"That's pathetic, Lopez."
One eyebrow lifted, Noah Puckerman regarded the young woman with his mouth quirked upward in one corner, feet spread casually apart in a wide stance, arms crossed over his chest. Even with his nonchalant pose, however, he was standing close to her, watching her more closely than he let on, making sure that he would be able to notice and help her, should she tire too much and need his assistance.
From her position on her back on the workout bench, Santana glowered, not turning her head to look at him full on but rather simply shifting her eyes briefly to the side. She pushed her legs forward one more time, with renewed effort, pushing forward the leg press's weights as far as she could make them go, but again was not able to straighten her legs out all the way. Puck shifted slightly closer, even as his smirk lingered, and seeing it, she raised one shaking hand to flip him off, even as her other hand tightly gripped the seat, attempting to give herself increased resistance to work off from.
"Fuck you, Puckerman," she muttered, but she was breathless, no real venom in her voice, and her next effort at pushing the weights forward was weaker than the last, her legs almost crashing back towards the bench.
"Hey, name a time and place," was Puck's not entirely joking reply, and when she flipped him off a second time, he grinned, noticing the small tremor of a smile that passed her lips too at the irony of her chosen gesture.
Sucking in her breath sharply, Santana blew a straggling strand of dark hair out of her face and gritted her teeth, appearing to be bracing herself to push forward again, but Puck took another step forward, laying light but firm hands on her shoulders.
"Take a break, Lopez. You know you gotta slow it down a sec when you start resorting to lifting a finger instead of trying to bite mine off for your comebacks."
"I was thinking of biting other parts but it would leave a sour taste in my mouth," she shot back, but her voice is still strained, her chest heaving as she tries to regulate her breaths, and she doesn't shrug out from beneath Puck's hands, nor does she try to push the weights out in front of her again.
Puck leaves his hands on her shoulders, noticing and somewhat discomfited by the feel of her prominent bones beneath, and keeps his voice light as he responds.
"Whatever, Lopez. Take a break…you're gonna kill yourself, and then whose boobs am I gonna stare at to brighten up this place?"
Santana rolled her eyes, but he caught her small, somewhat amused smile before she changed it to a smirk, and she still wasn't removing herself from his grasp.
"And you wonder how the hell you're single. Like you can see much of anything in this place anyway, what, was it your goal to make it grim and dreary as possible, so when you come down here and sweat it out, we can imagine we're in hell that much realistically?"
Puck looked around, having to acknowledge to himself, if not aloud to her, that she had some validity to her observation. The basement of his parents' home had not been cleaned in years, dusted ever, and the single lightbulb dangling from a string from the ceiling didn't exactly brightly illuminate its interior. The concrete floor and unpainted walls gave it a cold and cheerless look and feel- not exactly a place that any chicks had ever wanted to hang out, even now, under their current circumstances.
As Santana sank back against the slanted support bench of the leg press, catching her breath, Puck leaned back slightly against it as well, turning slightly away from her to look around himself, never having really observed the room as an outsider or a female might. It was the first time that Santana, or any girl, had come down to the makeshift gym Puck had scrounged together within the past month, and he had hardly tried to make the room look inviting or even particularly clean. It had a purpose, and that was all that really mattered to him.
Much of the weights and equipment were older, scavenged from abandoned homes, the school gym, and even taken directly from stores, in the case of smaller weights, but they worked well enough, even if they weren't top quality and looked beaten up. He wasn't looking to impress anyone, and he doubted Santana really cared what any of it looked like either; it was something to say, something to try to make this all seem a little more normal, to give themselves at least the pretense of a little more control. But in all reality, it wasn't what either of them said, but what they did and could do that would really make a difference- and that was exactly why they were here in Puck's hastily assembled gym on a Saturday morning, trying to improve what they could do and would be able to do in the future. Taking care of their bodies, building their strength and endurance could no longer be a casual past time or simply a byproduct of caring about appearance. It now could be the difference between life and death. And though he suspected it had been touch and go for Santana, at least, for a while, neither one now was ready to die.
