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Burn This Town Down Tonight

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August

1.

By the time marching band camp actually kicks off in August before junior year, Lauren is ready for classes to start just so she’ll get a goddamn break from the rest of the drumline. Not that she hates them or anything, but unlike all the other sections except color guard, drumline doesn’t take the summer off. In June, they meet three times a week to practice. In July, four times a week. In August, they get two weeks off while the football players have their intensive camp, but then band camp begins. Anyone who’s around is expected to meet up for impromptu practices during their break anyway.

(She complains as much as the rest of them, and she’s sick of stinky boys and their stupid sometimes sexist bonding, but they’re gonna take high honors this year or drop dead in the middle of their drum feature. They came in second last year, behind Carmel, and there is no way in hell they’re letting that happen again.)

Marching band is serious business at McKinley. (Even after you graduate. When they lost to Carmel, her brother called and ranted for twenty minutes when he found out. Lauren sat there and took it. She was just a sophomore, the seniors hadn’t listened to her ideas anyway, but she should have tried harder. She should have made sure the freshman and sophomores were better. If she was half the leader her brother had been, they would have won. He doesn’t say any of that; she knows he’s not thinking it either. But all four years he was on the line, even when he was a freshman, the drumline won high honors and now, his first year out, they haven’t. She can’t help but feel like the replacement Zizes, and a faulty one at that.) Maybe it’s because they win competitions while the football team loses every game, but at McKinley, Friday night games are all about the halftime show and the band playing pep music in the stands.

Maybe that’s gonna change. They’ve got a new football coach, some ringer from Missouri who’s won championships at every school where she’s ever coached. There was a big rumble when she got hired, because first thing she did was say that her football players couldn’t also be in marching band. (Or play any other sports, but that part didn’t cause the same uproar.) That didn’t go over very well. Rumor has it, Mr. Schuester sweet talked her into changing her mind and her practice schedule, but from what Lauren’s seen of Coach Beiste, it’s pretty doubtful that she fell for Mr. Schue’s song and dance. In the end, she doesn’t care why Coach Beiste changed her mind, she’s just glad she did. Losing some of the football players wouldn’t matter -- whoever thought it was a good idea to give clumsy Hudson a sousaphone was an idiot -- but some of them, like Mike Chang in color guard and Sam Evans on saxophone, that would be a loss.

Still, there’s an unexpected benefit to a tough new football coach, and that is this: all the football players have been running two-a-days for the past few weeks, so now under the hot August sun, the view is even more impressive when they strip off their shirts. Goddamn, Coach Beiste may just end up being her new hero for a couple reasons.

During their midmorning break the first day, Lauren slumps into the shade, wets her washcloth with cold water from her thermos, and places it along the back of her neck. Her hair’s pulled back into two buns on the top of her head, tiny curls coming free along the nape of her neck, matted down with sweat.

The drumline and the color guard are always the last two sections off the field, not because they’re the worst, but because it’s a competition, sort of, who can be the toughest. Not necessarily between each other, but they definitely put the rest of the band in its place. They practice longer and harder and way more frequently. Even so, there’s always room in the shade for them if they want it, and today Lauren absolutely does.

Tina leans her practice flag against the wall and slides down to sit next to Lauren. It’s weird to see her without any make-up, even though she would have sweated it all off by now anyway. Her nails are intricately painted to make up for it, and her hair freshly dyed.

“So,” Lauren says, dragging it out a little. Tina doesn’t bite, just pushes her sunglasses up her nose and takes a drink of water.

Mike is standing by the bleachers, still in full sun. His shirt is off, and he kind of glistens a little, sweat and perfect fucking abs. Thank you, Coach Beiste. He’s watching them, spinning his wooden rifle mindlessly, whipping it around his hands with an ease that belies how difficult some of those moves actually are. The only reason Lauren knows they’re hard is because of Tina.

He grins suddenly. Lauren glances over at Tina and sees her smiling, too. She arches an eyebrow and bumps her knee against Tina’s thigh.

“Okay, spill, Cohen-Chang. You’ve been all giddy ever since you got back from camp, but you haven’t said a word about it.”

“I haven’t seen you,” Tina protests. “It’s not my fault you left on vacation as soon as I got back.”

“Whatever, you could have texted me, or emailed me, or called me.”

“I wanted to tell you face to face.” Tina tilts her head back against the wall, beaming at the sky. “It’s just that amazing.”

Lauren drops her voice into a hissed whisper. “You totally hooked up!”

Tina doesn’t nod, but she does smile even bigger than before.

Damn.” Lauren gives Mike another look. He’s talking to some of the freshmen now, his back to them -- and what a back, goddamn, that boy is cut from all angles -- but he keeps twisting a little, glancing toward them and away. “Damn. He’s got it bad, too.”

“Yeah?” Tina leans into her even though it’s too hot to cuddle the way they will later in the season. “He’s really nice. I mean, really, really nice. I kinda thought, you know, football player, he’ll be just like the others, but no.”

Lauren grabs her wrist and gives it a little squeeze. Tina looks so happy, she can’t even be pissed that it took so long for her best friend to open up to her. She gets that sometimes, you need secrets.

There’s movement off to the side, and Lauren has trained herself to notice whenever the drumline section leader gets up, because even though the drum majors are still standing together, talking to Mr. Schue, that doesn’t matter for the drumline. As goes their section leader, so goes their world. Even if Matt, this year’s section leader, is possibly the quietest, least full of himself drummer and football player and senior Lauren’s ever met. He fucking knows his stuff, though, and so they follow him willingly. Sure enough, Matt gets up, picks up his snare drum, and settles the harness over his shoulders again.

“Damn it,” Lauren mutters, but wipes her face with the washcloth -- it’s still halfway cool -- takes a quick drink, and hauls herself to her feet, stretching her arms high overhead to work the tension out of her shoulders.

Tina’s expression twists into a sneer. “Puckerman’s watching you,” she mutters. Lauren finishes her stretch, not bothering to check. She trusts Tina, and anyway, she doesn’t care. (She viciously squashes that little part of her that does, the part that finds him hot as hell and wants to see if he’s as good with his hands on a body as he is on a drum. Hooking up with him, beyond being a phenomenally stupid idea, would break the code.) “Why’d they let him out of juvie anyway?”

There’s a lot of hate in Tina’s voice, but sort of, Lauren can’t blame her. It’s not necessarily that Puckerman was in juvie, because Tina’s not bothered by some rulebreaking. (Though possibly trying to steal an ATM goes too far.) It’s the whole thing with knocking up Quinn and then doing stupid, stupid shit when Quinn decided not to keep the baby. It’s not like anyone actually drew lines in the sand, but Quinn is their friend -- hell, Quinn is living with Mercedes still, too angry at her parents to go home -- and friendship trumps everything else. So Puckerman is the asshole who hurt their friend and went on a rampage after the baby was adopted that ended up with him in juvie.

(Sometimes, Lauren thinks that’s not exactly fair. Yes, he went on a stupid rampage and ended up in juvie, and Tina can judge him for that if she wants. But even though she absolutely, without any wavering, believes that it was Quinn’s choice whether to have an abortion or put the baby up for adoption or keep the baby, sometimes she feels a little sorry for Puckerman because it was his kid, too. She remembers when her brother’s girlfriend had that pregnancy scare a couple years ago, and Billy was scared, because yeah, they were way too young, but kind of excited too. His kid, he said, and one night they snuck up onto the roof and sat eating ice cream together and he whispered a little about teaching the kid to play catch and ride a bike and climb up on the roof and fix cars, just like he’d taught Lauren. There ended up being no baby, and Billy laughed it off after with relief, but sometimes, when they’re all so very carefully not talking about what happened between Quinn and Puckerman, Lauren can’t help but think about that night on the roof.)

Tina and Mercedes and Lauren are Team Quinn all the way, and so it doesn’t matter that occasionally Lauren sees Puckerman’s side of it, or that she’s thought him just about the hottest guy around since freshman year, or that sometimes he tries to talk to her before or after drumline sectionals and sometimes she wants to actually stop and listen to what he has to say. Quinn won’t look at him, won’t even say his name, and so he is totally off-limits.

