Puck is the first one back to the dorm room, three days before spring semester starts. It’s not like he hasn’t seen Finn in the almost one month exactly since fall semester exams ended, but the two of them had mutually agreed they’d spend this last winter break at the apartments their mothers each have. The dorm smells like it’s been empty for one day less than a month, stale and a little musty, but nothing rotten, which means they had remembered to empty the mini-fridge, take out the trash, and grab every last bit of laundry.
One more semester of college. When Finn had enrolled for the summer term of 2013, he’d convinced Puck to do the same. Finn had started fall of 2013 as a proper sophomore, and by the end of the summer of 2014, Puck had caught up, too, starting junior year with enough hours to be considered a junior. Their graduation applications for May were already submitted, and now they’re back at the University of Lima, getting ready for classes for the last time.
Out of all their high school classmates, Puck and Finn are two of the only three who will be graduating on time, even if they look ahead at the former members of the class of 2013 and their projected graduation date of May 2017. Puck drops his bags, full of clean laundry, onto the floor, and lets himself smile smugly. No one would have guessed it’d be the dumb jocks who made good.
Puck only has three classes, technically, but one of them is his capstone practicum, one’s the seminar about the practicum, and the final one is his very last elective. His desk has the same mix of applications for master’s programs, jobs, and internships as it did when he left back in December, and Puck decides with one glance it can probably wait until tomorrow, after he and Finn have gone to buy their books.
Finn’s desk is a similar mess of applications, though as far as Puck knows, they’re all for teaching jobs, and Puck winces as a familiar sensation starts in his gut. Neither of them has really brought up the fact that they could end up in different cities as early as June. It’s the worst part about being nearly finished, to Puck’s way of thinking. Neither of them will even be on campus most of the day, since Finn has his student teaching, and then suddenly in May, sixteen years of being together will be over.
It doesn’t have to be, Puck knows. There’s some overlap between their two stacks of applications, and it’d be pretty easy for them to make their decisions based on finding a city where they can be roommates again. That isn’t really what Puck wants. He’s almost certain it’s not what Finn really wants, either, but they haven’t done anything about it.
There’s always been something, and Puck knows that’s what this last semester has to be about for him, on the non-academic side. He and Finn have almost exactly four more months to figure out what they’re going to be to each other. Maybe he’ll mention something to Finn about fewer frat parties since they have faux-jobs and have to wean themselves off the parties anyway, and they can use that extra time to navigate it. Or they can use the extra time to keep not talking about it or dating other people or handling family issues, they way they have for over two years.
Puck grabs the groceries before any of the refrigerated stuff gets too warm, putting away the milk and juice, plus some frozen breakfast sandwiches. Finn’ll bring a lot of leftovers from Carole, cereal, and probably some pizza coupons. They’d duplicated part of their gifts to each other for Hanukkah and Christmas with pizza gift cards, so whenever the dining hall is serving fish, at least they have an alternative.
Then Puck unzips his bags and starts unloading his clean laundry. It’s not like he’d made his mom do it—he hadn’t—but free washing and drying at his mom’s is a lot better than a dollar in quarters per wash in the dorm basement. He’s putting away the last of his clean t-shirts when he hears Finn’s footsteps and then his key in the door.
“Welcome back,” Puck says, craning his neck to look around the bunk beds.
“Hey,” Finn says as the door swings open. “Already got most of your stuff put away, huh?”
“You’re the only one who’d believe I actually like things put away and not on the floor,” Puck says.
“I’m the only one who’s been seeing you do it first hand for, oh, a thousand years,” Finn says. He drops his own bags on the floor near the bunk beds.
“God, we’ve been in college a lot longer than I thought,” Puck says with a grin. “How’s your mom?”
“She’s doing good. She’s been on some dates!” Finn says.
Puck whistles. “I don’t think my mom intends to ever go on a date again. She’s looking at another forty-odd years of being alone.”
“Yeah, but she’s always seemed happier without having to put up with other people’s shit,” Finn says. “My mom doesn’t like to be alone. She never has, you know?”
“Yeah, I remember some doozies,” Puck says. “Is Kurt still doing his attempt at Matchmaking 2.0?”
Finn half-shrugs, doing the little head-bobble Kurt always used to do. “He’s mostly backed off on it. I think Burt finally said something to him about minding his own business.”
“It’s good of Burt to start parenting now that Kurt’s twenty-two,” Puck says with a snort. He tosses his bag under the bunk beds and sits down in his desk chair. Finn starts unpacking his bag, which appears to contains a lot more teacher-clothes than it did when he left for the break.