It had all seemed to be isolated incidents, at first, ones that could be explained away by mass hysteria, drug outbreaks, or weird diseases, just like that summer a few years ago, where people on bath salts had started attacking people and trying to eat their faces. That was what everyone had assumed at first, that the biters, as they had quickly come to be called, were simply high or mentally ill. Crazy and dangerous, to be sure, but not contagious- needing contained, but not quarantined.
It had been a dangerous assumption, one that had cost thousands, probably millions of lives across the country, and possibly spreading to others as well. It had started in the big cities, with the biters biting and then infecting in growing numbers, and then trickled down through the smaller states and towns as well, until it seemed that everyone knew someone, or many, many someones, who had been infected, and everyone was in danger. There was little known about the disease except that it appeared to be passed on something like AIDS- through bodily fluids such as saliva or blood- and that although it didn't appear to be deadly to the ones infected, it did change them, their brains, their actions, and their appearance in what seemed to be a permanent way. Those infected appeared to lose all memories of themselves as people, of their personalities, pasts, and presents, and to exist moment by moment, like feral animals simply surviving. Surviving, and showing great violence to any who happened to get in their way.
They weren't dead, and normal means of killing would take them down, so they could not be called zombies, but it wouldn't be an inaccurate comparison. The problem was that as scientists, doctors, and psychiatrists desperately searched for an explanation, much less a cure to the fast spreading condition, more and more were falling prey to it, and it was becoming more and more difficult for even the smallest towns to be safe.
At this point most of the cities had been barricaded, with heavy gates and walls erected, no one allowed in or out without explicit procedures of admission. Lima, Ohio was no exception. Just over two weeks ago the final touches of the wall around the city had been completed, 25 feet high, but there were only so many guards, and no one could be entirely sure that it would not be overtaken, or that there were not infected still within the city walls. It would be near suicide to try to leave, but to wait it out from the inside sometimes felt like a slower death all the same.
And people had died. People they knew, their friends, their friends' families. Not everyone who had been living outside Lima, since graduation, had made it back within its closing walls before it was shut back down, and with the spotty cell phone reception as of late, there wasn't a way to be sure that all of them were okay. Puck had made it back from California, and Kurt, Rachel, and Santana had been evacuated from New York City almost as soon as the city began to be overrun, and so some might consider them to be lucky. But Puck wouldn't use that word lightly, not now.
They were survivors so far, but this wasn't a guarantee that they would be always. He wanted to be one of those who did, and this was the only way that he could think of to help up his odds…making sure he and whatever friends he could convince into it were as strong and forceful, in the face of any future assaults, as he could manage. Which meant gym. Gym, and getting weapons, but what he definitely had now was a gym.
Puck looked Santana over with a more critical eye, noticing not for the first time, and not without some discomfort, even sadness, how different she was in appearance than a few months before- diminished in more ways than one. While Puck had focused on improving his muscle mass almost as soon as the changes in the cities took place, putting all his helpless frustration and worries into action, she appeared to have done the opposite, and instead allowed herself to begin to literally shrink away. Puck had told himself that if he was strong enough, if he could run fast enough and fight hard enough, not only against the biters but also against his own brimming feelings, it would help insure his survival, and so far, he had seen no evidence to the contrary.
He supposed he was one of the lucky ones, if a person could be called that anymore. His family was all there, those that counted- his mother, his sister Sarah, his half-brother Jake, and even Jake's mother, all present and accounted for in Lima. He wasn't sure about his father, but then, he had really bothered to cared to look or find out.
But Puck was pretty sure that this wasn't the case with Santana. She hadn't mentioned anything about her family, which said volumes on its own, and he knew that she was staying with Quinn lately rather than in her own parents' home, or even with Brittany. He wasn't sure why she seemed to be avoiding Brittany lately, other than that the blonde was still dating Sam, but he wasn't one to analyze and certainly not one to ask. Neither did he ask about her parents or her other family members. It would have been a line Puck couldn't have crossed, either by her permission or of his own accord, and he was pretty sure she didn't want to talk and he didn't want to know her answer.
