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It's Your Song That Sets Me Free (I Sing It While I Feel I Can't Go On)

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May, 2012

Rachel Berry's life was good. In fact, if she were asked in that moment how things were, she would've replied, "Quite splendid, thank you." Given she was an eighteen year old girl, less than two months from graduation, this was both unusual and yet unexpected. Her use of words like 'splendid' when 'good' would have sufficed was entirely her, if not the social norm. But today, if she were to say just that and have a slushee tossed in her face for her unrelenting lack of normalcy, she wouldn't even flinch, her smile would not falter, and she would have simply cleaned up and kept moving. Maybe to some, the life she lived would not be something to boast about. She was quite possibly entirely too close to the bottom rung of the social ladder, only ranking higher than perhaps Jacob Ben Israel and the like, and she still suffered the icy cold reminder that she was not cool that the footballer's, minus a choice few, and the other many jocks of McKinley chose to shower her in weekly. Or perhaps monthly, it seemed to depend on just how often her boyfriend was at her side whether she got a facial that day. Her smile brightened at the mere hint of him.

For thirteen months, Rachel was proud to say, she had been the girlfriend of Noah "Puck" Puckerman. Quite possibly one of very few people in the whole of the school that liked her, and yes she included the teachers in that statement. She knew her personality was positively 'high maintenance' but she couldn't find any reason to change that. Yes, she was demanding and a perfectionist and she sometimes thought it pertinent to remind others that she was going to be a star and leave Lima very much in her rear-view mirror. Actually, she corrected herself brightly, it was more aptly Noah's rear-view mirror. In seven short weeks, they would be freshly graduated from high school and on their way to crossing the country on their pre-college road trip, planned down to the very T. He reminded her (constantly) that she could plan for everything and they'd still run into snags but Rachel was the type of person who controlled things. Except her boyfriend, who was a force all his own. Although he did often get teased by Finn and the other gleeks that he was whipped by her, though she could hardly find any evidence to back that up.

Yes, Noah was perhaps kinder than he had been previous to their relationship. He hardly tossed anybody in dumpsters anymore and if he did they were usually deserving of the act. Though her feelings on violence were often quite firm – it wasnever necessary! – she found herself in a hypocritical position when the dumpee was one Jacob Ben Israel. So yes, while she often told Noah that violence in any form was not the proper way to handle things, she couldn't say she didn't like to drag him into janitor's closets for quick, hot make-out sessions in thanks for tossing the most repugnant and creepy boy to ever make her acquaintance into an equally disgusting bin. Lately, she'd begun to wonder if he was only tossing him in there for just such make-out sessions, but she couldn't find it in herself to care too much… And that was definitely not going into her autobiography!

In any case, Rachel walked through the busy halls of McKinley on a high that could rival one of Noah's "basement circles" with the boys (of which she was absolutely certain he was involved in recreational marijuana smoking). He told her he didn't "do that shit" but he was an awful liar when it came to her. In fact, she knew exactly when he was lying because he had a tendency to look at her nose, as if he thought it would suddenly sprout longer in recognition of his lie, which was a very bizarre Pinnochio reference, she knew. But if he were being honest, he would stare her in the eyes and not back down. He was perhaps her equal in being stubborn; it was one of many things she loved about him. And after thirteen months of courting, there was a very long list (that she may or may not have written down and occasionally adds to, hidden in a box marked Noah that she hoped he would never, ever find).

After she and Finn had finally found their end, truly and without going back, Rachel had spent her time trying to get her self-confidence back. Not just because of the Santana/Finn secret, but because she'd realized that while she was with Finn, parts of her had faded. Where once she had been set firmly in thinking she would become that bright and shining Broadway star that nobody would be able to ignore, that dream had taken a backseat in comparison to her feelings and relationship with Finn Hudson. She had been so entrenched in becoming a part of the golden couple that she'd brushed away all the things that made her special. And while she didn't blame him, it became apparent that she had let herself become 'Finn Hudson's girlfriend' as opposed to a person all her own. In the next two months, she got back to basics; nightly MySpace videos, rigorous exercising to keep herself in top physical shape, and without the added scheduling of dates, she could throw herself headfirst into her many dance and vocal lessons.

It wasn't until March that she realized how lonely she was. While she had many people around her, it seemed nobody waswith her. Yes, she had Kurt, but he was away at Dalton Academy and they rarely had the opportunity to get together and make up for lost time. It seemed he was the only friend she really had and even he had only been able to get close to her when he was away from her 'crazy' and could find a spotlight of his own with the Warblers, not that they appeared to be appreciating his brand of diva just yet. But he was happy and safe and she knew that was all that mattered. So she didn't ask him to return, she didn't tell him that the other gleeks never really made any effort to get to know her or that without Finn she was so single-minded that it was tiring and losing its former shine. And then he walked into her life; or more aptly, he swaggered in.

Puck would be the first to admit that he wasn't the good guy or boyfriend material or the person you turn to when you're sad and need a shoulder to cry on. But he was loyal (with the exception of that one indiscretion with Quinn… and really, she wasn't sure if she counted seeing as he stopped it…) and a good friend and while he didn't particularly care for her long diatribes "less words means more listening, Berry, you're givin' me a headache," he did actually pay attention to her… Well, most of the time. Occasionally, she might have fallen into a few rants about the Tony's and Barbra Streisand and he got that glazed look that meant he was hearing the Mario World theme song in his head and yes, she did happen to know what Mario World was because said boyfriend was a fanatic about vintage games and thus made her learn the ins and outs. She hated water-worlds and that was all she was going to share on that subject.

So it wasn't so long later that Rachel found herself a friend in Noah, even if he was pretty adamant that the only friends he had were dudes and chicks that came with benefits. So their friendship lasted all of one month before he told her they were either going to date or she had to grow a "pair," which was apparently what he referred to testicles as. And since Rachel wasn't going to be growing those any time soon, she took him up on his unusual offer and well, the rest was history. Not always smooth, sometimes the bumps were very hard to hurdle, but one year and one month later and they were still together and happy and she had a promise ring on her right middle finger ("the fuck, your midget fingers are screwing this up, Berry!") that said this was going to last a lot longer.

She wasn't naïve, of course; most high school relationships didn't last long after graduation, but she was absolutely certain that they were the exception. Why? Because Noah had applied and gotten into NYU. That he applied at all said so much about his personal growth that it occasionally made her eyes fill with proud tears. That he got in was a nod to both her resorting to cutting him off for the "foreseeable future" until he started going to Math class and applying himself to his studies. He lasted three days before his headaches mysteriously disappeared and naps were no longer a needed daily requirement, or at least not during school hours because he did like to cuddle (though he'd never admit it publicly) on the couch at his house, where he almost always fell asleep, snoring again her hair. And now he was going to college, with her, in New York! They were going to take the big apple by storm, side by side, hand in hand, one stage at a time. And okay, yes, he wasn't actually going to be on stage with her. He had a business degree in mind, actually, but he would be there for every play on opening night and he'd be the loudest clapper of them all. She knew this. He knew this.

Fate could be fickle and confusing but she knew now that all of the heartbreak and confusion and the pain of the last few years was worth it. So Finn wasn't meant to be her leading man anywhere but in glee, she could handle that. The leading man she had for every other aspect of her life fulfilled her in ways she'd never imagined. And yes, while Noah would take that as a sexual reference (one she couldn't argue), she meant in other ways as well. He was accustomed and accepting of her "special brand of crazy," and even encouraged it sometimes. Apparently, her diva storm-outs and constant desire to make herself heard got him a little 'hot.' Or a lot hot, she thought with a smirk all too reminiscent of her boyfriend.

So while Finn had (perhaps) unintentionally stifled her uniqueness, Noah did the opposite. He "rolled with it" as he liked to say, finding it smarter (and likely safer) to go with the storm rather than fight it. Although, when it came to two passionate people such as themselves, fighting was bound to arise. Sometimes over little things, like which movie to watch – chick-flick-musical or blood-and-gore-action – and sometimes it was about others things, like previous hook-ups or exes or insecurities that were inescapably there. But after thirteen months of learning each other, trusting one another, and finding their place in the other's life, those doubts and worries began to fade. She no longer looked at Santana like she expected her to jump up and yell, "I'm doing your boyfriend, Berry! AGAIN!" and he stopped waiting for her to declare she was in love with Finn and no other. They found a place of honesty and comfort and they were able to grow there, together.

Thinking of him made her wonder where he was. It wasn't too often they spent their lunch hours apart. If she were being honest, she knew that it wasn't often they spent any amount of time separate when it could be otherwise. Neither of them were clingy so much as they had gotten used to being around each other. With her parents away so often, she spent a good portion of her time at the Puckerman house, occasionally sleeping over and helping him get his sister Sarah ready for elementary school before they took his rumbling truck to McKinley. While she still had her many lessons to go to she wasn't going to advance in New York if she didn't practice, and Noah had his many sports and his guy's nights to occupy himself, so when they did get time for each other, be it the few minutes between classes, their lunch breaks, before or after glee, the time between homework and dinner and putting Sarah to bed, they used it to their advantage.

Reaching for her phone, she checked her messages, finding two from Kurt and one from Noah.

KurtMorning sucks, Diva. Woke up late, RAN OUT OF MOISTURIZER LAST NIGHT!, Blaine's sick and I'm having an awful hair day! I won't survive past first period, I know it!

KurtFound Blaine. :) Feeling much better ;) Have a good day, Diva!

Noahhey babe got stuck in meeting w/ pillsbury she keeps handing me hand sanitizer – the fuck?

Rachel giggled under her breath, typing back to each of them.

Glad to hear it, Kurt. My day is going fabulously! Have fun with Blaine! Tell him I said hello!

And to Noah,

I'm reluctant to make a reference to how dirty you might be… although I'm sure that was what you were digging for. xxx

Moments later, it beeped and she bit her lip as she read Noah's reply.

Only dirty 4 u berry-babe ;) … srsly tho, pillsbury's freakin me the fuck out. cum save me!

Rachel was moments away from thinking of an excuse to get him out of the counselor's office when she heard it…

"Fuckin' fairy! The Fury's been lookin' for your face all morning, Freak!"

Rachel was around the corner and down the stairs so quickly, she was sure her animal sweater was a blur to those watching. And yes, she was aware that they were neither typical nor terribly attractive, but she liked them nonetheless.

The boy currently being terrorized by one Dave Karofsky was not someone Rachel knew by name. Although, she wouldn't disregard the fact that he might've been one of Noah's previous dumpster targets. Regardless, he was scared and sniffling and looking altogether like someone who might very well pee his pants, further mortifying himself in front of everyone. And that was what bothered her most of all. This- This oaf of a boy was manhandling this student and not one person was doing anything about it! It wasn't as if the stairwell they were occupying was completely empty of onlookers. In fact, Karofsky had gathered quite a crowd, all of whom were wondering if he were really going to imprint his fist (repugnantly named The Fury) in the nameless boy's face.

And suddenly she thought of Kurt, of how he'd been battered and picked on and completely ignored, so much so that he had to leave McKinley and transfer to Dalton just to be safe! And while Rachel could (unfortunately) say that she had been bullied and little had been done to combat it, today was not one of those days. Though Noah was not there to back her up – and she told the independent woman inside herself that no, she didn't need a man to keep her safe but it still might've been welcomed – she advanced on the bully and the bullied with her hands on her hips, back straight as a pin, as she marched into their personal space and cleared her throat.

Karofsky glanced at her, unimpressed, and raised a brow, asking in a gruff voice, "The hell you want, Manhands?"

She really, truly hated that moniker! And she had it on good authority (Noah's!) that her hands were nothing but feminine, thank you very much!

Taking a deep breath, she told him in a very loud but very calm voice that, "I know your tiny brain may have a hard time keeping up, but try!" She glared at him when he sneered. "You are a bully and a jerk and making this poor, defenseless boy cry only makes it all the more obvious." His fist tightened against the boy's shirt and she blurted, "You're goingnowhere, Karofsky! You'll be stuck in Lima the rest of your life, whittling away the time with memories of the 'good years' before you lost all your hair, football hadn't stopped your beer gut from expanding, and you realized you were full of nothing but hot air!" Encouraged by the wide-eyed look of shock on his face, much of it overshadowed by utter rage, she reached out and stabbed his chest with her finger. "For all your brutish strength, there's a little boy inside, scared and angry and confused." She stabbed at him again, feeling triumph when he released the boy and took a step back and away from her as her long, bony (Kurt told her so) finger stabbed him again. "You pick on others because you think they'll pick on you if you don't. So you scare them and bully them and make people like Kurt question who he is and fear for his safety." Stab."But it's all your pathetic little insecurities shining through. You hate Kurt because inside he's exactly who you want to be! Admit it!" She stabbed him again, feeling righteous and proud.

Karofsky's eyes darted around, seeing the crowd of people, of students listening and maybe even agreeing with her and suddenly he looked scared, like she had said something so utterly true that he needed her to take it back immediately. And because he was the way he was, because he had grown up thinking he had to react to things physically rather than vocally, he shoved her. Hands on either shoulder, he gave her a harsh push back and away from him. Only he didn't realize that their walking had brought them very near the stairwell and his push sent her too close to the edge. She stumbled, her feet at the very cusp of the top of the stairs and he realized seconds too late what he'd done. Her eyes widened in shock and she felt for a terrifying moment as her heart literally stopped in her chest with realization.

He reached for her, for her flailing hands that were too small and too far. And she fell, unable to stop herself, unable to grab on to anything or anyone. She hit the cement stairs on her back and her feet came after, her entire body falling full throttle down the stairs, rolling her with little grace at all, until suddenly she was on the bottom, her body lying at an unusual and completely wrong angle. Long dark hair splayed out around her head in some dark halo, she laid unmoving,quiet, and the entire stairwell followed suit for all of five seconds.

Karofsky's eyes were stuck permanently to the little slip of a girl at the bottom of the stairs, her arms and legs spread out funny, her head tipped to one side, a pool of bright red liquid slowly building, wetting her hair.

And the phones were out; every person in the stairwell was either taking a picture of it or texting the situation to their friends and Karofsky just stood there, the culprit, the reason. He didn't know how long it was – seconds, maybe minutes, hell hours even, but there were others coming. A cry – a scream – and Brittney Pierce was staring in shock from the top of the landing at Rachel Berry. Santana wrapped her arms around her girlfriend and dragged her back, away, shushing her tears, trying to calm her. But the other gleeks were appearing now… The black chick was on the stairs, her hand over her mouth; the Asian girl was crying against Chang's shoulder as he stared on with wide eyes, his face pale, his expression slack; Evans and Fabray came to a stumbling halt near the body before she turned and pressed herself into Evans' body like she was willing the scene to disappear; and Hudson and wheel-chair kid had pushed through the crowd only to stop, shocked, staring down at her. But the last one, the important one, hadn't arrived yet and Karofsky knew that it would be smart to get his ass out of there before he did, before there were two dead kids, and he was one of them.

Dead.

The word made him stop, kept his feet from moving, his stomach twisting and turning and the burn of tears in his eyes made him want to give in and throw up. He'd killed someone. Killed them! Tiny little Rachel Berry, who couldn't even reach his shoulder and he'd shoved her down the stairs.

OhGodOhGodOhGod!

And then everything stopped, because he was there. They were all staring, eyes torn away from Berry, from Karofsky, and Puck was running down the stairs, pushing people out of the way, not even caring as they stumbled. He paused only once, near the top of the stairs, inches from Karofsky, staring down at his girlfriend and the picture she made.

And Karofsky choked on air. "I-I-I didn't mean to— Sh-She just— I-I'm sorry. I—" He'd never apologized in his entire life and the words tasted funny but he meant them. Oh god was he sorry…

But then Puck was moving; he was running down the stairs so quickly they were all pretty sure he was going to trip. But he made it and he hit his knees hard at her side. "Rach?" he said, his voice a raspy croak.

In that moment, every single person held their breath, like they expected her to sit up suddenly, shake it off, and give them that infamous Berry smile – the I can take anything you throw at me because I'm going to be a somebody and you will all be nobodies! smile. But she didn't move, didn't speak, didn't smile. And Karofsky knew she never would again… because of him.

../..

Puck stared, his eyes wide enough to rival Rachel's when she was sad or angling for something; or Miss Pillsbury's when she saw him and was pretty sure he'd brought a world of germs with him into her office of cleanliness. He stared and he blinked but it didn't change; nothing changed. Rachel was lying at the bottom of the stairs, one of her legs still propped up against the bottom step. There were scrapes along her long legs and he knew that she'd hate them; she'd argue that bruises were not attractive and her skirts didn't allow for covering them. She would be sore and she might have even cancelled her lessons that night. And screw Halo with the guys, if she opened her eyes right then, he'd give up gaming altogether. He'd fucking give his X-Box 360 to goodwill if she'd just look up at him and tell him she was okay.

She didn't.

There was blood, thick and a revolting red, and it had spread out around her head in a way that made him want to reach out and just shove it all back in. There was a fucking hole in his girlfriend's head. She was bleeding the fuck out and nobody was doing a fucking thing. He yelled at someone, at everyone, to call a fucking ambulance, and people stirred into action, but he wasn't watching, he wasn't tearing his eyes away from her for a second. Her eyes were closed, those long dark lashes of hers still against her pale cheeks. And he leaned in, trying to feel if she was breathing at first. She wasn't. His hands buried in her hair, sticky and warm, and not like the soft, shiny hair he was used to.

"Fuck," he breathed brokenly, his forehead falling to hers. "Wake up… Rachel, come on, shit… Open your fucking eyes, baby…" He spoke against her mouth, her lips unresponsive, and it was all wrong. Rachel was never unresponsive. She talked for fucking ever, she kissed until her mouth was bruised and swollen and her lungs burned from not stopping for breath. When she had his mouth close enough, she didn't let go and he needed that now, he needed her to kiss this the fuck better.

His shoulders slumped, fingers tangling her hair as he buried his eyes against her cheek. "Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease," he chanted. She'd have gasped at his manners any other time, playfully teasing him.

And then he prayed, to God or Jesus or fucking Buddha! Anybody out there in the fucking universe that could change this… and nothing happened. She wasn't breathing or moving or scraping her nails through his 'hawk like she did when she was trying to comfort him. She wasn't whispering against his ear that it was going to be okay, that she was fine. She just laid there. And he stared down at her, he stared and he wondered when the fuck it started raining… inside? And then he thought holy shit, he was fucking crying. He was crying and his tears were sliding down her face, dribbling down her cheeks and into her hair. And he'd only cried like five fucking times. When his dad left, the night Quinn called him a Lima Loser, the day he gave his baby away, when he got accepted to NYU to run away with this crazy fucking girl, and now… Now because his girl was dead, she was fucking… She was cold and dead and he literally had her blood on his fucking hands. It was warm and he was sure Pillsbury would've had a fucking heart attack if she saw them now.

And then he laughed, he laughed because it hurt so fucking much he thought the hand of fucking God just came down and ripped his motherfucking heart out of his chest and crushed it. His shoulders shook and his body vibrated and he laughed manically, crazily, and he always thought he was the sane one in the relationship and that only made him laugh harder and the tears wouldn't stop, they were spilling down his face so thickly that he couldn't even see anymore. She was blurry. She was just a dark blob with a red ring around her head and he fucking broke. His face fell to her stomach, to where he'd lay his head late at night when she didn't go home to her empty townhouse and eat her Chinese take-out, but instead she stayed with him and she snuck tofu into their dinner and she read Sarah a bedtime story and she cleaned up the house so when his ma got home she could just go to bed, and she crawled in next to him and she let him undress her and kiss her and fucking worship her body until they were both sweaty and satisfied and he'd made her curse like a damn sailor she was so high on bliss. But her stomach didn't lift and fall with each breath like it used to, her skin wasn't warm or damp with sweat beneath his cheek, and her fingers weren't lazily strumming through his 'hawk all affectionate like.

And so he screamed, loud and deep and like a wounded fucking animal that just wanted to fucking die already.

And nobody, not anywhere in that school, would ever forget the sound of utter anguish that escaped him.

../..

Everything after that was a blur; he was pretty sure he blacked out at some point and there were paramedics and they weren't even hurrying because it was just fucking over. And then he was at the hospital; he was waiting because they told him they had to call the Berry's. Leroy and Hiram, the dudes he'd spent a year having Wednesday night dinner with, convincing he was good enough for their daughter, that he would do anything to keep her happy. And so he sat in the waiting room and he stared at his hands. At his big hands that had Rachel's blood on them, dry and cracked and staining his fingernails. He sat and he stared and he didn't hear Finn when he sat next to him, he didn't hear anybody. Not until Leroy and Hiram Berry were there and they were frantic and they were crying and he was up and out of his chair and he was in front of them.

They looked hopeful at first and he wanted to gut himself because he was about to break them.

His eyes darted around and he hated that they were burning right then, that he was actually going to cry in front of these people. But he couldn't stop them when they dribbled out of his eyes. He wanted to wipe them away but his fucking hands had their daughter's blood on them. "I-I wasn't there. I wasn't there. I–I should've been. I'm sorry. I'm so…" And he shattered, there in front of his future fathers' in law and his best friend and the entire hospital, amongst whom was his own mother, not that he noticed. He fell to his knees when his legs gave way and he was crying so bad it physically hurt and he wanted to beg them to forgive him because he promised - he fucking promised - that he would take care of her! And now she was in the fucking morgue and she was never gonna dance again, she was never going to fucking sing, and it made him cry harder because he needed her fucking voice. He needed her in his ear, pestering him not to skip class; or to eat more than cookies for breakfast; or to stop kissing her neck while she was trying to study; or to sing to him in the truck, to all those shitty pop tunes; or- or- a million other fucking things that she'd never say again. And he already missed it, he missed how she'd tell him to stop swearing; it was uncouth. To stop looking up her skirt; it was rude. To stop trying to get her out of her skirt; they were in the kitchen and his sister was twenty feet away and within hearing distance. To keep touching her there; to keep kissing her; to hold her tighter; to sing louder; to remind him he was worth something; that she loved him, for everything he was and everything he wanted to be.

He just fucking needed her.

And even though they should be holding each other, should be mourning their loss, the daddies-Berry wrapped their arms around him and they told him it wasn't his fault, they didn't blame him. That "their little star" wouldn't want him to hurt so much. And he loved these guys, he fucking loved that they made Rachel Berry exactly who she was, with all her diva-tude (Kurt's word) and her crazy and her stomp-outs and her endless support and belief in him. He loved that they saw the Mohawk and they didn't run him off with a shotgun (which he happened to know they had), instead they trusted their daughter and they trusted him and they welcomed him into the Berry household and called him Noah and expected that he would do everything he put his mind to. The two of them were better than the one deadbeat dad he'd had and when she was twenty-five, he was gonna marry their daughter and make them permanent fucking family. And now that wouldn't happen. Now he was just a guy that dated their daughter before she fucking died.

And then he was in his mom's arms and they'd gone to identify the body or some shit, like it wasn't fucking obvious it was her. He was crying against his ma's lap and she was shushing him and stroking his head and rubbing his back and crying against his ear, "I'm so sorry, Noah… God, I'm so sorry… Baby…" She rocked him like he was four and she could still fit her arms around him and not an eighteen year old man that probably had a good eighty pounds on her. She held him like she knew he was broken and she just wanted to make it better. And he fell asleep there, he exhausted himself so much he didn't even feel it when Finn and Mike dragged his heavy ass out of the hospital and into his truck, driving him back to his place and dropping him in his bed.

He woke up in the middle of the night and smelled her on his pillow. Her shampoo and her body wash and just that natural scent of her was all over the right side of the bed even though most nights she stayed over she wound up sleeping half on top of him. And for a second, he forgot. He thought maybe she was in the bathroom or she stayed at home. He thought it was all a nightmare and he was gonna see her tomorrow morning, bright and early, with that incessantly chirpy smile of hers as she helped get Sarah off to school and told him he couldn't skip first period to nap in the nurse's office. But then he saw his hands again and her blood was still on them and his stomach rolled so quickly he almost didn't have time to get off his bed and into the bathroom. He was heaving painfully, his breakfast from that morning (cookies and one of her scrambled tofu wraps – shit's not as good as eggs, he didn't care about their fuckin' souls) emptying into the porcelain bowl quickly and without fail. For ten minutes, he just knelt there, waiting for his body to stop revolting. He was only throwing up air and stomach acid then and it fucking hurt.

But when he was done heaving he didn't leave; he sat back against the cold bathtub and stared out sightlessly. He could see her nightgown hanging off the bedpost in his room, his football gear crowding the floor beneath it. It was pink and lacey and so feminine in a room that was mostly male dominated but somehow it fit, somehow she always fit with him.

"Noah, your room is the epitome of a pig-sty!" she called out to him, stumbling over yet another article of football gear.

He glanced at her through the open bathroom door, his toothbrush hanging absently out of the corner of his mouth, and lifted a cocky eyebrow. "Yeah, I'll get the maid to clean it up later," he snarked, rolling his eyes.

"And since when are you incapable of cleaning up your own mess?" she wondered, hands on her hips. She tried to tap her toe but then screeched as it got tangled in a jockstrap.

He laughed so hard he choked on toothpaste.

Flushed and angry, she stomped out of the room and cast a disgusted glance back at it. "I absolutely refuse to participate in sexual relations until that room is pristine!" she told him bluntly.

He blinked at her. "So we get familiar with the couch… I'm game…" His brows rose suggestively. "Hey, backyard… Still on your 'not happening' list or…?"

She rolled her eyes, stomping her foot for effect before turning on her heel. "Get familiar with your hand, Puckerman!" She walked away, cursing him beneath her breath.

He lasted two hours. It was a Sunday, Sarah was at a friend's, his mom went out for a girl's night and wouldn't be home 'til late, and Rachel refused to have sex with him anywhere until his room was clean. He got on that shit, quick, and turned Sunday into the best 'sexual relations' she'd ever had. Until Monday, anyway. He was always getting better, she should reward him for fucking growing or some shit.

Without thinking it through, he pushed up from the bathroom floor and walked to his room. Like a robot on autopilot, he picked up clothes and garbage and gear as he went. For an hour and a half, he did nothing but clean the hell out of his room until she could've walked through it with her white fucking glove and not have found a speck of dust. Legit. He hung her animal sweaters in his closet, next to his jerseys; he stuffed the spare skirts she kept at his place into his dresser drawers next to his jeans. And then he grabbed her nightgown and he crawled into bed, not caring that the sun was starting to climb the sky. He held that pink frilly nightgown close enough that every breath was like inhaling her and he laid down on the left side of his bed and he prayed it was all one huge fucking nightmare.

It wasn't.

He didn't move from his bed until his mom told him it was time for the funeral and he was pretty sure he was only going because he couldn't disrespect her dads. His body was stiff and achy and he wasn't sure how long he stayed in that bed but he knew it'd been awhile; he had a scratchy face of whiskers to prove it. His eyes felt raw and dry and he took the quickest shower he'd ever had because when he got in all he saw was her berry-scented body wash and his tears were hotter than the fucking shower. His mom didn't say anything but he could tell there was a lot she wanted to say. Instead, she reached for him and he leaned away and then Sarah was crying and she was trying to hug him and he pushed her away too, maybe a little gentler, passing her on to his mom because he couldn't touch her; he couldn't comfort her; he could hardly even look at her.

The drive to the synagogue was slow, or maybe it was just him. He sat in the front seat, leaned against the window, and stared outside at the passing scenery. When they pulled up, there were cars everywhere and people were dressed in black and all talking to each other, some were even crying. He was numb to it. There was a voice in the back of his mind, angry and familiar, that told him these assholes didn't deserve to be there, they didn't deserve to cry for her or mourn her or talk about her like they knew her so well. Rachel Berry had him, her dads and Kurt Hummel. And depending on the day, yeah, the rest of the glee club too. But they were a finicky bunch that liked her one day and then disliked her when she was the very epitome of Rachel Berry, doing a storm out or demanding a solo or any other crazy Berry things that he loved about her. But at least they knew her; at least they had a reason to cry. All these other people, these unfamiliar faces and their weeping into handkerchiefs, if he didn't feel so empty he'd yell at them all to go fuck themselves.

His mom ushered him off with Leroy and Hiram and he found himself in the back room with Rabbi Greenberg, who was reciting, "Baruch atah Hashem Elokeinu melech haolam, dayan ha'emet," before he tore each of their shirts in recognition of their loss. He knew that technically he was only her boyfriend and not her spouse but neither Leroy nor Hiram corrected it and when he looked at them, they nodded, like they were telling him he was meant to be and that was enough. If he had any tears left, they'd be falling. After that, he didn't pay a whole lot of attention; he knew that Finn and the other gleeks were there in the synagogue, somewhere. He didn't look, he just knew. There were psalms but he didn't hear any of them, he just stared at the pine box that he knew she was lying in, wearing the virginal white tachrichim. He stared and he wondered what she would say or do if she were seeing this. Probably something like, "Good turn out, don't you think, Noah? And to think, this was before I'd even reached the level of fame I wanted to… Imagine how grandiose it would have been then!" And he wanted to shake her and tell her fuck that noise! Because there wasn't supposed to be any fucking funeral. Not ever. Rachel Berry was like fucking forever and that shit just didn't die.

His chest hurt; he was like ninety percent sure it was empty, but then it started hurting again.

His attention was drawn when Leroy stood before them, plucking his glasses from his face to rub the arch of his prominent nose; the same nose his daughter had been unfortunate enough to sport, a nose he'd kissed countless times when she was pouting over something or other. Wherever God was, he kind of wished he'd make his chest stop throbbing because this shit was not cool.

"Friends, family, I stand before you a broken man. I stand before you a father without a daughter…" Leroy paused when his voice caught and after a few tries to speak once more, he added, "I stand before you asking not for your grief or your pity but for your love and your support, because I have lost the girl who encouraged it more than anyone else before her…" He placed his glasses on once more and sighed. "Rachel was a beautiful girl. She was unique and intelligent and she spoke her mind whether you wanted to hear it or not…" He smiled briefly when a spatter of chuckles agreed. "She was loud and opinionated and she had dreams bigger than Lima itself… She sang with such passion and devotion that she inspired others." He paused, his eyes scanning, and Puck knew he was looking at the Glee club then. And then he looked back to Hiram and continued, "She smiled through the worst of times and cried at the best of times. She saw New York and vowed she would have it some day; she would own its stage and its people with her voice and her charisma and by sheer will… And I never doubted she would…" He smiled shakily. "Until the day that she stood up and she said 'No' and she died for it… She died so others wouldn't feel the sting of rejection or know hatred or bullying. She died standing up when she was expected to cower… And we stand here today to honor her… We gather here to value her life and all that she brought to ours… So I ask you, friends and family, to take this moment and ask yourself what she gave to you, what you will take away from this, and I give to you eighteen years of a beautiful girl with an open heart… Thank you."

As he stepped away, a crying Hiram gathered him in his arms and led him to the side.

A memorial prayer followed before Noah climbed the stairs with Rachel's favorite uncles Levi and Sol, her fathers, Mr. Shuester, Finn and Kurt, and together they lifted the plain pine casket from its place and began walking out of the synagogue, destination her grave. Behind them, he heard Psalm 23 recited in Hebrew, but remembered the English version in his mind.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; He guideth me in straight paths for His name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

As they stepped outside, the sun bloomed, a slight chill in the air. He could see the grave set up, waiting. He didn't look at any of them, avoiding a crying Finn on the other side of the casket and Mr. Shue's hand on his shoulder. He stopped the required seven times stoically, feeling outside of his body the entire time. Psalm 91 was recited as they walked, empty in his ears. Some part of him wanted to turn around and take her away from here. She didn't belong in the ground and he didn't want her there. But then they were standing above the hole and they were all lowering her into the grave and when he stood back, he saw Hiram silently crying against Leroy's head as he buried it in his partner's chest. He watched as people he knew and others he didn't walked past, picking up a handful of dirt to drop on top of the coffin. The rabbi repeated Psalm 91 and El Maleh Rachamim and Puck didn't hear a word of it. He just stared at the slab of cement that read her name, the imprint of a star encompassing it.

For the longest moment, there was emptiness; nothingness. Then there was a hand taking his, soft and cold, tiny even, and he looked to his left almost hopefully, but it was Kurt, not Rachel. And the much smaller boy was crying, a steady stream of tears sliding down his pale face. And Puck thought if it were any other moment he'd have teased his girlfriend's best friend mercilessly. But he didn't, he didn't say a damn word, and when Kurt turned and pressed his face against Puck's shoulder, he didn't shove him away or tell him he didn't swing that way or any of his many gay jokes that Kurt would've rolled his eyes at any other day. Instead he just stood there and he let him cry against him and hold his hand and he didn't even flinch when those too feminine fingers squeezed the rough palm of his hand, because if he closed his eyes tight enough it was Rachel's hand holding his, soft and small and that perfect fit.

Finally, everybody who wasn't family parted into two lines, and as Leroy and Hiram passed by to walk through, they grabbed Puck and brought him with them as the traditional condolences were recited in both English and Hebrew, the non-Jews stumbling a bit. "May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." They paused only to wash their hands before leaving the cemetery.

While he knew her dads were going to sit Shiva, Puck went home. His mom didn't ask questions; she saw him leaning back against the car, offered up apologies and drove him home. The emptiness was back again; hollow and thick andspreading. He briefly noticed that his ma had covered all the mirrors in the house before he climbed the stairs and locked himself away in his room. He gathered up her nightgown, laid down on his bed, and went right back to what he'd been doing before her funeral had interrupted. Stuck somewhere between wishing she was alive and wishing he was dead.

The latter sounded a fuck of a lot better.

Chapter Text

II.

He couldn't sleep forever. He tried to. He stopped checking the time, kept his curtains closed, and became one with his bed, like fused to it. When one side started to ache, he rolled over, and when that side hurt, he laid on his stomach, and then his back, and then repeat. When his eyes were open, he could see her. Everywhere. In everything. She was standing in front of his TV, telling him he should by studying, that Mario and his bizarre dinosaur friend could wait. She was sitting excitedly at the end of his bed, clapping for him as he played a song on his guitar, smiling all bright and big like he'd written a fucking platinum record or some shit. She was half-dressed, hands on her hips, wearing a tiny ass skirt and a bra and looking through all her sweaters like the decision was so damn important. They all had animals on them; what was the big deal? She was beneath him, her head thrown back, her neck covered in heart- and star-shaped hickeys, her fingernails biting his shoulders, her mouth open and wide and that noise of frustration and desire all mixed together as he moved between her thighs, too slow, teasing her. She was smiling. She was laughing. She was crying. Stomping. Glaring. Yelling. Dancing. Singing. Sleeping. Eating. Breathing.

He slammed his eyes closed and he breathed; deep, hard, in and out. And he smelled her; on her nightgown, on his pillowcase, on his sheets and his blanket. But it was comforting; it was almost real.

He fell somewhere between asleep and awake; drifting.

When he opened his eyes, he couldn't know if it was real or not. Maybe he finally lost his mind. But she was there; she was lying right next to him, her hair all soft and spread out against his pillow. She smiled at him. "Hey, sleepyhead…"

He reached out and touched her and fuck but she felt real, felt alive. His hand cupped her cheek, fingers brushing her hair back, behind her ear. "Rachel…" he choked.

"You always call me Berry…" Her eyes rolled a little. "Berry-Babe… Jew-Jew-B… Your hot little Jewish American princess…" She raised a brow. "What's so different now?"

He shook his head, his throat tight, burning and hollow.

She stroked the side of his face. "You look terribly sad, Noah…"

"The fuck d'you think… You fucking died…" He blinked back the tears quickly. "You left me."

She rolled closer, her hand sliding down to cup his neck. "I'll never leave you… You remember, don't you? I promised." Her eyes were wide and serious. "We're going to take over New York, aren't we Noah?"

He buried a hand in her hair, squeezing tightly, and nodded. "Yeah, babe. We'll own that shit."

"We'll probably have to live in less than ideal apartments for awhile… You'll be in college and I'll still be making a name for myself." She shook her head dismissively. "But then I'll find that breakout role and you'll manage that music club you want to and we'll live in a beautiful penthouse..." Her eyes glittered with excitement. "And when we're older and we're married and we're ready for kids, we'll get a brownstone…" She traced the shell of his ear with her thumb. "We'll have it all." She leaned her face in and bumped their noses. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you, Noah Puckerman…"

Tears clouded his eyes. "You did."

She smiled. "Was it beautiful? Our time together?"

"S'fuckin' epic."

She hooked her leg over his hip and dragged her fingers down the back of his 'hawk. "Will you sing to me, Noah?"

"Forever," he promised.

She brightened hopefully. "Sweet Caroline?"

He nodded jerkily. "Whatever you want."

Her nails lightly scratched the nape of his neck and she started it for him, "Where it began…"

He swallowed tightly. "I can't begin to know when… But then I know it's growing strong…"

She hummed along with him and his eyes drifted closed as he sang, her fingers so soothing.

When he opened them, she was gone, and he was clutching a nightgown, in a cold, empty bed.

He rolled over, closed his eyes, and wished for it all to come back again; for her to come back again.

../..

His mother let him stay home one week. She didn't bother him except when she brought in food and asked if he wanted to talk. He only ate when his stomach started cramping and he ignored her hopeful expression when she wanted him to start sharing feelings. So what if Rachel had woken up his inner pussy when they were dating? Wasn't like he was going to be a bitch about it now. She had to drag it out of him most of the time anyway and she was the only one who got through to him, so he wasn't sure why his mom suddenly thought he'd just spill his fucking guts. So he ignored her, rolling over most of the time, dismissing her and all her 'You can always talk to me, Noah.' And he flinched, 'cause just like when he was a kid and his dad cut and ran, hearing the name Noah physically hurt.

After seven days, she came back into his room looking determined. Her chin was set and her brow furrowed and for a second he thought it reminded him of when her and Rachel decided he needed to play his guitar at the JCC for some musical appreciation thing for kids and he told them 'shit no,' and laughed. They got together, made a plan, and then blitzed him and through a whole lot of nagging and some holding out on Rachel's part, he ended up spending a whole weekend at the JCC with a bunch of snot-nosed kids. Who weren't all bad, he guessed, since they totally liked his Zeppelin. But then, looking at his mom and not seeing the spitfire next to her, his amusement faded, replaced with anger.

He tried to turn over again, away from her.

"No." She swallowed tightly and for a second, she seemed to doubt herself, but then she took a step closer. "You need to go to school."

He didn't answer.

"Noah—"

He winced.

"You have tests and you need to study, you— You need to get back into the swing of things, so you'll be ready. So—So you'll graduate…" She stared at him searchingly. "I know it hurts, baby." She reached for him, her hand resting on his arm. "I know how hard this is… How sad you are… But bubbala, you can't throw away your life, not now, not when you've worked so hard!" She reached her fingers out and stroked his face, pushing her hand back over his hair and he closed his eyes, because he needed this, he needed to feel like somebody cared, like he had somebody who really, honestly wanted the best for him. But then she said, "She wouldn't want you to do this, No'."

And suddenly he pulled away, his eyes open, narrowed, staring at her darkly. "She wouldn't want to be dead," he spat, his voice hoarse and thick, croaky from not being used. "But she is, so she's not here to tell me to get my shit together, is she?" His jaw ticked.

She looked down, licking her lips and sighing. "That's not what I meant… I only meant that Rachel loved you and she wanted something better for you. She wouldn't want her death to hinder you—"

He laughed bitterly. Shoving up from his bed to sit, his hand still curled around her nightgown and his wrinkled clothes still the same he'd worn a week earlier to her funeral. "'Cause I'll bounce back next week, right?"

She shook her head. "There's no set date to when you'll feel better, Noah… Grief, it…" She wrung her hands, twisting her fingers as she searched for the words to comfort him. "It can cripple you, if you let it."

"Let it?" His brows furrowed. His chest started heaving with each breath he took, deep but empty somehow. Like it wasn't filling his lungs right; like he was suffocating. "You don't know how this feels…" he muttered, shaking his head.

"Noah, I—"

"He left you," he spat, glaring up at her. "Dad left you. He had a choice and he fucking ran…" Distantly, the hurt on her face made him feel bad. But there was this anger now, chewing at him, eating at his guts. It flowed freely, deeply, like a heat over his skin. He remembered this feeling. He remembered it when he jacked the ATM. When he kicked the ever loving shit out of Azimio for calling his mom a MILF in eighth grade. When Jessie and his band of fuckheads egged Rachel. He remembered it when his dad ditched and he wasn't Noah, but Puck. When it all started; when being a badass became everything. It was what made slusheeing losers okay; what made throwing kids in dumpsters funny. Only this anger was darker, edged, and it wasn't about him, not entirely. He was hurt and alone and he was pissed and sad, but this anger was about Rachel. About Rachel being gone, about Rachel dying before she got everything she wanted, about all the dreams and the life and everything they worked for going down the fucking drain because some dickwad didn't like that she'd called him on his shit.

This anger made everything else pale in comparison. And he ate it up, he enjoyed it, 'cause for the first time since she died he didn't feel like the hole in his chest was going to swallow him up.

Mouth wobbling, his ma finally looked up at him, her eyes red-rimmed and a few tears at the corners but not willing to fall. "Maybe he did… But a part of me died… My life died…" She shook her head. "And I grieved for your father, Noah. For our marriage and the end of our family and how it was it was supposed to be…" Her hands fisted in her lap. "So maybe I don't know what it's like to have someone I love truly die, but—"

"There's no fucking buts," he interrupted harshly, his teeth grit. "One second she's texting me she's gonna see me in a few and the next she's lying at the bottom of the stairs bleeding from her fucking head, so you don't get to tell me that you get it or that I gotta get over it or any other uplifting fucking bullshit."

Taking a deep breath, she lifted her chin. "You're angry and you're sad and you're a million other things and fine, if you don't want me to understand, then fine…" She stared at him. "But I won't let you throw your life away. I won't let you destroy all the good things you've done this last year." She reached for him, her shoulders slumping when he pulled away before she could touch him. And her breath left her, deflated, but she looked at him like it didn't change anything. "I won't let you." She stood then, and turned toward the door. "You're going to school, N—" She paused, rethinking it. "Puck," she corrected. "I'll drive you there myself if I have to." She walked out of the room, closing the door behind her.

He leaned back against his bed and stared at the door a long while. Some part of him figured he'd just roll over and go to sleep. At least when he was sleeping it didn't hurt as much. He drifted, in and out, half in a memory, half in a dream state of his making. His skin felt stiff; like every part of his body was overused, stretched.

Like the Tinman before he's been oiled, Rachel's voice interrupted his thoughts. He was my favorite, you remember… Because even while he and everyone assumed he had no heart, he always did… Perhaps the biggest heart of them all… Like you, Noah.

His jaw ticked and he shoved up from his bed. His steps were sluggish, his knees a little weak, and his back hurt as he stood upright. His joints ached, like he was some seventy year old geriatric patient. He yanked open his closet and stared at all the clothes stuffed in together. He grabbed out a dark hoodie; the one hanging next to her sweater with all the rabbits on it. He stalked to his dresser and dug around for underwear, socks and a pair of jeans. He found her pink plaid skirt, a pair of her panties with stars on them, and one of her earrings. Like it fell in off the top or something, and he wondered where the other half was. She kept all her jewelry shit in a box, right next to his Super Nintendo; he always thought it looked weird, like opposites. It was one of those velvet boxes that earrings or whatever came in, but she took out the plastic inset so she could put a bunch of bracelets and studs inside. He opened it, dropping her earring inside, even though he knew she'd never wear them again. And then he just held the box awhile; the fabric scratchy on his palm.

The tears burned; they always did. But now he was angry at them for being there; for always stinging his eyes, waiting to fall. A year ago, he was a stud and he didn't cry about anything. And now… It was like he couldn't stop. It was the box. It was red, but the one he'd had was black. The one he'd saved up for, months of washing dishes at BreadstiX, of shoveling snow and doing odd jobs around the neighborhood. Until one day, he could afford it. This tiny little ring with one diamond on the top; nothing special really. Only it was his promise; that one day they'd make it. Not just in New York or whatever, but with each other. He remembered thinking it was stupid at the time, 'cause how was some piece of junk ring supposed to convince her to stay with his dumb ass? But she'd taken it and she'd cried and she'd told him it was beautiful and she was proud to wear his ring; that she was proud of him in general.

He tossed the box down on the dresser, turned, and left. He showered quickly; avoided looking at her shampoos and shit, instead just soaping up, rinsing off and jumping out. He didn't shave, didn't check the 'hawk; he grabbed a toothbrush and scrubbed away a week's worth of half-eaten sandwiches and cold soup. He got dressed, grabbed his keys and he went downstairs. He didn't check in with his mom, not for the lunch she probably made or the reassurance she was itching to hand out. He stuck his shoes on and walked out the front door, climbing in his beat-up old truck and pulling it out of the driveway without even checking for oncoming traffic.

He didn't go to school right away. Hell, he didn't even know what time it was. He drove around instead, no real destination in mind. They used to do this; she'd fiddle with his radio, checking out every damn station, before eventually just going back to the one he had it on in the first place. She'd bounce happily in the passenger seat, sometimes singing along to the lyrics, other times talking, endlessly, about whatever came to mind; New York, school, glee, the Tony's, whatever. And sometimes she'd just stare out the window, at Lima as it passed by, and she'd ask him if he'd miss it; if there was anything about this hick town he'd want to take with him. And he'd take her hand, her little midget fingers threading with his, and he'd tell her, 'It's coming with me.' Because she was it, she was all he wanted; and really, he was tagging after her. She was going to New York and he was hitching a ride on the Berry Express. Sure it was his truck, but whatever. And yeah, he'd helped her figure out the road-trip, using a red felt to draw it along the giant ass map she bought. And true he'd worked his ass off not only to graduate but to get into a good college. But it never stopped him from thinking that if it wasn't for her, if Rachel hadn't agreed to date him, that he'd have stayed stuck in Lima the rest of his life. And she told him he was wrong; she squawked and bitched that he didn't see all the potential he had but she sure as fuck did. But that was his point; she saw it when nobody else had, when even he hadn't, and that was why he was going somewhere, that was why he was getting out of Lima.

He drove past her house; saw the daddies-Berry cars were in the drive, one of them her red Prius that she stopped driving when he started picking her up for everything.

"It saves gas, I suppose… Even if this ridiculous old truck is probably a gas-guzzling fossil…" she said, sighing as she took in the rusted and chipped blue paint, daintily running a finger over the bed.

He'd glared at her, offended. "Never put down the truck, Berry… She's my baby…" He stared at her seriously. "You know how many pools I had to clean to buy her?"

She raised a brow. "Firstly… Your truck is not female; so referring to it as if it were not only animated, but like it has a gender is preposterous…" She clucked her tongue. "And secondly…" She tapped her foot. "Do we really need to discuss your 'pool cleaning business' and what it really offered you?"

He smirked lazily. "Okay, so usually, yeah, I mean the cougars I banged… But for the truck, I actually did some real work…" His brows rose. "Legit. My baby's paid for in full from a summer of hard ass work. Real blood, sweat, and tears went into her!"

She smiled slowly. "Well… I suppose that does encourage some pride and respect in me for your inanimate vehicle…" She nodded. "All right, well, daddy's been saying he needs a car of his own anyway. I'm sure he'd rather use my Prius than take the city bus or save up for a new car. It's cost-effective and better for the environment."

"Whatever babe, I just think it's funny you have to jump to get in."

She rolled her eyes. "Ever the chivalrous beau, aren't you Noah?"

He leered at her. "Wanna steam up the windows of your new ride, Berry?"

She pursed her lips, looking from him to his truck. "Won't she be offended?"

He chuckled, grabbed her hand, and dragged her to his open driver door. Hands on her hips, he lifted her up and inside. "She's my wingman, babe; she lives for this shit."

"You're ridiculous."

"You're hot."

He considered going inside. They probably just got back from shiva though; it took seven days after all… He wondered ifthat was why his ma let him sit out a week of school. Shiva was reserved for first-degree relatives; parents, siblings, and husband or wives. Maybe the ring he got her meant more to other people than he thought; maybe they really did think he could land a chick like Rachel for good. He couldn't imagine why; half the time, he was a little surprised she stuck around and dealt with his shit. He wasn't exactly the nicest dude around, even if he'd been getting better. Glee was good for him; even his mom said so. Even before he got with Rachel, he'd been working on his anger shit. On not taking it out on kids he didn't even know. And since the whole porta-potty thing, he'd really been trying to be a better person. It was one of the reasons he and Rachel started the whole friendship thing. And yeah, okay, it lasted like a month before he told her they had to figure shit out, 'cause he couldn't not want her. He'd pretty much always wanted her.

First, because he was a dude and she had a set of pins on her that were like crazy awesome. Then because they dated for like five days junior year and yeah, okay, she dumped him and he had to deal with a knocked up Quinn, but their make-out sessions were insanely hot. And they kept their distance after that, but something changed. 'Cause he was still pretty sure God wanted him to get with Berry, only he'd started wondering if it was more long-term than he'd expected. Only she was with Finn and he'd fucked up and ended up in Juvie. Apparently it was a lot harder than he expected to give up a baby he hardly knew. But he got his shit back together and he was being a better man than before, except for that one screw up where he made out with Rachel and almost took her v-card to get back at Finn. But he totally walked away from the offer, even if he really, really didn't want to. And then she was really freed up and Finn had his eye back on Quinn, so he made his move. Friendship first, then relationship, then… Then he went and fell like head over ass in love with her.

He parked his truck on the side of the road, next to the Berry's front lawn, and he stared at the house he'd spent the last year visiting. He knew the exact time her dads fell asleep so he could climb her trellis and in her bedroom. He knew the third stair squeaked, so when he was sneaking downstairs for something to drink or eat, he avoided it so her dads didn't come out with baseball bats and try and brain him to like, save their precious daughter from some rapist/robber. He only made that mistake once and dude, hanging around a couple of half-naked gay dudes while in his underwear totally wasn't the best night of his life. He was pretty sure Leroy actually considered still using the bat, maybe just to knock some sense into him. But they liked him enough, and Rachel loved him, so they just told him to be more careful, and they probably meant that in more than one way.

When he looked up, he saw him.

Hiram. The tall, quiet, black one she always called Daddy and who she had wrapped around her finger from day one.

He was standing in the window of her bedroom, overlooking the lawn. They stared at each other along moment, and then he raised a hand and Puck nodded back and Hiram turned and left. And he didn't know what it meant; maybe just silent, nameless recognition of their loss. If Rachel was there, she'd dissect it. She'd make a fucking PowerPoint presentation about body language and shit. All he knew was that she wasn't there and he felt the emptiness like a punch to the gut; only that breathless, achy pain just wouldn't go away.

Puck put the truck in drive and pulled away, taking off down the street, a little slower than before. He eventually made it to school, after passing the 7-Eleven where he used to grab her grape slushees and the dance studio he took her to twice a week. He pulled into the parking lot and stuck it in park. He sat there awhile, figuring classes had already started since the lot was full and just about nobody was outside. It was quiet, like eerily silent. It was weird, 'cause he'd spent the last seven months or so getting to school on time, going to all his classes, even doing his homework. He pushed the door open and climbed out, pausing when he automatically reached toward the bed of his truck. He usually had to grab her trolley bag; this pink monstrosity that she always told him he didn't have to hold, and thank fuck, 'cause he thought one of his balls might actually shrivel up if he did have to. But he always had to get it out of the back 'cause she was short as fuck, even with those crazy long legs. The back end was empty though and for the first time ever, he really wanted to see pink fabric and black plastic.

He pulled his arm back, fingers curling into a fist, and walked toward the school; a bell rang just as he opened the door and suddenly classes were letting out and kids were crowding the halls. His teeth clenched as he walked, his head ducked a little, eyes avoiding them. Whispers started, along with the pointing and staring. Some of them started texting, their eyes darting from their phones to him, and he just knew that it was all over school. He walked a little faster, glaring at anybody who got in his way. They gave him a wide berth, moving quickly so he had a straight line in front of him. A couple years ago, he'd have smirked; fuck yeah, he was just cool enough to get this kind of reaction. But this had nothing to do with his status or how much of a stud he was. This was because they all saw his girlfriend dead on the ground; because they'd seen him break over it; because they were all wondering what the fuck he was going to do now. If he'd lose his shit or shrug it off or what.

He decided he wouldn't give them anything; he wouldn't talk or listen or acknowledge any of their bullshit. And he sure as hell wouldn't cry.

He was almost to his locker when he saw it.

Hers.

And her picture was on it, with all these star stickers all around it. And flowers and teddy bears and it was like a fucking shrine for her.

He was going to keep walking, ignore it. But his books and his backpack and all his shit was in there, 'cause it had been like midway between his classes that day and he'd stuffed it in there at lunch before going to see Miss. Pillsbury. He ground his teeth and finally walked over, his steps a little shaky, before finally he reached for the comm. and took a deep breath. He tried not to look at her picture, at the smiling face of her staring out from the locker door. But when the comm. unlocked, he looked up and he was face to face with her and his eyes got stuck; like he couldn't not look. With her giant smile, rows of white teeth and full lips stretched wide. With her eyes, big and brown, and these long dark lashes she liked to bat at him all coyly when she wanted something – You got something in your eye, baby? He laughed. She frowned at him, disgruntled, No-ah! And her hair, all shiny and dark, and falling down her shoulders in waves. He wanted to touch her; the real her. He wanted her to smile her real smile, not the big fake stage one; he wanted her to bat her eyes and he'd give her whatever the fuck she wanted; he wanted to wrap his fingers in her hair, tug on it a little, drag her closer.

But it was a picture and not even a good one. The good ones were the ones she wasn't expecting; like at the BBQ last month, where she was sitting in his lap, laughing at something Kurt said. Or the one Artie snapped of them when they were practicing some dance routine for glee and she had her head thrown back against his shoulder, their hands together, while she smiled up at him all soft like. Or all the pictures Kurt liked to take when it was just him and the girls, Rachel and Mercedes, and they were shopping or gossiping or whatever the fuck they did. The ones where she wasn't stage-Rachel, Broadway star, but the teenage girl, who yeah, had a shitload of dreams, but also just wanted friends and family and her boyfriend around to share her life with.

He shoved the locker door open hard, hearing it clang as it hit the locker next to it. He took a deep breath, 'cause his chest hurt like a motherfucker and he was blinking like crazy, his eyes burning. There were two shelves in her locker; one she used to keep her lunch and make-up on and the other was packed with her books. She cleaned out the top shelf so he could put his shit inside when he needed to.

"It's rather domestic, don't you think?" she asked, smiling at him.

He snorted, grabbing out his math book. "Babe, I'm just glad I don't have to walk an extra two hallways to get my shit."

She rolled her eyes. "Language," she chastised. "And I think it's nice… Us sharing space together."

"It's a locker…" His brows furrowed. "You wanna talk space, let's talk about my closet… It's like Mr. Roger's Neighborhood threw up all his sweaters and you knit animals on them and then stuck 'em all up in next to my jerseys and shit."

Clucking her tongue, she sighed. "You offered your space when I mentioned dad and daddy were working particularly hard lately and I'd been spending and inordinate amount of time alone… I don't know why you're surprised that my clothes would need to be hung up and that your closet would be the most likely place for that to occur."

He arched a brow at her. "Okay, first, your whole sales pitch on the daddies-Berry being gone said like two things to me. One, you were scared to be home alone and you needed your man to keep you safe and two, I get to have my hot girlfriend up in my bed every night. The fuck would I mess with a good thing?"

She legit stomped her foot. "Then why are you complaining about the space used to house my sweaters?"

"I'm not complaining," he grumbled. "'m saying that this whole locker thing and you being all excited about it is crazy. We share a closet… And a bed… And I'm pretty sure you're tiny ass skirts infiltrated my dresser, 'cause when I went for a pair of jeans this morning I found that hot little red number…" He smirked, reminiscing. "You should wear that soon… I always see panty when you walk."

Her eyes rolled and she shook her head. "Somehow, for someone who likes 'going with the flow,' you make things very complicated."

"I make shit complicated," he laughed incredulously. "Babe, just, don't even get me started…"

She pursed her lips at him. "I've decided your things are going on the second shelf," she told him, glaring. "It's smaller." She snapped her locker closed and started walking away, her hips swaying sharply in her anger.

He watched after her for a few long seconds, and after he caught a peak at her panties, he decided to give chase. "C'mon, babe…"

They'd make up by lunch, like usual. And he sure as fuck got the top shelf; he needed space.

He grabbed out his backpack, hanging there just above her trolley bag, and stuck all his books and shit inside. There was no way he could come back and go through all this shit the rest of the afternoon. It was all too Rachel; with the mirror and the star stickers and the To-Do List. She had pictures of them pasted on the door, right next to the totally clichéd photo-booth strip she had of her and the daddies-Berry. And they were all smiles and laughter and kissing for the camera and it fucking hurt to look at it. Like he was staring at a different time; a different him. He hooked his bag over his shoulder but for a second, all he could think was the top shelf was empty and his stuff was supposed to be there; that was his space. But then his eyes caught on the white cardigan hanging inside and it was stained red. His first thought was of her lying at the end of the stairs, skull cracked open, and the blood, god, it was everywhere. He reached out and touched the arm; it was so soft and light and it slipped off the hanger and into his hand, weightless. He rubbed his thumb along the fabric and realized it was slushee; cherry. His hand tightened, fisted, and his heart started hammering in his chest. The anger was back; rage, viciously pouring through his veins, white hot. And all he wanted to do was hit someone or break something or fuck whatever up beyond recognition.

So he punched the locker next to hers, felt the metal collapse beneath his fist. And for a second, he felt okay. He could breathe. But it didn't last long.

There were whispers and the clicking of camera phones taking pictures. And he wanted to snap at them; tell them to fuck off and mind their own damn business. Like he didn't have enough shit to deal with.

But the bell rang then and people started making their way back to class. Soon enough he was just standing in an empty hallway, holding a tiny white sweater with a bright red stain on it. He stuffed it in his backpack, locked her locker, turned and left.

He could've left the school, even turned toward the nearest exit, but then her voice was there again…

After all the work you've put into this? After all our homework sessions? Our studying and cue cards? You're going to throw it all away?

He grit his teeth and came to a stop. He stared at the bright red EXIT sign and then looked over toward his Spanish class. He was already late, but it was Mr. Shue. And maybe that was one of the reasons he didn't want to go. 'Cause Mike, Finn and Sam were in there too. He hadn't seen any of them since the funeral, even if his ma said Finn had dropped by a few times, just parked in his driveway, for hours. Taking a deep breath, he threw his head back and closed his eyes. If he didn't go to class, he didn't know what he'd do. But it was nothing good.

Your grades in Spanish have vastly approved, Noah. I hope you'll keep up with the curriculum. I'm sure if you asked, Mr. Shuester would explain anything you're having trouble with.

"I don't wanna talk to him," he said to an empty hallway.

You can always talk to me… Whenever you'd like, I'll listen. And I promise, on my signed Babs memorabilia, I will keep all your secrets.

He snorted. "'m fuckin' crazy," he muttered.

But he turned and he walked into that classroom, aware everybody was staring at him. He glanced up, around the room, saw all the eyes, heard the whispers. Even Shue was looking at him with wide eyes. His lips pursed, jaw ticked, and he walked quickly to the open seat next to Sam, shrugging his backpack off and dropping it to the floor next to his feet. He pulled out his binder and book and he hunched over his desk, waiting for the day to just fucking end already.

"O-Okay, class," Shue clapped his hands. "Eyes on your books. Let's try sounding that last bit out again. Repeat after me…"

Class stretched; the hour seemed to go on forever. He couldn't focus; the words all seemed to jumble and blur together. He had to re-read everything two or three times before it registered. He was uncomfortable; he could feel them all looking at him. When the bell finally rang, he jumped out of his chair, grabbing his shit and hurrying to leave.

"Puck!" Shue called out, dragging him back. "Can you stay behind, please?"

Everybody else pushed past him out the door. Shoulders hunched, he turned around and walked back, staring at the floor.

Shue sat at the edge of his desk, staring up and trying to get Puck to look at him. "How… I mean…" He sighed. "I don't know what kind of etiquette there is to this, Puck…" He peered at him searchingly. "I know things must be difficult. I-I know the other glee kids have been withdrawn and upset about this. I can't…" He shook his head. "I can't begin to know how you're feeling and I won't pretend I do…"

He sighed, grinding his teeth. "Can I go?"

He frowned sadly. "Look… I really think, especially now that you're back at school, that you need to be around people who understand, who knew her like you did…" He stood, reaching out and gripping Puck's shoulder tight. "Will you come by the choir room after school? There's… Principal Figgins has arranged for a memorial assembly later this week… The kids are working on a song." He gave his shoulder a squeeze. "I think it might really help if you sang about it…"

He rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "There a song I don't know about that brings people back to life?" he sneered. "'Cause if you think singing out my pain is gonna fix this shit, it won't."

"I just meant—"

"No, look…" He looked up at him, pinning him with his dark stare. "You lost a student. You lost your win to Nationals or what the fuck ever." He shrugged a shoulder. "I lost the girl I was gonna marry, so I really don't think there's a song anywhere that's gonna make me feel better." He hooked his thumbs in the strap of his backpack and took a step back. "We done? 'Cause I just realized I really don't wanna be at school today."

His face fell. "Puck—"

Turning on his heel, he left, walking quickly from the room.

He didn't go to his next class.

He walked right out the door, through the parking lot, and hopped in his truck. He hit the liquor store and grabbed a couple bottles of Jack and Jose, flashed his fake ID and walked out with the beginnings of an alcohol problem. He spent the rest of the day holed up in his truck, parked next to the lake, on a buzz that just barely took the edge off everything. But his skin was crawling; his whole fucking body felt wrong. He felt stuck and off and like he needed to do something to work it all off. When it got to be too much, he started punching the steering wheel and then he shoved out of his truck and he tossed the empty tequila bottle as far as it would go, happy when it crashed and splintered, glass shattering in the distance. And then he grabbed the tire iron out of the back of his track and he beat the shit out of a tree until his arms hurt and his hands felt raw and he fell to his knees in the dirt. He leaned against the tree, his head falling back, and he screamed, "Fuck!" to anybody who was listening, to nobody.

And when she didn't chastise him for his bad language, it only hurt worse.

He would drink a lot in the next few days. When he got home later that night, he was pissed drunk and stumbling up the stairs. His mother took one look at him, sighed, and walked away. He kicked his door shut and silently told her to go fuck herself. When he crawled into bed, he hugged her nightgown close, buried his face in it and apologized for smelling like a bar. She hated it when he drank. He loved it when he got her tipsy.

She was throwing another party; same place, same people, different couples, and no fugly green dress.

Rachel hiccupped, peering up at him through narrowed eyes. "You got me drunk!" Her expression widened. "As a skunk!"

He grinned, amused. "Babe, you got yourself drunk… I just supplied the goods." He quirked a brow. "Your dads should seriously think about a better lock for that liquor cabinet."

She giggled, leaning back into his chest. "You're so cunning, Noah. Even when –hic- you're breaking the law. Which, by the way, I find completely attractive while simul –hic- taneously feeling very fearful for your future. Having a blemish on your –hic– record now would look so bad!" Her eyes widened. "And when you've been doing so, so –hic- good!"

"Rach, we're in your basement… You call the cops when I wasn't looking?"

Her brows furrowed as she looked away, like she was actually wondering if maybe she did. "I don't… think so."

He snorted. "Okay, then I really don't think we're getting arrested tonight."

"That's –hic- good," she murmured, closing her eyes and resting her face in the crook of his neck. "You smell amazing!"

He took a drag off his beer. "You're a horny drunk."

She licked his neck slowly. "Am not."

He growled, his arm tightening around her waist. "Rach," he said warningly.

She nuzzled her nose into his Adam's apple. "No-ah!" she sighed, wiggling in his lap. "I feel so—so—hot!" She sat up suddenly and started pulling at her top - a flimsy piece of fabric that Hummel probably stuck her in – and it wasn't long before she had it up and over her head. And suddenly he had his girlfriend in his lap wearing a skirt and a pink demi-cup bra, which she was reaching to pull off next.

"Whoa!" He slapped her hands away. "There are other dudes here! You're not showin' 'em your berries!"

"Ugh!" She pushed her back against his chest. "It's so warm in here!" She shoved at her skirt, hooking it and her panties at her hips with her thumbs.

"Jesus Christ," he muttered, pulling her hands back.

"Don't stop her!" Santana yelled. "Shit's starting to get good!"

"Fuck off, Satan!" He stood up then, tossing Rachel over his shoulder.

"Aw, come on!" she complained. "Share with your fellow gleeks, Puck!"

He fingered her while walking to the stairs.

"You have a wonderful butt, Noah," Rachel told him, patting his ass. "I like it almost as much as your arms, which are lovely."

He rolled his eyes. "Thanks babe."

"But not half as much as your penis."

He almost tripped on the stairs.

"Oh my god, somebody record this," Santana crowed.

Sighing, he hurried up the stairs. And 'cause God was a mean, teasing sonuvabitch, Rachel fell asleep on the way to her bedroom.

Tonight was not that kind of drinking; playful and for fun. Tonight he drank to forget all that good shit; to forget everything. Tonight would be one of many just like it.

../..

The next morning, he downed a couple beers before he walked into school. He didn't talk to anybody, not even the teachers, and he kept his backpack on him. Half because it had his books and he didn't feel like looking for a locker he hadn't used in like a year and half because he had a bottle of Jack Daniels for when the day got too hard. At least when his head was fuzzy his chest didn't hurt so much. It was all distant. Like he knew it was there but he didn't have to feel it. So he got through a whole day of school and then another. And yeah, he wasn't getting any work done; didn't even know what the fuck was going on in his classes, but he was there

By day three, the gleeks swarmed. He didn't know how, since Kurt was still supposed to be atDalton, but he was hanging with the crowd too.

He could see them at the end of the hall, the guys on one side and the girls on the other. If they thought this was a trap, they didn't watch enough ninja movies. 'Cause them ambushing him was a fucking joke.

Finn stepped forward first, being all leader-like and shit. "Puck, we—"

"Fuck off," he interrupted.

He was so surprised he actually shut up.

Mike tried next, moving to stand right in front of him, blocking his way but walking backwards as he stalked forward. "Dude, we know things are bad, but—"

He glared down at him darkly. "Move."

And because Mike didn't want to get killed, he did.

Mercedes stepped up, putting a hand to his chest, forcing him to stop. "Look White-Boy, you can push us away all you want, but we're not going anywhere, so just…" She softened, sighing. "Let us help you."

"We loved her too," Tina murmured, rubbing Kurt's shoulder.

And for the first time since the funeral, Puck really looked at Hummel. He was paler than usual, which was insane since he was practically translucent to begin with. And his eyes were red-rimmed and blood shot. He looked frail and lost and Puck knew Rachel would tell him to be nice, to make him feel better, to do something

But he was a little drunk and really fucked up, so instead he said, "Yeah, you all loved her so damn much when she was alive that her only real friend was Beyonce… It only took her braining it on the stairs for you guys to care." He sneered at their expressions. "You wanna hug and sing about how fucking hurt you are, 'm sure you can band together and really work the crowd. But leave me the fuck out of it." He started walking then, shoulder slamming into Finn so hard he stumbled out of the way.

"You can drink until your liver fails, Noah Puckerman, but Rachel is always going to be a part of you; the only good part you have left," Kurt snapped after him. "So when you're ready to mourn her, you call me. Until then… Good luck with slowly turning into your deadbeat father!"

He stopped, the words hitting him hard in the chest. And his breath stuttered, every muscle in his body tightening until it hurt. When he turned around, Hummel was staring at him, crying, holding some silk handkerchief in his hand. And when Puck stomped back toward him, he had to give him credit for only flinching and not running.

The others gasped a little. Finn even reached out to grab his step-brother's shoulder, like he was going to pull him back, hide him. But Kurt stayed, staring up at him defiantly, even as his chest heaved in fear.

"You gotta lot of fucking balls saying that shit to me, Hummel."

He swallowed tightly. "You're thickheaded… Rachel always said she had to say the worst things so she could make sure you'd hear the best thing…" He stared at him, mouth shaking. "I loved her. Maybe not in the same way you did." His nose wrinkled. "Definitely not in the same way you did." He cracked a slight smile. "But she was my best friend and… And sheloved you… So no…" He lifted his chin. "I won't watch you destroy the good person you were becoming with her… Because that's just like spitting on everything you had together."

His jaw ticked as everybody collectively held their breaths. "The fuck do you guys want?"

He looked relieved, like he'd made a breakthrough. Fuck that!

"Sing with us."

He rolled his eyes.

"No, really… It… It helps, I promise…" He reached out, touching his arm. "Lunch, today… You can sing whatever you want, whatever you're feeling, no judgment…"

He cocked a brow. "You're gonna clap for Metallica, Hummel? Slipknot?"

His mouth screwed up despite the way he tried to stop it. "If that's what you need to sing to help you, then… Sure."

He snorted.

Kurt's hand squeezed his arm. "But you'll come. Right?"

He glared at some spot over his shoulder. "Doesn't change anything."

His eyes fell. "I keep… I keep thinking about the last time I talked to her." He shook his head. "Not through text, but… But an actual conversation…" He smiled shakily. "It was about those sweaters again…" He laughed, his breath hitching. He blinked quickly as tears clouded his eyes. "They're so ugly," he sniffled. "And now… Now I just wish I could see one, any one of them, even that hideous horse sweater of hers… Just one more time."

Puck remembered the closetful he had at home and nodded, his teeth clenched tight. "Lunch. Choir room." He turned and left, stalking away without waiting for a reply.

But he could hear them behind him, moving quickly to surround Kurt.

"I thought he was going to hit you…" Finn admitted.

"I wish he did," Kurt murmured.

"What?"

"Are you crazy?"

"Honey, that fist would collapse your face!" Mercedes warned.

"Yes… I-I know…" He sighed. "But he's so angry. He… When he loses it, things are not going to be pretty…"

Hands curled into fists, Puck figured Hummel was right. And he knew just who he wanted that anger to open up on.

Chapter Text

III.

Puck remembered when Glee club sounded like the worst idea ever. When he'd been convinced that nobody but losers and freaks would want to sing and parade around in costumes. He also remembered how when he sang Sweet Caroline to Rachel it'd been one of the greatest moments of his life. Not only because he rocked that shit, like a boss. And not just 'cause she was staring up at him all awe-struck, like she'd never heard anything quite that awesome. But because her and everybody in that room looked at him like he was talented. Like they never expected it, but it was incredible. He'd spent his whole life thinking that he was Eli Puckerman, version 2.0. He was better looking and he sure as hell got a lot more tail, but he was destined for the same crap life. Yeah, Eli got an awesome wife and two seriously wicked kids, but he never saw that part. He never looked at his family and thought they were worth it. He looked at them and saw failure; he saw all the things he could have done but didn't.

Puck was sure he would be the same.

Until Rachel Berry told him different.

She was smiling at him. Except not in that kind of creepy way she sometimes did when she was faking her happiness - all big, bright and with her crazy eyes - like when one of the other girls did a seriously awesome solo and she pretended she was proud of them but really she was wondering how to sabotage them and not leave a trail back to her. This time it was real; it was soft. Her teeth bit into her lip and her eyes were half-lidded; her cheeks flushed, her eyes following his fingers with each strum they made; and when he let the notes trail off, his song finished, she breathed a long sigh.

"So?" His brows quirked. "It's shit, right?" He frowned. "I knew the chorus was fucked up but—"

"Noah," she interrupted, sitting up quickly.

And shit, he kind of liked how she was laying at the end of his bed. Not just 'cause he could totally see down her shirt – Rachel's tits were beyond awesome – but because she'd been all caught up in the moment. Her ankles crossed and up in the air, swaying side to side to the song. She was sitting Indian style now, her hands in her lap. This was Rachel's serious pose; he knew it well. It meant making out and getting up her skirt for any naked fun were so off the table. For awhile. At least until she was done her speech. And fuck, but those took forever to end.

"That was amazing."

That was it. That was all she said.

And shit, but he actually kind of wanted a Berry speech right about now, 'cause seriously, how awesome?

He blinked at her. "Okay…"

She tugged at the end of her skirt and then smoothed it out. "To be honest… I'm a little lost for words."

His head quirked to one side. "You want me to call a doctor? I got your dads on speed-dial…"

At her bewildered looked, he smirked.

His eyes widened as he teasingly mocked, "Just sayin' babe, you and speechless means apocalypse."

She took a long breath, squared her shoulders, glared at him and then hummed.

And yeah, he knew what her hum meant. He'd heard that enough times too. That was Rachel's 'mock me all you want, but you're only going to get thoroughly ignored, and yes that even means when you spend the next however many hours trying to make it up to me, eventually working me up into a frenzy with your heart-shaped hickeys on my thighs, until I remind you, again, that I am not amused by your previous actions before leaving you with your hand and a bad case of blue balls until a later date when I decide you've been forgiven.' Damn, even the Berry voice in his head talked in monologue form…

"Okay, sorry…" He rolled his eyes. "But not all of us are used to gettin' all the praise. I was kinda hoping for more than 'amazing' and 'lost for words.'" He frowned. "You pick now to shut up?'

Flicking her hair over her shoulder, she turned toward him. "Firstly, I was complimenting you. By saying I was 'lost for words' I only meant that your song, which was surprisingly heartfelt and entirely your own, moved me to a place where I couldn't fathom any words being enough to share how it made me feel…" She shook her head, staring up at him earnestly now. "Noah… You are a gifted musician. And…" She lifted a hand before he could interrupt. "I don't just mean with your singing, because I think everybody in glee club will agree that your voice is like liquid fire. But you're talented with a guitar, with a piano, and now with your writing…" Her mouth fell open a little, her expression wide and stunned. "I always believed that you were made for greater things than what Lima had to offer, but this only further solidifies my certainty that you are destined to make beautiful music."

He was about five seconds away from saying 'I'd like to make beautiful music between your legs,' but then his heart (or whatever that thumping thing in his chest was) took over and shoved his dick out of the equation. "You're the only one who legit thinks that…" His brows furrowed. "Why?" Not why was she the only one, but why did she believe at all?

She frowned. "I'm sure that even if they don't voice it, your family has much higher expectations for you than you'd assume."

His lips pursed as he snorted. "Babe… The highest expectation my mom's got for me right now is that I knock you up so you'll marry me…"

Her expression fell and then grew amused. "She is highly fond of me."

"Yeah, well, you're Jewish, nice, and pretty…" He shrugged. "Everything after that's just a bonus."

"Regardless…" She stared up at him seriously. "I have faith in you, Noah. Never-ending, boundless, deep-seated faith…" Pushing up to her knees, she crawled between his legs and rested her hands on his shoulders. "And just for the record… You wouldn't have to get me pregnant for me to marry you."

His hands found her hips, squeezed and then slid up her sides, fingers kneading her back. With a cocky smirk, he told her, "Yeah, well, apparently I'm gonna rock the music world, Berry. You'd be lucky to sport my last name."

Laughing, she turned around and leaned back, her head falling to his shoulder as she sprawled out on top of him. Taking his hand and resting it on her stomach, she played with his fingers. "I'm keeping Berry as my stage name," she informed him. "But Rachel Puckerman, for all other intents and purposes, sounds like a fine name to me."

Smiling, he kissed her temple. "You'll be an awesome Pucker-woman, babe."

"With our talent and musical chemistry, the Puckerman's will rule New York…"

Her intense voice and the way her eyes narrowed with purpose totally should've freaked him out.

Instead, it seriously turned him on.

He didn't care if that was fucked; he was hooked and he was happy.

Sitting through his first period, he stared out the window. In three hours, he'd have to sing to the club that he'd spent the last two and a half years finding a weird sense of belonging in. Only now he felt like he was on the outside; like everything that had happened there, all the fun he'd had, was a lifetime ago. Like the guy he was when he'd rocked out to Bon Jovi or Journey or even, fuck, Lady Gaga, was gone. And this guy he was now, who was angry and tired and so fucking lost, he didn't belong there. Didn't want to be there. And the worst part was he knew she'd want him to. She'd shove him through the door and sing her heart out to get him through whatever shit had brought him down.

Only she couldn't do that. Couldn't be there. And when he walked through that door, he knew he was going to notice a giant Rachel shaped hole where she should be standing or singing or ranting and raving and diva-ing out for attention or solos or the fuck ever.

He rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes, a headache throbbing inside his head.

Her voice piped up, clearer than ever. I'm sure if you're not faking it, the teacher will excuse you to the nurse's office…

He groaned, shaking his head. "I promised to stop skipping classes in the nurse's office, remember?"

"Puck?"

He looked up, only to find his math teacher staring at him, both confused and a little wary. Shit, maybe he should stop talking out loud like a fucking mental person.

"What?" he grunted.

Mr. Clayton pursed his lips. "I thought I heard you ask if you could go to the nurse's office…" He stared at him searchingly and not for the first time, Puck saw that pitying look aimed right at him.

He'd been getting that a lot lately.

The Puck before Berry would've soaked it up and used it to his advantage.

"'m fine…" He sighed, staring down into his textbook. It was History. He'd taken his History book out for Math… Scrubbing a hand down his face, he sighed.

"If you're sure…" Mr. Clayton said, staring at him as he backed up toward his desk.

Puck shrugged before reaching into his bag and switching his books around.

He spent the rest of class trying and failing to focus on math. His headache got worse, until he was seriously considering just leaving. Fuck the nurse's office; he could sleep it off in his truck. He just needed out. Away. Somewhere that didn't have people staring or gossiping or waiting for him to blow his stack.

Jesus Christ. He just wanted to be alone.

The bell rang, doing him one giant ass solid.

He grabbed his books and took off. But the halls were crowded and even more people were looking at him. Some in pity, some like he was a damn science project they were figuring out. He stalked toward his next class through the crowd that parted for him, except for a few stragglers he had no problem shoving out of his way. He made it to English, but it wasn't five minutes after the bell before a note showed up and the teacher looked over to peer at him through his glasses. With a nod, he called Puck up and sent him out the door.

Congratu-fucking-lations, he thought. He'd been called to the counselor's office. He left his bag since it still had his whiskey in it and he didn't want Pillsbury to have an aneurysm or some shit. When he got inside, she was sitting really straight, her eyes were super wide (like bigger than Rachel's when some – any - Awards show was on) and her hands were clasped tightly on the top of her desk, except to reach out and grip a bottle of Purell. "Sanitizer?" she asked, holding it out to him hopefully.

He leaned back in the chair and cocked a brow. He needed this shit over like, yesterday.

"O-Okay then…" She nodded, putting the bottle back down. Her hands tightened until her knuckles were white. "Well, Puck… I…" She frowned down at her hands before looking up at him sympathetically. "I'm sure you know why you're here…"

"'Cause my girlfriend's blood is still staining the stairs?"

She looked surprised and stuttered, "Not… exactly." She sighed. "I have a few pamphlets for you to read, Puck. About grief and all the emotions attached to it. I don't… I'm sure you'll be surprised by some of the things you're feeling." She leaned in a little. "Maybe you're angry… Maybe there are times that you blame her…" She stared searchingly. "Or maybe you're just very sad and you're not sure how to express it or voice it. I think these pamphlets can really help you if you'll—"

Fuck this shit. He didn't need this pep-talk bull or the 'It'll get better' speech.

He sat forward abruptly. "Yeah, sure, hand me the one about the homophobic school bully that shoves a girl half his size down the stairs and kills her… You got one of those?" He shook his head mockingly. "No? Okay, how about the one where the principal could've expelled that asshole for fucking Kurt up so bad he had to leave school? That way Rachel would still be alive." He frowned. "Not that one either, huh? 'Kay, tell me if you got this one…" He stared at her darkly. "There's a fucked up kid who grew up thinking he was never gonna be better than his loser of an old man. He gets a girl pregnant at sixteen. He's in juvie four months after he has to give his daughter away. Looks like he's version 2.0 of daddy dearest…" His jaw ticked and he licked his lips. "And then he meets a girl who actually thinks he's gonna do something with his life. Like he might really make something of himself. So he falls for her... And for some fucked up reason she actually loves him back. And they plan a life. He tells her he's gonna marry her someday and she tells him she'll yes when he asks. They've got their shit covered." He nodded, remembering all the research she did and the pie charts and the pink binder she kept everything in. "They'll move to New York, he'll go to college, she'll blow up big on Broadway, they'll live the fucking dream. And then she dies…" He swallowed tightly, his throat burning hollow. Grinding his teeth, it took him a second before he could ask, "Where's the pamphlet on what the fuck he's supposed to do then?"

