The obligatory hour of sexual precautions had been funny at first.
All the kids snickered when the banana and condom were introduced. Even Rachel, who normally wouldn't find such juvenile humor amusing. But Finn picked up his banana first and said, completely serious, "Oh, Coach says I already have enough calcium, so..." and it made everyone laugh, the whole room, in fact, and Finn glanced around all adorably confused and unsure about whether he was getting laughed at or laughed with--there really was a big distinction. Rachel would know. Sometimes she thought that, even when people were smiling with her, nicely, they were still making fun of her. Like Quinn Fabray. Quinn Fabray smiled a lot, but she smiled when she said terrible things.
The Health teacher, Ms. Maxwell, gave him an easy smile and said, "It's potassium, and that's not what they're here for."
Finn frowned. It was one of those drawn down frowns that Rachel found herself most helpless to. Of course, there wasn't a frown of his that she wasn't somewhat endeared by, but that's beside the point. "Then... what is it..."
"Hey, Rachel," Puck called out from four desks behind, holding up a banana. It was wrapped in the condom they'd all received, haphazardly, actually, which made Rachel think for a split second how surprising it was that there weren't a dozen baby Puckermans running around. He was smirking that mean smirk that usually alerted her to a fresh slushie-in-the-face. "Hungry?"
Finn cleared his throat, while Rachel shrank in humiliation. The entire class laughed like it wasn't some cheap, degenerate comment. Which it was.
Ms. Maxwell wasn't as impressed. "Thank you for that crude demonstration," she said, and Puck shrugged his shoulders, like Oh, it was nothing. I do it all the time.
They moved on quickly enough to another subject (the myths about sex, which had half of the class hooting and hollering), but Rachel was wrapped up in her own heavy embarrassment. True, nothing less was expected out of Puck, but did that mean she had to be his every target? Besides, they were part of the same team now, and if she couldn't expect camaraderie from him in the simple and noncompetitive setting of a classroom, how could she trust him on stage?
As was becoming habit, her eyes landed on Finn. Usually, in the scenario where the misjudged outcast was publicly humiliated, the love interest took that moment to reaffirm his deep and real feelings by sticking up for her. Not with violence--that would get Finn kicked out of glee club for sure, and what chance would they have in Sectionals without their male lead vocal?--but was it too much to expect a voice of objection? After all, were their roles ever reversed, she'd stick up for him.
Then she noticed that he was having some sort of internal dilemma, and for a brief moment, she brightened, thinking maybe it had something to do with her. Maybe he was as noble and sincere as she had always credited him to be.
The class was laughing. Rachel heard the last of Ms. Maxwell's words: "--can't get pregnant without Mr. Banana here getting a good, strong whiff of your special flowers, ladies, and that means penetration. Remember that. So the best way to keep from becoming some cheap statistic that disgraces this country--?"
As barely a voice of one, the room muttered, "Abstinence."
When Rachel looked at Finn again, worried that all of this talk about pregnancy might be making him feel burdened with the inevitable pressures of becoming a teenage father, one who had no current financial or emotional means of being able to support anything other than a goldfish with a short shelf life, she saw a different, more troubling look on his face, and that worried her more.
After class, she pushed through the crowd of students milling out of the room, up to Finn. The hallway was loud and quickly filling up. "Not that it's my place to notice or anything," she said, politely slowing him down, "but I noticed back there that you looked somewhat shaken. Maybe even a little stirred. And, true, we have a sordid past history full of mixed signals and missed opportunities, most of those being the fault of your conflicting feelings towards both myself and Quinn, but I'd like to think that despite all that, I could still be someone you could talk to. If you needed to, that is."
He only stared at her in that blank way that most people stared when she opened up and expressed her ten-year plan. Seriously, she had venn diagrams. "What?"
Rachel tried again, with a little more effort. "Back there, in Health class--"
Finn touched her gently on the shoulder, and she felt this focused ball of energy go crazy at the feel of it, as always. "Later, okay?" She didn't even get in a parting word. He just brushed alongside her and disappeared into the student body.
Puck came out of nowhere, startling her.
"Mind your own business, basket case," he said, only to knock her books out of her hand. They fell to the floor, the bulkier English Lit one hitting first, and Puck laughed.
Rachel found Puck in the hallway before class the next morning. She slipped in front of him, surprising him, and he reacted unfavorably.
"Get lost, nose job," was his response, actually.
She continued to follow him, undeterred. He was moving fast, as usual, so she had to walk big in order to keep up with him. "You don't like me," she stated, and he gave her one long, hard stare, like how stupid was she for pointing out the obvious? "Of course you don't like me. You're popular and a jock, and even though you have a hideous haircut, girls like you. And I'm just the talented but invisible show choir member everybody loves to hate. Or at least that's how it used to be. You may have trouble accepting it, but you're part of the team now, so whatever I am, you are too, so if being in the glee club means I get made fun of, then you share that with me."
He was still moving through the halls, waving to the more popular kids and smiling flirtatiously with the Cheerios, but he'd slowed down enough that she could keep up without jogging. Not that she didn't appreciate the extra exercise, but it would throw her off her strict work-out regiment. "How are you so crazy?" he asked her, and not kindly. "Get dropped on the head as a baby by one of your homo dads or something?"
She refused to let that hurt her. After all, he was simply lashing out in some defensive way so that he didn't have to accept the truth. Which was, "Face it. You can't hate me for something that you are, too. It's hypocritical, and even for someone of your limited emotional bank, I think you have to realize how crass that is--"
He stopped sudden enough that she bumped into him, their elbows knocking, one against the other. A noise escaped her, something that sounded like oompf! She almost blurted out an apology, but then he said, "I don't hate you because of the freakin' choir."
Her face fell flat, unexpected as his words were. "Then... why..."
"You're a nobody. Get it? In the club, out of it. You're nothing. And the fact that you skip around this school with your fake smile and your lame gold stars like you're some kind of diamond in the rough, pisses me off--"
"Okay," she said, backing off, because clearly he wasn't in the mood to have a civil conversation.
"You get made fun of because, without your precious glee club, you wouldn't even exist. Poof. Gone. Just like that." He had to notice that she was on the verge of an embarrassing and public break-down, but he tacked on, just because he could, "So, no. We're not the same. Not even close."
He turned and left, headed into some classroom, gone before she could really even soak up every cruel, intentional thing he'd said.
Finn came up behind her. For once, he was surprisingly intuitive. Or maybe he just witnessed the whole ordeal and only now did he have the courage to come over and say something. "You okay?" he asked, and she thought she heard a little bit of concern, but when she turned to him and looked up, he only seemed partially aware that something had even happened.
"Fine," she lied, with a big, wide-eyed smile. When she was famous, she would sell storylines she didn't care for with that smile. "Excuse me."
Three days later the entire school was rumbling with the gossip of Quinn and Puck, who turned out to be the actual father of Quinn's baby, and while Rachel felt like she should be happy that Finn was no longer obligated to be in what was an obviously destructive and superficial relationship, one that was matched only for the hierarchal sense of it, instead she found herself swallowed up with concern.
Finn hardly talked during practice anymore, and he had no enthusiasm what-so-ever when Mr. Schuester made them perform, not even during "We Will Rock You", which was a song that'd been proven to be enjoyable to all boys because of its over-exposure in the sports industry. He wouldn't do his solos, and for some reason, even though it was crazy, Mr. Schue wouldn't make him. And nobody bothered to point out the obvious, either: that they were a person short, since Quinn stopped coming around.
If there was anything that Rachel knew with every fiber of her being, besides the fact that she would inevitably win a Tony and be hailed as one of America's darlings, it was that music had the power to heal, and it wasn't just her being overly-generous or sentimental about her own craft. Everybody was there for a reason. Singing made them feel good. It touched something inside of them that made the rest of the world fade away. Which is why it made no sense that Mr. Schue wasn't pushing the lead numbers on Finn, why he wasn't demanding a fully given performance instead of the imperfection he was currently allowing, or why, for that matter, Puck got off with sulking in the back of the room when they needed full participation.
Rachel couldn't take it any longer. Three days was a long time to hold your tongue, and an even longer time to put your future in jeopardy.
"Mr. Schue? Can I say something?"
It was nearing the end of a long rehearsal, one that required her to put in double the effort because she was single-handedly carrying the entire show choir, and do you know how much stress that puts on a young singer's voice? Everyone was acting like they didn't want to be there--everyone. Like this was week one all over again.
Mr. Schuester rubbed tiredly at his eyes, and Rachel refused to accept or acknowledge the annoyance he carried in his actions. "What is it, Rach?"
She stood up, smoothing out her skirt. From the corner of her eye she could see some of the other kids glance her way. Not all of them, but no true ensemble ever started out complete and fully manned. "This is unacceptable."
A few people groaned. Kurt, rolling his eyes, she saw, sighed and said, "Here we go again."