Instead she shrugs at Tina. “See you at lunch.” She doesn’t even wait for confirmation, both because she knows they’ll grab lunch together on break, they always do, and because she’s a little afraid of what Tina might see in her face.

She picks up her quads and settles the harness over her shoulders, loving the weight of them pulling on her. Back at the end of eighth grade, she went with Billy to tryouts -- as a senior coming back for his final year, it was very unlikely he wouldn’t make the line -- and even though she knew there was no way an incoming freshman would make quads, part of her hoped the entire trip to school that she would.

She didn’t, but she wasn’t stuck on cymbals, either. She made the bass line, the only freshman girl not on cymbals or in the pit. Probably Billy had a lot to do with that, because the other section leader was the kind of asshole who thought girls should play flute or, better yet, cheer from the sidelines, but she also played the hell out of her audition. Billy’d been on snare since his freshman year, one of the youngest to ever make the snare line, and he dragged her to the computer after the results were posted on the band’s website, and hugged her hard before she was even really done reading her name.

(Puckerman was also on the bass line, the two of them the only freshman. These days, she tries really, really hard not to think about that stupid party after they won their first competition, or the way Puckerman looked a little like a puppy dog for a couple weeks when she flat out ignored him after the party.)

Matt taps his sticks against the rim, a sharp sound that brings them all together around him. From the corner of her eye, she can see the biggest bass drum edge up next to her, and she very carefully doesn’t turn to look at Puckerman.

“Hey Zizes,” he says, his voice low. “Congrats on making quads.”

She clenches her hands around her sticks, but she can’t ignore that, she just can’t, not with his voice so quiet and not with her pride over finally, finally being where she belongs.

“Thanks.” Her voice is short, but she lets herself look at him quickly. His shirt’s off, and she’s not really sure how the guys stand wearing the harness against their bare skin, but god, she’s glad they do. He’s kind of golden from all the sun, and there’s this spot at his hip which cuts in so sharp she wants to bite it just to see what happens. She licks her lips without really thinking about it, and doesn’t notice until she realizes he’s staring at her mouth.

Fuck. She is so, so screwed.

“Line up,” Matt says. His voice carries well, but maybe that’s because he so rarely uses it they listen hard when he does. “We’re running the new cadence.”

Thank god for the excuse to move away from Puckerman. She joins the other quads and keeps her eyes resolutely on Matt, but she’s having a little trouble breathing steady. She does not want to kiss him. She can’t. Team Quinn, she reminds herself, and the friends code and--

Oh hell. She squeezes her sticks until her fingers ache, because she can’t lie to herself anymore. She really, really does want to kiss Puckerman again. And now that she’s admitted it, there’s only one thing to do.

Stay the hell away from him for the next two years. Despite twelve hour marching band bootcamp and sectionals on the weekends and long trips to competitions and then concert band season and crap.

She is so, so screwed.

2.

Drumline and color guard are the last two sections off the field for lunch break, too. Tina angles over the fifty yard line at a diagonal to catch up with Lauren, and together they cross the track surrounding the practice field and toward the shed where the drumline and the color guard locks up their equipment during lunch breaks.

Once Lauren sets her quads on their stand and Tina tucks her practice flag into the corner where she’ll be able to grab it quickly, they head out, looking for the others. Only Mercedes is waiting for them in the parking lot, and the gravel crunches under their feet as they head toward her, already too tired to talk much.

Mercedes has her head down, looking at something on her phone, but when they reach her big SUV, she looks up and pulls a face. “Whoever decided band camp should be in August sucks. It’s so fucking hot.”

“Sing it,” Tina says and slumps against the SUV on one side of her, Lauren on the other. “It’s been a long summer.”

“You gonna give us any details?” Lauren asks. She pulls off her sunglasses so she can swipe at her face with the edge of her t-shirt, then shoves them back into place, because it is way too bright to go without.

“Details about what?” Mercedes asks. She clicks something on her phone and shoves it into her pocket. “You’d better start talking.”

“Over lunch,” Tina promises. “Let’s go to Sonic so no one can overhear us.”

Lauren looks around for their missing friends. Quinn’s with Wes and David, talking about whatever the hell drum majors talk about. She doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for them. Quinn’s her girl, and she’s got her back, but all drum majors do is stand there and wave their arms. Everyone knows the drumline is the rhythm of the band, the sound that keeps everyone on beat.

Finally Quinn pulls herself away and heads toward them. She’s actually wearing a shirt that covers the waistband of her pants, not the mid-drift baring tank tops she used to wear, and Lauren is suddenly struck by the way Quinn sort of frames her stomach with her arms, protecting herself even now.

She glances over at Mercedes and Tina quickly, not sure if she’s actually seeing what she thinks she is. They’re watching Quinn too, their expressions serious.

“Our poor girl,” Mercedes says, her voice low, and then Quinn is close enough to hear them, so they don’t say anything else about it.

“Where’s Kurt?” Tina asks, shifting her weight. “I’m starving.”

Mercedes rolls her eyes and jerks her hand toward the cluster of boys standing around on the track. Hudson’s the tallest and he stands out, especially when he laughs long and loud at something someone else says, but she quickly picks out Kurt next to him.

“Brotherly bonding?” Tina asks. Kurt’s dad married Finn’s mom back in May, and it was an interesting part of summer, watching as the Hudmels (so named by Mercedes, whose love for portmanteaus has lead to stranger names) tried to become a family. Kurt still complains a lot about straight boys being gross, but mostly he seems pretty happy.

Mercedes laughs. “That’s his cover. Really he’s checking out the new boy.”

“New boy?” Lauren squints, trying to pick him out. There’s a couple freshman hanging around, looking way younger than everyone else, but then Hudson moves just right, and she gets an eyeful of some guy she doesn’t know, his dark hair curly and his mouth turned up in a wide open grin. He’s not a freshman, that’s for damn sure. “Where’d he transfer from?”

“Dalton, that prep school down in Westerville,” Quinn says, and they all turn to look at her sharply. This time last year, it wouldn’t have been a surprise for her to have the best gossip already, but many things have changed. “Wes is friends with him.”

“Wait, what? Wes has friends?” Mercedes teases, then raises her eyebrows. “And he just told you all about him?”

Quinn shrugs. “His name’s Blaine.”

“Oh!” Tina turns to look at him again and nods. “I thought he looked familiar. My parents know his parents. I’ve seen pictures of him at their house. The Asian community’s pretty tight around here.”

“So why’d he go to Dalton?” Lauren asks.

Mercedes snorts. “Why’d he leave to come here?”

Tina shakes her head. “I’ve never met him, just his parents.”

As one, they all turn to Quinn again. She’s rubbing her stomach absentmindedly; when they look at her, she stops and shoves her hands in her pockets. “Wes didn’t say. He was more interested in talking about all the instruments Blaine plays. There’re a lot, apparently.”

“Sounds like Wes has a bit of a crush.”

“He’s not the only one. Kurt took one look at him when we got here, said he was gay, and took off to see what else he could find out.” Mercedes grins. “He’ll be pissed you hit up an excellent resource before he did, Q.”

Quinn bites her lower lip, but doesn’t say anything else.

“Dude, he’s taking forever.” Lauren steps forward and cups her hands around her mouth. “Yo, Hummel, get your little woodwind ass in gear, we’re headed out.” He’s not too far away to see his shoulders go tense or the serious fuck off look he shoots her way.

Blaine says something to him that has Kurt turning around fast. Lauren slumps against the SUV again and tilts back her head, staring up at the sky. There are no clouds, just an unending expanse of blue and the searing sun.

She’s got spots in her vision when she looks down again, and she blinks hard to clear them. That’s when she catches Puck watching them. He’s wearing sunglasses now too, but she’s pretty sure he’s not looking at her this time. Quinn’s got one hand on her stomach again, and Lauren would bet a lot of money that his eyes are there.

And that’s just another reason she needs to nip these stupid emotions right in the bud. What a freaking mess they all are.

Kurt finally joins them, but he’s not alone. “This is Blaine,” he says. “He’s marching a bari sax, can you believe it? He’s a junior too, a transfer.” He spins through their names and sections fast.