She stared down at her pamphlets, flipping through them, one after the other. "I—There's—You—" Her shoulders slumped.

"You know why there's not one? 'Cause this shit is supposed to be uplifting. S'pose to make me think there's life after Rachel, right?" He shook his head. "Truth is, she's gone. And the best I got is a miserable fucking life ahead of me. I stay in Lima, I work at Hummel and Sons Tires, and I die the Lima Loser I always knew I would be." He shoved his seat back and stood. "Boo-fuckin'-hoo."

Her hands shook as she stacked her pamphlets once more and blinked her teary eyes up at him. "I understand you're angry and upset and you're just lashing out. It's perfectly normal. I—"

"I really don't give a shit." He turned and walked out the door. When he got back to his class, he grabbed his bag and walked right back out.

He sat on the bleachers, in the exact spot she dumped him junior year. He drank half a bottle of Jack, leaned back to stare at the clouds, and wished the burning in his throat, in his chest, in his eyes, was the alcohol. 'Cause he sure as shit shouldn't have any more tears left.

He heard second period end, the bell ringing shrilly even out across the field. He heard break end and third period start. He stared up at the blurry sky, his stomach twisting and turning, and even though he knew it wouldn't help, he took another swig of whiskey.

There was a cloud, white and fluffy, and fucking up the otherwise blue sky. There were more like way outside his line of sight, but all he saw was that one cloud, ahead of all the others, crawling across the sky on its own, like it fucking ownedit. Like it was special. And he yelled, "Fuck you, cloud! The fuck do you think you are?"

Noah… I think you've been drinking too much… her voice murmured, quietly, like she thought somebody might hear her chastising him.

"The fuck's it matter anyway…" He closed his eyes as they burned, but he felt the tears slide down his face anyway. "Why couldn't you keep your fucking mouth shut, huh?" He opened his eyes to glare blearily at the slow moving cloud. "Why couldn't you fit in and shut up for just a few more weeks?"

You know I couldn't do that… I never could… It's one of the many reasons you loved me so much…

He snorted.

My sparkling personality, although admittedly high maintenance, served as a reminder that while I was obviously by no means the most appreciated person at the school, it didn't mean I wasn't without my merits. Or that I didn't have the talent and ability to get myself far, far away from the Podunk town we were unfortunate enough to have grown up in…

His brow wrinkled. "The hell's that mean?"

It means, my drunken, lovely oaf… That I made you believe in yourself not only through my words, but because even though I seemed to have every obstacle in front of me, every person I met out to tear me down, I was still reaching for and achieving my dream. So you and all your fears of being a Lima Loser were just one hurdle you could and wouldovercome…

Shit it hurt to think when drunk.

You were never meant to waste away here, Noah… We were going to do great things together…

He shoved the bottle away and let his head fall back against the bench seat. He watched the cloud outmaneuver all the others, spreading out across the sky alone, never stopping, never waiting. Like Rachel on a rampage. And it made him smile for a second, made him remember how much of a force she was. But then his smile faded into a grimace. Because that cloud was alone. And at least for the last year she'd had him and he'd had her. But now… Now he had nobody… And the one person he wanted, he could never have again.

He threw the bottle of Jack at the cloud, wondered if it would rain whiskey later, and figured dying in a river of alcohol would be damn awesome.

'Cause when he died, he figured she'd meet him. And get drunk off the whiskey-water… And a drunkBerrywas one of the highlights of his life.

Your nonsense has become even more nonsensical…

"Go with it, B…" he muttered.

He swore she sighed against his ear, resigned. He wished he could feel the puff of warm breath it would have made.

When lunch rolled around, he dragged himself off the bleachers. His feet were unsteady and his head foggy, but he made his way back to the school because he knew Kurt was waiting. If it was anybody else, he wouldn't give a shit. But Rachel loved the little fairy like nothing else. Except him, but in a totally different way. So he shuffled through the hall even though he just wanted to climb into his truck, shove in Neil Diamond, and fall asleep against the cracked leather bench seat.

When he walked into the choir room, he was a half hour late and he knew by the looks on their faces they weren't even expecting him to show.

He almost walked right back out. He couldn't do this. He couldn't be here. He couldn't sing in a room that had seen amillion diva walk outs and heard just as many ear-busting solos and monologue-long rants about Broadway and musicals and all that shit. His hands were in his pockets and he had a flashback, remembering that day he chose her over football and he'd walked in to see that smile on her face; the one she got when she was proud of him.

His throat closed up and his chest heaved like he couldn't breathe right. He felt panic start in his stomach, twisting and turning it tight. His skin started to crawl and his knees shook and he just wanted the fuck out.

Mr. Shue took a step toward him, smiling carefully. "Puck… Hey… Come in…" He waved his hand and turned back toward the group before sitting down on a stool. "We were just discussing ideas for the assembly."

He wanted to roll his eyes. The fuck was the point in having some big ass assembly for a girl only a handful of people really liked or knew? The rest of them slusheed and made fun of her all the damn time. Shit. They'd be lucky if he didn't lock all the exits up and go Carrie on their asses.

Noah, you and I both know that I was the only one in this relationship that had any paranormal abilities…

He almost snapped back, "Yeah? If you're so psychic, why the fuck did you let yourself get killed?"

But he was starting to figure out that when people were around, he really needed to stop saying that shit out loud.

So instead, he tried to focus on what they were saying and planning. The assembly. Where every prick at McKinley would turn up just so they could get a look at how fucked up everyone who knew or liked her was. Like slowing down to look at a car crash. Fuckers. "When is that shit?" he asked, fisting his hands in his jean pockets. He still felt off-kilter and he hadn't left the doorway. His feet were itching to cut and run.

"Friday," Kurt replied, standing from his chair and brushing his bangs from his forehead daintily. "Did you find a song?" He lifted a shoulder. "I'll admit I don't know Slipknot very well… Although I did have a very unfortunate experience while looking up their videos in the library…" His brows furrowed. "Do they always wear those masks? I imagine that gets hot on stage… Absolutely horrible for the pores."

Puck blinked at him and it was weird, but the rambling was helping. Rachel rambled. A lot. And about lame shit just like that. Licking his lips, he sighed, lifting a shoulder. "'m not singing Slipknot."

"Oh thank god," he breathed, pressing a hand to his chest dramatically. Getting no reply and seeing Puck's reluctance, he took a few more steps toward him. "Are you—?" He seemed to rethink that line of thinking, cut himself off, looked at the floor and then backtracked. "I… I was uncomfortable when I first walked in too…" He glanced over at the other gleeks, at the chairs, and his expression tightened. "She was always the first to glee… I guess I…" He shook his head. "I expected to see her there."

Puck swallowed tightly. She used to drag him to practice, yelling like he wasn't right fucking next to her, "Punctuality is very important, Noah! By being there first, we show our fellow gleeks that we take this seriously!"

"It might… It could help if you pretend she is… If…" He stared at him earnestly. "If you pretend she's who you're singing to."

He winced. 'Cause most of his singing to Rachel was done in his bedroom. Yeah, there were a few times he serenaded her in front of the others. Sometimes for projects, like on Valentine's day when Mr. Shue wanted them to sing about a loved one; he remember Brittany sang a Kesha song for her cat, who she legit brought to glee. But most of the time… She'd lie out on his bed and she'd close her eyes and listen to him sing and strum his guitar; sometimes mainstream songs, sometimes it was his own lyrics. And that was comfortable, that was theirs; that was private and honest and not about showing off for the gleeks or winning solos or any of that shit. That was him singing to his girl because she always looked like it was the most amazing thing she'd ever heard and nothing, not even Broadway, could compare.

"Or not," Kurt tacked on, brows furrowed. "I know… I mean I get that—"

"S'cool," he interrupted, 'cause while annoying or throwing Kurt off used to be a pass time of his, right now he could care less and he really didn't wanna make the dude squirm. He walked a little further into the room, glancing at the others.

The girls were smiling at him. Mercedes and Tina both in sympathy. Quinn and Santana in a weird sort of apologetic thing that he did and didn't 't smiling. She was frowning and her eyes were big and she looked like she was five seconds away from hugging him and he seriously thought that might break him. His stomach felt like a lead weight was burning inside and he still didn't want to be in that room, with those people, but he made it to a chair, a guitar leaning against it.

Mike gave him a sad smile, his eyes darting from him and away, like he didn't really know what to say or do. But then he grabbed Tina's hand and he squeezed and Puck got it. 'Cause Mike was lucky. He still had his girl.

It can be an eye-opener… How fleeting life is, Rachel murmured in his head.

He clenched his teeth and gripped the guitar, dragging it into his lap. He forced his eyes down while he tuned it, trying to hold his shit together.

"While you're getting ready," Mr. Shue said, looking around. "Artie, you were saying you had some ideas..."

"Uh, yeah…" He nodded. "I actually have a lot of footage. Rehearsals, just hanging out, even some of her dance recitals… I thought…" He half-smiled, shrugging. "Maybe I could make a video montage of her… Of all of us with her, actually. We could play it while we're singing."

"That's really cool," Finn agreed.

"She always said she'd take the big screen by storm," Kurt agreed, trying to smile. "You know, after she won her Tony and wanted to broaden her interests outside of Broadway."

"Can we see some of it?" Tina wondered.

"Yeah, sure. I was actually… I thought when I cleaned it up a bit, we could all hang at my place, watch it together." He looked around at everyone earnestly. "It'll be like our old movie nights."

"She always brought musicals," Quinn reminisced.

"And spent the whole night convincing us to watch them," Mercedes laughed.

Mike grinned. "Singin' in the Rain is epic."

Tina bumped his shoulder with hers, smiling. "That's 'cause you know every dance routine."

"So Thursday then?" Artie asked.

Everybody agreed to be there, even Mr. Shue. All except Puck.

"Are you ready?" Kurt asked, peering at him. "There's no pressure. We still have half of lunch left. So you don't have to—"

"I got it." His jaw ticked as he glanced up at him.

"Oh… Okay…" He smoothed his hands down his lap and sat back in his chair, his back straight. "We're listening."

Puck's hands were clammy, his whole body shaking from the inside out. He wondered when the alcohol stopped working.

He didn't look up at them, mostly 'cause he knew they'd be staring at him in pity and he couldn't take any more of that. It used to be envy. Or irritation. Or even confusion. They all had their opinions, most of them not really supportive.

Finn always kinda wanted Rachel, even when he had Quinn. But at least he'd stopped trying to get her back. Santana never really got why he was into her and she was vocal about it. He put up with it for awhile, but when she wasn't getting the message, he told her to shove her opinion down her throat, 'cause it took him long enough to get Rachel, and he didn't need Satan fucking it up for him. And the rest of the gleeks were somewhere betting getting it and not; they spent the first half of the relationship waiting for it to explode or for him to fuck up or her to go back to Finn and when it didn't happen, they just sort of accepted it. But they weren't close to him or Rachel, so they only saw the part of their relationship that played out at school or glee practice; they didn't hang out with them at his place, when they were babysitting Sarah and playing some crazy high school version of house. They didn't know how screwed up he was; they didn't hear him when he confessed how terrified he was that he'd be like his dad or stay stuck in Lima the rest of his life. They didn't know that all those names people called her and the pictures they drew and the seriously cruel things they wrote on her MySpace page really did hurt her. That she cried and wondered why everybody hated her; like she just didn't understand what was so wrong about her goals and trying so hard to achieve them. They didn't know that when her dads couldn't be there to tell her that one day she'd be so much better than them, that all her haters didn't mean anything, that she went to him. That she sobbed in his chest and begged him to sing to her or to promise her that they would get out and they would make it big and all the fuck-ups that said she was nothing or a freak or whatever, they would all live totally unnecessary lives in Lima, Ohio, repeating the same craptastic lives their parents did before them.

So they knew them - they knew that he loved Rachel and she loved him - but the people in and out of that room never really knew the whole story. They didn't know that when her dads were out of town, and it happened a lot, she'd stay at his place. That even when they were home, she still snuck out, climbed the tree outside his window and into his room just to sleep next to him. They didn't know that half his dresser was hers, most of the closet was taken up with her sweaters and dance uniforms, or that all her vegan shit was packed in his cupboards and fridge. They didn't know that he knew he was gonna marry her four months into their relationship because he woke up one day and realized that even if they never slept together, even if he never popped her cherry, this girl was the greatest thing to ever happen to him. And he'd be so beyond stupid if he let her go. To them, he lost a girlfriend; a loudmouthed, obnoxious know-it-all that had him by the balls with nothing but a smile. What he really had was a loudmouthed, obnoxious know-it-all, drama queen that was the only one he'd ever known who believed in him, the only one who planned her future and expected him to be a part of it, the only one who forgave him for his fuck-ups and trusted that he was a better person for them. He lost a girl he would have doneanything for because making her happy mattered a fuck of a lot more than anything else he was doing.

So he didn't look at them because their pity was bullshit. Because to them this was sad, but one day he'd grow up and he'd look back and he'd think of it all like a learning experience or some shit. And they were so fucking wrong, there weren't even words…

He leaned over his guitar and he picked out the beat; strumming easily for a good half a minute before he started singing. And it felt foreign, his tongue wrapped around the words, like he hadn't sung in so fucking long… "I'm slippin'… away…"

He licked his dry lips, glaring at the floor.

"In ev'ry way…"

He breathed hard through his nose.

"I can't stay… awake…"

He closed his eyes when they started to burn.

"I'm slippin'… away…"

He swallowed tightly.

"I'm trying to make it through each day, I'm falling apart now in ev-er-y way." He strummed harder. "I'm finding it harder, to get by… There's a hole in my heart and I don't know why…" His voice cracked. "Now I've come to realize…" He glanced up and found himself looking at Finn, who stared back, shoulders slumped. "I'm slippin'… away…"

He kept strumming, fingers moving across the strings easily, with the kind of familiarity he'd missed. And then he just stopped and he was sitting there and it was like all the bravado and the alcohol couldn't mask it anymore. Couldn't make it hurt any less.

"Fuck," he cursed and his head fell and the tears escaped and he was fucking powerless.

And they were around him. Finn reaching him first, a hand on his shoulder. Some were bent over him, some knelt beside him, but all of them were touching him, holding him. And at first, shit, it felt good. Like a bear-hug from Rachel for acing his Spanish test good. But then it was too much and there were too many people and they were all the wrong people. 'Cause none of them, not one of them, was his crazy midget girlfriend.

"I can't do this. I can't—" He pushed up and away. He scrubbed his arm over his face but it didn't stop the next batch of tears. He stumbled backwards and could barely see them all staring back at him. "I don't want your pity or your hugs oranything… I just want all of you to leave me the fuck alone." He turned to leave again, his stomach churning painfully.

"Puck," Finn called after him.

He walked faster, but Gigantor was on his ass. He followed him down two hallways, shouting his name and getting no reply. And all this walking, all this emotional bullshit, only made Puck's stomachache worse. Until he darted right, into the bathroom, and found himself kneeling over the porcelain god to upchuck all the whiskey he drank and the tequila and absolutely no food, 'cause he'd nixed that shit even when his ma was leaving it at his door instead of coming in his room. And he suddenly realized how cramped his stomach was; how empty and hungry he felt. He threw up until he was just gagging on stomach acid and every muscle in his body was on fire.

"Feel better?" Finn asked, leaning against the stall door, looking away, a sour look on his face from the smell.

"No." He sat back, the cold tile floor feeling good on his hands while he leaned his head back against the metal stall divider. "Just worse." Always worse.

He glanced at him, shuffling his feet. "You've been drinking a lot."

"Sign me up for AA. Promise I'll go," he mocked, sneering.

He sighed, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his Letterman's jacket. "She'd be so pissed at you right now…"

His face fell before a scowl curled his lips. "The fuck's it even matter anymore." He pushed up to his feet and walked to the sink, rinsing his mouth out over and over, until he couldn't taste it on his tongue anymore.

It was quiet a long moment before finally Finn said, "She was good for you…" He frowned. "I know… I know I didn't always act like, supportive, but… I dunno, it took me awhile to figure it out…"

Arms braced on the sink, he stared at him through the mirror. "Figure what out?"

"That you two fit… That you loved her… Like, really loved her." He shrugged, eyes darting around. "I guess I always thought you were just waiting for the next girl to catch your attention but… It always came back to her for you…" He shook his head. "I'm sorry."

In their entire friendship, he was pretty sure he was the only one who ever said sorry; he was the guy who messed things up, who fucked Finn over, time and again. He stared at the water draining away. "For what?"

"I'm sorry she died," he breathed thickly, his teeth clenched as he blinked back tears. "I'm sorry you lost her… I… I'm just… sorry…"

"Yeah…" He turned off the taps and glared down into the sink. "Everybody is."

He moved to leave then, done with the conversation and the apologies and the bull that everybody was shoveling at him today. But Finn called his name again, so he stopped. 'Cause even after everything, dude was still his best friend.

"You won't do anything… I mean… You won't… hurt yourself, right?" He stared at him searchingly, worried. "Puck?"

He smirked emotionlessly before turning and walking out the door. "Don't worry about me…"

He left school, drove around, ate a double cheeseburger and wished there was a tiny chick next to him to complain about the death of innocent animals or list all the gross ass shit that processed meat was made up of. He grabbed a grape slushee and some dip and he avoided anything with alcohol content. And then he went home, climbed the stairs and holed up in his room. He blasted Blink 182's Adam's Song on his iPod and fell asleep with his face buried in her nightgown. It hurt when he realized he had to breathe deeper to find her scent; it was starting to smell like him and not her. He wondered if everything about her would fade and it scared the shit out of him.

The ache in his chest was familiar now; he couldn't remember a time when he didn't feel it

../..

On Thursday, Finn actually came inside. He sat outside his bedroom door for two hours before finally asking him, "Are you gonna come over to Artie's? I'll drive."

Puck stared at the ceiling and didn't say a thing.

"It could… I mean, my mom said it'd probably be good for you to be around friends…"

He rolled his eyes.

"Okay, well… I mean, if you change your mind… You know where we are…"

He sighed when he got no answer before finally standing up to leave but lingering at the closed door another minute.

"Puck… Whenever you're ready… Like, if you wanna talk or whatever… I-I'll… Just find me, okay?"

He rolled over onto his side and listened to Finn's lumbering footsteps down the stairs.

The Rachel in his head tisked. That was very rude

He frowned. "You think I wanna sit around with those idiots and watch you on some TV screen?"

I think they're reaching out to you… And you need them…

He snorted. "I don't need them… I don't need anybody…" He winced, shoving up and off the bed. "'Cept you."

Oh, Noah…

He stomped out of his bedroom and down the stairs like he was running away from her, but he knew her voice would follow. It went everywhere with him and he didn't know what that meant but he was pretty sure if he told anybody, he'd be in a psych ward faster than he could say 'crazy.' When he got downstairs, his mom and sister were eating dinner. They looked up, their eyes wide, and his mom smiled hopefully, standing from her chair.

"Are you hungry?" She quickly crossed to grab a plate out of the cupboard for him.

They had food spread out; mashed potatoes and a roast, gravy and corn. And a month ago, he'd have dug into that. He'd have piled his plate high even though his very vegan girlfriend would be lamenting the animal souls he'd have on his conscience while she ate her pre-packed meal just to his left. His ma always invited her to dinner and she always said yes, even though she made all her own food from home. 'It's a bonding experience, Noah. Your mother only wants us all to grow closer.' Whatever. He was pretty sure his ma was using her Jew-eyes to measure his girlfriend for a wedding dress across the table… Not that he could complain since he'd put a promise ring on her finger, basically an engagement ring anyway, right? And his ma took that shit seriously.

But now all he saw was that empty seat at the table and he backed up toward the door, feeling that panic in his stomach like he did at the choir room.

"'m goin' out," he grunted, shoving a pair of sneakers on, his hands shaking.

"Can I come?" Sarah asked hopefully, turning in her seat to smile up at him.

He shook his head. "No."

Her face fell. "But… Maybe later?"

He licked his lips and looked away.

Rachel always talked him into hanging out with the squirt…

"She's adorable…" Rachel cooed, staring down at the bouncing nine year old with her missing teeth and bright brown eyes. "Please, Noah? Can't we just take her out for ice cream?"

He rolled his eyes. "Babe, you're vegan… You don't even eat that dairy shit."

She grinned. "You researched the vegan diet for me? Or have you actually been listening while I speak?"

He rolled his eyes. It was both actually, but no way was he giving her ammo to shoot at his manhood. "Whatever. Brat stays here. That Hannah Montana shit is on. She'll be fine."

Lips pursed, Rachel stuck her hands on her hips. "Are you suggesting we leave your nine year old sister here, unsupervised, while we just go about our day as if it's nothing of great importance?"

He blinked. "She's done it before. She knows the rules…" He turned and looked at Sarah, who was leaning against Rachel and staring at her animal sweater like it was the coolest shit ever made. "When are you allowed to touch the stove, Sar?"

Her brows furrowed. "Never."

"See?" He grinned at Rachel. "Shit's solved.

She glared at him. "Sarah… Please go get your shoes and coat."

"Really?" She bounced. "Are we getting ice cream? I love ice cream. I want chocolate… and strawberry… and…" Her face screwed up curiously. "Do they have peanut butter?"

"We'll find out," Rachel promised, hardly taking her angry eyes off him. "Won't we, Noah?"

He sighed. "Fine… But you're buying… And I'm driving… And the squirt is on your watch."

Rachel beamed and took Sarah's hand as soon as the front door opened. "I think we're going to have a wonderful time this afternoon. Perhaps after we pick up the ice cream, we can go to the park. How does that sound, Sarah?"

"I like you," she told her. "You're the coolest girl Noah's ever brought home!"

"Thank you… I don't believe 'cool' is an adjective often used to describe me but I rather like the connotations in this particular instance."

Puck had to help both his little sister and his midget girlfriend into the truck, which he found kind of funny. "You want me to buckle you up too, princess?"

She grinned at him. "You might want to rethink your attitude, Noah… After all, when your sister eventually crashes from her sugar high and extensive outdoor activities, you and I will have the house to ourselves for a nice long while… And how do you expect me to repay your good deed?" Her brows rose suggestively.

He smirked slowly. "I like the way you think, Berry."

She patted his cheek. "Of course you do… My mind has progressively grown closer to the gutter thanks to your impressive vocabulary and love for making crude jokes at the most inopportune of times."

"S'a talent babe."

Amused, she rolled her eyes, leaned in and pressed her lips to his.

"Eew!" Sarah cried, giggling.

"Shut it, squirt. Puckasaurus' workin' his charm."

Rachel drew back. "Nevertheless, I believe I promised somebody ice cream." Clipping her seatbelt on, she clasped her hands in her lap. "Onward, good sir."

Sighing, he stepped back, closed his truck door, and shook his head. He muttered about high maintenance women and their bullshit, but he knew he'd be well rewarded and he'd probably have fun, even if he'd pretend he didn't.

They spent the rest of the afternoon laughing. And after he put an exhausted Sarah to bed, he took Rachel to his. If this was his reward every time, him and Rachel would be hanging out with Sarah a lot more.

She was staring at him, waiting, and in the back of his head, he could hear Rachel, telling him to be nice and to spend time with his little sister.

Instead, he said, "No," a little more forcefully, before whirling around, stomping out the front door and slamming it behind him.

He stalked to his truck and jumped in.

He didn't know where he was going. He passed by the liquor store three times and felt his hands itch. The upchucking was a turn-off, but he couldn't deny he really wanted to take the edge off. He knew Artie's door was wide open and he could always drop by and watch all the home videos with the gleeks. But he really didn't think he could handle seeing her there; laughing and smiling and so fucking beautiful it hurt. He couldn't see that and not want it. Not want her. Back. Alive. Sitting in his lap. Chatting in his ear. Complaining. Yelling. Crying. Anything.

He drove around for an hour before finally stopping. He idled on the side of the road for ten minutes before finally cutting the engine. He sat with his hands gripping the wheel for another five before he finally climbed out of the car. Hands stuffed in his pockets, he walked across the lawn slowly. He talked himself out of it twice, turning around both times and walking back toward his truck. By the third time, the door opened.

"Noah?"

He stopped, swallowed tightly and turned back around. And he wanted to break and to apologize and to beg them to make it stop fucking hurting. It was the first time he wanted to say all the shit he was thinking and feeling and not worry about being a pussy.

Taking a step out onto the porch, he stared down at Puck, expressionless. "We've been expecting you," he finally said.

Puck's heart hammered in his chest, his ears.

He nodded his head back toward the house. "Come in… I think… I think we all need to talk."

He hesitated only a few seconds before finally walking forward and into the Berry house as Leroy shut the door behind him.

If there was anybody he could talk to, anybody who would get it, it was these guys. Right?

Chapter Text

IV.

There were no pictures in the front hallway. The walls used to be covered in them. And he wasn't joking; they legit had pictures of Rachel during just about every second of her life. From when she was first born to probably the morning she woke up on the day she died. Her parents were the kind of dudes who thought their kid was the greatest thing to ever breathe oxygen. And sure she was bossy and dramatic and six shades of crazy, but Puck still agreed with them. 'Cause he loved those things about her; all of it. The scheming and manipulation and the fake tears to get her way; that shit wasbadass. And nobody would ever suspect it, 'cause she wore the good girl label so well. Hell, even her clothes said innocent Catholic schoolgirl. She was a Jew, and her nose kinda gave that away, but whatever. Knee high socks and a short as fuck skirt went a long way.

The walls were covered in squares a shade brighter, showing where each and every frame had hung for so many years. The door closed behind him and he walked, eyes darting to his left. There used to be a picture of her when she was like five and missing her two front teeth. She was beaming at her dad, holding the camera, while her and her daddy sat on a bright red toboggan at the top of a snowy hill. She was dressed in so many layers to keep the cold out she was like a ball of insulation. And she held the rope to her sled between hands fat with three pairs of gloves. Her cheeks were bright, her dark hair dotted with snowflakes; the picture of childhood innocence.

That space was empty now.

He met Rachel when he was four, through pre-school and later Temple. Even then she was too smart for other kids and claimed she'd be a star on Broadway. He remembered thinking she was pretty but she talked too much, and about stupid stuff. He was a kid; he liked Power Rangers, trucks and candy. A dumb kid who didn't know he had the love of his life standing in front of him already.

The hallway was kinda creepy; he used to think having that many pictures of one person was pretty weird, but now, without them, it was even more off. Even the giant self-portrait of her was gone.

His stomach twisted and knotted and his skin felt clammy. They were packing her up and putting her away; they were shoving her out of sight. His room was like a fucking a shrine compared to this place. Shit, he didn't even want to think about what her bedroom looked like. Did they strip it down to nothing? Even her frilly pink bed skirt? And how the hell did he even know what that was? He blamed it on Sheets n' Things, but he was pretty sure it was just Rachel rubbing off on him. She probably whispered subliminal messages in his ear while he slept so he'd be like, smarter when he woke up. He so wouldn't put that past her.

When he walked into the living room, his breath caught. The whole damn house was overhauled. It was all just fuckingempty. He frowned, his jaw ticking. There used to be a lamp by the couch, from some Tiffany chick, all he knew was that it was colorful and crazy expensive and Rachel used to say she chose all the furniture and the paint based on that one lamp. It wasn't there. There were boxes, all marked with Kitchen, Living Room, Misc., and his heart started pounding thickly in his ears.

"You're moving," he choked out, his teeth clenched. He glared at them. "You're fucking moving?"

Leroy, who Rachel always told him hated foul language, didn't even flinch. He took a seat in the large armchair near the window overlooking the backyard. "We have family in Connecticut, Noah… And we think… We think it might be good for us to be around people who love us… People who can help us cope…"

Cope. He fucking hated that word. He hated what it meant and where it led and how people threw it out there like it was even possible.

Hiram walked toward his husband, but seeing the shorter man's tense shoulders, he turned and walked back toward the couch; there were as far as they could get from each other while still in the same room. And he felt a pang in his chest. He moved, took a seat at the other end of the couch and tried to breathe, to stop thinking about what it meant. "When?"

"Saturday… We have the U-Haul coming to help us move in the morning and… by the afternoon we'll be Lima natives no more."

He flinched, looking away. But everywhere he looked, it just made him feel worse. This house… He'd spent the last yearwalking around here like it was his second home. There was a purple stain on the white carpet by the coffee table where he spilled a grape slushee. He hid it with his backpack until he had to go and then escaped Rachel's wrath before she called him up later to rant about not telling her and how the stain was like, engrained in the threads now. He told her he'd buy her a throw rug and she called him an idiot and hung up on him. He snuck into her room later and made it up to her.

There were permanent scuff marks on the hardwoods in the kitchen because he tried skateboarding in there one day when it'd been raining and he was bored and Rachel was studying. She tried everything to get rid of them, even getting down on her hands and knees and scrubbing at them with a toothbrush. The floor was dark enough that her parents didn't notice, but Rachel always glared at him when he brought his skateboard over, so he had to start leaving it in the front yard or hiding it in the bushes.

And he'd screwed around with Rachel on like every damn surface. That chair her dad was sitting in? Did it there. Buck ass naked on a Sunday morning while the daddies-Berry were out of town and a storm had knocked the cable out. After talking Rachel out of studying or homework, he'd stripped her little skirt off her and buried his face between her thighs to make her scream and beg before lifting her up, taking a seat in the chair and dropping her in his lap. Best chair sex ever.

The floor in front of the fireplace? Rachel said it'd be romantic. It was more like super fucking sweaty, but still hot. It wasalways hot between them. Once he popped that cherry - and that was a long few months of waiting and boundaries, but fuck if it wasn't worth it - she was a wildcat; like she legit wore him out sometimes. And she was creative, up for just about anywhere so long as it wasn't public nudity. Desk in her dad's office; against the fridge; kitchen floor/counter/table; guest room; basement-turned-practice room; her bedroom, and then attached bathroom. And repeat.

And this couch? He'd cuddled with her on this couch. Face buried in her hair, arm around her waist, drifting off while she was playing with his fingers and humming under her breath to some song or another. He'd fallen asleep watching her musicals on this couch and she had a lot of those damn things! He'd watched football and hockey and baseball with her dads, all while sitting on this couch. The middle cushion? There was a salsa stain there that was all his! There used to be a third throw pillow but it accidentally caught fire when he and Rachel were fooling around and he kicked it off, directly into the fireplace. That was an awkward conversation… After getting it out of the fire and soaking it in water, he put the charred remains in a garbage bag and tossed it in the neighbor's can, but somehow her dads found that shit… and they had questions.

"Noah...?" Leroy asked, peering at him worriedly.

He wasn't ready for them to leave. He wasn't ready for this house not to be here. For her not to be in it. "I… You… She…" His voice cracked and trailed off.

They exchanged a look, sighing.

"We know this is going to be difficult for you…"

He shook his head, his eyes burning. Difficult? Were they fucking kidding? He couldn't even get into words how shitty this was.

"You can always call us, Noah. You have our numbers and we can email…"

He snorted, burying his face in his hands. "Yeah, I think my dad something like that before he left and never looked back…" he rasped.

Everything was quiet for a long moment, strained.

"It won't be like that…" Leroy sat forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped. "We've known you since you were a little boy with that same atrocious Mohawk, son…" He offered a half-smile. "And we know that our leaving is going to be hard, but we can't…" His voice cracked. "Everywhere I look, I see her…" He stared at him searchingly. "I won't survive if I keep looking for her in places she'll never be again…"

How the hell was he supposed to survive? He wondered. And he wanted to ask, he wanted them to tell him, but he didn't think there was an answer. Not one he'd like.

"You went back to school this week, didn't you?" Hiram asked.

He nodded jerkily, 'cause ignoring them wasn't an option. Never had been. Maybe with his mom he could try that bull, but the daddies-Berry? He respected them too much. And that wasn't a shot at his mom, not really, but… She never really believed in him, not like this family did. Not like their daughter or them, who looked at him and saw Noah and not Eli Puckerman's fuck up of a son.

"It must've been hard… walking down those halls…"

It took him a long time to get the words out, to get his voice to cooperate. "Everything's hard…" he admitted. He stared at the ground, 'cause looking at them just wasn't an option right now. "Fucking breathing is hard…"

"Yeah," Hiram agreed.

"The mornings are the worst," Leroy confided. "I wake up and there's… There's a second when I walk out of the room and I'm looking at her door and I think… She isn't up yet… I should check on her… And then I open the door and—" He inhaled sharply and reached for his glasses, plucking them off to pinch the bridge of his nose and squeeze his eyes closed against the tears. "She's just… She's never there..." He shook his head, sniffling against the back of his hand. "Sometimes, I tell myself… I say, 'Leroy, she must be at Noah's… They think they're being so sneaky but we all know they can't sleep without each other…'" He chuckled a little brokenly. "And I delude myself… I pray and I wish and I'd giveanything for that to be true… For her to be fast asleep and safe with you than… Than to admit the truth…"

Puck ground his teeth and looked up at them. "'m sorry…" He blew out a shaky breath. "I told you I'd keep her safe and I—"

"Don't," Hiram said firmly. "Don't blame yourself… Don't you dare…" He stared at him searchingly, keeping a stoic face. "Rachel stood up to David because that's who she is… That's who we raised her to be… And there was nothing andnobody that could have stopped what happened to her…"

His face tightened, his body tensed. "I heard Karofsky's out on bail…"

"We know… He—He came to see us… He…" His expression darkened and he took a deep breath. "He's asked us to forgive him, Noah, and we've decided that for us to move on and to accept what's happened… We might have to."

"What?" He looked up at them, his brows furrowed. "You're fucking with me, right? You can't!" He shoved to his feet. "Hepushed her down the stairs! She bled out on the floor! She—" His chest heaved against his quick breaths. "You didn't see her laying at the bottom of those stairs, but I-I did and that…" Rage made his body vibrate, his bones shaking. "Thatasshole doesn't deserve anything but a life sentence behind bars!"

"He explained what happened. It wasn't…" Leroy sighed, his head bowed and said sadly, "It was an accident… A stupidmisunderstanding…"

"I don't care what he calls it," Puck snapped. "Rachel is dead and if it wasn't for him, she'd be alive right now!"

"You don't understand, Noah," Hiram said simply, staring up at him.

His chest hurt and he reared back a little like someone had taken a swing at him. "don't understand?"

He stood, reaching for him and frowning when Puck pulled away, stumbling a few steps away from him. "Son…" He glanced at Leroy and then back Puck. "David is gay… And he's… He's terrified of what that means… When Rachel confronted him about his bullying, she said some things, she mentioned Kurt, and it just…" He sighed, looking exhausted. "It spiraled and David was scared… That she'd figured him out or that the school would from what she was saying and he… reacted…" He swallowed tightly. "And I'm not saying it's excusable or that what he did was okay, but… I understand why…" He stuck his hand into his pants pockets and looked away. "It's not easy being different. Especially not in a small town like Lima where being unique isn't exactly encouraged."

Puck thought it over, tried to take in what he was saying, but then he shook his head. "I don't care… I don't care if he was gay or bi or if he liked fucking a toaster, nothing he says is gonna make this all right…"

"We aren't expecting you to forgive him…" He looked up then and stared at him firmly. "But we do know you and we don't want you to go looking for him."

He stiffened, his jaw ticking as he turned his eyes away. He'd kept an eye out for Karofsky and when he found out he was out on bail, yeah, sure, he'd driven by his house a few times. He sat there, idling outside, staring at the one-story house that stayed dark most of the day, nobody coming or going. And sometimes he wondered what he would do if he saw him; if he walked out that door and Puck had a clear shot. But what came to mind was violent; it was dark and scary and he'd never felt such rage before.

"Noah, we're asking you… Please don't do anything you'll regret."

He turned his back to them and his eyes darted all around, at empty surfaces and walls, and he knew he couldn't promise them that because he'd end up breaking it. And he'd never lied to these guys, not once.

"What're you doing with all her stuff?" he asked instead. He took his seat on the couch again, a weight settling heavy on his body until he felt like he was being slowly crushed.

"We'll keep some of it… Her awards, trophies, medals… Her plays and audition tapes…" Leroy lifted his shoulders. "But there's so much and it's not healthy. It's not… It wouldn't help us to hold on to everything…"

His head pounded, pain throbbing in his temples. His jaw clenched, imagining any of her things being used by other people. Somebody else singing into her hairbrush, sleeping in her Pepto-Bismol bed, wearing her skirts or her animal sweaters. All of her music equipment, used by some emo band that picked all the fake pink jewels off her microphone. It made his stomach twist and lurch.

"Did you know she wanted to paint her bedroom pink?" Leroy wondered, chuckling as he stared off distantly. "What a visual disaster…" He shook his head. "It took me weeks to convince her to broaden her color scheme…"

His brows furrowed, 'cause he always thought her bedroom looked like one of his little sister's Polly Pockets. "And she picked yellow?"

"No, picked that. She picked fuschia… which led to an argument on whether shades of pink were still off the table…" He cracked a smile. "Such a spitfire, that girl."

"She made me superglue those glow-in-the-dark stars to her ceiling," Hiram added, leaning against the fireplace mantel. "It's been eight years and I still can't get them off…" He lifted a shoulder. "So I painted over them for the open house." He half-smiled. "They shine right through the paint when it's pitch-dark in there."

Those things were handy. Rachel was like a marathon babbler and she could spend hours curled up against his side just talking about Idina Menzel and Broadway and all that shit. Sometimes when she practiced her Tony speech, and she'd made so many tweaks to that thing he just gave up listening, he'd count the stars on her ceiling to pass the time. And sometimes he made up his own constellations with them; how he even found Mario and Luigi's face in those thirty-four stars, he didn't know.

"We, uh, we found this when we were packing things the other night," Hiram said, reaching over to an end table and picking up a familiar pink binder. He crossed the room to hand it to him.

The front read 'Rachel and Noah Take New York' and in smaller writing just beneath that, The Journey to Forever. He flipped it open and found the itinerary she wrote for their road trip. The map was carefully folded up and stuck in the back flap. There was page after page of interesting facts about every city and town from here to New York. She even had a playlist of 'Good Road Trip Tunes: Side A – Noah, Side B – Rachel.' And he looked through each, laughing under his breath thickly when he found his full of Jewish icons, hip hop and rock while hers was Broadway classics, Babs, and 70's ballads. She had every page filled to capacity with information and suggestions and she put colored stars next to each place with a color-coded list to show which ones she wanted to see most to least. She even printed out menus for diners and restaurants along the way, some that were vegan friendly and others that were more his style, like BBQ and steakhouses.

And she had a list of things she wanted them to do before they settled in New York:

Sleep outside under the stars (Not only will it be romantic, but I'm sure it will appeal to Noah's love for camping!)

Spend a weekend at a quaint little B&B (nothing with less than four stars!)

Spend an afternoon at Hersheypark (do not eat anything beforehand; there are a lot of rollercoasters and you can be sure Noah will want to ride all of them!)

Visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Cleveland)

Take Noah to the Professional Football Hall of Fame (Canton)

See a botanical garden

The Liberty Bell!

Talk Noah into stopping at a few museums

Attend a Seawolves Minor League baseball game (research quite possibly needed to fully enjoy the somewhat confusing sport)

Go to a vineyard

He flipped through three pages of activities and shook his head. "She's got everything in here…"

"She was a planner," Leroy readjusted his glasses, nodding.

"She had stack of print-outs for apartments in New York on her desk; I think she was making space to put them in there too," Hiram added. "She'd shown them to us before. We told her how unlikely it was any of them would be available by the time she got there, but…" He shrugged. "She liked being prepared."

"She sent me links…" He half-smiled but it felt off, foreign to his face. Like he hadn't smiled in so long… "She liked the ads with pictures… She'd send me mile long emails about how it would all look when we got our stuff there… Where she'd put everything…" His brows furrowed. "They were tiny, ugly little shitholes, but she made them sound so awesome… How they'd look when she was done with them…" He licked his lips and swallowed.

Hiram nodded, staring at the floor a long moment. "You know, Noah, we spent her entire life getting her excited for New York… Eighteen years of telling her that she would take over that city and make it her own… That she would get her name in lights…" He sat back against the couch heavily. "But when graduation started getting closer and I realized… this was it, she was really going… I was terrified." He looked over at him. "She would struggle and the city isn't always safe and we wouldn't be there to catch her when she fell or to hug her when she didn't get a part…" He sighed, his shoulders slumping. "She was leaving the nest and suddenly it felt like eighteen years wasn't enough with her… I-I didn't want to let my little girl go…" He blinked rapidly. "But she told me, she promised me… She said she'd be fine because she would have youYou would hug her when she got the rejection call. You would lock the doors and windows each night at your apartment.You would be there for every opening night and you would have those congratulatory flowers in hand…" He dug into his shirt pocket and drew out a ring; a tiny little diamond winking from his palm. "And I wasn't so scared anymore, Noah… I wasn't afraid to let go of my daughter because I knew she'd be in good hands… She'd be in your hands…" He held the ring out to him. "I'm sorry, son… I'm sorry that I lost a daughter and you lost the girl you were going to marry… And I'm sorry that we've lost the son-in-law that we knew you'd be…"

His whole body was tense; his hands shook as he reached out and took the ring from Hiram. The ring he'd put on Rachel's finger months ago. The ring she wore with pride and told him didn't need to be resized, she liked it just the way it was. He held that ring and he stared at it and he felt the tears break out and burn a path down his face.

He was pacing. From one end of the room to the other and back and repeat.

She was in the bathroom, getting ready for bed. She had a whole routine, so he knew he had like twelve minutes before she got back. She had to brush her hair out and put it in a braid. She had to wash her face and brush her teeth and floss, 'cause she was a maniac about dental hygiene. And then she rubbed lotion all over and came back to bed where all he'd done was shuck his clothes and lay down, watching Sports Center while he waited. And then she'd go through her clothes and lay out tomorrow's outfit and check her pink trolley bag to make sure she had all her books and homework. Finally, all clean and perfect, she'd come to bed. He didn't know why, since he always ended up fucking her hair up and stripping her pajamas off her until she was totally naked and staying that way the rest of the night. It was kinda funny, actually, how she went to bed looking all sweet and innocent but an hour later and she looked debauched.

Fuckin' A.

Tonight he had more to think about then getting between her legs. Even if he was planning on doing that too. His ma was working a late shift and Sarah'd been in bed since eight, so she was totally conked out. Plus, they had a lock on the door, so even if the squirt woke up, she wasn't about to walk in on anything.

Tonight, he had a velvet box in his pocket and he had a plan… He had a speech for fucksakes! This… This was gonna be epic!

If he could just settle the hell down and stop worrying that she might screw it up. By saying no or telling him it was too soon or going off on one of her hour long rants about commitment and maturity and where they were headed and shit. Heknew where he was headed! Yeah, okay, he made a few wrong turns along the way. He was a screwed up kid that had daddy issues. It'd be a damn miracle if he got it right the first time around. But he'd figured it out now. He was a monogamous s.o.b that found the right girl and he wasn't gonna let her go. Not when he knew how great they could be; how great they already were. He saw a future with her; legit, like a real future. Not just a week or two from then, but like alifetime of them. But just 'cause he saw it and just 'cause she talked about it all the damn time, didn't mean she really wanted to commit to his Lima Loser ass for more than their senior year of high school.

He swallowed tightly, his throat dry.

He could not and would not fuck this up.

The door opened and Rachel, all shiny and bright and clean, from her face to her teeth to the tips of her painted pink toes, walked in with a hop in her step. She closed the door and locked it, 'cause she knew what was gonna happen just as soon as he got her in that bed, and she smiled at him before walking to his (their) closet. "I think I'll wear the blue skirt tomorrow," she said, fingering through her sweaters. "What says blue to you, owls or chicks?"

He blinked. "Blue says blue to me, babe."

She pursed her lips at him over her shoulder. "You're no help, you know that? Just imagine how much money we would have saved on a fashion consultant if you could help me choose my outfits…"

He half-smirked and shook his head, 'cause all those nerves just… faded.

"Owl sweater," he told her.

She nodded. "Yes, I was leaning toward that one too!" She pulled it out and, after closing the closet door, hung it on the handle. "Now, knee socks or leotard?" Her lips twitched. "As if I even have to ask…" Rolling her eyes, she walked to his dresser and fished out a pair of navy knee socks and her blue plaid skirt. She held up a finger when he opened his mouth. "If you suggest I go commando tomorrow, or even just braless, we're going to have a very long discussion and by the time I'm finished I won't want to do any of the fun things you've already cooked up for when we get into bed." She raised a warning brow at him.

His mouth closed with a snap.

She chuckled lightly, grabbed out a pair of panties and a matching bra, both blue 'cause she liked to color coordinate, and folded them on top of his dresser. "There."

"You done?" he asked, quirking a brow.

She sighed. "Yes, Noah…" Circling the bed, she sat down on the edge. "You're very pushy tonight… Not that I don't enjoy having my wicked way with you, but is there a particular reason why you're being so impatient?"

He bit his lip, followed her around to the other side and then wondered if he should drop to his knee or some shit. Okay, so maybe he hadn't planned this as well as he thought. Since he was still just standing there, thinking it over, he was a little surprised when her hand snaked out and began undoing his belt and jeans. "H-Hey! The hell, woman!"

She snorted. "I think that may be the first, and likely only, time you've ever been surprised somebody was undressing you, Noah." She tugged hard and pulled the belt loose and through the loops before tossing it over her shoulder. Before she could get the zipper down his jeans and totally distract him, he covered her hand with his.

"Just-Just wait!"

Her brows furrowed as she stared up at him from beneath long lashes. "Is there… something wrong?" she worried, eyes darting down to his obviously already hard dick and then back up to his face.

"What? No! I can go any time!"

She smiled. "Fantastic. Then…" And her fingers flicked beneath his as if to shove them away.

He seriously considered just letting her go for it. Rachel's lack of gag reflex was awesome. But then he shook it off and he focused, they could get to celebrating after. He took her hands and he held them and he fell down to his knees and licked his lips, trying to remember the speech he'd memorized and all the good shit she'd wanna hear. The lovey-dovey stuff that felt like pulling teeth but was always true, in a way he never thought he'd actually know.

She stared at him, her brows knotted. "Noah…?"

He sighed, dropping one of her hands to dig into his jeans pocket. He pulled out the box and he let his thumb rub along the crease a few times.

"I remember how my ma and my dad were when they were married… Separately, they were awesome people… He could rock a guitar like a boss and she was just… She was the best mom, y'know?" He scraped his teeth over his lip. "But when they were together, they were toxic… They fought about the stupidest shit and half the time it was like they just… They needed to yell at each other. And there was all this… this blame being tossed around and… It's stupid, 'cause Ihated it, but when they stopped… When he left and there was just… silence… I missed it… 'Cause I knew it was over.They were over…"

He squeezed her hand and took a deep, shaky breath. "I grew up thinking that was what love was. It was drinking too much and fighting about the dishes and regretting all the shit you didn't do when you should've until one day you decided to do it anyway and you walked away from everything and everyone… So when I got older, I didn't want a girlfriend or a wife. I didn't wanna be my dad, tied down to somebody he hated more than he loved. Because I didn't think… I didn't think love could like, exist without hate…" He stared up at her. "I didn't think I could be happy and be with someone without waiting for that day when they turned around and they looked at me and I was some loser they got stuck with…"

She shook her head, her eyes round and wide. "Noah—"

"No, just wait…" He took a deep breath and let it out on a long sigh. "I'm not my dad, Rachel. And you… You are not my mom…" He shook his head. "Maybe you have a few of her better qualities, 'cause you're gonna make a helluva mom one day, but… But when you look at me, it's like… Like I know that you'll never be disappointed or-or just give up on me…" He gritted his teeth. "I look at you and I see hope and trust and… and how proud you are to be with me or know me or… or love me…" He swallowed tightly. "And I don't… I don't ever wanna not see that…"

She reached for his face, her hand stroking the side.

"All those dreams you have… Of New York and Tony awards and your name in lights, I wanna be with your when those things happen for you… I-I wanna be the guy you come home to and the guy giving you a standing ovation on opening night… I…" He popped the box open with his thumb. "I know we're young and I've gotta lotta growing up to do still but I won't ever grow out of you…"

She stared down inside at the tiny diamond ring, her mouth gaping.

"It's a promise ring, okay? 'Cause in a few years, I really hope I've got enough dough to get you something bigger, but…" He plucked it out and tossed the box on the bed. "Look, this is me promising that I'll stick it all out with you… The diva-fits and that special brand of crazy that's all you and the tiny ass apartment with no view and shit plumbing. This is me saying we've got a future and that one day… One day I wanna make you my wife and have talented little Jew babies with you and just…" He grinned. "Sing with you and dance with you and love you for the rest of my life…"

She sniffled, reaching up to wipe away her tears. "That's beautiful…"

He chuckled. "Shit's better than the speech I had…" He took her hand again. "That a yes?"

"Am I supposed to say yes? Can I say yes to a promise?" She shook her head. "Either way, yes! It's a yes!"

He slid the ring down her finger but it was too loose and he rolled his eyes, frowning. "The fuck, your midget fingers are screwing this up, Berry!"

She laughed thickly. "Just put it on the middle one. It should fit there."

He pursed his lips, but he did and she was right, it fit there.

She angled her hand up and smiled down. "It's perfect."

"It's small," he muttered, a little pissed that all his hard ass work hadn't gotten her a bigger diamond.

"No." She shook her head. "No, this is my ring and there is nothing I would change."

He took her hand and kissed her palm and then the inside of her wrist, where he scraped his teeth along her pulse.

"Noah…" Her voice was deeper and when he looked up her eyes were dark and hooded. She leaned forward, pressing her forehead to his. She slid her free hand up and around the back of his neck, her fingers dragging through the tail of his 'hawk. "I love you…" Her eyes stared at him searchingly. "Every single thing about you; the good, the bad, thefrustrating…" She smiled. "And I will love all of those things for the rest of my life... That is my promise to you."

He stared at her and like he always found in Rachel's eyes, there was nothing but complete honesty. He angled his chin down and caught her mouth, slanting their lips together hotly.

He pressed her back and he lifted from off the floor to crawl on top. She cradled him easily between her thighs, her hands sliding down his back to his waist and around to his front, reaching for the zipper and button of his jeans. He didn't stop her this time. Instead, he ground himself down into her and she whimpered, arching up against the bulge pressed tight to her through her pajama pants. She kicked out when he did it again and he heard a snap; he glanced around to see the ring box had tumbled to the floor. When he looked back, she was smiling up at him, her cheeks flushed.

She dragged her fingers down the side of his face slowly, like she was memorizing this moment. From the corner of his eye he could see her ring wink and even though it was on the wrong finger and it was legit the tiniest diamond ever, the rest of it - who it was on, what it meant - that was as right as it could ever be.

She giggled then and he cocked a brow.

"Puckleberry for life," she told him, shaking her head a little.

He rolled his eyes and kissed her. He didn't care for the nickname much, but the life thing…? He was down for that.

His chest hurt like a mother; the ache was so damn raw he wouldn't be surprised to look down and see a knife sticking out.

"Noah?" Hiram's voice called, worried.

"I gotta go…" He pushed to his feet and shook his head. He needed out. He couldn't… He couldn't do this. Couldn't be here.

"Noah, wait…" They chased after him and he was almost to the door when Hiram's hand grabbed his shoulder and yanked him back.

And he wanted to yell at them, to hate them. But they were staring down at him worriedly and these guys…. The two dudes were the closest thing he'd had to a dad; a real father, like the kind that cared and stuck around and believed he'd actually do something with his life. His eyes clouded with tears so quickly they were just a blurry mess and his chest was heaving as he tried to breathe but it hurt, fuck it all just hurt so goddamn bad.

And then his face was buried in Hiram's shoulder and he was crying and breaking and the taller man hugged him tight. "I got you, son."

He gripped the back of his shirt tight in his fist and he sobbed like a fucking baby. "I-I just… n-need her…"

"I know…" He squeezed his shoulder and nodded. "I know."

"Please…" And he didn't know what he was asking for. To fix it. To bring her back. To make it stop hurting. In answer, Leroy stepped up to his side and wrapped his arms around both of them. And they all cried; they all held on to each other and they fell apart and they kept each other standing.

Minutes, hours, he didn't know how long. Until he was quiet and he was half-asleep and he felt like he'd just knocked back a bottle of Jack, he was just floating.

"Can I stay here?" he asked, his voice hoarse. "Just tonight. Just…" He sniffled. "Is her room packed up?"

"No… Not yet… We tried, a few times, but…"

"You can stay there…" Hiram pulled back to look down at him worriedly. "If you're sure you can handle that."

He nodded, dragging his arm down his face to wipe it all off, snot and tears and whatever, on his sleeve. Rachel would've muttered about how unsanitary that was and told him to use a tissue next time.

They followed him upstairs and stood at his back as he opened the door. The room was dark, there were boxes on the floor with a few things tossed in, but mostly it was just like it always was. He reached around the door and flipped on the light and stared. Leroy squeezed his shoulder.

"You're going to the memorial assembly at school tomorrow, right?" Hiram wondered.

He frowned, nodding jerkily.

"I know the glee club prepared a song and Kurt called to say he'd be performing one too…"

"There's gonna be video of her…" Puck shook his head. "Artie got a bunch of clips and stuff, said he'd be playing them while they sang or something…"

"Will you ride in with us, Noah? It's in the morning and… and we'd like it if you could sit with us…"

He turned around to look at them. "You think I'm gonna do something…" He cocked a brow. "Karofsky won't be at school."

They exchanged a look. "Finn Hudson phoned us earlier today…" Leroy readjusted his glasses, eyes falling. "He said you'd been acting… out of sorts and he was worried…"

Hiram stared at him seriously. "He thinks you might do something to hurt yourself…"

Puck turned back around and stared into Rachel's room.

"Noah, we know how hard this is, but if you're thinking about doing anything… If you're contemplating—"

"Do you ever hear her?" he interrupted, his shoulders tensed. "I hear her… Like, a lot…" He ground his teeth. "She's always in my head just… Telling me to stop pushing people away or to go to class or…" His eyes filled again and he licked his lips as they fell, salty on his tongue. "And I can't not answer her…" He snorted. "I look like a fucking mental patient, but… I can't… I can't not have her in my life… Even if it's screwed up or unhealthy or whatever… If all I've got is this voice that sounds like her… I'll take it."

"But it's encouraging, right? It's not… It doesn't tell you to do bad things?"

He snorted. "This is Rachel we're talking about…"

"Noah…" He trailed off, probably right before he told him something like, 'It's not really Rachel. Because Rachel is deadand she can't talk to you.' Instead he said, "We all cope in our own way…"

There was that word again. His jaw ticked and he took a step inside the room. "I'll sit with you guys, at the assembly, but I'll take my own truck. I gotta stop at home and get my guitar anyway."

Leroy nodded acceptingly. "Okay." He reached for the door handle. "If… If you aren't comfortable in here, there's the spare room… or the couch…"

"I'm good."

"Goodnight, Noah."

He lifted his chin at them and when the door closed, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked around her room. Her laptop was on her desk and when he opened it, her MySpace was up and running; he figured her dads were probably watching her videos over and over. He leaned over and hit the refresh button before scrolling down; there was page after page of 'RIP Rachel!' and discussion about how she died and how young she was and what a waste of talent. She had 'Need You Now' playing automatically, the version she had them record while they were still just friends, and it filtered out through the speakers, their harmonized voices melding together, "And I don't know how, I can do without, I just need you now…" He snapped it closed, his hand heavy against the purple laptop with all its flower and star and Hot Stuff stickers.

He took a step back and looked around; at the too bright yellow walls and the white four-poster bed with its pink bedspread; the piano throw carpet; the movie posters and playbills tacked all over; the pink lava lamp and crapload of awards for everything under the sun.

He sat at the edge of her bed and he felt the quilt-like fabric of her blanket under his hands. He couldn't count how many nights he'd spent here; how many afternoons he'd talked her into making out over homework. How many jam sessions he'd had, strumming his guitar while she bounced around singing into her hairbrush. The air smelled like her; like her perfume or her body spray or whatever was just lingering there. It was relaxing. Comforting.

There was a picture of them on her end table. It was in a wood frame she had personalized with their names, 'Rachel & Noah' written around the edges in cursive while the picture inside was a professional shot she talked him into, saying it'd be a nice gift for her dads' anniversary or some shit. He never got how giving somebody a picture of someone else was a nice gift. But then there whole house was covered in pictures of her, or it had been, so they probably thought that was a sweet gift. He bought them tickets to a football game and they liked those just fine. Didn't stop him from getting sucked into her 'couples' photo shoot though. And he had to admit, it turned out all right. His mom had the same picture on the wall at his place; she cried when she saw it. Said it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. Fucking better be after six hours of shooting; between her and the photographer it took forever to pick the right shot. By the end, they went with one he'd taken of them without warning her, so her smile was genuine, the look on her face wasn't her acting it up for the camera. He had his arms around her waist and hers were up around his neck; her head was back and his was bowed, their noses touching. And her lips were curled in that soft smile of hers like right after he said something sweet, right before he added something not sweet so he didn't sound like a sap. Whenever she saw it she said they looked in love; like nothing could touch them. That day, that photo shoot, took forever to end and he was cranky and tired when it was over, but… He'd go back and do it all over again, for like eternity, if he just had her there.

He crossed back to the wall to shut off the light, glancing at the half-empty closet since all of shit was at his place. This was the last night he'd spend here. The last time he'd see these walls or that elliptical or lay in her bed. He walked back through the darkness and crawled onto his side. Her pillows smelled like her. He breathed in deep and felt his whole body shudder. He stared up at the ceiling and smiled a little. Hiram was right. The glow-in-the-dark stars shone right through the paint.

Do you think that will detract from the house? Her voice wondered.

"I think open houses are closed at night… and the lights'll be on so nobody'll see 'em…"

Perhaps the new owners will have a daughter… A daughter who wants to be a star… Wouldn't that be magical, Noah? Like fate!

His teeth clenched. "Magical would be you laying next to me… not talking at me in my head…"

Are you mad at me, Noah? I can stop… I can be quiet so you can sleep, if you—

"No," he said quickly, his chest aching. Turning over onto his side, he buried his face in her pillow. "Don't leave me, Rach."

Shh… I promised I wouldn't, didn't I?

He closed his eyes tight against the burning.

Rachel Barbra Berry always keeps her promises.

But when he reached out to find her there, to pull her in and hold her, the bed was empty. She didn't keep her promise. If she did, he wouldn't be alone. But he was. And when the daddies-Berry skipped town, he'd be more alone than ever.

He didn't know what he did to piss off God, but he was sorry. So fucking sorry.

He fell asleep reaching for a girl he'd never find.

Chapter Text

V.

"Hey, do you think I should've brought dip?" Finn wondered, eyes darting to his step-brother as he closed his truck door and circled around to join him on the sidewalk.

Kurt gripped the strap of his purse. He said it was a 'murse,' but it looked like a purse to Finn. And when he asked if it was a 'satchel' Kurt glared at him. So now he just didn't call it anything… out loud. "I really don't know what the protocol for snacks is at one of these things, Finn," he sighed. "I don't think I've ever been to a party where we watch video footage about our dead friend…"

He frowned. "Yeah… Me neither, but… I couldn't show up empty handed, right?"

Kurt raised a brow. "did."

"Yeah, but you're…" He sighed. How was he supposed to put this? "You were Rachel's… So that makes it like… So we won't…"

Blinking, he turned to stare up at him. "You think because I'm grieving more than you that I can get away with more, is that it?"

His face screwed up, not sure if he could agree. "Uh, maybe?"

He sighed, long and suffering, and it reminded Finn of Rachel and her dramatic way of exhaling like everything somebody was saying or doing was wasting her precious time when she could be doing something more interesting. Like planning her Tony award speech, for the six hundredth time. "Do me a favor and just don't tell Puck that."

He nodded, eyes falling to the sidewalk. "He's not… He's not really talking to me. I, uh, I went over to his place to see if he wanted a ride, but…"

Kurt's gaze fell to one side. "Finn… What do you expect to happen with Puck?"

He looked over, his brows furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"I mean…" He stopped then and turned so he was facing him.

They were almost at Artie's house; Finn could see some of the gleeks through the living room window and their cars parked along the side of the road.

"How do you see this playing out?" He stared up at him searchingly. "Say we all make it to graduation, where does Puck go after that? What does he do?"

He frowned. "I dunno… He said he was going to New York. He got into some business school or whatever…"

"Right, and he was going to spend the whole summer road-tripping with Rachel until they found an apartment in New York and he went to school and she took over Broadway…" He nodded, his eyes narrowing. "But we're not talking about thoseplans… Those plans were Puck and Rachel's…" He shook his head, sounding out his words slowly, like he was trying to get Finn to think harder. "Now we're talking about what Puck will do without Rachel… Do you see what I mean?"

"He can still go to New York, right?" He stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Even without Rachel, he—"

"I thought you were catching on," he muttered, reaching up to rub his temples. "Okay, Finn, think about who Puck wasbefore Rachel… Think about what he wanted and where he was going…" His eyes widened as he shook his head. "Hesaid he wasn't a Lima Loser, but did you ever see him looking at colleges or working to save up money for when he left?No. Because he had nowhere to go. No plan. No direction." He blew out a long breath, his shoulders falling. "Noah Puckerman thought he was going to be stuck here forever and even when he said different, he knew it was true. ButRachel…"

"Rachel pushed him to go to classes and apply to college…" Finn finished, nodding.

"Rachel offered him a life; a better life. She saw something in him that nobody else did, not even him…" He smiled, but his eyes were filling with tears. "They were going to get married and have pucklebabies!" He threw his hands up like he was excited but he inhaled sharply, like he was in pain. "And now Rachel's gone and that… that oaf that she loved is just…lost." He shook his head and gripped his purse strap tight, until his knuckles were white. "Maybe he didn't always say it, at least not for everybody else to hear, but he loved Rachel, Finn… He loved her with everything in him and without her…?" He swallowed tightly, looking away. "Without her there is no him, okay?" He wiped at his face and started walking.

Finn stared at the ground, trying to understand. He looked back up, after his brother and shook his head. "Wait…" He jogged after him, grabbing his shoulder and turning him around. "What are you saying, Kurt?" He almost shook him, angry now because he thought he knew but he didn't want it to be true. "You think… You really think he'd do that? Just… Justkill himself?"

He flinched at the word, his eyes falling. "I think… that I know that boy better than many of you do."

"I've known Puck since we were five!" He glared. "He's been my best friend for twelve years!" He paused, did the math in his head, and then said, "Or thirteen, I think."

Kurt ignored his confusion. "I didn't mean it in a general way, Finn. Yes, maybe you know his favorite sports team or color or whatever voluptuous model he fantasizes about…" He waved his hand around dismissively. "But I know his heart… I know that Rachel Berry had become his world. And I don't…" He rolled his eyes. "I don't mean in that high school way where you want to get into somebody's pants that week so suddenly they're you're everything… I mean he promised her forever and he meant it." His brows knotted and he reached up as if to smooth out the wrinkles. "So maybe the Puck youknow doesn't kill himself over some girl, but the Noah that lost Rachel is falling apart every single day and there is nothingand nobody that can make it stop except a girl six feet in the ground…" Worked up, he was breathing shakily now. "And I know that's not what you want to hear… Maybe you want to believe in a happily ever after or maybe you hope sitting outside his room and telling him you're there for him is going to snap him out of it, but newsflash, Finn… He's already dead, he's just still breathing…"

When he turned and left that time, the heels of his boots clicking, Finn let him.

He stood outside and he thought it over and he tried to accept what was said and what it meant but it just didn't mesh with the guy he knew. The guy who got through his dad leaving and his mom giving up on him and all the craziness of Quinn and Beth and glee club and football… And he'd asked Puck if he might hurt himself and he'd told him not to worry, so… So Finn wouldn't. Even if there was something in his gut that said different. Even if that same feeling made him call the Berry's. Because he refused to admit that maybe Kurt was even a little bit right… Instead, he told himself that Kurt was emotional and upset and he was… What was that word Miss. Pillsbury used? Projecting? Yeah, that was it. He was projecting what he felt onto others…

Taking a deep breath and feeling better about that, he hurried up and jogged across Artie's lawn, knocking on the door.

Mr. Abrams opened it and invited him in.

He found the club, Mr. Shue included, all sitting in the living room, some on couches or chairs, others on cushions on the floor. Kurt had his head on Mercedes shoulder where they sat in front of Tina and Mike.

Finn nodded his head in hello, but when their eyes all moved past him, he checked over his shoudler, at first confused, and then realized who they were looking for. "I asked him… He, uh…" His brows furrowed and he lifted a shoulder. "He wouldn't leave his room, so…" He left out the part where Mrs. Puckerman told him all he ever did was stay in his room. He went to school and then he came home. Most of the time drunk. And he never stopped to talk to them; he just went upstairs and passed out. Whenever she checked on him, he was always clutching Rachel's nightgown in his arms. He didn't think the club needed or wanted to know that… He wasn't even sure he wanted to know that.

A tense silence fell over everyone, so he lifted his hands up, showing them the bag. "I brought chips."

Artie half-smiled, rolling over to take them. "Thanks."

"I, uh…" He wiped his hands on his cargo pants. "I forgot the dip though, so…"

"It's okay. I think we have some."

He nodded. "Cool."

"I saved you a spot," Quinn said, patting the space next to her on the couch. She had Sam sitting in front of her, leaning back against her legs.

"I told her there was no savesies..." Brittany frowned. "But then I shottied San's lap, so…"

"Anybody thirsty, or…?" Artie asked.

There was some shuffling as people moved and got drinks or snacks before taking their seats again.

"Okay… So this is just a rough clip show… They're not in any real order." Artie wheeled to the side, holding up a remote. "I'm taking suggestions though, if anybody wants certain clips used at the assembly. I've already got one of each of us with her, but if something stands out…"

"We should turn off the lights," Brittany suggested. "Mood lighting matters."

"This isn't one of those kind of movies, Britt," Santana told her, stroking her hair affectionately. "I bet Puckleberry had one of those though."

A collection of groans or shakes of their head went around the group.

"I'd rather not even think of that," Tina muttered, shaking her head.

"Why? I bet it was hot…" Santana raised a brow. "You're all thinking it!"

"Santana…" Quinn sighed, rolling her eyes.

She snaked her neck, dismissing them. "Whatever, lie to yourselves then…" She waved a hand at Artie. "Play this thing, Wheels."

"Everybody's ready?" He looked around and when they all settled back, he hit play. "Okay…"

The screen was blue a long moment before suddenly going black, numbers counting down in the corner, and then burst to life.

Rachel beamed into the camera and waved. "Hello! My name is Rachel Barbra Berry and depending on what year it is you may recognize me as a Tony award winning Broadway actress…" Her eyes darted away. "Or if you're watching this recently, then I'm a senior at McKinley and co-captain of the illustrious and incredibly talented glee club, New Directions!" She turned, giving them her best side. "You're in luck, too, because today is competition day!" Her eyes brightened. "Up against the robotic, albeit somewhat driven, Vocal Adrenaline, and the sensational, if gender-singular, Warblers, we plan to wash the floor with our competitors and walk away the victors!"

"Rachel, shut-up!" Mercedes suddenly shouted.

Rachel moved out of the way and the camera zoomed in on the bed where a tired Mercedes Jones shoved her blanket off and sat up to glare at her fellow diva, her bed-head matching her irritation. "Artie, why are you in our room at…" Her eyes widened. "Oh my god, is it six am?"

Rachel clasped her hands tightly and smiled. "Yes, it is! And Artie asked me if I'd like to add any commentary to our inevitable Nationals win."

"Actually… I asked you if you knew where Tina was and you told me I should film some commentary for Nationals."

She waved at him dismissively. "It's of no importance who said what or who came up with this ingenious plan."

"Okay, Rachel, please…" Mercedes shook her head. "We were up late last night…" She raised a brow. "You were up late last night. How are you so…?" She looked her up and down, disgruntled. "Bouncy?"

"Hm?" She shook her head, tapping her feet. "Oh, Noah offered me some of his energy drink and I've just been—" She spread her hands out broadly in front of her. "Buzzing with energy since."

Rolling her eyes, Mercedes fell back to the bed. "Remind me to kill that boy later."

"Please don't, I'm rather fond of him."

"Yeah, so, now that we have enough footage of your motel room… and Mercedes…" Artie piped up. "Can we go find Tina? She said she'd help me with—"

"After," Rachel interrupted. "I think we should get some footage of me entering the lobby as if I've just arrived… I think that will make a better opening scene in fact." She ran out of view and suddenly the camera jostled.

"Hey, woman! You can't just push me around."

"You won't be complaining this much when you win an award for your incredible documentary on show choir… Especially when you can say you have footage of the illustrious Rachel Barbra Berry pre-Broadway! Be excited!"

Artie turned the camera around to himself and stared into the lens blankly. "This is my excited face."

Rachel could be seen over his shoulder, her expression critical. "I'm afraid you'll never make it in acting, Artie."

Same expression in tact, he added, "This is my upset face."

She rolled her eyes behind him. "You'll one day regret not realizing what a fantastic opportunity this is!"

He half-smiled. "And I'm sure you'll say I told you so."

She grinned. "Guarantee it."

The screen faded out and the group collectively looked at Artie, who sat with his hands clasped tightly in his lap. He looked at them and then sighed. "I guess she was right."

"So that was why Rachel was banned from having energy drinks," Finn muttered, brows furrowed. "What was Puck doing up at six am?"

Mercedes rolled her eyes. "She stayed in his room while we were in New York…"

Mr. Shue cleared his throat disapprovingly.

She shrugged. "Sorry, Mr. Shue, but you don't know Puckleberry… They're kinda demanding…" Ignoring his pursed lips, she told the rest of them, "She's an early-bird, but after that night…" She shook her head, eyes wide. "He probably got sick of her complaining how tired she was and that she should be up already and gave her a Rockstar before kicking her out of his room."

Finn nodded. "That sounds like Puck."

The next video kicked into play.

A burst of music filled the speakers before the room came into focus and it was obvious that Artie was filming a party; Halloween, judging by the number of costumes being worn.

"What are you guys wearing?" he asked, panning the camera out to take in Rachel and Sam, both wearing head-to-toe blue paint.

"Well since Quinn couldn't attend tonight—" She frowned. "Something about her parents saying Halloween was a satanic ritual." Shaking her head, she continued, "In any case, Sam and I share a love for Avatar and since I hadn't already purchased an outfit of my own, I agreed to wear the costume he'd originally picked out for her," she explained brightly, showing off fangs. "I'm Neytiri and he's Jake Sully." She turned around, showing off her barely there but somehow elaborate outfit.

"Uh… Has Puck seen you?"

"He helped me with my paint," she said cheerily.

Sam snorted. "Bet he did."

Rachel rolled her eyes. "Regardless, I happen to think we have wonderful costumes. And if there were a competition, which I still think there should be, we would win."

"What's Puck dressed as?"

Her lips pursed. "Puckasaurus."

Artie chuckled. "But he already is Puckasaurus."

"Yes, well, apparently 'badasses,'" and she even did the finger-quotes, "don't wear costumes…"

As if he knew they were talking about him, Noah Puckerman, wearing his usual blue jeans and a Titans hoodie, came around the corner, red plastic cup in hand. He fist-bumped with Sam and then Artie before throwing his arm around Rachel's shoulders. "Sup babe."

She leaned into him automatically. "I was just explaining to Artie your costume design."

He smirked. "S'hot, right?"

She sighed, exasperated. "What was the point in coming to a costume party if you weren't going to dress up?"

He raised a brow and looked her up and down. "You're dressed up… In almost nothing… This night's awesome!"

Glaring, she stomped a foot and pouted up at him disagreeably.

Sighing, he grabbed her face, leaned in and kissed her, for so long that people actually started whistling. And when he pulled back, he dragged his cheek down hers, slow and suggestive.

A little breathless, Rachel stared up at him through hooded eyes. "That… That doesn't change anything!"

He grinned. "Does too." He motioned to his face where her paint had rubbed off. "I'm a human-Avatar hybrid, one step up on the evolution train."

She blinked at him. "You're ridiculous."

"You're jealous you didn't think of it," he returned cockily. Before she could argue further, he handed his cup off to Sam and wrapped his arms around Rachel's waist, pulling her in tight. "C'mon, you can help me evolve a little more," he muttered, nuzzling his face against her neck.

As they stumbled off, the camera turned back to Sam, looking awkward. "You think it's weird I'm the only blue person in the room?"

"You want an honest answer?"

He looked away thoughtfully. "Hey, wanna hear my James Earl Jones narrates Twilight impression?"

The camera suddenly started moving backward and Sam frowned. "Hey! Don't you roll away from me!"

The screen went dark.

"That's an awesome impression," Sam told them all.

While Quinn patted his shoulder consolingly, snickers and eye-rolling answered him from the others.

"I saw him later, he was really proud of that weird blue paint patchwork," Mike said, raising a brow. "Now it makes sense."

"Wait, I thought the Puckasaurus was a dinosaur that went extinct from being too awesome at sex and stealing all the girl dinosaurs away from all the sissy lizards," Brittany said, blinking at them in confusion.

Quinn shook her head, an amused tilt to her lips. "Let me guess, Puck told you that…"

She nodded. "He had proof… It was drawing from when cavemen used rocks like pencils… but it was in pen."

Mercedes' eyes widened. "O…kay…"

"Does anybody else think it's hot when Berry swears?" Santana wondered.

Nobody replied.

"Screw you all," she muttered.

"I do," Brittany reassured, kissing her cheek and nuzzling her nose against her neck.

The camera came into focus once more and they turned back to the TV.

Rachel looked over at Artie from her position on the large stage. "Try to follow Mike. I'd like to use the footage later so I can practice at home."

"The day Rachel Berry didn't want the camera solely on her… Marking this phenomenon down in my calendar," Artie muttered lightly

"Show me again," Rachel asked, tapping her chin as she watched Mike move fluidly across the stage. She nodded along to the beat, eyes following him intently before suddenly she was moving, copying him. Elegantly, she danced across the stage as if she was born to dance.

Mike grinned at her excitedly. "You got it."

They twirled, stopped quickly, bounced back onto one foot, tipped their imaginary hats, and then began a short line-dance routine, laughing all the while.

Mike stopped, clapping as she continued and tapping his toes to the beat. It was only as she came back toward him that he reached out, grabbed her hand and brought her closer to perform an impromptu swing-dance. Her little skirt flipped up as her legs moved wildly and her smile was bright and real instead of the fake one she sometimes used when on stage. Mike flipped her under his legs and turned around in time to pull her right back up. On her feet, she laughed from her belly, waving a hand and telling him to stop for a moment so she could breathe.

Panting a little, he put his hands on his waist and told her, "I didn't know you could dance like that."

Wiping her face and pushing her hair back, she told him, "I've studied every dance there is. I wouldn't want to lose a future role because I wasn't as educated as I should be."

He nodded. "We should dance together more."

Appreciative, she grinned. "I would be honored, Michael."

He held a hand out to her. "One more time?"

"If you please."

They moved back into position and Rachel looked over, waving at the camera. A hand came into view of Artie flashing a thumbs-up. And they did the whole routine once more without stopping.

"We practiced that for three weeks," Mike said, holding up the same number of fingers. "One of the best dance partners I've ever had." At Tina's pout, he bent and kissed her pursed lips. "Not my cutest though."

She smiled.

Artie shook his head. "I still say that dance alone probably would've won us Sectionals."

"We still won without it."

"Yeah, but the judges would've been blown away."

"We should've danced more," Mike said, his brows furrowed. "She had ideas, for Regionals and Nationals, but…" He shook his head. "I kept putting it off and… I shouldn't have."

Tina rubbed his chest comfortingly. "We all have regrets."

"Some of us more than others," Kurt murmured.

They looked over at him, apologetic and unsure what to say.

The clip show drew their eyes away.

"Did anybody bring batteries?" Artie wondered from behind the camera. "I think mine are dying."

"Nope."

"No."

"Dude, we're in the woods!"

"This is ridiculous," Kurt complained, glaring at the camera as he readjusted his purse. "What show choir goes hikingtogether?"

"I think it's a fantastic form of bonding," Rachel argued.

"I'm a Warbler, Rachel… When you said we were getting together with the glee club, I didn't think it meant I was going tosweat." He fanned himself. "I was not prepared for this kind of physical activity."

"Suck it up, Princess," Puck said, charging past him backwards. "Maybe if you get some adrenaline pumping, your voice won't squeak so much."

He glared darkly. "My voice does not squeak. It's naturally higher pitched and happens to be very soothing."

He snorted. "Your boyfriend tell you that?"

Kurt flushed, raising his nose into the air to dismiss him.

Puck chuckled.

"Noah… Don't make fun of Kurt," Rachel sighed.

"Yes, Noah," Kurt chastised, smirking. "Listen to your keeper."

Throwing a heavy arm around Kurt's shoulders, nearly knocking him off his feet, Puck grinned. "Babe, this is me bonding, okay? Beyonce's my boy! And dudes take shots at each other. It's totally cool."

"Is that so?" she asked, unconvinced.

"Yeah, see…" He looked back. "Hey Finn, move your chicken legs, you get lost in the woods and I'm not looking for your skinny ass."

"I don't have chicken legs!" his voice carried back. "I don't, do I? Guys?"

"Yeah, sure…"

"Nope, not chicken-like at all."

"Why won't you look at me when you say that?"

"Guys? I think my turns up," Sam said, panting a little. "I've been pushing Artie for awhile and… and I'm kinda tired…"

"Put your abs to work, Evans. We've got another incline coming," Puck told him.

"Does anybody else think a hike probably wasn't the best thought out plan for this?" Artie wondered.

"Guys, I really think we just need a positive attitude for all of this," Mr. Shue interrupted. "We're halfway up and then we'll take a break. Can everyone—" He stopped suddenly. "Where's Brittany?"

"Picking berries," Tina told him. "She went off that way…"

"Britt!" Santana yelled worriedly.

"San, I think I found the candy house from Hansel and Gretel…" Brittany replied.

"Your caveman smells," Kurt said, sniffing disdainfully at Puck before casting his disapproving eyes toward Rachel.

"That's manliness, Hummel, take a big whiff." Puck turned himself toward Kurt teasingly.

His cheeks lit up brightly. "Please get him away from me."

Rachel grinned but it faded into a wince. "Noah, how much longer do you suppose this hike will be? My feet are really beginning to hurt."

He let go of Kurt abruptly to wander over to his girlfriend. "Babe, I told you not to break-in your new boots on this hike."

"But they're so pretty," she pouted. "And look, they're pink!"

Rolling his eyes, he grabbed her around the waist and hoisted her up into his arms, carrying her bridal style.

She laughed in surprise, arms wrapping around his neck. "You can't carry me like this the whole way."

He shrugged. "So I'll give your feet a rest 'til we're over the next peak."

She smiled brightly. "How very heroic of you."

He scoffed. "Whatever."

Kurt raised a brow and watched them walk ahead. "Next time, I'm bringing Blaine," he said, directly into the camera.

"Brittany, no! Don't lick that house!" Santana could be heard shouting before the camera died.

"Worst bonding experience ever," Kurt sniffed, shaking his head.

"I had fun," Artie offered.

"You didn't have to do anything," Sam muttered. "I was the only one to push you the whole hike."

"When I asked the guys, each of them said they'd taken their turn," Mr. Shue apologized. "For a first try, I don't think it turned out that bad."

Santana rolled her eyes. "Brittanywas like, violently ill the rest of the weekend."

"She probably shouldn't lick outhouses then," Mercedes muttered, rolling her eyes.

"It wasn't an outhouse…" she defended, glaring. "It was an abandoned shed or something…"

"Looked like an outhouse to me…" she snorted.

Before they could continue arguing, the camera faded into a shot of the choir room.

"How'd you get so good at his?" Rachel wondered, peering over her shoulder.

"Lord Tubbington has long fur," Brittany explained, sitting on the floor behind her with her legs crossed Indian-style as she braided Rachel's long, dark hair.

Her brows furrowed. "You French-braided your cat's fur?"

She nodded happily. "He liked it better than the cornrows… I think those were too tight though…" She shrugged. "Do you want cornrows?"

Rachel's eyes widened and she hesitantly reached up to touch her hair. "No… I appreciate the offer though."

Santana suddenly plopped down in front of Rachel and flipped her hair over her shoulders. "Fair's fair, Berry. Get to work."

Rachel rolled her eyes, blowing out an exasperated breath, but reached up to drag her fingers through the Latina's black tresses to loosen up any knots. "French-braid for you as well, Santana?"

She waved a hand dismissively before looking down at her cell phone and typing out a message. "So how's Puck doing? He pop the Berry-cherry yet?" she wondered, smirking.