Turning toward them, towards her fellow Glee Club members, she demanded, "Why are we all of a sudden okay with mediocrity? So we've had a couple of minor set-backs," and that was hard to get out, facing Finn, seeing him sink into his chair, but she braved on because he had to see that this wasn't personal, "but we can prevail. I know it. Finn, you're our strongest male lead and we need you. And I know that seems like an awful lot of weight to put on one person's shoulders, especially when that person is having a small personal crisis that really is a large blessing in disguise. But it's the truth."
Mr. Schue came out from behind the piano, a little guardedly. "Rachel..."
She gave him a quick, hard glance. "No. They need to hear this."
She wasn't going to be silenced over other people's sensitivities. It wasn't fair. She was about to say so, when Puck spoke up.
"Who made you princess, Princess?" he said.
That stung a little. Enough that she lost some of the strength in her message. "Well, nobody, exactly."
He'd been sitting with his guitar, plucking surly, lazy notes all afternoon, but now he sat that aside and stood up. He seemed different, all of a sudden. Older. Addressing the room, he challenged, "Who here's tired of crazy-eyes getting her schnoz stuck in other people's business?"
Rachel was more than taken aback; she could hardly breathe. Of all the ridiculous and character-damaging accusations.
Wheeling back around, expecting half the team, if not more, to stick up for her in some rousing, gallant showcase of true showmanship spirit, Rachel's outrage faded fast into confusion instead. No one was doing anything. There wasn't any disagreement. They weren't even looking at her. And Puck, she saw, was taking that as some sort of affirmation, nodding up and down, all smug and superior like he'd actually made a valid point.
Rachel felt off-keel. It's not that it was so unusual to voice an unpopular opinion, especially here, in the sanctity of Glee Club. After all, you never got very far sitting on your hands, and if she didn't speak up all the times Mr. Schuester proposed something ridiculous of them, like the time they almost went on stage in front of the entire assembled student body singing a Celine Dion love ballad because he'd thought it would go over well when in fact it would've resulted in mass disapproval, she'd never be able to feel good about herself. Never.
But to raise a well-founded and entirely credible point and have it contended by Puck?
"You're not gonna storm out, are you?" Artie asked. "It's sorta become ineffective. After three times."
"Please," Mercedes scoffed, "that was tired and played-out from the get-go, just no one had the guts to say anything."
Rachel could feel that small slip of power and respect she thought she had earned quietly start going up in flames.
Mr. Schuester said, "C'mon, guys..." It was some pacifying, required attempt at keeping a bullying scene from happening on his watch. How amusing, right?
Rachel sat back down. Her legs were cold on the metal fold-out chair.
"I'm not leaving," she told them, though she spoke it to Finn. "I'm just disappointed. That's all."
True, Noah Puckerman was a jerk, and most times Rachel thought that he was being intentionally rude just so that he could have some role to fulfill in the high school caste system, but when Rachel saw him at lunch, by himself, blatantly staring at Quinn in such a way that it showed an actual glimpse of a human being, she found herself drawn toward him. Out of a sense of duty, obviously, because first and foremost team solidarity was what would help them place at Sectionals.
Puck sighed, deep and gusty, when Rachel sat at his side, but because she had more class than that, she chose to ignore it.
"Move along," he told her, "this isn't a charity line."
She started pulling out her lunch. The apple first, and then her sandwich. All lovingly packed by her Dad. There was even a cheerful note of encouragement stuck via Post-It note inside the crumpled brown paper bag that, as always, made her affection for her fathers swell.
"Maybe you could use some charity," she said. It was casual. She was focused almost entirely on her meal.
He looked up quick, ready to fire back something hateful, but she met his eyes and said, "Maybe it goes both ways." Again, his mouth opened, this confused, slightly annoyed, perplexed look on his face, but she cut him off. "Look, I'm not suggesting we form some ill-fated friendship. Given our well-cemented status as both jock and outcast, respectively, it's factually a given that any attempt would be, well, cliché." When it looked like he was going to argue, she added, with a bit of an eye-roll, "And entirely deplorable. That means gross," she explained, heavy and slow. "Which is why I'm not here to offer that. Clearly it would be a waste of both your time and mine."
Puck thought her words over for a long, drawn out moment, his mouth pinching together at the sides. Behind him, kids were whispering, the social gossip wheel already in motion. "So, what, then? Whenever that time of the month hits, I cry on your shoulder, you cry on mine, but no one ever knows about it?" He leaned forward, his face near hers. "Pass."
Overlooking his obvious bluster, she said, "Think about it. You and I have more in common than just the glee club. And I know you might find it a bitter pill to swallow, but our social circle, in some tiny but crucial way, has started to merge. There aren't so many clear-cut boundaries any more, not with you and Finn and half the more popular Cheerios in Glee. And besides, Kurt's well on his way to becoming the school's gay pride icon thanks in part to his role as an out-of-place football player. That's with the team that you play on."
He started to grab his lunch tray, pushing back in his chair. He was going to just leave. "You're wack," he said.
"At least give me the courtesy of hearing me out. You owe me that much."
He stopped, staring at her like he was making some sort of big decision. Dump his lunch in her lap or stay and listen, probably. Thankfully, the latter won out, and he resumed his position. "You've got thirty seconds. I decide how long those thirty seconds actually last."
Fast, in one breath, she tried to get it all out. "We're never going to be friends. Frankly, you're a juvenile delinquent with zero post-graduate aspirations, and as a young star on the rise, that's not the kind of person I can afford to be associated with. But because we share a few--things--in common, I figure the very least we can do is try to get along. Out of mutual commiseration."
"Sounds more like pity."
"Fine. Call it whatever you like. I only know that there's this rift in the club now, because of you and Quinn and your conceived--"
He leaned forward again, closer this time. "That, we're not going to chum around about. Ever."
She flushed and kept going, "It's just, the glee club is important to me. It's the most important thing I have, and if it's not getting one hundred percent from every single member, then I'm wasting my time. And as we speak, Finn's mad at you, and Quinn's mad at me, for some reason, and for reasons that make even less sense, Artie and Mercedes and Tina and Kurt have formed this weird, elite clique--"
"Breathe it out, freak-show."
"And you referring to me in such a derogative manner all the time? It doesn't help. Don't you get it? We need to have each other's backs. Look around you. Look where you're sitting. How fast did it take for the school to turn on you? Even if you still wear that tacky letterman's jacket and play for the team, now you know this is what people really think about you. You're alone. Worse than that, maybe... you've got me as company."
He pushed his chair back and stood up, making a show out of it. It was quiet all of a sudden, except for the scraps of ebbing conversation and the all-around clanking of silverware.
She flinched when he said, "Not for long."
She found Puck pacing outside of school, waiting for her, by the look of it.
"Did you mean it?" he asked, following her when she walked past.
She held her books tighter to her chest, her head a little higher as well. "Everything I say, I mean. Otherwise, I wouldn't say it."
"Right, so what you said before, about still hating the hell out of each other but being able to put a pause on the hate so that we could talk--"
She gave him a long, curious look. How was he so confusing all the time? And definitely neurotic. "I never used those words."
"Yeah, but you meant it? That's what I'm getting at. And me even coming to you is totally batshit as it is, I'm not giving you a repeat."
She stopped in her tracks, and he did too. "I just said I did, didn't I?"
Puck seemed to think that over. Then he started walking, and it became clear that he was expecting her to follow. Especially when he looked over his shoulder and said, "Come on."
As if she was just going to follow after him. Who knew where he would lead her? To the more deranged parts of the school, likely, and how could she assert herself as someone with a high moral compass and a strong sense of self-preservation if she willingly allowed herself to--
And so she followed.
All her life, both of her dads ingrained in her, not only an early appreciation for the arts which was clearly paying off, but the use of manners. Which is why she said to Puck, "This is nice."
His car, she meant. Even if it... wasn't. There were fast food bags thrown in the backseat that emitted a smell suggesting not everything that had been purchased had been consumed, and worse, empty soda cans and actual hardened, fossilized food lay near where her feet were delicately propped away from the mess, in the passenger seat.
Puck fiddled with the radio. Already it was louder than it needed to be, stations flicking past one after the other. He seemed distracted, she noticed.
"Don't do that," he said.
She stopped toeing at an empty burger carton, throwing him an apologetic look. She didn't mean to be offensive. It's just that, by nature, she was somewhat of a neat-freak. "Sorry."
He rolled his eyes and sighed, "The sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice routine. I thought you only said things you meant?"
And her kicking at his trash clearly was a direct contradiction to her initial voiced assessment of his vehicle. "Oh. Well. Sometimes I embellish..."
He cast her a dry glance. "It's a piece of shit. Just say it."