Lauren squints at him, because damn, that’s a heavy saxophone for marching, and he’s pretty scrawny.

“Hi.” Blaine’s grin is friendly and easy despite the way they’re all staring at him. He doesn’t look too stressed to be the new guy, even though it has to be hard to change schools halfway through high school, to try to join a band made up of scared little freshman and groups of friends already firmly established. “Do you mind if I join you for lunch?”

They don’t, of course, especially not when Kurt keeps looking at him with this hopeful, yearning look that he promptly hides about half a second after he does it. He even gives up the front seat to Lauren, which is just another sign of how bad he’s got it already, because Mercedes is his girl and so he always gets shotgun.

(Sometimes Lauren wonders if Quinn ever feels left out. It’s been Mercedes&Kurt and Lauren&Tina and just Quinn for as long as they’ve been friends, but Lauren doesn’t know if Quinn’s ever wished for a best friend of her own to round things out. As much as they’re friends, Quinn is cool and unruffled and plays things close to her chest.)

In the backseat, Tina and Blaine talk a little about the people they both know while Kurt watches them just a little too close. Mercedes turns up the radio with a vicious twist of the knob. Her mouth is set in a thin line.

Oh, shit. Mercedes swore she was over her crush on Kurt, but then, Kurt hasn’t looked at a guy the way he’s looking at Blaine, not since that weird month when he was strangely fixated on Finn. (Thank god that ended. How weird would it be if they were hooking up and then their parents got married? She’s read a lot of super hot fic about just that, but it doesn’t hold the same appeal when one of the guys is her friend.) If Lauren were Tina, she’d reach over and hold Mercedes’ hand and whisper something helpful and sweet and understanding, but she’s not, so she crosses her arms over her chest and stares out the window.

Sometimes, she thinks she fails at being a friend.

#

They end up at Wendy’s instead, because it has a salad Kurt will eat without too much complaining, and the privacy of Sonic doesn’t really matter now that Blaine’s tagging along. They won’t get the good gossip out of Tina with him around.

Blaine is nice enough, friendly, and he easily engages Kurt, Tina, and Mercedes in conversation. Quinn focuses hard on her fries, and Lauren doesn’t talk to strangers, thank you very much. But she does listen.

“Did you march bari sax at your old school?” Kurt asks and takes a sip of his bottled water.

“We didn’t have a marching band. I didn’t think I would march here, but I wanted to play in concert band, and Mr. Schuester said I have to participate both semesters.”

“Yeah, that’s his way of making sure he doesn’t lose half his musicians when marching band ends.”

“Really? People would rather march than perform perfect arrangements in a concert hall?” Blaine looks honestly perplexed by this.

“You really haven’t marched before, have you?” Mercedes rolls her eyes. “Boy, you are in for a whole new world.”

“You like it that much?”

“You have no idea.” Mercedes shares a little grin with Kurt.

“And it’s adorable that you think McKinley is going to give you concert halls,” Kurt adds. “More like gyms that still smell like sweat.”

“Oh.” Blaine slurps some soda, but when he’s done drinking, he’s smiling again. “Tell me, what’s so wonderful about marching band?”

They all rush to tell him.

Kurt: Big, showy performances, and the cheers from the crowd.

Mercedes: The wail of that perfect trumpet solo, played by yours truly.

Kurt: Winning lots of trophies.

Quinn: Perfect formations on the field.

Tina: Spinning things.

(Lauren elbows her and mouths hot dancers. Tina grins and elbows her right back.)

Mercedes: That moment of anticipation right before our fearless leaders call us to attention and count off.

Tina: Dancing to pep band music in the stands.

Quinn: Cheering even though the football team sucks.

(She looks a little sad, and Lauren puts her hand on Quinn’s wrist, a light, brief touch.)

Kurt: Designing the color guard uniforms.

Blaine looks at Lauren expectantly. She doesn’t talk to strangers, and what she says is far too personal to give him, but she hears herself say it anyway, caught up in her friends’ enthusiasm.

Lauren: Being the heartbeat of the band.

(It’s true the drumline is the driving pulse of any marching band, but even as she says it, she realizes she’s not just thinking about her role, or the drumline as a whole, but also of the deep bass of the biggest bass drum, echoing the steady beat of her heart. Goddamnit, she is so screwed.)

Then Mercedes does a little fist pump and shimmy in her chair. “Band parties and bus rides, baby.”

Blaine shrugs and shakes his head a little.

“Oh, you are in for an experience,” Kurt promises him, leaning closer. “Where else will you see heavy brass idiots fall all over themselves for a beer and get the pleasure of doing shots with us?”

“Well if that’s the draw,” Blaine tips his head toward Kurt, “how can I resist?”

Flirting? Tina mouths at Lauren, and Lauren shrugs. Mercedes, watching them, nods a little, trying not to draw attention to herself. Blaine and Kurt grin at each other just a little too long, and then Kurt looks away, flushing.

Mercedes is quick to cover for her boy. “Why’d you leave Dalton?” she asks.

Blaine straightens and shrugs, dragging three fries through ketchup. “Couldn’t stand the uniform anymore.” He laughs it off, but it’s not really an answer. Mercedes and Tina exchange a look, and then Tina glances at Lauren, who gives the shallowest nod she can and catches Quinn’s eyes. There’s a story there, and they want to know what it is.

“Tell me about McKinley,” Blaine says. “Is there a gay-straight alliance? I was in it at my old school, though only a couple of us were out. Or no, that leaves out lesbians.” His nose crinkles a little with his frown. “What do you call it at a co-ed school? Gay-lesbian-straight alliance?” He takes a bite out of his burger, all noncha-fucking-lant, like he’s got no idea what he just said.

And probably, he doesn’t.

“Still leaves out a lot of sexualities,” Tina says and grips her cup so tight the lid pops up on one side. Across the table, Kurt looks down at his salad. Lauren hooks her foot against Tina’s ankle, tucking their legs together. “There’s more than just gay, lesbian, and straight.”

Blaine’s eyes widen, and he chews quickly, swallowing a couple times. “I’m sorry,” he says in a rush. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Yeah, well, no one ever does.” She doesn’t look pointedly at Kurt. She doesn’t have to. The end of the school year party hangs over them, too much alcohol and Kurt’s nasty little comment about bisexual just being a label people used until they were comfortable enough coming out. Tina, normally giddy and dancing when she drank, turned on him for saying something so stupid and told them all she liked girls just as much as guys, thank you very much. She sighs. “No way we’d be allowed to have a queer alliance at school.”

“That sucks,” Blaine says. He sets down his burger. “And I really am sorry.”

Tina carefully presses down the lid to her cup and nods. “Okay.” This time she does look at Kurt, staring hard until he meets her eyes. “It really is okay. We all say cruel stuff without thinking about it sometimes.”

He gives a half-hearted smile, but the silence that follows is still awkward and uncomfortable. The skin on the back of Lauren’s neck feels tight -- or maybe that’s sunburn, she really needs to reapply sunscreen more often -- and no one really looks at each other.

Finally Quinn makes a show of glancing down at her watch. “Finish up,” she says. “We need to head back soon.”

“Yes, because God forbid our precious leader be late returning to her stepstool on the thirty yard line,” Mercedes teases. Quinn sniffs and lifts her chin, looking every inch the ice queen she was this time last year, head cheerleader and first chair flutist and a shoe-in for Homecoming Princess and Valentine’s Day Dance Sweetheart. Then she grins and tosses a fry at Mercedes.

“I do what it takes to keep the minions in line,” she says, and then it’s on.

Well, they won’t be going back to Wendy’s anytime soon after that food fight.

#

They’re playing through a basic cadence for the fiftieth time while the band marches in one big block, working on perfecting their eight to five steps -- even though the freshmen, and Blaine, she guesses, had fundamentals all last week, the rest of the band needs practice before they can start actually doing work -- when Lauren realizes she’s not really paying attention to what she’s doing. She doesn’t need to, she could play this pattern in her sleep, but that’s not what gets to her.