Rachel's hands stilled.

"I like cherries," Brittany offered. "And blueberries…" Her nose wrinkled. "But not asparagus."

Both Rachel and Santana appeared confused for a moment before shaking it off.

"So?" Santana asked again. "He get in between those freakishly long legs or what?"

"I don't see how that's any of your business, Santana…"

"Please, I have a pool going on this and I'm gonna win big if he's already plucked it. So fess up!" She turned around, not caring that she'd dragged her only partly-finished hair out of Rachel's busy hands. She raised a brow. "He good or what?"

Rachel flushed brightly and sat up a little straighter. "I'm not dignifying that with an answer."

She smirked and patted Rachel's knee. "Ya just did." Turning back around, she waved at her hair. "Fix that."

Rachel glared, but picked her hair back up.

"Don't worry, Rachel…" Brittany told her, patting her head briefly. "Santana thinks Puckleberry is hot."

"Britt!"

Smirking, Rachel raised her brows. "Tell me more, Brittany."

Santana turned to say something and then stopped. "Wheels, are you filming this?"

"Sam said he thought Brittany and Rachel were going to kiss… I was just being proactive."

As the Latina jumped up angrily, the camera went dark.

Artie shook his head mournfully. "No kiss."

Sam frowned. "I thought for sure when Brittany kept playing with Rachel's hair and telling her it was shiny…"

Brittanytwirled her girlfriend's hair around her finger. "We only did that once…"

At everybody's shocked expression, she shrugged. "It was my birthday gift to Puck… Rachel was okay with it because she said she supported sexual curiosity." Her brows furrowed. "And that if she was so overcome with desire for me that she switched teams Puck would never forgive himself for asking so much…"

Laughter answered her.

"You couldn't get in one more kiss?" Sam sighed at the loss. He winced when Quinn slapped his shoulder disapprovingly.

Brittany shook her head seriously. "Santana says I'm not allowed to share lady kisses."

"Hells no you aren't."

"It's okay… I like your lips."Brittanysmiled at her. "Rachel tasted like berries though. Puck took her away after only a few seconds."

Santana smirked. "I bet he did."

The TV drew their attention again.

"Okay, where's Puck?" Mr. Shuester demanded, tapping his foot as he looked around backstage with no luck. "Guys, we need to be on stage in five and…" He sighed, stalking off.

"Hey?" Artie called out to Mercedes. "Have you seen Puck? Mr. Shue's on a rampage…"

She motioned behind her with a thumb. "Think I saw him back at the waiting room."

"Cool." He turned. "Finn? You wanna give a guy a push?"

Finn nodded, walking over and moving behind him. "Where we going?"

"Waiting room. We need to find Puck."

"Oh."

They wheeled along, people moving out of their way to be courteous. "Upsides of crippledom," Artie said, holding up a fist for Finn to bump. "Holler."

"This is it, right?" They stopped, turning toward a door. "Or was it the next one?"

"No, I think this is us." Artie's hand came into view to turn the handle.

"Dude, why are you videotaping this?"

"Preserving the moment," he explained, shrugging. "Besides, if I get these two on camera, you can bet Puck will pay apretty penny to get it erased."

They wheeled inside slowly and just as Finn took a breath to yell, Artie held up a hand and motioned to the attached changing room.

They rolled closer; through the doorway the camera caught Puck sitting on a make-up table, legs dangling.

Artie sighed. "Too bad. I need new lights for my wheels."

Just then, Rachel stepped into few and between Puck's parted knees.

They couldn't hear what was being said since both of them were practically whispering, but they got the gist when Puck reached out, his hand sliding around the back of Rachel's neck and drawing her closer. Their foreheads touched and their noses bumped before Puck angled his head and slanted his mouth across hers heatedly. Panting breaths and reaching tongues, they were consumed with one another.

She reached forward and gripped his shirt tight in her hands, balling the fabric in her fists. His fingers threaded in her hair while his thumb rubbed back and forth beneath her ear. One of her hands released him to climb up his chest and around his neck, her fingers scraping down the tail of his 'hawk. In reaction, Puck's arm banded around her waist and pulled her closer. And her leg lifted, knee sliding over his thigh to rest against the table.

"Whoa, soft-core porn," Santana muttered to the room, but nobody took their eyes off the screen.

Rachel rocked herself against him and broke away from his mouth to gasp, her head falling back.

Puck buried his mouth against her neck, dragging his teeth down her pulse and suckling the tendon drawn tight between her neck and shoulder.

"Noah," she whimpered.

He let out a shuddering breath against her shoulder, closed his eyes, and leaned back. Cupping her cheek, he pressed a soft kiss to her lips and nuzzled her nose. "Later," he promised, arching his brows.

Dazed, she nodded jerkily.

He smirked. "You ready to rock the crowd, babe?"

Leaning in, she bit his lip lightly and smiled proudly as he shook against her. "I'd rather rock you."

He laughed lowly, but before he could reply, he caught sight of the two interlopers and scowled. "The fuck, guys?"

"Uh… Mr. Shue's looking for you," Finn said hurriedly.

"Ye-ahh… That's what we came here to tell you," Artie added. "We're, uh, just gonna…" The camera shook and then fell out of focus. "Roll us away!"

Finn was quick to do just that.

"Forgot that was on there," Artie muttered, rubbing his neck.

"Jesus, Berry's hotter than I remember." Santana paused. "Or was… Was hotter." She shifted, frowning.

"Puck sucker-punched me in the arm…" Finn complained. "I was bruised for weeks…"

"Your own fault for perving," she snapped, rolling her eyes.

"Like you wouldn't," Sam said, shaking his head.

"I'd join in," she corrected.

"Way too much information," Mike sighed.

The next clip came on.

"Dude, is that thing on?" Puck asked into the lens, knocking a knuckle against it.

"Hey! That's expensive," Artie complained.

"Whatever. Watch this…" He pointed a thumb back toward the middle of the choir room. "History in the making, dude."

The camera zoomed over to Rachel, who took a deep breath, clasped her hands, and announced. "I've decided to give up my solo for Regionals."

Gasps answered.

"What?" Mr. Shue asked, standing up. "But we've been practicing the last three weeks with you on lead. Did something happen?" He stared at her suspiciously. "Is this one of your ploys to get more singing time?" He sighed, dropping his forehead into his hand. "Rachel, you already have—"

"No, that's not it." She rolled her eyes. "Although I would like to point out that my talent is far superior—" She stopped suddenly and bit her lip. "In any case, I would like to give up my solo, but only if you agree to one condition."

"Of course," Quinn muttered.

"Here we go," Mercedes sighed, shaking her head.

"I think Tina should have it," Rachel declared.

The room went quiet.

Artie quickly turned the camera to a shocked Tina, who was staring up, wide-eyed. "M-Me?'

"I thought she was faking the stuttering," Puck muttered.

Tina stood up and peered carefully at Rachel. "Why?"

"Because…" She frowned, shoulders slumping a little. "I can admit that I've been… demanding lately and… And I'm sure it's been taking its toll on everybody. But… You've all been real troopers considering my attitude and…" Sighing, she reached out and clasped Tina's shoulder. "I think you deserve this. It's our last year and you hardly get any solos which, although I can't complain because the majority have gone to me, is regretful." She glanced back at Mr. Shue. "So if you'll allow me to set aside this solo, I offer the suggestion that it go to Tina, who, although not as strong a singer, will certainly bring life to it."

"I—I don't know what to say." Eyes wide, he shook his head. "I think this is a… great idea. And very nice of you, Rachel."

She shrugged modestly, but smiled broadly.

Tina looked back at Mike and then at Mr. Shue and finally at Rachel before reaching out and hugging her. "Thank you…"

Rachel, taken my surprise, patted Tina's arm slowly. "It-It's nothing, really."

"No." She leaned back. "My parents are coming to Regionals and… And I really wanted them to hear me sing, so…"

"Really?" Rachel feigned shock, but it was obvious she indeed didknow that the Cohen-Chang's were attending. "Well what a coincidence!"

Tina's brows furrowed, but deciding not to question it she turned around and hurried back to Mike, who high-fived her excitedly.

Rachel then flounced off to take her seat next to Puck, who wrapped an arm around her and dragged her into his side. "'m proud of you, Jew-Jew-B…"

She fiddled with the buttons of his shirt and sighed up at him. "She deserves it…" Her expression hardened. "But if you think I'm giving up my inevitable solo at Nationals…"

He laughed, shook his head, and kissed her forehead.

The camera lowered before fading out.

"She knew?" Tina asked, looking from gleek to gleek. "So… She really was doing it just because she knew how much it would mean to me and my parents?"

"Rachel Berry could be selfless… Who knew?" Santana voiced.

"I…" She sniffled. "I didn't thank her enough for that… My dad a-actually told me he was p-proud of me…"

Mike gathered his girlfriend up and rubbed her back.

"Should we put this on pause?" Artie asked. "Maybe we all need a breather?"

"Yeah, I think that's a great idea," Mr. Shuester said. "Artie, why don't I help you get some of those snacks ready?"

"Uh, yeah, sure. The bowls are kinda high up and if we don't have dip, I think I have that make-it-yourself stuff."

"Great." He followed him into the kitchen.

The rest of the gleeks broke into groups or pairs, some of them talking quietly to each other, like Kurt and Mercedes.

Finn stared at the floor, gripping his knees tightly.

"Are you okay?" Quinn wondered.

He felt a pang in his chest. "I-I need some fresh air." Shoving up to his feet, he made his way toward the door, tripping over Sam's legs as went and apologizing shakily. He hurried out the door and took in a gulping breath of air, pressing a hand to his chest.

It hurt. God, it really hurt.

To see her face and her smile and to hear her voice or her laughter.

He'd cried since she died. He'd cried on his mom's shoulder the day she died; at her funeral, when her dad made that speech; the first time he walked into the choir room and knew she'd never sing in it again. Rachel wasn't his girlfriend and he wasn't in love with her, but she'd helped change him over the years. She believed in him ands he was patient when others thought he was dumb. She helped him sing better and stand up against the football team. She made him think it was okay not to be cool. She was his friend, more than anything else. Maybe they weren't as close as her and Kurt, but she was still his friend and he didn't know what he was supposed to do now that she was gone.

He was lost and the funny thing was, usually when he was lost he could ask her for some direction. She was Puck's girl and he got that. He didn't like it at first. In fact, he hated it when they started dating. But he got it. It took him awhile, but it started making sense. Puck got her, in ways Finn never did. He liked those things about her that Finn found annoying or just wanted to ignore. And he was strong enough to be with her; not just her crazy and her demanding personality, but in front of the whole school and not second-guess it. He'd seen the jerk that Puck was become the nice guy he'd been before his dad ditched. He watched as the guy who used to call himself an ambadassador stopped beating up on people and failing school and started helping others, with his usual cocky bravado, and getting his crap together enough to make it into college.

And he didn't know how he could cope, because Finn hadn't been with her in like a year and a half but it hurt to think he wouldn't see her. Or hear her sing again; even stupid songs about her headband. He knew he'd have probably lost touch with her after she went to New York and he stayed in Lima, but this was different. This was knowing that she'd never leave; she'd never hit it big on Broadway or achieve all those dreams she went on about every single day he'd known her. And it felt wrong. It felt like a waste.

The door closed behind him lightly and he wiped at his face, feeling the tears cooling on his cheeks. He felt a hand touch his back and breathed out, "Hey. I just needed a minute…"

"I know." Quinn moved to stand in front of him and looked up, her green eyes gentle. "It's okay to be upset…" She frowned a little. "I wasn't her biggest fan, but…" She stared up searchingly and shook her head. "We all know what Rachel was to you… And we know you loved her—"

He shook his head quickly. "I didn't."

"Maybe you aren't in love with her, Finn, but…" She smiled softly. "There will always be a place for Rachel Berry in your heart…" She took his hand and squeezed. "She was important to you. She cared about you too."

His chest hurt again and a sob welled up in his throat until it broke and he cracked. "I don't know what I'm supposed todo…"

She reached up and hugged him, cradling his head against her shoulder. "I know."

"I don't…" He gripped the back of her shirt and squeezed her tight. "K-Kurt thinks Puck's gonna… He's gonna kill himself and I can't… I can't stop him…" He sniffled brokenly, screwing his eyes closed. "I just…" He shook his head and pulled back, staring down into her tear-filled eyes. "I don't wanna lose anybody else."

She reached up and swiped his tears. "You have the club, Finn… We won't leave you."

And Finn wasn't the smartest boy, but he even he knew that she was careful not to say he wouldn't lose Puck… because apparently even she thought he might do something.

When he got his tears under control, he let her lead him back into the house and took a seat on the couch again. She looked over at him reassuringly as the movies started up again. And as he watched, he found himself smiling and laughing and the ache faded a little. There had been some good times, between all of them and Rachel. There weren't enough and he wished it could be different, but it wasn't… She was gone and he missed her. They all missed her.

He saw Mercedes swipe tears away even as she smiled, muttering, "Crazy girl," under her breath fondly.

He noticed Santana hug Brittany tighter whenever Rachel and Puck were on the screen, like she was thankful she still had her girlfriend.

Kurt watched with a half-smile, blinking back tears practically the whole night, and he hugged Mercedes close, who was quick to embrace him back.

Mike and Tina whispered to each other and smiled as Rachel was unintentionally funny; as she sang with Tina and danced with Mike.

Sam chuckled when a clip of he and Rachel appeared, reading lines for Avatar on Ice with her being dramatic and him grinning goofily for the camera, not taking it as seriously as she might have liked.

Mr. Shue rubbed his thumbs into his teary eyes as he watched his student, so alive, fight with him for a solo or argue with him over song choices. He laughed a little at her tenacity, even when on screen he was rolling his eyes in exasperation.

And even Quinn wiped stray tears away as they watched Rachel just… being Rachel.

She argued and yelled and stomped out of rooms. She cried on cue, sang so beautifully it was breathtaking, and enjoyed the company of her fellow gleeks. She leaned on Puck, who opened his arms like he knew she was coming even when he wasn't looking in her direction; she kissed him, often, and he never settled for just a quick peck; she slept on his shoulder as they took the bus to Nationals while he absently played with her hair; she sat in his lap when he yanked her down unceremoniously, ignoring her when she said there were perfectly good chairs around; she sang with him and danced with him and laughed with him and loved him for all of them to see.

And as the last clip rolled, they were all smiling, somehow sad and happy at the same time.

"Rachel, you're up," Artie's voice called. "Tell us what your plans for the future are!"

Rachel, who was sprawled on the couch next to Puck, his arm around her waist, looked up from where her head laid atop his bicep. "Am I last then?" She grinned. "I won't have to worry about speaking for too long then."

Puck snorted. "Like you ever worry about that."

She rolled her eyes and flipped herself off the couch, falling to her knees next to it. "Well, let's see…" She tapped her chin and beamed up at the camera. "After we win Nationals, and you can be certain we will!" She raised her brows seriously. "Noah and I will be taking a road-trip from here to New York, where we will then begin our lives together." She tangled a strand of hair around her finger. "I have it all mapped out, of course. I have since I was much younger and decided that this was inevitably going to be my life, regardless of how hard it might be or what adversity I might face."

Taking a deep breath, she told him, "I'll start small. Probably an off-Broadway play, where I'll be recognized as a miracleamongst many average dancers and singers…With my superior background and unmatched vocal intensity, they won't be able to turn me away." Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "I'll rise in the ranks, getting praise from critics, until finally I'll try my hand at Broadway itself. And they'll have heard of me by then so they'll pay more attention rather than dismiss me as a new and therefore green talent." She nodded. "And then I'll blow audiences away, one by one, until I've earned a shelf full of Tony's." She brushed her hair behind her ear, content with her plan. "After that, I'll branch out to movies and guest spots on television shows and raise a family in a quaint little brownstone."

She turned and pressed a hand to Puck's arm, adding, "And, of course, while I'm doing this, Noah will be studying hard at school until he's learned everything he can and has the knowledge and fortitude to open his own music club. He'll discover fresh and unique talent and occasionally I'll grace the stage and wow the crowd as a surprise guest. And while my name is in lights, his will be honored in thank you speeches at the Grammy awards and the like." Holding a fist up determinedly, she declared, "Together, we'll take over New York by sheer will and determination!"

Her eyes wide with expectation, she panted a little. Smoothing out her shirt, she licked her lips and glanced away. "So yes, that's my dream for the future…"

"S'not a dream if it's gonna happen," Puck said, reaching out to tug on her hair lightly. "S'a fact, babe. The sign outside of Lima's gonna say, 'Hometown of Rachel Puckerman.'"

She grinned, reaching up and taking his hand, tangling their fingers. "I'm keeping Berry for my stage name, remember. It's more aesthetically pleasing."

He rolled his eyes. "Fuck if I care, long as you're Puckerman on paper."

Turning, her smile softened. "Of course." She kissed his knuckles. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Artie turned the camera around to himself. "So that's it, gleeks! Hopefully, when we're watching this in ten years, all our dreams come true." He angled it away to take in the couple now cuddled on the couch again and trading kisses. "I know at least two of us that are gonna get their happily ever after." His hand waved in front of the lens in a peace sign. "Abrams out, New Directions!"

All was quiet a long moment, like they were trying to absorb it all, before Kurt cleared her throat. "The scene where Rachel's trying to get me to dance with her and I… I keep putting her off until she finally convinces me?" He swallowed tightly. "I'd like that to play while I'm singing tomorrow. And…" His brows furrowed. "There was another one, we…" He sniffled. "We were out for coffee and she k-kissed my cheek." He raised a hand to his face as if he could still feel it. "That one too…"

"That was sweet," Mercedes agreed, rubbing his shoulder.

"The one where she started a congo-line…" Santana shook her head, smirking. "Nice booty-shaking, Sam!"

He grinned. "How 'bout the clip of her trying to teach Finn those dance moves?"

They laughed warmly.

"Quinn doing Rachel's make-up was cute," Tina said. "She looked pretty."

"Best one was her dressed up as Wonderwoman for that comic-con with Sam… Who were you?"

Sam flushed sheepishly. "Warrior Angel… From X-Men…"

"Artie, what were you doing there?"

"I'm a Professor Xavier fan, myself." He smirked. "I didn't get it on tape, but you guys should've seen Puck in his Batman costume."

"Oh," Brittanycried. "You have to use the clip of Rachel trying to get Lord Tubbington out from under that chair! I told her he was fussy…"

They were all getting excited then, asking for clips they liked, pointing out others they thought were funny, talking over each other and laughing freely.

Finn sat back and watched. And he thought Rachel would be proud of them, all spending time together without arguing or snapping, just being the family she'd always wanted them to be. He just wished she could be a real part of it. That it didn't have to happen because they'd lost her. He wondered if the rest of them would keep in touch; if they'd remember her years from now. If in ten years, they'd watch it all over again and think of that Rachel Berry girl and how sad it was she died.

And then he wondered if Puck would be with them or if they'd be remembering him too. As the boy who died with her.

He knew the answer; he just didn't like it.

Chapter Text

VI.

Puck woke up disoriented.

At first, there were yellow walls and a familiar pink blanket and the scent of her on the pillows and he just… forgot.

He forgot for a few seconds that there were boxes on the floor, filled with her things; that by tomorrow, this room would be empty and soon somebody else would be staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling; that the girl he expected to be lying there next to him could not and would not be there. Instead, he smiled; it was so foreign that his face almost hurt. He rolled onto his back, his hands smoothing over the blanket, loose threads tickling his palms. His eyes fell to half-mass as he breathed in deeply and let her scent envelop him. The sun was full and warm as it beat through the window; he could feel it against the skin of his forearm.

He imagined the daddies-Berry would be up soon and even though they were cool with him, and they knew him and Rachel were totally knocking naked boots, he didn't feel like going through the stern 'Noah should sleep at his own home, Bunny,' lecture that would inevitably come if they found him in her room, her bed, again… So he turned over to wake her up; 'cause she hated it when he snuck out the window while she was sleeping. He was already anticipating the feel of her neck beneath his lips, the taste of her skin on his tongue. How she'd smell like that shampoo she used that was seriously way too expensive - but the fuck ever if it made her hair look that shiny – and like him, since he spent most of his nights nuzzled up in her space until he could smell his cologne on her skin. But when he rolled over the fantasy of his usualmorning wake-up routine, at least the one they went through when she decided to stay home and his bed was way too empty without her, crashed down all around him.

There was nobody next to him.

No miles of naked, tanned skin or full, wavy hair falling around her shoulders and spread along the pillow. There were no light, feminine snores filling the quiet; snores she would have argued tooth and nail that she did not, in fact, make. She wasn't lying on her stomach, face half-buried in her pillow, drool at the corner of her mouth, one hand curled up under her cheek while the other reached for him, often laying flat against his stomach, where she left it most nights, fingers curling against his abdomen lazily, stroking soothingly until he fell asleep. There were no sleepy brown eyes opening to blink up at him owlishly, her full lips pursed in a pout that he was leaving. There were no toes reaching out to run up the inside of his leg and tease him that he should stay and cuddle with her; she loved being held in the morning until she woke up properly and attacked the elliptical.

The bed was empty, save for him. And he felt it in his gut first; a twisting, churning ache that festered and crawled, tearing at his chest and making its way up until it clogged his throat. He laid there a long moment; the warm happiness from before, the smile, fading into a heavy weight that fell across him, head to toe. And he stared at the picture of them on her bedside table, of Rachel & Noah, of the people they were, just starting out, with so much ahead of them. And he looked happy; he looked fucking elated. And he always whined that he looked pussy-whipped or like a bitch, but he knew it was just one of those moments… one of those times where he didn't have his guard up; where he let himself smile instead of smirk; to openly love her and not care who saw. She always looked that way with him. She never hid the fact that she was so fucking in love with him he wondered sometimes if she was certifiable; 'cause she had so much going for her and she was hitching herself to his lame ass. But then she'd scrape her nails down the nape of his neck, furl them in the tail of his 'hawk, and she'd tell him he was more than he knew; that he had so much more to offer than whatever he thought. That she believed in him. And he'd remember why he loved her; why she was worth it when every other girl wasn't; why he could see himself being happily married with a bunch of Jew-tastic kids running around. The guy in New York that made it out of Lima and owned his own business and got that sexy, driven, talented woman to be his wife.

You don't need me to accomplish most of that, Noah…

Her voice reached out and hit him square in the chest and his jaw clenched tight, ticking. "You think you're so replaceable?" He snorted, shaking his head. He directed his eyes to the ceiling, staring at the painted-over stars. "You're one of a kind, Rach… Other chicks can sing or dance or the fuck ever, but you weren't just one thing… You weren't just Broadway or Barbra or any of that shit…" His eyes stung. "I should'a told you that more… Figured you just… Y'knew…"

He couldn't remember ever regretting anything with her. There were the slushees but he was a different dude then and that felt like a lifetime ago; he'd said his apologies and she'd accepted them.

They took awhile to get together but she had to go through her Finn phase and he had to figure his shit out with Quinn and Beth and who he wanted to be rather than who he'd made himself to fit in. When they got back together, it was legit; it was serious for him and he could see it was for her too. There wasn't much of a cheering section for them at first but when they stayed together weeks, months, a whole damn year, the others started getting it. The daddies-Berry were supportive, his ma was ecstatic, Hummel started believing he'd actually be good for her, even Finn gave up trying to get her back or keep her attention on him or whatever the fuck he might've wanted that week. So there were no regrets, really. She knew he wanted to marry her someday, eventually, inevitably. That he wanted them to take New York and make it their bitch. She knew that he was in it for the long haul; that he'd do what he had to if it meant keeping her. He wasn't always in-tune with his feelings and maybe he wasn't as wordy as some other dudes, but she got the general gist of how he felt about her and what he wanted. Now that she was gone though, all he could think was that he should've said it more; should've told her he loved her; how amazing she was; how fucking lucky he was that she even gave him a second look. And even though part of him knew that she knew that, there was a larger part of him that wanted to be angry at himself; to remind him how he fucked this up too; that it was too late and there were no more chances left.

I knew… I always knew… she murmured, her voice soft and gentle. He imagined she'd be reaching for him now; the soothing rake of her fingers at the nape of his neck that always put him at ease. Like when she'd been slusheed and he wanted to crack skulls but she just wanted him to stay out of trouble; to hold her; to let it go.

"It wasn't enough…" he choked out, his skin burning as he held back the burning sob in his throat. "I should'a manned up; should'a said it more… The fuck was I worried about, huh?" He reached up and dragged his hand over his face quickly. "Bein' a pussy? Shit, Rachel…" His chest hurt so much he reached for it, pressing his palm down against it hard, like he could shove the ache away. "It's so stupid…"

I never questioned your feelings for me, Noah… You know that… I've told you before, haven't I? That despite your short range of emotions that it was always evident to me… In your touch or your kiss or just the way you looked at me…

His chest heaved with the effort of each shaking breath.

You loved me.

"Always," he said through grit teeth.

Don't regret it, please… Will you promise me? Promise me you won't regret me.

"Not you…" He shook his head, his brows knotted. "Never you."

Will you remember me, Noah…? she wondered. When you're in New York and you've opened your club and the various bands wowing the crowds are sub-par, at least in comparison to my own amazing talent, will you remember me?

He tried to think of that; tried to imagine that life; the club that he'd planned out to the tiniest details. He tried to remember the dreams he'd had of walking inside and knowing he owned it; that it was all his own creation. He tried to build up the fantasy in his head of the bartender nodding at him before serving huge groups of people that crowded his club; the pumping bass of the music, the unique voices of new and enticing bands he'd found himself, offering them a foot in the door. But when he tried, his mind was blank; he couldn't picture it anymore. Not the floor plan or the bouncer or the velvet rope; not the VIP section or the bands that people clamored to hear live, a Puckerman-pick special. He couldn't see himself there, overlooking it all, proud of his hard work, an elegant and excited Broadway star on his arm.

It was as if that life that he'd dreamed up and hoped for and even believed he might get… it vanished. It ended before it began. It was buried six feet under and there was no digging it up.

The birds started chirping outside the window and he sat up, glancing at the time. The daddies-Berry would be up soon and he didn't want to run into them; last night was too much and today didn't look like it was going to be much better. When he stood up to stretch, his body felt tired, like he'd worked himself to the bone and didn't get a good night's rest. He decided the window was overkill and walked to the door. He paused before he left, door handle in hand, and scanned the room behind him once more. There were flashes of memory that burned into his mind; of her singing at her dresser, hairbrush in hand; dancing around the room, little skirt bouncing against her thighs; rolling under him across her bed, lips stretched wide in a grin; standing in her matching bra and panties, trying to get him to help her choose which skirt and animal sweater to wear the next day; her legs locked around his waist and her mouth wide open as she panted and whimpered and begged him for more, more, Noah, more!; of her kissing him, laughing with him, arguing, pouting, glaring, stomping, smiling, singing, snoring, repeat.

She was right there on that bed the first time she told him she loved him…

"You're quiet," he muttered and even he knew it sounded like he was accusing her of something. His eyes narrowed. "What's up, B? You kill somebody…" His brows rose. "I got a shovel, babe. Say the word."

She scoffed, rolling her eyes a little, and played with the buttons on his shirt. He could see the smile tugging at the corners of her lips. "Would you really do that for me, Noah?"

"Bury a body?" He cocked a brow. "Guess it depends who it is…"

Her lips pursed and she looked up at him. "So your loyalty has limitations?"

"Babe… 'm just sayin' that if you offed Sylvester, she'd probably come back as a really pissed zombie…" He shook his head, telling her logically, "No point in burying her; I'd just grab some rock salt, gas and a lighter and we'd roast her… No shovel required."

Amused, she shook her head. "First of all, I hate to burst your ridiculous bubble, but zombies are not real…"

He cocked a brow. "Yet," he corrected.

"Secondly," she said, ignoring him, "just because the Winchester brothers do such things does not actually make them factual."

He frowned. "You're walkin' dangerous territory here, babe. Do not badmouth my idol."

Patting his shoulder, she sighed, long and suffering. "You realize your idol, the illustrious Dean Winchester, is a broken man with father issues, a long and checkered sexual history, stunted emotional growth, and who loves his car more than any human should, don't you?"

He smirked. "I'm not seeing any flaws here…"

Rolling her eyes, she pushed to sit up. "Admittedly, he has a very heroic side to him… obviously." She knotted her hands in her lap. "Even if he does so with a biting sense of humor that borders on bitter more often than not, in the end he really will do whatever it takes to save the innocent, if illogical and occasionally downright stupid, average Joe archetypes…" She tipped her head. "I suppose you two really do have quite a bit in common… I mean, while he's fighting real demons, you're often fighting the metaphorical kind… Although sometimes I do think some of your football buddies could pass themselves off as evil spawn and nobody would argue the truth in that statement…"

He stared at her. "Where are you going with this?"

She wrung her hands a little and chewed her lip. "I seem to have gotten quite a bit off track… I believe I was questioning the extent you would go to in helping me should I ever need assistance in burying a body… which really only came about from you wondering about my distracted nature tonight…"

He blinked. "Okay…" He frowned. "Look, Rach, you need a body dumped and buried, I'm gonna have questions but like… whatever." He shrugged. "I got your back, for anything."

She stared at him so long he wondered if she even knew what blinking was.

"You're startin' to freak me out."

She breathed out a chuckle. "Sorry, I…" She shook her head, her eyes falling. "I suppose despite everything I still keep waiting for you to find something in me that you won't like… For you to suddenly realize that you're with, well… me. And when you come to your senses you'll walk away…" She knotted her fingers tightly. "When we began a friendship, I had my doubts, Noah… I'm not very good with people and eventually, I find, they get tired of trying to adapt to my unique personality and simply walk away… I'm afraid when it comes to relationships I invest myself very deeply and… and while I've come to accept that friendship is fleeting in my case, love is not something I've ever been willing to give up or compromise on…" She raised her head to look at him. "When I love, I do it with all of myself and I don't… I don't regretthat… It may hurt…" Her eyes widened. "A lot... But I think if they're worth it… If for that one bad moment where they say goodbye is measured against the hundreds or thousands of good moments that make me feel so… so exceptionallyaccepted… Then I'll keep trying and I'll keep hoping that this boy is the right one… That this time I'll get it right…" She stared searchingly. "Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

"So far I'm gettin' that you had some pretty douchey friends, douchier boyfriends, and that giving up's not really an option… Already knew most of that, babe."

She nodded, inhaling deeply. "I-What I-That is…" She cleared her throat and reached out, taking his hand. "The point of all this— and I appreciate you taking the time to listen rather than assume I'm going on one of my rants and simply zone out until I've returned to more interesting topics – is that…" She rubbed her thumb across his knuckles. "Is that I loveyou, Noah… and I won't regret it… Even if right at this very moment you tell me that I'm crazy or that you can't return my feelings or that we won't work out in the long run and I'll subsequently suffer a very shattered heart that eclipses all the emotional damage done to me by previous suitors, I—"

He cut her off with a kiss. His lips were hard, demanding, even brutal in their intensity. His fingers buried into her hair and his body pressed hard against hers until she was sprawled back against the mattress and her lips had parted, her tongue reaching while a throaty moan escaped. For a long time, he laid there between her thighs doing no more than stroking her hair and kissing her until they were both panting and flushed and she was chuckling lightly under her breath, staring up at him with bright brown eyes. He stared down at her, her lips puffy and bright red and so damn beautiful…

She reached up and let her fingers dance down the side of his face. "That was a much better response than I've received in the past…"

He quirked a brow and smirked lazily. "S'cause I'm the best you ever had."

She laughed warmly, her smile widening. Lifting up on her elbows, she angled her chin up and kissed him once more, soft and light. "Yes…" she murmured. "You really are."

And it was funny, 'cause he was the one who said it but when she confirmed… his whole body vibrated, head to toe, and he felt… proud.

He kissed her forehead, the tip of her nose, her cheeks and chin, and finally buried his face against her neck and just sighed. He knew he loved her long before she said it but he wouldn't say it then 'cause he knew she'd think it was only 'cause she said it. He'd say it later, when she wasn't expecting it. For now, he'd just write it in her skin with his tongue and his fingers; breathe it into her mouth while he kissed her to distraction. If all went well, they wouldn't touch their homework at all, instead just staying in that peaceful little bubble there on her bed.

A few minutes later, she drew back, fingers dancing against the collar of his shirt, and asked, "Say I—accidentally, mind you— murdered Sunshine or various other pockets of talent in challenging show choirs… What would you do then?"

"I'll borrow a shovel from my neighbor…" He cocked a brow thoughtfully. "Buying a new one might catch attention and using my own'll probably link it back."

She smiled. "That's very intelligent, Noah."

He snorted. "And creepy."

"Yes, well, there is that…" She nodded. "I do promise, however, that I'll try my best not to put you in that sort of predicament."

He smirked lazily. "Whatever, B, my shovel is your shovel."

"You mean your neighbor's shovel is my shovel…"

He rolled his eyes and kissed her; she pretty much said all the really important stuff anyway, now was as good a time as any to shut her up. And boy did he like his method of keeping her quiet…

Her breath hitched and her eyes fell closed as she gripped him closer. "I love you," she murmured against his lips.

Now that… That he wouldn't mind hearing a lot more. He made it his mission to make her say it a lot that night, and every day after it.

He succeeded.

He stumbled back out of the room and closed the door; he held the handle so tight his fingers felt like they were on fire. And for a long minute he couldn't let go, couldn't step back and away. But then the sunlight was spilling across the hallway and he wanted to avoid talking to the daddies-Berry any more than he had to. He turned and he left; each step felt like a betrayal. He made his way down the stairs, avoiding the step that squeaked out of habit and he scowled with each box he passed, his mood darkening. They were really moving out; he'd have to drive by this same house and know that somebody else lived there. His hands fisted tightly as he walked out the front door and refused to look back; at the hallway that seemed so empty now, no smiling Rachel staring back at him. He crossed the lawn in long strides; his brow furrowed as he hopped into his truck and turned the ignition.

But he looked back while the truck sat idling beneath him; he couldn't help it.

He saw himself chasing her with the hose last summer; they were supposed to be washing the cars but it turned into a water fight. He saw them sprawled out on the grass while she took his hand and used his finger to point out constellations; fuck if he remembered any of them, but he sure as hell remembered getting up her shirt later that night until the neighbor yelled at them to take it inside. He saw her jumping out of his truck after some stupid argument, yelling back at him with those four-syllable words that she only used because she knew he'd have to look them up later – and him hopping out, slamming his truck door, chasing her across the lawn and making her figure their shit out so it wasn't just hanging in the air if she was finally dumping him. He saw him waiting, angry and bitter, only to realize that she wasn't ending it, she was forgiving him or apologizing and they were making up; they were surviving this. He saw him kissing her; laughing with, sometimes at, her; twirling her around to make her tiny ballet skirt lift; looking up and down the street to make sure nobody saw him carrying her lame pink trolley bag. He saw himself arguing with her just to get her riled; complaining 'cause she was a slave driver with homework; chasing the assholes egging her house; begging her to make him cookies or nachos or the fuck ever he was craving; whining that meat crumbles just weren't the same; checking to make sure the daddies-Berry car was gone so he could strip her tiny skirt and animal sweater off; trying to sneak across the lawn at sunrise before the sprinklers came on or a neighbor called the cops on him (again); and a million other moments.

He gripped the steering wheel tight and blinked back the burning tears. With a sharp sniff, he put the truck in gear and he pulled away from the curb, rumbling down the road toward home. He had a couple hours yet before he had to be at school but he was wide awake so going back to sleep like he usually did after sneaking out of her bed was out of the question. He rubbed his knuckles into his eyes and scraped his palm down his face. The drive back to his place was so habitual he hardly paid attention to the turns he was taking until he was parked in the driveway.

He was surprised to find the front door unlocked; nobody should've been up yet. Unless his ma had a late shift and was just getting home. He couldn't remember what day it was let alone her schedule. Hell, he didn't even know who'd been watching his sister since him and Rach usually took care of Sarah so she didn't have to shell out the cash for a babysitter. And yeah, okay, he'd never really cared before but Rachel liked her and spending time with the brat was a lot better than he ever wanted to admit. Since he'd been locked up in his room the last… however long, 'cause hell if he could figure out how long it'd been, he didn't know if his ma was just skipping work or if she found somebody to watch Sarah so she didn't have to put it on him. Honestly, he still really didn't care. The last thing he needed right now was to have to watch her too; she'd have questions and she'd want to understand what happened to Rachel or maybe she did and she'd want to comfort him or some shit and he just… he couldn't deal with that.

He shoved the door closed with his foot and listened hard for a second to see if anybody was up or around. His ma stepped out of the kitchen, rubbing her hands dry with a dishtowel. She stared a long second and then cleared her throat. "Hiram called me… He told me you showed up last night and that you wanted to stay there…" Her eyes darted away. "I guess you know they're moving…"

His jaw ticked. "Tomorrow."

She nodded. "I thought you were getting a ride with them to school and… the assembly."

"Need my guitar."

"You're playing?" She looked hopeful; her face lighting up. "You haven't… Finn said you weren't going to glee anymore and—"

"'m not," he interrupted stiffly.

"Oh…" She looked down, sighing. "You know, N—" She cleared her throat. "Puck… I won't lie and say that glee changed you entirely… But it helped." She dropped the dishtowel behind her on the counter and walked into the living room. "You didn't have any direction; you were constantly taking your temper out on kids you didn't know; you were… difficult to say the least…" She chewed her lip thoughtfully. "And when you first joined Glee, I had my doubts… I didn't see how you would fit in or why you wanted to and… And I kept waiting for the call from your principal that you'd sabotaged them somehow, but…" She frowned, hands on her hips. "But you surprised me, in the best way, and you let yourself embrace that—that music inside you. You let yourself be uncool and focused on just being you and… and for the first time in a very long time when I looked at you I saw my son again… The little boy that begged for a toy guitar and who knew all the lyrics to every Led Zeppelin and Nazareth song that your dad used to play over and over…" She laughed softly. "And then when you and Ra—" She paused when his dark eyes met hers and her smile faded. "When you got back together, even just as friends, I thought… This girl is going to make sure he never goes back; that he stops slusheeing people and throwing them in dumpsters and that he never looks at another ATM and thinks my car is a great escape tool… I thought she was going to be that good, nice Jewish girl that made sure you got your head on straight and showed you how good you could really be…" She nodded. "And she did… It wasn't all her, but I could see the dedication you had to her; the drive to be enough for her to love you…" She shook her head. "I don't want you to lose that because you lost her… I don't want you to go back to that angry, hateful boy you were…"

He ground his teeth together and stared hard at the floor.

"I just want you to be happy, bubbala…" she cried.

"I was…" He raised his eyes to hers. "And now I'm not."

"But you could be again. One day…" She shook her head, pleading, "You can't just give up, Noah."

He glared. "I'm sick of fighting, ma. Sick of fighting to not be dad; to be a son you actually give a shit about; to be a brother Sarah can look up to. I'm sick of fighting to be someone anybody thought was good enough for Rachel! I'm sick ofbeing here and not—" His voice caught. "Not having her to make it actually fucking matter…" He balled his hands into fists. "I'm sick of crying and waiting and dreaming that this was all some fucked up nightmare. I'm just…" His shoulders slumped. "I'm so tired…"

"I know, baby, I know…" She hurried toward him, hands reaching.

But he stepped away and he crossed his arms and he shook his head. "No. I don't…" He gritted his teeth. "I'm not your little boy anymore… And I'm not gonna be him, ever. So just…" He turned toward the stairs. "Stop waiting for Noah to come back, all right?" He started climbing. "'Cause he's not going to."

Her breath hitched, but he didn't look back.

When he got to his room, he shut and locked his door. He felt edgy, his nerves shot, and after pacing for a few minutes to try and calm down, he sat on his bed and grabbed out his guitar to practice some more. He needed to get the chords right and the song was… soothing. He closed his eyes and hummed under his breath, the lyrics playing through his mind, his fingers picking easily, stopping when he noticed an error here or there.

I love watching you play…

He stilled, bit his lip. "I remember…"

You fingers were always so fluid… So graceful… She sighed wistfully. You hold it like you hold me; gently… with the utmost care. Like we're so fragile, so meaningful, that you don't want to do anything that might harm us… Did you ever notice that, Noah?

He swallowed tightly. "You meant a lot more than a guitar, Rach…"

Of course… But it's what you do with what you care about that matters… The things or the people that you care about, that mean the most to you, those are what you cherish and you cradle… Who else did you do that for, Noah? Who else was so unbreakable you couldn't risk losing or hurting or breaking them?

He let his eyes open and he stared at the end of the bed, where she used to sprawl while he played, fingers tapping the beat against her heart as she listened. "No one… Nothing…"

I couldn't be everything, Noah… I couldn't be the only person in your life that you—

"You were…" He swallowed tightly and let his head fall. "You were it for me."

There were others… Other people who loved you, who you loved…

"Nobody as much as you…" He shook his head. "I could'a lost 'em all and I'd've been okay, y'know?" He blinked back the burning in his eyes. "'Cept you…" He laughed bitterly. "Ain't that ironic?"

Actually, I think it's sad… You deserve more than that…

His expression turned fierce. "I deserve you."

You have me… Don't you know that by now? You'll always have me… I'm rather hard to get rid of if you hadn't already figured that out.

He closed his eyes and imagined her there, listening as he played, and he felt it a little deeper with each word he sang and each note he plucked, but in the end there was silence. She didn't clap or correct him or offer input on his lyric choice. It was just tense emptiness. He opened his eyes and he glared at the end of the bed and his chest burned with anger. "You said you'd never leave…"

There was no answer.

../..

He played until his fingers were raw and then he figured he should probably clean himself up.

He'd just jumped out of the shower, towel wrapped snugly around his waist, and was grabbing up his clothes from the floor when something fell out of his jeans pocket. His eyes followed the clinking noise to find her ring laying there on the damp linoleum. He just stared a long few seconds before finally bending down and picking it up. He let it slide down to the first knuckle of his forefinger; it was too small to fit any further. He sat on the closed lid of the toilet and just stared at it, winking under the dim 60 watt bulb that sat center on the bathroom ceiling. It was so damn tiny and yet still too big to fit on her finger. She never took it off after the day he gave it to her. She always looked so proud to be wearing it; carrying his promise to her around like it was a giant sign that screamed Dream Come True.

Swallowing tightly, he left the bathroom, a cloud of steam following him into the hallway before he stalked into his bedroom, dropped his clothes haphazardly in his basket, and walked to his dresser. He wasn't much for jewelry, but he had a few necklaces; some made of hemp, others just chains. Rachel put them all in a little box so they wouldn't tangle or some shit. He overturned it and picked through them all before finding a long silver chain. He grabbed it up, undid it and slid her ring down, raising it up so it was eye-level. It was sentimental and usually he'd call it sappy bullshit, but he dragged the chain over his head and let it hang there against his chest, the band of her ring cool against his skin, clinging a little thanks to the water still dripping down.

He dressed quickly, dragging on a black muscle shirt and a pair of jeans before finding his dark blue plaid button-up that she called her favorite. Grabbing up his guitar case, he took a deep breath and lifted a hand, pressing it hard against where the ring rested, until he felt the edges of the diamond bite into his skin. He squeezed his fingers around it, fisting his shirt, and left his bag and the bottle of Jack behind. He would do this sober; he'd sing for her and those assholes at McKinley and then… he'd say goodbye to her dads and… And fuck if he knew how he'd survive after that.

He wasn't sure he would.

../..

When Puck arrived at school, people were leaving their classrooms to make their way to the gymnasium. He'd skipped his first two classes and spent it working on the song until he got it right. He used the bleachers instead of the choir room, 'cause just walking by there made his skin crawl still. Guitar case in one hand, he took a shortcut and found the gleeks all setting up shop near the stage. He dropped his case near them and scanned the crowd for familiar faces; he found the daddies-Berry sitting front row center, with his mom and sister on their left and Carole and Burt on their right.

"Nervous?" a feminine voice asked from behind him.

He glanced back briefly to see Kurt staring at him warily.

"No."

He smoothed his hands down his black silk vest and walked to stand beside him. "Really?" He took a deep breath and let it out shakily. "Because I keep worrying that I'll get up there and they'll start throwing fruit and…" He frowned. "These pants are designer."

Puck cocked a brow.

"Right, so jokes are out…" Kurt nodded, sighing. "Sorry, I…" He knotted his hands together. "I guess what worries me is that these people…" He shook his head, brows furrowing. "They didn't really know her and… and they won't understand the meaning of it all… Of the songs or the clips or-or any of it and…" He swallowed tightly. "And some part of me likes that because I don't—I don't want to share her with them anyway…" He laughed breathlessly. "Is that wrong?"

Jaw clenched tight, he shook his head. "It was up to me, I'd tell 'em all to go fuck themselves."

He laughed shortly, wiping a hand over his face and nodding. "And she would tell you not to use such foul language even if she agreed with you."

His lips tilted in a faint, almost-smile. "Yeah, she would…"

Kurt reached out hesitantly and let his hand drop to Puck's shoulder, but he kept staring like he was just waiting for Puck to turn around and hit him. If it was anybody else, he'd have pulled away already.

"What're you doin' out here anyway? Surprised Dalton hasn't put your face on a milk carton already."

He shrugged. "I spoke to the principal, explained the situation. He gave me leave for that day we ambushed you and today… And well," He shrugged, "Sometimes I just sneak away because everyone there, they… they don't know her and I need to be around people that do." He licked his lips, looking away. "She was special, you know… Sometimes crazyspecial," he admitted, smiling, "But she just… There was something about her and it—it wasn't just her voice, even if that was amazing, it was…" He shook his head, screwing up his nose and pressing his fingers to his temple. "I'm sorry, I'm rambling and I don't… I don't even know where I was going…" He wiped at his eyes again. "I tried talking to Blaine about it and Mercedes but… She was my best friend and I think… I think I loved her in a different way…" He stared up at Puck then. "And I know you loved her, that she loved you, so I guess… It's stupid but… Being close to you it's like…" His expression turned vulnerable. "It's like being with her again or-or something, I don't—"

"I get it," he interrupted tightly.

"You do?" he wondered hopefully.

He nodded shortly. "You remind me of her…" He cleared his throat and glanced at him quickly. "And it's not just the weird squeaky voice thing."

Scoffing, he rolled his eyes. "Need I remind you that this voice happens to be a gold mine waiting to happen?"

He snorted. "Like that shit? That reminds me of her."

Kurt smiled slowly. "Maybe I've got a little Berry Diva in me then…"

He shrugged, not knowing what to say to that.

"Are you…" He shook his head, rethinking it. "I don't want to ask those stupid questions that feel, well, meaningless, but… Finn said you weren't… you weren't doing very well and when I talked to Rachel's dads they both said they were worried, so…" He peered up at him wonderingly. "I'm not going to say I know how it feels for you because even if what I'm feeling might be stronger than what the gleeks are I don't think it's even half as difficult as what you're going through, but…" He rubbed his arm slowly. "Look, Finn's terrified you're going to kill yourself and I… I can't promise him you won't because…" He stared at him seriously. "Because I think… I think you might…" His voice caught. "And I'm not…" He looked away, tears dancing in his eyes. "I'm not going to tell you not to or give you a list of reasons why you shouldn't…" He shook his head. "Because I don't think it'd change your mind, so… I'm just… I'm going to tell you that if you do…" He breathed shakily. "If you do then just… say goodbye, okay?" He wiped at his face. "Because you-you were my friendtoo… I know…" He looked up to stem his tears. "I know we weren't like besties and we weren't braiding each other's hair, not that your Mohawk would have given me much to work with but…" He sniffled. "But you, Noah Puckerman, were a good friend to me and I… I…" His face crumpled. "I feel like I'm already missing you, so…"

Puck stared a long second and then hesitantly, carefully, pulled Kurt into a hug, bracing his arm around the much slimmer boys shoulders. He could feel him shaking and he was shit at the comforting thing; with Rachel, he just rubbed her back and waited for her to tell him everything that was wrong. He sighed. "You're my boy, Kurt… You dress and talk like a girl and I've seen you check my ass out too many times to count, but…" He shrugged. "We're cool, alright?"

Kurt let his face fall to Puck's shoulder and rest there a few seconds, leaning into his hug. "And your guns," he told him, squeezing one. "I admired those too."

He let out a short laugh and rolled his eyes. When he went to pull back, Kurt's fingers curled tightly in the front of his shirt. "Wait, just… Just a few more seconds…"

Puck could feel tears soaking through at his shoulder.

"Sh-She always said…" He inhaled thickly. "She said hugging you felt like being wrapped up; protected and loved and accepted…" He shook his head. "I get it now."

Puck knew the words were supposed to be comforting, but they burned in his chest. His face fell, eyes hitting the floor. "Yeah, well… She was a midget; wasn't hard."

He let out a cracked chuckle. "She was petite," he corrected.

He snorted.

"Okay…" Leaning back and away from him, Kurt smoothed his hands down his chest, righting his clothes like they were wrinkled. His eyes were red rimmed and there were tear tracks down his pale cheeks, but he stared at Puck strongly. "Thank you…" He cleared his throat and turned to walk away.

"Hey Hummel," he called, waiting for him to turn back. "I, uh…" He rubbed the back of his neck. "I'll say goodbye."

And Kurt stared a long second before finally nodding jerkily. "It's all I ask," he murmured before fleeing back to the other gleeks.

Suddenly there was a tapping on the mic. "Hello, can everybody hear me?" Principal Figgins asked, looking around from where he stood center stage. "Quiet! Quiet everybody!" Not getting the reaction he wanted, he said a little louder, "Sitdown!" He waved at various groups of people to take their seats. "We are now beginning the memorial assembly in honor of our own Rachel Berry…" He scanned the crowd and waited for them to finish settling. "The glee club, New Directions, has asked to be allowed to sing a few songs for their fallen leader, as well as Dalton Academy's Kurt Hummel; he too wants to sing tribute to her…" He stared sternly at the crowd. "I ask that you all keep quiet and respectful. If you don't, Coach Sylvester has offered to host a private detention for any and all of you who make a ruckus…" His brows rose warningly and the room went dead silent. He nodded. "Okay, William," he turned toward Mr. Shue, "If you would like to begin…"

"Thank you." Mr. Shue climbed to the stage and took the mic. "Uh, hello, everyone… For those of you who don't know me, I'm Mr. Shuester, I teach Spanish and I've been leading the New Directions glee club the last three years…" He took a seat on a stool and scratched his temple in thought as he looked down at the ground. "I… I knew of Rachel, but I didn't meet her until shortly after she got Sandy Ryerson fired and opened up a spot to coach glee…" He grinned slowly. "I heard her first audition and was blown away by the emotion and volume coming out of this… small girl…" He chuckled under his breath. "It was… unmatched." His eyes widened. "And as the years went on, even if I got used to that— thatpower house voice, I… I never quite adapted to her… huge personality."

He nodded sadly. "Rachel was… She was one of a kind." He licked his lips thoughtfully. "And some people might say that's a cliché, but for anybody who really knew her, I think they'd agree that she had a way about her that just…overshadowed everything and everybody…" He shook his head. "She was talented and she was meant for incredible things and I think…" He glanced away, sighing, and Puck could feel his eyes on him. "I think that if this tragedy hadn't happened that she would've gone away to New York and made a name for herself on Broadway… That she'd have her every dream come true; a shelf full of Tony's, her name in lights, and a husband that… that truly adored her for everything about her; even the things she didn't like…"

His brows furrowed. "Now, I'm aware that not everybody who has attended this assembly knew her or maybe they didn'tlike her, but…" He took a deep breath. "But there are a lot of us who did and we want to honor her in the best way we know how…" He waved his hand over and the gleeks all piled on stage, save for Puck and Kurt. "I won't ask you to cry with us or sing with us or—" He stared up acceptingly, lifting a shoulder. "Or even to clap for us when we're done, but I do ask that you listen and that you watch and that maybe you open your hearts a little and know that we lost a very important person to us and we only want to share even a fraction of her with you…"

He stepped back, placing the mic on the stand and moving it out of the way. "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the New Directions…" He gestured a hand upward to the screen. "And Rachel Barbra Berry…" A still photo of her grinning face lit up the screen brightly.

Brad filled the silence with his piano; the familiar opening to Michael Jackson's 'Gone Too Soon' lilting out.

The screen changed to a silent clip of Rachel standing center on a stage, raising her arm up as her head fell back and she let loose a long, and likely eardrum-busting, note.

Finn stepped forward first; hands fisted at his sides as his eyes swept across the crowd and then fell shut as he sang.

Like a comet…
Blazing 'cross the evening sky…
Gone too soon…

Scenes played out behind him; of her teaching him how to dance and taking a deep breath for patience when he flailed off beat. Of her rolling her eyes at the camera when he looked like he accomplished something, but giving him a thumbs up when he was looking at her. Of them singing duets on stage; connected and awe-inspiring for all to see. Little shots of them smiling or laughing or occasionally looking confused by the other.

Swallowing tightly, chest heaving, Finn hung his head while Quinn stepped up next and took his hand.

Her head tipped to one side, eyes following closed, as she sang.

Like a rainbow…
Fading in the twinkling of an eye…
Gone too soon…

The screen showed Quinn doing Rachel's make-up; they were smiling and laughing, ducking their heads as they talked about this or that. They were singing together; their whole bodies vibrating with the force of their song as they walked toward each other; both challenge and respect in their faces. Sometimes they were glaring or arguing or stalking away from each other; capturing a unique but honest view of them.

As Quinn's voice faded away, Brittany came forward, squeezing Santana's pinkie and releasing it.

Shiny and sparkly…
And splendidly bright…
Here one day,
Gone one night…

Brittany and Rachel laughingly tangoed with each other on the screen; matching each intricate step with precise and sharp movements. One scene showed Brittany braiding her and Rachel's hair together while the brunette was preoccupied ranting at the group. Other small scenes were of them laughing or talking and one of Rachel just looking very confused by something Brittany must have said. The last was of her trying to wrangle a misbehaving Lord Tubbington while Brittany wisely shook her head.

Santana stalked forward, linking her and Brittany's fingers once more and swaying them back and forth.

Like the loss of sunlight,
On a cloudy afternoon…
Gone too soon…

Rarely friends, Santana and Rachel's scenes weren't as sweet. They were diva'ing off in the middle of the choir room; equipped with neck snaking and finger-snapping and hair-flips. There was short clip of Rachel washing slushee out of Santana's hair from where she was bent over a sink. And one of her dragging Rachel into her lap just to spite Puck, who'd been reaching for her.

As the piano picked up a little more power, Artie rolled forward and took Brittany's free hand as he sang a little more deeply.

Like a castle…
Built upon a sandy beach…
Gone too soon…

Rachel and Artie's clips were mostly filled with laughter and singing. She was giggling as Artie wheeled them down a stage-ramp quickly; her hands gripping the arm rests and her eyes wide as she gave an obvious shout of surprise when they neared the bottom and he gripped one wheel to turn them abruptly, coming to a stop and grinning up at her. Another where, mic in hand, she leaned over and sang with him, smiling as he rapped back, arm movements making her raise a hand to her mouth to cover her chuckle. And the last of her picketing vigorously outside of city hall for better ramp access around Lima, a megaphone in hand and a shirt that promised she'd bring the wrath.

Sam and Mike walked forward then. Sam reached out for Quinn's hand while he and Mike harmonized,

Like a perfect flower…
That is just beyond your reach…
Gone too soon…

The first shot was of the three of them all dancing hip-hop together in the choir room. It changed to a clip of them at a comic-con. Rachel, in full Wonderwoman gear, did the fist-on-hip pose before Sam, dressed as Warrior Angel, came running over to show her something, gushing excitedly, before realizing a camera was on him and straightening up to look less geeky. One last clip showed Mike holding up a ninja-shaped cookie from the batch Rachel made for him before he leaned over to kiss her cheek in thanks. He faked a 'scared' face when Puck appeared, throwing an arm over her shoulder, glared, and pulled her away from the happy Asian boy.

Mercedes stepped up and took Sam's and Mike's hands in hers before she soulfully belted out her part.

Born to amuse, to inspire, to delight…
Here one day…
Gone one night…

Close friends, Rachel and Mercedes were laughing as they sat one side of a booth at BreadstiX. Leaning into each other, they giggled over an inside joke. It flashed over to them sitting side by side on stools, singing for the awed crowd on stage, turning to each other to harmonize and grin proudly at one another. The last was of Rachel resting her head on Mercedes shoulder, who wrapped an arm around her diva.

Tina grabbed both Mike and Artie's hands and blinked quickly as she emotionally sang,

Like a sunset…
Dying with the rising of the moon…
Gone too soon…

The first shot was of Tina rolling her eyes as Rachel stood next to her trying to coach her on breath control. Another was of Tina trying to goth her up a little while Rach smiled brightly and waved for the camera. And a third showed them side by side on a bench, playing the piano and singing a duet.

Standing in one long, linked line, the gleeks all sang together,

Gone Too Soon…

And as the piano faded away, they all ducked their heads, and Rachel's voice filled the gymnasium.

On screen, she was shown holding the camera up with one arm, staring into the lens with a wide smile. "Hey New Directions, I may or may not have stolen Artie's camera…"

"You mean stole it," Puck's voice could be heard behind her.

She rolled her eyes. "Regardless…" With a serious expression, she told them, "I promise on all of my Babs memorabilia that I will return it…"

"Man, I already put away my lock picking kit, Rach…" he whined.

She sighed. "Noah, really, I don't even want to know why you have that…"

He snorted. "I think it's pretty obvious…"

Taking a deep breath, she returned her attention to the camera. "In any case, the real reason I had Noah steal your camera, Artie, was because I wanted to this without an audience—" Before he could interrupt, she lifted a finger to stop him added, "You don't count, Noah. You're my co-star, there's a difference."

Getting no reply, she grinned back into the lens. "So, what I wanted to say was… Thank you." She nodded. "Not just to you, Artie, for doing such a wonderful job insistently taping every moment, good and bad, between all of us, but to all of you… To all my fellow gleeks who, though we had many, many differences of opinions, still believed in me and my abundance of talent and who stood not just behind me but with me on each and every stage." Getting a little teary eyed, she said, "To every one of you who looked popularity in the face and decided glee club was more important; who faced down humiliation, embarrassment, and slushees; who said yes when everybody else said no; who rose up to the challenge each and every week… I thank you…"

She sniffled. "And to Mr. Shue who…" She rolled her eyes lightly. "Perhaps taught me a lesson or two on sportsmanship and recognizing that others deserve their time to shine as well, I appreciate every lesson you taught us…"

She wiped at her face quickly. "I don't know when you'll get this, I'm half hoping it'll be after Noah and I have already left for our road trip, but whenever you get it, I just want you to know that I mean it…" Her eyes widened honestly. "To Mercedes, Tina and Artie, who were a part of our original group and refused to walk away even when we were dreadful. To Finn, who may have been coerced into glee but still tried and who lead our group with occasionally misguided but always kind-hearted actions. To Mike, who though not the strongest singer still put his heart and dance moves into every practice. To Brittany, Santana and Quinn, who picked glee over the Cheerios and showed us there were hearts behind those uniforms. To Sam, who's inner-geek and Southern charm never faded. To Kurt…" She grinned. "Who, though no longer part of our school, will always be the Glinda to my Elphaba, and the most talented soprano I've ever had the privilege to sing with…"

"It's not your Tony speech, babe," Puck teased out of sight.

"Okay, okay…" She chuckled lightly. "Wrapping this up…" She fanned her face with one hand to dry her tears. "Lastly, I'm deeply proud of each and every one of you and I hope you all get that happily ever after that I've already found. In glee, in my friends, and in Noah… I love you all and it's been an honor…" She blew them a kiss and the screen turned black.

As New Directions raised their heads, each one of them was crying, chests heaving.

The crowd was silent for all of two seconds before they stood and clapped.

Puck wondered if, for the first time ever, they were recognizing that the girl that walked their halls and took their hatred day in and day out was a real and important person…

And then he decided he didn't care, because it was too little, too late.

Chapter Text

VII.

Finn couldn't stop sniffling. He covertly wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt and then looked around to make sure nobody saw him, but it looked like every other gleek was doing the same thing, so he was pretty sure it was okay. They filed off the stage and Mr. Shue was discussing the next number with Kurt, who was talking to Brad. He didn't know what song his step-brother picked out, but he had a feeling he was gonna be crying again really soon. His eyes scanned for Puck and found him leaning against a far wall, arms crossed over his chest, just staring at the big screen that had Rachel's smiling face pasted across it. He argued with himself on if he should go see him for like, moral support, or if he should just leave him alone. So far, being the supportive friend hadn't really worked for him. He didn't know how to relate to Puck. Yeah, his dad died, but he was just a kid and he didn't think it was the same as having a girlfriend or fiancé die… But he didn't want to say that 'cause he thought it sounded stupid.

He finally noticed the frantic waving and half-smiled at his mom, who was holding Burt's hand next to her. He glanced back at the other gleeks to find most of them hugging or talking to each other and figured they wouldn't mind if he went and sat with his family. His mom welcomed him with a hug; he was eighteen and the whole school probably thought he was a dork but he didn't care, 'cause this was exactly what he needed. She stroked his hair and squeezed him tight and it wasn't until he finally started squirming that she let go. She smiled brighter but the tears in her eyes said she was doing it for him, to try and keep his spirits up or something. She gripped his hand then and rubbed her thumb across it.

"That was… It was a beautiful song, Finn…"

He nodded, swallowing tightly. "Yeah… I-I think she really would've liked it."

"Of course." She stared up at him, her lips pursed to keep from shaking. "Are-Are you okay?"

His jaw shook and he tried to clench it to make it stop, but it wouldn't. "I…" He shook his head, closing his eyes tightly. "I don't know…"

"Oh, honey…" She tugged on his hand and he let his face fall to her shoulder. He breathed in the scent of her perfume; the same stuff she'd been wearing all his life. It was comforting; relaxing. "I know it hurts…"

He took gulping breaths to try and calm down, his whole body shaking. "It's all wrong, mom… It's just… It's not…"

"I know, sweetie… Shhh… I got you."

He wrapped his arms around her again and he cried brokenly. He felt another hand, a firm, heavy hand on his shoulder, and he knew Burt was reaching out.

"She was a wonderful girl, Finn," his mom murmured. "And she cared about you very much."

He nodded.

"What you're doing… you're honoring her… With this song and all those clips... I think she'd appreciate that." Her hands rubbed circles into his back soothingly. "It's okay to cry for her… To miss her…"

"I just… I just want it t-to go back to how-how it was…" He gripped the back of her sweater in his hands. "And she-she'd be a-alive and ha-happy and-and she'd leave for New York…" He sniffled thickly. "Her and Puck, they'd be okay, y'know? He wouldn't…" He stiffened, hands flexing tightly. "He's gonna…" His eyes squeezed closed. "He's not okay without her."

Carole's hands stilled. "Finn…" She pulled back a little and wiped at his face, his tears, absently. She stared into his eyes worriedly. "Finn, what are you saying?"

He stared at her, at Burt, and that look on their faces, like… like they knew what he was trying to say but they weren't sure they could believe it. And then their eyes darted past him, to the boy standing stoically at the wall. And he knew heshould say something. He knew that speaking up now, telling them that something wasn't right, that it wasn't just grief but something else… it might save Puck's life. Or… at the very least, stop him from ending it so soon. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but then the mic squeaked and they automatically looked to the stage to see Kurt standing there. And he turned quickly in his seat and he pursed his lips to shut up and he didn't know why

"This isn't over," his mother told him, squeezing his hand.

He glanced away, at Puck again, and wondered what he'd say.

Finally, he put all his focus on his step-brother.

Clearing his throat, he wiped his hands down his vest and looked around. "Hello, uh… I-I'm Kurt Hummel…" He took a deep breath. "I'm…" His brows furrowed. "I was Rachel's best friend…" His gaze fell and a cracked smile emerged. "We were kind of a mismatched pair… and yet… not…" He chuckled a little. "I was a fashionista and she… dressed like a grandma suffering dementia, but…" He raised a brow. "But our dreams and our goals and our talent…" He nodded. "Those were the same… Those were… as big and all-encompassing as any dramatic diva's could be…"

His face fell once more and he licked his lips. "There are a number of things I want to say… Some of them are angry… They're… They're directed at you; at all of you…" He raised his eyes to look around at all of them. "At every one of you who didn't stop what was happening; who didn't stand up; who-who let her f-fall…" His voice cracked and he gripped his silk vest into his fist. Taking a deep, shaky breath, he continued, "But I'm not going to say those things… Because I think, I hope, that some of you have learned something from this-this-" He shook his head. "This tragedy that never should have happened…" His teary eyes bounced around the room, never quite settling on anyone specific.

"So instead…" He sighed, raising his chin a little higher. "Instead I'm going to say that I was lucky… I got to know her; the girl behind the voice and the animal sweaters and the dreams… I knew the girl who thought her dads were the greatest parents to ever live…" He looked to the Berrys. "The girl who would do anything for a friend…" He turned to nod at the gleeks. "Who would stand up for a complete stranger because she was tired of the toxic cycle of ridicule and hate this school perpetrates…" He turned back to the crowd and blinked back tears. "I knew the girl who idolized Barbra Streisand and who learned Na'vi so she could play Neytiri in Avatar on Ice…" He smiled slightly. "I knew the girl that dreamed big but really only wanted to be accepted…" He raised his eyes and found Puck. "Who loved a small-town boy with all of her heart and planned a whole life with him…" He raised a hand to wipe at his face. "I knew a beautiful, funny, crazy girl…" He grinned emotionally. "So yes, I was lucky…" As his smile faded and his eyes fell, he let out a shaky breath. "And I will love and remember her for the rest of my life…" Sniffling, he straightened up a little. "To a girl who could sing thephonebook and still cry…" He chuckled a little throatily, "Rachel, diva, this is for you…"

Brad started up the song immediately and Kurt's emotional soprano voice filled the gymnasium.

If I die young, bury me in satin,
Lay me down on a, bed of roses,
Sink me in the river, at dawn,
Send me away with the words of a love song…

Behind him, the screen began moving with clips of them.

A serious Kurt was speaking to the camera when suddenly Rachel's head popped up over his shoulder and grinned, her hands raising to cover Kurt's eyes. He jumped a little, took her hands in his and then turned to laugh with her.

Another showed them singing, sparkly mics in hand, as they leaned in, holding a long note, and then drew back away, smiling at the other proudly.

A third had them mimicking each other's expressions without even knowing it; staring straight ahead at something with bewildered faces before looking at the other, raising a brow, and then shaking their heads in tune.

On stage, Kurt turned his eyes toward Mr. and, well, other Mr. Berry, nodding his head as he belted out the next part.

Lord make me a rainbow, I'll shine down on my mother,
She'll know I'm safe with you when she stands under my colors, oh and,
Life ain't always what you think it ought to be, no,
Ain't even grey, but she buries her baby…

Finn felt his mother squeeze his hand tightly and gripped hers right back.

On the big screen, Rachel and Kurt were wearing white t-shirts with rainbows on them, while she waved a flag that readLima Pride! Kurt reached over and hooked his arm with hers as they skipped down a mostly empty street, most of the gleeks walking with them too, making up their own happy little pride parade.

It changed to a clip of them standing with her dads, a bouquet of roses in her arms while leaned against the stage of the play she did the summer before. Kurt leaned over and kissed her cheek before bowing to her dramatically and clapping. Artie's thumbs-up appeared in the corner.

If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a, bed of roses
Sink me in the river, at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song…

Rachel danced on the screen, grabbing up swaths of white cloth, a long filmy dress floating every time she twirled. Just off to the side, Kurt was clapping his hands approvingly.

She stopped suddenly, pursed her lips, and then picked up an animal sweater and pulled it on overtop.

Kurt stared in horror and then dropped his face into his palm, waving his hand as if to shoo her out of his sight.

Rachel looked back at the camera, winked and covered her mouth to hide her laugh before she walked off camera.

And I'll be wearing white, when I come into your kingdom
I'm as green as the ring on my little, cold finger, I've
Never known the lovin' of a man…

Kurt patted his chest, where his heart lay, and cast teary eyes toward Puck. Finn's eyes followed to see him still watching the screen, a crease at his brows and his jaw clenched tight.

But it sure felt nice when he was holding my hand, there's a
Boy here in town who says he'll love me forever,

The screen cut to a shot of Puck standing behind Rachel, arms wrapped around her, his face resting in her neck while she stroked his forearms absently, leaned back into him contently.

Who would have thought forever could be severed by,
The sharp knife of a short life, well,


The screen showed Rachel and Kurt talking about something, their hands gesturing wildly, when suddenly Puck appeared between them, an arm thrown over either of their shoulders. Rachel smiled up at him while Kurt rolled his eyes, until Puck noogie'd his hair and then he stomped off, glaring back at him and reaching for his hair worriedly. While Puck laughed, Rachel stared up at him sternly, and he shrugged before kissing her to distraction.

I've had, just enough time…

Another clip had Kurt checking out the promise ring on her finger and wiggling his eyebrows. Laughing, she bumped his shoulder with hers and smiled brightly. Puck sat down on her other side and pressed a kiss to her shoulder before talking to somebody else off camera. Kurt winked at her and gave her a thumbs-up.

So put on your best boys and I'll wear my pearls
What I never did is done…

Rachel and Kurt were dancing together before Puck cut in, surprising them both when he grabbed up Kurt and started dancing with him instead, leaving a chuckling Rachel behind, who for the camera's sake feigned irritation and stomped her foot. A blushing Kurt kept up with a smirking Puck, who twirled him under his arm.

A penny for my thoughts…

Kurt wagged a finger at the crowd, smiling emotionally.

Oh no, I'll sell them for a dollar,
They're worth so much more after I'm a goner,
And maybe then you'll hear the words I been singin'
Funny when you're dead how people start listenin'…

His eyes scanned the crowd, a tear spilling down his cheek as he raised a brow meaningfully.

Letting his head fall back a little, he closed his eyes and his lips trembled.

If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a, bed of roses
Sink me in the river, at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song

On screen, Rachel was tugging back and forth on each of Kurt's hands, pulling him after her. He rolled his eyes, shook his head, but she kept pleading and a smile was beginning to show. Finally, he nodded, letting her drag him out onto the floor.

And they danced.

They laughed and smiled and she twirled him under her arm even though she had to jump to do it.

Chuckling, he pulled her in, wrapped his arms around her and rested his chin on her head, rolling his eyes lightly as he hugged and they swayed a little.

Uh oh…
The ballad of a dove…
Go with peace and love,
Gather up your tears, keep 'em in your pocket,

He patted his vest where a thin pocket lay.

Save them for a time when you're really gonna need them, oh…
The sharp knife of a short life, well,
I've had, just enough time…

There was a flurry of clips then, just a flash of each; of them laughing and smiling; rolling their eyes at each other; stomping away in opposite directions; singing; dancing; hugging.

And then it stopped, froze, and slowed into a moment where she held her hand out to him and he took it before they walked off, hands swinging between them.

Tears dribbling down his pale cheeks, Kurt sang out the last two verses with a thick, shaky voice.

So put on your best boys…

And I'll wear my pearls…

As the piano faded away and Kurt's chin fell to his chest, a hand raising to cover his face, Rachel's voice filled the room from the speakers.

"Has Kurt told you?" she asked, looking from the camera lens and then past to the man behind it. She beamed brightly. "He's going to New York too!" She squealed, clasping her hands together.

"He didn't. When'd he—"

"We've been planning everything," she told him, eyes bright with excitement. "Of course, he hasn't applied for Tisch or Julliard yet, but—" She waved a hand dismissively. "As if they wouldn't take him." She bounced in her seat. "I told him it will be just like Friends… He and Blaine will get an apartment directly across from mine and Noah's and while there will, of course, be hilarious hijinks and miscommunications, we'll always have somebody right there that we can count on." She nodded. "And we can go to rehearsals together and classes and battle it out for the rest of our lives as to who will win the lead female role." She raised a hand to her chest and told him, "I, of course, will have somewhat of a lead in that arena since I actually am a woman, but that's what padded bras and wigs were made for. I mean, where would Broadway be if not for the gender bending roles that allow us to truly expand our horizons?" Not letting him reply, she waved a hand. "And yes, sure, with Kurt there to challenge my every role, it may take a little longer for me to get my first Tony, but…" She smiled. "It's worth it." Her brows rose. "Who wouldn't want their best friend right across the hall from them for as long as possible?"

She shifted in her seat again and flicked her hair over her shoulder. "It's wonderful, Artie… My entire life is coming together right here before my eyes… I'll have Noah and Kurt and even Blaine!" She nodded happily. "After the oftentimes excruciating business of high school, I get to step out of Lima and into New York and I'll be taking the best and most treasured with me… We're going to blow them away with our abundance of talent and marry the loves of our lives in the big apple…" She breathed in deeply and let it out on a wistful sigh. "Happily ever after, here we come!"

The screen faded back to the original picture of her smiling face.

Kurt raised his chin, sniffled, and stared hollowly at them all. "I was lucky," he murmured one last time before he turned and quickly swept off the stage.

Burt stood and crossed the gym to grab up his son, wrapping his arms around him and clapping his back supportively. Kurt buried his face in his dad's chest and cried.

Mr. Shuester climbed the stairs to the stage once more and took up the mic. "Thank you, Kurt; that was truly heartwarming…" He nodded at the younger man and then looked back out at the crowd. "Before we have Puck come up, New Directions each wrote a little something they'd like to share…" He glanced over his shoulder. "I think we have Tina up first…"

Hesitantly, the gothic Asian girl moved across the stage, her bright pink tights standing out against her otherwise all black outfit. She tucked stripes of pink hair behind her ears and cleared her throat, gripping the mic handed to her in one hand and holding out a piece of rumpled paper in the air. "Hi, uh… I-I'm Tina Cohen-Chang…" She looked up and around at everybody and then down at the ground. "I… I used to fake a stutter because I… didn't want anybody to talk to me…" She swallowed tightly. "I was scared and I didn't want to be noticed…" She took a deep breath and then raised her chin. "Rachel wasn't like that…" She grinned. "She was always herself and even if nobody else liked her she didn't change…" She shook her head and looked at her paper. "She wasn't always nice or easy to get along with, but she was honest. She was a good friend, an incredible singer, and she…" Her smile waivered. "She always knew that no matter what anybody said or did, she was going to get out ofLimaand make it big…" She took a deep, gulping breath. "And if you ever asked her, if you ever needed to hear that you could do it too, she would've told you…" She inhaled shakily. "Because as much as she might've seemed too obsessed with making her own star shine, she loved her friends and she tried to believe the best in people…" She rubbed her face with the back of her knuckles and let out a choked sob. "And I… I think…" She shook her head.

Mike hurried on stage then and gathered her up into his arms. He rubbed her back as she cried against his chest.

They whispered between them before she finally nodded and he took her wet and wrinkled paper.

"I think we all could have learned something from a girl who always talked and was rarely heard. Because it's what all of us feel like and we should have recognized her in ourselves instead of hating the independent and strong spirit she was…" He smiled down at his girlfriend. "Maybe now that she's lost, we will… I know I will…"

She nodded, wiping at her face once more and taking her paper back.

He rubbed her shoulder one last time and she smiled shakily.

Mike looked back out at the crowd. "I'm Mike Chang… I play for the football team and I sing in glee…" He grinned. "Kind of badly actually…"

Tina rubbed his chest consolingly.

He shrugged a shoulder. "When Puck first asked me and Matt to be in glee, I thought he was joking… I thought of all the people that got slusheed and I thought of Rachel and how she was never really… I dunno, accepted, I guess…" He licked his lips and sighed. "I always fit in. I was quiet and I played sports and I just sort of…. Fell into the right crowd, knew the right people…" He shook his head. "I thought I was lucky… That I'd never get slusheed, never get picked on… I didn't… I never slusheed other people and I didn't throw them in garbage cans, but… I didn't say anything either. I was just… I minded my own business…" He looked down regretfully.

"But then glee changed me… I spoke more and I danced…" He grinned. "Outside of my bedroom even…" He squeezed Tina at his side. "And I met an awesome girl that I wouldn't have if I didn't go there…" His eyes darted over to Finn and then Puck. "And I watched my friends change too… I watched them be happy and accept themselves… I watched them stop being just jocks or jerks…" He inhaled deeply and quirked his head. "And I liked them, probably for the first time ever…" He chuckled a little. "'Cause before glee, they were douches… They were mean and rude and cruel… And then… Then Rachel happened… And she was just… she was herself… The only genuine person I'd ever met at McKinley… She never really apologized for being weird or quirky or-or a diva…" He half-smiled. "And she didn't do it for me, but she made me think that it was okay… That a few slushees were maybe even worth it…"

He raised his chin and stared out at them. "Rachel loved to dance… She went to the same studio as me since she was four… She was always known for her voice, but put her on the dance floor and she could boogie with the best of 'em…" He nodded slowly. "And I wish we'd danced more… I wish I'd taken a chance when I was a kid and talked to the girl who seemed bigger than life, than all of us, but was always standing alone… I wish I was smart enough then to know that she got it right all along… It's okay to dance; in the streets, in the halls, in the bathroom if I want…"

He grinned. "So I'm gonna dance for her… I'm gonna pop-and-lock my way out of Lima and when I'm on stages all across the world I'm gonna know that she would be proud that I didn't waste my talent… I'm gonna speak up and goof off and let my inner-geek dance all over the place…" He stood a little straighter. "I'm Mike Chang. I'm Asian but I'm not a ninja; I play sports but I'm not a jock; I'm in glee but I can't sing. I'm a geek; a gleek; and a dancing freak." He popped and locked a few steps for them all to see. "And Rachel, you're my inspiration. Thank you." He took Tina's hand and turned, dancing next to her as they left the stage.

Brittany stepped forward then, working her way over to the mic. "Hi." She looked around at them all. "I'm Brittany S. Pierce…" She frowned. "Not to be confused with Brittney Spears, who isn't half as talented…" She nodded seriously. "And I knew Rachel from glee…" She took a deep breath. "Rachel was loud and she didn't appreciate Kesha's incredible talent, but she was nice. She watched Lord Tubbington for me when I had to leave town last summer because I've never had chicken pox and there was an outbreak and my mom said that I should stay with my aunt until it was gone… She even put him on Skype with me every night so I could sing him to sleep…"

She fiddled with her fingers and looked down. "I saw her when she died and I remember…" Her mouth trembled. "I remember that when she was at the bottom of the stairs I thought…" She looked up, blinking back tears. "I thought, 'But she can't die… I want to know if her and Puck's babies are gonna be Jewish too.'" She sniffled. "And then Santana pulled me away and I really hoped maybe she would wake up…" She inhaled shakily. "Because maybe not everybody liked her but did… and we did…" She motioned back to the glee club. "And he…" She pointed at Puck. "He loved her so much!" She shook her head, tears dribbling down her cheeks. "And it wasn't fair! It wasn't fair that she died… It wasn't…" She cried, shoulders shaking. "And I can't tell Lord Tubbington because he really liked her and I don't want him to hurt too…"

Santana hurried across the stage and hugged her tight, stroking her hair. "It's okay, shhh, it's okay, Britt…"

"It's not." She shook her head. "People shouldn't do that… We shouldn't hurt each other like that… It's not okay!" She lifted her head and she glared out at everybody. "It's not okay to throw slushees or to pick on people! It's not okay to make them cry or to talk about them like they don't matter! It's not okay!" She wiped her face quickly. "Tell them!"

Santana stared at her a long moment before finally sighing. She wrapped an arm around Brittany and stepped up to the mic. "I've thrown slushees," she admitted. "I've probably thrown them at most of the kids in my class… I know I threw them at Rachel…" She licked her lips. "And if it wasn't for glee, I probably still would be… I'd probably still be an angry, miserable bitch…" She cocked her head. "I wouldn't have admitted that I love Brittany, I wouldn't have friends—" She rolled her eyes. "Real friends, anyway. And I wouldn't have known that Rachel, for all her ugly clothes and her crazy and her 'better than everybody' attitude, was just as scared and hurt and lost as the rest of us… She put on a good show of being able to handle it, but she hurt too… Yeah, sure, she knew she'd get out and she…" She lifted a shoulder. "She got her guy, but… We, all of us, gleek or jock or whatever, put her down or walked all over her and ignored that she really wasbetter than us… She could sing better; she could dance better; she could love more…" Her eyes darted away. "And she would've got it all… If she didn't stand up like all of us refused to the whole time…" She nodded jerkily. "So I won't ignore it anymore; I won't pretend it's okay..." She swallowed tightly. "I'm Santana Lopez and I was a bully… But no more." She looked at Brittany and she nodded. "It's not okay."