“Yeah. It sucks it turned out like that, but it’s not like Kurt calling Mom up is going to change anything,” Finn says. He holds up a blazer or sportcoat of some type. “Shit. I think I need more hangers.”
“I think I’ve got two or three empty ones you can take,” Puck says. “I can’t remember, do you have to do any classes on campus or just the teaching?”
“I’ve got my last elective, but it’s 19th Century British Poetry, so we’ll have to see how that goes,” Finn says.
Puck makes a face. “At least they had a class about modern novels I could take before I have to leave campus. I just hope they’re not all depressing.”
“Oh, I saw the reading list for that. They’re all depressing.”
“Dammit,” Puck says as he groans. “I’m going to make you look through those master’s programs and if they have depressing reading, you just tell me to get a job.”
“Sure,” Finn says, laughing a little. “Sounds fair, I guess.”
“See, at least you don’t have to decide between multiple things on multiple paths,” Puck says. “Why’d I let you talk me into college again?”
“I’m pretty sure you talked yourself into college, right along with talking me into not screwing around at college,” Finn points out.
“No. Shh. I’m blaming you for the depressing novels and the applications on my desk right now.”
“If it helps you sleep at night, dude,” Finn says, putting away the last of his clothes. “You eat yet?”
Puck shakes his head. “If I had one more variation on casserole, I was going to cry, and then Mom would’ve cried, too.”
“Want to hit the dining hall?”
“Yeah, sounds good,” Puck says as he stands up. “Bookstore in the morning?”
“My student loan disbursement says no, but my syllabus says yes,” Finn says.
Puck laughs. “Exactly.”
The first night back in the dorm is the first good sleep Puck’s had in awhile, except for a couple of nights during the break, and he doesn’t examine that too closely. The dining hall breakfast is exactly as mediocre as ever, and then he and Finn walk through the overnight snow and below-zero wind chill to the bookstore.
An hour later, they’re still in the bookstore, and Puck sighs. “You’d think we would have learned by now.”
“We’ll have learned it for sure by next semester, when we don’t have to come back,” Finn says.
“Oh, God,” Puck says with a slight whimper. “Why do I even have applications for a master’s? Why did I major in social work? What have I done?”
“Because you’re a good person who wants to make the world a better place,” Finn says, balancing his books in one arm as he claps Puck on the shoulder. “That’ll get you through the next couple of years, right?”
“There’s a reason I give the pep talks around here,” Puck says. “That was weak.”
“Hey now, I don’t have as much time to work on my pep talks, or I’d be really good at them!” Finn says.
“The first meeting of the seminar about the practicum is listed as ‘time management’ on my syllabus. You should come listen in,” Puck says.
“I’m an excellent time manager. I just only have twenty-four hours in my day, and I’ve got to sleep sometime.”
“Hmm.” It’s an opening, and Puck decides that the line at the bookstore is as good a time as any to take it. “We probably should cut back on the parties.”
“Yeah?” Finn says, then nods. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“I don’t think teachers or social workers go out every week,” Puck says a little wryly. “Probably more like once a month.”
“Probably not even once a month. It’s not like we’re going to be rolling in money,” Finn says.
“Yeah, we didn’t exactly go the fame and fortune route, did we?” Puck says. He shakes his head and looks around, and since he doesn’t immediately see anyone they know, he turns back to Finn. “We really are going to have to—”
“Hey, Puck,” a semi-familiar male voice says. Puck turns, feeling his eyebrows scrunching together, and there in front of him is Tim, also known as the guy Puck went out with a few times around midterms, spring of junior year, which is perfect timing. “I was hoping I’d run into you!”
“Tim,” Puck says in what he hopes is a friendly but unenthusiastic tone. “Yeah, bookstore a day or two before the semester’s where everyone is.”
“You taking a lot of classes this time? Tim asks, eyeing the stack of books in Puck’s arms.
“Last English elective,” Puck says. “Other than that, I’ll mostly be off-campus.” If Puck’s lucky, Tim will get the message of ‘don’t look for me’, but part of the reason Puck stopped going out with Tim in the first place was that he wasn’t great at getting the message.
“Cool. Almost done, huh?” Tim asks, still apparently unable to pick up that message.
“Last semester, yeah,” Puck says, giving Finn his best ‘please help me’ look. Finn just shrugs helplessly.
Tim plows on again without even glancing at Finn. “Anyway, since I did run into you, I was wondering if you wanted to get together and tr—”
“Oh, shit,” Finn suddenly says loudly. “I left my student ID in the room.”
