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Anything but love

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It had been two weeks of hell.

From the second Puck heard the news of Finn's death, each day, each hour, each minute that passed seemed to him to be completely pointless, a mocking of what had once been. Because he knew that every second that passed was another second that he would not be able to see Finn, another second bringing them all further and further from Finn still being alive. Every second was another exercise in hopelessness, a mocking of how Puck's life had once been, and what it now was.

The anger he had allowed to fill his chest and his seep deep into his heart, coming out through the tension of his body and the aggression of his words or expressions, every time something or someone pressed down on it, had for a time served as a distraction, a means to fill up time and satisfy himself that he were feeling something, that it was a better and easier feeling than any other. Anger was something Puck was used to, something he had accepted and even considered part of him for all of his life, something that was not embarrassing or painful but rather empowering, forcing others to fear him or at the very least to leave him be. At least, that was what he used to think; now, it seemed harder and harder to hold onto the anger, to shove back any other feelings and let it run unchecked within him.

Feelings like guilt, for not having done more to somehow stop Finn's death from occurring, to save him, though even now he could not begin to think of how this might have occurred. Feelings like nostalgia as he realized, day by day, that all the stupid things he had taken for granted with Finn were done and over with, forever. There would be no locker room conversations about the girls they were dating- or in Puck's case, usually just screwing- no football games or performances in Glee, no dinners at Breadstix or parties in Puck's basement. There would be no fist bumps or spring break trips, no rides in each other's cars, no Super Bowl Sundays or group dates out. There would be nothing, not so much as a glance or a smile, and everything that Puck had looked ahead to with Finn, thinking of it not as anything special or particularly important, but just inevitable and expected, would never happen. It was all over, and he could not seem to wrap his mind around it.

He had made a lot of choices, back in Lima, during the week of Finn's memorial at the school. Listening to all the songs, seeing everyone's tears and hearing their memories, seeing how Finn had affected them all- and some deeply felt interactions with Coach Beiste too- had gotten Puck thinking, and by the time the week was up he had made a decision. By joining the Air Force, he would be choosing a direction to his life, finally stepping into adulthood and becoming the sort of man he had always privately feared he was incapable of being. Not only that, he would be honoring Finn, taking up the position that Finn had not been able to, in honor of his own father, and Puck could think of no better way to live his life.

He had been sort of proud of his decision, even without the others in Glee telling him the same thing. It felt like one of the few things he'd ever done in his life that was the right thing, and he'd done it on his own, without anyone giving him advice or telling him what to do first. And after the goodbye with his mother and Sarah, he had driven back to New York City with Rachel and Kurt and Santana, seemingly the most logical thing to do, since the stationing center in New Jersey was only a two hour drive from their apartment. And this too had seemed ideal; some extra time with some of his Glees before heading off to isolation for who knows how long.

What he had forgotten about was the Santana factor. Because for every single hour that Puck had been stuck in the backseat of Kurt's car with her, while he and Rachel, in what he suspected in hindsight had been a deliberately calculated move, took the front and passenger seat, she had managed to find and relentlessly jab down on every single button of his she could possibly press.

They had never had a totally smooth relationship, even when they were dating; maybe especially when they were dating. Puck and Santana had always been up and down, back and forth, whether this was referring to their sexual status with each other or even whether they could be in a room together for five minutes without bickering and insulting each other. If he had ever tried to analyze it, which he hadn't, not being the type to even want to try, Puck would have come to the conclusion that the two of them were simply too much alike to be able to avoid butting heads. Not with the guy/girl differences, of course, although it seemed to him that their tastes in women tended to overlap sometimes, but just with their general way of going about life. Neither were good at backing down from arguments or admitting wrongs, both tended to be arrogant, aggressive, and defensive, and had a temper that could flare up with little provocation. And though Puck would never admit it, and would have doubted Santana would either, both harbored beneath the surface a secret insecurity of themselves that impacted many of their choices and reactions. They could see little pieces of themselves in the other person, whether or not consciously, and any prolonged exposure would almost inevitably become an explosion.

Santana was one of his Glee girls, and he would always care about her, always be there if she really did want or need him, not that this was ever likely to occur. But starting back at Lima and continuing almost relentlessly all the drive up to New York City, she was driving him absolutely fucking insane.