With a watery smile, Brittany hugged her. They held tight to each other, whispering quietly, before finally stepping off the stage.

All was quiet a long moment, the stage empty, before finally Quinn climbed up and walked across slowly, her face blank.

"I'm Quinn Fabray," she announced, hands balling into fists at her sides. "Rachel and I were… friends one day and…" She drew in a breath and then let it out slowly, "enemies the next…" She lifted a delicate shoulder. "It depended on who we were dating at the time." She smiled slightly.

"I used to say I hated her because she was different… Because she was a freak or she wanted my boyfriend or…" She sighed. "Or whatever other reason I had that week, but the truth is…" She raised her chin. "I was jealous."

She let it linger there a moment and sink in.

"Rachel Berry was talented… More talented than any of us could ever hope to be and I…" A brittle smile appeared. "I can sing but I don't… I can't put the kind of emotion and beauty into it that she does." She shook her head slowly. "She was going to leave Lima and never come back and I wanted and didn't want that because if she left and I stayed then it was just proof of everything I thought all along… That she was worth more; that she would get more; and that I was just like the rest of you…" She stared out at them. "Bitter and angry that we could never measure up…" She nodded. "So I hated her and I picked on her and I told her every day, if not in person than on her MySpace page, that she was worthless, because it made me feel better about me…"

She stared up with teary eyes. "And even after all of that… After everything I did and everything I said…" She shook her head. "She still tried to be my friend… She still tried to believe there was something good in me…" Her brows furrowed slightly. "And there was; there is…"

She let out a breath and her eyes fell. "I thought the day I never saw her again would be a happy one… for both of us… She would go to New York; she would marry Puck; she would get her Tony and live her big, incredible life and I… I wouldnever have to look at her and know that I never matched up. I could be happy with me and whatever my life turned out to be…" She blinked heavily then. "But I'm not happy today… I'm not happy that I won't see her again… I'm not happy that a girl that I despised for most of high school is dead… I'm sad…" She raised her chin and stared at them, a tear tripping over to spill down her cheek. "And I'm angry…" A second spilled down her other cheek. "And I miss the way she'd storm out of a room or demand a solo or go on and on and on about how great it would be to go to New York…" She squeezed her fists tight. "I miss her laugh and the high-pitched yell that only dogs could hear and how she cried every time she sang… And I wish, just once, I'd told her that she deserved New York and Puck and all her dreams because now she doesn't have them, she'll never have them, and some of you might actually think that doesn't matter…" She swallowed tightly. "But it does… She does…"

She wiped her face quickly. "I'm Quinn Fabray and I will miss Rachel Berry."

Turning around, she stalked away.

Finn watched his ex-girlfriend step into Sam's arms.

Mercedes and then Artie and finally Sam went up to say their piece. They talked about how she was a diva but she had reason to be; how much she believed in everybody else almost as much as herself; how she accepted them as who they were and always made them feel like being a geek wasn't a bad thing but something to be embraced. Mercedes cried. Artie got choked up. Sam rubbed the tears from his eyes before they could fall. And then it was his turn.

His mother squeezed his shoulder and he smiled back at her shakily before he stepped up onto the stage and looked out across the gymnasium.

"Hey, my name's Finn, uh… I'm star quarterback for the Titans…" He gave an awkward shake of his fist in support of the team. "I… I wrote something here…" He dug around in his pocket, searching for the piece of paper. He found it and tried to smooth out the wrinkles, his brows furrowed. "You know, if Rachel was here she would've had me type this out and like…laminate it…" He half-smiled. "I'm kind of…" He shrugged. "I guess I relied on her for a lot, y'know?" He looked up at them. "She was always reminding me of all these things I was always forgetting… My mom's birthday; when class projects were due; that I still didn't have the permission slip signed for Nationals…" He perked up suddenly, eyes wide, and searched out Mr. Shuester. "Um, did I get that in?"

Mr. Shue chuckled a little and nodded.

Sighing in relief, he half-smiled. "See?" He laughed under his breath. "Anyway…" He licked his lips and peered down at his paper and all of its scratch out and re-writes; his writing was almost illegible. He dropped his hand away. "Look…" He blew out a heavy breath. "Rachel was… She was one of a kind, like Mr. Shue said, y'know? If you didn't… If you didn'tknow her then you just… you wouldn't get that, but… You would've lost out, 'cause she… She was amazing. And it wasn't just her voice, even though that… that was insanely good, like I've never— and I probably never will hear anybody who can sing better than her, but…" He shook his head. "But she was more than that; she was… She was a great friend; she triedso hard to be somebody you could trust or rely on or-or anything you needed her to be. She… She listened and she cared and she… stood up for people. Like-Like Kurt when he was being bullied. O-Or Santana when everybody thought she was feeding Coach Sylvester our set lists. She… She tried so hard to believe that everybody, even the people that bullied her, could be good people; could like her if they just tried… But they… They didn't. They didn't care about her or how she felt or-or if she cried because of what they said…"

He frowned. "In the end, she wanted what we wanted… She wanted out. She just—She wanted to be in New York, where people would see the real her and they'd take a chance and love her and… And she'd blow them away with how awesome and talented she was…" He swallowed tightly. "Rachel was bigger than all of us; bigger than this town and this school andeverything… And I don't care if you don't believe that because I know that… I know that one day she was gonna be on Broadway and they'd love her and she was gonna forget every single one of us because whatever we said or did, it didn't matter… She'd have a shelf full of awards and she'd have her name in lights and she'd be the happiest, most talented person New York had ever had the privilege to know…"

He stared out at them all. "And I would've been happy for her… I would tell my friends and my kids and whoever would listen that I knew Rachel Berry, Broadway star, once… I knew her when she was just a regular small town girl…" He smiled to himself, "living in a lonely world…" His smile faded. "I won't be able to say that, but I will be able to say that I knew a girl once… A girl that made me believe that I could be myself and I could reach my dreams and the only thing in my way was me…" He raised a brow. "So if you're listening and you were afraid like I was…" He shrugged. "It's okay… Be you… Stand up and speak out and just… Don't stop believing."

Finally, he stuffed his unused speech back in his pocket. "Rach," he sighed, "I don't a have grilled cheesus to pray to, but… If you can hear me then I want you to know that you're missed and you're loved and… I won't ever forget you or what you taught me…" With a nod, he stepped back and away and the gleeks welcomed him with open arms.

Mr. Shuester climbed the stage once more and half-smiled as he took the mic. "Okay, we've got… We've got just one last performance for everybody and then I think…" He looked over at Mr. Figgins, "I think it'll be break time, so…" He scanned the room and then nodded.

Finn turned around to see Puck cross the room, his guitar case hanging heavy from his hand. His shoulders were tense, his head bowed, and he didn't stop to talk to Brad or anybody before he grabbed up a stool and crossed the stage to take a seat.

In silence, he pulled out his guitar and threw the strap over his neck, settling it in his lap.

Jaw ticking, he licked his lips and stared at the mic.

Finn could feel the tension in the room as they all waited to hear what he might say; if there was heartfelt speech bottled up in the juvenile delinquent they all saw when they looked at him. Instead of sating their curiosity, he started strumming his guitar, deciding his song would do the talking.

Finn moved so he could see the screen, the silent images of Puck and Rachel as the plucking off his guitar filled the empty space.

The camera panned in on Rachel's face. She ducked her chin as she laughed before Puck sidled up to her, slinging an arm around her shoulder and pulling her in, kissing her temple. She wrapped her hand around his forearm and sent a soft smile up at him. Her lips moved and though there was no sound, Finn read the familiar name there; Noah.

Puck's voice vibrated through the room; deep and sorrowful and hitting him straight in the chest.

Thanks for all you've done…
I've missed you for so long,
I can't believe you're gone…

On the screen, they were dancing. Rachel was nodding over her shoulder to something Mike was saying about choreography while Puck was just swinging her around. She rolled her eyes up at him and his antics, but smiled when he pulled her in close, arm around her waist, and teasingly tangoed them across the floor. Her head fell back as she laughed and he took the opportunity to lean in and kiss her neck.

An exasperated Mr. Shue stepped in and tried to separate them. Puck smirked smugly, shrugging. And as soon as Mr. Shue turned his back, he wiggled his brows at Rachel suggestively while she just slapped his chest admonishingly.

You still live in me…
I feel you in the wind,
You guide me constantly…

They were fighting. Finn couldn't remember what it was about but the tape showed Puck stomping off, throwing his hands up, while she chased after him, shouting about something.

And then suddenly she stopped, turned on her heel, and started walking the other way.

Scowling then, Puck turned and started chasing her. He caught up, grabbed her around the waist and turned her around. They glared at one another until he said something, bending his forehead to meet hers and letting her eyes fall closed, she nodded.

Finn remembered their back and forth fights and how in the end they always made up; one or both of them apologized and they figured it out, they worked it out. Always.

I've never knew what it was to be alone, no,
'Cause you were always there for me,
You were always there waiting…

There were a few shots then; of her sitting on his lap in the choir room; of them cuddled together in the corner of a random couch, talking quietly; of her resting ice on his bruised and bloody knuckles after a fight somebody else started and he ended.

They showed them laughing and whispering and Puck playing with her hair absently, combing his fingers through it at random.

And I'll come home and I miss your face so,

Puck visibly winced, his jaw ticking.

Smiling down on me,
I close my eyes to see…

The screen showed a shot of Puck's house; there was a glee party happening inside. While everybody was in the living room, Rachel was in the kitchen. Artie filmed her wearing a Kiss the Cook apron while she put together a vegetable plate.

Puck walked in and stole a cherry tomato, grinning when she slapped his hand. Looking like the perfect hostess, she whisked the dip and put everything in order. She pointed at Puck and then at a few plates, obviously telling him to bring them out. He decided to obey her apron instead and leaned down to kiss her. Caught up, she forgot all about Artie and his camera and leaned up on her tip-toes to meet him, her arms sliding around his neck. Puck squeezed her waist and then patted her butt affectionately. He gave it a quick squeeze before letting go, grabbed up another cherry tomato and popping it in his mouth, before finally grabbing a couple platters, winking at her, and walking into the living room.

She rolled her eyes but smiled anyway.

Finn remembered how often she was there; how she practically shared Puck's room. He went over for Halo a few times and he noticed Rachel's clothes mixed in with Puck's in the laundry basket; her Broadway CD's mixed in with his. How sometimes he'd call the house and she'd pick up, 'Puckerman residence, who're you looking for today?' And how Mrs. P referred to her as her daughter-in-law already…

And I know, you're a part of me,
And it's your song… that sets me free,
I sing it while… I feel I can't hold on,
I sing tonight… 'cause it comforts me…

The next clip was a duet challenge Mr. Shuester revived and they nailed it.

They were singing; they were reaching out to each other and belting out a song as they crossed the auditorium stage to twine their hands and meet in the center.

She smiled up at him, her eyes damp with tears, her smile so wide it looked almost painful. And he grinned back at her, singing deeply and devotedly to her. He twirled her under his arm and brought her back so she was leaned against his chest, while they crooned, forgetting all about their audience.

And then she reached up and cupped his face and lifted on her tip-toes while he leaned down, and their noses touched, nuzzled, and she laughed lightly.

I carry the things that remind me of you…
In loving memory of,
The one that was so true…

Rachel's hand suddenly took up the whole view of the camera, until Artie zoomed it out a little and it came more in focus, showing off the diamond ring sitting center on her hand. He panned in on her smiling face and then over to the shocked gleeks. Brittany was the first to offer congratulations and then motioned like she wanted to try it on, pouting when Rachel shook her head no and pulled her hand away quickly. A laughing Puck dug out a ring-pop and handed it over to Brittany; like he expected that question. Rachel kissed his cheek like he'd just done the sweetest thing ever.

Finn remembered her telling them it was a promise ring and then she smiled down at the tiny diamond and she rubbed her thumb over it delicately. And for the first time in a long time, Finn believed Puck would live up to his word.

Your were as kind as you could be…
And even though you're gone,
You still mean the world to me…

They were sitting under the shade of a tree, the surrounding gleeks all making up a circle. Puck was sprawled out across the grass with his head in her lap. She was talking to Mercedes but stroking her fingers through his 'hawk. He was picking grass and throwing it at Mike, who was throwing it right back. Rachel looked between them fondly and then rolled her eyes, brushing the grass pooling on Puck's chest before returning to his hair. The grass war turned into a dandelion war turned into the boys wrestling and Rachel hardly batted an eye, simply moving back and out of the way of kicking feet.

I've never knew what it was to be alone, no,
Cause you were always there for me,

You were always there waiting…

Puck and Karofsky were about to fight; the camera was shaky, moving between the two footballers quickly. Rachel was just off to the side, covered in cherry slushee. Just as Puck moved to attack, she jumped in the middle and pressed her hands to Puck's chest, shaking her head. He was yelling and waving an arm at Karofsky threateningly, but she took his face in her hands and said something to him quietly. He breathed deeply, trying to calm down, before finally resting his forehead on hers and nodding. They walked away hand in hand until she hugged his waist and rubbed his back.

Finn thought back to how if Puck had gotten into that fight he probably would've been sent back to juvie and how it didn't matter how many of his friends were telling him not to, it wasn't until Rachel stepped in and stopped him that he actually relented. She always did have a calming effect on him… And if Karofsky had a black eye later, it was at least done off school property and without witnesses.

But now I come home and it's not the same, no…
It feels empty and alone,
I can't believe you're gone…

Puck started strumming the guitar a little harder and his tears spilled down his face, his voice a little more raw.

And I know… you're a part of me,
And it's your song… that sets me free…
I sing it while… I feel I can't hold on,
I sing tonight… 'cause it comforts me…

She was wearing his Letterman's jacket; Puck was holding it closed across her chest while she bounced on the heels of her feet, blowing out a long breath against the winter cold. The sleeves were too long and the jacket hung down so far it was hard to make out her skirt. They were standing outside the broken down bus they'd taken from one of their competitions and while everybody else was shivering, Puck just bundled Rachel tighter. She shook her head and opened the jacket, walking forward so they were pressed together and held it as closed as she could around him. He shook his head, rested his face against hers and squeezed her tight.

Finn remembered that bus took an hour to get fixed and they held onto each other the whole time.

I'm glad he set you free from sorrow,
I'll still love you more tomorrow,
And you will be here with me still…

She was crying and he wiped her tears.

She was slusheed and he washed her hair.

Somebody shouted something at her in the hall and he hugged her tight.

What you did you did with feeling…
And you always found the meaning…
And you always will,
And you always will,
And you always will…


She was laughing and he laughed with her.

She was smiling and he grinned wider.

She was singing and he gave her a standing ovation.

Suddenly, Puck stopped strumming, the sound of his guitar falling away, and he raised his eyes to stare out at the crowd.

And I know…

He gripped the arm of his guitar, fingers biting into the unmoving strings.

You're a part of me,

A tear dribbled down his cheek.

And it's your song…

His voice cracked.

That sets me free…

His eyes fell closed.

I sing it while… I feel I can't hold on,
I sing tonight… 'cause it comforts me…

The room was silent except for sniffling.

The screen moved with a clip, rustling sounding through the speakers.

"There. Is that good?" Rachel stroked her hair, trying to smooth it out across her shoulders. "You're getting my best side right?"

Artie snorted. "Rachel…"

"Right, fine, sorry…" Clearing her throat, she took a deep breath and stared into the camera. "Noah... If you're watching this then Artie has gone against my wishes and shown this to you before I could pick the right speech… Either that or it's our wedding day and his video footage skills were exaggerated because you were only supposed to see the final cut…" She waved a hand. "Regardless, this is my try at writing my marriage vows…" Her eyes widened. "I'm aware that I'm only eighteen and that we agreed that we wouldn't get married until we were firmly into our twenties, but you know I'm a planner and I think this will carry out much like my Tony speech, which I've practiced and rewritten a few hundred times, so…"

She sat up a little straighter. "Bare with me, this may become sappier than you're used to and I may or may not…" She smiled. "Okay, I'll likely cry…"

She glanced past to Artie and then nodded.

Lifting her cue cards off the desk next to her, she perused them quickly and then raised her eyes to the camera once more.

"Noah… The first time I saw you was at the beginning of pre-school… You were pouring sand down Jacob Ben-Israel's pants and telling everybody that you were the red power-ranger…" She smiled. "I remembered thinking you were very loud and I asked my daddy to take me somewhere else…" She chuckled a little. "He didn't and you continued to be loud and obnoxious…" She shook her head. "Fast forward ten years and we seemed to have switched roles… I was the loud, obnoxious one and you were the one who didn't want to be anywhere near me…" She licked her lips. "Hence the slushees I was met with shortly thereafter…" She tipped her head. "Fast-forward two more years and we would try our hand at a relationship for the first time; an ill-timed disaster, I suppose…" She shrugged, nodding. "But the next twelve months would see you grow… You would loosen the stranglehold you once had on your 'badass' image and at the same time admit your desire to be anybody but your father… Simultaneously, I would do some growing of my own and make mistakes I never thought I would. I would become somebody I didn't always like before finally finding myself again. And you would be there to stand by me and support me during one of the hardest moments of my life so far…"

She glanced once more at her cue cards and then smiled. "Though our 'friendship' only lasted a month before we began dating again, I want you to know that you are and will always be one of my best friends… You listened to me and still do even when I'm being silly or ridiculous or just plain dramatic…" Her eyes flashed with amusement. "You're a pillar when I'm feeling down; always there when I need you most. And because of you I've known the kind of happiness I never knew existed… the kind of love I always wanted but never thought I'd find…" Her eyes filled with tears. "And I'm thankful, every day, because I know…" She sniffled quickly, laughing at her own emotional outburst. "I know that you and I were lucky enough to have found each other when we did…" She shook her head. "It wasn't always easy and we both looked for love in the wrong places, but when it was right and we were ready we found each other again…" She swiped at her face, at the tears that spilled over. "And in a few years from now, when we're in New York and we have all of our dreams coming true around us, I will happily walk down the aisle to meet you…"

She looked down at the ring on her finger and twisted it, smiling. "You promised me a lot of beautiful things and we will getall of them… But the best thing you could ever give me, the only thing I want for the rest of my life… is to love and be loved by you…" She stared, brows lifted. "Everything else is secondary."

She ducked her head and wiped her face a little. "And that is version one of Rachel Barbra Berry's vows to Noah Isaiah Puckerman…" She grinned. "If I cry this much, imagine how I'll be on our wedding day…" With a laugh, she blew a kiss to the camera. "I love you, Noah, and I can't wait to spend my life telling you that."

The screen cut away and there was nothing but Puck sitting on a stool with his face bowed and his tears hitting his guitar.

The bell rang shrilly then, telling everybody break had commenced.

Nobody moved.

Puck dragged a hand down his face and raised his head. "I love you too, Rach."

Finn turned and looked out at the familiar and unfamiliar faces of his classmates.

Some were crying. Some were trying to hide it by wiping at their faces quickly. Others were unmoved.

The glee club wasn't; they were holding on to each other for support.

Finn saw his mother shaking against Burt. The Berry dads were holding tight to each other. Mrs. Puckerman was rocking Sarah, weeping silently against her daughter's hair.

They all just sat there, quietly acknowledging who was lost; who'd been hurt by it; that Noah Puckerman was broken.

And when Finn looked back at him, at his friend who he'd known for most of his life, he didn't see the guy he played football with or had Halo nights with or who he rode his first bike with. He didn't see the guy who beat up some kid for making fun of Finn 'cause his dad was dead. He wasn't the guy who knocked up Finn's girlfriend and let him think it was his. He wasn't the bad boy or the cougar-chasing sex shark or anything else he convinced their peers he was. He was just Puck. He was Noah. He wasn't even the guy who fell in love with Rachel and planned a life and who was getting out of Lima like he'd always wanted. He was the guy who lost all of that; who lost her. And seeing him there, slumped over his guitar, crying, Finn wondered if he'd ever not be the guy who lost Rachel… If he could really come back from that…

Once again, he wanted to argue with that little voice that said no… But it was getting so much louder he wasn't sure how much longer he could deny the obvious.

He had a really bad feeling it would all be over sooner than he thought.

Chapter Text

VIII.

Puck didn't remember what happened after the assembly. He'd been singing and then her voice was there and it was… sovivid, so clear. His heart literally ached.

He could hear her still, repeating over and over in his head.

I love you, Noah…

I love you, Noah…

I love you, Noah…

I can't wait to spend my life telling you that…

I can't wait…

I can't wait…

Imagine how I'll be on our wedding day…

Our wedding day…

I love you, Noah…

He was on the bleachers. A cool breeze kicked up and rushed past him. He didn't know what time it was or how he got there or what happened. He just knew that he was alone again.

He rested his head back against the bench behind him and looked up at the sky. Was it June already or still May? Summer was coming quick and he could feel it in the air; he could taste the heat every time he inhaled. Last summer was the best he'd had in a long time; pool parties, barbecues, and convincing Rachel to go skinny-dipping in the lake. Forget skirts, she owned the tiniest shorts ever made and she wore them every day, overtop her bright pink bikini. She swept her hair up off her neck, tied in a knot, leaving all that tanned, naked skin for him to kiss and touch and rub sun block into, 'cause she was always going on and on about skin cancer statistics. And she was always wearing that awful straw hat of hers that she practically drowned in it was so fucking huge.

She was already pulling out her bikini and getting it ready just last week… Was it last week or last month? Jesus fuck, how long had it been? He'd lost her and he didn't know how long ago. The fuck was wrong with him? It felt like yesterday; like he was just holding her. But then it felt like forever ago since he touched her, since he heard her soft laugh or her praise over his latest song or her cutting criticism of a fellow gleek for falling flat on a note.

He blew out a heavy breath and sat up, lifting his hands to rub his face; they were shaking. And his fingers stung; they were cut. He peered down at them and frowned. Guitar strings. Like they snapped and lashed back over his fingers.Whatever… He balled them into fists and glared past them, to the cement and the metal that made up the stands. He clenched so tight he felt the skin break open and watched as the blood dribbled out and splattered on the ground. Just one drop for each hand; then two and three. And then it didn't hurt; it was numb. There was a distant throbbing in his knuckles; it vibrated up his arms. He was so focused, just staring, that sound evaded him; a dull emptiness filling his ears.

He stared at the blood and he watched it pool. He watched it seep into the crevices of his fingers, into the cracks and the folds; as it painted across his tanned skin. And he thought of her; of how it had spiraled out around her head, how it just spread and spread, wider and wider, until it stopped, like a bright red halo, her dark hair sticking to it, soaking in it. He remembered how it clung to his hands when he reached for her, how he had to scrub so hard to get it off but he could still feel it there.

He remembered her face and how it didn't move; her eyes closed peacefully like she was sleeping; her chest didn't rise or fall; she was just still. And he tried— He tried so hard to make her wake up, to look at him, and she just— She didn't

A tear trailed hotly down his cheek, landing on one of his closed fists and mixing with his blood, swirling. He watched that awhile, as it dribbled down the length of his thumb, caught on his wrist, slipped down along the thick vein that stuck out there, before finally falling loose to the ground.

"Puck?"

His head rose slowly, like he was stuck in a fog, and he found himself staring at Mr. Shue.

He tipped his head, his face stiff with concern. "I called your name a few times…" He stared searchingly. "You were in your own little world, I guess…"

Puck looked down at his hands again, his brows furrowed. And then he released his fingers and he felt all the blood rush back into them; they tingled and shook and he could see his bloody fingerprints pressed into his palms.

Quick, stomping footsteps approached before Mr. Shue was kneeling by him. He looked up, worriedly, and wrapped a hand around Puck's forearm. "You should get that checked out."

He shook his head, his jaw ticking. "S'fine."

"Puck—"

"No," he said, blinking and trying to get past the fog, to focus. "What're you doin' out here anyway? Don't you have classes to teach?"

Mr. Shue took a seat on the bench below. "Class let out an hour ago, Puck. You've been out here since the assembly…"

Really? That long? His lips pursed and he shook his head. "Whatever, s'Friday anyway, right…"

"Yeah…" He sighed, nodding, his eyes falling. "I'm glad you came today, Puck… I know… I know it couldn't have been easy for you, but…" He looked up, staring at him supportively. "I really think singing to her could be a good start torecovering…"

He kept his eyes on his hands, where the blood had seeped into his skin, drying here or there. He frowned. "What if I don't want to?"

Mr. Shue raised a brow, cocking his head questioningly.

"Recover," he muttered. "What if I just… don't want to?"

He swallowed tightly, his face drawn tight. "Look, Puck, I can't… I can't say I know how you're feeling… And I don't think you want me to…" He stared up at him. "But giving up on yourself, that's not…" He shook his head. "That is the last thing Rachel would want from you…" He licked his lips, eyes darting around as he tried to put together some uplifting speech to talk him off the ledge. "Rachel was your biggest supporter… She-She believed in you even when you didn't…" He reached out again and squeezed his arm. "If you give up on that, on everything you worked for, that's…" He blew out a long breath. "It's just not something she would want."

He snorted, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. "I'm so tired of that… 'It's not what she would want, Puck…'" He stared at him. "I know what Rachel wanted, okay? I know what we planned and I know what we were gonna do, and saying that she wouldn't want me to give up doesn't make it all better… It doesn't make it hurt less, all right?" He gritted his teeth. "Rachel wanted me, New York, Broadway, in that order… And now she has—" His mouth shook. "She has none of that…" He blinked back tears, swallowing tightly. "And I got my ma breathing down my neck telling me to go to school and that it's gonna get better and that—that I won't always feel this way, but she's wrong!" His chest heaved with the effort of breathing. "Maybe she didn't love my dad enough to miss him when he left, every second she breathed, but that's all Ido without Rachel…"

Tears spilled over and cut a burning path down his cheeks. "And you can all tell me that she wouldn't want me to stop for her. That she'd want me to live some awesome life without her, but I know Rachel! And she was selfish, okay? She could be really fucking selfish and probably the one thing she really would want is for me to mourn her my whole—" He laughed humorlessly, shaking his head, "My whole goddamn life! And the crazy thing is, I fucking will!" He threw his hands up, his eyes wide. "I will!" He shrugged, licking his lips and looking away. He rubbed a hand over his forehead and scraped it through his 'hawk. "I'm so beyond done without her, it's just… it's pathetic…"

"Puck, listen, I know you're feeling lost or angry or just… just sad, but…" He sighed. "Your life does not end without Rachel. It… It just doesn't… There are so many things you haven't done yet. So many things you can still do and…" He dragged a hand over his face. "And you deserve to do those things…"

"If you're expecting me to suddenly give a shit, it's not gonna happen…" He raised his head and stared at him tiredly. "You can pull every inspiring speech you've got outta your vest pocket, Mr. Shue, and none of 'em are gonna do fuck all…" He shook his head. "If you haven't loved anybody so much that knowing you'll never see them again is like a fucking bullet to the chest then you're never…" He blew out a breath through clenched teeth. "You're never gonna know what this feels like… And you're never gonna get why giving in to that actually feels good…" He stood then, stuffing his stiff hands into his pockets, and stared out across the empty field. "I'm done with glee, so…" He licked his lips. "These one-on-one pep talks really don't need to happen anymore…" He shifted his weight, the silence feeling heavy, and started walking away.

"Puck…"

He glanced over his shoulder.

Expression torn, Mr. Shue peered at him sadly. "If you ever need to talk, you know where to find me…"

He stared a long moment. "I won't." With that, he left, and he didn't look back.

../..

Puck spent almost all of Friday night holed up in his bedroom. He didn't touch his homework, didn't even bring it home, and he didn't go downstairs for Chinese food with his family. Before getting home, he stopped at a dollar store and dropped a few bucks on a pack of glow-in-the-dark stars. Then he spent a good half hour trying to get the cheap ass suckers to stick to his ceiling. When he was done, he laid down on his bed, arms crossed behind his head, and just stared at them.

It wasn't the same; they weren't really hers. But they were comforting.

When night fell he didn't turn on the light. He laid in the dark and he watched the stars grow brighter and brighter, until they were all he could see. He stared until his eyes were so dry they stung.

"What do you think?" he asked aloud.

Mine were a finer quality, but I can't fault you for your line of thinking… If you remember correctly, I did once ask that you put some up…

He half-smiled sadly. "Yeah, babe… I remember…"

"This is exciting," she said, bouncing a little as her eyes darted to and fro, taking in his messy and very male-oriented bedroom.

He cocked a brow, hands stuffed in his jeans. "We're putting animal sweaters in next to my football jerseys and this isexciting?"

Sighing with exasperation, she looked over at him. "Not all of my sweaters have animals on them, Noah… I have one with hearts and another with stars and a bright blue one, if you remember, that has—"

"Rach," he interrupted, "I don't care if it's animals or Arnold Schwarzenegger on your sweaters… All I know for sure is that they don't mix well with my jerseys and they spend nine months covering up way too much of the twins."

Rolling her eyes, she crossed her arms over her chest. "You don't complain about my sweaters mixing with your jerseys when we're walking side by side, I don't see what the issue is in hanging them up next to each other." She pursed her lips. "I was perfectly content with keeping my things in my travel bag, so I don't know why we're even arguing about this when—"

"Okay, wait, back up…" He shook his head. "Look, I mean, we hang up your ani—" He cut himself off at her glare. "Yoursweaters and they just look off next to my Favre jersey, okay? It's not a bad thing, it's just different…" He shrugged. "And I don't want you living out've a damn suitcase. I got lots of space and you spend like all your time here anyway, shit makes sense…" He walked forward, kicking some clothes and a cleat out of the way. "I just don't know why you're so excitedabout it…"

She huffed, shaking her head at him. "While you might see this as a temporary living arrangement because my dads are spending some time out of town this weekend—"

"And every weekend the rest of the month, babe."

"I see it as an experiment of sorts… If we plan to live together in New York, and we do, it just makes sense that we see how our habits might intermingle or what issues might crop up that could hinder us from having a stable and happy home next year."

"We're gonna be fine," he told her simply. "Look, you get the right side of the closet; fill it with all the junk you want. You practically live here anyway."

She clucked her tongue, but dragged her rolling suitcase in closer. "I'm only keeping a few necessities. Anything else, I'm sure I can always return home for…" She tapped her chin and stared at the mess of his closet. "You realize you'll have to reorganize this…"

"It's organized," he muttered, grabbing up a football and tossing it in the air, catching it absently. "See… Sports shit in that corner, shoes in that one, and whatever the fuck else somewhere in the middle there…"

She put a hand to her hip and stared at him. "Really?"

Exasperated, he blew out a long breath. "Rach, you're killin' me. I'm a dude. Things aren't going in a color-coded basket on some shelf somewhere like in your closet, okay?"

She tapped a foot. "I'm not asking you to color-coordinate, Noah. Although it would certainly help…" She shook her head. "I'm simply asking that your closet not look like your life regurgitated everything you liked onto your floor and you couldn't be moved to do more than step over it."

He blinked at her and then tossed his ball in the closet to land on the heap of other sports things. "Can you like, not act like ma right now? There's a bed like five feet away that I'd like to get you on it so having you nag isn't helping."

She scoffed, but instead of arguing bent to unzip her bag and started pulling things out that were legit pre-hung on hangers. At his cocked brow, she told him, "I happen to like my hangers… They're polished wood and it's much better for the material."

Shaking his head, he just walked over and fell back on the bed.

When she was done prettying up his closet with her brightly colored sweaters and nightgowns, she laid down next to him, resting her head on the pillow rather than his shoulder or chest like she usually did. For a moment, she just stared at the ceiling, her brows furrowed. "It's going to be weird falling asleep beneath a regular white ceiling…"

He snorted. "You've slept here before… Legit, last Friday we rocked the bed into the wall so hard it knocked a shelf off… You were snoring in my ear 'til morning."

She glared at him, her cheeks turning a bright pink at his recollection of the previous Friday. "Yes, but if you'll notice I never just stay over for the sake of sleeping here…" She shook her head, staring back up at the ceiling. "I usually count the stars on my ceiling; much like a child might sheep…" Chewing her lip thoughtfully, she darted her eyes to him and rolled onto her side. "You know, I'm sure we could find some easy-stick glow-in-the-dark stars at the dollar store… Just a handful or two…" Her eyes widened hopefully as she told him, "It would really add to your décor!"

"No." At her pouting lip jutting out, he shook his head. "No way!"

She sighed, face falling. "But I'll only put them on my side of the bed, Noah!"

He laughed incredulously, pushing up to his elbows. "What side?" He shook his head. "You sleep somewhere in themiddle, on top of me!"

She rolled her eyes, unimpressed with his reasoning. "I don't see how a star or two would disrupt the balance of your bedroom… It's not as if any of your friends would even notice…"

"They sure as fuck would… Just because it'd make me look like a pussy they would notice and they would never let it go…"

"Oh but Noah—"

He firmed his lips and shook his head, staring at her seriously. "No. Fucking. Way."

She huffed, glaring. And then rolled off the bed to stand once more. "Until there are stars on that ceiling you can guarantee you won't be seeing any between your sheets!" With that, she stomped off out of his bedroom.

Frowning, he shouted after her, "The hell are you going?"

"I have dinner to make!" she shouted, stomping downstairs. "Your sister will be home from soccer practice and she needs a balanced meal!"

He shrugged. "What're we having?"

"Nothing you'll enjoy! And I can guarantee it for a very long time!"

He smirked, hopping off his bed and walking to his door. "You know you're gonna cave, right?" He leaned lazily against the jamb. "You can't resist the Puckasauraus, Rach!"

It was silent for a long moment before she called back warningly, "Watch me."

She lasted nine of the longest days of his life.

On the tenth day, they both saw stars, but they sure as fuck weren't on his ceiling.

He stared at the stars now plaguing his room, spread out at random. She would've wanted them put in some crazy patterns, like an even bigger star. He had a hard enough time just getting them to stick to his ceiling, he wasn't gonna try and make them into anything.

He counted them over and over, until his eyes were heavy and began to droop.

They weren't so bad, really.

"I should'a let you put 'em up…"

If you'll remember, I forgot all about it after you proved your point… Numerous times, really… She giggled softly.

He half-smiled. "I rocked your world sideways…"

You always did.

"You rocked mine too, y'know?" His brows furrowed. "I mean not just with the sex, even if you were awesome at that, like everything else… I mean, just… You changed me, y'know? Like…" He shook his head. "Like you made me a better person; a-a nicer person… I… I liked myself because of you…"

Oh Noah… You give me credit for things I only watched happen… Just because I was there to witness your growth, toencourage it, doesn't meant that it was all me… She laughed then, like she did when she thought he was being silly or missing the point. You changed for yourself. You grew for yourself… I was just lucky enough to be there when it happened; to grow with you… I'm not the reason, Noah… I'd rather think of myself as the reward

He hummed, eyes darting from star to star. "Why the hell'd my reward get revoked then?" His anger spiraled deep in his chest. "I was better… I was nicer… I even stopped throwing Jew-fro into dumpsters… so much… I was—I was a goodfucking person, Rachel…" He glared, his teeth clenched. "So why the hell did he…?" His eyes burned. "Why'd he take you from me?"

There was no answer.

It only made him angrier, sadder. He rolled over and he closed his eyes, and he gripped her pink nightgown in his arms. He buried his face there and he breathed in deep.

Will you ever forgive me, Noah?

A broken sob escaped him, caught in the fabric.

He drew his knees up to his chest and fell asleep shaking.

../..

Puck woke up feeling sluggish; like every muscle was tired and overused. He rolled onto his side and stared at the clock there, the time reading nearly noon. He considered rolling back over and going back to sleep; spending his whole weekend just like that. But then he remembered… He forced himself up and out of bed and didn't bother with changing or showering. He took the stairs two at a time and ignored Sarah's shout of hello and a plea to watch TV with her; he was out the door and booking it for his truck instead. His hands were shaking when he got inside and he was pretty sure he left behind tire tracks on the driveway from his erratic driving. But when he pulled up, their car was still there; they had two though and he didn't think they were taking separate vehicles. There was a moving truck and some dudes carrying boxes out and loading them up.

He hit the brakes a little hard and left his truck parked a little sideways on the curb before crossing the driveway and lawn and outmaneuvering a moving guy to get inside the house.

"No, not that one… That—That's going to Good Will…" he heard Leroy say. "Or, wait, maybe… Maybe take that one. I think… I think I might've put her pointe shoes in there." He sighed. "No, no, what am I saying? Just—Just take the marked boxes… They'll have 'Going' written on them in red marker…"

Puck came around the corner and found him with his arms crossed over his chest and a frazzled expression on his face. When he looked up and saw him, he sighed, his shoulders slumping. "Noah…" He crossed the room quickly and gathered him up, hugging him tight, clapping him on the back. "I-We… You just disappeared after the assembly and we thought…" He shook his head, squeezing him. With a sniffle, he pulled back and stared up at him. "We weren't sure you'd show up to see us off…" He cracked a tired smile. "Hiram said we'd stop by your house to say goodbye anyway, but…"

"Yeah, I get it…" He swallowed tightly. "I'm shit at goodbyes, but…" He shrugged, his eyes darting around to the mostly empty house. "Not much left, huh?"

His eyes roamed the room too and his face grew drawn. "No…" He hugged himself tight and rubbed a hand across his mouth. "Did Rachel ever show you this?" he wondered, moving over to the doorjamb leading into the kitchen. He laughed a little brokenly. "We measured her every day since she was old enough to stand on her own two feet…" He grinned. "She told us she was going to be tall… She said she'd be bigger than us and she'd control all the cookies because she'd put them so high we couldn't reach them…" He shook his head, his eyes warm with amusement. "When she got older it became less about cookies and more about standing out; being noticed… So when she stopped growing and she was only a little past five feet she was only sad for a minute… And then she told us she didn't need to be tall, she'd just beloud… Nobody would ever overlook her then." He looked over at Puck and frowned. "She might not have gotten the right kind of attention, but Rachel was never ignored… She shone brighter than any star out there."

"Yeah," he rasped back, nodding. "She did."

Leroy reached out and dragged his hands down the cuts in the wood, over the tiny, faded writing that said Rachel's age. "I want my little girl back, Noah…" He blinked back tears, readjusting his glasses. "I can't and I know that, but damn it I want her back…"

He didn't have any words, so he stayed quiet.

Taking a deep breath, Leroy turned back to him. "We found some more things in her room…" He walked into the bathroom, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping it across his face quickly. He stopped at the counter and pulled a box toward him. "We didn't open it, but… I think she'd want you to have it."

Staring at the box, his brow furrowed as he looked over to the shorter man.

He dragged it to the edge and tipped it over to show him the top. There written in that sparkly pink glitter glue she loved so damn much was his name: Noah, with a heart and a few stars and spirals.

His jaw ticked, but he reached for it, taking it under one arm and leaning it against his side. It wasn't too heavy, but it was full; like she stuffed it to the brim with shit.

"We found her photo albums too… She had one for ever year since she was eight…" He chuckled a little. "Family outings, first days of school, performances… She had a picture of everything."

"You're keeping them?"

"Yes… I… I'm not ready to part with them yet…" He sighed, gripping his handkerchief tight in one hand. "Hiram thinks I'm hurting myself… looking at them as much as I do, but…" He shook his head. "I'll let go when I'm ready to."

Puck frowned. He didn't like that. Everybody kept bringing up that 'letting go' or 'moving on' or 'recovering' bullshit and it just… it wasn't fitting with him. "What if you never do?" he wondered, looking up at him.

Leroy stared at him. "Are you asking if will ever let go of Rachel, Noah? Or if you will?"

He gritted his teeth and glared at the floor. "I dunno… Maybe both…"

Reaching out, he laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "Did I ever tell you that you reminded me of my Hiram?" He smiled briefly. "I used to tell Rachel, I'd say… 'That boy's your very own Hiram, Bunny,' and she'd… She's smile at me in that—that special way she does…" He shook his head. "I've had twenty-six wonderful years with my husband, Noah… I love him as much as I did the day we met. And if I'd lost him then, after only a year of loving him and knowing him and making up this beautiful life for us, I'm not sure what I would have done… I'm not sure how long it would take for me to let go of the life I'd built up in my head; of the future I knew we'd have…" He frowned sadly. "I'm not going to tell you that one day it's going to be easy or that you won't think of her or… or that what you're feeling, how hurt you are, it's just going to fade…Instead I'll tell you that Rachel loved you as much as you did her and I think, if the positions were reversed, you would want her to do everything you planned, even if it meant doing it alone…" He stared at him searchingly. "Death is an inevitability, Noah… How long it takes to happen is sometimes up to you…" He drew his hand back and stared down at the box. "You might never let her go; you might always miss her; but loving her and dying for her are miles apart…"

"Would you hate me?" he wondered, grinding his teeth. His eyes burned and he blinked back the tears. "If I couldn't take it anymore… If I just…" He swallowed thickly. "If I gave up, would you hate me?"

Leroy stared at him. "I'll never hate you, son…" A faint smile pulled at his mouth. "You're family… There are a lot of things I'd feel… Loss, disappointment, anger… But never hate."

"It's hard…" he choked out, ducking his head. "It's really fucking hard and I just don't—I don't know how to do it…"

"Neither do I," he admitted. "I'm just taking it day my day, minute by minute, and I'm hoping… I'm praying… that I'll stop feeling like there's a very large, very important part of me missing…"

He nodded, because that's exactly what it felt like. Like a limb or an organ or something really fucking huge and like, life-depending was just… It was gone.

"Sir?" One of the moving men appeared in the room. "Truck's full. We've got all the boxes you labeled."

"Yes, okay, uh, thank you…" He nodded distantly. "I assume my husband's—"

"Paid in full." He flipped a clipboard under his arm. "We'll get everything there safely, I promise."

"Thank you, it's… It's all very important to us."

He smiled briefly, gave a short nod, and turned to leave.

Puck stared after him. "Time to go?"

Leroy looked back at him. "I'm afraid so…" He looked around the room once more, eyes taking in every detail. "Every room feels like it's full of sentimentality… And I feel like I'm just selling it to the highest bidder."

"Somebody bought it then?"

"Hiram's closing the deal now… They won't move in for another week or two, but it's official…" He grimaced. "The Berry house no more."

Puck scowled.

"Leroy? I just saw the moving truck pull out. I guess it's all loaded up then…" Hiram arrived, crossing the living room, his footsteps echoing. "If we want to make it in time, we should leave for Noah's now, or we'll run into traffic. I don't—" He stopped, spotting him. "Well… That fixes that." He looked down at the box and blew out a long breath. "Have you looked inside yet?"

His jaw ticked as he stared at the box. "No."

He smiled briefly. "She was sentimental…"

Puck nodded, tracing a wobbly star-shape with his thumb.

"Well…" Leroy looked between them. "We should… We should say our goodbyes and—and exchange numbers…" He dug around in his pocket. "I wrote down every number you could ever need if you want to get a hold of us…" He readjusted his glasses and held out a wrinkled piece of paper. "We're staying with my cousin Matthew's and his wife, but I put down Nana Debbie's number, because I just know she's going to want to visit a lot… I also put down Hiram's brother Joseph, because if you can't find us at those other two numbers, then I'm sure he'll know where we are and get a message to us. And a few others, just in case…" He wiped his palms on his pants. "That-That should be everybody…"

"You got my and ma's number?" he wondered.

"We do… We also have Kurt's home and cell phone number…"

"And Mr. Shuester's," Hiram added.

"Okay…" He shifted the box off his side and put it down on the counter. "So, uh…" He looked around awkwardly, blowing out a shaky breath.

Leroy reached for him first, dragging him into a tight hug. He squeezed him close and let out a choked sound. "You'll call," he told him, not a question but a demand. He gave him a little shake to make it stick. "You'll call us when you're lost or you're upset or-or for anything… Anything at all, Noah!"

He pressed his face down into Leroy's shoulder and he nodded jerkily. "Yeah… Yeah, I'll call…"

"You're just saying that," he murmured sadly. He rubbed his back and sniffled. "But if you change your mind… you call any time and I promise I'll pick up."

"Okay."

He stood back, holding Puck's face in his hands, stared at him a long moment and then nodded. Finally, he stepped away, grabbing out his handkerchief once more to wipe at his face.

Hiram squeezed his husband's shoulder reassuringly, bent to say something and got a nod in return. Finally, he turned to Puck. "Noah, there's something we talked about the other night and I feel like it should be done in person…" He brought his bag up onto the counter and pulled out a long, yellow envelope from inside. He held it out to him. "She's not going to need this anymore and I know… I know you're not going to want it, but we want you to take it…" He stared at him searchingly. "We want you to use it however you see fit…" He pushed it into Puck's hands. "Rachel had a plan for it and she knew what she wanted… She would've accomplished it too, but… Now that she's… She's not here, there's no use in it going to waste, so…" He swallowed tightly and stared at him seriously. "It's yours."

Puck's brows furrowed. He opened the envelope and pulled out the papers inside. Most of it was in legalese, which he totally didn't speak fluently. But then he was starting to pick up on things like bank transfer and funds and holy fuck… "This is her college fund," he muttered. "This… You…" He looked up at them. "You transferred me her trust fund?"

Hiram gave a short nod. "She was going to use it to help pay for your road trip and then for college and living expenses in New York… There was more than enough to help with anything she might need…" He smiled briefly. "We invested well and her future was the only thing we saw fit to put the money toward…" He reached out to tap the envelope meaningfully. "She would want you to have that and so do we…" He shook his head. "If you want to spend it on college or… Or backpacking across Europeto find yourself or heal or anything… Then do it."

He shoved it back toward them. "I-I can't take this. It's—It's too much! I—"

"Noah, please," Hiram said gently. "It's just money…"

"It's a buttload of fucking money. This is… It's insane, you know that, right?" He shook his head. "I don't want your money, I—"

"It's not to replace her… It's not…" He sighed. "It's supposed to help make everything just… just a little bit easier… You won't have to worry… You can go to school; you can get an apartment; you can just focus on getting yourself better…" He clasped his hands tight. "If I can't invest in my daughter… then I'll invest in my son-in-law…" He stared at him. "Because that's what you were going to be and who I will continue to think of you as…"

"I-I-I don't… I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to do with this…"

This shit was overwhelming. There was a large sum of money right there at his fingertips and it was just… It was all wrong. This was supposed to get them to New York and into their own apartment and pay for her to go to school so they could get everything they wanted; so they could live out their dream life. And now he was going it alone and it was just… It was too much and not enough and… Just wrong.

"You take it and you do whatever you feel is right for you…"

Puck stood there, his head shaking.

"You don't really have a choice, son. It's been transferred; it's yours."

"I don't know what to say…"

"Goodbye," Hiram told him. "You say goodbye."

He looked up at him; at the towering, sad figure before him. "That's it?"

He held his arms out. "That's it."

He shook his head. "Doesn't seem like enough."

"Never does." He reached for him, pulled him in for a hug. "So you say goodbye; you stay in touch; you live your life the way you deserve… And we'll always be there; always supporting you from wherever we might be…" He squeezed him tight. "You'll always be like a son to us, Noah… We'll always love you…"

He hugged him back, but inside he was biting on the words, Then why are you leaving me?

He didn't say them, because they were broken enough.

So he squeezed back until every muscle in his body burned with the pressure.

And then he watched them, standing there, side by side, not quite touching but supporting each other still.

"Goodbye," he said, his voice shaking.

"Goodbye, Noah."

And they turned and left, reaching out and taking one another's hands.

Their footsteps echoed as they walked through the living room and then the click of the door as they closed it reverberated back and finally he could hear the car start in the distance. He heard it back up and out of the driveway and take off down the road. And then there was just silence. Just him standing in an empty house, with nothing but a few boxes, one of which with his name on it. So he grabbed it up and he walked out of the house, locking the door behind him with the extra key they hid in a really obviously fake rock. He stared out across the lawn and at the neighbors walking down the sidewalk or the kids playing on their bikes. He dug out the piece of paper with their phone numbers on it; the numbers of everybody they knew that could get him in contact with them. And he looked at the box with his name in her swirly glitter-glue writing. He looked at the envelope that said tens of thousands of dollars was just put into his account. He walked across the yard and he dropped the contact paper to the ground.

He'd never call. He was pretty sure they knew it too.

What was goodbye if he didn't mean it?

And he really fucking meant it.

../..

He didn't open the box.

He went home and he dropped it on the end of his bed and he stared at it. For hours, he just stared at it. He wanted to know and yet he didn't; he didn't want to open it up and see whatever it was that she kept in there that was so important. He paced his floor; he argued with himself; he considered just putting it away in his closet and never thinking of it again. He'd put the papers that said he now had so much fucking cash he didn't even know what the hell he was supposed to do with it all so far he wouldn't have to see it. It was enough for a down payment on a house for fucksakes. Not a huge house; not like a mansion or some shit, but still… He didn't need it though. Before, all he ever needed money for was dip and gas and taking Rachel out to those vegan restaurants she liked so damn much, and the dip thing went out the window 'cause Rachel didn't exactly like that particular habit. She said his mouth tasted weird after, so he cut that shit out; like he needed an excuse not to get his mack on with his girl. Fuck that.

Deciding he didn't want to think about it, he grabbed up his iPod and laid back on his bed, keeping his feet away from the box. But when he stared up at the ceiling he could make out the shape of the glow-in-the-dark stars and his jaw ticked irritably. So he shut his eyes and he put his music on shuffle, hitting the next button until he found something he liked. He blasted it loudly, needing it to drown out his thoughts; to drown out everything. He didn't want to think about stars or boxes or shitload's of money or all his shitty abandonment issues that were resurfacing since his replacement dads up and ditched him too. He didn't want to think at all.

Leonard Cohen's voice and his guitar filled his ears, whisking him away.

The dark strains of Dress Rehearsal Rag settled into his every sense; he could feel it thrumming in his chest, twisting and twitching in his fingers.

Just take a look at your body now,
there's nothing much to save
and a bitter voice in the mirror cries,
"Hey, Prince, you need a shave."
Now if you can manage to get
your trembling fingers to behave,
why don't you try unwrapping
a stainless steel razor blade?
That's right, it's come to this,
yes it's come to this,
and wasn't it a long way down,
wasn't it a strange way down
?

He swallowed tightly, the muscles of his face tightening, spreading lower as his body seemed to tense and release and the full weight of the song, of his feelings, washed over him. He clenched his teeth to keep his mouth from trembling; his eyes to stop the burn, but they persisted. His body trembled, like his boned were shaking their way out of his skin.

And you've got a gift for anyone
who will give you his applause.
I thought you were a racing man,
ah, but you couldn't take the pace.
That's a funeral in the mirror
and it's stopping at your face.
That's right, it's come to this,
yes it's come to this,
and wasn't it a long way down,
ah wasn't it a strange way down?

His fingers gripped at his chest, searching out the weight of her ring there and squeezed the fabric-covered metal into his palm until it hurt.

He ground his teeth and let his thumb drag over the next button but didn't push it.

He knew what was coming and he could feel his heart hammering a little harder at his ribs, but he waited and he listened.

Once there was a path
and a girl with chestnut hair,
and you passed the summers
picking all of the berries that grew there;
there were times she was a woman,
oh, there were times she was just a child,
and you held her in the shadows
where the raspberries grow wild.
And you climbed the twilight mountains
and you sang about the view,
and everywhere that you wandered
love seemed to go along with you.

That's a hard one to remember,
yes it makes you clench your fist.

And then the veins stand out like highways,
all along your wrist.
And yes it's come to this,
it's come to this,
and wasn't it a long way down,
wasn't it a strange way down?

He sat up suddenly, his chest heaving, tears spilling out of his eyes, and he pulled the buds from his ear and left his iPod there on his bed, crooning out at him with that haunting voice. He shoved off the bed, accidentally kicking the box, and suddenly the weight of everything was on him again. He buried his head in his hands and he dragged his finger over the hair that had grown there, sharp and longer than it'd been in years.

And he could hear it still, just there behind him, the guitar strumming a little too hard.

But you've used up all your coupons
except the one that seems
to be written on your wrist
along with several thousand dreams.

And it was too much; just all of it.

He grabbed up his bag searching through it with shaking, desperate hands and he found exactly what he was looking for.

His old friend Jack stared back at him; the amber whiskey inside calling, promising him that haze and fuzz and the fog that kept things from hurting so much.

Distantly, as he was unscrewing the cap, he remembered how his dad used to depend on this shit too damn much. Still, he took a burning swig and he figured maybe his old man had it right for once. Maybe not feeling was better. But when he leaned back and he could still see her there in his room, still feel the empty space beside him where she should be, he wondered if there was really any number of bottles he could knock back that would truly make it stop.

He knew there wasn't.

It didn't matter how much he drank or how hard he tried not to feel it, she'd always be there, right at the edge of everything, just out of reach.

He closed his eyes and took another long swig, and then he put Dress Rehearsal Rag on repeat.

Four o'clock in the afternoon
and I didn't feel like very much…

Somewhere between Jack and Jose and losing count of the stars on his ceiling, he gave up. He laid down arms and saidfuck it. This was it. This was his life. This was all he'd ever be. There was no going back. No fixing this. No being the Noah she loved and wanted to spend her life with. He was gone. He was dead. It was over. Everything he wanted; everything they planned; it was all just gone.

There was no going back now and with a drunken smile, he thought, 'Good… Because there's nothing to go back to.'

That's right, it's come to this,
yes it's come to this…

Chapter Text

IX.

Puck woke to the mother of all headaches; his temples throbbed, his head felt like it was in a vice, it hurt to breathe.

He grabbed up the Jack and knocked back the last swig, hoping to chase away the painful fog and replace it with that floating feeling he'd had yesterday. He laid out on his back and stared half-lidded at the ceiling. The afternoon sun beat in through his window and reached out across the floor, warm on his arm. He tucked it behind his head, avoiding the day. Distantly, he could hear his sister making noise downstairs; she was probably watching Hannah Montana re-runs. Did she have a babysitter? He wondered. Or was his ma off work again? He rolled onto his side, deciding not to care. Fact, he was pretty good with not caring about anything. He was good with just lying there, staring at the wall, letting the headache ebb away as the whiskey worked its magic. He'd need more; he should get up and go get some. Hole up in his room the rest of his day and make friendly with Jack Daniels.

His skin felt dry, stiff. His whole body felt heavy, like he hadn't moved in too long. He remembered when he used to play basketball with the guys; when Rachel would wrinkle her nose and tell him he stunk, but hug him anyway. He remembered when the only time he was lazy was early morning, after convincing her not to get up at the ass-crack of dawn to work out. She'd lay there in his arms, her cheek warm against his chest, and she'd draw random shapes on his skin. And he'd just lay there, half-awake and half-asleep, his fingers sliding up and down her bare back, her skin so fucking soft it was criminal. And he'd trail them through her hair; her dark, shiny hair that was tangled and messy 'cause he had her on her back the night before. She'd complain later, always, when she got a look at herself, but for awhile she was just all tousled and sexy and his.

He woke up now feeling the exact opposite of what he did then. Those mornings he felt happy, content, like one lucky son of a bitch. Now he felt alone and empty and so angry he wanted to break something; anything. His room was too warm and the air tasted stale every time he breathed it in. He felt anxious; his skin crawling. But he didn't move, couldn't find the energy or the interest to move an inch.

Noah… Sundays are usually the day you spend catching up on missed homework…

He closed his eyes. "The fuck cares if I do my homework?"

Well… your teachers, obviously… And if you plan to finish out the school year, it is a requirement… How do you suppose you'll pass your tests if you don't—

"Just stop," he interrupted, glaring at the ceiling. "Please stop," he whispered.

There was quiet then and he didn't know if he liked it or not.

I can leave you alone if you'd prefer, Noah… I… I can go away… All you have to do is ask…

He swallowed tightly and fear seemed to shudder through him, head to toe. "You're not even real… You're not…" He shook his head, closing his eyes. "I'm just fucked in the head," he laughed bitterly.

Is it so wrong to want to hold on to me? Is it wrong to miss me?

"No…" He scraped a hand over his face, pressing his thumbs into his eyes. "I dunno…"

I only want to help you, Noah… Will you talk to me? Please? I… I don't know if I like how you're behaving. There's… There's something wrong, isn't there? Something not right?

He laughed again, hollowly. "S'all wrong, Rach… S'all so fucking wrong."

Tell me… Talk to me, Noah, please… You know you always feel better when you talk to me…

He sat up then, throwing his legs over the side of the bed. The quick movement caused his head to spin. He stared at the floor, waiting for it all to come back into focus. Licking his dry lips, he shook his head. "You can't fix this…"

He wanted her to say she could; that she would; that there was some easy, quick-fix that she had up her sleeve.

He didn't get a reply.

../..

When he walked into the liquor store, he had his sunglasses on, his fake ID ready and a couple twenties in hand. The guy behind the counter didn't even card him; he took one look at him, shook his head, took the cash and waved him out the door. Puck wasn't sure if it was a go-ahead for underage drinking 'cause he looked like run-over shit, or if maybe all the stubble made him look older. Either way, he had what he needed. He drove back home and walked inside with his backpack tossed over his shoulder. He walked right upstairs without waiting to see if his ma was around or who was watching Sarah. He kicked the door shut behind him and plopped down on the bed, grabbing out a beer as he went and cracking it.

"I suppose it's five o'clock somewhere," a voice rang out.

His jaw ticked at the surprise visit, but he sat back against his headboard and cocked a brow at Kurt Hummel, sitting stiffly in the chair at his desk, one leg crossed over the other knee, hands folded in his lap like he was trying to look relaxed. He eyed Puck speculatively and then let his gaze wander his room.

"It's cleaner than I expected," he admitted.

Puck downed half his beer in one long gulp. "Wasn't expecting company," he said.

"I know…" Kurt blew out a long breath, ducking his head a little. "I just thought that with the Berry's leaving town you might be…" He frowned, looking away. "They called me; they said they tried you a few times but you didn't pick up." He shifted in his seat. "I was worried."

He nodded shortly. "I said I'd say goodbye…"

"I know." He fiddled with his fingers. "Finn's been acting funny…" His eyes darted away. "He's been avoiding our parents and I think… I think it's because he might've mentioned he was worried about you too… They're concerned…" He looked over at him. "Carole tried talking to me about it… I don't know what you want me to say…"

He stared at him a long moment. He knew if he told Kurt to keep his trap shut, he would. Maybe it was out of some fucked loyalty to Rachel, or maybe, deep-down, he actually supported him in it all. Either way, he wouldn't say a word if Puck gave him the no-go. On the other hand, if he shrugged it off, he wasn't sure Kurt wouldn't start singing songs about holding on and healing and signing him up for a psych test. Just 'cause he said he got it didn't mean he was gonna hand him the tools to get it done. Faced with either possibility, he couldn't dredge up much interest in either; he wasn't worried about what Kurt might or might not say. He didn't feel anything, really…

"Tell 'em whatever you want…" He shrugged. "It's not gonna make much of a difference." He finished off his beer and shot the empty can across the room and into his garbage can.

Kurt was quiet a long moment. "I feel like I'm not… Like I'm doing the wrong thing by not talking to you about this… About what you're going to do…" He cleared his throat, smoothing out his pant legs. "Blaine and I spoke and he thinks… He thinks maybe you should seek counseling… That maybe if you just talked about it you might feel better…" He bit his lip. "I explained that you're not the counselor type but that… If you wanted to talk, I-I'm here…" He sat up a little taller. "Do you… want to talk, Puck?"

He didn't say anything, instead dragging a hand down his face, feeling the scruff of his whiskers scrape his palm. He thought of her question just that morning; of how she'd pleaded with him to talk with her… Her and Hummel were so damn alike, he'd have laughed if he didn't feel like dying.

Kurt seemed to catch on to the fact that if he did feel up to talking, he wasn't gonna start the heart-to-heart anytime soon.

"Do you know, the last time I talked to her, in person I mean, we got into a fight about muffins?" He tipped his head, brows furrowed as he frowned. "Muffins," he repeated. "I-I don't even remember why, I just remember it went on for twenty minutes before we finally both agreed not to discuss it again…" He laughed a little. "That's what we did though… We—We had these pointless little fights about—about nothing and then we just, we said 'Never mind… This isn't half as important as us being friends,' and we forgot about it… We let it go and we talked about other things…" He licked his lips and stared at the carpet sadly. "But all I keep thinking is that was twenty-minutes I should've spent hugging her or laughing with her or telling her how much she meant to me…" Tears sprung to his eyes and he inhaled sharply as he looked up, glaring at the ceiling. "And I keep…" He winced, holding his breath for a long second to control himself. "I keep reaching for my phone to text her things… I keep thinking, 'Oh, Rachel would really find this funny,' or 'Oh, only Rachel will understand that reference,' or—or a million other little things and then… I-I'm staring at my phone and her name is there, Rachel with that asterisk sign that she forced me to add to the end," he scoffed, shaking his head, and a tear slid down his cheek, "And I remember that she won't get it… She won't reply or laugh or—or anything again…" He sniffled, rubbing his fingers under his eyes.

While Kurt pulled a handkerchief from his pants pocket, Puck grabbed out another beer. The sound of him cracking it open seemed even louder in the silence, like it echoed around his room. He raised a brow and offered Kurt a can, but the small boy just shook his head.

They sat there a long moment, neither of saying anything more.

But the more he drank the more calm Puck felt. His shoulders loosened up and the pain that seemed to throb just inches around every fiber of his body ebbed a little. "D'ya ever hear her?" he wondered.

Kurt looked over, a brow raised. "Hear her?"

He nodded. "I do… All the time… She's just—She's always yapping away in my head and I…" He picked at the tap on his can and shook his head. "It sounds exactly like her… And sometimes, if I just close my eyes, it's like she's really here…" His jaw ticked. "But then I open 'em and…" He waved his beer around, eyes wide. "And I'm alone again. Like always…" His brows furrowed. "Like I've been since my old man cut and ran…" He sighed deeply. "She was… She was all I had, y'know?" He swallowed tightly. "I mean, I gave up Beth and my ma thinks I'm a loser… She—" He laughed emotionlessly. "She only likes me when Rachel's around, 'cause she thinks that good, Jewish girl was gonna make something out of her fuck-up of a son…" He stared at Kurt. "And she did…" He snapped the tab of and glared down at the can. "But now she's gone and ma keeps saying 'go to school' and 'it'll get easier' and 'don't you fuck this up, Puck, you better graduate,' and I… I…" He sneered. "I couldn't give a fuck if I graduate or if I go to school tomorrow or if I just don't wake up… So…"

He shrugged. "Maybe she's right, I dunno… Maybe I was destined to be a loser just like my pops and Rachel was just—she was just in the way of that so—so God, almighty asshole that he is said, 'No…'" He shook his head, sucking his teeth. "'No, Rachel, you can't let Noah think he's worth anything, 'cause he's not… So you'll get your ass shoved down some stairs and die… You'll bleed out at the school that always took you for granted and then Puck, he'll…'" He waved his hand dismissively, "'He'll go back to being that piece-of-shit son he's gotten so damn good at being…'" He lifted his beer in cheers to Kurt and then drained it. "And that, makes a fuck of a lot more sense, doesn't it?"

Kurt stared at him sadly, his face drawn. "I don't know if it was God, Puck… I don't…" He shook his head. "I don't reallybelieve in that sort of thing, but…" He took a deep breath and frowned. "But if there was a God, I don't think he'd want you to think that about yourself… I think if he brought Rachel into your life for any reason it was to show you that you could be more… That you were better than your dad or—or anybody who made you think you were a loser…" He stared down at his lap, brows furrowed. "I don't know why Rachel died…" He lifted a shoulder. "I mean, I know the facts; I know she stood up to Karofsky and he… He reacted violently, like he was known to do…" He gripped his hands tighter. "But I can't think of any good reason why she died."

Puck rubbed at his forehead, feeling that headache build up behind his eyes again. "He apologized to the Berry's," he told him, scoffing bitterly. "Rolled up and said, 'Hey, sorry I killed your only daughter but I thought she was gonna out me and I got scared…'" He sneered. "Only girl in the school who'd probably throw him a party for being gay and he pushes her down the fucking stairs…"

Kurt turned, if possible, even paler. "He… He told them?"

His brow arched. "You knew?"

"I…" He let out a shaky breath. "That day he told me he'd kill me… It-It was because he kissed me…" He swallowed thickly. "As you can see he wasn't so accepting of his own sexuality, so…"

He scowled. "They should've expelled him then… Should've kicked his ass out and then you'd 've never left and she'd…" He clenched his teeth. "I wanna kill him…" His eyes darted up to him darkly. "If I ever saw him…" He shook his head.

"I know…" Kurt murmured, chin falling.

He clenched his hands into fists and felt his body tense up again. He'd driven by the Karofsky house a few times; sometimes he just parked his truck outside and stared. It was always dark; he never saw anybody come or go. He wondered if maybe they packed up and took their son out of town. He knew they weren't allowed to leave the state; he was out on bail for now, but the city had charges against him and he wasn't just walking away from it; accident or not. He didn't have to wonder what he'd do if he ever ran into him; it didn't matter where it was or who was there… Dave Karofsky wouldn't walk away.

"What… What was the last thing you said to her?" Kurt wondered, changing the subject abruptly. "The last time we talked on the phone, we were arguing about those—those animal sweaters of hers and I was trying to talk her into a make-over,again, and—" He scoffed. "As usual, she said no. And then, we were just about to hang up and she said, 'Don't forget, mani's and pedi's Friday night; we'll invite Mercedes and make it a girl's night,' and I said," He half smiled. "I said, 'Not even Babs herself could keep me away, Starshine…'" He nodded, rolling his handkerchief in his hands. "And then we hung up…" He ducked his head a little. "We texted, every day… But that was the last time I spoke to her…"

He leaned his head back against the wall and stared up at the ceiling, at the glow-in-the-dark stars that almost blended in. And he thought back to that day she died; he thought of the last time he saw her alive and breathing…

The bell rang shrilly, signaling end of second period. They had twenty minutes before break was over and he groaned, thinking of how much he didn't want to be in math class. Books hooked under his arm, he walked to her locker, smirking when his phone vibrated in his pocket. He dug it out and quirked a brow. Rachel was the only person he knew that texted every letter in every word. She didn't use slang and she even took the time to add punctuation. Girl was crazy.

'Will you meet me in the choir room please, Noah? I heard the jocks are on a slushee rampage and you know this is my favorite cashmere sweater… Also, would you mind bringing sustenance? I was in a hurry and didn't think to grab anything to snack on.'

He texted back with his thumb. 'On my way babe'

Dropping his books off at her locker, he grabbed out a snack from the second shelf; she always kept trail mix and shit there to encourage him to eat healthier. He complained it was bird food, but it was actually pretty good. He nodded his head to a few gleeks as he walked past and waved at Mr. Shue before he slipped into the choir room, closing the door behind him.

Rachel was at the piano, resting her head on her arm as she plunked her fingers down on a few keys.

He plopped down on the bench next to her and held out the Ziplock bag of nuts, berries and M&M's.

She grinned widely and opened it, picking out her favorites and popping them in her mouth. "How was class?"

He shrugged. "Same old, same old."

Nodding, she leaned her head against his shoulder. "I really can't wait until we've graduated… Just seven more weeks, Noah, and we'll be out of here and on our way to New York." She looked up at him, eyes sparkling. "No more slushee facials or bullies or being looked down on for standing out…" She smiled. "We'll have the whole world at our fingertips."

He kissed her forehead and then tip of her nose. "Won't be easy, babe. The roadtrip's the fun part. When we get there, we still have to worry about college and paying bills and scraping up enough money for food every month." His eyes widened. "And I eat a lot of shit, Rach."

She chuckled lightly. "I'm well aware."

His brows furrowed. "I just don't want us to get there and for it to all fall apart…"

"It won't," she told him decidedly.

"How do you know?"

She bounced up and kissed his cheek. "Because even if for some completely unfathomable reason I don't take Broadway by storm or you don't manage your music club, if somehow life just—just screws us over monumentally…" She looked up at him, her expression light and airy. "We will have each other."

He stared back at her. "You're so cheesy, Rach."

She laughed, slapping his shoulder. "I'm romantic, Noah, there's a very distinct difference."

He wrapped an arm around her and squeezed her to his side. "Broadway's gonna be your bitch, y'know that, right?"

She smirked. "Yes."

He chuckled under his breath.

"You'll own your club, Noah." She reached out and took his hands, placing them on the piano keys, his arm hooked behind her back comfortably. "We'll do everything we ever dreamed of and we'll do it together." She pressed her fingers down into his, beginning a familiar beat. "I don't care how cheesy that is as long as it's true."

As they played Sweet Caroline, her small hand lying atop his, their fingers moving together, he kissed her hair and breathed her in. "You and me forever, Rach."

She rested her head back against his shoulder and smiled. "You promise?" she murmured, but she didn't expect an answer, she already knew what it was.

They played her song until the bell rang and then they walked hand-in-hand back to her locker, kissed goodbye, and separated for their classes. He sent her a text as he walked. 'See you lunch ilu'

She texted back, 'Please go to Math, Noah. I love you too!'

With a laugh, he went to class, even if he spent most of it napping in the back.

"Puck?" Kurt's voice called out. He stared at him searchingly. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to…"

He cleared his throat, sinking down into his bed a little more. Frowning, he said, "We were talking about New York… I was worried about money and shit and she was just all about how we'd do it together and it'd be fine…"

"Always the optimistic."

He shrugged. "Her dads saved up some pretty big money for her, so she was probably right…" He dropped his beer can to his bedside table and shoved himself off the bed. He made his way over to his closet and dug out the yellow envelope inside. Dropping it in Kurt's lap, he ambled back to his bed and laid back. "I went to see them before they left… They, uh… They emptied out her college fund and transferred it to me."

Kurt's eyes widened as he looked from the numbers on the paper up to Puck. "You're serious?"

"Every last dime," he muttered. "They told me to do whatever I wanted with it… Blow it in Vegas, trip around the world, go to college…" He shook his head. "I don't even want it…"

Kurt nodded slowly, sliding the papers back inside the envelope. "But if you… If you chose to go to New York, this would really come in handy…" He raised a brow. "Living expenses, college… I know you wanted to build your own club…" He stared at him searchingly. "That kind of money will give you a good head start…"

"You know what the best part of going to New York was?" He raised a brow. "That I knew Rachel would be there…" He shook his head. "I wanted out of Lima; I really didn't care where I went…" He shrugged. "New York made sense 'cause I could do my music and Rachel could do her Broadway thing… The more excited she got, the more into it I was… We'd go there and she'd blow up big and I'd learn the in's and out's of business, open my own joint, and we'd… We'd live the good life, y'know?"

He nodded.

"But without her there…" His forehead knotted. "It's just a really big city with a whole lot of people… People who all wanted what she did only they actually get it…"

Kurt picked at the edges of the envelope. "So not New York then, but…" He took a deep breath. "What about California? Or Hawaii? Or-Or Canada?" He smiled hopefully. "Puck, you have enough money at your disposal, you could go anywhere in the world and… and heal…" He swallowed tightly. "I know it doesn't make sense; it doesn't even seem possible, but…" He shook his head. "I'd never forgive myself if I didn't at least try to convince you that living isn't the worst option…"

He stared at him a long moment and thought to himself that it wasn't living that felt wrong, it was living without her… "IfBlaine died, would you still go?" he wondered bluntly.

Kurt winced, eyes falling. "I knowBlainewould want me to do everything I could to live out our dreams…"

He scoffed. "Easy to say when you still have him, Hummel."

"No, you're right…" He shrugged, leaning back in the chair. "And if I'm being honest, there's a good chance we won't be going to New York anyway…"

His brows furrowed wonderingly.

"We need to save up money," he explained. "Between my dad's medical bills, which are still draining us, and Finn getting into OSU…" He shook his head. "Not a whole lot left to send the artist of the family off to chase his dreams…" His brows rose dismissively. "But we have a plan… We'll get jobs, save up for a year, head down to New York and then…" He shrugged. "Live off ramen noodles and our endless love." He half-smiled. "I'm hoping it'll only make us appreciate it more… You know, when we eventually became the most appreciated singers Broadway has seen yet…"

He let out a chuckle, nodding. "I can't imagine you working a regular nine-to-fiver… Especially not here in Lima."

He lifted a shoulder. "Happens to the best of us."

Puck remembered when that life was the worst thing he could ever think of. When staying in Lima for any length of time after graduation seemed like a death sentence. And then Rachel came along and told him it could be different; he could have a lot more than that. And he believed her; believed they'd get out and get everything they wanted and it was justhappily ever fucking after for them… Bitter, he reached for another beer.

"Do you always drink this much?" Kurt wondered.

"Subtle," he muttered. "And no."

His eyes fell, but he nodded. "Was there ever…" He frowned. "Since she died, did you ever once consider just… going on?"

He stared at him, the bitter taste of beer lingering on his tongue. Honestly, he replied, "The second she died, I knew I was done… I just don't know why I'm still here…"

He looked stricken as he stared back. "Okay." He stood from the chair, turning and placing the envelope gently behind him. "I can see…" He blew out a trembling breath. "I guess I hoped I could convince you otherwise, but I think I always knew…" His eyes shone with tears. "I need you to know that the last thing I want is for you to die and…" He licked his lips. "And if you ever do think about changing your mind, then I'll be here for you…" He nodded jerkily. "I'll… I'll clean up the beer bottles and… and listen to you talk about her and… anything you ever need…"

Puck simply watched him as he smoothed out his fancy clothes and turned to walk to the door.

"I told her we were forever," he said, his voice deep and hollow. He stared a hole into Kurt's stiff back. "The last thing I said to her… It was that me and her were forever…"

He turned around, raising a brow thoughtfully. "I suppose you are then…" With that, he walked out, closing the door behind him softly.

Puck took another long drag of his beer and then tipped his head back to stare at the stars. "Yeah… Guess we are…"

../..

He didn't move much after Kurt left. He drank more and faster, until he was so drunk he could barely keep his head up. The room seemed to spin around him, sideways, and he tried to follow it. He tried to move with it. But then his stomach twisted and turned too and there was so much pressure; it was all over him. In his gut, in his head, behind his eyes; it was just everywhere. And he wanted to scream and yell; he wanted to break things. He wanted to make it all stop. He neededit to all stop. He breathed hard through his nose; nostrils flaring, lungs burning, teeth grit so tight he couldn't get a breath through. His hands fisted, fingernails biting into his skin, and he thought about how good it would be to just hit something. Didn't matter what it was; just anything. But everything, every inch of him, felt like it was weighed down. His legs were lead weights on the bed, his body sunk heavy against his pillows. His vision was cloudy and the rage that pulsed through him was so deep he could feel it pumping through his veins; pulsing beneath his skin.

It was familiar. Like a long-lost brother that had been gone too long. He welcomed it. Shoved the hurt and the pain away and he reached for the anger and the rage and the red that used to blind him just before he did something so fuckingstupid… And then he wondered… What was stopping him from going over to Karofsky's? From banging on the door until that murderer came out and faced him? What was stopping him from finding out where he was, if not at home? From threatening Azimio until he pissed his pants and told him where the Karofsky's were hiding their piece of shit son? He wondered and then he decided; nothing.

The weight of the alcohol, of not moving for hours, was nothing against the blind rage that moved him now. His legs fell off the side of the bed and he shoved himself up, not caring that he was rocking too far left or right; that his hands were shaking; that each jarring movement made a spike run through his stomach so hard he almost upchucked. He mumbled under his breath, curse words that would've had Rachel wincing and complaining and bitching that it was uncouth or demeaned his intelligence or some fucking shit. He shook his head and groaned as it spun, but he kept moving, pushing until he was on his feet, struggling to keep upright. He nearly knocked over his dresser, just barely grabbing onto it before it toppled; instead, he used it to keep himself from falling. And then he laughed; he wasn't sure why.

Noah… I feel like this is a very bad idea…

A rush of relief ran through him then; she hadn't said anything to him since that morning. Even though he'd been the one to ask her to stop, to question how crazy he really was, he'd missed her. Still, he argued, "S'a great idea, Rach… M'a fuck that asshole up."

She legit sighed at him. And how, pray tell, is that a good idea?

His brows furrowed. "He deserves it…" He shoved himself up to standing once more, like he was trying to tower over her, make her remember he was a badass… Only she wasn't there, not really, and she wasn't even scared of him. If anything, she was amused by his badass rep. She said it was funny because most of what she knew of him was the exact opposite of what others thought; that she saw the real him and he was far nicer than he appeared. Fuck that. He didn't want to be nice right then. "He-He…" His shook his head. "I'll kill him… Okay?"

Oh Noah…

"No!" he yelled. "No, don't Noah me! Okay? 'Cause this is his fault… This isn't—It's not me fucking up this time, all right?" He glared at the spinning room. "I didn't do this! I-I was finally getting my life together, okay? Me and you, we were gonna…" His hands fisted. "We were gonna be so fucking happy and he… He ruined that! He killed that!" He stomped forward, his knees shaking and his coordination sloppy. "So I—I'll kill him!"

Two wrongs don't make a right

"Fuck that!" he snorted, rolling his eyes.

Fine! Then… Then just think about what this would do to your mother! To your sister

"You kidding?" He stumbled forward a couple more steps. "They're prolly expecting it…" He reached for the door, but it moved. He went right and it went left, he tried going left and it went right; stupid door. "Ma's been waiting for me to get my own prison cell for years…"

That's not true… Yes, you had your differences, but she loves you

"No!" He yelled, slamming his fust down against the wood of the door. "No, you know who loved me?" He whirled around. "You loved me! You loved me and you left me! You left like all the rest, Rachel!"

Noah, please, I—

"And now I'm here and I'm alone and I just—I just want to hurt him, okay?" His shoulders slumped. "Can I please just hurt him? Just a little?" He searched his room, like he thought she'd jump out from somewhere. "He needs to know…" He shook his head. "He just needs to know, okay?"

What, Noah? What does he need to know?

He walked forward, away from the door, tripping over his feet and falling quickly to the floor. He was too drunk to feel it, instead just sitting there on his knees. He leaned back a little, his arms hanging loosely, knuckles touching the carpet. "He needs to know how this feels," he told her. "How much it hurts…" He closed his eyes. "It hurts so fucking bad… And he—He did this…"

It was an accident… He's just a boy, Noah… A scared, confused boy…

His face twisted fiercely. "I don't care!" he yelled. "He did this! It's his fault!" He pushed at the floor, trying and failing to get up. "Bare fucking hands, Rachel! I'll rip his fucking head off!"

Noah, you need to calm down…

"No! I—I—" His head throbbed and he wrapped his arms around it, falling forward until elbows bit into the floor. "Don't tell me what to fucking do!"

Noah—

"Just shut up! Shut up-shut up-shut up!" He lifted his head and glared at the room, the burn of tears spilled down his cheeks. "You're not her! Rachel's dead! She fucking died! saw her! I-I held her! You—You're just in my head!"

The room was quiet.

He sucked in a deep breath, his body aching. His chest heaved with the effort, like a weight pressed on it. He clutched a hand to it as he tried desperately to breathe but it felt like no air was making it in. He closed his eyes and gulped in deeper breaths, letting them out shakily. His tears started up again, falling rapidly. His body vibrated as his anger started to ebb and the sadness enveloped him again. It was cold and hollow and swept over him like a reaching shadow. His body seemed to slump then, all of his energy leaving him. His head ducked and he pressed a hand into the carpet to keep himself upright. His chest still hurt, but it wasn't for air now. It was just his heart, aching. He twisted his fingers into his shirt and he felt it, her ring, firm and real. And then his eyes opened and he looked around again. "Rachel?"

Nothing.

"Rachel, I'm sorry…" He sniffled thickly, swiping his arm over his face. "Babe?"

Silence.

A shudder of fear ran down his spine. "Rach, please…" His fingers bit into his chest. "Please, babe, I'm sorry… Just—Just talk to me, okay? I-I was pissed. I was stupid…"

No reply.

He closed his eyes. "Please… Please, come back…"

Not a whisper.

He slid sideways, his cheek pressed to the floor, and just laid there a long while… He breathed, in and out, slow and shallow. And the tears fell soundlessly, warmly dribbling down his face and into the carpet. For hours, he didn't move, just waiting, hoping, she'd say something… Anything…

She never did.

../..

"Noah?"

He closed his eyes tighter, brow furrowed.

"Noah, wake up…" His shoulder was shaken.

"G'way," he muttered.

"Noah, you have school," she sighed. "And you smell like a brewery, mister!"

He hummed an irritated noise and then pressed his face deeper into his—carpet?

He opened his eyes abruptly, blinking rapidly against the sun spilling in through the window. "The hell?"