"It... drives. I assume efficiently enough, which is far more than I can say about my own car. Which I don't actually have, so. That was a joke. Clearly a failed one, because you didn't even smile or look over at me, which you sometimes do when I say something with the obvious intent of lightening the mood. That happened once, specifically. In case you were wondering. It was a Glee meeting, of course, and everyone was gathered around Mr. Schue, who was singing--"
"I remember," he finally cut her off, mercifully, but he seemed less annoyed with her nervous rambling than usual.
She balled up her hands, pressing them into her lap. "Good." Then she added, sort of defensively, but also kind of bragging, "I have somewhat of a photographic memory."
They drove on for a couple of blocks, silent except for the radio. Ads with catchy jingles spilled out of the speakers.
And then Puck cleared his throat, making it clear to her that he needed to say something. Politely, she switched off his radio.
"You really think the whole school's taking Finn's side?" he said.
That was about the last thing she expected out of him. She struggled for a minute, at first because she wasn't sure what percent of the school was on Finn's side and who was on Puck's, and then because she wasn't sure how to word what she had to say without coming across as insensitive.
"So, uh," he said, "you sitting there not saying anything, that pretty much tells me what I need to know, doesn't it?"
"I don't want to hurt your feelings," she admitted.
That earned her another, meaner look. "Yeah, that? Not even possible."
"It's just, Finn is so... nice."
"Yeah, Finn's so nice, his bible-thumpin', Jesus lovin' girlfriend ran into my bed--"
"Ugh, don't. Please. If you're going to be crude just to cater to some typecast of who you think you should be, then you might as well stop right here and let me out. I don't accept self-pity as a driving force behind emotions, and neither should you."
Puck only stared at her like she'd grown a second head. Actually, he was staring at her like she was some voiceless wallflower that aboded at all times by the unfairness of high school law and was for the first time speaking up against it, when that was hardly the case.
"And anyway," she began again, "people root for Finn because he wants to be rooted for. Also, as captain of the football team, his title sort of demands it. And it's not that I want to come across as a backseat driver, because I'm very much not one of those, but you haven't looked at the road in well over thirty seconds."
To pacify her, he glanced just barely at the road, enough to ensure that they were still within the yellow lines. "Let me get this straight. So because the dude has some sort of pick me! puppy dog hang-up, he comes across as the good guy here?"
Rachel shrugged. "Well, to be fair, you were the male equivalent of a mistress in this scenario. At least, I assume the affair happened on more than one occasion, making you a mistress and not just a convenient warm body between sheets. Besides, you were the one who got Quinn--"
"Remember how I said we weren't talking about that? I meant, we're not talking about it. Pretty much ever."
Puck pulled over, stopped next to the curb. He kept the car on, though, which had her doubting his actions. Maybe this is where he lived? Or maybe he was a safe driver, after all, and he was giving her his complete, full attention.
But he was making a face at her, like he was expecting her to do something.
"Okay," he said. "Get out."
She laughed a little. He was kidding. Wasn't he? But he looked completely serious. "What?" she said.
"Out of my car. Get out."
Here? They were blocks away from where she lived. Besides that, the houses were clearly for someone less well-off financially than her family was. That sounded like bragging. It wasn't. It's just that, her dads were prosperous in their own right. They were big receivers of the software boom that first peaked two decades ago. That's all.
"This isn't my home," she said. "I live three blocks over, on Sandalwood."
He seemed surprised. It lasted just long enough for her to get her hopes up, but then it was gone, and he was leaning across her lap--actually leaning, and even though she made a breathy noise of protest and sat back as far and as straight as her seat would allow, he didn't show any outward sign of caring that he had, and currently still was, invading her personal bubble.
Opening the door for her, a move way less chivalrous than it sounded given the fact that he was all but groping her, he made his intentions clear: she was to exit the car.
Aghast, she collected her books and, knocking his elbow away from her chest and lap with the brawny part of her arm, gracefully eased out of his car. A candy bar wrapper fell from the floor boards, fluttering to the pavement, and Rachel climbed the curb, turning to look at him with her books held firm.
Wind whipped her hair in her face, and Puck slammed the door behind her. He revved the engine a little, pointedly, she thought, and said, "See ya," before peeling out of there.
A fourth period headache had Rachel headed towards the infirmary for some medicated relief. After the pill-enhanced debacle that disgraced not only her but the entire Glee Club and Mr. Schuester and his shady, disreputable wife, she swore off all corrective drugs for good, proud to be able to note that her moods were affected only by her own manipulations. But she needed to study, and how could she do so with the dull, endless thump of a minor migraine plaguing her?
Rachel was on the verge of making her presence and needs known when she noticed Puck lying on the bed behind the nurse's desk.
"Puck?" Slowly, she walked over to him. He stirred at her voice, looking surprised, then annoyed, and he started to get up and say something, but she jumped in before he could do so. "You aren't sick, are you? Because if that's the case, you shouldn't talk, not with Sectionals and then Regionals so close. You are aware of the old but accurate adage, aren't you, that your voice is your instrument? Because it is, even though you're in both show choir and football. "
He seemed to sigh, sitting up now. His legs hung long and heavy over the side of the bed, and he gripped the edge of the mattress, his arms locked tight, his back posture poor. There was a tiredness in his eyes that looked unrelated to his being in the nurse's station, which smelled strongly of lemon-scented cleaner and Febreze. "How come you always jump to the crazy size of conclusions?"
"How... else would I jump? You're in the nurse's office. You look sick as a dog, besides of which, you're bed-ridden--"
Puck hopped up. His eyes seemed less tired now. Then again, that could've been because he was smiling. Well, smirking.
"It's nothing." Her mouth opened, for clarification. "Daily r-and-r," he said. He was taking slow, calculated steps, so that the small amount of space that was separating them was beginning to dwindle, rapidly becoming something borderline indecent. "Why? Worried about me?"
He was working some weird angle here that Rachel couldn't quite figure out--malice or he was bored or mentally deranged or something--and even though she was aware of that, she also felt herself reacting inappropriately. I mean, she didn't daze off for an inconveniently timed daydream, one with a relevant giant fan to give Puck, who would be shirtless and well-oiled, of course, the complimentary effect of a wind machine, but her pulse changed, tapping a scattered, nervous beat.
She said, "You're as much part of the equation as I am. That's a hyperbole. What I mean is, statistically--"
"Yeah, that right there." When she must've showed the confusion on her face that she naturally felt, he said, "Math. I'm just partaking in my football-given rights of ditching. When I ditch, I nap. When I nap, it makes things like you way easier on the ears."
There was an insult in there that she chose to ignore. "Oh. So you're not actually sick?"
His smirk twisted into something darker. She'd given him the perfect set-up, and he took it. "That's not what your mom said last night." But then he realized fast after that, that, yeah, that wasn't exactly a fitting insult. Rather than backtracking and making it applicable, he just cleared his throat. He'd stopped advancing on her, but she was still uncomfortable with how close he was. With his soaring height and her humble stature, he was a tall, looming figure, and that inherently put her at a disadvantage.
"So if you're not sick," she said, "can I count on you to offer actual input during today's rehearsal?"
He started to walk away, and she turned and followed, forgetting all about aspirin and headache relievers. If her company was unwanted, he didn't show it, except for the obvious scowl, but largely, she thought, that was just the way his face habitually looked.
"You have a major freak obsession with Glee, you know that, right?"
Of course, she wouldn't call it an obsession--she was merely interested to a somewhat fixed degree in what she would come to look back on, many successful decades later, as the stepping stone to her career. That was hardly something worth being ashamed about.
Just then, Finn rounded the hall. He didn't see either of them at first, busy mindlessly walking the same tired tread that he walked every day, but when he did, he stopped in his tracks. Puck and Rachel stopped too, and for a minute Rachel envisioned a fight breaking out, the entire student body splitting up and going wild, their allegiances pledged by whose side they picked. It wouldn't be a very fair fight, because mostly everyone would end up with Finn, for obvious reasons, and that made her apprehension grow. It only got worse when Finn gave her the one frown in his arsenal that had the empathetic ability to make her feel absolutely terrible, no matter the situation.
Her mind raced. Of course, Finn probably thought that she'd aligned herself with Puck, which was ridiculous. Not that he didn't deserve to have someone on his side, it just made no sense that she would be that person. Rachel didn't condone any kind of liaison, least of all sexually illicit ones. And Puck was insolent, on purpose.
Finn turned around, back the way he came. The incident itself was made more dramatic because there was no incident. It was like a poignant part of a chick flick, dramatic music swelling in the background to mark the significance, but without any resolution what-so-ever, making it almost anticlimactic. Nobody, it seemed, even took notice, except for a few of Quinn's friends who stood by their lockers, back and forth with their attention like a couple of cats on those YouTube videos watching a laser crawl across the wall. When Finn walked away, Santana slammed her locker. The Cheerios gave Rachel a mean look, one that she was all but used to receiving, before stomping away, probably to go make up horrible and deeply exaggerated untruths about her on the bathroom stall. So be it.
When Puck moved along, she didn't follow.