One thing Santana Lopez had always been, even back in the days of middle school, with her scrawny legs, untamed hair straggling out of her ponytails, and training bras, was tough. She was a hard shell, always had been, unwilling to let others break beneath the walls she had worked so hard to put into place. Although Santana had always been more apt than Puck to publicly show emotion, the only tears he had ever witnessed from her, until Glee, had always been over something ridiculous, like being denied her way or losing a possession- not true expressions of deep emotion, because with Santana, that would have been a revelation of self unpermitted. She was like him in this way, and maybe it was one of the reasons they had always seemed to shift between a shared understanding and a shared irritation with each other.
And she still was tough, regardless of whatever may have happened to her, regardless of how she had changed. She still had a tongue on her- even through the brief workout so far Santana had been swearing, flipping Puck off whenever she could manage to lift a finger to do so, and glaring up at him every time she seemed to feel he was pushing too hard, her dark eyes narrowed almost to slits, glinting fiercely. But even so she was straining on the machines, breathing heavily in a way he was sure she would not have been a few months ago, her forehead beaded with sweat, slickened strands of hair falling out of her ponytail and clinging to her neck and cheeks. Her face was scrunched up, her body shaking visibly, and as Puck stepped forward slowly, again laying hands on her shoulders and lightly digging his thumbs into the hard knotted muscles at the base of her neck, he felt her tense up beneath him, her shoulder bones so easily felt and fragile beneath his hands that he frowned before he could stop himself.
Santana had always been small, of course, and she still had her perfect breasts- whoever her surgeon had been, he had known his stuff. But they looked out of proportion and somehow wrong now on her tiny frame, even to someone like Puck, who was never one to criticize large chests. Santana had clearly lost weight, at least ten pounds, and her formerly toned, slimly muscled limbs now appeared stringy and sinewy, lacking the strength and power they had had before. Her hair was limp and somewhat dull in sheen, the strands nearest her face slicked with sweat, and there were dark circles beneath her eyes, her cheeks appearing sunken. She looked small and shrunken to Puck in a way she never had before. No matter how physically small Santana really was, she had always seemed to take up more space than she actually did, the boldness of her persona and the way she held herself making up for her true size.
This wasn't the case now. Today, and the day before too, when Puck had seen her, Santana only looked small and tired, and he found himself swallowing, shifting his weight uncomfortably as he squeezed her shoulders again, then released her before speaking up awkwardly.
"You're eating alright, right, 'Tana?"
At this comment, Santana sat upright fast, swinging her legs over the bench and then standing entirely, as though feeling the need to look Puck in the eyes as much as was possible, given that he was over half a foot taller than her. Arms crossed over her chest, she glowered up at him, her tone defensive as she responded.
"If your idea of "eating alright" means consuming 6 hotdogs per meal, along with a large burger and fries and three Slushees, then no, I guess not. If you're asking if I'm consuming food instead of peeling celery sticks and then puking them up, then yes, I guess I am. Why the hell are you asking is my question to you."
"Because your bones could leave puncture marks on my hands if you shrugged too fast," he lifted an eyebrow, his tone casual, even mocking, but he was watching her closely.
An emotion flickered in her eyes, something Puck could not quite identify and was not entirely sure he had seen, and then she was rolling her eyes, banishing any hopes of understanding what had just passed over them.
"Yeah, well you look like you're going for that wannabe steroid wrestler look, so maybe you should grow our your handlebar mustache and sideburns and get a spray on tan and worry about popping your muscles like overly full balloons before you comment on me."