"It's almost eight… If you wanna be there on time, you need to shower now…"

His mother; that was the owner of the persistent voice and hand trying to get him up.

He dropped his head back to the floor and winced as it throbbed. Hangover; fuck.

She flicked his ear, just like she used to when he rolled over and ignored her one too many times when she told him to get his ass up and out of bed. She hadn't done that since before Rachel. Since before his girlfriend started staying over and getting out of bed way too fucking early for his liking. Before she started getting him up in much more pleasant ways before joining him in the shower to save water… Remembering her and those mornings only made him more irritated; he didn't want to be up. He didn't want to be here. He didn't want to be alive.

"Noah, really… You don't have time to laze around… I know you're not a morning person, but I let you sleep in as long as I could…"

"'m not going to school, so go away," he muttered.

She sighed, standing up and no doubt putting her hands on her hips. "We've discussed this… You're going to school and you're going to graduate. Now get up and—"

"Ma, seriously…" he growled, his mood snapping. "I'm not a fucking kid anymore; you can stop treating me like one."

She was quiet a moment before murmuring, "You will always be my kid, Noah… You'll always be my son…"

Instead of making him feel bad, using that Jewish guilt of hers to get a reaction, he reacted in the opposite. Pushing his hands beneath him, he shoved himself to a seated position and glared at her. It didn't matter that his head hurt or that it was spinning again; it didn't matter that his stomach was twisting and turning and just waiting to crawl up his throat. "No, Iwon't…" His jaw ticked. "I stopped being your kid the day you told me I was my father's son… The same breath you used to tell me how much of a disappointment I was…" He shoved up on weak legs and didn't even care when she winced and stepped back from him, like he'd physically slapped her. "I'm not your kid… I'm just the unfortunate loser you got stuckwith…" Stomping past her, he made for the bathroom. "You can fuck off now."

Just as he was about to close the door, she pushed it open and grabbed his arm, whirling him around. Flushed, she glared up at him. "You listen to me, little boy… I know you're hurting and I know that every day is more difficult than I can imagine, but if you think I'm going to walk away or put my head in the sand or just pretend that I don't know every day is like one more step toward the ledge for you then you don't know me at all!" She waved her finger in her air. "I went through hell bringing you into this world and I'll fight just as hard to keep you here!" She grabbed his shoulders then and shook him. "And you can yell and scream and tell me to fuck off all you want, but Noah, I am your mother… I'm stronger, smarter, and I love you more than you can even imagine… So hate me if you want to, but you'll get your ass in that shower, you'll put on some clean clothes, and you will go to school…" She licked her lips and let go of him, walking back until she was standing outside of the bathroom door.

Smoothing out her scrubs, she took a deep breath. "I will kick you out of that bed and walk you to that school every day if I have to …" She stared at him seriously. "I know you lost your heart, baby boy… but I won't lose my son…"

He stared at her and the determination in his face, but all it did was remind him of the girl who never backed down; who got in his face when bigger, wiser people stepped off. Maybe it should've made him happy, hearing his mom say she backed him so much. After all these years of back and forth and just accepting that she wished he was different; wished he was better. Instead, he was just deflated; he was done. "You think you're helping me, I get that…" He shook his head. "But there's nothing to help…"

She winced, looking away. "Don't say that… Please…"

Her own anger seemed to leave her then, her shoulders slumping and pain warring on her face. He frowned. "You'll be okay, y'know…? When I'm gone…"

She took in a sharp breath. "New York isn't so far, Noah… Or OSU, if you want…" She stared up at him pleadingly. "You can call and visit and—and we will always be here for you."

He stared at her a long moment before laying the truth out there for her her. "'m not going to college, ma."

"Your road trip?" she whimpered hopefully.

His eyes fell. "You remember when dad left…? You holed up in your room and you just…" His brows cinched. "Stopped. You quit breathing and moving and functioning…" He raised his gaze to hers. "It's like that… And I can't…" He clenched his teeth and shook his head. "I need Rachel… I know it's selfish and I know you'll hate me… But I can't feel this anymore and it's not—it's not stopping…" His eyes burned as he stared at her. "It's getting worse. Every day…"

She swallowed thickly and took a step toward him. "Noah—"

He met her, reaching out and holding her still by her shoulders as he bent and kissed her hair. "You're gonna be okay, ma… You're stronger than me."

She shook her head, a sob escaping her, and her knees gave way. He caught her before she hit the floor, but they sunk down to sit on the ground together. Her face was buried in his shoulder, her tears sinking through his shirt. "I won't—I won'tletyou go," she cried.

He stroked her hair and stared emotionlessly at the floor. "You can't stop me…"

"I can try!" She slapped his chest, turning her hand into a fist and beating it against his shoulder.

He took it.

"Why?" she yelled. "Why, damn it! She was just—She's just one girl! She—" She shook her head, like even she didn't believe what she was saying. "I know you loved her, bubbala, but this isn't…" She sniffled thickly. "This isn't the right choice…"

"S'not a choice." He rubbed her back, like he did when his dad left them and she was just lying in that bed, unmoving, uncaring, staring sightlessly at the wall. He'd rub her back and she'd fall asleep, her light snore telling him that for a little while anyway, she'd stop hurting.

"Try, Noah. Please? Just—Just try to hold on, okay?" She lifted her chin and stared up at him, her face blotchy and wet. "It'll get better, baby. I promise!" She stared at him pleadingly. "Just—Just stay in school and graduate and—and go on your road trip and I'm telling you… Noah, you will grow to accept, to understand…" She rested her head on his shoulder, her eyes wide and dazed. "Yes… Yes, you'll graduate high school, you'll make me so proud, and you'll—you'll take your trip and then you'll go to New York…" She held him tighter. "Tell me you will, Noah… Tell me you'll do everything you planned…" She whimpered sadly. "Promise me…" She slapped his chest. "Promise me!"

His jaw ticked. "I'll go to school," he told her, and then he rubbed her back in those deep, soothing circles.

"Yes… Yes, you'll go to school…" She nodded drowsily. "You'll go and you'll—You'll live a long, happy life…" she murmured. "You… You're such a good boy… So smart… You'll make a good husband for a lucky girl…"

He stiffened, his hand pausing, but before she could wake up, he started rubbing again. Before long, she was fast asleep. With a sigh, he stood, lifting her easily. He was tired and his body ached, but he carried her to her bedroom and he laid her down on the bed, covering her with her favorite quilt. He watched her moment, lying there, hair stuck to damp cheeks. He knelt by her bed and he watched his mom, her age showing more than it ever had before, looking tired and broken and defeated. Strongest woman he'd known…

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

Standing, he turned and left the room.

Instead of crawling back into his own bed though, he went to the bathroom and took a shower. He got dressed and he grabbed his bag and just before he left, he paused and asked, "Rachel?" He waited. Seconds. Minutes. "C'mon, Rach…" He tried to listen hard, like maybe she was just whispering and if he just—If he tried a little harder, he'd hear her there still… But she didn't say anything.

Finally, grinding his teeth together, he walked out the door, stomping down the stairs. He'd go to school 'cause he didn't break promises. He told his ma he'd go, so he would. But that was all he promised. And without the aid of alcohol or Rachel's encouraging voice in his ear, he knew the day was gonna be a fuck of a lot harder than it'd been the week before.

Not much longer though… No, not much longer at all.

Chapter Text

X.

Puck stalked through the halls with a scowl so fierce it had the  teachers  hiding in their classrooms. Not surprising, really, since the staff of WMHS weren't the most  proactive  people. He didn't want to be there and it was pretty damn obvious. Everywhere he looked, he felt like he was searching for her. In the faces of other students; at the announcement board where she used to check for her next "artistic endeavor" to sign up for; outside the girl's bathroom she ran to when she needed to clean up after a slushee attack. He even tried listening for her voice outside the choir room, where she sang her morning scales. His eyes automatically fell on her locker, expecting her to be there, getting her books ready. But all he saw around him was pity, emptiness, and a distinct lack of anything he wanted to see.

He couldn't remember his schedule. He couldn't remember what class he had first or where he had to go after. He wasn't even sure he had all of his books with him. Rachel was the planner; she was the one who made sure he did what he was supposed to; the one who didn't demand perfection but expected his best, and if not that then at least an  effort . He felt lost not having her smile up at him as she reached inside her locker and pulled out his morning books, holding them out to him with that amused look on her face like she knew he'd fall apart without her and loved being needed. Walking past her locker and toward his own, mostly unused this last year, felt wrong; like a betrayal. So he walked faster, wanting to escape that niggling feeling, crawling up his back and settling heavy on his shoulders.

When he pulled open the metal door to a mostly empty locker, his eyes fell on the  laminated  schedule she'd put up for him at the beginning of the year; he'd forgotten all about it. She even made little notes to remind him what he liked about each class in hopes that it would encourage him into going. Truthfully, he'd gone to most of his classes all year long; he had a goal in mind and it was NYU. He couldn't get there if he didn't put his all into his schoolwork. She helped; she really did. He wasn't sure he'd ever have made it – to NYU or even just out of Lima – if it wasn't for her. She would argue with him, of course. Tell him it wasn't  her  that did it; it was  him  and his brain and his hard-ass work. And he'd agree, even brag about how awesome he was, but half the time he was pretty sure his chances of life outside of Lima would have been slim to none without her helping him along. So really, even if he  had  planned on sticking around, where did that leave him?

Shrugging his bag off his shoulder, he searched around inside to see if he had his History book for first period. He was frowning as he seemed to be finding everything but. With a sigh, he pulled out every book and shoved them impatiently onto his locker shelves so he could get a better look at them. But with every passing second of doing these normal, if frustrating, things, he was becoming anxious. What the hell was he doing here? So what if his mother wanted him to go to school? He never gave much of a fuck before! And he didn't want to be there; he wanted to be anywhere  but  there.

Students and staff filled the halls, walking in all directions, crowding him, and he was overwhelmed. He felt like he was surrounded by strangers; like all these people, some of which he'd known since kindergarten, didn't know him. They were so distanced from the whole situation that he felt like he was the only one going through it; the only one who knew that Rachel was  dead . The world shouldn't have kept spinning; the school shouldn't have kept going. 'Cause  his  world had fucking  collapsed . But here he was, in the middle of regular life, and there were people smiling, people laughing, and he hated  them. He hated that  anybody  could just… could  live  when she couldn't. The familiar burning, of anger or rage or just injustice , filled his stomach, weighed down like a lead ball. His skin crawled and his breathing became labored and he felt like his head was spinning. Like he was stuck, lost, and it was all just  too much .

He needed to get away.

He slammed the door of his locker and turned around, walking quickly and stiffly as far from the staring faces and the crowds of people. His hands shook and he wondered if it was too late to just go home; to get to the last of the whiskey he had in his bedroom. He just needed a sip, something to take the edge off. Or fuck it, the whole damn bottle. He needed to not  feel what he was feeling now; like he was the only one who remembered that a girl had been there - a really fucking awesome girl – and she wasn't anymore.

As he came around the corner, his heart stopped, along with his feet.

There was a red jacket; a  Letterman's  jacket. And a slushee. Icy cold, red, lid off. And some geek from the JV club - Puck didn't know his name – was cringing, face screwed up, shoulders up at his ears, waiting for it. The cup was tipped, angled, perfect for tossing.

Puck wasn't sure exactly what happened next. One second cherry slushee was about to coat some loser he'd never known before and the second it was all over Puck's chest, cold and sinking through his shirt. His jaw ticked and when he looked up and saw one of the second string football players staring back at him, eyes wide, smirk quickly fading, he reacted . Maybe it was leftover frustration about having to be at school, maybe it was just building up since everything happened, or maybe it was something else entirely. But when he swung his fist out and it connected with that kid's face, it felt  good .

So he  kept  swinging.

The plastic slushee cup rolled across the floor, forgotten. And when the jock hit the floor on his back, lip split and bleeding, Puck didn't stop. He bent down, grabbed him by his shirt, and he slammed his fist in the kid's nose, his cheek, his mouth, over and over and over.

He wasn't so altruistic that he was standing up for the geek; not really. 'Cause with every punch he threw, he thought of Rachel's sweater; stained red with cherry slushee, hanging demurely in her locker. He thought of all the times she had to pick ice from her hair; all the times she had to throw out one of her sweaters because it was too stained; every time she tried to tell him she thought slushee actually made her hair extra shiny so he shouldn't pick fights for her sake. He thought of the times she broke down and cried, asking him why people hated her.

He thought of Karofsky and how many slushees  he  threw. How he got away with it over and over again.

The red haze filled his eyes, or maybe it was the blood covering the jock's face, he wasn't sure.

But when he felt hands on his arms, arms around his waist, yanking him away, he sure as fuck struggled to keep beating the shit out of the kid. For Rachel or himself or the geek, whichever.

He was panting, his chest heaving, breath hissing through his clenched teeth. It didn't matter that the kid was groaning, rolling over to spit blood out on the floor.

"Calm down, Puckerman!" Coach Beiste yelled in his ear, bear-hugging him tight from behind so he couldn't get loose. "You're gonna  kill  somebody!"

He stopped suddenly and went completely still.

She worried then, realizing her wording, and her grip loosened. "I—I didn't mean to…"


Kill .

His jaw ticked. His eyes cleared.

There was blood on the floor, on his fists. And he thought of Rachel; of her lying on the ground, with it haloed around her head.

His stomach twisted so tightly, he heaved forward, nearly folding in half over Beiste's arms. "Get  off  me!" he told her hoarsely.

She tightened her arms. "I can't let you attack another student, Puck…"

"I  won't ." When she didn't let him go right away, he turned his head and stared her in the eyes. "I'm  done ."

She peered back at him a long second before finally letting her arms fall away.

He shoved out of her space and took a few steps away from her, his teeth gnashing as he stared down at the jock wiping his face with his sleeved arm, glaring up at Puck.

He didn't feel sorry; he didn't worry about what that meant either. Instead, he turned and stalked off, shoving past Mike and Sam, careless to Coach Beiste's shouting for him to come back, that he'd have to talk to the principal. He just kept walking, passing students and teachers who moved out of the way or whispered after him. He didn't care what they thought or what they might do to him. He'd  welcome  an expulsion, even if his ma would lose her shit.

Before he knew it, he was in the auditorium. He stood at the top of the stairs, staring down on the empty, dark stage a long few seconds. And he remembered all the rehearsals and the performances all the gleeks had there what seemed like a  lifetime  ago. He remembered practicing choreography with Rachel, Mike yapping at him that he was doing it wrong or too slow or too fast or that he should focus on his steps and not on Rachel's ass. He remembered screwing up and laughing or finally getting it right and just being happy he could leave already. He remembered lunch hours, right there under the spotlight, Rachel next to him, telling him to eat the veggies and dip she made for him while he scarfed down chips instead. He remembered when everything seemed so different; so  easy . When having her there was just  normal ; not distant, not a  memory .


She sat in the middle of the stage, the spotlight shining on her face, making her hair look like it was glittering under her pink polka dot headband. She smiled, leaning into the light like it was the sun warming her skin; like she  belonged  there.


He was pacing behind her. His hands curled into fists. He was antsy; he felt  useless , and he  hated  it.


She looked over her shoulder, tipping her head and sighing. "Noah, you're wearing a path in the floorboards… This stage needs to be  perfect  for our duet next week."


"How the hell are you so damn  calm? " he yelled, stopping short to stare at her.


She bit her lip thoughtfully. "I'm used to it, I guess…"


"Rachel…" He blew out a heavy breath and walked over to kneel next to her. Automatically, she rested her arm on his thigh and held her head up so she could look him in the eyes. "It's not okay that they slusheed you… It wasn't okay when did it!" He shook his head, staring at her seriously. "Now, I can't take on the whole damn football team, but I'm not gonna let them do this… We'll—" He frowned. "I dunno… Talk to Coach Beiste or Mr. Shue or  hell,  I'll ask  Sylvester  for help if it means you stop spending your break crying and picking ice from your new favorite animal sweater!"


Her lips curled softly at the corners. "Oh, Noah…"


" Don't ," he said seriously, his brows lifting. "Don't give me that, 'You're so sweet for caring, but it's not necessary, 'cause I'm fine,'  bull! " He glared. "You're  not  okay!"


Her lips pursed. "We've been through this… We talk to a teacher and it stops for a little while, or they just get  better  at avoiding an audience…" She shook her head slowly. "And then, because you feel like the system isn't doing what you want it to, you take matters into your own hands… Now—" She looked up at him with wide eyes. "Don't think I'm questioning your badassness…" She squelched a smile and reached over to squeeze his bicep. "Your guns are very lovely, Noah…" Her amusement slid away. "But like you said, you can't fight them all. And I don't  want  you to…" She sighed. "All it would mean is you in detention and then I'm an even more accessible target…" She rolled to her knees, facing him. "So  instead , you can accept that I'm going to be slusheed… And lower the possibility of there being a lot to just a little by walking with me and letting them know they haven't gotten to us. They haven't made us doubt ourselves or each other…" She reached up and cupped his face. "Because in the end, they don't  matter … All these slushees and the names and the drawings, they're  nothing! "


"But—"


She covered his lips with her finger and stared at him seriously. " Nothing ."


He blew out an irritated sigh, but his overwhelming anger ebbed away and he nodded. Just to be childish though, he licked her finger.


She laughed, rolling her eyes, and then cleaned it off on the shoulder of his shirt.


"I don't like it," he reminded, frowning.


"Well it's not as if I  enjoy  it," she agreed, shrugging. "Even if it  does  give my hair an irresistible shine…"


At his snort, she grinned widely. 


Moving closer, she wrapped her arms around his neck. "Thank you though…"


His brows furrowed. "I didn't  do  anything."


She smiled. "You  cared …" She dragged her nails through the tail of his 'hawk, stroking the nape of his neck. "You are and always will be my very own knight in…" Her eyes fell, taking in his wardrobe, and her grin widened. "Vintage t-shirt and stylishly ripped jeans."


His lips quirked. "Not exactly shining armor."


"Better," she argued.


"Okay, Crazy," he said affectionately, letting his forehead drop to hers.


She nuzzled his nose with hers and hummed softly. "Just let me thank you, Noah."


His brows waggled. "Thank away, Jew-Jew-B."


Her eyes rolled. "I didn't mean—"


His mouth covered hers, cutting her off, and despite earlier protests, she wasn't complaining.


He buried his fingers in her hair, which yes, was really silky, even if he was pretty damn sure it had nothing to do with frozen corn syrup. 


He knew he was kissing her harder than usual; it happened whenever he was upset. Sometimes, he wondered if maybe it was like he was trying to kiss away all the hurt, all the frustration of her day-to-day life. 'Cause as hard as she'd had it, with the slushees and the bullying, even if he was gleek he just didn't get picked on the same. He heard a few things in the locker room, they ragged on him and questioned his manhood and all that lame shit, and he got a slushee here or there, when he was caught off guard. But for the most part, people just didn't fuck with him. And he'd  hoped  that would rub off on her; that people would get that she was his girl and nobody—jock or geek or what-the-hell-ever—fucked with his girl. Rachel Berry was legendary in her own way though; maybe people didn't like her but they sure as hell knew her. And she had a huge damn target on her back. One he tried to cover, bodily, even if it never worked the way he wanted it to. So they had these little fights, where he wanted to bust heads and she wanted to just focus on the fact that  one day  it would be over; one day it might even be  worth  it…


Until then, he kissed her harder. With bruising lips and nipping teeth and sucking the air in quickly between each kiss, not caring that his chest ached from lack of oxygen. He teased her tongue and the roof of her mouth – that always made her shiver – and he sucked on her bottom lip, raking his teeth over it until she gave that little sigh of breath. He kissed her like that until her nails scraped at his neck in the way they always did right before she—


She moaned, leaning into him full body, like she couldn't hold herself up anymore against how damn good it all felt. And he chuckled against her mouth, slowing down, leaning them sideways until she was on her back on the stage. He crawled on top of her, his leg extended between her parted knees. He rested his hips against hers but held his upper body up with his elbows planted on either side of her head, one of his hands still tangled in her hair. 


He could feel the heat of the spotlight on the back of his neck, seeping through his clothes and warming his skin to near sweat-inducing. 


This wouldn't be the first time they made out on the stage. At the beginning of the year, she showed him where the light controls were and explained that she'd spent a lot of lunch hours there, daydreaming about her future. Sometimes she told him about what she saw, about the crowd giving her standing ovations and the familiar faces she saw in the front row, cheering her on. Sometimes they just talked about school or family or glee, all the good and the bad. And sometimes, when she was feeling frisky, they went as far as they could with their clothes still on before the bell rang. He liked those days especially, for obvious reasons. But the other ones were just as good. Puck wasn't much of a 'feelings' guy, but he could tell Rachel anything. He wasn't a pussy about it; he was still a  badass.  But when things got heavy – with his ma or school or just in general – he liked knowing that he could talk to her. That she'd put dreams of Broadway or her next solo in glee or whatever else on hold and just listen to him bitch or unload. She couldn't solve his problems for him, but at least she let him know he wasn't a fuck up. He could do and be better. He wasn't version 2.0 of his old man; he was ten times better.


He loved her for that. For a shitload of reasons really, but that ranked pretty damn high.


Her hips rocked against him and he lost his thought process. Fuck, she felt good. She was all sexy curves, soft lips and hot breath. She was big brown eyes staring up at him with all that—that  trust  and love and fucking  joy…  Sometimes, he didn't get it. Didn't get what she saw or why she bothered. And then he thought  go with it!  So he enjoyed it and took it and held on to it while he had it. 'Cause even after all this time he was still waiting for the bottom to fall out, the other shoe to drop, for Finn to walk by and take her away. He was never supposed to be the guy girls had a future with; he was the guy they had a  moment  with… A weekend or a day or a few stolen hook-ups here or there. Sometimes he wondered when that changed. If he'd have been this happy with any other girl. But then she'd say it—


"Noah," she breathed, with that hitch in her voice, and her nails scraped along the base of his back, hand wiggled beneath his t-shirt. And shit, that was a little ticklish, enough to make him jump, his hips grinding down against her. She hummed in approval, biting his lip, and her knee hitched higher on his side, her foot sliding down the back of his thigh and then up, toes wiggling. 


And he remembered that nobody else would or  could  make him feel like this. It wasn't about being hot for her - even if he was; always - it was all these other things. Like how she said  Noah  and not Puck. How she kissed him with these slow, sipping kisses, like she was  savoring  him, or memorizing him or something. How she helped him at home; with his sister and the house and just keeping shit in order when his ma was working. How she helped him with his homework but she never treated him like he was dumb. How she listened to his songs and she just—she  supported  him. It was how she made him a lunch  every day , with   real fucking  meat , even when she didn't stay over, just because she liked to know he wasn't going hungry. 'Cause she cared. She legit worried about him. He didn't know if other chicks were like that and really, he didn't care. 'Cause having Rachel – neurotic, controlling, loud, bossy,  diva  Rachel – was worth  ten  of any other girl. 


She ran her hands up and down his back, fingers curling, digging in. And he smiled, 'cause he knew what was coming. Her hands slid up and gripped his shoulders, her silent warning, and then she flipped them. He chuckled under his breath when he lay flat on his back with a triumphant Rachel Berry straddling him.


Panting a little, she rubbed her hand down his 'hawk and buried her face in his neck, her hips circling and rocking. 


What he'd give for a thousand more moments just like this.


He reached for her, not interested in letting her have all the fun, and he traced every soft curve under her pink blouse. 


He'd do that until the bell rang. And when they walked down the hall on their way to class and he saw a jock with a slushee, he curbed the instinct to attack and instead just hugged her closer, angling himself so if it came for her, it'd hit him. It didn't and he saw her tiny, knowing smile, and he thought she was tallying it up into her head as one less she would've had to suffer if it wasn't for him. He figured that was good enough for now. 


If he was a little rougher on the field later that day with his teammates, they deserved it; and he couldn't get detention for being good at sports…

Puck's jaw ticked as the memory faded away. He walked down the steps, his arms feeling abnormally heavy at his sides. He went backstage to find the lighting controls and lit up the stage before walking back through the heavy red curtains and taking a seat at the edge, letting his legs dangle over, staring at row after row of empty seats. Seats Rachel would have imagined were filled with adoring fans.

The spotlight didn't feel like the sun to him; it didn't feel like coming home or his future or anything Rachel might've used to describe it. It felt too hot, stifling, heavy even. Like a police searchlight pinning him down, pointing him out to everybody; like his grief was a tangible target painted all around him. Instead of getting up, moving out of its way, he stayed there. Even when sweat collected on his brow; as it dribbled down the sides of his face and made his skin feel heavy on his bones. He sat on the stage and he stared at his bloody fists and he wished he could rewind the clock a couple months. He could go back to when sitting up there meant having her lean into him or listening to her sing so she could gauge how she sounded echoing in the rafters or a hundred other things that involved being happy again. Before he was lost and sad and so fucking  angry

He raked his arm over his sweltering face and closed his eyes tight as they burned against the sweat that dripped in them. And when the silence got too loud, he asked hopefully, "Rach?"

When she didn't answer, he ground his teeth. "I fucked up, okay?" He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes until it hurt. "You'd…" He laughed humorlessly. "You'd be so pissed right now if you knew what I did and…" He shook his head. "And I don't  care , y'know? I don't care if I get kicked out or if ma loses her shit or… hell, if they try and send me back to juvie ..." He shrugged. "But I can't…" He swallowed thickly. "I don't wanna be here and this day won't fucking end, so can you just… Can you talk to me…?  Please? "

He listened hard, waiting, wishing.

Nothing.

And still he waited. He waited for her to reply; to make it better.

He waited for  hours .

../..

First and second period passed and Puck hadn't moved. When the warning bell ending break filled his ears, defeat finally had him dragging himself off the stage floor and climbing the steps. In the middle of a busy hall, with people hurrying past him in either direction, he weighed his options. If he went home, he had to deal with his mom. And he had things to figure out before all of this was over, so maybe it was better to stay on her good side. On the other hand, if he went to class he'd probably get directed to the principal's office and he really didn't feel like dealing with all that bullshit. In the end, he figured he might as well keep his word; didn't need his ma remembering him as a liar too.

He was just opening his locker when the halls emptied and third period began, the bell ringing shrilly, telling him he was late. He grabbed out his Spanish textbook and prayed Mr. Shue would keep his 'help' to himself; Puck didn't want to hear it. Almost as soon as he walked through the door though, Shue told him he was wanted in Miss. Pillsbury's office. And since he was more likely to bolt than actually go, Mr. Shue walked him there.

Thing were tense and quiet at first. Mr. Shue opened his mouth a few times like he thought he had something to say but then stopped. Finally, he settled on, "I heard about the fight earlier…"

As they walked through the hollow halls, their steps echoed around them.

Puck stared straight ahead, his teeth clenched.

"Puck, I know how easy it is to give in to those angry feelings… But you're not going to feel better if you do." He looked over at him. "It might feel good while it's happening, but when it's over you're still angry…" He stared searchingly, hoping for some kind of reaction. "You need to deal with your grief…" With a sigh, he reached over and squeezed his shoulder. " Talk  to Miss. Pillsbury," he asked him, pausing just outside the counselor's door. "Or at least  listen  to her."

With those parting words, he turned and walked back to his classroom.

Scowling, Puck considered walking away, continuing out to the parking lot and jumping in his truck. He didn't need this shit. It was empty and pointless.

But then the door opened and tiny Miss. Pillsbury was wringing her hands and staring up at him with those  huge  eyes of hers.

"Puck!" she said, in a tone that said she was  surprised  to see him.

His brows furrowed. "Shue said you wanted to see me," he muttered.

"Yes! I… I'm just surprised you, well…" She stepped back, reaching up to play with the collar of her blouse in an anxious manner. "Come in!"

He looked away from her and toward the exit.

"Puck?"

He stepped through the door and slunk into a seat, glowering.

Closing the door, Miss. Pillsbury circled her desk to sit in her chair, seeming to cringe at his bad posture. "I—I've been doing some research on grief," she opened, reaching over for a small stack of books on the corner of her desk. "Now, I'll be honest… I don't have a lot of expertise in grief counseling… And, well, I heard about your fight earlier, so I know you've been angry…" She peered at him through her owlish eyes. "There's some helpful tips to dealing with that kind of— That leftover rage in a few of these books…" She started leafing through them, reading their table of contents and frowning. "I'm sorry. I—I thought I'd have more time to prepare." She winced. "But I guess… I guess this just proves how unpredictable life can be…" Her brows furrowed. "I mean with Rachel, not with… Not my lack of preparation." She shook her head, her red hair bouncing against her shoulders. "I'm sorry. Can I… Can I start over?"

He blinked at her.

"Okay…" Taking a deep breath, she clasped her hands on the desk and stared at him searchingly. "How  are  you, Puck?"

He stared.

"I know we tried this once before and you weren't… You weren't ready to discuss it, but…" Seeing no change in his expression, she nodded. "Okay, well, I've talked it over with Principal Figgins… Originally, Coach Sylvester was pushing for you to be expelled…" She frowned. "Fighting on school grounds, especially as…  intensely  as you were… It  is  grounds for expulsion." She waited for a response and didn't get one. " But … With Mr. Shuester's help, we convinced Principal Figgins that two weeks of counseling might be a better idea…" She half-smiled hopefully. "You're so close to graduation now and Nationals are next week… Plus, we know how difficult things have been for you and… And we just want to  help you…" Her brows lifted. "You know that, don't you, Puck?"

His hands gripped the arms of his chair tightly, knuckles white with pressure. But he didn't say a word. He was so sick of that fucking word.


Help .

Where the hell was there  help  when Rachel was being bullied?

When students were drawing crude pictures of her on the bathroom walls or leaving hateful shit on her MySpace page? Where was all their help when Karofsky was getting out of control? Where were they when he shoved Rachel down the fucking stairs? 'Cause they sure as hell didn't  catch  her? They didn't  stop  it before it happened! Their help was too fucking late!  He didn't want their fix the mess after the fact bullshit. He didn't want their pity or their concern or their  anything . He wanted them to leave him the fuck  alone  already!

"-so you'll be expected in my office every lunch hour for the next two weeks," she continued. "Starting today."

Knee jumping with impatience, he sat forward and asked roughly, "Can I go?"

"This isn't a  punishment , Puck," she told him gently. "To be honest, even if you hadn't been in that fight earlier, you'd still be sitting here…" She shook her head. "Your mother called me. She's been…  worried ." Her expression took on a concerned twist. "She says you've been drinking a lot lately…" She reached over for the pamphlets on her desk and held one out that read  Teen Drinking: You Only Have One Liver .

His jaw ticked.  Seriously?  With the pamphlets again?

"I—I understand that your father had an… addiction problem too, didn't he?" she asked carefully.

He glared at her.

Her eyes widened impossibly larger. "Y-Your mom also said that you were expressing a lot erratic behavior; she's concerned for you mental and emotional state." At his lack of expression, she added, "She's worried you're  suicidal …" She stared at him wonderingly. "Those kinds of feelings can be overwhelming. They can make you feel like there's no way out…" She held out another pamphlet labeled  So You Can't Stop Crying . "But there  is!  You  can  come back from this, Puck."

Sighing, he rubbed his forehead as he felt a headache coming on.

"I can see you're not ready to talk. That's okay!" she assured. "I expect to see you back here after Spanish though."

He shoved up from his chair and stalked to the door.

"Puck!" she called after him.

He turned back, eyebrow raised.

"Your pamphlets," she said, pushing them across the desk toward him.

Puck walked away empty-handed, right out of the school.

No way was he coming back for some one-on-one heart-to-heart bullshit with Miss. P, well-intentioned or not.

../..

Since he was out of school early, and  sober , Puck went to the bank. He had some things to figure out and since he had a good idea he'd be drunk for the foreseeable future, he wanted to make sure it all got done right. Hours later, with what he wanted set in motion, he hit the liquor store. Using the last of his own money, 'cause he sure as shit wasn't going to use Rachel's, he loaded up on as much Jack, Jose and Bud as he could and then he headed home. Before he'd even pulled into his driveway, he was sighing, exasperated. Did they  ever  give up?

Finn's truck was parked out front. Puck found him sitting on the porch.

He considered walking right by him like he did last time, but the lumbering giant stood up, hands stuffed in his pockets, and gave him that same look he had when he found out Puck and Rachel were dating. It was that determined face of his that was somewhere between constipation and courage.

Bag in hand, Puck walked over, brow raised. "You know you're three blocks over, right?"

Finn stared at him. "Heard you broke Jake's nose… Maybe his jaw too."

"So?"

His brows furrowed. "What the hell are you doing, Puck?"

"Right now, I'm waiting for you to leave… Then I'm getting pissed out of my tree." He held up a bag. "You can either leave or crack one open,Hudson." He climbed the stairs to walk past him.

His hand was on the door handle when Finn's deep voice reached him.

"How do you think she'd feel if she saw you like this?"

Jaw ticking, he whirled back around and glared at him. "This is your great idea? You really think pissing me off is going to make it all  better? "

"Maybe I'm not trying to make you better!" he yelled back. "Maybe having you angry is better than not having you at all, okay!"

His eyes screwed up. "What the hell kind of logic is that?"

"It's…" Finn shrugged. "I dunno…" Sighing, he looked away, across the lawn. "Look, I… I'm  scared  for you…" He clenched his teeth. "I've known you since I was  four  and… And it's like you're this totally other person now. You're…" He turned back to him, his eyes shining with tears. "Like you look like you but… But you're all…" He waved a hand at him. "I dunno,  empty  or something…"

"Really poetic, Finn. Put that on my headstone, huh?" he sneered.

"Like that!" He took a step toward him. "You're  giving up! " He shook his head. "The Puck I knew? He'd  never  give up! Not—Not for some  girl! "

"Don't!" He dropped the bag and advanced toward him, stabbing a finger through the air at him. "You don't get to—" His hands curled into fists. " You —Of  all  fucking people! You can't talk about her like she was just— Like she wasn't  worth this!"

Finn's chin wobbled. "I didn't… I  know… " His head fell and he stared up at Puck sadly. "I know what she meant to you… I know that— That Rachel, she was—She was  everything  to you. I  get  that…" He swallowed as his voice grew thick. "But damn it, Puck… You're  eighteen! "

"So  what? " He threw his arms out. "So  fucking  what, Finn!" He laughed bitterly. "So maybe this was as far as I was supposed to  go , y'know?" He shook his head. "Noah Puckerman, never leaving Lima, Ohio… Just like  everybody expected." His face darkened. "I'll fucking  rot  here!"

"You don't  have  to…" He walked closer, his face widening. "Kurt told me about the money! Puck, you could go anywhere … You could leave  right now  and just… Just figure it out, y'know?"

Puck's shoulders fell, his frustration leaving him in a rush. "There's nothing to figure out... There's  nothing …" He stared at him a long moment. "I'm done, okay? I'm just… I'm over this. I—I'm  tired  and I'm  angry  and I just… I want to stop having to explain why this hurts this much… Why Rachel was  it  for me… I'm just  done ." He turned, reaching down and grabbing his bag, and shoved open the door.

"Puck!"

He kicked the door shut behind him and left it at that. He climbed the stairs to his room and he locked his door.

With a crack of a beer, he fell back on his bed and lifted it up in cheers. "To you, babe."

And then he drank himself into oblivion.

../..

He woke to knocking a few hours later. It was dark out, his room nearly pitch black save for the street lamp that lit up some of his floor, and he thought he smelled potroast. He blinked repeatedly against the itchiness of his eyes and his lips curled at the dried feeling of his tongue and throat. Scattered knocking needled at his ears again and he rolled onto his back, brows furrowed as he stared at the door.

"Noah?" he heard his little sister call, her tiny fist hitting his door again. "Noah, can I come in?"

His eyes fell and he rolled over onto his side again, reaching for the unopened beer he left in the bag on the floor. Rubbing his eyes with one hand, he cracked a can open with the other.

"It's  Sar-ah! " she sing-songed.

The bitter taste of beer washed down his throat, filling an empty stomach.

With a sigh and a stomp of her foot, she banged her hand on his door again. "Noah,  please  let me in…" She sniffled then. "I know you're sad… I miss Rachel too, okay? I—I miss how she watched Hannah Montana with me. And—And how she used to do my hair…" She was quiet a long second and then she hiccupped on her tears. "I can't… I can't do those braids like she did, but…  you  can… Can't you?"

His breath quickened, chest aching, and he screwed his eyes up tight, silently wishing she'd go away.

"Ma says I should leave you alone, but… It's so  quiet , Noah… I miss Rachel's singing… I miss you playing your guitar… I can't sleep at night; Mommy doesn't sing Twinkle Twinkle like Rachel does… Her voice isn't as pretty…" She added in a whisper, "Don't tell her though, okay?"

He half-smiled drunkenly, shaking his head.

"Noah…?" she asked again. "Ma says Rachel's not coming back, but she's wrong, right…? She  has  to come back… She promised she'd be my sister!"

Chest aching, he lurched forward and threw his half-empty beer across the room until it crashed against the door with a thud.

He heard his sister shriek before she ran off, her scurrying footsteps hurried down the hall until she was in her room, where she slammed her door shut, scared of him.

Panting, hands curled in fists in his lap, he glared blearily out into his room. And then with a half-yell, half-sob, he threw himself back onto the bed and buried his face in his hands, every inch of his body clenching and tensing as the ache in his chest seemed to flair up and spread through all of him.

He didn't think it'd ever go away.

../..

Sleep that night was sporadic.

He woke up every few hours, sweaty and restless, before he'd roll over and knock back another drink. It was flavorless now; whiskey, tequila, beer, whatever was handy, he didn't care.

He was in a fog, feeling like he was floating in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he thought he saw her; shadows of her just in reach. Dark brown hair slipping through his fingers as she danced farther and farther away. Pretty brown eyes staring up at him until he blinked and they were gone. He woke up thinking he was holding her, only to find empty air between his arms. He breathed in that lingering smell of her on her nightgown, let it drown him. If he tried hard enough, he thought he could hear her singing in the distance. That unmistakable voice, so big, so full of life, so fucking beautiful… Instead of soothing him, it hurt.

Everywhere.

Always.

../..

He woke up to a hand on his shoulder shaking him.

Rolling over, he found Finn staring down at him, frowning.

"The fuck?" Puck muttered, closing his eyes.

"Your mom called me…" He sighed. "She talked to my mom, so now I'm on 'make sure Puck goes to school and doesn't kill himself' detail…"

"Lucky you," he mumbled tiredly. "Anybody asks, let him know you tried your best..."

"Puck—"

"Seriously Finn…" His head was pounding; he really didn't need this. "Get the fuck out."

He was quiet a long second before finally saying, "No."

Puck opened his eyes, despite the spikes of pain just behind them. "What?"

" No ," Finn said a little more firmly.

He turned over and stared up at him. "You really wanna start this?"

Crossing his arms over his chest, Finn told him, "If things were different… Yeah, okay, I probably wouldn't be able to take you…" He shrugged. "But they're not, so… If I have to, I'll kick your ass all the way to school."

"What the hell  is it  with you people thinking school is going to  save  me?" He shoved up to sitting. "We talked about this yesterday and—"

"I know… But I'm not going to be like Kurt, okay?" He licked his lips, swallowing thickly. "I'm not just going to stand back and let you do it… I  won't! " He kicked the bed and stared down at him sternly. "So get up… You're going to school with me, you're seeing Miss. P at lunch for counseling, and for today, at least… You live a little longer."

Puck stared at him. "It's not going to change anything," he said, honestly.

"Maybe not…" His shoulders fell a little. "But at least I'll know I tried…"

Scrubbing a hand down his face, Puck shook his head.

What was one more day in the grand scheme? He wondered. 'Cause the truth of it was simple. Maybe Finn thought he had a chance here. Maybe he thought he could convince Puck out of what he was planning. But everything was already set in motion. He just had a few more things to figure out, what Rachel would call the 'finishing touches,' and then… Then it was done.  He  was done.

"Fine," he grunted, staring up at his best friend.

He didn't feel bad when Finn gave him that dopey, hopeful grin. All he felt then was determination. This  was  going to end, on  his  terms.

By Saturday, Puck would get what he wanted.

His end.

Chapter Text

XI.

The shower he jumped into was so hot his skin burned. In a way, it felt good. It was like something was telling him that he was still there, that he could still feel. And yeah, it was a negative feeling, but it was something. He knew Finn was waiting right outside the door and if he even knocked a shampoo bottle off the shelf, he'd probably come barreling in and expect him to be lying in a pool of his own blood. He couldn't say he was surprised; maybe he was a little too honest about how he was feeling lately. But he didn't want to lie to them; he didn't want them to get their hopes up that he was anywhere near 'better' or 'okay' or even 'coping.' The only reason he was doing this was because Finn was his boy and some part of him still felt loyal to him; he didn't want Finn to spend his life wondering if maybe he could've done something if he'd just stepped up. But he was being honest when he said it wouldn't change things.

The shower spray beat against his face like tiny needles; when he scrubbed a hand down, wiping water from his eyes, he felt the bristles of his unshaven cheeks and chin. He reached for the shampoo, but when he found a pink bottle in his hand he just stared at it. The water sluiced down over his head while he traced the fancy writing across her organic shampoo with his thumb. His chest ached so bad he pressed a hand to it and found the chain with her ring on it. His fingers curled around it tightly, until it bit into his skin.

That morning, they'd showered together like any other day. And it'd been so fucking normal

He didn't know how anybody could be so awake that early in the damn morning. Rachel was vibrating with energy from the top of her soaking wet head to her painted pink toes.

Grinning and rocking her hips, she squirted body wash in her hands and started rubbing them down her naked body as she sang away happily…

So, good mornin', good mornin'!
Sunbeams will soon smile through,
good mornin', my darlin', to you!

She dabbed a finger at him before twirling around under the spray of the water and washing the sudsy bubbles away.

He laughed, shaking his head at her.

She grinned widely before putting her hands on her hips and doing a little dance across the short space between them. Hands still covered in bubbles, she pressed them against his chest and spread them all around.

"I'm gonna smell like your girly soap," he said, but didn't stop her as she kneaded her fingers across his shoulders.

"Is that so bad?" She lifted up on her tip-toes and bumped his nose with hers. "You like how I smell, if I recall…"

He slid his arms around her waist and backed her up under the water again. Her wet hair stuck to her back and he dragged his fingers down it. "If I have to smell like your flowery organic shit, you have to smell like Old Spice…" He raised a brow.

She turned around, purposely letting her ass rub against him as she teasingly searched the shelves for his Old Spice bottle.

Biting down hard on his lip, he led his hands down to her hips and squeezed. "Much better way to say good morning…" he mused.

She grinned at him over her shoulder. Standing, she held his Old Spice bottle in hand. "You're just lucky I went home for awhile last night, I had time after my lesson to get a shower…" Her nose wrinkled. "If I hadn't shaved, there would none of this happening…" She motioned between them.

Taking the bottle from her, he poured some out into his hand and started lathering it into her skin. Brows furrowed, he said, "You can't shave here, why again?"

Rachel rolled her eyes, lifting her arms above her head as he rubbed her sides down. "Shaving is not sexy, Noah," she told him patiently.

He raised his brows at her, rubbing bubbly circles over her stomach. "Anything with you naked is sexy."

She pursed her lips to keep from smiling and shook her head, her dark hair clinging to her neck. "A lady has to havesome secrets…"

He snorted and gave her a little slap on her butt to get her to turn around. "Babe, you're the worst secret-keeper I know…"

"Hey!" She frowned at him over her shoulder as he soaped up her back. "I can keep a secret!" At his unconvinced smirk, she said, "I haven't told anyone I spend six out of seven nights a week in your bed!"

He shook his head, rubbing her shoulders. "Doesn't count."

"Why not?"

Sighing, he grabbed out her shampoo and poured entirely too much on top of her head. While she pouted at him, he scrubbed it into her hair. "'Cause keeping secrets about yourself that could get your pretty ass in trouble…" His eyes widened at her for emphasis, "-is different than keeping others' secrets." He shrugged, twirling her back around and leaning her head back so he could wash away the shampoo, careful not to get it in her eyes.

She put her hands on his waist to keep herself steady as she leaned back. "Well... I…" She frowned for a moment, trying to think of an argument. And then, excitedly, she informed him, "I never told anybody that Mercedes lost her virginity to Matt Rutherford last summer when they happened to be vacationing near each other!"

He grinned, amused by her smug expression. "You just told me!"

She scoffed, rolling her eyes. "You don't count!" she explained adamantly. "I tell you everything…" She stood back up when he released her head, searching around for her conditioner now. "Even things you don't want to know!"

Finally finding it amongst the many other bottles – how did women accumulate all this shit? – he held it up to her triumphantly and then, remembering their conversation, said, "But you can't shave in front of me?"

She slapped his chest, having no other argument, and then tilted her head forward for him.

Laughing under his breath, he squeezed the bottle and started lathering it in her hair, trying not to react as her fingers traced shapes against his wet skin and she rocked her hips side to side.

"You know, now that I think about it, getting clean before we get dirty seems rather redundant," she murmured, raising a brow.

He smirked at her, fingers tangled in her slippery, soft hair.

Bending down, he caught her lips and turned them so she was pressed against the cool tile walls. She hissed against the sudden temperature change and squeezed her arms around his waist.

"It's better to leave conditioner in for awhile anyway," she said, tilting her chin up for another kiss.

Her smooth leg hiked high on his hip, he pressed deep against her until her breasts were flattened against his chest. His hands slid up her sides, pausing to scrape his fingers against her ribs where she was ticklish. She groaned into his mouth, tightening her leg around his waist. Her hands kneaded his shoulders, sliding up his neck, nails scraping before her fingers curled in the tail of his 'hawk.

He could feel how wet she was, the heat of her, so damn close. Just a little readjusting and he'd be buried deep inside her.

"Noah," she breathed, nipping at his lips.

He slid his hands under her thighs and lifted her up the wall a few inches, but just as he was about to sink home, there was a knock at the door.

Sighing under his breath, he dropped his forehead to her shoulder. "It's busy, Squirt, go eat your Shreddies!"

"It's not Sarah!"

He stilled, swiveling his head. "Ma…" He cleared his throat when it came out kind of shrill. "You're home early…"

"Yeah, and I gotta pee!"

He looked back at Rachel, who had her 'deer-in-the-headlights' look on. "Uh… Can it wait?" he asked. "I'm kinda—"

The door swung open and then closed and he could hear her hurried steps toward the toilet. "No, it really can't…" she said simply.

"Ugh, ma, seriously…" he complained, frowning. "I don't wanna hear you take a whiz…"

She scoffed. "Oh please, when you were a baby, you cried every time I left you with your daddy so I could use the bathroom…."

"Yeah, well, I grew up," he mumbled, frowning.

Rachel silently mocked, "Aww!" at him.

He glared at her amusement.

"You know, for a whole year after you were potty-trained you came and told me every time you went on your own…" his mother continued.

He groaned, shaking his head. "So not embarrassing story time!"

"I'm just saying… You never used to be so private… You used to share everything with me!"

His jaw ticked a little, trying and failing to remember a time he and his mom had ever been that close. "Grew out of that," he finally said, staring into Rachel's sad, knowing face. "Not much of a sharer."

"I think Rachel would argue that," his mom said simply.

Rachel's eyes widened in fear that his mother knew she was there.

He stared at her, not sure what to do, and finally just said, "Seriously ma, this is like the longest piss ever…"

"Watch your mouth," she chastised. "And I'm done, so you can stop complaining."

"Good." He breathed out a tiny sigh of relief. "I got glee, I'll be home after."

"I assume Rachel's coming over too."

He looked at the girl in question, chewing her lip with worry. She looked up at him and nodded her head agreeably. "Yeah… She'll be here," he answered.

"Great. I'll make meatloaf," she told him happily, making her way back to the door. "Have a good day at school!"

"Yeah, sure."

"You too, Rachel!"

Without thinking, she replied, "Thanks, Mrs. Puckerman!" Realizing her faux pas, she slapped a hand over her mouth.

He stared at her incredulously.

"See?" his mom laughed. "I knew you still shared…"

The door closed behind her.

Puck shook his head and stared at the girl in his arms, her legs still wrapped around his waist. "Seriously?"

She lifted her shoulders apologetically. "I'm sorry! My manners demand that I reply when somebody speaks to me directly…" She scowled up at him. "You should have locked the door!"

"Against what? She got home early! All we had to worry about was Sarah!"

She frowned at him. "Well, from now on, if we're in any space without our clothes on, any and all doors to that room need to be locked!" she decided.

He rolled his eyes. "Fine, whatever…" His smirk slowly returned. "Now can we get back to what we were doing before she came in here and interrupted us?"

Rachel crossed her arms over her chest. "You don't honestly expect me to get back in the mood after your mother just—"

"Gimme one minute to change your mind," he interrupted, looking earnest.

Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Sixty seconds," she agreed.

It only took thirty.

When he shook off the memory, the water was cooling down and Finn was knocking at the door.

"Hey, uh… You all right in there? It's been… awhile…"

"Yeah…" His voice was hoarse, so he cleared his throat. "Yeah, I'm fine…"

He used all her organic shit to wash up that morning; just 'cause he wanted the smell of her to stick around awhile.

../..

The monstrous headache throbbing in his temples made school extra shitty for Puck. But whenever he mentioned to Finn he needed aspirin, the kid acted like he was asking for the whole bottle and a quiet corner to die in. He wasn't sure what pissed him off more, that Finn was on Guard-Puck detail or that he had to walk down the hall with him as he waved and nodded to everybody, enjoying his popularity like it was any other day. Half the kids that Finn was saying hi to stared at Puck like he was a science project… or Finn's charity case.

School hadn't even begun and he already wanted it to end.

When the bell rang, he was just glad to be away from Finnocence and the curious gleeks that came and went, never knowing what to say but trying to act like everything was normal.

For first and second period, he laid his head on his arms and waited for it to be over; he didn't even bother bringing his books to class. The teachers didn't say anything, the students were all scared of him, and he was in and out of a nap he desperately needed. The problem was, whenever he closed his eyes he saw her. But she wasn't reachable; like he kept walking toward her or calling her name and she'd just get farther and farther away. Before finally, he'd startle awake and people would either already be staring at him funny, or they'd start when he woke up with a shout.

He could care less if they thought he was crazy, though. He just turned his head away and stared out the window or closed his eyes and tried to wait out the bell. His stomach was tied up in knots and again he found himself wondering when he last ate. Everything before that day was a blur; he couldn't separate one day from the next. But he wasn't sure if it was hunger pains or drinking on an empty stomach that had him feeling so shitty. Worst of all, his teachers weren't letting him go to the bathroom on his own; apparently Miss. Pillsbury got it around that he should have people keeping an eye on him. And Finn was right outside the class door waiting for him before the bell even rang.

When break hit, he started for the bathroom without even a hello to his oldest friend.

He ground his teeth when Finn followed him right up to the urinal.

Rolling his eyes, he looked back, "Seriously dude, I can't take a piss alone?"

Finn shifted awkwardly, moving to stand near the sinks. "I told you…" He shrugged. "My mom wants me to keep an eye on you…"

Puck snorted. "I'm not offing myself in the john, Finn…"

"So…" He looked over at him curiously. "You know howthen?"

Jaw ticking, he closed his mouth and glared at the wall, unzipping his jeans.

Finn persisted. "I mean… You've like…really planned it?"

Throwing his head back, he sighed. "Can I just piss in peace, please?"

"No."

When Puck glanced at him over his shoulder, he realized Finn really wasn't going to leave. He was gonna stand guard there for every second Puck wasn't in class.

Fuck that.

When he was done, he washed his hands and hurried out the door. The crowd of people moving from classes to their lockers to find somewhere to sit or hang with friends gave him a little coverage. Finn was quick behind him, but Puck was faster. He could hear Finn shouting his name and trying to get at him, but he cut down one hallway and then another before finally getting into the auditorium. He ran down the stairs, hopped onto the stage and was behind the curtains before Finn ever made it there, opening the door to take a quick scan, muttering, "Shit," under his breath, and continuing on.

With a snort, Puck hit the lights and sat himself down in the middle of the stage floor. He leaned back and rested his head on his arms, crossed behind him. The spotlights were bright, so much so that he couldn't help blinking against them before finally just shutting his eyes completely.

His head was still pounding; it radiated from his temples down to his neck, making his shoulders ache with tension. Briefly, he wondered how much he had left at home to drink. And then he wondered how often his dad thought that same thing.

Puck had never been much of a drinker. He loved to party but it was usually the atmosphere that got him, and a few beers suited him fine. That night at Rachel's, he'd used a few tricks he'd seen his old man work when he was just a kid, looking up to the guy like he was something worth idolizing. Eli Puckerman was an asshole; a selfish alcoholic who walked out on his family and never looked back. Puck hoped his liver gave out and he died alone and filled with regret. He hoped he never saw that good-for-nothing piece of shit again. And then he cursed him for putting all his bullshit on his son; for making Puck think he should never bet on love, just himself. For leaving him a guitar with all his empty dreams and hopes attached to it and telling him that he'd be just like him

He hated that he'd believed it for so long too, before finally getting his act together and trying to be better… Only to turn out too much like him anyway.

With a sardonic smirk twisting his lips, he thought his ma might've gotten it right all along…

Dinner was quieter than usual. Not for the first time, Puck glanced at the empty seat next to him where Rachel usually sat; for the last four months or so anyway. She was a chatterbox and she usually kept conversation flowing. She always asked Sarah about school or her ballet lessons and then she'd get worked up and excited and spill her whole day, every single detail, to them. It was nicer than sitting around in oppressing silence, hoping his ma didn't get on him about something, whether he did it or not. When Rachel was there, she was nicer; maybe it was 'cause she was desperate for Rachel to be her daughter-in-law, maybe because it was the one thing she saw Puck doing right, he didn't know. But he kind of regretted telling Rachel she should have dinner with her dads alone, even though they invited him along. She hardly got to see them and he figured they'd want some family bonding or whatever; now he wished he'd tagged along…

His ma caught his look and then frowned at him. "Where's Rachel?" she asked, bluntly. "It's not like her to miss dinner… She's the only one who ever offers to help me with the dishes…"

He barely stopped himself before he rolled his eyes. "Home." He shrugged. "That all right with you?"

She gave him her patented 'don't start with me' glare. "You get into a fight?" Her brows rose. "Noah, you better not screw this up with that girl!" She waved her fork at him. "Girls like that aren't a dime a dozen and God knows I've had to put up with your bad taste in women in the past…" She shook her head. "I won't watch you throw away the only good thing you have left in your life!"

"Ma, she's at home…" he sighed. "She does go there sometimes…"

"Don't take that tone with me," she muttered, shaking her head. "You think I haven't been through enough with you already? All I ask is that you stick with the one nice, Jewish girl who'll give you the time of day!" She sawed away at her pot-roast angrily. "Lord knows I have no idea what that girl sees in you, but if we've been given this blessing of her then you won't ruin it."

"Gee, thanks," he muttered sarcastically.

She stared at him. "Don't you make me out to be the bad guy here! You want me to list all the reasons it doesn't make sense for a girl like that to be with a boy like you?"

He shoved his food around his plate. "Not really."

"How about the fact that you've been tomcatting around with every girl that'll have you? Married, single, even older than your mother…" She tossed her cutlery down and stared up at him with that tired look on her face. "How about your juvie record or the fact that you have a baby out there that you and that shiksa made after one stupid, thoughtless mistake!"

"Don't call her that! Beth wasn't a mistake!" he snapped, his throat burning hollow.

"You play the loving father all you want, Noah, but we both know the truth!" She shook her head, muttering disappointingly, "You're just like your father…"

"Don't!" he warned, grinding his teeth.

She went on like she didn't hear him. "No responsibility, no appreciation, no thought to anybody else but yourself! You abandoned your daughter just like your dad did us and—"

"Shut up!" he yelled, shoving up from the table and glaring her down. "I get it! You hate me! You're sick of me! You wish I wasn't you son!" His chest heaved with his quick breathing. "Telling me every day isn't going to change anything!"

She stood up to meet his anger. "You think I want to be upset with you?" Her eyes shone with tears of frustration while she waved her arms around for emphasis. "If you would just do what you were supposed to… If you'd go to school, make something of yourself! If you'd stop acting so much like him I'd—"

"You'd what?" He stared at her with wide, incredulous eyes. "Seriously? I'd really like to know! Because I can't remember a time when you didn't treat me like I was shit!" He threw his arms out. "I'm not going to be the perfect son; ever! I'm an asshole half the time and you know what? Some of that is your fault!"

She pressed a hand to her chest. "I never—!"

"Exactly! You never told me I could be better! You never stood up for me when I got into fights at school; you just assumed it was all me, all my fault. You never supported me in football or glee or anything I did… Because I'm just hisson… 'Cause as long as you don't do anything and I keep fucking up, you don't have to take responsibility for the shitty son you made… Well guess what, I'm yours!" He turned to leave, shouting back. "And me and Rachel are fine, so don't start adding that to my list of fuck-ups! Maybe you can't figure out what she's doing with me, but I got it covered… 'Cause for the first time since I can even remember, I got somebody who actually cares about me… And if you think I'm throwing that out, you've crazier than I thought."

"Noah Puckerman!" she yelled after him.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm grounded… Tell it to my parole officer, Super Mom."

When he opened his eyes, he found Finn staring down at him.

"Fuck…" He shook his head. "You gotta stop doing that…" With a groan, he rolled to a seated position, dragging a hand down his face.

"I doubled back," he explained. "Saw you laying there and almost called for help. But then you moved, so…" He shrugged, taking a seat across from him. Things were awkward for a few seconds before he finally tossed a brown paper bag over to Puck. "Figure you're probably hungry; you didn't grab anything for breakfast… It's not much, just a granola bar and an apple, but…"

Puck raised a brow, but pulled out the granola bar and unwrapped it, taking a large bite out of the top. "Thanks," he said while chewing.

Finn nodded in return.

Everything was quiet for a long time, before Finn finally cleared his throat.

"So… You come here a lot?"

Puck couldn't help it, he laughed. "Are you hitting on me, dude?"

Flushing red, Finn shook his head. "What? No! I… I was just…" He rolled his eyes and reached over to punch him in the arm. "Shut up…"

Shrugging, Puck stuffed the rest of the granola bar in his mouth and then worked on getting the sticker off the side of the apple. "Me and Rach hung out here a lot… Singing, talking, whatever…"

Finn nodded thoughtfully. "First kiss I had with Rachel was on this stage," he admitted. He smiled slightly. "She dragged out all these pillows and laid 'em out for us to sit on, trying to be romantic or something, and she said…" His brows furrowed in memory. "You can kiss me if you want…" He shook his head. "So I did, but then…" He screwed up his face. "Mailman wasn't working that day."

Puck snorted. "Yeah… She told me about that…" He smirked slightly. "You ever get that shit handled?"

Finn glared at him, shifting uncomfortably.

Things fell quiet again, a little less tension-filled.

"I used to think you'd try and get her back, y'know…" Puck turned and stared at him a long moment. "When me and her started up, I figured it wouldn't be long before you were after her again." He shrugged. "And she'd fall for it, 'cause she always does, and I'd lose my chance…" He licked his lips, dropping his eyes to the apple in his hands. "Y'know, I was there that day… when you asked her to pick you instead…"

Finn went still, staring at him with wide eyes.

He smiled sarcastically. "Yeah, she didn't know either…" He took a bite of his apple and raised a brow. "On the bright side, I realized all the worrying I was doing and waiting for you to man up, it was all over…"

"Puck, I—"

"Dude… I get it…" He shook his head. "Besides, if you never tried, I wouldn't know she was done with you."

He flinched, but nodded like he got it.

And Puck remembered when he knew Rachel would never leave him for Finn…

Puck checked his watch again, brows furrowed. It wasn't like Rachel to be late; in fact, she was usually early. And since he was on time, something must've been seriously fucked up in the universe. All right, yeah, they got into a fight that morning, so maybe he should just chalk this up to her being dramatic and head home. But usually, she wanted to talk it out, and it was a stupid fight anyway. So what if he thought tofu tasted like shit? He was a red-meat kinda guy and she knew that! Still, she took it seriously and hadn't talked to him all day, so…

He started for the school even though he knew it meant she'd want to talk about the benefits of being a vegan and how sad it made her to think of those poor animals just waiting for slaughter. He stopped at the choir room first, 'cause usually when she was in a mood she took it out on Mr. Shue, bugging him about ideas for glee. When he found the room empty, he redirected to the auditorium, thinking she might want to sing out her frustration instead. Hopefully, she was in a better mood, 'cause the whole fight started over their plans for a date tonight, and he seriously wanted to go out with her rather than head home. Six months in and Puck was still surprised she was sticking around with him. Senior year was just starting and he was happy to walk down the halls with her on his arm, even if everybody else was shocked stupid that they were still going together. The only person he paid any attention to was Finn; 'cause he was probably the only jackass that might actually talk sense into her and make her see Puck was not the right dude for her.

Even his ma, who didn't like him half the time, was pro him and Rachel. But then, that was probably 'cause she thought the sun shone out of Rachel's ass and she'd make up for all of Puck fuck-ups… Still, it worked for him.

For the first time in a long time, he was happy. Like, legit happy with his life. He was going to all of his classes, even Math, and he was really trying to get his grades up. He'd need them high if he wanted any chance at NYU. If he were with anybody else, he might've thought it was too early, but with Rachel on his arm, planning for the future was like a requirement. And it wasn't just his future, but theirs… He kinda liked that. Liked that when she talked about taking over New York he was part of the picture. When she was reciting her latest Tony speech, she mentioned him. She was seriously planning to spend the next few years, if not like, her life with him… And maybe that should've scared him, but he was into it. When he was with Rachel, he felt like things fell into place; like he was worth something; like he'd get of Lima and really do something worth talking about.

He expected to hear Brad on the piano, figuring he'd probably appreciate the assist in getting her to pack up and let him get back to his life. But when he didn't hear it or her booming voice echoing in the rafters, he frowned. He decided to check it anyway; sometimes she liked to just stand in the spotlight. The auditorium was empty enough that it echoed, so when he stepped inside and saw Rachel and Finn standing on the stage together, he could hear everything they were saying without even having to try.

His heart hit the floor faster than he thought possible.

This was it.

This was the moment Rachel stared up into Finn's dopey, nice guy face and gave him another chance. The moment she realized she was wasting her time and her talent and her future on Puck.

"Rachel… He's not who you think he is! He—He's Puck!" Finn threw his hands up, staring at her pleadingly.

She peered up at him with that patient look on her face, her hands on her hips.

"I know… I know girls fall for his crap all the time, but I thought you were better than that!" He reached for her, taking her hand and squeezing. "Rach, you're special… You were always special…" He shook his head. "I don't want to see you waste that on Puck." He shook his head. "He's not the right guy for you. It—It's supposed to be me and you… I'm your leading man, remember?" He licked his lips. "Weren't we happy together? Didn't we make sense?" His brows rose in confusion. "But you and Puck? You don't… You don't work together! He's not… Listen, I've known him my whole life, but Rachel… He's not good enough for you…"

Sighing, she tugged her hand away. "You're wrong."

"I—"

"You said your peace, Finn, let me say mine," she ordered, holding her hand up to cut him off. "You think I don't know him, but I do!"

He shook his head, ready to argue.

Not letting him, she said simply, "Puck is crass. He's rude and mean and sometimes, when he thinks I won't notice, he still uses that dip stuff that tastes disgusting!" She shook her head. "H-He invented the slushee facial, he's slept with half the female population of Lima, and he's thrown more kids in dumpsters than should ever be allowed! He still swirlies Jacob Ben Israel and he uses violence to solve most of his problems. He eats red meat and—and his manners are deplorable!"

Finn was nodding now, agreeing eagerly.

"And those things aren't always attractive… They're not qualities most girls look for in a boyfriend." She shrugged. "But they're balanced out with every good thing I see in Noah."

Puck's own brows furrowed while Finn frowned in confusion.

"Noah is sweet and protective…" she told him earnestly. "He loves his little sister more than anybody and he'd do anything for a friend. He cherishes his guitar even though it was his dad's, who he's terrified of becoming, and he writes the most beautiful, most heartfelt music I've ever heard in my life…" She stared up at him searchingly. "The thing is, Finn… Is you think you're trying to save me, from Puck or myself, but I'm happy where I am…" She smiled brightly. "I'm happier than I've ever been."

"Rach…"

"And that's not anything against you, it isn't… But when I'm with Noah, I can be myself, in all of my crazy, over-dramatic glory, and he—He loves me… Not in spite of my many flaws, but including them… He listens when I rant, even when it's about things he doesn't care about! He—He wants my dreams for me! He would do anything to make sure that I got them…" She smiled brightly. "When I talk about the future, he doesn't know it, but his whole face lights up…" She laughed warmly. "He can't wait, Finn! He can't wait to be in New York with me! To live our lives together…" She sighed wistfully and pressed a hand to her heart. "When I imagine my future and I'm looking out into the crowd, it's Noah sitting in the front row… It's Noah I'm thanking in my Tony speech and Noah I practice my lines with and Noah that I fall asleep with and wake up with and Noah who I sing to and who sings to me and—and my children will have his eyes, Finn…" She laughed. "And God help me, his nose, too!" Taking a deep breath, she shook her head. "And if you think for one second that I would give that up… Maybe you're the insane one of the two of us…"

Not waiting for a response, she walked around him and grabbed up her trolley bag.

"So that's it then?" Finn called after her, shoulders slumped as he stared after her, that half-defeated, half-confused look on his face. "Me and you? We're—"

"Yes." She nodded seriously. "Because as long as I have a chance to be with Noah, I'm going to take it…" She tucked her hair behind her ear. "I hope you find the right girl, Finn… I think you would make a really great boyfriend for someone." She smiled gently. "Just not me."

With that, she turned to climb the stairs.

Puck moved out of the way of the door and even down the hall and around a corner so she wouldn't know he'd overheard. His head was spinning with what he'd learned, his heart pounding in his ears.

Rachel came around the corner while he was still trying to process.

"Hey!" she greeted, grinning widely. Without waiting, she simply threw her arms around him and squeezed. "I'm sorry about our argument earlier… I should know better by now than to try and convert you…"

Mind still boggled, he wrapped his arms around her waist and hugged her tight. "Yeah, no worries…" He buried his face in her neck. "How was your day? Haven't seen you since this morning…" He wondered if she'd mention Finn, if she'd remind him that there were others willing to take his place if he screwed up like that again.

"Nothing extraordinary happened today, I'm afraid… Nothing worth adding to my biography anyway." She drew back and stared up into his face. "I missed you."

He grinned. "We were together this morning."

She nodded, fiddling with the end of his shirt. "I know…"

Stroking the small of her back with his thumbs, he nodded. "I kinda missed you too."

She smiled brightly, knowingly. "Kind of?"

"Little bit."

She pouted.

He kissed her lips and she leaned into it full-body. "Liar..." She said in between slanting kisses. "You missed me a lot."

"Maybe."

She nipped his lip and he laughed.

He lifted her right up off the floor.

She shrieked before wrapping her legs around his waist. "Noah!"

He grinned up at her, their foreheads pressed together. "We should hit up that vegan joint you wanted to check out…"

Her brows furrowed. "But I just agreed you shouldn't have to change your meal conditions… And they're having a half-off deal on the steak dinner at BreadstiX…"

He nodded. "Tofu's cheap right?"

She snorted, rolling her eyes. "You're so romantic…" she teased.

Smirking, he patted her ass before dropping her to her feet next to him. "Hell yeah I am!"

She laughed, hooking her arm with his and resting her head against his arm. "You hate tofu," she told him simply.

"Yeah."

"We can stop at McDonald's after," she reassured.

He nodded. "This compromising shit is easy…"

Rolling her eyes, she chuckled.

Leaning over, he kissed the top of her head, and sent a silent prayer up to the big guy for giving him this one break.

That happiness he'd been feeling earlier doubled, 'cause now there were no fears that it'd be taken away from him any damn second.

He looked over at Finn and shook his head. "We were fighting, y'know? Would've been so easy for her to just say she was done… Run back to you…" His jaw ticked. "But she didn't…" He swallowed tightly, staring down at the apple.

"She really loved you," Finn said quietly. "And I… I'm not just saying that…" He rested his arms against his upturned knees. "I got it after that and I backed off… I mean, it hurt… I really thought it was supposed to be me and her… But after she said all that stuff and I just… I took a step back, it was like…" He nodded. "You guys made more sense."

Puck took another bite of the apple, crunching it between his teeth and glaring out at the floor. "Wasn't supposed to be like this…" His eyes stung and he swiped his hand up and wiped away a tear. "The fuck, right?" He laughed derisively. "We were supposed to go to Nationals and own that shit… And we'd graduate and get out of here…" He shook his head. "And now it's like I can't… I can't…" His chest ached.

Hesitantly, Finn reached for him, letting a hand fall heavily on his shoulder. "Mom says sometimes when things like this happen, it's like there's a wall, y'know? Like you're trying to figure out what you should do next or where you should go or even how you feel and there's just… There's this wall in your way…" He licked his lips, sighing. "I don't know what it feels like… I mean, my dad died when I was really young and I don't remember it. And Rachel, she… She meant a lot to me, but… I think you loved her in a way I never did, you know? Like, you got all of her… And I… I hate it, but there were things I didn't like about her… Things that I would've been happier if she changed…" He shrugged. "That's not really love though, I don't think. I mean, not in the way my mom loves Burt or… or how Kurt feels about Blaine…" He frowned. "I think that kind of love, it makes it really hard to think about life without that person… And I get it, I think… I get why… I just… I don't want to lose my best friend… I don't want you to die because you couldn't see any other way…" He shook his shoulder a little. "Maybe I'm not the best person to talk to about it, but… I just want you to try, y'know? Just try to live…"

"It's not a wall…" he murmured under his breath. "It's a hole… And you guys are all reaching for somebody who already laid down."

"Puck…"

The bell rang shrilly, signaling third period.

With a sigh, Puck shoved to his feet. "I get it, Finn… Your mom plays bridge with ma on weekends and maybe she thinks she helped raise me…" He shoved his hands in his pockets. "But having you hang around me 24/7 isn't going to change things…" He backed up toward the stairs. "I know what I'm doing…" He shrugged. "Tell her thanks though, okay…?" He nodded. "She's a good woman." With that, he turned and left.

../..

When third period let out, he was escorted dutifully by a silent Finn to Miss. Pillsbury's office.

Hands clasped on the desk, she stared up at him with her big, nervous eyes.

Finn dropped a bagged lunch in his lap before he left, closing the door behind him.

Sighing, Puck dropped into the chair in front of the desk.

"So… Puck…" She pressed her hands down flat in front of her. "I want you to know this is a no-blame zone…" She shook her head, her red hair bouncing off her shoulders. "No blame, no judgment, just a place to talk… To free yourself of burden…" She stared at him wonderingly. "Are there… any burdens you might want to set free, Puck?"

In that moment, he could only think of one burden he'd like to tell to fuck off.

Her.

Instead, he raised a derisive brow.

"Okay, well…" Her shoulders slumped a little. "No pressure!" She brightened up a little. "We'll have plenty of time for you to open up and I…" She sat back in her seat a little. "I'll be here waiting for you when it happens."

He leaned back and drummed his fingers against the armrest, staring at her without blinking until she nervously started resorting everything on top of her desk.

It was a long lunch break.

../...

Fourth period was a class he used to share with her.

The seat behind his was noticeably empty.

He hesitated in the doorway, his eyes falling on it.

The last bell rang loudly and the teacher turned around to start roll call.

"Adams?"

"Here."

"Anderson?"

"Yeah."

"Bell?"

"Present."

"Ber… Uh, sorry… Chang?"

Puck flinched.

"Here," Mike answered hesitantly, glancing at Puck in the doorway.

Teeth clenched, he made his way over and sat down in his seat, shoulders hunched.

He closed his eyes and swallowed thickly, his stomach twisting tight.

He didn't want to, but part of him kept waiting for her fingers to reach out and scratch down the nape of his neck, tugging the tail of his 'hawk between her knuckles. And then she'd draw shapes, mostly the infinity sign, over and over against his skin. It would tickle and his skin would warm up, acutely aware of her touch. And even while the teacher droned on and on and she studiously took notes, she would keep that one hand on his neck, sometimes falling to knead his shoulder.

That soothing touch never came and he tensely sat with his head arched back, hoping against reality that it would.

../..

Finn was quiet when he drove him home; he was brooding, holding the steering wheel too tight, taking turns too sharply, speeding.

Puck never mentioned it, but he thought it would be kind of ironic if he died on the way home, with the guy who was supposed to stop him from committing suicide as the driver.

The tires squealed when they stopped outside of his house and Puck reached for the door handle, happy to get away from his shadow.

"Should I be here tomorrow?" Finn finally asked, darting his eyes over to him. "To pick you up for school?"

He knew what he really meant.

Are you going to kill yourself tonight?

Will you be alive tomorrow?

Should I even bother?

He stared back at him, brow raised. "If you wanna drag my ass outta bed, fine… At least bring breakfast." He shut the door and walked off, not caring that Finn was smiling again, hoping again. It was probably cruel anyway. But he still had shit he needed getting done and he wasn't promising he'd be around forever, just tomorrow.

When he walked inside, Sarah was on him. She hopped off the couch and ran toward him, bouncing on the tips of her toes. "Noah! Hannah Montana is on!" she told him, pointing back at the TV eagerly. "You can sing me with me!"

He kicked his shoes off and didn't look at her. He started for the stairs, sighing under his breath.

Her little hands grabbed at his shirt, trying to stop him, instead she ended up stumbling behind him. "Mom made snacks," she told him. "PB and J and she made the good juice, not the yucky kind, and there's Goldfish too, Noah!"

He reached back and untangled her hand from his shirt. "Go watch your show, Sar…"

"But, I—I want you to come too!"

His jaw ticked. "No."

"Noah, what did I do?" she wondered sadly. "Was it 'cause I played with your guitar? I—I didn't break it! I only wanted to hear it again! You don't play no more!"

He was almost at his bedroom door and she was right at his heels.

"Noah?" She growled angrily. "You're being mean!" She punched him with her tiny fist. "If you don't stop, I'll tell Rachel when she comes back and she'll—"

"She's not coming back!" he shouted, whirling on her. "You're never gonna see her again, Sarah! She's gone!"

Sarah stared up at him from big brown eyes, her lips trembling. "How come?"

"'Cause she died! 'Cause some asshole killed her, okay?" He threw his arms out. "So she's dead and she's not coming back and she's not gonna get mad at me for not playing with you or watching your stupid Hannah Montana shit and she's not gonna sing to you anymore, all right?"

"But—But—"

"Just stop! Sarah, please!" He shook his head. "Go away already! Leave me the hell alone!"

Not waiting for her reply, he walked into his room and slammed the door behind him, dragging his feet to the bed and dropping face-down, sideways.

Distantly, he regretted that. He didn't want to hurt her, he really didn't. But he couldn't do it. He couldn't be the guy who made her feel better when all he felt was shitty. Truth was, he loved his sister. That little brat was the only thing that kept him going after his dad cut and ran. And when his ma would look at him with those dead eyes, like she was just so tired, of him and waiting for the next time he'd screw up. When he was sick of being Puck, of showing off for the assholes at school and just wanted to be himself - no pretense, no expectations - he could sit around and drink fake tea with Sarah and her damn teddy bears and he felt better about himself; about his life. He could wear a pink boa and barrettes in his 'hawk and she didn't call him a loser, didn't act like he wasn't cool enough to hang with. To Sarah, he'd always been the greatest guy alive. And when he brought Rachel home, his cool-factor skyrocketed. Here was a chick who liked to sing all her Disney songs; who baked cookies with her and wore skirts and dresses and played with make-up. She looked at Rachel and told Puck not to be mean to her, to make sure she came over always; she even fake-married them in the backyard once. She made him go out and buy cake to celebrate, but he only had enough cash on him for one cupcake, so they split it.

He knew Sarah loved Rachel. He knew it was a raw-deal for her too. That she'd lost somebody she really cared about and she didn't understand why or how or if it was forever. And he'd just made it worse. He got that. But as he laid there on his bed, all he could think was that the kid deserved better; she deserved a brother who wasn't such a screw up. But he couldn't change. He couldn't be better again. 'Cause Rachel was the reason he was a better person; she made him think it was possible. He knew that was fucked up; maybe he should be happy for himself or some other self-help bullshit. Truth was, Puck grew up thinking that the best he'd ever get was Lima. And yeah, he said different. He would have told anybody who said he was just a Lima Loser like his dad that he wasn't; he was nothing like that asshole. But in the end, when the smirk was gone and he didn't have a whole school full of people looking on expectantly, he knew the truth. Noah Puckerman wasn't getting out of Lima. He'd work at the tire store for Burt and later Finn and he'd eventually settle down with some chick he probably knocked up out of wedlock, repeating the whole Quinn disaster only this time he'd be old enough to take care of and support his kid. And he'd marry somebody he didn't love and spend his life wishing he didn't regret her. He'd grow old and lose his hair and tell stories about the good ol' days back in high school, when he king of the badasses.

And then Rachel started coming around more often and she wouldn't let him doubt himself, wouldn't let him avoid his homework or act like he didn't care. She pushed him and expected more of him and she told him he was more than what he thought, what his mom thought, what anybody thought. That if he wanted, he could do more and be more and achieve everything he wanted. So he told her he wanted his own club, he'd go to college and major in business, and he'd pick and choose the bands right on the cusp of greatness. He'd play his music and he'd rock New York on its ass. And he'd do it all with an amazing Broadway actress at his side. 'Cause he didn't just need her there, he wanted her there. It wasn't just that she believed in him when nobody else did; it wasn't just that she looked at him and didn't see Loser permanently marked on his head. It was how he felt when he was with her; how he smiled just 'cause she looked so damn cute. How excited he was for her to get all her dreams. How when she sang, he felt at rest. Content. Like nothing bad could touch him anymore. How when he fell asleep at night and she was there in his arms, everything felt right. He wasn't smothered like with other girls, he didn't have to act a certain way or tone down anything. She just loved him. Even when he was swearing or playing Super Nintendo instead of listening to her talk about some musical she watched for the umpteenth time.

So as much as he loved his sister and he didn't want her to hurt, he was tired. He didn't want to put on the big-brother mask and make it better for her. He couldn't. Not when he felt like he did and when he just couldn't see any upside to what was happening. He was going to leave her too. And she'd be hurt and confused and he didn't want her to feel that. But he couldn't live his life just because a few people might miss him. He couldn't live his life period.

Sighing, he rolled over onto his back and reached for his MP3 player, tucking the ear-buds in and turning up the volume until it smothered all other sound.

He was partial to The Smith's version, but Rachel had downloaded that hot chick from Suckerpunch onto his MP3. Her voice was really quite haunting, especially given the material, and he closed his eyes, sinking into it.

Sing me to sleep,
Sing me to sleep,
I'm tired and I…
I want to go to bed…

He had to start his letters soon.

He made a mental list of everybody who was getting one.

His ma.

Sarah.

Finn.

Kurt.

Hiram and Leroy.

Mr. Shue. Maybe one that he could read to the rest of the club.

Sing me to sleep,
Sing me to sleep…
And then leave me alone…
Don't try to wake me in the morning,
'Cause I will be gone…
Don't feel bad for me,
I want you to know…
Deep in the cell of my heart,
I will feel so glad to go…

He'd never really thought about what he'd write in a goodbye letter.

Thanks for the memories?

Sorry I was a shit friend?

Maybe something more uplifting like, Reach for your dreams or whatever.

Or maybe they'd just get it… Maybe he didn't have to say anything at all…

Sing me to sleep (sing me to sleep),
Sing me to sleep (sing me to sleep),
I don't want to wake up,
On my own anymore…

Sing to me (sing to me),
Sing to me (sing to me),
I don't want to wake up,
On my own anymore…

He thought it was pretty obvious.

Sorry I couldn't stick around, but I loved her a lot more than the rest of you…

Was that dickish?

At least it was honest.

Don't feel bad for me,
I want you to know…
Deep in the cell of my heart,
I really want to go…

In the end, he kind of hoped they realized it wasn't like, their fault. He got it. They were all reaching out, trying to tell him it could be better. Maybe if he wasn't so over it, he'd actually appreciate the effort. It was more than he'd ever seen before. It was total bullshit that it took something this big for them to realize they should step in, but hey… better late than never.

He was done though. And it didn't matter what Finn said or who escorted him to class or how many times Miss. P tried to talk to him. His mind was made up. He was even kind of happy about it. It was nice to know there was an end in sight; that all of this didn't have to go on forever. He could just stop. Stop feeling, stop moving, stop breathing. He didn't know what was on the other side. But he figured it had to be better than this.