What gets to her is how hard she’s listening for the sound of Puck’s drum. She knows the bass drum parts too, knows each beat that is his, and the fact that she’s focusing on it, the fact that she freaking cares about which beat in each pattern is his, kills her.

#

The sun is setting when Mr. Schue finally calls an end to practice. Once Matt lets the line go, Lauren trudges with the others over to the equipment truck and puts away her quads. Even with a summer of practice, she’s worn out, so tired she can feel it in her goddamn bones.

(Which is, she has to admit, pretty freaky. Bones aren’t supposed to have feelings. And that sounds a lot like Brittany. She’s spending way too much time with the color guard if B’s in her head like that.)

She’s looking around to see if any of her friends need a ride when Puckerman saunters over. He’s between her and her car, so she stops and crosses her arms over her chest. No way in hell he’s going to out stubborn her.

He hooks his thumbs in his pockets, all nonchalant and shit. “Bass line’s headed to Nelson’s. You should come.”

She considers it before she can stop herself. Not to spend time with Puckerman, but she did spend two years marching a bass drum, and she likes the other guys on the line well enough. Nelson’s place is pretty sweet, too. He’s got the whole finished basement to himself, and it’s full of games and speakers and racks of dvds. Hanging out with the guys, drinking beers and killing zombies sounds like a hell of a time.

Puckerman gives her a little grin, her insides twists, and she remembers it’s a bad idea.

“Can’t. I’ve already got plans.” It’s not a lie, either. She just doesn’t elaborate on those plans, which involve the longest, hottest shower ever -- though if Puckerman keeps looking at her like that, all hopeful and slightly smirking and just plain sexy as hell, she’ll need a cold shower instead -- and faceplanting on her bed for awhile.

His face falls, the smile gone, but then he shrugs. “Whatever. Later, Zizes.”

No fucking way Puckerman gets upset at being shot down, but she can’t shake the feeling that somehow she’s hurt his feelings. She hooks one hand along the back of her neck, kneading her fingers into her skin. Shower, faceplant, and some really loud music. Maybe then she can ignore all these damn unwanted feelings.

3.

The week drags on. They run fundamentals in a big basic block through Wednesday, and it’s a hot, miserable mess. Lauren stops counting the number of times she wants to throw a drumstick at someone for messing up and making them start all over when she hits twenty.

(She only throws one once, and that’s at Trent, who keeps tripping into her space. When he comes close to slamming their quads together, she gets out of the way fast and then throws one of her sticks at the back of his head. She has to run a lap around the field for that, carrying the biggest cymbals while she does because sometimes Mr. Schue is a sadist, but it’s totally worth it. He doesn’t get in her way again.)

Blaine joins them for lunch the second day, too, which means there’s still no gossip from Tina. It’s funny as hell when he tries to order a milkshake. Kurt curls his hand over Blaine’s mouth to silence him and shakes his head. “You do not want to drink that much dairy and then march for another five hours,” he promises. Blaine’s eyes are wide, but his nod tight and controlled. He puts his hand on Kurt’s wrist, and for a second they sit like that, looking at each other.

“My hero,” Blaine says when Kurt finally pulls his hand away. He bats his eyelashes a little and drops his head onto Kurt’s shoulder. “What other nasty marching band surprises will you rescue me from?”

Definitely flirting, Mercedes mouths behind their backs, and Lauren thinks she’s right.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday they run basic move after basic move all morning, but they’re inside after lunch, for the hottest part of the day, and it’s a welcome relief. The air conditioner in the band room works overtime trying to cool them down, and they’re unpleasantly crowded -- the band room isn’t really built for the whole marching band, it’s made for the two smaller ensembles they’ll break into for concert season, one basic and one advanced -- but it’s nice to be out of the sun.

They sound like shit the first day, but the section leaders go to work, tuning and going over the same four bars fifty times and sometimes literally tapping the rhythm into their skin. Friday, they’re starting to sound halfway decent, at least standing still with the music in front of them.

It all makes for a long, exhausting first week, but by the time rehearsal ends Friday night, their energy is starting to build again. Lauren can hear the whispers start as everyone packs up their equipment, and she gives it a couple hours -- just long enough for everyone to grab dinner, shower, and put on something fun instead of the sloppy clothes they’ve been sweating in all day -- before they’re partying it up.

Lauren pushes her way out of the room and chills in the hallway, leaning against the lockers across the hall and enjoying the momentary solitude. Tina and Quinn find her there soon enough, followed by Mercedes, Kurt, and Blaine, and together they head for the parking lot.

“Where’re we tonight?” Tina asks.

“David’s hosting.” Quinn tightens her ponytail, smoothing the little flyaways that have escaped near her ears.

“Sweet.” Mercedes and Kurt flick their fingers together and smooth back their hair. It is pretty sweet, David has a killer set-up. He’s got a sound system that would put some concerts to shame. They’ll be plenty of alcohol, because someone always knows someone who can hook them up, and Lauren can’t wait for that delicious, delicious burn.

“It’s my turn to drive,” Quinn adds. “Who needs a ride?” Lauren and Mercedes both jump on that offer, but Kurt and Blaine are riding with Finn -- Mercedes and Quinn exchange tiny smiles at that -- and Tina swings the hem of her skirt back and forth and says she’s already got a ride.

She doesn’t name names, but Lauren knows it’s Mike, of course. From the looks on Mercedes’ and Quinn’s faces, they’ve figured out something’s going on too. Oh, yeah, this party will be fun.

“We’ll be there by eight,” Quinn tells Lauren.

They start to split up, but Kurt stops them. “Ladies,” he says, and then nods at Blaine, “poor, uneducated new boy, it is our first party as upperclassmen. Make me proud.” His eyes narrow. “You’d better all look fierce.”

Lauren rolls her eyes, but later, after her shower, a towel wrapped around her wet hair, she stands in front of her closet for awhile, contemplating what will receive the Kurt stamp -- or, okay, tiny nod and hair flick -- of approval.

#

She ends up wearing a purple cotton skirt, black sparkly tank top, and black sandals. Kurt approves, though she knows it’s simpler than he’d like. Whatever, she looks hot and feels comfortable, two very important things.

Lauren wanders the party, stopping to talk to a couple people here and there. She’s having fun, but she feels restless, and even when she forces herself to sit down to a conversation, she makes an excuse to get up again quickly.

It means she’s not paying much attention to who is around her when, because it keeps changing. That has to be how Puckerman sneaks up on her. Or not really sneaks, he’s just suddenly there.

“Zizes.” Puckerman’s holding a big glass of something filled with alcohol -- she can smell the bite of it rising from his drink and on his breath when he leans in close -- but though his face is a little flushed and his eyes are bright, he’s not slurring his words. “Why don’t we ever hang out?”

She grips the neck of her beer bottle tight. “You know why,” she snaps and looks around for Quinn; she can just make out her blonde hair shining under the dim lights in the area designated the dance floor. She sways her hips and does a quick little step, her movements smooth. Next to her, Sam Evans is awkward as he dances just a little too enthusiastically, but Quinn just laughs and grabs him and pulls him in close.

Puckerman’s looking, too, and shaking his head. Of course he is, he doesn’t want Quinn with anyone else. That makes Lauren’s throat tight and her chest ache. She takes a long pull off her beer to cover it. Puckerman watches her do it, his eyes focused hard on where her lips wrap around the bottle.

What the fuck is wrong with him, mooning after Quinn one minute and checking her out the next? What a dick.

“Fuck you,” she snaps and turns away. He grabs her, fingers warm and rough around her wrist, and that right there tells her he’s drunker than she thought, because there’s an unspoken rule between them: no touching.

“What’d I do?” He genuinely sounds confused and a little hurt, and he lets her go as soon as she snaps back around to face him.

She knows she shouldn’t say what springs to mind first, because the last thing anyone needs is for Puckerman to go pick a fight with Sam or, worse, for Quinn to turn on him, icing him out with all her rage, but she says it before she’s done with that realization, her brain slowed and her tongue loosened by the booze.

“If you want to dance with Quinn, go dance with her!” There’s a heat building inside, and she clenches her hand around her beer bottle. For a second, she thinks she’s about to throw it at him, or maybe just the last of her beer, but that would be a hell of a party foul.