And it seemed like it was deliberate on her part. Practically every five minutes, she had some snarky comment directed towards him, whether this be about his hair or his clothes to his choice in music to his choice in girls to his choice to go to the Air Force. Everything she could think of, everything he could possibly say or do seemed to be fair game to Santana's criticism, and between that and Rachel and Kurt steadily turning show tunes up to higher and higher volumes to drown them out, by the time they actually pulled into the parking area of the NYC apartment, Puck's anger, which he had thought he had left back behind in Lima, had renewed itself to a point that he felt as though somewhere were crawling beneath his skin, fighting to explode out of him most likely into a display of physical violence.

He would never hit Santana, or any other girl; he knew that, though he sometimes feared that this wasn't the case, that he would become every bit the asshole his father had been and worse. That he would make girls fear him and hate him as well as disrespect him, that he would become less and less of a man the more he was around them. He wouldn't hit her, but sometimes, when she got this bad, sometimes when the anger seemed to have turned his blood into liquid fire flowing through his veins, it was touch and go, and he couldn't entirely remember why not.

By the time they stalked into the apartment, Kurt and Rachel almost immediately fleeing towards their own curtained sections in a likely pointless attempt to have quiet and privacy away from the others, Puck was beginning to realize that the circumstances hadn't changed very much. He was still trapped in a small space with Santana, where he didn't have so much as a curtain to escape behind. Even if he were to lock himself in the bathroom for the rest of the night, unless he ran the water all night long, he could still hear whatever Santana might choose to shout at him, and he undoubtedly Kurt and Rachel would have squawk about their water bill if he tried it. The apartment simply gave Santana more space to stalk around following him while she harped on him, and even as Puck headed straight for their kitchen, intending to find a beer or five, there she was, only a couple of feet away from him. And she just. Wouldn' . It. a. rest.

"Right, heading straight for the booze, then, that's a shocker," she leveled towards him, arms crossed in front of her ample chest, eyebrows slanted towards her nose, forehead furrowed with her irritation. She stepped closer, seeming to want to force Puck to move away to keep distance between them, but he stood his ground. He was not backing away from Santana Lopez, of all people, because what kind of message would that send, what kind of power trip would that give her?

"Going gets tough and Puck gets wasted, this is definitely new and unusual coping skills on your part."

"Back the hell off, Lopez," Puck said tersely, wanting to shoot out a hand against her chest to shove her back himself, but also not wanting to touch her. If he touched her now, when he was so pissed off at her, he couldn't guarantee that he wouldn't keep touching her, in progressively more aggressive ways, so he kept his body deliberately turned away from her as much as was possible as he took three beers out of the refrigerator and lined them on the counter space closest. As he started to shut the door, however, Santana was still talking, and he swore she had moved even closer, practically breathing down his neck now, when he had turned his eyes away from her even just for a few seconds.

"Yes, you're very predictable, Fuckerman. You take up valuable apartment space, perfectly good breathing air, and of course, my jacket, why the hell wouldn't you take my beer too while we're at it?"

"I didn't take the jacket," Puck ground out, gripping the refrigerator door so tightly his knuckles whitened against it. He didn't shut it yet, just attempting to focus on maintaining a level of control of himself, but Santana was persistent, refusing to let it go. Had he been able to really look at her then without his anger controlling everything he was able to see, to hear her without wanting to slap her across the face automatically, he would have seen the genuine desperation and grief glittering in her eyes, heard the pleading in her voice beneath the surface anger, but he couldn't, and he missed both when she spoke again.

"Come on, just tell me what the hell you did with it! I know you can't have it now, you can't take that shit to the air force, they won't let you wear that kind of thing so you MUST have left it back in Lima somewhere, just tell me where and I'll make someone mail it to me. Come on, it's not like you can keep it yourself, you're just being an asshole if you won't tell me where it is, you just want to make sure I can't have it when you can't have it either, and that's not-"

Stiffening all over, Puck slammed the refrigerator door, almost catching his hand in it in the process, and turned fast to face her, pointing one slightly shaking finger towards her as his voice rose again. He could feel the heat of his growing anger traveling through him again, leaving his muscles so tight and stiff that it seemed to him that the only thing that would loosen them up, the only thing that would effectively let him bleed out the rage that her words and actions was causing to build up within his entire frame, would be to hit out at something or someone, to receive or give out physical pain. Sometimes it seemed to him that feeling or witnessing physical pain was the only way to avoid or entirely dissipate emotional pain, and he wanted to, so badly, in that moment that he could feel a shakiness settle over his limbs, causing him to tremble visibly even as he snapped back at her.