There is another world…
There is a better world…
Well, there must be…
Mm, there must be…

There is another world…
There is a better world…

He hit repeat and settled in, letting himself drift away.

../..

He dreamed of her.

She was laughing.

And running.

Her white dress, the one she wore when he first dreamed of her, when he first got it in his head that she was hot Jew he needed to date, was bouncing around her legs as she moved. Everything else was a blur, like driving through a tunnel so quickly that it all just sort of melded together.

"Rachel!"

She turned her head over her shoulder and grinned at him, her hair dancing around her shoulders. "Noah…" she replied, but it echoed, distant and foggy, and her lips didn't move. She just kept smiling at him.

"Stop!" He ran after her but he never got any closer. "Wait for me!"

"Hurry! Noah, you have to hurry! We don't have much time!"

She turned back around and kept moving.

So he ran and he ran and he was finally catching up. He was nearly there. His hand reached out and he caught the back of her white dress and her hair… God, her soft hair, brushed against his hand.

But then something was stopping him, slowing him down. There was a hand on his shoulder, another on his arm. And he looked back and there was Finn and Mr. Shue and all the gleeks. There was Sarah staring up at him with her big brown eyes and her missing teeth. His ma was shaking her head. And they were all pulling at him, holding him back.

"Let go!" He struggled to break free. "Lemme go!"

Rachel was out of reach again, but she stopped, turning to stare at him. Her smile was gone. She was lit up from behind, glowing, her hair shining.

He tried to get free, to go to her, but they held tighter, they wouldn't let him.

"Rachel…" he breathed, staring at her pleadingly. "Come back with me… Please, I… That shit I said, I didn't mean it…"

Her face fell. "I can't stay with you forever, Noah…" She walked toward him and the arms fell away, the gleeks disappeared.

He was just standing there and she was so damn close.

Her hands touched his face, cupped his cheeks and smoothed up until her thumbs were stroking beneath his eyes. "You have to stop…" Her forehead touched his chin.

He shook his head, reaching out and grabbing her around the waist, hugging her to him. "No."

"Always so stubborn," she whispered against his shoulder. "I miss that… I miss you…"

He squeezed her tighter, gripping her dress up into his fists. "Come back."

"I can't…" He hands stroked over his shoulders. "You have to say goodbye now, Noah…"

"No, never," he told her fiercely.

"Will you dedicate Nationals to me?" She leaned back and grinned up at him. "If I can't win it for us, I should at least be there in spirit."

He glared at her. "It's not funny."

Her fingers slipped over his lips and her expression softened. "No… It's really not…"

He kissed her forehead and her cheek and the tip of her nose. "Please come back… Please?"

She sighed, hugging him closer until his head was cradled in her shoulder. Against his ear, she breathed, "You have to let go eventually."

His throat burned as he gripped her impossibly tighter. "No I don't," he rasped.

Jolting awake, he was panting, his chest heaving, sweat clinging to his skin. He stared out into the darkened room and for a second, forgot enough that he tried to reach for her next to him. The bed was empty save for her pink nightgown. His hand balled the fabric up and he dragged it to his chest, hugging it as he laid his head back down on the pillow.

"No I don't," he reiterated solemnly.

Chapter Text

XII.

Some time around five am, Puck gave up trying to sleep. It just wasn't in the cards for him. He kept dreaming of her, but when he got close she was pulled away or he kept reaching and the space between them just got bigger and bigger. He was tired and his eyes stung with exhaustion, but he sat up, his head hung, hands rubbing at his face. His fingers trailed up and found the prickly growth of his hair coming in. He usually kept it shaved down; he used to get his ma to do it but then Rachel wanted a go, and well, he was always shit at saying no to her…

Rachel was eying him with that thoughtful look on her face and it wasn't one he usually liked. In fact, it'd gotten in him in some shit over the years. See, when Rachel got to thinking, it usually meant he had to do something and with his luck it was never anything fun. Or, okay, that wasn't true. There were those few times when she looked like that and they sexed it up in random places, like the choir room and back stage of the auditorium. He smirked; good times! But since she was half-naked and they'd already spent half the morning fooling around all over his very empty house - his ma took his sister out of town for some girl time or something - he was pretty sure she wasn't planning their next sexscapade. And to tell the truth, he was a little sore – she was seriously bendy! – so he was kind of hoping Puckasaurus could get a rest. Maybe he could talk her into nachos and watching TV. He wouldn't even complain when she put those lame-ass meat crumbles on instead of real hamburger.

But then she rolled off her bed and his t-shirt fell to her knees, completely swamping her, and her hair was all mussed and her cheeks flushed, and he thought, 'Fuck being sore…' He was totally ready to go again!

She rolled her eyes, lips quirking, like she knew exactly what he was thinking. Hands on his chest, she nudged him back toward the bed until he was seated and then climbed into his lap, planting her knees on either side of him. And before he could even suggest getting more comfortable sans clothes, she reached up and dragged her nails across his scalp. Not through his 'hawk like she liked to do when he had his head in her lap and they were watching some Broadway crap and she was showing her appreciation for him not whining the whole time – so some of them were cool shit, whatever – no, this time she was trailing her fingers all over the shaved part. It was a little on the prickly side, he knew; 'cause his ma was busy and hadn't shaved it down in awhile.

"How often do you manage it?" she wondered.

Since he was kinda distracted by the way she was scrubbing circles into his head, he just quirked a brow. "Manage what?"

She smiled. "Your hair." Glancing at him briefly, she peered at his hair thoughtfully. "It's always been well maintained." She ran her thumb all the way back to the base of his skull. "I don't imagine you do it yourself; it'd be difficult to see the back…" Her brows knotted. "I suppose I've never really thought about it before…"

He grinned. "Ma usually fixes it for me… She hates it, but she says it'd be worse if it looked like shit, so…" He shrugged.

Chewing her lip, she nodded slowly. "Suppose… did it for you…"

He stared up at her a little wide-eyed. "How do I know you won't just shave the 'hawk right off…?"

Chuckling, she played with the tail. "Much as I've protested its very existence, I've grown rather fond of it…" she admitted with a sigh.

He smirked. "You just like having something to hold onto when I'm between your legs licking your—"

She covered his mouth with her hand to shut him up. "I'm well aware of what you're doing when you're down there," she interrupted, brow raised.

He bit the palm of her hand lightly and she let go. "Like a boss," he sassed.

Rolling her eyes, she shook her head. "Focus, Noah."

He laughed under his breath. "So you wanna shave me…"

"I would like to try out for the position of Manager of the 'Hawk, yes," she returned, grinning.

He sucked at his lip and leaned back a little, pretending to size her up. "I dunno… You think you got the chops, Jew-Jew-B?"

Chuckling, she put her hands on her hips. "Seeing as I have a lot more hair, and I shave far more than you do, I think I'm fully equipped to handle the job, yes!"

Smirking, he fell back on his elbows and shrugged. "'Hawk's a big deal… It's like my own gold star, babe…"

"You know how much I love metaphors…" She leaned down, stretching herself out along his body. Kissing his lips briefly, she reached up and feathered her fingers through the center of his hair. "Why not let me try and if you like it, I'll formally request the job from your mother."

He snorted. "Don't start writing up a resume, babe." With a light slap to her butt, he rolled them over and sat up on his knees. "All right. I'll find the shaver, you get a towel." 

A few minutes later, they were set up in the kitchen and he was telling that little voice in his head that kept saying he was about to be totally bald, or at least sporting a serious hack job, to shut the hell up. 

It took her ten minutes before she even started. She kept walking circles around him, examining the curves of his head, tapping her chin and moving the shaver close but then pulling back.

"Seriously, Rach… Get to shaving or lose some clothes; 'm gettin' bored over her."

Rolling her eyes, she muttered. "I swear you have ADHD, Noah."

He shrugged. "Maybe."

"Fine…" She brought the electric shaver in close and started moving ridiculously slow. 

"You're not gonna hurt me."

She let out a little sigh like she'd been holding her breath and started moving again, circling around him. It was two strokes from back to front on the left side before she suddenly yanked it away, the buzzing noise all he could hear for a long few seconds before, "Um…"

"Rachel…" he muttered, closing his eyes. "That was not a good 'um.'"

"To be honest, I'm not sure there is a good 'um,' Noah."

"Not the point!"

"Well, I just…" She stomped her foot. "You moved!"

"I did not!"

"You must have! Because I was careful not to apply too much pressure but it appears that one particular part of your head is now… thinner than the rest…"

"Thinner? Thinner like balder?" He reached back worriedly and searched all over, but couldn't find any specific spot where there was just skin. "Where?"

She redirected his fingers and he was happy to find there was still the prickle of hair there.

"Just thinner," she said.

He rolled his eyes and counted to ten in his head. "Look, ma'll be home in—"

"I can do this!" she exclaimed, slapping his hand away. "Just don't move!"

He clenched his teeth. "I. Didn't. Move!"

"Then keep not moving," she mocked before moving behind him again to continue.

Ten very slow and tedious minutes later and she finally handed him a mirror.

It was a little rough and not nearly as close cut as he usually got it, but it wasn't as bad as he thought it might be.

She smirked at him like she just won a fucking hair-cutting award.

"Not bad," he allowed.

She scoffed. "For a first time?" She flipped her own hair over her shoulder smugly. "Obviously… I'm awesome at everything!"

He laughed as she walked out of the room, hips swaying with exaggerated purpose.

So, she wasn't totally wrong. She was pretty cool. He decided to reward her too. For his haircut and how totally awesome she was; by screwing her into the couch.

Mission accomplished.

After that, she pretty much took over from his mom, who didn't even seem to notice she didn't have to do it anymore. And she got better at it; so much that he didn't even check it anymore when she was done, he just knew she got it right and got straight to thanking her. Felt like forever since she'd bugged him that it was getting long and needed her attention. He didn't much care about how scruffy he probably looked. There was a time when his 'hawk meant he was a badass; that even if the kids at school didn't respect him, they feared him. Now he couldn't give a shit what they thought.

He stood up, shaking out his legs and how heavy they felt, and navigated his bedroom via the streetlamp shining through his window, lighting up his floor. He plopped down at his desk and turned on the lamp, wincing and squinting his eyes against the harsh glare of the bulb. He started searching the drawers for paper and pens; his jaw ticked when he found stacks of each, the pens capped and lined up perfectly. He remembered her organizing his desk, telling him that it would make for a better studying environment. She was always doing stuff like that…

He grabbed a stack of paper and fiddled with the pen awhile, snapping it back and forth as he stared down at the blank pages thoughtfully.

Goodbye seemed really easy when he thought about it; one word, two syllables, the end. But there was a part of him that felt like they deserved an explanation or an apology or just something

He licked his lips and then scrawled out on the top of one, Leroy and Hiram

As his hand lay poised above the paper, he found he didn't know where to start. There was a lot he needed to say. A lot they needed to know. A lot he owed them…

But he stared and stared and it never came. He scrubbed his hand against his head and moved the paper to the side before scrawling on the next one, Finn

The same thing happened.

Kurt's.

His mom's.

Sarah's.

And finally, Mr. Shue's.

There were just six pieces of paper with names on them, otherwise blank, waiting for him to get it all out.

He stared and stared and played with his pen and nothing came.

It was the same as when he had writer's blocks for his songs. There was so much to say and so many subjects to cover, but he had a notebook open and the pen ready and nothing came out.

So then he thought maybe he just needed some music to calm him down. Rachel always said that music made for better learning or whatever; that it got the creative juices flowing. He climbed out of his desk chair and went back to his bed, searching the covers for his MP3 player. He untangled the chord of his earbuds as he walked back, frowning at the mess they'd made while he'd been sleeping. He sat with his knee against his chest, bare foot hanging over the edge of his chair, drumming his fingers against his ribs as he thumbed through songs, searching for something to inspire him.

He landed on Gary Jules' Mad Mad World and started nodding, eyes falling closed.

He listened to it three times before he could start writing Finn's letter. When he started, he couldn't stop. It all just came flowing out of him, some of it almost incoherent when his eyes started to blur and he couldn't quite see the paper anymore. He knew there were tears falling on the paper and they probably made some of his writing unintelligible, but he figured fuck it, Finn would get it. When he was done, he scrawled the band and the song at the bottom and told him to give it a listen. He signed it Puck, 'cause that's who he'd always been to him. Even when he was a douche, even after he knocked up Quinn, and later got the girl Finn wanted, he was still Puck and he was Finn's bro and those things were forgivable. Eventually.

He folded up Finn's letter and put it off to the side. One down, five to go.

He found a song that fit each person and wrote until his hand cramped and the sun was coming up.

Sitting back in his chair, he watched as light crept across the floor and filled the room. His skin felt stiff as warmth touched it. The muscles throughout his body tense and bunched up. Folding each letter, he put them away in individually marked envelopes and hid them in his desk drawer before he finally stood up, stretching his back as he went. The house was still silent, only the creak of the floor as he walked to the bathroom. He showered quickly, dressed in whatever was closest at hand and went downstairs to find something to eat. Finally, he scooped his school bag up and copped a squat on the porch, waiting for Finn to pick him up.

For as close as it was to summer, the early morning was cold; the air bit at his skin and though uncomfortable it wasn't enough to make him go inside or grab a coat. He kind of liked it; the way his skin numbed after awhile.

He could hear it when his sister woke up; the sound of her feet running down the stairs. The TV when she turned it on; cartoons. He heard her call out good morning to his mom and he knew she'd walk off to the kitchen, her feet dragging, slippers shuffling, in need of coffee. The best mornings were the ones his ma wasn't there, he always thought. The mornings that she was still at work, having a late night shift, and Rachel spent the night so she could help him with Sarah in the mornings. Or that was always the excuse she made; really, she just like spending as much time with him as she could. And he never complained.

So Puck and Hannah Montana had a serious feud. She liked to sing at decibels only dogs could hear, very early in the morning, and he liked to not hear any of that. 

He shook his head, scrubbing sleep from his eyes as he dodged toys left, right and center, spread out all over the stairs. "Turn the noise down, Brat! Holy shi—!"

Rachel cleared her throat before he could finish that sentence and he rolled his eyes. "Whatever. How can you stand that?" 

"Noah's a doofus!" Sarah cried, rolling over on the couch to her belly and sticking her tongue out at him through her missing teeth.

He snorted. "Yeah? Well this doofus is makin' breakfast… So guess who isn't gettin' any?" he returned, flicking her nose as he walked past her to the kitchen.

She glared. "Ra-chel!" she cried, kicking her feet.

Sighing, Rachel ruffled her hair and followed after him. 

While he searched through the fridge for something that wasn't milk to add to cereal, he heard her humming behind him.

"She's not getting squat…" He grabbed out the bacon and, with a frown, Rachel's vegan meat crumbles, his eggs along with her tofu substitute, and then bent low to grab out green and red pepper, onion and mushrooms.

"Noah…"

"Rachel," he mocked.

"She's a child… Are you honestly going to deny her some of your ridiculously good cooking just because she called you a name?"

"No…" He dropped the food on the counter and leaned his hip against it. "I'm not gonna feed her anything but stale Cheerios because she had Hannah Montana's shittiest hits on at six in the damn morning and left every freaking toy she owned on the floor so I could step on them… That is why she's not getting a Puckerman approved omelet." Turning around, he clapped his hands together and looked at what he had. He'd have to make Rachel's breakfast separately, since she frowned on fake meat touching 'poor dead animals' or whatever, but he was used to that by now… Especially since she bought him that vegan recipe book on his birthday, marked with all her favorites. His girl was not subtle.

Sighing, Rachel stepped up behind him and wrapped her arms low around his waist. Since she was wearing his shirt, he could feel her cheek pressing against his bare shoulder blade. "What are you going to do when our children are watching cartoons too loudly or they've left their action figures somewhere for you to step on?" She nuzzled his back with her nose. "Hm?"

"That's different…"

"How?" She swept her hands up his stomach, curling her fingers in to tease his abdomen. "You practically raised Sarah… You're the only significant male influence in her life… Aside from the minute age difference, it wouldn't be all that surprising she consider you more like a father than a brother…"

"Yeah…" he snorted. "She really respects me like I'm her old man."

"Oh Noah…" She lifted up on her tip toes and nipped his shoulder. "She'd be lost without you."

He looked at her over his shoulder. "Babe… Is this you trying to convince me we should take the squirt with us to New York again…" He shook his head. "That ain't happening…"

She huffed, pouting her lips. "Oh, but she'll be all alone here…" Her eyes widened sadly. "Who will sing her to sleep or watch movies with her or make her lunches just the way she likes?"

He shrugged. "Her mother!"

Rachel wrinkled her nose, shaking her head. "As much as I respect your mother for raising two children on her own and keeping such a difficult job, I'm sorry but she just doesn't have the time to take care of Sarah the way she deserves…" With a shrug and a determined look on her face, she let go of his waist and moved to his side.

"And you think two kids in college, trying to make it on Broadway and all that shit is going to be better for her?" he asked, brow cocked.

"I think Sarah is family and she deserves to be with people that are always going to take her best regards into account…" She grabbed up a skillet and put it on the stove.

"Rach…" He turned to her, sliding his arms around her waist and hugging her close. "Sarah knows we love her… She knows we're going to New York after we graduate so we can become badass famous people…" He grinned. "She can visit every damn holiday if you want. But we are way too young to have a nine year old hanging off our backs, asking for attention…" He shook his head. "I'm not even sure we're gonna be able to feed ourselves anything but KD and ramen noodles, so I'm beggin' you here… Don't give us another mouth to feed…" He stared at her pleadingly.

Licking her lips, she stared down thoughtfully, before finally nodding. Before he could lean in and kiss her in triumph, she held up a finger. "But I demand she spend every single holiday with us! Even Chinese New Years, Noah!"

He snorted, but nodded anyway. Even if there was no way in hell that was happening. He kissed her to seal the deal and then spent the next five minutes making sure it was very, very sealed.

"You guys are gross!" Sarah's voice interrupted.

Panting a little, Puck frowned at his sister pouting up at him, her hands on her hips. "What d'you want?"

"Noah!" Rachel slapped his shoulder before turning in his arms. "Honey, why don't you go watch your cartoons? Noah's going to get breakfast ready while I put together your lunch for today…" She grinned widely. "Are we having carrots, Miss Sarah, or ants on a log?"

Her nose wrinkled. "Are they real ants?"

"No, silly… You remember we made them last week? They're just raisins on top of peanut butter spread in a celery stick!"

Her face lit up as she remembered. "Oh yeah!" She wiggled excitedly. "I want the ant thing!" Reaching out, she grabbed Rachel's hand and pulled on it. "I'll help, okay?"

Smiling, Rachel patted Puck's hands on her waist so he'd let go, before following the little girl to the fridge so they could start packing everything for her lunch.

Accepting that his bratty sister had essentially stolen his girlfriend, Puck turned back to the stove and started getting the omelets together. 

Awhile later, they sat down to eat on the couch while watching old reruns of coyote and road runner. And when the bus honked outside, they scrambled to get Sarah's shoes on and her backpack on her shoulders before running across the lawn, each holding a hand, and swinging her up onto the stairs. With Rachel blowing kisses and waving, Puck saluted goodbye before tossing her over his shoulder and bringing her back to the house. They still had a half hour 'til school started and he wanted to waste it making out on the couch. 

He might not like Mondays much, but they had their appeals.

Rachel's laughter was still echoing in his ears when he heard the rumble of Finn's truck pulling up against the curb in front of his house.

Puck grabbed up his bag and was across the yard and hopping in before any blare of the horn.

"Oh, hey…" Finn stared at him funny. "You got up on your own…"

Puck rolled his eyes. "Been up since five, dude."

He nodded, eyes falling. "You, uh… wanna talk about it?"

Raising a brow at him, he said bluntly, "No."

Finn sighed, somewhere between relief and worry. "'Kay, just… Y'know… If you wanted to…"

"Seriously… Can we just go to school?"

"First time you've ever said that…" he muttered, but pulled the truck away from the curb. "You eat? We could stop by the Lima Bean. Some of the others are probably—"

"I ate."

"Oh… Right…"

Slumping in his seat, Puck stared out the window and watched scenery fly by, ignoring each and every attempt Finn made for small talk.

../..

The rest of the day felt like the same as yesterday.

He zoned, caught a nap in second period that he seriously needed, and Finn met him outside of every class, even walking with him to the bathroom. At least this time he just waited outside the door instead of hovering over his shoulder. They wound up in the auditorium again, sitting on the stage.

Puck listened with half an ear as Finn babbled about something that happened in some class that was kind of, sort of funny. He was shit at small talk; awkward, uncomfortably shifting, glancing at him every few seconds like he was waiting for him to burst into song or start crying or just spill everything that was wrong. Same old Finn.

He let him keep doing it and instead closed his eyes, tucking his arms behind his head, and drifted in his head.

After awhile, Finn's voice just faded away and he was remembering last summer.

It was probably a stupid idea to be sitting this close when it was so damn hot outside. He'd already tossed his shirt and now he was just hanging out in low-slung board shorts while Rachel was sporting the tiniest shorts ever made and her favorite pink bikini top. If she'd let him talk her into sneaking into some of his client's pools, they wouldn't be as sticky and uncomfortable as the Lima heat-wave was making them, but she was a stickler for rules and he was still slowly chipping away at her resolve. So instead, they were in his bedroom with nothing but a shitty fan to cool them down and half-melted slushees for back up. 

Chewing her lip, Rachel was determinedly failing at a water world. 

He smirked. "You're so gonna die…"

She spared him a glare before turning back to the TV and moving her arms around dramatically as she fought to keep Mario from drifting too close to a fish. 

He snorted when she flinched disappointedly as Mario died. 

"Mother effer!" she exclaimed, stomping her foot.

He laughed.

"Noah!" she whined, lifting an arm to wipe her hair back from her sweaty forehead. Sticking her lip out, she asked, "Help me?"

Rolling his eyes, he wrapped his arms around her and covered her hands on the controller. "All right… But after this, we're going skinny-dipping."

She scoffed, but didn't argue. 

He pressed the start button and the water world was on. Together, they maneuvered around fish and fire-shooting plant bastards and everything else that came their way. There were a few close calls where she yelled, "Shoot! Shoot!" and he muttered, "Shit, fuck, c'mon!" But eventually, they made it to the end and across the finishing line. 

With a shout of excitement, she turned around for a high-five before kissing him appreciatively.

"Rachel and Noah: Masters of Water Worlds!" she cheered.

He snorted, resting his chin on her shoulder. "You're gettin' better… Before, you couldn't get past the first dude before dying."

She clucked her tongue. "This game is more complicated than it appears."

His brows furrowed. "How?"

She glared. "It just is!"

He chuckled under his breath, shrugging. "C'mon… I'll show you a secret." Covering her hands on the controller again, he maneuvered her around the main map.

"Noah," she murmured.

"Yeah, babe?"

"This is the best summer I've ever had."

He raised a brow. "Seriously? We haven't even gotten naked yet."

"No, really." She turned around to look at him. "I've had so much fun with you… Between movies and swimming and even babysitting your sister…" She stared at him searchingly. "When you took me to that awful foreign film because it was the only educational thing in town and you thought I'd like it."

"It had subtitles!" he argued for the hundredth time.

She laughed. "I know…" Shaking her head, she smiled at him gently. "And the fair we went to and you got that stomach ache from too much candy…"

"Caramel apples are a lie! It's pure sugar!"

She patted his cheek. "And you won me that rainbow bear and that goldfish that died a week later…"

"I really think Neil Diamond was poisoned… Somebody took a hit out on that fish, babe, and…" He looked around as if worried somebody might overhear. "I legit think it was Chang… You know how he likes his sushi!"

"Noah, it was a goldfish, I hardly think—" She shook her head. "You've completely distracted me…" She slid her hand around to his neck and stroked the tail of his 'hawk. "As I was saying… I've enjoyed all these romantic late nights spent in the back of your truck, just listening to music and drinking slushees and staring at the stars…"

"And making out," he added. "Don't forget how awesomely I'm rounding the bases, one by one…"

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, that too."

He smirked proudly.

"Noah…" Her face softened as she stared at him. "I've never been happier with any boy I've dated in the past…"

His throat hollowed out at her sincere words and for a second, just a split second, he almost wanted to shove her out of his lap and run. Only, it was his house, he had nowhere to go, and well, he was pretty she'd take it the wrong way… "Yeah?" he rasped instead.

She nodded. "I just… I wanted you to know how much you mean to me."

He kissed her forehead. "Ditto."

Smiling, she turned back around. "Now… Show me this secret."

For a second, he just stared at the back of her head, smiling to himself, and wondering how the fuck he got so lucky…

Then he showed her the secret and figured he shouldn't question it, just in case something went and fucked it up for him. As was his usual luck. 

For that day at least, they were untouchable.

And he totally talked her into skinny-dipping at the lake.

"Dude?"

Puck startled back to the present and found Finn staring at him oddly.

"That was the bell…"

Nodding jerkily, he sat up and climbed to his feet.

"You, uh—"

"Finn… If you ask me one more time if I'm okay, I'm gonna deck you…"

Finn smiled apologetically. "Sorry."

Rolling his eyes, Puck walked off the stage and toward the auditorium exit.

"Hey… You mind if we stop at the bathroom?" Finn wondered.

"I'm not holding your hand, dude…"

"Yeah, but… I'm supposed to walk you to your next class."

"What exactly do you think I'm gonna do? It's not like I have a whole lot of options…"

He shrugged. "Maybe if you told me how you were planning to do it…" he suggested, failing at looking innocent.

With a sigh, Puck turned to look at him. "So if I say I'm gonna slit my wrists you'll, what? Replace all the cutlery in my house with sporks?"

He flinched. "Is that what you were gonna do?"

He blinked, saying plainly, "No."

"Oh…" He breathed out a sigh of relief. "Good." He nodded.

"You're an idiot," he muttered before turning around and walking again. "And I'm not going with you to the damn bathroom."

Uncomfortably, Finn chased after him. "Fine… I'll just be late for class…"

"Whatever."

The whole walk to math, Puck had to put up with a squirming Finn, who looked like a kid doing the pee dance.

As soon as he took a seat at his desk, dude took off running down the hallway.

A vindictive part of him kind of hoped he didn't make it, just so he wouldn't have to put up with having his giant shadow following him every damn where he went.

When lunch came, he dragged his feet. It was another pointless counseling session with Miss. P and good ol' Finn was right on time to walk him there. Apparently he'd made it to the bathroom in time.

Miss. Pillsbury was doing that twitchy thing, moving things around on her desk, staring at him with those big, wide, doe-eyes, and constantly looking at the door and the clock.

"How are you today, Puck?" she asked, her voice almost child-like.

He leaned back in his chair and picked at the arm-rest.

"Okay… Well…" She cleared her throat. "I spoke to Finn earlier… He said you've been making some 'suicide' references…"

His jaw tensed.

"Did you want to talk about that?" she wondered, turning her head to stare at him searchingly.

He frowned at her.

Sighing, she told him, "Puck, I know it seems difficult but if you just say what's on your mind, you'll—"

"What's on my mind is this is bullshit," he interrupted. "I don't wanna be here. I beat the shit out of a dude that was bullying somebody else… So just because I made him bleed doesn't mean he's any less of an asshole!"

She leaned back slightly, eyes widening impossibly further. "Th-That's good. Anger is an emotion. You can express that!" She fiddled with the notebook in front of her and her three pens, all lined up perfectly next to the other. "I understand that you might be feeling justified in what happened with your peer… A few witnesses said that he had a slushee and that was probably what incited your reaction…" Her brows furrowed. "Rachel was slusheed a lot though, wasn't she?"

He licked his lips and looked away.

"Puck, you have to know that while the fight was why the principal mandated you attend counseling, it's not our main concern…" She shook her head, her red hair bouncing against her shoulders. "What happened to Rachel… How you've been dealing with it... That is why you're seeing me here."

His foot tapped impatiently against the floor.

"believe… that the anger you showed wasn't because that boy was bullying somebody else… It wasn't even the slushee or that so many people had done the same thing to Rachel in the past… think that you're having trouble dealing with the loss of her and you don't know how to express it… So you're falling into old patterns of violence… You're acting out because it's the only way you know how to show how hurt and sad and angry you are and… It's okay…" Her voice softened. "Well, actually, I'm pretty sure the other student would say it wasn't, but… You know what I mean."

He shook his head to himself.

"I'm here to listen to what you have to say… So feel free to voice what's on your mind or… Or, oh, you could sing it if you want to!"

He turned to look at her darkly and she shrank away from him.

"N-No singing then, okay." She clasped her hangs. "Are there any others ways you think you could express yourself then? Maybe you want to write it down?" Her eyes narrowed wonderingly. "Do you journal? It's a great stress-reliever." She started digging in her desk drawer and found a notebook. "Here… This might help, okay?"

He stared at it.

"You don't… Don't feel pressured to write anything! You're not being graded or anything. Just… If it starts getting to be too much, you write it down." She pushed it across the desk to him; tapping her fingers on the cover when he didn't reach for it. "Please don't make me call your mother in, Puck…"

Sighing, he grabbed it up and stuffed it in his bag. "Happy?" he snarked.

"Pleased."

The rest of lunch she did a lot of talking while he did a lot of clock-watching. But she seemed to think she made a breakthrough and he figured that might get him some lee-way, like Finn not practically holding his hand every time he left his classes. He could only hope.



When Puck got home from school that day, he went straight to his room.

His ma wasn't home, or at least her car wasn't there, but Sarah was sitting on the couch watching TV and eating a snack.

He still felt like a dick for what he did to her the night before, but he didn't say shit to her. He dropped his bag on the floor by his bed and shut the door behind him with his foot. It wasn't until he fell back on his bed and reached for his mp3 that he found the note she left him, sitting on his bedside table.

Noah,

Im really sorry your so sad. I hope you will watch tv with me and play songs for me again soon. I love you even though you were mean to me and Im sorry Rachel went away. I miss her to and Im really sad and I wish she would come back because you were nicer and you smiled a lot and laughed and played with me and because she was family. I think if she knows we are sad and we miss her she will come back. Please dont be mean to me anymore. You were being a doofis but I didn't tell mom okay?

Love from sarah

xoxoxo

Puck scrubbed a hand down his face and pressed his fingers into his eyes. Little twerp was a brat, but damn did she know how to make him feel like even more of an ass.

He still didn't go see her though.



He couldn't sleep.

He'd been trying all damn night.

He crawled into bed at nine because he could feel exhaustion clinging to him, but he just kept tossing and turning, sheets twisting around his legs. He felt claustrophobic; stuck in his room, which seemed to be getting smaller and smaller by the second.

He climbed out of bed and walked out into the hallway, dragging in air like he'd been suffocating. His chest was pounding and his skin felt dry and stiff. The rest of the house wasn't any better though. His eyes were stinging with how tired he was and a headache was clawing at his temples. He made his way downstairs and sat on the couch. He even tried turning the TV on for some white noise or distraction, but nothing worked. It wasn't long before he'd pulled his boots on and walked out of the house.

He didn't know where he was going. It was after midnight and the whole neighborhood was dark. It was a school night and so pretty much everybody was sleeping. The night air was cold and it burned his skin like pins and needles striking him all down his bare arms. He kept walking even when his legs started to feel too heavy; when his shoulders slumped and his head wasn't even lifted to see where he was going. He walked until he wasn't cold anymore; just numb to it all.

And then, suddenly, he just… stopped.

He sighed and he looked up and he was in front of her house. Or what was her house.

And he stared at it; at the driveway where the oil spot was and their cars were missing. At the little mail box at the edge of the lawn that still read Berry with a gold star painted at the corner of the Y. At the flowerbeds where weeds had taken over. Before he thought too much of it, he'd crossed the lawn to the small landing outside her door. He bent down and checked the fake just in case, and there was the spare key Rachel always hid there in case of emergency. In all the chaos of their quick move, the Berry's must not have remembered. He shook his head to himself, remembering how he'd told her countless times that it was a shitty hiding place. But she was adamant that the rock looked completely real and nobody but he would know.

Rolling the key over in his palm, he sighed. Unlocking the door, he walked inside, eyes darting around the dark entry way as he closed the door behind him, listening as the creak and snap of it echoed through the empty hallway.

The walls were still empty, the end table with the bowl she used to toss her car keys into now gone. He trailed his fingers along the wall and the squares that showed where pictures once were. And he remembered making fun of her in one of them for her buck teeth.

Everyone has an awkward stage, Noah, she'd argued, glaring.

Not me, babe. All sexy, all the time.

He could hear her laughter in his mind, amused at his arrogance.

He turned at the end of the dark hallway and started up the carpeted stairs.

He remembered climbing them, trying not to make any noise, the few times Rachel snuck him into her house after hours. Before he realized he could just climb in her window, which was much more hassle-free.

Shh, Noah… If dad and daddy wake up and find you here—

I'm toast, babe. I get it… Totally worth it.

Aww, Noah… It really highlights your feeling that you would risk your livelihood to spend the night with me!

If you don't start moving, my livelihood is gonna be cut off and mounted on a wall to warn off future boyfriends! Now hustle!

When he pushed open the door to her bedroom, the squeak made him tense. Instincts made him glance at her parents' bedroom, thinking they'd come running out to protect their daughter's virtue – better late than never. He shook it off and walked inside her room; his heart pounding hard when he found it completely empty. No pictures or ribbons or trophies. The walls weren't even yellow anymore; painted over in a plain white. Her piano carpet was gone; her red desk and yellow bed and pink lava lamp, all gone. Hands balled in fists at his sides, he walked further in until he was standing in the middle of her room, looking all around, expecting it to change, to revert back, but it was all just white and shrouded in shadows. A street lamp fell through to light up a strip along the floor. Puck used it to navigate even though there was nothing to bump into or maneuver around. When he was standing where her bed used to be, he looked up, expecting to see her stars. But those too were painted over in white. He could just barely make out their glow from beneath when he squinted hard enough.

He laid down on the floor, arms tucked behind his head, and stared at her stars, counting them over and over again.

He remembered all the times he tried to make shapes out of the random pattern they made. And when she joined him, using her finger to draw bunnies and hearts and bigger stars.

There, do you see it… I swear, it looks just like Lord Tubbington… I should take a picture and show Brittany!

Okay, Crazycakes, you say so… Hey, check it out, it's Princess Peach!

He couldn't find any pattern in the stars that night. Although he thought if he tried hard enough, he thought he might see her.

His body finally relaxed as he laid there with the carpet at his back. His heart slowed down and his skin didn't feel so tight. As his eyes fought both to close for sleep and to stay open for the stars, his mind drifted from him.

Rachel was lying on her stomach at the end of her bed, her legs up and crossed at the ankle. Her homework was laid out before her and she was chewing on a pencil as she read through it again. Slowly, her lips quirked in a smile. "Are you going to stare at me all afternoon, or do you plan to do any of your homework?"

He wiggled his eyebrows. "I get to choose?"

With a roll of her eyes, she shoved her books away and turned onto her side. "You've been playing with your guitar for more than an hour…" Her eyes narrowed knowingly. "Which usually means you've got something on your mind…" Her brow arched wonderingly. "Is it related to school, family, or me?"

He snorted. "You say that like those are the only three big things I've got."

She pursed her lips to hide her amusement. "School involves homework, your future college, football and glee. Family is your mother, father, Sarah and Beth. And I… Well, do I really need to elaborate on that?" She grinned cheekily.

He licked his lips, eyes falling to his guitar. "I wrote a song…"

Her face lit up. "You did?"

He ran the edge of his thumb along a string. "It's about you… or for you… or whatever." He shrugged, clearing his throat somewhat uncomfortably.

She bit her lip as her mouth curled at the corners and lowered her eyelashes so she was looking up from beneath them at him. "Did you want to sing it for me?" 

He rubbed the back of his neck. "It's still rough… and probably shitty…"

"Noah!" She sat up, her face twisting argumentatively. "Nothing you've ever written has been… crappy." She pursed her lips. "And for a boy as confident as you, it never fails to surprise me when you become so insecure about the beautiful music you write…" She stared at him searchingly. "I love your songs. You're the most gifted writer I know. And easily the most talented male singer in all of Lima…" She darted her eyes away. "Just don't quote me if Kurt is around, because I would never hear the end of it…"

He laughed, shaking his head. She had that right; Hummel was almost as bad as her when it came to holding grudges. Especially when it came to their talent and somebody questioning it. Kind of like him and his badassness.

Crossing her legs, she clasped her hands in her lap and told him, "Now, I think that since I'm the obvious muse for this song, it's only right I get to hear the fruit of your inspiration!"

He rolled his eyes, 'cause that was just Rachel-speak for 'now that you've told me, I demand you play it for me, and I will not take no for an answer.' Still, he leaned back against the headboard of her bed and balanced his guitar a little more comfortably. He only glanced at her once before he started picking at the chords and launched into the song he'd been penning the last few weeks, scratching out whole chunks and restarting a few times. He finally got it to where he thought he wanted it, but that didn't stop his nerves from rearing up.

Writing was an outlet of his. He'd been doing it sporadically for years; he just never thought it was good enough for a second look. But Rachel was a one-woman cheering section and she always wanted to hear his latest creation, good or bad. Putting into words what she meant to him, or what he felt for her, had been harder than he thought. Maybe because he knew she'd want to hear it, or maybe because it was the first time he'd ever felt that way about a person and knew it was reciprocated to the same degree. So this… This was big. She knew he loved her; he might not hire skywriters to spell it out or say it every five minutes, but the feelings were always there and he knew she didn't doubt how legit they were. They wouldn't have their whole damn lives figured and planned out, together, if it wasn't for the long haul serious. 

He didn't look at her when he sang; not at first anyway. Rejection never sat well with him and the thing with Rachel was that he could read her every expression. So if he started singing and she wrinkled her nose, then he knew he'd just written a giant pile of shit. So he kept his eyes on her pink blanket and thanked J-Money that the daddies-Berry weren't home from work yet, so they couldn't hear him making an ass out of himself.

Without you I'd be a bitter soul,
But when I come home you're sitting there,

You're smiling…
How do you see the brighter side,
The better life that you dreamed for you and I…

You said, don't waste your time worrying…
To give every moment meaning…
Meaning…

He strummed a little harder and gathered up the courage to let his eyes venture up and see her face. 

No wrinkled nose was a good sign. Instead, her eyes were a little wide and her lips parted, and that always meant that she was touched.

When he hit the chorus, he sang deeper with his conviction.

'Cause you are the one that I can count on,
And you are the one that I needed…
I don't think I ever would have known,

How good I have it…
'Cause you are the one,

That I can count on…

Her face softened, head tipping to one side. She pressed a hand to her heart as her brows furrowed and her eyes seemed to shimmer with tears.

He swallowed tightly, licking his lips. The next part was raw and honest and a little bit scary to admit. 

How do you know when to let go,
When the whole world tries to tear you apart…
Without you I'd be alone in this world,
With nothing to look forward to,
And no one to hold…

She shook her head slightly and smiled, swiping at a tear as it broke free. 

He launched into the chorus even more earnestly, singing it right at her intensely, sloughing off his earlier uncertainty. 

'Cause you are the one,

That I can count on…

Brows furrowed, he shook his head along with his singing,

Thank you for making it easy,
Thank you for learning to love me,
Without you I'd be someone else!
Thank you for making it easy,
You are the one that I needed…

'Cause I need you here.

He strummed harder as he belted out the chorus once more.

And when she mouthed along with him, she always was a quick learner, he grinned. 

'Cause you are the one that I can count on,
And you are the one that I needed,
I don't think I ever would have known,

How good I have it,
'Cause you are the one that I can count on…

He stopped strumming his guitar, letting his hand still the chords, and let his voice carry on alone, his eyes trained on hers.

Without you I'd be a bitter soul…
A bitter soul…

She grinned brilliantly and sniffled, laughing under her breath. "Oh, Noah…" She crawled across the bed then and, after moving his guitar out of his lap and leaning it against her bedside table, took the opportunity to straddle his legs, seating herself up close and personal. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her forehead to his. "I want you to remember something…"

He stared up at her, brows furrowed.

"Together… we are something amazing…" She smiled slowly. "And alone, you are still all kinds of incredible…" She searched his eyes and brought a hand to his face, stroking the curve of his cheek with her thumb. "I just…" She shook her head. "I wish you could see what I see when I look at you…" She kissed his forehead lingeringly. "I'm very lucky, Noah…" Her eyes fell to his mouth, but she bypassed them to press her lips against his neck in slow, warm kisses; her tongue peeking out to taste his skin. "To be with a man who's so protective…" She nipped his collarbone with her teeth. "And strong…" She traced his Adam's apple with her tongue. "And creative…" She rubbed her cheek along his and bit her lip; he knew she liked the feel of faintly raspy whiskers on her soft skin. "Who's smart and cunning and just a little bit wild…" She flashed a smile at him before ghosting her lips along his cheek. 

He could feel her hands sliding down his chest firmly before she reached around herself and pulled her top up and off, tossing it to the floor. 

Sitting there in her pretty pink bra with its tiny daisies all over, she looked all too cute.

She removed his shirt next, letting her fingers play over his stomach and his sides as she moved it up slowly. And when it joined hers, she dropped her hands to his biceps and squeezed before walking her fingers up to his shoulders and sliding them smoothly up to behind his neck, curling them in the tail of his 'hawk.

"Do you know what I see most when I look at you, Noah?" she asked, her voice low.

He shook his head, his hands settling low on her hips and lowering the zipper at the back of her little black skirt.

She caught his chin with her hand and brought his eyes up to hers. "I see love." She framed his face with her hand. "Not just for me, but for music and family and friends… I see someone who loves with all of himself… And I see someone who I want to love forever and who I hope will love me the same for just as long…"

"I will," he promised, his eyebrows hiked earnestly.

She smiled, leaning in to kiss him, cradling his bottom lip between hers firmly. 

As he leaned her back against the bed until he was on top, she laughed warmly, staring up at him from where she was sprawled, grinning widely. 

"I love you," she whispered.

A flash of light hit his eyes and Puck startled awake, blinking rapidly. It was still dark out, but there was a flashlight shining in his face.

He put a hand up to block out the harsh glow. "Fuck off," he muttered.

"Sir, this is private property… You're breaking and entering," a stern voice replied.

Shit. Puck looked back up and realized he was staring at one of Lima's finest.

The police officer knelt down and took a good look at him knowingly. "It's Puck, isn't it?"

He scowled. So he had a record! He couldn't be the only dude in Lima who fucked up once or twice… "It's Finn. Finn Hudson," he replied.

The officer raised a brow. "Kid, we have your picture up on our Usual Suspects board…" He frowned. "Neighbor's said they thought they recognized you as the boyfriend of the girl who used to live here…" He stared at him searchingly. "She died not so long ago, didn't she?"

Puck ground his teeth. "You're gonna lock me up, do it…" He shoved up to his feet and waited, eyebrow cocked.

The officer stood up slowly and stared thoughtfully. "Why don't I take you home?" he suggested instead. Not waiting for Puck to respond, he turned around and started walking.

Jaw ticking, Puck sighed under his breath and followed him out, stuffing his hands in his pockets. He paused at the door and looked back, staring at the faint stars on the ceiling.

Finally, he closed the door and made his way downstairs. The whole place was so empty that his every step echoed.

He was crossing the lawn to the cop car when he looked back and remembered hoping this would never happen outside this house. Never happen anywhere the Berry's or Rachel could see it. But he hadn't been in any serious trouble since the juvie incident and he never planned to be again. Still, old habits. Ones he never wanted the Berry's or Rachel to expect of him.

"Jump in the front," he told him.

Puck walked around to the passenger side and slid into the seat, only plugging the seat belt on when the officer stared at him.

Grabbing up the radio, he pressed the button down and called it in. "This is Officer Kearney over on Wilcox… It, uh…" He glanced at Puck and then out the windshield. "It was the boyfriend, Dolores… I'm dropping him back at home… Over."

"Rodger that," the dispatcher replied. "Poor kid. Over."

Kearney sighed, dropping the radio back in its place before he turned the ignition. "Where to?"

Puck rattled off his address before slouching low in his seat and watching the street fly by the window.

It was awhile before Kearney tried to strike up a conversation. "I, uh… I'm sorry about what happened… Some of the boys have been talking about it at the station…" He glanced at him and shifted in his seat. "They were thinking about pulling you off the board since you'd been keeping straight… Guess a good woman'll do that to ya…"

Puck didn't so much as twitch.

"I know it'll be difficult, but… The neighbors said the new owners are moving in on Monday…" he told him warningly. "I don't wanna charge you, kid, but… You break back in there and I'll have to."

He stared listlessly out the window, his shoulders already bunching up again. He'd been at peace for a little while, but it was all coming back at him again.

"It was an accident or something, wasn't it?" Kearney looked at him briefly. "Happened down there at McKinley…?"

Puck never really considered it an accident… Somehow, shoving somebody down the stairs didn't seem accidental to him. The very thought of Karofsky put him on edge. His hands curled into fists in his lap, so tight they shook, and the muscles all through his arm were painfully taut.

"Gotta be hard… Trying to understand something like that… Make any sense of how or why it happened…" He nodded to himself, turning down Puck's road. "I, uh, met my wife in high school… Spitfire, that one. Always keeps me on my toes… We were together since freshmen year…" He half smiled to himself. "Wasn't always easy… We had our problems. I think it's harder sometimes, when you know someone since childhood… Know their whole lives as they're living it…" He shrugged. "We made it work. You do what you have to when you know it's worth it... And, y'know, I…" His brows furrowed as he shook his head, turning the wheel to pull the car up against the curb outside Puck's house. "I just don't know what I'd do without her..."

Puck's eyes fell, his hands unfurling, and he shoved the door open to climb out. He was standing outside the car, his hand on the top of the door, when he leaned down and told him plainly, "You'd die… A little more every day."

And with that, he closed the door and walked off, making his way up the lawn to the house.

Frowning, the officer watched him go until the door closed behind him before finally grabbing up his radio. "Kearney to dispatch…" He scrubbed a hand over his mouth. "Dolores, honey…? I ever tell you how grateful I am I got you? Over."

"Every day, Bobby... And trust me, it's mutual," she answered gently. "Shift's just above done, why don't you come on home? Over."

He nodded to himself before sighing long and heavy. With one last look at the darkened Puckerman house, Bobby wondered when he'd be getting a call from a bereaved mother…

Not too long, he imagined.

He'd be proven right, bright and early Saturday morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

XIII.

Thursday morning found Puck staring at the ceiling of his room.

He hadn't slept.

What the cop said kept repeating in his head.

T he new owners are moving in on Monday.

The new owners.

Monday.

Monday.

Monday.

Which meant in four days, Rachel's house wouldn't be Rachel's anymore. It wouldn't be the Berry's. The mailbox would be replaced or painted over, just like her stars. It wasn't that he was surprised. Hiram and Leroy left and they said somebody else would be moving in soon. Seeing her house empty was one thing. But knowing somebody else would be there, would call it home, would sleep and sing and live in her room… It just felt wrong.

So for hours after the cop left and he laid back down in his bed, he didn't move. He didn't close his eyes. He stared tiredly at the stars he'd pinned above and watched as they faded and the sun slowly filled his room. His body ached and his temples throbbed. His eyes felt dry and crusty. His gut was twisted tight and his every breath physically hurt.

When the door opened and Finn walked into the room, he wasn't startled. His eyes vaguely turned toward him and he waited.

"Uh, hey…" Finn rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "Wasn't sure you'd be up…" He shifted his feet awkwardly. "Listen… I was thinking maybe we'd blow the morning off, y'know? I already talked to Mike, Sam, and Artie, they're all in! We can hang out at my place, fire up the X-Box…" He nodded. "I thought… Y'know, maybe it'd be easier or, like… more comfortable than school…" He shrugged, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "You in?"

Puck turned his eyes back up to the ceiling. "If I say no?"

He sighed. "Then I drag you outta bed and you spend the next four hours in class… Your choice, man."

His jaw ticked and he ground his teeth together. The idea of making any effort at all wasn't appealing. But he guessed sitting on Finn's couch versus moving class to class, ignoring all the douches staring at him, there was a pretty obvious winner. "Fine. Whatever."

"Cool." He grinned lopsidedly. "So, the guy's are grabbing breakfast at McD's and meeting us over there. You wanna shower or…?"

Puck pushed himself up, wincing as every muscle in his body seemed to protest. His head spun as his feet planted on the floor and he closed his eyes tight. His stomach flip-flopped with nausea and he found himself wishing he had a beer or six to take the edge off.

"You all right?" Finn worried, taking a step toward him.

Glaring, he shoved to his feet. "I'll meet you downstairs," he muttered.

Finn didn't look sure, his eyes darting around.

Puck sighed. "If I wanted to kill myself, I wouldn't wait for you to be here…" He walked around him to his dresser. "I'll shower and meet you at your truck." Not waiting for a reply, he grabbed out his clothes and stomped his way over to the bathroom.

Not even the steaming hot water and the soap he scrubbed into his skin made him wake up any more. He still felt off; out of place; like he was in the wrong skin. His head felt as though it were filled with cotton; his movements sluggish. Still, he washed himself off and slung a towel around his waist as he brushed his teeth.

He looked like shit.

The stubble around his jaw was darker, scruffier than he'd ever let it get. There were bags under his eyes and his face looked thinner. He buried it all behind a towel and just sighed, before finally throwing on his clothes and ignoring how his every muscle ached.

When he walked downstairs, he saw Sarah on the couch. She was smiling up at Finn excitedly, listening to him talk on and on about football and shit. Rolling his eyes, Puck walked to the door and stuffed his feet in his boots. "Let's go," he said.

Finn looked back at him, his smile fading. "Uh… Are you sure you're okay? You don't look so good… Your skin's all… sallow…"

"And you're spending too much damn time with Kurt," he sighed impatiently. "Now let's go before I change my mind…"

Shrugging, Finn stood up, reaching back to ruffle Sarah's hair in goodbye.

Hands stuffed in the pockets of his jacket, Puck cut across the lawn to Finn's truck and hopped into the passenger seat without waiting for him to catch up. He hunched down low and let his head fall back, eyes turning out the window.

As Finn put his seatbelt on and turned the ignition, he looked at him again, frowning. "You get  any  sleep last night?"

His jaw ticked. "No."

Finn's hands twisted around the steering wheel. "Listen, I really think you should talk to someone… A doctor or something…"

Puck didn't reply.

"It could help… Maybe there's some medication or something…"

The idea that some little pill could make it all better made him go completely still. A pill a day and  what?  It keeps Rachel away? The loss and the hurt and the leftover feelings of being a failure. Of not protecting her or loving her better or being worthy  of her… That all just  went away?  Disappeared? Replaced with what? Nothingness.  Emptiness . He had enough of that already. No, there was no magic pill that was going to make this better for him or answer the questions he had or fuck, do what he needed most. Bring her back.

A few minutes went by where Puck did nothing more than stare out the window.

Finally, with a resigned sigh, Finn pulled away from the curb and headed for his place.

Puck closed his eyes, but there was no peace.

../..

Mike, Artie, and Sam were milling just outside the front door of Finn's house playing Rock, Paper, Scissors for reasons yet unknown.

A bag of McDonald's sat at their feet while the remains of their own breakfast were either eaten or in some cases, in hand.

Sam threw scissors while taking a bite of his Egg McMuffin and then cheered through his mouthful as he beat out both Mike and Artie, who both threw paper.

"Victory!" he cried, pumping a fist into the air.

Puck hopped out of the truck, tucked his hands in his jacket pockets, and followed Finn up the drive.

"Hey!" Mike turned to them and reached down to grab up the bag of food, waving it at them and wiggling his eyebrows. "We got extra hash browns."

"Awesome," Finn said happily, before walking past them to unlock the door.

"Hey, you sure your parents are cool with this?" Sam worried.

"Yeah, it's fine…" He glanced at Puck and then around at them in a way he must have thought was subtle. "They get it."

Sam and Mike helped lift Artie and his wheelchair over the stoop and into the house before he took over with his wheels.

"I set everything up last night," Finn called as he walked into his living room. "Had to dust off some of my games…"

"Bro-time has been seriously lacking," Artie said, nodding.

"I brought over Avatar the Game," Sam offered, holding up his copy before adding it to the pile next to the X-Box 360 on the floor.

Puck slumped down in an arm chair and kicked the bottom up, leaning back and watching them all maneuver around the living room through half-closed eyes. A migraine was pounding away, fraying the edges of comfort. He was overtired now though and he knew even if he closed his eyes, he wouldn't get any rest.

The guys argued awhile over what they were going to play and who would go first, breaking out Rock, Paper, Scissors again to settle it.

Eventually, Artie and Sam were set up first, a controller each, playing a racing game that Puck didn't bother paying much attention to.

Puck watched distantly for the next hour or so as they raced cars and battled digital enemies and laughed, shoving each other, cursing when they were killed or ran off the road. He watched them smile and bug each other and he remembered when he could do that. When he could bullshit with the guys and play COD or Halo until his hands cramped. When they'd all just sit around and drink beer and eat pizza and have belching contests and bug each other about girlfriends and school and just general dumb shit. But it all felt like it was so long ago; like that was another him in another time, so far away that he couldn't quite grasp what those feelings were like.

His eyes cut away from them, from Mike and Sam elbowing each other, trying to sabotage the other, and instead wandered the living room.

He used to visit the Hudson-Hummel place on a pretty regular basis. When Rachel wanted some Kurt-time, she'd drag him over with her and tell him to hang out with Finn so she and Kurt could do facials and have girl-talk. Sometimes when Blaine was over, they'd kick him out too, and he'd have to hang with the boys. It was a sweet deal, he remembered. Prolonged exposure meant Finn couldn't totally write him off, even if he was pissed for awhile that Puck was dating Rachel. Eventually, he just got over it, and he'd break out his Madden NFL 12 for them to horse around with and waste time. Occasionally, when they were board, they'd interrupt Rachel-Kurt time and take a couple pictures of them all facial-creamed up. But then Finn started eating all of Kurt's cucumber slices and Kurt started locking his door. Still, it was good times.

His eyes landed on a picture that hadn't been there before; on an end table next to a lamp. Of Rachel and Kurt, arms wrapped around each other and cheeks pressed together as they grinned for the camera.

He stared at it until his eyes stung from not blinking.

She was so damn beautiful. Her cheeks all rosy and her smile so big and wide and genuine. Her hair was falling in her eyes; her hair that was always so soft and shiny.

"Puck? You wanna play?" Artie offered, holding out a controller.

He looked back and then at the screen. The game they had on was one he and Finn had played a lot in the past. His mind wandered to the last time.

"These games you two play are barbaric," Rachel muttered, poised at the end of the couch with her hands clasped in her lap. "There's so much  blood  and  gore  and—" Her eyes widened. "Behind you, Noah!" She pointed, stabbing at the air. "Watch out! Kill him! Get him!"

He laughed, doing as he was told. "You were saying, babe?"

She glared at him. "It's my competitive nature…" Shaking her head, she pursed her lips. "I don't condone violence and I think it's overspread, desensitizing people…"

"De-what?" Finn asked, angling his arms along with his player as he shot everything that moved.

She cast a glance at him. "Desensitizing… It means people are getting so used to violence that it doesn't bother them anymore…" She sighed. "Like you two, murdering random people and laughing about it like it's completely normal…"

"Think of it like practice," Finn suggested.

Her brows furrowed. "I'm sorry?"

"For the Zombie Apocalypse," he explained, shrugging. "One day, we'll be overrun by the undead and  then  you'll have me and Puck here to kill off all the dead dudes and it won't even bother us 'cause we're desensi-whatever…"

She blinked at him. "First of all, killing  dead  people seems redundant and also…" She shook her head, repeating slowly, "The Zombie Apocalypse…?"

"It's coming, Rach," Puck told her, his eyes wide. "Legit, 2012's the year we're gonna have to break out the bats and the shotguns and go Winchester on the neighbors 'cause they're all eating each other's faces off…"

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, please! By that time, we'll likely be in New York!" She pointed at him meaningfully. "And  nothing will hinder my rise to stardom, Noah! Not even zombies!"

He smirked. "Right, which is why I'm learning how to kill those bastards before they fuck up the big apple!" He nodded. "It's a win-win situation! I get to kill people with my mad skills and you get to rock the crowd of survivors…"

With a scoff, she rose from the couch. "You're both ridiculous! You've obviously been watching too much of that Walking Dead show."

"Show's awesome," he muttered.

"I'm going to go see what Kurt's doing…" She waved her hand back. "You two have fun with your pointless murder games."

As she walked off, Puck looked over at Finn. "She'll appreciate our badassness when the apocalypse hits."

He nodded. "Totally."

In fact, later that night, she took out her pen and paper and asked him the likelihood of a zombie attack and what she might need should it happen. They spent the night making a prep list while she praised his extensive zombie knowledge. Sweet deal.

"Puck?"

He shook his head, coming back to the present. "Nah, I'm good."

They all exchanged a look between each other but turned back to the screen.

It wasn't long before they were sharing some lame story of something that happened at school.

"I gotta piss," he muttered, standing from his seat and moving toward the hallway.

Finn stilled and Puck sighed to himself.

"Dude, I swear if you try to follow me, I will lock you in the bathroom until you cry."

He glared. "I was  nine! " He looked around at the others uncomfortably and admitted, "And rooms without windows freaked me out…"

Puck rolled his eyes. "Whatever." He slipped around the corner, relief making his shoulders droop when he noticed Finn at least stayed back with the others, even if he did watch him leave worriedly.

He bypassed the bathroom, instead walking further down the hall with his hands tucked in his pockets.

A lot of his best memories were in Finn's old house, but this one had some good ones too. Like sitting around with Burt and talking about cars while Kurt and Rachel took over the basement bedroom below. Talking with Carole about his mom over homemade hot chocolate. Asking her advice when him and Rachel had a fight. Tossing footballs with Finn in the back.

When he reached the door to the basement, he stopped. Leaning against the wall across from it and just staring awhile.

It was stupid. 

It was pointless.

She was totally overreacting.

But Rachel was a drama queen and even when that pissed him off, he still loved that about her. Yeah, it was crazy.  She was crazy. But that was part of her weird charm, he guessed.

He got why she was mad. Maybe he didn't handle the whole thing right. In fact, when he told Carole what had happened, she shook her head and told him for all his experience, he didn't understand girls.

Fuck that. He was the shit with girls. Had been since puberty! But Rachel wasn't normal or easy; she was special.

So when she started getting anxious about New York and Broadway and whether he'd get into NYU or if she'd ever make it on stage, he probably should have listened more and given her some uplifting speech about how she was golden and he'd been working his ass of at school, so no  way  was NYU gonna reject him! Instead, he told her to chill out. Bad move. Instead of relaxing, Rachel accused him of not caring about their future, shouted something about him not really believing in her or himself, and then stomped out of his house in tears. And he could've chased after her, but he was a little pissed off himself. 'Cause what the fuck! Of  course  he cared about their future. And yeah, okay, maybe he didn't always believe he  would get out of Lima, but that didn't mean he didn't think she wouldn't take Broadway by storm! But sometimes, she was intense and he was… not. And sometimes, occasionally, he thought maybe she'd be better off and do better in New York without him holding her back. But if he got the chance to be there with her and she never woke up and saw that he was less Prince Charming and more Rebel Without a Cause, then hell yeah he was gonna go along with her and make the best of it!

So that was why he was standing outside of the Hudson-Hummel house with Finn looking at him unimpressed.

"She's been here an hour!" He frowned. "I was kicked out of my  own room! "

Puck rolled his eyes. Leave it to Finn to make it about himself. "Is she still crying?"

"She never  stopped! "

" There  you are!" Carole pulled her son out of her way to sigh at Puck. "Did you actually tell Rachel to stop worrying so much about New York?"

"She was  freaking out! " he explained, throwing his arms up. "She put in her application like,  yesterday , and she was already making plans to work at McDonalds the rest of her life because she was gonna be rejected and she'd get so depressed she'd never sing or dance again!" He shook his head, eyes wide. "Seriously, I thought she'd lost her mind! Like anybody's gonna say no to her! She's Rachel freakin' Berry!" 

"Get in here and explain this all to me," she decided, waving him in as she backed up. "From the beginning."

So twenty minutes later, he was still trying to convince her he wasn't  totally  useless with girls. 

"Look, I  got  this…" He grabbed up his guitar and stood from his chair. "I  know  Rachel…"

She pursed her lips, unconvinced.

"Okay, so maybe this time I was a little slow on the uptake, but seriously…" He started backing up, grinning at her knowingly. "I can fix it."

She nodded slowly. "Good luck."

"Don't need it."

Turning around, he made his way down the hall to the basement door.

He tried the handle, but it was locked, as expected.

He knocked and then waited impatiently.

"Who is it?" Kurt's voice answered, muffled by the wood.

"s'Puck, lemme in."

"Don't you open that door, Kurt Hummel!" Rachel shouted from below. "I won't speak to that disbelieving miscreant until he has a proper apology ready!"

"Yeah… Well, you heard her, Puck. There's a no-entry policy in place until you've apologized… profusely… I would suggest hiring a sky-writer or saving up money for a public service announcement."

He rolled his eyes. "Just open the door, Hummel… You really want a hysterical Rachel on your hands the rest of the weekend?"

There was no answer and then suddenly, "Rachel, I really think he's sorry… Maybe you should hear him out!"

Sudden footsteps on the stairs told him she was coming. "Step away from that door, Kurt! I will speak to him when I'm ready and not a moment sooner!" She stomped her foot. "So you might as well go home because I'm not talking to you, Noah!"

"Fine, then just listen!" he shouted back.

He grabbed out his guitar grumpily and set the strap over his shoulder.

While he knew Carole and Finn were right around the corner and that Kurt was at the door, he gathered up the courage to sing a song he'd penned out after their fight. 

I need you,
Right here,
By my side…

He swallowed tightly, licking his lips.

You're everything I'm not,
In my life…

The truth of that statement actually made his heart pang a little.

We're indestructible,
We are untouchable,
Nothing can take us down tonight…
You are so beautiful,
It should be criminal,
That you could be mine…

He tapped his foot along with the beat and sang a little deeper.

And we will make it out alive...
I promise you this love will never die…

He strummed a little harder, his brow furrowed deeply, and closed his eyes.

He imagined he was just back in his room and it was the two of them and she was at the bed, smiling up at him like she always did when he sang to her. Like the were the only two people in the world and she couldn't have picked a better partner.

No matter what,
I got your back…
I'll take a bullet for you if it comes to that,
I swear to god,
that in the bitter end,
we're gonna be the last ones standing…

He slowed the beat down and leaned into it, rocking himself forward on his feet. 

Earnestly, a smile drew up his lips as he sang.

So believe me,
when I say…
you're the one…

He launched into the chorus, fingers plucking the strings with vigor. 

We'll never fall,
We'll never fade…
I promise you forever,
and my soul today…

He shook his head. 

No matter what,
until the bitter end,
we're gonna be the last ones standing…

"This is the closest I've ever been to swooning," Kurt muttered behind the door.

"Shh!" Rachel exclaimed.

Puck grinned to himself.

And everybody said that we would never last…
and if they saw us now,
I bet they'd take it back…
It doesn't matter what we do,
or what we say…
Cause nothing matters anyway…

He let his fingers cover the strings of his guitar, stilling them, and let his voice carry on alone, staring at the closed door with his brows knotted intensely.

No matter what,
I got your back…
I'll take a bullet for you if it comes to that!
I swear to god,
that in the bitter end,
we're gonna be the last ones standing…

He took a step forward and pressed a hand to the door.

We'll never fall…
We'll never fade…
No matter what,
Until the bitter end,
We're gonna be the last ones standing…

As his voice carried out, he waited.

And waited.

And finally, the door swung open and Kurt stared back at him. He turned his head and looked down at his friend to say, "If you don't take him back, I'm calling dibbs."

Rachel, tears in her eyes, laughed shortly, before climbing the stairs quickly. "He's mine," she murmured as she passed her best friend. Throwing her arms around Puck's neck, she squeezed him. "I'm sorry. You were right, I was being overemotional and irrational and I was doubting us when you've given me no reason to ever question our future…" She scrubbed her hand down the nape of his neck. "Sometimes… I get insecure and I just… I really love you, Noah, so when you doubt yourself, it's like you're doubting me and us and I just… I want you to want this as much as I do, but you have to  believe  it… You have to believe that we will get everything we deserve." She pulled back to stare at him with wide, wet eyes. "Sometimes, I just need to know that even if we never make it out of Lima, I'll still have you…"

"Babe, we're making it out of Lima…" He cupped her face. "New York is gonna be lucky to have you and if, for some fucked up reason I can't even  imagine,  they ever said  no …" He shook his head, his brows furrowed. "Then we'd still go and we'd find another way to show them what they're missing…" He tucked her hair behind her ear. "I'm not worried about you making it to New York or taking over Broadway or getting your Tony or any of that shit… You're so damn talented, I don't know why  you  worry about it…" He stared at her searchingly. "As long as you want me around, I'm here… I'm not going  anywhere  without you… Hell, even if you told me to fuck off I'd probably still stick around and hope you changed your mind."

She chuckled lightly. "So maybe we  both  overreacted…" Her eyebrows lifted. "Truce?"

He smirked. "Two conditions," he said.

She frowned, eyes narrowing. "I'm listening…"

"One, you give Finn his room back…"

She smiled. "Done."

"And two…" He puckered his lips. "We seal shit with a kiss."

Giggling, she nodded, leaning in to kiss him. "Always."

Puck slid down the wall to sit on the floor, staring at the scuffed, closed door, his brows furrowed.

His eyes burned and he tried to tell himself it was just because he was tired. Because he had to be running out of tears by now, right? But the heat of it dribbling down his cheek and hanging off his chin didn't lie. He wiped the trail away with the side of his hand and sniffed hard, licking his dry lips.

He wondered, if he closed his eyes and tried really hard, would he still be able to hear her and Kurt harmonizing downstairs.

So he did, he tried, but all he heard was the boys talking shit to each other in the living room.

"Hey."

His eyes snapped open and he looked up to find Artie right next to him. His wheels made him pretty much silent, the geek ninja. Hands resting in his lap, Artie's eyes darted away behind his glasses and then turned back to him. "You, uh… okay?"

Puck cleared his throat, glaring down at the floor in front of him. "Fine."

Artie nodded before raising a hand and motioning behind him with his thumb. "You missed the bathroom."

Puck didn't bother replying, instead he picked out a loose string on his jeans.

"You were gone awhile…" He stared at him searchingly. "We were starting to worry…"

"Yeah, well…" Puck shoved to his feet. "Don't." He walked past him and into the bathroom, snapping the door shut behind him. Since he didn't have to go, he ran the water and filled his hands with it, using it to splash his face in the hopes he might wake himself up a little more. But when he braced his hands on the counter and stared at himself in the mirror, he was still the same, broken guy he was when he first got up. His eyes were hollow, with dark rings, and shit, his skin really did look sallow. Point for Finn. Scrubbing his fingers along the prickly stubble of his head, he closed his eyes and sighed. Opening the cabinet door, he searched for Tylenol or Advil or  anything  that might make his headache stop.

A bottle of Aspirin caught his eye and he twirled the childproof cap off easily. The bottle was nearly full and for one dark second, all he did was stare into the bottle with a frown. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe there was a pill to make it better. Or multiple pills. Just a straight shot from here. He could down the bottle with some water and just wait it out. The peace that came with that, the overwhelming  relief  he felt flood himself at that revelation… His shoulders slumped, no longer tensed. His head fell. Even the pounding at his temples receded a little bit.

But then logic kicked in. Artie already mentioned they were worried. Finn was on him like a hawk. And if they got to him before anything had a chance to do what he intended, he'd just end up strapped down in the hospital.

Besides, he had a plan. Yeah, today was especially shitty. Last night put a cap on things and his resolve was ironclad. But he had this figured out.

Just a little while longer, he told himself.

He took two pills, dropped them on his tongue and then stuck his head under the tap.

Grimacing at the lingering bitter powder, he shut off the tap, but the bottle back in the cabinet and then opened the door to step back out into the house.

Artie was waiting for him, peering at him with furrowed brows.

Puck didn't hang around to explain himself, instead walking right past him and back into the living room.

The other guys turned to look at him, but at least tried to pretend they weren't wondering what took him so long.

He climbed back into the arm chair, crossed his arms over his chest, and lowered his eyes to watch the chaos on the TV.

Instead, he found himself contemplating the people around him.

Puck had known Mike since kindergarten. They used to play super ninjas on the playground, crawling all over the jungle gym and screaming  hi-ya  as they kicked as the air and rolled in the sand. But somewhere between being those kids who didn't have any responsibilities to growing up and into popularity, where suddenly everything they did was under a microscope, they'd become less like best friends and more like acquaintances on the same virtual path. And then glee came in and turned it all around for them, salvaging a friendship they'd both long forgotten.

Finn was different. They'd been best friends since pre-school and nothing had ever really changed that. Was it a healthy friendship? Hell no. Puck hated how Finn was idolized while he was always dumped on. Here he was standing next to the golden boy of McKinley and he looked like some piece of shit in comparison. He'd had enough of those parallels because of his dad; he didn't need a friend to make it any more obvious. But he stuck through it, because Finn was his boy and usually, when other people weren't pointing out how different they were, they put their friendship before anything else. And then girls hit the scene and that shit went out the window. First with Quinn and then with Rachel. And even now, more than year into their relationship and having already mapped out their future together, he was sure a part of Finn still resented him for being with Rachel in the end. Even if he lost her.

Artie and Sam were both pretty new in comparison. Artie was his boy since the whole juvie stint and Puck's favorite thing about him was that he was real. He didn't get down about his wheels and he always tried to tell the truth, even when it hurt. He was blunt and he let Puck know when he was being an ass. Just like Rachel. It was probably one of the reasons they got along so well. Because he wasn't a pretentious douche; he stuck to his guns and he never tried to make others feel better just because they expected it. Add to that he was just cool shit and they were solid.

Sam, geeky Avatar tendencies aside, was his country homeboy. Sure, he was way too up in Quinn's spider web, but when he wasn't being pussy-whipped, he was cool. And even when he was, he could at least relate to Puck and his Rachel drama. Bonding over high maintenance girls and COD had never been so easy.

The thing about those friends though, was that as much as these guys mattered to him, and they did, they weren't who he spent the majority of his time with. They weren't who he planned a whole life with. They didn't know him even  half  as well as Rachel did. And most of the time, they dealt with and saw  Puck  when they looked at him. So maybe they were a little bit casualties of all this too. Not just of Rachel's death but the impact it was going to have on him.

He knew they cared. They wouldn't be here, doing this, if they didn't.

But sometimes caring wasn't enough.

Sometimes, wanting something didn't mean getting it.

He should know.

A few minutes later, Finn hopped up from the floor. "Anybody thirsty?" He walked to the kitchen, shouting back to them, "I got Redbull, pop, and milk… And some weird juice Kurt drinks 'cause he says it's good for his skin or something…"

"Pop."

"Pop."

"I'll try Kurt's juice," Sam said, shrugging.

They all looked at him.

He frowned. "What?"

Mike snickered.

When Finn walked back in, he tossed a can to Mike and Artie, dropped one in Puck's lap, and handed Sam his bright pink juice before taking a seat with his back against the couch again. "Cheers," he muttered, tipping his can at them.

Puck played with the tab unenthusiastically.

"Hey, so Kurt said you might start managing the tire shop after graduation," Sam said, quirking a brow. "What happened to OSU?"

"I dunno. I always thought I'd go on a football scholarship but it fell through and…" Finn shrugged. "Kurt really wants to go to New York, but we don't really have the cash, so…" He half-smiled. "The shop's cool. Burt said I could probably own the whole place in a few years… I mean, for now, I'll just be like co-boss or something… Burt makes all the big decisions, but I'll be apprenticing under him or whatever…" He picked at the loose threads at the knee of his jeans. "It just made sense for Kurt though… 'Cause he's got a shot in New York and I'd just be coming right back here, so…"

"I guess…"

Mike, Sam, and Artie looked at each other, obvious pity in their faces.

"You should go to OSU," Puck interrupted.

Finn looked over, his brows furrowed. "The money—"

He stared at him seriously. "Kurt'll be fine."

Mike cleared his throat then. "What, uh, what about you, Puck? Are you still…" He looked around at the others, treading carefully. "You got into NYU, right?"

Puck didn't take his eyes off Finn's until the other boy finally looked away, his face falling.

"I'm not going," he said, dropping his gaze to the pop can.

"But Finn said Rachel's parents left you a boatload of money," Sam wondered in confusion.

"Dude!" Mike elbowed him.

"Ow! What?" He rubbed his side.

"New York wasn't my thing… It was hers."

Artie shook his head solemnly. "You wanted it too…" He stared at him sadly. "You planned a whole life there…"

"Yeah, and that was before…" He leaned his head back against the chair.

"But you had a plan, didn't you?" Sam shrugged. "A club or something, right?"

His jaw wound tight, ticked. "Yeah."

"Couldn't you still go?" He glanced at the others. "I mean, if you already got in…"

"It's gotta be better than sticking around Lima," Finn offered, nodding.

"Who said I'm sticking around at all?" he asked, his voice dark.

Finn winced, turning away again.

Mike frowned. "Look, Puck…" He shifted up to his knees and sat back on his haunches. "I never really… I mean, I should'a said something, but… I guess the timing was off…" He stared up at him. "I'm sorry, y'know… About Rachel and… And just how everything turned out…" He ducked his head a little. "I didn't know what to say and Tina was always saying it didn't matter, I should just…  We  should be there for you…" He motioned around to the guys. "So we're here, y'know? And we just, we want to help you…"

"And X-Box 360 was your plan…?" He cocked a sardonic brow. "Pretending like everything's cool… Everybody's fine… That's your big plan?" He raised his eyes to look at them. "You think your fake cheer is gonna make me feel better?"

"We just thought—"

"What if it was Quinn?" he interrupted, staring at Sam. "Or Tina." He looked at Mike. "You love 'em so much, what would you do…?" He swallowed tightly and shrugged. "What would make it better?"

Mike finally raised his chin. "Loving someone doesn't dying because you don't have them anymore… It's respecting them enough to live  for  them."

Sam nodded faintly and Finn half-smiled sadly.

Puck sneered. "Thanks for the ancient Chinese wisdom, Miyagi, but if you lost Tina and didn't feel like hanging yourself with your Pokemon sheets, then I'm sorry but you don't love her like I love Rachel."

Mike's brows cinched together. "Screw you, Puck."

Sam looked between them worriedly. "Okay, guys, I think we should just calm down…"

They ignored him.

"You think Rachel'd be happy that you wanted to kill yourself because of her?" Mike shook his head. "If she loved you as much as I think she did, she'd want you to live!"

"What d'you know about Rachel, huh?" Puck scoffed, leaning forward in his chair. "What do  any  of you know?" he shouted. He shook his head. "So you  danced  with her, you both love  Avatar , you put up with her demanding you tape her every  performance, you  dated  for awhile…" He said, looking at each of them. "You think you  knew  her?" He laughed bitterly. "You didn't know  shit! "

Finn opened his mouth to argue.

"No,  shut up ," he demanded. And when the room was silent again, he continued, "You didn't know her  dads'  names or the first  pet  she had or her favorite song." He shook his head. "Or that she hiccupped when she was scared; that she made a 'just in case of zombie attack' prep list!" He laughed shortly. "You didn't know how she looked when she first woke up or how freezing fucking cold her feet got at night or how she smiled every damn time she rolled over and I was there… Like—" He ground his teeth, blinking his burning eyes. "Like she thought it was all a  dream  or something!" He licked his lips as they trembled. "You didn't know that she already picked out our kids' names… Our fucking  kids! " His voice cracked. "That we are  never  going to have!" He swiped at his face and the tears that fell angrily. "So you don't get to tell me what she'd want or what I should do or that you  get  it…" His eyebrows hiked. " All right? "

Sam ducked his head.

Mike nodded solemnly.

Finn rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his palms.

And after awhile, Artie finally tossed a controller to both Mike and Sam. "I get winner," he said.

They all turned back around and Puck leaned back in his arm chair. He closed his eyes and he hugged his arms around his heaving chest and he tried to focus on just breathing.

In and out.

In and out.

Until the ache in his lungs didn't make his throat burn hollowly.

../..

Puck was seriously contemplating sneaking out the back.

The guys had gone back to acting like everything was normal, casting worried looks at him here or there, but obviously they didn't know what to say and since their last attempt failed massively, they were having trouble regrouping.

But he had to be here for lunch, had to have Finn drive him back to the school for his mandatory meeting with Miss. P and he couldn't miss that or the whole cavalry would show up on his damn doorstep.

The front door swung open and everybody froze. Finn got that wide, constipated look on his face for just a second, but then his mom walked into the room, her arms full of brown bags. "Boys, hi, I'm so sorry!" She shook her head, smiling at each of them carefully. "I was on my lunch break when I realized there were no groceries here and I couldn't leave you all to starve, so…" She shrugged, hefting the bags up higher.

"Mom, you didn't have to do that…" Finn jumped to his feet to help her.

"There's a couple more in the car," she told them, making her way into the kitchen.

Sam and Mike hopped up and went outside to get them.

Artie looked from the kitchen, where Puck could hear Carole and Finn talking quietly, to him and then cleared his throat, picking at his fingerless gloves.

Sam and Mike returned, kicking the door closed behind them before joining Finn and Carole in the kitchen. He rolled his eyes when they all seemed to join in on the conversation.

It was a few seconds later when Artie muttered an excuse and backed out of the room.

Their voices were hushed, a small argument or explanation being given. He couldn't make out most of it, but he got the general gist. They wanted her to fix him, or try to. They wanted some motherly advice or for her to get in there and give an uplifting speech that would make it all better. Because they didn't have squat. They didn't know what to say or do or how to relate to him in this. And a little bit of him understood that, maybe even envied them for it.

But that was quickly thrown out the window when Carole re-entered the room, that familiar, gentle, pitying look on her face.

Her eyes were wide and searching as she knelt close to him in her green hospital scrubs. "Puck, honey, we haven't seen you around here in awhile…" She rubbed his hand. "How are you?"

He stared at her, a woman he'd once considered more a mother than his own. A woman he could've gone to with anything and known she'd have his back. And there was a part of him, deep inside, that just wanted to sob into her lap and have her rub his back until it didn't hurt anymore. But he didn't. Instead, he shrugged, his eyes falling so he didn't have to stare into those big, worried green eyes.

"With everything that's happened, we…" She shook her head. " worry about you…" She tipped her head to stare at him thoughtfully, willing him to look at her. "I've been talking to your mother and to Kurt and Finn and…" She squeezed his fingers. "Puck, I will be the first to tell you that I  understand  what it feels like to have your  whole  world just…  end …"

A cynical part of him had his lips pursing.

"I remember,  vividly , how it felt when I got the call that Finn's dad was gone…" Her breath caught for a moment with emotion and a little bit of his cynicism filtered away. "I could feel everything I'd known crashing around me and I… I couldn't  begin  to imagine what life would be like after that… I didn't  want  to… I didn't want to move or breathe or listen to everybody offering their condolences and their  pity …" Her brows furrowed. "That was the worst… The way everybody looked at me like they knew too, that I was just… I was  nothing  without him…"

Puck felt himself nodding vaguely, agreeing without even meaning to.

"And I  was ," she told him simply.

He stared at her.

Her brows were hiked, her eyes wet with tears and a faint, broken smile upturning her lips. "For awhile, I was empty and lost and I couldn't tell left from right or up from down, but… I got  through  it." She pressed a hand to her heart. "I mourned and I hurt and I prayed and begged that it was all a nightmare and one morning I might turn over and find him there, but…" She shook her head. "One day, I just… I accepted my life as it was. I  accepted  that he was gone and I was all Finn would have and I got up and I told myself that the ache would have to be enough. That I had to live for my son and my friends and myself …" She squeezed his hand tight. "And I'm telling you, Puck, that I never forgot him and I never missed him any less, but I could  not  die with him…"

He looked at her, his brows furrowed, his jaw wound tight. "'Cause of Finn?"