“The fuck are you talking about?”

She’s has no idea. All she knows is how much she hates that bitter rise of jealousy, because goddamn it, Quinn is her friend. It’s not an emotion she deals with well. Nor is the odd fondness she feels for Puckerman.

What she understands is anger, and she knows exactly how to turn any other emotion into it.

“You really want to talk about why we don’t hang out?” She narrows her eyes at him and plants her hands on her hips, one of them pressing her beer bottle against her. “Because it seems like no one ever mentions the fact that you knocked up your best-friend’s girlfriend and--”

“Don’t.” His voice is harsh, his eyes a little too wide. He’s doing that posturing thing he does -- mostly unconsciously, or so she’s always thought -- with his shoulders forward and chest pushed out. He clenches one hand around his glass over and over, the other fisted at his side, and if he swings, oh god, if he swings she will put him into the wall.

(She’s not even sure how much of this is her raring for a fight and how much is wanting to kiss him, to touch him, to fuck him. She likes it rough, likes to be rough, and she’s crossing lines here she didn’t even realize she was close enough to see.)

“No? But I thought you wanted to talk.” Lauren sneers at him and opens her mouth to really drive it home, to land the verbal punch that’s going to knock the wind out of him -- and is probably a little below the belt, but she ignores that -- but then Puckerman’s jaw twitches.

“Don’t,” he says again, and then, quieter still, “fucking please don’t.”

All the anger rushes out of her, and she just feels guilty for kicking him while he’s down. Not that he was actually down, not literally and not figuratively, but she knows that’s his weak spot and she aimed right for it. She can call him an asshole all she wants, but she’s just as fucking bad.

They stand there a moment, staring and silent, and then Lauren grimaces. “Sorry,” she mutters, and she is, but god, she hates saying it, hates admitting she might have been wrong about something. “That was shitty.”

She doesn’t know what else to say, and she hates feeling like that, unbalanced and unsure, so for once, instead of pushing through it no matter what, she turns and walks away.

#

The party is so loud, so unbelievably loud. The music sounds like it’s jacked up another ten decibels every time she breathes in, and she’s sure everyone is screaming their conversations at the top of their lungs.

Lauren grabs a bottle of water and escapes into the backyard. The party’s there too, but there’s a lot more space, and it’s nice and dark and cool. She grabs herself a seat on the low stone wall that lines one of the big flower beds in the corner and lets her shoulders slump.

No way she’s still feeling guilty over Puckerman. There’s just no fucking way.

Even as she tries not to think about that, she looks up and he’s walking toward her. Or maybe just walking to the corner. It doesn’t really matter, because the end result is the same. She braces herself for more awkwardness, sitting up and straightening her shoulders, but he just sits down next to her, a crumbled pack of cigarettes in one hand.

Neither of them says anything as he thumbs one out and pulls his lighter from his pocket, but it’s an easy silence. Lauren sips her water. Puckerman lights his cigarette. Elsewhere, people are loud and handsy and drunk and dancing, but their corner is almost peaceful. Not exactly what she expects from Puckerman.

He takes a long drag and blows out a slow, steady stream of smoke. It’s a clove, she can smell that much, but there’s something weird about it. She sniffs again, harder, trying to figure it out, but she can’t.

“What the hell are you smoking?” When she realizes what she’s said, she laughs so hard for a second she can’t breathe. Oh yeah, still drunk. Puckerman grins and takes another drag, waiting for her to finish.

“Menthol cloves.”

Lauren squints at him. “I can’t decide if that’s amazing or horrifying,” she says at last.

He shrugs and slips another one out of the pack, holding it out to her. “Try one.”

She takes it and reaches for his lighter next, but he hangs on to it and thumbs it to life. It’s bright after the shadows around them, and for a second, she’s distracted by the way his face looks highlighted by the flame. Then she tilts forward a little and lights the cigarette, her eyes on him the whole time.

It’s not her first time smoking, and she really is leery about the mix of menthol and clove, so she only inhales a little bit at first. But it’s good, different; it’s mostly like a clove, but then her mouth starts to burn a little. She presses one finger to her lips, poking at them. Yeah, they’re definitely tingling.

“Dude,” she says, and then, because talking feels weird, she says it again, dragging it out. “Dude, that’s awesome.”

“Hard to find but worth it,” he agrees. He shifts around a little, and when he’s done, he’s sitting closer to her. She doesn’t scoot away. “How’s your brother?”

“He’s good.” She tilts her head to the side, staring up at the sky, blowing smoke above their heads. “He’ll be back stateside in a couple months. He doesn’t know where he’ll be stationed here, but it’ll be closer to home, so we don’t really care.”

“Cool. We should hang when he’s in town.”

Lauren nods, a little jerkily, and focuses on her cigarette. She can hear the crackle of the paper as it burns on down. Puckerman shifts again, flicking ash onto the ground, and his leg bumps against hers.

This is how it started freshman year, too, cigarettes and beer and line camaraderie. Lauren considers walking away, but she likes it here, in the silence and the shadows, smoke and secrets curling around them.

4.

It should be impossible, but the second week of band camp is even hotter and sunnier than the first week. They slather on sunscreen before practice and during breaks, but still they burn. They drink lots of water, but still people start dropping, turning pale and shaky and having to sit out for awhile. It’s a mess, and it’s hard work, and it’s horrible, but it’s wonderful at the same time, because it’s marching band.

#

Tuesday afternoon, something finally clicks.

It’s just like any other day, hot and muggy and bright; sweat drips down their faces and makes their shirts cling. They’ve warmed up musically and warmed up physically and moved back and forth between one mark and the next, then that mark and the one after, and then back to the beginning, over and over and over, singing their parts with each move, until Lauren is pretty sure that if she ever hears a couple particular bars from “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” again, she’s going to break someone.

“Okay,” Mr. Schue calls from his position on the high stand that gives him a good angle from above. “Let’s try running it with music from the beginning.”

They go back to the first page of drill, closing their drill books and readying their instruments. Lauren brushes her fingers against the edge of her harness, offering herself luck.

Wes is on the fifty yard line. He glares at them, from one side of the field to the other, and then calls them to attention and brings their horns up. That’s not when that illusive something finally clicks, but it happens sometime between everyone snapping their instruments into place and the moment Wes’ voice rings out again, “Mark time mark.”

They mark off four beats, left right left right, step off with the left, and suddenly they’re all motion and all sound. Wes directs them with sharp perfection, hands slicing through the air to hit each spot exactly in the four-four pattern. On their respective thirty yard lines, David and Quinn match his movements, their heads turned toward him so they are all perfectly together.

The horns are solid, rising high over everyone else, a full bright sound that makes Lauren glad she’s moving because oh, she wants to dance. She doesn’t have to look to know where the other quads are or that their sticks rise and fall with a beautiful, blurring precision, and she can feel the line as they move through the drill, surrounding her, ever present and exactly what she wants.

They’re nowhere near competition ready and still far from perfect. Some of their diagonals are more like curving lines and a couple freshmen get off step. Towards the end, one of the trumpets comes in three beats early, breaking out clear and loud over the woodwinds. But through it all rises the driving beat of the drumline and when they hit their final mark just as the last notes wail out, they’re not this collection of sections anymore, they’re one big, bold band.

They hold attention, instruments up, eyes on Wes. His hands are clenched so tight into fists it looks like it hurts, and his chin is up, his expression unreadable. There’s a squirming, quivering tension inside Lauren, but she’s in the zone -- they’re all there, one band, one sound, one focus -- and she could hold attention forever if she had to.

“Band, horns down,” Wes bellows. Almost before they’re done, the light glancing off bright instruments, he’s calling them to parade rest. This is the moment when anticipation can be too much, her head down, eyes on the ground, waiting for the call that will bring them to life.

Instead, Mr. Schue starts clapping. “Great job, you guys.” He’s laughing a little, and his voice lifts with excitement. “Let’s run it again, and then we’ll take a water break. Back to your opening spots.”

It’s only band camp and they’ve got a lot of work to do and they haven’t even started learning the drill for the other three songs, but god, it feels good to be a band again.