A retort was on the tip of Puck's tongue, but when he looked at her again he saw her eyes shifting downward as soon as she had finished her sentence, saw her chest rise and fall with a slow, steadying breath, and he checked himself, instead turning to get the towel and bottle of water he had placed aside for her earlier. Handing it to her, he gestured for her to drink, noticing again that her hands were shaking as she untwisted the gap, that she dribbled some water down her neck and chin as she drank thirstily. As she takes the towel and swipes at her face, then over her chest, Puck's eyes follow her every move in spite of himself.
"Hot," he blurts, an insinuation more than a question, and as Santana lifts an eyebrow, then smirks, he smiles back, becoming more serious when she begins to drink again.
"You were doing alright at first, but you gotta build up the strength in your legs, even more than in your arms," he commented as she wiped her mouth, then took another long swallow from the bottle. "Every day you need to be stretching and walking and working up to running. Those legs gotta be for more than looking hot, Lopez, you gotta be able to run hard and fast and far if you need to."
"I was better today than yesterday," Santana muttered, setting down the water bottle on the bench and stretching thin arms over her head, her baggy t-shirt barely lifting its hem. "I'll be better tomorrow too, no big thing."
"Well keep it up, can't take a single day off. Can't afford to," Puck told her, then added, "And you gotta eat, Lopez. That's not an option either, gotta put food in to get muscles out, right?"
He didn't ask her why she wasn't eating and why she had stopped working out, or even, from the looks of it, basically caring for herself for a time. He didn't want to go there if they didn't have to, and if Santana herself wasn't willing. And in the end, it didn't matter, at least in his mind. She was where she was today, and they could only work up from that point; what did the reasons behind it really matter, when they could all eventually be pointed back to the condition of the world around them?
Santana's dark eyes slid towards him, and she shrugged one shoulder as her arms came back down, her tone casual, even as her gaze remained wary, guarded.
"Haven't been hungry much. It's not exactly appetite inducing, what's been going on, you know."
"Doesn't matter if you're hungry or not, you have to, 'Tana," Puck pressed. She was still standing with her arms crossed a few feet from him, and he stepped closer, lightly closing his wrist around her upper arm. His index finger and this thumb touched, completely enclosing the limb's circumference. Looking down at it pointedly, he squeezed gently. "I mean, look at this. You've always been like, the size of a matchstick, but now we're talking needles, and not the big syringe kind of the kind with yarn. The little puny ones that sew or whatever. You gotta start eating whether you want to or not."
He felt her muscles go tense beneath his hand, her spine stiffening noticeably as she drew herself up to her full height, and Santana broke his hold of her with her free hand, stepping back with a lifted chin and very defensive posture. She pointed at him with her left hand, her voice holding a note of warning.
"Back off on this one, Puckerman. You don't know shit."
"I know that now's not the time to be worrying about your friggin' weight, of all things," Puck retorted, deciding to come right out with it; there seemed to be no way of getting through to Santana, and he wasn't exactly great with taking the time or energy to try to figure out how to talk to her more subtly as it was. It seemed pointless when you could just come out with what you wanted to say and save a lot of time and misunderstanding. "This is life or death here, Santana, literally, not a cheerleading competition or a fashion show. The world ain't gonna end if you're not the skinny person in every room, but your own life might."
"Oh, fuck you, Puckerman, like you really fucking know me," Santana snapped, and though there was genuine anger in the creases of her brow, he thought he saw a flicker of something else as well, something like hurt. "Yeah, I'm that stupid that I'm worried about losing weight right now, even though we all know damn well if the wall collapsed or the biters hauled ass over it, we could end up trapped in a basement for a few weeks without any food at all. Yeah, all I give a shit about is if I can fit into 00 jeans while we're trapped down there fearing for our lives and our intact throat tendons. Well let's see you fucking try to eat if everything you tasted was a damn corpse, let's see you avoid losing weight if you basically were on an all liquid diet. Don't fucking talk about shit you know nothing about."
When Puck looked at her, he saw that her shoulders had slumped, that her lips were trembling before she quickly pressed them together into a thin line, breathing in audibly through her nose. Her eyes were wet, though no tears fell, and when he hesitated, then grunted a sorry, not sure exactly what she was talking about or even what he was apologizing for, he didn't think at first that she was going to respond. But she did speak eventually, though her tone was gruff.