"I don't know if you got a hairspray build-up in your ears over the years or balls of earwax or some dude's spunk or what, but you obviously ain't hearing, Ho-Pez, so let's try again. I didn't. Fucking. Take. . Did you get it this time, did you hear me loud and clear? I didn't fucking take it! But even if I did, which I already said I fucking DIDN'T, you really think it wouldn't belong to me and every other person in the whole Glee club before it would ever belong to you?"

"It does belong to me, Kurt gave it to me, asshole!" Santana fired back, her voice rising into a progressively louder and shriller tone, and she took another step closer, jabbing a finger directly into his chest. "It's MINE, it's not yours and it never was, it's MINE-"

"You really think Finn would want YOU to have it? His letterman jacket, YOU?" Puck retorted, and when she poked his chest, his hand snatched out to catch hold of it, squeezing her wrist until he heard her gasp. He let go then not because he wanted to, but because he knew he had to, because if he kept hold of it much longer, he would not be able to guarantee that he wouldn't hurt her. Her wrist was so damn tiny it wasn't like it would have been hard to.

"Get fucking serious, Santana. You weren't friends. The only reason he was ever nice to you was because he pitied you. And YOU, you really think you deserve his jacket after the way you were such an evil bitch to him? You didn't give a shit about him, you didn't do shit for him, why the hell should you get his jacket? What the hell would you do with it anyway, hang it up in your closet as some kind of twisted game, trying to prove you actually cared? Trying to keep it away from the people that really did? Or are you gonna bury it under a pile of stained panties and forget it ever existed?"

He knew with a vicious satisfaction that his words had hit the intended mark when Santana's spine stiffened, her lips pressing together into a thin line, and a liquid sheen coming into her eyes. He thought for a second that she would slap him across the face- just like she had once done to Finn- or maybe burst into tears, yelling in Spanish at him and launching herself towards him in an effort to actually inflict some kind of lasting damage, even though it was probably her manicured nails and not her scrawny little fists that he would actually have to worry about. But she blinked several times, and the threatening tears were banished, her expression becoming pure outrage as she reached out with both hands and shoved him as hard as she could in the chest. It didn't budge him, but that didn't stop her from pushing him several more times with increasing effort, trying to.

"Don't you fucking DARE, Puckerman! Don't you DARE!"

She shoved him again, and this time Puck felt nails pierce his chest slightly through his shirt. She jabbed her finger in his face, centimeters from poking him in the eye, as her voice rose up higher still, practically screaming in his face.

"Don't you dare act like you know shit about either of us, don't you dare! What the hell did you ever do for Finn other than fuck every girl he put his eyes on? We WERE friends, I DID give a shit, he was my friend and I did care about him, I did lo- I did love him!" she stuttered over the word, and he saw her blinking back against a new sheen of tears again, her lips flatlining before she shoved his chest yet again. "Don't' you dare tell me about us like you fucking know, what kind of friend were YOU to him? How the hell can you judge without looking in the fucking mirror!"

"Hey, what is going ON in here? Guys, stop it, just calm down already!" came Kurt's voice in protest, and as he emerged from behind his curtain, Rachel was coming into view moments later, her voice taut with anxiety, literally wringing her hands in front of herself as she too half pleaded with them.

"Noah, Santana, please, please just stop…it's late and we're, we're tired and upset and just…please-"

But there was no stopping either of them now. They were on a roll, barely hearing or seeing the other two cutting through the living room area towards them in the kitchen area, and Puck was focused in on Santana and her words alone, seizing on what he could from them to hurt her the most.

He knew he had already pressed pretty hard, telling her that she didn't deserve Finn's jacket, that she hadn't been a good friend to him and she hadn't really cared about him. He knew deep down that this wasn't true; as fractious as their relationship had been, Finn and Santana had genuinely loved each other, and everyone in Glee club knew it. Puck knew that too. But it seemed like the implication that they may not have hurt Santana, or maybe she harbored doubts of her own, and so in his anger he seized on this weakness, going in for the kill. There was satisfaction in seeing someone else's pain, a perverse pleasure in knowing he could make Santana hurt as he was hurting, and distract himself from it in the process. It was better than focusing on his own, to inflict some on Santana, and so he ignored their friends' pleas, seizing Santana's hands again and holding them tightly, restraining her from pushing him as he leaned his face close to hers, not shouting, but maintaining a deliberately aggressive tone.