#

They do so well Mr. Schue lets them leave an hour early. (Well, he says it’s because they do such a good job, but Quinn snorts and mutters to them that the Spanish teacher, Ms. Holliday, is back from her summer in Europe, and he just wants to go get laid. Which, eww, and she sounds so much like Santana, Lauren can guess where that gossip came from. Still, Santana usually knows her shit.)

Once she’s taken care of her instrument, Lauren heads over to where Tina and Mercedes chat with Brittany. Brittany is a cheerleader, and used to only be a cheerleader, until Tina recruited her into guard last year from their dance class. Though some of the football players have always been in marching band, the cheerleaders -- except for Quinn -- really haven’t been, though now Santana’s joined Brittany in guard. (Sometimes, Lauren thinks Santana would be better suited to the line, but there’s no way Lauren wants to have her that close.) While she talks, Brittany is stretching, and more than a few of the guys end up stumbling on the gravel because he’s staring too hard at her ass when she bends over or her breasts when she pushes her hands high overhead. For her part, Brittany doesn’t pay them any attention and just laughs at something Tina says.

Before Lauren reaches them, she hears Matt calling the drumline. His voice is pretty quiet compared to everyone else, but one part of her is always listening hard for him, so she spins around and backtracks to where he’s gathering everyone, including the pit, behind the equipment truck.

“Line bonding time,” he says. “Load up and follow me.”

There’s a quick scramble into cars after that, everyone piling in so they don’t have to take too many. Lauren’s got a few freshmen for her car already when Puckerman struts up, grinning at the three pit girls. They giggle a little and blush and two of them look down at their feet.

“Girls, you don’t mind squeezing together in back, do you?” he asks, turning the full force of his smirk on the one who actually looks at him straight on, at least for a moment. Lauren tries not to roll her eyes, but she doesn’t try very hard.

She pins him with a glare over the top of her car. “What are you doing?” she asks, voice flat.

“Saving the environment. One less car on the road is good for everyone.” He arches his eyebrows at her, the corner of his mouth turning up even higher, and she ducks into her seat fast so he won’t see her smile.

#

Line bonding ends up being out at Matt’s favorite swimming hole. Probably she should have seen that coming, because they usually make it out a couple times during the summer, but this year they’ve been so focused on winning -- the stench of last year’s defeat lingers -- that they haven’t.

(Plus she spends the entire drive fighting with Puck over the radio. First thing he does is unplug her iPod, which gets him hit. Then he changes stations, which gets him hit. Then he stops her when she’s about to flip off a classic rock station -- and she likes classic rock, but there’s no way in hell she’s letting him control the music -- grabbing her wrist and smirking, because apparently, he likes the song. His palm is hot against her skin, and he holds on too long. That gets him hit, too, but it also leaves her tense and distracted.)

The trio of freshmen climb out of the backseat when they arrive, their eyes wide. The cars are pulled up in a half circle, and before them through a break in the trees stretches out a big lake, the water deeply, beautifully blue.

They made one stop on the way, to grab snacks and drinks, and everyone hauls their bags down to the water’s edge. Matt pulls a pile of blankets and towels out of his trunk; they collect good sized rocks to hold down the edges of the blankets, and everyone claims a towel.

Lauren’s hungry and thirsty, but she’s also sweaty and hot, and the water looks amazing. She’s wearing army green shorts and an orange tank top over a sports bra, and though she wishes for her bathing suit, she’ll make what she’s wearing work. She toes off her sneakers, peels off her socks, and drops her keys, sunglasses, and wallet next to the pile.

Trent, Thad, and Julie, the other quads, dump their stuff near her. Puckerman does too, which means the bass line sticks close. Not as close as Puckerman though, who is practically on top of her when he peels off his shirt. She’ll admit the view’s not bad at all, and maybe they’re sort of on their way to being friends again, but watching him strip -- watching the play of muscles under skin and the glint of piercings at his nipples -- is doing really wicked things to her.

She presses her lips together in a thin line and shakes her head at him. He’s watching her, trying and failing to be subtle about it, so she tries to keep her expression neutral. That gets harder still when he unhooks the chain that links his wallet to one belt loop and lets it pool through his fingers as he drops it onto the ground. All she can picture is it wrapped around his wrists, twisted up his arms, and how pretty he’d look while he begged and oh, god, she is not having these thoughts about him.

Now she really needs to fucking cool off. There’s already a line of drummers waiting to grab the rope swing, but Lauren bypasses them and heads straight into the water, careful to stay away from the spot they land. She jerks a little when she steps into the water -- it’s cold as fuck -- but forces herself deeper, until it hits her thighs, her hips, her stomach.

It’s better to get it over with fast, and Lauren ducks under, biting down on the gasp that wants to escape. She holds her breath as long as she can, until her lungs burn and her jaw aches, and then pops to the surface. When she comes up, she wipes water out of her eyes, careful not to dislodge her contacts, and looks around.

Some of the freshmen still linger on shore, but everyone else is either in the water or waiting to grab the rope and swing out into the water. She loses track of Puckerman for awhile, which is fine. Julie starts a splash war that turns into dunking when Trent loses; Lauren and Julie team up to school all the snares, even Matt, when they try to come in swinging. Eventually the entire drumline is in the water, soaked and shrieking with laughter, the sweat and their stress washed away.

Finally, stomach grumbling and mouth dry, Lauren forces herself out of the lake. She wrings water from her hair and the bottom of her shirt before she makes her way over to her towel and the bag of goodies waiting for her on the blanket she claimed. She dries herself off fast and sits down. There’s a bit of a breeze, and it’s actually a little chilly after the water. Chilly enough her nipples are hard, and sports bra or not, with a wet shirt clinging to her, you can tell.

She could cover herself with the towel, but she’s never been one to hide her body, so she drops it next to her and grabs a bottle of water from her bag. More people are leaving the water to grab drinks. Some sit down, others head right back in. She leans back on her arms and closes her eyes, enjoying the moment. Damn good idea, Matt. She should probably tell him so.

After awhile, a shadow falls over her face, blocking enough sun she can tell even with her eyes closed. When she looks, sure enough, it’s Puckerman, rubbing a towel over his mohawk while water drips down his chest.

That is a very good look for him. She’s so comfortable and content that she doesn’t roll her eyes or smart off; instead, she watches him close enough to catch individual rivulets of water working their way down his stomach and the way his shorts drip water onto his feet.

She knows the exact moment he realizes she’s looking at him, the moment he notices whatever must be showing in her eyes, because he drops the hand holding the towel to his side and watches her right back, his eyes hooded and dark.

“Want something?” she asks at last, bumping the bag with her knee even though she knows full well he grabbed food and drink from the gas station too.

“Yeah.” His voice is low and warm and though she already had a sharp retort ready if he said something about hooking up, when he says it like that, so simple and yet so effective, she doesn’t want to say anything at all.

Lauren’s proud of the fact that no matter how much he’s twisting her up inside, she doesn’t look away.

“Sit,” she orders, and he drops down next to her. They drink sodas and split a bag of chips, and she pretends she doesn’t notice how his eyes linger when she licks salt from her fingers.

Almost everyone is back in the water -- Lauren knows this because they’re both staring out across the lake, not looking at each other anymore -- when Puck says, his voice pitched so soft she can barely hear him, “I didn’t mean to knock up Quinn.”

“I know.” She wants to put her arm around him, pull his head down to her shoulder, kiss his forehead and hug him close. Instead she tucks her hands under her thighs and glares at the water, angry at herself. She’s not sure why she’s mad anymore, not sure whether it’s because she wants to comfort him or because she won’t let herself.

“I didn’t mean to keep fucking shit up either.” He runs one hand over his hair. “Juvie sucked.”

“Yeah?” She’s heard the stories, big bad Puckerman knocking heads together and coming out an even bigger badass than he went in, but she also knows how stories about badasses tend to snowball. Do one little thing -- for example, kick Ben Israel’s smarmy little ass for being a disgusting waste of space, and that’s literally kick his ass, one kick, just hard enough to interrupt his smarm and put him into the locker -- and suddenly you’ve beat him half to death, sucked out all his blood, and revived him as a zombie, which doesn’t even make any sense. So, yeah, she doesn’t believe most of what she hears.