"Hey," Rachel said, to Finn. "Can we talk?"
She watched as he hovered outside of their usual room for practice, unsure about whether or not he'd attend.
When he realized she was there, he stepped back, away from the classroom, like it was only a coincidence that she'd cornered him in this specific place. He shoved his hands in his front pockets, hunched over, tall as he was. "What's up?"
"I wanted to clear the air," she said.
Finn stepped back, glancing vaguely behind him, until his back was against the wall. He relaxed into the position, shrugging. "So talk."
Now that she had his undivided attention, she didn't know where to start. She had so many things she wanted to say to him--countless, endless things that filled her head so that it hurt--but it seemed juvenile to stand there and have a conversation like that. Impersonal and chaste, with Mr. Schue expecting them any minute. What heartfelt sentiment could she sufficiently express in three minutes time?
Matching him both in demeanor and casualness, she asked, "How are you?" He was welcome to interpret it as broadly as he liked.
His eyes skipped away from hers, then back. "I'm good. I feel great. Better than that."
"Good," she said.
"It's just that you don't seem that way. Good, I mean. Every third Sunday I volunteer at the retirement center, and do you know what I see? A lot of unhappiness covered up with heavily forced enthusiasm for shuffle board and pictures of great-great grandchildren. And when I look at you, that's what I see as well."
Finn pulled a frown. "Old people?"
"You're trying so hard to be alright with things--with everything--and no one notices that you aren't. But I do."
Less comfortable with the conversation now, Finn edged away from the wall. He seemed skittish, like a wild animal standing at the grassy side of an interstate.
"You don't want to talk about it," Rachel said, relenting, because she was nothing if not a pacifist. "I get it. It's fine. People think that I'm brash and abrasive all the time, but that's not always the case. I only wanted to make my feelings known."
Mr. Schue poked his head out the open classroom door. "Finn!" he said. "Rachel! Come on in, guys. Everyone's waiting. Rach, you're up first."
"Inside, come on. I'll explain. Vámonos!"
His enthusiasm gripped her, making her only momentarily forget about the serious turn her conversation with Finn had turned.
But Finn scrunched up his shoulders and smiled. He seemed so small. "Sure thing, Mr. Schue."
Rachel was more than taken by surprise when, during lunch the next day, as she was sitting quietly by herself, leafing through the latest riveting pages of Back Stage magazine, Puck dropped his lunch tray next to her. With a heavy, almost tangible indifference, he made himself comfortable in the seat across from her, never once making eye contact, even though Rachel was sitting there with her jaw nearly dropped to the floor.
Puck was shaking his chocolate milk when she said, "Excuse me," making him look up.
He waited a long beat. And then, "Yeah?"
Luckily, Rachel got the gaping under control. Maybe this was a trick? Or some kind of slick slushie ambush. But he didn't look like he was going to carry out any ulterior motives, Rachel observed, watching him as he stuffed the grosser part of a cafeteria-made hamburger into his mouth, ketchup oozing out of both sides of the bun. Before that was even chewed, he pushed a couple of French fries into the disgusting, half-chewed mess, licking the salt off his fingers.
"Problem?" he bluntly said of her staring, food hanging out of his mouth.
She focused instead on the pages of her magazine. The glossy surfaces, the detailed pictures, the inspiring reviews--even if she didn't always agree with the writer's assessment, at least it gave her perspective. People could be cruel outside of high school, too, for no reason other than to tear you down. That was important to remember.
"I'm glad you showed up yesterday," she told him, not quite brave enough to face the sight of his uneaten food again. Besides, Puck had a way of staring at her that made her feel like he was peeling her away, layer by layer.
She could see him shrug. "Mom makes me."
Despite herself, she looked up. "Your mother made you join Glee?"
He swallowed. "Football's not extracurricular enough in the Puckerman household. Besides, she says it makes me more Jewish, whatever that means."
"My dad is Jewish," she said, happy to be sharing this information, and proud. Heritage had always played a defining role in her life.
He stared at her with big eyes. "Uh, duh."
"Well, one of them, anyway. My other dad is a strict atheist that doesn't believe in the suggestive, cult-like following of a Higher Power."
Puck went back to shoveling food in his mouth.
"The song you want to sing at Sectionals, which by the way is a very-big-deal, is 'SexyBack'? Seriously?"
Rachel stared in obvious bafflement at Artie, who was laboriously making his song choice known. It's not that she didn't like his proposed song, it's just, how was it in any way interpretive of their show choir capabilities?
"The ladies think it's smooth," he said, tastelessly sliding a hand down his chest, and Mercedes and Tina giggled, bumping shoulders. The mere fact that his actions were able to elicit only a pair of giggles was evidence enough that, as a performance piece, it would never work.
"It's smooth," she agreed easily, "in a clearly sexually explicit, cheapening, not to mention derogatory way--"
"Dude, it's Justin Timberlake. Who was in a boy band. He wears sweater-vests. Do you see the contradiction?"
"Besides, it's tacky," she sniffed. "I refuse to lower my standards based on some delusional need for gimmicks."
And then everyone started talking at once:
"Justin Timberlake is d-d-dope," said Tina.
"And the boy can sing," added Mercedes.
Kurt, standing poised like there was a cigarette in his hand, which there wasn't, said, "Face it, this is about someone else wanting the lead, isn't it?"
Then half the room groaned and let out noisy breaths to express their dislike.
"Yeah, don't be such a hog, Rachel," said Santana, smiling. "It's unbecoming."
Artie asked, "Aren't we all supposed to get a lead? At some point? I was under the impression I would do more than just wheel around. Sometimes I have dreams about solos. Then I wake up, cold and sad."
"Mr. Schue," Rachel said, calling upon her strongest alliance, "you can't believe for even a second that they're right. This is about talent."
Voiceless until now, content with watching this entire afternoon unravel, he said, "I don't know, Rach. They have a point."
She reeled in her shock. "Being? That we approve of catering to the lowest available principle just to stand out? That's not what Glee is about."
Mr. Schue tried the appeasing route. "I think we can leave the definition of 'Glee' up to Merriam-Webster. Besides, I didn't say that was our song, I said they have a point. Everyone deserves a chance to shine, Rachel. And, well. It's a good song."
"It's okay," said Finn, getting nearly everyone's attention in doing so.
Artie was clearly pleased. "Thanks, man. Bros before h--" Wisely, he cut himself off.
"No, I mean, it's okay," he said. "It's not all that, but it's a good song. I get what Rachel's saying."
Rachel smiled, big and genuine, stupidly bowled over by Finn's unexpected gesture of kindness. "Thank you," she said.
Mr. Schue angled his head, studying Finn. "You have a suggestion? Let's hear it."
And, of course, here's where Finn would break out of his rut. He'd offer up the perfect song, they'd sound amazing singing it together, Artie would get some appeasing solo moment for his parents to videotape, and gone would be Finn's endless zoning off, the solitude, the black cloud he seemed to carry with him.
Instead, he sank back into his chair, shoulders drawn in. "I don't know."
"I'm serious here," Mr. Schue said. He stepped in between Kurt and Mercedes, hands on his hips. "You got something better than what Artie's brought to the table? 'Cause we can bring sexy back. But if there's something better, spill it. I want to know."
"How about Neil Diamond?" suggested Puck, standing in the back. "The dude's an icon."
Mr. Schue turned away from Finn, mulling it over. "Not bad," he said. "Tell you guys what. Let's think on it. When you go home tonight, open up your iTunes. I'm actually advocating YouTube, but beware of its strong, black hole pull. I want every single one of you--" He looked at Finn, just quick enough to be subtle, "to come up with a list of songs. Make it five, okay? That's maximum, Rachel. Tomorrow we'll gear up for song dissection 101. Bring your safety goggles."
Rachel shuffled her books from one arm to the other. "That was really outstanding, what you did in there today."
Puck was putting his books in his locker. Rachel noticed the crude pictures of nearly naked women he'd adorned the lining of the door with, but said nothing. Her own locker was wallpapered with sheet music and giant gold stars. Clearly their inspirations and goals were vastly different.
He shrugged, "It was nothing. Don't make this into one of your things."
"Are you kidding me?" she gaped. "People rarely suggest songs based on any kind of credible belief system. It's always Justin Timberlake or something called Lady GaGa. It's demeaning."
All classwork shoved inside, he slammed the locker. "Whatever. Like I was gonna prance around on stage with a bunch of other dudes singing about getting my sexy back? Besides, I think we all know my sexy's well accounted for. I'm grade-A stud."
Rachel ignored the obvious blush making her cheeks look flushed. "Still, it's not every day someone other than myself sticks up for their strong beliefs, especially against Mr. Schue. He can seem formidable, even with his ridiculous hairstyle and penchant for rapping. I guess--what I'm saying is--thank you."
He grinned, dry and friendly all at once. "Yeah. I'm a regular ol' moral booster."