"Look…it's not that I'm trying not to eat, okay? I really am trying. But…sometimes when I try to eat, it just…I think of the shit I've seen, on TV, and sometimes…you know, around….the biting, and the blood, and…" her voice trailed off, and she swallowed again, her face noticeably paler, her features strained, having lost any remaining traces of anger or irritation. She looked only sad, sad and scared and small as she picked up again. "I think of that and I just…can't eat. I can't swallow, and sometimes it seems like I'm…like I'm tasting someone's skin. Or someone's blood. And I can't…well, would you be able to fucking eat?"
It was a horrifying description, one that Puck couldn't imagine experiencing for himself. What he had seen on TV alone was enough to make a person physically sick if they let it get to them, so for her to be affected to the point that she was either letting her imagination completely take over, or else was literally hallucinating…it sounded horrible, and she was right, he couldn't understand, nor did he know what to say.
"Damn, that…that sucks, San," he said awkwardly, clearing his throat.
He shifted his weight, thinking that it was probably the right moment to touch her, but unsure of in which way or for how long would be appropriate. But Santana wasn't even looking at him. She had buried her face in the towel she was still holding, and he watched her shoulders move as she took a long, slow breath in, composing, before she finally lifted her face. There was no response from her to his apology, nor did she give one of her own. She didn't reach for him or ask him to back away, or even further acknowledge what had just been said between them. Instead, she let her mouth quirk on one side, even without a genuine smile, and gestured around the basement's interior.
"So what do you do all day then, Puckerman? Screw around getting even more muscley? Ya know, all work and no play means you're probably not getting any, are you?"
She laughed, reaching out to poke at his bicep, but Puck just gave her a smile in return, letting a certain amount of cockiness show through.
"Yeah, and you are?" he shot back, even as Santana grinned, raising her eyebrows back at him.
"Maybe I am."
He doubted it, given her current appearance; she might be Santana Lopez, but a chick who only recently seemed to have returned to regular showering was likely not feeling much like sex any time recently. Skeptical, he continued to smirk at her, his tone indicating his cynicism at this response.
"What, you and Q getting it on again, is that what you're claiming here?"
He couldn't hide his amusement when Santana's mouth dropped, eyes widening, and she gawked at him, then snapped her mouth shut, trying too late and too ineffectively to cover up her reaction.
"What do you mean, again, you think we already have? Don't know what locker room fantasies you got going, Puckerman, but-"
"Give it up, 'Tana, I already know about your wedding fling," Puck chuckled, shaking his head. "You got a big mouth when you're drunk. And a lot of tears. My t-shirt's ruined by all the snot flow you had going couple weeks back."
He could see her mind working, trying to puzzle out exactly what she had said when, and she lifted her chin again, rolling her eyes even as she tried to regain her dignity. "Whatever, Q probably told you anyway. I wouldn't blame her, I'm pretty sure I'm the best she's ever had, and for a straight Christian girl who probably douches with holy water after every time, that's saying something…whatever, man. So whose the crazy chick you're screwing these days?"
"It's kinda an issue," Puck admitted, willing now to be open about the truth now that he had successfully backed her into a corner. He shrugged, moving to sit on the bench Santana had abandoned and patting the space beside him for her to join him. She hesitated, then did so, her shoulder lightly touching his. "See, most of the crazy chicks either tried to leave town and got eaten, or else they're clinging to their husbands for all they got. So I'm kinda high and dry as of late. Sucks."
"Yes, it totally does," Santana agreed with more fervor than he had expected, nodding her head emphatically and deliberately bumping her shoulder into his. "It's making me crazy. Horny guys aren't the only ones that have wet dreams at night when they ain't getting any."