"Oh, you were friends, huh, really awesome friends, you think so? You loved him? Cool story, Lopez, but tell me, did he know that? You ever tell him that? You ever do anything except call him names and pull him into and then kick him out of your bed? You ever do anything except make fun of his weight and his nipples and his dancing and his friends and his girl, you ever do anything with him outside of Glee club, just the two of you? You ever call him on the phone just to talk, you ever tell him he killed one of the songs he sang or that he was a good FRIEND or that he was good to Rachel or ANYTHING except what a tub of lard loser he was? You ever do that, Santana? Words are cheap…and so are you."

He didn't see the slap coming; one moment Santana was tearing her hands out of his grasp, and then there was a sudden sharp stinging across left cheek and part of his nose. He had barely processed this, had not so much as lifted a hand to his face, when she was shoving at him again, heedless to Rachel's horrified exclamation and Kurt's shrill calling of her name.

"LOOK WHO'S TALKING! Who the hell fucks every girl he can get into bed with him, whether they're sober or not?! Who's been fucking freshman girls, who knocked up the PRESIDENT OF THE CELIBACY CLUB after getting her DRUNK, who by the way was FINN'S GIRLFRIEND, who falls into bed with any girl who has tits and then dumps her down the curb the second you cum? Who barely passed high school and doesn't actually have a job or a future other than cleaning pools and fucking old women NOT for cash, what have you EVER been but cheap, Puckerman?! You're like a knockoff version of Finn, all you do is skulk around behind him picking up or snatching away whatever he sets down! His girls, his activities, his EVERYTHING, even the damn Air Force, you can't do anything on your own, you have to mess up everything he ever did or said and try to make it yours but you still can't cover up what a fucking loser you are!"

"Santana!" Kurt and Rachel call out simultaneously, Kurt's voice a shout, Rachel's a horrified whisper, but neither register to Puck's ears. He could feel his face begin to burn, his eyes to sting slightly, not just from the fading pain of her slap, but from her words himself. Because Santana Lopez always knew exactly how to get under someone's skin, and she had slipped so deeply beneath his that he felt as though she had cut him to the bone.

Because what she was saying to him...it was exactly what he himself had privately feared to be true. Finn's shadow, always less than. Less talented, less liked, less successful, less of a future, less likely to ever be loved or appreciated, to ever become a real man. No one ever said it to his face, other than his own parents- no one would have had the nerve. Except for Santana Lopez. And as he looked down into her eyes, seeing the intensity of his anger, his immediate reaction was to hurt her back, girl or not, as much as she had just hurt him. If not more.

Puck reached down, seizing her by the upper arms and holding hard enough that he knew it would be difficult for her to pull away, knew that he was probably holding her too hard, harder than he had ever held a girl before, maybe even hard enough to bruise. He started to propel her backwards towards the wall, still holding onto her arms as he yelled, inches from her face.

"You take that fucking back, Lopez! Run your mouth, that's all you know how to fucking do, so what the fuck are you doing with your life? Taking off your clothes and letting people you call fucking losers ogle the tits your daddy gave you, dropping out of school because you can't take the heat of being away from the girl who's so over you she's back to fucking dudes? Crashing at other people's apartment because you can't stand on your own two feet? What the fuck are you doing with your life other than holding onto to other people's coattails and letting them drag you through your own pile of shit?"

He pressed his face close to hers, a sick part of him enjoying the way her dark eyes had grown wide, the way tears came into their surface and caught at her eyelashes, not quite falling. He liked the stricken look of her features, the glint of fear he could see in her eyes, the way her throat worked as though she could not force words from it, the small fragility of her arms beneath his grip. He could see her chest heaving, and even as a larger part of him was disgusted with himself, even as he knew he should back off, apologize, there was still a part of him that enjoyed feeling this sense of power over her, this sense of forcing her to "get hers." And this part was what wouldn't let him back down.

He shook her then, just once, but hard, and would have shook her again, maybe even considered hitting her, if it hadn't been for the outcry of the two other people in the apartment with them.

"Noah, no! Stop...Noah, stop it, please, Santana, please, just...don't, please don't. Not now...not tonight, not not EVER...just...don't, please…"

Rachel was sobbing, head buried in her hands on the couch across the room from them. Puck could see out the corner of his eyes that her back was shaking with her tears, that she seemed genuinely afraid to look up at him- to see what he might do. For Rachel to be afraid of him, crying because of him, caused Puck to freeze even before Kurt's shrill tone broke through his partial daze, his and then the smaller man's arms were pulling hard at his hands, trying to force them off of Santana.