Mr. Schuester spread their lists out on top of the piano. "Here's the problem. These are all good songs," he said, and then turned back to a particular list. "Let me backtrack. Most of these are good. And then there's 'MMMBop'. Seriously, Artie? I tell you to shuffle through your playlist and this is what comes out?"
A quiet laughter rumbled through the group. Artie looked unapologetic. "What? Straight up legit, we could kill that song. We'd be legends!"
"I'm not even going to touch that one. Tina, much better choices. Who doesn't love Gwen Stefani, or Kelly Clarkson? But this is Sectionals, guys, we have to blow the competition out of the water, and we can't do that with Hanson or 'Hollaback Girl'." He stepped around the piano. "It's gotta be something that the people in the back row? They're feeling it just as much as you guys. It's got to hit 'em in the gut, make their toes curl."
He stepped back and picked up a list. "I want to try something out. Line up, guys. Let's go, get up."
Slowly they started to rise, spacing out comfortably. Rachel passed a smile Puck's way when they ended up side-by-side.
Mr. Schue handed out the music sheets to the instrument section, making sure to point out certain breaks, and gave everyone enough time to get in a few practice vocal runs.
There was a knock on the door, and Miss Pillsbury stuck her head through the small open space. "Hi, hello, can I, uh," she said, but Mr. Schue's face lit up, and he gestured her in, saying, "Come in, come in, please."
She opened the door a little bit wider. "No, really, I only wanted--"
"Nonsense, c'mon. Besides, you have, like, the absolute best timing. I need you."
"Oh," she said, wide-eyed and breathless. "You need me?"
"Yeah, we all need you. C'mon, get in here."
The door clicked softly behind her, and she walked in, slow like she was still getting used to wearing heels. Mr. Schue gave her a reassuring smile.
"So how do you need me?" she asked, hands clamped together. "I'd love to offer an impartial ear."
"Just stand there. That's it."
He cued the music, and it soon came together enough to be recognizable. Cheesy and over-the-top, Mr. Schue serenaded Miss Pillsbury with Every Little Thing She Does is Magic, making Miss Pillsbury turn pink in the face, while everyone else joined in during the chorus. Half way through, Mr. Schue threw the verse over to Finn, who picked up with some hesitation at first, then got into it.
Mr. Schue nodded, saying, "Nice," over the music. "Keep it up!" He bounced on his heels, held his arms out wide. Everyone, he seemed to be encouraging, and let's take it to that second level!
Rachel laughed when Mr. Schue took Miss Pillsbury by the hands, made her spin around despite her protests. Kurt was swaying his hips, and that made her laugh harder.
She knew everything was about to change for the better when, nearing the end of the song, Puck joined in more enthusiastically. And he was good.
"Because you normally don't stand so close to me," Rachel said, beaming up at Puck, "I hadn't noticed what a surprisingly acceptable singing voice you have. You could use it for good, you know."
First of all, no shit. Second, whatever. Being in the glee club had already done enough good to last Puck a lifetime. Besides, it got his mom off his case with all her Oh, Puck, you could be so much better! naggery she unloaded on him every night during dinner. Like, what, having awesome hair and a kickass reputation as an undoubted ladies man made you some kind of sorry loser worth sobbing into your dumplings over? No.
"I'm serious," Rachel said, still happy, which made Puck notice how she seemed way more like a girl when she did that and less like the robot he normally thought of her as. All dead-eyed like something out of a bad computer animated movie and functioning like one of those animatronic jamboree bears over at Disney World. That sort of creepy.
"You could ask Mr. Schue for a lead."
That would basically be like asking Mr. Schue for an after school beat-down given by the entire defensive half of the football team.
"Yeah," he drawled, "you like my sick vocals?"
As a rule of, like, life, he tried to stay as far away from Rachel Berry as possible, because the girl was balls to the wall crazy 90% of the time. But sometimes, like when she stayed off the sugar and wasn't pasting stars next to her name, she was kind of okay.
"Normally competition within a group setting is counterproductive, because of course we should have a thick, unshakable bond that makes it easy for us as a team to conquer great challenges and leap hurdles, never mind Mr. Schue continually driving a wedge between me and everyone else by giving away leads that technically should be mine. That's based on seniority and vocal capability. But I think I'll enjoy the healthy rivalry sure to be inspired if you asked Mr. Schue for a lead."
"I'll get right on that."
Quinn was waiting for him before practice, looking out towards the field where the Cheerios were building pyramids near the sidelines. That psycho coach of theirs was shouting into her megaphone, amped up on horse pills or some shit: Those better be tears of joy streaming down your happy, saccharine face, Santana, or so help me, I will work you like a midget in a toy department at Christmas time!
"So, lemme guess," Quinn said, biting the words off, "you've got some freak fascination with the lower rung, too?"
That was a whole lot of words that added up to a bunch of gibberish, as far as Puck was concerned. He shelfed his helmet underneath his arm and applied one of his more useful smirks. "How's those morning prayers to the porcelain god going? As good as the real thing?"
"Don't," she said, glaring, and he felt weird over it for like three seconds, but then she turned up the ice. "Not because you're too immature to have a normal conversation like any other human being, but because this is the last time I want to bring this up with you. I'm not keeping the baby. So save whatever 'I can be a good deadbeat dad' speech you're about to give for the next time someone's stupid enough to sleep with you. And stay out of my life."
Before she could storm away, he asked, "What's that even supposed to mean?" because he was pretty damn sure they were past the point where vacuuming the thing out of her was still theologically acceptable with the good Lord.
"How much more specific do I need to be? Am I supposed to draw you pictures?"
"Damn. Good idea! How 'bout you start with the one of you, the big Jew upstairs, and that promise ring you always wore?"
Hate vapors sizzled off of her, but she pushed away the lurking exorcist. "I talked to my parents," she said, "and after a lot of yelling and some overzealous praying... we all agreed that the best thing for me and the baby is--"
Like it was stupid to be so overwhelmed over something already out of her hands, she laughed, low and hollow. There were tears in her eyes that she was trying to hide from him, and that was a like a kick to his gut. Some stupid notion rose, the urge to go over and comfort her, but that'd result in him looking like a bitch when she pushed him away--and she would, and he'd hate her for it, but he'd hate himself even more--so he ignored it, and who cared if he came off like some insensitive prick?
"I'm giving it up, okay?" she said, eyes mean and locked on his. "Someone who doesn't care about your mixed background will raise her, and give her a good home--"
A word caught and stuck with him. "Her?"
"Don't," she said again, but softer. "It's happening like this. Exactly like this."
"Relax," Coach growled, grabbing Puck by the collar of his jersey and yanking him backwards, off of Benson, who he'd creamed into the ground after a brutal play. For the third time, but so what, dude deserved it. He wasn't even blocking Steele right, he was leaving him wide open, and it was messing up Puck's football mojo.
Puck twisted out of Coach's white-knuckled hold. "Fine," he said, shifting his pads back into place. He was getting stared at like he was some kind of mental freak while Chang helped Benson up, which was real fucking romantic of him.
"Hit the showers, Puckerman," Coach ordered, hands on his hips. Right near his fanny-pack.
Finn was hanging in the background, staring at the ground, totally useless. Just standing around like some chump.
Coach moved forward an inch, getting in Puck's face. Sweaty and smelling like ass and jockstraps, and too close. "You need to go cool down."
Puck held up his hands, caring too little to argue. "I was sick of this team sucking, anyway," he said.
"Wanna chill sometime?"
Rachel's eyes practically dropped out of her head and rolled onto the table. "You're... asking me out?"
He tucked a straw behind his ear, looking his lunch over. Why was it that the school's meatloaf never looked like real meatloaf? It looked like cat barf. "Try to keep the crazy from spewing out like you're Mount Freakoutitude," he said, taking a bite anyway, "but, yeah."
She hadn't even blinked yet. "Like a date? Like exclusively? You're aware, aren't you, that because of the savage nature of high school, we'll be reduced to little more than gossip fodder, even if you're asking me out on a platonic date, which, because of Quinn and Finn, would probably work best for our situation right now."
"Yeah," he drew out, "that was full frontal crazy." And he knew that because all he heard for the last half was a lot of high-pitched blah blah blahs.
"It's... sudden, is all," she said, staring at him like she was reading his soul or something. Or his honest, pure-hearted intentions. Good luck finding either. "What about Quinn? Or Finn, for that matter."
He sniffed at the potatoes that came with the meatloaf. Also similar to barf. "What about 'em?"
She leaned across the table, eyes crazy. "You're not seriously suggesting we shouldn't give Finn or Quinn even a passing thought, are you? Because the alternative would shed a spotlight on a part of your character I always thought you grossly exaggerated."
Did she always have to read into everything like it was a SAT question? Seriously.
"Yo, you can have whatever hang-ups on Finn you want to have, but me? I know when to move the hell on."
"But don't you think you're moving on a little... fast?"