“Like really sucked. They tore out one of my nipple rings.” She can’t help it, she turns to look, because he certainly had them both in earlier. There are two, but he catches her looking. “Got it redone. Thought maybe--” He cuts off whatever he was going to say, and stares back across the water. “They were fucking scary, and I wasn’t nearly as badass.”

“You’re badass enough,” she says, because it’s true. He’s been walking that line between tough guy and bully for awhile now, ever since he got Quinn pregnant, whereas before he was mostly just bully. If he was any more badass, he’d topple back across that line again.

He shrugs and they’re quiet again for a bit. “I don’t want Quinn to hate me,” he says at last. “I don’t want you to hate me either.” It’s her turn to look away. The mood is shifting; the sun’s getting lower in the sky and more and more of the line is leaving the water.

She waits too long to answer, there are too many people around them, and Puckerman won’t quite meet her eye while they gather everything up. He rides back with her, though, she thinks mostly because she shoves her keys at him and tells him to go start the car for her and take the freshmen with him while she helps Matt load up the blankets.

#

Lauren might have missed her moment, but she’s a pretty quick thinker. The freshmen can’t drive, so she offers them rides home, and drops them off first, Puckerman stuck in the car. Once they’re alone, she heads back to the practice field and his truck. He opens the door fast when she pulls up next to it -- it’s the last vehicle in the lot -- but she grabs his arm and looks at him, because if she’s actually going to say this, she’s going to do it right.

“I don’t hate you, Puckerman. And I don’t think Quinn does either.”

He looks down at where her fingers are wrapped around him, and when he speaks, it’s more a sigh than a word. “Thanks.”

#

The rest of the week passes in practice and plotting and singing their parts and sometimes putting it all together and lunches with her friends -- which has included Blaine every single day, but Kurt looks so happy, so damn smitten, that Lauren can’t even really hate someone intruding on their time together -- and sometimes even short conversations with Puckerman.

She’s also picked up the trio of freshmen who start following her around: Cindy on marimba, Dana on xylophone, and Erin on timpani. Dana’s the most forward, the ringleader, but all three laugh a lot and bring Lauren water without her asking and during one break, they start asking for advice on how to make it onto the line. She grins at them and talks about practice and strength and confidence and some of what they’ll face when trying for a section that is predominantly guys. Not so much from their line, at least not under Matt, but she hears a lot of trash talking at competitions. (She doesn’t tell them about kicking other line’s asses, not yet. They’ll see for themselves.)

It’s hard work, and she’s tired all the time, but Friday comes faster than she can believe and suddenly band camp is over. School starts Tuesday, after one last long weekend, and the band is buzzing because Matt’s parents are out of town. That has to be on purpose, surely they know their senior son is going to throw an end-of-band-camp/end-of-summer party the second they hit city limits.

So Matt’s hosting the end-of-band-camp party. The sky is gloomy all afternoon, a late summer storm threatening, but it’s not raining when they’re dismissed. Matt’s party is starting earlier than last time, and it’s Lauren’s turn to drive, so she rushes home to shower and change into a jean skirt, her favorite orange and pink Chucks and a flippy, flirty red cotton shirt. She’s not planning on doing much flirting, honestly, but after Tina does her make-up when she picks her up and Quinn slips jewelry on her when she picks her up, Mercedes pronouncing them all gorgeous, well, there’s energy buzzing in her veins.

The end of band camp marks the end of a long, hot summer full of hard work and tension. The end-of-band-camp party marks the beginning of a long fall full of hard work and competitions and random band hook-ups at games and on busses. It’s that weird, twisty time between summer and fall, between freedom and school, and anything goes.

#

Even rushing, the party is in full swing by the time they arrive. They stick together at first, getting the lay of Matt’s house -- Lauren’s the only one who’s been there enough to know where everything is -- and grabbing drinks, but eventually, they start splitting up. Kurt, Blaine, and Mercedes cut away to dance, and Mike and Tina find each other and start flirting. Quinn and Lauren chill on one of the couches for awhile, talking to some of the flute section, but eventually Lauren gets tired of the crowd and excuses herself to get a new drink. She does need one, but after she has it, she heads into the backyard.

The sky is black, not just nighttime dark, but heavy with clouds, the moon and stars gone. The air is muggy, hot and wet, but it’s still not raining. Despite the oppressive weather, plenty of people are outside playing beer pong, including Puckerman, but when he sees her, he hands his paddle to Hudson and cuts away from the crowd.

“Want a smoke?” he asks. She shrugs, but together they walk farther into the yard. There’s a yellow bug light on above the back door, but over by the big garage at the end of the wide driveway that curves around the house, the yard is darker. Puck hands over a cigarette and lights it for her again, and she concentrates on not coughing when it hits her throat.

They’re about halfway through their cigarettes when a cool, fast wind cuts across them. A second later, there’s a crack of lightning and a roll of thunder so deep Lauren can feel it vibrate. Before she can do anything else, the sky opens up and they’re pelted with rain, her cigarette hissing out in her hand.

She’s torn for a second, part of her wanting to run across the yard and into the house, following the beer pong players who have left their cups of beer behind and are shoving their way through the back door, but another part of her wants to stay right where she is, alone with Puckerman and away from the crowd.

Puckerman grabs her arm and tugs her a little toward the garage. It’s unlocked, apparently, because he’s got the side door open. She doesn’t hesitate, just steps inside, and he pulls the door mostly shut behind them, leaving it open just a crack so that cool air follows them in.

Lauren blinks water from her eyelashes. It’s too dark to really see, but after a few seconds, her vision adjusts enough that she can make out gray shapes in the blackness. She doesn’t need to see to know where Puckerman is, because she can feel him standing right next to her. Her damp clothes leave her feeling steamy in the enclosed space.

Another crack of lightning, followed immediately by the rumble of thunder. The storm is moving fast and it’s right on top of them already. The sound of the rain on the roof is loud, overwhelming, and Lauren is having trouble breathing steady. Or maybe that’s because Puck is so close, and when he turns toward her, he’s closer still.

“Freshman year,” she says, because it’s been eating at her, and because if she doesn’t talk she’s going to do something stupid like kiss him, “I was kind of a shit. Sorry.”

“You were,” he agrees. He’s not that much taller than her, but he tips his head toward her a little and it sort of feels like he’s looming. In a good way. “Why?”

She shrugs and shifts her weight, which is kinda a bad idea because now, with the way she’s turned toward him, her breasts brush against his arm and this is not what she intended when she got ready for tonight. Except that’s as much a lie as it is a truth.

Instead of opening up and admitting her fears back then, she puts her hand on his chest. She tells herself she’s going to push him away, but that’s pretty much impossible with the way she curls her fingers into the fabric. He’s just wearing a worn blue t-shirt that stretches across his shoulders nicely and is so soft to the touch, but it looks fucking awesome on him.

Lauren tugs him closer, and even as she lifts her head to kiss him, he makes this shocked sound, his mouth slack against hers for the split second it takes him to catch up, and then he’s kissing her back. He is so much better at this than he was back then. The first time they kissed, he was too wet, too sloppy and their teeth clashed together. Plus he’d had no idea how to follow anyone else’s lead.

Now, though, oh god, he puts his hands on her hips and angles their bodies together, his lips pliant, his tongue curling delightfully into her mouth. She presses into him, deepens the kiss, and he goes with it, letting her set the pressure and the pace. She keeps one hand fisted in his shirt and curls the other around the back of his neck, urging him closer, closer. He slides his hands to her ass and tugs her against him, one of her legs between his, and oh god, she can feel him already hard against her thigh.

She bites his lower lip -- he grinds against her, groaning -- then sucks his lower lip into her mouth to sooth away the sting with her tongue. Lauren kisses him until she’s dizzy from it, until she can’t even sneak little breaths and has to pull away, glancing one final kiss off his mouth.