"Noah Puckerman, don't even think about it, get your hands off her and back away. BACK AWAY!"

And without hardly even realizing that he was obeying, or who he was obeying, Puck did as he was being told, releasing Santana abruptly and letting Kurt Hummel, of all people, pull him back. He could feel Kurt's scrawny hand still firmly attached to one bicep, could still hear Rachel's tears in the background and Kurt's high pitched voice lecturing, seeming to be approaching tears too as he continued.

"Both of you, stop it, do you think Finn would be okay with either one of you doing this, do you think this is okay? You can't do this! Santana, if he said he didn't take the jacket, then just...just let it go. I've got other things of his I can give you, just please, please let it go. Puck, don't you ever even act like you're going to hurt her again, I don't care how big or tough you think you are, I promise you I will find a way to hurt you. And both of you...just STOP screaming at each other, STOP putting each other down, just STOP!"

Kurt was breathing almost as hard as Puck and Santana were at this point, and Puck didn't miss the near desperate fear in the other young man's eyes along with his anger, the devastation in Rachel's face where she remained hunched over, hugging herself, on the couch. He let his eyes drift to Santana, and then, unable to look at her, immediately turned his face away.

But those few seconds of looking at her had been enough to fully inform him of her current state of mind, for him to see, really see, the emotions she could no longer even attempt to hold back or cover up. Santana was trembling, her arms now wound tightly around herself, hugging her elbows to her torso, and the tears that had been standing in her eyes were now overflowing, trickling down her cheeks as she tried to glare hatefully in his direction. Between her quivering lips and her obviously distraught eyes, all she could manage to summon up was an angry grimace, and her voice cracked and trembled badly when she tried to retort back to Puck.

"You-you bastard…Finn would really, F-Finn would be so fucking proud of you, pushing a girl around like…treating her like…"

"Santana, STOP," Kurt broke through before she could really get going, and Puck heard her sob as she cut herself off, could see even as he tried to avert his eyes that her head was bowed, concealing her face.

Shame was beginning to settle in as strongly as his anger and his grief now, shame and self-disgust, and he deliberately stepped further away from her, away from Kurt and Rachel too, unable to form words of apology for any of them. He knew they were right. Finn would hate what he had just done, the things he had said. But even as he clinched his jaw, saying nothing, Kurt was still talking.

"Both of you need to leave, right now. Get out of his apartment, go cool off, and come back when you can stop from doing this. But I refuse to watch or listen to this anymore and I refuse to let you do it in front of Rachel."

It was hardly a surprise, to be asked to leave, but it was unexpected that they would ask Santana to go too. She was a girl, after all, she was their roommate, and at least from what would be the average person's perspective, Puck would guess, the victim. Sure, she had slapped and pushed him first, but she was the girl, smaller and weaker than him, and she was probably the only one who would have physical marks. But glancing over at Kurt, Puck could see form his thinned lips and set jaw that he was serious, that he had every intention of doing whatever it took to make sure that they would leave- both of them.

And Santana seemed to realize this too. Her eyes shifted between the three of them, barely ghosting over Puck's form, before she gave another sob aloud, one hand lifting to swipe at her eyes and doing little to change the fact that they were still steadily seeping tears as fast as she could wipe. She muttered swears beneath her breath, and then turned to grab her purse from the counter, head lowered as she headed straight for the door. And Puck, with a heavy sigh, followed her out.

Arms tightly crossed over his chest, Puck kept his head down, eyes up, trained on Santana's rigid back as he walked rapidly outside her apartment, trying to keep up with her. Having never been to her apartment before, he was unfamiliar with the area, and he could just see Santana deliberately losing him in the New York streets, with no wallet or cell phone, to try to figure out for himself how to get back. Not to mention that it was already dark outside, and he didn't want to leave her stalking through New York City streets alone. Despite what had just happened between them, and the remaining strands of anger he still carried, she was nevertheless still one of the handful of people in his life he cared about, and she was an attractive female who was obviously too upset at this point to be paying much attention to her surroundings. Whether or not she wanted him to follow her or accompany her, there wasn't much choice if he wanted to satisfy his own conscience, and so he quickened his steps, careful to keep his eyes on her.

