hands grab at Rachel's hair and head and she doesn't pull away. It's Rachel who does, moving slow, like she's worried about breaking a new link, her face tilting back from Mercedes, and Mercedes almost reaches out for her again, not ready to let go.
"See," Rachel says, bright and messy. She places a finger on the tip of Mercedes's nose. "I figured it out."
"Yeah," Mercedes manages. There's a new roll of nerves inside her stomach, or maybe it's just too much vodka cranberry. Rachel's finger is light, not enough. "Yeah, you did."
"So, um," she says, into the phone, the next night, "I got kissed."
"Mercedes!" Kurt exclaims, obviously delighted. "Tell me everything. Immediately. Who, where, what, why, how. Was it romantic?"
She blurts it out. "I got kissed by a girl."
On the other end of the line, she hears Kurt's quick inhale. "Oh, my God, I knew Santana had a little thing for you."
"What?" She's startled. "Santana? No, I didn't kiss Santana. What?"
"It wasn't her?" Kurt sounds surprised, and Mercedes wonders what the hell she's missing. Santana? Why is Santana his first guess? They hate each other. "Who, then? Tina? Or – don't tell me it was Quinn. No, please tell me it was Quinn."
"It was Rachel," she admits, and immediately wishes she hadn't. What is she doing, bringing this up? It's too new. It's the kind of thing that needs to stay inside you until you've learned everything about it. "At the party, after you left. Kurt, this has to stay between us, okay? Promise."
"Absolutely, I promise," Kurt says, in a rush, and then, "I should've guessed. Rachel seems to have a penchant lately for kissing people that aren't attracted to her." It's sharper than she thinks he's meant to be. "Or is there more you haven't told me yet?" He gasps again. "Your duet. You know, when I heard about it, I thought for a second you might be trying to say you – "
"No," she interrupts, not wanting to let him keep going. She shouldn't have brought this up, especially when she hasn't gotten it sorted out herself. Some things don't feel better, getting talked about. "It was just – just this thing that happened at the party. Nothing to do with the duet. One time, and we were drunk. I'm not, you know, like that."
She's pretty sure, anyway. Mostly. The part where she hadn't wanted to let go of Rachel, though, that part keeps scratching at her.
"You know I'd support you completely if you told me you were, Mercedes –"
"I know, I know," she says, too fast, hoping it'll get him off the topic.
"– although, if I'm being honest, I'm a little relieved that this isn't your big coming out revelation. After this past week, I've had enough sexuality-related surprises to last me for a while. Not," he hurries to add, "that I wouldn't still be supportive. I'd even help you trade in your car for a Subaru. No fanny packs, though. I draw the line way before fanny packs."
"Hush up, Kurt," she tells him, and she's only half joking. She loves her boy, but when he gets his self-absorbed stuff all mixed up in his attempts to be sympathetic, it's annoying as hell. "You better not be saying I'd ever put that around my waist, gay or straight. I've got too much self-respect."
"You and Rachel Berry," he says, slowly. "Wow. Did you – " He hesitates, clearly looking for a word. "Um. Did you like it, at all? Wait, don't answer that. I don't think I want those kind of details. No offense meant."
She's glad Kurt's pulled it back, because she doesn't know how to respond in a way that isn't all over the map. There's no easy answer, yes or no. And how the hell is she supposed to say what she likes, when Rachel's her first kiss, and she's got nothing to compare it to?
Most of that night's a blur to her, the kiss included, but there's things she could say, if he made her drag them out. She remembers Rachel looking into her face, the press of her hand on Mercedes's shoulder. The way Rachel kisses, sloppy and glad. She'd say, if she had to, that she liked being noticed.
Rachel never brings it up, and Mercedes wonders if she doesn't remember what happened, because it seems like exactly the kind of thing Rachel would want to talk about until her tongue fell out. Maybe she's not in the mood for it, after the Blaine confusion.
Mercedes keeps quiet about it, too. What's the point? Easier to pretend it didn't happen.
She writes a song for regionals in a fit of optimism, this upbeat number that makes her want to tap her toes even when she's just hearing it inside her head. When Mr. Schue tells her it's great, but it's not what they're looking for, it hurts, even though she knows he's not trying to make her feel bad. He's got their best interests at heart. And, yeah, maybe her song's a little too personal to go over good with the judges. She gets that.
Mr. Schue's great, he really is. Mercedes loves him for everything he's done for glee club, but she just doesn't know why the guy can't let her have a damn competition solo that isn't her peeling off a run at the end of a song. She's always used like last-minute icing on a cake or something. The hell with that, because Mercedes is the cake. And the icing, too. She's the whole package.
"You know, I thought I should tell you that your song was excellent, Mercedes," Rachel tells her, a couple days later, while they're walking to class. It's delivered with all the conviction of someone who's left behind her competition. "Of course, it didn't have that broad appeal necessary to get us that win at regionals, so I understand why Mr. Schuester turned it down."
She's sort of come to that assessment all on her own, but somehow it's about ten times more irritating when Rachel says it out loud. "I don't see you coming up with anything earthshaking," she retorts, and shifts her backpack on her shoulder. "At least my song wasn't about a hair accessory or not having siblings."