"Baby, I'm outta there fast and furious, Tokyo Drift style."
She pulled back, open-mouthed. "I'm uncomfortable with the turn of this conversation."
"So hop back in. Let's turn it around. Aren't you the one always preaching about group orgies?"
"That's--I find it incredibly insensitive you'd say--No! Orgies," she hissed, "are acts of an aggressive and sexual nature. I instruct group harmony. Comradery. Completely asexual team fun."
Which basically meant that blinking at the forefront of her mind was nothing but sex.
"I'm saying, for Glee, which is your thing. We should hang out. Think of it as offering your services to juvies like me. An out-reach program for studs. You get off on ideas like that all that time."
"When proposed by Mr. Schuester, whose intentions are always lucid and crystal clear."
"I'm clear like ice."
"Made out of poor water quality, maybe."
"Fine," he laughed, because this girl could argue to the grave over nothing. "But you know you want to chill with me. Stop fronting."
Her response was simple: "Can I lay out a few ground rules?"
You would think that being in Rachel Berry's room would mean exactly what you'd think it'd mean, given the facts of who Puck was and what his well-documented stats were. You'd think hot, sweaty, hella amazing sex was going down, both her dads downstairs in their Barker Loungers eyeballing the shaking ceiling with both repulsion and the fact-driven fear that their little test tube bundle of joy was up there getting her world rocked, but no.
Because when Rachel Berry agreed to chill out with you and then invited you over to her house and up to her yellow painted bedroom, what she really meant was I'll put on this stupid ass concert for you while you pretend to be the engrossed audience. And her dads had brought up carrot sticks. Carrot sticks! Do you know the implications of offered vegetables from the parental units, gay or otherwise? It meant that they viewed him as some god-fearing, salt-of-the-earth type that wouldn't give banging the crazy out of their daughter even a second thought.
"You seem distracted," Rachel said, and she was wearing this short skirt that was driving him nuts, so obviously. It's like, all of a sudden she started being hot. Not just some chick who could use a bigger rack, not just that girl who was a nose job and a personality transplant away from being on his 'to bang' list, but straight up the girl was attractive.
And really, he only needed a handful of boobs, anyway.
"What's wrong?" She seemed confused. "Did I go off-key?"
Puck was sitting on her bed surrounded by a pink comforter that smelled like clean laundry, and pillows shaped like stars. It was crazy.
"Think we can take a break?" he asked. "My ears feel like they're bleeding."
"Sure," she said, quick and easy. Good. He expected to have to pry the hairbrush she'd been using as a mic out of her cold, dead hands.
Coming over, she brought the snack tray with her. "Carrot stick?"
His response was a you're kidding, right? hook of the eyebrow that translated well enough.
Mechanically, she put the tray on some nightstand beside her bed, where the drawers were probably filled with sheets of gold star stickers, those magazines she always had with her at lunch, and some glossy stalker photo of Finn.
"I have Scrabble," she offered.
That would be reality smacking him in the nuts, then. He rose. "I have to go. I have an allergy."
"Oh. Really? We have Zyrtec. Normally I'd feel uncomfortable recommending drug use, but I feel confident that under my watchful eye, you won't develop a chronic and debilitating habit."
Of allergy medicine. Right.
"Pass," he said.
"Yellow makes my head hurt."
She glanced helplessly at her walls. What could she do?
Puck picked at the strings on his guitar, bored out of his mind. Mr. Schue was pulling kids aside, getting in some one-on-one solo time to prepare them for whatever performance they were supposed to be putting on soon. Whatever. Puck only knew that it was like football: that you played until the end of the season, and if you were good, you played some more. If not, you went home and picked up basketball. And since Rachel had been all hell-bent and focused lately, he knew they must've had something important coming up.
Like just thinking about her spit out some connecting thought to the cosmos, she bounced over his way, all huge smiles and clasped hands she swung out in front of her.
"Sup," he grunted.
"What're you practicing? Maybe you aren't fully aware, because usually you only seem self-aware in a way that I find troubling, but the guitar really suits you."
He cocked an eyebrow, gaze flicking down to her chest and back. Low-cut shirt today. Nice. Paired up with the knee-high socks? You cannot convince him she didn't know what the hell she was doing when she was getting dressed in the morning. Every guy with a serviceable dick knew what the Catholic schoolgirl look meant.
"Just, laying down some 'Freebird'," he told her, and played a few recognizable notes to clue her in. It was a walking cliche to sit there and rip Lynyrd Skynyrd, but whatever. It was easy to play and it made him sound awesome, which were his only goals as far as glee went.
To his surprise, she started to sing. He kept up with the strumming, because what else was he going to do, cut her short? And make her diva wrath flare up in his face? Hell to the no.
It felt weird as hell to be in that moment with her. More so, even, when she really started belting it out, and then it changed. It stopped being so weird and started to feel like they were having some real and genuine rock n'roll moment, just the two of them. He was getting into it; into watching her do her thing that normally he only witnessed from a safe distance away, mostly out of self-preservation, because when she went into her zone, if you got dragged in with her, god knows what kind of dick-less bitch you'd get turned into. Coach called it being put through a ringer, when a girl used and abused you and she didn't even know she was doing it.
After the chorus, she stopped and laughed, placing one of her small hands on his wrist. Even though her fingers were cold, it felt pretty nice.
And there he was, sucked in, and damn, he could totally feel his nuts shrinking.
Puck was secure enough in his manhood and the way his penis worked to be teammates with a gay dude and not have it be some big deal.
Kurt pushed his hair out of his face, staring into a compact mirror. He had Puck's reflection angled into view. "Rewind. Why should I help you?"
'Help' wasn't exactly what Puck was going for here. More like, it was something Kurt should feel proud or special or whatever about that Puck was laying this problem on his capable and well-equipped shoulders. Puck was having some lady problems, and since Kurt was this weird, confusing mixture of both guy and chick personalities (see: his ability to play football and then everything else about him), Puck figured he could maintain a level of cool by going to him.
It'd be like talking to his dorky kid sister, but without having to first discuss what was up with those vampire doucheknobs from the Twilight movies.
"Fact check: You used to hurl me into a dumpster," Kurt said, unleashing some kind of harsh, focused bitchery on Puck, "while I was pressing forward with the latest fall fashion. Do you know how many Marc Jacobs sweaters you ruined? Dumpster smell doesn't wash out. It clings. As a wearer of very basic cotton t-shirts, I wouldn't expect you to understand."
Listen, what Puck did two months ago he could hardly still be held accounted for. There'd been internal growth and junk. And outer growth, too, because his hawk had finally sprung into the real thing, which meant that he was like some cool new insect shedding its skin. Transformation, people! Appreciate it.
Naturally his first reaction was to laugh, because, c'mon. Yeah, he'd acted like an asshole back then, but that was what high school kids at the top of the tier did. They tortured the hell out of anyone who showed any signs of weakness, and Kurt, even though Puck had come to learn that he was a stubborn, strong-ass dude who didn't grab ankle when it came to his own set morals, which was respectable, was like Bambi's mom grazing roadside. He was an easy target. Pow. Nothing more to it.
"I don't see how recollecting my years of torment inspires an inner-stirring of laughter," Kurt said, and Puck zipped it, because he'd had conversations with his Mom like this all the time. She would say something that tripped his authority figures suck! trigger, and he'd laugh, and she'd stomp around the kitchen and say a bunch of hardcore Jewish stuff. All it ever ended with was a guilt-trip and him getting his X-Box taken away for a really sucky week.
Puck said, "You know what, you're right. That was--" Crap, what was that word? His teachers used it all the time, "--oh, callow, yeah. How callow of me. The worst part was how I neglected your emotions. Whatever. So, dawg, you gonna listen or not?"
Kurt sighed and snapped the compact shut, turning to give Puck his full attention. Finally. "First of all, if this was 1998, I'd... have no real recollection, because I was five, but even then I would've known that 'dawg' had already reached its short shelf-life. Respect the times."
So they were going to pick apart the words that flew out of Puck's mouth now? Because he had no control over that. He thought it, he said it. That's just how that magic happened.
"Fine," Kurt agreed, but like it was causing him pain, dropping to this new level of lame-assness. Yeah, join the team. "So what is it? Because I've never had an STD before, if that's what this is about. I have no idea where you go for treatment. I assume the nurse's office. An animal shelter?"
Yeah, that really wasn't helping Kurt's argument about the unfairness of getting tossed in the trash for a little dumpster diving.
Puck had to make sure there was no one else in the locker room, like that little bitch Benson. Dude would start up all kind of rumors, and fuck that noise. "So there's this girl, right, who most of the time is straight-up schizo. We're talking bats in the belfry, the chick is so out there."
"Afraid you're not being very slick here, OJ. Everyone already knows about you and Quinn. Congratulations, you're the illegitimate pride of McKinley."