"Yes." Her eyes brimmed with tears. "And because he would have  never  wanted that for me… Love is like that… It's so all-consuming that sometimes, when you lose it or it's taken from you, you just— You want to lash out and take it back. You—You want to  hurt  whoever or whatever took that person from you…" Her teeth were grit with emotion. "But love is supposed to be selfless; it's not meant to be destructive or painful… And I know—I  know  you loved Rachel…" She shook their hands, her expression drawn with grief. "You loved her so much and she was supposed to be everything to you, I know that…" She sniffled. "But your life does not end now… It doesn't end today or tomorrow or any time soon…" She reached out and pressed her hand to his chest. "You hold her here… You hold her smile and her love and everything she meant to you right here… And it's going to hurt and ache and it's going to feel like every single bit of you is torn to shreds, but you hold on to  that …" She tapped the spot over his heart. "You hold on to how she loved you and how you loved her and you let that be enough for now… Until one day that ache is a memory that you cherish. That you look back on and you say, ' That was enough …'" She nodded. "Because anything else, losing yourself in it, it's just… It's a  waste , Noah…" She shook her head slowly, peering up at him pleadingly. "A waste of this incredible person you've become, that she helped  build…"

His jaw ticked and he swallowed thickly, turning his eyes off.

With a sigh, she rose, leaning over to press a kiss to his forehead. She gripped his head in her hand and hugged him, humming, "I know, I know," under her breath. "I love you like my own son, Noah… Please don't take yourself away from me."

He closed his eyes, his body shaking, his bones  rattling  beneath his skin. And when she went to move away, he stopped her, his hand on her arm, his fingers digging in like she was a lifeline he wanted.

"I can't…" he murmured.

She stiffened and her chin fell to the top of his head.

"I'm sorry," His breath caught. "But I can't."

She nodded and her face buried atop his head, tears wetting his hair, and he heard a cracked sob echo out of her chest as she squeezed him tighter to herself like she could hold him above water, keep him from the pain and the hurt that was pulling him down.

And he felt regret then, in every inch of his heart. He regretted that he would cause her any more pain. But he never changed his mind.

She sat on the arm of that chair and she hugged him to her, rocking him like only a mother could. She held him and she stroked his hair and she muttered soothing words and hummed softly. And his headache went away, his temples stopped throbbing, his eyes slowly drifted closed and he fell into a peaceful slumber, listening to the heartbeat of a woman who was a better mother to him in the last ten minutes than his mother had been in the last ten years.

Chapter Text

XIV.

Finn woke him up. Puck didn't know when Carole left or how long he'd been sleeping, but the others were gone and Finn was ushering him out of the house and into the truck for his meeting with Miss Pillsbury.

He was still tired and his body still ached whenever he moved, but at least his headache was long gone. The drive to McKinley was uneventful; even Finn, who was always trying to force him into some kind of conversation, stayed quiet, not even fiddling with the radio. He watched the scenery fly by the window, everything getting more and more familiar the closer they got, until finally they were pulling into the school parking lot.

Puck was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes when he sat down in Miss Pillsbury's office, a yawn cracking his jaw.

She rearranged random items on her desk; her pencils, a few notebooks, some folders. "How was your morning with Finn and the others?" she asked, smiling at him hopefully.

He raised a brow but didn't say anything. His mind flashed back to Carole and how she smelled like  mom . It was one of those scents that just permeated certain people. Like it had no distinct  flower  smell or anything; it was just one of those smells that only moms had. It was comforting and warm. He kinda missed it.

"Finn was very eager for you to have some time with the boys…" Her eyebrows rose impossibly higher. "He said it might be cathartic."

Puck snorted. No way Finn Hudson used the word cathartic, and especially not the right away.

He could see Miss P deflating before his eyes, her gaze darting around, color filling her pale face, her fingers knotting together.

There was a time when making people uncomfortable, when asserting his badassness and making others cringe in fear, was like a game to him; a boost to his already inflated ego. But now, there was just a tiny bit of remorse as she stuttered over pleasantries and searched for a way to get him to talk. Not enough for him to actually sit back and play patient to her under qualified psychiatry, but still…

"Finn said you talked to his mother too…" She stared at him straight forward then. "I've been getting calls from Mrs. Hudson-Hummel for awhile now…" She frowned, her lips thinning and turning down. "She's one of a few different adults that have been checking in with me on your progress…"

He vaguely kicked the bottom of her desk then. "What happened to doctor-client privileges or whatever…?" He raised a brow.

She cleared her throat. "Well, that was… It was before you had your mandatory meetings with me… And since then…" She played with her pencils, lining them up and turning them over until the writing on the sides were upright. "There's not a whole lot to tell, is there?"

He still frowned, wondering what they asked and what she told them. His first thought was of the Berrys. Did Leroy and Hiram call? Did they  care?

But he didn't ask, because he knew the answer, really. He just didn't like the guilt that came with it.

"You have a lot of people who care about you, Puck…" She leaned forward in her chair to stare at him meaningfully. "A lot of people who want to help you." She shook her head. "You should try letting them in."

He picked at the arm of the chair, brows furrowed.

She sighed then, chin falling, resolve in place. She checked the time and then sat back again. "Okay… Have you given any more thought to writing it all down in a journal?"

He raised a brow at her that basically said, ' Yeah fucking right .'

The rest of their  counseling  session was a whole lot of the same.

../..

When Finn dropped him off from school, Puck was tired. Seemed the nap he took at the Hudson-Hummel house had kicked his exhaustion into action and he thought he might just be able to get some shut eye.

"I'll pick you up tomorrow," Finn said as he reached for the door to let himself out.

Puck vaguely nodded at him.

Shifting uncomfortably, he offered, "Santana's having a part tomorrow night…" He raised a brow. "Maybe… I dunno, maybe it'd be good for you… Blow off some steam…"

He stared at him, lips pursed. Yeah, because partying at Santana's really sounded like where he wanted to be. He hadn't been into that scene much for awhile now. Every once in a while, if the party wasn't too big, he and Rachel would swing by. But the bigger the crowd, the nastier the people. And even if Rachel had him on her side, the others, save for most of the glee club, just didn't like her. So it always turned into something and things were broken and people's faces were smashed, and Puck was being dragged away by his girlfriend before the cops could be called. Not his best memories by far.

"Don't sign me up," he told him, hopping onto his lawn and reaching back to close the door.

Finn frowned. "What about Saturday?" he asked. "You could come over, have dinner with the family…" He stared searchingly. "Kurt'll be back in town; he's coming back from Dalton for the weekend."

Puck knew what he was doing. He was trying to force himself into Puck's life on the weekend too, lowering the chances he'd have to get good and dead.

"I'm free Saturday," he told him, before shutting the door and walking backwards up the lawn.

Finn half-smiled hopefully, waved, and then drove off.

Puck's eyes darted to the grass before he turned on his heel and walked inside. He told himself he wouldn't feel regret, but it welled up a little anyway.

When he walked into the house, he could hear his mom in the kitchen. He hadn't bothered checking the driveway, but he knew her humming and under-the-breath cursing in Yiddish anywhere.

Sarah was on the couch in pretty much the exact same place she'd been when he left. Her legs were curled up beneath her and she had the remote in her hand, her other hand holding her head up, her hair tangled and ratty from no doubt playing around at school like the worriless kid she could be. He missed those days. When the biggest thing he had on his plate was homework. Felt like a lifetime ago, but then maybe it was.

There are a lot of people who care about you, Puck... You should try letting them in .

As he kicked his boots off, Puck stared at his little sister a long moment.

Sarah was young and naïve and she didn't understand most of what had happened. She  was  worried; about him. And every time she reached out, he'd shoved her back.

He ground his teeth together and walked toward the stairs.

"Sarah, turn off the TV. Why don't you get your homework out?" his mother called from the kitchen.

Slumping lower on the couch, she cast her head back and crossed her eyes. "I don't  wanna …" she whined.

"Sarah Marlene Puckerman!"

She huffed, groaning as she threw herself sideways down on the couch cushions. "I  hate  Math…" she complained, kicking her feet up into the air.

For just a split second, Puck felt an amused smile tug at his lips. Brows furrowed, he looked from her to the stairs and then sighed. "Grab your books, Squirt…"

Sarah looked up, her eyes wide and her eyebrows hiked. "Really?" she said hopefully.

Guilt reared its ugly head again but he tamped it down. "Meet me in my room, bring snacks," he said, and not bothering to wait for her, he climbed upstairs.

So much for that nap.

../..

Ten minutes later, Sarah pushed his door open a crack and asked carefully, "Noah…?"

"Yeah." He turned around in his desk chair, resting his arm on the back. "C'mon… I don't got all afternoon."

Biting her lip as she smiled, she rushed into his room, leaving the door wide open and dragging her princess backpack behind her, bumping at her heels. Her other arm was full of random snacks; juice packs and granola bars, an individual pack of Oreos, and some fruit snacks.

She dropped it on the top of his desk and then hauled her backpack up and dropped it in his lap.

He unzipped the top and grabbed out her grade four math book and her binder to drop it all on his desk. "What else you got?"

"Spelling," she said, reaching inside and pulling out her spiral notebook. "I have to practice 'cause we're having a spelling bee tomorrow."

He grunted and then stood from his chair. He grabbed her up under her armpits and dropped her in his chair, turning it back around so she was facing her books. "Math first, then we'll get to the other crap."

Sarah nodded happily, kicking her feet back and forth. "Your desk is big. I thought mine was big at school. Mine's the biggest in the  whole  class. But this one's bigger," she told him, happily.

He rolled his eyes slightly, shaking his head. "What page?"

She leaned forward. "Umm…" She flipped her book open and searched around a little. "Here. I'm on this one. I have to do…" She stuck her tongue out thoughtfully and then pointed. "From here to here."

"'Kay… Do you know what you're doing?"

She looked up at him, her eyes wide and innocent. "Maybe you should do it and I'll watch."

That tugging at his mouth reappeared. "Nice try, brat."

She sighed, shoulders slumping slightly, but turned back around. "I  think  I know…"

"Show me."

She nodded.

For the next hour, Puck hovered over her shoulder, helping her here or there, finding himself proud when she figured things out on her own. She tried to convince him he could do it for her a couple more times, that Puckerman charm of hers kicking in, but he wasn't going for it.

They were halfway through her spelling, when she turned to look at him, hands curled around the back of her chair, legs swinging, staring at him thoughtfully as he lay sprawled on his bed.

"Spell 'whistling'," he told her.

She wrinkled her nose. "Whistling," she repeated to herself. "W-H-I-S…" She frowned. "Whis- ling …" She shook her head. "Um, L…" she dragged out, narrowing her eyes.

He frowned.

"No! Okay, um… Oh,  T! " she cried.

He nodded.

"Then L." She smiled in satisfaction. "I-N-G!"

"Not bad."

Her eyes fell as she picked at the top of the chair. "Noah?"

"Hm?" he replied distractedly. Her next word was 'consistent,' which seemed kind of big for a nine year old.

"Does this mean you're not sad anymore?" she wondered.

He paused, his eyes falling away from her spelling bee list. Licking his lips, he sat up, resting an arm on his upturned knee. "Why?"

She frowned. "I don't like it when you're sad…"

Dropping her list to the side, he dragged his fingers down his head, scrubbing the stubble there. His jaw ticked as he let out a long, heavy sigh. "Sarah…" He cleared his throat. "Do you… D'ya  know  what death is?"

Her brows furrowed. "Kind of…"

He nodded, closing his eyes briefly. He really didn't want to have this conversation. "C'mere."

Hopping down from the chair, she crossed the room and climbed onto his bed, crossing her legs and staring at him.

"What'd ma tell you happened to Rachel?" he asked, picking at his jeans.

"That she got hurt and now she was in a place where she wouldn't hurt anymore…" She wiggled in her seat. "But when she's all better, she can just come  back , right?"

His jaw ticked. "It's not like that…"

Her brows furrowed.

"You remember…" He paused, clearing his throat. "You remember when our dog Kingsley got really sick and mom took him away and you never saw him again?"

She nodded.

"Kingsley died, Sar… And when something or someone dies, they don't…" He ground his teeth, swallowing tightly. "They don't come back and they don't get better." He shook his head. "Kingsley was old and he… P-People die when they get old. Shit stops working and their heart gives up or just…" He sighed, rubbing at his eyes. "It's just how it goes. One day when you're old and wrinkly like Nana Connie, even you'll die."

"But Rachel wasn't old." She gripped the blanket beneath her tightly, wadding it in her fingers. "She was young and pretty and she was gonna go to New York and sing there!"

"I know. But sometimes…" His voice cracked. "Even when you're young…" His throat burned. "And you had your whole damn life ahead of you…" His hands shook violently so he furled them into fists, closing his eyes tight and willing himself to calm down.

"Was Rachel sick?" she wondered. "She didn't  look  sick…"

He shook his head jerkily. "No, she… She was perfect."

"I don't understand," she cried. "Rachel was really nice and she wasn't sick or old. So why did she have to go, Noah? Why can't she come  back? " She hiccupped on a sob, her eyes filling with tears and her face mottled in angry confusion.

"It doesn't…" He let out a shaky breath. "It doesn't matter how, okay? What matters is you need to know that when people die, they don't come back anymore… So you have to… You have to stop  waiting  for her, okay? And asking for her or looking for her…" He shook his head. "'Cause when they're gone they—They  stay  gone…" He stared at her searchingly.

"No." She shoved off the bed and whirled around to glare at him and balling her hands at her sides. "That's stupid! And you're  stupid! And you probably made her go away because you were mean and she didn't like you anymore!" She pointed at him angrily. "But she was my friend too, Noah! And I want her back! And she'll come back for me 'cause she said—" She hiccupped painfully. "She said I was her sister,  okay? " She stomped her foot, sniffling.

"I know… I know she did and she meant it, okay?" He shifted to face her better. "Rachel loved you. And she didn't  want  to go."

"Then  why …" She shook her head, her shoulders quivering. "Why'd she go, Noah?" Sniffling, she ran at him and threw herself into his arms, burying her face in his shoulder. "I want her back," she whimpered. "Please. Please can she come back? I'll be really good, okay? I won't—I won't play with your guitar no more, I pr—I promise!"

Swallowing thickly, Puck wrapped his arms around her slowly. "I'm sorry," he breathed, shutting his eyes against his tears.

Twenty minutes later, she'd cried herself to sleep, murmuring over and over, "She'll come back. She will."

He didn't have it in him to argue with her anymore.

../..

When dinner time rolled around, Puck had already put her homework back in her bag and dropped in her bedroom. Sarah woke to hear her mother shouting her name. Rubbing her eyes, she climbed out of his bed and walked to the door. Pausing, she looked back at him. "Are people happy when they die?"

He glanced at her and for a moment, all he could think of was Rachel falling down those stairs, her head cracked wide open. Was she  happy?  Living would have made her happy. New York and Broadway would have made her happy. Spending her life with him would have made her happy. But  death … There was nothing happy about death.

"Some are," he said, and before she could ask anymore, he said, "Dinner's waiting."

She nodded faintly, turned on her heel, and walked out the door.

Hearing her footsteps stomp down the stairs, he stood up from his desk, tossing his pen vaguely toward the cup that usually housed it.

He could smell dinner as he followed his sister down and his stomach rumbled appreciatively. When he walked into the kitchen, his mom looked up at him in surprise, her eyes wide. He hadn't eaten with them in what felt like ages. Taking his usual seat at the table, he ignored her incredulous staring and started filling his plate. Despite the way his stomach ached for food, his head told him he wasn't hungry, didn't need food.

Sarah was quick to fill the silence. "I got all my homework done," she told her mom. "I did all my math and my teacher's gonna be really surprised because I even did the bonus questions."

"Good," their mother said, nodding. "You clean your room yet?"

She deflated some. "Kinda…" she muttered.

Puck stared at his plate a long second and scooped his fork full of mashed potatoes. But when he looked up, he found himself staring at the extra chair and where Rachel used to sit. Where she'd go on and on about her day and her dance classes and vocal lessons. She'd charm his mom with stories about aceing some test in school or getting a solo in glee and then she'd praise him and his efforts and how much hard work he'd put into his schooling, or she'd talk about college and New York in the fall and how close it was, how excited they were. She'd reach for his hand and squeeze it or she'd rub her foot against his leg and then she'd smile at him, big and bright.

But the chair was empty and there was no plate there. There was no tofu substitute cooked up and she wasn't trying to convince Sarah that being a vegan or even a vegetarian was a much better lifestyle. There was no hand clasped in his and no smile turned in his direction. There was nothing but a spot where she used to be, a place where her plate used to rest, a coaster that only she used.

"Puck?" his mom's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Are you okay?"

He looked back at her, the crease at her brows and the purse of her lips. "No," he replied simply. Without explaining further, he dug into his meal. "Tell mom how to spell  whistling , Sarah," he told her.

Sitting up straighter in her chair, Sarah lifted her chin proudly. "W-H-I-S- T …" She grinned at him, "L-I-N-G." She nodded in triumph.

His mom eventually dragged her gaze from him and turned a brittle smile on her daughter. "That's… great, Sarah," she offered.

They spent the rest of the meal avoiding the obvious.

../..

That night, Puck put Sarah to bed for the first time since the night before Rachel died.

Sitting up in her bed, with her pink princess lamp on and her nightlight flashing in the corner, she stared up at him hopefully. "Will you sing to me?" She pressed her hands together pleadingly and stuck them under her chin. " Please , Noah,  please! "

Sighing, he walked back to his room, grabbed up his guitar and brought it with him to her room, taking a seat on her bed. "Any preferences?"

She pursed her lips, turned her eyes up, and then shook her head. "No pe !" she said, popping the 'p.' Wiggling further under her blanket, she smoothed it out and put her head back on her pillow. "Okay!"

He half-smiled and then turned, resting his guitar in his lap and dragging his thumb down the strings. He'd had to replace them the other day, when Finn gave his guitar back, the strings broken and stained in blood from the memorial assembly.

Taking a deep breath, he started picking at the chords to a song he'd heard Johnny Cash sing a number of times.

The haunting tune of his guitar filled the room.

Sarah never took her eyes off his fingers.

The other night dear,
as I lay sleeping,
I dreamed I held you in my arms…
But when
 I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried…


Puck licked his dry lips and dropped his gaze to his own hands, watching as they moved easily and knowingly across the strings.

You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray,
You'll never know dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away…


He clenched his teeth tight as he picked away, closing his eyes and just feeling the tune melt into him.

It filled the silence; a melancholy tune that he felt from the tips of his toes to the roots of his hair.

I've always loved you and made you happy,
And nothing else could come between…
In all my dreams, dear, you seem to leave me
When I awake my poor heart pains…
So when you come back and make me happy,
I'll forgive you dear, I'll take all the blame…


Brows furrowed, he opened his eyes to see Sarah's falling closed.

She gave a gentle sigh before falling peacefully to sleep.

He finished the song still.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away…


As he sat there, hand pressed over the chords to still them, he half-smiled at his sister. At her gentle face, not a worry in sight, her dark hair falling over her cheek.

Climbing off her bed, he bent down to kiss her forehead before he flicked the light off and walked out of her room.

He hoped, when she looked back on him, she remembered him like this; like the big brother that loved her, screwed up as he might have been.

../..

Puck laid in his bed that night, a shaft of light from the street lamp crossing his floor.

His body felt heavy and his eyes dry. A headache was clawing its way closer, just on the fringes of his temples.

One hand was furled in her pink nightgown while his other was spread across his chest, fingers tapping over where his heart lay.

Sometimes, he wondered if he could make it end by sheer will; if he could just quit breathing or tell his heart to stop beating.

He fell asleep trying.

../..

Friday morning seemed to go by quickly. Puck went through the same routine of sitting in class while doing nothing but staring out the window, ignoring Finn who met him when each period ended, and eventually making his way to the stage at break.

"So you're sure you don't want to come to Santana's?" Finn asked, picking the label off his apple.

He shook his head.

"Everybody from the glee club's gonna be there," he told him, brows hiked. "Well, I mean, except Mr. Shue…"

"You ever get tired of it, Finn?"

He frowned. "Of what?"

"Tagging along after me everywhere… Worrying I'll off myself any second…" He stared searchingly. "What's the point?"

Finn's face hardened. "I know you don't get it and maybe you have given up on yourself, but  care… And I don't want you to do something stupid, Puck. Something you  can't  take back…" He leaned forward and shook his head. "Do you get that? You can't undo this!"

Puck turned his eyes back out to the room of empty chairs. "So let's say you do it… Let's say you talk me out of it… What then?"

He shifted in his seat, shaking his head slightly. "What d'you mean?"

"What happens after?" He shrugged a shoulder. "I go to New York and, what? Go to college, open my club, settle down with some chick I don't love half as much and pop out some kids?" He turned to look at him. "Spend my whole life looking at those kids and wondering what they would have turned out like if they were Rachel's…" He clenched his teeth. "Sing at my club every night, always searching for her face in the crowd…" He shook his head. "Wake up every morning reaching for her…" He swallowed thickly. "I had it, y'know… I had all of it…" His eyes darted to and fro, but they were unseeing. "I had this amazing girl that I…" He fisted his hands. "I love her so  much , Finn…" He turned to look at him. "I can't…" He licked his lips, digging his teeth into one as he tried to control how his mouth shook. "I can't see myself living that life anymore… I can't see myself without her…"

Finn's eyes fell. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah…" He scoffed under his breath, reaching up to wipe at his face. "I know."

They sat in silence the rest of break.

../..

When Puck walked into the counselor's office, Emma raised her chin stubbornly. "I know you don't want to talk to me and I know you're probably looking forward to the weekend so you'll get away from me and my questions. And I know I probably haven't been as helpful as you need or as I'd like to be, but I'm trying and I hope you know that I'm only doing this for your benefit. I just want you to—"

"My dad was a deadbeat," he interrupted her.

She paused, mouth agape, and stared at him with wide, bright eyes. "I—I'm sorry?"

He nodded, taking a seat in front of her, dropping his bag by his feet. "He ran out on us when I was pretty young. Not so young I didn't remember him, but young enough that I still needed him, y'know…" He nodded, leaning back in the chair. "Him and my ma used to fight all the time, about stupid—just  dumb ass shit …" He tapped his finger against the arm rest anxiously. "And I  hated  it. I hated all the screaming and yelling and I used to pray for it to stop. Sometimes I even got in the middle and I'd yell at them, I'd  beg  them to stop…" He licked his lips, eyes darting away. "And he'd shove me out of the room or they'd just use me against the other. My mom—" He smiled cynically. "She was always saying, 'See what you did? See who you're hurting?' It just—It never stopped…"

He shook his head. "I used to wish my dad was more like Finn's, y'know…  Dead ." His jaw ticked. "'Cause then I'd just have a memory and not this flawed, fucked up, asshole that was always complaining about how me and ma screwed up his life…" He sniffed, tapping his foot. "Sometimes… I could tell. I could feel it when he looked at me. Like it was all my fault and it'd be so much better if I wasn't around… He'd be on the road with his guitar and no bratty kid at his heels…" He ground his teeth. "And I'd think, 'whatever, doesn't matter, 'cause I  am  here and he's like,  stuck  with me…'" He snorted. "And then one day he just wasn't there and y'know… I  missed  him. I—I missed that guy who taught me how to play guitar and charm girls and who watched cartoons with me… The guy who always let me be the superhero when we played good guys and bad guys… The guy who taught me how to throw a punch and how to dodge one… Who used to sing to me, every night before bed…" He shrugged. "I even missed the fighting. 'Cause at least then I knew he was around. That he cared enough to stay…"

She was staring at him, her hands spread out on the top of her desk, that pitying look on her face he'd known all too well.

"And my mom…" He scoffed bitterly. "My mom wasn't the same after that." He shook his head. "We had Sarah then, she was just a baby, she always wanted attention, always crying… And without dad around to help pay the bills, ma took on more shifts at the hospital. We spent a lot of time at Nana Connie's, but she was getting old, she didn't have the energy for us… So I had to grow up and fast. Ma said I had to be a man now. And I tried to, y'know? I—I tried to be a man for her…" He ground his teeth. "But I could see it in her  eyes …" He blinked rapidly. "She hated me… She… She hated that I looked like him and I—I was the  reason  she even married him, so, it was my fault…" He swallowed tightly. "And I got it. I—It didn't always bug me, even. I just… I got really good at not caring…" He dropped his eyes. "I got really good at looking for other people to care about me, to love me…" He squeezed his hands into fists. "And when they didn't, I thought maybe it was them, y'know?" He glanced at her. "Maybe I needed to be more like my old man. Maybe I just needed to stop needing it so damn much. So I told myself—I said, ' Puck , man, you don't need this shit. You don't need a wife or a—a girlfriend.'" He shook his head, his brows furrowed. "'Some nag of a ball and chain holding you down…'" He nodded. "So I slept around and I started up my pool service and met a whole lot of women who didn't want a boyfriend or a husband, just somebody to make 'em feel good, y'know? And I was good at that. I could  do  that…"

Emma's face suffused red at the implication, eyes darting away.

"And y'know, when I was done that, when I didn't have to be badass, sex shark, Puck, I went home and I pretended it didn't hurt that she couldn't look at me or that all she had to say was another speech about how I was just like my dad and going nowhere… And when she finally stopped yelling and went to work yet another double shift, I took care of Sarah… I made her dinner and I helped her with her homework and I put her to bed every damn night." He stared at her hard now and stabbed a finger through the air. "She might not have had a dad to do those things, but I never let her feel like she was missing out.  I  was there.  I  read her those bedtime stories.  I  sang to her.  taught her to ride a bike and shoot a hoop and what good music was.  was there the first day of kindergarten and  every  parent/teacher meeting…" He nodded. "So maybe I wasn't the smartest or the nicest kid around, but I was a good damn brother." He fisted his hands on the arms of his chair. "I was the  best  brother I could be."

Miss. Pillsbury nodded, her head bobbing agreeably, eyes still wide in surprise, but listening intently.

"And when Rachel came back…" His voice cracked. Licking his lips, he looked away and tried again, "I tried to be good enough for her…"

"Oh, Puck, I'm  sure  that you were!" she assured, finally inserting her opinion.

"Sarah loved her," he said, glancing back. "My  ma  loved her…" He laughed bitterly. "But then she always told me to settle down with a nice Jewish girl and Rachel definitely fit that bill…"

She smiled faintly.

"She was the best thing to ever happen to me… The only good thing I ever got in my life…" He swallowed thickly, shaking his head. "When she told me she loved me, I thought, 'Maybe this is it… Maybe this is when I stop being such a fuck-up…'" He licked his lips. "'Maybe I  can  be loved…'" He scoffed, shaking his head. "I started to believe it, too. That she was it for me… Be all, end all, y'know?" He scratched his neck, scoffing lightly. "She was loud and crazy and yeah, sometimes, she was selfish… But she was a better person than a lot of people I know… She helped me with Sarah, every day, and she never complained. Hell…" He laughed under his breath. "She wanted to load her up and take her to New York with us…" He half-smiled to himself, scrubbing a hand over his hair. "Because she loved her,  and  me, and she just…" His face fell, lips shaking. "You don't know what it's like… I was finally— I  finally  had somebody who just, who  got me and  loved  me and they didn't… There was no  judgment , she didn't talk down to me, and she wanted me to have everything. She—" He closed his eyes tight for a second. "I was gonna make it, y'know? I was gonna get outta here and we were gonna be happy in New York…" He nodded. "We were gonna have  all  of it…" He looked up at her fiercely. "And not my dad or my mom or anybody who thought I was just another Lima Loser was gonna stop us…"

"You still can," she tried, staring at him carefully.

His eyes fell, a faint, humorless smile turning up his lips. "You ever meet someone and just know… You just… You look at them and you  know  that they're going to break your heart some day…?" He stared at her. "I always thought she'd leave me…" He shrugged. "For Finn or Jesse or somebody like them… Somebody who fit her vision of Prince Charming… And then, when I finally figured out that she didn't want that, she wanted  me —" He pressed a hand hard against his chest. "I still… I still thought I'd lose her somehow… I just never thought it'd be like this…" His eyes brimmed with tears and one dribble down his cheek. "The thing is… I could handle it if she just left me… 'Cause I was expecting that. I was waiting for her to see that I was nothing, not worth it…" He shook his head. "But she didn't. She didn't leave me. She was  taken …" His teeth ground together. "And I want to  kill  him. If I ever get the chance… If I ever see Karofsky…" he trailed off.

Miss. Pillsbury shook her head, red hair bouncing.

"She was the only thing I ever did right… The only person who loved me as much as I loved them…" Eyebrows high, he stared at Miss. Pillsbury a long moment and then nodded. Standing from his seat, he wiped at his face and grabbed up his bag. "Thanks… For listening…" He walked out the door without looking back.

Emma sat in shock, staring at the place he used to be. She tried to take in everything that was said, but it felt like she'd just been handed they keys to a room of information she couldn't begin to process. She was blown away; not just by the person Puck had become before her very eyes, but the stark emotion in his face, mannerisms, and words. She could admit, if only to herself, that she'd labeled Puck a long time ago and kept him in that category in her mind for a long while after. And sure, her view of him did change some when he started spending more time with Rachel and working on his schooling and planning his future. But she had no idea of the depths of the boy who'd been hiding behind a shield of  jock and  badass  for far too long. And now that she got a real look at him, she feared it would be the one and only she ever got.

She was still staring when there was a knock at the door and Will stuck his head in. "Hey…" He smiled slightly. "I just saw Puck; he said he talked to you and got some stuff of his chest…"

Nodding faintly, she told him, "Yeah, I… We talked about his parents, his sister, even Rachel…"

"That's great!" He walked further in and took Puck's place in the chair in front of her desk. "You've made a breakthrough, Emma, be happy!"

Shaking her head, she raised her eyes to look at him. "Will… Have you ever been afraid that you would die and nobody would care?" she asked quietly, her voice heavy.

His brows furrowed, smile fading.

"Or  worse , if they did, they wouldn't' remember you  right…? " She played with the pencils in front of her, lining them up from tallest to shortest. "Like nobody ever really knew you, the  real  you…" She swallowed tightly, expression stricken. "Or maybe one did, but she died…"

Will stared at her. "Is that what you think it was? Why he finally talked to you?"

Her shoulders slumped, face falling rapidly. "If you could see his face when he talked about her…" She shook her head. "What if he  can't  be saved, Will?" She stared at him, eyes wide and tearful. "What then?"

Closing his eyes, Will let his head fall, chin hitting his chest, and for once, he let himself truly wonder if that was true.

../..

After school that day, Puck had Finn swing around the bank. Relief set in when he realized his plan really was coming together.

It was almost four when they finally got back to his place, idling just short of the yard.

Shifting in his seat, Finn tried asking him again, "You're sure you don't want to come to the party? I could pick you up early; we can hang out with the others…"

Puck hauled his bag up on his shoulder and shook his head. "Not interested."

With a frown, he nodded, waving goodbye as Puck closed the door and started up the lawn.

His mom's car was there again; she must've traded shifts with somebody so she could be home more.

When he walked inside, Sarah was watching TV upside down. Legs thrown over the back of the couch, she laid with her head dangling over the cushions, a Hannah Montana re-run playing.

The washer was going and he knew it was off-kilter because it was bumping against the wall. He'd wedged something under it to keep it from doing that but eventually it always came loose. Frowning, he crossed the room and through the kitchen to the laundry room to fix it. His ma was folding towels at the table; she glanced at him warily, tipping her head questioningly.

He didn't bother saying anything; instead, fixing the washer before leaving to his room again.

He didn't think anything of it when he first walked in; she'd done his laundry too. A basket of his folded clothes were on the floor by the bed.

But then he realized his bed was made. And his ma always did the sheets and blankets when she made beds.

Rachel's night gown wasn't there anymore. It wasn't spread out on her side of the bed, exactly where he always left it.

His heart thudded.

" No ."

He grabbed up the basket and dug through it, heart pounding in his ears.

When he felt the familiar soft fabric under his fingers, near the bottom of the basket, his knees gave out.

When he pulled it free, he stared at it, pink and soft. He rubbed his thumb over it and shook his head. When he raised it up to his face and breathed in, his heart broke. He couldn't smell her. It smelled like laundry detergent and Bounce but not her . Not  Rachel . He breathed harder and he balled the fabric up in his hands, but it was gone.

A sob welled up in his throat but burst out of him on a yell. He stood and threw the basket of clean, folded clothes across the room, where it slammed into his stereo and knocked it off its perch on his dresser. And when the crash and bang reverberated around the room, it actually made him feel a little better. So he threw his lamp next and he tore his basketball hoop off the wall. He ripped down his posters and he pulled every single sweater and jersey out of his closet. He toppled his dresser and he threw his bedside table across the room, where it made a dent in the wall before it crashed to the floor and splintered. He cleared off his desk of the small lamp and the cup of pens and pencils. He threw her jewelry and his notebook of song lyrics. He ripped down his curtains and punched a wall until his fist bled. It went on and on and on, chaos all around him, his throat burning and hoarse from his screaming.

Faintly, he could hear his mother, banging on his door, asking him if he was okay, what he was doing. And Sarah, crying.

But he didn't stop. He pulled the closet door off its hinges and threw that across his bed.

It felt like it went on for hours.

Until the door cracked open and then was shoved forcefully open. And Puck could hardly make Finn out as he stood there, just short of the devastation he'd made of his room.

Finn's eyes darted around, wide and shocked. "What—What the hell, man? What are you doing?"

But all he could see was his mother just over Finn's shoulder. "You did it on purpose!" he screamed, stabbing a finger through the air and rushing toward her, tripping over debris but catching himself before he fell. "You knew! You  knew! "

Finn caught him, wrapping him in his arms and keeping him from going any further. He banded himself around Puck, holding his arms down. He grunted against the struggle, but wouldn't let him go.

"You knew…" Puck cried, shaking his head.

Finn shook his head. "What happened?"

"It doesn't smell like her… She washed it… It doesn't… She knew…" he panted, his face red with exertion, veins sticking thickly from his neck.

"Okay… Okay…" Finn nodded.

And Puck shattered, his head dropping, his knees giving out. He slid to the floor, the weight of him bringing Finn down too.

"Okay." Finn held onto him as he knelt in a daze, eyes staring sightlessly at the floor.

Vaguely, reaching down beneath the mess he'd made, Puck's hand wrapped around the soft, pink nightgown, and he dragged it up into his lap, wrapping bloodied fingers around it tightly.

His mother ushered his sister away and Puck shook his head. "She knew."

../..

"I'm taking him with me," Finn said.

Puck felt sluggish, outside of his body. He could see his mom and Finn, he could hear them, but he couldn't react.

"I really think I should commit him to the hospital," his mom argued, fiddling with the Star of David around her neck. "He's out of control and he's suicidal…" She shook her head. "It's not safe, for him or us."

Finn frowned. "He wouldn't hurt you… He's just—He's depressed."

She glanced at Puck warily before looking back at Finn. "If he doesn't show any improvement by Sunday, I'm having him committed."

"Fine, I… I get it, I just… I think he'd be better if he was around friends… I just want him to be okay."

She sighed, but nodded.

"Thank you!"

Finn wandered back into the bedroom and knelt down next to Puck. "Hey, man, look… Your room's pretty much toast and I was thinking… You should come with me; we can hang with the gleeks… Kurt wants to see you anyway, right?"

Puck didn't say anything; he wasn't sure he could.

Carefully, Finn hauled him from the floor and took his arm over his shoulder for balance. "All right, let's go…"

In a daze, Puck walked with him, right out of his room and down the stairs and out of the house.

Finn dropped him in the cab of his truck and climbed in the other side. "Look, I know you said you didn't want to, but…" He put the truck into gear. "If I take you home,  my  mom will have you committed to the hospital…" He pulled away from the house. "So we're just gonna hang out at Santana's, okay? The others are helping set up anyway… Maybe… Maybe they can help…"

Puck never replied, instead he stared down at his hand, dry with blood, still clutching Rachel's nightgown.

Nobody could help, he thought silently.

Nobody.

Chapter Text

XV. 

Puck watched it all as if through a fog.

Santana waved a hand over Puck's face, staring at him with her head cocked, but got no response. "You're  sure  he didn't take anything…?" she asked, for the  third  time, her brow raised.

Finn rolled his eyes. "No. He just… He kept saying that his mom did it on purpose and she  knew …" He shook his head. "His room was  totaled …"

Sighing, she rested her hands on her hips. "Well, I dunno… Maybe Mrs. P got it right… Maybe he  should  be in the psych ward…"

Crossing his arms over his chest, Finn shook his head. "That's a last resort, Santana… He just…" He turned a sad frown toward his best friend. "He needs to be around people who care."

Rolling her eyes, she shook her head. "You wanna play babysitter, go ahead…" She looked past him and scowled. "Hummel, what the hell are you doing?"

"This place is an eyesore… Tell me, have your parents heard of  color coordination? "

"Where the hell did you even  find  those pillows?"

"Oh  these? " Kurt shrugged. "From home." He waved a hand around. "Doesn't it just liven up the place though?"

Santana turned a glare on Finn. "Reign in your brother, Hudson, or the fashionista is getting thrown in the pool…"

"Uh, Kurt, why don't you go see what Blaine's doing?" Finn suggested, half-smiling.

With a scoff and a twirl, Kurt marched off to find his boyfriend.

"How is he?" Mercedes asked, coming up from the left, Tina next to her. They glanced at the out-of-it Puck, sitting wide-eyed on the couch, not moving or speaking.

"Same," Finn sighed.

"Do you think he can hear us?" Tina wondered, narrowing her eyes and staring at him.

"Somebody should sit with him," Mercedes decided. Before Finn could reply, she said, "We'll do shifts. I can't yet. I'm on drinks." She waved a thumb beside her. "And Tina's getting snacks ready." Looking around the room at the others, she suddenly smiled. "Brittany."

"Brittany?" Finn asked skeptically.

"She's perfect," Tina assured.

Five minutes later, Puck had Brittany Pierce sitting next to him, her chin on his shoulder. "Can you hear me?" she asked against his ear. "Puck…? Are you in there?"

He didn't reply.

"Okay… If you can hear me, blink. And if you need help, wiggle your ears…" She smiled. "I always tell Lord Tubbington that and he shakes his tail to tell me he's okay." Brows furrowed, she added, "You don't have a tail. But I knew a guy who did and it moved and it was kind of cool but also weird."

He didn't so much as twitch.

"Sometimes, I wish I had a tail, but like, a  real  tail, with fur, like a cat… I think that'd be cool…" Getting no reply, she sighed. "One time, I told Rachel that Lord Tubbington was smoking again, and she told me that wasn't possible, so I showed her a whole bunch of pictures and videos of cats smoking and she  still  told me I was wrong…"

He flinched.

Her eyes fell. "I'm sorry… Tina said that you would be really upset and I shouldn't talk about Rachel but I know that if I lost someone I love, like if San died, I would want to talk about her a lot. I would want to be with her too. And I think that's what you want. I think you don't like it here without Rachel and you just want to be where she is." She stared at him searchingly. "And I'll be really sad if you do. I'll really miss you and so will Santana. She'll say she won't, but she will. 'Cause she said she didn't really like Rachel, but she cried when she died, and one day she went to see her at the cemetery and she apologized to her… For being really mean to her and calling her all those names and stuff…" She nodded. "I'm really sorry Rachel died, Puck… But I want you to know that it's okay… I'll take care of Santana and I'll make sure all the other gleeks know that you're happy because you're with her, okay?"

He blinked.

With a faint smile, she turned her head over onto his shoulder. "Tell her I said hi."

../..

"Brittany's a very talented dancer," Rachel told him, taking her earrings out as she stood by his dresser.

Puck volleyed a ball in the air and then caught it. "Yeah, she's cool."

"Do you think she'll follow that passion?"

He shrugged, shifting up to his elbows. "I dunno. Maybe."

"Maybe her and Santana will run away to Los Angeles together and take up modeling and dancing…" She smiled wistfully. "What a romantic story that would make for their biographies later…" She quirked her head. "It'll look good in mine when I write about my old glee club…"

Puck snorted. "You really think they're that talented?"

Nodding, she circled the bed to take a seat next to him. "Noah, I think everyone in our club is that talented…" She looked away and then amended, "Maybe not as   talented as  we  are, but still…"

He smirked, amused. "Yeah?"

"Of course." She shifted to sit against the headboard of the bed and trailed her fingers through his 'hawk. "Santana might be abrasive and rude, but she's beautiful and her voice is fantastic…" She waved a hand. "She might not be my equal on a Broadway stage, but I wouldn't be surprised to see her on a CD someday." She nodded. "And Brittany?" With a scoff, she wiggled down and rested her head on his shoulder. "The fluidity of her movements, the confidence she has when she dances…" She smiled. "That talent is raw and beautiful… They'll make a fantastic duo."

"Hm." Puck stroked her hair back from her face. "Well I don't care where they go or what they do…" He turned her over onto her back and slid in between her legs. "Long as we're in New York, making a fantastic duo ourselves…"

She grinned, reaching up drag her fingertips down the side of his face. "Absolutely."

../..

When Santana came by to grab Brittany up, Tina took her place.

Tina didn't sit as close, but she did reach out and put her hand on his.

"I know we didn't really talk much, but I still consider you my friend. And I liked Rachel, for the most part." Her eyes darted away. "We didn't always get along, but I think that's normal in friendships. Things aren't always easy and people don't always like each other." She nodded. "I respected Rachel. She was talented and she had a dream she always fought for it." She looked up at him. "I  admired  her. And I hope that I can be even  half  as determined as she was."

Puck didn't reply, but Tina didn't need him to. She leaned back against the couch. "You don't have to talk. I'm just going to share a few memories of her with you, okay?" She stared at him. "And if you want me to stop, just squeeze my hand."

When he didn't, she began telling her stories, pausing to laugh or shake her head here or there.

And Puck never squeezed.

../..

"Tina was very outspoken today in glee club…" Rachel said, perched at the end of the truck bench seat, playing with his radio. "It's nice, you know?" She wrinkled her nose. "Remember when she had a stutter and hardly ever contributed to the conversation?"

Puck shrugged. "Yeah, wasn't that fake?"

Rachel waved a dismissive hand. "It's nice is all I'm saying… I wonder, if she'd never been in glee, would she still be like that?" She raised a brow at him. "See? I told you the arts were changing lives."

He grinned and hugged her up close to his side. "First hand experience, babe."

Smiling brightly, she rested her head on his shoulder. "When our children one day ask us what brought us together, I'm telling them music."

He rolled his eyes. "I'm telling them you couldn't resist my charm."

With a light laugh, she shrugged. "We'll both be right." 

../..

People were starting to filter in when Mercedes replaced Tina.

"Okay, White Bread, you're starting to worry me…" With a huff, she sat down on the edge of the couch, turned so she could face him, her face tight with concern and a little frustration. "I miss her too. Me, Kurt, heck,  all  of us miss her…" She nodded. "And we know,  know, that you miss her differently… I know that you guys were… You were  special …" She half-smiled before it faded away. "But Puck, this, what you're doing…" She shook her head. "It's not okay. Not for you or for any of us…" She reached out to squeeze his shoulder. "We just want you to be okay."

He didn't move.

"Kurt said you've given up…" She stared at him, her face hard with determination. "Well listen up, because we  haven't given up on you…" She squeezed his shoulder. "And we  won't ."

../..

"Do you think Mercedes' voice is better than mine?" Rachel worried, peering up at him, her brows furrowed.

"The hell?" He frowned. "Where's this coming from?"

"Well, when she was singing that song earlier, it occurred to me… I mean—" She rolled her eyes. "I always knew Mercedes was talented, but I always just assumed she was a little bit less talented than me…" She chewed her lip. "I wish Mercedes the best in anything she does, I  truly  do… But, and I'm sure this makes me a bad person, but I just need to know that if it came down to me and her, I would win, you know? That if Broadway ever came looking for its leading lady and it was me against Mercedes, I would be the winner…" She frowned. "Is that wrong?"

"Babe, I don't think Mercedes is gonna try and take Broadway from you… Pretty sure she's got her sights on a record deal and a Grammy."

She nodded. "I know… And I fully agree that she deserves those…" She frowned. "It just scares me… Even in Lima, Ohio, there are people that are so close to overshadowing me and my talent… What if there are even more Mercedes Jones in New York?" She sighed. "What am I even  saying?  Of course there are!" She threw her hands up. "It's New York, the city of dreams!" She shook her head. "One day, I'm going to be sitting in my tiny apartment and I'm going to see Mercedes on my TV and she's going to be  hosting  the Grammy's and I… I'll still be desperately clinging to a dream that will  never  happen…"

"Where the hell am I?" he wondered.

She waved at him dismissively. "You've obviously moved on to somebody who has an actual chance of making it in New York, Noah. You have your club open and the opening act is this beautiful songstress that mesmerizes you every time she opens her mouth!" she cried.

He raised a brow. "Well if that's true, then  you're  on the mic." He shrugged. "Rachel, listen…" He took her hand in his and squeezed. "Yeah, Mercedes is talented.  Crazy  talented…" He stared at her searchingly. "But she's no Rachel Berry."

She smiled slowly, hopefully. "You think?"

He grinned, chucking her chin. "I know." He raised her hand and kissed her knuckles. "Jones can have the Grammy's… You'll get Broadway and as many Tony's as they can hand out!"

Giggling excitedly, she nodded. "You're right."

"Hell yeah I am."

Rachel's face softened. "What would I do without you to talk me down?"

"Get even more crazy," he said, shrugging.

"Noah!" She slapped his arm lightly.

He laughed, kissing her frowning lips until she smiled.

../..

The party was in full swing; people were tripping over furniture, singing off tune to the lame music Santana had pumping out of her stereo, and snacks and red plastic cups littered the floor.

The couples were grinding or making out in random corners. There was a game of beer pong going on in the kitchen. Santana was shouting at people to keep their clothes on if they were going to use the pool or the hot tub.

Mercedes, Tina and Brittany were sitting together on a love seat laughing and talking.

Sam sat next to Puck, shifting awkwardly, red cup in hand.

He tried starting a conversation a few times, but eventually just trailed off.

Finally, he asked, "You, uh, wanna drink or something?"

Puck didn't reply.

He nodded awkwardly. "I'll just… Get you something…" He climbed off the couch. "Be right back." He walked off to the kitchen.

../..

"So?" she asked, fairly bouncing down the stairs. "What do you think?" She twirled, showing off her long tanned legs that led down from her tight, blue and white star shorts. 

Puck choked on his drink. She had a strapless red and gold top on with a gold belt and cuffs and finally a pair of red boots. He blinked and then muttered, "Thank you J-Dawg…"

Laughing, Rachel rolled her eyes. "No, silly, this is my costume…" She showed him her lasso. "I'm Wonder Woman, of course."

He dragged a hand over his mouth. "Whoever you are, I like you."

Chuckling, she walked over to him. "Obviously I'll be reusing this outfit. But, until then…" She hooked her lasso to her belt. "Sam will be here soon to pick me up."

"Wait, what?" His eyes darted around. "You are so  not  going out with Sam in—in  that! "

She frowned. "You just said you liked it!"

"Yeah, in a take-it-off-you-with-my- teeth  kind of way…" He shook his head. "You can't go out with another dude in that! You look like a hot super hero!"

"I  am  a hot superhero." She pursed her lips at him. "And I'm going out with Sam! I promised him I'd go to comic con and since Quinn can't, or  won't  go, I'm his last resort." She shrugged. "Besides, I hear there's an Avatar convention and I'm determined to get myself a leading role in Avatar on Ice!" She smiled at him gleefully.

"Babe, I'm all for you in blue paint, seriously, but there's a naked leg to covered body parts ratio that you just aren't getting here…" He shrugged. "What's up with Wonder Woman anyway, she got a thing against pants?"

Rachel pouted. "But you  love  my legs!"

"I do." He nodded as he walked toward her. "I love them enough to want them all to myself." 

Scoffing, she shook her head. "Noah…" She reached out to take his hand and squeezed. "Do you remember when we had that conversation about 'caveman tendencies'?"

He frowned.

"This is one of those moments…" Patting his shoulder, she stared up at him and said seriously, "Now, I love you and I promise you will get to spend a lot of time taking all manner of my clothing off with your teeth, but that's later. Right now, I'm asserting my independence and going out with Sam on a completely platonic outing."

A knock at the door could be heard then and Puck sighed, turning and yanking it open. His bad mood went away completely as he laughed thickly at finding one of his closet friends on the other side wearing  wings . "Holy shit, dude, what the hell are you wearing?" He pressed a fist to his mouth as he laughed. 

"Noah!" Rachel stomped past him, frowning. "Sam is obviously Warrior Angel! Don't make fun!"

With a flushed face, Sam fidgeted awkwardly. "He's from the X-Men…"

"I'm ready to go," she told him, before reaching around and grabbing up her purse. "Noah, I'll be back in a few hours," she assured. "Sarah's going to be at Becky's until two and then she'll need you to pick her up. I love you." She reached up on her tiptoes to kiss him. "Have a good day. I'll see you later." She waved as she walked off, her legs looking even more tempting.

"I still think Wonder Woman should update the outfit with some pants… Or a trench coat or something," he shouted after her.

Smiling, she waved back at him. 



Quinn filled up the empty space her boyfriend left behind. She clasped her hands in her lap, fiddled with her fingers a long moment, and darted her eyes away.

"You know, I… I thought of all these things I was going to say on my way over…" She shook her head, smiling faintly. "I actually came up with a speech and everything. It was going to be very uplifting…" She sucked her teeth, brows hiked. "And now I can't remember a word of it…"

When he said nothing, she stared at his side profile searchingly.

"There's so much I want to say… So many things that  should  be said…" She shook her head. "Like, 'please don't kill yourself.' Even though I think that should be pretty obvious by now…" Licking her lips, she turned her eyes away, brows furrowed. "But it's not, is it…? Because as much as I've ignored it, or maybe even just never noticed… You really don't know how much you mean to other people… How much they care about you…" She closed her eyes a moment and took a deep breath. "I know… Rachel was your be all, end all, Puck… And I don't— I  wouldn't  change that… Because having her,  loving  her, it's honestly made you into the best version of yourself… You—You're kinder and happier and you just… You  try  more… To be yourself, I guess. And to get out of Lima." She nodded. "So I wouldn't change what you have with Rachel. I wouldn't want to take that away from you. But I am going to ask that you… You just, for a minute, ask yourself… if we deserve to lose  you  too."

She stared at him, lips pursed. "And maybe that's selfish." She shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe… Maybe it really is selfish to ask you to stay so we won't miss you… Or maybe it's selfish of you to go, I don't…" She sighed, her shoulders falling. "I have no room to judge…"

Reaching out, she braced a hand on his forearm. "What I do know is that Finn is a mess worrying about you… That your little sister will be  lost  without you… That the whole glee club is already broken and I'm not sure they can take another blow… And I…" She exhaled long and heavy. "Look, Puck, we haven't had the best track record. Our history is  difficult and  painful,  but it wasn't all bad. We've always been honest with each other. So I'll be honest with you now…" Raising her chin, she told him seriously, "You are going to hurt for a very long time. It will not get better any time soon. You might have brief moments of comfort, of hope, and they will probably be what keep you going. It will not be easy. She won't  ever come back. There is nobody else in this world like her and I cannot sincerely say I know if you'll ever love like this again… But your friends and your family and  I … will be there, every day, to pick you back up and hold you together… You might not always like us, you might not always appreciate it, but there it is…" She blinked burning, tearful eyes. "So if you have a choice to make, I just want you to walk into it with  all  of the facts, okay?" She reached up and rested her hand on his shoulder. "Do us all a favor and don't do anything  stupid …" And then, thinking it might soothe him, she did what she'd seen Rachel do many times in the past. She dragged her fingers down the nape of Puck's neck, where his tail had grown out, scrubbed her fingers through his hair.

Puck's eyes fell closed, a soft sight escaping him and his shoulders relaxing.



"Noah…?"

"Hm?" Puck was half asleep, his eyes closed, and the warmth of Rachel's naked body curled up into his was just making him more sleepy.

"Do you think…?" She paused, doubting herself.

His eyes opened, blinking a few times against exhaustion. "What?"

"Was… Is…" She huffed at herself in annoyance. "Do you think Quinn i-is prettier than me?"

His brows furrowed. "Huh?"

"I just… I was thinking…" She chewed her lip. "She's so…  beautiful  and I'm so…" Her brows furrowed. "Average…" She stared at him searchingly. "You loved her once. Enough to hurt your own best friend…" She shook her head. "And I—I'm bossy and loud and by comparison, I mean, my  looks  are subpar at best and—"

"Shut up," he interrupted.

Her mouth was agape. "Noah! You can't—"

"No, just—" He covered her mouth. "I can't even…" He shook his head. "Are you serious right now?"

Doe eyes stared back at him, sad and worried and full of insecurity .

"Babe…" He slid his hand away from her mouth and down her face, folding his fingers under her ear and back around her neck, his thumb stroking along her hammering pulse. "You're gorgeous."

She frowned doubtfully.

"No, just, listen to me…" He licked his lips. "Quinn is beautiful. She—She's perfect in that weird angelic kind of way." He shrugged.

Rachel's eyes fell. 

"But she's not  you ." He stared at her meaningfully. "I wouldn't trade one of you for a  dozen  perfect Quinn's." He shook his head. "Rach, you have so much more going on… You got those big brown eyes and those lips that are so pink…" His thumb pressed up against her jaw and she lifted her eyes to look at him. "Even your eyelashes are pretty," he told her, half-grinning.

Her lips quirked slightly.

"I love everything around you… Your shiny hair, your soft skin, you cute butt…" He dragged his hand down her bare back and cupped her butt for emphasis. "Your killer legs and your tiny little feet…" He pressed his chest into hers and felt her nipples pebble against him. "How your boobs fit in my hand and your nose always bumps into mine…" He pressed a kiss to her cheek and down her chin. He nuzzled his face against her neck and dragged his teeth over her collar bone. "But it's not all looks, y'know?" He pressed her back into the bed and slid between her legs, hitching them up onto his hips. "'Cause your body is awesome and your face is beautiful…" He spread his hands out along her waist and slid them up, cupping each of her breasts and rubbing his thumbs over her nipples. "But you heart…" He settled a hand over her chest. "How much you care, about me and Sarah, about your dads, and the whole glee club, hell, even strangers… That's the most beautiful thing about you…" He dropped his head and pressed a kiss to where her heart lay. "And I don't want anybody else… I  never  want anybody else…" He looked into her eyes sincerely. "I want these legs around my waist…" He squeezed her thigh, skimming his fingers down the underside until she bit into her lip. "And these cute hands in mine…" He found one and kissed the palm. "I want these boobs and these hips and your lips—" He kissed her mouth slowly before bumping his nose into hers and smiling. "And this very Jewish, very awesome, nose…" He laid his body down flat on top of hers. "And this heart, right here, against mine… the whole rest of my life…" He slipped his hand up around her shoulder and squeezed. "All right?"

Swallowing tightly, she licked her trembling lips and nodded. "Okay," she breathed. She slid her arms around his back and pressed her fingers into his shoulder blades. "I'm sorry…" She shook her head. "I just—I let all those old fears bubble up and sometimes I just… I wonder what you want with me. Why you'd ever want to be with me?"

He laughed slightly, shaking his head. "Yeah, well, I do the same thing."

Her brows furrowed. "You shouldn't." She dragged a hand down his face. "You're everything I want and I don't ever plan on losing you."

"S'mutual."

Smiling brightly, she reached back and dragged her fingers down the tail of his 'hawk in that adoring way she always did. As a silent sign of recognition, of love and comfort. "I love you, Noah."



Puck's eyes darted open and he suddenly yanked himself up off the couch, a hand reaching back to cover his neck. Though slightly dizzy at the jarred movement, he blinked wildly and shook his head.

Quinn stared up at him in surprise, her hand still raised up and poised.

Jaw ticking he, stared at her darkly. "You're not her," he said, and not waiting for a reply, he turned and walked off through the crowd, shoving past people, not caring who they were.

He grabbed a beer off a counter and unscrewed the cap as he climbed the stairs two at a time to reach the second floor of Santana's house.

All of the bedrooms were occupied and the bathroom had a line six people long. But he needed to think and he needed to stop feeling like what just happened, as innocent as it obviously was, was a betrayal of some kind.

The door to the attic was unlocked.

Puck remembered being fifteen and sneaking up there with Santana when she wanted to hook up and liked variety, changing up the scenery often. There wasn't a whole lot of space, much of it filled with boxes and old junk. Cobwebs and dust covered most everything, making it obvious how rarely anybody used it. When he walked up the creaky stairs, he found it all just about the same. It was dark and musty and the window opened right onto the roof. He decided to climb out more because he needed the fresh air than anything.

As he sat high above, a cold beer chilling his hand where it rested on his upturned knee, he lifted his head back and stared at the starry night sky. And he wondered how many times he and Rachel had done that, sprawled out in the back of his truck, a scratchy old blanket for warmth, counting all the stars in the sky or listening to her wax poetic about constellations and the stories behind them. He remembered how they'd park down by the lake for privacy in the summer, but they could hardly ever see the stars through the tree branches. They'd drink slushees and make out and, when it was too hot to bear, strip down and go skinny dipping. But sometimes, she just wanted to stare at the stars, so he'd drive up to the cliff overlooking the lake and she would tell him how amazing it was that the people in New York could see the same stars. She'd pinch him if he mentioned how it was probably too bright or the pollution might make that difficult. And she'd go on to say that one day they would be in New York and they would look up at that sky and they would remember how it began, who they were once upon a time, and how far they'd come from their humble beginnings. He wasn't sure Rachel had ever been humble in her life, but whatever.

Puck knocked the bottle back and took a long drag of his beer. It was bitter on his tongue and the label was already peeling beneath his palm from all the condensation.

The noise of the party drew his attention and he looked down to see the backyard full of people. Lights were strung up on the fence and in the tree, and the in-ground blue glowed bright and blue. Groups of people were dancing or talking, swimming or making out in the hot tub. He spotted Finn, Sam and Mike all together, laughing, knocking beer bottles together in cheers. He thought about how easy it seemed for them to just get back to basics, to normal. Resentment welled. One day they were all going to look back and think of her and they would spare a moment to be sad, to remember that big dreamer, Rachel Berry, and how her life ended too soon. But then they would move on and she would be forgotten and that would be that. Puck couldn't imagine himself doing that. He couldn't imagine Rachel ever being a second thought, or a third or fourth, or completely forgotten for days or months or years. She was always on his mind. Everywhere he looked, he expected to see her. Every time he spoke, he expected to hear her. Every time he woke up, he expected her to be right there next to him. And every time she wasn't, he hurt a little more. He died a little more.

"Whoa, Puckerman's gonna take a nose dive!" somebody yelled.

Puck rolled his eyes before looking down to see a crowd had formed. Apparently sitting on a roof wasn't his best idea for privacy.

Finn, Sam and Mike hurried forward to stare up at him with wide, fearful expressions.

"Hey, man, why don't you come down?" Finn asked.

"Are you serious?" Puck should his head and shoved to his feet. "You really think I'd—" He slipped, and the sloped roof didn't help much as he slid nearly to the very edge.

The crowd below gasped.

Finn pressed his hands to the back of his head, his eyes wide. "Jesus…"

Great. Now they really did think he was gonna jump. And please, it was two stories; at best he would break a leg or sprain something.

And because Finn was, well,  Finn , he decided the best way to get through to his suicidal best friend was through song.

Stepping forward, Finn ignored the crowd and broke into a familiar Third Eye Blind song.

I wish you would step back from that ledge, my friend…
You could cut ties with all the lies, that you've been living in,
And if you do not want to see me again,
I would understand…
I would understand…


Pressing a hand to his chest, he belted,

The angry boy, a bit too insane,
Icing over a secret pain,
You know you don't belong…


Nodding, Sam jumped in,

You're the first to fight,
You're way too loud,
You're the flash of light on a burial shroud…
I know something's wrong…


Mike raised his head earnestly and joined them,

Well, everyone I know has got a reason,
To say…
Put the past away…


Harmonizing, they sang,

Wish you would—

Puck threw his beer bottle at them.

Unfortunately, they ducked. Fortunately, they stopped singing.

Puck rested his arms on his upturned knees and stared at them. "That was the gayest, bromancy thing I've ever seen you guys do…"

Shuffling now, they stared back at him awkwardly.

Ignoring how they were still cringing, while the rest were just watching in avid fascination, Puck stood up and walked across the roof a bit before hopping down over the edge fearlessly, landing on the balcony outside of his ex-hook up's bedroom. Plenty of times before he'd changed his old bad boy ways, he'd had to sneak in or out of Santana's room. Climbing over the rail, he climbed down the lattice, and only halfway down, he hopped onto the grass below. Brushing his hands off, he crossed the yard to the waiting glee dudes, shaking his head as he went. "You really think I'd give all these douches a show like that?" he scoffed.

Finn reached for him and squeezed his shoulder. "You really scared me, man."

Puck's jaw ticked. "Yeah, well, don't get sentimental. Public isn't my thing."

Frowning, Finn opened his mouth to argue more, but they heard yelling behind them.

As a group, they all turned to see what was happening. Inside the house, through the open sliding glass door, they could see Santana screaming Spanish expletives in somebody's face, waving her hands around, armful of bangles jangling on her wrist, and jumping as if to attack while somebody just barely held her restrained.

At first, Puck thought it was just Santana being Santana. Especially when she'd been drinking, the Latina could get emotional over stupid shit and start fights just because she was bored.

But then, he noticed the jacket.

The red and white Letterman's jacket.

And then the guy next to him, Azimio.
Suddenly Puck had tunnel vision, focused on none other than David Karofsky.

He heard his heart pounding in his ears, felt his fingers curl into fists, and his every muscle tense in reaction.

"Is that—?" Finn started.

But Puck was already off. He was running across the lawn so fast nobody had a chance to even reach for him.

"Puck, no!  Shit . Stop! S-Somebody stop him!"

Nobody was stupid enough to try.

Puck was inside the house and racing toward the footballer, who was sputtering apologies, before he even had a chance to see him coming.

"Oh, shit," somebody called, right before Puck reared a fist back and smashed it into the side of Karofsky's face.

The larger boy stumbled back.

"Holy!" Azimio yelled.

Grabbing him by his shirt, Puck shoved Karofsky back, until he tripped over his feet and fell onto his back, arms swinging out to knock beer and food from off the counter in the kitchen. His back met with the tile floor hard and he blinked rapidly only to stare fearfully up at a looming Noah Puckerman.

Leaning over him, gripping him by his shirt and lifting his head up, Puck slammed one huge fist down into Karofsky's face.

The people around them gasped, taking a giant step back.

Puck kept swinging.

He could feel it as his fist was shattering Karofsky's nose, the boy's blood coating his knuckles. He could feel it as Karfosky's lip split open, whether from the blows or his lips tearing on his own teeth, Puck wasn't sure. What he did know was that it felt good. Adrenaline pumped hard through him, reminding him of when he was younger and he'd fight for fighting's sake. It reminded him of his old Fight Club and how he'd beat the living shit out of somebody because it made another day bearable. It made knowing that his dad cut and ran and his ma left him and Quinn didn't want him to the dad of her baby, all a little less painful.

But this wasn't just anybody. It wasn't some random guy who needed that same adrenaline rush to get by. This was Karofsky. The guy who'd single-handedly destroyed Puck's whole future. Who took Rachel's life away from her and put an end to every dream, every plan, the two of them had together. The guy who shoved Rachel down the stairs to crack her skull open. And now Puck wanted  his  blood. He wanted it to halo around Karofsky's head like it had Rachel's. He wanted him to stare up with those dead, dark, lifeless eyes just like Rachel had. Unmoving. Not breathing. Limp. All her dreams, her passion, her everything, just drained away.

"Jesus Christ! Somebody stop him!"

"He going's to  kill  him!"

"What the hell, Azimio, why would you bring him here?" Finn shouted.

"I-I-I didn't think Puckerman would be here! He didn't  mean  to hurt Berry! It was an accident!"

"You brought that  asesino  to  my  house and thought I would welcome him?" Santana screamed, pointing at herself angrily. "He killed my  friend! Eres estupido? "

"I just—He was falling apart. He thought everybody hated him. I just wanted to help him. I thought he needed to let loose. I didn't—It was all my idea. He didn't want to come!"

"Murdering son of a motherfucking bitch," Puck spat, his hand furling around Karofsky's throat, fingers pressing hard against his jugular until he couldn't breathe.

David choked, his face turning a violent shade of red beneath the blood that pooled around his nose and in his eyes and dripped down into his hair and onto the floor.

"It feel good, huh?" he shouted, grabbing him by his shirt only to pick him up and slam him back down on the ground, his head ricocheting off the floor. "So damn scared you had to push her—down—the fucking—stairs?" He slammed him back down with each pause.

Puck could hardly see him through the tears clouding his eyes. His teeth were clenched so tightly, pain was shooting up his jaw.

"She was small.  Tiny . The fuck did she  ever  do to you?"

Karofsky shook his head, his mouth split open and blood dribbling out the corner.

Puck let up on his throat. "Give me one good reason," he snarled, staring at him. "Why you should live when she can't."

"Puck… You need to stop," Finn told him, reaching for his shoulder.

Puck shrugged him off. "Why?" He shook his head down at Karofsky. "One reason."

"You're gonna  kill  him," Sam tried.

David blinked against the blood in his eyes and opened his trembling mouth. "I don't…" Tears filled his eyes and watery red lines slid down the sides of his face. "I killed her. I—I'm so… I'm so sorry…" He reached out, his hand furling in Puck's shirt. "I never meant to. I— I just needed her to stop talking. I needed her to stop saying it…" He inhaled choppy breaths. "I was so scared she'd say it. I— I wasn't thinking. I didn't know how close th-the edge was.  I didn't ." He inhaled shakily. "I didn't mean to hurt her. I'm so sorry… Please…" He closed his eyes. "I deserve it. I—I know. Okay? I already tried. I… There were so many pills. I just… I needed to stop—stop seeing her. Everywhere. She—She was everywhere I looked. She wouldn't leave me alone. I just… I  killed  her. It was an accident, but I killed her," he cried. "And I can never take it back." He opened his eyes to stare up at Puck. "Please," he begged, his split lip spitting out blood. "Do it. Kill me. I don't… I don't want to be here anymore."

Puck stared at him a long moment. At the man he'd hated for what felt like forever. A livid, angry, vivid rage had built up inside him, just waiting to be released on this one person, slowly eating away at who he'd become. He'd planned it, a hundred times over, all the ways he would make Karofsky hurt; make him beg for his life; make him regret ever laying one single finger on Rachel. But as he stared down at the broken boy, bleeding and sobbing on Santana's floor, very obviously shattered from what he'd done, Puck felt it all fade away. He let Karofsky go and he stood up. Lying at his feet was a person who would never forget what they did. Who would forever see Rachel Berry everywhere they went. Tormented until the day they died about the life they cut short by their own hands.

His face was a mess; his nose was broken and he was going to need a number of stitches. The pressure of Puck's hand on his throat was already showing bruising. But that would all heal. The emotional scarring, and Puck had a pretty extensive knowledge of it, would last a lifetime.

Stoically, Puck shook his head. "I hope you live a long life, Karofsky…" he said through clenched teeth. "I hope you hear her voice, every day, asking you why you hurt her… I hope you see her face every time you close your eyes… And I hope you regret it." He shook his head. "I hope it makes you hurt. I hope it ruins your whole fucking life until one day you're as dead inside as I am… And even then, I hope you live with it. 'Til you're old and alone and desperate to not feel it anymore…"

Whimpering, Karofsky turned over onto his side and curled into himself.

Eyes drifting away from the sight, Puck stared at Finn a long second and then turned on his heel to walk out.

He spotted Kurt standing next to Blaine, his hands gripped tight and pressed to his chest, while Blaine's arm was around him comfortingly. Kurt's eyes were red rimmed and his face a stark, pale white. He stared at Puck a long second before nodding at him.

And as he walked past him, Puck said simply, "Goodbye."

Breath hitching, Kurt turned and buried his face in Blaine's neck, his shoulders shaking as he cried.

Puck walked right out of the house without pause, the crowd parting for him easily, fearfully.

He stopped at Finn's truck, only to reach inside and grab up Rachel's nightgown. Hooking it around his neck, he closed the door and started walking down the street. Hands stuffed in his pockets, he tipped his head back and stared up at the sky, a few silent tears making their way out of the corner of his eyes. "I'm sorry," he breathed. "I know you hate it when I fight."

She didn't answer.

../..

The walk home seemed to take forever. Lima Heights Adjacent was practically on the other side of town. He was exhausted, mentally and physically, when he finally walked up his lawn to his dark, empty house.

Puck wasn't surprised to find the front door locked. Now that he was a little more lucid, he knew his ma either wouldn't expect him to come home or probably hoped he would take it as a sign to stay at Finn's. Instead, he climbed in through a window that never locked properly and climbed silently upstairs. Bypassing his room, he walked straight into the bathroom, flicking the light on and bee-lining it for the sink. He stared at his hands where the blood had dried and curled his lip. Turning the taps, he squeezed some hand soap into his palms and rubbed them together as he slid them under the scalding hot spray. He stared long and hard at the tinted pink water that slipped down the drain. Raising his head, he looked at himself in the mirror, only to find some blood on his face too, splattered on his cheek. He cupped his hands to fill with water and scrubbed it away. But the boy staring back at him still looked wrong. His eyes were hollow and empty, his face sallow and tired. Gone was  Puck , the badass, and gone too was Noah. He didn't know who that was; that person staring back at him.

Turning off the taps, he grabbed up a loose towel and wiped it over his face, pausing with his head buried in the cotton and letting out a long, heavy sigh. Finally tossing it away, he left the bathroom and walked into his room, closing the door behind him so his ma would hopefully overlook his being back. Not bothering to turn on the light, he walked straight to his bed, climbing over the debris he'd left behind, and threw himself back on his sideways mattress. Head on his pillow, he dug Rachel's nightgown out from behind his head and laid it out next to him.

He felt empty again. Maybe even more so now that he didn't have a vengeance against Karofsky to hold him up. Nothing had gone the way he planned. His whole damn life never went the way he wanted it to. It was just one long line of clusterfucks. Repeat, repeat, repeat. He'd gain an inch, just a small slice of happiness, and then he'd have twice as much taken away.

He pressed a hand to his face, burying his fingers against his eyes.

When he inhaled sharply, feeling like he was going to cry, he paused.

It—It smelled like her.

Her perfume.

Did he break it when he was trashing his room?

But then… Then there was a hand sliding up his chest.

For just a second, just a blind, desperate, hopeful second, he wondered if maybe it was her.

But when he opened his eyes, Santana was staring back at him. "Nice digs," she said in greeting, casting her eyes around his dark room. "Nearly broke my neck walking in here."

He shoved up to his elbows and frowned. "How'd you get in?"

She scoffed. "That window  still  doesn't lock…" She smirked slowly. "I can't even  count  how many times I snuck in here without your mom catching me…" She shook her head. "Y'know… Before the midget got her claws in you…"

"And you switched teams." He plucked her hand off him and tossed it away, throwing his legs over the edge of the bed to sit up. "What d'you want?"

Shrugging, she moved up to her knees and leaned into his back. "You were pretty upset tonight…" She wrapped her arms around him. "People were worried you might hurt yourself…"

His jaw ticked. "So?"

She scoffed, rolling her eyes. "Don't play dumb, Puck." She drew her hand down his chest. "Look, we both know how this goes…" She slid around him, seating herself in his lap. "You're hurting and I can make you feel better…" She tipped her head, flicking her hair over her shoulder, and stared down at him through long, dark lashes. "You remember when papa-Puckerman rolled back into town and you were all broken up about it?" She dragged a finger along his jaw. "Didn't San make you feel better?"

He caught her wrist and threw her hand off. "That was different."

"Right." She snorted. "Because you were still Puck then." Her finger trailed down his chest. "Back when you still had  balls ."

His lip curled. "Back when you still  liked  balls."

"Touché." She shrugged. "Consider it a throwback to the old us…"

"What about Brittany?"

Santana leaned in close, pressing her body to his. "Her idea," she murmured. "She doesn't like it when people she cares about are hurting… And she knows a little tender, loving, Santana can do you good…" Her lips curled.

He stared at her, in her pink dress, smelling faintly of—

His teeth clenched. "Is that Rachel's perfume?"

She glanced at him. "Found it on the floor while I was waiting for you…" She curled her fingers around the edge of his shirt. "C'mon, Puck… I won't even say anything if you call me her name…" She fanned her hand out over his stomach. "Just let San make it better…"

For a moment, he let himself close his eyes. He let her lips press against his, though his mouth never moved or opened to reciprocate. He let her hands wander beneath his shirt and around his back. He let her wiggle her familiar curves against him. He thought maybe, if he just kept breathing in that smell, he might be able to convince himself that she was Rachel. It was wrong, seriously fucking wrong. But he wanted to feel again. Even just a little bit. Even for just a second.

Santana's hair was dark and soft. Her skin was tanned. She was wearing pink. The room was dark enough he might not even have to see her properly. And that smell—God, he remembered that scent all over Rachel's skin. Breathing it in when he pressed his lips to every inch of her body.

"You're sure about this?" Puck asked again, staring at her searchingly.

Rachel smiled up at him. "Yes!" She laughed lightly. "Honestly, I'm starting to think you're worried more about my virginity than I am."

Puck sat back on his haunches. "I don't want you to regret this…" He shook his head. "You said you wanted to wait for twenty five."

"And that was before…" She reached for him, furling her fingers around his shirt. "Noah… I love you." As he opened his mouth to argue, she placed a finger over his lips. "This isn't a gift. It's not because I want to hold on to you and I'm afraid not having sex will hurt our relationship. It isn't because there are any number of girls or women that you've slept with who are probably just waiting for you to fall back into old habits and leave me." She cupped his face in her hands. "This is because I'm ready. I'm ready to have sex and I want it to be with you. I want to know what it feels like to have everything with you. I want to know what it feels like to have your lips on my skin. What it's like to have nothing between us, no barriers, no  clothes ." She shrugged her shoulders high. "I want to feel  all  of you…" A flush tinted her face. "And I might not be good at it or—or I might get weird and awkward and uncomfortable, but Noah…" She smiled. "I want this. I want it now. And when we're twenty five and we've had seven years of learning each other, I hope it's just as, if not more, amazing."

He stared up at her, his eyes wide, his brows hiked. "More," he told her thickly. "We'll be even more amazing."

She grinned. "As if it's even possible," she joked, trailing her fingers through his 'hawk.

Puck squeezed her hips. "You change your mind, say no… I'll stop."

She pressed her forehead to his. "I know." Slanting her lips over his, she kissed him once, twice, and then murmured, "But I have a feeling I won't want to stop. "

Santana dragged his shirt off and tossed it away over her shoulder. "I forgot how hard your body was… Brittany's is all soft."

"Don't talk," he said, squeezing his eyes tighter.

"You know the best way to shut me up," she replied, pressing her mouth to his.

Puck felt his stomach twist.

Puck was pretty happy to just keep kissing her. Rachel had a way of biting him whenever she was excited that always made him smile. 

She pressed a hand to his chest to push him back and as he leaned away, he waited expectantly for her to tell him she'd changed her mind.

Instead, she grabbed up the bottom of her shirt and tugged it up and over her head. 

His eyes widened. She wasn't wearing a bra. 

He'd touched her boobs before. He'd had his hands and mouth all over them. But it usually took a little more coaxing and he was the one who snuck under her shirt, hinting until she finally told him that yes, sure, he could take it off. Now she was being brazen, taking charge, making sure he knew she was serious.

"I love your kisses, Noah, and don't get me wrong… I'll be happy to enjoy them for a lifetime…" She dragged her nails down his neck. "I'm just inviting you to kiss me elsewhere…"

He looked from her face to her boobs and then grinned. "RSVP Puckerman, party of awesome," he said, before he ducked his head down low and pressed his lips to her pebbled nipple, taking it between his teeth and dragging his tongue along it. 

Rachel's head fell against the pillow, her back arching.

Puck slid his palm up and covered her ignored breast, cupping and squeezing as his thumb rubbed circles all around her nipple.

Now he was even more happy to just keep kissing her. 

Santana pushed Puck back against the bed, huffing when he turned his chin up and stared above at the ceiling instead of looking at her.

She rubbed her hands down his tensed stomach.

"Okay, seriously, I feel like I'm molesting you… Can you, like, touch me? You used to know how to do that!"

He reached out and placed a hand on her knee

"Better, but try harder," she said, dragging his hand up her thigh.

Puck smoothed his hands down Rachel's thighs, hiking them higher on his waist. He was breathing heavily and a sheen of sweat dotted his skin, but he was trying really damn hard to be a gentleman. 

He could feel her wet heat against him, every scrap of clothing had been tossed and now she was completely naked in front of him, from the top of her shiny, dark head to the ends of her pink painted toes. 

He slid his palm up higher and spread his fingers over her flat stomach. She was panting, staring up at him, her lower lip trapped beneath her teeth.

His hand delved down between them, his thumb dragging over her clit. She jerked, her legs squeezing, and he watched her face as her mouth fell open and her eyes fluttered.

"Please," she whispered.

He drew circles for awhile, just teasing her, watching her wiggle and writhe, her chest heaving, her fingers gripping the blanket beneath her.

"You're so damn beautiful," he murmured.

She stared up at him and her lips curled in a smile.

He slid up her body then, hovering just above her so he wouldn't crush her with his weight. He nuzzled her nose with his and grinned, staring into her eyes. "I love you, Rachel…" He shook his head, swallowing tightly. "More than I've ever loved anything or anybody my whole life."

Reaching out, she dragged her fingers down his hair. "Show me," she told him, sliding her leg around his waist. "Make love with me, Noah," she whispered against his ear.

"Get off," Puck grunted, suddenly.

"I plan to," Santana chuckled.

"No, fuck. Santana. Get the hell off." He shoved her back suddenly and shook his head. His stomach was twisted up so tight he thought he might hurl. "Get out."

She sat back on her haunches, stunned. " What? "

"Get the hell out!" he snapped, shoving off the bed and tripping his way over the mess to the door.

Brows furrowed, Santana stared at him. "Wait, Puck, I—"

He flipped the light on and yanked open the door. "Leave."

She stared at him in wide-eyed shock. "Are you—You're  serious? " When he didn't say anything, instead waiting for her to go, she climbed off the bed. "Look, I get it. You've been with the same girl for the last year. You loved her…" She shook her head. "I'm not… I don't want to  replace  her…" She licked her lips, her shoulders slumping. "I just want to help you and I thought…" She looked away. "I know I'm not her and look, hey, you're not Brittany…" She waved a hand. "But everybody's saying that you're on your last leg and you're gonna throw in the towel and I just hoped that maybe… I— I don't know!  Maybe if I could just make you feel like your old self for a minute… Maybe you wouldn't…" She inhaled sharply then, her eyes filling with tears.

"I don't wanna be the old me…" He shook his head. "I don't wanna be the guy that was with you. I don't wanna be here  at all …" He stared at her searchingly. "So go home and be with Brittany, all right?"

She stared at him, her brows knotted. "Only if you promise me you won't do it."

His jaw ticked. "I don't wanna lie to you, Santana…" He swallowed tightly. "Don't make me."

Her face fell. "You… You'd really do that…?"

"Go home," he told her seriously.

" Puck …"

He stared at her, unmoved.

She swiped at her eyes. "You're fucked," she spat, before stomping past him toward the stairs and jogging down.

"Yeah." He closed the door and leaned back against it. "I know."

Chapter Text

XVI.

Puck was heaving over the toilet. Gripping the porcelain seat, stomach revolting against him, chest burning, his whole body tensed with each strenuous retch. His skin was too warm, and crawling. He could still feel her on him. Her fingers on his skin, her lips against his. Remorseful tears burned his eyes and he clenched the toilet seat sight as he choked again, coughing up bile.

"M'sorry. M'so sorry," he sniffed, shaking his head. A mantra he'd kept up from the beginning.

Twenty minutes later, he sat back against the bathroom wall, pressing a hand to his forehead, his eyes closed, but the cloud of tears still trapped behind them.

He'd fucked up. He kept waiting for her voice to call out, for her to tell him how hurt she was, how he betrayed her, and with Santana of all people. He waited for her to say he was the same old Puck; the same screw up he'd always been, just hiding it better than usual. But there was nothing. Just the echoing silence of a sleeping house.

He inhaled deeply, shakily, and said, "Do you hate me? Is that it…?" His brows furrowed. "That why you left?"

Nothing.

He rubbed his fingers into his eyes. "'Cause I need you. I really… I really fucking need you, Rachel…"

Silence.