Santana had been totally out of line in what she said, as only Santana would dare to be, and she had hit him where it hurt, deliberately and knowingly. But all the same, it was difficult to maintain much anger towards her in the light of his own dawning guilt and shame for his own behavior. He had hurt Santana too; he had seen it, stark and raw, in her face, in the tears that even now he suspected she was still having difficulty keeping in check. He had made her cry, and that as much as anything Puck was angry with himself for.

It was a secret weakness of his, crying girls. He hated it with an intensity that might have surprised them, or even excited them, to know something so simple to give them power over him. Seeing girls cry made him feel so helpless, so angry at the cause, anxious to do anything to make it stop, and Santana was no exception. Whatever she had said or done, the dealbreaker as still that he had made her cry, and for that Puck knew that one way or another, he would have to apologize.

She was walking fast, seeming to be trying to lose him, or maybe she simply didn't notice or care that he was trying to keep up with her. Lengthening his strides, Puck called out to her, hearing the roughness of his voice even as he tried to keep it civil in tone.

"Santana, slow down. How the hell can you walk that fast in high heels anyway?"

She ignored him the first time he called, but when he called again, this time having managed to get close enough to her to be directly behind her, she stopped suddenly, so unexpected that Puck actually had to halt in his steps to avoid colliding with her back. As she turned to face him, he could see the tears still streaking down her face, the eyeliner and mascara smeared around her eyes, and he cringed, renewed discomfort settling in his chest. Her narrow shoulders were drawn up, and she seemed to be shaking slightly, maybe from the cool temperature of the evening, maybe from her intense emotions, but either way, it was obvious that she was still upset. Even though her voice was still raised, her words lacked bite, and her lips were quivering when she spoke, eyes blinking rapidly.

"Leave me alone, Puckerman. Just…fuck off…leave me alone."

"Santana, come on, you know I'm not gonna let you walk around the city this time of the night by yourself when you're like, half blinded by tears and mascara clumps," Puck informed her, and he reached out for her shoulder, then thought better of it, taking a step back when she shot him a withering look. "We don't gotta talk or whatever, but I'm not gonna let you wander in and out of dark alleys to get your kidney cut out or something."

"Oh, so you care if the stripper slut that no one gives a shit about gets murdered? Thanks a hell of a lot for those crumbs, Fuckerman, don't I feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside," she snapped back, but the venom of her tone was marred by her need to sniffle and rub at her eyes simultaneously. She started to walk away again, but then, seeming to be unsatisfied leaving it like this, turned on her heels again, pointing her finger at him almost accusingly.

"For your information, I'm not a stripper anymore, okay? I work at a DINER. I sing and I dance and I wait tables and I'm making money and paying rent, I'm not holding onto ANYONE'S coattails. Rachel and Kurt want me there, maybe they didn't at the start but they do now, and you don't know anything about Brittany so just don't."

Chin lifted, she regarded him, seeming to be almost daring him to fight back or contradict her, but Puck had no intention of doing so. Instead, jaw working slightly, he exhaled, then, shoving his hands into his pockets, nodded, accepting this, and tried to offer a somewhat calmer rebuttal of his own.

"Yeah, well…okay then. I didn't sleep with Kitty, okay, so…and all you said about Finn…it's not true, okay? Wasn't ever like that with us. Not on purpose, anyway. I didn't…I never just took stuff he had just to take it, or…it wasn't like that. I'm doing this for him, you got it? I'm doing this to...to honor him."

His voice drops, and tears prick at his eyes that he quickly forces back, hardening his expression and lifting his chin again. "And I didn't take his jacket. Think what you want, but I didn't." Almost as an afterthought, he adds, "And...fine, I shouldn't have grabbed you. Okay? And…shouldn't have said some of that stuff. So…sorry. Okay? Sorry."

A few seconds passed, and when he saw Santana take another visible breath, her chest rising and falling, tears still pricking at her eyes, he had to add one more thing. "Look, stop crying already, alright?"

Although the words sounded harsh, Puck's tone was more awkward than anything; it was the crying that was really getting to him.

He watched as Santana breathed in again, wiping the last remnants of tears, and then nodded slowly, seeming to be accepting, or at least thinking about accepting, his words. After a few seconds she muttered an apology of her own, directed more towards Puck's chest than towards his face.

"Yeah…whatever. I guess…sorry too. For…hitting you and…the things about Finn, and being…" she sighed, then, the words still directed somewhere other than his face, mumbled, "He would like it, I think. You doing the Air Force thing for him. So…I guess it's…sort of cool."