"Be willing to help you out with that, Lopez, get some of that frustration off your…chest," Puck smirked, his eyes deliberately roving down her form and pausing for a prolonged space of time on her breasts before he looked back up at her face. "That's what friends are for, or whatever."
Santana smirked back, rolling her eyes and giving his arm a little shove, but she didn't separate herself from him, and in fact seemed to be smiling as well as smirking.
"Of course. You have a dick and I'm totally hot, I wouldn't expect anything less. Plus you already know how awesome I am in bed, I'm surprised you're not throwing me down right here and now."
"Think you got it twisted, Lopez," Puck shot back, though he was smiling too. It felt good for this mindless, easy banter between them; it had been almost as long as it had been since he had sex. No one had been this relaxed, no one had been in the right frame of mind to just verbally spar, like he and Santana could, and he enjoyed it thoroughly, just as he enjoyed her closeness, the faint physical sensation of her hip and shoulder against him. Maybe it wasn't sex, but sometimes, even a lack of platonic touch for an extended period, as much as Puck would never admit it aloud, could drive a guy to distraction.
He lived with his mother and sister, but none of them were the hugging types with each other; their arguments were wars, and more often than not they spent their days passing each other like ghosts occupying space rather than flesh and blood humans with shared memories and genes. If it was lonely for Puck, under those circumstances, how much rougher must it be on Santana, living with Quinn and her nearly empty home with her mother?
"Please," Santana scoffed in response to him, eyes rolling upward yet again, then sliding sideways to regard him, her mouth tipped somewhere between amusement and condescension. "No way you improved that dramatically in the past couple of years, unless you HAVE been popping steroids, and Viagra by the caseload too."
"What, you want me to prove it? Name a time and place," Puck returned, turning more fully towards her.
He fully expected her to say something like "midnight in hell, at exactly the time the flames get frosty," or some other sarcastic remark to indicate that his not even serious suggestion would never occur. But instead Santana looked him up and down, almost as though she were appraising him. Almost as if she were actually considering. And when she didn't immediately respond, Puck, thrown, spoke up before her.
"Wait, Lopez, you actually considering?"
"You actually offering?" she leveled back, and now her eyes were directly on his, unflinching.
Puck hesitated, briefly torn between backing down from what he assumed must still be some sort of strange Santana Lopez challenge, and maintaining his own image and pride…and what he couldn't deny was some genuine desire. It had been a long time. There weren't too many girls he'd deny outright. And Santana Lopez was hardly rough on the eyes, even if she sometimes was in the sack.
It would be easy enough; few years or not, he knew that sex with her was a good time, even if in hindsight he now knew that the majority of her responses had been an act. It would be simple, with no complications, strings, or emotions attached- if she was genuinely willing, genuinely offering. It would be easier, even, than with any other girl, because Santana, as far as Puck knew, was still a lesbian. There was no danger of either of them growing overly attached or sentimental or getting their feelings hurt. They both knew exactly what to expect and who the other person was and what they wanted out of it; they would both understand that they were just helping each other get off, and that it was meaningless, beyond that. The more he considered, in those few seconds before his response, the better an idea it seemed- if Santana was serious.
"Babe, if you're up for it, I'm not gonna turn you down," he shrugged finally, keeping his tone light, but he was watching her, judging her reaction. "You saying you'd want to?"
She shrugged, and he saw the stirring of thoughts flit through her eyes as she came to a decision. And then she was putting her hand on his leg, high up his thigh, her fingertips stroking lightly in a manner that sent heat flaring up Puck's groin.
"How long you lasting these days, Puckerman?"
"Long enough," he promised, swallowing, and when her hand moved an inch up, he dared then to cover it with his, lightly squeezing her fingers, then slowly inching her hand across his thigh, closer to his groin. Santana let him, and Puck was sure she must hear his heart beginning to beat hard and fast in his chest, his breathing beginning to get just a little less steady. She must have, because she stood abruptly then, letting go of his hand, and let her usual smirk curve her lips.
"No offense, man, but I'm gonna need a drink for this."