“I’ll go get it if you save our spot in line,” Puck says as fast as he can, already handing the books in his arms to Finn.
“Yeah, sure,” Finn says.
“Sorry, gotta run,” Puck says to Tim, ducking out of the line and then out of the bookstore into the main student center. Since Finn probably didn’t really manage to leave his ID and not his wallet, Puck heads into one of the bathrooms and waits for the all-clear. Sure enough, after about a minute, Puck receives a text that says I have my ID, but you can bring me a coffee now that he’s gone.
Puck snorts. Oh I see how it is he sends back, but when he leaves the bathroom, he detours towards the coffee stand, getting at the end of the short line.
Yeah you see how I got rid of whatshisface, Finn shoots back.
Puck laughs and puts his phone away, ordering himself a small coffee and a medium for Finn. He looks around carefully as he goes back into the bookstore, in case Tim’s still lurking near one of the food court places. Puck makes it back to their place in line without incident, though, and exchanges the medium coffee for his stack of books.
“Thanks,” Puck says.
“I always thought that guy was kind of a tool,” Finn says, taking a sip of his coffee.
“Oh yeah?” Puck asks, because it’s possible Finn means just as Tim relates to Puck, not in general.
“Yeah, I never did like him,” Finn says.
“He’s not bad looking,” Puck says with a shrug. “Something to do.”
“You could do better, though.”
It’s another opening, and Puck sips at his coffee while he tries to decide how to respond. He doesn’t see any other exes ready to interrupt, at least. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Finn says.
That response isn’t much of an opening, though, and Puck isn’t sure if he should up the ante a little or let the moment slide. The likely explanation is that Finn doesn’t want to overcommit with anything he says, that he’s feeling out Puck’s response, but there’s a nagging voice in the back of his head that reminds him it could be a very gentle way of letting Puck down. Total rejection in the middle of the bookstore line doesn’t sound like that much fun.
Puck takes another drink of his coffee, stalling a little, and then the line moving makes the entire internal debate a moot point. There’s at least one of the guys from the frat visible in front of them in line now, and they’re about to be split into multiple lines by a bookstore employee.
“Later,” Puck says under his breath, glancing out of the corner of his eye to see if Finn hears him or not. Finn seems to almost imperceptibly nod, but it could be a response to Puck, a barely-there greeting to someone from one of his classes, or just his head moving. Puck nods a little himself as they split into different lines to pay. Somehow, that ‘later’ felt more like an excuse he was trying to give himself than a promise to really pick it back up.
By Friday morning, Puck’s body has more or less readjusted to waking up early, but he wrinkles his nose when he stretches and looks out the window.
“Rain?” he says. “That’s gonna be gross.”
“Aw, man, really? On top of the snow?” Finn complains. “It’s all going to be grey slush.”
“Yeah, and the parking lot at the agency is already half-gravel anyway, so that’ll be even more fun,” Puck says, climbing down from his bunk.
“Yuck. At least the lot at the school is regular concrete.”
“What do you have to do today? More observations and paperwork?” Puck asks. He opens one of his drawers and stares at the contents, not really awake enough to pick out anything.
“Yeah,” Finn says, standing up and starting to pull clothes off hangers. “I don’t get to do any lesson plans until a couple of weeks in. I think I get to do some grading this week, though.”
“Whereas I had an hour to fill out paperwork, an hour to get ‘oriented’, and now they’re just putting me in meetings with clients,” Puck says. “In theory, I’m being supervised.”
“But you like it okay?”
“I wish I could do more, you know?” Puck says. “You?”
“It’s okay. I’d like to work with the kids more directly,” Finn says. “They seem pretty cool.”
“Look at us,” Puck says with a laugh. “We got old. ‘Kids’.”
“But they are kids!” Finn protests.
“That’s what I’m saying. We got old. They really are kids,” Puck says.
Finn starts buttoning up his shirt. “I’m not old. You’re old.”
“How does that work?” Puck asks. “How can I be old and you not be?”
“Maybe it’s like Mom used to say, about people having a lot of living in their years. Maybe you had more living in your years than me,” Finn says. “Like when you went to L.A., and I was still here. That probably counts for a couple extra years.”
Puck finally pulls fresh underwear and an undershirt out of his drawer and closes it, starting to get dressed as he stares at Finn. “You’re trying to tell me you think I’m like five years more mature than you or something?”
“Yeah, probably,” Finn says.
“How exactly do you figure that?” Puck pulls out a clean pair of jeans, because the supervising person at the agency had told him the first day that he was dressed a little too nicely for an intern.