They’re both breathing hard. Lightning cracks across the sky again, and the garage is momentarily lit up. Puck’s lips are slick and very red from their kisses and her lipstick, and her skin feels a little sore from the scratch of his stubble.

She thinks she should say something, but she doesn’t know what she can that won’t make this awkward. Puck’s eyes drop to her mouth when she licks her lips, but he meets her gaze directly when he very slowly and very deliberately grinds against her thigh.

Holy hell.

Lauren’s hands clutch at him, and she tugs on his shirt and digs her nails into the back of his neck. His eyes close for a second, but that’s all the time she needs to gather herself. She is not going to fuck him in Mr. Rutherford’s garage, but she’s not ready to stop this yet, either.

She tugs him toward her and they stumble across the empty space where one of the cars would be parked until they’re up against the big SUV Matt drives to band practice. That’s a little weird, hooking up against her captain’s vehicle, but then Puck ducks his head and starts kissing down the side of her throat and she really, really doesn’t care anymore.

He slides one hand around her hip and rubs it up and down her side, coming close to her breast but never quite getting there. She grabs his wrist, and he freezes, his mouth against her neck, but that’s not what she wants.

“You’re good,” she murmurs, and immediately after, she wishes she’d chosen a different way to say it. Too late now, and she does what she was going to do before he stopped and moves his hand to her breast. She can feel him suck in a sharp breath of air, and then his head comes up and they’re kissing again, harder now, teeth sharp on lips, and his fingers stroke along her breast, his thumb unerringly finding her nipple.

She releases his shirt, her fingers slightly cramped from holding it so tight, and reaches down between their bodies, sliding her palm over the hard rise of his dick. His jeans are rough as she traces him with her fingers.

Puckerman groans into the kiss, and she grins, riding the power that rushes through her. She reaches for his belt next, fumbling it a little, but gets it open at last, then starts on the button fly.

The third button sticks. “Damn it,” she mutters, her mouth still touching his, and when he laughs, their bodies move together. He drops his hands and helps her, working the last two buttons free.

She pushes him out of the way and reaches for him, sliding her hand down his stomach, working her way beneath his briefs, and wraps her fingers around his dick. He shudders, his head falling back, and she smirks at him, smug though he can’t see it.

He’s hot and hard, and she can feel him pulse against her palm. She strokes him lightly, sliding the wetness at the tip down the soft skin, and he lifts his hips toward her. A couple faster strokes, a slightly tighter grip, and he comes up off the SUV, groaning.

She places her other hand in the center of his chest, pushing him back, holding him in place. He reaches for her again, slides one hand under her shirt, under her bra, rubbing his palm over her nipple.

They kiss again, sloppier, but it’s okay, because it all feels so good. Lauren runs her thumb over the head of his dick with every upward stroke, and he grabs at her, his fingers clutching so tight she can feel the bruises form.

Her muscles start to burn, but she keeps at the steady pace, working him and working him. Puckerman kisses along her jaw and down to her throat, his teeth scraping her skin again and again while he sucks heat to the surface.

Just when she doesn’t think she can do it anymore, the angle is wrong and her arm fucking hurts, his body goes tight. “Fuck,” he groans, burying his face in her hair. “Oh fuck, Lauren.”

The sound of him saying her name like that, guttural and so needy, slams into her like a punch, but he’s coming sticky and hot all over her hand.

Her neck burns where he left his mark, and shit, she’s going to have to figure out how to cover that or face a whole lot of questions she doesn’t want. And Quinn is like a fucking magnet for hickeys, she always notices.

Quinn.

Lauren feels a little sick suddenly, her hand still on Puckerman’s dick, his head on her shoulder, her lips sore from kissing him. Quinn is her friend, Quinn is important to her, and yet still here she is.

“That was -- fuck. So good.” Puckerman presses a kiss against the side of her neck. She tenses and slides her hand out of his jeans. She steps away from him under the pretense of looking for something to use to clean up and tries to calm her racing heart.

She stumbles her way over to a work bench. It’s very neatly organized, and on it is a box of cleaning supplies, including a roll of paper towels. She tears off a couple, wipes her hands clean, and thinks better of tossing them into the trashcan, instead shoving them into her pocket, even if it’s a little gross. She grabs a couple more paper towels and takes them to Puckerman.

He’s still slumped against the SUV, but he gives her a slow grin when she walks up. It’s lighter in the garage, and she glances at the windows. Sure enough, the rain has slowed, it is just spitting against the glass, and the clouds are starting to roll away. She can see the moon and a handful of stars.

Puck finishes doing up his jeans and belt and moves closer to her. “Come here,” he says, taking her hand. “Your turn.” His smirk is slow, his eyes warm, and she gets it, she does, all those songs about dancing with the devil.

But all she can think about now is how Quinn looked when she admitted she was pregnant, and how she sounded when she broke down in July after too many shots at Santana’s Fourth of July party. The way Mercedes talked about the birth, Quinn’s pain and the look on Puck’s face when they put Beth in Quinn’s arms. Mercedes’ voice shook and she sat nestled between Tina and Kurt, holding their hands, Lauren bringing them drink after drink. Quinn was still in the hospital that first night, and they sat together in the waiting room.

All the reasons she should stay away, and yet how she felt, her heart so tight, when he said her name.

Lauren pulls her hand free, grabs his shirt, and hauls him in for another kiss, bruising and fast. Then, even though she knows it’s a mistake, but what’s one more after all she’s done tonight, she shoves him back and spills out of the garage, hurrying toward the house and ignoring the way he calls after her, a sharp, “What the fuck, Zizes?” and nothing at all like how she wants him to sound.

#

No way in hell Lauren fucking Zizes hides from anyone, but she does make herself scarce until the others are ready to go. Tina and Mercedes are giggling and drunk, hanging all over her, talking about how much fun they had. Quinn’s closer to sober than they are, and she hands Tina off to her at least until they get to the car. They’re all sleeping over at Mercedes’ house, and somehow they manage to get inside and upstairs without her parents noticing.

Lauren keeps her hair down, tries to make sure it spills over her shoulders all night, and the others don’t notice anything, thank god.

#

Late Saturday morning, when Tina’s finally dragged herself out of bed and they’re sitting around Mercedes’ room eating bagels and drinking orange juice, Quinn raises an impeccably groomed eyebrow at Lauren.

“Who gave you the hickey?” she asks, and it takes everything Lauren has not to slap her hand over it.

“No one,” she grits out, but of course, her girls aren’t going to accept that for an answer. They might let her get away with her secret for awhile, but eventually they’ll push back and she’ll have to give them some sort of an answer. For now, though, she turns it on Tina. “Where’d your bra disappear to last night?”

Mercedes whoops a laugh, and Tina beams. “Only the hottest guard boy ever.” She fans herself a little. “Those abs of his, delicious.”

They gossip and laugh and eat, sprawl in the backyard to enjoy time in the sun that doesn’t involve marching and music, then come inside to watch movies and eat and gossip some more. It’s fun, it’s wonderful, Lauren loves spending time with her friends, but every time Quinn looks at her, it feels like she’s being laid open, all her secrets bared.

#

Sunday, they finally go back-to-school shopping, two car loads of people because even Hudson comes with Kurt. He’s got a weird look on his face when he sees Lauren, something halfway between a pout and a frown, but then again he pretty much always looks constipated.

#

Monday she hangs out with her parents, and Billy calls them via Skype to wish her good luck with the marching season. She wants to break down and tell him everything, but one, her parents are there listening and two, she doesn’t actually want to talk to him about sex, and three, she’s not sure she wants to hear what he has to say.

The text comes when she’s in bed reading. She grabs her phone automatically, expecting something funny from Tina or Mercedes or Quinn, but instead it’s Puckerman. The only reason she has his number in her phone in the first place is because of drumline, and she hasn’t seen it pop up since sometime sophomore year when he was throwing a party and invited the whole line.

Need 2 talk 2 u b4 band.

They normally start drumline practice at seven a.m., full marching band at seven-thirty, but for the first day of school, they’re skipping all that and meeting in the band room when school starts at eight fifteen.

Lauren drops her phone on her nightstand and flops back against her pillows, dread twisting inside. It’s going to be a long, long marching band season.