He muttered, "It's not about her," and refused to be baited by that glimpse of sympathy he saw, because there was no way he was bottom enough to get pity from the gay kid.
"Well, if it's not her, then who--? Wait. How crazy is crazy? On a scale of one to Tyra Banks? Tyra being the sane side, of course. I can't believe I had to explain that," he marveled under his breath.
That was getting ignored.
"It's wacked," he said, "but. I think I might like her? Parts of me might like her. Dude-parts of me might like her."
Rolling his eyes, Kurt said, "Please. I don't need the hetero-to-homo translation. I happen to speak both fluently. That's the perk of severe self-repression spanning only my entire life." A new look came over him. "So. You have a crush. A non-baby momma crush. That's sweet. Who's the lucky box of rocks?"
Puck was pretty damn sure he'd rather be castrated than come out and admit that he was crushing on Rachel Berry. Also, that word gave him the hives. To be more accurate, he was appreciating Rachel Berry and her legs and face and hint of boobs beneath the double layers of sweater she almost always wore.
"Fine," Kurt sighed, closing his eyes just so. "You're keeping it anon. How Beyonce and Jay-Z of you. If you like her," he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, "then what's the big life crisis?
Mr. Schue bounded into rehearsal the following afternoon, an assignment already on his mind.
"Artie," he called, then remembered, "Hey, guys! Artie, I have a challenge for you."
Artie gave back his very best Mr. Burns impersonation, wheezing, "Eeeeeexcellent."
"Congratulations, I give you permission to unleash 'MMMBop' upon us," Mr Schue said, setting down a cup of coffee. "Let's see what you can add to it. I want creativity. I want to forget I'm listening to Hanson. Take it to that next level."
"No probs, boss."
"That's extended to everyone, by the way. I mean, not Hanson, obviously, because that would kill our forward momentum on the spot--" He shot an apologetic look Artie's way, "Sorry about that. But I'm asking you to make the unbelievable, believable. We're the glee club. People already have a hard time accepting what we do, so let's make it harder for them."
Rachel was raising her hand, which was a surprise to exactly no one. "Mr. Schue? Wouldn't that sort of defeat our purpose? We're supposed to convince people that what we do is worthwhile. That's what the struggle is all about."
He pulled up in front of her, clapping her on the shoulder. "Exactly! The struggle. Let's face it, as far as clubs that rake in the social credit go, Glee isn't one of them. By a long shot. You guys know it. Half of you are crossing over from the football team, or the Cheerios. You know what people think about the glee club, because you thought it, too. We're losers. Right? Just a bunch of musically inclined geeks. That's the tag-line, isn't it?"
"This seems like the opposite of inspiring," said Artie, speaking for fucking everyone.
Mr. Schue smiled. "I want us to put on J-Lo and those boy bands I know you girls like," he pointed at Brittany and Mercedes, eyebrows waggling, "and blow their minds. Make their jaws drop! They want the worst, so we'll give them the worst. But we'll make it work. What do you say. You with me?"
And they were, every last one of them. Even Puck felt a stirring unrelated to lunch.
Mr. Schuester smacked his hands together. "Great! Pair up!"
Rachel turned towards Puck with a crapload of eagerness. "I think we'd make a complimentary enough duo, what about you? With your more than capable voice and my full-range vocals and impressive array of music-related knowledge, it'd be crazy to look anywhere else."
"I don't know," he drawled, his motive clear: rattle the diva out of her, ‘cause damn, girl. "Mercedes has been sounding bomb lately. And she's got that whole 'dark chocolate' swagger I like."
"That," she managed after a lot of mouth-flapping, "is morally deplorable. And wrong. Ask anyone who's not in this club or doesn't go to this school, I have exceptional talent for a woman my age. Ask my loyal Myspace followers. They'll agree."
He didn't want to mention that he knew how loyal her followers were. He knew what punk-ass comments she got, mostly because he was the punk-ass that left half of them.
"Chill pill: look into it. I'm messing with you, Berry."
"Oh," she said, working through emotions. "Okay?"
"Yeah, so, I don't do Broadstreet," he said.
"I think you mean, Broadway."
"Or Disney songs."
"Well, I guess I can scrap 'A Whole New World'. It's dated anyway, and besides, it's nearly impossible to duplicate."
"If it makes me look short-bus? Forget about that, too."
"I think I can agree to those stipulations. So." She stuck out a hand, her grin huge. "Partners?"
By the time Puck had finished slinging all the fallen leaves and dead bugs out of Mr. Schue's pool, he was working up a good sweat.
"I see you're finished," Mrs. Schue said, slipping out of the sliding glass doors. She handed him a cold lemonade, ice cubes clinking. "You must want something to drink. There's something about the pool and all that water that always makes me thirsty. What about you?"
He could tell this wasn't some kind of cougar angle she was working, coming onto him by offering up the liquids. The lemonade wasn't spiked with vodka first of all, and besides, she wasn't wearing some see-through negligee that alerted his eyes to middle-aged horniness when his brain wasn't quick enough to pick up on subtlety.
That, and she was pretty obviously pregnant.
Puck shrugged, "Sometimes it makes me have to pee."
"Oh, right. Of course. Like waterfalls. So, Noah," she said, and she sat down on one of the lounge chairs lined up along the pool. From the way she kept staring at him, he knew that she wanted him to sit down too. "Tell me about this business of yours. The pool-cleaning business. Very lucrative. What drove you to start it, because I have to tell you, the most drive teenage boys seem to have is in regards to sexual matters. I can say that word, I was your school nurse."
Right. Suddenly Puck wished he had a couple of those over-the-counter vitamins about now.
He turned up the charm and social mannerisms, offering up a dimpled smile. "With Mom doing all she can to raise two rascals by herself, we could use the extra cash in the Puckerman household," he said in that hang-dog voice that made the girls coo, and then, knowing just what the hell he was doing, he added, "M'am."
Bam. Desired effect. She smiled, touching him on the knee, all flustered and crap. "You don't have to do that. Please. Talking to me like I'm some kind of elderly, addle-minded neighbor? We're practically the same age, you and me."
Keep wishing, grandma.
She said, "I heard from the grapevine, well, from Will, but we don't have to tell him I told you, that you were the father of Quinn's baby." Her smile was big, teeth showing. "That's admirable. Your job, I mean. I mean, I assume you have the work ethic you do because of the baby on the way."
He was about to mention how that was strictly none of her damn business, when she leaned over, squinting at him.
"You have--an amazing--facial structure. Seriously. Very European. You wouldn't happen to know if it's hereditary, would you?"
"Maybe," he said, if hereditary meant bad-ass.
"Mmhmm," she hummed. "And your features? Brown eyes, dark hair. I assume that's genetic as well?"
Then Mr. Schue stuck his head out the sliding glass doors, saving him.
"Noah!" he said. "What's up?"
Mrs. Schue turned around. "Hey, sweetie!"
"Hey, Ter. Hey, come inside, Noah. I want to talk to you. Gleek-to-gleek."
Oh my god, seriously, someone shoot him in the head. On his way inside, Mr. Schue palmed Puck his pay of $30, which made the rest of the afternoon slightly more passable.
The thing about Puck's mom was that she was on his case all the time. School, grades, football, glee club, 'what do you need that job for anyway, Noah, you know I watched some 20/20 special about kids and their addictions to crystal meth'. Girls.
Always with the girls, even more than her fear that he was some big time Lima drug lord, like she thought he was going to hit the 40-year old virgin mark. That proved how out of touch with reality she was. When they went to the store, she'd point out whatever chick had the biggest nose. 'What about her, Noah? She seems sweet. Why don't you go talk to her? Ugh, but do something with your hair first.
Which is why he paraded Rachel into the Puckerman family room one day after school, like he was bringing home something undeniably awesome.
"Can she stay for dinner?"
Reeling in her shock, his mom said, "Hello." The unheard being You drag in this girl off the streets, Noah Puckerman, and you don't even have the decency to forewarn your mother? That is a poor excuse of Jewage!
Rachel spoke the same language apparently, because she angled some ball-busting stare his way before breaking out into a big smile reflected back at his mom. "Hello," she waved. "I'm Rachel Berry. That's with an 'e', as in 'Earth-wide entertainer', which I one day hope to be."
"Alright," his mom finally said, eyes locking on Puck's. "I guess I can cook dinner tonight."
You'd never believe it, but dinner was awesome.
Puck didn't have a whole lot of expectations, except to maybe expect a good reaming after Rachel had left, but there was zero bloodshed throughout the meal. It felt like Thanksgiving. They sat at the table and passed around bowls of mashed potatoes and canned corn and Rachel kept his mom's mind off the freakiness of Puck having a girl over. A lot of the time Puck mentally nodded off, because things like 'education' and 'hopeful People's Choice Awards as voted by the public' kept getting brought up, but overall, it was alright. Rachel even got along with his sister, that's how flawlessly he pulled things off.
Afterwards, they went down to the basement to practice their duet.