“You lived on your own, right?” Finn says. “And you supported yourself. I haven’t ever done that. I only ever lived at home and in the dorm.”
“For maybe six months, and it wasn’t exactly good living,” Puck says. “I don’t think that’s a good enough case.”
“You’re motivated, though. You decide to do stuff, and you do it.”
Puck gestures at Finn, moving his hand up and down with one eyebrow raised. “Uh?”
“What?” Finn asks.
“How exactly are we any different on that?”
Finn shrugs. “Come on. You know I wouldn’t have gotten this far without you.”
“Not even by now?” Puck glances outside again before picking out a shirt.
“Hey, by now I’m so used to you being here, I’d probably forget to eat and go to bed and stuff without you,” Finn says.
Puck pulls a sweater on over his shirt and swallows a little. “I know you’d forget to brush your teeth,” Puck says as jokingly as he can manage. “I think you’d remember to eat, though.”
“Nah, I’d’ve starved to death by now,” Finn says. “I’d be a skeleton in a button-down.”
“Discipline’d be a snap with the kids,” Puck says, snapping his fingers. “They’d all be scared of the skeleton.”
“I’d probably have a hard time getting to work, though. I don’t think they let skeletons have drivers licenses.”
Puck sighs dramatically. “I could probably drop you off.”
“Not if you left me alone to turn into a skeleton,” Finn says. “I’d be all alone and I couldn’t even drive myself to work.”
“Oh my God, I’m not going to let you turn into a skeleton,” Puck says, then turns to his desk as he can feel his eyes widening a little. “Do you have time to hit the dining hall?”
“Yeah, probably. I could eat.”
Puck shoves his textbook for his seminar into his bag, since that’s the last few hours of his day on Fridays, then turns around, hopefully not looking too weird. “Can’t let you turn into a skeleton, right?”
“See? That’s what I’m talking about,” Finn says. “You’re only thing between me and starving to death. I was just going to get something from the vending machine at the school.”
Puck shakes his head and locks their door as they head to the dining hall. The number of people around them increases enough that Puck manages a half-smile. “What are you going to do in June?”
Finn shrugs. “Get a job where they’ll hire me, I guess. What about you? You decide about the master’s thing for sure?”
“I figure I’ll send the applications in and then I can decide at the end of the semester, right?” Puck says. “I guess I could always text you some reminders.”
“Yeah, I guess. Or you could go to grad school nearby,” Finn says.
“Not tired of me yet?” Puck asks. He doesn’t know that he could, not if it just meant another two years or more of the two of them not quite being together, not fully discussing what they could be, and each of them off-and-on dating other people. Puck feels like if he goes wherever Finn goes, or vice versa, locked in their closer-than-most-best-friends relationship but nothing more, that’s all it’ll ever be. He’s pretty sure he’s not willing to accept that, not yet.
Finn laughs. “Are you kidding? I don’t know what I’d even do without you.”
“Don’t take me for granted,” Puck says almost jokingly as they get in line for what smells like sausage and French toast sticks.
“Would I do that?” Finn asks, then he suddenly stops walking, catching Puck by the sleeve. “Wait. I don’t do that, do I?”
Puck stops and turns to face Finn, shaking his head almost automatically. They do take each other for granted, but Puck knows that’s not exactly what Finn’s asking. Puck has a momentary realization of how out of place they probably look, standing in the middle of the dining hall dressed a lot more nicely than ninety-nine percent of the people there. He puts his hand over Finn’s, mostly because it’s an excuse to.
“We’re good,” Puck says.
Finn exhales, looking relieved. “Okay. Good.”
“You know what isn’t, though?” Puck says, sudden realization hitting him.
“We can’t get French toast sticks,” Puck says sadly.
“What? Why?” Finn asks.
Puck makes a face. “You know we’d get syrup all over.”
“Aw man,” Finn says. “Being a responsible adult sucks.”
“Yeah.” Puck sighs. “Maybe they’ll have leftovers tomorrow.”
The two of them make it through breakfast without any kind of food incident, then both head off campus. Puck lets his mind wander a little as he drives. He and Finn have been able to depend on each other for years, which isn’t the same as taking each other for granted. It doesn’t change that it’s an odd space to be in. Puck parks and dodges the puddles of grey slush in the parking lot as he heads in. He can give himself another month or so, or the whole semester. They really are basically working, plus sending in applications and taking their electives, so maybe Puck needs to worry less. Everything’s always worked out for them before, and there’s no reason to think that won’t be true again. It’s only January fifteenth; they have time.