He tipped his head back and stared up in hopes of stopping his tears, but it was no help, they still fell slowly down his face. "I miss you… I—I miss your—your voice and your laugh and I… I miss everything, okay? I miss who I was and how… How fucking happy I was, y'know?" He licked his lips. "You made me happy… And I don't…" He balled his fingers up as they shook, resting his hands on his knees. "I'm not strong enough for this… I can't be this person every day… I can't go back…" His eyes darted around tearfully. "D'you understand? Huh? Do you hear me?"

His chest heaved painfully and he dropped his chin to it, wrapping his arms around his head and fighting the impulse to scream.

Oh Noah…

He paused, tense, hopeful.

You're so broken.

He raised his head and looked around, even though he knew she wouldn't be there. He smiled bitterly. "She's right, isn't she? San…" He shook his head. "I'm fucked."

You know I don't like that kind of language…

He snorted. "'Cause that's what matters… Me cursing too fucking much."

You know it can't be changed… I can't come back and you can't fix this. I think that's what hurts most though, isn't it? That it's completely out of your control.

"No. What hurts the most is you're gone. You're just…" His breath left him shakily. "You're gone…" He clenched his teeth. "And I'm here and I—I'm alone."

You have the glee club and your sister, Noah. You have friends who want you to live. Family who needs you.

"No, don't… Don't guilt me into it, okay?" He sniffed, wiping his face on his arm. "I don't wanna be here anymore, Rach… It was okay, before. It was all right when I thought I could get away. When I thought maybe I could be happy. But it's just—It's never really gonna change." He rested his head on his arms. "I'm still gonna be my old man's son. My ma's still gonna look at me like she wishes I was anybody else… I'm gonna be the Lima Loser everybody expected."

You don't have to be… Noah, you have a chance. A real chance, to leave and make it in New York… You can still do it!

"Without you?" His face screwed up. "Live it up in your city, live your dreams out…?" He shook his head. "No."

They were your dreams, too, Noah. I seem to recall you helping me plan our life in very vivid detail…

"That's right, our life!" he exclaimed. "Not mine. Not—Not just me, okay? It was us. It was supposed to be us! Together!"

I know. And I wanted that too, but… Plans change.

He closed his eyes.

Will you do me a favor, Noah?

He squeezed his shut eyes tightly. "Don't ask me to live, okay? Please," he begged.

Will you open my box? Look through it for me?

His brows furrowed. "Your Noah Box?"

Yes.

Licking his lips, he climbed up from the floor. "Sure."

He walked into his bedroom and maneuvered through the mess to the closet. Her Noah Box was sitting perfectly safe up on the top shelf, away from the chaos of everything else he'd pulled out and tossed around. He dragged it down and carried it back to his bed, taking a seat and dropping it in his lap. "Nice glitter bomb, babe."

I thought so, she said cheerfully.

He held the top in his hands but didn't lift it right away. Instead he stared at his name swirled on the top, at the random gold stars she'd stuck all over, and he traced it all with his fingers. "This is gonna hurt, isn't it?"

Probably. But, in the best kind of way.

He swallowed tightly and took a deep breath, plucking the top off of it and dropping it to the bed next to him.

The first thing to greet him made him laugh shortly.

A slushee cup.

Grape, she said softly.

He raised it up out of the box and held it in his fingers. "You kept one?"

Not just any one, she assured. The first one.

Brows furrowed, he just stared at it a long while. "You licked your lips."

I did.

The box was chock full of stuff.

An old pick he'd given her when they first started dating again.

"Here…" She handed him a pink box with a ribbon on top.

Puck stared at it, his eyes wide. "Shit, did I forget an anniversary?" He turned toward his desk and squinted at his cat calendar. "Babe, it's Thursday, right?"

Rolling her eyes, Rachel placed the small box in front of him. "Just open it. You haven't forgotten anything."

He stared at her suspiciously, but reached out and plucked the top of the box off. "Probably the girliest looking present I've ever—" He paused, staring down at the two picks sitting on a cushion of white fuzz.

"They're guitar picks," she told him, reaching in and plucking one out. "I had them engraved…" She showed it to him. "One says Noah and the other Puck. To suit whatever mood you're in that day."

He took it from her outstretched fingers. "That's…" He shook his head.

"You don't like it," she worried. "I… I know you like a particular brand and you always buy from the same place. I actually went directly to them to see if I could have one custom made for you. They gave me a deal on the set." She played with her fingers nervously. "It's okay if you don't want to use them. They… You could just have them as a keepsake or something."

"I love 'em." He looked up at her, half-grinning. "Seriously, they're awesome…" He placed it back down in the box. Nodding, he pulled open a drawer on his desk and pulled out his old pick. "Here…" He held it out to her. "As a keepsake or whatever…" He grabbed up her hand and dropped it in her palm. "S'got my blood, sweat, and talent in it…"

Smiling, Rachel curled her hand around it tightly. "Then I'll cherish it always."

A broken guitar string.

"Shit!"

Rachel turned around to no doubt complain about his language when she noticed one of the strings on his guitar had snapped, mid-strum.

Puck frowned, turning it over. "Babe, you wanna grab me a string out of the—"

But she'd already reached into his desk and retrieved the box for him. She sat next to him and handed it over, watching intensely as he switched it out and retuned everything.

"I love your hands," she told him, glancing at his face briefly. "Have I ever told you that?"

He grinned. "It was obvious."

Rolling her eyes, she slid off the bed, taking the broken string with her. 

He raised a brow. "Garbage is over here."

"I know." She plucked up her bag and opened it. "Memories," she explained as he shook his head wonderingly.

Half-smiling, he patted the bed next to him. "Sap."

Sitting next to him, she said, "You love it."

He couldn't argue.

A gold star chocolate.

"I still say Valentine's Day is for suckers, but…" He held out a box of candy to her. "They're vegan friendly or whatever, so you can as many as you want."

Rachel grinned up at him widely. "That's very thoughtful." She took it from him and popped the top, before raising a brow at him. "There's one missing."

"Yeah, well, tasted like crap anyway."

Laughing, Rachel shook her head. "You are one of a kind, Noah Puckerman."

He smirked cockily at her. "And I'm all yours."

"That you are." Reaching up on her tip toes, she drew him down to her and kissed him. "Your Valentine's Day gift is made of red lace…" She nuzzled his nose. "Who's the sucker now?"

With an interested grin, he wrapped his arms around her. "This guy!" he cheered happily.

A glow-in-the-dark star.

Puck was half-asleep, ready to get a much needed nap while Rachel was reading through her already finished homework.

There was an unfamiliar noise that made him frown, right before something landed on his forehead, startling him.

When he opened his eyes, he stared up, cross-eyed.

Rachel pressed a hand to her mouth to smother her laugh.

"The hell?" Puck reached up and peeled it off his face, holding it up to see that it was one of her many glow-in-the-dark stars, the rest of which were still glued to her ceiling.

She giggled.

He rolled his eyes. "One of those pointy ass edges could'a take out my eye!"

She shook her head, laughing deeper. 

"S'not funny, babe, I could be blind right now."

Smiling, she rolled over and covered him. "I'll protect you."

A picture of him and Sarah.

"Higher, Noah!" Sarah cried, pumping her legs.

"You go any higher, you're gonna flip over," he complained, but pushed her anyway.

Rachel smiled at them from where she sat on the swing on their right. 

He raised a brow at her. "You wanna push too, Princess?"

She leaned back on her swing and shook her head. "I'll take a kiss though, please." She puckered her lips at him.

Stepping around Sarah, he gripped Rachel's swing chains and leaned to kiss her upside down mouth. He could feel her smiling.

"You guys are gross!"

Rachel broke away on a laugh. "One day, Sarah—"

"Hm-mm," he interrupted, shaking his head. "No, don't encourage that. No boys for Sarah." He shook her chains before reaching over and grabbing one of Sarah's to slow her down.

"Forever the protective big brother," she mused, hopping up from her swing. "I want a picture." She rolled her eyes at their groaning. "Come on, get together."

Puck circled to sit in her vacated swing. Reaching out, he grabbed Sarah's chain and dragged her over to him. "That good?"

Rachel held her camera up and nodded. "Perfect, now say Cheese."

"Cheeeese," they replied, but as the flash went off they both stuck their tongues out.

Smiling, she simply shook her head. "Puckermans," she sighed, putting her camera back in her bag.

"Gotta love us!" Sarah cheered, kicking her legs.

"Impossible not to," Rachel assured, making her way back.

Movie ticket stubs.

"That was the worst movie I think I've ever seen," Rachel said as she walked out of the theatre.

Puck yawned. "See? This is what I get for trying to get into one of your smart movies!"

Rachel scoffed. "Noah… Subtitled doesn't mean smart; it means foreign."

He raised a brow at her.

She held her hands up appealingly. "Look, I appreciate the sentiment, but next time…" She shook her head. "Let's just see whatever over-advertised, semi-interesting movie they have out at the time, all right?"

He grinned, wrapping an arm around her. "Works for me." 

"Thank you, though," she said, patting his chest. "It means a lot that you went out of your way to find a movie you thought I'd like."

He shrugged. "Anything for you."

Dried rose petals.

Rachel walked off the stage to thunderous applause and met him backstage with a smile brighter than he'd ever seen.

"You kicked ass!" he exclaimed.

She smiled, running toward him and leaping up into his arms.

"Watch the flowers!" he said, but caught her anyway. "Cost me an arm and a leg."

Rachel raised her head and turned to see the bright bouquet of a dozen pink roses he was holding. "For me?"

He snorted. "No, they're for that dude you were pretending to be in love with the last two hours…"

Burying her nose in them, she inhaled deeply. "Oh, they're lovely."

"You were awesome out there, Rach…" He shook his head. "You blow me away, every time."

She turned a watery smile on him. "I know it was just a role in a small town play, but I loved every second of it…"

"Every role counts, right? It's all going in the biography."

She laughed happily and hugged her arms around his neck. "Oh, Noah… I can't wait until we're doing this in New York!"

"Me either."

One of his old dip containers, although he noticed she'd cleaned it; she really did hate the smell.

Rachel wrinkled her nose. "Noah, that stuff is awful for you!"

He shrugged. "S'good shit."

She shook her head. "I'm not kissing you until you brush your teeth."

With a gob of dip in his cheek, he leaned toward her, lips puckered. "C'mon babe, just one little kiss…"

"Ewww," she laughed, pushing him away. "No!"

He tackled her back onto the bed. 

"Noah!" she cried, smiling all the while.

Chuckling, he sat back and shook his head. "It really bug you?"

Lifting up onto her elbows, she shrugged. "It tastes foul and it's not at all healthy…" She stared at him earnestly.

"And if I don't quit?" he wondered.

She frowned. "I imagine a large part of our budget will be put toward mouth wash."

"Yeah?" He quirked a brow. "But you'd still kiss me."

She rose up and wrapped her arms around him. "As if I can really resist…" She pecked his lips and then wrinkled her nose. "Maybe I'll get used to it."

He threw it out later that day and never touched it again.

A copy of the first vegan recipe he'd tried making for her.

"I dunno how this is gonna taste," he warned, sitting across from her at the table. "Seriously… It looks like shit."

Rachel rolled her eyes. "I'm sure it's…" She poked it with her fork. "Better than it looks."

He raised a brow. "Well, at least if it's deadly, we go together."

She pursed her lips at him. "That's terrible!"

He shrugged. "Just sayin'…"

Taking a deep breath, Rachel lifted a biteful to her mouth. "I'm going in," she told him.

He watched her carefully.

"Well…" She chewed a little more. "It is better…" She scrunched up her nose. "But not by much."

Puck sighed.

"Don't worry." She patted his hand. "You'll get better."

"Don't get your hopes up."

She bit her lip to keep from laughing.

The rest were a mix of Hannukah cards from over the years, even before they were friends, that his mom always made him hand out to the kids at Temple. A cheesy Valentine's note. A haiku he wrote her about ninjas. A mix CD of them singing for her MySpace page. A napkin he wrote 'Break a Leg' on. A tiny stuffed football. The plastic dinosaur he'd given her and named Puckasaurus. It was all a bunch of little moments, of them, from long before and all the way through their relationship. She had the receipt from the first dinner they went out on. A stub for skate rentals when they went ice skating last winter. His old sunglasses that he'd given her, though they were much too big for her, when he got a new pair of aviators for his birthday. A bunch of McDonalds monopoly tags from when he vowed he was gonna win big. And pictures; so many pictures. Of them hugging, laughing, smiling, swimming, dancing, kissing, everything. Pictures of just him, winking at her, sticking his tongue out, thumbs up, puckering his lips for a kiss, giving the peace sign, acting goofy, looking tired, staring up at her like the lovesick sap he was.

And then, there was a list; titled Everything I Love About Noah Isaiah Puckerman. And it was longer than his arm. It had everything from physical features she liked to the way he sounded in the morning to how stubborn he was. Even things she didn't like, she said she still loved, because they were a part of him. He read it twice, three times, and thought about how long his list of all the things he loved about her would be and how it wouldn't ever really be finished. Because he could've added to it the rest of their lives; still learning things about her as they grew up and grew old.

We were happy, weren't we, Noah?

He picked up a picture of them, her head on his shoulder, his cheek pressed to her hair. "Yeah," he rasped.

We would've had it all.

He nodded, his throat too tight to speak.

Will you miss them?

He swallowed thickly and wiped his face. "Not as much as I'd miss you."

It's not fair, to them or you… You shouldn't do this.

He shook his head. "I'm tired… And I'm done." He rubbed his thumb over her face in the photo. "I need you to understand, okay?" He licked his lips. "And I need you to forgive me."

I don't want you to hurt anymore, she said, her voice thick with emotion. I don't want you to do this.

"I have to…" He packed her things back into the box, one at a time, going through them all over again.

"It's not just you, y'know? I…" He cleared his throat. "I mean yeah, losing you, that's… It's like, that's it… That's all I can take." He held her slushee cup in his hand. "You made it worth it… I thought maybe it'd be over now… Maybe I wouldn't feel like such a waste, y'know? Of a son and a dad and a friend…" He shook his head, his brows furrowed. "But I am that. I'm all of that…"

Oh Noah, no! No you're not!

"I am." He nodded. "I wasn't enough for my dad to stay. I always disappointed ma. I was a bully and a punk and an asshole to everybody I met, even Finn, my best fucking friend…" He sniffed, rubbing his hand into his eyes. "Sarah will be better without me, Rach… I can't screw her up anymore, y'know?"

You're wrong… You're so wrong about yourself.

"Maybe." He shrugged. "But it doesn't matter anymore…"

Please, Noah… Please think about what you're doing…

"I have…" He stood from his bed. "I've got a plan. And then it's all going to be okay." He nodded, a sudden calm numbness running through him, mixing with his resolve.

Noah?

"I just need to clean up. Put it all back to where it was." He shook his head, saying distantly, "You always hated it when my room was messy…"

Noah, stop, just… Listen to me, okay?

"I've got the letters ready. I'll drop your dads' in the mail on the way…" He started picking stuff up, putting it back in its place. "CD's ready too. And I need…" He turned around in a circle. "I just need…" He spotted it on the floor, beneath his broken closet door. "There it is."

You won't change your mind, will you?

He paused, his eyes on the floor.

For the longest time, he couldn't imagine denying Rachel anything. Well, not anything important to her anyway. Even before they got together, he could admit he was a little bit wrapped around her finger. But what she was asking of him… He knew what it was like now, to be without her. And it was worse than before. Having her, knowing what it was like to be whole and appreciated and loved unconditionally, only to go back to a life without that; to go back to a life without her… No. He didn't want that. He couldn't do that. Too much had happened. He had changed. First for the better and now for the worse.

"It's already done."

She sighed softly, sadly.

"Rachel?"

Yes?

"Don't leave me until it's over, okay?"

Never, Noah… I'll never leave you.

He closed his eyes in relief.

 ../..

XVI.

Puck was heaving over the toilet. Gripping the porcelain seat, stomach revolting against him, chest burning, his whole body tensed with each strenuous retch. His skin was too warm, and crawling. He could still feel her on him. Her fingers on his skin, her lips against his. Remorseful tears burned his eyes and he clenched the toilet seat sight as he choked again, coughing up bile.

"M'sorry. M'so sorry," he sniffed, shaking his head. A mantra he'd kept up from the beginning.

Twenty minutes later, he sat back against the bathroom wall, pressing a hand to his forehead, his eyes closed, but the cloud of tears still trapped behind them.

He'd fucked up. He kept waiting for her voice to call out, for her to tell him how hurt she was, how he betrayed her, and with Santana of all people. He waited for her to say he was the same old Puck; the same screw up he'd always been, just hiding it better than usual. But there was nothing. Just the echoing silence of a sleeping house.

He inhaled deeply, shakily, and said, "Do you hate me? Is that it…?" His brows furrowed. "That why you left?"

Nothing.

He rubbed his fingers into his eyes. "'Cause I need you. I really… I really fucking need you, Rachel…"

Silence.

He tipped his head back and stared up in hopes of stopping his tears, but it was no help, they still fell slowly down his face. "I miss you… I—I miss your—your voice and your laugh and I… I miss everything, okay? I miss who I was and how… How fucking happy I was, y'know?" He licked his lips. "You made me happy… And I don't…" He balled his fingers up as they shook, resting his hands on his knees. "I'm not strong enough for this… I can't be this person every day… I can't go back…" His eyes darted around tearfully. "D'you understand? Huh? Do you hear me?"

His chest heaved painfully and he dropped his chin to it, wrapping his arms around his head and fighting the impulse to scream.

Oh Noah…

He paused, tense, hopeful.

You're so broken.

He raised his head and looked around, even though he knew she wouldn't be there. He smiled bitterly. "She's right, isn't she? San…" He shook his head. "I'm fucked."

You know I don't like that kind of language…

He snorted. "'Cause that's what matters… Me cursing too fucking much."

You know it can't be changed… I can't come back and you can't fix this. I think that's what hurts most though, isn't it? That it's completely out of your control.

"No. What hurts the most is you're gone. You're just…" His breath left him shakily. "You're gone…" He clenched his teeth. "And I'm here and I—I'm alone."

You have the glee club and your sister, Noah. You have friends who want you to live. Family who needs you.

"No, don't… Don't guilt me into it, okay?" He sniffed, wiping his face on his arm. "I don't wanna be here anymore, Rach… It was okay, before. It was all right when I thought I could get away. When I thought maybe I could be happy. But it's just—It's never really gonna change." He rested his head on his arms. "I'm still gonna be my old man's son. My ma's still gonna look at me like she wishes I was anybody else… I'm gonna be the Lima Loser everybody expected."

You don't have to be… Noah, you have a chance. A real chance, to leave and make it in New York… You can still do it!

"Without you?" His face screwed up. "Live it up in your city, live your dreams out…?" He shook his head. "No."

They were your dreams, too, Noah. I seem to recall you helping me plan our life in very vivid detail…

"That's right, our life!" he exclaimed. "Not mine. Not—Not just me, okay? It was us. It was supposed to be us! Together!"

I know. And I wanted that too, but… Plans change.

He closed his eyes.

Will you do me a favor, Noah?

He squeezed his shut eyes tightly. "Don't ask me to live, okay? Please," he begged.

Will you open my box? Look through it for me?

His brows furrowed. "Your Noah Box?"

Yes.

Licking his lips, he climbed up from the floor. "Sure."

He walked into his bedroom and maneuvered through the mess to the closet. Her Noah Box was sitting perfectly safe up on the top shelf, away from the chaos of everything else he'd pulled out and tossed around. He dragged it down and carried it back to his bed, taking a seat and dropping it in his lap. "Nice glitter bomb, babe."

I thought so, she said cheerfully.

He held the top in his hands but didn't lift it right away. Instead he stared at his name swirled on the top, at the random gold stars she'd stuck all over, and he traced it all with his fingers. "This is gonna hurt, isn't it?"

Probably. But, in the best kind of way.

He swallowed tightly and took a deep breath, plucking the top off of it and dropping it to the bed next to him.

The first thing to greet him made him laugh shortly.

A slushee cup.

Grape, she said softly.

He raised it up out of the box and held it in his fingers. "You kept one?"

Not just any one, she assured. The first one.

Brows furrowed, he just stared at it a long while. "You licked your lips."

I did.

The box was chock full of stuff.

An old pick he'd given her when they first started dating again.

"Here…" She handed him a pink box with a ribbon on top.

Puck stared at it, his eyes wide. "Shit, did I forget an anniversary?" He turned toward his desk and squinted at his cat calendar. "Babe, it's Thursday, right?"

Rolling her eyes, Rachel placed the small box in front of him. "Just open it. You haven't forgotten anything."

He stared at her suspiciously, but reached out and plucked the top of the box off. "Probably the girliest looking present I've ever—" He paused, staring down at the two picks sitting on a cushion of white fuzz.

"They're guitar picks," she told him, reaching in and plucking one out. "I had them engraved…" She showed it to him. "One says Noah and the other Puck. To suit whatever mood you're in that day."

He took it from her outstretched fingers. "That's…" He shook his head.

"You don't like it," she worried. "I… I know you like a particular brand and you always buy from the same place. I actually went directly to them to see if I could have one custom made for you. They gave me a deal on the set." She played with her fingers nervously. "It's okay if you don't want to use them. They… You could just have them as a keepsake or something."

"I love 'em." He looked up at her, half-grinning. "Seriously, they're awesome…" He placed it back down in the box. Nodding, he pulled open a drawer on his desk and pulled out his old pick. "Here…" He held it out to her. "As a keepsake or whatever…" He grabbed up her hand and dropped it in her palm. "S'got my blood, sweat, and talent in it…"

Smiling, Rachel curled her hand around it tightly. "Then I'll cherish it always."

A broken guitar string.

"Shit!"

Rachel turned around to no doubt complain about his language when she noticed one of the strings on his guitar had snapped, mid-strum.

Puck frowned, turning it over. "Babe, you wanna grab me a string out of the—"

But she'd already reached into his desk and retrieved the box for him. She sat next to him and handed it over, watching intensely as he switched it out and retuned everything.

"I love your hands," she told him, glancing at his face briefly. "Have I ever told you that?"

He grinned. "It was obvious."

Rolling her eyes, she slid off the bed, taking the broken string with her. 

He raised a brow. "Garbage is over here."

"I know." She plucked up her bag and opened it. "Memories," she explained as he shook his head wonderingly.

Half-smiling, he patted the bed next to him. "Sap."

Sitting next to him, she said, "You love it."

He couldn't argue.

A gold star chocolate.

"I still say Valentine's Day is for suckers, but…" He held out a box of candy to her. "They're vegan friendly or whatever, so you can as many as you want."

Rachel grinned up at him widely. "That's very thoughtful." She took it from him and popped the top, before raising a brow at him. "There's one missing."

"Yeah, well, tasted like crap anyway."

Laughing, Rachel shook her head. "You are one of a kind, Noah Puckerman."

He smirked cockily at her. "And I'm all yours."

"That you are." Reaching up on her tip toes, she drew him down to her and kissed him. "Your Valentine's Day gift is made of red lace…" She nuzzled his nose. "Who's the sucker now?"

With an interested grin, he wrapped his arms around her. "This guy!" he cheered happily.

A glow-in-the-dark star.

Puck was half-asleep, ready to get a much needed nap while Rachel was reading through her already finished homework.

There was an unfamiliar noise that made him frown, right before something landed on his forehead, startling him.

When he opened his eyes, he stared up, cross-eyed.

Rachel pressed a hand to her mouth to smother her laugh.

"The hell?" Puck reached up and peeled it off his face, holding it up to see that it was one of her many glow-in-the-dark stars, the rest of which were still glued to her ceiling.

She giggled.

He rolled his eyes. "One of those pointy ass edges could'a take out my eye!"

She shook her head, laughing deeper. 

"S'not funny, babe, I could be blind right now."

Smiling, she rolled over and covered him. "I'll protect you."

A picture of him and Sarah.

"Higher, Noah!" Sarah cried, pumping her legs.

"You go any higher, you're gonna flip over," he complained, but pushed her anyway.

Rachel smiled at them from where she sat on the swing on their right. 

He raised a brow at her. "You wanna push too, Princess?"

She leaned back on her swing and shook her head. "I'll take a kiss though, please." She puckered her lips at him.

Stepping around Sarah, he gripped Rachel's swing chains and leaned to kiss her upside down mouth. He could feel her smiling.

"You guys are gross!"

Rachel broke away on a laugh. "One day, Sarah—"

"Hm-mm," he interrupted, shaking his head. "No, don't encourage that. No boys for Sarah." He shook her chains before reaching over and grabbing one of Sarah's to slow her down.

"Forever the protective big brother," she mused, hopping up from her swing. "I want a picture." She rolled her eyes at their groaning. "Come on, get together."

Puck circled to sit in her vacated swing. Reaching out, he grabbed Sarah's chain and dragged her over to him. "That good?"

Rachel held her camera up and nodded. "Perfect, now say Cheese."

"Cheeeese," they replied, but as the flash went off they both stuck their tongues out.

Smiling, she simply shook her head. "Puckermans," she sighed, putting her camera back in her bag.

"Gotta love us!" Sarah cheered, kicking her legs.

"Impossible not to," Rachel assured, making her way back.

Movie ticket stubs.

"That was the worst movie I think I've ever seen," Rachel said as she walked out of the theatre.

Puck yawned. "See? This is what I get for trying to get into one of your smart movies!"

Rachel scoffed. "Noah… Subtitled doesn't mean smart; it means foreign."

He raised a brow at her.

She held her hands up appealingly. "Look, I appreciate the sentiment, but next time…" She shook her head. "Let's just see whatever over-advertised, semi-interesting movie they have out at the time, all right?"

He grinned, wrapping an arm around her. "Works for me." 

"Thank you, though," she said, patting his chest. "It means a lot that you went out of your way to find a movie you thought I'd like."

He shrugged. "Anything for you."

Dried rose petals.

Rachel walked off the stage to thunderous applause and met him backstage with a smile brighter than he'd ever seen.

"You kicked ass!" he exclaimed.

She smiled, running toward him and leaping up into his arms.

"Watch the flowers!" he said, but caught her anyway. "Cost me an arm and a leg."

Rachel raised her head and turned to see the bright bouquet of a dozen pink roses he was holding. "For me?"

He snorted. "No, they're for that dude you were pretending to be in love with the last two hours…"

Burying her nose in them, she inhaled deeply. "Oh, they're lovely."

"You were awesome out there, Rach…" He shook his head. "You blow me away, every time."

She turned a watery smile on him. "I know it was just a role in a small town play, but I loved every second of it…"

"Every role counts, right? It's all going in the biography."

She laughed happily and hugged her arms around his neck. "Oh, Noah… I can't wait until we're doing this in New York!"

"Me either."

One of his old dip containers, although he noticed she'd cleaned it; she really did hate the smell.

Rachel wrinkled her nose. "Noah, that stuff is awful for you!"

He shrugged. "S'good shit."

She shook her head. "I'm not kissing you until you brush your teeth."

With a gob of dip in his cheek, he leaned toward her, lips puckered. "C'mon babe, just one little kiss…"

"Ewww," she laughed, pushing him away. "No!"

He tackled her back onto the bed. 

"Noah!" she cried, smiling all the while.

Chuckling, he sat back and shook his head. "It really bug you?"

Lifting up onto her elbows, she shrugged. "It tastes foul and it's not at all healthy…" She stared at him earnestly.

"And if I don't quit?" he wondered.

She frowned. "I imagine a large part of our budget will be put toward mouth wash."

"Yeah?" He quirked a brow. "But you'd still kiss me."

She rose up and wrapped her arms around him. "As if I can really resist…" She pecked his lips and then wrinkled her nose. "Maybe I'll get used to it."

He threw it out later that day and never touched it again.

A copy of the first vegan recipe he'd tried making for her.

"I dunno how this is gonna taste," he warned, sitting across from her at the table. "Seriously… It looks like shit."

Rachel rolled her eyes. "I'm sure it's…" She poked it with her fork. "Better than it looks."

He raised a brow. "Well, at least if it's deadly, we go together."

She pursed her lips at him. "That's terrible!"

He shrugged. "Just sayin'…"

Taking a deep breath, Rachel lifted a biteful to her mouth. "I'm going in," she told him.

He watched her carefully.

"Well…" She chewed a little more. "It is better…" She scrunched up her nose. "But not by much."

Puck sighed.

"Don't worry." She patted his hand. "You'll get better."

"Don't get your hopes up."

She bit her lip to keep from laughing.

The rest were a mix of Hannukah cards from over the years, even before they were friends, that his mom always made him hand out to the kids at Temple. A cheesy Valentine's note. A haiku he wrote her about ninjas. A mix CD of them singing for her MySpace page. A napkin he wrote 'Break a Leg' on. A tiny stuffed football. The plastic dinosaur he'd given her and named Puckasaurus. It was all a bunch of little moments, of them, from long before and all the way through their relationship. She had the receipt from the first dinner they went out on. A stub for skate rentals when they went ice skating last winter. His old sunglasses that he'd given her, though they were much too big for her, when he got a new pair of aviators for his birthday. A bunch of McDonalds monopoly tags from when he vowed he was gonna win big. And pictures; so many pictures. Of them hugging, laughing, smiling, swimming, dancing, kissing, everything. Pictures of just him, winking at her, sticking his tongue out, thumbs up, puckering his lips for a kiss, giving the peace sign, acting goofy, looking tired, staring up at her like the lovesick sap he was.

And then, there was a list; titled Everything I Love About Noah Isaiah Puckerman. And it was longer than his arm. It had everything from physical features she liked to the way he sounded in the morning to how stubborn he was. Even things she didn't like, she said she still loved, because they were a part of him. He read it twice, three times, and thought about how long his list of all the things he loved about her would be and how it wouldn't ever really be finished. Because he could've added to it the rest of their lives; still learning things about her as they grew up and grew old.

We were happy, weren't we, Noah?

He picked up a picture of them, her head on his shoulder, his cheek pressed to her hair. "Yeah," he rasped.

We would've had it all.

He nodded, his throat too tight to speak.

Will you miss them?

He swallowed thickly and wiped his face. "Not as much as I'd miss you."

It's not fair, to them or you… You shouldn't do this.

He shook his head. "I'm tired… And I'm done." He rubbed his thumb over her face in the photo. "I need you to understand, okay?" He licked his lips. "And I need you to forgive me."

I don't want you to hurt anymore, she said, her voice thick with emotion. I don't want you to do this.

"I have to…" He packed her things back into the box, one at a time, going through them all over again.

"It's not just you, y'know? I…" He cleared his throat. "I mean yeah, losing you, that's… It's like, that's it… That's all I can take." He held her slushee cup in his hand. "You made it worth it… I thought maybe it'd be over now… Maybe I wouldn't feel like such a waste, y'know? Of a son and a dad and a friend…" He shook his head, his brows furrowed. "But I am that. I'm all of that…"

Oh Noah, no! No you're not!

"I am." He nodded. "I wasn't enough for my dad to stay. I always disappointed ma. I was a bully and a punk and an asshole to everybody I met, even Finn, my best fucking friend…" He sniffed, rubbing his hand into his eyes. "Sarah will be better without me, Rach… I can't screw her up anymore, y'know?"

You're wrong… You're so wrong about yourself.

"Maybe." He shrugged. "But it doesn't matter anymore…"

Please, Noah… Please think about what you're doing…

"I have…" He stood from his bed. "I've got a plan. And then it's all going to be okay." He nodded, a sudden calm numbness running through him, mixing with his resolve.

Noah?

"I just need to clean up. Put it all back to where it was." He shook his head, saying distantly, "You always hated it when my room was messy…"

Noah, stop, just… Listen to me, okay?

"I've got the letters ready. I'll drop your dads' in the mail on the way…" He started picking stuff up, putting it back in its place. "CD's ready too. And I need…" He turned around in a circle. "I just need…" He spotted it on the floor, beneath his broken closet door. "There it is."

You won't change your mind, will you?

He paused, his eyes on the floor.

For the longest time, he couldn't imagine denying Rachel anything. Well, not anything important to her anyway. Even before they got together, he could admit he was a little bit wrapped around her finger. But what she was asking of him… He knew what it was like now, to be without her. And it was worse than before. Having her, knowing what it was like to be whole and appreciated and loved unconditionally, only to go back to a life without that; to go back to a life without her… No. He didn't want that. He couldn't do that. Too much had happened. He had changed. First for the better and now for the worse.

"It's already done."

She sighed softly, sadly.

"Rachel?"

Yes?

"Don't leave me until it's over, okay?"

Never, Noah… I'll never leave you.

He closed his eyes in relief.

 ../..

It took him an hour and a half to put his room back to rights. He even made his bed and laid Rachel's nightgown down on her side. When he stood back, it looked like it used to; like he hadn't lost his mind and totaled it. Her jewelry was all picked back up and put back in their boxes on the dresser and he'd even checked to make sure every earring had its partner. He put his CDs back in place, in alphabetical order like she preferred. Her sweaters and his jerseys were hung back up, side by side. The stereo was broken and the door had to be leaned against the wall, but everything else was where it was supposed to be.

Nodding, he walked over to his desk and opened a drawer. He pulled out the letters, tucked and folded in their separately signed envelopes, and found Sarah's. He then grabbed up his guitar and put it away in its case, with the two picks Rachel had given him and a box of strings.

Walking down the hall, careful to avoid where the floor creaked, he opened her door and stepped into her room, lit up faintly by her night light. He put her letter on her bedside table and he leaned his guitar against the wall. And then, he knelt down by her bed and brushed the tangled brown hair from her face. He stared a long moment at the little girl he'd helped raise from birth and finally leaned forward to press a kiss against her forehead. "I'm sorry, kid," he whispered as he sat back on his heels, blinking back tears.

Nose wrinkled, she opened her eyes slightly. "Noah?" she said sleepily.

"Go back to sleep, Squirt," he said, standing and walked to her door.

With a soft sigh, she buried her face back in her pillow.

Pausing, he looked back at Sarah, so full of life and dreams and endless possibilities. "Hey?"

"Hm?" she hummed.

"Love you."

She smiled tiredly. "Ditto."

Nodding to himself, he stepped out of her room, closing the door behind him gently.

Back in his room, he placed a letter on the center of his bed and gathered up the rest of his things. He paused outside his door to stare long and hard at his mother's. Jaw ticking, he finally turned and made his way downstairs.

He grabbed his truck keys off the wall and took one last look around at his house. At the armchair his dad and he used to watch cartoons on, huddled together with bowls of cereal. The mantel where pictures of him and Sarah sat, ranging in age, and even a few more recent ones with Rachel. The stairs he'd nearly tripped down a couple times because of Sarah's toys. The dent in the wall where his ma threw one of his boots at him for getting arrested. The couch he and Rachel cuddled up together to watch movies. The stain on the carpet from where Sarah spilled her spaghetti and it never really came out. The crack in the window from that time he and Finn were playing football in the house and Finn clumsily fell into it. A lifetime of memories.

He turned his back and walked out the door, walking down the porch that he and Rachel spent hours sitting on; talking, not talking, sometimes just wrapped up in each other. He glanced at the flower beds that were filled with weeds; his mom used to tend to them before his dad cut and ran, just like the garden in the back that Rachel had long taken over and he was sure nobody had touched since she died. He walked across the driveway he taught Sarah to ride a bike in. Where she got her first skinned knee. Where he taught her to roller blade and even helped her play around on his skateboard a few times. Where he played basketball with Finn, Mike and Sam a few hundred times. Where Rachel and Sarah had drawn huge chalk pictures. He unlocked his truck and hopped inside, dropping everything to the seat next to him, where Rachel used to sit, playing with his radio.

He turned on the engine and let it idle a few minutes while he stared up at his old house. A house he'd had to take care of for years; cleaning gutters, fixing leaks, repairing broken stairs and door knobs and leaky faucets. A house he'd had to be the man of too young. A house that was only half a home until Rachel got there and made it whole.

Licking his dry lips, he flicked his fingers as if to wave, and then he put the truck into gear and he backed up out of the driveway.

The drive to Kurt and Finn's was silent; there was nobody around, no cars, no curious neighbors. Everybody was fast asleep in their beds. He stopped in front of the house and stuck it in park, but left it running. He gathered up four items and he walked up the lawn to put them on the stoop. Hands stuffed in his pockets, he stared at the door a long second, thinking of Burt and Carole, before finally turning and walking back to his truck. He rested his arm on the window sill and peered down at the dark windows of the basement Kurt and Finn shared. With a nod farewell, he pulled back onto the road.

On the way through town, he stopped to drop Leroy and Hiram's letter in a mail box just outside of Sheets N' Things before finally, he drove up the hill to the cliff overlooking Lima Lake.

From here, he could see it all.

The whole city, lit up only with street lamps. He could see his elementary, middle, and high school; all of which he shared with Rachel. He could see the synagogue they attended Temple at. The movie theatre they went to almost weekly. The 7-Eleven they went to for their slushees. The building she took her dance and vocal lessons in. The park they took Sarah to on weekends. The hockey arena they skated in. The police department he'd spent entirely too much time at. The warehouse his Fight Club used to meet in. All of his friend's houses. Finn's old place that Puck had spent most of his childhood hanging out at. Sarah's preschool. Nana Connie's retirement home. And Rachel's house; an empty shell to be filled by someone else.

"You still with me?" he asked.

Always.

Grabbing up the CD, he flipped the lid open and stuck the disc into the stereo, turning the knob up higher. "You remember this?"

Where it began, I can't begin to know when,
But then I know it's growing strong…


She laughed softly. How could I forget?

Putting the truck into reverse he backed it up twenty or thirty feet and then idled as he sat thoughtfully. "Ya think I'm selfish, Rachel?"

Oh, wasn't the spring,
And spring became the summer,
Who'd believe you'd come along…


She sighed. I think… that you're hurting… And you can't imagine ever not hurting.

He nodded and pushed the stick into drive, his foot sitting heavy on the brake pedal.

And now I, I look at the night,
And it don't seem so lonely
We fill it up with only two, oh…


Turning his head, he turned to stare at where she should have been sitting. "I would've married you."

I know.

He swallowed tightly and squeezed the steering wheel in shaking hands. "I would've been happy."

Are you sure you want to do this, Noah? There's no going back…

He set his face and pressed his foot down on the accelerator. "Bring it."

And when I hurt,
Hurting runs off my shoulder,
How can I hurt when holding you…


The truck sped off the cliff and nosedived toward the lake.

He watched the city through the front window pass him by in what seemed like slow motion; a town that never gave him a chance, never believed in him, and had once promised to be the end of his dreams.

People have said that when death was close, their life passed before their eyes.

Puck was no different.

He saw it all; good and bad.

His dad; smiling, laughing, chucking him on the chin, noogeying his mohawk, high-fiving, playing his guitar, fighting with his mom, yelling, throwing things, drinking, leaving, never saying goodbye.

His mom; hugging him, cutting the crusts off his sandwiches, dancing, singing, kissing his cheek, crying, screaming, telling him he's a disappointment, begging him to be better, shouting that he's just like his father, giving up on him.

A squalling new born Sarah. Changing diapers. Feeding her. Bathing her. Hearing her first words. Teaching her how to swing a bat, throw a baseball, shoot a hoop, ride a bike, roller blade, ice skate, swim, build sandcastles. Pushing her on the swings, catching her on the slide, carrying her on his shoulders, his back, swinging her to and fro by her hands between him and Rachel. Taking care of her when she was sick. Dropping her off at school, picking her up, parent-teacher conferences, high-fiving her after she won a fight between her and a boy at school. Cleaning her scraped knee, kissing her owies, braiding her hair, singing her to sleep. Laughing with her, bugging her, hugging her. Saying hello, saying goodbye.

Finn; as children, playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. Playing baseball, football, basketball. Trying to build a treehouse; failing. Riding bikes, fishing, wrestling. Discovering girls. Liking the same girls. Video games. Movies. Scars. Broken bones. Spit-shakes. Growing up. Glee club. Quinn. Beth. Singing. Dancing. Fighting. Forgiving.

Mike; ninjas, football, dancing, basketball, video games, comparing notes on girlfriends, badly dubbed Asian movies, ancient Chinese wisdom.

Artie; trapping him in a porta potty, flipping his brakes on his wheelchair randomly, probation, COD, secret handshakes, double dates, getting tutored in math, teaching him how to charm the ladies.

Sam; constantly implying he looked like Quinn's twin brother, teasing him for having a big mouth, singing country music, singing Bieber, geeking out, sports, giving in and admitting Avatar was pretty badass.

Kurt; tossing him in garbage cans, swirlies, slushees, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, noogeying his hair because he knew he hated it, standing up for him, dancing with him, making him blush, constantly making jokes that he was hot for his bod, teaming up to bug Rachel.

Santana. Cougars. Quinn.

Beth. Seeing her for the first time. Knowing he had to give her up. Wishing he could be better for her. Failing.

ATMs. Juvie. Waffles.

Rachel.

The first time he saw her; yellow ribbons in her hair.

Temple. Being forced to be nice to her because of his ma. Listening to her very first Tony speech. Socking Jacob Ben Israel in the arm for trying to peek up her dress. Getting sugar cookies as a thank you.

Slushees.

Sign from God. Grape. Dating. Dumped. Wishing he wasn't always second best to Finn.

Friendship. Wanting to be more when she was still trying to get over Finn. Trying not to want her; failing.

Throwing down an ultimatum; dating or nothing. Convincing her that he could be what she wanted; what she needed. Convincing himself he could be. Actually being.

Rachel.

Rachel.

Rachel.

Their first date. Their first kiss. Their first time.

Holding her hand. Looped arms. Kissing her cheek; her forehead; her hair.

Being proud of her. Knowing she was proud of him.

Her washing slushee from his 'hawk. Returning the favor.

Fighting anybody who tried to slushee her; pep talks, stained clothes, blocking her so he'd take the brunt of it.

Teaching her how to skateboard. Catching her when she fell.

Teaching her football. Convincing her she'd play better in his jersey.

Ballet recitals. Singing competitions. Bringing her to and picking her up from all her lessons. Knowing her schedule better than the back of his hand.

Sleeping. Breathing. Snoring. Actually recording her snoring to prove she did. Laughing when she still didn't believe him.

Going to bed with her. Waking up to find her still in his arms.

Crying. Fighting. Making up.

Kissing. Hugging. Making out.

Biting his lip. Bumping noses.

Getting under her animal sweater. Getting under her skirt.

Fucking. Making love. A difference; a huge fucking difference.

That noise she made when he kissed her neck; when he brushed the inside of her thigh; when he tickled the back of her knee.

The noises she made when she came; how she cried his name. How she gripped his hair; his shoulders; his fingers.

The smell of her; her perfume, her shampoo, her skin.

The taste of her; her lip gloss, her lips, her tongue, the inside of her wrist, her fingertips, her entire body.

How he felt when she looked at him, when she smiled, when she called him Noah.

Writing. For her. To her. About her.

Singing. For her. To her. About her.

Studying. Homework. Going to Math class.

New York. NYU. Broadway.

I love you. I love you. I really fucking love you.

Being enough. Believing he was enough. Dreaming. Hoping. Getting. Losing.

Dying.

Laying still and limp on the floor.

Dying.

Blood all around her head.

Dying.

Begging her to live for him; to breathe; to come back.

Dead.

Knowing it was all over.

Oh, one, touching one, reaching out,
Touching me, touching you,
Oh, sweet Caroline…
Good times never seem so good,
Oh I've been inclined to believe it never would…


In the end, just before the windshield broke, before he was a bruised, battered, lifeless body, he saw her there beside him, where she always sat, smiling, holding out a hand for him to take.

And he grinned, genuinely, completely, like he hadn't in what felt like forever.

The glass shattered on impact; water filled the cab of the truck. Puck never took his eyes off of her; not when the glass spat back at him, slicing through his face; not when the force had his body slamming into the steering wheel so hard, his rib cage fractured.

His eyes stayed open even as his heart stopped beating, as his lungs filled with water, as he sunk deep into the lake, his truck submerged entirely.

And the radio cracked, desperately getting out the end of the song before it stopped entirely.

Ohhh, sweet Caroline, good times never seem so good—

../..

When Kurt woke up that morning, he was exhausted. He'd been tossing and turning all night, terrified that the phone would ring and it would be somebody telling him that Puck had done it. He'd OD'd on pills or hung himself in his bedroom or any number of things. Scenarios ran through his mind, keeping him awake or causing horrifying nightmares. But by morning, there was no call, no word, nothing. And no amount of primping was going to make him look good, so finally he just pushed his sunglasses over his ringed eyes.

"I'm going out for coffee," he called to his step-brother, who had been just as anxious as him.

Slipping on his favorite pair of shoes, he opened the front door and stepped out into the warm summer sun, only to nearly trip over something on the stoop.

Brows furrowed, he stared down at the mass in confusion. Heart skipping in his chest, he knelt down slowly, shoving his glasses up onto his head as he reached out a hesitant hand. There were three letters; one for him, Finn, and Mr. Shue. And beneath that was a sweater; Rachel's horse sweater.

Hand fluttering to his chest, Kurt felt the tears spring up to his eyes and burn a quick, hot path down his cheeks. He fell to his knees and inhaled a desperate, gulping breath.

"Hey, Kurt, what're you…" Finn trailed off as he spotted him. His eyes fell to what sat on the stoop. "No…"

Kurt looked behind him and up at Finn, his face flushed and his mouth trembling. "I knew… I knew he would do it…" He shook his head. "He's gone… He's gone, Finn…"

Finn practically fell to his knees and reached out, gripping the shoulder of Kurt's shirt in his fist and pulling him to him in a hug. He closed his eyes against his own tears, but his chest heaved with the effort of control and finally he broke down too.

../..

Sarah was sitting on the couch, her tongue stuck out of her mouth and her brother's guitar perched on her lap. She looked up when her mom walked down the stairs, tying her robe around her waist and rubbing sleep from her eyes. "Good morning," she murmured tiredly, making her way into the kitchen.

"Morning," Sarah spared before turning her attention back to her lap and plucking at each of the strings.

She could hear the click as her mom turned on the coffee machine. Her slippers shuffling around as she started getting breakfast together.

As she poured her mug of coffee, she called out wonderingly, "Sarah, is that your brother's guitar?"

She nodded, though her mother couldn't see her.

"What are you doing with that? You know you can't play with Noah's things…"

"He left it for me," she told her, simply. "In my room, with a letter."

Suddenly, there was a crash, of glass meeting the floor. And seconds later, her mother raced past her, her face stark with fear, taking the stairs two at a time.

As Puck's mother found her own farewell letter, she let out a terrible wail and fell to her knees in her son's bedroom.

../..

Ma,

You had to know this was coming.

I owe you an apology. 

I'm sorry I wasn't enough for you. I'm sorry that when you looked at me, you saw dad. I'm sorry I was so much like him and that you were right to think I was just as much of a fuck up as him. 

I'm sorry it took me so long to find the right, nice, Jewish girl, and in the end not being able to save her.

I'm sorry for Beth and for Quinn and for always disappointing you.

And I'm sorry I won't ever be somebody you can say you're proud of. 

I'm sorry I tried so damn hard to be better for you and it was never enough. That I gave up when I knew you'd never love me like you used to. And that I ever fucked up your life in the first place.

I'm sorry I caused you so much grief and that I grew to hate you as much as you hated me.

And lastly, I'm sorry that Sarah has to grow up with just you now. Please, if you do anything for me, if you loved me at all, don't blame her like you blamed me. 

Forever your screwed up, delinquent son,

-Puck

Hate Me Today – Blue October

../..

Kurt sat on his bed with Rachel's sweater held tightly to his chest, sniffling here or there. He twirled Puck's letter between his fingers, staring at it with tired, sad eyes.

There was a part of him that didn't want to read it; because then it would be real. His verbal goodbye had been the first solid sign, but a part of Kurt had hoped that maybe he would change his mind; maybe something would happen or somebody would intervene. Perhaps he should have; there were chances, opportunities, he could have spoken up. But he hadn't. Because some part of him understood why Puck did it; how missing Rachel felt like a whole part of him was gone. Like there was a hole inside him that would never be filled. And maybe a little of Kurt had even wondered if that would be easier, to not feel it anymore; to not feel anything anymore…

Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and tore the envelope open. Wiping at his face, he attempted a stoic, controlled expression. He took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and began to read.

Kurt,

Weird right? I usually call you Hummel or like Beyonce or something. But you know I figured this was a little more serious, so…

I hope I said goodbye. I've been shit at keeping my word, but I've been trying to be better at it.

You know, when I knocked Quinn up I asked her to trust me… Later, when I got Rachel's trust, I did everything I could not to fuck it up. I dunno where I'm going with this… Maybe just that she made me a better man or something. At least I'd like to think I was. I know I'm not the same asshole that threw you in dumpsters and swirlied you and all the fucked up shit I pulled on you… And I know it's late or whatever, but I'm sorry I was such a dick to you. You're good people, Hummel. Even after all the bad blood between you and Rachel, you really stood by her after you went to Dalton. She told me you guys bonded and started calling you 'bestie' every time she mentioned you. She was so damn excited to have a friend, it was kinda sad, you know? And I know I was part of the reason she'd been so lonely before… Anybody's looking to crown the king of the assholes, I was right there waiting for the recognition. 

One of the great things about Rachel was that she always gave people another chance. Whether we deserved it or not. I don't know where I'd be if she didn't. If we didn't date that first time or she didn't say yes again last year when I realized I couldn't be her friend when I was already half way in love with her. I think maybe I'd be like my dad… A bitter asshole who didn't get how lucky he was to have somebody who really loved him… I was headed that way and I'm sure I would've hit all the branches on the way down the loser tree if she didn't stop me.

I think of everyone I'm writing these letters to, you and the daddies-Berry are the only ones who are gonna get why all this makes any kind of sense… I like to think that maybe you guys know that I really loved her. I really fucking love her. All her crazy and her drama and her vocal exercises at six in the damn morning, I loved it all. And I really, seriously, so fucking much, wanted to be the guy she loved for the rest of her life… No shitting you, I really thought we'd get it all. I really thought I'd be in NYU next year and we'd be living in some tiny ass apartment, just making it work… And we'd get married one day and she'd get her Tony and we'd have badass kids, and I'd get my club and she'd conquer Broadway and we'd just be that couple that was still in love when they were ninety, still holdings hands and arguing over who was a better Jewish icon, Barbra or Neil… And when all of that was gone, I don't even… There was just nothing after that. I'm so fucking lost right now. Like I can't breathe without her… Every time I wake up and she's not there, it physically hurts! I take a shower and seeing her fucking shampoo makes me cry. I go to school and I see her everywhere and nowhere and it's all so fucking pointless!

I know you'd all have some speech about how Rachel wouldn't want me to end it like this or some shit. Maybe it didn't seem like it, but I heard you when you talked. And I'm sorry I had to put all this shit on you. Sorry you had to be the guy who knew what I was gonna do and not get in my way. That was a fucked up weight to put on your shoulders when you were already dealing with Rachel's death. So I'm sorry, you know? Hell, I'm sorry for a lot of things, so I'm just going to try and cover all my bases here and tell you that Blaine's a lucky dude to have you and Finn's a lucky brother and Rachel too for having you as a friend. And I wanna thank you, 'cause she needed you in her life and you were always there for her. For all the shit I couldn't do and you did, thanks.

I know you're not gonna want it and maybe you'll blow your shit about it, but I transferred half the money her dads gave me into your account… You and Blaine should go to New York and do everything she was going to. See every damn play they put on and get a great apartment with a view. Sing as often and as loudly as you can. Get a Tony by 25. Tell Blaine to bring you pink roses when you get a standing O at your first Broadway play. Name your children after Broadway legends and always, always tell them you love them and to reach as far as they have to for their dreams. Leave Lima in the rearview mirror, wave your middle finger back and tell them all they were lucky just to know you. Do it all, Kurt, and I guaran-fucking-tee she'll be cheering for you from wherever she is… And so will I.

Make it happen, man. 

-Puck

Hear You Me (May Angels Lead You In) – Jimmy Eat World

Kurt read it three times, his eyes wide and brimming with tears, and a pained smile cracking his lips. Wiping delicately at his cheeks, he shook his head. "You stupid, broken boy…" he muttered. Looking down at the horse sweater, he rubbed his thumb into it. "I will…" He nodded. "You tell her I will."

../..

Finn sat in his truck, staring at the park he first met Puck in.

They were young and carefree and Finn kind of liked the taste of sand at the time. Puck already had a little faux-hawk and he was wearing a muscle shirt that had some band on it that Finn didn't know of at the time. He introduced himself as Noah, but years later, he would only go by Puck. When his dad left him and he turned into a hurt and screwed up little kid with too much responsibility.

Finn blinked his eyes each time they burned, squeezing his hands around the steering wheel until his knuckles were a stark white. "Fuck," he breathed. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" he screamed, shaking the steering wheel and beating his hands against it until he was panting and half-sobbing. "Why couldn't you just…?" He shook his head. "Why?"

Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply through his nose, clenching his teeth until a twinge of pain radiated up his jaw. And when he finally opened his eyes, he looked over at the letter sitting on his dash, marked simply, Finn.

With a shaking hand, he reached out and tore it open, unfolding the paper inside, his brow furrowed as he read.

Finn,

I'm not much of a letter writer man and I think you know that… I think of everybody you're gonna get that this, being poetic and shit, saying goodbye and asking for you to forgive me or to get it, it's not easy… 

Rachel always thought I was this awesome song writer, you know… But my songs, the ones she really liked, they were always about her… Writing about her is easy. I used to look at her and think… Holy shit, this crazy chick actually wants to be with me… So you know, the first few songs were just about being surprised or arrogant as fuck and sometimes just waiting for her to leave… She used to tell me that writing about loving her was hard 'cause I wasn't a feelings kind of guy. But loving her was so damn easy that I guess writing about it was too. 

The hard shit was writing about why loving her scared the fuck out of me. It was being terrified that one day I was gonna be just like my dad and leave her, or like my mom and have her leave me… It was waiting for that day when we fought like them or I drank like him or she just stopped caring like ma did… The hardest songs to write were the ones where I admitted that I was waiting for her to look at me and say the same things my mom did, that Quinn did, that I figured everybody thought. That I was a Lima Loser and she was wasting her time… Whenever I wrote those songs, and I spent so many hours going over every damn word, scratching them out and then rewriting them again and again until they were perfect and awful and it was like I'd torn this huge, gaping chunk of my heart out and thrown it down on paper… She always cried when I sang those songs and then she'd smile at me, like she was trying not to show that it hurt her that I was hurt or whatever… And she'd hug me and tell me all that uplifting bullshit about how I was better than him and that she was lucky to have me and we were gonna be so damn awesome in New York… And I'd fall in love with her all over again, you know? 'Cause it was so damn easy to love somebody who loved all my broken ass shit.

I know people don't get it. They never really got her or me or us together. And you say you do or you want to and that's cool. I know you're trying to help and you want me to be okay and that you loved her in your own way. And I know you love me like a brother, even after all the crazy shit I've pulled on you over the years… And you know, maybe I didn't say it enough, maybe I didn't make it clear, but man I am so fucking sorry that I ever did anything to hurt you. The shit with Quinn, that was low and even though I love Beth and I wanted so much to be a part of her life, I really wish I didn't hurt you like that. Me and you, we've been through so much… With your dad dying and my dad running off like a bitch and just… Growing up in this shitty town, trying to live up to all these expectations, telling ourselves we were kings of the shit pile… Who were we kidding? Acting like we were so damn awesome and what'd we get out of it? You know when I was happy, man? When I was just a kid. When me and you used to go to that park down the road and we'd swing on the monkey bars or play cops and robbers and just chill… There was no football and no slushees and nobody breathing down our necks about being cooler or more badass or any of that shit. 

Truth is, I wouldn't have made it this long if it wasn't for you… No homo. If you didn't stick crayons up your nose just to make me laugh when all I wanted to do was cry 'cause my dad was the biggest fucking douche… Or when you shared your lunch with me 'cause ma couldn't get out of bed, she was so damn depressed… You stuck by me when I was an asshole and when I screwed you over and I'm sorry that this is the end… I'm sorry I won't be back for the ten year reunion to hear about your life and all the great shit you did with it. I won't meet your kids or your wife or reminisce about football and glee and all the good old days… And I'm sorry I'm gonna be that guy that you remember or you forget or whatever I'm gonna be instead of your best friend.

I'm sorry for a lot of shit, but I'm not sorry I'm doing this.

I'm writing this 'cause I don't want you to think it's your fault or something stupid like that. I don't want you to think you could've changed my mind or done something differently. And maybe you'll never really get it. Maybe you'll be pissed at me for doing this, I dunno. All I know is that I'm so tired man. I'm so fucking tired. I'm eighteen fucking years old and I've had a kid I'll never see. A dad who didn't want me. A mom who hardly likes me. And the one girl I really loved, the only girl I wanted for the rest of my messed up life, is gone… So I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to go to New York or heal or travel the world or any of that shit. I don't want to see a counselor or move on or forget Rachel or whatever the fuck people want me to do. I want to close my eyes and just see her, even for a second. I just want to have her again and then I'm good. I don't need anything else. There's probably not a heaven, maybe it's a waiting line until the next go-around, you know? I'd be happy to stand in line if she was there. Maybe next time I won't be such a screw up. Maybe next time Eli will stay or Rachel will live and we'll have Beth when the time's right and it'll all work out. I don't fucking know. But I do know that this life is done for me. So I'm going to let it be done and I'm going to close my eyes and say goodbye and wish you the best.

I hope you get everything you want and I hope you're happy and I hope you find somebody you love even half as much as I love Rachel. I hope you have a bunch of kids and you're an awesome dad and you're still singing when you're an old, bald dude. 

So thank you or whatever for just always being my bro. 

Peace,

-Puck

Mad Mad World – Gary Jules

Finn broke down and hung his head, his shoulders shaking. He cried for his childhood best friend, for the screwed up guy he became, for the man that Rachel helped repair, and the shattered boy who ended his life. He cried for the friendship he'd once had with him, for the help he couldn't give him, and for the loss he felt aching in his very heart. He cried until he had no more tears left. And then he went home and he hugged his mother and he let her hold him and comfort him and he hoped that one day it wouldn't hurt so much. That one day he would look back and remember Puck and he wouldn't wonder what he could have done differently.

But that day wouldn't come for a very long time.

Chapter Text

Epilogue.

Monday morning, a group of grief stricken glee clubbers collected in the choir room.

Where once they surrounded themselves with music, with smiling and clapping, dancing and cheering, now there was nothing but a dark, empty silence.

Mr. Shuester looked around at each of them, at these faces that had changed so much in these last few weeks. These kids had been through not one, but two deaths, and the toll it had taken was obvious. They looked older, harder, forever changed by their loss. He saw it like a weight on their shoulders, hanging heavy on their emotions and their happiness, surrounding every moment of their lives like an all-consuming bubble of depression and hurt.

He took a deep breath. "I know… This is probably the  last  place any of you want to be…" He nodded, casting his eyes around in understanding. "To be honest, I feel the same way."

"Great, then we can leave," Santana said, moving to stand up.

She wasn't wearing her Cheerio outfit. Instead, for the first time Will could remember, Santana wore all black. Where once a girl who used to be full of flash, throwing her sensuality out there like a slap in the face, now she wore layers, her face scrubbed of make-up, and her hair vaguely tied in a knot behind her head. Despite all her grandstanding of being a 'tough bitch,' it was obvious that she cared about Puck. If nothing else, he'd been her friend, and his death had hurt her. Customary to Santana, she hid behind a wall of not caring.

Knowing her better than that, however, Brittany put a hand out to stop her girlfriend and coaxed her back into her seat.

Leg over her knee and bouncing, Santana crossed her arms and glared at their teacher. "Well?" she demanded.

Will half-smiled sadly. "I…" He took a deep breath and reached into his vest pocket. "I have a letter here… From Puck…" He looked around at each of them. "But if none of you want to hear it, then I won't read it… I want this to be decided as a group." He nodded. "Show of hands, who wants to hear the letter?"

People were hesitant at first; they looked around at each other uncertainly.

"I want to hear it," Quinn said, raising her chin.

Mercedes nodded, holding up her hand. "Me too."

And slowly, the rest of them raised their hands as well.

"I don't know," Tina said, shaking her head. "I'm not sure I can…"

"It's okay, Tina…" he assured. "If you want to leave, if it's too much, I can stop…"

She gripped Mike's hand and nodded.

Sitting back on his stool, Will stared down at the letter thoughtfully. "Puck marked it with a song he wanted you guys to hear… It's Bayside's Winter…" He reached down by his side and plucked up a guitar. "So I'm going to start with that…" He checked to make sure everybody was okay with that and when they all sat back and waited patiently, he put his guitar in his lap and started strumming, nodding his head along to the beat.

When Winter falls…
Next year, I'll be holding on,
To anything nailed down…
As for being patient,
With fate and all, it's getting old,
And my mind is slowly changing
I'm calling all my oldest friends,
Saying "sorry for this mess we're in,"
And I'm waiting…
Waiting…
For the sun to come and melt this snow,
Wash away the pain, and give me back control…
Control…


He raised his chin and looked at each of his gleeks as he sang a little deeper.

An angel got his wings,
And we'll hold our heads up knowing that he's fine…
We'd all be lucky to have a love like that in a lifetime…


He let the guitar trail off for a few seconds before standing from his stool and moving around the room, pausing to sing to each of them.

Should we still set his plate?
Should we still save his chair?
Should we still buy him gifts?
And if we don't, did we not care?
It makes you think about the life you've led,
Shit you've done, things you've said.
And it's grounding…
Grounding…
I've been feeling three feet tall this month,
Hardly indestructible,
But the snow melts…
And the rhythm still goes on…


Following the chorus, he stared at Finn meaningfully.

Friends stay side by side,
In life and death you've always stole my heart,
You'll always mean so much to me, it's hard to believe this…
These nights in vans…
These nights in bars…
Don't mean a thing with empty hearts…
With empty hearts…


And together, they all joined him for the chorus.

An angel got his wings,
And we'll hold our heads up knowing that he's fine…
We'd all be lucky to have a love like that in a lifetime…

Sniffling, they leaned into each other.

Nodding, Mr. Shue walked back to his stool and placed his guitar down beside him.

He cleared his throat as he picked up the rumpled paper that he'd obviously read through many, many times since receiving it.

"Mr. Shue ," he began, adding, "( and all the gleeks). You can read this to them if you want. I didn't write up something for all of them 'cause I figure this should be enough."

Santana scoffed. "Lazy  pendejo ."

He let it slide, continuing,  "I don't know if you're pissed at me or if you're sad or disappointed or what… I feel like half these letters are just me apologizing. So yeah, I'm sorry. Sorry I won't be there with you guys when you take Nationals. Sorry I won't see Mike dancing his ass off in LA or Artie's big movie debut. Sorry I won't see Santana and Brittany tie the knot and get their lesbian love on. Sorry I won't get to see if Quinn and Sam's kids are mutants, 'cause seriously those two are probably related or something, it's freaky."

A few of them laughed, while Sam frowned and Quinn rolled her eyes.

"Sorry I won't hear Mercedes put Aretha to shame. Or be around when Tina's art takes off. Sorry I won't hear about you, Mr. Shue, taking another bunch of reject misfits to Nationals and making them proud of themselves ." Mr. Shue smiled faintly to himself.

"I'm really sorry I'm not the badass you all thought I was and that I fucked this up just like I've done everything else. I'm sorry I ruined Quinn's life. I'm sorry I slusheed and swirlied and threw some of you in dumpsters. In general, just sorry I was such a dick to you. I'm sorry I'm upping the death toll to two and causing any of you guys any more shit.   But I'm also really thankful…"

He paused to look around at the group, some of them frowning, some unable to look at him as he read.

"Thankful that I got to know you. That Mercedes brought the chocolate thunder. And Mike and Tina brought the Asian Fusion. That Artie was my boy; for all our COD marathons and how you always got my back. I'm grateful that Quinn gave me Beth; even just to know she's alive is enough. That Sammy-boy showed up to take care of my baby-mama like she deserves. Grateful to Santana for still being my les-bro after everything went down; you'll always be my favorite bitch. For Brittany and all her blonde wisdom. And you, Mr. Shue, for—"  His voice caught. Swallowing tightly, he went on,  "—for being a stand-in father when my own was a douche I hardly remember. Despite everything, you always stood by us… " He reached up to swipe at his eyes and cleared his throat.

"I'm grateful I got a few years to sing and dance with you awesome losers. And I really, seriously hope you all do great things with your life. 'Cause you deserve it. 

I know you won't all get it and maybe you'll think I'm crazy as fuck or a selfish asshole, but… I made my choice and I don't care if you like it or not. She was everything I had and everything I loved and without her, I just didn't make sense anymore. Call me a pussy if you want, call it bullshit, whatever. It's over now and I want you to know it's what I wanted. I was ready and prepared for this and I know there's no going back. This wasn't something I decided at the last moment, I've just been waiting for the right time… "

Mr. Shue raised his head to look at Finn, before finally reading the rest.

"So that's it. It's all I really had to say. Thanks for all the memories. Live long, dream big. – Puck"

He folded the paper back up and held it tight between his fingers. Rubbing a hand down his jeans, he nodded and looked at them. "So that's it… That's… That's the last words of Noah Puckerman…" He laughed thickly, humorlessly. "And it's a little bit my fault. I—I should have stepped in more. I should have pushed him to get more help. I…" He shook his head. "I hoped that he would cope or…" He sighed, closing his eyes. "I don't know what I hoped, except that he would be here still, with us… That they both would be…"

He looked over the crowd of familiar, sad faces. "And I'm sorry… I'm sorry that you—you lost  Rachel  and  Puck  and that… That you are all hurting  so  much…" He stared searchingly. "I'm sorry that I couldn't save them and I hope— I  really  hope that if any of you are feeling the way he was that you don't… Don't do what he did. That you just, you talk to me or your parents or a counselor,  anybody , just as long as you don't follow in his foot steps. Because it's not…" He waved the letter at them. "I know that loss— it  hurts . That loving somebody and losing them, and not just— Not just a break-up but to actually  physically lose somebody… It-It's  heart-wrenching . But I am  begging  you… Your life is worth more than this. More than a goodbye on a piece of paper. I want you, all of you, to go on to have long, incredible lives. I—I wanted that for Puck too…"

He dropped his head and sighed. "He made this decision and I don't agree with it." He shook his head, frowning. "I—I'm even a little  mad  at him for doing it and maybe some of you are too… Maybe you're really angry or you think he was being selfish…" He looked to a nodding Santana, staring off angrily with her jaw clenched tight against emotion. "What I know is that Puck was really hurting and he made a decision when he didn't think he would ever feel another way. But I am here to tell you that you will…" He raised his brows meaningfully, gazing around at each of their faces. "It may not feel that way. It might feel like you can't imagine ever not hurting, not missing them, not wishing, desperately, that they were here with you… But one day, and it might be a long way down the road, but  one day  you are going to be okay again…" He pressed a hand to his heart. "You are going to smile and laugh freely and you will feel joy and happiness and you will be able to talk about them and remember them and not feel that ache in your chest. I  promise  you."

He watched as they let his words sink in. As Finn buried his face in his hands, elbows braced on his jumping knees, and Mercedes reached a hand out to his shoulder. As Quinn rested her chin on Sam's shoulder, her eyes closed. As Mike and Tina hugged each other equally tight. As Artie fiddled with his gloves and sniffed covertly. As Santana wiped quickly at her face and leaned away from Brittany's comforting hands. They would all heal and grieve in their own ways; he only hoped that it would be healthy and safe and that none of them chose the path Puck had.

The door swung open then and they all turned to see Coach Sylvester and her sidekick, Becky, walk into the room.

Shoulders slumping, Mr. Shue sighed. "Not today, Sue, please…"

"Don't pull your Labradoodle weave out in an unattractive rage, William," she said, tucking her arms behind her back. "We come in peace…" She looked around at each of them and nodded her head. "We heard you lost one of your tone-deaf monkeys this week and wanted to offer our condolences."

Skeptical, he frowned. "Thank you…"

Sue waved her hand dismissively. "We also heard that since there's no rock solid evidence of His Badassery's complete and total demise, Figgins doesn't think you should throw another memorial assembly…" She shrugged one shoulder, tipped her head, and said, "Can't say I blame him, since the screeching and sobbing mess of the last one did prompt a student to suicide." She raised a finger pointedly. "Note that as a statistic I will bring up next near when I petition once more that the Glee club is a sign of oncoming apocalypse… But," She drew a deep breath, "since you've already lost two of your champions and we're feeling in a charitable mood…" She glanced at Becky. "I know you wanted a plaque and your miniscule budget, and even smaller wage, wouldn't cover it, so… Becky?"

Stepping forward, Becky handed it over to Mr. Shuester.

"From us to you," Sue told them.

Blown away, Will shook his head, looking from her to the memorial plaque in his hands. "Sue, I… I don't know what to say, I…  Thank you … really."

Nodding, she said sincerely, "I know it may seem like I hate all of you with a fiery rage that could eclipse the sun, and for the more part that's accurate, but… Streisand and Diamond were of the few underhanded and determined little termites I actually liked just a little…" She shrugged slightly, adding, "Even if their incessant show of PDA made me dry-heave until I tasted blood on occasion…"

He smiled slightly, partly amused.

"Well… That's about all the sympathy I had left to share, so…" Sue turned back around to leave. "William… Children of the Corn," she said in farewell, as she and Becky left.

Everybody was silent a long moment, stunned at what had just transpired. But finally, Mercedes asked, "What's it say?"

Mr. Shue read it through to himself and then smiled faintly at the picture of Rachel and Puck on the front, arms wrapped around each other, smiling widely.

He cleared his throat before sharing it with them:

" Destined for greatness, gifted with talent beyond their years, taken too soon, remembered forever.
Rachel Barbra Berry and Noah Isaiah Puckerman were tragically lost to us, leaving their dreams and accomplishments as our last encouragement.
They live on in the hearts of their beloved friends in the glee club and their families.
We only hope that their love for each other and for music transcends the limits of death to go on with them
."

He nodded approvingly. "It goes on to add their dates of birth and death."

"It's beautiful," Tina said, smiling softly.

"Yeah, Rachel would like it," Mercedes agreed.

"We'll hang it in here," Mr. Shue decided. "Next to the trophy case…" He half-smiled. "So they can share in our future accomplishments."

After it was hung, they shared a moment of silence for their fallen friends.

Finn stared at it there on the wall thoughtfully. He considered what it said and what it meant and who it was for.

Brows furrowed, he sat back in his chair and filled the thoughtful silence.

Step one, you say we need to talk,
He walks, you say sit down, it's just a talk,
He smiles politely back at you,

You stare politely right on through…

Quinn stood from her chair, walking down to the floor below, staring intensely at the plaque, she sang with her arms wrapped tight around her waist.

Some sort of window to your right,
As he goes left and you stay right,
Between the lines of fear and blame,
And you begin to wonder why you came…


Mercedes rose with them, a hand to her heart, and belted out the chorus.

Where did I go wrong,
I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness,


She pointed at the plaque meaningfully.

And I would have stayed up with you all night,
Had I known how to save a life…


Artie raised his chin, his face a mask of resolute sadness, and rolled forward to sing in a deep, grief laden voice.

Let him know that you know best,
Cause after all you do know best…
Try to slip past his defense,
Without granting innocence


Sam wrapped an arm around Quinn's shoulder and shook his head, eyes closed tight as his voice rose up.

Lay down a list of what is wrong,
The things you've told him all along,
And pray to God, he hears you…
And pray to God, he hears you…


They harmonized for the chorus, their voices rising from deep inside themselves and echoing all around; reaching past the chorus room and out into the school as well.

Mike and Tina held tight to each other, singing together.

As he begins to raise his voice,
You lower yours and grant him one last choice,
Drive until you lose the road,
Or break with the ones you've followed…


Santana shook her head, throwing her arms out as she sang emotionally.

He will do one of two things,
He will admit to everything,
Or he'll say he's just not the same,
And you begin to wonder why you came…


They sang the chorus twice more, reaching out and taking each other's hands, bound together, gripping tight and taking comfort.

Brittany looked to Santana as she sang out softly.

How to save a life…
How to save a life…


And finally, Mr. Shue finished it out.

Where did I go wrong, 
I lost a friend,
Somewhere along in the bitterness,
And I would have stayed up with you all night,
Had I known how to save a life…
How to save a life…
How to save a life…


And breaking down once more, they came together in a group hug, holding each other up.

"We're going to make it through this," Mr. Shue promised.

"It doesn't feel like it," Tina cried, shaking her head.

Mike rubbed her back soothingly. "We will." He turned to look at the others strongly. " We will ."

../..

New Directions went on to take Nationals that year; they cried as the trophy was handed to them, partly out of joy and partly because of who wasn't there to share in their victory.

They dedicated it to their fallen friends and placed it in the trophy case.

And before they all left, Brittany stuck a small, gold star sticker on their shiny trophy, blew a kiss to the memorial plaque, and told the club quite simply, "They're proud of us."

Mr. Shuester saw genuine happiness in his kids for the first time in a month. They believed her. And, he supposed, they should; she was right.

Wherever they were, and he'd spent many a time pondering it, he was sure that Rachel and Puck weren't just together, but they'd been cheering them on the whole time.

After all, Rachel Berry never missed a performance. Surely not even death could stand in her way.

../..

September, 2012

"Have you blown up the glee tree yet?" Blaine wondered, smiling at the boy next to him.

Kurt pushed his sunglasses up onto his head. "Blaine, we  just  got off the plane…" He shrugged. "I was going to wait until we were in the cab."

He laughed, wrapping an arm around Kurt's waist. "They'll want to know…"

He nodded. "Yes, all right…" He dug his phone out of his pocket and started texting. "I'll tell Finn first..."

"How's he liking OSU?"

" Loving  it," Kurt told him, eyes wide as he nodded. "Did I tell you his truck broke down on the drive over?" He waved a hand dismissively. "Anyway, he said his roommate is pretty cool. A jock just like him; sports and girls on the brain." He rolled his eyes.

"He's taking business courses, right?"

"Mm-hm. He says he wants to be prepared for when he goes back to Lima to take over the tire shop from dad…"

"Well that's good. At least he's preparing."

"Yeah." He looked up at his boyfriend thoughtfully. "It makes sense, you know? Finn likes Lima. It'll be good for him to get out for awhile, get some business experience, but he'll be happy going back."

"While we'll be happy here…" He squeezed his shoulder. "How are you feeling? I know you were worried you might have regrets… Might feel like you were missing something…" He stared at him searchingly. "Or someone…"

Kurt sighed. "I miss her. I miss them both… I feel like they should be right here beside us…" He looked to his right as if still expecting to see them there. "But they're not and… Puck wanted this. He—He told me to do this and to enjoy it, so…" He nodded. "I'm going to." He leaned into him. " We're  going to."

"Okay. I just—I worry… I know how hard it all was on you."

"It was…" His brows hiked. "It  is …" As they stepped out of the airport, he stared at the busy street in front of him. "And I'll never forget them or what they've given me…" He stopped, turning to look at Blaine seriously. "I choose to believe that they're happy, wherever they are… I choose to believe that they're together, even if it's farfetched or crazy or just plain fairytale…" He shook his head. "That's what comforts me. That even though we lost Puck, he has her now. He has Rachel…" He sighed. "And if trading in New York for another year spent in Lima, saving up money working odd jobs meant I could have them back, I would. In a  heartbeat … But it doesn't. They're gone. And I…" His voice cracked emotionally. "I know they want me to be happy and in New York so I will make an effort to do just that…" He blinked quickly, pressing his lips tight together.

"Okay." Blaine wrapped his arms around him. "And I'll help you. Every day."

Nodding, Kurt buried his face against his boyfriend's shoulder.

After a few moments, when he'd calmed enough, he stepped back. "Let's get a cab," he suggested, smiling for both Blaine's and his own benefit. "Our life has just begun… And I can't wait."

Nodding, Blaine walked to the curb to hail them down a ride.

Twirling on his heel, Kurt looked around the busy street and the crowd of people with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Finally, he raised his face to the sky, where the setting sun painted it a mix of blue, yellow and orange, filtering through scattered clouds. "If… If you can hear me, I just… I want you to know…" He licked his lips. "I made it!" He smiled shakily and pressed a hand to his heart. "I love you both and…  thank you ."

He received no reply but the honking of horns and the hustle and bustle of New Yorkers. Still, he felt in his heart just a little more comfort.

"Kurt!" Blaine called, standing by the open trunk of a yellow cab and waving at him. "Life's waiting."

He grinned wider and crossed to him, lifting his rolling bag up and passing it over.

And he didn't care one bit that the passing New Yorkers gave his horse sweater a wry glance. Because sure, it wasn't his style, in fact he thought it was hideous, but it made him feel like just a little piece of Rachel really  was  with him. And that was all that mattered.

../..

Some Years Later

"Do we have everything?" Kurt asked, eyeing the bags by the door.

"Yes," Blaine assured with an exasperated smile. "Kurt,  trust me …" He stared at his boyfriend with a quirked brow. "This is nerves, okay?" He reached out to him and took his hands, leading him back to the couch. "Do you want to go over your speech again?"

"Would you mind?" he asked, though he was already digging the cue cards out of his pocket.

With a light chuckle, Blaine shook his head. "You've already read it to me and to yourself a hundred times…" He squeezed Kurt's hand. "You've  got  this…"

He nodded. "I know…" He shifted in his seat. "But this is so big, so  huge …" He shook his head. "I can't screw this up, Blaine."

"And you won't." He sighed softly. "I'm so proud of you… Of what you're doing here…" He stared at him searchingly. "Balancing this all with your schooling, with auditions…" He shook his head. "You amaze me."

He smiled. "Well, I did have  some  help…" He bumped Blaine's shoulder, turning his eyes to him meaningfully. "I couldn't have done this without you."

"Well, it's a good thing we have each other then, right?" He lifted Kurt's hand to kiss the back of it, threading their fingers.

"Right…" He squeezed Blaine's fingers and then turned abruptly to his cue cards. "Okay…  One more time …"

With a grin, Blaine nodded him on.

Kurt stood from the couch and raised his chin. "My name is Kurt Hummel… And I run the Rachel-Noah Initiative to ban bullying in its every form. I'm here in Ohio because for me, this is where it began… This is where myself, and my friends', and countless peers, began their journey of harassment and humiliation. I stand before you today not as the voice of one victim, but as the voice of many. I speak not just for myself or my personal experiences, but for hundreds of thousands of people who have shared their stories with me… Today I will only tell you one. I will tell you the story that led me to you. I ask only that you listen with open ears and hearts… I think it's only fair that I warn you that this story doesn't have a happy ending… But for what has come of it, it is full of tragedy and heartbreak… I want to tell you about Rachel Berry and the boy that loved her…"



It started with a blog.

A story.

A petition.

Kurt reached out to the world at large and he told them about Rachel. He told them about her dreams and her passions, her two dads, her losing battle against bullying, and her final stance.

He told them about a girl who stood up and said no. A girl who died for someone she didn't know. And a boy who accidentally killed her because he was scared. Because he feared the persecution of his peers and the unforgiving world he lived in.

He told them of Rachel and Puck and Karofsky and himself. He shared his own experiences as a boy coming to grips with his sexuality and facing the harsh reality that whether he accepted himself or not did not guarantee others would. He added that Karofsky had been a bully of his and so had Puck once upon a time.

He explained how Puck changed and grew and became Noah. Of how he embraced Rachel's dads like his own; how he received a face full of the same slushee beverage he'd once tossed at others; how he stood up in defense of those he'd once hurt; and how he took his own life when Rachel was lost to him.

Kurt gathered interest. Bloggers. Supporters. News outlets.

He petitioned the world to take notice of what they were doing; who they were hurting; what they were losing.

He contacted his congressman and he made him listen; made him understand.

The day the bill passed banning bullying from the schools, encouraging teachers and parents to take a good hard look at the children around them rather than turning a blind eye, Kurt Hummel wept with gratitude.

In Lima alone, slushees were banned from school property and any student found in possession of one was subject to a detention. If said student was a perpetrator of any harassment of a fellow student, a suspension was handed down. Continued abused meant an expulsion was in order. Contact between parents and teachers became more common; an awareness class became mandatory in all educational facilities to better teach students that bullying was unacceptable. It shouldn't and wouldn't be tolerated.

The Rachel-Noah law was by no means easy to get through and it took hard work and dedication, but eventually, they succeeded.

It went into effect on the anniversary of her death.

Kurt met the rest of the glee club in the McKinley choir room where, together, they hung up a framed copy of the signed piece of legislature just beneath the memorial plaque.

"For you," he said, staring at the picture of the smiling couple. And as Blaine and Mercedes took his hands and squeezed, he added, "For all of us."

[ End. ]