"I'll have you know that my songwriting skills happen to have improved significantly since then, thanks to a significant amount of Quinn Fabray-induced heartbreak that resulted in a moving artistic creation. I'll be debuting it in glee club, tomorrow. Mr. Schue's already had the pleasure of hearing a preview earlier today, and he agrees with my assessment."
"Bully for you," Mercedes mumbles.
"Mercedes, your song was catchy and fun, but – you wrote about washing your grandmother's hair. And tots. Now, I'm not saying those aren't perfectly valid topics, but there's no deeper meaning to them. You see, that's what my romantic life has taught me. You have to write about the things that really matter."
She thinks, for about three seconds, that Rachel's inferring something about the two of them, and her face burns before she realizes she means Finn and Quinn. Like always.
"Mr. Schue told me he wants me to perform my song at regionals, to accompany our epic group number," Rachel adds, suddenly. "Assuming the rest of the club agrees, which I think they will, after hearing it. Emotional introspection is really the perfect compliment to a rousing anthem."
It's like a kick to the stomach. "Again?" she blurts, and stops in the hallway, turning to face Rachel. "You get it again?"
"My song happened to be the one he thought would appeal most to the judges. It's got nothing to do with my previous solos –"
"The hell it doesn't," Mercedes mutters, and walks off on her own before she starts crying. She's not going to let Rachel see her like that, disappointment and frustration plain on her face.
"Mercedes," Rachel calls, but she doesn't follow her, and Mercedes damn sure won't turn back if she's not being chased.
If no one's gonna give her respect, well, then, she'll just have to take it.
It's the Rachel Berry way, after all, grabbing out for what you want with both hands, and look what it's got her: maybe not love, but recognition. Mercedes is sick of lying down and taking the silence she's offered.
Yeah, her diva demands for the Night of Neglect are totally ridiculous. Mercedes isn't dumb. She knows no one's going to get her a puppy to dry her hands on. She knows no one's going to carry her on stage, and it's definitely not going to happen in any Lady Gaga egg. She's not doing this because she's trying to be like Mariah, or Whitney, or Celine, or even Aretha. Mercedes Jones is nothing if not an original.
It's more like she figures you can't ignore someone who's insisting on an extra room for her massage therapist. Even if Mercedes doesn't have a massage therapist.
"You deserve to be treated like the queen you are," Lauren tells her, when she suggests during Tina's song that maybe she should just give in, give up her fight for the closing number, stop making a fool out of herself. "You've been treated like crap for long enough, Mercedes. You're mad as hell, and you're not going to take this anymore. Repeat it after me. 'I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take this anymore.'"
She repeats it. It feels good, like stretching after you've been sitting still.
"Atta girl," Lauren says, her eyes sharp. "Now do your diva strut on out of here. I'll let them all know why you're gone. I'm gonna get you some pre-sorted Skittles, with all the yellow ones taken out."
"But I like the yellow ones," she protests.
"Not the point. Royalty, Mercedes. It's an attitude. Learn it. Love it."
Why is it, she thinks, a half hour later, when she's sitting in the rain-soaked car with Rachel, and Rachel's telling her this stuff she already knows about Aretha getting her rep from singing, not being a diva, why the hell is it that these girls think they have to tell me how to do my thing? I can do my thing all on my own, thank you. Nobody needs to tell me what to do. And of course I've read about Aretha. What does Rachel think I am, some kind of illiterate?
She's angry, and she's hurt, and she's overwhelmed by everything that's happened and everything that hasn't, yet.
They have one of those conversations that sounds, on the surface, like it's all deep and meaningful, about real things. It's just the two of them walking around each other like always, reaching out one minute, pulling back the next. They've gotten good at that.
Mercedes asks her the question that's been tumbling around inside for longer than she'd like to admit, and Rachel hesitates.
For a second, Mercedes thinks she might actually get a real answer, something that gets at why Rachel's always the one with the solos and the spotlights, but instead Rachel hands her this half-assed explanation: it's because she wants it more, because she puts it first, before anything, even being loved. She delivers her speech with a lot of emotion, though, and yeah, it might be acting, but it might just be that Rachel really believes what she's saying.
But that's not fair, Mercedes wants to protest. She shouldn't get punished just because she doesn't want to pay for her solo with her friendships.
"I really wanted that closing slot," she admits instead, because it's easier.
"If you want that closing slot," Rachel tells her, with surprising vehemence, "then go in there and take it from me."
Her hair's wet from the rain, her cheeks damp, and her eyes are big. They're wet, too. Mercedes watches her, mute, trying to figure out the words for what she can't say and doesn't know.
Rachel reaches over the center divide, grabbing for Mercedes's hand.
"You're incredible, Mercedes," she says, and squeezes, too hard. "You deserve to be told that all the time."
Mercedes closes her eyes, just for a second. It's like they're back on the carpet in Rachel's bedroom, with Kurt sleeping just above them, and the dark makes everything a little more simple.
"I want –" she says, and stops there. It's close enough.