"And keep the door open, Noah Puckerman!" his mom's voice followed them down the stairs. "Don't think I wasn't young once! Just ask yourself: what would Jesus do?!"
He shut the door after them, with Rachel gasping and hissing, "Noah! But your mom--"
The words weren't even out of her mouth, still trapped on her lips like a pearly string of spit, when he kissed her. It was crazy, because it was Rachel, but not just because up until recently he'd hated her by default of social hierarchy, but because she was letting him. Then again, ladies hardly ever turned him down. Except Rachel was different, because she actually said what she felt, not what was most popular.
He held her close, waiting for the "THIS IS RACHEL BERRY!" newsflash to sink in, but it never came. It was kinda like that thing his mom said, where you never knew how you'd like something unless you tried it. Like how every year during Passover she somehow got him to eat Tzimmes, even though he was pretty sure that it was the grossest food in the world. It was some kind of mind-fuckery that went down, and pulling Rachel so close against him that he can feel what's under her sweater, he believes in its power.
"Wait," Rachel said, breaking them apart. Her face was red, like how it usually looked right before he drenched it in slushie, but better. "We shouldn't--what I mean to say is--we can't--think of your mom, think of Jesus!"
He nodded towards an ironic nativity scene that was always set up, his mom believing it would shame him into his best behavior, never mind them being the only Jews in town who flaunted ceramic versions of the J-man. It made for a good place to stash his weed, if that's what she meant by that. "Relax. Anything we do is Jesus-approved. That's why he looks so happy."
"He's stoked. Besides, we're a couple of consenting adults here."
"I don't even have a driver's license!"
"Damn, Berry, you are a lost cause."
"And with your mom upstairs?!"
"You're practically Jewmesticating her wayward punk! She likes you."
"I don't Jewmesticate anything if it's not for a noble cause. And to clarify, indulging in our raging hormones doesn't constitute nobility."
She moved around him, to his guitar.
"We have until tomorrow afternoon to perfect our duet. Do you want to stand there uncomfortably for the next forty minutes or help me make this work?
Rachel was a teenage girl, and yeah, the gospel they wanted to spread and expected you to buy was that they were book-minded virgins who never, ever had a dirty thought about the mechanics of sex, but what the fuck ever, dream on. It wasn't true. Trust him on that. Girls thought about sex just as often as guys. That was just science.
Which meant that when Rachel wiggled around in her v-neck shirts, ass almost flouncing out of those paper thin skirts she wore during rehearsal, she was broadcasting a clear signal: looking for a bright young man with a promising future to date socially for at least six months before PDA becomes acceptable.
Whenever they got through a riveting practice number, her hormones were off the charts. She got off on show choir the way normal people got off on hot chicks and motorcycles.
Last night she refused to let him express himself through the magic of his tongue, but after rehearsal the next day, she was giving off totally different vibes.
They kicked ass on their duet of "I'm Yours", which had been a tough sell from Rachel, but he'd folded like a bitch. Mr. Schue had thrown a bunch of compliments at their feet, talking about chemistry and perfect song choice, and Rachel was still riding the high of having her ego padded.
"Hello, Noah," she said, laying a hand on his arm. "I wanted to thank you, not only for an incredible performance, but for last night. And," she inched a step closer, "I wanted to say how much clearer your ice seems. After a lot of internal debating and putting my feelings into song, I realized that--I enjoy your company. As surprising as that is. For so long, I thought I was supposed to be with Finn, because it makes the most sense, both in real life and fiction--"
She took a breath. "Yes?"
She wrapped her hands around his neck, a smile on her face. Her head was tipped back so that she could see him, and he didn't even care that she had some crazy long nose hair going on inside there. When he leaned down to kiss her, she let him.
"Here," he said, holding an envelope out to Quinn.
She eyeballed it like it smelled of fart, then slammed her locker. "Funny, but when someone drops a person from their life, the law says the stalking stops."
"Just take it."
He could tell that she wanted to argue, but he knew enough about girls and their feelings to know that he had already charmed her enough throughout the year that her will crumbled way easily.
"It's not naked pictures. Is it? Because that's grimy, even for you."
Feeling like a loser, he stuck the envelope in her hand. "It's only a month's worth, but I can get more."
She opened it just enough to see the wad of cash he'd stashed inside. "What is this?"
"I know it's not a lot--" Actually, it was $442, which was everything he'd manage to save cleaning pools that he didn't blow on skin rags and weed, "--but I'll get more. I can pay more."
"Puck..." Call the press, the girl was speechless.
He didn't want to make a big deal out of it, because Puck being able to pay for his messed up life choices shouldn't be so damn surprising, but he could tell that they were having some rare moment. At least, they were having a conversation that didn't spiral into insults and wall warfare on each other's Facebook.
Finally, she said, "Thanks. This is--it's--thank you."
One afternoon during Glee, Rachel stood up in front of everyone and called for attention. She said a lot of junk that Puck mostly only half-heard because he was focused instead on how hungry he was, since lunch sucked that day, but he got the meat of it: she was disappointed with Mr. Schue not acknowledging a true male lead, they'd never make it to Sectionals with a group of uninspired back-up singers, her star was on the rise and currently it was being stifled, etc.
Then she sat down and sang one of those Taylor Swift songs, and Puck straightened and listened. You don't have to tune in to Top 40 radio or have a mangina to know the message that T-Swift chick sang about: it was straight-up man-hating.
Funny thing, too, was that she was singing it to Finn.
Afterwards she sat down next to Puck, like she was picking sides.
"Alright," said Mr. Schue. "Good job, Rachel. Thanks for... well, it hit all the right notes, so a continued track record of excellence. Okay! Who thinks they can do better?"
Rachel shot him off an email during Spanish one day that said:
According to my On Broadway! wall calendar, we have been dating socially for an entire month, which means it's about time we present ourselves to the general public as 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend'. It's a huge step, but I'm committed to the title of being your significant other. Are you??? I know it's a role that has the potential to be confining, but I feel confident that we will play our parts admirably. Thank you for being a worthy leading man!
Puck snapped his phone shut, ignored Rachel and the way she kept turning in her chair to look at him, let out a yawn instead. Mr. Schue was conjugating verbs and teaching them how to Spanishify directions to the library, which was so not useful in any aspect of Puck's life. But between Glee and class, Puck was getting used to Mr. Schue's crazy.
When the bell rang, Puck picked up his books, slid his pencil behind his ear. Rachel followed him out, and keeping her mouth shut must've been killing her, because once she was able to round on him, she pushed into him with more muscle than it looked like she could pack.
"All I ask," she said, face twisted like she was going to sock him in the nuts, "is that you give me the courtesy of replying. This isn't easy, you know! Having feelings. Expressing feelings. Normally I'd ask Mr. Schue to borrow the piano and I'd let the language of music do my talking for me, but I can't keep running to lyrical interpretations, and you can't keep running away, and. I like you. So what's it going to be?"
Puck leaned forward, took his time. The words were right there. Instead he pushed the hair out of her eyes, held her face in his hands, and kissed her. The good kind, too, that fogged up his car windows and planted him at second base, where he had full access to uncovered boobs.
She pulled away, heads still touching, and said, "Is that a 'yes'?"
He thought it over. "Does it get you into the backseat?"
They broke apart, but she was smiling. "Only if you agree to listen to Daddy's audio book on 'safe sex as relatable to the teenage mind'," she said, and they headed for her locker.
"I go anywhere near that, I'm walking away with my junk going camo."
Puck slid his hand into hers, and she beamed up at him, pleased with the showing of PDA.
"Is that right?" she threw back. "He uses a voice mixer, you know. It masks his masculinity."
"All the same, I'd rather light myself on fire than listen to your dads talk about sex."
"Noah, you like my dads!"
"I like sex! Trust me, that don't mix!"
"If he offers, at least pretend to seem interested."
"I don't know. Think he'd appreciate my barf?" Her smile turned into a scowl, and Puck dragged her closer. "I'm kidding, Berry. I'll pop it into the deck the second I get it. Then after, hot, sweet Jew-on-Jew action."
Breaking away to open her locker, she laid down the law. "Only if you're my boyfriend."
And what was he going to do, turn down an offer like that?
"Yeah," he said. "Okay."
She grabbed her books, took his hand, and towards English Lit they went, Rachel beaming up at him.
Most people connected with Hallmark cards, but Rachel chose music.
They sing "I Want You To Want Me" in front of the entire school, and as had become the norm, Puck started to feel less like a loser on stage and more like a hot shot. True, the choreo was lame, but his voice was being heard, and that was awesome. Plus, whenever they'd hit the lines about wants and needs, Rachel's eyes locked on his. Even though he was mostly thinking about last night and how bagging a hottie was so much better when the chick was someone you actually cared about, never mind Rachel's soundtrack she made them groove to, he knew that it was special.
So, yeah, Puck was a pretty lucky dude.