Licking her lips, she finally lifted her eyes to Puck's, then took a step away from him, glancing over his shoulder to see if he were following. "Look…let's just go get some coffee or something, okay…don't think they're gonna let us back in yet. We're the dogs that pissed on the couch or something to them right now, so let's give it an hour or whatever before we go beg to be back in their graces."

Puck takes in what she is saying, more than a little surprised to hear it coming from Santana, of all people. His lips thin, and he nods slowly, his eyes shifting away, lest she see in them more than he wants her to, or more than he even wants to be feeling. Mouth still tightly compressed, he clears his throat, shoves his hands in his pockets, and glances quickly. Seeing that she seems to be coming to the end of her tears, he is able then to look at her longer, and just nods again in response to her apology.

"Yeah...coffee. Lead the way."

"There's the diner like six blocks over, it's open most of the night and into the morning," Santana told him as she began to walk again, though Puck noticed that she was headed for what looked like exactly one of the alleys he had been leery about possible kidney carvings taking place in. "There's a few short cuts if you know the right ones, if you go through this alley and then down the back street and up one-"

"Santana, you really wanna go through alleys like that when it's dark out?" Puck interrupted, quickly stepping closer to her and looking around himself as she lead them into the alley's entrance. It was dark, with no streetlights or neon signs to provide much in the way of illumination, but Santana was walking ahead as if she had no concerns whatsoever.

"Oh, please, I do it all the time," she dismissed him with an eye roll. "If I'm running late for work and I can't get a cab, and I'm not about to run in thigh high boots, how else you think I get there on time? Gotta be resourceful, Puckerman."

"You cut through alleys alone in the dark to save yourself a lecture for being five minutes late?" Puck's eyebrows rose as he tried to catch up with her; he had stopped in the alley's entrance, uneasy with entering, even as Santana walked ahead. Now as he started to walk again, she was entering the backstreet area and already turning into the second alley two buildings down.

"Don't get all protective male on me, it's lame and unnecessary," Santana called over her shoulder, rolling her eyes again. "I know the area now, and it's like five minutes. Like someone's really gonna gut me in five minutes."

"'Tana, if you walk the same route, through the alleys, all the time, always alone, people might figure it out pretty fast," Puck pointed out, even as Santana spun on her heels again in the second alley's opening, expression and tone both carrying obvious exasperation now as she responded.

"Puck, jesus, I'm not an idiot, I have friggin' Mace in my purse and besides it's a five minute walk, what the hell can happen in five-"

But Santana never finished her sentence, because as soon as she turned to face Puck, her back to the alley, a man stepped forward, seizing her by the upper arms and yanking her back into the alley's darker interior. What Puck had seen of him was that he was a larger man, clad in dark clothing, and it appeared that he was wearing a ski mask or some similar dark covering over his face. As he yanked Santana backwards, Puck heard her start to scream, and then abruptly the noise was cut off. As though he had stopped her- as though he had hurt her, or maybe-

"SANTANA!" he hollered, beginning to run forward, as pure adrenaline, induced by a sudden rush of fury and fear for her sake begin to flood through him his veins, settling within his muscles to push them into motion. As Puck reached the alley's opening, he saw the same man, supporting a limp, sagging Santana against him, saw that Santana's face was ashen, her eyes closed, mouth slack. He saw the needle in the man's hand, saw him removing it from where it was stuck into Santana's neck in one swift motion, and then, Puck saw red.

This man was hurting Santana, possibly even killing her. He couldn't let that happen, he refused to. Not on his watch, not if he could do anything at all to stop it. Puck refused to let anymore of his friends die, or even come to serious harm, not now, not ever. Not his girls. Not even Santana Lopez.

"GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM HER!" he screamed, "GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF HER!"

He threw himself at the man with a growl that sounded almost feral, aiming a blow at his face with one fist even as his other hand clawed to pull Santana away from him. But he hadn't noticed the two men coming up behind him, grabbing at his arms even as he fought and yelled and desperately tried to get Santana from the first, even as he didn't dare take his focus off her for even a moment. It took longer for them to manage to get a good enough grip on him to stick a second needle in his neck, but then it was over, and his last thoughts as he felt a fuzzy darkness settle over his mind were of Santana, a desperate hope that she was okay, and an encompassing disgust and fear of his own failure.